Time for a Full Court Press on Human Rights in Myanmar (Burma)

US President Barack Obama sits near Myanmar President Thein Sein as they participate in the US-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting in 2011. Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

On the eve of President Obama’s historic visit to Myanmar (Burma), the first ever by a U.S. President, his host, President Thein Sein, has released 450 prisoners, a move surely calculated to curry favor with the United States. A smaller amnesty announced in September, just before the UN General Assembly convened, included about 60 political prisoners.

It remains to be seen whether any of an estimated 300 remaining political prisoners will be scattered among the latest batch of parolees. Nonetheless, the prisoner release is, by any measurement, an encouraging step. It says something important about the power and influence of the United States, and the desire of the new government of Myanmar to kiss up to President Obama and bask in the economic possibilities of a post-sanctions environment.

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Georgian Government Must Secure Human Rights for its Displaced

Two years after the Georgian-Russian war, about 6 per cent of the population of Georgia (some 246,000 people) are displaced within the post-Soviet country. Most of the displaced, however, are not from the 2008 war. Instead, 220,000 left their homes during conflicts that took place in the early 90s. Amnesty International’s newest report, Georgia: In the Waiting Room, documents shortcomings in internally displaced persons’ (IDPs’) access to economic and social rights, as well as the deprivation and marginalization they still experience.

Back in 2008, Amnesty International USA’s Science for Human Rights Program documented destruction of property in the war through satellite imagery comparison reaching the following conclusion:

Not only do the images reveal significant damage in the region after the end of the major hostilities from the first two days of the conflict, but they support eyewitness accounts of arson attacks by South Ossetian forces, paramilitary groups and privately armed individuals against property owned by ethnic Georgians. The images support AI assessments that the majority of the damage in Tskhinvali was sustained prior to August 10, and that more than 100 civilian houses in Tskhinvali were hit by shelling during the initial Georgian bombardment.

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Satellite image of the Georgian village of Tamarasheni, South Ossetia, taken on 19 August. The red dots represent all buildings sustaining damage (152 structures in total). © 2009 ImageSat. All Rights Reserved. Produced by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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Still a State of Unconstitutional Affairs in Colombia?

Short answer, yes. In 2004, the Colombia Constitutional Court declared a state of unconstitutional affairs and ordered the Colombian government to address the rights and needs of the displaced population. The Colombia government has yet to implement these orders, and Colombia’s displacement crisis continues. There is an important resolution, introduced by Representative Hank Johnson (D-GA), going around the US House of Representatives that, if passed, would send a strong message of support for the work of the Colombia Constitutional Court.

House Resolution 1224, currently in the US House of Representatives, would bring the population of internally displaced peoples (IDPs) in Colombia one step further towards ensuring that their human rights are upheld.

The incidence of displacement in Colombia is not something to be overlooked - it is one of the highest in the world. Between 3 and 4 million people have been forced to flee their homes and seek refuge elsewhere in the country; a further 500,000 are believed to have fled to neighboring countries.  Even worse, is that a disproportionate number of these internally displaced are indigenous peoples, afro-descendants and campesino communities. Displacement has forced these rural dwellers to migrate to large urban areas and it has drastically increased the number of people living in city slums.

In 2004, the Colombian Constitutional Court issued two declarations calling for the Colombian government to protect IDPs and their human rights (see pages 9-18). Unfortunately, the government of Colombia has yet to implement these recommended public policies and IDPs in Colombia continue to suffer. More people are continuously forced from their land, more people are discriminated against, and more poverty exists.

37 Representatives have signed onto this resolution, but more support is needed! Contact your local Representative to bring the millions of internally displaced Colombians one step closer to justice.

Kristin Keohan contributed to this post

Pakistan Tops the List in Number of Newly Displaced

A new study by the United Nations has found that Pakistan has the highest number of newly internally displaced people (IDP). According to the report, in 2009, approximately 3 million people were newly displaced.

Of course, Pakistan isn’t the only country with such depressing statistics. Pakistan’s internally displaced are only 3 million of 27 million IDPs worldwide. The country with the most internally displaced people continues to be Sudan with nearly 5 million. But what these numbers really show us is that the victims of war and conflict are always civilians and that the callous disregard of human rights on the part of warring factions, both government and rebel forces, exacerbates this human rights crisis.

Recently, we launched an interactive website, Eyes on Pakistan, which helps to visualize the trends of the conflict in Pakistan. Many IDPs in Pakistan do not have access to organized camps and often rely on host communities and already existing slums for their safety. And despite their attempts to flee the fighting, displaced communities still come face to face with the conflict every day. In April, two suicide bombers killed 38 people and wounded another 65 at a center for the displaced. These human rights violations are then exacerbated by concerns for public health, mental health, and food supplies, not only for those displaced but also for the host communities.

In a more positive note, the UN report also notes that 2009 saw the largest number of returnees. While this may mean that people feel safe enough to return home, we’re left wondering what it is that they are returning to. Too often, their communities have been left in ruin. The returnees are left to rebuild their shattered homes and communities, with little help from their governments.

What an "Unconstitutional State of Affairs" in Colombia!

The human rights situation in Colombia for internally displaced persons (IDPs) is deteriorating rapidly. The incidence of displacement in Colombia is one of the highest in the world. Between 3 and 4 million people have been forced to flee their homes and seek refuge elsewhere in the country; a further 500,000 are believed to have fled to neighboring countries.  Indigenous Peoples, Afro-descendants and campesino communities make up a disproportionate number of those who have been internally displaced.

This level of human suffering prompted the Colombian Constitutional Court to issue two declarations in 2004 calling for the Colombian government to protect IDPs and their human rights (see pages 9-18). The government of Colombia has yet to implement the recommended public policies to adequately protect these vulnerable communities. Unfortunately their suffering continues and more people are continuously forced from their land, which is why Afro-Colombians and Indigenous Colombians need your help.

Right now an important resolution is in the US House of Representatives: Resolution 1224, which, if passed, could help IDPs in Colombia. Representative Hank Johnson of Georgia along with 22 other Representatives has sponsored this resolution, which urges the Colombian government to comply with the rulings of the Colombian Constitutional Court and protect the human rights of Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities.

Don’t pass up the opportunity to urge your Representative to support this important resolution today!

Human Rights Flashpoint – August 18, 2009

AFGHANISTAN – Election violence and a nod to “warlord politics”

The world is looking to Afghanistan this week, where Presidential and Provincial Council elections will be held on August 20th. The Taliban are threatening to attack polling stations in the country’s unstable southern province. The government estimates that about 14 percent of the country’s polling centers are considered too dangerous for people to vote. Moreover, the risk of violence will increase should no presidential candidate reach more than 50 percent of the vote, leading to a mandatory run-off between the top two contenders. Nevertheless, US government officials are optimistic, stating that the Taliban have failed to derail the elections. In other developments, both government officials and the Taliban have been increasing pressure and threats against journalists in the country and limiting independent and critical reporting.

In what the Christian Science Monitor calls a nod to ‘warlord politics’, suspected war criminal General Dostum returned to Afghanistan this week. Addressing the thousands of people who welcomed him home, he boasted that he is too popular to be persecuted: “If you mess with Dostum, you mess with a million people.” His return has shown the failure of the Afghan government and its international supporters to demonstrate that the rule of law is respected in Afghanistan.

Must Reads

Overheard

We hope that, from top to bottom, every effort will be taken to make election day secure, to eliminate fraud, and to address any complaints fairly and quickly. It will be several days before we have preliminary results and we hope initial reports will refrain from speculation until results are announced. Final results could take several weeks. We call on candidates and their supporters to behave responsibly before and after the elections – US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

We have made clear to the Government of Afghanistan our serious concerns regarding the return of Mr. Dostum and any prospective role in today’s Afghanistan. And I think that President Obama had earlier, based on an earlier story, had asked that the national security team gather further information on his background, including concerns that he might have been involved in the deaths of a significant number of Taliban prisoners of war a few years ago, and that the team is continuing to gather that information – Philip J. Crowley, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs

A ferocious offensive by the Taliban [was] designed to try to kill the elections. Their goal is to prevent the elections and they have failed in that – Richard Holbrooke, US Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC – Humanitarian situation deteriorates

Ongoing ethnic conflict in northeastern Central African Republic (CAR) and recurring attacks by the Ugandan rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in the southeast part of CAR have created overwhelming humanitarian needs throughout the country. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that thousands of internally displaced people have been left without food, protection or shelter.

The country is the second poorest in the world after Sierra Leone and has long been unstable. Although five of the rebel groups signed peace treaties with the government in late 2008, the security situation has been deteriorating since the beginning of the year, causing about 18,000 people to flee to Chad and many more losing their homes during attacks. Children are particularly at risk in CAR, with almost 700,000 children under five living below acceptable standards, according to UNICEF.

Meanwhile, CAR Communications Minister Cyriaque Gonda announced on Monday that the government has set up a three-year timetable to disarm, demobilize and reintegrate an estimated 6,000 to 10,000 former rebels. However, upcoming elections in 2010 and the formation of a new rebel group in 2009 in the northeast of the country are likely to lead to increasing insecurity and tension in CAR.

Must Reads

Overheard

The situation is still very volatile and the displaced population remains traumatized […] Fear is very evident amongst the people who had to repeatedly leave their villages and watch their homes and livelihoods being looted, burnt and destroyed – Catherine Bragg, UN Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator and Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs

These children’s lives, their ability to learn, to earn, and to lead productive lives is being stunted by this tragic crisis – Jeremy Hopkins, acting representative of UNICEF in CAR

Coming This Week

  • August 18: U.S. President Barack Obama meets Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Washington, DC
  • August 18: Secretary Clinton meets with Colombian Foreign Minister Bermudez
  • August 20: Presidential and Provincial Council Elections in Afghanistan
  • August 17-24: US Special Envoy to Sudan Scott Gration travels to Sudan (Juba, Makalal), Ethiopia and Egypt

Juliette Rousselot contributed to this post.

Human Rights Flashpoints is a weekly column about countries at risk of escalating human rights violations and is brought to you by AIUSA’s Crisis Prevention and Response team.

IDP's Still Locked Up in Sri Lanka

Menik Farm displacement camp in Sri Lanka. (c) Digital Globe 2009

Menik Farm displacement camp in Sri Lanka. (c) Digital Globe 2009

The IDP situation in Sri Lanka continues to worsen as weeks continue to pass without the release of civilians locked up in the camps. The government, in violation of international law, has since March 2008 confined virtually all civilians displaced by the fighting in detention camps, euphemistically called “welfare centers” by the government. In a press statement this week, Eric P. Schwartz, Assistant Secretary of State for Refugees, described his short visit to Sri Lanka’s Menik Farm:

“[T]he vast majority of displaced persons remain confined to camps, and my visit to Manik Farm – and my conversations with displaced person – underscore for me the hardships they are enduring. Moreover, there remain burdensome limitations on access to those camps for those international humanitarian organizations and others who are in a position to ameliorate the conditions faced by these victims of conflict.”

Amnesty Researchers On-the-Ground in Chad

Amnesty International researchers are currently on-the-ground in Chad investigating the growing numbers of refugees streaming across the border from Darfur.  Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty Canada, has been documenting the mission online.  Here is an excerpt from a podcast posted yesterday detailing the still desperate situation:

Darfuri refugee women and girls at Bredjing camp filling water containers.

Darfuri refugee women and girls at Bredjing camp filling water containers.

“They are there on their own.”

Those words have been haunting us all day.   We have now come further east from Abéché to Farchana.  Within perhaps a 30-40 kilometre semi-circle around Farchana there are 3 major refugee camps as well as 12 sites for displaced Chadians.  Farchana itself is not far from Chad’s border with Darfur.

Our intention today had been to travel to one of the sites for displaced Chadians in this region, Arkoum.  We want to make it to several IDP sites during our mission because we have certainly come to understand that their safety and well-being is extremely precarious.

It is a universal story.  Without any doubt refugees, including Darfuri refugees here in Chad, face considerable hardship, insecurity and violence.  The international community does, however, have a much clearer role and responsibility for their protection.  Not so with IDP’s, who remain, of course, citizens of the country, in this case Chad.  Here, as is so often the case around the world, Chadians displaced within their own country have only minimal protection.  Largely abandoned by their own government and not fully protected by the international community.  And of course, still very near to the terrible human rights violations that forced them from their homes in the first place.

It is so important that we get access to some of the sites, to see and hear first hand the challenges displaced Chadians face.   But while the refugee camps are all within fairly easy reach of the town of Farchana, our base, the sites for IDP’s are more remote and difficult to reach.  And because of growing security concerns in eastern Chad, in the wake of a rebel incursion far to the south of here in Goz Beida, the UN decided today to cancel plans for a convoy to Arkoum, which we would have been part of.  Instead we travelled to a nearby refugee camp, Bredjing, and spent the day working with Darfuri refugees.

A human rights monitor with the Association for the Promotion of Fundamental Rights in Chad who is usually based in Arkoum had intended to travel back out to the site with us today, but was obviously unable to do so.  His worry was palpable.  It was he who kept saying: “ils sont là; tous seuls” – they are there on their own.

It all comes down to security.  In the midst of insecurity, the full range of human rights teeters and collapses.  That of course has been the horrible reality in both eastern Chad and Darfur for the past five years.  Insecurity means killings and rape; homes destroyed and crops burned.  But it also means education, health, food and water supplies, and livelihoods are also turned inside out.

And it is still insecurity that reigns in eastern Chad.  When I was here with an Amnesty team in late 2006 the local population, thousands of whom had recently been chased from their homes in a brutal wave of attacks, felt completely abandoned.   The sad truth is that 2 ½ years later, even though international troops and police are now deployed here, displaced Chadians remain at terrible risk.

And whenever security concerns arise here, as they have again, they are the first to be cut off, the first to be abandoned.  In so many respects, the most vulnerable yet the least protected.  As our friend kept saying, they are on their own.  We must find a way to stand with them.

- Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada

To listen to the original podcast and read more about the mission to Chad, visit the Amnesty Canada Mission Blog.

The Worst Crisis You Won't Read About in the News

The DRC, Zimbabwe, Cambodia, Sudan and Nicaragua–all these countries are in crisis right now. How do I know (beyond working at Amnesty International)? I can read about it in the news.

But there is at least one developing humanitarian crisis you won’t find in the New York Times:

More than 300,000 people have been displaced in Sri Lanka by fighting between the Tamil Tigers and government forces. And not only do they lack access to basic food and shelter, but the government is not allowing U.N. aid convoys to bring in desperately needed supplies.

The entire population of Birkenhead has basically been relocated  to the Wanni region of Sri Lanka, and now serve as a buffer–a human shield–between themselves and the government. The displaced don’t have shelters, and it’s monsoon season. They aren’t allowed to leave.

And why aren’t you hearing about it? Aid workers and journalists have been denied entry to the region. This video includes rare photos from the region just before access was cut off.

Amnesty International’s U.K. press office posted more yesterday on their blog.