Navigating Human Rights Issues in the US

By Jaymelee Kim

The Childhoods in Motion: Children, Youth, Migration, and Education Conference was co-sponsored by the Anthropology of Children and Youth Interest Group (ACYIG), the UCLA Center for the Study of International Migration, and the Council on Anthropology and Education. The Committee for Human Rights (CfHR) and the ACYIG co-sponsored a public forum at the conference to ask “how do we engage the public about human rights issues in the US?”

This question is one iteration of CfHRs two-year dialogue about engaging each other, students, and the public about human rights. Human rights discussions do not have to be couched in an international human rights law framework, however, anecdotally, that appears to be a common assumption, with scholars of social justice, colonialism, migration, and a variety of other relevant fields underrepresented in the conversations. As part of an effort to highlight 1) the connection between human rights and other anthropological foci and 2) discussions of human rights in practice and pedagogy, CfHR held forums at the AAA annual meetings in 2015 and 2016. The co-sponsored public forum for Childhoods in Motion is a continuation of that effort and was paired with a workshop hosted by Les Walker, the AAA Public Education Initiative Project Manager. Given the timing and theme of the conference, immigration and migration were of particular interest to participants, who generated the following suggestions:


  1. Talk to members of state legislature face-to-face. Representatives may not be familiar with systemic violence or how policies marginalize specific groups. Often a dialogue is necessary not just to declare that you are for or against a particular bill, but to explain why you do or don’t support it and how it impacts people.
  2. Urge friends and family members in states that are about to vote on discriminatory bills to contact their representatives.


  1. Support faculty impacted by changes in legislation. For example, close family members of faculty may be undocumented (and faculty themselves may have only recently become documented). Administration may be unaware of this. Considerations (e.g. leave time) could be made for faculty who are negotiating and navigating the impacts of new government policies.
  2. Ask students who are impacted by marginalizing policies what kind of support they need. Do not assume to know their need. If advocating, make sure the advocacy is relevant to the needs of particular student. Do not homogenize need.

Public Engagement

  1. Teach a publically accessible course. Arrange with administration to teach a course that is open to the public and advertise widely in local newspapers, etc.
  2. Advertise or create anthropological podcasts that address human rights/colonial/violence concerns.
  3. Teach a workshop or class at the local library and advertise widely.
  4. Think anthropologically. Given the current federal administration, American voters were driven by wide-ranging concerns. Identify motivating factors and engage in respectful dialogue, rather than promote stereotypes of a self-focused intellectual elite.
  5. Use AAA resources. AAA has created a public education project: World on the Move: 100,000 Years of Human Migration.

CfHR encourages dialogues about how human rights relate to various anthropological frameworks and how to engage students, the public, and each other in pressing human rights issues. Everyone is encouraged to attend the AAA CfHR sponsored panels, roundtables, and forums; we look forward to continued collaborations.

Between slow and sudden death in Turkey

The Committee for Human Rights is proud to host this article contributed by colleagues from Turkey and Turkish Kurdistan. The authors of this piece are signatories of the Peace Petition and preferred their names to remain anonymous. The opinions expressed in this piece are the authors’ own and do not reflect the view of the Academics for Peace.      

Between slow and sudden death in Turkey

On February 25, 2017, the picture of a young male academic who committed suicide in Turkey went viral on the social media. The photo was hashtagged with #MehmetFatihTras and the line underneath the hashtag reads: “This is a murder. Try the murderers!” Wearing hipster eyeglasses, a hooded jacket, and a bag pack, Mehmet Fatih Tras has recently completed his doctorate degree in Faculty of Economics and Administrative Sciences at Cukurova University in Turkey. Upon the receipt of his Ph.D., he was made multiple job offers from universities in Turkey. However, university presidents interrupted the recruitment process and terminated his contract without any justification. His last job letter submitted to an international academic institution is a testament to what this young academic had gone through. “I was blacklisted by the Council of Higher Education,” he said, “university presidents labelled me as terrorist.” Tras was one of 1,128 academics from 89 universities in Turkey who had signed a petition condemning state violence in the Kurdish region of Turkey.

Figure 1: The letter Mehmet Fatih Tras wrote to an international academic institution on February 1, 2017 circulated on the social media with his picture on the right.


The petition, famously known as “Peace Petition,” was prepared by the Academics for Peace on January 11, 2016 when the Turkish Army besieged Kurdish towns of Sur, Silvan, Nusaybin, Cizre and Silopi, and announced round-the-clock curfews which functioned as indefinite military lockdowns. “It [the army] has attacked these settlements with heavy weapons and equipment [tanks, artilleries, snipers] that would only be mobilized in wartime” the petition noted. Signatories defined these military operations- called the Cleansing Operations by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government- as “a deliberate and planned massacre”, and demanded the state to stop military operations, lift curfews, punish those responsible for human rights violations, offer compensation, and resume peace talks with the Kurdish movement. After listing their demands, signatories asserted their strong opposition: “We, as academics and researchers working on and/or in Turkey, declare that we will not be a party to this massacre by remaining silent.”

Because of the total lockdown, the extent of state violence was unknown by the time this petition was written. Within less than three months, however, we would learn, for example, that around 200 civilians were killed in Cizre. A report published by the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TIHV), in August 2016, identifies by name 321 local residents who were killed between 16 August 2015 and 16 August 2016, including 79 children, 71 women and 30 people over the age of 60. According to the report, during the 79-days-long military lockdown, 10 thousand homes were destroyed. Cizre was not an exception though. Sur was under military blockage for 103 days during when 90 civilians were killed. 6,297 parcels of Sur district, which was destroyed by the Army, would then be expropriated by the AKP government. According to TIHV, there have been at least 169 round-the-clock and open-ended curfews in at least 39 districts of 10 cities in the Kurdish region from August 16, 2015 to January 31, 2017. TIHV estimates that more than 1 million 809 hundred people were affected during this period (See Figure 2).

Figure 2: (accessed 3/2/2017)

The gravity of the destruction became more evident with the Report on the human rights situation in South-East Turkey (July 2015 to December 2016) released by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) on March 10, 2017, which reported the killing of 1,200 civilians and documented “numerous cases of excessive use of force; enforced disappearances; torture; destruction of housing and cultural heritage; incitement to hatred; prevention of access to emergency medical care, food, water and livelihoods; violence against women; and severe curtailment of the right to freedom of opinion and expression as well as political participation. The most serious human rights violations reportedly occurred during periods of curfew, when entire residential areas were cut off and movement restricted around-the-clock for several days at a time.”

Dr. Tras and 1,128 other academics declared that they would not be a party to this crime when the massacre was in the making. The government did not allow any international or local institutions to monitor or report the incidents at the time. On the contrary, it banned civilian access to curfew sites both during and after the Cleansing Operations. Some curfew sites have recently been opened to civilians only after bulldozers razed the remaining buildings to the ground, removed the rubbles, and, thus eliminated any possibility for fact-finding. In its account of the situation, the AKP government resorts to the same state discourse- the “terrorists” destroyed houses, killed civilians, and displaced millions. The burden of proof lies on the shoulders of the Kurds who return home only to find a flat field in the place of their houses (compare Figure 3 and Figure 4).

Figure 3: Sur, Diyarbakir, before the operations 11/5/2014


Figure 4: Sur, after the operations 7/28/2016

No petition could end a war. It might make its signatories feel good about their politics and ethics for a second. On the next day, the life, supposedly, goes on as usual and so does the war. In the face of state denialism and censure, however, the Peace Petition had the potential to destabilize the hegemonic discourse of “terrorist” violence. It was the first time that academics collectively used their privilege to speak to expose the unfolding state massacre in the Kurdish region of Turkey as well as the violence of its defacement. Therefore, the life did not go on as usual on the next day. Instead, the President Erdogan appeared on televisions ostracizing the signatories by calling them fake and shady. “Turkey faces treason of academics,” Erdogan claimed and added “most of whom receive their salaries from the state.” He ordered public prosecutors and university presidents to start criminal and administrative investigations against those “traitors.”

As a result of this smear campaign, 312 signatories of the petition have lost their jobs in the last 14 months. Others have been suspended from their positions, charged with terrorist propaganda and detained by the police, received life threats, and/or fled the country. The already precarious labor market for academics has become even more precarious as the value of academic labor is determined by the level of loyalty academics express to the state. Those speaking back to the state have been replaced by academics speaking for the state. In other words, Turkish academia has turned into a deserted platform more akin to government mouthpiece where criticism and opposition are susceptible to accusations of terrorism. The academics that regard speaking up both as a matter of political and ethical responsibility, end up with two options: either remain silent or become traditional intellectuals of the state.

This is an alarming situation with respect to not only the right to speak but also the right to life. The Peace Petition has derived its power from tying these two rights tightly to each other by asserting that silence means complicity in state massacres. From a Foucaultian perspective, signatories acted as the parrhesiastes – the one who says the truth despite the risks involved in its disclosure. By doing so, they have also tied their fate with the ones subjected to the cruel violence of the state. While the Kurds in Turkey experience sudden death exerted by the latest offensive of the Turkish Army, academics who spoke up against it face slow death by the market. Mehmet Fatih Tras’s grim departure discloses the entanglement of our lives as well as our deaths. Ironically, on the same day when his picture was shared on the social media, another hashtag was created with the name of a village, Xerabe Bava, in Nusaybin, which was under military lockdown for 19 days. It is more urgent than ever to reconnect #MehmetFatihTras and #XerabeBava to fight against deadly forces of the market and the state that turn our lives into slow or sudden deaths.

Note: The authors of this piece are signatories of the Peace Petition and preferred their names remain anonymous. The opinions expressed in this piece are the authors’ own and do not reflect the view of the Academics for Peace.

Mi Casa (Blanca) No Es Su Casa (Blanca)

By Inmaculada García-Sánchez and Marjorie Faulstich Orellana

There’s a saying in Spanish: “Mi casa es su casa.” (My home is your home.”) It’s a kind and loving phrase, assuring people that they are welcome in one’s home, akin to the English saying, “Make yourself at home.”

The White House sent the opposite message to Spanish speakers in the U.S. when it took down the Spanish language links on on Inauguration Day.

The new administration wasted no time in engaging in all kinds of highly symbolic executive actions to leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that there is a new sheriff in town.  The new winds that swirled through every institution of government on January 21st, 2017 were even felt on the White House website.  As was much publicized both in the national and international press, minutes after the oath of office, the climate change, health care, civil rights, and LGTBQIA rights pages were taken down. But the disappearance of the Spanish language links on has received much less attention.

This decision did not come out of left field, of course. The nativist tone of Trump’s campaign included ridiculing political opponents, such as former Gov. Jeb Bush, for speaking Spanish on the campaign trail. But it is still shocking in its short-sightedness, and it breaks with an almost sixteen-year tradition of providing bilingual access to government information, started by the Republican administration of George W. Bush.

How can an administration, whose avowed goal is to make America great, purposely curtail civic engagement and access to vital government information to the 41 million Spanish-speakers who currently live in the U.S.?  The measure of removing the Spanish language links from the White House website is punitive, exclusionary, and at odds with the fundamental democratic principles of our nation of equality and justice for all.

Let’s be clear. Most – a full 68% – of Spanish speakers in the US are also fluent in English (Pew Report 2015).  But, of course, the ability to speak in everyday conversation does not immediately translate into the skills needed to make sense of dense, political and bureaucratic language in its written form.  Even for young people who spend every day studying language in school, it can take up to ten years to acquire that kind of fluency.  Why, then, exclude millions and millions of people from an in-depth understanding of civic obligations and government information? How is that going to make America great?

These are the points made by authors of a new petition trending in We The People, the White House citizen-initiated petition page.   Written by Ana Celia Zentella, Professor Emerita of the University of California, San Diego and backed by scholars from the Society for Linguistic Anthropology (SLA) Committee on Language and Social Justice, the petition asks the White House to reinstate the Spanish language links on

The US has been home to millions of Spanish speakers since 1848, when the US annexed a large part of Mexican territory.  To remove the Spanish language links on is like slamming the door of the First House of the nation in the face of millions of our fellow citizens.

The text of the petition in English and in Spanish can also be found below:

We, the undersigned, are committed supporters of our nation’s democracy and its fundamental principles: liberty, equality, and justice for all. Recent actions by the Trump administration threaten those principles, including the elimination – as of Jan., 21st, Inauguration Day- of links to information in Spanish on the White House webpage,  Liberty, equality, and justice FOR ALL require access to important information. Although the majority (68%) of native speakers of Spanish in the U.S. are also proficient in English (Pew Report 2015), previous administrations have provided links to Spanish versions of written materials, to provide greater numbers of people with in depth understanding of those issues.

We urge you to reinstate the Spanish links on, so as to confirm that your avowed goal to “make America great” includes the entire nation.

Nosotros, los abajo firmantes, estamos comprometidos a apoyar la democracia de nuestra nación y sus principios fundamentales: libertad, igualdad y justicia para todos. Algunas recientes decisiones de la administración del Sr. Presidente Trump presentan una amenazan a estos principios. Una de ellas es la eliminación –a partir del Día de la Inauguración Presidencial 2017- de los enlaces de páginas Web que contienen información en español de  Para que haya libertad, igualdad y justicia PARA TODOS se requiere acceso a esta importante información. Aunque la mayoría (el 68%) de los nativo hablantes del español en los EE.UU también hablan el inglés bien (Pew Report 2015), proveer la traducción en español de la página Web del Gobierno, como en el caso de administraciones anteriores, asegura una mayor comprensión de los materiales a un mayor número de personas.

Les exhortamos a que por favor reinstalen los enlaces en español de la página, para así dar acto de fe de que la meta declarada “to make America great” incluye a toda la nación estadounidense.




By Benjamin N. Lawrance

Today, as citizens, patriots, and protesters descend on Washington DC, to observe, celebrate, or decry the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States, we must all rise to the most pressing challenge of our time – the fight for justice, accountability, human rights-based policy, and, most importantly, the definitive abolition of torture.

As a member of the AAA’s Committee for Human Rights, I’m proud that we have taken a clear and unequivocal role in fighting to ensure that torture never again becomes an accepted US tool at home or abroad. In our “Resolution Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment or Punishment”—adopted by the Committee for Human Rights of the American Anthropological Association in January 9, 2017, and by the Executive Board of the AAA January 19, 2017—we recognize that anthropologists and peers in other disciplines have a clarion responsibility to be at the vanguard, defending human rights around the world.

In its 1947 and 1999 Human Rights Resolutions, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) issued a strong statement that “as a professional organization of anthropologists, the AAA has long been, and should continue to be, concerned whenever human difference is made the basis for a denial of basic human rights.” In the 2012 Ethical Statement of the AAA, the organization calls upon all members to respect the inherent dignity and worth of the individual and strive for the preservation and protection of fundamental human rights recognizing the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.

But today, these declarations are facing their greatest test. Trump has made it clear he wants to bring back torture. Trump, has openly advocated for the reintroduction of torture, such as “waterboarding” and other techniques that “are so much worse” and “much stronger” as weapons against the nation’s enemies. Trump has also picked Mike Pompeo to head the CIA – a man who previously called the CIA’s program of torture and kidnapping under the Bush administration “within the law” and “within the Constitution.” We must be vocal and we must be vigilant. We must never allow Trump to resuscitate the CIA torture program.

A revival of torture by the US would be a foreign policy catastrophe for our country and a moral calamity for all of us. We would be the only state in the world to pull out of the Common Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, and the first state to pull out of Convention Against Torture. Any US claims to human rights leadership would evaporate; all our efforts to criticize the records of other states would be perceived universally as hypocritical. A torture renaissance would be a triumph for the adversaries of human rights globally, an indelible stain on our conscience, and, a boon to every torturer on the planet.

Some 1.4 million survivors of torture live in the USA alone, and many suffer from long‐term, multiple psychological and physical problems. Victims of torture must have the opportunity for redress and be awarded fair and adequate compensation and appropriate socio-medical rehabilitation. Survivors of torture are to be revered and honored; and the crimes to which they were subject are to be feared and categorically rejected. These crimes should make us all shudder with horror. Torture, of anyone, anywhere, anytime, affects us all. By dehumanizing one individual, by standing by and letting it happen without speaking, we dehumanize everyone, including ourselves.

The fight against torture starts today. Human rights must be non-negotiable for the Trump Administration. As scholars, I implore you to stand up and reaffirm publicly that “there are no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether induced by a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, that may be invoked as a justification of torture.” [United Nations Declaration and Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment Article 2.2].

Drawing upon the AAA’s long‐standing commitment to basic human rights, I ask you to pledge today to affirm to yourself, your peers, your family, your colleagues, your supervisors, and your students, that no anthropologist shall knowingly engage in, tolerate, direct, support, advise, or offer training or research/knowledge that facilitates the practice of torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. And I ask you to pledge today to affirm that, should torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment evolve during a procedure where you are present, you shall attempt to intervene to stop such behavior, and failing that, exit the procedure and act on your ethical responsibility to report these acts to the appropriate authorities.

On January 20, 2017, stand up and declare your unequivocal, inviolable, and trenchant opposition to torture in all its forms.


Bio: Benjamin N. Lawrance is Hon. Barber B. Conable, Jr. Endowed Chair in International Studies at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he is Professor of History and Anthropology, and the director of the Program in International and Global Studies. He is the author and editor of eleven books, including Adjudicating Refugee and Asylum Status: The Role of Witness, Expertise, and Testimony (Cambridge, 2015), with Galya Ruffer, and has served as an expert witness in over 380 asylum claims from West Africans, many of whom are survivors of torture.