Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Panel speaks on human rights, sustaining democracy

The distinguished panel who spoke at the Woodrow Wilson Center discussed what is necessary for human rights to thrive in a country and how outside nations can help create that. Accountability and credibility were two of the buzzwords, with the former applying to states violating human rights, and the latter applying to those nations who push for them. With the signing of the Helsinki Accords in 1975, countries offering aid to other nations promised to do so only after reviewing human rights records; governments not living up to the UN’s declaration of universal human rights should not receive aid as a way to encourage compliance. This way, Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim of the Ibn Khaldun Center in Cairo explained, democratic ideals including personal rights are encouraged with “no war, no bloodshed.”
When nations like the U.S. push for greater respect of human rights, they find the four proverbial fingers pointing back at them. Such nations, insisted Dr. Ibrahim, must improve their own credibility in the human rights arena before they force others to do so. Until the nations demanding basic rights and writing aid checks can prove their own strong human rights record, other countries will not follow suit because of the hypocrisy of the demands.
A strong, independent judiciary is important part of any viable democracy. Dr. Ibrahim spoke of the long-standing tradition of independence in Egypt’s courts and how President Mubarak was so threatened by them that he created his own courts to wield power over. In Colombia, Gustavo Gallón of the Colombian Commission of Jurists said, courts have overruled laws that allow paramilitary forces to knowingly lie when questioned. The government is attempting to change this decision, thus taking power away from the independent courts. Similarly, the judiciary in Belarus is powerless without the support of the executive leadership, many of whom are holdovers from hardline regimes, Dzmitry Markusheuski of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee explained.
Hina Jilani, a Pakistani woman who acts as Special Representative to the Secretary General on Human Rights Defenders, points to two major issues facing a universal adoption of basic human rights. The continued impunity of government agents from prosecution is the first concern. For many countries, the United States included, the military and other governmental bodies are immune from prosecution for their crimes against human rights either through specific legislation or by a simple lack of prosecution. In Afghanistan, Sima Samar of the United Nations reported, a “culture of impunity” has developed where war criminals were never tried due to a lack of laws or a robust judiciary, and they will never be tried because they are now in positions of power.
Secondly, the increased militarization of the world creates states in which civil liberties and values are increasingly ignored, Ms. Jilani explained. As militaries are used to settle disputes and threats of force take the place of diplomacy, the discipline of martial law takes precedent over legal systems created to ensure each individual’s basic human rights.
Human rights activists inside countries, called defenders, face many obstacles from their governments, and regimes are becoming more creative in their oppression of human rights voices. Mr. Markusheuski spoke of creative tax auditing done by the Belarus government in an on-going attempt to shut down his organization. Advocating for basic rights is considered a political action in the country, and the advocator must be part of a government recognized organization. With the closing of a human rights group like Mr. Markusheuski’s, activists may be arrested for their lack of association with a registered group and jailed for up to three years. Colombia’s president has gone so far as to call human rights defenders “terrorists,” according to Mr. Gallón, thus opening up a wide range of possibilities for prosecuting them.
All five speakers emphasized the importance of creating and supporting stable, lasting governments if human rights are to be remembered. Facades of democracy are not strong enough to give citizens lasting rights if there is no consistency or accountability within the government.
View this panel discussion here.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Surge in Afghan violence concerns aid organizations

Radio Free Europe reports that the recent escalation of violence in Afghanistan has the International Red Cross worried for the safety of relief workers in the region. In the past two days, neo-Taliban fighters have staged more than twenty attacks all over Afghanistan resulting in over 300 deaths. Most of these reported causalities were rebel soldiers (around 250), but there are more and more incidents of health and relief workers being targeted by the insurgents. A doctor, two nurses and their driver, all of whom worked for a local aid group called Afghan Health Department Services, were killed by a landmine on Wednesday. Insurgents in theregion have targeted not just healthcare workers but also teachers and all other aid workers. Last month five doctors and nurses were killed in an attack on a clinic. The Red Cross is asking that the warring factions respect humanitarian law protecting relief workers, but it is obviously concerned about the effectiveness of this plea. The United Nations mission in the country said “if staff can't get out to do their work” due to violence, the UN will “move people to places where they can be more effective and useful.”
See full stories here: Surge in Afghan violence, Red Cross urges respect for humanitarians, UN Concerns over recent violence

Amnesty International and UN concerned about Iraqi human rights abuses

In Amnesty International’s annual human rights report published this week, there is concern over “grave human rights violations” of the U.S.-led coalition forces and the Iraqi government. These violations include detention without trial, torture (actions far more widespread than the reports of abuses in Abu Grab prison), unlawful violence resulting in non-combatant civilian deaths, and the implementation of the death penalty.
Armed militant groups were also discussed in the report, citing numerous examples of murder, abduction, and indiscriminate bombings effecting security forces, “collaborators,” and civilians.
To read the Amnesty International Report on Iraq, click here.
Sectarian violence and continued abuses of human rights by both armed insurgents and the U.S.-backed government have UN officials concerned about the ability of the Iraqi people to build a viable government. The UN reports that “ordinary people” bear the brunt of the violence, but elected officials, judges, lawyers, doctors, educators, and other government-associated personnel are being targeted by anti-government violence. Additionally, the peace-keeping operations by the coalition military and government forces have led to the loss of many civilian lives and the destruction of private property. The violence is especially harsh on women, children, and the elderly, and there are signs of increased domestic violence and other violence against women.
For more on the UN efforts in Iraq, click here.

Muslim scholars speak out against extremism within Islam

In recent opinions published in the Washington Post and Al-Jazeera’s website, Muslims spoke out against the extremism and intolerance that is being perpetrated within the Islamic world. Kyai Haji Abdurrahman Wahid, former president of Indonesia, writes about the seemingly extreme punishments laid out in Shari-a law. He speaks directly to the difference between what is said in the Koran-words directly inspired by God-and man-made laws based upon the Koran. Laws, being man-made, are subject to interpretation and revision is even mandated by one of the two key principles of Islamic jurisprudence which states "The law is formulated in accordance with circumstances.” The assertions by extremists that the Koranic laws are eternal are simply false, former president Wahid argues, and Muslims and Westerners alike must struggle for a more tolerant Islam. To read this whole article, click here.

Mohamed El-Moctar El-Shinqiti, a Muslim scholar from Mauritania who now lives in the U.S., examines the historical tolerance exhibited by Muslims and how that important aspect of the faith is missing from much of modern Islam. Quoting phrases from the Koran, he points towards Muhammad’s understanding that conversion to, and even from, Islam is a choice that any may make. There is also a difference in morality and legality, as there should be in any place offering religious freedom, as the laws may not necessarily reflect to the word a religion’s moral code. To read all of this opinion, please click here.

Both of these pieces reflect a very tolerant view of Islam that is not widely publicized in the United States.

Despite other gains, Afghani women have no seats in the Cabinet

From the Institute for War and Peace Reporting
Since the ousting of the Taliban government in Afghanistan, women have made many gains in Afghan life in terms of equal rights and education. Despite this, the new Afghan cabinet is noticeably lacking in female representation. Unlike the prior government’s cabinet which included three women, there was only one woman nominated for a position, and she was not confirmed. This was for the position of women’s affairs minister, a position that will most likely have another woman nominated.

Sabrina Saqib, a twenty-six year old deputy in parliament, blames the previous female ministers for the administration’s lack of faith in women. She claims that the cabinet members “were unable to win the government’s trust. Therefore, men believe that women don’t have the necessary skills” to take part in the highest levels of Afghani government.

Afghani women blame the Karzai administration for submitting to pressure from radical Islamic groups and jihadists who wish to keep women from government positions. “Without a doubt, the new cabinet has been formed based on consultation with various jihadi factions,” a female parliamentarian said.

President Karazi did not deny that he consulted tribal and religious leaders, many of whom are very conservative regarding women’s role in society. Doing this, he explained, encouraged national unity. He also did not show any concern for the lack of female representation in his cabinet. “Now there is one woman in the cabinet, but there may be five in the future. It is not important to us,” Presidential spokesman Mohammad Karim Rahimi offered.

Many women find the influence of Islamic gender politics disturbing, because it is simply a new form of sexism replacing the old, more visible versions. With the President taking his cues from radicals, women fear that they will face the same kind of limited freedom of Taliban rule just under a new name.

To read this entire report, click here.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

"Seeds of Civil Society" Sown in Iraq

Homeless shelters and clothing distribution projects are just two examples of iniatives being undertaken by the 5,000 private organizations - charities, human rights groups, literacy projects and more - established since 2003, New York Times reports today.

According to the piece:

"The burst of public-spiritedness comes after long decades of muzzled community life under Saddam Hussein, when drab Soviet-style committees for youth, women and industrialists were the only community groups permitted."

"Mr. Hussein stamped out what had been a vibrant public life. Since the founding of Islam in the seventh century, charity has had a special place in its societies. As far back as the 19th century, religious leaders, descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, formed a network called Al Ashraf that was a link between people and the Ottoman-appointed governor of Baghdad."

"The Iraqi Chamber of Commerce dates from the 1930's, and its volunteers plunged into Baghdad's poor areas to conduct literacy campaigns in the 1950's, around the time of the overthrow of the monarchy."

"Today's groups have picked up that historic thread and offer hope in an increasingly poisonous sectarian landscape that Iraqis may still be able to hold their country together."

To read the full story, click here.

The Leadership Council for Human Rights is currently developing its own literacy project in Iraq - check back for updates.

PATRIOT Act's broad definitions of "terror organization" and "material support" endanger refugees

Report on Material Support Briefing Regarding Refugees

Presented by Representative Joseph Pitts, R-Pennsylvania

The focus of this briefing is a much needed change in the language of the PATRIOT Act and REAL ID Act that so sweepingly defines “terrorist organization” and “material support” that many refugees are denied legitimate asylum. The two topics of discussion surrounded what is defined as a third tier terrorist organization in these Acts, and how broadly the term “material support” has been applied in relation to these organizations.

Both of these Acts use a very broad definition to determine if someone is associated with or aided a “terrorist” group. The Acts use three tiers to name terror organizations, the third of which is the cause for the most concern. There was no discussion of the two tiers which consist of specifically named foreign terrorist organizations whose members and active supporters may also not legally emigrate to the U.S. A third tier terrorist organization is defined as two or more individuals, not necessarily organized, who engage in terrorist-type activities such as recruiting or soliciting for terror groups, hijacking, kidnapping, and assassination, and “any activity that is unlawful under the laws of the place where it is committed.” 8 USCA §1182(3)(B)(iii). Under this very broad definition, there are many organizations supported by the U.S. government that actively defy local law through anti-governmental rallies and resistance. The Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, anti-communist protestors in Cuba, the Montagnards who fought with U.S. Special Forces and the C.I.A. in Vietnam, and Karen National Union, the pro-democracy movement in Burma. By the PATRIOT Act’s wording, the American taxpayers support “terrorist organizations” through government assistance to pro-democracy groups. As noted by one of the presenters, Pope John Paul II would not be allowed to immigrate to the U.S. now based on his anti-Nazi activities.

The PATRIOT Act and REAL ID Act also do not allow refugees who have given aid to terrorist organizations, regardless of the circumstances surrounding the aid. While the intent of these acts is to keep terrorists and their supporters from entering and settling in the U.S., many refugees were forced to aid such organizations and are not given asylum on account of this. Some examples include a Liberian woman who was forced to cook and do the laundry of LURD rebels, two Sierra Leone women who were held captive by rebels occupying their home, a Colombian woman whose cattle were taken by guerrillas, and a young Colombian man forced to dig mass graves for paramilitaries. All of these individuals were denied asylum in the United States because they offered “material support” to terrorist organizations. In many of these cases, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) cleared the refugees for resettlement, but the U.S. government’s extremely strict and overly broad anti-terrorism laws made immigration impossible.

In any of these cases, a waiver may be granted by the U.S. government. This has happened only once and it took months to be approved. Such case-by-case waivers are not practical for the refugees whose lives are often in danger; only a revision of the Acts’ definitions denying asylum and resettlement is practical considering the large number of individuals potentially impacted.

Presenters for Representative Pitt included Jennifer Daskal from Human Rights Watch, Ann Buwalda of Jubilee Campaign, Michael Benge, advisor to the Montagnard Human Rights Organization, and Kevin Appleby from the Office of Migration and Refugee Policy, Migration and Refugee Services at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Afghanistan Panel Raises Questions about Nation’s Future

The American Foreign Service Association sponsored an in-depth Afghanistan briefing Friday; panelists included Middle East Institute scholar Marvin Weinbaum, First Secretary of the Afghan Embassy Ashraf Haidari, former State Department Counterterrorism Coordinator William Pope, and current Deputy Coordinator for Counterterrorism Tom Hastings. AFSA representative and Minister Counselor Louise Crane spoke about the changing face of foreign service – she retired from the State Department following more than three decades of service.

Weinbaum discussed the perception within Afghanistan that the US is a “fair-weather friend,” abandoning the country when the Soviets withdrew in 1989. He said that “the same thing could happen today,” if the US continues to prioritize Iraq and shifts its focus next to Iran. Weinbaum added that problems in Afghanistan are compounded by the resurgence of the Taliban, after its members “moved in, settled in, and married in” to Pakistan’s border communities and returned to operating below the radar. Poppy production is another serious concern for the country – poppy is still the mainstay of the economy, and eradication programs effectively take away farmers’ livelihood since poppy is more lucrative to grow. Subsidy programs will be necessary to combat poppy production, Weinbaum said. Security remains the top priority for the country, Weinbaum said, adding that if Afghanistan doesn’t succeed, “the whole region is in trouble.” Establishing security is “not only do-able – we don’t have a choice.”

Haidari, a former street vendor who learned English by memorizing an Oxford dictionary and listening to Voice of America broadcasts, spoke of the remarkable bravery and resilience of the Afghan people but also of the very real fear of losing people’s support in the South and East of Afghanistan, where Taliban presence remains strong. “When given the chance, [Afghan] people do embrace and practice democracy,” Haidari said. While the people have waited patiently for help, though, patience has begun to wane. Farmers demand alternatives to poppy production. Refugees demand reintegration into society. Land mine victims demand social services. Former combatants demand jobs. The Afghan government needs $4 Billion a year for the next five years to provide critical services. Widespread waste has caused only 10-15 percent of aid to reach the Afghan people, he said. Haidari said he believes microfinance is the key to reducing poverty in Afghanistan. If these critical needs are not met soon, he fears an emerging triangle alliance between terrorists, traffickers and the people themselves. Haidari also echoed President Karzai’s statement that terrorists trained in Pakistan are coming across the porous border into Afghanistan.

Pope and Hastings discussed the ongoing strategies to root out terrorist networks, including efforts to reduce the silo effect that hampered government agencies from sharing intelligence. Hastings remarked that the “war on terror doesn’t lend itself to a military solution.”

Crane said that the biggest change she saw during her long tenure at the State Department was the emphasis on human rights, which began during the Carter presidency.