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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

To Sue A State

I am watching the peace palace from my office at the ‘NGO building of the Hague’ - the building where Non Governmental and ‘human rights organizations’ are sharing their offices in the city of peace and international justice.

And for the third time in a few months I just faced human injustice at the door step.

A man with rough clothes, a big bag and desperation in his eyes wanted to ‘talk to a human rights organization’ to ‘file a complaint against a country for human rights abuse.’ My heart stops every time. The situation and country are different; what they share is the experience of great injustices, the fear, and despite endless efforts, they have nowhere to turn to for help. They have desperately wandered around, stopped at the sight of the shiny tags with names of organizations such as the ‘UNHCR’ (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) ‘UNOY Peacebuilders’ and yes, “Global Human Rights Defence” on the large entrance door.

He had slept outside the door, another night on the streets. He doesn’t want to share the ‘shelter with all the junks’. Its safer on the street. But he is not here for himself. He want to help his friend in Morocco whose refugee status was taken back, kicked out of his home and now lives on the streets in Rabat where he is beaten because he is a Christian. He fears death if he returns home too.

Before hearing his story, I know I cannot help him. I offer a cup of coffee and a few minutes of my time to a man whose life experiences probably outnumber those of all the hundred -something- ‘NGO staff’ with fancy titles in this building.

It makes complete sense that he rings the door bell. The bizarre is: nobody will be able to help him. He has already appealed to Amnesty International, The UN offices in Geneva, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg…. But due to many different and complex reasons, legal, procedural, practical, financial, political: many victims of human rights violations are still left without access to remedies.

I send him downstairs to the UNHCR. I know they cannot help him either.

Monday, June 22, 2009

What’s your caste, madam?

As a human rights defender on a mission in India surely I should not be surprised to discover that the caste system prevails in the country. As repelling as the thought is to me, I was prepared to observe such phenomena. It is common knowledge that social hierarchy is deep rooted, despite the legal prohibition of ‘the caste system’.

However, I did not expect to personally experience ‘casteism’ be treated differently due to my ‘position’ in society or even the colour of my skin. It soon became clear to me that my ‘ethnic origin’ was in itself an achievement that was praised. At first I was flattered by the smiles and the interest in my person, after a while I understood that my ‘position’ as a white European contributed to the bows and friendly smiles. My opinion, or rather appearance, was cherished and equalised with an ‘international’ – white-position and thus sometimes considered more important than that of ‘the Indians’.

Whether concerning the press interest in my (read; a white) presence, or the employees in the service sector desire to be ‘at my service’. I was touched by the devotation of the security guard at the hotel, who stood up at their desk every time I appeared with a smile and a ‘hello madam, good morning madam’. Despite my friendly response, they never sat down to relax.

On the last day the guard, encouraged after days of confidence building, smiles and chocolates gifts (for the children I assumed he had), approached me and asked:

“What’s your religion madam?”

A little surprised and stunned by this personal intervention I smiled back and replied: none, sir, I am an atheist. The man looked at me with great surprise, and the reply was a fast:

“What’s your caste, madam?”

The caste system is very much alive.

Friday, February 20, 2009

A beautiful lie or the ugly truth?

This Monday afternoon I packed a bag with teddy bears and went together with two exiled Bhutanese to Amsterdam Airport to receive their long awaited relatives. Me too felt the excitement as 33 tired but happy Bhutanese refugees quietly entered the arrival’s hall with IOM marked suitcases and young children in their arms. Their journey towards a new life had started in Kathmandu, Nepal several days ago. Emotionally, it has been a journey for seventeen years, and it is far from over yet.

These refugees are some of the 100,000 Bhutanese whose government refuse to acknowledge as citizens. They have been forced to reside in simple refugee camps in Nepal for almost twenty years with little opportunities to education, employment and medical care. Some of them are allowed resettlement in a third country they never heard of before. A small number of them are resettling in the Netherlands. 33 of them arrived this rainy Monday afternoon.

They are calm but also full of expectations about their new life in this new country. ‘ We are so happy to be here. We want to work hard and do our best to learn Dutch customs.’
A young, educated father looked my straight into my eyes with great anticipation: ‘Do you think we will have a good life here? Will our children be ok?’ Yes, of course I responded with as much optimism as I could manage. And I believe it. The Bhutanese are so full of desire, motivation and eager to integrate. Still, I feel guilty and a little worried as I hear the many stories of refugees that suffer sever traumas long after they are ‘integrated’. The experiences these people must endure in the near future should not be underestimated. Many arrive with great hopes for the future and are soon disillusioned.
But there is a place and time for such insights. The day of arrival is a time for celebration and optimism. I guess sometimes it is preferred to use a - somewhat modified - beautiful lie to a direct and ugly truth.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Young journalist sentenced in Bhutan

Global Human Rights Defence (GHRD) is deeply concerned about the sentencing of journalist Shanti Ram Acharya (20), a correspondent of the The Bhutan Reporter. Mr Acharya has been sentenced for seven and a half years for alleged involvement in Maoist-related activities. However, such involvement is denied and the judgement is claimed to be politically motivated.

According to local sources, it was based on confessions obtained under torture, and the overall trial was inadequate and failed to comply with the most fundamental principles of due process. The case must be re-investigated to ensure that the fundamental rights of Mr Acharya are safeguarded.

Mr Acharya was a camp based correspondent for the monthly The Bhutan Reporter, published in exile from Nepal and funded by GHRD. It seeks to uphold and safeguard the people's right on information in the Bhutanese society.

In January 2007, on his way to visit his family, Shanti Ram Acharya was arrested and accused of entering Bhutan to ‘carry out terrorist activities’. He was taken to police custody where he was tortured and forced to confess the charges. The Association of Press Freedom Activists (APFA) claims that he was kept in secret detention for almost two months.

The Bhutanese High court found him "guilty of involvement in subversive activities" against Bhutan. He was also accused for participating in military training conducted by the Nepali chapter of Communist Party of Bhutan. (Banned party in Bhutan.) However, the Communist Party of Bhutan denied any link with Mr Acharya, saying in a press release this week that the jailed reporter was never a member of the party.

The trial is widely considered unfair, politically motivated and not fully comprehensible to the accused, who is an ethnic Nepali. In addition, Mr Acharya could not hire a lawyer to defend himself. It is of outmost concern to impose such harsh punishments on such dubious charges and under such circumstances.

GHRD joins The Association of Press Freedom Activists (APFA), and International Federation for Journalists (IFJ) demanding the Bhutanese authorities to immediately take action to review the trial of Mr Acharya. The practice of torture is one of the most serious human rights crimes under which no derogation is allowed. No person, regardless whether he is a criminal or not, should be subjected to torture in any circumstances.
In particular, GHRD urges that

- The trial is reviewed and Mr Acharya is provided with an independent lawyer.
- The whereabouts and condition of Mr Acharya are closely monitored and made public.
- The serious allegations of torture are investigated and the perpetrators of such crimes punished
- Adequate compensation and legal assistance is granted Acharya for the damages caused.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

And so they lived happily ever after?

The New Year started hopefully for the people of Bangladesh. Finally, after two years of repressive military rule they were allowed to cast their votes in parliamentary elections which even included women and minorities. So far the election has generally been considered free and fair, not only by the ‘international observers’ paying their quick visits but by local human rights activists and investigators as well. Well at least so they say.

Awami League defeated the BNP four party alliances in the Bangladeshi 9th parliamentary election on the 29th December, 2008. Sheik Hasina’s government is expected to be sworn in by Tuesday.

Looking back to the violent situation in 2001, where in particular women and minorities were severely persecuted, there were legitimate concerns that the elections would be unfair and that the minorities would be hindered to cast their votes freely.

The elections were indeed preceded by scattered violence and there were some attacks reported against Hindu and Buddhist minorities by cadres from both coalitions.

Despite of this, with an amazing 87 percent turnover the outcome must somehow reflect the popular will. The high turnover in itself was unusual because in the past women and minority voters were prevented from voting.

Although concerns regarding corruption and violence remain, the return to democracy in Bangladesh is welcomed, it brings hope. A government elected by most of the people is preferable to any military dictatorship.

Especially one that remain in power through the methods of terror, torture and killings of its own citizens.

Let us hope that the new government will make a real effort to bring and end to ‘traditional’ Bangladeshi ruling methods. Introduce the rule of law, respect for human rights for all. Let the people of Bangladesh live happily ever after!