Rights Wire

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

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The uses and abuses of history for both Japan’s government and atomic bomb survivors

By Carolina van der Mensbrugghe

久しぶり、日本。Japan, it has been a while. My seventh time returning to Japan has not rendered me immune to the excitement and anticipation, akin to a homecoming of sorts or reunion with an old friend. As I begin another chapter, comprised of almost a decade’s worth of work, I can’t help but be reminded of how fundamental socio-political and legal questions impacting Japan’s future have changed considerably since I began my undergraduate studies.

Some of my initial questions included: Will Japan reaffirm the US-Japan alliance treaty, or move past it towards a more autonomous security vision? Will Japan uphold or reinterpret Article 9 of its constitution (which renounces war as a sovereign right)? How will these decisions alter Japan’s dynamic with other Asian countries in the region? These question have been largely answered recently, setting the groundwork for historic changes. In July 2014, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, announced a “reinterpretation” of Article 9 to allow for military action with allies. This is a significant departure from the original pacifist meaning, popularly imbued in Article 9 of the 1947 Japanese Constitution, which took a more literal approach to the text’s pledge that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” Public response was seen in extremes, with one man setting himself on fire in central Tokyo in protest. In May 2015, Prime Minister Abe became the first Japanese prime minister to address a joint meeting of Congress. Together with President Obama, he announced a joint vision for security, trade and historical reconciliation between the two allies. New bilateral defense cooperation guidelines were announced, some of which were newly made possible due to the divisive reinterpretation of Article 9 the previous year.

Tangled up in this fundamental question of sovereign military might—an unquestioned afterthought in most developed nations—is Japan’s postwar legacy, which remains an ever present force in contemporary domestic and international politics. How Japan deals with its history, its complex relationship with America, and civilian experience of that lived history, is central to my current work in connection with the Nagasaki City Hall and the Nagasaki Foundation for the Promotion of Peace. Prior to law school, I received a Kathryn Davis Grant to document the lives and stories of atomic bomb survivors in Nagasaki as a project for peace. There, I interacted with and interviewed the Hibakusha, survivors of the atomic bombings. Their stories and experiences are important components of Japanese history that are barely accessible in film and writing, let alone within the United States. More than ever, as the hibakusha pass away, I knew action was required to collect substantial video documentation of the stories of Nagasaki that barely exists.

This summer, I am building upon this work with a team of transcribers and translators that are combing through interviews and hours of footage and testimony. The translated testimonies are beginning to reveal the complexities of humanitarian downfalls in modern warfare and the difficulties of creating legal structures to address postwar civilian ailments. Historian John Dower documents in his book, Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering: Japan in the Modern World, that it was not until 1952, seven years after the atomic bombing and end of the war, that the Japanese government began to extend special assistance to bomb victims. This decision, he says, was due in part to censorship of Nagasaki photographs and testimony, sanitized reporting of the approximately 75,000 deaths in Nagasaki and a desire to move past a visible reminder of the horrors of war.

This delay in aid had terrible consequences. While reading interview transcripts this summer, I am sitting in Espresso D Works, a New York-style hipster café enclave, hidden in ex-pat haven Ebisu, Tokyo. As I continue to sift through my translations, I come across my interview with Sakue Shimohira, age ten at the time of the bombing. Ms. Shimohira has dedicated her life to sharing her story in hopes that future generations remember the past, deepen their empathy towards others, and work toward “the dream of peace.” Her interview breaks down the results of aid-delay in shockingly personal terms:

Before, those injured by the bomb would come together and ask for reparations to cover the medical expenses of their injuries, but they didn’t get any money, and all died. Many people couldn’t bear the pain, and committed suicide. My younger sister committed suicide. Her stomach was infested with maggots [a common side effect as the result of open wounds from exposure to the atomic blast]. At night, it was too dark in the room to remove them. In the morning, I told her to get up so that I could pluck out the maggots, but they were already deep in her flesh. They writhed and fell out in droves. My sister wanted me to commit suicide with her, but since I had been fortunate enough to survive the bomb, I said that I wanted to continue to live, on behalf of my mother and other deceased family. The Hisaisha Kyogikai was [later] established in 1956 for these atomic bomb survivors. With the establishment of the organization, we continued to appeal to the government for support, but they told us to be patient, and offered no help. A lot of people couldn’t afford to go to the hospital, and died.

My concentration is broken by a barista, who approaches and asks me in Japanese whether I like Nagasaki while pointing to a book sharing the same title at my side. I respond with a short explanation of why I am here in Japan and the work I am doing this summer. Surprised by my response, the barista thanks me and remarks that I am “so Japanese” for doing this. This is not an atypical response I receive from Japanese people, many who find it surprising an American would take interest in this history and become so involved. Nevertheless, I find it surprising given that the hibakusha experiences are not isolated, but rather a unique example in an array of cases in the developed world where governments struggle to develop legal structures for victim compensation (including the recent natural and nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan).

This summer marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Jennifer Mason from the Brookings Institute predicts that Prime Minister Abe will be under added intense scrutiny from the United States and Japan’s Asian neighbors, as he prepares for his August 15 speech commemorating this historical landmark. During a tense and rapidly changing time of nationalism in Asia, the uses and abuses of history continue to pervade. However, as John Dower reflects—and I must agree—most of these particular historical considerations leave out the fate of the nuclear victims themselves and yet they are inseparable. I will be traveling to Nagasaki shortly to document these important memorial events as they unfold. Nagasaki City Hall has graciously granted me press access to document some of the key political and educational events surrounding this anniversary. With newfound political importance, I look forward to the historical and personal narratives that will be delivered in favor of reconciliation and memory of these events, as well as what this may mean for the near future.

Carolina van der Mensbrugghe is a 2015 Leitner Center Summer Fellow. She is conducting an independent project documenting the stories of atomic bomb survivors in Nagasaki, Japan with help from the Nagasaki Foundation for the Promotion of Peace and Nagasaki City Hall.

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: Carolina van der Mensbrugghe

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Photo Credit: jmiller291/Creative Commons

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Human rights and U.S. foreign policy: history, funding, data and action

By Shruti Banerjee

In recent years, we have seen an increase in authoritarian regimes rejecting democratic values and committing human rights violations. This crackdown on civil society poses an enormous threat to economic and political stability, making it a central issue to consider in U.S. foreign policy. To respond to these crises, the U.S. has allocated foreign policy funds with the intention of promoting democratic governments, creating allies, ensuring peace and security, stabilizing economies and trade, regulating immigration and preventing human rights violations. Unfortunately, the foreign affairs budget, which provides an invaluable set of tools for advancing U.S. foreign policy interests, represents less than 1 percent of the annual U.S. budget, and is subject to more cuts, if both Houses reject the President’s recent request for more funding.

By analyzing the political history of integrating human rights into U.S. foreign policy, the issues with funding, the lack of data and U.S. credibility, it becomes clear that effective human rights advocacy requires multiple factors to function in harmony with each other, including: political discourse, laws protecting human rights, foreign funding that has a non-negotiable component requiring compliance with human rights policies, U.S. compliance with international laws and accurate data to help properly document and fully gauge the threat posed by human rights violations. This means competing political or economic interests cannot completely overshadow the value of rights-respecting institutions and policies.


Despite the U.S.’ rise to superpower status after World War II, human rights did not become a central concern of the U.S. foreign policy agenda until the late 1970s. Congress was urged to push a human rights agenda by the public, which included human rights advocates, lawyers, scientists, labor unions and church groups, who all agreed that the U.S. had created a negative global presence by the late 1970s. As awareness grew around incidents like Watergate, the Vietnam War, carpet bombing in Cambodia and the U.S. support of police states in South and Central America, Congress was finally compelled to include human rights as a central topic in foreign policy and legislation. In 1974, a subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee issued the report, “Human Rights in the World Community: A Call for US Leadership.” It recommended that the Department of State makes human rights a priority in foreign policy, arguing that the current policy had led the US “into embracing governments which practice torture and unabashedly violate almost every human rights guarantee pronounced by the world community.” Congress proceeded to pass legislation that required reports on human rights violations for every country receiving aid from the U.S. and prohibited economic and military assistance to governments repeatedly violating human rights unless national security or humanitarian aid concerns justified the assistance.

While Congress was pushed by their constituents to make fundamental changes in their approach to human rights, other powerful government officials disagreed. In his book, Partners in Power: Nixon and Kissinger, Robert Dallek documented the influences and policies of Kissinger and Nixon that led to high tensions between the Executive Branch and Congress during the Nixon Administration. When Henry Kissinger was confirmed as Secretary of State in 1973 he argued that it would be dangerous for the U.S. to make “the domestic policy of countries around the world a direct objective of US foreign policy.” The policy of realpolitik embraced by Kissinger, and subsequently the Ford administration, excluded human rights calculations. Kissinger believed human rights considerations would damage bilateral relations with U.S. allies and thwart efforts to contain the spread of communism. Under his leadership, Congress and the Executive Branch engaged in a struggle over the prominence and relevance of human rights to the U.S.’ foreign policy agenda.

It was not until 1977, with the election of President Jimmy Carter, that human rights became integrated with U.S. foreign policy. Carter argued that advancing freedom internationally would protect our national security, promote economic interests and help the U.S. regain its lost moral credibility. More specifically, Carter maintained that U.S. national security would be enhanced by the expansion of human rights and democracy around the world and that the US was obligated under international law to promote human rights abroad. Carter and subsequent administrations utilized numerous tools to promote human rights internationally, including powerful political rhetoric, sanctions, symbolic gestures of support and peace and economic and military aid. While Carter was accused of failing to thwart the threat of communism because of these policies, he promoted more awareness and governmental action on human rights issues than any administration prior.

It is important to note that attention to human rights issues do not fall squarely within political lines. Democratic and republican administrations both succeed and failed at acknowledging and preventing human rights violations. For example, President Clinton has said that his administration’s failure to respond to the Rwandan genocide was his greatest regret during his presidency and his senior aides regularly apologize for this. On the other side, the Reagan Administration provided both Liberia and Somalia with arms in the 1980s, building up the oppressive regimes of Samuel Doe and Siad Barre. While the U.S. successfully prevented Soviet influence in those countries, the lack of consideration for democracy and human rights led both Liberia and Somalia to become failed states, rampant with human rights violations. Our political rhetoric towards human rights abuses may have changed since the Carter era, but our policies and funding have not caught up.


The U.S. foreign affairs budget represents a mere 1 percent of the annual budget and recent changes in the U.S. political climate have made it significantly harder for the Obama Administration to push for more foreign aid and human rights funding. The tensions in passing budgetary laws can be seen in the current Fiscal Year 2016 (FY16) budget battle. Despite Obama Administration’s request for $47.8 billion in base funding for FY16, the House Appropriations Committee has only approved a $40.5 billion base budget, and the Senate Appropriations Committee has only approved a budget of $39.0 billion in base funding. (Base funding represents the U.S.’ continuing commitment to foreign policy missions and national security; the International Affairs budget also comprises of an Overseas Contingency Operations budget to be used in temporary emergencies.) Furthermore, the International Affairs budget has seen a general decrease in funding over the past few years, with overall FY15 funding ($50.9 billion) being 16 percent below FY10 ($56.6 billion), and base funding ($41.6 billion) reduced by nearly 20 percent from FY10 ($51.5 billion). This decrease during a time of increasing human rights and humanitarian crises is unacceptable. Moreover, accepting either the House or Senate budgets, both of which decreases International Affairs funding dramatically from the Administration’s original request and from FY10, would have detrimental effects on the ability of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to continue promoting democratic governments, creating allies, ensuring peace and security, stabilizing economies and trade, regulating immigration and preventing human rights violations.

Aside from the fact that both proposed budgets drastically cuts an already miniscule budget, another major issue is that U.S. aid often goes to countries with poor human rights records. While our leaders have denounced continuing human rights violations in strong political rhetoric, our funding, policies and legislation have not yet matched this discourse. A stark example of this is the U.S.’s continued aid to Egypt after the government committed serious human rights violations, which were internationally documented by various human rights groups, journalists and social media platforms. Instead of instating a non-negotiable human rights compliance clause for foreign aid, the U.S. waived conditionality requirements on aid to Egypt.

It is also highly debated which countries should receive funding and which abuses require more attention and aid. These problems can be somewhat alleviated by increased transparency and disclosure of governmental reports on human rights conditions in various countries, pursuant to the Foreign Assistance Act. Extensive data collection on human rights violations occurring in countries that are not currently receiving U.S. aid is another important solution. According to Foreign Affairs, these efforts are particularly crucial in countries such as Russia, Ethiopia and Kenya, where governments are actively passing laws restricting the work of NGOs and human rights groups. This includes making it difficult to register with the government, organize public events and collect data on human rights abuses. These same regimes are also passing laws making it more difficult for their citizens to be politically critical, organize demonstrations or voice opposing opinions on the internet. Accurate data is an integral part of effective advocacy and legislating and more transparency and data collection on human rights abuses is vital for documenting, analyzing and preventing these atrocities from continuously occurring.


What would a compelling, rights-based foreign policy look like? According to a statement by the Brookings Institute, the first criteria for effective human rights promotion is credibility. Put simply, a government cannot promote human rights abroad if it is not observing them domestically and internationally. As discussed in previous articles, the U.S. violates human rights policies on its own soil by failing to prevent hate crimes and domestic violence. Furthermore, the U.S. is struggling with rampant police brutality, structural racism and inhumane prison conditions at home, as well as torture abroad. Our lack of credibility in human rights prevention and promotion has made it difficult for other countries to take us seriously and respect international human rights law. Moreover, human rights cannot be used as a pretext for pushing other foreign policy goals, such as engaging in a foreign conflict or accomplishing a domestic political goal.

In order to effectively promote human rights abroad, the U.S. needs to start by complying with human rights laws while actively promoting their implementation abroad. This requires making human rights a fundamental part of our foreign policy through rhetoric, political pressure and funding. More specifically, we must view human rights not solely as a moral or religious obligation, but as a fundamental tool to increase peace, security and economic prosperity around the world. In their book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson found that more equal societies with less violence have a greater overall quality of life, not just for poor people, but for all income classes. Wilkinson and Pickett’s analysis can be extended to the international community: We can achieve greater economic and social prosperity in our own country by abiding by human rights laws and promoting equality abroad.

Shruti Banerjee is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Stephen Melkisethian/Creative Commons

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A crisis beyond borders: the migration across the Mediterranean

By Zahava Moerdler

Europe is currently facing an international crisis. Thousands of migrants are making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe in the hopes of finding better living conditions, escaping persecution or giving their families a better chance at education and prosperity. However, European states remain aloof as migrants flood both Italy and Greece and are resistant to policy changes that would ensure better treatment of migrants once they reach European shores. The number of deaths has decreased this month as several European Union (EU) navies have sent more ships and efforts by private rescue groups like Médecins Sans Frontières and the Migrant Offshore Aid Station have increased. Yet, 46,000 migrants have reached Europe since the start of 2015, as compared to the 41,243 who migrated to Europe between January and May 2014, according to the United Nations (UN). Even with increased efforts to help migrants cross the sea, thousands are still pouring into European countries, which are unready and unwilling to help them assimilate.


With the vast influx of migrants during the height and close of colonialism, European countries endeavored to find a way to assimilate these populations. After World War II, many countries, including France, Belgium and Germany, opened their borders, often enticing foreign workers to migrate. For example, in the 1950s, Indians and Pakistanis began to immigrate to the United Kingdom and in the 1970s, so did many from Bangladesh. The European countries saw these groups as temporary “guest workers,” as did the migrants themselves. With the economic downturn in the 1970s, European countries began to close off access to foreign workers. Thus, one aspect of the current migrant dilemma resides in a historical precedent for foreign workers. However, today, many flee war-torn countries and seek better healthcare, childcare and standards of living in Europe.

It is illegal under international law for countries to return migrants who are fleeing persecution in their own countries. As a result, thousands are making the dangerous trek from war-torn North Africa and the Middle East across the Mediterranean and into Europe. Others are migrating to Europe to secure a better future for their families and for economic reasons. European countries are scrambling to figure out ways to help these individuals as they venture across the sea, and once they make it into Europe, to find them places to live and rebuild their lives. However, with a growing far-right in many European countries, instead of addressing the situation, many are protecting their borders from fear of terrorism threats from abroad. Countries like Britain and France are exercising “fortress policies” in which the focus remains on limiting the number of asylum applicants.


In the first four months of 2015 alone, over 1,800 people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean, according to the International Organization for Migration. Italy, which has become “Europe’s migrant bottleneck,” is at the center of this crisis. 170,000 out of the 200,000 migrants who arrived in Europe last year came through Italy. In April, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi organized an emergency EU summit due to the crisis. Because of EU budget constraints, Italy had to stop its Mare Nostrum, or search and rescue operations. Additionally, since Mare Nostrum was replaced by “Operation Triton,” the EU’s border agency, the number of deaths has greatly increased. The new operation will mean fewer boats are provided by EU countries for patrolling the Mediterranean. There will also be less search and rescue operations because of the decrease in ships and funding. Thus, a less secure Mediterranean is bound to result.

Most of the migrants taking the perilous journey into Europe in 2015 hail from Syria, Eritrea, Somalia and Afghanistan, according to the UN refugee agency. In 2011, thousands of Tunisians arrived in Italy through the island of Lampedusa, which remains a bottleneck because of its proximity to North Africa as compared with mainland Italy. With the vast number of migrants, the end of Mare Nostrum and the cheaper and more limited Triton in place, the trip across the Mediterranean has, according to many aid organizations, put more migrant lives at risk.

But even before making the trip across the sea, migrants travel hundreds and thousands of miles, often in hostile territory, in order to reach the shores of the Mediterranean and the smugglers awaiting them there. According to a United Nations report, human trafficking from Libya was a $170 million business last year. Migrants often pack themselves into anything seaworthy—most owned by human smuggling rings—and are loaded beyond the tipping point. Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said, “gangs of criminals are putting people on a boat, and sometimes at gunpoint. They’re putting them on the road to death, really, and nothing else.” Many migrants travel from the Horn of Africa, are often treated brutally by traffickers, and endure desert heat and even unrest in Libya, the most common departure point. On April 20, another boat sank off the Greek island of Rhodes, which is another major bottleneck into Europe from the Middle East and Asia, killing at least three people. According to one survivor, many remained trapped inside the boat as it sank because the smugglers who organized the voyage had locked the doors to the lower levels of the ship.


So, what is Europe doing about all this? The United Nations envoy for international migration, Peter Sutherland, told the Security Council that the first step towards addressing the crisis must be a resolution to immediately save lives. On May 18, EU ministers, in response to the crisis, approved an air and sea mission that would destroy the vessels human traffickers are using to smuggle migrants across the sea. The mission’s first phase will be an intelligence gathering operation and the United Kingdom is expected to offer drone and surveillance support. As the mission progresses, vessels suspected of harboring migrants will be boarded and searched and either seized or disposed of in Libyan territory. The EU’s foreign policy chief claims the operation could be launched as early as June 25. The mission will be launched from Italy, one of the major bottlenecks into Europe. There is anticipation that the plan will be brought before the UN due to concern over militarization and Libyan concerns over sovereignty. Additionally, Russian officials have expressed concerns about the mission, which leaves approval in the UN uncertain. Rights groups also warn about the impact of militarization on migrants who could be placed in far greater peril.

Meanwhile, European countries continue to militarize their borders and to maintain policies of inaction as a form of deterrence for future migrants. Although funds for Operation Triton have increased threefold, most Europe countries are reluctant to see the crisis in the Mediterranean as a humanitarian crisis, which would require search and rescue efforts as well as a willingness by European states to resettle and even welcome refugees. For example, the United Kingdom has donated substantial funds but has been unwilling and has made no commitment towards taking in any refugees. On June 2, French police evacuated a migrant camp in Paris and then bulldozed the tents located there. Police undertook this operation as a way of controlling the ever-growing population of migrants moving into France. 380 individuals from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan were told to pack their belongings and loaded onto a bus before their camp was destroyed. This was not the first time a European state destroyed a migrant camp—in May, authorities in Rome evacuated a camp that had been around for almost two decades.

Many of the refugees migrating to Europe are asylum seekers fleeing turmoil in Syria, Somalia and Eritrea. Yet, the EU has had difficulty coordinating and reconciling its asylum policy for years, especially since there are 28 member states with their own police force and judiciary. There are more detailed joint rules brought in with the Common European Asylum System, but there has been little practice in putting those rules into action. The major principle for handling asylum claims in the EU is the Dublin Regulation, which stipulates that responsibility for processing claims lies with the member state who played the largest part in the applicant’s entry into the EU. By and large, that is the first country the migrant entered, which today means Italy and Greece. Thus, large numbers of applicants and migrants currently reside in Italy and Greece awaiting word on their petitions. Sometimes, migrants have families elsewhere with whom they want to be reunited, and so the principle member state would be that country where the family resides. As a result, there is significant tension across Europe because states like Greece and Italy are inundated with applications, since they are the first point of entry. Germany and Finland are the only two states who have stopped sending migrants back to the original point of entry, whether it be Italy or Greece. Additionally, countries like Germany and France have opposed EU plans to spread 40,000 migrants across member states in an attempt to mitigate the effects of the influx on Italy and Greece.

The net result is a rather dark picture of Europe today. While thousands are attempting incredibly dangerous trips through deserts, war, hostility, and across the Mediterranean, Europe remains as cold and aloof as ever. With no clear resolution in sight and no adjustment for asylum or immigration policy, migrants who do make it to Europe are stuck at their point of entry. With Europe’s Eurodac system, a database of asylum seekers’ fingerprints, mobility becomes even less likely. Unless Europe can adopt a proper policy for acceptance, assimilation and resettlement, thousands will continue to remain stuck in Greece and Italy, causing problems not only for the migrants seeking to start a new life, but also the economic, social and political situation in Greece and Italy. Hopefully, the EU can provide greater support beyond the bare bones of Operation Triton, since the influx of migrants and refugees does not seem to be stopping anytime soon.

Zahava Moerdler is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo Credit: Sarah Tzinieris/Creative Commons

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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