Friday, February 25, 2005

Jordan, the War on Terror, and Human Rights

According to the State Department's 2003 human rights report on Syria,

The Constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention; however, these remained significant problems. The Ministry of Interior controlled the police force, which many observers considered corrupt. The 1963 Emergency Law authorizes the Government to conduct preventive arrests and overrides Constitutional and Penal Code provisions against arbitrary arrest and detention, including the need to obtain warrants. In cases involving political or national security offenses, arrests often were carried out in secret. Suspects could be detained incommunicado for prolonged periods without charge or trial and denied the right to a judicial determination regarding pretrial detention. Additionally, those suspected of political or national security offenses could be arrested and prosecuted under ambiguous and broad articles of the Penal Code and subsequently tried in either the criminal or security courts.

Even though Syria has come under criticism by the Bush administration, it was still willing to make use of Syria's human rights record if the testimony of Maher Arar is to be believed. Mr. Arar, a Canadian citizen, was attempting to change planes at Kennedy Airport on his way home to Canada from a family vacation in Tunisia, when he was seized by American authorities, interrogated and thrown into jail. He was not charged with anything, and he never would be charged with anything. Instead he was flown out of the United States to Jordan and then driven to Syria, where he was kept in an unlit, underground, rat-infested cell that was the size of a grave. From time to time he was tortured.

Mr. Arar's words speak eloquently for themselves.

He wept. He begged not to be beaten anymore. He signed whatever confessions he was told to sign. He prayed.

Among the worst moments, he said, were the times he could hear babies crying in a nearby cell where women were imprisoned. He recalled hearing one woman pleading with a guard for several days for milk for her child.

He could hear other prisoners screaming as they were tortured.

"I used to ask God to help them," he said. ...

Mr. Arar, who is married and also has an 8-year-old daughter, said the pain from some of the beatings he endured lasted for six months.

"It was so scary," he said. "After a while I became like an animal."

The Justice Department has alleged, without disclosing any evidence whatsoever, that Mr. Arar is a member of, or somehow linked to, Al Qaeda, even though they now allow him to roam free. The Syrians, who tortured him, have concluded that Mr. Arar is not linked in any way to terrorism. A lawsuit on Mr. Arar's behalf has been filed against the United States by the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. Barbara Olshansky, a lawyer with the center, noted yesterday that the government is arguing that none of Mr. Arar's claims can even be adjudicated because they "would involve the revelation of state secrets."

Which is something of an admission in itself.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

880 Slaves Freed in Sudan

After public pressure and a class action lawsuit, the Government of Sudan has released 880 slaves who were returned to their southern Sudanese homland where they are receiving aid from anti-slavery groups. Thousands more are still believed to be held in slavery.

A human rights group reported that the slaves had undergone a wide range of abuse.

Among the most widespread forms of abuse are beatings, death threats, work without pay, forced Islamization and Arabization, and racial and religious slurs. The majority of women and older girls said they were raped or gang-raped while in bondage. A minority of the females claim they were subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) -- a ritual that is the cultural norm for Baggara Arab women.

While some of the slaves worked in Arab cattle camps others were captured to work in the Sudan{s burgeoning oil industry. Several foreign oil companies, most notably Canada's Talisman Energy, lead the Sudanese government's oil operations, fueling slave raids and funding its war chest. After a divestment campaign against Talisman, modeled after the South African anti-apartheid divestment, many of the world's largest pension and investment funds divested from Talisman.

A class action lawsuit was files on November 8, 2001 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against Talisman Energy, Inc. of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, on behalf of Rev. John Sudan Gaduel and The Presbyterian Church of Sudan and three individual plaintiffs.

"The complaint charges Talisman with violations of international law for participating in the Sudanese Government's ethnic cleansing of Christian and other non-Muslim minorities in areas of southern Sudan where Talisman is exploring for oil", according to Carey R. D'Avino, a director of the American Anti-Slavery Group, and Stephen A. Whinston, attorneys for the plaintiffs.

The issue of Sudan has seemed to slip from the mainstream media's radar screen lately. As before the issue became visible, the ongoing antislavery work falls to the private human rights organizations which continue their work.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Brazilian President Reacts

Brazilian Prsedent Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, reacting to outside pressure, ordered the creation of two massive new rain forest reserves Thursday in an attempt to reign in lawlessness from violent loggers and ranchers after the killing last weekend of an American nun who fought to protect the jungle.

The decrees were announced after more than 60 groups signed a letter to the president demanding strong moves to curb "violence and impunity associated with the illegal occupation of lands and deforestation" in the Amazon -- and especially in Para, nearly twice the size of Texas. Though environmentalists were pleased with the decrees, they said they have lobbied Silva's administration for similar moves for two years and were dismayed they came only after Stang's death. "It is sad to see that things had been in the pipeline for months and years needed a tragic development in order receive priority," said Roberto Smeraldi, director of the environmental group Friends of the Earth Brazil.

The president also ordered a six-month moratorium on logging licenses on 20 million acres of land in Para near a jungle road scheduled to be paved in an area that environmentalists say is already rife with deforestation and land conflicts. During the moratorium, environmental authorities will define which areas should be protected. The government will pave a road, currently impassable to heavy trucks for much of the year because of constant rain, giving farmers in the top soy producing state of Mato Grosso access to an Amazon River port in Para for cheaper shipment abroad.

Lawlessness has long been common in Para, where ranchers, backed by hired gunmen, ensnare poor workers in an endless cycle of debt akin to slavery. Tensions rose further when the government recently ordered ranchers to evacuate land they occupied but couldn't prove they owned. Ranchers and loggers blocked roads and rivers, and the government relented, allowing ranchers with dubious claims to the land to continue logging.

There is good news and bad news in this story. Governments can be susecptible to foreign pressure when human rights abuses become widely known. Unfortunately, it took the death of an American citizen to bring that spotlight to Brazil. The death of hundreds of Brazilians is still worthless coin in the international arena.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Human Rights Worker Shot in Brazil

Brazil has sent 2000 troops into the Amazon rain forest to counter death squads blamed for killing an American nun and rural workers settled on land coveted by loggers and ranchers. US missionary Dorothy Stang, slain on Saturday by hired gunmen near the town of Anapu. Two rural workers have been killed near the town of Anapu, 400km from Belem, in the last four days. A union leader was shot dead by gunmen on a jungle road near Parauapebas in south-eastern Para on Tuesday.

The troops will work with local police for ten days in an effort to beef up protection. However, local activists say that the effort is too little, that President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva only sent in the troops following world outrage at Stang's death and US pressure to find the killers.

"The day they leave, it'll go back to normal," said Tomas Balduino, president of the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), a Catholic human rights group Stang worked with.

The violence has been going on for decades as loggers and ranchers have tried to drive off settlers on the land. The problem has been aggravated by a program that promises to settle 400,000 landless families by 2006. Those pledges encouraged peasants to occupy areas and lobby for land to be demarcated as reserves. Stang helped them.

The province of Para, an area twice the size of France, has Brazil's worst rural violence, slave labor and illegal logging. Hundreds have people have been killed in the last two decades while few people are ever punished for crimes.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Emerging Disaster in Nepal

Two weeks ago King Gyanendra dismissed the government of Nepal, declared a state of emergency and suspended civil liberties, and jailed political leaders, students, human rights activists, journalists and trade unionists. The king claimed that the measures were aimed at the Maoist communist insurgency, which has claimed more than 10,500 lives since 1996.

However Amnesty International's secretary-general claims that a political catastrophe is brewing in the country and is urging donor nations to suspend military aid to Nepal. Amnesty said the state of emergency had "strengthened the hands of the security forces ... and increased the likelihood of an escalation of the conflict that could lead to even greater human suffering and abuse."

After a visit to Nepal, Amnesty's secretary general claimed, "While some leaders have been released, more are being arrested, particularly at the district level. There is strict media censorship enforced by the army and there is total clampdown on political dissent. Wherever we went, we encountered a deep sense of fear, uncertainty and insecurity among the people."

The new government has come under increasing pressure to restore democracy in recent days. India, the United States, Britain, and other European countries have already recalled their ambassadors.

Recent reports by Amnesty International show a dramatic increase in human rights abuses since a cease-fire with the Maoists broke down in August 2003, including torture, detention, disappearances, abductions and unlawful killings.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Haiti, one year later

Nearly a year since U.S. Marines escorted former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from Haiti, human rights observers say state-sponsored abuses have escalated. Most of the abuses have taken place in poor parts of Port-au-Prince, where support for Aristide still runs strong and armed groups demanding his return defy the government and clash with police.

"The human rights situation in Haiti is critical right now," said Judy Dacruz, an independent human rights lawyer based in Port-au-Prince. "There has been a complicity of silence about these killings. The authorities don't even acknowledge violations are taking place, and the majority of the press are simply ignoring what is going on."

Dacruz has documented 14 cases, including the murder of Jean, since October, in which witnesses said police officers summarily executed unarmed people. In three other cases, people who were taken into police custody either showed up dead or were never seen again.

Accusations of abuse against Aristide led to the Organization of American States to freeze millions of dollars in aid to his government. But abuses of the government of Prime Minister Gerard Latortue have been all but ignored--in spite of peacekeeping troops still occupying the island.

"It's worse than I would have expected," David Beer, commissioner of the 1,400 UN civilian police in Haiti, said. "If the human rights situation isn't changing, and obviously changing, and the public has the confidence that it is changing, we can't have a secure and stable environment. People won't move around the country in day-to-day activities. They won't go shopping. They won't participate in elections in the same way.

The first round of presidential elections is set for Nov. 13.

Lavalas leaders have accused the government of a campaign of repression meant to stamp out support for Aristide and to dissuade the poor from voting. The government says it is battling illegal gangs that aim to destabilize the government"

Meanwhile, the killing in the slums goes on.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Slavery today

27 million people are enslaved today worldwide -- more than at any time in history.

The classic form of chattel slavery- in which slaveholders maintain ownership no longer through legalities but through the use of violence - persists to this day in a few countries. In Sudan, a radical ruling regime has revived a racially-based slave trade, arming militia forces to raid civilian villages for slaves. In Mauritania, slave raids 800 years ago began a system of chattel slavery that continues to this day, with Arab-Berber masters holding as many as one million black Africans as inheritable property.

The most common form of slavery is debt bondage, in which a human being becomes collateral against a loan. With a massive population boom in regions of staggering poverty, some families have nothing to pledge for a loan but their own labor. With inflated interest rates, debts are often inherited, ensnaring generations. 15 to 20 million slaves are in debt bondage in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan.

Another common form of slavery is forced labor, where individuals are lured by the promise of a good job and instead find themselves enslaved. Migrant workers are particularly vulnerable, and small organized-crime rings fuel a booming international trade in human beings. Trafficking often flows from developing nations to the West. For instance, CIA estimates that 50,000 women and children are trafficked into the US each year as slaves.

A form of slavery most common in South Asia is sex slavery, where girls forced into prostitution by their own husbands, fathers, and brothers earn money for the men in the family to pay back local-money lenders. Others are lured by offers of good jobs and then beaten and forced to work in brothels.

Slave labor produces goods we use every day. Examples include: sugar from the Dominican Republic, chocolate from the Ivory Coast, paper clips from China, carpets from Nepal, and cigarettes from India.

Slavery occurs in every continent in the world except Antarctica.

In the U.S. the CIA estimates that 50,000 people are trafficked as sex slaves, domestics, garment, and agricultural slaves.

If this concerns you, go to iAbolish-the anti-slavery portal.