What is the UN Saying on Syria?

Sunjeev Bery on Sky News Arabia

Sunjeev Bery on Sky News Arabia

Yesterday, I joined the team at Sky News Arabia for a live discussion of the latest report on Syria by an independent UN panel. Special thanks to Sky News producer Arwa Sawan, reporter Joseph Khawly, and anchor Amer Abdel Aziz for giving Amnesty International USA an opportunity to share our analysis of the grave human rights situation.

The report (PDF) is a catalog of violence, suffering, and geopolitical developments, focusing on events between January 15th and May 15th of this year. It was produced by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, established by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011.


Why The New Investigation Into North Korean Human Rights Violations Matters

This posting is part of the North Korea Revealed blogging series, published in the context of efforts to establish a Commission of Inquiry at the current session of the UN Human Rights Council (February 25 – March 22). Join the conversation through #NKRevealed.

With overwhelming support from member states, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva today established a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the deplorable human rights conditions in North Korea. Today’s development should be considered a milestone for international justice. While an independent investigation will not yield the ultimate impact we want—the much-needed closure of the political prison camps—it represents a crucial first step in uncovering the widespread and systematic nature of the crimes, and could ultimately lead to holding the perpetrators accountable. As an immediate impact, the commission has the potential to pressure North Korean officials to end their outright denial of the existence of the camps. We heavily campaigned for this outcome over the last few months – by putting the vast network of political prison camps on the map, uncovering a new security zone next to the infamous Camp 14, and most importantly, by sharing the powerful stories of survivors of the forgotten prisons, with the world.


Is North Korea Turning Into One Big Prison?

(c) DigitalGlobe 2013. Panchromatic Imagery, February 7, 2013. 39 38 02 N, 125 59 52 E

(c) DigitalGlobe 2013. Panchromatic Imagery, February 7, 2013. 39 38 02 N, 125 59 52 E

This posting is part of the North Korea Revealed blogging series, published in the context of efforts to establish a Commission of Inquiry at the current session of the UN Human Rights Council (February 25 – March 22). Join the conversation through #NKRevealed.

Amnesty International is releasing new satellite images today that raise fears that the North Korean government is starting to blur the line between the country’s horrendous political prison camps and regular villages. This disturbing new development gives further fuel to a previous warning by a UN expert that authorities are turning the country into “one big prison,” and stress the urgent need for the UN Human Rights Council to establish an independent Commission of Inquiry.

We commissioned satellite imagery analysis from DigitalGlobe after reading reports about a potential new political prison camp. The original speculations were based on Google Earth satellite imagery from the fall of 2011. We were able to secure imagery from February 2013, allowing us to provide the most up-to-date snapshot possible of worrisome developments in a valley adjacent to prison camp 14.


North Korea: Stories From The Forgotten Prisons

Explore the system of political prison camps in North Korea

Explore the system of political prison camps in North Korea

This is the first of several postings of the North Korea Revealed blogging series, published in the context of efforts to establish a Commission of Inquiry at the current session of the UN Human Rights Council (February 25 – March 22). Join the conversation through #NKRevealed.

I was born in North Korea in 1982. I was born in a political prison camp (…) and lived there until I escaped in 2005 (…) I was born to an imprisoned mother and father. —Shin Dong-hyuk, the only known North Korean born in a political prison camp to have escaped.

Shin’s shocking story personifies the horrors of North Korea’s vast network of political prison camps, believed to house over a hundred thousand prisoners. His story is emblematic for the daily forced hard labor, calculated starvation and torture that prisoners have to endure. It also reflects the system of collective punishment that results in the incarceration of several generations of one family, often for life. You can hear more from Shin on a new video playlist, together with testimonies of other escapees and exiles. Their voices urge immediate action to stop the horrors of the prison camps. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

The Universal Periodic Review, Human Rights, and Israel: What’s at Stake

By Peter Splinter, Amnesty International’s Representative to the United Nations in Geneva

By the end of 2011, all UN member states’ human rights records had been examined under the Universal Periodic Review process. © Eric Bridiers/U.S. Mission

By the end of 2011, all UN member states’ human rights records had been examined under the Universal Periodic Review process. © Eric Bridiers/U.S. Mission

If the Israeli government is not careful, it will ruin an important global human rights process for everybody.

The Universal Periodic Review, a process to examine states’ human rights records, has until now been truly universal: all United Nation member states were reviewed by the end of 2011 and the second cycle of reviews has already started.

But now the government of Israel is not engaging with the process. Every indication is that the Israel will not be present this afternoon when it is scheduled to be examined under the Universal Periodic Review. As the only recalcitrant state among 193, Israel’s deliberate absence would sabotage the principle of universality. Consequently the Universal Periodic Review stands to lose the compelling legitimacy it derives from being applied even-handedly to all states. Why should states that would prefer to escape scrutiny of their human rights record, or are severely resource constrained, submit to this process if Israel’s non-compliance demonstrates that it is no longer universal?


India's Cynical Sri Lanka Vote

India’s foreign policy is acombination of realpolitik and old-school “nonaligned” mumbo-jumbo that made little sense even when it was more relevant during the Cold War. In any case, they definitely don’t want to talk about country-specific human rights issues (lest Kashmir might get more play). Yet, they joined the majority to support a human rights resolution on Sri Lanka.

India has refused to condemn Syria’s brutal crackdown on its own citizens. There, it was pure cynicism on the part of South Block (India’s Ministry of External Affairs) knowing that India won’t take a hit for not condemning Syria’s war against its people.

For Sri Lanka, it’s infinitely more complicated.


Brazil Must Stop Siding With Oppressive Regimes

Brazil’s recent history of siding with some of today’s most oppressive governments must end. As we watch the events in Tunisia and Egypt unfold, Brazil’s track record of supporting and befriending today’s most powerful dictators is downright shameful.  This position is not only contrary to the country’s desire to become a leader in global human rights, but also irresponsible.

Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s apparent willingness to greet and negotiate with oppressive regimes was counterproductive to the world’s development.  Current President Dilma Rousseff has an opportunity to break with this trend by living up to the country’s humanitarian aspirations and expectations, as evidenced in the nation’s involvement with the world’s most respected humanitarian organizations.

Brazil became a member of the UN Human Rights Council when the multilateral body was created in 2006.  Brazil’s involvement with the organization has served as a platform for Brazil to contribute to important human rights matters, including resolutions offering access to medicines combating pandemics such as HIV / AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.  Brazil also introduced and championed initiatives to protect children rights and to combat discrimination by defending the incompatibility between democracy and racism.

Although such initiatives are noteworthy, Brazil has been less than helpful with other matters of global importance.  In 2009 it stopped supporting the Council’s resolutions dealing with North Korea’s human rights violations.  Brazil also refrained from standing up to the international crimes committed under Sudan’s regime. Additionally, Brazil supported Sri Lanka’s resolution, in which the massacre of over 70 thousand people during 25 years of civil war was not recognized.


Las Vegas Amnesty Group's Union Rights Video Chosen By UN

Last night I attended the debut of the US Human Rights Network’s Testify! Project, a collection of videos and written testimonies exploring stories of injustice from throughout the United States. The top 10 videos and stories are being screened for United Nations delegates in Geneva, Switzerland, in preparation for the United States’ Universal Periodic Review (“UPR”) which takes place tomorrow. The UPR is a process through which the human rights records of all 192 UN Member States are reviewed once every four years.

A huge shout-out to Amnesty’s very own Local Group 463 in Las Vegas, NM, whose video submission was one of the ten films selected to be shown here in Geneva, at the UN! The two-minute video, which focuses on the efforts of local hospital workers to form a union, can be viewed at www.testifyproject.com or http://ushrnetwork.org/testify/?p=431. In addition to Local Group 463’s union rights video, the video subjects spanned the spectrum of human rights from police brutality to treatment of migrants to the human right to health care.

The evening was a powerful reminder of the need for human rights implementation in the United States. Amnesty International has submitted recommendations to the UN Human Rights Council outlining how the US can and must do just that – and I have come to Geneva to help raise awareness of these issues and ensure that concrete actions are taken.
But we need your help!  Included in those recommendations is a call for President Obama to issue an Executive Order that would create an interagency working group on human rights. This working group should be comprised of representatives from every federal agency, from the Department of Homeland Security to the Department of Justice, to help create a domestic human rights infrastructure and bring human rights home. To support our work in Geneva and help AIUSA push for this infrastructure, ask President Obama to issue an Executive Order on human rights now!

Sri Lanka: international investigation still needed

Human Rights Watch said something on Sri Lanka yesterday at the UN Human Rights Council that bears repeating:

“Additionally, the Council should establish an independent international investigation into violations of international humanitarian law during the fighting between the government and the LTTE.”

Amnesty International has been calling for such an investigation for some time.  Thousands of civilians were killed in the last stages of the fighting between the Sri Lankan government and the opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).  Amnesty has received testimonies that both the Sri Lankan security forces and the LTTE were responsible for severe violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, including war crimes, during the fighting.  The Sri Lankan government had promised the UN in a joint statement in late May to investigate those violations, but since then nothing has been done by the Sri Lankan government to fulfill those promises.  Yesterday, a UN official said that the UN was concerned about the lack of progess on this issue, among others in Sri Lanka.  The UN should establish an international investigation now.

Goldstone report findings support Amnesty's own field investigations

Amnesty International said yesterday that the recommendations of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict, if implemented, offer the best hope for justice and accountability. The UN-mandated report by Judge Richard Goldstone found that both Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups committed grave violations of international law, including war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity, during the Gaza conflict this year.


 The report supports Amnesty International’s own findings of war crimes committed by both sides.

Donatella Rovera, who headed Amnesty International’s fact finding mission last winter in Israel and the Gaza Strip, said:

“The UN Security Council and other UN bodies must now take the steps necessary to ensure that the victims receive the justice and reparation that is their due and that perpetrators don’t get away with murder. The responsibility now lies with the international community, notably the UN Security Council, as the UN’s most powerful body, to take decisive action to ensure accountability for the perpetrators and justice for the victims. The Security Council must refer the Goldstone findings to the International Criminal Court Prosecutor if Israel and Hamas do not carry out credible investigations within a set, limited period.”

Note:  The United States holds the Presidency of the United Nations Security Council for the month of September.

Despite powerful evidence of war crimes and other serious violations of international law which emerged during and in the aftermath of the conflict, both Israel and Hamas have failed to carry out credible investigations and prosecute those responsible.  The UN Security Council condemned attacks against civilians during the conflict and urged both sides to respect international law, but so far it has turned a blind eye to the allegations of war crimes and other grave violations committed by both sides.

The report’s findings are consistent with those of Amnesty International’s own field investigation into the 22-day conflict during which some 1,400 Palestinians and nine Israelis were killed (four other Israeli soldiers were killed by their own side in ‘friendly fire’ incidents).

Most of the Palestinians killed by Israeli forces were unarmed civilians, including some 300 children. Amnesty’s investigations also found Israeli forces carried out wanton and wholesale destruction in Gaza, leaving entire neighborhoods in ruin, and used Palestinians as human shields.  Amnesty’s findings also agree with the Goldstone report in that the rocket fire into southern Israel by armed Palestinian groups, including Hamas, was indiscriminate which constitutes a war crime.

Key findings of the Goldstone report include:

• Israeli forces committed violations of human rights and international humanitarian law amounting to war crimes and some possibly amounting to crimes against humanity. Notably, investigations into numerous instances of lethal attacks on civilians and civilian objects revealed that the attacks were intentional, that some were launched with the intention of spreading terror among the civilian population and with no justifiable military objective and that Israeli forces used Palestinian civilians as human shields.

• Israeli forces committed grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention, notably wilful killing, torture and inhumane treatment, wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health, and extensive destruction of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly. As grave breaches these acts give rise to individual criminal responsibility.

• Israel violated its duty to respect the right of Gaza’s population to an adequate standard of living, including access to adequate food, water and housing. Notably acts which deprive Palestinians in Gaza of their means of sustenance, employment, housing and water, that deny their freedom of movement and their right to leave and enter their own country, that limit their access to an effective remedy and could amount to persecution – a crime against humanity.

• Palestinian armed groups violated the principle of distinction by launching rocket and mortars attacks which cannot be aimed with sufficient precision at military targets and that their attacks into civilian areas which had no intended military target constituted deliberate attacks against civilians. Such attacks constitute war crimes and may amount to crimes against humanity.

• Palestinian combatants did not always adequately distinguish themselves from he civilian population and they unnecessarily exposed civilians to danger when they launched attacks close to civilian or protected buildings.

• The Fact-Finding Mission found no evidence that Palestinian armed groups directed civilians to areas where attacks were launched or that they forced civilians to remain within their vicinity, nor that hospital facilities were used by the Hamas de-facto administration or by Palestinian armed groups to shield military activities, or that ambulances were used to transport combatants, or that Palestinian armed groups engaged in combat activities from within hospitals or UN facilities that were used as shelters.