News You May Have Missed (17-23 January)

A student at the Hamar Jajab School in Mogadishu holds a peace-themed comic book for children produced by UNSOM during the commemoration of Somalia’s ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child on 20 January 2015. UN Photo/Ilyas Ahmed
A student at the Hamar Jajab School in Mogadishu holds a peace-themed comic book for children produced by UNSOM during the commemoration of Somalia’s ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child on 20 January 2015. UN Photo/Ilyas Ahmed

There was some good news about human rights around the world this week.  

SOMALIA has become the 195th state party to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). A ceremony was held to mark the ratification at a local school in the Somali capital of Mogadishu.  In agreeing to be bound by the treaty, the government of Somalia is obligating itself to take steps to improve the lives of its youngest citizens.   The CRC is the most widely ratified human rights treaty in existence.  Once Somalia’s ratification is officially deposited with the UN, the United States and South Sudan will be the only countries in the world that have not yet ratified the CRC.  (The US has signed but not ratified the CRC and South Sudan – the world’s newest country, established in 2011 – has taken no action on the CRC yet.  If you are wondering why the US hasn’t ratified the CRC, you can read more here.)

In SAUDI ARABIA, the public flogging of blogger Raif Badawi has been postponed for a second consecutive week.  As I previously reported, Raif Badawi, founder of Free Saudi Liberals blog, was brought to a public square in Jeddahon on January 9 and flogged 50 times before hundreds of spectators – the first of 20 weeks of punishment with 50 lashes.  Protests and vigils have been held in public places and outside Saudi embassies across the world, keeping up the momentum after a medical committee said last week that he should not undergo a second round of 50 lashes on health grounds.  There is widespread belief that the postponements are not based solely on medical assessments, but also reflect increasing pressure on the Saudi government from the international community.  

In GUATEMALA,  a former police chief has been sentenced to 40 years in prison for his role in the 1980 deadly raid on the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City. A group of indigenous rights activists had occupied the embassy to draw attention to government repression during Guatemala’s civil war. (According to United Nations estimates, almost a quarter of a million people, mostly indigenous and rural, were killed or forcibly disappeared during the 36-year-long conflict.) Thirty-seven people burned to death in a fire triggered by the police when they stormed the embassy; Vicente Menchu, the father of indigenous rights activist and Noble Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, was one of those killed in the fire.  Pedro Garcia Arredondo was found guilty this week of ordering officers to keep anyone from leaving the building as it burned. Indigenous rights activists and relatives of the victims, who have been waiting more than 3 decades for justice, celebrated a sentencing.

Indigenous activists and relatives of the victims welcomed the sentence. Photo (c) REUTERS
Indigenous activists and relatives of the victims welcomed the sentence. Photo (c) REUTERS

U.N. peacekeepers in the CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC have arrested Rodrigue Ngaibona, (known as Andilo), a senior leader of the anti-balaka militia, wanted for crimes including murder, rebellion, rape and looting.  In 2013,  the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in the majority Christian CAR.  Their brief rule spawned a backlash from the Christian and animist anti-balaka militia.  The U.N. has documented that the anti-balaka used ethnic cleansing in their attacks on the Muslim minority, and reported that “Andilo is currently the most enigmatic, feared and powerful military commander of the anti-balaka.”  Andilo could potentially be tried at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which is investigating the violence in Central African Republic.

One piece of negative human rights news that has not received much mainstream media attention:  BAHRAIN sentenced Nabeel Rajab, one of the highest-profile democracy campaigners in the Arab world, to six months in jail on Tuesday over remarks critical of the government.  The founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Rajab took a leading role in Shi’ite-led demonstrations in Bahrain in 2011 that demanded reforms in the Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab Kingdom.  

I noted a couple of items of good news on LGBT rights this week:

  1. In CHILE, the House of Representatives on Tuesday approved a bill that would allow same-sex couples to enter into civil unions.  The bill passed by a wide margin with 86-23 vote with two abstentions. The Chilean Senate last October advanced the measure, known by the Spanish acronym AVP that roughly translates into “life partner agreement” in English. –President Michelle Bachelet has said she will sign the civil unions bill into law.
  2. In the UNITED STATES, President Obama made history by using the terms “lesbian”, “transgender” and “bisexual” for the first time in a State of the Union address. President Obama was the second US president to use the word “gay” (somewhat generically) in the 2010 State of the Union address; President Clinton was the first.

Finally, I read an inspiring story this week about teens in BANGLADESH called “Golden Girls” who are volunteering their time to ensure that Bangladeshi women have access to maternal health care.  Bangladesh has been working to reduce maternal mortality by training government female health workers as highly skilled birth attendants, but only 27 percent of pregnant women have access to these birth attendants. To fill the gap, the Community Health Foundation, a nonprofit based in Dhaka, educates nearly 300 girls in grades 9 to 12 about pregnancy and childbirth and then links them to pregnant women in their community through the government birth attendants.  

The Golden Girl Project volunteers help increase awareness among pregnant women and facilitate access to skilled birth attendants, bringing down maternal mortality risks.  Their efforts are proving critical in a country where 7,000 women die of pregnancy-related causes every year. For example, when a woman in her village went into labor in the middle of the night her panicked family turned to 14-year-old Khatun, a grade 10 student who lived nearby and was able to arrange for the community’s skilled birth attendant to come in time, saving the lives of the mother and newborn. In addition to their training in reproductive and sexual health, the Golden Girls themselves also commit to completing high school and campaigning to end early marriage and delaying motherhood. Volunteers’ parents consent to the training and affirm their daughters will not be married before graduation. This contributes to reducing dropouts as well as early marriage. You can read more about the Golden Girls here

I’ll close with a powerful advertisement from AUSTRALIA called “The Invisible Discriminator” which reminds us that subtle or ‘casual’ racism can be just as harmful as more overt forms. #StopThinkRespect encourages everyone in Australia to check their behaviour.

Advertisements

Human Rights News You May Have Missed (10 – 16 January)

 Participants march towards Mnazi Mmoja grounds during Tanzania Albino Day celebrations in Dar es Salaam.  Photo Credit: Voice of America
Participants march towards Mnazi Mmoja grounds during Tanzania Albino Day celebrations in Dar es Salaam. Photo Credit: Voice of America

A roundup of some of the human rights news stories (both good and bad) that I am following this week.

TANZANIA declared a ban on witchcraft in an effort to halt deadly attacks on albinos. The move follows mounting pressure on the government to protect albinos, who lack pigment in their skin and hair, and whose body parts are used by witch doctors in so-called magic potions thought to bring power and wealth.  The U.N. human rights agency says more than 70 people with albinism have been killed for body parts in Tanzania since 2000. Minister for Home Affairs Mathias Chikawe said on January 13 that the government has formed a task force that will investigate killings and review court cases for accused attackers, some of whom have gone free. Ernest Kimayo, chairman of the Tanzania Albino Society, welcomed the government’s actions, saying it will improve life for his community.

Also in TANZANIA, some 800 school girls returned home on Monday, January 12 after escaping female genital mutilation (FGM) by spending three months hiding in safe houses.  FGM is traditionally carried out on girls between October and December. Run by charities and church organisations, the shelters offer protection (including police protection at some) to ensure the girls remain safe. FGM was outlawed in Tanzania in 1998 and carries a punishment of up to 15 years in prison, but is still regularly carried out, especially in northern and central regions of Tanzania.http://allafrica.com/stories/201501050530.html

CANADA:  The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued a report on the disappearances and murders of indigenous women in British Columbia, finding it part of a “broader pattern” of violence and discrimination against aboriginal women   Aboriginal women are significantly over-represented as victims of homicide in Canada; The Royal Canadian Mounted Police has reported that about 1,200 aboriginal women and girls were murdered or went missing in Canada between 1980 and 2012.) The IACHR called on the Canadian government to institute a national inquiry into the issue and to develop a coordinated national response that addresses the root causes of the violence, including Canada’s history of colonization, inequality and economic and social marginalization.)

 fierce winter storm swept through the Middle East this week bringing icy temperatures, high winds and heavy snow. In Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, more than 400,000 refugees have been enduring freezing conditions since snow levels not seen in many years arrived. Photo ©UNHCR/A.McConnell. Retrieved from UNHCR.org.
A fierce winter storm swept through the Middle East this week bringing icy temperatures, high winds and heavy snow. In Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, more than 400,000 refugees have been enduring freezing conditions since snow levels not seen in many years arrived. Photo ©UNHCR/A.McConnell. Retrieved from UNHCR.org.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees issued its Mid-Year Trends 2014 report on global formed displacement in first six months of 2014.  Armed conflicts displaced an estimated 5.5 million people, with 1.4 million of those fleeing to other countries, says a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Syrians have become the largest group of displaced people within UNHCR’s mandate, overtaking Afghans who held that position for three decades. 

NIGERIA:  International coverage of the tremendous human rights tragedy in Baga, Nigeria has finally picked up, but there has been less coverage of Boko Haram’s use of children as suicide bombers. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has expressed concern about what it called “escalating violence against children in northern Nigeria.”  The statement came after two explosions ripped through a market in northeastern Nigeria Sunday killing at least five people, including the two bombers. Twenty-one others were wounded.   The attacks were said to be carried out by two young girls. Sunday’s explosions came after a bomb strapped to a girl exploded in Maiduguri killing at least 19 people.  “We are seeing a new trend of using girls and women, and now of children, as suicide bombers. This is something that is new to this conflict. So, this trend is very worrying to us because this is something that is very difficult to find [a] solution to.”

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC:  A spokesman for the Ugandan army announced that on January 14 Lord’s Resistance Army rebel commander Dominic Ongwen was handed over to Ugandan troops that are part of an African Union force in the Central African Republic.  He will be flown to The Hague to stand trial at the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity.   He was indicted by the ICC almost a decade ago, but only surrendered  last week and was taken into the custody of US special forces.   One issue that is sure to come up during the ICC trial: Ongwen is the only one among the five LRA indictees who was abducted as a child and forcibly conscripted into the LRA.

TAJIKISTAN:  Prominent human rights lawyer Shukhrat Kudratov was sentenced on January 13, 2015, to nine years in prison following what Human Rights Watch describes as a “politically motivated trial” that struck a blow to freedom of expression and the independence of the legal profession in Tajikistan.  A court in Dushanbe found Kudratov, who is also deputy head of the opposition Social Democratic party, guilty on criminal charges of fraud and bribery. Kudratov is known for taking on politically sensitive cases, including representing victims of police torture and those accused of “religious extremism.”

EGYPT:  The acquittal in Egypt on January 12, 2015, of 26 men accused of “practicing debauchery” is a rare success in protecting the rights to privacy and nondiscrimination against LGBTI persons. The men were arrested at a hammam or bathhouse in Cairo on December 7, 2014.  Government prosecutors have appealed the decision, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), a nongovernmental group, reported, but authorities released all 26 men. It is the first time since 2011 that a trial court is known to have handed down a total acquittal in a “debauchery” case. Rights activists say 2014 was the worst year in a decade for Egypt’s gay community, with at least 150 men arrested or put on trial.    Because there are no laws criminalizing homosexuality in Egypt, a decades’ old law criminalizing prostitution is often used in penalizing the gay community. The trial opened unusually quickly – only two weeks after the raid on the bathhouse — amidst biased media coverage that “convicted the defendants before they even set foot in court”.

Jorge Sánchez, son of the missing journalist Moisés Sánchez Cerezo demands his father’s release outside the municipal building of Medellín de Bravo, Veracruz, Mexico. Photograph: IMG Veracruz/Demotix/Corbis.  Retrieved from TheGuardian.com
Jorge Sánchez, son of the missing journalist Moisés Sánchez Cerezo demands his father’s release outside the municipal building of Medellín de Bravo, Veracruz, Mexico. Photograph: IMG Veracruz/Demotix/Corbis. Retrieved from TheGuardian.com

MEXICO: State prosecutors have detained the town of Medellín de Bravo’s entire police force following the disappearance of journalist Moisés Sánchez Cerezo in Mexico’s southern state of Veracruz.    A group of nine armed men took Sánchez from his home earlier this month along with his computer, camera and telephones.  Sánchez publishes a local weekly La Union where he wrote about local government corruption and violent deaths, as well as publishing citizen complaints. Some of his journalism was aimed at Medellín de Bravo’s mayor, Omar Cruz.   Thirty-six members of the  police department were brought in to give statements in the investigation. 

In other news related to Mexico‘s serious problem with local corruption and disappearances and extrajudicial killing, the Mexican attorney general’s office this week obtained arrest warrants for kidnapping against the former mayor José Luis Abarca and 44 others implicated in the case of 43 students who went missing in September 2014 after being attacked by municipal police allegedly working with a local drug cartel.

GERMANY:  Dresden police have launched a murder investigation into the death of Eritrean refugee Khaled Idris Bahray.  On Tuesday morning, Bahray was found stabbed to death in an inner courtyard at the housing complex where he lived.  According to his flatmates, he had left the flat late the night before to go out to a shop but never returned.  Dresden has been making headlines recently for its anti-immigrant rallies, which, on the night of Bahray’s death, attracted a record number of 25,000 supporters. Tensions in the city have been high in the 12 weeks since the rallies began, with a reported increase in racist attacks. While the motive for Bahray’s killing and the identity of his killer remain unknown, a Swastiska was found daubed on the 2nd floor flat where Bahray lived with 7 other Eritrean refugees just three days before he was killed. It was accompanied by the threat, “We’ll get you all”.

CAMBODIA: Self-exiled Cambodian-American dissident Serey Ratha was sentenced in absentia yesterday at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to seven years’ imprisonment and fined 25 million riel ($6,250) under the charges of treason, obstructing electoral procedures in 2013 and inciting to overthrow Cambodia’s government related to a Facebook post prior to the 2013 election. Three other men (Serey Bunlong, Sen Someng and Oum Phirum) were each sentenced to six years in prison and fined 5 million riel ($1,230) for treason and obstructing electoral procedures after they reportedly distributed T-shirts with slogans admonishing citizens to abstain from voting in the last national election.

Finally, some brilliant teenagers in the UNITED STATES inspired me this week with their spoken word poem Somewhere In America. 

That’s it for this week.  Please feel free to add other human rights news in the comments.

As always, feedback on this new weekly feature is appreciated!

The Lessons of 22 July

My daughter in Norway in August 2010.
For many in Norway, the terrorist attacks on July 22, 2011 represent the loss of innocence.

On the morning of July 22 last year, I read the breaking news of a car bomb attack in Oslo, Norway.  I clicked on the link to the NRK live coverage, forgetting that my three children rise and swarm, like mosquitoes from tall grass at dusk, at the slightest potentiality of a video.

“WHAT IS HAPPENING?” yelled my then-9-year-old son.

“It looks like a car bomb exploded in downtown Oslo.”

Gasps all around. We had been in downtown Oslo less than a year before.   We had been in that part of town and I think we may even have walked down the street where the explosion damaged several government buildings.

Damage to government building on July 22, 2011

Image Source

“WAS ANYONE WE KNOW HURT?” screamed my then 6-year old daughter.

“I don’t know yet,” I replied.  “Let me listen to what they are saying about it.”

I was trying to remain calm; I was struggling with a decision. As a parent, you have to make a choice about what horrific events you introduce to your children.  And you have to decide – often on the spot – how to talk to them about tragedy and violence.  You have to find the words to explain the evil that exists in the world while you simultaneously reassure them that,  for the most part, they are safe.  Obviously, this is not easy and there is no manual.  But it is part of your job as a parent to help them make sense of life as a human on this planet.

“IT’S LIKE NORWAY’S 9/11!” blurted out my then-nearly-12-year-old son.

Presciently, in hindsight.  It was that statement that decided me, that hardened my resolve.  You see, like everyone else, I have a story to tell about 9/11.  That’s a story for another day, but, suffice it to say, it committed me to engaging my children in a year-long discussion about the tragic events of July 22, 2011.

The Norwegian media were cautiously talking about how preliminary evidence indicated a terrorist attack.   So we had a fruitful discussion (or at least what passes for a “fruitful discussion” when your kids are 6, 9 and 11) about 9/11 and the impact of those events on America. My children do not remember our country before 9/11.  It was good to talk to them about the need for security, as well as the need to balance security with the protection of individual rights, including discrimination based on race and religion.  They were engaged.  They asked questions.  Then, with the  request to be kept informed of the emerging news of the Oslo bombing, they went on their way to do whatever it is that 6, 9 and 11 year old boys and girls do on a bright summer day.

But as the day went on, the news from Norway got dramatically worse.  Eight people were killed and nearly two-thirds of the 300+ people in the government buildings were injured (and had it not been 3:30 pm on a Friday in the holiday month of July, there would certainly have been many more casualties).  But the car bomb in Oslo was merely a distraction.  Less than two hours later, right-wing extremist Anders Behring Brevik, dressed as a police officer in a fake uniform that he bought on the Internet, took the ferry to the island of Utøya in nearby Buskerud.  There he killed 69 people – mostly under the age of 18 – at an summer camp for politically active young people in the AUF (Arbeidernes Ungdomsfylking), which is affiliated with Norway’s Arbeiderparti (Labor Party).

AUF describes itself as “Norway’s largest political party youth organization and champion for a more just world (“AUF er Norges største partipolitiske ungdomsorganisasjon og kjemper for en mer rettferdig verden”).  Anders Behring Breivik carried out the massacre in cold blood, coming back to shoot again those who were lying injured, shooting kids in the water as they tried to swim to safety.  He later claimed that he was trying to save Norway from Muslims world by attacking Social Democrats, Norwegian immigration policies and the concept of multi-culturalism.

This photo of participants at the AUF summer camp on Utøya was taken July 21, 2011, the day before the massacre.

Image source: AUF

It was one thing to talk to my kids about car bombs and 9/11.  It was something else entirely to talk to them about Utøya. I  didn’t tell my kids right away about the massacre.  I waited a few hours, sifting through the emerging stories of horror until the basic narrative was clear.  When I did tell them, what they most wanted to know was:

“WHY?”

I said something about hatred, but there was really nothing I could say by way of explanation.  Far too many  lost their lives on July 22, 2011. And Anders Behring Breivik’s hateful, violent acts stole not just the future of scores of young people, but also the innocence of a peaceful nation.  Just as we demarcate contemporary US history as pre- and post-9/11, so for Norway is tjueandre juli (22 July).

Luckily for me as a parent, stories began quickly emerging about what happened on Utøya. Amazing stories of luck and bravery. Young people not much older than my own children who showed great presence of mind in an unthinkable situation.  Leadership and sacrifice.  These are stories – and there are many – that deserve more space than I have to give here.  But we followed these stories in the days and months following 22 July.  They gave us hope. They showed us that ordinary people – most of them still kids – could do extraordinary things.

There is much in our interactions with the world that we cannot control. We can control, however, how we act; how we REact to events and actions by others.  This is a lesson I strive to teach my children.  I don’t always provide a good role model, but Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg certainly did. I’ve been reading the speeches of Jens Stoltenberg this summer.  From the beginning, he encouraged Norwegians not to give way to fear and hate and prejudice. He urged Norwegians to react to the attacks of 22 July by being MORE welcoming to the outsider, to the foreigner. Invite him in for cake and coffee, the Prime Minister suggested.  Invite her to take a walk. Get to know one another.

When local elections were held in September 2011, fear was not used as a campaign tactic in Norway.  I showed my kids the AUF campaign materials which said, “This summer, our democracy was attacked.  The terrorist chose cowardice and ruthless violence over argument and political debate.  Our answer is not more violence, but more democracy.”

“Our answer is MORE democracy – Vote Now!”

Image Source

I’ve heard people say that Norway’s response to July 22 was simplistic.  Idealistic. Naive. Maybe it wouldn’t work in other countries.  But if you doubt that words matter, let me tell you what happened after the trial of Anders Behring Breivik began on April 16, 2012.  Breivik had testified that a particular song, Barn av regnbuen (Children of the Rainbow) by well-loved Norwegian folk singer  Lillebjørn Nilsen, with its concept of living together in a multicultural Norway, was brainwashing children into supporting immigrants.  This is a song that Mr. Breivik, apparently, detests.

So, shortly thereafter, in a chilly spring rain in a square near the courthouse in Oslo, a crowd of more than 40,000 people joined Mr. Nilsen in singing Barn av regnbuen.  Many more were singing the song at the same time in smaller communities around the country. Norwegians throughout the country sang it as a form of protest against hatred. They sang it so loud that it could be heard in the courtroom.

Once again, I clicked on a link to a video from Oslo.  Together, my children and I watched this video.

Folksinger Lillebjørn Nilsen and a crowd of 40,000 sing Barn av regnbuen (Children of the Rainbow) at the trial of Anders Behring Breivik in Oslo (Source: NRK)

This is a song that I learned many years ago.  It is actually a Pete Seeger song called My Rainbow Race, translated into Norwegian by Lillebjørn Nilsen.   I did a rough translation of the lyrics of Barn av regnbuen in a blog post in April. The song’s title comes from the verse:

Sammen skal vi leve
hver søster og hver bror.
Små barn av regnbuen
og en frodig jord.

Together we will live
every sister and every brother.
Small children of the rainbow
and a flourishing world.

One night last week, I heard my now-10-year-old son singing in his bed.  He was singing Barna av regnbuen.  He sang the whole song, the refrain and every last verse.  And then he sang it again.

There will be many tributes on July 22, 2012.  Remembrances and roses to honor the innocents who lost their lives one year ago, the survivors who will never be the same again.  Add to them this tribute,  from a kid in a bunkbed half a world away.  A kid who, hopefully, has learned something from the tragedy of 22 July.