2012: A Year of Human Rights Challenges

As Human Rights violations continue around the world, will 2013 be a better year?

kenya slum
The Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya is home to roughly one million inhabitants and is considered one of the largest slums in Africa [GALLO/GETTY]

International Human Rights day is celebrated on December 10, but from a human rights perspective, 2012 has been more of a year to learn from than one to celebrate.

Human Rights Day was chosen to honour the UN General Assembly’s adoption and proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, on December 10, 1948, which was the first global enunciation of human rights.

Yet, for most of the years since then, the reality has been quite different than the Human Rights ideals set more than 60 years ago.

“Northern Mali is a veritable hell-hole, especially for women, as an al-Qaeda affiliate imposes its version of Sharia Law on the population, leading to amputations, executions and complete lack of freedom,” Bill O’Neil, an international lawyer who is the Director of Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum told Al Jazeera.

O’Neil pointed out how North Korea continues to violate countless Human Rights, as the country engages in true totalitarian repression, and explained how the government in Bahrain “has exerted control over all aspects of basic freedoms, continues its crackdown on freedom of assembly, association and a lack of fair trial, and torture is common in detentions there.”

And it’s not just countries one would usually suspect of Human Rights violations.

O’Neil posed this question for the United States:

“Will the Obama administration reveal its drone targeting criteria so that we can all see whether they are consistent with obligations under binding international law?”

The Obama administration ordered an end to government complicity in torture but continues to refuse to investigate, let alone prosecute, US officials who were responsible.

Corporate implications
This last year saw continuing pressure on Western countries from international human rights groups to prioritise their leadership on international norms and the universality of human rights.

For example, the UN Human Rights Council, addressing the issue of the United States’ actions towards refusing to renew their membership to the group said, “By withdrawing from these institutions or restricting funding, the United States forfeits its leadership … and undermines its ability to advance its own interests.”

Human rights organisations, by the end of 2012, are also concerned about governments lacking enough measures to prevent genocide and mass atrocities, as well as lacking enough opposition to the coordinated global assault on civil society by the murder, criminalization and vilification of human rights defenders.

There also appears to be an ongoing lack of accountability to prevent western corporations from contributing to human rights violations in their operations as well as via their supply chains, lack of access to services and justice for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, and relationships with Western states with alliances to governments that violate human rights.

Ongoing violations

May Ying Welsh is an Al Jazeera journalist who has been covering the Middle East and Africa since 2001.

“The US war on Iraq spurred one of the worst human rights crisis I’ve ever seen,” Welsh explained. “Outside of that, some of the most egregious human rights violations I’ve seen since I’ve been with Al Jazeera have been in Southern Sudan. One of the things I’ve found most distressing there has been the gang raping of children on a massive scale.”

Welsh says that these types of atrocities having been ongoing throughout 2012, along with a lack of coverage in the media.

She believes there is politicization of the conflicts, in which certain parties commit human rights violations that become exaggerated, yet when other parties commit the same violations, “It’s as if the whole world has no eyes and ears.”

“And all of this is ongoing in South Sudan and continues to largely be unreported,” she added. “And South Sudanese journalists who try to uncover these are severely punished, so it’s up to Western journalists to cover this story, but they seem largely unwilling to cover this story.”

Welsh has spent most of 2012 covering stories in Mali and Niger, two of the poorest countries in the world.

French state nuclear power company, Areva, is blamed for
ongoing environmental contamination around parts of northern

“Because they are so isolated, a lot of things happen there that no one ever knows about. The Sahara is a vast island of illiteracy so you can commit violations there and no one will ever know. The people are extremely poor and illiterate and don’t know their rights.”

The French state nuclear corporation, Areva, one of the largest corporations in the world, has been mining uranium in this area of the world for 40 years.

“They are polluting the non-renewable ground water,” Welsh explained, which is a phenomenon that is a violation of the local populations rights to clean water, clean air, and healthy food. “The people are having birth defects and their animals are dying.”

The radiation pollution crisis also underscores how climate change has become a massive Human Rights issue, as it has compounded the worsening problems presented by climate change, like the fact that the Sahara desert is advancing several kilometres annually, choking the people of Niger’s reliance on rain fed pasture and agriculture.

“So this climate change problem, coupled with a massive corporation polluting your land with uranium, is killing an entire peoples way of life and pushing them into starvation and ever-desperate methods of surviving.”

What Welsh is witnessing is an example of how a population that has done nothing to contribute to climate change and has a minimal carbon footprint are suffering dramatically from the crisis of climate change.

“These people have nothing, and they are being swept away by the sand,” Welsh concluded. “They are desperate; they are in a life or death struggle.”

Mary Robinson, the former UN high commissioner for human rights, recently told Democracy Now that she believes climate change is “the biggest human rights issue of the 21st century.

ICC Ticket?

Al Jazeera senior correspondent Mohammed Adow has been covering Africa for years, and told of a situation in Kenya where two politicians who have been indicted by the International Criminal Court for rape, forcible transfer of people, killings, and other charges are actually running for the office of president.

The two indicted men, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, are running for president and vice president respectively, despite their alleged crimes that took place during post-election violence in 2007.

“You can understand how Kenyan’s are feeling, and the hearing of the cases will begin after the elections,” Adow explained. “So, many people are apprehensive about being ruled by two suspects of the ICC, who would be forced to shuttle between The Hague and Nairobi.”

Shockingly, the two men have a viable chance of winning the election, which will take place in March 2013, due to their enjoying the support of some of Kenya’s larger tribal populations.

People vote along tribal lines, and some of the larger tribes joined together could bring, what some jokingly refer to as the “ICC ticket”, victory.

Adow describes Kenya as a situation of “survival of the fittest” where the average schoolteacher earns in a decade what a member of parliament earns in one month.

“Kenya’s future is at stake,” he added. “The sense of entitlement of the politicians, for the sake of protecting themselves, they put themselves ahead of 40 million Kenyans. And there are massive amounts of Human Rights violations.”

Hope for 2013?

Systematic and ongoing human rights violations continue in the aforementioned countries as well as Sudan, Belarus, Syria, and China, but there were a few positive stories from this year.

Myanmar saw big changes.

“There is much more freedom and a working parliament,” O’Neil informed, as well as pointing to Sierra Leone.

“There we saw successful elections while human rights abuses have diminished and the police are doing good work, especially on gender issues,” he added.

And in Argentina, trials of perpetrators of horrendous violations are taking place, which according to O’Neil, “Shows that although it may take time, impunity can be overcome through persistent advocacy of human rights.”

Source: Al Jazeera