In a week of bleak news, three ambitious recent reforms—in Colombia, Cuba, and India—offer some hope of greater human dignity, peace, and equality for the world ahead.
With Russia having formally annexed four occupied regions in Ukraine after a series of sham referendums, to strong rebuke and promises of escalating consequences from the EU and NATO, one can be forgiven for thinking this was an altogether bleak week. (The recent press of an extreme hurricane in Florida, and ongoing energy grid destabilization in Europe didn’t help.)
But the world contains multitudes, and there were some exceptional steps forward elsewhere. Here are three highly progressive actions, which serve as reminders that change for the better is always possible:
Colombia’s total peace initiative
Gustavo Petro has been president of Colombia for a month and a half, and in that time has initiated a range of ambitious changes. He quickly retired 52 senior military and police officials connected to human rights violations. He announced an end to mandatory military service for the country’s youth and introduced a plan for social service alternatives: to aid in environmental reforms, improve rural literacy, support war veterans and victims, and implement other aspects of the 2016 peace treaty. And this week, he’s officially launched a promised “total peace” that involves 10 armed groups coming to collective ceasefire.
What makes this total peace particularly striking is that it includes not just politically motivated paramilitaries like dissidents of FARC, but also drug cartels like Clan del Golfo. It further calls for dismantling Colombia’s notorious anti-riot unit, ESMAD, which has caused great violence especially in rural and Indigenous regions. As Commissioner for the Peace Danilo Rueda told reporters (in Spanish):
Each group, with its own identity, nature, and motivation, is expressing its inclination to be part of this “total peace”. In this exploratory phase they have been asked not to kill, vanish, or torture anyone, and we’re going from there.
Opening negotiations with the ELN, the most prominent guerrilla group in Colombia today, remains a separate affair. The ELN was not in favor of Petro’s total peace, but there are still strong signs of its willingness to come to the table and talk terms. Although these are early days yet, the willingness of so many armed groups to consider diplomatic solutions comes on the back of Colombia’s long history with peace processes. The road to this point was paved by generations of experience in surmounting adversarial models and imagining more lasting societal reforms.
Cuba’s comprehensive family code
To read early Western reports on Cuba’s latest referendum, wherein 67 percent of voters passed a new “family code” on September 25, you’d think the only major reform it contained was legalizing same-sex marriage. But the full legal measure, which contains over 400 articles, is far more ambitious. It expands familial protections to grandparents, strengthens state commitment against elder abuse, domestic abuse, and the abuse of disabled people, elevates homemaker and parental labor to more protected categories under the law, and advocates for the rights of children to have a stronger say in their lives as they grow up.
It truly is a “family first” model, which recognizes that whatever family arrangement one has, one should be entitled to equal protection from abuse and discrimination under the law. And the possibilities accounted for under this legislation are immense. As Liz Conde Sánchez of Radio Cubana noted (in Spanish), the new code acknowledges a cultural shift from just “Traditional” to more “Emergent” family structures in Cuba, with the latter including
mixed or blended familes (complex multi-familial units); non-cohabitating unions; families in a transnational situation (when one of the family members migrates, but maintains their family ties); [families] with a guardian who holds a sexually diverse identity [LGBTQ+]; and similar.“The Cuban family has changed, and the new Code supports it”
Professor Ana María Álvarez Tabío went further, in her earlier defense of the Family Code before the referendum, by calling it “The code that Cuban families deserve”. Why? Because (in Spanish)
Recognition of the equality of all persons under the law implies [that they receive] the same protection in the enjoyment of rights, liberties, and opportunities, with no discrimination due to any personal condition or circumstance that might amount to [a difference in outcome] harmful to human dignity.
The right to a person’s free development protects each person in choosing how they construct their own lives, so that they can decide the meaning of their existence in accordance with their own values, ideas, expectations, and desires.
No other legal document in the world is quite as comprehensive in its attention to all the possible arrangements of human beings that might need state redress to protect individual rights and to defend against abuse. (Yet.)
India’s Supreme Court
In a surprising win for women’s rights in India, the country’s top court ruled on Thursday, September 29 that all women were entitled to the same access to abortion care, up to 24 weeks. Previously, single women were not allowed access to the procedure. And before 2021? Even a married woman, if ever divorced or widowed, could not access the procedure. Similar was upheld if raped, a minor, or mentally ill.
In few other places has anti-abortion legislation been quite as overt about its primary function: stigmatizing female persons who have any sexual experience (voluntarily, or by force) that deviates from that which is found in a single relationship with a male spouse. But the language in this latest judgment is extraordinary in its leap forward. Under a context-building section reflecting on the original Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act from 1971, today’s justices noted the following:
Before we embark upon a discussion on the law and its application, it must be mentioned that we use the term “woman” in this judgment as including persons other than cis-gender women who may require access to safe medical termination of their pregnancies.(Page 9)
They then later added that
[m]arried women may also form part of the class of survivors of sexual assault or rape. The ordinary meaning of the word ‘rape’ is sexual intercourse with a person, without their consent or against their will, regardless of whether such forced intercourse occurs in the context of matrimony. A woman may become pregnant as a result of non-consensual sexual intercourse performed upon her by her husband. We would be remiss in not recognizing that intimate partner violence is a reality and can take the form of rape. The misconception that strangers are exclusively or almost exclusively responsible for sex- and gender-based violence is a deeply regrettable one. Sex- and gender-based violence (in all its forms) within the context of the family has long formed a part of the lived experiences of scores of women.(Page 45)
In short, this historic judgment not only responds to issues specific to the case brought before this three-judge panel, but also anticipates and ensures greater dignity for people in a variety of related scenarios in need of medical and legal redress. In a year that has elsewhere seen reproductive health issues take a huge legal turn for the worse, Indian Supreme Court lawyer Karan Nundy’s comment on this decision might also offer comfort for world watchers. After all,
“Internationally, judgments affect each other—and this is a landmark one because it recognizes a woman’s right over her body and reproductive freedom regardless of what governments and legislatures might say.”
May such legal and societal tides ever turn in human dignity’s favor.