With Poor Human Rights Record, Repatriation Not Possible

Repatriation photo

Rohingya after they fled Myanmar in 2017 arrive at Shahparir Dip in Teknaf, Bangladesh. Credit: IPS

By Tharanga Yakupitiyage

UNITED NATIONS – Policies that allow for impunity, genocide, and apartheid are “intolerable” and make repatriation of Rohingya refugees impossible, say United Nations investigators.

While presenting an annual report to the member states at the U.N., Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee expressed disappointment in Myanmar’s government under State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, stating her hope that it “would be vastly different from the past, but it really is not that much different.”

“The government is increasingly demonstrating that it has no interest and capacity to establish a fully functioning democracy for all its people,” Lee said during a press conference. She also added that the Nobel peace prize laureate is in “total denial” about the mistreatment and violence against the Rohingya which forced over 700,000 to flee across the border to Bangladesh, and questioned her staunch support for the rule of law.

“If the rule of law were upheld, all the people in Myanmar, regardless of their position, would be answerable to fair laws that are impartially applied, impunity would not reign, and the law would not be wielded as a weapon of oppression,” Lee said.

The Chair of the U.N. fact-finding mission on Myanmar Marzuki Darusman, who also presented a report to the U.N., echoed similar sentiments, noting that the government’s “hardened positions are by far the greatest obstacle.”

“Accountability concerns not only the past but it also concerns the future and Myanmar is destined to repeat the cycles of violence unless there is an end to impunity,” he said. One of conditions that contributed to the atrocities committed since violence erupted in August 2017 is the shrinking of democratic space, they noted.

While the arrests of Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo gripped international headlines, the government has been increasingly cracking down on free speech and human rights defenders in the country.

Most recently, three journalists from Eleven Media—Nayi Min, Kyaw Zaw Linn, and Phyo Wai Win—were detained and are being investigated for online defamation. If charged and convicted, the journalists face up to two years in prison.

Lee and Darusman also expressed concern over the apartheid-like conditions in Myanmar that persist today including restrictions on movement and access to services such as healthcare and education.

While the government is building new infrastructure for both Rohingya still inside the country and those who fled, Lee noted they are usually segregated from Buddhist communities. If a policy of separation rather than integration continues, atrocities will be committed yet again. “It is an ongoing genocide,” Darusman said.

In the fact-finding mission report which looked into the past year’s events, investigators found that four out of five conditions for genocide were met: killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, and imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.

Of those, three conditions can still be seen in the country. For instance, in 2015, Myanmar’s government imposed “birth spacing” restrictions on women, requiring a 36-month interval between children with forced use of contraception in the interim.

The Population Control Healthcare Bill was introduced in response to a 2013 government report that saw “the rapid population growth of the Bengalis [Rohingya] as an extremely serious threat.” Prior to this, the government enacted a two-child limit on the Muslim community in Rakhine. And it is because of these conditions that Rohingya refugees cannot go back.

“Repatriation is not possible now. Unless the situation in Myanmar is conducive, I will not encourage any repatriation. They should not go back to the existing laws, policies, and practices,” Lee said.

She urged for the civilian government to adopt laws that protect and advance human rights for all, and for Suu Kyi to use “all her moral and political power” to act.

“Myanmar now stands at a crossroads—they can respond as a responsible member of the United Nations and take up the call for accountability or they can be on the same self-self-destructive road,” Darusman said.

Of the actions that can be taken towards the path to accountability is the pardoning of human rights defenders and journalists who have been arbitrarily detained in order to restore democratic space.

Myanmar should also allow for unhindered access for humanitarian actors and U.N. investigators, Lee added.

“I think we are at a point where Myanmar and the international community both are at a juncture where the right choice to make will determine the future of not only Myanmar but peace and security in the region and the world,” she said.





Greenwich: Religion and science come together to tackle climate change

Greenwich photo


By: Ellen Teague

Representatives of various faiths working on environmental issues in and around Kent joined a dialogue with engineers and scientists on Saturday to examine ‘Environment, Climate Change and Sustainability’.
The Chatham Campus of Greenwich University hosted the unique one-day conference on 13 October, organised by Medway Inter Faith Action, in partnership with the Institute of Mechanical Engineers and the University of Greenwich.
The conference explored the relationship between ethical and spiritual principals and the practical actions of individuals and communities facing global environmental change. It was fascinating to hear opening prayers from different faiths that could have been from any one of them.

Representing a Jewish perspective was Dr David Herling, a Senior Lecturer at London University and a noted figure in the world of arboriculture. He reflected that “Judaism is obsessed by trees” and pointed out the frequent mention of trees in the Bible, such as the Tree of Life in Genesis and the Cedars of Lebanon. He talked about small locally-based projects to plant trees, improve soil, and try out drought-resistant crops. Dr Nigel Jollands represented the Baha’i perspective, and he works on Energy Efficiency and Climate Change at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. He felt climate change is symptomatic of spiritual problems, such as defining prosperity purely in terms of material wealth, and tolerating extremes of poverty and wealth in our society. He felt his faith called him towards seeing the interconnectedness of elements of creation and humility towards nature. He questioned the notion of “green growth” where “you can have your cake and eat it” saying the consumption of physical resources, particularly those creating greenhouse gases, must be reduced.

This was echoed in the Christian perspective, offered by Ellen Teague of the Columban JPIC team. In her talk she highlighted the call in the 2015 Laudato Si’ Encyclical of Pope Francis “to hear the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor” and to work towards “ecological conversion”. She showed photos of the huge faith lobby and petition at the Paris Climate talks which contributed towards an agreement on limiting greenhouse gas emissions. Examples of live simply parishes, Justice and Peace education work, Pax Christi peace gardens in schools and the ‘Global Healing’ initiative of the bishops of England and Wales were highlighted.

An Islamic perspective was offered by Dr Muzammal Hussain, who has an MA in Environment, Development & Policy. In his talk ‘Healing the Earth’ he underlined the interconnection of creation issues and justice for the marginalised. It is poor communities who are suffering the worst impacts of climate change. He called for a shift away from seeing money as wealth and instead seeing our real wealth as being the gift of the natural world. Islam promotes “awe and wonder” in humanity’s relationship with the environment and emphasises the importance of community in its broadest sense.

The views of the engineers were remarkably similar to faith speakers. Roger Middleton of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers Energy, Environment and Sustainability group said, “as an engineer I can’t hold out any hope of the technical solution to the climate change problem”. He lamented that human society is not seriously preparing for the worst impacts of climate change even though scientists have warned about them for at least two decades. Dr AK Rahman, an aerospace engineer and a Muslim, described the environmental crisis as “the canary in the mineshaft of modern society” and suggested that there “must be a philosophical basis of engagement”.
In his view environmental ethics aims to define the best moral behaviour for humans to live without destroying their environment. The term “environmental ethics” is used in the Royal Charter of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. Since the world’s major faiths comprise 85% of the global population, they can have a major impact on respect for nature, assigning a status to animals and challenging selfish anthropocentrism. Self denial – such as fasting – and the notion of sacrifice were raised by him as areas pertinent to an adequate climate change response.

The chairman of Medway Interfaith Action, Faran Forghani, underlined at the end the importance of dialogue and cooperation between different faiths and disciplines in order to tackle the climate crisis. Kent Area of Southwark Archdiocese for Justice and Peace is an active member. It was clear that simpler lifestyles and consumer action need to be complimented by fundamental work tackling the structural causes of climate instability. It was suggested that systemic change will involve holding governments to account for action in line with the Paris Agreement, and also challenging the destructive activities of large corporations, particularly oil companies, for their greenhouse gas pollution. Advocacy and protest will form a component of tackling climate change.


Child soldiers of South Sudan

Child soilder photo

Former child soldiers during the release ceremony, outside Yambio in South Sudan. One hundred twenty-eight children (90 boys and 38 girls) were officially released at this ceremony by two armed groups, bringing the total number released this year to over 900. ANDREEA CAMPEANU/AL JAZEERA

by Andreea Campeanu & Patricia Huon

Yambio, South Sudan – On the red, dusty ground in Yambio, under a large mango tree, a group of 30 girls and boys, some wearing military clothes and some with guns next to them, sit in the shade eating biscuits while waiting for the start of the ceremony to release them from the army.

The US ambassador and other guests are coming from the capital Juba to attend the event.

They are part of the 900 children released from the armed forces in South Sudan in 2018, the country with one of the largest number of child soldiers in the world. The ceremony consists of them symbolically taking off the military clothes, and receiving blue UNICEF labelled notebooks and schoolbags.

According to the UN, there are still 19,000 children in armed forces in South Sudan, a number contested by the army. “We have concerns about the figures published by UNICEF. We don’t know how they came up with those numbers. Now, it’s true that some other groups that were integrated into the SPLA had child soldiers among them. But our policy is clear: we don’t want child soldiers,” said Lul Ruai Koang, the spokesperson for the South Sudan’s People Defence Force (former SPLA). “We gave their names to UNICEF. In Pibor or Yambio, they have been demobilised. We facilitate the process. After, it’s their responsibility to help them.”

Many of the children in the ceremony have already returned to their communities before the official release. They received medical screenings, counselling and psychosocial support as part of their rehabilitation, and some were assisted to return to school, while others received vocational training. Their families were also provided with food assistance.

But across South Sudan and in refugee camps outside the country, there are children and youth who left or escaped from the armed forces but received no assistance and have not been through a rehabilitation programme. Depending on age, boys are either used as porters, cleaners, or are trained to fight. Girls are often taken as “wives”, and often return in their communities with children.

“We see depression, anxiety. They have intrusive thoughts that come back. That can be triggered by something happening, but of which they have no control. That can affect their functionality,” says Rayan Fattouch, mental health specialist working in Yambio with Doctors Without Borders (known by its French initials, MSF).

MSF is medically screening the children who were associated with armed groups. Part of it is the mental health aspect. They are dealing with children and young adults who are facing “moderate to severe trauma”.

“The child needs to feel embraced by his community. And that can change from one community to another, depending on the experiences they have been through. They have their own trauma,” said Fattouch



Brazilians Decide on a Shift to the Right at Any Cost


By Mario Osava

Supporters of president-elect Jair Bolsonaro celebrate his triumph in the early hours of Oct. 29, in front of the former captain’s residence on the west side of Rio de Janeiro. The far-right candidate garnered 55.13 percent of the vote and will begin his four-year presidency on Jan. 1, 2019. Credit: Fernando Frazão/Agencia Brasil

RIO DE JANEIRO – Voters in Brazil ignored threats to democracy and opted for radical political change, with a shift to the extreme right, with ties to the military, as is always the case in this South American country.

Jair Bolsonaro, a 63-year-old former army captain, was elected as Brazil’s 42nd president with 55.13 percent of the vote in Sunday’s runoff election, heading up a group of retired generals, such as his vice president, Hamilton Mourão, and others earmarked as future cabinet ministers. He takes office on Jan. 1.

His triumph caused an unexpected political earthquake, decimating traditional parties and leaders.
The Bolsonaro effect prompted a broad renovation of parliament, with the election of many new legislators with military, police, and religious ties, and right-wing activists.

His formerly minuscule Social Liberal Party (PSL) is now the second largest force in the Chamber of Deputies, with 52 representatives. The country’s most populous and wealthiest states, São Paulo, Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro, elected PSL allies as governors, two of whom had no political experience.

Brazil thus forms part of a global rise of the right, which in some countries has led to the election of authoritarian governments, such as in the Philippines, Turkey, Hungary and Poland, or even the United States under Donald Trump.
Bolsonaro’s chances of taking his place in the right-wing wave only became clear on the eve of the first round of elections, on Oct. 7.

Little was expected of the candidate of such a tiny party, which did not even have a share of the national air time that the electoral system awards to the main parties. His political career consists of 27 years as an obscure congressman, known only for his diatribes and outspoken prejudices against women, blacks, indigenous people, sexual minorities and the poor.

But since the previous presidential elections in 2014, Bolsonaro had traveled this vast country and used the Internet to prepare his candidacy.
Early this year, polls awarded him about 10 percent of the voting intention, which almost doubled in August, when the election campaign officially began.

That growth did not worry his possible opponents, who preferred him as the easiest adversary to defeat in a second round, if no candidate obtained an absolute majority in the first. The idea was that he would come up against heavy resistance to an extreme right-wing candidate who has shown anti-democratic tendencies.
Fernando Haddad, the candidate of the leftist Workers Party, promised his supporters, after his defeat in the Oct. 28 elections, that as an opposition leader he would fight for civil, political and social rights in the face of Brazil’s future extreme right-wing government.

But this was no ordinary election. The poll favorite was former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011), whom the leftist Workers’ Party (PT) insisted on running, even though he had been in prison on corruption charges since April, and was only replaced on Sept. 11 by Fernando Haddad, a former minister of education and former mayor of São Paulo.

Five days earlier, Bolsonaro had been stabbed in the stomach by a lone assailant during a campaign rally in Juiz de Fora, 180 km from Rio de Janeiro.
The attack may have been decisive to his triumph, by giving him a great deal of publicity and turning him into a victim, observers say. It also allowed him to avoid debates with other candidates, which could have revealed his weaknesses and contradictions.

But two surgeries, 23 days in a hospital and then being confined to his home, due to a temporary colostomy, prevented him from participating in election rallies. So the social media-savvy candidate focused on the Internet and social networks, which turned out to be his strongest weapon.

The massive use of WhatsApp to attack Haddad aroused suspicions that businessmen were financing “fake news” websites, thus violating electoral laws, as reported by the newspaper Folha de São Paulo on Oct. 18. The electoral justice system has launched an investigation.

The recently concluded campaign in Brazil triggered a debate about the role of this free instant messaging network and “fake news” in influencing the elections.
The social networks were decisive for Bolsonaro, who started from scratch, with practically no party, no financial resources, and no support from the traditional media. The mobilisation of followers was “spontaneous,” according to the candidate.

Brazil, the largest and most populous country in Latin America, with 208 million people, is one of the five countries in the world with the most social media users, with 120 million people using WhatsApp and 125 million using Facebook.
But these tools were only successful because the former army captain managed to personify the demands of the population, despite – or because of – his right-wing radicalism.

He presented himself as the most determined enemy of corruption and of the PT, whose governments from 2003 to 2016 are blamed for the systemic corruption in politics and the errors that caused the country’s worst economic recession, between 2014 and 2016.

As a military and religious man, recently converted to an evangelical church, he swore to wage an all-out fight against crime, a pressing concern for Brazilians, and said he would come to the rescue of the conventional family, which, according to his fiery, and often intemperate, speeches, has been under attack by feminism and other movements. He seduced business with his neoliberal positions, represented by economist Paulo Guedes, presented as a future minister.

The promise to reduce the size of the state and cut environmental taxes, among other measures, brought him the support of the agro-export sector, especially cattle ranchers and soybean producers.
The economic crisis combined with high crimes rates, added to a wave of conservatism in the habits and customs of this plural and open society, galvanised support for Bolsonaro, while offsetting worries about his authoritarian stances or his inexperience in government administration.

Bolsonaro said he would govern for all, defending “the constitution, democracy and freedom…It is not the promise of a party, but an oath of a man to God,” he said while celebrating his victory, announced three hours after the close of the polls.

His speech did little to reassures the opposition, which will be led by the PT, still the largest party, with 56 deputies and four state governors.
A week earlier he said that in his government “the red criminals will be swept from our homeland,” referring to PT leaders. He threatened to jail his rival, Haddad.

In the past he defended the torturers of the military dictatorship and denied that the 1964-1985 military regime was a dictatorship.
His brutal statements are downplayed by his followers as “boastfulness” and even praise his declarations as frank and forthright.
The problem is not the statements themselves, but the fact that they reveal his continued fidelity to the training he received at the Military Academy in the 1970s, in the middle of the dictatorship

He considers the period when generals were presidents “democratic”, since they maintained parliament and the courts, although with restrictions and subject to controls and purges..
Bolsonaro’s victory, with 57.8 million votes, also has the symbolic effect of the absolution of the military dictatorship via elections, to the detriment of democratic convictions.