When Children Speak Out

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Fourteen-year-old Malala Yosafzai recently became a notorious victim of Taliban oppression when gunmen opened fired on her bus on her route home from school in Mingora, Pakistan. Spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan acknowledged Taliban responsibility for the shooting and claimed that Malala would be targeted again if she survived. Her crime? As an outspoken advocate of education for girls, the Taliban claimed Malala was opposing mujahideen and propagating against Islam, actions they deemed, in this case, worthy of assassination.

An argument can be made that continual infringements upon the freedom of expression might warrant outside intervention. [1] Malala’s story provides a classic, and tragic, example of sheer disregard for the right to peacefully protest against government. Will the international community continue to let this type of abuse go unnoticed?

Malala began speaking out at an early age. The Taliban has systematically banned girl’s education in the Swat Valley region of Pakistan, Malala’s school district. At age eleven, she started an anonymous blog, published by BBC Urdu online, documenting her life under the oppressive Taliban regime, focusing on her inability to attend school. After being featured in a New York Times documentary, Class Dismissed, Malala’s identity was revealed and she became a full-scaled activist for women’s education, following in the footsteps of her father, Ziauddin. She received several recognitions for her work, including Pakistan’s National Youth Peace Prize. She continued to speak out in spite of several verbal death threats, which led to October’s assassination attempt.

What is the appropriate international response to this sort of violence? Does a verbal denunciation suffice? The UN Declaration of Human Rightssets forth freedom of speech, opinion and expression as a fundamental human right, [2] which has been blatantly abused in Malala’s case: a teenage activist given a death sentence for merely expressing the desire to attend school.

No clear consensus exists as to if and when human rights preempt state sovereignty. When the human rights atrocities of Kosovo were still in the forefront of the world’s mind, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty created the doctrine of “responsibility to protect.” [3] This says “sovereign states have a responsibility to protect their own citizens from avoidable catastrophe . . . but that when they are unwilling or unable to do so, that responsibility must be borne by the broader community of states.” [4]

How far does this doctrine reach? It has typically only been applied to grave human rights atrocities that clearly have an international effect. Never has it justified an intervention when a more “internal” right has been abused, such as freedom ofspeech. But if the international community considers these rights “fundamental,” then where does the threshold lie for intervention purposes?

Granted, if the international community determines that an intervention is necessary, the response must be proportionate to the harm. A military invasion will not always be warranted. In some cases an intervention using social media or outside news outlets might be the best way to counteract suppressions of expression. Another option is economic sanctioning. [5] Regardless of the method, the response should be swift, targeted, and effective. If we don’t have the responsibility to protect teenagers like Malala, then who?


[1] William Magnuson, The Responsibility to Protect and the Deadline of Sovereignty: Free Speech Protection Under International Law, 43 Vand. J. Transnat’l L. 255, 257-60 (2010).

[2] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Preamble and art 19, G.A. Res. 217A (III), U.N. Doc. A/810 at 71 (1948).

[3] Int’l Comm’n on Intervention and State Sovereignty, The Responsibility to Protect (2001), available at http://responsibilitytoprotect.org/ICISS%20Report.pdf.

[4] Id. at viii.

[5] Magnusun, supra n. 1, at 306-307.


Posted by Lindsey S. Frye on Fri. March 22, 2013 3:18 PM
Categories: International Human Rights

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