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
December 16th, 2013
05:20 PM ET

Time for U.S. to press Vietnam over freedoms

By Scott Flipse, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Scott Flipse is the deputy director for policy at the U.S. Commission in International Religious Freedom. The views expressed are his own.

John Kerry is finishing up his first visit to Vietnam as Secretary of State, a trip billed as a chance to “highlight…a growing partnership” against a backdrop of increasingly intertwined bilateral interests. Yet despite the progress over the past decade, Vietnam’s sometimes fierce suppression of free speech, religion, ethnic minorities and independent labor unions complicates closer cooperation. It’s time for the U.S. to use its considerable influence with Vietnam to press for change.

Few Secretaries of State can draw on the kind of goodwill Kerry has built up through his efforts to improve ties between the United States and its former adversary. This, coupled with Vietnamese concerns over China and Hanoi’s need to further develop U.S. economic and security ties, means there is space for U.S. diplomatic efforts to have small but significant impacts on the lives of ordinary Vietnamese, particularly in the area of human rights.

True, the question remains of how realistic it is to hope for such a push given the administration’s insistence that democracy and human rights are no longer “core interests” of the U.S. globally.

Kerry should start by securing the freedom of Le Quoc Quan and fellow dissidents. Quan is a human rights lawyer and blogger who represents a new generation of dissident in Vietnam. It is the third detention for this lawyer and former fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy (and, full disclosure, a friend of mine). Over the past five years he has become an irritant to the Communist Party leadership, repeatedly defending dissidents in court, demonstrating with fellow Catholics at confiscated Church properties, and posting articles online about needed legal reforms.

Le Quoc Quan is a priority case for both the Vietnamese-American community and Reporters Without Borders, which organized an appeal signed by a dozen international human rights groups. But he is only one of hundreds of dissidents locked up in Vietnamese jails, and many other prisoners are in poor health.

Like their Communist brethren in Beijing, the Party in Hanoi faces popular dissatisfaction due to lagging economic performance and corruption. Also like Beijing, Vietnam has sometimes restive ethnic and religious minorities – making up almost 20 percent of the population, Khmer, Hmong, Montagnard, Hoa Hao, and Cao Dai communities face persistent racism, discrimination, religious persecution and abject poverty in part because they sided with the French or U.S. powers in the past.

Over the past several years, Communist Party leaders have become increasingly sensitive to public criticism and challenges to its political dominance, expanding efforts to silence dissidents and other critics of government policies. They believe that free speech, internet freedom, independent labor unions, and freedom of religion will eventually erode their legitimacy and political power, as it did it with the Communist parties of Eastern Europe.

It is probably too much to ask of U.S. diplomacy to halt all arrests of dissidents, censorship the Internet, or marginalization of minorities when Vietnamese leaders sees such actions as critical to their political survival. Still, the U.S. should be asking Hanoi to pay some price for improved relations. After all, Vietnam depends on U.S. export markets and security cooperation to survive China’s growing economic and military footprint.

Also, Hanoi is actively seeking admission to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) a trade regime that will include the likes of Chile, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, and Malaysia. Vietnam is the clear outlier among largely democratic TPP members. With this in mind, bipartisan coalitions in the U.S. Congress are moving to block Vietnam from TTP membership and additional U.S. trade benefits without measurable human rights improvements.

Hanoi also seeks U.S. military and diplomatic assistance for its conflict with China over territorial jurisdiction in the South China Sea. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, along with a bipartisan groups lead by Senator John McCain, have reportedly conditioned expanded military-to-military ties on human rights improvements. It is unclear whether the second term White House, along with new Secretaries Kerry and Hagel, share this stance, but the U.S. should make clear this linkage to the Vietnamese while promising further backing for Hanoi’s maritime claims.

Ultimately, the leverage exists to encourage meaningful reforms that marry U.S. interests in prosperity and principle. The question, then, is whether Vietnam will simply be allowed to jail hundreds of dissidents, expand internet controls, and marginalize millions of religious and ethnic minorities when the leverage and goodwill exist to stem the rising tide of rights abuses?

Not doing so would be a loss for long-term U.S. interests in East Asia, a blow to the millions of Vietnamese seeking democratic openness and human right and, potentially at least, may shape the way historians view John Kerry’s tenure as Secretary of State.
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Topics: Asia • Human Rights
December 12th, 2013
12:17 PM ET

China's Mandela problem

By Phelim Kine, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Phelim Kine is the New York-based deputy director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch. The views expressed are his own.

It’s the Chinese government’s Nelson Mandela problem.

When news broke of Mandela’s death on December 5, China’s state media joined in the global torrent of tributes for the former political prisoner turned beloved president of South Africa. President Xi Jinping praised Mandela as “an accomplished politician of global standing,” while state-owned China Central Television described him as “an old friend of China.” Glaring omissions in those early tributes were references to “freedom,” “democracy” and any mention of Mandela as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

That was no accident. For the ruling Chinese Communist Party, observing Nelson Mandela’s death is a fraught exercise in verbal contortions to distance him from China’s own imprisoned Nobel laureate and advocate for peaceful social change: the writer Liu Xiaobo.

On December 11, China’s state-owned Global Times went on the offensive with an accusation that “Western media” had “deliberately cast a light on the imprisonment of Liu and praised him as ‘China’s Mandela.’” The objective? To deflect from the striking parallels between the globally revered former South African president and the quiet, self-effacing Chinese writer in Jinzhou Prison in northeastern Liaoning province.

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Topics: Africa • China • Human Rights
December 3rd, 2013
10:04 AM ET

Human rights a third class passenger on Mexico’s train

By Javier Zúñiga, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Javier Zúñiga is a special adviser for Amnesty International. The views expressed are his own.

When Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto came to power a year ago, he was the new face of the old Partido Revolucionario Institucional, the political machinery that dominated the country for more than 70 years. With his carefully built image of a dynamic young professional, Peña Nieto started his term in office by launching multiple reform initiatives, covering numerous aspects of daily life in the country. He claims that his policies will put Mexico on a promising train to modernity and prosperity. But a year on, what has he really achieved?

One of Peña Nieto’s early commitments was to end the cycle of human rights violations and violence that so characterised former President Felipe Calderon’s administration. Sadly, he has not delivered on that promise: On the Peña Nieto train, human rights have so far had to settle for the third-class carriage.

It’s a story that the Mexican people know all too well. Once again, a new government comes to office making expansive pledges to protect human rights. Once again, it refuses to invest the political capital needed to make a real difference. And once again, the key word in the whole story is impunity.

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Topics: Human Rights • Mexico
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