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U.S. Takes Its Seat on the HRC

Today the U.S. officially took its seat on the UN Human Rights Council, after being elected in June.  This is the first time the U.S. has chosen to participate in the revamped Council, created to replace the UN Human Rights Commission in 2006.

The highlights of Asst. Secretary of State Esther Brimmer's remarks:

The charge of the Human Rights Council ties closely to the United States’ own history and culture. Freedom of speech, expression and belief. Due process. Equal rights for all. These enduring principles have animated some of the proudest moments in America’s journey. These human rights and fundamental freedoms are, in effect, a part of our national DNA, just as they are a part of the DNA of the United Nations. And yet, we recognize that the United States’ record on human rights is imperfect. Our history includes lapses and setbacks, and there remains a great deal of work to be done.

Building on those bedrock foundations, the United States’ aspirations for the Human Rights Council encompass several key themes. The first is universality. The principles contained [in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights] are as resonant today as they were when Eleanor Roosevelt led the Commission that enshrined them. We can not pick and choose which of these rights we embrace nor select who among us are entitled to them. These rights extend to all, and the United States can not accept that any among us would be condemned to live without them.

The second is dialogue. The Human Rights Council is unique in its ability to draw together countries for serious, fact-based and forward looking debate on human rights abuses. [T]he United States will be an active and constructive participant. We will not resolve our differences overnight, nor end abuses with the wave of a hand or even the passage of a resolution. We approach this mindful of the long-haul, ready to devote the time it takes to build understanding and shared will to act.

The third is principle. We have come together as Human Rights Council members on the basis of shared principles. Our challenge lies in taking these principles - reflected in the Universal Declaration and many other broad based human rights instruments - and applying them in an even-handed way to situations that defy easy resolution. Defending our core principles from compromise and applying them fairly under all circumstances will require steadfastness and courage from all of us.

The fourth is truth. Make no mistake; the United States will not look the other way in the face of serious human rights abuses. The truth must be told, the facts brought to light and the consequences faced. While we will aim for common ground, we will call things as we see them and we will stand our ground when the truth is at stake.

More after the jump.

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Is Sri Lanka determined to become an international pariah?

The government of Sri Lanka has ordered the expulsion of a UNICEF spokesperson.  UNICEF Director Ann Veneman and Secretary General Ban Ki Moon have objected to the decision.  But authorities in Columbo apparently stand by their decision to expel the Australian James Elder, chief of communications for UNICEF's operations in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan authorities have not stated what offense Elder committed. Chances are, however, that it has something to do with UNICEF speaking out on behalf of children affected by a brutal counter-insurgency against the Tamil Tigers.  To date, over 200,000 ethnic Tamils are being forced to live in military run internment camps, largely off limits to the press and international humanitarian community. 

Expelling a UNICEF spokesperson is not exactly the behavior of a responsible government.  Sri Lanka is well on its way to becoming an international pariah state, on par with the governments of Eritrea, Iran, Sudan, North Korea, and Burma. 

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Lubna Freed, UN Official Criticizes Sudan

Lubna Hussein is a Sudanese woman and former UN worker arrested a few months ago in Khartoum for the crime of wearing pants.  Because she is an incredibly brave human being she turned her arrest, detention and trial into a public event that drew considerable attention to the arbitrary enforcement of discriminatory laws in Sudan.  Her trial concluded earlier this week.  She was found guilty and sentenced to a $100 fine (which she refused to pay) and one month in prison. 

She was released from prison earlier today.  But her trial has made her an international hero to human rights defenders around the world.  Lubna would not acquiesce to injustice. Instead, she fought it head on.  In the process, she drew considerable attention to the discriminatory Sudanese criminal code.  Consider this statement from the spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

“Lubna Hussein, a female former UN staff member in Sudan, was yesterday sentenced to one month in jail, with the alternative of a 500 Sudanese Pound fine, on charges of dressing in an indecent manner – essentially because she was wearing trousers.

The Sudanese Criminal Act does not define what constitutes “indecent dress” and leaves wide discretion to police officers, raising concerns that the arrests are being conducted arbitrarily. According to Article 152(1) of the 1991 Criminal Act, "indecent dress" may be punished with up to 40 lashes or a fine, or both. Under international human rights standards, flogging is considered as cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment.

 Lubna Hussein's case is emblematic of a wider pattern of discrimination and application of discriminatory laws against women. Ms Hussein was arrested along with 13 other women. The arrests of all, and not only Lubna Hussein, were arbitrary and left to the discretion of police officers.

 The arrest and conviction of Ms. Hussein is a violation of Articles 9 and 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which Sudan is a state party and Art. 29 of Sudan’s own Interim National Constitution. The charges were not communicated at the time of arrest which is in violation of Art. 14 of the ICCPR. Article 9 of the ICCPR deals with the right to freedom from arbitrary arrest and is also applicable.

On account of being a UNMIS staff member at the time of arrest and initial trial Ms. Lubna Hussein was represented by UNMIS Legal Affairs. Ms. Hussein consequently resigned from UNMIS as the trial proceeded. However, there was lack of legal representation for the other women and inadequate time to prepare their defence. There was also an absence of review of the sentence for other women. The judgment and flogging of some of the women arrested with Ms. Hussein who were not represented by legal counsel were carried out immediately under Section 152(1) of the 1991 Criminal Act.

The rights to freedom from arbitrary arrest, to due process of law, and to freedom from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment are expressly protected in the Bill of Rights contained in Sudan’s Interim National Constitution. They are also enshrined in international human rights treaties to which Sudan is a State Party.

Under the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, national laws, such as the Criminal Act, require a comprehensive review in order to bring them into line with the Interim Constitution and Sudan’s international human rights obligations. This review has yet to be completed.”

Lubna has vowed to press on.  We'll be with her all the way. 

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New allegations of war crimes in Sri Lanka

When governments impose onerous restrictions on the media, it generally followes that governments have something to hide. For example, four months ago the Sri Lankan government prevented the media and foreign observers from accessing the front lines of a military campaign against the Tamil Tigers. This campaign ended up killing at least 7,000 civilians, and was described as a "bloodbath" by the UN. The government has also banned media from military-run internment camps that hold some 200,000 ethnic Tamil civilians; camps the government says are necessary to weed out potential insurgents disguising as civilians.

Despite these restrictions, one mainstream news outlet, Channel 4 News in the UK, has managed to stay on top of this story.  And in so doing, Channel 4 News has emerged as the most important English language news source covering one of the most under-reported human rights stories of the past year.  In May, Channel 4 managed to sneak a camera into one of these internment camps. The report showed absolutely deplorable conditions under which civilians were being held.  It showed the daily humiliation visited upon female prisoners who were forced to go naked before male guards and raised allegations of rape and chronic food shortages in the camp. 

The Channel 4 producers were subsequently arrested and deported.  But this has not deterred Channel 4 from staying on the story. Today, Channel 4 News obtained new, shocking footage of what appears to be summary executions committed by members of the Sri Lankan military. The video is hard to watch, but it raises further questions about the conduct of the Sri Lankan military in its campaign against the Tamil Tigers.  These questions, so far, have gone unanswered. There is not, as yet, an accountability mechanism for the war crimes committed in the name of defeating the Tamil Tiger insurgency. 

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And a Happy 60th to the Geneva Conventions!

Speaking of anniversaries, on August 12 1949, 64 countries came together in the wake of the worst war the world has ever seen and signed the four Geneva Conventions.

There are four Geneva conventions, the First protects wounded and sick soldiers on land during war. The Second protects wounded, sick and shipwrecked military personnel on sea. The Third covers the treatment of prisoners of war. The Fouth protects non-combatants during armed conflict and under military occupation.  

The International Committee for the Red Cross was an important driving force behind making these humanitarian principals the bedrock of international law.   This would be a good opportunity to show your support for the ICRC. In the meantime, read ICRC president Jakob Kellenberger stirring remarks on the need to updated International Humanitarian Law (IHL) to reflect the realities of modern conflict.  

It would be natural, on this date, to reflect with a certain pride and satisfaction on the achievements and successes over the decades, and to allow at least a modest degree of self-congratulation. It cannot be denied that much more attention is paid to situations where the rules are violated than to the many situations where their respect is ensured.

At the same time, this anniversary is an opportunity to anticipate the next decade and beyond, ensuring that the Geneva Conventions are well-prepared for the increasing challenges and risks that still lie ahead.

Without a doubt, the journey so far has not always been plain sailing. The extent to which armed conflict has evolved over the past 60 years cannot be underestimated. It almost goes without saying that contemporary warfare rarely consists of two well-structured armies facing each other on a geographically defined battlefield. As lines have become increasingly blurred between various armed groups and between combatants and civilians, it is civilian men, women and children who have increasingly become the main victims. International humanitarian law, IHL, has necessarily adapted to this changing reality. The adoption of the first two Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions in 1977, with the rules they established on the conduct of hostilities and on the protection of persons affected by non-international armed conflict, is just one example. Specific rules prohibiting or regulating weapons such as anti-personnel mines and, more recently, cluster munitions are another example of the adaptability of IHL to the realities on the ground.

The traumatic events of 9/11 and its aftermath set a new test for IHL. The polarisation of international relations and the humanitarian consequences of what has been referred to as the "global war on terror" have posed a huge challenge. The proliferation and fragmentation of non-state armed groups, and the fact that some of them reject the premises of IHL, have posed another. These challenges effectively exposed IHL to some rigorous cross-examination by a wide range of actors, including the ICRC, to see if it really does still stand as an adequate legal framework for the protection of victims of armed conflict.

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Obama statement on Aung Sun Suu Kyi

Fresh from the White House: 

The conviction and sentencing of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi today on charges related to an uninvited intrusion into her home violate universal principles of human rights, run counter to Burma’s commitments under the ASEAN charter, and demonstrate continued disregard for UN Security Council statements. I join the international community in calling for Aung San Suu Kyi’s immediate unconditional release.

Today’s unjust decision reminds us of the thousands of other political prisoners in Burma who, like Aung San Suu Kyi, have been denied their liberty because of their pursuit of a government that respects the will, rights, and aspirations of all Burmese citizens. They, too, should be freed. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. I call on the Burmese regime to heed the views of its own people and the international community and to work towards genuine national reconciliation.

I am also concerned by the sentencing of American citizen John Yettaw to seven years in prison, a punishment out of proportion with his actions.