Chinese Activists Set to Go on Trial

Activists Guo Feixiong and Sun Desheng went on trial today on charges of “gathering crowds to disrupt public order.” The charges relate to a January 2013 protest outside of the newspaper Southern Weekly (also referred to as Southern Weekend), which took place after an editorial advocating for reform was censored and reworked as praise for the Communist government.

Guo, whose real name is Yang Maodong (though he is better known by his pseudonym), was arrested on August 8th, 2013, and is also accused of encouraging others (including Sun) to post pictures of themselves online engaging in similar activities, including holding placards with reformist slogans on them. The placards called for “press freedom, for officials to publicly disclose their assets, and for the Chinese government to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which it signed in 1998.”

According to the South China Morning Post, "the revised headline for a toned-down commentary in Southern Weekly says, 'We are closer than ever before to our dreams.' Credits to SCMP.
According to the South China Morning Post, “the revised headline for a toned-down commentary in Southern Weekly says, ‘We are closer than ever before to our dreams.’ Credits to SCMP.

In this video, Guo speaks outside of the Southern Weekly offices. Unless you can understand Mandarin, there’s not much to be gleaned from it, but I thought it would be good to see what he looks like talking.

According to a friend of Guo’s, part of what he says is:

“China’s media censorship is the most reactionary thought policing system that should have long been abolished. We are here today to support the Southern Weekend, not just because they were suppressed; we are here to fight for a universal right, and that universal right is the freedom of speech.”

Protesters–including many journalists and former employees of the Southern Weekly–uploaded pictures of the demonstration to the popular Chinese microblogging website, Sina Weibo. Apparently, search terms involving the Southern Weekly controversy are now being filtered.

According to the BBC, at the time of the protest “35 prominent former staff and 50 interns at the paper have demanded the resignation of the provincial propaganda chief in Guangdong, Tuo Zhen,” who is widely believed to have been behind the editorial’s censorship. Zhuang Chen, the editor of BBCChinese.com, told the BBC that it was the first time journalists had openly confronted Communist Party officials.

Guo’s lawyer, Zhang Xuezhong, says that there were two different groups in the crowd the day of the protest–freedom of speech activists, and pro-Communists, yet only those opposing the government were charged with disrupting public order. The pre-trial proceedings have also been very irregular, and some of the defendants’ lawyers have sworn to boycott the trial due to these problems. During Guo’s detention, he was prevented from seeing his lawyer for three months. Both Sun and Guo face a maximum five years in prison on the current charges.

This is not the first time Guo has been involved in protests within China. Known as one of the “leaders of the weiquan (rights defense) movement,” he first came to prominence in 2005 after organizing rural Guangdong residents to protest against corruption and the seizure of their land. In 2006, he was arrested for his participation in nationwide hunger strikes begun by the imprisoned activist Gao Zhisheng (now released), and allegedly experienced horrific torture while in custody. In 2007, he was convicted on charges of “illegal business activities related to his publishing work,” which many maintain was a move on the part of the government to attempt to silence him after publishing a book on Communist politics in Northeast China. He was released in 2011.

The new Chinese President Xi Jinping had initially spurred hopes of reform by promising to crack down on corruption, but those hopes have been dashed over the course of this year as the government has done its utmost to crack down on dissent.

According to the Telegraph, “Dozens of members the New Citizens’ Movement – a coalition of reform-minded lawyers, academics and campaigners of which Mr Yang was a key articulator in the country’s south – have been detained or jailed since the start of last year.” China maintains a massive firewall, known as the “Great Firewall of China,” which blocks “subversive” and “pornographic” material, and Chinese media is supervised by government departments which have authority over content. I could go on and on about China’s culture of repression, citing innumerable examples of violated human rights and vehement denials of wrongdoing by officials, but I think we all have seen quite enough of that.

Guo once wrote, “The dictators believe they can control and strangle us. It’s time for us to tell them, with our actions, that, no, they can’t!” In an article he wrote about the Southern Weekly protests before his arrest, he says: “A citizen is by definition a man who possesses political rights and exercises his political rights. Real citizens are active citizens.” All Guo has done is try to be a good citizen. It’s time for China to recognize that.

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Being Gay in the Gambia Could Get Even More Dangerous

During a time when the United States has been experiencing rapid change in the area of gay rights, politics in many African nations has been heading in an opposite direction.

On August 25th, the Gambian National Assembly passed an amendment to the Criminal Code which increases the sentence for “aggravated homosexuality” to life in prison. The bill must be either signed by the president or sent back to the National Assembly within thirty days of its passage. Will President Yahya Jammeh sign it, though? Well, I mean, it’s a pretty strict law, and consensual sex between people of the same gender is already illegal in the Gambia–in fact, the law permits up to a 14 year prison term, and was thoughtfully updated in 2005 to include us lesbians. Wouldn’t want to feel left out. Under the “aggravated homosexuality” law, “repeat offenders” and anyone considered to be gay who is also living with HIV/AIDS are among those who can receive life in prison. But since gay sex is already illegal, is there any chance that the president will approve this bill?

Yeah, I’d say there’s a good chance. Of course, I’m just speculating. Ah, but wait.

In February, in a public address on the Gambia’s independence day, Jammeh said:

“Homosexuality will never be tolerated and in fact will attract the ultimate penalty since it is intended to bring humanity to an inglorious extinction. We will fight these vermins called Homosexuals or gays the same way we are fighting malaria-causing mosquitoes; if not more aggressively. We will therefore not accept any friendship, aid or any other gesture that is conditional on accepting Homosexuals or L.G.B.T. as they are now baptised by the powers that promote them. As far as I am concerned, L.G.B.T can only stand for Leprosy, Gonorrhoea, Bacteria and Tuberculosis; all of which are detrimental to human existence.”

Furthermore, in a speech at a celebration in 2008, Jammeh told the crowd that all homosexuals must immediately leave the country, or he would “cut off the head” any who remained. “Any hotel, lodge or motel that lodges this kind of individuals will be closed down, because this act is unlawful,” Jammeh said. “We are in a Muslim dominated country and I will not and shall never accept such individuals in this country.”

Okay, so, scratching “the Gambia” off of my list of vacation destinations. And I was really looking forward to seeing those beaches, too. In any case, the National Assembly Minority Leader Samba Jallow was one of two legislators to vote against the amendment, saying that though his party did not support homosexuality, he and the other man who voted no believed that “[homosexuals] did not commit a crime worthy of life imprisonment or any treasonable offense.”

This law bears a great deal of resemblance to Uganda’s repressive anti-homosexuality laws, the origins of which are perhaps best described here by the incredible John Oliver. It’s a long video, but totally worth watching.

Many people in sub-Saharan Africa regard homosexuality as a Western invention, when really, it’s laws against homosexuality that come from the West. According to the Daily Beast, in pre-colonial Africa, “over 20 cultural varieties of indigenous African same-sex intimacy have been recorded by anthropologists.” But when Western empires like Britain and France began to colonize and enslave Africans, they also instituted their own legal systems which outlawed homosexuality. When they finally left, their laws remained. Additionally, American Evangelicals, whose ideas have largely been rejected in an increasingly progressive country, have continued to travel to various African nations, using their influence and wealth to spread ideas which many Westerners no longer accept.

Here’s a video of Rachel Maddow talking about Western influence in Uganda…because Rachel Maddow. She also did a series of segments on the same topic back in 2009, entitled “Uganda Be Kidding Me” for which she won a GLAAD Media Award, but this one’s more recent, so:

It would be easy to look at Gambia and dismiss it as a “backward” nation, in a continent full of “backwards” nations, as many people do. But we did this. By exploiting their ancestors, our ancestors created a legacy of political, economic, agricultural, and social instability. This is our legacy. And we have a responsibility to address it.

Illiberalism and Putinism in Hungary

Today, twelve police officers from the Hungarian Nemzeti Nyomozó Iroda (National Bureau of Investigation) executed a raid on the Budapest offices of two NGOs, Ökotárs and Demnet. These groups are part of a four-NGO association which is linked with the Norway Fund, “a program providing money to projects in areas such as environmental protection or social development in Hungary and other less-developed EU countries.”

The Hungarian police have been investigating groups associated with the Norway Grants for misuse of funds and supporting anti-government efforts. Since April 2014, after the Norway Fund refused to allow Hungary to oversee incoming grant money or to audit the groups that receive the funds, the government has been in an uproar against these NGOs. Other groups, like the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, have also been targeted.

In May, the government ordered “surprise financial inspections” of the same NGOs raided today. According to the Agence France-Presse, “since June, 58 groups handling or receiving Norwegian aid have been forced to hand over documents and information to the Government Control Office (KEHI) in a wide-ranging probe ordered by Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government.”

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban claims that these pro-democracy NGOs are puppets of the opposition to his ruling Fidesz party, as well as an attempt by Norway to interfere with Hungarian politics. From 2009-2014, Norway has sent $198.5 million into Hungary.

A recent New York Times editorial reads, “Hungary has become a disturbing example of how a political elite can roll back democracy, even in the heart of Europe.” Orban has created a government stranglehold on Hungarian media, by using the country’s “Media Authority” to control content. By April, when elections took place, the government had “effectively reined in all of the country’s broadcast media outlets.” Also somewhat disturbingly, a right wing anti-Semitic party called Jobbik posted the biggest gains in that election.

"Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán delivers a speech during an election rally in Budapest. Photograph: Bernadett Szabo/Reuters" http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/apr/09/hungary-election-europe-prime-minister-viktor-orban
“Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán delivers a speech during an election rally in Budapest. Photograph: Bernadett Szabo/Reuters”

In a July 31st Washington Post article, Fareed Zakaria writes:

“When the Cold War ended, Hungary occupied a special place in the story of the revolutions of 1989. It was one of the first countries in the Soviet orbit to abandon communism and embrace liberal democracy. Today it is again a trendsetter, becoming the first European country to denounce and distance itself from liberal democracy.”

In July, Orban delivered a speech to ethnic Hungarians in Romania, in which he said, “We have to abandon liberal methods and principles of organizing a society, as well as the liberal way to look at the world.” He referenced the 2008 financial crisis as a Western problem, and said that the US was in decline “because liberal values today incorporate corruption, sex and violence.” In short, Orban wants to create an “illiberal democracy.” The Hungarian left-wing newspaper Népszabadság compares the tone of the speech to that of Mussolini.

Fareed Zakaria refers to the Prime Minister’s way of governing as “Putinism.” The defining characteristics of this phenomenon are “nationalism, religion, social conservatism, state capitalism and government domination of the media”—all in direct opposition to traditional Western liberalism. Certainly an alarming combination.

Another alarming combination. Credits to BBC News, photographer unknown.
Another alarming combination. Credits to BBC News, photographer unknown.

The European Comission recently decided to give Hungary close to 22 million euros in economic aid. It is simply unacceptable that the EU should consider providing this much assistance to a country whose government is so hopelessly authoritarian. Until there is significant change within Hungary, the European Commission should withhold funds pending an international review of the situation.

Insulting the King of Bahrain

CNN reports that on August 30th, Bahraini activist Maryam al-Khawaja was arrested upon arrival in her home country. Al-Khawaja tweeted Saturday that she had been “denied entry,” and would begin a hunger strike until she was allowed into Bahrain. Fifteen minutes later, she added that she’d heard guards planning to deport her, and that they’d told her repeatedly that she wasn’t a citizen. The next day, she tweeted this statement:

The activist was returning home in hopes of seeing her father, also a prominent dissident, who has been in jail since 2011. Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who was sentenced to life in prison on charges related to organizing and participating in pro-democracy protests as well as plotting to overthrow the royal family, has been on hunger strike since August 24th, and is now very ill. Her sister is also a prominent activist, tweeting from the account @AngryArabiya.

Maryam al-Khawaja remains at Isa Town women’s prison on charges of “insulting the king, participating in the ‘Wanted for Justice in Bahrain Campaign’ of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights; and assaulting a policewoman.” She has not been permitted contact with her lawyer so far.

Bahrain has a history of human rights abuses, but they have increased exponentially since the 2011 Bahraini uprising. According to Al-Akhbar English, many dissidents, both young and old, journalists and international athletes, doctors and patients, have been arrested and detained since the revolution. There are currently 10 prisoners convicted of insulting the king behind bars.

The Bahraini revolution begun on February 14th, 2011 as a call for increased political freedoms and the end of alleged discrimination by the Sunni government against the majority Shi’a population. After a February 17th incident when the Bahraini monarch sent military forces and tanks into a camp of demonstrators, protestor sentiment shifted in favor of the removal of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. On March 14th, troops from Saudi Arabia and the UAE arrived and assisted in a government crackdown on the protesters. The next day, the king declared a state of emergency and instituted martial law. Though this action effectively quashed protests for the next three months, there have since been a number of both large and small scale demonstrations, including one in March 2012 attended by over 100,000 people. Thousands have been arrested in connection to the protests. King Hamad created the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry on July 1st, 2011 to investigate the events of that year, and in November of the same year, the group of independent experts released their findings. Under “General Observations,” the report states in part that:

“The security forces carried out the arrests without presenting an arrest warrant or informing the arrested individual of the reasons for arrest. In many cases, the security services of the GoB resorted to the use of unnecessary and excessive force, terror-inspiring behaviour and unnecessary damage to property. The fact that a systematic pattern of behaviour existed indicates that this is how these security forces were trained and were expected to behave. Many detainees were subjected to torture and other forms of physical and psychological abuse while in custody. This again indicates certain patterns of behaviour by certain government agencies.”

Why hasn’t anything been done about Bahrain in the past? Why aren’t we hearing much about it in the news now? Well, it’s a fair question. According to The Guardian, in February 2011 the White House expressed “strong displeasure” about the mounting tensions in the region. A month later, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said, “The use of force and violence from any source will only worsen the situation,” and Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman was sent to Bahrain in order to advise King Hamad and his government to talk with the opposition. But, excepting the use of official dialogue advocating negotiation and peace, and the dispatch of a few representatives to the region, the U.S. has done very little to interfere within Bahrain.

In fact, outside of this recent verbal and diplomatic strain, the U.S. and Bahrain have enjoyed a very close relationship since the country’s 1971 inception. This may have something to do with the fact that the U.S. Fifth Fleet has been based in the area that became Bahrain since shortly after World War II, and relies on this location to keep a close watch on Iran. Just this March, a $580 million expansion of the Fifth Fleet’s base in Bahrain extended the naval presence in the region until the “middle of the current century.”

Ships participating in International Mine Countermeasures Exercise 2013 are underway in formation in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility.
Ships participating in International Mine Countermeasures Exercise 2013 are underway in formation in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility. U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Michael Sandberg.

Nabeel Rajab, director of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, may have put it best: “We are victims of being a United States ally. We are victims of being in an oil-rich country that many people don’t want to upset and anger.”

In Which Qatar Is Actually That Bad

BBC News is reporting that two British human rights investigators are missing in Qatar. Krishna Upadhyaya, 52, and Gundev Ghimire, 36, are British citizens working for Global Network for Rights and Development (GNRD), a Norwegian human rights group, and were conducting research for a report on labor conditions in Qatar. The two men, who arrived in the country on August 27th, have been out of contact since last weekend, when Upadhyaya sent a number of texts to a friend in Norway stating that he and Ghimire were being tailed by Qatari police. One text reads, “I am being followed by the police here. Looks like they will give me troubles now.” On August 31st, the men checked out the Grand Hyatt hotel in Doha, but were reportedly afraid to depart for the airport due to the heavy presence of both undercover and uniformed police officers. Upadhyaya checked in for his flight, but did not board, and neither man has been heard from since.

Though the Qatari government denies any involvement in the disappearance of these investigators, and there is no clear evidence as to the location of the missing men, GNRD project manager Fahad Atalla told the AP that the group is “99 percent sure they’ve been taken by the Qatari government authorities.” The GNRD’s official statement has a similar tone. Qatar has a history of detaining activists and critics incommunicado for extended periods of time. One example is when in 2011, poet Muhammed al-Ajami was arrested in Doha and charged with inciting to “overthrow the ruling system” and “insulting the Amir,” due to poetry he’d written criticizing Qatar’s Amir and Middle Eastern governments in general. He was held for months in isolation, out of contact with his family before visits were finally granted. On November 29th, 2012, al-Ajami was sentenced to life in prison following a secretive and irregular trial, though this sentence was reduced the following February to fifteen years. An Amnesty International letter urging action following a failed appeal of this sentence states:

“Since 2011, State Security, which runs its own detention facilities, has detained a number of people, some of them for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly. Most of those detained by State Security have reported torture and other ill-treatment during periods of detention prior to charge or trial, particularly during periods of incommunicado detention. Activists in Qatar have lately raised concerns that there has been a pattern of State Security personnel, generally operating in plain clothes, not identifying themselves when carrying out arrests and holding detainees in police detention centers and not in facilities run by them. The aim appears to be to deny responsibility for carrying out particular arrests and detentions and thereby to deflect criticism about their working practices.”

Qatar has been under recent scrutiny following its selection as the host for the 2022 World Cup. John Oliver does a pretty good job of summarizing why in this clip (skip to around 10:16 for the stuff about Qatar):

Yes, Qatar is actually that bad. Upadhyaya and Ghimire had been researching the working conditions faced by migrant laborers from their mutual birth country of Nepal before their disappearance. Qatar has a migrant population of 1.35 million, which comprises 94% of the country’s total work force. Many of these workers find employment in the Qatari construction industry, but immediately encounter significant problems. Workers are often required to pay vast fees to obtain a job, but then paid very low wages, averaging $8-11 a day, which is not enough to cover food costs or to pay back the loans necessitated by the employment fees. 20% are paid significantly less than promised when accepting the job, and though poor workplace safety leads to many deaths, government labor inspections are few and far between. 90% of migrant workers have had their passports or visas kept by their employers, which means that they cannot leave the country freely.

The Qatari Labor Ministry denied accusations of modern-day slavery in a response to Human Rights Watch, saying: “The Ministry has received no complaint of forced labor, and it is inconceivable that such a thing exists in Qatar, as the worker may break his contract and return to his country whenever he wishes, and the employer cannot force him to remain in the country against his will.”

Just in case this wasn’t depressing enough, in July of this year, the U.S. happened to sell $11 million of military weapons, including Apache helicopters and various missiles, to Qatar. Pentagon press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby stated that the “signing ceremony underscores the strong partnership between the United States and Qatar in the area of security and defense and will help improve our bilateral cooperation across a range of military operations.”

Human Rights: The Basics

I’m Tessa Schwarz, a sophomore at Mount Holyoke College, and this is first and foremost a blog for my World Politics class. More than that, I hope it will serve as both an outlet for my ever-growing political frustrations, as well as a useful chronicle of  international human rights stories. I will post regular updates containing information on current events relating to human rights and human rights violations, as well as historical context, political commentary, and analysis. I will be using both Western news sources (i.e. the New York Times, MSNBC, BBC News) as well as newspapers original to whatever country I’m discussing whenever possible (a helpful masterpost of international newspapers can be found here).

In order to be a human rights blog, it seems appropriate to define what exactly constitutes a human right. As put by the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights for the UN, “Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status. We are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination. These rights are all interrelated, interdependent and indivisible.” These rights constitute both freedoms and obligations. States must then act to protect their citizens from human rights abuses, and should also seek to make positive steps towards honoring human rights. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (whose UN drafting committee was chaired by my personal hero, Eleanor Roosevelt) comprises thirty articles which form the basis of international human rights law to this day. It is a truly incredible document, and I would advise anyone to give it a quick read.

Still, many countries flout both this declaration and later determinations by the UN with regard to human rights. There is enormous disagreement among the international community about what counts as a right, and which people deserve to be protected under the law. Whether for the sake of expediency, or because their convictions supersede UN resolutions, countries around the world–West and East, developed and developing–continue to violate the basic human rights of their citizens. In December 2013, Maplecroft (a global risk analytics company) released its seventh annual Human Rights Risk Atlas for the year of 2014. It detailed an “unprecedented” 70% increase in human rights abuses since 2008, and ranked countries by their risk for violations.

Bearing this in mind, and especially after the summer of unrest we’ve experienced, I hope that this blog can be a tool to raise awareness: both mine and others’.