Amnesty International forced to cease operations in India
Amnesty International says it has been forced to end its operations in India, after “reprisals” from the Modi government. Amnesty’s bank accounts were frozen without warning, in what it calls a “witch-hunt” by the Hindu nationalist government against human rights NGOs. Amnesty’s senior director of research, advocacy and policy, Rajat Khosla, claimed they have been faced with “an onslaught of attacks, bullying and harassment by the government in a very systematic manner.”
Several raids have taken place on Amnesty offices since 2018 under accusations of money laundering – allegations the NGO strenuously deny. The ministry of home affairs claim that Amnesty India has brought foreign funding into the country in a contravention of the regulations. The ministry stated “the stand taken and the statements made by Amnesty International are unfortunate, exaggerated and far from the truth”. Amnesty India’s executive director, Avinash Kumar, said that the Indian government is stoking a climate of fear, and ignoring “the human cost to this crackdown, particularly during a pandemic, and violates people’s basic rights.”
Fifteen international human rights organisations have condemned the move, pledging continued support for human rights defenders and NGOs critical of India’s nationalist government crackdown. Human Rights Watch stressed the need for a “robust, independent, and vocal civil society” which it said is “indispensable in any democracy to ensure a check on government and to hold it accountable”.
Julie Verhaar, Acting Secretary General of Amnesty International said “This is an egregious and shameful act by the Indian Government, which forces us to cease the crucial human rights work of Amnesty International India for now. However, this does not mark the end of our firm commitment to , and engagement in, the struggle for human rights in India.”
UK exploring options to send asylum seekers to detention centres overseas
The Guardian revealed yesterday that it has seen documents that suggest Foreign Office officials have been asked by Downing Street to examine the possibility of sending UK asylum seekers to detention centres in Morocco, the Maldives and Papau New Guinea. It has also come to light that the Home Secretary, Priti Patel has been looking at the idea of constructing detention centres on the islands of Ascension or St Helena, in a similar model to the Australian asylum processing centres on Naura and Manus. Ascension and St Helena are part of an isolated British Territory in the South Atlantic.
The Shadow Home Secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, called the idea “inhumane, completely impractical and wildly expensive”. Another option being considered is to accommodate asylum seekers on disused ferries anchored off Britain’s coast, converting them into processing centres. One Conservative MP said that the UK needs to find a “civilised version” of the Australian model. But experts familiar with Australia’s immigration system have warned that implementing such proposals could cause a “human rights disaster”.
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All over the world, the new academic year has started under unprecedented circumstances, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Morocco is no exception. Decision-makers in the education sector differ on the best way to continue the learning process, while containing the spread of the virus.
The ministry of education in the North African kingdom has chosen a blended approach, in which parents can opt either for attendance or online learning modes for their children. This ‘policy to have no policy’ deepens the divide between those who have the luxury of making that choice, and those who struggle daily to make ends meet. This article discusses the impact that COVID-19 has had on the education sector in Morocco, in deepening the vertical inequalities (between social classes) and horizontal disparities (between cities and villages) that already existed prior to the pandemic.
As was the case in every nation in the world, Morocco was infected by the coronavirus. Swiftly, the kingdom followed a strict – somewhat repressive – lockdown in an attempt to contain the pandemic. These measures were justified because the country has a fragile and underfunded health sector, incapable of dealing with a large number of daily infections. Moreover, education was affected by the outbreak, classes were suspended in schools and lectures were delivered online since March. The Ministry of Education and Vocational Training made an effort to finish the academic year in these unprecedented conditions in the schooling process. To ensure equal opportunity between students from different social backgrounds, the unified national baccalaureate exam (the final high school exam) focused only on topics covered in face-to-face classes completed before the lockdown. Despite these efforts, there are deeply ingrained inequalities that already exist throughout Moroccan society, and in the education system, that are exacerbated not just by the pandemic but by a lack of government policy to address them.
Disparity and dropout in Morocco’s education sector
The school dropout rate is a significant issue in Morocco. In a 2018 report, the Supreme Council of Education, Training, and Scientific Research indicated that Morocco has succeeded to lower the primary school dropout rate to 2.2% in cities and 4.8% in the urban regions. Yet, the rate increases in secondary education to reach 12.9% in urban centers and 16.8% in rural areas.
The same report demonstrated that starting from the secondary level, the disparity in access to education between urban centers and rural areas, and males and females, widens significantly. For instance, in 2016-2017, secondary education rates are 96.9% for urban children (with parity between boys and girls) and 75.8% for their rural counterparts (81.9% male and 69.4% female). Moreover, inequality increases in high school education. The high school rate in urban centers is 86.3%, while it drops substantially in rural areas to 49% for males and 32% for females.
These statistics illustrate unequal access to education between males and females as well as between cities and villages. COVID-19 worsens the situation, as the pandemic widens social inequality between the rich and the poor and increases levels of poverty and unemployment, which eventually affect the ability of families to educate their children.
Poverty and unemployment
In a recent report, Oxfam International stated that the aggregate wealth of billionaires in the Middle East and North Africa increased by $10 billion during the Covid-19 pandemic, while around 45 million people have been pushed into poverty. According to a report from Haut Commissariat au Plan, the Moroccan economy lost 589,000 jobs, of which more than 88% were in rural areas, with total unemployment reaching almost 1.5 million.
With a rise in the poverty rate, access to education became a heavy financial burden on the shoulders of poor families, as online education requires electronic devices they cannot afford to buy. In Morocco, poor families do not only consider education a right, under the Article 28 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the kingdom signed on January 26th, 1990, and ratified on June 21st, 1993, but it is the only tool available for them to penetrate the social pyramid and improve their socio-economic conditions and those of their relatives. However, if education requires additional financial resources to obtain devices and internet connectivity, poor children will likely abandon their schooling. Consequently, the child’s fundamental right to education under Article 31 of the Constitution will not be met and poor families will never be able to get out of the poverty trap.
The social and economic impact of COVID-19 is enormous. Yet, the greater effect is on vulnerable and poor communities. Haut Commissariat au Plan estimates that the percentage of citizens vulnerable to poverty in Morocco will increase from 17.1% in 2019 to 19.87% in 2020. These numbers indicate there will be an additional million poor in 2020. Moreover, COVID-19 will hit hard those who work in the informal sector; particularly low-skilled Moroccan and foreign communities, both migrants and refugees. Consequently, the current unemployment rate increased from 9% to 13% at the national level, from 7.8% to 12.2% in the centers, and 10.6% to 14.1% in the rural areas. As families struggle to afford both basic living expenses and the extra financial burden of online learning, many poor students will be forced to drop out of education. Since poor Moroccans live hand-to-mouth, this situation will lead to widening inequalities in access to education across the kingdom.
There is a significant disparity in connectivity between urban centers and rural areas, where 14 million (40%) of Moroccans live. According to the World Bank, in 2015 only 47% of the rural population had access to the internet compared to 76% of urban households. This digital gap between the two communities violates the constitutional rights of rural citizens to access different sources of information including health consultancy and education opportunities, as entitled by the Constitution.
According to the same World Bank report, the main factors that contribute to this reality are related to the prices of subscriptions and equipment compared to the average income in the semi-urban and rural areas. The private internet providers concentrate their efforts on the populated urban centers, where the purchasing power is high and demand for services is strong. Students in rural areas often suffer from a lack of suitable classrooms, schoolbooks, and other educational materials. It is not unusual to see in the same classroom pupils from different grades being taught by one teacher, due to a lack of funding for facilities and teachers.
According to a 2019 Freedom House report, the variation of connectivity between urban and rural areas persists and network coverage is unequal. In its latest annual report in 2017, the National Agency for the Regulation of Telecommunications (ANRT) stated that city residents are more accessible to the internet than village dwellers, with a rate of 67% to 43%, respectively. This disparity is attributed to the high level of illiteracy, particularly among rural women, which represents another serious challenge facing universal internet access in Morocco. The illiteracy rate in rural areas in Morocco is 47% of which 60% are women.
COVID-19 deepens the gap between social classes in Morocco and makes it difficult for the poor to penetrate the social hierarchy and improve their living conditions. In the North African kingdom, education is one of the main black holes in social policy. As COVID-19 pushes one million citizens into poverty and reduces people’s income, families struggle to secure basic needs for their children and internet connectivity and electronic devices will be out of reach, forcing more children to drop out of education. A 2013 survey showed that the share of national income of the richest 10% in the country was 12 fold of the share of national income of the poorest 10%, and as the education gap between social classes widens those inequalities persist.
As the new 2020-2021 academic year is about to start, the Minister of Education and Vocational Training decided that it is up to parents to choose if they want their children to attend classes in schools or study online. While the only role of decision-makers is to make a decision, this is clearly a policy to have no policy, and simply deepens further the existing inequalities in society. While those who can afford it will be free to make that choice, it is a violation of the right to education of those who cannot afford access to the internet. As in many countries, COVID-19 worsens an already catastrophic social situation in Morocco, in which basic rights are absent.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Noureddine Radouai is a master’s degree student in Public Policy at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Doha, Qatar. He obtained his MA in Media and Cultural Studies from the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies and he earned a BA, with honors, in Mass Communication, with a minor in International Affairs, from Qatar University. He is interested in social policy, economic development, and the political economy of the MENA region.
China forces thousands of Tibetans into labour camps
More than half a million people in Tibet have been coerced by Chinese authorities into a labour program so far this year, moving rural labourers into ‘military-style’ camps to retrain them to work in factories in the textile and construction industries. A Reuters-corroborated report, by the Jamestown Foundation also found that Chinese authorities have set quotas for the mass transfer of these re-trained workers to other parts of Tibet and China.
Tibet is a predominantly Buddhist, autonomous region of China and the situation there has been compared to the well reported Uighur ‘re-education’ camps in the Xingjiang region of China. The independent Tibet and Xingjiang researcher who drafted the findings, Adrian Zenz, said “It’s a coercive lifestyle change from nomadism and farming to wage labor.” Zenz makes particular reference to similarities with Xinjiang, stressing that the focus is on “military-style training management to produce discipline and obedience” and the need to change “thinking and identity” and “weaken the perceived negative influence of religion”. The policy documents examined show that in addition to vocational skills training, something called “gratitude education” is included to boost loyalty to the Party.
According to the Chinese government, the program is designed to develop “work discipline, Chinese language and work ethics” and change “can’t do, don’t want to do and don’t dare to do” attitudes towards work. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs made a statement to Reuters, saying that reports of ‘forced labor’ are lies and all workers are involved in the program voluntarily and are properly compensated.
Two weeks ago, a global coalition of 321 civil society groups from 6 countries urged the UN to tackle China’s human rights violations through an independent international mechanism. John Fisher, Geneva director at Human Rights Watch said the global coalition, which includes 50 UN experts, organisations and governments, “are all demanding an end to China’s impunity at the UN Human Rights Council”.
Meanwhile, at the UN General Assembly this week, as Trump and Xi face off, UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres warned the international community about the perils of a “great fracture” between the two largest economies of the US and China, saying “we must to everything to avoid a new Cold War”.
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Last month, an artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm was pitted against a human pilot in simulated F-16 fighter jet dogfights. The AI pilot won, 5-0. The US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) hosted the ‘AlphaDogfight’ Trials as part of the Air Combat Evolution (ACE) program, which looks at future possibilities of teaming machines with humans to enhance defence capability through “complex multi-aircraft scenarios”.
This article will look at the issues raised by removing the human element from lethal action, before outlining the growing calls, from the human rights community, for a ban on autonomous weapons. First, though, it is worth taking a step back to understand how we got here, through a brief history of the use of unmanned drones, the precursor to fully autonomous weapons.
A brief history of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)
The use of pilotless aircraft for surveillance during conflict emerged during the Vietnam War with the US using what they called “Lightning Bugs” on reconnaissance missions. The Israeli Defence Force (IDF), too has used drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) since the 1970s, as decoys and intelligence gathering vehicles, during wars with Egypt, Syria and Lebanon.
The merging of these robotic eyes-in-the-sky with lethal weaponry would be a pivotal moment for post 9/11 policy making and play a significant role in what President Bush called “a different kind of war”, in which the risk to American military personnel was removed through delivering death by remote control.
The use of remotely piloted drones to assassinate the enemy, rather than risking troops on the ground, found favour, particularly following the catastrophe of the Iraq war and the deeply damaging CIA torture program, and became a go-to counter-terrorism tool for Obama. The low risk to American lives and the often-sold precision accuracy of drones gave them an ‘ethical’ flavour that appealed to those who wanted revenge with a clean conscience. It was a way for Obama to appear tough on terrorists, but maintain his Nobel Peace Prize winning status as a man who espoused human rights and the rule of law.
Along with indefinite detention without trial in Guantanamo Bay, the drone program is one of the few surviving policies of the War on Terror, now into its 20th year. Claims of the precision accuracy of drones, though, have been challenged by various studies in the countries of their operation, including Yemen and Afghanistan, where drone strikes were found to be “10 times more likely to kill civilians than conventional aircraft”. In July 2020, on publishing her report into the drone assassination of Iranian General Soleimani, the UN Rapporteur on Extrajudicial and Arbitrary Execution, Agnes Callamard described the surgical precision of drones as a “myth”.
Removing the human from lethal action
Removing the human from battlefield operations is given as a significant advantage by operating states, claiming that machines are less likely to make mistakes and offer higher levels of precision and lower risk to military personnel. The AlphaDogfight trials also exposed the fear, or feeling of “self-preservation”, of the human pilot as a limiter in performing risky manoeuvres that might provide an edge in battle. The Pentagon’s Director for Research and Engineering for modernisation, Mark Lewis, said that the advantage of an AI pilot is that it will be prepared to “do things that a human pilot wouldn’t do”.
Whilst this lack of fear may appear advantageous, it serves to illustrate the argument against fully autonomous weapons; they don’t have human attributes that indeed include fear for themselves, but also compassion towards others. They are, in effect, weapons of dehumanisation, with no ability to recognise the humanity in those they fight against, or any way to distinguish between combatants and civilians. As things stand, the use of remotely controlled drones, operated by ‘pilots’ that are stationed thousands of miles away from the target, has seen lethal strikes that have caused catastrophic civilian casualties through a misinterpretation of activities including weddings, funerals and jirgas (traditional community assemblies), that were wrongly assumed to be terrorism related.
Jeremy Scahill, author of The Assassination Complex, refers to this as the ‘tyranny of distance’, a phrase borrowed from the 1966 book about the precariousness of Australia’s isolation and distance from its coloniser. The lives of the Yemeni, Pakistani, Afghani and Somali targets of drone strikes are indeed permanently precarious, and the distance of the innocent victims of robotised drone violence makes them invisible, not just to the ‘pilots’ of the drones themselves, who initiate the strike, but also to the publics of those governments who deploy such weapons.
Political theorist and author of Just and Unjust Wars, Michael Walzer has voiced his concerns about drones, stressing that their advantages make their use easier and more likely and this should trouble us, as the traditional reciprocal risks of going to war add weight to jus ad bellum considerations. Removing the human from one side of the battle with the enemy has been described by some as “remote controlled hunting” , with the moral equality of combat removed due to a lack of risk reciprocity.
Further, as the development of these hi-tech weapons depends on the depth of defence budgets, asymmetries of power and violence have resulted in violations of human rights in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq and Libya, where communities live in constant fear of strikes. These are communities that have been psychologically traumatised, their privacy denied and their cultural and religious practices undermined. As a Stanford Law School study in Pakistan concluded, innocent men, women and children have been killed simply by dint of their behaviour such as gathering in groups, or carrying weapons, considered, by the United States to be consistent with terrorist activity.
Imagine, then, the spectre of full autonomy in the use of armed drones, offering the prospect that such behavioural ‘signatures’ could be programmed into targeting algorithms that would totally disregard any cultural context.
Calls for a ban
As yet, there is still little in the way of international law to specifically regulate the use of drones or autonomous weapons, other than International Humanitarian Law (IHL), – a.k.a the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) – which covers areas of operation within zones of existing armed conflict; or International Human Rights Law (IHRL), which requires the justification of self-defence, limited by necessity and proportionality for any counter-terrorism operations.
Furthermore, there are ambiguities around the use of IHRL extraterritorially, which allows the US to sidestep accountability on a technicality, namely Article 2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which limits the obligations of a state to “ all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction”. In addition, the state of exception that ushered in Bush’s “different kind of war” has become permanent, and the ability to flout international law under the guise of a universal project of global security and human rights, has slipped quietly under the radar, with the suffering of thousands of innocent victims out-of-sight.
The United States position on negotiating a new international treaty on fully autonomous weapons is that it is “premature”, arguing that IHL, as it currently stands, is sufficient. Rather interestingly, China supports a ban on the use of autonomous weapons, but not on their development as they currently seek to develop themselves as a hi-tech military superpower, with a focus on machine-learning, AI and autonomous weapons systems. The United Kingdom, meanwhile, joined the United States in insisting that existing IHL is adequate and “has no plans to call for or to support an international ban” on such weapons. Opposition parties in Germany too have called on Chancellor Merkel to take a tough stand on the issue, arguing that without restraints, there is a very real danger of a new arms race. However, Merkel’s coalition voted down the motion, and critics point to German arms sales of “new weapons with autonomous functions” as playing a key role in that vote.
The Vice President of Heron, the small Maryland company that developed the algorithm that won the dogfight competition, said that despite ethics concerns, it is important to forge ahead with employing AI within military hardware because “if the United States doesn’t adopt these technologies, somebody else will.” Such a position simply ensures an acceleration of the race towards a global proliferation of robotic violence, noted by UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres in his 2020 Report on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict. In the report, he stressed the “moral and ethical issues in allowing technology to decide whether to take a human life”, adding that the current absence of debate “leaves a policy vacuum that has to be addressed by Member States.”
In his Nobel Peace Prize speech, Obama’s warning-cum-US national security strategy, that “modern technology allows a few small men with outsized rage to murder innocents on a horrific scale”, would become the modus-operandi of the War on Terror. If the international community does not come together to curtail the further development of unmanned and autonomous lethal weapons, those few small men will become many.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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.
UK government considers human rights ‘opt-out’ to speed up asylum seeker deportations
The UK government is currently resisting requests by Brussels to give a formal undertaking to adhere to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), as part of Brexit negotiations. The areas of ‘opt-out’ being considered would, as well as making it easier to deport refugees and asylum seekers, protect British troops from legal action, following operations overseas.
The government also pledged, in the Conservative Party manifesto, to “update the UK Human Rights Act” , following Brexit, and claim the issue is a matter of UK “sovereignty”. Meanwhile, evidence presented to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, this week, from ClearView Research, showed that 75% of black people in the UK “do not believe their rights are equally protected compared to white people”, 85% do not trust the police to treat them equally and 60% don’t feel that their health is equally protected by the NHS.
Human Rights Watch have said that the UK’s refusal to agree to respect European human rights law “risks EU cooperation on security and criminal justice” that helps to protect British citizens. Civil rights organisation, Liberty, said that the government’s intention to ‘update’ the Act is “dangerously misguided” and is heading to an environment of “some rights for some people some of the time”
Justice Secretary, Robert Buckland, dismissed the reports that the UK is planning to opt out of the ECHR, saying “such suggestions are for the birds”, adding that we should be focused on ‘streamlining’ our own laws. David Lammy slammed the idea, saying that abandoning human rights would “make life in Britain less secure and hold our country back on the world stage”.
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Huge fire destroys refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos
Almost 13,000 asylum seekers have been left homeless by a blaze, reportedly started by migrants unhappy at being isolated by COVID19 rules in the Moria camp. Fires broke out in three places and were whipped up by strong winds which spread the flames quickly through the camp, the largest on Lesbos. There are also reports that wildfires were already burning in the area and some suggest far right Greeks were involved with igniting the fire. Lesbos project co-ordinator for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Marco Sandrone, told the BBC that determining the cause of the blaze was difficult with “several different fires and protests erupting in the camp” but that it was a “time bomb that finally exploded”.
The camp was over four times its maximum capacity and had been criticised by aid agencies for its “appalling conditions”. Thousands of people are now sleeping on the streets, with no protection from the elements and many families have lost the little belongings they had, fleeing with just the clothes on their backs. NGOs have been prevented by police from transporting people to hospitals and a cordon has been set up around the camp, preventing aid workers from getting in.
Just the day before, campaigners had placed 13,000 chairs outside the German parliament building, in a symbolic protest at conditions at the Moria camp, calling for its closure. The camp is designed to hold just 2,800. In total, there are 24,000 people in five camps on Greek islands that were built to house just 6,100. There are no immediate reports of casualties.
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5 years on from the crisis of 2015, migrants continue to die
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates that 554 migrants have died this year in attempts to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. During the migration crisis in 2015, 3030 people are believed to have drowned between January and August. In one incident in the last few days, a boat carrying dozens of migrants burst into flames as it was approached by the Italian Navy. Red Cross commissioner, Francesco Pascuzzo confirmed that up to seven migrants were feared missing and four were in hospital with serious burns. The remaining survivors were transferred to a “welcome centre”. The Mayor of Lampedusa has expressed his frustration as hundreds of migrants have arrived there in recent weeks, and has called for the whole island to go on “strike”. “We can’t manage the emergency and the situation is now really unsustainable” he said.
A vessel funded by Banksy, which rescued 200 people, over its safe capacity, was struggling to find a port to allow the migrants to disembark but was finally supported by the Italian Navy and a German charity rescue ship, after the UN Refugee Agency and IOM both called for European co-operation in allowing the migrants to be brought to shore. Five years after the peak of the migrant crisis in 2015, there is still no agreement on a mechanism for managing the hundreds rescued at sea.
Meanwhile more migrants are making the perilous journey across the English Channel, with 1450 making the crossing in August from France to Britain’s beaches. In a concerning development, the UK is planning to use hi-tech military drones, more used to operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, to provide an eye-in-the-sky over the channel. A spokesman for the MoD said: “The deployment of Watchkeeper provides further defence support to the Home Office in tackling the increasing number of small boats crossing the English Channel.”
The plight of African migrants is not confined to Europe. Mobile phone footage emerged this week showing conditions inside a coronavirus detention centre in Saudi Arabia. The detention centres are said to be an effort to control COVID19, known to spread among migrant workers who are housed in cramped conditions. The footage exposes tightly packed rows of emaciated men, scarred by signs of torture and detainees claim they are beaten with electrical wires and tell stories of those who have committed suicide after losing hope. Adam Coogle, deputy director of Human Rights Watch in the Middle East said the men are being held in “squalid, crowded, and dehumanising conditions, with no regard for their safety or dignity.”
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