Massive Syrian Refugee Crisis Visible From Space

Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, March 2013. Click to explore. Image © DigitalGlobe 2013 © Google Earth

Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, March 2013. Click to explore. Image © DigitalGlobe 2013 © Google Earth

The massive displacement crisis stemming from Syria’s ongoing conflict is increasingly visible from space. Satellite images on Google Earth reveal the growth of what in some cases looks like the emergence of whole new cities over the last two years.

A new project published today by one of our volunteers, Richard Cozzens, presents some of the most compelling images, providing a grim snapshot of the dire humanitarian situation in and around Syria. The satellite images show camps in the countries that are most affected by the influx of refugees, such as Turkey and Jordan. For example, what was an empty spot in the desert in September 2011 is now the huge refugee camp Zaatari in Jordan.

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Who Murdered Sakine Cansız?

A woman of Kurdish origin holds a sign reading "Sakine Cansiz, Fidan Dogan, Leyla Soylemez - 3 women militants of the Kurdish cause" during a demonstration and commemoration in honor of the three Kurdish women activists killed yesterday in Paris, on January 10, 2013.

A woman of Kurdish origin holds a sign reading “Sakine Cansiz, Fidan Dogan, Leyla Soylemez – 3 women militants of the Kurdish cause” during a demonstration and commemoration in honor of the three Kurdish women activists killed in Paris on January 10, 2013. (FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images)

On the night of January 9, three women were murdered in the offices of the Kurdistan Information Office in Paris.   According to press accounts, the three were killed execution style, each shot with a bullet to the head.

All of the three women, Sakine Cansız, Fidan Doğan and Leyla Söylemez, were activists, with ties to the Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK, and Cansız, the eldest of the group, is one of the founders and leading figures within that organization.

While there is considerable debate as to who killed these women, there is little question that these murders were political in nature.   Most analysts believe that the killings are aimed at scuttling nascent talks between the Turkish government and the PKK aimed at ending a conflict which has cost as many as 40,000 lives and led to countless human rights abuses since it began in 1984.

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Repression Goes Global: Syrians in US Targeted By Syrian Embassies

Syrian Embassy in London

Syrian Embassy in London

While the United Nations Security Council keeps bickering and remains inactive, Syrian authorities go global with their repression of free speech and assembly.

By now it’s well documented by both NGOs and the United Nations that crimes committed by Syrian security forces against peaceful protesters may amount to crimes against humanity. Since mid-March, more than 2,200 people are reported to have been killed and thousands of others have been arrested.

However, now Syrian authorities are taking it to the next level. In more than four years of working on international human rights crises, I have never seen a foreign government systematically targeting peaceful protesters globally, which is exactly what the Syrian government is doing.

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France's Face Veil Ban Goes Into Effect Today

Advocates for the ban say full-face veils are contrary to French Republican values.

Women in France no longer have complete control over what they put on in the morning as the controversial full-face veil ban goes into effect today.

The first in Europe, anyone wearning the niqab or burqa in public could now face a fine of up to €150 ($216).

Already, several people have been detained, including two women wearing the full-face veil, who were protesting against the law. Police said the people were detained for joining an unauthorised protest in central Paris. Amnesty International condemns these detentions.

John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia Programme Director at Amnesty International said of the ban:

“Women in France have the right to freedom of religion and expression. They must also be free to protest when this right is violated. This law puts France to shame – a country that prides itself on the human rights it claims to promote and protect, freedom of expression included.”

The law prevents women in France from expressing their values, beliefs and identity and should be scrapped.

Did You Write for Rights?

Write for Rights event in France

A Write for Rights event in France

It has been fantastic to hear about the Write for Rights activities that have taken place around the world! In coffee shops, restaurants, libraries, bookstores, theaters, markets, streets, schools, and homes, we came together, side-by-side, throughout the U.S. and the world to collectively take action to defend human rights. It is this action that will continue to lead to human rights victories, like that of the release of Femi Peters in Gambia.

We want to share with you some of what happened during the 2010 Write for Rights Global Write-a-thon:

  • In Austria, AI members and activists sent over 17,400 letters, doubling the total number from last year, and making this the most successful Write-a-thon in their history.
  • In France, at least 200 cities hosted public events throughout the week. This included in Villetaneuse, a suburb of Paris, where students at a university organized a one-day event for the 10 December, which included a concert by a well-known hip-hop band. Despite the heavy snow, over 700 signatures were collected.
  • In Germany, over 50 AI local groups participated, sending over 17,000 letters.
  • In Hong Kong, Write for Rights was taken to the Human Rights Day Fair – an annual fair attended by over 25 NGOs.
  • In Mali, the youth network had a target of writing 1,800 letters. Students from ten schools took part, and they already have reported 2,366 letters written with still more to count.
  • In Nigeria, three volunteers organized events in Abuja and Imo State, generating 3,000 actions.
  • In Poland, 14,967 letters were written in just one location – a school in Bircza, a small municipality in south-eastern Poland, which only has 1000 inhabitants.
Spreading the word about Write for Rights in Nigeria

Spreading the word about Write for Rights in Nigeria

That’s not all!  Right here at home there were nearly 1,300 events, in every state across the U.S. Before we can confirm how many letters were sent from the U.S., we need to hear from you.  If you participated in the 2010 Write for Rights Global Write-a-thon, please tell us how many letters you sent.  No number is too small, and every letter counts.  Knowing how many letters you sent is essential to help us gauge the pressure we are putting on human rights abusers.  In acknowledgment of your meaningful contributions to human rights, once you confirm how many letters you sent, you will receive a 35% discount on our limited edition 2010 Write for Rights T-Shirt.

Last month you gave Femi Peters Junior the best holiday present anyone could ever ask for: you helped get his father back. In Femi Peters Junior’s own words, “On behalf of my family, the Peters family, on behalf of myself, I want to thank Amnesty International from the bottom of my heart…  It’s good to have my dad back.  Thank you very much.”

Your letters made and will continue to make a difference.

Feeling inspired?  You can also sign up for the 2011 Write for Rights Global Write-a-thon!

Good News for International Justice

For years, rebel group leader Callixte Mbarushimana has been living in France, enjoying impunity for heinous crimes committed in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).   Callixte leads the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a rebel group operating in the eastern part of the DRC, that has been responsible for innumerable killings of civilians, rape, abductions of women and girls for sexual slavery, recruitment of child soldiers, destruction of villages and other human rights abuses.

But fortunately, Mbarushimana’s spate of good luck may be ending. On October 11, French police arrested him on a warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC has charged him with five counts of crimes against humanity (murder, torture, rape, inhumane acts and persecution) and six counts of war crimes (attacks against the civilian population, destruction of property, murder, torture, rape and inhuman treatment). France’s actions have signaled its commitment to the ICC and to arresting war criminals.

In addition to France’s move, there are two other positive developments in the fight for international justice.  Moldova recently became the 114th country to join the ICC.  And the ICC trial of Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo is finally set to begin on November 22, 2010, despite his last-ditch effort to appeal his case as inadmissible.  Bemba is charged with two counts of crimes against humanity (murder and rape) and three counts of war crimes (murder, rape and pillaging) for his role in crimes committed in the Central African Republic in 2002 and 2003.

You can join us in the fight for international justice. Ask the US to support the ICC’s investigations.

Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity?

(c) Amnesty International

What does liberty, equality, and fraternity mean for the Roma who are being forcibly evicted from France?  Not much.  But fortunately, today the European Union urged France to immediately suspend the expulsion of Roma people.   This decision was made after the destruction of 300 Roma camps and the expulsion of their inhabitants.

The actoins of President Nicolas Sarkozy are now under heavy scrutiny of the European Union. And rightfully so.  The country which was once viewed as a “lighthouse of democracy and freedom”, has not cast its light on the Roma population which has been discriminated against for decades.  From Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame to the 1912 French law requiring identity cards that categorized Roma as ‘nomads’ and encouraged discrimination, to their recent expulsion, Roma have long been the targets of discrimination.

We have called on France to heed the EU’s request, end the cycle of discrimination, and welcome Roma by granting them liberty, equality, and fraternity.

France Votes to Ban Full-Face Veils

Advocates for the ban say full-face veils are contrary to French Republican values.

Today the lower house of the French parliament voted 336 to 1 in favor of banning full-face veils.

In response to this overwhelming vote, Amnesty International has issued a statement, condemning the vote.

The proposed law, which must still be approved by the French Senate, prohibits wearing in public any form of clothing intended to conceal one’s face.

A breach of the law would be punishable by a fine of up to 150 Euros (~$190) and/or the requirement to complete a community rehabilitation program. The law also provides for a penalty of up to one year imprisonment and a fine of up to 30,000 Euros (~$38,170) for those who use force or threats to oblige others to cover their faces.

“A complete ban on the covering of the face would violate the rights to freedom of expression and religion of those women who wear the burqa or the niqab as an expression of their identity or beliefs,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s expert on discrimination in Europe.

Advocates for the ban in France have characterized full-face veils as contrary to French Republican values, incompatible with gender equality and a threat to public safety.

States are obliged under international law to protect women against pressure and threats to wear full-face veils.

“However, comprehensive bans are not the way to do this,” said Dalhuisen.

They carry a risk that women who currently wear full face veils will become confined to their homes, less able to work or study and to access public services.

Governments should instead be looking to strengthen efforts to combat the discrimination faced by Muslim women, both in their communities and in the broader societies in which they live.  Their focus should be on empowering women to make their own choices, rather than limiting the range of choices available to them.

Legitimate security concerns can be met by targeted restrictions on the complete covering of the face in well-defined high risk locations.  Individuals may also be required to reveal their faces when objectively necessary, for instance for identity checks.  French law already allows for such limited restrictions.

Guinea's Bloody Monday Demonstrates Need for Greater Arms Control

Cartridge casing from a bullet, for a Kalashnikov-type assault rifle, found at Conakry stadium. Copyright Amnesty International

Cartridge casing from a bullet, for a Kalashnikov-type assault rifle, found at Conakry stadium. Copyright Amnesty International

There is no question that the September 28th, 2009, Bloody Monday massacre in Guinea was an unprecedented episode of violence and brutality by Guinea’s security forces. But let’s not forget that this was not the first time that Guinea’s military and security forces have used excessive force and acted with impunity in the past decade. In fact, the behavior of the security forces has been defined by a clear pattern of unlawful killings, extrajudicial executions, rape, arbitrary detentions, torture and grossly excessive use of force.

You did not want the military, so now we are going to teach you a lesson – member of the security forces present during the 28 September 2009 violence

Yet, as Amnesty’s new report demonstrates, a number of governments and companies have continued to finance, train and supply Guinea’s security forces, ignoring the numerous human rights violations they have committed over the years. In fact, several of the military and security units whose members were directly involved in the commission of human rights violations during Bloody Monday and in previous years had received training from states including France, China and the US. Weapons and security equipment supplied from South Africa, France and elsewhere provided the tools for the crimes perpetrated on Bloody Monday.

The decision by several states to suspend military cooperation with Guinea, including the US after the December 2008 coup and France after the September 2009 massacre, was too late. While such suspensions will certainly help minimize the capacity of the security forces to commit human rights abuses in the future, the signs were there long before December 2008 and military cooperation should have been suspended much earlier.

What the case of Guinea shows is the need for all states to adopt international standards to assess arms transfers on a case-by-case basis. This would ensure that states adequately assess the risk of exporting arms and training to countries such as Guinea and that such transfers do not facilitate serious human rights violations.

U.S. Obligation to Freed Gitmo Detainees

(Originally posted on Daily Kos)

Four Uighur former Guantanamo inmates are now in Bermuda, other detainees have been released to France, Chad, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Hungary, Italy and Palau appear to have joined the ranks of countries prepared to accept detainees cleared for release. The pace of releases finally seems to be picking up and that is a cause for optimism.

But, while groups like Amnesty are pleased to see these individuals finally released from wrongful detention, we are disturbed that there has been no public announcement that any of these individuals will receive compensation for their ill-treatment or any assistance from the United States in rebuilding their lives or coming to terms with their experiences.

Many of you reading this blog may feel that this is a side issue but it is not. International law requires the U.S. to provide remedy to those who have been wrongfully imprisoned.

Consider for a moment what the men recently released have lost. They have lost seven years of their lives. Quite apart from the personal deprivation of liberty that is also seven years of lost earning potential – one fifth of a working life. Their families too have been without their primary breadwinner all this time.

Furthermore, what kind of future do they have to look forward to? They certainly haven’t had the opportunity to learn or develop a trade while in detention, nor are many of them returning to a society they know well. Some may not even speak the local language. However idyllic Bermuda may appear in press photographs, it is a world away from the Central Asian steppe the Uighurs are used to.

Some released inmates may be grappling with medical or mental health problems. Defense attorney, Jeffrey Colman, a thirty-five year veteran of the criminal justice system who has represented four GITMO inmates this week described the facility as:

“Unlike any other institution… there is a level of hopelessness unlike anything I have ever seen.”

We know 5 inmates have committed suicide since the camp opened and in March this year the Department of Defense reported that 34 inmates were on hunger strike. Such figures give some insight into the harrowing nature of the detainees’ experiences – yet no provision has been made to support their rehabilitation.

Closing Guantanamo is not in and of itself enough. We have a moral and legal obligation to aid the reintegration of former inmates back into society. These men have been convicted of no crime. In our system that means they are innocent. No ifs or buts.

Innocent men wrongly held for seven years have a right to compensation. The Obama administration can’t simply shove them out the gates of Camp Delta and forget about them. The United States must take responsibility for rebuilding lives it has ruined.