I Stand With…the Right to Health

planned parenthoodBefore you keep reading, let’s be clear: this blog is about the universal human right to the highest attainable standard of health, the package of services it takes to be well—and the ability to afford it.  It’s also about the implications of the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s decision to stop providing grants to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America for breast cancer screening.  Because too often, women’s health falls victim to agendas that prevent women from exercising their human rights.  It’s about the big picture.

According to Planned Parenthood, the vast majority of its services are the provision of information and education about health, well-being and sexuality; prevention of and response to gender-based violence; prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS; and family planning counseling and supplies. These services are provided to both men and women, of all ages, of all income levels. They are part of basic health care.

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What Is Girls' Education Without Human Rights?

Afghan girls at school

© UNHCR / Lana Slezic /GlobalAware

Education, especially girls’ education, is a no-brainer, right? Evidence shows that even a basic, primary education, has a range of positive impacts:

  • Children of educated mothers are twice as likely to go to school as those raised by mothers with no education. They are also 40% less likely to die in childhood.
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Amnesty Activists Raise Their Voices on the MDGs

This week, leaders from around the globe met at the United Nations to review the world’s progress toward the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). While there’s been some improvement, it’s been uneven. The world won’t win the fight against poverty until it puts human rights at the heart of the struggle. In the last several weeks, tens of thousands of Amnesty International activists have raised their voices in support of that message.

Last Thursday, in advance of the MDGs summit, Amnesty International Secretary-General Salil Shetty delivered more than 20,000 signatures and postcards from around the world to Joseph Deiss, the incoming president of the U.N. General Assembly and co-chair of the meeting.

Amnesty International Secretary-General Salil Shetty (R) delivers petitions and postcards to incoming U.N. General Assembly President Joseph Deiss (L)

Today, as the General Assembly begins the work of its annual session, including implementing the outcomes of the summit, Amnesty International activists sent a second batch of more than 20,000 signatures and postcards to Mr. Deiss — bringing the total to more than 46,000 names.

Amnesty activists mail petitions and postcards to U.N. General Assembly President Joseph Deiss

There are only five years left until 2015, the deadline for meeting the Goals. And the debate about what anti-poverty framework should replace the MDGs after 2015 — that is, what “MDGs 2.0″ should look like — is already well underway. As supporters of human rights, this is a critical moment for us to insist that principles like anti-discrimination, participation and accountability be at the core of the global fight against poverty.

"The Injustice of Extreme Poverty"

Yesterday, at the United Nations summit on the Millennium Development Goals, President Obama unveiled a new U.S. approach to global development. It was encouraging to see the president frame poverty as an issue of rights and justice: “In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, [the international community] recognized the inherent dignity and rights of every individual, including the right to a decent standard of living. And a decade ago, at the dawn of a new millennium, we set concrete goals to free our fellow men, women and children from the injustice of extreme poverty.”

Amnesty International – along with Realizing Rights and other organizations – has been working to put human rights at the heart of the fight against global poverty. For the president to make good on his message about human rights and development, here are some key steps for him to take:

  • Fight discrimination. The president said the U.S. will “invest in the health, education and rights of women,” and gender equality is of course crucial. But other disadvantaged groups – including racial and ethnic minorities and Indigenous Peoples – must also be prioritized.
  • Ensure participation. People living in poverty must be the chief agents of change. It’s encouraging to hear the president say that, at the nation-to-nation level, the U.S. will stress “partnering with [developing] countries” in the development process rather than “dictat[ing]” from Washington. It should also create space for each country to ensure the participation of impoverished communities.
  • Improve accountability. President Obama has called mutual accountability a “pillar of [America’s] new approach” towards development. That should include accountability to human rights standards in development.
  • Respect, protect and fulfill human rights. Finally, and most importantly, the U.S. must ensure that all efforts to achieve the MDGs are consistent with human rights standards and respect the broad spectrum of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.

There’s much to be hopeful about in the president’s speech. As his administration implements its new development policy, Amnesty International will continue to push for human rights standards in U.S. development policy and the MDGs.

Maternal Death Clock Ticks in Times Square

Yesterday morning, as world leaders began a summit at the United Nations to review progress on the Millennium Development Goals, Amnesty International activists converged on Times Square to launch a “maternal death clock”, keeping track of the number of women who are dying in childbirth worldwide. Decisions made at the summit will have life-or-death consequences.

Every 90 seconds, somewhere in the world, a woman dies in childbirth. That’s 40 women every hour — almost a thousand mothers lost every day. The vast majority of those deaths are preventable. 99% happen in developing countries.

The annual rate of decline is less than half of where it needs to be to meet the MDG target of cutting maternal deaths by 75% by 2015. The fight against maternal mortality — and the fight against poverty — won’t be won until the international community puts human rights at the heart of the struggle.

You can join the Amnesty members who took that message to the streets of Times Square this morning — sign Amnesty’s petition and tell world leaders that poverty is a human rights crisis!

Don't Mine Us Out of Existence

UPDATE: Apparently the tribes in Orissa have asked James Cameron, the director of record-winning film Avatar for his assistance in stopping Vedanta’s operations.

UK-based company is destroying the environment of indigenous people in Orissa.

Help to save lives in the Indian state of Orissa.

In my first blog post, I wrote about the plight of Adivasis in Orissa.  Well, we’ve done a report that has documented one such case in much more detail.

Dongria Kondh women at a protest meeting, Niyamgiri Hills, Orissa, India, 2009

Dongria Kondh women at a protest meeting, Niyamgiri Hills, Orissa, India, 2009. Copyright: Amnesty International

Indian authorities have given local communities little or no information about the potentially disastrous impact of a proposed aluminum refinery expansion and mining project to be operated by subsidiaries of UK-based company Vedanta Resources in the eastern state of Orissa.

We document how an aluminum refinery operated by a subsidiary of UK-based FTSE 100 company Vedanta Resources in Orissa is causing air and water pollution that threatens the health of local people and their access to clean drinking water.

Adivasi, Dalit, women and other marginalized communities in the remote part of Orissa where the refinery is located have described to us how authorities told them that the refinery would transform the area into a Mumbai or Dubai.

The Orissa State Pollution Control Board (a state government agency) has documented air and water pollution from Vedanta Aluminum refinery in Lanjigarh, Orissa. The pollution threatens the health of local people and their access to clean water yet there has been no health monitoring.

Despite these concerns and the environmentally sensitive location of the refinery near a river and villages, the government is considering a proposal for a very large expansion of the refinery. Neither the Indian authorities nor Vedanta have shared information on the extent of pollution and its possible effects with local communities.

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Southern Africa Year in Review 2009

Waiting in line to vote. Amnesty International.

Waiting in line to vote. ©Amnesty International

As 2009 winds down, here’s a wrap up of the year’s highlights from the southern Africa region. From elections, to assassinations, to elections, to awards ,to elections, to boycotts, to elections, to what was all in all a fairly smooth year compared to what might have been, here are a few notes about human rights conditions in the 12 countries we monitor for Amnesty International USA.

Angola
Angola was supposed to hold presidential elections this year but didn’t. Current (and for the last 30 years) president, dos Santos, said constitutional reform must come first and this will take another two years.  Constitutional reform=good. Using it as an excuse to delay democratic elections=bad.

Forced evictions continued in 2009 in Angola. Amnesty International continues to call for an end to illegal evictions and for just compensation for forcibly displaced persons in Angola.

On a positive note, Prisoner of Conscience Fernando Lelo was released this year. Lelo is a journalist imprisoned for criticizing above noted president. However, those who were tried and convicted with him remain incarcerated. Lelo directly credited Amnesty activists for their efforts on his behalf. Pat yourselves on the back for a job well done!

Botswana
Botswana held elections this year. Khama was elected to a new term, after finishing out the term of his predecessor. Major concerns in Botswana continue to be media restrictions, repression of labor unions, displacement of indigenous persons and high HIV infection rates. But Khama does his fair share of criticizing regional leaders and tweaking the nose of Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe. He mailed a congratulatory letter to the ladies of Women of Zimbabwe Arise following their win of the RFK Human Rights Award this year.

Guinea Bissau
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Fight Poverty by Protecting Human Rights

(Originally published on the Boston Globe)

On the evening of Sept. 18, 2007, six men broke into the home of Justine Masika Bihamba in Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Bihamba wasn’t home, but six of her children, ages 5 to 24, were. The men, reportedly government soldiers, tied up the children at gunpoint and abused two daughters in their 20s, sexually assaulting one with a knife. Bihamba and her children identified the attackers to military police but authorities refused to arrest the suspects, saying there was no evidence against them. They remain free today.

The men targeted Bihamba’s children because of her work coordinating medical and psychological care for women and girls who have been sexually assaulted. In the violent conflict that has raged in Congo for a decade, rape is a weapon of war.

The conflict has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and forced more than a million to flee; it is the latest in Congo’s long and bloody history. During the colonial period, ivory and rubber were the prizes for which Europeans sacrificed African lives. Today, the fighting is fueled by the country’s vast mineral resources – diamonds, gold and coltan, which is used in all mobile phones and laptops. Armed groups control mines and export minerals illegally, using the cash to buy arms.

The mineral wealth is of little benefit to the impoverished Congolese population.

More than 1,000 people die daily from preventable diseases such as cholera and dysentery. Most are children. These preventable deaths are human rights abuses in violation of international treaties on the right to health and the rights of the child. Until corporations that benefit from the mineral trade, together with the Congolese government and the international community, are persuaded to end the abuses, cases like Bihamba’s will keep recurring.

Amnesty International campaigns to ensure that human rights defenders like her can carry out their vital work in safety. But to stop the carnage in Congo, we recognize that we must also fight poverty – what Mahatma Gandhi called “the worst form of violence.”

People are accustomed to thinking of human rights violations as abuses committed by repressive regimes – torture, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, enforced “disappearances,” political assassination, and the like.

But the international human rights framework is much broader. Sixty years ago, following the brutality of World War II when the Nazis denied Jews, Roma, gays, and others their very right to exist, the response of the international community was unequivocal – human rights had to be based on the principle of inclusion. That is, everyone is entitled to the same set of rights by virtue of being human. These include the right to freedom from torture and arbitrary imprisonment, and no less importantly, the right to adequate food and shelter, basic healthcare, education and employment. In short, the right to live a life of dignity.

People living in poverty are trapped, much like political prisoners.

Now, as the global economic crisis threatens to push an estimated 53 million more people into poverty this year, Amnesty International is launching the most ambitious campaign of its nearly 50-year history.

Just as we have fought effectively to protect civil and political rights on behalf of tens of thousands of political prisoners, we intend to mobilize our volunteers and supporters to hold governments, corporations, armed groups, and others accountable for the human rights abuses that drive millions around the world into poverty.

Governments have reneged on human rights obligations in the belief that economic growth alone would lift all boats. But now the tide is receding. Virtually none of the growth of the last two decades benefited poor and marginalized communities; instead, the gap between rich and poor only deepened in many parts of the world.

All human rights are interlinked, as the Congo demonstrates. If development was based on the fulfillment of basic human rights instead of skewed toward enriching a few at the expense of many, we might not be witnessing the violent upheaval of Congo and elsewhere.

Without an approach to poverty and development that puts human rights first, there will be many more stories like that of Justine Masika Bihamba.

Forcible Evictions of HIV-positive Families in Cambodia

Yesterday morning, the Cambodian government forcibly evicted about 20 families living with HIV/AIDS from their homes in Borei Keila and resettled them at Tuol Sambo, a resettlement site just outside the capital, Phnom Penh. The site lacks clean water and electricity and has limited access to medical services. Evicted families were compensated with inadequate housing at the site and 50 kilograms of rice, soy sauce, fish sauce, water jars and US$250, but they were warned that anyone who did not comply with the move would not receive compensation. A human rights worker present during the transition described the families as despondent and noted that those who are ill were exhausted by the move.

When Amnesty International visited the site – in a semi-rural area where houses are built from green metal sheets – villagers in the vicinity saw it as a place for HIV/AIDS victims. The evicted families expressed fears that being forced to live in this separate, distinct location will bring more discrimination and stigmatization than they already are forced to deal with because of their status as HIV-positive.

Forced evictions are a tactic Cambodia has employed more and more often, and this is not the first time the Cambodian government has taken this sort of action against people living with HIV-AIDS. In March 2007, the Municipality of Phnom Penh resettled an additional 32 families living with HIV/ AIDS against their will in temporary green, corrugated-metal shelters in appalling conditions to make way for the construction of a number of new houses. The families believe that the authorities are discriminating against them because of their HIV status.

Easterly on Amnesty's Poverty and Human Rights Campaign

Just a word of introduction as this is my first post here. My name’s Sameer Dossani and I’m the campaign director for the Demand Dignity Campaign, our campaign to address issues relating to Human Rights and poverty. Prior to working with Amensty, I’ve been in the development world critiquing the policies and projects of the IMF and World Bank on human rights grounds. If you’d like to find out more about the campaign please get in touch through the contact us section of this site.

This post was written as a response to a critique of our annual report from the Aid Watch blog.

Bill Easterly takes on Amnesty International’s 2009 Annual Report. I know and respect Easterly’s work; I’ve even been on a few panels with him over the years on aid effectiveness and the World Bank, but I have to say he’s pretty off base here.

The basic premise of his post is this:

The only useful definition of human rights is one where a human rights crusader could identify WHOSE rights are being violated and WHO is the violator. That is what historically has led to progress on human rights. The government officers of the slave-owning antebellum US and the slave-owners were violating the rights of slaves – leading to activism against such violators that eventually yielded the Emancipation Proclamation. The local southern government officers were violating the civil rights of southern blacks under Jim Crow, leading to activism against these violators that yielded the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. The apartheid government officers in South Africa violated the rights of black South Africans, and activism against these violators brought the end of apartheid.

Easterly then claims that poverty does not fit this definition of rights because “who is depriving the poor of their right to an adequate income?”

It’s true that lack of income, in and of itself, isn’t a human rights violation. But poverty is about a lot more than just income. As Easterly knows, those who live on less than a dollar a day are poor not just because they lack income; the lack of income implies lack of access to services, clean drinking water, adequate education, housing, employment and so on. All of these are violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights. To give just one of many possible examples, estimates indicate that as many as 8,000 children die daily in Africa alone from preventable diseases such as cholera and dysentery. It’s certainly true to say that these are diseases of poverty – the rich can ensure that their water is not contaminated and can seek treatment at private hospitals as opposed to understaffed government clinics – but they are more than that. They are violations of the right to health and the right to clean water.

And people living in poverty are vulnerable to violations of their civil and political rights as well. In the Favelas (shanty towns) of Sao Paolo in Brazil, police and gangs are in daily conflict. There are allegations of human rights abuse on all sides, and the government feels little pressure to respect due process in large part because this violence is taking place in an extremely poor part of the city. Ordinary people are in danger from gangs on the one hand and from a state takes their rights less seriously because they live in a poor community.

These are all human rights violations, and it is ultimately the responsibility of governments to end them. In some cases those actually committing the abuse may not be governments; such as when Dow Chemical refuses to clean up the toxic mess that is still poisoning impoverished communities in Bhopal, India from a disaster that killed thousands in 1984. But in all cases it is ultimately the responsibility of governments to ensure that human rights – including the right to live a life of dignity – are respected.

Human rights abuses cause poverty and keep people poor – and living in poverty makes you more likely to suffer violations of your human rights. So human rights must be part of any solution to poverty.