Archive for Columbia University

Columbia’s First-Ever Indigenous Mother Tongues Book Fair

by Marial Quezada, an Indigenous ally and a 2018 graduate of the Human Rights Studies program at Columbia University

In late April, the first-ever Mother Tongues Book Fair took place at Columbia University, organized by the Runasimi Outreach Committee at New York University and the New York-based Movimientos Indigenas Asociados in collaboration with the Institute for the Study of Human Rights and the Columbia Human Rights Graduate Group. Coinciding with the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues 2018, the fair celebrated written works in Indigenous mother tongues from various communities and geographic regions. 

Movimientos Indigenas Asociados and La Zenka Sunqu representatives. // Marial Quezada

Languages represented at the fair included Amharic, Arikara, Crow, Hidatsa, Lakota, Mandan, Maya Mam, Mixteco, Nahuatl, Omaha-Ponca, Quechua, Tsou, and Zapoteca. Authors along with publishers displayed and sold a variety of mother tongue works including trilingual and bilingual children’s books, poetry anthologies, novels, zines, dictionaries, CDs, and more.

The fair’s goal was to raise awareness of Indigenous mother tongues and works as well as to connect authors and publishers with each other and the public. Some authors including Alem Eshetu Beyene from Ethiopia; Baitz Niahossa from Taiwan; Elva Ambia, Odi Gonzales, Rina Soldevilla, and Sandy Enriquez from Peru; as well as representatives from Hippocrene Books Inc., Grupo Cajola, the Endangered Language Alliance, Hawansuyo bookstore,  La Zenka Sunqu and The Language Conservancy were present in person. A U.N. reporter from the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues also covered the event, interviewing the authors and Indigenous organizations on their perspectives and contributions to the fair.

A Hippocrene Books Inc. representative selling the first-ever trilingual Quechua dictionary. // Marial Quezada

Overall, the fair was a first-time success, serving as a space to value and honor Indigenous mother tongues and works written in them, a space that is too often not present in higher education institutions. This reality itself was central to the organization of the fair.

Indigenous languages have historically been excluded from curriculum, classrooms, and public places. Even today, schooling for Indigenous students will often take a “subtractive” form, in which the teaching medium is a dominant language of the society rather than an Indigenous language, effectively leading to the “transferring [of] their children to the dominant group,” according to an paper written for the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues by Ole Henrik Magga et al. This not only may have a negative effect on academic achievement of Indigenous children but also on language maintenance for an entire Indigenous community.

The proceedings from the Expert Group Meeting of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in 2016 declared that providing education in the Indigenous mother tongues improves educational outcomes and reduces dropout rates of Indigenous students. Furthermore, it contributes to the strengthening of Indigenous languages and creation of new generations of speakers.

Author Alem Eshetu Beyene displaying his children’s books in Amharic. // Marial Quezada

To celebrate Indigenous languages and advocate for Indigenous language education alike, the U.N. General Assembly announced that 2019 will be the The Year of Indigenous Languages.” UNESCO will lead this initiative to promote Indigenous languages, highlighting the significance of Indigenous peoples and critical role that Indigenous languages play in education, science, technology, and the future of Mother Earth.

The organizers of the first-ever Mother Tongues Book Fair hope to support this work, ensuring Indigenous people are at the forefront of these efforts by celebrating and collaborating with Indigenous authors for a second Mother Tongues Book Fair in 2019. Until then, please visit this year’s website to learn more about the 2018 event, or reach out if you are interested in getting more involved.

Marial Quezada is an Indigenous ally and a language and cultural rights advocate. Last week, she received her Master’s degree in Human Rights Studies from Columbia University, where she studied in the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights program and concentrated in education rights. Supported by the FLAS fellowship, she studied Quechua through the Indigenous and Diasporic Language Consortium and participated as a member of the Runasimi Outreach Committee at NYU. She is also a member of Movimientos Indigenas Asociados and a writer for the affiliate newspaper, La Zenka Sunqu.

The Politics of Search and Rescue Operations

by Morgan Cronin-Webb, an M.A. student in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University

Since 2013, search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean have been a highly contentious issue in the media and European politics. In February, students, professors and human rights scholars at Columbia University were fortunate enough to hear Dr. Craig Spencer, director of Global Health in Emergency Medicine at New York-Presbyterian, speak on the politics of search and rescue operations.

Dr. Spencer works in public health both in New York, providing clinical care, and internationally, dealing with issues as wide ranging as access to legal documentation in Indonesia to the coordination of an epidemiologist response to Ebola in Guinea. His most recent posting was on a Doctors without Borders search and rescue mission in the Mediterranean. He began his discussion at Columbia University by giving background to the current refugee crisis: Dr. Spencer explained that the difference today in dealing with refugee issues is “the scale of the problem” and “how we are dealing with it.” Contrary to public opinion and media representations, he made it clear that developing countries, which are already “vulnerable and fragile,” bear the brunt of the current crisis in terms of hosting refugees.

For example, migration has happened across Africa for hundreds of years as people moved to North Africa where there were more jobs. This was especially the case during the beginning of Muammar Gadhafi’s rule in Libya, Spencer said. He gave the example of Bangladeshi men who used to travel willingly into Tripoli, but who are now more recently being trafficked. Spencer explains that because Malta, an archipelago in the central Mediterranean, has not signed the refugee convention, Italy does the search and rescue operations near Libya, which remains a currently unstable country. The passing Italian coastguard is required to help boats in distress that are outside of Libya’s sovereign land. Spencer explained that distress can include any boat that is still running but that is unlikely to last long. Further, he asserted that the Italian coastguard may destroy boats in the Mediterranean in order to prevent smugglers from reusing the sea faring boats that people take from Libya.

Dr. Craig Spencer gave a talk at Columbia University on search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean in February 2018. // Lara Nettelfield

One particularly jarring image in Spencer’s talk was his anecdote of people stitching their family phone numbers into their clothes, in case they do not survive the journey. It highlights the fact that migrants are highly aware of the risks that they are taking but often take the risk anyway, absent viable alternatives.

Spencer explained that Medecins Sans Frontieres tries to give a sense of humanity back to those that board their boats. This is especially important because migrants often endure routine rape, beatings, and torture during their journeys. Bangladeshi men, in particular, are seen to be “cash cows,” so they are more likely to be detained time and time again, until their families send money.

A picture of a boy’s drawing of his journey was projected during the talk. The disturbing details that were added to his account, including the number of days he spent in each place, along with the conditions, experiences of torture, degrading treatment, and the complexity and length of the route, left an unforgettable image for the audience.

Spencer went on to discuss why the situation in the Mediterranean remains so contentious, pointing to the EU-Turkey deal of 2016. In this controversial “one in, one out” deal, one refugee in Greece is returned to Turkey in exchange for one refugee in Turkey finding asylum in Europe. The deal, under which Turkey received €6 billion, was an effort by European states and the EU to decrease incentives for migrants to journey to Europe. As a result, Spencer purports that fewer people made the journey from Turkey to Greece and instead came up through the central Mediterranean since the deal has been in place. This erodes the EU states’ moral high ground when it comes to human rights, as Turkey lacks a stellar record in protecting human rights and has violated the principle of non-refoulement, which in the 1951 United Nations Convention offers a person protection against return to a country where he or she fears persecution.

The conversation with Dr. Spencer next turned to the role of populist governments in fueling anti-migration sentiment. For example, Italy threatened to close down its port (which would have been against maritime law) in response to a lack of responsibility-sharing from other European states, such as France and England. Further, Spencer explained that an anti-migrant party majority recently won elections in Italy.

National and international attention was further galvanized by the Lampedusa shipwreck, where nearly 1,000 migrants drowned just off the coast of Italy. This led to the Mare Nostrum humanitarian operation by the Italian military aimed at confronting the crisis of drownings in the Strait of Sicily. Following this, the European Council’s Operation Sofia in the Mediterranean has focused on catching smugglers and on border security, rather than search and rescue missions.

Since 2013, search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean have been a highly contentious issue in the media. // Lara Nettelfield

Another issue of contention was the fact that NGOs conducting search and rescue operations from privately-owned ships in the Mediterranean were asked to sign a code of conduct by the Italian government, making it harder for NGOs to carry out their search and rescue missions, Spencer said. He claims that “the only thing that happens when people are prevented from being rescued is that more people drown.” The code made NGOs feel like they had done something bad and also lowered their profile in the media. One privately funded group even raised money for a boat to take people back to Libya.

Spencer next moved the conversation to Europe’s externalization of border controls and use of development aid to stem migration flows. Instead of supporting search and rescue teams, Europe and Italy turned to supporting the Libyan coastguard, for example. Spencer noted that millions of dollars were spent on training them. Despite this training, the Libyan coastguard have shot and stolen from migrants, something Spencer says he has witnessed himself. He indicated that the EU is essentially supporting militias, supplying guns and medical supplies, which are used at detention centers. In January, Libya was not paid, so they started sending people across the Mediterranean again, and the number of militias in Libya increased.

Spencer added that the majority of people pass through Libya and Niger. Most people in Agadez, for example, have migrated through the desert, so an attempt was also made by the EU to stop people migrating there. The EU’s Sahel policy resulted in Niger making it illegal to migrate or to transport people. Spencer indicated that the EU has further invested in and supported development in West Africa, another attempt by the EU and UN to stop all migration.

However, he explained that even with these policies and more money being spent, people are still going to migrate. If you don’t have traffickers or smugglers whose livelihood is transport, security risks may actually increase as some people may resort to terrorism. For example, 80 percent of Lake Chad has dried up, so people there are more likely to turn to Boko Haram if they cannot migrate through the region, he said. Certain policies may actually make migrants more vulnerable and raise risks.

Spencer concluded his talk by emphasizing that people would rather die at sea than stay in Libya. Further, he says that sending money has not helped. This is a global issue that needs a global response. Conversations like Spencer’s raise the question of why so much time and money is spent on externalizing border controls and securitizing migrant issues rather than providing safe and legal routes to Europe.

Morgan Cronin-Webb is a Human Rights master’s student at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Columbia University.  

 

What Does a Career in Human Rights Look Like? The Experts Weigh in

By Rowena Kosher, a blog writer for RightsViews and a student in the School of General Studies at Columbia University

The Institute for the Study of Human Rights held its annual human rights career panel last month, offering students the chance to hear from individuals in a variety of human rights careers. The panel was an opportunity for future practitioners to gain insight into human rights in action outside of academic study at Columbia University.

The undergraduate and graduate students who attended the event held at Columbia’s International Affairs Building posed questions about their professional futures in human rights. The panelists, all career veterans in the field, helped answer student concerns by sharing stories about their career paths, their experiences, and other practical advice.

What are the most rewarding parts of a career in human rights, and what are the challenges?

The Institute for the Study of Human Rights held its annual human rights career panel in February. // Michelle Chouinard

The panelists agreed that the human rights field can be complicated and frustrating at times. Victories don’t always happen, but it is important to be happy with the measurable successes that do occur. Sofia Coelho Candeias, a member of the UN Team of Experts on Sexual Violence and Rule of Law, said that accumulative successes are a huge source of pride over time: the results you want may not happen immediately, she said, but in retrospect successes do occur. In the DRC, where she works currently, for example, they went from zero police units for sexual violence in 2008 to 12 today.

Whether on a policy or field level, it is very rare to have the opportunity to make a real difference in any job, said Aida Martirous-Nejad, the special assistant to the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in New York. “What job would I rather do?” she asked, speaking to the unique ability of a human rights career to impact real change through action, policy and community-building.

Rosalind McKenna, who works for the Open Society Foundation’s public health program chimed in to say how rewarding it is to support individuals so that they can may make their own voices and challenges heard. Yes, there’s a lot of bureaucracy in larger organizations, added Farnoosh Hashemian, a human rights lawyer in Iran. But you spend your time connecting with like-minded human rights defenders, all of whom are incredible people dedicated to their jobs, she said. Coelho concurred, saying that people who do public service tend to really like their job. Otherwise, they would all have to quit, she said.

What skills do I need in order to have a career in human rights? What are employers looking for?

The panelists answered student questions by sharing their experiences and advice. // Michelle Chouinard

Every human rights career is different, but there are definitely skills that come in handy, the panelists agreed. Every single person in the human rights field is there because they care deeply about human rights issues and are willing to “fight the uphill battle,” said Matthew Kennis, the program director of the Libertas Center, an organization located in New York City that provides medical, emotional and structural support to victims of torture. Kennis talked about what he would look for in a prospective applicant. He currently leads staffing for the Libertas Center. Important to him is the ability of the candidate to learn quickly. The candidate must have a genuine narrative of why they actually want to be there: how will they connect their interests to their career goals? Build yourself as a whole person, Kennis suggested. Trust the path that your career takes.

Coelho mentioned the importance of fieldwork, especially for young advocates just starting their careers. Each member of the panel spent a significant amount of time on their career journey doing fieldwork. Coelho also pinpointed kindness to others as the most important character trait needed in human rights jobs. Being open to listening to others is the only way you will survive in this field— you will get so much more done when you are kind to people, she said.

Martirious-Nejad also stressed optimism. In human rights work, you will be told “No!” nine times out of 10, she said, but you can’t be a pessimist in this work. You have to be able to adapt and move forward despite challenges.

Hashemian spoke of the fact that getting jobs in the field is highly competitive, but she encouraged students to persevere. All panelists agreed that networking is essential to success, along with development of interpersonal communication skills. Human rights is a team effort, and you’ve got to be a team player, said Hashemian. Humble, too, added Coelho. McKenna recommended taking the time to have a cohesive, polished CV and working on your ability to sell yourself as a person, not just as a list of achievements on paper. Other technical skills the panelists recommended include knowing at least two if not three or four languages. “Take immersion courses!” said Coelho.

Do I have to go to law school?

The panelists offered advice on continuing studies in law school and pursuing fieldwork around the world. // Michelle Chouinard

McKenna, Coelho, Martirous-Nejad, and Hashemian all have law degrees. Broadly speaking, they said, law school is probably a good idea, even if you do not become a practicing attorney. The critical thinking skills alone are worth learning. Martirous-Nejad mentioned that because she is a lawyer, she has had more access to jobs than her peers who are not attorneys. The decision, however, is up to the individual student. Law school is costly. Perhaps do some fieldwork first, said Coelho, before committing to that investment.

You keep talking about the field. What is it?

Fieldwork is an integral part of a lot of human rights work, the panel said. Fieldwork can take place domestically or internationally, although often international work is the most common. You can look for jobs with larger organizations such as Amnesty International or the UN, says Hashemian, but you can also contact smaller local nonprofits in the location where you want to work.

Fieldwork will teach you to be humble and follow a leader, said Kennis. // Michelle Chouinard

Regarding the question of where to go based on geography or issue area, Coelho said, “What you want to do defines the field.” Sometimes, she said, issue areas are more important than a certain location. McKenna recommended that individuals looking for fieldwork check out the database of the Open Society Foundation (OSF), which has a list of the non-profits that OSF has funded.

Fieldwork will teach you to be humble and follow a leader, said Kennis. It is your chance to interact with those you’re helping directly on the ground, added Coelho. Yes, some places can be dangerous, as Hashemian pointed out, but you will receive security training and are often well cared for, especially when you focus on building strong relationships with the locals.

At the conclusion of the career panel event, students were offered some time to network with the panelists. It was clear that the panelists are enthusiastic and passionate about the work they do in the human rights field. The panel represented an invaluable opportunity for students to get a taste for what a future in human rights might be like.

For more professional development and career advice, check out ISHR’s website.

~~~

Career Panelist Bios:

Sofia Coelho Candeias is a member of the UN Team of Experts on Sexual Violence and Rule of Law. In this position, she focuses on sexual violence prevention and accountability in the DRC, CAR, Mali, Nigeria and Iraq. Her job frequently entails flying from the UN headquarters in New York to the various countries where she covers and surveys the status of sexual violence. She has spent significant time in the field, holding positions such as senior associate and criminal justice coordinator at the International Center for Transitional Justice, project manager of UNDP’s Women’s Access to Justice in the Eastern DRC, and coordinator of the Sexual Violence Unit of the European Union in the DRC.

Farnoosh Hashemian is a human rights lawyer who focuses on national security and human rights, constitutional reform, access to justice, and women’s rights. Also an author, she has written the book, “The Trial and Diary of Abbass Amir Entezam, the Longest-Held Prisoner of Conscience in the Middle East.” Growing up in Iran, Hashemian was an activist from a young age, always inclined toward justice and human rights. Currently, she works in Iran supporting various advocacy organizations and provides technical support to organizations in Afghanistan.

Matthew Kennis is the program director of the Libertas Center, located in New York City. He is also a graduate of the ISHR’s Master of Arts in Human Rights Studies program. The Libertas Center provides medical, emotional and structural support for victims of torture who are rehabilitating back into society. As director, Kennis hires people and supports and runs the Libertas advocacy work.

Rosalind McKenna works for the the Open Society Public Health Program within the Open Society Foundation (OSF), a philanthropic organization that supports governance for health, health rights and law. OSF funds health projects overseas. McKennna helps to find individuals, non-profits, and NGOs to whom OSF can provide funds. She has also worked as the coordinator for Amnesty International Ireland’s program on economic, social and cultural rights.

Aida Martirous-Nejad works as the special assistant to the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in New York. Much of her work takes place at the UN Headquarters where she covers Europe as a desk officer. Part of her job includes working toward integrating human rights language into codified national and international policy.

~~~

Rowena Kosher is an undergraduate student at Columbia University School of General Studies. She plans to major in human rights with a possible focus on gender and sexuality studies. Her writing can be found on her personal blog, fromvermiliontoviolet.wordpress.com, and at elephantjournal.com, where she is an occasional contributor. Rowena is a blog writer for RightsViews.

Unjust Justice: A Case of American Exceptionalism

By Olivia Heffernan, a master’s candidate at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs 

The United States represents four percent of the world’s population but is home to 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. These disproportionate figures, and the financial and emotional burdens of mass incarceration in America, were the topic of a recent discussion at Columbia University between former Mayor of Philadelphia Michael Nutter and Obama administration official Elias Alcantara. The discussion, hosted by the Criminal Justice Reform Working Group (CJR) at the School of International and Public Affairs, brought together two panelists well suited to discuss criminal justice policy—its challenges, similarities and differences—on city and federal levels.

As a country that prides itself on its values of freedom and equality, the United States demonstrates a gaping contradiction with its discriminatory and broken justice system. Spikes in incarceration rates are often attributed to the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, signed by former President Bill Clinton, which implemented a series of policies that disproportionately impacted racial minorities. The law, the largest crime bill in the history of the United States, included a “three strikes” mandatory life sentence for repeat offenders. As a result of this and other criminal justice policies, blacks are incarcerated in state prisons at more than five times the rate of whites. Furthermore, at any given time, approximately 20 percent of the 2.3 million incarcerated persons in the U.S. have yet to be convicted; they are simply waiting for their day in court. These figures run antithetical to U.S. values as a signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which in Article 11 recognizes the “right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial.”

Former Mayor of Philadelphia Michael Nutter (right) and Obama administration official Elias Alcantara (left) speak at Columbia University in December. // Nitin Magima

An outspoken advocate for fair policing policies, Nutter opened the discussion by distinguishing the difference between incarceration and rehabilitation. The day a person enters jail is the day the justice system must plan for their release, he said. Reentry efforts are part and parcel to crime reduction. The number one factor contributing to recidivism rates is employment post incarceration, according to Nutter. “It’s a vicious circle. The current programs, rules and institutions in place are not designed to help the formerly incarcerated reenter society and get jobs,” he said.  

Nutter also spoke to the pressure politicians face to portray themselves as tough on crime. As Mayor of Philadelphia for two terms, he recalled taking an oath to protect the citizens of his city and the challenges that came with trying to strike a balance between being smart and tough. “It is definitely a balancing act, but the two should not be seen as mutually exclusive,” he said.

Some of the faults of the criminal justice system can be attributed to the fact that there is no uniform criminal justice policy. With over 18,000 police departments and thousands of mayors in the United States, there is confusion, limited resources and conflicting power dynamics. Amidst all of these moving parts, it is possible to lose sight of the purpose of a criminal justice system: justice, not money, accolades, approval ratings or reelection. At the end of the day these are people. Nutter urged attendees “to look at folks for who they are now, not for what they had done or been convicted of, because this is the first and most crucial step to ending mass incarceration.”

Alcantara, who during his tenure in the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs during the Obama administration established strategic partnerships with local and national leaders on criminal justice reform, discussed his relationship with police and the law as a young man of color growing up in the Bronx. He traced the issue of mass incarceration and disproportionate effects of the criminal justice system on men of color to slavery. “Philosophically, we have a punishment paradigm that doesn’t make sense and what is most often forgotten is that our justice system is broken. Period,” Alcantara said.

Members of the Criminal Justice Reform Working Group at Columbia University met with former Mayor Michael Nutter and Obama administration official Elias Alcantara. // Kier Joy

However, Alcantara also made a point to mention that despite a broken justice system, there are options to move the country in the right direction and toward meaningful reform. He highlighted the fact that this is largely a bipartisan issue and referenced working with the ultra-conservative Koch brothers on criminal justice policy reform to demonstrate that both sides of the political spectrum must be present at the table for policy to pass and be effective. Unfortunately, despite the major improvements that New York and other major U.S. cities have made in reforming and reducing prison populations, these successes also come amidst “discouraging signals from President Trump that may portend a return to reflexive over-reliance upon incarceration,” according to Politico.

When asked where we can go from here, Alcantara suggested that efforts be focused on either end of the justice system: policing and reentry are the most effective means of challenging high incarceration rates, he said. He also emphasized the importance of engaging both jail and law enforcement in dialogue about the justice system. For example, the New York Bar Association’s recent report on New York City’s progress in reducing its jail population cited the following initiatives as driving successful criminal justice reform: early release for prisoners under new, less harsh sentencing guidelines, de-escalation trainings for police officers, and expanded re-entry programs focusing on employment, education and mental health.

Former Mayor of Philadelphia Michael Nutter spoke about the pressures faced by politicians to portray themselves as tough on crime. // Kier Joy

Finally, Alcantara recommended to audience members and politicians, in particular, to visit prison. “Prisons are one of the few institutions we can be oblivious to until you go and visit them,” he said. Alcantara cited President Obama’s visit to el Reno prison outside of Oklahoma City in 2015 as an example. As the first president ever to visit a federal prison, Obama set a new precedent and altered the dialogue and philosophies around the criminal justice system, Alcantara said.

Nutter closed the discussion by saying, “The real underlying question behind this whole problem is: when you finishing serving your time, when is your time over?” Unfortunately, in today’s system, a person’s mistake, or in many cases the justice system’s mistake, dictate a person’s trajectory for the rest of his or her life.

Olivia Heffernan is a student at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs concentrating in social and urban policy and specializing in journalism. She is president of the Criminal Justice Reform Working Group (CJR) and has previously worked for human rights-related nonprofits. Olivia is originally from Washington, D.C., but she has spent multiple years living abroad.

Great Power, Great Responsibility: The Digital Revolution of Human Rights

by Genevieve Zingg, a blog writer for RightsViews and a M.A. student in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University

“Human rights faces a stress test today,” Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, said during his World Leaders Forum address at Columbia University’s Casa Italiana on November 14. “The approach which seems to be in the ascendent is a blinkered, blind vision of domination, nationalism, and walled-in sovereignty.”

The teatro grew sombre as al-Hussein’s initial quips gave way to his analysis of the current state of human rights— a field in flux, balanced precariously on the back of a technological revolution that poses both risk and opportunity.

Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, spoke at the World Leaders Forum address at Casa Italiana on November 14. // Genevieve Zingg

“The digital universe offers us amazing possibilities for human rights work,” he continued. “We already use satellite imagery and encrypted communications to ensure better monitoring, investigation, and analysis of human rights violations in places where the authorities refuse to give us access.”

Indeed, digital tools have increasingly yielded significant results in the human rights field. In 2015, for example, before-and-after satellite imagery depicted recently disturbed ground that confirmed the existence of a mass grave in Burundi and was used as evidence to implicate authorities in mass killings. Satellite imagery has also been used by NGOs and human rights organizations to expose prison camps in North Korea, the existence of which had long been denied by the government; to trace the locations of attacks by Boko Haram militants in Nigeria; and most recently, to reveal the destruction of 214 villages in Rakhine State linked to the campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.

Similarly, human trafficking criminal networks and modern slavery supply chains have been interrupted as a result of data mining, mapping, computational linguistics and advanced analytics. Tech giants like Google have partnered with anti-trafficking organizations to share and analyze data in an effort to identify victims of sexual exploitation. By using data collated from more than 70,000 calls, anti-trafficking organization the Polaris Project was able to identify 8,000 victims in one year alone.

Less technical digital tools have proven themselves just as useful to human rights work. Photos posted to popular social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have been used as key evidence in prosecutions under both national and international laws. For example, last month a Swedish court prosecuted a former Syrian soldier for war crimes largely on the basis of a photograph he had posted to Facebook, brought to the attention of the authorities by other Syrian refugees who had seen the graphic image on social media.

The high commissioner highlighted that digital technology can be leveraged beyond the realm of human rights and used to encourage public participation in social justice initiatives more broadly. As an example, he pointed to the recent online public consultations used to formulate the U.N.’s set of global Sustainable Development Goals.

However, al-Hussein warned that such powerful digital technology also poses severe risks to human rights defenders, social justice advocates and political activists. Digital tools are frequently used to facilitate violent crackdowns on human rights, increase governmental repression of civil liberties, and enhance authoritarian grips on social and political control.

Safwan Masri, Executive Vice President for Global Centers and Global Development, moderates the question and answer session with the audience. // University Programs

Common methods used to restrict rights and freedoms include the censorship of online opinion and expression, blocking access to information, and closely monitoring digital activity. Countries including the United Arab Emirates and Ethiopia have hired programmers to develop hacking and surveillance tools and frequently use commercial spyware to target dissidents, monitoring their messages, calls, and whereabouts. Moroccan journalists have been secretly surveilled by government-deployed malware; a human rights group in Bahrain has been targeted with spyware sold to the Bahraini government by a firm in the U.K.; and the United States government collects vast amounts of metadata through a wide variety of surveillance programs, most notably the NSA. Egypt has banned dozens of websites in a growing censorship crackdown, while China employs some 40,000 “Internet censors” to block and remove any content critical of the Communist Party and the Chinese government. Globally, 27 percent of all internet users live in countries where people have been arrested for publishing, sharing, or merely “liking” content on Facebook, and authorities in 38 countries made arrests based on social media posts over the past year, according to the World Economic Forum.

Digital surveillance and online censorship threaten several fundamental human rights and the core freedoms meant to underpin liberal democracies. First, the right to privacy is explicitly enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), ratified by 167 states to date, which says that “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, home or correspondence.” Second, free speech is protected under Article 19(1) of the ICCPR, which states that “Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference,” while under Article 19(2), “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds…through the media of his choice.” The same rights to freedom of opinion, expression, privacy, and information are protected by similar wording in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“Any measures to restrict access to, block, or remove content from Internet sites on the part of governments wielding counterterrorism policies or any other reason must comply with international human rights standards,” the high commissioner told Columbia students at the World Leaders Forum event. “They should be proportionate to the threat, demonstrably necessary in their most precise details, as minimally restrictive as possible, supervised by public bodies, and defined by laws derived from public consultation.”

A Columbia University student asks Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein a question during the question and answer session. // University Programs

Where, one might wonder, does this leave private tech companies? Companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple are put under severe pressure as governments increasingly demand that they regulate content within certain jurisdictions. Apple’s recent decision to disable access to VPN services in its Chinese App Store was criticized as making the company complicit with Chinese censorship, while both U.S. and U.K. spy agencies have come under fire for tapping undersea fiber optic cables to harvest data for surveillance purposes, a practice enabled by laws that require telecommunications companies to comply with domestic and international surveillance requests. India, Pakistan, Turkey and Russia top the list of governments that most frequently request sites like Twitter and Facebook remove “blasphemous content” and provide user account information— requests that are usually quietly complied with.

“When a company supplies data to a state in contravention of the right to privacy under international law, that company clearly risks becoming complicit in human rights abuses,” al-Hussein argued. “The rights which we hold to be inalienable offline must also be protected online.”

With significant advances in digital technologies like artificial intelligence and the increasing commercialization of software that uses biometric data including fingerprints, face, voice and iris recognition, a vast number of new problems will face the field of human rights. In creating this digital universe, the consequences of which are largely unknown and often unpredictable, the high commissioner warns that human rights and needs must be a central focus. With great power comes great responsibility— as digital power grows, so too does our responsibility to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of humankind.

Genevieve Zingg is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University, focusing on human rights in the context of armed conflict, counterterrorism and national security. She is interested in refugees and migration, foreign policy and international politics, international criminal and humanitarian law, and intersectional issues of race and gender. She holds a B.A. (Hons.) from the University of Toronto and has professional experience working in Geneva, Athens, Paris, Brussels and Toronto. Connect with her on Twitter @GenZingg. She is a blog writer for RightsViews. 

What does the Rohingya crisis mean for Myanmar’s Nobel Laureate?

By Olivia Heffernan, a master’s candidate at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs 

On November 14, the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University hosted a lecture titledUnderstanding the Rohingya Crisis.” Panelists addressed the historical roots of ongoing violent conflict in Myanmar, including the “othering” of the minority Rohingya Muslims and escalating fear of Islam, as well as the responsibility of the international community to respond to the country’s human rights crisis. The lack of response raises questions about the international community’s commitment to protecting peace and precipitates another interesting discussion: What does an ethnic cleansing overseen by a Nobel Peace Prize winner mean for the credibility of the award itself?

Aung San Suu Kyi accepts her Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. // Flickr

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader and first state counselor, was conferred the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her admirable fight for democracy in Myanmar during 15 years under house arrest as a political prisoner. However, actions speak louder than words. Aung San Suu Kyi’s complicity to the killings and expulsions of Rohingya Muslims raises questions about her promise to ensure peace and democracy in Myanmar.

Panelists of the event provided context for the current crisis and cited startling statistics of pervasive and systematic violence against the Rohingya, violence that constitutes ethnic cleansing by U.N. standardsHuman Rights Watch reports that military repression has resulted in the deaths of thousands of Rohingya Muslims, forcing at least 600,000 people to flee their homes since 2016. The U.N. continues to deliberate on whether the killings constitute a genocide. Furthermore, panelist Mayesha Alam mentioned that no state besides Indonesia criticized the government of Myanmar for its inhumane treatment of the Rohingya during the recent ASEAN summit. The lack of international response delegitimizes international covenants such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and principles such as the Responsibility to Protect.

In an open letter to Aung San Suu Kyi, fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote, “My dear sister: if the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.” Malala Yousafzai, another Nobel Peace Laureate, also expressed her disappointment in a statement on Twitter: “Over the last several years, I have repeatedly condemned this tragic and shameful treatment. I am still waiting for my fellow Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to do the same. The world is waiting and the Rohingya Muslims are waiting.” Similarly, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch and long time supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi, has said, “Now that she’s in power, she symbolizes cowardly complicity in the deadly tyranny being visited on the Rohingya.”

Fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates like Malala Yousafzai have been critical of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s lack of response on the Rohingya crisis // Flickr

In her first public address since the violent military crackdown on the Rakhine state, Aung San Suu Kyi’s statements contradicted her actions. She displaced blame and denied culpability, claiming that the Myanmar government “condemns all human rights violations and unlawful violence.” She also made false claims, assuring the audience that Rohingya Muslims did not face discrimination and had equal access to healthcare and education— a blatant lie according to international human rights advocates. Perhaps more concerning, in the same speech, Aung San Suu Kyi announced that despite widespread condemnation, she does not fear international scrutiny.

Despite ubiquitous disappointment in Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership and calls for the revocation of her award, former Nobel Prize committee member Gunnar Stalsett defended the committee’s choice: “The principle we follow in the decision is not a declaration of a saint…when the decision has been made and the award has been given, that ends the responsibility of the committee.”

However, Stalsett’s above statement is dangerous— it insinuates that the Nobel Peace Prize committee has no interest in the actions of their awardees post-conferment. Not condemning Aung San Suu Kyi for her direct contradiction of the award’s values discredits the legitimacy of the prize. Recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize should be held to higher standards and accountable for their actions. At the least, they should face repercussions for committing injustices. While a Nobel Peace Prize has never been revoked, in this case, rescinding the award appears to be one of the more obvious and symbolic means of sending an important message to Aung San Suu Kyi: reputation and power do not acquit anyone of wrongdoing in the face of human rights violations.

Olivia Heffernan is a student at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs concentrating in social and urban policy and specializing in journalism. She is president of the Criminal Justice Reform Working Group (CJR) and has previously worked for human rights-related nonprofits. Olivia is originally from Washington, D.C., but she has spent multiple years living abroad.

Human Rights Futures

By Ayesha Amin, a blog writer for RightsViews and a M.P.A. candidate at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs

Is the human rights movement on the road to nowhere? Last Thursday, the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University hosted a book launch and panel discussion on “Human Rights Futures,” edited by Stephen Hopgood, Jack Snyder and Leslie Vinjamuri. The book brings together 15 mainstream human rights scholars and their critics to debate alternative futures for the human rights movement.

The panel conversation was moderated by Andrew Nathan, professor of political science at Columbia University, and included four contributors to the book: Jack Snyder, Belfer Professor of International Relations at Columbia University; Shereen Hertel, editor of the Journal of Human Rights; Alexander Cooley, director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University; and Leslie Vinjamuri, director of the Centre on Conflict, Rights and Justice at SOAS, University of London. Other panelists included Aryeh Neier, co-founder of Human Rights Watch (HRW) and president emeritus of the Open Society Foundations; Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa Division; and Sarah Mendehlson, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Economic and Social Council.  

The International Criminal Court in 2010 // josef.stuefer // Flickr

The discussion between these human rights experts quickly zeroed in on the growing strategic backlash against the human rights field. This phenomenon takes many forms, from the rejection of the International Criminal Court by some countries in Africa to the delegitimizing of activists as “foreign agents” in Russia and creation of counter-norms in President Putin’s defense of “traditional values” against multiculturalism, feminism and homosexuality. Typically viewed as a problem confined to authoritarian and transitional states in the Global South, recent events in the U.S., U.K. and Europe demonstrate that the West is not immune. As Whitson described it, the present moment we find ourselves in is “bad, apocalyptically bad, with a unique feature of being cheer-led by an authoritarian White House.”

The panel was asked whether this represented a historical regression, or just the usual arm wrestling between governments and their critics? The “spiral model” in theories of human rights promotion, after all, anticipates some degree of backlash. Cooley argued that what makes the current backlash different is that it is not confined to the international human rights architecture. It is geopolitical in nature and aimed against the global governance architecture established in the 1980s and 90s. Mendehlson, from her experience at USAID and the U.N., agreed, adding that it is not just human rights groups under attack, but also environmental and humanitarian groups. “We are seeing the entire business model of external funding to local groups being questioned, and often under the cover of sovereignty.”

Protestors march against Trump in Melbourne // Corey Oakley // Flickr

What has caused this backlash? Mendehlson thought the overly legalistic approach of the international human rights movement had resulted in a disconnect between the efforts of international organizations and local populations. “Elevating the local voice is critical,” she said. Vinjamuri queried whether international human rights organizations, especially those headquartered in the United States, engendered a degree of suspicion among the local population. These organisations are often seen as representing the long arm of the U.S. government, closely aligned with U.S. foreign policy and potentially also with its intelligence agencies.

The growing localization of universalistic human rights language is one of the alternative approaches to human rights advocacy considered in the book. It reduces the risk that human rights advocates will be labelled “handmaidens of imperialism.” Whitson said she had observed this process first-hand. “Over the past 15 years, Human Rights Watch has spent time becoming local organizations in the countries we are working in.” As a result, HRW now spends less time convincing local audiences of its neutral credentials and more time on the important work of rights advocacy.  

The relationship between international and local groups is also more nuanced now. Neier described it as symbiotic. Hertel observed that local groups strategically use their alliance with international organizations to their advantage, focusing on where the expertise and resources lie.  

Columbia University hosted a book launch and panel discussion on “Human Rights Futures” in November. // Ayesha Amin

The panel ended with some final observations on how the human rights movement should adapt to our new reality. For example, how can we achieve human rights in places where the old playbook of “legalism, moralism and universalism” is not available to us, or no longer works? Synder argued that the necessary conditions for successfully achieving human rights outcomes are peace and democracy. His prescription for struggling human rights advocates today? Engender mass social movements in connection with a progressive political party.

Neier thought Snyder overstated the connection between democracy and human rights. He observed that in countries at the point of democratization, ethnic nationalism often becomes a more significant force than it was previously. “It is not accidental that the democratization of Myanmar has been accompanied by horrendous abuses against the Rohingya,” he said. What is required is to have respect for human rights principles baked into the transition process, because the aftermath might be too late.

Ayesha Amin is a New Zealander currently pursuing her Master of Public Administration degree at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs concentrating in International Security Policy. She holds a graduate degree in international relations and human rights, an L.L.B., and a B.A. in economics. Her interests include contemporary critiques of human rights, corporations and human rights compliance, and the right to self-determination. Ayesha is a blog writer for RightsViews.

Questioning “Resilience”

By Stephanie Euber, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences 2017

Individuals fortunate enough to have survived traumatic events are commonly referred to as “resilient.” In fact, a resilience framework/agenda has become part of commonly-accepted humanitarian and human rights language and programming. But what does this framework, which attempts to foster resiliency among trauma survivors, actually accomplish? This is the question I have spent the past year attempting to answer. My paper titled “Genealogy of Resilience: Women’s Resiliency to Conflict-Related Sexual Violence” was recently chosen as a winner of the 2017 Human Rights Essay Contest through the Institute for the Study of Human Rights.

The application of the term “resilient” to women who have experienced gender-based violence, either locally or globally, remains unclear. What is more evident is that linkages can be drawn between the usage of resilience theory and the popularization of describing women as “survivors.” Referring to women who have survived gender-based trauma as “resilient” pays homage to the extreme emotional and sometimes physical struggles involved in carrying on with one’s life following the worst imaginable circumstances. As such, the terms “survivor” and “resilient” commonly overlap, and at times, they may even be used interchangeably.

Yet, the “survivor” identity would not exist without the “victim” identity. If the “victim” is pathetic and undesirable, then the “survivor” is radiant, warrior-like, and maybe even “a little sexy.” New York Times literary critic Parul Sehgal references Lisbeth Salander from “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” as an example of a “survivor.” What woman would choose the “victim” identity over the “survivor” identity? It becomes almost compulsory for women to wear the “survivor” identity as a badge of honor and proof of their heroism. “Survivor” becomes the obligatory replacement for “victim.” Resilient women, then, may as well be forced into being just that.

Stephanie Euber, winner of the 2017 Human Rights Essay Contest through the Institute for the Study of Human Rights.

Recognizing women who have been traumatized as “resilient survivors” enables these women to occupy a space of strength rather than a space of  stigmatization. It calls attention to the agency of women. Referring to women as “resilient” also sends a message to other women and girls who may someday endure such trauma and injury at the hands of men. It tells them something they may not be accustomed to hearing: “Yes, you can survive.”

At the same time, survivor discourse risks re-privatizing the societal problem of violence against women. The popular feminist slogan, “The personal is political,” derived from Carol Hanisch’s popularized paper from 1969, becomes reversed by survivor discourse, which makes the political personal once again. If those in power do not have to face the part they play in this oppression, they are able to avoid accountability.

Referring to women who have endured conflict-related rape as “resilient” personalizes survival in a way that moves the discussion of violence against women away from where it needs to be. Instead of calling attention to the problems of patriarchal violence and the very real effects it has on women and children, the resilience agenda applauds individual women for the personal characteristics that have enabled them to survive such horrors. It congratulates the “survivor” without criticizing the root cause of the violence that had to be survived. Patriarchal violence risks being normalized as something women must endure; it becomes a “fact of life.”

The “survivor” identity is compulsory for women who have endured gender-based violence.

As human rights, international law, and conflict discourses move to highlight rape as a weapon of war, sexual violence as a war crime, and violence against women more generally as a serious human rights violation, it becomes clear that resilience is not the answer it was once imagined to be within the fields of psychology and psychiatry.

Largely, at least in the case of the non-Western, South Sudanese women whom I have studied closely, it is not the women themselves who tend to comment on their own resiliency. Instead, this terminology comes from the mouths of Western humanitarian workers, psychologists, and media sources. As such, it is logical to remain critical of this sort of discourse that refers to women, and especially non-Western women, as “resilient survivors.” Advocates and activists must find a way to ensure that theory and practice be informed by those who have experienced violence without allowing the burden of responsibility for social change to rest wholly on those who have been victimized.

Stephanie Euber earned her MA in human rights from Columbia University in May 2017. Her research interests include gender-based violence, gender and conflict, and feminism.