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Category: Human Rights

The Power of Norm Diffusion

Last month, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and paved the way for same-sex marriages to resume in California.  Millions of people across the United States celebrated a victory for equality and progressivism.  The decisions are historic and mark a new chapter in the fight to wrestle modernity from the hands of religious conservatives.  31 years ago it was legal to discriminate against LGBTQ individuals in all 50 states; 12 years ago the American Medical Association thought homosexuality was a disease; and nine years ago same-sex marriage was illegal no matter where people lived.   

Now, same-sex marriage is legal in 12 states (as well as the District of Columbia) and six states allow civil unions.  The momentum is unquestionably on the side of equality and the long arc of the moral universe does seem to be bending toward justice.  This, as regressive legislatures and governors overturn racial protections and restrict access to abortion centers.  National gay rights advocates largely weathered the storm of 2010 and 2012 when a series of Tea Party candidates swept to victory in the South and Midwest.  

Many people attribute the success to the popularization of the idea of being gay.  The popular 1990's television show "Will and Grace" is seen as launching the gay media revolution carried on by Glee, Modern Family, and others.  But there is a broader, more universal principle the gay rights movement can teach all of us - norms are powerful and norm diffusion is an essential part of social and political change.  

Rethinking Who's to Blame

The recent protests in Egypt have been dominating international headlines and many Egyptians are looking towards the future with optimistic anticipation. Egyptians' happiness about the future, however, has been clouded over by violent sexual attacks on Egyptian women.

While many celebrated the ousting of former President Morsi in the streets around Tahrir Square on July 4th, over 80 women were victims of harassment, rape, and mob sexual assaults. The most common scenario: a group of men pushed their way through the crowd, isolated a group of lone women, and proceeded to rip off their clothes. Sometimes the attacks stopped there, but other times they escalated.

Though incidents of sexual harassment are not unique in Egypt, these latest incidents are gaining international attention because they are more serious than typical acts of sexual harassment. According to Soraya Bahgat, co-founder of Tahrir Bodyguard, a volunteer rescue group, "Egypt is full of sexual harassment and people have become desensitized to it - but this is a step up. We're talking about mob sexual assaults, from stripping women naked and dragging them on the floor - to rape."

How did Egyptians respond to these attacks? Volunteer rescue groups, such as Tahrir Bodyguard and Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, stepped up and patrolled Tahrir Square and its bordering streets. It was lucky that these rescue groups took action because the Egyptian police force did not. As Baghat observed, "there [was] an absolute absence of any security forces in Tahrir."

International Institutions: By the Rich, For the Rich

Source: World Atlas

France, the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, Germany, Japan, Italy, and Canada.  

These countries comprise, in whole or part, the Group of 8 (G8), over 40% of global gross domestic product (GDP), the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), and the top position at the International Atomic Energy Agency, World Health Organization, World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, Interpol, and European Central Bank.  In other words, a huge percentage of the world's money as well as almost all of the major international institutions are controlled by only eight of the 196 countries on earth, a mere 4%.  If examined more closely, the power in these organizations is even more centralized with only France, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany controlling many of the leadership positions.  

This is a different kind of 1%.  The Occupy Wall Street movement popularized the phrase in reference to the super rich in the United States that control political and economic systems.  The global 1%, or 4% in this case, is made up of states rather than individuals and concentrated groups of decision-makers in those states.  Just like the United States's 1%, the global elite are failing the world's poor and pushing them to the margins through infantilization, uneven globalization, and disingenuous development.  

Social Media Is Here To Stay

The recent protests in Turkey and Brazil have caught the international community's attention.

At Global Solutions, we've covered the Turkish protests (you can read more about them here and here). As in Turkey, the protests in Brazil quickly escalated after a peaceful demonstration. Protestors first took to the streets after bus and subway fares went up by ten cents. The protests swiftly turned to other issues, such as taxes, public services, and government spending on the upcoming 2014 World Cup and 2016 summer Olympics. Eduardo Paes, mayor of Rio de Janeiro, has publicly stated, "Brazil has lost a great opportunity with the World Cup. FIFA asked for stadiums and Brazil has only delivered stadiums. We should have used the opportunity to deliver good services too."

While centered on different issues, the Turkish and Brazilian protests are linked by their excellent use of social media.

Jeopardizing Academic Freedom

Just a little over two weeks since the poultry plant fire that killed almost 120 people, China is once again in hot water for alleged human rights abuses.

Chen Guangcheng, a blind, self taught human rights lawyer, has been a fellow at New York University since 2012. According to Chen, his time at NYU has been cut short because of pressure from the Chinese government. The Chinese government is supposedly using NYU’s planned Shanghai campus as leverage against the university to kick Chen out of the fellowship program. NYU vehemently denies Chen’s claims: "Mr. Chen’s fellowship at NYU and its conclusion have had nothing to do with the Chinese government. All fellowships come to an end."

It’s still unclear whether Chen or NYU is in the right. This incident, however, has sparked a debate about the academic relationship between China and the U.S.

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.