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 Mnanagwa’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. Mnanagwa’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, Mnanagwa 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.

 

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International Human Rights Weekly News Roundup

by  Pauline Canham and Lauren Ng

 

This week’s stories in focus:

 

Authoritarian police tactics threaten democracy in the US

20UNREST-PORTLAND-VETERAN-videoSixteenByNineJumbo1600-v2The Mayor of Portland, Oregon, has called the strong-arm tactics of federal agents in his city as a “direct threat to democracy” and warns other officials that their cities could be next.  Mayor Ted Wheeler has asked for the agents to be removed, stressing the tactics are “abhorrent” and “are leading to more violence”, rather than quelling it.   Trump has responded by saying local leaders have lost control and he is trying to help.

Portland has seen a wave of protests since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May and rallies have become increasingly violent with clashes between police and protestors escalating in recent days.  Language coming out of the White House has done little to calm the situation, with the Homeland Security Secretary calling protestors “anarchists” and Trump blaming democratic leaders for the chaos.  Federal agents have appeared to snatch people off the streets into unmarked vehicles and detained them without justification.

A video has emerged of a Navy veteran being attacked by camouflaged agents, striking him with batons, which resulted in a broken hand, and pepper spraying him at close range directly into his face, without provocation.   David Steel said he had wanted to talk to the officers about why they were “violating their oath to uphold the constitution” and he was standing still with his hands by his sides when he was attacked.  This can clearly be seen in the video that’s been viewed over 3 million times.

The Oregon Attorney General has sued the federal government for unlawfully detaining protestors, requesting a restraining order to prevent federal agents from making any more arrests.  Ms Rosenblum stated “These tactics must stop”, adding that the tactics used by The Department of Homeland Security, US Marshals Service, US Customs and Border Protection and Federal Protection Service, are preventing people exercising their First Amendment right to protest and are “out of character with the Oregon Way.”  Meanwhile, the mothers of protestors have come out onto the streets to protect their children’s right to protest but linking together to provide a barrier between protestors and federal forces.

President Trump, however, has applauded the actions of officers in Portland, saying they’ve done a “fantastic’ job and threatened to use similar tactics in more liberal democratic cities.

 

1921 Tulsa Race Massacre – a new horizon for US reparations?

Tulsa_dig2Nearly 100 years after one of the most brutal racial events in US history, a test excavation for the mass graves of the Tulsa Race Massacre victims will begin this week.

Between May 31 to June 1 in 1921, a white mob burned Tulsa’s local Greenwood community, a thriving black neighborhood, then known as the “Black Wall Street”, to ashes. Within 24 hours, thousands of Black Americans were displaced from their homes and an estimate of 300 people were killed.

For years, it has remained unknown as to where the victims of the massacre were buried. An investigation was initially initiated in 1991, yet discontinued shortly after. The Tulsa Race Riot Commission’s in 2001 made clear in their recommendations that officials should investigate the location of the graves, but Tulsa failed to comply.

However, due to the unresolved questions surrounding the massacre, Tulsan Mayor G.T. Bynum reopened the investigation in 2018. In December 2019, forensic scientists of the State of Oklahoma Archaeological Survey detected anomalies in the ground that could indicate the existence of two mass burials on city-owned property. The senior researcher of the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey, Scott Hammerstedt, felt confident that this discovery was “something associated with the massacre”. While the test excavation was initially postponed in March due to the Coronavirus pandemic, Bynum announced it will be restarting this week:

“As a city, we are committed to exploring what happened in 1921 through a collective and transparent process – filling gaps in our city’s history and providing healing and justice to our community. In the past 99 years, no other agency or government entity has moved this far into an investigation that will seek truth into what happened in Tulsa in 1921.”

Furthermore, earlier in May this year, Human Rights Watch published a detailed report highlighting how city officials have continued to obstruct rebuilding of the Greenwood area and reject offers of medical and reconstruction aid. In addition, ongoing police brutality in the area have destroyed the prosperity and livelihood of the local community. It is hoped that unearthing this truth will allow the start to an important part of restoring justice for Black Americans – that of reparations.

 

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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.

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International Human Rights Weekly News Roundup

by Lauren Ng and Pauline Canham

This week’s stories in focus

Protests against Israel’s plans to annex the West Bank as Coronavirus cases rise again

00a34a9b-8dba-4d9a-a2bc-66fe9f1eed93Thousands rallied in Jericho on 22 June to protest against the plan by Israel to annex large parts of the occupied West Bank and the Jordan Valley.  Those protesting included Nickolay Mladenov, the Middle East UN peace envoy and diplomats from several nations including Britain.  More than 1,000 European MPs, including 240 from the UK, have signed a letter opposing Israel’s plans, which would result in the extension of Israeli authority to 30% of the West Bank, including  235 Israeli settlements considered illegal under international law.  The West Bank and Gaza are those areas considered by Palestinians as a future independent state and if the annexation goes ahead, it would leave Palestinian areas significantly fragmented and some Palestinians effectively living in Israeli enclaves with no rights.

47 human rights experts have released a joint statement calling on the international community to oppose what they call “a 21st century apartheid” that “incites wars, economic devastation, political instability, systematic human rights abuses and widespread human suffering.”  Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu is emboldened in his plans by the support of the Trump administration and is trying to push it through before the possibility that the White House might change hands later this year.

Meanwhile, cases of coronavirus are on the rise again in the West Bank, since restrictions were lifted in May.  This week saw the number of cases double as the Palestinian Health Minister warned that a second wave could be “more dangerous than the first.”  As a result of a jump in cases and fears of a new emergence of the virus, some areas including the city of Hebron have gone back into lockdown.   Israel have so far reported 308 fatalities and 3 in the Palestinian territories.  Netanyahu is urging people to adhere to social distancing guidelines and has given the police the power to impose a fine, equivalent to $146, to anyone not wearing a mask in public

US Supreme Court bans LGBTQ employment discrimmination

LaurenPicOn June 15 this year, the US Supreme Court made a sweeping decision prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity under federal law. The title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans discrimination on the basis of sex among other things, now protects LGBTQ employees in its discriminatory clause. The decision was written by Judge Neil Gorsuch, nominated by the Trump administration, and will undeniably cause tensions among the judicial conservatives and Republican nominees.

While the bill has expanded LGBTQ civil rights protection in some states, it is expected to face challenges in the Republican-controlled Senate. Although 33 states offer some form of protection against LGBTQ workers, only 22 states prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This leaves 17 states with no protection at all and thus, vulnerable to harassment and abuse in the workplace.

Nevertheless, this ruling remains significant – it is the first time the court has spoken about legal protections for transgender rights.  This issue comes shortly after Trump confirmed his administration would continue to rollback health care protections for transgender people, which is due to take effect on August 18th and will undoubtedly become a legal battlefield in the upcoming months.  Following the court’s ruling, and as per tradition, Trump immediately went to Twitter to thunder back, avowing:

These horrible & politically charged decisions coming out of the Supreme Court are shotgun blasts into the face of people that are proud to call themselves Republicans or Conservatives. We need more Justices or we will lose our 2nd. Amendment & everything else. Vote Trump 2020!”

It is expected this decision will have ramifications for the health discrimination rule of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).  The HHS has maintained that the implications of the court’s new ruling will likely not affect their rule as the “binary biological character of sex… takes on special importance in the health context”, which “might not be fully addressed by future [job discrimination] rulings”.  However, legal scholars have countered and stated that the HHS’s argument holds little weight as the legal opinion confirmed that sexual orientation and gender identity is included in category of ‘sex’; thus, leaving the healthcare rule on shaky ground.

 

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International Human Rights Weekly News Roundup

by Amita Dhiman and Julia Kedziorek

 

Focus on ‘Black Lives Matter’

BLM1The ongoing protests in America since the killing of George Floyd, a 36 year old black man, over the use of a fake $20 note, has brought into focus the excessive use of force against protestors by the U.S. government.   From the use of tear gas to the use of paintball guns, a variety of methods have been used to disperse the crowds. Though tear gas is known as a “non-lethal” form of crowd control, the gas used to disperse protesters is dangerous because, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, ‘‘[it contains]  chemical compounds that temporarily make people unable to function by causing irritation to the eyes, mouth, throat, lungs and skin’’.   Its use is prohibited under International Law;   the Geneva Gas Protocol of 1925 banned “the use of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases” in warfare but did not specify which gases.  The U.S. did not ratify this agreement until 1975 and reserved the right to use it in “situations where civilian casualties can be reduced or avoided”.

Amnesty International has conducted an investigation over the excessive use of tear gas by 22 countries during any kind of protests in their country.  The militarized response to the protests in the US has reinforced the calls for change in policing approaches, a call which has finally been heard by the President, as he announced an Executive Order to curb police misconduct on 16 June.

BLM2Across the U.S., the authorities have been cracking down on and detaining protesters. One such protester was Devaughnta Williams, a New York City janitor who, due to his essential worker status, was exempt from curfew.  He was arrested along with 250 others and spent a week in jail.   Protestors are being held in cramped and unsanitary conditions in overcrowded jails, risking further the spread of COVID-19.  Human Rights Watch has urged that the prison populations must be reduced and custodial arrests must be made only if necessary during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Focus on Covid-19

corona-covid-19-covid-corona-app-app-program-software-application-contactThis week, the UK Government announced its abandonment of its contact-tracing app, after three months of work, due to its lack of compatibility with Apple technology.  Instead it was announced on Thursday that a new app will be introduced based on the Google-Apple model being used in other countries.

Many states including Germany have recently launched a mobile phone application to trace people who have come into contact with infected patients.  The new technology raises questions around the right to privacy as in many cases the method of data storage is unknown.  The applications sometimes require people to take so-called ‘selfies’, which they then send in along with GPS information.

Amnesty International reviewed 11 mobile phone apps from various countries mapping Kuwait, Bahrain and Norway as the most dangerous for privacy reasons.  In Qatar, where the new tracking app was made mandatory, many issues relating to its accuracy and efficiency were raised.  Bahrain’s ‘Be Aware’ app enters users into a game show where they can win a monetary prize if they are found at home obeying lockdown.

This type of incentive raises questions about the monitoring of personal geometric and biometric data without safeguards. Norway stopped their mobile phone app over privacy concerns and it’s clear that governments must balance the need to trace the spread of coronavirus without intrusive data collection.

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