Archive for the 'human rights' Category

Olga Sadovskaya is the 2021 OAK Human Rights Fellow

June 15, 2021

The Oak Institute for Human Rights has named Olga Sadovskaya, a Russian human rights lawyer, as its 2021 Human Rights Fellow. Sadovskaya, vice chair of the Committee Against Torture, the largest and most notable anti-torture organization in Russia, has worked on issues surrounding torture for more than 18 years. In 2017 she was shortlisted for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Sadovskaya, who hails from the city of Nizhny Novgorod in western Russia, will join the Colby community in August and will engage with students, faculty, staff, and the greater community throughout the fall semester.

Olga Sadovskaya, the 2021 Oak Human Rights Fellow, will join the Colby community for the Fall 2021 semester and raise awareness on issues of torture and incarceration in Russia and around the world.

“The consistent violation of human rights in the carceral system is not only a major global problem but it is an urgent issue in the United States. There is a pressing need to confront and find better solutions to our current prison system,” said Valérie Dionne, director of the Oak Institute for Human Rights and associate professor of French. “We are lucky to have Olga Sadovskaya coming to campus to share her experience combating torture and to explore potential solutions with us that could replace the current carceral system.”

The Committee Against Torture (CAT), established in 2000 by Sadovskaya and three other activists, created accountability for torture previously missing in Russia. Torture was scarcely discussed, and victims were often scared, ashamed to speak out, or believed justice was unattainable. Even with CAT’s work, however, the practice of torture prevails, and investigations into torture are still inadequate. This problem is amplified in the Chechen Republic, where CAT is the sole organization working on cases of torture and abductions. 

Sadovskaya and her dedicated team have won many international awards: the PACE Prize of the Council of Europe, the Martin Ennals Award, the Frontline Defenders Human Rights Award, and the Václav Havel Human Rights Prize. Sadovskaya herself has received the Andrei Sakharov Freedom Award. See: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/D1B800F8-72AE-F593-868A-57F650E2D576 and https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/5E2006EC-8C84-6024-F77C-52D17819BB10

During her early years at the organization, Sadovskaya’s role as an investigator included collecting evidence of torture in prisons, penal colonies, police stations, and psychiatric institutions. Over time, she transitioned to analysis and international defense work with the European Court of Human Rights and various UN bodies. Sadovskaya also trains lawyers on how to work with the European Court of Human Rights. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2015/12/02/russian-olga-sadovskaya-keeps-fighting-torture/

Drawing upon years of experience with torture cases, Sadovskaya and her team wrote and published a methodology for public investigations, widely used by human rights organizations in Russia. Sadovskaya has personally represented more than 300 victims of torture before the European Court of Justice. Two of the cases were included in the list of the 20 most important cases that changed Russia (Case-Law of the European Court of Human Rights, Special issue, 5, 2018).  

While working against state-sanctioned torture, Sadovskaya has faced personal threats, including threats of murder, particularly for her work in Chechnya. The committee’s office has been burned down several times, and members’ cars have been destroyed. Sadovskaya is also periodically monitored and constantly at risk of being accused of baseless crimes. 

The Oak Human Rights Fellowship will give Sadovskaya a much-needed respite to return to Russia with renewed energy. As the 2021 Oak Fellow, she will connect with Colby students and raise awareness on issues of torture and incarceration in Russia and around the world. 

http://www.colby.edu/news/2021/06/11/olga-sadovskaya-named-2021-oak-human-rights-fellow/

Mary Lawlor calls AGAIN on UAE to release prominent human rights defenders

June 15, 2021

On 11 June 2021 Mary Lawlor, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, called on the United Arab Emirates to immediately release five human rights campaigners detained since 2013.

Mohamed al-Mansoori [https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/074ACCD4-A327-4A21-B056-440C4C378A1A], Hassan Mohammed Al-Hammad, Hadif Rashed Abdullah al-Owais, Ali Saeed Al-Kindi and Salim Hamdoon Al-Shahhi were among a group of 94 lawyers, rights advocates and academics accused of plotting to overthrow the Emirati government. 

In July 2013, 69 of the defendants in the “UAE-94” case were sentenced, eight of them in absentia, up to 15 years in prison.  The detentions came amid Abu Dhabi’s crackdown on an Islamist association called al-Islah and other activists calling for political reform in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. 

They should have never been detained in the first place for legitimately exercising the freedoms that all people are entitled to,” said Mary Lawlor.

Lawlor called the five activists’ sentences “excessively severe” and noted that the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has declared their sentences arbitrary

She noted allegations that the rights defenders have been subjected to long periods in solitary confinement, which could amount to torture. Other allegations include prison guards shutting off the air conditioning amid scathing hot temperatures and covering windows to prevent the prisoners from getting sunlight. 

The prisoners have severely limited or no access to legal counsel, Lawlor said, potentially violating their right to a fair trial. 

I call on the Emirati authorities to release these human rights defenders from detention in order to continue their meaningful and necessary human rights work,” Lawlor said.

This follows an earlier plea of 22 February: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/02/22/lawlor-urges-uae-to-free-ahmed-mansoor-mohamed-al-roken-and-other-hrds/

https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2021/06/un-expert-calls-uae-release-prominent-human-rights-defenders#ixzz6xesKipiF

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

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

MEA laureate Yu Wensheng finally allowed family ‘visit’

May 17, 2021

Jailed Chinese Lawyers Get Mother's Day Visit, Video Call

Two Chinese human rights lawyers serving jail sentences for “inciting subversion of state power,” Yu Wensheng (L) and Qin Yongpei (R), were permitted limited visits with their families, May 10, 2021. Yu Wensheng/Qin Yongpei

Jailed Chinese rights lawyer Yu Wensheng, who was held incommunicado for three years and sentenced to jail for “incitement to subvert state power,” was allowed a visit from relatives at the weekend, his wife said. Yu’s young son was allowed to visit his father in Nanjing Prison on May 9, along with his mother Xu Yan, Xu told RFA.

The couple’s son spoke with Yu by phone from behind a glass partition during the half-hour visit, Xu said.

Yu Wensheng had a very good chat with our son,” she said. “Both them were laughing a lot, and there was no sense of strangeness.”


Our son told his father that he missed him, and Yu was happy to hear that,” she said. “Yu told him that he had wanted to spend more time with him … and apologized for not being there longer than three years.”

The reunion was the first face-to-face meeting in more than three years, with the authorities blaming the coronavirus pandemic for the repeated cancellation of family visits.
Yu Wensheng was the MEA laureate of this year: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/69fc7057-b583-40c3-b6fa-b8603531248e

See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/12/05/what-kind-of-lawyers-will-attend-the-global-lawyers-forum-in-guangzhou-on-human-rights-day/

https://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/lawyers-visits-05112021084728.html

Dictators hire U.S. firms to clean up their images.

May 14, 2021
Image without a caption

Kathy Kiely published on 7 May 2021 in the Washington Post a very enlightening piece showing that “Representing countries with bad records on press freedom is big business.”:

….But even if Biden’s ambition to reestablish the White House as a champion of human rights is a welcome break from the Trump administration’s dictator-coddling, his efforts to pressure countries on freedom of expression are being systematically undermined in Washington, where some nations that are the worst offenders have powerful advocates. Representing those countries is a lucrative business here in the home of the First Amendment.

Sadly, there are far too many examples in the Justice Department’s foreign-agent registration database to present a complete list here. So my research assistant, Missouri journalism student Elise Mulligan, and I decided to focus on a few countries with pressing image problems when it comes to press freedoms.

 Saudi Arabia: The oil-rich kingdom deserves top rank here for the enormity of both the fees and the crime involved. A few big-name influencers dropped the Saudis as clients immediately after the brazen October 2018 murder of journalist and Washington Post contributing op-ed writer Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. But others made a different choice. Since Khashoggi’s death, some two dozen U.S. firms have picked up more than $73 million in fees for representing Saudi interests, according to reports they have filed with the Justice Department. Chief among them was the kingdom’s longtime main lobbying firm, Qorvis, which said in a statement at the time of Khashoggi’s disappearance that “we take the situation seriously” and would “wait for all the facts to become known.”

Here are some facts that have since become known: Saudi officials have acknowledged that Khashoggi was killed by a team of government agents sent to force the journalist to return to the kingdom and that his body was afterward dismembered. Five of the 15 hit men were convicted but have since had their death sentences commuted. And U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the operation that led to Khashoggi’s murder.

Meanwhile, the crown prince continues to have his reputation as a visionary world leader burnished with news releases like the one prepared in January by Edelman hailing Neom, the futuristic city the prince has ordered up on the Red Sea. (Edelman took in $6.7 million from the Saudis since Khashoggi’s murder before completing its latest contracts in January, according to Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, filings.) Or in a Hogan Lovells-produced release crediting the crown prince for “new efforts to combat extremist ideology and shut down hate speech.” This about a country that routinely makes female journalists the targets of misogynistic trolling campaigns.

Qorvis has collected more than $28 million from the Saudis since Khashoggi’s murder, filings with the Justice Department show. Firm President Michael Petruzzello has said the $18.8 million Qorvis reported receiving from the Saudis six months after the journalist’s death was for work “billed over several years and recently paid all at once.” But since then, the firm has picked up another $9 million working for the Saudis. It also has a contract to do work for the kingdom’s oxymoronically named Human Rights Commission. A bit of context: While the Saudis recently released from prison several female activists (who had asked for, among other things, the right to drive), the women are not permitted to leave the country.  [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/02/09/will-loujain-al-hathloul-be-released-on-thursday-11-february/]

Even more jaw-droppingly, some U.S. lobbying firms are producing materials flacking the Saudis’ humanitarian work in Yemen, such as a note from a Hogan Lovells partner to Capitol Hill staffers about “how the Kingdom of Saudi is leading regional efforts related to the current cease-fire and COVID mitigation in Yemen,” and a Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck flier for a Saudi-sponsored Capitol Hill conference on “protecting innocent lives” in Yemen by eradicating land mines. That all seems a bit like offering a Band-Aid to someone whose leg you just cut off, given the Saudi role in escalating Yemen’s civil war. According to the United Nations, the conflict has killed at least 233,000 people and left children starving.

The Philippines: Over the past few years, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has been busy shuttering his nation’s largest broadcaster and conducting an infamous campaign of online and legal harassment against much-lauded journalist and entrepreneur Maria Ressa (who just added the UNESCO press freedom prize to honors from the Committee to Protect Journalists, the National Press Club and many more). [See: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/04/28/maria-ressa-of-the-philippines-winner-of-unescos-guillermo-cano-world-press-freedom-prize-2021/]

At the same time, the blue-chip communications and public relations firm BCW Global has collected fees of more than $1 million for providing assistance to the nation’s central bank, headed by a Duterte ally. The work includes a glossy 70-page pamphlet (including plenty of photos of Duterte) touting the Philippine economy to investors, as well as news releases that highlight the accomplishments of “President Rodrigo Duterte’s economic team”  and his “reform agenda.” All of that is intended to encourage investment in a country whose leader has drawn widespread condemnation for encouraging thousands of extrajudicial killings.

China: Global rainmakers Squire Patton Boggs continue to represent Beijing’s interests in Washington for a retainer of $55,000 a month, according to the firm’s most recent contract, dated last July. The firm’s January filing with the Justice Department reported payments of $330,000 from the Chinese Embassy for the previous six months of work, which included advice on “U.S. policy concerning Hong Kong, Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet,” among other places where Beijing has been trying to muzzle dissidents, and “matters pertaining to human rights,” according to the firm’s latest filing with the Justice Department’s foreign-agent registration database.

Chinese officials have been sanctioned by the U.S. government for human rights abuses against the country’s Muslim Uyghur minority in Xinjiang and against Buddhists in Tibet, among other concerns. They’re also no friend to journalists, unsurprisingly: The prison sentence handed to Hong Kong news publisher Jimmy Lai became the latest headline in China’s crackdown on press freedom. The most recent report from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China documents the expulsions of at least 18 foreign correspondents and numerous attempts to intimidate reporters working in Hong Kong and mainland China. Most concerning are the detentions of Chinese nationals, some of whom have been held for months with no word about the charges against them or their condition.

Of course, it is hopelessly silly to be writing any of this with an expectation that it’ll change this behavior. Anyone can lip-sync the patronizing lecture on realpolitik that Washington’s foreign policy establishment deploys to edify the ignoramus idealist who thinks Americans should stand up for our own values.

Former senator Norm Coleman — who, as a senior adviser for Hogan Lovells (post-Khashoggi murder take from Saudi Arabia: $6.8 million, according to records the firm has filed with the Justice Department), has been working his Hill contacts on the Saudis’ behalf — delivered a version of this lecture in interviews immediately after Khashoggi’s disappearance. The murder was “not a good deal at all” and “there needs to be accountability,” he said, but the “strategic relationship” between the Americans and the Saudis must be maintained: Iran must be contained. Israel must survive.

There are variations on this theme for almost every bad actor on the world stage: The Philippines is a strategic base for U.S. operations in South Asia. China? Think of all those customers for our soybeans and our movies! And, at various times, Washington has tried to enlist all three countries as allies in the war on terrorism.

But if we can’t stand up for free speech, life and liberty, what, exactly, are we fighting for? May 3 was World Press Freedom Day, which the United Nations has set aside to celebrate the work of journalists in promoting democracy, accountability and the rule of law. It seems a fitting moment to consider how socially and politically acceptable it has become in this country is to undermine all those things.Advertisement. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/05/03/world-press-freedom-day-2020-a-small-selection-of-cases/

The firms that lobby for Saudi Arabia, the Philippines and China did not respond to repeated requests for comment. It would be interesting to ask them how they square their work for those clients with the work they like to highlight: accounts such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Alzheimer’s Association (Qorvis); campaigns for worthy causes, such as the video Edelman made for Ikea to support equal rights for women (sadly lacking in Saudi Arabia). But it’s worth pointing out this work because these clients, along with other reputable brands that these lobbying firms represent — for instance, Major League Baseball’s commissioner’s office and the California State Teachers Association (Hogan Lovells) and Coca-Cola (BCW) — might want to think twice about being in the same stable as thugs like Rodrigo Duterte and Mohammed bin Salman.

It takes more than a president to support democracy. We all need to examine our wallets as well as our consciences and consider how each of us are standing up for it. Or — wittingly or unwittingly — are not.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/dictators-crush-dissent-then-they-hire-these-us-firms-to-clean-up-their-images/2021/05/07/679bcb54-adec-11eb-ab4c-986555a1c511_story.html

Three environmental rights defenders in Cambodia sentenced, but Government remains unapologetic

May 13, 2021

On 7 May 2021 Mary Lawlor, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, condemned a decision by a Cambodian court to sentence three environmental human rights defenders to jail terms of up to 20 months and urged the Government to release them immediately and unconditionally.

The convicted human rights defenders – Mr. Thun Ratha, Ms. Long Kunthea and Ms. Phuon Keoraksmey – are members of Mother Nature Cambodia (MNC), a non-governmental organization that advocates for the protection and preservation of Cambodia’s natural environment and supports local communities in defending those rights.

The three, who were sentenced by the Phnom Penh Municipal court on charges of incitement to create social chaos, had been in pre-trial detention for eight months before the conviction.

“The decision of the Cambodian court sentencing the three human rights defenders to prison terms is disgraceful and only reinforces the Government’s enduring policy to diminish civic space and dissenting voices,” said Mary Lawlor, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.

“The verdict also shows how unable and unwilling the court is to uphold human rights and fundamental freedoms that the government has voluntarily accepted. I am concerned about the pattern of increasing prosecution of human rights defenders in Cambodia since July 2020,” Lawlor said. “The trial and conviction against the MNC human rights defenders clearly demonstrates a sustained intolerance and efforts to undermine the space for human rights defenders.”

“This decision is extremely worrying as States have the obligation to provide a safe and enabling environment in which environmental human rights defenders can operate free from threats, harassment, intimidation, criminalisation and violence,” emphasized the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, Dr. David Boyd.

The three were arrested in September 2020 without warrants and were charged under articles 494 and 495 of Cambodia’s Penal Code. The charges carried a custodial sentence of between six months to two years and a fine of one to four million riels (approximately USD 250 to USD 1,000).

Lawlor expressed serious concerns about the lack of factual evidence underpinning the charges. The human rights defenders were convicted based on a number of Facebook posts on environmental matters and video clips which showed them raising human rights and environmental awareness in a factual and peaceful manner. No substantial evidence was cited that would prove how their actions had in fact or could potentially lead to “social chaos”.

“While the three human rights defenders may still file an appeal, I urge the Cambodian Government to immediately and unconditionally release them. No one should be criminalised for undertaking legitimate human rights work,” she said. “As highlighted in my last statement in November, I call on the United Nations system in Cambodia to support all human rights defenders who are exposed to risk.”

The expert’s call has been endorsed by Mr. David Boyd, Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment; and Mr. Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on the rights to peaceful assembly and of association.

—————

Not surprisingly the Cambodian government see it differently:

Cambodia’s permanent mission to the UN said Lawlor’s statement was false and misleading.

“Crime is crime and it cannot be justified because it is in pursuit of other aspirations,” the press release said.

The permanent mission’s statement said that Cambodia values all duly-registered NGOs that are operating within the boundaries of law and that, unfortunately, Professor Lawlor seems to be advocating the work of an unlawful organization that commits crimes in the name of environmentalism.

The mission said MNC had officially dissolved itself in 2017, but the organisation continued on illegally exploiting the environmental movement until today and that the self-proclaimed human rights defenders are not entitled to break the law with impunity.

It described Lawlor’s remarks as inappropriate and an interference in the national judicial system of a sovereign state, saying the demand for the government to arbitrarily release anyone is tantamount to an attack on the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary that are guaranteed under the Constitution.

https://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/WO2105/S00111/cambodia-un-expert-condemns-conviction-of-three-environmental-rights-defenders-urges-their-release.htm

https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national-politics/kingdom-denounces-un-rapporteurs-statement-mother-nature-activists-trial

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

Juergen Habermas’ rejection of the Sheikh Zayed Award

May 10, 2021

After at first agreeing to accept the grand prize as “Cultural Personality of the Year” in the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, Juergen Habermas then decided to decline the honour. An interesting commentary by Reinhard Schulze sheds light on the wisdom of accepting such awards:

The rejection of the prize awarded by the United Arab Emirates has sparked quite a controversy and even been linked to the debate on “cancel culture”.

Some argue that it is wrong to decline the award because this indicates a failure to recognise the Emirates’ reform efforts; because such a rejection pretends to a freedom from the double standards that characterise political cooperation; because even reforms introduced by absolutist rulers can have positive effects; because Arabs have just as much right to read the works of Juergen Habermas as those in the West; because prizes always connote self-praise by their sponsor; because other famous personalities have also accepted prizes from the Gulf States; and because dialogue is more important than the self-righteous “cancel culture” of the West. [see e.g.; https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/02/22/zayed-award-for-human-fraternity-to-latifa-ibn-ziaten-and-uns-antonio-guterres/]

Who is honouring whom?

The first argument concerns the political context behind the Zayed Award. Some say that the UAE’s foreign, cultural and anti-Islamism policies betray signs of cautious reforms and opening in the principalities. This raises the question: who is honouring whom here? Does the prize honour the laureate, or does the laureate honour the sponsor’s reform policies by accepting?

In reality, the current politics in the UAE are anything but reformist. The interventions in Libya and Yemen, for example, are far more than just military adventures. They instead underpin a foreign policy strategy aimed at establishing a new Arab security architecture against Iran and Turkey, in which the Emirates are setting the tone together with Saudi Arabia. [see e.g.: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2015/04/29/the-emirates-not-a-paradise-for-human-rights-defenders/]…

The award in the context of neo-nationalist cultural policy

However, the Emirates’ cultural policy is clearly heading in a different direction. It combines the aspiration to make the Emirates the embodiment of a global culture on the one hand with a sentimental and nostalgic Arabism on the other. The Emirates want to give shape and expression to this Arabism and yet at the same time take on the status of patron of global culture. It is therefore no coincidence that the Zayed Award always selects as its “cultural personality of the year” someone who represents this global culture, this time in the form of Juergen Habermas, who was henceforward to be protected and promoted by the Emirates. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/10/26/celebrity-endorsements-and-the-dubai-expo-on-the-one-hand-and-the-other/

The Emirates see as their greatest adversaries all organisations and groups that view Islam as a secular order, chief among them of course the Muslim Brotherhood. Such groups are ridiculed as relics of bygone times and at the same time furiously opposed. Promoted instead is an Islamic orthodoxy, provided it renounces any political pretensions. This Islamic orthodoxy is seen as part of the new nostalgic Arabism and reduced to the function of a symbolic cultural system of the Emirati “nation” represented by the princes.

There is no autonomous, discursively self-administering civic sphere, and journalistic freedom is to a large degree restricted. Emirati journalist Ahmad Mansoor, who won the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in 2015, has been in prison again since 2017, serving a 10-year sentence for allegedly using social media platforms to threaten public order and publish false and misleading information. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/04/24/martin-ennals-award-laureates-rally-to-demand-freedom-for-their-imprisoned-fellow-award-winners/

Current policies in the Emirates thus largely rule out any opening up within society or social change. Only 10% of the population in the seven principalities are considered citizens, while 90% are foreigners or stateless persons (bidun). And only 7% are deemed to be Arab members of the titular nation.

The award and the weak legitimacy of the princes

Like most awards, the Zayed Award is also a mark of distinction for its sponsor. There is nothing inherently dishonourable about that. Things become problematic, however, when, as in Abu Dhabi, such self-adulation serves primarily to enhance the legitimacy of the ruling order through external recognition. Since only a very small minority of people in the country have any function at all as subjects that can legitimise the rule of the princes, a large portion of the population is politically and culturally functionless.

The legitimacy of the princes thus rests on very weak shoulders, which is why they strive to compensate for the lack of an internal basis of legitimacy through increased acknowledgement from the outside. And, as with the numerous principalities in the age of European absolutism, the princes on the Arabian Peninsula can also get ahead in the competition to secure legitimacy from the outside by obtaining prestigious objects. In Abu Dhabi, this includes the “Arab Louvre” and also the Zayed Award, which spotlights the “book” as the route to legitimacy.

Many have already been honoured with this award. In 2003, for example, the 8th President of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, received this highest state award in the Emirates. Zayed Award winners in the “cultural personality” category include the French-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf (2016), Moroccan historian Abdallah Laroui (2017), Arabists Yaroslav and Suzanne Stetkevych (2019), and Palestinian author Salma Khadra Al Jayyusi (2020).
Abu Dhabi is emerging from Saudi Arabia’s shadow: since the Arab Spring of 2011, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have been pursuing an increasingly active foreign and security policy and have emerged as a leading regional power. The rise of the UAE to a regional power has made the country a more important and simultaneously a more problematic policy partner for Germany and Europe, argues Guido Steinberg in his study on “Regional Power United Arab Emirates”

Enlightened absolutism in the Gulf?

All of the award-winners to date have had a direct connection to the Arab world. With Juergen Habermas, however, a personality has been chosen for this year’s prize who has a pronounced legitimising function. To a certain extent, this has made the award more international, a move that corresponds quite closely to the efforts of the royal house of Abu Dhabi to gain the broadest possible worldwide recognition. Juergen Habermas’s oeuvre would seem to be ideally suited for this purpose. One might ask, though, why potentates would choose a personality whose work entails a radical critique of discourses of power, when their own actions as rulers run counter to precisely what the honouree has deemed necessary for the success of a society.

Do the princes want to show that they have now become advocates of an “enlightened absolutism”, endeavouring to reform the Leviathan of the state to such an extent that it becomes a beacon for Arab enlightenment? Are they trying to shift the weight of their project onto the shoulders of giants?

But an enlightened absolutism 2.0 would require broad legitimacy that goes far beyond a public sphere controlled by the royal court. This legitimacy, the princes realise, can only be obtained internationally. And if international recognition is tantamount to support for their foreign and security policy strategy, then that is certainly worth the prize money.

Refusing to condone such a strategy is by no means an expression of “cancel culture”. There are often good reasons for honourees to turn down awards. This was the case in 2008, for example, when literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki refused to accept the honorary prize of the German Television Award, and in 2011, when Juan Goytisolo from Spain refused to accept the Al-Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights. Jean-Paul Sartre seems to have had less cogent reasons for turning down the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964. But in any case, the reasons that lead someone to decline an award should be appreciated and respected. It harms no one, unless you regard the awardee as a sovereign subject of the prize sponsor. So let’s wait and see if Juergen Habermas takes the opportunity to explain his motives.

The Islamic scholar Reinhard Schulze works at the University of Bern. Since 2018, he has been the director of FINO, the "Forum Islam and Middle East", at the University (photo: private)

The argument that culture cannot be kept free of the double standards of politics, which is willing to prioritise economic interests over the demand for human rights, may seem disturbing. In the final analysis, this means that awards such as the aforementioned Al-Gaddafi Prize for Human Rights would also have to be recognised. I believe that the awards culture in particular poses a major challenge, as it can quickly be exploited in an almost extortionate manner to gain legitimacy and recognition. This was evident in some of the reactions to Juergen Habermas’s refusal of the award. The Catholic Bishop for the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia, Paul Hinder, described the rejection of the invitation to accept the prize as an “insult” to its sponsor. This makes one wonder whether, as an award winner, one automatically has some sort of obligation towards the donor?

It is precisely because international relations are so rife with double standards that it is necessary to create cultural and scientific realms in which the claim can be made to address human rights violations, freedom of the press and freedom of religion on an equal footing and based on an equal rationale. When someone like Juergen Habermas calls for this so urgently, relying on the power of words, then we can rightly expect that receiving an award will also be evaluated from this standpoint.

Not a case of arrogance

Therefore, it is not arrogance on the part of the West to reject this prize, if only because Juergen Habermas is not the West and the prize is not the Arab world. We should keep our feet firmly planted on the ground and not speak here of a new culture war. An honouree has exercised his right to ask who is honouring him and then decide whether to accept that honour.

His rejection of the award is in keeping with the work of Juergen Habermas. Social media reactions coming from Arab countries indicate that the majority welcomes Habermas’s decision; some have even expressed relief because the refusal to accept the award accomplishes two things at once: for one thing, the awards committee has recognised and manifested the prize-worthiness of Juergen Habermas’s work for the Arab world. Arabic editions of his works will surely become more widespread. Secondly, Habermas himself has shown that, despite the honour, he has stood by his critical principles and arrived at a decision that is consistent for him, and he has done so in a political environment where every honour is subject to the suspicion of being corrupt.

© Journal21/Reinhard Schulze/Qantara.de 2021

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

https://en.qantara.de/content/a-triumph-for-discourse-juergen-habermas-rejection-of-the-sheikh-zayed-book-award

https://en.qantara.de/content/sheikh-zayed-book-award-why-has-juergen-habermas-rejected-a-prize-from-the-uae

UN Action on Reprisals: Towards Greater Impact

May 6, 2021

Janika Spannagel on 29 Apr 2021 announced the publication of this new report of the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR). A virtual event to launch ISHR’s new quantitative analysis of the scope and impact of UN action to combat intimidation and reprisals will take place later today at 16h00 Geneva time

Full Study

The ability of the UN human rights system to function depends on the testimonies of thousands of human rights defenders and victims from across the world who engage with UN mechanisms every year. However, interactions with the UN often come with risks for activists – many face reprisals from their home countries, ranging from severe, violent retaliation to equally effective administrative hurdles to their work in human rights. 

Some of these reprisal cases are raised by UN bodies with the responsible government and reported in annual reports by the UN Secretary-General. However, what becomes of the affected individuals’ cases after the UN’s involvement remains largely unclear. 

This study aims to both establish a clear understanding of which reprisal cases are raised by UN communications, and to shed light on the question of their effectiveness in improving individuals’ situations.

For some of my earlier posts on reprisals: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/tag/reprisals/


Download the fully study.

The project was funded by the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) and conducted jointly with their New York office between November 2020 and March 2021.

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https://www.gppi.net/2021/04/29/un-action-on-reprisals