human rights

110 articles in category human rights / Subscribe

This weekend, I have spent a lot of time scrolling through my newsfeed, reading about and mourning the horror of the terror attacks in Paris that killed over 120.  My heart goes out to the victims and their families and loved ones, and the French people.  I am deeply saddened and stand in solidarity with France in this moment.

12241360_10153784615068760_827623273605806462_n

A poem by Warsan Shire, capturing some of these sentiments more beautifully than I ever could. (H/T to my friend Asiyah for this image)

And yet, in the depth of my heart, I admit that I have found myself thinking:  why has the world paid so much attention to attacks on lives lost in Paris, but so little to lives lost elsewhere in recent months and even days — like the bombing in Beirut just a few days ago in which ISIS killed over 40 people and left over 200 injured or the attack in Baghdad which killed at least 18 and wounded over 40?   Why has the mainstream media reported so heavily on the attacks in Paris, and less so on the recent tragedies in Beirut, Baghdad, and elsewhere in the world — Yemen, Syria, Palestine, Kenya — the list goes on.  Why are many of us, ordinary citizens, taking to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to show our solidarity with the French people – even changing our profile pictures to the colors of the French flag to show support – while often not even being informed of what is happening in other parts of the world, let alone posting about such tragedies? Why did Facebook activate a “safety check” feature for the Paris attacks, but neglect to do so for any of the other attacks that have recently transpired?

To put it bluntly: are we – as a global society – acting on an assumption that certain lives matter more than others? Does the disparity in attention show how little the lives of people of color in the “global south” are valued in comparison to Western lives?  If so, this is deeply problematic. As Paul Farmer has said, “The idea that some lives matter more than others is the root of all that is wrong with this world.”

The truth is that certain tragedies have been getting more airtime than others, and we do need to critically interrogate why.  The world is bleeding in so many places, and particularly for those of us who work on human rights issues across the globe or those who are directly affected, it can be disheartening to see the lack of attention to the hundreds of victims we know are suffering, literally dying for this very lack of attention.  Activists and journalists spend their lives trying to raise this kind of awareness – they meticulously document human rights violations, report on abuses, and try to get policymakers and the public to care.  But even a portion of this show of solidarity rarely comes through for some of the most marginalized groups. It can feel like a losing battle at times.

Many others have begun sharing similar sentiments of anger and frustration via social media as well.  Certainly, we should all be critical and ask these questions — and indeed, question our own reactions to crises like these as well.

But while doing so, we must keep in mind that we cannot “rank” injustice.  We should not be turning this into a game of “oppression olympics.”  While criticizing the way the world pays attention to tragedies in different regions, we should not devalue the lives lost in Paris, Beirut, Baghdad, or elsewhere.  Each life is important, and this tragedy in Paris was horrific and unprecedented.  Many people are genuinely grieving, and they grieve in different ways. It will take some time for those affected and the broader community to understand, process what has happened, and fully grieve.

In this time of grief, is anger really right response?  Is it right to deny someone else’s right to mourn? There is much to be frustrated about, no doubt, but perhaps the core message must be that we do not need less empathy, but more – much more empathy.  We can all show more empathy for tragedies and victims and survivors in our own backyard but also across the world. We can all take moments in future tragedies to seek out information, read what is happening on the ground, understand, share with our networks and take action. We can all do more to highlight on our newsfeeds what is happening not just in our own countries, but also in the most marginalized of communities. We can seek out alternate media and figure out new, different ways to inform ourselves about what the mainstream sources are not always reporting. More empathy paired with action could be crucial in changing the status quo.  And so, let’s call for this change with empathy for all those lives lost, without devaluing a single person’s grief, and with a change in our own behavior and the way we consume and process media.

Share

In the worldwide movement to end domestic and gender-based violence, most efforts to combat violence against women and girls fall into two spheres: so-called prevention and response — similar to interventions in other realms, such as the healthcare field.

‘Prevention’ efforts approach gender violence with the idea that breaking down systems of patriarchy and oppression is the ultimate goal, and the root cause of gender violence. If we can disrupt the patriarchal order, we can begin to more effectively reduce and end gender violence. Many prevention efforts seek to change social and cultural norms as an attempt to reduce gender inequity. By changing patriarchal mindsets and attitudes – by shifting culture, which is never static – it may be possible to actually shift society in a more equitable direction. Many campaigns in the prevention realm thus focus on efforts such as: educating communities about domestic and gender-based violence; educating children on sexuality and healthy relationships; empowering women to be stakeholders and political leaders with power; changing unjust laws and policies and implementing better ones; and changing the portrayal of women in ads, mass media, music, and entertainment. Movement building and coalition building can also aid in challenging and changing unjust laws and structures that allow violence to perpetuate.

On the other hand, response is the area I have been largely focused on. As a (hopefully!) soon-to-be attorney, my mind is automatically drawn to solutions targeting the treatment of survivors after they have been abused. After being subject to abuse, are survivors they receiving the legal and social support and services they need? The response considers a holistic response to gender violence: legal aid and access to justice, safe housing, economic support and employment opportunity, childcare, protection by the police and an order of protection, social support and networks, and land/property rights. And on the criminal side, is the perpetrator apprehended, and ideally – rehabilitated?

In many ways, the ‘response’ is a limited solution, though. Response means the system has already failed the survivor at some level — she has been subject to abuse already. It also does not necessarily prevent the violence from being perpetrated again by the same abuser on the same victim/survivor, or a different one. However, research does indicate that access to a lawyer can increase the likelihood of obtaining an order of protection – and that about 86% of women who received a protection order or restraining order state that the abuse greatly reduced or stopped. At the least, then, the ‘response’ has a positive impact by reducing violence for the survivors who receive help; and at the most, taking action may have a deterrence effect on abusers who are prosecuted, experience the consequences of their actions, or obtain therapy/counseling to understand their behavior. In this way, ‘response’ can also be prevention in itself if it is implemented effectively.

The Response: Accessing Justice

Within the spectrum of responsive service delivery for survivors, access to justice is just one of the prongs. But interestingly, in one study comparing numerous social and legal service programs, only legal services was found to significantly reduce a woman’s likelihood of abuse – as noted above, in large part by facilitating the receipt of orders of protection – but also by providing the survivor with assistance on economic matters, thus increasing her financial stability and independence. Access to justice, then, has a measurable impact. It may not end domestic violence, but plays a vital role in ending domestic violence for survivors and may pay dividends to the extent that it can also increase defendant accountability.

The “justice” component really has two prongs:  civil and criminal.  Access to civil legal services can aid the survivor in moving forward and healing, and prevent further violence against her.  The criminal justice response, however, focuses largely on preventing the perpetrator from committing abuse again — and may have a broader deterrent effect, at the optimistic end.

Will access to justice end domestic violence in the world? Probably not; these efforts will need to be supplemented by the prevention components detailed above. But, can we end domestic violence without access to justice? It seems less likely.

Zooming out to the situation worldwide, there seem to be a few key barriers to effective access to justice, both civil and criminal.

1.  Lack of access to lawyers for the poor:

First, the poor – and survivors of gender-based violence – all too often lack access to a lawyer in civil cases. In the U.S., there is no ‘civil Gideon’ — no right for the poor to access a lawyer in civil cases.    This is the case in much of the world.  This makes access to a lawyer incredibly difficult for the poor, who face numerous — countless — barriers. These include the cost of hiring a lawyer, physical distance to a lawyer’s office or a court, the language barrier – particularly for those who are illiterate, as well as a ‘cultural barrier.’  I have seen firsthand how a survivor of domestic abuse in rural Bangladesh, for example, cannot easily go to an attorney. She faces numerous cultural barriers in that going to court may be seen as inappropriate and as taking a private, family matter ‘outside’ the allowed zone. This, then, becomes insolent behavior to be further punished. There is an informal, mandated culture of silent suffering for survivors of gender violence. In addition to this, lawyers are often seen as highly educated and in a different social class, and thus less relatable for low-income individuals. And finally, many communities utilize customary justice or alternative forms of dispute resolution, and may be unfamiliar with the formal legal institutions in place.

Solutions need to tackle increasing the number of trained lawyers and lawyers providing free services to the poor, and must make it more desirable for lawyers to provide justice for the poor. Currently, this is not a prestigious option in many countries. Incentives must be provided to attract more lawyers to this space – and salaries and job opportunities are key!   The most sustainable solution might be government-funded or subsidized legal aid. Other options are promoting paralegal corps to provide justice services at a lower cost, and in a form far more accessible to communities.

2.  Lack of appropriate laws in place:

But even where the poor have access to a lawyer, the right laws may simply not be in place. In the U.S. it is possible to generally obtain an order of protection, or to obtain sole custody of the children as a woman, or to obtain a divorce and equitable distribution of marital property including title to the marital home. Survivors of sexual assault can, generally, benefit from rape shield laws preventing prosecutors from inquiring into the survivor’s past sexual behavior. And those in a same-sex relationship can generally avail themselves of laws relating to GBV.  There are sexual harassment laws in place protecting one in the workplace.  In certain countries and regions, these laws may not exist. It is not always possible to obtain title to the marital home and avoid homelessness, or to shield inquiry into past sexual history. Marital rape remains legal in much of the world.  In such a situation, the just laws must be in place for access to justice to become a reality for survivors.  Without the laws, ‘justice’ is meaningless and in fact, impossible.

3. Systemic barriers in the justice system:

Formal justice systems are often not accessible for the poor due to systemic barriers — even if a survivor obtains a lawyer.  A single case can take years, even decades in an inefficient justice system with backlogs of thousands of cases.   Case backlogs may sound innocuous and technical, but they can be incredibly dangerous in allowing injustice to perpetuate.   Reports have documented that individuals are kept in pretrial detention for 10 or 15+ years, often because of inefficiencies and backlogs in the justice sector.  In addition, judges may not be well trained on the law, or may harbor patriarchal biases themselves. Finally, corruption in the system often prevents the poor from moving forward with their case, and contributes to backlogs.

4. Systemic barriers in police accountability:

Finally, prosecution or enforcing a restraining order can be effective only with the assistance of the police. In many places, police accountability and effectiveness is limited. The reasons are numerous: the police as an institution are often underfunded and lack the resources to track down offenders and implement the law, particularly in poor countries; the police may have poor training on dealing with gender violence cases; the police themselves may harbor patriarchal biases against intervening in gender violence cases; and the police may also be corrupt – sometimes a consequence of poor salary and support from the institution.  Without the help of the police, it can be near impossible to enforce the law and keep survivors safe. What is the solution? This one is a bit harder; it might require a combination of funding and training — and governments simply need to make it a priority to well-equip police to fight crime. More female police officers may also be a small part of the solution.

Ultimately, if these 4 barriers are addressed, access to justice can become much more a reality, even for poor survivors of gender-based violence.  While improving access to justice will not end violence, if it is implemented effectively, it can reduce it for survivors and may have a deterrence effect that is felt throughout society.

Share

Hello friends! Yet another (shameless?) plug: I recently organized an Online Symposium for the Harvard Human Rights Journal on access to justice, particularly via customary and informal systems, and we received a range of fascinating submissions from scholars and practitioners around the world. Read more below and check out these illuminating articles:

From the Informal to the Formal: Examining Access to Justice and Customary Justice Mechanisms 

The HHRJ Online Symposium this year centers on issues of access to justice to the poor around the world, with a particular focus on examining the challenges that exist within informal, customary and traditional mechanisms of dispute resolution.

In many countries, the formal state-governed justice system exists alongside various informal methods of justice delivery and dispute resolution, often termed “informal,” “non-state,” “traditional,” or “customary” mechanisms. Due to the barriers faced by litigants attempting to access the formal justice system, many have began to shift a focus to informal methods of dispute resolution in a range of cases – such as family law, land and property disputes, and issues of economic and social rights. There has been an increased emphasis on mediations and on engaging with informal justice mechanisms that already exist at the grassroots level, such as the  shalish in Bangladesh, the bashingantahe in Burundi, or the shura Jirga in Afghanistan. Although informal systems of dispute resolution are often more accessible and familiar to communities, they come with their own challenges and considerations, particularly in relation to gender and human rights norms.

Alongside such concerns, however, there have been innovations and experiments that are promising in their initial stages, improving access to justice in ways that comport with human rights norms, both via formal state-run systems as well as NGO-led and non-state mechanisms.  We have published five pieces by leading scholars, academics and practitioners in this field that build upon this theme and explore in greater depth the complexities inherent in working to promote grassroots access to justice to communities, and especially the added questions raised by customary justice systems:

Share

Here’s quite a fascinating TED talk by Kimberley Motley,who I know has been somewhat of a controversial figure in Afghanistan in the past. She has some interesting thoughts on what it’s like to be a lawyer, representing clients and promoting rule of law in fragile states such as Afghanistan. She represents an interesting array of cases, including gender-based violence and human rights cases in Afghanistan.

Her main thrust in this talk, which I have always agreed with  – is that in many countries, there are already many laws on the books that could protect and promote human rights. Even within Shari’a law, there are ways to interpret key statutes and the Quran in ways that are gender-equitable. There are many laws relating to family and criminal law on the books in Afghanistan and elsewhere that are indeed, good for rights. The problem is that these laws are not being used. When they are implemented effectively by lawyers who are good at advocating for their clients, you can truly foster a culture of ‘rule of law.’

Share

article25

This Saturday, Article 25 – a new global movement of people who believe health is a human right – will be launching the first-ever Global Day of Action for the Right to Health. This is incredibly exciting, as health activists and everyday people in 58 countries will be coming together to launch a rising global, grassroots movement to combat global health inequity.

The Day of Action is being coordinated by Article 25, a nonprofit advocacy group working with more than 50 partners to build a global movement for the right to health. On Saturday, public health and social justice activists will hold teach-ins, rallies, workshops, and candlelight vigils to raise awareness of health disparities across the globe and demand political action to address them.

The day of action is particularly important to highlight how stark global health inequity is, and to begin building and mobilizing communities around the world to demand political action to change the status quo.  Only political action will pressure states, governments, and intergovernmental actors to make the right to health a reality. I think this quote by one of Article 25’s activists sums it up perfectly:

 Collective action is change in itself. A social movement for the right to health can change everything by incorporating grassroots organizations that really work closely with their communities and have passion for change and transformation. We have to show that this is a health crisis to our leaders and make them know that health is is not a privilege — health is a right. And citizens or communities can demand it any time they it has been deprived from them. — Chacha Baru Peter, Kenya, U-Terna

Check out Article 25’s website to find an action near you, and participate! Join in on October 25th to show your support and solidarity for a movement for the right to health.

If you’re in Boston this weekend, I’ll be attending the Rally for the Right to Health, held on Sunday October 26th. Come and join the movement!
Share

A great post on OpenDemocracy recently by Chris Jochnick discussed human rights tools of litigation, and how the law can be harnessed to address some of the root causes of poverty. I especially liked the following questions he asks at the end, which I think are absolutely spot on:

  1. Can resources be mobilized at scale to support human rights work that directly confronts poverty, inequities and vested interests? The longstanding bias of human rights funders against ESR continues to limit this work.

  2. Can lawyers and litigation be incorporated into grassroots struggles without co-opting them? The legal training, the proximity to power, the allure of lawsuits, the mythologies of legal expertise all conspire against good faith efforts of lawyers to serve rather than lead campaigns.

  3. Can transnational human rights advocates find a way to work closely and collaboratively enough with those living in poverty, while retaining a strategic focus on broader structural issues? The rise of stronger human rights groups in the global south, connected to social movements and networked to international platforms (with a helpful infusion from the Ford Foundation) represents a promising, if fragile, step in this direction.

These questions often pique my interest when working in the human rights field. I often question: how can we mobilize individual struggles and direct legal services into broader change, and at the same time how can human rights advocates engaging in high-level litigation or “impact” cases while still maintaining a close connection to communities?  Especially, as he writes above, the “legal training, the proximity to power…” often make it appealing for lawyers to take leading roles in campaigns rather than a backseat. At the same time, often working to provide legal services or working with clients on an individual, one-on-one basis can be particularly difficult, not to mention can be challenging to make any systemic reform.

A great post summing up some of the debates in human rights/transnational lawyering and advocacy work, and absolutely worth checking out.

Share

Fantastic post on women’s rights and human rights by Keshet Bachan. This portion sticks out to me as especially key:

There is no doubt legislation is an important first step in promoting human rights. However, most countries don’t have strong democratic traditions that uphold the rule of law, meaning legislation remains formal and fails to become substantive. And when legislation encounters social norms and traditions that contradict it, most of the time it will come out on the losing end. Without strong law enforcement forces and functioning judicial systems, with high levels of illiteracy and in many cases parallel legal systems (Customary Law), ensuring human rights laws are actually protecting people in a given country is an ongoing struggle. And no less importantly, when working in international development, the Rights Based Approach, which provides the framework in which all programming is conducted, often fails to engage communities because of this basic mismatch between formal and substantive legislation. That is, the formal recognition of human rights has yet to be translated into norms, traditions and practices, and therefore doesn’t provide a productive basis for change.

This to me, is truly a key challenge, and one that is not being addressed by the major human rights organizations and NGOs. Pushing forward legislation means little when it is not enforced and when it has not been translated into social norms at the lowest level. How can we begin to make this shift?  This is the question I keep asking, and keep pondering.

Share

The crisis in #Gaza is truly heartbreaking; stories of children in Gaza who have been killed in the conflict, and the pictures of dead civilians are truly heart rendering. Regardless of your views on this conflict, the fact that innocent civilians are dying should give you reason to pause. Although this is a few days late, I wanted to point out some of the arguments being used to justify civilian deaths in Gaza — and why Israel’s actions still cannot be justified under international humanitarian law.

First of all, the news media and Israel’s government has essentially been blaming Gazan civilians for their own deaths due to the actions of Hamas.  By accusing Hamas of using civilians as ‘human shields’ (by storing weapons among civilian locations and targets such as in schools and communities) Israel is legitimizing the deaths of innocent Palestinian civilians and blaming them for their own demise — thus absolving Israel itself of any responsibility for so many deaths. The media has conveniently picked up this narrative, too.

As Noura Erakat more aptly writes, this type of narrative deprives Palestinians of the right to even be victims. 

Israel’s propaganda machine, however, insists that these Palestinians wanted to die (“culture of martyrdom”), staged their own death (“telegenically dead”) or were the tragic victims of Hamas’s use of civilian infrastructure for military purposes (“human shielding”). In all instances, the military power is blaming the victims for their own deaths, accusing them of devaluing life and attributing this disregard to cultural bankruptcy. In effect, Israel—along with uncritical mainstream media that unquestionably accept this discourse—dehumanizes Palestinians, deprives them even of their victimhood and legitimizes egregious human rights and legal violations.

But even if Hamas is hiding its weapons in civilian targets – like homes, schools and mosques – this does not actually absolve Israel of its responsibilities under humanitarian law.

Under the laws of war, there are a few key protections for civilians. Primarily is the principle of distinctionwhere civilians are supposed to be protected from military operations.  Parties in an armed conflict must distinguish at all times between combatants and military objectives & civilians and civilian objects.  Armed actors are only allowed to target military objectives/objects. This means that civilian objects – like homes, or schools – are simply not acceptable targets by a party to the conflict.  The presence in the civilian population of combatants does not deprive the population of its civilian character, and indiscriminate attacks which do not adequately distinguish between civilian & military targets are not allowed.

True, what Hamas is doing is not good and does not protect the lives of civilians.  Hamas has also been violating humanitarian law by indiscriminately firing rockets into Israel without specifically targeting military objects, and the use of human shields is also prohibited (some would dispute that Hamas is doing this, even).  But regardless of Hamas’s actions, Israel still has a responsibility to respect the principles of distinction and to protect civilian lives.

Ultimately, as Brad Parker sums up in this excellent article,

A civilian home, school, or hospital that is in some way deemed by Israeli forces to be “affiliated” with Hamas or another Palestinian armed group does not in itself provide legal justification under international humanitarian law to direct an attack at that object. The standard demands much more, and requires an exacting calculation. Precision is necessary because imprecision leads to war crimes.

Palestinian civilians must not be blamed for their own deaths. Even if Hamas or another Palestinian armed group may have violated the laws of war and used civilians as human shields, this does not relieve Israel from its obligations under international law nor does it justify an attack on civilians or civilian structures.

Now, if only humanitarian law had some weight in the world — and had the power to really constrain these countries’ actions; if only, a great deal of bloodshed would have been prevented in this conflict.

Share