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Human Rights

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.


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Another day, another ridiculous John Bolton op-ed

In The Wall Street Journal today, John Bolton — the “Glenn Beck of foreign policy,” in Dan Drezner’s words — demonstrates once again his uncanny ability to pen ludicrous partisan blindsides and convince major editorial boards to give him the spotlight.  His targets this time include former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, the older (and vastly distorted) demon of the 2001 World Conference Against Racism (“Durban I” in conservatives’ no-holds-barred teleology), and, naturally, the entire UN itself.

Mark, citing Matt Yglesias, has already capably dismissed the alleged “furor” over President Obama’s decision to award Robinson a Presidential Medal of Freedom (a thought: leave it to self-avowed freedom-fighting neoconservatives like Bolton to invest such a symbolic honor with such life or death significance).  As human rights commissioner, Robinson’s job was to criticize abuses of human rights.  Some of these occurred in one of the UN’s 192 member states that is particularly sensitive to criticism: Israel.  This meant that Mary Robinson on occasion criticized certain policies of the Israeli government.  In the blinkered view of rabid pro-Israel hawks like Bolton, this means no less than that Mary Robinson was unabashedly anti-Israel — no ifs, ands, or buts. (Marty Peretz, unsurprisingly, goes even further off the deep end, disgustingly calling her “a real bigot.”  Bolton relegates his ad hominem attacks to deriding her “ceremonial” position as first female president of Ireland.)

This is, quite bluntly, utter hogwash, as intellectually dishonest as it is factually untrue and insulting.  Bolton’s criticism of Robinson for her role in the Durban conference fares little better.  As High Commissioner for Human Rights, one of Robinson’s responsibilities was to chair the Durban anti-racism conference.  She bears no more responsibility for the inexcusably anti-Semitic or anti-Israel antics that did occur there than does Colin Powell, who led the U.S. walkout that Bolton so admiringly cites.  In lampooning Robinson’s characterization of the conference’s outcome as “remarkably good,” Bolton nowhere recognizes the reality that the overwhelming majority of the Durban outcome document had nothing to do with Israel.  While NGOs did produce an unrelated document (which Bolton misleadingly conflates with the official one) that was indeed deeply offensive to Israel, Bolton does he mention the fact that Robinson refused to even touch this loathsome piece of juvenalia.

One of Bolton’s objections to Mary Robinson receiving a Presidential Medal of Freedom is — I kid you not — that she once uttered the words “civilian casualties are human rights victims.”  When a former high-ranking U.S. official is boisterously claiming that protecting human rights undermine national security, the extent of his fall (and of the country’s rise) is all too apparent.


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