Tag Archives: human rights

Costs mount in a failing drugs war

Nobody is winning in Mexico’s bloody fight against the cartels…


La policía, Juárez, México © Scazon


Prior to Felipe Calderon’s election as Mexican President in 2006, the country’s murder rate had halved since the early 1990s. While Mexico’s drug cartels became more powerful and their tentacles spread, the government had essentially endorsed a policy of ‘soft’ enforcement.

Calderon changed this by declaring war on the cartels, and since then the conflict has become increasingly militarised, though the ‘results’ are yet to be seen.

The flow of drugs into the United States has not been halted in any significant manner, while 45,000 citizens have lost their lives in a ‘war’ that has been characterised by a seemingly endless stream of gruesome atrocities.

Severed heads turn up on poles as a warning to those that cross the cartels, critical bloggers have been hung from bridges, journalists are attacked, government employees are threatened and killed if they don’t comply, and the value of life has become seemingly meaningless.

A recent press release by Human Rights Watch shows that Mexico’s security forces are not absolved from guilt either. The group found evidence that since Calderon took office, government police and army units have been responsible for 170 cases of torture, 24 extrajudicial killings, and 39 disappearances.

Americas Director at Human Rights Watch, Jose Miguel Vivanco, says:

Instead of reducing violence, Mexico’s ‘war on drugs’ has resulted in a dramatic increase in killings, torture, and other appalling abuses by security forces, which only make the climate of lawlessness and fear worse in many parts of the country,

While the war seems to be in a bloody stalemate, it is continuing to be financed by the United States, in a programme started by George W. Bush and endorsed still by President Obama. At the same time, Bush’s relaxation of gun laws has helped to arm the cartels, whose automatic weapons usually come from the other side of the border.

Read more at The New Yorker

Read the full 12 page report on Mexico at Human Rights Watch


Russian torture story slips past the censors

Story of torture in Chechnya makes it onto to Russian TV, before promptly disappearing again…


Islam Umarpashaev on Russian TV (briefly) © NTV


When the Russian news programme Central Television broadcast a piece on torture in Chechnya this week -shortly after a typical segment with a grandstanding Vladimir Putin ploughing a field- viewers probably couldn’t believe what they were seeing.

The expose showed a young Chechen called Islam Umarpashaev, beaten and bloodied, after being arrested and held without charge for four months. According to Umarpashaev, he was originally detained after criticising the Chechen police online, before being held for months chained to a radiator in a basement. During this time he says he was beaten, electrocuted and pistol-whipped.

Umarpashaev says that when he then refused to confess to terrorism charges, the police forced him to grow a beard (so he would look like an Islamist) in preparation for what they called ‘preparing results’.

The programme explained that this meant he would be killed and his death falsified, a common practice in Chechnya. Eventually Umarpashaev was released after a local human rights groups petitioned on his behalf.

What is remarkable is that the story managed to get onto Russian TV, where the issue is almost always censored.

Government torture and murder may be prevalent in Chechya, but with the country run by Putin ally Ramzan Kadyrov, stories of abuse don’t usually make an appearance in Russia’s tightly controlled media.

The outbreak of freedom wasn’t to last however; as the programme aired one by one across Russia’s nine timezones, the torture story mysteriously disappeared.

So the call from the Kremlin came in the end…

Read more at Time


HSBC accused of helping Egyptian generals

The global bank is helping the military to stifle dissent in Egypt say campaigners…


Protester holds Field Marshal Tantawi poster © lilianwagdy


Democracy and social justice campaigners in Egypt say that HSBC bank is colluding with the Egyptian military generals currently running the country, in order to intimidate them and stifle their legitimate activities.

A range of NGOs and human rights groups say the global banking giant has been contacting them over the last two months, requesting information and documents relating to their work and activities in Egypt.

Nawla Darwiche of the New Women Foundation, says the group was asked to provide a list of all planned future projects:

They also said they could release our accounts to the government if they were asked,

This is very serious.

The suggestion is that the military, increasingly at odds with the revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak, are using such channels to stifle attempts to investigate military abuses and related issues.

Omnia Samra, HSBC Bank Egypt’s head of communications, said the bank had an obligation to reply to the Central Bank of Egypt (also accused) “on a wide range of queries”, adding:

We are not in a position to advise the nature of such queries to third parties,

Read more at The Independent


Moussa Koussa tortured Libyan prisoners

The BBC have tracked down former Libyan intelligence chief Moussa Koussa and confronted him over torture allegations. Koussa defected from Libya during the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, and came to Britain before being allowed to go to Qatar, as no international arrest warrant has been issued for him.

Reporters from the BBC tracked Koussa down and confronted him over evidence that he personally tortured prisoners at the Abu Salim jail in Tripoli, with one former detainee saying Koussa used an electric batton on him. Koussa refused to answer the allegations.


Aung San Suu Kyi’s darkest hour

A new biography of the Burmese democracy leader reveals the moment she closely escaped death…


© Foreign and Commonwealth Office


On 30 May 2003, the Burmese democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi, recently released from house arrest, narrowly escaped death at the hands of a pro-government mob.

While campaigning near the township of Depayin, Suu Kyi and her supporters were unaware that thousands of USDA (paid pro-regime militia) were waiting for them. Armed with sharpened bamboo sticks and iron rods, the thugs -often convicts and drug addicts- surrounded the convoy and began attacking Suu Kyi’s non-violent supporters.

Speaking about the USDA in 1996, Suu Kyi said of the militia:

It is now being used in the way Hitler used his Brownshirts… [it] is being used to crush the democratic movement.

While Suu Kyi was able to escape thanks to her quick thinking driver, the Dapayin massacre ended with 70 of her supporters dead, and with her own return to house arrest. Burmese leader General Than Shwe would later admit to having organised the attack.

The Lady and the Peacock: the Life of Aung San Suu Kyi, by Peter Popham, is released on 3 November

Read more at The Independent on Sunday


Rights groups call for George W. Bush arrest

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch say former US president should be arrested…


© Marion Doss


The groups have called for George W. Bush to be arrested when he arrives in Canada for an economic summit on October 20th, though reportedly the Canadian government has no intention of ‘engaging in cheap stunts‘. In a statement the activist groups said that there was:

overwhelming evidence that Bush and other senior administration officials authorized and implemented a regime of torgure and ill-treatment of hundreds of detainees in US custody.

Canada’s immigration minister Jason Kenney replied to request by saying:

Amnesty International cherrypicks cases to publicize based on ideology. This kind of stunt helps explain why so many respected human rights advocates have abandoned Amnesty International,

However Amnesty Americas director Susan Lee said the Bush visit was:

a crucial moment for Canada to demonstrate it is prepared to live up to its…obligations with respect to human rights…and must now demonstrate that…no one…is above international law.

Read more at The Huffington Post


Amnesty: Failed promises in Afghanistan

Human rights organisation says progress is slow a decade after invasion…


© U.S. Army


Ten years after the ousting of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Amnesty International says that the Afghan government and its international supporters have failed to keep their promises:

Hopes were high in Afghanistan in 2001 following the international intervention but since then human rights gains have been put at risk by corruption, mismanagement and attacks by insurgent groups who have shown systematic contempt for human rights and the laws of war,

Today, many Afghans dare to hope for improvements in human rights in their country. The Afghan government and its international supporters must back these hopes with concrete action to defend them.

Amnesty acknowledges that there has been some progress on human rights, reducing discrimination against women, and health and education. However it says that on a number of issues -justice, policing, human security, displacement- progress has stalled or in some cases even regressed.

The Afghan government and its partners can’t continue to justify their poor performance by saying that things are better than during the 1990s,

Wherever Afghans were given security and financial assistance, they overcame tremendous obstacles to improve their conditions. But too often promises of assistance were not kept.

The human rights group also says that while efforts are currently being made to negotiate peace with the Taliban, the Afghan government should not let any outcome override women’s rights and other advances the country has made. It also warned of the risk to the country as the international community seeks to draw down troops and material involvement:

The Afghan government’s international allies, including the United States, have repeatedly said that they will not abandon the Afghan people,

They must stand by this commitment to ensure that rights are not swept aside as the international community seeks an exit.


Iran: The nuclear distraction

We must not cast a blind eye on Iran’s violations of fundamental rights…


Mahmoud Ahmadinejad UN visit - human rights protest © david_shankbone


Western preoccupation with Iran’s uranium enrichment programme has distracted the international focus away from the other key issue: the government’s human rights violations. International groups have called for a UN led effort to hold Iran to account for its violation of international treaty obligations and for the contempt it shows for both the international community and its own citizens. If the UN is to be effective, the international community must apply more consistent pressure.

Voluntary human rights obligations

Iran has ratified numerous international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and conventions on issues such as racial discrimination and children’s rights. Such obligations have been frequently violated. Thus UN reports highlight government persecution of minority groups, imprisonment of political activists, torture and executions of its most ardent opponents.

Iran’s response to criticism over its human rights record, that foreign governments shouldn’t interfere in its internal political matters, is difficult to justify. Voluntarily undertaken human rights obligations are not internal political matters but legal norms defined and substantiated by international law.

UN inefficacy

Maziar Bahari, an Iranian journalist imprisoned in Iran for 119 days, has argued that the UN must lead the effort to hold Iran to account. He argues that the UN is one of the few international institutions recognised by Iran as legitimate and so has urged the UN to mandate an official investigator in Iran.

But the UN is not the solution. Propositions involving the UN both overestimate the persuasive force of UN demands and fail to recognise the contempt Iran has shown to this institution. The Universal Period Review carried out in February by the UN Office of Human Rights is an example of both the impotence of UN efforts and the lip service paid to this organization by Iran.

The UPR has made recommendations to improve human rights protection in line with Iran’s treaty obligations. Iran claims to be willing to cooperate with the UNHRC but its response to the recommendations has been ‘cynical’, as described by Human Rights Watch. Amnesty International has led the criticism of the inconsistency with which Iran’s government responded, condemning in particular Iran’s acceptance of the recommendation to respect religious freedom but rejection of the request to end discrimination of Baha’is, a religious minority. The government further rejected recommendations to end juvenile executions, rejected guarantees to uphold fair trials, refused to investigate torture and rape allegations and refused to release people detained for peacefully exercising their human rights. Hassiba Sahraoui, the Middle East Deputy Director at Amnesty International, has argued that the rejection of certain recommendations and acceptance of others similar, casts doubt on the prospect of proper implementation.

Other UN attempts to address the rights’ abuses have been restrained and UN General Assembly Resolution 64/176 is timid. In it the General Assembly express their ‘deep concern’ at extra-judicial executions, floggings and amputations as punishments and of the persistent failure to provide due process of law rights. They also express their ‘concern’ over the worsening of human rights violations after the 2009 Presidential election. And yet the resolution ends by a mere ‘call’ for cooperation, a ‘request’ for the Secretary General to submit another report and commits the UN to continue examining human rights in Iran. A General Assembly resolution is a demand without a sanction.

Missed opportunities

The disputed 2009 elections are emblematic of the gross human rights violations in Iran. Critics of the government were arbitrarily arrested, harassed, detained, imprisoned and tortured. The government claimed to be carrying out investigations into the torture and killings but no one appears to have been brought to justice. Iran continues to mislead the Human Rights Council by making claims that it will implement recommendations made by Governments to conduct transparent and independent investigations. But according to Amnesty International, Iranian security forces continue to arrest, detain or convict those alleged to be involved in the post-election unrest. Political and civil society activists remain in prison and, according to the Iranian judiciary, 250 people have been prosecuted in relation to the post-election unrest and at least six of those accused of taking part are at risk of execution after their death sentences were confirmed by appellate courts.

The flagrant human rights abuses committed during the 2009 election were an opportunity for the international community to unite behind the UN and demand reform. The reluctance of the international community to mount an effective challenge at the time has cost the complete loss of political momentum. With the dust having settled on the election, the international community remains once again singularly focussed on the nuclear threat.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech at the UN Summit last year represented another opportunity lost by the international community to engage directly with Iran over its human rights record. When Obama condemned Mr Ahmadinejad’s ‘hateful’ speech, he was predictably light handed on the issue of human rights. The White House transcript of an interview with Obama after the Summit is embarrassing evidence of just how little political space and time was dedicated to the issue of Iran’s human rights abuses. Obama claimed to ‘stand by’ the Iranian people but not once called on Iran to reform and Obama was quick to say he had ‘no interest’ in ‘meddling’ with the rights of people to choose their own government. But what is needed is not a claim to stand by the Iranian people but an effort to speak for the Iranian political and civil activists silenced by imprisonment and torture.

The case for political pressure

Political pressure mounted by the international community is necessary for two reasons. Firstly, the UN is the only international institution that is legally empowered and therefore justified in holding Iran to account. Any action taken by the international community that would circumvent UN machinery would be illegitimate. Instead, UN member states must support this body because is it clear that Iran has no intention of taking the Human Rights Council and, by extension, the UN, seriously.

Secondly, political pressure is necessary because the international community is obliged to speak on behalf of silenced Iranian activists. For Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Peace Prize Winning Iranian human rights activist, of paramount importance is the release of civil and political detainees in Iran. Like so many others working to restore human rights in Iran, Mrs Ebadi recognises that the Iranian people must be allowed the opportunity to hold their own government to account. So long as civil and political activists are suppressed, the Iranian people are denied the ability to demand their human rights for themselves. The lack of a political voice of the Iranian people is why the international community must speak on their behalf. The international community must not ‘meddle’ with their rights, must not impose its own understanding of human rights, but simply need do as Obama claims, and stand by the Iranian people by voicing their complaints.

The question that will be asked is whether political pressure will be effective when legal measures have proved futile. But the question should not be one of efficacy but one of necessity. The international community must transform their silent signatures on UN Resolutions into insistent political criticism because the Iranian people, for fear of intimidation, imprisonment and torture, are unable to criticise the government for themselves. The international community must condemn Iran’s human rights violations in the same way it has condemned Iran’s uranium enrichment. The Iranian government may be blind to the human rights abuses it perpetrates but it cannot be deaf to international political condemnation.


A parliamentary report published in 2009 described the human rights abuses in Iran as systematic, yet little parliamentary time has been spent discussing the government response to these abuses. Occasional political statements and a few early day Parliamentary motions do not amount to political pressure. The British government need to do more and should lead the international community in holding Mr Ahmadinejad’s administration to account.

It is widely felt that ‘the West’ is hesitant to complicate the dialogue with Iran over the nuclear programme by discussing human rights or regional peace. Mrs Ebadi argues that non-democratic, non-liberal states like Iran pose a greater threat to peace in the Middle East than nuclear weapons. She goes further to accuse Western governments of forgetting about the subrogation of human rights in Iran since the beginning of Iran’s nuclear programme.

The nuclear programme has ensured that Iran remains central to western foreign policy concerns.  The argument made is one of political reemphasis, not of political refocus: concern about the nuclear threat is self-evidently important, but the threatened nuclear capability should not dominate political discussion to the exclusion of gross human rights violations. As a signatory to human rights treaties, Iran is in violation of international law as a result of its abuses of fundamental rights and governments must hold Iran to account for this. The West is obliged to give the issue of rights violations the space it deserves in political discourse because we have a legal and moral duty to hold the Iranian government to account for the violations of voluntarily undertaken human rights obligations.


Ram Mashru is the editor of the Discuss[n] blog, and writes on subjects including world affairs and politics. 


Bahrain medics to be given new trial

Trial comes after international outrage over initial sentences…


© Al Jazeera English


Following intense international pressure Bahrain has decided to retry a group of medics sentenced to terms of up to 15 years in prison.

According to the Bahrain News Agency, the country’s attourney general announced that:

the Department of Public Prosecutions had studied the judgment rendered by the National Safety Court on September 28 against certain medical personnel, and determined that the cases should be retried before the ordinary courts.

the retrial will be conducted before the highest civil court in Bahrain … the Department of Public Prosecutions seeks to establish the truth and to enforce the law, while protecting the rights of the accused.

By virtue of the retrials, the accused will have the benefit of full reevaluation of evidence and full opportunity to present their defence.

Following the initial verdicts, after a trial in which the medics were accused of plotting against the state during democracy protests, Amnesty Internation denounced the outcome as “travesty of justice”, while the US State Department said it was “deeply disturbed”.

A number of those detained allege that they were tortured in custody, a practice thought to be widespread in the aftermath of the protests which were crushed earlier in the year.

Watch video response from Bahrain’s opposition al-Wefaq party here


A pattern of disappearances in Pakistan

Thousands of people in Pakistan abducted and disappeared by the military…


Peshawar © Omer Wazir


International and Pakistani rights organisations say that the problem of ‘disappearances’ in Pakistan is getting worse, with thousands of people being secretly detained over the last decade.

Most of the detained are suspected of links to Islamic militants, and Human Rights Watch says exact numbers are hard to come by because people are often too scared to report the abductions.

The US state department has said extrajudicial killings and disappearances are major problems in the country, while US embassy spokesman Mark Stroh has said:

We urge appropriate Pakistani civilian and military authorities to investigate all credible allegations of human rights abuses and hold accountable those proven to be responsible for such violations,

We have discussed allegations of human rights abuses with Pakistani officials frequently and continue to monitor the situation closely.

The general consensus is that the weak state simply doesn’t have the power or the will to investigate the powerful military. With the flip-side being that the military often detain and hold suspects in the belief that the state is too weak to effectively try them.

Read it at The Washington Post



Bahrain medics sentenced to 15 years

Bahrain’s campaign against medical staff who helped injured protesters sees no signs of stopping. With many medics on trial for crimes against the state, 13 of them have just been sentenced to 15 years in prison. A number of others received lesser sentences.

Video via Al Jazeera