Posts Tagged ‘Pip Cook’

Rescuing refugees ‘a moral imperative’ not a crime

April 15, 2021

Pip Cook in Geneva Solutions of 30 March 2021 published a good overview of the vexing issue of saving refugees in Europe [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/02/12/luventa10-sea-rescue-group-gets-ai-germanys-human-rights-award/]

MSF worked in collaboration with Sea-Watch on board the Sea-Watch 4 until February 2021, providing medical care and supporting with humanitarian assistance for rescued people. (Credit: Médecins Sans Frontières)

As countries across Europe adopt increasingly tough migration policies, NGOs are being prosecuted for acts of solidarity with refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. We speak to Stephen Cornish, director general of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Switzerland, and Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish Iranian journalist and author who was imprisoned in Australia’s offshore asylum system for six years, about the threat this growing hostility poses to Europe’s democracies.

On 4 March 2021, Italian prosecutors charged dozens of people from humanitarian organisations including Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and Save the Children with colluding with people smugglers while carrying out rescue operations in the Mediterranean. After an investigation spanning nearly four years, crew members, mission heads and legal representatives who saved thousands of people from drowning at sea are facing years in prison, sending shockwaves through the humanitarian community. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/03/04/new-amnesty-report-on-human-rights-defenders-helping-migrants/

It’s hard to imagine how saving a life can become a criminalised activity,” says Stephen Cornish, director of MSF Suisse, speaking to Geneva Solutions. The organisation, which denies the accusations, estimates that its six humanitarian ships helped save more than 81,000 lives at sea. “It would be like criminalising the fire department for going to put out a fire.”

The investigation is one of dozens brought against NGOs running search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean since 2016, when a handful of humanitarian organisations including MSF and SOS Mediteranee launched vessels in response to a rise in the number of people attempting the perilous journey from countries such as Libya and Turkey to claim asylum in Europe. Over the past few years, these vessels have been frequently detained by authorities or trapped at sea for weeks at a time, refused entry to ports where they can safely disembark. [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/12/18/international-migrants-day-the-story-of-the-ocean-viking/]

Hostility towards rescue agencies has grown since the height of the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ in 2015, says Cornish, when over one million people – the majority of whom were refugees fleeing the war in Syria – fled to Europe by sea over the course of the year, mainly arriving in Greece and Italy. The EU’s failure to share responsibility for the dramatic rise in the number of people seeking asylum in Europe left countries such as Greece and Italy overwhelmed, Cornish says: “People initially responded with charity and welcome, but then the failure was at a government level not to share the responsibility, and to repopulate people across different states.”

As anti-refugee politics became increasingly mainstream across Europe, countries began to tighten their borders and scrabble for ways to reduce ‘irregular’ migration into the bloc. Last week marked five years since the introduction of the EU-Turkey Deal – a key pillar of these efforts. The agreement called on Turkey to prevent asylum seekers and migrants from reaching the EU in exchange for financial assistance and the promise of the eventual creation of legal resettlement pathways to Europe.

Five years on, Turkey hosts more refugees than any other country in the world, with the EU accused of outsourcing its migration management and turning a blind eye to the poor living conditions facing many refugees in the country. The agreement is also widely viewed as creating the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Greek islands, which became a final destination for thousands of asylum seekers trapped in overcrowded camps waiting for their applications to be processed.

The inhumane conditions in refugee camps on the Greek islands are well documented, with reports of squalid facilities, violence, abuse and a lack of basic amenities commonplace. At times, there have been 40,000 people living in camps designed for a few thousand. As well as Syria, the majority of people are fleeing war and persecution in countries such as Afghanistan, Somalia, Palestine and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and one in four are children. The horrific fire that engulfed the notoriously overcrowded Moria camp on Lesvos in 2020, leaving 13,000 people without shelter, became a tragic symbol of Europe’s failed migration policy.

MSF has been operational on the Greek islands of Lesvos, Samos and Chios for many years, although it ceased operations inside Moria citing mass deportation and potential refoulement of asylum seekers and refugees. It no longer accepts EU funding in opposition to the policy.

“[The impact of the EU Turkey Deal] has been horrendous,” says Cornish. “There are still 15,000 people trapped in limbo, in no man’s land in Greece with no way forward and no way back, and suffering at the hands of supposed democracies.”

We see suicides, we see self-harm in children, we see long term PTSD and people with no hope, no ability to move forward or backward, trapped in punishment,” he says. “We put people in hell holes, and then when hell breaks loose, we pretend like we don’t see it.”

The deal has recently been extended until 2022, when the EU’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum is expected to come into force. The New Pact focuses on fast-tracking screening and asylum processes at Europe’s external borders and includes a system of “mandatory solidarity” by which member states do not have to commit to resettling refugees but can instead fund repatriation. It has been widely criticised by humanitarian organisations for repeating the mistakes of the EU-Turkey Deal and failing to improve the situation for asylum seekers and refugees.

“Everything we’ve seen that failed in the US and failed in Australia, and is failing in Greece and Italy, we’d like to now make more semi-permanent policy,” says Cornish of the New Pact, which is currently being negotiated by member states and in the European Parliament. “As we harden these policies, all we do is push people into the hands of traffickers. We push them to take riskier routes and have higher death tolls and greater suffering.”

While the number of asylum seekers and migrants crossing the Mediterranean has decreased dramatically since 2015, migration has continued to be a highly politicised issue across Europe. Countries have adopted increasingly hostile policies which humanitarian organisations say fail to address flaws in existing systems, to the detriment of the people these systems were initially created to help.

Last week, the UK announced an overhaul of its asylum policy, which was met with outrage from humanitarian actors. Under the new plans, migrants and asylum seekers who arrive in the UK by routes deemed illegal will be indefinitely liable for removal even if they are granted asylum, creating a two-tier system which has been criticised as a violation of international law and eroding the right to asylum.

UK home secretary Priti Patel argues that current European policies “play into the hands of people smugglers”, however human rights and migration experts argue that, while governments fail to expand safe and legal routes, it is inhumane and unjust to punish asylum seekers for resorting to irregular routes when the only other option is an interminable wait in one of Europe’s refugee camps.

“Since a number of years [ago], we have made it almost impossible to be able to flee and request asylum from a conflict zone,” says Cornish. “We put all of these hurdles in place to make it impossible to be able to declare asylum and come [to Europe], and then we criminalise anybody jumping the line because we say they’re not following the procedures.”

Lessons from Australia. It has also been reported that asylum seekers in the UK could be shipped overseas while their asylum claim is pending – a policy that echoes Australia’s offshore processing asylum policy, instituted twice from 2001 to 2008 and 2012 to present.

Under the policy, asylum seekers and migrants who arrived in Australia by boat were immediately sent to offshore processing centres on the pacific islands of Manus and Nauru. The detention camps – which held over 2000 people at a time – have been widely condemned for systemic abuses and human rights violations. Although over 85 per cent of people sent to Nauru and Manus were recognised as refugees, the majority were left there for years awaiting resettlement.

Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish Iranian refugee who was detained on Manus Island for six years after attempting to reach Australia by boat in 2013, experienced the horror of Australia’s inhumane asylum policy first-hand. He spoke to Geneva Solutions ahead of the FIFDH event he took part in alongside Stephen Cornish.

“The dangerous side is that Australia is introducing this policy to countries in Europe, especially the UK,” says Boochani, who continued his work as a journalist writing for publications such as the Guardian from Manus. “Australia became a model for many of these countries. And for many years, we were warning about this, we were talking about it, but no one heard us.” [See also: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/55687980-7bdc-11e9-8427-f3aebfb2928e]

This policy damaged the political culture in Australia [and] the democracy in Australia,” says Boochani. “It damaged the principles in Australia and damaged morality in Australia. I think if the UK followed this policy, you cannot say that [you’ve] just damaged the refugees, you’ve damaged your principles, your democracy, your system, your morality, and your political culture too.

MSF’s Cornish shares Boochani’s concern that Europe’s asylum policies are damaging the democracy and social fabric of countries, partly fuelling the rise in far-right politics that has gained traction across the continent in recent years.

There have also been reports of mounting deportations and systemic violent pushbacks at Europe’s external land borders by the EU border agency Frontex. At sea, NGOs have also collected evidence of refugees being intercepted and illegally pushed back to Turkey from Greek waters. International human rights and refugee law requires states to protect the right of people to seek asylum and protection from refoulement even if they enter irregularly. The increasingly frequent pushbacks have prompted calls by the UN Refugee Agency for an urgent investigation.

Respecting human lives and refugee rights is not a choice, it’s a legal and moral obligation. While countries have the legitimate right to manage their borders in accordance with international law, they must also respect human rights. Pushbacks are simply illegal,” said UNHCR’s assistant commissioner for protection Gillian Triggs in a statement…

https://genevasolutions.news/peace-humanitarian/cornish-it-s-hard-to-imagine-how-saving-a-life-can-become-a-criminalised-activity

Belarus an ‘absolute catastrophe” says human rights defender Ales Bialiatski

March 9, 2021

Pip Cook in Geneva Solutions of 9 March 2021 published a rich, detailed interview with Belarus human rights defender Ales Bialiatski [see: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/6CF69C2A-4101-6782-F0AB-53A307E9F7B2]

Ales Bialiatski laying flowers at a memorial to Aliaksandr Taraikouski, a protester who was killed during a demonstration on August 10, 2020. Credit: HRC Viasna

On February 16, Ales Bialiatski’s home and the offices of his human rights organisation Viasna in Minsk were raided by police. He was targeted along with more than 40 other human rights defenders, journalists and their relative in towns across the country, with reports of officials using excessive force while seizing phones, computers and credit cards.

Bialiatski, one of Belarus’ most prominent human rights defenders, says the authorities were looking for any evidence of organisations or journalists “financing” peaceful protests against the country’s president Alexander Lukashenko. The raids are the latest development in the government’s brutal crackdown on mass protests which have been ongoing in the country since Lukashenko claimed victory in a rigged election last August. [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/tag/ales-bialiatski/]

The authorities have recently opened a criminal case against Viasna and Bialiatski himself. A former political prisoner who spent nearly three years jailed in Minsk, he says that, by the time this article is published, he may once again be behind bars.

Millions of people want change, and the answer of the government is repression,” says Bialiatski, speaking to Geneva Solutions from the Right Livelihood Foundation offices in Geneva. He and Viasna received the prestigious award in 2020.

Seven months on from the election, more than 33,000 people have been detained, and there are widespread reports of police brutality, arbitrary arrests, kidnapping, and torture of detainees.

The human rights situation in Belarus is, in Bialiatski’s words, “an absolute catastrophe”. “The situation is quite horrible because it’s not only human rights defenders that suffer,” he explains. “It’s all levels of society. Anybody who can think.”

Over half a year since the first protests broke out in the capital Minsk, he says the authorities are still tightening their grip on personal freedoms and carrying out grave human rights violations, targeting activists, journalists and anyone who opposes the regime. But the people of Belarus are not giving up.

What’s going on in Belarus? The government’s crackdown in Belarus follows mass protests in the country last summer after a fraudulent election in which Lukashenko, known as “Europe’s last dictator”, claimed to have won 80 per cent of the vote. The poll is widely accepted to have been rigged to extend his 25-year rule, prompting the largest demonstrations in the country’s history.

Elections in Belarus have never been considered free and fair by many international observers. Bialiatski has been working to advocate for democratic freedoms in the country since his early twenties, when the country was still under Soviet rule.

He founded Viasna in 1996, five years after Belarus gained independence from the Soviet Union and two years after Lukashenko came to power. The organisation’s initial aim was to help thousands of protesters arrested during mass pro-democracy rallies after Lukashenko brought in sweeping constitutional reforms that consolidated his authoritarian rule.

“[My colleagues and I] thought that this work would finish in a few years because the problem would disappear,” says Bialiatski. “But it’s been 25 years and there’s still work to do. It’s never ended. Unfortunately, the human rights situation never got better.”

Accusations of rigged elections, brutal suppression of civil rights and corruption have been hallmarks of Lukashenko’s half a century in power. However, Bialiatski says last year’s poll acted as a catalyst. It was then that Belarusian society finally “woke up” and demanded change.

Breaking the silence. In the run-up to elections in Belarus in 2020, a number of opposition figures became extremely popular, including former members of Lukashenko’s government and Sergei Tikhanovskya, a well-known blogger who travelled the country interviewing former loyal supporters of the ruler about why they had turned against him.

Although Lukashenko jailed or exiled many of his opponents, he did not see Sviatlana Tsikhanovskaya – who ran in the place of her husband when he was imprisoned – as a significant threat. However, Tsikhanovskaya became hugely popular, gaining the support of fellow opposition figures and attracting large crowds of supporters to her rallies.

Events in 2020 drastically impacted the Lukashenko’s loyal following and damaged his reputation. The country’s already dire economic situation was exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis, which the ruler has fervently denied, refusing to bring in restrictions and joking that the virus could be fought with vodka and work in the country’s potato fields. “Lukashenko was laughing into the world’s face and denying the existence of the virus, while people all around were dying,” says Bialiatski.

Tsikhanovskaya was widely expected to win the vote in a landslide. Although independent polling is illegal in Belarus, making it difficult to measure her lead in the run up to the election, some independent exit polls conducted outside polling stations in foreign embassies on election day showed her to have received 79.69 per cent of the vote while Lukashenko received just 6.25 per cent.

When the government announced it had won 80 per cent of the vote, claiming that Tsikhanovskaya had received less than 10 per cent, Belarusians realised the election had been rigged. “It was an open lie in the face of the people,” says Bialiatski. “Of course there were rallies – nobody believed the result.”

“The very first mass protests on the street were a result of despair and disappointment and disagreement with this injustice that had happened in the country,” he adds.

Thousands of people took to the streets across the country to peacefully protest the result, but they were met with a brutal crackdown from authorities. In Minsk, which saw the worst of the violence, police and the army deployed water cannons, stun grenades and rounds of rubber bullets against protesters. Police vans were reportedly driven into crowds and hundreds were injured, with journalists and independent observers apparently targeted.

As reports circulated of extreme violence against protesters, including systematic torture of detainees by police and security forces, thousands more Belarusians rallied. Over 200,000 people took part in the largest protest in the country’s history, and there were hopes that the pressure may finally topple Lukashenko.

However, the result was an even more brutal crackdown, in which thousands were injured and arrested. “Unfortunately, the peaceful protests didn’t lead to a change of government as was hoped and expected,” says Bialiatski. “Instead, daily repressions started against different people at different layers of society, at different organisations and activists.”

Crackdown on human rights and freedom of speech. According to Viasna, over 2,300 criminal cases have been opened against human rights defenders and activists since the protests erupted in August 2020. In February alone, during the latest spate of arrests, a further 511 people were detained, 102 people received sentences and 49 people imprisoned.

There is currently a criminal case open against Viasna and Bialiatski himself for inciting “public disorder” through allegedly financing ongoing protests by paying the huge fines imposed on protesters. He says the latest raids in which police seized phones, laptops and credit cards were an attempt to collect evidence. “This is considered as financial proof against the regime,” he explains. “They are not allowing us to exercise our human rights protection work, which is our right.

“We are working all the time on the edge of the knife because [we] don’t know when this criminal case will take force and [we] will be sentenced for it,” he says.

It’s not just activists who are being targeted. According to Viasna, there are currently 258 political prisoners in the country, including journalists and bloggers. On 17 February, two journalists, Katsiaryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova, both of the Polish-funded Belsat TV channel, were convicted of violating public order and sentenced to two years in prison for covering the protests.

“They are looking for ‘criminals’ among those who help political prisoners and write about the struggle of Belarusians for freedom,” wrote Tsikhanovskaya on Twitter in response to the latest raids. Tsikhanovskaya was forced to flee to Lithuania following last year’s elections.

“But in search of criminals, they should look into the offices of the riot police, the GUBOPiK (interior ministry directorate) and all those responsible for the repression.”

A number of Bialiatski’s colleagues are incarcerated in the country’s jails, imprisoned for as little as sending food parcels to jailed protesters. A former political prisoner himself who spent nearly three years behind bars from 2011-2014, Bialitksi knows all too well how terrible the conditions in Belarus’ prisons can be. With widespread reports of detainees being tortured and subjected to brutal treatment, he says he’s deeply concerned for their welfare.

“How people are treated in Belarusian jails is not a humane way to treat people,” he says. “I really hope that my colleagues and my friends can survive it and I really hope that one day they will be released.”

Pressure from the international community. Last summer’s crackdown prompted western countries to impose sanctions on Minsk, but Lukashenko has refused to resign, bolstered by diplomatic and financial support from long-standing ally Russia. Tikhanovskaya, who remains in Lithuania after the country rejected the Belarusian authority’s request for her extradition, is leading a campaign to encourage external pressure on Belarus in the hope that tougher measures against the regime may succeed in toppling Lukashenko.

Her efforts could be paying off. In December, the EU imposed a third round of economic sanctions against key individuals and companies in Belarus, while in February the Biden administration expanded the list of senior officials in the country who are no longer welcome in the United States.

Tikhanovskaya has also created a Coordination Council, effectively a government in waiting, which is headed by Bialiatski. The council is drafting a new constitution and keeps in contact with key figures in Belarus to ensure that the exiled opposition does not become detached from those who are keeping up the pressure on Lukashenko from within.

The situation in Belarus is also being closely watched by the United Nations. Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet recently presented her report on the aftermath of August’s elections to the 46th session of the Human Rights Council at the end of February. Bachelet warned of a “human rights crisis” in the country and called for an immediate end to the policy of systematic intimidation used by the Belarusian authorities against peaceful protesters and for the release of political prisoners.

Viasna has supported a number of other rights organisations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch in calling on the Human Rights Council to establish a new mechanism on Belarus. Bialiatski explains that the situation in the country must be kept high up on the international agenda if there is any hope of bringing down Lukashenko’s regime.

“It is very important to continue to exercise international pressure on Belarus, pointing out that human rights have to be preserved in the country,” he says. “This help of international society is required today – not tomorrow, today. Because tomorrow it might be too late.”

Hope for the future. Bialiatski says it is impossible to predict what the coming weeks, and even days, will bring to the people of Belarus. He says the latest crackdown has had a “very, very intimating result. People are scared. ”

“One thing is for sure,” he continues. “The administrative and criminal charges, and punishments and sentences against the activists and human rights defenders will get harsher. This I can guarantee. The current power is continuing to tighten the screws.

“I ask myself often how long the people can continue to bear this pressure, and if they will continue to bear it much longer.”

There are hopes that the spring could bring another wave of protests in Belarus. Speaking during a trip to Finland last week, exiled opposition leader Tikhanovskaya said she expected mass protest against Lukashenko to start up again soon after a lull in public demonstrations due to the authorities brutal suppression.

Bialiatski shares some of her cautious optimism. “The crisis has not gone, we are not beyond it,” he says. “The disagreement, disapproval and unhappiness of the people is so strong that I think there will be another breakout soon.”

He says that it is only a matter of time before Lukashenko loses his grip on Belarus – be it a result of peaceful protests, international pressure or the deteriorating economic situation in the country, although most likely a combination of all three. “This is the first time we have clearly seen that the current regime is in the minority and this gives us a significant certainty that the regime, the current power, cannot stay much longer,” he says.

After spending most of his life tirelessly working to uphold human rights in the face of relentless persecution at the hands of the Belarusian authorities, Bialiatski has managed to retain faith that his country will one day become a free democracy. What gives him hope that this could finally be the turning point in Belarus’s history? The country’s young people, he says, who have led the movement against Lukashenko.

“These young people in Belarus who strive for a change have totally different values ​​to Lukashenko and his entourage,” he says. “And it’s difficult to change the minds of young people. They are born with it. They will keep on fighting. ”

https://genevasolutions.news/peace-humanitarian/belarus-human-rights-defender-says-crackdown-on-freedom-an-absolute-catastrophe

A new tool to champion human rights defenders

March 2, 2021

Pip Cook published on 2 March 2021 a piece in Geneva Solutions which is hard to ignore for me in view of my own participation in it: the Digest: “A new tool to champion human rights defenders“. [see also:https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/02/02/digest-of-laureates-ready-this-blog-changes-orientation/]

From left to right: Neri Colmenares, Abdul Aziz Muhamat, Juwairiya Mohideen, Nemonte Nenquimo and Intisar Al-Amyal. (True Heroes Films)

A new online tool has been launched to champion human rights defenders and bring greater recognition to their work. Launched this month by True Heroes Films, a Geneva-based media organisation which uses digital storytelling to raise the profile of human rights defenders around the world, the Digest of Human Rights Awards includes over 2,800 winners of 220 prestigious awards.

The Digest, while raising awareness about the work of human rights defenders, also  aims to serve as a useful tool for both the media and the human rights world to go beyond the often fleeting publicity that surrounds award ceremonies and ensure their work is not forgotten.

Hans Thoolen, co-founder of True Heroes and the Martin Ennals Award, told Geneva Solutions that the idea for the digest came out of a research project he undertook in 2013 into the value of human rights awards.

Awards help bring greater recognition to a cause, boosting an individual’s profile and granting them greater protection, be it through prize money or the support of NGOs. However, many awards remain relatively unheard of and receive very little publicity, which Thoolen said is “absolutely crucial” to their value.

Journalists are incorporated into the broad human rights movement. Without publicity, human rights defenders would be working mostly for nothing,” said Thoolen. “They need public attention for their cause and what they are trying to change. Without it, nobody would know what they are doing.

In fact, the Digest reveals journalists make up the largest professional group of award recipients, with more than 400 laureates from the media. The database also provides images of the laureates and biographies of their life and work, as well as details of the awards themselves.

Human rights awards generally try to achieve three main objectives,” explained Thoolen. “One is recognition at a psychological level, which should not be underestimated. Many human rights defenders are not very popular in their own society, sometimes not even within their own family, so when they get recognition that can be a very important boost to their mental health.

The value of awards also lies in “concrete support”, be it in the form of prize money or training opportunities, or the chance to connect with others working in the same field. They also provide protection for the laureates, which is another reason publicity is essential – to make it known that the world is watching. Although this publicity can bring with it some risks, Thoolen explains that his long career working in the human rights world has shown him that these are outweighed by the benefits.

The feedback we get from lawyers is always the same: the [human rights defenders] have already taken enormous risks by going public. They are not afraid, and clearly the publicity helps them.

Showcasing the work of thousands of people from all different backgrounds, championing everything from women’s rights to freedom of speech, Thoolen also hopes the Digest will serve as a “hall of fame” for role models to inspire the next generation of human rights defenders.

Most people get into human rights work when they’re hit by something, but usually it’s not by reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” said Thoolen. “What inspires people is seeing and hearing a person: a human rights defender. They are the entry point into the much broader human rights movement.

The piece then gives some recent winners of prestigious human rights awards featured in the Digest:

Abdul Aziz Muhamat – Martin Ennals Award, 2019. 

Juwairiya Mohideen – The Front Line Defenders Award, 2020. 

Nemonte Nenquimo – Goldman Environment Award, 2020.

Mohammad Mosaed – International Press Freedom Awards and Deutsche Welle’s Freedom of Speech, 2020. . 

Rugiati Turay – Theodor Haecker Prize, 2020. 

Intisar Al-Amyal – Per Anger Prize, 2020.