International Human Rights Weekly News Roundup

By Dan Olamide Eboka, Dechen Piya, and Andrea Vremis


The Digital Divide – a COVID response

MIT Technology Review

Approximately half a billion students, including at least 11 million girls, have been affected by school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, an impact particularly felt by students in developing economies who are unable to study from home due to a lack of electricity, internet access and suitable technologies. Already disadvantaged in comparison to learners in ‘developed’ countries, today such students are at even greater risk of receiving an inadequate education as social-distancing rules and anti covid measures increasingly move teaching online. This was part of the focus of the 15thAnnual Internet Governance Forum 2020 (IGF), hosted by the Secretary General of the United Nations, where over 6,000 participants from 173 countriesjoined an online discussion forum to address the topic of “Internet for human resilience and solidarity”.  

The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, advocated that today’s digital technology should be “put to work for those who need it the most.” He remarked that while the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the importance of digital-technologies and the benefits of connectivity, “it has also exacerbated inequalities, including basic online access”. The IGF, founded in 2006, brings together stakeholders from both private and public entities, in an advisory capacity, to discuss policies and issues relating to the Internet and new media. At the Forum, Guterres stressed the importance of inclusionurging world governments to make sure that their “response and recovery plans include increasing digital connectivity in a way that is affordable, safe and inclusive.” 

These are unprecedented times and the full magnitude of the pandemic’s impact may take years  to be fully registered.  However, technology and internet access, the key means by which to connect the world, stand as decisive factors today. The digital-divide is one of the most pressing issues in our covid world, reflecting major human rights issues of inequality, including the right to education.





Middle East


Can a novel scientific method provide evidence of torture?

By Paula Suárez-López

How can torture survivors prove that they have been tortured when there are no physical marks left in their bodies? During the last decades, torturers are increasingly using psychological torture and physical torture methods that hardly leave any visible physical sign. Prolonged solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, positional stress, constant loud noise and waterboarding, widely used by the US in the context of the war on terror and by other countries around the world, are just five examples of this. Despite not leaving marks, these forms of torture cause extreme mental and sometimes physical suffering and often have devastating consequences for the survivor’s mental health. To obta in justice and reparations, torture survivors need something to show. Psychological assessments can be very helpful, but often are not sufficient. Is it possible to find biological markers of torture that support torture allegations? In a recent article in the Torture Journal, entitled ‘The potential of epigenetic methods to provide evidence of torture’, I propose to test a novel approach, based on state-of-the-art molecular biology methods, to this effect.

Trauma is associated with changes in the DNA

 There is mounting evidence that trauma, such as childhood abuse or war-related trauma, is associated with certain changes in the genetic material, the DNA. These changes, called epigenetic changes, do not alter the genetic information carried by DNA. They alter epigenetic marks, which are tags that are added to, or removed from, the DNA to modulate gene activity. Changes in these marks make genes either more active or less active. Epigenetic changes occur naturally and are often a natural response to environmental influences, such as temperature or nutrition. The term “molecular scars” has been used for these changes when they are associated with trauma or stress. Now the question is whether torture, an extreme form of trauma, leaves molecular scars in the DNA. Although this can be very difficult to prove, my article argues that it is worth testing whether torture is associated with changes in epigenetic marks, because, if this were the case, perhaps detecting these changes might contribute to support allegations of torture in the future. This would be a breakthrough.

Limitations of epigenetic methods

But this road is not an easy one. Even if they work, epigenetic methods will not be a silver bullet. The article, does not argue that epigenetic methods will provide irrefutable proof of torture. What it argues is that, as a first step, it is possible to test whether torture survivors show differences in epigenetic marks relative to people who have not been tortured or people who have experienced other types of trauma. However, the interpretation of the results has to be cautious because an association of torture with epigenetic changes would not necessarily mean that torture causes those changes. Proving this would be much more difficult. Another question is whether epigenetic methods are sensitive enough. The differences in epigenetic marks between traumatised and non-traumatised people are small, usually not bigger than 5 %. Would differences in this range be sufficient to be considered reliable in torture cases? Also, the trauma-related differences have not always been reproducible. And would there be epigenetic changes that are distinctive of torture, as opposed to other types of trauma? All these limitations have to be taken into account when analysing epigenetic marks in torture survivors.

Ethical considerations

Epigenetic experiments with human samples also raise ethical concerns. As any experimentation with human subjects, these experiments must respect all the bioethics principles, which include, among others, avoiding all unnecessary physical and mental suffering; obtaining free and informed consent; and allowing the subjects to withdraw from the experiments or withdraw their consent whenever they wish. Torture survivors can be particularly vulnerable and measures must be taken to avoid re-traumatisation. In addition, privacy and confidentiality must be respected, especially taking into account that some epigenetic methods can reveal the genetic information of the subject.

Advantages of epigenetic methods

Despite all these caveats, epigenetic methods can have advantages when it comes to torture. Particularly promising are results obtained in people subjected to acute sleep deprivation. Compared with individuals who got a full night’s sleep, sleep-deprived subjects showed differences in epigenetic marks in genes related with sleep/wake cycles. Not only does this indicate that stress induces epigenetic changes – something previously shown in animals – it also suggests that certain forms of stress or trauma can be associated with specific changes in epigenetic marks. Let us imagine that torture is associated with epigenetic changes. Then, it would be worth testing whether there are epigenetic changes that are distinctive of certain forms of torture. Moreover, some epigenetic marks are stable and can be detected years after a traumatic event has occurred. There is the possibility that, if torture leaves molecular scars, these can be revealed when other physical signs have already disappeared or never existed.

In sum, the technology to analyse epigenetic marks is available and might be used to determine whether torture is associated with epigenetic changes. Torture survivors, especially those without physical marks of this atrocious human rights violation, are in dire need of proof of their experience. It is a moral imperative to test whether epigenetic methods are useful for this purpose. Finding biological markers of torture would not only help survivors to prove their case and obtain justice, reparation and redress, it would also contribute to preventing torture because it would make potential torturers think twice before inflicting such abhorrent treatment. Other potential benefits would be helping to find new methods to mitigate the effects of torture on the health of survivors and helping to refine the definition of torture. Science can contribute to preventing and prosecuting human rights violations and hopefully epigenetic methods will be a new tool for this purpose.

Paula Suárez-López is a scientist who has made a career change to the human rights field after doing scientific research for three decades. She has a PhD in Biological Sciences and a recent MA in Theory and Practice of Human Rights. She has published her work in various peer-reviewed journals. Currently, her main interest is the use of science to advance human rights.

The US Election and Human Rights

(The feature image is from GETTY IMAGES)

Dr. Todd Landman

Americans have a strong conviction that our country has a commitment to human rights. Whether this commitment centres on certain sets of ‘self-evident’ and inalienable rights protected through political and legal institutions or as the basis for pursuing foreign policy, rights run through our birth as a nation and through our history as a grand experiment in collective self-governance and as a global power.  

The history of the United States is one in which the advance of rights has partly closed the gap between de jurecommitment and de facto realisation. Women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights, and minority rights have seen an expansion in their legal protection; however, these different advances have been highly contested, subject to partial reversal, and have not yet been fully realised for many. 

Moreover, some categories of rights, such as the right to health, remain alien to a country founded on rugged individualism and a deep suspicion of government control over what many perceive are private decisions. The United States is the only OECD country without universal healthcare and yet has the highest per capita expenditure on healthcare. Health inequality is high, in terms of both expenditure and outcomes.

The 2020 US Elections brought to high relief these different tensions between democracy, human rights, and the role of government in shaping the good life. Joe Biden’s victory projects a new lens on these fundamental questions for American democracy and its commitment to human rights, but it will not be a panacea.

Human Rights at Home

Biden repeatedly campaigned on Americans’ fundamental right to vote, while the challenges of running an election in a country severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic have been evident throughout all phases of this electoral cycle. Mixed measures for voting, rules for registration and eligibility, timing, and the final tabulations have all affected the sanctity of this fundamental right for all Americans to take part in the democratic process. Biden’s commitment to this right has been an important pillar to his success and will likely be a key feature of his time as President.   

The protection of minority rights will return under the new presidency, where Biden remains committed to the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and has pledged to provide a path to citizenship for the more than 820,000 people affected by this policy. The election of Barack Obama in 2008 saw the first African-American President, while the 2020 election of Kamala Harris as Vice President sees the first woman of colour to hold that office in history. The campaign also ran on addressing longer-term trends of institutional racism and a pledge to combat racial injustice, themes fuelled by the widespread social unrest following the police killing of George Floyd and other African-Americans. 

This past year will long be remembered for the outbreak and spread of COVID19 across the world, which also deeply affected the United States. Biden made combatting the pandemic a recurring theme of his candidacy through words and deeds. His early use of ‘basement broadcasts’ gave way to socially distanced campaign events, debates, and virtual town halls. He repeatedly supported the use of scientific evidence on how best to address the most serious public health crisis to affect the United States in over 100 years, and he has pledged to ‘listen to the scientists’ in crafting his response. 

Fundamental to his approach is a commitment to the right to health, which he will pursue during his presidency with reform of the Affordable Care Act to include a public mandate, new tax credits, expansion of coverage to low income Americans, protection of those with pre-existing conditions, and reduction of complexity in accessing healthcare. His commitment to healthcare does not go as far as full universal coverage evident in other developed countries and will be a highly contested feature of his presidency. 

The renewal of these and other rights commitments will be mediated and adjudicated through legal and political institutions, where the Republicans are likely to control the Senate, the Democrats to control the House, and a 6-3 conservative balance of power in the Supreme Court after the confirmation of Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett.  This separation of powers at the national level is coupled with variation of partisan control at the state and local level, where commitments to rights will continue to be debated and contested. 

Human Rights Abroad

There is a long held belief that US foreign policy is committed to democracy and human rights. The defeat of Nazism in World War II, and the foundational work of Eleanor Roosevelt and the United Nations helped bring about the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The rhetoric and reality of the US commitment to human rights, however, has vacillated through the years to include covert and overt foreign interventions, the use of extraordinary renditiontorture, and targeted assassination of foreign terror suspects using drones, as well as lukewarm support for the International Criminal Court.   

The tension between US national interest and international norms, rules, and laws has been a key feature of US Foreign policy during the ‘War on Terror.’ Biden is part of this policy world, both as Senator and as Vice President. He will, however, seek a return to multilateralism, repair strained alliances such as NATO, the EU, and other partners, and has already pledged to re-join the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Iran nuclear deal.  

Biden inherits ongoing conflicts around the world and significant foreign policy challenges with respect to trade, immigration, and terrorism. His renewed embrace of international institutions and a turn away from unilateral nationalism may reintroduce more attention to international human rights, but there are significant legacies and liabilities from his own record that should make human rights scholars and practitioners maintain their vigilance.


Todd Landman is Professor of Political Science, Executive Director of the Rights Lab Beacon of Excellence, and Pro Vice Chancellor of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Nottingham. Previously, he was Professor of Government and Executive Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Essex. He is author of Citizenship Rights and Social MovementsIssues and Methods in Comparative PoliticsProtecting Human RightsStudying Human RightsMeasuring Human Rights, and Democracy and Human Rights: The Precarious Triumph of Ideals. He is also host of The Rights Track podcast.  

Re-imagining human rights for New Zealand

October 16, 2020

By Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt.

This first appeared in the Dominion Post on 16 October.

There’s a global pushback against human rights.

Around the world, authoritarian “strongmen” are behaving like Roman Emperors. Supported by their disaffected ‘base’, they peddle racism, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance.

The echoes of 1930s Europe are unmistakeable.

New Zealand is not immune to this pushback any more than it is immune to the murderous ideology of white supremacists. 

Enormous challenges

As authoritarianism spreads and mutates, the world is facing a staggering accumulation of challenges. New Zealand is not immune to them, either.

The world faces a lethal pandemic, recession, deepening poverty, widening inequality, climate change, foreign interference in democracies, and under-regulated social media that openly incites violence.

These challenges are threatening the wellbeing of billions of people, especially the most disadvantaged. They blight the future of our young people. 

This is precisely when human rights should be playing their historic role.

Human rights do not provide magic solutions to immensely complex problems. But they provide anchor and compass. They can help to steady the ship – and chart the way forward.


There are many causes of the global pushback against human rights. Those responsible for human rights – people like me – must shoulder some of the blame.

There are others, but here are four serious missteps.

One, human rights talk has become excessively legalistic and often divorced from everyday lives.

Two, they are understood as placing responsibilities on governments, whereas human rights also place responsibilities on individuals and communities.

Three, human rights are mainly associated with combatting discrimination. This struggle is of huge importance and, in the Human Rights Commission, most of our work is devoted to fighting discrimination. But human rights are not only about discrimination, they are also about improving the lives of everyone. 

Four, human rights are usually understood as committing governments not to do things, such as not to discriminate. They are not usually understood as helping governments take positive action, for example, designing and implementing a policy that ensures everyone has a decent home. This misunderstanding severely diminishes the role of human rights.

If we wish to engage with the alienated supporters of “strongmen”, as well as others who roll their eyes at the mention of human rights, what’s to be done? How do we resist the global pushback?

If human rights are to be implemented in a meaningful way, they must be placed within specific national contexts. In New Zealand, for example, human rights must be implemented within its unique socio-economic context, including Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

In this country, we must go back to the ‘three Rs’, which resonate deeply with Te Tiriti.


At the heart of human rights and Te Tiriti are respectful relationships between individuals and communities.

I often hear inspiring stories about our rich multiculturalism grounded in Te Tiriti. But I also hear about communities talking past each other.

We need to give more attention to thoughtful relationship-building between communities.


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights confirms that individuals have “duties to the community”. Te Tiriti affirms “rights and duties of citizenship”.

Our response to COVID-19, such as social distancing and self-isolation, shows that most of us understand we have responsibilities to our communities. Most of us grasp that we have a responsibility not to discriminate on any of the prohibited grounds, such as disability, gender and sexual orientation.

We need to be much clearer that human rights not only grant entitlements but also place responsibilities on all of us.


Human rights are all about fairness and respect (manaakitanga).

They dignify individuals and empower communities.

In the United Nations, successive New Zealand governments have promised to advance civil, political, workers’, social and cultural rights, the right to a safe environment, and the rights of indigenous peoples.

This broad understanding of human rights reflects what humans value. It also chimes with Te Tiriti.

We must find ways of bringing these human rights home so they can improve the lives of everyone in New Zealand during these extremely challenging times.

A good place to start

The ‘three Rs’ are not the whole package. We also need to clarify what our values are (instinct is not enough) and build on the evidence of what works.

If we wish to resist the pushback against human rights, and improve lives, livelihoods, wellbeing and social inclusion, we must re-imagine human rights for the unique context of Aotearoa.

A good place to start is with the ‘three-Rs’ – whatever the complexion of our next government.

International Human Rights Weekly News Roundup

by Pauline Canham

In focus

#EndSARS demonstrators killed while peacefully protesting against state brutality in Lagos, Nigeria

800px-Protest_against_the_Special_Anti-Robbery_Squad_(SARS)_in_Lagos,_NigeriaProtestors in Lagos came under fire from uniformed men this week as they joined thousands in demonstrations against police brutality. Witnesses described soldiers firing directly into the crowds of protestors, and Amnesty International tweeted that it had “received credible but disturbing evidence of excessive use of force occasioning deaths of protestors at Lekki toll gate in Lagos”. Lekki, a wealthy suburb of Lagos, has been the epicentre of protests against the abuses perpetrated by the government’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).

SARS was set up in 1992 to combat rising crime, armed gangs and robberies in particular. For 3 decades, there have been accusations of corruption, violence and extrajudicial killings by the unit. Recent protests were sparked by a video emerging of a man being killed in the street by the squad. The Nigerian government has been promising to disband the squad for several years but did not do so until last week. Despite the unit being dissolved, protests continued against what is seen as a wider problem of government and police brutality. The President’s directive to dissolve SARS does little to satisfy the demands of protestors, because the squad’s officers are set to be redeployed, rather than brought to justice.

The Director of Amnesty International Nigeria said “We call on the Nigerian authorities to listen to the demands of their people  and promptly, thoroughly, impartially, effectively and transparently investigate all cases of human rights violations by the police, including the unlawful killings of the #EndSARS protestors”. UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, said he was closely monitoring developments in Nigeria and called for “an end to reported police brutality and abuses”.

Other stories making the headlines around the world






Middle East

International Human Rights Weekly News Roundup

by Pauline Canham

In focus

Saudi Arabia’s bid to join Human Rights Council fails

China, Russia and Pakistan have been elected to the Human Rights Council for the next three years, while Saudi Arabia failed to win a seat in the 13th October vote, despite being the current chair of the G20.  A secret ballot in geographical areas decides the seats, with Asia Pacific the only contested region this time.  The UK and France were unopposed in their election to the council, representing Western Europe, and Russia and Ukraine were similarly unopposed for Eastern Europe.  Saudi Arabia lost out to Pakistan (who won the most votes for Asia), Uzbekistan, Nepal and China, though China’s share of the vote dropped by 20% compared to the last election in 2016.  China has come under widespread criticism for human rights abuses, most notably its treatment of the Uighur Muslim population in Xinjiang province, and brutality towards protestors in Hong Kong.

Saudi Arabia was the only country that competed unsuccessfully for the Asia Pacific seat that it last held in 2019.  The killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the imprisoning of women’s rights advocates and the catastrophic war in Yemen, all policies of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, have been cited as reasons for the lack of support for the Kingdom this time.

There were 15 seats available, with the remaining seats going to Ivory Coast, Gabon, Malawi and Senegal for Africa, and Bolivia, Cuba and Mexico representing the Latin American region.  President Trump pulled the United States out of the Human Rights Council in 2018, accusing the UNHCR of giving seats to human rights abusers.  US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, said that the US has pressed for reform of the council, but “those calls went unheeded”, adding that the elections on 13th October only validated their decision to withdraw.

Rights groups have expressed their concern about allowing the worst of human rights violators to join the council.  UN director at Human Rights Watch, Louis Charbonneau, said “Serial rights abuses should not be rewarded with seats on the Human Rights Council”.   The executive director of independent Geneva based human rights group, UN Watch, said “Electing these dictatorships as UN judges on human rights is like making a gang of arsonists into the fire brigade”.  


Other stories making the headlines around the world






Middle East

International Human Rights Weekly News Roundup

by Pauline Canham

In focus

Amnesty International forced to cease operations in India

Amnesty_India_3Amnesty 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

ASCENSION_ISLAND_WIDEAWAKE_AIRFIELDThe 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”.


Other stories making the headlines around the world






Middle East