Archive for International

Sexual Terrorism and the Quest for Justice for Conflict-Related Sexual Violence: The Digital Dialogue Series 

By Larissa Peltola, a Staff Writer at RightsViews and a graduate student in the Human Rights MA program.

Sexual terrorism committed by militant groups like ISIS/ISIL, Boko Haram, and Al Shabaab has gone largely unacknowledged in domestic and international courts, despite its rampant use. Sexual violence is a widespread, endemic issue in all conflicts around the world, affecting individuals, communities, and societies as a whole. 

The United Nations has identified that the extensive use of sexual violence perpetrated by terrorist groups globally has been used as an incentive for recruitment, a tool for financing, destroying, subjugating and controlling communities and societies, extracting information from detainees, forcing displacement, and as a means of controlling or suppressing women’s reproductive abilities. While the high numbers of sexual abuse have led to international calls to action by civil society, activists, the United Nations Security Council, and state governments, these crimes have still not been prosecuted before any national or international court.   

What Can (and Should) Justice Look like? 

Since sexual terrorism encompasses numerous crimes ranging from rape to human trafficking, to forced marriage, there has been a debate within the activist community about what justice for survivors looks like. For survivors who have endured violence at the hands of ISIS, Al Shabaab, and Boko Haram militants, justice consists of long-term medical and psychosocial services. “Their understandings of justice,” according to Azadeh Mohaveni of the International Crisis Group, “were quite different from those we think about in the West. They were not punitive or carceral. They didn’t associate justice with formal persecution or punishment.” Prosecution, or any legal actions against members of these groups, was not only unrealistic but was never even a consideration for these survivors. “No one really mentioned prosecution. It seemed to fall out of the realm of what any of these women imagined was possible.” 

Simply put, this idea of justice was, and is, shaped by the material realities of their worlds. Of the services that survivors identified as the most necessary included shelter, medical and psychological services, and the protection of legal status. In Iraq and Syria, women that chose to join ISIS, or were forcibly recruited, were stripped of their nationalities and rendered stateless, therefore unable to receive proper state support after leaving or escaping the group. According to Mohaveni, survivors must be “de-exceptionalized” and “destigmatized” and not only given legal status in the countries they have fled to, but also be provided with essential and often life-saving support services.

The difficulty with this form of justice is that countries rife with terrorism, and their neighboring states, often lack the infrastructure to address survivors’ needs and to provide lasting support for them. Psychosocial and medical services are virtually non-existent. Food insecurity is also a growing concern, and education and reintegration programs are either non-existent or severely underfunded. 

The Obstacles to Achieving “Justice”

In instances where survivors have identified justice within the legal framework, there are significant obstacles to prosecution. Domestic and international laws are full of shortcomings that make prosecution of sexual terrorism extremely difficult and often impossible. Anne Marie de Brouwer, co-founder of Team Impact, examined the domestic penal codes as they relate to sexual violence perpetrated by Boko Haram and Al Shabaab in Nigeria and Somalia. Her conclusion was that no domestic laws are fully equipped to address the harms stemming from sexual terrorism, primarily due to either lack of laws concerning sexual violence or outdated and vague provisions on what constitutes rape. “To date,” de Brouwer explains, “there are no convictions for sexual terrorism…so in the absence of a law, criminalizing the crime of sexual terrorism explicitly or even implicitly, access to justice by victims is severely curtailed.” 

Obstacles within legal fields are not the only ones that exist for survivors of sexual violence. Women are often re-victimized after experiencing trauma. In refugee and IDP camps, where survivors often end up, or upon return to their villages, they are shunned and seen as having consented to fraternize with the enemy, willingly engaging in sexual activity with armed actors. Often times, sexual violence does not end upon their return home. Women and girls are often revictimized and raped in the camps where they sought safety and shelter and are left with virtually zero legal recourse and little access to necessary psychosocial services. According to Rhoda Tyoden Moore,  President of International Women Lawyers in Nigeria, survivors have no confidence in their government to do anything for them: “even if they report [sexual violence], nothing can be done.” Access to justice is critically important in IDP and refugee camps and when women return home to their communities. 

Donations from MasLibres.com to buy food for the victims of Boko Haram, Nigeria. // HazteOir.org

Courts and States: Obligations and Failures 

Promoting laws on sexual terrorism and prosecuting perpetrators can raise awareness about how terrorist groups operate and how they can be held accountable. Since there have been no cases related to sexual violence tried in domestic or international courts thus far, initial cases will inform others, setting precedent and demanding justice for survivors. Experts believe that it is extremely difficult to amend international terrorism litigation as it stands now. The most effective way to do so is by setting precedent in domestic courts that will eventually translate to international action. 

According to de Brouwer, courts should implement survivor-centered “evidentiary and procedural rules” that should guide any and all legal proceedings. “Effective prohibitions against sexual terrorism” de Brouwer articulates, “are insufficient without amendments to procedural and evidentiary rules that do not really support or protect victims.” There is an urgent need for protective measures to prevent re-victimization while in the courtroom. These include ensuring the safety of survivors who choose to testify, psychological services for before and after the trial, protections against victim intimidation in court settings, and if possible, financial assistance for the victim. 

States, likewise, have failed in their obligations to survivors of sexual terrorism. In a majority of countries where terrorists are based, women are considered and treated as second class citizens and are not afforded the same projections as men. Moore articulates that states play a large role in whether survivors report their assaults. “What we need,” the Nigerian based attorney explains, “is for governments to take proactive measures to improve [response] to these incidences. And to do that, we need gender-based violence structures on the ground.” This means that governments should establish laws to easily prosecute gender-based violence, put in place safeguards for victims of sexual violence, and make the legal field accessible to survivors so that they may be encouraged to seek redress. “These perpetrators must be punished so that these women will now build up confidence in the system,” Moore emphasized. 

Crimes of sexual terrorism should not solely be dealt within the legal arena. States have an obligation to advocate for and protect victims of sexual violence. The role of the state government is complex and multifaceted, according to Chioma Onuegbu, Deputy Director of the Department of Public Prosecution for the Attorney General in Nigeria. To effectively protect survivors and prosecute perpetrators, it is imperative that states establish gender-sensitive training, collect and share evidence with relevant departments, engage expert prosecutors trained in gender-based violence collection, and create a specialized unit to deal with gender-related crimes.     

Addressing sexual terrorism will continue to require a holistic approach by state and non-state actors and within domestic and international courts. Special measures must be taken in order to protect survivors of sexual terrorism and end the culture of silence around the topic. 


This is the third installment of the Digital Dialogue Series which brings together authors and scholars, practitioners, and experts to reflect on the progress and challenges of addressing conflict-related sexual violence. This series is hosted by the United Nations Team of Experts of Rule of Law and Sexual Violence in Conflict and in partnership with Institute for Public Health, Washington University in St. Louis; Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, Harvard University; the  School of Transnational Governance, European University Institute; and the Institute for the Study of Human Rights, Columbia University. 

The following is a list of all participants in this discussion: 

Fionnuala Ni Aolain: Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the context of terrorism 

Anne Marie de Brouwer: Cofounder of Team Impact  

Azadeh Mohaveni:  Director of the Gender and Conflict Project, International Crisis Group 

Chioma Onuegbu: Deputy Director of Department of Public Prosecution and Head of Complex Cases for the Office of the Attorney General (Nigeria)

Rhoda Tyoden Moore: President of FIDA: International Women Lawyers in Nigeria

Make the Money, Make (up) the News? The Underreported War of Nagorno-Karabakh

By Nay Alhelou, Co-Editor of RightsViews and MA Candidate in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University. 

Four weeks on, the war over Nagorno-Karabakh continues despite a third ceasefire agreement that was supposed to take effect on October 26. In the meantime, a parallel war – a war of (mis)information – finally starts to make headlines.

Over the past two weeks, both academics and journalists reported on the ways in which Azerbaijan has been using its financial power to set the tone of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Academics at Harvard University and Columbia University pointed out that Azerbaijan has been investing in lobbying firms and using social media ‘trolls’ to spread misinformation in the aim of getting the public’s support. For example, Azerbaijani Telegram channel “The Tagiev” claimed that videos showing the capture and execution of two Armenian soldiers were staged, even though originally the channel itself posted them and identified them as real. However, an investigation by Bellingcat found that the videos were indeed factual, unlike the claims made by the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense. Similarly, an Armenian Weekly journalist wrote an in-depth piece detailing different examples of propaganda articles brought to audiences by Azerbaijani-paid PR firms.

As important as these and similar articles are, they have yet to make it to the mainstream. As such, the potential fact-checks and context they provide may go unnoticed. Unless you happen to be an avid reader of a university’s newsletter, you just might miss crucial pieces of information.

However, the so-called mainstream media are not entirely oblivious to Azerbaijan’s financial powers and how they can impact not just the conflict itself, but also how the international community views it. 

Indeed, media are well aware of Azerbaijan’s oil and gas reserves and the economic power – or at least advantages – these may bring to the country. Be it the ability to misinform the public or gain the sympathy of world powers, the less advantageous impacts of Azerbaijan’s economy tend to be ignored, or at best mentioned ‘en passant.’  

For example, on October 18, The New York Times stated matter-of-factly that “Azerbaijan, an oil and gas hub on the Caspian Sea, has deployed superior firepower, using advanced drones and artillery systems it buys from Israel, Turkey and Russia.” While such a statement alludes to the benefits of a strong oil and gas reserve, it falls short from providing an in-depth analysis of said benefits. Readers are then left without any clear understanding of the economic and political powers that are at play and that may be impacting the reaction of the international community (or lack thereof) vis-à-vis the conflict and its resolution.

Again, in another article that the NYT claims would help readers “understand the conflict,” there is no mention of the economic disparities between the two warring sides at all. Even with their economies combined, the GDP of Nagorno-Karabakh (USD 713 million in 2019) and that of Armenia (USD 13.6 billion in 2019) are still less than half the GDP of Azerbaijan alone, which stood at USD 48 billion in 2019. Whether an omission of neglect or intent, the result remains the same: key context is missing.

Other outlets are not as oblivious to the power that comes with money. In an Arabic opinion piece published in “The New Arab” – a pan-Arab outlet based in the UK – Ammar Dayoub plainly warns that the difference between Azerbaijan’s and Armenia’s economic resources will directly impact the outcome of the conflict. He argues that “Azerbaijan’s power stems from the fact it was armed with energy revenue, after 1994, from Russia, Turkey and Israel” and with Armenia’s scarcity of resources, Nagorno-Karabakh will be unable to stand against “the regionally supported attack.”

Even in cases where journalists point out the lies or half-truths spread by the warring countries, a human rights lens seems to be missing. In particular, the mainstream media are neglecting the fact that the right to information – which is an integral part of the freedom of expression – is continuously under threat.

To be sure, this right does not guarantee that people will get accurate information per se. However, it can be argued that the spread of misinformation and the exclusion of key data restricts the audience’s right to access information. As a result, public opinion about the conflict as well as peace resolution efforts may be negatively impacted, if not skewed to the benefit of the richer country.  

Under international humanitarian law, all sides involved in a conflict are subject to equal obligations and have equal rights. This principle ensures that no side can claim that it is fighting a ‘just’ war in the hopes of getting away with everything it does on the battleground.

This principle, however, does not extend beyond the battlefield, where anyone seems to be able to claim anything from the justness of the war to the facts of the war and its context.

Indeed, when a military war turns into one of information, there seems to be only one rule: ‘he who pays the piper, calls the tune.’ That is, until we call it out.

Complicating Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Legacy Through the Lens of White Feminism, Race, and Indigenous Rights

By Rowena Kosher, Co-Editor of RightsViews and student at Columbia’s School of General Studies majoring in Human Rights with a Concentration in Gender & Sexuality Studies.

On September 18, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died at 87, after serving on the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) for 27 years. Ginsburg, popularly known as RBG, and in her most recent fame “The Notorious RBG,” is a feminist icon. This is for good reason—she accomplished a number of “firsts” in her lifetime and her work contributed to groundbreaking progressive legal changes, particularly regarding gender. 

Flowers on the steps of the Supreme Court following Ginsburg’s death. // Creative Commons

Ginsburg graduated top of her Columbia class and became the first woman to be appointed as full professor at Columbia Law. As Director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, she litigated over 300 sex discrimination cases before working on the D.C Court of Appeals for 13 years. Ginsburg joined SCOTUS in 1993, where she served until her death. During this time, Ginsburg rose to mainstream fame, becoming well known for her blistering dissents and constant advocacy as one of the vital liberal justices on an increasingly conservative court.

Following Ginsburg’s death, the media blew up with condolences, concerns about political implications, and articles commending Ginsburg on the successes of her career. Yet in this barrage of (justifiable) abounding praise, I couldn’t help but think about what happens when a person, a human, becomes an icon so coopted by a movement that her humanity becomes erased. In truth, Ginsburg was a person, and people are not perfect. What do we lose in this black and white thinking about legacy?

A caveat: in this article, I will offer a critical overview of Ginsburg’s legacy. In doing so, I do not intend to discredit or ignore the vastly important implications of the decisions that she made over the course of her career, particularly for women. Rather, I hope that this article presents the opportunity to, amongst our mourning and praise, also think deeply about who benefits from RBG’s legacy, and more importantly who falls to the wayside: namely poor, queer, Black and Indigenous People.

 

Ginsburg’s Feminism was for White Women

In 2013, a NYC student started a Tumblr account entitled “The Notorious RBG,” beginning the memeification of Justice Ginsburg as a white feminist icon. // Creative Commons

Ginsburg was director of the Women’s Rights Project during the height of second wave feminism, a time characterized by calls for women’s equality to men. Also known as “sameness feminism”, this camp challenges anything that could be perceived as treating women as the “lesser sex.” Ginsburg based her entire legal career on reasoning that adhered to this model. Her cases on sex discrimination followed a formula: anything that appeared to be treating a member of one sex differently from a member of the other sex was either sex discrimination, or in the case of her 1 in 4 male plaintiffs, reverse sex discrimination. 

Although on face value, this version of feminism intuitively makes sense, its historical context and practical application mean that in practice, it only really benefits one group: white women. Of which, of course, Ginsburg herself was a member.

As Muqing Zhang points out in a 2019 article in The Establishment, equality to men is an easy point of view for an upper-middle class white woman to have because sexism is often the only form of discrimination that white women face. Yet, maintaining a sameness-based sex equality argument obscures, and even worsens, the experiences of, for instance, poor, Black, queer women, whose marginalizations are plural. In fact, it was the very prominence of the consistent exclusions resulting from a sameness feminist model that led to the development of Critical Race Theory.

Ginsburg’s appeal to white feminism is clear and with this in mind, Ginsburg’s popularized successes in court take on a different tone. Zhang argues that Ginsburg’s formulaic equality framework resulted in the consistent and lasting elimination of any preferential policies towards women—results that were successes for only white women. Cases such as Weinberger v Wiesenfeld (1975) and Califano v Goldfarb (1977), ended policies on federal aid that benefited women specifically. Although aligned with a white feminist model of success, eliminating preferential policies leaves the poor, queer, non-white women who rely on these programs stranded. The results of these decisions are not racist in intent, but they do say something about the challenges of her positionality as a wealthy white woman. Zhang writes, “Although it may not have been Ginsburg’s explicit intent to harm the most marginalized of women, part of the insidiousness of white feminism is that it convinces its believers that the white woman’s experience is the universal experience for all women…in the end, it is not the intent, but the devastating impact that matters.”

On Race:

Ginsburg was not entirely oblivious about the challenges that she did not herself face. At her swearing-in ceremony in 1993, Ginsburg said: “A system of justice will be the richer for diversity of background and experience.” In 1994, Jerome McCristal Culp Jr. wrote and published “An Open Letter From One Black Scholar to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg” in which he reminded Ginsburg that diversity on the court does not automatically ensure that diverse voices are heard before the court. Further, understanding one form of oppression (gender) does not mean that one can or will understand another (race), or their intersections. “Privilege does not mean that the holder cannot hear the voices of the oppressed,” writes Culp Jr., “but it does suggest that one possessing such privilege ought to take care to examine where she is in relation to others and where she and others are going.” As with Crenshaw, Culp Jr. cites the challenges of applying an equality model to racial settings. The Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment is a model that at best maintains the status quo, and at worst reinforces existing racialized inequalities.

When Ginsburg engaged with issues of race directly, it came across with mixed messages. One such example is her hiring record. At her confirmation hearing, Senator Hatch questioned Ginsburg about the fact that over her 13 years at the DC District Court, out of 57 employees, not a single one was Black. Ginsburg replied by saying, “I am going to try harder, and if you confirm me for this job, my attractiveness to Black candidates is going to improve.” Yet, over her 27 years on SCOTUS, she only hired one Black law clerk. Granted, law clerks for SCOTUS justices are notoriously white across the board—85% since 2005. However, a systemic problem is not an excuse for a lack of revision of hiring practices, and it is still disappointing to read of Ginsburg’s poor record.

Ginsburg made headlines again in 2016 for her insensitive response to Colin Kaepernick kneeling for the National Anthem as a protest to police violence and in support of Black Lives Matter. In the original interview, Ginsburg calls the protest “dumb and disrespectful” and compares it to flag burning. Ginsburg quickly apologized after massive media blowback. Although it appears that Ginsburg was taking issue more with the action of political speech that Kaepernick chose to take than with the cause he was protesting for, it’s frankly surprising that she was “unaware” of the nature of these protests and further, demonstrates a tendency in the legal world to interpret political actions along a hierarchy of value. Progressive values are structured to favor some political spaces (like campaigns) over others (like sports). And the very spaces that are favored are the spaces that are already structurally exclusionary to BIPOC.  Where is the space for voices against racism when the easily accessible platforms to denounce it are valued less than the institutions that gatekeep? 

In her world in the courtroom, Ginsburg didn’t stand out on cases related to race but generally sided with the other liberal justices in condemning white supremacy & racial discrimination. After all, the civil rights framework that challenges racism is the same as her well-worn equality framework for gender discrimination. For example, as an attorney, Ginsburg credited the work of Black queer civil rights attorney Pauli Murray in Reed v Reed. She authored an amicus brief for Coker v Georgia writing, “the death penalty for rape is an outgrowth of both male patriarchal views of women…and gross racial injustice created in part out of that patriarchal foundation.” Ginsburg also clearly addressed the intersections of voter suppression and race in her famous dissent, Shelby County v Holder.

She ruled in favor of several important cases regarding the rights of the incarcerated, although it is not clear that these decisions were based on her awareness of mass incarceration as an issue with disproportionate effect on BIPOC. Yet Ginsburg also supported increased barriers for prisoners seeking rights in federal courts and joined the majority in Overton v Bazzetta, upholding draconian visiting restrictions. Definitely a mixed record.

One interesting case study of Ginsburg’s lack of engagement with race is her Utah v Strieff (2016) dissent. An equal protection 4th amendment case about warrants and unlawful stops, Justice Sonya Sotomayor wrote a harsh dissent critiquing the ruling, which included what is now colloquially referred to as Sotomayor’s “Black Lives Matter Manifesto.” In this condemnation that also cited Black scholars and activists Michelle Alexander and Ta-Nehisi Coates, Sotomayor wrote “[the decision] implies that you are not a citizen of democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be catalogued.” Ginsburg signed onto all of Sotomayor’s dissent except this section. Ginsburg ruled on the liberal side, and yet stopped herself at Sotomayor’s explicit discussion of race. Why did she pass up an opportunity to use her platform as a prominent white woman in power to express solidarity with BIPOC?

Indigenous Rights: RBG’s Biggest Regret

Ginsburg accepting her nomination to the Supreme Court in 1993. She was nominated by President Bill Clinton. // Creative Commons

When it comes to Indigenous Rights, Ginsburg likewise does not have a strong record of support. The legal field itself contributes to this. US law is based primarily on individual rights, a reflection of Western neoliberalism. This comes in conflict when dealing with Indigenous Peoples, whose rights are collective. Further, education about Indian Law is poor across law schools; only a few states include it on their Bar examinations. As a whole, the American legal system is rooted in the history of systemic genocide, exclusion, and erasure of American Indians. Given this, it is upsetting but not surprising that in her confirmation hearing, Ginsburg stated that “I cannot pretend to any special knowledge in this area of the law.” The Marshall Project does note that Ginsburg’s decisions on cases regarding Indian Law improved over the course of her time on the court. For example, her very last Indian Law case, McGirt v Oklahoma (2020), importantly ruled that a majority of Eastern Oklahoma is Indian Country—a landmark recognition of tribal sovereignty. However, backtracking to some of her earlier decisions, we see a number of cases where Ginsburg restricted Indian rights, such as US v Navajo Nation (2002) and Strate v A-1 Contractors (1997). Perhaps the most notorious, however, is City of Sherrill v Oneida Indian Nation of New York.

Ginsburg authored the 8-1 2005 Sherrill decision, ruling against the Oneida Indian Nation regarding their claim to tax-exempt status on traditional Oneida land which NY had acquired as the result of an illegal transaction in the 19th century, and then was repurchased by the Oneida Nation in 1997-98. Ginsburg’s reasoning rested on longstanding racist legal doctrines such as the “Doctrine of Discovery.” Ginsburg argued that the “longstanding Non-Indian character” of the land and the Oneida’s delay in seeking relief kept the tribe from “rekindling the embers of sovereignty that long ago grew cold.” This decision was heavily and rightfully critiqued.

It is clear that Ginsburg took these critiques to heart. In May of 2020 she confided in some of her clerks and peers that Sherrill was the single decision in her time at the court that she regretted the most. She paired this with a declaration of hope that the next SCOTUS nominee be a Native American woman.

What does all of this tell us? It tells us that Ginsburg made countless valuable progressive, life changing decisions that benefitted hundreds of thousands of Americans. It tells us she has the capacity for growth and critical thought and the humility to apologize. It also tells us that she made some really bad decisions, too. In other words, she wasn’t perfect. Nobody is. Legacies are complicated, and the legacy of a judge on SCOTUS even more so. 

We experience a general failure to recognize Ginsburg’s complicated history because she has been elevated to icon status in the pervasive white feminist narrative. As Si’iyda Shabazz writes, “painting her as a superhero on a pedestal” by the ever-impervious white feminist umbrella means we forget (or are prevented from realizing) that at the end of the day, RBG made mistakes. Just as her successes deserve to be shouted from the rooftops, the less rosy side of her record ought to be available for critique. We can only become better citizens, better feminists, and better advocates by knowing that mourning and critical analysis are not mutually exclusive, and in fact can strengthen each other and provoke us to turn Ginsburg’s legacy into justice-oriented action.

The Struggle for Equality: When Will European Roma Human Rights Finally be Respected?

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

The Roma, pejoratively referred to as Gypsies, are Europe’s largest and most marginalized and disenfranchised ethnic minority.  There are an estimated 10-12 million Roma in Europe, making up 5 percent of the population. The Roma are most concentrated in Italy, Spain, France, and the UK, according to Amnesty International, but have settled in every country on the continent. Originally migrating to Europe in the 9th century from Northern India and what is now Iran, Turkey, and Armenia, the Roma have faced discrimination, racism, xenophobia, and inhumane treatment in every country they have settled in. They were forced into slavery in most of Europe leading up to the 19th century, were the second-largest group targeted for extermination by the Third Reich (an estimated 25-75% of Europe’s Roma population were decimated in WWII), and were targeted for murder and rape during the conflict in Kosovo. 

Photo copyright: Archiv C891 Ungarische Zigeuner-Familie, Roma, unter deutscher Besatzung, 1940er https://www.flickr.com/photos/65091855@N03/24650497476

Today, the Roma are still described using the most common negative stereotypes: gypsies, thieves, criminals, savage, lazy, intellectually inferior, and other derogatory descriptions. A majority live in slums without access to running water or electricity and are at near-daily risk for violence committed by non-Roma European citizens. In 2019, six French men were arrested in a plot to burn down a Roma camp near Paris due to their belief in the baseless accusation that French Roma had been involved in a kidnapping ring in poor Parisian neighborhoods. Despite this failed attempt, anti-Roma sentiment and violence in France spiked soon after these racist and unfounded allegations circulated on social media. According to the New York Times, over several days Roma men were beaten and threatened according to advocacy groups. In Rome in 2017, three young Roma girls aged 4, 8, and 20 were burned alive when their camper-van was set on fire in an intentional attack on the camp. These are merely a few of countless examples of physical violence against the Roma.

European citizens are not the only ones guilty of inciting violence against the Roma. Government officials from several countries have used their influential platforms to call for violence against the Roma. French National Assembly Member Gilles Bourdouleix remarked in 2013: “Maybe Hitler didn’t kill enough of them.” Hungarian ruling Fidesz party co-founder Zsolt Bayer declared: “A significant part of the Roma are unfit for coexistence. They are not fit to live among people. These animals shouldn’t be allowed to exist. In no way. That needs to be solved — immediately and regardless of the method.”

Repeated violence and discrimination against the Roma continue to have a detrimental effect on their communities throughout Europe. Currently, 90% of Roma are at risk of extreme poverty, are subjected to forced evictions and deportations, face educational segregation, and on average, have lifespans that are ten years shorter than their non-Roma counterparts. Over 77% of Roma and Travellers (a similar nomadic but ethnically distinct group mainly living in Western Europe) in the UK have been victims of racially motivated attacks and hate crimes and in the UK, 70% of Roma experienced discrimination in seeking education, nearly 50% were refused employment due to their ethnicity, and 30% cannot access proper healthcare. Moreover, there are few recent reports on the overall status of the Roma in Europe as a majority of countries choose not to collect or take part in data collection.

This begs the question: why, in practice, have the rights of the Roma been left out of human rights discourses in Europe? This is a question that can only be answered honestly by confronting over a thousand years of racism, negative stereotypes, and xenophobia. Much of the discrimination they face has to do with the perception of their culture. Many Europeans view Roma culture as one that has a collective identity based upon a nomadic lifestyle, a group full of fortune tellers, beggars, thieves, child snatchers, people that are too lazy to work or get an education and instead choose to be a drain on society. Many believe that Roma lifestyles not only contradict, but are also inherently dangerous to the European way of life. These ideas emerged from a series of stereotypes imposed on them shortly after their enslavement in the 13th century. Consider the character of Esmerelda from the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Cher’s popular song Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves, or the reality show My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding which follows teen “Gypsy” brides. Each of these examples perpetuate the stereotypes of Roma girls as sexually promiscuous, Roma men as predators, and the Roma in general, as criminals. These myths were further perpetuated during the Holocaust and continue to spread throughout Europe today, made worse by social media. The Roma are continually scapegoated and are blamed for social, political, or economic problems facing the state.

Despite a large population, there is no central Roma authority since there is not one single Roma identity but instead a variety of unique cultural and linguistic groups throughout the continent. Moreover, there are few powerful Roma figures and very few politicians or others that can lobby on their behalf. The lack of advocacy on behalf of the Roma also comes from a lack of reliable data on their communities. On average, European countries do not dedicate enough resources for the collection of disaggregated data, which is essential in order to develop programs tailored to the needs of the community. Without this necessary data, financial resources cannot be allocated by the European Union, European Commission, and state governing bodies, thereby trapping the Roma into continued cycles of poverty. 

Incorporating Roma rights into the broader human rights framework necessitates an assessment of the legacy of colonialism in Europe that has gone unacknowledged and unaddressed. International organizations like Open Society Foundation, founded by George Soros, and Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s National Democratic Institute, have committed millions of dollars to advancing Roma rights throughout Europe, with varying degrees of success. However, many European politicians have pushed back on allowing for greater Roma participation in the social, cultural, and political field. Some countries have been accused of not distributing funds specifically allocated by international funders and the European Union for the advancement of Roma rights and community projects.  

The Roma have been victims of mass atrocities and genocide throughout history and continue to experience cultural genocide. Each European country where the Roma live has a legal and moral obligation to address the multitude of human rights violations against the Roma. States are responsible for correcting racial injustices by

  • integrating Roma children and adolescents into schools and putting in place mechanisms to prevent educational segregation, 
  • increasing access to the healthcare sector, 
  • developing discrimination and harassment training programs in all levels of society, especially for the police, prosecuting crimes against the Roma as hate crimes, and 
  • sentencing perpetrators of these crimes to the full extent of the law. 

If European countries continue to promote the idea that they are the defenders of human rights and that they fully embrace the articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, then they must do more to protect the most vulnerable and disenfranchised population on their continent.

It is time that Roma citizens be treated with the dignity and respect under the law that is afforded to all other Europeans.

Turkey’s Alarming Regional Intervention Continues to Affect Minority Communities with Impunity, This Time in Azerbaijan

By Guest Contributors Anoush Baghdassarian and Sherin Zadah

Tucked away into the southern caucasus is a region struggling for survival, not against COVID-19, but against yet another offensive by Turkey, this time in Azerbaijan, targeting the region’s minority populations.  

On Sept. 27, 2020, a war broke out in the Republic of Artsakh, also known as the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR). The conflict is mainly between Armenia, the ethnic Armenians of NKR, and Azerbaijan, but Turkey is also a player in the conflict; it has pledged support for Azerbaijan, closing its border with Armenia and reaffirming Azerbaijan’s claims to territorial integrity. 

Amid the current crisis, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pledged to “support our Azerbaijani brothers with all our means as always,” including military assistance. This manifested into a coordinated premeditated attack against one of its historic minority communities — the Armenians. This follows shortly after Turkey’s crimes against the Kurds, another one of its repeatedly persecuted ethnic groups. Turkey launched a targeted military campaign in northeastern Syria as confirmed by an August 2020 UN Human Rights Council Report that credibly accused Turkish-backed militias of committing crimes against humanity in Northern Syria against the minority Kurdish population. 

Turkey’s historical oppression of its minority populations such as the Kurds and Armenians has continued with impunity. Today, it has escalated to the immoral mobilization of a sophisticated network of proxy fighters that it deploys abroad, including in Libya, Armenia, and other countries, to fight its wars abroad. 

The Syrian National Army, or SNA, is one of the proxy groups that consists of vulnerable, war-torn Syrians who arguably would not be able to reject Turkey’s lucrative offer of 1,500-2,000 lira per month to fight abroad in Libya and now most recently, in Azerbaijan. 

Turkey has been acting without consequence in Syria, Libya, and now the self-proclaimed  Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, or NKR, located between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but de jure recognized as within Azerbaijan’s borders. For over 25 years the NKR conflict, a stalemated tug-of-war between self-determination and territorial integrity, has been relatively peaceful (with minor skirmishes over the years, the longest lasting four days in 2016). Before the violence erupted, SNA commanders were transferred in late September to southern Turkey, and then transported to Azerbaijan on September 25th.  This occurred two days before the violence began in NKR. 

Turkey, the second largest military power in NATO,  has re-ignited the violence through its unilateral military support of Azerbaijan, and redefined it in alarming ways. This military alliance has been solidified through the Baku-Ankara agreement which prioritizes military cooperation between Turkey and Azerbaijan. To aid Azerbaijan and to further Turkey’s neo-ottomanism ambitions, Turkey has deployed Syrian foreign fighters to Azerbaijan. 

While it has already been confirmed that Azerbaijan used internationally condemned, and banned, cluster munitions in Stepanakert and Shushi, Turkey’s use of mercenaries adds another element of illegality to the fighting in NKR, according to Articles 2 and 5 of the International Convention Against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries, and Article 2(1)(b) of the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism.  The mercenaries deployed by Turkey are already credibly accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Northern Syria, and are also affiliated with well-known terrorist organizations. Even the head of Russia’s SVR Foreign Intelligence Service stated that the conflict was attracting “hundreds and […]even thousands of radicals hoping to earn money in a new Karabakh war.” 

Turkey is thus in breach of its obligations under the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism, to which it is a member. Furthermore, Azerbaijan and Syria have also ratified the International Convention Against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries, making the use of mercenaries on their territory illegal. Since NKR is de jure recognized as within the borders of Azerbaijan, Azerbaijani use of mercenaries in the conflict is a violation of their obligations under this Convention. 

Lastly, there is an argument to be made that Turkey is essentially coercing these impoverished Syrians into fighting, as the lack of available economic opportunity in war-torn Syria leaves them with no other option. For example, a Syrian foreign fighter fighting in Azerbaijan described to BBC how “they loaded us into troop carriers, we were wearing Azeri uniforms, and each of us was armed with a single Kalashnikov weapon. Most of the people here are poor civilians who wanted the money, not soldiers, stopped the car and we were surprised that we were in the line of fire. We did not even know where the enemy was.” While this does not preclude accountability for any illegal acts committed by the mercenaries, it is clear that the Turkish military exploited the economic and social needs of some individuals. 

While this war is too new to have thorough assessments of international law violations on the ground, we do have evidence of such violations committed by Turkey in Northern Syria. 

Turkey’s crimes against humanity against Kurds in Northeastern Syria have been well documented by the recent UN-HRC-45-31 report released in August 2020. The report documents the property theft, torture, sexual violence, forced displacement, arbitrary detention, and severe deprivation of liberty, of people “primarily of Kurdish origin” living in Afrin by the Syrian National Army. These severe human rights abuses of Kurdish civilians should be immediately condemned and acted upon by the international community, including the United Nations Security Council. 

Not only does Turkey’s use of mercenaries amount to international law violations, it also poses a threat to global security. What is especially concerning about Turkey’s use of mercenaries in furthering its foreign policy interests is that its goals are against global interests, such as combating Islamist extremism. As stated by Elizabeth Prodromou, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Turkey’s active and passive support for ISIS and other Islamist extremist groups has been “very well documented.” Similarly, the  French President Emmanuel Macron expressed  his concern with “Turkey’s “warlike” rhetoric  which was encouraging Azerbaijan to reconquer Nagorno-Karabakh and that was unacceptable.” 

This has become a pressing global issue given that two world powers, Russia and Turkey, are on opposite sides of several major world conflicts such as in Syria and Libya and now in NKR, where Russia is trying to broker a ceasefire, and Turkey is fueling further fighting. The threat of these rising tensions risks further instability in a rapidly destabilizing region. What we see unfolding now follows an unsettling trend of Turkey’s complete disregard for the rights of minorities and raises a critical question of if Turkey will have a stopping point.

 

About the Authors

Anoush Baghdassarian is a JD Candidate at Harvard Law School. She has a Master’s in Human Rights Studies from Columbia University, and a Bachelor’s in Psychology and Genocide Studies from Claremont McKenna College. She is Co-founder of the Rerooted Archive, documenting over 200 testimonies from Syrian-Armenian refugees who have fled Syria in the last ten years.  She has a career focus on transitional justice and international criminal law and some of her work experiences include interning as an advisor to the Armenian Permanent Mission to the UN, and serving as an upcoming visiting professional at the International Criminal Court.

Sherin Zadah is a graduate of Claremont McKenna College and has worked on international development issues in Jordan and Turkey. Sherin is a humanitarian activist and former State Department intern. She has contributed to the WSJ, has been a guest speaker on NBC San Diego’s political talk and featured on national broadcasts, such as NPR where she spoke on the crisis in northeastern Syria. She is the founder of Kurdish Refugee Relief, a 501c3 non-profit organization committed to serving the needs of Kurdish refugees while creating a growing network of support. 

Social Media Platforms: A Theater for Exercising Free Speech

Guest contributor Maanya Vaidyanathan is the Policy and Engagement Manager at The Dialogue, a tech policy think-tank in India. She specialises in International Law, Gender Policies, Intermediary Liabilities and Foreign Policy. 

Guest contributor Kazim Rizvi is a Public-Policy Policy Entrepreneur and Founder of The Dialogue, a tech policy think-tank in India. Kazim is one of the leading voices in India’s tech policy discourse.

“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

― John Milton, Areopagitica

Freedom of speech and expression gives individuals the right to freely express themselves without the fear of being reprimanded. This right, however, is neither absolute nor devoid of responsibility. It is a complex right that comes with reasonable restrictions, as given in Article 19(2) of the Indian Constitution

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 19(2) of the International Convention for Civil and Political Rights provide for freedom of speech and expression in any medium, including online media. In 2020, the Supreme Court of India guaranteed this right in the online world in a landmark judgment on the internet shutdowns in Kashmir. 

The court ruled that freedom of speech and expression and the right to carry on any trade or business using the internet, is constitutionally protected and the restrictions on this freedom must be imposed under the terms stated under Article 19(2) of the Constitution.

Online platforms act as vital communication tools which dominate our everyday lives and act as a medium for spreading and gathering news. Over the last few years, the online world has allowed people to create their own communities and find the support, encouragement and courage that they may not find elsewhere. Additionally, the virtual space has given a lot of underrepresented sections of society an identity and a platform to express themselves freely, without the fear of judgment. The internet and its intermediaries play a pivotal role in allowing people from all over the world to connect, gather information and create a sense of belonging.

Every commodity has the potential for misuse, and the internet is no exception. Along with the safe spaces that have been created online, the online world has become a breeding ground for hate speech and fake news. 

In order to tackle the growing menace in the online space, the Government of India introduced the draft amendment to the 2018 guidelines under the Information Technology Act. The changes in the amended guidelines prescribe certain conditions for content hosting platforms to seek protection for third-party content. The aim of the guidelines is to reduce the flow of unwanted and controversial content on social media platforms by mandating ‘automated filters’ to mechanically take content off the platforms and trace the original author to hold them accountable. This step, however, is not conducive with the spirit of free speech. The amended guidelines fail to define subjective phrases that warrant removal of content – such as “decency” and “morality”- which gives way to a take-down process that is arbitrary and inconsistent.

The amended rules also risk misinterpretation as the drafters have not identified any proposed metrics to determine how such online content may harm public safety and critical information infrastructure. This shows how the guidelines are contrary to the landmark ruling The Supreme Court gave in the Shreya Singhal judgment in 2015.

Additionally, the revised guidelines compromise the practice of end-to-end encryption, which will give way to widespread government censorship and surveillance.  End-to-end encryption is a system of communication where the only people who can read the messages are the people communicating. Through this system, for intermediaries to monitor content, they would have to know what the content is, which may threaten users’ privacy along with their right to free speech.

The amended guidelines lead to the violation of an individual’s right to privacy, right to equality (allowed under Article 14 of the Indian Constitution) and most importantly, the right to free speech. These three rights are fundamental human rights, awarded to each individual through national and international legislation. The internet has the power to reach the masses and allows everyone the opportunity to have a voice and call out instances of injustice and mistreatment that they may witness. Through social media platforms, citizens across the world can unite despite territorial limitations. Hate speech makes the internet a toxic environment to navigate, while fake news makes it an unreliable environment. However, censoring and controlling the speech of every user will not curb these nuisances. 

Policies are required to take into consideration the interests of all people, either individually or collectively. What is therefore desirable is regulation of social media, not its censorship. Social media platforms need to continue to remain theaters for safely exercising the right to free speech.

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.

Truth in Sentencing: Mass Incarceration in the United States

By Reem Katrib, Staff Writer for RightsViews 

With the mark of the 10th year anniversary of Michelle Alexander’s powerful book The New Jim Crow at the end of January, our current celebration of  Black History Month, and an approaching presidential election, it is important to bring to the forefront the continuing systemic racism in the American criminal justice system. The recent eighth presidential debate, argued the evening of February 7, 2020, in New Hampshire, brought forth this topic with the spotlight on presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg when asked why a black resident in South Bend, Indiana was four times more likely to be arrested for the possession of marijuana than a white resident after his appointment to office. While Buttigieg had initially avoided the questions posed by ABC News’ Live News Anchor Linsey Davis, he then conceded, claiming that the arrests made were made as a result of the gang violence that was prevalent in the black community of South Bend, causing the deaths of many black youths. This logic and rhetoric, however, plays into narratives which contribute to the disproportionate criminalization of black Americans, despite Buttigieg’s recognition of systemic racism in the criminal justice system on the national level. This then begs two questions; primarily, what policies on mass incarceration impact persons of color today? And what positions have the democratic presidential candidates taken on such a pervasive issue? 

A History of Mass Incarceration in the United States

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

The 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution was ratified on December 6, 1865 and deems slavery unconstitutional, except as a punishment for crime.  While the ratification of the 13th amendment was meant to abolish slavery, a mythology of black criminality continued to be perpetuated through a white nationalist narrative that took alternative, but just as harmful, forms to target black Americans. Movies such as “The Birth of a Nation” (1915),which was responsible for the rise of the Klu Klux Klan, committed to a narrative of black criminality that many white people wanted to tell. White people wanted to continue to benefit from the “loophole” in the 13th amendment; more so, the movie depicted them, and specifically members of the Klu Klux Klan, as “valiant saviours of a post-war South ravaged by Northern carpetbaggers and immoral freed blacks.”  

Slavery in the 19th century and continuing discrimination, violations and abuse, and segregation policies such as those of the Jim Crow era have led to generational trauma and the dispersion of black communities from the south. These human rights violations have not ceased with time but only have changed in nature; systemic oppression against people of color has continued through carefully nuanced political policies that only propagate these violations as systems of protection. The mass incarceration of people of color, which has fed into the prison industrial complex, reasserts systems of racial discrimination and the policing of those marginalized. While not slavery by name, the mass incarceration of people of color  acts as slavery in practice.

 Although the United States has the highest rate of incarceration at 25% per cent, it only constitutes 5% of the world population. This is a massive statistic, yet, as Alessandro Di Giorgi articulates, “the sheer extension of the correctional population in the United States does not convey the race and class dimensions of the US penal state—the result of a four-decade-long carceral experiment devised from the outset as a political strategy to restructure racial and class domination in the aftermath of the radical social movements of the 1960s.”

The Civil Rights movements that began in the late 1940s were countered by efforts to criminalize black leaders such as Fred Hampton, Assata Shakur, and Angela Davis.  In the 1960s, President Nixon emphasized “law and order” and synonymized crime and race through a “war on drugs” in which drug dependency and addiction were regarded as a crime, a rhetorical “war” that disproportionately targeted poor, urban neighborhoods occupied by primarily people of color. Through this syntax of subtle and thinly veiled racial appeal, matched with backlash towards the Civil Rights Movement, the Nixon campaign deployed the “Southern Strategy,”  which aimed at gaining the votes of lower income white people who had previously voted with the democratic party. This strategy utilized the war on drugs as a top-down approach to gain the support of the white people who had felt isolated and alienated with the dismantling of the Jim Crow laws on racial segregation. 

The war on drugs was only strengthened in later years, especially with the election of Ronald Raegan in 1982. Increase in poverty as well as the widespread dealing of crack, which was easier to access than powdered cocaine, meant an increase in incarceration rates of low income people of color as well. Significantly, crack and cocaine are identical in molecular composition; however, crack had become associated with blackness and thus a worse form than powdered cocaine, which was used just as frequently by high-income white people as a “party drug.” More so, crack was cheaper to produce and therefore circulated more easily among lower income communities as opposed to cocaine which was mostly circulated and in the possession of middle and upper classes, and more specifically, white people. A study conducted by the ACLU found that “in 1986, before the enactment of the federal mandatory minimum sentencing for crack cocaine offenses, the average federal drug sentence for African Americans was 11% higher than for whites. Four years later, the average federal drug sentence for African Americans was 49% higher.”

“What Raegan eventually does is takes the problem of economic inequality, of hyper-segregation in America’s cities, and the problem of drug abuse and criminalizes all of that in the form of the war on drugs,” argues Ava Duvernay in her documentary 13th.  

This narrative was only furthered by President Bill Clinton who proposed several policies encouraging policing and the death penalty for violent crimes. During his administration, the three strikes rule for prisoners as well as mandatory minimums were created. This meant that cases moved from under the jurisdiction of judges to that of prosecutors; notably, 95% of elected prosecutors throughout the U.S. are white. “Truth in sentencing,” which is a law enacted in order to reduce the likelihood of early release from imprisonment,  has often been questioned as a result of this change in how individuals charged with crimes get prosecuted and sentenced. Significantly, 97% of those locked up, for example, have plea bargains and do not even go through trials. This was significant to the Clinton administration as he claimed a more hardline approach with regards to criminal justice in order to gain support and win the presidential elections. 

Under Bill Clinton, sixty new capital offense punishments were also added to the law, and the 1994 Federal Crime Bill led to the massive expansion of the prison system through increase in funding and personnel such as police officers. This bill then also meant the expansion of the prison industrial complex, and hence the benefit of certain corporations as well as the political progression of Clinton through similar means to Raegan and Nixon. 

As seen in the figure above, extracted from The Sentencing Project: Fact Sheet: “Trends in U.S. Corrections,” state expenditure on corrections has dramatically increased over time. This attests to the use of mass incarceration as a political strategy that perpetuates racial discrimination as politicians have increasingly utilized a hardline criminal justice approach in order to gain public support. This is especially evident with the election of Clinton and the expansion of the prison system which included increase in funding.  

It also asserts the influence of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) on policy bills. ALEC is a lobbyist group that advocates for limited governance, free markets, and federalism. Importantly, ALEC claims the membership of many organizations and legislators. Previous member, Correction Corporations of America (CCA), has benefited as the leader of private prisons as a result of such influence over federal spending. The CCA has had a role in shaping crime policy across the country, including the increase in criminalization of communities of people of color. More so, there is now a move towards the privatization of probation and parole by the American Bail Coalition, a system in which people could be incarcerated within their own communities.  

In prison, incarcerated individuals experience a process of immediate sensory deprivation and dehumanization, followed by disenfranchisement that essentially removes their rights as citizens, such as the right to vote or get a job as the right to vote excludes previously incarcerated people. The racial caste then seen during the Jim Crow era has been redesigned. Not only has there been incessant criminalization and disenfranchisement of black people, but convict leasing has also risen as a new form of slavery. Convict leasing, which started as early as 1844 in Louisiana, means the leasing of the labor of those incarcerated, often without compensation and in poor conditions, in order to increase profit in a certain sector.  The legal inheritances from times of slavery in the United States have become the foundations for the modern prison industrial complex, in which black men make up 40.2 per cent of the prison population while only making up approximately 6.5 percent of the U.S. population. 

The above chart is from The Sentencing Project: Fact Sheet: “Trends in U.S. Corrections”

Ta-Nehisi Coates deems reparations to the black community a question of citizenship. When the history of mass incarceration is looked at with the recognition that members of colored communities have consistently been treated as second class citizens, this is undeniable. Coates makes the claim that slavery and past plundering cannot be separated from today’s context of mass incarceration and the “logic of enslavement respects no such borders.” This enslavement which overarches over private and public spheres presses  the question: how should the U.S. go about institutional reform when politicians and corporations have weaponized racial discrimination in veiled lines to gain political prowess? Could an unofficial form of truth-telling and truth-seeking place the pressure necessary for institutional reform and justice? Questions of employing transitional justice mechanisms such as truth commissions and reparations in a consolidated democracy then suggest a new approach to these mechanisms to encourage institutional reform. Political strategies have begun to shift and so we must ask “do we feel comfortable with people taking a lead on a conversation in a moment where it feels right politically?”

What the Democratic Candidates Say

With that in mind, as well as the events of the recent presidential debate in New Hampshire, it’s important to note the political stances of the democratic presidential candidates to ask of the intentions and the applicability of criminal justice policies and policies on mass incarceration. The Marshall Project outlines the stances of these candidates. 

Significant to this discourse is the recognition that all democratic presidential candidates oppose the death penalty. Bernie Sanders and Peter Buttigieg would like to eliminate mandatory minimums while Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden would prefer reducing them. All candidates would like to legalize marijuana while Biden would vote on decriminalizing it instead. Likewise, Sanders believes that those incarcerated should have the right to vote while Biden, Buttigieg, and Warren believe that those incarcerated should only have the right to vote when they have left prison.

 Other topics to consider include the reform of the bail system, use of clemency, and use of private prisons at a federal level. With these stances noted, one must contextualize and recognize how such policies would affect the communities of those most implicated as a result of the systemic racism in place. One must also question why there hasn’t been more discourse on reparations for the years of weaponized racial discrimination that have been enacted through the prison industrial complex and the mass incarceration of people of color.

Is Tolerance of Human Rights Abuses out of Fashion? A Cautionary Tale for Retail Giants

By Kelly Dudine, staff writer at RightsViews

In a Bangladeshi garment factory, a woman works seven days a week, morning to night, and still cannot afford to feed and clothe her children at home. In India, young women working in cotton mills face appalling work conditions, low pay, violence and exploitation.

This is the cost of fast fashion, poorly regulated labor markets, and ultimately, the tolerance of human rights abuses by the business community. 

However, shifts in public opinion, consumer behavior, and investment strategies are testing business-as-usual more than ever before. The bare minimum is no longer enough – the rules are changing and the business community will need to make drastic, meaningful changes in order to adapt.

The recent filing of bankruptcy by Forever 21 is a strong cautionary tale to all retail giants. The company has been in troubled waters for years. It expanded too quickly and carelessly, and faced lawsuits and accusations of worker exploitation. Despite the adaptation of a social responsibility policy, which outlined sustainability goals including worker health and safety, the company made no improvement in human rights standings over the years. In the annual Ethical Fashion Report, which looks at criteria including living wages, forced labor, child labor, and worker empowerment initiatives, Forever 21’s overall score continued to decline, dropping from a D+ in 2017 to a D- in 2019. For a company whose consumers are largely young women, these allegations are particularly damaging, contributing to a loss of consumer interest and falling foot traffic.

Forever 21 is not alone in these challenges, and the entire fashion industry should take note. Millennials are increasingly buying with their values and Generation Z views consumption as a matter of ethical concern. According to eMarketer, 74 percent of millennial respondents expect brands to take public stands on important social values. To increase consumer markets and customer loyalty, brands should be implementing social initiatives that support and empower their workers in all sectors. 

Money managers, too, are increasingly investing based on ethics and sustainability, using the Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) criteria to screen potential investments. These criteria look at issues that were not traditionally included in financial analysis, like a corporation’s treatment of workers, but are now understood to have significant financial relevance. According to Forbes, the use of ESG criteria and efforts to achieve corporate sustainability are associated with better financial results.

According to the latest report from the US SIF Foundation, investors used ESG criteria in portfolio selection equaling $11.6 trillion in US-domiciled assets in early 2018, which is a 44 percent increase from just two years earlier. The report also shows that assets managed with human rights criteria were one of the leading priorities at $2.2 trillion. With more money managers moving their investments to socially responsible businesses, corporations with human rights abuse allegations could have a problem securing capital in the near future.

 The business community can also expect increased pressure from international human rights bodies. In June 2019, the International Labor Organization adopted a new Convention to combat violence and harassment in the workplace. The Convention sets new international labor standards and “reminds member States that they have a responsibility to promote a general environment of zero tolerance” for workplace violence. The Convention is legally binding for member States, which will no doubt increase scrutiny of the fashion industry, which is plagued with accusations of gender-based violence against female workers. Retailers can expect increased responsibilities of due diligence and prevention, as well as aggressive action and redress when abuses occur.

The simple fact is that there is nothing superficial or whimsical about the fashion industry – it is a massive empire, built in large part due to an intentional race to the bottom, and at great expense to the workers that it so desperately depends on. The industry was estimated to be worth $2.4 trillion in 2017, and growing, making it the world’s seventh-largest economy when ranked alongside the gross domestic products (GDP) of individual countries, according to a report by McKinsey and Company. However, the Asian Wage Floor organization estimates that for an item of clothing, only between 0.5-3 percent of the cost goes to the worker who made it. The industry thrives by dealing in poverty wages. This is especially alarming when considering the fashion industry employs millions of people, many of which are women and young girls located in countries where human rights abuses are not uncommon, and where women are particularly socially and economically vulnerable. 

How can an industry worth trillions still be paying poverty wages to the workers that make it all possible? Whether intentionally or not, international corporations are part of a complex system that keeps millions, especially women and young girls, trapped in a cycle of poverty. 

With its financial capital, reach into underserved labor markets, and direct consumer interaction, the global fashion industry could be an incredible driver of social good and equality, able to spur great economic growth through employment opportunities and vocational trainings in communities that need it most. There are, of course, corporations that are doing just that, and they are thriving among millennial consumers. Brands like H&M and Lululemon Athletica, which have scores of B+ and A-, respectively, in the 2019 Ethical Fashion Report, remain fashion favorites. Currently, however, the bare minimum is the norm in this industry. 

Statements and codes of conduct kept neatly on website pages are not enough. To make real change, corporations must collaborate and work together to disrupt the status quo and drastically overhaul the way global supply chains function. 

The first place to start: increase wages of all workers. No one should be earning less than a living wage in such a massive industry. Invest in worker empowerment programs, skill building, and education for employees. Invest time and resources in ensuring that companies comply with The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

Human rights abuses are predictable and preventable; businesses ought to do the work now to avoid future risk. What may feel like a short-term financial hit allows investment in a healthier, more productive market that corporations will benefit from in the years ahead. As McKinsey and Company states, “brands must find the courage to self-disrupt their own identity and the sources of their old success.” To satisfy changes in public and investor behavior, and win new generations of consumers, brands must enact real, human rights driven changes from the executive suite all the way to the factory floor.

A Year After Jamal Khashoggi’s Assassination, The War On Truth Continues

By: Kyoko Thompson, staff writer at RightsViews

“A commission is coming from Saudi Arabia tomorrow; they have something to do in the Consulate. They will have something to do on my floor in the office.” – October 1 2018, 21:48

At 1:15 PM on Tuesday, October 2, 2018, Washington Post contributor and longtime journalist Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, and was never seen again. His death was not the first of its kind. According to the United Nations, more than one thousand journalists have been murdered since 2006. Yet it drew international attention from governments and individuals alike, many of whom demanded justice. The events that followed challenged the limits of international law and U.S. foreign policy. One year later, an investigation yields more questions than answers, such as: What does justice for Khashoggi look like? Is his death a manifestation of a deeper, more insidious trend? And: What is the future of free speech in an era where authoritarianism and misinformation are not an outlier, but the norm?

 

“He has arrived.” – October 2, 2018; 13:13

 

In November 2018, Turkey shared audio of Jamal Khashoggi’s October 2nd visit to the Saudi consulate with Britain, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. In it, Saudi officials can be heard discussing Khashoggi’s imminent arrival and assassination. The recordings, obtained from inside the consulate itself, provide gruesome confirmation of what was already strongly suspected by journalists and politicians alike: Jamal Khashoggi was lured to the consulate under the false pretense of obtaining documents required for his marriage to then-fiancee Hatice Cengiz, and brutally executed, dismembered, and disposed of by Saudi authorities. 

Much of the narrative available to the public today is the result of the efforts of the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Dr. Agnes Callamard—who, with the assistance of the recordings, consulate security footage, and Turkish authorities, was able to piece together the events immediately leading up to, and following, Khashoggi’s death. An expert in human rights, Dr. Callamard possesses extensive experience in the field, having previously worked with Amnesty International, Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP), and ARTICLE 19. In December 2018, she began a six-month investigation that culminated in the release of her report on the inquiry into the unlawful death of Jamal Khashoggi at the 41st session of the Human Rights Council in June of this year. Her findings, which criticize the international response to Khashoggi’s murder—including the response of Saudi and U.S. officials—shed a harsh light on the consequences of free speech, and the limitations of international law. Her official opinion? This was a state-sanctioned killing. 

While Saudi authorities have continued to insist that Khashoggi’s death was a domestic matter, “I completely disagree with this analysis,” said Dr. Callamard at an event at Columbia Law School last month. On the contrary, she says, Khashoggi was murdered by fifteen Saudi officials—named in her report—“fourteen of whom in my opinion have worked together before.” And, while she did not assign individual liability, she did strongly assert that Khashoggi’s death “constituted an extrajudicial killing for which the State of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is responsible.” Moreover, the killing—and Saudi Arabia’s procedural and official response to it—violated multiple international laws, including the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. According to Dr. Callamard, the impact is clear: this was a crime “of such a nature, in my view, that it qualified as an international crime, and therefore that it could lead to universal jurisdiction.” 

 

“How could this happen in an embassy?” – Jamal Khashoggi, October 2, 2018; 13:22

 

Khashoggi, who left Saudi Arabia in self-imposed exile in September of 2017, was a well known Saudi dissident and critic of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. He claimed that the government had banned him from using Twitter and pressured his publishers to fire him; and in fact his column in Al-Hayat, a popular Arabic daily, was canceled earlier that year. Determined not to be censored, Khashoggi moved to the United States so that he might continue to write for the Washington Post. In an opinion piece shortly after, he wrote “I have made a different choice now. I have left my home, my family and my job, and I am raising my voice. To do otherwise would betray those who languish in prison. I can speak when so many cannot. I want you to know that Saudi Arabia has not always been as it is now. We Saudis deserve better.” 

Human Rights Watch has confirmed that Saudi Arabia has a history of stifling free expression. In 2015 alone, more than six writers and advocates were arrested and punished for peacefully expressing their opinions. According to Human Rights Watch, “One was sentenced to death and the others to lengthy prison terms. At least four were also banned from traveling abroad for five to 10 years.” Usually, the sort of opinions that cause pushback from the Saudi government are those that characterize it, or its leadership, unfavorably. Khashoggi, however, believed he was being silenced because of remarks he made at an event in November of 2016. At the event—a panel discussion at the Washington Institute for the Near East—Khashoggi warned that Saudi Arabia should be wary of a Trump presidency because his stances on the Middle East were contradictory, which wasn’t likely to change. Ironically, Trump has actually remained steadfastly supportive of Saudi Arabia since taking office—so supportive, in fact, that he turned a blind eye to Khashoggi’s murder.

Trump and Prince bin Salman in 2017

Nearly two months after Kashoggi’s disappearance and after weeks of seeming to avoid commenting on the incident, President Donald Trump finally announced that he was “standing with Saudi Arabia.” In many ways, this is not surprising; according to the Council on Foreign Relations, Saudi Arabia is a “critical strategic partner in the region,” and the countries’ cooperation in mutual business and security interests survived even 9/11.  In his statement, issued in November 2018, Trump cited mainly economic reasons—not the least of which was oil—for his continued support of a state that even the CIA concluded ordered the extrajudicial killing and dismemberment of a U.S. resident and Washington Post journalist. “After my heavily negotiated trip to Saudi Arabia last year, the Kingdom agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States. This is a record amount of money. It will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, tremendous economic development, and much additional wealth for the United States.”

If Donald Trump was to radically diverge from the course set by previous administrations and stand against Saudi Arabia, one imagines that it would not be spurred by the untimely death of a journalist. He has, after all, shown little respect for journalists and their trade. Notorious for denouncing publications that describe him unfavorably, Trump has referenced “fake news” in his Tweets no less than 578 times since winning the 2016 presidential election—that’s once every two days. Perhaps even more appallingly, on October 24th, 2019, Trump canceled subscriptions to two publications that will henceforth no longer be delivered to the White House. White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham defended the decision, saying that “hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars will be saved” as the administration moves to force other federal agencies to cancel their subscriptions, as well. The publications that were banned? The New York Times and the Washington Post—two publications that frequently criticize Trump and his administration (the infamous September 2018 op-ed in The New York Times is a rather memorable example). 

Is it a coincidence that the very publication Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist whose government made numerous attempts to silence before murdering him in cold blood, contributed to is one which Trump himself has slandered and suppressed? Maybe. It is certainly eerie, though, that months before Khashoggi’s death, in February of 2017, the newspaper—which has not had an official slogan since its founding in 1877—changed its headline to “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward said it wasn’t so much a response to Trump as it was about “the dangers of secrecy in government, which is what I worry about most.” In fact, Woodward credits federal judge Damon J. Keith for the slogan. Keith wrote “Democracies die behind closed doors” in his 2002 ruling on Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft, which centered around closing immigration cases off from the press and public if they were of special interest to national security. He continued, “The First Amendment, through a free press, protects the people’s right to know that their government acts fairly, lawfully, and accurately…When government begins closing doors, it selectively controls information rightfully belonging to the people. Selective information is misinformation.” 

Judge Damon Keith passed away earlier this year, but his contributions to the law, civil rights, and free expression endure; and so do his parallels to today’s events. Because, you see, Judge Keith was famously sued personally by President Richard Nixon over his 1971 ruling against warrantless wiretaps—the sort of warrantless wiretaps used in the Watergate break-in a year later. Nixon, the president who used executive privilege to defy subpoenas, concealed information from Congress, and fired those that opposed him. The president whose close advisors were indicted for obstruction of justice. The president who was certain to be impeached in the House after a single, revelatory phone call. 

Free expression is a human right. It is protected in international human rights instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,  the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, among a plethora of others. Its significance is explicitly described and protected in documents such as the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights General Comment No. 10, 11, and 34; not to mention the U.S. Constitution. So important is free expression, says the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), that without it, no liberty is secure; without it, “other fundamental rights, like the right to vote, would wither and die.”

There is no denying it: the United States is at war with information. Perhaps it always was. From Russia’s campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election to Mark Zuckerberg’s and Rupert Murdoch’s meetings with Trump officials, information is actively hidden, obscured, and weaponized by those in power at great risk to our Republic. And on the front lines of this battle are the warriors of free expression; that human right upon which so many others precariously stand. Warriors like Jamal Khashoggi—activists, advocates, and journalists. Courageous individuals who face the darkest of dark, where democracies go to die, and dare to turn on a light.

“The stout man with the gray goatee and the gentle demeanor dared to disagree with his country’s government. He told the world the truth about its brutality toward those who would speak out. And he was murdered for it.” 

– Karl Vick, Time Magazine, 2018 “The Guardians and the War on Truth”