Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Friday, February 02, 2007

President of Vietnam signs ILO convention on labor rights

Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet signed an International Labor Organization (ILO) convention on Monday that stipulates that forced labor be eliminated, the Thanh Nein News reported on Tuesday. The convention requires members to take any necessary procedures to abolish the practice.

Viet Nam recently joined the World Trade Organization (WTO), and is believed that conventions such as this one will help the country fulfill its WTO obligations.

For the full article, click here.

Viet Nam’s establishes “roadmap” for religious freedoms

Viet Nam, which has the second largest Catholic community in Asia, is seeking to establish stronger diplomatic relations with the Vatican, Reuters reported on Thursday. The announcement was made by a government spokesman at a briefing in Hanoi. The decision to develop a Holy See proposal came after meetings last week between Viet Nam’s prime minister and the Pope.

The Vietnamese government, which has been criticized often for restriction of religious freedom, also released a policy paper entitled “Religion and Policies regarding religion in Viet Nam,” it was announced at the briefing.

Additionally, the deputy chairman of the Government Committee on Religious Affairs said that Viet Nam will officially recognize two additional religions by the end of the year.

For the full article, click here.

International aid in Afghanistan misappropriated

Over half of the international aid allotted for the Afghan people has been either stolen, resold, or diverted, The Daily Telegraph reported earlier this week. While it was initially thought that the corruption problems in isolated rural communities could be primarily attributed to the police forces in these areas, it has recently been discovered that the elders and mosque leaders within these communities are also guilty of theft.

Aid initiatives have stipulated provisions of uniforms, generators and winter coats. Additionally, items such as building materials and fuel intended to aid the Afghan people are sometimes seized during the allocation process and sold. In other cases, funds are appropriated incorrectly. For example, of the 2 million in international aid that was intended to assist internal refugees, most has been diverted to construct vehicle checkpoints.

Despite the recent revelations, NATO pledges to continue to provide aid in Afghanistan and hopes to foster a stronger relationship with the local people. By improving the daily lives of ordinary Afghans, the international community hopes to indirectly eliminate any allure towards Taliban activity. Because corruption in Afghanistan is known to occur on many levels, the international aid plan must also examine ways to avoid corruption in its bottom-up implementation.

For the full article, click here.

Cooperative action needed in Middle East

At this decisive time in Iraq Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), in Washington Post op-ed on Tuesday, discusses the importance of the Bush administration recasting and adjusting its broader strategy in Iraq to fit current political realities. According to Lugar, the debate on Iraq has reached new heights in the last few weeks and maybe it is time for the administration to consider a Plan B in Iraq to alleviate the escalating suffering, restore stability, and secure vital U.S. interests in the near future.

Lugar writes that the United States now possesses unprecedented – and unequaled – strength and influence. This position comes with unparalleled responsibilities, obligations, and opportunity. At the same time nations throughout the Middle East are trying to find their footing as regional power balances are shifting in unpredictable ways. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, the Gulf states and others have become increasingly anxious about Iran’s behavior and thus more open to negotiate with the U.S. Consequently, Lugar considers this to be a good opportunity for the U.S. to invest time and resources in building relationships with our Arab friends that would go towards “promoting reconciliation within Iraq, preventing oil price spikes, splitting Syria from Iran and demonstrating a more united front against terrorism.”

For full story, click here.

Understanding the Iran Crisis

In an open hearing of the Committee on Foreign Affairs on Wednesday entitled “Understanding the Iran Crisis”, Chairman Tom Lantos opened the discussion by affirming the urgency and significance of the hearing, as well as the general necessity of the international community recognizing Iran’s growing influence and arrogance in the region. It is no longer a secret that Iran has embarked on a quest to develop nuclear capabilities. Thus Rep. Lantos considers this to be a critical time for the United States to use its diplomatic arsenal for preventing confrontations and pursuing the establishment of democracy in Iran. In reading the testimonies submitted by the three honorable witnesses, Dr. Abbas Milani, Co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at Stanford University; Dr. Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations; and Mr. Enders Wimbush, Director of the Center for Future Security Strategies at the Hudson Institute, Rep. Lantos recognized that the vast majority of the Iranian people despise the current theocratic regime. Consequently, he said that the opportunity to enact change must be seized immediately if we are to achieve viable success in stabilizing the situation in the Middle East.

Milani began by declaring that he considers negotiation the only fruitful path towards establishing democracy in Iran. He emphasized the significance of recognizing that military intervention most likely only yields chaos and greater hardship and will undermine both authority and legitimacy. Thus, he said that it is imperative to recognize that democracy cannot be imposed from above. While the issue of Iranian human rights was not a major point of emphasis in Milani’s testimony he did assert that, “Human rights are always on the table, never off the table.”

Wimbush discussed the importance of radio in advocating and strengthening the forces of change – a voice of democracy as a strategic communication tool. He mentioned how, in the last decades, there has been a “dummying-down” in the content of broadcasts in Iran, evidenced by the fact that Iranian radio now mainly plays American popular music. Wimbush said that it is imperative that Iranian radio stations began transmitting informative analysis and programs with substantive content. He believes that if we hope to see a truly democratic Iran, we must make attempts to develop a healthy Iranian civil society in which individuals and groups are able to act openly to pursue their interests. According to Wimbush, if this is not achieved, the dynamism and ambitions of the Iran populace, and in particular the entrepreneurial elite, will not be constructively directed.

Bombing near the Iranian border clouds the holiest Shiite day

A series of bombs directed at Shiites celebrating Ashoura exploded in Baghdad on Tuesday, The Associated Press reported on the same day. Subsequent reprisal strikes in Sunni neighborhoods underlined the ever-growing divisions between the two groups.

Ashoura, the holiest day in the Shiite calendar, marks the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad. Hussein’s death, which occurred during a battle in 680 A.D., marked the beginning of the division between the Shiites and Sunnis.

Tuesday’s attacks took place near the Diyala province - an area close to the Iranian border that has been the site of intensified attacks of late - and targeted Shiite Kurds. In Mandali, a suicide bomber detonated himself among a crowd entering a mosque. The attack killed 19 and wounded 54 people. A second attack occurred in Khanaqin; a bomb exploded in a garbage can where many Shiites were performing religious ceremonies. The Khanaqin attack killed 13 people and wounded 39.

For the full article, click here.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Civilians caught in the middle in Afghanistan

According to Human Rights Watch more than 1,000 civilians were killed in Afghanistan in 2006, The Associated Press reported on Tuesday. This year’s overall death toll of 4,400 – double the 2005 numbers - makes 2006 the bloodiest year in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion.

Sam Zafiri, Asia research director of Human Rights Watch declared that Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the donor nations in general are failing in their promises to enhance security and enforce human rights. “Afghanistan hasn’t really met any of the benchmarks. Life is so dangerous that many Afghans don’t feel safe enough to go to school, get health care, or take goods to market,” Zafiri said.

Meanwhile, leading international actors have reinforced their commitment to Afghan reconstruction. Last week, the U.S. pledged an additional $10.6 billion, and the E.U. is looking to donate $780 million.

For full article, click here.

Iranian women denied access to human rights websites by government

Two weeks ago, Iranian officials began restricting access to women’s human rights websites, according to a Human Rights First alert issued yesterday. This governmental action came in response to a web campaign initiated by women’s rights leaders. As part of the campaign, activists intend to gather the signatures of one million Iranians in an effort to prove to the government that women’s equality is desired by many and that legal reforms regarding women’s rights in marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, and other areas should be enacted to reflect this widespread sentiment.

Denial of internet access and prosecution of dissidents are not the only human rights violation the Iranian authorities have committed recently. On June 12, 2006, a nonviolent demonstration abruptly ended when hundreds of protestors were brutally attacked by police with pepper spray and batons. According to Human Rights First, “Witnesses claimed that women were dragged along the ground by their hair and savagely beaten.”

For the full article, click here.

Afghanistan requests additional time to meet reconstruction targets

Afghanistan met only seven of the twelve reconstruction goals set out last year by a combined committee of leading Afghan and international officials, Canadian news source, globeandmail.com, reported today. The two day review of the Afghanistan Compact that convened in Berlin yesterday revealed that major goals, such as the establishment of a land mines plan and a review of the administrative boundaries within the country, were not met. However, some goals originally considered difficult to attain, such as transparency in the appointment of higher-level officials, were met.

Some of the attendees agreed that the task set before Afghanistan was not an easy one, given the stringent timelines. As the Canadian Ambassador to Afghanistan, David Sproule, noted, "The time frames attached for the achievement of those goals were done a year ago and, in some cases, it's not a matter of the benchmark [not being] achieved but rather we need more time to do it." Others voiced concern over how the country could possibly meet some of the long-range targets, notably the creation by 2010 of a national army for security purposes, since all of the short-term goals were not met.

An additional point that came out of the meeting, according to Sproule, was “a very strong plea by the Afghanistan government for donors to direct more of their assistance through the central and development budget of the government so they would have the means to implement the programs themselves." Though the Afghan government administers most of the projects, committee members insist on continuing to route the funds through multilateral organizations for the time being.

For the full article, click here.

Journalists fight for free expression despite dangers

In correlation with the release of its 2007 Annual Report, Reporters Without Borders, in collaboration with the National Press Club, held a press conference today, highlighting the danger of being a journalist in the world today. In 2006, more than 140 journalists were imprisoned and at least 110 were killed, the highest numbers since 1994, stated Reporters Without Borders Washington Representative Lucie Morillon. Already this year, six journalists and four media assistants have been killed. In light of these numbers, a number of journalists from around the world relayed stories of the current dangers journalists face in various countries today.

Iraq was deemed the most dangerous location for journalists based on the number killed, according to the report. The situation for those who seek to pursue free expression is so grave that all conference attendees were asked not to take photos or video of the presenting Iraqi journalist, Huda Ahmed, to maintain the safety of her relatives back home. In conclusion to a few of her personal stories, she emphasized that Iraqi journalists are vulnerable regardless of their location within the country. They must drive via different routes both to and from work so that insurgents cannot follow them home and kill them for siding with a particular religion or political alliance. When writing an article, they sign it using a pseudonym or provide full credit to the Western journalists they may be partnered with.

Ahmed noted the importance of distinguishing between Iraqi journalists working for local media and those working with foreign media sources, as the difference between the two matters in the amount of security received. “ The government cannot protect regular citizens, so how can it protect journalists?,” Ahmed asked. However, despite living in continual fear, most Iraqi journalists are dedicated to being the “voices and conscience of the people,” professed Ahmed.

Unlike the daily violence and threats that fuel the fear among journalists in Iraq, dangers in Mexico surface primarily from criticisms of the government and investigations into drug trafficking. Due to the situation in Mexico, the country was designated the most dangerous place for journalists in the Americas and the second most dangerous place in the world in 2006. Jose Carreno, a Mexican journalist, stated, independent of his workplace affiliation, that the problem in Mexico “is not what the government is doing; it is what it is not doing.” That is providing security to journalists who try to help the Mexican people see the lack of transparency in the government. It is for this reason, he continued, that “political gamesmanship is interfering with the investigation of crimes.”

This interference appears to be precisely the problem in some on-going cases. Brad Will, a New York cameraman with Indymedia was killed in Oaxaca on October 27 while filming riots that captured physical attacks on journalists and destruction of media offices. The two police men arrested for his murder were released in November on insufficient evidence.

As the Beijing Olympics quickly approach, the concern regarding freedom of the press in China becomes a hotter topic. Chinese journalist and editor of Boxun, Watson Meng, noted that, effective January 1, 2007, Chinese officials will allow reporters working for foreign media to interview any official in China with proper permission. However, Meng continued, permission is set to halt at the end of the games. Also, this allowance is only for foreign citizens. Nothing has changed for Chinese citizens, including those imprisoned for expressing criticism of the government - predominantly via internet sources. China imprisoned more political dissidents than any country in the world in 2006.

The U.S. is also a country of concern for Reporters without Borders. Two cases in particular highlight recent concerns of journalists pressured by the judicial system to reveal sources and break confidentiality. Having already sat in jail for almost 160 straight days, Josh Wolf, a blogger and freelance journalist in California, may remain there until July 2007 for refusing to hand over to a Federal Grand Jury the film he took of an anti-G8 protest, where a police vehicle was damaged. One representative of the Free Josh Wolf Coalition concluded his update by expressing that “we are living in an era where freedoms are disappearing in the name of freedom.”

Similarly, Sarah Olsen, an independent journalist and radio producer, was subpoened by a U.S. Army court-martial to provide evidence at First Lieutenant Ehren Watada’s trial, since she exclusively interviewed him one week before he publicly announced that he refused to deploy to Iraq. Olsen remarked that when journalists begin to be viewed as the “investigative arm” of the government, free speech is repressed, journalists become scared and sources begin to question their confidentiality.

Though varied in nature, each case represents the dangers presented by governments and violence throughout the world that obstruct the freedom of expression of both journalists and ordinary citizens.

For the full report, click here.

Leaked secret document foretells Christian expulsion in Burma

In a document entitled, “Programme to destroy the Christian religion in Burma,” step-by-step instructions were provided for Burmese citizens to run Christians out of the country, the British news source, Telegraph, reported last week. Reportedly composed by a state-sponsored, military-backed Buddhist group, the document also calls for the imprisonment of evangelists, opening “There shall be no home where the Christian religion is practised.”

Believed to have been leaked by a government agency, human rights groups claim that the document is a part of a larger regime goal of creating a uniform Burmese, Buddhist state. The Burmese government denies creating the document. However, there have been previous reported instances of Christian persecution carried out by government-backed Buddhists, including forced conversion and church destruction.

Christians comprise between four and six percent of Burma’s population and are not the only group targeted. Burma’s military dictatorship is known for its human rights violations, most notably for holding Nobel Peace Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for years.

For the full article, click here.

IOM releases report on Iraqi refugee crisis

The International Organization for Migration (IOM), which released Iraqi Displacement 2006: Year in Review today, confirmed that in addition to the 1.2 million Iraqis displaced before last January, more than 300,000 have been displaced since the beginning of IOM’s research on February 22, 2006. Correspondingly, roughly one thousand Iraqis have been displaced in the past month alone. The IOM study, which was conducted by an Iraqi representative of the organization, used Rapid Assessment Templates to assess a variety of needs of the internally displaced families and groups.
Fear, which has been heightened by the unrelenting insurgency, resultant sectarian violence, and widespread crime, is the major reason for the mass exodus.

The fact that most refugees are fleeing mixed communities for sanctuary in more homogenous communities is rapidly polarizing the nation. If given the option, many internally displaced persons (IDPs) relocate to family members’ residences. However, if no such opportunity exists, families often settle in abandoned public buildings and makeshift houses; collective towns have developed in some of the southern governorates. These shelters are typically overcrowded and lacking in basic necessities and access to fuel. While IDPs generally look to return to their original residences, IOM estimates indicate that only 45% of Iraqi IDPs plan to return; many believe that the government or other individuals have taken over their land and homes, and without any legal statute reclamation will be difficult. Accordingly, 25% plan to stay at their current location and 28% plan to relocate to a third location.

While shelter is of the highest priority, food and employment directly follow. Although pledges of assistance have been made, many refugees have yet to receive promised allotments of food. As the Iraq conflict enters a fifth year, donor fatigue could not have set in at a worse time. The need for humanitarian relief has increased drastically, but needed aid has lessened.

Iraqi children are the most vulnerable demographic. As more and more women are widowed; not only are these household burdened with financial hardships, due to the rouge militia and religious fundamentalism, many women are unable to find work. Prostitution and child-labor are on the rise, malnutrition remains a major concern, and needed vaccinations are difficult to obtain. Additionally, women are being forced to give birth at home.

Additionally, many professionals are fleeing - resulting in a dearth of domestic resources.

Although IOM is working with the Ministry of Displacement and Migration (MODM) in Iraq, the instability within many parts of Iraq, particularly the central areas, remain too dangerous for effective change to be cultivated.

For the full report, click here.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Tension escalates between U.S. and Iran; Iraq caught in middle

Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh stated this week that he believed Iraq had turned into a battleground for U.S. and Iranian competition, The Associated Press reported today. In the midst of resolving their own internal conflict, the Iraqi government has urged Iran and the U.S. to resolve their differences. While Iraq is dependent on the U.S. for troops in order to rebuild their nation, they also do not want to alienate their neighbors, Iran and Syria in particular, which are adversaries of the U.S. Saleh suggested that Iraq should be viewed as a “point of consensus” between the U.S. and Iran.

Despite Saleh’s pleas, the volatile relationship between the U.S. and Iran does not look as though it will calm any time soon. Earlier this month tensions escalated after U.S. troops invaded an Iranian government office in northern Iraq and apprehended five Iranians. Kurdish officials in Baghdad insisted that the raid was committed without warrant and demanded the release of the detainees. However, President Bush has authorized U.S. troops in Iraq to do whatever is necessary when encountering Iranians that could pose a threat.

For the full article, click here.

Rights group wary of government crackdown on freedom of expression.

On Saturday, Human Rights Watch called on the Egyptian government to free the first person in Egypt to be tried for his online posts. Abdel Kareem Nabil Suleiman has been detained since November 2006 for blog posts that were decried as religiously and politically inflammatory.
Suleiman could be sentenced to nine years in prison if found guilty.

Human Rights Watch denounced the charges. “The Egyptian government should immediately drop all charges against Suleiman and release him," said Sarah Leah Whitson, a director for Human Rights Watch.

The Suleiman case gives journalists, bloggers, and human rights activists in Egypt cause to fear a heightened crackdown on the country's outspoken independent press and its young, activist bloggers - who have been primary agitators for democratic reform.

For full article, click here.

Reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan subpar, rights group says

According to Human Rights Watch, Afghanistan and the nations aiding it in the reconstruction effort have not met the goals outlined in last year’s Afghanistan Compact. The pronouncement was reported by Reuters AlertNet today.

Sam Zarifi, Asia research director at Human Rights Watch, expressed concern over slow progress on major compact benchmarks such as human rights, security, governance, and economic development.

“Security is the first pillar of the compact, but tens of thousands of Afghans don't feel safe enough to lead normal lives. Life is so dangerous that many Afghans are unable to go to school, get health care, or take goods to market,” Zarifi said.

In addressing the challenge of securing the well-being of the Afghan people, and thus preventing serious human rights violations, Zarifi called on the Afghanistan’s international supporters to strengthen their assistance interventions.

For the full article, click here.

Baath party member reveals participation in destruction of Kurdish villages

Ali Hassan Al Majeed openly admitted to ordering the eradication of Kurdish villages and affirmed that he had nothing to apologize for, the Gulf News reported yesterday. Al Majeed, Sadaam Hussein’s cousin and a former senior Baath party member, is on trial for acts of genocide during the 1988 Anfal military campaign.

Al Majeed explained on a previous occasion that he ordered troops to execute any residents who remained in the villages following a government order to evacuate. Al Majeed insisted that because Kurdish guerrillas fought alongside Iran during the final stages of the Iran-Iraq war, his actions were justified.

For the full article, click here.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Muslim women pushing for reform

According to Victoria Brittain of the Guardian, a lack of awareness has hindered the growing international Islamic feminist movement. Brittain believes that the phenomenon of strongly Muslim, activist women should no longer be ignored.

Brittain advocates a different image of the current emerging movement in Islamic feminism, not only amongst the powers of conventional Islam but also in the western media. This is very crucial at present if Muslim women are to reclaim their rights.

In recent years, Islamic women activists’ campaigns have garnered significant achievements, but greater reforms are still needed, because, as Brittain writes, “Embattled Muslim women, suffering the burdens of the worst cultural attitudes to rape and adultery enshrined in medieval laws in Pakistan and Northern Nigeria; or the sexual violence and rolling back of their rights, unleashed by the war in Iraq; or the targeted killings of women activists in Afghanistan.”

Brittain follows up on the Egyptian writer Haifa Khalafallah’s challenge to all Muslim women to discuss the importance of promoting practical women’s human rights at a meeting next week in Brussels entitled “Towards an emerging Islamic feminist consciousness in Europe.”

Brittain argues that we need to be aware that injustice, inequality and the lack of freedom of thought have nothing to do with Islam. The Quran preaches gender equality, with the same rights to education and self-fulfillment afforded to men and women.

For the full article, click here.

Targeting gender equality in Viet Nam

At the third dialogue session last week with the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Ha Thi Khiet, head of the National Committee for the Advancement of Women in Viet Nam, spoke on the challenges of implementing the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), VNS reported today.

Khiet addressed the substantial improvements in gender equality that Viet Nam has made over the past two decades, and noted the further advancements that will come about as the result of the forthcoming Law on Gender Equality, which will come into effect in July. However, Khiet stressed that there is still much to be done, “We, as women, are not yet content with many things which are impeding the advancement of women.”

Additionally, Khiet said that international assistance is needed to address persistent problems like prostitution and human trafficking.

For the full article, click here.

The hijab and Egyptian women

In a country with a prominent Islamist movement, roughly 90 percent of Egyptian women wear the traditional hijab, or head covering, The New York Times reported yesterday. The hijab is becoming more and more popularity and the ruling secular party in Egypt is wary of the underlying implications.

The majority of young women who wear the hijab are not following the same stringent rules when it comes to the rest of their clothing. Most are not wearing loose or baggy clothing to hide their figures, but instead, many young women are wearing tighter Western-style clothing. This trend reflects the possibility that many women are not wearing the hijab for religious purposes, but as a fashion statement.

The growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood may be partly responsible for the growing number of Egyptians exhibiting increased attention to traditional religious values.

One Egyptian government official was recently rebuked for comments that the hijab is “a step backward for Egyptian women.”

With the recent increase in the prevalence of the hijab, many are worrying that there may be an increase in the number of women wearing the niqab, which is the black covering that covers the face and the body.

For the full article, click here.

Al-Jazeera journalist to go on trial in Egypt

Howaida Taha, a 43 year-old Egyptian documentary producer for Al-Jazeera, has been charged with harming the country’s national interest, The International Herald Tribune reported yesterday. Taha was detained earlier this month at the Cairo airport with 50 videos in her luggage. According to the authorities, the videos contain fabricated scenes of torture being committed by Egyptian police. She has been released on bail pending the outcome of the trial.

For the recordings on the tapes, actors were used to depict the torture, which according to Hussein Abdel Ghani, the bureau chief for Al-Jazeera in Cairo, is a common method for producing documentaries. Taha, who could be sentenced to up to three years in prison, claims that she obtained approval from the government.

The recent crackdown on leaked torture tapes comes as some Egyptian police officers are being investigated for torturing inmates, sometimes using sexual abuse.

For the entire article, click here.