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Friday, November 23, 2007

Victim of Rape - Guilty as charge

Sunday 25 November is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Governments, international organizations and NGOs are encouraged to organize activities designated to raise public awareness of the problem. From the day we are born, women in all countries and from all backgrounds are subjected to various forms of violence, simply because we are women. The type and severity of violence vary, ranging from structural violence, e.g. sexism, to direct violence such as rape.

The case of the 19 year old victim of gang rape in Saudia Arabia shocked the world this week. In addition to being gang raped, this girl was being punished with 90 lashes because she had met with an unrelated man at the time of the rape. The amount was then doubled (!)because she spoke out in media. Horrendous.

But sadly, it is a universal phenomenon that victims of sexual violence are being punished when the rapists are released. A raped woman needs to have four male eye witnesses in order to have her complaints considered in Pakistan. Raped women are being convicted for adultery, imprisoned or socially ostracised to extents where suicide appears to be the only solution.

Yes, but only in fundamental countries with old fashioned laws, many would say.

But here in the “West” too are women being held responsible for sexual crimes committed against them. Victims of rape are being blamed in court and by society. Rape is possibly the only crime where the burden of proof lies on the victim. You have all heard it; prove that you said NO! Leave marks! Scream! Don’t walk home alone in the dark! And for God’s sake do not wear a short skirt if you do! Can you imagine the same reasoning for other crimes? “So, Mr X when you went to see Germany – UK, did you not consider the high risk of getting your face smashed by football hooligans?”

Yes girls are told at an early age not to put themselves in a situation that may provoke men to give in to their sexual lusts. Ironically, since being a woman apparently is enough to provoke sexual violence. How to avoid that situation? Sex change?

Friday, November 16, 2007

A question of accountability

The Bangladeshi chief adviser said in a statement this week that women must be given “equal rights considering them equivalent to man in family, social and state systems.” He further claimed that “If inequality and injustice persist within the family, all our achievements at national level would go in vain.”

I should cheer this acknowledgement, of course. This statement is basically identical to the conclusion I made in a report on rapes in Bangladesh. However, in this report I also raised the question of accountability. One of the reasons that I find it difficult to applaud the chief adviser’s recognition is that it is difficult to hold him accountable if this promised change will remain beautiful words with little action taken.

Accountability is a delicate problem for human rights defenders.

The State has traditionally been considered the main protector of its citizens, a world view that was brutally overthrown with the horrors of World War II. The United Nations was created to control suppressing regimes and prevent States from further attempts of ethnic cleansing and genocide. However, in reality it remains difficult to hold states responsible for human rights atrocities.

No state seems willing to take responsibility for a sustainable solution for the hundred thousands of Kashmiri pandits and as many Bhutanese that have been forced into exile and a hopeless life as refugees. Minority groups world wide are persecuted despite all conventions that are prohibiting discrimination and proclaiming universal rights. Some states, like Bhutan, simply choose not to ratify the UN treaties, which are based on a voluntary commitment from the state. What to do when states choose not to ratify the conventions? Or, when they ratify but not implement its provisions?

The creation of the International Criminal Court provided a unique opportunity to hold individuals internationally responsible for human rights atrocities and gave rise to much optimism. But what to do when the most abusing states are the ones that choose not to ratify the statute and thus not acknowledge the Court?

I recall how my university professor emphasized that Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) are playing an import role in this process, since they have the ability to ‘blame and shame’ the suppressing states and thus hold them accountable for human rights abuse. But what to do when the state is ignorant to critique?

Promoting universal human rights can surely give rise to a lot of frustration, especially for someone that wants to see immediate result of their endeavor. And then, sustainable change takes time. Surely, the international human rights regime has seen a major improvement the past decades and grass root movements and NGOs have a great part of this. So we will continue our reporting of today, hoping for a better tomorrow.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Welcome to Global Human Rights Defence’s new Human Rights Blog!

This blog will be used as a forum for a weekly reflection about human rights issues, in particular those relating to minority rights, in South Asia. Here you can expect some more personal thoughts in contrast to the regular news reporting where objectivity is crucial. It is also an opportunity for me to share the latest updates relating to GHRD’s activities both in the Netherlands and internationally, and for you to respond directly. I am looking forward to hear your opinions and feedback!

Today, almost sixty years after the adaptation of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, universal human rights for all is still a utopian concept for the majority of the world population.

As the Human Rights Officer of GHRD, one of my main responsibilities is to ensure that the often unheard stories of human rights abuses will be told. They are not pleasant, these stories. Families are being evicted and forced into a life as refugees, their houses are burnt to ashes, fathers are being tortured in prison, women and children gang raped and journalists and human rights defenders that are trying to speak up are being threatened into silence.

It has been an eventful week in South Asia. Pakistan introduced a state of emergency and massive human rights abuse immediately followed. Magistrates, lawyers and activists have been detained and unlawfully placed under house arrest. The similarities with the creeping militarization over the past year in Bangladesh are many and frightening.

On the positive side, Bangladesh has finally (officially) separated the judiciary from political control. The actual implication remains to be seen - Bangladesh provides a textbook example of how development is hindered despite new legislation; it is the implementation that is the real challenge. Human rights continue to be violated in the shadow of new protective regulations, with the only difference that the government earned an international alibi through the new legislation. For example, (Gang) Rape, domestic violence, acid attacks, trafficking in women and dowry related violence is still a major problem, despite the new Suppression of Violence against Women and Children Act, the Dowry Protection Act and the Acid Control Act in Bangladesh.

And speaking of discrepancy between theoretical framework and reality: The United Nations continue to produce empirical reports stating evident facts about world wide human misery. “Sex is being used as a tool of weapon under conflict” is the title of a ‘new’ UN report. “Sex-ratio values in India contribution to the overall ‘masculinization’ of Asia says another. As important information as it is; it’s hardly news.

I would be much more shocked if I was to read about practical and achievements or strategies of the UN to battle these problems, or about the development of a rigorous monitoring system to hold the states accountable.

One of the most horrific readings this week was a case about the death in custody of an Adibashi leader in Bangladesh in March. According to the police: “he ran away, tripped, and lost consciousness and died at the hospital”. However, when the family recovered the body it bore torture marks like eyes plucked, testicles removed, anus mutilated, two hand palms smashed, and nails of three fingers of the right hand removed, to name a few. If that is how a body leaves a Bangladeshi hospital, then I surely would not like to end up in one of their prisons…

We are preparing for a silent protest in The Hague on Human Rights Day on 10th December and the Dutch Human Rights Commissioner will receive our petition and Annual Human Rights Reports. Time and route will be announced soon for all of you that want to join us and express your outrage against such abuse!

Finally, Hindus worldwide celebrate Diwali today – the festival of lights that encourages people to “finding light in darkness, achieving knowledge where there is ignorance, and spreading love amidst hatred.”

Regardless of belief or religion, this is certainly something we all could (should) relate to.


The UN News Centre

Diwali festival