Essay

Human rights KNOW no borders  

Salil Shetty, Secretary General 

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” 

Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, 16 April 1963, USA

On 9 October 2012, 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by Taliban gunmen in Pakistan. Her crime was to advocate the right to education for girls. Her medium was a blog. Like Mohamed Bouazizi, whose act in 2010 sparked widespread protests across the Middle East and North Africa, Malala’s determination reached far beyond the borders of Pakistan. Human courage and suffering combined with the power of social media unbounded by borders has changed our understanding of the struggle  for human rights, equality and justice, even as it has led to a perceptible shift in discourse around sovereignty and human rights.

People everywhere – at great personal risk – have taken to the streets as well as to the digital sphere to expose repression and violence by governments and other powerful actors. They have created a sense of international solidarity – through blogs, other social media and the traditional press to keep alive the memory of Mohamed and the dreams  of Malala.

citzensSuch courage, coupled with the ability to communicate our profound hunger for freedom and justice and rights, has alarmed those in power. Soundbites of support  for those protesting against oppression and discrimination stand in stark contrast  to the actions of many governments cracking down on peaceful protests and trying desperately to control the digital sphere – not least by rebuilding their national  borders in this sphere.

For what does it mean to those in power who hold tight to, and abuse the concept of, ‘sovereignty’, once they realize the potential power of the people to dismantle ruling structures, and to shine the spotlight on the tools of repression and disinformation they use to stay in power? The economic, political and trade system created by those in power often lead to human rights abuses. For example, the trade in arms destroys lives but is defended by governments who either use the arms to repress their own people or profit from the trade. Their justification is sovereignty.

Sovereignty and solidarity

In pursuit of freedoms, rights and equality, we need to rethink sovereignty. The power of sovereignty should – and can – arise through taking hold of one’s own destiny, such as states that have emerged from colonialism or from overbearing neighbours or that have risen from the ashes of movements that have overthrown repressive and corrupt regimes. This is sovereignty’s power for good. To keep that alive, and to contain its exploitative  side, we need to redefine sovereignty and recognize both global solidarity and global responsibility. We are citizens of the world. We care because we have access to information and we can choose to be unbound.

States routinely claim sovereignty – equating it to control over internal affairs without external interference – so they can do what they want. They have made  this claim to sovereignty – however specious – to hide or deny mass murder, genocide, oppression, corruption, starvation, or gender-based persecution.

But those who abuse their power and privilege can no longer easily hide that abuse. People with mobile phones record and upload videos that reveal the reality of human rights abuses in real time and expose the truth behind the hypocritical rhetoric and self-serving justifications. Likewise, corporates and other powerful private actors are more easily subjected to scrutiny because it is increasingly difficult to hide the consequences of their actions when they are devious or criminal.

We work in a human rights framework that assumes sovereignty but does not inherently defend it – not least following the establishment of the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect, agreed at a UN world summit in 2005, and repeatedly reaffirmed since then.It is easy to see why; 2012 alone gives us ample evidence of governments violating the rights of the people they govern.

A key element of human rights protection is the right of all people to be free from violence. Another key element is the strong limits on the state’s ability to interfere in our personal and family lives. This includes protecting our freedom of expression, of association and  of conscience. It includes not interfering with our bodies and how we use them – the decisions we make over reproduction, the sexual and gender identities we embrace,  how we choose to dress.

In the first few days of 2012, 300 families were left homeless in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, after being violently evicted from their neighbourhood. Just a few weeks later, 600 Brazilians met the same fate in Pinheirinho slum in São Paulo state. In March, 21 people were killed in Jamaica in a wave of police shootings, Azerbaijani musicians were beaten, arrested and tortured in detention, and Mali was plunged into crisis after  a coup took place in the capital Bamako.

And so it continued: more forced evictions in Nigeria; journalists killed in Somalia and Mexico and elsewhere; women raped or sexually assaulted in the home, in the street, or as they exercised their right to protest; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex communities banned from holding Pride festivals and their members beaten up;  human rights activists murdered or thrown in jail on trumped-up charges. In September, Japan executed a woman
for the first time in more than 15 years. November saw a new escalation in the Israel/Gaza conflict, while tens of thousands of civilians fled their homes in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as the Rwandan-backed armed group March 23 Movement (M23) marched on the capital of North Kivu province.

And then there was Syria. At year-end, the death toll according to the UN had reached 60,000, and was still rising.

Failure to protect

Too often over the last few decades, state sovereignty – increasingly closely linked with the concept of national security – has been used to justify actions that are antithetical to human rights. Internally, those who are powerful claim that they and only they can make decisions regarding the lives of the people they govern.

Like his father before him, President Bashar al-Assad has stayed in power by turning the Syrian army and security forces against the people calling for him to step down. But there is a key difference. At the time of the Hama massacre in 1982, Amnesty International and others highlighted what was happening and worked tirelessly to  try to stop it. But the mass killings took place largely out of view of the rest of the world. In the past two years, by contrast, brave Syrian bloggers and activists have been  able to tell the world directly about what is happening to them in their country, even  as it happens.

Despite the mounting death toll – and despite the abundant evidence of crimes committed – the UN Security Council again failed to act to protect civilians. For nearly  two years the Syrian military and security forces have launched indiscriminate attacks and detained, tortured and killed people they perceived to support the rebels. One Amnesty International report documented 31 different forms of torture and other ill-treatment. Armed opposition groups have also carried out summary killings and torture, albeit on a much smaller scale. The UN Security Council’s failure to act is defended, particularly by Russia and China, as respecting the sovereignty of the state.

The idea that neither individual states nor the international community should act decisively to protect civilians when governments and their security forces target their  own people – unless there is something in it for them – is unacceptable. Whether we  are talking about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the corralling of Tamils into the lethal  “no fire zone” in northern Sri Lanka, in which tens of thousands of civilians died in 2009, the ongoing starvation of people in North Korea or the Syrian conflict – inaction in the name of respect for state sovereignty is inexcusable.

Ultimately, states are responsible for upholding the rights of the people in their territory. But no one who believes in justice and human rights could argue that these concepts are currently served by sovereignty in any way but their lack of fulfilment.

Surely it is time to challenge this toxic mix of states’ claims to absolute sovereignty and their focus on national security rather than human rights and human security. Let’s have no more excuses. Now it is time for the international community to step up and reframe its duty to protect all global citizens.

Our countries have an obligation to respect, protect and fulfil our rights. And many have not done so. At best they have done so inconsistently. Despite all the successes of the human rights movement over the last few decades – from the prisoners of conscience released to the global prohibition of torture and the creation of an International Criminal Court – this distortion of sovereignty means billions are still left behind.

Guardianship or exploitation

One of the starkest examples of this over the last decades has been the treatment of the world’s Indigenous Peoples. A key value that unites Indigenous communities around  the world is their rejection of the concept of “owning” land. Instead, they have traditionally identified as guardians of the land on which they live. This rejection of the concept of owning real property has come at a huge price. Many of the lands on which Indigenous Peoples live have proven to be rich in resources. So the government that is meant to protect their rights appropriates the land for the ‘sovereign state’, then sells it, leases it or allows it to be plundered by others.

Instead of respecting the value of communities being guardians of the land and its resources, states and corporations have moved into these areas, forcibly displacing Indigenous communities and seizing ownership of the  land or the mineral rights associated with it.

In Paraguay, the Sawhoyamaxa spent 2012 as they have spent the last  20 years; displaced from their traditional lands, despite a ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 2006 recognizing their right to their lands. Further north, dozens of First Nations communities in Canada were continuing to oppose a proposal to build a pipeline connecting the Alberta oil sands to the British Columbia coast, crossing their traditional lands. At a time when governments should be learning from Indigenous communities in order  to rethink the relationship with natural resources, Indigenous communities the world over are under siege.  

What makes this devastation particularly distressing is the extent to which states and corporate actors are ignoring the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which explicitly requires states to ensure the full and effective participation of Indigenous Peoples in all matters that concern them. Indigenous rights activists face violence  and even murder when they seek to defend their communities and their lands.

Such discrimination, marginalization and violence were not limited to the Americas,  but took place across the globe – from the Philippines to Namibia, where 2012 saw the children of the San, Ovahimba people and other ethnic minorities facing numerous barriers preventing them from accessing education. This was particularly the case in Opuwo among the Ovahimba children who were forced to cut their hair and to not wear traditional dress to attend public schools.

The flow of money and people

The race for resources is just one element of our globalized world. Another is the flow  of capital through borders, across oceans, and into the pockets of the powerful. Yes, globalization has brought economic growth and prosperity for some, but the Indigenous experience is playing out in other communities who watch governments and corporations benefiting from the land they are living, and starving, on.

In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, despite significant growth in many countries, untold millions continue to live in life-threatening poverty. Corruption and the flow of capital into tax havens outside Africa continue to be two key reasons. The region’s mineral wealth continues to fuel deals between corporations and politicians in which both profit –  but at a price. A lack of transparency about concession agreements and the utter lack of accountability mean that both the shareholders of the corporations and the politicians  are unjustly enriched, while those whose labour is exploited, whose land is degraded and whose rights are violated, suffer. Justice is largely beyond their reach.

Another example of the free flow of capital is the remittances sent home by migrant workers around the world. According to the World Bank, remittances from migrant workers in developing countries are three times as much as official international development assistance. Yet those very same migrant workers were often left in 2012 with neither their home nor host states adequately protecting their rights.

Recruitment agencies in Nepal in 2012, for example, continued to traffic migrant workers for exploitation and forced labour, and charged fees above government-imposed limits, compelling workers to take large loans at high interest rates. Recruiters deceived many migrants on terms and conditions of work. Recruitment agencies that violated Nepalese law were rarely punished. In an example of a law that pays little more than lip service to women’s rights, in August the government banned women under the age of 30 from migrating for domestic work to Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates due to complaints of sexual and other physical abuse in those countries. But the bans potentially increased risks to women now forced to seek work through informal routes. What the government should have done is fought to secure safe working environments for the women.

Once people have left, the sending states claim that since their migrant workers are no longer within their territory, they have no obligations and the host states claim that because they are not citizens they have no rights. In the meantime, the UN Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and Their Families, which was opened for signature in 1990, remains one of the least ratified human rights conventions. No migrant-receiving state in Western Europe has ratified the Convention. Nor have others with large migrant populations such as the USA, Australia, Canada, India, South Africa and states in the Gulf.

This vulnerability is even greater for refugees. The most vulnerable are the 12 million stateless people in the world, equivalent in numbers to the world’s great agglomerations such as London, Lagos or Rio. And around 80% of them are women. Without the protection of their ‘sovereign’ state these people are true global citizens. And their protection falls to all of us. They are the purest argument for the fulfilment of the duty  to protect there is. For human rights protections must be applied to all humans, whether at home or not.

At the moment, this protection is seen as subservient to state sovereignty. Women are raped in camps across South Sudan, asylum-seekers from Australia to Kenya are locked up in detention centres or metal crates, hundreds die in leaky boats as they desperately search for safe harbour.

Boats of Africans floundering off the coast of Italy were turned away from the safety of European shores again in 2012, because states claimed that control of their borders was sacrosanct. The Australian government continued to interdict boats of refugees and migrants at sea. The US Coast Guard defended its practice: “Interdicting migrants at sea means they can be quickly returned to their countries of origin without  the costly processes required if they successfully enter the United States.” In each case – sovereignty trumped the right of individuals to seek asylum.

Around 200 people die every year trying to cross the desert into the US – a direct result of measures taken by the US government to make safer passages impassable for migrants. These numbers have remained steady even as immigration is declining.

These examples show the most heinous abnegation of the responsibility to promote human rights – including the right to life – and they stand in stark contrast to the free flow of capital detailed earlier.

Immigration controls also stand in stark contrast to the largely unimpeded flow of conventional weapons – including small arms and light weapons – across borders. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, injured, raped and forced to flee from their homes as a result of this trade. The arms trade also has direct links to discrimination and gender-based violence, disproportionately affecting women. This has far-reaching implications for efforts to consolidate peace, security, gender equality and secure development. The abuses are fuelled in part by the ease with which weapons are easily bought and sold, bartered and shipped around the world – too often ending up in the hands of abusive governments and their security forces, warlords and criminal gangs. It’s a lucrative business – US$70 billion a year – and so those with entrenched interests try to protect the trade from regulation. As this report goes  to print, the top arms-brokering governments are poised to enter negotiations for an arms trade treaty. Our demand is that where there is a substantial risk that these weapons will be used to commit violations of international humanitarian law or serious violations of human rights law – the transfer should be prohibited.

The flow of information

The crucial positive to take from these examples, however, is that we know about them. For half a century, Amnesty International has documented human rights violations around the world and uses every resource it has to try to halt and prevent abuses and protect our rights. Globalized communication is creating opportunities the founders of the modern human rights movement could never have imagined. Increasingly, there is very little that governments and corporations can do in hiding behind “sovereign” boundaries.

The speed with which new forms of communication have taken root in our lives is breathtaking. From 1985, when the dotcom domain name was created, to today,  when 2.5 billion people can access the internet, the wheels of change have spun  with extraordinary speed. 1989 saw Tim Berners Lee propose the document retrieval element of the internet, Hotmail was born in 1996, blogs in 1999, Wikipedia launched in 2001. In 2004 Facebook was born, followed by YouTube a year later – along with  the internet’s billionth user, said to be “statistically likely to be a 24-year-old woman in Shanghai”. 2006 brought Twitter, and Google’s censored Chinese site Gu Ge. By 2008 China had more people online than the USA. And in the same year, activists working with Kenyan citizen journalists developed a website called Ushahidi – the Swahili  word for “testimony” – initially to map reports of violence in Kenya after the election, and since developed into a platform used around the world with the mission to “democratize information”.

We live in an information-rich world. Activists have the tools to make sure violations are not hidden. Information creates an imperative to act. We face a crucial time: will we continue to have access to this information or will states in collusion with other powerful actors block that access? Amnesty International wants to make sure everyone has the tools to access and share information and to challenge power and sovereignty when it is abused. With the internet, we can build a model of global citizenship. The internet forms  a counterpoint to the whole concept of sovereignty and citizenship-based rights.

What Martin Luther King Jr. phrased so eloquently around the “inescapable network of mutuality” and the “single garment of destiny”, has been espoused and promoted by many great thinkers and defenders of rights before and after him. But now is the moment to seed it into the very “fabric” of our international model of citizenship. The African concept of ‘Ubuntu’ puts it most clearly: “I am because we are”.

It is about connecting all of us, not allowing borders, walls, seas, portrayals of enemies as “the other” to pollute our natural sense of justice and human-hood. Now the digital world has truly connected us with information. 

Agency and participation 

It is simple. The openness of the digital world levels the playing field and allows many more people access to the information they need to challenge governments and corporations. It is a tool that encourages transparency and accountability. Information  is power. The internet has the potential to significantly empower all 7 billion people  living in the world today. It is a tool that allows us to see and document and challenge human rights abuses wherever they may be happening. It enables us to share information so that we can work together to solve problems, promote human security  and human development and fulfil the promise of human rights.

The abuse of state sovereignty is the opposite. It is about walls and control of information and communication and hiding behind state secrecy laws and other claims of privilege. The narrative behind the claim of sovereignty is that what the government is doing is  no one’s business but its own, and as long it acts within its own borders, it cannot be challenged. It is about the powerful acting on the powerless.

The power and possibilities of the digital world are immense. And, as technology is value neutral, these possibilities can enable actions that are coherent with building rights respecting societies or enable actions that are antithetical to human rights.

It is interesting for Amnesty International, whose history is rooted in defending freedom of expression, to live again what governments do when unable to control it, and decide to manipulate access to information. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the prosecution or harassment of bloggers in countries from Azerbaijan to Tunisia, and from Cuba to the Palestinian Authority. In Viet Nam, for example, popular bloggers Nguyen Van Hai, known as Dieu Cay, “Justice and Truth” blogger Ta Phong Tan, and Phan Thanh Hai, known as AnhBaSaiGon, were tried in September for “conducting propaganda” against the state. They were sentenced to 12, 10 and four years’ imprisonment respectively, with three to five years’ house arrest on release. The trial lasted only a few hours, and their families were harassed and detained to prevent them from attending. Their trial was postponed three times, the last time because the mother of Ta Phong Tan died after setting herself  on fire outside government offices in protest at her daughter’s treatment.

But imprisoning people for exercising their freedom of expression and challenging those in power using digital technology is only the first line of defence of governments. We increasingly see states trying to build firewalls around any digital communications or information systems. Iran, China and Viet Nam have all tried to build a system  that allows them to regain control over both communications and access to information available in the digital sphere.

What may be even more worrisome is the number of countries that are exploring less obvious means of control in this area through massive surveillance and more artful means of manipulating access to information.

The USA, which continues to demonstrate a remarkable lack of respect for recognizing parameters – as evidenced by the drone strikes being carried out around the world – has recently proclaimed the right to conduct surveillance of any information kept in cloud storage systems – digital filing cabinets that are not bound to territorial domains. To be clear, this includes information owned by individuals and companies that are not based in or citizens of the USA.

This struggle over access to information and control of the means of communication is just beginning. So what can the international community do to show its respect for those who so bravely risked their lives and freedoms to mobilize during the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa? What can all of us do to show solidarity with Malala Yousafzai and all the others who dare to stand up and say “Enough”?

We can demand that states ensure that all the people they govern have meaningful access to the digital world – preferably through high-speed and truly affordable internet access whether via a portable hand-held devise such as a mobile phone, or a desktop computer. In doing so they would be fulfilling one of the principles of human rights as articulated in Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: “To enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications.” And Article 27  of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says: “Everyone has the right freely  to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”

Meaningful access to the internet surely qualifies as enjoying the benefit of scientific progress.

Many years ago, states created an international postal service that would be set up nationally but would interconnect with all other postal services creating a global mail system. Every person could write a letter, buy a stamp and send that letter to somewhere else, pretty much anywhere else, in the world. If there was no delivery to your doorstep – there was the system of poste restante or general delivery that designated a place where one could call for one’s mail.

And that mail was considered private – no matter how many borders it crossed. This form of communications and information sharing, which can seem rather quaint in today’s world, changed the way we communicated and was built on a presumption of the right to privacy of those communications. Most importantly, states undertook to ensure that all people had access to this service. And while many governments undoubtedly used their access to mail to read what was private, they did not challenge the principle of the right to privacy of these communications. In countless countries it opened people up to the sharing of information and family and community life.

Today, access to the internet is critical to ensure that people can communicate, and  also to ensure people’s access to information. Transparency, access to information  and the ability to participate in political debates and decisions are critical to building a rights respecting society.

Few actions by governments can have such immediate, powerful and far-reaching positive consequences for human rights.

Each government of the world has a decision to make. Will it take this value-neutral technology and use it to reclaim its power over others – or will it use it to empower  and promote the freedom of individuals?

The advent of the internet and its global penetration – via cellphones, internet cafés, and computers accessible at schools, public libraries, workplaces and homes – has created a huge opportunity for empowering people to claim their rights. ­

The choice for the future

States have an opportunity to seize this moment and ensure that all the people they govern have meaningful access to the internet. They can ensure that people have affordable access to the internet. States can also support the creation of many more venues such as libraries and cafés where people can access the internet for free or at affordable rates.

Crucially, states can ensure women – only 37% of whom currently access the internet – can actively participate in this information system and therefore in the actions and decisions being taken in the world they live in. As a new report by UN Women, Intel and the US State Department details, there is a the huge internet gender gap in countries such as India, Mexico and Uganda. This means states must create systems that enable access in homes, schools and workplaces, as places such as internet cafés are impractical for women who can’t leave their homes for religious and cultural reasons.

States can also work to eradicate social discrimination against women and negative stereotyping. An Indian woman with an engineering degree told the report’s authors that she was banned from the computer “for fear that if she touched it, something would go wrong”. Other anecdotal evidence pointed to some husbands forbidding their wives to use the family computer in case they saw inappropriate sexual content. That is one reason cited for why only 14% of women in Azerbaijan have ever gone online, although 70% of men there have.

In recognizing the right of people to access the internet, states would be fulfilling their duties with respect to freedom of expression and the right to information. But they must do so in a manner that respects the right to privacy.  

To fail to do so risks creating two tiers of people domestically and globally – in which some people have access to the tools they need to claim their rights while others are left behind.

Knowledge, information and the ability to speak are power. Rights respecting states do not fear that power. Rights respecting states promote empowerment. And the borderless nature of the digital sphere means that we can all engage in an exercise of global citizenship to use these tools to promote respect for human rights in small places close to home and in solidarity with people living far away.

Traditional forms of solidarity can have even greater impact as they go ‘viral’. Take  the 12 individuals that thousands of activists campaigned for as part of Amnesty International’s 10th global “Write for Rights” marathon in December 2012. This is the world’s largest human rights event and in the last few years has embraced emails, digital petitions, SMS messages, faxes, tweets, leading to 2 million actions taken expressing solidarity, providing support and helping get those imprisoned for their beliefs released.

For Amnesty International we see in the internet the radical promise and possibilities that our founder Peter Benenson saw more than 50 years ago – the possibility of people working together across borders to demand freedom and rights for all.  His dream was dismissed as one of the larger lunacies of our time. Many former prisoners of conscience owe their freedom and lives to that dream. We are on the cusp of creating and fulfilling another dream that some will dismiss as lunacy.  But today, Amnesty International embraces the challenge and calls on states to recognize our changed world and create the tools of empowerment for all people.    

“One thing that gives us hope is support and solidarity from regular people. People are the only impetus for change. Governments will not improve or do anything unless there is pressure from people... The amount of messages I received [from Amnesty activists] gives me a lot of hope, despite all the challenges.” Azza Hilal Ahmad Suleiman, who is still recovering from a vicious attack near Tahrir Square, Egypt, was one of the 12 cases featured in December 2012's Write for Rights campaign. She intervened after seeing a group of soldiers beating and removing a young woman's clothes, and was left with a fractured skull and memory problems. She is now suing the military. 

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