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Friday, December 19, 2008

A time for reflection

Another year has passed. It is a good time for reflection – if one find time in between the season evaluations, newsletters, annual reports, cleaning…out of a sudden the entire year must be wrapped up in one package! What a year it was. Trying to determine the highlights and set backs is not easy.

I appreciate the meetings with the incredible Bhutanese families thAdd Imageat were evicted from their homeland, some tortured and imprisoned, and then lived seventeen years in refugee camps before being sent to a country they never heard of. I remember their hospitality and kindness, their gratefulness for being given the chance to start a new life, but also their despair for the loved ones that were left behind.

I remember the excitement at the birth of the FLARE network at the European Parliament in Brussels. The feeling of success and being invincible when we walked together with almost 100,000 others in Bari, Italy taking stand against the mafia.

I recall anger and frustration when a certain ambassador claimed that no- one is being tortured in Bangladesh. I remember the excitement of taking part of history when former prime minister Sheik Hasina entered the House of Lords after almost a year in captivity.

It hurts to think of the pain in the eyes of the families who lost everything, whose child committed suicide after a brutal gang rape and left with no assistance, the human rights defenders who risked their life to report about them, and the frustration I felt so many times that we could not do more to help them in their struggle!

But I can also smile looking back on how 50 children, newly arrived from conflict zones all over the world, were singing and jumping up and down of excitement to meet Sinterklaas and receive their presents!

2008 was the year of survival for GHRD. It was a constant battle to continue achieving results, with no resources. 2009 is the year where we finally have the opportunity to grow, expand our networks and strengthen our capacities.

The year of 2009 will be an important one in GHRDs history. I want to do more, do better. There is enough to do. I am looking forward to share it with you!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Lord Voldemort of Bangladesh

I went to Brussels and the European Parliament last week to take part in an informal hearing about the human rights situation in Bangladesh. The situation is alarming - more the 25.000 people were arbitrary arrested over the past two weeks.

Approximately half a million people have been arrested in Bangladesh since the proclamation of state of emergency 16 months ago. Most of them are political opponents; many will be tortured into accordance by the military regime.
Those who were able have gone into hiding; or maybe they ‘disappeared,’ or mysteriously died from ‘heart problems’ after days of torture. Others are simply shot in the back, with the official explanation that they ‘attempted to escape’.

As expected, the present representative of the Bangladeshi Embassy denied any governmental involvement in human rights abuse. The ambassador was ‘surprised to hear that the human rights situation is bad in Bangladesh’ he claimed the Bangladeshi human rights record have ‘always been good’, and; ‘no-one is being arrested without reason in Bangladesh’.

In reality, state security forces can arbitrarily arrest and detain individuals without warrant or evidence[1]; in fact, they can 'produce' evidence through the use of force. Soldiers and police responsible for torture and killings enjoy impunity.

Journalists and human rights activists that are brave enough to report about the abuse become targets themselves. Ahmed Swapan, a torture victim and exiled Bangladeshi journalist said; ‘I am afraid to speak here today. I am one of those whose right hand still is dysfunctional because of my reporting in Bangladesh.’ The torture of Tasneem Khalil, who reported to, amongst others, CNN and Human Rights Watch, made it to the international press last year. If they beat a journalist who is working for a distinguished media and human rights organisation unconscious with batons – what will they do to others who have less chance of getting their story out?
“In Bangladesh, they have their own Lord Voldemort – the DGFI. They
are so feared that people don’t even dare mentioning its name,”

William Sloan (International Association of Democratic Lawyers), during his last visit to Bangladesh, was held up and interrogated at the airport, cautioned by the DGFI[2], barred from the courtroom where Sheikh Hasina was on trial, interdicted from holding a press conference, confined in his hotel room for ten hours, and escorted to the airport by police and detained until boarding time. “In Bangladesh, they have their own Lord Voldemort – the DGFI. They are so feared that people don’t even dare mentioning its name,” he said, making a reference to the Dark Lord in the Harry Potter books.

Indeed, over the year we have seen a mobilisation of dark forces in Bangladesh. Terror, torture and intimidation are the main tools used by the military government to maintain power. However, whereas Lord Voldemort made no secret of his intention of dictatorial rule, the Bangladeshi government is still attempting to hide behind a democratic fa├žade and maintain its international reputation.

Perhaps it is time to stop allowing the military regime in Bangladesh to hide behind the term ‘caretaker government,’ and instead start calling it what it is: a military regime. Because, as the Harry Potter fans will know; fear of a name only creates fear of the phenomenon itself.

[1] Emergency Powers Rules, Section 16 & 20, EPR 2007
[2] Directorate General of Forces Intelligence; one of the main Bangladeshi intelligence services

Monday, April 14, 2008

The truth, and nothing but the truth…says who?

GHRD ended up in the middle of the Swedish media battle last week when investigating a murder in Bangladesh. Ashit Biswas, 32, disappeared in 2005 and the remains of his body were found last week – elucidating another uninvestigated crime in Bangladesh. Usually, the ‘West’ show little interest in what’s going on in Bangladesh.

But this case is different. The suspect, Joy Rahman, is something of a media celebrity in Sweden, where he spent eight years in prison for murder, before being found innocent by the Supreme Court. It was the scandal of that time. Rahman cried out in media, a victim of a racist prejudiced justice system. He moved back to Bangladesh and started a foundation for the money he was given as compensation. Not that money could ever compensate eight years of declined freedom! But it helps. Especially in Bangladesh, where money is the answer to all problems, including legal ones.

Now, everyone wanted their share of this story. The question of guilt – and victimization is central and divided the Swedish and Bangladeshi press. In Sweden, they are eager to portray Joy Rahman as another victim of corruption and illegality in a non-existent Bangladeshi justice system. In Bangladesh, some media want to see Joy Rahman hanged by tomorrow, whether there is evidence or not.

As for me, I am referring to the rule of law, to objective reporting and to respect Rahman’s right to presumption of innocence whilst searching the truth about Ashit’s death. Media cannot, and should not, determine guilt. In Western Europe, most of us are skeptical to the ‘facts’ produced by media, but rely on a court verdict.

But when working in Bangladesh, this perception of ‘truth’ is challenged. Here, police investigations and verdicts are for sale. The police fabricate charges, plant evidence and force through confessions under torture on routine. Meanwhile, many media in Bangladesh are opposing this corrupt system, struggling to work independently to expose the truth.

So what do we know? Well, whereas many criminals escape trials; innocents are also convicted, imprisoned and executed. The question now is; to which category does Rahman belong? And says who?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The power and downfall of the masses

GHRD participated in another FLARE meeting last week, this time in Bari, southern Italy. I had the privilege to meet and listen to Mr Luigi Ciotti, president of Libera, the largest network against the mafia in Italy. For obvious reasons, this man is most wanted and he has miraculously survived years of assassination attempts. When this honorable man sat down in front of me, turned around and shook my hand, for a moment, I felt afraid. A pathetic thought crossed my mind; what if someone will attack him now, when I am behind him? In the next second, I felt a strong wave of guilt. What a coward! There are people willing to sacrifice their lives for something they believe in, and then you are afraid to even sit behind one of them? What kind of human rights defender are you? Well obviously, a human rights officer, with emphasis on office. I felt pathetic.

Then, luckily, I gained some strength again when taking part in a huge demonstration against the mafia. It felt powerful and important to walk there in the burning sun, shouting “FREEDOM LEGALITY AND RIGHTS IN EUROPE” amongst 100,000 people, all brought together around one common goal; to speak out against corruption and organized crime. There is something extraordinary about public manifestations where thousands of strangers with different background, age, gender, nationality and religion have taken a standpoint about something that matters to them, and then unite to express this position.

Tragically, another protest was brutally smashed down at almost the same moment. Dozens of innocent Tibetians are feared dead, many are arrested and likely to be tortured or ‘disappear’ - simply because they claimed their right to peaceful demonstration. My thoughts are in Tibet today.

It’s safe being a ‘human rights officer’ in The Hague.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

India untouchable

I went to Nijmegen last Sunday to take part in a cultural event focusing on development and human rights in India. Unsurprisingly, one of the main topics was the Dalits (Harijans) or the untouchables. Despite its constitutional abolition in 1950, the caste system is a cruel reality in a large part of rural India. Dalits are considered less human then other castes, they are thought to be ‘polluted’ and should thus never be touched by anyone from a higher caste. For this reason they are discriminated against in all spheres, an exclusion that applies to adults and children alike. The story of the little boy that fell into the water and drowned because no-one wanted to touch him is hard to forget. It is one of the most severe human rights catastrophes in the world today.

But it is disturbing to see how this complex issue continues to be analysed and discussed in the simplest manner. The movies show fat and inherently evil Brahmins that shout that Dalits are inferior by nature and thus destined to clean their toilets. And this is described as the very essence of Hinduism. Religion is immediately given the blame. It is equally disturbing whenever ‘ Islam’ is equalised with terrorism. Even though religion plays an undeniable role in both of the above mentioned examples, it is hardly the one and only factor. It is not religion by itself that generates conflict, violence or human rights abuse. Religion, is a social construction such as ethnicity, or nationality, that is used as a tool to manifest other interests. It is the interpretation and violent enforcement of religion/ethnicity or nationality that is dangerous.

This clearly requires a higher level of analysis, which is more demanding than finding some Brahmins that are willing to misbehave in tv for their five minutes of fame (or bearded Muslims for that matter).

It is natural and inevitable in popular science and media to simplify complex social and political phenomenon in order to make them easy to comprehend. But this simplification also undermines the opportunities for accurate analysis and ultimately, a change.

The social order is based on our need to distinguish between good and evil and us and them; and evil is inherent in‘them’. Religion is an easy target because it allows us to project evil acts on ‘the others’.

In some instances, the solution to the ‘problem’ then simply is conversion to the ‘good’ religion. Unsurprisingly, yet shocking, conversion to Christianity is often proposed as a solution to the Dalits by Christian charity organisations.

And then we are surprised when the western human rights regime is being accused of pursuing a post colonial agenda?

Religion alone does not constitute the root cause of human misery. And it certainly does not hold the key to its solution.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Never again?

GHRD attended an international conference in Krakow, Poland last week; FLARE – Freedom Legality and Rights in Europe. FLARE is a European network of more than 40 civil society organisations with the aim to promote legality and human rights in Europe. It was an interesting (and hectic) week and I enjoyed the workshops and in particular to discuss human rights with representatives from Italy, Romania, Serbia, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine, Poland, …

But it is the visit to the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau that I remember the most. It was a horrific day in every sense. I thought I was prepared. After all, I deal with cases of gang rape, torture and murder on a daily basis at work. And I specialised in genocide at university. I have studied the holocaust in every detail; seen the photos, films, read the books of survivors, and experts; I even analysed the toilet system in the camps (!). But to walk for hours through this death camp, created by humans with the sole intention of exterminating others, where over one million human beings lost their lives in the most dehumanising way, gave rise to feelings that no books could ever convey. I felt sad, helpless, empty, angry, disillusioned; the importance of keeping Auschwitz as a painful memory felt stronger than ever. Indeed we must remember, and the words never again must never silence.

But it did happen again. And it happened before. Again and again and right now.

The Holocaust was unfortunately neither the first nor the last moment in history where one group organised, planned and executed the killings of another group, with intent to destroy, in whole or in part. Indigenous peoples were extincted with genocidal intent as soon as Europeans ‘discovered’ their continents over 600 years ago. Genocides took place in Bangladesh, Ottoman Empire (Armenian genocide), East Timor, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia- Herzegovina, and Sudan, to name a few.

A genocide does not take place overnight – it requires structure and planning. Major genocide characteristics are: the division of people between ‘us and them’, hate speeches, dehumanisation, propaganda, targeting of a specific group because of their ethnic/religious identity, which finally leads to the extermination of this group.

The development in some South Asian countries such as Bangladesh, Jammu/Kashmir, Malaysia, and Pakistan is not too far away from this description. Now it is up to us to decide if again will ever turn into never.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The slave trade of our time

Welcome back to the first blog of the year 2008!

I have been preparing a lecture for The Hague University and the cultural week this upcoming Tuesday. I am aware that it’s a privilege to be able to stand in front of 200 students, that (whether they like it or not) will have to listen to what I have to say about such an important subject as human rights. It’s also a challenge to compose a comprehendible introduction to the entire international human rights system – in only 45 minutes. I have been thinking a lot about how I can make maximal use of this time; what aspect of human rights is the most crucial to emphasise, what is it that I want people to know about human rights?

One crucial and always relevant point I will emphasize on Tuesday is that the international human rights system as we know it today is the result of historical processes and it is thus changing over time. The norms and values underlying it, including the concepts of rights and which groups we consider human enough to be granted these rights, are dynamic. It is therefore crucial that we always continue to evaluate and criticize this system and the groups that we consider ‘humans’ and thus should be granted rights.

Throughout history, human rights have been violated in the most atrocious manners; we have raped and murdered and enslaved people; but at the time it was often not considered a human rights violation. We have justified the enslavement of native Africans, the wiping out of entire indigenous populations, the repression of homosexuals, women, disabled, political opponents, the persecution of the Jews, just to name a few, legally, morally and scientifically.

Women are too stupid to vote or attend university, homosexuality is a disease that can be cured, Africans and Native Americans needed to be saved by the ‘civilized’ Europeans, and the Jewish conspiracy was reaching such dangerous levels that the holocaust almost should be considered collective self defence. These have all been arguments that have justified the infringement of rights for certain groups, and they were more or less accepted by the public at their time. Today, it sounds horrific. Today, we think we know better. But do we?

We have seen a scary development, in particularly after 9/11, moving towards a system where human rights become relative and depends on your belonging to religious/ethnic groups, where torture and arbitrary arrests are being justified in the name of ‘war on terror’.

So, two questions I am looking forward to discuss on Tuesday are:

What is the slave trade of our time? And who are the 'Jews' in 2008?