Let the People Speak

This post is part 3 of 3 of Cultural Oppression in Azerbaijan series

“A medieval cemetery regarded as one of the wonders of the Caucasus has been erased from the Earth in an act of cultural vandalism likened to the Taleban blowing up the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan,” reflected the London Times after independent journalist Iddrak Abbasov in ex-Soviet Azerbaijan confirmed in April 2006 that the world’s largest historic Armenian cemetery had vanished.

When Mr. Abbasov returned to the exclave of Nakhichevan – where Djulfa existed – to investigate other human rights violations, he was interrogated, harassed, accused of being an Armenian spy, and instructed never to return to the region. Abbasov’s interrogation was mentioned in our 2009 “Azerbaijan: Independent Journalists under Siege” report. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Breaking News: Let the Satellite Stream

This post is part 2 of 3 of Cultural Oppression in Azerbaijan series

When reports emerged in December 2005 that Azerbaijan was deliberately destroying (see the tape) the world’s largest medieval Armenian cemetery at Djulfa with its intricately carved burial stones called khachkars, Azeri president Ilham Aliyev said the news was “an absolute lie.” Five years later, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has released before-and-after satellite image analysis which states that the “the entire area [of the cemetery] has been graded flat.”

Below are top ten reasons why you should take action to tell UNESCO – the international body charged with protecting world heritage – to hold Azerbaijan accountable for Djulfa’s destruction:

Satellite data showing the Djulfa cemetery partly destroyed in 2003 (left) and “graded flat” by 2009 (right); read the complete study on the AAAS website.

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Displaced Roma Families Head into Brutal Winter without Adequate Housing

This post is part of our Write for Rights series.

Around 100 children, women and men, forcibly evicted from their homes by the Romanian government six years ago, continue to live in dirty, inhumane conditions.  With nowhere else to go, they are stuck in small, overcrowded metal shacks that stand next to a large sewage plant. A sign outside the plant warns of “toxic danger”, yet the authorities have failed to heed this warning and the Roma families are suffering.

The Roma families are from the Romanian town of Miercurea Ciuc, and despite the fact that authorities told them the movie was only temporary, six years have passed and there are still no plans to relocate them. The 75 people remaining are living with only 4 toilets between them, 1 tap for water, and shacks that do not provide protection from the elements, which is of serious concern for the winter season when temperatures drop below -25 °C (-13 °F). In addition, the families are also living within 300 meters of toxic waste, which is prohibited under Romanian law. Many Roma have expressed concern about their health, and the health of their families, reporting an awful stench that constantly lingers in the air.

SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Let the Stones Scream

This post is part 1 of 3 of Cultural Oppression in Azerbaijan series


One of many snapshots from a video taped at the Iranian-Azerbaijani border in December 2005, this image shows a truck dumping deliberatey destroyed celebrated khachkars of the Djulfa cemetery into the River Araxes

Five years ago this month an ancient cemetery in a remote region of southerwestern Azerbaijan was wiped off the face of the earth. The unique and intricately carved tombstones of the cemetery known as khachkars, literally cross-stones in Armenian (the craftsmanship of which is a UNESCO Intangible Heritage tradition), were seen as the latest victims of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict materialized in the early 1990s war over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh. But their destruction was also a broader violation of human rights – not only against ethnic Armenians but all citizens of Azerbaijan who were denied a chance to explore and appreciate an often inconvenient history.

While the Karabakh war, ceased in 1994, destroyed thousands of lives and damaged cultural monuments on both sides (each side equally denying their own responsibility in the casualties), the destruction of the Djulfa cemetery in December 2005 was unique because it took place after the war in a region called Naxçivan (or Nakhichevan) where no skirmishes had taken place (and where ethnic Armenians live no longer). The deliberate destruction of Djulfa was more like a war against history: a calculated act of ruling out a future return of the Armenian heritage by denying its indigenous existence in the first place.

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Angola, Meet Secretary Clinton

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Angola today on the latest stop of her seven nation tour. Our Country Specialist Jen Ziemke contributed these comments regarding issues Secretary Clinton will hopefully address in her meetings with President dos Santos.

Since 2001, Amnesty International has documented thousands of families forcibly evicted from various neighborhoods in the Angolan capital of Luanda in order to make room for public and private housing projects. These forced evictions were typically carried out without due process of law, including prior notification or consultation and the ability to dispute the evictions in a court of law. Nearly all of the evictions were accompanied by excessive use of force. Officials specifically targeted poor families who had little access to the means of securing their tenure. Angola is a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and should honor its obligations to ensure its citizen’s rights to an adequate standard of living are protected.

President Jose Eduardo dos Santos previously scheduled presidential elections for late 2009, but recent reports indicate these elections will be delayed again until at least 2010. Secretary Clinton must ensure that the US will be carefully monitoring the upcoming election process and demand that the elections to be held as soon as possible. Furthermore, President dos Santos must give all candidates and eligible parties equal access to media and campaigning and organizational resources, without fear of intimidation.

Whenever they take place, the elections will be the first presidential elections since 1992′s failed attempt that led to escalating violence and a resumption of civil war. The likelihood of violence is not as high as during that time, and it should be noted that in September 2008, legislative elections remained free from violence and were considered “generally credible.” Those elections, however, were marred by state-run media affording undue advantage to the incumbent party. Indeed the incumbent MPLA won over 80% of the vote.

Furthermore, reports that the freedom and security of human rights defenders, associations, and journalists is not being protected under the current leadership in Angola is of great concern. This is a good example of where Secretary Clinton can relay the message that, in order for the upcoming presidential elections to be considered valid in the eyes of the world, the treatment of journalists, advocates, student groups, human rights defenders and other members of civil society must improve.

The release of journalists like José Fernando Lelo from prison could also help bolster Angola’s human rights reputation. Lelo’s work is an example of a critical voice from civil society being silenced by the authorities. On September 19, 2008, Lelo was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment by a military court in Cabinda, Angola, after being convicted of crimes against the security of the state. Amnesty International believes his arrest and conviction were politically motivated, his trial unfair, and thereby we consider him a prisoner of conscience and call for is unconditional release from prison.

Humanitarian organizations operating in Angola also face uphill battles because their ability to operate is being infringed. In April 2008, the Director General of the Technical Unit for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance, a government department, announced that the government would soon stop the activities of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) “without a social impact”. In July he accused several NGOs of inciting violence and threatened to ban them: the Association for Justice, Peace and Democracy (Associação de Justiça, Paz e Democracia, AJPD); Mãos Livres; the Open Society Foundation (Fundação Open Society); and SOS-Habitat. These organizations have been doing critical work in the area of civil society, forced evictions, and human rights and should not be subject to government intimidation.

Secretary Clinton has the opportunity to help change Angola’s future by correcting its human rights past. We’ll be watching…

Amnesty Secretary General Dedicates Classic Police Song to Zimbabwe

Amnesty International Secretary General Irene Khan meets Zimbabwe's Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, London, 22 June 2009 © Amnesty International

AI's Khan meets Tsvangirai June 2009

Amnesty International’s Secretary General Irene Khan met with Zimbabwe Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai this week as he was wrapping up his world tour and she had just returned from a high level mission to Zimbabwe. As far as I can tell from the picture, there wasn’t actually a karaoke machine in the room, but Khan told Tsvangirai that Amnesty will be watching Zimbabwe closely over the next 100 days, looking for improvements in human rights. Only not in a stalker, creepy way as in the song, but more in line with the on going efforts of Amnesty International to bring to light the conditions that have occurred on the ground in Zimbabwe in recent years.

The severity of the degradation in human rights was on dramatic display during Khan’s visit last week, when civil activist group Women of Zimbabwe Arise staged two protests, one in Bulawayo and one in Harare. Both protests were violently broken up by riot police, resulting in serious injuries. The Harare protest occurred near where Khan was holding a press conference. Not smart to try to convince the world you are making progress on human rights issues and then beat up mothers with their babies and grandmothers in front of the head of one of the world’s largest human rights organization.

While Tsvangirai was in the US, he secured a commitment from Obama for “humanitarian plus” aid. This means increased aid to help the people in Zimbabwe with things like education and healthcare by giving the money to organizations in Zimbabwe as opposed to the government itself. All total, Tsvangirai secured pledges from donor governments amounting to around $180 million to provide some relief in Zimbabwe. This is no where near the amounts needed to begin to rebuild the country, but donor governments remain leery of the ability of the Zimbabwe government to handle direct developmental funding in a tranparent manner. Especially when the same week the new aid commitments are being announced, legislation is introduced in Zimbabwe’s Parliament to provide $30,000 loans to all Parliamentarians to buy brand new cars.

Amnesty International USA endorses the decision of the US government to increase funds that will improve the lives of the citizens of Zimbabwe. The US and international community have an obligation to protect and promote economic, social and cultural rights around the world. But Zimbabwe, we’ll be watching you.

Amnesty On-the-Ground in Kenya

This week, Amnesty International kicked off a high level research mission to Kenya to launch our first Demand Dignity campaign action.  Irene Khan, Amnesty’s Secretary General, visited to two informal settlements in Nairobi – where almost two million people live in slums – asking residents to tell the Kenyan government what dignity mean to them via a free SMS service.   The responses have been inspiring, take a look at a few:

For me, living with dignity means “setting principles to your ways and standard of living and be true to them.”

“Dignity is having three meals a day. Clean water. shelter. Good roads. justice for all but not for the few corrupt.”

“Dignity refers to carrying humanity with respect and honour.”

Community members from Korogocho and Kibera slums told the Amnesty delegation stories, sang songs and used street theatre performances to illustrate the human rights violations they face everyday as slum residents.  Irene Khan noted:

“The development of slums in urban areas has become the iconic symbol of the forgotten, marginalized people – excluded not only from basic services like sanitation, but also from the decision making that takes place even in their own lives.”

In the settlements, children play in muddy streams which run through narrow passageways, while pathways are littered with garbage, animal and human waste. Overcrowding in Kibera – Africa’s largest slum – is a huge problem with more than 800,000 people living on 250 hectares

Many of the informal settlement residents described the insecurity associated with slum-life. In Korogocho, Irene Khan met with Mama Franco, a mother of three, who recently lost her few personal possessions in a house fire started by the paraffin lamp she uses as she has no electricity supply.  Mama Franco is one of an estimated 127,000 poor Kenyans who face losing their homes in a planned river clean up program.

Amnesty International’s Demand Dignity campaign seeks to empower people living in poverty and take their voices to the highest level of government. The voices collected in Kenya’s informal settlements through the SMS action and website will be collected and presented to the Kenya government on World Habitat Day.

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.

Human Rights Made Whole

Yesterday, the U.N. General Assembly marked Human Rights Day by unanimously adopting the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (OP-ICESCR). This historic step fills in a crucial gap in the human rights framework; former High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour has described the OP-ICESCR as making human rights whole.

But to the media this looks like U.N. inside baseball, and they haven’t so much as mentioned it. (ReliefWeb, a U.N. humanitarian information portal, covered it; and here’s AI’s press release.)

So what’s it all about? In a word, it provides a means for redress for violations of economic, social and cultural rights.

One way of dividing up human rights obligations is like this:

  • To prevent human rights violations from happening.
  • To stop human rights violations that are currently happening.
  • To offer redress for human rights violations that have already happened.

The Counter Terror With Justice campaign’s call to the Obama administration in its first 100 days is a good illustration:

  • announce a plan and date to close Guantanamo;
  • issue an executive order to ban torture and other ill-treatment, as defined under international law;
  • ensure that an independent commission to investigate abuses committed by the U.S. government in its “war on terror” is set up.

That is, the call is to stop (close Guantanamo), prevent (ban torture), and begin to redress (set up an independent commission) human rights violations committed by the U.S. government in the “war on terror”. (You should, of course, sign the 100 days petition!)

Anyone who’s suffered a violation of his or her civil and political rights — like freedom of expression, freedom from torture, and the right to a fair trial — can file for redress with the United Nations. This is a matter of international law, and it empowers people in countries whose domestic courts won’t recognize their civil and political rights. That mechanism was established by the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1966.

But there’s never been an analogous system for economic, social and cultural rights – until yesterday. The OP-ICESCR finally provides a means for redress, under international law, for violations of the rights to water, food, health, housing, education and decent work.

This is a new tool for justice for refugees forcibly returned to North Korea and punished by starvation; for Roma children systematically segregated in Slovakia’s schools; and for poor families forcibly evicted from their homes in Angola to make way for new development projects.

Or, in other words:

For more, see the OP-ICESCR Coalition (which included AI).