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Category: Human Rights

World Refugee Day 2013

Photo Courtesy of

World Refugee Day is upon us and while my instinct is to do what I do on every such anniversary, which is to wish everyone a "Happy World Refugee Day!" I think we all can agree that this is no happy occasion.  World Refugee Day was established by the United Nations in December 2000 and is celebrated each June 20th, to honor the world's refugees for the courage they must possess when compelled to flee their homes and travel to unfamiliar lands, often with no certain hope of return.
Most people don't recognize the sheer volume of refugees in the world today: according to the UN's refugee agency, the number of people who have been forcibly displaced by war and other crises in 2012 was approximately 45.2 million people - higher than it has been in almost two decades. Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, adds, "This means one in each 4.1 seconds. So each time you blink, another person is forced to flee."

One every 4.1 seconds? That number is difficult to fathom. And I think it is all too easy to be misinformed or even completely unaware about the plight of all those people. One common misconception lies in confusing refugees with immigrants. But unlike immigrants, refugees usually have little to no choice over the timing of their departure or their destination. Also, refugees typically are not people moving from poor countries into rich countries in search of a better life or more opportunities. In fact, 87 percent of the world's refugees were protected by developing countries, with Pakistan as the world's top host nation in 2012.

Among the 45.2 million refugees, 28.8 million are internally displaced, 15.4 million are border-crossing, and 937,000 are asylum seekers. And although the asylum seekers are a relatively small piece of the pie, they are arguably the most important segment to the United States because for seven years in a row the U.S. was the largest recipient, among the industrialized nations, of new asylum claims.

Don't Let Our Future Dry Up

On June 17, 2013, World Day to Combat Desertification, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called for a collective global response to combat drought. He went on to explain the need to "shift from crisis management to drought preparedness and resilience." This year's theme for World Day to Combat Desertification was drought and water scarcity. The goal was to "create awareness about the risks of drought and water scarcity in the drylands and beyond, calling attention to the importance of sustaining healthy soils as part of post Rio+20 agenda, as well as the post-2015 sustainable development agenda."

Desertification is a significant global ecological and environmental problem, caused by various factors, including climate change. Drought produces a large number of socio-economic impacts, as water is the key to life. The severity of droughts around the world affects agriculture, water supply, and human health. The spread of desertification has made populated regions more arid, which makes accessing vegetation and fresh water challenging. For instance, in Ethiopia, an estimated 8 million of Ethiopia's 60 million people are at immediate risk due to drought (UNICEF estimates that 1.4 million of those at risk are children under five). 

Arming the Syrian Rebels

Photo courtesy of The Independent

I distinctly remember feeling relief when I first heard about President Obama's decision to arm Syrian rebels - finally there will be a stop to all this bloodshed. Research has led me to think otherwise, however, and I am now skeptical of the President's decision.

David Rohde of Reuters calls Obama's decision to arm the rebels the "best of several bad choices in Syria." He supports his claim by explaining, "Arming one side in a conflict can help produce a diplomatic settlement." In fact, a study on civil war found that conflicts are shorter when there is military intervention on the rebel side.

Unfortunately, that analysis does not apply to the situation in Syria. Obama's decision to arm the rebels in Syria means that bothsides of the conflict are receiving foreign military aid, as Russia is currently supplying weapons to Assad's regime despite condemnation by the international community. In a survey of civil wars that took place between 1945 and 1997, when both sides of a conflict receive foreign military aid, civil wars lasted almost 250% longer than those in which neither side received external support.  Arming Syrian rebels will likely only perpetuate the conflict.

Stifling Dissent

In some parts of Latin America, the press has little say in the type of content they’re allowed to publish. Recent developments indicate that the climate is growing even more restrictive.  

Venezuela is one Latin American country where the government has consistently retained a firm hold over the media. Until last month, Globovisión was the only Venezuelan T.V. network openly critical of the government. In May 2013, the network was sold to a group of private investors who plan to make the network’s content more politically neutral. T.V. networks aren’t the only media outlets in Venezuela that have been neutralized. Newspapers are also under fire. Shortly after Globovisión was sold, Últimas Noticias, one of the most widely read publications, was sold as well. Some fear that Venezuelans will soon have no access to unfiltered information.

It isn’t surprising that the freedom of the press continues to be threatened in Venezuela, given the government’s history of interference in the media. The Argentine government’s aggressive actions towards Argentina’s independent newspapers, however, are surprising. President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s administration has stealthily been attempting to smother Argentina’s four major independent newspapers, all of which have been critical of the administration’s policies. The administration has slowly decreased official advertisements in the papers and has forbidden supermarket chains from buying ads in these papers. Though Kirchner has made no move to shut down these newspapers, they will be forced to go out of business if their ad revenues continue to be cut.

The Protests Will Not Be Televised

If protests happen in Turkey and they rarely appear on the US nightly news, did they even happen? Yes, but they will certainly be less noisy on the international stage.

The protests began on May 28th as a demonstration against a proposal to destroy Taksim Gezi Park in Istanbul to build a touristy shopping mall. The city's meager 1.5 percent of green space (compare that to New York City's 17 percent) was being threatened and a small group of environmentalists headed the call.  

The protests quickly grew throughout the week after police attempted to disband the peaceful protesters with tear gas and water cannons. Soon after, demonstrations popped up in Turkey's largest cities including Ankara, the country's capital. On June 3rd, Turkish unions called for strikes on the 4th and 5th and on June 7th, a coalition of Turkish-Americans took out a full page advertisement in the New York Times supporting the protesters.  

Their demands are disparate and the government's response is meager to date. They want what a lot of us want - a free and independent press, green space in their cities, accountable politicians, democratic agency, and fair elections. The one catch-all demand is that Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan, resign from his post because they see him as the champion of a relatively new political and social agenda that runs contrary to the country's secular traditions. In response to the protests, Erdoǧan agreed to meet with opposition leaders, but has continued the violent assault against demonstrators.  

The U.S. and the Global Gender Gap

Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy's signing of the Equal Pay Act. This "milestone" legislation was designed to eliminate the gender-based wage gap in the United States workforce, yet today the average woman is still making only 77 cents to every dollar made by the average man. Yesterday's holiday presents an opportunity to cite a few facts about gender equality in the U.S. and around the world.

The Global Gender Gap Report for 2012 ranks the U.S. as 22nd in the world for gender equality. Although 22nd doesn't sound that bad, a closer look at the statistics shows that this ranking is certainly not satisfactory. Consider, for example, the fact that Iceland — the country ranked first — is more than two times further ahead of the U.S. in terms of gender equality than the U.S. is ahead of China. In other words, Iceland has a gender equality index that is 17% greater than that of the U.S., whereas the U.S. has an index only 7% greater than that of China.

An even more illustrative example can be made by including in the comparison the gender equality index of Iran. Iceland is about as far ahead of the U.S. in terms of gender equality as the U.S. is ahead of Iran. To put that into perspective, I would like to draw attention to the fact that Iran has in place many discriminatory laws, such as those legitimizing honor killings, compulsory veiling, women's rights and duties in marriage, and the minimum age for marriage (8 years and 9 months for girls), among others.

50 years ago today: JFK's "Peace Speech"

Photo courtesy of NPR

On June 10, 1963, then-President John F. Kennedy gave the commencement speech at American University.  What could have been merely an exciting day in the graduates' lives became one of the most important turning points in the Cold War era.

In the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy chose this day to reveal his new approach to the Soviet Union and the United States' nuclear program.  He declared that the United States would not continue testing nuclear weapons and would seek to form an agreement with other nations to ban nuclear tests in the atmosphere.  This led to the passage of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (LTBT), and later and more importantly, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968.  A good way to honor JFK would be to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the updated version, which would ban all types of nuclear testing, including those left out in 1963.

In addition to setting in motion these critical agreements, JFK's speech also accomplished a second important feat: it changed the course of U.S.-Soviet relations for the better.  The President boldly and eloquently made an appeal to the humanity of the Soviets.  He acknowledged the differences between us, but also drew important comparisons:

"So, let us not be blind to our differences-but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved.  And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity... Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet.  We all breathe the same air.  We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."

UN Post-2015 Development Agenda: The Same Old Story?

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The Secretary-General of the United Nations’ panel of experts recently released a report detailing goals for the Post-2015 Development Agenda. This 27-person panel made recommendations for development beyond 2015, building upon and amending the Millennium Developmental Goals of 2000.

As before, the overarching objective is to eradicate extreme poverty from the earth by 2030. The overall tone of the report is positive, with the panel stating they have a “great optimism that a transformation to end poverty through sustainable development is possible within our generation.” To help achieve this, the panel illustrates five fundamental or transformative shifts, summarized below:

1) Leave No One Behind:The panel emphasizes that we cannot simply focus on reducing extreme poverty, but instead must focus on ending it. No person should be denied universal human rights or basic economic opportunities.

2) Put Sustainable Development at the Core: We need to focus on development that is long-lasting and environmentally friendly. The panel argues that at least 1/3 of the activities needed to lower global carbon emissions (such as switching to LED lighting) more than pay for themselves under current market conditions, although we still need incentives to make people more willing to take actions that foster sustainable development.

3) Transform Economies for Jobs and Inclusive Growth: The panel emphasizes the need to ensure everyone has access to quality education, healthcare, clean water, electricity, telecommunications, and transport. With this comes the imperative for implementing good urban management, raising productivity, and providing a stable environment that allows businesses to flourish.

Worker's Rights: A Matter of Secondary Importance

Wang Haofei/AP

Two workers’ rights scandals have recently affected the international community.

On April 24th, Rana Plaza, a building home to several garment factories, collapsed in Bangladesh. More than 1,100 people died in the horrific accident. This week, less than two months after the tragedy in Bangladesh, a fire sparked by an ammonia gas leak in a Chinese poultry plant killed 119 workers.

These accidents could have been prevented.

Just days before the collapse of Rana Plaza, managers disregarded cracks in the building’s walls and reassured workers that the building’s infrastructure was secure. The Chinese poultry factory was touted by local government officials as “one of the top 100 agricultural processing companies” and was praised for “its advanced management concept and business model.” Clearly, these officials ignored or overlooked crucial warning signs that contributed to the gas leak.

What can be done to prevent disasters like these from happening in the future?

Experts Weigh in on Obama's Syria Policy

Chairman Ros-Lehtinen (Image courtesy of

Earlier this week, I attended my first House Subcommittee hearing on the Hill. The hearing was rather critically titled "A Crisis Mismanaged: Obama's Failed Syria Policy" and heard testimony from three experts on the subject of America's Middle East policy.

While I was initially struck by the strong language in the title, much of the testimony confirmed the speakers' beliefs that our policy on Syria so far has done little to resolve the situation. The Representatives who attended the hearing were relatively split in terms of political ideology and offered their own views and questions for the panelists.

Here's an overview of the main points the panelists brought to the table:

Mr. Tony Badran, a Research Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, had several suggestions for where the U.S. should go from here.  He recommended a "two-fold strategy based on sound threat prioritization" with our top priority being "to break the Iranian archipelago of influence in the eastern Mediterranean." Badran also emphasized the importance of taking a leadership role in bringing our allies together to address issues in Syria. He ended by stating the importance of recognizing that there can be no "managed political transition" in Syria, thus in his opinion, Assad and his regime are going to have to be toppled.