Total Abortion Bans In Latin America Risk Women's Lives

nicaragua woman doctor

Countries around the world that strictly deny women’s access to abortion, including when such access could save their lives and health, also tend to have the highest rates of maternal mortality.

Most Latin American countries criminalize abortions, forcing girls and women to resort to unsafe, clandestine abortions.  According to the World Health Organization, “Death due to complications of abortion is not uncommon, and is one of the principal causes of maternal mortality” and of an estimated 300,000 hospitalizations.

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Does Knowing Your Rights Make You Insane?

Andrei Bondarenko

© Vinnytsya Human Rights Group

Andrei Bondarenko, a trade union activist, was ordered to undergo a forced psychiatric examination by a court in Vinnytsya, south west Ukraine. He is in hiding and fears that he will be subjected to psychiatric treatment  because of his legitimate trade union and human rights activities. Andrei has never been treated or diagnosed with a mental illness, and has undergone three psychiatric examinations to prove his sanity. Nevertheless, a court granted the order for an examination after prosecutors argued that Andrei Bondarenko has an “excessive awareness of his own and others’ rights and [an] uncontrollable readiness to defend these rights in unrealistic ways.”

Through Andrei’s work as a trade unionist and a human rights activist, he has butted heads with powerful local leaders. Many of those leaders have a financial interest in repressing the very workers that Andrei campaigns for. He has not hesitated to expose the irresponsible and inadequate behavior of officials, and in August 2010 he registered an NGO called Movement for a Corruption Free Vinnytsya Region Prosecutor’s Office.

Since 2007, the Vinnytsya Prosecutor’s Office has pushed for a forced psychiatric examination of Andrei four times. Each time the request has been refused by the court because of his certification of mental health from various psychiatrists. However, on 29 October of this year, a judge ordered Andrei to submit to a psychiatric examination in a closed court session where Andrei was not present and his lawyer was kicked out of the courtroom.

Knowing one’s own rights and advocating on behalf of others is perhaps the sanest thing one could do, but Andrei could be forced to undergo possibly dangerous psychiatric treatment for doing exactly that.

Prove your sanity and take action on behalf of Andrei now!

Claire Lesikar, Campaign for Individuals at Risk, contributed to this post.

FEMA's Formaldehyde Trailers Are Back…

The New York Times reported yesterday that the formaldehyde-tainted trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to people who had lost their homes in the wake of Hurricane Katrina are getting a second life. This time around, the trailers are being used as housing for workers cleaning up the growing BP oil spill in the Gulf Coast.

Many families displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 were initially housed in 120,000 trailers issued by FEMA. As Amnesty reported in Un-Natural Disaster: Human Rights in the Gulf Coast, several residents soon began complaining about respiratory problems and burning eyes, noses and throats. The trailers were found to have had such high levels of formaldehyde that the government banned them from being used as long-term housing. But what was the government going to do with thousands of contaminated trailers that cost $130 million every year to maintain? Auction them off to the general public, of course.

The trailers—resold from $2,500 and up at auctions in 2006—were bought by individuals and companies, including contracting firms now involved in the oil spill cleanup. Although FEMA placed restrictions on the use of the trailers as housing and required that subsequent owners be informed that the trailers are not intended for housing, cleanup workers are reportedly living in the trailers unaware of the health risks they face. This disturbing news comes on the heels of reports that hundreds of complaints have already been filed by cleanup crew members with poison control centers after exposure not only to the oil, but to the fumes from the burning of the oil, and to the chemicals in the dispersants.

The individuals working tirelessly to clean up the oil spill in the Gulf have a right to housing that is safe and habitable, to protection from conditions that are hazardous to their health, and to complete and accurate information about the environment in which they are living and working. The oil spill already poses a threat to human rights particularly in those communities of the Gulf region that are still struggling to recover from severe hurricane damage, a threat that is now compounded by the resurrection of FEMA’s formaldehyde trailers. Surely the least we can do is protect the rights of those who are working to protect our own environmental human rights. A sign of how seriously the Government wants to avoid any more fallout from an already disastrous situation? By Thursday night Congress had already called for an official investigation into the use of the condemned trailers.

Troubled Waters: Palestinians Denied Fair Access to Water

Israel is denying Palestinians their right to access to adequate water by using discriminatory and restrictive policies.

Donatella Rovera, senior researcher on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories said,

“Israel allows the Palestinians access to only a fraction of the shared water resources, which lie mostly in the occupied West Bank, while the unlawful Israeli settlements there receive virtually unlimited supplies. In Gaza the Israeli blockade has made an already dire situation worse.”

The report, “Troubled Waters: Palestinians Denied Fair Access to Water,” says Israel uses more than 80 per cent of the water from the Mountain Aquifer, the main source of underground water in Israel and the OPT, while restricting Palestinian access to 20 per cent.  Israel takes all the water from the Jordan River,  the Palestinians get none.

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In Zambia, One Person's Human Rights Violation is Another's Porn

The editor of Zambia’s largest independent newspaper, The Post, is currently on trial for distributing pornography. Chansa Kabwela was charged in July for “circulating obscene matters with the intention to corrupt the morals of society,” punishable by a five year prison sentence. What exactly did Kabwela circulate that was so dangerous to the moral character of Zambians? Pictures of a woman giving birth on the ground outside a hospital. 

A recent nurses’ strike led to dangerous medical conditions in the country, a fact Kabwela wanted to highlight. When she received pictures of the incident, she decided not to publish them in the paper, but instead sent copies to the vice president, the health minister and several organizations. The pictures were taken by a relative of the woman, who visited clinics and the hospital in search of medical assistance due to the breach birth position of the baby. Eventually she laid down on the ground near the hospital before doctors from the hospital finally assisted her. The baby did not survive.

Reporters Without Borders calls the arrest shocking and the charges without grounds. They also accuse authorities of harassing and intimidating the newspaper’s staff. The Post is a fierce critic of President Banda, who has made no secret of his dislike for the paper, called for Kabwela’s arrest. Banda became president upon the death of Levy Mwanawasa, one year ago today. Too bad Nixon didn’t think of the same tactic: Nick Ut would have gone to trial instead of winning a Pulitzer.

Another Birthday in Prison

Saturday marks the 41st birthday of Chinese journalist and poet Shi Tao. It will be the fifth birthday he celebrates in prison. He is serving serving a 10-year prison term for sending an e-mail summarizing a memo advising journalists on how to handle the 15th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananman Square crackdown.

Chinese authorities have not lessened their restrictions on Internet freedom since Shi Tao was arrested on November 24, 2004. This was particularly apparent on the days immediately before and after June 4 of this year, the 20th anniversary of the Tiananman Square crackdown. The government blocked foreign news Web sites like CNN and the BBC and social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook in anticipation of the day. Controls over other media outlets, including newspapers and magazines, have also intensified in recent years.

While prison conditions have improved slightly for Shi Tao in the past two years, freedom may still be as much as five years away. An appeal to review Shi Tao’s case was rejected last year. His mother’s request for medical parole for Shi Tao–because of a stomach condition that has worsened as a result of a poor prison diet–was also rejected. Don’t let Shi Tao spend any more birthdays in jail!

Guinea-Bissau: How to Further Destabilize a Country in Two Days

Guinea-Bissau (GB) is a tiny little country on the western coast of Africa. It is a nation ravaged by grave health concernsdrug trafficking and an abundant access to weapons. It is racked by political instability. Elections originally scheduled for March 2008 were postponed. In August 2008, then-President Vieira dissolved Parliament and a new Prime Minister was appointed. Relatively peaceful elections occurred in mid-November, however, mutinous soldiers, apparently not happy with these governmental maneuvers, attempted to assassinate the former President in what is considered to be a coup attempt. This year started with a bang, literally, when General Tagme Ma Wai, army Chief of Staff, accused the President of attempting to assassinate him in January when his car was shot up. Making sure it was done right the next time, General Wai was killed when army headquarters were bombed on March 1st. And then because no deed of any kind goes unpunished in GB, President Vieira was promptly killed on March 2nd when his house was again attacked.

In case you think these were isolated incidents, or even new circumstances, let me hasten to disabuse you. GB is a highly volatile country, with a long history of coups and military rebellions. Since 2000, soldiers have killed three Chiefs of Staff of the Armed Forces, as well as other high ranking military officers. Those responsible for the killings were not brought to justice. Not surprising then, that human rights are less than prioritized in GB. On April 1st, making for a highly unfunny April Fool’s Day, Francisco José Fadul, a Court President and former Prime Minister of GB, ended up in intensive care after he was beaten by military personnel at his home in the early hours of the morning. This followed an assault by the military of well-known lawyer Pedro Infanda, who was arrested, severely beaten and tortured for four days by military officials before being transferred to police custody. He also spent time in intensive care. Coincidently, both men held press conferences during which the military was criticized shortly before they were attacked by military officials. Subsequently, members of the Human Rights League received threats after condemning the violent attacks.

President of the National Assembly, Raimundo Pereira, sworn in as interim President on March 2nd, is currently running the show in GB and new Presidential elections are scheduled for June 28th. Here’s hoping GB has free and fair elections with no more 48 hour tit-for-tat assassinations.

Rebuilding Zimbabwe: How ‘Bout Them Apples?

It’s said that an apple a day keeps the doctor away. But doctors are very far away in Zimbabwe, as in entirely other countries where they might actually be paid for their services. Worse, most people don’t have anything to eat, let alone fresh fruit. Zimbabwe’s infrastructure has been in a downward spiral for at least the last ten years. The education system is in ruins, hospitals are closed, roads are impassable and the water and sewage systems destroyed.

Zimbabwe inherited a colonial infrastructure now over thirty years old. I don’t condone colonialism, I don’t think Zimbabwe was better off because the British were there and it’s not because the British left that things fell apart. It was a combination of government mismanagement and an acknowledged siphoning of funds by the central bank leading to the lack of infrastructure maintenance. Schools and hospitals, once some of the most respected in Africa are in shambles. Teachers, doctors and other health care professionals left in search of a living wage, particularly as Zimbabwe’s inflation soared to astronomical heights. The current government salary of $100US a month is not enough to feed and house their families, pay school fees, even commute to work.

Last year a cholera epidemic erupted in Zimbabwe which will soon reach the 100,000 cases benchmark. Unless the water treatment plants and sewer systems receive urgently needed repairs, it is anticipated that cholera will return at crisis levels when the rainy season resumes in October. The 2009 harvest was below projected levels, meaning Zimbabwe will be the world’s most food needy country per capita in 2009. Zimbabwe’s once effective HIV anti-retroviral drug dispersal program has faltered with the medical system collapse, and poor nutrition makes the drugs less effective and difficult to digest. Food insecurity also exaccerbates the cholera crisis.

Zimbabwe needs more than apples. It needs good governance and directed humanitarian aid (aid that is dispensed to non-governmental organizations to pay salaries and restore the infrastructure rather than through a government of which donor States remain leery) to help the people of Zimbabwe rebuild their country. Until then, apples and healthcare are both very far away.

Fathi el-Jahmi May Not Live to See His Next Birthday

Fathi el-Jahmi © Private

Fathi el-Jahmi © Private

Earlier this month, prisoner of conscience Fathi el-Jahmi turned another year older inside prison walls in Libya. He was arrested in 2002 after calling for political reform and free speech at a conference in Tripoli, and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. Due to international support, he was released early in March 2004. Unfortunately, only weeks later, after repeating his call for democracy and political reform, he was detained yet again and has been in prison ever since. He suffers from heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes, and his health continues to deteriorate.

There’s a letter circulating in Congress right now, sponsored by Congressmen Frank Wolf and Mark Kirk, calling on the Libyan government to immediately release Fathi el-Jahmi and allow him to pursue medical care outside of Libya, according to his wishes. This letter really is our best chance at influencing the Lybian government, and Fathi el-Jahmi’s best chance at living to see another birthday—but so far not enough Members of Congress have signed on. Please take action!

AIDS is a Human Rights Issue

Today is twenthieth anniversary of the first World AIDS Day, established to commemorate those who have died of the disease and marshal attention to address the epidemic.   The World AIDS Campaign has declared “Lead-Empower-Deliver” to be the theme for this year. 

For the last several years, AI has been zeroing in on the message that AIDS is a human rights issue.   Human rights abuses place people at greater risk of contracting HIV, and, all too often, those living with HIV and AIDS are subjected to human rights abuses. 

Check out Amnesty’s special web feature in honor of World AIDS Day.

Nowhere is the link between human rights abuses and HIV and AIDS clearer than in South Africa, where women, particularly those living in rural areas, face not only high HIV prevalence and high levels of sexual violence, but also widespread poverty.  AI’s report, I am at the lowest end of all, draws on the stories of women who, having contracted HIV as a result of violence, must now overcome extreme poverty and disrcimination in order to obtain treatement.

Circling back to this year’s theme of leadership, Amnesty wants to know how governments measure up to our 10-point plan of action on HIV and AIDS and human rights.  How is the U.S. doing?  What changes would you like President-elect Obama to make to U.S. policy on HIV and AIDS when he takes office?