World Report 2018 summarizes key human rights issues in more than 90 countries and territories worldwide, drawing on events from late 2016 through November 2017.
In his keynote essay, “The Pushback Against the Populist Challenge,” Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the surge of authoritarian populists appears less inevitable than it did a year ago. Then, there seemed no stopping a series of politicians around the globe who claimed to speak for “the people” but built followings by demonizing unpopular minorities, attacking human rights principles, and fueling distrust of democratic institutions. Today, a popular reaction in a broad range of countries, bolstered by some political leaders with the courage to stand up for human rights, has left the fate of many of these populist agendas more uncertain.
Report link: https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/world_report_download/201801world_report_web.pdf
Ayear after he was released from captivity in Guantánamo, Binyam Mohamed received a letter from Christina Cowger, an agricultural researcher from North Carolina. Enclosed was a petition of apology signed by nearly 800 visitors to the North Carolina State Fair.
It was “a small gesture”, Cowger acknowledged, but her 2010 letter came with a commitment. North Carolina Stop Torture Now, an organization she co-founded, had been conducting protests, petition drives and legislative campaigns seeking an official investigation into an obscure firm operating flights out of her local airport.
The firm, Aero Contractors, was the CIA front company that operated the Gulfstream business jet that delivered Mohamed to a secret prison in Morocco to be tortured.
Though few government officials supported such an investigation, she wrote, the group pledged “to work toward true transparency and accountability in the United States for the crimes against you and other survivors”.
Seven years later, Cowger sat in the front row of a makeshift hearing room in the Raleigh Convention Center as 11 volunteer commissioners of the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture “upped the ante”, as she put it, on that pledge.
Over the course of two days, this “citizen-led truth seeking commission” called 20 witnesses to testify on the damage done by Aero’s rendition operations.
One of those witnesses was Mohamedou Ould Slahi, whose Guantánamo Diaryopens as he is stripped, made to wear a diaper, and shackled aboard Aero’s Gulfstream in Amman, Jordan, in July 2002.
Appearing by Skype from his home country of Mauritania, Slahi faced questions from a panel that included a former chief prosecutor of the international war crimes tribunal, a multi-tour veteran of the Iraq and Afghan wars, a Baptist minister, and a local social worker.
How, the commissioners asked, can we advance an accountability process our elected officials have shunned?
It is a question that North Carolinians have wrestled with before. In 1979, Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi party members opened fire at an anti-Klan rally in Greensboro, leaving five dead. State and federal trials ended in acquittals, and a civil lawsuit raised more questions than it answered about the actions of city officials and police during the event.
Now the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture aims to find a way forward from one of 21st-century America’s darkest episodes – the global operation to seize, interrogate and torture terrorism suspects that Aero Contractors facilitated from the Johnston County airport, a rustic, single runway airstrip 30 miles south-east of Raleigh.
Allyson Caison, a local realtor, first heard the CIA was running “a secret little operation” out of the airport around a Boy Scout campfire in 1996. The subject came up again in the early 2000s, when a relative who was a recreational pilot landed at the airport and marveled at its state-of-the-art runway.
She didn’t know that the “little operation” a former Air America pilot set up years ago in a nondescript blue hangar tucked into the pines employed more than 120 people, or that the Gulfstream jet she would hear taking off and landing was one of the most prolific spiders in what the Council of Europe has called a “web spun across the world” by the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation operations.
In April 2005, the New York Times ran a story titled “CIA Expanding Terror Battle Under Guise of Charter Flights” that lifted the lid on Aero’s rendition flights. Later that year, 40 peace activists from St Louis joined Christina Cowger and other local residents to protest against the company’s role in the CIA’s torture program.
“It turned out I knew two of the three Aero principals well,” Caison said during a tour around the airport the day before the commission’s hearings convened. “These were prominent, well-respected business people in our community. Their children and mine were schoolmates. I baked their gingerbread houses for Christmas.”
From 2001 to 2004 Aero’s Gulfstream, operated under the tail number N379P, and a second, larger Boeing 737 Aero stationed at Kinston regional jetport in nearby Lenoir County, carried out scores of rendition missions. Together, they accounted for roughly 80% of all the CIA renditions during those years, landing more than 800 times in countries throughout Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. The Gulfstream was in and out of Guantánamo so often it earned the nickname the Guantánamo Express.
To drive with Caison around the airport is to get a sense of how much nerve this kind of neighbor-to-neighbor activism takes. In the gleaming new Johnston County airport terminal, the young airport manager greeted her with a wary handshake and a gently drawled apology that he could not attend the commission’s hearings.
Down the road, at the recently fortified automatic gate that blocks the access road to Aero’s hangar, there was no pretense of hospitality. It was lunch hour, and a line of cars was filing out the gate. Each slowed at the sight of Caison’s car. One driver, glaring, almost clipped her side view mirror as he inched past.
Caison said: “I really think we’ve changed some hearts and minds around here. People are quiet about it because of Aero’s long tentacles. But we’ve been persistent. It’s the strength of our little group. We’ve accomplished a lot.”
North Carolina Stop Torture Now has had an impact over the last 10 years. Recently released minutes of a closed 2007 meeting of the airport authority in Kinston, where Aero housed its larger 737 rendition jet, confirmed that Aero sold its hangar at the facility that year. When a member of the airport’s board asked its executive director why the company was leaving, the director “explained that Aero Contractors had not had the aircraft in the hangar for several months due to the negative publicity they were getting from Stop Torture Now”.
The campaign scored successes at state level and in Washington too. In Raleigh, the group pressed the governor and state attorney general to open a criminal investigation into Aero’s rendition operations. Told that the state had no jurisdiction, the group drew on a growing network of support from churches to press for legislation to make participating in CIA kidnappings, enforced disappearances and torture state crimes.
The bill twice stalled in committee, but attracted 12 bipartisan co-sponsors and brought the question of rendition for torture before religious congregations throughout the state.
Pressure is also credited with helping persuade Senator Richard Burr, then the ranking Republican on the Senate intelligence committee, to join in voting to declassify the executive summary of the Senate’s scathing report on the CIA torture program in 2014.
Although that report only examined the treatment of prisoners inside the CIA’s black sites around the world, its release sparked hopes for greater accountability over the rendition to bring suspects to interrogation.
Burr, now chair of the Senate’s intelligence committee, has made clear there will be no further official reckoning for the agency’s post-9/11 human rights violations, and has sought to recall and destroy all copies of the still-classified Senate report.
For the volunteer commissioners of the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture, this is where their responsibility begins.
“With no meaningful accountability from government leaders, it’s been left to citizens to keep this issue alive,” commission co-chair Jennifer Daskal, a law professor at American University, explained in a break in the hearings.
“We don’t have the power to prosecute, but we can offer an accounting of what happened, and of the costs, to prevent this from happening again.”
“I believe in accountability. I’ve done accountability,” said David Crane, who served as the founding chief prosecutor of the international tribunal that prosecuted Liberian president Charles Taylor for war crimes and who lives in North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains.
“Torture is a clearcut issue: you don’t torture. The American people just need to know the raw facts, and many of those facts are right here in North Carolina.”
The commission invited Aero Contractors to give testimony at the hearings, but received no response. Invitations to the governor, attorney general and several Johnston County officials to attend or send representative to the hearings also went unanswered. Calls to the county manager and county commissioners seeking comment on the hearings and Aero’s operations were not returned.
The North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torturewill collect evidence through the spring, pressing for the release of public records from county and state officials and compiling research and testimony on the lasting harms inflicted by Aero’s rendition flights. It plans to release its final report this summer.
But the commission’s hearings also sharpened their sense of personal responsibility to repair the harm they see caused by Aero’s operations.
“As a person of faith, I have to be involved in this,” Caison told the commission near the end of the hearing. “As a mom of two boys, I like to think that if my boys were kidnapped, renditioned and tortured, there would be another mom out there at the other end like me, trying to end an injustice that starts in her neighborhood.”
For Cowger, the priority now is to address the physical and psychological health of those who survived Aero’s rendition flights – a process that involves “acknowledgement, genuine apology, and some form of redress”.
“The commission demonstrates by its very being that we are not helpless,” she said.
By: Emily Green
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America
BOGOTA, Columbia – The United Nations reports that more than 100 human rights activists have been killed in Colombia in 2017, denouncing the government’s inactions.
The UN urges the Colombian government to be more accountable and provide better protections for its activists. The peace accord, which ended a 50-year civil war, was signed by the Colombian government and FARC rebels last year. Since it was signed, activists have been particularly at risk in regions that were vacated by rebel fighters. These zones are often rural and now have a power vacuum because of the withdrawal of rebels.
The UN report shows that more than half of the 105 human rights activists and community leaders murdered this year were killed by gunmen. At least eleven other cases are still under investigation. This count does not yet include the events that transpired in December, when a community leader in Puerto Colombia, Putumayo was murdered along with his eight-year-old daughter. The activist, Pablo Oviedo, was walking with his daughter when they were ambushed by multiple gunmen and shot several times. They were declared dead at a hospital in Puerto de Asis. Oviedo’s two brothers are both human rights activists and have been declared missing.
Even more tragically, these murders occurred hours after the Colombian Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas participated in a security council meeting to address the city’s increased violence. Social leaders that attended this meeting wore masks to avoid being victims of the violence.
The UN human rights office states, “We note with deep concern the persistence of cases of killings of human rights defenders in the country. Cases of killings of male and female leaders and [rights] defenders have occurred in areas from which the FARC has left, and which has created a vacuum of power by the state.”
To put this in perspective, UN reports show that 45 rights defenders were killed in 2014, 59 in 2015, and 127 in 2016. Local groups explain that leaders who speak out against rights abuses and activists campaigning for land rights are targeted because they threaten the economic interests of organized crime groups. Most victims belong to Afro-Colombian and indigenous groups.
In December, Defense Minister Villegas stated that authorities are working to bring those responsible for the murders to justice. The UN human rights office maintains that “the prevention of attacks and aggressions against human rights defenders involves investigation, prosecution and punishment of those responsible.”
Out of all recorded murders of human rights defenders last year, three out of four took place in the Americas.
For more information, please see:
By: Emily Green
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America
LIMA, Peru – Alberto Fujimori ruled Peru in the 1990s and was sentenced to 25 years in prison for human rights abuses and corruption. On Sunday, Peru’s current president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, granted him a medical pardon.
Fujimori expressed his gratitude to President Kuczynski in a video from his hospital bed. He explains that the pardon had a strong impact on him, creating “a mix of extreme happiness as well as sorrow.” He stated, “I’m aware that the results produced by my government were well received by some, but I recognize that I have let down others. Those I ask for forgiveness from the bottom of my heart.”
Fujimori suspended civil liberties and oversaw a violent crackdown on the opposition during his presidency from 1990 to 2000. In 2007, he was extradited from Chile and sentenced to jail for six years on charges of bribery and abuse of power. Two years later, he was sentenced to another 25 years for human rights abuses from his rule. Fujimori was convicted of authorizing military death squads.
Critics denounce the pardon and claim it was motivated by a desire to reward Fujimori’s son, Kenji. The congressman helped the president survive a crucial impeachment vote last week when the conservative Popular Force party, who controls Congress, tried to impeach him over a corruption scandal. However, they failed because Kenji split the party’s vote, thus allowing the president to stay in power.
President Kuczynski’s office states that he granted a “humanitarian pardon” to Fujimori and seven other people in similar condition. Doctors have declared that he has a progressive, degenerative, and incurable illness.
However, protestors rallied as soon as the pardon came to light and claim that the pardon was carried out in an illegal manner. They say the president was trying to save his own skin and the pardon was treason. One protestor stated, “The reality is that this sadly was a political agreement between the Fujimorists and the current government.”
Activists and protestors gathered by the thousands in Lima, the capital, in late December. Human rights experts and political analysts join in the criticism. President Kuczynski pardoned one of the few Latin American strongmen who has been held accountable in judicial proceedings for abuses committed during his reign. The South American representative for the UN High Commission for Human Rights claims that “not putting victims at the center of this decision derails the progress the Peruvian state has made on truth, justice, memory, and reparations.”
The pardon has already cost the president the support of three allies in Congress. They resigned in protest and leave him with only 15 allies left in the lawmaking body.
For more information, please see:
By: Katherine Hewitt
Impunity Watch Reporter, Asia
BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan – Central Asia is known for its repressive regimes, yet Kyrgyzstan stands out with its partnerships that promote democracy. Even being labeled a “Partner for Democracy” and holding elections in 2017, the country still has a ways to go to improve democracy and human rights.
The closing of an independent national television station, NTS, is another act in the long list of media freedom violations that have occurred in 2017. The station was closed late in the year, on the 19th of December. A court order froze NTS’s property and court officers raided the station. The order reads that all “properties, assets, equipment and everything else must be seized.” The officials registering the equipment stated that they did not intend to interrupt broadcasting, and the show did continue with its normal broadcast.
In the meantime with NTS is off the air, Jalbyrak is available online. It’s a new Internet TV Channel company officials launched in the aftermath. As of the 21st of December, some programs of NTS are allowed to continue broadcasting.
The Director-General Jainak Usen plans to challenge the court ruling. The Supreme Court officials have also stated that they are looking into the court order against NTS as the Prosecutor-General’s Office, the Interior Ministry, and the State Committee for National Security say they have no information on the freezing of NTS’s assets and equipment.
The court decision comes after a lawsuit filed by Grexton Capital LTD and Ayant LLC against NTS.
NTS happens to be owned by the opposition runner-up from the 2017 presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan, Omurbek Babanov. Shortly after the election, there was an investigation into his campaign election as it is reported that he stirred up ethnic tensions. Babanov has since left the country and his location is not known.
Additionally, a sister radio station to NTS closed in November as a result of authorities not renewing their license to broadcast.
For more information, please see:
By: Emily Green
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Argentina’s government passed a controversial reform of the country’s pension system on Tuesday, December 19. The bill has prompted violent protests in the city’s capital.
After 12 hours of debate and several demonstrations outside of the chamber, the reform passed the lower house by a 128-116 vote. The legislation had already cleared the Senate and would essentially change the formula by which pension benefits are calculated. It bases them largely on inflation instead of wage growth and tax contributions, which economists expect to lower the amounts paid. Another controversial change in the new law is the increase in retirement age from 65 to 70 for men and from 60 to 63 for women. Protestors have communicated their fear that the changes will have a heavy impact on the poor.
This legislation is a key element of the economic changes being implemented by President Mauricio Macri’s government. The goal is to reduce Argentina’s high deficit and attract investments. At a press conference at the presidential palace, the president said, “We’ve created a formula that defends (retirees) from inflation and guarantees that they will be better. Our priority is to take care of the retirees.”
However, opposition law makers, union leaders, and other critics attack the bill. They claim it will cut pension and retirement payments. Also, it could take away aid for some poor families because consumer prices are expected to decrease. Opposition lawmaker Agustin Rossi states, “We tried to impede it from passing, but we couldn’t get the numbers. This harms retirees.”
The vote was originally scheduled for a week earlier, but civil unrest delayed it. In response, President Macri promised an additional payment to existing pensioners as a concession. However, demonstrations continued. The day before the vote, protestors threw stones, fireworks, and improvised explosive devices at police. The police used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons in turn. Protests continued into the night. Almost 150 people were injured in these riots and about 60 were arrested.
Regardless of the protestors’ violent clashes with police, Congress approved the measures the next morning. The opposition called for peaceful protests to continue. Argentines have had a tradition of marching while banging pots and pans since the 2001-2002 economic collapse. Demonstrators have continued this peaceful form of protest. Argentina’s largest union contributed by calling a 24-hour strike which grounded hundreds of flights.
President Macri acknowledged that there will undoubtedly be people who disagree with the reforms. He said, “It would be illogical to have unanimity. But I’m asking them not to doubt the intention because I’m convinced that it will help them.”
For more information, please see:
By: Brian Kim
Impunity Watch Reporter, Asia
BEIJING, China – Officials in Lufeng, a city in southern Guangdong province, publicly sentenced 12 people to death. The city of Lufeng is about 100 miles from Hong Kong. Four days before the execution, a court in Lufeng invited the public to watch the execution. Thousands gathered at a local sports stadium to watch the sentencing.
The 12 people were brought into the stadium on the back of police vehicles with their sirens blaring. It was reported that seven of the 10 executed were convicted of drug-related crimes. The others were found guilty of murder and robbery. According to a video from the trial, their sentences were read on a small platform. While the 10 people were executed, the local media was unsure about what happened to the other two people.
Although the exact numbers are not published to the public, according to a human rights NGO, it is estimated that China executed around 2,000 people last year. The number of people executed in China is estimated to be more than the rest of world combined.
About five months ago, eight people were sentenced to death publicly for drug-related crimes. Although public trials in China are rare, the town of Lufeng has seen such sentences carried out before. In 2014, when the town was a spot for a drug bust, around 3,000 police officers arrested nearly 180 people. During the bust, three tonnes of crystal-meth were confiscated. It was reported that around 7,000 people watched as 55 people were sentenced. In this region, the police reported that 10 tonnes of drugs were seized in 10 months. The officials further reported that over 13,000 drugs cases were solved.
By Jenilyn Brhel
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe
VIENNA, Austria – Beginning in 2019, same-sex couples will be allowed to marry in Austria.
On Tuesday, December 5th, Austria’s Constitutional Court published a ruling that lifts the ban on same-sex marriage by the end of 2018 – unless the government lifts the ban prior to that.
The words “two people of different sex” will be removed from Austria’s marriage law and same-sex couples will have access to the same benefits and privileges as those currently granted to heterosexual partners, including adoption and support for fertility treatments.
Same-sex couples have been allowed to enter into civil partnerships since 2010, but have not been given the option to legally marry.
The ruling was prompted by the Court’s examination of a 2009 law, following a complaint made by two women already in a civil partnership who were now allowed to enter into a legal marriage by authorities in Vienna.
The womens’ lawyer, Helmut Graupner, spoke of the the ruling on social media and applauded Austria’s Court for recognizing equality for same-sex couples as a “fundamental human right.” All the other European states with marriage equality introduced it as (just) “the political way.”
“The distinction between marriage and civil partnership can no longer be maintained today without discriminating against same-sex couples,” the Court stated. It also noted that keeping the two institutions separate suggests that “people with same-sex sexual orientation are not equal to people with heterosexual orientation.”
The decision brings Austria in line with more than a dozen other European countries that have recently legalized gay marriage. The Netherlands was the first. That decision came in 2001. There are now 25 countries in the world that have legalized same-sex marriage. Several European countries, including Bulgaria, Poland, Romania and Slovakia, have yet to follow suit.
The decision did not come without criticism. The far-right Freedom Party claimed that the ruling disrespected the concept of traditional marriage. “Now there is equal treatment for something that’s not equal,” said the party’s secretary general, Herbert Kickl.
The archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schöborn, told news outlets that he remained hopeful that the decision would be overturned in Austria, a largely Roman Catholic nation.
Despite the push-back, the Austrian People’s Party, led by Sebastian Kurz, winner of the general election in October, said it would accept the ruling.
“We are very happy,” said The Homosexual Initiative of Vienna chairman Christian Hoegl. “We want to use the opportunity for a renewed call for a fundamental reform of marriage.”
For more information, please see:
BBC News = Austrian Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Same-Sex Marriage – 5 December 2017
Chicago Tribune – Austrian Constitutional Court Legalizes Same-Sex Marriage – 5 December 2017
The Independent – Austria Court Legalizes Same-Sex Marriage From Start of 2019, Ruling all Existing laws Discriminatory – 5 December 2017
The New York Times – Austria Allows Gay Marriage in Court Ruling – 5 December 2017
Reuters – Austria’s Supreme Court Paves way for Same-Sex Marriage From 2019 – 5 December 2017
By: Karina Johnson
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America
SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — On Wednesday, December 13, San Salvador’s Second Court of Judgment in El Salvador upheld Teodora del Carmen Vasquez’s 30-year sentence for aggravated homicide against her unborn child.
On July 13, 2007, Ms. Vasquez nine months pregnant and working when she began bleeding and feeling severe labor pains and called 911 to transport her to the hospital. She waited for medical personnel for over four hours before fainting from blood loss in a restroom at work. She awoke to police accusing her of having killed the child—unaware that the child had already been born and that it was stillborn. Ms. Vasquez was arrested and later convicted of aggravated homicide against her stillborn child. The judge who convicted Ms. Vasquez in 2008 to the 30-year minimum sentence was the same judge who heard and denied her appeal in 2017.
During Ms. Vasquez’s appeal hearing, two medical experts testified to the child being born dead, and Ms. Vasquez not being responsible for the death of her child. One testified that according to the results of the autopsy conducted by the Institute of Legal Medicine, the newborn had died of asphyxiation prior to birth due to complications from having been born outside of a hospital. The second expert testified that the newborn was born dead and that the studies conducted during the criminal investigation by the prosecution were inadequate and incomplete.
The judge ruled that the defense’s medical experts did not present sufficient evidence to dispute the investigation carried out by the prosecution and that Ms. Vasquez’s appeal was denied.
Earlier in 2017, a 19-year old rape-survivor was sentenced to 30 years in prison after delivering a stillborn child at her home. Prosecutors accused Evelyn Hernandez Cruz of not seeking prenatal care and alleged that she had aborted the fetus and thrown its remains into a latrine at her home. The defense argued that Ms. Hernandez had not even known that she was pregnant, and had confused the labor pains with a stomach ache. The defense is seeking an appeal following Ms. Hernandez’s conviction.
El Salvador, along with Malta, Andorra, Chile, Haiti, Honduras, and Nicaragua, have criminalized abortion in any and all cases. This law, enacted in 1998, allows women to be charged with murder and other related charges in cases of abortion or suspected abortion and extends liability to medical practitioners that fail to report suspected abortions.
According to Al Jazeera, 17 women in El Salvador have been convicted of aggravated homicide under this law between 1999-2011 for losing their babies. “In most cases, these are women without resources who suffer obstetric emergencies or spontaneous abortions [miscarriages] and, when they go to hospitals, they are reported by the medical staff, because they are afraid of prosecution,” Katia Recinos, one of Ms. Velasquez’s lawyers, told Al Jazeera. These women have been sentenced from 12 to 30 years in prison as a result.
In 2016, the left-wing opposition party FLMA introduced a bill that would decriminalize abortion in cases of where the pregnancy would put the life and health of the mother at risk, where the pregnancy would produce an unviable fetus, or when the pregnancy was due to rape, incest, or human trafficking. The right-wing majority party ARENA—with support from the Salvadoran Catholic Church—countered the bill by petitioning Congress to increase the maximum penalty in these cases to 50 years in prison. Both pieces of legislation are still pending within their respective committees.
Doctors who are suspected of aiding pregnancy terminations are also persecuted under the 1998 anti-abortion law. Dr. Zulma Mendez, who leads the HIV program at the San Rafael Public Hospital of San Salvador, told the New York Times that she was threatened with criminal prosecution for her work. “I wanted to help a woman whose emergency contraception didn’t work after she was raped. Naively, I called the Institute of Legal Medicine and told them what had happened. I was told not to get involved, as I could be put behind bars.”
Ms. Vasquez has served 10 years of her 30-year sentence and will be 57 years old when she is released.
For more information, please see:
BBC News – El Salvador rejects appeal in baby death case – 14 December 2017
The Guardian – El Salvador court upholds 30-year jail sentence in stillbirth case – 14 December 2017
El Nuevo Herald – Ratifican condena de 30 años de cárcel a mujer que abortó en El Salvador – 13 December 2017
El Salvador: Noticias – Tribunal ratifica sentencia de 30 años a mujer condenada por el homicidio de su bebé – 13 December 2017
Al Jazeera – El Salvador woman jailed after stillbirth seeks freedom – 8 December 2017
The New York Times – In El Salvador, ‘Girls Are a Problem’ – 2 September 2017
CNN – The people fighting the world’s harshest abortion law – 10 July 2017
Al Jazeera – El Salvador rape victim jailed 30 years for stillbirth – 7 July 2017
Independent – El Salvador jails raped teenager for 30 years under murder laws after she said she suffered miscarriage – 6 July 2017
The Guardian – El Salvador’s anti-abortion law makes criminals of mothers who miscarry – 30 November 2015
By: Emily Green
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America
CARACAS, Venezuela — An independent expert for the UN’s top human rights body was allowed a rare visit to Venezuela. After spending a week in the country and assessing the situation, he reported that there is no humanitarian crisis.
Alfred de Zayas, an independent expert on International Democratic and Equitable Order at the UN, made his visit in late November to assess the social and economic progress in Venezuela. He said he met with 16 government ministers, opposition groups, and “victims of repression,” and reported that the government did not give him any problems.
This was the first visit by a UN rights expert to Venezuela since 1996. De Zayas remarked, “I have succeeded in opening the door. After 21 years, Venezuela has accepted a UN expert to spend eight days there.”
During his visit, he pleaded with the government to release more than 20 people in custody. In addition, he gave a total of six pages of recommendations. Venezuela has already met one recommendation by agreeing to cooperate with some unspecified UN agencies.
While the country is being accused of undermining democracy, it also struggles with inflation and shortages of food and medicine. Its economy has taken severe hits since the decline in global oil prices in 2014. Contrary to most media reporting, De Zayas assured that there is no humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. He said he agrees with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN and the Economic Commission for Latin America who deny the humanitarian crisis.
However, he conceded that there are some shortages and delays in distribution. He has called on the international community to be aware of the monopolies, smuggling, and corruption that has emerged under the US-led economic and financial war. The conflict has resulted in pressures and sanctions. Last year, over 750 opposition-controlled offshore companies were accused of purposefully redirecting Venezuelan imports of raw food materials from the government to the private sector. On top of that, international sanctions have blocked millions of tons of food and other supplies from reaching the Venezuelan people.
De Zayas also remarked that the opposition and private media label the situation in Venezuela as a humanitarian crisis in an effort to promote international intervention. Opposition leaders made “the opening of a humanitarian channel” one of its chief demands in negotiations with the national government. He called the mainstream media coverage of the country “theatrical, hyperbole, and an exaggeration,” and said it does not help to resolve any problems. However, he said international solidarity is necessary to help them overcome the current crisis.
The UN expert will create recommendations to address Venezuela’s crisis and present them to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2018. He is now on his way to Ecuador for a similar investigative visit.
Finally, De Zayas has faced some criticism from advocacy groups. The UN Watch, among others, alleged he was carrying out a “fake” investigation during his trip.
For more information, please see:
By Max Cohen
Impunity Watch Special Features Editor
Edited By Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Senior Special Features Editor
It used to be one of the richest countries in South America. Now, citizens are fleeing in droves to any country that will have them. The money isn’t worth the paper it is printed on. And, the government is under the complete control of one man and his political allies. Over the past several months Venezuela has been embroiled by conflict as citizens have marched for change and the government has responded with a violent crackdown, which has only inspired more protests.
The first question on the minds of most is: How did this chaos come to be? Well, it began with an economic crash caused in part due to plummeting oil prices. Oil is Venezuela’s chief export, accounting for over ninety percent of the country’s export revenue, and without the billions that came from the state-owned oil company they could not sustain the social programs and food subsidies that oil money had funded. Because of years of borrowing from other countries, Venezuela has been left with massive debt, dwindling foreign currency, and a drastically drained reserve of funds, which has led imports for things such as medicine to be cut in half. Furthermore, inflation has made it more difficult for citizens to afford food, leading to a growing malnourishment problem. Price controls on goods sold within the country to make them more affordable have only made the problem worse by making them too cheap to justify the costs of production. However, these policies are politically difficult to repeal because they were put into place by the late Hugo Chavez, the still beloved predecessor of current Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Then, in 2015, Venezuela’s opposition party won a supermajority in their Congress, the National Assembly.
In January 2016, Venezuela’s Supreme Court suspended the elections of a few opposition party lawmakers for alleged voting irregularities. However, the National Assembly continued to operate regardless of the Court’s order, leading the Court in March 2017 to declare the Assembly in contempt and in the process, effectively giving itself the power to legislate. Protesters took to the streets, and only a few days later the Supreme Court partially reversed its ruling by not taking the legislature’s powers. However, the Court did not address whether the National Assembly was still in contempt. The protests did not end however, as citizens continued to demand a new election to replace Maduro.
Venezuelans protest in La Castellana, a neighborhood in eastern Caracas. Photo courtesy of IRIN News.
Over the summer, as citizens came to the streets in massive numbers, their attempts at peaceful protests were met with excessive force and false arrests as government security forces attempted to quell the demonstrations. Approximately 120 people have died in the protests, and thousands have been arbitrarily detained as demonstrators have been tried in front of military courts, a process usually reserved for military crimes or terrorism. But, in a military court, Maduro could be assured of an outcome in his favor.
Planting evidence and unwarranted charges against civilians have been used to attempt to stifle dissent. One such incident involves Ana Rosa Cisneros, who was shopping at a pharmacy near a protest when she was arrested by the Venezuelan National Guard, and was detained for sixteen days. Now she must report to court monthly because of the charges levied against her.
Furthermore, conditions in the prisons where demonstrators, and those accused of doing so, are held are nothing short of horrific. In one prison called the Helicoid guards allegedly beat inmates, shocked them, and exposed them to tear gas-like chemicals. Prisoners in Venezuela deal with sexual abuse, and in one strange case were even forced to eat raw pasta with human feces in it. Illegal home raids by security forces are another tactic used by the government to intimidate people, with approximately forty-seven illegal raids occurring across eleven districts during the summer. In these raids, the security forces would break into people’s homes without any justification, legal or otherwise. They would search the houses, destroying property and using violence in the process, threaten the people living there, and leave hours later, sometimes outright stealing things as they left.
Wuilly Arteaga, an opposition activist, plays his violin during a protest against President Nicolas Maduro. Photo courtesy of Shaw Global News.
Brutality towards protesters has also been a common feature of the government’s response to the demonstrations. One famous incident of brutality by security forces involved Wuilly Arteaga, a protestor who was injured during the protests while playing songs on his violin, including Venezuela’s national anthem. Arteaga gained international celebrity after a video went viral of him crying over a violin broken by government security forces. However, there was a bright side as he received numerous violins from several people, including celebrity salsa singer Marc Anthony. Then in August, after being arrested at a demonstration, Mr. Arteaga was detained for over two weeks, during which time he was allegedly beaten and tortured by the guards. Around the same time, the government released a video in which Arteaga said that he was not mistreated in jail and that the government did not break his violin. According to Arteaga however, the video was doctored, and many of his statements in it were coerced. In a more tragic tale, a young man, David José Vallenilla, was killed after being shot three times in the chest at point blank range by a soldier for hurling rocks over a fence at the La Carlota airbase. In an ironic twist of fate, it turned out that Mr. Vallenilla was the son of Maduro’s former boss from when the Venezuelan leader was a bus driver. Even worse, these are only some of many stories just like them among those who have protested in Venezuela.
Despite the deaths, injuries, and unlawful detentions, protests continued and even became more impassioned after Maduro called for the election of a constituent assembly to rewrite the nation’s constitution. Maduro even brought in the military, putting 232,000 soldiers out on the streets, to ensure everything went off without a hitch. But, in the days preceding the vote, millions of people across the country engaged in a two-day strike. Furthermore, even after Maduro declared protests during voting to be a crime punishable by imprisonment of up to ten years, people came to the streets to voice their opposition to Maduro and express their frustration at a vote that many predicted would be fraudulent. Only a few weeks earlier, over seven million citizens had participated in an unofficial vote rejecting the constituent assembly, which was deemed “unlawful” by the government. Venezuela’s opposition party even refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Constituent Assembly election before it took place, and thus did not submit any candidates from their party. In a result surprising no one, the pro-government constituent assembly won in an election, where there was no rejection option, that the CEO of the company suppling Venezuela’s voting machines confirmed was fraudulent. Results were reportedly off by at least one million people, and may be off as much as half of the eight million who purportedly voted in the election.
As a result, the Constituent Assembly will govern Venezuela as a legislature until their constitution is rewritten, giving Maduro complete control over the country indefinitely. Among its members are Maduro’s own wife and son, as well as other allies of the embattled president. The United States (U.S.), along with many other countries have stated that they do not recognize the result of this election. The only countries who have recognized the election thus far are allies of the country such as Bolivia and Cuba.
Former Venezuelan Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz. Photo courtesy of Reuters.
Throughout the troubles in Venezuela, the only government official in Maduro’s administration willing to stand up to Maduro was the former Attorney General, Luisa Ortega Diaz, speaking out against her government on the issue of human rights. Her public dissent began when she condemned the Venezuelan Supreme Court for attempting to take away the National Assembly’s powers. Furthermore, after reports of the fraud committed in electing the Constituent Assembly, she vowed to investigate, only to be fired by the Constituent Assembly a few days later, something which had also been attempted by Venezuela’s Supreme Court earlier in the summer. Both times that she was fired, Diaz attempted to continue with her job. The first time she was successful in returning to work and even charged the former head of Venezuela’s National Guard with human rights abuses. But, after being fired by the Constituent Assembly she was prevented by security forces from even entering her building. The Constituent Assembly’s new Attorney General, Tarek Saab, is considered an ally of Maduro and has allegedly turned a blind eye to human rights abuses. Diaz’s change of position towards Maduro’s administration came about because of a multitude of factors including the state of the country, the kidnapping of her children, and the persecution that she felt coming towards her from other parts of the government. Previously she had also been banned from leaving the country and her assets had been frozen by the government. But since being fired, she has fled the country and is now in hiding. Recently she has supplied the U.S. with evidence compromising top officials in Maduro’s government concerning various forms of corruption, including evidence of graft linked to food imports. As recently as November 16th, she accused Maduro, before the International Criminal Court, of being responsible for crimes against humanity amounting to over 8,000 murders since 2015.
Opposition leaders have also been continually outspoken against the abuses of Maduro’s government, only to be met with retaliation. In April, the government had told opposition leader Henrique Caprilles that he was banned from doing any political work for fifteen years. Then in May, he was banned from leaving the country just as he was about to attend a meeting with the United Nation’s (U.N.), Human Rights Council to discuss the turmoil embroiling his country. Two opposition leaders, Leopoldo Lopez and Antonio Ledezma, were taken from their homes in August and jailed on suspicion that they were planning to leave the country and had violated the terms of their agreements by making political statements. Both men were under house arrest at the time, and have since been released back into house arrest. Lilian Tintori, the wife of Leopoldo Lopez, was also banned from leaving the country after 200 million bolivars, the equivalent of $11,000, were found in her car. Tintori claims that the cash was from personal funds to help pay for her grandmother’s medical care. All of this came right before Tintori was scheduled to go to Europe to attend meetings to convince European leaders to institute sanctions against Venezuela and the Maduro government.
Opposition members have not been the only victims of the government’s authoritarian acts. In October 2017, three journalists, two of them from Europe, were arrested as they prepared a report on the conditions in a Venezuelan prison. Furthermore, in June, an American citizen was imprisoned for alleged weapons charges. However, many believe it was due to the U.S.’s stance on the Venezuelan government’s authoritarian acts.
In late July, the opposition had also attempted to replace the Venezuelan Supreme Court with appointees of their own, an action that the current pro-government Court declared invalid and inferred that such an action could be treason. One appointee was detained by the government and others were allegedly threatened by government forces. A few of the justices appointed to an alternative Supreme Court created by the National Assembly, were later forced to take refuge in the Chilean Embassy.
The U.N. has also been a steady force standing against Venezuela to the extent that it can. It has denounced the government’s moves from the retaliation against figures like Luisa Ortega Diaz, to denouncing the government’s abysmal handling of human rights. The U.N. has also issued a report documenting the various human rights abuses by the Venezuelan government referring it to the U.N. Human Rights Council for action. However, Venezuela is still currently a sitting member of the council and would be involved in any decision by the body.
Now only one other question remains; what happens next? Two governments currently exist in Venezuela. The official Constituent Assembly, which has all the power, and the National Assembly, which, although it still meets, has done little since August other than to publicly protest Maduro’s government’s actions. The National Assembly though, is that in name only, with no resources, and few lawmakers willing to show up to conduct “business.”
In mid-October, there was another round of voting in the nation’s gubernatorial elections, in which those aligned with Maduro won handily. The opposition has alleged fraud, but none of the evidence thus far pans out those claims. However, even though Maduro’s allies won by a sizable margin without inflating the vote count, Venezuela’s most recent elections were far from fair. Just hours before the vote, the government-aligned National Electoral Council moved many pro-opposition polling places leaving half a million people with no idea where to vote. When they attempted to find out by texting a special number, the government would text them back reminding them who the Socialist candidate for their region is. The government told people that its electoral system enabled them to know who had voted, and public-sector employees were brought to the polls by their employers and threatened with firing if they did not vote. The few wins received by the opposition party were rendered almost pointless by Maduro’s demand that, to take office, any elected candidate had to take an oath before the Constituent Assembly and “subordinate” themselves to it.
Russia, a longtime ally of Venezuela since the Soviet Era, has since agreed to restructure Venezuela’s debt payments just as it appears the country is headed for default. A default would mean an even greater disaster in terms of severe shortages of food and medicine. It would endanger not only Venezuela’s economy, but potentially the world economy at large. Additionally, default would result in an immense amount of litigation, and possible seizures of the government’s overseas assets, particularly Citgo which is the American subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company. China, another major lender to Venezuela, has shown no interest in lending more money to them, some theorized at the time due to concerns over Maduro’s longevity in his position.
The U.S. has reacted to the Venezuelan crisis much differently, instituting sanctions on the country’s political leaders as well as inclusion of the country in the latest version of President Donald Trump’s now infamous travel ban. Other financial and economic sanctions have also been a part of the U.S.’s action, such as barring any new financial deals with either the government or the state-run oil company PDVSA, which as a result will make it difficult for PDVSA to refinance its debt. However, the U.S. has not yet issued a ban on Venezuela’s main industry, crude oil trading. As the U.S. is Venezuela’s biggest customer of oil, a sanction on the product, if instituted, would do incredible damage to the country’s economy. The European Union has also banned arms sales to the country, and instituted a system to freeze assets and put in place travel restrictions on Venezuelan officials. The U.S.’s involvement in attempting to get Maduro to step down however, has not gone unnoticed and Maduro has made the country the proverbial “boogeyman,” blaming it for the current political and economic instability.
In late November 2017, Maduro replaced the head of the state-run oil company with a general and former housing minister, Manuel Quevedo, with little experience in the industry. Around fifty officials at the company have been arrested in what the government claims is an attempt to clear the organization of corruption. In addition to continuing to clear corruption, Quevedo will also oversee the difficult process of restructuring the company’s debt. Quevedo is also accused of committing human rights violations during the anti-Maduro protests. However, some speculate that Maduro’s true motive may be to clear the field of powerful potential political rivals and tighten control over the country’s only major source of money.
Approximately 27,000 Venezuelans in 2016 and 52,000 thus far in 2017 have applied for asylum. That is only a fraction of those fleeing the country during its most recent economic and political crisis. In the neighboring state of Columbia alone, the estimates range from 300,000 to 1.2 million Venezuelans living there. Also, in Argentina, the number of Venezuelans starting new lives there has jumped from 1,911 in 2012 to 12,859 in 2016. With 8,333 in the first quarter of 2017 alone, it does not appear to be on track to decrease any time soon. Furthermore, Chile too has seen a massive increase, with the average number of visas issued to Venezuelans rising from 758 to 8,381. The mass exodus becomes even more serious as one reflects on that fact that a majority of those leaving are the kind of well educated professionals that Venezuela needs to hang onto if it is going to climb out of its current economic hole.
Countries around the world have slapped Venezuela with sanctions, and will probably continue to do so as the situation there worsens. Protests have dwindled in size out of fear from the government’s now unchecked power. People will continue to flee the country’s dire political and economic conditions for other countries. And, as the morally crushed opposition sinks, Maduro’s grip on the country will grow stronger and eventually stabilize his hold on power. With the stabilization of Maduro’s hold on power, Venezuela’s allies, as Russia did in early November 2017, will be more willing to help the country economically, but even they cannot save it now. The economy will continue to fester and rot as the government keeps the policies preventing growth in place, and may even worsen as oil as a fuel source declines in usage due to energy saving technologies and global action on climate change.
For any lasting change to occur, it will have to come from the people. Standing up to Maduro’s regime will be an enormous risk, but it is one that citizens will need to take if they want to realize the greater rewards that come with true freedom. Waiting and hoping for things to get better is not an option because things are primed to only get worse. It is only through action that things will truly get better.
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By Brian Kim
Impunity Watch Special Features Editor
Edited By Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Senior Special Features Editor
On June 30, 2016, Rodrigo Duterte was sworn in as the Philippines’ 16th president. After beating three opponents, Duterte won the presidential election by sixteen million votes with his “change is coming” message. Throughout the campaign, Duterte was referred to as “the Punisher” for his tough policies against alleged criminals and drug dealers.
When first elected to his six-year term, Rodrigo Duterte faced a number of pressing issues. Although the nation of ninety-eight million people was considered one of Asia’s best-performing economies, the sluggish growth since the end of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship was visible to its citizens. With 60% of the total labor being employed by small-and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), many Filipinos still faced significant financial issues. With its capital, Manila, dominating the economy, terrible traffic and deteriorating infrastructure made the city unlivable.
Aside from policy issues, Duterte quickly formed his government to begin implementing his initiatives. He surrounded himself with a very capable economic team who could stabilize and build on the current economy. His other cabinet picks included a wide array of politicians with great records. Furthermore, he selected the national police chief who is known for his tough approach to criminality.
Although there were a number of other pressing issues facing the country, President Rodrigo Duterte was most famously elected to “eradicate” drugs, crime and corruption in six months. During his time as the mayor of Davao City for twenty-two years, although challenged by some, he is credited for turning the city from the Philippines’ most deadly into one of its safest. In the city of 1.5 million, Duterte conducted an operation to execute suspected criminals in the street. As a candidate for the Philippines’ 2016 presidential elections, Duterte vowed to kill 100,000 criminals while in office in order to control the country’s crime problems.
At his election victory event in Davao City, he encouraged ordinary citizens to kill by saying “do it yourselves if you have guns, you have my support.” After he took office, he went further and again urged his citizens to kill drug addicts as “getting their parents to do it would be too painful.” He blatantly stated that he did not care about human rights or due process in his country if it could eliminate the drug and crime issues in the Philippines.
Since taking office, Duterte ordered his police force to eliminate criminals. By rewarding police officers who killed drug lords with cash prizes, police killings in the Philippines rose 400% nationwide. In fact, Duterte promised to protect the police from prosecution if they killed suspected drug dealers. This began his six-month campaign to fight against the drug problems in the Philippines.
When Duterte was first elected to office, around 1,027 people were killed during police operations based on the national police report data gathered from July 1 to September 5, 2016. With over 15,000 arrests and 686,000 surrendering voluntarily to police, the war against drugs had a huge impact on its citizens from the beginning. At the time, according to records, there were at least 1,500 pending cases under the category of “found dead body, under investigation.” Despite the increased number of police killings in the country, the national survey showed around 91% of Filipinos having a “high degree of trust” with their new government.
Towards the end of September 2016, President Duterte’s government demoted a high-profile politician from serving as the head of a committee investigating Duterte’s extrajudicial killings. Senator Leila de Lima, a former Justice Secretary, had led the opposition against the government’s war on drugs. Senator de Lima had claimed that over 3,000 have been killed in the eleven weeks since Duterte was sworn into office. Among the many deaths, Maria Aurora Moynihan, daughter of British baron Anthony Moynihan, was regarded as one of the highest profile victims. She was found shot dead with a sign over her body reading “drug punishers to celebrities, you’re next.” In a recent investigation, hitman Edgar Matobato testified under oath that Duterte ordered him to assassinate criminals while serving as the mayor of Davao City. He further claimed that Duterte himself had killed an agent and that the President’s own son was a drug user.
Although Duterte’s government justified the removal of Senator de Lima by stating that she was using the committee for “personal political vendettas,” many strategists believe that it was due to the recent incident with Matobato and his testimony.
Moreover, soon after Matobato’s testimony, President Duterte released a list of 1,000 “narco-politicians” and other officials with suspected drug links. Many analysts believed that the list indicated that the anti-drug campaign would be longer than six months and that Duterte was ready to ask for an extension.
Since Senator de Lima’s removal from her post, many began to doubt the country’s democracy. Human Rights Watch stated that Senator de Lima’s removal was a “craven attempt to derail accountability for the appalling death toll from the abusive war on drugs.”
In October 2016, President Duterte gave a speech in Manila which included police statistics on his drug war operation. In his speech, he claimed that two policemen were dying everyday due to the war with illegal drugs. However, based on the official data, only thirteen police officers were killed in a three-month period. During this time, numerous reports came out claiming that Duterte was exaggerating statistics to make a claim for his campaign. In fact, on July 25, 2016, President Duterte, during his inaugural address to the nation, claimed that there were 3.7 million “drug addicts” in the Philippines. However, based on a survey conducted by the Office of the President’s Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB) in 2015, the Philippines has fewer than half the number of “drug addicts” stated by Duterte. Based on DDB data, about a third of the 1.8 million drug users had taken drugs only once in the previous thirteen months. The records also showed that around 860,000 consumed drugs, such as crystal meth, or shabu, which are considered highly addictive drugs.
In his address in September 2016, Duterte claimed that the number of “addicts” would rise to four million and declared that the anti-drugs operations in his country would go on until June 2017.
In addition, a booklet handed out by Duterte’s government in September 2016 at a regional summit in Laos stated that 75% of the country’s “heinous crime” is drug-related. However, per the booklet, the definition of heinous crimes include murder, rape, human trafficking and treason, not drug crimes.
Keeping his promise, the anti-drug campaign extended into 2017 and the Philippine police released additional statistics. According to newly obtained information, the government performed over 40,000 anti-drug operations from July 1, 2016 to January 7, 2017. During this time, over 2,000 drug abusers were killed and around 44,000 people were arrested for drug-related offenses.
Furthermore, the police visited six-million houses during this period to persuade suspected abusers to submit themselves to a drug rehabilitation program. Based on these visits, over one-million people surrendered. The police further recognized that over 4,000 suspects were killed by vigilante-style killings, which is considered the most controversial feature of Duterte’s campaign. Finally, around thirty police officers and three soldiers were killed during the six-month period.
Many supporters of President Duterte and his campaign viewed these statistics as positive figures as the country vows to turn its tide on drug related crimes. However, many human rights organizations raised serious concerns over how the campaign was being carried out in the country.
The campaign came to a brief halt in January 2017 when rogue officers killed a South Korean businessman, Jee Ick-joo. Following the death of Mr. Ick-joo, President Duterte stated that he was “embarrassed” that the officers engaged in kidnapping which led to the South Korean’s death. Duterte’s police chief, Ronald de la Rosa stated that the police “will dissolve all anti-drug units in the police.” Although the killings did not stop entirely, around sixty-nine people were killed in March, which is at a much slower pace than previous rate of killings.
After the killing of Jee Ick-joo, President Duterte has tapped the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) to lead the anti-drug campaign. Since the agency took over the campaign, Duterte was reported to take a “hands-off” approach when dealing with the drug war. He went even further and instructed the agency to not provide reports to him and left it completely up to the agency to execute the operation.
Despite the brief pause, President Duterte solidified his campaign in September 2017. In a vote of 119 to 32 in the country’s congress, the Philippines government reduced the annual budget of the Commission on Human Rights from $17 million to just $25.
The opposition members believed that this was the government’s retaliation against the Commission on Human Rights for being critical of President Duterte’s war on drugs. Phelim Kine, deputy Asia Director for Human Rights Watch, accused the government of attempting to eliminate independent institutions from investigating President Duterte’s possible examples of abuse of power. Congressman Edcel Lagman, who opposes the budget cut, stated that the President is “virtually imposing the death penalty on a constitutionally created and mandated independent office.”
As President Duterte’s anti-drug war continued, in September 2017, the President’s eldest son, Paolo Duterte appeared before the Senate and denied any connection to a seized shipment of $125 million worth of drugs from China. Many opposition members alleged that Paolo Duterte assisted in easing the entry of the drugs, but the President’s son denied the allegations. President Duterte has repeatedly stated that he will resign as president if any of his family members were involved in corruption.
The international community has been critical of President Duterte’s war on drugs. Recently, the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL) called upon Duterte’s government to end all extrajudicial killings in the country. The organization cited “several credible reports and documentation” showing that many extrajudicial killings, illegal arrests, and internal displacements were occurring. Moreover, as an organization with a consultative status in the United Nations Economic and Social Council, the group cited that “the number of individuals suspected to be involved in illegal drugs who apparently fell victim to extrajudicial or summary killings during the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte ranges from 8,000 to 12,000 dead.”
In addition, earlier in November 2017, many human rights experts at the United Nations released a joint statement insisting Duterte’s government to cease any attacks and killings under the president’s war on drugs.
Conversely, President Duterte was also vocal in the international stage. At the 31st Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in November 2017, Duterte shared harsh words with Canada’s Justin Trudeau for commenting on his war on drugs campaign. Duterte characterized the comments made by the Canadian prime minister as “insulting” and said that “I only answer to the Filipino. I will not answer to any other bullshit, especially foreigners. Lay off.”
Last year, Duterte made headlines for insulting former President Barack Obama when he raised serious concerns about Duterte’s campaign and its human rights violations. After the comments were made by the former president, Duterte announced that he would break all ties with the United States. However, since President Donald Trump took office, the relationship has regained its strength.
President Donald Trump and President Duterte met during a bilateral meeting at the ASEAN Summit. During the visit, President Trump did not mention Duterte’s drug war. Instead, Trump praised Duterte’s hospitality. The White House stated that the meeting primarily focused on ISIS, illegal drugs, and trade. However, the Philippines government stated that the two leaders talked at length about the Philippine’s war on drugs. Unlike former U.S. leaders, President Trump did not mention human rights issues. The two men spoke previously over a phone call where President Trump commended Duterte on his anti-drugs operations. Moreover, during the call, Trump allegedly criticized his predecessor, President Barack Obama, and stated that he “did not understand” the drug issues facing the Philippines.
The recent reports out of the Philippines still showed a strong support for President Duterte’s war against drugs. Since the beginning of his pledge to control drugs and crime in the country, international human rights organizations reported that around 13,000 people have died from extrajudicial killing in the country. However, Duterte remains a very popular figure in the country as most are not impacted by his campaign. Statistics show that seven out of ten Filipinos still support Duterte’s war on drugs. Many believe that it is because the killings are happening in the poorer parts of the country.
In an address to his country, Duterte instructed the Philippine National Force to stop all operations related to the campaign. Although the killings have not stopped completely, it is seen as a positive step towards stopping extrajudicial killings in the country. Following the recent changes, President Duterte appointed a new chief to the Philippines’ anti-drug agency, PDEA, Chief Aaron Aquino. Since Chief Aquino began his position, only one suspect had been killed in 1,341 operations.
Under Chief Aquino’s leadership, the agency vowed to wear body cameras when conducting operations to show that they are following the law. In a recent statement, he stated that he hoped the operations would be transparent and asked “the media to join in on the operations so they will see everything from the very start of the operations to the end.”
The PDEA has stated that they have arrested more than 400 people in the month of October and apprehended around $1 million worth of illegal drugs. Although the Philippines National Police (PNP) withdrew from leading Duterte’s anti-drugs operations, Chief Aquino noted that the PNP is still being consulted on “high level” operations. This is partly due to the shortage of officers available to PDEA as the PDEA has around 2,000 officers compared to the country’s 165,000 police officers.
President Duterte recently stated that if the drug problems worsen, he is willing to put the PNP in charge of the operations once again.
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How did a great country with a strong and respected place in the world, a center for culture and tolerance, elect a man who would plunge the world into what a commentator called “a place of anguish and fear”? This is a question many historians and policy makers asked themselves about Germany in the 1930’s.
The manner in which Adolf Hitler came to power initially was legitimate and within the constitutional bounds of German law. An obscure former corporal in the German army, he ran for the highest political office in his country on a platform of nationalism, essentially declaring it time to make “Germany great again.” Stung by the humiliating terms of the Versailles Treaty, Germany retreated inward burdened by reparations and eventual economic depression; this liberal democracy struggled to redefine itself in a post-WWI world. Hitler’s speeches declared that Germany could be a great country again, with a strong people, who could move forward to reclaim their historic place in Europe. All this rang true to a defeated people.
Hitler’s rhetoric in those days formed the murky beginnings of a far darker political dynamic, but the German people — Dem Deuctshevolk — shop workers, shopkeepers and farmers, looked beyond this darker theme and focused on a more promising future in a proud and assertive Germany. As he ran for Chancellor, Hitler focused on the economic issues of the time, promising to restore the German economy and bring back jobs. “German business first” was what a German citizen liked to hear.
Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933, barely more than eight years after he was released from a Bavarian prison for the Beer Hall Putsch. The first year of his rise to power was a heady time where money poured into infrastructure and rebuilding the German army, in blatant violation of the Versailles Treaty. The concept of a people’s car, a Volkswagen, became a reality to be driven on the world’s first interstate road system, called the autobahn. German citizens saw jobs, better pay, and a brighter future.
Then the nibbling at Germany’s democratic principles began, subtle at first, but picked up over the next few years, and by the time of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, led to a state policy to shift power from the people to one person, a Fuehrer. Backed by the Reichstag, new laws were passed shifting the power to a single executive. Additionally, as this happened, Adolf Hitler began to raise the stakes against perceived enemies of the state by using fear to cause the German people to give away their freedoms one at a time to fight the threat — Bolsheviks, Slavs, and Jews. Claiming a conspiracy to keep Germany weak, various minorities were singled out as a threat to the country and its people. It was this existential threat from within and outside the country that Hitler built upon a fear so much so that the citizens of Germany turned to their leader, their Fuehrer, to protect them.
The intellectual elite of Germany and much of the middle class at first stood back, amused, embarrassed, disbelieving that this proud nation of culture, of tolerance, of openness would elect this small little man who ranted and raved about a great German nation, a Reich that would last a thousand years. They could not believe that he would last long politically and stood aside in the early years thinking that the political system in place would cause his demise. By the time they realized the shift of almost complete power to one man had actually happened, it was too late. They had only one choice: swear allegiance or leave. Some left when they still could, but most stayed and accepted their national fate.
I have faced down dictators most of my professional life. To understand my adversary I have studied the twentieth century’s dictators, how they came to power, their psyche, and their methods of destroying their own citizens. There are patterns, similarities, regarding despots, dictators, and thugs who rise to and hold power in their countries. Their track record is horrific with the destruction of over 95 million human beings at the hands of these dictators in the last century.
Understanding the similar conduct of largely ordinary men rising to absolute power can help us in many ways: from investigating and prosecuting them for violations of domestic and international crimes, identifying those politicians or political movements trending toward despotism, to prevention and counter measures to blunt their move to power. Liberal democracies today need to understand the past, the present trends, to protect our futures. The consideration of these traits are instructive today in the United States and elsewhere.
So what are those similarities among despots and dictators? First in a country where a dictator comes to power, there is an anger towards the establishment, a long term disappointment and lack of trust in their government.They use this loss of faith in the centralized government to start building a political base to gain power. Dictators want to “drain the swamp,” to clean house, to start over.
Second, the rising dictator uses fear to shift that frustration away from their policies to what is called “a boogey man.” Dictators for a century all used a “boogey man” to focus their citizenry away from their absolute power to a threat outside the country. The Three Pashas in Turkey blamed the Christian Armenians for the loss of the Ottoman Empire; Adolf Hitler blamed the Jews for weakening Germany; Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-tung focused on Western capitalism; and the Ayatollah of Iran blamed the Great Satan of America for their economic problems. Outsiders who were different, who had a different religion became an internal and external threat and were either accounted for and interned or deported. Those who sought admission to their country were banned for who or what they were.
Third, dictators view the press as their enemy and initially seek to limit press access to their regimes, then ban or control the press entirely. They consider the press an enemy of the state and take appropriate action. The liberal press is blamed for factual distortions. The dictator declares they are not using real facts and fashion their own truths, what you would call today “alternative facts.” Joseph Goebbels stated that “if you lie to the people long enough, they will believe it as the truth.” In a dictatorship the truth is the first casualty.
Fourth, a dictator surrounds himself (yes, they are all men) with only those people who tell him what he wants to hear, not what he needs to hear. The truth becomes dangerous to the government and to those who know it. The dictator does not want to know the truth, they fear the truth and those who work with and for the dictator fear knowing and telling them the truth. They could lose their influence, power, jobs, even their lives, as well as their family’s lives if they are truthful. It’s a downward paranoid spiral.
Fifth, the dictators of the twentieth century also suffered from some type of psychological disease or defect. From paranoia, schizophrenia, depression, and narcissism these men slipped farther and farther away from reality the longer they stayed in power. A perfect illustration is when Joseph Stalin fell dying on the floor in his bedroom and laid there for fourteen hours, the doctors and handlers were too afraid to declare him dead in fear of the repercussions of even saying, let alone knowing that he had died.
Sixth, dictators over time consider the law only as a guide, to be broken, modified, or ignored. The longer in power the more they feel they are above the law and take action according to their own whims. A political cult develops around them. They become above all men. Society is what the dictator says it is. The national identity becomes the dictator. Where once government workers or members of the armed forces swore allegiance to the law, they now must swear allegiance to the dictator himself without question. The refusal to do so is expulsion or death.
In the United States we now have a President who fits several of these traits and has acted accordingly — all within two short weeks as President. The surprising thing is how easily he has been able to do this without any institutional resistance. America is not used to someone of this caliber. We sit back stunned, cowed, or in quiet glee as this new President begins to “make America great again.” Is he becoming America’s first “dictator”? This remains to be seen.
Our only counter to this “new type” of President is the Constitution of the United States. The founders of this nation contemplated a Trump and put in the necessary checks and balances to ensure that America did not create a king or dictator. The power was reserved to the people, us; and all those elected answer to that people, not the other way around. The other two branches of government will be critical to our republic with this power grabbing new President. They must do their constitutional duty and pay heed to the law and to the people to counter his seeking absolute power.
Another point, the recent singling out of Muslims seeking entry into our country from several countries appears to be, and is touted to be, a national security issue protecting our country. Beware when our federal government tells you the reason they are doing something “in the name of national security.” The results were: “The Red Scare,” Japanese internment camps, McCarthyism, unauthorized medical testing, the electronic surveillance program, torture, secret camps, and Guantanamo, to name a few. It is easier to govern a people when they are afraid. Fear is the life blood of a dictator. Singling out a people to blame because they are different and can possibly cause us harm, hoping to play upon our fears is just a first step to despotism.
In times of real or perceived crisis we must hold tight to our Constitution, not push it away as a hindrance to making our country safe. Thomas Jefferson throughout his life looked to the people to keep the United States on track, our leaders honest, and our focus on the rule of law. Even in the Declaration of Independence he hinted that it is the people who shape that government and have the right and the obligation to change that government should it challenge our constitutional rights.
It is heartening to see people in the United States and around the world who are standing up to the new President’s policies. Make no mistake, we have a man in power who manifests the traits of a dictator. A citizenry who raise the banner of the rule of law holding our elected officials accountable to our Constitution, and not to a man, will eventually cause the Trump administration to reign in their policies or face legal consequences. If we do not, I fear for America. Remember Germany…
David M. Crane is a Professor of Law at the Syracuse University College of Law. He is the former Chief Prosecutor, Special Court for Sierra Leone, 2002-2005. He is also the founder of Impunity Watch, the Syrian Accountability Project and the IamSyria Campaign.
Suggest citation: David M. Crane, First It’s the Muslims: An Evolution to a Dictatorship, JURIST – Academic Commentary, Feb. 3, 2017, http://jurist.org/forum/2017/02/David-Crane-evolution-to-dictatorship.php
This article was prepared for publication by Sean Merritt, an Assistant Editor for JURIST Commentary. Please direct any questions or comments to him at email@example.com<hrheight=’1′></hrheight=’1′>