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Human Rights Program


  • PhD Candidate discusses narcotics and drug violence in Latin America

    On April 21, Marie Jose Mendez Gutierrez, a PhD. candidate from the Political Science department presented her research regarding “Narcocorridos” and drug war violence in Latin America at the biweekly Holocaust, Genocide, and Mass Violence Studies workshop. This portion of her dissertation explores the violence in Central America and Mexico through what she calls Narco culture. This realm consists of art, songs, and literature, which carry the political consciousness of Latin America.  Previously, these spaces were largely dominated by the language of repression and autocratic rule, where as now, drug trafficking permeates such forms.

    Gutierrez focused on Narcocorridos, a folk storytelling style of music, which originated during the US invasion of Mexico.  Since the 1970s, these songs have expressed stories of the drug war, striving to create a counter narrative. Due to the increasingly hostile environment for investigative journalists, who are constantly under threat in the current political climate, these narratives express the texture of ordinary people’s lives and their stories.  The Narcocorridos have however, been accused of glorifying the lives of traffickers and subsequently, have been banned from radio and public performances in some states, despite their growing popularity. These songs frequently top latin music charts, also dominating playlists in cities in the US and in Latin America.

    Gutierrez noted the old-fashioned style of the music, often mocked by her high school friends for its association with “common people.” Educated, upper-middle class Mexicans are horrified to see a once “noble” art form corrupted by its association with what they considered uncivilized in society. Yet, she highlights how these songs bring bodies together in various sectors of society in what she calls the “geography of intimacy,” which illustrates a common experience of many people living in Latin America. She finds we can glean a number of insights into the dynamics of power in the region when dissecting these songs. 

    The Narcocorridos direct our gaze to the bloody landscape of massacres, which are condemned by the Church and various parties who believe this style creates a culture of death. However, for students of the drug war, these songs present a street level portrait of violence in Central America. Gutierrez further characterized these songs, which are often released within hours of major massacres. Oddly, these songs are crafted in a non-sensationalist way, lacking any sort of melodramatic heightening we see in other fear inducing spaces, such as mass media. Their nonchalant tone serves as a manifestation of how individuals interrelate and live in society, rather than offering an image of isolated acts of violence that disturb the social order.

    Beyond issues of violence, the Narcocorridos highlight the “silent voice of hunger” and exploitation of agrarian economies. Gutierrez cites the structural adjustment policies of the 1980s as a major source of suffering for individuals in the Global South as private protections were eliminated. Moreover, the emergence of NAFTA enabled the influx of heavily subsidized corn into Latin America, devastating landless farmers and pushing them to turn to drugs or to “change the seed” as an alternative means of survival.

    Gutierrez emphasized that violence is typically associated with a clandestine realm of society. However, these songs do not present individuals in the drug trade as scandalous, but rather as part of the larger neoliberal structure.  Rather than viewing the drug trade as an aberration, these individuals are simply producing another commodity for the system, which relies on the extraction of mental and physical rigors of these bodies.  The state is often guilty of reducing these individuals to categories of pathological sadism.  Conversely, in Narcocorridos this sort of work is marked by intention and specialization, therefore demonstrating what she sees as the violence of capitalism.

    Gutierrez also touched upon what she called the  “percussive sounds” of violence. Violent acts project beyond the moment of impact.  They resound into the future in less immediate and sensationally visible ways. These songs therefore, discuss the war on drugs but also the war on agrarian production.  The Narcocorridos have documented these developments since the 1980s and the aerial crop fugmation campaigns, in which the peasant farmer endures the most destructive consequences.  She explores the Colombian case in particular, where civilians did not experience the effects of repression immediately. Toxic rain, pesticides and hunger prove to be just as devastating as the drug violence.   In these regard, we see a direct connection between state repression of bodies through physical violence and progressive and repercussive destruction of bodies through fumigation policies. Different songs in this genre challenges state policies, demonstrating how violence can be dispersed across time and space.

    Gutierrez ended her discussion with an allusion to the corruption of these Narcocorridos. Before such songs were designed to be the voice of the voiceless.  Today they have been commodified and sold to society, particularly in a gendered way perpetuating patriarchal norms. Some are even commissioned by high level drug capitalists, who possess the capacity to silence others. Nevertheless, she finds these songs have the potential to call to our attention the complexity of the drug war and the violence associated with it.

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  • Human Rights and Memory in Post-Franco Spain

    How has Spain addressed its history of grave human rights abuses under the Franco Regime? In which ways does the memory of these atrocities affect present-day society and politics?

    On February 25, 2016, Ofelia Ferrán of Spanish and Portuguese and Lisa Hilbink of Political science presented findings in their forthcoming book, Legacies of Violence in Contemporary Spain: Exhuming the Past, Understanding the Present, at the biweekly Holocaust, Genocide, and Mass Violence Studies workshop. 

    This comprehensive and interdisciplinary study brings together contributions from history, political science, literary and cultural studies, forensic and cultural anthropology, international human rights law, sociology, and art to unpack the various legacies of the Franco era in Spain, specifically focusing on the exhumations of mass graves from the Spanish civil war until regime’s demise. 

    Both Hilbink and Ferrán began with the historical context, outlining the political atmosphere following the Spanish civil war in which Franco institutionalized fear through violence as a means of controlling society.  This sort of state control manifested itself in acts of forced removal, exile, incarceration, kidnapping, torture and summary execution. Their research puts civilian deaths during and after the war somewhere around 170,000, with approximately 500,000 incarcerated and 500,000 exiled. However, these numbers remain contentious in Spain today. A group of mass graves function as another legacy of this authoritarian phase in Spanish history. Uncovering these crimes has been incredibly controversial in modern Spain, due in part to the nature of its transition to democracy.  This period was characterized by an attempt to repress the past in order to build a new democratic system through a sort of “pact of silence.” Moreover, an amnesty law was passed in 1977, prohibiting any Franco-era crime from going on trial.

    The early 2000s have witnessed the emergence of movements dedicated to recovering historical memory through the work of grass-roots cultural organizations to exhume mass graves. These movements have used literature from both the Holocaust and various episodes of genocidal violence to discuss the Franco period, even employing the language of “the disappeared” for the victims, reminiscent of political violence in Latin America. The Law of Historical Memory in 2007 was passed to extend broader reparations and instituted official policies to fund exhumations, create research and documentation of repression, remove certain insignias and street names, and reverse auction sentences from the Franco regime. Members of the historical memory movement found the law to be too timid, partially because it does not annul Franco verdicts and did not hold the central government accountable for the exhumation process. Consequently, the movement has turned to the courts for their new battle ground.

    According to Ferrán and Hilbink, the growing movement in Spain can be understood in an international context, which has borrowed strategies from locations of contentious politics and violence. Several significant events inspired the editors to compile literature and research that interrogates and explores this very crucial moment in Spanish history, including the political and legal battle over Judge Baltasar Garzón’s efforts to investigate the Franco-era crimes, and  the decision of an Argentine judge to accept jurisdiction over the investigation of the exhumed bodies.

    The book employs a number of angles regarding issues of memory and violence in the Franco era, particularly the exhumations of mass graves, forensics from the Spanish civil war, rebel violence, gender violence, dreams of transition to democracy, the law of historical memory, and legal accountability for Franco-era crimes. This book also addresses the issue of mass graves through other mediums, such as poetry and film, and one chapter is dedicated to an interview with Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzón regarding truth, reparations and justice. 

    The editors explore the silences around the legacy of violence, which, according to Ferrán and Hilbink, have become ingrained in Spanish society. They describe the violence as “what is known, but cannot be said.” The book examines historical timing (i.e. post-Nuremberg era) and geopolitical developments (Spain being a Latin case in Western Europe) and how these influenced the categorization of these crimes.  The book explains the differences and implications between what Hannah Arendt described as “regimes of criminals” -- best exemplified in Latin America -- and “criminal regimes” -- associated with Eastern Europe. Finally, the book discusses the effects of this unearthing of crimes on the nature of debate in Spain and the evolution of its democracy. 

    The book will be published later this summer. 

    -Written by Marie-Christine Ghreichi
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  • Migration and Human Rights

    In its efforts to address timely issues in the human rights community, the Human Rights Program has decided to bring attention to the pressing concerns of transnational and transcontinental migration around the world today. Included herein are just four major focal points: the Middle East, Europe, Southeast Asia/Australia, and Central America.

    Migration within the Middle East

    The world is currently facing the greatest migration crisis since the Second World War, in which millions are being internally displaced and forced to flee their countries. The majority of these refugees, asylum seekers and migrants (the latter often being interchangeable with the refugee experience, posing questions of discursive appropriateness) are forced to leave their homes due to various conflicts, particularly violence and instability in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. This mass influx towards particular areas in the Middle East, Europe and the United States has been complicated by a rise in terrorist attacks in these countries, which are believed to be connected to these conflicts. Though media attention has been allocated to the exodus of people towards European borders, it often fails to highlight the struggles of migrants who are within the Middle East.

    Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have received the majority of refugees and migrants, presenting varying barriers to resettlement and adequate shelter. Turkey has taken in approximately two and half million refugees, Lebanon over one million, and Jordan half a million. Both Iraq and Egypt have played their part in accepting tens and hundreds of thousands of migrants, though many entering these countries go undocumented. Migrants entering these countries are not always well received and face immense hostility. An Amnesty International report began circulating at the beginning of April, claiming the Turkish regime has been illegally and forcibly returning thousands of refugees to Syria. This practice exposes a flaw in the recent deal between the EU and Turkey. Most crucially, under the “non-refoulement” principle of international humanitarian law, a state is prohibited from deporting individuals to a war zone, making Turkey’s actions in direct violation of this principle.

    While many refugees and migrants may cross the border into camps, a large proportion are also scattered throughout cities and towns in informal communities, seeking shelter and security wherever it may be found. According to UN reports, in Lebanon, over 70% of Syrian refugees live below the Lebanese extreme poverty line. As Syrian refugees now constitute about a quarter of the Lebanese population, there is a crisis to meet basic needs of those who are residing in the country, with mounting concerns over food security. Like many refugees, Syrians are restricted in their access to the job market as well, making their independence and stability difficult and creating an atmosphere of tension among citizens and refugees who are searching for employment. Moreover, just over half of 6-14 year-olds in the refugee community are attending school and fewer than half who entered primary grade one reached grade six, according to December 2015 UN reports. The UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees further documents that only 5% of 15-17 year-olds attended secondary school or higher. In Jordan, too, refugees also do not have the legal right to work and must depend on UN food coupons. Syrians often take the jobs held by migrant workers like Egyptians, in construction and agriculture, but also those of the poorest 14% of Jordanians, who accept less than the minimum wage.

    Many are puzzled as to why the Syrian migrants are disproportionately fleeing to these three countries, rather than to wealthy, Gulf States surrounding the conflict-ridden zones. Among the Gulf States, only the United Arab Emirates has received around 250,000 migrants. The UAE has contributed millions towards refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey.  The Gulf nations (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE) claim they have each given millions of dollars to aid refugees, amounting to more than $500 million over 2½ years, according to the United Nations. The Gulf States also say that Syrians have entered their countries on visas and continue living there.

    One reason the Gulf States have failed to address the migrant crisis is because they have still not ratified the 1951 U.N. treaty on refugees, and as a result these nations aren't legally obligated to provide refuge or asylum.  For those with less money, the sheer distance between Syria and the Gulf poses another problem. Officially, Syrians are able to apply for a tourist visa or work permit to enter one of the Gulf States. However, Syrians face various obstacles to getting a visa, particularly the high cost of the process, as well as less official or unwritten restrictions hindering Syrians from obtaining one in the first place. Without this hard-to-obtain visa, the Syrians primary options are Algeria, Mauritania, Sudan and Yemen.  Other barriers for refugees include the lack of work in Gulf States, which in recent decades have relied heavily on unskilled migrant labor from South-East Asia and the Indian subcontinent. A shift by countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait toward employment of their own nationals in skilled mid-level employment has the effect of reducing jobs for refugees.  Kuwait, in particular announced in 2012 its plans to reduce the number of foreign workers by one million in the next ten years. Prospects for refugees look even bleaker in light of strict nationality policies that prevent integration.

    Would relocation to the Gulf States be a practical solution for the Syrian refugees? Critics argue that Gulf citizens and Syrians speak Arabic and share certain cultural traditions.  Most of these states are also substantially wealthier than Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan which have accepted the bulk of refugees. Yet, due to fears of destabilizing national security, many of the countries continue to be wary of accepting refugees from the Syrian crisis.  According to Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a retired professor from United Arab Emirates University, there is a perception in the Gulf States that accepting refugees would play into the hands of the terrorists and feed into the violence. As a result, the wish to preserve stability remains the paramount objective.

    Marie-Christine Ghreichi

    Into Europe

    The migrant crisis in Europe has assumed an important role in our global consciousness in the past year. Images of young children and families facing the horrors of crossing the oceans in makeshift boats have taken the internet by storm. More than one million migrants entered the European Union by boat from Turkey in the past year, which, in turn, forced the States of the region and the European Union itself to adjust their immigration policies.  Europe moved from an initial position of welcome to one of limited access. In early April this change in policy resulted in removals of migrants who illegally crossed from Turkey. Migrants are now fearful that they may be returned to camps in Turkey or even stuck in Greece for an undetermined period of time. Migrants are voicing concerns over the lack of information regarding the asylum procedure that would allow them to stay in Europe. States now face the challenge of processing asylum applications to keep pace with new arrivals on their shores.

    Tensions mount as law enforcement officers in some refugee camps have been documented to use tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse hundreds of migrants who have tried to break through restraining fences. There have been a number of such uprisings taking place in the camps in Greece since main routes used to get into Germany have been closed off and blocked to migrants. It is estimated that more than 10,000 people, mostly women and children, have been stuck in Greek camps for more than a month waiting for the routes to reopen.

    Migrants are said to be arriving at about 4,000 migrants per day on the Greek Islands. And those numbers are expected to increase as the weather becomes consistently warmer. A controversial deal between Turkey and the European Union supports new controls on migration flows into Europe. For each migrant who is sent back to Turkey, the European Union will resettle a migrant who is currently living in a Turkish refugee camp. The deal also provides that Turkish citizens may travel without visas to the European Union. This portion of the deal is particularly important to the some 15-20 million people Kurds who live in Turkey and face persecution.

    Human rights groups have criticized the deal saying it is unethical and could be illegal if refugees are not given the fair chance to seek asylum or if migrants are forcibly returned to countries where their safety is compromised. Greece’s capabilities to document and process the thousands of refugees has also been called into question as the country’s facing its own financial instability.  Human rights organizations highlighted the mistreatment the migrants face at the deportation camps in Turkey and Greece.  Amnesty International says Turkey rarely processes asylum requests and has forced migrants to return to their war ravaged countries, which is a direct violation of refugee protections.  As concerns about these violations mount, the European Union will continue to be faced with the challenge of how to meet its international obligation to protect migrants.

    Sara Osman

    Australia: Taking the Hard Line on Migrants and Refugees

    Amidst the largest refugee crisis since World War II, many nations especially in Europe are looking for a short-term solution to their current situation. Thousands of refugees and migrants arriving daily on the shores, train stations, and cities throughout Europe, an unprecedented number of those are asylum seekers and displaced persons from war.

    Some European conservatives have suggested using the Australian model of handling refuges: utilizing naval forces to halt boats, using offshore processing facilities and detention centers, and outsourcing the operations of the facilities to private contractors.

    Australia took on the new set of policies in 2012 to deter new arrivals at the cost of serious human rights violations and under accusations of its political motivations. Australian officials claim that only one boat of asylum seekers reached its shores in 2014.

    The Australian government argues the journey of the asylum seekers is ridden with danger and may be the result of human trafficking. Critics assert that opposition to the asylum seekers is heavily racially motivated, treatment of asylum seekers is poor at best, and is ultimately damaging Australia's international reputation.

    The asylum seekers arriving mostly originate in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Iran or Myanmar, traveling to Indonesia and other Southeast Asian nations before taking a boat intended for Australian shores. UNHCR's Asylum 2014 report cited Australia at receiving 8,960 asylum applications in 2014, about 1% of all applications made globally that year.

    Australia introduced in 2012 its Operation Sovereign Borders, under which naval vessels would be particularly tasked with patrolling Australian waters and intercept migrant boats, towing them back to Indonesia or sending asylum seekers back in dinghies or lifeboats. In the major nations of origin, Australia has also started media campaigns with videos and flyers, deterring people from making the migration by stating they will never reach the mainland and will not receive work, citizenship or benefits.

    For asylum seekers that have already arrived, the options are bleak. For those who need assistance or time to process their claims, they may be sent to neighboring, offshore island detention centers or such countries as Cambodia or Nauru for residency. Through this plan, the government is able to outsource its responsibility to private contractors which carry out administrative activities such as operating and providing security at temporary detention camps. Australia also provides financial aid to the countries that acceptance of the asylum seekers.

    In December 2014, the Australian Parliament approved changes to its immigration laws, reintroducing temporary visas for refugees, allowing them to work in Australia for three to five years, but denying them permanent protection and rights. These short-term solutions show little regard for the wellbeing of the people concerned, dumping seekers onto third party islands and casting them off in dangerous territories.

    Amanda Kruger

    The Journey from Central America to the United States

    Concentrated primarily in the Southwestern portion of the United States, the Latino community was just under 6 million—or 3.2% of the total population—in 1960. Fifty years later, more than 1 in 6 Americans trace their heritage to Hispanic roots, and they make cities and towns across the entire United States their home. The history of Latin American immigration to the United States is complex and highly nuanced, but it is important to consider the serious human rights implications from which many are fleeing today and into which many are coming as they make their journey north.

    Teresa Ortíz’s children were between the ages of 1 and 11 when they witnessed their neighbor being fatally shot by members of one of El Salvador’s street gangs, or “maras.”  Threatened by the gang for what her children had seen, Ortíz worked day and night as an immigrant to New York to gain enough money to send back home to fund their children’s travels. It was in July of 2014 that the family was finally reunited, after seven years of separation

    While this does not tell the story of every Salvadoran—or Latin American—immigrant family, it highlights the very serious conditions which many across Central American face every day. Gang—and state—violence is a constant pressure for many. The homicide rate in Honduras in 2013 was over 90 for every 100,000 inhabitants—the highest in the world. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico have also seen an increase over the past decade, sitting at 41.2, 39.9, and 21.5, respectively. In contrast, the rate of homicide in United States has hovered around 5 for every 100,000 people since 2001.

    If the threat of murder is not enough, many of these individuals face unstable living conditions. While on a slight decline, over 70 percent of individuals in Mexico and Central America live in poverty (defined as under $4/day) or are vulnerable to it. Gang violence is particularly high in many parts of these countries, and young boys are often pressured either from members themselves or by their social and economic situations to join. Many of these communities are still facing the legacy of violence and fragile institutions following a series of civil wars in the 1980s.

    In large part because of the gang violence and economic devastation, many individuals—and children in particular—felt it safer to travel north than risk remaining in their homeland. This has reached a climax recently, with more than 68,000 unaccompanied children being detained by Border Patrol in 2014 alone. The vast majority of these children—many as young as five years of age—originated from Central America’s Northern Triangle—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—and were fleeing extortion, domestic and community violence, and economic despair. 

    However, for those who are able to escape violence at home, many are faced with new dangers along their journey. Immigrant children and families often use smugglers to get across the border, placing themselves in the hands for others’ doing. Teresa Ortíz paid over $4,500 to have her 15-year-old child smuggled via car, van, truck, and foot, across Mexico and into the US.

    The sector that has sprung up around the smuggling process is tied to another, much more abusive system: exploitation. While Mexico, with funding from the United States, has increased its surveillance and security of migrants from Central America in recent years, many face the dangers of forced labor or serving as drug-mules and assassins by drug gangs in Mexico. For girls and young women—and increasingly boys—sexual exploitation adds another dimension, while the Mexican Migration Southern Border Survey has recently reported that at least 15 percent of all migrants through the country are facing extortion along the way.

    Human rights violations facing Central American migrants do not disappear as migrants reach the United States. For many children and adults who are undocumented, the threat of deportation lingers overhead, and exploitation of their labor is widespread. First-generation migrants are more likely to hold low-skilled jobs, and many are unofficially employed in the service sector, farming, construction, or seasonal work at much lower wages than non-immigrant. The threat of being reported to authorities, deported, or separated from their families again places added pressure on Central American immigrants to remain in the shadows.

    The unexpected influx of children has kicked off a national debate in the US on immigration and border security in recent years. As politicians such as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, both of whom are vying for the US presidency in the 2016 elections, have spoken of major migration reform, the discussion seriously overlooks the human rights dimension of the issue. As a world leader, the United States has the ability and responsibility to protect and promote human rights within its boarder and abroad.  Voices are growing for more humane regional solutions. In January, 22 U.S. Senators called for an immediate halt to the Department of Homeland Security’s recent targeted arrests and deportations of mothers and children from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, and urged the Obama Administration to consider temporary protected status for these migrants.

    Cameron Mailhot
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Human Rights Beat

  • Chicago police detain Americans at abuse-laden 'black site'

    The Chicago police department operates an off-the-books interrogation compound, rendering Americans unable to be found by family or attorneys while locked inside what lawyers say is the domestic equivalent of a CIA black site. The facility, a nondescript warehouse on Chicago's west side known as Homan Square, has long been the scene of secretive work by special police units. Interviews with local attorneys and one protester who spent the better part of a day shackled in Homan Square describe operations that deny access to basic constitutional rights. Continue reading on The Guardian's website.

    March 6th, 2015
  • Amnesty International requests letter signing for Syrian asylum seekers pressured to return

    Reports in the media show that staff at the Manus Island, Papua New Guinea detention centre, run by the Australian Government, are pressuring Syrian asylum seekers to return to Syria where they will be in extreme danger. Read more on the Amnesty International website.

    June 10th, 2014
  • The ICRC releases video on Colombian human rights situation

    It's a crucial time for Colombia with presidential elections slated for this Sunday and ongoing peace talks between the government and FARC guerrillas continuing in Havana, Cuba. In a new Intercross video, the head of the ICRC's delegation in Bogotá, Jordi Raich, says Colombia is at a crossroads -- poised on the verge of economic growth, shrinking poverty, and the potential to put an end to half a century of war. Watch the video on the Intercross website.

    May 28th, 2014
  • US: A Nation Behind Bars

    Far too many US laws violate basic principles of justice by requiring disproportionately severe punishment, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The 36-page report, "Nation Behind Bars: A Human Rights Solution," notes that laws requiring penalties that are far longer than necessary to meet the purposes of punishment have given the United States the world's highest reported rate of incarceration. These laws have spawned widespread and well-founded public doubts about the fairness of the US criminal justice system. Continue reading on the Human Rights Watch website.

    May 7th, 2014

External Human Rights Events

  • Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop Public Reading Organized by Human Rights Scribe

    On Saturday, October 24th, the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop (MPWW) will hold a reading at Hamline University. The reading, organized by MFA candidate Mike Alberti as part of the Scribe for Human Rights Fellowship, will feature the work of several writers currently incarcerated in Minnesota state correctional facilities. MPWW instructors will read pieces of poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction on behalf of their students, and two formerly incarcerated alumni of MPWW classes will read their own work aloud for the first time. 

    This is a free reading, open to the public, so please come and invite a friend. A short Q&A and informal discussion will follow. Plus, there will be snacks! It’s sure to be a very powerful evening. We hope you can make it!

    Where:  Hamline University,
                  Klas Center, Kay Fredericks Room
                 1537 Taylor Avenue
                 St. Paul, MN 55104

    When:  Saturday, October 24th, 2015, 7:00 PM

    To learn more about MPWW and their work, please visit
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