World History 2 276 - 15.4.3 State Instability and Human Rights Abuses

Many of the migrants arriving at the southern border of the United States are fleeing economic and political disorder in their home countries. This pattern goes back many decades. For example, many thousands of Salvadoran migrants have entered the United States each year, especially during and after the El Salvador Civil War (Figure 15.29). That war began in 1979 with a military coup supported by the United States, which feared that radical leftist elements in El Salvador were destabilizing the country and leading it in a direction contrary to U.S. Cold War interests.

Two images are shown. Image a shows a map of North and South America with a red box enclosing central America. A larger, topographical map of Central America is also shown. From north to south, the following countries are labeled: Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. Image b is a black and white picture is shown of four men with rifles standing amid a crumbled building. The man on the left wears a cap, has solid-colored clothes and is looking forward. The next man wears a plaid shirt, dark pants, and has black bushy hair. The third man is facing the other three, and wears a backpack with a flashlight attached at the top. His clothes are solid colored and dark bushy hair is seen under his cap. The last man on the right is facing forward and wears a two-toned cap with solid clothes.
Figure 15.29 (a) The civil war in El Salvador greatly destabilized the country and led to a surge in Salvadorans seeking asylum in the United States. (b) The soldiers in the photo are members of the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (People’s Revolutionary Army), one of five left-wing groups that made up the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front. (credit a left: modification of work “CIA map of Central America” by CIA The World Factbook – Regional maps/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain; credit a right: modification of work “World map blank shorelines” by Maciej Jaros/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain; credit b: modification of work “ERP combatants in Perquín, El Salvador in 1990” by Linda Hess Miller/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0)

By supporting the coup with money, military training, and the sharing of intelligence reports, the United States hoped to return stability to El Salvador, but the opposite occurred. Many in El Salvador felt the military government was illegitimate and staged protests and resistance. The military responded with violence of its own, such as a deadly attack on demonstrators in 1980. There were also rightist paramilitary groups, often referred to as “death squads,” fighting against leftist guerrilla forces in the countryside and committing murders and massacres. As the country descended into chaos, many left and found refuge in the United States. Today these immigrants number about 2.5 million.

A similar pattern of civil war and instability in other parts of Central America has also produced human rights abuses and an increase in migration to the United States. The Guatemalan Civil War (1960–1996), for example, led to numerous human rights violations against Guatemalans. These included a reported campaign of violence and terrorism by the government against ethnic Mayans and peasants accused of supporting leftist guerrilla groups. Nicaragua has experienced destabilization since the 1960s as well. Leftist guerrilla organizations fought against the dictatorship of the Somoza family, which ruled until the late 1970s. Then, in 1979, one of the major leftist groups, the Sandinistas, took control. The Sandinistas were socialists, and within months they had opened diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and later accepted its economic and military assistance. This action alarmed the United States and led it to support resistance to the Sandinista government, which contributed to an escalation of the violence and a number of human rights abuses on both sides.

Link to Learning

The long-term consequences of the war in El Salvador are still obvious today. Watch this brief news report to learn about some of them.

While violence in Central America has declined in the last few decades, it persists elsewhere. Venezuela, effectively a one-party state since 2007, has been accused by the United States of a number of human rights abuses. These include murder, imprisonment, torture, and government support of armed groups that commit violence against protestors. Similar accusations have been made against the governments in Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Peru, and Chile. Chile’s government committed numerous human rights abuses against its people during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973–1990). These included torture, execution, and sexual abuse of leftist political opponents. While Pinochet has since died, human rights organizations claim the abuses continue, particularly against Indigenous groups and those identifying as LGBTQ+.

Similar human rights abuses committed by authoritarian governments are also a persistent reality across much of Africa. Between April and July 1994, nearly 800,000 people were killed in Rwanda when an estimated 200,000 members of the Hutu majority sought to wipe out the minority Tutsi population and any Hutus who tried to protect them. Armed conflicts in countries like Liberia, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, and Somalia have also led to many human rights violations. In a number of countries, militant Islamic organizations have committed civilian massacres and targeted killings. These include attacks by Boko Haram, the Islamic State in West Africa, and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, which have been responsible for many hundreds of deaths over the last few years. In response, the governments in these countries have committed atrocities of their own. For example, in 2021, government forces in the Central African Republic attacked a mosque and killed fourteen people.

Governments across Africa have often used violence to break up anti-government protests. For example, in the small southern African country of Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), government forces broke up a pro-democracy protest in 2021, killing eighty people and injuring more than two hundred. Many more who protested the regime of the Eswatini king Mswati III were arrested (Figure 15.30). Similar actions against protestors in Sudan that year led to the deaths of fifty-three people. And other government abuses across the continent have resulted in long prison sentences and even death for protestors, whistleblowers, and journalists who have challenged government policies.

A picture of a dark-skinned man with dark hair and a horse shoe-shaped, black moustache is shown. He wears no shirt, has various leis and necklaces around his neck, and tassels in bright yellow, blue, and orange hang on his right arm. Eight rows of pink beads hang across his chest from his right shoulder to his waist at the left. The top of his chest has brown skin tags all over and his belly protrudes over a black belt with a gold buckle. Black and white animal print fur hangs below his waist over a black cloth with orange and white circles. On the underside of his right wrist a black watch band can be seen and he is holding a tall brown stick with a white bottom and white ring around the top. The top of his left arm is adorned with a black, yellow and orange cloth and he wears a gold plain ring on the third finger of his left hand which holds a thin dark stick. A dark-skinned man stands behind him with an open mouth and his head hanging down. He has dark hair, wears a black and white animal fur around his head with orange feathers coming off the front and several necklaces and adornments around his neck. He holds a tall stick with a rounded top. Behind both men a red brick wall stands with white trim at the top and three other people are shown standing behind it, two in light-colored short sleeved shirts and one with a bare chest, beads, and a patterned cloth below the waist holding a stick in his hand.
Figure 15.30 King Mswati III has been condemned by many international observers as an absolute monarch who rules with an iron fist. As this 2006 photograph shows, he also skillfully uses the symbols of his country to strengthen his hold on power. (credit: “King Mswati III, 2006” by “Amada44”/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In Asia, Myanmar and China demonstrate that human rights violations can emerge where racial and religious prejudices against minorities are pronounced. The Rohingya people, a Muslim minority living in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, have faced oppression for generations, including being officially excluded from citizenship in 1982. Because they are a small minority and viewed with suspicion by the larger Buddhist population, they have long been vulnerable to attacks. In 2017, brutality against the Rohingya escalated dramatically and triggered a mass migration of more than 700,000 to neighboring Bangladesh. As of 2022, nearly a million Rohingya people were still living in large refugee camps there (Figure 15.31).

A picture shows a circular group of dark-skinned men standing with a light skinned man and woman on the right side in front of the semi-circle. The dark-skinned men are dressed in various short sleeved printed shirts and short sleeved polos, some have glasses, some wear white hats, and some have facial hair. The woman wears a dark coat, light blue scarf, has blond shoulder length hair, and small earrings. She is holding her hands out in front of her. A man stands to her left in a plaid white and blue shirt, dark glasses, and short, black hair looking down. A man to her right holds a pad of paper and a pen. Toward the middle of the crowd several people hold up cameras, video recorders, and phones. In the background on the left stands a building with a large banner in front, cars can be seen in the far back, and a purple large tarp with a white and yellow flower covers a large rectangle structure toward the middle right of the photo.
Figure 15.31 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar have struggled to draw global attention to their plight. In 2015, their representatives at a Sumatra refugee camp spoke with Anne C. Richards, the Obama administration’s assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration. (credit: “Assistant Secretary for Population, Migration, and Refugees Anne C. Richard Visiting Rohingya Refugee Camp in Aceh” by U.S. Embassy, Jakarta/Flickr, Public Domain)

Another case of state-sponsored abuse against an ethnic minority is the oppression of the Uyghurs of China (Figure 15.32). The Uyghurs number about eleven million and are a mostly Muslim ethnic group of Turkic origin living in northwestern Xinjiang. The Chinese government has repressed them for decades, claiming that many hold extremist ideas about carving out their own Islamic state, which China views as a threat to its territorial integrity. Chinese policy has been to compel the Uyghurs to conform their religious beliefs more thoroughly to the state’s nationalist message and to eliminate separatist movements. Since at least as early as 2017, China has rounded up several hundred thousand Uyghurs and placed them in what it calls vocational training centers. Human rights groups, however, have described these as reeducation camps intended to compel the Uyghurs to renounce Islam and become loyal Chinese citizens. Relatively little is known about the many camps because the state controls information and denies that abuse occurs within them.

A picture shows people carrying a large white banner on a street in front of a large monument with a green statue on top, trees, and a tall building on the right. The banner reads “Over One Million Uyghurs Disappeared in China” in black and then “Where are out Missing Family & Friends?” in red across the bottom. Several people hold the banner wearing suits, coats, hats and scarves. They also hold flags as they carry the banner. The flags are mostly blue with a moon and star on them, and three are checkered in various pastel colors and one is red. At the left of the banner a man in a wheelchair holds a blue flag. In the left back is a white banner with the words “Hongkingers in Germa Concern” on it, with some of the letters hidden by other flags.
Figure 15.32 In China, protesting the treatment of Uyghurs is strictly prohibited by the government. These marchers in Germany called attention to their plight in 2020. (credit: “Demonstration for the rights of the Uyghurs in Berlin 2020-01-19 09” by Leonhard Lenz/Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0)

Women and girls often face the brunt of violence when instability reigns or when states sponsor oppression against minorities. Both Rohingya and Uyghur women have described sexual abuse perpetrated by the state or with its tacit approval. In 2014, the world condemned the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram’s attack on a girl’s high school in Nigeria and its kidnapping of 276 mostly Christian female students, many of whom were forced into marriages with Boko Haram members or sold into sexual slavery. Those who escaped have described beatings, sexual assaults, and torture. While this event captured global attention, including from First Lady Michelle Obama, many similar kidnappings have occurred before and since with almost no international coverage at all (Figure 15.33).

A picture shows an African American woman standing holding a small white paper with “#Bring Back Our Girls” written on it in black ink. She has short wavy hair, large hoop earrings, a blue, red, and white flowered dress, and a diamond ring on her left hand. In the background a blurry room is shown with a tall desk, chair, benches, a lamp, and walls decorated with paintings of scenery. A large, glass chandelier hangs above her head in the background.
Figure 15.33 First Lady Michelle Obama brought much-needed attention to the kidnapping of girls in Africa when she posed for this photograph in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House in 2014. (credit: “First Lady Michelle Obama holding a sign reading "#bringbackourgirls"” by Michelle Obama, Office of the First Lady/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The situation of women in Afghanistan is particularly dire. Since retaking control of the country in August 2021 following the U.S. military’s departure, the Taliban has rolled back virtually all the once-protected civil rights of women and girls. Afghan women have been denied access to education, health care, and civil rights and the right to free expression, freedom of movement, and freedom of association. They are required to completely cover their bodies while outdoors and are routinely inspected by security officials to ensure they are properly clothed and in the company of a male relative. Because they are now restricted in the types of jobs they can hold, many Afghan women have found it difficult to earn enough money to support themselves or their families as they once did.

Dueling Voices

The Debate Over Veils and Head Coverings

Whether or not Muslim women should be required—or allowed—to wear veils or head coverings is a contentious issue. In some countries with Muslim-majority populations, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan, the law requires women to veil their heads and/or faces in public. In other Muslim countries, however, women can choose whether to do so.

Muslim women living in the West also must confront the question of whether to cover their heads and faces in public. Sometimes government authorities do not give them a choice. In 2004, France banned the wearing of veils in public schools, and in 2011 it banned veils that cover the entire face, as did Belgium. Women cannot work for the French government while veiled, nor can anyone wearing an overtly religious symbol such as a crucifix or skullcap. French authorities claim these bans ensure the secular nature of the French state, a bedrock principle dating from the French Revolution and enshrined in Article 1 of the French Constitution of 1958.

Supporters of women’s right to veil argue that such laws are a backlash against Muslim immigrants and disproportionately affect Muslim women, and they point out that French public schools celebrate Christian holidays. While conservative politicians generally support the bans, some liberals would prevent veiled women from working in day care centers, and the Socialist junior minister for women’s rights questioned whether veils should be allowed in universities.

Muslim women themselves are divided in their opinions. Some consider veils symbols of oppression and argue that they can be good Muslims without covering themselves. One New York City woman explained, “I am a Muslim woman, and I have never worn a veil, nor has my mother or her sisters. . . . While we are devoted to Islam, we believe that God exists on the inside and not in outward symbols that are too often thwarted and perverted by political interests.”

Many others voluntarily choose to wear veils or headscarves and do not feel pressured to do so. They consider them a symbol of their cultural identity or religious piety. One young Muslim American woman explained to the New York Times, “I chose to start wearing the veil three years ago, even though the girls in my family don’t. I chose to wear it myself after I studied Islam and thought it was a beautiful way to express my love for my religion and nothing more.”

  • Why did France ban full-face veils? Do you find the government’s arguments convincing?
  • Do you think banning religious symbols is the best way to achieve the separation of church and state? Why or why not?
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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax