What will Become of Us?

Here at Just Atonement, we pay close attention to events taking place around the world that can help us accurately anticipate the future and achieve our twofold goal of protecting democratic institutions and mitigating the impact of climate change. Our primary concern lies with the world we are leaving for our children and we work every day to inform, inspire action, clarify principles, and light the way to a safer, wiser, and more sustainable future for all of us.

So when we encounter certain studies or face global events that relate to our goals, we often pause and ask: What does this mean for us? And sometimes the answer is far from simple.

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This week, we’re examining this study in the journal Nature, which provides evidence that Antarctic ice sheets are not only melting (which we already knew) but are melting much faster than researchers previously believed.

The rate of Antarctic ice loss has tripled since 2007. This is a difficult fact to process, specifically because no individual among us can take a quick, easy form of personal action that will have any impact on this melting rate within our lifetimes.

News and conversations about injustice, policy decisions, elections, and cultural trends can light a spark that can quickly flare into personal and collective change. But news about a melting continent doesn’t have the same effect. The scale is so massive and incomprehensible that no matter the context in which it’s presented, and no matter the metaphors and scaling mechanisms used to bring it into perspective, it still tends to produce one response in the recipient: paralysis. We stop moving, and we regain our ability to continue on with the day only when we decide to stop thinking about it.

Antarctica itself is a world that most of us will only ever see in our imaginations, and no youtube video can fully capture the spectacle of a collapsing ice sheet the size of Manhattan. So with that in mind, we’re asking for your support. Please let us know what this information means to you. How does it affect you as you hear it? Do you find it upsetting? Does it increase or diminish your urge to act, or spark an impulse to take protective action on behalf of yourself, your family, or the natural world? Are you awed, inspired, or unconcerned?

We are constantly amazed to find ourselves alive in an era in which we have so much control over the longevity and ultimate fate of the human race, compared to the control exercised by our ancestors. But how we will we use this control? How will we wield the remarkable tools available to us, the tools that allow us to understand how our actions impact the planet, and the tools that allow us to communicate with each other on a vast and rapid scale?

 Help us find answers to these questions by sharing your response to the news above. We’ll use your answers to guide our path forward.

Please leave a comment on our Facebook page, send us a message, or contact us directly.

The United Nations and Water Management

As the planet warms, scientific communities and governments around the world are working to identify and stay ahead of the major areas of concern that will result from this change first, second, and third.

For example, here at Just Atonement, we recognize that what begins as a global temperature increase will eventually result in shifting patterns of human movement and migration; as sea levels rise and natural resources expire in some areas and open up in others, human beings will move across the planet from one place to another in large numbers. These population shifts will lead to cultural collisions and mergers that may be impossible to accurately predict, but it’s our obligation to anticipate this upheaval all the same and make an effort to identify what these seismic shifts will require of us as a civilization.

Another widely-recognized—but still unpredictable—global flashpoint relates to water and water resource management. While much attention has been devoted to the issue of rising sea levels and flooding, massive droughts are an equally imminent aspect of rising temperatures and shifting ecosystems. India (home to about 1.3 billion people, or about one fifth of the global population) is now experiencing what the government identifies as the worst water crisis in its history. Read more here.

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So our question for the moment is: How does the United Nations address issues related to water distribution? Water is essential to human life, and access to drinkable clean water is a fundamental human right, one that is often controlled and disrupted by policy, politics and class divisions around the world.

The United Nations has no single specific entity dedicated exclusively to water issues. Because water concerns run through almost every one of the organization’s major efforts to sustain peace and to protect human rights and the global rule of law, water and sanitation programs are distributed among about 30 programs under the UN’s aegis, and their shared efforts are coordinated by a group called UN Water and its partners, who work to facilitate communication between these diverse entities.

UN Water: 1.) monitors and reports on the water-related actions of these 30 groups 2.) provides data that informs policy decisions, and 3.) inspires action.

The members and partners of UN Water support each connected entity in combined efforts to build sustainability agendas, create disaster risk reduction frameworks, secure financing for development, and anticipate climate change.

To learn more about UN Water’s goals and accomplishments since the 1970’s, please check out their homepage here: http://www.unwater.org/about-unwater/

And for a simple breakdown of each of the key dimensions of global water and sanitation issues, please click here. http://www.unwater.org/water-facts/

What is Populism?

Every now and then, a highly recognizable but not well understood term sidles into our discourse and becomes a household word, invoked by everyone from candidates on the trail to analysts who we rely on to explain complex social and political systems. We’ve seen this happen with words like “recession” and “healthcare reform”, and any number of “isms” that are used as an insult in one sentence and a proud political identity in the next.

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Right now, a dangerous form of populism appears to be on the rise in vulnerable areas of Europe and South America. But before we can attempt to understand these trends or determine what they foretell, we should agree on what the term means.

And the most important thing to recognize about this word is simple: It doesn’t really mean anything. There is no concrete or specific definition that ties the word to any political agenda. A “populist” is not a fascist, a conservative, a liberal, or an anarchist. A populist is not “popular”. The term doesn’t refer to any specific location on the ideological spectrum from left to right; rather, it refers to a strategic approach to a political goal, not the goal itself.

No matter what they hope to achieve, populists target their appeal to what they see as “the people”, or the many, instead of the “elite”, or the few. They often strive to ingratiate themselves with large majority factions that believe they have been overlooked or ignored by policy makers. Populists are not pluralists. Instead of embracing a multicultural audience, they target a single group within the audience and reassure the members of that group that they have value, often promising to restore a sense of identity and influence that the group members believe they have lost.

Why is this approach so problematic? What could be dangerous about promising to dismantle elite, exclusive institutions that benefit the rich at the expense of the poor? Because this strategy often turns the destructive, dismantling energy of “the people” against two entities that are easily vilified: minorities and the rule of law.

The populist approach also historically brings out the worst in all of us. Populism tends to leverage and exploit some of the weaker elements in our souls: fear of outsiders and immigrants, fear of those who don’t look like we do, distrust of the media, and distrust of anything aligned with “the elite”, including higher education and seemingly oppressive institutions (like banks and courts). If we are members of the target audience, populism promises simple solutions that will fix all of “our” problems. The solutions seem easy to understand and easy to implement, and they often appear to be rooted in a kind of homespun common sense. Unfortunately, these simple fixes place the blame for complex societal and economic problems at the feet of easily-maligned systems and people—like immigrants, women, vulnerable minorities, the disabled, and the very poor, as well as more abstract entities that still make easy targets, like “science”, “politicians” and “the rich”.

How do we avoid falling under the sway of populist appeals? We can start by distrusting quick fixes that seem too simple to be true. And how do we recognize the rise of populist leaders in areas and countries that are not our own? We can look for certain hallmarks, like direct appeals to members of threatened majority groups, easy promises that soothe personal fears and grievances, and passionate speeches that are long on fear-mongering and short on policy and substance. All of us are vulnerable to the influence of populist messaging—regardless of our personal group identities or our position on a wealth or political spectrum. We all have a responsibility to stand guard against the flawed and dangerous implications of these types of appeals. Learn more by clicking here, here, or here.

Venezuelan Security Forces Avoid Accountability

On Friday, the United Nations human rights office released a report calling on the government of Venezuela to seek justice for the victims of a recent wave of extrajudicial killings. During these events, security forces have swept through poor neighborhoods in Venezuelan cities in what have been officially called “crime fighting operations”.

Between July 2015 and March 2017, officers for the Operation for the Liberation of the People, carrying out an apparent crime reduction initiative, have moved through streets and entered homes, killing over 500 people. Most of the targets of these killings have been young men. In many cases, according to the UN report, evidence has been staged to make it look as though the killings took place after an exchange of fire.

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The officers involved in the killings have been granted immunity and none have faced charges.

The UN has called for an investigation into these killings and representatives have proposed the involvement of the International Criminal Court, but so far, UN investigators have been denied access to Venezuela and have based their findings on interviews with victims and witnesses.

Some of the evidence has been provided by exiled former Attorney General Luisa Ortega.

Increasingly authoritarian president Nicolas Maduro has led the country into a spiral of recession and hyperinflation, and as Venezuela’s currency loses value, hunger and discontent have sparked unrest and uncertainty. Maduro has responded to the UN report by calling the accusations of unaccountability “lies” and blaming the country’s economic strife on recently imposed US oil sanctions.

The UN report has been released just the United States has announced plans to leave the UN

Human Rights Council, of which Venezuela is still a member.

Last year alone, about 125 Venezuelan people died in anti-government protests. Inquiries into these deaths and those caused by the 2015-2017 sweeps both fall to the Bureau for scientific, criminal and forensic investigations, but the bureau is also allegedly responsible for these killings.

The lack of accountability for those involved, and the economically unstable and increasingly authoritarian climate of Venezuela, mark a path toward humanitarian crisis, a path that has been accelerated by Maduro’s questionable electoral victory earlier this spring. It remains to be seen how the member nations of the Human Rights Council will respond, but the US has limited its influence over this response by withdrawing its participation.

The combination of authoritarian governments and economic instability often place nations on a path toward systemic human rights violations. And as this progression takes place, we often see familiar signs: pushback and defensive posturing on the part of a challenged or illegitimate leader, immunity for officials who carry out crimes against civilians, and the state’s refusal to cooperate with international bodies, including investigators.

We anticipate another well-known hallmark will result from this ongoing spiral: a refugee crisis. Emigration will likely accelerate from Venezuela to surrounding states, and those who leave will likely reach US borders before the crisis is resolved. Our level of preparation will determine whether this influx can be absorbed and our response can earn the respect of the global community, or if our current chaotic and inhumane approach at the southern border will still be prevalent at that time.

Families Separated at the Border: How to Take Action

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Last week, we discussed the announcement by the United Nations regarding the Trump administration policy of separating asylum-seeking families at the US border. At that time, the UN had recently called out the practice as a violation of human rights, and an already-high profile and much-discussed situation has received a growing level of attention during the intervening week.

The elements of the policy are reviewed in detail by Vox, here in a helpful breakdown that discusses the realities of the situation and dispels some false narratives before they take root.  

But many of us still have questions about the policy, the practice, its execution, and what we can personally do to take action on behalf of those who have been harmed by these events. Here’s a quick set of questions and answers that may be helpful.

Are children really being pulled from the arms of their asylum-seeking parents at the border? Or is this an exaggeration of real events or a burst of new attention being focused on a long-standing practice?

Yes, children are being separated from their parents. And yes, this form of enforcement has arrived with the Trump administration and is part of a newly established “zero-tolerance” mandate explained in the link above. It is actually happening, and it wasn’t happening before October of 2017. Many of those who have been separated from their children are forthright asylum seekers who have committed no crimes and broken no laws.

I have a specific question. How can I get to the source?

Contact the Us Department of Health and Human Services (https://www.hhs.gov/), which runs the Administration for Children and Families (https://www.acf.hhs.gov/), which manages the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

I want to help these children directly. I am a lawyer/journalist/prospective foster parent/non-profit organization/community leader/ etc. What do I do?

If you are a lawyer or if you wish to donate to groups providing direct aid to separated families, please click here for a list of organizations that need your help.

(This excellent article is regularly updated with new groups and new actions, so check back in again later.)

To reach the “Unaccompanied Alien Children’s Services” program within the ORR, contact the ORR main office by calling here: 202-401-9246.

If you speak fluent Spanish, Mam, Q’eqchi’ or K’iche’ AND have a paralegal background, contact the Texas Civil Rights Project here. www.texascivilrightsproject.org.

Should I call my representative?

Yes, call your senators and representative and ask them to support the Help Separated Children Act. Read this article in the New York Times for more information on proposed legislation.

Shouldn’t we be protesting in the streets?

Yes. Many large protests happened around the country last week, but go online and explore your community to find upcoming scheduled events near you. You can also organize a protest yourself.

All I can do is donate. Where do I go?

The Slate article above lists several organizations that can help, but you can start here with the Texas Civil Rights Project https://texascivilrightsproject.org/ and the ACLU.

Is there anything else I can do?

Yes. You can register and vote during the upcoming midterm elections, and you can join campaigns and support democratic candidates in challenged districts. Become a paid staff member, or just volunteer a few minutes of your time each week.

Meanwhile, check in with Just Atonement and join our efforts to take a legal stand on behalf of those who are harmed by policies and corporate actions that benefit institutions and the wealthy at the expense of the most vulnerable among us. 

Single-Use Plastics: a Global Crisis

On and around June 5th, The United Nations promotes a host of activities related to World Environment Day. This year, countries around the globe are hosting public service messages, ad campaigns, and massive community clean-ups—including a giant citizen-run cleanup operation organized to remove litter from the rivers and river banks behind the Taj Mahal.

Here’s a series of videos created in honor of a single day that we hope will keep the spirit of respect and preservation alive throughout the year.

This June, many of these large and small community efforts around the world have been focused on one of the most serious environmental threats facing the planet, a threat that each individual person can influence by changing their own habits and actions: single-use plastic pollution.

A growing number of municipalities and nations are considering legislative action that bans the manufacture of single-use plastics, but so far, not quite enough of these laws have been put into practice. In most of the world, it still falls to individuals to make responsible choices and turn away from plastic cups, bags, food containers, cutlery and straws in favor of reusable options.

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Plastic doesn’t biodegrade, so every plastic object that is used and thrown away remains intact…somewhere. There are two possible destinations for a discarded straw or plastic bottle: on land or in the ocean.

Ocean pollution has become an international crisis that threatens marine ecosystems and spreads to every continent. The circulation of oxygen and maintenance of all life on the planet both begin with the oceans, and the spread of non-biodegradable ocean garbage is a tragedy with effects that have been underestimated for decades. The global community is beginning to take notice and act, though it remains to be seen if this action will be enough.

Plastics accumulating on land are creating an equally serious threat, as those who live near New Delhi landfills can testify.

As of this June, India is officially making plans to ban single use plastic by 2022 which will set an example for other developed nations drowning in their own garbage. In the meantime, please join our team as we follow the actions of UN member nations who celebrate the spirit of World Environment Day.

Family Separation at the US Border: The UN Finally Speaks Out

The practice of separating families—including the removal of very young children from the custody of their parents—has put into place by two immigration-related executive orders passed in January of 2017, then formally announced by attorney general Jeff Sessions in May of 2018. These policies have been implemented by the Trump administration, despite claims by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency that the administration “does not have a blanket policy on separating families as a deterrent” to would-be asylum seekers. (And despite claims by Trump himself that the practice existed before 2017).

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Some confusion has arisen over this policy and practice during the month that has elapsed between the attorney general’s announcement and the present, with slightly misleading statements made and parsed regarding the “loss” of approximately 1,400 children who were placed in the care of sponsors who later could not be reached for updates on their welfare or whereabouts.

But while the argument can be made that children placed with sponsors can’t and should not be tracked by federal agencies, one disturbing aspect of this jumbled narrative is clear: Since October of 2017, several hundred children of Central American asylum seekers have been forcibly removed from their parents—without recourse or explanation-- as part of a “zero tolerance” illegal immigration policy and the resulting criminal prosecutions applied to those who cross “irregularly”. These separations have been overtly used as a deterrent by the Trump administration, and as of June 5, 2018, the United Nations has formally spoken out against the practice.

United Nations human rights office spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani called upon the United States to immediately halt the practice as she spoke to reporters in Geneva. “The practice of separating families amounts to arbitrary and unlawful interference in family life, and is a serious violation of the rights of the child. The use of immigration detention and family separation as a deterrent runs counter to human rights standards and principles,” she said.

Shamdasani made clear that this form of family separation flouts international human rights laws, to which the US is subject.

As it happens, this formal announcement has been released days after Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley attempted to visit an immigration detention center in Texas and was denied access, during a video taped scene in which the Senator was mysteriously forbidden from entering the facility, a former Wal-Mart with blacked out windows. No explanations have yet been provided and no information has been shared regarding who occupies the building and what conditions exist inside.

The UN announcement may result in an increased attempt to provide transparency or course corrections, but this is a disturbing turn of events in a nation with an otherwise positive record regarding democracy and respect for human rights. Join us as we follow these unfolding events.

Extreme Poverty in the United States: Present and Future

For generations, the United States has been viewed from the outside as one of the world’s wealthier nations, a place where anyone willing to take advantage of available educational resources and employment opportunities could gain access—at a minimum—to basic necessities like shelter, nutrition, electricity and plumbing.

This attitude and these assumptions have been just as pervasive among those who live within the US. The belief that “real” poverty is absent from the fabric of American life has been persistent, even during a dramatic two-decade rise in income inequality. In the United States, many believe that the poorest of the poor are protected by a basic safety net that keeps them from disappearing through the cracks—a net that provides supplemental nutritional support, free K-12 education, access to subsidized medical care, and refuge for those who find themselves homeless.

But this is simply not the case. And now, attacks on an already fraying, sometimes non-existent web of resources for those at the lowest end of the income spectrum have presented a growing segment of the population with literally nowhere to turn when hardship strikes. With the arrival of the current administration, even the thinnest fibers of stability, nutrition, safety and shelter are being aggressively dismantled.

The United States: Human Rights, Extreme Poverty, and Unmet Obligations

Philip Alston is a UN Special Rapporteur who observes and reports on poverty conditions among UN member nations, and his role involves visiting specific states (in 2017, the US) and reporting to the Council on “the extent to which the government’s policies and programs relating to extreme poverty are consistent with its human rights obligations, and to offer constructive recommendations to the government and other stakeholders.”

Did the United States Pass the Test?

Here is the text of Alston’s Report. The report’s introductory summary is short and direct and its two-fold message is clear: First, poverty and its ancillary effects (poor health, shorter lifespans, higher infant mortality rates, and lower engagement in the democratic process) are more prevalent in the United States than most other countries in the developed world. Our performance is dismal. And second, the Trump administration’s dramatic change in policy direction serves to exacerbate these problems and generate a radical redistribution of wealth and stability from the poor to the extremely well-off.

New tax policies disproportionately benefit the wealthiest 1% percent of the population while continuing the steady decrease in income share for the bottom 90%. This, combined with an aggressive dismantling of the social safety net and an active campaign of deregulation that removes basic protections from the daily lives of the lower and middle class, bode very poorly for already stagnant wages, diminishing employment opportunities, and limited health care access for most of the country.

In order to create this report, Philip Alston visited with and collected data from members of congress and government officials at all levels. He also took an extensive journey through American cities and rural areas and gained first hand access to the lives, homes and stories of people at all class levels, including those who live day-to-day in extreme poverty.

Review this article from the Guardian for descriptive accounts and a few photos of those he met with during this process, and join us as we work to counter the impact of these inexplicably cruel and destructive policy decisions.  

A UN Special Criminal Court in the Central African Republic

In 2012, conflict between Christian militia members and a mostly Muslim rebel coalition in the Central African Republic (CAR) descended into what the UN defines as a civil war. In January of 2013, a peace agreement was reached, but the agreement collapsed just two months later as rebels seized the capital city of Bangui and forced the president, Francois Bozize, to flee.

Since that time, violent conflict has mired the CAR in a humanitarian and political crisis that has left the most vulnerable citizens—including children, the ill, and the poor—in need of security, nutrition and healthcare.  As of May 2018, one in four people in the country have been internally displaced, and the boundaries of this displacement now include central and northern areas that were formerly peaceful.

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Severe malnutrition and high infant mortality are serious concerns, but beyond these issues lie longer term problems; an entire generation of displaced children are not currently enrolled in school, which can have an impact that lasts far beyond the resolution of the conflict.

In 2014, the United Nations Security Council authorized a stabilization mission with the

protection of vulnerable citizens as its first priority. In addition to nutritional support, water access, and other humanitarian aid, when a burst of violence erupted in the capital earlier this year, UN troops were forced to intervene to prevent Muslim citizens from being denied healthcare access.

Najat Rochdi, UN Humanitarian Coordinator for CAR, spoke at a recent press conference in Geneva, emphasizing the depth and urgency of the crisis. She described a 70% percent increase in displacement in one year’s time, which runs at odds with 2017 funding levels that reached only 40 percent of what had been requested. Even so, the UN has managed to provide water access to one million people and educational support to 60,000 children. 70,000 farm families have received a seed allocation, and 17,000 small children suffering from acute malnutrition have been provided with intervention.

Also during her conference, Ms. Rochdi described the efforts of militia members to pressure the government to grant them amnesty. The UN has established a Special Criminal Court to deal with individual cases and, starting in early June, this court will work to prevent impunity for humanitarian crimes. The court will begin by addressing the cases of high profile militia group leaders, who are often responsible for attacks on aid workers in what is now considered one of the world’s most dangerous places for humanitarians.

What lies at the heart of the conflict and fuels the ongoing violence? The country’s natural wealth—gold, diamonds, and uranium-- mark the locations that experience the highest levels of strife. According to Ms. Rochdi, no problems exist in areas where there is “nothing to steal”.

Join us as we follow the early actions of the Special Criminal Court and the evolution of this ongoing crisis.

Water in the West: The Summer of 2018

For several years, researchers, agricultural managers, ecologists and a variety of experts have been monitoring water usage in the west and southwest with some concern. Most of the municipal and agricultural water used between New Mexico and Colorado flows from two sources. The first is the Colorado River (including Lake Powell and Lake Mead which frame the Grand Canyon and nourish populations all the way to Southern California). And the second source--the Rio Grande--supplies water for vast agricultural and community use in southern states from California to Texas.

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Increasing water requirements and agricultural demands have strained both of these two water resources for a long time, but so far, management and distribution practices have allowed the water to continue flowing throughout the summer months of highest need. Though the Rio Grande drops precipitously during these months, the water is typically replenished by the heavy snowpack that melts and flows from the Rocky Mountains every spring. It’s a cycle that repeats every two years; this year’s river water tends to represent last year’s melting snow.

In 2018, a cycle of consistently warming winters has taken a toll on the snowpack. An unusually warm, dry winter has reduced runoff from the Utah and Colorado land masses that typically direct that water into Lake Powell. Water level predictions for 2018 are among the worst in the last 54 years.

At the same time, the Rio Grande is drying with unusual speed this spring. In a typical year, the river levels drop and the mighty Rio Grande becomes unable to sustain heavy agricultural use by October. But this year, the water is already vanishing in May and will be expected to dry up by July, too early for farmers in the region who depend on the river to carry them through the full growing season. While late summer monsoons typically supplement the river and help growers finish the summer, the monsoons are notoriously unpredictable. This year, farmers may find it difficult to survive if they don’t show up.

Since the cycle of snow-to-river takes two years, not one, this year’s reduced snowpack will be felt more heavily in 2019. And as a result of heavy monsoon rains in 2016, Rio Grande reservoirs are high enough right now to partially mitigate concerns for the current year. But this year will provide a testing ground for future seasons in our current pattern of steadily rising global temperatures and shrinking water resources across the west. How we manage the summer of 2018 may help us predict and plan for potential water crises that may influence agricultural production and population fluctuations in the area during the decade ahead.