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A blog about human rights in their many forms.

Picking up the pieces from a failed land grab project in Tanzania

As negotiations over responsible agricultural investment policy run through the summer, Tanzanian villagers fight for the return of 20,000 acres of land lost to a failed biofuel project.
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Employees harvest fruits of Jatropha on June 20, 2008 in Taabo, center Ivory Coast. The Jatropha produces a seed oil which can be used as diesel oil substitution for power plant or transportation diesel engine. (KAMBOU SIA/AFP/Getty Images)

KISARAWE, Tanzania — I arrived in Tanzania, one of the frontlines in the battle over land grabs in Africa, just as another round of international negotiations on guidelines for “responsible agricultural investment” (RAI) wrapped up in Rome late last month. The policy document is intended to curb so-called “land grabs” in Africa and other developing countries.

Negotiations were not going well. The governments of developed countries were debating every point in the guidelines, which are slated for approval by the UN’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in October. They were resisting many of the most basic principles to guarantee the right to food and land for farmers and herders who have seen their land and livelihoods given away to foreign companies and governments.

Those distant policy debates seemed urgent as I sat down with villagers from the Kisarawe area of Tanzania, southwest of Dar es Salaam, where 11 villages have given up 20,000 acres of land to the British-owned Sun Biofuels for a large-scale biofuel plantation. The biofuel project has failed, and now the villagers are staring at 5,000 acres of useless jatropha trees surrounded by guards hired to keep villagers off what used to be their land.

When the villages agreed to give up the land, they’d been promised compensation for it and, more importantly, more than 1,000 jobs, a variety of community development projects – roads, wells, schools, health clinics – and agricultural investment in local farms.

But those security positions were the only jobs the farm was providing. The local village councils and some farmers have gotten a little compensation for the land, but have nothing else to show for it.


Amid election protests, Afghans wary of ethnic conflict

The protests, so far peaceful, are threatening the legitimacy of what could be Afghanistan’s first democratic transition of power.
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Supporters of Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah shout slogans during a demonstration in Kabul on June 27, 2014. Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah led thousands of demonstrators at a noisy rally through Kabul on June 27, upping the stakes in his protest against alleged election fraud that has triggered a political crisis. (SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)

KABUL, Afghanistan — A dispute over recent elections is raising fears of a return to ethnic infighting in Afghanistan, where supporters of one disgruntled candidate on Friday staged the largest protests yet in a weeklong series of demonstrations.

Chanting, “our vote is our honor” as a call to rally, thousands of supporters of presidential hopeful Abdullah Abdullah marched from early morning to gather in a downtown avenue housing ministries and the president’s palace.


One year after DOMA repeal, marriage equality gaining momentum nationwide

Some US conservatives predicted the Defense of Marriage Act's repeal would "break this nation apart." Instead, recent polls and events show that marriage equality is increasingly winning across the country.
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Benjamin has his partner take a photograph of him against the backdrop of an LGBT flag with two interlocking male gender symbols at the center, inside New York City's Stonewall Inn, on June 26, 2013. The couple was celebrating the Supreme Court ruling, which that afternoon struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. When the decision was announced, hundreds spilled out of work and into the landmark bar, which is the site of the 1969 Stonewall Riots and birthplace of the 1970s Gay Liberation Front. (Rebecca Lee Sanchez/GlobalPost)

One year after the Supreme Court struck down section three of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) — to many a cheer from the LGBT community, and simultaneous warnings by conservative groups that the decision would “create a firestorm of opposition” — marriage equality has been on a winning streak, and the rainbow flag can be found flying in 19 states between the US coasts.

It’s now clear the ruling did not “explode and just break this nation apart,” as Tony Perkins, the president of the Christian conservative Family Research Council, famously predicted. The firestorm never came.

In fact, the decision seems to have influenced just the opposite kind of movement.

President Obama’s administration last Friday called on various new benefits for same-sex couples everywhere — including those living in states where gay marriage is still illegal — that range from work leave to care for sick spouses to Social Security and veterans benefits.


Hope and disillusionment in Iran as internet censorship persists and bloggers jailed

Commentary: As tech and gadget site bloggers are sentenced to ambiguous prison terms, Iranian netizens wonder if president Rouhani is unwilling to affect change, or simply unable.
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(Emily Judem/GlobalPost)

TORONTO, Canada — Last week, a court in Iran’s Kerman province sentenced seven staff members from a popular technology and gadgets site, Narenji, to a very ambiguous 1 to 11 years in jail.


As Bangladesh files Rana Plaza charges, neighbor Philippines yet to learn labor lessons

As the Bangladesh Anti-Corruption Commission takes steps against those responsible, last month's electronics factory fire in Pasay, Philippines shows the issue of worker safety is not confined to Bangladesh.
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A poster tied to a fence at the scene of the Bangladesh Rana Plaza building collapse and reading, "We want a safe work place, not a death trap' is seen on the first anniversary of the disaster on the outskirts of Dhaka on April 24, 2014. (MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Last week, the Bangladesh Anti-Corruption Commission filed a case accusing 17 people of violating regulations in the construction of the eight-story Rana Plaza complex outside of Dhaka that collapsed just over a year ago.

More than 1,100 employees were killed and about 2,000 injured when the building came down in April 2013. More than 200 are still missing today. Investigators later found locked fire escapes, extra floors and other breaches of building safety code throughout the structure.

The disaster triggered a global outcry for the enforcement of workers’ rights and health and safety standards in the workplace. In the weeks following the events at Rana Plaza, thousands of workers across Southeast Asia – where the low-cost manufacturing industry is expanding as a result of rising costs of labor in China – rallied for better wages and working conditions.

"The incident was a wake-up call," Farah Kabir, country director for the nonprofit ActionAid, told CNN on the one-year anniversary of the collapse. "Efforts are being taken on different levels in terms of safety and other related matters.”

But it seems Bangladesh’s regional neighbors have left that call unanswered. The deaths of eight women in a warehouse fire in the Philippine city of Pasay late last month, for instance, is the latest incident to call attention to the loose employment of work-related health and safety laws in parts of South and Southeast Asia.


A 'dark day' in Egypt as journalists are convicted of 'aiding terrorists'

Three journalists were convicted of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and fabricating reports in order to destabilize Egyptian national security, despite lack of evidence.
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Al-Jazeera news channel's Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fadel Fahmy listens to the verdict inside the defendants cage during his trial for allegedly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood on June 23, 2014 at the police institute near Cairo's Tora prison. The Egyptian court sentenced the three Al-Jazeera journalists to jail terms ranging from seven to 10 years after accusing them of aiding the blacklisted Brotherhood. Since the army ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, the authorities have been incensed by the Qatari network's coverage of their deadly crackdown on his supporters. (KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said on Tuesday that he "will not interfere in judicial rulings," following an Egyptian court's verdict on Monday that found three Al-Jazeera journalists guilty of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood — deemed a terrorist group after the takedown of former President Mohamed Morsi. The court sentenced two of the journalists to seven years in prison and one to 10 years.

"We must respect judicial rulings and not criticize them even if others do not understand this," the president said in a televised speech.

Secretary of State John Kerry responded to Monday’s decision by asking the country’s foreign minister to register his “serious displeasure” with the “chilling and draconian verdict.” But his mild condemnation came barely a day after he met with Sisi in Cairo at which point the newly elected military leader gave him "a very strong sense of his commitment [to] a re-evaluation of human rights legislation [and] a re-evaluation of the judicial process." Kerry then reassured Sisi that the US would "get on track" with the its $1.3 billion aid package — part of a (on average) $2 billion aid package Egypt has received from the US every year since the country signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 — and promised to send Apache helicopters for use against militants in the restless Sinai peninsula that borders Israel.

"The Apaches will come, and they will come very, very soon," Kerry said.

Egypt's military junta has shown increasing disregard for basic human rights, first targeting the Muslim Brotherhood and sentencing hundreds to death for their support of democratically elected and later deposed President Morsi, then implementing a "protest law" that bans public assembly without police permission, and going after journalists and activists — effectively snuffing out dissenting voices "across the political spectrum."

Monday's verdict has been slammed internationallly, with the United Nations warning of "a risk that miscarriage of justice is becoming the norm in Egypt." The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has said that "the trial was almost farcical," and "the verdict had nothing to do with the law. It's a transparently politicized result, in which the [Qatar-based] Al-Jazeera journalists have become pawns in conflict with Qatar over its support for the Muslim Brotherhood."

According to the court, Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohammed are guilty of fabricating reports, in support of the Brotherhood, with the aim of destabilizing the country’s security.

While Australian journalist Greste and Canadian-Egyptian journalist Fahmy were handed seven year terms, Egyptian Baher Mohammed was given 10 years, for “possession of ammunition — a reference to a spent shell he picked up from protests as a souvenir,” the Associated Press reported.

At the culmination of a five-month hearing, Amnesty International called the trial a “sham” and the verdict “a dark day for media freedom in Egypt.”


Taking the reins: who leads the fight to end violence against women?

The UNHCR says if we want a better world, we need to give the power to the women.
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Scores of women demonstrate on June 17, 2014 in front of the National Congress in Santo Domingo against a Penal Code Reform in the process of being approved concerning violence against women that they consider as inadequate. (ERIKA SANTELICES/AFP/Getty Images)

The key to a more peaceful world, with more effective solidarity and delivery of humanitarian aid is the engagement and empowerment of women. This is, according to UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, “vital to better resolve a multitude of problems facing the world, including multiple conflicts and gross human rights abuses.”

He was speaking to a group of nearly 500 delegates from more than 260 aid organizations in Geneva on Tuesday — the opening day of the three-day UN Refugee Agency’s annual consultation between UNHCR and international NGOs, this year titled “Women’s Leadership and Participation.”

The conference, which closed on Thursday, stressed the need for a global partnership between the UNHCR and NGOs as various growing humanitarian crises make environments more difficult to gain access to and navigate. The importance of including women and girls in working to curb everything from sexual and gender-based violence and child protection, to rescue at sea and detention of asylum seekers for illegal entry, he added, is critical — not simply for political reasons, but in order to reshape imbalances that have become societal norms.

"One of the problems of today's world, one of the reasons why we see this multiplication of conflicts, we see this dramatic violations of human rights everywhere is indeed that we still live, especially from the political perspective, in a clearly male-dominated world,” Guterres told the group. “And it's still a clearly male-dominated culture that prevails in the way government's act, in the way that many international organizations... act, and in which even in some societies, civil society is organized.”


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.
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African asylum seekers, who entered Israel illegally via Egypt, lean at the fence of the Holot detention centre in Israel's southern Negev Desert, on February 17, 2014 as they join other migrants who came to protest outside the detention facility. Tens of thousands of migrants, mostly Eritrean and Sudanese, have been staging mass demonstrations in the country against moves by the Israeli authorities to track them down and deport them, or throw them into detention facilities without trial. (JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

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.
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Syrian refugee children sit on a United Nations High Commission for Refugees barrier as they wait to be registered at a refugee camp in Bar Elias, in the Lebanese Bekaa valley, on May 30, 2014. (ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images)

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.
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(Emily Judem/GlobalPost)

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.