Human rights shouldn't be sidelined at Africa summit
August 1st, 2014
04:00 PM ET

Human rights shouldn't be sidelined at Africa summit

By Sarah Margon, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Sarah Margon is the Washington director of Human Rights Watch. The views expressed are her own.

As he stood before Ghana’s parliament in July 2009, President Barack Obama set out some guiding principles to underscore his interests in Africa. “[G]overnments” he said, “that respect the will of their own people, that govern by consent and not coercion, are more prosperous, they are more stable, and more successful than governments that do not.”

About a month earlier, as he stood before an audience of Egyptian university students, President Obama said something similar, noting that, “[g]overnments that protect [basic] rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away.” Even in his 2013 speech in South Africa, President Obama asserted that “[g]overnments that respect the rights of their citizens and abide by the rule of law do better, grow faster, draw more investment than those who don’t.”

But now, with some 45 African heads of state to arrive in Washington for a groundbreaking summit that begins Monday, the administration appears to have gone for a more traditional approach. Instead of making good on these aspirational goals and integrating them into the wider summit agenda, the Obama administration has set the tone by excluding human rights organizations from official meetings and keeping human rights off the agenda.

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Topics: Human Rights
Rethink of U.S. refugee policy should begin at home
June 20th, 2014
08:55 AM ET

Rethink of U.S. refugee policy should begin at home

By Patrick McCormick, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Patrick McCormick is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed are his own.

Even as we mark World Refugee Day today, the number of people fleeing violence has reached the highest level in two decades.

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in Syria, where the scale of the exodus has reached crisis proportions. Over nine million people have fled the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad. Approximately 2.8 million refugees have successfully crossed the border into adjacent countries, with Lebanon now hosting more than one million registered Syrians, and Jordan and Turkey hosting a combined 1.7 million. For perspective, at the end of last year, the United States reportedly admitted 90 Syrian refugees.

Meanwhile, six million more people are internally displaced within Syria itself, part of a crisis that the United Nations has called the worst since the Rwandan genocide. And now, the surge of militants from Syria into Iraq is triggering further flight, with 500,000 residents of Mosul exiting after its takeover by armed groups including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Unfortunately, such suffering also extends beyond the Middle East.

Following the successful secession of South Sudan from Sudan in 2011, war broke out in December 2013. In the months since, more than one million have taken flight, and almost half of the country’s population of ten million is currently in need of humanitarian assistance. U.S. Secretary of State Kerry publicly warned in May of the potential for genocide, and the United Nations has appealed for one billion dollars in humanitarian aid.

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Topics: Human Rights
May 15th, 2014
11:20 AM ET

Don't ignore what's happening inside Russia

By Tanya Lokshina, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Tanya Lokshina is the Russia program director at Human Rights Watch. The views expressed are the writer’s own.

As the crisis in Ukraine escalated this spring, the Kremlin’s vicious crackdown on civil society also escalated. Space for independent civic activity in Russia is shrinking dramatically, but international policymakers and the media have been understandably too distracted to do much about it.

Since early spring, it seems as though every week brings a new pernicious law or legislative proposal.

The authorities have blocked or essentially took editorial control over a number of independent news portals and are pushing new laws to stifle freedom of expression. Just a week ago, President Vladimir Putin signed a law requiring Russian bloggers with significant followings to register with the authorities and comply with the same regulations as media outlets without the same protections and privileges. The same law requires blogging services and social networks to store user activity for six months.

Another legislative proposal reportedly prompted by independent media coverage of the crisis in Ukraine would introduce administrative and criminal offenses for editors who publish “false anti-Russian” information or offer media support to “anti-Russian extremist and separatist forces.” Another new draft law introduces a ban on publishing negative information about the Russian government and military.

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Topics: Human Rights • Media • Russia
Governments still executing on wrong side of history
March 27th, 2014
12:22 PM ET

Governments still executing on wrong side of history

By Salil Shetty, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Salil Shetty is secretary general of Amnesty International. The views expressed are his own.

Two years ago, Abdullah al-Qahtani appeared on Iraqi TV and “confessed” to robbing a Baghdad goldsmith’s shop and killing the owner to raise money for al Qaeda. He later retracted his statement, which he claimed were made under torture, but was still found guilty and sentenced to death after a trial that lacked all semblance of process. Today, he is incarcerated, in poor health, in a prison outside Baghdad and waiting for the gallows. Four of his supposed accomplices have already been put to death.

Abdullah’s case is indicative of a disturbing trend in Iraq, where authorities continue to turn to the death penalty in an attempt to tackle rising levels of violence across the country. Hundreds have been convicted under vague anti-terror laws, often following reports of torture and manifestly unfair trials. Like Abdullah al-Qahtani, suspects have been paraded on TV and forced to “confess” before any appearance in court, making a mockery of the right to a fair trial.

On Thursday, Amnesty International released its annual report on the use of the death penalty worldwide. Iraq, and its neighbor Iran, stand out for all the wrong reasons. Those two countries went on an official killing spree last year – executions in Iraq jumped by almost one-third to at least 169. In Iran, at least 369 executions were officially acknowledged by the authorities, but if you include the hundreds more credibly reported, some taking place in secret, the total number may be more than 700 executions – in just one year.

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Topics: Human Rights
February 11th, 2014
10:04 AM ET

Time for Egypt and Sudan to rein in traffickers

By Gerry Simpson, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Gerry Simpson is Human Rights Watch's senior refugee researcher and advocate and author of a new report, 'I Wanted to Lie Down and Die: Trafficking and Torture of Eritreans in Sudan and Egypt.' The views expressed are his own.

Mesfin fled his country in early 2012 in the dead of night. Eritrea's repressive regime had forced him, like tens of thousands of other men and women there, to become a soldier at 16, with the prospect of life-long involuntary military service. He fled his barracks but was caught.

After eight years in prison, he had escaped. Dodging border guards with shoot-to-kill orders, he headed for neighboring eastern Sudan, seeking a safe haven.

He was not the only one. Since 2004, at least 130,000 Eritreans – an average of 35 every day – have crossed to Sudan, fleeing indefinite conscription, torture, enforced disappearances and religious persecution. Tens of thousands more have fled to Ethiopia. So appalling is Eritrea's rights record and its repression of its own people that in 2012, 90 percent of Eritrean asylum seekers who did manage to reach a safe place worldwide were  recognized as refugees or given other protected status.

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Topics: Egypt • Human Rights
February 7th, 2014
02:48 PM ET

Young and gay in Russia: Inside the making of a documentary

Milene Larsson, a contributor to Vice and host of the recent Young and Gay in Putin's Russia documentary, answers readers’ questions about homosexuality in Russia, how young Russians feel, and why it has become such a big international issue.

As a visitor, what was your sense of the mood about the issue in Russia among average Russians? Are they really behind some of the recent legislation?

I came to Moscow expecting that the law against promotion of non-traditional relationships towards minors – also known as the anti-gay “propaganda” law – would be met with resistance amongst the general population, maybe because my Russian friends are open-minded and tolerant.

However, already on the second night, I realized that wasn’t the case. I was at a birthday party for a Russian Newsweek correspondent and got into a long and tiring argument with a Russian blogger and yoga teacher who, at first, seemed like a clever and reasonable guy, but when he found out I was there to report on the homophobic law, his attitude shocked me. He was an avid supporter of the law because he didn’t want his children to become perverted by homosexuals. He was convinced they were all pedophiles, and he even showed me articles published on American Christian websites showing graphs “proving” that gay men molest children.

I tried to explain that homosexuality and pedophilia are absolutely unrelated and that these Christian sites are not reliable sources, and that the stats were not official and most likely made up. But he wouldn’t listen. He then went on to explaining that homosexuality is dangerous because young children can be influenced into it and that it’s a disease that can and must be cured.

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Topics: Human Rights
World moving forward, and backward, on equality
February 4th, 2014
09:37 AM ET

World moving forward, and backward, on equality

By Andre Banks, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Andre Banks is co-founder and Executive Director of All Out, a global movement for equality. The views expressed are the writer’s own.

“My very existence is proof that homosexuality is normal.” 

Last month, this sole sentence was found to violate the law on "propaganda of non-traditional relationships" in Russia. A court in Khabarovsk has sentenced the editor of the region's oldest newspaper to a 50,000-ruble ($1,600) fine for publishing a portrait of a gay Russian school teacher with that quote.

In the United States and a few other parts of the world, and in a remarkably short period of time, there has been a seismic shift toward popular support for gays and lesbians. It is extraordinary and hard-won progress; but only half of an important story. In more than 75 countries, it is still a crime to be gay. In at least 10 countries, you can be sentenced to death or life imprisonment because of who you are or who you love. Those numbers are rising.

In the past month, Nigeria and Uganda both passed draconian anti-gay laws (the so-called “Jail the Gays” and “Kill the Gays” bills, respectively) with sentences as severe as life imprisonment. At least four Nigerian states have seen mass arrests since then, with people rounded up because they seem “too gay” or are known to support an LGBT organization (under Sharia law, Muslims arrested may face death). India's Supreme Court shocked the world in December by reversing a previous court ruling and reinstating Section 377 of its penal code, a colonial rule that criminalizes sex between gay men in the world’s most populous democracy.

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Topics: Human Rights
Time to end child marriage
January 21st, 2014
09:03 AM ET

Time to end child marriage

By Jacqui Hunt, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Jacqui Hunt is London director of Equality Now, an international human rights organization, which aims to end violence and discrimination against women and girls around the world. The views expressed are her own.

Khadijetou was born in Mauritania in 2002. She was force-fed from the age of 7, and in 2010, she was married to a man 10 years older than her father. At the time of her wedding, she was extremely overweight. Khadijetou became pregnant in 2011 and gave birth by cesarean in order to save the life of her child. But her own health deteriorated and twenty days later, she died aged 11 years-old.

Since there is no law in Mauritania forbidding child marriage or force-feeding, no action is being taken against anyone who may have been involved. L’Association des Femmes Chefs de Famille is calling for both laws to be enacted and implemented urgently.

Meanwhile, Lulu was subjected to female genital mutilation in Tanzania at the age of 4. At 14, having completed her primary education, she was forced into a polygamous marriage. Local organization Network Against Female Genital Mutilation met with her parents, who agreed return her dowry of eight cows and allow her to continue her education.

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Topics: Human Rights • Youth
January 5th, 2014
04:50 PM ET

Why tech is a double-edged sword for human rights

By Emma Daly, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Emma Daly is the communications director at Human Rights Watch. The views expressed are her own.

Tech has been turned against human rights – or so it seemed from Edward Snowden’s revelations last year. The technological advances that enabled the Arab Spring and empowered citizen journalists were exposed as facilitating unfettered surveillance worldwide and outstripping legal protections.

We learned that Big Brother, a standby of totalitarian regimes, is also operating in Washington DC. The National Security Agency (NSA) was watching and gathering data from millions of people, with what many have viewed as inadequate congressional oversight, under overbroad authority approved by secretive courts. It turned out the agency overstepped even these feeble checks, as internal audits showed.

It’s clear that privacy laws passed before the Internet and mobile phones existed provide dubious protections in 2013. Governments have a duty to protect national security and prevent crime, but that doesn’t give them a pass to monitor the communications of millions of people who are under no suspicion. What price free speech when the Obama administration tries to get Snowden extradited for an alleged security breach that many see as legitimate whistleblowing?

The British government has said it has done nothing wrong and has yet to come clean on its surveillance practices and their impact on privacy. In the United States, the snowballing Snowden revelations eventually prompted a reformist outcry. There are many proposed legislative fixes. An Obama panel has recommended new limits on surveillance to better balance privacy and national security needs. A federal judge ruled the mass spying was likely to be deemed unconstitutional.

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Topics: Human Rights • Spying
Putin’s amnesty is an opening for the West
January 2nd, 2014
12:11 PM ET

Putin’s amnesty is an opening for the West

By Matthew Rojansky, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Matthew Rojansky is the director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The views expressed are the writer’s own.

There are plenty of reasons to be cynical about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s motivation in announcing an amnesty last month for more than 20,000 prisoners, including the dissident punk rockers Pussy Riot, detained Greenpeace activists, some leaders of last year’s Bolotnaya Square protests, and most surprisingly, oligarch turned anti-Kremlin icon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has languished in prison for more than a decade. Putin is following the old Soviet and tsarist tradition of amnesties to mark major anniversaries – in this case the 20th anniversary of Russia’s 1993 constitution – but he is also surely considering the impact on Russia’s image in advance of the February Sochi Olympics.

Russia’s human rights record still falls far short of European and international standards, and it would be naïve to assume that this amnesty represents any kind of transformation in Putin’s thinking about human rights and democracy. Yet at this moment, one vital fact should not be overlooked: real progress has now been made on one of the most persistently contentious items on the Russia-West agenda.

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Topics: Human Rights • Russia
Russia in 2014: Sochi key to Putin legacy
December 17th, 2013
01:29 PM ET

Russia in 2014: Sochi key to Putin legacy

By Andrew C. Kuchins, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Andrew C. Kuchins is a senior fellow and director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C. The views expressed are his own. This is the second in the '14 in 2014' series, looking at what the year ahead holds for key countries.

The eyes of the world will be trained on Russia when the Sochi Winter Olympics open on February 7. The Olympic Games have already attracted tremendous controversy over concerns about discriminating Russian LGBT legislation and massive corruption in preparing the games (which at an estimated cost of more than $50 billion are already the most expensive in history). In addition, there are political and security concerns about the site itself, which borders Georgian sovereign territory of Abkhazia, which Russia has recognized as independent since its five-day war with Georgia in 2008, and also borders the volatile North Caucasian republics of Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin views the Games as reflecting Russia’s return as a great power since he first took office on December 31, 1999. But although he could possibly remain Russian leader for another ten years, until 2024, it is hard not to look at these Olympics in terms of his legacy.

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Topics: 14 in 2014 • Human Rights • Russia • Sports
China in 2014: The three Rs
December 16th, 2013
05:27 PM ET

China in 2014: The three Rs

By Robert Daly, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Robert Daly is director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center. The views expressed are his own. This is the first in the '14 in 2014' series, looking at what the year ahead holds for key countries.

Three stories dominate American coverage of China at the close of 2013: the recent plenum that outlined China’s direction for the next decade, China’s establishment of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, and Beijing’s delayed issuance of visas to American journalists. The common thread in these stories is Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping. Xi’s vision and political acumen are the driving force behind reform proposals that could reshape China. Xi would have had to sign off on an ADIZ that has deepened suspicion that China seeks regional hegemony. And Xi has spearheaded a year-long campaign against freedom of information that may culminate in the closing of the China offices of Bloomberg and the New York Times.

Xi’s program to date is Reform, Resurgence, and Repression.  What China becomes under his leadership in 2014 and beyond will depend on whether this modern strongman is truly modern and truly strong, or whether he is cultivating an image of strength in an attempt to rein in a dynamic but fragile nation which an anachronistic CCP can no longer control.

Reform. The policy goals Xi set at the plenum demonstrated that he shares the Chinese people’s concerns for social welfare, sustainable growth, a cleaner environment, and cleaner government. Xi’s self confidence and specificity gave plenum documents the feel of a new social contract. They were a populist’s promise to the masses.

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Topics: 14 in 2014 • China • Human Rights • Media
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