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“What is your vision of human rights work?” -Careers in Human Rights Panel Discussion

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


Human rights work can encompass a myriad of issues, projects, approaches and geographical locations. This wide range of opportunities can be exhilarating for human rights students; however, it can also be hard to find the right fit for students’ skills and passions. To address the possibilities and challenges of working in this field as well as provide students with guidance and advice, the Institute of Human Rights Studies at Columbia University hosted a panel discussion, “Careers in Human Rights,” on Monday, April 7, 2014.

The panel consisted of four professionals with a diverse range of experiences in human rights work: Sapna Chhatpar Considine, Program Director at the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect; Larry Cox, Co-Director of Kairos: the Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice and former Executive Director of Amnesty International USA; Meg Gardinier, Director of Arigatou International-New York and Chair of the Campaign for U.S. Ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child; and Refik Hodzic, Director of Communications at the International Center for Transitional Justice. The panelists described their present work and projects, as well as their paths to their current positions. Their presentations were followed by a Q&A session.

Panelists from left: Meg Gardinier, Refik Hodzic, Sapna Chhatpar Considine, and Larry Cox

A common theme that emerged in all of the presentations was the value of collaboration amongst their various lines of work. Gardinier noted that, on the one hand, NGOs offer more freedom and ways to focus on human-rights based work but the budget is often limited. On the other hand, larger institutions provide substantive resources and authority. However, well-funded inter-governmental organizations may offer fewer opportunities to directly contribute to rights-related projects. The answer, she said, lies in partnerships between these entities, as well as among civil society actors more generally. She also recommended that students consider the possibilities of collaboration with the private sector by exploring work in corporate social responsibility, for example.

Panelists also highlighted issues around obtaining funds for their work, and they agreed that fundraising can create undeniable tension because the process can be time-consuming and create competition with like-minded organizations. They noted pressures that are at times contradictory and make the process even more difficult to navigate, like the troubled economy coupled with the fact that there is more funding for human rights than ever before. Panelists underscored the need for creativity and “doing more with less,” and also exhorted students to work on gaining fundraising skills, an asset in the non-profit world.

The session ended with the question, “What is a specific skill, quality or qualification in the people you look to hire that these students can try to further develop?” The panelists’ answers included: strong writing skills, up-to-date knowledge of social media tools, solid interpersonal skills, knowledge of the particular issue being addressed, network-building capabilities, humility and the ability to listen. Cox advised: “Be self-critical and try to get rid of your ego, you don’t have to be the best and the brightest. Social justice is about another society, different values…if all you want to do is take the values we have now and bring them into social justice, you’re just going to be part of the problem.”

Despite the diversity of the panelists’ experiences and areas of expertise, they all communicated the value of staying true to one’s principles while inevitably having to engage in frustrating corporate dynamics. They urged students to maintain their sense of integrity and hope in the face of obstacles. For example, despite having quit his previous job twice over a sense of disillusionment with his former institution, Hodzic now finds himself in a rewarding role, advocating for human rights through communications methods: “I’m proud to count myself among the people who are trying to develop the thinking about how the fields of journalism and activism are merging, and to practice that theory in a way.” Considine mentioned the difficulty of watching the Syria crisis unfold, but went on to describe how much she appreciates being able to travel the world and talk to civil society members about the Responsibility to Protect. Gardinier described how the US Campaign to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child has been a long process, but that it’s deeply significant to her and her colleagues, saying: “It’s slow but important work.”

All of the panelists echoed the sense of having an innate pull towards human rights work that sustains them. Considine noted her dedication to her profession, even when it can feel impractical: “As I get older, it can feel harder to justify the pay I get and the hours I spend, but I’m one hundred percent committed to this work, which is why I’ve stayed in it.” Cox added, “You have to decide not only what you want to do, but what is your vision of doing human rights work? A well-paying job? Or does it mean something else? My advice is, if you really want to be in the future of human rights, try to go find those organizations on the ground, the Dreamers movement, the Gay Rights movement, go work with them for a while, take advantage of the fact that maybe you don’t have twelve kids yet. Go listen to them, and learn from them.” Hodzic noted, “I think this work chooses you, rather than the other way around. You have to be a certain kind of person, a certain kind of professional to do this work. I don’t think you could just ‘make it’ a career like you do in the corporate world.”

Many human rights students attended this event, including several from various other programs at Columbia. Numerous students stayed afterwards to talk to the speakers individually. This panel was useful in providing an honest, open forum for dialogue about the challenges and rewards of this line of work. The panelists’ anecdotes and straightforward advice gave students a sense of where their own interests might lead and which skills to cultivate. Through the stories of their own professional trajectories, the panelists encouraged students to pursue what they find meaningful and to sustain their vision of what a more just world will look like.


Caroline Fidan Tyler Doenmez is an M.A. candidate in the Columbia University Human Rights Studies program. Her main areas of interest concern the collective rights to culture and education for girls and women in indigenous communities. She is also currently interning at UN Women. 

The War on Drugs is Far from Over

By Christiane Coste, human rights graduate student at Columbia University


Despite the big victory in Mexico’s fight against organized crime, the arrest of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, considered the world’s most wanted drug lord, Mexico continues to face many challenges.  For one, it runs the risk of clouding pressing national security problems as a result of a triumphalist attitude on the part of the government and a media that is solely focused on the capture of this powerful kingpin. Therefore, this may be an opportune moment to look at some of the problems Mexico must still address as a result of the war against drugs, in particular, the emergence of vigilante groups in Michoacán and the potential human rights violations that can result from these armed groups.

Arrest of El Chapo. This image was found at:

Arrest of El Chapo. This image was found at:

As the state has proven incapable of guaranteeing citizens’ security, particularly in the Tierra Caliente region, vigilante units  (self-defense groups as they call themselves) have emerged as a citizen-led effort to confront the particularly violent and vicious cartel of the Knights Templar. This cartel has engaged in systematic extortion and kidnappings at unprecedented levels, leading to a massive escalation of violence in the region. Anyone unwilling to abide by the cartel’s rules was targeted with violence and unimaginable levels of human rights violations. Fed-up with the violence, armed groups consisting of small ranchers, local business people, and returning migrants from the United States, began to appear during the first months of 2013. They began by taking over several communities in the region, and sending the message to both cartel members and the authorities to keep out. After almost one year of operations the self-defense groups are now armed with over 16,000 weapons, and have developed a rather sophisticated structure of command to keep the cartel and its violence out.

As argued by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Mexican government has adopted a “very unclear position” with regards to these armed groups. It first sent federal forces to regain control of the region and ordered the self-defense groups to lay down their weapons.  However, shortly there after, it announced its official recognition of these groups and incorporated them into a “Rural Police Unit,” whose jurisdiction, roles, and limits are highly unclear. According to HRW, “it seems the government has been learning along the way, improvising the details of their approach against a very serious situation.”

As argued by the above-mentioned organization, and other actors, such as the Mexican Commission for Human Rights (CNDH), the emergence of these vigilante groups, and their legitimization and recognition by the state, raise a number of concerns from a human rights perspective.

Mexico already has a shaky human rights record as a result of its security strategy. According to HRW, some of the most egregious human rights violations resulting from the countries’ efforts to combat organized crime are: killings, enforced disappearances, rape, and torture committed by armed forces and the police. These, and other abuses, could worsen as a result of the emergence and legitimization of the self-defense groups, since accountability is very weak.

Additionally, experts are concerned that by giving legitimacy to these groups, the state is openly allowing them to take justice into their own hands, without any due process guarantee.  Thus, there is a high risk that these groups can become engaged in private vengeance activity. There is suspicion that members of these groups have taken part in criminal activities themselves under the cover of protecting their communities, generating a vicious-cycle in which the vigilantes can become the new violators. Finally, several actors are concerned that the situation could easily get out of hand leading to widespread abuse as vigilantes are becoming more sophisticated and are starting to protect more than their own homes and families.  For example, mining companies in the region have allegedly “hired” them for protection, and similar groups are starting to appear in other states such as Guerrero.

From a human rights perspective, not recognizing the self-defense groups does not seem to be a viable option either.  The state has proven incapable of providing basic security guarantees to the people in this region, and taking away their arms without guaranteeing their protection would be the same as leaving them at the mercy of the Knight Templars. Additionally, even if these self-defense groups could engage in abuse, some control seems better than no control at all.

There is no easy solution to this dilemma, and meanwhile, regular citizens who fear the loss of their property, their families’ lives, and the general violence are caught up in this quagmire, and are left with little options but to support or join the self-defense groups. Since the state has failed in its duty to protect and provide basic security guarantees for the people of Michoacán, the existing vigilante groups are demanding support from community members.

It is for these people that live in constant fear that we ought to be cautious to prize Mexico’s recent “victory” as an absolute sign of success. It is for them that we should continue looking for comprehensive solutions to combat organized crime that include: fighting corruption of armed and police forces, providing capacity-building and education on human rights to avoid abuse, and above all providing viable economic and social alternatives so that young men and women are not recruited into the cartels.

Christiane is a recent graduate of Columbia University where she obtained a Master in Human Rights Studies.  Her research focuses on human rights and development policies, particularly in Latin America. She has worked in various capacities in the social protection sector of the Mexican government, and is currently an intern at the Center for Economic and Social Rights.


Sexual Violence, Human Rights and the Media

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


Sexual violence is usually not covered as a human rights issue.  As the archetypical normalized, invisible, overlooked and structural human right violation, it is more often treated as an everyday, normal problem rather than a violation of women’s rights to health, life, bodily integrity, education, and more. The culture of impunity that surrounds sexual violence, and the fact that rape is notoriously underreported, can hardly be detached from the media’s failure to communicate to people that they actually can report these as crimes.

It is a missed opportunity, and a troubling one, because the way the media chooses to frame sexual violence influences how people think about rape. They can shape, challenge and perpetuate dominant perceptions or illuminate harmful misconceptions and shed

Photograph by Zubair Sayed

a light on the contestations and anxieties that surround the topic. Moreover, they can channel the outrage and disgust towards, for example, child-rapists into anger and calls for accountability towards our governments.  Making sexual violence newsworthy as a human rights violation, rather than something that happens to happen as long as bad men are around, matters.

Making rape newsworthy is not where the media’s responsibility ends. Exposing power-relations that underlie human rights violations also counts. As feminists have long demonstrated, rape is about power. Coverage of sexual violence shouldn’t end with a narrow description of what has happened to whom and how, but should also contextualize the events with an explanation of gendered power relations. Sexual violence should be seen as a violent performance of patriarchy and an enactment of masculinity; both pervasive and structural forces, but also fluid and therefore changeable. Focusing on the violent masculinities doesn’t mean identifying it as the sole cause; the blame must still be placed on the perpetrator. But not without mentioning the power structures that enabled or encouraged him to commit this crime; and the responsibility of the government to take action and show political will to fix these pervasive social ills. If the media would educate us all a bit better around patriarchy and masculinity, we might actually tell our governments to put political will behind their human rights talk.

The media’s ability to either encourage or discourage rape survivors to report their crimes to the police matters as well. Reading about arrests, trials and convictions and the laws that are violated with an act of nonconsensual sex is more likely to incline women to report rape to the police than grim media narratives that simply describe place, time and brutality.

The media have a responsibility to make sexual violence a human rights issue. Human rights education, then, should also include an education of the educators. Both editors and reporters need to know and understand what human rights are if a ‘rights culture’ is to be built.

This article previously appeared in Women in and Beyond the Global on February 14, 2014. 


“Justice is given to whomever is louder”

By Jenna Wallace, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University


Penelopa Gjurchilova, a former Macedonian diplomat and visiting scholar at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights (ISHR) quoted this popular Macedonian proverb during her opening remarks at a symposium entitled “Foreign Policy Makeover: Women’s Roles and Rights in Diplomacy,” held on November 14, 2013 at Columbia University.

ISHR and the Gender and Public Policy Specialization at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) hosted this symposium, consisting of two panels of former and current ambassadors and foreign policy professionals from around the world.  The panelists discussed personal experiences within the field of diplomacy and shared their professional perspectives on the issue of including women’s rights in diplomatic affairs. Chaired by Yasmine Ergas, Associate Director of ISHR and Director of the Gender and Public Policy Specialization at SIPA, the symposium created a unique opportunity for women and men to be heard on the role of gender and women’s rights in foreign policy.

From left, Yasmine Ergas, Ambassador Rosemary DiCarlo, Ambassador John Hirsch, Ambassador Karen Tan, and Ambassador Greta Gunnarsdotir engage in a panel discussion with Columbia students and faculty.

From left, Yasmine Ergas, Ambassador Rosemary DiCarlo, Ambassador John Hirsch, Ambassador Karen Tan, and Ambassador Greta Gunnarsdotir engage in a panel discussion with Columbia students and faculty.

Penelopa Gjurchilova began the symposium with a call to younger generations to be guided by principles of equity and equality, which other panelists echoed in their discussions.  She pointed out that although the status of women in diplomacy is improving, many countries have not seen progress on this issue, which is not only a matter of human rights but is essential in maintaining peaceful international relations and equality worldwide.

The distinguished speakers spoke about how women in diplomacy tend to face particularly difficult challenges, not least among which include existing stereotypes regarding traditional women’s roles and the always-in-conflict tug of war between family life and career.  There are, however, ways for women to improve their experiences in the diplomatic corps.  Women must communicate with each other, exchange ideas, and form networks within which they can help each other as they enter and rise through the diplomatic ranks.  As more women achieve higher-level diplomatic positions, stereotypes break down and access to more prestigious positions increases. Women in diplomacy in the past, and even now, are the pioneers, and despite the difficulty of that position, it is their responsibility to make that workforce easier for women in the future.

Also voiced throughout the panel discussions was the conviction that the engagement of women in diplomacy absolutely does not mean the disengagement of men. Gender equality is especially necessary for peace processes, or lasting peace will be impossible to achieve.   Creating opportunities for women in diplomacy and post-conflict processes will take a considerable amount of work, and mostly from women. For example, the United Nations Women branch was established only when a group of female ambassadors got together, lobbied for its existence, and put massive effort into its creation. Another example of proactive women came from Ambassador John Hirsch, who explained that women played an immense role in ending a junta rule in Sierra Leone and in instituting elections.  They became role models for other nations, and we must remember that women are integral to the processes of peace and reconciliation.

Another crucial point, which became a topic of discussion in the second panel, was the lack of governments’ political commitment to putting gender issues on their agendas.  While an awareness of gender issues in governments is important, there also must be the political will to do something about them, without which nothing can truly be accomplished. In order to achieve change, governments must budget for gender issues and ensure that the structures in place promote equality.  The individual is very important, but if the correct structures are not in place, there is only so far women can go. Leadership is terribly important as well, as H.E. Mrs. Tine Mørch Smith, Deputy Permanent Representative of Norway to the UN, highlighted. A whole generation of girls in Norway was empowered by the female Prime Minister at the time, and this played an immense role in the ambassador’s aspirations to begin a career in diplomacy as well as her access to higher-level positions.

Carne Ross, Executive Director of Independent Diplomat, presented a powerful opinion on the issue of gender itself.  Of utmost importance is “de-gendering.” As long as diplomacy remains infused with a male-dominated environment, made up of zero sum negotiations, heavy drinking, long hours, and other traditionally male workplace characterizations, it will be challenging for women to rise in the ranks.  Hiring more women, though it sounds like a solution, cannot alone address the problem.  A systematic analysis into the political and institutional structures needs to take place.  Diplomacy, he confidently stated, is a gendered archetype in itself.  Win-lose modeling takes precedence over a consensus-seeking model, hard issues are valued over “soft” issues, empiricism is valued over emotion, and there is a priority to security over all else.  Complete with a historical notion of hierarchy, the diplomatic corps is male-oriented, as are states.  Therefore, global issues will not be solved by states at all, but rather, by a mass movement of men and women who are not bound within a hierarchical system.

Mr. Ross’s bold views on de-gendering were appreciated; it was also pointed out that we must talk about the differentiation of experiences between men and women, maintaining two perspectives but being careful not to recreate gender dichotomies.  We must, Ms. Ergas mentioned, move beyond the question of gender and find the next step.

The symposium raised a lot of important issues, shining a light on gender inequality in diplomacy and opening the door for further discussion and analysis of gender questions. This symposium has set the stage, and now we must work together to find, analyze, and take that next step so that we, eventually, do not have to talk about gender at all.

Distinguished panelists included:

  • H.E. Mrs. Rosemary A. DiCarlo (U.S. Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN)
  • Ambassador John Hirsch (former U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Sierra Leone and a current SIPA Professor)
  • H.E. Ms. Karen Tan (Permanent Representative of Singapore to the UN)
  • H.E. Ms. Gréta Gunnarsdóttir (Permanent Representative of Iceland to the UN)
  • H.E. Mrs. Tine Mørch Smith (Deputy Permanent Representative of Norway to the UN)
  • Mr. Carne Ross (Executive Director of Independent Diplomat)
  • H.E. Mrs. Natalia Quintvalle, (Consul General of Italy)
  • Ms. Fiyola Hoosen-Steele (Head of the Plan International South Africa Office to the UN and former Diplomat in South Africa)


Jenna Wallace is an M.A. candidate in the Columbia University Human Rights Studies program. She is specializing in indigenous women’s rights, and is looking forward to a robust career in international human rights advocacy. 

UNEARTH -United Nations Exhibit Opens Door to the Past and Gives Hope to the Future

Screen shot 2013-12-17 at 1.16.50 PM

By, Amy Sall, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University


The UNEARTH exhibit, hosted by the Gabarron Foundation, is a multimedia exhibit based on four main themes: human rights, development, humanitarian assistance, and peace and security.  The exhibit creates a dialogue centered on the humanity of people through the use of archival footage and posters that evoke the spirit of the United Nations (U.N.) reflected in the organization’s principles of promoting peace, security and the protection of human rights.  Not only does the exhibit celebrate the efforts of the U.N., but its closing in 2015 will also commemorate the 70th anniversary of the organization’s existence.

Speaking on the ethos behind the exhibit, CEO and Vice President of the Gabarron Foundation, Juan Gabarron says the exhibit is about “creating awareness through the arts.” A task that was spearheaded by Chaim Litewski, Chief of the U.N. Television Section, and Antonio da Silva, Chief of the U.N. Multimedia Unit.  Litewski and da Silva, along with a team of curators, set out on a daunting mission to “unearth” barely touched, archival footage and images from throughout the U.N.’s history.

One of the main challenges Litewski and da Silva came across was narrowing the massive amount of historical documentation down to a cohesive display of ideas.  “It was really hard for us to figure out where the focus was going to be,” says da Silva, “because the U.N. archive is 68 years of archived material.” Sorting through the archive, which holds about 800,000 photos alone, was not the only challenge.  “From the film and video aspect, there is a significant amount of films that have not been digitized, which is a huge undertaking,” says Litewski.  Despite these challenges, Litewski, da Silva and the team behind, which also included Mark Garten, the head of the U.N. Photo Unit, materialized UNEARTH in a focused and interesting manner.

On describing the nature and structure of the exhibit, Litewski says, “The photos in one way or another relate to the four themes.”  To which da Silva added, “we want people to experience each of these four themes on their own, and let people discover aspects of each through the images.” This desire was encapsulated by the title of the exhibit itself. “That’s why it’s called ‘UNEARTH’. The word ‘art’ is in there, along with ‘U.N.’,” Litewski added.

The UNEARTH exhibit is a prime example of the burgeoning role art and media play in change-making, protecting human rights and fostering global peace and development. Sharing his views on this phenomenon, da Silva says, “We think that art brings people to think about what’s happening in the world today, in relation to the past. Since we are working with an archive, it allows the opportunity to look at specific topics of development, human rights and so on, and see what has changed and what hasn’t. These images, visuals, and audio create reflection towards what is going on in the world today.” He also adds, “Using social media, and crowd-sourcing, gathering people to participate in the creative process, is in fact part of the political process.”

Litewski agreed and added, “Art reflects three things. One being the way in which an artists, in this case the United Nations, looks at a particular subject. In this exhibit, in a way you are able to see what the U.N. was thinking when it produced certain images. It’s an interesting thing to understand what was behind something created at a particular time. Secondly, art reflects society at a particular time. Thirdly, it reflects the aesthetic perception and artistic mold a time period.”

The various elements involved in UNEARTH, from multimedia, the history of the United Nations, and the spirit and resiliency of humanity, have culminated into something much larger than an art exhibit. What was produced was something that allows us to draw from the past to improve the present and the future. By bringing the U.N. archive to life Litewski, da Silva, and their team created a narrative that will continue for years to come. In order to further engage in the international discourse the exhibit represents, Litewski and da Silva left some sound advice for future agents of change: “Listen. Listen to communities. Listen to people.”


*The UNEARTH exhibit at the The Gabarron Foundation in New York is now closed, but it will be travelling around the world until 2015, and will be hosted at different galleries globally.

Please visit or contact the Gabarron Foundation for more information:(

The Gabarron Foundation

149 East 38th Street, New York, NY 10016



Amy Sall is a first year graduate student at Columbia University’s M.A. in Human Rights Program.  Her interest is in human rights in Africa, with a special focus on children’s rights and youth development on the continent.


Welcoming the Fall Semester at ISHR

By Amy Sall, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University


On September 17th, The Institute for the Study of Human Rights (ISHR) hosted their annual Fall Reception where human rights advocates, scholars, and students gathered to welcome the new school year. Hosted on the top floor of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), the backdrop of the New York City skyline was a befitting scene for the diverse crowd of current and future human rights practitioners. The attendees included incoming and returning human rights students and professors from across Columbia, as well as scholars and fellows at the ISHR.

The reception was a great way to meet students, professors, human rights advocates and fellows. Hedayt Selim, a first-year student from Cairo in the Master of Arts in Human Rights Studies program, was among many of the guests attending the ISHR Fall Reception. “It’s a great opportunity to branch out and meet professors and fellow students that you wouldn’t otherwise meet.” Selim, like many other first-year students, ws drawn to Columbia’s human rights program for many reasons.  “What I liked about this program was its interdisciplinary character and I think New York is a great place to be studying human rights.”

Yasmine Ergas, the Associate Director of the ISHR, and the Director for Gender and Human Rights addressed the crowd with a warm welcome and introduced a group of human rights leaders participating in the Human Rights Advocates program. Elazar Barkan, the Director of the ISHR, and Professor of International and Public Affairs at SIPA, introduced this year’s participating fellows in the Alliance for Historical Dialogue and Accountability program. Then the advocates and fellows each introduced themselves and spoke about the work they do in their respective countries. Coming from countries around the world, the advocates and fellows represent a diverse group with a collective common goal to raise awareness of human rights issues affecting their countries in order to push for peace and justice.

Geoffrey Mayamba (left) and Isaiah Chabala (right)

Geoffrey Mayamba (left) and Isaiah Chabala (right)

Geoffrey Mayamba, an advocate from Zambia participating in the Human Rights Advocates program, represented Prisoners Future Foundation which is an organization he founded that aims to improve the welfare of current and former prisoners in Zambia. “Our vision is to see a society in which the rights and other needs of prisoners and ex-prisoners are understood, respected and upheld.” Prisoners Future Foundation has been running for five years but has only been funded for two. Mayamba, having been a prisoner in his home of Zambia for over 10 years, was inspired to create the organization based on his own experiences. “Having seen the sufferings that prisoners are subjected to, I felt I could form an organization to address these issues and be a voice for the voiceless.” Some of the main priorities of the organization include working with the Zambian government in an effort to establish ways to decongest the prisons, provide access to adequate health care in the facilities, and find ways to improve prisoners’ access to justice. Mayamba’s organization also works with the Minister of Justice to develop judicial reform policy.

Another advocate who discussed his work that evening was Biel Boutros Biel from South Sudan. Biel is the Executive Director of the South Sudan Human Rights Society for Advocacy (SSHURSA). “I’m learning a lot in the program and it is helping me do far better in my work in South Sudan.” Part of the work he does is inform people on human rights issues, as well as working to educate women, youth, local government officials and local authorities on human rights.

Serhat Rasul Cacan, one of the Alliance for Historical Dialogue and Accountability fellows introduced at the event, is a historian from Turkey that specializes in oral history. As part of his work and research in oral history, he works on projects that analyze narratives and life stories of Turkish people. Cacan focuses mainly on Kurdish narratives, and analyzes how Kurdish people have memorized events in the past. “There is a motto ‘we cannot change the history, but we can change our memory about the history.’” During his time at Columbia, Cacan plans to create a project which incorporates historical dialogue within Turkish and Armenian communities.

Isaiah Chabala, a former ambassador of Zambia to the United Nations and the European Union, was also among the distinguished, global leaders and advocates. After his career as an ambassador, Chabala became president and founder of a non-profit called Visionary Empowerment who’s mission is “to empower women and girls of under-served communities in Zambia, and to teach them how to sustain and enable themselves.” This in turn helps to combat poverty, gender inequality, and vulnerability. Visionary Empowerment was founded in 2005, and has successfully trained more than 600 women and girls by providing skills and vocational training.

The work of the ISHR’s advocates and fellows, as well as human rights students under the guidance of accomplished and enthusiastic professors was greatly recognized at the Fall Reception. The room was full of human rights actors and was an inspiring way to set the tone for the academic year.

Amy is a first year graduate student at Columbia University’s M.A. in Human Rights Program.  Her interest is in human rights in Africa, with a special focus on children’s rights and youth development in the continent.

Unintended Consequences of Striking Syria

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


However limited or narrow in scope, striking Syria will have consequences across the “Shiite Crescent” that spans Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. The term was coined in 2004 by Jordan’s King Abdullah II, who warned that Iran’s support for Shiite forces in the Middle East sought to “alter the traditional balance of power between the two main Islamic sects and pose new challenges to U.S. interests and allies.” Military action in Syria could embroil the United States in civil wars from the Tigris to the Levant; U.S interests could also come under direct attack. A steely-eyed view of regional dynamics and contingency planning are critical to optimizing U.S. objectives.


Iran gains strategic depth by supporting Syria. As Iran’s proxy, Syria serves several Iranian goals, including rivaling Saudi power in the region. Syria is also a launch point for terror attacks against Israel. Iran provides Hezbollah with advanced surface-to-surface missiles through a transit pipeline across Syria to Lebanon. Iran also funnels arms to militant Palestinian groups via Syria. Iran helped Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad establish his stockpile of chemical weapons in the 1990s. Today, it is financing Syria. Ground forces from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Quds Force, and Iranian intelligence services have also joined the battlefield. The defeat of Assad by Saudi-backed Sunni Arab extremists with ties to Al-Qaeda would be a big blow to Iran.

U.S. officials say bombing Syria would send a strong message to Iran, proving America’s resolve and deterring its pursuit of nuclear weapons. However, it might have the opposite effect. Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif have signaled a more flexible approach in nuclear negotiations. Iran historically refuses to negotiate under duress. The Supreme leader will surely limit Rouhani’s options if the U.S. intervenes in Syria. Iran could suspend diplomacy and accelerate its uranium enrichment activities. In a worst case, Iran could break-out and weaponize its nuclear energy program.

The Obama administration can mitigate these risks by engaging Iran. Now is the time to start a dialogue with Tehran about collaborating on shared interests, such as limiting Sunni extremism and Al-Qaeda’s penetration in Syria, as well as constraints on Iran’s enrichment activities.


The risks of intervention in Syria closely resemble the challenges of Iraq in 2003. Despite the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), during which Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against Iranian troops, Iran and Iraq – majority Shiite countries – have forged close cultural, economic and security cooperation since Saddam’s downfall in 2003. Iranian pilgrims regularly visit Shiite holy sites in Iraq. Iranian goods flood Iraq’s consumer market. Iraq is officially neutral in Syria’s civil war. However, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki facilitates military assistance to Syria by allowing over-flight of Iranian military transport planes, ignoring strong objections of the United States.

Inspired by the struggle of their Sunni Arab brothers in Syria, radical Sunni groups in Iraq are resurgent. Today’s sectarian violence in Iraq is at its highest level since peaking in 2006-07. More than 1,000 people were killed in July alone. Sectarian slaughter over the Eid-al-Fitr holiday, marking the end of Ramadan, was especially intense. Maliki responded with a heavy-hand, establishing check-points and rounding up Sunni political and community leaders, many of whom have disappeared.

The violence has also spread to Kirkuk, threatening stability in Iraqi Kurdistan. Over20,000 Syrian Kurds fled to Iraqi Kurdistan last month after the Al-Nusra Front, Syria’s Al-Qaeda affiliate, issued a fatwa condoning the killing of Kurdish women and children. Massoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, has vowed to protect Syrian Kurds from Arab extremists. If Syria fragments, Kurds in Syria – so-called Southern Kurdistan – may seek territorial union with Iraqi Kurdistan, further polarizing Kurds and Arabs in Iraq.

The United States has little leverage over Maliki after failing to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement, which would have left a residual force of U.S. troops in Iraq. However, it can affirm support for Kurds by subsidizing Iraqi Kurdistan’s humanitarian assistance to refugees from Syria. Washington should also suspend its sale of sophisticated weapons, such as F-16s, to Baghdad until Maliki closes Iraqi air space to the transfer of Iranian weapons.


Iran’s most valuable client is Hezbollah, established in the 1980s as a popular resistance movement to fight Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon. Iran supports Hezbollah through Syria, which has occupied parts of Lebanon and dominated Lebanese politics for decades. As reprisal for steps by the Future Movement to evict Syrian forces, Syrian intelligence assassinated Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005.

More than 700,000 Syrian refugees have fled to Lebanon since Syria’s civil war erupted 27 months ago. The influx disrupted Lebanon’s delicate ethnic balance, destabilizing the Taif Accords that established a tenuous power-sharing agreement that ended Lebanon’s civil war. Syria’s conflict has bled across the border into Lebanon. Sunnis in Tripoli, who back the Free Syrian Army, have targeted Hezbollah and its Shiite supporters. Attacks intensified after Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, sent Hezbollah militias to fight alongside Assad’s forces. They went house-to-house killing Sunnis in Qusair, tilting the balance of power and enabling Assad to retake the strategic border town in June. A massive bomb blast killed scores in al-Dahiya al-Janoubiya, a Shiite suburb in south Beirut, on July 9, 2013. Nasrallah, himself, promised to join the fight in Syria against Sunnis, whom he disparages as “takfiris” apostates.

Nasrallah will calibrate his support to Assad so as to avoid alienating his constituents in Lebanon. However, Hezbollah will not sit on the sidelines if the U.S. attacks Syria. It could attack Israel with conventional weapons or use WMD-tipped missiles smuggled provided by Assad. It could also attack U.S. interests in the region, or activate sleeper cells in the U.S. to carry out strikes against America’s homeland. Other than dispatching ships from the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean to help defend Israel, there is little the United States can do to counter Hezbollah’s asymmetric terror tactics.

Gulf Arab Shiites

The Shiite Crescent is more than a contiguous territory. The restive Shiite majority in Bahrain would protest a U.S. strike against Syria. Bahrain is home to the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, which patrols the Persian Gulf and waters off East Africa. Violent unrest can also be expected against other U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf with Shiite minorities, such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Bombing Syria won’t stop the war, nor create conditions for either Assad or the insurgents to prevail. More likely, the grinding conflict will go on. Syria will become ghettoized with ethnic groups defended by local armed militias. Kurds and Christians will pay a dear price for fence-sitting, as the failed state fragments into cantons.

General Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, struck a cautious tone at Congressional hearing last week. For sure, the U.S. military can degrade Syria’s war-making capacity. After attacking Syria, however, it will face multiple threats including stateless adversaries motivated to defend sectarian interests across the Shiite Crescent.

This article previously appeared on The Huffington Post on September 11, 2013.

David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He is a former Foreign Affairs Expert for the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.

Good Business and Good Coffee: A Case Study of Human Rights and Sustainable Business Practices

By Colleen J. Brisport, graduate of the MA in Human Rights Studies program at Columbia University

My thesis explores current theories on business, fair trade and human rights developed by scholars such as John Ruggie and Laura Raynolds. These academics have articulated the difficulties and the improbabilities of corporations sincerely incorporating human rights within their business operations. Several scholars of human rights and business, such as Kenneth Roth, believe that the ‘naming and shaming’ tactics of non-profit organizations, voluntary industry standards and legal suits are ways in which we can pressure businesses to consider human rights in their business operations and hold them accountable for their actions. However, my thesis supports a different approach and illustrates how the Starbucks Coffee Company and Coopetarrazu Coffee Cooperative have worked cooperatively to make economic, social and cultural rights of the Tarrazú coffee farmers an important aspect of their business relationship.

I was fourteen years old when I participated in one of the most influential service projects of my life. This event was a day of service in which a small group of students planned youth service projects, ranging from park cleanups to visits to the elderly, for over 15,000 youth volunteers.

For the four years I was involved in planning the event, Starbucks provided the after-school caffeine necessary to plan this very large and demanding day of service. They would also provide breakfast and coffee for the day of the event so that our volunteers would be ready and energized to commit to a full day of service work.  Although many different experiences and academic pursuits have lead me to write my thesis on business and human rights, I am confident that my positive experience with corporations has made me a passionate advocate and believer for integrating human rights in the private sector.

Coffee Fields in Tarrazú (tall banana trees provide the shade for the coffee plants necessary for organic farming). Photo: Colleen Brisport

The reason I chose to study Tarrazú, Costa Rica and their relationship with Starbucks Coffee Corporation is because the people of Tarrazú truly identify as a coffee community and the cultivation of coffee is integral to their social, cultural and economic rights.

The Costa Rican Coffee Institute describes the country’s relationship with coffee as such: “To truly comprehend the meaning of coffee for Costa Rica, it is important to understand that for us it is an everyday matter, but that it also represents a great value for the country’s socio-economic and environmental system.”  As a result of this relationship to coffee production, I believed that they would be very sensitive and critical of any relationship they had with private companies.

The processing plant at Coopetarrazu Coffee Cooperative. Photo: Colleen Brisport.

I traveled to Tarrazú, Costa Rica during March 2012; I expected to find the coffee farmers discontented about their relationship with Starbucks.  One of the most interesting aspects of this relationship was that the coffee farmers did not identify as poor farmers who were victims of capitalism and globalization as described in the literature on coffee farming and human rights. For example, in Guatemala coffee farmers are not paid a minimum wage and child labor is rampant.  As noted in The Ecologist, typically coffee farmers only earn about 10% of the retail price of the coffee they produce.  It was made clear to me in my discussions with farmers and the cooperative staff that they regarded themselves as professional business people who desired to make a profit from a product they love.  They perceive their challenges as normal experiences of any entrepreneur and seek positive relationships with multinational companies, buyers and distributors of coffee to overcome these challenges. Starbucks acknowledged this and works to ensure predictable coffee production quantity and quality for the company and for Coopetarrazu.

Even before Starbucks offered their assistance, the Tarrazú farmers were aware that conventional agriculture was ruining the environment. They knew that there was both an environmental need (due to polluted water sources and soil dilution of nutrients) and an economic need (increasing consumer demand for organic coffee) to switch to organic coffee. Starbucks is the first company to come to the community and discuss issues of environmentalism and sustainability. The most significant contribution that Starbucks has made to the community is the involvement of Starbucks scientists and agronomists in assisting the Tarrazú coffee farmers’ switch to organic farming. This is accomplished through farmers support centers where coffee farmers are trained in sustainable farming techniques.

Starbucks supports human rights by paying a price for coffee that is high enough to maintain the livelihoods of the farmers and uses ILO guidelines to monitor working conditions for coffee pickers. However, the most important aspect of the relationship cited by both Starbucks and Coopetarrazu is the ability to maintain an open and transparent relationship between the two organizations. I could certainly tell there was an amicable relationship between the two, when a cooperative administrator told me to say hello to his friends in the Starbucks office in San Jose Costa Rica.

Starbucks is currently conducting research on which coffee plants grow best in the various climates in the regions of Costa Rica where they source their coffee. The most significant aspect of the Starbucks-Coopetarrazu partnership is that Costa Rica is a country that is very environmentally conscious, believes in labor rights, is the most developed in comparison to its neighbors and still welcomes the suggestions and regulations of a private company. This suggests that the private sector can provide services, knowledge and a relationship to agricultural workers that is necessary for them to sustain their livelihoods, societies and cultures.

Sign outside the Costa Rican Coffee Institute in Tarrazú, Costa Rica.  Photo: Colleen Brisport.

It is very easy to become frustrated and irate about the egregious human rights violations of corporations. It is even more daunting when human rights advocates realize there are little legal tools or international agreements to protect individuals from corporate human rights abuses. As a result, I hope my thesis can inspire both businesses and advocates to seriously explore ways in which profits, business models, employees, producers and consumers can combine efforts to make human rights an important internal matter for private corporations. The case of Starbucks and Coopetarrazu is one example of this type of relationship.


Colleen Brisport graduated from the MA in Human Rights Studies program in October 2012 and is currently enrolled at New England School of Law in Boston. In the future, she hopes to pursue a career in business and legal consulting for organizations interested in social entrepreneurship, human rights and corporate social responsibility.  She would like to thank the community of Tarrazú, Costa Rica for participating in her research program and providing her with an invaluable life and learning experience.

OHCHR Global Panel: Moving Away from the Death Penalty

By Angélica Hoyos, senior in Political Science and Human Rights at Columbia University

On July 3rd the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights organized the global panel: “Moving Away from the Death Penalty.” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon opened the discussion by declaring his commitment to end capital punishment: “The taking of life is too absolute, too irreversible, for one human being to inflict it on another, even when backed by legal process.” The goal of the discussion, which included delegates from the states parties, panelists, and members of civil society, was to set up a debate for the upcoming General Assembly in October. In 2007, The United Nations endorsed an international moratorium on capital punishment. Ever since, six nations have abolished the practice. The High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay expressed her hope for many other states to follow this trend. She reminded retentionist states that they ought to comply with Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to limit this kind of punishment to “the most serious crimes.” As the Secretary-General reported, there are still a chilling thirty-two countries that are sentencing people to death for crimes other than murder. He and Ms. Pillay called on member states to join the seventy-six nations that have signed the Optional Protocol of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

“The taking of life is too absolute, too irreversible, for one human being to inflict it on another, even when backed by legal process.”—Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

The first panel included speakers from Guatemala, Burundi, the United States, and Spain. Mr. Federico Mayor, president of the International Committee Against the Death Penalty, spoke about the importance of working with the communities in order to come closer to abolition. However, as he and Mr. Cousin Zilala, Executive Director of Amnesty International in Zimbabwe, emphasized later in the day, “Human rights are independent of public opinion.” Representing the US was Mr. Barry C. Scheck, co-director of The Innocence Project. He spoke of the significance of the role of science and what it has meant to all the one hundred and forty people who have been exonerated from death row. He addressed the high risk of error inherent in the conviction and sentencing process: “DNA has demonstrated the failings of the justice system [in America].”  The problem, he pointed out, was the lack of resources for defendants to access this kind of evidence.

Moderated by Professor Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, the second panel focused on human right violations related to the practice of the death penalty and included representatives from Japan, Zimbabwe, the United States, Trinidad and Tobago, and Belize. The first speaker was Mr. Kirk Bloodsworth, the first person in the US to be exonerated from a capital conviction thanks to DNA testing. He spent almost a decade waiting to be executed for a crime he did not commit. “The capital punishment system in America is ineffective and it does not always get it right, I know this for a fact,” Mr. Bloodsworth told the audience. He feels blessed, as he acknowledged there have been people who have been executed regardless of the many doubts about their guilt, such as Troy Davis and Carlos DeLuna, among others. He addressed the difficulty of the access to evidence and DNA testing; only those who can afford it can access it, given that it is not part of their right to a fair trial.

The speaker from Trinidad and Tobago addressed the situation in all the countries forming the Commonwealth Caribbean, where prisoners are executed for reasons besides murder. Ms. Maiko Tagusari, Secretary-General of the Center for Prisoners’ Rights, denounced the treatment of prisoners in Japan, the lack of a mandatory appeal system, as well as the secrecy–no family members or media are informed of the executions, which occur spontaneously. Ms. Tagusari noted that although it is prohibited to execute the mentally ill, the lack of the transparency of the justice system makes advocacy very difficult for the death row prisoners.

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Ms. Pillay expressed their concern and called on the nations retaining the death penalty to comply with the principle of non-discrimination, since usually the individuals on death row are members of minorities and lack the resources to afford private counsel. Ms. Pillay concluded by stating that, “[it’s] important for the effectiveness and transparency of such a debate to ensure that the public is provided with all sides of the arguments and with information and accurate statistics on criminality and the various effective ways to combat it, short of the death sentence.” The global panel focused on the common global trend towards “moving away from the capital punishment.” As Mr. Heyns pointed out, in 2011 only twenty countries executed prisoners and only six nations executed more than twenty people. Although these numbers support such a trend, the violations to the human rights of those prisoners in the retentionist countries continues to be a major concerned.


Angélica Hoyos is a senior at Columbia University, double majoring in Political Science and Human Rights.  She is originally from Bogotá, Colombia, and is currently serving as the Senior Class President for the School of General Studies.

UN Negotiations Fail to Disarm Human Rights Abusers

By Amanda Barrow, M.A. candidate in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University

Which is more heavily regulated: the global trade of bananas or AK-47s?

In late June, activists led by Amnesty International (AI) highlighted a striking reality: there are more international regulations governing the export and import of bananas than there are on the trade of arms and ammunition. This is particularly problematic when considering the fact that the easy availability of weaponry—rather than, say, bananas—is what facilitates innumerable human rights abuses throughout the world. The indiscriminate transfer of arms undermines economic development, jeopardizes stability and security, and results in hundreds of thousands of deaths every year.

You need not look further than Syria, where repressive ruler President Assad has had his will enacted through the use of heavily armed, violent force. Describing Russia’s continued arms sales to Syria in the midst of this crisis, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (UN) Susan Rice argued,“It is not technically a violation of international law since there’s not an arms embargo, but it’s reprehensible that arms would continue to flow to a regime that is using such horrific and disproportionate force against its own people.”

Source: Amnesty International

Of course, Ambassador Rice failed to address the fact that the United States is far from innocent when it comes to arming human rights abusers. Quite to the contrary, the United States is the world’s largest conventional arms exporter, guilty of continuously supplying weapons to brutal governments. Tracing the various violent crowd control methods used against the peaceful protesters of the Arab revolutions, a recent AI report demonstrated that the U.S., Russia, and a handful of European countries supplied the majority of the weapons—ranging from sniper rifles to armored vehicles—that were used to terrorize citizens.

This should all resonate as quite duplicitous. After all, the U.S. was ardently vocal in its support for the protesters promoting democracy. Yet, it was simultaneously supplying governments with the tools to suppress these voices. Like the United States, the United Kingdom also engages in arms sales rife with hypocrisy. In 2010, the government issued its annual human rights report identifying 26 “Countries of Concern.” However, in that same year, the UK approved arms exports to 16 of these countries, including Libya, Pakistan and Israel.

This is what the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) was intended to remedy. The AI-led campaign in June aimed to affect the outcome of the United Nations Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty, held throughout the month of July.  Since 2003, civil society activists have called for a legally binding ATT to regulate transfers of conventional weapons and put an end to those deemed irresponsible. They imagined a treaty that would require governments to assess whether or not the weapons they were selling would be used to violate international humanitarian law or to commit human rights abuses. Under this framework, Russia’s arm sales to Syria would be heavily scrutinized, if not forbidden.

The United States would also be forced to justify its decision to sell arms to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where its weapons are continuously used to perpetrate gross violations of human rights, including mass scale rapes. According to a UN investigation of an early January 2011 incident, at least 47 women were subjected to sexual violence in the North Kivu province; several reported that the military fired their weapons to intimidate them before raping them. Devastatingly, this is not an isolated, extraordinary incident. As is increasingly recognized in the international community, sexual violence is often employed against civilians during armed conflict, with conventional arms often facilitating these acts.

“Nonviolence,” sculpture by Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd, UN Plaza

Friday, July 27th marked the end of the United Nations’ unprecedented—and ultimately unfulfilled—opportunity to create an international Arms Trade Treaty. The 11-page treaty text, under which governments would agree not to export weapons that would be used to facilitate the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and other crimes of international law, had to be unanimously approved. As a result of powerful opposition from countries like the United States, the conference ended in failure. The strength of the arms industry, the gun lobby, and the political calculations made by individuals who had the power to reduce human suffering are to blame for a truly disappointing outcome.

Yet, the UN has pledged to resume efforts to pass an arms trade treaty, and civil society organizations continue to work tirelessly to hold the body to its charter’s arms regulation promise. With the help of Amnesty International, individual citizens can take action by showing their governments that the outcome of July’s treaty negotiation conference was unacceptable. Until a new treaty is negotiated, bananas will be subject to more international regulation than the trade of military helicopters, battleships and conventional arms.


Amanda Barrow is a M.A. candidate in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University. She studies the intersection of gender and transitional justice.