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!

Human Rights News You May Have Missed (1 – 9 January, 2015)

Mahdu Bai Kinner, India's first openly transgender mayor, was elected on January 4
Mahdu Bai Kinner, India’s first openly transgender mayor, was elected on January 4. Photo (c) M. Krishnan retrieved from starobserver.com.au

It probably won’t surprise you one bit that there is a lot of human rights news that is not covered by the US and other Western media.  Or sometimes it IS covered, but given only a few lines or buried so deep that you can’t help but miss it.  Because of my job as a human rights lawyer, I follow multiple international media outlets and subscribe to numerous listserves.  It is frustrating to me that human rights crises can go on for weeks or months before anyone in the mainstream media takes notice.

I have a couple of thoughts about this. Obviously, there have been changes in US media over the past decade that have resulted in decimated coverage of pretty much all news coverage.  But I also I don’t think that as many people care about celebrity gossip as much as the media appears to think that we do.  In addition, I strongly believe that the first step towards change is knowledge.  But without information, how can we know what is happening in other parts of the world?  If people who actually care about human rights do not know about human rights abuses as they occur, how can we have empathy with the people whose lives are impacted?  How can we take action? How can we work together across borders to make real change?

Based on these theories, when I taught International Human Rights Law I gave my students a weekly assignment to watch the news for human rights stories.  I challenged them to look for things they might have missed before.  I asked them to look for one news item on an international issue, one on a national issue, and one on a local issue.  At least one of these news items had to be good news.

So I’m going to try something new in 2015. I’m going to try to do a roundup each week of some of the things that happened that did not get the coverage that I think they deserved.  I realize that some of you may find this exercise somewhat depressing, but I will be looking for GOOD human rights news as well as bad.  Believe me, while it often doesn’t feel like it on a macro level, there is indeed progress happening on human rights all over the world.  You just need to look for it.

The Human Rights News You May Have Missed weekly roundup is definitely not intended to be exhaustive. It is simply a summary of some of the news items that I followed this week that I thought did not get enough attention, along with links so that you can read more.  Please feel free to add a link to a news item that I missed in the comments section.

So here we go!  Here are a few news items that should have received more attention during the first week or so of January 2015:

Policemen hold a photo of one of the victims of a car bomb attack outside the police college in Sanaa January 7, 2015. (c) REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah
Policemen hold a photo of one of the victims of a car bomb attack outside the police college in Sanaa January 7, 2015. (c) REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

In an apparent attack by Islamic militants in Yemen, a mini-bus full of explosives was rammed into recruits outside a police academy in the heart of Yemen’s capital of Sanaa on Wednesday, killing at least 37 people and injuring more than 66.  It was the second bombing in Yemen to cause multiple casualties in a week, following a suicide attack that killed 26 people at a cultural centre in Ibb city.  Violence has soared in Yemen since Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, captured Sanaa and other cities last year.  “Tribal leaders and Yemeni officials have said the rising power of the Houthis, their advance into Sunni areas and the backlash over drone strikes has caused al-Qaida to surge in strength and find new recruits.”

There was definitely also good news this week. Here are a few stories about some of the positive developments that you may have missed:

Today – January 11 – is National Human Trafficking Awareness Day in the United States. Human trafficking is a criminal enterprise, a multi-billion dollar industry where perpetrators profit from the control and exploitation of others. The International Labour Organization estimates that there are 21 million victims of human trafficking worldwide. Find out what you can do to raise awareness about the issue and help victims of human trafficking find the support they need to reclaim their lives here.  

Location of potential human trafficking cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (2007-2012)
Location of potential human trafficking cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (2007-2012) Find out more here.

I hope you found something to interest and/or inspire you.   Please do let me know what you think about this new feature on The Human Rights Warrior blog.  See you next week!

Raising My Voice To #BringBackOurGirls

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My son in a local march to Bring Back Our Girls

On Mother’s Day, I spoke at a local march and rally to show support for the nearly 300 school girls abducted a month ago in Nigeria.

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Here’s what I said:

Bring Back Our Girls Twin Cities March

May 11, 2014

Thanks to organizers and to all of you for being here.

I’m here as a lawyer and Deputy Director of The Advocates for Human Rights, a non-profit based in Minneapolis that works on human rights issues around the world.

But I’m also here as a mother.  My kids Simon and Eliza are here today as well to stand in honor of the nearly 300 girls abducted simply because they were pursuing their human right to education.  I think that’s pretty much the best Mother’s Day gift they could give me.

There are a lot of things that we don’t know about the situation in Nigeria.  We don’t know where the girls are or what is happening to them.  We don’t even know the exact number abducted and we only know a few of their names.  We can only imagine the agony their families are going through.

But the tragedy of the nearly 300 girls in Chibok shines a spotlight on the systemic human rights abuses against faced by women and girls worldwide.

And there are many things we do know about violations of the rights of girls and women:

  • We know that girls around the world lack equal access to basic education  (in the NE region of Nigeria where these girls lived, girl enrollment is the lowest in the country –  only 22%.  In part, they were targeted because they were seeking an education that would change their lives.
  • Educating girls, we know, is one of the strongest ways to improve gender equality.  It is also one the best ways to reduce poverty and promote economic growth and development
  • We know that girls and women are not valued equally as boys and men in many parts of the world.  The Nigerian government’s lack of action both before and after certainly makes it seem that these girls were not deemed worthy of protection.
  • We know that when these girls are found and hopefully rescued, they will need support in the form of psychosocial and health care.  Women’s access to health care is woefully limited.
  • We know that 1 in 3 girls under age 18 are still being forced into marriage too early.  By some estimates, that’s about 14 million girls a year. Too many girls still endure harmful traditional cultural practices such as FGM.
  • We know that girls and women suffer the most in times of conflict.  What these girls have experienced is likely a war crime.  Trafficking remains a huge problem around the world and in our own community.
  • We know that 1 in 3 of the world’s women experience violence, including domestic violence (The Advocates for Human Rights works on domestic violence legal reform around the world);

And we know that these are all things that have to change.

We need to do more to push our governments to make this change a priority.  We can’t stop with just these 276 girls.

Now these are human rights abuses that may seem intractable.  It may seem like you are powerless to make a difference.  But you can:

  • Continue to educate yourself about girls and women’s rights.  Here in the Twin Cities, there are many opportunities.   Through The Advocates for Human Rights alone, you can attend the free St. Paul Public Library Women’s Rights Film series, learn more about the issues on www.StopVAW.org, or participate in our Human Rights Book Club.
  • Support the NGOs that work on issues you care about. No amount is too small – a little money really does go a long way in this area.
  • Write to our members of Congress and the President to encourage support for women’s rights as a critical part of our US foreign policy.
  • For those of you with young people in your lives, teach them about the world around them so that they will grow up to continue the fight to ensure that every child, wherever he or she lives in the world, has the chance to live in safety and dignity and to achieve their greatest human potential.

For those of you doubting whether sharing this story on social media really makes a difference, I’d like to share a message I got on my blog from a woman named Winnie in Nigeria:

we here in nigeria are so angry and feel very helpless, the government and opposition leaders have politicized this, while our daughters are still in captivity. the government officials do not want to listen to ‘ordinary’ people. and word  has it that the Nigerian press have been ordered to kill the story (as the have killed other stories in the past).  pls this is a passionate plea to the international community to keep this story alive until our girls are returned home safely.

Here in the Twin Cities and all around the world, we are working to keep this story alive until our girls are returned home safely.

And after our girls come home, I hope we can keep working together for a future where all girls around the world can go to school in safety and grow up to reach their full human potential.

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Image used with permission of RaSam Photography. Thank you!

 

See also:  Nightmare For Nigeria’s School Girls   originally published on The Advocates Post.

Nightmare for Nigeria’s School Girls

Girls in school in Nigeria Image: Naija247News
Girls in school in Nigeria
Image: Naija247News

 

On the night of April 14, dozens of armed men showed up at the dormitory of the Government Girls Secondary school in Chibok in northeastern Nigeria.  Dressed in Nigerian military uniforms, they told the girls that they were there to take them to safety and herded the girls into trucks and onto motorcycles.  At first, the girls believed them. But when the men started shooting their guns into the air and shouting, “Allahu Akbar,”  they realized that the men were militants from Boko Haram and that they were in serious danger.

Forty-three girls managed to escape by running away or jumping out of the trucks. But as many as 234 school girls between the ages of 12 and 17 were kidnapped, disappearing into the night without a trace. (Update 5/4/14: it is now believed that as many at 276 girls were abducted.) Two weeks later, their parents still have no idea where they are. And yesterday, village elders from Chibok told reporters that they had received information that the abducted girls were taken across the borders to Chad and Cameroon and sold as brides to Islamist militants for 2,000 naira (about $12).

While unconfirmed, these reports are a chilling reminder of the threat of sexual violence faced by women and girls in conflict zones. 

The girls who were abducted were targeted simply because they were exercising their right to go to school, out of the ordinary for a girl in Nigeria. Access to basic education for girls has remained low, particularly in the northern region which has the  lowest girl child enrollment in Nigeria —in 2008 the net enrollment rate for girls into secondary school was only 22 percent.  The girls (who were both Christian and Muslim) at the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok must each have been determined to get an education in spite of tremendous odds.  The fact that these girls were also risking violence to be in school illustrates how important the right to education was to each of them.

How could this happen? And why?
Boko Haram is a violent insurgent group that has killed thousands of people since 2009, purportedly in an attempt to establish an Islamist state in northern Nigeria. Although the Nigerian government has issued a state of emergency in three northern states, attacks on villages in northern Nigeria have displaced more than 470,000 people—mostly women and children, according to the UN High Commissioner for RefugeesSince early 2014, Boko Haram’s attacks have been increasingly violent, targeting remote villages, markets, hospitals, and schools.  Boko Haramis responsible for at least 1500 deaths so far in 2014.

Boko Haram also has a history of taking hostages as “slaves.” In May 2013, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Sheku released a video saying that Boko Haram had taken women and children, including teenage girls, as hostages as part of its latest campaign. These hostages would be treated as “slaves,” he said.  This has raised concern among the family members of those abducted that “Boko Haram is adhering to the ancient Islamic belief that women captured during war are slaves with whom their ‘masters’ can have sex.  Regardless of alleged rationale, enslavement, imprisonment, forced labor, rape and sexual slavery are all serious violations of international law.  They are defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as crimes against humanity.

The group has repeatedly attacked schools in northern Nigeria. Boko Haram means “Western education is forbidden”  in the Hausa language. Boko Haram has set schools on fire and detonated bombs at university campus churches. In early February, armed gunmen abducted 20 female students at Goverment Girls Science College in the village of Konduga. On February 24, 2014, members of Boko Haram attacked and killed more than 40 male students at Federal Government College in Buni Yadi village and abducted an unknown number of female students. After these attacks, many schools in northeastern Nigeria were closed. The school where the abductions took place was closed as well, but local education officials decided to briefly reopen the Chibok school to allow the girls to take their exams.  

The mass kidnapping  in April was unprecedented and shocking. Even more shocking – after more than two weeks, the Nigerian government has done very little to find and rescue the girls.

The lack of government response has provoked outrage in Nigeria. On Wednesday, several hundred participated in a “million-woman protest march” in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital to demand that more resources be put toward finding and securing the kidnapped girls. The protesters in Nigeria are joined on Twitter with a growing movement under the hashtags #BringBackOurGirls, #BringBackOurDaughters and #234Girls. There is also a Change.org petition to Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan asking him to do more to save the abducted girls and ensure that schools in Nigeria are safe.

One man, whose daughter was abducted along with his two nieces, said his wife has hardly slept since the attack. She lies awake at night “thinking about our daughter”.  As the mother of a young school girl myself, I feel deeply for her. The continuing tragedy of these young Nigerian school girls is every parent’s worst nightmare.

It’s time for world to wake up to the escalating violence in Nigeria, as well as the Nigerian government’s lack of response.

Originally published on The Advocates Post.

 

A Mother In A Refugee Camp

Photo by my colleague Rosalyn Park, taken during our trip to Sierra Leone in 2004
Photo by my colleague Rosalyn Park, taken during our trip to Sierra Leone in 2004

Nelson Mandela read Chinua Achebe when he was in prison and reportedly described him as a writer “in whose company the prison walls fell down.”  I read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in college, three decades after it was written, required reading on a syllabus that only included one African author.  I read his other books later, as well as some of his essays.  The obituaries describe him as an African Literary Titan and a “towering man of letters”.  True words, but he was more than that.  Much has and will be written about Chinua Achebe as the writer that wrested writing about Africa – that vast and varied Africa, as if one writer could ever represent it – back from the West.

There is one poem by Chinua Achebe that has stayed with me for many years, not because it captures the global themes of colonialism or tradition v. Western values, but because it captures so perfectly the small moments of heartbreak and love that I myself have seen in the refugee camps I have visited in Sierra Leone and Ghana.  That Chinua Achebe could capture the small moments of human connection along with the global themes was a mark of his genius.  Upon reading the news of Chinua Achebe’s passing today, I read A Mother In A Refugee Camp again.  I share it now, my own way of  saying thank you, “like putting flowers on a tiny grave”.

A Mother In A Refugee Camp

No Madonna and Child could touch
Her tenderness for a son
She soon would have to forget. . . .
The air was heavy with odors of diarrhea,
Of unwashed children with washed-out ribs
And dried-up bottoms waddling in labored steps
Behind blown-empty bellies. Other mothers there
Had long ceased to care, but not this one:
She held a ghost-smile between her teeth,
And in her eyes the memory
Of a mother’s pride. . . . She had bathed him
And rubbed him down with bare palms.
She took from their bundle of possessions
A broken comb and combed
The rust-colored hair left on his skull
And then—humming in her eyes—began carefully to part it.
In their former life this was perhaps
A little daily act of no consequence
Before his breakfast and school; now she did it
Like putting flowers on a tiny grave.

—Chinua Achebe

16 November 1930 – 22 March 2013