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The Saddest Bride I Have Ever Seen…

By Sameera Uddin, graduate student of Human Rights at Columbia University


“In Bangladesh, 65% of girls are married before they turn 18.” (UNICEF)

“She was withdrawn, quiet, and appeared very sad throughout the entire day,” said Allison Joyce, an American photojournalist who documented the wedding of 15-year-old Nasoin Akhter to a 32-year-old man, in her blog. The international community greeted Joyce’s photos of Nasoin’s wedding with shock and disappointment.

According to UNICEF, nearly one-third of Bangladeshi girls are married by the age of 15, the highest rate for that age group in the world. South Asia is home to almost half (42 per cent) of all child brides worldwide, and India alone accounts for one-third of the global total. Currently, it is illegal for girls to get married under the age of 18 in Bangladesh, yet the statistics suggest that the reality is otherwise.

child_marriagesWhy is it that a country often highlighted as a development success story is facing these challenges? Bangladesh has reduced its poverty rate, has achieved gender parity, and is improving its record on women’s rights—but the country still faces huge challenges when it comes to stopping such practices. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced last year that she would end child marriage in the nation by 2041, but a recent Human Rights Watch report points out that the government has not taken radical measures to stop the practice. HRW reports that the Bangladeshi government has not proposed any plan as to how it will implement this countrywide.

Many local government officials also fail girls at risk. Awareness is growing that marriage of girls under age 18 is illegal under Bangladeshi law, but this awareness is undermined by the widespread complicity of local government officials in facilitating child marriages. Interviewees consistently tell stories of local government officials issuing forged birth certificates showing girls’ ages as over 18, in return for bribes of as little as US $1.30. Even when marriages are prevented by local officials—as they sometimes are—families find it easy to hold the marriages in different jurisdictions. One would assume that, in order to stop such practices, the laws should be better enforced. Contrary to this expectation, however, the Prime Minister’s cabinet has announced a plan to lower the legal marriage age from 18 to 16. The rationale for reducing the age limit is that the Bangladeshi government feels it is challenging for a country like Bangladesh to effectively reduce child marriage through stricter laws alone.

And it is true that their remain many challenges to stopping this practice. Child marriages are not a new phenomenon in Bangladesh. Oftentimes, families who cannot afford education—though it is supposed to be “free”—are forced to pull their children out of school and either put them to work or marry them off. Poor communities in Bangladesh are forced to send their sons and daughters to work because they simply do not have the luxury to feed their families while also ensuring that their children receive proper education. This is the reality of many families in Bangladesh. Elementary and secondary schools in the country are under resourced. This also has to do with cultural norms because parents think that since their daughters will not be working after they get married, then there is no point of sending them to school in the first place.

But there is more to it than that. As a native of Bangladesh, I have seen first hand why many of my neighbors would marry off their daughters at a very young age. Surprisingly, oftentimes it is the wealthy families that decide to do this, not because they cannot afford education for their girls, but rather because these girls are seen as a “burden.” In Bangladesh, the birth of a son is more favorable than that of a girl. Giving birth to a girl is still seen as a curse in many parts of the country.

As a girl passes the age of 18, her parents are faced with societal pressure, particularly from the girl’s family and relatives. It is imperative to understand the social stigma girls face in a patriarchal society like Bangladesh. In Bangladeshi families, fathers are the ultimate decision-makers when it comes to their children. Though this is becoming obsolete in the urban parts of the country, the structure is still deeply engrained in the mindset of many Bengalis. In Bangladesh, a girl is considered old when she turns 20. Families are usually stigmatized for not caring about their daughters, meaning by the time a girl turns 18, it is the job of the father to get her married off. If he does not fulfill this duty, he is usually shamed by society and relatives. Once a girl is older, boys and older men harass her on her way to school. She is not allowed to work or travel on her own. These practices stem from the deep-rooted customs and traditional practices of Bangladesh.

In addition to societal pressure, the dowry concept is a main cause behind the early marriage of girls. Even though the practice is illegal, dowries are still a norm in the rural areas of the country. Dowry payments are usually smaller when the girl is young; however, once she gets older, it becomes more difficult for families to marry off their daughters because of the increase in the amount of dowry needed. If a family is not able to pay the proper amount, the daughter may be abused by her in-laws. Therefore, in order to escape high dowry expenses, poorer families opt for getting their daughters married at an early age.

These are some of the reasons why the Government’s recent decision deserves strong scrutiny from the international community. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in “Girl’s Summit 2014” pledged to reduce, and ultimately eliminate, child marriage. However, the PM’s cabinet proposal to add a clause in the Child Marriage Restraint Act is contrary to this pledge, as it would lower the legal age of marriage for girls from 18 to 16 under special circumstances, such as if the girl is pregnant or “if it is their parents’ wish.” If this law is passed, Bangladesh will not only squander the progress it has made so far, but it will also lose another generation of promising girls.

From a human rights perspective, Bangladesh acceded to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1984, which stipulates 18 as the minimum marriage age. Bangladesh also signed the UN Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages in 1998. This Convention requires signatory states to obtain consent from both parties entering into a marriage and to establish a legal minimum age for marriage.

However, international laws and treaties are effective only to an extent in countries like Bangladesh. The government itself has very little implementation power in a country that still operates under a traditional system. In order to eliminate child marriages, the government needs to effectively engage the parents in decision-making and alter the current mindset by educating parents on the importance of educating their children. In addition, parents need to be educated on the health risks that girls face when they are married at an early age. It will be difficult for the government to convince families to abruptly shift their mindset to support for marriages at a later age.  They will require more engagement at a macro level before they will support a policy that does very little when it comes to actual implementation and execution. In instances like this, it is imperative for policy makers in Bangladesh to approach its citizens from a cultural competency perspective and align their priorities with the community we are trying to impact.

As a Bangladeshi myself, I understand the cultural context in which the country is operating. Though I was lucky to be born in a family that did not see me as a burden and wanted the best education and lifestyle for me, there are very few families who share this outlook. Because my parents were educated and engaged in the political landscape of the country, I know one of the effective ways for this practice to stop is for the government to really understand the traditions of the country before attempting to normalize an international standard that means very little to the average family in Bangladesh.


Sameera Uddin is a graduate student of Human Rights at Columbia University, and an operations analyst at NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. Her research focuses on immigrant students’ access to higher education in the United States.

The Enforced Disappearance of Human Rights in the World

By Marina Kumskova, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University


1Between March 2002 and July 2004, eight individuals of Chechen origin were “arrested by groups of armed and masked men in a manner resembling a security operation”. Pointing guns at the family members, the soldiers took men away in military carriers. Similarly, on April 28, 1991, Jeremías Osorio Rivera was officially detained by a military patrol when he went to the village of Nunumia to take part in a sports event. He was accused of making a terrorist threat for carrying an officially registered gun and explosives materials.

None of these men have been seen or heard from since, despite their families’ tireless efforts to find them. In both cases, the males were abducted and detained by armed men without arrest warrant, held in solitary confinement under mortifying circumstances for unidentified periods of time, and deprived of legal assistance or any other contact with the outside world. In both cases, after the abduction of the individuals and in the absence of any information about their whereabouts, the domestic criminal justice systems in the respective countries did not take any measures to provide remedies for determining the fate of the disappeared individuals. They also failed to safeguard the relatives’ right of access to justice and right to know the truth through effective investigation and through holding accountable those responsible for the crimes.

The aforementioned cases are typical examples of the crime that is internationally known as “enforced disappearance.” Today, this crime continues to take place in 88 states all over the world, and constitutes a continuous violation of multiple rights. Enforced disappearances emerged in international discourse after World War II, and the narrative of violations carried out by Latin American military dictatorships in the 1960s and 1970s shaped the development of this discourse. Since that time, the international community has begun to acknowledge that a wide range of human rights of both the victims and their families are denied by the act of enforced disappearance, claiming that states should be held accountable for their failure to prevent the disappearances, to investigate them, and to punish the perpetrators in light of their obligations under several international agreements.

Despite the number of treaties and agreements signed in order to establish an understanding as to the nature of enforced disappearance and determine state responsibilities, the international community has repeatedly failed to create a conceptual framework for enforced disappearances and to establish monitoring mechanisms that can proactively address the problem. This is likely due to political influence in the shaping human rights norms.

The context of the crime of forced disappearance implies that the perpetrator has an unfair advantage over the victim, because evidence is often under the exclusive control of the perpetrator, who typically has intent to hide it. As a consequence of this distinctive characteristic of disappearances, it is up to international human rights bodies, such as the Inter-American and European Courts of Human Rights, to promote and protect individuals from this violation.

2Unfortunately, the details and procedures of implementing judgment are specific to each Court. Both courts can and do force states to pay financial compensation to family members of disappeared persons. However, the whereabouts of victims have never been established, and required remedies have never been fulfilled, causing severe suffering of the victims’ loved ones. Under pressure from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission, Peru adopted legislative amendments and provided special reparation policies. Overall, the Inter-American system has managed to develop valuable jurisprudence that still requires more work in terms of influencing state compliance. On the other hand, the European Court was not able to require any action to be taken by Russia as result of the judgment in the joint case of the enforced disappearance of the eight Chechen individuals referenced above, since it issues only declaratory judgments. Russia has failed to adopt any measures to ensure that no similar violations take place in the future, that violators are adequately deterred, or that family members of the disappeared persons are provided with necessary remedies.

Overall, despite the gravity of the crime, enforced disappearance continues to be ineffectively addressed by regional and international mechanisms. Unfortunately, international human rights courts cannot do much to prevent this crime from happening, especially when the courts investigate cases in which one of the parties is a so-called “powerful” country. Even more unfortunate is the fact that the Courts fail to provide effective remedies to the family members of disappeared persons. While countless people around the world are subjected to injustices, international courts and human rights activists cannot do much about it unless states express their willingness to comply with the judgments. In this light, the most promising method would be to lodge interstate complaints against the countries that are not willing to comply with recommendations or declaratory judgments by creating political pressure. However, the questions remain: which countries will be able to proceed with this legitimate measure without creating political tensions, and how can non-governmental organizations influence this process?

Marina Kumskova is a graduate student in Human Rights Studies Program at Columbia University and a research assistant at the Center for International Human Rights at John Jay College. In her research, she focuses on religious discrimination in the context of counter-terrorism policies.

Against Superlatives: Canada, Rankings, and the Buzzfeed-isation of Human Rights Reporting

By Tim Wyman-McCarthy, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University


As a recent NYT article title suggests, Canada's current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, has contributed to "The Closing of the Canadian Mind."

As a recent NYT article title suggests, Canada’s current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, has contributed to “The Closing of the Canadian Mind.” (Image from The New York Times)

I confess: I AM CANADIAN! Anyone from my homeland will recognise the reference to the well known Molson Canadian beer commercials, starting with “There’s an unwritten code in Canada…” and then depicting young men and women fulfilling classic ‘Canadian’ stereotypes—playing hockey, owning beavers, being polite, enduring cold, paddling canoes, outwitting Americans—before shouting, emphatically, that they are Canadian! The commercial was part of a surge in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s to conjure a sense of Canadian identity out of a population (in)famous for its lack of nationalism. The joke was that being Canadian meant nothing very much at all, and the commercials were self-deprecating even as they aimed to foster patriotism.

To anyone globally aware or keyed into international politics, however, Canada did have a strong identity: multicultural, progressive, tolerant, peacekeeping, generous, democratic. The nation has boasted wide respect in the human rights community for decades, and our Prime Minister from 1963-1968, Lester B. Pearson, won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role as a key player in resolving the Suez Crisis in 1957 (and is also widely considered to have helped establish the modern idea of peacekeeping and the structure of the UN Security Council).

As Canadians travelling abroad know, much of this image has stuck: decorating one’s luggage with the red and white maple leaf still earns smiles and friendly interactions. In fact, a recent 2015 report from the Reputation Institute ranks Canada as the “most reputable” and the “most admired” country in the world, an honour it held between 2011-2013 as well. The Institute also produced a list ranking countries in order of their reputation self-perception, on which Canada placed second, indicating that this global opinion has been to a large extent internalised.

There is, however, more to the story. The word ‘admirable’ has two definitions: first, the current usage, “deserving of the highest esteem—excellent”, and second, the obsolete usage, “exciting wonder—surprising.” I would argue that for anyone external or internal to Canada who takes a closer look at the country’s social policies and human rights record it would be the obsolete, archaic definition that rings true: surprise. Such individuals, for instance, might be surprised to read the most recent UN report on Canada’s human rights record, which slams the country for failing to respond to missing and murdered Indigenous girls and women, the country’s new hardline anti-terrorism bill (C-51), overcrowding in prisons and overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in the criminal justice system, gender inequality, indefinite detention of migrants and asylum seekers, excessive use of force by police, the general erosion of civil liberties, and the unaccountability of Canadian resource extraction firms overseas (such as Barrick Gold), among others. Canada isn’t just falling short of its reputation; it is falling short of its international legal commitments under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the UN Human Rights Committee was assessing. The report was described as ‘sobering’, a ‘wake-up call’, and earned headlines in a number of major national media outlets, including the Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, Huffington Post (Canada), CBC, and the Ottawa Citizen.

The $351 million Canadian Museum for Human Rights, opened in 2014, is part of Canada's attempt to make human rights a lasting part of its national identity.

The $351 million Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, Manitoba, opened in 2014, is part of Canada’s attempt to make human rights a lasting part of its national identity.

Unfortunately, reports such as those by the Reputation Institute make it hard for the indictment of the UN to stick—in fact, the government’s Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Johanna Quinney, responded to the scathing UN comments by stating, bluntly, “Canada is the best country in the world. We are proud of our human rights record at home and abroad. Just last week the Reputation Institute found that Canada was the most admired country in the world.” Among some circles, perhaps—but certainly not in UN or other human rights communities, where Canada displays each year more and more USA-type arrogance and exceptionalism, refuses to comply with UN Human Rights Committee demands, insists that it has no obligations under the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and accepts no human rights responsibilities for Canadian corporations working overseas. As one member of the UN Human Rights Committee, Sir Nigel Rodley, said: “This is not the Canada I once knew.”

However, it is statements like Sir Rodley’s that point to one of the problems: the very idea that Canada was once, or still is to some, ‘good’ (or the best) on human rights in the first place. Canada, for instance, has never been ‘good’ on Indigenous rights—its very existence as a nation is built on the crime of settler colonialism that began in the 1500’s, was consolidated during Confederation, and continues to this day. Further, the country’s system of reservations for First Nations, enshrined in the 1876 Indian Act, was studied by and proved inspiration for South Africa’s own apartheid regime in the 1940s. In other words, Canada has in its history exported more than just cheeriness and (Smallpox) blankets. And in other areas, such as disability rights, we have lagged far behind Europe and the United States, the latter of which protected persons with disabilities under the ADA years before Canada was able to provide similar antidiscrimination legislation, which is even today marked by a substantial implementation gap.

Despite these essential facts of Canada’s unique history of human rights violations, the country has coasted on its positive reputation for so long that citizens and the international community cling steadfastly to the idea of Canada as a bastion of liberal progressiveness, democratic accountability, and humanitarian generosity. The great English poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge once argued that literary writers have the power to make readers commit a “willing suspension of disbelief” in an act of “poetic faith” when encountering implausible claims or stories if there is just enough interest or a hint of truth in the tale. Suspending our disbelief about the truth of a story in this way involves ‘cognitive estrangement’, a process whereby we wilfully lack the knowledge to challenge the premises on which a narrative is built. I think this is what we see at play in the disparity between the Reputation Institute’s ranking and the UN report: Canada’s admirable reputation is a fiction, and the country, as well as the world it inhabits, is and has for a long time been wilfully suspending its critical capacity to accept that there is no basis in reality for this belief.

keep-calm-and-love-canada-140This cognitive estrangement is facilitated by the tendency when talking about human rights—by both media outlets and human right organizations—to invest in superlatives, rankings, and reputations. This is a kind of buzzfeed-isation of international human rights reporting. We see this, for instance, in BBC shows such as The World’s Worst Place to Be Disabled? and The World’s Worst Place to Be Gay?, or The Best And Worst Places To Be A Woman. Framing countries as the most this or that, or quantifying how admirable they are—Toronto was also recently named ‘The World’s Most Liveable City’—simply erases complexity and provides an easily invoked fact to counter criticisms: Canada is the most admired country in the world, it does not appear on any ‘worst’ list, it is therefore beyond reproach. Or if reproachable, it is at least better than most, and so should only be condemned accordingly. With my country and my city safely occupying the podium of prestige (as most liveable, most admired), I am able to pat myself on the back even as I turn it away from those issues affecting the reality of so many with whom I share these spaces—for I AM CANADIAN!

Such lists and rankings are in no way useful, or even interesting. We need, instead, to think carefully about admiration—what it elevates and what it erases, what mental gymnastics we must play to invest in fictions of the best and the worst. We must ask ourselves what harmful habits of thought we enable when using the language of goodness and badness, rather than specificity, context, and critique. And in the meantime, Canadians need to accept that toping the charts of a single report has very little to do with the plights of the real people amongst them.

Tim Wyman-McCarthy is an M.A. candidate at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. His research interests include indigenous rights in settler colonial settings, human rights discourse, and disability rights.


#ThisIsACoup: Greece, a dangerous precedent for human rights in Europe

By Alexis Comninos, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University


This past weekend has been decisive for the future of Greece—perhaps, as some say, the most important few days in the country’s recent history. Through the Greek deal, this weekend saw the EU define its take on human rights, and the result isn’t pretty. Waking up this Monday morning is the closest I have felt to a terrible hangover (it’s not that I don’t drink, I just don’t get hangovers—call it my superpower). I do not just say this as a Greek citizen, but simply as a socially minded individual, someone who until this morning still had faith in the European project.

Giorgos Chatzifotiadis, 77, broke down in tears after visiting four banks in an attempt to withdraw his wife's pension of 120 euros. He became a symbol of the distress of the Greek people (AFP: Sakis Mitrolidis)

Giorgos Chatzifotiadis, 77, broke down in tears after visiting four banks in an attempt to withdraw his wife’s pension of 120 euros. He became a symbol of the distress of the Greek people (AFP: Sakis Mitrolidis)

The outcome of this weekend’s negotiations has struck a huge blow to all hopes of meaningful, sustainable recovery for Greece. It has also irreversibly damaged the idea of Europe, the possibility of the EU ever becoming more than an exploitative project driven by the ideology of a few in Brussels, Frankfurt and Berlin.

Since yesterday evening, the Twitter hashtag #ThisIsACoup has been trending in Greece, Germany, and the United Kingdom. In those twelve characters are captured the frustrations of a number of Europeans who like me believed—somehow—in these institutions.

On Sunday July 5th, the Greek people voted in a bailout referendum. Voters were asked whether the Tsipras government should accept the terms presented by the country’s creditors (aka the troika) for another bailout, terms that were deemed wildly unrealistic, counterproductive, and dangerous by some of the world’s leading economists, including Joseph Stiglitz, Jeffrey Sachs, Thomas Picketty, Amartya Sen, and Paul Krugman. Just over 61% of Greeks rejected the terms put forward by the troika, thus sending a clear message to Brussels and giving Greek PM Alexis Tsipras a renewed mandate to negotiate. And yet, at the end of last week, after days of relentless negotiation, Tsipras presented what appeared to be a complete capitulation, a bailout plan almost identical to the one that had been rejected by his people, the one that he had so vehemently opposed just a few days before.

Consistently, I have felt that most human rights organisations are turning away from the crucial issue of austerity in Greece. Why has so little been written about the human rights consequences of the successive austerity measures, in a country where banks have been closed for over two weeks, where daily cash withdrawals are capped at 60 euros and where there have been talks of sending cargo planes with humanitarian aid? This morning, again, HRW is condemning the treatment of migrants on the Greek Islands, as well as the lack of EU support in managing that crisis. All fights worth fighting; all important issues to which attention should be drawn. But how can these two issues not be connected? How can nothing be written on the austerity packages and enormous budget cuts to come? For these budget cuts will—also—affect the situation of the thousands of migrants stranded on the Greek Islands, as well as put thousands of Greeks out of work and cut down pensions for the most disadvantaged—and this in a country where the unemployment rate is at 25.6%, where just under half of under 25s are unemployed, and where the suicide rate is skyrocketing, having spiked by 35% in two years.

Grumpy Cat votes ‘no’ (in Greek).

Grumpy Cat votes ‘no’ (in Greek).

The common argument presented to refute my view is that economic and social rights are really just aspirations, harder to enforce and harder to advocate for. But even if we were to agree with that—and I know that I don’t—what about the utter lack of democracy in this entire process, what about the right to vote, to have a say in your country’s future, if your voice is simply discarded by institutions you have not elected?

In November 2014, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) published a report entitled ‘Downgrading rights: the cost of austerity in Greece,’ in which austerity measures are linked to the deterioration of the right to health and the right to work. And while such a contribution should be commended, human rights—both ESCR and CPR—have mostly been side-lined, if not ignored throughout the negotiations. Austerity is about human rights, and thinking of it as such should not be optional. What has prevented us from seeing the imposed austerity measures as what they are: a violation of the most fundamental human rights?

As Paul Krugman put it in the New York Times, the demands on Greece go “beyond harsh into pure vindictiveness, [leading to the] complete destruction of national sovereignty [with] no hope of relief.” With Monday morning’s agreement, Greece has been thrown on the floor, handed a loaded handgun and forced to pull the trigger. By pulling that trigger it will quite probably take Europe down with it. When saying that, I am not suggesting some kind of apocalyptical scenario in which all of Europe collapses; rather, I am referring to the idea of Europe. The idea of a Europe that is not limited to an unequal free market without any fiscal coordination, a Europe based on solidarity that doesn’t build fences or deploy military forces to prevent refugees from finding shelter on its land, a Europe that is democratic and whose fate is not decided by an unofficial group of finance ministers with no defined mandate.

When asked whether the deal struck with Greece was too harsh and humiliating for Greece, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker declared: “I don’t think that the Greek people have been humiliated and I don’t think the other Europeans were losing their face. It’s a typical European arrangement.” That is precisely the problem: that the deal we have just seen is ‘typical’ of today’s Europe.


Alexis Comninos is an M.A. candidate at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. His research mostly focuses on the intersection of human rights and humanitarianism.


Voices of Defiance: A Reflection on Music in the Pursuit of Human Rights

By Justin Jalea, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University


Jalea_1An important lesson I have learned from my time at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights is that the work of advancing human rights must appeal to every available avenue in seeking justice. In addition to the traditional practices of law and policy, efforts to access the power inherent in cultural practices and traditions must be made in advancing human rights aims. A long history of social action for human rights speaks to this power, as cultural forces such as literature, art and music, have been at the forefront of many of the world’s most pervasive social movements. As an HRSMA student and professional classical musician, I had the opportunity to delve into this robust history and music in preparation for a lecture-concert I recently presented at Fordham University on what has come to be known as the Singing Revolution.

On February 28, my colleague Megan Chartrand and I, along with 14 choral singers, presented the captivating story of Estonia’s struggle for independence from the Soviet Union. In the period between 1988 and 1991, Estonians, in acts of great defiance and solidarity, gathered by the thousands to publicly sing traditional Estonian music, triggering a reawakening of national identity that had long been suppressed. Songs of love and longing for a homeland lost but not forgotten filled public spaces, and became the means by which Estonians launched and sustained a revolution.

Jelea_2The lecture-concert sought to not only retell this story, but attempted to convey the experiences of those who participated in it by performing the music of the revolution. Music, in particular song, is a strong component of Estonian culture. Despite their relatively small population, they have one of the largest national folk song repertoires in the world. Their first National Song Festival – translated as “Laulupidu” – was celebrated in 1869. The enormous success of that first festival spurred the creation of choirs throughout the country and the composition of a legacy of choral music. A national celebration of culture and community, Laulupidu has grown into a veritable phenomenon. 30,000 singers and nearly 300,000 audience members gather every five years in Tallinn to celebrate their cultural heritage. The grandeur of Laulupidu cannot adequately be described in words, but this video clip of Koit (meaning “dawn”) might fair a bit better. Our choir performed this piece, along with others, as a representation of the Laulupidu experience of both celebrating national identity, as well as honouring the memory of past struggles for freedom.

For those who lived through the occupation, not only were their basic rights and freedoms curtailed, but they witnessed their national heritage hijacked to serve the purposes of the occupying regime. Recognizing the power of song and the cultural significance music carried for Estonians, the Soviet Union commandeered Estonia’s national music to serve its own purposes. Lyrics were changed to exalt Leningrad and Moscow instead of Estonia; traditional Estonian folk melodies were set to words that glorified Lenin and Stalin; and any reference to Estonian culture was obliterated from the musical repertoire.

Jelea_3We managed to get a hold of, and perform, some such music from the 1965 Laulupidu – an image of which you can see below. We were told by Estonians who lived through the occupation, and who were in attendance at the lecture-concert, that hearing these propaganda songs, to this day, conjures visceral feelings of suppression and control. The extent to which such music undermined the national identity of Estonians is undeniable; however, powerful though it was, Soviet propaganda music could not compete with the latent cultural strength contained within true Estonian music.

Through research this past December at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., I was able to uncover video footage from a 1998 delegation of Baltic citizens to the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which captured them sharing the story of their struggle for independence. There was little dialogue. The delegates told their story through song. The Estonian delegation in particular had with them the very flag that was made in secret in 1988 in Estonia, and then brought to an independence rally in Red Square in Moscow that same year. The footage shows them flying the flag proudly, while remarking that it was the collective acts of singing that gave them the strength to pursue the rights that had for so long been denied to them. They concluded their presentation by singing Estonia’s unofficial national anthem “Mu Isaama on minu arm” – ‘my Fatherland is my love.’


It was through listening to Estonians convey past hopes for the now realized dream of an independent Estonia that the power of song in the pursuit of rights started to become apparent to me. The solidarity they derived from singing the songs that led to their freedom were obviously still meaningful and seemed to connect them to fellow Estonians, past and present.

As a choir we experienced this same sense of solidarity. Singing songs like “Mu Isaama on minu arm” easily imbued us with a sense of hope for a free Estonia. So too, imagining having to sing a song under duress that extolled Lenin, whose melody once, but no longer, exemplified your country’s values, was emotionally burdensome. Without a doubt, these experiences brought us closer to the Estonian people and made us appreciate their struggles for independence. But most remarkably, singing brought us closer together, not as Estonians – none of us were – or even as musicians or rights activists, but as individuals who increasingly empathized with a people and their plight.

Jelea_6It is here that the force of music in the pursuit of rights can be found. Music’s power lies not in the advancement of arguments that can be assessed analytically. Rather, its power is found in its ability to create visceral aesthetic experiences whose outcomes produce effects such as increased empathy. Moreover, music is known to build collective identity, unify and direct individuals towards a common cause, spark individual and group expression, create community, and ultimately change hearts and minds. These are goals that human rights practitioners are constantly striving towards. Because of this project I am more inclined than ever to believe that special attention ought to be paid to the strength of music and other cultural forms of expression as a resource in the pursuit of rights. I owe this realization to the music of the Singing Revolution and the aesthetic experiences that it produced in me, and my enduring hope is to continue seeking ways to elicit such experiences in others for the purposes of promoting human rights.

Justin Jalea is an M.A. candidate at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. His research focuses on the intersection of religion, music, and social movements in the realization of rights.

On Being LGBT in West Africa

By Philip Rodenbough, doctoral candidate in chemistry at Columbia University.  Twitter: @prodenbough


The Virtual Student Foreign Service (VSFS) is a program organized by the US Department of State through which students work part time on a project under the direction of a mentor at State, USAID, embassies abroad, or other government agencies. The e-internship is completed entirely online, so anyone can participate from anywhere. During the previous academic year, VSFS offered over 300+ positions to students, many of which were human rights related projects.

Through VSFS, I was fortunate to participate in an independent research project on the LGBT experience in West Africa, with the guidance of a USAID mentor. Throughout the 2013-14 academic year, I researched country conditions, collected media reports, conducted interviews, and authored original detailed descriptions on the LGBT experience in West Africa. This research was developed to to help form baseline data that informs on the needs of the local LGBT communities, in addition to assessing the impact of future programming.

West Africa LGBTUSAID has always been committed to global prosperity, and in recent years that commitment has grown to include a focus on LGBT communities. On December 6, 2011, President Obama signed a Presidential Memorandum directing all federal agencies abroad to ensure that US diplomacy promotes and protects the human rights of LGBT persons. Later that same day, Secretary Clinton delivered an historic speech on the human rights of LGBT individuals while commemorating Human Rights Day. Secretary Kerry continued to advance this cause by participating in the first UN ministerial event on LGBT rights. USAID has responded to such leadership by launching its LGBT Vision for Action as part of its policy framework for 2011-2015. Perhaps most hearteningly of all, Secretary Kerry recently announced the appointment Randy Berry as first-ever Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT Persons. It was a pleasure and a privilege to complete this research project in the broader context of increasing inclusiveness of LGBT issues at the US Department of State and at USAID.

During the course of my research, I found homophobia is rampant, discrimination is frequent, and stigmatization is common against the LGBT persons in West Africa. In some countries, legal barriers prevent LGBT persons from equal treatment. Where no formal barriers exist, strong negative social attitudes are often strong and pervasive enough to achieve the same end. Political leaders are generally hostile towards LGBT persons and virtually all countries in the region categorically reject official calls from the UN to respect the human rights of LGBT persons.

LGBT communities do vary from country to country within the West Africa region. Based on the research in this project, the situation for LGBT persons is best in Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, and Cote d’Ivoire, where there is relative tolerance and freedom. The situation is worst in Senegal, Gambia, and Nigeria, where LGBT persons are actively castigated and/or imprisoned. The case in Nigeria is particularly troubling due to the recent enacting of more severe anti-LGBT laws. Mauritania has the harshest anti-homosexuality laws and the subject remains strictly taboo, as it similarly does in Niger and Guinea.

Despite these challenges, there is still hope that the situation can improve. Most countries do have active pro-LGBT groups working to change the public mentality. Additionally, pro-LGBT opinion pieces do occasionally appear in local media. LGBT leaders in the region all express a common willingness to partner with development organizations such as USAID. Robbie Corey-Boulet, an Institute of Current World Affairs Fellow studying LGBT advocacy in West Africa (whose works are often cited in this project) argues that these groups are often in need of small seed grants in order to find and promote their voice. Donor requirements such as official recognition by the state and previous experience managing large grants prove problematic for these emerging LBGT organizations. Despite the difficulties they face, LGBT leaders in the region are optimistic that over time they can work together to build a more inclusive and more equitable society.

As a student in a highly scientific and technical degree program, this project was a great opportunity to gain exposure in human rights research. My interest in West Africa stems from my Peace Corps service—I taught high school chemistry in Guinea and Burkina Faso from 2009 to 2011. Although my doctoral project is focused on synthesis and characterization of clean energy materials, my interests extend into science policy, international development, and human rights. My work with VSFS has provided me a greater appreciation for commonalities in seemingly disparate communities, LGBT or otherwise.

I am pleased to share with RightsViews the full and final report from my VSFS internship: Being LGBT in West Africa Project.

Indigenous Peoples’ Right to Education: Inuit Culture and Pedagogies in Greenland’s Schools

By Caroline Fidan Tyler Doenmez, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University


On November 20th Aviaja E. Lynge, HRAP Fellow at Columbia University, gave a presentation titled: “Indigenous Peoples’ Right to Education: Implementing a Culturally Appropriate Education System in Greenland.” Lynge holds an M.S. in Social Anthropology from the University of Edinburgh and currently works at the University of Greenland, where she is Head of Department for Further Education. Lynge began the presentation by thanking her mentor Elsa Stamatopoulou, Director of the Indigenous Studies Program at Columbia.

Lynge contextualized her presentation by starting with a description of her own childhood in Greenland and her Inuit family, because, she said, “I am part of the story I am going to tell you.” She recounted the influence of her grandparents and parents, who helped to foster her interest in equality and human rights from an early age. Her parents were involved in the decolonizing movement in Greenland, and her grandparents closely followed international rights developments, including the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, even naming their beloved dog after Martin Luther King, Jr. Lynge shared photos of herself as a young child and the stunning landscape of Greenland, calling the rivers and the mountains her “first university.” When she was leaving Greenland to go to college in Scotland, her father told her: “You’re Inuit, you’re short, and you’re woman. People will always make you feel smaller because of that, but you’re big inside and I believe in you.”


Lynge, second from left, with attendees of her presentation.” Photo by Elsa Stamatopoulou.

After earning her degrees abroad, Lynge returned home and became involved in reforming the Greenlandic education system. The driving impetus behind her work is the promotion of the right to education for Inuit children. Inuit peoples make up approximately 89% of the population of Greenland, but have been colonized by Denmark for over two hundred years. Although they became self-governing in 2008, the country is still working to transform deeply entrenched social, cultural, and political norms that have imposed European standards on the Inuit peoples. The westernized education system that was established by the Danes has exclusively rewarded students who excelled in learning the Danish language. Students who can’t speak Danish aren’t even able to enter high school, which unsurprisingly has resulted in a lack of opportunities, the loss of socializing skills and low self-esteem. In many children, the internalization of shame has caused a paralyzing sense of being unable to learn and worthlessness. It is clear that in the historical discourse of Greenland’s school system, those who have succeeded have had to assimilate, creating a strong polarization between those who “make it” and those who do not. Moreover, this discourse has created an equivalency of Inuit culture and language with failure. As it turns out, the majority of young people don’t make it in the system; 62% of all children can’t enter further education, and half of those who enter high school drop out. Lynge posed the question: How it is that indigenous populations, in general, are the least educated in the world? Avoiding our tendency to blame the parents, how can we turn it around and ask, what are we, as educators, doing wrong?

Lynge works to redefine and restructure the national education system to utilize Inuit pedagogies. The country’s goal, supported by all political parties, is to create the “world’s best school”for the Inuit children that implement the ways they learn best. The hope is that they will not only have equal access to education, but equal access to success within it. Some of the pedagogical principles she is working to develop in the Greenlandic schools include: to respect and utilize silence in the classroom, as most Inuit children are raised to not interrupt elders and struggle with vocal participation; to make learning more of a collective process, rather than focusing on and rewarding individuals; to contextualize learning with concrete, visual examples and participatory, active learning; to encourage children to be their own evaluators and goal-setters, and be their own agents of change; and to emphasize a holistic approach to education that simultaneously nourishes children’s emotional, physical and intellectual selves.

The most challenging aspect of Lynge’s initiative regards the controversy of including “culture” in the curriculum. The most common accusation she faces is that by emphasizing the importance of Inuit culture, she will be taking the students “back in time,” obstructing their ability to be part of a modern world. However, Lynge stresses that her goal is to employ existing Inuit pedagogies, skills that have been taught and learned throughout the past, and then meld these practices with new research and methods. Part of her project is actively working to try to change the common perception of culture as material. She noted that people tend to think of “teaching culture” as the creation of objects, such as clothing or art, whereas she considers it in an immaterial light, in terms of norms and values that can enhance the learning process. Lynge insists that culture must be understood in its intangible form and that it is compatible with the “modern” world.

Crucially, Lynge noted that teachers also have to go through the decolonization processes, as most Inuit instructors continue to function within the Danish framework they inherited. “You have to remember, we haven’t had this mental decolonization yet,” she said. Unlike most other nations, when Greenland “decolonized” in 1953, they assimilated with Denmark. “No one really asked, equality on whose terms? On what conditions will we create Greenland?”Now that she and other educators are working to ask these questions and return the emphasis to the validation and utilization of Inuit pedagogies, she underscores the importance of breaking the cycle and not requiring the children to assimilate to a European standard: ”It’s a human right to be who you are.”

Caroline Fidan Tyler Doenmez is an M.A. candidate in the Columbia University Human Rights Studies program. Her main areas of interest concern sexual violence against indigenous women and girls in the US and Canada, as well as the collective rights to culture and education.