Monday, 21 November 2011

Write for Rights 2011

I am writing this short post to urge everyone to participate in Amnesty International's Write for Rights 2011 campaign in celebration of the organization's 50th anniversary and to mark International Human Rights Day on Saturday 10 December.

Millions of people around the globe take all forms of action for Amnesty’s campaigns, from online petitions and other methods of digital communication to public rallies and demonstrations. But in the organisation’s 50th year, the humble hand-written letter is being championed once again, in a “penaissance”.

Sending a card with a simple, personal greeting is a powerful way to show support for someone facing human rights abuse.

Every card matters. For prisoners of conscience, for families whose relatives have disappeared, for people in danger for defending human rights, the cards bring comfort and hope; they offer encouragement and support, and raise spirits. Above all they are a sign that people care.

The cards can also make an impression on police officers, prison staff and political authorities - and that can help to improve the way they treat individuals at risk.
AI hopes that more people than ever before will write a letter demanding action on one of the ten cases in the Write for Rights campaign. The cases illustrate the diversity of Amnesty’s work; from people facing the death penalty to communities facing forced eviction and women who are challenging the impunity which allows soldiers in Mexico to avoid justice for rape.
Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, said:
“In 1961, when Amnesty was started, our founding members had no idea whether ordinary people writing letters to Heads of State and other people in power would make any difference. It turns out that it did, and it still does.
“These days, we Tweet the President of Azerbaijan, or e-mail the head of the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles – and we will continue to deploy every weapon in our arsenal - but the humble, classic letter is a uniquely formidable tool.
“A letter has the power to embarrass, persuade, protect, coerce and force people to alter their behaviour, and ultimately to change the world. If you want to right the wrongs, write about them.”
The ten individuals and groups who feature in Amnesty International’s Write for Rights campaign, include; Jabbar Savalan, a 20 year old history student in Azerbaijan who is serving a prison sentence for anti-government comments he posted on Facebook; 75 year old Hakamada Iwao, believed to be the world's longest serving death row inmate who has spent the last 43 years awaiting execution in Japan and Inés Ferndández Ortega and Valentina Rosendo Cantú, two rape survivors in Mexico who have tirelessly campaigned to have the perpetrators of the attack brought to justice.
It is simple to take part.  Just follow the advice given with each case and you can be sure that your message of warmth, care and support will make a real difference.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Slavery past and present - different name, same exploitation

Elmina slave castle in Ghana

Former BBC war reporter Rageh Omaar has spent a year making a documentary series about 21st century slavery for Al Jazeera English.

He said he wanted to do the programme after a friend mentioned that there are 27 million people in slavery worldwide. “Most people think slavery is a thing of the past, but it’s a crime that is happening in plain sight, not just in poor developing countries but also here and in the US, in many different guises,” he told The Observer.

Omaar said he was shocked to see how common and everyday the practice was. “Modern slavery is now a fundamental part of the globalized economy….Every country on Earth has a law banning slavery, but enforcing that law, especially in today’s deregulated economic system, is very difficult."

Forced labour, bonded labour, human trafficking… millions of men, women and children around the world are forced to lead lives as slaves. It is often not called slavery, but the conditions are the same. People are sold like objects, forced to work for little or no pay and are at the mercy of their 'employers'.

According to research accepted by the US government, it is cheaper to purchase a slave today than is was at the height of the Transatlantic slave trade.

I recently visited the infamous Elmina Castle on the west coast of Ghana (or Gold Coast as the country was called at the time). It is one of the most important stops on the route of the Transatlantic slave trade and the horror of this terrible place still sticks to my skin.  It is hard to believe that slavery is still going strong today.  For, when seeing a place like Elmina which reeks of terror and violence, one has to  scream:  “How could we?” and “Never again.”   But when do we learn?

Built by Portugal in 1482, Elmina was the first trading post built on the Gulf of Guinea, so is the oldest European building in existence below the Sahara.

First established as a trade settlement, the castle later became one of the biggest slave fortresses in Africa.  In 1637, it served the Dutch slave trade with Brazil and the Caribbean, then in 1800s, become property of the British Empire. Today, it is a popular historical site, recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

The Door of No Return in Elmina Castle/ Dominique Chadwick

 Elmina, like other West African slave fortresses, housed luxury suites for the Europeans in the upper levels. The slave dungeons below were cramped and filthy, each cell often housing as many as 150 to 500 people at a time, without enough space to even lie down. Men and women routinely stayed there for three months until a ship was ready to take them away. The floor of the dungeons, as result of centuries of impacted filth and human excrement, is now several inches higher than when the place was built.

A special staircase with a trap door led directly from the women’s dungeon to the governor’s bedroom.

One of the castle’s two churches stands just above the women’s dungeon. I wonder if the European soldiers, administrators and priests who were posted there found it incongruous to be  praying while hundreds of chained, frightened and desperate women wailed underneath their feet…But then, we are all so good at justifying our actions, at not questioning things that are part of our culture, practices or environment. Would we have been different?

The most poignant sight at Elmina is the Door of No Return, the infamous portal through which slaves boarded the ships that would take them on the treacherous journey across the Atlantic known as the Middle Passage.  Our guide estimated that, over the castle’s 300 years as a slave fortress, some 12 to 15 million captives must have passed through the Door of No Return.

Omaar’s Slavery: A 21st Century Evil is on Al Jazeera English on Monday nights.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Crime Kills More Than War - Global Patterns in Lethal Violence

Nine out of ten violent deaths occur outside conflict zones, and crime is the single largest contributor to violent killing.

These startling findings of this year’s report on the Global Burden of Armed Violence, enlarges the context of lethal violence:  it is not necessary linked to war, armed conflict and terrorism, but encompasses crime, gang-related violence and gender-related violence, as well.

Violent murders occur in both developed and developing countries where poverty, inequality, social and political exclusion, and governance challenges are both causes and consequences of armed violence.  In fact, more people per capita were killed in El Salvador than in Iraq, reveals the report by the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development, released last week in Geneva.

Out of the 526,000 people who die as a result of armed violence every year, only 55,000 of them lose their lives in conflict or as a result of terrorism.  Instead, 396,000 people - including 66,000 women - are victims of murder, 54,000 die as a result of manslaughter  and 21,000 violent deaths occur during law enforcement actions.  High levels of ‘femicide’ are frequently accompanied—and in some cases generated by—a high level of tolerance for violence against women, the report notes.
“The boundaries between political, criminal, and interpersonal violence have become increasingly blurred, as revealed in cases of killings associated with drug trafficking in Central America or of pirates engaging in economically-motivated violence in Somalia,” said Keith Krause, one of the editors and authors of the report.
One-quarter of all violent deaths occur in just 14 countries (average annual violent death rates above 30.0 per 100,000) -  half of which are in the Americas. Although wars dominate media headlines, the levels of armed violence in some non-conflict countries resemble those of conflict zones. El Salvador was the country with the most per capita lethal violence in an average year between 2004 and 2009, followed by Iraq, then Jamaica, according to the report.
Not surprisingly, the report also links lethal violence to underdevelopment.
“States with high levels of lethal violence almost always struggle to achieve the Millennium Development Goals,” said Krause. “And we also know that when a country makes progress in terms of development, it is likely to exhibit decreasing levels of lethal violence.”
Echoing the results of a growing body of research, the report also confirms that countries with low levels of income inequality and unemployment experience lower levels of homicide.
The Global Burden of Armed Violence is produced by the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development, a diplomatic initiative aimed at addressing the interrelations between armed violence and development. The Declaration was adopted on 7 June 2006 and is now endorsed by over 100 states.