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Category: Human Rights

World Cup Puts Global Inequality on Display

A mural street artist Paulo Ito painted on the doors of a schoolhouse in Sao Paulo's Pompela district. From Ito's Flickr feed.

With the 2014 FIFA World Cup underway in Brazil, it’s easy to ignore the headlines about protests in favor of the dramatic, high-scoring football matches capturing the attention of fans worldwide. But before we get out of the group stages, let’s focus on a chief concern of those protestors: inequalities in Brazilian society, and a corollary – how dismayingly common those inequalities are around the world.

Let’s start with Brazil. Around 15.9% of Brazilians are below the national poverty line. Just 3% of Brazilians own two thirds of the arable land, and agriculture is big business in Brazil. The most important picture of Brazil is the contrast in, say, Rio de Janeiro, between the massive favela shanty towns and the picturesque high-rise hotels immediately adjacent – the exact scene that will be playing out for tourists at the World Cup. With families locked in poverty sometimes for generations while the wealthy seemingly stay on top, desperation can easily set in.

But Brazil is only one piece of the puzzle; inequality is getting worse around the world. One study saw the top 1 percent of earners in the world increase their incomes 60 percent from 1988 to 2005; the bottom 20 percent saw no change. Eight percent of people see 50 percent of income worldwide. Coupled with staggering extreme poverty figures – we still have 1.22 billion people living on less than $1.25 a day – we all have a reason to protest.

Are Human Rights the Cost of Global Governance?,_Sam_Kutesa.jpg

Uganda’s Foreign Minister Sam Kutesa has been elected President of the UN General Assembly. While this is primarily a ceremonial position, Kutesa’s election comes with much protest, with opponents citing his string of corruption charges as well as Uganda’s own questionable laws and actions.

The most horrendous of these laws, and the main cause of concern, is Uganda’s anti-homosexuality law, which sentences violators to life imprisonment for “attempting to commit homosexuality,” along with other acts. The law also punishes businesses and owners “found guilty of the promotion of homosexuality.” Since the passage of the law, there have been many reports of violence, arrests, and other acts of discrimination, giving rise to a “culture of extreme and violent homophobia.” Many countries and organizations have responded to this by cutting aid to Uganda, with the World Bank suspending a $90 million loan directed to improve health services. 

Uganda was also found liable by the International Court of Justice in 2005 for war crimes in the Congo, for which it was ordered to pay $10 billion in reparations. This debt has yet to be paid.

Apostasy and Misogyny in Sudan

Last Tuesday announced the next chapter in a legal case that has drawn international outrage: Meriam Ibrahim, sentenced to death for apostasy, has been brought before an Appeals Court in Sudan. Ibrahim was condemned under Sharia last May for renouncing Islam and marrying a Christian, a so-called act of adultery. She gave birth in shackles and remains imprisoned with her newborn daughter. Ibrahim is trapped in a struggle between religious freedom and theocracy, but is also chained by legalized misogyny.

Apostasy is punishable by death, a penalty described in the Hadith and enforced by the Sudanese court. But Ibrahim’s punishment is not only an attack on religious freedom--it is also what happens when the gendering of religious identity is codified by state law.

The accusation and sentencing of Ibrahim are founded on the principle that women have neither the right to choose their religion nor to pass it on to their children.

Ibrahim’s only connection to Islam is through her long-absent father; she was raised by her Christian mother and considers herself Christian. Yet Sudanese law has determined her to be an apostate Muslim because the religion is patrilineal.

A Weapon of War Tolerated for Too Long

"It is a myth that rape is an inevitable part of conflict. There's nothing inevitable about it. It is a weapon of war aimed at civilians. It has nothing to do with sex, everything to do with power."

With this statement, Angelina Jolie, co-chairing with Foreign Secretary William Hauge, kicked off the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict on Tuesday in London, the first of its kind. In attendance are representatives from over 100 countries, experts in the fields, faith leaders, survivors, and NGO and international organization representatives.

The issue of sexual violence is not a new topic in the US, as sexual assault, particularly on college campuses, is at the forefront of policy action. The importance of the international community to use political will to end sexual violence in the world’s current conflicts is paramount.

Human Rights Watch recently documented cases of sexual abuse in many current conflicts including those in Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote D’Ivoire, Guinea, Libya, Somalia, Sri Lanka, and Syria. This report doesn’t even include the recent discovery of sexual abuse happening in South Sudan right under UN peacekeepers' noses. Even worse, allegations in South Sudan have been made against government soldiers and rebel forces.

The four main goals for the summit are:

Why Ratifying the Women's Rights Treaty Is Important to All American Citizens

The United States has led the way for democracy and equality around the world. Through its own work as well as through collaborating with international organizations, the US has strived to guarantee better lives for all citizens. Despite such progress, recent issues regarding equality between the sexes within the US have brought to light the domestic problems we still face and how such problems prevent us from helping others around the world.

News headlines in recent months have been filled with stories of inequality and injustice against US women. President Obama’s speech on equal pay for women has led many once again to bring up the need for women to be treated as equals in the workforce and to receive the same benefits as their male counterparts.

The recent shooting near UC Santa Barbra that took the lives of seven individuals has shed light on the violence continually committed against women in the United States. The assailant, a 22-year-old male that had attended the university, left a video explaining how his actions were targeted against women as consequence of their continually rejecting him. This misogynistic attack led to a social media campaign entitled #YesAllWomen, which sought to bring attention to the need for greater protection of women’s rights.

Elements of a Cosmopolitan Foreign Policy

President Obama delivers the commencement address at the US Military Academy at West Point commencement ceremony at Michie Stadium in West Point, NY, May 28, 2014 (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Watching President Barack Obama deliver his commencement address at the US Military Academy, it's easy to be reminded that he has discussed themes of human rights, multilateral engagement, and global thinking since before his presidency even began. As a global citizen, I want to see a president who recognizes our common humanity – and sees the danger in ignoring global problems. But if we're hoping for a cosmopolitan foreign policy, by what rubric do we grade this or any administration's performance?

A quick reminder: cosmopolitanism is the idea that everyone, everywhere is morally equal, and that we all belong to one worldwide community. Cosmopolitanism doesn't mean the end of local or national communities or the formation of a world state: it’s primarily about membership in that global community. The more strongly you hold that belief, the more likely you are to actively promote the well-being of people around the world.

A cosmopolitan foreign policy can do some of the heavy lifting for you. In a liberal democracy, governments are expected to enact the policy preferences of their constituents. As a cosmopolitan, you have the right and the duty to demand that your government act in a way that reflects the fundamental moral equality of all humans.

Some expectations might include:

35 Years and Counting

Rosie the Riveter!.jpg

Considered The Bill of Rights for women, the Women’s Rights Treaty (CEDAW) is the most comprehensive international agreement on the basic human rights of women. Adopted by the UN in 1979 and signed by President Carter in 1980, the Women’s Rights Treaty has yet to be ratified by the United States Senate, making the US one of only eight countries to not ratify the treaty to date.

Who are those other member countries? Iran, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, and the Pacific island states of Niue, Palau, and Tonga. We stand next to these countries, some of which have a history of gross human rights violations. Why has the United States failed even to entertain a vote on, let alone ratify, such a landmark treaty?

Various answers to this question have been offered, but at the center is the idea of the treaty attacking traditional family values. On the surface this argument might seem absurd. However, take into consideration the contention surrounding a woman’s right to an abortion and you start to see the hurdles this important piece of international legislation faces. 

Let’s identify the core objectives within the Women’s Rights Treaty:

Climate Change: A Distinctly Gendered Issue

Climate change has been framed in many ways: as an environmental issue, a public health issue, an economic issue, a sustainable development issue...what is rarely acknowledged, however, is that climate change is also a women’s rights issue.

But how can climate change be misogynistic? 

In poor countries around the world, a disproportionate amount of household responsibility falls on women and girls; namely the tasks of providing water, food, and resources for heating and cooking. Moreover, most small-scale farmers are, in fact, women--particularly in developing countries, where men typically leave home to find employment. In these roles, women become especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change (such as drought, soil erosion, and deforestation), as well as the effects of a lack of political power and economic independence.

A poignant example of this occurs in refugee camps in Darfur, where women walk as many as seven hours three to five times a week in order to find firewood. Leaving the camps makes women vulnerable to violence, sexual assault, and starvation, as many are forced to use the very food they hope to cook as payment for fuel. This reliance on firewood and other types of traditional fuel also affects climate change, as it leads to increased greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation. While steps have been taken to address this particular issue (most notably with the creation of a fuel efficient stove) this is only one of many issues connected both to climate change and to gender inequality.

ILO: "The Case for Social Security Protection is Compelling in Our Times"

international labour organization

Only 27 percent of the world’s population had access to a comprehensive social security system in 2012. This is according to the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) newly released “World Social Protection Report 2014-15: Building economic recovery, inclusive development and social justice.”

To put in perspective, that means that 5.2 billion people, nearly three quarters of the world, lack adequate access to social protections such as health care coverage, injury and disability pay, sick time, and pensions in old age. In the report, the ILO outlines the ongoing need for such protections, particularly in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

In the immediate aftermath of the crisis, many governments instituted fiscal stimulus plans in order to counteract what was quickly becoming a depression. Unfortunately, in 2010 a new mood of austerity began to sweep the globe (ILO, p. 119-120). Far from alleviating the problem, these policies actually impeded recovery.

Consider, for example, that the number of individuals at risk of poverty in the European Union increased from 116 million in 2008 to 123 million in 2012; this includes an additional 800,000 at-risk children (ILO, p. 136). Moreover, the fact that 116 million people in the European Union—more than 20 percent of its population—were facing poverty even before the financial crisis speaks profoundly to the intense and persistent need to protect and enhance social security systems.

The New UN Peacekeeping Mandate in South Sudan: What Does it All Mean?

The United Nations is now warning of a potential famine in South Sudan. Though South Sudan had agreed to ceasefires in January and again in early May, they did not last. The UN had to act quickly because with the surges of violence, there has been an increase in secondary deaths due to starvation and disease. The conflict has heavily interrupted the crop-growing season by displacing farmers, and the UN estimates that if the violence does not stop, famine will ensue.

On May 27th the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2155, which renews the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), but makes some important amendments. From this resolution, a civilian protection mandate was added to address the growing humanitarian and security needs. This stems from un-subsiding violence that broke out in December when President Salva Kiir fired his rival Riek Machar from the deputy president position. This event fueled underlying ethnic tensions between the Dinka who support Kiir and the Nuer who support Machar.

This action of civilian protection from the UN is a huge step in the right direction with regards to UN involvement in conflicts. The UN has a record of not taking appropriate action quickly enough, most notably in Rwanda in 1994; hopefully this is a sign of changes to come.