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A blog about human rights in their many forms.

On World Refugee Day, Israel's asylum-seekers claim religious discrimination

Some 50,000 Sudanese and Eritreans hope for refugee status in Israel. Many of them believe that because they are not Jewish, they don’t stand a chance.

HOLOT, Israel — Deep into Israel’s Negev Desert, surrounded by miles of arid land, lays the Holot Detention Center for asylum-seekers. Maawiya Mohammed Adam, a 28-year-old from Sudan, who fled his war-torn homeland and entered Israel in 2008, has been detained in Holot for the past six months. For non-Jews, Adam said, seeking asylum in the Jewish state is a bad idea.

“If I was a Jew, by now I would have very good conditions and Israel would recognize me and give me the status that I deserve, but because I am Muslim and black — my fate is suffering,” said Adam, standing outside Holot, under the scorching summer sun. “Israel is concerned about not having Muslims and black people in its community, and that's the main reason I am not very optimistic about being in Israel.”

Ninety-two percent of the estimated 50,000 asylum-seekers in Israel are Muslims or Christians from Sudan and Eritrea. They entered the country illegally between 2006 and 2012 through the then porous, now barricaded border with Egypt.

These asylum-seekers — though numbered in the thousands — are just a fragment of the growing issue of displaced people worldwide.


For displaced Syrian youth, art draws the mind out of war and into the future

Commentary: Syrian refugee children have been out of school for over three years and are losing hope, but making charcoal sketches illustrating their desired futures is a welcome distraction from the realities of war and displacement.

PORTLAND, Oregon —
The charcoal drawing was slightly larger than a man’s thumbprint. Adjusting my sense of scale, I studied the tiny sketch: a tree, bare of its leaves, straining under a stiff wind.

“It’s a small drawing, but it has big meaning,” said the artist, 15-year-old Youssef. The small tree, he said, represents him. The wind that had blown the leaves from the branches represents the forces that try to blow him off course. The roots — Youssef’s friends, family and education — hold the tree firm.

Youssef is one of more than 150 adolescents — Syrian refugees and their host community peers — who participated in focus groups organized by the global humanitarian agency Mercy Corps earlier this year.

We were seeking insight into how to best support the hundreds of thousands of youth from Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, victims of more than three years of conflict. One day they will carry the responsibility of rebuilding a broken country and shoring up a fractured region.


Kyrgyzstan moves to criminalize 'homosexual propaganda' and the world seems not to care

Commentary: When an identical bill was passed in Russia the whole world exploded with indignation, but when this country somewhere in the middle of Eurasia this week did the same, there was little solidarity.

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — The fight for LGBT rights has in recent years created a rift that has separated much of the world into two camps and forced everyone to take sides. That rift is widening, reaching faraway places. On June 17, it reached my motherland, Kyrgyzstan, and my country is positioning itself on the wrong side of history.

At one time, after the end of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan was considered Central Asia's only democracy — an island of human rights in a stormy sea of authoritarianism and human desolation. Since then, my country has steadily regressed — a deterioration fueled by the warring political clans inside the country and by stronger neighbors, like Russia, outside the country.

Kyrgyzstan has now taken yet another step toward sinking into that deep, dark sea.


Boat refugees to Italian government: 'Sorry if we failed to die at sea'

An unprecedented number of Eritreans are escaping one of the most terrifying regimes in the world, then finding little sympathy in Italy.

ROME — On a recent morning, a group of roughly 40 men and women from Eritrea gather in Rome’s central Piazza della Repubblica to ask the government for help. After struggling for over a year to find a job, shelter and assistance navigating an immigration system that has broken under the weight of record boat migrant landings and bureaucratic mismanagement, it has come to this.


Myanmar's military accused of torture as it reasserts political power

Q&A: The military is acting to preserve its hold on parliament as a new report shows that the army has "systematically" tortured ethnic Kachin civilians over the last three years with impunity.

Myanmar opposition leader and former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi on Monday shot down a warning against using language in rallies that “challenges the army” leading up to the country’s 2015 parliamentary elections.

Since becoming a lawmaker, Suu Kyi has been working to amend the military-drafted constitution that, in its current state, blocks her from attaining the presidency while also giving the military great influence over the governing body. A parliamentary committee voted last week against changing the constitution.

"It is not the work of (the) elections commission to warn me or other leaders of what we should say or what we should not say," she said.

Her condemnation of the warning came on the same day that the government issued another warning against free speech, threatening “to expel students from technological colleges and institutes who participate in political activities that lead to ‘unrest.’"

Some are seeing the coming elections as a test of whether the army — for whom a quarter of seats in parliament are reserved, unelected — will loosen its grasp over the government.

Just last week, however, Bangkok-based human rights group Fortify Rights released a report that shows the military may not be so willing to let go of power, especially as it continues to wage war against ethnic groups.


In Spain, eviction of Barcelona squat sparks national unrest

As one half of Spain's anti-establishment left prepares its assault on the political system from within, local groups in Sants, the epicenter of unrest, seem increasingly focused on street level activism.

BARCELONA, Spain — The summer in Barcelona typically begins on the first of June. As you cycle round the city, the newly strong sun brings certain smells to the fore.

Occasionally a waft of frangipani or cannabis smoke will cut above the ubiquitous exhaust fumes, but this weekend in the southern suburb of Sants, another fragrance was added to the mix; the cloying, sandy aroma that fills the air after a demolition.


Net neutrality and the First Amendment: Who has the right to free speech?

It’s been one month since the FCC voted on a proposal critics say would kill net neutrality. With just one month left until comment period ends, both sides of the debate are demanding First Amendment rights.

It’s been one month since the Federal Communications Commission voted to push forward a proposal that critics have said would kill net neutrality, leaving just one more month for US citizens to file comments about the legislation to the FCC’s database, before the first comment period ends on July 15.

The move threw the principle of equal access to information online into the center of a heated debate over whether or not internet service providers (ISPs) should be allowed to create a system of paid-prioritization that would propel some web content forward, while hindering other content — a shift that net neutrality advocates argue would greatly restrict free speech on the internet.

“These implications are most dangerous for — and indeed most likely to impact — smaller and marginalized speakers and listeners; those with the most controversial and least popular ideas who are unable or unwilling to pay,” said Morgan Weiland, a Student Fellow at Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society.

Driving the debate are two competing First Amendment claims.


New bill introduced to Senate prioritizes LGBT rights in foreign policy

The International Human Rights Defense Act calls for a special envoy and would make the protection of LGBT rights worldwide an official priority of the US government.

A new bill calling for the creation of a special envoy for LGBT rights was introduced in the Senate on Thursday, by Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), and officially unveiled on Friday.

The bill, titled “The International Human Rights Defense Act,” is backed by 20 co-sponsors — all Democrats — and would make the protection of LGBT rights an official priority of the US government.

If passed, the bill would not only create the envoy’s office, it would make it the responsibility of the State Department to “devise a global strategy” that would aid in preventing discrimination and violence against LGBT communities. It would also task the department with building relationships with international LGBT advocates, like the American Jewish World Service, which is the fourth largest international funder of LGBT rights.


Working for Turkey’s state media, press freedom 'within limits'

The trouble with working at the behest of a government that is already ranked 154th out of 180 countries for press freedom.

As the only New York correspondent for the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) — a state-owned news agency — Kahraman Haliscelik files around 35 stories per month from his office in the United Nations building.

Though he produces profusely, the kinds of stories he files must be carefully chosen. After all, his work for TRT puts him at the behest of a state that is already ranked 154th out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2014 Press Freedom Index, and which is experiencing even more quickly deteriorating press freedoms at the hands of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Just last week, RSF and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemned the government for targeting journalists with both physical attacks and “inflammatory rhetoric,” following the May 31 anniversary of the Gezi Park protests. RSF has also demanded an investigation into “police violence against many journalists” that targeted at least 10 reporters, including members of a CNN International crew, during the anniversary demonstrations two weeks ago.

“A year after Gezi, the security forces are still using unjustifiable violence against journalists covering demonstrations,” said Johann Bihr, the head of the RSF Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “The impunity enjoyed by those responsible for last year's abuses just encourages the police to continue. It is high time the authorities reined in such practices by abandoning their inflammatory rhetoric and by ensuring that those guilty of violence are punished.”


Colombia's presidential candidates must put rescue of child soldiers first

Commentary: As the country heads into the June 15 run-off election, the rescue and reintegration of thousands of child soldiers, pressed into combat by illegal militant groups, must be the central focus for both presidential candidates.

CALI, Colombia — As Colombia heads into the June 15 run-off election that will determine its next president, the fate of the thousands of child soldiers in illegal combatant groups across the country is unclear.

Much of the presidential campaign has centered around current negotiations between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — a domestic armed militant group known as FARC.

The incumbent President Juan Manuel Santos, has led an 18-month negotiation with FARC and has reached agreement on significant areas of conflict. His political challenger, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, a former finance minister, has staked his campaign in opposition to the negotiations with the slogan “peace without impunity” — charging Santos as weak on terrorism.

Regardless of the outcome, what needs to be central in a subsequent government going forward is a commitment to the rescue and re-integration of the thousands of child soldiers that have been pressed into combat by illegal militant groups on both sides.