News You May Have Missed (15-21 February 2015)

Photo from Muslim Public Affairs Council's Facebook page
Photo from Muslim Public Affairs Council’s Facebook page

A weekly roundup of the human rights news items that I’m following that I think deserve a little more attention.

More than 1000 Muslims formed a human shield around a synagogue in Oslo, NORWAY on February 21  in response to an attack on a synagogue in Denmark last weekend.  Chanting “No to anti-Semitism, no to Islamophobia,” an estimated 1200-1400 Norwegian Muslims formed a “ring of peace” around the synagogue, offering symbolic protection for the city’s Jewish community.  See video coverage on the NRK website here.  One of the speakers in the video is 17-year-old Hajrah Asrhad, one of the event’s organizers.

Children began returning to classrooms in LIBERIA this week after seven months of closure due to the Ebola epidemic.  Education is key to development and improving human rights, so the schools are being reopened but UNICEF and its partners are putting in place safety measures to minimize the potential risk of transmission of the virus.  Safety measures, including taking children’s temperatures when they arrive to school and making them wash their hands before entering the classroom, have been successfully used in GUINEA, where more than 1.3 million children have returned to school since January. Nearly all of Guinea’s more than 12,000 schools are now open, and school attendance is at 85 per cent of pre-Ebola attendance, according to data collected by the Ministry of Education and UNICEF.  Following Guinea’s experience, UNICEF has worked closely with the Liberian government and local communities to develop similar safety protocols. Teachers have been trained to implement and monitor the safety measures, soap and other hygiene materials have been distributed.  

Beginning last summer, UNICEF collaborated with Liberian musicians to conduct mass mobilization campaigns on Ebola prevention nationwide.  In case you missed it, here is one example from August 2014:

The International Labour Organization (ILO) spotlighted recent progress in the fight against child labour in KOSOVO, where children as young as 10 are forced to work on garbage dumps or in the fields harvesting grapes and onions, risking their health.   Since March 2013, members of the Kosovo Chamber of Commerce are obliged to observe the ILO’s four fundamental labour principles, including the elimination of child labour.  So far, 40 members of the Chamber of Commerce have adopted codes of conduct on combating child labour in their supply chains and communities. In addition, occupational safety and health issues will be mainstreamed into the compulsory education (grades 8-9) and upper secondary school curricula.

Turkish men aren’t known for wearing skirts. But they are turning out in large numbers in Istanbul later to protest about violence against women in TURKEY.

Men in mini skirts campaign
Men in mini skirts campaign

They’re joining others outraged by the murder of 20-year-old Ozgecan Aslan who was abducted on 11 February and killed for apparently trying to prevent a bus driver from raping her.

In the UNITED STATES, a federal jury has awarded $14 million in compensatory and punitive damages to five Indian guest workers who were defrauded and exploited in a labor trafficking scheme engineered by Gulf Coast marine services company Signal, an immigration lawyer and an Indian labor recruiter who lured hundreds of workers to a MISSISSIPPI shipyard with false promises of permanent U.S. residency. The trial was the first in a series of cases spearheaded by the Southern Poverty Law Center that together comprise one of the largest labor trafficking cases in U.S. history. 

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Signal used the U.S. government’s H-2B guest worker program to import nearly 500 men from India to work as welders, pipefitters and in other positions to repair damaged oil rigs and related facilities. Under the guest worker program, workers are not allowed to change jobs if they are abused but face the loss of their investment if they are fired or quit.

The plaintiffs in this case are Jacob Joseph Kadakkarappally, Hemant Khuttan, Padaveettiyl, Sulekha and Palanyandi Thangamani.  Each paid the labor recruiters and a lawyer between $10,000 and $20,000 or more in recruitment fees and other costs after recruiters promised good jobs, green cards and permanent U.S. residency for them and their families. Most sold property or plunged their families deeply into debt to pay the fees.

When the men arrived at Signal shipyards in Pascagoula, MISSISSIPPI, they discovered that they wouldn’t receive the green cards or permanent residency that had been promised. Signal also forced them each to pay $1,050 a month to live in isolated, guarded labor camps where as many as 24 men shared a space the size of a double-wide trailer. None of Signal’s non-Indian workers were required to live in the company housing.  An economist who reviewed Signal’s records estimated the company saved more than $8 million in labor costs by hiring the Indian workers at below-market wages.

Pro bono legal representation was provided in this case by Southern Poverty Law Center, Crowell & Moring, LLP, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Sahn Ward Coschignano & Baker, and the Louisiana Justice Institute.

An estimated 93 million children (1 in 20 up to age 14) worldwide live with a moderate or severe disability. #Draw Disability is a new global campaign launched by the United Nations Secretary-General’s Global Education First Initiative (GEFI), in partnership with the Global Observatory for Inclusion (GLOBI) and theUnited Nations Global Education First Initiative Youth Advocacy Group (GEFI-YAG).

The campaign has two main objectives: 1) To encourage dialogue and raise awareness on disability and related issues among teachers and learners within educational environments. 2) To create a global art project focused on disability. Schools from all over the planet are encouraged to get involved in the project. Teachers can use the #DrawDisability guidelines to promote critical reflections and awareness on disability within the classroom (guidelines are available in Spanish, French and English).  Children with and without disabilities are encouraged to #DrawDisability. Drawings can portray their understanding and feelings towards disability and related issues, such as accessibility, inclusion and discrimination.

All drawings received will be uploaded and displayed on a website and shared on social networks using the hashtag #DrawDisability. Early submissions by April 1, 2015 are highly encouraged as selected drawings will be showcased at the World Education Forum in May 2015 in Incheon, SOUTH KOREA, and the Conference of States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (COSP-CRPD) in June 2015 New York, USA. The final deadline for all submissions will be July 15, 2015. Check out submission information here.  

We Do Photocopy Here

"We do photocopy here."
“WE DO PHOTOCOPY HERE”

I really love this photo, which I took at the University of Liberia in Monrovia in February, 2008.  I love it because it of the sheer entrepreneurial spirit that you often witness in post-conflict societies.

The photocopy entrepreneur was not there on that day, but you can bet your bottom dollar that students on campus knew when s/he would be there to provide the services they needed.  Although I have always wondered whether it was possible that the photocopier somehow managed to bring a photocopy machine to this spot by the electric pole.  What do YOU think?

In response to The Daily Post’s weekly photo challenge: “Express Yourself.”

Abandoned Buildings in Post-Conflict West Africa

hotel africaHotel Africa in Virginia, Liberia

The Hotel Africa, built in a beach resort area north of Monrovia, was once a 5-star grand hotel.  It was built to impress  as the location of the 1979  Organisation of African Unity  summit.  (The pool was made in the shape of the African continent.)  Just a few months after the Hotel Africa hosted the OAU, however,  Liberia’s President William R. Tolbert, Jr. was overthrown by  Samuel Doe.  From 1979 to 2003, Liberia was engulfed in violent conflict too complicated to detail here.

Stories about the historic Hotel Africa abound; many of them parallel the violence that was happening in the country at large.  For example, the hotel’s owner  was kidnapped in 1990 by the rebel Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia. They allegedly murdered him by throwing him off the fourth floor balcony.

By the time I visited the Hotel Africa in 2008, it had been bombed, burned, and stripped bare of everything that could possibly have a value.

Abandoned.

burned building Sierra LeoneKono District, Sierra Leone

This is a photo of the remains of a building in the Kono district that was burned by the rebel Revolutionary United Front during the conflict in Sierra Leone. I’ve heard so many personal stories of escape and of loss that I assume this was once the private home of a family with means.  But it could just as easily have been a government building.

The conflict in Sierra Leone left so many destroyed buildings. Not to mention lives.

gas stationMonrovia, Liberia

In Monrovia, buildings destroyed in the conflict loom gloomily as people go about the process of rebuilding their lives in the midst of the rubble. This photo was taken at a gas station.  Like many resourceful Liberians, they were also selling “pure and safe drinking water”.  But the thing I like about this photo is this – if you look closely at the larger building above, you can see laundry hanging out to dry. Life springs up inexorably, like blades of grass in the spring.

In post-conflict West Africa, the abandoned buildings hold more than just memories.

Weekly Photo Challenge:  Abandoned

Weekly Writing Challenge: Threes

How Do You Define Family?

Liberian brothers at the Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana.

A Few Reflections On How We Define “Family”

We had just dropped off my old friend Erik and his unwieldy crew at the airport, when my daughter Eliza let out a dramatic sigh from the back of the minivan.

“It’s pretty much BORING without our cousins!”

Curious, I launched into a lengthy cross-examination to determine why she thought they were our blood relations. She went along with the questioning for a while, mumbling one syllable responses out of the corner of her mouth as she gazed morosely out the window at a long, undulating line of sunflowers. Some kind person, in the interest of beauty, had planted them along the highway.  Now they were more than six feet tall, so large that you could almost see the Fibonacci sequences in their bright spirals. Even from a minivan with a six-year-old pouting in her booster seat in the back.

After several miles of this, Eliza suddenly sucked in air until her cheeks were full.  She then blew it all out, frustration personified.  I watched her in the rearview mirror as she put everything in her small, defiant being into these words:

 “Because!  I just FEEL like they are.”

How do you define family?  Is it common ancestry? Shared experiences?  Mutual commitment? Living in the same household? Common values?  The people you know you can count on for support? The people you know you can get into a knock-down-drag-out fight with but they’ll still love you?  People who you feel deeply connected to even though you rarely see them?  All of the above?  Or none of them at all?

The boys in the photo above are brothers I met at the Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana.   Their mother Kebbeh considers them her sons, although only the oldest is her biological son.   The younger boy and his little brother (not pictured) are her neighbor’s sons.   The neighbor had gone back to Liberia with the first wave of resettled refugees, with the promise  to send for the boys after she got settled. They never heard from her again.   Post-conflict Liberia was dangerous, so they fear the worst.  But they really don’t know what happened to her.   So Kebbeh is raising the boys as her own, feeding and caring for them, sending them to school.  They are family.

When I was in Buduburam, I met a woman called Ma Fatu who ran a cook shop on the main thoroughfare of the camp where many of the refugee-owned businesses were.   The street had no name, of course, but the Liberian refugees called it “Wall Street” because so many financial transactions were made there.  Ma Fatu has a feisty personality.   I think she would have  been equally at home as the proprietor of a saloon in the Wild West or a grogshop in Regency England.  She took a lot of pride in her cooking and in knowing her customers.  She’d eye me critically as I tucked into my jollof rice and say, “I know what you white people like to eat.” Then, the next day, she would dish me up a heaping serving of jollof vermicelli.

I had noticed that there were several young people helping in the cook shop, washing dishes, waiting tables, whatever needed to be done.  It was only on my second trip to Buduburam that someone told me that they were not actually her children.  During the war in Liberia, her husband and her biological children – her entire family – had been killed.  Over the years at Budububuram, she had taken in several young people who had also lost everyone.   In the face of all this loss, Ma Fatu had created a new family.  In a refugee camp – miles from home and without even the possibility of legal recognition – she had forged familial bonds of love and support.

Like every parent, I’ve got a stockpile of my kids’ drawings of our family – stick figures showing Mom and Dad, Brother and Sister.  Sometimes Grandma and Grandpa and/or Cat and Hamster.

When you are young, the definition of family is very narrow and also very immediate.  But as you get older, you develop deeper relationships with people who are not related by blood.  In many ways, you create your own family of the people who give you what you need to flourish.  Like the heliotropic sunflowers, you turn to the light, needing full sun to thrive.  If you don’t, you wither away.

 I’ve had this discussion about the definition of family with a number of my former asylum clients.  Under U.S. immigration law, your family is defined as your spouse (only one – your first spouse), your children by birth or legal adoption, and your parents.  Of course, many people in the world use a broader definition, with half-siblings, cousins, and children adopted without legal recognition counting as immediate family members.

One of my asylum clients once said to me,

“I feel so sorry for you Americans.  Your families are so very small!”

I had never really thought about it that way before.  But I could see her point.

Article 16(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that,

“The family is the natural and fundamental unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.”

Back when the UDHR was adopted in 1948, it is doubtful that the drafters envisioned even biracial marriage, much less same-sex marriage and the multiple forms of family that exist today.

But the bigger point, I think, is that no matter how you define “marriage”, the push for the changes in the legal definition has happened because of thousands – maybe millions – of personal decisions by individuals to define their closest relationships as “family”.  The reality is that there is a very human need to live in a family social structure – the natural and fundamental group unit of society.  The law can better accommodate that reality but regardless of what the law says, people – like Kebbeh and Ma Fatu – will create their own families.

Maybe my young  daughter is right. The true definition of family is a very personal one, self-defined by each of us.  The definition of family maybe really IS the people who you feel like are your family.

So I think the real questions for each of us then become:

How do you define your family?

What does your family mean to you? and

Wouldn’t we all be better off if society and the State protected and supported all of our families?

Weekly Photo Challenge: The Sign Says

The WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge: The Sign Says this week hit right smack dab on one of my favorite hobbies.  Wherever I go in the world, I take pictures of interesting signs that I see. Here is a sampling of my collection:

Some are hilarious signs I have spotted in bathrooms.  (And it’s worth noting that I have been accidentally locked in a bathroom on every continent but Australia and Antarctica.)

Question:  To flush or not to flush?

To flush or not to flush?  That is the question.
To flush or not to flush? That is the question.
Kathmandu, Nepal

Answer:  DO NOT FLUSH!  DO NOT FLUSH! PANTHERS IN THE BATHROOM!

IMG_0207
Kathmandu, Nepal

USE THE TRASH CAN FOR ALL PANTHERS! I REPEAT:

Taj Mahal, India (the less glamorous part of the Taj Mahal, that is)
Taj Mahal, India (the less glamorous part of the Taj Mahal, that is)

At times, signs can be very clear and direct.

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
You do want your clothes to be CLEAN, right?
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

No Grown Ups! Accra, Ghana

CAUTION!  GROWN UPS!

Accra, Ghana

IMG_0404

Relax.

Minneapolis, MN USA

 Other times?  Well, everyone could use a good editor.

What does this even mean? Zanzibar, Tanzania
What does that even mean?
Zanzibar, Tanzania
Monrovia, Liberia
Monrovia, Liberia
Indira Ghandi Airport Delhi, India
Indira Ghandi Airport
Delhi, India

But my favorite signs are those that inspire me.

Kathmandu, Nepal
In the library of a women’s empowerment organization
Kathmandu, Nepal

 

In the pre-kindergarten classroom of a schoolYaounde, Cameroon
In the pre-kindergarten classroom of a school
Yaounde, Cameroon
Raj Ghat Ghandi Memorial New Delhi, India
Raj Ghat Gandhi Memorial
New Delhi, India
Minneapolis, MN USA
Minneapolis, MN USA

Letter from Liberia

Great post by my colleague Amy Bergquist on the pro bono needs assessment work we are doing this winter through our Africa Advocacy Project in four countries: Liberia, Morocco, Cameroon and Tanzania. Amy writes about the first country our team visited – Liberia.

The Advocates Post

Liberia 20-21 January 2013 020

By Amy Bergquist

Life can be a heavy load in post-conflict Liberia, a country torn apart by a 14-year civil war that ended in 2003. What happened to a little girl, Olivia, evidences the toll of human rights abuses in that country, as reported to The Advocates’ “Team Liberia” while we were in Liberia in January conducting needs assessments with that country’s human rights organizations.

Olivia, at age 7, was reportedly raped by her 20-year-old cousin in 2005. The rape wasn’t reported to authorities until three years later when the girl’s uncle discovered his niece gravely ill and family members told him about the crime. The uncle took Olivia to Monrovia for medical care. The cousin was arrested.

A heavy price was paid for the uncle breaking the silence: The family shunned Olivia and her mother. The ostracism they suffered compelled Olivia’s mother to drop all charges, and the…

View original post 614 more words

Cutting The Head Off The Snake

Charles G. Taylor with NPFL fighters during attack on Monrovia in 1990

(Image Source) 

The Special Court for Sierra Leone  today sentenced former Liberian President Charles G. Taylor to 50 years in prison for his role in the Sierra Leonean conflict in the 1990s.   Mr. Taylor helped fuel bloody conflicts between 1989 and 2003, not only in Liberia and Sierra Leone, but also throughout the sub-region of West Africa.  For thousands – if not millions – of West Africans, May 30 will now mark the anniversary of accountability.

Eight years ago, in May 2004, I was in Sierra Leone to monitor the efforts that were being made to bring justice and reconciliation to that shattered country.  In August of the previous year,  Charles Taylor had resigned as President and exited Liberia for temporary asylum in Nigeria, the result of a deal brokered to end Liberia’s brutal civil war.  His infamous last words as he boarded the plane were, “God willing, I will be back.” Almost everyone I talked to in Sierra Leone expressed fear of a return to chaos and war in the region if Mr. Taylor did not stand trial.  As one person explained,

“We have a saying in West Africa.  If you cut off the head of the snake, it is then only a rope.  That’s why Taylor must go.”

Mr. Taylor was indicted on seventeen counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL), a United Nations-sponsored “hybrid” war crimes tribunal based on international and Sierra Leonean law that had strong support (including $20 million appropriated by Congress) from the United States.  The charges against Mr. Taylor included aiding and abetting the most serious of human rights abuses:  killings, torture, mutilation, rape and other forms of sexual violence, sexual slavery, conscription of children, abduction and forced labor perpetuated by Sierra Leonean rebel forces that Mr. Taylor actively supported.  Not to mention the part about fueling the conflict by trading arms for diamonds.

Special Court for Sierra Leone

Under construction in Freetown, Sierra Leone in May 2004

Yet, even after trials began at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, Mr. Taylor remained in Nigeria, immune from justice.  Even worse, he appeared to continue to meddle with affairs in Liberia.  Impunity for Mr. Taylor was an affront to the thousands of victims and their families.  Fortunately, international pressure finally resulted in Mr. Taylor being taken into custody and brought to the SCSL for trial in 2006.  Due to concerns about security and the potential destabilizing impact of holding the trial in West Africa, Mr. Taylor’s trial was moved to The Netherlands to a chamber borrowed from the International Criminal Court.  (Mr. Taylor complained bitterly about the food he was served.)

I interviewed Sierra Leonean staff members of the SCSL in The Netherlands about the Taylor case in 2008.  Their estimates at the time about the length of the trial proved far too optimistic. The trial, which included testimony from more than 100 witnesses in addition to the defendant (who testified during 81 trial days), took twice as long as planned.

When I traveled to Liberia in February 2008, I asked people about what they thought about the Taylor trial.  Many Liberians did not seem to understand that Mr. Taylor was being tried for crimes committed in Sierra Leone, not Liberia.  When I pointed out the distinction, most seemed not to care.  In general, the Liberians I talked to just seemed relieved that he was behind bars – and that those bars were controlled by the international community.  When I mentioned the analogy to cutting the head off a snake, I was uniformly met with wise nods of agreement.

The verdict of the Special Court for Sierra Leone in late April of this year marked a historic moment in international justice – the first conviction of a serving head of state on 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.    The sentence today of 50 years (which was consistent with the previous sentences of Sierra Leonean commanders tried by the SCSL) essentially means that Mr. Taylor will spend the rest of his life in prison.

Holding Charles Taylor accountable for the war crimes that he aided and abetted in Sierra Leone is important, but we must never forget the remaining impunity for the war crimes that he is responsible for in Liberia.  Liberian civilians were subjected to massive human rights abuses, exercised with direct command responsibility by Mr. Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) and, after his election in 1997, the Liberian security forces and paramilitary Anti-Terrorist Unit (ATU) .  Of a pre-war Liberian population of 3 million, an estimated 250,000 were killed and 1.5 million displaced, with tens of thousands of refugees forced to flee West Africa for safety in the United States.

I spent three years working with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia, taking statements in the United States, United Kingdom and Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana.  The statement giver’s account of violence below is representative of the scope of the human rights abuses and level of brutality suffered by many Liberians:

At the initial stages of the war, I moved to Ninth Street in Sinkor, Monrovia…  The children were outside cleaning the yard. Suddenly they ran inside and said that they saw armed men coming. Moments later, Taylor’s men busted  in. One of them said, “This is the dog I’m looking for.” He told us to come outside. Myself, my ten children, and my wife obeyed.

The NPFL [commander] knew me…He had run against me in an election… before the war. He said to me, “You cheated me during the election, but now I am in power. I will teach you a lesson you will never forget.” He told his NPFL boys to take my eldest daughter into the house. She was 11
thirteen years old. They dragged her inside and dragged me in after her. [The commander] raped my daughter in front of me. My father (my daughter’s grandfather) was still in the house. He rushed at the NPFL men, trying to stop the rape. One of the men – I don’t know his name – shot and killed my [father] right there.
[The commander] then brought me and my daughter back outside. He said, “I’m going to show you what I came here for.” He beat the children with the butt of his gun. He made two of my sons, who were seventeen and twenty, drink dirty water with the urine of one of the NPFL men in it. When the twenty year old refused, he shot him in the foot. [The commander] stabbed my other son, who was eighteen, in the elbow with his bayonet.

He then began to beat my wife. He told her to lay on her back and stare at the sun. [The commander] said, “You will eat your husband’s heart very soon.” He took the daughter who had been raped. [The commander] held her and said, “I want you to know how you all will die.” He ordered one of his men to cut off my daughter’s head. She was beheaded in front of our eyes.

They dragged me over to lay beside her body. [The commander] said, “You will be the next one.” Then I heard heavy shooting. ECOMOG was coming. The NPFL scattered.  Before [the commander] left, he made a remark. He said, “Anywhere in
Liberia I meet you or your family, I will kill you.”

Will it make a difference that the international community has now “cut off the head of the snake”? I do, in fact, think it will.  Our international justice system is still in its infancy.  As of yet, it is neither swift nor strong; neither peremptory nor comprehensive.  But with the sentencing of Charles Taylor, not only can West Africans be confident in the knowledge that one individual who wrought destruction will not do so again, but we can all have hope that one day, as a matter of practice, all perpetrators of gross human rights abuses and war crimes will be held accountable.