International Human Rights Weekly News Roundup

by Pauline Canham & Amita Dhiman

 

This week’s stories in focus:

 

BREAKING: Shamima Begum wins the right to return to Britain to fight her citizenship case

The Court of Appeal has ruled that Shamima Begum, who travelled to Syria in 2015 and married a Dutch ISIS recruit, could not make her citizenship case from a Syrian refugee camp.   Human Rights Organisation, Liberty, has welcomed the ruling saying “equal access to justice must apply to everyone”.  But the UK Government hopes to appeal the decision, saying it was “very disappointing”.

US drone strike on Iranian General was unlawful, UN report concludes

CallamardA report by Agnes Callamard, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial and summary executions, has concluded that the US drone strike that killed a senior Iranian General violated international law.  The report states that evidence does not support any justification for the strike that killed Qasem Soleimani in January this year.  In particular, the UN expert said that the US had not provided enough proof that Soleimani’s activities constituted an “imminent threat to life”, and therefore the attack amounted to “arbitrary killing.”

The UN Special Rapporteur went further, calling for greater regulation on the military use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), warning that the proliferation of UAVs (known as drones) risks destabilising global peace and security.  She also noted that the states using them to fight the ‘war on terror’ currently face no accountability for their deployment.  She proclaimed that the “targeted killing of General Soleimani….is not just a slippery slope.  It is a cliff.”; appealing for the UN Security Council to meet to debate the self-defence claim (the justification most commonly used to carry out drone strikes in counter-terrorism operations).

President Trump ordered the strike on Soleimani in early January, and shortly afterwards, the Pentagon released a statement saying “General Suleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region….. This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans.”  Professor of International Law at the University of Copenhagen, Kevin Jon Heller, cast doubts on the legality of the strike, commenting “the legality of an attack depends on the immediacy of the threat that it aims to avert”.

Defenders of the use of drones point to their apparent ‘precision’ which they claim reduces the numbers of civilian casualties.  However, the UN expert called this claim “illusory” and the idea of the ‘surgical strike’ a “myth”.  The lack of oversight and the secret nature of the drone program have given rise to a significant underreporting of the harm caused to civilian populations targeted by the ‘war on terror’.

Following the release of the report, the United States hit back, saying Ms Callamard was effectively “giving a pass to terrorists”.  Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo strenuously defended the strike adding that Ms Callamard “gives more cause to distrust UN human rights mechanisms.”

 

Coalition to defend freedom of expression in Lebanon announced

lebanese flag 2A “Coalition to Defend Freedom of Expression in Lebanon”  was announced this week by 14 Lebanese and international organizations . The initiative was prompted by an expanding campaign of repression by the Lebanese Government against the people.

Lebanese authorities launched a crackdown on activists and people who posted defamatory posts against the government during the ‘2015-2019 Anti- government protests’. As many as 60 activists and people were detained and questioned in regard to their social media posts concerning accusations of corruption towards high ranking officials such as the President and reporting on worsening economic and political situation in the country.

The documented cases are proof of mistreatment by prosecution and security agencies as a tool to intimidate and silence voices that were raised against the President. Before any case was transferred to the Court, there were a range of physical and psychological interrogation tactics used to coerce signed pledges that activists would not resort to writing any defamatory content against the government in future. The promises have no legal sanctity since they violate the fundamental right of free speech and expression.

On June 15th this year, the country’s top prosecutor ordered a security agency to investigate social media posts deemed offensive to the president labelling it a move to amend the old Media Laws and bring it in line with today.  “Parliament should urgently bring the media law in line with international law and prioritize the decriminalization of defamation and insults” said the coalition.

Lebanon’s constitution guarantees freedom of expression “within the limits established by law.”  The Lebanese penal code criminalizes defamation against public officials and authorizes imprisonment of up to one year in such cases.  The code also authorizes imprisonment up to two years for insulting the president and up to three years for insulting religious rituals.  These laws, many of them older than the country’s independence, are enforced by prosecutors today.  The country will see a dark future if the laws are not soon amended and implemented in line with international human rights obligations.

Other stories making the headlines around the world

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Africa

 

Americas

 

Asia

 

Europe

 

Middle East

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spotlight on Sami Al Haj

By Pauline Canham

Each month, the HRC Blog will feature a significant figure, or team from the Human Rights community to go under the Spotlight, answering questions put by students from Essex University.  This month, we feature Sami Al Haj.

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Image courtesy of Al Jazeera Media Network

About Sami

Sami Al Haj is the Director of the Centre for Public Liberties & Human Rights at the Al Jazeera Media Network (AJMN) in Doha, Qatar.  He was born in Sudan and started working for Al Jazeera as a cameraman in 2001.  Shortly after the events of 9/11, he was sent to cover the US invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, an assignment that would change his life forever.  After two months, while crossing from Kandahar across the border into Pakistan, Sami was arrested and detained by Pakistani Intelligence on 15th December 2001 and subsequently handed over to the Americans.  Nothing could have prepared Sami for the horrors that were to come and the course that his life would take as a result.  After some time at the infamous Bagram detention facility, where he experienced harsh and humiliating treatment, he was transferred to a facility in Kandahar and then on to Guantanamo Bay, where he remained as Prisoner 345 for 6 years, without charge.

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While there, according to Sami’s lawyer and founder of Reprieve, Clive Stafford Smith, “Sami endured horrendous cruelty – sexual abuse and religious persecution”. He was beaten, deprived of sleep and force-fed after going on hunger strike.

On 1st May 2008, Sami was released without charge.  He said that he was glad to be free but sad that his ‘brothers’ remained in the hands of “people that claim to be champions of peace and protectors of rights and freedoms.  But a true just peace doesn’t come from military force or threats to use…bombs or economic sanctions.  Justice comes from lifting oppression and guaranteeing rights and freedoms and respecting the will of the people…”

Shortly after his release, and his long awaited reunion with his wife and son, Sami returned to Al Jazeera, where he created a new team dedicated to the field of human rights and civil liberties.

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Students’ Questions Answered

Sami_al_haj_smSami was gracious enough to allow the students at Essex an opportunity to send him and his team some questions about his experiences and ongoing work in the field of human rights:

 

Q: It is almost 20 years since 9/11 – What are the biggest changes faced by journalists and humanitarian aid workers operating on the ground in war zones, and have the policies of the war on terror had a ‘chilling effect’ on journalists’ ability to hold truth to power?

A: Regrettably,  journalists are now facing a far worse reality with regard to field coverage. Authorities, militias, and armed groups all endeavour to suppress the voice of truth.   Counter- terrorism policies went to the extent to limit the range of ethical journalism and criminalize journalists.  Press freedom has been compromised all over the world.

 

Q: To what extent do you believe that the CIA Enhance Interrogation Program at Abu Ghraib and other so called ‘black sites’ emboldened repressive regimes in their own torture practices?

A: Tyrants and dictators felt at ease seeing the free world legitimizing water-boarding and torture, we can see that in the Middle East and elsewhere.

 

Q: After your experiences at Guantanamo, do you believe in the universality of human rights both as a concept and in practice?

A: Indeed. My personal experience has provided me with a more humane universal vision and understanding.   I believe human rights should be granted to all individuals regardless of their race, religion or nationality.   Human Rights mechanisms and intentions are good.   However, unfortunately, in practice, things are quite different.

 

Q: Were you told why you were being detained in Guantanamo?   And what gave you the strength to endure your detention?

A: My guards told me that I was being brought to Guantanamo and I would never leave alive.   No information was given except that YOU ARE GUILTY, YOU ARE A TERRORIST!!   I endured due to my strong belief in Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.  Throughout my tormenting experience, I believed that I would go out and support my family.

 

Q: To what extent do we see a repetition of the policies of exceptionalism that we saw immediately after 9/11 playing out now in Syria, and how can we ensure a fair judicial process to those accused of involvement with ISIL?

A: Unfortunately, all Middle Eastern regimes  do not believe in an independent judiciary system, and the British and Americans do not want the defendants to stand trial in London nor in Washington DC.

 

Q: How can journalists, humanitarian workers and human rights practitioners maintain their safety in hostile environments?

A: They should adhere to safety guidelines, and subject themselves to strict professional training.   At our Centre at Al Jazeera, for example, we have a Safety Section, and we provide journalists in the Middle East and elsewhere with workshops on the necessity of safety.

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Q: Can you tell us more about your team and objectives at Al Jazeera?

A: The Public Liberties and Human Rights Centre first started as a specialised desk within the Al Jazeera Arabic newsroom in 2008 and expanded to become a Centre in 2015.  The Centre now has a team of 14, all based at Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha, spread between the Arabic and English newsrooms and online, writing articles and doing research.  Our aim is to ensure human rights content across all AJMN platforms, to raise awareness and competence of international humanitarian law with journalists in the field,  and inform the public about human rights issues and legislation.  In addition, we endeavour to build and develop strategic partnerships with international, regional and local organisations to identify human rights violations and contribute to the promotion of freedom of expression and the press.

 

Q: How does Human Rights fit with Al Jazeera’s core business?

A: Human Rights issues are no longer fleeting news, but at the core of what the Al Jazeera Media Network does.  Al Jazeera’s interest in human rights has clearly emerged as a key element during analysis and discussion both in general and more particularly in the area of press freedom and the detention of journalists.

 

Q: What achievements you are most proud of in the work that you have done over the last 12 years?

A: I believe, over the last 12 years, we have done very well with regard to spreading the culture of human rights in the Middle East and North Africa.  We are now an effective partner of UNESCO, specifically with respect to Press Freedom and we work closely with the International Press Institution.   Our editorial section has contributed over 5,000 pieces and 6 full length documentaries and our partnership section has held more than 60 workshops with international experts from the UN and other global institutions benefitting over 1000 journalists from Al Jazeera and other media organisations.  We are also very proud of our Global Solidarity Initiatives, working in partnership with other media organisations in the areas of press freedom, anti-hate speech, protection of journalists and humanitarian workers, safeguarding displaced persons, rights of prisoners and detainees, and consolidation of transitional justice and the rule of law.

 

Q: What do you see as the biggest challenges and the top 3 priorities for human rights advocates around the world?

A: The biggest challenge right now is the rise of the far right all over the globe.  The top 3 priorities are Right to Religion, Right to Health and Press Freedom.

 

Q: What one piece of advice would you give to a human rights student just starting out on their career?

A: Never compromise.

 

My thanks to Sami and his team for engaging so generously with the questions from our students.  The HRC Blog Editorial team will be publishing further Spotlights in the coming weeks and months and welcome suggestions from students, staff and alumni for subjects they’d like to see featured.

 

 

The Alleged Murder of Jamal Khashoggi: Why this case strikes such a nerve

Carla Ferstman

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Jamal Khashoggi. Photo credit: April Brady/Project on Middle East Democracy

On 2 October 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent exiled critic of the Saudi regime and journalist for the Washington Post attended the Saudi consulate in Turkey to retrieve paperwork needed for his impending marriage to Turkish national Hatice Cendiz. Ms Cendiz waited for him outside the consulate in vain; he never emerged. Weeks have now passed and Turkish authorities have drip-fed a stream of gruesome information about their investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance and apparent murder within the confines of the embassy.

Details which have emerged include the arrival in Turkey of a team of 15 special forces officers and intelligence officials, information about Khashoggi having been tortured, killed, beheaded and dismembered with a bone saw. Apparently, some areas at the Saudi consulate where Khashoggi was last seen alive had been repainted and toxic materials had been found by police. Turkish sources have apparently alleged that the body was transported to the consul general’s house nearby and disposed of.  On 15 October, CNN reported that it had been informed by sources that the Saudis are preparing a report that will say that Khashoggi died in a botched interrogation intended to lead to his abduction from Turkey. According to reports over the last 24 hours, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has travelled to Saudi Arabia for crisis talks regarding the unfolding situation and is on route to Turkey.

Saudi Arabia is clearly no beacon for human rights. While there is no pecking order for atrocious acts of violence, it is hard to ignore Saudi Arabia’s three-year campaign of indiscriminate bombing of Yemen, devastating the civilian population and leading to mass starvation. Nor should we ignore the spate of beheadings in the country.

So why does the Khashoggi case strike such a nerve?

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How Does Content Moderation Affect Human Rights? Commentary on the Case of Infowars

By Vivian Ng and Sabrina Rau

On 6 August 2018, Apple, Facebook and Spotify removed content from Alex Jones’s Infowars pages and accounts on their platforms, which were seen to be spreading conspiracy theories and hate speech. YouTube also terminated Alex Jones’s channel. These recent actions followed the takedown of four of Infowars’ YouTube videos earlier last month. While Twitter did not immediately take any action, they later suspended Alex Jones’s account for seven days on 15 August, citing violation of their rules on abusive behaviour and inciting violence. These companies have removed content or terminated these accounts on grounds that they violated the terms of service.

Much of the reporting has been critical of companies who are perceived to have not done enough, or acted quickly enough, to remove content from Alex Jones and Infowars. The attention seems to centre on whether such platforms have acted appropriately and adequately to combat misinformation and disinformation spread by entities like Infowars. For example, while Twitter has since taken action regarding Alex Jones’s account, it had been criticised for not suspending the separate Infowars Twitter account as well. Google and Apple have also been criticised for not removing the Infowars app on their app stores. These issues are important but commentary has been lacking on the broader significance of the current news around the actions platforms are taking regarding the content and accounts of Infowars and Alex Jones. More fundamentally, what role do companies have in content moderation, and how should that role be carried out? This post will look at the role that social media platforms play in the realisation of the right to freedom of expression in particular, and consider if and how content moderation by private companies that own and control such platforms can be compliant with human rights standards and norms.

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