Ai Weiwei
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is well-known for using his art to protest against human rights abuses committed by the Chinese government.

Ai’s concern, however, is not limited to his home country. He has lately made several efforts to support refugees and protest the conditions they find themselves living in.

On the Greek island of Lesbos, Ai recently set up a studio to highlight the plight of refugees. “The island has been the main point of entry into the EU for hundreds of thousands of refugees over the past year and the studio would produce several projects with themes related to the refugee crisis from him and his students, Ai told reporters,” said a January 2016 article in the Guardian.

Ai noted the lack of awareness of the situation and willingness to act in Europe and the rest of the world. “The border is not in Lesbos, it really [is] in our minds and in our hearts,” Ai said.

In Copenhagen, Ai closed down his exhibition in response to new laws and reforms. These laws aim to discourage refugees from seeking asylum by delaying family reunification and by allowing Danish authorities to seize refugee’s valuables. “The law has provoked international outrage, with many human rights activists criticizing the delay for family reunification as a breach of international conventions,” as reported by the Guardian.

“The way I can protest is that I can withdraw my works from that country. It is very simple, very symbolic – I cannot co-exist, I cannot stand in front of these people, and see these policies. It is a personal act, very simple; an artist trying not just to watch events but to act, and I made this decision spontaneously,” Ai told the Associated Press.

Perhaps most publicized and controversial of his recent efforts was a reenacted photo of deceased Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi. In this photo, Ai posed in the position of Kurdi’s dead body. Ai described to CNN his emotional experience of posing for the photograph: “I was standing there and I could feel my body shaking with the wind – you feel death in the wind. You are taken by some kind of emotions that you can only have when you are there. So for me to be in the same position [as Kurdi], is to suggest our condition can be so far from human concerns in today’s politics.”

Ai continued to express his frustration with the lack of action and compassion for refugees: “…you see all those politicians that are not really helping, and trying to find all kinds of excuses. To refuse and to even put these refugees in more tragic situations.”

For this effort in particular, Ai Weiwei received significant criticism. Various news publications and art critics derided the photo. For instance, a headline in the Spectator labeled it “crude, thoughtless and egoistical,” and an article in the Guardian discussed the danger of the photo having a “very real possibility of diluting a worthy cause.”

While the criticism may be valid, to expect Ai Weiwei to stop trying may be very mistaken. He plans to continue to raise awareness and support for the refugees. “As an artist, I have to relate to humanity’s struggles…I never separate these situations from my art.”

– Anton Li

Sources: CNN, The Spectator, The Guardian 1, The Guardian 2, The Guardian 3
Photo: Washington Times

Every year, around the Chinese New Year, China experiences the world’s largest human migration. About 700 million people gather at boat landings, train stations and airports to return home; during this holiday period, 2,265 trains per day will carry this plethora of people across the country.

A majority of these travelers are in fact migrant workers who are returning home after working in China’s crowded but economically thriving cities. For many of these laborers, this will be their only visit home before they have to return to their place of employment for the rest of the year.

Traditionally, life for these millions of migratory workers has not been easy. While many leave their rural hometowns for greater economic opportunities in China’s booming metropolises, they often find more than they bargain for.

A study conducted by Cheng Yu at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou surveyed the mental health of 807 migrant workers from Shenzhen and also saw Cheng discussing personal experiences with 60 of them. The study found that 58.8 percent of participants suffered from depression. Another 17 percent experienced anxiety, while around 4.6 percent had considered suicide.

The issue of mental health among Chinese migrant workers became widely apparent in 2010 after a series of suicides at a Foxconn manufacturing facility in Shenzhen. The company had assembled components for Apple products.

For migrant workers who must transition from rural life to city living without the support of their families, the chance of developing mental illnesses is much greater. They also face greater inequality through China’s hukou system.

The hukou essentially serves as a domestic passport which distinguishes between those of rural backgrounds and urban backgrounds. Unfortunately, migrant workers have to pay more for social services such as healthcare and education, which they could expect for little expense in their rural hometowns. They will frequently experience wage disparities and discrimination.

In 2008, a study found that urban workers earned around 1,000 yuan per month, while their migrant counterparts earned only 850 yuan. Most were expected to work around 11 hours per day for 26 days a month. Another study found that migrant laborers worked 50 percent more hours than their urban counterparts, yet in turn received 60 percent less in pay.

In order to improve their working conditions, laborers have recently taken to the streets in protest. In 2011 the country experienced 185 labor protests and things have only escalated since then: last year, 1,300 labor protests took place.

Even though the Chinese government guarantees workers’ rights under a 1995 labor agreement, workers must seek approval for strikes through the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, a government entity. If they don’t coordinate through the federation, they can face arrest.

Yet these arrests are usually only based on disorderly conduct and not for the actual strikes themselves. Wu Gaijin, a worker representative from Shenzhen, was detained for an entire year without a conviction. The government charged him with disrupting traffic.

However, life for laborers has been gradually improving. China has recently worked towards loosening restrictions on the hukou system in an attempt to lessen the disparity between urban and rural workers. Furthermore, individuals such as Cheng have advocated for required mental health testing at work facilities and for providing employees with a mental health support line to mitigate suicides and depression.

As China grows larger and its cities expand, changes such as these will have to be made in order to make its labor force sustainable and healthy.

Andrew Logan

Sources: Business Insider, CNN 1, CNN 2, ILO, NPR, PBS
Photo: CNN

For the fifth consecutive Friday, thousands of protesters in the Honduran Capital have marched, torches in hand, calling for their President and other leaders to resign on charges of corruption. In fact, their demands go beyond what many see as simply political theater in having high ranking officials resign. The protesters are seeking systemic change by having an international observing and prosecuting body investigate and fight corruption and impunity in the struggling Central American Nation.

This international commission, which exists only as an idea, is coming to be called CICIH, the International Commission Against Impunity in Honduras. The inspiration for such a sagacious demand by protesters seems to be the success of the CICIG, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, in enforcing the rule of law and subverting corruption in Honduras’s neighboring state.

The CICIG’s recently renewed mandate to operate in Guatemala was welcomed by the State Department and presented as an effective model for curbing violence, unlocking growth and reducing poverty in the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, in an earlier Borgen Blog post.

The grievances behind the recent protests in Honduras serve as a great example of how corruption undermines growth. An estimated $120 million was “fraudulently misspent” by the Honduran Social Security Institute, a large proportion of which went to fund President Juan Orlando Hernandéz’s 2013 campaign. Mismanagement of public funds, not to mention poor investment climates and the struggles of doing business, are some ways in which corruption impedes poverty reduction. In 2005, corruption was estimated to cost the world $1 trillion.

Leading the world in murders per capita, and Latin America in income inequality, life is difficult in Honduras.

At least 32.6 percent of Hondurans live in extreme poverty, reports the World Bank, and the the number of people below the national poverty line continues to climb. Rocked by a drug war, hyperactive and omnipresent gang activity and intense violence from law enforcement, the symptoms of corrupt and unstable institutions consistently make headlines in what The Economist warned was fast becoming a “failed state.”

The issues facing Honduras are not entirely endogenous and are incredibly complex. For starters, their geographic location is favored by narco-traffickers aiming to get products to markets in the U.S. They are still reeling from a 2009 coup. Impunity among state security forces is rampant, something that has been blamed for their out of control killings and targeted assassinations.

Among the many things that Honduras needs, are dependable and capable institutions, which are difficult to cultivate in the environment in which Honduras finds itself. Thankfully, the unique model provided by the work of CICIG in Guatemala lends itself perfectly to their situation, and the people of Honduras are ready for it.

– John Wachter

Sources: Al Jazeera, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace , CNN Español, The Economist, The Guardian, Huffington Post, La Prensa, Tico Times 1, Tico Times 2, World Bank 1, World Bank 2
Photo: Flickr

The small East African country of Burundi has been full of unrest over the past month as people have taken to the streets to protest President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term as president, which many view as unconstitutional. Since taking power in 2005, Nkurunziza’s government has grown increasingly authoritarian as it has cracked down on journalists and opposition figures. It has also been accused of intimidating voters at the polls.

In April, the constitutional court ruled that despite a two term limit, Nkurunziza could seek a third term on the grounds that he was appointed by lawmakers instead of elected for his first term. This move sparked outrage and thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets to demand for the president to step down.

More than 20 people have been killed in clashes with authorities and more than 100,000 have fled to neighboring countries. A group of soldiers and high ranking generals have already launched a failed coup attempt. Many, including the African Union, are urging the president to postpone the elections, which are scheduled for June, and restore peace.

Many fear Burundi is heading into a civil war. The tensions are threatening to derail the peace accords that ended a decade’s worth of fighting in the 1990s. Like neighboring Rwanda, Burundi has struggled with a violent conflict between Hutus and Tutsis for several decades that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. In Burundi, the conflict has included two genocides.

The 2000 Arusha Peace Agreement helped bring an end to the fighting. Most observers feel that Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term violates the agreement, which includes a two term limit as one of its provisions. The United States has been very critical of the bid for a third term, which it states as a clear violation. To make matters worse, some observers accuse Nkurunziza, a Hutu, of exploiting Hutu-Tutsi tensions to win support and detract from his government’s failures. Most of those who have fled over the past month are Tutsi.

The prospect of more violent conflict is bad news for a country that is already one of the poorest in the world. Nearly half of Burundi’s GDP comes from foreign aid, but many governments are considering cutting off aid because of the government’s behavior and some already have. Only half of all children receive any schooling and HIV/AIDS is one of the leading causes of death. According to some counts, the country has the world’s highest rate of malnutrition.

Neighboring Rwanda has been watching the tensions with a lot of unease. Many fear another bout of Hutu-Tutsi violence may emerge and that it could threaten to destabilize the region. For the time being, the future is very uncertain.

– Matt Lesso

Sources: The International Business Times, The Washington Post, DW.DE,span> The Independent
Photo: Flickr

Violent protests following President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to pursue a third term have left at least 19 dead and pushed over 50,000 out of their homes. With the streets ablaze in Burundi, a landlocked southeastern African country, analysts fear for the region’s economic stability.

A shirtless man, sporting a pink whistle around his neck, screamed at army officials for bulldozing a barricade made of old tires, his French wavering. Mismatched protestors stood behind the man, while police officials slowly closed in on the group, billy-clubs raised.

Days later, tear gas and live ammunition would be used on hundreds of civilians gathered only a kilometer away from Nkurunziza in the country’s capital of Bujumbura.

This political discord follows a decade-long civil war that ended in 2005 with the Arusha Agreement, which set the terms for the presidency. The accord, implemented by the constitution, reads “no one may serve more than two presidential terms.”

Operating on this basis, many Burundians see a third term as an illegal and unjust power grab. For some, however, the issue with Nkurunziza extends beyond these technicalities. For the past five years, the president has muffled the voices of his people – restricting the press and the freedom to protest.

“This present electoral problem is the result of the last five years’ rule of President Nkurunziza,” said Thierry Vircoulon, the project director for Central Africa at the International Crisis Group.

Though economic growth has remained stable in years past, mostly because of coffee exportation and the mining of nickel, the mass exodus of Burundi citizens could have serious monetary implications. According to Antonio Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are currently more than 20,000 refugees in Rwanda, 10,000 in Tanzania and 5,000 in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“We are extremely worried,” he said, speaking in Nairobi.

Rwanda, already a haven for 74,000 refugees from the Congo, has been overwhelmed since mid-April. Though a new Mahama refugee camp is capable of holding 60,000, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees predicts this still won’t be enough.

Sitting slightly above Rwanda and bordering Lake Victoria, Uganda will likely feel the heat of the protests. Exporting large amounts of coffee and scrap metal, Burundi currently stands as Uganda’s biggest trade partner, according to a tax analysis report.

“We are expecting if the situation in Burundi gets worse there could some economic effect on Uganda,” said Nebert Rugadya, a business commentator in Kampala.

The instability in Burundi has had a domino effect – compromising trade, straining health care systems and drying up foreign aid in neighboring nations. According to François Conradie from the African Economic Consultants NKC, tension could also foment civil war in the region of Goma on the Congo-Rwanda border.

“A stable Burundi means a lot for stability in the region,” Rugadya said.

Concerns over an overall reduced quality of life are also surfacing. The country’s 67 percent poverty rate, which has been greatly increased by civil conflict in years past, continues to climb.

– Lauren Stepp

Sources: BBC, UNICEF, US News, VOX, Washington Post
Photo: Flickr

The Afghanistan election for a new president has been dogged by unrest, cries of fraud and the potential for long-term political fallout among the country’s allies.

If conditions continue, the unrest may trigger a democratic collapse and humanitarian crisis. In its first democratic handover of power since Hamid Karzai took office in 2004, the two lead Presidential candidates have become the center of a political debate that threatens the country’s stability. In the most recent election results, ex-World Bank economist Abdullah Abdullah narrowly beat former anti-Taliban fighter Ashraf Ghani in the second round of elections held June 14. According to the Independent Election Commission (EIC,) Ghani won with 56 percent of the vote, although the final results will not be announced until July 22.

In the meantime, Abdullah and his followers have called for a recount of the votes, renouncing the result a “coup” against the people of Afghanistan. Regardless of the winner, if the strife continues, Afghanistan could see the conflict affecting all levels of the country, most notably the poor.

Afghanistan relies heavily upon allies like the United States and its partners to provide money with which to combat the Taliban and keep its economy healthy. While both candidates support a continued partnership with the United States, following the announcement on Monday, Abdullah spoke of forming a parallel government to combat Ghani’s government.

Parallel governments may be formed when countries severely divided by racial or ethnic differences operate under separate laws and rules, concurrently. A notable example of a parallel government occurred in 1942 in Maharashtra, India where people created a local government independent of British writ that technically governed them.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned that an effort to form a parallel government would be met by an end of U.S. aid. “I have noted reports of protests in Afghanistan and of suggestions of a ‘parallel government’ with the gravest concern,” he said during a statement issued by the U.S. embassy. “Any action to take power by extra-legal means will cost Afghanistan the financial and security support of the United States and the international community.”

Afghanistan received approximately 35 percent of its Gross National Income from aid reports Global Humanitarian Assistance, a foreign aid watchdog group. This aid funds everything from Afghanistan’s army to its road maintenance. Dividing these funds between two governments would be impossible to sustain. In light of the deteriorating conditions in Iraq, where the void left by retreating US troops has increasingly been filled by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) extremist group, maintaining positive relations with western forces has become progressively more important for Afghanistan.

Restricted foreign aid could trigger a regression to mid-1990s Afghanistan, warned Ambassador James Dobbins. During that time period, Afghanistan encountered widespread disease, war, and the institution of Taliban regime. The Taliban first seized power in Afghanistan in 1996, seven years after the Soviet Army’s departure and a resulting civil war.

The Taliban instituted a hard-line form of Islam that banned women from work and school, jailed men for having too short of beards and instituted stoning, amputations and public executions. The combination of the civil war, Taliban government and implosion of natural disasters in Afghanistan, including the worst drought it had seen in 30 years, created a miasma of human suffering. Millions were expelled from their homes and thousands suffered from malaria, pneumonia, polio, typhoid and cholera. While both men vie for the top spot, preventing another humanitarian catastrophe should remain their top priority.

Emily Bajet

Sources: Aljazeera America 1, Aljazeera America 2, The Guardian, Swarthmore, CNN, Olschimke’s Blog Reuters, Global Humanitarian Assistance, BBC

Photo: The Guardian

June 14 marked the kickoff of the 2014 World Cup hosted in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with a match between Brazil and Croatia. Brazil won 3-1, but amid the celebrations, angry Brazilians took to the streets to protest the World Cup.

Many Brazilians are angry that their government has decided to spend $11 billion on the soccer tournament rather than use the money to benefit their own people. These critics feel that the money should have gone to projects like low-income housing, hospitals, and schools.

Before the Brazil/Croatia match, a group of about 100 people took to the streets about seven miles away from the stadium where they threw rocks and started fires in an attempt to block people from reaching the game. The protest resulted in police using tear gas, at least one arrest, and spectators had to walk through rubble and debris to reach the stadium. The police have been accused of using excessive force by Amnesty International, who labeled the protesters as peaceful. Though the protests usually start out as peaceful demonstrations containing a serious message, more often than not a protestor will ignite havoc by throwing a rock or attacking police.

After the game, a group of about 600 people marched through the city carrying signs that read “FIFA go home” and “World Cup Corruption.” This protest is the most recent in a long string of anti-government protests that have taken place in multiple cities throughout Brazil over the past year.

Near the stadium a makeshift town of plastic tents known as the “People’s Cup” lays host to more than 3,000 families, who claim that the cost of rent has risen drastically since the beginning of the stadium-building process. With rent now far exceeding the minimum wage of $360 a month, many Brazilians have been forced out of their homes and into these temporary neighborhoods, reminiscent of the depression’s Hoovervilles.

Many Brazilians who are not directly involved with the protests still show sympathy for the cause and have begun rebelling in their own way. Such rebellions include not supporting their home country in the tournament, and instead rooting for other countries such as Argentina and England. A presidential election is set to take place in Brazil shortly after the World Cup, so there is hope among the people that the government will change radically after the people have cast their ballots.

In addition to the people protesting outside the stadium, there have been strikes led by teachers, police officers and subway workers, as well as marches organized by the Homeless Workers Movement.

— Taylor Lovett
Sources: CNN, The Guardian
Photo: Forbes

In 1972, six Pakistani workers were gunned down by police during a peaceful demonstration in Karachi as a part of the ongoing labor movement. On Saturday June 7th, the Pakistan Institute of Labor Education and Research organized a moving memorial for the martyred victims.

The labor leaders in attendance honored the memory of the workers and lamented that the Pakistani labor movement had regressed significantly since 1972. The one thing that has remained constant is the conflict between state officials and labor leaders.

In fact, several of the organizing labor leaders for the memorial have outstanding arrest warrants due their activities in budding labor unions.

The labor movement began in 1971 in response to the widespread firing of workers in Karachi. The textile mill owners had virtually no accountability, either to their workers or to the government. Unjustified layoffs were becoming par for the course in the Sindh province, but the local employees were fed up. They finally decided to organize a protest.

Workers gathered outside Feroz Textile mills in a peaceful demonstration on June 7, 1972. The police opened fire on the crowd with no provocation. The police were trying to disperse the gathering, and they decided to do it with lethal action.

A key organizer, Muttahida Mazdoor Federation Shoaib, was shot and killed in the protest.

The next day, a funeral was held for Shoaib. The funeral was attended by a mourning and outraged crowd of laborers. The funeral turned into a protest over the police’s actions just one day ago.

The police open fire yet again. Five workers were killed this time.

Despite widespread support, the labor movement withered in the face of state-sanctioned violence.

Today, Pakistani labor leaders regret that labor conditions today are even worse than they were in 1972. They said that at least then there were bonafide unions and workers had collective power.

The labor situation in modern Pakistan is as dire as ever. Labor unions are nonexistent since most companies explicitly forbid them in their contracts. Collective bargaining is unheard of, and worst of all, child labor and slavery still exist.

These atrocious labor conditions have wreaked havoc on the already downtrodden Pakistani working class. The country has faced an increase in terrorism from the Afghan war. Floods have ravaged the homes and destroyed the crops of millions of Pakistanis. Unemployment and poverty run rampant, and the working poor are powerless to improve their condition through formal labor unions.

Their only hope lies in the prospect of collective action like their ancestors did in the 1972 labor crisis. This time around, Pakistan should have the backing of the international community. Human rights violations are no longer tolerated so easily.

Despite the upward battle the working poor face in Pakistan, they look to gain inspiration from the sacrifices of those six workers over forty years ago.

– Sam Hillestad

Sources: Daily Times, US Department of Labor, Pakistaniaat, PWF

Photo: Balochistan Express

labor unrest
Protesting has emerged in Cambodia since the first of 2014. Chevron employees demand wages to be increased from $110 to $160 a month. Over 200 workers from the multi-million dollar company, Chevron, have organized a strike for salary increases. The strike has forced 17 of Cambodia’s Chevron gas stations to temporally close until the strike is over.

The Chevron employees have also been joined by several of the country’s garment factory workers in protesting to raise not only the company’s wages, but the national minimum wage to $160 a month.

Because Chevron is a U.S. company, Cambodia is reaching out to the U.S. government officials for help. The thoughts among Cambodia’s factory and service workers have pushed the labor unrest to continue. Laborers in Cambodia‘s large textile industry staged strikes and protest late last year and in the beginning of 2014 for a higher minimum salary and has steered toward political resistance.

The Cambodia Daily states that local worker “Ly Heng, a 29-year-old gas pumper at the Stung Meanchey station, said he is only paid $75 per month and wanted to join the strike but had feared losing his job.”

Chevron released a statement stating, “We are disappointed that our unionized service station colleagues have taken the drastic action to stop work instead of following legal processes to resolve the matter that would have enabled us to continue the supply of fuel products and minimize inconvenience to the public.”

Chevron has been working with authorities to ensure the safety of civilians and the workers participating in the strike.

In the past, Cambodia has seen a fair share of wage strikes. The garment factory strike was a great success with an estimate of over 200,000 workers that participated. This made it one of the largest garment-worker strikes in the history of Cambodia.

So far this year, factories in Cambodia have enforced an inspection of current safety related policies due to the six deaths related to a garment factory accident. The deaths have resulted in not only a strike, but further inspections on current wage circumstances in Cambodia.

The strikes from the garment workers have inspired other members of the work force to fight for higher wages.

Teachers demand $250 a month because the current $75 a month is not a livable wage. According to the Cambodian Independent Teachers Union, there are 87,000 teachers in the country. Several of these teachers protested for higher wages, shocking Cambodia with the current salary that they receive.

The strike ended with Chevron’s agreement to increase the monthly wage by $20 back in May. The agreement stated that workers would head back to work and end the strike. The Chevron cashiers will have their salaries increased to $150 and petrol pumpers will make $130. Also, the Chevron employees participating in the strike will not receive a pay dock from the time spent during the wage strike.

– Rachel Cannon

Sources: The Associated Press, The Diplomat, Global Post
Photo: VOA

Yuri Kochiyama
Yuri Kochiyama, a prolific civil rights activist, died this past Sunday in Berkeley, Calif. at 93 years old. Known for her friendship with Malcolm X (she held him in her hands as he lay bleeding from gunshot wounds the night of his assassination,) Kochiyama was equally a revered activist in her own right. She, along with her husband, pushed for reparations and a government apology for the many Japanese-American internment camp victims under the Civil Liberties Act, and her legacy and determination has inspired a slew of young activists.

Kochiyama was born in San Pedro, Calif. to Japanese immigrants. After leading a figuratively normal teen life, it would not be until Pearl Harbor in 1941 that she would become involved in political issues after her father was taken into custody by the FBI. Like many other Japanese-Americans, Kochiyama and her family were just one of 120,000 Japanese-American victims who were unjustly sent to internment camps following the attack.

Kochiyama and her husband lived in the housing projects in New York City, where her African American and Puerto Rican neighbors inspired her to become involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Upon meeting Malcolm X, she reportedly challenged his harsh stance on integration — a move causing him to move away from the strict Nation of Islam viewpoint he preached to a more inclusive acceptance of all kinds of people. Upon Malcolm X’s death, Kochiyama continued to fight for the rights of those whose voices needed to be heard. She was constantly fighting.

Her home, which was the permanent “meeting place” for activists in the area, will be forever remembered by Kochiyama’s eldest daughter, Audee Kochiyama-Holman, who described her upbringing as a “24/7” movement. And that it was: until her death, Kochiyama continuously fought for the under-represented voice. Her activism against the discrimination of South Asians, Muslims, Arabs and Sikhs after 9/11 was just one example; her fight toward equality was all-inclusive.

Shailja Patel, poet and activist, is just one of many who remembers Kochiyama in this light. “She made us all larger, reminding us always to think globally and organize locally,” she says. “She emphasized that all struggles for justice are connected — and she lived that truth.”

– Nick Magnanti

Sources: Huffington Post, NPR, The New York Times
Photo: Casa Atabex Ache