Tag Archives: Human Rights

Malala Is Anything But A Western Puppet


Malala Yousafzai meets with President Obama. Photo credit: Reuters

Malala Yousafzai meets with President Obama. Photo credit: Reuters

When it was announced that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) won the Nobel Peace Prize, many were stunned by the decision.  This sparked a divisive discussion about why Malala Yousafzai, the clear favorite to win the prize, was overlooked.

Although many were disappointed in the decision, multiple scholars and media outlets felt the Nobel Prize committee was spot on and accused Malala of simply being a stooge for Western ideals.  Some pundits were more courteous than others; the Washington Post said the Nobel committee did Malala a favor, because, “Awarding Malala the highest honor in peacemaking, at the pinnacle of the campaign to remake her into a Western celebrity, would have validated that effort, deliberately or not.  It would have reaffirmed that too common Western habit that, by giving a powerful symbol a greater platform and lots of accolades, we’ll have fulfilled our duty.  Like a sort of slacktivism writ large, awarding Malala the Nobel would have told us what we wanted to hear: that celebrity awareness can fix even the worst problems.”  The New York Times reported that many in her home, the Swat Valley of Pakistan, felt that she either didn’t do enough for her home, was part of a larger western conspiracy, or that there were plenty of other female advocates for education who should equally be recognized.  Some even went so far as to assert that Malala’s rise to fame was the result of a western, white savior complex, and that Malala herself was a puppet of the west, incapable of criticizing Western Governments or society.

Are these criticisms really all that fair?

Coincidentally, the day the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded was also International Day of the Girl.  The Day of the Girl is a response to a massive problem facing the world today: the inequality girls face in all aspects of society.  The day was a call to action to do more to ensure and achieve gender equality.  Gender equality is an absolute necessity for global peace and stability.  In India, adolescent pregnancies result in the loss of nearly $10 billion USD in potential income annually.  In Uganda, 85 percent of girls leave school early.  Globally, 14 million girls are forced to marry against their consent before turning the age of 18.  Do not think for a second that this is merely a developing world problem; in the U.S., 1 in 5 girls is a victim of sexual abuse.

Education has the ability to reduce the social, political, and economic equality gaps that every girl faces at some point in her life.  A little over a year ago, Malala was shot by the Taliban for advocating girls education, as well as women’s rights.  Although she quickly rose to fame after nearly dying from her critical condition, the notion that the West has used her to promote western values is grossly exaggerated.  The violation of the rights of women and girls, particularly the challenges of access to education has and will be one of the biggest challenges the international community faces.  Despite the tragedy she suffered, Malala continued to stand up for her rights, as well as the rights of others, rather than be cast as a victim or spend her life in hiding from the Taliban.   She continues to speak out for the rights of girls to be educated, despite the fact that Pakistani Taliban members vowed this week to kill her, given the next opportunity.

As for her media tour: so what?  Causes don’t get noticed unless there are interviews, speeches, compelling stories, and cries for action.  It’s also where you can find sympathetic donors to your cause.  Speaking at the United Nations gave her the ear of the entire world, and interviews with Jon Stewart and other members of the media introduced her to new audiences that may have not known about her work.  Increased awareness of one of the most ubiquitous and uncontroversial human rights violations of our time is good for everyone, because it promotes peace and security for the world.

Finally, let’s remember Malala is a person that can make her own decisions.  To simply paint a picture that this is an instance of the West saving a poor little brown girl is to deprive Malala of her own agency, and to privilege the Western (and her critics) reaction over Malala’s actions. She demonstrated multiple times last week that she is a free-thinking individual, especially when she visited the Obamas in the Oval Office and requested that the President stop using drone strikes as a counterterrorism measure in Pakistan, telling him that it led to resentment from the Pakistani people.  Reasonable people can agree that it takes some bravery to tell the leader of the free world to stop doing something.

It’s very easy to get bogged down in a debate about human rights, privilege, agency, and imposing values on others.  This is not an instance where this discussion is necessary.  To criticize Malala for being a stooge of the west, or the west for helping her become a successful advocate is wrong.  This is not about the West vs. the rest of the world, white vs. brown, the privileged vs. the unprivileged.  This is about closing the gap on inequality in global education for girls.  A world where all children are educated can only be a more beneficial and peaceful one.

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Syria: The Refugee Aspect


On September 4, 2013, after a long summer holiday, the members of the Bulgarian National Assembly returned for the third plenary session of the year. They were welcomed by the anti-government protests that have occupied Sofia, the capital, for over 100 days. The demands of protesters for government resignation and their very existence for that matter received little to no attention. On that first day of work, the main issue addressed by Bulgarian politicians was the increasing number of Syrian refugees seeking assistance in Bulgaria.

While the rest of the world engages in heated debates over the likelihood, morality, feasibility, and possible outcomes of a military intervention in Syria; analyzes the characteristics and motives of all involved in the conflict; and actively seeks someone to blame for what is happening, the number of Syrian refugees scattered in neighboring countries has surpassed 2 million. The refugee aspect of the conflict in Syria has therefore become a major concern for the countries refugees flee to. Even in the face of national priorities that do not align with addressing a refugee influx, these countries cannot escape the direct impact of the conflict, in the form of Syrian men, women, and children whose lives have been shattered, and are inevitably forced to address the problem.

Bulgaria is one of these countries. It is not a neighbor of Syria, but it neighbors Turkey and such geography has contributed to an increased flow of refugees, specifically in the last several months. The Turkish population feels the strain of added responsibility to care for thousands of foreign people and tensions between refugees and locals increase. The situation is not better in another neighboring country, Lebanon. Resources are quickly exhausted and the desire to help those in need dissipates as scarce supplies are diverted to an international population. Some Syrian refugees realize that Turkey is not the refuge they seek and continue on to Bulgaria, perhaps with hopes for entry into the EU region. Every day, an average of about 50 to 70 Syrians cross the Turkish-Bulgarian border with hopes for a better life. The road to the supposed safe haven is accompanied by as much danger as the region they left, and often what they find at the end of the journey are good intentions and not many helpful practices by the governments of the receiving countries.

Refugees, by virtue of their condition, find themselves in a very vulnerable position: their own country is unsafe and host countries are unprepared and unwilling to accept them. The transition into a refugee status is not voluntary and unlike regular migrants, the ones forced to move are usually not prepared to leave the only homes they have known, often with no idea about their destination and the conditions they will face when they arrive. Severed from their roots, they are placed into a new environment and asked to fit in and live happily. The task proves challenging: although their home country is torn by internal conflicts that endanger their well-being, refugees are more likely to feel nostalgia and be plagued by fear that they might never see their native country again. The interviews with refugees in the Bulgarian refugee centres confirm that sentiment.

In a perfect world, refugees will receive the assistance they need so that their suffering is minimized. (Well, actually, in a perfect world, there would not be conflicts that necessitate concern for refugees, but that may be a bit too much to ask for.) Not surprisingly, however, refugees are often treated worse than voluntary immigrants and are lucky to receive even the bare minimum of services or assistance.

The political leaders of Bulgaria have clarified that the country will very likely not be able to offer proper assistance to the continued flow of refugees and talks about EU funds enter discussions. Reports from the refugee centres support the government’s worry that even though the flow to Bulgaria is not of the extent to other European countries, the increased numbers put a strain on the system. The current holding areas reveal that conditions are dire: overcrowded buildings, unsafe living environments, and lack of basic necessities. While a number of the arrivals are children, educational and recreational opportunities are limited. Some who have crossed the border through illegal means, often with the “help” of a trafficker, are left in detention centres with no hope for assistance until their case has been reviewed by the appropriate authorities. Using the internal protests and the refugee crisis to their advantage, the right-wing party seems to be the only actor to have a clear platform and a position: leaders demand the closing of borders and under claims of patriotism require focus on internal issues, not conflicts in other countries.

Addressing the refugee crisis, however, is vital and demands international engagement. In the absence of help from international players who are able to provide assistance, predatory players–like traffickers–step in to fill the void. After all, war brings business to those who prey on the vulnerable and desperate. Left with no protection, refugees become exposed to advances by a plethora of helpful traffickers.

A recent report by BTV NEWS indicates that the majority of refugees reaching the Bulgarian border are women and children. Some mention that they have paid anywhere from 400 to 2,000 EUROS to be brought from Istanbul to the Bulgarian border. Some experience greater violence than the one that pushed them to leave. Clearly, violence against women is not just prevalent during a time of conflict; it is an everyday occurrence even after women have supposedly escaped the war-torn region and are settled in refugee camps/centres and under the protection of host governments and an array of non-profit organizations.

Certainly, becoming a refugee places a person in a vulnerable position. However, refugee populations should not simply be dismissed as an unfortunate collateral damage for whom doing the basic minimum is sufficient (although sometimes even doing that minimum seems like an unbearable chore in the busy daily schedules of host countries). We should not assume that because they have survived the chaotic situation in Syria, they can certainly make it in the crammed environment of refugee camps. They probably could, and often do, but this does not mean that we should allow it to happen.

The suffering for refugees does not end when they leave the war-torn region; in fact, for many, the separation from their homeland marks the beginning of an arduous journey to unfamiliar and often unwelcoming new abodes. It is not a surprise that many dream of nothing more than to return to Syria. Ultimately, they endure the conditions in refugee areas not because they are times better than the current conditions in Syria, but because they hope for a chance to return to and rebuild their homes.

Krasi Shapkarova is a recent graduate of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, with an MA in International Human Rights and concentration in forced labour and human trafficking. She is now based in the Washington D.C. area.

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Se habla español


I was waiting for the bus the other day, and I met a man who had just got out of work and was ready to go home.  After greeting him with the usual, “Good afternoon.  How’s your day going?” I then asked him where he was from, because I heard his accent.  “I’m from Guatemala”, he said, and from then on we just started chatting in Spanish.

Rob – that’s the alias I will use – was born in the same country I was born, but it was a very different country at that time.  He grew up in a rural community thirty minutes away driving distance from one of the biggest urban settings in Guatemala, Xela.  He only finished elementary school, so 6th grade in our education system.  When he was 17, he migrated to the United States, and has been here ever since. He works every day, pays taxes, rides public transportation, and contributes to the economy of Washington DC and Maryland.  He is undocumented.  When I asked him if he knew about any of the networks for immigrants that are available in the DC area, his face responded me with a blank expression.  I told him about some of the organizations for day laborers, for Central Americans, for undocumented immigrants and other organizations that might be of some utility. He has been here for a little over ten years, and he didn’t know about any of this.  I learned about the DC organizations that work for immigrants’ rights last week at a meeting for work, and I have been here for a little under two months.

This made me really unhappy, frustrated and angry.  And it just made me think and ask questions.  How does Rob access health?  Does he have access to preventive health at all?  How can he access adult education?  How does he access other kinds of services?  What does he do when he gets sick?  Where does he live?  What would he do if his boss is being unfair in terms of working schedules and salary?  Don’t get me wrong: Rob is obviously a resilient, adaptive man, who has worked hard for over a decade. He has been sending money to his family back in Guatemala, he is bilingual (maybe even multilingual if he speaks either Mam or Quiche’, the Mayan languages in the region where he is from) and knows how to move around parts of the city.  He is a survivor.  But at the same time, he was telling me how he hasn’t seen his family in all these years, how he can’t leave the country, how he had to travel through the borders using a coyote, and how it is so hard to get a visa and a social security number.

How do we allow for some individuals to be treated as people and others to be treated as less than people?  How come our humanity is still defined by where we are born, our geographic origins?  Why do I have more human rights protected and guaranteed than Rob does?  If we really want to tackle issues around health, human rights, international politics, and economics, we really need to revise, reform and revolutionize immigration policies.  In the connected world we live in, with technology that makes distances and time so malleable, I sometimes think we live more disconnected from each other than ever.  We need to learn about the different efforts currently taking place working towards fairer immigration policies, learn about the different social movements that have been fighting for this around the world, and think what can we do to be part of the conversation, the movements, and the reforms.  Because after all, aren’t we all immigrants?

I leave you with a quote from President Franklin Roosevelt: “Remember, remember always, that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”


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Human Rights Monitoring, Google Glass, and the Right to Privacy


Google glass prof

I’m a big fan of new technologies in general, and the introduction of Google Glass has me really excited. Will I be able to afford one? No. Will most people? At $1500 for the current developer-oriented kit, I highly doubt it, unless you work somewhere on Wall Street. What intrigues me about Google Glass is it’s potential for human rights monitoring projects.  Not to mention the other technologies that have become available in the global struggle for consistent and reliable accountability mechanisms.

Simmering conflicts around the globe have spawned numerous allegations of human rights abuse but are often areas of limited access. Continue reading

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50 Years After the Dream: Reflecting on the March on Washington


Fifty years ago, a group of determined people led one of the largest rallies for human rights in US history.  As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, it is necessary to reflect on the state of human rights, and ask ourselves: “Has Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream been fulfilled?”

It is certainly a loaded question that does not have a definitive answer.  To say that we have not come far would be a disservice to the civil rights activists of the past 70 years, many of whom gave their lives to the attainment of freedom and equality.  Their tireless work served as the catalyst for the passage of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1964, which changed the lives of many Americans.  The Civil Rights Movement allowed masses of diverse people, including African Americans, women, and immigrants to gain upward mobility in a way that was not possible beforehand.  And of course, we cannot leave out the fact that on the 50th anniversary of the March, the nation’s first African American President, Barack Obama, is the one that addressed the crowd.  In a world where many civil rights leaders never believed that they would see an African American President in their lifetimes, in some ways, we have exceeded the expectations of MLK’s dream.

Although we have exceeded MLK’s expectations in some ways, the US is still embarrassingly lagging behind in others in race relations.  African Americans remain far more likely than whites to lack jobs, fail to graduate from high school, live below the poverty line, be arrested, and serve time in prison. Data compiled from the 2010 Census demonstrates that Americans are still segregated by race, particularly in cities.  Finally, NPR’s Michele Norris put it best in an article she wrote for Time:

“America twice elected a President who is black.  That’s one for the history books – but so too was the day that same President visited the White House briefing room to remind America that while the world rises up to meet him as a leader, as a black man he might have a hard time hailing a cab outside the White House.”

Indeed, America, as well as the rest of the international community, has yet to enter a post-racial world, or even a world where human rights are a top priority.  For that reason, human rights defenders all over the world must continue the work toward realizing Dr. King’s dream.  Although history has focused on Dr. King’s work towards ending racial discrimination, he also fought to end poverty, was a staunch critic of the Vietnam War, and was also an ardent supporter of the United Nations, demonstrating that there is no shortage of critical human rights work to be done, whether it is fighting racial discrimination in the US, or fighting for girl’s education in Pakistan.  For these reasons, I implore readers to sit and reflect on the work of MLK and human rights activists around the globe, and ask yourself what you are doing to contribute to a more diverse, equal, and just world.  We can and must reflect; as MLK noted in his powerful Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”


The text for “Letters from a Birmingham Jail” can be found at: goo.gl/XzwCv8

You can watch and read Dr. King’s famous speech at: goo.gl/tAVArA

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The International Adoption Problem


The international adoption system has given many U.S. couples the privilege of becoming parents. Unfortunately, the system that allows this opportunity is rife with corruption and fraud. Increasingly, children adopted overseas have living family, and are in fact, victims of human trafficking.

A lack of transparency in the international adoption community has led to an epidemic of trafficked children into the U.S. under false pretenses.  The families that adopt the children do not realize they are participating in a system that kidnaps, recruits young children and buys babies for eager parents-to-be from abroad.  The abuse ranges from individual kidnappings to institutional corruption that depends upon a consistent supply of trafficked children. Continue reading

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