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Universality When it Suits Us: Human Rights Priorities in The Netherlands

Minister of Foreign Affairs, Timmermans

Minister of Foreign Affairs, Timmermans

By Maria Hengeveld, graduate student in Human Rights at Columbia University


About thirty years ago, at a point where Dutch colonialism had recently ended, the Netherlands felt it was time to rebrand itself as a true champion of human rights.  And not just any champion. Envisioning itself as a world leader in human rights, it began to strongly push for universal human rights norms and international monitoring mechanisms. Thus, when the left-wing leader of the Radical Political Party, Bas de Gaay Fortman, expressed his belief in 1973 that the Netherlands was capable of taking on this pioneering role, many shared his vision and confidence. No more than two years later, this aspirational ideal had already turned into a self-perceived truth. In 1975, the same year in which the Netherlands granted independence to its colony Suriname, the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, Max van der Stoel, boldly claimed that the Netherlands was the most active human rights defender worldwide. Four years later, universal human rights were officially integrated into Dutch foreign policy.

Despite the fact that the Dutch government repeatedly let realist interests trump human rights concerns in their dealings with Apartheid South Africa and its former colonies Indonesia and Suriname, their rhetorical support for universal human rights never ceased to be stridently idealist. They certainly showed no patience for cultural relativists who played the “tradition card” to legitimize their human rights violations. Non-Western traditions that didn’t bode well with universal rights of gender equality, for example, were, and continue to be, criticized for oppressing women, girls, and sexual minorities. Take, for example, when leaders, such as the Russian President Putin or the Nigerian President Jonathan refuse to acknowledge gay and lesbian citizens as full human beings on the grounds of tradition, culture or religion. The Dutch are the first to point out that none of those three justifies exclusion and discrimination. Or when in 2008, the Dutch Minister of Development Cooperation at the time, Bert Koenders, declared his refusal to “accept the argument that female circumcision should be permitted because it’s a cultural or religious tradition.” “Fortunately,” he added, “there are more and more African countries that want to stop this awful tradition.”[1] Many will agree with him that the work of women and men who seek to end female circumcision in their communities needs to be supported. After all, traditions and cultures are not static; they are dynamic and can evolve.

It, therefore, came as a surprise that Prime Minister Mark Rutte seemed to throw all this universalist logic out of the window when the traditional Dutch children’s holiday of Sinterklaas came under attack by human rights groups this past October. For those who have missed this in the international media, Sinterklaas is a white bearded Santa Clause-like character based on Catholic folklore that goes by the benevolently patriarchal alias Good Holy Man and who moves around on a white horse. He arrives by boat in late November and spends three weeks visiting schools across the country, allocating both gifts and morally charged advice for children young enough to accept the spectacle as real. The excitement then culminates in a night of gift-giving on December 5th. Yet the holy bearded man isn’t the problem for those who critique the tradition.  What is the problem are his hundreds of helpers, all of whom are black-faced and endowed with Afro-wigs, big earrings, and big red lips. Named Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), they jump around, throw around candy, and both entertain and intimidate the children with their clumsiness and seemingly endless energy. Children are reminded not to be too afraid of the Black Petes by some of the Sinterklaas songs, which include the following as part of the lyrics: “Even though he’s black as soot, his intentions are good.” The soot ostensibly refers to the process that turned him as black as we know him; he delivers Sinterklaas’ gifts through the chimney. Yet, and this has been repeatedly pointed out by many Dutch citizens of color, this hardly serves to explain his Afro wig, big earrings, and big lips. According to international critics and human rights advocates such as the Council of Europe’s Anti Racism Commission and United Nations Human Rights Experts,[2] the tradition undermines the human dignity of the country’s black minorities, an experience that has repeatedly been articulated by Dutch citizens of color over the years.

So there we have it. Tradition versus human dignity. Majority privilege versus minority rights. As a global leader in human rights, surely the Prime Minister wouldn’t let the Dutch’s widespread love of Black Pete deter him from taking leadership in modifying the tradition into something that doesn’t hurt anyone’s human dignity? But then he did. Disengaging himself from the debate and casting the problem as a societal rather than a political one, Rutte claimed that “Black Pete, the name says it already, he’s Black.” Then, adding that he couldn’t “change much about it”, he chose to invoke the relativist ‘fixed tradition’ type of lingo that the Dutch so comfortably critique when it concerns others. A few weeks later, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Frans Timmermans, had himself photographed with a group of Petes.  Nonetheless, the mayor of Amsterdam found that Sinterklaas would be the most fun if everyone could enjoy it; however, as far as he could tell, it was not a political issue. Should this game of political schizophrenia surprise us? Realists would probably say no. With more than 13% of the Dutch populace signing a Facebook petition to keep Black Pete, upsetting your voters by changing their dearest tradition might feel too politically suicidal to pursue.

Those who have closely followed Dutch dealings with international and domestic human rights abuses these past few decades, including its recent dealings with gay rights in Russia, might not be all that surprised by the discrepancy between rhetoric and actions. But for those who still associate the country with progressiveness and tolerance, despite the country’s right-wing turn and the widespread racism that the Black Pete has exacerbated and made visible, it might have come more as a surprise. Exactly thirty years after the country so confidently took on its role as global human rights leader, its reputation finds itself on, rightfully, shaky ground.


Maria Hengeveld is a graduate student in Human Rights at Columbia’s Institute for the Studies of Human Rights. Before moving to New York, she studied and worked in South Africa for four years. She is interested in structural inequalities, youth and gender. She also writes for Africa is a Country.


[2] UN panel — the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent — headed by Verene Shepherd.

Chitwan National Park & the Displacement of Tharu Peoples

By Erica Bower, student at Columbia College


The following Photo Essay is an excerpt from a post I wrote on my blog while studying abroad through Cornell Nepal Study Program (CNSP) in the spring of 2013.

 Our stay in Chitwan National Park was truly a once in a life time experience—a scene straight from the discovery channel.

However, as incredible as this experience was from the perspective of a tourist, as a student of Human Rights and environmentally-induced displacement, Chitwan has an incredibly dark side.

In many ways, the case of Chitwan is the inverse of most instances of the environment-displacement under study in Nepal given that efforts for environmental protection, rather than environmental degradation, have caused massive displacement.

The brutal reality is that in order to create such a pristine National Park, the Nepali government has forcibly removed all of the Indigenous communities in the district.

The Tharu peoples have lived in the Chitwan region for hundreds of years, and have a rich cultural history tied to the jungle and physical location of Chitwan.

In fact, Tharu peoples are known throughout Nepal as “Son of the Earth.”

However, upon King Mahendra’s decision to make the park “protected,” the Tharu peoples were told they had to leave behind the land of their ancestors and every facet of their livelihoods.

During a visit to a Tharu museum, I was captivated by an exhibit about individual experiences of the Tharu peoples living outside of the National Park in “Buffer Zones.”  There are accounts of houses being burned and army officials dragging mothers and children away in extremely violent ways.

Today, there are efforts to incorporate Indigenous perspectives into conservation, as well as to ensure that displaced peoples retain their livelihoods and benefit from the increased tourism and income that is generated by the national park. For instance, the following photograph is a portrait of a Tharu family-owned business selling local honey.

I left the Tharu village and Chitwan Park with an immense sense of conflict.  As an environment appreciator, I am so amazed at the biodiversity and natural beauty of Chitwan, yet as a human rights activist, there is something deeply unsettling about this violation of rights and disruption of livelihoods.

While the discourse surrounding Climate Induced Migration and displacement considers the indirect anthropogenic contributions to Climate Change as a driver of movement to be a Human Rights violation, the parallel discourses surrounding the more direct development and conservation induced displacement must not be ignored.

As I kept finding again and again throughout my semester in Nepal, circumstances are far more complicated and deeply rooted in complex cultural histories than the surface “skin” that appears obvious to the naked eye.

Erica Bower is a senior at Columbia College majoring in human rights and sustainable development.  Her research interests focus on the nexus of environment and mobility, both in the context of climate-induced displacement in the mountainous communities of Manang and Mustang districts and the contrasting example of conservation-induced displacement in Chitwan National Park that reaffirms the inherent complexity in the displacement discourses.

Towards Sumak Kawsay (Good Living) in Ecuador: Fundación Pachamama visits Columbia University

Narcisa Mashiento, Belen Paez, Robin Fink, Carolyn BuckLuce

By Milagros Egas Villacres, human rights graduate student at Columbia University


“The land we inhabit is the land where our spirits live and we want future generations to have enough resources, clean land, and a better life standards in order to stay on the land that has always been our home.”- Narcisa Mashiento

On October 15, the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Program at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights hosted an event with the Fundación Pachamama from Ecuador that is part of the Pachamama Alliance. The event featured talks by Belén Páez, President of Fundación Pachamama; Carolyn Buck-Luce, co-founder of Imaginal Labs and Adjunct Professor at Columbia University; and Narcisa Mashiento and Robin Fink, Program Directors of the Jungle Mamas program.  Speakers presented the work they do in order to protect the cultural and biodiversity of the Amazon rainforest.  Some of these efforts include: changing the Ecuadorian Constitution to recognize environmental rights, working with the government to change measures of societal success; and working with indigenous leaders to modify millennia-old traditions in order to promote maternal and community health.

Jungle Mamas started as a result of the high mortality rate among mothers and newborns in isolated Indigenous Communities in Ecuador. Traditionally, birth took place “with nature” while the woman was alone in the jungle. If complications arose, however, mothers were alone and communities did not have the skills to respond to emergencies. In response, Jungle Mamas trains Achuar women and men on how to have: safe births, healthy mothers and children, and necessary prenatal and postnatal care. While respecting the traditional knowledge and practices of indigenous communities, Jungle Mamas has improved the health of families and communities as well as the environment where these communities reside. Narcisa Mashiento explained that the women of these communities were the driving force of Jungle Mamas. It is hard for her and her peers to get any assistance in an emergency, as clinics tend to be closer to towns than to Indigenous land. Narcisa said that her community sees western practices as a tool to save lives in a health crisis and not as a negative presence.

Founded 17 years ago, Fundación Pachamama is dedicated to working to “create an environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling, human presence on our planet.” After fifteen years of work, Fundación Pachamama has achieved successes for Indigenous Peoples’ rights and their cultural, social, and economic development. However, each speaker stressed that this is an ongoing struggle which has profound effects, not just in Ecuador, but globally. Fundación Pachamama works with the Achuar community on various projects that seek to ensure economic viability while enabling Indigenous Peoples to protect the land they inhabit, such as Ecotourism and Clean Energy projects. Belén Páez explained that oil exploitation has not brought any kind of development to the communities inhabiting the affected areas. In most cases, companies simply contaminate the land and water without contributing to the economic success or sustainability of the communities they affect. The most recent case is the Ecuadorian Government’s project to exploit one of the most diverse areas in the Amazon, the Yasuní Park. In this case, Fundación Pachamama together with the Indigenous Communities, have a strong position against the project and demand that the state protect and respect the right of Indigenous peoples to prior consultation, which is required by international law in order to seek prior and informed consent from Indigenous Peoples before commencing any development project on indigenous lands.


Milagros Egas Villacrés is an Ecuadorian MA candidate in the Columbia University Human Rights Studies program, concentrating in Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Her main interests are Indigenous Peoples located in the Andean region, their relationship with land, and the right to self-determination.

EU Special Representative for Human Rights, Stavros Lambrinidis, visits Columbia University


EU SR Lambrinidis and Yasmine

By Jillian Carson, Program Coordinator, ISHR


On Thursday October 3rd, the Institute for the Study of Human Rights (ISHR), the Blinken European Institute and the Harriman Institute hosted Stavros Lambrinidis, the European Union’s first appointed Special Representative for Human Rights at Columbia University.

Mr. Lambrinidis is an attorney who served as the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Greece. He also previously held the post of Vice-President of the European Parliament, and from 2004 to 2009, served as Vice-President of the Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee. Mr. Lambrinidis graduated from Yale Law School and, early in his career, served as Chairman of the Committee for Human Rights in the Bar Association of Washington, D.C.. Mr. Lambrinidis took office on September 1, 2012 and his mandate will run until June 2014.  He and the EU delegation to the United Nations visited New York for the opening of the 68th Session of the UN General Assembly.

Challenges in Human Rights and Foreign Policy

Mr. Lambrinidis spoke candidly about some challenges his office and human rights policy face in today’s global community. Part of the challenge the European Union (EU) will face, he noted, will be to find a balance and consistency in human rights policy for the EU and for each member state. These consistencies include, for example, how internal policy is presented externally.  Each state must recognize their own internal challenges in this regard. No state perfectly protects and promotes rights, a false sense of exceptionalism, often promulgated by Western countries, actually works to undermine their credibility in the international arena. Another concern relates to the complexities in ensuring consistency in the reactions to other states’ violations of rights; are the reactions to external human rights violations consistent and, more importantly, proportional? A state’s favoritism or criticism towards certain states may be seen as based on economic considerations, weakening the ability of that state to speak authoritatively about protections and promotion of human rights abroad. Regarding proportional responses, Mr. Lambrinidis also noted that, when possible, it is best to “win” a country’s respect for human rights and human rights practices, rather than resort to the use of force. Lastly, Mr. Lambrinidis is concerned with ensuring that there is consistency in EU policies on community, regional and domestic levels throughout the EU member states.

Mr. Lambrinidis also spoke of his concern over the “false dilemma” of arguments that attack the universality of human rights and place human rights at odds with culture, religion or ethnicity. He urges that states must formulate a better argument to truly defend the universality of human rights in theory and, more importantly, in their practice and proliferation. He asserts that it is often repressive, nationalistic regimes pronouncing that human rights are a “Western construct.” By conceding to these narratives or failing to offer robust counter-arguments, we undermine those advocates within these societies fighting for their rights.

An important part of the Special Representative’s mandate will be to renew the EU’s commitment to a genuine partnership with civil society. Mr. Lambrinidis expressed concern about the “shrinking space” of civil society in domestic and foreign policy. The failures of human rights advocacy often result from a lack of collective and pervasive action. By engaging EU governments and civil society actors at local, regional, and international levels, Mr. Lambrinidis hopes to empower these groups to take ownership of human rights at home, protect them from hostilities, and defend their value domestically and internationally.

Finally, Mr. Lambrinidis stressed the importance of promoting economic and social rights alongside civil and political rights. In many countries, the lack of basic human rights, such as the right to food or health care, radically hinder the populations’ ability to fight for their civil and political rights. He urged that recognition of these challenges; meaningful partnerships; and cooperative strategies between the EU, the US, and other international human rights defenders will help address a broader range of human rights issues and improve the effectiveness of human rights rhetoric and practice worldwide.

Successfully Promoting and Protecting Human Rights

Since taking office, Mr. Lambrinidis and his delegation have demonstrated their commitment to the integration of human rights into EU policy and have achieved a number of successes. He shared a few of these accomplishments. Guidelines and instructions have been created for all EU delegations for protecting and promoting LGBT rights, as well as the promotion and protection of freedom of religion. After past failures, the EU, as part of the Commission on the Status of Women, adopted conclusions on the elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls in March of this year. Guidelines have been published in response to these conclusions. The EU Special Representative will continue to focus on the intersection of business and human rights, drawing from guiding notes published with a focus on the oil, gas, and other extractive industries, as well as information technology and temporary employment services business sectors in the EU.

The EU has established the office and position of the Special Representative for Human Rights to ensure that human rights will play a central role in in EU foreign policy. Mr. Lambrinidis explained that the importance of this integrated approach draws from the reality that human rights violations lie at the root of most conflicts and thus, viable solutions must involve their promotion and protection. The Special Representative will be tasked with monitoring and expressing the coherence and practice of EU human rights policies, a daunting task considering the 28 member states and the countless religious, ethnic and cultural identities that comprise the EU. However, Mr. Lambrinidis stressed his optimism in the strength and capability of human rights-focused foreign policy in Europe and globally.

For a full audio recording of the EU Special Representative’s talk at Columbia, click here.

Jillian works at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights as a Program Coordinator for the Alliance for Historical Dialogue and Accountability and the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Program. She is an alumni of the Human Rights Studies Master’s Program, with a concentration in Indigenous rights. Her thesis and subsequent research focuses on the right to education for First Nations in Canada and the function of transitional justice mechanism in Canadian reconciliation processes. 

“They Are Also Human:” An Afternoon with Human Rights Defenders from Burma

By Michelle Eberhard, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University


Burma is complicated.  Not only is it also known as Myanmar, the name it was given following a 1988 coup d’état that ushered in two additional decades of military rule, but this Southeast Asian nation is home to a population of over fifty million people belonging to more than one hundred and thirty-five different ethnic groups. Rather than embracing the diversity of its citizens, however, the Burmese government has instead systematically exploited ethnicity for economic gain and facilitated the creation of destructive divisions between peoples in order to further its own agenda.  A particularly vivid example of this is found in the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law, which permits the government to “decide whether any ethnic group is national or not,” thus condoning arbitrary discrimination against peoples it would prefer to marginalize.  While the international community has praised the progress Burma has made in recent years, specifically following its 2010 democratic elections, recent violence indicates that the change is a façade.

What does it take for change to become real?

Last month, the Féderation Internationale des Droits Humains/International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) welcomed a delegation of four female human rights defenders from Burma to its New York office in an attempt to answer this very question.  Led by Ms. Debbie Stothard, Secretary-General of FIDH and Coordinator of the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma (Altsean-Burma), these courageous women came to the United States to advocate for a stronger resolution on Burmese human rights issues.  Ms. Stothard was also accompanied by Ms. Seng Shadan, the 2013-2014 General Secretary of Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT); Ms. Wai Wai Nu, Rohingya activist, law student, former political prisoner, and the founder of Women’s Peace Network-Arakan (WPNA); and Ms. Ah Noh, deputy coordinator of KWAT and an activist from last year’s FIDH delegation.

As an intern with the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect, an NGO which, like FIDH, falls under the larger umbrella organization of the World Federalist Movement-Institute for Global Policy, I had the opportunity to attend a presentation these women gave while in New York, as well as to spend individual time with three of them later that afternoon.  Like any good student, I came to these interviews with a list of questions.  I soon realized, however, that my questions didn’t really matter.  What mattered was giving these human rights defenders a chance to be heard – something they are denied by their own government.

With that in mind, I decided to stop being the interviewer, and to instead just listen: because sometimes, when the right words cannot be found, it is best to let someone else do the talking.

Rohingya Persecution

“They don’t even recognize that we can exist,” Wai Wai Nu, a Rohingya originally from Rakhine State, located in the southwest corner of Burma, told me.  Arrested in 2005 at the age of seventeen due to her family’s attempts to help democratize Burma, Wai Wai proceeded to spend the next seven years of her life in prison before being released in 2012.  Since then, Wai Wai has been living in Rangoon, the former capital of Burma, where she dedicates her work to her own people, particularly Rohingya women, who are still in Rakhine.  “I think it is my responsibility to work with those vulnerable women; otherwise there is no other [voice]” for them.

The Rohingya have been “systematically subjected to many human rights abuses for many decades,” which has led to the conclusion by many that the Rohingya are “one of the most persecuted people on earth.”  Examples Wai Wai offered to show that this title was aptly earned include: the requirement to have official permission in order to be married; a 2-child limit for Rohingya families; restrictions on travel and freedom of movement, such as the inability to visit another village without official permission; forced relocation; confiscation of property; torture; extortion; physical and sexual violence; and exclusion from the education system. In addition, the 969 Buddhist National Movement, currently led by a radical monk named U Wirathu, has exacerbated attacks against Muslims, calling for Buddhists to rise up against what Wirathu calls a secret Muslim “master plan” to take over the country and Islamicize it.

Chased from their homes and livelihoods, many Rohingya have become internally-displaced persons (IDPs) and find themselves living in “squalid camps like prison,” starving, lacking access to healthcare, and totally segregated from Rakhine society. This is the goal for the Rohingya’s future as expressed by Burma’s president, Thein Sein.  In 2012, Sein even went so far as to shamelessly explain to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that the “best solution” for the Rohingya would be to put them in UN-sanctioned refugee camps and send them to another country.  Sein also asserted that he saw no need to change the 1982 citizenship law, under which the Rohingya are not recognized as being of the Burmese nationality. Without legal representation, property rights, or legitimate protection, the Rohingya, who “have no option other than fleeing” the human rights violations, leading to “voluntary exodus from the land,” are a weak and isolated people.  While Wai Wai notes certain successes in education and information sharing amongst those involved with her organization; however, her work remains difficult in the face of continued government persecution that seeks to silence her along with her people.

Kachin Marginalization: Avoiding a “Shallow Analysis” of Burma’s Ethnic Conflict

While the plight of the Rohingya has justifiably received increased media attention in the past months, this is not the only ethnic group that has experienced increased persecution in Burma.  As Seng Shadan and Ah Noh explained, the government’s economic plans have greatly impacted its relation with the people of Kachin State, whose territory borders that of China.

In particular, these women noted two reasons for the resumption of violence in Kachin State.  In March 2011, the Burmese army broke a seventeen-year ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) when it added extra security to protect a dam-building project it had recently agreed upon with China.  Despite the Kachin people’s objections, this project was begun, and with it came renewed fighting between the Army of Burma and the KIA.  A second related reason for the discord is the continued lack of self-determination in Kachin State, where the people of Kachin have no political rights, and whose armed group (the KIA) was previously forced to become part of the Army of Burma.

As such, major human rights abuses – including human trafficking, rape, torture, and murder – center on the issue of land, as well as the extraction of natural resources like oil, uranium, gold, and rubies.  Indeed, these resources are exploited by the government, and the people of Kachin are never compensated for them.  This injustice, coupled with the fact that the Kachin are being pushed from their homes, has only led to further instability for these persecuted people.

Members of the international community “all think that Burma is getting better and don’t want to talk about Kachin,” Ah Noh said.  “But for me, I don’t see…that there’s improvement.  I want the international community to pressure [the government] and to monitor it.”  She also emphasized that the Rohingya should be granted full citizenship. Seng Shadan, also a Kachin activist, echoed these sentiments.  Citing several of KWAT’s achievements, she noted that the publication of reports on human rights abuses has caused the Burmese government to be a “little bit more careful” in its actions and to admit that “it has made mistakes” – a break with the past, when the government simply denied all accusations of wrongdoing.  This shift can be attributed to the fact that “true information is presented now,” thanks to the reporting and work of organizations like KWAT.


Burma is complicated, but the world’s response shouldn’t be. In the end, the progress made by a newly democratic state is inconsequential if it still governs part of its people by undemocratic principles. “Better” is not good enough if certain populations are still excluded from the continuum of recognizable improvement.  Until “better” means better for everyone – including for the Rohingya and the people of Kachin State – there is still work left to do, because, as Wai Wai pointedly reminds us all, “they are also human.”

Michelle Eberhard is an M.A. candidate in the Columbia University Human Rights Studies program, concentrating in genocide.  She also interns with the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect.

Special thanks to FIDH for arranging an opportunity to speak with the Burma delegates.

That TIME story that South Africa may outlaw spanking at home

By Maria Hengeveld, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University


On 30 July freelance reporter Melissa Locker reported for TIME Magazine that South Africa’s government, in cooperation with some notable children’s rights NGOs, is drafting a bill that would outlaw spanking at home. If the bill passes, South African parents lose their freedom to corporally punish their children, just like teachers did seven years ago. The article quotes Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini, from the pro-ban camp, who argues for child protection, and an anti-ban spokesperson from the Christian organization Focus On The Family, whose weird notion that for most children “the removal of pleasures or privileges is actually more painful than a spanking” is supposed to represent the anti-ban camp.


That’s about all the author chose to cover in the 200-odd word article. But there is a whole lot more to say about ‘spanking’ in South African homes, though.

To get an idea of what TIME is talking about, a bit of background and context does wonders. According to a study by RAPCAN, a Cape Town-based children’s rights NGO, 57% of interviewed South African parents (from all backgrounds, ages and income brackets) smacks or spanks their children with their hands. Thirty- three percent use a belt or other object. Corporal punishment, as presently condoned by South African law, means inflicting “moderate and reasonable chastisement on a child for misconduct provided that this was not done in a manner offensive to good morals or for objects other than correction and admonition”. In other words, the parent or care taker gets to decide whether his physical violence is in accordance with acceptable corrective intentions and with the morals he himself deems ‘good’ to positively shape the child’s behavior. But ‘spanking’, the seemingly innocent term TIME chose for title, is only one part of the story. A story that also includes (and is certainly not limited to) “hitting children with a hand or object, kicking, shaking or throwing children, scratching, pinching, biting or pulling their hair, forcing them to stay in uncomfortable positions, locking or tying them up, burning and scalding” (some acts that the UN CRC include in their definition of corporal punishment).

TIME also forgets to mention that, because of its unique history of institutionalized colonial and apartheid violence, South Africa happens to be one of the most violent countries in the world, its injury death rate being twice the global average. Women and children are the most vulnerable to this violence. Current and accurate statistics on violence are difficult to obtain, partly because much of the violence happens within the homes and goes unreported. But research and reports by several NGOs and service providers give us a solid clue about the extent of the violence that children face. In 2012, for example, the mental health and trauma centre Ekupholeni, which is based just outisde Johannesburg, helped 501 sexually abused children, of whom 148 were between two and seven years old. And in 2011, the South African Medical Research Council organized a meeting on youth violence, which revealed that “for children of all ages, the apparent manner of death was primarily the scourges of violence and traffic – 35% and 20% respectively”. The data also showed that violence was responsible for 10% of children’s deaths. Over 30% of violent deaths of 5 to 9 year olds were caused by firearms. Of overall youth violence, around 40% of deaths are said to be caused by sharp objects, blunt force objects and firearms.

And according to UNICEF, between 2010 and 2011, no less than 54.225 crimes against children (younger than 18 years old) were reported. 84% of these cases involved violent acts against children by someone known or trusted by the child.

While it might be tempting for many to drop these numbers in a separate violence file, and treat the well-intended spank on the bottom by a parent or caretaker as a separate issue, the simple fact that both categories involve intentionally inflicting physical pain on children demands for the relationship to be taken seriously. Violence against children doesn’t take place in a vacuum.

Unlike what TIME’s choice of wording implies, these realities go way beyond the use of “a flat hand on a child’s bottom”. What this tells us is that a ban on corporal punishment is not about some nanny state being unhappy about the occasional ‘slap on the bottom’, but that a highly vulnerable group of citizens might finally get the legal protection against types of violence that is not allowed against adults.

Some have expressed their annoyance with this, in their eyes, inappropriate conflation of corporal punishment with violence. Others call the debate on corporal punishment needlessly polarized and propose that, rather than being ‘pro’ or anti, we might want to think about allowing limited forms of corporal punishment. With the harmful ‘flat hand on the bottom’ type of spank in mind, this seems a sensible statement to make. Until the boundaries between violence and acceptable corrective pain need to be set. (When does a constructive spanking turn into abuse? What does a responsible bruise look like?) To separate corporal punishment from ‘actual violence’ in a country where fatal violence is a reality in all too many households, and try to define what ‘acceptable’ physical harm actually means is not only an unachievable and undesirable undertaking, it also ignores the roots of corporal punishment and how it has historically intertwined with often lethal state violence.

Corporal punishment was one of the many violent tools for the colonial and apartheid ruling class to instill discipline and maintain control. At white settler schools , for example, boys were (for a long time) disciplined physically to harden them and maintain white supremacy. Corporal punishment, then, can at least partly be seen as one of the left-overs of nearly 350 years of white minority rule, which shaped much of today’s normalized violence. And there are many more reasons, not just historical ones, to reject the idea that corporal punishment and violence against children can be treated in isolation. If you grow up in a world where pain is intentionally inflicted on others in order to correct them or to resolve some sort of conflict, chances are you grow up thinking you can treat others, such as your girlfriend, that way too. If the aim of spanking a child is to instill good morals in them, (and we understand good morals as non-violent ones), corporal punishment is likely to have the exact opposite effect. As Lorenzo Wakefield, a researcher and expert on children’s rights, wrote in reference to a recent study of the University of Witwatersrand “there is a strong link of convicted perpetrators of rape — especially those who raped young children under the age of three — who were all corporally punished when they were younger. Research has shown that children who are physically punished or humiliated are more susceptible to carrying out acts of violence in their adult years”.

And there are more studies that confirm this correlation. But this hasn’t convinced everyone that children need this kind of protection. Some have played the Christian card to contest the proposed ban, when others view corporal punishment as a cultural right. But since both culture as well as religion are a matter of interpretation (and culture is never static anyway), they can and have been used to defend the ban as well.

Khaye Nkwanyana worries that “if this law is passed it will represent the power of the resourceful lobbyist NGO that stands in range against the entire society. It will represent the will of the University of Western Cape against the entire South African society. And as active South Africans we cannot countenance such a tendency where those with money can impose their will and cultural choices to all of us”.

Which begs the question: who is part of this ‘entire’ South African society? Do children count too? Because, as we look at some recent numbers, about a third of South Africans is under 18 years of age. (Some say 0-14 year olds alone account for 28,4% of South Africans). So if we talk about the ‘entire society’, what is their place? Are they citizens or simply possessions of the entire adult society? And since the entire discussion is about their fate, who has asked them how they feel about it? Next to a few outdated studies that present some accounts by children who describe the degrading and abusive treatment they had suffered, the actual opinions of children are nowhere to be found in mainstream media.

Some teachers, on the other hand, put forward more instructive concerns by complaining that the ban on corporal punishment in schools has led to a decline in discipline. Which can either mean that corporal punishment is the only way of maintaining order and disciplining children, or that it is the only method they know.

Corporal punishment perpetuates South Africa’s crisis of violence. The proposed ban sends out a strong message that children are more than the possessions of their parents and that they have a right to the same legal protection from violence that is granted to adults. They also deserve the chance to voice their opinions, get represented in the media and participate in the debates that affect them.

Is a ban the answer to the violence that children face? Will it reduce the levels of violent young deaths? Or stop the well-intended smacks on the butt? Probably not. After all, despite the ban at schools, it appears to still be widespread there too. Which is why South Africa needs a serious campaign that educates entire society on alternative disciplining methods. Methods that, unlike corporal punishment, will teach children about desirable behavior in a constructive and effective way.

If the South African government takes its responsibility to protect its children seriously, it should intensively work with children, NGOs, caretakers and teachers to develop, support and sustain campaigns that offer alternative, child-friendly alternatives to corporal punishment. One NGO who works on positive parenting programs and develops parental guides is Childline South Africa. Their resources for parents can be downloaded here.

This post appeared previously on Africa is a Country on August 23, 2013.

Maria Hengeveld is a Human Rights graduate student at Columbia University in New York. She is interested in women’s rights, youth and gender in Southern Africa.

Halfway There: The Nyaka AIDS Orphan Project – “For Our Children’s Sake”

Students at breakfast at Kutamba School

By Morag Neill, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University


The hustle and bustle of the city was not forgiving on my first day in Uganda. I attempted to maneuver through Kampala’s town center searching for the shared taxi headed for Luafu stage, the minibus stop where the Nyaka AIDS Orphan Project offices were located. After an hour of confusion and with the help of both curious and kind strangers, I finally found myself at the black gates in the quiet neighborhood of Makindye. A wide-smiled lady named Barbara greeted me at the reception and handed me the guestbook to sign as I waited for my supervisor, Jennifer Nantale to emerge. As I sat there, proud of myself for finding my way to the cool offices decorated with pictures of graduating students draped in their academic garb, I had no way of knowing that the next few weeks were going to be as impactful and challenging as they turned out to be.

The Nyaka AIDS Orphan Project (NAOP) was established in 2001 by Twesigye Jackson Kaguri, 2012 CNN Hero and an alumnus to ISHR’s Advocate’s Program at Columbia University. I had the honor of joining the NAOP family as their development intern with the task of broadening their local fundraising strategy in Uganda. Consistent with the nature of NGO work, Nyaka is in constant search for new funders and innovative ways to maintain the multiple programs that the Nyaka AIDS Orphan Project houses. NAOP has over 600 students enrolled in their two primary schools. Alongside the two schools and their libraries is the ever-prospering Mummy Drayton School Clinic; the Grandmother Project which supports over 7,000 grandmothers in the area; the Desire Farm which facilitates both schools’ nutrition programs; the Clean Water System which provides running water to the communities in both districts through a gravity-fed pump; and the pending construction of the secondary vocational school and boarding houses.

In my third week in Uganda, I took a break from the city life and travelled 12 hours southwest to Kanungu and Rukungiri districts. Thus far, my week in the field has been the highlight of my time in Uganda. Our first stop was the Nyaka School and we arrived just as the students were getting out of class. Proudly displaying their bright purple uniforms, the students darted across the school compound playing basketball, netball, volleyball and football (soccer). Our trip was especially important as we brought with us nine donated computers for each of the classroom teachers at the Nyaka School and connected the library with satellite internet. Jennifer and I held a workshop to ensure that the teachers could maneuver through Microsoft Office and access their emails. In the following days, we were able to visit each of the projects under NAOP, including a day visit to the Kutamba School. To top off the end of each busy day, the teachers, interns and some of the student athletes competed in a grueling volleyball tournament which brought everyone together before the sun set and the mosquitoes began biting.

After reading Jackson’s book “A School for my Village” which details the first few years of the NAOP’s journey, it was inspiring to see how much progress the organization has achieved. The trip was personally fulfilling as it gave meaning to the seemingly arbitrary fundraising research that had me occupied in Kampala in the preceding weeks. It demonstrated the extent to which Jackson’s vision for implementing a holistic human rights-based program to end the systematic deprivation, poverty and hunger has been realized. The passion that surrounds NAOP is undeniable and has made my job in sharing the organization with new funders less daunting. Nonetheless, the eight weeks that have been assigned to the fundraising project is hardly enough to make as big of an impact as I would have liked. I’m happy to have gotten the chance to crack the fundraising prospective for NAOP, however, there is so much more in store for the Nyaka AIDS Orphan Project.

Don’t miss the opportunity to hear from Jackson himself on October 1st at 12:15pm at the Jerome Greene Room 103 at Columbia Law School.

Learn more about the NAOP and how to get involved at:





Hailing from Zambia, born in South Africa and raised in Botswana, Morag Neill is completing her M.A. in Human Rights Studies at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. Morag’s studies focus on the rights of African refugee women. 

Intervention Lessons From Kosovo for Syria

By David L. Phillips, Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at ISHR


President Bill Clinton intervened in the Balkans to end a war in Bosnia and stop the slaughter of civilians in Kosovo. As the United States considers military intervention in Syria, the Obama administration should reflect on America’s Balkan engagements in the 1990s, considering what was done right — and wrong.

The international community took more than 3 years to stop ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. While it dithered, more than 100,000 people were killed and millions displaced. The response to Serbia’s aggression in Kosovo was faster and more effective. NATO launched a 78-day air campaign that prevented what happened in Bosnia from happening in Kosovo. The diplomacy and military operations were imperfect, but Kosovo is the gold standard in humanitarian intervention.

Here are some lessons from Kosovo that are relevant to Syria:

-Diplomacy comes first: After more than a quarter million Kosovo Albanians fled to the mountains during the summer of 1998, the U.S.-led Contact Group, which included Russia, negotiated the Kosovo Verification Mission (KVM) to verify the withdrawal of Serb forces, enable the return of displaced Kosovars, and ensure the delivery of humanitarian supplies. The KVM was suspended after 40 Kosovo civilians were massacred in Racak, including women and children.

-Back diplomacy with the threat of force: After Racak, NATO approved an “activation order,” the last step in force readiness before launching an attack. U.S. Special Envoy Richard C. Holbrooke issued an ultimatum, but Slobodan Milosevic scoffed at Holbrooke’s threat. NATO launched limited operations, then paused. Holbrooke called Milosevic to give him a last chance, but his entreaties were ignored. NATO’s full force was unleashed only after all diplomatic options were exhausted.

-Build international coalitions: With the UN Security Council paralyzed, the U.S. abandoned efforts to gain a UN resolution and focused its diplomacy on building consensus among NATO Member States. NATO did not act alone. It was backed by the Organization of Islamic Conference and statements by the UN Secretary General.

-Gain Congressional and public support: The Clinton administration worked effectively with civil society groups and the media to expose Milosevic’s criminal regime and make the case for military action. Intervention was supported by a broad bipartisan group of lawmakers. Albanian-Americans played a key role garnering support.

-Keep all options on the table: Clinton pledged no U.S. ground troops. Milosevic believed he could withstand NATO’s air campaign, and hunkered down. Milosevic finally capitulated after 78 days of intensive bombing.

-Expect retaliation: Serbia intensified its ethnic cleansing when NATO attacked. Serbian forces went door-to-door, assassinating Kosovo Albanian leaders and displacing more than one million Kosovars. The U.S. had conducted extensive contingency planning. Expecting population flows, humanitarian supplies were pre-positioned in Macedonia and Albania.

-Anticipate collateral damage: NATO mistakenly bombed a convoy of Albanian refugees fleeing Decani, killing 73 civilians. In the fog of war, NATO also accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Clinton personally apologized, but the incident entrenched China’s opposition to the war.

-Work with insurgents: Target selection became more difficult as the bombing campaign dragged on. NATO cooperated with the Kosova Liberation Army to identify targets and track Serbian troop movements. The KLA was an essential force on-the-ground that helped guide NATO air operations.

-Hand-over power to a credible local partner: American diplomats worked intensively to forge cooperation among Kosovar leaders. The Kosovo “Unity Team” became the nucleus of post-Milosevic administration in Kosovo.

-Walk-the-talk: In the middle of the Kosovo conflict, dignitaries from around the world gathered in Washington, D.C. to celebrate the 50th anniversary of NATO’s founding. The Clinton administration understood that Kosovo was more than a test of Western diplomacy. The future of the North Atlantic Alliance was also at-stake.

Has the Obama administration taken on-board lessons from Kosovo?

Picture from:

Picture from:

The United States is diplomatically isolated, except for France which endorsed air strikes against Syria. Even Great Britain, America’s erstwhile ally in Iraq and Afghanistan, has balked. The Obama administration released its intelligence verifying Assad’s use of chemical weapons too late to influence the British parliament’s vote to authorize use of force. After the vote, Obama offended Britain by referring to France as America’s “oldest ally.”

Though Russia and China have vetoed three resolutions designed to pressure Assad, the Obama administration has bent over backwards to work with Russia on talks between the regime and opposition. The Geneva conference was stillborn from the beginning, and has recently been overtaken by events. Hezbollah entered the battlefield, rolling-back gains by the insurgents and further regionalizing the conflict.

Indignation is the right response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons. However, the threat of military action is more effective when demanding compliance rather than as a punitive measure. With U.S. tomahawk cruise missiles locked and loaded, the Obama administration should demand that Assad sequester chemical weapons under UN control or hand over field commanders to the International Criminal Court. It could also give Assad a deadline to relinquish power.

Some Members of Congress want air strikes to advance the goal of regime change. But who will succeed Assad? Syria’s insurgency is dominated by the Al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliated terror group murdering Alawites, moderate Arab Sunnis, and Syrian Kurds. Just like Kosovo when more than 100,000 Serbs fled after Milosevic was defeated, reprisals resulting in a bloodbath are a real possibility when Assad steps down.

Secretary of State John Kerry has been a passionate point man in the recent flurry of public diplomacy. However, the administration has not done enough to explain why it is in America’s national interest to attack Syria. Given public skepticism, Obama’s decision to consult lawmakers is a high-stakes gambit. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton launched strikes against Libya, Afghanistan and Kosovo without asking Congressional authorization.

Obama repeatedly characterized military action as “limited and narrow.” He called it a “shot across the bow.” He also publicly ruled out the possibility of ground troops. Taking the middle ground satisfies no one. Opponents to military action are not convinced. At the same time, moderation may be alienating some senators clamoring for a more robust response.

Obama is clearly a reluctant warrior. He understands that Americans are weary from a decade of conflict in distant lands. However, Obama has boxed himself into a corner. Speaking at an impromptu news conference more than a year ago, he went off-script saying that President Bashar al-Assad’s use or movement of chemical weapons represents a “red-line” that would change his administration’s “calculus,” with significant consequences including the possibility of more direct U.S. intervention in the conflict.

Drawing a red-line is morally correct. It is also in America’s national security interest. I visited Iraqi Kurdistan after chemical weapons were used to kill thousands. It was a horrific scene. Indiscriminate use of the world’s most heinous weapons against civilians violates international humanitarian law and norms of decency. Just like Milosevic’s murderous rampage in Bosnia and Kosovo, it cannot be tolerated.

However, military action is a tactic not a policy. The decision to go to war should be linked to a broader strategy of creating a safe haven on Syria’s border with Syria and Jordan. The safe haven would be protected by a no-fly-zone, enforced by NATO. As was the case in Kosovo, a Russian contingent under NATO’s command could be deployed. The safe haven would allow refugees to return to Syria. It would also provide a buffer between Syria and front-line states, furthering stability in the region. Creating a safe haven could also change momentum on the battlefield, revitalizing prospects for a Geneva conference and bringing the grinding conflict in Syria closer to an end.

This article previously appeared on The Huffington Post on September 3, 2013.


David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights. His most recent book is Liberating Kosovo: Coercive Diplomacy and U.S. Intervention.

Sex Work in South Africa: Shaming Sex Workers Away From Human Rights

By Maria E. Hengeveld, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University


southafrica1Think about this: If the Netherlands, the country that was one of the first to legalize sex work thirteen years ago, still benefits from its capital’s red light district as one of its main attractions for both national and international tourists, what kinds of questions does this raise about the treatment of sex workers outside the regulated district? For one, it suggests there are very few places on this planet where the shaming and ridiculing of both sex workers and their clients is not socially acceptable.

The Dutch red light district remains a site where women who earn their money through sex—some by choice, some by force—is objectified and ridiculed. It’s fun to walk past them, amusing to observe them, and outright hilarious to shame and fool them[1].

We call it stigma.

Notwithstanding the violations and harsh realities that many sex workers in the Netherlands continue to endure (especially those who are working against their will),  sex workers’ stigma reveals itself in different, and often even grimmer ways in poorer, less equal and more violent countries, where sex work remains illegal.

The South African Context

While the country’s Constitution, ratified in 1996, has often been credited as being the most liberal in the world for safeguarding the rights of vulnerable groups, sex workers remain excluded from constitutional protections. Forced underground, their profession’s stigma reveals itself in daily violations of their basic human rights. This means rape. It means beatings. It means extortion and an increased risk of HIV/AIDS.

How? Angie, a 54-year old street-based sex worker from Cape Town explains. Drawing on 20 years of experience, she says that out of all the risks, brutalities, condescension, and threats she and her colleagues face, most sex workers fear the police the most. According to Angie, “They target you, threaten to arrest you and then demand bribes or sex.” She went on to explain, “After raping the girls they often drop them in deserted areas.”

She also noted “to not leave any trace of evidence, they often use condoms, which they throw away afterwards.”  And just as condoms serve as a tool for erasing a sex crime, they are simultaneously used as evidence for sex workers’ alleged criminal activities. According to Angie, many police men consider carrying many condoms as proof of sex workers exchanging sex for money; one reason why many girls decide to either take less condoms with them or hide them somewhere near their base.


Nosipho, a 29-year old mother from Durban, whose cousin introduced her to sex work on the streets of Durban’s Morningside area in 2008, affirms the terror-tainted relationship with the police.

“We are so used to the beatings and the rapes that, once it’s over and you make your way back to the other girls, you can only try to laugh about it. If you’re raped so many times by clients and police men you develop some sort of flow of coping,” Nosipho acknowledged.

This tends to be the case, unless the brutality is out of the ordinary such as the one night in Durban, only a few months ago, when Nosipho encountered the police. “As always,” Nosipho recalls, “we were well aware of the necessity to not provoke any cops that night, so when I noticed a police car driving towards us, I quietly walked away. This one cop called on me, ordered me in his car and took me to the Burman Bush, a deserted and terrifying place where many girls have been found dead.”

She was given a choice to give him the sex he wanted or be left on her own. Nosipho recalled, “He started to touch me, pulled up my skirt and raped me anally. I couldn’t stop screaming from the pain. Afterwards, I had no option but getting back into his car again.” Because sex work is a criminal offense and given the ever-present risk of incarceration, there was no place to report the abuse Nosipho had suffered.

She also did not think that visiting a clinic for medical help was an option. Nosipho lamented, “The nurses treat you like dirt, will call you ‘bitch’ in front of everybody or tell you that, as a sex worker, you ask for getting raped.”

Next to shaming, many sex workers have complained about the reluctance and refusal of public health centers to provide sex workers with STI tests or treatments for injuries. “And meanwhile”, Angie continues, “people accuse us of spreading HIV.”  Next to exposing them to police brutality, condoning public shaming, and legitimizing the violation of their right to health in clinics, the current criminalized state of the profession also severely weakens sex workers’  negotiating position towards clients. This renders them substantially more vulnerable towards abuse, blackmail, diseases, violence and extortion.

Angie explained, “I remember this very quiet night, when I had hardly any business. A client told me to get in his car and took me all the way to Athlone, where he demanded sex without a condom.  He said he wanted flesh to flesh sex. When I refused he pointed a gun to my head. I didn’t give in, though. Then he decided to only pay me half of the agreed price and dropped me somewhere in Wynberg, very far away from my base.”

Other clients take advantage of sex workers’ exclusion from legal protection by pretending to be cops themselves and demanding sex or money in exchange for letting them go. By rendering sex work illegal, South African laws justify these discriminatory, derogatory and abusive treatments of sex workers. Treatments that not only take a physical and financial toll, but also have the ability to deeply affect sex workers’ sense of self. “You internalize the idea that what you’re doing is wrong,” says Nosipho, “and that you’re a naughty girl, when you’re really just trying to make a living and take care of your children, which is the reason many of us start the work in the first place.”


One organization that offers support for sex workers is the Cape Town based non-profit organization SWEAT (Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce). SWEAT defends and promotes the human rights of sex workers through advocacy, community outreach, skill training, education, legal assistance, counselling and active lobbying for decriminalization. By engaging in dialogues with community leaders, health clinics, trade unions, parliamentarians and police, they seek to empower sex workers and create a more humane work environment. According to SWEAT’s advocacy officer Ntokozo Yingwana, this plethora of violations that sex workers face at the hands of clients, clinics and police are a direct result of the current criminalized state of sex work. She argues that “with regards to funding and supporting programs that protect sex workers’ rights, government’s hands will be tied as long as the work is criminal.” This means that access to condoms, ARVs, STI tests, tailored counselling, and mental health support remains extremely hampered.

Decriminalizing sex work will also positively impact the highly problematic relationship with the police. As Angie put it, “the police will have to take our cases.” And beyond the spheres of the practical, the legal and the physical, there’s the dignity factor too. According to Nosipho, “decriminalization would mean we are recognized as human beings. Everyone makes us believe we’re not worth anything. If we are recognized by law, and if clients know we can report them to the police if they violate our rights this will change the power dynamic between us. The Constitution must recognize my right to choose my profession. That’s all I want.”

And it’s not like South Africa legislation is unfit to move in the right direction; Section 12.2 of the South African Bill of Rights grants all citizens the right to security in and control over their body, but extending this right to transactional sex needs a political champion of the cause. Amidst widespread social and emotional anxieties about sex work, the fear of HIV/AIDS, arguments about the trade’s inherent exploitative nature, and the framing of the matter as a moral or ideological issue, Ntokozo explained that a politician’s push for sex workers’ rights, “could mean political suicide.” Yet, elevating sex work to the legal sphere will in fact empower sex workers to demand safe sex and enables the state to offer targeted health support and sensitize the public, police and clinics.

Thus, whether South Africans like it or not, it is time they recognize that sex workers will always be around and that they are human beings, with a right to health, protection, dignity, and autonomy over their own bodies. Angie and Nosipho’s stories urge South Africans to no longer let emotions, ideological interests, and sexual moralism trump basic human rights. But there is reason for optimism. On May 16th, the external Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) sided with SWEAT and announced they favor the repeal of all laws against consensual adult sex work, thereby explicitly calling for decriminalization. Ntokozo, evidently welcoming this move, believes it provides them with a “strong tool for lobbying” and convincing the government that sex workers’ rights are, indeed, human rights.”

Honor your commitment to equality for all, South Africa. Decriminalize sex work.

Maria Hengenveld studies women’s rights at Columbia University. She is interested in youth and gender in Southern Africa and writes for different websites, such as Africa is a Country and Dutch feminist magazine Tijdschrift Lover

This article previously appeared on “The Feminist Wire” on June 21, 2013. 

[1] Respected newspapers have referred to sex workers’ clients as ‘whore-walkers’ (hoerelopers) on some occasions.

“Not Just a Slogan:” An Interview with Tibi Galis, Executive Director of the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation, on Genocide Prevention

By Michelle Eberhard, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University


Established in 2007, the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation is dedicated to the creation of an international genocide prevention network.  To fulfill its mission, the Institute has developed several education programs, most notably its Raphael Lemkin Seminar, as well as a genocide prevention network in Latin America in 2012.  Following the signing of an agreement with the African Union in February 2013, the Institute will soon be developing a similar network amongst African countries.  Below is an interview with Executive Director of the Auschwitz Institute, Tibi Galis.


Michelle Eberhard: How did you become interested in working in genocide prevention?

Tibi Galis: I grew up in a transition country, in Romania, so it was very interesting to experience in person the impact political change can have on society, and that is why I started being rather passionate about transition studies.  There was a very easy path from transition studies to transitional justice, which became my area of research, and from there to dealing with genocide prevention. This is very much about trying to undo the circumstances that have led to the problems that transitional justice tries to deal with.  It was both an academic and activist journey to getting to working in genocide prevention.


M.E.: What is the biggest challenge for an organization like the Auschwitz Institute in carrying out its mission?

T.G.: Probably the biggest challenge would be what all not-for-profits struggle with, which is the fact that we have to dedicate a lot of our work to securing the funds we need to do the work that we do. At the same time, though, it’s very surprising how the issues that people traditionally think of as challenging have not been so [difficult] in our work. Working with governments is traditionally depicted as being a very difficult process, and our experience is that there is so much interest within governments to make this issue a more effective part of their work that they are very cooperative and very [willing to] work together.


M.E.: In February, the Auschwitz Institute signed an agreement with the African Union to establish the African Network for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention.  In light of the current continental conflicts, including those in Syria and Mali, what do you see as being the greatest obstacles for effective implementation of the initiatives outlined in this agreement?

T.G.: The international climate of conflict, and focusing on ongoing conflicts, can be very obstructive to a continent-wide initiative focusing on prevention.  We’ve seen this a lot, especially in governmental attitudes towards longer-term policies that focus on prevention as opposed to crisis management. Of course, for natural reasons, crisis management is prioritized, and the Auschwitz Institute wants countries to prioritize crisis management. At the same time, that prioritization sometimes translates into giving up on preventive policies altogether, which this program wants to make sure is not an acceptable position for its participating governments.  The greatest challenge, I believe, will be to make sure that governments understand the need for longer-term policies oriented specifically towards prevention.


M.E.: What is your response to individuals who say that it is impossible to prevent genocide, or who think the only way to prevent such atrocities is through military intervention?

T.G.: The response I usually offer is that genocide prevention needs to be understood not as an action, but as a process, like any other political, long-term process.  Genocide can be prevented, and we have the proof of that within societies that function and do not break down into spaces for permanent war between groups. Genocide prevention is indeed creating the environment for groups to be able to manage their political differences within an established framework. […]  Military intervention is crisis management – sometimes military intervention can play a role in preventing further atrocities, but we at the Auschwitz Institute focus on the many, many peaceful ways of engaging societies to prevent genocide, and those methods are actually a lot more successful.


M.E.: How have the Auschwitz Institute’s programs, particularly the Raphael Lemkin Seminar for Genocide Prevention, been successful in their mission of preventing genocide?

T.G.: What we have found is that the institutions that have been engaged with the Raphael Lemkin Seminar and with the Auschwitz Institute for a long period [of time], have actually managed to pull through and establish changes in the way they work that resulted from the knowledge imparted through the Seminar and through subsequent collaboration. Many of our participant institutions have refocused their policies to include more group-related policies [and] more assessments of risk-related situations [for minority groups] in their society, and we think that contributed to reshaping policy in those countries, towards the groups that are at risk.


M.E. Human rights work, and specifically work done in the realm of atrocity prevention, can oftentimes be frustrating and complicated, given the need to work with various individuals and organizations from all levels and affiliations (i.e., government, NGOs, civil society).  In spite of this, how do you remain committed to your objectives, and pursue them in a meaningful and positive way?

T.G.: It’s actually not that difficult to engage the actors that are relevant for these issues. What is difficult is to make sure that that engagement is substantive, and that requires drawing on lots of other kinds of work that is connected to research [and the] analysis of existing policies. We are very lucky at the Institute [in regards to] the readiness of NGO, academic, and research communities to share their experience with us and with our governmental partners. Again, the surprise is that both governments and civil society are very ready to work on this.


M.E.: Considering everything the Auschwitz Institute has contributed to the field of genocide prevention, which of its accomplishments are you most proud?

T.G.: I think what we are most proud of at the Auschwitz Institute are really our contributions to the existing trend of establishing national mechanisms for genocide prevention, similar to the Atrocities Prevention Board in the United States, the national commissions for genocide prevention in different African countries, [and] national mechanisms of genocide prevention in different Latin American countries. I think the [national-level policies] of genocide prevention is one of the big steps that humanity has taken to make “never again” a reality, and not just a slogan.


M.E.: What advice do you have for graduate students interested in working in human rights upon the completion of their degree?

T.G.: I would encourage human rights graduate students to be very conscious, even before the completion of their degree, that they need to engage with different organizations in order to be able to work in this field. […]  Actually getting engaged with different topics and different organizations before you graduate – through internships, through focusing your research on them, through basic socializing with an organization by attending their events – helps the chance of entering the field later on, and entering the field from a good position: one where you have realistic expectations related to the field. But beyond that, my advice is to just keep doing what you’re already doing, because once somebody makes the choice [to study] human rights and issues related to them, you are already on a great, rewarding path.


Michelle is a MA candidate in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University. Michelle is concentrating in genocide studies, and she worked as a communications intern with the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation.