The student-led movement to end mass atrocities.

Reflecting on the Legacy and Limitations of the UN Genocide Convention & Universal Declaration of Human Rights 75 Years Later

December 9th and 10th mark the 75 years since the adoption of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, respectively.  Born in the aftermath of the Holocaust and shaped by the work of scholars and activists who had bravely resisted its atrocities, these documents marked an important shift in the international system by suggesting that the countries could have obligations beyond their own security goals.  They formally recognized a sense of shared humanity which entitled all people to basic rights and created language to describe and mechanisms to oppose their violation.  These concepts have shaped international movements in support of human rights and shaped the tools these movements used to mobilize institutional power against atrocities.   That legacy is fundamental to the work STAND does, and it is worth commemorating.  However, that is only half the story.

The international community has not lived up to the principles of the Genocide Convention or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and this shortcoming cannot just be explained away by unfortunate circumstances, lack of power, or even errors in resistance tactics.  Despite the ostensible universality of the principles these documents put forth, they have been applied differently to different groups of people, with distinctions informed by geopolitical power and historical systems of oppression.

The history of UN interventions is rife with inconsistencies.  There were UN peacekeepers in both Rwanda and Bosnia when their genocides occurred in the 1990s.  In Rwanda, peacekeepers were instructed to focus solely on their original mission of monitoring elections so as not to intervene in a domestic conflict.  The questions of peacekeepers’ safety and the limits of national sovereignty which were posed here merit discussion.  However, inisting peacekeepers stand idly by while a genocide was committed was fundamentally inconsistent with the UN mission’s initial goal of protecting democracy and with the UN human rights framework.

In Bosnia, the peacekeepers were stationed in the town of Srebrenica with the explicit goal of protecting Bosnian Muslims from the Bosnian Serb military.  However, when the military actually advanced on the town, peacekeepers were ordered to stand down for fear that they were militarily outmatched and that resistance could jeopardize peace negotiations.  In doing so, the UN facilitated the massacre of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys.  The bridge from the theoretical commitment to “never again” to implementation, especially when it requires sacrifice, has been difficult, even in cases that the UN has recognized as genocide.

Its decisions of whether or not to actually recognize events as genocide have presented even more oversights, often motivated by the position of the United States.  As a primary architect of the UN and an emerging superpower at the time of its founding, the US has long held disproportionate influence in the institution, even as compared to its fellow permanent members of the UN Security Council.  It also did not ratify the Genocide Convention until 40 years after its adoption, in 1988, which placed serious limitations on the UN’s ability and interest in actually enforcing the convention.  Throughout the Cold War, the US installed and aided regimes around the world (e.g. Argentina, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Iran, etc.) that violated the human rights of their citizens, including through political repression, forced disappearances, sexual violence, torture, and more.  When, for example, Guatemala sought recourse for violations of their right to self-determination (as per Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), the US and its allies blocked such action.  This type of action was not an isolated incident.

Two notable incidents cast serious doubt on the US’s commitment to the principles of the Genocide Convention, even after it was ratified.  During the early 1980s, the US supported the genocide of Indigneous Mayans in Guatemala.  President Reagan notoriously stated that General Efrain Rios Montt, whose regime had systematically targeted and destroyed Mayan villages and ordered mass killings, had gotten a “bum rap.”  The US worked closely with the Guatemalan government using the justification that it was a necessary measure to defend against violent radical communists, as many Guatemalan leftists were Indigenous.  Then, in 1988, Saddam Hussein carried out his brutal Anfal campaign inflicting extreme violence against the Kurdish population in Iraq, including through the use of chemical weapons.  The US continued to support the regime during this time due to its ongoing war against Iran.  When the US ratified the Genocide Convention only 5 years after the formal end of the genocide in Guatemala and a matter of months after the official end of the Anfal, without so much as an acknowledgement of its actions, it was a sign that its commitment to the document’s principles would be selective at best.

This has proven true over the past 35 years, and even when UN officials have disagreed with the US, they have never actually stopped the US from its actions.  For example, over the past several years, STAND has advocated against active US participation in atrocities in Yemen and domestically.  In 2020, the UN recognized police brutality against Black Americans as a “crime against humanity,” but that was where global pressure stopped.  These examples are by no means comprehensive or an indication of relative importance, but are meant to highlight the enduring limitations of an ostensible global commitment to the ideals of human rights.  Despite their many failures, the Genocide Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have persisted in foreign policy discussions because they represent an ideal to which people still want to commit, even as the world has faltered.  Their legacy then, is not a global victory of good over evil, but an invitation for us all to continue fighting for our collective humanity and to reflect on our own actions in the context of these principles.

Resilience without Reconciliation: Intergenerational Trauma in Indigenous Communities

by Ishreet Lehal and Mira Mehta

This day was previously designated as a commemoration of Chirstopher Columbus’ arrival in the United States. Considering both the atrocities Columbus personally led as well as the ones that he indirectly facilitated, we take this opportunity to stand in solidarity with Indigenous Communities in reclaiming this day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day and hold space for the celebration of the resiliency and beauty that exists within Indigenous culture.

Part of that solidarity is realizing that the harm perpetrated against Indigenous communities did not end with Columbus. The United States has a long and unfortunate legacy of atrocities, specifically against Indigenous peoples, which are unfortunately still impactful, and leave a legacy of inequity today. Notably, residential schools in the U.S. and Canada stand as a significant issue that has begun gaining attention in mainstream news media. The practice of removing Indigenous children from their families and communities and forcibly sending them to residential schools, often operated by the Catholic Church, was fairly commonplace and did not become illegal until 1978. These schools were meant to assimilate thousands of Indigenous children to typical white-American societal norms and sought to alienate Indigenous children from their heritage and cultural practices. Children were required through force and strict rule to speak English exclusively, wear Western rather than traditional clothing, and were often forced to replace their spiritual and religious traditions with Christianity. Children faced significant abuse and harsh physical “discipline,” which has led to lasting trauma, both directly and generationally. There was often inadequate food or medical care, and many people died at these schools. Moreover, family members were typically not informed about the status of their children, or their safety, resulting in many children being buried in unmarked mass graves at the schools, some of which have been recently uncovered both in the U.S. and in Canada. Today, survivors are working together to heal from the immense trauma that they endured and are advocating for the government to support truth and reconciliation initiatives. Indigenous people are still mourning the loss of these individuals and the psychological, societal impacts that these schools have held on this community.

Despite the resilience survivors have shown, the residential schools did lasting damage. Moreover, they are part of a larger cultural genocide that explicitly labeled Indigenous cultures as subhuman and uncivilized.

Policies put into place by the American government have transcended time and have proved to be detrimental to the preservation of Indigenous culture and community. As a result of the residential schools, children were forbidden from speaking their native languages, which has now resulted in extreme amounts of language loss within the various communities. When native languages were prohibited from being spoken, it discouraged a passing on of many traditions, especially in many cultures in which the oral tradition is the main way of sharing knowledge and culture. Language is not just verbal communication, but it is the silences that exist between each word and the feeling behind each sentence. These feelings were prohibited from being passed on, thus leading to a disconnect between generations and personal spiritual connection to culture, religion, and general identity.

In many policies implemented by the American and Canadian governments, Indigenous traditions and culture were wrongfully considered “savage.” Furthermore, the myth that many colonizers perpetuated was that Indigenous peoples were culturally and socially backward or even ignorant to the modern world. However, this narrative is far from reality. Indigenous people had a deep knowledge about the natural world that can not be explained by western science. For so long, Indigenous ideas, lessons, and ideas have been ignored, or looked down upon, leading to a major loss in the world being able to experience the depth of these ideas.

The trauma that generations of Indigenous peoples around the world have experienced resides within the bodies of every descendant of the community. It makes it extremely difficult for these individuals to dismiss the price they have paid for assimilation in a foreign, non-Indigenous society. It is crucial to acknowledge that under the weight of these injustices, hundreds of families, whose stories are yet to be told, have been suppressed into the soil of a land that was once theirs. Moreover, intergenerational trauma felt by the Indigenous community has caused increased susceptibility to feelings of shame and inferiority about identity, culture, and traditions. For many people in Indigenous communities, there is a shared experience of growing up in spaces that do not recognize or bring reconciliation for the trauma that their families experienced, that they experienced, or the ways in which their community has been impacted by these issues as well. It is imperative to recognize that continuing to ignore or dismiss the pain that these communities face will continue to hurt generations in the future. Moreover, it is vital that we encourage discussion around this issue, advocate for reconciliation, and work to preserve this cultural heritage for the individuals that are closest to the issue, as well as for the preservation of centuries of knowledge, wisdom, and genuine history.

This loss of culture and intergenerational trauma is not isolated to the United States. It has been seen with Aborigines in Australia, many ethnic groups in Burma, the Uyghurs in East Turkistan, and people who have faced colonization around the world. It is apparent that Indigenous people across the world are facing issues of preservation at the hands of atrocity and ignorance. Therefore we as allies, community members, and advocates need to stand together to learn, educate, and celebrate Indigenous people. Join us, and the larger scope of Indigenous communities by taking some time to learn about the history of Indigenous peoples beyond Columbus, and reflect on how you can support Indigenous communities today.

Join the United States Action Committee to work on these issues with STAND.

Ishreet Lehal is a freshman at the University of Southern California. She is the co-lead of the United States Action Committee, co-lead for Education, and was previously the Kashmir Action Committee lead.

Mira Mehta is a freshman at Brown University. She is the co-lead of the Yemen Action Committee and was previously the New Jersey State Advocacy Lead. She was a member of the Communications Task Force for two years before that.



International Humanitarian Law & Human Rights Abuses in Yemen

The atrocities occurring in Yemen violate most moral principles and standards of appropriate behavior.  They also violate international humanitarian law.

International humanitarian law is a collection of rules that are meant to reduce the effect of armed conflict, especially on civilians.  These rules come from international agreements like the 1949 Geneva Convention IV, which are broadly recognized but often ignored.  Highlighting the violations of international humanitarian law, however, is an important step to holding people accountable and emphasizing its importance.  To that end, I have put together an incomplete list of the violations occurring in Yemen.

One crucial aspect of international humanitarian law is protecting children.  Many of these provisions specifically come from the 2000 Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict.  Children are among the most vulnerable people in conflict areas, and they are often hit the hardest.  There are currently more than 12 million children in need of humanitarian assistance in Yemen, and they have been directly targeted and harmed by many of the actions taken by both the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis.  For example, there were 153 recorded airstrikes on or near schools between 2015 and 2019.  Additionally, there were 171 recorded instances of military use of schools, as well as several other forms of attacks.  The 2000 Optional Protocol specifically opposes “direct attacks on objects protected under international law, including places that generally have a significant presence of children, such as schools.”

The violations of this provision and principle of international humanitarian law have had dire consequences for children in Yemen.  There were already more than 2 million children out of school before the pandemic began.  Very few efforts have been made by either warring party to fulfill their legal duty to ensure that all children, including those who have been displaced, have access to education.  On all levels, the treatment of young people and the carelessness with their education from all parties to the conflict has blatantly disregarded not only the importance of this issue but also its legal recognition.

The conflict has not only destroyed schools; it has been all too generous in its destruction of infrastructure.  Notably, hospitals, which are to be protected as safe zones according to Article 14 of Geneva Convention IV, have faced constant attack.  By the end of 2019, there had already been more than 130 attacks on medical facilities in Yemen, and there have been several others over the past year and a half.  This has contributed to a crumbling healthcare system that has exacerbated the effects of the cholera outbreak that began in 2016 and the wounds people have faced as a direct result of the conflict.

Perhaps the greatest violation of international humanitarian law, however, has been in the creation of famine conditions.  The Saudi-led coalition maintained a land, sea, and air blockade for several years, which prevented much vital aid from reaching civilians.  At the same time, the Houthis have sometimes rejected incoming food aid, and Houthi officials have been accused of stealing aid meant to go to civilians to support their military efforts.  These actions violate Article 23 of Geneva Convention IV, which mandates “the free passage of all consignments of essential foodstuffs.”  This rejection of international humanitarian law and prioritization of military goals has come at the expense of the 14 million Yemeni people at risk of starving and the 500,000 already living in famine-like conditions.  Included in this group are 2.3 million children under the age of five who are expected to suffer from acute malnutrition this year.

These human rights abuses demand urgent action, and the framework for that action already exists on an international scale.  There is no shortage of provisions condemning the actions of warring parties in Yemen.  There is, however, an unwillingness to point out these violations for what they are rather than just as tragedies.  Attempts to support peace processes are also often quick to criticize one party for their violations of human rights while ignoring the clear evidence that both sides have rejected their standard.  There is no moral high ground for either side.  Both have valid concerns about being represented in government and protecting their safety, which must be addressed in a way that includes and uplifts civilians.  For now, however, all action must be taken to protect innocent people and end the destruction of the infrastructure they rely on.

Join STAND’s Yemen Action Committee to get involved in our advocacy.

Mira Mehta is a senior at Westfield High School. She is the co-lead of the Yemen Action Committee and was previously the New Jersey State Advocacy Lead. She was a member of the Communications Task Force for two years before that.

Reflecting on the Conflict in Yemen Six Years In

Six years since the outbreak of conflict in Yemen, there are 20 million people in need of humanitarian aid, 16 million at risk of going hungry, more than 4 million forced out of their homes, more than 268,000 refugees, and over 100,000 dead. That’s just the suffering that can be quantified. Six years of bombings and fighting have left roads, schools, markets, and much more destroyed. It’s not hard to see that the war needs to end. So why hasn’t it?

First, there is deep-seated pain, division, and betrayal that underlies this conflict. The Houthi movement originated from the Believing Youth Forum, which was created by Zaidi religious leaders. The Zaidi religion is a branch of Shia Islam, but many other Yemeni people are Sunni Muslims. This religious difference comes with the weight of hundreds of years of tension and conflict and international politics.

That brings us to the second major reason. The rest of the world has made Yemen a playground to air out their own issues. The Houthis have been backed by Iran (though it is somewhat unclear to what extent), as would be expected from their religious similarities. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and several other Sunni-majority countries in their coalition have backed the internationally recognized Yemeni government of President Hadi. The United States, United Kingdom, France, and other Western countries have thrown their support behind the Saudi-led coalition due to oil interests, opposition to Iran, and some fear of the Houthis. This has meant providing both weapons and logistical support to the Saudi military (and, to a lesser extent, other countries in the coalition), which prolonged and escalated conflict. Because of these alignments, international efforts at peace have not always been neutral, nor have they always acknowledged the concerns of the Houthis about having their voices heard in government.

This is not to say that the Houthis are perfect or that any one actor can be blamed for the conflict. It is a complex conflict, and human rights abuses have been committed by both sides. But those who are suffering the most are the people of Yemen, who have been the victims of violence from both sides. Ultimately, ending the conflict is about those people. With everything else going on, it makes sense why it’s difficult to get people to care about the Yemeni people who are halfway across the world. The reality, though, is that nearly every other issue that Americans are advocating for is fundamentally linked to the conflict in Yemen. Here are some examples:

Criminal Justice and Yemen

The wellbeing of the people is endangered due to many conflict-related issues, such as hunger, lack of medical and economic supplies to deal with the COVID-19 crisis, and most notably, the issue of creating secret prisons, unlawful detentions, and allegations of torture. According to Human Rights Watch’s 2020 report, “Houthi forces, the Yemeni government, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and various UAE and Saudi-backed Yemeni armed groups have arbitrarily arrested, detained or abducted people, and tortured or otherwise ill-treated detainees.” The targeted individuals are mainly political adversaries, some of whom have publically spoken against or sympathized with the military opponents. The detained or abducted people were transferred into secret prisons, which witnesses usually describe as hidden places in airports, hotels, and schools. The Associated Press has documented at least 18 clandestine prisons across southern Yemen run by the United Arab Emirates or by Yemeni forces, drawing on accounts from former detainees, families of prisoners, civil rights lawyers, and Yemeni military officials. The testimonies of the victims are dreadful and concerning. Many of the former detainees claimed that they had experienced physical, mental, and sexual abuses reaching the threshold of torture. They were beaten with pipes and rocks, put under electrical shocks, raped in front of a camera, and ill-treated in many other degrading ways. 

Moreover, there are well-documented testimonies of Yemeni families whose relatives have been forcefully abducted and were never seen again. In 2019, the Mwatana Organization for Human Rights documented “over 1,600 cases of arbitrary detentions, 770 cases of forced disappearances, 344 cases of torture, and at least 66 deaths in secret prisons run by the warring sides since April of 2016.” Noting the severe human rights violations, in its 2014 Universal Periodic Review (UPR), the United Nations gave recommendations to the Yemeni Government to take measures to prevent further human rights abuses, including enforced disappearance and torture, sexual violence, and other ill-treatment. The UPR highlighted the need for delivering justice for the victims and assurance of accountability for the perpetrators responsible for any arbitrary detentions. Although those recommendations were accepted by the Yemeni government, the situation has not improved. The same request was made to U.S. officials by many human rights organizations that demanded a broader political involvement by the relevant bodies regarding the grave human rights violations occurring in Yemen. The initial response of Adrian Rankine-Galloway, a Pentagon spokesman, was that the U.S. has seen no evidence of detainee abuse in Yemen, but still, they take all allegations of torture seriously and will look into this matter.

However, regardless of the assurances given by the government, human rights abuses are still ongoing, producing thousands of unlawfully imprisoned and tortured people. The Yemeni government, and other relevant parties, despite the clear duty to prosecute the perpetrators of torture under international law, still have not delivered accountability for the perpetrators and acknowledgment for the victims.

Healthcare and Yemen

Yemen needs healthcare more than ever, but sadly, the country’s healthcare system has continued to crumble since the beginning of the war. Due to the bombing and shelling of medical centers, as well as the country’s dire lack of both funding and resources, barely half of Yemen’s health care facilities remain fully functional. Of the remaining facilities, many don’t have basic supplies and are low on staff since healthcare workers went unpaid from October 2016 to early 2019. Even if the healthcare facilities were in the proper condition, it is doubtful most of the population could even reach them in times of need. A recent study funded by UNICEF, WHO, and the World Bank finds, “Almost 40% of the population lives more than 2 hours from comprehensive emergency obstetric and surgical care.” Many Yemeni people face a longer journey if they have to walk due to the fuel shortage and closed roads. The study states that “68% live more than a 60-min walk to the nearest functioning hospital,” a journey that may be impossible for those that are very ill or live on the frontlines, the two groups of people in the direst need of medical assistance. 

Not only is the lack of medical resources leaving civilians on the frontlines with little to no help, but the country’s population no longer has access to basic healthcare. For example, people with chronic illnesses are left to fend for themselves, as it is estimated that “diabetes causes a quarter of limb amputations at [International Committee of the Red Cross] centers.” Due to the rise in malnutrition, lack of clean water, and displaced persons forced to find shelter in crowded areas, outbreaks of disease are on the rise. Just within the past 5 years, Yemen has suffered disastrous outbreaks of cholera, diphtheria, and polio, which are all vaccine treatable diseases. Unfortunately, Yemen’s healthcare system doesn’t have the resources to provide widespread vaccinations, and the population is dying because of it. The UN and other similar organizations have been trying to provide relief, but “the dynamic nature of the conflict-shifting front lines, new offensives, ongoing displacement, and changing disease burdens has complicated efforts to prioritize and target assistance.” Without an end to the war and help from other countries, Yemen’s suffering health care system will continue to cause far more deaths that could have easily been prevented. 

Mental Health and Yemen

Most people neglect the healthcare crisis that is present in Yemen, and the implications the war can have on the mental health of the people living therein, especially on the young minds. The constant worry of their own survival that Yemenis live under, coupled with the traumatic incidents they have witnessed, makes it almost inevitable for them to not develop mental health issues pertaining to trauma and anxiety. For instance, the Universal Periodic Review had a team studying mental health in Yemen. They conducted a study on the school-going children of Yemen. Their study led to revelations that were very hard to believe; 79% of the school children in Sana’a reported PTSD symptoms. Many children reported having nightmares and difficulty concentrating in school. Yemeni health experts reported a 40% increase in the suicide rate in Sana’a in only one year, from 2014-15. Further, to emphasize the lack of resources available to them, there are only 40 psychiatrists and four hospitals in Yemen for a population of 28 million. Despite these heart-breaking findings, very little to no response has been shown by the government or international countries to mitigate the damage caused to the mental health of Yemeni individuals. Moving forward, efforts should be made to raise awareness of the conflict in Yemen and how this has led to poor mental health of the majority of the population. In continuation, plans to provide treatment to those in need also need to be formulated so as to give much-needed access to those who are suffering.

National Security and Yemen

American imperialism, in addition to hurting the people in affected countries, is a surefire way to build hatred and resentment toward the United States. It has happened over and over again, including in Iran, which has become one of the greatest perceived threats to American safety. Any future involvement must be focused on promoting peace and centering the voices of Yemeni people to undo the harms that have already been caused. Moreover, U.S. support of Saudi Arabia facilitates human rights abuses and inadvertently supports the terrorist groups the country’s government associates with. Ending the war in Yemen is fundamentally good for the safety of the United States.

Environmentalism and Yemen

The questionable relationship the United States has with Saudi Arabia is linked to the American desire for oil, as are most interventions in the Middle East. Moreover, green technology and sustainable practices do not get developed when a country is invested in bombing other countries and destroying civilian infrastructure. Instead, people are forced to rebuild their lives, unsupported, with anything they can find. These solutions will not be eco-friendly, and the Yemeni people will be right to be using them.

If none of these issues matter to you, though, the children who have never known a country at peace, the families that cannot find food or homes, and the people who have been killed should. Join STAND’s Yemen Action Committee to advocate for better policy, or follow along with our Conscious Consumption Campaign on Twitter and Instagram (@standnow) to find out how you can support the cause in your daily life.

Mira Mehta is a senior at Westfield High School. She is the co-lead of the Yemen Action Committee and was previously the New Jersey State Advocacy Lead. She was a member of the Communications Task Force for two years before that.

Aisha Saleem is a junior at Barnard, majoring in biochemistry. She is the co-lead for the Yemen Action Committee and the University Outreach Coordinator.

Ana Marija Apostoloska is an LLM holder from the University of Liverpool and the University of Skopje. Her field of interest is Transitional Justice, international criminal law and post-conflict reconciliation. She has worked on projects investigating the question of human rights abuses in conflict areas in Europe and Africa. Ana Marija contributed to the criminal justice portion of this blog post.

Ella Cimino is a student at Tampa Preparatory High school. Ella recently joined STAND and looks forward to helping spread awareness about mass atrocities occurring all over the world. She hopes that through educating more people about these conflicts she can help encourage them to participate in the movement to end them. Ella contributed to the healthcare portion of this blog post.

Aishah Syed is a student at the University of Toledo. She is an aspiring doctor and is passionate about helping people who have and are being oppressed across the world and wants to make continual efforts in order to raise awareness for the same. She also volunteers for World Relief to help educate refugee children. Aishah contributed to the mental health portion of this blog post.

Commemorating Indigenous Peoples’ Day with Honesty and Commitment to Change

Indigenous Peoples’ Day, held on the second Monday of October, represents a day of honor and celebration for Indigenous Peoples and their resilience in preserving their culture and community. It is a way to commemorate all of the people who have survived and thrived despite the attempts to stop them and to recognize the beauty of oft-marginalized and scorned cultures. This day recognizes and amplifies the voices of Indigenous People across the nation and seeks to reclaim history as well as celebration for First Nations Peoples, rather than the false history that surrounds the atrocities committed by Christopher Columbus. 

On October 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus’s voyage reached land, and he and his men became the first people to discover the United States, proving that the Earth is round. Or so the story goes. The first place Columbus actually landed was an island that is now part of the Bahamas; during this voyage, he also traveled to present-day Cuba and an island he named Hispaniola (now known as Haiti and the Dominican Republic). Moreover, most people at the time already knew that the Earth was round. At the top of the list of many myths spread about the “successes” of Christopher Columbus was his “discovery of America.” 

It is impossible to discover land on which people are already living, and there were thousands of Indigenous people living on all of the islands Columbus went to. There were many atrocities brought by Columbus and his men including the kidnapping, enslavement, and torturing of thousands of Taíno people living in Cuba and Hispaniola. He stripped their land of its gold, and when people were unable to mine as much as he wanted, he cut off their hands. He and his crew sexually assaulted Indigenous women and young girls. Many people died either as a direct result of his brutality and violence or by suicide to avoid further abuse. In addition to disease, this was a significant reason why the Indigenous population dropped so much following his arrival in the Americas; though there is controversy over the use of the term, many consider it to be a genocide.

Contrary to popular belief, criticisms of Columbus are nothing new. In response to his brutality (and his general mismanagement of the Spanish colony), he was arrested for his poor management of the colony and brutal treatment of the Taíno people. and sent back to Spain for punishment following his third voyage. Despite his prosecution, all charges were cleared and released because of the profit that he brought to Spain. He was allowed to return for a fourth voyage, but he was not allowed to be governor, as people did not trust him to fairly rule over either the Spanish or the Indigenous Peoples in the colony. (For more information about Columbus, check out Lies My Teacher Told Me About Christopher Columbus by James Loewen.) Columbus never set foot in the United States, but he did set a precedent of exploiting and abusing Indigenous people which would continue throughout the Americas.

Land and resource theft, enslavement, abuse, exploitation, and murder continued throughout the Americas, and their effects continue to be seen today. Most noticeably, many Indigenous Peoples have been stripped of their land and forced to live on reservations far from their original homes. The land that all non-Indigenous Americans (and Canadians) live on is stolen, and recognizing this is a crucial step towards justice. This is why land acknowledgements, in which a person shares which group the land they are on originally belonged to, are useful ways to start events. For example, I currently live on land that was home to the Munsee Lenape people. (To learn about the place where you live, visit this site.)

Standing against previous theft is especially important as the American government attempts to interfere with Indigenous land for projects of, at best, questionable value. For example, construction has begun on the Dakota Access Pipeline, which the Standing Rock Sioux people have said will likely contaminate their environment through a high risk of oil spills. In addition, the Trump administration is trying to build the U.S.-Mexico border wall so that it would divide land on which the Tohono O’odham people have been living for centuries (Read STAND’s earlier blog on the O’odham people). While they have objected and protested, they will need support from the broader public to maintain full access to their homes and keep their communities connected. The continued colonization of Indigenous land is not solely perpetuated by government institutions. In Hawai’i, for example, scientists have placed telescopes all over Mauna Kea, which is sacred land for many Indigenous people. There are far too many examples to list, so it is imperative that we keep seeking out information and be aware of the history of the land we seek to use.

The removal of Indigenous Peoples from their homes and their relegation to distant reservations on infertile land has also resulted in a massive loss of culture, as many peoples’ ways of life were heavily influenced by their environments. Other attempts throughout American history to forcibly “assimilate” Indigenous people to American culture have also put many traditions and languages in danger of disappearing.

Beyond the threats to Indigenous culture, colonization and exploitation have led to serious consequences for the well-being of Indigenous individuals today. According to Indian Health Services (IHS), Indigenous people have a life expectancy that is 5.5 years shorter than that of other Americans. This is a result of having higher risk factors, lack of access to healthcare, and discrimination in the medical field. The introduction of alcohol by Europeans, combined with intergenerational trauma, has led Indigenous people to have higher rates of overdoses and mental illness, often resulting in death by suicide. Moreover, systemic racism has institutionalized poverty in Indigenous communities, with a poverty rate, at 25.4%, more than double the national rate. This means that many people lack adequate access to food and running water, which is key to preventing chronic illnesses and disease outbreaks. It also makes it much harder to afford healthcare. While IHS is supposed to provide medical care for Indigenous peoples, they are severely underfunded — with clinics few and far between and many of the clinics that do exist lacking key features like MRI machines and emergency departments. For those Indigenous individuals who can access care, the quality is often lowered as compared to their non-Indigenous counterparts. In fact, 23% of Indigenous people have reported facing discrimination in the medical field.

This type of racism is not limited to the United States. This was made very visible after a video of the death of Joyce Echaquan, an Indigenous woman in Canada, spread around the Internet. In the video, nurses were heard screaming racial slurs and taunts at Echaquan. Her family has also said that nurses gave her too much morphine, a substance to which she had told hospital staff she was allergic.

While tragic, Echaquan’s death is not surprising. Indigenous women are murdered at a rate up to 10 times higher than other people; 84.3% have experienced violence at some point during their lives. On October 10, two U.S. bills, Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act, were signed into law to address this problem, but there is still a lot of work to be done. Until people learn about the problem and actively work to remove their prejudices, Indigenous women will continue to be put in greater danger.

Changing our understanding of Indigenous communities will take work, but there are some easy steps people can take to start. First, stop appropriating Indigenous cultures: Indigenous people are not Halloween costumes, and their religious and spiritual traditions are not aesthetics (see: “spirit animals” and headdresses). If you want to appreciate Indigenous culture — their jewelry, their artwork, or their traditions — talk to actual Indigenous people. Support Indigenous artists, and educate yourself with work by Indigenous authors (check out this list for suggestions). Second, realize that Indigenous Peoples are not a monolith. While they face much of the same discrimination, every nation has its own language, customs, and way of life that contribute to a unique cultural identity. Third, don’t lie and say that you’re Indigenous if you aren’t. It’s not a quirk; it’s a heritage and identity.

Fully decolonizing our mindsets will take a lot more work. Around the world, people’s understandings of “civilization” and propriety have been fundamentally shaped by colonial ideals. There is not enough room here to explain all of the intersectionalities, but we must keep doing the work to recognize the contributions of Indigenous Peoples and protect their rights. STAND’s work internationally often involves atrocities committed against Indigenous Peoples who are vulnerable to attack from colonizing governments and groups. Continuing to learn and change the way we view institutions and practices we view as the default will help create a more just and fair world.

For ways to join the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Celebrations, visit: 

For petitions regarding the adoption of Indigenous Peoples’ Day in your county visit:

Mira Mehta is a student at Westfield High School and a co-lead of the Yemen Action Committee. Prior to this, she was the New Jersey State Advocacy Lead and served on the STAND Communications Task Force for two years.

Finding True Patriotism on Independence Day

To most people, the Fourth of July means fireworks, barbecues, and American flags. It’s a fun way to celebrate our nation’s birth, but the holiday should mean more than that. It is a time to reflect on the country’s values and beliefs and what they mean in the context of modern society. The country has made a lot of progress since its creation, but it still has a long way to go. The recent groundswell of protests against centuries of police brutality and systemic racism highlight not only how much change has yet to be made but also the patriotism of American society. To be truly patriotic is not just to celebrate our country’s history, but to commit to seeking a better path forward. The first step to that is understanding not only the flaws that have emerged recently but also those which are embedded in the country’s DNA.

The unfortunate reality of the United States is that it owes its very existence to the oppression and labor of Indigenous peoples and enslaved Black people. The Founding Fathers had the wealth and power to declare independence for the rest of the colonists because they relied on the work of enslaved Black people. The colonies gained what meager international status they had because of the mass exportation of goods produced through slave labor. At its very core, the American cause was to control land that had been stolen from Indigenous people. When the United States finally won independence from England, freedom was limited to the few most privileged people—excluding women, Black people, Indigenous people, and anyone who did not own landwhile the new government established and maintained systems of oppression.

All of this is not to say that the United States is not worth celebrating or even that the Founding Fathers did not have any good ideas. We’ve just forgotten the ideas and principles that make the country strong and not taken care to make sure that they are applied equitably. The ingenuity of the Founding Fathers and The Constitution lay not in the actual system they established—that was not entirely a new idea—but in the self-awareness reflected through the amendment process, the humility with which they put forth their ideas, and the knowledge that it was impossible to create a system completely free of mistakes and problems. The beauty of their work was that it inspired people to take a chance and build off of the best option they had.

The American spirit is exemplified in activists who recognize the country’s flaws and challenge it to do better rather than blindly singing its praise. This Fourth of July, take a moment to learn more about the history of the United States that was not covered in school, and follow the example of the activists who have allowed the country to progress. You can start by finding out what Indigenous land you live on here, learning about racism with any of these books, or learning about how the US contributes to mass atrocities across the world through the STAND blog. Whatever interests you, think about a way that the US can do better in that area, and then start learning and working. In the midst of a national reckoning with our racism and our dark history, do not be left behind.

Mira Mehta is a student at Westfield High School and a co-lead of the Yemen Action Committee. Prior to this, she was the New Jersey State Advocacy Lead and served on the STAND Communications Task Force for two years.


Activism is Hard Work, but Worth It: My State Advocacy Lead Experience

At the end of eighth grade, someone reached out to me and told me that they worked with an organization called STAND. She told me that they needed people to write op-eds against the Trump Administration’s proposed cuts to the International Affairs budget. I liked to write, and it sounded like an interesting topic, so I agreed. I had no idea that this would be the beginning of years of involvement with an amazing organization, but as I researched, I became more and more interested in STAND’s cause. When I entered high school, I joined STAND as a member of the Communications Task Force (which no longer exists) and wrote about various aspects of STAND’s cause for two years. This past year, I became a State Advocacy Lead.

State Advocacy Leads help mobilize students in their state to participate in STAND’s national campaigns by writing op-eds and blog posts, holding in-person events, directly lobbying state representatives, and working with Action Committees. This experience has been really exciting for me because I have been able to work with people around the country to bring STAND’s goals to everybody. I have loved learning about our advocacy and actually being able to make an impact on the issues I care about. Being a State Advocacy Lead is really empowering.  One thing that was especially cool was being able to publish an op-ed on the GRACE Act, which would increase the maximum amount of refugees the country admits annually. I was looking forward to holding an event on the Global Fragility Act, which STAND also worked to pass, before quarantine started. Even though I wasn’t actually able to host the event, it was really amazing to see how the organization could impact policy and how I could help advance that.

I would have loved to be able to host more events, but it is hard to do that on a low budget. It takes a lot of time and resources to be able to put together an event. If every State Advocacy Lead was given $500-$1,000, I would use this to have more events to mobilize people to participate in grassroots advocacy campaigns. Even finding locations to have events can be expensive, but it is very helpful to gather in person to get people to commit to action. In addition, events can be effective tools to raise awareness about STAND’s issues, especially if they can include experts. Even being at an event where they learn about a conflict area can be the impetus for action from students.  Because STAND is truly a student-led grassroots movement, it is crucial that we involve as many students as possible.

That includes anyone who is reading this. Activism is hard work. Most of the time is spent trying to convince people of things they either don’t want to believe or asking them to do things they don’t want to spend time doing, but it’s worth it to make even a small change. It is worth it to reach out to a hundred students if even a couple people get involved. I’m grateful that someone asked me to get involved in STAND. Throughout my three years with the organization, I have worked with amazing people to help save lives and prevent atrocities around the world. This experience has shown me how much power I can have as a student and what we can do collectively to make a positive impact on the world.  If you want to be a bigger part of this and are ready to put in time to share STAND’s goals with the students and leaders in your state, please apply to be a State Advocacy Lead.  We need as many dedicated, well-intentioned students as possible to work towards a more peaceful world.

Mira Mehta is a junior at Westfield High School and serves as the New Jersey State Advocacy Lead. Prior to this, she served on the STAND Communications Task Force for two years.