Archive for human rights

President Biden’s Promise to End Gay Conversion Therapy

By: Guest Contributor Isidora Roskic, MA candidate in the Human Rights Studies program at Columbia University. 

With the 2020 election results finalized, the Biden-Harris administration could bring promising advancements for LGBTQ+ rights in the United States. While Trump’s Republican platform was once referred to as one of the “worst platforms in terms of LGBT issues,” President Biden’s policy proposals hold great prospect for real change. According to his Plan to Advance LGBTQ+ Equality in America and Around the World, banning so-called “conversion therapy” presently stands as one of the government’s top priorities.

Gay conversion therapy (GCT), otherwise referred to as “reparative therapy,” is the pseudoscientific practice of attempting to alter one’s sexual orientation or gender identity through spiritual, psychological and/or physical intervention.  Experimental “treatments” include lobotomies, testicular tissue transplants, chemical castration, and aversive conditioning: application of electric shock to hands/genitals, and administration of nausea-inducing drugs during the presentation of homoerotic stimuli.

Conversion therapy survivor, Sam Brinton, opened up about the horrors of undergoing sexual orientation change efforts: “The lingering effects of the trauma and abuse I experienced will take a lifetime to heal,” Brinton shared. “I struggled with anxiety and depression and can count myself among the number of LGBTQ+ young people who have attempted suicide.”

In fact, a 2020 national survey on LGBTQ+ people in the U.S. found that youth GCT victims reported twice the rate of suicide attempts over the last year in comparison to non-victims. Conversion therapy also left youth 3 times more likely to use drugs and experience homelessness.

While major mental health organizations have discredited the practice, UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute estimates that 700,000 LGBTQ+ people have undergone GCT in the United States, approximately 350,000 of them having been under the age of 18. Today, at least 10% of U.S LGBTQ+ youth report receiving ‘reparative therapy.’ One survivor anonymously revealed the unsettling consequences of undergoing reparative treatment by stating “We were no longer people at the end of the program.” Another, Mike Dorn, recently garnered public support after sharing his conversion therapy story through a series of videos posted on TikTok. Some of the victim testimonials provided to the Pan American Health Organization suggested many minors involuntarily received ‘treatment.’ Exposing youth to conversion therapy against their will not only threatens their mental and physical wellbeing but also strips them of autonomy and decision-making power. 

With over 2 million sexual minority youth currently living in the United States, the threat of gay conversion therapy constitutes a human rights crisis. Yet, little has been done by the states or federal government to address this issue. 

Politically, the moment to act is now.

In 2019, Rep. Ted Lieu and Sen. Patty Murray took a fundamental step towards ending gay conversion therapy by introducing the Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act (TFPA) which would federally ban all for-profit conversion therapy by classifying it as fraud under the Federal Trade Commission Act. Despite receiving overwhelming public support and gaining 219 co-sponsors, no action was taken by the House of Representatives or the Senate to review or vote on the bill. As the 116th United States Congress has adjourned, the bill is dead. 

Nevertheless, the changing political climate paired with the new president’s favourable position on LGBTQ+ issues provides a promising environment in which the subject of GCT can be re-introduced and adequately addressed. Biden has publicly condemned the practice of gay conversion therapy, stating that it is “deeply harmful, highly unscientific, and often leads to trauma.” The President has also acknowledged the inadequacy of relying solely on State bans.

In fact, only four States – Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, and New York – have fully banned the practice. In addition to these four, fourteen more states and U.S. territories, including the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, currently have statutes in place that protect youth under the age of 18 from receiving GCT through licensed health care providers. Unfortunately, state statutory conversion therapy bans fail to adequately protect youth by only applying laws to licensed mental health care professionals and overlooking the services of religious and spiritual institutions and/or individuals. In fact, a  2019 report conducted by UCLA estimated that 57,000 LGBTQ+ youth between the ages of 13-17 are at risk of receiving ‘reparative’ treatment from a religious leader and/or spiritual provider in the United States before they turn 18. To raise greater concern, the remaining 32 states have no comprehensive bans criminalizing the practice or prosecuting those that offer it. 

Thankfully, President Biden’s promise to enact the Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act is a powerful first step in the right direction. Nevertheless, it’s important to remind ourselves that the fight for equality is much larger than a political promise. Now is the time to come together to make a change for and protect the human rights of current and future LGBTQ+ youth.

Take part in the movement by issuing a statement of support for the reintroduction of the TFPA to Rep. Ted Lieu and Sen. Patty Murray

Raise awareness on the detrimental practice by participating in the #LoveDoesntNeedACure and #BornPerfect social media campaigns.

Provoke dialogue on conversion therapy in the state by adding your name to Change.Org nation-wide GCT ban petition and support the Trevor Project’s 50 Bills 50 States initiative. 

If you are a survivor comfortable with sharing your story, educate and empower others by using National Centre For Lesbian Rights and It Gets Better Project to speak out about your experiences. Survivors can also access helpful resources through Beyond Ex-Gay, Truth Wins Out, and Trevor Space.



Photo Credits: 

“SCOTUS APRIL 2015 LGBTQ 54663” by tedeytan is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

“Gay Rights are Human Rights” by ep_jhu is licensed under CC BY 2.0

“I don’t need conversion therapy! I need my rights!” by ninachildish is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Then They Came for Me: A Call for Jewish Support of #BlackLivesMatter

By Anna Miller, a staff writer at RightsViews and a graduate student in ISHR’s Human Rights MA Program.

Note: this piece addresses antisemitism in the United States only, though it exists worldwide. As a Jewish person born and living in the United States, my knowledge is primarily based in this country. 

The Jewish people are no stranger to hatred and violence. Jewish history is marked by thousands of years of antisemitism, centuries of forced diaspora, and a boiling point of bigotry that led to the Holocaust. Today, antisemitic hate crimes and speech have reached a new high in the United States. In 2019, the Anti-Defamation League reported 2,107 antisemitic incidents, the highest number on record since ADL began tracking such incidents in 1979 (ADL). 

Due to their acute familiarity with discrimination and injustice, Jews tend to be active in social justice movements and speak up about human rights issues. Notably, Jews marched in civil rights protests in the 1960s and were vocal about women’s rights in the 1970s (PBS). Yet this past summer – during a new peak of violence against Black people – Jews were surprisingly quiet. Many of us posted our #BlackoutTuesday pictures on Instagram and then silently walked away.  

Tensions between the Black and Jewish communities in the United States are not new. While many Black and Jewish communities live and work together cooperatively, there is a history of antisemitism in the Black community and racism in the Jewish community. In the latter half of the 20th century, Jews were quick to assimilate to American culture and American whiteness. Power could not be found in having a Jewish identity, but it could be found in adopting a white identity. Many Jews shed the skin of the “oppressed minority” and entered a world of upward mobility and newfound whiteness. This is not to say that Jews were not still targeted and discriminated against – they absolutely were. Many Jews were simply able to identify themselves as white on documents like loans, mortgages, housing agreements, and employee forms and this gave them an elevated status in the United States.  

Today, some old resentments remain and new ones have been born. In the last few years, a number of Jews have refused to support Black Lives Matter efforts fearing that the movement itself was anti-Israel and thus antisemitic. First, it is important to distinguish between two key organizations working for the rights of Black people. The Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation is the organization most people are familiar with, founded in 2013 after the murder of Trayvon Martin. This organization has not published any formal condemnation of Israel. The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) was founded in 2014 and has shared pro-Palestine (often interpreted as anti-Israel) resources on their platform in the past. 

In 2016, M4BL released a new policy document aimed at creating a better future for Black people. M4BL claimed that this document represented the views of 25+ groups engaged in Black Lives Matter efforts, including two prominent groups known for activism in support of Black lives and against gun violence Black Youth Project 100 and Brighter Days for Justice (formerly known as Million Hoodies Movement for Justice). The document included 40 policy suggestions – one being a suspension of United States military aid to Israel. While that exact document can no longer be found on the M4BL website, you can access their vision for military expenditures and reallocations here. It is critical to understand that M4BL is condemning specific, inhumane military activity in Israel and not Jewish people as a whole. Further, not every Black Lives Matter organization – or Black person – holds these same views about Israel. 

As such, there is no good – or logical – cause for Jewish people to turn our backs on the systemic suffering of Black people. American Jews are traitors to our own cause if we abandon the most persecuted group in our country. Remember, we will not create a future free of antisemitism without also eradicating the other deeply ingrained bigotries present in the United States. We cannot simply take tweezers and pluck out the throbbing thread of antisemitism, while at the same time continuing to oppress other minority groups in the United States. 

I invite Jews and Jewish organizations to join me in considering how we are complicit in systems of privilege in the United States. According to the Brandeis University American Jewish Population Project, 88.7% of American Jews are white non-Hispanic (Brandeis University). Many of us were born into white privilege – a hierarchy that will only lead to our downfall. The time may quickly come again that Jews are not white enough for our nation and our government. In the words of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice: “As long as white Jews remain tacitly invested in white supremacy—though it may benefit them in the short term—they leave in place the ideological roots necessary for the re-emergence of violent antisemitism in the future.”  

Jewish people and organizations need to speak up about racism and inequality in the United States. If you are interested in learning more about what Jewish people can do to support black lives, visit Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, follow @jews4blacklives on Instagram, and take the time to better understand why many Jews see supporting Black lives as key to our culture and faith (perhaps start with this statement from the Jewish History Museum).


Photo Credits: 

“Black Lives Matter protest” by Fibonacci Blue is licensed under CC BY 2.0

“Black Lives Matter” by seikoesquepayne is licensed under CC BY 2.0

  Sex Workers’ Rights are Human Rights: Repeal FOSTA-SESTA

By Noah Smith, RightsViews staff writer and a graduate student in the human rights MA program.

 In 2017, President Trump signed into law two highly controversial bills projected to make it easier to reduce illegal sex trafficking online. The House bill known as FOSTA, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, and the Senate bill, SESTA, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, have garnered bipartisan support as well as praise from misguided celebrities and was hailed as a landmark victory for sex trafficking victims. However, since the FOSTA-SESTA’s conception it has done little to target and reduce online sex trafficking and conversely threatens to increase violence against the most vulnerable within society, specifically queer sex workers and sex workers of color.

       Opponents as well as critics of the bill have articulated that it doesn’t appear to do anything concrete to target illegal sex trafficking, but rather targets a longstanding “safe harbor” rule of the internet: Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. Specifically, FOSTA-SESTA creates exemptions to Section 230 which means websites would be responsible if users are caught posting ads for prostitution, including consensual sex work. Therefore, to avoid any potential legal consequences, websites such as Craigslist deleted their entire personal ads section and Reddit removed all forums service providers used to find clients. Many advocates have voiced their concerns that FOSTA-SESTA threatens to erode internet freedom as we know it.

      The bill endangers, rather than helps, sex workers who want to do their work consensually and safely. There is extensive evidence that giving sex workers a means in which to advertise, vet and pick their clients online makes them safer than they are without online systems such as Craigslist and Reddit. When sex workers are unable to contact and vet clients through online mediums, they are forced out onto the street in order to find constomers. In this scenario they are unable to prescreen clients nor are they able to ensure they will work in a safe and secure location. A 2017 study on Craigslist’s personals section, which is the only empirical study of online sex advertising’s effect on violence against women, found that the ability to advertise sexual services on the internet reduced female homicides by 17.4%. Baylor University professor Scott Cunningham who conducted the study has called FOSTA-SESTA ‘‘unambiguously evil due to its willful ignorance and potential to engender violence against sex workers. The most vulnerable populations affected by this bill are queer sex workers and sex workers of color, who face high rates of violence from both the police and civilian population. Furthermore, queer sex workers and sex workers of color at times have no other option for employment due to systematic discrimination in the legal job market, housing, and education.

        In addition to the risk FOSTA-SESTA poses to consensual sex workers, there is growing concern that victims of sex trafficking will be rendered less visible and even more vulnerable by being exiled from the accessible reaches of the internet, into the darkest crevices of real life and the deep web. Therefore, these bills have the potential to unequivocally remove human traffickers from the reach of law enforcement by sending them to the darkest corners of the web, where they may find safe haven. When all things are considered, FOSTA-SESTA is poised to further marginalize multiple vulnerable populations and will inevitably cause more harm than good.

        In 2016, Amnesty International released a model policy that calls upon countries to decriminalize sex work in order to better protect the health and human rights of sex workers. Contrary to popular dogma, to reduce instances of human trafficking and human rights abuses of consensual sex workers, we must support the full decriminalization of sex work because decriminalizing sex work enhances sex workers’ legal protection and their ability to exercise other essential rights, including to justice. Preventing sex trafficking requires us to examine as well as acknowledge the divergen forms of marginalization that creates vulnerable communities. Thereby removing punitive laws, which deter the reporting of abuse and exploitation, legalization allows sex workers to work in safer environments, which reduce marginalization and mistreatment. Decriminalizing can also destigmatize sex work and help challenge the socio-political as well as cultural marginalization of sex workers.

       Since the passage of FOSTA-SESTA a merger of sex workers , sex trafficking survivors , human rights advocates, and the Department of Justice have all opposed the doctrine that FOSTA-SESTA is an effective remedy to end sex trafficking. Queer sex workers and sex workers of color know better than anyone else that these bills will be ineffective in ending human trafficking and have been at the forefront of this opposition movement by amplifying their voices to articulate that they are the best positioned to help end human trafficking. However, they cannot be a part of the solution when they are being criminalized, having their platforms taken away and their lives disrupted. Vice president elect Kamala Harris has also voiced her support for the decriminalization of sex work, stating that “we can’t criminalize consensual behavior among adults as long as no one is being harmed.” The comments made by Vice President elect Kamala Harris point to broader and slowly evolving perceptions of sex workers’ rights as human rights– all of which underline the necessity to not discuss rights-based matters through the lexicon of patriarchal-based morality but rather through what is legally permissible in a society governed by human rights.

FOSTA-SESTA does nothing to fight for the rights of individuals but rather seeks to determine who is worthy of human rights as well as protection under the law and erodes internet freedom.  The failures of this bill and its discriminatory policies have sparked innumerous grassroots movements and activists calling for its repeal as well as the full decriminalization of sex work. In order to advocate for the rights of all persons, we must acknowledge that sex workers’ rights are human rights. Sex workers are willing to and possess the knowledge needed to be partners in our collective fight to end human trafficking, but before sex workers can be a part of the solution, we as a society must honor their human rights.

A Refugee Crisis, Poetry, and a Camera: “Paris Stalingrad” Film Screening

By Rowena Kosher, co-editor of RightsViews

Recently, ISHR hosted a virtual film screening of Paris Stalingrad, followed by a discussion with the film’s director, Hind Meddeb. Human Rights professor Lara Nettlefield moderated the conversation. Hind Meddeb is a French filmmaker whose work interrogates human rights issues of our time, and this film is no exception.

Co-directed by filmmaker Thim Naccache, Paris Stalingrad is an intimate documentary portrait of the life of refugees living on the streets of the Stalingrad district of Paris. Many of these refugees come to France from Sudan, Ethiopia, Erythrea, Somalia, and Afghanistan to escape persecution and violence in their home countries. Yet, with everything from police violence to immigration bureaucracy to racism alike, Paris turns these refugees away, forcing them onto the streets. Meddeb approaches her documentary from the lens of community, depicting the everyday life of a refugee living on the Paris streets. In particular, the film follows a young man, Souleymane Mohammed, as he navigates the crisis through thought and poetry.

Throughout the summer of 2016, Meddeb and her camera capture what many Parisians tend to ignore—and what a significant portion of the world does not even know about. Not only is Paris Stalingrad shedding light on a vital issue of human concern, but it does so with a balanced approach of cinematic intimacy—close shots carefully framed with a focus on the holistic human experience—with an agential participatory documentary mode. Far from removed, Meddeb’s approach to filmmaking is rooted in and dictated by the community itself.

Speaking on her approach to making this film, Meddeb acknowledged the complicated ethical questions of a documentary of struggling communities. Often, she said, many feel that when cameras are present, they are only filmed in bad situations without any dignity. And thus, “the only way I could do this film was to spend a lot of time with people,” she said. Before ever bringing her camera to the refugee camps, Meddeb built relationships. She helped with translation, paperwork, food provision, and would open up her home for a safe place for rest and a shower. She believes that one has to create dialogue by giving time and energy. This work is a constant exchange between filmmaker and community, one rooted in mutual respect.

When it came time to introduce the camera, Meddeb would speak to refugees about how their situation is hidden, but the camera can reveal what is happening to a global audience. No one knows, she said, about how one of the most famous, most wealthy cities in the world is also home to refugees relegated to the streets. This story was particularly important to tell because, according to Meddeb, the Mayor of Paris was trying to construct an image that Paris was welcoming to refugees, although in practice this is not the case. Some other French mayors will acknowledge the situation, said Meddeb, however, the Parisian Mayor is opportunist and only focuses on those who can vote for her.

 Parisian civil society, likewise, tends to turn a “willful blind eye” to the refugee situation. One particularly striking scene in the film depicts refugees sleeping on the edges of a squash court as a primly dressed white Parisian woman practices her swing, seemingly oblivious to the human bodies her ball rolls against. Meddeb explained that some people were angry because the refugee camps and police blockades would restrict access to businesses on the street, causing them to lose money. Some complain that the camps are dirty and ruining the daily life of Parisian citizens. This general negative attitude is reinforced by the constant barrage of police violence inflicted upon refugees and their homemade shelters. Just when the group has set up camp on one street, the police raid, destroy, and push them out, only to repeat again.

General Parisian denial was reflected in the reception of the film. Paris Stalingrad was internationally successful and showed at many film festivals worldwide. It has also been picked up for distribution in some countries, including the US. However, France will not distribute it. “The French audience is not ready to see this film,” said Meddeb.

Yet, Meddeb also highlighted that a “small minority” of Parisians were actively supportive and came together to assist the refugees as much as they could. One woman in the film often shows up at police raids to help refugees assert their rights. There are moments of shared community foodsharing. Notably, the people who would step up to help were also people who themselves had suffered hardship in their past and were generally low/middle class, said Meddeb. To this, Meddeb reflected that going through and witnessing hardship “gives you new priorities. You learn a lot about the world.”

Meddeb wanted to “give a voice to the people, not to talk for them.” When she met Souleymane, she found a muse whose poetry was a way to “show the powerful vision these people have.” Meddeb noted that whereas the world sees refugees as just a statistic, poetry’s individuality brings back reflection.

Meddeb met Souleymane at one of the street refugee camps in Stalingrad. She had been helping refugees with translation of asylum forms which are only offered in French. Their friendship began when Meddeb took a photo of Souleymane in the subway station for job and asylum applications and gave him her number. Over time, as Meddeb would visit the camps, she would converse with Souleymane, growing the relationship. Meddeb discovered he was writing poetry, and he was so sincere with his story that he ended up as the main character of the film.

Today, Meddeb said with a smile, Souleymane is doing well. He has a job building roads in the East of France. He took a French course and is actively saving to be able to attend University and study. Through friends, he was able to find his mother’s phone number and talk to her for the first time in many years. Now, he is also saving money to send back to support her. Souleymane dreams of real peace in Sudan, said Meddeb, so that he can return to his home.

 As for the refugee camps in Paris, Meddeb reports that they have been pushed out of the city and now take residence in the suburbs, still in terrible conditions. Just recently, she said, police violently entered the camps and beat people, destroying everything—again. “It’s a cycle. It’s also a waste of time,” claims Meddeb. When you give people a chance, they totally integrate, get jobs, and engage in civil society. The more that refugees are forced to stay on the street, the more dangerous it becomes. France must stop holding the image of the foreigner as a problem, she says. This perspective only continues racism.

As the refugee crisis continues in Paris, films like Paris Stalingrad provide important insight into a human rights issue largely hidden in the international conversation. More importantly, this film recenters the “human” in human rights. With dignity, agency, and poetry, refugees tell their stories on their own terms.

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

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

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

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

What Can (and Should) Justice Look like? 

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

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

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

The Obstacles to Achieving “Justice”

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

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

Donations from to buy food for the victims of Boko Haram, Nigeria. //

Courts and States: Obligations and Failures 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anne Marie de Brouwer: Cofounder of Team Impact  

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

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

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

“Abort the Government”: Polish Citizens Challenge Poland’s Retreat to Autocracy

By Ali Cain, RightsViews staff writer and a graduate student in the European History, Politics, and Society  MA Program

Over the last three weeks, Polish citizens have ignited the country’s biggest protests since the 1989 pro-democracy movement in response to the passing of a de facto abortion ban. Although Poland already had the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, its highest court, the Constitutional Tribunal, concluded that performing abortions, even in situations where a baby would be born sick or disabled, violates the Constitution’s guarantee to the protection of life. This ruling poses immense infringements on women’s rights and pushes the country into deeper democratic backsliding. 

Despite Polish President Andrzej Duda announcing that the ban would be delayed indefinitely, protests have developed into a larger retaliation against the ruling far-right Law and Justice Party (PiS). Since its rise to power in 2015, the Party maintains support by enflaming cultural tensions over LGBTQ+ rights, migration, and abortion. Prior to the Tribunal’s ruling, women were only allowed to get abortions in cases of rape, incest or fetus abnormalities. According to The New York Times, the majority of legally terminated Polish pregnancies in 2019 were because of fetus abnormalities. Doctors are also able to use religious beliefs to justify not performing abortions or prescribing contraception. Poland’s restrictions led many women to seek abortions in other countries or illegally. 

Since the decision, thousands of Poles in 150 towns and cities have turned out to protest. Demands include access to abortion, non-religious sex education, and the transfer of Church funds to groups fighting violence against women. As the protests grow, President Duda proposed an exception to the Tribunal’s ruling that would allow abortions when there is “high probability” of the fetus being stillborn or being born with a condition “leading inevitably and directly to death.” He later announced that the new laws would be delayed indefinitely and is currently attempting to find a compromise between the far-right wing of PiS and its less extreme parliament members. However, the protests are now past the issue of abortion as various groups with grievances against PiS are heightening calls for the government’s resignation. 

The PiS’ control over the Tribunal is one of many examples of how the Party has infringed on the rule of law. Since coming to power, PiS has slowly eroded judicial independence; in 2017, the Party mandated a lower retirement age that dismissed half of the Polish Supreme Court’s justices. It then took over the National Council of the Judiciary which appoints judges and made it illegal for judges to complain about the PiS. The Tribunal is packed with judges that support the PiS as the Party attempts to use the judicial system, instead of the parliament, to encroach on human rights and create a state that is reflective of a strong nationalist, pro-Catholic identity. 

The European Union (EU) has yet to respond to the Tribunal’s ruling or the protests in Poland. Nonetheless, Poland’s democratic backsliding has not gone unnoticed as the rule of law is one of the EU’s core values.

For the first time in EU history, Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union was triggered in response to the 2017 judicial overhaul. This article, which is used when a member state violates the Union’s main tenants, allows the European Council to give a formal warning to a country,  issue sanctions and revoke a member state’s voting rights in the Council if the country fails to reform. In 2017, the European Commission released recommendations for Poland on how it could address its rule of law breaches by reversing many of its judicial policies. Not surprisingly, these recommendations went ignored. 

The EU has recently expressed concern at two other developments in Poland: the creation of “LGBTQ+ free” zones in cities and towns, and President Duda’s re-election. When the EU responded to the “LGBTQ+ free” zones by cutting off funding to 6 of the 100+ towns with zones, Poland supplemented the lack of EU funding with state support. The June 2020 election, which Duda won narrowly, came under scrutiny due to difficulties in voters receiving absentee ballots and pro-PiS news coverage by media groups supportive of the government. 

European institutions, especially the Commission, have desperately tried to develop mechanisms to hold Poland accountable. The Commission released its first report on the rule of law in October 2020 and the Council is tying COVID-19 aid to respect for the rule of law. The Polish government openly rejected the Commission’s rule of law report and argued the EU was infringing on its sovereignty. On November 16, Poland and Hungary vetoed the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), which is the EU’s 2021-2027 €1.8 trillion budget that includes the EU Economic Recovery Plan, over the inclusion of a rule of law mechanism. It took member states months to negotiate both the Economic Recovery Plan and MFF; the veto has already  garnered immense criticism from many member states desperately in need of aid. It will likely cause outrage among Polish and Hungarian citizens who are financially struggling due to the pandemic.

Although PiS tends to invoke Eurosceptic rhetoric, it has more to lose in fighting with the EU than to gain. According to The Guardian, no country has seen greater financial benefits from EU membership than Poland. Besides the benefits in trade, agricultural subsidies, and infrastructure funds that the country receives from the EU, Poland also expects to receive over €139 billion in grants from the EU’s upcoming budget. The government has already started public consultations on projects to spend its recovery funding on. Additionally, the majority of Polish citizens support the EU; a 2019 Pew Research poll found that 84% of Poles had a favorable opinion of the EU. It would be unwise for the Duda regime to continue challenging the EU when it has benefitted significantly from its membership.

Human rights in Poland are now at a crossroads. The abortion ban shows how far PiS has gone in influencing and reshaping the Polish judiciary to discard the rule of law. However, the government’s delay in imposing the ban due to the massive protests demonstrates that Duda and PiS are not above public opinion. Now is the time for the EU to both step up its public support of the protests and find new ways to hold Poland accountable. . In early November, the European Parliament agreed to a deal with Germany that would require a qualified majority vote in decisions on cutting member state’s funds. Usually, Council decisions must be approved by unanimity, posing an accountability challenge as Hungary consistently vetoes sanctions against Poland. Even though the bar remains high in achieving a qualified majority, more states are expressing concern that their citizens’ tax-dollars are going to other member states who do not respect the rule of law. As a result of this agreement, states were able to use qualified majority voting to include the rule of law mechanism in the budget.

Although the introduction of qualified majority voting wasn’t enough to block Hungary and Poland’s vetoes, it lays the foundation for further discussions of how to change the EU’s voting rules to hold countries accountable. If Poland and Hungary insist on continuing to block the MFF, the EU should start considering treaty changes or other agreements that would allow for more flexibility in voting in order to bypass vetoes.  

As president of the European Council, Germany should take the lead in using its diplomatic and negotiation finesse to pressure Hungary and Poland to allow the budget to go forward as any further delays in aid distribution will impose greater short term and long term economic challenges for EU member states. The abortion protests, Duda’s narrow re-election, rising COVID-19 cases, and World Bank projections that forecast a recession in Poland puts PiS in a precarious position. The current protest movement is providing a genuine challenge to the government and the EU must use this opportunity to continue to prevent further democratic backsliding.

Sudan: On the Path to Transition?

By Reem Katrib, a RightsViews staff writer and a graduate student in the Human Rights MA Program.

After a 30-year conflict over its autonomy, South Sudan gained its independence from Sudan through a referendum in 2011. The Enough Project explains that this secession “caused a severe economic shock in Sudan, as the country lost nearly 75 percent of its oil reserves and 95 percent of its foreign currency reserves.” Since then, the Sudanese government has repressed political opposition, often using violence against civil society and opposition groups who have expressed their dissent at the mismanagement of the economy. 

Prior to secession, Sudan had been plagued by conflict with continuing human rights violations that has meant a distrust of the judiciary in the present. In April 2019, a military council replaced Omar al-Bashir when he was forced out of office. The military leaders and opposition members negotiated to form a “sovereign council” the following August. This council acts  as a transitional government and calls for holding the previous government accountable for human rights violations.    

Institutional Reform and the Transitional Justice Draft Law  

While Omar al-Bashir was ousted from his position in 2019, protests have continued in the face of the economic crisis, doubling of food prices, and the sanctions imposed on Sudan by the United States. The beginning of October 2020, however, saw a peace agreement that would end fighting in the west and south of Sudan and end U.S. sanctions on Sudan. This peace deal was drafted by the transitional government and rebel groups. The drafting of this transitional justice law necessitates these advancements; that is, the lack of active conflict and an end of sanctions on Sudan.

With this drafting process, it is important to note the significant roles women have held throughout the protests, at the forefront of sit-ins and as symbols of the revolution. These protests started as a result of the increase in the prices of bread and fuel after subsidies were cut.  Many groups, namely women and victim activist groups, believe they ought to be more involved in this transitional period, both in government and in the drafting of a law on transitional justice.

In the third week of October, the Ministry of Justice claimed that the Justice Chamber is concerned about the compensation of victims in the transitional justice file. Significantly, the undersecretary of the Ministry of Justice, Siham Osman, “called for reform to the judicial institutions.” These reforms would include providing assistance to the Transitional Justice Commission and representatives of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Her concerns are shared by many people in Dabanga Sudan who are worried that despite previous purging of officials affiliated with al-Bashir’s regime in the judiciary, judges who are affiliated with the regime remain in the system. More so, there is a recognition that laws need to be revised and new ones created in order to prosecute crimes not currently in legislation marking another concern for institutional reform.

The crimes that will be looked at in the transitional justice draft law include war crimes, crimes against humanity, torture, and genocide. The trials to be head in the Sudanese case are meant to allow for reparations, and remedies; specifically, compensation to those affected both materially and morally by the perpetrators. Siham Osman says “that the ministry attaches special attention… to fulfill the rights and rehabilitate the victims and people affected.” She also argues that it is essential that perpetrators confess to the crimes committed. 

With the creation of the transitional justice draft law, numbers of women’s and victim’s rights activists have emphasized the importance of including victims and women in the transitional justice process. These groups signed a petition that calls for a victim-centered and gender-sensitive approach to transitional justice that ought to be restorative. Their demands emphasize the importance of understanding the needs of those most affected in transitional justice processes. 

Transitional Justice, Victim-centered, and Gender-sensitive Approaches 

The concerns raised by the victim’s and women’s rights activists are well-founded in the field of transitional justice. This is especially true when it comes to a court or commission’s formation of a metanarrative of victimhood; a narrative that serves as a telling of the conflict and the commonalities between targeted victims. While usually done to highlight the atrocities of certain crimes, this often disregards the complexities of being an individual affected by these crimes. 

In fact, metanarratives often do not account for intersectionality and dynamics of class, race, and gender, which expose the systems of oppression in place. The inclusion demanded by activists extends discourse on sexual violence and refuses to settle for brief meetings on gender-related issues. The victim-centered and gender-sensitive approach demands a reclamation of women’s and victim’s agency; they want to be at the table, discussing restorative means of justice. 

While the Sudanese Ministry of Justice has only recently discussed the drafting of a transitional justice law, much of the discussion thus far has been related to prosecution of perpetrators, and the compensation of those affected by the conflict. 

Institutional reform has also been brought to the forefront with regards to the judiciary system in particular, and the judges that uphold that system. This begs the question whether other transitional justice mechanisms will also be considered throughout this process, such as memory and memorialization. The aforementioned mechanism could be essential to opening discourse and transparency, especially on a governmental level, with the recognition of the atrocities of human rights violations. It also recognizes the power of those who pushed for democracy. 

Another concern in this push towards a transition is the demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration of armed groups. With the peace agreement in place, it has been agreed that the security sector in Sudan must be modernized and a cohesion between different groups established. With these concerns in mind, one may then ask, what does a grassroots transitional justice process look like, particularly one that adopts a gender-sensitive and victim-centered approach?  More precisely, moving forward, how would the Sudanese transitional justice process ensure the inclusion of some of these voices that need to be heard most, and that are essential to sustainable change and reform? 

Deconstructing White Supremacy (in a workshop and real life)

By Anna Miller, a staff writer at RightsViews and a graduate student in ISHR’s Human Rights MA Program.

Note: This blog post addresses white supremacy in the United States only, though the ideology is alive globally. 

On October 27, Dean Melanie Pagán and Dean Samantha Shapses, both of the School of International and Public Affairs, hosted a Deconstructing White Supremacy Workshop via Zoom. The workshop was open to the Columbia University community and fulfilled the Community Citizenship Requirement for Inclusion and Belonging for new Columbia students.

To kick off the workshop, the group screened Understanding White Supremacy (And How to Defeat It). This video explained how the roots of white supremacy are linked to colonization and racial biology. White colonizers assumed that people of color were inferior because they were “so easily conquered” and then presumed that “white skin people were perhaps more evolved than dark skin people.” While these ideas are objectively nonsensical, they did help form modern-day white supremacy and as such are important to understanding the roots of this ideology. The video also included a call to action and critical thought: “white supremacy is a part of American history and we need to own it and fully understand it before we can eradicate it.” 

Next, Dean Pagán and Dean Shapses further defined white supremacy by offering a list of traits that are present in white supremacy culture. See a summary list below and learn more about the definitions of these terms

Jones, Kenneth and Okun, Tema. “Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups.”

Dean Pagán and Dean Shapses challenged the attendees to consider how these traits show up in everyday life, opening up the floor to discussion from participants. A key aspect of the workshop was taking the theory shared about white supremacy and applying it to our own lives. As such, I am going to detail how this workshop, and ideas of white supremacy culture, challenged me. 

Two traits of white supremacy culture that I had a hard time reckoning with were the ones that were taught to me at a young age: perfectionism and sense of urgency. In my American Jewish family, success – particularly academic and career success – was held highest of all. To achieve success there was no room for inadequacy (perfectionism) and a high desire for quick results (sense of urgency). At first glance, these may seem like harmless characteristics. Yet, when the layers are peeled back it is clear that these traits stem from a fear of not measuring up to the white, American dream. 

Like many Jews living in the U.S. post-Holocaust, my grandparents subdued their Jewish identity in search of American assimilation. By 1950, the U.S. was home to more than five million Jews and those individuals successfully made their way into the economic, political, academic, and cultural spheres. It is important to remember, though, that upward mobility was often used as a way to escape the persecution of white people. Surely, they can’t hate us if we are well-educated, rich, and pass as white people in society. Yet with acts of antisemitism at an all-time high in 2019, it is evident that striving for whiteness is not an antidote to the ongoing struggle of Jewish Americans today. Nor does the worship of whiteness ensure a safe, prosperous future for Black Americans. The White supremacy ideology is still at large, suppressing minority voices in order to enforce its omnipresence. 

When it comes to white supremacy, law and policy is critical, but it will only take us so far. It is up to each one of us to examine our thoughts and actions for characteristics of white supremacy. If you have not already read Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” – start there. Next, it is critical to stay aware of our environment and combat white supremacy by calling it out in class, in your social groups, and at home. As white supremacy is rooted in American culture, do not be surprised when you find it coming from the mouth of a loved one or the President of the United States. Once you have the education and resources, vigilance is required to work toward a country free from the clench of white supremacy.

Feature photo credit: Creative Commons // Backbone Campaign.

The Scope of Justice: Comparing Two Distant Criminal Justice Systems

By Donggeun Lee, RightsViews Staff Writer and a second-semester junior majoring in Human Rights.

“Comparison is in many ways a useful mirror into which we look, and by looking we notice things about ourselves and our own country and our systems that sometimes might please us [and] that sometimes might give us pause and even cause us disappointment and dismay.” – Professor David T. Johnson

On October 12th, the Columbia Law School hosted an event entitled “Criminal Justice in Japan – A Comparative Perspective” addressing the question of what we can learn from differences between criminal justice in Japan and the United States. The event was moderated by the executive director of the Center for Japanese Legal Studies, Nobuhisa Ishizuka, and featured two speakers: David T. Johnson, a professor at the University of Hawaii, and Kiyo A. Matsumoto, a United States District Judge at the Eastern District of New York. 

Differences between Japan and the United States

According to Franklin E. Zimring, the author of the book, “The City That Became Safe,” America’s crime rate has been in decline  since the 1990s. The largest and longest sustained drop in street crime ever experienced by a big city in the developed world is in New York City. However, when one compares NYC to Tokyo, one can conclude that, in terms of crime,such as homicide, NYC is still not as safe compared to Tokyo as Professor Johnson said. Additionally, other East Asian cities are far safer than NYC.

When it comes to criminal justice, the incarceration rate, and killings by police in the US are by far higher than they are in Japan. Professor Johnson believes the availability of guns might partly explain the lower rates of homicide and killings by police in Japan, as guns make homicide easier and policing more dangerous. In addition, the professor argues, Japan uses criminal sanctions far less and more carefully  than the United States. 

The conviction rates

Interestingly, the conviction rate is higher in Japan. However, the direct comparison in the conviction rates between the US and Japan also has a flaw; plea bargain cases do not go to trials in the States, unlike in Japan where they do. In addition, Japan’s version of plea bargaining provides leniency in exchange for information for someone else’s crime, not in exchange for confession. The Japanese Constitution provides protection against self-incrimination. If one were to add the plea bargain into calculation in the conviction rate in the US, the conviction rate goes up to nearly 99%, which is then similar to that of Japan. Both countries rely on admissions of guilt to secure a conviction; however, the employed pressures are different.

The role of admission of guilt

In the US, the significant trial tax and the high chance of receiving a longer sentence if someone loses in a trial make it nearly impossible for many defendants to reject the offers made by prosecutors. In Japan, however, suspects of crimes have the right to remain silent, but they are not entitled to have a lawyer present during interrogation nor can they request that their testimony be registered in a dossier. In addition, interrogations tend to be long. These characteristics of the Japanese “Hostage Justice” system may lead defendants to admit guilt regardless of whether that is a lie or truth. They do so to get out of the interrogation, explained Professor Johnson. 

The number of cases that go to trials is significantly lower in Japan than in the US, added Executive Director Ishizuka. This might suggest that prosecutors are less interested in exercising their power. Professor Johnson believes the conviction rate, excluding plea bargain numbers in the States, is lower in Japan because prosecutors in Japan are more cautious, only bringing cases to trial when acquittals are not likely to happen. 

This cautiousness, which Professor Johnson referred to as “shinsho”(しんちょう []), in Japan leads to several questions. First, perhaps Japan is failing to prosecute ‘all’ cases, even necessary ones. Second, going further with the first question, deterrence might not be the primary goal in Japan as it is in the States. Third, the high conviction rate discourages the supply of defense lawyers. Fourth, judges in Japan might be longing to see a case where they can adjudicate, or they might assume that the trials are beyond a reasonable doubt only by knowing that trials have been brought, Professor Johnson said.

Differences in the Exercise of Prosecutorial Discretion

Despite these questions, Professor Johnson stated that the main reason for the high incarceration rate in the US is “prosecutor-driven prison admissions.” Additionally, the plea bargaining is not well-protected by international laws, said Professor Johnson.

Judge Matsumoto, a District Judge for the Eastern District of New York, explained the processes of the US justice system before a trial. Before a trial, a grand jury must agree to the indictment. There are regulations to protect a suspect’s rights in the US grand jury, such as only admitting legally obtained evidence. For example, any evidence gathered without a lawyer’s presence after a suspect requested a lawyer must be suppressed in the US. The grand jury does not exist in Japan, and unlawfully obtained evidence may be used.  There are exceptions in both countries. This “fruit of the poisonous tree” concept, which describes a doctrine that extends the exclusionary rule to suppress illegally obtained evidence, exists in Japan. In practice, however, it is frequently ignored. The concept tends to be  interpreted as a right to remain silent while enduring questions.

Professor Johnson added that by no means is the Japanese criminal system perfect. However, from a strictly comparative perspective, more things could be improved in the American justice system. Judge Matsumoto points out the higher incarceration rates of people of color and the privatization of prisons, which is a highly controversial topic. However, the judge also pointed out that hope is not lost in the US. For example, the federal government has released a sentencing guideline, which is now mandatory to reduce disparity of criminal sanctions among the states and reform the justice system. There has been some progress especially for the treatment of non-violence drug crimes, said Matsumoto. 

Takeaways and Reflection

From a comparative perspective, both countries’ problems in criminal justice become amplified, especially the incarceration rate in the States. However, too many factors play important roles in two justice systems on top of pre-existing cultural differences: plea bargains, regulations on interrogations, presence or absence of a grand jury, laws in practice, and statistical differences. 

This makes it hard to claim that the Japanese system is “better” on face value. Many regulations, which do not exist in Japan, might be the reason for the United States’ lower conviction rate, excluding the number of plea bargain cases. Existing racial biases and inequality in wealth are also factors in the American justice system. Plea bargaining prosecutors incarcerate people without trials, and vigorous adversarial defense lawyers may charge higher rates and may then be available only to wealthy people.

The story of Kalief Browder shows that the problem in the US is real, not theoretical. Browder spent 3 years in the Robert N. Davoren Center, without a trial, after being charged for robbery in the second degree and other crimes. Browder’s trial was delayed 31 times by a request of the prosecutor and neither him nor his family were too poor to pay ransom or afford a defense lawyer. The appointed lawyer was overwhelmed with other cases and failed to take effective measures for Browder. The latter never accepted any offer from the prosecutor because he wanted to seek justice and prove innocence. In the meantime, Browder had to suffer from physical and sexual violence in jail, in addition to spending 800 days in solitary confinement, out of 1110 days of imprisonment. Later it was found that the prosecutor did not have any good evidence for this case; it was clear that the prosecutor’s main goal was to keep Browder in jail by delaying his trial and breaking his will so he would have no choice but accept the off After the prosecutor dropped the case without any compensation or even an apology, Browder was released from prison but killed himself two years later. 

Almost every problem in the American justice system can be found in Browder’s blood-boiling story. Presumption of innocence was ignored in the name of plea bargain, an innocent adolescent had to suffer from incarceration, violence, and solitary confinement, and seeking justice was impossible due to lack of financial means. 

In the US, the suspects who lack sufficient legal knowledge and help can easily be turned into criminals. Thus, the prosecutors and police – the law enforcement agency – can abuse plea bargaining as a means to gloss over their misjudgment, bringing criminal charges against innocent suspects. The justice of the legal system can be threatened, as in Browder’s case,  by the fact that the suspect is from a low-income household and is black, a target of racial discrimination.

Getting back to a comparative perspective, one thing that ties the two countries together is that reformation is hard to achieve. However, the challenge of reform must be taken on for the sake of the human rights of those involved in either country’s criminal justice system. 

“It’s Not Living, It’s Surviving:” Venezuelan Refugees in Colombia and the COVID-19 Crisis

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

The political and economic crises which have plagued Venezuela since 2014 have resulted in the mass exodus of over 5 million Venezuelans, the largest migrant crisis in the history of the Western Hemisphere. Of the over 5 million people that have fled their home country of Venezuela, over 1.6 million have settled in neighboring Colombia, resulting in a refugee crisis made increasingly worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Milena Gomez Kopp, Visiting Research Scholar at School of International and Public Affairs, engaged with students during the October 28, 2020, Food for Thought speaker series and discussed her analysis of the growing refugee crisis.


Venezuela was once considered the wealthiest and most resource-rich country in Latin America. With the largest oil reserve in the world, the economy grew rapidly, and Western countries looked for ways to engage in trade with Venezuela. This changed with the rise of former President Hugo Chavez, who cut off the country to the rest of the world. The Chavez era was marked by the widespread emigration of what Professor Kopp explains as the “executive immigrants,” the highly educated and trained, land-owning, and upper class Venezuelans who fled their country, mainly to Colombia and the United States, for fear of economic insecurity and political repression.

Matters were made worse by the death of Hugo Chavez and the 2013 succession of the current contested President Nicolas Maduro. His presidency has been marred by controversy, bloodshed, political persecution of opposition leaders, suppression of the free press, state-sponsored human rights violations and crimes against humanity, and an overwhelming exodus of Venezuelans who can no longer find food, medicine, and other basic necessities in their home country.  

“No es vivir, es sobrevivir” /  “It’s not living, it’s surviving” 

As the situation deteriorated in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, poor and desperate Venezuelans poured into Colombia seeking asylum and refuge. According to Dr. Kopp, the number of migrants grew from 140,000 in 2015 to over 1.6 million in 2019 alone. The dramatic increase in the number of asylum seekers in Colombia has overwhelmed Colombia’s capacity to settle them.

Making matters worse, in 2015 President Maduro closed the Venezuelan/Colombia border, effectively separating families, preventing the flow of resources into Venezuela, and labeling any Venezuelans who fled to Colombia as traitors, many of whom could be jailed, tortured, or killed upon return to their home country.  

The Impact of COVID- 19 

Colombia, like many countries around the world, faces an urgent crisis with the COVID-19 pandemic. Migration from Venezuela only increased in 2020 as political repression and violence intensified under the Maduro regime. Despite receiving aid from international organizations like the UNHCR, fiscal restraints drastically limit the Colombian government’s capacity to administer necessary public services to the rapidly increasing migrant population. Beyond this, Dr. Kopp explained, this refugee crisis has only garnered a fraction of the attention of other refugee crises such as those happening in Syria and Myanmar. According to the Organization of American States (OAS), Syrian refugees have received an estimated $33 billion in donations, South Sudan, $9.4 billion, and Myanmar which received roughly $1.2 billion. Comparatively, international donations for Venezuelan refugees total $600 million. 

COVID-19 has put Venezuelan migrants in Colombia in even more dire straits as a majority have lost their jobs due to government lockdowns in order to prevent further spread of the virus. Because many of the migrants in Colombia are low-skilled and held jobs in the construction sector, the service industry, and in domestic work, the lockdown triggered a drastic wave of unemployment in the country. According to the National Administrative Department of Statistics in Colombia, since the pandemic economic activity in the country shrank to just 15.7% and unemployment reached 21%. Furthermore, poverty levels are expected to rise and in addition to the lack of access to health services and forced evictions, many Venezuelan refugees are facing urgent and life-threatening situations in the country where they sought safety and refuge. 

Due to the lack of community support and work opportunities in Colombia, over 100,000 Venezuelans were forced to return home to confront the poverty, hunger, violence and repression they had fled, only to now also deal with high COVID infection rates.  

What Does the Future Hold? 

It may be difficult to feel much optimism with the current economic, health, and political crises plaguing much of the Americas. COVID is far from over, meaning that continued migration from Venezuela to Colombia will continue to rise and will eventually stabilize. The refugee crisis, however, will continue long after the end of the pandemic. According to the OAS, the total number of Venezuelan emigrants could reach up to 7.5 million which will further pose a great challenge for the international community.

Despite increasing numbers of refugees and asylum seekers pouring into other countries in Latin America and into the US, little action is being taken, especially when compared to the plight of other international refugees. According to Dr. Kopp, geographical location and political contexts play a large role in the lack of attention and inaction: “Europeans fear the presence of millions of refugees at their doorstep and, for this reason, the European Union have actively supported the plight of Syrian refugees by outsourcing their problem to Turkey, for example, in exchange for billions of dollars.” This is not the case with Venezuela, argues Dr. Kopp, “The United States has pledged millions, not billions of dollars because desperate Venezuelans refugees are not a priority in the country’s foreign policy objectives.” Instead, the Trump administration is fixated on defeating President Maduro and the drug trade in the region. “Low-income migrants,” she explains, “are no threat as they are too poor to attempt to cross the Darien [gap] in order to arrive to the US/Mexican border.”

Until there is a change in regimes in Venezuela, and  native Venezuelans feel safe enough to return home, the only solution to this growing problem is to provide the necessary funds to support refugees and take some of the burden off of Colombia and other countries that have resettled Venezuelan migrants.  

Food for Thought is a speaker series that welcomes a distinguished lineup of EMPA Faculty approaching the Covid-19 crisis and social justice reform. Each week a speaker will present their recommendation paper, highlight their perspective on the crisis, and engage in a dialogue with EMPA students, alumni, and other faculty members.

Milena Gomez Kopp was previously Chargé d’ Affairs/ Minister Plenipotentiary at the Embassy of Colombia in Turkey. She has taught at SIPA, the Universidad Externado de Colombia, the Middle East Technical University (METU) in Ankara and the Universidad Tecnológica de Pereira. She holds a Ph.D. from Columbia University.