Archive for the 'books' Category

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

10th edition of CIVICUS’s State of Civil Society Report (2021)

May 26, 2021

Protests prove the power of collective action as states fail pandemic test, says new report

As COVID-19 swept the globe, deepening existing fault-lines in societies and generating fear and uncertainty, many governments used the pandemic as a pretext to clamp down on civic freedoms, sparking protests in many countries. The annual State of Civil Society Report 2021, by global civil society alliance CIVICUS, shows that despite the odds, millions of people around the world mobilised to demand more just, equal and sustainable societies during the pandemic.

Mobilising against the odds

Globally, the mass mobilisation that made headlines and changed the conversation was the resurgence of demands for racial justice under the Black Lives Matter banner in the USA and beyond following the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020. People from all walks of life came to the streets to demand an end to systemic racism and police brutality.

The scourge of racism was highlighted in places as diverse as Colombia, the Netherlands and South Africa. The determination to end police brutality resonated widely, encouraging uprisings against police violence, notably in Nigeria.

Even in highly repressive countries, people bravely put their bodies on the line to oppose abusive power and demand democratic freedoms.

India witnessed the largest coordinated strike in world history as farmers defied brutal tactics to protest against corporate capture and elite collusion. Exposure of grand corruption in authoritarian Russia brought people to the streets, where they were met with more repression.

Bold civil disobedience against military might was offered in Myanmar. Dreams of democracy were deferred in Algeria, Belarus and Hong Kong, among others, but people showed extraordinary courage, taking to the streets in the face of great odds, keeping alive hopes for change.

Proving the power of collective action

The success of collective action led to breakthroughs in democracy and human rights across the globe.

In Chile, concerted street protests led to a commitment to develop a new constitution through democratic processes, with gender parity and Indigenous representation guaranteed. Sustained mobilisations in Argentina resulted in abortion being legalised, while in several countries young environmental activists took action to keep climate change in the spotlight.

Civil society’s collective action forced an election re-run in Malawi, and overcame systematic voter suppression in the USA. In Thailand, tens of thousands of protesters called for democratic reforms, including, for the first time, demanding a curb on the powers of the monarchy; activists used many creative forms of protest, including using giant inflatable ducks during mobilisations and holding ‘Runs Against Dictatorship’.

Following civic actions, same-sex relations were decriminalised in Bhutan and Gabon and same-sex marriage legalised in Costa Rica.

Many states failed the pandemic test

The pandemic offered a stress test for political institutions, and most were found wanting. The inadequacy of healthcare and social support systems was revealed. International cooperation was lacking as governments asserted narrow self-interest, birthing the dismal practice of vaccine nationalism by wealthy industrialised countries.

Many governments poured out official propaganda and sought to control the flow of information, ramping up censorship and criminalising legitimate inquiry and commentary. China was in the front rank of states that expanded surveillance practices and trampled on the right to privacy.

During the pandemic, several states increased their coercive power. In the Philippines, people were put in dog cages for breaking pandemic regulations, while in several Middle Eastern and North African states, including Bahrain, Egypt and Iran, human rights defenders remained in crowded jails, at risk of contracting COVID-19.

Some countries – notably New Zealand, South Korea and Taiwan – got the virus under control, won public trust and communicated pandemic response measures clearly, while largely respecting rights and democratic freedoms. This shows that the path of repression taken by many was not a necessity but a choice.

Pandemic proves the need for civil society

When states failed to respond effectively to the pandemic, civil society stepped up, providing help to people most in need and defending rights. Civil society organisations responded swiftly with vital support, distributing cash, food, medicines and sanitary supplies, sharing accurate information on the virus and providing healthcare and psychological services.

Looking forward

CIVICUS’s report calls on states to reverse rights restrictions imposed under the pandemic at the earliest opportunity. It urges them to respect human rights and democratic freedoms, and listen to the voices of protesters. It asks the international community to do more to uphold norms on civic freedoms and support peaceful assembly.

The great current wave of protests is sure to continue. People are brave to protest, but they should not have to do so at the risk of being thrown behind bars, or facing brutal, even lethal, violence.

https://reliefweb.int/report/world/state-civil-society-report-2021-enarpt

https://civicus.org

Israeli government-sponsored app goes after HRW for Apartheid categorisation

May 10, 2021

Alan Macleod in Mint-press News of 7 May 2021 studies in quite some detail the way in which the recently released Human Rights Watch (HRW) report has made waves around the world and the organised backlash that followed.

For the first time, the New York-based non-governmental organization has categorized Israel as an apartheid state guilty of “crimes against humanity.” [see also`: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/01/18/israel-and-apartheid-israeli-human-rights-group-stirs-debate/]

The 213-page study goes into detail about a range of racist laws and policies carried out by successive administrations, concluding that there is an “overarching Israeli government policy to maintain the domination by Jewish Israelis over Palestinians and grave abuses committed against Palestinians living in the occupied territory, including East Jerusalem.” The report accuses the state of Israel of widespread “institutional discrimination” and of “denying millions of Palestinians their fundamental rights…solely because they are Palestinian and not Jewish.” It further notes that, across Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, it has “sought to maximize the land available for Jewish communities and to concentrate most Palestinians in dense population centers.”

Prominent voices have warned for years that apartheid lurks just around the corner if the trajectory of Israel’s rule over Palestinians does not change,” said the organization’s executive director, Kenneth Roth. “This detailed study shows that Israeli authorities have already turned that corner and today are committing the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.

Perhaps most importantly, Human Rights Watch is now openly calling for global action to end the repression. The report asks the International Criminal Court to investigate and prosecute those involved in Palestinian persecution. While not explicitly endorsing the Boycott, Divestment and Sactions (BDS) movement, Human Rights Watch directly advocates that “[s]tates should impose individual sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, against officials and individuals responsible for the continued commission of these serious crimes,” and for businesses to “cease business activities that directly contribute to the crimes of apartheid and persecution.”

A big splash

The report was widely covered across the world and has been heralded by Palestine solidarity activists, with experts seeing it as a potential turning point in the struggle for Palestinian sovereignty. “It was inevitable that Human Rights Watch would have to declare Israel an Apartheid state and, from what I hear, Amnesty International is going to be next to say it,Asa Winstanley of the Electronic Intifada told MintPress. “It puts Israel’s backers in a difficult spot because Human Rights Watch is really part of the establishment so they cannot just dismiss it and it makes it impossible to ignore… It is harder for them to say Human Rights Watch is anti-Semitic, but they’re trying it anyway,” he added.

Trying indeed. Michigan Congresswoman Lisa McClain tweeted that “Human Rights Watch has shown again how they have an anti-Israel agenda,” suggesting they instead focus their attention on China or Iran’s repressive governments. “Hostility and hypocrisy are HRW’s hallmarks when it comes to Israel,” wrote the American Jewish Committee. The Jerusalem Post’s editorial board was equally condemnatory, denouncing what they saw as the “cynical appropriation of the suffering of the victims of the actual apartheid regime.” Other Israeli journalists described the report as “a disgrace to the memory of the millions who suffered under that policy [apartheid] in South Africa.” The news even made enough waves to force a response from the White House. Press Secretary Jen Psaki replied that “[a]s to the question of whether Israel’s actions constitute apartheid, that is not the view of this administration.”

Organized spontaneity

Yet much of the online anger at the report was actually manufactured by an Israeli government-sponsored app, Act.IL, which organized supporters of the Jewish state to act in sync to create an artificial groundswell of opposition to it. The app, which reportedly has a budget of over $1 million per year, instructed users to leave combative comments on Facebook, Twitter, and popular news outlets, and to like and promote others who did the same.

Human Rights Watch’s Facebook post announcing the report’s release has received over 1,400 comments, hundreds of them written in a similar, scathingly negative tone. One that the app directly told users to signal boost, for instance, described Palestinians as a people “indoctrinated with hate for Israel and Jews for over 100 years,” and claimed they were paid salaries to murder Israelis. It also presented the 1967 war and occupation as a humanitarian effort to bring electricity and other infrastructure to Arabs.

Another “mission” Act.IL gave its users was to promote a Facebook comment attacking the report as “nothing more than hate speech” and calling its lead author a “rabid anti-Zionist and Israel hater.”Omar Shakir HRW

One of the many images provided to Act.IL users for their astroturfing campaign against HRW

Act.IL is one of the chief tools in Israel’s online public relations enterprise. The app debuted in 2017 and is part of what Israeli Minister of Strategic Affairs Gilad Erdan called an “Iron Dome of Truth.” “Our cell phones are the number one weapon against us,” he explained, noting that public opinion in the U.S. was beginning to turn against them. While most of the app’s nearly 20,000 users are volunteers, a core of them are paid operatives, with many students receiving scholarships as a reward for their work.

The app has been designed to feel like a game, with points assigned for completing “missions” such as sharing pro-Israel videos, reporting anti-Israel content, signing petitions, or attending online seminars. Users can track their progress on leaderboards, earn badges and prizes, and chat with other members of the community. While it might feel like Animal Crossing or World of Warcraft for some, its creators see this very much as a new front in the war against Palestine. Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked categorizes BDS as “another branch of terrorism in the modern age,” and has been an important voice in taking the fight to a new front.

An Act.IL mission encouraging astroturfing of online discussions. Source |
@AntiBDSApp

There is also an online toolkit full of folders of responses to typical questions and issues that arise. Users can, for instance, go to the BDS folder to find stock replies to their arguments. Or they can go to a specific folder to find articles, images and videos they can use to demonize Hamas.

The missions are organized by outlet, so users can, for instance, target only Facebook, Telegram, or other platforms they are most familiar with. At the time of writing, there are 10 missions each to complete on Facebook and YouTube, 30 on Instagram, 25 on Twitter.

One current challenge is to upvote an answer to a question on Quora that asks about the validity and purpose of checkpoints in the West Bank. The answer claims they are purely about protection from terror attacks, and claims that Red Crescent ambulances are used to ferry bombs around the area. Other missions include pressuring an online store to remove a bag with a message stating “Make Israel Palestine Again.”Act.IL

An Act.IL “mission” encouraging users to demand the removal of products with pro-Palestinian messaging

It is quite astounding how openly they do it. But, of course, when you see a comment online, you wouldn’t necessarily think that it was coming from the Israeli government, but this is essentially what is happening,” Winstanley said. “Israel is not the only state to do this, but they do it fairly successfully.

For all this, however, it is clear that Act.IL has a serious problem with user retention and lacks the volunteer numbers for it to be truly game changing.

Controlling the message

In a time of heightened awareness about foreign government interference online, it is particularly surprising that these operations can be openly carried out across virtually every major platform. Big tech companies like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook are constantly deleting tens of thousands of Russian, Chinese, Iranian and Cuban accounts belonging to what they claim are organized, state-sponsored disinformation campaigns.

In an effort to gauge the legality of its operations, MintPress reached out to Facebook, YouTube, Quora, and other big platforms used by Act.IL. We received no response from any of them. While this is particularly noteworthy — as these companies have teams of public relations representatives and are extremely forthright and timely with responses on other issues — it is perhaps not surprising. Facebook especially has long been working closely with the Israeli government in deciding which voices to censor. As far back as 2016, Ayelet Shaked boasted that Facebook removed 95% of the posts her office asked them to. Yet when Shaked herself called for a genocidal war against Palestine and its women, who give birth to “little snakes,” not only did the post remain online, it received thousands of likes and was widely circulated.

“The concern is that Facebook is adopting Israeli policy and terminology when it comes to defining what incitement is,” said Nadim Nashif, co-founder of 7amleh, the Arab Centre for the Advancement of Social Media. 7amleh was therefore dismayed when last year, Facebook appointed former Israeli Minister of Justice Emi Palmor to its Oversight Board, the council having the final say in the moderation of content on the platform used by 2.6 billion people worldwide. In her role as justice minister, Palmor was directly implicated in the persecution and subjugation of Palestinians.

Earlier this year, an Israeli Defense Forces soldier attempted to sue a Palestinian-American activist living in California over an allegedly slanderous Facebook post condemning her for participating in ethnic cleansing. Remarkably, the plaintiff attempted to convince a California judge to apply Israeli law to the incident, despite the fact that both she and the defendant are American citizens. https://cdn.iframe.ly/r7H7ueP?iframe=card-small&v=1&app=1

Inside the world of academia, professors critical of Israel have found themselves pushed out of the profession. In 2007, prominent critic of Israel Norman Finkelstein was denied tenure at DePaul University for political reasons. Seven years later, the University of Illinois “unhired” Steven Sailata for his comments denouncing Operation Protective Edge, the 2014 Israeli attack on Gaza. Emails showed that wealthy donors put significant pressure on the university to pull the plug on him. More recently, Cornel West was blocked from a tenured job at Harvard this year, despite having previously held tenure at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. “Being the faculty advisor for the Palestinian student group was the one that probably went outside of the line for many Harvard staff,” West told Krystal Ball and Kyle Kulinski. “It’s a joke. It’s ridiculous. It’s ludicrous. It’s preposterous that it wouldn’t have something to do with politics.”

Top media figures have also paid the price for their support of BDS. CNN fired commentator Marc Lamont Hill after he made a speech at the United Nations calling for a free Palestine. Meanwhile, journalist Abby Martin was blocked from speaking at a conference at Georgia Southern University last year after she refused to sign a contract promising to renounce BDS. Georgia is one of dozens of U.S. states to have anti-BDS legislation, essentially forcing any would-be recipient of public contracts or funds, including government employees, to sign a pledge not to boycott Israel. Martin is currently suing the state of Georgia. MintCast Interviews Abby Martin About Her Anti-BDS Lawsuit & The Israel Lobby

While Human Rights Watch’s report is new, the charge of apartheid is not. In 2017, a United Nations report “clearly and frankly concludes” that Israel is “a racist state that has established an apartheid system that persecutes the Palestinian people.” Earlier this year, Israeli human rights organization B’TSelem also used the word “apartheid,” claiming that Israel had established “a regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.”…

Advocates for Palestine hailed Human Rights Watch’s study. Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies wrote:

There can be little doubt that much of HRW’s decision to issue this report now was based on the recognition that not only is it no longer political suicide to call Israeli apartheid what it is, but that we are now at a tipping point whereby failing to call out apartheid risks losing credibility for a human rights organization. It’s a huge victory for our movement.”

The battle, however, is far from won, and it is clear that the Israel lobby will continue to fight to hold back the tide until it is insurmountable.

Alan MacLeod is Senior Staff Writer for MintPress News. After completing his PhD in 2017 he published two books: Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting and Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent, as well as a number of academic articles. He has also contributed to FAIR.orgThe GuardianSalonThe GrayzoneJacobin Magazine, and Common Dreams.

https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/04/27/abusive-israeli-policies-constitute-crimes-apartheid-persecution

Annual State Department report 2020: complete change of tone

March 31, 2021

On Tuesday, March 30, 2021, the 2020 edition of the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices was released by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. The Secretary of State is required by law to submit an annual report to the U.S. Congress on “the status of internationally recognized human rights” in all countries that are members of the United Nations. This annual report, called the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices but commonly known as the Human Rights Report (HRR), provides information that is used by Congress, the Executive Branch, and courts in making policies and/or decisions; thus accurate information on human rights conditions is critical. The HRR also informs the work at home and abroad of civil society, human rights defenders, lawmakers, scholars, immigration judges and asylum officers, multilateral institutions, and other governments.

The country reports are prepared by U.S. diplomatic missions around the world, which collect, analyze, and synthesize information from a variety of sources, including government agencies, non-governmental organizations, and the media. The reports do not attempt to catalogue every human rights-related incident, nor are they an effort by the U.S. government to judge others. Instead, they claim to be factual in nature and focus on a one-year period, but they may include illustrative cases from previous reporting years.

Conor Finnegan for ABC News on 30 March 2021 compared the report with those of the Trump administration:

Blinken launched the department’s 45th annual human rights report Tuesday which The report covers 2020 and found a further deterioration for human rights in many countries, particularly as governments used the coronavirus pandemic to curb their citizens’ rights.

The first report under the Biden administration also included changes that eliminated the conservative take of the Trump years, like ending former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s “hierarchy” of rights and re-introducing a section on women’s reproductive rights that will be published later this year.

When human rights defenders “come under attack, they often look to the United States to speak up on their behalf. Too often in recent years, these defenders heard only silence from us,” Blinken said. “We are back for those brave advocates as well. We will not be silent.

In particular, Blinken “decisively” repudiated Pompeo’s “Unalienable Rights Commission,” a panel of academics that said in a report last July that freedom of religion and right to property were the most important human rights. While Pompeo touted the report and said it would lay a foundation for future administrations, critics accused it of minimizing minority rights. Blinken essentially jettisoned the report, saying Tuesday, “There is no hierarchy that makes some rights more important than others. Past unbalanced statements that suggest such a hierarchy, including those offered by a recently disbanded State Department advisory committee, do not represent a guiding document for this administration.” [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/07/11/trump-marches-on-with-commission-on-unalienable-rights/]

Human rights are increasingly under threat around the world, Blinken said, saying the trend lines “are in the wrong direction.”

In particular, he highlighted what he called the Chinese government’s genocide of Uighurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang province, attacks on civil society and political opposition in Russia, Uganda and Venezuela and on pro-democracy protesters in Belarus, war crimes in Yemen, atrocities “credibly reported” in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, and abuses by the Syria’s Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

While the report doesn’t touch on Myanmar’s coup and the military’s bloody crackdown on protests, because they happened in 2021, Blinken took time to again condemn the events. But after weeks of steadily increasing U.S. sanctions that have not deterred the ruling junta, he had no specific answer on what else the U.S. could do to change the darkening trajectory there.

PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during the release of the "2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices" at the State Department in Washington on March 30, 2021.
Mandel Ngan/Pool/ReutersMandel Ngan/Pool/ReutersU.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during the release of the “2020 Country…

Chinese officials and state-run outlets have increasingly raised U.S. race relations to say American officials are in no position to criticize Beijing — comparing Uighur slave labor in Xinjiang to Black slaves in the U.S. South.

We know we have work to do at home. That includes addressing profound inequities, including systemic racism. We don’t pretend these problems don’t exist. … We deal with them in the daylight with full transparency, and in fact, that’s exactly what separates our democracy and autocracies,” he said, adding that open reckoning gives the U.S. “greater legitimacy” to address other countries’ records, too.

The Biden administration will use all tools available to impose consequences on human rights abusers and encourage better behavior, Blinken said, including the new Khashoggi policy that imposes visa restrictions on officials that target or harass their countries’ dissidents.

Standing up for human rights everywhere is in America’s interests, and the Biden-Harris administration will stand against human rights abuses wherever they occur, regardless of whether the perpetrators are adversaries or partners,” he said.

https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/blinken-swipes-trump-administration-unveiling-human-rights-report/story?id=76770342

What can human rights defenders expect from diplomatic support? – the case of the UK

February 25, 2021

On Wednesday 24 February 2021 Megan Thornberry writes about a report by the University of York and others concluding that human rights defenders have been at increased risk during pandemic, and calls for UK government to provide better protection.

There is a dearth of serious and quantitative research into how human rights defenders experience diplomatic support and interest in their work. So, this report – published by Amnesty International UK and the Center for Applied Human Rights, in collaboration with the Law Society of England and Wales, Peace Brigades International UK, Bond and other NGOs – is most welcome.

Research by the University’s Centre for Applied Human Rights (CAHR) and Amnesty International UK shows that during the COVID-19 pandemic, 94 per cent of human rights defenders interviewed reported face threats, death threats, abuse, and harassment.

It is reported that only 6 per cent of these activists, including lawyers, journalists, women’s rights defenders, and LGBTQ+ activists, received support from the UK government.

Researchers interviewed 82 human rights defenders from seven countries about their experiences with UK government support:

  • 40% had contacted the UK government embassy as part of their work in the last two years, where as 70% had contacted other embassies
  • 75% could not recall a time in which their resident country’s UK embassy had spoken out in support of specific at-risk human rights defenders
  • 31% had been in contacted by their UK embassy seeking to further its knowledge about the struggles for human rights

The report highlights the increased threats to LGBTQ+ rights during the pandemic, as poor job security has driven many to return to unsafe and unaccepting hometowns in order to live with family. Particularly in countries such as Russia and the Philippines, this has placed LGBTQ+ activists at a higher risk of abuse. LGBTQ+ activists have also reported an increase in discrimination towards LGBTQ+ groups due to their being blamed for the pandemic.

Dr Piergiuseppe Parisi, a research associate at the Human Rights Defender Hub at CAHR and direct contributor to the report, said: “Human rights defenders are active agents of positive change. The UK should make sure that they are recognised as such, that they have the means to carry on with their crucial work and that they have access to rapid response protection mechanisms when they are in danger.”

Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, said: “The UK government has pledged to stand up for human rights defenders around the world. We now need to see words turned into action. The UK’s voice has power. It’s time to use it and to be a world leader.”

https://nouse.co.uk/2021/02/24/human-rights-defenders-have-been-silenced-during-the-pandemic-says-york-report

The International Service for Human Rights publishes its Strategic Framework for Human Rights Defenders 2021 – 2025

January 18, 2021

HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS are people who promote and protect the human rights of others, whether individually or in association with others. They are people who act with humanity, serve humanity and bring out the best in humanity. For all of these defenders, international and regional human rights mechanisms can protect and amplify their work and impact on the ground. This strategy has been developed in a context characterised by uncertainty and change, including a worsening climate emergency, a global pandemic and associated financial crisis, deepening inequalities, worsening authoritarianism and populism, as well as the erosion of multilateralism, and the rule of law. It is also a context characterised by increased awareness and action at the local, national, regional and international levels. Human rights defenders are mobilising around issues such as environmental justice, racial justice, gender equality, freedom of For many defenders working in restrictive national contexts, regional and international mechanisms may be the only platforms available. For these mechanisms to be effective, however, they need to be credible, accessible and responsive to defenders, providing them with a safe and influential platform from which to demand justice, push for accountability, and contribute to positive change. freedom of expression and association, access to information, democratic representation and participation, the redistribution of economic and political power, and state and corporate accountability for intersecting human rights violations and abuses.

On many of these issues, we are at an inflection point; a point at which the work of human rights defenders is perhaps more imperilled but more important than ever. For example:

ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVISTS AND INDIGENOUS PEOPLES, whose knowledge is vital to live more responsibly and sustainably, are being killed and displaced for their work to prevent exploitation and to protect precious forests and oceans.

STUDENTS AND WORKERS mobilising online and offline to call for democratic freedoms and protest against authoritarianism are being surveilled, harassed and criminalised under abusive counter- terrorism laws.

SOCIAL MOVEMENTS taking to the streets to demand racial justice are being met with disproportionate force from police and security forces.

WOMEN’S RIGHTS ACTIVISTS are being detained and tortured in retaliation for their work to challenge patriarchy and demand an end to discrimination and violence.

AT-RISK MIGRANT ACTIVISTS AND HUMANITARIAN WORKERS who support migrant rights are being criminalised and prosecuted as threats to national security.

The freedom, safety and work of these and many other human rights defenders is vital to build a better future for all. The purpose of this Strategic Framework is to guide the effective pursuit of ISHR’s Vision, Mission and Values, and the achievement of ISHR’s Overall Goals. It articulates Strategic Goals and a framework for identifying priorities, and maps an organisational structure and working methods that will ensure agility and sustainability in a fast changing world. The strategy was developed through a highly consultative process over a 10 month period with extensive and invaluable inputs from human rights defenders, NGOs working at the national, regional and inter-national levels, human rights experts, and diplomatic and financial partners, as well as ISHR Board and staff. It is complemented with a results framework, and implemented through an annual activity plan and budget, and reviewed and updated on a biennial basis to ensure it remains relevant, responsive, ambitious and agenda setting. The framework provides the structure for our planning, monitoring, evaluation and learning process.

India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka are all in the same rickety boat when it comes to human rights

December 17, 2020

TRT World published a summary of a report by the South Asia Collective “India and Pakistan no different on how they treat minorities”. Please note that Turkish Radio and Television Corporation is the national public broadcaster of Turkey. One looks there in vain for information on human rights violations in Turkey itself. Still the report referred to (produced with the financial support of the European Union and the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation) is of interest:

The past ten years have been abysmal for minorities and civil rights activists in South Asian countries including India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, according to the South Asia State of Minorities Report 2020. 

Governments have introduced repressive laws that curb freedom of expression, persecute journalists and bar people from organising peaceful demonstrations, says the report published by the South Asia Collective, an international group of activists and NGOs. Some laws disproportionately target minorities such as Muslims in India and Sri Lanka, and Christians in Pakistan.  One policy that transcends almost all the regional governments is their attempt to restrict the role of NGOs – especially if they receive funding  from abroad. 

India, where minorities have faced state-sanctioned violence since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was re-elected last year, has handicapped foreign NGOs by setting limits on how they can spend money received from international donors.  Most of the affected NGOs are the ones that work in areas which highlight abuse of power, government indifference towards the plight of minorities, and the brutality of security forces. [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/07/06/istanbul-court-jails-four-human-rights-defenders-on-terror-charges-seven-acquitted/]

“BJP rule has been characterised by the open targeting of several high-profile NGOs, with foreign funding freezes being the weapon of choice,” the report said. [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/09/29/amnesty-feels-forced-to-shut-sown-its-india-office-amidst-govenment-pressure/]

New Delhi's discriminatory amendment to citizenship law has further alienated India's Muslims.
New Delhi’s discriminatory amendment to citizenship law has further alienated India’s Muslims. (AP Archive)

Other policy changes such as requiring NGOs to register with income tax authorities every five years are a similar tool of “administrative harassment”. ..

The intimidation is not limited to NGOs as journalists reporting on creeping BJP authoritarianism often feel the wrath of the state.   “…between 25 March and 31 May 2020, at least 55 Indian journalists faced arrest, physical assaults, destruction of property, threats or registration of FIRs (police reports),” the report said. 

New Delhi increasingly relies on internet controls to curb dissent. Internet shutdowns jumped to 106 in 2019 from only six in 2014 as authorities used different laws to control the flow of information.  Kashmir faced a complete internet blackout for months after the Muslim-majority region’s nominal autonomy was withdrawn last year…

India is also using the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act to target Dalits, a caste of Hindus who face widespread discrimination under the country’s hierarchical caste system… Changes in the Citizenship Act that target Muslim migrants and the brutal police reponse to subsequent protests — in which 22 people were shot dead in Utter Pradesh state in a single day — further illustrate the worsening status of minorities in India. 

In neighbouring Pakistan, India’s archrival, minorities and those activists trying to help them, fare no better. 

“NGOs and INGOs (international NGOs) are subject to extensive regulation involving multiple, lengthy procedures of registration, security clearance, and approvals for funding,” the report said.

The Christians and Hindus in Pakistan regularly complain that young girls are forced to convert to Islam.
The Christians and Hindus in Pakistan regularly complain that young girls are forced to convert to Islam. (AP Archive)

In recent years, Islamabad has increased vigilance on NGOs which it fears might be working on a foreign agenda to promote dissent.  What will particularly bother Pakistan’s policymakers is the report’s focus on how the country’s Blasphemy Law, meant to protect religious sentiments, continues to be misused against minorities. 

In reality, the law explicitly discriminates against Ahmadiyas since parts of it criminalise public expression of Ahmadiya beliefs and prohibit Ahmadiyas from calling themselves Muslims, praying in Muslim sites of worship and propagating their faith.”  Just this week, a report by the United States Commission on International Rights Freedom pointed out that Pakistan accounts for nearly half of the incidents of mob violence against alleged blasphemers.  

At times, people accused of blasphemy are killed in court in front of police and lawyers.   Christians, another minority, are frequently targeted while authorities do little to protect them.  For instance, a church constructed in the Toba Tek Singh district of Punjab province had to be sealed in 2016 after local Muslims agitated against it.  This alienation doesn’t stop at the places of worship – young Chrsitan students are continuously harassed by their peers to convert to Islam, the report said. 

Similarly, Sri Lanka witnessed rising levels of intolerance towards minorities in recent years, especially as successive governments tried to pacify extremist Buddhists to garner their votes.  Muslims in Sri Lanka have felt a wave of discrimination and official apathy after the suicide attacks that killed more than 200 people last year.  “After the Easter attacks, Muslims, particularly a large number of Muslim men, were arrested seemingly without reasonable cause.” Jingoistic government-aligned media has helped paint Muslims as the villain in Sri Lanka. 

The incitement of hatred and vitriol by media outlets continues unabated. For example, Muslim Covid-19 patients were identified by their faith, unlike other patients, and blamed by the media for spreading coronavirus.” 

https://www.trtworld.com/magazine/india-and-pakistan-no-different-on-how-they-treat-minorities-42419

RSF publishes end of year round-up of journalists detained, held hostage and missing in 2020

December 15, 2020

The number of detained journalists is still at a historically high level. Worldwide, a total of 387 journalists were held in connection with the provision of news and information at the start of December 2020, compared with 389 at the start of December 2019. This lack of variation follows a 12% rise in 2019. Overall, the number of detained (professional and non-professional) journalists has risen 17% in the past five years (from 328 in 2015).

3 journalists remain missing including Ibraimo Mbaruco, a reporter for Rádio Comunitária de Palma, a community radio station in Palma, a remote coastal town in northeastern Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province, who has has been missing since 7 April 2020. In his last message, he said he was “surrounded by military.” His family has not seen or heard from him since then and nothing has been said by the Mozambican authorities, who try to prevent any media coverage of the attacks by Islamist insurgents that are common in that part of the province.

See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/04/21/2020-world-press-freedom-index-is-out/

CIVICUS 2020 report “People Power Under Attack” – Africa

December 14, 2020

Africa: Civic Rights Were Eroded Across Africa in 2020

The most common violations of civic space registered by the CIVICUS Monitor were the detention of journalists, followed by disruption of protests, censorship, intimidation and the detention of protestors. Almost half of CIVICUS Monitor updates in 28 different countries mentioned the detention of journalists. 14 December 2020. Fundamental civic rights, including freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression, deteriorated across Africa in 2020. [See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2016/10/24/today-civicus-launches-its-worldwide-monitor-to-track-civil-space/]

In an allAfrica.com guest column Sylvia Mbataru and Ine Van Severen – CIVICUS researchers who contributed to People Power Under Attack 2020 – unpack what the report says about Sub-Saharan Africa. They conclude that civic space has been reduced in four West African nations (Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Niger and Togo) and has improved in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan.

Over the past year the CIVICUS Monitor has documented several drivers of civic space violations in Africa including mass protests that were met with violent repression, and electoral processes, mostly presidential elections. Violations in the context of elections often involve the arrest of opposition members and pro-democracy activists, internet shutdowns, detention of journalists and crackdowns on protesters.

In three of the four West African countries that were downgraded – Côte d’Ivoire , Guinea and Togo – constitutional changes were adopted in recent years, leaving incumbent presidents Alassane Ouattara, Alpha Condé and Fauré Gnassingbé all claiming that new constitutions allowed them to run for further terms. The process of changing constitutions or bypassing term limits led to mass protests that were met with excessive force, the adoption and use of restrictive legislation, and punishment for dissenters criticising those in power, in particular pro-democracy activists.

Niger has also been downgraded by the CIVICUS Monitor. Even though a peaceful political change of power seems likely in the elections later this month, serious questions remain about Niger’s democratic prospects as human rights violations continue and civil society is subjected to restrictions.

These countries in West Africa have not been alone in efforts to muzzle dissent, exclude opposition and crack down on protests in the context of elections.  This bleak picture is further seen in Eastern and Southern Africa.

In Burundi, ahead of the May 2020 elections, state security forces and members of the youth league of the ruling party threatened, intimidated and killed opposition party members, and stifled the media and civil society organisations.

In Tanzania, as the country prepared for its August 2020 vote, the government embarked on a major crackdown to suppress dissent, including by enacting new laws and regulations to stop opposition members from actively campaigning, prevent civil society organisations and independent observers from observing the electoral process, weaken civil society and the media, and limit the use of online platforms by journalists and voters.

Despite this difficult picture, the year also proved the resilience of people and civil society in exercising their civic freedoms, leading to fundamental democratic changes. In Malawi, although the period surrounding the disputed May 2019 election was characterised by violations including internet shutdowns and repression of protests, civil society successfully contested the results, leading to a new election and a change of government in June 2020 .

However, many other African countries are moving away from holding free and fair elections. With several countries gearing up to hold elections in the coming months, civic rights violations are being reported in countries across the continent.

In Uganda, opposition members and their supporters are being violently prevented from holding rallies and journalists are being arrested and violently attacked while covering events held by opposition candidates and civil society; human rights defenders are being threatened by state authorities, including by having their bank accounts frozen and their operational licences withheld.

In Ethiopia, civil society groups have expressed concern at the crackdown on dissenting political views ahead of the general elections slated for 2021. Similarly, in Zambia, civil society has denounced an escalating trend of judicial harassment, repression and attacks on human rights defenders ahead of the August 2021 general elections. In Benin, electoral laws have been adopted that make it difficult for opposition candidates to stand in the 2021 presidential  election, which might lead to President Patrice Talon running almost unopposed.

The situation is so bleak that for the first time in a decade, according to the 2020 Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance, overall governance in Africa has declined. The Index highlighted that, “in terms of rights, civil society space and participation, the continent had long before embarked on a deteriorating path and the pandemic simply aggravated this existing negative trajectory.”

With even more elections on the cards in 2021 – in Djbouti, Chad and Somalia among others – governments should prioritise the respect of fundamental freedoms, including the right of people to express themselves without intimidation and to assemble peacefully to express their dissent. Africa’s leaders should adhere to the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Government, ensuring that free and fair elections take place. 2021 must be the year in which Africa’s dismal trends are reversed.

https://findings2020.monitor.civicus.org/africa.html

https://findings2020.monitor.civicus.org/africa.html

The launch of the Freedom of Thought Report 2020

December 9, 2020

On 10 December 2020 Humanist International launches its annual Freedom of Thought Report. Time: 3pm UTC. Location: Facebook or YouTube
Speakers:

● Ahmed Shaheed, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief

● Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir, Mauritanian blogger, activist and former prisoner of conscience

● Debbie Goddard, Vice President ofAmerican Atheists and Board Member of Humanists International

● Rev. Frederick Davie, Commissioner of The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom

● Andrew Copson, President of Humanists International

● Emma Wadsworth-Jones, Casework & Campaigns Manager at Humanists International

Since 2012 Humanists International has published the Freedom of Thought Report to monitor the rights and treatment of humanists, atheists and non-religious people in every country in the world.

This year, the thematic focus of the Report is COVID-19, and its impact on the non-religious people globally.

In particular the focus is on restrictions on:
● Women’s rights

● Media freedom, protest and access to information

● Individuals at risk.