History writing in Russia suppressed

June 10, 2021

A new FIDH report published on 10 June 20212 finds that human rights abuses targeting historians, activists, journalists, and NGOs working on historical memory of the Soviet past have become systematic since at least 2014. Legal impediments and implementation of laws designed to stifle free speech and freedom of association, arbitrary arrests and prosecutions, censorship, public smear campaigns, and failure to provide effective remedies for past abuses are just some of the violations detailed.

In recent years, control over the historical narrative of the Soviet past has become an essential tool for consolidating authoritarian rule. Building Russia’s collective identity around Soviet victory in the Second World War, the current regime attacks historians, journalists, civil society activists, and non-governmental organisations that work to keep alive a historical memory of the Soviet past that focuses on identification of the perpetrators and victims of the likes of the Great Terror, Joseph Stalin’s 1937-38 campaign of deadly political repression.

The new FIDH report, Russia: Crimes Against History, catalogues these violations, analyses them from the viewpoint of international human rights law, and makes recommendations to national authorities and international organisations on how to improve the situation of so-called “history producers.”

Our report is the first comprehensive analysis of the issue of manipulation of historical memory in Russia from the vantage point of human rights law,” said Ilya Nuzov, head of FIDH’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk who conceived and co-authored the report. “Our findings show that the authorities have created a climate of fear and repression for all independent voices working on historical past in Russia, reminiscent of the worst practices of the Soviet period.”

Specifically, the report details how, in recent years, the government has methodically attempted to discourage independent work in the historical field while actively promoting its own “historical truth” that centers on Soviet victory in the Second World War.

In 2020, the official historical narrative was set in stone in the Constitution, which was amended contrary to domestic and international law. In the Constitution, Russia is presented as the “successor” regime of the Soviet Union, which must “honour the memory of the defenders of the fatherland” and “protect the historical truth.” This narrative is actively promoted by government institutions. On the other hand, the authorities have stigmatised and penalised internationally supported civil society organisations, such as International Memorial, with the likes of foreign agent laws; it has criminalised interpretations that diverge from the state’s interpretation of history through the adoption of “Exoneration of Nazism” and other memory laws; and it has organised show trials against independent historians like Yuri Dmitriev, who received a draconian 13-year sentence for his tireless work to identify and commemorate victims of the Great Terror. Seae also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/10/01/dunja-mijatovic-calls-on-russia-to-end-judicial-harassment-of-human-rights-defenders/

“The report is important not only for Russia,” remarked Valiantsin Stefanovic, FIDH vice president. “Its findings and recommendations could be applied to other countries in the region and around the world that manipulate historical memory. In Belarus for instance, we see a similar use of memory laws to crack down on the pro-democracy movement.”

The report formulates a number of recommendations, such as the establishment of legal guarantees and protections to safeguard the independence of historians’ work. It also proposes the official recognition of historians as human rights defenders by United Nations special procedures, in addition to the creation of a “historians’ day” by UNESCO.


The intriguing case of Artur Ligęska who was in prison with Ahmed Mansoor in the UAE

June 9, 2021

Mirage news of 8 June 8, 2021 tells the sad story of Artur Ligęska, a 40-year-old Polish citizen who has spoken out widely about torture and ill-treatment in Emirati prisons. He was found dead in his apartment in Amsterdam, the Netherlands on May 26, 2021. The Gulf Centre for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch are deeply saddened by the news of his death and extend their sincere condolences to his friends and family.

Following his release from al-Sadr prison in May 2019, Artur dedicated himself to seeking justice for the abuse he and other prisoners suffered in prison, especially Ahmed Mansoor, an award-winning human rights defender who is on the advisory boards of GCHR and Human Rights Watch. [see: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/074ACCD4-A327-4A21-B056-440C4C378A1A]Artur was a uniquely valuable source of information on prison conditions in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

He was an activist, author, and fitness expert and had recently celebrated the second anniversary of his acquittal on May 9. He had been sentenced to life in prison in the UAE following a deeply flawed trial on drug charges despite the absence of any evidence of drugs in his possession.

In a voice message to a friend at GCHR on May 9, Artur said, “My main wish for this new-life birthday is freedom for Ahmed Mansoor. I really do hope that this year will be special for him. I was thinking all day about him. I remember our last talk, and I was thinking about his wife and kids. …In the last days, Ahmed told me ‘Don’t forget about me.’

Artur said he was planning to organize a protest in The Hague soon to call for Ahmed’s release. Artur’s many actions to help Ahmed included advocacy with Polish and EU officials, providing human rights groups with information, taking part in human rights events, documentary films and TV appearances, and writing about Ahmed in his two books.

Artur first phoned GCHR staff in April 2019 to tell them that Ahmed was on a hunger strike and told them that he was worried that Ahmed might die because his health had deteriorated greatly. He told GCHR that Ahmed was being held in “terrible conditions” in a cell with no bed, no water, and no access to a shower. Ahmed today remains in a 2-by-2 meter isolation cell with no bed or mattress, serving a 10-year prison sentence for his human rights activities.

Despite suffering serious trauma after suffering abuse as a prisoner in the UAE, Artur again phoned GCHR to share the good news that human rights groups’ advocacy had been successful. Ahmed had ended his hunger strike after being allowed to phone his ill mother and to go outside to see the sun for the first time in two years. Artur sacrificed phone calls to his own family to make calls on behalf of Ahmed, referring to him as a brother.

Following his release, Artur was able to provide GCHR with more details about what he called the “medieval prison conditions” in al-Sadr prison, including periods when there was no running water despite extreme heat.

In a wide-ranging interview released by Human Rights Watch in January 2020, Artur described how he and Ahmed had become “prison mates in UAE hell.” Artur spent eight months in al-Sadr prison, in solitary confinement in a cell beside Ahmed’s. His friend suffered psychological torture from a near-total lack of human contact and access to the library, Artur said. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/02/22/lawlor-urges-uae-to-free-ahmed-mansoor-mohamed-al-roken-and-other-hrds/

Artur told GCHR that after he left the UAE, he had undergone surgery and therapy to treat the damage done by the rape and psychological torture that he said he was subjected to but he was recovering well and taking classes to become a journalist and human rights professional.

On April 13, 17 European Parliament members wrote to the EU’s High Representative Josep Borrell to express their “deepest concern over the ongoing human rights violations in the United Arab Emirates, particularly with regards to the systematic crackdown on freedom of speech and expression and the subsequent retaliation received during detention.” The letter mentions Ahmed, and also refers to Artur, noting, “The use of torture has not been limited to Emirati nationals, as there have also been instances of EU citizens that have reported facing brutal torture at the hands of prison authorities.”

On October 22, 2020, Amnesty Westminster Bayswater and GCHR held an online event, The Prisoner and the Pen, featuring the writing, songs and poetry of prisoners who are human rights defenders and the work of writers and artists from the Middle East and North Africa region. The event, held on Ahmed ‘s birthday, included his poems. Artur read from his memoir, “The Sheikh’s Different Love,” published in 2019 in Polish. He has also written a second bestselling book in Poland, “Prison Diary.” His story is documented in a film by Hossam Meneai, Isolation Cell 32, which debuted at the Polish Film Festival in America in November. Artur also appears in an upcoming documentary about Ahmed Mansoor made by Manu Luksch.

Artur’s untimely and unexpected death comes as a great shock to those who knew him. The Dutch police are investigating the circumstances of his death.

https://www.miragenews.com/tribute-to-artur-ligeska-former-prisoner-in-uae-573024/


Denmark’s shocking departure from refugee protection

June 4, 2021

On 3 June 2021 the Danish Parliament approved amendments to the Danish Aliens Act.

The amendments will enter into effect if Denmark secures a formal agreement with a third country. This could see the forcible transfer of asylum-seekers and the abdication of Denmark’s responsibility for the asylum process and for protecting vulnerable refugees.

UNHCR strongly opposes efforts that seek to externalize or outsource asylum and international protection obligations to other countries. Such efforts to evade responsibility run counter to the letter and spirit of the 1951 Refugee Convention, as well as the Global Compact on Refugees where countries agreed to share more equitably the responsibility for refugee protection.

Already today nearly 90% percent of the world’s refugees live in developing or the least developed countries that – despite their limited resources – step up and meet their international legal obligations and responsibilities.

UNHCR has raised repeatedly its concerns and objections to the Danish government’s proposal and has offered advice and pragmatic alternatives.

UNHCR will continue to engage in discussions with Denmark, which remains a valuable and long-standing partner to UNHCR, in order to find practical ways forward that ensure the confidence of the Danish people and uphold Denmark’s international commitments.

https://www.unhcr.org/news/press/2021/6/60b93af64/news-comment-un-high-commissioner-refugees-filippo-grandi-denmarks-new.html


Documentary Film Calls for Justice for Kyrgyzstan’s Azimjon Askarov

June 3, 2021
Azimzhan Askarov Pictured here during hearings at the Bishkek regional court, Kyrgyzstan, October 4th, 2016.  
Ethnic Uzbek journalist Azimzhan Askarov. Pictured here during hearings at the Bishkek regional court, Kyrgyzstan, October 4th, 2016.© 2016 AP

Philippe Dam, Advocacy Director, Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, on 2 June 2O21, writes aavout Azimjon Askarov, a 69-year-old human rights defender from Kyrgyzstan, who died in prison after contracting pneumonia. Askarov had been in prison for 10 years, having been given a life sentence following an unjust and unfair trial in 2010, in retaliation for his investigations into the tragic wave of inter-ethnic violence that year in southern Kyrgyzstan. [see: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/D8B31FA3-E648-4F92-81B9-8C3A4270F80E]

His death was the result of cruelty and negligence by Kyrgyz authorities. A screening this week of a documentary about Askarov, to be attended by senior European Union officials, is a reminder to Kyrgyzstan that it is responsible for his death and needs to show accountability and to the EU to press Bishkek on this issue. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/07/31/mary-lawlor-calls-death-of-human-rights-defender-askarov-a-stain-on-kyrgyzstans-reputation/

Askarov’s trial in 2010 was marred by serious procedural violations and allegations of torture that were never investigated. A United Nations human rights body ruled in 2016 his detention was illegal and called for his immediate release, but Kyrgyz authorities looked the other way.

Since his death, many have called for a full inquiry into the causes and responsibilities for his death.  A toothless internal inquiry ordered by Kyrgyzstan has gone nowhere. The documentary “Last Chance for Justice,” by filmmaker Marina Shupac, is a touching portrayal of the fight by Khadicha Askarova, Askarov’s wife, for justice and his release from prison.

The screening is on June 4 as part of the One World Film Festival in Brussels. The panel discussion of the film will be joined by Eamon Gilmore, the EU’s top human rights envoy; Heidi Hautala, a European Parliament vice-president; and a representative of the Office of the EU’s Special Representative to Central Asia.

On the same day as the screening, the EU is set to hold its highest-level annual meeting with Kyrgyz officials. This is a crucial opportunity for the EU to make it clear that closer ties with Kyrgyzstan will depend on the resolve of Kyrgyzstan President Japarov’s administration to investigate Askarov’s death, clean up his judicial record, and grant compensation to his family.

This week’s high-profile screening makes clear: Kyrgyzstan will continue to be in the international spotlight on Askarov until it fulfils its human rights obligations to account for his death.

https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/06/02/documentary-calls-justice-kyrgyzstans-azimjon-askarov


Call for nominations Council of Europe’s Raoul Wallenberg Prize 2022

June 2, 2021

The call for candidates for the 2022 Raoul Wallenberg Prize has been launched in Strasbourg by Council of Europe Secretary General Marija Pejčinović Burić

For more on this and other awards in the name of Wallenberg, see: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/awards/730A3159-B93A-4782-830F-3C697B0EC7A0

The prize is worth €10 000 and the award ceremony will be held at the Council of Europe’s headquarters in Strasbourg on or around 17 January 2022 – the date of Raoul Wallenberg’s arrest in Budapest in 1945.

The Prize Jury consists of six independent persons with acknowledged moral standing in the field of human rights and humanitarian work, appointed by the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the municipality of Budapest, the Raoul Wallenberg Institute in Lund, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Raoul Wallenberg family.

The deadline for submitting candidatures for the 5th edition of the Prize is 31 October 2021.

https://www.miragenews.com/raoul-wallenberg-prize-2022-council-of-europe-570245/


Book review of “The Water Defenders” tells the story of environmental defenders in El Salvador

June 1, 2021

In Toward Freedom of 31 May 2021 Charlotte Dennett reviews the book “The Water Defenders: How Ordinary People Saved a Country from Corporate Greed“. It is a very uplifting story that teaches a lot about how to continue a sometimes hopeless-looking case

The Water Defenders

At a time when all caring people are seeking a new way forward out of a year of unimaginable death, destruction and rampant inequality, along comes a book that gives us hope that a better world may be possible. The book, recently published, is based on a struggle in a small section of a small country—El Salvador—beginning in 2002, when a group of “white men in suits” entered the province of Cabañas and tried to convince poor farmers that gold mining would be good for them. Their resistance, done at great peril and resulting in the assassinations of some of their leaders, ended up years later in a landmark case against corporate greed, garnering support from around the world. The basis of their success lies in the most fundamental of human needs: Water, for which left-right antagonisms fall apart once the deadly consequences of mining’s misuse of it—including causing cyanide poisoning—become patently clear.

Authors Robin Broad and John Cavanagh have brought us this amazing David versus Goliath story in their new book, The Water Defenders: How Ordinary People Saved A Country from Corporate Greed. Their first-hand accounts of working with front-line communities, both in El Salvador and in the United States. provide lessons along the way about how to fight an immensely powerful entity and win, whether the enemy be Big Gold, Big Oil or Big Pharma (to name a few). As they write in their introduction, “You may find yourselves surprised to find the relevance of the strategies of the water defenders in El Salvador, whether your focus is on a Walmart in Washington DC; a fracking company trying to expand in Texas or Pennsylvania, or petrochemical companies outside New Orleans.” By the end of the book, they added relevant struggles in countries like Bolivia, Venezuela, and Ecuador, as well as in South Africa, South Korea, and India.

In an interview with John Cavanagh, I asked if he and Robin had an inkling of the huge ramifications of their story right from the beginning, and his answer was decidedly no. In fact, when they first got involved, back in 2009, they never expected to win. They knew what they were up against and had no illusions. As they wrote about the ensuing years of twist-and-turn battles lost and won, the authors described a combination of events that made the water defenders’ decades-long struggle unusual… Yet now, with lessons learned, replicable.

Their involvement with the water defenders began in October 2009. That month, the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), a progressive organization “dedicated to building a more equitable, ecologically sustainable, and peaceful society,” invited a group of Salvadorian water defenders to accept IPS’s annual Letelier Human Rights Award for their struggle against Pacific Rim (PacRim), a huge Canadian gold-mining company that sought permits in El Salvador. [See: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/06351cb8-8cc0-4bdd-ac3a-2f7ee5a0b553]That year’s award was particularly poignant because one of the awardees, Marcelo Rivera, had been assassinated the month before. Five people still came to Washington, with Marcelo’s brother, Miguel, traveling in his place. Leading the delegation was a small-statured, seemingly nervous Vidalina Morales. But when she stepped up to the podium at the National Press Club and began her acceptance speech, her voice filled the room with a sense of urgency. She described the dangers of gold mining—for drinking water, for fishing and for agriculture. By the time she got to explaining the use of toxic cyanide in separating the gold from the rock, she had the audience—including the authors—mesmerized.

Miguel Rivera in front of anti-mining mural in his town in northern El Salvador
Miguel Rivera in front of anti-mining mural in his town in northern El Salvador / credit: John Cavanagh

Another factor made this occasion different. Cavanagh, who is the director of IPS, explained that usually the awardees arrive in Washington to accept their awards and return home. But on this occasion, “They asked for our help. El Salvador had just been sued by PacRim in an international tribunal that argued that El Salvador had to allow it to mine gold or pay over $300 million in costs and ‘foregone profits.’ They also asked if we could help them with research on companies involved in gold mining.”

John had previously engaged with IPS in fighting against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and had become familiar with the tribunal and the rules set by the World Bank involved in regulating a global economy. Robin Broad, for her part, had written her doctoral dissertation and first book on the World Bank, and she had worked on the bank at her job with the U.S. Treasury Department in the mid-1980s. But she was less familiar with the workings of the tribunal the World Bank had set up in 1964, “The International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID).” Its mission was to hear cases brought by foreign investors demanding compensation for lost profits from countries that tried to limit or regulate their activities. The couple figured they could be helpful.

“That’s how we were drawn in,” John explained, while emphasizing the extraordinary role local Salvadorans played in educating local communities about the dangers of landfills and then the dangers of gold mining. It was their groundbreaking work, often under dangerous conditions, that had earned them the Letelier award.

What happened next is a remarkable story of a growing North-South alliance that eventually went global, succeeding in two monumental victories: 1) a decision by ICSID in October 2016 that rejected PacRim’s claims for damages, while ordering the corporation to pay El Salvador $8 million in costs, and 2) the world’s first-ever comprehensive metals mining ban, brought by the El Salvador legislature in March 2019.

The Challenge

Up until 2016, Cavanagh explained, “we never thought we would win.” But that did not stop the momentum of coalition building, which had begun as early as 2005 by local village defenders, human rights advocates, farmers, lawyers, Catholic organizations and Oxfam America. They united to call themselves the National Roundtable on Metallic Mining, or La Mesa Frente a la Mineria Metálica—La Mesa for short. Their ultimate goal, beyond building resistance at the local level, “seemed like a pipe dream,” the authors wrote. That goal? “Getting the Salvadoran Congress to pass a new national law banning metal mining.”

Over the years, spurred on by their quest to find out who was responsible for Marcelo’s murder, the water defenders and their international allies yielded a treasure trove of insights on how to fight the Men in Suits, regardless of the outcome. Here are just a few lessons learned from their struggles described in the book:

  • Listen to the horror stories coming from refugees, in this case, those fleeing Honduras. Marcelo; his brother, Miguel; and Vidalina made several trips to Honduras to learn more about the gold mines there. (Honduras had become a haven for Big Gold after the 2009 coup). They returned with “shocking stories of rivers poisoned by cyanide, of dying fish and skin disease, of displaced communities, denuded forests, and corruption and conflict catalyzed by mining company payoffs.” Those trips, the authors write, made a huge impression on the water defenders and “crystallized their thinking… They were vigilant researchers, thirsty to know more.”
  • Seek out unexpected allies. One was Luis Parada, a Salvadoran government lawyer with a military background. As it turned out, he was a disciple of Sun Tsu, a Chinese military strategist from 2,500 years ago, who had written The Art of War. Among the lessons Parada (and Sun Tsu) imparted: “Know thy adversaries”—be one step ahead of them, and also know your possible allies. “Befriend a distant state while attacking a neighbor.” Luis also offered valuable practical advice, including the fact that the Sheraton Hotel in the capital, with its bar and pool, “offered some of the best intelligence in El Salvador.” Another unexpected ally was the ultra-conservative Archbishop Saenz Lacalle, a member of the right wing Opus Dei. “All it had taken was the word cyanide,” the authors explain, to cause him to oppose mining. His replacement in 2008, Archbishop Escobar, followed suit. He was “hardly an activist cleric,” but he “had long-held unexpected and firm views on mining,” and in his inaugural messages called on the government to reject mining operations in El Salvador. Getting the Catholic Church behind the water defenders was crucial. The martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero, “whose photo is omnipresent throughout the country,” was no doubt a factor for widespread community support behind the water defenders, as was the encyclical put out by Pope Francis urging priests to take to the streets to defend the environment. Yet another surprise endorsement came from a member of one of El Salvador’s richest families and a leader of the right-wing ARENA party, which dominated the legislature. It turned out that John Wright Sol had a passion for the environment. Also noteworthy: His family’s vast sugar plantations consumed a lot of water. As he studied the impact of mining on water, he reached out to fellow members of ARENA. “I didn’t want to turn this into mining companies are the devil,” he advised. Instead, he chose to emphasize that “every citizen in the country must have access to clear water.”
  • Be wary of corporate PR campaigns. PacRim put out a report emphasizing that a whopping 36,000 jobs would be created from its mining operations, a vastly inflated claim. In radio interviews, PacRim aimed separate messages to the ARENA party and to the left-wing FMLN party, in which it claimed revenues would fund social agendas. Trips abroad arranged by PacRim often resulted in swaying politicians, whether on the left or right, to support their corporate agenda.
  • No matter how big, corporations can make mistakes. OceanaGold, a Canadian-Australian mining company which took over PacRim in 2014, had put on a brave face after the ICSID ruled against PacRim, acting as though it had won, and refusing to cough up the $8 million the company owed El Salvador. Yet it made a fatal error by choosing its mining operations in The Philippines as an example of its environmentally pristine practices. Robin Broad knew otherwise, and along with other international allies had cultivated a professional relationship with the governor of the Philippine province where OceanaGold had its mine. Governor Carlos Padilla arrived in El Salvador on the eve of the crucial legislative vote on the mining bill and presented a “before and after” slideshow to the Environmental Committee. He pictured a lush landscape before the mining, contrasted with images of waste-filled “tailings ponds,” dead trees, dried-up springs and rivers, dead fish on river banks, and, as he explained, “No access to water for drinking or for irrigation.” He ended with an appeal to future generations. “Grandpa,” he imagined them asking. “Why did you allow mining?” 

His presentation was “sort of a clincher,” Cavanagh told me. “It raised the level of indignation.” The legislative vote followed soon afterwards, on March 29, 2019. The results were stunning, with 69 votes tallied against OceanaGold, zero nays and zero abstentions. Shouts of Sí, Se Puede!—“Yes we can!”—erupted from the floor, as members of La Mesa waved banners that read, “No a la Minería, Sí a la Vida”—No to Mining. Yes to Life!

Children performing on the 10th anniversary of Marcelo Rivera’s assassination
Children performing on the 10th anniversary of El Salvadorean water defender Marcelo Rivera’s assassination / credit: John Cavanagh

Today, the water defenders remain cautiously optimistic, though constantly on guard. In the past, mining corporations have been able to convince even leftist governments that mining is good for the economy. Cavanagh speculates mayors of small towns, pressured to provide jobs, may have been behind the assassination of Marcelo Rivera and other water defenders.

But to date, Marcelo’s killers have never been identified. On an equally sobering note, he and Board remind us in the book that “over 1,700 environmental defenders had been killed across 50 countries between 2002 and 2018.”

I asked John for an update since finishing his book in mid-2020. Nayib Bukele, El Salvador’s “new Trump-like president,” he wrote, “hasn’t raised mining, and it doesn’t look like he is personally interested. He knows the public opinion polls that showed that the overwhelming majority of Salvadorans are opposed to mining.”

However, he added, “We remain worried. El Salvador, like all developing countries, is suffering economically after the pandemic, and other countries have increased mining to get more revenues. So, La Mesa remains vigilant against any actions that could indicate that the government wants to mine.”

We can only hope that water defenders around the world will strengthen their alliances. Fortunately, they now have a handbook that will help them in their journey of resistance.

Charlotte Dennett is the co-author with Gerard Colby of Thy Will be Done. The Conquest of the Amazon: Nelson Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil. Her new book is The Crash of Flight 3804: A Lost Spy, A Daughter’s Quest, and the Deadly Politics of the Great Game for Oil.

The Water Defenders: How Ordinary People Saved a Country from Corporate Greed by Robin Broad and John Cavanagh. Boston: Beacon Press; 2nd edition. March 23, 2021.

For a bit more critical review see: https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/el-salvador-s-water-defenders-and-fight-against-toxic-mining


In-depth interview with Ron Deibert, Citizen Lab’s founder

May 31, 2021
a smiling man in a collared shirt standing in front of a staircase

Ron Deibert is director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. (Courtesy of Ron Deibert)

On 25 May 2021 Nathaniel Basen for TVO.org spoke with professor Ron Deibert about internet censorship, espionage, and getting threats from authoritarian regimes. It is a long but rich interview: In 2001, Ron Deibert, a professor at the University of Toronto, founded Citizen Lab to help understand and track the spread of digital human-rights abuses around the world. 

In the 20 years since, the interdisciplinary lab has made headlines for protecting journalists and human-rights defenders from digital attacks; one of its researchers helped identify members of the group that attacked the United States Capitol earlier this year.

TVO.org: Let’s start at the beginning. How and why did Citizen Lab start, and what did it look like at the time? 

Ron Deibert: Back in the late 1990s, I was doing what I would consider to be conventional academic research — the lone professor studying a topic. A lot of desktop research. A student was taking a course of mine proposed doing a paper where he would explore censorship in China. This was a new topic back then — there was not any evidence really that China was censoring the internet — but people assumed they would, and there was a lot of uncertainty about what was going on there. 

He was kind of a self-taught hacker, and he put together this research paper where he connected to computers in China using some proxy servers and started comparing the results he got to what he could see here in Canada, doing it very systematically. It opened my eyes to the ways in which methods from computer science and engineering science — technical interrogation tools and techniques — could be used to surface real primary evidence about what’s going on beneath the surface of the internet around information control. Especially what governments, and also private companies, are doing that isn’t in the public domain. No one was really doing that at the time, and a lightbulb went on, where I realized that this is a really powerful way of surfacing primary evidence and data in a way that really no one else was doing. 

So I put together a prospectus for a lab that would be interdisciplinary, that would bring together people who have these skills to work systematically on uncovering information-control practices and look at surveillance and censorship and information warfare, from the standpoint of risks to citizens from a human-rights perspective. I was very fortunate at the time to get support from the Ford Foundation — I got a grant from them in 2001 — and I put the proposal together for the Citizen Lab from that. 

TVO.org: And at the time you were in a pretty small basement lab.

Deibert: Actually, it was my office in political science where it all got started. When I got the grant, the Munk Centre was just being established, and the building at Devonshire [at the University of Toronto] was under construction. I went over to that building and scoped out what I thought would be a room that no one else would want, to increase my chance of getting approval. I found this space, and I went to Janice Stein, the director, and said, “Hey, I’ve got this grant. I’ve got this idea. I need some space.” And she said, “Okay, you can have it.” 

So she supported the idea and took a risk. Space is a very valuable asset on campus. And even though it sounds less glamorous, we were really happy to have that room.

After 10 years, we moved to the new Munk building, the observatory, where we’re located now, and that was really great, because we needed more space. Security is not perfect — where we are there are lots of problems — but it is much better than it was in the old building, where people would just wander in and could easily locate us. Now we’re wrapped behind several layers of access control…..

TVO.org: Let’s talk a little bit about your process. How does Citizen Lab decide what to look into next?

Deibert: It’s a combination of factors. First and foremost, we are looking at the topic, at the domain, broadly speaking, which for us is global in scope. We don’t have a particular regional focus. We’re looking at risks to human rights that arise out of information technology: that’s the broadest possible definition of what we do.

That also limits our selection of cases that we want to examine. We assume that, however problematic cybersecurity is for big banks or government, they have resources — they can go hire a private company. But journalists, human-rights defenders, people living in the global south who are human-rights defenders and are advocating for policy change, they really lack capacity. So we put our effort into identifying cases that present the highest risk to human rights and, ideally, affect the most vulnerable parts of the population. 

We divide our work systematically. So there are certain teams that we organize around, though there’s a bit of overlap. It’s fluid, but we have some teams that are more interested in applying network-measurement techniques to uncovering internet censorship, let’s say, and that’s probably the area where we’ve doing the most work for the longest time. Then there’s what we call the targeted-threats group, which is really the most serious stuff around espionage, and it certainly has the highest risk and has gotten us in the crosshairs of some bad actors, to such an extent that we’ve now become a target. We also apply non-technical methods in an interdisciplinary way — we have people who are trained in law and policy. So we’ve done a lot of work around legislation of analyzing national security laws and practices in Canada. 

I would say how things are chosen depends on the opportunities that come up. We may hear about something, some preliminary evidence, perhaps a journalist tips us off or a victim comes forward. Or the team itself decides, hey, this is something we should look into. A good example of that is Zoom. We knew about Zoom: it was a kind of obscure business, networking-communications platform, until the pandemic hit. Suddenly, everyone was on Zoom. So our researchers got together and said, “Hey, we better take a look at this” and indeed uncovered some highly problematic security and privacy issues.

TVO.org: Your work with Zoom is a good example of getting immediate results from your work. If I’m correct, after a public outcry, Zoom cleaned up a lot of what you found. How does that feel to have an immediate impact on the world in that way? 

Deibert: It’s actually super-rewarding in a number of ways. First of all, there’s the gratification to get the message out. Ultimately, we see ourselves as a university-based watchdog group, so if you can publish something and the next day everybody’s reading about it because it’s on the front page of the New York Times? That’s phenomenal. We’ve been actually really fortunate to have high-profile coverage for our research. I think we’ve had, like, close to 30 front-page stories in the New York Times, the Washington Post, other global media, the Financial Times, about different reports of ours over the last 20 years. 

Going further, ultimately, we don’t just want to get attention for what we’re doing — we want to see some change. So there have been so many cases now where we’ve seen consequences, actions taken, policy changes, or advocacy campaigns started as a result of the work that we’ve done. 

Probably the biggest one was back in 2016, when we investigated a targeted espionage attack against a human-rights defender in the United Arab Emirates. He shared with us an SMS message that was tainted with malware that the UAE government was using to try to hack his phone, and when we reverse-engineered it, that malware infected our own device, our own iPhone. We realized that it was so sophisticated and involved what were then three software flaws in the Apple operating system, that even Apple itself didn’t know about. We did a responsible disclosure to them and, within two weeks, they pushed out a patch that affected directly the security of more than 1 billion people. So, to be able to say, “Hey, we were responsible for that” is, I think, quite an accomplishment.

TVO.org: On the flip side, there are people that don’t like the work you do. What has it been like for you to become a target? I can’t imagine when you started this thing that you pictured yourself coming under threat. 

Deibert: Well, first of all, you’re right. I grew up studying world politics as something out there, and I’m a spectator. There were a couple of instances before this, but, really, when we published the GhostNet report in 2009, which was the first public-evidence-based report on cyber espionage, it was the one that involved the hacking of the office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and we uncovered this massive Chinese espionage operation. 

It suddenly dawned on me, okay, we’ve gone from kind of just observing and recording to becoming a factor, because very quickly thereafter, we had all sorts of inquiries and veiled threats and concerns about physical security. From that point on, from 2009 to today, they’ve really only amplified. The worst is probably when we were targeted by Black Cube, the same private-intelligence firm made up of ex-Mossad agents that notoriously went after the accusers of Harvey Weinstein. Now, that’s really frightening to be in their crosshairs. We ended up actually exposing that operation, but to know that something like that is going on, frankly, is very disturbing. It really forces you to change your behaviour, think about practical issues: when you’re travelling, hotels, getting into elevators, who’s accessing the same building as you. 

At the same time, though, I think it’s a mark of success. If we’re not successful, those people wouldn’t care. It’s just something you have to factor into your risk calculation and take all the precautions, and we’re most concerned about the risks to the subjects of our research. Frankly, we go to extraordinary lengths to protect the security in terms of the data we handle, how we interact with them and interview them. But, yeah, it’s just constant. Actually, every day there’s something, ranging from people who, unfortunately, maybe are mentally disturbed, and they read about us and want to visit us, all the way to, you know, the world’s worst authoritarian regimes that are trying to threaten us. 

TVO.org: A lot of this work is global in nature, but some Ontarians might be surprised to know a lot of it is quite local. I’m thinking about your work with internet-filtering technology and Waterloo-based Netsweeper. What makes filtering technology so important, and what was Netsweeper up to? 

Deibert: As the internet evolves, there are all sorts of reasons why people want to control access to certain content online — beginning, I would say, with schools and libraries. There are legitimate concerns among parents and teachers that children have access to pornography or other types of content. Service providers like Netsweeper fill the market niche, providing filtering technology to those clients. 

But, very quickly, there grew a need among governments — national-level internet censorship. In the beginning, like I talked about with the Chinese, it was very rare in the 1990s or 2000s. I could count on one hand the number of governments that were doing this sort of thing. Now, it’s routine, and it’s big business. So with a company like Netsweeper, for us, it was, frankly, a no-brainer to zero in on it, and not even because they’re based in our own backyard. There’s certainly a motivating factor there because we’re Canadians, and we want to make sure that, as best we can, we identify businesses operating out of Canada to see if they’re in compliance with Canadian law or Canadian values. Here, we had a company that seemed to be not just kind of stumbling into selling internet-censorship services to some of the world’s worst violators of human rights, but actively courting them. 

They were showing up all over the world, especially in the Middle East. The Middle East is where Netsweeper really profited from selling internet-censorship services to governments that routinely violate human rights and block access to content that would be considered protected legally here in Canada. And they were also doing this in a non-transparent way. 

This is not something they openly advertised, and yet we knew, from our research and technical investigation, we could identify basically unquestionable proof that their technology was being used to filter access to content that would be legally protected here in Canada, in places like Bahrain and Yemen and in the Gulf. 

So we did a report about Netsweeper’s technology in Yemen, and at this time, the main telco, YemenNet, was controlled by Houthi rebels, and of course there’s an ongoing civil war, which at that time was really quite intense. We simply documented that Netsweeper’s technology was being used to actually block the entire Israeli top-level domain — the only time we’d ever seen that in the world, with the exception of Iran. 

We published this report, and we mentioned in the commentary around it that, in providing services to one participant in an armed conflict, who is censoring information, including information related to international news, they’re effectively inserting themselves in an armed conflict, and it raises all sorts of ethical, moral, and potentially even legal issues. Netsweeper sued me and the University of Toronto for defamation for over $3 million. Of course, we thought that was entirely baseless, and six months later, they simply withdrew the suit. 

Coincidentally, their suit came shortly before the Ontario government passed anti-SLAPP legislation to prevent lawsuits that chill free expression, which in our opinion, is very much what it is, because as we were going through the litigation, we couldn’t report on Netsweeper. After the lawsuit was dropped, we then published several subsequent reports on Netsweeper…..

TVO.org: In your 20 years, what is the work you’re most proud of?

Deibert: What I’m most proud of is the staff. I’d say a skill that I have is, I think I would make a good NHL scout or a band manager. I have the ability, for what it’s worth, to identify talented people and give them the support they need. So there’s not a particular report that I’m proud of; I’m most proud of the people who work at the lab. I’m so fortunate to be surrounded by these extremely talented, ethical, dedicated people, most of whom have been with me for over 10 years. It’s rare to have that in a small university. And that’s what I’m most proud of.

TVO.org: The lab itself, as we talked about a little bit, is somewhat unique: you’re working outside of government or corporations and working in the interest of human rights. Others around the world have taken note of your model. Do you hope to export it? 

Deibert: It’s beginning to be surprising to me that there aren’t more Citizen Lab–like organizations at other universities. To me, this is a field with such endless opportunity. There’s so much unfortunate malfeasance going on in the digital world. 

And, yet, you have these extremely powerful methods and techniques, as we’ve demonstrated, that, by way of analogy, act like an X-ray on the abuse of power. That’s the way I think about it. It’s astonishing. 

Sometimes I sit back and shake my head. A lot of the stuff we don’t even publish. It’s remarkable what you can see when you use these very precise, careful methods to uncover and track abuses of power. Why haven’t other university professors jumped on this and tried to mimic it? I don’t really know. I suppose there’s no one answer. There are risks involved with it, and it’s actually not easy to cross disciplinary boundaries. 

So I think that we’re helping to build the field, at least I hope, and you’re right that there are a few other places where I’m seeing either professors or, in some cases, human-rights organizations, attempting to build something like this. That is fantastic. That’s really where my effort and the next phase of my career is, around really field-building by promoting that model and hoping that others build up centres like the Citizen Lab at other universities, while also ensuring the sustainability of the lab.

This is a bit “inside university,” but the reality is, as the only professor in the lab, I’m the weakest link. So if something happens to me, the lab would really fall apart. Not because I’m the wizard directing everything — purely because I’m the responsible principal investigator for the grant, and you need that at a university. What I hope to do is ensure the sustainability of the lab outside of me, and that means recruiting other professors to the lab. We’re actively fundraising to do that and to try to get more tenure-track positions connected to the lab so that it can continue once I move on.

TVO.org: And what will the next 20 years hold for the lab itself?

Deibert: Hopefully, we ‘ll be able to continue. We know we have the support from the University of Toronto; they’ve been incredible in a number of ways. We live in a time when big university bureaucracies are criticized, sometimes rightfully so — I’ve been critical of my own university in various areas. But one thing I can say, they have been so supportive of work that we do in a variety of real practical ways, including legal support. 

I just want the lab to not be something that is tied to one profession. I want it to continue and to duplicate what we do globally. If we had 25 Citizen Labs sprinkled around the planet, it would be better for human rights overall, because there would at least be another protective layer, if you will, of dogged researchers who aren’t afraid to uncover abuses of power, no matter where they are.

https://www.tvo.org/article/x-ray-on-the-abuse-of-power-citizen-labs-founder-on-fighting-for-human-rights


30 NGOs call on Google to drop plan for a Cloud region in Saudi Arabia

May 27, 2021
Groups call on Google to drop out of Saudi project over human rights concerns

© Getty Images

The Hill of 26 May 2021 reports that a coalition of more than 30 human rights and digital privacy rights groups called on Google to abandon its plans to establish a Google Cloud region in Saudi Arabia over concerns about human rights violations.

The groups, which include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and PEN America, wrote in their letter that Saudi Arabia’s record of tamping down on public dissent and its justice system that “flagrantly violates due process” made it unsafe for Google to set up a “cloud region” in the kingdom.

While Google publishes how it handles government requests for customer information and reports when requests are made through formal channels, there are numerous potential human rights risks of establishing a Google Cloud region in Saudi Arabia that include violations of the rights to privacy, freedom of expression and association, non-discrimination, and due process,” the groups said. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/03/08/saudi-arabia-for-first-time-openly-criticized-in-un-human-rights-council/

The letter also pointed to Saudi authorities who have routinely sought to identify anonymous online dissenters and spy on Saudi citizens through digital surveillance. The groups also pointed to how they themselves are believed to have been put under surveillance by the Saudi government.

“Google has a responsibility to respect human rights, regardless of any state’s willingness to fulfill its own human rights obligations,” the letter continued, pointing to Google’s statement in which it expressed its commitment to human rights and to “improve the lives of as many people as possible.”

In order to address these concerns, the groups called on Google to conduct a “robust, thorough human rights due diligence process” and to “draw red lines around what types of government requests concerning Cloud regions it will not comply with” due to human rights concerns.

“The Saudi government has demonstrated time and again a flagrant disregard for human rights, both through its own direct actions against human rights defenders and its spying on corporate digital platforms to do the same,” the letter read. “We fear that in partnering with the Saudi government, Google will become complicit in future human rights violations affecting people in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East region.”

https://thehill.com/policy/technology/555597-groups-call-on-google-to-drop-out-of-saudi-project-over-human-rights


William Zabel Human Rights Award 2021 to Philippines NGO Karapatan

May 27, 2021

Human Rights First announced that it will present Karapatan, Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights, with its annual William D. Zabel Human Rights Award in recognition of its commitment to human rights in the Philippines. For more on this award and its laureates, see: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/awards/984CA015-FE02-4992-8AED-4EB1AEC7D0EE

Karapatan is a Philippines-based alliance of human rights organizations, programs, committees, and individual advocates that have been at the forefront of the struggle for human rights in the country since 1995. 

Human Rights First has tremendous respect and admiration for Karapatan and the work done by Tinay Palabay,” said Michael Breen, president and CEO of Human Rights First. “They are human rights defenders whom the government of Philippines regularly targets, and we hope this award, and our ongoing partnership, helps shine a bright light on their efforts and shields them from additional threats.”

With more than forty member organizations and sixteen regional chapters across the country, Karapatan addresses extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, political prisoners and militarization all across the Philippines. The Alliance helps organize mass actions that expose human rights violations and challenge State policies and actions that promote the culture of impunity.

Karapatan documents human rights violations through fact-finding missions; files cases through courts, even quasi-judicial bodies like the Commission on Human Rights, the United Nations, and other international human rights bodies. It also refers victims to medical professionals and groups for psycho-social and additional assistance; and organizes victims of human rights violations and their families.

It also monitors peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines and the nation’s adherence to the Comprehensive Agreement on the Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law and other agreements.

Fifteen human rights workers of Karapatan have been killed in the past five years, nearly 70 since 2001, and many more are imprisoned or are facing judicial harassment and threats because of their work in defending human rights,” said Tinay Palabay of Karapatan. “This recognition is an homage to their memory and legacy of selflessness, compassion and service to the poor and oppressed and we continue to honor them every day as we do the best that we can in advocacy, documentation, direct services and movement-building in the Philippines.”

Human Rights First and Karapatan are currently working on a pilot project testing “Digital Shield,” an application that tracks threats of violence and harassment made against the organization and its members online. 

For last year’s award: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/10/07/human-rights-first-to-present-saudi-organization-alqst-with-william-d-zabel-human-rights-award/

https://www.humanrightsfirst.org/press-release/human-rights-first-present-philippines-organization-karapatan-william-d-zabel-human


“Uluru Statement from the Heart” winner of the 2021 Sydney Peace Prize

May 26, 2021

On 26 May 2021 the ongoing campaign for First Nations recognition in the Constitution has been awarded Australia’s Sydney Peace Prize.

Proud First Nations leaders and drivers of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, Professor Megan Davis, a Cobble Cobble woman from the Barunggam Nation in South East Queensland; Pat Anderson AO, an Alyawarre woman from the Northern Territory; and Noel Pearson, a Guugu Yimidhirr man from Hopevale on the Cape York Peninsula, jointly welcomed the announcement and will receive the prize together at an official event later in the year.

Delivered in May 2017 at the National Constitutional Convention, the Uluru Statement from the Heart is a ‘historic offering of peace’ that calls for the establishment of a ‘First Nations Voice’ in the Australian Constitution.

Professor Davis, Ms Anderson and Mr Pearson worked tirelessly to deliver the statement in 2017 and have spent the past four years leading the campaign for a referendum to change the constitution. The announcement of their win coincides with National Sorry Day, and marks four years since the Uluru Statement was originally endorsed by First Nations people from across Australia.

The Uluru Statement was the culmination of a dialogue process designed to take agreement and disagreement and elicit a pathway forward on the vital question of recognition,” Professor Davis said.

This is a tribute to the men and women of the dialogues who crafted a roadmap to peace for the nation. We are accepting this prize on behalf of all of the First Nations that participated in the Uluru Dialogues and the National Constitutional Convention at Uluru in 2017.”

Uluru Statement
The Uluru Statement from the Heart.

For more on the Syney Peace Prize and its laureates see: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/awards/7E938842-91DB-A3FD-EDF6-7143BA02216B

https://www.sydney.edu.au/news-opinion/news/2021/05/26/uluru-statement-from-the-heart-wins-2021-sydney-peace-prize.html

https://ulurustatement.org/