Archive for Region – Page 2

Disempowered Development: A Conversation on Corporate Conquests in Southwest China with author Pat Giersch

By Kelly Dudine, a staff writer at RightsViews and a graduate student in the Human Rights MA Program

Over the decades, China has implemented aggressive and tailored plans to catalyze economic development across its vast regions. Driven in part by a desire to modernize industries and join a growing global marketplace, these plans led to periods of rapid growth and prosperity, while simultaneously straining local communities and exacerbating inequalities. Today, poverty in China’s ethnically diverse West is still prevalent

During a virtual lecture held earlier this month, author Pat Giersch discussed his new book, Corporate Conquests: Business, the State, and the Origins of Ethnic Inequality in Southwest China, which examines how corporations, combined with top-down policies geared toward modernization and state-building, marginalized local and ethnic minorities in the West, creating unequal access to growth and prosperity. 

Giersch’s story begins with the emergence of early-twentieth-century corporations, which enabled business to maintain a central hub of power while also expanding throughout the Southwest, reaching into Tibet, Southeast Asia, and Eastern China. New opportunities emerged and new avenues for economic growth flowed into the entrepreneurial hometowns, bringing wealth, mobility, and cosmopolitan lifestyles to elite merchants in Yunnan Province. 

However, as corporations grew in both size and power, so did their reach into local communities, which displaced local ownership of the development process, concentrating local resources in the hands of outsiders. This process is referred to as “disempowered development,” a term first coined by Andrew Fischer, which creates an environment of systematic inequality – one that China is still dealing with today.

For example, Giersch notes that as corporations reached deeper into villages inhabited by native Tibetans, called Khampas, in the West, they took control of what were once local sources of commerce, including traditional medicine gathering, and exported that wealth to their own regional hubs, sidelining the local people and community. This process continued in mass throughout the region, marginalizing and excluding local communities from the economic growth experienced by the elite. 

In the lecture, Giersch stressed how destabilizing and traumatic the experience of disempowered development and modernization would have been for people in Southwest China. Corporations brought rapid change, which fundamentally shifted economic and political organization. As an example, the immigration of the majority Han Chinese challenged societal structures and hierarchy. Clashes between locals and migrants were not uncommon, and instances of violence in the region underscored societal resistance to modernization.

Giersch noted that beyond the loss of local commerce and economic empowerment, modernization and disempowered development also strained local families in a myriad of ways. Many men had to travel more frequently, leaving their communities for extended periods of time to seek business opportunities, which tried and tested local families. For the men, time alone and away from home came with a variety of negative temptations, including affairs and marriages with other women which could break families apart. Additionally, drug and alcohol abuse was on the rise, including newly formed addictions to opium. 

For women left at home, the stress of increased responsibilities in the wake of absent men and the strain of managing trans-regional families proved a huge burden to bear, argued Giersch. Furthermore, increased connections with the outside world further challenged local traditions and worldviews, with children from wealthier and elite families expected to leave home to study abroad.

Giersch describes the process of modernization as a fairly traumatic phenomenon for individuals and the society as a whole. The stress experienced by local people, compounded by unequal access to the economic gains reaped by non-local businessmen strained local societies. 

Using the experience of those in Southwest China, Giersch noted that any effort at economic development and poverty alleviation will not be successful without empowering local people and ensuring “local control over local resources and local futures.” If this cannot be negotiated or protected, development plans may only exacerbate existing inequalities and create larger divides between those who can access financial gains and those who are perpetually excluded from growth and prosperity.

Does Addressing Climate Change Mean Addressing Racism?

By Noah Smith, RightsViews staff writer and graduate student in the Human Rights Studies program at Columbia University

On October 28, Climate Refugees and the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University brought together experts in environmental racism, indigenous rights, climate science and racial justice to discuss the two fundamental issues of our time: race and climate change. The panelists offered their expert opinions on the intersectional relationship between race and climate change and discussed solutions to mitigate these issues moving forward.

The climate crisis has disproportionately impacted marginalized populations, many of whom may be displaced or forced to migrate, because of years of unequal access to opportunities and gaps in human rights. Panelist Dr. Ingrid Waldron, a noted sociologist, has coined this disproportionate impact as ‘Environmental Racism’ which she defined as ‘‘a disproportionate location and exposure for indigenous, racialized communities and poor white communities to contamination from polluting industries and other environmentally hazardous activities.’’

The panel further articulated the delineation of ‘Environmental Racism’ by discussing the COVID-19 pandemic, George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent protests for racial justice, which correspondingly exemplified the effects of two divergent crises that have disproportionate impacts on Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) because of systemic unequal access to opportunities. In 2020 the JAMA Network Open, which is part of the Journal of the American Medical Association, published a report which elucidated that in the United States Black mothers are most adversely affected by pregnancy risks associated with climate change and Black communities face heightened risks of air pollution. Upon revealing these startling realities, the panelists state that race appears to be a greater risk of exposure to environmental pollutants than poverty.

Panelist Professor Philip G. Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, discussed a 2019 report on Climate Change and Poverty, which found that developing nations will bear 75% of the financial costs and losses associated with the climate crisis, despite only contributing 10%  of carbon dioxide emissions. Alston further asserted that one could argue that ‘‘the whole phenomenon of climate change is driven by racism because it’s outsourced, and the dominant white elites are going to be able to protect themselves and they do not care about the terrible consequences that are being predicted because they will hit other groups.’’

Given the current bleak narrative, the panel offered future solutions to assuage the concerning trend we see regarding the current crisis. Panelist Dr. Lucky Tran, a science communicator based at Columbia University, spoke of the need to fight for communities harmed by bad science policies. Stating that there is a broad misunderstanding by science advocates who operate under the belief that facts alone are enough to convince individuals that climate change as well as racial inequality are real and pose existential threats to our society. He pointed out that this line of advocacy is not enough stating that ‘‘facts are not enough, we are talking about values. We’re talking about real lives, we’re talking about stories, and we have to do that a lot better.’’ This emphasis on storytelling as part of the solution to the climate crisis has been utilized by many science advocates in recent years. 

In fact, I recently watched a documentary titled America’s First Climate Change Refugees, which told the stories of communities across the US who are now threatened by rising sea-levels resulting from climate change. The individual voices showcased in this documentary are incredibly powerful and exemplify how storytelling can help us address complicated issues such as climate change. 

Furthermore, panelist Dr. Carlton Waterhouse, an international expert on environmental law, spoke about environmental justice and suggested we think of it in three frames: distributive, procedural, and justice as recognition. This framework of conceptualizing environmental justice recognizes that there is an unequal distribution of pollutant sources in society, a lack of recognition of marginalized voices in government and environment policy procedural processes, as well as a lack of recognition of what marginalized communities need and deserve. 

Actualizing these frames of justice should be a priority and as stated by Dr. Waterhouse recognizing ‘‘inequitable distribution of pollution, the harm that comes from it, and the benefits that are derived from it, that to me is the core of environmental justice.’’

Voter Suppression in the United States: Infringements on the Right to Vote

By: Jalileh Garcia, Staff Writer at RightsViews

In the midst of a pandemic, with a rising number of COVID-19 cases, the United States election will take place on November 3, 2020. This election will be decisive for many of the contemporary issues that people are facing in the United States, and beyond. 

The right to vote is understood as one of the foundational cornerstones of a democracy, allowing free and fair elections to take place. Different civil and human rights safeguard the right to vote, namely the 15th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and Article 25 (b) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Despite having these legal protections, different states such as Georgia, North Carolina, among others continue to limit the exercise of this right in the country. 

The UN Committee on Human Rights delineated in the General Comment 25 of the ICCPR that States have the duty to “take effective measures to ensure that all persons entitled to vote are able to exercise that right.” Furthermore, when required registration of voters “should be facilitated and obstacles to such registration should not be imposed.” 

Voter suppression is one of the ways that countries create obstacles to the right to vote. Myrna Perez, director of the Brennan Center’s Voting Rights and Elections Program, noted that voter suppression is “an attempt to depress turnout or participation where there is some actor trying to reduce access to the ballot.” 

This exclusion of certain groups of voters is nothing new – rather, it has been the norm in the United States. Polling taxes, literacy tests, purges of voter rolls, and other tactics have been used to historically disenfranchise Black and Native American voters. Recently, voter suppression has also been affecting Latinx populations.  

Different restrictions to the right to vote, through voter suppression, can include voter-ID laws, limiting and cutting the hours at the polls, purging voter rolls, and outright intimidation.   

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a total of 36 states have laws that request or require voters to show some form of identification (i.e. strict photo ID, ID without photo, etc) at the polls, 35 of these are in force for this 2020 election. A study by Zoltan Hajnal, Nazita Lajevardi, and Lindsay Nielson found that “strict identification laws have a differentially negative impact on the turnout of racial and ethnic minorities in primaries and general elections.” Furthermore, it found that these laws “skew democracy toward those on the political right.” 

Videos have surfaced on social media of people waiting hours to cast their ballots at sites prepared for early voting in New York City. The New York Times indicated that some people waited as long as 5 hours. One of the reasons for these long lines – people are scared that their absentee ballots will not be counted due to bureaucratic, technical issues, so they had chosen to vote in-person despite COVID-19 worries.   

Many disputes have arisen over the purging of voter rolls, which is used to disenfranchise many minority voters in the United States. This has been seen before when, in 2016,  the County Board of Elections challenged the votes of 180 Black people in Sparta, Georgia by summoning voters’ to prove residence, or they would lose the ability to vote in that election. This fear continues throughout the 2020 election, given that the State of Georgia “mandates some of the country’s most aggressive methods for purging voters from registration rolls”, says ACLU Georgia

In a new age of “fake news”, disinformation campaigns to depress turnout in elections have flooded social media. Win Black, a campaign that seeks to ensure that Black and Brown communities do not suffer at the hands of disinformation campaigns, explained how these campaigns seek to discourage Black and Brown voters from casting their ballots by playing on these communities’ worries, inspiring them to not vote. 

Intimidation has also been documented in the early voting periods of the 2020 election. Different methods of intimidation have been used including: armed men standing outside of early voting sites, voters wearing “Black Lives Matter” shirts being turned away at the polls, and false phone calls to residents in primarily Black communities that discouraged voting by mail. In Graham, North Carolina, the police pepper sprayed participants of a march and rally to increase voter turnout, though they had the proper permits. 

While the United States manifests itself as a “champion of democracy” in the international community because of its “adherence” to civil and political rights, this discourse is tainted with voter suppression tactics that negatively impact Black and Brown voters specifically, denying them the right to vote and participate in democratic processes. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Human Rights Work in the Public Sector: a Discussion with Alumna Barbara Matias

By Lindsey Alpaugh, staff writer for RightsViews and graduate student in the Human Rights MA Program

On October 13th, the Institute for the Study of Human Rights hosted its first Alumni Speaker Series event with Barbara Matias. A graduate of the Institute’s MA in Human Rights Studies, Matias has had a diverse career that spanned over many countries, as well as different missions. Some of her most recent work has included her new position working for the European Union on Belarus, as well as a Programme Officer to the training mission in Iraq and the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Relief Crisis Center’s Team Lead on NATO-EU coordination. 

Speaking from experience, Matias advised job seekers  that “stability comes later” in the field of human rights, and that they should not be discouraged by the frequency with which they may switch jobs. She also admitted that there were  moments where she doubted her choice of working in the public sector, but ultimately realized that she was driven by this field.  While waiting for the next interview and job offer, Matias wrote articles for think tanks on subjects she was personally passionate about, and recommended that students work on building their online profiles. “We all find ourselves in these positions, and it’s a matter of knowing what you want, and doing what you have to do to find your next chapter,” she said.  

While she got her current job amidst the pandemic, she noted that the job search may take longer than usual as many opportunities may be frozen.  However, she advised students not to give up. In fact, she advocated for “shamelessly approaching people on LinkedIn”, and offered that it is easier now to reach out to people and ask to set up a Zoom meeting. Job seekers should “capitalize off of things being so virtual, turn that into a good thing, and try to reach more people than you would have” based on normal geographic proximity. Matias’s method is tried and true: she secured her current position by sitting down and reaching out to her network virtually.

When asked about challenges she faced when she came to ISHR for her MA studies, Matias responded that shifting her academic base from Europe to the US presented her with a bigger change than she had expected. She was surprised by how different the landscape was. Nonetheless, she was able to work through that by relying a lot on the resources at ISHR, who clarified American academic norms that were different from her previous educational experiences. 

Something Matias wishes she had done more of in her early human rights career was fieldwork. Her first taste of fieldwork was in 2017 when she spent some time based in a refugee camp in Greece, and lived in Pristina, Kosovo, working on EU integration. “That molded me, not only as a human, but I understood myself better, and myself as a professional,” she explained. She emphasized the value of becoming a local in Kosovo as best as she could, of paying taxes and becoming a permanent, instead of a passing, fixture in the landscape. In her opinion, “it’s one of the most interesting countries in terms of human rights, and European affairs.” She is looking forward to finding more opportunities to do fieldwork in the future so as to have more experiences like this. 

Matias’s biggest piece of advice to current students would be to go into the field and gain that experience. “Go somewhere completely out of your comfort zone, where you can’t rely on your languages.” She believes it adds value to your profile, and distinguishes potential applicants from their peers. She also suggests writing a lot, as her field involves a lot of writing: “even part time pro-bono as a researcher is important,” she said. During her time at Columbia, Matias wrote for RightsViews, the ISHR website and think tanks.

Matias also emphasized how much she believed in the necessity of proving oneself to be a global citizen, both in terms of fieldwork but also in speaking multiple languages. The benefit, she offers, is being able to consume more news and new perspectives, as well as allowing one to interact with more populations. “Try to do as many things out of the ordinary. That is how I have led my life,” she said while describing her  love for rising to a challenge in order to distinguish herself. 

Recalling her experience at Columbia, Matias credits ISHR for helping her elucidate what kind of work she wanted to be doing and learning that “it’s not about the title, it’s really about the kind of work that drives you.” She was also able to use resources at ISHR to improve her research and academic analytical skills and to finally graduate feeling like an academic, instead of a passive participant in a classroom. She emphasizes that students should use Columbia’s excellent network, and to put themselves out there both through seeking unique skills and reaching out to the larger community. She concluded that  “the chapter you’re in lays out your next chapter,” with each step building on the previous one.

Matias is currently working with the European Commission for Belarus where she drafts news reports and stays up to date with the evolving situation on the ground. She described her position as half knowing the role, and half keeping up with the news. At her previous role at NATO, the ISHR alumna worked on capacity building for the training and education mission in Iraq. She was based at NATO headquarters, but was in contact with her colleagues on the ground on a daily basis every day. She described the position as “dealing with local realities, and a country that is unlike any other.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watch a recording of the full event here.

Suffering , Grievability and Covid-19 – An Indian Nightmare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ginsburg’s Feminism was for White Women

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

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

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

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

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

On Race:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indigenous Rights: RBG’s Biggest Regret

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Guest Contributors Anoush Baghdassarian and Sherin Zadah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

About the Authors

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

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