Archive for Americas – Page 3

Human Rights Futures

By Ayesha Amin, a blog writer for RightsViews and a M.P.A. candidate at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs

Is the human rights movement on the road to nowhere? Last Thursday, the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University hosted a book launch and panel discussion on “Human Rights Futures,” edited by Stephen Hopgood, Jack Snyder and Leslie Vinjamuri. The book brings together 15 mainstream human rights scholars and their critics to debate alternative futures for the human rights movement.

The panel conversation was moderated by Andrew Nathan, professor of political science at Columbia University, and included four contributors to the book: Jack Snyder, Belfer Professor of International Relations at Columbia University; Shereen Hertel, editor of the Journal of Human Rights; Alexander Cooley, director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University; and Leslie Vinjamuri, director of the Centre on Conflict, Rights and Justice at SOAS, University of London. Other panelists included Aryeh Neier, co-founder of Human Rights Watch (HRW) and president emeritus of the Open Society Foundations; Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa Division; and Sarah Mendehlson, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Economic and Social Council.  

The International Criminal Court in 2010 // josef.stuefer // Flickr

The discussion between these human rights experts quickly zeroed in on the growing strategic backlash against the human rights field. This phenomenon takes many forms, from the rejection of the International Criminal Court by some countries in Africa to the delegitimizing of activists as “foreign agents” in Russia and creation of counter-norms in President Putin’s defense of “traditional values” against multiculturalism, feminism and homosexuality. Typically viewed as a problem confined to authoritarian and transitional states in the Global South, recent events in the U.S., U.K. and Europe demonstrate that the West is not immune. As Whitson described it, the present moment we find ourselves in is “bad, apocalyptically bad, with a unique feature of being cheer-led by an authoritarian White House.”

The panel was asked whether this represented a historical regression, or just the usual arm wrestling between governments and their critics? The “spiral model” in theories of human rights promotion, after all, anticipates some degree of backlash. Cooley argued that what makes the current backlash different is that it is not confined to the international human rights architecture. It is geopolitical in nature and aimed against the global governance architecture established in the 1980s and 90s. Mendehlson, from her experience at USAID and the U.N., agreed, adding that it is not just human rights groups under attack, but also environmental and humanitarian groups. “We are seeing the entire business model of external funding to local groups being questioned, and often under the cover of sovereignty.”

Protestors march against Trump in Melbourne // Corey Oakley // Flickr

What has caused this backlash? Mendehlson thought the overly legalistic approach of the international human rights movement had resulted in a disconnect between the efforts of international organizations and local populations. “Elevating the local voice is critical,” she said. Vinjamuri queried whether international human rights organizations, especially those headquartered in the United States, engendered a degree of suspicion among the local population. These organisations are often seen as representing the long arm of the U.S. government, closely aligned with U.S. foreign policy and potentially also with its intelligence agencies.

The growing localization of universalistic human rights language is one of the alternative approaches to human rights advocacy considered in the book. It reduces the risk that human rights advocates will be labelled “handmaidens of imperialism.” Whitson said she had observed this process first-hand. “Over the past 15 years, Human Rights Watch has spent time becoming local organizations in the countries we are working in.” As a result, HRW now spends less time convincing local audiences of its neutral credentials and more time on the important work of rights advocacy.  

The relationship between international and local groups is also more nuanced now. Neier described it as symbiotic. Hertel observed that local groups strategically use their alliance with international organizations to their advantage, focusing on where the expertise and resources lie.  

Columbia University hosted a book launch and panel discussion on “Human Rights Futures” in November. // Ayesha Amin

The panel ended with some final observations on how the human rights movement should adapt to our new reality. For example, how can we achieve human rights in places where the old playbook of “legalism, moralism and universalism” is not available to us, or no longer works? Synder argued that the necessary conditions for successfully achieving human rights outcomes are peace and democracy. His prescription for struggling human rights advocates today? Engender mass social movements in connection with a progressive political party.

Neier thought Snyder overstated the connection between democracy and human rights. He observed that in countries at the point of democratization, ethnic nationalism often becomes a more significant force than it was previously. “It is not accidental that the democratization of Myanmar has been accompanied by horrendous abuses against the Rohingya,” he said. What is required is to have respect for human rights principles baked into the transition process, because the aftermath might be too late.

Ayesha Amin is a New Zealander currently pursuing her Master of Public Administration degree at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs concentrating in International Security Policy. She holds a graduate degree in international relations and human rights, an L.L.B., and a B.A. in economics. Her interests include contemporary critiques of human rights, corporations and human rights compliance, and the right to self-determination. Ayesha is a blog writer for RightsViews.

What of those who stood by and watched? Reckoning with Racial Injustice in the U.S.

By Olivia Heffernan, a master’s candidate at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs 

“If you want the American dream, go to Canada,” Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, told audience members during Thursday night’s lecture, “Reckoning with Racial Injustice in the United States,” hosted by NYU Law School’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice and the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ).

Walker and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund Sherrilyn Ifill engaged in a provocative conversation moderated by David Tolbert, president of ICTJ. Tolbert began the panel by stressing the importance of having “unsettling dialogues” among groups at opposite ends of the justice spectrum in order to foster innovative thinking, understanding, and eventually action. Coinciding with the one-year anniversary of Trump’s election, a discussion about truth, justice and reconciliation felt particularly pertinent given the President’s record on racial injustice. Trump’s recalcitrant response to Charlottesville and his public condemnations of immigrants have exacerbated racial tensions in the United States, in many ways emboldening white supremacists to act in ways previously deemed inappropriate. CNN reports that 60 percent of Americans believe racism to be a problem in the U.S., an increase of 10 percent since 2009.  

Asked to address the structural causes behind racial injustice in the United States, Walker pointed to the United States’ desperate need to display a narrative of “exceptionalism,” which has formed a history based on lies. The failure of the United States to acknowledge a history plagued by injustice, for example, has impaired the country from making any progress, he said. Truth and reconciliation requires recognizing the existence of wrongs and accepting responsibility for them. There is no clarity without truth. Furthermore, in order to remediate racial discrimination, we must no longer see racism as solely affecting African Americans, but rather as a pervasive injustice that affects every person and as a threat to our democracy.

The same CNN report mentioned above also found that “87 percent of black Americans say black people face a lot of discrimination in the United States, but only 49 percent of white Americans say the same thing.” This large discrepancy demonstrates the unwillingness of many white Americans to admit to widespread racial intolerance even in the presence of clear evidence.

A lecture on racial injustice in the United States was hosted by NYU Law School and the International Center for Transitional Justice. // NYU CHR&GJ

Similarly, Ifill stressed the importance of truth telling in the process of reconciling our past and present. We must undo the mythologies surrounding racial violence and look at the role of the average person in either perpetuating or rejecting discrimination. “What of the crowd? What of the people who watched?” she asked, making the point that silence or inaction in cases of racial discrimination is another form of complicity. Shame and fear produce silence, and in silence lies develop, along with a refusal to acknowledge and apologize, she said.

The panel agreed that public education and truth telling are prerequisites to precipitate activism and real reform. Justice and reconciliation are processes that begin with confronting the truth, Ifill said, followed by thinking about who you are in relation to that truth and ending with a decision about what to do with that truth and your relation to it.

In human rights theory and practice, justice and reconciliation are means through which parties reckon with past injustice, whether that be something as widespread as genocide or more micro-level disputes among individuals. Increasingly, human rights theorists have turned to reconciliation methods such as truth commissions, as seen in South Africa post-apartheid, or Gacaca Courts used after the Rwandan genocide, and more recently, through restorative justice in mediating criminal court cases and reparations to the families of former slaves of Georgetown University, for example. To demonstrate the value of reconciliation in its aim to address historical wrongs as means of facilitating present-day conflict resolution, Institute for the Study of Human Rights director Elazar Barkan’s article, “Truth and Reconciliation in History,” provides three case studies that trace the origins of reconciliation and its effectiveness in creating a shared narrative across country and ethnic boundaries.

When speaking truth to power, we must take into account the environment and institutions that enable discrimination, whether racial, economic or religion-based. Ifill urged the audience to not accept the current state of inequality and prejudice as inevitable. Police brutality and an unjust criminal justice system from Eric Garner to the Central Park Five are direct products of decisions we have made and the structures we have created that perpetuate them. In other words, our challenge is not only racism, it is also elitism and classism and the ubiquitous trends that enable widespread inequality.

Fortunately, Walker has hope, noting that he believes where we are now is the closest we have come to having a national conversation about race. So, let’s not run to Canada quite yet.

Olivia Heffernan is a student at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs concentrating in social and urban policy and specializing in journalism. She is president of the Criminal Justice Reform Working Group (CJR) and has previously worked for human rights-related nonprofits. Olivia is originally from Washington, D.C., but she has spent multiple years living abroad.

Corporate Social Responsibility Belongs on the U.S. Human Rights Agenda

By Ashley E. Chappo, editor of RightsViews and a M.I.A. candidate at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University

Last week represented a potential turning point for the United States in its commitment to international human rights law and corporate regulation. From October 23 to 27, members of the open-ended intergovernmental working group on transnational corporations and other business enterprises (OEIGWG) convened at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, to draft a legally-binding instrument with respect to corporations and human rights. Despite its leadership role in the world order and the prominence of transnational corporations operating within its borders, the United States has so far remained disengaged from negotiations on this new treaty agreement.

Artwork condemning alleged sweatshop abuses by Apple. // marissaorton // Flickr

The treaty process, which could take years to complete, is a historic opportunity for the United States to stand up for its shared values with other governments in regulating and holding accountable the stateless, corporate actors often associated with violations of human rights, from alleged sweatshop abuses by Nike in Vietnam to dangerous working conditions at an Apple factory in China. The OEIGWG hopes to close a critical governance gap in the international human rights framework. A single, international legal framework by which transnational corporations can be held accountable for violations of human rights would be the ideal instrument for corporate human rights transgressors.

The meeting last week was the third session of the working group, established in June 2014 during the 26th session of the Human Rights Council, and followed a social movement for change led by over 600 civil society organizations worldwide, officially known as the “Treaty Alliance.” Resolution 26/9 provided the working group with a mandate to “elaborate an international legally-binding instrument to regulate, in international human rights law, the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises.” Such a treaty has been on the table since the 1970s but has repeatedly been opposed by the business sector and Western governments.

A garment factory in Vietnam. // ILO in Asia and the Pacific // Flickr

To date, one of the largest challenges to the treaty remains the continued opposition from key countries that have decided not to be involved in the creation of a binding agreement. The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), adopted in 2011, clearly helped to develop a stronger international consensus around responsible business conduct, with 17 states now having produced a National Action Plan and 32 others in the process of developing such a plan through government or civil society action, but an obligatory framework remains the ultimate goal. The proposed treaty faces resistance not only from the U.S., but also from a significant number of developed U.N. Member States and Western powers, including the United Kingdom and other European Union countries. The first two sessions of the working group, which were dedicated to “conducting constructive deliberations on the content, scope, nature and form of the future international instrument,” lacked contribution from these keys states.

In addition, when the working group was formed by Resolution 26/9, twenty states including the Africa Group, Russia, China and India voted in favor of the resolution, while 14 States including the U.S., U.K., Germany, France and Japan voted against it, demonstrating early and deep divisions among states. The present push for a binding treaty has largely been led by nations from the Global South, which may explain in part some of the resistance from the West. The resolution, proposed by Ecuador and co-sponsored by Bolivia, Cuba, South Africa, and Venezuela, also received and continues to receive vigorous support from civil society organizations and the private sector. With leadership and input from the U.S., a hard law framework would gain more traction.

U.N. special representative John Ruggie // Creative Commons

As the Trump administration continues to cut regulatory red tape on business enterprises in pursuit of economic revival, it is ever more important that the United States work to implement the UNGPs while also championing corporate social responsibility at the international level. The UNGPs, developed by U.N. special representative John Ruggie, were unanimously endorsed by the Human Rights Council and consist of 31 voluntary guidelines to implement the “Protect, Respect and Remedy” framework, which seeks to prevent, address and remedy human rights violations committed in business operations. Such violations, for example, have included the injury of more than 100,000 people in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, through illegal toxic-waste dumping initiated by multinational oil trading company Trafigura, and the destruction of the Ecuadorian rainforest and its critical water resources by Chevron (formerly Texaco), dubbed “Rainforest Chernobyl.” While the UNGP framework for enhancing business standards is internationally accepted, it is not obligatory, raising questions about its ability to hold stateless violators like Trafigura and Chevron accountable.

Toxic industrial waste disposal remains an issue of corporate violators // fernost // Creative Commons

Following the first session of the intergovernmental working group, Ruggie wrote about the main problems that face the treaty, including its lack of a specific focus, the deep divisions among states and its limited scope of transnational corporations. If these dynamics continue, he contends, “the process is likely to yield one of two outcomes: no treaty at all, or one that squeaks through to adoption but is ratified by few if any major home countries and thus would be of no help to victims in whose name the negotiations were launched.” At the conclusion of this third session, Ruggie told RightsViews, “What I said after the last session still holds.” Though he believes further international legalization in business and human rights is inevitable and desirable, he says there is little hope for the treaty if civil society does not advance workable proposals that states cannot ignore.

With fewer restrictions on businesses and some of the most powerful transnational corporate giants operating under very little scrutiny in regard to human rights, the U.S. needs to include corporate social responsibility on its human rights agenda, both at the civil society and governmental level. While the U.S. has already implemented a National Action Plan on Responsible Business Conduct, the Global Compact, OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, and Sustainability Policy of the International Finance Corporation, these more voluntary approaches to corporate social responsibility, with some mandatory elements and preconditions, are a good start but not adequate to solving human rights abuses by international corporate actors.

Ashley E. Chappo is a Master of International Affairs candidate at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and a recent graduate of Columbia Journalism School. She concentrates in human rights and humanitarian policy and is a current student of the Corporations and Human Rights seminar. She is editor of RightsViews. 


Counterterrorism and Human Rights under the Trump Administration

by Genevieve Zingg, a blog writer for RightsViews and a M.A. student in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University

On Monday, the Human Rights Institute at Columbia Law School hosted an event on counterterrorism and human rights under the Trump administration. The event featured Laura Pitter, senior national security counsel at the United States program of Human Rights Watch, speaking on the new human rights challenges posed by counterterrorism policies emerging under President Trump.

Prior to working with HRW, Pitter was a journalist and lawyer with the U.N. in Bosnia and Afghanistan. Under the Obama administration, she worked on accountability for past instances of torture and the prevention of government-sanctioned torture. Specifically, she worked to document torture that had not yet come to light prior to the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program.

Laura Pitter talks to students on October 23 at the Human Rights Institute about human rights under Trump // Genevieve Zinng

Human rights concerns under the Obama administration centered on detention practices at Guantanamo and the use of drone strikes. During this time, HRW focused on encouraging the release of Guantanamo detainees and ending the military justice system it operates under. There was also concern under Obama about the overly broad use of terrorism prosecutions, which were used to target individuals who did not necessarily express any intent to engage in terrorism.

Once Trump was elected, HRW’s focus changed as the administration explored the use of torture becoming a legal part of official policy and loosened rules for drone strike operations overseas. “There was already a lack of transparency with regard to drone strikes under Obama’s policies,” Pitter explained during the event. “They said they were careful, but civilians were killed, and we know that they did not properly investigate strikes that went wrong, follow through with reporting requirements, or pay condolence compensation.”

The rules under Obama were already loose, and the concern is that they will continue to deteriorate under the Trump administration. For example, Trump is considering giving the CIA more control over strike operations, so they would be even less transparent than they already are. As a result, Pitter said her work has become more domestically focused under the Trump administration. Trump’s “clear expression of hostility towards Islam” and policies directed toward “radical Islamic terrorism” are a matter of significant concern to HRW, she explained, especially once a draft executive order authorizing the reopening of CIA “blacksite” prisons was leaked in January 2017.

Further concerns over close U.S. partnerships with forces carrying out human rights abuses remain, namely focused on UAE and Saudi partners in Yemen. “We’re worried about proxy detentions and proxy interrogations,” Pitter said. The U.S., for example, has interrogated people in facilities in Yemen where there have been documented cases of torture by the UAE and Saudis. The U.S. claims to not know about these cases, according to HRW. When the organization released its report detailing the U.S.’s use of these facilities in Yemen, Senators John McCain and Jack Reed sent a letter to Defense Secretary James Mattis asking for an investigation. The explanation they received is currently classified, but HRW is advocating to have it made public.

Protests in Washington, D.C., over the Muslim Ban // Creative Commons

“One thing we’re doing more of now is pressing other governments to press the U.S.” Pitter said, responding to a question during the event. “In order for the U.S. to carry out its work abroad, particularly in foreign policy and military operations, it requires the cooperation of other governments. HRW has always had a strong U.N. team, but we operate in that forum more aggressively now.” For instance, HRW built strong alliances with countries like Canada and the Netherlands to push the U.N. Human Rights Council to establish an international inquiry on war crimes in Yemen, against Saudi objections.

The talk emphasized that part of the frustration of the human rights community is that many of the policies laid out by the Obama administration have expanded and are being more aggressively enforced, including large-scale surveillance by the FBI of Muslim communities and immigration deportations. As for the Muslim Ban, arguably Trump’s most controversial executive order at this point in his presidency, there is a larger role for the courts to play in protecting human rights. “The courts from Hawaii to Maryland have recognized that counterterrorism is not a justification for the ban. Even Homeland Security has said that country of citizenship is not a reliable indicator of terrorist activity,” Pitter said. “The government can carry out counterterrorism initiatives without violating the rights of a specific religious or ethnic group. Policies like the Muslim Ban are actually counter to security because they generate anger and hostility toward the U.S.”

There has been strong pushback from the Departments of Defense and Justice and the State Department against some of Trump’s controversial security policies. The DOD and DOJ, for instance, have pushed back against expanding Guantanamo, which currently holds 41 people, only 7 of whom have been charged, while the DOJ has pushed for the use of federal prosecution over military commissions. The CIA and State Department, likewise, have also warned against the floated policy proposal to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, arguing that it doesn’t make sense from a foreign policy perspective.

Pitter ended her talk by focusing on the positive. “This administration has emboldened voices that were silent before. The administration has legitimized discrimination and animus toward minority groups, but at the same time, this has mobilized the human rights movement and engaged communities that weren’t engaged before,” she said. “It’s both a threat and an opportunity to promote respect for human rights, due process, and the fairness of the justice system.”

Genevieve Zingg is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University, focusing on human rights in the context of armed conflict, counterterrorism and national security. She is interested in refugees and migration, foreign policy and international politics, international criminal and humanitarian law, and intersectional issues of race and gender. She holds a B.A. (Hons.) from the University of Toronto and has professional experience working in Geneva, Athens, Paris, Brussels and Toronto. Connect with her on Twitter @GenZingg. She is a blog writer for RightsViews. 


Trump, the Other, and Human Rights in Society

By Inga Winkler, a lecturer at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights

Without downplaying the potential impact of a Trump presidency on foreign policy, renewed acceptance of torture as well as the potential impact on climate change, I fear for society at large. A president-elect who ridicules and denigrates migrants, Muslims, Hispanics, women, persons with disabilities and others sets an example. He gives the impression that such behavior and such attitudes are acceptable. His remarks promote ideas of the superiority of some and inferiority of others, based on a socially constructed divide between “us” and “them”.

There is nothing new about racism, sexism and fear of the “other” in US society. It is deeply entrenched. What is new is that the man elected to the highest office institutionalizes and formalizes such attitudes. He legitimizes “othering” and stigmatization. One of the possible explanations for the misleading polls is that voters who declared they were undecided were in fact planning to vote for Trump. They might have felt it was socially unacceptable due to societal norms that condemn xenophobia and misogyny. That “discomfort” is now gone—xenophobia and misogyny have gained more formal and societal acceptance.

We already witness how these attitudes are being acted upon in anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic and racist assaults and attacks. Trump’s half-hearted attempt calling for a stop of such attacks means nothing when at the same time he appointed Steve Bannon, a white supremacist, as chief strategist in the White House.

International human rights law addresses the link between discrimination and prejudices, stereotyping and stigmatization. The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women calls for appropriate measures to “achiev[e] the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women.” The Convention against Racial Discrimination and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities contain similar provisions.

However, these norms do not get the necessary attention in the context of human rights advocacy. We need to devote much more attention to the role stigmatization and “othering” plays in perpetuating discrimination and human rights violations—not just in obvious ways but also in hidden and subtle prejudices. Human rights reach into society and even into the private sphere. Stigmatization and “othering” provide a rationale and antecedent to discrimination. They are often insidious and not directly visible, but they produce and perpetuate systemic inequalities. Human rights advocates and scholars have started to pay more attention to these processes, and this is now more urgent than ever.


Young American Muslims protest outside of Trump Tower in New York City. Flickr/Joe Catron (Some rights reserved)

This needs to happen at all levels, from the inter-personal and local to the use of international mechanisms. To me, it is not about domestic vs. international mechanisms as debated between Hopgood and Sikkink, but about using all the tools we have depending on the context.

Human rights in the private sphere start by addressing racist and other degrading comments in our personal relationships, whether in face-to-face conversations or on social media. It starts by responding to harassment we witness in public spaces. It includes responding to media outlets that spread prejudices and stereotypes. In particular, we need to identify and point out how institutionalized, societal and “everyday” racism, misogyny, xenophobia and other forms of stigmatization reinforce each other. International human rights bodies can play an important role in this regard by making the above mentioned norms more concrete and applying them to particular situations. We need to acknowledge the new realities, but we must not accept them as the new normal.

We also need to realize that although the result of the election is new, the realities of many people who voted for Trump are not. The fact that hardly anyone of the liberal elite expected this result shows how deep the divide is. People who perceived voting for Donald Trump as the best choice, as a result—even if not voting for him because he is racist—are condoning his racism. At the same time, Trump voters—as everyone else—have multiple, intersecting identities that a party system with only two choices may fail to represent.

Racism—and condoning racism—is deeply deplorable. But dismissing an entire demographic as “deplorable”, or using deeply derogatory terms such as “white trash” or slightly more subtle terms pointing to the insignificance of vast regions such as “flyover country”, is also stigmatizing. Such behavior also fails to offer an alternative to the fear of the “other” and scapegoating. Acknowledging and addressing that white communities feel left behind, alienated and disaffected, and seeking to understand their motivations does not mean taking racism, xenophobia and misogyny any less seriously. It means that we leave our bubble and start working on addressing the causes that may lead people to vote for a populist. Above all, this must include policy responses that address very real inequalities and disadvantages. I agree with Moyn that human rights do not have all the answers for addressing inequalities. However, human rights understood in a comprehensive way that encompasses substantive equality and socioeconomic rights can go a long way in doing so.

At the same time, a focus on addressing economic inequalities falls too short. Commentators have suggested that middle and upper class white voters were significant in Trump’s election and that resistance to social and demographic change had a substantial influence on their votes. This makes resistance to any form of intolerance, stigmatization and hatred all the more important. When we can no longer count on the president of the United States to call out racism, sexism and other forms of hatred, it is upon all of us to do just this to a much larger extent. A “rape culture” on US college campuses is not acceptable despite the president-elect’s comments on sexual assault. Nor can we tolerate suspecting people of crimes because of their race or ethnicity. Racism and other forms of hatred against certain groups are violations of human rights in themselves, and lead to further human rights violations.

In a way, the fact that there is nothing subtle and invisible anymore about racism and sexism makes it easier to call it out. We must not be silent. We will not be silent.

Inga Winkler is a lecturer at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University.  Her research focuses on socio-economic rights, gender equality and inequalities. 

This piece was originally published on November 24th, 2016 in openGlobalRights

Political Unrest in Brazil: Will Human Rights Policies Endure Mr. Temer’s Government Program?

By Luiz Henrique Reggi Pecora, an M.A. student in human rights

Primeiramente, fora Temer.
Firstly, down with Temer.

For Brazilians who do not recognize the legitimacy of Michel Temer’s government, this small phrase has gained the weight of a  motto. Michel Temer has assumed office since May, when the Brazilian Congress approved the impeachment process of former president Dilma Rousseff, implementing a governmental project bent towards the interests of conservative groups. More progressive sectors of society have reacted energetically, not only opposing his governmental project, but also criticizing the questionable conditions that led to the removal of Mrs. Rousseff from office – for many, the  impeachment is no more than an excuse for a coup.

Brazilians were creative while protesting during the Olympic games. This couple elaborated two independent signs for supporting national teams, that together say "Down with Temer".

Brazilians were creative while protesting during the Olympic games. This couple elaborated two independent signs for supporting national teams, that together say “Down with Temer”.

After long years of prosperity, how did Brazil come to this critical scenario? The deepening of the economic crisis, combined with the “Lava-Jato” Operation (a series of investigations conducted by the Brazilian Federal Police over a huge corruption scheme involving large Brazilian companies and high-level politicians), contributed to an increasingly pessimistic and rebellious spirit within Brazil. At the same time, opponents of Mrs. Rousseff, many of whom were investigated themselves by “Lava-Jato”, supported campaigns to remove her from office, arguing that she committed a crime of “fiscal irresponsibility” when adopting certain macroeconomic policies.

The subject is controversial. The same manoeuvres had been applied by previous presidents for several years, albeit involving smaller amounts. The crime itself has a broad definition, with strong disagreement between specialists regarding whether it qualifies as a crime at all, or if it is a crime severe enough to justify the Impeachment of a legitimately elected president.

Brazil’s recent  implementation of a conservative agenda raises concerns over the future of policies related to human rights, which are likely to suffer significantly in the coming years. Several federal programs involving socio-economic rights have seen their budgets radically reduced, if not completely eradicated, based on the argument of cutting expenses and reorganizing public administration to reach  fiscal balance. As of this week, a constitutional reform that freezes the budget for the health and educational systems for twenty years has just been approved, risking damage to the already weakened Brazilian public schools and Unified Health System. The national literacy program has already had its activities shut down, and federal universities (where half of the vacancies are reserved for the affirmative action program) will see a drop in investments by almost 50%. “Bolsa-família”, the world renowned redistributive program that provides minimum subsistence support for millions, will also suffer a change in registration requirements, obstructing access for the most vulnerable families.

More ominously, human rights policies as a whole, risk suffering a substantive depletion. Since Mr. Temer’s election,  the Secretariat for Human Rights has been  downgraded from Ministerial status to a subsection of the Ministry of Justice, losing its autonomous  budget and answering to a new Minister who is oriented towards very contentious public safety policies.

Mr. Temer organized a luxurious dinner with public spending to win support for the constitutional reform that was recently approved by the Congress.

Mr. Temer organized a luxurious dinner with public spending to win support for the constitutional reform that was recently approved by the Congress.

This systematic targeting of human rights policies has transpired in just the first four months of Mr. Temer holding office. The argument of fiscal balance, often used to justify the need for the measures taken against human rights oriented programs, reveals itself inconsistent as Mr. Temer has granted considerable concessions for public spending in other areas: generous salary readjustment of public servants, debt relief for federal states, and even extra expenditure for the Olympics. It is more likely that the change in policies directed for the fulfilling of socio-economic rights are an attempt to gain the approval of conservative sectors of society, who have been gaining more political influence in the past few years. Indeed, the Brazilian Congress currently has the largest amount of conservative members since the military coup in 1964.

If Mrs. Rousseff’s government was already criticized for not prioritizing human rights issues, the new agenda enforced by Mr. Temer completely neglects the state’s obligations towards rights that are not only entrenched in the human rights covenants ratified by Brazil, but also within the Brazilian Constitution itself. While his speeches advertise a conciliatory program for the country, his actual policies point to a consistent retrogression.  If Mr. Temer continues with this trend, human rights in Brazil will be once more left behind as a disposable facet of the state’s concerns.

Luiz Henrique Reggi Pecora is a graduate student at the Human Rights Studies M.A.’s program at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. His research interests include indigenous rights, political activism in civil society, and migrant’s 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.

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.

Against Superlatives: Canada, Rankings, and the Buzzfeed-isation of Human Rights Reporting

By Tim Wyman-McCarthy, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University


As a recent NYT article title suggests, Canada's current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, has contributed to "The Closing of the Canadian Mind."

As a recent NYT article title suggests, Canada’s current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, has contributed to “The Closing of the Canadian Mind.” (Image from The New York Times)

I confess: I AM CANADIAN! Anyone from my homeland will recognise the reference to the well known Molson Canadian beer commercials, starting with “There’s an unwritten code in Canada…” and then depicting young men and women fulfilling classic ‘Canadian’ stereotypes—playing hockey, owning beavers, being polite, enduring cold, paddling canoes, outwitting Americans—before shouting, emphatically, that they are Canadian! The commercial was part of a surge in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s to conjure a sense of Canadian identity out of a population (in)famous for its lack of nationalism. The joke was that being Canadian meant nothing very much at all, and the commercials were self-deprecating even as they aimed to foster patriotism.

To anyone globally aware or keyed into international politics, however, Canada did have a strong identity: multicultural, progressive, tolerant, peacekeeping, generous, democratic. The nation has boasted wide respect in the human rights community for decades, and our Prime Minister from 1963-1968, Lester B. Pearson, won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role as a key player in resolving the Suez Crisis in 1957 (and is also widely considered to have helped establish the modern idea of peacekeeping and the structure of the UN Security Council).

As Canadians travelling abroad know, much of this image has stuck: decorating one’s luggage with the red and white maple leaf still earns smiles and friendly interactions. In fact, a recent 2015 report from the Reputation Institute ranks Canada as the “most reputable” and the “most admired” country in the world, an honour it held between 2011-2013 as well. The Institute also produced a list ranking countries in order of their reputation self-perception, on which Canada placed second, indicating that this global opinion has been to a large extent internalised.

There is, however, more to the story. The word ‘admirable’ has two definitions: first, the current usage, “deserving of the highest esteem—excellent”, and second, the obsolete usage, “exciting wonder—surprising.” I would argue that for anyone external or internal to Canada who takes a closer look at the country’s social policies and human rights record it would be the obsolete, archaic definition that rings true: surprise. Such individuals, for instance, might be surprised to read the most recent UN report on Canada’s human rights record, which slams the country for failing to respond to missing and murdered Indigenous girls and women, the country’s new hardline anti-terrorism bill (C-51), overcrowding in prisons and overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in the criminal justice system, gender inequality, indefinite detention of migrants and asylum seekers, excessive use of force by police, the general erosion of civil liberties, and the unaccountability of Canadian resource extraction firms overseas (such as Barrick Gold), among others. Canada isn’t just falling short of its reputation; it is falling short of its international legal commitments under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the UN Human Rights Committee was assessing. The report was described as ‘sobering’, a ‘wake-up call’, and earned headlines in a number of major national media outlets, including the Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, Huffington Post (Canada), CBC, and the Ottawa Citizen.

The $351 million Canadian Museum for Human Rights, opened in 2014, is part of Canada's attempt to make human rights a lasting part of its national identity.

The $351 million Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, Manitoba, opened in 2014, is part of Canada’s attempt to make human rights a lasting part of its national identity.

Unfortunately, reports such as those by the Reputation Institute make it hard for the indictment of the UN to stick—in fact, the government’s Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Johanna Quinney, responded to the scathing UN comments by stating, bluntly, “Canada is the best country in the world. We are proud of our human rights record at home and abroad. Just last week the Reputation Institute found that Canada was the most admired country in the world.” Among some circles, perhaps—but certainly not in UN or other human rights communities, where Canada displays each year more and more USA-type arrogance and exceptionalism, refuses to comply with UN Human Rights Committee demands, insists that it has no obligations under the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and accepts no human rights responsibilities for Canadian corporations working overseas. As one member of the UN Human Rights Committee, Sir Nigel Rodley, said: “This is not the Canada I once knew.”

However, it is statements like Sir Rodley’s that point to one of the problems: the very idea that Canada was once, or still is to some, ‘good’ (or the best) on human rights in the first place. Canada, for instance, has never been ‘good’ on Indigenous rights—its very existence as a nation is built on the crime of settler colonialism that began in the 1500’s, was consolidated during Confederation, and continues to this day. Further, the country’s system of reservations for First Nations, enshrined in the 1876 Indian Act, was studied by and proved inspiration for South Africa’s own apartheid regime in the 1940s. In other words, Canada has in its history exported more than just cheeriness and (Smallpox) blankets. And in other areas, such as disability rights, we have lagged far behind Europe and the United States, the latter of which protected persons with disabilities under the ADA years before Canada was able to provide similar antidiscrimination legislation, which is even today marked by a substantial implementation gap.

Despite these essential facts of Canada’s unique history of human rights violations, the country has coasted on its positive reputation for so long that citizens and the international community cling steadfastly to the idea of Canada as a bastion of liberal progressiveness, democratic accountability, and humanitarian generosity. The great English poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge once argued that literary writers have the power to make readers commit a “willing suspension of disbelief” in an act of “poetic faith” when encountering implausible claims or stories if there is just enough interest or a hint of truth in the tale. Suspending our disbelief about the truth of a story in this way involves ‘cognitive estrangement’, a process whereby we wilfully lack the knowledge to challenge the premises on which a narrative is built. I think this is what we see at play in the disparity between the Reputation Institute’s ranking and the UN report: Canada’s admirable reputation is a fiction, and the country, as well as the world it inhabits, is and has for a long time been wilfully suspending its critical capacity to accept that there is no basis in reality for this belief.

keep-calm-and-love-canada-140This cognitive estrangement is facilitated by the tendency when talking about human rights—by both media outlets and human right organizations—to invest in superlatives, rankings, and reputations. This is a kind of buzzfeed-isation of international human rights reporting. We see this, for instance, in BBC shows such as The World’s Worst Place to Be Disabled? and The World’s Worst Place to Be Gay?, or The Best And Worst Places To Be A Woman. Framing countries as the most this or that, or quantifying how admirable they are—Toronto was also recently named ‘The World’s Most Liveable City’—simply erases complexity and provides an easily invoked fact to counter criticisms: Canada is the most admired country in the world, it does not appear on any ‘worst’ list, it is therefore beyond reproach. Or if reproachable, it is at least better than most, and so should only be condemned accordingly. With my country and my city safely occupying the podium of prestige (as most liveable, most admired), I am able to pat myself on the back even as I turn it away from those issues affecting the reality of so many with whom I share these spaces—for I AM CANADIAN!

Such lists and rankings are in no way useful, or even interesting. We need, instead, to think carefully about admiration—what it elevates and what it erases, what mental gymnastics we must play to invest in fictions of the best and the worst. We must ask ourselves what harmful habits of thought we enable when using the language of goodness and badness, rather than specificity, context, and critique. And in the meantime, Canadians need to accept that toping the charts of a single report has very little to do with the plights of the real people amongst them.

Tim Wyman-McCarthy is an M.A. candidate at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. His research interests include indigenous rights in settler colonial settings, human rights discourse, and disability rights.


Indigenous Peoples’ Right to Education: Inuit Culture and Pedagogies in Greenland’s Schools

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


On November 20th Aviaja E. Lynge, HRAP Fellow at Columbia University, gave a presentation titled: “Indigenous Peoples’ Right to Education: Implementing a Culturally Appropriate Education System in Greenland.” Lynge holds an M.S. in Social Anthropology from the University of Edinburgh and currently works at the University of Greenland, where she is Head of Department for Further Education. Lynge began the presentation by thanking her mentor Elsa Stamatopoulou, Director of the Indigenous Studies Program at Columbia.

Lynge contextualized her presentation by starting with a description of her own childhood in Greenland and her Inuit family, because, she said, “I am part of the story I am going to tell you.” She recounted the influence of her grandparents and parents, who helped to foster her interest in equality and human rights from an early age. Her parents were involved in the decolonizing movement in Greenland, and her grandparents closely followed international rights developments, including the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, even naming their beloved dog after Martin Luther King, Jr. Lynge shared photos of herself as a young child and the stunning landscape of Greenland, calling the rivers and the mountains her “first university.” When she was leaving Greenland to go to college in Scotland, her father told her: “You’re Inuit, you’re short, and you’re woman. People will always make you feel smaller because of that, but you’re big inside and I believe in you.”


Lynge, second from left, with attendees of her presentation.” Photo by Elsa Stamatopoulou.

After earning her degrees abroad, Lynge returned home and became involved in reforming the Greenlandic education system. The driving impetus behind her work is the promotion of the right to education for Inuit children. Inuit peoples make up approximately 89% of the population of Greenland, but have been colonized by Denmark for over two hundred years. Although they became self-governing in 2008, the country is still working to transform deeply entrenched social, cultural, and political norms that have imposed European standards on the Inuit peoples. The westernized education system that was established by the Danes has exclusively rewarded students who excelled in learning the Danish language. Students who can’t speak Danish aren’t even able to enter high school, which unsurprisingly has resulted in a lack of opportunities, the loss of socializing skills and low self-esteem. In many children, the internalization of shame has caused a paralyzing sense of being unable to learn and worthlessness. It is clear that in the historical discourse of Greenland’s school system, those who have succeeded have had to assimilate, creating a strong polarization between those who “make it” and those who do not. Moreover, this discourse has created an equivalency of Inuit culture and language with failure. As it turns out, the majority of young people don’t make it in the system; 62% of all children can’t enter further education, and half of those who enter high school drop out. Lynge posed the question: How it is that indigenous populations, in general, are the least educated in the world? Avoiding our tendency to blame the parents, how can we turn it around and ask, what are we, as educators, doing wrong?

Lynge works to redefine and restructure the national education system to utilize Inuit pedagogies. The country’s goal, supported by all political parties, is to create the “world’s best school”for the Inuit children that implement the ways they learn best. The hope is that they will not only have equal access to education, but equal access to success within it. Some of the pedagogical principles she is working to develop in the Greenlandic schools include: to respect and utilize silence in the classroom, as most Inuit children are raised to not interrupt elders and struggle with vocal participation; to make learning more of a collective process, rather than focusing on and rewarding individuals; to contextualize learning with concrete, visual examples and participatory, active learning; to encourage children to be their own evaluators and goal-setters, and be their own agents of change; and to emphasize a holistic approach to education that simultaneously nourishes children’s emotional, physical and intellectual selves.

The most challenging aspect of Lynge’s initiative regards the controversy of including “culture” in the curriculum. The most common accusation she faces is that by emphasizing the importance of Inuit culture, she will be taking the students “back in time,” obstructing their ability to be part of a modern world. However, Lynge stresses that her goal is to employ existing Inuit pedagogies, skills that have been taught and learned throughout the past, and then meld these practices with new research and methods. Part of her project is actively working to try to change the common perception of culture as material. She noted that people tend to think of “teaching culture” as the creation of objects, such as clothing or art, whereas she considers it in an immaterial light, in terms of norms and values that can enhance the learning process. Lynge insists that culture must be understood in its intangible form and that it is compatible with the “modern” world.

Crucially, Lynge noted that teachers also have to go through the decolonization processes, as most Inuit instructors continue to function within the Danish framework they inherited. “You have to remember, we haven’t had this mental decolonization yet,” she said. Unlike most other nations, when Greenland “decolonized” in 1953, they assimilated with Denmark. “No one really asked, equality on whose terms? On what conditions will we create Greenland?”Now that she and other educators are working to ask these questions and return the emphasis to the validation and utilization of Inuit pedagogies, she underscores the importance of breaking the cycle and not requiring the children to assimilate to a European standard: ”It’s a human right to be who you are.”

Caroline Fidan Tyler Doenmez is an M.A. candidate in the Columbia University Human Rights Studies program. Her main areas of interest concern sexual violence against indigenous women and girls in the US and Canada, as well as the collective rights to culture and education.