Is the U.S. State Department Understating Human Rights Abuses?

Egyptian human right activist with chained hands during a protest against torture in police stations. KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

Egyptian human right activist with chained hands during a protest against torture in police stations. KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

Following last week’s release of the 2016 Department of State Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, Amnesty International USA conducted a review of the reports and offered an analysis of the reports.

The annual, Congressionally-mandated reports are meant to highlight abuses such as human rights defenders being killed, detained or hounded in to exile, along with draconian restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association, often imposed in the name of national security.

Unfortunately, this year’s report continues the practice of using diplomatic language to understate human rights violations. The report also continues to bury some cases of abuse by failing to refer to them in the summary section of the report. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Dear @Statedept, Please Protest Unfair Trial Of #Bahrain Activists

Bahrain has turned into a country in which an activist can be thrown into jail for reading a poem that criticizes the country’s King, and in which doctors and nurses are put on trial for doing their job. I can hardly imagine what sentence opposition figures are facing for leading and participating in the demonstrations that took place in February and March. It is outrageous to see Bahraini authorities putting protesters, activists and medics before military courts, which Human Rights Watch appropriately called a Travesty of Justice.

Bahrain is also an important strategic partner to the United States, and home to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet. It’s therefore legitimate to ask if that’s the reason why there is so much silence from the US administration on the crackdown of the pro-reform movement. As a Washington Post Editorial last month formulated it: “The administration clearly is trying to protect the strategic relationship with Bahrain.”

We are now mobilizing the public to call on the US government to speak out more strongly about unfair trials in Bahrain, one week before the trial of opposition figures continues. It is especially crucial that the Unites States administration guarantees that a high level representative from the US embassy in Bahrain will attend the trial.

Join The Global Bahrain Twitter Action on June 15

Taking a cue from Arab Spring activists using social media, we will conduct a Twitter action tomorrow, June 15. We are calling on all social media activists to urge the US Department of State to end their double standard and protest more forcefully against unfair trials in Bahrain. Messages to the State Department will include:

Dear @statedept, pls ensure you observe trial of #bahrain opposition #feb14
Dear @statedept, pls protest unfair trial of #bahrain activists #feb14

The @statedept should observes trial of #bahrain opposition #feb14
The @statedept should protest unfair trial of #bahrain activists #feb14

You can just re-tweet our messages coming from @amnesty tomorrow. Feel free to adapt the tweets, but please stay on message and be polite. I will be collecting the most compelling tweets and plan to publish some of them on this blog (which we will also share with our contacts in the State Department), together with an update on our recent Bahrain actions.


Blood in the Street, Injustice in the Courts, Silence from the US

While Bahraini authorities are silencing activists, opposition leaders and even medical personnel in military courts, the United States Government remains silent. We have seen the US respond to the popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, yet government officials so far have remained relatively silent on the crackdown in Bahrain – imposed on the streets and in the courts.

The most recent indications for this silent acceptance of human rights violations include the (rather secret) meetings of high level US government officials with the Bahraini Crown Prince yesterday, and the recent refusal by the State Department to testify before the Congressional Human Rights Commission.

The United States’ failure to act in Bahrain represents a tragic double standard in US Middle East policies. In Obama’s May 19th speech on the Middle East and North Africa, the President won applause for rhetoric admonishing the Bahraini Monarchy’s repression of dissent, stating that “you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail.”


Help a student from Gaza not miss another day of school

Want to help a student who has worked hard both academically and in his community?  Someone who has gone through the madness of applying and being accepted at a university in the United States even earning a partial scholarship?  (Not an easy task.)  Want to help someone that has already had to miss fall semester and is in danger of missing spring semester and losing his scholarship?

Abed earns his degree in 2008.

Abed Al Hadi Basheer is 24 years old and trying to better himself so he can continue to help children in his community and better care for his blind father and family.  He has been accepted into Washington State University’s College of Education Cultural Studies and Social Thought program in Pullman, WA with a partial scholarship and has received letters of support from professors who live in Pullman that met Abed when they travelled to the Gaza Strip on a Fulbright-Hays project.  He also has letters on his behalf from both Senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray of Washington state.

What is wrong with him?  Or, what has he done wrong?  Nothing.  Well, he was born in the Gaza Strip.

Due to Israel’s blockade on the Gaza Strip, there are stringent restrictions on all movement of people into and out of Gaza.


State Dept.: no accountability yet for Sri Lanka war crimes

As my colleague Christoph Koettl mentioned in his earlier post on this site, the State Department today issued its follow-up report on war crimes in Sri Lanka.  Why a follow-up report?  Last October, the State Department issued a report describing over 300 reported human rights abuses (including war crimes) committed by both sides during the final months of the war in Sri Lanka.  That earlier report cited incidents documented by Amnesty International, among others, and was based on traditional and innovative evidence, including satellite imagery and aerial photographs.   Congress then instructed the State Dept. to issue a second report about what the Sri Lankan government has done to investigate these abuses, and to evaluate the effectiveness of their efforts.  That second report by the State Dept. was issued today.

What’s the verdict?  No effective accountability yet by the Sri Lankan government.  The State Dept. describes how the Sri Lankan government has set up two bodies:  (1) a “Group of Eminent  Persons” to respond to the first State Dept. report, and (2) a reconciliation commission to examine the breakdown of the 2002 ceasefire with the Tamil Tigers and subsequent events.  The State Dept. concludes that the Group of Eminent Persons (which has now been subsumed into the reconciliation commission) was ineffective.

As for the reconciliation commission, the State Dept. points out in its report that the commission has just gotten started but it does mention a couple concerns, among others:

(a) The chair of the commission has a serious conflict of interest.  He used to be Sri Lanka’s Attorney General.  His department hindered the workings of an earlier commission of inquiry (as documented in AI’s “Twenty Years of Make-Believe” report).

(b) Public statements by Sri Lankan officials, such as the Defence Secretary, have been to the effect that the Sri Lankan military didn’t commit any abuses.  In this context, it may be difficult for the reconciliation commission to do an effective job of investigating abuses.

There’s more in the State Dept. report, including discussion of the UN advisory panel and of the “execution video,” which I don’t have room to discuss here (at least, if I want to keep this to a reasonable length).

Amnesty and other organizations have been calling for an independent international investigation into war crimes and other abuses committed by both sides during the war in Sri Lanka.  After reading the latest State Department report, I think our call for such an investigation is only strengthened.  The victims of the abuses and their families shouldn’t have to wait for the reconciliation commission to fail to provide justice.  We need an international investigation now!  If you haven’t already, please sign our online petition to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asking the UN to set up such an investigation.  Thanks!

When will the silence in Mexico end?

Killings in JuarezThis past week in Mexico, eight journalists have been kidnapped (of which 2 have been released alive and one dead) in Reynosa and three people have been murdered in Ciudad Juarez who have connections to the US Consulate. The perpetrators of these murders may have been involved with the ongoing battle between rival drug trafficking organizations. Violence against journalists has been a persistent problem in Mexico, where this year three journalists have been confirmed killed by the authorities, twelve journalists were killed in 2009, and 60 have been killed since 2000. The most recent kidnappings in Reynosa and the trend of violence against reporters has caused Ciro Gómez Leyva, the news director at Milenio, to write an angry column, saying “journalism is dead in Reynosa”.

Not only is it dangerous to report on the drug war in Mexico, it is dangerous to organize or advocate for human rights. In the 2009 State Department Report on Human Rights Practices in Mexico, the arbitrary and unlawful deprivation of human life was noted as a major human rights problem. One alarming case, that of Raúl Lucas Lucía and Manuel Ponce Rosas, was included in the Human Rights Report and featured in Amnesty International’s recent report called “Standing up for Justice and Dignity: Human Rights Defenders in Mexico”. These men were human rights defenders who worked with the Future of Mixtecos Indigenous Peoples group who advocate for economic and social rights regarding indigenous Me’ phaa (Tlapaneca) and the Na savi (Mixteca) people. After being assaulted by plain clothed police officers and kidnapped in the town of Ayutla de los Libres in Guerrero state at a public ceremony, their families were notified with a threatening text message of their disappearance. Several days later their injured bodies were found in Tecoanapa, Guerrero State, a 30-minute drive from Ayutla de los Libres. An investigation was opened but at the end of 2009, is still pending.

This case is emblematic of the larger problem of targeting human rights defenders which is illustrated in an Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) report. The report documented 128 attacks including 10 killings against human rights defenders from 2006 to August 2009.

The State Department Report on Human Rights noted that journalists fear revenge from police authorities and drug traffickers and that affects what they report. The news “blackouts” also have human rights implications because often that is how defenders raise awareness on abuses they encounter.


U.S. State Department Releases Sri Lanka War Crimes Report

The U.S. Department of State‘s Office of War Crimes Issues released its investigation into the final stage of the conflict in Sri Lanka today. Requested by Congress, the report (pdf) covers the period between January and May 2009 and consists of an overview of incidents that happened during the final stage of the conflict. It is based on a wide range of sources, including Amnesty International’s own reporting, and uses both traditional, and innovative evidence such as satellite imagery and aerial photographs.

While the report “does not reach any legal or factual conclusions”, it provides a disturbing overview of what happened in the so-called “No-Fire Zone”, looking at both the Government of Sri Lanka (GSL) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE): SEE THE REST OF THIS POST