Rights Wire

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

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Exploring the impact of technology on effective human rights documentation and advocacy

By Shruti Banerjee

Technological advancements have led to innovative methods of monitoring and documenting human rights violations as well as more efficient and effective human rights advocacy. We are now able to gather more accurate visual and numerical data on human rights abuses, conflict zones and potential threats to populations. Human rights advocates as well as historically marginalized groups can also raise greater awareness about human rights issues with the help of technology. If used effectively, new geospatial technologies and social media are tools that can advance human rights advocacy, ensure accountability and prevent abuses.


New technologies such as camera/video phones, recording devices, internet access and satellite imagery have changed the way human rights violations are reported and documented. Satellite images and other geospatial technologies provide us with pictures of conflict zones to track activities by potential threats. Organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Satellite Sentinal Project and Amnesty International utilize these technologies to monitor conflict zones and identify human rights violations. For example, AAAS has used this geospatial technology to track human rights violations in numerous conflict areas, including in Afghanistan, Myanmar, Nigeria and other countries. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have used satellite images to track and document human rights abuses in the Central African Republic (burning of villages), Syria (chemical weapons) and North Korean (expansion of prison camps). This technology provides NGOs, governments and advocates with data that would be nearly impossible to compile without posing significant dangers to researchers, and it allows them to gauge human rights threats as they occur.

New technologies can also be used to push for legal accountability, though different types of technology must meet various standards before being admitted as evidence in international or domestic courts. In general, the requirements for evidence to be admitted are more defined for U.S. national courts than for international courts and tribunals. But all courts consider the authenticity, protection of privacy, chain of possession and reliability of the electronic evidence, according to a report by the Center for Research Libraries on human rights electronic evidence. Procedural rules at international courts and tribunals offer little guidance on what factors must be presented to authenticate new forms of electronic evidence. A report by University of Texas Austin Law School found that international courts generally apply standard evidentiary rules to electronic evidence and analyze their probative value and admissibility on a case by case basis. In the U.S., the rules for determining the admissibility of electronic evidence in courts is codified in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and Federal Rules of Evidence. As outlined in these rules, the major factors considered when admitting electronic evidence include: relevance, authenticity, hearsay, whether the original or only copies exist, and whether the probative value of the evidence outweighs any prejudicial effects admitting it may have.

In international courts, video testimony, camera recordings and photos have been used during trials to successfully prosecute perpetrators of genocide. For example, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda admitted as evidence thousands of hours of video testimony given by victims of the genocide. In the U.S., satellite and geospatial imagery has been admitted under Federal Rules of Evidence Rule 702, 703 and 1006. However, “the failure to understand how to appropriately and effectively authenticate electronic evidence has resulted in adverse rulings by federal courts,” according to a report by Center for Research Libraries on the admissibility of electronic evidence on U.S. courts. This has led to useful and eye-opening electronic evidence being deemed inadmissible in many federal cases.

Despite these advances in legal and political advocacy, it is important to recognize the limitations of geospatial technologies and satellite imagery, namely that an image cannot tell us about the socioeconomic or political factors that allowed for the abuses to happen in the first place. These images fail to clearly identify who the perpetrators of crimes are and who issues orders condoning abuses. While gaps in the narrative can often be filled in with testimonies by people on the ground (who sometimes use technology to report on the news and spread the word as violations are occurring), the biggest limitation to geospatial images is that they can only superficially document and inform us of the problem. Gathering this information does not mean governments or organizations will be forced to address abuses or threats. Thus, despite these technological achievements in monitoring human rights conditions, collecting data and increasing awareness is only the first step in effective advocacy to prevent and prosecute human rights violations.


The use of mobile devices, camera phones, mass text messaging apps and the internet has also drastically changed the platform for individual human rights advocacy in countries where this technology is becoming more prevalent. A popular form of activism in the U.S.—hashtag activism—has generated significant criticism for being a feel-good way to pretend you are politically active or aware by simply hashtagging a catchy statement, like #BringBackOurGirls or #KONY2012. While many of these movements, which garnered support from tens of thousands of online accounts, have led to very little concrete change in policy or law, we should not completely disregard social media’s potential for increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of human rights advocacy.

Social media outlets, such as Twitter, have not only helped raise awareness about lesser known social issues, but it has also created a space for historically marginalized groups, such as feminists of color and African-American youth, to speak out. In an interview with The Atlantic, activist DeRay Mckesson pointed out that social media has finally given African-Americans the chance to tell their stories as they were happening. “The history of blackness is also a history of erasure,” Mckesson said. “Everybody has told the story of black people in struggle except black people. The black people in the struggle haven’t had the means to tell the story historically. There were a million slaves but you see very few slave narratives. And that is intentional. So what was powerful in the context of Ferguson is that there were many people able to tell their story as the story unfolded.”

Mckesson also pointed out that social media can help increase accountability of law enforcement officials by allowing photographs and videotapes of police abuse to be circulated quickly and widely. Organizations such as Witness.org train and support activists using video technology to expose and combat human rights abuses on the ground. While circulating videos of human rights abuses does not always lead to immediate justice, Mckesson said this type of accountability is “a different way of empowering people.” Even the largest critics of hashtag activism must admit that social media has created a space where marginalized voices can speak out and be heard while addressing controversial topics.

The internet and other advancements in technology have had certain positive effects, but we must recognize their limitations. The misuse of social media can lead to witch hunts, like the rampant media accusations of two innocent bystanders during the Boston Marathon Bombings. Social media also has limitations since many human rights violations are occurring in rural areas where internet and the usage of advanced technology are scarcer. In an interview with the Guardian, Editor and Author Ayesha Siddiqi commented on these limitations: “Work that’s meant to liberate all people cannot be presented in a language available to very few.”


While geospatial technologies and most hashtag movements have not always led to legal change, they have generated a significant amount of awareness. But, as mentioned earlier, awareness is only useful when it leads to activism and movement-building. An efficient and effective method used by many activists during the George Zimmerman trial, a case where a Florida man shot an unarmed African-American teenager, linked petitions to their tweets so these petitions would appear every time the hashtag #JusticeforTrayvon was searched. Linking these petitions to catchy hashtags helped advocates quickly gather thousands of signatures which they could use to demand action from their elected officials. Linking your tweets to government petitions or sites that raise funds for legal counsel for marginalized groups, or tagging your elected official generates real attention and action while avoiding clicktivism. By linking petitions and elected officials, you provide an avenue to participation for others and make it known to your elected official that they need to work to prevent human rights violation on our own soil and abroad.

Social media has also played a central role in building the civil rights movement of the 21st century, as documented in a recent profile by the New York Times. After the shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old, unarmed African-American, by police officer Darren Wilson, social media platforms were essential in organizing large protests, documenting police abuses and raising awareness. From Facebook invitations to maps tracking the location of protests, the livestreaming of demonstrations, Twitter hashtags and rides/accommodations organizing for activists, social media was the glue that brought thousands of people onto the streets to shut down traffic and cities across the country. It is also the force that has kept police abuse and racism at the forefront of national dialogue. Furthermore, #TeachingFerguson was used to help teachers from public schools, universities and law schools find ways to discuss the racial tensions and debates around Ferguson. These discussions are vital for expanding awareness and understanding for these fundamental issues affecting our society. The activism we saw during the Zimmerman trial and Ferguson incident were far from mere clicktivism since these forms of activism were used to garner real attention and action from elected officials, educators and individuals who would otherwise remain unexposed to the issues plaguing America.

Despite of the limitations posed by technology and the admissibility of electronic evidence in courts, its advancement has created innovative ways to progress human rights advocacy and push for greater accountability. Used properly, these advancements can continue to be effective tools in raising awareness by opening platform to marginalized communities, helping organize peaceful demonstrations and movements, speeding up petition signing and gathering evidence to prosecute perpetrators of human rights violations.

Shruti Banerjee is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Jason Howie/Creative Commons

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The Middle East is not undergoing a Thirty Years’ War: alternative lenses, imperialism and colonialism (part 2 of 2)

By Chris Beall

In my previous article, I discussed the normalization of flagrant human rights abuses inherent in forced historical analogies between the Middle East and Europe’s Thirty Years’ War. However, this does not mean that history is unimportant in attempting to understand today’s conflicts in places like Yemen, Syria and Iraq. While the deployment of the Thirty Years’ narrative seeks to cram today’s sectarian conflicts within the interpretive boundaries of a very different place, from a very different century, a far more productive methodology would explore the history actually relevant to these conflicts: that of the Middle East itself. Rather than succumbing to the ignorance—perhaps willful ignorance—wrapped up in the Thirty Years’ model, the Middle East’s own past events (political, social, and economic) shed light on the complexity and nuance crucial to the fight for peace and human rights in the region.

In a rare and refreshing article by Shireen Hunter, Director of the Carnegie Project on Reformist Islam at Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, writing for Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, Hunter combats the Thirty Years’ narrative. Such “commentaries convey a sense of inevitability and permanency about Sunni-Shia conflict, not only in Iraq but also elsewhere in the Muslim world where there are substantial Shia minorities,” Hunter writes. Prefacing her argument with the fact that Sunnis and Shiites have lived aside one another, overwhelmingly in peace, since the original Islamic schism, Hunter points to modern history (post-1979) and regional politics to explain the current escalation of sectarian conflict. Of particular note, Hunter highlights the unsupervised aftermath of the U.S.’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the subsequent “Western strategy of instrumentalizing sectarian differences to forge a regional alliance against Iran.” This seems important. Rather than throwing our hands up in despair, Hunter’s analysis allows us to realize that both the U.S. and “the West” possess a share of ownership in these crises. Whatever shortcomings we face in influencing combatants on the ground, this recognition leaves us plenty of space to alter our conduct—operative space within our direct control.

I would add to Hunter’s analysis that the Western interventionist policies that have fueled these conflicts in fact run more deeply than modern history alone. Centuries of European colonialism did a number on the world, and the Middle East is no exception. As the Ottoman Empire gradually declined at the end of the 19th century, European focus increasingly shifted toward the Near East. By the turn of the 20th century, there was an almost obsessive fear in colonial circles, who were worried about the threat “pan-Islam” posed to European colonial holdings, notes Middle East scholar Zachary Lockman in his book Contending Visions of the Middle East: The History and Politics of Orientalism. Lockman cites a 1901 French colonial journal, quoting one orientalist who wrote, “Although Islam as a religion was basically finished, the colonial powers still faced a serious threat from pan-Islam, which might foster anticolonial revolts in a number of Muslim lands at the same time. Therefore the goal must be ‘to weaken Islam… to render it forever incapable of great awakenings.’ ‘I believe,’ this scholar wrote ‘that we should endeavor to split the Muslim world, to break its moral unity, using to this effect the ethnic and political divisions… In one word, let us segment Islam, and make use, moreover, of Muslim heresies and the Sufi orders.’” (Notice, by the way, that while these fears were always overblown, they represent the exact opposite of our current fears regarding essentialized sectarianism).

This was not just some colonial conspiracy, either. When Britain and France inherited large Ottoman territories at the end of World War I, such intentionally divisive policies were carried out into practice. Much has been made of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which essentially plotted today’s boundaries of the Middle East according to the logic of Empire, rather than any social or demographic accord with the populations actually living there. But equally important are colonialism’s less talked about “divide-and-rule” administrative strategies. In the same way that Britain ossified the Indian caste system and popularized the Hamitic Hypothesis among Hutus and Tutsis, colonial administrators looked to amplify existing divisions within Islam in the Middle East. Colonial powers used these divisions to elevate minorities into domesticated positions of docile power. It was not so much that these sectarian divisions actually mattered, but that figures like Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence forced them to matter.

And so Britain placed a Sunni Hashemite king on the new throne of Shia Iraq, while the French loaded the military in Sunni-majority Syria to the brim with minority Alawites. These inverted sectarian power structures have seen much turbulence, and are still to this day under violent contestation. Such colonial inversions might not have been a source of violence themselves. The whole area had, after all, been relatively peacefully administered by foreign Ottoman Turks for a couple of centuries. But along with inversions of political administrative and law-making power came new, near kleptocratic concentrations of economic power in the form of Western-modeled capitalism. Whatever your feelings on Marx, it seems clear that such material hierarchies tend to self-perpetuate and exacerbate over time. Through violent post-colonial periods of both monarchy and authoritarianism, sectarian minorities often held dominating control over society’s means of production. To take just one consequence: it was, in large part, the radical and unadulterated redistribution of these economic hierarchies in post-2003 Iraq, which convinced enough Sunnis to don black balaclavas and call themselves ISIS.

The point is not that the West is the root of all evil in the region—another common narrative, as problematic as forced allusions to the Thirty Years’ War. Rather, my point is that if we cannot even realize our own equity in these contemporary sectarian disasters, then it seems intuitively less likely that we will recognize and properly navigate the contours of equity belonging to the region’s indigenous shareholders. This, unfortunately, is the exact substance that eventual peace will be forged of. If the roots of these conflicts are political—as opposed to immutable and religious—then their solutions can also be politically crafted. Both the United States and the wider West do have important interests in the region, not the least of which involve protecting human rights and promoting liberal values. For better or worse, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the West does not play some eventual role in extinguishing this sudden rise of sectarian tension. We should seek ways of understanding what’s going on over there.

But calling today’s Middle East the Thirty Years’ War is both ideologically self-serving, and immensely counterproductive. It entirely muddles the possibility that this is all just senseless bloodshed. The possibility that each life lost is not one step toward peace and sectarian reconciliation (à la Westphalia), but rather a step in the other direction: a senseless prolongation of hostilities that only ratchets up the cycle of violence, deferring peace and planting the seeds of tomorrow’s human rights disasters in the collective memories of all parties involved.

Heuristics are great when they facilitate understanding. Really. But here, blind acceptance of this Thirty Years’ War narrative is more like taking a shortcut through a swamp. As long as we opt for this route, chances are that peace will come later, not sooner. One can only hope that this realization does not take thirty years.

Chris Beall is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Alessandra Kocman/Creative Commons


The Middle East is not undergoing a Thirty Years’ War: forced analogies and human rights (part 1 of 2)

By Chris Beall

With the recent escalation in Yemen between Shiite Houthi rebels and Sunni Arab coalition forces, journalists, commentators and policymakers have resurfaced a popular story to explain the latest wave of fighting in the Hadramaut. It goes something like this: whatever the particular circumstances of this individual conflict, what we’re really witnessing in the sectarian warfare across the contemporary Middle East is a theological realignment and reformation of Islam itself—a prolonged umbrella conflict between Sunnis and Shiites that resembles the scope and significance of Europe’s Thirty Years’ War.

Whatever its original source, this story has gained remarkable traction over the last few years. With the rapid ascent of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the virtual unraveling of Syria and Iraq along sectarian lines, commentators from a variety of backgrounds have deployed this narrative to explain the truly horrific bloodshed that has unleashed in the region. Whether one looks to the easing of Iranian sanctions or the implosion of the Arab Spring, 17th-century European history seems to be on everyone’s tongue. For the last three centuries, the Thirty Years’ War has never been more in vogue.


I’ll leave a detailed exegesis of this old European conflict to the historians. Essentially, the series of wars in Central Europe between 1618 and 1648 were fueled by Catholic-Protestant tensions, resulting from unsustainable post-Reformation political arrangements throughout the Germanic Holy Roman Empire. What was planted as structural insufficiencies in the Peace of Augsburg sprouted into the violent fragmentation of the Holy Roman Empire, and then, through the vying international interests of competing great thrones, blossomed into devastating decades-long warfare that was truly continental in scope. Although the protracted conflict saw its share of opportunism and side-swapping, the course of the internecine bloodshed basically played out along Christianity’s sectarian boundaries.

In today’s discussions, there are two important takeaways from the Thirty Years’ War. The first concerns the Peace of Westphalia, which brought an eventual end to hostilities, and is commonly cited as the birth of the modern nation-state international system. The idea, crudely, is that subjects no longer paid sometimes-competing allegiances to the throne and the clergy, but instead envisioned themselves as discrete social units (or “imagined communities”) paying undiluted loyalty to an authorized sovereign administering specified and legal territorial borders. On one hand, 30 years of shifting war fronts earns you territorial boundaries that reflect at least some demographic and socio-religious logic, while on the other hand, the passions and ferocity of religion itself are subdued and partially supplanted by nationalism.

The second important takeaway from Thirty Years’ War is how three decades of combat truly ravished the continent, killing an estimated eight million people. In Germany alone, one-fifth of the population was lost to violence, disease and starvation. The war also devastated Europe’s early 17th century economy, leading marauding armies to loot and prey on civilians, thereby inviting atrocities perpetuated by all sides of the conflict.


Considering the first lesson above, there are tempting reasons to want to believe that the current sectarian warfare between Sunnis and Shiites is a development that mirrors the Thirty Years’ War. To do so endows an undercurrent of nationalist sacrifice to all of this violence— that whatever blood might get spilled in places like Iraq and Yemen, it’s all for the greater good as this long-troubled region earns its own Peace of Westphalia. At which point, of course, peace and stability will undoubtedly flourish.

However to accept this idea inherently implies an acceptance of that second above point as well, and this inseparability plays out in the commentary. For example, Richard Haass, in his July 2014 article for Project Syndicate: “Policymakers must recognize their limits,” Haass writes. “For now and for the foreseeable future – until a new local order emerges or exhaustion sets in – the Middle East will be less a problem to be solved than a condition to be managed.” Such nonchalance is nothing short of chilling, when you consider that the “condition” Haass so casually mentions takes the form of mass executions, kidnappings, beheadings, sexual enslavement, sectarian cleansing and literally lighting people on fire in cages. It should also distress us that Haass is not exactly making these comments from his mother’s basement: he is the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, one of America’s most accomplished diplomats and an active advisor of both Democrats and Republicans.

Many onlookers, including myself, have argued that military intervention—especially U.S. military intervention—in Syria and Iraq would do more harm than good. I, for one, still believe that. But to confuse this with the idea that today’s Middle East involves any less of a “problem to be solved,” and that both the US and the international community should sit idly by (with, out of all fairness to Haass, an occasional drone strike) and await some naturally occurring grand peace is an absurdity. A far more reasonable course of conduct would involve using diplomacy and American soft power with the intensity and resources we seemingly devote only to hard power—but such a policy argument is beyond my scope here.

My point is simply that to mindlessly compare today’s sectarian wars in the Middle East to Europe’s Thirty Years’ War both normalizes and practically endorses the rampant human rights abuses that such conflicts have wrought. While it is certainly tempting to accept this analogy, and keep our hands clean in the process, realize that to do so involves a political decision, and an impulse forged more by ideology than any facts on the ground. It’s one thing to connect dots and recognize patterns. Surely, there are commonalities between Sunni-Shia and Catholic-Protestant sectarianism, or any sectarianism, for that matter. But it’s something else entirely to enslave our thinking to our own forced analogies, out of nothing but the desire for heuristic simplicity and cookie-cutter interpretive models. Recognize also that when we allow such limited thinking to bleed into our policymaking (and considering the comments of both Haass and Leon Panetta, I think that we do), there will be monstrous consequences for human rights in the region.

In the second part of this series on the Thirty Years’ War narrative and the Middle East, I’ll look at more useful interpretive models to analyze the recent conflicts.

Chris Beall is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Palamedes Palamedesz/Public Domain

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FILM REVIEW: Watchers of the Sky

By Zahava Moerdler

Raphael Lemkin among the representatives of four states who ratified the Genocide Convention (standing row, first from the right)

Raphael Lemkin among the representatives of four states who ratified the Genocide Convention (standing row, first from the right)

In a scene reminiscent of high school films, Ben Ferencz, former Nuremberg prosecutor and peace and rule of law advocate, prepares a bag of Hershey’s kisses for ambassadors at the United Nations (U.N.) to encourage them to sign his petition calling for crimes of aggression to be included as a human rights violation. “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar…or something like that,” Ferencz says. Ferencz doesn’t just astound you with his vast knowledge of law, but also with his incredible optimism. After witnessing the horrors of the Holocaust concentration camps as a liberator and Nuremberg prosecutor of the Einsatzgruppen (the group of SS who traveled into Easter Europe to systematically shoot and murder villages of Jews), he still has a passion for making the world a better place and hopes that his efforts will be successful—either through his own work or by building a foundation for those who come after him. This passion and hope permeate the powerful documentary “Watchers of the Sky,” as it traces the past and present history of genocide.

The film weaves together numerous narratives throughout the documentary as it describes both past and present genocides. The dominant narrative in the film follows the story of Raphael Lemkin, the man who coined the term “genocide” and worked tirelessly for the adoption of the Genocide Convention at the U.N. As a young man he studied instances of mass violence and murder, and after the Armenian genocide, Lemkin switched his field of study in university from linguistics to law because he wanted to find a way to stop future acts of violence. During the Second World War, Lemkin becomes a refugee and lost most of his family in the Holocaust. Lemkin spent the rest of his life searching for a word to describe the complete destruction of a people, believing whole-hardheartedly that the creation of a word to describe the event would lead the world to take notice and prevent future atrocities.

The Sundance award-winning film, inspired by Samantha Power’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, A Problem From Hell, traces Lemkin’s story and legacy as it weaves in the struggles and narratives of four individuals currently fighting to prevent genocide including: Ben Ferencz; Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the UN; Moreno Ocampo, the first Prosecutor of the ICC; and Rwandan Emmanuel Uwurukundo, a UN Refugee Agency Field Director in Chad. Each of these individuals narrate Lemkin’s story while also describing their own experiences with genocide and genocide prevention. One of the most successful aspects of the film is its ability to incorporate so many disparate narrators and narratives while creating a cohesive story.

The film seemingly jumps between Lemkin’s story and the genocides in Armenia, Darfur and Bosnia. In doing so, the filmmakers use Lemkin’s story as the lens to both frame and educate the viewer about past genocides and current efforts concerning the genocide in Darfur. For example, former ICC prosecutor Ocampo acts as both a narrator for Lemkin’s story and as a focal point for efforts to prosecute President Al-Bashir of Sudan. As the film poignantly quotes from Raphael Lemkin’s notebooks, “The function of memory is not only to register past events, but also to stimulate human conscious.”

Another incredible device in the film is its use of Raphael Lemkin’s private papers and journals. I attended a conference last summer about Holocaust education, where two of the film’s producers showed a few clips from the film. During this, they also talked about the hours of work spent combing through Lemkin’s personal journals and correspondences. Instead of merely narrating sections of his writing, the film sometimes switches to an animation sequence in which images and words are displayed as someone narrates in the background. In one section of the film, the screen fills with words to recreate Lemkin’s manic obsession as he searched for the word genocide. In doing so, the viewer not only hears about Lemkin’s experience, but also witnesses it as the words from his personal papers dance to life on the screen, as if being written before the viewer’s eyes.

Despite these incredible strengths, the film has two flaws. First, the film uses a lot of photographs from Bosnia, Darfur, the Holocaust and Rwanda. Many of those pictures are iconic: barbed wire, men grasping a fence, piles of machetes and mass graves. These iconic images focus viewers on the most publicized aspects of the mass violence. In fact, most of the iconic images are based on photographs taken in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust. Their constant reproduction makes them “popular” and difficult to see. But in focusing on these expected images, many of the narratives at the fringe or outside the mainstream memory of that genocide are left out. I have made this point before, and so I will keep this short: we must do all we can to encourage the inclusion of all narratives so that no survivor feels marginalized.

Second, you do not learn the meaning behind the title, “Watchers of the Sky,” until the very last sequence in the film. Although I am sure this was done for dramatic effect, there is a disconnect for almost two hours as you watch the film and don’t fully grasp the meaning of the title. I won’t give anything away in this paragraph because the meaning behind the title is incredibly powerful and uplifting, and I highly recommend watching the film in its entirety. In fact, concluding by explaining the title allows the film to end on a hopeful note—which is much needed after an hour and 45 minutes.

Alright, I have one major spoiler and it pertains to the title: A “Watcher of the Sky” is an individual who recognizes the moral imperative of ending cycles of violence and works to improve the quality of life for forgotten populations. What I loved most about the film was its ability to teach me about the past, educate me about the present and inspire me to act in the future. The film draws the viewer and before you know it (almost two hours later…) you can’t help but wonder, what can I do?

Zahava Moerdler is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: culturaldiplomacy/Creative Commons

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Migrant abuses in the Gulf: a chance to pressure the Kafala system

By Chris Beall

The sheer scope of Qatar’s development plans, in preparation for the country’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup, is nothing short of impressive. Deloitte forecasts that this small, gas-rich Gulf nation will spend an estimated $200 billion on new construction and infrastructure projects by the tournament’s 22nd opening ceremony. For comparison, Brazil’s 2014 World Cup cost approximately $15 billion, while South Africa spent roughly $3 billion on their 2010 games. Qatar’s construction portfolio contains no less than eight planned stadiums, a new international airport, a metro system, expanded roadways and a wave of new hotels to shelter the influx of international tourists attending the games.

However such an ambitious price tag becomes far less impressive, when you consider that the bulk of these projects rest on what is essentially modern slavery. The conditions faced by the migrant workers currently laying the concrete for these projects comprise just the latest nightmarish manifestation of transnational labor.

According to a September 2013 article by The Guardian, Qatar’s World Cup plans will end up costing the lives of approximately 4,000 laborers by the start of the tournament. The nation’s 1.5 million member migrant workforce—primarily Nepali and Indian workers—is on pace to lose about a dozen members per week, as laborers are literally worked to death amongst the nation’s scorching heat and hellish working conditions.

Thankfully, the slavery involved in Qatar’s World Cup plans has garnered a relatively surprising amount of international attention in the last year or so. Whether it’s the international popularity and prestige of the FIFA World Cup, or some other factor, a rare sort of light has been shone on labor practices in Qatar specifically. Go google “Qatar World Cup,” and—at least from a mere baseline exposure standpoint—it’s refreshing to see that the word “slavery” is robustly scattered among the results.

While it’s hard to excuse the lack of concrete measures that have been taken in light of this international attention, it would also be reprehensible to ignore the fact that this is not solely a Qatar problem. Though the state of labor generally under neoliberalism presents a complex human tragedy that spans the entire globe, the specific practices deployed under Qatar’s uniquely massive state-spending project represent just one dramatic example of labor practices in the wider Gulf region: a set of migrant worker policies known as the kafala system.


The kafala system, from the Arabic verb “to vouch” or “to guarantee,” consists of a series of labor practices where Gulf employers may sponsor migrant employees—usually South Asian—for a period of contract labor, typically for purposes of construction, manual labor or domestic service. The system is widely practiced in nations on the Arabian Peninsula, as well as in the Middle East broadly, as far west as Jordan and Lebanon. Although accurate numbers are hard to come by, it is estimated by the Migrant Forum in Asia that at least 25 million migrants were employed in 2010 across the Middle East under the system.

Like transnational labor generally, the idealized logic that makes the kafala system possible is based on the concepts of remittances and opportunity, where unskilled workers from impoverished nations may temporarily emigrate to better paying labor markets, in hopes of sending wages home to support and enhance the lives of their families and local communities. What makes the kafala system unique, however, is the concept of sponsorship, where employers and the migrants themselves place highly competitive contract bids with international labor brokers, in order for employers/sponsors to acquire a state of personal responsibility over their incoming workers. Sanitized of its nuances, the idea is to create a protection mechanism, where individual employers become quasi-legally responsible for the well-being of these migrant workers. In fact, the system’s foundations stem from a Bedouin cultural practice, which allows temporary grants of protection and tribal membership to strangers. If you were wandering across the desert and stumbled across a Bedouin community, the inclusion and hospitality promised under kafala would allow that community to feed you, shelter you and protect you, until you freely and voluntarily decided to go on your way.

This benevolent logic is one thing, but how the system translates into modern practice is quite another matter entirely. According to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on the kafala system in Saudi Arabia, the combination of high-cost recruitment and broker fees, along with the assumption of legal responsibility over kafala workers, encourages psychological feelings of ownership among sponsoring employment providers, opening the door to all of the traditional abuses of slavery. Although many migrants in these countries are provided adequate living conditions by their hosts, it is common practice for kafala sponsors to retain complete possession of a sponsored migrant’s visa and passport, thereby controlling their workers’ ability to move elsewhere, change employers or even return to their home country.

Under the guise of patronage, the kafala system also allows for gaping legal loopholes, commonly utilized to bypass host-country labor laws. At one level, the kafala framework is immensely privatized, extending sponsorship-granting privileges to individual citizens, a process that individualizes what would otherwise be thought of as a state role in immigration enforcement. The obvious result is diminished oversight concerning the potential for abuse among incoming migration flows. Likewise, in conceiving of kafala workers as individually-sponsored guests rather than state-sponsored contributors to host-nation economies, traditional worker protections (such as Saudi work-hour caps and minimum rest day requirements) do not apply to kafala migrants, HRW documented.

Worse, even in undeniable cases of blatant abuse and exploitation (the sexual abuse of domestic workers, for example), kafala migrants are often left without any semblance of a means of redress. Although such practices are technically illegal, and should be punished in court, kafala migrants face a social stigma and perceived lack of credibility that effectively block access to host-nation justice mechanisms. Those who do manage to access host-nation judicial systems often find themselves subject to dubious counterclaims of theft or witchcraft, resulting in either dropped charges entirely or their own prosecution, HRW reported. With the complete absence of legal aid or procedural protections, kafala migrants who suddenly find themselves as defendants can and occasionally do receive harsh sentences, from jail time to public whippings, and in some cases, beheadings.

The result of these practices is a system of transnational labor that normalizes and systematically enables the abuses of slavery within many contemporary Middle Eastern societies. The human rights abuses cultivated by kafala labor—non-payment of wages, involuntary confinement, forced starvation, physical beatings, rape and court-ordered beheadings—should each raise alarm among both human rights advocates and transnational entities conducting business in the region, whether multinational corporations or organizations like FIFA.


The important work of human rights organizations and awareness groups like Migrant-Rights.org has had some traction on influencing the discourse surrounding today’s kafala system. Although little has tangibly improved, many Gulf governments have shown some signs of sensitivity when it comes to political pressure and criticism of these labor policies. In 2008, Bahrain banned the kafala system outright, although such a shift never translated from rhetoric into substantive change. Qatar has also used this same kind of facial-reform language lately, in light of its own mounting criticism. Meanwhile, in the Emirates, Dubai has recently witnessed a rare series of public migrant strikes, as laborers there protest their slave-like working conditions.

Notably, Saudi Arabia has also launched a series of migrant labor reforms, which now allow many of the nation’s estimated nine million kafala workers to switch jobs or change employers without their sponsor’s consent. Although these reforms were launched primarily as a way of targeting Saudi national unemployment, and only apply to the employees of firms that do not meet set citizen-worker quotas, such a change in policy reveals that when these governments find it within their interest to alter the kafala system, and consequentially improve the lives of their migrant workers, they are perfectly capable of doing so.

Which makes the case for increased international scrutiny right now all the more sensible. At a moment when the abusive human rights practices of long term U.S. adversaries like Cuba and Iran have entered the spotlight of public discussion, it would be an especially fitting moment to break Washington’s silence concerning the troubling human rights practices of our traditional partners as well. Some of our closest allies in the Middle East today are the most entrenched practitioners of kafala labor. Between the international community’s current normalization efforts with longtime Gulf-rival Iran, and the billions of international dollars flowing toward Qatar’s World Cup, there is an atypical sort of alignment here for international players to leverage positive change in the region. We should take advantage of that. It would mean failing millions of the world’s most vulnerable migrants, were we to not seize this rare opportunity.

Chris Beall is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: the apostrophe/Creative Commons