In just the last few months we have seen some important steps forward for human rights defenders in Pakistan, Cuba, Guatemala, Indonesia, and Geneva. These events demonstrate on the one hand how we do our work, and on the other why defenders around the world still need your help.
The Human Rights Defenders Program works at three main levels. Most of our alerts focus on a person on the frontlines of the struggle for human rights. But we also work to change laws or policies, and to build support for the whole category of human rights defenders.
Looking at the examples in this newsletter, we called for the freedom of individuals detained in Cuba for expressing their opinions. But we also conducted advocacy to address broad attacks on the courts and constitution in Pakistan. And we helped organize a coalition in Geneva to ensure practical support within the UN system for human rights defenders as a category of unique importance and at particular risk. In fact, much of our work cuts across all three levels, as we use particular cases to change policies and build support for defenders overall.
The second point about these successes is that they are only the first steps down a long road. In Cuba a group of 55 human rights defenders, journalists, and librarians remains in prison. Guatemala has yet to address the mass atrocities of the past or to halt threats against defenders today. And in Indonesia, those who planned and ordered Munir’s death have yet to be charged or prosecuted.
For now, though, all participants in the Defender Alert Network should take satisfaction in the steps forward covered in this newsletter. Watch this space for updates and opportunities to help ensure that we keep making progress in these important cases.
Following Executive Director Maureen Byrnes and attorney Charles Lister’s visit to Pakistan in December during the final week of martial law, Human Rights First released a report in February. The report analyzes the lasting damage caused by martial law measures to judicial independence and the constitution and US silence on the issue, before providing recommendations to both the US and Pakistani governments.
Human Rights First also issued an alert for constituents to urge senators to question Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte about the judges at a February 28 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. Senator Russell Feingold (D-WI) did just that, resulting in significant media coverage. A front-page New York Times article, a Reuters article, and two McClatchy articles reported Negroponte’s disappointing response, and a leading English-language Pakistani newspaper reported the entire exchange. An Associated Press article quoted Human Rights First fellow Aaron Zisser about the Senate hearing.
Despite the Bush Administration’s lack of support, some initial progress has been made in Pakistan to restore the constitution and the courts. The two major opposition parties that won in the February parliamentary elections announced their intention to issue a resolution, within 30 days of forming a government, calling for reinstatement of the judges (see our press release). The newly-elected Prime Minister, as his first official act, immediately ordered the release of the judges who were still under house arrest, and the new cabinet formed a committee to determine how to reinstate the judges.
Human Rights First continues to pressure the Pakistani and U.S. governments to support the restoration of the courts and the constitution in Pakistan at this critical time.
Click here for Human Rights First’s other advocacy on Pakistan.
Human Rights Defenders in Cuba Still in Peril despite Transfer of Power
In In February 2008, Fidel Castro made the startling announcement that he would not “aspire to… nor accept” reelection to the presidency in Cuba, a position he has held since 1976. Human Rights First’s Elizabeth Jordan penned an op-ed in the Huffington Post outlining the ways in which Cuba’s new president could improve conditions for human rights defenders on the island. A few weeks later, Raul Castro formally assumed the presidency. That same week the Cuban Foreign Minister signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Human Rights First welcomed this step and urged Cuba to comply with the spirit of the covenants and release its detained activists. March 18, 2008, marked the five-year anniversary of the crackdown on civil society and arrest of 75 human rights defenders, journalists and librarians (known as the Grupo de 75).
The US government took an interest in the transition in Cuba. Human Rights First met with staff members of the House of Representative’s Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere to discuss the Grupo de 75 and to increase collaboration with international efforts to urge Cuba to release these prisoners.
Many of these prisoners, such as Dr. Jose Luis Garcia Paneque, are in critical health conditions. Join Human Rights First in calling on the Cuban government to release them and to respect the work of human rights defenders.
Human Rights Developments under New Guatemalan President
In January 2008 Alvaro Colom was sworn in as the new Guatemalan President. In a public letter to President Colom and press release, Human Rights First outlined the main human rights challenges his administration faces and how he should overcome them. He has started positively by naming Ruth del Valle, a prominent human rights defender and ally of Human Rights First, to a prominent position within the Human Rights and Peace Ministry. As we had urged, he has also stated his intention to declassify military archives which may shed light on the military’s involvement in human rights violations committed during Guatemala’s civil war from 1960 to 1996. Human Rights First also played a role in liaising with the new Guatemalan administration and Hina Jilani, the U.N. Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders, to pave the way for her successful country visit in March. Her preliminary recommendations reflected many of our suggestions.
Also in March we hosted a delegation of Guatemalan human rights activists from the NGO Protection Unit for human rights defenders and the Legal Action Centre for Human Rights. We were able to connect them with important policy makers by organizing meetings with members of Congress, the National Security Council, State Department and the UN which focused on overcoming impunity for past and present human rights violations.
United Nations Advocacy: Fighting to Keep the Expert on Human Rights Defenders
In March 2008, Associate Attorney Andrew Hudson participated in the Human Rights Council (HRC) meetings in Geneva. The purpose of the trip was to ensure the retention of the UN expert on human rights defenders during the review of that position by the HRC. He gave a speech to the HRC, published a statement about the importance of the expert, and encouraged eight international organizations to sign on to a joint statement. Human Rights First also lobbied many states to support the expert and helped organize a panel showcasing the work of human rights defenders, which was attended by over 100 people.
On March 27, 2008, the HRC decided to retain and strengthen the human rights defenders mandate, as we had sought, by including an explicit focus on gender and women human rights defenders. It also included stronger language requiring States to allow the expert to visit their country and to follow up on the expert’s recommendations. The HRC named the new expert, Margaret Sekaggya, from Uganda.