Responding to the Human Rights Crisis in South Sudan

George Clooney, members of Congress, and activists were arrested last month for protesting human rights abuses in Sudan. Despite the attention this act drew to their suffering, the Sudanese people still face grave abuses, and their country remains devastated by years of civil war.

This week, Amnesty International Canada’s Alex Neve arrived in South Sudan. He is participating in a vitally important human rights research mission to investigate deadly attacks on villages and aerial bombings of civilians along the border region of Sudan and the world’s newest country, South Sudan.

Just before he left, Alex made a video about why this trip was so important. Watch the 3-minute video:

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Omar Khadr trial: 90 seconds to rule that prosecution can use allegedly coerced statements

By Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada.  Neve is currently at Guantánamo to observe the military commission trial against detainee Omar Khadr. This is the second post in his series from the field.

Omar Khadr was taken into US custody when he was 15 years old.

Once again, proceedings are underway in the case of United States vs Khadr at Guantánamo Bay. And the first question on the minds of many was answered quickly this morning.  Omar Khadr was indeed present in court as this latest phase of his military commission hearing opened.  He remained throughout the entire day.  He was present but he left his legal representation in the hands of his appointed military defence lawyer.

Before the trial itself begins (which is expected on Wednesday after the commission panel of US military officers, akin to a jury, is chosen and sworn in tomorrow), there were a number of motions filed previously by both the defence lawyers and by government prosecutors that had to be dealt with today.  They involve such matters as questions of evidence, expert witnesses, legal definitions, and courtroom security procedures. Most have been outstanding for many months and have already been the subject of written briefs or days of witness testimony and oral arguments.  Some touch on key human rights concerns that go to the heart of the fairness of this process.

Lawyers took several hours today to make their final submissions on these legal issues.  And then in a remarkably terse series of decisions that took no more than 10 minutes, the military judge, Army Colonel Patrick Parrish, ruled against Omar Khadr on almost every point.

Alex Neve stands in front of the building housing the courtroom in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Most anticipated was the military judge’s decision as to whether statements made by Omar Khadr during interrogation sessions he underwent at both the US air base in Bagram, Afghanistan, and at Guantánamo Bay can be admitted as evidence at the trial.  Prosecutors clearly want them in.  The defence had argued that they should be excluded as they bear the taint of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.  Omar Khadr has detailed a range of torture and other ill-treatment he says he was subjected to at that time, including painful physical stress positions, threats of rape, sleep deprivation, use of barking dogs, hooding, shining bright lights into his injured eyes, being used as a human mop to clean up his own urine, and more.

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Omar Khadr: The Injustice Continues

By Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada.  Neve is currently at Guantánamo to observe the military commission trial against detainee Omar Khadr. This is his first post in series from the field.

 

Alex Neve stands in front of the building housing the courtroom in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

 

It  seems difficult to believe that after being held here at Guantánamo Bay for close to eight years and having been put through an astonishing array of legal twists and turns – including charges being thrown out at one point and then reinstated – Omar Khadr is about to face trial by military commission, possibly this week if pre-trial proceedings are completed.

I’m here to observe these proceedings on behalf of Amnesty International. And quite honestly at this stage I find it very difficult to predict just what I will observe.  All that seems certain is that it will be another phase in the systematic injustice to which Omar Khadr has been subjected.

First, today there will be more legal arguments as to whether all or at least some of the statements Omar Khadr made in the course of over 100 interrogation sessions between 2002 and 2004 – first at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and then here at Guantánamo – will be excluded from the trial.  He has laid out detailed and credible allegations as to the many forms of physical and psychological torture and other abuse he says he was subject to at that time, including during many of the interrogation sessions.  The prosecution has maintained in its legal filings that “the accused was not tortured; nor subjected to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment”. Yet at a hearing in May, one of Omar Khadr’s interrogators at Bagram admitted to using a rape scenario as a fear tactic against the teenager. And it is clear that at Guantánamo, Omar Khadr was one of the detainees subjected to the sleep disruption/deprivation technique known as the “frequent flyer” program.

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Still more for us to do in Chad

An Amnesty research team is visiting Chad for the fourth time since 2006. This time the focus of inquiry will be on violence against women, general issues of insecurity, and new work on the recruitment of child soldiers. Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada, is reporting.  You can follow his blog here.

AI Canada's Secretary General Alex Neve reunites with village chief Abakar Yusuf

The last think I ever would have expected in an isolated corner of eastern Chad is a reunion!

This afternoon we made our way out to Koudigou, a camp near Goz Beida that is home to about 11,000 displaced Chadians, most of who have been there for close to four years now.  It was a bumpy, sandy track through rough terrain, making our way past sporadic groups of people coming and going with supplies of water and bundles of firewood and hay.  Also sharing the road were camels, donkeys, goats and sheep with occasional herds of cattle in the distance.  As has been the case throughout our time on the ground here in eastern Chad the sun was relentless and the heat suffocating.

Even before we had arrived a group of about 15 elders and leaders had gathered to meet with us.  We made our way into a small building that offered welcome shelter from the sun while still allowing a breeze to blow through.

We made our introductions and explained who we were, a bit about Amnesty International and the focus of our mission.  The first village chief to speak, Abakar Yusuf, then astonished me by saying he remembered me from when I was here in 2006 and had spent some time in and around the village of Adé, very near the Chad/Darfur border.  He reminded me that he had spoken with me about the very tragic death of his wife, who was shot and then thrown into their burning home when their village had come under attack by Janjawid militia.

I immediately remembered and even recognized him. I certainly recalled the heart-wrenching story of his wife’s death, which had only happened about two weeks before our arrival. In fact I recall that the report we published in January 2007 following that mission, includes an account of Abakar’s wife’s death, alongside Abakar’s photo.

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From the Field: Child Soldiers in Chad

An Amnesty research team is visiting Chad for the fourth time since 2006. This time the focus of inquiry will be on violence against women, general issues of insecurity, and new work on the recruitment of child soldiers. Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada, is reporting.  You can follow his blog here.

Putting an end to the recruitment and use of child soldiers is a pressing human rights concern in so very many parts of the world.  It is certainly an immense problem here on both sides of the border between Chad and Darfur.  The full range of armies, militias and armed opposition groups responsible for years of fighting and human rights violations here are notorious for having thousands of young children in their ranks and regularly sending them out onto the battlefield.

For the past two days we have been interviewing a number of former child soldiers – yesterday in the town of Guereda and surrounding villages; and today at Kounoungou Camp, which is home to about 16,000 refugees from Darfur.  All have been boys.  Some are Chadian; others from Darfur.   Most joined when they were very young, including as young as ten years of age.

All have now demobilized.  With the Chadian boys it happened when the opposition group they were involved with joined forces with the Chadian military and at that point all of the group’s underage fighters were turned over to the UN.  With the Darfuris we have interviewed, they have all made a choice to stop fighting – some because they felt they had family responsibilities, others because they had simply had enough.

What all of them so very much had in common though was a similar story of what propelled them to join the armed groups in the first place: human rights violations.  They talked of poverty; they talked of insecurity; they talked of discrimination; and they talked of a lack of opportunity.  It was all about human rights. 

They tell a crushing story of deprivation and fearfulness that so wrenchingly shows how all human rights are interconnected.  It is a story of human rights abuses that make it impossible for a family to escape poverty so deep that tomorrow’s food is never certain.  Of human rights abuses that unleash violence and insecurity that leaves family members dead, homes destroyed, and precious cattle stolen.  It is about human rights abuses that mean that the ability to go to school and build a future is never more than a dream.  And at the core of it all is the fact that this misfortune and hardship happens to you — and the protection you so very much crave and deserve is never forthcoming – all because of the ethnic group you belong to.

That is the toxic web of human rights violations that can eventually push a 10 year old boy to believe that all that is open to him is to be trained in how to use a Kalashnikov and hope that he’ll be allowed to join the others in the next round of fighting.  To believe that that is how he will be able to escape poverty; protect his family; and build a future.

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Abandoned Again? Chad Forces the UN Out of the Country

I checked my email this morning to find this message from Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty Canada, currently in Abeche, Chad, and wanted to share it with you. It’s a powerful reminder of why we all need to speak up now to ensure peacekeepers aren’t forced out of eastern Chad.

We have begun our work on the ground in eastern Chad and in early days much of our focus is on the impending decision of the UN Security Council about the future of the critical UN mission here. Under pressure from the Chadian government, and with the conspicuous absence of the usual strong influence of Chad’s former colonial power, France, the Security Council is poised to agree to begin a pull out of UN troops from the east of the country, to be completed by mid-October. It could very well prove disastrous for human rights protection, development projects and overall security. And at this point in time it seems near irreversible.

My friend Celine Narmandji, a remarkably tenacious women’s human rights defender who I’ve worked with on missions here in the past, put it very well when we met for lunch right after my arrival in Chad. She said:

We were abandoned before. We’re going to be abandoned again. The good news is that in between, for a short while, the world did care about the situation in eastern Chad.

Right she is, but we need better news than that. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Research mission to Chad uncovers heartbreak from broken homes

This posting is part of our Forced Evictions in Africa Series.

Amnesty International researchers just completed a research mission to Chad to investigate the recent mass housing demolitions and forced evictions being conducted by Chadian authorities.  Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty Canada, has been documenting the mission:

“We are broken, just like our houses.”

Those heartbreaking words were shared with us by a woman describing the agonizing days that led to the destruction of her home, alongside the homes of hundreds of her neighbors, in one of the many parts of N’Djamena that have been cruelly razed to the ground over the past two months.

We are broken.

And what we heard from her and from so many others did tell anguished stories of broken lives, broken lives that people are now rebuilding with tremendous courage and determination.

We have been to about 15 different sites over the past three days and are getting a sense that this ‘human drama’, as one neighborhood leader termed it, has likely effected more than 50,000 people. They come from so many different backgrounds: impoverished and middle class; opposition supporters and civil servants; men and women; young and old; fearful and outspoken.

That has perhaps been the most difficult aspect to understand in the midst of this tragedy – who has been targeted and why? There seems to be no answer. And the fact that there is no clear answer has, in many respects, compounded the sense of injustice and fearfulness. It has shattered any confidence and trust people had in their government. It has left people feeling that they could be next. And that what comes next could be the loss of their home, or any other arbitrary abuse or act of violence.

As another woman put it to me, “I no longer feel like I’m a Chadian.” I recall hearing very similar words from people throughout eastern Chad in late 2006, who felt utterly and completely abandoned by their government as Janjawid attacks rolled across the border from Darfur.

Two things are clear. The first is that destroying homes has in fact destroyed lives. Not only have people lost their shelter, sometimes it is the home their family has lived in for decades. Beyond shelter, livelihoods have been shattered, as seamstresses, ironworkers, hairdressers, mechanics and so many others have lost their businesses. Beyond shelter and livelihoods, children’s futures are now desperately at risk. Many are now separated from their parents and are no longer able to school.

The second is the timing of this rampage. Close to 2 weeks after rebels came close to capturing N’Djamena, the Chadian government declared a state of emergency here on February 14th, and extended it through to March 15th. And it is precisely during those four weeks that the government launched the evictions and destructions. At a time when rights had been suspended and the rule of law was in disarray. At a time when people felt they had no right to speak out or complain. At a time when people in N’Djamena needed a greater sense of security and protection from their government. That is instead when authorities here chose to increase the fear and instability that continues to haunt this country.

Amidst the broken lives, we have spoken with many determined men and women who are organizing to respond to this injustice. Crisis committees and neighborhood committees have been established. People are working to document the extent of their losses. They have begun to petition government ministers. They are looking to lawyers and human rights groups for assistance.

And they very much hope that the rest of the world will put pressure on the Chadian government to right the terrible wrongs that have happened here. We have assured them we will stand alongside them in that struggle.

>> Read more from the Amnesty International Chad mission blog

Amnesty Researchers On-the-Ground in Chad

Amnesty International researchers are currently on-the-ground in Chad investigating the growing numbers of refugees streaming across the border from Darfur.  Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty Canada, has been documenting the mission online.  Here is an excerpt from a podcast posted yesterday detailing the still desperate situation:

Darfuri refugee women and girls at Bredjing camp filling water containers.

Darfuri refugee women and girls at Bredjing camp filling water containers.

“They are there on their own.”

Those words have been haunting us all day.   We have now come further east from Abéché to Farchana.  Within perhaps a 30-40 kilometre semi-circle around Farchana there are 3 major refugee camps as well as 12 sites for displaced Chadians.  Farchana itself is not far from Chad’s border with Darfur.

Our intention today had been to travel to one of the sites for displaced Chadians in this region, Arkoum.  We want to make it to several IDP sites during our mission because we have certainly come to understand that their safety and well-being is extremely precarious.

It is a universal story.  Without any doubt refugees, including Darfuri refugees here in Chad, face considerable hardship, insecurity and violence.  The international community does, however, have a much clearer role and responsibility for their protection.  Not so with IDP’s, who remain, of course, citizens of the country, in this case Chad.  Here, as is so often the case around the world, Chadians displaced within their own country have only minimal protection.  Largely abandoned by their own government and not fully protected by the international community.  And of course, still very near to the terrible human rights violations that forced them from their homes in the first place.

It is so important that we get access to some of the sites, to see and hear first hand the challenges displaced Chadians face.   But while the refugee camps are all within fairly easy reach of the town of Farchana, our base, the sites for IDP’s are more remote and difficult to reach.  And because of growing security concerns in eastern Chad, in the wake of a rebel incursion far to the south of here in Goz Beida, the UN decided today to cancel plans for a convoy to Arkoum, which we would have been part of.  Instead we travelled to a nearby refugee camp, Bredjing, and spent the day working with Darfuri refugees.

A human rights monitor with the Association for the Promotion of Fundamental Rights in Chad who is usually based in Arkoum had intended to travel back out to the site with us today, but was obviously unable to do so.  His worry was palpable.  It was he who kept saying: “ils sont là; tous seuls” – they are there on their own.

It all comes down to security.  In the midst of insecurity, the full range of human rights teeters and collapses.  That of course has been the horrible reality in both eastern Chad and Darfur for the past five years.  Insecurity means killings and rape; homes destroyed and crops burned.  But it also means education, health, food and water supplies, and livelihoods are also turned inside out.

And it is still insecurity that reigns in eastern Chad.  When I was here with an Amnesty team in late 2006 the local population, thousands of whom had recently been chased from their homes in a brutal wave of attacks, felt completely abandoned.   The sad truth is that 2 ½ years later, even though international troops and police are now deployed here, displaced Chadians remain at terrible risk.

And whenever security concerns arise here, as they have again, they are the first to be cut off, the first to be abandoned.  In so many respects, the most vulnerable yet the least protected.  As our friend kept saying, they are on their own.  We must find a way to stand with them.

- Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada

To listen to the original podcast and read more about the mission to Chad, visit the Amnesty Canada Mission Blog.