Global Justice Center Blog

The US Leads in ICRC Aid Donations, but Restricts Equal Rights for Aid Recipients

The United States strives to be a leader among the nations in terms of equality and fairness.  However, one area that starkly contrasts that desire is the US policy regarding how to use the funds it donates to humanitarian aid.  The United States is the largest contributor of humanitarian aid to the ICRC.  Along with its donation of over 240 million Swiss Francs, the US has instructed that its aid may not be used to fund abortions under any circumstances.

As the largest donor of aid to the ICRC, the US retains a great deal of control over how that money is spent.  In addition to holding the power to restrict how its own contributions are spent, the US’s power extends further in some instances to determine how donations from other sources may be restricted as well.  If the ICRC is funding an initiative with money that comes from the US as well as other governments whose funds may contain no restrictions, the entire initiative will be subjected to the restrictions that the US has placed on its donations.

Women who have been raped in armed conflict have been recognized as under the category of “wounded, sick, and shipwrecked” under the Geneva Conventions Additional Protocols, and that affords them the right to receive medical care to the greatest extent practicable, including abortions.  Without the ability to receive safe, legal abortions, pregnant war rape victims will be forced to endure great psychological and physical pain and in many cases resort to clandestine abortions or even suicide.

The repercussions that result from failure to provide abortions to war rape victims are enormously detrimental and the practice is blatantly discriminatory against women.  Many organizations and countries, notably the Paris Bar and the German Women Lawyers’ Association, have supported the efforts to try to get the US to change its policies and lift the ban on abortions for its international aid.  Most recently, the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR) has written to President Obama asking him to lift the restrictions through executive order.  ECWR, being the first Middle Eastern organization to support these efforts, is setting the tone for the rest of the international community as well as the United States itself, and that tone is one of equality and intolerance of discrimination.

In its letter to President Obama, ECWR points out the hypocrisy of the United States.  The US consistently demands that Middle Eastern countries end discrimination against women and advocate for women’s equality, yet they fail to follow through with the same position that they advocate by maintaining these discriminatory restrictions.  It is time for the US to put an end to its double standard and to institute the same policies domestically that it promotes for states.  The US is the example that other countries strive to emulate.  With restrictions that so blatantly discriminate against women, the US as an example leaves much to be desired and must rectify this injustice immediately, and truly demonstrate to the international community what is right.

Continued Violence in Burma’s Rakhine State Demands Greater Attention from International Community

Ethnic and religious violence continues to flare in the Rakhine (formerly Arakan) State of western Burma after an incident last month in which a local woman was raped by three men, allegedly of Rohingya minority. The Rohingya are a largely Muslim ethnic group that lives mainly along the border between Burma and Bangladesh. They are not recognized by the Burmese military government as citizens in Burma, nor have they been permitted to obtain citizenship in Bangladesh. According to United Nations estimates, there are approximately 800,000 Rohingya living in Burma, many of whose families have lived in the country for generations. An estimated 300,000 currently live in Bangladesh. The Burmese refer to Rohingya as “Bengalis,” illustrating the widespread perception of the Rohingya people as unwelcome foreigners in Burma. Nor have members of the minority received much support from their supposed country of origin. Boats of Rohingya refugees seeking asylum in Bangladesh are being turned away by government authorities, who have effectively closed their border to refugees fleeing persecution in Burma.

The conflict risks creating greater political strife within the country at a time when the government is especially vulnerable to instability due to the recent “liberalization” undertaken by the ruling military regime. Many government officials are hesitant to address the issue publicly. Even Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize winner and leader of Burma’s National League for Democracy has remained tight-lipped on the plight of the country’s Rohingya population. The NLD spokesman Nyan Win would not comment on Suu Kyi’s position but said, “The Rohingya are not our citizens.”

The three men accused of committing the rape that are believed to have initiated the conflict have been arrested and charged for the crime, yet the ethnic tensions sparked by the incident have continued to evoke violence in the region. After the attack, a group of Buddhist Burmese citizens boarded a bus and beat ten Rohingya passengers to death, some of whom were apparently thought to have been involved in the rape. Since then, clashes between the Arakanese (members of the ethnic Burmese population in Rakhine state) and the Rohingya community have included rioting, arson, and a continuing cycle of revenge attacks. Government officials report that the month of clashes has resulted in eighty deaths. The Rohingya community believes the death toll to be much higher.

In response to the violence, the military regime has instituted a state of emergency in the Arakan state, a situation which gives the military full governing rights under the 2008 constitution. While the government claims the measures have been undertaken to ensure the safety and security of the local population, a declared state of emergency robs the state’s civilian government of what little power and authority it previously enjoyed in the region.

It’s time for the international community to recognize the plight of the Rohingya people in Burma by increasing humanitarian aid to the region and openly calling for the military junta to end its oppression of minority groups in Burma, a trend that has characterized the regime’s rule for decades. In addition, the international community should call for Bangladesh to reopen its borders to refugees fleeing the violence in Burma and allow international humanitarian aid to enter the country. As Human Rights Watch has noted, Bangladesh is obligated under international law to provide temporary protection to refugees and asylum seekers. While Bangladesh is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, it is a party to the Convention against Torture, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. These treaties and customary international law establish the obligation of states to respect the principle of nonrefoulement, which holds that refugees should not be forcibly returned to a place where their lives or freedom would be threatened and that no person should be returned to a place where they would be subjected to torture.

Post by: Adrian Lewis

“Call Me Kuchu” Resonates with Continuing Struggles for Equality

Last night, on the closing night of the Human Rights Watch film festival in New York City, the film “Call Me Kuchu” made its New York premiere.  A film about David Kato, the first openly gay man in Uganda, “Call Me Kuchu” depicts the harrowing story of David and his journey as an activist, fighting against discriminatory state laws that subjected HIV-positive gay men to death and propose prison sentences for anyone who fails to turn in a known homosexual.  David and his fellow LGBT activists had a difficult fight ahead of them, following the introduction of the “Anti-Homosexuality Bill,” up for debate in Ugandan parliament, pursuant to the American evangelical inspired “homosexual agenda.”  Despite the obstacles ahead, David did not back down and continued to speak out for himself and other victims of discrimination like him, as an activist against state sanctioned discrimination and homophobia.  Through his determination, David was ultimately able to make positive strides for the “kuchu” (homosexual) community in Uganda and achieved legal victory, when the Ugandan High Court ruled that by publishing names and pictures of 100 allegedly homosexual people and calling for their execution, a newspaper violated those people’s fundamental and constitutional rights.

David’s struggle showcases the need for strong voices and activists to not only shine a spotlight on government enforced discrimination, but to insist that such policies and legislation not be tolerated.  The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wisely wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and this is clearly evidenced by the impact of discriminatory policies within the framework of an international legal system.  “Call Me Kuchu” delineates just one example of the horribly discriminatory state sanctioned discrimination and the terrifying impact it has on the discriminated group.  We cannot allow similarly discriminatory policies to continue, such as the US ban on abortions funded by their humanitarian aid contributions and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) deference to national law regarding availability of abortions for pregnant ware rape victims.

By deferring to national rather than international law in the case of pregnant war rape victims, the ICRC is discriminating upon certain women based upon where they live, only providing the fullest extent of care practicable (as guaranteed by the Geneva Conventions) to women in countries that allow abortions.  Furthermore, the US is one the largest contributor of humanitarian aid to the ICRC, but it places restrictions on its donations, preventing them from being used to administer abortions.  By restricting its donation, the US is failing to allow the ICRC to provide the proper level of care even in places where it would be nationally permissible.

As pregnancy is only a condition that can befall women, such policies discriminate against women, because preventing women from receiving abortions is equivalent to failing to provide women with the fullest extent of medical care practicable.  These practices are equally discriminatory with consequences equally dire, leading to imprisonment, ostracism, grave bodily harm, and even suicide and death.  There is no denying that failure to provide abortions for pregnant war rape victims is discriminatory against women and the toll it takes on them, expressed in death, harm, and punishment, cannot be ignored.  David’s fight reminds us all to stand up against discrimination, not to allow governments to institute unfair and unequal policies, and not to stop until there is equality for all.

Women Empowerment, Sustainable Development, and the Rio+20 Summit

With the debate of the effectiveness of the Rio+20 Summit still lingering, it is important to assess where the dialogues of the Summit could and should have gone. This discussion is inspired by the article, “The elephant in the room at Rio Summit,” by Jenny Shipley, which is an opinion piece on CNN addressing the role of empowering women and family planning in sustainable development.

The Rio Summit was designed as a milestone in the renewed discussions focused on the environment and moving towards a more sustainable and equal world. The Summit was described as trying to shape, “how we can reduce poverty, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection on an ever more crowded planet to get to the future we want.” In order for the Summit to have effectively discussed how to advance towards these objectives there were seven priority areas which had been identified to further guide discussions in a positive manner. These priority areas include: “decent jobs, energy, sustainable cities, food security and sustainable agriculture, water, oceans and disaster readiness.” However, there are a few things missing from the above “priority areas” which remain essential to the progression of our planet towards a global reduction in poverty while improving our social equity and global environmental protection clauses: the empowerment of women and family-planning.

In our world today one of the major problems we face is controlling our rapid population growth. Many environmentalists and experts have expressed their concerns that we have indeed passed the world’s carrying capacity, and this fact has become continuously more apparent in the last ten years with the increasing concern for environmental issues such as: global warming, resource depletion, deforestation, degradation of water resources, etc. The Rio Summit was theoretically responsible for addressing all of the above issues; however the real problem was without including the discussion on the role of women we were and continue to ignore the solution to our problems.

It has been proven that literate women who have access to education, not only in general but specifically related to reproductive health, put a higher emphasis on the importance of education for their children. In addition, literacy and education level are negatively correlated to the number of children a woman is likely to reproduce. Meaning, with an increase in literacy levels we are likely to see a decrease in child-bearing rates. Education, as deemed by many countries as the key to success, should have been discussed and encompassed as a key player in the fight for future successful implementation of sustainable development. This education factor, if directed specifically at women, can change the way our population is growing allowing for the strain on our Earth’s carrying capacity to be eased. Instead, some of the most influential leaders of international relations left Rio without a real plan or any solid progress towards a sustainable future.  If as a part of the Rio Summit, we strove towards implementing globally-focused education plans for women we could in the future make enormous strides for not only the environment, but also in reducing poverty, world hunger, infant and mother mortality while increasing quality of life and changing the way we view education as a whole. The Rio Summit instead of aiming high, lead us disappointingly to yet another conventional plateau of recycled ideas and promises.