LCHR on Brazil: Bolsonaro poses a grave threat to human rights

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By Stephen Delahunty, Guest Writer 

As Brazil’s new right-wing populist leader, Jair Bolsonaro, was sworn in as the 42nd president on 1st January this year, he promised the country’s “liberation from socialism, inverted values, the bloated state and political correctness”.

By the following day, it was clear to see what the former military captain actually meant. The President had already named seven former military men to head key ministries, the largest number of military officers appointed to cabinet since the end of the country’s military dictatorship in 1985. While the number of ministries was reduced from 29 to 22, a move that saw the Ministry of Labour axed in a country where over 12 million people are out of a job.

After his inauguration he issued a directive giving the Agriculture Ministry, which is dominated by a powerful agribusiness lobby, control over areas reserved for Brazil’s indigenous peoples and the descendants of former slaves. The LGBT community has been excluded from a list of groups whose concerns would be protected by a new human rights ministry. And a government agency run by a prominent general was given the ability to ‘monitor’ international organizations and nongovernmental organizations operating in Brazil.

None of this should be a surprise. The new president has served in the country’s Chamber of Deputies, representing the state of Rio de Janiero since 1991. He became notorious for his bigoted rhetoric against women, minorities, the poor and LGBT groups. And has expressed nostalgia for the time when Brazil was under military rule, and previously said the work of ‘eliminating’ those who had opposed the military dictatorship had not yet been concluded. Once a buffoonish figure on the country’s political fringes, he mobilised deep frustrations with a stagnating economy built on the unreliable pillars of commodities and consumerism. While voters became fed up with soaring crime and corrupt political elites, he also launched Trumpian style attacks on everything from the left, to fake news and refugees.

After just over three weeks in office he has yet to make good on other campaign promises to quit the Paris climate deal – although he has appointed a foreign minister who has previously described climate change as a ‘Marxist plot’ – or follow the lead of US president Donald Trump and move his country’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. He did however sign into decree last week a campaign promise to have more relaxed gun laws. Despite being a world leader in homicides, it will now be easier for Brazilians to own guns. A move President Bolsonaro suggests will see violence fall.

It’s clear then why he has already found support from other populist strongmen, including the Israeli and Hungarian Prime Ministers, Benjamin Netanyahu and Viktor Orban. Both of which joined US Secretary of State, Mike Pomeo at Bolsonaro’s inauguration ceremony. The prospect of a new ‘axis of the right’ will be just one of many foreign policy challenges facing a new Labour government. In its 2017 manifesto the Labour party committed itself to a foreign policy “guided by  universal rights and international law”. It may be difficult to impose such a vision on a President who seems to value neither – although practically there may be other steps a Labour government could take.

In 2016, the value of trade between Brazil and the UK was £5.4 billion for goods and services. Brazil represented a significant share of UK total exports to Latin America and the UK represented 8.3% and 7.4% of Brazilian total exports to and imports from the European Union, respectively. Last year, during the tenth meeting of the UK-Brazil Joint Economic and Trade Committee (JETCO), both countries reiterated their commitment to facilitate and deepen trade links. This includes the continuation of the development of the UK government’s Prosperity Fund programme in Brazil.

Pulling out of such funds and ending bilateral trade and cooperation agreements are just some of the tools a Labour government could leverage, if for example, President Bolsonaro pulled out of the country’s climate change commitments. However, a Labour government acting alone is unlikely to deter the actions of a president who has already found support with some of the UK’s traditional allies. So new alliances may have to be formed under the guise of a longer term multinational political strategy.

A Labour government would also need to reach out to activists within countries, trade unions and indigenous groups, amongst others, in the name of solidarity and justice, as explained by Labour MP Dan Carden below. In November last year the MP for Walton helped launch the Brazil Solidarity Initiative. A British-based enterprise that aims to campaign in solidarity with progressive movements in Brazil that are fighting for equality, democratic rights and social progress.

The shadow international development secretary said: “Bolsonaro reveres murderous right-wing dictatorships and has openly justified the use of torture. His sexist, racist and homophobic views represent an attack on the Brazilian working class in all its diversity. I was proud to help launch the Brazil Solidarity Initiative. As internationalists, it is our duty to offer support to the millions of Brazilians fighting to defend democracy and human rights in Brazil. The next Labour government will face many challenges in international relations. These will only be met by firmly restating our values of solidarity, equality and social justice“.

LCHR on the Bangladesh election: Sheikh Hasina tightens her iron grip on the country

2e6728caeb74475ebcd9e38c618758b8_18By Corinne Linnecar, Campaigns Officer

On Sunday 30th December Bangladesh’s incumbent Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, secured an unprecedented third term in office. The ruling Awami League and its alliance took 288 of the 300 seats, with some 100 million Bangladeshis voting in 40,000 polling stations across the country. Yet the results have been marred with widespread allegations of vote rigging, intimidation, and violence, including one horrendous story of a woman being gang raped for voting against the government.

With the Awami League taking 99.9% of the vote in some constituencies, the main opposition party has claimed the election was rigged and called for a re-run. Sheikh Hasina has rejected such claims, assigning her victory to the Bangladesh’s strong economic growth over the last ten years.

Since its independence in 1971 Bangladesh has been plagued by bloody politics. The country’s uneasy path to democracy involved two military coups and the assassinations of two leaders in its first eleven years. From 1991 Bangladesh saw the emergence of the two major political parties as they exist today, the Awami League led by Begum Hasina Wajed, and the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) normally led by Begum Khaleda Zia, although she was unable to run in the last election as she is currently serving a seven-year prison sentence for corruption (that her supporters allege is politically motivated). Despite starting out as allies, the fierce rivalry of the two Begums is world renowned today.

The Awami League is accused of severely repressing political opponents, activists and voters in the run up to the December election. There were reports of voters being kicked out of polling stations, beaten and intimidated. In particular, the government has used the judiciary to try to dismantle the BNP with many opposition leaders facing arbitrary charges and lengthy prison sentences. The opposition claims that 300,000 of its members and activists have been targeted in false prosecutions.

Sheikh Hasina is also accused of overseeing enforced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings of opposition members and voters. Witnesses on the ground claim that hundreds of people have been disappeared by the police and state security apparatus. The Bangladeshi human rights group, Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK), reported that the months leading up to the election saw the highest number of extrajudicial killings in more than six years.

Sadly, this level of repression in the lead up to elections is not a new phenomenon in Bangladesh, and the allegations currently made against Hasina and the Awami League mirror those that have been made previously against Zia and the BNP.

During the BNP’s five-year term from 2001 to 2006 there were reports of widespread violence and killings, including the death of a prominent Awami League politician in 2004 caused by a grenade attack at a rally. In 2007 a state of emergency was declared which saw a military caretaker government step in.

Bangladesh suffers from an array of human rights issues, including violence and discrimination against women, religious minorities, and different ethnic groups. There are serious restrictions on freedom of expression, which have been extended by the new Digital Security Act 2018 which allows people to be arrested for expressing anti-state views online. Corruption is widespread with a lack of trust in domestic security services, such as the police. Many of the most serious human rights abuses have been carried out by the government’s infamous anti-crime and anti-terror unit, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), which has been described as a “death squad”.

The United States, the European Union, and the United Kingdom have all condemned the violence surrounding the 2018 election, and the United Nations has called for there to be an independent and impartial investigation. Whilst such statements are welcome, the international community will need to take stronger action – and offer Bangladesh greater support – if it wants to see real improvements in respect for human rights and the rule of law in this fledgling democracy.

Britain’s long tradition of respect for human rights is under threat

Screen Shot 2018-12-10 at 12.54.07 PMThis article was co-authored by Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, and Matthew Turner, Chair of the Labour Campaign for Human Rights, and originally published in The Guardian on 10 December 2018.

Exactly 70 years ago, 48 members of the UN general assembly voted in favour of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Support was not unanimous. Drafting was not without controversy or disagreement. But the result was a major victory for humanity. The declaration rightly stands as a beacon of hope to people everywhere, and is the most translated document in the world, available in 370 languages. It forms the basis of human rights laws across Europe – including the European convention on human rights and the EU charter of fundamental rights – that have allowed millions of people to enforce their rights through the courts.

Human rights do not just guarantee freedom from persecution, violence and oppression. They also provide a route to a better way of life – as rights to good health, education and democratic participation are enshrined in law. They are the bedrock of the good society. The 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights serves as the marker of a critical victory in the story of the human rights movements. But it is important to reflect on what came before as well as the future.

Prior to 1948, the lack of a binding international framework to protect the rights of individual people and distinct groups was laid bare by the atrocities of the second world war. Following the war, the allied nations responded to the horrors of the Holocaust by introducing new concepts of “crimes against peace” and “crimes against humanity” – concepts enshrined in the UN declaration just two years later.

It is easy to feel like such atrocities could never be carried out on that scale in Europe again – but the warnings from history are stark. Over the last decade, countries that were once havens for migrants have turned into hostile environments, and foreigners have become a regular scapegoat for societal problems. Even refugees fleeing war and violence have been faced with abuse and discrimination. Minority groups of all kinds, for whom human rights protection has been particularly critical, are now under renewed threat. Divisive and discriminatory rhetoric is on the rise, and extremist, populist political parties are infiltrating the mainstream across the western world at a scale not seen for many years. And just as in history, divisive rhetoric, if left unchallenged, can lead to the erosion of human rights. Hungary and Poland, to take just two examples, have been aggressively limiting press freedom, undermining judicial independence, and curtailing civil liberties.

And across the globe atrocities against distinct groups have continued, from crimes against the Rohingya in Myanmar, to Christians and Yazidis in Iraq and Syria, and Darfuris in Sudan. The need for a strong and active global human rights movement is as great as it ever has been. Shamefully, as the government in Britain has been increasingly distracted and derailed by Brexit, it has played a diminished role on the world stage. It took the murder of a journalist on foreign soil for the UK to finally challenge Saudi Arabia by proposing a UN resolution to stop the war in Yemen. It is hard not to conclude that under this government our global leadership on human rights, stretching from Magna Carta through to the European convention on human rights, is on the wane.

This government’s botched approach to Brexit also raises fundamental questions about the kind of nation we want to be in a way few other political issues can. Through our membership of the European Union, Britain has historically played a leading role in strengthening human rights across the continent: by upholding the values of liberal democracy and the rule of law across member states, and in the wider world, too, through advocacy in partnership with our European neighbours. Under the terms of the government’s bad deal – or worse still, no deal – Britain would lose its significant ability to help ensure the maintenance of high standards on human rights throughout Europe.

We must all step up to provide stronger leadership on human rights. Britain needs to be a beacon of respect for human rights, and use its moral leadership to put pressure on others. It is essential for freedom, justice and peace in the world. London stands proud as the capital of a nation where differences among people are not only tolerated, but respected and celebrated.

It was Nelson Mandela who said that “to deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity”. Like Mandela’s freedom, the global consensus on human rights was not reached without setbacks and struggle. And that consensus is under extreme challenge today. Human progress and human rights never come for free. They must always be campaigned for, argued and legislated for. So as we celebrate 70 years since the UN general assembly’s declaration of human rights, we must commit to taking up the baton and continuing the fight for human rights all over the globe.

LCHR will be raising a glass to the UDofHR this evening (Monday 10th December) at The Admiralty (66 Trafalgar Square) from 6pm- all welcome! https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/celebrating-70-years-of-human-rights-with-lchr-tickets-52968483159 

Britain has overlooked Saudi Arabia’s transgressions for too long

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An abridged version of this article was co-authored by Clive Lewis MP and Matthew Turner, Chair of the Labour Campaign for Human Rights, and originally published in The Times on 1 November 2018.

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince must restore dignity to his country — by ending Yemen’s cruel war. This was the title of one of Jamal Khashoggi’s final articles for the Washington Post before he died. He called for an end to the war in Yemen, not even on humanitarian grounds, but because it has been a political failure. It was this type of criticism for which, according to the Turkish authorities, he was strapped down to a table in the Saudi embassy and cut to pieces with a bone saw while he was still alive. The criticism was mild and legitimate. If the reports are true, the Saudi government has responded with an act of sickening barbarism that has deeply shocked the world.

The story has been at the centre of the media cycle for weeks and isn’t going away. There are four main reasons why. First, Jamal Khashoggi was a journalist. He was not an opposition leader or dissident, and was in many ways part of the Saudi establishment (his grandfather was the personal doctor of Ibn Saud, the country’s first king and founder). He posed no serious threat to the regime, and it is doubtful his writings had a large domestic readership – Saudi Arabia has no independent media, and ranks 169th out of 180 countries for press freedom.

Second, the pure horror of it. Mr Khashoggi went to the embassy to obtain a document verifying that he had divorced his ex-wife. He kissed his new fiancee goodbye and said he wouldn’t be too long – she waited outside for over 10 hours, and then came back the next morning when he had still not reappeared. We have since been told that inside the embassy a 15-strong hit squad interrogated, tortured and killed him. One of the group, a forensic pathologist and head of the Saudi Scientific Council of Forensics, apparently encouraged others to put on headphones and listen to music while they cut his body into pieces.

Third, the act took place on foreign soil. Both legal and extrajudicial killings are common in Saudi Arabia. It is one of the world’s most prolific users of the death penalty, and still holds public executions (one of Riyadh’s landmarks is the infamous ‘Chop Chop Square’). There were 48 beheadings in four months in 2018 and, according to Amnesty, over half of all executions have been for non-violent crimes (including for adultery, apostasy and witchcraft). However, the targeted assassination of a journalist on foreign soil is unprecedented and the Turkish government is rightly outraged. Whilst the embassy might technically be part of Saudi Arabia, this was a shattering break from diplomatic norms.

Finally, the act has been the ‘final straw’ for many in the international community. Since being elevated to Crown Prince in 2017, Mohammed Bin Salman has acted as a belligerent bully in the Middle East and beyond. He has waged a bloody war in Yemen and, along with the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, caused the greatest humanitarian crisis of the 21st century (and now the world’s worst famine in 100 years). He led the embargo of Qatar, kidnapped the Lebanese Prime Minister and forced him to resign on national television, and obliterated relations with Canada when a minister tweeted about Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses. This might be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

The Labour Party has called for action against Saudi Arabia in the past so why has our government been so reluctant to speak up? An obvious reason is the arms trade. Britain sold £1.5bn in arms in 2017 and, astonishingly, £1.13bn of that went to Saudi Arabia. We are a major supplier of bombs, missiles, and fighter jets, which support a booming business at home, but arm a terrible civil war on foreign soil. In addition, for the last three years the government has been trying desperately to get Saudi Aramco, the national oil company, listed on the London Stock Exchange rather than in New York. The LSE’s Chief Executive accompanied Theresa May on her ‘charm offensive’ trip to Saudi Arabia in 2017, and the Financial Conduct Authority even changed its rules to allow foreign state-owned companies to be listed on the LSE’s ‘premium category’- which was widely seen as a direct move to make London more attractive to Aramco. And behind the scenes the Saudi regime has spent vast amounts of money on lobbying our government.

This year Saudi Arabia tripled its spending on individual MPs to £100,000, including a host of lavish trips to the country. Since 2010, 44 Tory MPs have been on trips worth £270,000. In each case the government has simply put money before principles. But a Labour government would not stay silent. Emily Thornberry would not have waited seven days from Mr Khashoggi’s disappearance to send a meek tweet to say that the government would be “treating the incident seriously”. In fact, Emily tabled a motion to withdraw support from the Saudi coalition in Yemen over two years ago in 2016. The Tories voted it down.

Labour is committed to a human-rights based foreign policy, where principles come before petrodollars and blood money. And we at the Labour Campaign for Human Rights will continue to ensure that human rights remain at the heart of Labour party policy. Now is the time for the government to act, and condemning the murder of Mr Khashoggi should only be the start. Our response has to be more than just a change in rhetoric – it must mean action – such as suspending arms deals with the Saudi regime and going to the UN for a mediated solution to end the war.

If we truly want to be seen as ‘Global Britain’ then we must take up a real leading role in defending human rights within the international community; we owe it to Jamal Khashoggi and the millions of other victims of abuse and tyranny around the world.

BBC staff being persecuted by the Iranian government

At the Labour Party Conference last week I attended, on behalf of LCHR, a private briefing hosted by the BBC World Service.

From within the UK, it is easy to forget what an enormous organisation the BBC World Service is. It has a weekly global audience of over 347 million people, and provides independent and impartial news, information and analysis in over 43 languages.

The topic of the briefing was the steps that the BBC World Service is taking to try to combat ‘fake news’ around the world, particularly in countries that have important elections next year such as India and Nigeria. We should all be proud of the efforts that the BBC is making on this front – proving once again that the BBC is a national treasure, and a great projection of positive British values around the world.

During the course of the briefing the discussion turned to BBC Persian, which is the Persian language news channel broadcasting to the Persian-speaking population in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The Iranian government has long disliked foreign news channels, and has a history of hacking, censoring and satellite jamming. Despite these efforts, BBC Persian audience figures have grown rapidly from 3.1 million in 2012 to 13 million today (over a fifth of the Iranian population).

BBC Persian has 152 Iranian staff, all of whom are based in London. Since the BBC started broadcasting into Iran in 2009, these brave journalists and their families have been subjected to a campaign of harassment and intimidation – from death threats to travel bans. They are all unable to return home for fear of arrest (or worse), and over 30 of them have lost parents in Iran and been unable to attend their funerals.

However, last year the Iranian authorities ramped up the pressure and initiated a mass criminal investigation against all BBC Persian staff in London, accusing them of “conspiracy against national security“. They have also been subject to an asset-freezing injunction, preventing them from selling or buying property, cars and other goods.

The BBC has called on the UK government to help, and filed an urgent appeal to the United Nations. The former Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, said that he would make representations to his Iranian counterpart, and the UN Secretary General called on Iran to cease its legal action. Yet these calls appear to have fallen on deaf ears.

Just last month, Iran’s news agency issued a terrifying statement about the journalists, describing them as a “mafia gang associated with the joint psychological operations HQ of overthrowing the system of the Islamic Republic” and claiming that they “will surely be exposed one day before the Iranian nation, and God’s hand of justice will manifest itself through the arms of the Iranian people, and they will be punished for their actions“.

This is a dramatic escalation in the sort of language used against the BBC Persian staff, and suggests the Iranian authorities will not be easing the pressure any time soon. Indeed, the recent attack on a military parade in the south of the country has further exacerbated Tehran’s suspicions of the West, and the UK was explicitly named by the government as having hosted the terrorist group which carried out the attack.

LCHR will continue to raise awareness of the treatment of BBC Persian staff and their families, and will work with Labour MPs to try to make this a priority human rights and foreign policy issue. The BBC World Service is something we should all be proud of, and we will stand alongside their staff in the face of persecution and abuse.

 

Labour Party Conference 2018

We are hosting a joint fringe event with Amnesty International at the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool this year.

Violence Against Women Activists: Defending the Defenders

Thousands of brave human rights activists face persecution and violence around the world – and often the worst of it is directed at women. Just last month, Saudi Arabia announced that it would seek to execute Israa al-Ghomgham, a female human rights activist, for “providing moral support to rioters”. This story is repeated all over the world.

In support of Amnesty International’s Human Rights Defenders campaign, we will be co-hosting a panel discussion about violence against women activists and how we can defend against this.

Date: Tuesday 25th September
Time: 1:00pm
Location: Concourse Room 3, ACC Liverpool, Kings Dock, Liverpool,
L3 4FP

Speakers:

  • Kate Osamor MP (Shadow Secretary of State for International Development)
  • Owen Jones (Journalist)
  • Kate Allen (Director, Amnesty International UK)
  • Idil Eser (Former Director, Amnesty International Turkey)

With more speakers to be announced.

For further details see here

We hope to see you there!