Archive for International – Page 2

Hong Kong, The Women’s March, and #enough: Is Civil Resistance No Longer Effective?

By: Kyoko Thompson, Staff Writer at RightsViews

Anti-extradition bill protests in Hong Kong, 2019

Odds are that, if you follow the news, you’re aware of what’s happening in Hong Kong. The protests—which began in June as the result of a proposed extradition bill—have taken over the media of late, with citizens taking to the streets in unprecedented numbers. During one such a protest on June 17th, for example, an estimated 1.7 million people marched from Victoria Park to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council complex to demonstrate their desire to keep Hong Kong free and independent. With crowds like those, the Chinese government has certainly been paying attention,  yet after over a hundred days of protests, participants have yet to see definitive results in regards to their demands. Even worse, the sustained protests have led to deaths, injuries, and thousands of arrests, as well as incidents of police brutality

Civil resistance, as defined by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, is a powerful tool for people to fight for their rights without using violence. The Center writes,  “When people wage civil resistance, they use tactics such as strikes, boycotts, mass protests, and many other nonviolent actions to withdraw their cooperation from an oppressive system.” At the moment, levels of civil resistance have been climbing, signifying a global strategic trend. According to Dr. Erica Chenoweth of Harvard University, episodes of violent insurrections have been declining around the world since the 1960s, while unarmed demonstrations have risen almost exponentially. In fact, from 2010 to 2018, there were nearly double the number of nonviolent campaigns than there were from 1990 to 1999. 

At first glance, these statistics appear positive. After all, if more people are speaking up and opposing policies and regimes that they deem to be unjust or ruthless, but they aren’t doing it violently, wouldn’t that mean the world is becoming a better place? Not according to Dr. Chenoweth’s data. In fact, civil resistance is much less effective today than it was in the 20th century—and that, she explains, is its paradox.

On October 9th, Dr. Chenoweth visited Columbia’s School of International Affairs to talk about what she calls “The Paradox of Civil Resistance in the 21st Century” at The Eleventh Annual Kenneth N. Waltz Lecture in International Relations. Award-winning researcher, published author, and one of Foreign Policy magazine’s Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2013, Dr. Chenoweth is a proven expert in the field of international relations and peace research. Using data collected from global incidents of resistance—237 violent and 270 nonviolent—from 1945 to 2006, she was able to distinguish the characteristics of successful and unsuccessful campaigns and draw conclusions as to why so many of them fail to achieve change; conclusions that, while fascinating, stand to discourage even the most civically minded individual. 

Why Nonviolent Resistance Has Succeeded in the Past

The United States we know today is what it is largely because of the civil resistance movements of the 1900s. The women’s suffrage movement, for example, gave women the right to vote nearly one hundred years ago. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s led to the desegregation of public facilities and schools across the country, the repeal of racially prejudicial laws, and the establishment of new ones to protect the civil liberties of all Americans. The Anti-War Movement, as well, pressured federal representatives to pull U.S. military forces out of Vietnam and abolish the draft in 1973. Indeed, civil resistance in the 20th century was a highly effective method to influence political reform in the United States. To better understand why civil resistance is no longer effectual in the 21st century, despite being more popular than ever, it is helpful to consider what made those earlier movements so successful in their time. 

In her lecture, Dr. Chenoweth explained that first of all, the probability of a campaign succeeding increases in proportion with its number of participants per capita. And, because people are less willing to risk harm via violence, nonviolent campaigns tend to be much larger than the average armed campaign—about eleven times larger, in fact. Large numbers mean a larger disruption, and the main function of civil resistance is to use so many people that an opponent—a corporation, organization, or government—can no longer rely on their support to function. This creates what Dr. Chenoweth calls a “crisis moment,” where people who are not directly involved in resistance are forced to rethink their interests (for instance, if a small business owner suddenly finds himself boycotted for refusing to employ people of color, he may feel obligated to change his policy not because he was emotionally swayed by the cause, but to avoid further financial loss). 

Given their size, it makes sense that so many of the political movements of the 20th century were successful at affecting behavior change. Consider the Iranian Revolution, which took place from 1978 to 1979. According to Charles Kurzman’s 2004 publication The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran, more than 10% of Iran’s total population participated in the December 1978 demonstrations that immediately precipitated the fall of the Iranian monarchy. The French Revolution, in contrast—a staple among historical revolutions and a symbol for the pursuit of freedom throughout the Western world—is estimated to have included only 1-2%. 

It isn’t just how many people are represented in a movement that makes it effective, however; it’s also who is represented. Movements in which women are equally represented, for example, are much more successful. “When there is gender parity…there is a much higher rate, or predictive probability, of success for that campaign,” explained Dr. Chenoweth. Unarmed participants are beneficial to a movement, as well; as when participants are unarmed, it is politically risky for a state to engage in acts of suppression. Recall the massacre at Kent State University, arguably the most pivotal moment of the entire anti-war movement of the 60s and 70s, where four unarmed college students were shot and killed by the Ohio National Guard. Acts like these—including police aggression—are seen as inhumane and unnecessary against unarmed civilians, and only serve to legitimize a movement, not quell one (conversely, they may be seen as justified against armed insurgents). This is part of the reason why nonviolent campaigns are particularly successful against repressive regimes; 26% more effective than their violent counterparts, according to Dr. Chenoweth’s data. 

What has changed in the past decade?

Although a select few mass protests, like the Women’s March, have occurred (pictured- a poster from the march), as a whole civil resistance is now characterized by multiple smaller movements, which decreases effectiveness

One aspect of the decreased effectiveness of civil resistance today compared to the 20th century is size. While the number of movements have certainly increased, the movements themselves are much smaller today than they used to be. There are some exceptions to this rule, such as the 2017 Women’s March—the largest demonstration in U.S. history—and the #enough school walkouts for better gun control in 2018. In general, however, demonstrations have shrunk in size. 

This may be counterintuitive, considering the perfusion of digitally driven activism encountered in social media and online. However, while a social media campaign may facilitate rapid mobilization, it does not sustain it. A video of police officers beating up a protester on Twitter may trigger throngs of people to take to the streets, but it lacks the daily church basement meetings and rigorous community preparation common to the movements of the 20th century. It also does not remove any pillars of support from the opponent, said Dr. Chenoweth, which would lend political influence to the movement. 

Dr. Chenoweth further argued that civil resistance is less resilient to repression than it once was because regimes have simply gotten better at repressing. Consider all the technological advancements of the last twenty years—the same innovations that brought us the iPhone 11 and Beats by Dre have also yielded tools that governments can use to surveil and promote their own agendas. Even more ominous is that tech companies and government agencies might actually be sharing best practices for suppressing nonviolent demonstrations with each other. In many ways, technological gains to states’ suppression tactics far outweigh any leverage movements may have garnered from the existence of social media platforms and police tracking apps. After all, what good is a hashtag when you’re fighting facial recognition software?

Resolving the paradox: does nonviolent resistance have a future?

The picture Dr. Chenoweth’s research paints may look a little bleak. It may even have you reconsidering attending the next political demonstration in your city. Given all of the above, it’s natural to question if and how civil resistance will ever regain its standing in the fight for rights, freedoms, and justice around the world. Is there any hope? Dr. Chenoweth thinks so; but only if you buy into the argument that there are things movements are doing differently today, or that something has fundamentally changed within our system. If you do, then you should take that into consideration when launching a campaign. 

Know that just because a movement is nonviolent does not mean it will be successful, but on the flip side, violent ones are even less so. Size may not guarantee success, either—the Women’s March didn’t significantly alter U.S. policy, and student walkouts didn’t tighten the government’s reins on gun control—but many votes are still better than one. Utilize social media, but don’t let it take the place of a good old-fashioned strategy—a hashtag may not disable facial recognition software, but a mask will certainly render it useless. And just as opponents share information on their methodology, so too must campaigns diffuse their knowledge; because building on the experience of others is a surefire way to improve your chances of success. 

When all else fails, though, don’t be discouraged. After all, the rights you enjoy today were borne on the backs of those that came before you. Civil resistance is not yet obsolete, and your opinion matters—no matter what the opposition says. So, pick up that sign, put on that pink hat, and get out there.

About the speaker: Dr. Erica Chenoweth teaches courses such as “Civil Resistance: How it Works” and “The Politics of Terrorism: Causes and Consequences from a Global Perspective” at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She co-founded the award-winning blog Political Violence @ a Glance and hosts Rational Insurgent. Her next book, Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know, comes out in 2020. To hear Dr. Chenoweth speak on this topic, check out her 2013 TEDx talk in Boulder, Colorado.

Celebrating World Indigenous Peoples’ Day and Confronting Challenges in Defending Indigenous Languages and Territory

By Jalileh Garcia, RightsViews staff writer 

August 9th marked the 2019 International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. The theme for this year is Indigenous Peoples’ Languages. 

According to the United Nations Development Programme, it is estimated that there are 370-500 million indigenous peoples in the world, representing over 5,000 different cultures. Furthermore, a majority of the 7,000 languages in the world were created and are spoken by Indigenous Peoples. Yet, despite this immense lingual diversity, human rights experts indicate that four in 10 Indigenous languages are in danger of disappearing. The main reason for the disappearance of these languages is the fragility of systems to ensure that Indigenous Peoples rights to land and territory are respected, protected, and guaranteed, including, among other reasons, forced assimilation. 

As such, entire cultures are at risk of disappearing as companies and governments are stripping Indigenous communities of their lands. These cultures include the belief in a special relationship with the environment─land has physical, cultural, and spiritual value. While Indigenous Peoples around the world have varying cultures and languages, they have all shared a common history in the face of colonization and oppression. 

Because of this history and present day marginalization, Indigenous Peoples around the world are some of the world’s most vulnerable populations. Forced assimilation that undermines Indigenous traditions and languages, institutional discrimination, and harassment enacted by extractive industries and government practices are just a few examples of the challenges Indigenous Peoples face today.

For Indigenous Peoples, the defense of the right to identity, language, self-determination, and land can be deadly in an ever capital-driven world. The production of raw materials by large corporations for the sake of acquiring capital has consistently come before the lives and needs of indigenous people, along with other communities that have historically been marginalized, disrupting land, resources, and culture.

Many Indigenous Peoples choose to protest the destruction of the environment, recognizing the threat that extractive industries pose on both their livelihoods and global welfare. Some corporations lash back at protesters with violence. In 2018 alone, 164 land and environmental defenders were reported killed, according to Global Witness, reporting that “indigenous people are on the front line of these killings, along with attacks by countries’ legal systems.” In 2017, Honduras was considered the deadliest country for land and environmental defenders, affecting many of the Indigenous Peoples who live there.  

Honduras has signed various international agreements, such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), that are meant to safeguard the rights of indigenous communities in the country. Additionally, Article 346 of the Honduran Constitution protects the rights, territories, and natural resources of the Indigenous population. Important to the UNDRIP and Indigenous Human Rights is the principle of free, prior, and informed consent by those who wish to use any territory or resources belonging to Indigenous Peoples.

Yet, despite all of this, Indigenous communities in Honduras have been excluded from  free, prior, and informed consent and consultation regarding the development of extractive industries such as mining, hydro-electric, and monoculture projects that occur in their territories. As a result, this has caused conflicts between the Indigenous communities and the state, as the state has allowed for companies to enter their territories and extract raw materials from their lands. Effectively, this has had devastating effects from the contamination of water sources to a loss of food supply, infringing on cultural values and overall violating Indigenous rights. Throughout this, both the state and companies are complicit in these extractive schemes. 

Berta Caceres

One of the iconic figures in the fights against extractive industries in Honduras was Berta Caceres, a Lenca indigenous leader, human rights defender and the co-founder of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). 

In retaliation for her work against projects that sought to extract natural resources in the Lenca territory― such as the building of the Agua Zarca dam which was licensed to the Desarrollos Energeticos S.A. (DESA) company― she faced criminalization, threats and attacks. In 2016, Berta Caceres was murdered in her home of La Esperanza, Intibuca. 

In November 2017, in a publication by the Grupo Asesor Internacional de Personas Expertas, or the International Advisory Group of Expert Persons (GAIPE), it was confirmed that the murder of Berta Caceres was organized and financed by the executives of the company DESA. The reason? To end any and all opposition against building the dam. 

The report also accused the company’s executives of being responsible for creating campaigns that sought to discredit Berta Caceres, stalking  COPINH members, instituting threats, hiring gunmen, sabotaging news outlets, bribing officials of the Justice department, and paying police forces.  

Seven people have been found guilty of executing the crime, though there were severe irregularities in the entire process. While multiple executives organized and financed Berta Caceres’ murder, only the executive president of the company, David Castillo, was accused. Even then, his preliminary hearing was suspended indefinitely and the crime remains in impunity. 

Berta Caceres’ case is only one of the many in the country, and one in hundreds of cases around the world. Nonetheless, it represents how Indigenous Peoples have actively defended their rights. Though others actively participate at the UN in Permanent Missions, each way represents a fight against a system that denies Indigenous Peoples right to identity, language, self-determination, and land. 

As we celebrate World Indigenous Peoples’ Day, we reflect on the loss of languages of indigenous peoples’ around the world, as well as the complicity that our governments and companies have in violating the rights of a population that have historically been marginalized. We also celebrate the rich cultures that make up the Indigenous Peoples around the world, who are working at the local and international levels towards crystallization of their human rights. Indigenous Peoples and their allies are also remembering Berta Cáceres and her contribution to the fight for Indigenous rights, as they prepare to celebrate the diversity and beauty of Indigenous languages in 2019.

Technology and Privacy in Refugee Aid

By: Parima Kadikar, guest contributor. Parima is a rising senior at Columbia College studying Middle Eastern Studies and Human Rights.

In an exceedingly digital world, humanitarian aid for refugees is being revolutionized by technological innovation. International non-profit organizations and UN agencies have begun to employ strategies like biometric scanning and blockchain technology to streamline aid delivery and prevent identity fraud. While these strides are noteworthy examples of progress, it is also important to address the potential privacy concerns that could result.

In the context of conversations sparked by the Patriot Act— Congress’s response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks which expanded federal jurisdiction over private data and communications for the purpose of intelligence gathering– and, more recently, by the Cambridge Analytica data-mining campaign which harvested the data of millions of Facebook users without their knowledge or consent for conservative political campaigning, many Americans are protective of both their physical and digital privacy. The evidence of this can be seen from taped webcams in college classrooms to frustration with the TSA at airports to the rising popularity of secure messaging apps for activists.

For refugees, however, concerns about privacy permeate all aspects of life. If they are living in a country with strong xenophobic sentiments, refugees may wish to  conceal their identities due to fear of discrimination. Additionally, many escape or resettlement routes taken by refugees as they flee their home nations require unauthorized border crossings. BBC has produced a video simulating the privacy dangers associated with this when an asylum seeker has a cell phone; if their location is being tracked as they flee to safety, they could be targeted by border authorities and their asylum requests could be denied for entering unauthorized.

As well as the concern about losing asylum status in their destination, refugees face the possibility that the group(s) persecuting them– whether it be a government regime, militia, or other non-state actors– could also discover their location or involvement in activism through technology usage. Such a discovery could present immediate threats to a refugee’s life, or at the very least prevent them from ever returning to their home country.

One attempt to secure refugee data is the World Food Programme’s (WFP) use of biometric scanning and blockchain technology to distribute aid in Jordan’s Zaatari camp, the second largest refugee camp in

Aerial view of Jordan’s Zaatri refugee camp, where technology is used by WFP

the world. “Eye Pay,” a project within the organization’s “Building Blocks” program, allows refugees to access a digital wallet by scanning their irises at participating shops within the camp.

While this technology is impressive, it raises concerns about feasibility. Building Blocks runs on a private-permission blockchain, which addresses data security concerns but is difficult to expand in scale.The WFP’s technology is supported by the cryptocurrency Ethereum, meaning that users who buy, sell, and mine this currency validate the chain. Therefore, the market for Ethereum must grow significantly before a program like Building Blocks can be increased in scope.

In order to successfully manage the data for large refugee populations, WFP is faced with a question of how to incentivize Ethereum holders to increase the level of coordination in these initiatives. As

Biometric scanning such as “Eye Pay” uses technology to create digital wallets accessible via iris imaging

blockchain technology provides a significantly more secure alternative to storing refugees’ data on UN databases, a successful means of incentivizing coordination so as to expand the existing program could lead to outcomes that redefine refugee aid.

However, until such technology can be implemented on a larger scale, the threat of privacy breaches remains very real for refugees. In order for a displaced person to receive official refugee status from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) (and, as a result, access to aid earmarked for refugees), they must submit a great deal of personal data to the agency. While it is understandable that UNHCR needs to collect information like employment and health records from applicants to prevent identity fraud, Privacy International, a non-profit organization that pressures companies and governments to implement better data privacy regulations, warns that issues arise when it shares jurisdiction over this data with other groups.

It is difficult to know about specific instances of UNHCR privacy breaches as the agency does not publicize this information. A 2014 breach of Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP), however, led to the publication of the personal details of over 9,000 unsuccessful asylum seekers on the DIPB website. These details included full names, gender, citizenship, date of birth, period of immigration detention, location, boat arrival details, and the reasons that each applicant was denied refugee status.

A lawsuit was subsequently filed against the DIBP, alleging that the asylum seekers whose information was publicly revealed were treated unfairly during the review process. While the High Court of Australia ruled that the representative litigants in this case were treated fairly by the government, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) is currently (almost 5 years later) assessing whether or not the affected asylum seekers should be compensated for the violation.

Though the Australian breach occurred within a national government and not the UNHCR, it offers a high-profile example of how displaced people can suffer when their privacy is violated. As the global refugee crisis continues to intensify with each passing year, it is imperative that the UNHCR and its partners dedicate more resources and manpower to addressing privacy concerns. The few examples discussed in this blog, such as the WFP’s Building Blocks program, are steps in the right direction. However, until they can be implemented on larger scales, refugees remain especially vulnerable.  

The month of March is over, but the struggle for women’s rights in Honduras persists

While Women’s History Month has come to an end, women around the world work every day of the year to have their rights recognized. As such, it is both crucial and necessary to remember this continued struggle beyond thirty days of the year.

During the month of March, Honduran women commemorated the life of Berta Cáceres, as March 2nd marked the three year anniversary of her murder. Cáceres  was an indigenous activist who was one of the most prominent human rights and environmental rights figures in Honduras. Honduran women also protested on March 8th, as part of a larger feminist movement around the world. During these protests, some women were met with force from police officers.

Marcela Arias, a lawyer from the Center for the Rights of Women (CDM) in Honduras is an expert on the current situation of women’s rights in Honduras. She has indicated that “While Honduras is a country that has ratified many international and regional conventions and treaties for the protection of human rights, it fails to materialize said treaties into concrete actions to safeguard said rights.”   

Due its high rates of homicides per capita, Honduras continues to be one of the most dangerous countries of the world. While homicides have decreased in recent years, there is still a sense of insecurity because branches of the police and military are complicit in organized crime.

The complicity in criminal acts is not unique to police forces, but is also seen in cases of government officials such as congressmen, workers of the State, and even the brother of the current president, Tony Hernandez. As such, this allows the persistence of impunity which is evident not only in cases of drug-trafficking, corruption or fraud, but also cases of gender-based violence.

Regarding this, Arias said, “Impunity is something historical in Honduras. We’ve seen it in the past, though it has definitely worsened after the coup d’etat in 2009.” This particularly hurts women– 95% of the crimes against women are never prosecuted and remain unpunished. The high impunity rates can be alarming, as access to justice is crucial for protections against gender-based violence. The International Commission of Jurists has stated: “gaining access to justice for acts of gender-based violence is not only important to secure relief at the individual level, but also to promote change at the systemic level in terms of laws and practice.”

According to the University Institute of Democracy, Peace and Security (IUDPAS) observatory, violent homicides of women in Honduras have decreased from 636 cases in 2013, to 478 in 2015, to 388 in 2017. Despite the decrease in said area, IUDPAS also reports that sexual offenses and injuries increased from 10,712 cases in 2013, to 10,778 in 2015, to 12,189 cases in 2017.  

The government clings to the narrative that homicide rates are decreasing, while failing to address sexual violence accordingly. Arias mentions that when confronted, “the government reverts to a policy of mirage” to justify their inaction. They will revert to mentioning the creation of three State-run programs – such as, Ciudad Mujer, the Intra-Institutional Commission for the Investigation of Femicides, and Spotlight-  that are intended to protect women, yet are questioned about their effectiveness.

To date, the Intra-Institutional Commission for the Investigation of Femicides has helped to increase special forces which aid in the investigation of gender-based crimes. Yet, Arias shared that “some police forces still refuse to go into certain neighborhoods and tell us that if we really want in-depth investigations to go into the neighborhoods ourselves.”

Suyapa Martinez, Executive Director of the Center for the Studies of Women-Honduras (CEM-H), also noted that “this is not an initiative bestowed to us by the government; it is the result of a struggle of the women’s movement that for years has shown before this and past governments that the violence has left a record of more than 6,000 murders of women since 2003.” Martinez also indicated that she struggled being in spaces with government entities due to the country’s lack of institutionality.

Ciudad Mujer was an initiative launched by the First Lady Ana Garcia de Hernandez in March 2017 and is financed by a loan conferred by the Inter-American Development Bank (BID). While it provides care for many women who have been affected by gender-based violence, Arias notes that “the money being invested in Ciudad Mujer takes away from other organizations, as there is no new personnel being trained. As such, public institutions are depleted from resources and personnel and left with less than before.”

Spotlight is spearheaded by the United Nations and the European Union and seeks to highlight violence against women and girls while also empowering said community. It was launched in Honduras in February 2019, making Honduras the first country in Latin America to launch the program. The entire program has gotten $564.4 million dollars in financing. This is helpful for the sake of victims. Yet, it is worrying as there is no guarantee that the money allocated to Honduras will be used entirely for the purposes of helping women, as an alarming number of Honduran officials have been accused of money laundering or abuse of authority in the past, many of whom are still not in prison for said crimes.

The continual institutional difficulties that pose a threat to women’s rights in Honduras reveal that the situation women in Honduras face goes beyond perpetrating a “culture of machismo”, which a recent New York Times opinion article diagnosed as the root of the problem. It also lies in institutional decay, the failure to prosecute gender-based crimes, corruption and impunity.

Therefore, it is crucial that we understand that these are the complex systems that women deal with every day in the struggle for the recognition of women’s rights in Honduras. Perhaps the most powerful statement is that despite said conditions, their hard work persists.


By Jalileh Garcia, RightsViews Staff Writer. Garcia is also from Honduras. 

Sanctuary Law – Can Religious Liberty Protect Immigrants?

Summers in Arizona can be unforgiving. One quickly learns to test the surface temperature of objects left in the sun before committing to full contact and to never wear shorts on leather car seats. From May through September, it is not at all uncommon to avoid the outdoors as much as possible; the reprieve of air conditioning far preferable to streets and sidewalks that fry feet as quickly as eggs.

The arid, rocky, cactus-laden land that Arizona is perhaps best known for lies mostly in the southern part of the state, where temperatures can surpass 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Over 370 miles of that land stretches across the border to Mexico, which for years migrants have attempted to traverse at great risk. From 2000 to 2010, the remains of 1,755 people have been found scattered throughout this desert; individuals that succumbed to dehydration, starvation, or sun exposure. Despite the dangers, migrants from Central America continue to cross into the southwestern United States; either desperate or determined to seek out relatives, work, or refuge from violence. An average of over 500,000 migrants have been apprehended in the last five years alone by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The presence of families and minors at the southern border—and the government’s punitive response to them—has drawn media attention of late; increasing pressure on policy makers and human rights advocacy groups alike to find real, cogent solutions.

Earlier this year, a federal judge found four volunteers from the humanitarian aid organization “No More Deaths” guilty of entering the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in southwest Arizona without a permit and leaving behind food and water—both of which qualify as misdemeanor offenses. The volunteers explained that the food and water was left behind for migrants that often cross through the area, and that they failed to obtain and sign a permit because the wording stipulates individuals may not leave behind food, water, or medical supplies. The volunteers, whose legal battle is ongoing, face $500 in fines and up to six months in federal prison. Several other No More Deaths volunteers face similar indictments. The response to these humanitarian efforts, led by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona, calls into question the United States’ already controversial approach to immigration policy.

An event at Columbia Law School earlier this month, “Sanctuary Law: Can Religious Liberty Protect Immigrants?” featured an all-female panel—Lizbeth Mateo, Winnie Varghese, Amy Gottlieb, and Rose Cuison Villazor. The women discussed whether or not, and how, U.S. policy that protects the religious freedom of citizens can be used to aid migrants arriving in the southwest.

Back, from left to right: Winnie Varghese, Katherine Franke, Matthew Engelke, Amy Gottlieb, Lizbeth Mateo. Front: Liz Boylan, Rose Cuison Vilazor.

Lizbeth Mateo, an attorney and immigrant rights activist, offered an interesting and unique perspective into the plight of migrants along the southwestern border. She currently represents several migrants in the custody of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Their cause, she said, is near and dear to her heart—because she herself is an undocumented immigrant.

Whenever Mateo visits a client or represents one in court, she runs the risk of being arrested and detained in an ICE detention center. But the gamble, she says, is worth it. Her clients, after all, have risked everything to get here: their lives, their freedom, their wellbeing—what right has she to fear, when her clients have so much on the line?

While posing compelling arguments for migrants’ need of legal representation, Mateo and her fellow panelists make it clear that it is only half the battle. Currently, California and New Mexico are the only states along the border of Mexico with sanctuary laws—that is, “laws, ordinances, regulations, resolutions, policies or other practices that obstruct immigration enforcement and shield criminals from ICE.” These laws make it difficult for ICE to issue or complete detainers, and can protect undocumented immigrants for a time. Arizona, however, has no such laws.

In lieu of sanctuary counties and towns, migrants have found protection in churches. Although ICE agents are not legally barred from entering a church or detaining someone residing in a church, a 2011 Obama-era policy still in effect deems churches “sensitive locations” in which ICE may not engage in enforcement actions unless there are exigent circumstances or prior approval has been obtained. This grey area has provided many undocumented immigrants a home of sorts; a place where they can convene with loved ones, receive aid from local nonprofits and aid organizations, and stage their fight against deportation.

That fight can be a long one. Some, such as Edith Espinal, a client of Mateo’s, have spent over 500 days in sanctuary seeking support from local and state representatives. Edith, an undocumented immigrant and mother of two U.S. citizens, has yet to be visited by any of the elected officials her legal team has reached out to. Without a personal appeal to policy makers, Mateo worries that sanctuary will never be truly guaranteed to her clients. “We need a safety net for these families,” she said to a packed lecture room at Columbia Law, “A safety net is not just a church, it is the guarantee that someone can leave the church without risking being deported the next day.”

In 1993, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The act, which was drafted largely in response to a controversial Supreme Court decision in 1990, served as a robust protection of the religious liberties of U.S. citizens. Katherine Franke, one of the event’s organizers and Columbia Law School’s Faculty Director of the Law, Rights, and Religion Project, explained that the act was originally intended to protect religious minorities—”non-normative, non-majoritarian religions”—from the impact of laws that “may not on their face infringe on religious freedoms, but do in practice.” Theoretically, RFRA could be extended to situations in which individuals in border states wish to offer their private residences as sanctuaries, volunteers wish to leave food and water in the desert as an act of faith, or where the deportation of an undocumented immigrant severs a deeply important religious connection to a community, religious leader, or family member.

While at first these extensions of RFRA may seem a promising relief for the many thousands of migrants seeking refuge in the southern United States, its use in this manner also poses a great risk to other kinds of individual freedoms. In June of 2014, the Supreme Court held that RFRA allows for-profit corporations the ability to withhold health coverage of medications and services that violate their owners’ religion; something praised by conservatives (Burwell v Hobby Lobby Stores, INC). Could it be that RFRA, if used to serve an arguably socially liberal agenda, would thereby arm a more conservative one? Panelists Amy Gottlieb, Rose Cuison, and Reverend Winnie Varghese attempted to answer exactly that question. Their consensus, however, is that we simply cannot know. Yes, said Villazor, RFRA could be used to protect immigrants; but there is good reason for concern that strengthening legal, faith-based arguments will bolster “the other side’s” efforts to exclude, subjugate, and discriminate. Reverend Varghese similarly felt that there is no need for a value outside of our own, national identity. “What we should be fighting for is the Constitution, I think,” Varghese said.

Many faiths are founded on or around a religious obligation to help those in need. It is understandable, then, that advocates might use religion as a lightning rod—an ignition of action, a channel for outrage—in their efforts to shield undocumented immigrants from deportation, to preserve family units, and to rescue migrants from brutal, untimely deaths. And while organized religions and personal beliefs deserve adequate protection under the law, the relationship may rightfully end there. This theoretical dilemma regarding RFRA is reminiscent of a Greek myth, in which a young Pandora stumbled upon an artifact that held more than she had bargained for. In the end, blurring the lines between church and state to serve one purpose—however good and holy—may put so much else we hold dear in jeopardy.


By Kyoko Thompson, by RightsViews Staff Writer

FGM- A Human Rights Issue?

As awareness of female genital mutilation (FGM) grows in the United States, activists are increasingly trying to reframe the practice as a Human Rights issue. That was the message Maryum Saifee, Aissata Camara, Maryah Haidery, and Shelby Quast passionately imparted when they spoke to a packed room of Columbia students and community members last week.

According to the World Health Organization, FGM includes “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” The practice, which takes many forms, is done to control women’s sexuality, has zero health benefits, and can lead to lifelong health issues, including increased risk during childbirth, trauma, and even death. While FGM is more common in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, it is also practiced in North America, Europe, Latin America and Oceania. The WHO estimates that over 200 million women around the world have been cut.

While FGM has been practiced for centuries, there has recently been a renewed interest in the issue in the United States. In 2017, a federal prosecutor in Michigan brought charges, using a 1996 law passed by congress banning FGM, against two doctors and a clinic manager for performing the practice on at least seven girls. After hearing the arguments, the judge ruled that the Federal law banning FGM was unconstitutional because congress did not have the power to make the law in the first place. The case will be brought to a higher court later this year.

Shelby Quast is America’s Director of Equality Now, an NGO that strives for gender equality, and has been involved in the case. She says that while she was disappointed with the judge’s ruling, “the case brought media attention. It’s not just happening ‘over there’, it’s here too. The case has allowed survivors to elevate their platform, and it’s not over yet.”

One of the main themes the activists spoke to was their effort to re-frame the issue. For too long FGM has been thought of as a cultural practice or a medical issue, and as a consequence many human rights groups have avoided taking up the cause. Maryum Saifee, a SIPA alumni, FGM survivor, and career diplomat with the US Foreign Service, urged those gathered to think about the issue more as a form of gender-based violence or as a part of the Me Too movement. “When people ask if we should prosecute the doctor or those involved” she said, “I think, ‘if this were incest, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.’”

Maryah Haidery is an activist, a survivor of FGM, and a member of the Sahiyo organization which seeks to end the practice among the Dawoodi Bohra community of Western India. She said some activists are reluctant to take up the issue because they are afraid it would offend Islamic religious leaders, who are, incorrectly, assumed to be the perpetrators of the practice. However, as she, pointed out, FGM is not condoned by the Qu’ran, and despite popular belief, there are numerous religious decrees by learned Imams denouncing the practice.  “Human rights must apply to all humans,” she said, “not just those in the West.”

While the activists all spoke to the need for a wider conversation about FGM, they also warned against the inclusion of anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant messages in the struggle. “We don’t want a backlash against our community,” said Haidery. “That’s one reason I was reluctant to speak out at first. These are our mothers, they are not monsters.”

Part of the problem is that FGM is still thought of as something that only happens in Africa and Asia, but in fact over 500,000 women in the United States are thought to have undergone the practice or at risk of being cut. “It was treated as an African issue, but it is not just Africa, it is a global issue,” Aissata Camara, the co-founder and executive vice president of the There Is No Limit foundation and FGM survivor, pointed out. “FGM affects black women, brown women, white women, rich women, poor women, Muslim women, Christian women, immigrant women – everyone is affected.”

As an example, the speakers pointed to Rene Bergstrom, who was three years old when a Christian doctor in the American mid-west removed her clitoris. As she recently wrote in The Guardian, “I witnessed Christian religions declaring masturbation a sin, some Christian leaders and doctors recommending circumcision to prevent it, physicians carrying out the practice and our American culture first accepting this form of sexual abuse and then denying it ever occurred.” While reliable data is hard to come by, it is likely that some other white American women have also undergone the process.

Looking to the future, the speakers all highlighted the importance of good laws. “Laws can bring the issue to the fore and puts it under the spotlight where it becomes much harder to defend,” explain Quast. “But it’s also very important that the laws work for the communities involved instead of targeting them.” Haidery revealed that in her conversations with mothers in the Dawoodi Bohra community many say privately they don’t want their daughters to be cut, but it is instead communal pressure that leads them to go through with the process. “Having a law against it gives these women an out,” she says. “They can just say, ‘I wish I could have my daughter cut, but I don’t want to go to jail.’”

There is still much to be done when it comes to ending the practice of FGM. Towards the end of the conversation, the activists urged audience members to educate themselves on the issue and pursue creative solutions. Camara mentioned she was working with salon owners and make-up artists to come up with ways to bring the issue up with their clients. “Knowledge is power,” she says. “Educate yourself. Break the silence. Find your talent, and join in.”


By James Courtright, RightsViews Staff Writer

The State of International Migration

An increase of migration in recent years has spurred a global conversation that asks: what is the responsibility of countries, particularly democracies, toward migrants? Relevant discussions have had real consequences on-the-ground for both migrants and states, leading to legislation which has had positive effects, and also to massive human rights violations. I examine the broad movements in worldwide migration in the past few years and pull out important themes which can be gleaned from global happenings.

The State of International Migration

According to the UN’s International Migration Report released on December 18, 2017, there has been an increase in people moving away from their country of birth by 49% since the start of the 21st century. Yet according to the 2018 World Migration Report published by the IOM, this increase in migration remains comparable to the world population; the scale of growth remains stable in regard to population.

A greater number of international migrants are moving into OECD countries to live permanently, part of a trend tracked by UN DESA. In contrast, 2017 saw refugees and asylum seekers predominately living in low- to middle-income countries, with only 16% residing in high-income countries. Thus, although high-income countries did host a majority (64%) of international migrants in 2017, with the United States hosting the largest number per country at 19% of the total, high-income countries are on average accepting the fewest number of refugees and asylees.

Despite this low acceptance rate, the need for host countries to accept refugees and asylees has increased, with the highest number of refugees recorded 22.5 million refugees and another 2.8 million awaiting adjudication of their asylum claims at the end of 2016. Since then, this number has increased to 25.4 million in 2018 because of the conflicts in Syria and Venezuela.

Migration in State Politics

According to a Yale study, in recent years nationalism, populism, and/or identity politics have led to a rise in conservative policies across Europe and in the United States, especially in the areas of immigration, affirmative action, police and criminal justice. A BBC report further showed that political parties associated with nationalism and the far-right have gathered greater support mainly due to tension around national identity and globalization. The five countries highlighted by the report with the most votes for a nationalist party include Switzerland (29%), Austria (26%), Denmark (21%), Hungary (19%), and Finland (18%). In one poignant example of how powerful these sentiments are, anti-immigration was cited as the most fundamental motivation behind Brexit by 88% of people in the UK.  In Denmark’s case, in August 2018 the country instituted a ban on face coverings, intended to prevent Muslim women from wearing the niqab or burqa. Other European countries with this ban include Belgium, Austria, France, the Netherlands, and Bulgaria. Other countries which instituted anti-immigrant legislation within the last few years include the U.S. with its 2017 move to drop the ceiling for admitting refugees from 110,000 to 50,000 (and then further reducing admissions to 45,000 for 2018); in June 2018, Hungary instituted a “Stop Soros” law intending to criminalize anyone offering aid to migrants without legal status. Then, in September of 2018, Italy increased the ease at which it could deport migrants and suspend asylum applications for individuals deemed “socially dangerous” or with any criminal history. As evident in these cases, anti-immigrant sentiment no longer exists solely in conversation and political rhetoric, but now has a strong presence in policy with real implications for migrant and refugee communities.

What’s Behind the Backlash?

At the heart of anti-immigrant sentiment is a basic fear of outsiders, which is propagated by misinformation. According to a study sponsored by the National Bureau of Economic Research, native-born citizens across the world believe that 1) there are far more immigrants in their country than in reality, 2) immigrants are more culturally and religiously different than native-born citizens, and 3) immigrants have less education, are less likely to become employed, less financially stable, and rely in greater numbers on government aid, than native-born citizens. In addition, immigrants and especially those from lower-income countries have been politically problematized and put forth as a “new” issue which requires expansive and lightning-quick responses by power-grabbing governments. Yet in the example of the United States, this is proven to be false: the U.S. hosts almost three times the number of immigrants than it did in 1970, yet it still has fewer than the 9.2 million immigrants who lived in the U.S. in 1890. The problem is evidently more one of perception. For example, in the European countries that have instituted bans on face veils, only a minute percentage of women in these countries actually wear such attire. The bans, then, are a symptom of Islamophobia and a fear of losing grasp of vaguely-defined European identity. In the previously mentioned Yale study, the authors, Craig, Rucker, and Richeson advise their readers that the core issue behind increasing conservative policies in the U.S. is an identity threat felt by “White (Christian) Americans” who are afraid of losing the status and privilege lent to them in American society by these identity factors. Fundamentally, there is a looming fear that some essential part of national identity is at risk. This fear has led countries to rush to to protect borders, as made evident in President Trump’s obsession with building a wall.

The International Responsibility of States

Much of the anti-immigration legislation is in violation of international refugee policies, which, according to the 1951 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, mandate that states must process asylum applications of persons who enter the border. States have a responsibility to protect persons with “well-founded fear” of persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, and/or membership in a particular group. States cannot, according to Article 31 of this convention, impose negative consequences against individuals who enter the country illegally but then apply for asylum, although states are allowed to limit the amount of time in which individuals may apply.

Furthermore, some anti-immigrant state policies are directly responsible for migrant deaths. In an important and devastating example, in August 2018, Malta detained three NGO rescue ships to prevent them from operating along the migration route from northern Africa and southern Europe. These rescue missions were begun as a civil society response to the extremely high death tolls along this migration route (recorded at 5,143 in 2016 by the IOM). According to the IOM report, these deaths mainly occur due to environmental conditions along the route, physical violence, risky transportation methods, and lack of safe food and water along the route. In addition to the detention of ships, Italy and Malta have both closed their ports to other NGO rescue vessels operating in the Mediterranean. By halting NGO activities, Italy and Malta have significantly increased the danger faced by migrants as they seek asylum in Europe.

Now What?

Currently, the majority of anti-immigrant, anti-refugee politics have been limited to just that – political rhetoric – yet the countries which have instituted real, problematic legislation are cause for a sobering response. The recent Global Compacts, one for migration and the other on refugees are one major step toward a unified international response to increasing migration and a greater number of refugees. The Compacts represent a productive response to the initial question I presented about the responsibility of states to migrants; this question, though, disregards the fact that migration is not a one-way process even for Global Northern countries. Perhaps a better question would be, what is the relationship between democracy and migration?  In the spirit of the Global Compacts, we should be looking at this issue with the understanding that international migration is increasing. Instead of a burden, this is an opportunity to work as an international community to reinvent a world in which mobility and globalization are inevitable and embraced for their potential.


By SaraJane Renfroe. SaraJane is an MA student in the Human Rights Studies program, focusing on migration and refugee integration.

Sterilization of People With Disabilities: Acknowledging the Past and Present History, Rhetoric, and Effects of a Harmful Practice

In the first week of 2019, a story about an Indigenous woman in Arizona giving birth while having been in a vegetative state for the past 14 years hit international headlines. It came as no surprise when investigators announced that they were looking into a “possible sexual assault.”

A person in a vegetative state, by definition, cannot consent to sex because they are non-responsive to stimuli and lack self-awareness. This woman, disabled and reliant on healthcare providers to support her quality of life was instead abused and assaulted with no recourse to defend herself.

This case is one of many that demonstrates the serious issues of sexual assault that face disabled people around the world today. According to disabilityjustice.org, people with disabilities (PWD) are three times more likely to be sexually assaulted than someone who is not disabled. 83% of women with disabilities (WWD) will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. Understanding the severity of sexual assault of PWD is vital to developing solutions to better protect the human and bodily rights of these individuals. Unfortunately, however, this problem has created another equally harming one: the sterilization of PWD, and especially WWD.

Sterilization Map from 1929

Sterilization is the surgical or non-surgical practice of ending an individual’s reproductive ability. Consensual sterilization is a relatively common practice among individuals who for personal or health reasons desire a permanent method of birth control. However, forced or nonconsensual sterilization is also a far-too-common (and still vastly legal) practice, and disproportionately inflicted upon PWD.

In 2017, Catalina Devandas Aguilar, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, released her annual report to the General Council, focused thematically on the Sexual and Reproductive Rights of Women and Girls with Disabilities. In the section entitled “Harmful and Forced Practices”, Aguilar highlights the forced sterilization of WWD worldwide, citing this as a “widespread human rights violation” that “disproportionately [subjects] [WWD] to forced and involuntary sterilization for different reasons, including eugenics, menstrual management, and pregnancy prevention,” as well as perceived protection from sexual abuse. Aguilar calls for the global community to recognize the human rights of WWD and end the harmful practice of nonconsensual sterilization.

According to the report, although the international human rights bodies have declared that sterilization of PWD is a form of discrimination, violence, torture, and other cruel and inhuman or degrading treatment, it is still legal and applied in many states worldwide. Often, this is because of court and guardian enforcement of social perceptions of PWD as either asexual or hyper sexed—either way, they are deemed unfit for parenthood, incapable of possessing sexual pleasure or desire, and would be too “burdened” by sex education or contraception use and menstrual management.

Women with disabilities are disproportionately affected by sterilization because of the fear of pregnancy and monthly menstruation. WWD are sterilized at three times the rate of the general population, meaning that of the over one billion PWD in the world today, the 1/5 of the world population that is a WWD faces serious threat of forced sterilization.

Traditional roles for women emphasize the importance of their existence as sexual beings intended for reproduction, connected to “heteronormative” and “phallocentric” interpretations of sex. Perceptions of asexuality lead to beliefs that WWD don’t have sexual or reproductive needs/rights. This contradicts empirical studies that show that PWD have the same needs with regards to sexuality and relationships as any other “able” person.

The supposed asexuality of WWD leads to the paternalistic rationalization of sterilization for “their own good.” In the landmark 1927 case Buck v Bell, Supreme Court Justice Holmes famously upheld the sterilization of involuntarily institutionalized 18 year old Buck in his quoted opinion: “three generations of imbeciles is enough.”

Even today, court rulings will justify sterilization orders to prevent the birth of a child with a disability by a WWD—regardless of if the condition is hereditary. In January of 2018, Washington state started negotiations over a form that would make it easier for a guardian (NOT the disabled person) to file for sterilization in the courts. Reporting on this, the ACLU believes that “creating this form will streamline the process and increase the number of guardians requesting the sterilization of those under their power.”

This is not to mention the warped argument that sterilization can prevent sexual assault—a view that in reality only protects the perpetrators and the aftereffect of rape: pregnancy. This argument suffers more from perceptions of WWD as being incapable caretakers or burdens than from true protection from assault.

Many PWD are infantilized, largely because most are dependent on caregivers, parents, and guardians for many aspects of their lives. This creates an immense power imbalance when it comes to decision making regarding issues of sexuality and reproduction. It is not uncommon for parents to sterilize their child for their own convenience, under the guise of protection.

In 2007, the  “Ashley Treatment” was a case in which young Ashley’s parents subjected their disabled daughter to a hysterectomy, breast bud removal, and hormone growth treatments to freeze her body in a childlike state. This was upheld by a bioethics committee because it was for “her own good”.

“Protecting people from themselves” is not far off from the eugenic rhetoric of the early 20th century, a movement that popularized the sterilization of PWD to prevent the “degeneration” of the white race. Not only is sterilization a system of sexuality control, but it is also deeply rooted in racialized and gendered constructs of human value. Between 1927 and 1957, 60,000 Americans were sterilized by virtue of being “feebleminded,” thanks to the eugenic concepts of Francis Galton, who in 1865 argued that “human mental qualities” could be manipulated and controlled through selection. The production of disability has undoubtedly been a raced, classed, and gendered cultural process—and with it has come the violation of the rights of PWD everywhere.

“Feeblemindedness” was used as a substitute term for any person that threatened the white, heteronormative structures of domination. For example, 1912 intelligence tests at Ellis Island determined “widespread feebleness” among Eastern and Southern European immigrants. Other people determined feebleminded were homosexuals, blacks, poor women “unfit to be mothers,” and “degenerates.” Sterilization of men and women was popularly practiced during chattel slavery and still today many Indigenous women are forcibly sterilized, most noted recently in Canada. The US and Canada both possess histories of the coerced sterilization of indigenous women, not to mention the fact that indigenous women are more likely to be sexaully assaulted, like the woman in the nursing home who faced the double oppression of being being both disabled and indigenous.

The continued practice and legal support of sterilization of WWD starkly contrasts most feminist or human rights-promoting rhetoric on violence against women in other areas of reproduction. We hear endless support for the right to abortion and reproductive control for women, but arguments for stopping sterilization of women with disability are almost entirely absent from the mainstream discourse. Likely, this lies in the fear that supporting not sterilizing WWD threatens the traditional messaging of pro-choice abortion rights. Thus, forced sterilization is pushed to the bottom of the advocacy platform for fear of jeopardizing the highly politicized feminist movement.

However, advocating against sterilization is as equally about choice as advocating for abortion. It is about the choice of consent, the choice of motherhood, and the choice of bodily control. This is where reproductive rights fails and reproductive justice takes over. Reproductive justice, coined by the SisterSong Collective, recognizes “not only a woman’s right not to have a child, but also the right to have children and to raise them with dignity in safe, healthy, and supportive environments.” As an intersectional approach, reproductive justice encompasses race, class, gender, and ability, thus creating space for a feminist movement that centers around all bodies, not just mainstream bodies. Including WWD in mainstream feminist and human rights discourse is our next crucial step. That is the true reproductive justice movement and the direction to go if we are to protect all women.


By Rowena Kosher

On International Day of Peace, A Celebration of Human Rights

By Ashley E. Chappo, editor of RightsViews and a graduate of Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs and Columbia Journalism School

Human rights, specifically the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), are the focus of this year’s International Day of Peace, or “Peace Day,” which takes place across the world each year on September 21.

This UN-designated day of observance advocates peace action and education in spite of ongoing human conflict through peace-building activities, a global minute of silence, intercultural and interfaith dialogues, vigils, concerts, feasts, and marches. This year’s theme is “The Right to Peace – The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70.”

The timing for the theme is apropos: it comes at a period when the human condition is increasingly vulnerable, beset by global conflict and dependent on world leaders who have turned their backs on international cooperation. During this state of prolonged human suffering, the power and failings of a single document of 30 human rights ideals comes into pronounced focus. Why should we celebrate the UDHR? Now 70 years old, has it made any real difference to peace and the protection of people?

UN Secretary-General António Guterres spoke at UN Headquarters in New York City in Peace Day, September 21, 2018. // UNAMI // Twitter

One lens through which to view these questions: the current state of international affairs, in which we grapple with intractable problems like the Syrian Civil War, ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, crisis in Congo, civil war in Yemen, war in Afghanistan, conflict in Iraq, violence in Venezuela, and a crisis of 68.5 million people forcibly displaced worldwide. Perhaps it’s time we relied less on hope and principles, and a little more on action.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres seemed to openly acknowledge doubts about the ability of international compacts to uphold human rights in the present day as he spoke today at UN Headquarters in New York City. At the same time, he also pushed back against these uncertainties with vigorous optimism.

“When we are celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we know that human rights are violated in so many parts of the world, we even know that the human rights agenda is losing ground,” Guterres said. “But we don’t give up because respect for human rights and human dignity is a basic condition for peace.”

Forging ahead against challenges was the key sentiment of today’s remarks.

“We are here because we are determined and we do not give up. We see conflicts multiplying everywhere in the world. We see links between conflicts and terrorism. We see insecurity prevailing. We see people suffering. But we don’t give up,” he continued.

Children dressed in white played the violin in the Peace Garden at United Nations Headquarters. Guterres concluded the ceremony by ringing the Peace Bell to commemorate Peace Day.

A violionist during the annual Peace Bell ceremony held at UN headquarters in observance of the International Day of Peace (21 September). // Cia Pak // UN Photo

Overall, the feeling from the ceremony was uplifting. But are words and gatherings anything more than a good sound bite or a symbolic gesture? Why do we need the UDHR in 2018 when it has proven ineffective at preventing human atrocities in its 70-year history?

One good reason: it represents an important milestone in our human rights fight that sets a common standard for all peoples and all nations. Since the UDHR was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948, its words have reverberated across continents. Its 30 articles affirming individual rights have been translated into some 370 languages, making it one of the most translated documents in the world.

Furthermore, although not legally binding or a treaty itself, the UDHR is widely considered the foundational document of international human rights law that has served as inspiration for many of our world’s legally-binding international human rights treaties and resolutions. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1965) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), for example, both came into force as a direct outcome of the UDHR, enshrining in law many of its ideals. Similarly, the Convention Against Torture (1984) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) track their roots to the UDHR. Traces of its articles are also found in the language of many national constitutions.

As of 2018, all UN member States have ratified at least one of the nine international human rights instruments that make up the core body of legally-binding international human rights law, with the majority ratifying four or more of these treaties. Once a State becomes party to any one of these international treaties, it accepts certain obligations to respect and fulfill these rights.

In this regard, Guterres’ optimism has legs. His hopefulness was shared many years ago by Eleanor Roosevelt, chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights and a prominent author of the UDHR. She believed fully “in the force of documents which do express ideals.”

However, she also believed that human rights begin in small places, close to home.

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.” — Eleanor Roosevelt, United Nations, 1958

Eleanor Roosevelt holds up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. // UN Photo

A key part of upholding the UDHR, she notes, is civic action to ensure these rights; action that demands response from leaders who have either turned a blind eye or who openly defy justice.

“Without concerted citizen action to uphold [rights] close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world,” she said in a speech at the United Nations.

Join RightsViews in honoring the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on Peace Day 2018! As part of the global celebration of this important document, which continues into December, you can add your voice in your own language to the Declaration as part of a UN collaborative video project. You can also read an illustrated version of the UDHR, available on the UN’s website.


Ashley E. Chappo is a recent graduate of Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs, where she studied human rights and international conflict resolution, and Columbia Journalism School, where she studied multimedia and investigative reporting. You can follow her on Twitter @AshleyChappo. She is editor of RightsViews. 

Columbia Students Stand in Solidarity with Jailed Reuters Journalists

By Ashley E. Chappo, editor of RightsViews and a graduate of Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs and Columbia Journalism School

Walk into Pulitzer Hall lobby at Columbia Journalism School today, and you might notice the students dressed in all black, holding signs that read “#FreeWaLoneKyawSoeOo” and “Journalism is not a crime.”

It’s a moment of advocacy and solidarity on Columbia’s Morningside campus on behalf of Reuters journalists Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, who were sentenced to seven years in prison on September 3, 2018 by a Myanmar judge after being found guilty of violating a decades-old law on state secrets. The Burmese nationals had been investigating military crackdowns and human rights violations in Rakhine state, including the massacre of 10 Rohingya men in Rakhine’s Inn Dinn village on September 2, 2017.

Columbia Journalism students dressed in all black and held signs that read “#FreeWaLoneKyawSoeOo” and “Journalism is not a crime” on behalf of their imprisoned colleagues in Myanmar. // Thor Neureiter

The advocacy effort at the journalism school in New York City was organized mainly by students in professor Ann Cooper’s reporting class. Beginning at 11 a.m. in Pulitzer Hall, the students dressed in black and held up signs, many handwritten in black ink on dry erase boards, with messages of support for the Burmese journalists. The students were inspired by the earlier protest efforts led by the Protection Committee for Myanmar Journalists who began wearing black T-shirts to “signify the dark age of media freedom” and advocate for the release of their colleagues, according to Reuters. The entire journalism school was asked to participate in person or across social media, and students from other professional schools at Columbia were also invited.

The September ruling by the Myanmar judge to jail the journalists for seven years has been widely condemned by world leaders, press freedom organizations, and human rights advocates as an attack on press freedom and human rights, which threatens journalists and human beings everywhere. Following the arrests, the United Nations called for the immediate release of the jailed journalists. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said the court’s recent ruling is a “travesty of justice” and “shocking,” adding that the journalist’s information on the violence in Rakhine state against Rohingya Muslims is “of public interest.”

While advocacy efforts such as the one at Columbia may seem merely symbolic, they hold special significance for the jailed journalists and reporters around the world who face similar risks.

“From my eight years as executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, I know how much it means for journalists and their families to hear messages of support, to know that they are not forgotten,” professor Cooper told RightsViews. “Journalists in many countries work in very challenging press freedom conditions. It’s important for us, no matter where we live and work, to defend the rights of all journalists to report the news independently, without fear of threats or violence.”

A poster for the advocacy efforts at Columbia Journalism School on September 14, 2018. The organizers urged other students and faculty from across Columbia to dress in black and stand in solidarity with the imprisoned Burmese journalists. // Melody Jiang

The Burmese reporters were first detained on December 12, 2017 outside of Yangon. Reuters published the journalists’ special report on the killings of the Rohingya under the title “Massacre in Myanmar” on February 8, 2018 while they awaited trial behind bars. The report notes “the Reuters investigation of the Inn Din massacre was what prompted Myanmar police authorities to arrest two of the news agency’s reporters.”

Efforts to support Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo while in detention began last year at Columbia when journalism students collected books to send to the reporters in prison following a specific request for books by Wa Lone.

“I think we all hoped that would help them pass some weeks or months until they were freed, because the court case against them was so ridiculous. But now they face seven years in prison. So our new students this fall have organized an effort to tell them, once again, you are not forgotten,” Cooper said.

Around seventeen of Cooper’s current reporting students from the Class of 2019 took the lead in organizing the day of advocacy on behalf of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.

“Journalism students, especially those interested in doing international reporting, should be aware that if these types of press restrictions and anti-press actions are not confronted, it will make it harder for them to do their jobs in the future,” said Haleluya Hadero, a student in Cooper’s reporting class this fall, to RightsViews. “As it is commonly said at the J-School, journalism is a public service, and we all need to work hard to protect the integrity and freedom of the press around the world.”

The action at Columbia University follows at the heels of a particularly troubling response from Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi on the court ruling. Speaking on Thursday at the World Economic Forum in Hanoi, Vietnam, she denied claims that the court’s decision violates freedom of expression and said that the journalists are free to appeal the decision

“They were not jailed because they were journalists,” she said. “The sentence has been passed on them because the court has decided that they have broken the Official Secrets Act.”

Students gathered on the steps in front of Columbia Journalism School during a day of advocacy on behalf of the jailed Reuters journalists. // Thor Neureiter

This statement from the once-esteemed Nobel Peace Prize winner has been decried as “shameful” by Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson wrote in The Globe and Mail, “Rarely does an event more clearly embody a country’s human-rights decline than the Myanmar court’s sentencing of two Reuters journalists.”

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley expressed her own disproval with Myanmar’s leader on Twitter, tweeting, “First in denial about the abuse the Burmese military place on the Rohingya, now justifying the imprisonment of the two Reuters reporters who reported on the ethnic cleansing. Unbelievable.”

The seven-year prison sentence serves as a reminder of the challenges and limitations journalists face in doing their jobs and defending human rights. These realities are particularly pertinent for students of Columbia Journalism School, many of whom dream of future careers in international and conflict reporting.

And now, more than ever, the stakes are especially high. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that for the second year in a row the number of journalists imprisoned for their work has reached a historical high. The advocacy efforts on campus help the students to recognize the importance of the lessons they learn in the classroom on keeping themselves and their sources safe in difficult environments.

“It’s my goal to make sure that all of our students leave journalism school with a healthy appreciation of the risks faced by so many reporters around the world— and with the skills and knowledge to assess and deal with those risks,” Cooper said. The recent case of the Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo hits particularly close to home for some of Cooper’s students. One who graduated this past May worked with Wa Lone at a newspaper in Myanmar, and another had met Wa Lone’s brother while reporting from the country.

“It is important for us— as Americans or even non-citizens living in the United States, and especially as journalists— to advocate for our own who are imprisoned for simply doing their jobs,” Haleluya said. “Journalism is a service not only to the public, but also to our colleagues, wherever they might be.”


Ashley E. Chappo is a recent graduate of Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs, where she studied human rights and international conflict resolution, and Columbia Journalism School, where she studied multimedia and investigative reporting. You can follow her on Twitter @AshleyChappo. She is editor of RightsViews.