Author Archive for Rowena Kosher

Striving for Menstrual Equity: The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies

By Susanne Prochazka, staff writer for RightsViews and a graduate student in the Human Rights MA Program.

Ethereal, smoky, crimson-red droplets drift across the screen as the next speaker is introduced during the online launch of the Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies on October 8th.  Jen Lewis’ “Beauty in Blood” art introduces each new speaker, emphasizing the stark red color of menstrual blood and reinforcing the artist’s goal of breaking the stigma surrounding menstruation. 

The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies is the first of its kind, an open access handbook containing a multidisciplinary collection of works drawn from the field of Critical Menstruation Studies. Content in The Handbook comes from a variety of genres,  from multimedia art to public health, proving that menstruation is both a rich and varied field of study, as well as a vital component of health and human rights studies. Following opening comments from the editors, including Inga T. Winkler, lecturer for ISHR and Director of Undergraduate Studies for Columbia’s Human Rights Program, several contributing authors spoke on their areas of study and the importance of menstruation studies.

Julitta Onabanjo with the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF) spoke on the need to change the narrative surrounding menstruation in order to improve reproductive rights as a whole. By focusing on addressing menstrual stigma for the disempowered, UNPF works towards a world where menstrual health is fully accepted and integrated into the field of reproductive health. Onabanjo spoke about focusing on the marginalized in society, ensuring access to hygiene for menstruating individuals displaced by conflict, the differently-abled, and the incarcerated. 

Neville Okwaro, with Kenya’s Water Supply & Sanitation Collaborative Council, discussed the need to frame the advancement of menstrual health as a complex, non-linear, and time-consuming process, where there is a need to provide credible research and evidence of consistent practice in order to initiate policy changes. Okwaro praised the Handbook as representing a vital source of such research and practice, greatly increasing access to the necessary information and legal arguments surrounding menstruation and hygiene.

As an artist and self-styled “menstrual designer,” Jen Lewis uses art to break the stigma surrounding menstruation by making the invisible, visible. Lewis initially drew inspiration from her transition to using a menstrual cup, which allowed her to view menstrual blood in a different format and understand that the menstrual cycle touches the lives of everyone. Lewis uses art to expand the conversation surrounding menstruation, with the goal of portraying menstruation as a human right deserving of public dialogue, not simply the “shame and silence” of the stigma passed down from generation to generation. 

Jen Lewis, “Making Bubbles” // shared with permission from artist.

Thematically, the Handbook launch emphasized that the time to end misinformation surrounding menstruation is now. Achieving menstrual equity is a vital step in toppling the disparate power structures inherent in the patriarchy, with the need to engage dialogue around the agency and empowerment of those who menstruate constituting an essential component.  Thus, the Handbook represents an important source of information for those wishing to empower themselves and others in striving for menstrual equity. 

Watch a recording of the full event here.

Suffering , Grievability and Covid-19 – An Indian Nightmare

By Guest Contributor Yash Karunakaran. Yash is an alumnus of the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign College of Law and the National Academy of Legal Studies and Research (NALSAR). He is currently an advocate practicing before the Supreme Court of India and the Delhi High Court. He is also involved with a civil society organization that helped arrange for travel, food and medicine for migrant workers stuck as a result of the Covid-19 lockdown in India. This organization has filed Petitions before various Courts challenging state restrictions placed on the return of migrant workers.

The primary weapon used to counter epidemic outbreaks within the Indian subcontinent has, for the past 123 years, remained the 1897 Epidemics Act. The legislation grants special powers to State Governments, allowing them to make their own regulations to counter the spread of disease. This piece analyses the colonial history of the Indian response to epidemics, highlighting how it colours the manner in which the Indian State operates to this very day.

The colonial era response to disease, i.e., of executive highhandedness and a lack of concern for the poor, has seemingly been replicated by various parties in power both pre, and post- independence. Even today, the Indian state chooses to use excessive coercive force as a manner by which it can create or regulate a certain form of social behaviour. When we look back at the British era response to Cholera, we see how the Cholera-induced deaths of white soldiers and generals during the siege of 1857 led to the growing suspicion that it was spread by the local camp followers – all of whom were all indigenous civilians. These individuals mostly hailed from the lowest echelons of Indian society and were hierarchically ranked the lowest within the military. These individuals were treated as a different class of citizens, who barely deserved any care or attention.  No efforts were made to introduce medical care or hospitalization for the indigenous population. 

The closest the East India Company came to intervening in civil life was an attempt to study the link between Hindu pilgrimages and the spread of the disease, thereby resulting in the Company regulating the sanitation of such sites. European observers of the 1817-1821 outbreak noted one aspect of the disease that would be of particular significance for the subsequent history of disease in the subcontinent – its predilection for the poor and the undernourished.

This act of valuing a certain class of lives while barely caring for the other has not left us; it is alive in the approach taken by the Indian Government towards wage labourers and migrant workers during this period of lockdown. Judith Butler, in her writing on Precarious Life, spoke of how specific lives are never apprehended as injured or lost, if they were not apprehended as having been lived in the first instance. For a life to be ‘injurable’, i.e., that it could be neglected or destroyed, we accept the fact that such life is not only finite (that it shall certainly end in death) but that it is also precarious. This precariousness implies that life requires various social and economic conditions that need to be met. Thus, living in a society, the value of one’s life is always in the hands of others. The value of life is drawn from the fact that in the absence of care, it may be lost. Thus, grievability exists for a life that matters. In the absence of this ‘grievability’, there is something that isn’t a life, or rather, there is no life. In such a ‘no life’, it would be a life that has never been lived, therefore there exists no regard nor testimony, and such life is ungrieved when lost.

During the Cholera epidemic, there existed no respect or value attributed to the lives of the indigenous. No steps were taken to set up a civil medical association nor were basic healthcare systems made available to them. Applying Butler’s approach here, the only grievable life was that of the British or at most the lives of those indigenous who served as foot soldiers for the Company. This approach was continued by the British India Government in the subsequent Bombay Plague Outbreak, where they claimed  in the absence of a vaccine against the disease, there was nothing that they could do to help the indigenous. However, this was only half true; even though there was no vaccine, steps could have easily been taken to avoid the rapid spread of the disease within indigenous settlements. Basic steps (proper identification of the source of disease, effective quarantine) were already being practiced in civil lines and in British Settlements, but no move was made to try and set up these systems in rural areas (or rather, areas without British residents). It was only when concerns were raised that the industrial workforce was dwindling due to indigenous labourers falling ill, that the British Indian Government was forced to act. The Epidemic Diseases Act, drafted during the time of this plague, became an instrument of colonial domination and control.

The Act was often used to prevent the gathering of protestors in large numbers, prohibiting railway bookings, locking down areas where protests were simmering, imprisoning freedom fighters, and so on and so forth. The response to this legislation was of course, one of distrust and riot – the 1900 Plague Riot of Kanpur being one such example. Again, most individuals targeted under the law were those hailing from the economically or socially weaker sections of society. Rarely were any of the urban elites subjected to such treatment (with the exception of a few freedom fighters). Further, the planning of major Indian cities was done in a manner so as to safeguard the urban elite from disease

While India is no longer a suzerain subject, this cultural context of domination behind the Act still plays a part in how it is currently being used to implement the Covid-19 lockdown. The justification given for this sudden lockdown is that if it were to be forewarned, workers would carry the disease back to their districts of origin, thereby escalating the crisis at hand. However, one may then ask – what about those citizens stranded in foreign locations that were flown back to India? Further, when the extended lockdown was announced, the underlying assumption was that citizens could ‘just stay home’ and be ‘heroes’. How would this logic apply to workers who are now stranded on city streets, evicted from their places of work but now also unable to head home?

 The implementation of the lockdown without these considerations shows not a lack of planning, but rather a calculated cost the state is ready to pay. The lives of lakhs of migrants have been weighed against the danger Covid-19 poses to the urban elite. 

These lives are of no concern to the Government, they are what Butler calls the ‘ungrieved’, those who have a life not lived, and where there is no concern or grief when such life is lost. That is why it is so easy for the state to impose such a costly lockdown, because such lives do not often make the news the same way in which widespread deaths of middle or upper classes persons in an urban setting would (i.e., lives that are traditionally considered ‘grievable’).

There exists a need to counter the apathy we have towards the plight of those less fortunate than ourselves. This requires that we be empathic towards daily wagers and migrant workers, on the backs of whom our roads have been paved and our cities have been built. It is natural to understand the desire to return home in times of crisis, and to be surrounded by those we know, and it is incorrect to paint this desire as an attempt by the ill-informed to spread disease. 

The response to epidemics in the Indian context have always been at the cost of the socially and economically backward. There is a need to break away from this chain and value the lives of all citizens equally. Unfortunately, with the current state of things, and the manner in which states are treating migrants, this goal remains a distant dream.

Indigenous Environmental Justice: A Need for Substantial Recognition of Indigenous Voices

 By Guest Contributor Sakshi Aravind, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge. She works on Indigenous environmental justice in Australia, Brazil, and Canada. 

In the last week of May, the mining colossus Rio Tinto blasted the 46,000 years old Juukan Gorge rock shelters in Western Australia (WA) during its operations in Brockman 4 mines. The caves were of profound cultural and spiritual significance to the traditional owners, the Indigenous Puutu Kunti Kurrama (PKK) peoples, while also carrying immense historical and archaeological value. Rio Tinto had obtained ministerial consent from the state Minister for Aboriginal Affairs to carry out the blasts under Section 18 of the obsolete WA Aboriginal Heritage Act, 1972 (‘Heritage Act’). In response, the destruction of these culturally significant sites evoked shock and anger around the world. There were calls for addressing the deficiencies in the law, which does not make provisions for consultation with traditional owners or review of the ministerial consent in light of subsequent discoveries. Following this PR backlash, Rio Tinto attempted to recover with apologies and clarifications, although these went in vain. Rio Tinto’s specious regrets were as wicked as its attempts to attribute the blasts to certain ‘misunderstandings’.

Overhead view of the Rio Tinto mining at the Juukan Gorge rock shelters. // Source: Venture magazine

As I have argued elsewhere, these blasts are not a single event of destruction. They are an ongoing process of festering the wounds of settler colonial capitalism, which have never been allowed to heal. The destruction of Juukan Gorge is irreversible damage and an incommensurable loss to the traditional owners of western Pilbara. Further, they reveal a pattern of systemic erosion of Indigenous rights and identities. Rather than an exception, Rio Tinto is only emblematic of the noxious extractivism that has been foundational to the expansion and sustenance of capitalism and colonialism around the world. 

Elsewhere, First Nations in Canada have suffered repeated setbacks in their fight for rights over land and sovereignty against mining companies. While treaty rights and Constitutional rights have guaranteed a certain degree of Indigenous participation in decision making, categorically, often Indigenous sovereignty must concede to economic benefits. The recent blockade by Wet’ suwet’ en people in British Columbia against the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline illuminates the challenges of fighting for traditional territories against the combined forces of the State and private corporations. 

Brazil has also witnessed relentless destruction of forests and Indigenous territories by mining companies under the aegis of the Federal government, with little or no recourse to legal remedies. To put it plainly, the status of Indigenous rights, sovereignty, and environmental justice have been continually eroding in settler nations.  

The ‘duty of consult’, i.e. the obligation to consult and accommodate Indigenous interests in policies and decisions that affect them, has often been conflated with Indigenous environmental justice. It is said to embody aspects of participation and recognition within Indigenous rights framework. Jurisdictions like Canada, with an advanced constitutional recognition of Indigenous rights, have contributed significantly to the jurisprudence around duty to consult. Australia trails far behind in this respect. However, the legal frameworks of settler-colonial nations have only allowed for ‘consultation’ and not unequivocal consent. This approach blatantly fails to address the question of Indigenous self-determination and sovereignty over land and territory, some of which have been better articulated in international rights instruments such as The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (“UNDRIP”). 

The UNDRIP in 2007 was a notable political gesture from the state bodies in coming together and recognising the questions of indigenous differences and vulnerabilities. Despite criticisms for its inadequacy or watered-down provisions, the UN Declaration made substantial provisions for adhering to the ‘distribution-recognition-participation’ paradigm of environmental justice amongst other measures for political empowerment.The UN declaration: recognises obligation towards indigenous rights as an extension of the existing Human Rights obligations (Art 1); protects the First Nations from all forms of discrimination based on identities (Art 2); re-asserts the need for indigenous self-determination (Art 3); protects the communities from forceful dispossession from Indigenous land (Art.8 and Art.10); right to free and prior informed consent in any economic/military activities on indigenous lands (Art. 29, 30, and 32). Hardly any of them have made their way into domestic legislation in either Australia or Canada. 

As a consequence, Indigenous communities may be heard, but only as a matter of procedural necessity. First Nations continue to be denied the power to veto extractivist projects over their land and resources. Such denial has grave implications for the idea of Indigenous environmental justice. Achieving justice in settler colonial contexts demands truth and reconciliation. These values can only be accomplished by providing an apparatus for substantive Indigenous voices and representation in the social, political, and economic process. In Australia, the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the proposal to amend the Australian constitution to enshrine Indigenous voices in the Parliament is a significant step towards reformulating the idea of justice within a settler State.

Courts have attempted to achieve Indigenous environmental justice through means available to them. For instance, I have argued that in Gloucester Resources v Minister for Planning (Gloucester Resources), the New South Wales Land and Environment Court focussed on the testimony of Aboriginal elders, their connection to the land, and cultural heritage. Although Gloucester Resources was primarily articulated as a climate change litigation launched against the commencement of a coal mine, it had vital contributions to Indigenous environmental justice. While specific case laws cannot realise the idea of Indigenous environmental justice, they demonstrate the significance of ‘listening’ to Indigenous communities to achieve it. The blasts in WA have now provoked us to revisit what justice means. And we must revisit it in settler nations, mindful of the fact that they are established on the dispossession, displacement, and erasure of Indigenous peoples. 

Indigenous environmental justice cannot reconcile with extractivism and capitalism, which operate in cahoots with the State and perpetuate the erasure of Indigenous identities. Extractive economies thrive on the severing of Indigenous ties with land and environment. These exploitative idioms of capitalism cannot be remedied with mere ‘duty to consult’, just as the incommensurable loss of Juukan Gorge cannot be restored with trifling apologies or paltry compensations. Australia at this hour needs more than a review of heritage laws. It needs to acknowledge that the nation’s past and present are caught in toxic tangles of settler colonialism and capitalism. The redemption lies in accepting and acting on constitutional reform enshrined in Voice, Treaty, and Truth.

German Populist AfD Party Uses Moria Fires to Reinvigorate Anti-Refugee Sentiment

By: Guest Contributor Ali Cain. Ali is a M.A. Candidate in the European History, Politics and Society Program at Columbia University. Her MA research analyzes how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting the Alternative for Germany Party’s anti-refugee policies and rhetoric. 

The Alternative for Germany Party (AfD) is a far-right populist party that promotes protecting the German identity, traditional family values and climate change denial. Once a fringe party unable to meet the 5% voting threshold to enter the German Parliament, the AfD’s opposition to migration policies and xenophobia has elevated its support. After German Chancellor Angela Merkel opened Germany’s borders to one million refugees in 2015, the AfD both seized upon and helped instill fears over cultural differences, crime and violence. The Party’s fearmongering tactics were so successful that it became the third largest party in the German Parliament in the 2017 federal election. 

The AfD continues to be relentless with its attacks upon refugees as exhibited in its response to the recent fires in the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos. Capitalizing on lingering societal anxiety from the 2015 migration crisis, the AfD criticized the German government for agreeing to take in 1,500 of the 13,000 refugees stranded at Moria. Although it’s unclear whether the fires were set intentionally, the Party argues that refugees started the fires to get to Germany. Currently, AfD’s approval ratings are at their lowest point since the 2017 election as more Germans rebuke populist politicians, especially as there’s increasing support for the Merkel government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. It’s unclear how the AfD’s theories about the Moria fires will impact its support as a recent poll found that the majority of Germans are open to accepting refugees from Moria as long as other European countries do so as well. It’s almost certain, however, that the AfD’s exploitation of the Moria fires will continue to harden xenophobic attitudes and heighten the demonization of refugees.

Moria refugee camp. // creative commons

The AfD’s deprecation of refugees as a central party component is most evident in its transition from an anti-European Union (EU) party to Germany’s leading voice on nativism. Upon its establishment in 2013, the Party opposed  the Eurozone and resisted bailing out neighboring countries during the 2008 economic crisis. Most of its founders and supporters were disaffected members of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union Party (CDU) who were fiscally conservative and against using German tax-payer funds to help struggling countries like Greece. As refugees increasingly arrived at European shores in 2015, opposition to the Eurozone developed into vehement resistance to the EU and open borders. The AfD’s voter demographics and party leadership shifted to reflect extremely conservative values, including the belief that the German identity was threatened by newcomers. The Party seized on isolated incidents of violence, including migrant attacks on women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve 2015 and a 2016 terrorist attack by a failed asylum seeker in Berlin, to projecta picture of all refugees as criminals and terrorists. 

By leading the charge against Merkel’s migration policies, the AfD has obtained its highest levels of success yet.  It’s not only the third largest party in the Bundestag but the main opposition party as well. Although the mainstream parties were successful in blocking out the AfD from joining the ruling government coalition, its status grants the Party a bigger public platform and more financial resources. The AfD is additionally represented in all 16 state governments and the European Parliament’s Identity and Democracy Group. Although the AfD’s success is alarming, 2017 may have been the Party’s peak. A recently published study by the Bertelsmann Foundation revealed that only 20% of Germans voters support populism. Although it was concluded that populist support began waning in 2019, the government’s COVID-19 response has recently increased Merkel’s appeal. Her current approval rating is over 70%, compared to 56% in 2019. It was also found, however, that AfD supporters have become more right-wing, signaling that those who remain supporters fully embrace the AfD’s xenophobic, nationalist beliefs. 

The AfD’s Facebook page reflects its deepening shift to the far-right. Its COVID-19 response mimics that of Donald Trump in denying how serious the pandemic is and arguing that mandated mask requirements violate German’s constitutional freedoms. The Party constantly criticizes Merkel, “the Left,” and climate change activists. The AfD also helped encourage anti-coronavirus lockdown protests in Berlin that included the storming of Germany’s Parliament building in late August. The Party’s anti-refugee rhetoric continues to dominate its social media in an attempt to salvage its support among centrist voters. In 2020, the AfD has posted more social media content on migration than on COVID-19. Its Facebook posts on the Moria fires and the government’s response, including claims that Merkel is the “mama of Africans” and is encouraging refugees to start future camp fires, demonstrate that the scapegoating and demonization of refugees remains the Party’s main initiative. Given its decreasing public support, the AfD will continue to exploit the situation for its own political gain just as it has done since 2015.

The Moria fires and the AfD’s response reveals how lack of European unity on migration policies hurts refugees and bolsters populist parties. Advocates have criticized the horrific conditions of the Moria camp for years with no action from the Greek government and the EU. Greece’s pleas for more EU assistance have been consistently put off, increasing strain on the country’s already fragile welfare and economic systems. As a result, the Greeks have become more belligerent in rejecting asylum seekers as demonstrated in reports that authorities forced 1,000 asylum seekers onto inflatable boats and abandoned them in the Mediterranean this past summer.  In the aftermath of the Moria fire, the Greek government blames refugees for arson. 13,000 remain homeless and although Greece said it will build a new reception center, it will take months to do so. Along with Germany, nine other EU countries announced that they will take in 400 refugee children from the fires. This is not enough and will never be enough. 

The European Commission’s release of its Migration Pact on September 23 destroys any lingering hope that there will be a unified European response to migration and emboldens far-right parties like the AfD. Instead of developing mechanisms to enforce mandatory resettlement quotas for all 27 EU member states, the Pact gives states the option to accept refugees or help pay for their deportation to countries of origin or transit. Merkel’s government will face a precarious decision as the AfD may call for Germany to increase its financial contributions for deportations. Additionally, the Pact expands the Dublin Regulation, which mandates that refugees must register for asylum in the country they arrive in. If an asylum seeker has family in an EU member state, they could be relocated there. Given that Germany continues to accept thousands of refugees, it will be responsible for reuniting families if the Pact is approved. The AfD has jumped on the Pact by relying on its traditional culture war narrative that paints refugees as incompatible with the German identity; AfD Federal Spokesman Joerg Meuthen wrote on Facebook, “the new EU Migration Pact is a fight against our entire western way of life, welfare state, freedom, and Christian culture.” The AfD, along with other European far-right parties, started a petition against the Pact and are arguing that the EU is trying to replace the “people of Europe” with refugees and migrants.  

COVID-19 has so far helped decrease support for populist parties in Europe. However, migration issues, such as the Moria fires, may revitalize the AfD’s appeal at home. The 2021 federal elections and Merekl’s planned departure grant the AfD an opportunity to increase its power in the Bundestag and participate in a coalition government. The Party’s nativism will only increase and put more refugees and migrants at risk.

Stranded in Near Statelessness: The Coronavirus and Nepali Migrant Workers

By Kelly Dudine, staff writer for RightsViews 

Men, women and children spend days in an open field, hungry, thirsty, exhausted, and abandoned. Unable to stay in India due to job loss following the Coronavirus pandemic, and prevented from traveling back to their homes in Nepal amid fears of spreading the virus, these Nepali migrant workers and their families are stranded at the Nepal-India border in a form of temporary statelessness.

“How many days can children go without food or water? How many days? This is a human rights violation,” says Maggie Doyne, Co-Founder of the BlinkNow Foundation.

The non-profit is among many local and international organizations responding to the growing humanitarian crisis in Nepal, including the Nepalgunj Medical College, ODA Foundation, Mottey Gang, Nepal Red Cross, and NYEF – Kathmandu Chapter, among others. 

Stepping in where the State is failing to meet the needs of its people, relief efforts are establishing food distribution banks and providing essential care services to thousands of returning migrant workers. Beyond the borders, hundreds of thousands more are stranded overseas in equally grave circumstances, anxiously waiting to be allowed to return home.

Nepal is struggling to respond to the pandemic in a way that meets human rights standards, and there are doubts on whether its economy and healthcare systems can absorb the influx of citizens returning home from foreign countries. Both immediately and in the long run, Nepali migrant workers and the families who rely on their remittances for survival face increased risks of joblessness, homelessness, and extreme poverty.  

While the current situation in Nepal is dire, the coronavirus only exacerbates the abuses already experienced by this community. Migrant workers around the globe consistently experience extreme exploitation and abuse. The coronavirus further exposes the harsh realities of the migrant worker economy, and emphasizes that both home and host countries are not doing enough to protect the hundreds of thousands of men, women, and youth who make up the migrant workforce. 

Global Context: The Plight of Migrant Workers

The global migrant worker economy is massive: in 2017, there were around 164 million migrant workers globally, almost half of whom were women, and in 2018, global remittances reached a record-high of $689 billion. Yet, even before the Coronavirus pandemic, it was rife with challenges and human rights abuses. 

Many countries, particularly in Southeast Asia, support and promote the export of labor as an economic strategy to drive development. Despite this, the very existence of the migrant worker economy is fraught with contradiction. On one hand, migrant workers are prized because their home countries greatly benefit from remittances and in turn host countries receive cheap, under regulated labor. On the other hand, migrant workers are often disrespected and devalued in both host and home countries. 

Globally, migrant workers experience discrimination, low or unpaid wages, poor work and living conditions, insufficient social protections, and precarious legal statuses. In the Gulf States, for example, the kafala system limits the rights of migrant workers by tying worker visas and legal statuses to their employers. It is not uncommon for migrant workers to have to give up their passports, experience restrictions on their freedom of movement, and face imprisonment for leaving a job without the employer’s permission. Migrant workers are also often victims to fraudulent and deceptive recruitment practices, leaving them in exploitive work environments and trapped in overwhelming financial debt.

In response to the needs of this vulnerable labor force, various international labor and human rights mechanisms have sought to establish a foundation of legal protections for migrant workers, including the UN International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, and the International Labor Organization (ILO) Migration for Employment Convention and Migrant Workers (Supplementary Provisions) Convention. However, these treaties often have low levels of ratification, which makes them harder to enforce and implement. The UN Convention, for example, has only been ratified by 20 states. Nepal has not ratified any of these international treaties.

Female migrant workers are especially vulnerable. Economic discrimination and oppressive patriarchal norms are key motivators for migration, and many women resort to illegal migration to circumvent social barriers, which leaves them outside the realm of state protections. Women often take on low-skilled jobs, work in the garment sector, or provide domestic care work, which is a largely unprotected sector of employment. According to the ILO, migrant domestic care workers around the world often have no access to social or legal protections, and many are vulnerable to extreme labor exploitation and gender-based violence in their host countries. In 2013, the ILO Convention on Domestic Workers entered into force, aiming to increase protection of domestic workers, including their right to receive fair wages, limited working hours and adequate rest, and the choice of where to live. This convention, however, also has a low level of ratification, with only 29 State Parties. Nepal has not joined the Convention. 

Additionally, states that benefit from remittance-driven economies promote policies and protections to help to increase the export of labor by making it more attractive to potential migrant workers. However, in practice, the enforcement of such policies is lacking, which leaves citizens abroad vulnerable to abuse.

Simply put, a market like the migrant worker economy, which functions on the backs of thousands of exploited and neglected people, will never be resilient to shocks or crises like the Coronavirus, nor will it thrive in the long run. 

Nepal’s Migrant Workers

Migrant workers provide an economic lifeline for the Nepali economy. Many young people travel abroad to find employment, earn an income, and provide for their families back home through remittances. According to a recent report by the Nepal Ministry of Labour and Employment (NMLE), remittance inflows reached 26.9% of Nepal’s national GDP in 2017, making the country the fourth highest remittance recipient in the world. More than 3.5 million migrant labor permits have been issued to Nepali nationals over the last nine years, with migration concentrated in Malaysia and the Gulf States. India is another leading receiver of Nepali migration; however, due to open borders, there are limited records of migration flows and little information on how many Nepali citizens live and work in the country. 

The NMLE report also indicates that many Nepali migrant workers have negative experiences abroad. Between 2013-2016, 12,090 complaints were filed with the Department of Foreign Employment (DOFE), which included requests for repatriation, assistance in repossessing passports, and rescue from the destination country. 

The International Organization on Migration states that young Nepali women are increasingly traveling abroad to seek job opportunities. India is thought to be the leading receiver of women migrant workers, followed by the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia. In the latter countries, Nepali women typically take on cleaning labor or domestic care work.

In the Gulf States in particular, abuse of women migrant workers is reported to be rampant, leading the government of Nepal to enact various bans over the years on women migrant workers traveling to those areas. Most recently, in 2016, Nepal implemented a ban specifically restricting domestic care work in those states. This move, however, has been criticized for potentially causing more harm than good. Without addressing social policies and economic disparities at home, which are often triggers for migration, the ban is said to be doing little more than forcing women workers to migrate through unsafe channels, and to be less protected by the government while abroad. Additionally, despite concerns, more than 20,000 women were permitted to travel to Gulf States for other jobs in 2017, while an untold number of women left Nepal without documentation to avoid the ban. 

Fraudulent recruitment practices are a critical challenge in the migrant worker economy, which often trap migrant workers in desperate situations and leave their families with insurmountable financial debts. Over the years, the government of Nepal introduced various policies to address these practices, including the introduction of an information management system to increase transparency and policies to minimize recruitment fees. However, a report on these policies conducted by Amnesty International found that little progress has been made in addressing the causes of abuse nor in holding those responsible to account.  

Furthermore, a review of Nepal’s migrant labor policies conducted by the ILO in 2017 showed that while Nepal’s legal frameworks promote employment abroad as a “safe and decent prospect for potential migrants,” implementation of the policies have been lacking. Among these are the National Labour Policy of 1999, Foreign Employment Act of 2007, and the Foreign Employment Policy of 2012. The report shows that while the policies aim to increase protections for Nepali citizens working abroad, they have received limited enforcement. It also notes that Nepal’s national laws do not include regulations around recruitment of migrant workers, and as described above, Nepal is not a State Party to many relevant international legal mechanisms which could help to increase the legitimacy of Nepal’s protection policies. 

The Coronavirus Pandemic and the Growing Humanitarian Crisis in Nepal

The vulnerability of Nepali migrant workers, the dependence on this labor for economic growth, the shock of the Coronavirus, and the lack of support for returning nationals is contributing to a growing humanitarian crisis in Nepal. 

In response to the Coronavirus, the government of Nepal ordered a mandatory lockdown in early March, cutting off travel to and from the country, effectively leaving thousands of Nepali nationals stranded at their country’s border or overseas. Migrant workers began reporting that their precarious positions abroad were becoming a matter of life or death; poor living conditions and lack of access to healthcare increase public health risks, companies are withholding past pay, workers are losing their jobs without unemployment insurance or residency rights, and many Nepali citizens find themselves penniless, homeless, and alone, sleeping on the streets of foreign lands. 

The situation at the neighboring border with India is equally challenging. Closed borders and bridges have forced some to swim across the Mahakali river to enter Nepal, while others have  been held on crowded buses or left in forests for days waiting for COVID-19 testing, often without food or water. When they finally reach quarantine centers, they face discrimination, overcrowding, and a lack of basic sanitation and essential care services. 

The situation will only increase in severity, as an estimated 400,000 migrant workers are waiting to return to Nepal. This is a staggering number when considering the country’s resource constraints. Nepali doctors warn that the country’s already weak healthcare system may not be able to keep up with the pandemic, and there is limited job opportunity to support everyone in need of employment. 

Nepal is among the many South Asian countries that are grappling with reintegration plans. Governments that typically rely on exported labor are now facing the immense task of reincorporating workers into the home economy, which remain largely shut down due to the pandemic. Experts warn that such mass movements of people can pose health and safety risks and lead to increased social unrest. 

In the long run, Nepal’s economy is expected to take strain, threatening businesses and workers alike. A report by the World Bank estimates that economic growth in Nepal will fall to 1.5 – 2.8%, largely due lower remittances from abroad and a decrease in trade and tourism caused by the Coronavirus. Low-income people are projected to be hit the hardest, as food and housing security is threatened, which could reinforce inequality within the country.

Ultimately, while Nepal has greatly benefitted from risky exported labor, the care and compassion for those workers has been limited. The failure of Nepali authorities to repatriate its citizens abroad may even violate international human rights law, which protects the right of all people to return to their country of citizenship. Additionally, the lack of essential services provided to repatriated citizens upon return to Nepal violates their human rights to food, water, shelter, and healthcare. 

Looking Ahead: An Opportunity for Change

The efforts of local actors to address the needs of returning nationals provides some hope for immediate relief. Among them, a new campaign started by Nepali influencers, called Nyaano Swaagat, or “Welcome Home,” aims to combat the discrimination and stigma experienced by migrant workers, and to provide important resources, including tools to manage mental health and wellness. By focusing on maintaining the dignity of the men, women and children who are returning home, the campaign advocates an important shift in the perception of migrant workers and the government’s treatment of its own citizens. 

Campaigns like this should remain strong post-coronavirus to combat perceptions of migrant workers and keep advocating for changes to the global migrant worker economy. 

Additionally, national policies need to be more than just reactive; they must be transformative. With the Coronavirus casting a much needed light on the plight of migrant workers, now is the time to establish a stronger enabling environment that better protects and supports citizens abroad at all times, not just times of crisis.

The ILO has issued a list of recommendations to help governments design coronavirus policy responses that ensure the protection of migrant workers. Leveraging these recommendations, Nepal must work to assist workers in returning home safely, and provide quality care and support when they arrive home.

When thinking long term, the World Economic Forum suggests that digitization can make migrant workers more resilient to future shocks. Recommendations include leveraging ‘know your customer’ (e-KYC) systems and linking digital remittances to savings or pension accounts that can support families in times of need. Additionally, countries like Nepal can strengthen protections for migrant workers in contracts with both host countries and the private sector.

Nepal should also make the protection of migrant workers more systematic and explicit by ratifying all relevant international human rights treaty bodies and allocating budget and resources for their implementation. Additionally, social and economic policies that encourage job growth in Nepal could help to stem the need for labor migration, allowing families to stay together and support Nepal’s development from within. 

Without real structural changes to improve the resilience of this labor force, the coronavirus will be just one shock of many to come, and countries like Nepal will remain exposed and vulnerable to future humanitarian crises.

A Glimpse of Hope from the U.S. Supreme Court: Bostock v. Clayton County

Guest Contributor Rosa Celorio is an Associate Dean for International and Comparative Legal Studies and Burnett Family Professorial Lecturer in International and Comparative Law and Policy, Rcelorio@law.gwu.edu, https://www.law.gwu.edu/rosa-celorio. (Full Bio at end of  article).

On June 15, 2020, the United States Supreme Court released its historic decision in the case of Bostock v. Clayton County, ruling that employers are prohibited from discriminating against any individual on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity in the employment setting. The case relates to three employees who claimed they were fired after revealing they were homosexual and transgender. The Court firmly ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its prohibition of sex discrimination applies to gay and transgender persons. 

This decision is momentous and noteworthy for the respect and guarantee of human rights in the United States for several reasons.  First, it continues the trend of the Supreme Court in protecting the rights of persons historically discriminated against due to their sexual orientation and gender identity. The decision in Bostock is an important addition to the line of cases already adopted by the Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges, guaranteeing the right to marriage equality, and Lawrence v. Texas, declaring the unconstitutionality of laws which prohibit private intimate activity between homosexual persons. The Court also offers an expansive interpretation of the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sex under the landmark Civil Rights Act, thereby offering federal judicial protection to millions of LGBTI people who are employed in the United States.  The majority affirmatively concludes that it is unconstitutional for sexual orientation and gender identity to be considered as factors in employment decisions.    

Second, it is remarkable how the Supreme Court continues identifying and protecting human rights, even when they are not explicitly included in the Constitution or federal laws. In Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court emphasized its role in identifying and protecting human rights under the Constitution, even when these are not reflected in existing legislation. This statement clearly created significant discussion and disagreements between the justices, leading to dissenting opinions in Obergefell emphasizing that the creation of rights solely belongs to the political and democratic process. The debate over the appropriate reach of the Supreme Court in identifying new rights is also very latent in Bostock, as reflected in the dissenting opinions of Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Brett Kavanaugh.  The Supreme Court decision in Bostock illustrates how the check and balances system in the United States and the role of the courts can be paramount in protecting the rights of marginalized populations, especially in the area of non-discrimination.

Thirdly, the United States is currently a very divided and broken country. Much of the present polarization is related to a deep-seeded history of discrimination and inequality, which has led to protests and claims for much needed reform of current laws, policies, and institutions. It is very noteworthy that this decision was authored by Justice Neil Gorsuch, who is considered a conservative.  Judge Gorsuch applies a textualist approach to the interpretation of the Civil Rights Act, concluding that the plain text of this statute leads to the conclusion that discrimination on the basis of sex also protects homosexual and transgender persons. Chief Justice Roberts – who is also considered a conservative jurist – joined the majority.  In a moment of deep concerns in the United States over discrimination, it is extraordinary to see Justices applying conservative legal interpretation to advance the rights of millions of persons. 

Lastly, the Bostock decision is in line with numerous judgments adopted by international courts offering a flexible interpretation to the prohibition of discrimination in international and regional treaties.  For example, both the European Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights have ruled on cases establishing that sexual orientation and gender identity are considered prohibited factors under the European and American Conventions on Human Rights, even though these treaties do not explicitly mention these motives in its discrimination provisions.  As the author has indicated in her previous scholarship, an open interpretation of the non-discrimination clauses in domestic laws is a key gain for legal standards related to discrimination, and for sectors and communities particularly exposed to human rights violations. It will be very interesting to see the impact that Bostock will undoubtedly have on the crafting of new federal and state legislation in the United States protecting the rights of LGBTI persons in the employment and other settings. 

The Supreme Court ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County is groundbreaking and an important step forward in the protection of the rights of the LGBTI community in the United States. United States courts can potentially be the guardians of important human rights protections, the guarantee of non-discrimination, and access to justice.  

The US Supreme Court offered us in Bostock a glimpse of hope when most needed. 

_______________________________________________________________________

Author Bio:

Rosa Celorio currently works as Associate Dean for International and Comparative Legal Studies and Burnett Family Professorial Lecturer in International and Comparative Law and Policy
at the George Washington University Law School in Washington, DC. She also teaches courses related to the US legal system, regional protection of human rights, and the rights of women, and publishes scholarship in these areas.  Previously, she worked for more than a decade as Senior Attorney for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), one of the main organs of the regional human rights protection system for the Americas. In this capacity, she held various leadership positions, including the supervision of all the legal work performed by the specialized Rapporteurships on women, LGBTI persons, indigenous peoples, racial discrimination, children, and older persons, among others. She has also acted as an advisor and consultant for several United Nations agencies. She is originally from Puerto Rico.

For more information, see: https://www.law.gwu.edu/rosa-celorio

 

Fait Accompli: Singapore Again Upholds Section 377A Criminalising Homosexuality

Co-authored by guest contributors Paras Ahuja and Rahul Garg. 

Paras Ahuja is an undergraduate student pursuing law at the National Law University, Jodhpur. Her research interests include human rights, constitutional law and feminism. 

Rahul Garg is an undergraduate student pursuing law at the National Law University, Jodhpur. His research interests include gender studies, human rights and international humanitarian law.

On 30th March, 2020, the Supreme Court of the Republic of Singapore in Ong Ming Johnson v. Attorney-General upheld the constitutional validity of Section 377A of the Singapore Penal Code, 1871. Section 377A punishes any male person who commits an act of “gross indecency” with another male person, whether in public or in private. The judgement marks itself as a regressive touchpoint in Singapore’s progression towards inclusiveness and equality. 

Article 14(1) (a) of the Constitution of Singapore guarantees every citizen the right to freedom of speech and expression. The petitioners in this case contended that Section 377A derogated this right by failing to recognize one’s sexual orientation to be a part of the term “expression” within Article 14. While interpreting the term “expression,” the court applied the rule of “ejusdem-generis”. The rule postulates that wherever there is an enumeration of a list of specific things followed by a generic term, the genus term (here, “expression”) should be interpreted in context of the specie term(s) (here, “speech”) and not in its widest possible construction. The court, upon application of this rule, observed that “expression” is therefore restricted only to verbal “speech” and excludes sexual identity of a person. It, therefore, held that the right to freedom of expression is encompassed within the right to freedom of speech, reducing the term “and expression” to redundancy and surplusage. 

We argue that that is an erroneous application of ejusdem-generis. It is settled law that ejusdem-generis should not be applied in a way that makes the usage of the genus term redundant in a provision. This is a fundamental principle of statutory interpretation pointed out in case laws citing Sutherland. The Singaporean court’s interpretation, on the other hand, renders the term “expression” otiose and goes against the principle that legislature doesn’t use words in vain. 

Additionally, the court relied on the marginal note of Article 14 [i.e. “Freedom of speech”, assembly and association] to ascertain the scope of the provision in order to buttress its holding that “expression” is subsumed within “speech”, since the marginal note mentioned only “speech”. This reliance conflicts with the Singapore Supreme Court’s former observation in the case of Ezion Holdings Ltd v Teras Cargo Transport Pte Ltd, where marginal notes were held to be non-exhaustive and imprecise and therefore, not determinative enough of the true contents of a provision. 

The court, furthermore, conveniently maneuvered its way to protect Section 377A from the violation of right to life and personal liberty, enshrined under Article 9(1) of the Constitution. In refusing to include the protection of “homosexual-identity” within the scope of personal liberty, the court aligns its reasoning by saying that the right to personal liberty was not an absolute one, but was qualified. It stated that “unenumerated rights were not capable of specific protection.” However, this seems particularly faulty, as “personal liberty” by itself is an abstract right; it is a collection of rights involving several aspects of a person’s life and doesn’t guarantee any specific individual right singularly. In this context, the exclusion of “unenumerated rights” from the scope of personal liberty will leave it hollow and subject to arbitrary discretion as to its scope. 

In its reasoning, the court also observed that Section 377A does not criminalise a male homosexual for his “homosexual orientation”, but only for the actus reus consisting of performance of a homosexual activity with another man. The court additionally stated that a heterosexual man would be equally liable if he were to commit a homosexual act. This distinction between criminalising the “state of homosexuality” and the conduct, that is, the “homosexual act” is farcical and theoretical. This distinction fails as it renders the manifestation of the sexual identity impractical by punishing the conduct. Identifying the flaw in such an argument, the US Supreme Court in the case of Lawrence v. Texas noted that when the act that is criminalised is so closely correlated with the “state-of-being-homosexual”, it resultantly has the effect of defining the very identity as criminal. 

The court, in its subtlety, eschewed from answering the question of whether or not the sexual orientation of a person is an immutable factor. The question of immutability was deemed central by the court since the granting of the right to life and personal liberty in this case was considered to be contingent on the recognition of sexual orientation as immutable. However, frustrated with overwhelming scientific evidence from both sides in this regard, the court eventually declared this question outside the realm of legal discussion, belonging rather to the area of scientific controversy. We argue that there is no relevance of a conclusive determination on the aspect of immutability to the question of recognition of the fundamental rights. Either way, there is vacuity in the reasoning of the court as to why a chosen sexual orientation should not be entitled to the same constitutional protection in as much as an immutable sexual orientation would be, along the “born-with-it”/“it-is-my-choice” spectrum. Therefore, regardless of homosexuality falling anywhere between this immutability/choice spectrum, the larger human rights violation relates to the resultant stigma associated with criminalization. The judgment ultimately legitimises an assumed sense of normalcy which according to the court, is only heterosexuality. At the same time, it portrays homosexuality as an anomaly not protected by fundamental rights. 

The judgement, therefore, observes a false understanding of various provisions and judicial tools of interpretation, seemingly to achieve a predestined holding. The bench microcosmically imposes its own ideas of heteronormativity on the Singaporean society, which is not only upsetting, but also mistaken.

The Tibetan Model of Resistance: Human Rights in Tibet

Guest Contributor Divya Malhotra is pursuing her Ph.D. from the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and is a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute, New Delhi where she monitors and documents Pakistan-Middle East relations. Her areas of interest include human rights studies. Her writing has appeared in the Times of Israel blog. 

The world today is riddled with violence and conflict. Countries across Asia and Africa are engaged in a perpetual struggle for political and religious autonomy and self-determination. Be it West Asia’s Arab Spring, Israeli-Palestinian conflict over land, the Baloch and Pashtun separatist movements in Pakistan, or the turmoil in Kashmir, violence has become accepted as a status-quo in these areas. However, one community’s struggle for separation has had an intriguingly peaceful and spiritual dimension: the Tibetan resistance movement.     

Historical Background

The Tibetan independence movement is a political movement for the independence of Tibet and the political separation of Tibet from China. It has been principally been led by the Tibetan Diaspora across the globe. In 1950, China’s People’s Liberation Army invaded Tibet, marking the beginning of their struggle for self-determination. In May 1951, the agreement of the Central People’s Government and the Local Government of Tibet on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet was signed in Beijing, giving Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, control over Tibet’s internal affairs. The tensions between both sides continued and in July 1956, Qimai Gongbo, headman of Tibet’s Gyamda County, led a rebellion against the Chinese government. In 1956, the Dalai Lama reached New Delhi via Sikkim where his elder brother Norbo joined him after his trip from the US. As per Chen’s account, Norbo advised the Dalai Lama to either lead the Tibetan struggle from India or the US. The Lama, however, returned to Lhasa to lead his people. 

In March 1959, China brutally suppressed mass uprisings in Tibet, leaving 545 Tibetan rebels dead and over 4,800 wounded. “We only lived to kill the Chinese”, recalls one Tibetan veteran, hinting at the essentially violent character of the freedom movement. At the outset of the brutal uprising in 1959, fearing for his life, the Dalai Lama and his entourage fled Tibet with the help of the CIA, crossing into India in March and reaching Tezpur in Assam on 18 April. Eventually he set up the Government of Tibet in Exile in Dharamshala, India, popularly known as “Little Lhasa“. 

The Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), headquartered in McLeod Ganj, Dharamshala, was established in 1960 as the “sole and legitimate government” of Tibetans. The CTA was authorised to look after the immediate and long-term needs of Tibetan people with special focus on seven major areas, namely, religion and culture, home affairs, finance, security, education, health, and International Relations. Under this charter and structure, the series of institutions run by the Dalai Lama have been creative, constructive and productive in nature.  

The Tibetan flag, adopted by the 13th Dalai Lama in 1916 and used in official capacity through 1951. Since then, it is used only by the Government in Exile and is symbolic of an ongoing freedom movement.

After the founding of the government in exile, he re-established the approximately 80,000 Tibetan refugees who followed him into exile in agricultural settlements. The Tibetan struggle has not been at rest since then, as has also been well documented by famous authors including Qingying Chen, Brazinsky and Melvyn Goldstein

Two external players have been important to the Tibetan struggle during its infancy; India – which offered an alternate home to the Tibetan community in exile and the US, as elaborated by Qingying Chen in his detailed treatise “Tibetan History”. With the principal intention of containing Communist China, the intelligence agency is believed to have channelled annual amount of USD 1.7 million for anti-China operations, including USD 180,000 annual subsidy for the Dalai Lama. As per Gregg Brazinsky, Kennedy and Johnson administration offered continued support to Tibetan rebels, and two “Tibet houses” were established in New York and Geneva to coordinate with Tibetan leadership. Washington and Delhi’s support to Tibet was perhaps motivated by anti-Beijing sentiments and respective geopolitical interests. The US support was helpful till the 1990s, but after the fall of communism in 1989, the American policy toward China changed and “they stopped their help”. Nevertheless, their support came handy for the fragile Tibetan movement. 

Characteristics of the Movement

While most of the other global secessionist movements have focused on training militia and perpetuating violence, this movement has essentially had a spiritual dimension to it. The Dalai Lama guided and led his people in a profound and positive manner. For any political movement, the personality of the leader is instrumental to shaping the struggle. By that logic, the Dalai Lama’s positive personal spiritual aura has also spilled over into the Tibetan resistance movement. Although he holds immense influence for Tibetans and their politics, the Dalai Lama still sees himself as a “simple Buddhist monk” and not a political leader. His day starts at 3 in the morning and ends at 7 in the evening: a reflection of his simplistic and pristine lifestyle. Yet, he continues to mentor a seven decades old freedom struggle and his political views revolve around the notion of democracy. In his own words, “No system of government is perfect, but democracy is closest to our essential human nature. So it is in all our interests that those of us who already enjoy democracy should actively support everybody’s right to do so.”

Labelled as a “brilliant master of this elusive modern equilibrium”, the Dalai Lama is an enigma. In his book The Open road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Pico Iyer beautifully articulates how the Dalai Lama spends his day “meditating on the roots of compassion and what he can do for his people, the Chinese brothers and sisters who are holding his people hostage” and at the same time, continues his spiritual journey. 

Instead of defining his people’s struggle in terms of “Good Tibetans, bad Chinese”, the Dalai Lama, with an essentially positive prism, sees the issue as a struggle between “Potentially good Tibetans, potentially good Chinese”. In 1989, the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel peace prize for his approach to Tibetan liberation. It won’t be wrong to state that the Dalai Lama always emphasized on non-violence and practises of meditation, yoga and spirituality for protecting human rights.

Introspection, meditation, spirituality and peaceful mediation have been at the core of the movement. Even though the Dalai Lama retired from his position of the political head of Tibetan people in 2011, his ideas and ideals continue to define the movement. Human rights violations have been documented in Tibet, where Chinese authorities continue to restrict and refrain the people from expressing their support for freedom. There have been cases of arrest and self-immolations. Yet the struggle in itself has been devoid of the massive bloodshed and violence which dominates and depicts the struggle of other communities in the rest of the Asian subcontinent. Tough, resilient and persistent, the community has not given up on its demands in accordance with the Dalai Lama’s peaceful ethics.  

Despite the armed uprisings in the beginning and continued violent suppression by Chinese authorities, the resistance movement in Tibet has been relatively peaceful in nature, following the Dalai Lama’s peace oriented approach. However one may wonder whether this approach to secession has yielded any tangible gains? A basic overview clearly indicates that the Tibetan struggle has not reaped any concrete benefits. The number of casualties varies from a few thousands to millions, based on different data sources. However at a comparative level, what have the Palestinians, the Balochs, the Pashtuns and the Kashmiris gained by adopting violence? All these communities, allegedly suppressed by the powerful regimes, have not made much notable territorial or political gains either way.     

Amidst perpetual conflict and bloodshed, the peaceful nature of the Tibetan struggle, because of the Dalai Lama’s influence, is an inspiration to a new generation. Perhaps if the world were to follow a Tibetan model of struggle, logic and peace will prevail while giving everyone a chance to express their dissent without harming the others.   

Exploring Careers in Human Rights: ISHR’s 2020 Human Rights Career Panel

Exploring Careers in Human Rights: ISHR’s 2020 Human Rights Career Panel

By Rowena Kosher, Co-Editor of RightsViews 

In the midst of the global pandemic of COVID-19, orders of social distancing and indoor sheltering in place, students and panelists tuned in virtually for ISHR’s annual career panel last week, meeting through screens to discuss what the multiplicity of careers in the human rights field can look like. Gergana Halpern, ISHR’s Director of Educational Programming, moderated the panel. 

The Panelists – What Do You Do?

Halpern began the session by asking each of the four panelists to introduce themselves, their current work, and what their job entails. 

Louis Bickford is the CEO and founder of Memria, an online platform for the collection and sharing of stories through audio and text, and an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at ISHR. He has 20 years of experience in the human rights field and as such has worked in a variety of capacities, including in truth commissions, testimonial collection, academia, NGOs, and now technology. 

Rebecca Norlander is the Lead Researcher at Knology, a “collective of scientists, writers, and educators dedicated to studying and untangling complex social issues.” Knology focuses on providing practical approaches to problems in which human rights play a role. Norlander highlighted that her current job looks at human rights at large from a variety of approaches, encouraging cultural appreciation and identifying best practices in advancing positive social change. She identified two focus areas of her work: institutions themselves—how can they serve as vectors to advance social good?—and human rights education.

Karen Karnicki, an alumna of ISHR’s Human Rights MA program, is a Program Associate at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF). RBF is a philanthropic grant-making institution with an endowment to support projects worldwide. RBF’s investment assets as of January 31, 2020 total $1.26 billion. Karnicki works on a program that provides grants to civil society organizations focused on peacebuilding. Karnicki’s responsibilities are twofold: firstly, she performs grants administration and management, including advocating for grant recipients and ensuring grants comply with IRS and other regulations. Secondly, Karnicki travels to meet various people involved in the grant application process, giving her the opportunity to see the work of many civil society organizations and their human rights-related missions.

Daniela Karrenstein is a Political Affairs Officer at the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism’s policy unit. She prepares talking points and makes background notes on policy issues that will be later discussed with the Secretary General and other senior officials. A significant portion of her job involves working with the many UN member states, attempting to find common ground in opinions on policy approaches or document provisions. She also handles the preparation of the Under-Secretary-General for engagements on issues of strategic interest to the broader UN. 

Breaking Down Partnerships in Human Rights

Halpern queried about the nature of partnerships in human rights work. Human rights is filled with many actors. How can one identify the right actors to work with, and what do partnerships look like? Agreeing, Bickford stated that “this entire field is built on partnerships,” and although the nature of the actors and partnerships may vary, they all boil down to the same conversation. In essence, all partnerships are about developing strategies and alignments, asking “how can we work together?” and “What do we bring to the table?” Of course, not all partnerships will work out, such as an instance when a funder may decline to contribute to an applicant, but when partnerships have been established, they operate through communication and a shared commitment to human rights issues.

Karrenstein described the nature of her specific engagement in human rights partnerships, ones which exist within the large intergovernmental system of the UN. Because of the legal and moral authority of the UN, universal values as enshrined in the UN charter are the basis of the UN’s human rights work. United by this commitment, member states ideally work together to develop solutions to international issues. In her capacity, Karrenstein is able to have direct contact with the UN member states, as such developing partnerships both informally and formally to push states on issues of strategic interest. Direct contact with member states and the security council has many advantages. Yet, the UN system also comes with challenges. It is hard for 193 states to agree, and Karrenstein notices the heavy influence of geopolitics on causing stagnation on certain issues. Further, although she loves the intercultural and interdisciplinary relationships between UN staff members, those varying backgrounds can also make it challenging to communicate effectively with each other.

On a much more “birds-eye” level, the partnerships Karnicki builds in the human rights field are a bit more removed. In the world of philanthropy, program staff like Karnicki build large networks, connecting with individual actors, governments, civil society, and NGOs. These connections allow Karnicki to see the whole “ecosystem of organizations” and human rights issues, a broader perspective that excites her because she can see not only the many issues, but also how they overlap. Bickford, who has also spent some time in the philanthropic world, noted the tension between NGOs and philanthropic organizations, in which NGOs see only their issue and consider it the “most important”, yet philanthropy sees the many “most important” issues all vying for support.

Slightly removed from direct service, Norlander’s work in research takes a more behind-the-scenes approach to a human rights partnership. As she noted, there are many different layers and levels to doing what we call “human rights work.” What Norlander does brings research and analysis to direct players in the field, informing best practices, approaches, and helping to guide decision making. As such, she builds one relationship with academia and research and another with on-the-ground practical solutions to the issues that the research reveals. 

Figuring Out Your Path

From the grassroots to the international level, main players to players behind the scenes, it is clear that partnerships structure the human rights field. With so many potential paths to follow, how can you know what type of human rights career best suits you? Panelists touched on this throughout the event, explaining how they were able to mesh their personal preferences and styles to their various jobs. 

Karnicki encouraged students to ask themselves “how does my brain work best?” Personally, she would not work well in a job that is too specific: “I would be a terrible specialist. I’m much more of a generalist.” This is why philanthropy works so well for her. Bickford concurred with the suggestion to build off of the generalist/specialist distinction. Do you want to wake up in the morning and ask yourself what is going on in a narrow slice of the world or do you want to drink your morning joe while pondering the state of the entire field at large? 

Students may also consider how they want their days to look like, said Norlander. This is something she wished she had asked herself when in school. Do you want to be interacting with people all the time, or do you want to sit back and do more solo activities? Norlander spent several years in academia, which she admitted could be individual and isolating at times. Once she began to embrace an interdisciplinary approach to her engagements, she found it rewarding to be collaborative with others. “This whole time I’d been my own mini think tank,” she said, “and now I have all these other people to think with.” You get trained to do one thing well, Norlander said, but there is a richness that comes with working in collaboration. 

Certainly, academic training can influence where students may direct their interests, although several panelists stressed the importance of being open to new and unexpected interests, as well. Bickford received his training in political science and enjoyed that because of its problem-solving nature. Karrenstein came from a legal background, having received a law degree in Germany focused on public international law and human rights law. Her time as a research assistant to a professor in public international law also solidified her interest in seeking a career where she could use this expertise. She knew that she wanted to work in the multilateral world and set her sights on the UN. Yet, panelists encouraged students to cast a wide net when thinking about jobs after graduation. “The human rights education lies in you,” said Norlander. Don’t sell yourself short; there are any number of organizations and companies across many sectors where you can be the human rights voice. Karnicki agreed, stating that some people may have to go out of their comfort zones to things more tangentially related to human rights, but that you can bring a social justice lens to any job you do. 

This is relevant for what Halpern noted as one of the most commonly-asked questions from students, and a question that was posed to the panelists: “do I have to go to law school to do human rights?” The overwhelming consensus from the panelists was a resounding “no.” While, as Karrenstein pointed out, some jobs may have a prerequisite of a law degree, human rights work can take a plethora of forms which do not require a JD. You should do what you love, claimed Bickford. If you love law, then by all means pursue law. For people who enjoy rules and structure, law can be a great career path. But if you are someone who thinks culture changes society, then a sociological or anthropological approach may be a better fit. The moral of the story? Think deeply about what will provide you the most value, personally and practically. 

Building a Human Rights Skillset

It is clear that human rights jobs can span the gamut, yet the panelists all stressed a common “human rights skillset” that is helpful no matter where you choose to work. 

Technically, Norlander stressed the necessity of being able to conduct research in a variety of methods. Learn the research skills, and more importantly, do not treat issues in isolation. “Not only do you need a range of methods,” she said, “but you also have to recognize it as a social system.” Connected to this is what Bickford called the skill of “problem-solving-ness.” The field, he said, is all about tackling problems. Can you sit down at a table, take a problem, and wrestle it into some type of a solution? The human rights field is moving on from its old “naming and shaming” approach to one that is solution-focused. Be prepared to bring interdisciplinary problem-solving skills to the work you do. This is especially important because, as Karrenstein and Bickford noted, it is necessary in the human rights field to be able to demonstrate impact. 

Knowledge acquisition, however, is of little use in the human rights field without the ability to communicate it to various audiences. Karrenstein’s job in the UN highlights this necessity. It is not just the technical knowledge that counts, she said, but rather is first of all about communication skills. The UN functions off of collaborative relationships between members who may have very different mindsets on an issue. “Set the scene,” she recommended, and keep in mind the political terrain that member states are constantly navigating. The soft skills truly steal the spotlight. Karnicki likened communication skills to translation: in her job, she needs to translate grant content from an applicant to the decision makers who approve grants. Knowing how to build a case and advocate for her grantees is crucial to translate their missions to an audience. 

Textual communication is a technical skill that every human rights practitioner will need to hone. Know how to write, said Norlander. Be able to synthesize a lot of information into concise and digestible summaries. In the context of the UN, Karrenstein could not underestimate the value of drafting skills—being able to explain a complex scenario in simple and short ways. 

Finally, panelists discussed positionality. As people in the human rights field, we must constantly question our own biases, privileges, and assumptions. Many fields are shifting right now, focusing more on questioning the intentions and impact of certain “old school” approaches to human rights issues. Karnicki noted that the philanthropy world is asking new questions about equity in a way that it has not before, querying issues of marginalities and a donor’s role given their power and resources. Donors should try to develop a sense of humility and listening, working against the industry’s history of acting as ‘expert’ in ways that are sometimes unwarranted. “I feel like I have a role to play in pushing for more equitable distribution of resources,” she said. 

This is also an important question to ask oneself when thinking about field work in human rights. Bickford argued that the role of international actors is changing all the time. What is the added value, if any, of international actors “parachuting in” to provide expertise and leaving immediately after? The paradigm of North-based expertise and South-based recipient is “totally inappropriate now,” he argued. We need to rethink the entire model, constantly reassessing power relations and scanning where there is actual added value in assistance. Karrenstein agreed, admitting the UN’s sometimes problematic past engagements in missions or mandates that were more political compromises than valuable assistance. 

From a research side, Norlander highlighted some methodologies that embrace a conscious engagement with researcher positionality. She subscribes to a constructivist approach, in which the researcher acknowledges their position and biases. She enacts this through participatory action research (ensuring those who will be affected by the process have a voice in the process) and grounded theory (seeing what emerges from the data rather than a top-down imposition). 

Where do we go from here?

Throughout the panel, speakers presented their own experiences in concert with their recommendations for students and new graduates exploring a career path in human rights. As Karnicki recognized, the job hunt is an uncertain and scary time. This is not to mention that we are currently experiencing the emotional rollercoaster of a global pandemic and massive unemployment. Yet, looking for a career is also a chance to explore one’s passions and creativity. “The idea of positioning yourself perfectly will be absolutely impossible,” argued Bickford. Instead, pursue the thing that you like the most, because in the end, it almost always “kinda works out in a weird way.”  

A State’s Responsibility in an Epidemic: Human Rights and the Coronavirus Outbreak

Guest Contributors Bodhisattwa Majumder and Devashish Giri are penultimate year students at Maharashtra Law University Mumbai. Their interests include Constitutional Law, Public International law and Maritime law. Any discussion related to the paper can be made via mail at bodhisattwa@mnlumumbai.edu.in or Giridevashish15@gmail.com

The outbreak of Coronavirus or COVID-19 (“Coronavirus”) from Wuhan, China (“People’s Republic of China “) has engulfed as many as twenty four countries across the globe with a medical emergency and has claimed more than 3,800 lives as of now. 

This strain of the virus is graver than the other types of Coronaviruses as it has never been identified in humans before. Coronavirus belongs to the zoonotic group of viruses which can affect a human being with a range of health ailments ranging from the common cold to serious problems such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV). The World Health Organization and other countries including the US have declared it as a “Global Public Health Emergency”.  In order to restrict the transmission of the virus, however, China has taken various restrictive measures which have caused serious human rights violations including but not limited to arbitrary censorships, lockdowns, quarantines, police suppression, and mass detentions.

In outbreaks of viruses with communicable properties, response time in communicating information and alerting the public and world about the dangers of the virus is of the essence. Even a delay of a month can have a huge impact; in the absence of proper information, crowded public places act as the hub for transmission. 

Early on in the outbreak of Coronavirus, citizens of China were deprived of their freedom of expression and free speech. The Wuhan province was under strict observation by the Chinese government, and any information related to the outbreak was termed as mere “rumours” and prohibited from being shared across any social media platform. There were numerous reported instances of police suppression when doctors, nurses and other associated personnel working in the frontlines faced strict penal measures by the police on grounds of spreading the information related to the virus.

 It was only due to a brave whistleblower, Chinese Dr. Li Wenliang, who risked his own safety and livelihood to spread news of the outbreak in Wuhan to his alumni peers via WeChat, that the world was able to learn about this dangerous phenomenon that China had tried to keep under wraps. He sent his message on December 30, and China alerted the World Health Organization (WHO) about its outbreak on December 31. Since January 1, researchers have learned that China has been censoring WeChat accounts for words related to the Cornonavirus, blocking certain combinations or anything negative towards President Xi Jinping.  Furthermore, China placed the entire affected province under lockdown without any prior notice, which deprived the residents any chance to ensure the availability of basic amenities of life such as food and medicine. Such a measure has affected vulnerable populations of society, including those with disabilities, illness, and the elderly and deprived them of their essential needs. These are direct violations to their right to health. There has been a mass-quarantine process of millions of people for the cause of limiting the spread from the city of Wuhan. Any offering measure by any section of society be it, Lawyers, Activists or Artists, has been prohibited, censored, threatened and harassed by the organs of the government. Despite having strict regulations against discrimination regarding communicable diseases, the machinery has apparently failed.

Coronavirus has not limited itself to Chinese province and other South-East Asian states have been affected, although not every state has adopted measures which violate human rights. Amidst the Chaos, the approach of Singapore has been a silver lining, which has won praises for its benevolence and informative approach rather than an authoritarian one. Singapore’s approach has been direct and effective to reduce panic, rumours and conspiracy theories, aligning itself correctly with the statement of the Prime Minister which was posted on social media in three languages, “Fear can do more harm than the virus itself. The speech alone was proven effective as the following weekend witnessed a reduction in crowds in the city-state. The Singaporean approach included prevention, contact tracing, quarantine and access to information. Singapore’s official website of the Ministry of Communications and Information provided useful and practical advisories on topics such as ‘When to See a Doctor’, ‘What happens to suspect cases’ and ‘How to practice good personal hygiene’. The approach of Singapore prioritized the welfare and safety of citizens over political stability and economic costs, which won praise across the world. Singapore was among the most affected regions of Asia (Orange alert). Still, it chose to inform its citizens rather than bury the situation. The constant live news coverage, transparency about developments, and inclusion of health workers in planning has proved to be effective in controlling the situation and reducing  panic among citizens. 

Public International Law dictates that regardless of a health emergency or an epidemic, the measures taken to affect human rights should be legal, necessary, reasonable and proportional. Every measure must be recorded in evidence and there should be strict adherence to the procedure prescribed. An undemocratic regime leaves no scope for a consequence to the state for failures in terms of epidemic response and as a result, there is no accountability from the state. The people residing in affected areas are shunned out without any scope for the expression of dissent or discontent or even a cry for help from the international community. Human rights cannot be allowed to be violated under the garb of a health emergency and every nation should take a lesson from the incident of the Coronavirus outbreak. The priority of taking measures to restrict the outbreak lies in equal pedestal with the significance of following due process without depriving the people of their human rights. The international community needs to take a stand, and every response from a government during the outbreak of an epidemic or a pandemic must be within the four corners of human rights.