Unfortunately Europe is not stepping up its human rights policy in US absence

March 22, 2018

There is no doubt that Europe is doing more than other regions to support individual human rights defenders and their organisations. The statement issued on 27 February 2018 to mark World NGO Day by EU High Representative Fedrica Mogherini says all the right things: “Civil society organisations are a voice for those who are too often not heard. They have the courage to stand up against injustices, even if sometimes with risks for themselves”. She noted that the EU’s annual support worth two billion Euros represents 73 percent of the world’s support to local civil society organisations. “The European Union will never leave human rights defenders and civil society organisations alone; it’s the most invaluable partnership we can rely on to protect rights and build opportunities.”
Still, there are also critical voices concerning what Europe is doing or not doing e.g. with regard to the increasingly harsh treatment of migrants (UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on 7 March).[see recent post: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/03/19/ahmed-h-personifies-the-real-danger-of-populist-anti-terror-measures/]
Moreover, there is growing disappointment over the region’s unwillingness to stand up for human rights in its foreign policy, especially from those who had hoped that Europe would be able step up when the USA is no longer leading. Two lengthy pieces attest to this:
The first is by on 21 March 2018 under the title “The European Union has decided that it’s time to cuddle up to dictators’ in the Washington Post

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (in green tie) meets with other officials in Brussels on Wednesday. (Olivier Hoslet/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, has just set a new low for Europe’s standing in the world. In the wake of Russia’s sham presidential election on Sunday, Juncker sent the victorious Vladimir Putin a message of unctuous praise. “Congratulations on your re-election,” Juncker tweeted. ……..Just like the United States’ President Trump, who was widely criticized this week for congratulating Putin on the Russian election’s outcome while failing to mention its flagrantly undemocratic character, Juncker had nothing to say about the brazen ballot stuffing, the intimidation of independent candidates, the unexplained deaths of activists, the role of state media, or a host of other irregularities leading up to the poll.

This latest failure of moral courage once again shows the growing indifference of European leaders and governments to the defense of human rights. At a time when the Trump administration seems uninterested in advancing the cause of democracy overseas and has just chosen Gina Haspel, who is closely linked with the George W. Bush administration’s policies on torture, to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, Europe should be at the forefront in taking a united stand against the flagrant abuse of human rights. But it isn’t. Dissidents and activists pushing for civil rights and democracy outside the E.U., and who once looked to Europe as a beacon for the values of freedom, can count on little support from Brussels these days. Authoritarian regimes have every cause to be overjoyed.

…When Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, took the floor at last month’s annual Munich Security Conference, he was, once again, treated with kid gloves. Forget about the torture, the executions, the flogging, the deaths during detention.

…French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have rolled out the red carpet for Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al-Sissi — despite a crackdown on opposition that in its harshness has left the Hosni Mubarak regime far behind. Disappearances, torture, police brutality, detentions without trial: None of this seems to bother the French or German leaders. “Disgraceful policies of indulgence” was the term human rights activists used in connection with Sissi’s visit to Paris in October.

On China, the E.U. has completely discredited itself in the eyes of reformers and those struggling for human rights. It has criticized neither the Communist Party’s state-of-the art mass surveillance of its citizens nor the constant harassment and imprisonment of dissidents. Indeed, in June the E.U. failed, for the first time ever, to make a statement about China’s crackdown on dissidents and activists at the United Nation’s Human Rights Council in Geneva. The 28 member states couldn’t agree. (Greece blocked the statement. ..Athens didn’t want to offend Beijing). Hungary, which has also benefited from Chinese investments, has repeatedly blocked E.U. statements criticizing China’s rights record under Communist President Xi Jinping, according to diplomats.

….But there can be no hiding the shameful reality. Europe has lost its moral compass. Its current enthusiasm for interests and “stability” will one day come back to haunt it.

The second piece is by FLORIAN IRMINGER on 22 March 2018 in Open Democracy under the title Council of Europe: don’t compromise on human rights in Russia!”

After congratulating Vladimir Putin on re-election, the COE must hold Russia accountable and require the same respect for fundamental freedoms as it does from other countries. In the past year, Russia has seen numerous violations of freedom of assembly, as well as politically motivated criminal investigations dogged by poor evidence and procedure. While Vladimir Putin won the recent presidential election, he made his country fail a much more important test: the test of human rights, freedoms, and space for civil society and independent voices. So why has Thorbjørn Jagland and the Council of Europe welcomed him as a winner? …This came shortly after the OSCE election observation mission concluded that the presidential election took place in an “overly controlled legal and political environment marked by continued pressure on critical voices.”

…Instead of abiding by his mission to defend the Convention and therefore highlighting the shortcomings during election day and the generally repressive climate, the Secretary General “hoped” for active engagement with Russia. He spoke of “our common duty to work together in order to consolidate and strengthen our common European legal and human rights space.” 

The Council of Europe must hold Russia accountable and require the same respect for fundamental freedoms as it does from other countries

Since Vladimir Putin’s re-accession to the presidency in 2012 – and the fully devoted Duma elected in 2011 – 50 laws have been adopted “designed to strangle opposition voices and raise the level of fear and self-control in the society,” as reported by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/03/18/fidh-collected-russias-50-anti-democracy-laws/]

In light of President Putin’s internal policies, we need a Council of Europe that stands firm on its values and upholds the human rights obligations enriched in the European Convention for Human Rights. What we see instead is a Secretary General “touring European capitals [since November 2017] warning of a serious risk that Moscow could withdraw… unless its demands are met.”


..Russia has now said it will stop contributing financially to the Council of Europe. At the Council of Europe, just like at the United Nations with President Trump’s administration, we see that governments are willing to defund the structures with which they disagree. In other words, they institute a relativism in such mechanisms and threaten their ability to continue working independently and serve the purpose they were set up for: holding governments accountable to their own commitments. 

Yes, we must fight for the European Convention to apply to as many citizens as possible in Europe. However, we must not shy away from saying that the cost of withdrawing from the Council of Europe is high for the Russian state, for its credibility at home and abroad. The Council of Europe is worth something. If states can be members at no cost – not even the cost of showing respect and cooperation to the organisation – it will soon be worth nothing….






Environmental defenders face growing danger – what funders are doing

March 21, 2018

Will the world’s environmental defenders survive another year of violence? In 2017, a staggering 197 people—around four a week—were killed worldwide while defending the environment from “mines, plantations, poachers, and infrastructure projects,” according to the watchdog group, Global Witness. Even international recognition is no guarantee of safety. Two past winners of the Goldman Prize, often called the Nobel of environmentalism, were murdered in a span of months not long ago. [for more on the Goldman prize see: http://trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/awards/goldman-environmental-prize]

Some funders are taking steps to stop the carnage. But can their giving keep up with the death toll, which has risen fourfold since 2012? To begin with, funders supporting the front line of environmental leaders are facing a hostile climate. Beatings and bullets aimed at their grantees are only one aspect of this.

The political environment has gotten a lot more toxic for a number of reasons,” said Alejandro Queral, who’s been following these issues for years and has firsthand knowledge of many environmental defenders’ cases…….”influence of the media, which is used to be a powerful tool for shining a light on the issue and shaming governments for their impunity, has been weakened on a global level.” More broadly, Queral said, “it has become increasingly difficult to hold abusive governments and individuals accountable for their actions.”

Similar concerns are reported by those in the funding world. “Not only have recent years seen a dramatic increase in the number of incidents involving environmental human rights defenders, but efforts to silence defenders are increasing,” said Alex Grossman, deputy director of communications at the Global Greengrants Fund.

Greengrants provides funding to strengthen grassroots environmental advocates around the world. Helping grantees deal with security threats is a fast growing part of its work, with grants going “toward bolstering physical security, securing legal assistance, developing safety protocols, purchasing equipment and supplies, relocation, and any other pressing need that may arise,” says Grossman. In the past year, Global Greengrants has given 21 grants totaling over $110,000 toward safety and security issues.

In recent years, though, it’s become harder to channel financial support to groups that need it around the world. 

“Governments are using the fear of terrorism and influence from abroad to put forward legislation that limits funding available and creates burdensome administrative procedures. Over 100 such laws have been enacted in the last five years,” Grossman told Inside Philanthropy. “These restrictions increase the difficulty for human rights defenders to continue their work. As the space for civil society continues to close, more funding is needed to help defenders on the front lines.”

The Global Greengrants Fund gets its funding mainly from individual donors. But it’s also pulled in support from some corporations like Aveda, which makes natural beauty products, and from several foundations, including the Arcus Foundation, which works to protect great apes. Arcus has funded a number of front-line efforts in Africa and Asia to combat poaching, which can be dangerous work. 

……..Protecting environmental defenders is often entwined with support for human rights activists writ large. The Open Society Foundations is a key player in this space, with offices in 37 countries, including areas with ongoing environmental conflicts. Another major outfit that has been entrenched in this space for a while now is the U.K.-based Sigrid Rausing Trust (SRT). Its Human Rights Defenders program supports organizations around the world that are providing security and increased media training to rights activists who are at risk of harassment, detention, torture and death.

Alex Grossman said that the Global Greengrants Fund often works to put environmental defenders in touch with human rights outfits like Urgent Action Fund and Frontline Defenders, which offer rapid response grantmaking and protection services.

But more work is needed to connect environmental and human rights efforts, and funders can play a role, here. 

“I believe the most important thing that grantmakers can do is be a catalyst for deep collaboration,” Queral said. “The Goldman Environmental Foundation funded the Sierra Club and Amnesty International to speak with one voice on behalf of activists. The knowledge, credibility and ability to move volunteers to action of these organizations raised the profile of many cases around the world.”

Queral said that such campaigns had, in some cases, led to successes, like the release from prison of environmental leader Aleksandr Nikitin, and the similar liberation of Rodolfo Montiel, who fought against widespread illegal deforestation in Mexico.

Against the backdrop of 2017’s death toll, it’s hard to imagine 2018 will be a year of safety for environmental defenders. But it could be a year in which their security becomes better supported. 


see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2017/07/15/documenting-the-killings-of-environmental-defenders-guardian-and-global-witness/

Jigsaw designed software (“Outline”) for self-controlled VPNs

March 21, 2018


A VIRTUAL PRIVATE NETWORK (VPN), that core privacy tool that encrypts your internet traffic and bounces it through a faraway server, has always presented a paradox: Sure, it helps you hide from some forms of surveillance, like your internet service provider’s snooping and eavesdroppers on your local network. But it leaves you vulnerable to a different, equally powerful spy: Whoever controls the VPN server you’re routing all your traffic through.

To help solve that quagmire, Jigsaw, the Alphabet-owned Google sibling that serves as a human rights-focused tech incubator, will now offer VPN software that you can easily set up on your own server—or at least, one you set up yourself, and control in the cloud. And unlike older homebrew VPN code, Jigsaw says it’s focused on making the setup and hosting of that server simple enough that even small, less savvy organizations or even individual users can do it in minutes.

Jigsaw says that the free DIY proxy software, called Outline, aims to provide an alternative to, on the one hand, stronger anonymity tools like Tor that slow down web browsing by bouncing connections through multiple encrypted hops around the world and, on the other hand, commercial VPNs that can be expensive, and also put users’ private information and internet history at risk.

The core of the product is that people can run their own VPN,” says Santiago Andrigo, the Jigsaw product manager who led Outline’s development. “You get the reassurance that no one else has your data, and you can rest easier in that knowledge.”

..A Swedish NGO, Civil Rights Defenders, has been testing Outline since last fall with the group of sensitive internet users it works to protect, who include journalists, lawyers, human rights defenders and LGBT communities in 18 repressive regimes around the world. ..



see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2017/01/10/security-without-borders-offers-free-security-help-to-human-rights-defenders/

Emirates: one year later human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor’s whereabouts remain unknown

March 21, 2018


The authorities in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) should reveal the whereabouts of prominent human rights defender and citizen-journalist Ahmed Mansoor and release him immediately and unconditionally, an impressive group of over twenty human rights organisations said on 20 March 2018.  This day marks one year since security forces arbitrarily arrested Mansoor, winner of the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in 2015, at his home in Ajman. The UAE authorities have continued to detain him in an unknown location, despite condemnation from UN human rights experts and independent human rights organisations.

The authorities have subjected Ahmed Mansoor to enforced disappearance since his wife last saw him in September 2017. They must reveal his whereabouts to his family and grant him regular access to them and to a lawyer of his choosing.  Following his arrest on 20 March 2017, the authorities announced that he is facing speech-related charges that include using social media websites to “publish false information that harms national unity.”  On 28 March 2017, a group of UN human rights experts called on the UAE government to release Mansoor immediately, describing his arrest as “a direct attack on the legitimate work of human rights defenders in the UAE.” They said that they feared his arrest “may constitute an act of reprisal for his engagement with UN human rights mechanisms, for the views he expressed on social media, including Twitter, as well as for being an active member of human rights organisations.”  Since his arrest, Mansoor has not been allowed to make telephone calls to his family and has been allowed only two short visits with his wife, on 3 April and 17 September 2017, both under strict supervision. He was brought from an unknown place of detention to the State Security Prosecutor’s office in Abu Dhabi for both visits. The authorities have refused to inform his family about his place of detention and have ignored their requests for further visits.

In February 2018, a group of international human rights organisations commissioned two lawyers from Ireland to travel to Abu Dhabi to seek access to Mansoor. The UAE authorities gave the lawyers conflicting information about Mansoor’s whereabouts. The Interior Ministry, the official body responsible for prisons and prisoners, denied any knowledge of his whereabouts and referred the lawyers to the police. The police also said they had no information about his whereabouts. The lawyers also visited Al-Wathba Prison in Abu Dhabi following statements made by the authorities after Mansoor’s arrest, which suggested that he was held being held there. However, the prison authorities told the lawyers there was nobody matching Mansoor’s description in the prison.  Instead of protecting Mansoor, the authorities have detained him for a year with hardly any access to his family and no access to a lawyer of his choosing. Their contempt for human rights defenders and brazen disregard for their obligations under international human rights law is truly shocking. [https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/02/27/somewhere-in-a-prison-in-the-emirates-is-ahmed-mansoor-but-authorities-claim-not-to-know-where/]

Background to his case is documented in the joint statement and in my earlier posts: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/tag/ahmed-mansoor/

Mansoor is a member of GCHR’s Advisory Board and a member of the advisory committee of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division.

Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain
Amnesty International
Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI)
Committee for the Respect of Freedoms and Human Rights in Tunisia
English PEN
Freedom Now, Morocco
Front Line Defenders
Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR)
Human Rights First
Human Rights Watch
International Commission of Jurists (ICJ)
International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), under the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
Maharat Foundation
Martin Ennals Foundation
Moroccan Association for Human Rights
PEN International
Reporters Without Borders
Scholars at Risk
Tunisian Association for Academic Freedoms
Tunis Center for Press Freedom
Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights
Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH)
Tunisian Organisation against Torture
Vigilance for Democracy and the Civic State
World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), under the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders



Indian Human Rights Commission calls for entrees into film competition

March 20, 2018

Having just raised in this blog the question of the power of images [https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/03/20/human-rights-films-call-for-action-or-entertainment/] it was interesting to note that the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of India has opened the entries for its fourth annual competition for short films on human rights. ”The aim of the award scheme is to encourage and acknowledge cinematic and creative efforts of the Indian citizens, irrespective of their age, towards the promotion and protection of human rights,’‘ the Commission said in an official statement on Monday.

The award carries a certificate along with prize money of Rs one lakh, Rs 75,000 and Rs 50,000 for the best first,second and third film respectively. Deadline 2 July 2018. The short films may be in any Indian languages with either sub-titles in English or in English language.
Read more at:

http://www.uniindia.com/nhrc-opens-entries-for-its-4th-annual-competition-for-short-films-on-human rights/india/news/1173026.html#VBdrQZ5j82gJpSQ0.99


Human Rights Films: call for action or entertainment?

March 20, 2018

The 1972 photo of a young girl running naked in Trang Bang screaming in pain from the effects of napalm had a profound influence on the public’s perception of the horrors of the Vietnam War. The 2015 photo of a three-year-old refugee boy drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in Turkey also had a profound influence of the public’s perception, this time on the desperate plight of millions of refugees. The images of Phan Thi Kim Phuc and Aylan Kurdi are iconic representations. Both capture larger stories; both images express powerful narratives. 

Visualization is story telling in another form. ……Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s introduced the notion that the medium of communication – movies for instance – change how a message is perceived. Directors can alter time sequences; background music can play directly to our emotions. We have entered new forms of communication that are just beginning to be understood.
The recent Geneva International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights was a significant event; 61 films shown in 57 venues in the Swiss Romand and Grand Genève, 28 debates and discussions with important figures such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Catalonian leader Carles Puidgemont as well as a human rights film tour organized by Swiss embassies in 45 countries.
…The images were shocking, almost numbing. We in the theatre became more than viewers, we became indirect witnesses through the lens of the film.
Several directors participated in debates following the presentations. They all expressed hope that the revelations shown on the screen would encourage reaction from the audience beyond the theatre. The purpose of the film, many argued, was to move the attendees and future viewers from watchers – i.e., indirect witnesses – to activists. The films, according to their creators, were calls to action.
McLuhan is most pertinent here. Watching a movie, any movie, is passive/emotional. The director leads us through what he or she wants us to see and feel. We are being literally directed. At a human rights film festival, we are directed, made aware, and called to action. The message of the medium is more than just perception; it is a motivation to do something. But the screen is just a screen, and a silver screen at that. The films were expertly produced. Most were technologically impressive. The cruelty and crudeness of human suffering were presented with all that modernity could offer.
It is the contrast between the rawness of grave breaches of human dignity and the sophistication of the current cinema that somehow reduced the power of the message. If, according to McLuhan, the medium is the message, then the films themselves – with all their slick professionalism – somehow played against a call to action. The excellence of the films was in contradiction to the cruelty and chaos of what they were showing.
.. Human rights activists are turning to visualization to appeal to larger and larger audiences. Visualization is today’s most powerful means of communication and it is becoming more and more sophisticated. The object of human rights’ film makers is to get the message out to the largest audience in an appealing way. The written era of Gutenberg is no longer hot. It is easier to teach students World War II by viewing Saving Private Ryan than to have them read weighty tomes of historical documentation.
If the message of human rights’ films is to witness human rights violations and call to action, professional presentations may be counter-productive. Movies are fundamentally entertainment; however instructive they may be. But when it comes to human rights and their violations, there should be as little entertainment as possible.


Ahmed H. personifies the real danger of populist anti-terror measures!!

March 19, 2018

During an electoral campaign dominated by anti-migrant rhetoric, a Hungarian court has upheld a shocking verdict of terrorism against a Syrian citizen (Ahmed H.) and the symbolism is lost on no one [https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/02/28/un-high-commissioner-for-human-rights-in-last-council-statement-does-not-mince-words/]. On 19 March 2018, Maxim Edwards (a journalist writing on Central and Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet space – currently assistant editor at OCCRP in Sarajevo) published a fascinating insight into how ill-defined terrorism laws and anti-immigrant hype (in Hungary in this case) can lead to upholding a verdict of terrorism against a Syrian refugee.

Ahmed H. in the courtroom during the second-instance trial. Photo courtesy of Amnesty International / Anna Viktória Pál.

For Hungary to achieve anything in the next four years, we must not let in a single migrant” began Viktor Orbán in a speech earlier this month. ..

For Budapest, migration means terrorism — a commonsensical link reinforced daily by pro-government media and initiatives such as the state’s Public Consultation on Immigration and Terrorism. Leaflets for the May 2015 referendum on acceptance of refugees featured maps of “no go areas” across western Europe and shocking statistics about “murder by migrant.”

And now, the government has its very own case study. Last Wednesday, a Hungarian court upheld a verdict against a Syrian citizen accused of a terrorist act carried out at the Serbian border in 2015. After already spending two and a half years behind bars, Ahmed H. has been sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment and a ten year ban on entering Hungary.



This was due to the elastic definition of terrorist acts in the Hungarian criminal code. Article 314A defines terrorism as, among other things, “coercing a government agency, state, or international body to do or not to do something”. Consequently, Ahmed’s alleged demand by megaphone that the Hungarian border police open the gates was enough to convict him of an act of terrorism.

(Ahmed was also charged with illegal entry into Hungary as part of a mass riot, an administrative violation which carries a minimum sentence of five years. He did not contest the charge that he threw objects at the police, which alone cannot constitute a terrorist threat even in the most elastic of interpretations.)

In a final twist to this story, Ahmed’s other relatives made it to an EU country, where they now live in safety. Ahmed H. himself, probably one of the only people in the crowd at Röszke who could legally enter Hungary, had succeeded in his errand — at the cost of over ten years of his life.

Please read the full story that contains lots of interesting detailshttp://neweasterneurope.eu/2018/03/19/trials-ahmed-h/

Awards given at the 16th Human Rights Film Festival in Geneva

March 19, 2018

The FIFDH just announced the OFFICIAL AWARDS of its 16th festival (2018) in Geneva. [https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/02/27/16th-international-film-festival-and-forum-on-human-rights-starts-on-9-march/]. Here a summary: Read the rest of this entry »

FIDH collected Russia’s 50 anti-democracy laws

March 18, 2018


Since re-election in 2012, the Russian president has overseen the creation of 50 laws designed to strangle opposition voices and raise the level of fear and self-censorship in society. FIDH with its Russian member organizations released a table of the latest 50 new anti-democracy laws since 2012. It explains the impact of each of them on the fundamental freedoms of Russian citizens, cutting down every day a little bit more the free exchanges with the outside world. It also provides some, far from exhaustive examples of the legal abuses it provokes in the every day life of citizens.

Not only the present but also the past gets filtered and controlled.

The laws and regulations range from increased surveillance and censorship powers, to laws banning “questioning the integrity of the Russian nation” – effectively banning criticism of Russia’s presence in Eastern Ukraine and the Crimea – broad laws on “extremism” that grant authorities powers to crack down on political and religious freedom, to imposing certain views on Russian history forbidding to think differently.


Report on Human Rights Defenders in States in Transition in Africa

March 17, 2018

recently published its report on ‘Lessons Learnt: Human Rights Defenders Working in States in Transition.’ A State’s transition towards democracy will invariably present particular challenges for human rights and their defenders. But it will also present opportunities. ISHR seeks to ensure that defenders have the tools that will enable the development of national laws and mechanisms that are compatible with, and give effect to, international human rights obligations. ISHR hopes that this report will be used by defenders to reflect on the strategies, successes and shortcomings of other campaigns and programmes in order to appreciate the impact they’ve had in various African States.