A Burmese man who spent eight years in direct provision has won his Supreme Court appeal over the legal ban preventing him from working.
In a significant decision on Tuesday, the seven-judge Supreme Court unanimously found in favour of the man, but adjourned the matter for six months to allow the legislature consider how to address the situation.
The court found that, “in principle”, the ban in the Refugee Act on asylum seekers seeking employment, is contrary to the constitutional right to seek employment.
The decision could have major implications for other asylum seekers.
Giving the court’s judgment, Mr Justice Donal O’Donnell said the man was eight years in the asylum system before getting refugee status.
While the State can legitimately have a policy of restricting employment of asylum seekers, Section 9.4 of the Refugee Act does “not just severely limit” the right to seek work for asylum seekers, but “removes it altogether”, he said.
If there is no limit on the time for processing an asylum application, that could amount to an absolute prohibition on employment, no matter how long a person was within the system, he said.
He could not accept that if a right is in principle available, that it is an appropriate and permissible differentiation between citizens and non-citizens, and in particular between citizens and asylum seekers, to remove the right for all time for asylum seekers.
“The point has been reached when it cannot be said the legitimate differences between an asylum seeker and a citizen can continue to justify the exclusion of an asylum seeker from the possibility of employment,” he said.
“This damage to the individual’s’ self worth and sense of themselves, is exactly the damage which the constitutional right [to seek employment] seeks to guard against.”
The evidence from the man of the depression, frustration and lack of self-belief at being unable to work “bears this out”, he added.
He said, in principle, he would be prepared to find, in circumstances where there is no temporal limit on the asylum process, the “absolute prohibiton” on seeking of employment in Section 9.4, and re-enacted in Section 16.3.b of the International Protection Act 2015, “is contrary to the constitutional right to seek employment”.
Because this situation arises because of the intersection of a number of statutory provisions, and could arguably be met by alteration of one or other of those, and since that was “first and foremost a matter for executive and legislative judgment” , the court would adjourn consideration of what form of order to make for six months, he said.
After that period elapsed, the court would hear submissions from the sides as to what form of order should be made “in the light of the circumstances then obtaining”.
Represented by Michael Lynn SC, the man’s case was brought against the Minister for Justice, with the Attorney General and Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission as notice parties.
The man had argued, while living in direct provision on a €19 weekly allowance, he suffered depression, “almost complete loss of autonomy” and being allowed work was vital to his development, personal dignity and “sense of self worth”.
Shortly after coming here in late 2008, he was refused refugee status, but appealed. After the High Court found errors in how his applications were decided, there were re-hearings before the Refugee Appeals Tribunal which last September granted him refugee status.
Because that meant he could legitimately seek employment, the State argued the Supreme Court should dismiss as pointless his appeal against the Court of Appeal’s 2/1 rejection of his case.
Lawyers for the man and IHREC urged the court to address the issues and, in its judgment on Tuesday, the court said it had decided to do so for reasons including the case raised a point of law of general public importance.
In dismissing the man’s case last year, a majority Court of Appeal ruled the open-ended nature of the ban on work did not mean Section 9.4 is unconstitutional and rejected as “too broad a proposition” non-Irish citizens enjoy the same general rights as Irish citizens.
Mr Justice Gerard Hogan disagreed.
He ruled the man has a personal right under Article 40.3 of the Constitution to work here and Section 9.4. unconstitutionally struck at the “very substance” of that constitutional right.
Published on The Irish Times on May 30, 2017.
By Babak Dehghanpisheh
In the week before the May 19 presidential election in Iran, the eventual victor, Hassan Rouhani, criticised the judiciary and the powerful Revolutionary Guards with rhetoric rarely heard in public in the Islamic republic.
Now, in the eyes of his supporters, it is time to deliver. Millions of Rouhani's followers expect him to keep pushing on human rights issues.
"The majority of Iranians have made it clear that they want improvement on human rights," said Hadi Ghaemi, the director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), a New York-based advocacy group. "Expectations are running high."
That message came through loud and clear shortly before Rouhani, who won re-election with more than 57 percent of the vote, took the stage at a gathering of supporters in Tehran last week.
"Ya Hussein, Mirhossein" went the thunderous chant, a reference to Mirhossein Mousavi, a presidential candidate in the 2009 election, who, along with fellow candidate Mehdi Karroubi disputed the results, spurring widespread protests.
Dozens of protestors were killed and hundreds arrested in the crackdown that followed, according to human rights groups.
Mousavi, his wife Zahra, and Karroubi, were placed under house arrest in 2011 after calling for protests in Iran in solidarity with pro-democracy uprisings across the Middle East.
The trio's continued detention is a divisive political issue in Iran and one that Rouhani has promised to resolve.
But if he keeps pushing, he will face a backlash from his hardline opponents which could undermine his second term, analysts say.
At the rally, it took several minutes for the announcer to quiet the crowd before another chant broke out: "Our message is clear, house arrest must be broken".
Along with those arrests, more than 20 journalists and activists were arrested in the lead-up to the elections according to CHRI, an issue which has also been raised by Rouhani supporters.
Many political prisoners are kept in solitary confinement and not allowed to see their families for long periods of time, according to human rights groups.
Iran has one of world's highest rates of capital punishment. At least 530 people were executed in 2016, according to a United Nations report.
Rouhani's supporters also expect him to fight for basic rights that affect their daily lives, like preventing security forces from harassing women for the way they dress or the judiciary from cancelling concerts.
During his first term, Rouhani made the signing of an agreement with Western powers, which lifted a large number of sanctions in exchange for curbs on Iran's nuclear program, his top priority.
As a result, human rights issues were sidelined, analysts say. But now that the nuclear agreement is being implemented, his supporters are waiting for change.
Rouhani's decisive election win may have finally given him the opportunity to address human rights issues.
"As the head of the executive branch, Mr. Rouhani and his colleagues must use this opportunity to the maximum," parliamentarian Gholamreza Tajgardoon said last week, according to the Iranian Labour News Agency (ILNA).
But signs are emerging that hardliners are ready for a fight.
Iran's judiciary chief hit back at Rouhani on Monday for bringing up the issue of the house arrest of opposition leaders during his campaign.
"Who are you to break the house arrests?" Larijani said without naming Rouhani, according to the judiciary news site Mizan.
Larijani said the Supreme National Security Council must take the initial decision to end the house arrests and then the judiciary would step in.
Any attempt to resolve this issue outside this legal procedure would be seen as an attempt to stoke up unrest similar to 2009, he said, according to Mizan.
"We're issuing a warning that they should wrap this issue up otherwise the judiciary, with authority, will wrap this issue up itself," Larijani said.
Meanwhile, the restrictions continue.
Karroubi, 79, served as speaker of parliament before running for president in 2005 and 2009. He now stays largely on the upper floor of his house in Tehran and gets exercise by walking indoors, according to his son Mohammad Taghi. His only sources of information are local newspapers and state TV.
Security agents stay on the premises around the clock and do not allow him to have access to the phone or Internet.
Taghi, speaking by telephone, said the house arrest had backfired, raising the profile and importance of his father and the other detainees.
"If the goal is to cut off their political ties, what we've seen is that the passage of these six or seven years hasn't had any effect," he said. "In fact, the limitations and problems have increased their impact in society."
Little progress can be made on any human rights issue without the approval of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the highest power in the country.
"Since becoming Supreme Leader in 1989, Khamenei has sought to weaken every Iranian president in their second term," said Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment.
"Given how directly Rouhani challenged Khamenei during the campaign this tradition is likely to continue."
Published on Reuters on May 30, 2017.
The Italian coast guard and rescue agencies said that they had found dozens of bodies in the water, "mostly toddlers." The Libyan coast guard has been criticized recently for its treatment of the would-be migrants.
Dozens of refugees, most of them small children, drowned in the Mediterranean on Wednesday in the latest tragedy to befall migrants escaping famine and conflict in Africa and the Middle East.
Rescue group MOAS announced it had found the bodies while the Italian coast guard said that it had been forced to call in reinforcements in recent days as some 1,700 people had been packed in 15 small boats.
MOAS founder Chris Catrambone showed an update on the situation on Twitter:
"Not a scene from a horror movie... Real life tragedy unfolding on Europe's doorstep today!" Catrambone wrote.
Some 50,000 migrants have been rescued at sea en route to Italy this so far this year, a 46 percent increase over the same period in 2016. In that time, some 1,300 have lost their lives during the perilous crossing.
Despite huge efforts on the part of the Italian government, European Union, and internationally-recognized authorities in Libya - the conflict in the latter means that human smugglers are usually able to operate with complete freedom.
Libya's own strategy has taken a more violent turn as of late. The German NGO Jugend Rettet said on Tuesday that it had rescued some migrants whose boat had been fired upon by the Libyan coast guard, ostensibly in an effort to hit the human traffickers running the vessel. When Libyan authorities find refugee boats and tow them back to their own shores, they reportedly bring the would-be migrants straight to detention centers renowned for human rights abuses.
Published on DW on May 23, 2017.
A landmark ruling by Taiwan’s highest court means it is close to becoming the first in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage, Amnesty International said.
On Wednesday, judges in Taiwan’s Constitutional Court ruled that the country’s current marriage law is unconstitutional as it discriminates against same-sex couples. The judges have given lawmakers two years to amend or enact relevant laws.
“The judges have today said yes to marriage equality. This is a huge step forward for LGBTI rights in Taiwan and will resonate across Asia,” said Lisa Tassi, East Asia Campaigns Director at Amnesty International.
“Lawmakers must act swiftly to ensure Taiwan becomes the first in Asia to make genuine marriage equality a reality.”
A draft bill on same-sex marriage is currently being considered by Taiwan’s legislature. Amnesty International urges lawmakers to legalize same-sex marriage in Taiwan, on the same basis and with the same rights as marriage between couples of different sex.
“As today’s ruling makes clear, whoever you love, everyone is entitled to the same human rights and equal protection under the law,” said Lisa Tassi.
“Amnesty International activists across the world will continue to urge Taiwan’s government to say yes to equality.”
In April this year, Amnesty International activists from more than 40 countries sent messages of support urging Taiwan to “say yes” to marriage equality.
Published on AI's website on May 24, 2017.
By Gabriela Baczynska
European Union countries urged Poland's nationalist-minded government on Tuesday to address concerns that it is undermining democratic checks and balances, in a dispute that has highlighted growing tensions between western and eastern Europe.
In the first such debate among EU ministers of the 28-nation bloc, Poland accused Brussels of trying to impose its views by "diktat" but only Hungary took Warsaw's side.
The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, opened an unprecedented probe in January 2016 into perceived threats to the rule of law in Poland. The Commission's Vice President Frans Timmermans has spent more than a year exchanging letters and issuing recommendations that Warsaw has refused to heed.
"There was broad agreement around the table today that rule of law is a common responsibility and we should continue dialogue with Poland," Timmermans, a Dutchman, told reporters after the discussions.
Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Konrad Szymanski said Warsaw shared the EU's commitment to the rule of law, but denied that its policies undermined it.
"The conclusions of the meeting are that the dialogue should continue, which we agree with, and that the EU is a union of values where the rule of law plays an important role. We are in complete agreement with that as well," Szymanski said.
"But we do not agree with interpretations presented by the European Commission... A one-sided expectation that we will implement recommendations is not dialogue but diktat."
Poland's conservative, eurosceptic ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS), has brought the judiciary and public media under more direct state control, prompting concerns among political opponents and rights groups that it is infringing basic rights and freedoms and also the constitutional separation of powers.
Szymanski sought to present the dispute as one between Warsaw and the Commission, but a majority of member states including heavyweights Germany, France and Italy backed the Brussels-based executive.
Belgium and France suggested that Poland should face consequences if it does not change tack. Many said the case should be discussed among all EU states again.
"This is a clear signal. The Polish government should not think nobody cares and that they can get away with whatever," one EU diplomat said.
Hungary, whose Prime Minister Viktor Orban is a close ally of PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, backed Poland in Tuesday's debate, while the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Lithuania remained neutral. Britain, which hopes to retain good ties with Poland after it quits the EU, also avoided direct criticism.
Poland's dispute with the Commission is part of broader tensions between the more affluent western EU states such as Germany and the ex-communist easterners over issues such as immigration and the handling of asylum-seekers.
If Warsaw refuses to budge, the EU could theoretically strip it of voting rights in the bloc but this would require unanimity and Hungary would probably veto such a step.
But a prolonged impasse could reinforce western European states' push to deepen integration among themselves and also sap their willingness to pay generously for the development of eastern European economies and infrastructure.
Poland is now the biggest beneficiary of such spending.
Published on Reuters on May 16, 2017.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on Tuesday announced a landmark five-year partnership with Microsoft Corp. As part of the agreement, Microsoft will provide a grant of $5 million (USD) to support the work of the UN Human Rights Office. This represents an unprecedented level of support from a private-sector organization.
A particular area of focus for the partnership will be the development and use of advanced technology designed to better predict, analyze and respond to critical human rights situations, which currently appear not only to be proliferating in many parts of the world — including areas previously viewed as stable — but also growing in complexity.
The new partnership builds on a longstanding relationship between the UN Human Rights Office and Microsoft that is based on two shared ideas. The first is a commitment to ensuring technology plays a positive role in helping to promote and protect human rights. The second is a recognition of the need for the private sector to play a bigger part in helping to advance the cause of human rights globally.
“As a global company that sees the problems of the world, we believe that we have a responsibility to help solve them,” said Microsoft President Brad Smith. “We have an untapped opportunity to use the power of technology to collect data, analyze that data and equip the United Nations to advance human rights around the world.”
Technology for human rights
While in some cases technology may contribute to human rights challenges, it also has an important role to play in tackling abuses. The grant from Microsoft will help establish technology that has a positive impact, for example by developing and deploying new technology solutions specifically designed to advance the mission of the UN Human Rights Office and protect human rights.
One example is Rights View, an information “dashboard” that will allow UN human rights staff to aggregate large quantities of internal and external data on specific countries and types of rights violations in real time. It will help facilitate analysis, ensure early warning of emerging critical issues and provide data to guide responses. This tool, powered by cloud computing and big data analysis, is just one example of the potential for technology to be a force for good.
Business and human rights
Microsoft will also work with the UN Human Rights Office to raise awareness of the role that companies can and should play in driving respect for human rights and to promote more responsible business conduct across the world. Microsoft will work closely with the Office to help promote broader adoption and implementation of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The UN Guiding Principles provide a global standard for preventing and addressing the risk of adverse impacts on human rights linked to business activity.
Microsoft will also provide support for human rights advocacy and outreach campaigns through concrete support for the work of the UN Human Rights Office in key areas like freedom of expression, data protection and privacy, and inclusion. This includes direct support for the development and promotion of corporate principles for tackling LGBTI discrimination in the workplace in line with international human rights standards.
“This could be a truly groundbreaking agreement,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. “We live in a rapidly evolving age, where technology can either be used to solve human rights problems or misused to erode human rights. Similarly, companies can infringe people’s rights, or they can be a major progressive force.”
“The private sector has an essential role to play in advancing human rights, and this partnership with Microsoft demonstrates how we can join forces in a constructive way,” Zeid said. “I hope this is just the beginning of something much bigger: that it helps stimulate a broad movement by the private sector to stand up for human rights. Increased support from major companies in the technology sector and other fields can clearly make a critical difference.”
Published on Microsoft's website on May 16, 2017.
By Daniel Politi
Worried that the men who committed some of Argentina’s most heinous human rights abuses could be freed from jail years early, hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the country’s streets on Wednesday.
The demonstrations were in response to a Supreme Court ruling this month that reduced the sentence of a man convicted of crimes against humanity during the country’s military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983.
The court’s decision led to a flood of requests for the same leniency from others imprisoned for kidnapping, torture and murder. Activists warned that the ruling could pave the way for the early release of some of the era’s most notorious offenders.
But widespread repudiation of the ruling by the public, culminating in the day of protest, which organizers said had drawn half a million people in Buenos Aires alone, forced an uncharacteristically quick and united response from political leaders here.
After just two days of debate, Argentina’s Congress on Wednesday passed a bill intended to prevent any shortening of prison terms for those sentenced for crimes against humanity. The vote was nearly unanimous, almost unheard-of in the country’s divided political landscape.
Hours before the protests began, President Mauricio Macri also came out against the decision, saying he was “against any tool that favors impunity.” His administration had initially emphasized the need to respect the independence of the courts, but changed tack as opposition mounted, and helped push the bill through Congress. It became law on Friday.
Experts say the developments of the week follow a historical pattern.
“On human rights issues, the political and institutional actions have always come after a demand from society as a whole,” said Gastón Chillier, the executive director of the Center for Legal and Social Studies, a human rights group in Argentina.
While it now appears very unlikely that hundreds of human rights abusers will be leaving prison ahead of schedule, activists said the court’s decision exemplified the way in which Mr. Macri had adopted a less aggressive approach to dealing with one of the darkest chapters in Argentina’s history.
Two of the three justices who signed on to the decision were appointed by Mr. Macri, who took office in 2015, and activists say the ruling fits a pattern of his administration’s tamping down efforts to seek justice for the atrocities carried out during the dictatorship.
Trying those crimes was a centerpiece of the policy of the former presidents Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who served from 2007 to 2015, and Néstor Kirchner, her husband, who led the country from 2003 to 2007.
The court decision “surprised and angered us, but it isn’t incoherent with the philosophy of the current government,” said Estela Barnes de Carlotto, who leads Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group of women searching for the hundreds of newborn babies stolen from their mothers in clandestine detention centers during the dictatorship.
“It took Macri a whole week to say anything,” said Victoria Durán, a demonstrator at the Wednesday protest in Buenos Aires.
As protesters packed the Plaza de Mayo square in Buenos Aires, they sang: “What happened to the Nazis will happen to you. Wherever you go, we will go after you.”
Marta Mamaní, 64, went to the march carrying a photo of her sister Olga Mamaní and her brother-in-law Luis Torres, both killed by the military after they disappeared in June 1976.
“The people who killed my sister can’t be walking the streets,” she said. “This march is a huge victory, but it tastes very bittersweet.”
The man to be freed early by the court’s ruling, Luis Muiña, was convicted of torture and other crimes.
When Gladis Cuervo, 77, heard that the top court had reduced Mr. Muiña’s sentence, “I immediately felt despair, anxiety and a lot of pain,” she said.
Mr. Muiña was a security guard at the Posadas Hospital in Buenos Aires Province who helped set up a clandestine detention center there after the military junta’s takeover. Ms. Cuervo, a nurse at the hospital, testified at Mr. Muiña’s trial that he was one of those who tortured her when she was illegally detained for two months, breaking her sternum in beatings and burning parts of her body.
Mr. Muiña was sentenced in 2011 to 13 years in prison for kidnapping and torturing five people during the dictatorship.
In its 3-to-2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Mr. Muiña had the right to benefit from a law, which has since been revoked, that says the time a person spends in prison before a conviction should count double toward the sentencing total. A calculation by a lower court found that meant Mr. Muiña should have been freed in November last year. Mr. Muiña was already out of prison on parole when the ruling was issued.
The law, known as “two for one,” was in effect from 1994 to 2001 and had never before been used in a human rights case.
The attorney general’s office, an independent arm of the government now run by an ally of the previous administration, estimated that 278 people, or 52 percent of those sentenced for human rights crimes who are currently detained, could have seen a reduction in their sentence based on the Supreme Court ruling.
But the government is confident that none of these criminals will have their sentences slashed because of the bill passed by Congress clarifying that the “two for one” law cannot apply to human rights cases.
“We think it’s a law that will be applied immediately, so the ruling won’t have any real impact,” said Germán Garavano, the justice and human rights minister.
On Friday, the Supreme Court said it would gather all the pending appeals in its docket to apply the “two for one” law to crimes against humanity cases, opening the door to a new ruling on the issue as early as next month.
Until that happens, some of the most well-known names from that time of state-sanctioned terror will continue seeking shorter sentences.
The Rev. Christian von Wernich, a former police chaplain convicted in 2007 for his involvement in seven murders and 42 kidnappings, asked a judge to reconsider his life sentence. During his trial, witnesses recounted how Father von Wernich was present at torture sessions and used his position as a priest to extract confessions in what became an emblematic case that illustrated how the Catholic Church often cooperated with the military junta.
When discussing the Macri administration’s stance toward the time of the dictatorship, activists often cite how some officials, including the president, have questioned the number of people who died or disappeared during the era.
While official records estimate that 9,000 people were killed or disappeared, human rights groups say the real number is closer to 30,000. Mr. Macri told a BuzzFeed reporter last year that he had “no idea” what the number was.
“Whether they were 9,000 or 30,000,” he added, “it’s a pointless discussion.”
His government has dismantled human rights departments in several ministries that were helping investigate dictatorship-era crimes, and members of the administration have met with those who back the so-called two demons theory that the state actions were the result of a civil war against armed leftist groups.
That change in attitude has spilled over to the courts, activists say.
“Although the judiciary is relatively independent, it is clearly malleable to the agenda of the government that is in power,” Mr. Chillier, the human rights advocate, said.
Mrs. Kirchner commented on Twitter shortly after the decision. “Argentina has gone back 20 years in terms of human rights,” she wrote. “This ruling would not have happened in the previous government.”
While human rights groups celebrated the quick turn of events as a rare victory in the Macri era, they vowed to stay alert about what could happen next.
“This government has never been interested in human rights,” said Nora Cortiñas, 87, a leader of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo Founding Line, a group made up of women whose children were killed during the dictatorship. “We stood up to a dictatorship and are still fighting — why would we stop now?”
Published on the NY Times on May 13, 2017.
An estimated 500,000 people cross into Mexico every year. The majority making up this massive forced migration flow originate from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, known as the Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA), one of the most violent regions in the world today.
Since 2012, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has been providing medical and mental health care to tens of thousands of migrants and refugees fleeing the NTCA’s extreme violence and traveling along the world’s largest migration corridor in Mexico. Through violence assessment surveys and medical and psychosocial consultations, MSF teams have witnessed and documented a pattern of violent displacement, persecution, sexual violence, and forced repatriation akin to the conditions found in the deadliest armed conflicts in the world today.
For millions of people from the NTCA region, trauma, fear, and horrific violence are dominant facets of daily life. Yet it is a reality that does not end with their forced flight to Mexico. Along the migration route from the NTCA, migrants and refugees are preyed upon by criminal organizations, sometimes with the tacit approval or complicity of national authorities, and subjected to violence and other abuses—abduction, theft, extortion, torture, and rape—that can leave them injured and traumatized.
Despite existing legal protections under Mexican law, they are systematically detained and deported. Nearly 98 percent of NTCA citizens were captured by immigration authorities in 2015, with devastating consequences on their physical and mental health.
The findings of this report, based on surveys and medical programmatic data from the past two years, come against the backdrop of heightened immigration enforcement by Mexico and the United States, including the use of detention and deportation. Such practices threaten to drive more refugees and migrants into the brutal hands of smugglers or criminal organizations.
By Gabriela Baczynska
A "ferry service" that encourages people smugglers or an essential humanitarian rescue service that saves thousands of African migrants making a dangerous sea crossing to Europe?
This debate among EU officials about the role of aid groups in the Mediterranean highlights their dilemma between the moral and legal obligation of helping those in need, and growing pressure from voters to keep them away.
Escaping wars and poverty, more than 360,000 refugees and migrants made it to European shores across the Mediterranean last year. Most of them arrived on EU rescue vessels.
Thousands more have drowned at sea, loaded by human traffickers onto boats unsuitable for the long journey between Libya and Italy.
The EU's approach has increasingly shifted toward keeping people away, drawing widespread condemnation from rights groups but going some way to soothing nervous voters. One official in Brussels said there was no choice but to take the NGOs to task.
"We can't avoid doing it. As much as it is harmful to the migrants. With the NGOs operating so close to the Libyan shores, it is tantamount to providing a ferry service," the official said.
"It's almost as if the smugglers were putting people directly on NGO boats."
Appalled by the loss of life, aid groups such as Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), MOAS, Sea Watch, SOS Mediterranee, Sea Eye, Jugend Rettet, Save the Children and others have stepped up their search and rescue operations and moved closer to the Libyan coast.
That is further south than EU, NATO and merchant vessels are prepared to go because of legal, security and political concerns.
MSF says the move is essential for saving more lives.
"If you want to have an impact, you have to be able to rescue them as close to the shore as possible," said Aurelie Ponthieu of MSF in Brussels.
The subject is being debated around the EU. Belgium's migration minister, Theo Francken said in March that MSF was encouraging people smugglers, earning him a swift rebuke from his prime minister Charles Michel who told him to "respect humanitarian work".
Aid groups deny helping people smugglers in any way. (For a graphic on refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean into Europe, click tmsnrt.rs/2pESA6g)
BOATS WITH NO ENGINE
The main route for African migrants to Europe claimed nearly 4,600 lives in 2016 and some 1,300 so far this year, according to U.N. data.
A further 50,000 people were rescued last year from capsized boats or overcrowded dinghies, EU border agency Frontex said.
MSF and other NGOs stepped up their rescue efforts in the last migratory season, which starts in the spring when the seas are calmer, and moved them inshore.
Frontex says this has allowed people smugglers to maximize their profits by using flimsier boats, providing tiny amounts of fuel or food, and sometimes removing the engines, resulting in more casualties.
The agency called for the role of the NGOs to be examined.
Authorities in the Italian port of Catania have opened a fact-finding probe into the role of NGOs. When chief prosecutor, Carmelo Zuccaro, first launched the probe in February, he said he was looking for any signs of collusion between NGOs and people smugglers.
The Italian parliament is also looking into the role of the NGOs in the search and rescue operations near the Libyan coast.
"We have to strike the right balance between saving lives and making sure our actions don't fuel a criminal business...by encouraging criminals to adapt their modus operandi to the fact that there will be vessels approaching Libya," Frontex head Fabrice Leggeri told Reuters.
A MATTER OF HOURS
Leggeri said nearly half of all search and rescue operations are now carried out by NGOs, making it harder for governments to control the process.
"My point was not to blame the NGOs or to blame anybody. It was just to highlight facts... The paradox we have is that in 2016 there was the highest number of vessels patrolling there. (...) Nevertheless, we also had the highest number of casualties," he said.
MSF and other aid groups involved in search and rescue operations (SARs) say their only goal is to save lives.
"We are doing proactive SARs, not sitting back and waiting for when it's too late. None of these boats will make it. It's a matter of hours before these people die or drown," said Ponthieu.
But many EU officials say the NGOs are encouraging the flow, even if unwittingly.
"We have always seen these rescue operations as a pull factor. If migrants know they will be rescued, they will come," said one EU diplomat in Brussels.
The NGOs say they are being made the scapegoat for the EU's own failure to manage migration as politicians tap into higher anti-immigration sentiment among voters.
Deputy head of the EU's executive arm, Frans Timmermans has come out strongly on the side of the NGOs.
"Saving lives at sea and looking after vulnerable people... is not the same as promoting irregular migration," he said last month.
"There is no evidence whatsoever of NGOs working with criminal smuggling networks to help migrants enter into the EU."
Published on Reuters' website on May 12, 2017.
By Jewel Ike-Obioha
Freedom of the press or media is the freedom of communication and expression through various mediums including electronic media and published materials.
Article 8 of the Tunisian constitution states “the liberties of opinion, expression, the press, publication, assembly and association are guaranteed and exercised within the conditions defined by the law.” Article 1 of the press code provides for “freedom of the press, publishing, printing, distributing and sale of books and publications.”
One would ask if these statements are actually upheld or mere penned down fallacies to justify the press freedom or the lack thereof.
Since the removal of strongman President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2001, Tunisia’s once-stead media have enjoyed a new lease of life but activists and politicians say the government is now seeking to impose some of the same types of controls as before. Media in Tunisia under President Ben Ali was among the most repressed in Africa and the Arab world in part because of his crackdown on opposition and criticism of his autocratic government.
In recent times, however, things are not looking up for the press in Tunisia and their advances are under threat since two major attacks in 2015 killed more than 60 foreign tourists and increased fears of insecurity. Tunisia has since been under a state of emergency and this has given some officials leverage to curtail some rights in the name of national security.
“Government officials seek to control the media and exert pressure through telephone instructions and practices of the old regime have returned” Neji Bghouri, President of the Tunisian journalists union, said during a news conference.
Kahoula Chabeh, a member of the Tunisian journalists union, said that 41 local and foreign journalists were beaten by police, harassed, insulted or treated aggressively just last month in attempts to prevent them from working.
“Police have returned to old practices to tighten up control on journalists, harass them and intervene in their work under the pretext of the state of emergency and the fight against religious extremism,” Bghouri said.
Other African countries are not left out in this press repression that has eaten deep into the continent’s roots.
Press repression in Uganda
In January of 2015, Lwanga was attacked by a police officer while he, Lwanga, was covering a protest march in Kampala on January 21, 2015. The police officer hit Lwanga with a baton multiple times on his shoulders and head until he fell to the ground, and as he fell, the officer drove his boots into Lwanga’s back, damaging his spine in the process. In March 2017, the officer, Joram Mwesigye, was found guilty of assault by a Ugandan court.
Abdullahi Halakhe, Amnesty International’s East Africa Researcher said about the ruling: “Today’s ruling is a rare victory for freedom of the press in Uganda. It sends a clear message that attacks on journalists must never be accepted or tolerated under any circumstances. It will hopefully assure people working in the media that the courts are watching; willing and ready to uphold their rights.
“Press freedom has become increasingly restricted in Uganda with numerous attacks on media outlets seen as critical of the government in the past year. Today’s court decision offers a chink of light in an otherwise bleak outlook and demonstrates that the judiciary is prepared to defend freedom of expression.”
Four journalists tortured in Sudan
On 5th April 2017, Amnesty International reported that the torture of two journalists abducted en route to Jebel Marra, in Sudan’s Darfur region is not only a grave affront to press freedom but also proof the Sudanese authorities have something to hide in the region. The journalists were abducted due to their persistent investigation on the Darfur chemical attacks that occurred earlier in the year.
“For nearly two months, the two journalists were locked up in a prison and tortured, simply for doing their job. They were beaten, subjected to electric shocks, deliberately deprived of oxygen and subjected to mock executions,” said Muthoni Wanyeki, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes.
President John Magufuli’s attack on press freedom in Tanzania
In Tanzania, just like Tunisia and most African countries, while the constitution provides for the freedom of expression as a whole, the situation on the ground continues to be antithetical.
After about two decades of highs and lows, the Media Services Act 2016 was finally passed in November 2016. The passing of the act was not well received by the stakeholders, media practitioners and the opposition camp. The government insisted that the act which, however, repels the infamous Newspaper Act 1976 was going to professionalise journalism; while the other side maintains that it is going to continue to muzzle the media industry.
Tanzanian press felt they had gotten hope with the election of current President John Magufuli in November 2015, but little did they know that oppression will commence again with the passing of this Media Service Act.
How Paul Kagame shut down press freedom in Rwanda
Rwanda ranks 171 in the world for freedom of the press. This is indeed a very stifling position and even though the economy of the country seems relatively stable, freedom of expression which is vital is still impeded.
During the last presidential election which gave victory to the same President Paul Kagame, journalists within the country only reported as the government deemed fit. International observers say it was one of the most orderly and peaceful elections in history but the press still faced stifling conditions and this was only obvious to the people experiencing it in the country. It’s as though a veil has been cast on the Rwandan populace that no one dares speak up on any form of press oppression and even if anyone dares write about it, the Intore militia, an indoctrinated group dedicated to the government’s political agenda, immediately denounces and ridicules the authors saying that their lives in Rwanda were happy.
The cases of press oppression go on and on within the continent. In a recent study by Freedom House, Ghana, previously the only press free country in Africa, declined to partially free as a result of increased ethnic violence by the police, military, political party members; the first killing of a journalist in over 20 years and the continuous electricity outage which impairs media coverage.
However, countries like Burkina Faso made great improvements when she underwent a long investigation into the murder of journalist Norbert Zongo. And also, Cote d’Ivoire benefited from continued openings in its private broadcasting market as well as a reduction in harassment against the press. Togo also made some strides in granting the opposition party press access during the last elections.
We are certainly not there yet as only 13 percent of the world’s countries have complete press freedom, forty-one percent has partially free status and forty-six live in not free media zones. But we can try to do better by abiding by the constitutions which grant us freedom of expression.
Published on Ventures on April 13, 2017.