Category Archives: International Human Rights

Syria: 60,000 dead and counting


As of February 2013, the civil war in Syria has been on-going for 1 year and 11 months. In March 2011, only 4 months since the Arab Spring began, protesters started to demand the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad and his Ba’ath Party government. President Assad had then been in power for 11 years, since his father’s death in 2000; his father had ruled in the same manner since 1971. Unlike the other revolutions in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, the ruling party did not fall within months. Bashar al-Assad remains in power and his forces are still fighting a bloody war with the rebels. Last month, the United Nations estimated that the death toll had exceeded 60,000 people.

After the country achieved independence in 1946, Syria faced a series of coups and instability until the Ba’ath Party seized power in March 1963. A bloodless military coup in late 1970 brought Lieutenant General Hafez al-Assad, the father of Bashar, to power. A state of emergency has existed in Syria since 1963, due to tensions with Israel. Under the provisions of emergency law, Hafez al-Assad suppressed freedom of the press and political dissent, and his security forces arrested people without warrants and tried them under courts operating outside the standard judicial system. Human Rights Watch estimates that over 17,000 people have disappeared without the formality of a trial. Perhaps most infamously, in 1982, he ordered the destruction of Hama, a rebellious city, killing up to 40,000 of his own people. Hafez al-Assad died in June 2000 and was succeeded by his son, Bashar. The state of emergency remained in place and so did his father’s authoritarian regime.

The Arab Spring truly started on 17 December 2010, when Tunisian market vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself to protest government corruption. Massive protests and riots erupted among the population. In January 2011, Tunisian President Ben Ali, resigned and fled. A few days after that, emboldened Egyptian revolutionaries occupied Tahrir Square and demonstrations began in Syria; in February, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned and protests began in Libya. The violent government crackdown on the protesters in Syria culminated in a “Day of Rage” on 15 March 2011 and civil war truly began. Since then, the regime has descended into launching daily airstrikes on its citizens, rebels and civilians alike.

Attempts by the United Nations to stop the bloodshed have stalled at the U.N. Security Council. Permanent member Russia has thrice blocked resolutions aimed at putting pressure on al-Assad, maintaining that Syria should decide its own fate. Russia’s only naval base outside the borders of the former Soviet Union is in Syria. Notably, Russia is the main producer of weaponry for the Syrian government; the current arms contracts are worth £950m and 10% of Russia’s global arms sales. Recently however, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has admitted that the likelihood of al-Assad remaining in power is decreasing as time goes on.

As we near the start of a third year of bloodshed, we can only hope for an end to the violence and the beginning of a free, open and peaceful Syrian society.




Guantanamo Bay: over a Decade of Damage


For those of us who have come to political consciousness since 9/11, the war on terror seems like a fact of nature rather than of history. We cannot remember a time when the West did not claim to wage war on an abstract concept, and we forget how unprecedented this is. The only analogous example in recent history is that of the Cold War, and even then there was a strong, vocal minority in the West sympathetic to the global Left – too large a minority to be dismissed merely as traitors or insurgents. What is unique to the War on Terror is that it is conceptualised as a fight not against an ideology (communism, fascism, Catholicism, Islam) but an idea, an idea that no one could possibly agree with. We might as say “we’re fighting a war against evil” and be done with it.

Such neatly polarised abstractions have clearly not been borne out by the last decade. Iraq had dissolved into tribal chaos, we are midst of a sheepish withdrawal from Afghanistan, Islamophobia is rife at home, and the ostensibly temporary authoritarian measures passed to ‘protect’ us have not been repealed. War of terror, indeed. Notably, the US detention centre at Guantánamo Bay remains open, in flagrant defiance of international law. This January marks three years since President Obama pledged to close it down. It hasn’t happened.

Guantánamo Bay is another case of how historical contingency has faded into natural fact. The right to a trial, let alone a fair one, has been all but suspended for its inmates, who have in many cases been incarcerated without even knowing what they’re there for – there have been almost 800 inmates in total since its opening in 2002. Whilst there have been a trickle of releases, several hundred inmates still remain, including British resident Shaker Aamer, who, his lawyers claim, now suffers from severe health issues as a result of torture and solitary confinement. Despite being cleared for release in 2007, he still remains.

Shaker Aamer – the last British resident in Guantanamo Bay

It would be naive to claim that none of the Guantánamo prisoners are entirely clear of association with any terrorist groups, or that some strategically useful information has not been extracted from them in the last decade – there seems little other reason for Obama allowing the centre to remain open after such a public pledge. Yet the nature of detention, and the methods used to extract information, are utterly unacceptable. We should not need reminding that torture and indefinite incarceration are banned under international law, and that’s without even considering the legal issues arising from America disregarding national sovereignty to rendition prisoners anywhere it pleases. It is painfully ironic that the US, defining itself in opposition to “the terrorists”, has resorted to terrorising its prisoners in the process.

How we can begin to undo the colossal damage wrought by twelve years of the War on Terror, to compensate for the multitude of human rights abuses, to repair crucial international relations, is still very much an open question. It will require at least the same level of will and resources that have been pumped into the war itself. A place to begin, however, is the closing of Guantánamo Bay. Despite everything, we are very fortunate in 2013 to be welcoming Obama rather than Romney back to the White House. Making the president honour his pledge to close this detention centre would be highly symbolic – a sign that the people of the West will no longer tolerate the injustices of their leadership.


Hrant Dink: a Man who died for his Journalism


Six years after the assassination of Hrant Dink, a Turkish journalist of Armenian origin, freedom of expression for journalists is still threatened in Turkey and many other countries in the world. Hrant Dink was  assassinated in 2007 for openly saying that Turkey should reconcile with its past and recognise the Armenian Genocide. He was assassinated because he believed in peace and was not scared to claim his right to free speech. This assassination shocked people across the world. “I am Armenian! I am Hrant Dink”, was the cry from the Turkish public over Dink’s death. Over 100,000 people attended his funeral.

But this assassination also reflects the wider situation around freedom of expression for journalists in Turkey. Before his assassination, in 2005, Hrant Dink was accused by the Turkish Courts of insulting the Turkish nation under Article 301 of the Turkish Criminal Code. He was accused after speaking openly about a taboo subject; the Armenian genocide. On one occasion, he wrote, “Of course I’m saying it is genocide, because its consequences show it to be true and label it so. We see that people who had lived on this soil for 4000 years were exterminated by these events.”

Article 301 states that insulting the Turkish nation, the State of the Turkish Republic, the Turkish Grand Assembly, the government of the Republic of Turkey or the judicial organs of the state are criminal offences. Moreover it is stated in Articles 218 and 318 that propagating these ideas through the press is considered an aggravating circumstance and increases the punishment by half. The European Court of Human Rights’ judgement in the case Dink v. Turkey in 2010 ruled that Article 301 of the Turkish Criminal Code and Dink’s trial itself were a violation of the right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the  European Convention on Human Rights. Amnesty International expressed its concerns following the charges against Hrant Dink, who declared during his trial that, “This is a political decision because I wrote about the Armenian Genocide, and they detest that, so they found a way to accuse me of insulting Turks”.

The amendments made to Article 301 by the Turkish authorities in 2008, which mainly consist of replacing the phrase “denigration of Turkishness” with the phrase “denigration of Turkish State”, and reduces the maximum penalty from three years to two, were only formal changes in the legal texts in order to convince Europe that the law had been “reformed”, which would improve Turkey’s chances of joining the European Union. The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights in his 2011 report, states that “104 journalists faced trials in 2010 in connection with what could be considered freedom of expression cases”.

Cases of journalists being fired for criticising the government are a recurrent problem in Turkey. In 2012, Nuray Mert, a journalist from the Milliyet newspaper, was fired after being publically criticised by the Prime Minister for her articles. Problems around freedom of expression also affect the mass-media—the classical pianist Fazil Say was charged for insulting religious values because he re-tweeted a mocking poem from a Persian poet.

In recent years, a number of investigative journalists have been killed in Europe in very strange circumstances. In his Human Rights comment published in 2011, Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe Commissioner of Human Rights at the time, points out some of them: the kidnapping and assassination of Ukranian journalist Georgiy Gongadze in 2001 and the assassination of Elmar Huseynov in Azerbaidjan are just two examples. He also stresses that the killers of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya were not brought to justice, and that the authorities lack the determination and will to find the people behind her murder.

Don’t kill journalists, because journalists are, as Hrant Dink said, “like a pigeon, equally obsessed by what goes-on on the left and right, front and back”, and they are the mirror through which we see the reality of the world. Don’t kill journalists, because they are the cornerstone of our democracy.



The Arms Trade Treaty: the Last Stand


What if there was a way to dramatically reduce armed violence, conflict and civil unrest, violations of international law, abuses of children’s rights, civilian casualties, humanitarian crises and missed social and economic opportunities?

According to a report by United Nations  Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, all of these problems could be combatted if the multi-billion-pound market in illicit weapons sales was regulated by an international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). Yet several nations held up the historic Arms Trade Treaty Conference last July by seeking potential loopholes and asking for more time, including the world’s biggest arms trader: the United States. And, despite 157 states voting in favour of finalising the ATT this March, powerful lobbies continue to oppose the Treaty. With one person dying every minute in armed conflict, it is important to combat these lobbies and their deceptive claims before the treaty negotiations begin again.

 In particular, America’s National Rifle Association (NRA) continues to misleadingly assert that an ATT would infringe upon Americans’ constitutional right to bear arms. The NRA’s opposition to any trade regulations of civilian, as well as military arms, is incredibly damaging. With 650 million of the 875 million weapons in the world in the hands of civilians, many of which are used to perpetrate gross human rights abuses, it is vitally important to regulate the sale of all weapons.  Yet Jeff Abramson of Control Arms reminds us that the draft treaty under discussion specifically excludes arms-related “matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any State”. That is to say, the ATT will not stop NRA members or responsible American citizens bearing arms, but it will lessen the guns being traded into the hands of civilian groups known to be problematic.

A second, common objection to the ATT is that other nations fail to improve their export policies without a treaty, and thus clearly lack any intention to regulate their arms trade. First, it is important to note that it is not only other nations who fail to responsibly manage their weapons. For example, the USA is one of the main arms suppliers to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where weapons and ammunitions fuel human rights violations that include rape, abductions, looting and unlawful killings. The UK, too, is responsible for selling arms to several corrupt regimes who turned these weapons on civilians during the peaceful uprisings of the Arab Spring. Of course, the critics are right to say that this treaty won’t be a panacea: even if the USA, the UK and others clean up their arms exports, some unscrupulous governments will continue to ignore the rules. Crucially, however, a treaty will enable “global civil society and governments supporting the rule of law and human rights… to hold these unscrupulous governments [sic] to account and keep working to improve the treaty rules on critical issues, such as sea and air drones and labour weapons” says Brian Wood,  Arms Control Manager at Amnesty International.

To begin to reduce human rights abuses being perpetrated across the globe, we need an Arms Trade Treaty that has a comprehensive scope, includes all types of government arms, is enforceable and transparent, and enters quickly into force. After 23,786 signatures were gained and 12,000 Amnesty International members wrote to the UK government, David Cameron committed to an treaty that has human rights at its core. Now we must make sure that all other governments make the same pledge and, crucially, lobby Obama’s new administration to lead the way. If you think it is absurd that the sale of dinosaur bones and bananas is regulated, but not the sale of arms, join the University’s campaigns societies from the  25th of February as they campaign for a bulletproof Arms Trade Treaty in the run up to the final round of negotiations in March.


Chad Prison Conditions: a Deathly State of Affairs


Prison conditions in the central African country of Chad are not widely known about; a fact the authorities are undoubtedly pleased to hear, because if more people did know I would like to think that there would be such disgust as to cause an uproar. In fact, Chad is not widely known about at all; when you type it into Google, a magazine from a town in Nottingham appears above any reference to the country!

Let me explain just some of the problems in Chad, as there are too many to list here. The prisoners lives are at real risk; severe overcrowding (most prisons are operating at four or five times their intended capacity) and unventilated cells leading to temperatures of 48degrees Celsius have contributed to Amnesty calling the prisoners situation ‘a death sentence.’ Deaths in the last year have included seven prisoners shot by prison guards, nine deaths through a lack of oxygen and five by dehydration. Water is scarce and inmates are sometimes asked by the guards for money to buy drinking water. Furthermore, prisoners are given poor quality food once a day in groups, with the weaker ones frequently receiving nothing.

Illness and disease are rife, with skin diseases resulting from being chained 24 hours a day and STIs including malaria and tuberculosis are commonplace. Access to healthcare is almost non-existent; not a single prison in the country has a doctor on their staff, leaving prisoners with medical skills to provide treatment to other inmates. Amnesty highlighted a situation where a detainee sentenced to two years imprisonment for practising medicine illegally was treating fellow prisoners.

And it gets even worse. Males and females are held in the same cells including children as young as 7 – victims of a system which has no child detention or rehabilitation facilities. Rape by guards and other prisoners is common for female prisoners in Chad. Furthermore, it’s not just prisoners affected; poor hygiene, including blocked sewage systems, also affect the local community.

The root of the problem comes down to the corrupt system. Staff are not regularly paid and are therefore susceptible to bribes, often releasing prisoners early in return for money. Access to lawyers is very limited, leading to countless ‘forgotten detainees’ that judicial authorities are unaware of. Inefficiency also means that prisoners are often detained for months after a decision to release them is pronounced by a judge. Only 2% of the annual budget of Chad is allocated to the justice sector and mainly covers staff salaries, leaving little left over to improve the system.

But it’s not all bad news. Amnesty International has called on the Chadian government to ensure that food, medicine and portable water are available in all prisons, and that conditions are in line with domestic legislation and international standards. The aim is to ensure that authorities protect both the physical and mental integrity of inmates and that their security is not jeopardized at any time. With the assistance of the international community, including donor countries, the authorities can reform the prison sector along with the whole criminal justice system. But will they? Amnesty are doing something about it and through fundraising, petitioning, campaigning and raising awareness, so can we. We have an amazing opportunity here in Exeter to improve the lives of countless prisoners by being part of a movement that could ensure that prison reform is a practical realisation in Chad. Let’s use that opportunity to make a difference and do something that we can be really proud of.