Rights Wire

The Human Rights Blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice


3 Comments

Discrepancies in hate crime statistics point to larger issues

By Shruti Banerjee

From the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963 to the Oak Creek Temple Shooting in 2012 to the recent shooting of three Muslim students in North Carolina, crimes motivated by prejudice occur all too often in the United States. Despite this, hate crimes are poorly documented by the government. An analysis of the US’s current methods of data collection on hate crimes shows drastic discrepancies in the data and severe underreporting of hate crimes, leading to an inability to properly address the underlying causes and frequency of these crimes.

Unable to adequately prevent, combat and prosecute hate crimes, minority groups in the US are left vulnerable to attacks and mistrustful of police. Not only does this allow for hate crimes to continue unabated, it also renders the US out of compliance with Article 26 of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), as documented by a 2013 shadow report for the United States’ fourth Universal Periodic Review by the International Center for Advocates Against Discrimination (ICAAD). Article 26 of the ICCPR requires the protection of marginalized communities and prevention of hate crimes.

TWO DATABASES

The US currently employs two different databases with varying data collection methods to assess the prevalence of hate crimes in the US—the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Uniform Crime Reporting Program (UCR) and the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ (BJS) National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). In 1990, Congress passed the Hate Crime Statistics Act to collect data “about crimes that manifest evidence of prejudice based on race, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.” The Act was amended in 1994 by The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act to include crimes against people with disabilities and in 2009 by The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act to include statistics on hate crimes based on gender and gender identity prejudices. In 1996, hate crime data collection become a permanent part of the FBI UCR Program, which served as the primary source of data on hate crimes until the introduction of the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ (BJS) National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) in 2003.

The FBI UCR Program collects data on hate crimes known to the police and other law enforcement agencies. They rely entirely on the voluntary cooperation of state and local officials to accurately report hate crimes as outlined by the FBI Hate Crime Data Collection Guidelines and Training Manual, which trains law enforcement officials in discerning whether a crime was motivated wholly or in part by prejudice.

In contrast to the FBI’s UCR Program, the NCVS is a self-report survey annually conducted by U.S. Census Bureau for BJS. The NCVS collects data on hate crimes both reported and unreported to law enforcement and allows the victim to define whether a hate crime occurred. For a crime to be classified as a hate crime in the NCVS, the victim must show that the incident was motivated by bias in at least one of three ways: police confirmation, use of discriminatory language by the offender or presence of hate symbols.

INCOMPLETE AND CONFLICTING DATA

The discrepancy in hate crime statistics between the two databases are both jarring and disturbing. In 2012, the FBI’s Annual Hate Crime Statistic’s Report reported 5,796 hate crimes, while the NCVS estimated 293,800 violent and property hate crimes in the same year. This disparity can be attributed in part to the FBI’s method of data collection. Since state and local agencies are not legally obligated to provide data to the FBI, hate crimes are often underreported. For example, according to the FBI’s data, there were zero hate crimes in Mississippi and Alabama in 2005. In contrast, California reported 1,379 incidents and New York reported 249 hate crimes in the same year. Drastic differences among state statistics such as these show how political motivations may hinder reporting. “The FBI hate crime count is based on a voluntary reporting system that many local police jurisdictions refuse to support,” Professor Jack Levin said in an interview with HateWatch. He continued, “It is hard to imagine such a huge divergence in rates [among states] arising out of anything but different reporting standards — and, perhaps, different levels of enthusiasm for reporting hate crimes at all.”

Moreover, states vary greatly in how they define hate crimes and in their standards for training law enforcement officials about detecting these crimes. Some don’t have an official data collection system for hate crimes and the majority of states do not require their police to be trained in identifying hate crimes, contributing furthermore to the lack of reporting. Even when hate crimes are properly classified by police, they often go unreported, possibly due to public relations concerns or a police officer’s personal bias. There may also be an unwillingness to publicize the attacks because it could garner more attention for minority group interests like LGBT rights and immigration reform.

Another part of the problem is the extremely low rate of victims reporting hate crimes to the police and other law enforcement agencies. According to the BJS an estimated 60 percent of hate crimes were not reported to law enforcement in 2012. This low rate of reporting to law enforcement can be attributed to many possible factors, including: distrust of the police, the fact that showing prejudice motivation is often difficult to prove, fear of racist or homophobic sentiment from the police, fear of deportation, fear of retaliation from ones attacker, fear of being exposed as a part of the LGBT community, lack of English proficiency, limited knowledge of the rights and services available to victims, and cultural norms against reporting/complaining, according to Levin and the ICAAD.

HUMAN CONSEQUENCES

Without complete and accurate data on the prevalence of hate crimes, government officials and law enforcement agencies cannot make sound decisions about properly allocating resources to prosecute and prevent them, allowing for crimes to spiral out of control. For example, the Hispanic community in the US has seen an uptick in hate crimes. The BJS data from 2004 to 2012 showed that in 2012, 51 percent of hate crimes were motivated by ethnicity (the victim’s ancestral, cultural, national or social affiliation). Notably, the rate of violent hate crimes against Latinos rose more than threefold from 2011 (0.6 per 1,000 persons age 12 or older) to 2012 (2.0 per 1,000). This may have contributed to the 12 percent overall increase of hate crimes involving violence from 2004 (78 percent) to 2011 and 2012 (90 percent). In December 2008, LatinoJustice filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) asserting that, “The United States is failing to meet its obligation to ensure the security of Latinos who are residing in the United States. Latinos are being targeted, attacked, brutalized and murdered because of their race and ethnicity, and increasingly because of their perceived immigration status in incidents with rising frequency and severity throughout the United States. The United States is doing nothing to prevent these attacks or to protect Latinos from these incidents of hate.”

Alarmingly, Hispanics are not the only ones who are increasingly targeted. The NCVS data shows that the percentage of hate crimes motivated by religious bias almost tripled from 10 percent in 2004 to 28 percent in 2012, and that those influenced by gender bias increased twofold from 12 percent to 26 percent during the same period. These numbers indicate a recent rise in anti-Arab/Muslim-sentiment and an increase in crimes against the LGBT community. This could be attributed to negative media representations of minority groups, political discourse surrounding their interests and rights, as well as general lack of knowledge of these communities’ values.

STOPPING CRIMES STARTS WITH ACCURATE DATA

Without hard numbers to prove the frequency and patterns in these hate motivated crimes, we allow our elected officials to write off the underlying issues behind hate crimes by viewing them as isolated incidents or calling them “senseless acts of violence”. Although the FBI UCR has tried to fill gaps in its data collection by expanding the bias types in the religious category to include all the religions identified by the U.S. Census Bureau and Pew Research Center, and by revising its hate crime data collection procedures to include an anti-Arab bias motivation beginning January 2015, these changes are merely a step in the right direction. The FBI’s reports will not reflect the true number of hate crimes in the US until all state offices accurately identify and report hate crimes, and victims of hate crimes feel comfortable reporting these incidents to law enforcement.

We cannot continue to ignore the factors that are contributing to these hate crimes and need to be critical of our elected officials when they do not take active steps to protect our communities under frequent attack. A crime motivated by hate is not senseless—it is calculated, intentional and rooted in bias. Ultimately, without proper data collection we are unable to gauge the full scope of hate driven crimes and our ignorance allows these crimes to continue unabated.

Shruti Banerjee is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Tony Webster/Creative Commons


2 Comments

The violence of gentrification

By Urooj Rahman

Recent news coverage and events around the country have riled up discussions about the militarization of police and the over-policing of certain communities, predominantly neighborhoods of working and middle class people of color. These over-policed neighborhoods are also the same neighborhoods whose long-time (decades-long, in many cases) residents are slowly being pushed out for newer residents who can afford to pay higher rents, live in luxury condos and afford pricier shops, boutiques and restaurants. Places like El Barrio (aka Spanish Harlem), Harlem, Washington Heights, Bushwick, Williamsburg, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights and Long Island City have all seen this change happening within the last few decades. As the New York Police Department (NYPD) continues to target working and middle class black and brown communities, continually arresting people for petty offenses and misdemeanors (widely known as “quality of life” offenses or “Broken Windows policing”), they pave the way for proponents of gentrification to come in and rezone neighborhoods until the longstanding residents are gone and the culture of the community is gutted. Militarized over-policing goes hand-in-hand with the gentrification of neighborhoods in New York City and throughout the country. Even NYPD Police Commissioner Bill Bratton expressed sentiments that, “a safe city means business thrives… If you make it safe, they will come, they will build, [and] we need to make those remaining areas of poverty and depression safe, so you will come and build.”

Gradual displacement of people, small businesses, art, and culture is often the result of discriminatory rezoning codes and real estate practices which allow wealthy real estate developers to build luxury condominiums and public spaces for the benefit of new residents, with very little consideration, if any, for providing affordable housing to the long-time residents of the area. This is often followed by an increase in the quality of services in the neighborhood—timely garbage pick-ups, development of public spaces, more access to healthy food and actual police assistance rather than police harassment—that were not there when the neighborhoods predominantly consisted of low to middle income people of color.

As the process of gentrification runs its course with the help of institutionalized racism, whole communities are erased and replaced. This process, concealed in symbolic violence, is also aided by physical violence. In order to maintain gentrification, the NYPD patrols and targets these already over-policed communities, and arrests individuals committing petty offenses, such as the selling untaxed cigarettes, evasion of subway fares, panhandling, sex work or simply standing (dubbed “loitering”) in the hallway of their New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) housing project. Such practices have often resulted in the asymmetric targeting, incarceration and killing of black and brown people, such as the killing of Eric Garner who was choked to death in Staten Island by a police officer performing an illegal chokehold on him for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. The intersection of policing and gentrification is not to be dismissed, as NYPD Police Commissioner Bill Bratton even expressed that he feels that creating “safer communities” lead[s] to tourism and job creation, and that policing was the “necessary ingredient for an inviting business climate.”

As rents continue to rise and working and middle class neighborhoods throughout New York City continue to be swallowed by gentrification, discriminatory and aggressive policing is also increasing in these fast-changing areas, despite the fact that crime continues to decline. Yet, the targeting of people who are committing petty offenses only occurs in certain areas. You will not see police officers patrolling around Columbia University on 110th and Broadway looking for local Morningside Heights residents who are “loitering” or selling and buying drugs. You will see the police only a few blocks away in Harlem patrolling NYCHA housing projects and the surrounding areas for anyone committing “trespass” offenses or loitering in the hallways, even when those individuals are actual residents of the housing projects. Often these patrols can go wrong as we saw with the tragic killing of Akai Gurley, a young black man from East New York, Brooklyn, who was gunned down by a rookie police officer in a staircase of the Louis Pink housing projects. The NYPD targets these areas because they view these predominantly Black and Latino communities as threats to safety and to a welcoming business climate for gentrification.

It has been well documented that people of color throughout New York City have experienced an increase in profiling and criminalization, often through unwarranted stops (previously, stop-and-frisks before the practice was halted) for aforementioned “quality of life offenses.” The first half of 2014 alone resulted in 27,527 stops, of which 82 percent “were totally innocent,” according to the New York Civil Liberties Union. Eighty-one percent of stops were of black and Latino New Yorkers, whereas only 12 percent of stop were of white New Yorkers. Making “quality of life arrests,” patrolling NYCHA buildings for loiterers, harassing street dancers and artists and the continued policing of minor offenses by police has resulted in the disproportionate targeting and continued killing of unarmed black and brown people.

The need for a policing overhaul must go hand in hand with the need to acknowledge gentrification’s violent effects on communities of color throughout the city. Recently, Mayor de Blasio announced a plan to build even more luxury condos, which in his mind, would somehow allow for the alleviation of gentrification by encouraging developers to build 20 percent of their units for affordable housing through a tax break. Investment in business and neighborhoods is not the only way to alleviate crime. The need to invest in and provide better services to underserved communities can also lend itself to making neighborhoods and communities safer. Conversely, petty offenses occur because of the lack of opportunity and investment in a community. If we continue to ignore the people who are the bedrock of this city—the long-time residents, the artists, the working class, people of color—then New York will continue down the dark path of becoming a shining example of inequality for the rest of the country to emulate.

Urooj Rahman is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Alan Greig/Creative Commons


Leave a comment

The rise of Syriza: human rights in the wake of devastating austerity

By Chris Beall

Late on Jan. 25, standing before the University of Athens Propylaea, Alexis Tsipras greeted a crowd of chanting and flag-waving supporters. His party, Syriza—Greece’s “Coalition of the Radical Left”—had just won 149/300 seats in the Hellenic Parliament: a political victory fueled by the party’s platform of hope and relief from harsh austerity measures.

While the election results marked a momentous occasion for Greece and arguably for human rights generally, Tsipras recognized that the night also resembled an important juncture regarding the future of Europe. In thanking supporters across the continent for their solidarity and confidence, Tsipras declared, “All of Europe, all of the world is listening to us. We give the assurance that we will continue this struggle with the same pathos, the same confidence.”

POLITICAL HOPE AND SKEPTICISM

The confidence cited by Tsipras is far from universally shared. As soon as the election was over, many European politicians began firing off tweets deriding its results, and digging in their heels for upcoming negotiations. This, against the backdrop of the Athens Stock Exchange’s spectacular 30 percent sell off since early December, when it became clear that the incumbent New Democracy party’s failure to form a government would result in snap elections and pave the way for Syriza’s parliamentary ascent. Not exactly a vote of confidence from Europe’s power brokers, nor from the capital markets.

However, this all deserves some unpacking. On one hand, let’s talk perspective: while radical in name, Syriza isn’t exactly talking about abolishing private property or seizing the means of production. Indeed, the party’s continual assurances that they seek to work alongside their creditors to renegotiate the terms of their debt hardly amounts to storming the proverbial Winter Palace.

But on the other hand, we might also ask ourselves what is to be gained in any attempt to explain away Greece’s election results in terms of high profile twitter feeds and/or falling financial indices. Really, such reactions are obvious. These sorts of indicators reflect little more than the familiar moods and sentiments of just one narrow segment of the European social fabric: the slim beneficiaries under the Troika’s—Greece’s creditor super committee made up of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund—status quo policies.

This is not to say that these reactions should be overlooked. These people will in effect pull the strings of any further European Union (EU)-Greek bailout package. But after half a decade of setting policies with the sole aim of protecting their own—to hell with the social costs—it should not surprise anybody that these same people view Syriza, or any change whatsoever, as a threat to their own privileged interests.

Which is all to make the basic point that the dominant discourse in Europe today is but one narrative of the post-2009 Eurozone experience. For the first time in the crisis, the rise of Syriza reveals that this mainstream narrative has approached its natural limits—that other counter-narratives, like them or not, have a legitimate space in the marketplace of ideas.

A TRIUMPH FOR HUMAN RIGHTS?

This shift in narrative should be greeted with both applause and skepticism for those interested in the state of human rights in Greece and the region more generally.

The structural adjustment policies forcibly attached to each Greek bailout package—immensely burdensome loans financed by deep and scathing cuts to Greek society—have resulted in a genuine humanitarian and human rights crisis, evidenced by a long list of ugly developments. First, there are the obligatory economic numbers, such as the country’s unemployment rate, which has averaged about 26 percent over the last four years. Youth unemployment, after rising above 60 percent in early 2013, has averaged roughly 56 percent during this same period. The real wages of working Greeks have plummeted nearly 28 percent since their peak in 2010, a direct result of Troika efforts to devalue labor costs and make the nation a more competitive trading partner. Naturally, such policies have weighed heavily on the Greek middle class, which has both shrunk and as a whole become poorer under austerity. The result has been an exacerbation of social inequality, both inside of Greece and across the Eurozone. While the Greeks suffer, the continent’s largest economies watch their own exports skyrocket, disproportionately benefiting from Europe’s weakened currency.

But if these kinds of statistics fail to give a human face to the crisis, consider some more direct measures: Suicide rates in the country have steadily skyrocketed since the start of the recession. In June 2011 alone, the number of reported suicides jumped by approximately 36 percent. The country has also witnessed dangerously high child malnutrition, and many families are no longer vaccinating their children due solely to cost pressures. Adoption rates too have soared to unprecedented levels during the crisis, with some desperate families turning to informal adoption channels, or outright child abandonment.

Foremost, we should welcome Syriza’s blow to the neoliberal discourse that has so narrowly managed this crisis for the past half-decade or so. The bailouts thrust upon Greece have been fueled by an unchecked and assumption-driven economic logic, which has absolutely failed to correspond to Greece’s reality. Put another way: the inherent limits of starvation, poverty, loss of hope and human dignity are all variables that have a hard time fitting into even the most sophisticated of economic models. Yet, the Troika’s unadulterated hubris in ignoring this reality has, perhaps more than anything, fostered Syriza’s rise to political power. By pushing austerity in the absence of any societal pressure meters or safety valves, a pipe has finally burst in the Hellenic Parliament. This is because, in times of humanitarian crisis, there is no such thing as ceteris paribus.

Clearly, the situation in Greece amounts to a public health nightmare and rampant violations of the right to work and health. Any ability to give voice to these tragedies, to bring them into the forefront of Eurozone policymaking and establish their place alongside the dominant discourse, is a healthy development.

Likewise, the measures proposed in Syriza’s Thessaloniki Programme to address Greece’s reality through a more rights-based approach merit praise. Far from some radical Marxist agenda, the program looks to basic Keynesian economic policy and a “European New Deal” to steer Greece out of its depression. By temporarily halting the nation’s suffocating debt-service payments in order to dramatically reinvest in the Greek population, the program wisely attempts to exit the crisis through stimulus and economic growth, rather than austerity’s violent fiscal savings program. The platform also resembles an important ideological shift in values among Greek voters, which could serve a bellwether for European values more broadly. Among its four central tenets, the Thessaloniki Programme places “confronting the humanitarian crisis” at the top of the list. Whatever terms and promises might be eroded in forward negotiations between Greece and its creditors, Syriza will be pressured domestically to respect this ideological turn.

There are other positive byproducts of the Greek election results. While the dramatic rise of Syriza has been a result of the party’s popular economic platform, the new government’s social policies will also allow specific advances in human rights that would have never been politically feasible, were it not for the crisis. As reported by IRIN, perhaps those who stand the most to gain under Syriza are the region’s traditionally marginalized migrants and refugees, who will welcome Syriza’s open-door immigration policies.

WHAT’S AT STAKE

And yet, we should caution ourselves: What happens if Syriza fails?

Tsipras was absolutely correct in his victory speech, to note that all of Europe is watching. Perhaps those watching closest are Europe’s ultra-right or openly fascist political parties, who have their own dark narrative to contribute toward the economic crisis. It’s no small development that Golden Dawn—Greece’s xenophobic and literal neo-nazi party—won 6.3 percent of the popular vote, coming in at a parliamentary third place while a good chunk of the party sits in jail on charges linked to murder and organized crime. Similar movements all across Europe—and especially France’s rising National Front—are paying attention to Syriza. They rightly conceive of themselves as next in line to the ideological throne.

The human rights implications of this potential development are obvious. The ultra-nationalism at the heart of these movements poses a very real threat to all of Europe’s immigrant and minority populations. Taking advantage of Greece’s dissatisfaction with the status quo, Golden Dawn has openly called for the forcible deportation of all migrants, and has routinely used physical violence to intimidate both minorities and members of other political parties. They’ve also displayed stark jingoistic rhetoric when it comes to Greece’s immediate neighbors. If these violent mobs were to be given the state’s official police power, or Greece’s military, the consequences could be devastating. Less dramatically, any grant of legitimacy toward such a movement would mark a point of no return to the peace and international cooperation upon which the EU is premised.

And so this brings us back to the constraints Syriza faces, and the past hubris displayed by the Troika. It will be mathematically impossible for Syriza to both keep its election promises, and prevent Greece from leaving the Eurozone, if the nation’s creditors do not give the country some breathing room. It is decision time. The choice is entirely the Troika’s, and so far, it hasn’t been a good start. But as unpopular as loan forgiveness and delayed payments may be in Berlin, the Troika needs to remind itself that if Syriza fails, there are alternative counter-narratives waiting their turn on the sidelines.

If a commitment to Keynesian economics and basic human rights proves too radically leftist for the Eurozone to stomach, then the continent could soon find itself dealing with full-blown Eurosceptics and the radical right. That’s the real choice here. Let’s hope the Troika realizes that.

Chris Beall is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Thierry Ehrmann/Creative Commons


2 Comments

Genocide memory and commemoration: remembering the Holocaust and the effects of the “hierarchy of suffering” 70 years later (part 1 of 2)

By Zahava Moerdler 

January 27 was International Holocaust Remembrance Day and marked 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz and other concentration camps. As in the past, world leaders and survivors gathered in Auschwitz for a commemorative ceremony. Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress and a major contributor to the preservation of the Auschwitz museum, said, “Auschwitz is important because it was ground zero of what the Nazis did.” However, Auschwitz and the camps were merely one example of the many killing methods employed by the Nazis during World War II. Despite this, Auschwitz has come to reside at the epicenter of Holocaust memory and has consequently impacted the transitional justice and legal efforts that followed the liberation of the camps.

Raphael Lemkin invented the concept of “genocide” and pursued the creation of the Genocide Convention in the aftermath of the Holocaust. He hoped his efforts would prevent further genocide. Unfortunately, genocide persists today. Like Auschwitz for the Holocaust, certain memory narratives have become the central story for other genocides. This trend affects reconciliation, healing and even prosecution in the aftermath of genocide. Analyzing the role the concentration camps played in Holocaust memory may prove useful for formulating tools in order to help survivors of other genocides be heard.

The process of national memory formation is critical to the way certain narratives are popularized over others. For example, one of the key scenarios that transmit value systems and beliefs is the Protestant Ethic, which encourages the good Protestant to work hard and through his hard work to can gain access to heaven. This American narrative, which is prominent in everyday life, contains a moral lesson for society. Once contained in the collective memory, the culture then glorifies these values because they reinforce what is deemed important. A society will remember certain things selectively, partially or instrumentally because that culture decides what to commemorate based on a certain value system. These chosen values will then be conserved in sites of memory, which act as containers. To understand sites of memory one must understand the values of the society when these containers were created. These underlying conceptual frameworks create the basis for the way memory is shaped.

One of the main themes of Holocaust memory and commemoration is the concept of “the hierarchy of suffering.” This concept pushed testimony and stories that perpetuated the narratives of those who survived the camps to the forefront of Holocaust memory, thus making it difficult for individuals with alternative narratives to speak and be heard. Anthropologist Carol Kidron documents this idea while observing a ceremony commemorating victims of the Holocaust at a Holocaust-survivor center and museum in Israel. When a discussion with families of survivors opens, Tsipi, the founder of the center, talks about her mother who went into hiding during the war, “thereby positioning her parent and herself on the ‘hierarchy of suffering,’ known at the center as ‘Tsipi’s ladder of suffering’”:

“[…] Children of ‘hard core’ camp survivors heckled her story, screaming, ‘You think that’s suffering, that’s a vacation.’ Another participant introduced himself as a descendant of a ghetto survivor. Again, others screamed, ‘Ghetto, what’s a ghetto—it’s just the third grade [Heb. kita gimmel, G is for ghetto].’ The participant was allowed to recount his mother’s fragmented tale of fear and hunger, again adding his avowal of pride in her ability to start a new life. Another participant told of her parent’s experiences as a partisan. She could not get through her first sentence without being shouted down: ‘No, no, you’re not even on the ladder,’ at which point Tsipi added, ‘Yes, you don’t belong to the sheep.’”

Shortly after this encounter another member of the group circle recounts how his father survived Auschwitz, and suddenly the “mood in the room had shifted smoothly from laughter to serious attention.”

This is merely one story, from one support group, however it is indicative of a general trend. The “hierarchy of suffering” extends beyond the way national memory is created. Survivors who do not fit the collective memory mold are not heard. Those with more traumatic narratives, particularly those from the camps, take center stage. I believe this trend coincides with the way humans rank and compartmentalize trauma and suffering. When the child of an Auschwitz survivor wanted to speak the room immediately fell silent, however, when the child of a partisan wanted to recount her parent’s narrative, she could not even get past her first sentence. This is the problem with the hierarchy of suffering. It devalues personal traumatic events.

Memory is not just created by the prioritization of certain suffering, but also by how history has been chronicled. Oral testimonies from survivors and perpetrators and documents from the government and camps comprised the majority of evidentiary support available after the Holocaust. Additionally, the camps were liberated by Allied forces, whose soldiers bore witness to the effects of camps on survivors. Even before the end of the war, the Allies created commissions to locate and collect the vast of amounts of documents from camps like Dachau and Buchenwald. These documents were then used in the Nuremberg Trial of 1945 and were later stored in the Bad Arolsen archive in Germany. However, documents about the death camps, such as Sobibor, Treblinka and Belzec, were mostly destroyed before the end of the war and there are no documents available about the Einsatzgruppen murders in the former Soviet Union. The lopsided preservation of documentation helped push the concentration camps to the forefront of Holocaust memory.

National memory trends also affect efforts concerning restitution and reconciliation. From the immediate postwar period on, the hierarchy of suffering impacted monetary compensation. For example, most programs that compensated survivors provided for those in forced labor camps or who were deported, while only a few programs compensated for material losses, those who fled and those who were “hidden children.” For example, the Claims Conference has a highly specified approach and a tiered system, which provides a one time “Hardship Fund” for those who fled Nazism as opposed to a continuous pension service for survivors of the concentration and labor camps.

Beyond this, the Nuremberg Trials, and especially the International Military Tribunal, were focused predominantly on war crimes, not victims. Justice Jackson, the lead prosecutor for the Americans at Nuremberg, wanted aggressive war making to be considered the most heinous crime committed by the Nazi leadership. Consequently, the prosecution at Nuremberg emphasized the crimes committed by military leaders that led to a globalized war and marginalized crimes against humanity. The focus at Nuremberg contrasts strongly to the 1961 Eichmann Trial, where the focus moved from documentary evidence to witness testimony, marking a change in Holocaust memory as victim narratives became more accepted and prominent. The trial gave survivors legitimacy and a space where their stories would not be questioned but would rather be broadcasted around the world.

As survivors aged, and became better situated in their new homes, new forms of restitution arose. In the 1990s, vast movements of class action suits, involving survivors with different narratives, began against various governments and institutions like the German, Austrian and Swiss banks. While some of the litigation arose from survivors of forced labor camps, other claims, particularly looted art and bank account or insurance restitution claims, were brought by a more diverse group of survivors. Litigation can only give a measure of justice for the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis and their collaborators; however, the restitution projects coincided with increased awareness and memorialization of the Holocaust.

Recognition of all Holocaust narratives has allowed many survivors who were once silent to give testimony to projects like the Shoah Foundation and to open up to their children and grandchildren about their experiences. By telling their stories, survivors are able to heal. The inclusivity also marks a change in American culture in recent decades. The rise of “victimhood culture,” in the 1990s has bolstered support for an inclusive narrative from the core of the American value system.

In my next post, I will analyze how these narratives and trends can affect the way we understand memory of other genocides.

Zahava Moerdler is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo Credit:  Jaime Pérez/Creative Commons


Leave a comment

Placing women’s rights issues in Burma on the UPR agenda in November

By Jennifer Li

The rules for the Spaghetti Tower Challenge are simple and, as far as ice-breakers go, an interesting way to start off a three-day workshop with women’s rights NGOs in Burma. Take 20 strands of dried pasta, a few marshmallows, some Scotch tape, and build the highest tower you can. Just don’t tape the pasta to the floor.

The array of architectural innovation was impressive – though the engineering was, admittedly, less sound. Cell phone towers and leaning towers of pasta scattered across the floor space of our hotel conference room in Pyin Oo Lwin, Myanmar [Burma], about an hour’s car ride east of Mandalay. Bobble a marshmallow at the top, and suddenly it’s Jenga.

It is an improbable, ridiculous, but nevertheless accurate metaphor for Burma’s human rights situation. In January 2015, a team from the Asia Law and Justice Program at the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice – represented by Professors Elisabeth Wickeri and Joey Lee, along with 3L Fordham law students Dana Swanson and Jennifer Li – traveled with members of the New York-based Global Justice Center to Pyin Oo Lwin. The New York team met with over two-dozen members of the Women’s League of Burma (WLB) – a coalition of community-based women’s rights organizations – to introduce the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) as an additional tool to bring women’s rights issues to the attention of the international community. The three-day workshop, consisting of an introduction to the UPR process and the drafting of a research work plan on designated thematic issue areas, culminated in a commitment by all participants to work collectively on a stakeholder submission in advance of Burma’s next UPR in November 2015.

In the four years since Burma’s democratic transition began in 2011, the country has made notable strides forward in human rights reforms, including establishing a National Human Rights Commission and releasing scores of political prisoners. Burma’s human rights record, however, continues to be marked by political and ethnic tensions that serve as flashpoints for communal violence – not only between the Buddhist majority and Muslim minority, as widely reported in the international press, but also against local Christian minorities. Clashes between the national army and non-state groups have contributed to the forced relocation of hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) to southeast Burma, in addition to the nearly half a million refugees that continue to live in temporary camps in Thailand. Calls for constitutional and electoral reforms have rung hollow.

Serious and persistent violations against the most vulnerable populations are rampant, including violence against women and girls. Burma’s protracted internal armed conflict, spurred by ethnic and political divisions, have had a disproportionate impact on women and girls. A recent WLB report documented over 100 cases of systemic, state-sponsored sexual violence in ethnic communities – a conservative estimate of the number of actual violations when considering the volume of unreported incidents. Even as evidence suggests that the use of sexual violence has been used as a strategy and tool by the military regime, impunity provisions in the constitution prevent bringing the perpetrators to justice.

It was against this backdrop that Burma participated in its first UPR in January 2011. The UPR, then a relatively new UN mechanism whereby the General Assembly reviews each country’s human rights record on a four-year cycle, was a chance for Burma to present on the international stage its commitment to human rights reforms, and to engage in an interactive dialogue with other nations on a wide range of human rights issues. Not surprisingly, the Burmese delegation failed to provide meaningful responses in many issue areas, including judicial reform and ending military impunity. As Human Rights Watch reported at the time, even as the Burmese delegation was dispatched to Geneva for the UPR, the government army was forcing hundreds of prisoners to serve as porters for army units in combat areas in Karen State – in clear violation of international humanitarian law proscribing forced labor.

As with UN treaty body reviews, NGOs have the opportunity to help shape the conversation during UPR dialogues, both through written submissions as well as in-person lobbying at the review in Geneva. The lack of commentary in 2011 on the pervasive violations against women was a reflection of not only Burma’s fledgling engagement with democratic institutions, but also the lack of participation – whether due to limited opportunities or resources – by women’s rights NGOs.

Given that Burma has yet to accede to six of the nine core international human rights treaties, NGO participation in Burma’s UPR is particularly critical. Unlike treaty-body reviews, the UPR is unique precisely because it provides members of the international community a platform to review each country’s full spectrum of human rights conditions, not just those rights that the country under review is obligated by treaty to uphold. Yet despite Burma having acceded to the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1997, of the nearly 200 human rights recommendations Burma received in 2011, only six related to women’s rights issues. This may be explained by the fact that, of the 25 joint and independent NGO reports that were submitted to the UPR Working Group prior to the review, only one submission was authored by Burmese women’s rights groups. The lack of participation by women’s rights NGOs during Burma’s first cycle UPR was a significant missed opportunity—one that should not be repeated now.

Before the end of the year, Burmese delegates will meet once again with other UN Member States in an interactive dialogue for its second cycle review before the UPR Working Group. As part of its mandate, the Working Group will examine strides the government has made in response to recommendations from the first cycle. Incidentally, in the same way that Burma’s first UPR coincided with the beginning of political reform in 2011, its second cycle UPR will occur within days of the forthcoming general elections in November. Four years after Burma’s first review, it remains to be seen whether the Burmese government will cooperate in providing a meaningful assessment of its human rights record – including an acknowledgment of its shortcomings in women’s rights – or continue to stonewall international demands for reform. Regardless, now is the moment for NGOs to pressure both the international community and the Burmese government to adopt a critical assessment of women’s rights in Burma.

Jennifer Li is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire. She also participated in the Asia Law and Justice Program’s training on the UPR process with women’s rights groups in Burma in January 2015.


Leave a comment

Letting the “Mexican Moment” slip away

By Guillermo Farias

Enrique Peña Nieto’s Presidency is often described as a performance. Elected in 2012, he has presented himself as a modernizing technocrat and reformer capable of bringing about a “Mexican Moment.” From the start of his administration, many have seen him as nothing more than a cleverly packaged optical illusion. A Time Magazine cover from shortly after he was elected showed Peña Nieto standing behind the words “Saving Mexico” was widely ridiculed. However, in recent months, even those that bought into the President’s image are increasingly cynical about his administration’s capacity to govern, which can be seen in his 40 percent approval rating, almost the lowest-ever for a Mexican president. To reverse the trend, the President needs to show that he is capable of making difficult structural changes rather than just crafting, and vigorously protecting, an appealing personal image—as he has done so far.

Peña Nieto’s approval ratings—and carefully honed public image—have suffered as the result of two major recent crises. First, Mexico’s human rights situation has attracted international attention for major atrocities involving the security forces—both among the worst the country has seen in recent years. One involved the killing of 22 people by soldiers in Tlatlaya, in Mexico state in June 2014. The other involved the enforced disappearance of 43 students who were detained by municipal police forces in Iguala, Guerrero state in September 2014. The second crisis was triggered by a series of stories in the Wall Street Journal that exposed close links between senior members of the administration, including the President, First Lady, and the Finance Minister, and a construction company that has won a slew of government contracts. In part, as a result, Peña Nieto’s administration has had to seek new bids for construction of a $3.7 billion high-speed rail link between Mexico City and Queretaro.

In the case of the 43 disappeared students, Peña Nieto’s administration appeared to value public image over substance. President Peña Nieto first publicly responded to the case by asserting that this was an issue for the local government, and therefore not his administration’s problem. Under pressure, the President backtracked, but it still took the Attorney General ten days to open an investigation. At a news conference in November, the Attorney General, Jesus Murillo Karam, announced that three gang members had confessed to killing the students and burning their bodies, making it difficult to identify bone remains. The human rights community has characterized the declaration as a rush to close the investigation, even if the government’s version of events is plausible. For example, Jose Miguel Vivanco, the head of Human Right Watch’s Americas Division, sharply criticized the government for declaring that all the students were dead after identifying the remains of just one. The families of the disappeared students are also understandably skeptical and have maintained pressure on the government to identify the remains of all the students before declaring them dead.

The Tlatlaya case follows a similar pattern. Federal prosecutors waited three months to open an investigation into the killing of 22 people by soldiers in Tlatlaya, a small town in Mexico state. The government originally claimed that the 22 people had been killed by soldiers in a shoot-out. That narrative was countered by a report from the National Human Rights Commission asserting that at least 12 of the 22 people were killed execution style by the soldiers after having surrendered. Beyond this, the report also documented abuses by state prosecutors, who threatened to rape three female witnesses of the executions, beat two of them and forced all of them to sign statements exonerating the soldiers. In fact, the federal investigation was only opened after the Latin American edition of Esquire published an interview with one of the witnesses. The Attorney General’s office has charged seven soldiers in the case, as well as a lieutenant for his role in covering up the crime. However, federal prosecutors have so far refused to investigate others for their roles in concealing the massacre.

The administration has similarly tried to minimize and contain the fallout from the conflict of interest accusations exposed by the Wall Street Journal. Both the President and the Finance Minister have denied wrongdoing. At the same time, steps taken by the administration to strengthen conflict of interest laws and improve transparency have been so anemic that hardly anyone considers them serious.

If the administration is serious about improving Mexico’s security and human rights record, tackling entrenched corruption, and avoiding conflicts of interest it should start by making difficult political decisions. First, it should commit itself to creating a truly independent prosecutor’s office and an agency to combat corruption. The second missing element is political accountability. So far, nobody has resigned or stepped forward to take responsibility for the human rights abuses in Tlataya and Iguala or the dodgy business deals.

It will take much more than excellent public relations skills to solve Mexico’s problems. Unfortunately, it seems that Peña Nieto is more interested in managing the fallout from the current crises than he is in addressing their root causes. Without more substantive policy, it is hard not to see the “Mexican Moment” slipping away.

Guillermo Farias is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Presidencia de la República Mexicana/Creative Commons


5 Comments

Human rights defender training in South Africa helps empower LGBTI refugees

By Hailey Flynn, Takahisa Juba and Urooj Rahman

When we began our human rights defender training in South Africa by asking participants to give examples of discrimination they faced as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) refugees, we didn’t expect many people to share. What we heard, however, was an outpouring of tragic events. Participants openly discussed how their partner or friend had been killed and how they had lost their livelihood and homes because of their sexual identity. Some even bore the scars of recent physical assault. We were there to work together to overcome this endemic abuse, and were inspired by their courage because, even in the face of such tragedy, they chose to empower themselves and others.

???????????????????????????????

Student Hailey Flynn works with a small group of trainees.

A few stories come to mind as we remember the dozens of stories of tragedy and resilience. One participant discussed how she was repeatedly raped and sexually assaulted by her landlord who would threaten to evict her if she didn’t comply with his demands. However, this individual took matters into her own hands and decided to go to the police in order to put a stop to the abuse she was facing. Her efforts to end the abuse paid off and the police finally arrested the landlord. However, many of the other participants did not have such triumphant conclusions to their stories; all of the participants still endure ongoing abuse as a result of their sexual orientation, gender identity and nationality.

Facing persecution in their home countries because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, many LGBTI refugees have fled to South Africa in search of a safe haven. Since South Africa’s constitution and domestic laws are liberal and progressive, they believed that these legal protections would provide them with safety from discrimination based on their sexual orientation and ethnic origin. Rather than finding a safe, supportive environment, however, these individuals continue to face discrimination and violence because of their sexual orientation or gender identity and their nationality.

In spite of the overwhelming challenges in South Africa, including physical assault, difficulty in finding housing and work, harassment from both private and public actors, and from living in a foreign country, many LGBTI refugees wanted to empower themselves by learning how they could advocate for their rights and the rights of others in the LGBTI refugee community. In November 2014, the Walter Leitner International Human Rights Clinic partnered with People Against Suffering Oppression and Poverty (PASSOP), a South African non-profit organization that advocates for refugees and asylum seekers, to conduct a 3-day human rights defender training for LGBTI refugees in Cape Town, South Africa. Supervised by Clinic Director, Professor Chi Mgbako, five students developed a training manual that defined the human rights violations that the South African LGBTI refugee community faces and identified the relevant international, regional and domestic mechanisms to redress these human rights abuses. The manual also includes instructions on how to submit shadow reports or complaints to the relevant human rights mechanisms.

???????????????????????????????

Student Takahisa Juba discusses human rights mechanisms during the training.

This training enabled the participants to garner practical knowledge about the human rights framework and to understand how to effectively fight for their own rights as well as the rights of their fellow LGBTI refugees. Since all of the trainees had personally experienced human rights violations, these injustices motivated them to participate in the training and work to ensure rights for all. The advocacy skills that the training focused on not only empowered them to fight for their own rights, but also encouraged them to defend the rights of other survivors of human rights abuses.

It was an energy-filled three days of training and the participants’ enthusiasm was overwhelming. The first day kicked off with an overview of the human rights legal framework. Then, we dove into the relevant rights that protect LGBTI refugees specifically and covered what international, regional and domestic laws enumerate those rights. To test their knowledge on the material, quizzes and interactive activities were included throughout the training. Participation in these games not only reinforced the trainees’ comprehension of the material, but also fostered a competitive and enthusiastic atmosphere.

Despite having rights, these participants knew all too well that many people and institutions often fail to hold perpetrators responsible for human rights violations. As a result, documentation of abuses and demanding accountability are crucial to redressing human rights abuses. A significant portion of the training was dedicated to reconciling what rights LGBTI refugees actually have with the reality of how to enforce those rights when they are violated. We explained how various human rights monitoring mechanisms—including the Human Rights Committee, African Commission, South African Commission on Human Rights, Committee Against Torture, Human Rights Council (the Universal Periodic Review Process and Special Procedures), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the South African Human Rights Commission—can be used to enforce the relevant rights and how each of these mechanisms can be used most effectively. Showing that there are available remedies and methods of accountability gave the participants the tools to change their circumstances and empower themselves. We also devoted a session on fact-finding through interviewing and non-interviewing methods, which is an essential skill-set for documenting abuses and seeking accountability.

???????????????????????????????

Student Urooj Rahman gives a presentation as part of the human rights defender training.

With new knowledge and tools in hand, the participants concluded the training by envisioning a brighter future. Trainees broke into several groups and designed strategic plans to hold the South African government accountable for protecting LGBTI refugee rights. These plans laid out a framework for addressing specific rights violations through engaging a particular human rights monitoring mechanism. Moreover, they paved a path forward for participants to continue to fight for their own rights and for those of their fellow LGBTI refugees.

The trainees left feeling empowered and optimistic, as they were now better aware of their rights and how to protect them. The training also made us realize the importance of human rights work and having the tools to advocate for and with marginalized members of society. It was a moving experience for us to see that the knowledge we shared allowed many of the trainees to feel invigorated to advocate for the LGBTI refugee community. We feel fortunate to have had this opportunity to work with these courageous participants who have had the resilience to stand up for the rights they deserve. Our hope is that our training imparted useful information for their advocacy work, which will allow them to live safer, better lives. We are hopeful that the trainees will utilize the vast amount of information they learned and demand that their guaranteed rights under South African, regional and international law are respected, protected and fulfilled.

Hailey Flynn, Takahisa Juba and Urooj Rahman are a 2L student, alumnus and 3L student, respectively. They participated in the Walter Leitner International Human Rights Clinic.