Why #WeAreAfrica and You are Too

US President Barack Obama speaks during a town hall style meeting at the University of Johannesburg Soweto in Johannesburg, South Africa, June 28, 2013. (Photo credit: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

US President Barack Obama speaks during a town hall style meeting at the University of Johannesburg Soweto in Johannesburg, South Africa, June 28, 2013. (Photo credit: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

In early August, Obama hosts the first ever US-Africa summit in Washington DC. Nearly every sitting head of state from the continent is invited to discuss primarily bilateral business opportunities through trade and investment. However, from the beginning, the White House stated the intent to also focus on human rights and good governance.  It is time for Obama to honor that commitment. Help us urge the inclusion of civil society in all summit sessions.

The leaders of Africa are not just heads of state. There are strong, dynamic, courageous leaders of human rights, civil rights and good governance organizations (collectively known as ‘civil society’) in Africa who deserve full participation in the summit on August 6th-the day devoted most closely to these issues.  Right now, the administration is hosting a half-day session on August 4th devoted to human rights and other like concerns where very few presidents and prime ministers will attend. We think that’s a good start. But it’s not the same as putting these critical thought leaders in the same room with all assembled heads of state.

#WeAreAfrica is an initiative to highlight the voice of African civil society and their rightful place to be heard at the US-Africa summit. If you are an activist reading this blog concerned about human rights, YOU are a member of civil society. This effort is about the critical need for the presence at high level government events of individuals and groups who care about human rights and civil rights. #WeAreAfrica and YOU are Africa. Tell Obama civil society needs to be present at the summit session on August 6th.

Department of State Human Rights Reports: The Resource That Washington Ignores

Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to how the 2013 Human Rights Reports were the foundation of U.S. foreign policy and a statement to the world that the U.S. is watching to make sure that foreign governments protect the human rights of their citizens (Photo Credit: Mladen  Antonov/AFP/Getty Images).

Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to how the 2013 Human Rights Reports is the foundation of U.S. foreign policy and a statement to the world that the U.S. is watching to make sure foreign governments protect the human rights of their citizens (Photo Credit: Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images).

At long last, the 2013 country reports documenting global human rights trends has been released by the U.S. Department of State.

This year’s report, which was first produced during the Carter administration, is as important for what it does not say – or perhaps how it says it – as it is for what it says. In looking back at events in 2012, the report highlights several alarming trends, first what can only be described as a growing assault on civil society and human rights defenders.

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Five Reasons for Engagement Following the Egyptian Uprising

Egyptians demonstrate outside of the Presidential Palace in May, 2012.  Copyright Amnesty International.

Egyptians demonstrate outside of the Presidential Palace in May, 2012. Copyright Amnesty International.

On the second anniversary of the Egyptian Jan. 25 uprising, there’s a strong sense that the hopes of Tahrir Square have been tarnished.

There’s some reason for this: There have been too many broken promises.  Women, who were so essential to the uprising, were quickly marginalized in the months after it. Copts and other minority groups fear for their future. A new civilian government pushed through a constitution that may further minimize the role of women and lead to past human rights abuses being repeated. And perhaps most important, no institution seems capable of holding former Mubarak officials, security forces and the military accountable for decades of human rights abuses. The spirit of impunity lives on.

Yet, that’s only one side of the situation. There is in fact reason not to lose faith in Egypt’s future. This is not a promise that the path toward justice in Egypt is smooth, nor is it a prediction. But here are five reasons why we must remain engaged:

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Egypt Must Not Hold Its NGOs Hostage

In his three decades of leading Egypt, Hosni Mubarak never understood civil society or the need to have civil organizations outside the authority of the government.

That ignorance of the role of civil society ultimately undid him, as the organizational ability of women’s groups, students and scholars, journalists, lawyers and other professionals played an essential role in running him from power a year ago this weekend.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that the Mubarak cronies and old generals who remain in power share the same contempt for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) evidenced by the announcement last week that they were referring 43 people, including several Americans, for investigation of violating rules governing NGOs operation and funding.

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Obama Speech: Will The Real Action Be For Civil Society?

President ObamaWatching President Obama deliver a major speech today on the Middle East is a reminder that even major speeches go only so far: It’s what follows them that really counts.

Certainly there was something to like about some of the rhetoric: Obama specifically pointed to the government of Bahrain, a US ally, and told it to embrace political change and to release political prisoners. “You can’t have dialogue when parts of peaceful opposition are in jail,” he said.

Likewise, his call for peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine based on 1967 borders could shake up failed negotiations.

But the rhetoric on human rights and democracy was strong two years ago when the president spoke in Cairo.  To many human rights activists in the region, the Obama Administration has spent the past two years failing to live up to that rhetoric in the region and being behind the curve of the Arab Spring.

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Zimbabwe: A Sturdy Constitution or Just Indigestion?

Zimbabwe recently began to hold public hearings in the constitutional reform process mandated by the Global Political Agreement (GPA) signed last September. According to the timeline laid out in the agreement brokered between the former majority party ZANU-PF, the current majority party MDC-T and splinter party MDC-M, a new constitution must be voted on by the Zimbabwe people in a referendum held around July 2010.

However, there is already disagreement as to how the process should unfold. According to the GPA, there are to be open hearing where input by the people is to shape the constitutional process before being ratified by Parliament and then sent to a vote by the people. However, the ZANU-PF party wants to use as a basis for the constitution a draft drawn up in September 2007 called the Kariba Draft. This document was negotiated by the three political parties. The MDC-T feels that this document should be scrapped and the process should start anew because the Kariba Draft was only meant to apply to the time frame of the last elections in March 2008; because ZANU-PF discarded the Kariba Draft in December 2007, the MDC feels the document has no legitimacy and therefore no basis from which to proceed.

Finally, civil society members in Zimbabwe feel that the voice of the people was silenced in both the Kariba Draft and the current proceedings and that stronger input is needed by the people of Zimbabwe for any new constitution to have legitimacy and truly reflect the will of the people. Considering the sacrifices members of civil society make every day to fight for civil and human rights, I think they more than anyone are in the best position to say which rights should be enshrined and protected in a document that will govern their lives and manage their peace. Either way, it looks like bumpy roads are still ahead in Zimbabwe.

Call Obama on Torture Day

Today, June 26, is the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. In establishing the day in 1998, then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan wrote, “Today the United Nations appeals to all governments and members of civil society to take action to defeat torture and torturers everywhere…This is a day in which we pay our respects to those who have endured the unimaginable.”

Murat Kurnaz is one such person who “endured the unimaginable.” The 19-year-old German resident was held for five years, without charge or trial, and tortured and abused. In his book “Five Years of My Life,” Kurnaz wrote:

“They prepared me for interrogations by putting electric shocks through my feet. For hours on end they would hang me up by my hands, which were bound behind my back in different positions and then a break, and then you would be hung up again. “

Who did this to him?  Egypt? China? Iran? Myanmar? No, the United States of America. The quote describes Kurnaz’s treatment by US personnel in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Under the UN Convention Against Torture, the US government is obligated by law to investigate and prosecute torture, and to provide remedy to torture victims.

Yet Murat Kurnaz’s allegations of torture and abuse have never been properly investigated; those responsible for ordering and creating the US torture program have not been prosecuted; and the US government has claimed that victims of US torture have no right to remedy, or even an apology.

President Obama has said he wants to look forward, not back. President Obama has rejected an independent commission of inquiry into the US torture program. President Obama has left open loopholes for torture.

This is not acceptable. Not for Americans, not for foot soldiers who have taken the fall, not for the world, not for the rule of law, not for Murat Kurnaz or the hundreds or thousands of others who have been tortured by the US.

“Our national honor is stained by the indignity and inhumane treatment these men received from their captors…The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.”

- Major General Antonio Taguba, US Army (Ret.), in his Preface to “Broken Laws, Broken Lives,” by Physicians for Human Rights.

There is still hope that President Obama will change course: he will do what it takes to get re-elected, so if the American public stands up for accountability for torture, then he will too.

Stand up with us: join Amnesty International members across America in marking International Day in Support of Victims of Torture by calling the White House comment line right now and urging President Obama to investigate and prosecute torture, and provide remedy to victims. Click here for the number and script.

What Happened to Philip Rizk? — Update

Philip Rizk

Philip Rizk

The Gaza war was bound to get caught up in the human rights abuses of other countries in the region.  From Egypt comes news this weekend that German-Egyptian blogger and activist Philip Rizk was arrested by Egyptian security officials during a Gaza solidarity rally.  Friends of Philip say 14 others were also arrested, but all but Philip were released.

This is a recurring story in Egypt, where the government is suspicious of any popular movement or demonstration that exists outside of their control.  Their goal is to muzzle all of civil society. Philip is just one of a number of Egyptian activists arrested because of their public efforts on Gaza.

Following the arrest, security officials continued to harass family members in Egypt. Amnesty International has met with the family and is following the case closely, as it is with the other arrested activists. Support groups for Philip have scheduled protests for today, Monday, in Washington, Chicago and other sites in the United States.

More information will be posted as we receive it.

UPDATED INFORMATION– Philip Rizk was released in the morning of 11 February.

No further action is requested from the UA network. Many thanks to all who sent appeals.

Azerbaijan: Unlimited Presidency?

The civil society in Azerbaijan and some expatriates in the United States are organizing against a March 18, 2009 constitutional referendum that “would clear the way for [Azerbaijan’s] President Ilham Aliyev to remain in office indefinitely.”

Photo: Three-year-old Azerbaijani-American Lale at a New York rally/ via Global Voices Online

An oil-rich country, ex-Soviet Azerbaijan’s undemocratic actions are rarely criticized by the West. How will U.S. President Barack Obama, who has visited Azerbaijanas a senator, react to the constitutional change

– Simon Maghakyan, Eurasia Country Specialist