Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Friday, May 25, 2007

Foreign Affairs Committee Approves additional Afghan funding

The House Committee on Foreign Affairs voted to provide development, economic and security funding to Afghanistan for the next three years. The Afghanistan Freedom and Security Support Act (H.R. 2446), sponsored by Chairman Tom Lantos (D-CA) and Rep. Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), renews a 2002 authorization and will set aside $6.435 billion for 2008-2010.

The bill also includes a requirement that the President to outline a new strategy for reconstruction and security in addition to reporting on performance goals concerning political, economic, development, security and counter-narcotics operations in Afghanistan.

“Nearly five years since the 9-11 attacks, and the subsequent ouster of the Taliban and al-Qaeda from power, the country runs a real risk of falling into the hands of the Taliban again," Lantos said. "We cannot - and will not - let this happen. We have come too far in our efforts in Afghanistan simply to stop cold now. The United States has pledged its commitment to Afghanistan's long-term stability and security. This bill is essential, urgent, and - most importantly - represents a fulfillment of that promise.”

For the full article, click here.

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US policy change endangers the Montagnards of the Central Highlands

The US has changed its policy of offering a “second chance” to Montagnard asylum seekers who have been denied refugee status by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees according to Refugees International. As of May 1, rejected applicants must return to Vietnam to visit the US Embassy in Hanoi.

The State Department changed its policy due to ‘improved conditions for Montagnards’ in the Central Highlands. "We believe that human rights conditions are improving in the Central Highlands, a region to which UNHCR and other diplomatic missions have had increased access over the past year," Daigle wrote in an e-mail Thursday. "[We] have received assurances from the Vietnamese government that it will allow Montagnards to apply for refugee status at our embassy or consulate in that country. We have no reason to doubt these assurances.”

The change in policy has been highly criticized by Refugee International who categorized the policy shift as ‘weakening protections for Montagnards and possibly exposing Montagnards to new problems when forced home’.

In a June report, Human Rights Watch maintains that Montagnards in the Central Highlands continue to suffer serious human rights abuses and face torture and persecution. Similarly, ZOA Refugee Care acknowledges the ongoing ‘severe forms of religion-based punitive action’ such as beatings, forced labor, imprisonment, full-time surveillance and confiscation of property.

Despite continued documented discrimination against the Montagnards, the US policy shift was welcomed by the Vietnamese government: “Before [the US] had the wrong conception. People have religious freedom [in Vietnam]” A spokesperson of the Vietnamese government also added that the Montagnards are free to travel to complain to local authorities if they feel they are being mistreated.

Speculation of the policy shift points towards the upcoming visit by the Vietnamese president amidst increased relations with the US.

For the full article, click here.

For more information on Refugees International’s work concerning ongoing discrimination against the Montagnards, click here.

For more information concerning the Leadership Council for Human Rights projects in the Central Highlands, click here.

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IDP and refugee crsis in Iraq

The reality of the number of internally displaced people (IDP) in Iraq represents the largest crisis of such magnitude since 1948. The response of the international community, up to this point, has been insufficient to meet the urgent need for humanitarian assistance. There are a total of 2 million IDPs and 2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Iran. The majority of these refugees have sought refuge in Syria and Jordan despite increasing tension and lack of governmental interest in providing public services.

Despite rhetorical commitments to the refugee crisis, the 700,000-1 million Iraqi refugees in Jordan are refused access to public services on a practical level. While the Iraqi refugees in Syria have had access to public services up until this point, the 800,000 to 1.5 million refugees are starting to create tension within the Syrian government. The Syrians were previously very gracious with their support for the Iraqis as a sign of Arab solidarity, however, this is certain to change as the crisis in Iraq escalates and creates more refugees. The increasing poverty among Iraqi refugees also creates tension due to increased passport requirements by neighboring countries to ensure the ‘visitors’, as the Jordanian government refers to them, do not permanently relocate. Analysts also fear that the increased sectarian violence could, in fact, worsen if heavy arms make their way into factional conflicts. The likelihood of the sectarian violence spreading outside of Iraq is probable, especially if no additional actions are taken. As barriers for IDPs continue to increase and violence increases, the crisis is only exacerbated. Yielding an increase in IDPs and refugees would most likely cause Syria to halt access to public services by Iraqis.

For more information on the Iraqi refugee crisis, visit Refugee International here.

Information on UNHCR missions for Iraqi refugees, click here.

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Attacks on Iraqi journalists condemned by UNESCO chief

A total of 177 journalists and media personnel have been killed in Iraq since March 2003 in addition to thirteen ongoing hostage situations, according to Reporters without Borders. Ali Khalil, a 22 year old journalist, was abducted and later found dead on May 20. Speculation surrounds the death but is more than likely a response to a series of reports by Khalil in which parliamentarians were quoted calling for the ‘physical elimination of members of armed groups’. Witnesses report seeing Khalil abducted by masked gunman shortly after leaving family residence.

In response to the killing of Ali Khalil and the subsequent kidnapping of Salam Duhi al-Sudani, Secretary-General Koichiro Matsuura (UNESCO) condemned increased attacks on journalists and, more symbolically, the repression of the right to free expression that is such a vital component of establishing an effective and stable government.

"I condemn the murder of Ali Khalil, and the abduction of Salam Duhi al-Sudani," the Director-General said. "The killing of Iraqi journalists must be stopped. We can but admire the courage and steadfastness of these dedicated professionals in carrying out work that is essential for informed debate, the very premise of democracy and rule of law. At the same time, I can but be appalled by the heavy toll these Iraqi women and men have been paying for exercising the basic human right of freedom of expression."

For the full article, click here.

For the full statement released by UNESCO, click here.


Thursday, May 24, 2007

CHRC holds briefing on religious freedom in Egypt

Religious freedom and human rights experts on Wednesday accused the Egyptian government of poor treatment of non-Muslims and alleged defamers of Islam, while calling on the U.S. government to do more to curtail such abuses. Witnesses present at a Congressional Human Rights Caucus briefing on human rights in Egypt decried discriminatory policies against religious minorities such as Coptic Christians and Baha’is, and criticized President Hosni Mubarak for overseeing the propagation of intolerant messages through educational curricula and the media.

Harold Hongju Koh, a dean at Yale Law School and former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, focused on the plight of Egyptian Baha’is, who have faced systemic oppression in a nation where they are often derided as “apostates of Islam.” Last year, in a particularly egregious court ruling that Koh said “demonized Baha’is and declared them to be effectively non-citizens,” adherents were denied the right to state their religion on the government identification cards needed to access most services. Koh equated Egypt’s strict demand for disclosure of religious identity to policies against the Jews in Nazi Germany and the Hutus in Rwanda.

Michael Meunier, the president the U.S. Copts Association, said the Egyptian government has attempted to play down attacks against Egyptian Christians and their churches – noting a violent sectarian clash earlier this month in the town of Bahma – and spoke out against longstanding regulations that restrict the groups’ freedom of worship and access to higher education. He also called for a unified church construction law that would apply to Muslim and non-Muslim places of worship and urged Egypt to set aside quotas to ensure greater non-Muslim representation in parliament, saying that religious minorities without a political voice would continue to face threats.

Nasser Weddady, the director of a civil rights group affiliated with the American Islamic Congress, addressed “the dramatic rise in interrogation and detention” of Egyptian bloggers, a group he said was “feeling the heat of a systematic campaign to silence their voices.” Earlier this year, activist blogger Abdel Kareem Soliman was sentenced to four years in prison for insulting religion and the president in his writings, and Weddady noted a more recent incident in which security forces raided an accused blogger’s home. “Blogging is the new frontier of free expression, as well as government oppression,” Weddady said. He called on U.S. lawmakers to create a “bloggers emergency task force” to address the issue.

Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) laid out three main concerns with regard to Egypt’s stance on religious freedom, adding that Members of Congress would soon send a letter to Mubarak voicing their displeasure. Rep. Franks’ cited: “recent limitations on individuals speaking out about religious persecution;” intolerant messages “perpetrated through the public education system and the mosques in Egypt, presumably by the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters;” and recent statements by Egypt’s foreign minister calling for the creation of an international document that punishes those who “offend and defame religions.”

Rep. Franks’ last concern was widely echoed in witnesses’ testimony. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom John Hanford said that the U.S. will call on Egypt and the United Nations to make the protection of victims of charges based on religion a “high priority.” Nina Shea, the chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, expressed concern that pressing charges for offending or defaming religion would become a wider standard. Weddady said it “sets a dangerous precedent” for the persecution of different religious interpretations.

Shea also called for closer scrutiny U.S. aid to the country and said she was “concerned about how aid is being or is not being used.”

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

U.S. war on terror viewed as excuse to violate rights, Amnesty International says

According to a recently-issued Amnesty International report, the U.S. war on terror has led to a worldwide erosion of rights, The Associated Press reported today.

Amnesty International Secretary-General Irene Khan noted that the behavior of the United States and its allies has allowed other countries to violate human rights in the spirit of fighting terrorism.

“One of the biggest blows to human rights has been the attempt of Western democratic states to roll back some fundamental principles of human rights - like the prohibition of torture,” Khan told AP before the release of her organization’s global human rights report.

The report suggests that the U.S. response to international terrorism has done more to create distrust between Muslims and non-Muslims than to eradicate extremism. The ongoing policy of extraordinary rendition was specifically criticized.

“If we focus on the U.S. it's because we believe that the U.S. is a country whose enormous influence and power has to be used constructively,” Khan pointed out. “When countries like the U.S. are seen to undermine or ignore human rights, it sends a very powerful message to others.”

For the full article, click here.

For access to the full Amnesty International report, click here.

Civilian IED casualties continue to rise in Afghanistan

Amidst recent critiques of U.S. and NATO operations in Afghanistan, civilians causalities from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) remain high, Reuters reported today. This month, 85 people, 40 of which were civilians, have been killed by Taliban IEDs. The wounded tolls have soared to 250 people, 118 of those civilians. Alternatively, 90 civilian causalities this month have come as the result of U.S.-led airstrikes.

On Tuesday, The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) reported a total of 136 total civilian deaths this year. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) also reported 2,000 homeless Afghans and 173 destroyed homes as a result of a series of April airstrikes in Shindand. The high percentage of civilian causalities is prompting NATO to review its tactics, and the rising death toll is fueling growing discontent among Afghans complaining of a lack of development since the U.S. removed the Taliban from power in 2001.

For the full article, click here.

For information on the AIHRC, click here.

For information on ICRC’s work in Afghanistan, click here.


MP expelled for criticizing Afghan parliament

On Monday, Malalai Joya, a prominent Afghan Member of Parliament, was expelled from parliament for the duration of her term following a television interview concerning the state of the national legislative body in Afghanistan, The Independent reported the next day. During the television interview, Joya characterized parliamentary proceedings as descending to a level “worse than a zoo.” Some MPs went so far as to advocate for the removal of Joya in future elections.

Apparently, Joya, a strong voice for women’s rights, has angered her male counterparts on numerous occasions. To make matters worse, the speaker of the upper house responded to the interview with a letter to the speaker of the lower house stating that “If the lower house does not take a decision about her, we will take a decision.” Despite a lack of grounds for suspension, Speaker Yunus Qanooni sought to have Joya brought before a court for defamation.

“Talking about women's rights in Afghanistan is a joke. There really have not been any fundamental changes, the Taliban were driven off by the Americans and the British but then they were allowed to be replaced by warlords who also simply cannot see women as equals,” Joya said. “Those of us who speak up are targets. My friends and colleagues have been assassinated. They have tried to kill me four times; the last attack was in Kabul which is the capital of this country which is supposed to be secure and democratic. And then if you try to speak up in parliament their first reaction is to try to gag you.”

For the full article, click here.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

UNRWA Commissioner-General speaks at Wilson Center

Karen Koning AbuZayd, the Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA), spoke at the Wilson Center today on the obstacles faced by refugees in the Palestinian Occupied Territories. UNRWA was created before the inception of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and its sole mandate is to provide for the humanitarian needs of Palestinian refugees as a result of the continued occupation and ongoing restrictions on movement.

AbuZayd advocated the closing of the gap between words and actions. She highlighted the ideals and values proclaimed by the international community but noted the lack of effective, practical actions taken on behalf of remedying the conditions brought on by 60 years of occupation. Although AbuZayd said there is still a lifetime of work to do, the educational programs in the region have had a significant impact as the Palestinian literacy rate is 92.4 percent, well beyond the Middle Eastern average of 64 percent. Regarding meeting the concerns of the 800,000-plus displaced Palestinians, as well as those living under occupation, she called for a focus on infrastructure development in order to create an environment that fosters peace and good governance.

The goal of UNWRA through its humanitarian assistance is to encourage the international community to change their strategy of isolation and exclusion as a means of creating and ensuring a sustainable peace process. As poverty rates have risen to 80 percent in Gaza, AbuZayd called for the international community to meet the obligations and promises of countless international agreements to ensure compliance with current, agreed upon, human rights conventions.

AbuZayd began her humanitarian career in Sudan in 1981. Since that time, she has served as the Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and in various posts at UNHCR.

To view the video of the discussion, click here.

For more information on Mrs. AbuZayd and UNRWA, click here.

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Afghans viewing civilian deaths as contradiction to U.S./NATO mission

Reuters reports today on the growing concern over increased civilian deaths amidst the continued U.S. and NATO air strikes aimed at Taliban fighters. Analysts are worried that continued civilian deaths will aid in the Taliban’s recruitment of additional fighters. Earlier this month, air strikes killed at least 50 villagers in the Shindand district of Herat province.

Nader Nadery, an Afghan human rights campaigner, noted the growing concerns over the air strikes and increased questions as to why more ground operations are not being conducted; something that is seen as remedying the problem of civilian causalities.

“Civilian deaths have strengthened the Taliban,” said Waheed Mozhdah, a political and military analyst who previously served as an official in the Taliban government. “We had people fleeing their villages for neighboring countries because of the bombings during the occupation by the Russians. That provided basically a good ground for the recruitment of mujahideen.”

“There are dozens of combat actions that are successful and do not produce civilian casualties,” said Ronald E. Neumann, until recently the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.

As calls for President Hamid Karzai to resign grow, President Bush and NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said that reductions in civilian deaths would be made a priority; however, blame was also placed on the Taliban for the use of human shields.

For the full article, click here.


Egypt wins seat on U.N. Human Rights Council

Despite strong opposition from human rights groups, Egypt won a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council after last Thursday’s election, the Toronto Star reported the following day. Stressing that Egypt’s human rights record “is full of serious human rights violations that have been practiced widely for long years,” human rights groups had urged U.N. General Assembly members not to vote for Egypt.

Egypt’s victory is an indication that the council, which replaces the much-maligned U.N. Human Rights Commission, is just as dubious as the previous body, according to critics. Alex Neve, the head of Amnesty International’s Canadian office, said that “all the fine things said last year when the council was created aren’t being played out in practice.”

Meanwhile, Belarus, an authoritarian state, failed to win a seat in the council.

For the full article, click here

American scholar charged with heading ‘soft revolution’ in Iran

On Monday in Tehran, Haleh Esfandiari was charged with seeking to topple the Iranian government, the Washington Post reports. Esfandiari, an Iranian-American and scholar at the Washington’s Woodrow Wilson International Center, was suspected of creating a network that sought to work “against the sovereignty of Iran,” Iranian state television reported.

The charges come at a pivotal moment in U.S.-Iran relations as Monday marked the scheduled start date for bilateral talks concerning the strategy in Iraq. Despite the tension stemming from the detainment of Esfandiari, the Iranian foreign ministry’s think tank, Institute for Political and International Studies, officially sponsors exchanges between U.S. and Iranian scholars.

The Wilson Center has repeatedly denied any link between Esfandiari and sponsored attempts at toppling the Iranian government. “Haleh was not engaged in any activities to undermine any government, including the Iranian government. Nor does the Wilson Center engage in such activities. . . . There is not one scintilla of evidence to support these outrageous claims,” Wilson Center director Lee H. Hamilton remarked concerning the accusations of conspiring against the state.

Although a network of Iranian experts was being created, according to the Wilson Center, it was for the sole purpose of bringing experts to conferences and other organizational events. It should be noted that no formal charges have been handed down from the judiciary in Iran, a possible signal that the accusations could eventually be dismissed.

For the full article, click here.

“A New Generation: Advocating for Political Reform in the Middle East and North Africa”

In a panel discussion on Monday, Freedom House visiting fellows of the New Generation of Advocates Program spoke on the emergence of the new generation of civil society advocates. From bloggers to investigative journalists, the use of technology in advocating for free societies has allowed individuals to make a difference in often oppressive circumstances.

The panel consisted of professionals from Algeria, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, who addressed their individual experiences in advocating for free governance in their respective countries. Wael Abbas, an Egyptian blogger and activist, has created a network of bloggers and contacts by which to circulate information on governmental corruption and human rights abuses. For Egypt's less-than-open regime, bloggers have been a “pain in the neck,” covering presidential and parliamentary elections as well as the activities of all the new movements calling for change in the country. The desire to empower people and raise awareness is at the heart of the civil society movement in Egypt and across the globe.

The panel also included influential advocates for civil society movements and featured personal reactions from Amel Blidi, a journalist in Algeria; Nasser Massoud, co-founder of the Children Rights Organization in Libya; and Neji Khachnaoui, a journalist from Tunisia.

For more information on the panel and their work as visiting scholars, click here.

For an article by Wael Abbas on blogging activism in the Middle East, click here.


Monday, May 21, 2007

New U.N. initiatives to reduce drug trafficking, increase food distribution

Last week, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) announced a project that, according to the U.N., seeks to “reinforce the ability of the Afghan legal system to bring drug traffickers to justice,” the UN News Service reported on May 14. The completion of a justice support center in Jalalabad allows for all aspects of the anti-trafficking initiative – from processing those arrested to conducting the trials – to be handled under one roof. The need for the center stems from security concerns related to the booking and prosecuting of traffickers in the region.

Aleem Siddique, a spokesperson for the U.N. Assistance Mission (UNAMA), said the new justice support centers “will play a vital role in strengthening Afghanistan’s judicial system and will eventually help to bring to book some of Afghanistan’s biggest drug traffickers, aiming to end impunity and prevent the scourge of narcotics from undermining Afghanistan’s progress.”

UNAMA has also recently announced a food for work program in Kunar, Lahman and Nangarhar provinces which seeks to duplicate the success of school feeding programs in the region that benefited nearly 35,000 students and patients. The World Food Programme (WFP) plans to provide over 520,000 tons of food to over 5.4 million Afghans through the end of 2008.

For the full article, click here.

For more information on UNAMA projects, click here.

For insight into WFP projects in Afghanistan, click here.

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2,000 homeless in western Afghanistan from U.S. raids, Red Cross says

AFP reported Sunday on a Red Cross statement that cited U.S. bombings in western Afghanistan that destroyed 173 homes as the cause of homelessness for 2,000 Afghans. Although final reports are due this week, the preliminary investigation found that around 50 civilians were killed in the April 27 and 29 operations.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) scolded foreign forces over the civilian casualties during operations aimed at putting down the Taliban insurgency. The ICRC noted that the assault “left 230 families, almost 2,000 people, in four villages homeless.”

Last month’s raids left one of the highest civilian death tolls since the start of the campaign against the Taliban six years ago. Reto Stocker, head of the Red Cross in Afghanistan, remarked that all parties involved in the conflict are “legally obliged to distinguish at all times between legitimate military objectives and the civilian population and civilian objects.”

For the full article, click here.

For more information on the ICRC and their work in Afghanistan, click here.


New National Assembly elected in Viet Nam

Elections were held on Sunday for the 500 seat, 5-year term Vietnamese National Assembly, Reuters reported the same day. This parliamentary election marks the first since Viet Nam joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in January of this year. Of the 875 candidates, 150 are non-Communist Party members that have been approved to run by the government. Despite the existence of electoral laws which require contests in all 182 constituencies, elections are far from open in this one-party state. Despite the restrictions against multiple parties, this election marks the first in which the National Assembly is not viewed as merely a rubber-stamping legislative body for the Communist Party.

“The Vietnamese leadership talk about democracy in the same way the Chinese talk about grass-roots democracy,” said Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum Center for Strategic Studies think-tank. “They are not ready for real democracy, but see the value in the appearance that they are moving in that direction.”

The Vietnamese government has dealt with much criticism from the West recently due to the sentencing of numerous pro-democracy activists who supposedly broke the law by “spreading propaganda against the state.” Two such activist lawyers were jailed for 5 years due to incitement to disrupt the election.

For the full article, click here.

For more information regarding the organization of the Vietnamese National Assembly, click here.

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