Do not forget the Uighur

In the wake of a global pandemic, it is easy for human rights abuses happening on the other side of the world to slip our minds. But for those affected, the abuse, the torture, the detention and killings, have not subsided. For one of the most persecuted groups, the Uighur Muslims, arbitrary detention and cultural erasure continues with the Xinjiang region’s campaign of genocide.


Since 2017, the Xinjiang region has seen the expansion or creation of 380 separate detention facilities, and most estimates suggest that at least 10% of all Uighur and other muslim populations in Xinjiang have been arbitrarily detained here. Experts who have been studying satellite images of the region in an exploration of human rights abuses believe the total number of detention centres may be much higher. In December 2019 the governor in Xinjiang, Shohrat Zakir, claimed that all “students” from the camps had “completed their studies” and “returned to society”. In January 2020 a newly built 60-acre detention camp opened near the city of Kashgar. The camp is entirely surrounded by a 14-metre-high wall accompanied by 10-metre watchtowers. It is estimated that this camp could detain 10,000 people. So, I ask you, does it sound like the detention of innocent “students” has ended? Or does it sound like the Xinjiang governor is continuing to tell lies? Contrary to Zakir’s statement, satellite evidence and victim testimony suggest a very different picture, one in which tens of thousands of detainees are being forcibly relocated to higher security centres.


This mass incarceration of Chinese citizens based solely on ethnicity and religion has created an atmosphere of terror and silence Xinjiang. The prospect of detention has created a culture in which it is impossible for the ethnic minority to dissent in any way, to resist any request made by someone seen as loyal to the party, or to give any reasonable consent. 

Birth prevention

Alongside the culture of fear, the arbitrary detention and forced disappearances are reports of forced sterilization and birth control. An investigation by the AP News Agency combined government statistics, state documents and interviews to find that women were regularly subjected to pregnancy checks, forced intrauterine devices, sterilization and abortion. In the Xinjiang region birth rates plummeted by nearly 24% in the last year alone, compared to the 4.2% national average. This undoubtedly meets the definition of genocide as outlined in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide; article II sections (d) states that “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group” constitutes genocide when committed with intent to destroy in whole or in part an ethnic or religious group, such as the Uighur and other ethnic Muslims.

Cultural Erasure

Furthermore, the Chinese government has embarked on a deliberate and strategic mission to erase and rewrite the cultural heritage of the ethnic minorities of Xinjiang. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute estimates that around 16000 mosques in the Xinjiang region have been destroyed or damaged in line with government policy. A further 30% of sacred Islamic sites in the region have been demolished, with another 28% damaged or altered since 2017. This intentional attempt at cultural erasure adds to the hostile environment Uighur and other ethnic Muslims are faced with in Xinjiang today.

In the last two months the international community has finally increased calls on the UN and the ICC to probe and prosecute the situation in Xinjiang as a genocide. A task complicated by international diplomacy and structural inefficiencies, declaring the Chinese government’s actions as genocide would legally demand international action as per the Genocide Convention. However, the relative media silence over this ongoing atrocity is unacceptable. We must continue to expose the atrocities in China and pressure multinational organisations to take action. We must not forget the Uighurs.

School Attack in Cameroon

On the Verge of Civil War

At around midday on Saturday 24 October, gunmen opened fire on children at a local school in Kumba city in South West Cameroon. According to the BBC at least six children were killed, whilst Al Jazeera puts the fatalities at eight, all aged between twelve and fourteen years old. Alongside those killed, it is believed that around twelve more were seriously injured. 

African Union Commission Chair, Moussa Faki Mahamat said:

“there are no words of grief nor condemnation strong enough to articulate my full horror at the brutal attack.”

There has been no immediate claim for the violence, and it is currently unclear as to whether the attack was related to the ongoing tensions between Anglophone and Francophone regions within the country. 

Cameroon has been no stranger to violence over the last four years, as pressure between the Anglophone South West and North West regions, and the Francophone majority have escalated. Like many modern political conflicts, these troubles can be traced back to Cameroon’s colonial past. Originally invaded by Germany in the 1880s, Cameroon was divided into a French colony and a British colony following World War 1. Following 77 years of colonial rule, Cameroon won its independence as a united republic in 1960, but these colonial divisions continue to devise the country today. 

Since its independence, Anglophone regions of Cameroon have made claims of neglect from the Francophone majority, including president Paul Biya, who has been in office since 1982. This neglect is particularly evident in the discrepancies in economic investment in Anglophone and Francophone regions, with the former suffering. 

In 2016 Anglophone teachers and lawyers went on strike, leading months of demonstrations as some began to call for independence of the Anglophone Cameroon in a newly formed state, Ambazonia. This was met with a three month internet ban as the government dispelled protestors with excessive force, including accusations of arbitrary arrest, prolonged detention and sexual abuse. 

The government action was met with violent campaigns of revenge by Anglophone militants, and as conflict increases between militants and the army, Cameroon is on the verge of civil war. So far the violence in the country has left an estimated 3000 people dead and tens of thousands displaced.

Making abortion illegal again…

Are Poland’s already restrictive abortion laws about to get stricter? 

Poland is already home to some of the strictest abortion legislation in Europe. 

According to Amnesty International, as it currently stands legal  abortion is conditional on one of three factors: the foetus was conceived through rape or incest, the mother’s life is in danger or there is severe or fatal foetal impairment. 

Even in cases where abortion is legal, there are many societal barriers that women must overcome in order to access treatment. The “conscience clause” for example, permits medical professionals to refuse care based on their own personal or religious beliefs. Furthermore, the sex education provided in Polish schools is far from the international standard, perpetuating damaging gender norms and stereotypes, anti-lgbtq+ and anti-rights narratives. 

Plans under the “Stop Abortion” Bill first surfaced in March 2018 and then again in October 2019, and were both met with mass protests. The bill seeks to eliminate one of the existing provisions, making abortion illegal even in the case of severe or fatal foetal impairment. 

Human Rights Watch have stated that the Bill was “drafted and backed by right-wing groups, including the conservative, anti-abortion, and anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture”. 

But the attempts to further restrict abortion rights in Poland didn’t begin with the 2018 Stop Aboriton Bill. In 2016 protests that became known as the Czarny Protests (Black Protests) and Strajk Kobiet (Women’s Strike) successfully led to the rejection of a bill that proposed a complete ban on abortions throughout Poland. 

As a member of the European Union, one would hope that the women of Poland would have their human rights protected, but when it comes to abortion rights there are very few international protections. Poland is one of 6 European countries with highly restrictive abortion laws, alongside Andorra, Malta and San Marino where there is a complete ban on abortion, and Leichtenstien and Monaco, whose laws are similar to that of Poland. 

I’ve said it before and I will say it again, making abortion illegal does not stop abortions from happening, it simply endangers and criminalizes innocent women who wish to exercise freedom over their own bodies.

Violence against Women: Nigeria #JusticeForUwa

On 27th May 2020, a 22 year old student named Vera Uwaila Omozuwa was raped and murdered as she studied in a church in Edo state, Nigeria. A microbiology student at the University of Benin, Miss Uwalia Omozuwa’s story is unfortunately a familiar one. Estimates suggest that as many as 2 million Nigerian girls and women are subject to sexual assault or rape every year. 

There has been nationwide outcry for justice following the death of Miss Uwalia Omozuwa, with the hashtag #JusticeForUwa trending in Nigeria. The church in which the attack took place, have condemned the action and joined the call for urgent investigation by the police. 

In the past 5 year considerable action has been taken to try and improve the state of violence against women in the country, with the Violence Against Persons (Prohibitions) Act 2015 (VAP)  taking the first steps to radically update policy to protect women and girls. The act clearly prohibits ands sets out punitive action to be taken against rape with an offender liable to imprisonment for life. The act further criminalises other violent acts against women such as female genital mutilation (FGM), “harmful widowhood practices” and traditions as well as other “harmful traditional practices”. 

Whilst the VAP Act was a necessary and significant step in the right direction it applied only to Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, and 9 of the country’s 36 states which have signed and ratified the Act. Unlike many of the injustices in the world, the Nigerian media frequently reports on the regular occurrence and lack of prosecution for violence against women, and yet nothing seems to be changing. Human Rights Watch suggest that although vast numbers of women are assaulted every day, very few report their experiences due to “the stigma associated with being a rape survivor, fear of reprisals, and distrust of the authorities.” In 2017 the National Bureau for Statistics released figures stating that only 2,279 reports of rape and indecent assault had been recorded by police. This grossly inaccurate account is testament to the culture of silence that is preventing the women of Nigeria from seeking justice. 

Corruption within police authorities furthers the difficulties with reporting and prosecuting these violent crimes. Often when reporting a crime it is expected that the victim will provide the police force with a monetary contribution, rendering those living in poverty with virtually no human rights protected by the legal system. Furthermore, beliefs that see domestic and personal crimes as the private matters of a family result in some police suggesting that reports of domestic abuse and violence should be dealt with by the household, not the authorities. 

What is really needed for substantial change is a shift within societal thought and perceptions. An article published on the Institute of Current World Affairs stated that “in a country where 35 percent of women and 25 percent of men ‘agree that a husband is justified in beating his wife if she burns the food, argues with him, goes out without telling him, neglects the children, or refuses to have sex with him,’…society’s attitudes and behaviour must change”. 

Society doesn’t change overnight, but society does change. It is so important that we do everything in our power to ensure that society changes to the benefit of the oppressed. Sitting here writing as white woman living in a comfortable middle class home, I am not best placed to recommend the way these changes come about. But as a woman riddled with white privilege I have a duty to raise awareness of such injustice, and do my best to start a conversation. After all, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” – Audre Lorde. 

Refugees and Pandemics: COVID-19

According to the UN, there are currently 25.9 million refugees in the world. Amongst the chaos and uncertainty of the Covid-19 outbreak, it is easy to forget about such human rights crises. Yet those living in refugee camps are one of the most at-risk populations in the current climate. Here are 5 reasons explaining why this population is so vulnerable. 

1. Living in close proximity 

Cox’s Bazar, a large refugee settlement in Bangladesh, is severely overcrowded with each person having little more than 10m2 of space. That’s roughly the same as a medium-sized garden shed. In the UK it is illegal for a one-bed flat to be less than 37m2. This high density causes obvious issues when trying to practise social distancing, to prevent the spread of a disease such as Covid-19. This risk has already materialised in the recent spread of measles and diphtheria. 

2. Lack of infrastructure/healthcare 

Refugee camps are often set up quickly and with very limited resources. This results in a severe lack of necessary infrastructure such as proper toilets, waste disposal and running water. Coupled with limited access to food, this creates a deteriorating state of health for the majority of those living in camps. Whilst there are hospitals, they are very basic. Cox’s Bazar currently has about 300 hospital beds available. In London alone, an additional 4000 hospital beds are being made available. In simple terms, the additional beds in London are the equivalent per person to the entire capacity in the camp at Cox’s Bazar. This shows the disparity in the capability of dealing with Covid-19 in refugee camps. 

3. Communication barriers 

A common theme in refugee camps is a lack of proper communication technology. There is often very little mobile signal and few affordable service providers, so even if a refugee has access to a phone they can’t always use it. The spread of timely, expert information is crucial to effectively mitigate the impacts of health crises such as the Covid-19 outbreak. So, the gap in information caused by the lack of communication further increases the risks faced by those living in refugee camps. 

4. Natural disasters

The impacts of natural disasters can be catastrophic on refugee camps. Take Kutupalong or Balukhali camps in Cox’s Bazar for example, home to around 750,000 Rohingya refugees. In June, the monsoon season will sweep Bangladesh the same way it does every year. The flooding, mud and destruction brought by extreme winds and rainfall exaggerate the lack of sanitation, increasing the spread of diseases.  

5. Aid workers

Another risk factor associated with refugee camps is the reliance on national and international aid workers. With travel restrictions worldwide and general guidance to implement social distancing between individuals, aid workers will be putting themselves in increased danger by continuing to work in refugee camps during the pandemic, if they can get to the camps at all. This personal risk and restricted travel, in turn, threatens to remove a key source of support for refugees, leaving them more isolated than they were before the outbreak.

The most recent BBC Panorama programme explored the impact of the Coronavirus outbreak on Europe’s refugee camps from the inside. You can watch the programme here.

To Be Gay in Chechnya

The persecution of the LGBT community is Chechnya is not news. For years rampant homophobia has forced them into hiding, but recent anti-gay purges have created a massive escalation in fear. 

In February 2017 an officially sanctioned purge was launched, with police and security officials detaining dozens of gay and bisexual men, humiliating, starving and torturing them. The government carried out forcible disappearances on a number of the men, whilst others were returned to their families barely alive. Once released, the government informed their relatives of their sexuality before encouraging them to carry out honour killings. Though the homophobia was no surprise, the systemised nature of the 2017 purge was unprecedented. 

Following international calls for a thorough investigation, in 2018 Russia’s justice minister released a statement saying that their investigation had shown no sign of right’s violations and that they were unable to find any representatives of the LGBT community to assist in the investigation. Whilst there is no doubt that the investigation carried out was less than thorough, I also find it very unsurprising that a persecuted population did not come forward and admit to possessing the persecuted characteristic when asked by their government. Seems pretty obvious to me. 

Whilst the detentions appeared to stop in mid-2017, 2019 saw a new wave of persecution. This new wave saw police demanding large sums of money for the release of prisoners, whilst authorities confiscated and destroyed the men’s passports, ensuring that even on release, they were unable to leave Chechnya.

In March 2019, 30 countries supported a joint statement at the UNHRC expressing their deep concern about LGBT persecution in Chechnya and again called for a thorough investigation. But what good is condemning the Chechen authorities for detaining and torturing a group of people that they claim don’t exist? For years the Chechen government has denied claims of the purge against the LGBT community by claiming that gay people simply don’t exist in Chechnya. 

For aggressive homophobia to be so entrenched in a twenty-first-century government is absolutely horrifying, but the complete lack of concrete action by the international community is just as damaging to human rights conditions more generally. By passively standing by and letting such abuses happen essentially ensures that they will continue to happen in the future.

Reversing Roe

Abortion rights have long been one of the most controversial human rights. In a world where women are gaining more and more control over their lives and their bodies, political moves such as Georgia, USA’s “heartbeat bill” spark civil dispute and rightly strike fear into the hearts of young women everywhere. 

Abortion in the United States became legal in 1973 in the famous case of Roe v Wade and is now considered a Constitutional right. So why 46 years later are States like Georgia beginning the process of reversing Roe? And why should we be fighting to stop them? 

The heartbeat bill makes it illegal for a doctor to provide an abortion once a “heartbeat” has been detected. This usually happens at around 6 weeks. Plot twist – this “heartbeat” is not a heartbeat, but the first signs of cardiac activity. At 6 weeks a fetus has not yet formed a heart. 

Most women do not find out that they are pregnant until the sixth week or later. In a state where abortion laws are already stringent and maternal death rates are amongst the highest in the country this bill would make abortions inaccessible for so many women. Luckily this assault on women’s reproductive rights has been temporarily blocked by a federal judge and will be reconsidered in October this year. 

Georgia’s attack on women’s right not scary enough for you? You’re in luck! Georgia was only 1 of 16 US states that proposed heartbeat bills in 2019. Terrifying. 

One of the most frustrating things about anti-abortion laws like this one is the clear disregard for the dangerous situation that it’s putting women in. Criminalising abortion doesn’t stop abortions. You aren’t saving the lives of the babies you are claiming to protect, you are just putting the lives of their mothers at risk. Women facing an unwanted pregnancy will find a way to terminate. Whether they do this themselves using medieval methods, find an illegal, unsafe back-alley doctor to perform the abortion for them, or if they are fortunate enough to be able to afford to travel somewhere that respects women’s rights. They will abort. 

We have been fighting for women’s rights since the concept of human rights was born. We have come an incredible distance in that time but the fight is not over. The struggle continues.

Human Rights Day: Young Defenders of Human Rights

Today marks 71 years since the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and people across the world are celebrating International Human Rights Day. This year the UN announced the theme would be “youth standing up for human rights”. So instead of looking at another human rights violation, this post is going to look at the uplifting activism of three young people across the world. 

Karin Watson (Chile) : Women’s Reproductive Rights 

Karin comes from what she describes as a “privileged background in a struggling country”. She has been campaigning for increased abortion rights for women in Chile and argues that whilst 2017 saw a lift on the absolute ban of abortions, there is a lot more work to be done to ensure safe and legal abortions for all women. Along with a friend she set up Que Se Sepa! a platform that aims to erase the stigma around abortions by providing a safe space for women to share their own stories. Alongside her campaigning for reproductive rights, she is an advocate for increasing human rights education. 

Adélaïde Charlier (Belgium) : Environmental Rights 

Youth fighting the climate crisis is certainly not a new concept anymore, with young people across the world causing a stir by missing school to protest the inaction of world leaders in fighting climate change. The most famous of these young faces is Greta Thunberg, but there are many more young climate activists out there, including Belgium’s Adélaïde Charlier. In an interview with Amnesty International, she talks of the growing traction her strikes gained, growing from 350 people initially to over 35000 young people striking together. She finished by saying “We took a risk by skipping school, but it’s what we have to do if we want to make change happen!”

Marsel Tuğkan (Turkey): LGBT Rights 

The space for human rights in Turkey is ever-shrinking but Marsel is fighting hard to ensure it remains open and vibrant. Amidst a growing campaign of intimidation against the LGBT community in Turkey, and ahead of the 2018 pride march in Istanbul, Marsel said: “Now, it is more important than ever to show solidarity, both for one another within the community and as a show of strength for the rest of the country.”

These young activists are a glimmer of hope amongst an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty within the global human rights community. In a world where an old white man accused of multiple sexual crimes is the leader of the United States and where a Nobel Peace Prize winner is on trial for genocide, we could use a few more inspirational human rights defenders like these three. 

The China Cables

Although I have already written a post on the Uighurs in Xinjiang, given recent events I feel obliged to dedicate another post to explain the unfolding situation. Just over a week ago a series of official Chinese documents were leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism, detailing the processes behind the Xinjiang detention camps. The documents have been labelled the China Cables.  

The China Cables were discussed in a new BBC Panorama programme “How to Brainwash a Million People”. Accompanied by interviews with ex-detainees, the families of detainees and for the first time, an ex-teacher from the camps, the thirty-minute programme provides a succinct and emotional account of the story of Xinjiang. 

What do the documents tell us?  The documents include a telegram, which acts as an operations manual for running the mass detention camps, which was accompanied by the signature of Zhu Hailun, then deputy secretary of Xinjiang’s Communist Party and the region’s top security official. This is the most incriminating of the documents released, and was described in the Panorama programme as a “clear and brutal guide”. Some of the most alarming text included the emphasis on removing any uncensored contact with the outside world, for example, section 2 of the telegram has been translated as “prevent escapes” and includes instructions for if students are granted permission to leave the camp, stating “they must have someone specially accompany, monitor and control them”, whilst section 3 details how students “may not contact the outside world apart from during prescribed activities”. It continues in section 14 instructing an “increase in discipline and punishment”, and finishes with section 25 “strict secrecy”. 

First-hand accounts. The Panorama programme spoke to one man who explained how he had been taken from his house in the night and transported to a camp, where he was stripped naked and put in chains. He notes how the guards didn’t see the detainees as human and how he was unsure whether or not he would make it out alive. Another ex-detainee described the physical abuse she experienced inside a camp. She explained how when they went to the toilet they were limited to two minutes and were constantly being told to hurry up by guards, if they took too long they risked being hit on the back of the head with an electric baton. She continued “my only dream was to die”. 

China’s response. Despite all of the evidence from the leaked documents, to satellite photos, to victim testaments, the Chinese government has maintained its denial of the whole thing. China’s UK ambassador dismissed the documents as fake news, and in a press conference about the Xinjiang camps, said that there was no impact on their freedom of religion or beliefs at all. This utter denialism employed by China either assumes that the rest of the world is stupid or simply doesn’t care. 

In my opinion, this is clearly a genocide, and whilst key figures have described the situation as “the largest internment of an ethnic minority since the Holocaust”, there are potential issues that arise when trying to define the situation as genocide using the UN Genocide Convention. The Convention entails the destruction of an ethnic group, however, the “brainwashing” methods that are being used, the forcible learning of language and denouncement of religion, fall short of the Convention’s definition. The closest the Convention gets to the Xinjiang camps is “causing serious bodily or mental harm” – which could definitely be argued in the case of the Uighurs, but would not be concrete. This, therefore, represents not only a gross abuse of power by the Chinese State, systematic destruction of an innocent population, and a clear tactic of denial, but also a failing in the international system that should be protecting us from such abuse.

Iran’s Fuel Protests

For a little over a week, protestors in Iran have been taking to the streets to fight against a government decision to increase the price of fuel by 50%. They have been met with brutality. In the first weekend, estimates of up to 200 protestors were killed. The internet was almost completely shut down in an attempt to block videos from the demonstrations reaching the outside world. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has threatened “decisive action” if the protests continue, and those leading violent protests are facing execution.

In a disappointing and unsurprising turn of events, when you begin to dig deeper into the causes of the protests, you find the inevitable involvement of the West. In 2015 Donald Trump made the decision to withdraw the US from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – a deal in which Iran exchanged its nuclear ambitions, for international sanction relief. At the time the deal was made, it was believed that Iran was only two or three months away from having the capabilities to build a nuclear weapon.

Trump believed that Iran was violating the spirit of the deal by supporting terrorism, exporting violence, bloodshed and chaos across the middle east. Somewhat ironic I know. In withdrawing from the deal, the US reimposed a number of sanctions on Iran, essentially causing a painful collapse of Iran’s currency. When the deal was first agreed upon the Iranian Rial was trading at 32000 to $1 (US), this has plummeted to 123000 to $1 (US). You don’t need to understand economics to recognise the significance of this change.  

So, when the government revealed its plans to increase fuel prices, the citizens of Iran, who were already suffering under their recent economic struggle, took to the streets in protest. The UN has expressed its “deep concern” surrounding the use of live ammunition by Iranian forces, whilst security forces are reportedly refusing to return the bodies of some protestors to their families, and are forcing burials without an autopsy, both of which have been described as breaching international law.

With Iran simultaneously wrapped up in a proxy war with Saudi Arabia in Yemen, it’s no wonder why they feel the need quash any domestic dissidence immediately. But is violating international law and causing the unnecessary deaths of its own citizens going to gain the country any credibility or support within a turbulent international sphere? Probably not.

The Gambia: A Glimmer of Hope for the Rohingya

I have been following the case of the Rohingya genocide for a couple of years now and this latest development is the most promising sign of justice that I have come across, and the first judicial scrutiny that the country will face. 

The most recent period of attacks on the Rohingya started in 2017 and resulted in estimates of 700,000 to 1 million refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries, predominantly Bangladesh. As a member of the 1948 Genocide Convention, Myanmar had agreed that genocide is a crime under international law and undertook that they would take steps to both prevent and punish it. 

Under usual proceedings, war crimes such as genocide would be investigated by the International Criminal Court (ICC) and whilst they did begin a preliminary investigation into the genocide in 2018, Myanmar has not signed up to the ICC, complicating any investigation or rulings. For this reason, the Gambia has filed a lawsuit against Myanmar in the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the UN’s principal judicial organ. 

The Gambia, a predominantly Muslim country, has the support of the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and a team of international lawyers in bringing proceedings to the ICJ. The effort is being led by The Gambia’s attorney general and minister of justice, Abubacarr M Tambadou, and has asked the court to order an injunction to stop the atrocities against the Rohingya people. Tamabadou is no stranger to genocide proceedings and has previously worked for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda investigating their 1994 genocide. 

The move from The Gambia has come as a surprise to some, as the country is itself emerging from decades of brutal dictatorship, however, the action is a welcome development, and the director at No Peace Without Justice has encouraged other members of the Genocide Convention to follow The Gambia’s lead and offer their unwavering support.  Legal action addressing individual criminal responsibility has also begun at the international level, with the UN-backed fact-finding mission calling for the prosecution of Myanmar’s military leaders. 

The document submitted to the ICJ is largely unsurprising, calling on the court to declare Myanmar’s actions as genocide in breach of the Genocide Convention and to ensure appropriate punishment for perpetrators. One thing that does stand out, however, is the call for full Rohingya citizenship in Myanmar to be re-established and respected. This is significant as in the lead up to the latest violence the Myanmar government took a number of steps to undermine and remove Rohingya citizenship, deliberately not naming them among 135 recognised ethnicities in Myanmar. 

There is a lot more that the international community could and should be doing, and the fact that it has taken more than two years for judicial action to come about is completely unacceptable. However, the move by The Gambia is an undoubted leap in the right direction, and the efforts by Tambadou deserve international recognition.

Burundi and the ICC

Background. Burundi is a country with a long and complex past, owing largely to its colonisation by the Germans and then the Belgians, ongoing tensions between the Hutu and the Tutsi ethnic groups and the subsequent civil war. Political instability arose from a dispute over the leadership of the country and significantly included the assassination of Hutu President Ndadaye and the plane crash killing President Ntaryamira and his Rwandan counterpart – a key trigger for the genocide in Rwanda. In 2005 after more than a decade of unrest, Pierre Nkurunziza became president, elected by the two houses of parliament. In 2010, Nkurunziza was re-elected, and in 2015 a constitutional court ruled in favour of him standing for a third term. All the while tensions and violence continued to sweep across the country. 

Withdrawal from the ICC. In 2017, Burundi became the first nation to withdraw from the International Criminal Court amid claims that the court was disproportionately focussed on African nations. This is a belief at least in part shared with South Africa and the Gambia, both of which made attempts to withdraw their membership of the ICC before reversing their decisions. 

Despite their withdrawal, the UN has encouraged the ICC to continue open investigations and to open new investigations in the pursuit of justice for victims. The investigations are focused on Crimes Against Humanity such as murder and sexual violence, and according to a UN report based on more than 500 interviews with witnesses, many of the alleged perpetrators are members of the national intelligence service, police force and members of the ruling party. 

In no way do I wish to belittle or condemn the devastating actions of the alleged perpetrators, or to in any way justify the endless violence in Burundi, however, I would like to suggest that their reason for leaving the ICC has considerable weight. All bar one of the current situations under investigation by the ICC are based in Africa. Furthermore, looking specifically at the alleged crimes in Burundi, and focussing on sexual violence, I can’t help but draw comparisons to current western states, who are not being scrutinised by the ICC. The most obvious example being Donald Trump, President of the United States and supposed leader of the free world, who has been accused by more than 20 women of sexual harassment or assault and yet who is standing for a second term in the White House. Whilst the US has a largely negative and dissociative relationship with the ICC this should not be grounds to prevent their investigation. 

It is easy to look at countries that are geographical and culturally very distant from our own and criticise their leaders and their enforcement agencies for their blatant human rights abuses, but we must be willing to look closer to home, and take action to protect those vulnerable to the abuses of our own leaders and enforcement agencies.

Sexual Violence and Harassment in UK Universities.

It is no secret that sexual violence and particularly sexual violence against women is something that plagues today’s society here in the West. It is something that always catches my eye in the news, be it through the Brock Turner case, the Warwick University rape chat scandal, or the #MeToo movement, but it is not something that I have ever spent time looking into academically or otherwise. 

I wanted to write this post because, as a young female university student, the statistics aren’t just numbers, they’re friends, colleagues, coursemates. When I read the statistics I automatically think of specific people, specific events, specific stories. There are numerous reports out there that paint the picture in an aptly terrifying light, but I guess I am writing this because I believe that the more people know about this “epidemic” the more chance we have at changing it. 

The Statistics. Whilst the statistics vary depending on what study you look at, they all tell a similar story, that an appalling percentage of female university students experienced some sort of sexual violence during their studies, and that only a minority reported it. The study by Revolt Sexual Assault, which surveyed 4500 students, across more than 150 institutions, found that 70% of female students had experienced sexual violence at university, yet only 10% reported it to either their institution or the police. Even more shockingly, only 2% of respondents felt able to report it and were satisfied with the reporting procedure. 

But what happens when you do have the courage to report your experience to your university? One student from the University of Cambridge decided to report her supervisor for sending her inappropriate sexual messages, despite being advised by numerous parties not to file a complaint. She requested to give her evidence behind a screen during the hearing, something that is common practice in courts, however, the university refused, forcing her to sit just meters away from the supervisor she was giving evidence against. Whilst her complaint was upheld, his punishment was to write a four-sentence apology letter and sign a no-contact agreement. But there was a catch – the no-contact agreement saw that the student was banned from entering certain university buildings, whilst the perpetrator was allowed to remain at the university. I cannot fathom how this decision was made, essentially punishing a student for standing up to sexual harassment; it is then no wonder why 78% of people surveyed believed that people generally blame the victim in sexual violence and harassment cases. 

And if the trauma of sexual violence and harassment wasn’t enough, the studies show that it has knock-on effects on both education and mental health. 25% of those surveyed started skipping lectures after their assault, whilst 16% suspended their studies or dropped out of university completely. A study by the National Union of Students further found that over one third experienced anxiety and depression as a result, and 7% attempted to end their own lives. 

The future. The responsibility here lies with the individual universities. They have a duty to encourage and support victims of sexual violence in reporting their experiences. They have a duty to combat this culture of terror that presides in their institutions. They have a duty to challenge the behaviour of the accused and take proportionate action. It’s time that universities start putting the welfare and wellbeing of their students above their reputations, its time for change.

The Questionable Truth of Xinjiang

Throughout my undergraduate degree I spent a long time studying different aspects of China, including the ever changing human rights environment, from the Tiananmen Square massacre to the situation in Taiwan. One of the developments that captivated my interest the most came to my attention while I was writing my dissertation, and which has continued to go under-reported and due to strict Chinese policies under-investigated, is the detention of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang province. The release of a video claiming to show up to 600 prisoners shackled and blindfolded on Tuesday, has prompted me to focus this post on the brief history of the Uighurs in China, the truth behind the “re-education centres”, and to outline why we should be so concerned by this.

A history of the Uighur in China. Xinjiang has long been a Muslim majority region and a history of rebellion and resistance to the Chinese rule has resulted in fraught and distant relations between the Uighur Muslim majority and Beijing, with the Party viewing the Uighur population as an ethno-nationalist threat to the Chinese state. During the infamous “cultural revolution” of 1966-1967, Mao Zedong’s government stepped up the systematic repression of the Muslim minority, closing mosques, burning religious texts and sentencing thousands of Uighur Muslims to labour camps. In 1998, 260 Uighur government officials that were seen to be sympathetic to the Uighur independence struggle were fired, and the construction of 133 mosques was halted. A number of indirect consequences to this tension were also identified, for example by 2000, the unemployment rate of Uighurs in Xinjiang was thought to be 70% whilst Han Chinese unemployment in the region was closer to 1%. 

An outbreak of violence in Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi in 2009, killed at least 200 and led to the arrest of a number of Uighur people, attracting attention from Turkey, who denounced the action of the Chinese state and likened their actions to that of “genocide”. Since then, the situation has only escalated, and the so called “re-education” centres are the latest development to come out of the Xinjiang area. Estimates suggest that up to one million people have been detained in the re-education camps, where they are forced to learn Mandarin Chinese, and sing the praises of the Chinese Communist Party. Whilst in the camps they are not allowed access to lawyers or family. China’s official line on the matter is that they are voluntary camps that have been set up to combat extremism, and in recent months, they have invited a small number of journalists in to see for themselves. 

“Paradise Camp”. One such journalist was the BBC’s John Sudworth, who spoke to residents inside one of the camps, a number of whom were “visibly nervous”. All of the people that he interviewed were members of the Uighur ethnic group, and all of them spoke of how they had been “infected by extremism” and that they had volunteered to enter the camps to undergo a transformation. This narrative is supported by a series of letters that were published online, written by those inside the camp and addressed to family members. In one letter from Mehmut Memet to his wife, he talks of the “great and generous Party” and their “loving kindness” in opening the centres, he admits to the illegality of his actions and further talks of the Party’s “correct guidance” and “wise leaders”. To an outsider searching for the truth behind the detention centres, the excessive positivity within the letters is somewhat unsettling, and whilst there is no way for me to find out whether the content of the letters is true, or what these individuals have been through in order to form such opinions, I find them difficult to believe.

The change in policy to allow media representatives into the camps, and the overtly pro-Party letters remind me of organised media trips to the Theresienstadt camp or “paradise camp” in Nazi Germany. Theresienstadt was described as a “Utopian experiment” to produce a self-sustaining community; where fruit and vegetables grew in abundance, where craftsmen flourished, and facilities such as a bank, post-office and hospitals were available for use by all residents. During the media visit, American-style Jazz music was playing in crowded coffee shops and flowers filled the camp with colour. However this idyllic scene was far from the normal; the camp was initially built for 7,000 people yet at times there were more than 50,000 inmates, and in reality Theresienstadt was a transit camp for prisoners that would later be transferred to death camps.

The parallels between Xinjiang’s re-education camps and Theresienstadt should be a great cause for concern, with staged media visits masquerading the sinister truth behind the camps. It is my strong belief that the international community, the UN, humanitarian groups and individual governments should be taking greater action to uncover the truth and protect the Uighur population, recognising the severity of the situation and their responsibility to protect human rights where the host country is unwilling to do so.

The Forgotten War

A “forgotten war” has been raging in Yemen for the last five years, but the humanitarian consequences should not go unnoticed. Since 2015, the deterioration of human rights has been rapid and should be of the highest concern to the international community. 

Key statistics: 

  • At least 15,000 civilians have been killed or injured.
  • 22 million Yemenis are in need of assistance.
  • 8 million are at high risk of famine.
  • More than 1 million have been impacted by a cholera outbreak.
  • 20 million lack access to adequate health care.
  • An estimated 85,000 children have died from hunger or malnutrition. 

How did the war begin? In 2014, against a backdrop of elite infighting and corruption within the Yemeni government, an Iranian backed rebel group known as the Houthi, rose up against the government and took control of Sanaa, Yemen’s capital and largest city. Their main demands were the lowering of fuel prices and a new government. Following failed negotiations, the Houthi seized the Presidential Palace and President Hadi resigned. At this point the conflict grew more complicated with the involvement of the Saudi Coalition. This is a group of Gulf states including Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Malaysia. The primary concern of the Saudi Coalition was the expansion of Iran into Yemen; it is important to note here the strategic territorial advantages of Yemen, as it sits on a strait between the Red Sea and the Gulf, a pathway frequently used for the movement of oil shipments. Also the different ideological differences between the Sunni majority Saudi population and the Shia Muslim Houthi have only escalated tensions. 

International involvement. One of the most complicated and controversial aspects of the Yemen war is the outside involvement. The Saudi Coalition launched a series of air strikes and economic isolation tactics, designed with US intelligence and logistical support. The US has further involved itself with its own campaign of air strikes, with the aim of eliminating Al-Qaeda and Daesh strongholds in the Arabian Peninsula; this consisted of at least 130 airstrikes in Yemen during 2017 alone.

There is also controversial involvement from the UK in Yemen; since 2015 the UK has licensed more than £4.7 billion of arms exports to Saudi Arabia. Under UK export law, it is illegal to grant licenses to a country where there is a risk that the weapons may be used in violation of humanitarian law. However, the British government made no assessment of whether the Coalition had violated human rights law or not, despite obvious indicators that they had. 

On the other side of the conflict you have both China and Russia supporting Iran and the Houthi; for Moscow and Beijing, US interference in Iran would have a detrimental impact on their economic activity in Eurasia. 

Responsibility to Protect. The responsibility to protect is a concept surrounding the sovereignty of nation states, it suggests that as a part of sovereignty, nation states must protect the rights and wellbeing of their citizens, and that if they don’t, organisations such as the UN have a duty to step in and offer support. It is quite clear to me that the Yemeni government is currently unable to protect the basic rights of its people, so why is the international community arming both sides of the conflict, and contributing to the violence, instead of offering humanitarian relief? This is mostly down to the ineffective and outdated system within the UN that caused so much stalemate during the Cold War – the veto. On multiple occasions, Russia and China have vetoed UN resolutions aimed at halting the violence in Yemen. With the UK, the US and France all holding vetoes as well, it is unlikely that the UN will produce any productive outcomes in the near future. 

These outside tensions have only escalated in recent days, with a Houthi attack on Saudi oil plants, which the US blamed on Iran, something that Iran strongly denies. This only increases American motives to extend airstrikes or other punitive action such as economic sanctions into Iran, a move that would further aggravate China and Russia. All the while, the true victims of this war, the Yemeni civilians, displaced, deprived of food and healthcare, begin to fade into the background of a political dispute, overpowered by the world’s most influential states. 

As human beings we have a duty to remember and protect those most affected in the “forgotten war”, we mustn’t be distracted by political bickering. 

The Fight for Hong Kong

The potential for an easy, cooperative relationship between Hong Kong and mainland China was restricted from the moment that colonial Britain stepped foot in the region around the time of the First Opium War (1839). After more than one and a half centuries of British rule, Hong Kong was returned to mainland China in 1997, under the concept of “one country, two systems”. This ensured that Hong Kong would be governed under their own constitution – basic law – and their own judicial system. This further allowed the people of Hong Kong to enjoy a broader range of human rights than those living in mainland China, such as the freedom of assembly and freedom of speech – two rights that have been put under the microscope this summer, as unrest grew around a controversial bill. 

In February of this year, Hong Kong’s Security Bureau proposed changes to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance and the Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matter Ordinance – essentially expanding the scope of extradition permissions, crucially including extradition to mainland China. This was met with resistance from Hong Kong citizens, as thousands took to the streets in protest throughout March and April. Fears arose around the safety of anyone extradited to mainland China, with concerns about the mistreatment of those accused of crime in China, including the use of torture. Amendments to the proposed bill in April and a statement from Lam detailing her government’s determination to push the bill through the legislature only heightened tensions. Small progress was made in late May, when minor concessions were proposed for the bill, which was temporarily suspended soon after, however, this was not enough for the protestors and they continued to march in hopes that the bill would be scrapped altogether. 

On June 6th the protests reached new heights, with more than half a million taking to the streets. This was met with controversial action from the police; rubber bullets were fired into the crowds in an attempt to maintain control, along with the use of tear gas. Instead of deterring protestors, the actions of the police only highlighted the issue of police brutality – something that has since become a key theme of the protests.

Another of the demands that has arisen from the movement is for Lam to step down, this is largely due to the belief that she is not acting on behalf of Hong Kong but that she is being controlled by Beijing. One of the reasons this is such an important issue to the people of Hong Kong is because of the distance that they feel between their own identities and mainland China; whilst technically Chinese citizens, very few of those living in Hong Kong identify as Chinese. Despite this, China has continued to involve itself in resisting the protests, and has even threatened military action in order to stop the movement. In recent weeks, videos surfaced of military personnel stationed in Shenzhen, a city only four miles outside of Hong Kong. Protestors have warned Beijing that should the military be deployed, they will do everything in their power to collapse the economy, severely impacting the mainland.

When I first started following this story I did not see how it could possibly develop in a peaceful way. Certain events from China’s past signalled serious cause for concern. Primarily the comparison that Beijing has made between the behaviour of the protestors and terrorism; this was alarming as the terrorism rhetoric has been central to China’s attempted justificaiton for the mis-treatment of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang province. 

Furthermore, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between these protests and those that preceded the Tiananmen Square massacre; the pro-democracy focus, the high concentration of students within the demography of the protestors, and the hardline taken by the police. Whilst I hoped that China had learned their lesson from the tragedy that unfolded in Tiananmen Square, I was not optimistic that this memory would be enough to deter such a reaction thirty years later. 

Just yesterday (September 4th) Lam announced the formal withdrawal of the temporarily suspended, catalytic extradition bill and amendments. Whilst this was one of the main demands of the protestors, and is undoubtedly a positive development for the people of Hong Kong, it looks unlikely that this move alone will be sufficient to defuse the protests. Even though it was the bill that sparked the movement, the longer the fire has been burning the more the focus of the protests have expanded. There is now a list of five demands that the protestors are calling for, including an independent inquiry into police brutality, an amnesty awarded to all those who have been arrested during the movement – an estimated 850 protestors – and a move towards a full democracy. 

It is still unclear how the situation in Hong Kong will develop in the days and weeks to come, but one thing is for sure, the people of Hong Kong are hungry for pro-democratic change and the whole world will be watching as it unfolds.

El Salvador’s Prison Lockdown

Not even a single ray of sunlight will enter any of these cells

Osiris Luna, Deputy Justice Minister

Last month shocking pictures emerged of the inhumane conditions inside the prisons of El Salvador. These distressing images saw thousands of inmates stripped to their underwear and lined up in such close proximity that they were pressed up against one another. The measures were introduced following a four day period at the end of April in which there were 77 murders in El Salvador. The photos show how the prisoners huddled together as their cells were searched for anything linking them to the outbreak of violence. President Nayib Bukele claimed to have inside information that suggested the murders had been orchestrated by gang members within the prisons, and the new measures should prevent these gang members from orchestrating further violence in society. 

According to Human Rights Watch, authorities enforced an “absolute lockdown” on gang members, locking them in cells for 24 hours and confining gang leaders to solitary confinement for unspecified time periods. The Deputy Justice Minister, Osiris Luna, added that “not even a single ray of sunlight will enter any of these cells” as they enforced the measures that saw windows and doors bordered up as members of multiple different gangs were locked up in the same cells. 

Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights prohibits the use of cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment or punishment. The photos published by the Presidential Press Office are clear violations of this fundamental human right, regardless of the individual’s involvement in gang activities. 

As if not horrific enough on their own, these conditions have come amidst the global Coronavirus pandemic, in which public health guidance has tirelessly stated the importance of social distancing to prevent the spread. Whilst some wore face masks, most of the prisoners had little to no protection against the possible spread fo COVID-19. With prisons already presenting a higher risk of the infection spreading than the wider society, the government’s new prison lockdown measures have made El Salvador’s prisoners and prison staff extremely vulnerable. 

One of the most densely populated countries in South America, El Salvador has one of the highest rates of homicides in the world. This is largely down to the extensive gang activity that controls and terrorises vast amounts of the country. The gang culture erupted following a devastating civil war in the 1980s that was sparked by gross inequality that separated the majority from a small and wealthy minority, and left roughly 70,000 dead. The civil war exposed many young Salvadorian children to horrific violence. In an attempt to escape the brutality many fled to the United States and settled in Los Angeles. Here, they came together in ethnic solidarity to protect themselves against LA’s existing gangs. When the US introduced restrictive immigration laws in 1992, many of those who had fled El Salvador during the war were forced to return, bringing their gang culture to an already struggling state. 

It is difficult to see a way out of this gang culture, which is so ingrained within El Salvador’s society, but it is unlikely that government violations of human rights such as those experienced in prisons are the answer.