Coronavirus: beyond human rights

This blog by Dr. Koldo Casla was originally published in Open Democracy on 19 March 2020.

I live and breathe human rights, but what’s at stake is even more important.

I write this in haste, like everything that is being written about Covid19. Most of us outside China only started to take this threat seriously in the last two weeks. Scientists and politicians don’t know enough about the scale of the problem, let alone the solutions. Spain’s Prime Ministerconfessed that “whoever claims to know what needs to be done in this emergency will learn nothing from it.” In normal circumstances this would be profoundly concerning, yet I find his candour strangely reassuring.

As we brace ourselves against the crisis, valuable contributions have been made to examine its human rights implications. For example, Amnesty International has produced these preliminary observations on States’ international obligations. Independent UN experts have warned that emergency measures should not be used to suppress human rights. And academics have written about how States should respond from the perspective of the right to health and other social rights, and of freedom of movement and other civil rights.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, issued a press release on March 6 to stress that “human rights need to be front and centre in the response” to Coronavirus. I tick all the boxes of the typical supporter of a statement like this. I joined Amnesty International when I was 15; have been involved in human rights activism for two decades; and teach human rights law at the University of Essex. I should agree with Dr Bachelet. However, I’m not sure I do.

Don’t get me wrong. I know that Coronavirus raises human rights issues. Restrictions on individual freedoms need to be set clearly in the law and must be both necessary and proportionate. It’s essential to ensure that measures don’t discriminate against or stigmatise any national group or and minority. While mobile apps may be helpful in containing the spread of the virus, we must remain vigilant about the potential use of artificial intelligence to gather private data.

Children’s right to food is at risk when free school meals are the only healthy things some might eat. Confinement may be necessary, but home is the unsafest place for survivors of domestic violence. Rough sleepers, refugees and asylum seekers, prisoners and people in care can find themselves in particularly vulnerable situations. The list could go on. States’ actions and omissions can turn global health emergencies into human rights crises.

Human rights are important. They always are. But I still don’t see them at the core of this unique moment in history.

Other things take centre stage in my thoughts these days. My family in Madrid and the Basque Country has been confined for more than a week now, and my partner and I have decided to join them from London. This is one of those rare occasions when the word “resilience” doesn’t sound trite. Every day I receive news and messages via social media with countless expressions of wit and solidarity from Italy and Spain, expressions that are both emotional and encouraging about what we could achieve together.

Supportive neighbours, humour, music, bingo and Zumba lessons from the roof of a block of flats – all of it shows the best of people. Family life is recognised as a right in international law, but it is more than that: it is one of society’s central pillars. What do we truly value when we are confined at home? We all know that overdependence on technology is dangerous for a number of reasons, but what a difference video-chats and social media are making this month.

Even politics looks different. When 60% to 80% of the population could be infected by a virus for which we have no cure, political priorities gain a new perspective. And what about the irony of seeing Morocco close its border with the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, and Guatemala doing the same with visitors travelling from the USA?

At the time of writing both my partner and I enjoy the comfortable position of being able to work from home. We are reasonably confident that our jobs are not at risk. We are also young and healthy and can provide for ourselves. We are privileged. The prospects are very different for the vast majority of people. Ten years of austerity have made dealing with the Coronavirus exceptionally difficult for low-and middle-income families in the UK.

Covid19 is testing the strength of our social foundations. For several consecutive evenings, Spaniards are leaning out of their windows and balconies to applaud public healthcare workers. I can only hope that some politicians will remember their words whenever we go back to “normal” – for example French President Emmanuel Macron, who said on 12 March that “There are goods and services that must be out of the laws of the market… This pandemic is showing that free healthcare for all, irrespective of income, background or profession, and our welfare state are not an expense or a cost, but precious goods, indispensable when fate kicks.”

Even the most libertarian of neoliberals are being reminded why the State is so badly needed. This is the first crisis in my living memory where all of us are truly in it together. Privileged people are feeling very vulnerable for the first time. Dealing with the virus effectively needs people staying at home, washing their hands, keeping their physical distance from each other, and covering their cough with their elbow.

But dealing with it effectively and fairly requires, among other things, guaranteeing an income for those who lose their jobs, appropriating privately own facilities like hotels, private transport and private hospitals, suspending evictions, introducing rent and mortgage payment deferment options, and ensuring gas and electricity supplies irrespective of people’s ability to pay.

This crisis begs for a bailout for the most vulnerable, a sort of people’s quantitative easing. This is a human rights principle as well: attention to the most vulnerable individuals must be prioritised in times of financial crises and emergencies. But the issue goes beyond human rights. We are talking about what a country wants to be known for, even what it is. Societies that prioritise fairness will do best out of this crisis.

Putting the economy on hold is unheard of in peacetime, and needs to be accompanied by extraordinary public investment on a scale we’ve never seen. New Zealand has announced a relief package that amounts to 4% of its GDP; the Spanish Government has promised up to 20%. A massive bill will be waiting for us afterwards. The virus is going to test the patriotism of the wealthy, measured not by the size of their flags but by how much they are willing to chip in.

This takes me to a final thought. I have made two choices. The first is to admit that I don’t know what needs to be done regarding public health. The second is to start from the premise that scientists and political leaders, regardless of their colour and ideology, are doing their best to reduce the number of deaths to the minimum.

People who are making these decisions – the most difficult in their lives – may get things wrong. They don’t have all the necessary information. They are unsure about what is likely to work. And in advance I say that I am ready to forgive them if they make mistakes. In terms of the timing of the confinement measures, I’ve decided to trust the leaders of a country that doesn’t even allow me to vote – politicians whose human rights record I have criticised many times before and no doubt many more to come.

I don’t even know if the decisions they are taking are technically the right ones. Scientists who know much more than me are clear that “there are very large uncertainties around the transmission of this virus, the likely effectiveness of different policies and the extent to which the population spontaneously adopts risk reducing behaviours.”

In this context, transparency is “the only real counter to our psychological biases.” As long as leaders are transparent about the evidence, I will meet my civic duty and sacrifice my individual preferences for the general interest of flattening the infection curve. Beyond human rights, this is the time for solidarity, kindness and collective responsibility.

I never thought I would quote three contemporary political leaders in the same piece, but this must be another sign of the exceptional nature of the circumstances: as Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said on March 11, “Let’s keep the distance now so we can embrace each other warmly and run faster tomorrow.”

Poignant memories of Yemen after 5 years of war

by Pauline Canham, Student Editor

I stepped off the Yemenia Airways flight, and onto a bus, transporting me and a dozen or so Yemeni nationals the short distance to the arrivals terminal at Aden International Airport.  It was April 2014 and my brief visit to the country, once dubbed ‘Arabia Felix’ or ‘fortunate Arabia’, came amidst a build-up of political tension.  Just 11 months after my visit, Yemen would tragically descend into what is now described as the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.

The coming week marks the 5th anniversary of the launch of ‘Operation Decisive Storm’, the Saudi Coalition offensive against Houthi rebels on 25th March 2015.  The anniversary was marked with the closure of airports to all traffic, except for humanitarian aid, due to concerns that the coronavirus would exacerbate what is an already catastrophic situation.

YEMEN_AREAS_CONTROL

Yet again at the top of IRC’s Emergency Watchlist for 2020, the fragile hope brought about by a recent de-escalation in the conflict was rocked by a renewed surge in fighting in some provinces.  The UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths said last week that Yemen is at a “critical juncture” and urged warring parties to “de-escalate now” to prevent a slide back to greater violence.   His statement came after what he described as “the most alarming military escalation” which included a Saudi air strike in February that killed more than 30 civilians.  He also reiterated calls for access to the Safer Oil Tanker, as fears of an environmental disaster grow.  The ship, anchored in the Red Sea, contains 1.15 million gallons of crude oil, and experts fear it could explode at any time, due to a lack of maintenance.

In a statement to the Security Council on 12th March, the UK Permanent Representative to the UN, Karen Pierce said that the crisis “cannot be allowed to deteriorate any longer”.  The renewed violence has pushed even more people out of their homes and into camps around the country with three quarters of the 4.3 million internally displaced being women and children.

 

UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia unlawful

The civilian death toll in Yemen led to a British High Court ruling in 2019 that declared UK sales of arms to Saudi Arabia unlawful.   Despite this, the Government has continued to grant arms licenses to the Saudi Kingdom, in what were described as “inadvertent breaches” of the ruling.   The UK, US and other European Governments came under pressure to cease arms trading with Saudi Arabia after a number of so called ‘targeted’ attacks resulted in high civilian casualties.  One such attack killed 40 children and injured 56 while they were travelling on a school bus in the Sa’ada district in 2018.

Yemen_bus_bombing

Despite Human Rights Watch describing that incident as a war crime, Saudi Arabia has increased its arms purchases and those involved in the business of selling them have been accused of having blood on their hands.  In what appeared to be an eerie echo of German-American political philosopher, Hannah Arendt’s theory of the ‘banality of evil’, an official working at the UK Export Control Joint Unit, which signs off on shipments of weapons to Saudi Arabia said “I’m doing what I’m told and doing my job, but I’m uncomfortably aware that Adolf Eichmann said the same thing.”

Amnesty International is calling on the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate executives and officials involved in the sales of arms used in alleged war crimes in Yemen.  Working alongside the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), they are requesting an investigation into 26 specific airstrikes which resulted in the unlawful killing or injuring of civilians “and destroyed or damaged schools, hospitals and other protected objects.”

 

Memories of a different Yemen

My flight from Qatar to Yemen’s southern coastal city of Aden in 2014 had felt unexpectedly like a family outing, with me in a role akin to visiting cousin from a distant land.  There was a fair amount of curiosity as to why I might want to visit Yemen during such a ‘delicate’ moment in time.  Though the Saudi-led intervention was still almost a year away, sporadic violence was commonplace and protests by Al Hirak Al Janoubi (Southern Secessionist Movement) were held regularly in Aden.  Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had been very active in Yemen and there had been kidnappings of Westerners by the group or their affiliates.

IMG_3556

But whatever apprehension I had before my departure was quickly soothed.  I was welcomed warmly from the very moment I stepped on the Yemenia jet in Qatar all the way through to my eventual departure from Aden.  I was embraced by the famously generous Arabic culture of my hosts, Yemeni people considered by many as the friendliest and most welcoming to visitors in the world.

Of course security was tight, there were checkpoints all over the city, we had several power cuts, and on one occasion Aden Mall was evacuated due to an escalating skirmish in the surrounding streets, but what I witnessed was a resilient community continuing with life undeterred.  The beaches were busy with families enjoying the spring sunshine, children swimming, young men riding horses along the sand and women having lunch with friends.  It was a happy atmosphere with no hint of the tragedies yet to come less than a year later.

IMG_3677My hosts took me to Aden’s historic sites, long since abandoned by visitors from around the world who used to flock to the South Arabian coast for winter sun.   The stunning 11th Century Sira Castle, embedded into a rocky peninsula in a prime defensive spot in the Gulf of Aden, and the incredible Cisterns of Tawila, estimated to be 1500 years old.  But my lasting memories were not of rock and stone, but rather of joy, laughter, friendship and a sense of living life in the moment that I realised I had lost.

On the way back to the airport, as I stressed about getting there on time, my friends pulled over at a small roadside tea stand.  Little glass cups of red tea were passed through the window and as I sipped at the sweet hot liquid, my friend turned up the car stereo, stepped out into the middle of the road and began to dance.  These poignant memories have become more precious with every anniversary of the war that passes.

What now for Yemen?

This anniversary brings with it the threat of coronavirus on top of an already perilous humanitarian situation.   But for Yemen’s collapsing health system, coronavirus is simply another issue on a growing list of threats.  Among the immediate concerns, in addition to the escalation in violence, is the impending rainy season, which every year heralds the onset of a rise in cholera cases.  In 2019, Yemen recorded 860,000 cases of the disease and 56,000 cases have already been recorded in 2020.  Oxfam’s Yemen Country Director said “This is a health crisis hiding in plain sight.  It’s shocking that this ongoing crisis is getting so little attention.”   With health workers needed evermore urgently, they too are coming under attack, being targeted by all warring parties in a blatant violation of humanitarian law.

Yemen hospital

The situation on the ground in Yemen is incredibly complex, with various proxy battles playing out between vying Gulf neighbours, most notably Saudi Arabia, UAE and Iran.  The UAE, officially part of the Saudi Coalition, recently tested the relationship with the Kingdom when it backed Al Hirak Al Janoubi to seize Aden from forces loyal to President Hadi, still internationally recognised as Yemen’s leader.   The Yemeni people, as always are caught in the cross-fire between major global powers, hungry to secure their positions in such a strategic location on the Bab al-Mandeb strait at the mouth of the Red Sea.

As we hunker down to protect each other from coronavirus, Yemen slips silently into a 6th year of war, unreported by a world focused on an unseen enemy of a different nature.

About the Author:

PC_AJ

Pauline Canham is the HRC Blog’s student editor.  Pauline is studying a Masters Degree in Human Rights and Cultural Diversity at Essex, after 20 years in the broadcasting sector, working for the BBC and AlJazeera, with a focus on large change projects including the BBC’s move into the new Broadcasting House in 2013, and the re-launch of Al Jazeera’s Arabic Channel in 2016.

The dramatic escape of Nissan’s former CEO tests Japanese Criminal Justice System

by Teppei Ono, Secretary-General, Center for Prisoners’ Rights Japan

With the world wondering if the Olympics will go ahead in Tokyo this summer, due to the impact of Coronavirus, Japan has found itself in the spotlight for a very different reason in recent months.  The country’s criminal justice system hit the headlines towards the end of 2019 when the former boss of Nissan, Carlos Ghosn, was indicted for falsifying financial reports and subsequently fled the country to Lebanon.  He immediately went on the offensive, alleging draconian criminal justice procedures, lengthy pre-charge detention periods and repeated interrogations.

Ghosn had been released on bail, on 25 April 2019 after a total detention of 129 days and total bail bond of 1.5 billion yen ($13.6 million).  His escape from Japan was a clear breach of his bail conditions which included a prohibition on overseas travel.  Ghosn held a press conference in Beirut on 8 January 2020, in which he stated that Japan’s legal system violates ‘the most basic principles of humanity’.  In response, Justice Minister Ms. Masako Mori held a press conference at midnight on the same day, commenting, “[H]e has been propagating both within Japan and internationally false information about Japan’s legal system and its practice.  That is absolutely intolerable”.  Much of the Japanese media criticised his escape as a ‘cowardly act’. Some have attacked his defence counsel and the court, which applied for and permitted bail.

Carlos_Ghosn

Carlos Ghosn’s escape tests the Japanese Government’s approach towards criminal justice, which has long avoided any dialogue with the international community.  This article looks back at how the Japanese Government has responded to advice from the international community and how the former Nissan chief’s case proceeded.

The coming years will be significant for Japanese criminal justice, as the United Nations Crime Congress, the largest UN conference in the field of crime prevention and criminal justice, will be held in Kyoto, Japan.  The conference was initially scheduled for April 2020 but has been reportedly postponed at the time of writing, due to the outbreak of Coronavirus.  In recent months, the Japanese criminal justice system has been attracting unprecedented attention from the international community.

 

Being proud of a ‘medieval’ legal system?

Japan’s ‘Hostage Justice’ system, in which suspects can be held for a long period of time (a maximum of 23 days) in harsh conditions, without the presence of defence counsel, has been internationally criticised.  The UN Human Rights Committee (HRC) and the Committee against Torture (CAT) have repeatedly expressed their concerns over the excessive reliance on custodial interrogations.  Their recommendations include that Japan guarantee the right to have a lawyer present during interrogations, and introduce legislative measures setting strict limits on the duration and methods of interrogation.  Nevertheless, investigating authorities have not implemented the recommendations, still relying heavily on interrogations and confessions, despite recent criminal justice reform.

Ministry of Justice Japan

Ministry of Justice Japan

The clinging of the authorities to established practices brings to mind a scene at the CAT panel review of Japan on 21 May 2013 in Geneva.  The video footage of the incident went viral.  The Committee members had raised a number of issues, such as suspects’ access to defence counsel and time limits on detention, which the Japanese delegation continued to brush off.  This then led a committee member to describe Japan’s legal system as ‘medieval’.  In rebuttal, Mr Hideaki Ueda, Japan’s Human Rights Envoy to the UN said, “Certainly Japan is not in the middle age. We are one of the most advanced countries in this field”.  His comment provoked laughter among the committee members, which prompted a furious response from the ambassador in which he shouted “Why are you laughing? Shut up! Shut up!”, surprising both the committee members and the audience. He asserted his pride in a legal system that relies heavily on interrogations and coerced confessions, and in a series of statements published on the Ministry of Justice website after Ghosn’s escape, it appears that little has changed.

 

How did Ghosn’s case play out in Japan?

Carlos Ghosn was arrested for the first time on 19 November 2018. He was then interrogated until his indictment on 11 January 2019.  According to his former defence counsel, with the exception of one day, he was interrogated every day from 19 November to 11 January, with each interrogation lasting anything up to 11 hours.  During this period, he was arrested three times and his detention was repeatedly extended.

After three requests, the court finally granted bail and set the bond at one billion yen with 10 bail conditions.  These bail conditions included, but were not limited to setting surveillance cameras at the entrances to his residence, staying at one of his defence counsel’s offices from 9:00 am till 5:00 pm on weekdays, reporting all phone calls and visitors to the court, and a prohibition of contact with related persons.  The former CEO was then released after 106 days of confinement at Tokyo Detention House on 6 March 2019.

The investigating authority, however, re-arrested him one month later for aggravated breach of trust.  Once again, the investigating authority began harsh interrogations.  From the 5th until the 21st April, the prosecutors interrogated Ghosn, his defence counsel keeping a record of all events on his blog.  His counsel expressed strong opposition to the daily interrogations but was ignored. Following an indictment for breach of trust on 22nd April, the defence counsel filed a petition for bail.

The court granted bail on conditions similar to those of the previous bail but this time with a prohibition of contact with his wife, because the judge considered her to be related to the charge.  The former Nissan CEO was released again after posting another 500 million yen on the 25th of April. The defence team filed an appeal to the bail condition prohibiting the defendant’s contact with his wife, as a violation of article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which guarantees that no one shall be subject to arbitrary interference with family.  The Tokyo District Court and the Supreme Court, however, turned down the appeal without any mention of the ICCPR.

After fleeing Japan, Carlos Ghosn issued the following statement: “I am now in Lebanon and will no longer be held hostage by a rigged Japanese justice system where guilt is presumed, discrimination is rampant and basic human rights are denied in a flagrant disregard of Japan’s legal obligations under international law and treaties it is bound to uphold”.

 

Japanese Government’s response to the escape

In a series of statements made by the Justice Minister in the immediate aftermath of Ghosn’s escape, she said, “Japan’s criminal justice system sets out appropriate procedures and is administered properly to clarify the truth in cases, while guaranteeing basic individual human rights. Each nation’s criminal justice system has its roots in its history and culture, being formulated and developed over a long period of time. Therefore, there is no superiority or inferiority among legal systems of different countries”. Her comments reflect the Government’s stance in dismissing the recommendations of international bodies such as the UNHRC.

Masako Mori press conf

A history of wrongful convictions in Japan tells us that prolonged interrogations have the effect of mentally exhausting suspects and forcing their confessions.  Protracted interrogations, such as those used against Carlos Ghosn, potentially threaten the right to remain silent, which is why UN treaty bodies recommend the Government guarantee a right to have a lawyer present during interrogations and set strict time limits.  Despite the framework laid out in International Law, the Government has remained deaf to advice from the international community.  The Justice Minister was also forced to back-track on comments she made at a press conference that Carlos Ghosn should come to Japan to “prove his innocence”, turning the ‘presumption of innocence’ on its head.  She later clarified the statement by saying she meant to say he should ‘assert’ rather than ‘prove’ his innocence.

The Justice Minister has since promised to deal with his escape and is working closely with the relevant countries, International Organisations and other stakeholders in order to fulfil this promise.  If the Government is sincere in asking for cooperation from the international community, they surely need to be sincere in following up on international recommendations.   Japan’s human rights status will be reviewed at the UNHRC’s reporting procedure in October.  Let’s hope that the Japanese Government have learned from their rather undiplomatic outburst in 2013, to listen carefully to any recommendations and consider them seriously.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Teppei_Ono_photo

Teppei Ono is a staff lawyer at the Japan Legal Support Center.  His main area of practice is prison law, criminal defence, immigration/refugee law and legal aid.  He has served as Secretary General of the Center for Prisoners’ Rights Japan since 2019.

International Human Rights News: Weekly Roundup

by Julia Kedziorek and Amita Dhiman

Each week students at the University of Essex Human Rights Centre prepare an overview of the past week’s human rights related news stories from around the world.  This summary contains news articles from 5th March to 11th March 2020.

This week’s stories in focus

International Women’s Day Protests around the world

Women took to the streets around the world on the 8th March to protest against inequality and gender violence…

Mexican women: “This is our feminist spring”

80,000 people took the streets of Mexico on 8th March, protesting against gender-based violence. Women went on strike for a day, across areas of both professional and domestic life, to highlight the impact of their absence. Mexico has the highest number of murders of women, averaging more than 10 a day,  320 in January 2020 alone.

The aim of the protests was to challenge the misogynistic view of women held in Mexico’s masculine culture. “Mexico is a country of rights, but only on paper” said  Ana Pe cova, Director of EQUIS Justice for Women.

Female protestors in Kyrgyzstan arrested

In Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, dozens of women were arrested for ‘public order offences’ as they protested against gender violence and inequality, while masked men attacked them, injuring some and tearing up their placards

 

Stop the executions of tortured detainees!

Death_penaltyBahrain
Human Rights Watch is calling for the Bahraini authorities to overturn the death sentences of two men who allege they were tortured during detention.  Their original convictions were reversed in Oct 2018 when evidence emerged to support their torture allegations but was reinstated by the High Court of Appeal in 2020.

Egypt
UN human rights experts have called for the release of 4 minors, among those facing death sentences in a mass trial in Egypt.   British MPs are urging the Foreign Secretary to intervene on human rights grounds, and Amnesty International’s MENA Research and Advocacy Director, Philip Luther said “The death penalty can never deliver justice” particularly when the defendants have alleged that they were subject to torture.

‘LGBT+ free zones’ in Poland 

LGBTFreezonesOver 100 municipalities in the south-east of Poland have declared themselves as “LGBT ideology free” zones.  There has been a rise of right-wing rhetoric from the ‘Law and Justice’ ruling party, declaring the LGBT community a threat to traditional Catholic based Polish morality.  The anti-LGBT movement’s aim is to stop the “rainbow plague” (a term coined by the Archbishop of Krakow), destroying the morality of Poland’s youth.  Although the zones have no basis in law, they are a clear example of encouraging discrimination.

Bart Staszewski (pictured), an LGBT activist and film-maker, has created “Military zone-do not enter”-style road signs as part of a project to highlight the discrimination.  Adam Bodnar, Poland’s independent Commissioner for Human Rights, stated the Government is increasingly homophobic in its sentiments and questioned the allocation of EU funds in areas that allow discrimination to flourish. The European Parliament adopted a convention condemning the so called  “LGBTI-free zones” in December 2019.

The abduction of the daughter of Dubai ruler from a UK street

Shamza_AlMaktoumThe lapsed investigation into the disappearance of Sheikha Shamsa, the daughter of the ruler of Dubai, from the streets of Cambridge 20 years ago is to be reviewed by police.   Human Rights Watch is pressing for the release of the ruler’s 2 daughters, who are said to be held captive in the UAE.  Shamsa was abducted in 2000 and her sister, Latifa, was kidnapped and forced back to Dubai, after fleeing on a boat to India in 2018.  Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum is the Emir of Dubai and the Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates.  Sheikh Mohammed has strong ties with the UK, creating the largest horse racing team in the world and is a regular at Ascot, often photographed with the Queen.

 

Other stories making the news around the world

International

Africa

Europe

Latin America and the Caribbean

Middle East

North America

South and South-East Asia

West and Central Asia

Reflections on India…. A democracy in peril

Gautam Singh reflects on the transformation of his home country of India, the recent riots in Delhi and the impact on his own village 

My India

I grew up in the small village of Jharkhand, India.  My village has a population of almost 1200 people, half of them being Muslim, the other half Hindu, divided into several casts.  This has been the demographic of my village for centuries.  Until the early 1990’s, every festival, whether it was Eid, Holi or Diwali, was celebrated by everyone, Muslims and Hindus alike.  Muslim villagers often led the Hindu Holi procession and Hindus often led the prayers and sweet distribution for Eid.  There were three places of worship in the village and everyone could worship in any of these places.  In this remote and isolated village, we all co-existed like members of a large extended family, maintaining a unique way of life; mellow and harmonious, celebratory and united.

All of this changed overnight on the 6th December 1992, when Babri Mosque in Ayodhya was demolished by a large group of Hindu nationalist activists.  We started receiving new visitors to our village.  Some came with ‘brick-in-hand’ to collect funds for a new Hindu temple in Ayodhya, while others preached that Islam was in danger in India. Some were wearing saffron robes with a sectorial mark on their forehead and others wore white robes and skull caps.  They divided our places of worship, converting two of them into temples and one into a mosque.  My village entered a transformatory phase.  Villagers began to disengage from people from other communities, growing religiously private, limiting interaction, and keeping to themselves and their respective religious communities.  We no longer celebrated festivals together.  We stopped inviting villagers from other religious communities to family functions.

However, with the passage of time, villagers overcame the polarization, rejecting what they saw as a dividing tactic of some extreme religious groups.  By the beginning of the 2000s, the community spirit of my village had returned.  Although, the tradition of a Muslim man leading the Holi procession and Hindus distributing sweets in Eid were never revived, members of both religions began again to celebrate festivals and family functions together.

Holi_1

By this time, I had moved to Mumbai and subsequently to Qatar.  But I never missed a single Eid, Holi or Diwali in my village and would always talk with great pride about how Hindus and Muslims of my village lived and celebrated life together for centuries.

Sadly, last year, this pride was totally shattered, when I returned to take part in the Holi procession in my village.  Since the early 2000s, during a Hindu festival, Muslim men would walk along with the procession and women would stand outside their homes with water and sweets.  But this time, the door of every Muslim house was shut.  Not a single person from the Muslim community came out in the street to join the festival.  As I went to knock on the door of some of my Muslim friends who lived near the village mosque, the procession loudspeaker started broadcasting loud Hindu nationalist slogans:

“Jai shree Ram” (Hail Lord Ram)

“Mandir wahi banayenge” (We will build the temple there only)

“Goli maro salon ko…desh ke gaddaron ko” (Kill the traitors)

“Kheer mango kheer denge…Kashmir mango cheer denge” (We will slaughter you if you ask for Kashmir)

These slogans referred to the site of the destroyed Mosque at Ayodhya, claiming it to be the birthplace of the Hindu God, Rama and pledging to rebuild a Hindu temple there.  I then realised why my friends weren’t joining the parade and why the majority of the houses in my village were shut, as the Holi procession continued on through the ghostly streets.

But this story of my village of Jharkhand is not simply the story of one village.  It is a story that has played out in villages, towns and cities across India over the last half century.

 

Modi’s India

India is a country of 1.30 billion people, including 965 million Hindus and 170 million Muslims and despite differences, a long tradition of tolerance has pulled this huge nation together.  However, since 2014, when the Hindu majoritarian Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), lead by Narendra Modi, came to power, tensions between Muslims and Hindus have increased in many parts of the country.

Modi has been an activist for the Hindu far-right paramilitary RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and its affiliates for the entirety of his political life.  He remains committed to the supremacist ideology of Hindutva which says that India should be an exclusive Hindu nation-state in which minorities are treated as second-class citizens.  Muslims, in the last 6 years have faced regular attacks after being accused of eating beef or killing a cow, an animal considered sacred in Hinduism.

Modi_BJP

After being re-elected in 2019, Modi and his deputy Amit Shah pushed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) through Indian parliament.  The Act prohibits ‘illegal migrants’ from becoming Indian Citizens, allowing for exceptions for six religious minorities, but not for Muslims.   The creation of a National Register of Citizens (NRC), couched in the language of ‘national security’ and ‘muslim-only’ detention centres has caused an atmosphere of extreme mistrust among a large section of Indian Muslims.  Anti-CAA protests have spread around the country and have been met with brutal force by authorities.

A Hindu-Muslim divide is growing.  Even the visit of US President, Donald Trump to India did not prevent communal passions from taking a violent turn in the national capital, Delhi.  Parts of Delhi were literally burning and rioters rampaged the streets as the US President was being welcomed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a well-orchestrated “Namaste Trump” ceremony.  Delhi cried for 72 hours while Lutyen’s Delhi (the political heart of New Delhi) left not a single stone unturned to blow Trump’s Trumpet.  While images of the Delhi riots spread around the globe, the two leaders were busy exhibiting showmanship and sycophancy.

Trump_Modi_India

The violence erupted following the ‘rabble-rousing’ of a local politician named Kapil Mishra whose speech provoked the targeting of Muslims protesting against the CAA.  A mob went on the rampage in minority-dominated neighborhoods, and in some specific areas, Hindu-owned properties including schools, shops and homes were also attacked and burnt. 50 died and hundreds were injured.  Instead of controlling the violence, the police became active participants in many areas.  This was symbolized by a video which went viral, showing uniformed officers beating five young men, all of them injured, telling them to sing the national anthem.  One of the men, Faizan, died of his injuries days later.

For three days the Prime Minister of India remained silent and the Home Minister was absent.  When the state not only fails to provide the same protection of law to all sections of society but  emboldens the rioters, one cannot put it down simply to the incompetency of state machinery to protect its citizens.  Instead it exposes the reality of a more sinister wholescale discrimination against one religious minority, and deeply troubling signs for the future of the world’s biggest democracy.

GAUTAM SINGH

Gautam_SinghAbout the author: Gautam Singh is an independent film-maker, cinematographer, writer, director and a program-maker at Al Jazeera Media Network.  His films include  ‘Gaon – The Village No More’, ‘Daughters of Brothel’, ‘The Burning City’, ‘Indian Hospital’, and ‘My Sister Laxmi’.  Currently, he lives in Doha, Qatar along with his family. 

International Human Rights News: Weekly Roundup

By Bethany Webb-Strong

Each week students at the University of Essex Human Rights Centre prepare an overview of the past week’s human rights related news stories from around the world. This summary contains news articles from 27th February – 4th March 2020.

 

This week’s stories in focus

Women in this week’s news – International Women’s Day 8th March

IntWomensdayThis week, a new UN report shines a light on the continuing prevalence of violence against women and girls. Despite advancements such as access to education for girls since the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action twenty-five years ago, sexual violence and exploitation remain rife. As stated in the UN report, 70 percent of detected trafficking victims globally were female in 2016. This report has been released alongside the Gender Equality campaign, a movement convened by UN Women with the aim of fostering conversation and action for change.

The UN Secretary General, António Guterres, has declared that the 21st century must be the century of women’s equality.  With International Women’s Day on 8th March,  see how you can get involved and find events in your local area.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the adoption by the United Nations Security Council of resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security

 

Developments on the coronavirus COVID-19 epidemic

The Defense Department is making plans to combat the coronavirus, DOD leaders said today during a news conference. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army)With over 90,000 cases and 3000 deaths worldwide, COVID-19 is causing increased concern. Many states, particularly Gulf countries, have cancelled events and imposed travel restrictions in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus.

On Sunday, the World Health Organisation (WHO) released US$15 million from the Central Emergency Relief Fund to help countries particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 in their attempts to contain its spread. The WHO has upgraded the global risk assessment of the coronavirus to ‘very high’.

Whilst the UK considers calling for retired doctors and nurses to return to help tackle the outbreak, the UN warns that shortages of equipment leave health workers at risk. New ways of treating the virus, designed to lower transmission risk, are being trialled across the globe, including treating patients by video or with AI and robotic technologies.

Amnesty International demand a stop to censorship and harassment in China, declaring that the suppression of information concerning the virus continues to pose an obstacle to efforts to contain COVID-19.

A student from Singapore suffered a racially aggravated attack, linked to the Coronavirus as he walked along Oxford Street in London on 24th February.  The student from University College, London was attacked by four men, one shouting ‘I don’t want your coronavirus in my country’.

 

Mark Cutts: ‘now is not the time to take our eyes off Syria’

Idlib_refugeesThe war in Syria may have left news headlines, but the crisis is far from resolved, Mark Cutts, the UN’s deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria, calling it “a crisis of monumental scale“.  Over one million people have been displaced in the Idlib region since December, many fleeing freezing conditions and air strikes by Syrian government forces. This week, Turkish forces struck down two Syrian warplanes and a military airport, marking a moment of extreme tension as the two nations teeter on the verge of direct confrontation.

The growing crisis can also be seen on the Greece-Turkey border as thousands of refugees continue in their perilous journeys to seek safety and asylum. As Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erogan opened the borders last week, more than 10,000 migrants attempted to enter Greece. The Greek authorities have responded with tear gas and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitostakis announced on Sunday that Greece would stop taking new asylum cases. 

 

Other stories making the news around the world

International

 

Africa

 

Europe

 

Latin America and the Caribbean

 

 Middle East

 

North America

 

Oceania

 

South and South-East Asia