Friday, May 22, 2009

Belfast Murals

Two months ago (February 27 – March 1), I went on a weekend trip to Belfast organized by my study abroad program. On Sunday, our last day, Bill Rolston offered us a lecture on the political murals that are spread throughout Belfast. Rolston is an expert on the murals and has the largest collection of pictures of murals.

Rolston outlined the political situation, and some of the terms he defined are vital to understanding the political situation in Northern Ireland. As he explained it, Nationalists are those who want Northern Ireland united with the Republic of Ireland; Unionists want Ireland to remain a part of the United Kingdom. Republicans are militant Nationalists; Loyalists are militant Unionists. I had previously dismissed such terms as politically correct euphemisms, just synonyms for Catholics and Protestants. As I learned more about the conflict, however, it became more and more clear to me that the conflict really was not about religion at all, and the terms were much more suitable for defining the conflict than religious labels (although it is true that the overwhelming majority of Nationalists/Republicans are Catholic and Unionists/Loyalists are Protestant).

Most of the murals do not appeal to religion. Both sides demand “freedom”. Unionists appear to have a definition of freedom that necessarily involves being part of the United Kingdom. Republicans have a definition that necessarily involves being part of the Republic of Ireland. I do not know enough about the conflict to say much more about these differences, but this seems to be the root of the conflict. I also can’t say I agree with either of these definitions, but again, I may just not know enough.

The political murals are at the same time frightening and fascinating. They are a stark reminder, among many in Belfast, of the terrible social strife that took place so recently. Images of masked men with assault rifles point to the viewer, seeming to say, “We’ve killed before and will do it again.” Hopefully the violence in March is not an indicator of anything to come, but seeing these murals, one senses how fragile peace can be and particularly leads me to cherish the tranquility at home in the United States.

Republicans relate a history of oppression into a more global philosophical movement. As such, Republican murals now make statements about causes around the world, linking all those they understand to be oppressed together. Thus, murals might bring up the Basque movement, the plight of Palestinians, U.S.-Cuba relations, the Iraq war, and even Frederick Douglass.

Unionist murals appear to make a case for the importance of British identity. They are now much more likely than others to feature guns. Other prominent themes are major British victories in Ireland.

If the peace holds, the lessons will hopefully be able to guide us as we search for an end to conflicts around the world. At the same time, each situation is unique, and we cannot force a template on all problems. While human rights challenges are all different, the human rights we all hold are universal. This is what we must always remember.

All of my pictures of the Belfast murals are available here (N.B. the opinions represented in the pictures do not necessarily reflect my personal opinion nor any endorsement by the center).

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Holocaust Remembrance Day at CMC

Yom HaShoah—Holocaust Remembrance Day—was two days ago on Monday the 20th of April.  It was a day to remember the 6 million Jews that died in the Holocaust and the approximately 5 million others—ethnic poles, homosexuals, gypsies, and the disabled—that also gave their lives in the concentration camps.  To properly observe the holiday, The Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human rights at Claremont Mckenna College brought in one of the foremost scholars of the Holocaust and Genocide, Robert Skloot.  Skloot takes the issues raised by the holocaust and genocide and looks at them through a very unique lens: theatre. 

During his talk at the Athenaeum, he described and presented excerpts from five spectacular plays on the Holocaust, each one offering Holocaust experiences from a very different perspective.  His talk was eloquent and emotional, forcing the audience to be truly engaged in a very difficult subject.  Moreover, his theme was conveyed clearly throughout the night—that art can at times be the most communicative medium through which to grapple with tough issues.  Overall, his talk was the perfect event to remember the lives lost in this horrible genocide, and I am proud to be at a school and involved in a center that encourages students to remember.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Hope for International Justice

As time passes and the Sudanese president Omar Hassan al-Bashir maintains his security in his home country and among the 22 countries of the Arab League, it has been difficult to have faith in international justice. In fact, I blogged about this very issue in the recent past. But having recently seen the progression of justice that has occurred for the former president of Peru, I am regaining hope.

In September of 2007, Chile’s Supreme Court approved the extradition of Peru’s former president Alberto Fujimori. This was a surprise to the globe considering all of Latin America’s—including Chile’s—history of hesitancy to extradite. Alredo Etcheberry, the Chilean lawyer who represented Peru’s government in this case said that “this is a breaking point in international law.” I hope this is the case.

Furthermore, once returned to Peru, the former president was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison. He is still being tried on additional charges of corruption. Simon Romero of the New York Times related this conviction to its implications on global human rights: “Specialists in international human rights law closely followed the case because of its implications for other former or current heads of state who might face charges of war crimes and other abuses.”

We can understand how this incident truly might have ripple effects regionally, if not globally. An editorialist also at the New York Times mentioned the criticism that the current president, Alan Garcia, is not much better. The columnist astutely responded by highlighting that in the very least, the current president will need to be aware “that Peru’s citizens and its legal system are watching.” This very fear can be extremely powerful and might be the largest incentive to discourage corruption.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Reproductive Rights in the Developing World

In 1968, “the right to decide freely and responsibly the number and spacing of one’s children and to have the information, education and means to do so” was added as a human right.  Since its adoption, family planning efforts have littered the developing world, attempting to give women the resources to properly control their reproductive health.  These efforts have not had the impact one would have hoped, but progress has been made. 


Still today, 200 million women have an unmet need for contraceptives—they want to avoid pregnancy but do not have the ability to do so.  This means that they either do not have the money to afford contraceptives or they are uneducated about them.  An op-ed columnist, Nicholas D. Kristof commented on the results that have been gathered of this problem: “This “unmet need” results in 70 million to 80 million unwanted pregnancies annually, the United Nations says, along with 19 million abortions and 150,000 maternal deaths.”  Moreover, these additional births (which predominately, though not exclusively, occur in the developing world) increase overpopulation, strap limited government resources, and lead to the continuation of poverty. 


The money that has been spent on family planning has not in the past been extremely effective because of cultural differences that were strategically difficult and were not preempted.  For instance, most of the developing world has large populations of people living in rural areas.  These people do not have access to hospitals and often get their reproductive health through their local midwives.  As such, women in rural villages have been neglected in the past by family planning programs.  Secondly, programs have often distributed contraceptives without adequate education about the proper use of them or education about the side effects. Because of this, many women stop the contraceptives when complications arise that they did not expect.  Also, they might take it improperly, deduce that it doesn’t work, and never try it, or other methods, again.  Finally, too often family planning programs have had a western agenda.  They have aimed at intimidating women into choosing smaller families instead of educating them about their options and offering them the ability to choose.  As many developing cultures value large families, this can be extremely problematic.  Once women feel that they are misunderstood, they stop trusting the family planning experts and continue with their normal patterns. 


This issue is one about which I feel very strongly.  Not only as a woman do I find importance in the attempt to ensuring that woman has control over her own body, but I have additionally spent a great deal of time in the developing world working with women and have been able to see what a large issue this truly is.  Just because family planning has not made the strides it should have in the last 30 years does not mean people should capitulate—these women in the developing world still need help and have not yet received it.  In the end it is about learning from our mistakes and continuing to do our best to help the world in a responsible manner.  Doing this, I am confident, requires a perseverance to important causes like this one. 


I really recommend this article for anyone that is curious about what it might be like to live as a woman in the developing world:

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Flogging in Pakistan

A video of a Pakistani woman being flogged was circulated recently, raising anxiety that the Peace Treaty giving the Taliban control over the Swat area in Pakistan was a mistake. The current story is that she was flogged March 7th on the charge of consorting with an electrician as an unmarried woman, but the stories have ranged from leaving the house unaccompanied by a male to denying the proposal of a Taliban official.  Regardless of the reason, she was held down in public and whipped 34 times regardless of her screams and pleas.  These acts of brutality against women are egregious.  Furthermore, with the Taliban controlling the area as of February, they are only to get worse.

Mr. Afridi, the Peshawar lawyer, has described the Swat Valley since the treaty in the following way: “The most fundamental rights are violated every second of every day. People are being ejected from their houses, courts are closed, 300 schools have been demolished.  More than 900 police officers had deserted the force of 1,600 in Swat, and now the Taliban were on the verge of taking over the neighboring area of Dir.”

Many people were critical of the Peace Treaty because they feared these exact consequences and suspect that the Taliban will us this to continue to gain power.  The flogging itself was horrible, and further incidents like it will only continue without regaining some control over the area.  The Pakistani government should revisit the decision to make the treaty to see if it was really in the country’s best interest.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Torture in Guantanamo

The torture of war criminals is not only a violation of human rights but also a strict violation of the Geneva Conventions. The Red Cross did an investigation of American “Black Site” prisons in 2006-7, concluding that the US treatment resulted in cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment of detainees. The report was shared with the US government but not given to the public due to the humanitarian group's strict policy of neutrality in conflicts. Last week, Mark Danner, a journalism professor, obtained a copy of the report and published extensive experts of it through the New York Review of Books.

The findings in the report are horrendous. The ICRC interviewed many detainees from Guantanamo. They all reported nearly identical treatments though they were questioned separately, adding to the credibility of their reports. Their allegations range from sleep deprivation, intense temperature change, water boarding, and severe beatings. The Washington Post summarized the interrogation reports in this way: “During interrogations, the captives were routinely beaten, doused with cold water and slammed head-first into walls. Between sessions, they were stripped of clothing, bombarded with loud music, exposed to cold temperatures, and deprived of sleep and solid food for days on end. Some detainees described being forced to stand for days, with their arms shackled above them, wearing only diapers.”

These torture techniques clearly had a huge impact on the health of the detainees. In a federal court filing, Abu Zubaida was reported to have had 175 seizures that were directly related to the abuse he suffered. The Washington Post and Danner repeatedly remind audiences that the Red Cross’s use of the term torture has significant weight and should be highly respected. Therefore, their conclusion that the U.S. tortured people in these prisons has huge significance.

People might be tempted to think that we have moved past this issue—that because our new president has outlawed such practices, we no longer need to worry about them or feel culpability as a result of them. Unfortunately, I think this would be a very wrong attitude to hold. Guantanamo has yet to be closed and many other secret prisons have not even been broached to the public. So long as they exist, there is reason to fear that once again the United States could condone acts of torture when circumstances of fear arise.

For more information or to see the report (last one), follow these links:

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Hope in Haiti

This blog is frequently littered with reports of suffering, continued inaction and overall bad news, but today I am excited to write of a hopeful message for human rights in Haiti. This country now has special meaning to students of the Center for the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights due to the recent visit of Anne Hastings, the commander of the largest micro finance institution in Haiti. Through her visit, we heard a optimistic message of how non-profits are improving the lives of Haitians. Now, there is reason to dream big for Haiti. After the HOPE II Act passed last year in the House of Representatives, Haiti has begun to show improvements. Furthermore next month, international donors will meet in Washington to talk of increasing aid to Haiti.

As many of you know, Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and has long been suffering from famine, corrupt governments and disease. Last year, America proclaimed their commitment to the country by passing a 9 year act that offers Haiti duty-free, quota-free access to U.S. markets (HOPE II). Though this has had an important effect on Haiti, according to Ban Ki-Moon (the Secretary General of the United Nations) with additional aid at this moment in time, there could be a substantial increase in economic development. I found his argument in the New York Times to be quite persuasive. Here is the heart of it:

HOPE II, as the act is known, offers Haiti duty-free, quota-free access to U.S. markets for the next nine years. No other nation enjoys a similar advantage. This is a foundation to build on. It is a chance to consolidate the progress Haiti has made in winning a measure of political stability, with the help of the U.N. peacekeeping mission, and move beyond aid to genuine economic development. Given the country’s massive unemployment, particularly among youth, that means one thing above all else: jobs.

My special adviser on Haiti, the Oxford University development economist Paul Collier, has worked with the government to devise a strategy. It identifies specific steps and policies to create those jobs, with particular emphasis on the country’s traditional strengths — the garment industry and agriculture. Among them: enacting new regulations lowering port fees (among the highest in the Caribbean) and creating the sort of industrial “clusters” that have come to dominate global trade.

In practical terms, this means dramatically expanding the country’s export zones, so that a new generation of textile firms can invest and do business in one place. By creating a market sufficiently large to generate economies of scale, they can drive down production costs and, once a certain threshold is crossed, spark potentially explosive growth constrained only by the size of the labor pool.

That may seem ambitious in a country of 9 million people, where 80 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day and half of the food is imported. Yet we know it can work. We have seen it happen in Bangladesh, which boasts a garment industry supporting 2.5 million jobs. We have seen it happen in Uganda and Rwanda.

For further reading, following this link:

I hope that the international donor committee heeds this advice in Washington and capitalizes on this moment to significantly impact the lives of the Haitian people. Haiti has suffered for too long.