International Human Rights Weekly News Roundup

by Pauline Canham

In Focus

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.”  

Other stories making the headlines around the world





Middle East

International Human Rights Weekly News Roundup

by Pauline Canham and Beth Webb-Strong


Beirut blast: A catastrophe for a country already in crisis

beirut_blastThe catastrophic explosion in Beirut on 4th August comes at a time when Lebanon is already suffering an economic, political and health crisis of epic proportions.  Only the day before the blast, Human Rights Watch had submitted a report to the UN Human Rights Council, stressing the need for the Lebanese Government to address the multiple crises that were already “endangering people’s basic rights”.

But immediate needs now turn to food, shelter, health care and electricity, all of which were already in short supply.  The huge explosion, which was felt 150 miles away in Cyprus, destroyed Beirut’s key grain silos and rendered the port, which is relied on for food imports into Lebanon, unusable.  The shock wave of the blast damaged thousands of homes, shattering windows and ripping doors from their hinges and destroyed hospitals, already under strain from COVID19 and a lack of funding.  Remaining hospitals have been inundated with the casualties but without electricity were unable to save many of the victims.

Anger has been growing over the last two years at government corruption, the city seeing pre-lockdown protests about a lack of basic services, including clean drinking water and electricity.   Daily power cuts have affected homes and businesses, with only two to four hours of electricity per day and the city plunged into darkness each night.

COVID19 exacerbated an already failing economy and thousands more saw their jobs cut by businesses forced to close during the coronavirus lockdown.  The country has also been inundated by Syrian refugees, adding 1.5 million refugees to the Lebanese 4.5 million population.  This has resulted in an estimation by Save the Children of more than half a million children struggling to survive without basic essentials.

Lebanese President Michel Auon has declared a state of emergency and many countries including the UK, France, United States and Iran have offered help.   The European Union are sending search and rescue assistance, and Emmanuel Macron is expected to fly in to the devastated city today.


#ZimbabweLivesMatter: Campaign Grows Against Human Rights Abuses

ZimbabwelivesmatterA campaign exposing human rights abuses in Zimbabwe has drawn attention across the globe this week. Twitter has been taken by storm by the #ZimbabweLivesMatter campaign, currently number 1 on the list of trending topics. The campaign hashtag was inspired by the BlackLivesMatter movement which ignited activists worldwide during May of this year. Tens of thousands of individuals have tweeted to raise awareness of the current crisis in Zimbabwe, criticising President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government for corruption, poor handling of the economic crisis and human rights violations.

The campaign follows a number of arrests of activists, journalists and oppositionists, including Hopewell Chin’ono, a prominent investigative journalist awaiting trial on charges for inciting violence. Chin’ono recently reported concerns of corruption surrounding the Zimbabwe government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Mnangagwa’s government faces multiple charges of corruption. The health minister, Obadiah Moyo, was charged with criminal abuse of office in July following the alleged awarding of a $60 million contract to a company which sold COVID-19 medical supplies at inflated prices to the government.

Last week, a nominee for this year’s Booker prize, Tsitsi Dangarembga, was amongst those arrested in Harare at an anti-government protest. Muleya Mwananyanda, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Southern Africa, has spoken out against ‘the persecution of these activists’, labelling government action ‘a blatant abuse of the criminal justice system and mockery of justice’.

Celebrities across the globe have joined opposition voices, highlighting the increased use of social media as a tool of exposure in today’s human rights activism climate. Political pressure is mounting for the African Union to address the government’s restrictions upon free speech and peaceful protests. Particular concerns have been raised regarding the use of the COVID-19 pandemic to justify a crackdown on political opposition. This week, Mnangagwa threatened to ‘flush out’ the ‘bad apples that have attempted to divide our people’. Measures restricting free movement such as overnight curfews have been implemented, masquerading as measures to protect public health.


Other stories making the headlines around the world








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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.


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.


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.


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:


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.

Venezuela’s Race Against Time

By Alex Wilks

The lack of food staples and medical supplies, failing public services, frequent blackouts and brutal insecurity have become so serious in Venezuela that earlier this month, UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon described the situation as a ‘humanitarian crisis’. Colombia has even opened humanitarian corridors to allow thousands of Venezuelans to cross the border for the weekend to buy basic necessities. Once one of Latin America’s richest countries and with the largest proven oil reserves in the world, Venezuela is now in a race against time to save itself from collapse.

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