Another Life Lost in the Struggle for Human Rights in Russia

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Natalia Estemirova © AI

Natalia Estemirova © AI

Human rights activist Natalia Estemirova was murdered Wednesday in the North Caucasus region in Russia. According to BBC News, she was allegedly bundled into a van and abducted as she was leaving her home in Chechnya on Wednesday morning. Her body was found shortly after in Ingushetia. She had been investigating human rights abuses in Russia for some time, working for a human rights organization called Memorial. She focused her efforts particularly on the Chechnya region, where she worked to battle impunity and to gather evidence on an alleged campaign of house-burnings by government-backed militias.

Her murder has occurred just two years after the murder of Russian journalist and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya in 2007. (See a video of Estemirova remembering Politkovskaya here). Human rights activists in Russia continue to be in danger.

Amnesty grieves the loss of this courageous woman and prominent human rights defender. Many are left shocked and saddened by the incident. It brings to light Amnesty’s growing concern about human rights abuses in Russia. Learn more about Amnesty’s concerns regarding human rights in Russia, and take action.

New Prez, How to End Impunity for Military Contractors

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This week, Human Rights First (HRF) issued a report, “How to End Impunity for Private Security and Other Contractors: Blueprint for the Next Administration“.

The report helpfully encapsulates many of the calls for better oversight, monitoring and accountability that HRF, Amnesty International and others have been calling for with regard to companies, like Blackwater, Titan, KBR…, whose personnel have engaged in human rights abuses from rape and torture to killing, with impunity.

It also posits some fresh ideas into the conversation, such as extending the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to these companies and reforming state secret and other privileges that often get in the way of justice for victims.

However, the report suffers from an oversimplification, with an implied reference to fossilized examples as representative of the scope of the problem. In this sense, it feels like a recycled agenda from a “multi-stakeholder” conference. 

We should be working together to progress most of the recommendations in the report, but a few things should not be sacrificed in the name of appearing practical: human rights abuses should be prosecuted because we don’t tolerate them, period, not just because they foster hostility toward us and undermine military missions; the US shouldn’t consider whether to ban contractor roles in rendition, it should prohibit any role in rendition, which is illegal; UCMJ application to company personnel shouldn’t be revised, it should be repealed — why should we potentially subject the entire world (the result of subcontracting of third-country nationals) to the US military justice system?

Finally, let’s tell it like it is: many companies that provide services directly or indirectly to military operations shun “military” as part of an identification of their industry, instead often preferring “security” contractor or provider which sounds more benign. With few exceptions, HRF’s report should make them happy. Even its title does not mention the word military.

Battling Impunity in Guatemala

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Member of staff at the FAFG studying human remains in order to identify them, 12 June 2008. © Private

Member of staff at the FAFG studying human remains in order to identify them, 12 June 2008. © Private

Excavating human remains, using forensic techniques to identify them, hoping the evidence will help bring the killers to justice–it may sound fascinating and even glamorous to some, but this is no “CSI Miami”. These investigators have been threatened, followed, watched, and shot at on many occasions because of their work to combat impunity. The Guatemalan Foundation of Forensic Anthropology (Fundación Guatemalteca de Antropología Forense – FAFG) carries out forensic investigations and exhumations of mass graves dating from the time of Guatemala’s internal armed conflict (1960-1996). The uncovering of mass graves and the identification of human remains is a key contribution to the pursuit of truth, justice and reparation for the relatives of the dead and disappeared and the survivors of the armed conflict, most of whom are indigenous people.

Despite hard work by organizations like the FAFG, and high-profile individuals like Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchú, violations against human rights defenders in Guatemala are widespread and show no signs of improvement. Many defenders have received so many threats and acts of intimidation that they have stopped or radically curtailed their important work. You can lend your support and encouragement to the FAFG by taking part in this year’s Holiday Card Action, in which people send cards with messages of solidarity and hope to human rights defenders, prisoners of conscience and others who may fear they’ve been forgotten by the world.