Lowering the Sky-High Murder Rate in Latin America

Two women hold signs with the pictures of murdered relatives during a demonstration against the lack of safety on the streets, on June 20, 2009 in Caracas.  ​(Photo: Juann Barreto / AFP/ Getty Images);  featured background image by Creatyves / DeviantArt.

Sergio Vicente Goulard’s body lay naked on a hospital stretcher in Rio de Janeiro, waiting to be identified. A few hours earlier, paramilitaries had shot him in the head inside his home. Luiz Carlos Barbosa was found on the street in the middle of a favela controlled by two criminal gangs; he had been executed for switching his allegiance. Jorge Luiz Bento’s family found his corpse rotting near a stream in the municipality of Nova Iguaçu, headless and with his hands bound. Claudeir Francisco had been cycling when he was shot; he was still clinging to his cellphone headphones as his mother wept over his body. Leandro Alves died in the company of his wife and son after he pulled out a gun during an attempted carjacking. The ensuing shootout also took the life of one of the assailants.

On Jan. 28, 2017, we saw those six corpses in Baixada Fluminense, an area with the highest homicide rate in the state of Rio de Janeiro. In Latin America, the most violent region in the world, the victims will most likely be forgotten and the murderers will most likely go free.

Those bodies, found far from Rio’s beaches, attest to the average of six murders per day in this area. And they are just one example of what is going on all over Latin America, where each day the morgues receive the bodies of roughly 400 murdered people. The homicide rate is so high — about four people every 15 minutes — that we are no longer shocked by the deaths. Latin America is home to just over 8 percent of the world’s population but a third of its homicides; between 2000 and 2016, 2.6 million people were murdered. Most countries have seen their homicide rate fall, but in Latin American countries, it is on the rise.

Murder has become a normal part of life. But we must work to reverse that. Some cities are fighting impunity and have developed social programs to reduce violence. Unfortunately, it’s not enough. The cure for the epidemic is complex. It will come from difficult, long-term adjustments in everyday life. And, of course, from the enforcement of the rule of law.

That day in January we began investigating homicide in the seven most violent countries in Latin America — Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico — to understand how an act that takes place in the space of a second can represent an entire culture of violence, corruption and impunity.

Many lives are connected to the dead: drug traffickers, police officers, death squads, ranch owners and sometimes children with access to guns. There are the investigators, whose new cases are more likely to be shelved than resolved, and the overburdened judges and expensive lawyers. And there are the mothers, children and wives who will relive the fatal scenes over and over again in their minds.

Punishment is rare. The Latin American countries included on the Global Impunity Index, from Mexico’s Center for Studies on Impunity and Justice, are categorized as nations of “high” impunity. Mexico is No. 2 on the list, after the Philippines. If we take into account the crimes that are never reported and remain unaccounted for, the two countries have an impunity rate of 99 percent.

People kill because they can get away with it. They kill to gain territorial control, to traffic drugs, to settle political disputes. The United Nations’ Global Study on Homicide establishes three types of murders: criminal, interpersonal and sociopolitical. Latin America takes first place in all three categories.

Infographic: The Top-10 Most Violent Cities Worldwide | StatistaFind more statistics at Statista

Marco Antônio Pinto, a homicide investigator from Baixada Fluminense, in Rio de Janeiro, told us that he liked working in his unit because it was a “jungle” of murders with “a wild variety of fauna.” A juvenile judge who has heard hundreds of testimonies told us that the young people who pass through his courtroom rarely express regret for having committed murder, just shame for having been caught.

While most Latin Americans have seen murder victims only on TV and in the newspapers, there are indeed many — usually poor people with dark skin from marginal neighborhoods — who have actually witnessed far too many murders. They are also likely to be murderers and murder victims themselves. According to a 2016 report, 50 percent of the homicides in Latin American cities take place on 1.6 percent of their streets.

Not long ago we visited Fortaleza, the city with the highest rate of child and adolescent homicide victims in Brazil. In 2013, the murder rate was 268 per 100,000 inhabitants between the ages of 16 and 17, but the map of lethal violence was an almost perfect arc that covered an area far from the tourist zone, where some neighborhoods had gone a whole year without a single homicide. When we visited these areas and asked young people how many murders they knew of, they sometimes had to use two hands to count.

A majority of the murders committed in Latin America take place in the seven countries on the path that we have been covering since January. Three years ago we traveled to those countries, as well as 11 others in Latin America, to write “Narco América,” a book about the impact of drug trafficking. Whenever we asked authorities why they had such high homicide rates, the answer was usually the same: drugs.

Bodies of two victims of Mexico’s ongoing drug war are seen lying by the side of a road as police secure the area in the city of Veracruz, Mexico.​ (AP / Getty Images)​

Drug trafficking is a factor in these and other ills (30 percent of the homicides are linked to organized crime or gangs), but it doesn’t explain everything. Countries like Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama, which also lie on the drug route leading to the United States, have the lowest homicide rates in Central America, light-years from their neighbors in the so-called Northern Triangle. Peru and Bolivia are major cocaine producers, yet their murder rate is nowhere near that of Colombia.

The most murderous nations are plagued with a number of common problems, but each also has it own particular issues. The drug war in Mexico is one of the most lethal conflicts in the world. Gang-related battles in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras have rendered that small triumvirate the world homicide capital. In Colombia, on the other hand, deaths connected to the country’s conflict dropped by a third over a decade, but other types of violence led to more than 12,000 murders last year. Venezuela is in the grip of a social and economic meltdown: Last year there were 21,752 registered homicides. In Brazil, cities as well as rural areas are rife with territorial conflicts, and the national police force is among the deadliest in the world. All told, in Latin America 144,000 people are murdered every year.

Homicide is not just a consequence of something else: In our society it is a normalized practice for resolving conflicts. A 15-year-old told us he had killed his girlfriend because he had gotten angry at her.

As with any illness or addiction, the first step is accepting that we have become homicidal countries. For years, governments have massaged the statistics and assigned blame to their neighbors. In some cases, they have actively contributed to the problem, using violence to stop violence, as in the cases of Felipe Calderón and Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico — a country that, a decade after militarizing the fight against crime, started the new year with the highest number of homicides in its history.

But there are a handful of positive experiences worth examining and replicating. In Honduras, the Association for a More Just Society has developed a project that supports homicide investigations. In Venezuela, Proyecto Alcatraz provides work, sports and educational opportunities to young people in criminal gangs. In Brazil, authorities have tried placing community police officers in high-risk zones with programs like Stay Alive and Pact for Life. The ban on carrying firearms in Colombian cities has resulted in a moderate reduction in murder rates. Regulating the sale of alcohol as a security measure has been successful in Bogotá and Diadema, in the state of São Paulo.

In April, 30 civic organizations from Latin America’s seven most violent countries began the Instinto de Vida (Instinct for Life) campaign, aimed at reducing homicides by 50 percent over the next 10 years through conflict mediation; gun, alcohol and drug regulations; recidivism prevention; guaranteeing access to justice and due process; and strengthening relations between the police and communities. These measures share a common vision: They repudiate hard-line policies, target specific areas with high homicide rates and view homicide as a social, educational, economic and cultural phenomenon rather than simply a security issue. All of this work is producing promising results.

​White crosses placed by human rights organizations in memory of victims of violence are seen around Tegucigalpa, Honduras. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)​

It is impossible, however, to attempt to reduce crime without the rule of law firmly in place. When the justice system doesn’t work, when investigations are not pursued, when crimes go unpunished, more murders will be committed. The bottleneck in the Mexican justice system, for example, gets tighter and tighter in the path from police officer to judge. In Mexico, there are four judges per 100,000 inhabitants; the international average is about 40 per 100,000. We have an exorbitant number of murders and a system that is unable and unwilling to investigate them, whether because of corruption or because the dead simply don’t matter enough.

A few years ago at a crime scene in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, we found a homicide inspector holding an almost blank notebook, indignant because he couldn’t get any information. “Nobody gives a damn — this is a farce,” he told us, gesturing at the gawkers taking photos of the body. Each month his superiors asked him to solve just two of the 30 cases stacked on his desk.

If we want to change this, we must confront the homicides with security policies as well as social programs. Most important, we need to break the chain of impunity. The first 24 hours after a murder are essential: Investigations must be swift, exhaustive and transparent. A strong chain of justice, which would include specialized police officers and sufficient independent judges to deal with the volume of cases, would be the first steps toward reducing the number of people who kill and are killed in Latin America.

Source: Life Where the Murder Rate Is Sky-High -By Alejandra Sánchez Inzunza and José Luis Pardo Veiras | The New York Times | Leer en español @NYT

Alejandra Sánchez Inzunza and José Luis Pardo Veiras, the authors of “Narco América,” are currently doing research for En Malos Pasos, a project on homicide in seven Latin American countries. This essay was translated by Kristina Cordero from the Spanish.


Recommended…
Latin America’s Murder Epidemic: How to Stop the Killings -By Robert Muggah and Ilona Szabo de Carvalho | Foreign Policy
The World’s Most Dangerous Cities | The Economist
Mexico Can Catch All The Drug Kingpins There Are, But There’s a Different Problem Driving Crime -Christopher Woody | Business Insider
✻ How the U.S. Triggered a Massacre in Mexico -By Ginger Thompson | ProPublica
✻ Duterte’s Murderous Drug War in the Philippines -By Alex Emmons | The Intercept
Open for Business, Not Human Rights: Trump’s Priorities in Central America -By Lauren Carasik | Boston Review
✻​ Crime Reporting in the Murder Capital: San Pedro Sula Nights​ | VICE News (Video)
✻​ Brazil Violence: Murders on the Rise in Rio de Janeiro | Al Jazeera (Video)
✻ Brazil Has Nearly 60,000 Murders, And It May Relax Gun Laws -By Lulu Garcia-Navarro | NPR
✻ Organized Crime, Gangs Make Latin America Most Violent Region -By Mary Murray | NBC News
✻ Latin America Is World’s Most Violent Region -By David Luhnow | The Wall Street Journal
✻ Inside the World’s Deadliest Country: Honduras

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Venezuela in Crisis

A woman with her face painted in the colors of Venezuela’s national flag takes part in the blockade of a highway in Caracas on April 24, 2017. (Photo: Fernando Llano/ AP); Background image: A demonstrator against President Nicolas Maduro’s government during a protest on the east side of Caracas on April 19, 2017. (Photo: Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP / Getty)

Introduction
Venezuela is in the midst of an unprecedented economic and political crisis marked by severe food and medicine shortages, soaring crime rates, and an increasingly authoritarian executive. Critics of President Nicolas Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, say Venezuela’s economic woes are the fruit of years of economic mismanagement; Maduro’s supporters blame falling oil prices and the country’s “corrupt” business elites.

In January 2016, opposition lawmakers took a majority in the legislature—the National Assembly—for the first time in nearly two decades. However, the Maduro government has taken steps since to consolidate his power, including usurping some of the legislature’s powers. Maduro’s actions have been met with massive protests and international condemnation, including threats of expulsion from the Organization of American States.

I. Chavez’s ‘Bolivarian Revolution’

Chavez, a former military officer who launched an ill-fated coup in 1992, was elected president of Venezuela in 1998 on a populist platform. As a candidate, he railed against the country’s elites for widespread corruption, and pledged to use Venezuela’s vast oil wealth to reduce poverty and inequality. During his presidency, which lasted until his death in 2013, Chavez expropriated millions of acres of land and nationalized hundreds of private businesses and foreign-owned assets, including oil projects run by ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips.

Chavez, whose rhetoric often drew inspiration from Simon Bolivar, the Venezuela-born revolutionary of the nineteenth century, aimed to align Latin American countries against the United States. He led the formation of ALBA, a bloc of socialist and leftist Latin American governments, and established the Petrocaribe alliance, in which Venezuela agreed to export petroleum at discounted rates to eighteen Central American and Caribbean states.

Chavez also greatly expanded the powers of the presidency. Shortly after he took office, voters approved a new constitution that allowed him to run for another term, removed one chamber of Congress, and reduced civilian control over the military. In 2004, two years after he was briefly removed from office in a coup, Chavez effectively took control of the Supreme Court by expanding its size and appointing twelve justices. In 2009, he led a successful referendum ending presidential term limits.

Chavez remained popular among the country’s poor throughout his presidency, expanding social services including food and housing subsidies, health care, and educational programs. The country’s poverty rate fell from roughly 50 percent in 1998, the year before he was elected, to 30 percent in 2012, the year before his death.

Maduro, who narrowly won the presidency in 2013, pledged to continue his former boss’s socialist revolution. “I am ensuring the legacy of my commander, Chavez, the eternal father,” he said after the vote.

In Pictures – Crisis in Venezuela
Click on images to enlarge and read caption.

II. An Oil-Based Economy
Venezuela is highly vulnerable to external shocks due to its heavy dependence on oil revenues. Oil accounts for about 95 percent of Venezuela’s export earnings and 25 percent of its GDP, according to figures from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

The state-run petroleum company, Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), controls all the country’s oil exploration, production, and exportation. Critics say PDVSA is grossly mismanaged and suffers from cronyism, a bloated payroll, underinvestment in infrastructure, and a lack of budgetary oversight.

As global oil prices fell from $111 per barrel in 2014 to a low of $27 per barrel in 2016, Venezuela’s already shaky economy went into free fall. That year, GDP dropped 12 percent while inflation soared to 800 percent. By early 2017, the country owed $140 billion to foreign creditors while it held only $10 billion in reserves, raising fears of a default.

Many critics fault the Chavez government for squandering years of record oil income. “Chavez did not use the massive oil price boom between 2004 and 2013 to put money aside for a rainy day,” wrote Harvard University economist Ricardo Hausmann in 2016. Instead, he “used the boom to expropriate large swaths of the economy, impose draconian foreign currency and price controls, and to subsidize imports. All this weakened the economy and made the country more dependent on imports, which Venezuelans can no longer afford.”

III. Price Controls and Shortages
Venezuela’s economic crisis is marked by soaring inflation and shortages of food, medical supplies, and staples like toilet paper and soap. Experts say the government’s strict price controls, which were meant to keep basic goods affordable for the country’s poor, are partly to blame. Many manufacturers in the country cut production because of the limits on what they could charge for their goods.

Another policy contributing to the country’s economic problems, many experts say, are currency controls, which were first introduced by Chavez in 2003 to curb capital flight. By selling U.S. dollars at different rates, the government effectively created a black market and increased opportunities for corruption. For instance, a business that is authorized to buy dollars at preferential rates in order to purchase priority goods like food or medicine could instead sell those dollars for a significant profit to third parties. In April 2017, the official exchange rate was ten bolivars to the dollar, while the black market rate was more than four thousand bolivars to the dollar.

Imports reportedly fell to $18 billion in 2016, down from $66 billion in 2012, as foreign-made goods became increasingly expensive. Many consumers are faced with the choice of waiting for hours in line for basic goods or paying exorbitant prices to so-called bachaqueros, or black market traffickers.

Experts say widespread expropriations have further diminished productivity. Transparency International, which ranks Venezuela 166 out of 176 on its perceived corruption index, reports that the government controls more than five hundred companies, most of which are operating at a loss. (By comparison, Brazil, which is more than six times as populous as Venezuela, has 130 state-run companies.)

IV. A Humanitarian Crisis

Observers have characterized the situation in Venezuela as a humanitarian crisis. In 2016, the head of the Venezuelan Pharmaceutical Federation estimated that 85 percent of basic medicines were unavailable or difficult to obtain. Hospitals reportedly lack supplies like antibiotics, gauze, and soap. Infant mortality rates reportedly reached 18.1 per 1,000 live births in early 2016, up from 11.6 in 2011, while maternal mortality reached 130 per 100,000, more than twice the 2008 rate. Diseases like diphtheria and malaria, which had been previously eliminated from the country, have reemerged.

Poverty has also spiked. In 2016, a local university study found that more than 87 percent of the population said it did not have enough money to buy necessary food. Another study by a local nutrition organization found that 30 percent of school-aged children were malnourished. According to a 2016 report from Human Rights Watch, the Maduro administration “has vehemently denied the extent of the need for help and has blocked an effort by the opposition-led National Assembly to seek international assistance.”

Poverty and lack of opportunity are exacerbating Venezuela’s high rates of violence. Long one of the world’s most violent countries, in 2016 Venezuela experienced its highest-ever number of homicides: 28,479, or roughly 91.8 homicides per 100,000 residents, according to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, an independent monitoring group. (The U.S. rate, by comparison, is 5 per 100,000.) Maduro’s administration has deployed the military to combat street crime, but rights groups and foreign media have reported widespread abuses, including extrajudicial killings.

The humanitarian crisis has spilled across Venezuela’s borders, with thousands of desperate people crossing into neighboring Brazil and Colombia; others have left by boat to the nearby island of Curaçao. By some estimates, as many as 150,000 Venezuelans left the country in 2016 alone.

V. Political Turmoil

Amid the crisis, the Maduro administration has become increasingly autocratic. Opposition lawmakers, under the Democratic Unity Roundtable coalition, won a majority in the National Assembly in 2015 for the first time in sixteen years, but Maduro has taken several steps to undermine them. In September 2016, Venezuela’s electoral authority, which is considered loyal to Maduro, ordered the opposition to suspend a campaign to recall the president, sparking protests and international condemnation. The following month, the Supreme Court stripped the National Assembly of powers to oversee the economy and annulled a law that would have freed eighty political prisoners, including opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. The president and the opposition subsequently entered into Vatican-brokered reconciliation talks, but those were declared “frozen” in November after Maduro administration officials stopped attending meetings. Maduro said he plans to stay in office until his term ends in 2019.

In March 2017, the judicial branch briefly dissolved the National Assembly. The court revised its order days later following an international outcry, but kept the legislature in contempt, effectively preventing lawmakers from passing laws. A week later the government barred opposition politician Henrique Capriles, who narrowly lost to Maduro in the 2013 presidential election, from running for office for fifteen years, citing Capriles’s failure to secure proper approval for budgets and contracts.

Government security forces have attacked journalists, and several foreign reporters have been detained and, in some cases, expelled, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. In 2017, Freedom House rated Venezuela as “not free,” making it one of two countries in the Western Hemisphere, along with Cuba, with the democracy watchdog’s lowest ranking.

VI. The Region Reacts
Mercosur, an economic and political bloc comprising Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela, suspended Venezuela in 2016. In March 2017, the secretary-general of the Organization of the American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, recommended suspending Venezuela from the bloc unless the Maduro administration moved quickly to hold elections. The last time OAS suspended a member country was 2009, when it did so to Honduras following a military coup.

U.S. policy under Donald J. Trump appears to follow that of former President Barack Obama, writes CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Matthew Taylor. In February 2017, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Vice President Tareck El Aissami for his alleged involvement in international drug trafficking. Later that month Trump met with Lilian Tintori, the wife of Leopoldo Lopez, and called for his release. In April 2017, as protests continued in Caracas, the U.S. State Department issued a statement voicing concern over government actions against Capriles and demonstrators.

On May 19, The Trump administration sanctioned eight members of Venezuela’s Supreme Court, including the court’s president, Maikel Moreno, the U.S. Treasury Department announced. U.S. officials said the sanctions were a direct response to an incident in March in which the Supreme Court annulled the nation’s democratically elected National Assembly, which is controlled by Venezuela’s opposition party. At the time, the Supreme Court, which remains loyal to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, justified the takeover by claiming that the National Assembly was in contempt of its rulings. The court ultimately sought to authorize Maduro’s oil joint ventures by bypassing congressional approval. Despite tensions between Washington and Caracas, the United States remains Venezuela’s largest trading partner.

Meanwhile, the Maduro administration retains the support of allies in Bolivia, Ecuador, and several Caribbean nations. China has lent Venezuela more than $60 billion since 2001, and is the South American country’s largest creditor. Meanwhile, Venezuela has sought significant ties with Russia. Before oil prices fell in 2014, Venezuela was set to become the largest importer of Russian military equipment by 2025. In February 2017, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reaffirmed Moscow’s support for the Maduro government, saying bilateral relations “are on the rise.”

Reprint (w/ relevant updates added by blogger): Venezuela in Crisis -By by Danielle Renwick and Brianna Lee | Council on Foreign Relations

Recommended…
✻​ Venezuela Is Falling Apart – By Moisés Naím & Francisco Toro | The Atlantic
✻​ Internal Splits, Immolations, and Burning Houses: Venezuela Gets Worse -By Emily Tamkin | Foreign Policy
✻​ Venezuela’s Crisis | Human Rights Watch
✻​ Thousands Protest Human Rights Crisis in Venezuela -By Tamara Taraciuk Broner | HRW
✻ ​Crisis Upon Crisis in Venezuela | New York Times Editorial Board
✻​ U.S. Sanctions Venezuela’s Supreme Court -By Aria Bendix | The Atlantic

The Rise of Radical Populism & The Decline of Human Rights

The 100th day of Donald Trump’s presidency will be April 29, 2017. No one knows what will happen in the next 100 days. But if present and past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, Donald Trump is and will be a disaster for human rights. From his immigration ban to his support for torture, Trump has jettisoned what has long been, in theory if not always in practice, a bipartisan American commitment: the promotion of democratic values and human rights abroad.

Worse is probably set to come. Trump has lavished praise on autocrats and expressed disdain for international institutions. He described Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as a “fantastic guy” and brushed off reports of repression by the likes of Russia’s Vladi­mir Putin, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. As Trump put it in his bitter inauguration address, “It is the right of all nations to put their own interests first. We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone.” Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, has written that Trump’s election has brought the world to “the verge of darkness” and threatens to “reverse the accomplishments of the modern human rights movement.”

But this threat is not new. In fact, the rise of Trump has only underlined the existential challenges already facing the global rights project. Over the past decade, the international order has seen a structural shift in the direction of assertive new powers, including Xi Jinping’s China and Putin’s Russia, that have openly challenged rights norms while at the same time crushing dissent in contested territories like Chechnya and Tibet. These rising powers have not only clamped down on dissent at home; they have also given cover to rights-abusing governments from Manila to Damascus. Dictators facing Western criticism can now turn to the likes of China for political backing and “no-strings” financial and diplomatic support.

This trend has been strengthened by the Western nationalist-populist revolt that has targeted human rights institutions and the global economic system in which they are embedded. With populism sweeping the world and new superpowers in the ascendant, post-Westphalian visions of a shared global order are giving way to an era of resurgent sovereignty. Unchecked globalization and liberal internationalism are giving way to a post-human rights world.

All this amounts to an existential challenge to the global human rights norms that have proliferated since the end of World War II. In that time, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, has been supplemented by a raft of treaties and conventions guaranteeing civil and political rights, social and economic rights, and the rights of refugees, women, and children. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War served to further entrench human rights within the international system. Despite the world’s failure to prevent mass slaughter in places like Rwanda and Bosnia, the 1990s would see the emergence of a global human rights imperium: a cross-border, transnational realm anchored in global bodies like the U.N. and the European Union and supervised by international nongovernmental organizations and a new class of professional activists and international legal experts.

The professionalization of human rights was paralleled by the advance of international criminal justice. The decade saw the creation of ad hoc tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia and the signing in 1998 of the Rome Statute that created the International Criminal Court — an achievement that then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan hailed as a “giant step forward in the march towards universal human rights and the rule of law.” On paper, citizens in most countries now enjoy around 400 distinct rights. As Michael Ignatieff wrote in 2007, human rights have become nothing short of “the dominant language of the public good around the globe.”

Crucially, this legal and normative expansion was underpinned by an unprecedented period of growth and economic integration in which national borders appeared to disappear and the world shrink under the influence of globalization and technological advance. Like the economic system in which it was embedded, the global human rights project attained a sheen of inevitability; it became, alongside democratic politics and free market capitalism, part of the triumphant neoliberal package that Francis Fukuyama identified in 1989 as “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution.” In 2013, one of America’s foremost experts on international law, Peter J. Spiro, predicted that legal advances and economic globalization had brought on “sovereigntism’s twilight.” Fatou Bensouda, the current chief prosecutor of the ICC, has argued similarly that the creation of the court inaugurated a new era of post-Westphalian politics in which rulers would now be held accountable for serious abuses committed against their own people. (So far, no sitting government leader has.)

But in 2017, at a time of increasing instability, in which the promised fruits of globalization have failed for many to materialize, these old certainties have collapsed. In the current “age of anger,” as Pankaj Mishra has termed it, human rights have become both a direct target of surging right-wing populism and the collateral damage of its broader attack on globalization, international institutions, and “unaccountable” global elites.

The outlines of this new world can be seen from Europe and the Middle East to Central Asia and the Pacific. Governments routinely ignore their obligations under global human rights treaties with little fear of meaningful sanction. For six years, grave atrocities in Syria have gone unanswered, despite the legal innovations of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine. Meanwhile, many European governments are reluctant to honor their legal obligations to offer asylum to the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing its brutal civil war.

To be sure, not all of these developments are new; international rights treaties have always represented an aspirational baseline to which many nations have fallen short. But the human rights age was one in which the world, for all its shortfalls, seemed to be trending in the direction of more adherence, rather than less. It was a time in which human rights advocates and supportive leaders spoke confidently of standing on the “right side of history” and even the world’s autocrats were forced to pay lip service to the idea of rights.

If the human rights age was one in which the contours of history were clear, today it is no longer obvious that history has any such grand design. According to the latest Freedom in the World report, released in January by Freedom House, 2016 marked the 11th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. It was also a year in which 67 countries suffered net declines in political freedoms and civil liberties. Keystone international institutions are also under siege. In October, three African states — South Africa, Burundi, and Gambia — announced their withdrawal from the ICC, perhaps the crowning achievement of the human rights age. (Gambia has since reversed its decision, following the January resignation of autocratic President Yahya Jammeh.) Angry that the ICC unfairly targets African defendants, leaders on the continent are now mulling a collective withdrawal from the court.

African criticism reflects governments’ increasing confidence in rejecting human rights as “Western” values and painting any local organization advocating these principles as a pawn of external forces. China and India have both introduced restrictive new laws that constrain the work of foreign NGOs and local groups that receive foreign funding, including organizations advocating human rights. In Russia, a “foreign agent law” passed in 2012 has been used to tightly restrict the operation of human rights NGOs and paint any criticism of government policies as disloyal, foreign-sponsored, and “un-Russian.”

In the West, too, support for human rights is wavering. In his successful campaign in favor of “Brexit,” Nigel Farage, then-leader of the UK Independence Party, attacked the European Convention on Human Rights, claiming that it had compromised British security by preventing London from barring the return of British Islamic State fighters from the Middle East. During the U.S. election campaign, Donald Trump demonized minorities, advocated torture, expressed admiration for dictators — and still won the White House. Meanwhile, a recent report suggests that Western support for international legal institutions like the ICC is fickle, lasting only “as long as it targets other problems in other countries.”

In the post-human rights world, global rights norms and institutions will continue to exist but only in an increasingly ineffective form. This will be an era of renewed superpower competition, in what Robert Kaplan has described as a “more crowded, nervous, anxious world.” The post-human rights world will not be devoid of grassroots political struggles, however. On the contrary, these could well intensify as governments tighten the space for dissenting visions and opinions. Indeed, the wave of domestic opposition to Trump’s policies is an early sign that political activism may be entering a period of renewed power and relevance.

What, then, is to be done? As many human rights activists have already acknowledged, fresh approaches are required. In December, RightsStart, a new human rights consultancy hub, launched itself by suggesting five strategies that international rights NGOs can use to adapt to the “existential crisis” of the current moment. (Full disclosure: I have previously worked with one of its founders.) Among them was the need for these groups to “communicate more effectively” the importance of human rights and use international advocacy more often as a platform for local voices. Philip Alston, a human rights veteran and law professor at New York University, has argued that the human rights movement will also have to confront the fact that it has never offered a satisfactory solution to the key driver of the current populist surge: global economic inequality.

In a broader sense, the global human rights project will have to shed its pretensions of historical inevitability and get down to the business of making its case to ordinary people. With authoritarian politics on the rise, now is the time to re-engage in politics and to adopt more pragmatic and flexible tactics for the advancement of human betterment. Global legal advocacy will continue to be important, but efforts should predominantly be directed downward, to national courts and legislatures. It is here that right-wing populism has won its shattering victories. It is here, too, that the coming struggle against Trumpism and its avatars will ultimately be lost or won.

Source: Welcome to the Post-Human Rights World -By Sebastian Strangio | Foreign Policy


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The End of Human Rights -By Stephen Hopgood | The New York Times
International Law in the Age of Trump: A Post-Human Rights Agenda -By Ingrid Wuerth | LawFare
Human Rights in the Era of Trump -By Mark Philip Bradley | American Historical Association

The Decline of Democracy and Rise of Fascism in Turkey

erdogan_reutersTurkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Photo: Reuters/ Files).

One year has passed since 1,128 academics raised their voices for an end to the violence against the Kurdish population in Turkey, demanding an international, independent investigation of the occurrences during the 24-hour curfews declared in Kurdish towns and districts from August 2015 onward. The now well-known ‘peace petition’ had been a reaction to the violence, an outcry against the unbearable way in which the military had taken over towns and districts in the predominantly Kurdish south-eastern provinces of the Turkish state. Children and elderly people had been assassinated on the streets and in their homes, bodies left on the streets, the injured denied medical treatment. Despite the decisive and clear wording accusing the state of committing a massacre and refusing to be party to this crime, the petition was nevertheless a modest form of protest, because all other forms of democratic contestation had already been radically impeded since a suicide bomb attack on a previous attempt to demand peace with a large demonstration on October 10, 2015 in Ankara. A hundred demonstrators from various political factions were killed, hundreds injured and scarred.

Government’s Reaction
However, even this comparably simple form of critique was not tolerated by the government. The reaction was a concerted mass smear campaign triggered by the words of the President Recep Tayyip Erdogan leading to arrests, police investigations and ongoing dismissals of scholars. Denouncing the signatories as traitors, as ‘pseudo academics’ who were enemies of the nation, the pro-government media took up Erdogan’s discourse, picturing the signatories individually on their web and print outlets, making them perfect targets for goaded Erdogan-supporters. The homes of a number of signatories were raided in the early morning hours; some were taken into custody on campus and the wave of dismissals commenced, starting with those in the most precarious working conditions.

This harsh reaction, however, prompted a wave of solidarity both in Turkey and beyond. Defying the threat of persecution, over another thousand scholars added their names to the petition. Academic and non-academic associations from all over the world expressed their critique of the state’s course of action in open letters to the Turkish government and solidarity messages. However, continuing its politics of spreading fear, the state had four signatories exemplarily arrested on charges of terrorism propaganda. Professors Esra Mungan, Muzaffer Kaya, Kivanc Ersoy and Meral Camci remained detained for over a month, enduring solitary confinement and strip searches. (Meral Camci was in fact in France at the time of the detainment of the other three, but decided to return knowing she could also be imprisoned upon arrival. She was released with the others after the first court hearing, after 23 days in prison.

A year later, the trial is still ongoing. Police investigations have been commenced against all signatories, including those abroad. Nearly 500 signatories have faced disciplinary investigations within their institutions. The number of those dismissed is increasing every month, currently at 182. Others have been forced to resign or retire, have lost administrative positions, are sidelined and excluded from standard academic procedures such as participating in thesis committees, are disinvited from conferences and refused funding for research projects and conference attendance. Dozens have had to leave the country, while others cannot leave the country due to travel bans and the cancellation of their passports. The most worrying fact, however, is that this repression towards the academics is unfortunately part and parcel of the state’s authoritarian regime to silence all critical voices left.

In the months following the petition, the state further accelerated its war-strategy against the Kurdish population, a strategy which has radically turned its back on the previous more liberal discourses of the government emphasising the brotherhood between Kurds and Turks, and the initial peace talks between state officials and the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party which had lasted until February 2015.

The violence reached its preliminary climax when military special forces killed around 170 people who had sought shelter in the two or three basements in Cizre, a small border-town to Syria. For days, critical media had published video messages and telephone calls in which those trapped were calling for help. However, the military officials permitted neither ambulances to access the area nor the wounded to leave, finally burning the building to the ground. The shocking brutality of the state exceeded all expectations. Following this, hardly any people remained in those towns and districts under curfew. Over a million people were forced to leave their homes only to return to a heap of rubble. Whole districts have been razed to the ground; bulldozers carrying away the remains even before the owners were allowed to return, including all personal belongings. Having left for what they thought would be a week, these people now have nothing to return to.

A Concerted Effort Against the Kurdish Movement
This comprehensive strategy is definitely not a limited operation against an armed group. Instead, it aims at destroying the successful politics of the Kurdish movement and the trust and support the population has in it. Since the mid-2000s, the Kurdish movement had particularly focused on empowering civil society with help of the municipalities in the region which are run by the Kurdish party and formed a ‘coalition’ party HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) with other left and marginalised ethnic, faith and LGBT groups. This politics had been very successful receiving strong support for the municipalities and gaining a landslide 13.2% in the national elections of June 2015, which left the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) without a majority. Re-elections were held five months later and the AKP made a decisive shift to the right, becoming increasingly authoritarian by the minute.

The aftermath of the attempted coup six months ago has been a welcome excuse not only to rid the state institutions of anyone in contact with the Gülen Community, held responsible for the attempted coup, but also to imprison mayors of the Kurdish municipalities, council members and municipality employees, as well as currently 12 MPs of the Kurdish-leftwing party HDP. Since the declaration of emergency rule, the elected mayors of over 50 towns and districts have been ousted out of power and replaced by state-assigned ‘trustees’, as they are euphemistically called. The media has been severely intimidated, with around 200 journalists currently in prison and over 177 different newspapers, magazines and TV channels shut down. Self-censorship is at its peak. The parliament has been practically by-passed through emergency decrees, most of them listing pages and pages of individual names of those to be dismissed. Overall, more than 80,000 state employees have been sacked so far, among them military and police personnel, but the highest number interestingly in the field of education.

A constant pledge to national unity, loyalty and militarism is the dominant discourse today, turning all critical voices into traitors and internal and external threats to the nation. The legal system has become a farce; the number of prisons is being increased; torture and deprivation of imprisoned back on the agenda. And as I am writing these lines, the parliament is voting on the end of parliamentary democracy, the concentration of power in the hands of the president alone, lacking the simplest mechanisms of checks and balances; MPs demonstrating their loyalty to the president by overtly waving their voting tokens for everyone to see and the prime minister celebrates the proposed abolishment of his post as an act of heroism adding the words “relax and obey”.

Looking back at this past year in Turkey, we see an increasingly overt development towards a more and more authoritarian society and government. Rudimentarily masked by arguments of counter-terrorism, society has been put into a straitjacket. Critique in any form has become increasingly impossible to voice, let alone make it heard. The few acts of protest remain limited, often with only few participants or even individual. With a mixture of disbelief and fear, people hope for this to be a phase, which is soon to end. However, according to law expert and honorary president of the Turkish Supreme Court Sami Selcuk, if the amendment of the constitution is accepted in the proposed form, the president to come “can become nothing other a dictator”.

Source: Steady Progress Into Fascism? Turkey, a Year After the Peace Petition -By Ulrike Flader | The Wire

Ulrike Flader is research coordinator for social movement studies at DEMOS Research Centre for Peace, Democracy and Alternative Politics, Turkey.


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The End of Democracy in Turkey -By Dexter Filkins | The New Yorker

Erdogan’s Turkey: The End of Democracy? -By Ruadhán Mac Cormaic | The Irish Times

It Is, By Far, The Worst Time to Be a Turkish Journalist -By Berivan Orucoglu | Foreign Policy

Turkey’s Free Press Withers as Erdogan Jails 120 Journalists -By Rod Nordland | New York Times

Vanished: Where Are Mexico’s ‘Disappeared’ Victims? – By Nik Steinberg | Foreign Policy

In 2011, Israel Arenas Durán disappeared in northern Mexico. Why can’t the government find him — and the thousands of others who’ve gone missing in the country’s drug war?

Vanished 2

On Dec. 1, 2012, Enrique Peña Nieto was inaugurated as Mexico’s 57th president in the midst of a horrific wave of drug violence. More than 100,000 people had been killed in the six years since his predecessor, Felipe Calderón, had declared a “war on drugs” and deployed the Mexican Army to tackle the country’s powerful drug cartels.

Peña Nieto’s victory marked the return of Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had governed uninterrupted for over 70 years until it was unseated in 2000. During its reign, the PRI had perfected a model for controlling virtually every aspect of Mexican life, including drug trafficking. Peña Nieto — young, polished, and Ken-doll handsome — pledged to end Calderón’s war without returning to the PRI’s old “pact,” which had allowed Mexico’s cartels to operate as long as they played by certain rules and gave the government its cut. Yet Peña Nieto offered few details, during his campaign and his first months in office, as to how his approach to the cartels would be different.

Nor did Peña Nieto offer a plan for dealing with one of the most nefarious aspects of Mexico’s drug war: disappearances. This omission was particularly troubling given that, on Nov. 29, 2012 — two days before Peña Nieto was sworn in — a government list had been exposed showing that more than 25,000 people had been disappeared or had otherwise gone missing during Calderón’s term. (The list was leaked to the Washington Post by a government analyst who suspected that neither Calderón’s nor Peña Nieto’s administration would ever release the staggering number.)

“Disappearing” people, which involves abducting them and then concealing their whereabouts, was one of the most sinister tactics used by governments in Latin America’s “dirty wars,” beginning in the 1960s. At that time, disappearances were aimed at eradicating guerrilla movements and their suspected sympathizers — leftist intellectuals, trade unionists, student leaders. Augusto Pinochet’s government in Chile disappeared more than 3,000 people; Argentina’s military junta disappeared 10,000, by official count. During Mexico’s dirty war from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, the PRI government disappeared an estimated 500 people — some of whom were thrown alive from Air Force planes over the Pacific Ocean. If even half of the cases on the leaked 2012 list were real, they would constitute one of the worst waves of disappearances in the Americas in decades.

But unlike the dirty-war disappearances, which followed a sinister logic in targeting specific sectors of the population, there is no single explanation for why so many people have gone missing in Mexico’s drug war, or for what has happened to them. I have spent over three years investigating more than 300 disappearances across 11 Mexican states for Human Rights Watch. I’ve found that, if these disappearances share anything in common, it is that the government has done almost nothing to try to find the missing. And it has consistently failed to pursue the obvious lines of evidence that, in case after case — including Israel Arenas Durán’s — point to collusion between the cartels and the very soldiers and police sent to combat them.

The Peña Nieto administration initially refused to confirm the existence of the list of victims’ names. Months later, under pressure, it pledged to take rudimentary steps to address disappearances. Yet today, more than one year into his administration, few if any of Peña Nieto’s promises have been fulfilled. Thousands of Mexicans are still unaccounted for. Their families are still searching for them, often with little help from the government. And more people are disappearing.

Excerpt, read: Vanished – By Nik Steinberg | Foreign Policy

Related: Missing Emerge in Mexico | El País

Mexico’s Crime Wave Has Left About 25,000 Missing, Government Documents Show -By William Booth | Washington Post

The Best & Worst Human Rights Developments of 2012 -By Mary McGuire | Freedom House

New year 2013

Today is the first day of the new year, 1 January 2013. Before embarking on the new year, I wanted to share a list compiled by Freedom House that reflects back on some of last year’s human rights developments. How did the world do following an eventful 2011?

Unfortunately, the bad seemed to outweigh the good this year, as many authoritarians held on to power and continued upheaval in the Middle East threatened to derail any democratic progress. Internal conflicts in a number of African countries boiled over, and the bulk of the former Soviet Union appeared to be moving in the wrong direction. Meanwhile, widely hailed political achievements in countries like BurmaEgypt and Georgia were complicated by negative twists.

Ongoing ethnic conflicts in Burma have undercut a recent democratic opening that was significant enough to allow the first visit by a U.S. president. Relatively free and competitive elections in Egypt have been overshadowed by continued unrest and authoritarian maneuvers by President Mohamed Morsi. In Georgia, what was considered a historic democratic transfer of power has been potentially jeopardized by what some regard as politically motivated prosecutions of former ruling party officials.

Though this list is far from exhaustive, the following were some of the best and worst human rights developments in 2012.

BEST 

LGBTI Victories in the Western Hemisphere:

Equality LandslideThere were several important victories in the battle for LGBTI rights in 2012, particularly in the United States and Latin America. A U.S. president voiced public support for gay marriage for the first time, and three states — Washington, Maryland and Maine — passed laws allowing same-sex marriage, bringing the total number of states with such rules to nine. In addition, the first openly gay woman was elected to the U.S. Senate. In Argentina, where same-sex marriage has been legal since 2010, the Senate passed legislation that allows gender to be legally changed without medical or judicial approval, and includes sex-change surgery and hormone treatment in government health insurance plans. The same month, Chile passed an anti-discrimination law that penalizes all forms of discrimination. Although not specifically written to protect LGTBI rights, the measure was spurred by the brutal killing an openly gay man. Even Cuba has jumped on the bandwagon, electing its first transgender person to municipal office. Same-sex marriage is also legal in Canada and some parts of Mexico. Sadly, for all of the progress seen in this hemisphere, the situation for LGBTI people has actually worsened in much of Eurasia and Africa.

Passage of the Magnitsky Act:

Russia’s human rights decline made it an easy choice for this year’s “worst” list, but one development is worthy of celebration — the passage by the U.S. Congress of the Magnitsky Act. The legislation is named after Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in jail after exposing a multi-million dollar fraud by Russian officials. It will place visa bans and asset freezes on Russian officials involved in human rights abuses. The bill received overwhelming bipartisan support as part of a larger measure that normalizes trade relations with Russia and Moldova. President Obama signed the legislation on December 14 despite harsh objections from the Kremlin. This law could set a precedent for how the United States and other free societies address gross human rights violations around the world. The European Parliament has endorsed the adoption of similar legislation.

Conviction of Charles Taylor:

In April, former Liberian president Charles Taylor became the first former head of state to be convicted of war crimes since World War II. He was sentenced in May by a UN-backed special tribunal to 50 years in prison for his role in a decade-long civil war in Sierra Leone. He was specifically found guilty of aiding and abetting the “commission of serious crimes including rape, murder, and destruction of civilian property” by rebel forces in that country. Taylor stepped down as Liberian president in 2003 amid serious domestic challenges to his rule and international calls for his resignation. His departure ended 14 years of intermittent civil war that had killed some 200,000 Liberians. He sought asylum in Nigeria, but was eventually handed over to the special tribunal.

Survival of the Tunisian Revolution:

TunisiaWhile the freely elected transitional authorities in Tunisia have been buffeted by public frustration with high unemployment and pressure from conservative Islamists, the country has not yet suffered the fate of many of its neighbors in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring. Varying degrees of instability and repression persist in Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and particularly Syria, but Tunisia has made slow if uneven gains in its democratic transition. The constitutional drafting process is creeping forward without the bitter conflicts seen in Egypt, and the ruling Ennahda party, which was at one time a radical Islamist faction, has largely followed through on its commitment to govern moderately and work peacefully with secular parties. As the country approaches the two-year anniversary of the revolution, however, economic struggles have led to anti-government protests, one of which left nearly 200 people wounded, and support for the ruling coalition has definitively waned. The constitution is two months overdue, and there have been some concerning violations of press freedom. Despite these challenges, Tunisia continues to provide a positive example to the wider region.

WORST

Civil War in Syria:

Photo: Manu Brabo

The civil war in Syria is the worst human rights and humanitarian catastrophe in the world today. The latest estimates put the death toll at 42,000, with no end in sight. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, an alarming number of reporters — 28 — have been killed while covering the conflict in 2012. President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has been on the verge of collapse for months, with many of his top advisers defecting or fleeing the country, yet he has vowed to remain in Syria, dead or alive. It is not even clear that his removal alone would end the fighting. Meanwhile, attacks by government forces on civilians in rebel-held areas are unceasing, and there are now concerns that the military is arming missiles with chemical weapons. Some rebel groups in the fragmented opposition have resorted to kidnapping and retribution killings, raising serious questions about postwar governance. No amount of diplomacy or international pressure has succeeded in convincing Russia to stop providing arms to government forces, or China to back broad-based demands for al-Assad to step down. And there is simply no political will within the United States or the rest of NATO to hasten the end of the conflict through direct intervention.

Devastation in Congo:

Congo

Over the past century, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one of the most resource-rich countries on the African continent, has been gutted by a combination of colonialism, corrupt and ineffective government, ethnic conflict and a succession of armed militias and rebel groups that have raped and pillaged their way through the countryside, often using conscripted child soldiers. As many as five million people have died since the late 1990s. The fraudulent 2011 reelection of feckless president Joseph Kabila was followed by the mutiny of hundreds of ethnic Tutsi soldiers, who then formed the March 23 (M23) rebel movement, widely believed to be funded by neighboring Rwanda. In November, M23 invaded and took control of Goma, a provincial capital with a population of 1 million, leading nearly 140,000 people to flee their homes. The international community has largely turned a blind eye to the country’s seemingly endless crisis, perhaps because there does not appear to be an easy solution. On a positive note, international pressure forced M23 to vacate Goma after just a few weeks, and the United States and Britain, which had long tolerated Rwanda’s denials that it was contributing to the unrest, cut military aid to the country as a result of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. But these steps on their own appear unlikely end the fighting.

Coup and Extremism in Mali:

Mali

As in Congo, the horrific human rights situation in Mali was not caused by any single event. Rather it was a cascade of disasters that included a military coup, a reinvigorated Tuareg separatist movement, an influx of hard-line Islamist militants and the combined effects of long-term drought, poverty and corruption. This perfect storm has created a humanitarian crisis that demands international action. Northern Mali is now controlled by militant groups that blend radical Islam with transnational crime. These militants have quickly introduced a crude imitation of Sharia, banning music, destroying historic sites deemed “un-Islamic,” and summarily punishing alleged crimes like alcohol use and adultery. There are widespread reports of rape and forced marriage, as well as the recruitment of child soldiers. According to the latest UN report, over 200,000 people are currently displaced. The international community, deeply concerned by these violations as well as the broader security threat posed by such a sizeable haven for terrorists, has pressured what remains of the Malian government to overcome its internal divisions and prepare for an international invasion to reclaim the rebel-held north.

Russia’s Precipitous Decline:

Russia protestersSince Vladimir Putin’s tightly controlled reelection as president in March, the political situation in Russia has become increasingly dismal, with some experts comparing it to the Soviet era. As part of an escalating clampdown on anti-corruption activists and political opponents, the government has enacted numerous pieces of legislation that will have a harmful impact on human rights and the functioning of civil society. Most disturbingly, one new law requires civil society organizations that receive foreign funds to register as “foreign agents” or face possible criminal charges. In a related development, USAID was forced by the Russian government to withdraw from the country. Expanded definitions of “treason” and “espionage” in the penal code have opened the door for authorities to round up government critics as well as citizens who consult with foreign firms or simply monitor human rights abuses. Other repressive measures have recriminalized libel, curbed Internet freedomoutlawed “homosexual propaganda,” and imposed additional restrictions on public gatherings. Independent voices, some within the government, who have tried to speak out against this wave of legislation have been expelled, arrested or otherwise muzzled.


Repression in Bahrain, Other Gulf States:

Bahrain 2After an independent report commissioned by Bahrain’s King Hamad uncovered widespread human rights abuses committed during the violent suppression of a protest movement in February 2011, the government promised to implement the recommended reforms. That was a year ago. Not only has the regime failed to enact anything other than minor cosmetic changes, seemingly designed to mollify the international community, it has also continued on a path of repression. Impunity for the security forces and censorship persist, and dozens of human rights activists remain imprisoned, including 2012 Freedom Award winners Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and his daughter Zainab. In recent weeks, the government has stepped up the pressure, banning “unlicensed” demonstrations and stripping 31 opposition members of their citizenship. Journalists and human rights groups, including Freedom House, have been repeatedly denied entry to the country to report on these abuses. Sadly, Bahrain is not the only Gulf state in decline. Several neighboring governments have begun to make some alarming moves to silence their critics. Deportations, travel bans and unexplained detentions, as well as disturbing new legal restrictions freedom of expression, have been seen in the United Arab Emirates. A ban on “unlicensed” peaceful demonstrations was passed in Kuwait. And Oman has jailed dozens of people for making critical comments about the regime.

The Menace of Blasphemy Laws:

The online dissemination of an offensive film that mocked Islam and sparked violent anti-American riots and protests in more than two dozen countries served as a reminder of the pernicious nature of laws that prohibit blasphemy in many parts of the world. These laws, which ban insults to religions and religious figures, not only have a chilling effect on free expression but are often used to justify violence, repress religious minorities, and settle personal grudges rather than combat intolerance. According to a Freedom House special report, there is no evidence that restricting speech reduces religious intolerance. In fact, the evidence shows that prohibitions on blasphemy actually lead to a wide range of human rights abuses. This does not prevent some Islamic leaders from using global bodies like the United Nations to push for international norms that prohibit blasphemy. In 2011, after enormous advocacy efforts by human rights groups and a number of countries including the United States, Canada and much of Europe, the push for this kind of legislation was replaced by a more circumspect call for the promotion of religious tolerance and dialogue. Sadly, these moderating efforts were endangered this year by yet another flare-up of religious outrage.

Reprint: The Best & Worst Human Rights Developments of 2012 -By Mary McGuire | Freedom House.

*This piece originally appeared on Freedom House’s blog, Freedom at Issue. To read the original, click here .

Related: Most Popular Human Rights Topics on Twitter in 2012 | HRW

Four More Years: America Re-elects President Obama! -By David Corn | Mother Jones

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President Barack Obama made history again, with a victory that defied a decades-long trend: Incumbents don’t triumph when the economy remains in the doldrums and the public sentiment is one of unease. In an archly ideological race that pitted a progressive case for government against a conservative assault on government, the president, burdened by a slow recovery but bolstered by a brilliant ground game based on hard-and-fast demographic realities, beat back Mitt Romney, who embraced the tea-partyization of the Republican Party and campaigned (often in an ugly fashion) for the chance to be CEO of the United States.

The election, a close call for Obama, signaled that division is still rampant within the political culture. Yet in his victory speech before thousands in a Chicago convention hall, Obama spoke of the “difficult compromises needed to move this country forward.” He insisted, “We are an American family, and we rise and fall together.” Moments later, he strode across a confetti-drenched stage, as the PA played Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising.” He had mounted something of a political resurrection.

 
This election was always going to be arduous for the president. Not since FDR had an incumbent commander in chief won reelection with unemployment so high. But after Obama’s party took a drubbing in the 2010 congressional elections, the president concocted a strategy for retaining the White House. In the weeks after that election, he told his aides and advisers that they needed to turn the 2012 contest into a battle of values and visions—no matter whom the Republicans would nominate. The reelection fight, he and his aides believed, had to be transformed from a conventional referendum on the guy in office and his handling of the economy to a stark choice between Obama’s aims and those of the GOP standard bearer.

So as the president racked up legislative victories (a tax cut compromise, ending the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, ratifying the New START arms control treaty) and then jousted with tea-party-driven congressional Republicans over the budget, the deficit, and the debt ceiling, Obama—displaying strategic patience—constantly endeavored to tether the tussle of the moment to a values-based message that emphasized the fundamental difference between him and the Rs: He wanted to preserve and use government as a communal force to fund investments in infrastructure, innovation, and education that would bolster the nation’s economic prospects, raise taxes on the well-to-do to underwrite such efforts and ease the task of deficit reduction, and protect (if modify) the social safety; the other side believed in affording more power to the the markets, downsizing government, and handing greater tax breaks to the wealthy to juice up the economy.

These were two conflicting approaches. And congressional Republicans assisted Obama’s efforts by embracing Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposed budget that included draconian cuts in domestic programs, the abolition of the Medicare guarantee, and tax cuts for high-income Americans that went far beyond the George W. Bush trickle-down tax reductions.

There was indeed a choice. And Romney, once he became the de facto GOP nominee, reinforced Obama’s narrative. He repeatedly described the election as a face-off between two alternative paths—claiming that Obama was intent on leading the nation into the wasteland of a European socialist, secular, government-centric society, and insisting that he, a lover of freedom, would guide the country into an age of dynamism, self-reliance, and economic growth spurred by freedom-loving entrepreneurs operating within free markets in a business environment without burdensome taxes and annoying regulations. Ideologues of the right and the left often huff that there is little that separates the major political parties. But in this campaign, each candidate found it in their interest to tie his core arguments to ideological stakes.

Romney did not ignore the it’s-a-referendum line of attack. He repeatedly asserted that Obama had failed to revive the economy sufficiently and claimed he could do better, inflating his job-creating cred as a past CEO of Bain Capital. Still, Obama got the vision-and-values face-off he wanted. When Romney selected Ryan as his campaign soulmate, it sealed the deal. At the GOP convention in Tampa, Ryan delivered one of the most ideological addresses given by a nominee in recent years. He contended that Obama had turned the nation into Ayn Rand’s worst nightmare—”the best this administration offers [is] a dull, adventureless journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us”—and essentially called for a right-wing revolution.  

 
Following the convention, Romney did pivot to the center. Actually, it was closer to a reckless U-turn on a crowded highway at 60 miles per hour. After the release of his 47 percent rant reinforced the criticism he was an out-of-touch plutocrat who cared little for those who cannot afford dressage horses or health care, Romney quickly moved to sand down the rough edges of the hard-right stances on immigration, abortion, and gay rights he had peddled vigorously to win the nomination during the wild and wacky GOP primary contest. (On Election Day, an Obama adviser told me that in the weeks after the video was released, focus group participants who were undecided raised Romney’s 47 percent remark on their own: “That’s what they wanted to talk about.”) And during the debates, Romney refused to fess up to key proposals, including his call for gargantuan tax cuts and his support for severe cuts in government programs. This undermined Obama’s effort to present the election as a choice between two conflicting courses. But for months—most of the campaign—the president had succeeded in crafting the contest as a choice election.

Excerpt, read more Obama Beats Back the Right-Wing Tide -By David Corn | Mother Jones

 

 

The Sex Issue| Foreign Policy (Special Report)

Photo: The Sex Issue – Foreign Policy

When U.S. magazines devote special issues to sex, they are usually of the celebratory variety (see: Esquire, April 2012 edition; Cosmopolitan, every month). Suffice it to say that is not what we had in mind with Foreign Policy’s first-ever Sex Issue, which is dedicated instead to the consideration of how and why sex — in all the various meanings of the word — matters in shaping the world’s politics. Why? In Foreign Policy, the magazine and the subject, sex is too often the missing part of the equation — the part that the policymakers and journalists talk about with each other, but not with their audiences. And what’s the result? Women missing from peace talks and parliaments, sexual abuse and exploitation institutionalized and legalized in too many places on the planet, and a U.S. policy that, whether intentionally or not, all too frequently works to shore up the abusers and perpetuate the marginalization of half of humanity. Women’s bodies are the world’s battleground, the contested terrain on which politics is played out. We can keep ignoring it. For this one issue, we decided not to.

Excerpt, read: The Sex Issue| Foreign Policy (Special Report)

Related: The Worst Place to Be a Woman -By Valerie M. Hudson | Foreign Policy

Why Do They Hate Us? -By Mona Eltahawy | Foreign Policy

The Most Powerful Women You’ve Never Heard Of | Foreign Policy

Worst of the Worst: The World’s Most Repressive Societies | Freedom House

This picture taken on March 30, 2011 shows an inmate pushing his hand out through a hole on a window grille at the Berbera prison in Somalia's breakaway republic of Somaliland (Photo: Tony Karumba /AFP/Getty Images)

Freedom House has prepared this special report entitled  Worst of the Worst: The World’s Most Repressive Societies, as a companion to its annual survey on the state of global political rights and civil liberties, Freedom in the World.   The special report provides summary country reports, tables, and graphical information on the countries  that receive the lowest combined ratings for political rights and civil liberties in Freedom in the World, and whose citizens endure systematic and pervasive human rights violations.

The purpose of this report is to  focus the attention of those who are working to advance respect for fundamental human rights around the world, as well as those who are actively engaged in suppressing  such rights. The report serves a reminder that over 1.6 billion people—more than 24 percent of the world’s population—suffer every day from the  basic indignities of not being able to express their thoughts and opinions, of not having a say in who  governs them and how the wealth of their land and labor is spent, and of being unable to obtain justice for crimes perpetrated against them.

Excerpt introduction: Worst of the Worst: The World’s Most Repressive Societies | Freedom House

Related: Least Free Places in the World, 2011| Foreign Policy (Photo Essay)

Postcards from Hell, 2011 –By Elizabeth Dickinson | Foreign Policy

The Worst Place to Be a Mother | Foreign Policy (Photo Essay)

YAMBIO, SUDAN - JANUARY 13: A woman and her child sit in the courtyard of a hospital that is run in partnership with Doctors Without Borders, aka Medecins Sans Frontieres (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

This week, Save the Children released its annual report on the State of the World’s Mothers, which ranks the status of mothers in countries worldwide using a wide set of criteria including female life expectancy, lifetime risk of maternal death, women’s economic equality, child mortality, and working conditions for mothers.

Topping this year’s index is Norway, the developed country with one of the highest ratio of female-to-male earned income, the world’s highest contraception rate, and one of the most generous maternity leave policies anywhere. Northern Europe dominated the top 10 with the United States coming in at a not particularly impressive 31st, thanks in part to its 1 in 2,100 maternal death ratio — the highest of any industrialized nation– and its maternity leave policies, the shortest and least well-supported financially of any wealthy nation.

This Mother’s Day, it’s worth remembering the struggling moms in the following 10 countries, who make up the bottom of the list.

The Worst Place to Be a Mother | Foreign Policy (Photo Essay)