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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

International Human Rights Day: A Time to Celebrate and Reflect

By Lucy Turner 

Empire State Building will turn blue in honor of Human Rights Watch 
on December 10, 2013. © 2013 Empire State Building
How will you celebrate Human Rights? December 10th is International Human Rights Day, when people around the world mark the General Assembly’s adoption of the landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This day gives us the opportunity to reflect on how far we have come in the pursuit of human rights protection and promotion, but also invites us to contemplate how far we have yet to go.

This year GHRD welcomed news from Bangladesh that Hijras are now a recognized separate gender. Hijras, who are neither male nor female, from now on will be considered as a separate gender in Bangladesh. After Malala Yousafzai spoke at the United Nations this year on her 16th birthday about the power of education, the world seemed to listen; Pakistan’s Prime Minister Sharif made a breakthrough commitment that the country would double its education budget from 2% to 4% of its GDP by 2018 - an increase of approximately $4 billion. Nepal’s introduction of a third gender classification for passports marked further progress for LGBT rights.

Malala Yousafzau at Oval Office October 2013
And this year GHRD itself has had many achievements, including establishing coalitions in Bangladesh and Pakistan to unite civil society organizations, running a prominent European Lobby Tour in the European Parliament, launching a successful crowd funding campaign, taking our documentary ‘Pakistan: A Defining Moment’ on tour around the Netherlands, amongst others.

However, whilst there have been several developments this year, and GHRD personally has achieved many things, there remain numerous problems for human rights defenders around the world. Our partners in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan face regular threats of violence against themselves, their homes and their families. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws continue to disproportionately affect non-Muslims and minorities, and non-state violence in the form of mobs and riots resulting from blasphemy allegations are common. In Bangladesh, despite the 2009 and 2013 UPR sessions (during which the Bangladeshi government claimed that most of Chittagong Hill Tracts peace accord had been implemented) recurring conflicts between ethnic and religious minority groups and “settlers” from the majority Bengali community persist. Reports of arbitrary arrests, torture and unlawful killings continue.

Around the world today people will contemplate human rights past, present and future. Our partners in South Asia will be hosting events, whilst we are holding events in the Netherlands. And there is cause for celebration: much has changed since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and much progress has been made, but there is far to go. International Human Rights Day is for celebration, looking forward to a more equitable world, and sharing messages of solidarity and hope.

December 1950 - United Nations International Nursery School, New York: Children of United Nations staff members looking at a poster of Universal declaration of Human Rights

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. Article 1, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Disclaimer: Blog posts do not necessarily reflect the views of Global Human Rights Defence.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Human Rights Project in Armenia

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               By Lucy Turner

In October GHRD was a partner in an exciting human rights project in Armenia, and I was sent to represent them. The project was organized by the European Intercultural Forum for 27 participants from youth and human rights organizations Armenia, Germany, Latvia, the Netherlands, Ukraine, Georgia, Russia, Poland, and Belarus. The aim was to raise awareness of human rights issues in Europe and in Armenia, and to build connections between civil society organizations in these countries. The training itself was based on non-formal education methodology which includes discussions, debates, workshops, role plays etc. The trip had three main components; workshops and presentations, visits to organizations, and field research.
As many of us were not familiar with the human rights situation in Armenia, the first two days were exegetical, providing ground knowledge of the geopolitical history of Armenia. We also spent some time identifying the human rights situations in our own countries, and then comparing and contrasting our findings, and listened to a speaker from the Helsinki Citizens' Assembly Vanadzor outline the human rights violations in Armenia.

The main human rights issues in Armenia were identified as follows:

•             The Military – 2 years military service is mandatory in Armenia for males 18-27 years. There is a history of institutionalized bullying and non-combat deaths and disappearances.
•             LGBTQIA – although decriminalized in 2003 LGBTQIA people do not benefit from any protection if their rights are systematically or institutionally violated. They experience a lack of sexual health care, threats of violence, employment discrimination, and a lack of legal protection.
•             Women’s Rights – domestic violence and honour killings are a major problem in the country, alongside a lack of legal protection of women’s rights and inequality in education and healthcare.
•             Freedom of expression and the media – The media is criticized for its partisan disposition on governmental issues. Attacks of journalists from non-state sponsored media sources are frequent.
•             Electoral system – many people we spoke to expressed dissatisfaction and concerns about the validity of elections.

Using questions and methodology that had been decided in previous workshops, in each of the cities the participants interviewed members of the public about their perceptions of human rights in Armenia. We found that typically members of the public had a negative view either of the situation of human rights in Armenia or the organizations that seek to protect and promote human rights in Armenia. Where interviewees felt human rights were respected in Armenia, anti-EU and Human Rights sentiment was high; there seemed to be suspicion and mistrust of human rights organizations and human rights as a concept. Very few people had an understanding of what human rights are, and there was much confusion about social and political rights. People were often preoccupied by the social and economic disadvantages affecting the country in a post-Soviet Union climate, like an aging population, high unemployment and mass-emigration. 

The main focus of the trip was the visits to human rights organizations in Gyumri, Vanadzor and Yerevan in Armenia. We met the main managers of each of these organizations and attending presentations on their work, the obstacles they face and their opportunities for the future. The meetings were very interesting for GHRD, and it was interesting to hear the experiences of these organizations. Pink Armenia, Helsinki Citizens' Assembly Vanadzor and Peace Dialogue were among the organisations visited. Many of the people working for these civil society organizations had faced personal adversity and difficulties from their work, and their motivation and commitment was inspiring.

For more information about our upcoming projects and training check our website or contact our education department. 

Disclaimer: Blog posts do not necessarily reflect the views of Global Human Rights Defence.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Introducing: Pakistan's Blasphemy Laws


What is Blasphemy law?

Although Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are infamous within human rights circles, many people understandably do not know what they are, how they work, or whom they affect. Unfortunately these laws affect thousands of people across Pakistan, impeding freedom of expression and religion, and, in many cases, causing a threat to safety.

The official name of Pakistan is the "Islamic Republic of Pakistan", according to its constitution, and over 96% of its 167 million citizens (2008) are Muslims[i].  Among countries with a Muslim majority, Pakistan has the most restrictive anti-blasphemy laws. According to Article 2 of Pakistan’s constitution, Islam is the state religion, and by Article 31, it is the country's responsibility to cultivate and protect the Islamic way of life. This is the root of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

The ‘blasphemy laws’ comprise several sections of Pakistan’s Criminal Code, and are particularly non-specific and potentially all-encompassing: §298 criminalizes any action, gesture, word or sound committed with ‘the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person’, and § 295-A criminalizes ‘outraging religious feelings’. This broad scope makes these laws very easy to abuse, and can be used in personal disputes and vendettas.

Ready to take action? Visit our campaign page now!

How does blasphemy law affect human rights?

Human Rights violations under the country’s abusive blasphemy law continue, and have been reported in research from various human rights organizations. In 2012 dozens of people were charged on new blasphemy cases, and at least 16 people remained on death row for blasphemy convictions. Another 20 served life sentences[ii]. Further to state sanctioned punishments and human rights violations, those accused of blasphemy and their families are also subjected to harassment, violence and stigmatization, and are at risk of being murdered by mobs or vigilantes. In many cases the Pakistani authorities have failed to adequately protect these vulnerable people, and even after acquittal persons accused of blasphemy often have to leave Pakistan and go in to hiding[iii]. In addition to this, those accused are subject to immediate incarceration and bail is often denied, in order to prevent the accused being attacked and murdered[iv].

From 1986 to 2007, Pakistan’s authorities charged 647 people with committing blasphemy offences[v]. Most notably religious minorities are disproportionately affected; 50% of those charged were non-Muslims, who represent only 3% of the national population[vi]. So far no judicial execution for a blasphemy conviction has ever occurred in Pakistan, but 20 people of those charged have been murdered [vii]. By 2010, the total number of people charged under these laws was around 1274[viii].  
The key concerns with Pakistan’s blasphemy laws as regards to human rights are:

·         No proof of intent is required, and arguably would be nearly impossible to establish.

·         No evidence is required to be presented following any accusations of blasphemy.

·         There are no penalties for allegations found to be false.

·         Accused individuals are often imprisoned without full investigation or proof and many spend years in incarceration without trial.

·         The laws are abused by religious extremists - a large number of accused individuals have been killed by various societal actors taking the law into their own hands.[ix]

Ready to take action? Visit our campaign page now!

Who can be accused of Blasphemy?

In short, anyone can be accused. One of the focal problems with Pakistan’s blasphemy law is that, because it is so general, it can be easily abused: the groups of people most frequently accused of contravening this law are often physically, economically, socially, or mentally impaired, and vulnerable to abuse. For example, in July 2012, police arrested a man who appeared to suffer from a mental disability for allegedly burning the Quran. A mob organized by local clerics demanded that the man be handed to them, attacked the police station, pulled the victim out, and burned him alive.[x] Religious minorities are also susceptible to this persecution: in 2010 a Christian from Punjab province, Aasia Bibi, became the first woman in the country's history to be sentenced to death for blasphemy, and in 2012 she remained in prison[xi].

On August 17th 2012, Islamabad police took Rimsha Masih into custody, a 14-year-old Christian girl with a “significantly lower mental age” from an economically deprived Islamabad suburb[xii]. She was accused of burning pages of Quranic passages. A mob formed, demanding that it be handed the girl so that it could kill her; Police had to fight back the mob to prevent her murder. Threats against the local Christian community forced around 400 families to flee their homes[xiii]. The accuser, cleric Khalid Chishti, was arrested for fabricating evidence in an attempt to rid the community of Christians. Rimsha Masih was released On September 23rd, police officials stating they had found no evidence against her. She was given state protection at an undisclosed location, and in 2013 was granted permanent immigration status in Canada[xiv].

Ready to take action? Visit our campaign page now!
Who else does it affect?

Blasphemy laws do not only affect those accused of blaspheming; judges, lawyers and police are also at risk of threats of violence, intimidation and attacks when having dealt with a blasphemy allegation[xv]. Similarly, anyone who publicly opposes or challenges blasphemy laws is likely to face the same intimidation and violence. An accusation of blasphemy can also precede rioting and demonstrations, during which many people can be injured[xvi]. Prominent figures like Salman Taseer (the former governor of Punjab) and Shahbaz Bhatti (the Federal Minister for Minorities) have been assassinated for their opposition to the blasphemy laws. In part because of this the civilian government in Pakistan has not changed the laws, as they fear a response from the religious groups in Pakistan if they propose an amendment.

How is it progressing?

Pakistan’s blasphemy law has also extended its reach to the internet, with access to certain websites and search engines restricted or blocked entirely.  In May 2010, for example, Pakistan blocked access to Facebook because the website hosted a page called ‘Everybody Draw Muhammad Day’. Pakistan lifted the block after Facebook prevented access to the page. In June 2010, Pakistan blocked seventeen websites for hosting content that the authorities considered offensive to Muslims. At the same time, Pakistan began to monitor the content of GoogleYahoo, YouTube, AmazonMSNHotmail, and Bing[xvii].

What can I do?

GHRD has worked with grassroots projects and small partner organizations to promote and protect human rights in Pakistan. In 2013 GHRD made a documentary entitled ‘Pakistan: A Defining Moment’, covering, amongst other things, human rights violations resulting from the country’s blasphemy laws. We are trying to take the documentary on tour around universities to engage young people and encourage them to write to the UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Freedom or Belief, pushing for further action and protection for Pakistan’s religious minorities and human rights defenders.  But we need your help! Visit our campaign, contribute whatever you can to this amazing project, share the campaign and spread the word! Be a part of the solution for Pakistan.

[i] "Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination considers report of Pakistan". Press Release. United Nations. 20 February 2009. Retrieved 27 June 2009.

[ii] “World Report 2013: Events of 2012”. Human Rights Watch. United States of America. 2013.

[iii]  "Lahore’s ‘blasphemy’ teacher in hiding'". Dawn. 2 November 2012. Retrieved 24 November 2012.

[v] "Christians often victims under Pakistan's blasphemy law". The Evangelization Station. FIDES/CWNews. 13 May 2005. Retrieved 22 June 2009.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] "Pakistan: Use and abuse of blasphemy laws". AI Index: ASA 33/008/1994. Amnesty International. 27 July 1994. Retrieved 19 February 2010. 

[viii] Siddiqi, Tabinda (19 Sep 2012). "Timeline: Accused under the Blasphemy Law". Dawn. Retrieved 7 November 2012.

[ix] GHRD/HRFP joint submission to the UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review of Pakistan,

14th session of the Working Group on the UPR (22 October - 5 November 2012)

[x] “World Report 2013: Events of 2012”. Human Rights Watch. United States of America. 2013.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid.


[xvi] The Associated Press (1 August 2009). "6 Pakistani Christians die in riots with Muslims". Toronto Star.

[xvii] "Pakistan to monitor Google and Yahoo for 'blasphemy'". BBC News. 25 June 2010.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Pakistan: the Land of Opportunity



A few months back, X’s mother retired from her government job. She served as a seventeen grade officer in a well known hospital for 30 years. As per government policy, after the retirement the property had to be vacated. They were given 4 months to vacant the residence allotted by the government during the service period. Their own house was still under construction, so they planned to look for a rented house temporarily.

The family started to look for an appropriate place on the same location, as the place, streets and the area was familiar to them.

Before that they used to reside in a majority Christian area and therefore had never experienced any discrimination being Christian.

They checked many places but it was quite shocking for them that when it comes to finalize the agreement, they often faced refusal just because the landlord did not want a Christian family in their neighborhood.

After a long search they found a house. X’s father was quite hesitant to talk about the religion because he was afraid that he might face refusal again, but this time their luck changed and the deal was done. The day both the parties were about to sign the agreement, the landlord added a clause; they cannot have any religious meetings at their house as his family was residing in the upper portion of the building and they were quite orthodox. They looked at each other surprised, but they did not want to give it a second thought. They signed the agreement anyhow and started moving house. One thing they realized that we need to be conscious about freedom of expression. What if someday they celebrate a religious festival?

With church hymns and worship songs, their landlords will surely ask them to vacate their home. Maybe  do not get any appropriate reason to get the house vacant.

Why it is so effortless to use the Blasphemy law than any other law in the country?

It reminds me of the incident of Rimsha Masih, a 11 year old charged Blasphemy 295 B, 295 C. She was unaware of what the word Blasphemy even means. Or the Badami Bagh Josph Colony incident, which was over a property and personal dispute, under the cover of such ‘law’.

Does being a religious minority mean no freedom of expression?

All these questions remain unanswered, because there is less tolerance for the religious minorities. It leads people living as minority to hide their identity in order to get their rights or avoid discrimination.

Blasphemy becomes Lynch law (the practice of condemning and punishing a person by mob action without a proper trial) in some cases, where the blasphemers find no judicial approaches or legal advocacy to prove them guiltless. The decision does not merely depend on investigation and in many cases investigation is neither completed nor heard. The person is either killed or faces heavy loss in some other manner i.e. property etc.

Once in a seminar during my presentation on minority women’s rights I was asked by a participant who I think is responsible for such prevalence of discrimination in the society.

I answered that the state is the one to be held responsible. ‘How’? The text books and education material which we teach in our schools is full of bias material, which leads a child to discriminate at the earliest stage, then we are surprised if any adult discriminates. We should not be shocked by such acts: he has learned to do so in his school.

Why can’t the UDHR Universal Declaration of Human Rights be the part of the education system? Change may not be as prompt through it, but it can bring change.

There should be no outcry to the international forums if the discrimination prevails in the blood of the nation.

I can raise my voice but what is the use of it if the basic education of children is the source of discrimination.

This is not enough; the curriculum of the Sindh and Punjab board is full of bias and hate material which is building hate in the mind of young people.

From pre-school to post graduation the educational material is only full of superiority of one religion leading hate for others, giving rise to a society which regularly violates basic Human Rights.

Many organizations make efforts to draw the attention of the government of Pakistan towards this education drawback but they have not responded. And why would they, as Islam has been declared the religion of the state as per constitution of Pakistan.

All we can do is to wait until we get our visas approved as this nation has no place for us as a minority in their hearts, no matter how much we claim we are patriots.



Monday, July 22, 2013

“Volunteering for Empowerment”

The training is organized for 27 youth workers from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Germany, Latvia, the Netherlands, Romania, Russia, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. Its aim is to train youth leaders and project coordinators to improve organizational competences in managing both local and international volunteering projects. The training is based on non – formal education methodology which includes discussions, debates, workshops, role plays etc.
The first day focused on the presentation of the training program and it also provided the participants with the opportunity to define their own expectations which will be reflected upon at the end of the training. Through debates, discussions and activities, we not only had the chance to get to know each other but to also get to know the culture and the local community. Through the Intercultural Night, we learned a lot about the different cultures of the participants.

The second day of the training was devoted to the concepts of Europe and (European) citizenship. After the first exercise, it became clear that everyone had a different version of Europe. Should Russia, Turkey and / or Azerbaijan be included in Europe? And what is the real essence of Europe? It is very difficult to really define European citizenship and the essence of the European Union as everyone has their own perspective on what it should be. The different dimensions of citizenship are leading to many forms and motivations of volunteering.
The next two days of the training were focused on the concept of volunteering and the motivation of people to become volunteers. First everyone had the chance to reflect on their own experiences as a volunteer and how volunteering was defined in their own country, which showed that being a volunteer in one country could mean something completely different than being a volunteer in another. For example, volunteering in the United Kingdom is often a requirement to graduate from university whereas in Azerbaijani volunteering literally means “with the heart.”
Even though there are so many interpretations of the concept of volunteering, there are several common aspects. Volunteering is often seen as a desire to help others, showing good will and make a change in society. It was agreed upon that volunteering is also working for free or an absence of salary. However, you also get a lot in return. Among many other rewards, it brings you personal development, professional experience and gratitude.

Through case studies, different problems of volunteer management were highlighted and the importance of setting up your own needs and expectations as a volunteer was clearly illustrated. The management of volunteers is a continuing supporting process which starts before the beginning of the activity and continues after the projects.

The last few days were spend with debating and reflections on the reason why people are volunteering. Next to the training, we also had great moments exploring the city, learning from the other participants and we had a wonderful boat trip on the Volga River and a BBQ at the beach.
All in all, the training in Russia was a great experience; I learned a lot and hopefully GHRD will benefit from the newly gained knowledge.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Focus on Human Rights, Part 2: Women's Rights, NGOs, Second Dimension

Have a look at the second installment of the video series Focus on Human Rights, which addresses the second dimension of the Human Rights System: Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Additionally, it introduces women's rights and explains how NGOs in the Human Rights sector work.

If you missed the first video in the series, check it out here

Again, for this project, we thank WissensWerte and Edeos for making these videos creative commons, thus serving to raise human rights awareness for a wider audience, enabling the acquisition of knowledge for the public and promoting relevant discourse.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

In the voice of Antara Roy, India: The right to live, not survive

                                                                                                                        By Antara Roy

Dalit House
Source: Vipingoyal; wikimedia commons
On 15 August 2013, India completes 65 years of independence. The face of India shows many tell-tale signs of development. However, the mood quickly gets sombre when you dig deeper. Once the initial dazzling brilliance of change is settled, the truth of the raging inequalities gives cause to shock most tourists. Yet, as Indians, we seem to accept this reality as the way of life. We like to justify these social structures as parallel worlds that are in perfect harmony with each other. Sadly, we ignore the fact that the inequalities are not just based on financial status. We have a far worse enemy dragging us back for each step taken forward. It is based on social rank decided at birth, a rigid system that restricts progress on merit.

A friend of mine recently asked me to write an article on the Indian caste system1. That was when I got thinking about the existing unforgiving hierarchy which has been ingrained into us and is part of our social system. Despite all our achievements in science and technology we are a land of the blind. Yet this topic of discussion is huge. In this article, I would like to bring focus on a section of the Indian society. This section of the population does not get to enjoy the benefits of free India. With the tide of time, people are trying to fight the injustice. This article is in appreciation of them and to help forward their cause.

Dr. B. R. Ambedkar
Source: wikimedia commons by અનિલ કંટારિયા

The most evident tragedy is the way we treat this section of our society called ‘Dalits’. They were the ‘Untouchables’. The Indian constitution presently forbids the use of the word ‘untouchability’, but little was done to change the bias grounded into our minds. The caste system itself still being legal, and authority mainly being represented by the upper classes, the Dalits often find themselves helpless in spite of the laws present to protect the citizens.

Interestingly, the menacing roots of this differentiation go deeper than religion.

Dr. B. R. Ambedkar writes in his essay ‘Waiting for a Visa’ how Dalits were scorned by other religious communities. He was a Barrister-at-law and upon independence was invited to serve as the nation's first law minister. He was also appointed Chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee and responsible for drafting India's new Constitution.. Yet, he could not touch a can of water: his touch would pollute the water2.

The situation has not changed much. A simple, quick internet search on current news relating to atrocities committed against Dalits is all it takes to provide one with good understanding.

A right to live

Dalit denied Narmada water4– The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has admitted a complaint that Dalits are not being given access to water from Narmada River, although the upper caste farmers responsible for this injustice have personal borewells and do not depend on the river water for consumption. More interesting is the fact that the water sump3 constructed for supplying drinking water to Dalits was not connected to Narmada river water pipelines.

Fight for acceptance

Orissa villagers stop midday meal cooked by Dalits5– The state Woman and Child Welfare Department had ordered the preferable employment of women from Dalit and tribal community for cooking mid-day meals in primary schools. However, the Village Education Committee (VEC) members ordered the Dalit cooks to stop work. The reasoning was that Dalits have no right to cook at a school that accommodates upper-caste children.

Fight for increased awareness

Long walk to Delhi by Dalit youths6– Four youths of Mysore city's Ashokpuram area took on the journey to create awareness and to draw the attention of authorities and politicians.

Abused Dalit community, Pune India, 2009
Source: GHRD files from the investigation 
Today India still comfortably trudges the path of hierarchical oppression. A friend from Europe indicated that parts of India reside in the Stone Age. At the time, this comment hurt my nationalistic sentiments deeply; however, while writing this article I begin to agree with the idea. It is not just the physical growth that reflects the development of a country and proves civilized living. This growth should be in the minds of every single individual so as not be ignorant to judge each other based on caste, gender, religion, and colour.

The journey of researching for this article has been rather unsettling, and created in me a sense of guilt. I have come to a personal realization that there is much greatness in our past, but when we find ourselves oppressing others in the name of tradition, we need to step back and question ourselves. There is definite progress and an increased awareness, but we need to try harder and end this atrocity once and for all.

                           One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself

Antara Roy is a young woman from Calcutta, India, currently living and working in the Netherlands

Links and References

        1.    A brief introduction to the caste system providing a helpful understanding of the topic.

2    2.     The essay Waiting for a Visa by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar.

   3.   A small space to collect water. Maybe used as a reservoir in India.