Rights Wire

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


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Climate change divestment, the moral crusade

By Jennifer Li

Like a bad Nelly song, the temperature keeps rising. In the Northern Hemisphere, the previous 30 years was likely the warmest period out of the last 1,400 years. Between 1880 and 2012, global temperatures increased approximately 0.85 degrees Celsius – not an insignificant increase when considering that just the slightest temperature change can produce calamitous results. The post-industrial temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius in total threatens food and water security, particularly for populations along the coastal communities and their livelihoods.

During the much-maligned 2009 UN climate summit in Copenhagen, governments signed a nonbinding agreement pledging to keep temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), a target that was informed more by political motivations than scientific data. The focal point of much of the criticism of Copenhagen was its failure to produce binding commitments from governments. Without stringent mitigation measures to accompany political lip service, average temperatures may increase 4 degrees Celsius by century’s end. The World Bank has warned in a report that a 4 degrees warmer world will be “marked by extreme heat waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise.” Four degrees could translate to global sea level rises of up to two meters, drowning Tuvalu and the Maldives, and inundating coastal areas from California to the Northeastern U.S. “There is also no certainty that adaptation to a 4 degree Celsius world is possible,” the same report cautioned. We are all 4 degrees from crossing the Rubicon.

Current fossil fuel reserves in the world are at least three times greater than the maximum amount that can be burned while keeping global average temperature increase below the 2 degrees Celsius aspirational limit settled upon by world governments. While these reserves are potentially worth trillions of dollars, investment in them contributes to the creation of a carbon bubble, a term that refers to the over-valuation of companies like Exxon, Lukoil, and other fossil fuel energy producers who would not be able to fully tap into their reserves if we are to avoid climate catastrophe. By some estimates, at least two thirds of current fossil fuel assets must remain untapped to curtail climate change and keep temperatures below the 2 degrees Celsius limit.

In the last several years, sovereign wealth funds, religious organizations, charitable foundations, universities and other institutions have pledged to divest from fossil fuels. Divestment – removing financial support from different issues by shedding stocks, bonds, investment funds – is not a new strategy. Previously, divestment campaigns have targeted issues such as landmines, tobacco advertising, sweatshop labor and, most famously, apartheid in South Africa. The South Africa divestment campaign in the 1970s and 80s has been hailed as a model for success, as it was bookended by the dismantling of the apartheid system. The real impact of divestment under the South Africa paradigm, however, remains unclear, as studies have indicated that public market valuations in fact remained unaffected. “The sanctions may have been effective in raising the public moral standards or public awareness of South African repression, but it appears that financial markets managed to avoid the brunt of the sanctions,” concluded a 1999 study published by the University of Chicago Journal of Business.

The current fossil fuel divestment movement relies on a similar tactic of moral persuasion. Spearheaded since 2012 by 350.org, the divestment campaign is premised on the idea that public interest institutions cannot possibly serve the needs of its constituents while simultaneously feeding the business model of fossil fuel companies whose financial profits derive from climate destabilization. As Naomi Klein explained in her recent book, This Changes Everything, “[Y]oung people have a special moral authority in making this argument to their school administrators: these are the institutions entrusted to prepare them for the future; so it is the height of hypocrisy for those same institutions to profit from an industry that has declared war on the future at the most elemental level.” Indeed, some of the most vigorous divestment movements have been led by students on hundreds of university campuses worldwide, including at Stanford, which committed to divest from coal companies in May 2014. This past March, the UN joined the clarion call for divestment, and the Guardian launched its own divestment campaign, “Keep it in the ground,” which combines hard-hitting journalism on climate change with calls urging large institutions like the Gates Foundation and Wellcome Trust to jump onboard.

Critics have rightly and pragmatically pointed out that divestment alone is hardly a sufficient financial incentive to shape the energy sector’s behavior. Just as other buyers stepped in to pick up the pieces when funds were pressured to sell off the stock of companies active in South Africa, so, too, will other investors rapidly take the place of the Stanfords of the world and absorb the loss if and when they sever financial interests from fossil fuel companies. Further, despite the focus on the cessation of direct investments, many institutions invest indirectly through managers. Stanford’s divestment pledge has committed only to cease direct investments in coal companies, which says nothing of its plans to discontinue any indirect investments in coal, or any direct or indirect investment in oil and gas companies, for that matter. And despite perhaps a signaling effect, the actual impact on portfolios is low.

However, the objective is not – and should not be – to bankrupt fossil fuel companies, and the energy sector needs to play a critical role in any viable climate strategy. Rather, proponents argue, as with previous divestment campaigns, the primary objective here is the indirect impact of divestment: stigmatization and public shaming. Just as international opposition contributed to the decline of apartheid, increased visibility and public pressure may amplify calls for cleaner energy solutions. In a 2013 report published by the University of Oxford, Ben Caldecott wrote that “the outcome of the stigmatization process, which the fossil fuel divestment campaign has now triggered, poses the most far-reaching threat to fossil fuel companies and the vast energy value chain. Any direct impacts pale in comparison.”

Jennifer Li is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.

Photo credit: maisa_nyc/Creative Commons


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Pushing for a return of LGBTI rights in Pakistan

By Urooj Rahman

In Pakistan, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people are often systemically marginalized, with very few of their basic rights protected and little opportunity to live openly without fear of physical or emotional violence. Transgender individuals in particular typically earn a living through begging or working as hired dancers for weddings ceremonies and other celebrations in which men and women are often segregated. Gay and bisexual men as well as transgender and intersex people also take part in sex work in order to make ends meet.

Although Pakistan actually has a tacitly-accepted underground gay and queer subculture in certain areas—particularly when it comes to male-to-male sexual or intimate interactions—speaking openly about one’s status as an LGBTI individual is still considered taboo and can be dangerous.

RAMPANT ABUSES

LGBTI people are often blackmailed, kidnapped, sexually assaulted and detained for voicing their concerns or asserting their rights. A 2014 International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) report revealed that discrimination and violence against lesbians, bisexual women and transgender people continues to remain widespread throughout many Asian countries, including in Pakistan. The report highlighted that LGBTI individuals often face emotional and psychological abuse as well as physical and sexual violence. Often, the perpetrators of such abuse are family members who do not respect their relative’s gender non-conforming identities. For instance, one of the respondents from Pakistan often felt that the emotional and psychological abuse of being forced to wear girls’ clothing as a child—when he identified as a male—was just as traumatic as the physical violence he endured because of his transgender identity.

The report also documented that lesbians, bisexual women, and transgender people in Pakistan reported high levels of domestic violence, with heterosexual men often being the perpetrators of such violence. According to the Neengar Society, a youth-led LGBT rights organization, threats or violence by family members against LGBT people usually go unreported and are often resolved within the family, even if individuals are badly beaten. Moreover, many lesbian and bisexual women said they were forced to enter into heterosexual marriages in order to escape lasting emotional, physical and sexual abuse from their communities.

Gay and bisexual men are also discriminated against, despite Pakistan’s reputation for a lively homosexual underground. The Neenjar Society documented ten cases of gay men being prosecuted for same-sex sexual activity; two cases resulted in ten-year prison sentences. These cases and many other instances of homophobia show that the tacit and silent acceptance of the widespread underground gay male sex culture is not actually tolerated when exposed in Pakistani society.

This structural discrimination and violence waged against LGBTI communities in Pakistani society occurs through both through the legal system as well as through patriarchal, cis-gendered hijacking of Pakistani culture. For example, the laws that are primarily meant to end violence against women are insufficient in extending adequate protections to lesbians, bisexual women and transgender people. Government officials and leaders not only often fail to prevent violence, but also create a culture of permissiveness through such laws, which condone violence and discrimination against lesbian, bisexual women and transgender individuals.

Another discriminatory law in Pakistan is section 377 of Pakistan’s Penal Code, which criminalizes same-sex sexual conduct or sexual activity that is “against the order of nature,” making offenses punishable by life imprisonment or a fine. The law is not just one part of the systemic violence and oppression that LGBTI individuals face in Pakistan, but it is also a remnant of British colonial times, which brought about a destruction of long-standing queer subcultures that were openly accepted in pre-colonial times on the Indian subcontinent.

NOT ALWAYS A CRIME

Being an LGBTI individual was not always a crime in present-day Pakistan. Before the British colonized South Asia, the rights of transgender, intersex and queer individuals were much more respected and protected, according to scholars. Gender non-conforming people and sexual minorities were readily accepted in the pre-colonial Mughal Empire, which ruled over modern-day India and Pakistan. For centuries, in fact, the existence and recognition of the “third gender” was widely accepted in India, present-day Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, the Middle East, the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mamluk empires and beyond.

While Western states either failed to give recognition to or further oppressed their queer communities, the Mughals of South Asia treated gender and sexual minorities with dignity and created an environment of inclusion and prosperity, rather than marginalization and poverty for LGBTI people. The Mughals enabled gender non-conforming individuals to become part of their royal courts and to be given positions of high esteem. Many gender non-conforming and queer people were able to achieve positions of high regard and respect, while also having the opportunity to accumulate wealth. The Khwaja-sira and Hijra communities of Pakistan also draw their histories and identities from this time. Furthermore, transgender and queer individuals have a long history in South Asia. The texts of the Kama Sutra, the ancient Indian Hindu text on human sexual behavior, written as far back as 300 to 400 B.C., even refer to a “third sex” in Sanskrit literature.

Though many Western LGBTI advocates attribute conservative religiosity, such as Islamic and Hindu extremism, to the marginalization of LGBTI people in South Asia, this is not the case. The Mughals, despite their secular ways, were Indian Muslim rulers, who held onto their Muslim identities while governing. For example, they worked to incorporate the Islamic concept of “doing justice,” which promotes egalitarian values, by creating an inclusive environment for many minorities in India, including queer communities.

This long-standing norm of acceptance of queer communities came to an end largely when the British imperialists colonized India. Of course, the sharp decline in LGBTI rights on the sub-continent cannot wholly and completely be attributed to the British colonizers, as there is some personal accountability South Asians must take in enabling the steady decline of queer rights in India. But in the late 19th century, anti-homosexual criminal laws were imposed upon newly conquered colonies by Britain. The British Parliament approved and enacted the Indian Penal Code (IPC), including section 377 in 1860. British colonial legislators and jurists passed such laws without any regard for cultural traditions, principles, local customs, laws and social policies. These laws essentially promoted structural divisions, institutional cleavages, and encouraged deeper wedges of hierarchy, which gave rise to widespread discrimination and violence against gender non-conforming people and sexual minority populations. They consigned people to inferior status on the basis of their identities and biological and anatomical ambiguities. Essentially, people were “otherized” and criminalized because of their physical attributes, how they looked, with whom they chose to become intimate and/or who they chose to love, among various other factors.

British imperialists, who clearly had the all-too-common and disturbingly-misguided “white savior” complex, thought their colonial subjects needed to be taught “proper sexual ethics.” Imperial rulers found it their burden to ensure that newly established British settler societies in colonial India (and elsewhere throughout the British empire) did not fall prey to immoral temptations influenced by native ideals of sexual openness and expression, which imperialists viewed as hedonistic promiscuity. They instituted these barbaric penal codes in order to subjugate the masses, whose “native cultures did not punish ‘perverse’ or ‘unacceptable’ sexual conduct enough.” Part of this was to push the indigenous (pre-partition) Indian population (which included the ancestors of present-day Pakistanis) to adopt what the British perceived to be “civilized and morally superior” European principles into the resistant indigenous Indian society. In their quest to do this, the British imperialists instituted a discriminatory system that still lives on today in Pakistan, India, and other former colonies.

A LONG WAY FORWARD

Nonetheless, more recently, Pakistan saw a reversion back to its pre-colonial acceptance of LGBTI individuals when the Pakistani Supreme Court acknowledged a third gender option on national identity cards in 2012. This decision came a few years after a transgender man, Shumail Raj, and his wife, Shahzina Tariq, were initially convicted and jailed for perjuring about their marriage in May 2007. Their marriage was deemed an illegal same-sex marriage arrangement by the Lahore High Court (an intermediary court). The court did not recognize Shumail to be a man, even after he received gender-reassignment surgery to match his anatomical sex with his gender identity. Though they were sentenced to three years of imprisonment, the couple was jailed for a period of three months, after which they were finally released on bail by the Pakistani Supreme Court, which agreed to hear their appeal. However, because the Chief Judge of the Supreme Court was ousted when martial law was later declared in 2007, their appeal has yet to be heard.

Still, Pakistan has a long way to go in order to ameliorate the institutional and systemic discrimination that it perpetuates against the LGBTI community, among many other marginalized groups. Pakistan, among many other Asian countries, has the ability to revive the respect for queer subcultures it once proudly boasted. The acknowledgement of the third sex is a step in the right direction. However, a full integration and acceptance of the LGBTI community in Pakistan must occur so that they can live openly without fear of poverty, abuse or violence. This should include adhering to international human rights law, alleviating social and economic hardships faced by LGBTI individuals and ending institutionalized discrimination.

Urooj Rahman is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.

Photo Credit: Shahzeb Ihsans/Creative Commons


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Two years since Rana Plaza: why the Accord and the Alliance are all the more relevant

By Yo Shiina

Following the devastating collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh in April of 2013, which claimed the lives of 1,129 people, two historic initiatives were launched by the world’s major apparel brands: the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (“the Accord”) and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (“the Alliance”). Both initiatives seek to establish mechanisms for preventing fire and safety hazards. These initiatives are all the more relevant now as increasing international attention focuses on meaningful change in the apparel sector.

During the Spring 2015 semester, the Corporate Social Responsibility Clinic at the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice undertook a review of these two mechanisms to identify structural differences and similarities between them, and to assess the current status of inspections and implementation measures at the supplying factories of some of the major signatory brands.

A FACTORY COLLAPSE AND AN INDUSTRY UNDER SCRUTINY

Ready-made garments (RMG) is the largest industry in Bangladesh, comprising nearly 50 percent of the nation’s economy, according to a report by the Institute of Developing Economies. Approximately 4 million workers work in the RMG industry, 80 percent of whom are women. Through their work, they indirectly support 40 million people, which is approximately a quarter of the entire national population. A typical RMG factory worker may earn about $1,176 dollars per year for six 10-hour work days per week for 300 days a year. This is after the 77 percent wage increase in 2013.

Due to a lack of land space and high population density, garment factories are typically built one upon the other, and in some cases, in former swamp areas. With multiple factory owners sharing the same building, structural weakness tend to be overlooked—highly stressed columns and cracks in beams often go unnoticed. It was in this backdrop that the multiple garment factory complex Rana Plaza, housing five workshops and 2,000 workers, collapsed on April 24, 2013.

Even before the Rana Plaza incident, fire and safety hazards were common in Bangladesh factories. For example, a fire at Tazreen Fashions killed 112 workers in November 2012. Responding to this, the Ministry of Labour and Employment of Bangladesh, in a joint effort with the International Labor Organization (ILO), coordinated the adoption of the National Tripartite Plan of Action on Fire Safety and Structural Integrity in the Ready-Made Garment Sector in Bangladesh, which was signed by the government, employers and workers. This plan set out a blueprint and timeline for respective parties to implement changes ensuring workers’ safety and building integrity. Although the Plan—originally set in place even before the Rana Plaza tragedy—was designated as a response to Rana Plaza collapse, the international community continued to question fashion brands’ culpability in the collapse, even though the brands did not directly own the supplier factories. Images of fashion brands’ labels amid the rubble quickly circulated the Internet, along with media reports of workers laboring in the often abusive environment for a mere pittance until the moment the building collapsed over them. Spurred by the calls for accountability, the brands took action: the Accord was launched on May 15, 2013 and the Alliance on July 10, 2013.

THE ACCORD AND THE ALLIANCE

Although both the Accord and the Alliance share the same goal of preventing fires and building safety hazards in Bangladesh and are based on the National Tripartite Plan, there are some marked differences between the two instruments. The Accord is often described as an “European” initiative, as its over 260 members include many top European companies, such as Benetton and Mango. Some American companies such as PVH and Abercrombie & Fitch are also signatories. The Alliance, on the other hand, comprises of 26 North American brands and companies, including J.C. Penny, GAP and Walmart.

The Accord is a legally binding agreement signed by brands, trade unions and NGOs. Over 260 companies have signed onto the Accord. Most signatories are from Europe, but some are also from North America and Asia. Six Bangladeshi labor unions and four global labor unions have also joined the Accord, and four international NGOs are currently acting as witnesses. Signatory companies commit to the Accord’s activity and obligations for the full duration of its existence. Each company commits to maintaining long-term sourcing relationships with its main suppliers, conditioned upon the supplier’s compliance with fire and building safety measures. The Alliance, on the other hand, is comprised of 26 North American brands and retail companies, and is not legally binding in the same sense: signatory companies don’t commit to any long-term sourcing relationships or assistance in remedial measures, and membership can be terminated at any time.

Under the Accord, signatory companies must ensure factory workers’ employment during necessary fire and building safety remediation. They must also work with suppliers to ensure that remedial measures are financially possible. Under the Alliance, the signatory companies have no such obligation. Also, while the Accord obligates signatory companies to maintain long-term sourcing relationships with complying factories, there is no such requirement under the Alliance, whose members may also resign at any time.

Many similarities also exist between the two initiatives. Both the Accord and the Alliance have a limited time span of 5 years to accomplish their objectives (although, in theory, both plans may be extended). Both provide fire and safety training programs and a hotline for factory workers to report dangerous working conditions. And the two pledged to conduct safety inspections of the supplier factories contracted with their company signatories. To that end, signatories are required to publicly disclose their list of contracting supplier factories and work with third party inspectors. However, while the Accord appoints an independent Chief Safety Inspector, who is free from the Accord’s interference except in cases of suspected incompetence or wrongdoing, to oversee inspections, the Alliance employs multiple inspectors who are under its supervision. Moreover, under the Alliance, a signatory company can select the inspector for its own supplier factories.

On top of these efforts, the Accord and the Alliance both publish Corrective Action Plans (CAPs), which are inspection reports for the supplier factories that set out issues relating to structure, fire and electricity in the inspected factories. A review of some of the CAPs conducted by the Clinic, in partnership with an international NGO, identified some recurring patterns: inadequate, blocked or locked exits; electric wires and cables kept under hazardous conditions; and building structure risks, such as highly-stressed columns and beams. To date, both the Accord and the Alliance have completed inspections of all of their respective signatory companies’ suppliers. Some factories were shut down, and non-complying factories that remained open despite warnings were disclosed; signatory companies can no longer contract non-complying suppliers. Visibility of such information is expected to not only heighten public awareness, but also impact the behavior of other supplier factories.

ENSURING SAFETY AND ACCOUNTABILITY

While the difference between the Accord and the Alliance sparked debate in the initial stage, there have been some concerns that the two initiatives only cover a part of the entire 5,000 to 6,000 RMG factories in Bangladesh. The factories supplying covered under the Accord or the Alliance comprise only a part of the whole RMG industry, and non-signatory companies’ supplier factories remain outside the supervision of the international community. Moreover, one of the major obstacles in bringing about transparency and enforcement is the strong political influence exercised by many of the supplier factory owners, many of whom strongly favor the status quo. Another is how the trade association, Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association has an openly hostile attitude against workers’ rights and changes to the existing structure. Under this political landscape, even if a more worker-friendly law was enacted, the enforcement remains difficult.

It is undeniable, however, that these initiatives—which were motivated by consumer protests and implemented despite the fact that member brands do not directly own their supplier factories—made possible what was before unthinkable. This momentum for increased accountability and worker’s rights is all the more relevant after a recent deadly fire that killed 72 workers in the Philippines. The conditions at the factory was a virtual “death trap,” with windows covered with steel mesh and an inadequate number of exit doors. Initiatives such as the Accord and Alliance, even with their differences, can continue to promote awareness about the chain that links consumers, brands, corporations, supplier factories and labor all together, and what we as stakeholders can do to prevent these preventable tragedies. Though perhaps imperfect, they are a step in the right direction. In today’s world, where the fashion industry is based on increasingly frequent turnover during short selling seasons and is raking up revenues by selling higher volumes of cheaper fashion, we must continue to analyze and appraise what changes these legal instruments have brought on and what more we need to see moving forward.

Yo Shiina is a 3L student at Fordham Law School. She participated in the Leitner Center Corporate Social Responsibility Clinic.

The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.

Photo credit: NYU Stern BHR/Creative Commons


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Usurious counterweights: the human rights impact of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank

By Chris Beall

By the end of this year, proposals for the new, China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) are expected to take full effect, thereby producing the first real and substantive counterweight to the status quo system of public international development and global finance that the world has ever seen.

TRACING THE HISTORY

To understand the potential impacts of this development requires a general sense of the process that brought us here, and the motivations that have propelled the creation of the AIIB. Oddly enough, that history traces its origins to a small resort town in rural New England, and the world-changing conference held there just over seventy years ago.

In July 1944, Bretton Woods, New Hampshire served as the stage for the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference, a three-week gathering that hosted some of the world’s most influential economists and financiers. Their task was nothing short of overwhelming: to reformulate the global monetary order, and set regulatory policies that would govern international post-War economics. In this, the Bretton Woods Conference certainly succeeded.

Far from some seedy and exploitative high-finance conspiracy, the goals of the Bretton Woods Conference itself were commendable. Faced with World War II’s destruction of a good portion of the world’s industrialized economies, the plan was to create a system of public lending that would facilitate (mostly European) reconstruction, while also paving the path to an integrated and cooperative financial order that would stymie the underlying economic sources of global world wars.

In this, John Maynard Keynes’ proposals at the Conference are instructive. Negotiating for Great Britain, Keynes proposed the creation of an international lending institution that would essentially incentivize (read: force) the reinvestment of excess capital from surplus-nations into the empty coffers of debtor-nations, thereby allowing robust and largely autonomous sovereign state-spending projects. As the archetypical critic of flawed austerity policies, Keynes’ proposal would have provided developing nations with access to much-needed investment capital, and allowed them some semblance of freedom in crafting development plans curtailed to their individual needs.

Considering the havoc wrecked on the global periphery under British colonialism, it was an ironically unfortunate development that, in this instance, Britain’s position at Bretton Woods no longer carried the roar of the Commonwealth’s lost Victorian hegemony. Instead, a new international hegemon had entered the fray—a nation that had fared quite well economically during the war, and at the time possessed two-thirds of the world’s gold reserves. Not looking to have its own massive surpluses doled out in faraway places, the United States put its foot down. Without getting into the specifics, Keynes’ benevolent international lender was construed as something else entirely: an essentially U.S.-led, U.S.-dictated body of public lending institutions, that would set international lending policies in ways that primarily favored, to no surprise, the investing economy of the United States of America. Thus came about the birth of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

Considering the catastrophic progeny of these institutions, one might reasonably wonder why viable public lending alternatives have not cropped up sooner. The essential business model of the Washington Institutions over the past 60 years has been to take desperate, bankrupted nations, and condition life-boat capital injections on the forced implementation of austerity measures, structural adjustment programs and statewide debt-peonage. If nation X, for whatever reason, can’t pay its bills, the solution of the IMF has been to offer rescue packages in exchange for not only repayment with interest, but also economic reform obligations that gut public sectors, clamp down on state spending and eradicate social welfare systems. In terms of the World Bank, development has been blindly premised on returns on investment, with concerns toward something as moralistic as human rights or environmental impact entirely absent.

This logic stems from a very narrow and neoliberal conception of 21st century capitalism: damn your schools, your hospitals and your public works programs, only privatization and the attraction of predatory foreign investment can elevate savage economies unto the enlightened community of fiscally responsible nations. Never mind those real people with a reliance interest on crucial public services, nor those whose income depends on state spending—creative destruction!—it’ll hurt before it gets better. In short, a nation’s health is measured strictly in capital inflows, and without seeming to realize that capital can and does often leave as quick as it comes, nothing attracts the vultures like the carrion of a freshly dead public sector.

Whatever the reason for the lasting power of the Washington Consensus, the impact of a U.S.-tailored IMF and World Bank has not been lost on those very nations and populations that occasionally find themselves helplessly knocking at the counter of the IMF and the World Bank. And so, here at last, comes China’s AIIB.

AN ALTERNATIVE BANK

The proposed logic of the AIIB is to provide a Chinese alternative to the U.S.’s global lending system, the only real global lending system that has existed for the past half a century. For the first time, developing nations in Asia will have an alternative when it comes to taking on public loans. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the United States has tried pressuring our traditional allies from having anything to do with this new institution. So far, these efforts have failed, and I, for one, welcome such failure.

If we’re going to concede to the capitalist logic that espouses the dynamism of capitalism—the only logic that currently holds force in our world—then it seems entirely disingenuous to then deny the capitalist logic that competition will foster more favorable consumer circumstances. In this case, more favorable for nations shopping for loans. If the IMF and the World Bank are forced to compete for the debt of developing nations (at least in Asia, anyway), then I cannot help but feel that those developing nations actually stand to gain from the mere presence of an AIIB. The strong-arm monopoly power of structural adjustment programs and forced austerity measures could finally face a worthy opponent in the AIIB. Indeed, the IMF and the World Bank’s recent self-criticism and subsequent policy shifts seem to support this assertion.

And yet, there’s more to the story. Nobody actually believes that the AIIB is going to be some benevolent people’s lending institution, along the lines of Keynes’ rejected Bretton Woods proposals. Unfortunately, it would take a worldwide catastrophe and a global concentration of priorities on the level of World War II to even narrowly jar open that window again. Instead, the AIIB will be a China-centric international lending body, which will ultimately serve Chinese interests and Chinese dominance in the region. Lest we forget that self-interest is still the crux of the logic of capitalism.

Nor does to say that developing nations will benefit from lender competition and choice inherently mean that international human rights will share in this benefit. Even in the absence of an AIIB, China has shown a pretty cold calculus when it comes to with whom it does business. We might question whether we want some particular regimes to be given unrestricted access to capital and the infrastructure that solidifies their political power. Whatever largely unutilized sway the World Bank might have had in attaching rights-focused strings to their lending packages is about to be rendered moot by a competitor with an outright blind regard for their clients’ conduct in the world. China’s own human rights record, especially in terms of rights-focused development, leaves a lot to be desired. This should worry us, even if we admit that the demonstrated concerns of the United States were always more rhetorical than substantive. Likewise, when it comes to the type of industrial development we would like to see in the world. China is perhaps one of the few modern powers with a more reprehensible global warming attitude than that of the United States. Again, we have reason to lament so much lost potential throughout the World Bank’s monopoly era.

But these concerns, while real and worthy, should not be mistaken for the actual concerns of U.S. efforts to stop the AIIB. Sure, they’re being cited by the Obama administration, who is espousing the high lending standards of our precious World Bank. But in reality, this is just nation-states behaving as nation-states do. The AIIB will increase Chinese influence in Asia, and U.S. influence will diminish there in the process. Perhaps this whole question boils down to whether that development is something you would like or not like to see in the world. Surely, there are arguments to be made for both sides.

BANKING FOR HUMAN RIGHTS?

So, what to take away, then? The recent shifts in the IMF and World Bank’s own policies are certainly positive developments, and regardless of how much these shifts correlate with the AIIB’s founding, they should be celebrated as such. If the Washington Institutions were to follow through with these changes—here, a corrective jubilee would be a great start—perhaps there is some core competency to be carved out in this newly competitive space. Perhaps something along the lines of a truly sustainable development lending institution—the (sigh) Whole Foods of public international finance—is on the way. A quality-focused differentiation strategy could separate Washington from the AIIB: a system where debtors opt for, perhaps even pay slightly more for, lending packages that will grant them diplomatic kudos in exchange for their adherence to the radically different priorities of a reformed Washington Consensus: lending and development that plays particular attention to environmental and human rights concerns. This would allow global development along lines that the US would ostensibly like to see in the world, while simultaneously curbing China’s rising influence in a positive manner. Maybe. Perhaps, on the other hand, the unfettered access of rogue regimes to Chinese capital will blow up in the faces of the AIIB, thereby teaching the whole world some warm and fuzzy lesson in the process. Taking from current events elsewhere, Iran’s strained investments in Syria, for example, could prove instructive.

Or, perhaps the most we can hope for, is that the coexistence of the World Bank and the AIIB provides some constrained and relatively safe space for the U.S. to come to terms with the rise of Chinese hegemony in the region, in a manner that protects the interests of both nations and promotes mutual cooperation among them. In short, “a case for accommodation, not confrontation.” Such a development would be welcome for the future of international human rights in any return to a bipolarized world. If parallels may be drawn to the Cold War, using the rise of the AIIB to foster accommodation and cooperation, rather than a coming century of US-Chinese hostility, might be doing the whole world a favor. If the United States cannot prevent the ascent of Chinese predominance, then perhaps we can at least gracefully bow out of regional hegemony in a manner that positively influences China’s future in Asia. Perhaps in doing so, the United States can in some small way live up to its rhetorical human rights promise. Put differently: perhaps Keynes’ wisdom at Bretton Woods was at least partially premised on that, at the time, Great Britain knew a thing or two about the twilight of empire. Whatever comes next, maybe our own practices will share in this wisdom.

To cross your fingers is one thing. To hold your breath is another.

Chris Beall is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.

Photo credit: Richard Schneider/Creative Commons


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An emotional second day: hearing on Americans detained in Iran before the House Foreign Affairs Committee

By Zahava Moerdler

On June 2, 2015, my second day as an intern on Capitol Hill, I attended an incredibly powerful and emotional hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The families of four Americans detained in Iran came before the committee to tell their stories and request assistance in bringing their loved ones home.

In May, Congressman Dan Kildee introduced a resolution that would call on the Iranian government to release the four Americans currently detained in Iran. The resolution had bipartisan support and was co-sponsored by Ranking Member Eliot L. Engel and Chairman Ed Royce of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. It was brought before the committee on June 2, when four family-members gave written and oral testimony about their loved ones. For three of the witnesses, their relatives are currently detained in Iranian prisons; one witness’ father is missing in Iran. Iranian prisons are plagued by overcrowding, poor sanitation and sub-standard medical care. Prisoners face violence and abuse, with political prisoners or prisoners of conscience often targeted. The detained Americans have been tortured, are malnourished and have faced or are currently facing “show trials.” One witness detailed how his brother was not allowed to meet his lawyer until a few hours before the trial against him commenced. Another witness described how her husband was tortured and imprisoned because he had organized a Christian prayer group.

Each family member presented his or her emotional and heart-wrenching remarks. Each one hoped to increase pressure on both the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran to return their loved ones. “There is not a day that goes by when we don’t think of him, how much he must be suffering, and what we can do next to bring him home,” Daniel Levinson, son of missing former FBI agent Robert Levinson, said at the hearing. “We need – in fact, we implore – negotiators to take a more aggressive approach than merely asking Iran’s help in locating him. … America should not rest until one of its own is returned home to the family that loves him more than life itself.” Robert Levinson went missing on Iran’s Kish Island in 2007, and it is unclear who is holding him or how he is faring. He has missed his 40th wedding anniversary, the birth of grandchildren and numerous other milestones. The Levinson family just wants to know how he is doing, where he is and when he can be returned home to them.

Another panelist, Sarah Hekmati, began to cry as she described how her father, suffering from brain cancer and now wheelchair-bound, may never get to see his son returned home. Amir Hekmati, a former Marine, traveled to Iran in 2011 to visit his grandmother and other relatives. There, he was detained by police, questioned and accused and tried for espionage. He was sentenced to death. On appeal, the court reversed and issued a sentence of 10 year in prison. He is the only American to ever be sentenced to death in Iran. During his time in prison, he has been tortured and beaten. Sarah, like the other panelists, requested that the United States government make their families’ plights a priority, especially as the nuclear negotiations come to a close.

Nagameh Abedini, another speaker, has traveled around the world in a valiant attempt to bring her husband, Saeed Abedini, home. She has spent the past three years traveling around the world asking foreign leaders and dignitaries for their assistance. As immigrants to the United States, both Nagameh and Saeed cherished the freedom of religion afforded to them here. In 2012, while working to set up churches in Iran, her husband was arrested. During her testimony, Nagameh pleaded with Congress to take action so that perhaps after this trip, she would finally be able to tell her children that their father was coming home. Nagameh also discussed her worries and fears about her husband’s psychological and emotional well-being. Saeed was sent to Rajai Shahr Prison, a notorious jail for murderers and rapists, where he was told that he would not be released, and likely killed, unless he denounced his faith. Like others, Saeed has been tortured and beaten. He is currently residing in solitary confinement, a placement that Nagameh fears will have long-term deleterious effects on his mental well-being.

Finally, Ali Rezaian spoke on behalf of his brother, Jason Rezaian, a journalist with the Washington Post who was imprisoned and accused of espionage last year. Jason has spent half his marriage in jail and away from his wife, Ali stressed. Building on the other testimonies, Ali reiterated his fear of what would happen to his brother after his upcoming trial, and whether or not he would be able to see his brother again.

Although Democrats and Republicans do not agree on all issues, on this they were unanimous: the detention of American citizens and their treatment in Iran is outrageous and unacceptable. Christopher Smith, a Republican Representative from New Jersey, said, “This is something that should be talked about not on the fringes and the sidelines of the negotiations, but as a mainstay issue.” Elliot Engel, Democratic Minority Leader, said, “It would just be ludicrous and outrageous for us to have a deal with Iran that doesn’t include the bring home of our hostages.”

Each representative in attendance voiced the same concerns and anger. All promised that this issue would be a priority and that the status of these detainees would not fall by the wayside. As the hearing adjourned I thought, “How long before these Americans are returned home and at what cost?” I still wonder if this will have any bearing on the on-going nuclear negotiations. I wonder if the Iranian government will use these Americans as leverage in order to further their nuclear ambitions. And I also wonder, in light of the other human rights concerns within Iran, how the rest of the world will respond both to the plight of the Iranian people and to these four innocent individuals detained in a hostile country.

It was clear to me, as I sat in the packed room full of interns, press, staff and the public (including men and women in orange jumpsuits calling for the release of Saeed Abedini), that the individualized testimony had a profound influence on the Committee members and the public. Something I have seen time and again—like when two of the girls freed from Boko Haram testified to Congress in support of #BringBackOurGirls—is that individuals’ stories make human rights concerns real. It is easy to feel removed and distanced from the experiences of those suffering abroad. But one person’s story can give substance, meaning, emotion and humanity to human rights issues.

Zahava Moerdler is a 2015 Leitner Center Summer Fellow. She is currently interning with the House Foreign Affairs Committee Democratic Staff.

The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.

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