At the local level, Americans are demonstrating a strong commitment to advancing human rights. In recent elections, voters legalized marriage equality in nine states and passed the DREAM Act to expand educational opportunities for undocumented residents in Maryland. In addition, legislators in four states abolished the death penalty. The message to the nation’s leaders seems to be this: human rights still matter, and the task of “perfecting our union” remains incomplete.
As President Obama prepares to give his second inaugural address, he should embrace an ambitious rights agenda: enhancing our security without trampling on human rights; implementing a foreign policy that hold friends and foes alike accountable for human rights violations; and ensuring human rights for all in the United States without discrimination.
Measured against international norms and his own aspirations, President Obama’s first term record on human rights merits an “incomplete.” While he made the bold move of issuing an executive order to close Guantánamo on his second day in office, he has yet to fulfill that promise. The U.S. government’s reliance on lethal drone strikes is growing steadily, but the administration has provided no clear legal justification for the program. Congress has abrogated its responsibility to exercise meaningful oversight of this most ubiquitous element of the “global war on terror,” a paradigm which is in and of itself problematic. Although President Obama has on occasion stood up for human rights defenders abroad — in China, Iran, Russia and Libya — his administration has often muted criticism when it comes to U.S. allies, in the Middle East, Africa and Europe.
Check out our list of 10 absurd arrests and sentences of the year. You might be surprised to learn what can get you thrown in jail in a few places around the world, and how harsh the sentences are once you’re there.
Bears being dropped. Photo via Studio Total
1. Posting photos of teddy bears.
Anton Suryapin of Belarus spent more than a month in detention after posting photos of teddy bears being dropped from an airplane. The bears were part of a stunt by a Swedish advertising company calling for freedom of expression in Belarus. Anton is charged of “organizing illegal migration” simply because he was the first upload photos of the teddy bears, and still faces a prison sentence of up to seven years.
At least 75 Tibetans – including many Buddhist monks and nuns – have set themselves on fire this year. Many shouted for the return of the Dalai Lama and for freedom for Tibetans as they burned and some made the same demands in written statements.
This escalation in self-immolations in Tibetan-populated areas in China, including the Tibetan Autonomous Region and neighbouring provinces, saw 24 people set themselves ablaze in November alone.
The total number of Tibetans who have self-immolated since 2009 currently stands at 88, a figure that is now rising daily.
Bobpa Tsang – not his real name – is a Tibetan activist now living in London. He told Amnesty International how he respects those Tibetan protesters who self-immolate.
On Friday, the Syrian military brutally killed over 100 people in Houla, Syria. Our sources tell us that the barrage of shells, mortars, rockets and raids on Friday left at least 108 dead, including 34 women and 50 children.
The horrifying violence has had geopolitical repercussions around the world:
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrovstated, “The government bears the main responsibility for what is going on.” It was a surprising departure from past statements by Russian officials that provided diplomatic cover for Syrian government violence.
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhoodcalled on “Arab, Islamic and international governments … and the people of the free world to intervene to stop these massacres.”
And today, at least 10 nationsexpelled their Syrian ambassadors and senior Syrian diplomats — the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Bulgaria and the Netherlands.
Over the past year, more and more citizens around the world have been standing up for their freedom. Sadly, as chronicled in Amnesty International’s annual State of the World 2012 Report, world leaders have failed to mirror the courage shown by millions of peaceful protesters. Too many nations have placed self-interest and profit ahead of people’s rights – and even their lives. The results have been tragic.
Even the United Nations Security Council, which is supposed to be the bulwark of global peace and security, has failed in its response to these popular uprisings, especially in the Middle East and North Africa. The Security Council’s ramparts have been thinly manned, its response to cries for help too often feeble. Inaction over Syria has left the Council seeming woefully unfit for its primary purpose: maintaining international peace.
In the case of Syria, Russian and Chinese intransigence has put the credibility of the Council at risk; undermining its core function as a guardian of human rights, and rendering accountability for crimes against humanity elusive. President Hafez al-Assad’s regime continues to face down protesters with snipers and tanks, arresting and torturing children as young as ten years old. Yet Russia continues to provide Syria with arms and fails to use its close security relationship – it maintains a naval base at Tartus – to persuade Assad to stop the killing.
Chinese human rights advocate Chen Guangcheng, who is blind, escaped house arrest in Shandong province last week – but his future remains uncertain.
Chen, a self-taught lawyer who was imprisoned and then subjected to violence and house arrest for exposing forced abortions and sterilizations in China, made a daring, Houdini-like escape to the U.S. embassy. Following delicate negotiations with the United States, Chinese officials pledged to allow Chen to live a “normal life” with his family, and he initially agreed to return home.
Does this sound normal to you?
“I don’t know what’s happened to my mother. There are guards inside the yard, in all the rooms, even on the roof. They’ve set up lots of cameras in my home and are preparing electric fences. They told my family they’d take wooden sticks and beat my family to death, so it’s very unsafe.”
-Chen Guangcheng, in an interview with NPR
17 journalists have been killed so far in 2012 and there are currently 179 journalists imprisoned around the world.
Low pay, long hours, and dwindling job opportunities are professional challenges faced by many journalists. For some, however, the risks can be considerably steeper.
At least 17 journalists have been killed so far in 2012 and there are currently 179 journalists imprisoned around the world because of their work.
These numbers only begin to describe the risks faced by journalists, bloggers, filmmakers and others who dare bring to light uncomfortable truths that powerful interests would prefer to conceal. Most of those detained or killed were reporting on human rights failings in their country.
Today on World Press Freedom Day (May 3), here is a brief look at five countries where people risk much in the service of truth:
My name is Lhamo Tso and I’m writing today to ask for your help securing the release of my husband, Dhondup Wangchen.
In 2008 Dhondup made a film called “Leaving Fear Behind,” capturing the voices of fellow Tibetans on the eve of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. China was awarded the prestigious Games with the hope that human rights in Tibet and elsewhere in China would improve.
Instead, China’s repression in Tibet has only worsened.
Attempts by Tibetans to secure their human rights are routinely crushed. Dhondup has been punished severely. He was tortured and held without charge for nearly a year, then sentenced in a secret trial to six years imprisonment for “inciting separatism.”
Lhamo Tso, the wife of imprisoned Tibetan filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen, in New York, March 9, 2012. (Photo EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)
Tibetan exile Jampa Yeshi committed the ultimate act of protest Monday by setting himself on fire in New Delhi on the eve of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to India. Horrific photographs of his self-immolation [warning: graphic image] quickly spread around the world via the Internet and India’s dynamic press, galvanizing the cause of Tibetans fighting to draw international attention to human rights violations committed by the Chinese government in Tibet.
Although Yeshi was one of nearly 30 Tibetans who have set fire to themselves over the past year to protest Chinese government policies, outsiders have rarely seen such agonizingly clear documentation of the immolations before now. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST
The death toll continues to rise in Syria. Hundreds of largely unarmed people have reportedly been killed in the city of Homs alone. The crisis in Syria is escalating.
The world must do everything in its power to end the Assad regime’s violent crackdown. Instead, Russia, a country with influence over Syria, appears to be standing by while crimes against humanity are being committed.