November Newsletter – Sticks and Stones: the Role of Language in Conflict and Peacebuilding

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What do government crackdowns in Cameroon, the Rohingya refugee crisis, and a referendum in Catalonia have in common? At each conflict’s heart are two groups divided by language. Every country on the planet has a multilingual population to some degree – and the conflicts to go with it. Even the United States, one of the most monolingual countries on earth, has its own history of these clashes: decades of efforts to wipe out Native American languages, marginalization of French-speaking Cajuns, and contemporary quarrels over the prevalence of Spanish are prime examples.

Why is language such a sensitive subject? Not only is language a way to express group identity, it can also be the key to economic inclusion in a literacy-driven world. Add to that the tendency of authoritarian states to ban languages in attempts to control minority groups, and you can see why linguistic differences and conflict often seem to go together. If your curiosity is piqued, check out our recommended readings below to learn more about the nature of language and conflict – and the ways to set about resolving it.

September Newsletter – Women’s Health + Bad Policy + Conflict = Suffering


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Pregnant women in the United States are b-u-s-y. They have supplements to take and medical appointments to go to. Nurseries to decorate. Hospital bags to pack. In conflict-affected countries, pregnant women and women of reproductive age live in stark contrast to the Western experience. These women often lose critical medical care, including access to contraceptives, safe abortion and delivery services, and antenatal and postpartum care. The result of this situation is a maternal mortality ratio in conflict and post-conflict countries that is 60% greater than the global ratio.

Although sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) were affirmed as a fundamental human right in 1994 at the International Conference on Population and Development, political interference consistently undermines initiatives to promote SRHR. Case in point, in January of this year, the Trump administration reinstated the Global Gag Rule—a policy that effectively denies women and girls their SRHR as well as their bodily autonomy. Continue reading to learn about the implications of denying women these rights.

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July Newsletter – Are Human Rights a “Western” Concept?

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Some claim that human rights are a tool created and used by Western imperialists to impose Western values worldwide. We’d like to challenge this notion by sharing a little bit of background about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the document developed to present a universal concept of human rights.

Why? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights came about as a result of the atrocities of WWI and WWII. Small countries and humanitarian and religious organizations wanted the Allied powers to live up to their war rhetoric and provide assurances that nations would never again allow massive atrocities to occur as they had during the past wars.

When and Who? In January 1947, the UN Human Rights Commission was established and included members from 18 nations: Australia, Belgium, Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR), Chile, China, Egypt, France, India, Iran, Lebanon, Panama, Philippine Republic, United Kingdom, United States of America, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Uruguay and Yugoslavia. The Commission created a drafting committee, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, and tasked with drafting an “international bill of rights.” This committee included men and women from eight (8) countries: Australia, Chile, China, France, Lebanon, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States.

What and How? As part of the drafting process, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) formed a committee that included leading intellectuals, philosophers and political scientists to study the theoretical basis for human rights. A questionnaire was sent out to politicians and scholars soliciting their opinions on the idea of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The questionnaire asked for reflections on human rights from Confucianism, Islamic, Hindu, and customary law perspectives as well as from American, European, and socialist points of view. Replies came from Mohandas Gandhi, French Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce, and Brave New World author Aldous Huxley.

In addition to UNESCO’s questionnaire, drafting committee staff studied all the world’s existing constitutions and rights instruments as well as suggestions sent to the Secretariat from members of the Human Rights Commission as well as those from outside organizations and individuals.

A list of 48 items that represented the common core of all of these documents and proposals was drawn up.  This list was essentially a distillation of nearly two hundred years of efforts to articulate the most basic human values in terms of rights.

In sum, it’s a stretch to claim that human rights are a Western concept considering the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was shaped by:

  • officials from 18 nations representing Asia (East and West), Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and North America and a wide assortment of non-UN organizations and individuals;
  • reflections on Confucianism, Islamic, Hindu, customary law, constitutional law and various political views; and
  • studies by intellectuals, philosophers and political scientists to study the theoretical basis for human rights.

Want the full story about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the history of human rights as well as news about some human rights organizations that are walking the talk? Keep reading!

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