…. for Human Rights

April 30, 2010

Not too long ago I heard about a nonprofit organization called Artists for Human Rights.  Being an art major, and aware of the human rights violations that take place around the world, I was very interested in learning more about this organization.  AFHR is a group that was formed to raise human rights awareness and promote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

AFHR uses all types of media in their campaigns, including film, music, visual arts and literature.  Using art to promote social change is most definitely not a new idea.  In fact, many of the major modern art movements shared the idea that their art could change society.  Whether it’s in the form of video, music, paintings, sculptures, photography or anything else, art can shape society.

I had never thought that I could use art to promote human rights so I am glad that I found the AFHR website.  It also made me think of how anybody, whether they’re artists, doctors, teachers, lawyers or anything, could use their passion to promote human rights.  So I found many groups of human rights supporters including Physicians for Human Rights, Journalists for Human Rights, Poets for Human Rights, University Teachers for Human Rights, and many more.  Here is a list of these and many more websites for human rights organizations that shows that whatever your passion might be, you can use it for the advancement of human rights or any kind of social change.

Besides organizations that are supporting human rights, you can find the same kinds of groups that are supporting just about any other cause.  Whether it’s peace, the environment, war or any other cause, people in all kinds of professions are using their talents to improve the world that they live in.


Drug Violence in Mexico

April 23, 2010

Even though the number of illegal substance users has dropped by nearly 50 percent in the last 30 years, some drugs, such as methamphetamines, are still on the rise.  Whether it’s marijuana, cocaine, heroin or meth, drug cartels in Mexico are a major supplier of illegal drugs.  There is increasing violence in Mexico involving not only drug dealers and police, but innocent civilians as well.

The demand for drugs by users in the U.S. fuels the violence that the cartels use to keep their businesses going.  Besides authorities being killed, some drug dealers have targeted civilians, including a group of people who were celebrating Independence Day and had a grenade thrown at them by members of a drug cartel.

This is a video from The New York Times that covers the drug cartels in Mexico and the violence that is a result of the drug wars.

The illegal drug users that I know have argued that it is their choice to use drugs because it only affects their body and no one else.  I used to go along with this way of thinking because, even though I don’t think it’s a good idea to use drugs, I thought as long as it wasn’t hurting anybody but the user than it should be their choice.  However, as long as there is demand for the drugs that the Mexican drug cartels are selling, there will continue to be violence.

Sure, maybe if all drugs were just legalized, there wouldn’t be so much violence.  However, as long as it is illegal there will be people losing their lives so some addict in the U.S. can get their high for the day.  Anybody that is still okay with using drugs despite all of the killing going on because of the drug wars is not okay with me.

The philosophy of nonviolence has been used as a tool for social change throughout history.  Great leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. used it to create change and better society.

An example of non-violent protests occurring today is found in the Palestinian village of Beit Jala.  Despite the number of protests over the occupation of the West Bank by Israel that turn violent, organizers in Beit Jala are training people to peacefully protest.  Many protests in the past in Beit Jala have been met with Israeli authorities shooting tear gas or even rubber bullets at the protestors, which is why the new methods of peacefully protesting are very important for the Palestinians.

In a news story from Amnesty International, peaceful protests were violently broken up by authorities in Egypt.  The anti-government demonstrators were beaten with batons and at least one was detained and abused by Egyptian authorities.  Another peaceful protest turned violent in Egypt on April 6 when authorities forcefully repressed it as well.  Even though Egypt agreed to allow citizens the freedom of expression, association and assembly after the UN Human Rights Council held its Periodic Review of human rights in Egypt, acts of violence against peaceful protestors still take place.

There have been many leaders who were inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and his methods of nonviolence and non-cooperation.  I believe that nonviolence is something that should be promoted and taught to more people.  It is something that I never learned much about growing up, but it seems like something that is so relevant to the violence-filled world that we live in should be part of every person’s education.

After learning more about the philosophy of nonviolence I have wondered, if there is a peaceful way to create change, why not use it?  If nonviolence can bring down dictatorships, improve living conditions and win a nation’s independence, then why not use nonviolence more often?

The 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet is another leader who promotes nonviolence.  His views on peace and methods to a more peaceful world are inspiring to me. There are many people that are using the methods of nonviolence that have been promoted by people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and there have been many people that have used nonviolence in the past as well.

A few weeks ago I blogged about the U.S. Human Rights report that put together human rights abuses and violations from countries all over the world.  I mentioned that human rights issues in the United States were not included in the report.  However, November 26, 2010 is the first time that the U.S. will have to submit their report to the UN Human Rights Council.

Human Rights First gave a report to Human Rights Council that drew attention to human rights violations that are occurring in the United States.  Their report focuses on issues such as refugee protection and immigration detention, counter-terrorism policies, and hate crimes.

The report from Human Rights First says that the United States has not treated refugees seeking asylum the way they are supposed to and there is a need for a change in laws to fix the problem.  According to Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. ”  The report says that the U.S. government has improved the interrogation methods used on detainees, it is still able to be abused and would violate international law.  Also, the government has yet to give adequate information about abused detainees from a “black site” in Afghanistan.

The United States has one of the best systems of data collection and hate crime legislation, however there is still violence based on discrimination.  Human Rights First points out that official response to this discrimination is not the same throughout the country, and vulnerable groups are subjects to violent acts.

These, along with other human rights violations in the United States, need to be addressed and solved.  Human Rights First suggests that the United States change its laws and regulations in order to help asylum seekers with speedy court hearings.  They also suggest that the U.S. Army Field Manual be revised to it would not allow conduct that violates international human rights and humanitarian law.  Human Rights First also believes that in order to help the problem of hate crimes, the U.S. should be persistent in finding ways to improve community outreach efforts and increase confidence in police and local government to address the problem.

These are all steps that the United States should take to improve our country and ensure the human rights of every person.

“Conditions in slums are a violation of human rights,” argues the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon.

Ban Ki-moon said on Monday at the fifth World Urban Forum that the living conditions that are found in slums all over the world are a violation of human rights.  For the more than one billion people living in poverty around the world, access to safe drinking water, sanitation and shelter are everyday concerns.  The increasing urbanization of the world’s population is a cause for the increase in the number of people living in slums.  Nearly half of the world’s population lives in towns or cities and there are almost 830 million who live in slums.  Some of the biggest slums in the world are found in Africa and Asia, including the one pictured above in Dharavi.  It is considered to be the largest slum in Asia and is located in Mumbai, India.  Still, it is smaller than slums in Neza-Chalco-Itza, Mexico and Kibera, Nairobi.

The World Urban Forum, which is taking place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil from March 22 to March 26, is a conference that discusses issues of urbanization.  According to UN-HABITAT, a United Nations agency, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in towns and cities within the next 50 years.  Because of this, one of the goals of UN-HABITAT is to find ways to create sustainable development in cities and help reduce poverty.

Ban Ki-moon’s view on living conditions in slums brings a different perspective on why there is an urgent need to create a future that is free of slums.  Besides the desire felt by many people to help out your fellow man, it is also a matter of preserving an idea that everyone, no matter their nationality, race, gender, or religion, deserves basic human rights outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  For the individuals that live in slums, many of their basic human rights are not available.  The men, women and children without access to clean drinking water or adequate shelter are living in fear of their safety and the safety of their families.  This problem is one that UN-HABITAT and many organizations are trying to address.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 10 December, 1948.  It contains 30 articles that define the human rights that each person has.  According to the General Assembly, the declaration is “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms.”  Human Rights Day is celebrated every year on December 10 in honor of the adoption of the declaration.

U.S. Human Rights Report

March 13, 2010

The U.S. Department of State released a report on world-wide human rights on Thursday.  The report cited human rights violations from different countries around the world including Nigeria, Kenya, China, North Korea and many more.  According to the report, 2009 was “a year in which ethnic, racial, and religious tensions led to violent conflicts and serious human rights violations and fueled or exacerbated more than 30 wars or internal armed conflicts.”  The annual report reviewed human rights conditions of 194 countries and condemned abuses of human rights found in several countries including China, North Korea, Iran, and Nigeria.


There were reports of unlawful killings by the government, abductions by militant groups, torture and many other problems in Nigeria.  In Uganda there was consideration of a bill that would create a death penalty for homosexuals.  Overall, there were far more reports of human rights violations than there were reports of improving human rights.  More conflict was found in some of Africa’s most populous countries like Kenya and Ethiopia.


The report found “extrajudicial killings, executions without due process, torture and coerced confessions of prisoners, and the use of forced labor, including prison labor” in China.  Despite these violations of human rights, China did create a National Human Rights Action Plan in April of 2009, but has not yet been carried out.

There were numerous other human rights violations from many other countries besides Nigeria, Uganda and China that were included in the report.  However, it shows that there are also some countries that have taken a step in the right direction.

Some have cited human rights violations committed by the U.S. in Afghanistan.  There have been cases of Afghan civilians who have been killed by United States forces. For instance, according to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, more Afghan civilians have been killed by the United States and Allied forces than have been killed by insurgents.  The United States human rights records were not a part of the 2009 report, but the U.S. will have to give a report to the U.N. Human Rights Council sometime this year, as a part of a process called the Universal Periodic Review.  The process was created in 2006 as a way for the Human Rights Council to review human rights records of all 192 United Nation Member States.


In order to improve human rights throughout the world, there must be a greater awareness of the many violations of human rights that are taking place.  There are many organizations that are dedicated to ending human rights abuses.  Human Rights Watch and  Amnesty International are a couple examples of these organizations.  You can find out how you can help put an end to human rights abuses by visiting their websites.

Some Links:

Cultural Diversity

March 8, 2010

Growing up in a small town in rural Iowa, I never really experienced much except for life in my own town.  In high school we had foreign exchange students that would come for a year, but other than that the vast majority of students and people living there were middle class white people.  It was easy to see all of the differences that there were between myself and people from other cultures, even though there were far more similarities.  Now that I have had the chance to go to school with people from different cultures and travel to different places to experience different cultures for myself, I have a much greater appreciation for the amount of diversity that exists in the world.

Puncky Heppner, a teacher at the University of Missouri, was recognized for his cross-cultural work by the American Psychological Association.  “Culture affects human behavior. The more we learn about other cultures, the better teachers, mentors, scholars and therapists we can be. Ultimately, understanding different cultures makes us better people.”

Culture can be defined as the sum total of all beliefs and behaviors of a specific social, ethnic, or age group.  There are many benefits of understanding cultures that are different from your own.  The United States is one of the most culturally diverse places in the world.  Your neighbor or coworker could be from a different country and developing relationships with those people is easier when you know a little about where they are coming from.  Besides benefitting relationship building, learning about other cultures can help in other ways.  You might learn something about another culture that you feel you should adopt into your own life.

Once you have learned about a culture, you will understand that the definition that I used earlier to describe culture is not a very good one.  This is because not every single person in a culture has the same beliefs and behaviors.  Understanding more about other cultures has helped me see the amount of diversity that exists in those cultures and that there are often stereotypes associated with different cultures that are false.  

Since not everybody in a certain location has exactly the same beliefs and behaviors, being able to understand and appreciate different lifestyles can help to develop relationships with people from your own culture, but who hold different beliefs than you do.  Whether it’s religion, political views or any number of things, it is important that you can understand that your point of view is not the only one that exists.  So maybe the entire idea of understanding and appreciating other cultures outside your own should be changed to understanding and appreciating other people.

I feel that learning more about people from other cultures has made me question my own beliefs and values, but it ends up solidifying them.  Being more open to learning about different cultures has helped me be more accepting of people and ideas that are foreign to me, which is something that everyone can benefit from.

Culture of Silence

February 28, 2010

This winter I had the chance to visit Nicaragua, which is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.  I went as a part of a winter term class that was going to learn about the work that an organization called Outreach International is doing there.  One of the things that we discussed on our visit was the term culture of silence.  This was a term used to describe the devastating affect that growing up in poverty has on people.  It produces a feeling of helplessness that comes from years of living in poverty and not being able to find a way out.  Because of this silence, people don’t address the issues that need to be changed to improve their lives and poverty becomes a never-ending cycle.  It can be caused by the mental toll that poverty takes on a person, making them feel like there is no way to get away from poverty, or like they are for some reason meant to live in poverty for the rest of their lives.

While in Nicaragua, we learned about Outreach’s Participatory Human Development Process that is helping communities improve their situations.  It was inspiring to see the kind of work that was being accomplished.  Outreach is working to empower the men, women and children living in the communities who have been silenced by poverty, and to help them find ways to create a better future for themselves.  Another topic of discussion while in Nicaragua was comparing the terms relief vs. release. This is the idea that if you just give money or supplies to those living in poverty the results are only temporary, or it is only relief from poverty.  However, if you go deeper and focus on helping those living in poverty to find ways to help themselves, the result is sustainable, or a release from poverty.  These are the kind of results that Outreach is all about.

The term culture of silence doesn’t have to apply only to poverty.  It can actually work the other way around, applying to those who are not living in poverty, but are wanting to help eliminate it.  The idea of one person making a difference to help get rid of poverty can be so overwhelming that it keeps them from even trying to make a difference.  They might resign themselves to the idea that poverty will always be around and there’s no way that they can do anything to change it, just like those living in poverty feel that they can’t do anything to get out.  I have experienced this feeling, and I am often discouraged by the thought of how many people there are in the world that live in poverty.  It sometimes makes me think about how much easier it would be to just focus on my life and how I’m going to take care of myself rather than to worry about the millions of people living in poverty.  Then I remember my experience in Nicaragua and I am encouraged by the amount of work that I saw accomplished in the communities there.

When people ask how you plan to completely eliminate poverty in the world I am reminded of the answer that one of my neighbors gave when he was asked how he planned on getting rid of the thousands of shrubs growing in one of his fields.  “One at a time,” was his reasoning.  This is the mindset that I try to stay in.  That even though it might not seem like a huge difference is being made, with a little help from friends like the Outreach International staff, one at a time those people who have been silenced by poverty will find their voice.

Helping a community in Nicaragua clear some brush.