Today, Dec. 10, was designated as International Human Rights Day by the United Nations in 1950. The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights holds that all human beings “are born free and equal in dignity and rights” and are entitled to live free of persecution, “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” Sadly, these admirable goals are all too often ignored and violated by political, social, and religious institutions all over the world.
We at OGP refuse to ignore these goals, and in honor of International Human Rights Day, we have decided to outline five of the most urgent human rights abuses in the world today, and suggest how you can help put an end to them — because we all need to be part of the solution.
1. Critical Humanitarian Situation in Syria
The prospect of U.S. military air strikes in Syria was famously avoided earlier this year, and the UN has also reported that the Syrian government has been “fully co-operating” with the dismantling of its chemical weapons program. However, as the country continues to be racked by civil war, the human rights situation remains critical.
New figures released by the UN show that since the conflict began in 2011, up to 6.5 million Syrians have been internally displaced, while 2.2 million people have fled the country and 9.3 million people are in need of urgent humanitarian aid. Valerie Amos, UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief co-ordinator, says that “modest progress” has been made with the Syrian government on speeding up visa issuance and increasing the number of relief distribution hubs.
“However,” she continues, “I did remind the [UN Security] Council that on some of the more difficult areas – protection of civilians, demilitarization of schools and hospitals, access to besieged communities and also cross-line access to hard-to reach areas – we have not seen any progress.” It is estimated that 250,000 Syrians are trapped in besieged areas, while a further 2.5 million are in rural, hard-to-reach locations that are difficult for aid workers to access.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has also cautioned that the “program to remove chemical weapons from Syria to locations elsewhere [where they can be safely destroyed] continues to pose challenges due to the security situation on the ground.”
2. Continual Abuses Against Freedom of Speech and Assembly in Russia
In their 2012 report on the worldwide state of human rights, Amnesty International (AI) stated that the controversial elections which took place on Dec. 4, 2011, returning the Vladimir Putin-led United Russia party to power, were “marred by widespread allegations and numerous documented instances of vote rigging.” The organization also outlined numerous incidents of police brutality that took place in response to a series of peaceful demonstrations after the election results were announced.
Meanwhile, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) people continue to face harassment and attacks. The introduction of the “gay propaganda” law earlier this year, which made it illegal to distribute any literature pertaining to LGBT rights, has further ossified the hostile and discriminatory atmosphere faced by LGBT people throughout the country.
At the same time, the Duma (Russian parliament) passed a harshly punitive law which forbade the “offending of religious feelings.” This measure was initiated in part by the trial against the dissident punk band Pussy Riot.
Yelena Kostychenko, a journalist with the independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, expressed her disgust with the passing of these two laws by saying, “I have sincere contempt for the Duma’s deputies. All, including the so-called opposition. You have brought fascism to my country.” However, as most Russian news media is tightly controlled by the state, dissenting voices such as Kostychenko’s have consistently been ignored, at best, or violently crushed, at worst.
3. Persecution Against the Roma People of Europe
The Roma people – a nomadic traveling community sometimes referred to as “gypsies” – have endured oppression in Europe since the Middle Ages. They were one of the ethnic groups deemed racially “inferior” by the Nazis, and it is estimated that of the one million Roma living in Europe before the onset of the Second World War, 220,000 were killed in concentration camps, while thousands more were demeaned and exploited in barbaric scientific experiments.
And their persecution has continued up to the present day.
In their 2012 report, “Discrimination against Roma in Europe,” AI directly named the European Roma community – which currently numbers between 10 and 12 million people – as “one of Europe’s largest and most disadvantaged minorities.” The report found that 15 percent of European Roma people were illiterate and a further 31 percent had received less than six years of formal education, while 20 percent had been victims of racially motivated crime.
Speaking to the BBC about the ongoing vilification of the Roma, Kate Allen, Amnesty’s UK director, said that many Roma are discriminated against “because of who they are, what they are presumed to be, or what they believe.” She criticized successive European governments for failing to tackle the problem, and concluded, “it’s time Europe woke up and put a full stop to the persecution of these marginalized communities.”
4. Forced Labor Abuses in China
International human rights organizations have long been concerned about the situation for political dissidents and prison inmates in China. While China have recently announced plans to abolish their notorious “re-education through labor” camps, AI has stated that this “will be little more than a cosmetic measure unless the authorities tackle the deeply entrenched abuses of the country’s overall detention system.”
Sadly, forced labor is also a fact of life for the impoverished Indonesian women who make up almost half of Hong Kong’s 300,000 migrant domestic workforce. A report released by AI earlier this year found that recruitment and work placement agencies in both Indonesia and Hong Kong, who are largely responsible for organizing these women’s employment, frequently place them into work situations which violate their human rights not to engage in forced labor.
The report also found that employers in Hong Kong routinely violate the women’s right to freedom of movement (by, for example, confiscating their passports), subject them to physical or verbal abuse, refuse to pay them the wages to which they are entitled, and arbitrarily terminate their contracts.
5. Unlawful Executions in Iran
According to AI, the Iranian execution record is second only to China, and the majority of those sentenced have been put to death for political reasons.
Hamid Ghassemi-Shall and his brother Alborz Ghassemi, for example, were sentenced to death in 2008 on “spurious charges of espionage and cooperation with People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI).” Ghassemi-Shall was later released after his wife, Antonella, launched a campaign in conjunction with AI in Canada, but it was sadly too late for his brother Alborz, who was killed in suspicious circumstances during the first year of their captivity.
Ghassemi-Shall says of that time: “They didn’t tell me I had the right to see a lawyer. They handcuffed me, blindfolded me and took me to a cell. During the investigation the treatment was varied and they beat me and tortured me psychologically for eight months. I hold Iran responsible for my brother’s death, for the 64 months of my life that I spent in a prison, for the pain and suffering my wife Antonella, my sister, my mom, my brother, and my sister-in-law went through. There’s no excuse for that.”
How You Can Help
- You can sign one of Amnesty International’s many online petitions here, register as a member of the organization here, and donate to support their work here.
- Alternatively, if you would like to play a more hands-on role in the worldwide promotion of human rights, the UN runs an international volunteer program. You can register your interest in becoming an online volunteer, take part in their volunteerism for peace and development movement, or register in a short-term (three month) assignment.
- The UN regularly posts job openings on their website, so if a full-time career as a human rights advocate appeals to you, check it out!
Image Source: Val Kerry/Flickr