DETENTION IN LIBYA: THE EUROPEAN UNION’S COMPLICITY IN HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS AND ENSUING POLICY PROPOSALS

Hundreds of refugees from Libya line up for food at a transit camp near the Tunisia-Libya border.

by Jose Ovalle
Contributing Writer

Of the current approximate half a million refugees in Libya, 60% are from Sub-Saharan countries, 32% from North African nations, and 7% from Eastern and Middle Eastern countries. Most are trying to flee from economic or political instability towards Europe. The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) found that human traffickers, militias, Libyan Coast guard, police, and other groups have worked with Libyan officials to bring migrants into detention centers owned by the Libyan Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM). In 2017 alone, 20,000 migrants were brought into detention centers, where their rights are routinely violated. Migrants have no access to legal resources in these centers, which are often run by armed militias. The detention centers have been described as “generally inhumane, falling far short of international human rights standards.” But how did the situation get this bad, and how can it be resolved?

The EU shares a portion of the blame for the state of migrants in Libya. In 2017, the EU and the Libyan government brokered the “Memorandum of understanding on cooperation in the fields of development, the fight against illegal immigration, human trafficking and fuel smuggling and on reinforcing the security of borders between the State of Libya and the Italian Republic” in order to stem the flow of refugees that were using Libya as a gateway to Europe during the 2016 refugee crisis. The agreement between parties gave millions of euros to the Libyan coast guard to capture seafaring refugees en route to Europe in order to bring them back to Libya. It also recognized the authority of the DCIM detention centers, where the migrants are sent to after returning, while failing to recognize the need for legal representation. Even the requirement of observation by human rights organization or UN bodies is ignored. According to Anja Palm, a researcher at the Istituto Affari Internazionali, what is most worrisome about the memorandum is that it “seem[s] to voluntarily ignore all dissimilarity in the legal status of people on the move, assimilating all of them in the undifferentiated category of illegal migrants.” This willful ignorance of distinctions among migrants criminalizes all forms of migration rather than distinguishing circumstances that would normally qualify certain individuals or families for refugee status.

As a result, the conditions are deplorable. Eye witness accounts speak of “going days without food and drinking toilet water to survive” and how “infected detainees are locked with others in a dark room and [had] been repeatedly left without tuberculosis medication.” Even more shocking, open air slave auctions have been documented in the country. Multiple eye witness accounts report migrants being sold as slaves in markets, with some accusing the DCIM centers themselves of being home to the slave auctions. Recently, over 50 non-profit organizations have signed an open letter calling on Europe to take stock of the rampant loss of life and dignity in Libya, stating, “EU leaders have allowed themselves to become complicit in the tragedy unfolding before their eyes.” The European Union is an accomplice to the human rights violations that have been enumerated.

Fleeing Death in Libya

The harm being done to human lives is egregious. Yet, the European Union has valid reasons to seek ways to reduce immigration levels. With the threat of migrants coming into Europe often being blown out of proportion in general media, populists and far-right politicians have capitalized on the flow of migrants into Europe. More liberal governments have been toppled by far right governments in countries such as Italy, Hungary, and Poland by stoking fears around mass immigration. Populist politicians, such as Austria’s Herbert Kickl, are openly calling for camps that “concentrate people in the asylum process in one place,” evoking a 1930’s mentality towards “undesirables.” According to Pew Research Center, a majority of Europeans support taking in refugees, yet disapprove of EU policies towards immigration. In addition, a 2017 study conducted by Pew Research shows that Europeans want their national governments, not the Union, to craft policy concerning refugees. Therefore, while it might be morally advisable, open-border policies will drive people further into the arms of populists.

So, what can be done? Currently, persons fleeing towards Europe are being turned around in the Mediterranean and sent back to Libya regardless of whether or not they have valid reasons for fleeing their country of origin. When they get to Libya, individuals are usually stripped of their documents and put in detainment camps. Legalizing migration channels would begin to stabilize the migration situation by incentivizing refugees against illegally crossing, establishing readmission agreements with countries of origin, and debilitating the smuggling apparatus in place. The European Union should establish migration agreements with countries that have seen a large number of their citizens flee to Europe. This can be done on a lottery basis with any person seeking entrance being eligible to enroll, provided they have not previously tried to illegally enter. If they have previously tried to illegally enter, they would be barred from joining the lottery process for a certain number of years. The imposition of a temporary exclusion from the Visa lottery would disincentivize many people from trying to enter illegally, while not punishing those who have already tried to do so for the rest of their lives.

These types of agreements are called Mobility Partnerships, and according to the European Council on Foreign Relations, “So far, only Tunisia and Morocco among North African countries have mobility partnerships with the EU. No mobility partnership has been signed with any sub-Saharan countries.” As mobility partnerships are a thorny issue, open debates should take place regarding what percentage should be given visas. Meanwhile, this policy could solve pressing issues. People are entering whether or not there are migration channels in place. Migrants brave the brutal conditions that smugglers impose on them without guarantee of success because there is no other way to do it. Allowing some migrants to enter through a lottery system would offer another option. Furthermore, the outcome of fewer people using smuggling routes would raise the price that smugglers demand for the journey. This would prevent those who would have deemed the previous fare acceptable and paid it from paying the new fare.

In addition, the EU should establish Readmission Agreements which are agreements between parties that work to “facilitate the return of people residing irregularly in a country to their country of origin or to a country of transit.” These agreements are a necessary aspect of mobility partnerships. If the EU allows for a certain percentage of a nation’s citizens to receive visas, those nations must accept those who have sought to enter into Europe unlawfully back into their countries. This benefits the EU, as those who are trying to enter illegally are sent back to their home countries. Readmission agreements also benefit nations that agree to it, as their citizens can enter the Visa lottery in return.

With this framework set in place, order can begin to be created and migrants can be protected. The European Union faces a dire need to act on this matter. The EU has been accused of knowingly allowing the abuse of migrants to happen. The memorandum that was signed between the parties was an act of allowing willful ignorance taking place in order to decrease the influx of migrants. Amnesty International testified that “no independent monitoring or accountability mechanism has been established either by Italy or by the EU to ensure that the resources provided to the Libyan authorities…are not contributing to human rights violations and abuses.” If the European Union does not want to see itself as complicit, it should take hardline action against Libyan policies and ensure that the human rights of migrants are respected. To do nothing in the face of such freely available information would be to directly participate in the torture, slave trading, and murder of innocent people.

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United Nations Photo
Magharebia

DEFENDING AMERICA’S LIGHT PRESENCE IN SYRIA

by Kahlil Ram
Staff Writer

After the 2011 Syrian democratic protests derailed into a horrifying civil war, many wonder why the United States did not do more to stop the crisis.

Continue reading “DEFENDING AMERICA’S LIGHT PRESENCE IN SYRIA”

ERADICATING THE PRACTICE OF FEMALE GENITAL CUTTING ON YOUNG GIRLS IN SIERRA LEONE

by Ami Bhakta
Contributing Writer

Executive Summary

Female genital cutting (FGC) is a pressing issue in Sierra Leone that not only can cause an abundance of health problems in young girls, but is also correlated with dropping out of school and child marriage. It is a serious prohibitor of girls’ potential and impedes on a girl’s ability to control her own body. To combat this problem, conversations need to be started in Parliament about partnering with INGOs to develop educational services regarding the harmfulness and unnecessariness of FGC. These educational services will benefit Sierra Leone as a whole by also promoting democracy and community developing by incorporating community conversation through a nonjudgmental rights-based approach.

Statement of Issue

Progression towards gender equality includes attempting to change legal frameworks and the discrimination that stems from patriarchal attitudes and prevailing gender norms. This includes attempts to alter laws and societal mindsets towards female genital cutting, which will hereby be referred to as FGC. FGC is practice inflicted mainly upon young girls before marriage (typically the only economically viable life choice for women) in order to ensure their purity and to control their sexuality. FGC holds the risk of an abundance of mental and physical problems, including increased risk of HIV, bladder infection, blood loss, menstrual complications, childbirth complications, death, etc. (28 Too Many, 2018). The specific problem being addressed is the lack of policies regarding educational services about the implications of FGC, and thereby the lack of access community leaders, parents, and FGC executors have to these services.

Implementation of educational services teaching on the detriments of FGC are crucial to changing the social convention that revolves around the practice. Today, around 200 million girls in the world have been affected by the practice that defines the legitimacy of a woman and causes unnecessary health problems (28 Too Many, 2018). In Sierra Leone, an African state with one of the highest percentages of FGC practice, it has a prevalence of 89.6%, and the state currently has no laws in place banning FGC; while it was shortly banned in 2014 during the Ebola Crisis, the ban has since been lifted, and there appears to be no sign of discontinuation (28 Too Many, 2018). Eradicating FGC is also important because there is a strong correlation between undergoing FGC and child marriage in some ethnic groups in Sierra Leone, and many drop out of school after being cut (28 Too Many, 2018). If communities in Sierra Leone can slowly begin to condemn FGC, there might be a larger number of girls staying in school and getting married later, which is clear progress on the pathway towards UN Sustainable Development Goal #5 of gender equality. Furthermore, FGC of girls in Sierra Leone is extremely prevalent in households with uneducated mothers (95%), as compared to in households with mothers who have at least secondary education (74.2%) (Bjälkander et al., 2012). If these educational services can get the ball rolling and have girls stay in school for longer, these educated future mothers will work in conjunction with any anti-FGC initiatives or laws in place by the time.

Following the statement of the issue, this policy brief will dive into the origins of FGC and how it plays out in Sierra Leone society today. The lack of policy regarding FGC in general, nevertheless regarding anti-FGC educational programs, certainly warrants critiques. Many anti-FGC initiatives have been implemented in various sub-Saharan African countries, such as alternative rites of passage and alternative employment for FGC executors, but the best approach to take for a long-term cessation of FGC is the approach that advocates for community conversation and dialogue.

Origin of the Problem and the Current Context

Originating in Africa, FGC is currently condoned in 28 countries (Bjälkander et al., 2012). While it is not certain when the practice originated, in the past few decades it has come to be recognized as a human rights violation.  In Sierra Leone, 70.1% of women aged 15-19 have undergone FGC compared to 96.4% of women aged 45-49, implying some change through the generations, but this shift is still not as fast as it ideally should be, and many more young girls are still at risk (Bjälkander et al., 2012). Though it is important to know that FGC has no health benefits, the origins of its purpose lie within the misogynistic ideas that a girl is only marriageable and a real woman if she has undergone FGC. The International Center for Research on Women claims that cultural consensus agrees that FGC maintains family dignity and respect, is ingrained in communal and ethnic identity, and improves female hygiene (ICRW, 2018). Aside from this, FGC still has practical implications for Sierra Leonean women today; in order to be marriageable, a woman must be cut, and marriage is often times the only way a woman can financially support herself and her family. As gender roles are an integral part to the various cultures of ethnicities in Sierra Leone, women are expected to remain pure, faithful, and modest—FGC is viewed as a prerequisite for all three (International Center for Research on Women, 2018).

The largest group of FGC excisors in Sierra Leone is known as the Bondo Society, a secret society comprised of all cut women (Bjälkander et al., 2012). The Bondo Society is prevalent in all ethnic communities of Sierra Leone, with 90% of women in the country belonging to the Bondo Society (28 Too Many, 2018). For them, FGC is not viewed as a human rights violation, but rather as entry into a society of women who have elevated community status and power.  In the current context, community elders decide when FGC will take place, and then notify the families of all the girls of age; the traditional excisor of FGC, also known as a Sowei in Sierra Leone, visits the families of young girls and informs them of the process of the ritual—FGC is very much a community-based decision (Bjälkander et al., 2012). Women are especially involved in the FGC decision making process for a young girl in the family (and therefore should be key targets of any anti-FGC reform, along with community elders and parents of boys). They are the largest stakeholders in the practice of FGC, as if they are not cut, they are subject to alienation and terms equivalent to “foolish”, “stupid”, “childish”, or “impure”, and if they are cut, it provides them with a sense of community and agency (28 Too Many, 2018).  These conditions make it difficult to unweave the precedent FGC has set in the fabric of Sierra Leonean society.

Some earlier campaigns to combat FGC have actually been counterproductive, and have resulted in the medicalization of FGC, which is potent in Sierra Leone today. Anti-FGC initiatives to paint FGC as an inhumane process that leads to severe health problems have resulted in licensed doctors performing FGC in order to satiate parents’ fears of health problems (Bjälkander et al., 2012). Fighting FGC by solely portraying it as a health violation only led to the addition of another acceptable excisor. This has actually further legitimized the practice and depicts in a healthy light because it is being executed by a doctor, even though the same health risks are still present. Because FGC is so culturally accepted and significant, doctors will usually have no problem performing the act. The current context of FGC in Sierra Leone is that it is still widely practiced and encouraged today, regardless of any prior initiatives to eradicate the process.

Critique of Policy Options

It is hard to critique policy options, because currently there is no passed legislation regarding FGC in Sierra Leone today (28 Too Many, 2018). Therefore, this section will target previous attempts to eliminate FGC that have failed and must be avoided. Though Sierra Leone’s constitution addresses the concept of basic human rights, neither the constitution nor parliamentary meetings address “women’s access to resources, education, reproductive health, political representation and perceptions of women in public and private spaces, or basic human rights” (Smart, 2012). There is a great gender disparity regarding conversations about men and women, and parliamentary silence on issues that affect women essentially imply their views on practices ingrained in Sierra Leonean culture, including FGC.  Parliament’s failure to tackle the practice helps to sustain its legitimacy in Sierra Leone. In fact, there is even more incentive for Parliamentary members to avoid condemning FGC because it is viewed as a “vote-winner” because it so popular among ethnic enclaves and women in Sierra Leone (Women’s Health Law Weekly, 2005). The only female presidential candidate in 2002 garnered less than 1% of voters, and blames her poor turnout on her anti-FGC stance. Though Sierra Leone signed the Convention for Elimination of Discrimination Against Women in 1988, no legislation has been passed criminalizing FGC because it is not viewed as a threatening women’s rights violation (Women’s Health Law Weekly, 2005).

In Sierra Leone, the Amazonian Initiative Movement has convinced some midwives and other FGC excisors to stop performing the practice by giving them another type of employment (Women’s Health Law Weekly, 2005). However, Sierra Leone’s relationship with FGC is unique because close to all FGC excisors are Soweis from the secret Bondo Society, whose livelihood largely depends on transforming girls to women, which FGC is a big component of. Convincing them to drop the practice will be hard, and if any progress is made, it may be ephemeral, or just make FGC go underground. FGC is so central to the mission of the Bondo that when an organization called Conscious Family launched an anti-FGC campaign, the organization’s leader had to go into hiding due to death threats from the Bondo (28 Too Many, 2018). Even for just speaking out against the practice of FGC, young girls can be forcefully cut by the Bondo because the Sowei wants to initiate girls before they are “‘taken up’ by the human rights discourse” (Bosire, 2012). Converting excisors in Sierra Leone is especially difficult, as compared to other countries like Mali or Somalia where excisors are stigmatized or from a lower class, because excisors in Sierra Leone are revered and “powerful ritual specialists” (Johansen et al., 2013). Given the place of excisors in Sierra Leonean life, converting their employment is not a reliable way to eradicate FGC. Both the Amazonian Initiative Movement and the Inter-African Committee have launched campaigns to give FGC excisors other employment or worked in conjunction with local police forces and schools to convert FGC excisors to farmers (28 Too Many, 2018). Although this approach may have some impact on how many FGC excisors are still employed in the field, this approach does not change the social convention or mindset regarding FGC, and it will still continue to be an in-demand process here for the long-term. According to UNICEF, this approach can work well with complementary approaches, but alone, this was and is not enough to put an end to FGC (28 Too Many, 2018).

Policy Recommendations

As observed, solely focusing on changing the discourse in Parliament, or attempting to provide alternative forms of employment for FGC excisors, fails to spark permanent change against the practice of FGC. The best policy recommendation at this point would be to facilitate community dialogue and to employ a human rights-based approach through mandatory educational services that local communities have easy access to. Assessing the problem of FGC will be best done not by purely passing laws or offering jobs to FGC executors, but by addressing and changing the societal and communal mindsets revolving around the practice to ensure a permanent shift in attitudes toward FGC.  Sustaining community conversation and dialogue will not only eventually lead to a consensus among locals that FGC is an unnecessary practice but is also a more fulfilling approach than just targeting a certain group in Sierra Leone in hopes of eradicating the process. Educational services that host these conversations will help local parents, leaders, youth, and medical personnel change their collective societal mindset on the harmful practice of FGC.

Great examples of community wide campaigns (that take into consideration the cultural value of FGC, unlike the two previous approaches mentioned) are Tostan International’s FGC education model in Senegal and the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood’s work in Egypt. In Egypt, by incorporating children, parents, leaders, medical practitioners, journalists, and judges into social media and educational campaigns, the NCCM was able to issue a law which made FGC illegal in the country in 2008 (ICRW, 2018). In Egypt in 2016, FGC moved from being a misdemeanor to a felony. Encouraging dialogue amongst the community and within families is the best way to eradicate the social convention around FGC. For example, one specific employment of this appears in Senegal through the Grandmother Project, which used grandmothers’ revered status within the family hierarchy to foster conversation about community values and traditions (ICRW, 2018).  Besides promoting development and democracy, these courses should also remember to maintain using the rights-based approach mentioned earlier. Success of these educational initiatives can be measured based on how many communities deliver a public declaration to abandon FGC, which is a good indicator that the social convention around the practice has changed.

Conclusion

Overall, there is not one direct way to tackle FGC in all countries it is practiced in. Solutions that only cater to one part of the problem are futile; change cannot occur just from trying to persuade members of Sierra Leonean Parliament, or by finding a new job for an FGC excisor. The decision to change must be arrived at by the community. This process takes effort and time, and it takes a culturally sensitive and holistic method that encompasses all members of the community. Educational services are a good idea to implement and be made accessible in Sierra Leone. Referring to them as community development programs instead of anti-FGC initiatives will ensure that the Bondo Society and communities in general do not react harshly to the courses. It is of the utmost importance to start the conversation in Sierra Leonean Parliament about working and partnering with INGOs to set up these educational services in as many communities as possible. Stopping FGC will result in girls going to school for longer and decrease the likelihood of child marriage, a strong step in the path toward gender equality and sustainable development.

Works Cited

Bjälkander, Owolabi, Bailah Leigh, Grace Harman, Staffan Bergström, and Lars Almroth. 2012.

“Female Genital Mutilation in Sierra Leone: Who are the Decision Makers?” African Journal of Reproductive Health 16 (4): 119-31. https://search.proquest.com/docview/1353615817?accountid=14524.

Bosire, Tom Obara. “The Bondo secret society: female circumcision and the Sierra Leonean state.” PhD diss., University of Glasgow, 2012.

“Country Profile: FGM in Sierra Leone.” 28 Too Many. Accessed February 19, 2018. https://www.28toomany.org/static/media/uploads/Country%20Research%20and%20Resources/Sierra%20Leone/sierra_leone_country_profile_v1_(june_2014).pdf.

Female Genital Mutilation; Politicians in Sierra Leone use Support for Female Circumcision to Win Votes.” 2005.Women’s Health Law Weekly, Apr 10, 39. https://search.proquest.com/docview/232641884?accountid=14524.

Johansen, R. Elise B., Nafissatou J. Diop, Glenn Laverack, and Els Leye. “What Works and What Does Not: A Discussion of Popular Approaches for the Abandonment of Female Genital Mutilation.” Obstetrics and Gynecology International 2013 (2013): 1-10. doi:10.1155/2013/348248

LEVERAGING EDUCATION TO END FEMALE GENITAL MUTILATION/CUTTING WORLDWIDE.” Accessed February 19, 2018. International Center for Research on Women. https://www.icrw.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/ICRW-WGF-Leveraging-Education-to-End-FGMC-Worldwide-November-2016-FINAL.pdf.

Lionello, Anna M. 2015. “Female Genital Mutilation in Sierra Leone: A Phenomenological Study of the Experience of Abandonment.” Order No. 3700987, The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. https://search.proquest.com/docview/1680833593?accountid=14524.

Smart, Nina. “Resisting World Polity Transmission: The Silence on the Globalization of anti-FGM legislation in the Parliament of Sierra Leone.” PhD diss., University of California, Irvine , 2012.

“The Community Empowerment Program .” Tostan International . Accessed February 20, 2018.

“What is FGM?” 28Toomany. Accessed February 19, 2018. https://www.28toomany.org/what-is-fgm/.

 

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