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Tag: "human rights"

Human Rights Work and Political Advocacy

[ 9 ] June 15, 2016 |

Rwandan_refugee_camp_in_east_Zaire

A long-time human rights worker, who has written reports for Human Rights Watch, focusing primarily on Africa, takes to the Boston Review to revisit his own sins, mistakes, and regrets, ultimately questioning the role of the human rights worker entirely.

On-the-ground humanitarians learned tough lessons in Somalia, Sudan, and central Africa in the 1990s. Relief agencies adapted to the emerging sociological critique of humanitarian action. But human rights organizations and their practices of documentation and advocacy were not compelled to change, even though they had faced similar dilemmas and made similar mistakes. But, rather than reflecting on where they had succeeded and where they had failed, human rights organizations turned their agendas into the philanthropic version of a Jurassic Park sequel: bigger, louder, more teeth. They consolidated as a kind of Global Ethics, Inc., accommodating their own critique to power, especially American power. Too often, their concern has been to influence U.S. government power at the margin. Achieving that goal has blunted their political principles. The ascent of Samantha Power—whose 2002 book A Problem from Hell excoriated American inaction in Rwanda and elsewhere—from critical journalist to senior member of the Obama administration speaks to the rise of this liberal interventionism.

The fundamental tensions of human rights activism have not changed. The moral cogency of a human rights narrative is compelling but partial: it is incomplete and it takes sides. Making the human rights counternarrative into a dominant agenda is a dangerous success, whether it involves endorsing authoritarianism in Rwanda or advocating American military intervention as a remedy for mass atrocity. Human rights advocacy is a critique of power, not a directive for exercising it; humility is not only a necessary character trait but also an ideal. I now believe that a fully emancipatory human rights practice must be based on an agenda set by the affected people. This requires challenging the iniquitous structures of power that too often stand in the way of emancipation or co-opt narratives of human rights for their own ends.

I don’t know; certainly the trajectory of Samantha Power is one that should make us cautious. But there are many aspects to interventionism and in the modern world, there are really no isolated peoples or population that already lack western interventions, even without the human rights community getting involved. The internet of course is a huge propagandistic force for whoever can use it. The arms manufacturers seek to sell their wares to horrible people abroad who will use those weapons to kill. Disney and Nike are everywhere in some form or other. When I was on a small island off the coast of Sumatra in 1997, where indigenous people still dressed in traditional dress and lived in traditional homes, their sons were wearing Michael Jordan t-shirts, even though they had probably never watched television. American companies seek to intervene all over the world, seeking cheap labor and new frontiers in their supply chains.

So the principles of this essay are good. Human rights workers should show humility and admit their mistakes. They should try to learn from their mistakes. Co-opting narratives for their own political aims is less than optimal. Absolutely, an emancipatory human rights practice should be generated from the agenda of affected people. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s useful to become so cautious as to back away from doing the best you can in the moment. Responding to horrific violence is hard to do at the moment. It’s hardly surprising that in raising awareness in the West to try and get someone to do something about this awful event, like the Rwandan genocide, that human rights workers would screw some of it up. But it’s still almost certainly better than doing nothing at all.

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Malaysia: A Leader in Human Rights Once It Joined the TPP!

[ 10 ] July 10, 2015 |

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It’s amazing the progress Malaysia has shown in human rights ever since Obama decided the Trans Pacific Partnership was his top priority.

The United States is upgrading Malaysia from the lowest tier on its list of worst human trafficking centers, U.S. sources said on Wednesday, a move that could smooth the way for an ambitious U.S.-led free-trade deal with the Southeast Asian nation and 11 other countries.

The upgrade to so-called “Tier 2 Watch List” status removes a potential barrier to President Barack Obama’s signature global trade deal.

A provision in a related trade bill passed by Congress last month barred from fast-tracked trade deals Malaysia and other countries that earn the worst U.S. human trafficking ranking in the eyes of the U.S. State Department.

I wonder if there has been any news out of Malaysia recently on its human trafficking problem?

Lawmakers are working on a compromise that would let Malaysia and other countries appearing on a U.S. black-list for human trafficking participate in fast-tracked trade deals if the administration verified that they have taken concrete steps to address the most important issues identified in the annual trafficking report.The graves were found in an area long known for the smuggling of Rohingya and local villagers reported seeing Rohingya in the area, but Malaysia’s Deputy Home (Interior) Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar has said it was unclear whether those killed were illegal migrants. The discovery took place after the March cut-off for the U.S. report.

The State Department would have needed to show that Malaysia had neither fully complied with minimum anti-trafficking standards nor made significant efforts to do so to justify keeping Malaysia on Tier 3, which can lead to penalties such as the withholding of some assistance.

In its report last year, the State Department said Malaysia had reported 89 human-trafficking investigations in the 12 months to March 2014, down from 190 the previous year, and nine convictions compared with 21 the previous year.

In the latest year to March, Malaysia’s conviction rate is believed to have fallen further, according to human-rights advocates, despite a rise in the number of investigations. That reinforced speculation Malaysia would remain on Tier 3.

“If true, this manipulation of Malaysia’s ranking in the State Department’s 2015 TIP report would be a perversion of the trafficking list and undermine both the integrity of this important report as well as the very difficult task of confronting states about human trafficking,” said Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, who had pushed to bar Tier 3 countries from inclusion in the trade pact.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said he was “stunned” by the upgrade.

“They have done very little to improve the protection from abuse that migrant workers face,” he said. “This would seem to be some sort of political reward from the United States and I would urge the U.S. Congress to look long and hard at who was making the decisions on such an upgrade.” Malaysia has an estimated 2 million illegal migrant laborers, many of whom work in conditions of forced labor under employers and recruitment companies in sectors ranging from electronics to palm oil to domestic service.

Malaysia has done all it needed to do–become important to Obama’s trade agenda. At this point, it can use all the slave labor it wants, knowing Obama will do nothing. Promoting pharmaceutical companies’ rights for long monopolies over profitable medicines and allowing corporations to sue nations for raising their minimum wage or implementing new pollution controls is far more important than the human rights of migrant laborers in southeast Asia for this administration.

Foreign Entanglements: Efrain Rios Montt

[ 11 ] May 15, 2013 |

On this week’s episode of Foreign Entanglements, long-time friend of the blog Colin Snider and I talk about the conviction of Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt:

See also Corey Robin’s review of “The Last Colonial Massacre.”

Contraception: A Human Right

[ 60 ] November 15, 2012 |

Once again, large swaths of the Republican Party oppose international definitions of basic human rights:

For the first time, the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) explicitly described family planning as a “universal human right.” In its annual report, the organization said that improved access to contraception and other methods of family planning could greatly improve the lives of women around the world:

“Family planning has a positive multiplier effect on development,” Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the fund, said in a written statement. “Not only does the ability for a couple to choose when and how many children to have help lift nations out of poverty, but it is also one of the most effective means of empowering women. Women who use contraception are generally healthier, better educated, more empowered in their households and communities and more economically productive. Women’s increased labor-force participation boosts nations’ economies.”

The report effectively declares that legal, cultural and financial barriers to accessing contraception and other family planning measures are an infringement of women’s rights.


Of course, no doubt this is just part of the secret UN-Obama mind control conspiracy to take over the United States.

The Desperation of a Tyrant is an Ugly Thing

[ 14 ] February 10, 2011 |

Not surprising, of course:

The Egyptian military has secretly detained hundreds and possibly thousands of suspected government opponents since mass protests against President Hosni Mubarak began, and at least some of these detainees have been tortured, according to testimony gathered by the Guardian.

The military has claimed to be neutral, merely keeping anti-Mubarak protesters and loyalists apart. But human rights campaigners say this is clearly no longer the case, accusing the army of involvement in both disappearances and torture – abuses Egyptians have for years associated with the notorious state security intelligence (SSI) but not the army.

The Guardian has spoken to detainees who say they have suffered extensive beatings and other abuses at the hands of the military in what appears to be an organised campaign of intimidation. Human rights groups have documented the use of electric shocks on some of those held by the army.

Well, yes, but how do we know that the protesters weren’t torturing themselves? Certainly, that seems much more plausible than a regime with an extensive history of torture using torture against dissidents that pose an immediate threat to his regime…[/Althouse]

…in case you were wondering why Althouse would bother to come up with a nutty conspiracy theories in an attempt to discredit anti-Mubarak forces, here you go.

Breaking Points

[ 22 ] June 29, 2010 |

I’ve been using a local coffee bar as my office for parts of this summer when not in the coding lab for my agenda-setting project. Besides some excellent lattes and a new appreciation for white wine, my visits have yielded me a chance to observe and connect a bit with the people who work there.

Something I’ve noticed is the absence of regular shift breaks among the staff, with the exception of those who occasionally duck out for a cigarette during lulls while still keeping an eye on the counter. Thinking back to my earlier days in the service industry, I began wondering why these hardworking baristas were not automatically required to take short breaks when they were on the clock for more than seven hours. Had something changed over the years?

So I checked into the OSHA regulations and the Fair Labor Standards Act and was surprised to learn that in fact, federal law does not require employers to offer breaks of any kind to adult workers. (The standards are different for minors, which explains what has “changed” since the days when I was working in fast food and diners – I grew up. One other exception: as of just this year, the FLSA was updated to mandate breaks for breastfeeding mothers.)

Everyone else? Forget about it. States may pass laws requiring breaks, but as far as I can determine only seven have done so, not including Massachusetts. (MA does require a lunch break.) Some workers receive mandated breaks through collective bargaining agreements, but these are few and far between in the service industry. Employers may of course choose to offer breaks and many do, but this is at their discretion. Meals, snacks, coffee, even bathroom breaks can be limited by employers – the latter having been a significant issue among assembly line workers (just read this Cornell University Press study entitled Void Where Prohibited: Rest Breaks and the Right to Urinate on Company Time).

At a place like Amherst Coffee, when employees sneak breaks I have observed it is often with the excuse of “stepping outside for a cigarette.” Indeed, although the law doesn’t provide for smoke-breaks anymore than it provides for bathroom breaks, many people (not all) seem to feel that their best chance of legitimating a five-minute break from work is to claim they need a cigarette. I have noticed a similar pattern at my workplace – it is smokers in our building who regularly step outside for air and respite.

All this has raised two questions in my mind. First, is there a connection between the lack of mandated employee breaks and smoking patterns? I don’t know about food service workers, but a study has been done among nurses that shows that those who smoke are much likelier to take (be allowed to take?) breaks than those who do not. (There are also some interesting gender dynamics at play when it comes to smoke-breaks.) What an irony if cigarette smoking, known for its ill-health effects, turns out to be the predominant means by which employees can reap the health benefits of regular, short work-day breaks. Perhaps if we want to truly address tobacco addiction in this country we also need to do something about workers’ rights to breaks in general.

Which leads to my second thought: why the heck shouldn’t we have laws mandating shift breaks in this country? It’s true that such breaks are already common in some industries. At Amherst Coffee, for example, there is an informal system in place with which the staff seem pretty happy, judging by their general enthusiasm about their jobs and the sense of family you feel at the coffeeshop. Indeed, one can imagine such an informal system might in fact work to food service employees’ benefit, since my guess is it allows them to split tips between fewer employees per shift than might be required if breaks were regularized into a one-size-fits-all system that did not account for the ebb and flow of traffic into the shop.

Still, the problem with leaving this up to employers’ discretion should be obvious – not all businesses will engage in the kind of employee-friendly practices you find at Amherst Coffee. By not treating this as a basic workers’ rights issue, we are as a nation also missing an opportunity to utilize shift breaks to promote public health more generally.

But it’s not just about regulating businesses. It’s also about creating a culture of respect for labor rights among consumers. In the restaurant business, the incessant demand for speedy service and the disincentive to split tips among additional workers per shift means there would be a minor trade-off between breaks for employees and customer service. Laws to protect employees might help disseminate a sensibility of patience among the consumer population that would make it easier for small businesses to ensure their staff are well-rested.

At any rate, all this has made me realize that I too ought to get out of my office more during the work-day. One of the downsides of academic work where you set your own schedule is that we often don’t allow ourselves breaks (or at least, not breaks that actually take us away from our computers…) I for one can’t recall the last time I stepped outside my office just for five minutes of sunshine or fresh air. But I’d sure be a lot healthier and more productive if I did.

For now, I’ll just keep relying on my friendly neighborhood baristas to make sure I don’t work too hard. And in return, I won’t begrudge them their fresh air / smoke breaks, even if it means I have to wait a little longer for my next drink. I hope many LGM readers follow suit as you frequent local businesses in your communities this summer.

Shameless Self Promotion

[ 6 ] May 19, 2010 |

My new book Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond is finally out from Columbia University Press.

Basically, it’s all you never wanted to know about why children born of wartime rape have been overlooked by the human rights movement for the last two decades, and how this could be changed. Here’s what’s on the back cover:

Sexual violence and exploitation occur in many conflict zones, and the children born of such acts face discrimination, stigma, and infanticide. Yet the massive transnational network of organizations working to protect war-affected children has, for two decades, remained curiously silent on the needs of this vulnerable population.

Focusing specifically on the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina, R. Charli Carpenter questions the framing of atrocity by human rights organizations and the limitations these narratives impose on their response. She finds that human rights groups set their agendas according to certain grievances-the claims of female rape victims or the complaints of aggrieved minorities, for example-and that these concerns can overshadow the needs of others. Incorporating her research into a host of other conflict zones, Carpenter shows that the social construction of rights claims is contingent upon the social construction of wrongs. According to Carpenter, this prevents the full protection of children born of war.

Saudi Woman Beats Up Virtue Cop

[ 4 ] May 17, 2010 |

The Saudi Gazette reports:

Al-Mubarraz police are investigating a complaint that a Saudi woman in her twenties allegedly punched and beat up a staffer of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (the Hai’a). The staffer had to be taken to a medical center because of the bruises to his face and body. Apparently the Hai’a staffer suspected the young woman of being in the company of an unrelated man in an amusement park because the couple appeared to be acting in an inappropriate manner.

When the Hai’a staffer approached the couple to confirm their identities and the relationship between them, the young man collapsed. It was then the young woman allegedly unleashed a fierce attack on the Hai’a staffer with her fists.

Plenty of “you go girl” accolades like this percolating outside Saudi Arabia. It’s actually kind of serious though: the woman could be penalized with jail time and flogging if she is charged for assaulting a government official, so the human rights movement had better prepare a campaign to protect her from the predictable backlash from the state. But as described in the Jersualem Post, this incident may also be symptomatic of a gradual yet significant shift in Saudi society away from its entrenched culture of gender apartheid.

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Computer Geeks: “Give Us Your Huddled Facebook Masses”

[ 3 ] May 15, 2010 |

Recently I wrote about the need for Facebook alternatives. A team of NYU computer science students may have just the thing:

Why can’t privacy and connectedness go hand-in-hand? That’s the question being raised by those behind the new Diaspora project, an ambitious undertaking to build an “anti-Facebook” – that is, a private, open source social network that puts you back in control of your personal data.

Envisioned by four NYU computer science students, the Diaspora project would replace today’s centralized social web (yes, they mean you, Facebook) with a decentralized one, while still offering something that’s convenient and easy for anyone to use.

And not a moment too soon. More from the New York Times.

“And Justice For All”?

[ 1 ] May 12, 2010 |

Gary Haugen and Victor Boutrous have a useful article in the new print version of Foreign Affairs, pointing out that all the human rights standards in the land mean nothing if they’re not translated into practical justice for every human being. Particularly, they point out how the ability to enjoy one’s legal rights is related to wealth.

Efforts by the modern human rights movement over the last 60 years have contributed to the criminalization of [various] abuses in nearly every country. The problem for the poor, however, is that those laws are rarely enforced. Without functioning public justice systems to deliver the protections of the law to the poor, the legal reforms of the modern human rights movement rarely improve the lives of those who need them most…. Helping construct effective public justice systems in the developing world, therefore, must become the new mandate of the human rights movement in the twenty-first century.

An important and timely argument that may constitute a major reframing of human rights discourse and practice. Two minor rejoinders, however: Read more…

The Problem With Online Petitions

[ 8 ] March 29, 2010 |

I recently suggested LGM readers support a Department of Justice Rule-making process on prison reform. I probably should have added that it’s not enough – not nearly enough – to simply log into the Change.org site and click “send” on the form letter they offer.

In fact, if you did that already, you pretty much wasted your time. That’s because DoJ doesn’t care how many individual constituents support or oppose prison reform per se. They couldn’t care less, in fact. All they care about is how to create the best possible set of rules, so what they want most are informed, carefully thought out, unique comments.

Congress cares about numbers, of course. Congress’s job is to pass laws, and because we elect our congressional leaders they care a great deal about the popularity of those laws.

Federal agencies are pretty much the reverse. They are tasked with implementing laws, and they are staffed by civil servants. Their job is not to get re-elected, it is to figure out how to produce collective goods.

Citizen input in federal rule-makings is not about the popularity of a particular rule. Rather, it’s about more heads being better than few – it’s about tapping the experiential, procedural, scientific and everyday expertise of the American people. The federal rule-making process is one of the truly deliberative mechanisms in our country. What the public comment process is supposed to produce is useful substantive citizen input on what the rule should look like.

What does this have to do with online petitions? Read more…

Unsubstantiated Human Security Headline of the Month

[ 2 ] March 24, 2010 |

I see even Huffington Post picked up this ridiculous headline mucking around on the Internets. At Spiked, Brendan O’Neill offered a helpful hysteriagraphy historiography of the meme a few days back. A report last year debunked the idea that there is a link between mega-sporting-events and sex slavery.

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