Monday, 19 August 2013

Human rights abuses in top holiday destinations

For the holidays, Amnesty International has put together an unusual travel guide. This guide outlines some of the key human rights issues affecting the most popular holiday destinations for UK holidaymakers.
 “Holidays are a time to relax and forget about life’s headaches, and we’re not expecting people to anxiously research the human rights situation of their holiday destinations,” says Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen.
 “But behind the sparkling seas, the luxurious hotels and picturesque landscapes, there’s a darker reality of tragedy and human rights abuse."
The top ten countries visited by British tourists are in descending order: Spain, France, USA, Ireland, Italy, Germany, Portugal, Netherlands, Greece and Belgium. The guide also feaures the world’s other two favourite destinations: the Maldives and Sri Lanka.
For each destination, AI lists the number of British (or international) visitors, the main tourists attractions, then the human rights concerns and a case study illustrating them.
And to be fair, the guide mentions the UK as well, which ranks the world’s 8th most popular location. There too, AI lists the leading attractions, then the human rights issues and a case study.
Here are a few examples (I’ve removed the case studies for space reason):

Number of British visitors in 2012: 11,110,000
Leading attractions: Antoni Gaudí’s distinctive architecture at Barcelona’s Park Güell, the Sagrada Familia cathedral and the Casa Batlló; the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia contemporary art museum in Madrid; Granada’s Moorish Alhambra palace complex; the lively, and less lively, beach resorts along much of Spain’s coast.
Human rights concerns:
·     *Excessive use of force by police during austerity protests.
·     *Lack of justice for victims - and their relatives - of the Franco dictatorship.
·    *Roma people forcibly evicted from their homes without adequate alternative accommodation.

Number of British visitors in 2012: 8,781,000
Leading attractions: the iconic Eiffel Tower, the Musée du Louvre, the Musée d'Orsay, the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur and the Cathédrale de Notre Dame de Paris, all in Paris; the French Riviera.
Human rights concerns:
·     *Investigations into allegations of deaths in custody, torture and other ill-treatment by police are ineffective and inadequate.
      *Since 2011 France has enforced a ban on the wearing of veils and burqas in public places, which Amnesty believes is an infringement of the rights of women in France to express their values, beliefs and identity.
·     *Thousands of Roma people have been left homeless after being forcibly evicted from informal settlements.
·     *The fast-track procedure for the assessment of asylum applications falls short of international standards.
Case: Mohamed Boukrourou, a 41-year-old Moroccan man, died soon after being arrested in Valentigney (Doubs) on 12 November 2009 after he’d become agitated in a chemist’s shop. Reportedly, four police officers restrained Boukrourou on the ground outside the chemist’s before carrying him into a police van. A witness said she saw the police stamping on Boukrourou inside the van, as well as kicking and beating him. Soon after a doctor declared Boukrourou dead and the same evening police told family members that he’d died of a heart attack following an accident. Despite prolonged efforts from the family there has been no proper accountability in the case.

Number of British visitors in 2012: 3,011,000
Leading attractions: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Manhattan’s vast Central Park, and the High Line Public Park, all in New York City; the Art Institute of Chicago; Los Angeles’ Venice Boardwalk.
Human rights concerns:
·    *The USA is a major user of capital punishment and last year 43 people were executed, the fifth highest number anywhere in the world.
·    *The US authorities are still holding 166 detainees at the notorious detention facility at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. The vast majority have not been charged with an offence and most have been there for over ten years.
·    *At least 42 people across 20 US states died after being struck by police Tasers last year, bringing the total number of such deaths to 540 since 2001.
·    *Thousands of prisoners in the USA are held in solitary confinement in “super-maximum security” prisons, confined to small cells for 22-24 hours a day.
Cases: former UK resident Shaker Aamer, 44, has been held at Guantánamo Bay without charge or trial for 11-and-a-half years. Via his lawyers, Aamer has alleged he was subjected to torture and other ill-treatment, including severe beatings, while held in secret US detention in Afghanistan in early 2002, and claims he has been further mistreated at Guantánamo. Along with over 100 other Guantánamo detainees, he has reportedly been on hunger strike for several months to protest at his continued detention.

Number of International tourist arrivals in 2012: 958,000
Almost three times more people visited the Maldives last year than actually live there (the country has a population of 330,000), and tourism is the country’s largest economic industry. It is particularly popular with honeymooners.
Leading attractions: apart from the beaches … Maldives’ oldest mosque Hukuru Miskiiy, the National Art Gallery, the National Stadium, and the Sultan’s Park which surrounds the National Museum, all in the capital city of Malé.
Human rights concerns:
·   *In a report issued last year called “The other side of paradise”, Amnesty documented attacks carried out by the police using truncheons and pepper-spray to crack down on largely peaceful demonstrations.
·     *There are reports that detainees have been tortured.
·     *In May this year two juvenile offenders were sentenced to death despite this being contrary to international law.

Meanwhile, the UNITED KINGDOM is ranked as the world’s eighth-most popular destination, with 29.3 million visitors in 2012.
Leading attractions: the National and Tate galleries, the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, the 2012 Olympic Park, all in London; an abundance of castles including Cardiff, Edinburgh, Windsor; the historic university cities of Oxford and Cambridge; the Lake District, Peak District and the Cotswolds.
Human rights concerns:
·    *The highly controversial Justice and Security Act (allowing “secret courts”) recently passed into law despite opposition from hundreds of lawyers and numerous human rights organisations. Amnesty said the measures are an affront to the principles of open justice and are “Kafkaesque”.
·     *The recently-enacted Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act has raised fears that changes to legal aid will seriously restrict access to justice, particularly for overseas victims of abuses by UK multinational companies.
·     *Toxic language about human rights in the UK is common. While often lauding human rights in a foreign context, some politicians treat them with contempt at home, as do sections of the media. In some quarters there has been an almost continuous drumbeat of threats to “scrap the Human Rights Act” and to withdraw from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights.
All UK tourist figures are from the Office of National Statistics.The international tourism figures are from the United Nations World Tourism Organisation.The tourist attractions listed includes information from the Lonely Planet guide.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

How to interview survivors of sexual violence


The act for survivors of coming forward is crucial. That’s how we can learn about abuses all over the world and do something about it. But telling their stories can put survivors at risk for future harm.
Rape in the U.S. military, female protestors attacked across Egypt, Congolese women violated while going about their everyday lives - sexual and gender-based violence happens everywhere. We learn about it from brave individuals who tell us their stories and demand accountability and justice. 

But, viewers, journalists and filmmakers may not fully realize that these courageous interviews have the potential to re-traumatize survivors.
WITNESS has put together a simple, but useful guide on "Conducting Safe, Effective and Ethical Interviews with Survivors of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence."   The illustrated guide is aimed at human rights activists, citizen witnesses, citizen and professional journalists and anyone else who might be conducting interviews with survivors.

  The tips are organized in stages: preparation for the interview, during the interview, and after the interview. Special attention is given to ensuring the safety and security of interviewees.

  The guide is about video and film  interviews, but most of the advice can be used by print journalists as well.  For example, asking open-ended questions that give your interviewee some control and giving them the last word  (asking what they would like to add).
The guide is part of WITNESS’ Video for Change how-to series on filming safely, effectively and ethically, based on best practices established over the organization’s 20 years of training and supporting human rights activists to use video.
WITNESS uses video to open the eyes of the world to human rights violations. Since 1992, WITNESS has worked to empower people to transform personal stories of abuse into powerful tools for justice, promoting public engagement and policy change.  The organization has worked in 90 countries and partnered with hundreds of organizations.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Suspended coffee - a global solidarity movement

Here is a story on the phenomenal growth of the suspended coffee movement I have just written for Positive News. By the way, if you haven’t heard of Positive News, have a look: it’s a publication trying to focus more on constructive, positive and solution-driven journalism.  They don’t cover rosy, fluffy stuff, but articles that make you want to get involved, make you feel connected, inspired and that give hope.
I loved hearing stories of shop owners all over the world who decided to follow the campaign  and the stories about the people who could get a free coffee that way.  I could only place a few examples in this article, but there are lots of heart-warming tales of solidarity, community feeling and smiles. 

Of course, a cup of coffee won't change the world, but it is what it symbolises that matters. A step in the right direction.

Here is my Positive News article:

Amanda Matulick and Dan Harland (top centre) with clients and staff from a homeless charity who claimed their free coffee at their cafe in Australia     Photo © Claire Birbeck

A cup of kindness

12 Aug 2013

A tradition started in Italy over a hundred years ago has recently re-emerged as a massive global movement of selflessness and compassion. Veronique Mistiaen reports on the ‘suspended coffee’ phenomenon

A humble tradition that began in Naples, Italy 100 years ago has re-emerged as a massive global solidarity movement – a symbol of kindness at a time of growing economic hardship.

The custom of ‘caffè sospeso’ or ‘suspended coffee’ is when a customer pays for an extra cup of coffee, which someone in need can claim later. It’s a graceful and easy way of showing generosity, as donors and beneficiaries never meet.

The tradition waned over the past decades but has now made a comeback. It re-emerged first in Bulgaria, Spain and other European countries ravaged by the economic crisis, and is now spreading all over the world thanks to the internet and social media. The website lists 166 participating coffee places in 115 cities and 18 countries, but that’s just a small sample. In the UK alone more than 150 cafes have joined the movement. Even Starbucks has jumped on board, although they serve the suspended coffees in hubs run by Christian charity Oasis, rather than in their shops.

A global online community has formed around the campaign with websites and Facebook pages springing up across the globe, sharing stories and spreading the concept. One of the most popular sites, created in March 2013 by John Sweeney, a father of four from Cork, Ireland, has attracted more than 100,000 ‘likes’. The site offers stickers, posters and logos to participating cafes and a space where shop owners and citizens can share their suspended coffee experiences.

Some claim that coffee is an unnecessary indulgence, but it’s precisely the ‘treat’ aspect of it that makes the concept so appealing. “I definitely think that the luxury of a coffee is a big part of the success of the campaign, and at $4, it’s a simple luxury to be able to share with someone else,” says Amanda Matulick, who runs E for Ethel, a gift shop and coffee bar in North Adelaide, Australia.

Like most cafe owners, Matulick learned about the campaign on Facebook. “There was a story circulating with an emotive photo of a little old man sitting in a warm cafe on a cold day sipping on a suspended coffee and it tugged at our heartstrings – we knew we had to be a part of it all,” she says. “It’s an inspiring campaign – to make someone else’s day a little bit happier through a cup of coffee – and it’s simple for a cafe to be involved with.”

“It’s an inspiring campaign – to make someone else’s day a little bit happier through a cup of coffee – and it’s simple for a cafe to be involved with”
Since April 2013, her customers have donated more than 225 suspended coffees. “The support has been utterly amazing. Some customers buy a suspended coffee each time they get one for themselves, others purchase a larger stash all at once. They love hearing the updates and the stories from our experiences with people on the receiving end.”

Comments on suspended coffee websites suggest that people worry about who is eligible for a free coffee, but most cafes have decided that if someone is asking for one, they are probably in need in some way.

“We decided right from the outset that we would place no judgment or question on a request for coffee,” Matulick says. “Anyone who asks for one may have one. We don’t believe we have the right to make an assessment based on appearance and it’s not our right to ask anyone to prove that they are in need.”

People are also concerned that hordes of homeless people will swarm coffee shops, making them uncomfortable for regular customers, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. If anything, many shop owners report that not enough people are claiming their free coffees, so they are working with local charities to spread the word. “And it’s not just for someone who is homeless,” says Sweeney. “It may be a single mother with seven kids who may just need a coffee to get her through the day or a man in a business suit who is in his 16th week of job hunting.”

“The people we’ve met through our involvement in the campaign are dear, lovely folk who’ve seen some rough times,” Matulick says. “They’re often quiet and feel a little intimated by the whole thing. Even just walking into a cafe space can be terrifying when you’re used to being hidden from and by society. But we love meeting the characters and welcoming them into our space – one gentleman offers to do the dishes and another leaves his meals with us as he doesn’t have freezer space to store them in.”

Food for thought

The suspended coffee movement obviously involves coffee, but in the same spirit, some places have started offering suspended soup, biscuits or sandwiches and a few countries have given the concept a national twist. In China, for example, nine cities are now offering suspended noodle dishes, and in Belgium, the owner of a Brussels fritkot (chip stand) has invented the ‘frite suspendue’.

Across the country, french fries are served in paper cones with a large dollop of mayonnaise and eaten on the street at all hours. The frite suspendue has quickly become very popular because a fritkot is accessible, unintimidating, open every day until midnight and it’s a meeting place, says Eric Duhamel, owner of the Bompa Fritkot. “Those who come for a frite suspendue are a bit shy at first. Then they tell their stories. And that’s the point: it goes further than just giving someone €2,” he told the Belgian press.

And Sweeney agrees: the suspended movement is primarily about showing solidarity and creating a community. “It’s about getting people to support each other again, to show compassion, love and empathy,” he says. “To show we’ve all been there. To encourage you to keep going. To get you through the day. To remind you to be strong, to celebrate you.”

More Information:

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Iraq’s first national park approved

Here is a piece I wrote for Positive News yesterday on Iraq's Mesopotamian marshes, which became the country's very first national park. I had met Azzam Alwash in London before he was awarded the 2013 Goldman Environmental Prize for his work in restoring the historic wetlands.

Iraq’s first national park approved

Garden of Eden’ returns to life as Mesopotamian marshlands are officially recognised as Iraq’s first national park 


02 Aug 2013
Azzam Alwash on November 9th 2012 with fish seller in Kirmashiye, Iraq
Azzam Alwash (right) in the Mesopotamian marshlands     Photo © Goldman Environmental Prize

Despite the ongoing violence and instability in the country, Iraq’s cabinet has managed to approve the creation of the nation’s very first national park.

Approving the project last week, Iraq’s Council of Ministers took a momentous step towards protecting the historic Mesopotamian marshes in the south of the country for future generations.

“With this action, Iraq has acted to preserve the cradle of civilisation,” said Azzam Alwash, an Iraqi engineer and environmentalist, who gave up a comfortable life in California to help restore these unique wetlands and win government protection for them.

“We’ve worked for more than ten years to make this happen – and we still have a lot of work ahead – but we now celebrate an important milestone in the history of Iraq,” he told Positive News.

The Mesopotamian marshlands between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, once the third largest wetlands area in the world, are said by Biblical scholars to be the site of the Garden of Eden, the birthplace of civilisation.

It was once a thriving oasis of aquatic life filled with lush reed beds, water buffalo and birds – twice the size of the Florida Everglades and in the middle of a desert. And it was the home of the indigenous Ma’dan Marsh Arabs, direct descendants of the ancient Sumerians.

But in the early 1990s, Saddam Hussein wiped out the ancient marshlands in retaliation against Shia Muslim rebels who had staged an uprising after the first Gulf war and fled there for refuge. He built massive canals that drained all the marshes’ water, then set fire to the reeds and villages, turning the whole area into a vast salt-crusted desert. The United Nations Environment Programme called this action the worst environmental disaster of the last century.

“I expect every self-respecting birder to come to Iraq to complete their life list”
When Saddam’s regime fell, Alwash returned to Iraq and founded the environmental NGO, Nature Iraq, to try to restore the marshes. Over the past decade, he has worked with local people and the government, surveying the region and developing a master plan to resurrect the area.

Now, although greatly changed, the marshes have been re-flooded in many areas and are starting to flourish again. Reed beds, birds, fish, water buffalo and the Ma’dan have returned.

Alwash, who won the 2013 Goldman Environmental Prize for his efforts to restore the wetlands, said he got the idea of turning them into a national park while visiting Yosemite and other national parks in the west of the United States.

“The first task was of course the re-flooding of the marshes and making sure they thrive again, but just as importantly was that the Marsh Arabs wanted to come back, and that, when they came back, they would have a decent way of life.”

Nature Iraq envisions the national park providing both a refuge for Iraq’s marshland biodiversity and a sustainable boost to the local economy through eco-tourism and development projects that bring social benefit.

“As for visitors, the first ones, I am hoping, will be the 20,000 oil field workers in the south of Iraq. Even at $10 per person, that should be a huge boost to the local economy. As stability in Iraq increases and facilities start being built to accommodate visitors, I expect every self-respecting birder to come to Iraq to complete their life list,” said Alwash.

The bigger barrier to successful restoration, however, is the hydro-politics of the region. Syria, Turkey and Iran, Iraq’s upstream neighbours, are increasingly restricting the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates. A chain of 30 dams (most already completed) along the Turkey-Syria border are reducing the flow of water in Iraq and threatening the marshes’ survival.

“By setting the national park, Iraq commits to dedicate a portion of its increasingly limited water resources to keeping the marshes alive and thriving. Furthermore, it is a good argument in negotiations with Turkey to dedicate special spring releases for environmental preservation,” said Alwash.

But ultimately, the marshes can only be protected if there is an international agreement on water-sharing, he added. “The preservation of the marshes is not only Iraq’s duty: it is the world’s duty. This is the cradle of civilisation. This is where agriculture started. This is where writing was invented. This is where Abraham was born.”