Browsing articles in "Human Rights"
Feb 17, 2014
Erika Hernandez

The Third Way


Source: ChinaPost

After a second round of negotiations for peace in Geneva on Valentine’s Day, the peace negotiator, Lakhdar Brahimi, left the UN headquarters empty-handed. No compromises were made during the second round. Brahimi even apologized to the Syrian population for the lack of progress. That same day, the Syrian group “Masarat Syria” circulated a YouTube video wishing a Happy Valentine’s Day to the world, in spite of living a civil war that has left a death toll of circa 140,000 people during the last 3 years. Why is it that when, at moments of extreme suffering, the West is the most hesitant to intervene? One part of the reason is the multiplicity of actors and of the interests at stake. But perhaps the other influential cause is nearsightedness.

On February 14, second round negotiations seemed to close without a record of achievement. The regime of Bashar al-Assad refused to speak about violence. For some, this is a clear indication that the government is not willing to cede power to an interim government that is supposed to share power with the opposition. The Syrian regime accused the U.S. for undermining the peace talks and the opposition for not settling over the “terrorism” issue. For their part, the United Kingdom, France and the United States blamed al-Assad’s regime for not willing to move forward in negotiations. Currently, the regime is using 54,199 soldiers, there are 275 Hezbollah fighters, 360 Shiites, 24,000 opposition fighters and 8,972 jihadists. The civilian death toll is: 50,000 civilians, from which 7,626 are children and 5,064 are women.

About a month ago, Immanuel Wallerstein described in great detail about the most possibly influential international actors that could affect the peace process. He painted a pretty pessimistic outcome. Wallerstein identified three possible outcomes: regime continuation; a Salafist outcome with a Sunni shar’ia law; and, a third different outcome. For international actors, he identified that Iran was in a dilemma since it supports the Syrian regime but doesn’t want to defriend the U.S., particularly when there is so much progress in their bilateral relation. The Kurds, in seeking their own autonomy, their negotiations with Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, are threatened by the conflict and can influence Syrian peace negotiations. Turkey is currently in an odd position in that from being a friend of al-Assad regime, became a foe, and then nothing. Israel has not yet taken a stand understandably because it could worse its relations with the regime and Iran. The internal position of international actors like Russia, China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, France, the U.K., Germany and Italy did not seem unified for him. Wallerstein concluded that this situation was a “geopolitical chaos,” that actors had a very limited ability to influence any possible outcome and that atrocities were not expected to cease. Furthermore, turmoil had already began to spread to Lebanon and Iraq.

But what if Wallerstein’s views are not entirely accurate? What if there is a third path to which most of the international and domestic actors could be amenable to? If al-Assad’s regime is not willing to talk about a transitional government, what if a government managed by the international community is negotiated? Clearly, this would imply adopting a resolution at the UN Security Council. Core members such as Russia and China would hesitate to support such resolution. However, on September 18, 2013 both members first agreed on supporting Resolution 2118, which instructed the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to work with the Syrian regime to destroy its chemical weapons. Yes, an internationally-led interim regime could be somewhat of an implausible outcome. Yet, this has not been mentioned in the negotiation table. Therefore, a third way is possible. Despite the ‘seemingly impossible peace’, there are hopes. The third round is yet to take place. So far, none of the negotiators have cancelled it and the agenda that was original set by both parties is on: violence, terrorism, interim government, national institutions and national reconciliation. Although deadlock roams around interim government, the topics of the third round could be modified. Will the UN negotiator Brahimi seek to modify them? It is likely that he will attempt to do so, hopefully with the help of the international community. Certainly, we all look forward when the mass atrocities stop. Hope remains in that decision-makers, for once, decide to open up to hear what the enemy –who is likely just a cousin– says, vents and then forgives.

Feb 13, 2014
Erika Hernandez

The Path of Deserving


It is often said that undocumented immigrants entering the U.S. break the law. It is also said that they displace American low-skilled workers, causing their unemployment. Perhaps the lack of a better regulation has further avoided local low-skilled labor from gaining useful skills that could help them get employed in other sectors. It might be that the structural inequality in the States causes these workers to rant against immigrants without questioning why has the current system done relatively little to protect employment rights. True, no system is free from flaws. But systems granting minimum unemployment benefits are extant. Such as system is in place in Scandinavian countries like Sweden. The newspapers “El Pais” and “The New York Times” just realeased two interesting articles regarding the formation of a new NGO, Immigrant Justice Corps whose purpose is to provide legal counseling to immigrants. It is quite possible that, the lack of a better immigration system, led this NGO to seek to provide legal services to them. Such a decision could have been triggered by the recent consular services denials in states like Texas.

Source: Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images

Civil society has sought to put some order to the obsolete immigration system by incarnating groups such as the Immigrant Justice Corps. Its members are highly-renown people such as Chief Judge Robert Katzmann of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Its Executive Director is the bright lawyer, Nisha Agarwal, who graduated Oxford University and Harvard Law School. In 2007, its founding members performed a study (the New York Immigrant Representation Study) and found that 60% of the detained immigrants to be deported in New York City did not receive legal counseling before deportation. Moreover, 40% of undocumented children are thought to be eligible for legal immigration but, by not receiving legal assistance, often end up in court for deportation. The NGO is currently seeking recent law graduates to commit for a two-year of service that would initially operate in NYC but its activities are expected to eventually expand to the rest of the country. Engagements like this are not only praiseworthy but also force us to think whether there exists a vacuum of power in the immigration system? For starters, the potential influence of such a coordinated CSO seems to be huge.

Edgar Arias Tamayo, who was sentenced to death in Texas on January without resource to consular services, has been one prominent case where consular services were denied. It could be the case that civil society did not reach out to provide legal services. Either way, Tamayo was sentenced to death without getting any legal recourse. Such a case is an indication that the immigration system in the U.S. needs to be reformed by looking after the displaced labor, the current system’s needs for labor and the new labor. Reaching consensus for such a system is so complex because its results are yet unknown and certain conservative citizens are highly opposed. Some of the measures that the GOP and the Democratic Party seem to agree are: increased enforcement, implementation of an electronic employment-verification system, and that labor offer will be sought to satisfy demand. However, negotiations on other areas are yet to be defined. These are: payments for outstanding taxes, issues granting permits to family members, whether there should be a point-based immigration system and if the bill will incorporate a long-term commitment to citizenship. Critiques say that GOP’s House Speaker, John Boehner, is compromising the bill’s future by catering to far-right conservatives in face of the coming midterm elections. By the same token, immigration advocates –like members of the Fair Immigration Reform Movement– have apparently become more radical by saying that they will confront GOP members. Whatever the reasoning for contention may be, it seems that immigration reform is not likely to resolve but after midterm elections.

The current labor structure in America looks in need of refurbishment. Labor reform needs to take place in order to protect American workers and “imported” human capital. Authors like Page and Simmons (2000) indicate that the majority of the poor in the U.S. are a ‘working’ poor class. Most of the lower-skilled workers are being employed by having false SSNs and, every day, they live in fear of being caught by the police. It is true that some came to the U.S. out of disappointment from their own country and perhaps do not have enough excuses. But many others came to America to feed their families and to fulfill their dreams of living a better life. I agree that America is a land where dreams come true. I also agree that there exist limited jobs to be evenly distributed to all. Yet, I also believe that it is a moral obligation for those in power to make sure that all those in need get an opportunity to thrive and to work enough to feed their children.

Feb 11, 2014

Sochi 2014

International Olympic President Thomas Bach with Russian President Vladimir Putin, at the opening ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games (from The Guardian)

International Olympic President Thomas Bach with Russian President Vladimir Putin, at the opening ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games (from The Guardian)

Last Friday, the 2014 Winter Olympic Games opened in the Russian town of Sochi. The celebration of a major sports event such as the Olympics or the soccer World Cup offer a unique opportunity for the world to look inside the host country because of the unusually large media attention it receives before and during the contests. Or, from other perspective, these events offer the chance for local authorities to show a new face to the world.

In the previous months there was a vast array of critiques to the hosts of the Olympic Games, implicitly questioning their integrity. Three were the lines of criticism. The first one was related to limits to freedom of expression, which clash with Olympic ideals of peace and brotherhood. The exemplary cases were members of the punk band Pussy Riot and businessman Mijail Khodorovsky, who were imprisoned some years ago in relation to protests or actions against President Vladimir Putin. They received high international media attention, and were labeled as unjustified, excessive, or mere political revenges. Weeks prior to the Olympics, the people involved was released. This action could have been interpreted as part of an “Olympic Truce”, coming to terms with political opponents within the Olympic spirit. Yet, there are fears that political controls might resume once competitions are over, plus the fact that many other detainees for political motives whose stories are not well known abroad remain in jail.

Second, there are security concerns. Sochi is relatively close to the Caucasus, scenario of large-scale and long-lasting ethnic conflicts. Worries were reaffirmed with bomb attacks to the public transportation system in the north of the country in the weeks leading to the Olympics. Some interpreted these acts as a sign that the government was not going to be able to provide sufficient security during the competitions. However, since decades ago, terrorism has been a major item in the agenda of the organizers of these competitions, and host countries usually invest a substantial part of their budget in security. Yet, at least in this occasion security controls might be playing against the image of the games. The relative absence of public in the venues during the first days of events has been attributed to tight revisions of attendants, similar to those found in international airports. Because of the long time it takes to go through these checkpoints, contests are over before people can make it to their seats.

Third, there is an almost universal critique against Russia’s treatment of homosexuals, again opposite to what Olympic values would dictate. Putin and the organizers have tried to explain that they do not repress gays and lesbians, but that they prohibit the “publicity” of such preferences. Several companies and national delegations of athletes have shown their rejection to the Russian government’s posture by displaying the colors of the homosexual movement flag in their logos or uniform, or by threatening to boycott the Games by not participating in them. Organizers responded by saying that the anti-homosexuality regulations would not be applicable in the premises of the Olympic Village. But, as in the limits to opposition to Putin, it is expected that once the event is over regulations on this subject are fully resumed.

Notwithstanding those concerns, it could be thought that they would be erased the minute the event started with its festive environment and an expected good organization. On the contrary, international journalists and some athletes have documented several problems. Most of them are not directly related to the organizing committee, as they are found in hotels, where water is dirty, restrooms are inadequate, or employees are rude. Plus, the fact persists that these are the most expensive Olympic Games in history at USD$51 billion. It has been argued that most of this money went to build practically from scratch all the infrastructure necessary to adapt a beach resort to host winter sports competitions. The reported feel of “simplicity” or austerity has generated suspicions of corruption.

Practically none of the critiques surrounding Russia in occasion of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi was new. And also it is very questionable the extent to which the government was interested in showing a new face to the world. Although problems of attacks to plurality, corruption, and security are well documented in Russia, authorities did not try to conceal or nuance them. Possibly they knew it would be futile because they are already well divulged. In the face of such information, authorities feel confident and secure in their position. If any, that could be the message and image they wanted to share: Russia and its government are strong, and there is no sound reason to believe it should be different anytime in the near future.

Feb 10, 2014
Erika Hernandez

Fleeing from the Central African Republic

Source: MICHAEL ZUMSTEIN / Agence Le Monde

Source: MICHAEL ZUMSTEIN / Agence Le Monde

The Department of State has named Central African Republic’s current situation in a ‘pregenocidal’ state. Thousands of Muslims have and are currently fleeing CAR, indicating that an imminent crisis is taking place here over religious and political issues. Having President Michel Djotobia renounce last January, meant that the Muslim grip of power over politics disintegrated. The crisis was impending given that Djotobia had arrived to power by the support of Muslim rebels named “Séléka” who carried out attacks on Christian militias as well as on civilians. Payback from the Christian militias was to be expected once Muslim dominion over politics collapsed. Today, Bangui (the capital) is the nucleus of the conflict where Muslims are beheaded and mutilated. Numbers on the death toll are yet unknown, but the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that nearly 68,000 people have fled CAR and calculated 400,000 internal refugees. Even after having designated an interim president, the government is weakened to the extent that no security apparatus is extant. Not only does the situation seems difficult to contain but other countries like Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria, Niger and even the unstable Sudan are now forced to receive CAR refugees. The vacuum of power in the country goes hand-in-hand with the lack of security. But to reestablish the power vacuum, security must be first reestablished.

On December 5, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution sponsored by France in order to restore peace. The UN decided to send to CAR the International Mission to Support CAR (Misca) that would replace the Multinational Force at Central Africa (Fomac). By itself, France decided to create operation “Sangaris” in order to informally support the UN mission –and also due to its previous colonial linkage. For the International Crisis Group, the most immediate and urgent needs at CAR are to “restore security and public order and to provide humanitarian aid,” which the UN is already carrying out. The group also recommends that a medium-term objective should be to create a political transition to last roughly 18 months, which implies holding elections. As a long-term objective, the group considers the reconstruction of the state.

In order to create a strong CAR state, social order is required. Without it, it would be impossible to reconstruct the state. Regarding political transition, it is important to question whether the current presidential system is able to reconcile the numerous social and political groups in the country. So far, the conflict has detonated over religious affairs and it seems that holding majoritarian power only worsened the situation. If the conflict is not contained and continues to exacerbate, struggle over ethnic issues could ensue given CAR’s multi-ethnic structure. Perhaps, a more appropriate model to address conflict between groups is a parliamentarian, consociational system. Unearthing Arend LIjphart’s analysis is apposite here. Since constructing a state implies redesigning the political system, we may pose several questions to help design a conflict-proof model: in the case of CAR, should the executive power be constituted by a coalition cabinet or by a winning party? Should the executive power be linked to the legislative power? Would multiparty system foster peaceful agreements or more conflict? How strong can the state become if the country adopts a federal and decentralized government? Proposing a system that allows the inclusion of the majority of societal groups is necessary. However, since a consociational system entails numerous trade-offs, it could only be feasible if willingness to share power exists.

It is particularly important to continue monitoring whether the ‘pre-genocidal’ situation is controlled. Once control is attained, it would be important to hold talks between the groups so as to reach peaceful consensus. So, how to proceed from here? The results of negotiations would help us to determine whether or not a consociational system could help prevent religious and ethnic conflicts. Only until then, until knowing whether there really exists a reconciliation spirit or not, we will unveil the possibilities. If the country continues an unstable trajectory, this could also influence stability in neighboring countries. Unfortunately, picking the most appropriate political system for the Central African Republic will be determined by how the actors end up playing their cards. So far, Muslims stand at a disadvantage given that they constitute 15% of the total population while Christians represent nearly 50%.

Feb 6, 2014
Erika Hernandez

Evaluating Civil Society or a State? The Catholic Church

Monseigneur Silvano Maria Tomasi, permanent observer of the Holy See to the UN Office in Geneva. Source: Jean-Marc Ferre, AFP

Monseigneur Silvano Maria Tomasi, permanent observer of the Holy See to the UN Office in Geneva. Source: Jean-Marc Ferre, AFP

This Wednesday, the UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child made its final recommendations to the Catholic Church’s report regarding its work on prevention and punishment of child abuse. On January16, the Holy See had introduced this report in a six-hour presentation to the committee members, followed by lengthy interrogations by the committee members. In this occasion, the committee recognized that there had been a great deal of progress in that the Holy See had finally submitted the report –after Pope Francis came to power– but that such report had unfortunately taken six years to deliver. In general, the report takes on the Catholic Church in an aim to quell pressure from civil society groups and public opinion worldwide as well as to push transparency forward. Could these pressures for internal accountability really trickle down within the Church? The Catholic Church’s equivocal nature leads the international community to proffer recommendations that do not necessarily identify its double character: the church is both, a civil society organization and a state. In this regard, how can the international community force a state to comply if this can infringe the Holy See’s sovereignty? There are several ways to identify both of the church’s modus operandi. If the international community is aware of this, then further democratization within the Catholic Church could be possible.

As a civil society organization, it is widely known that the church has intervened to –mostly– defend human rights abuses and to aid in democratization processes worldwide. As a part of the third wave of democratization, such interventions took place in El Salvador, Chile, Brazil, Poland, the Philippines, among other countries. But it is also known that the church has not intervened despite dismal abuses. Perhaps, the church behaved as a state actor and not like civil society, when it avoided to intervene in Argentina where the military regime engaged in mass disappearances during the 1980s. Some preliminary research results of a research project that Prof. Eusebio Mujal-Leon and I are currently carrying out show that the Catholic Church was able to intervene in these countries when certain hierarchical levels consented. If the UN and other members of the international community would like the church to comply, it is necessary that they recognize the church’s hybrid nature in that state and non-state policies could better address the problem.

Some of the demands that the UN Committee is asking are: to gather and reveal all data concerning offences to children; to reveal all circumstances where children were removed from mothers who were raped by priests; to harmonize all norms and regulations in line with the UN’s Optional Protocol and to make sure that such law is respected in the Vatican and foreign circumscriptions where the church works; to further prevent child abuse and to become a paragon that respects children’s rights; and, to remedy victims and redress all offences. The list is not long but thorough. What is complicated about it is the extent to which the Holy See is capable of reaching lower levels. This is not to signal the lack of state capacity. But it is to recognize that the church’s intricate structure worldwide will probably not allow a thorough assessment. It is quite possible that Pope Francis will have to “pick-and-choose” the most salient cases of child abuse such as those abuses in Irish parishes.

Since Pope Francis was chosen to lead the Holy See, he has led with a highly social-Jesuit rhetoric. When touring Brazil, Francis forewent the bulletproff popemobile because he said he wanted to be close to the people. He has also denounced the great social and economic inequality in the world. He has refused to use luxury items created especially for the Pope to wear and use. He has also amended part of the criminal codes dealing with child abuse, issued a Motu Propio and created a pastoral Commission for the Protection of the Minors. It is quite possible that the Vatican has been aware of the crimes committed in some regions of the world. But it is also quite possible that, the internal local system of poor accountability will probably make it very hard to collect all abuses data, not to mention the fear of implicating previously cherished priests. The Pope can only do his best he can to clean the house. However, it will probably take considerable digging before we see results. Additionally, this collective action effort will require the consent of most hierarchical levels. Even if Pope Francis is prepared, this does not mean that the rest of the Catholic Church members are. Finally, how may Pope Francis reconcile his innovative yet peaceful character with these accountability demands? Let’s hope that his justice compass leads the church to a better and renovated faith. One that does not discriminate, protects children and engages in peaceful behavior worldwide.



Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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