Campaign groups and legal experts have called on the UK to end arm sales to Saudi Arabia and its allies, warning that continuing to do so may be in violation of international law.
In a statement issued on Tuesday, the Arab Organisation for Human Rights in the UK (AOHR) said British manufactured weapons sold to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt were being used to carry out abuses in Yemen and Libya.
"[AOHR] is calling on the UK government to review its role in the sale of arms to a number of Arab governments that are known for gross human rights violation," the statement read.
In the past three years, the UK has approved arms export licences to Saudi Arabia worth $4.7bn, $1.6bn to the UAE, and $208m to Egypt.
During that period, the countries have been involved both directly and indirectly in conflicts in Libya and Yemen, where they face accusations of war crimes and other abuses.
"A Saudi-led coalition has killed hundreds of Yemenis, destroyed scores of homes in addition to obliterating most of Yemen's core infrastructure," the AOHR said, adding: "Saudi Arabia has also turned a blind eye to the atrocities committed by UAE in southern parts of the country."
"The UAE has bought the loyalty of several tribal leaders and formed militias that continue to commit war crimes," the rights group said.
Last week, a report by Human Rights Watch accused the UAE of operating secret prisons in Yemen where torture was commonplace, and of carrying out forcible disappearances of its opponents in the country.
In Libya, the UAE has transferred British-produced arms to the renegade Libyan general Khalifa Haftar, who is also accused of a raft of abuses, including indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas and summary executions.
Legal caseSpeaking at a news conference accompanying the AOHR statement, Andrew Smith of the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) said the UK was complicit in alleged Saudi-led coalition abuses in Yemen.
"UK-made fighter jets are flying over Yemen, where they are being flown by UK-trained personnel and dropping UK-made bombs. The UK could not be any more complicit, " he said.
"The war [in Yemen] has led to social breakdown, including the destruction of schools, hospitals, and even funerals have become the sites of brutal massacres.
"We believe that the UK’s conduct in arming and supporting this brutal bombardment has not just been immoral, it has also been illegal."
CAAT is awaiting the verdict of a judicial review it lodged in February, which is aimed at halting British arms exports to Saudi Arabia.
Under both British and EU law, export licences must not be granted if there is clear risk that weapons could be used to contravene international law.
Human rights lawyer Sue Willman, who was also present at the event, said the UK was reluctant to accept the scale of evidence proving its weapons were being used to commit violations.
"The [UK] must deny export if it is clear that military technology might be used in the commission of serious violations of international humanitarian law," she said.
"I think the lesson of the CAAT case is that even when there’s overwhelming evidence of abuses, the UK government continues to claim that there’s no evidence, and then insist on filing secret evidence, making it harder for us to challenge it."
Long standing tiesThe UK is one of the top suppliers of arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with successive governments, both Labour and Conservative, signing major arms deals with the pair.
Under the Conservative government of John Major and the later Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the UK sold scores of Tornado and Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jets in exchange for oil shipments and tens of billions of pounds.
Those deals, known collectively as al-Yamamah, were riddled with accusations of corruption, with leading manufacturer BAE Systems accused of paying bribes worth tens of millions of dollars to Saudi officials to secure the purchases.
The deals were the subject of an investigation by the UK's Serious Fraud Office, which was later dropped after intervention by Blair.
While the current British government, under Prime Minister Theresa May, seems set to continue arms sales to Saudi Arabia, all major opposition parties are opposed to the transfer of arms.
Labour's current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has been an outspoken critic of arming Saudi Arabia and its involvement in Yemen.
The Scottish National Party, Liberal Democrats, and Green Party are also opposed to weapons sales to the country.
In a heated exchange in parliament on Monday, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas asked Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson whether he was "proud" of his role in selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, which were later used in Yemen.
Johnson responded: "Of course a humanitarian disaster is taking place, but it is a folly and an illusion to believe that that humanitarian disaster is in any way the responsibility of the UK."
War in YemenSaudi Arabia began its military intervention in Yemen in March 2015 after Houthi rebels and forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh took over large swaths of the country, including its capital, Sanaa.
The war has claimed the lives of more than 10,000 civilians, according to the UN, and has left it on the verge of famine with several urban centres besieged by either pro-rebel or pro-government forces.
The UN and rights groups have accused Riyadh and its allies of violating international law by targeting civilians, including the October 2016 bombing of a funeral procession in the Yemeni capital, which left at least 140 people dead and hundreds more wounded.
Published on Al Jazeera on June 28, 2017.
The European Union has made progress in ensuring its sanctions allow for legal challenges and don’t harm human rights, but more work remains to be done, a UN rights expert has concluded after his first official visit to Brussels.
“If sanctions are ever to be used, they should only address direct security threats or internationally recognized human rights violations,” Special Rapporteur Idriss Jazairy said.
The expert said he had held “open and extensive” discussions with officials during his four-day visit, which was undertaken to assess the impact of EU sanctions on human rights, including the right to life and the right to development.
Mr. Jazairy praised EU institutions for making progress in ensuring that sanctions did not have a negative impact on human rights, and for allowing the targeted parties to seek judicial review. He also welcomed the consistent position of the EU not to claim and indeed to oppose extraterritorial enforcement of domestic legislation concerning unilateral sanctions.
“These steps, though they need to be further reinforced, are important commitments by the EU and its members to ensure that the States or individuals targeted by sanctions have the possibility of effective remedies,” said Mr. Jazairy.
“EU sanctions offer a measure of due process for those being targeted, and even though this is still insufficient, it compares favourably to the legal remedies available in other blocs and States that impose sanctions.”
The Special Rapporteur highlighted a sanctions “stalemate” in the international community, with most countries agreeing that sanctions had to be adopted by the UN Security Council in order to be compatible with international law, while States that frequently use sanctions believe there are exceptions to this principle.
He said common ground could be found, suggesting a declaration on minimum standards of behaviour. It would be aimed at further mitigating the impact on human rights until the international community could agree on giving up on the “very blunt policy tool” of unilateral sanctions. Mr. Jazairy said it was hoped that beyond that point, sanctions would only be enacted through the UN Security Council as provided for under the UN Charter.
The UN expert urged the EU to clarify the practical implications of its legal requirements and to make clear that humanitarian exemptions from sanctions should be mandatory. He said these exemptions should become effective and be communicated to financial institutions and other stakeholders at the time of the enforcement of sanctions, so as to avoid a protection gap between the start of sanctions and decisions on humanitarian exceptions.
Mr. Jazairy also called on EU institutions to reiterate their endorsement of the principle identified by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, that “when an external party takes upon itself even partial responsibility for the situation within a country… it also unavoidably assumes a responsibility to do all within its powers to protect the economic, social and cultural rights of the affected population”. He stressed that this would be in line with the EU’s commitment to uphold human rights and international law.
During his visit, the Special Rapporteur met representatives of the European Commission, European Parliament and European External Action Service. He will submit a report on his findings to the Human Rights Council in September 2018.
Published on the OHCHR' s website on June 24, 2017.
By Kizito Makoye
Sadick Thenest remembers how his 8-year-old daughter had a narrow brush with death two years ago, when she contracted cholera after drinking contaminated water.
“She was so gaunt, weak and had terrible diarrhea,” said the refugee from Burundi. “A slight delay in rushing her to hospital would have meant something else - but with God’s grace she survived.”
The father of four, aged 35, is among thousands of refugees grappling with frequent outbreaks of waterborne diseases in the crowded Nyarugusu camp in western Tanzania, due to poor sanitation.
“Living in a refugee camp is a constant struggle. You either stick to health rules or contract diseases,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
The health risks in Nyarugusu camp - home to around 100,000 refugees, mainly from Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo - have grown due to an influx of people this year, amid spikes in the political instability afflicting both countries.
But Thenest, who came to the camp two years ago at the height of political tensions in Burundi, has learned how to protect his family from bouts of diarrheal diseases - a major cause of death in children under five.
“I always ensure that my children use clean and safe water,” he said. “I have instructed them to wash their hands with soap after using a toilet.”
Thenest, who works as a technician with international engineering charity Water Mission, said the health situation in the camp is improving as more people get access to clean water from a recently installed solar-powered water treatment facility.
“The plant produces thousands of liters every day - women no longer go far to fetch water,” he said.
As part of a broader initiative to help refugees access clean energy and sanitation, Water Mission is installing more such plants in three refugee camps in western Tanzania.
The $5.3 million project, funded by the Denmark-based Poul Due Jensen Foundation, is expected to provide safe water for some 250,000 refugees in Nyarugusu, Nduta and Mtendeli camps.
Benjamin Filskov, Water Mission’s country director, said “huge” investment in solar technologies by the organization would help communities access clean and safe water, and contribute towards achieving the world’s development goals.
“We will document saved lives and ensure general public health, as a result of safe water,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
According to Water Mission, the Tanzania project aims to pump 100 percent of the water using solar power, with diesel generators as back up.
A recent shipment of 780 solar panels to Tanzania will produce 226,000 watts of power and provide a continuous supply of safe water to keep children in good health, it said in a statement.
JORDAN SOLAR FARM
With rising use of renewable energy, refugee communities in Africa and the Middle East are increasingly embracing solar power to help build their economic resilience, reduce deforestation and prevent violence against women and girls.
From Dadaab in Kenya, to Darfur in western Sudan and Azraq in Jordan, solar power is being deployed to provide affordable and sustainable energy solutions for tens of thousands of displaced people.
In semi-arid eastern Kenya, Africa's largest solar-powered borehole - equipped with 278 solar panels - is providing 16,000 refugees in Dadaab camp with a daily average of about 280,000 liters of water, which they use for drinking, cooking and personal hygiene, according to the European Commission.
In Azraq, a 2-megawatt solar farm that started operating in May - the world's first in a refugee camp - has enabled the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, to provide free, clean electricity to 20,000 Syrian refugees, covering the energy needs of two villages connected to the national grid.
Refugee families can now run a fridge, TV, fans and lights in their shelters, and recharge their phones, which is crucial for maintaining contact with loved ones abroad, the agency said.
Yet while access to clean energy for refugees and their host communities is a global priority for UNHCR, analysts say millions of displaced people still lack access to sustainable, cheap energy sources because of a lack of funding.
SAFETY FOR WOMEN
At Kakuma refugee camp in northwest Kenya, residents receive 10 kg of firewood for cooking every eight weeks, but for most, it is not enough, said Anna Okello, a research analyst with Practical Action Consulting International who works in the camp.
The need to gather extra firewood often results in personal security problems as adolescent girls and women face sexual harassment when they go out to collect it, she said.
Clean energy sources like solar can deliver benefits to refugees by enhancing safety, security, health and livelihoods, she added.
“If reliance on firewood can be lessened through solar cooking, this will have a direct impact on the development and protection of women in the camp,” she said.
For example, it frees up time otherwise spent on firewood collection or cleaning sooty pots, she explained.
A lack of electric power has caused other problems for Kakuma's nearly 180,000 inhabitants.
“I don’t dare go to the toilet alone at night because it’s too dark,” said Aisha Ilanda, 31, from Congo.
Providing solar street lamps and lanterns and energy-efficient cooking stoves can greatly improve the lives of refugees and contribute to their protection, Okello said.
Introducing solar technology to Kakuma could also help build economic resilience among refugees who make up a vibrant community exploiting new business opportunities such as charging mobile phones and operating money transfer services like M-Pesa.
“Access to solar energy would help these businesses stay open longer; street lighting could make the streets safer; and solar lights can provide a safe learning space inside homes,” said Okello.
“The sun is plentiful in Africa - it’s free, it does not pollute and will never run out of power,” she added.
Published on Thomson Reuters Foundation News on June 23, 2017.
By Jackson Diehl
The never-ending circus that is Donald Trump’s presidency has sucked attention from all kinds of issues that desperately need it, from health-care reform to the creeping expansion of U.S. engagement in Syria. Still, it’s shocking that so little heed is being paid to what the United Nations says is the worst humanitarian crisis since 1945: the danger that about 20 million people in four countries will suffer famine in the coming months, and that hundreds of thousands of children will starve to death.
Not heard of this? That’s the problem. According to U.N. and private relief officials, efforts to supply enough food to stem the simultaneous crises in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Nigeria are falling tragically short so far, in part because of inadequate funding from governments and private donors. Of the $4.9 billion sought in February by the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) for immediate needs in those countries, just 39 percent had been donated as of last week.
That resource gap could be attributed to donor fatigue, or to the sheer size of the need. But, in part, it’s a simple lack of awareness. “We can’t seem to get anyone’s attention to what’s going on,” says Carolyn Miles, the president and chief executive of Save the Children.
“I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” says David Beasley, the former South Carolina governor who heads the U.N. World Food Program. “The last eight to 10 months the world has been distracted. It’s all Trump, Trump, Trump . . . and here we are in crisis mode.”
The statistics that Miles and Beasley reel off certainly ought to command attention. For example: 1.4 million children are at risk of starvation in the four countries, of whom 600,000 “could die in the next three to four months,” according to Beasley. In Yemen, where hunger stalks 17 million people, only 3.3 million are being provided with full rations, compared with the 6.8 million the WFP wanted to feed this month. Meanwhile, a cholera epidemic has erupted, infecting more than 200,000 people so far. Miles says another child is infected every 35 seconds.
There’s been some progress: In the South Sudanese state of Unity, which surpassed the U.N. standard for a famine designation earlier this year, the alert was lifted last week following some large and timely food deliveries. In Somalia, too, relief operations have been more effective than during the last declared famine, in 2011. And yet the overall situation in both countries is still frightening. Fully 50 percent of South Sudan’s population, or 6 million people, are expected to be “severely food insecure” in the coming weeks, an increase of 500,000 over May.
In Somalia, the failure of spring rains may push the country into famine status by next month, Miles says. Yet the WFP says it might have to cut off 700,000 Somalis from aid in the next few weeks if more funding does not come through.
Notwithstanding the anti-foreign aid posture of the Trump administration, the United States is not the problem here. By early June Washington had pledged nearly $1.2 billion in relief to the four countries, including a supplement of $329 million announced on May 24. There’s more coming, thanks to a bipartisan coalition in Congress, spearheaded by Republican Sen. Lindsay O. Graham, that inserted $990 million for famine relief into this year’s budget.
Aid officials said getting the money from Washington is a slow process, thanks to the failure of the new administration to fill key posts at the U.S. Agency for International Development. And for the year beginning in October, Trump’s budget proposes a drastic cut of $1 billion in food aid. But Graham and other key legislators have already made clear that it won’t happen. “For all the chaos,” Beasley told me, “Democrats and Republicans still come together for hungry children.”
The WFP leader is more impatient with other nations — especially the Persian Gulf states that have done so much to create the crisis in Yemen. Saudi Arabia, which led the military intervention that has devastated an already poor country since 2015, is partially blockading the vital port of Hodeida, through which 70 percent of Yemen’s food is imported. So far this year the Saudis promised $227 million in famine relief to Yemen but delivered only about 30 percent of that. The United Arab Emirates isn’t even on OCHA’s list of donors. “The Saudis,” says Beasley, “ought to fund 100 percent of humanitarian needs in Yemen. No question.”
Famines used to attract broad interest in the West. Rock stars led relief campaigns, and television networks produced special documentaries. U.S. nongovernmental organizations are looking for ways to similarly galvanize the country this summer. Millions of lives may depend on whether they can find a way to command attention in the age of Trump.
Published on The Washington Post on June 25, 2017.
Five years after Supreme Court banned mandatory life sentences for children, second chances become a reality for some
By Jody Kent Lavy
On Sunday, a 41-year-old man named Marshan walked into a Starbucks to start his new job as a barista, which wouldn’t seem extraordinary to most of us. But for him, this wasn’t just the first day of a new job – it was one of the first jobs he’d ever started as a free adult. Marshan – like thousands of other Americans, most of whom are poor and people of color and grew up in violent environments – was convicted of murder as a teenager, and because of his role in the tragic loss of another life, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Before he was old enough to vote, he was told he would likely die in a bare, concrete cell.
Marshan was 15 when he was charged with first-degree murder under a “theory of accountability.” Despite his young age, he was charged as an adult, and while he was awaiting trial, he was removed from a juvenile detention center and placed in a maximum-security division of Chicago’s Cook County jail on his 17th birthday. When he was found guilty, a reluctant judge was forced to impose two “mandatory” life without parole sentences.
The United States is the only country in the world that sentences children to die in prison, and at the organization I head, the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, it is our mission to abolish that practice and make sentences for kids more age-appropriate overall. The nation’s highest court has weighed in on this issue several times, including in the landmark Miller vs. Alabama decision, which banned mandatory life without parole sentences for children and was decided five years ago this week.
The Miller opinion stated that we must take into “account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.” It drew upon research that has shown time and time again that children are not like adults, and have a unique capacity to grow and change. Marshan’s life to date is a shining example of that.
When he lost his first appeal and could no longer afford an attorney, Marshan’s only hope was a typewriter he had in prison that his family had bought him. He frequented the library, learned the law, and fought for his freedom. While working in many positions at various prisons and earning the respect of prison guards and administrators alike, he also took advantage of every educational and vocational program made available to him.
He earned certificates in Paralegal/Legal assistance, Small Business Management, Computer Technology, and Restorative Justice. In 2012, he earned an associate’s degree from Lake Land College and graduated Summa Cum Laude. He never allowed himself to be defined by his worst act.
With this incredible record of accomplishment and an unwavering commitment to self-improvement, and because of the US Supreme Court’s stance on cruel and unusual punishment and “our evolving standards of decency on how we hold children accountable,” Marshan successfully won a reduction in his sentences. Six months ago, after serving over 24 years, he walked out of prison to experience life as an adult in free society for the first time.
Since Miller came down, the number of states that bans juvenile life without parole has nearly quadrupled, and as of the last two months that list has grown to include Arkansas and North Dakota. With the exception of a few glaring outliers, country is trending away from these barbaric sentences, and toward a recognition of children’s potential for rehabilitation and their potential to become contributing members of society if given a second chance.
Meanwhile, in Washington, Attorney General Jeff Sessions seems to be taking the opposite tack, most recently by releasing a controversial memo calling for a return to draconian sentencing practices. In it, he asked federal prosecutors to pursue the harshest possible sentences and “to charge and pursue the most readily provable offense.” For those of us that work on criminal justice reform, and on reform for sentencing children in particular, this bucks an established trend, and represents a dramatic step backward. It recklessly disregards the successes we’ve seen stem from a renewed focus on second chances and rehabilitation. It also fails to account for the crucial steps we’ve taken away from the extreme sentencing practices that led to our mass incarceration crisis in the first place.
But despite this, we see hope for continued reform as it relates to sentencing youth and to our criminal justice system overall. We find that hope in people like Marshan, who are living, breathing examples of what second chances can look like. Marshan exudes optimism, knowing his future will be bright, that he will continue to demonstrate every child’s capacity for positive growth, and that he will find purpose in his new endeavors. We also find hope in companies like Starbucks, that demonstrate commitment to having the most disadvantaged succeed by giving them employment. And finally, we find hope in the halls of power – in state legislatures across the country, where there’s been widespread bipartisan support for legislation banning life without parole for children since Miller. Still some states want to thwart Miller and indiscriminately sentence children— particularly children of color – to die in prison. So the way forward is clear. We must ban the practice once and for all.
Published on The HuffPost on June 24, 2017.
Pakistani authorities need to ensure a prompt, impartial, and effective investigation into a barrage of assaults and threats against lawyers in the premises of the Lahore High Court, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International said today. The Government needs to defend the rule of law and prosecute those responsible for any criminal conduct.
On June 20, 2017, during proceedings of a case involving the alleged abduction and subsequent “disappearance” of a 26-year old woman and her two-year old son, supporters of the accused, a prominent lawyer, physically assaulted the complainant’s counsel, Shabbir Hussain and Usama Malik, and made abusive remarks and threats against another member of the complainant’s legal team, Noor Ejaz Chaudhry. The attackers were mostly lawyers and members of the local bar association.
The attackers also made abusive and threatening remarks against Asma Jahangir, a notable human rights lawyer, Honorary Commissioner of the ICJ, and former President of the Supreme Court Bar Association. Asma Jahangir was not present in the court but was represented by her legal team comprising of Shabbir Hussain, Usama Malik, Mian Liaquat Ali, and Noor Ejaz Chaudhry.
“The legal profession is one of the pillars of the administration of justice. It is deeply worrying that instead of discharging their responsibility to uphold the rule of law, certain lawyers would resort to threats and violence in a clear attempt to obstruct justice,” said Ian Seiderman, ICJ’s Legal and Policy Director.
Under international standards, including the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, Pakistan has an obligation to ensure that lawyers are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment, or improper interference. Where lawyers are threatened as a result of discharging their functions, authorities must ensure they are adequately safeguarded.
“Lawyers must be able to go to court without fearing violent assaults and abuse,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch said. “That such assaults take place with increasing frequency in Pakistan and without accountability represents a serious failure of the Pakistani authorities to ensure rule of law.”
It is the responsibility of the bar councils and associations to ensure that allegations of professional misconduct against their members are promptly, independently, and impartially investigated, and if lawyers are found in breach of their codes of conduct after a fair hearing, disciplinary action is taken against them. Any disciplinary action must be subject to an independent judicial review.
“Threatening and assaulting opposing counsel is not just against the law, but also in breach of lawyers’ professional code of ethics,” said David Griffiths, Amnesty International’s Senior Adviser on South Asia. “The respective Bar Councils must take notice of the allegations, and use this condemnable incident as an opportunity to tackle the culture of impunity which impacts even the legal profession in Pakistan.”
Published on Human Rights Watch on June 22, 2017.
The humanitarian system is not just broke, but broken: recommendations for future humanitarian action
An unprecedented number of humanitarian emergencies of large magnitude and duration is causing the largest number of people in a generation to be forcibly displaced. Yet the existing humanitarian system was created for a different time and is no longer fit for purpose. On the basis of lessons learned from recent crises, particularly the Syrian conflict and the Ebola epidemic, I recommend four sets of actions that would make the humanitarian system relevant for future public health responses: (1) operationalise the concept of centrality of protection; (2) integrate affected persons into national health systems by addressing the humanitarian–development nexus; (3) remake, do not simply revise, leadership and coordination; and (4) make interventions efficient, effective, and sustainable. For these recommendations to be implemented, governments, UN agencies, multilateral organisations, and international non-governmental organisations will need to put aside differences and relinquish authority, influence, and funding.
See the full article by Prof Paul B Spiegel, MD here.
Vietnamese bloggers and rights activists are being beaten, threatened, and intimidated with impunity, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The Vietnamese government should order an end to all attacks and hold those responsible accountable. Donor governments should tell the Vietnamese authorities to end the crackdown, and that repressing internet freedom, peaceful speech, and activism will carry consequences.
The 65-page report, “No Country for Human Rights Activists: Assaults on Bloggers and Democracy Campaigners in Vietnam,” highlights 36 incidents in which unknown men in civilian clothes beat rights campaigners and bloggers between January 2015 and April 2017, often resulting in serious injuries. Many victims reported that beatings occurred in the presence of uniformed police who did nothing to intervene.
“It’s bad enough that activists in Vietnam have to risk prison for speaking out, but now they have to risk their safety on a daily basis simply for exercising their basic rights,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Vietnamese government needs to make it clear that it will not tolerate this kind of behavior and bring to an end this campaign against rights campaigners.”
Human Rights Watch has documented a strategy of beating bloggers and rights activists across the country, including in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang, Nha Trang, and Vung Tau, as well as in provinces such as Quang Binh, Nghe An, Ha Tinh, Binh Duong, Lam Dong, and Bac Giang.
In many cases, assaults have occurred in public view on Vietnam’s streets, such as in the beating of environmental activist La Viet Dung, in July 2016, who was attacked on his way home from a social event with the No-U Football Club in Hanoi. Unknown men struck Dung with a brick and fractured his skull.
In May 2014, unknown men beat rights activist Tran Thi Nga on the street in Hanoi with an iron rod, breaking her right knee and left arm. Assaults also occurred in public spaces such as in a café. In June 2016, an unknown man punched democracy campaigner Nguyen Van Thanh in the face in a café in Da Nang. When police arrived, instead of investigating the assault they detained Nguyen Van Thanh for several hours and questioned him about his political writings.
In other cases, unknown men took activists into cars or vans, beat them, and abandoned them in a deserted area. For instance, in April 2017 a group of men in civilian clothes wearing surgical masks abducted rights activists Huynh Thanh Phat and Tran Hoang Phuc in Ba Don (Quang Binh province), took them into a van and drove away. The men used belts and sticks to whip Phat and Phuc in the van and then abandoned them in a forest. In February 2017, a group of men in civilian clothes abducted rights activists Nguyen Trung Ton and his friend Nguyen Viet Tu, also in Ba Don, dragged them into a van and drove away. The men stripped off Ton’s and Tu’s clothes, covered their heads with their jackets, and then hit them with iron tubes before abandoning them in a forest. Nguyen Trung Ton suffered multiple injuries and underwent surgery in the hospital afterward.
“The fact that thugs abducted activists in broad daylight, forced them into vans, and beat them demonstrates the impunity with which activists are persecuted,” said Adams. “The Vietnamese government should understand that tolerance of these violent attacks will lead to lawlessness and chaos instead of the social order and stability it says it is striving for.”
Activists have also been beaten after participating in public events, such as pro-environment protests, demonstrations to call for the release of fellow activists, or human rights-related events. In December 2015, rights campaigner Nguyen Van Dai went to give a talk about human rights and the constitution at a parish in Nam Dan district (Nghe An). As Nguyen Van Dai and three fellow activists were leaving the area, a group of men wearing surgical masks stopped their taxi, dragged them out of the car, and beat them.
Even the act of showing solidarity by visiting the houses of former political prisoners or welcoming a political prisoner home has triggered violence against activists. In August 2015, a group of bloggers and activists including Tran Thi Nga, Chu Manh Son, Truong Minh Tam, Le Thi Huong, Phan Van Khanh, and Le Dinh Luong went to Lam Dong to visit former political activist Tran Minh Nhat after he was released following four years of imprisonment for allegedly being affiliated with a banned overseas political party. As the activists were leaving town in different buses, unknown men in civilian clothes got onto the buses, dragged them off, and beat them in public.
In all but one case included in this report, Human Rights Watch has found that no perpetrator has been identified and prosecuted – despite the fact that victims often report their beating to the police. On the contrary, some victims, including activists Nguyen Van Dai and Tran Thi Nga, were later arrested and charged with “conducting propaganda against the state” under article 88 of the penal code. This raises the question about the relationship the authorities have with the assailants in these cases, which range from apparent passive tolerance to active collaboration.
The report draws on incidents reported in foreign media including Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, the BBC, Saigon Broadcasting Television Network, social media including Facebook and YouTube, politically independent websites such as Dan Lam Bao (Citizen Journalism), Dan Luan (Citizen Discussion), Viet Nam Thoi Bao (Vietnam Times), Tin Mung Cho Nguoi Ngheo (Good News for the Poor), Defend the Defenders, and individual blogs. Many of the assaults included in this report have never been published in English. They are also not reported in Vietnamese state-affiliated media.
“State media censorship drives many peaceful critics in Vietnam to express their concerns online,” said Adams. “This pattern of assaults on bloggers and activists is clearly intended to silence critics, who in many cases have no other way to voice legitimate concerns.”
A recent increase in recorded beatings coincided with a temporary decrease in politically motivated arrests during the period in which Vietnam was negotiating with the United States over participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. Vietnam’s human rights record was a major focus of the negotiations and US congressional debate. It is possible that the government of Vietnam wanted to show a decrease in political arrests and trials but still pursued measures to crack down on dissent. Ironically, many of the victims of beatings were former political prisoners, including Tran Minh Nhat, Nguyen Dinh Cuong, Chu Manh Son, and Mai Thi Dung. However, recent evidence suggests that a new surge of arrests has occurred in tandem with continued beatings of activists.
“These brave activists and bloggers suffer persecution on a daily basis, yet they do not give up their cause,” said Adams. “International donors and trade partners with Vietnam should support their struggle by urging the Vietnamese government to stop the beatings and to hold these violent assailants accountable.”
Published on HRW on June 18, 2017.
By Lauren Heuser
The architects of Canada’s constitution considered a free press so vital to democracy that they worked to grant it special protection. “Freedom of the press” is listed in the Charter right after freedom of expression in the spelling out of our fundamental rights. Listed separately, freedom of the press is clearly not meant to just protect free expression — although the press must have free expression, too — but also journalists’ ability to engage in, say, investigative work that requires reporters to promise confidentiality to their secret sources.
So it’s a bit surprising, then, that it might require a private member’s bill — emanating from the Senate no less — for the confidentiality of journalistic sources to finally receive robust legal protection in this country. Bill S-231 will, once passed, enact stringent protections for journalists acting to protect the identity of their confidential sources.
With a free press protected by the Charter, a bill like this shouldn’t even be necessary. But as a series of scandals have shown, it clearly is. Senator Claude Carignan introduced S-231 last fall following shocking revelations that Quebec police had been spying on dozens of journalists. In April, the bill was given an added burst of urgency following news that Canada had fallen yet again in the annual World Press Freedom Index. Now in 22nd place (down from 8th in 2015), Canada ranks behind Samoa and Suriname and other countries most of us would have difficulty finding on a map.
But Bill S-231 is by no means all it will take to fix the erosion of press freedoms in Canada. Both the Supreme Court of Canada and Parliament could do more to safeguard the press — although in the government’s case, “doing more” would sometimes require doing less.
Generally speaking, the Supreme Court has not been shy about giving broad meaning to the Constitution, interpreting most Charter rights liberally. But when it comes to the Charter’s press guarantee, the court has been surprisingly restrained. As Benjamin Oliphant (who, full disclosure, is a friend) observed in a 2013 McGill Law Review article, freedom of the press occupies a “neglected place in our constitutional framework.”
The Supreme Court, for instance, ruled in a 2010 case involving this newspaper (R v. National Post) that journalists’ protection of confidential sources did not merit aconstitutional shield. The justices regarded it as dangerous to grant “constitutional immunity” to journalists’ newsgathering activities, reasoning that it would allow just about anyone to offer constitutional immunity to others who had told them secrets.
Instead, the court has generally preferred to analyze media cases through the lens of other Charter rights, particularly the freedom of expression. But as Oliphant points out, this framework isn’t always well suited to assessing media cases, because journalists engage in a range of newsgathering functions that are not directly “expressive” in nature.
He calls on the court to instead develop a separate Charter framework to evaluate cases of state interference with “non-expressive” press activity. This would be applied not only to confidential-source cases, but other newsgathering activities as well — such as disputes over access to information requests, the openness of tribunal hearings, or other state conduct that might “chill” reporters. This framework would ensure greater protection for journalists even without the government passing laws to protect specific press functions.
But enhanced constitutional protection isn’t the only way Canada’s media could be strengthened. Reporters Without Borders (which publishes the Press Freedom Index) considers a country’s legal framework as only one of several factors when evaluating how free a nation’s press is.
It also looks at things like the “transparency of the institutions and procedures that affect the production of news;” the “degree to which the media are able to function independently of sources of political … influence;” and the “environment in which news providers operate.”
On each of these metrics, Canada could be doing a lot better. Just last week, federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault released her office’s annual report, which criticized the government for using its Access to Information Act to impede transparency, meaning the act is being used to undermine the very thing it was created to do.
The government, meanwhile, has shown itself to be unconcerned with the importance of media independence. In addition to owning and funding the biggest news organization in the country, it has more recently been consulting with industry leaders about the prospect of subsidizing incumbent media companies. If media organizations began to rely on the government as a source of survival, journalistic independence would be difficult to find just about anywhere.
Finally, and not unrelatedly, Reporters Without Borders considers the “environment and self-censorship” factor. The government certainly isn’t responsible for the kind of Twitter mobbings and toxic online comments that might encourage journalists to bite their tongues more often than they used to. But Ottawa does subsidize many of the media organizations that were embroiled in the recent cultural appropriation debate that resulted in some journalists being disciplined or dismissed. The CBC demoted Steve Ladurantaye as managing editor of The National news broadcast over his politically incorrect tweeting. If there is one workplace that you’d expect to stand up for an employee’s right to express controversial opinions, you’d think it would be a newsroom.
Of course, it’s easy to lose sight of such principles when, like the CBC, an organization’s main aim is to please. And when newsrooms start acting like politicians in this regard, it’s a worrying sign that our Charter ideal of a free and independent press is in serious trouble.
Published on The National Post on June 15, 2017.
By Bassam Khawaja
Once again, political pressure is growing for Lebanon to resume executions.
Most recently, Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk called last Friday for the application of the death penalty. Lebanon has an unofficial moratorium on the death penalty and has not carried out an execution since 2004, although courts continue to hand down death sentences. Any move to resume executions should be resisted.
Lebanon’s moratorium is a bright spot on its human rights record and is in line with a global trend to abolish the death penalty. Just 23 countries are known to have carried out executions in 2016. A resumption of executions would constitute a troubling setback for Lebanon, without making the country safer or deterring crime. Studies have consistently found there is no clear evidence that the death penalty deters crime. Lebanon in 2010 resisted similar calls from politicians to resume executions.
A resumption of executions would be particularly troubling given concerns about a lack of due process guarantees in Lebanese courts. Human Rights Watch found in 2017 that military courts, which have broad jurisdiction over civilians and retain the death penalty, do not guarantee due process rights. Those who have stood trial in military court describe the use of confessions extracted under torture, decisions issued without an explanation, seemingly arbitrary sentences, and a limited ability to appeal.
On October 10, 2008, Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar submitted to the Council of Ministers a draft law abolishing the death penalty and replacing it with life imprisonment with hard labor.
Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all countries and under all circumstances. Capital punishment is unique in its cruelty and finality, and is plagued with arbitrariness, prejudice, and error. Most countries have abolished the practice outright, while dozens have adopted a de facto moratorium. In 2012, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution calling on all countries to establish a moratorium on the death penalty, progressively restrict the practice, and reduce the offenses for which it might be imposed, all with the view toward its eventual abolition.
Ending its moratorium on executions would only serve to tarnish Lebanon’s human rights record. Instead, parliament should solidify Lebanon’s position as a leader on this issue in the Middle East, and abolish the death penalty outright.
Published on HRW on June 12, 2017.