Author Archive for Editor

Implementing the Women, Peace and Security Agenda at the 60th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women

By Marina Kumskova, an MA student in Human Rights

The 60th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW60) took place at the United Nations Headquarters in New York this past  March, with a view to highlight the link between women’s empowerment and sustainable development. Human rights activists, civil society organizations, and local leaders expressed their demand for a change in the current priorities of Member States, using the CSW60 as a platform to call for greater investment in women’s participation within peace processes, and a parallel divestment from militarism.

If safeguarding political economies of gender justice and peace are prioritized over economies of inequality and war, the outcomes of CSW60 will have a positive impact on the lives of women, men, girls, and boys around the world.

Leymah Gbowee at CSW60

Demanding the stigmatization and elimination of militarization, as well as the creation of space for women’s participation in peace processes, various organizations and NGOs* hosted a symposium titled, “Implementing the Women, Peace & Security Agenda: A Roadmap for the 1325 Global Study Recommendations.” Notable female peace activists who attended included Radhika Coomaraswamy (author of the Global Study on the Implementation of Resolution 1325), Leymah Gbowee (Nobel Laureate), and Berta Zúñiga Cáceres (daughter of recently assassinated indigenous environmental activist and women’s rights defender Berta Cáceres).

Bringing together leading players, the symposium created space for civil society organizations to advance and strengthen plans for the United Nations, governments, and other key stakeholders to effectively implement the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Agenda. Special attention was given to the structural conditions necessary for the creation of a lasting and sustainable peace.

As part of this symposium, activists gathered to mobilize around recommendations from the Global  Study and develop more concrete steps in the  following priority  areas:  

  • Addressing Militarization and Violent Masculinities,  
  • Combating Violent Extremism,  
  • Supporting Women’s Human Rights Defenders and Peacebuilders,  
  • Adequate Financing for the Women, Peace, and Security Agenda,  
  • Participation in Peace & Reconstruction Processes.

The following presents the various conclusions of these circles as they relate to women, peace, security, and the implementation of the WPS agenda.

Addressing Militarization and Violent Masculinities

In this circle, the legacy of colonialism and the reality of structural inequalities were noted to have played a large role in propagating militarization, through the perpetuation of violent masculinities and the sidelining of women in society. The activists in this conversation circle felt these legacies were holding back the implementation of the WPS agenda, forcing a more lasting and sustainable peace to remain elusive. Although the UNSC Resolution 1325 was adopted almost sixteen years ago, serious concerns were voiced about the lack of political will on the part of States to increase women’s participation and rights in conflict. In this vein, the participants emphasized a strong need to develop adequate monitoring mechanisms in order to ensure women’s participation in the process of creating lasting and sustainable peace.

Preventing Violent Extremism

As acknowledged in this circle, different approaches to preventing violent extremism are available to those working both within and outside of religious traditions.  Within religious communities creating space for diverse readings of traditions can expand dialogue and understanding, emphasizing the importance of strengthening common goals and collective power. Outside of a religious context, rights-based approaches that maintain agreed international standards are particularly important in advancing the WPS agenda. However, both approaches are jeopardized by the effects of the War on Terror, including heightened militarization worldwide. While addressing new emerging sources of violence is possible, the shrinkage of the world’s democratic space in the context of counter-terrorism does not allow for addressing the root causes of violence.

Supporting Women’s Human Rights Defenders and Peacebuilders:

In this conversation circle, participants noted that governments are pushing delivery of their international obligations to non-governmental organizations. While civil society members are critical stakeholders, they are ineffectively financed to address the structural conditions necessary for the political economy of peace and security. As most participants agreed, women at the grassroots and their experiences should be put at the center of the peace processes. In this frame, the role of government is then to overcome barriers to women’s participation, including by ensuring social safety nets that address conditions fomenting social conflicts, such as unpaid and devalued care work, LGBTQI discrimination, and issues surrounding access to information, including language barriers.

Adequate Financing for the Women, Peace, and Security Agenda

WPS Agenda Meeting

Participants in this circle discussed different ways of developing funding solutions for a sustainable peace based on gender justice. Participants called upon the international community to rethink money allowances, to stop spending trillions on war and pennies on peace. They noted that upholding women’s equal rights requires not just token allocations (such as 15% of security aid for gender equality), but structural changes to investment that prioritize political economies of gender justice and peace, over militarism and war. In this vein, the need for local activism, resourcing and allocation of funding for local and national action plans was reiterated. Participants advocated for developing alternative funding solutions to replace military spending, and utilizing gender budgets to ensure accountability on the rights outlined in the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women for programs at all levels of governance. In order to achieve inclusive and sustainable peace and security, a reordering of priorities is required.

Participation in Peace & Reconstruction Processes

In this final circle, activists worked on developing recommendations on how to put the experience of those affected by conflict at the center of peacebuilding efforts. A key challenge articulated was the fact that high-level discussions usually happen behind closed doors. In looking at specific cases of obstacles faced in implementing the WPS agenda, participants explored how women’s groups can contribute to addressing the dehumanization of Syrian and Iraqi refugees through fascist policies in Europe. Subsequently, they called for the creation of an independent audit for peace talks, which can be referred back to the UN Security Council and General Assembly.

As part of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom’s Integrated Approach promoting women’s human security over militarized state security, this event created a space to connect ongoing discussions of security and development to promote action across the board. Although the WPS agenda was not a priority theme of the discussion at CSW60, the Symposium reminded stakeholders that only in solidarity and equality will people of the world be able to mobilize for sustainable, just, and lasting peace.

**The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and MADRE, in collaboration with the Association of Women’s Rights in Development (AWID), the Sorensen Center for Peace and Justice, the MenEngage Alliance, the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, and the Nobel Women’s Initiative.

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

Failures of the Responsibility to Protect: Selectivity, Double Standards and an Assault on State Sovereignty

By Shayna Halliwell, an M.A. student in human rights

This article is Part Two of a two-part op-ed series exploring the different sides of the R2P debate.


“You don’t care about my country more than I care about my country!”

This sentence punctuated a statement made by a representative of the Syrian Arab Republic in the United Nations General Assembly debate in February 2016 on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). A contentious emerging norm, R2P is meant to protect vulnerable populations from experiencing mass atrocities, in the event that their governments are unable to do so. However, this statement on behalf of the Syrian government can be seen as the very crux of why R2P has not made the difference it was intended to make at its inception over fifteen years ago, at the behest of previous Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

UN General Assembly

UN General Assembly

While R2P is noble in its goals—to protect a country’s population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and/or crimes against humanity—it has proved to be little more than an aspirational principle when put into action. Even the “father” of R2P, Gareth Evans, acknowledged at the same debate in February that the application of R2P  has been a mixed bag of successes and failures, with Sri Lanka, Sudan and Libya among the most striking catastrophes named. The military response to the emerging crisis in Libya, for example, quickly spun out of control and soon became more about regime change than about quelling a humanitarian disaster. This resulted in a disproportionate use of force that was an obvious violation of the “Do No Harm” precept of R2P.

Even those countries that have been considered successes of R2P in practice disagree with being placed in the category of “wins” for this principle. Kyrgyzstan, for example, took the floor in February’s General Assembly debate to unequivocally denounce the assertion that the UN-led response to regional ethnic conflict in their country in 2010 had been a successful example of R2P’s implementation. If the very countries often used as examples of R2P’s success deny the application of R2P in the first place,what hope does this principle have of surviving or of being seen as effective?

It is difficult to refute the normative principle that vulnerable populations should be protected from mass atrocities, and that the international community’s primary responsibility is to support states in their efforts to prevent such tragedies. However, ten years into its existence, there remain far too many questions about the efficacy of operationalizing R2P. The four crimes outlined in the R2P principle are broadly defined, and the triggers for the international community’s intervention have never been clearly demarcated. Many governments are particularly sensitive to the idea of another country interfering within their borders, especially those who have only recently emerged from colonial rule.

Syria’s outburst at February’s General Assembly panel exemplifies the concerns of several Member States about selectivity and double standards in the invocation of R2P. Certain questions remain unanswered: How can the UN avoid having R2P applied in an interventionist manner? How can smaller and less powerful states be protected from the manipulation of R2P for external interests? Why are there no mechanisms in place to ensure that prejudices—both personal and ethical—don’t make their way into decisions on prevention and intervention?

In the end, however, whether or not R2P actually is a principle founded on selectivity, double standards and the violation of state sovereignty is not the main issue. If enough Member States think these are the founding principles of the norm, then the Responsibility to Protect has no future. The mechanisms for the operationalization of R2P must be widely agreed upon, and this agreement will depend on Member States’ confidence in the principle itself.

Shayna Halliwell is an M.A. candidate at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. Her research is focused on the intersection between international security and Indigenous rights.

Prevention, Assistance and Intervention: How the Responsibility to Protect has Made a Difference in Situations of Mass Atrocities

By Shayna Halliwell, an M.A. student in human rights

This article is Part One of a two-part op-ed series exploring the different sides of the R2P debate.

The atrocity crimes that stain humanity’s conscience make it imperative that leaders transform R2P from a vital principle into visible practice.”

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon made this statement in an informal dialogue on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in September 2015. R2P officially celebrated its tenth anniversary this year, and has achieved major successes since its unanimous approval by UN Member States at the World Summit in 2005.

Created at the urging of the Secretary General at the time, Kofi Annan, as a response to the mass atrocities committed in Rwanda and Srebrenica, the concept of R2P exists first and foremost to prevent mass atrocities from occurring. It does so by supporting the state in protecting its populations from four major crimes: genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Only when states are “manifestly failing to protect their populations” does the international community have the obligation to step in with diplomatic assistance, sanctions, or military intervention.

R2P is a principle that can be applied not only when states are intentionally failing to safeguard their people, but also when they simply do not have the capacity to protect without external intervention. R2P, when applied appropriately and properly, reinforces and strengthens the state by protecting civilians and preventing or avoiding further mass violence.

R2P’s detractors may argue that invoking the principle violates state sovereignty; however, a comprehensive understanding of R2P, as it was agreed upon in 2005, shows that the international community is only meant to play a complementary role to that of the state. Contrary to the concerns of some UN Member States, military intervention is not automatically triggered by declarations of concern about the protection of civilians. The state is the foundation of R2P, not its nemesis.


Security Council Summit, 1992

R2P has been successfully invoked in a variety of cases:

  • Kenya during their elections in 2007 and 2008
  • Guinea after attacks by government forces on peaceful protesters in 2009
  • Kyrgyzstan during an outbreak of ethnic conflict in 2010
  • Côte D’Ivoire following post-election violence in 2010 and 2011

There are people alive today in South Sudan and in the Central African Republic because of R2P. Regardless of criticisms regarding state sovereignty, it cannot be denied that this principle has saved lives.

The problem that most countries have is not with R2P itself, but rather with the muddled understanding several governments have of what it entails. Many believe there is a disproportionate emphasis on military interventions within this framework. At a General Assembly panel discussion held in February 2016, several Member State representatives spoke of an inherent contradiction between R2P and the concepts of territorial integrity and sovereignty enshrined within the Charter of the United Nations. Such a contradiction does not exist, and is rather an example of one of many misunderstandings contemporary diplomats and country representatives have about R2P. This is despite their predecessors’ unanimous agreement to the World Summit Outcome Document and its paragraphs on R2P in 2005.

As former Special Adviser on R2P, Jennifer Welsh, stated at this same debate in February, the principle sets expectations and provides a framework for action. However, as with every other international norm, it cannot compel action in and of itself. While there may have been failures in its application both militarily and diplomatically, this concept is still only in its infancy. The fact that R2P has become common parlance shows that the principle is becoming internalized, and that it has made a difference to the way international crises are perceived and the ways in which international bodies react to them.

The future for R2P looks bright. Just the day before the UN debate in February, a General Assembly resolution drafted by a diverse set of states was disseminated for review on the topic. While Member States may continue to argue about terms of engagement, there is the broad sense that a multilateral response to mass atrocities does not necessarily have to be perceived as inappropriate.

As Welsh has said, “We must not shy away from a principle because it is demanding” – in fact, this should encourage us to do better. As long as the next Secretary General retains a focus on R2P, just as Ban Ki-moon and Kofi Annan have, this emerging norm has a viable chance of re-building consensus on how to handle the toughest security questions, and how to institutionalize a system-wide approach to atrocity prevention within the United Nations.

Shayna Halliwell is an M.A. candidate at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. Her research is focused on the intersection between international security and Indigenous rights.

The U.S. in Yemen: Worth the Human Cost?

By Alan Williams, an M.A. student in human rights

Ten months in, the role of the United States in the GCC-led bombing of Yemen needs to be reevaluated.

The campaign was initiated by the Gulf Cooperation Council in order to destabilize the Houthi militia controlling the government in Yemen’s capital Sana’a, and to reinstate deposed president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Hundreds of airstrikes later, the UN has reported 8,100 civilian casualties with 2,800 deaths. At this point in the conflict, 93% of the deaths have been civilian. Starvation is at critical levels, and delivering aid to those in need is becoming increasingly difficult. Mirroring the numerous attempts at reaching a lasting ceasefire in Syria, all attempts at making peace have been quickly subverted. At its outset, the United States reluctantly supported the Saudi-led campaign, but such support has proven more harmful than helpful.

Aftermath of a coalition airstrike on a home in Sana’a, Yemen. This airstrike killed five people and destroyed three three-story homes in the Old City which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Aftermath of a coalition airstrike on a home in Sana’a, Yemen. This airstrike killed five people and destroyed three three-story homes in the Old City which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

On March 25th 2015, the National Security Council (NCS) spokesperson announced that President Obama had authorized the provision of logistical and intelligence support to GCC-led operations in Yemen. Prior to the start of coalition bombing, the United States had acted as a neutral party, maintaining diplomatic relations with the Houthis. Despite a Houthi takeover of the government in Sana’a in September 2014, the American Embassy remained opened until early February. Other American personnel, including roughly 100 Special Forces troops were not evacuated until two days before the White House announcement that made the United States an active party to the conflict.

To borrow from Micah Zenko’s article in Foreign Policy, two of the most important reasons for the United States to support the GCC coalition were to make the GCC comfortable with the Iranian Nuclear Agreement, and to prevent the establishment of an Al-Qaeda presence in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) safe haven. Ten months into this plan, progress has not been made on either goal. Saudi Arabia’s opposition to the nuclear agreement has not waned, and AQAP has not been on the retreat – in fact, they have taken new swaths of territory as recently as this February.

If the United States was only involved to protect its core interests in the region, it has failed. Saudi Arabia has come no closer to détente with Iran, and local extremist elements have only been further enabled by the deteriorating security situation instigated by this campaign. Al-Qaeda’s presence has only grown stronger because of the security vacuum, and ISIS has used this opportunity to ramp up suicide bombings at Shia mosques and other public gatherings. To add to this, the campaign has done nothing for America’s image in the region, an image President Obama has sought to improve since his 2009 speech in Cairo. If anything, American involvement in this campaign has further antagonized those who see the United States as an imperialist presence in the region.

As one of the Arab world’s poorest countries prior to the bombing campaign, Yemen has experienced a catastrophic past ten months. At the beginning of 2015, Yemen imported more than 70% of its fuel, 90% of its food, and 100% of its medicine. Accessing these goods has been made immensely more challenging, as the GCC imposed a blockade on the country’s seaports last year, which remains in effect. Of the population of 24 million, 21 million are in some need of humanitarian assistance. While humanitarian groups have been allowed access to Yemeni civilians, the delivery of goods has been sabotaged by coalition forces, as convoys delivering aid and warehouses storing aid are attacked by airstrikes. The plight of humanitarian groups in Yemen is likely to continue in the near future, based on the Saudi government’s recent letter to the United Nations and aid agencies operating in Houthi-controlled territory, advising evacuation in order to guarantee their safety and security. This ominous message seems to forecast indiscriminate bombing in the near future.

The aftermath of a suicide bombing outside of the Presidential Palace in Aden, Yemen that killed seven people. ISIS has utilized the security vacuum in Yemen to increase its presence there.

The aftermath of a suicide bombing outside of the Presidential Palace in Aden, Yemen that killed seven people. ISIS has utilized the security vacuum in Yemen to increase its presence there.

One does not need to think hard about the violations of international humanitarian law such actions would entail. The Fourth Geneva Convention requires that states “allow the free passage of all consignments of medical and hospital stores”. Urging aid groups, such as the ICRC and MSF, to evacuate Houthi-controlled areas implies that they do not plan on living up to this provision. The prohibition of indiscriminate attacks is considered settled state practice and has obtained the status of customary international law; however, the Saudi government’s letter indicates that they cannot ensure the protection of aid workers, meaning that they are not planning precision strikes against military targets. A panel of experts appointed by the United Nations Security Council documented 119 previous coalition airstrikes that could qualify as violations of international humanitarian law. These cases involve strikes against “camps for internally displaced people and refugees; civilian gatherings, including weddings; civilian vehicles, including buses; civilian residential areas; medical facilities; schools; mosques; markets, factories and food storage warehouses.”

The United States has provided tacit support to a military campaign that has nearly decimated a nation. From all angles, becoming involved in this campaign was a mistake. However, American support remains largely due to a continued capitulation to Saudi demands, following a growing presence of the Houthis on its southern border, which they claim to be a proxy of Iran. The reality of the Iranian-Houthi connection and the threat it posed to Saudi territorial integrity prior to the campaign is not fully known, however, given that this is the most popular reasoning for American involvement, it remains insufficient for rationalizing such actions.

Immense damage has already been done to the people of Yemen, damage that will take many decades to mend. However, if the United States and President Obama are interested in protecting their core interests, repairing a damaged legacy, upholding international law, or promoting human rights, they must pull their support from the GCC-led campaign in Yemen.

Alan Williams is an M.A. candidate at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. His research interests include civil society activism in the post-uprising Middle East, Islam and Politics, and freedom of expression.

The Shia Against ISIS: From Karbala 680 to Iraq 2015

By Roukhsar Nissaraly, a graduate student in human rights

The recent bloody attacks by extremist groups on innocent civilians in Ankara, Brussels, and Lahore have provoked outrage across the globe. In an effort to understand the ideology of one such group, ISIS, it is perhaps fitting to look back five months to the 1335th annual Shia commemoration of Ashura, as a reminder that the victims of ISIS’ politics of terror are often Muslims themselves. 

On October 24th, 2015, defying bullets, bombs, and hostile glares from ISIS and its supporters, Iraqi Shias marched to the holy city of Karbala for the commemoration of the martyrdom of Hussain ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, and the son of Ali ibn Abi Talib, whom the Shias follow as their first Imam and caliph. This ritual is widely observed in the Shia world, and marks a primordial facet of the sect’s identity: every year on the 10th of Muharram, also known as the day of Ashura, believers clad in black march to mourn the martyrdom of Hussain as the saint who stood up for social justice, and sacrificed his entire family for the sake of humanity in the battle of Karbala.

In 680AD, Umayyad caliph Yazid ibn Mu’awiyah rose to power through corruption and violence, and demanded Hussain’s allegiance. Being a man of justice and truth, Hussain refused to give in to Yazid’s threats and rose against this religious, political, and social oppression. As he stated himself:



“I am not rising against Yazid as an insolent or an arrogant person, or as a mischief-monger, or tyrant. I have risen against Yazid as I seek to reform the Ummah (Islamic nation) of my grandfather. I wish to bid the good and forbid the evil.”

Hussain then left Medina, the city of Prophet Muhammad, for the barren and scalding desert of Karbala. Along with his 72 loyal companions, including his friends and family members, he was left thirsty for three days under the burning sun, and brutally murdered by Yazid’s army of at least 30,000 men. Hussain and his men fell as martyrs, refusing battle until the very last moment.

The historical event of Karbala is not only remembered for its ferocity as a battle; rather, it has set the stage for countless human rights narratives that not only empower the Shia community, but also resonate with human beings around the world. Hussain and his family were denied water for three days. That same resource has become a weapon for ISIS to force resisting villages to give in to its rule. Hussain and his family were cruelly massacred for the values and beliefs they held. Today, ISIS is ruthlessly killing Shias and labeling them as apostates and heretics. Hussain’s women and children were looted, taken as war prisoners, and paraded through the streets of Kufa and Damascus. As of today, ISIS loots villages, and owns a flourishing slave market in which women and girls from religious minorities in Iraq are sold.  

The teachings at Karbala have become faith’s weapon against injustice, and the revolutionary symbol of Hussain is the banner that Iraqi Shias are holding against ISIS today. Seen as infidels by the extremist group, the Shias are targeted for the perceived crime of being followers of Ali ibn Abi Talib and his progeny. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, ISIS has destroyed seven places of worship in June 2014, and frequently executes Shias, including through mass killings in the city of Tikrit. In July 2015, a car bomb killed 120 people in the town of Khan Bani Saad, where the population is mainly Shia. The accounts confirm that the group engages in selective killing, separating Sunnis from Shias after checking their identity cards, and does not make any kind of distinction between men, women and children, let alone combatants and civilians.

The Shrine of Imam Hussain

The Shrine of Imam Hussain

ISIS’ treatment of the Shia population is at odds with not only the principles of international law, but Islamic tradition as well. The right to religious freedom, in private and in community, is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is emphasized in Article 18 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, granting individuals the right to manifest their beliefs in practice, such as through rituals and processions. Additionally, the Islamic doctrine, which ISIS claims to follow scrupulously, protects religious minorities and defends their right to practice as conscience dictates. The Qur’an, which is the final word of God for all Muslims, summarizes the notion of religious freedom in one verse, among others: “let there be no compulsion in religion” (Qur’an 2:256). With its oppression of Shias and other religious groups in Iraq, ISIS undoubtedly violates human rights principles that are arguably too fundamental to be challenged by cultural relativism.

In the wake of this escalating persecution, Shia religious leaders have drawn strength from the symbol of Hussain. Ayatollah Sistani, the  foremost religious voice for Iraqi Shias, issued a strong statement in which he reminded the Shia resistance fighters of their obligations to uphold justice. Echoing the words of Hussain, he advised in his statement to, “strive to act in the same righteous manner as the Prophet and his progeny (…) let your righteous actions, your just conduct, and your sound admonition serve as an example for them. Do not resort to oppression.” Lebanon’s Shia leaders have often used similar rhetoric when speaking to the masses, urging Shias to continue resisting for the same values Hussain held – justice and freedom.

Hussain’s actions on the plains of Karbala 1335 years ago, and his unflinching determination to stand up for righteousness, serve as timeless examples for Shia believers fuelling the resistance movement to stand up against ISIS’ human rights violations in an ethical way. Although not all Shia militias have respected this condition, the core of the defense movement is nevertheless anchored to the notion of a just revolution, a standard set by the battle of Karbala.

In 2014, a supporter of ISIS tweeted, “Shiites, prepare yourselves for our bombs. Ashura is here and Karbala is not far anymore.” From Karbala 680 to Iraq 2015, the dynamics of horror today remain the same.

Roukhsar Nissaraly is currently a graduate student in human rights at Columbia University. Her research interests include Shiism, the rights of religious minorities, and the interplay between Islam and human rights.

Top Ten Tips for a Career in the Human Rights Field

What are some of the most important steps towards finding a job in the human rights field? A few weeks ago, the Institute for the Study of Human Rights (ISHR) at Columbia University hosted a career panel aimed at answering this question.

Five panelists were present to talk about their experiences in the human rights field:

  • Zselyke Csaky: Senior Researcher, Nations in Transit, Freedom House
  • Justin Mazzola: Deputy Director of Research, Amnesty International USA
  • Debbie Sharnak: PhD candidate, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Adjunct Professor, Center for Global Affairs, New York University
  • Allison Tamer: Development Officer, American Jewish World Service; Alumna of the Human Rights Studies M.A. Program
  • Alexandra Yuster: Associate Director, Social Inclusion and Policy, UNICEF

Here are our top ten takeaways.

Acquiring skills for the job:

1.. Hone Your Research and Writing Skills

Don’t expect much opportunity to develop your research and writing skills on the field beyond perfecting them. Use your time in academia to hone these skills instead. Justin recommends getting practice doing interviews, not only with survivors but also with advocates and government officials, as this will help develop the skill of knowing what you need from a research interview ,and how to get there. Zselyke advises that time in academia is best spent learning how to approach texts, look for mistakes and misunderstandings, and weigh what is written against other credible sources.

Debbie particularly encourages connecting with an assortment of different professors and scholars to learn their knowledge-management systems, and exploring the possibility of conducting field and in-depth archival research. Having a handle on this shows that you do not need extra training to be off to a great start.

2. Be Familiar with IHRL and Your Domestic Legal Regime

Many human rights research positions require familiarity with not only the international legal framework supporting human rights advocacy, but also with domestic laws and policy. Justin stresses that a broad-based knowledge of international law, bodies in the UN, and regional systems is still important even for non-legal students, whether you intend to deal with refugee issues, women’s rights issues, criminal justice questions, national security, or otherwise.

3. Acquire Technical Skills

All of the panelists iterate the importance of abilities to use research databases, financial databases, Excel, academic search engines, and other software. For entry-level positions, these abilities, coupled with strong administrative skills, make for a robust application. Familiarity with pertinent software is an asset for organizations that are looking for individuals who will need minimal training, and can hit the ground running.

4. Be Comfortable Breaking Down Human Rights Jargon, and Making Economic Arguments

As a human rights advocate, you have to be able to speak to diverse audiences that range from local communities to government officials. Allison recommends that you be able to break down human rights jargon (such as a ‘rights-based approach’) to make it clear to other audiences, and be able to read and write grant proposals effectively. For Alexandra, it is the ability to formulate effective economic arguments to support your advocacy that distinguishes a mere idealist from one who is able to outline practical social and economic policy recommendations for implementation.

Conducting the job search:

5. Know the Advantages and Limits of the NGO Framework and the UN System

The UN system has an incredible breadth of reach and access to diplomatic power. Yet, as Alexandra makes clear, its fundamental role is to support organizations on the ground, and to help them get the work done. This can be frustrating sometimes, but the UN functions as a diplomatic institution, meaning that issues of political sensitivity often result in a limited ability to make provocative media statements or host subversive campaigns.

Know, therefore, what kind of work you want, and what you are willing to do. Do you want to work on the ground? Or would you rather work in an organization that has much more reach, but is also slower and perhaps less instantly effective?

6. Conduct Informational Interviews

The human rights field is big! Conduct informational interviews to get a feel for different kinds of jobs and organizations. Justin particularly encourages knowing exactly what various positions entail before embarking on the process of application and selection.

Make use of the tips offered in the Columbia Career Planning Guide for help with this.

7. Utilize Your Network

Leverage the network of classmates, professors, and alumni that Columbia offers. Use your LinkedIn profile effectively, and make contacts in the field of your interest. By keeping your current and previous supervisors and mentors up to date on your progress, you can create and maintain relationships that may benefit you much further down the road.

8. Know How to Brand Yourself

Ask yourself: What am I looking for in this job? What skills do I have to showcase and emphasize?

Allison encourages starting to work on research and job applications several months before graduation. Keeping an Excel spreadsheet with job openings, turnover rates, and other data on organizations helped her decide which organizations to target, how to approach them, and most importantly, how to brand herself and what skills to include on her resume so that she could match up past experience with her job search.

9. Apply Right Away!

Don’t wait to make your application materials perfect – apply ASAP for job postings, regardless of how late the deadline is.

10. Convey Your Passion and Ability to Effect Real Change.

Happy career hunting!

~ The Editors

Access to Justice: the Indigenous Perspective

By Hannah Khaw, a political science and music major at Columbia University.

The term “justice” often brings to mind images of austere judges in their robes and eloquent lawyers with their clients, seated formally within stately courthouses. Such has been the influence of contemporary law upon our conception of what justice truly entails. However, can justice be pursued through channels other than the default ones that our modern society has conditioned us to accept? Numerous indigenous peoples’ groups all over the world seem to think so: for hundreds of years, justice has been meted out in these communities through indigenous courts and other tribal councils that are starkly different from the modern legal systems imposed on them in more recent times. With this in mind, then, states and international organizations such as the United Nations should arguably make provisions for indigenous peoples to have adequate access to justice not just in the conventional legal sense, but also within their own traditional contexts. However, the implementation of such provisions would understandably raise several practical questions for the states and international bodies concerned.

On one level, what would happen should the content or processes of indigenous justice systems diverge from those of the state’s legal system? The 1883 Ex Parte Crow Dog case in South Dakota provides a notable example of how tensions can arise between parallel—and often times, competing—justice systems. To summarize this case briefly, the Lakote tribe settled a murder case involving a Lakota individual named Crow Dog via traditional tribal means; however, the Territory of Dakota deemed the tribe’s punishment of restitution to be insufficient, overrode its decision, and sentenced Crow Dog to hanging instead. This is far being from an isolated case: indigenous law and tribal courts tend to be regarded as inferior to those of the mainstream legal system, and are therefore often not regarded as legitimate means of obtaining justice. However, such flippant treatment of indigenous justice systems is problematic especially in the light of Article 19 of the UN Declaration on the RigCourtroomhts of Indigenous Peoples, which stipulates that States need to “consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent”. This article affirms the legitimacy of indigenous peoples’ representative institutions, acknowledging that alongside regular courts, such institutions offer valid channels through which indigenous peoples may exercise their individual and collective rights to self-determination. With this in mind, states need to stop viewing indigenous justice systems as “soft” law, and rather take concrete steps to integrate said systems, as fully functioning, legitimate entities, into the larger legal landscape.

Encouragingly, a handful of states have begun to recognize the legitimacy of indigenous legal systems with some degree of success. In the Crow Dog case, for instance, the US Supreme Court eventually overturned the Territory of Dakota’s decision, ruling that “only an Indian government could punish an Indian for committing a crime against another Indian in Indian country”. Besides that, in the landmark Tsilhqot’in Nation vs British Columbia case of 2014, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that contestations over Aboriginal title “must be approached from the common law perspective and the Aboriginal perspective”, and that the Aboriginal perspective entails “laws, practices, customs and traditions of the group” (as opposed to the individual-centric orientation of mainstream legal systems). As a whole, though, positive outcomes such as these have been few and far between—thus, in the larger scheme of things, most states still have a long way to go in terms of exerting sufficient political will in order to protect indigenous peoples’ access to their own forms of justice and law.

Chief Roger Williams of the Xeni Gwet'in First Nation speaking following the favorable Supreme Court of Canada ruling

Chief Roger Williams of the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation speaking following the favorable Supreme Court of Canada ruling

Moving beyond legal concerns at the state level, the issue of the recognition of indigenous justice systems also raises tensions at the international level—specifically in the context of international human rights norms that simultaneously support both individual rights and cultural affirmations of collectivity. Here, although individual rights and collective rights are very often mutually reinforcing, there are exceptional cases in which the two may be pitted against each other. For instance, what would happen in a case in which an indigenous court insists that the legal testimony of indigenous women is invalid? On one hand, Article 5 of the UNDRIP protects indigenous peoples’ rights to “maintain and strengthen their distinct political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions” (which would include indigenous justice systems); however, on the other hand, such a practice would also arguably contravene the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which states that “[p]arties shall accord to women equality with men before the law”. This, then, raises the difficult question of which legal system should cede ground to the other if such a dilemma were to arise; or if at all possible, whether a balance can be struck between both legal perspectives.

With this in mind, the UNDRIP provides a human rights framework within which such potential conflicts may be solved. At the most basic, fundamental level, Article 46.2 of the UNDRIP states that

“[i]n the exercise of the rights enunciated in the present Declaration, human rights and fundamental freedoms of all shall be respected. The exercise of the rights set forth in this Declaration shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law and in accordance with international human rights obligations”.

Also, with reference to the earlier example of gender-based discrimination within certain indigenous cultural systems, the UNDRIP states in Article 44 that

“All the rights and freedoms recognized herein are equally guaranteed to male and female indigenous individuals”.

As a whole, these articles affirm that although the UNDRIP seeks, among other things, to protect indigenous peoples’ cultural rights as fully as possible, the Declaration cannot be used in ways that propagate violations of other international human rights norms and laws. It is “subject to… limitations” that necessitate the protection of human rights for all peoples—meaning that the protection of indigenous peoples’ human rights (whether cultural or otherwise) cannot come at the expense of any other group’s or individual’s fundamental human rights.

In conclusion, the mainstream justice system is arguably just a means to—and not the end of—justice itself. There are various other ways to effectively adjudicate legal cases, many of which do not necessarily entail the imposition of a colonial legal construct upon scores of indigenous peoples who have their own existing courts and tribunals. With this in mind, indigenous peoples should be given greater access to justice not just in a purely conventional sense, but also with respect to their own traditional legal contexts and practices. All of this—when done within the broader framework of international human rights—would bring indigenous peoples a step closer to actual, meaningful and efficacious access to justice.


Hannah Khaw is a political science and music major at Columbia University. Her particular interests concern issues of policy and advocacy for indigenous peoples in her home country, Malaysia.

Blood Timber: A Resource Curse

By Rachel Riegelhaupt, graduate student of Human Rights at Columbia University


b3b4f58d-3328-4662-beba-a93a5beaa454When asked about buying conflict-timber from the Central African Republic during an undercover investigation led by Global Witness, a representative from the French manufacturing company Tropical Bois responded, “It’s Africa. War is so common we don’t really pay attention…it’s not a war where they attack white people. It’s not a war we have to avoid.”

The Central African Republic (CAR) has been plagued by violence since November 2012, when predominately Muslim Seleka rebels began to take up arms. In March 2013, they overthrew the president in a bloody coup d’état and pursued a campaign of violence throughout the nation, provoking a violent backlash from the Christian Anti-Balaka militia in September 2013. Although a transitional government is currently in place, with the Seleka’s leader Michel Djotodia serving as interim president, the balance of power is still rocked by clashes between ever-present armed groups. War atrocities such as the use of child soldiers, rape, summary killings, enforced disappearances, and torture have been prevalent, and thousands of civilians have been killed, hundreds of thousands have been internally displaced, and half a million have fled to neighboring countries since the fighting began.

One of the main funding streams behind this violence has been the country’s primary export, timber, leading the UN Panel of Experts on the Central African Republic to recognize logging companies as a key source of income for armed forces in the CAR. As Seleka rebels gained power, they instantly began to monopolize on the country’s prized natural resource; anti-Balaka movements have recently been taking over the country’s rainforest for the same reason. These armed groups sell timber to logging companies based in Europe, China, and Lebanon, who then illegally export it to their home countries. The companies with the largest presence in the CAR are IFB from France, SEFCA from Lebanon, and Vicwood from China—together, they account for 99% of the country’s timber exports.

4c2f5ca5-548d-4f1f-87fc-b578b16fe7a0According to Global Witness, all three of these companies frequently make payments to the Seleka rebels, “as bribes, to pass roadblocks, for armed escort, and for the protection of their logging sites, including a single transaction of nearly 381,000 euros by SEFCA to the Seleka government.” Based on the sheer size of these payments, these companies essentially fund the war, rendering them accessories to war crimes. However, foreign trade of CAR timber has only increased. Europe is the main destination for illegally harvested timber, accounting for nearly two-thirds of the CAR’s total exports. In fact, the French company Tropical Bois, the CAR’s biggest trader, increased profits by 247% over the course of the current conflict in the CAR (they are conveniently co-owned by the biggest logging company operating within the CAR, SEFCA).

Ironically, European governments have provided thousands of troops and invested hundreds of millions of euros to peacekeeping operations in the CAR. France deployed 1,600 troops to the CAR in 2013 in an attempt to disarm the Seleka rebels, along with 700 peacekeepers to maintain security. The UN peacekeeping mission currently has nearly 12,000 troops maintaining security in the CAR. Despite this, European governments have not taken adequate measures to block conflict timber from reaching EU markets. In 2013, the EU initiated the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) in order to regulate illegal logging. Its stated purpose is to “guarantee that any wood exported from a timber-producing country to the EU comes from legal sources [and to] help the partner country stop illegal logging by improving forest governance and regulation.” Once a VPA is established it is legally binding—both for the timber exporting country and for the EU countries importing timber. Though the CAR signed on to the agreement in 2011, the ongoing conflict has made it impossible for the CAR to maintain its end of the agreement. However, European companies have also ignored the agreement and continue to import and trade illegally harvested timber from the CAR.

99be3ff5-ab56-4177-9c09-40dc6acafcedIn contrast, the CAR was suspended from the Kimberley Process just two months after the coup d’état in 2013, prohibiting the country from exporting diamonds—the CAR’s chief export at that time—to international markets in an effort to control violence. The initiative is considered to be widely successful, and the trade of conflict diamonds has fallen significantly. Similar steps were taken to control exports of conflict diamonds from Sierra Leone a few years before. While the issue of blood diamonds has received international attention through groundbreaking exposés, shocking media campaigns, and beloved Hollywood films, blood-timber is seemingly less sexy. The lack of a substantial media campaign against conflict timber stops it from ever reaching the court of public opinion, giving companies no genuine incentive to enact risk-based due diligence measures and giving governments no real incentive to better regulate the trade of conflict timber.

Some may argue that sanctioning timber may inadvertently do more harm than good by hurting the CAR’s economy; they may argue that imposing sanctions against the Central African Republic violates the CAR’s Right to Development. Firstly, there cannot be sustainable development in the context of a war-zone. Secondly, while it would be ideal to hold only the companies at fault (and not the entire industry) accountable for their complicity in war crimes, the existence of the corporate veil makes this option tenuous. Even if litigation were to be brought against specific logging companies and were to be successful, the punishment would simply take the form of monetary compensation—a punishment not nearly substantial enough to bring an end to the company’s illegal activities. Thirdly, it should be noted that robust sanctions are not being suggested, but simply the sanctioning of the timber trade—the industry fueling CAR’s war. While the overall harvesting and sale of timber may create jobs and bring money into the country, these gains are insignificant when considering the role of timber sales in perpetuating the country’s instability and conflict.

Perhaps we need another Hollywood screenplay. Perhaps Edward Zwick and Leonardo Dicaprio will come together to disseminate another message about the resource curse to their audience, steering the public to hold its companies more responsible for their actions. Or perhaps it is time for the EU to properly regulate its timber imports and hold its companies accountable for complicity in war crimes. Or maybe, perhaps it is finally time for corporations such as IFB, SEFCA, Vicwood, and Tropical Bois to step it up themselves—to end illegal logging, to enact proper supply-chain due diligence measures and to ensure that their businesses are not fuelling conflict, human rights abuses, and the continual underdevelopment of the Central African Republic.


Rachel Riegelhaupt is an M.A. Candidate at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. Her research focuses primarily on conflict resolution, peace-building, and women’s rights.

How the Iran Deal Affects Ordinary People’s Lives in Iran

By Roya Pakzad, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University


Iran Deal 1

Chinese ambassador Wu Hailong; French foreign secretary Laurent Fabius; German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier; EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini; Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif; Alexey Karpov, the deputy director of the department for nonproliferation and arms control of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia; British foreign secretary Philip Hammond; and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Iran and the world powers reached an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program.

Earlier this week, President Obama gathered enough votes for the Iran Deal, by securing the support of 34 Senators and thus the ability to sustain a veto in Congress. According to the deal, Iran will significantly limit its nuclear program activities. In return, the international community will lift oil and financial sanctions that have been imposed on Iran for more than a decade.

For many people around the world this news showed the victory of diplomacy over aggression. For me it was an instant journey two years into the past, when I received a call from Iran informing me that my 41 year-old cousin, Azim, was suffering from liver cancer. There was not sufficient medical access, no way to receive the necessary medications through official International postage, and the currency was falling to a record low, making dollars hard to come by and proliferating black markets for fake medications. And it is this context that led to the death of Azim, who died struggling to receive proper care and medication.

As I look at the news headlines I am reminded that Azim was far from the only Iranian citizen who lost his or her fundamental right to live because of these intolerable medical, technological, and economic sanctions. For more than a decade, ordinary Iranians bore the brunt of penalties imposed on the Iranian government. Multiple sanctions imposed by the international community have isolated Iran from the global financial system, limited oil exports, and prohibited US and some EU firms from trading with and investing in Iran. Collectively, these sanctions have taken a severe toll on the country’s economy.

Some opponents of the deal in Congress defend their negative vote by citing massive violations of freedom of speech and of the press in Iran. But have they considered that not letting Iran import food, medicine, and life-saving technologies violates the right to an adequate standard of living? Have they considered that isolating Iran from the international community in the name of human rights not only contributes to the economic hardship of ordinary citizens, but also eases the path to further civil rights violations by the Islamic Republic Regime? The interdependence of rights means we have to consider how attempting to protect one’s freedom can negatively influence other rights including health, food, and life itself.

An Iranian dancing on a street of Tehran,celebrating nuclear agreement.

An Iranian dancing on a street of Tehran,celebrating nuclear agreement.

I do not deny the regime’s persecution of journalists and activists. In fact, I myself was threatened with expulsion from university in Tehran when I was nineteen, simply for being a member of an Iranian women rights and gender equality campaign. Yet many of those same human rights activists supported the Iran Deal because they believe isolating Iran and imposing more sanctions (and more aggressive alternatives, like the threat of military strikes) will not solve the human rights issues in the country, and will certainly not bring more freedom and democracy for ordinary Iranian people. Furthermore, a lack of monitoring and communication could result in what we now witness in North Korea, a completely isolated state with a government that refuses to answer for any of its abusive actions. In this era of globalization, politicians should come to understand that isolating states is not only politically impractical, but harmful to the interests of the global community as a whole.

Thousands of miles from my homeland, I celebrate through the photos of Iranians dancing in the streets. I am delighted by the thrill in their eyes and pleased that finally diplomacy has finally worked. However, with joy in my heart and a lump in my throat, it is hard not to think of the hundreds of Azims who could have been there in those streets with their fellow Iranians, laughing, enjoying, celebrating.

Roya Pakzad is an M.A. candidate at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. Her research focuses on the impact of technology on women’s rights.

On their 40th Anniversary, the Helsinki Accords retain a powerful legacy

By Raymond A. Smith, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Political Science at Columbia and NYU


The signing of the Helsinki Accords on August 1, 1975 has little of the resonance today of such landmark events of the Cold War as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the rise of the Solidarity Trade Union Movement in 1981, or of the uprisings in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Hungary in 1956. Yet on their fortieth anniversary, the Helsinki Accords deserve to be remembered alongside those events. And, in some ways, they have even more enduring relevance for world order and for human rights.

August 1, 2015 marks the 40th anniversary of the Helsinki Accords

August 1, 2015 marks the 40th anniversary of the Helsinki Accords

The Helsinki Accords had their roots in the refusal of the US and its allies to accept the legality of the new borders and regimes imposed by the Soviet Red Army when it occupied the three Baltic states and six countries in Eastern Europe. American rhetoric in the early Cold War often referred to these as “captive nations” that were suffering under a Communist system that they had not chosen. Conversely, Soviet rhetoric sought ways to validate what they viewed as their hard-won geographic sphere of influence.

By the mid-1970s, however, in an atmosphere of East-West détente, some three dozen countries began an intensive multi-year process of negotiations intended to stabilize Europe and strengthen international cooperation. The ultimate product was the “Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe,” which is today better recalled by the name of the Finnish capital where the talks took place.

The Helsinki Accords were loosely organized into four distinct “baskets” of issues, but the Soviets were mostly concerned about the “first basket” of security-related issues. Through these, the signatories agreed to uphold the inviolability of post- WWII borders and the integrity of existing sovereign territories within Europe. Soviet leaders believed these provisions would ratify and legitimize their grip on Eastern Europe. Many American conservatives agreed, deeming the Accords an appeasement by the West and criticizing President Gerald Ford’s decision to sign them.

However, the first basket ended up doing little more than acknowledging a post-WWII European order that had long been a fait accompli. Unexpectedly, it was the lesser-noted “third basket” on human rights that has had the most enduring impact. Most crucial was the 7th principle of the Accords which, rooted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, called for “respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.”

To the Soviets, this promise of individual rights seemed a minor concession when compared to the ratification of existing boundaries. In any case, Communist regimes considered individual rights as something always to be mediated by the state, and therefore entirely under the control of their regimes. Overall, they considered the Accords to be a diplomatic triumph, and had them widely extolled throughout state-controlled media, even printing their full text in societies that otherwise tightly controlled information.

Thus, Soviet bloc leaders were caught entirely off guard when a new generation of dissidents took the 7th principle of the Accords far more seriously—and demanded that their governments do the same. The next year, in 1976 in Moscow, leading Russian liberal dissident Andre Sakharov founded a “Helsinki Group” to insist that the Soviet Union live up to its now-stated commitment to “respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Soon thereafter, Charter 77 was established for similar purposes in Prague, which was led by playwright Vaclav Havel, who would 12 years later become his nation’s first post-Communist president. In 1978, a global organization called “Helsinki Watch” was founded to monitor implementation of the Accords in Europe. Ultimately, Helsinki Watch spawned parallel “watches” for the Americas, Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and then evolved into one of today’s preeminent international NGOs, Human Rights Watch.

Helsinki, KSZE-Konferenz, SchlussakteAt the intergovernmental level, the Accords established a “Helsinki process” that became institutionalized through an ongoing Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). A series of follow-up meetings afforded high-profile platforms for activists to present documentation of human rights abuses. The Soviet bloc countries weakly refuted such claims, but were forced to remain engaged in the Helsinki process in order to maintain their gains concerning recognition of existing borders. To add to the pressure for compliance, the U.S. Congress established a U.S. Helsinki Commission, which still functions today composed of commissioners from the House, Senate, and Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce.

Ultimately, argues Daniel C. Thomas in his 2001 book The Helsinki Effect, the “Helsinki Final Act’s formal commitment to respect human rights contributed significantly to the demise of Communism and the end of the Cold War…[which] surprised the diplomats who negotiated it, the politicians who signed it, and many others who had rushed to criticize it as a concession to dictatorship.” In a book published in 2011 on Human Rights Activism and the End of the Cold War, Sarah B. Snyder further documents how the Helsinki process went about “unifying Soviet domestic opposition, offering incentives for change in Eastern Europe, creating a means for human rights activists to advance their agenda on an international stage, and facilitate the transition to a new Europe.”

Forty years later, the Accords have begun to be cited again in the context of the Russian annexation of Crimea and other illegal interventions in Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. Ironically, such territorial incursions are the clearest violations since at least 1975 of the very principles of territorial integrity and inviolability of boundaries that the Soviet Union had fought for so assiduously as part of the Helsinki process.

For those focused on human rights, the anniversary of the Helsinki Accords should not be an occasion for triumphalism, given the persistent violation of basic human rights norms around the world. But the Accords nevertheless are well worth remembering as a sort of slow-motion triumph for painstaking multilateral engagement, for the increasing relevance of both grassroots activists and transnational human rights NGOs, and most of all, for the empowerment of average individuals to demand their human rights.

Reference: The Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, August 1, 1975, 14 I.L.M. 1292

Raymond A. Smith, Ph.D. (GSAS 1999), is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Political Science at Columbia and at NYU and is a Senior Fellow with the Progressive Policy Institute.