That Little Matter of Solving World Poverty, Mr. President

Amid the global economic crisis, who stole the spotlight?  The Big Three car makers?  The bigwigs and their bonuses? The big banks that caused all the trouble? That’s where all of the attention has been focused.  But what about the little guys, people whose individual stories we won’t hear, but who will be living in poverty, due to the global financial crisis. Well, according to the World Bank, there will be 53 million more of them because of the economic collapse.

This kind of massive deprivation for basic needs – not luxuries like the Palm Beach condos lost in the Madoff scandal – cannot and will not go unanswered.

Some of the repercussions are already occurring: growing repression, racism and violence.  The Amnesty International Report 2009: State of the World’s Human Rights, released today, labels these brewing problems the “ticking time bomb” underlying the economic crisis.  In Zimbabwe, hundreds of activists protesting economic decline and social conditions were arrested and detained without charge, with police using excessive force to break up protests. Refugees from Zimbabwe in 2008 faced racism and xenophobia in South Africa that led in one instance to 60 deaths and 600 injuries.

While world leaders are focused on attempts to revive the global economy, they are neglecting deadly conflicts that are spawning massive human rights abuses. Amnesty International’s Secretary General Irene Khan said that, “Ignoring one crisis to focus on another is a recipe for aggravating both. Economic recovery will be neither sustainable nor equitable if governments fail to tackle human rights abuses that drive and deepen poverty, or armed conflicts that generate new violations.”

Good point. When John McCain tried to duck the first presidential debate, wasn’t it Candidate Obama who said, “Presidents are going to have to deal with more than one thing at a time”?

So, President Obama. In addition to running GM, appointing a new Supreme Court justice, winding down two wars, gearing up to advance your domestic agenda and closing Guantanamo legally and fairly (come on, you promised “in concert with our core values” ), can’t you do something to help millions of little guys who need food, water, a roof over their heads and a job?

Yep, the United States is expected to exert leadership on every major world crisis. It’s the responsibility that comes with that label we love: “world’s sole superpower.” And U.S. leadership and respect in the world needs a good makeover. Here’s the perfect opportunity.

President Obama could ensure that the United States plays a leadership role in uniting world leaders to give sufficient attention not just to “trickle down” recovery, but to recovery that helps all people. Recovery that would comprehensively address the problems that lead to and keep people in poverty. That must mean addressing the underlying human rights issues that create and exacerbate human rights violations. His chums in the G20 would be a great place to start.

Come on, Mr. President. Yes You Can!

To read Amnesty International’s new report, please visit, for facts and figures, images, graphs, audio and video news releases, and regional and country reports.

Gaza crossings remain restricted despite dire need

Almost two weeks ago Donatella Rovera, AI researcher posted an entry ‘Task of reconstruction will be truly immense’ during her mission to southern Israel and the Gaza Strip.

This 20 year veteran stated how she and her team were “shocked” and “horrified” at the scale of destruction found and that although prepared for devastation, what they “found was even worse than we had first realized”.

United Nation’s satellite imagery taken of northern Gaza shows widespread and intense damage to buildings, infrastructure and impact craters. Although over 1500 buildings, roads and structures have been damaged, UNOSAT notes that other structures may be damaged or unstable as well, and that estimates of damage are probably an under-estimate because of the difficulty in assessing damage to dense urban areas.

To date, the US has provided nearly $60 million in humanitarian aid like water, food, medicine and plastic sheeting. The cost of damage has been assessed to be more than 2-3 billion dollars

According to the UN Office of Humanitarian Affairs, crossings continue to be closed intermittently and imports greatly restricted. Exports are still not allowed.

The following audio clip offers a dire insight into the difficulties into getting humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip after the ceasefire:

A little over a week ago and two weeks after the ceasefire (and audio above), the European Union approached Israeli officials concerned that they “have not witnessed much improvement of the overall restrictions.”

Amnesty International along with other organizations including the United Nations continue to request that all the crossings into the Gaza Strip be opened to allow unhindered access for humanitarian aid and workers. Thousands remain homeless, requiring basic essentials such as food, water, mattresses, blankets and medicine. The grand task of trying to re-build can also not take place when simple reconstruction materials like concrete and plastic are not being allowed in.

Proper monitoring procedures can be put into place to guarantee aid is not going to Hamas authorities, but are properly being utilized. The bottle necks of aid at the crossings are unnecessary and continuing to hurt the victims of the attacks on Gaza from Dec. 27 – Jan. 18th. UNRWA has already shown their ability in guaranteeing the proper carrying out of its function when they stopped aid distribution after Hamas confiscated UNRWA supplies. The supplies were returned and guarantees were made by Hamas that no other confiscations would take place and UNRWA re-started their operations

No more excuses. Open the crossings now.

Sri Lanka: 52 Civilians Killed

Disheartening isn’t the word for it; it’s worse than that. It had been bad enough to hear of 9 civilians being killed and 20 injured last Sunday and Monday by shelling in the war zone in northern Sri Lanka. This morning, over my coffee, I learned from the UN that 52 civilians were killed by shelling in just one day yesterday. The UN said it didn’t know who was responsible for the shelling. According to the UN tonight, the hospital in the war zone that had been bombed repeatedly over last weekend is now empty; all the staff and patients have fled. According to the Red Cross, the patients have been moved to a community center in an area that lacks clean drinking water.

Yesterday’s shelling included a cluster bomb attack. Cluster bombs scatter dozens of bomblets over a wide area, some of which usually fail to explode, posing a lasting threat to civilians. Cluster bombs have been banned by the Convention on Cluster Munitions, since they’re indiscriminate weapons (Sri Lanka, though, hasn’t signed the Convention).  Amnesty International said today that the use of cluster bombs in yesterday’s shelling was “despicable.” The Sri Lankan government has said that it wasn’t responsible for yesterday’s shelling and that it doesn’t have cluster bombs.

The world is taking greater notice of the civilians at risk in Sri Lanka’s war zone. On Feb. 3, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.K. Foreign Secretary David Miliband issued a joint statement calling on both the Sri Lankan government and the rebel Tamil Tigers to allow civilians to leave the conflict area and to grant access for humanitarian agencies. That same day, Norway, Japan, the US and the EU issued a joint statement asking both sides to declare a temporary ceasefire to allow evacuation of the wounded and aid to the civilians remaining in the area. Today, Pope Benedict XVI publicly appealed for an end to the fighting.

The forces targeting the civilians or engaging in indiscrimate attacks should remember that they’re committing war crimes, for which they may one day be held accountable. Before that day, let’s hope that both sides heed the statements from the international community and immediately take steps to protect the civilians at risk.

UN Pledges $613 Million in Aid for Gaza

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appealed in an interview at the World Economic Forum for the international community to contribute aid for food, water, sanitation, shelter, infrastructure support, and health care for Gaza:

“As you know, I recently visited Gaza. The civilian population has suffered greatly during three weeks of military operations. More than a third of the 6,600 dead and injured were children and women. As a father of three, I was especially troubled by their suffering and the psychological trauma so many families went through.

Help is indeed needed urgently: food, clean water, shelter, medicine, restoration of basic services. Everywhere I went, I saw the evidence of critical humanitarian needs. The population were already vulnerable because of so many months of severely restricted supplies. That is why the Humanitarian Flash Appeal for Gaza that we are announcing today is so timely and so important. With the help of this $ 613 million appeal, the United Nations and other aid agencies can jump into action to help the 1.4 million civilians in the Gaza Strip to recover.”

The emphasis on psychological trauma is particularly interesting, especially considering the civilian devastation, destruction of schools and the 2,267 children who were injured or killed in the conflict.  Psychological trauma in post conflict situations does not solely affect children. Men in Gaza also face long term psychological trauma following the violence and lack of opportunity.

In the light of the World Economic Forum and the global economic crisis, perhaps the largest long term threat to human rights and humanitarian aid is economic:

“The systemic and perpetual economic hindrances imposed upon the Palestinian economy by the Israeli occupation are viewed by most experts to be the primary impediment to allowing the Palestinian economy to reach its full potential. The World Bank has identified three principal “paralytic effects” of Israeli policies on the Palestinian economy: access to economies of scale, access to natural resources and access to an investment horizon. It also cited physical impediments — road blocks, closures, earth mounds and the ongoing construction of the wall on West Bank land […] — as a ‘paralysis confronting the Palestinian economy’.”

The paralysis, as UN humanitarian chief John Holmes suggests, is on the border:

“Unless all of them [border crossings] are effectively opened, we’re never going to be able to get enough supplies to Gaza.”

UN Should Investigate War Crimes

Last week, the UN passed a binding resolution calling for “an immediate, durable and fully respected ceasefire leading to the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza.” Resolution 1860 also calls for “the unimpeded provisions and distribution throughout Gaza of humanitarian assistance, including of food, fuel and medical treatment” and “condemns all acts of violence and terror directed against civilians and all acts of terrorism.” In addressing the issue of arms trafficking into Palestinian territories, the resolution calls for “intensified international arrangements to prevent arms and ammunition smuggling
The resolution passed, with fourteen members voted in favor.  The United States abstained.

But despite the binding resolution, both Israel and Hamas have continued their attacks.  Nearly 25 rocket attacks were fired on Israel on one day alone, January 10.  According to Israel, 13 Israelis have died, three of them civilian.

Meanwhile, Israel continues shelling Gaza, moving its land invasion deeper into Gaza.  In air and land attacks that have been waged since December 27, over 900 Palestinians have been killed.  The director of emergency services in Gaza, Dr Muawiya Hassanein, said half of the casualties were women and children.  But Israel’s Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni promised more of the same from Israel: “Israel is a country that reacts vigorously when its citizens are fired up, which is a good thing,” she said.  “That is something that Hamas now understands and that is how we are going to react in the future.”

But with mounting evidence that Israel deliberately attacked civilians, prevented civilians from fleeing areas of conflict, and prevented wounded from seeking medical attention, Amnesty International is concerned that the UN resolution did not go far enough.  In a statement released today, Amnesty said, “the resolution failed to state that parties must stop violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, nor does the resolution address the mounting evidence of war crimes and other serious abuses of international law, or provide for an investigation and for those responsible to be held to account.”

For more, read here.

Gaza By The Numbers

A snapshot of Gaza by the numbers:

Humanitarian Assistance

  • Movement in and out of Gaza is all but impossible and supplies of food, water, sewage treatment, basic health care have been drastically affected by the blockade of aid. Food prices are rising and wheat, flour, baby milk, and rose 34%, 30%, and 20.5% respectively during the period May-June 2007 alone.
  • Prior to the blockade (implemented after Hamas took over total adminstration over Gaza in June 2007), around 250 trucks carrying aid entered Gaza each day.
  • As of March 2008, that number was reduced to 45.
  • According to UN figures reported in the Guardian, that number dropped to just 5 in December.
  • Most recently, the Israeli government prevented a Libyan ship carrying 3000 tons of aid from entering Gaza.

Poverty and Dependency on Food Aid

  • Number of people living in absolute poverty in Gaza in 2008: 80%
  • Number of people living in absolute poverty in Gaza in 2006: 63%
  • In 2007, households were spending 62% of their income on food.
  • In 2004, households were spending 37% of their income on food.
  • As of March 2008, there were over 1.1 million people—three quarters of Gaza—who are dependent on food aid. In less than ten years, the numbers of families who depending on UNRWA food aid has increased ten-fold


  • In June 2005, there were 3,900 factories in Gaza employing 35,000 people.
  • In December 2007, there were just 195, employing only 1,700.
  • Unemployment is close to 40%.
  • 40,000 agriculture works who depend on cash crops now have no income.
  • In September 2000, 24,000 Gazans crossed into Israel to seek cheap labor. Now that number is zero.

Schools, Electricity, Medical Supplies

  • In January 2008, UNICEF reported that schools in Gaza had been cancelling classes that required high energy consumption like IT, science lab, and extra-curricular classes.
  • Hospitals cannot generate electricity to keep lifesaving equipment working or to generate oxygen, while 40-50 million liters of sewage continues to pour into the sea daily.
  • Hospitals are currently experiencing power cuts lasting for 8-12 hours a day.
  • There is currently a 60-70 percent shortage reported in the diesel required for hospital power generators.
  • According to the World Health Organization, the proportion of patients given permits to exit Gaza for medical care dropped from 89.3% in January 2007 to 64.3% in December 2007.
  • Many of those who are given permits are blocked at the crossing itself. In October 2007 alone, the WHO confirmed that 20 patients died because they were denied access to refereal services. Five of these deaths were children.

In speaking about the current wave of violence, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gabriela Shalev pledged that Israel will “destroy completely” the “terrorist gang.”

But the facts show that much more than a “terrorist gang” is being destroyed in Gaza.

(Unless otherwise indicated, all facts in this post are from the report “The Gaza Strip: A Humanitarian implosion” co-authored by Amnesty International, Oxfam, Medcins de Monde UK, CAFOD, Save the Children UK, TroCAIRE, CARE, and Christian Aid).

What the UDHR Means to Me

The United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), proposed by Eleanor Roosevelt and adopted by the United Nations in 1948 established 30 articles of universal Human Rights. This document establishes and protects the framework for civilized and respectful interaction between all people and nations no matter what their political, religious or cultural beliefs. Over 190 nations have ratified this declaration; and yet surveys show that more people can name 3 members of the Homer Simpson TV Cartoon family than they can name three of their basic human rights. You can’t defend what you do not know.

At a time when we see women being stoned to death, child executions, people starving in the Eastern Sudan, children being stolen from their families and made into child-soldiers or prostitutes, prisoners being water-boarded, millions of people starving and dying of AIDS each year – we have to ask: what can human rights education do? My answer is everything. It’s where it all begins.

A friend once told me a story I will never forget. In the early 1940’s there was a young black boy in the Deep South, a sharecropper’s son. He went to school in a one-room, tattered schoolhouse. One morning, sitting by himself, he opened a third-hand, torn Civics text book. He read a page – The United States Bill of Rights. He read it again. He looked around and what he saw were white only schools, white only restrooms, and “sit on the back of the bus”. It didn’t make sense. And at that single moment, education, as it does for all of us, made that young Black boy more aware – and he decided to do something about it. His name was Martin Luther King Jr., and the rest is history.

Nelson Mandela said, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can learn to love.”

Human rights violations know no borders. From child soldiers in the Congo, ethnic cleansing in Darfur, to the rise in human trafficking right here in the US, it is easy to see that the whole world needs to change.

By knowing all 30 Articles of the UDHR we can be equipped with the knowledge to fight against any injustice anywhere in the world. On this 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration, with all the turmoil that currently exists in the world, it has become more important than ever for people to know their rights, to pass them onto others, and to defend them relentlessly.

The solution to global issues such as poverty, famine, war and political unrest is encompassed by the UDHR, and human rights education is the first step in resolving these issues at a grassroots level.

I hope to see the day when human rights education becomes a mandatory part of every middle school curriculum on every continent across the world, so that every man, woman and child knows and can defend their God-given rights.

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?

Forced to Leave Home

Bloggers Unite

Every day across the world people make the difficult decision to leave their homes. War, persecution, environmental disaster and poverty are just some of the reasons why a person might feel that they have to leave their family, community or country.

Refugees leave their country because they have no other choice and fear for their own life or safety or that of their family. Refugees also flee their country when their government will not or cannot protect them from serious human rights abuses.

Right now, as you read this, millions of people around the world have fled and are waiting to begin their lives again. Tens of thousands of Zimbabwean refugees in South Africa wonder if today is the day their food rations will run out. Hundreds of thousands of Burmese refugees in Thailand worry that today is the day they will succumb to illness without medical attention. A quarter of a million Colombian refugees in Ecuador fear that today is the day they will be sent back to face the violence in their home country.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the main agency mandated to provide protection and humanitarian services to those fleeing persecution, estimates there are almost 10 million refugees around the world. They have fled political and religious persecution, been caught up in ethnic conflict, and subjected to violence because of their sexual orientation. There are many reasons that people become refugees, but only a few ways to obtain the protection they so desperately need. International agencies and local organizations do their best to assist everyone, but caring for the world’s most vulnerable is a daunting task.

Amnesty International USA advocates for the rights of asylum-seekers in the United States, and for the humane and dignified treatment of refugees and migrants worldwide. As violations of human rights continue and the number of fleeing people rises, we must all raise our voices to protect the persecuted.

Amnesty’s Solution to DRC is…More Guns??

I was asked today about Amnesty International’s increasing calls for the UN Security Council to act to reinforce the peacekeeping force currently in DRC (acronym MONUC…it’s French and I can’t find the circumflex character to spell it out). Given the awful situiation in the East of the country, calling on the Security Council to, in his words, “put more guns” in the Kivus was “not going to help in the long run,” he offered. After quickly noting that Amnesty’s call is to strengthen the ability of MONUC to protect civilians…which include more police and armed personnel, but also trucks, aircraft, training to help victims of sexual violence, and a whole slew of logistical support, I gave it a little thought.

Like Amnesty’s support for the UN Mission in Darfur, the calls for increasing support for MONUC—already the largest (most expensive) peacekeeping mission in the world—may seem a desperate recommendation to some. But aside from the obvious and pressing needs of the most vulnerable of people in Eastern DRC—the war affected, the starving, and the displaced—there is no doubt that the humanitarian crisis itself is a policy problem. While Amnesty’s call is surely motivated primarily by the need to address human suffering, there is longer term wisdom to that call.

The roots of the current crisis in DRC can be traced back to the broader “Great Lakes” refugee crisis following the Rwandan genocide. We can trace the general instability of the Kivus and eastern DRC more broadly to the displacement of millions at the borders of Uganda, Sudan, Rwanda, and Burundi. That is, we can trace the current political and security situation in DRC back to the displacement and human insecurity of nearly 15 years ago and years since.  

Rwandan refugees setting up camp in E. DRC, 1994

Rwandan refugees setting up camp in E. DRC, 1994

This displacement destroys communities, shreds political fabric, militarizes local commerce, invites predation, increases incentives to take up arms, and destabilizes displacement-receiving communities and countries. The number of people displaced from the Kivus in the past couple months is about equal to the total number of Darfuris who’ve fled to neighboring Chad over the past 5 years. MONUC must be strengthened because civilians will suffer even further if it is not. But the wisdom of strengthening the UN’s thus-far ineffectual presence in the Kivus extends to a generational metric. If the spiraling human security situation in the Kivus isn’t soon slowed, we’ll be citing the international community’s failure to act in 2008 as a key cause of another yet-avoidable catastrophe years down the road.

Yes, securing vulnerable people now is just and necessary (see Mr. Koettl’s post from earlier today). But it has the added advantage of allowing future generations a chance to live in relative peace.