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Friday, May 31, 2013

Focus on Human Rights, Part 1: An Overview

Hey everyone!
This week we present to you the first part of a four-part video series on human rights. We at GHRD are very excited about this series as it manages to be both concise as well as very informative, and  - dare we say it? - also fun to watch.  And while not everything can be covered in the 8 minute segments of this series, we believe that they are a very powerful tool for knowledge. This first video is an overview clip, presenting the history of human rights development, the role of NGOs and some of the controversies that are associated with the field. The three parts that will follow cover the three dimensions of human rights, specifically 1) Civil & Political Rights, 2) Economic, Social & Cultural Rights, and 3) Collective Rights, so look forward to those in future posts. For now, without further ado, an overview of human rights and their history:

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, May 23, 2013

In the voice of Durba Islam, Bangladesh – The cost of earning a living

                                                                                                                by Durba Islam

Durba Islam writes to GHRD about the skewed distribution of blame regarding the Rana Plaza tragedy in the media, informs us about the practices that put human lives in danger and discusses the future of the Bangladeshi industry.

The Rana Plaza in Savar, pre-collapse
Since the collapse of the eight-story Rana Plaza building in Savar on the 24th of April, 2013, Bangladesh has been in the attention of the global media. The accident is said to have been the most devastating one in the history of the country’s RMG sector, having claimed the lives of 1127 people so far and leaving around 1943 wounded and injured.

Upon finding cracks in the building, authorities had ordered the building to be shut down, but on the 24th of April, garment workers were forced into the building, with threats of an entire month’s salary cut, even though the owners were fully aware of the potentially dangerous situation. Around 9:00 am, the building collapsed, leaving thousands of people trapped in there, both dead and alive. 

Over the next 20 days, survivors were rescued and dead bodies were salvaged from the site of the accident. In many cases, survivors have had their limbs cut off, in order to be rescued alive. The army, fire brigade and countless volunteers worked under grueling conditions to ensure that survivors and the dead bodies were pulled out.

Victims in the rubble
Source: Flickr: Dhaka Savar Building Collapse
On 13th May, at 6:00 pm, the rescue effort came to a close. The accident has not only left 1127 people dead, but among the 2438 people that have been rescued alive, many have lost an arm, or a leg, if not more than one limb. Many bodies have not yet been identified due to advanced stages of decomposition. These bodies have been sent for DNA tests in order to enable identification.

Over these twenty days, some channels have broadcasted live reports from the site, as rescue work was underway. They also showed people who were waiting for some news of their loved ones. There was no knowing whether they would be lucky enough to come out alive, or dead, or if their bodies would even be found at all. It has been a common scene to see people holding pictures of missing family members or friends, and crying and asking for them to be found, for some news to be given about them. Families have been robbed of mothers, fathers and children. Children have been left mother/fatherless. 

It has been very difficult to watch the broadcasts without feeling even a tinge of guilt about the state of the safety of the garment workers in Bangladesh, who are working so hard to fuel the country’s economy. Is this the price they have to pay in order for Bangladesh to deserve global attention, or to proceed towards becoming a developed nation?

After having read countless articles online about the accident, having seen the live footage broadcasted on TV, and the pictures circulating around the web of survivors and those who died, a question appears: How can we, as a nation, build our future and hopes of progress on the lives of those who work day in and day out without any guarantee of their own safety, in order for us to achieve that status? After twenty days of being a mere spectator of this incident, I cannot even begin to imagine how painful it must be for those who have actually lost their loved ones in this tragedy. As the twentieth day draws to a close, and along with it the rescue effort comes to an end, it’s high time to focus on what can be done on various levels to prevent tragedies like this from happening again.

Following this incident, many protests and efforts by trade unions and activists has led to a few positive steps being taken by big companies, such as the recent event of global brands like H&M, Tesco, C&A Inditex and a few others agreeing to support the fire and building safety agreement initiated by the ILO, in order to ensure better, safer working environments for Bangladeshi garment workers.

While this is an excellent step, the bigger problem and solution might lie closer to home than it might appear. A lot of blame has been placed on foreign buyers and their ability to ensure safer working environments for the workers, but in doing so, one risks overlooking the people who are responsible for the garment industry in Bangladesh – the factory owners, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exports Association (BGMEA) and the government.

The Rana Plaza post-collapse
Source: Flickr: Dhaka Savar Building Collapse
It is first and foremost the duty of the owners to ensure safe and secure working environments for their employees, which would mean legally constructed buildings which follow all the correct construction protocols, safe machinery, and healthier working environments in terms of space, lighting and ventilation. The BGMEA should be actively involved in detailed inspections to ensure that the owners adhere to all the rules that are set down, and the government should be actively involved in enacting stricter laws and making sure they are being followed without any sort of partial treatment, no matter what someone’s social/political connections may be.

That would be, from my point of view, the ideal solution, and are steps that should be taken locally in order to ensure that buyers do not have to pull out production from the country, since that will eventually affect the economy negatively. If the people involved in the RMG sector in Bangladesh could honestly guarantee the buyers that they have no safety threats to worry about, wouldn’t it make a better impression? Surely it might mean that some, or even many buyers would pull out because of the higher production cost, but then, in the long run, it would help to create a responsible and dependable image for our RMG sector. 

But of course the solution is not as easy as it sounds. The RMG sector, not unlike almost all sectors in Bangladesh, is full of corruption. Owners may use their connections and political backing to get away with setting up and conducting businesses without having to follow proper protocols, or making ridiculous amounts of profits through improper means, and if there is any doubt of foul play involved, things are somehow always smoothed out, again, thanks to connections and bribes. The authorities at the BGMEA turn a blind eye when it comes to these issues, as long as they can keep the cash flow coming in. With both incidents of the fire at the Tazreen Fashion factory and the collapse of Rana Plaza, the BGMEA have not been actively involved in any sort of reform work that might indicate a desire or effort to create safer working conditions.

There are of course many factory owners who are doing their jobs well, and making profits while doing it ethically. But it is always the terrible stories that get the most coverage, and this creates an image that most factory owners are ruthless businessmen. But however we may look at it, it is very common in Bangladesh that profits come before the safety of workers or business ethics.

In relation to the human rights of garment workers, the labor law states that monetary compensation for one death is 200,000 BDT. But it is unheard of so far that upon the death of any worker, the owner has compensated the family with that amount. They are barely given enough to be kept quiet and out of the way, so that business can go on as usual. And due to a lack of education and finances, these people are unable to assert their rights in situations like that. Even in death, these hard working people’s effort and the hardships they face on a daily basis remain unacknowledged. Out of all the people who have died, and those who have been injured in the Rana Plaza incident, it remains to be seen how many of them will be compensated by the factory owners, BGMEA or the government.

If the death of over a thousand workers does not come as a wake-up call for the responsible people, to take necessary action, it is hard to say how many more lives need to be lost. With the retail giants finally focusing on helping to improve working conditions, it’s time for the people involved in the RMG sector in Bangladesh to pitch in and do their bit to ensure that tragedies like the fire at Tazreen or the building collapse at Savar does not happen again. A human life is not something one can quantify with a sum of money, and no financial compensation will ever make up for a lost life. So, instead of thinking about how to pay off people for dead family members, the authorities involved should begin to ensure that no lives are lost to begin with.

Durba Islam is a young woman from Bangladesh, living in Dhaka and working as an English teacher at the Australian International School 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Freedom of Religion at the Dutch Parliament: A Debate

Freedom of Religion Debate, Dutch Parliament
16 May, 2013
GHRD attended a Foreign Affairs Committee debate on freedom of religion yesterday at the Dutch Parliament. Representatives from most of the major political parties in the Netherlands where in participation, actively setting forth questions to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Frans Timmermans. While party representatives were in agreement on many accounts – such as the fact that at this very moment the fundamental right of freedom of religion is under more threat than it has been in years – the debate quickly became antagonistic when thoughts turned to appropriate actions and policies to tackle this problem.

Specifically, the point of contention was whether to address violations with regard to specific minority groups, or whether policies should target all minority groups at the same time. As expected, the representatives from the three Christian parties expressed a strong wish for individual attention, while the remaining representatives expressed strong convictions that policies that truly defend freedom of religion must address all minorities equally.

Han ten Broeke
Source: Martijn ten Broeke via Wikimedia Commons
“In order to be effective, any interventions or policies must target all minority groups at the same time” - Han ten Broeke (VVD)

In his response to the Committee, Foreign Affairs Minister Timmermans begun by acknowledging the contributions of the parliamentary representatives, and enthusiastically reiterated the point by SP party representative Harry van Bommel, that it is important to remember that socio-economic variables must not be overlooked when we are looking at the phenomenon of minority prosecution. Retorting to the request made by the Christian party representatives for individual attention for separate minority groups, Mr. Timmermans pointed out a considerable determinant for his own disagreement with such an approach:

“If we pay too much attention to Christians in countries such as Pakistan, we might actually be placing them in even more danger because they might then be seen as agents of the West in their own countries” – Frans Timmermans

Shockingly, however, Mr. Timmermans also clearly stated that stopping trade relations with countries with extremely high rates of human rights violations such as Saudi Arabia was out of the question, as he did not see the point of worsening the Dutch economy on top of everything else.

Friday, May 3, 2013

In the voice of Sara Urooj, Pakistan - "Pakistan: The land of opportunities?"

By Sara Urooj


Slogans, banners, pamphlets, stickers and rallies have painted each city of Pakistan with color - and why not? - The elections are just around the corner. Every citizen is eagerly anticipating the moment of truth.

But behind all the colors lurks a darker side to the elections, casting a shadow over the great expectations. According to a recent newspaper report, almost every other area of Karachi city is becoming a no go area. Every day the city faces another blast. It is certain that there are some forces which would want to see the Elections being delayed. Additionally, the parties themselves are facing serious security concerns.

One has to wonder thus: Has the situation come to this simply because the extremists want to ensure the election of a government of their choice or is it also possible that certain political parties are conspiring to take over each others voters? According to Mr. Najeeb, an officer of the election commission of the Sindh province,

“Considering the security and safety concerns nationwide, it still remains a possibility that the elections may be delayed. Let us wait and see what the Agencies have say, but in any event, we are up to date with our preparation.”

Which party will take the ground? This is a compelling question, as these elections hold great importance, not only for Pakistan, but internationally. A European Union delegation has been called for the election monitoring mission, and several NGOs are also actively engaged in the monitoring process. The violations that can be expected to take place on Election Day are related to security (and as such, posing danger to the fundamental Right to Life), Rigging, and Prejudice against women and other minorities.

In previous elections, and specifically in some parts of interior Sindh and KPK, women were banned from casting their votes and political parties collaborated with orthodox elements. To a large extent, this meant that the votes of religious minorities and women were not registered. But some political parties are beginning to focus on female voters and as such tapping into a hitherto unutilized resource - one that is certainly a force to be reckoned with as far as numbers go, considering that in Pakistan women make up approximately 52 % of the population. It is also expected that the Election Commission will take appropriate action if women are barred from casting their votes in the forthcoming elections.

As I am writing this, political parties themselves are anxiously waiting for the moment of truth. From the look of things, there are two parties that appear to be leading the race nationally, PAKISTAN TEHREEK-E-INSAF and MUSLIM LEAGUE (N), with party manifestos full of promises for a better Pakistan and their only slogan READY OR NOT HERE I COME...

Sara Urooj is a young woman and human rights activist living in Karachi, Pakistan