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Category: Human Rights

The Power of Identity

Kofi Annan said that "gender equality is more than a goal in itself. It is a precondition for meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development and building good governance." There are many ways that investing in women's empowerment can help end poverty. For example Women tend to invest more of their wages into their families than men. However, I'm going to focus on one aspect of women's equality and development: birth registration.

My host mother, Madame Sanokho took me on a trip to deliver books to a small Senegalese village about two hours from Kaolack-the second largest city in Senegal -- where I was living. On the way she told me about the problems that girls face with achieving an education. I learned that one of their biggest challenges was not having a birth certificate because without a birth certificate children can't attend secondary school. In Senegal birth certificates cost about $25 to obtain and most families live on about a $1.25 per day so birth certificates are financially unfeasible. When we arrived at the village I met 32 girls in their final year of primary school and I asked them if they planned to go to secondary school. They all said no because they didn't have a birth certificate. People in this situation are often referred to as unregistered.

I couldn't believe that the amount of money I might spend with friends going out to dinner on a Friday night is what was standing between these girls and a more vibrant future. Birth certificates grant children access to education, health care, an identity card which allows them to work legally. Moreover, a birth certificate provides them the ability to cross borders in times of conflict and return at a later date.

Speaking Out Against Violence Against Women

The recent death sentences handed down to four men convicted of the gang-rape of a young woman in India have thrown the issue of violence against women into sharp relief. The Indian government estimates that a woman is raped every 22 minutes in India. It appears that more Indian women are coming forward to report sexual assaults after the verdict in this case. While that is promising, the issue remains. After riots in Uttar Pradesh in September, there were 5 complaints of gang rape and 2 of sexual assault.

Violence against women, not just in India but throughout the world, is an issue of highest importance. In fact, it is an epidemic. And that's not hyperbole or editorializing. According to the Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), “violence against women is a global health problem of epidemic proportions.” An unbelievable 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence by a partner or stranger. And even more shocking, more women are killed or disabled by gender-based violence than cancer.

Day of the Girl: A Time to Promote Equality

One year ago, a 14-year-old girl named Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head for the crime of going to school.  In Malala’s region of Pakistan, the Taliban had banned education for girls.  Malala refused to comply.  She survived the attack, but remains the target of death threats for persistently standing up for equal rights to education.

October 11th is the International Day of the Girl Child. The U.N. General Assembly set aside this day to recognize girl’s rights and the unique challenges girls face around the world. This year’s theme is “Innovating for Girls’ Education”—a key idea for global progress. One major way the United States can contribute to this goal would be to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, also known as the Women’s Equality Treaty. 

Malala now lives with her family in the U.K. and is expected to be the next winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.  Unfortunately, millions of other girls around the world are still out of school due to cultural sanctions, poverty, and child marriage.

According to UNICEF, one out of five girls in the developing world does not complete the sixth grade. A lack of education limits girls' choices and opportunities throughout their lives, often resulting in poverty. Without education, women have fewer opportunities to provide for themselves and their families financially. It also makes them more vulnerable when their spouses die or abandon them. 

Girls who are educated, on the other hand, tend to marry later and have smaller, healthier families. Educated women provide better nutrition and health care for their children. They are less likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth and more likely to send their children to school. 

Birth of the Big Lie

Former Senator Bob Dole on Senate Floor during vote on Disabilities Treaty

A "Big Lie" is a "deliberate, gross distortion of the truth used especially as a propaganda tactic." My colleague Jake LaRaus just published a great paper: Birth of a Big Lie - How Misinformation Fuels Treaty Opposition: A Disability Treaty Case Study.

Last December, Bob Dole, former GOP presidential candidate and decorated veteran watched from his wheelchair on the Senate floor as all but eight of the Republicans in that chamber shamefully voted down the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  It takes two-thirds of the Senate to ratify a treaty, and even with all 53 senators in the Democratic caucus supporting it, too few Republicans got on board for it to pass.

The treaty's opponents seem stuck in a partisan twilight zone of UN black helicopters and conspiracy theories that undercuts U.S. influence in global affairs. They've perfected a method of defeating virtually every treaty that comes along. Since controversial treaties never pass in the Senate, opponents make any unobjectionable agreement divisive by inventing a Big Lie.

5 Disturbing Facts About the U.S. Prison Industry

The United States holds five percent of the world's population, but 25 percent of the world's inmates.  This is not a reflection of crime rates so much as incarceration policy.  The American criminal justice system is in dire need of reform, and first thing to go should be the private prison model. For-profit prisons are keeping incarceration levels at a record high and holding us back from creating a healthier society.  As a supposed champion of global human rights, it is ill-advised for the U.S. to permit its own system to clash so strongly with social welfare. 

Here's what's wrong with the U.S. prison industry:

1.       It's actually an industry.

Prison privatization took off in the 1980s when the War on Drugs and harsh sentencing laws dramatically increased incarceration rates and made costs problematic for governments. To deal with the costs, they began to contract the management and operation of entire prison facilities to private businesses. For-profit prison companies have since expanded; as of 2011, private companies hold roughly 130,000 prisoners and 16,000 civil immigration detainees. As states send people to prison, they fork over taxpayer money to private prison operators. In 2010, the annual revenues of the two top private prison companies alone--the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group--stood at nearly $3 billion.

2.       It has a financial incentive to keep prisons full.

Humanitarian Crises: Millions of Iraqis and Afghans Still Displaced Over 10 Years Later

There is no end in sight to the terrible repercussions of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 2,203,240 Iraqis are still displaced, living as refugees outside of Iraq or as displaced persons still within its borders. There are nearly twice as many displaced Afghans. In January of this year, 4,121,644 Afghans were refugees or IDPs. This means that Afghans represent the world's second largest refugee population after Palestinians.

A recent surge in sectarian violence in Iraq has lead to a tragic spike in the number of civilians killed this year--nearly 5,000 men, women, and children. In fact, more Iraqi civilians were killed in January to August of 2013 than in any year since 2008. In Afghanistan, there has also been an increase in violence affecting both civilians and Afghan security forces. The danger is acute for those Iraqis and Afghans who have worked for the U.S. military and its allies.

Death of the Rohingya: Genocide in Burma

In the country of Burma, a minority Muslim ethnic group --the Rohingya-- is facing extinction at the hands of the Buddhist Burmese majority. The Rohingya have long been discriminated against in Burma, by government laws and policies, hate speech, and religious conflict. According to the Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Rohingya have no legal status in Burma and as many as 100,000 have been displaced in recent years. A statement put out by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum explains the situation occurring in Burma and that something must be done to stop the genocidee.

The U.N. claims Rohingya are victims of crimes against humanity. They purposefully denied goods and services and many are relegated to internment camps. Foreign aid and assistance is not allowed to reach the Rohingya either. The anti-Muslim rhetoric in Burma is vitriolic and even the democracy movement in Burma has been eerily silent about the Rohingya. The Holocaust Museum is right; action must be taken to stop the ethnic cleansing. The U.N. used force to end the genocide in Yugoslavia but, then nothing was done to stop Rwanda. The U.N. and its members must work together to prevent Burma from becoming another Rwanda.

Responsibility Not to Veto: Creating the Security Council We Need

UN Security Council

Following a dramatic month of bluster and diplomatic turmoil, the Security Council unanimously passed a resolution demanding the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons. But it still has done nothing to halt the traumatic civil war that has so far killed over 100,000 and displaced over 7 million Syrians.

During the lead up to the agreement, US Ambassador Samantha Power complained, "The Security Council the world needs to deal with this urgent crisis is not the Security Council we have."   Her words are too true. Since 2011, Russia and China have vetoed three different Security Council resolutions condemning the Syrian regime's violence or promoting a solution.  This year Russia has blocked at least three statements calling for humanitarian access to besieged cities and four resolutions or statements condemning or expressing concern over the use of chemical weapons.  Prior to the current resolution, the Security Council could not even agree to put out a press statement expressing its disapproval over the use of chemical weapons.

I had hoped that President Obama would use his General Assembly speech to begin a dialogue with the permanent five members of the UN Security Council (P5) encouraging them to agree not to use their veto power to block action in response to genocide and mass atrocities that would otherwise pass by a majority. He came close, but I believe civil society has much more work to do to create the political cover for any P5 leader to initiate a public conversation on what we call the Responsibility Not to Veto (RN2V).

A few readers have asked me for some more background information and history on this concept.  So here goes:


Net Neutrality: The Struggle for Internet Freedom

Not Quite the World Wide Web: a three-part series about the importance of full access to the Internet for all

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A Missed Opportunity and Security Council Progress

Good news and bad news came out the UN this week: the rumored meeting between Presidents Obama and Rouhani did not come to fruition but the Security Council did come to a consensus on Syrian Chemical Weapons but the resolution did not mention consequences. Earlier this week Obama and Rouhani had exchanged letters and the language used suggested that they believed a meeting would be beneficial. Compared to the rhetoric of his predecessor, Rouhani appears to be much more moderate and reasonable. He does not deny the Holocaust nor is openly belligerent and obstinate. Obama is also more moderate that his predecessors who refused to deal with Iran in any way and seemed to want war with the country. The meeting, unfortunately, did not take place; Iranian officials explained that they were worried about the political climate in Tehran and how such a meeting would be received.  Secretary Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif did meet and had a constructive discussion. They agreed to a Security Council hearing on the Iranian Nuclear program in Geneva in October. Progress was made in improving US-Iranian relations but a meeting between Obama and Rouhani would have been more meaningful and significant and would have indicated a commitment to rapprochement.