International Human Rights Weekly News Roundup

In focus

A ‘systemic failure’: investigation confirms NYPD mishandled Floyd protests

By  Lauren Y. T. Ng, Sarah Mui and Vittoria Lucchese

The New York Police Department (NYPD) has come under scrutiny in a recently published report by the New York City Department of Investigation (DOI).  

With the aim to examine the police response to the protests erupting in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, the report underscored several shortcomings with regards to the NYPD’s conduct.  The Mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, commissioned the investigation, which revealed that the NYPD lacked a clear strategy, neglected to consider measures of proportionality and employed excessive use of force towards demonstrators.  The cumulation of these considerations, among others, were believed to have fuelled escalating tensions between the police and protestors, failing to consider the context of the protests, centring on police brutality.  

The report highlighted examples well-documented by journalists during the Floyd protests, including indiscriminate mass arrests of protestors in the absence of violence and the employment of physical force using pepper spray, batons and tasers.  These actions are considered to be in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, namely article 19 (the right to freedom of expression) and article 21 (the right of peaceful assembly), to which the US is a party and ratifying member of.  

In response to the DOI’s report, De Blasio released a video on Twitter expressing his remorse towards the actions of some of the individual police officers who “did something wrong”, affirming that “we have to do better”.  Expectedly, these remarks were not met without criticism.  Department officials countered that the outcome of the protests were largely a result of the mixed messages imparted by elected leaders, with little awareness of the reality in regards to the situation on the ground.  Comparatively, the US program director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), Laura Pitter, criticized the apology as a “woefully inadequate response to the scale of police misconduct and abuse”, advocating for a deeper level of accountability, including “addressing the structural problems with policing in New York City”.  

Nevertheless, the DOI outlined a series of recommendations to improve accountability and police-community relations, such as promoting transparency, expanding methods of training to reduce indiscriminate policing, and incorporating policies to facilitate constructive communication with demonstrators.  However, the HRW has made further calls beyond the scope of police force – urging the US to reduce its reliance on criminalisation and policing in addressing societal problems; and alternatively, shifting its funding to focus on services promoting access to education, health care and mental health support.  

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International Human Rights Weekly News Roundup

By Andrea Vremis, Dan O. Eboka and Dechen D. Piy

“Working together we recover better by standing up for Human Rights” Bachelet’s words on International Human Rights Day

Photo by Mathias P. R. Reding 

December 10th marks the annual anniversary for Human Rights Day, commemorating the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the UN General Assembly (Resolution 217 (III) A of December 10, 1948), establishing, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected. 

In marking the occasion, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said in her video message, “this year’s Human Rights Day falls at a time we will never forget,” referring to the COVID-19 pandemic which has affected the whole world, resulting in a health crisis, an economic crisis, and a human rights crisis. 

The pandemic has disproportionately affected the human rights of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society. It uncovered extra layers of vulnerability to children, people with disabilities, the elderly, women and girls, people with HIV/AIDS, people residing in conflict zones, and minorities. COVID-19 has also had a “devastating impact” on economies everywhere, affecting employment and income as well as education, health and food supply for “hundreds of millions of people”. It has particularly affected women and girls disproportionately, and has exacerbated gender inequalities across spheres, from “health to the economy, security to social protection”. Unpaid domestic work has increased, with the burden falling especially on women due to lockdown restrictions. Gender-based violence has also “increased exponentially” due to lockdowns and other isolation measures. It has forced many women and girls to isolate with their abusers, while shelters and other support services were disrupted or became inaccessible due to the restrictive measures. 

While our response to the pandemic must have a human rights-based approach, there is a general consensus in the human rights community that the pandemic has further exposed various issues with our current system of human rights implementation. Bachelet highlighted these issues as “lessons” learned from the COVID-19 crisis in regard to ending discrimination, reducing inequalities, ensuring participation and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). She ended her message with a call for action: “we can recover better… by standing up for human rights”.

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International Human Rights Weekly News Roundup

By Dan O. Eboka, Lauren Y. T. Ng and Sarah Mui

US infringing the rights of minority and disabled children 

In the US, the grim effects of COVID-19 and the ever-widening gaps between socioeconomic classes have caused for significant concern, particularly amongst children who are minorities or have disabilities. This manifests itself through a lack of appropriate resources at home that education in the year 2020 demands, such as the required technology, professional guidance, in addition to the basic necessities for survival to name a few. Caregivers across the country have been crying out to school districts and government for help, even filing numerous lawsuits in hopes of getting the attention of those in power. Unfortunately, it has mostly fallen on deaf ears. This is despite the fact that, per federal law, every child is entitled to a free and appropriate education, despite race, socioeconomic class or disability.

None of these desperate cries have seemed to matter. What has become clear is that families who are higher on the socioeconomic ladder in the United States are able to afford personal tutors, stay at home, or otherwise accommodate their children’s needs, while those below them are left to squander. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently proposed an idea that would almost exclusively benefit those higher up on the ladder. This leaving most families in the country to simply accept that their children will fall far behind academically, socially, and even socioeconomically in the future, perpetuating the same disadvantage that they face today. 

In the US, the pandemic has put a spotlight on the “have and have nots.” Not surprisingly, the “have nots” are overwhelmingly the same demographics which have been historically oppressed. If the US wishes to continue the notion of the so-called “American Dream,” it needs to face the cold hard reality that these families and the future of its country face today.  

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International Human Rights Weekly News Roundup

By  Dechen Piya, Andrea Vremis and Vittoria Lucchese

Commemorating the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery

The International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, 2 December, marks the date of the adoption, by the General Assembly, of the United Nations Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others ( resolution 317(IV) of 2 December 1949).  

The focus of this day is on eradicating contemporary forms of slavery, such as trafficking in persons, sexual exploitation, the worst forms of child labour, forced marriage, and the forced recruitment of children for use in armed conflict. Although modern slavery is not defined in law, it is used as an umbrella term covering practices such as forced labour, debt bondage, forced marriage, and human trafficking. Essentially, it refers to situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, deception, and/or abuse of power.

The United Nations expressed their concern that slavery is not merely a historical remnant. Despite the considerable efforts of Governments, civil society and the international community, we still live in a world where, according to the  International Labour Organisation (ILO), today, more than 40 million people worldwide are victims of modern slavery.

In a messageSecretary-General António Guterres said that global protests this year against systemic racism brought renewed attention to a “legacy of injustices all over the world whose roots lie in the dark history of colonialism and slavery.” He emphasized that slavery manifests itself today through “descent-based servitude, forced labour, child labour, domestic servitude, forced marriage, debt bondage, trafficking in persons for the purpose of exploitation, including sexual exploitation, and the forced recruitment of children in armed conflict.” The message also highlighted how poor and marginalized groups, in particular racial and ethnic minorities, indigenous peoples and migrants, are disproportionally affected by contemporary forms of slavery. Matters of gender inequality reflect and reinforces patterns of discrimination. Guterres ended his message calling on Member States, civil society and the private sector to strengthen their collective efforts to end these abhorrent practices: “we cannot accept these violations in the 21st century”.

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International Human Rights Weekly News Roundup

By Dan Olamide Eboka, Dechen Piya, and Andrea Vremis

IN FOCUS

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.

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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”.

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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”.  

 

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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”.

 

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International Human Rights Weekly News Roundup

by Pauline Canham

In Focus

UK government considers human rights ‘opt-out’ to speed up asylum seeker deportations

 

ECHRThe 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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International Human Rights Weekly News Roundup

by Pauline Canham

In Focus

Huge fire destroys refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos

fire1597037372-0-400x230Almost 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.

Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis said a state of emergency had been declared for all of Lesbos and the EU commissioner for home affairs has offered to arrange funding for the transfer of 400 unaccompanied minors to the Greek mainland.  Meanwhile, the UNHCR  and Doctors Without Borders have offered their assistance while officials are seeking tents to accommodate the thousands displaced and the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia has pledged to take in 1,000 of the refugees.

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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