Monday, April 30, 2012

MP says Finland is for Finnish people

Like many European countries, Finland has seen a rise in far-right populism and extreme political views in recent years. Anti-immigration sentiments run high. Islamophobia and xenophobia  are daily realities. One political party - Perussuomalaiset (PS) - champions the cause against immigration in the Nordic country.

PS Members of Parliament and supporters, including folks like Teuvo Hakkarainen, Jussi Halla-aho, Tommi Rautio, just to name a few, make no secret of their extreme views on immigration and Islam. Recently, a PS parliamentary aide suggested that minorities should be forced to wear armbands for identification. The name of another party aide, Ulla Pyysalo, appeared in a hacked membership list of a neo-Nazi organization.

The PS is no stranger to political scandals and hateful rhetoric against minority groups.

More recently on 22 April 2012, a notorious Member of Parliament (MP) for the party, James Hirvisaari, stated in a blog entry that Finland is a country for Finnish people. Such a bizarre and misguided statement, in my opionion, has no place in the 21 Century.

 The blog post, titled "Suomi on suomalaisten maa", attacks humanitarian immigration and globalization, but fails to put forward any viable alternative. The author wrongly argues that immigrants travel abroad simply to enjoy social security in the receiving country. According to Hirvisaari, humanitarian immigration creates problems in the receiving country and does not solve the problem in the country of origin. He argues that Finland is for Finns and that Finland is not the Red Cross. In his view, it does not help the situation that more people are brought to Finland to "pursue their dreams."

Hirvisaari and other anti-immigration proponents in Finland seem to be unaware that Finland has a long history of emigration and that there are Finns who are immigrants elsewhere. Towards the end of the 1800s, large numbers of people emigrated from Finland to, in James Hirvisaari's own words, "toteuttamaan unelmiaan" (realize their dreams) abroad. Canada and the United States were popular destinations for Finnish emigrants. In the 1960s, the labor market in Finland forced many Finns to emigrate to Sweden. Hundreds of thousands of Finns emigrated to neighboring Sweden in the 1960s and 1970s. [Source].

It is wrong to brand refugees and all immigrants as "social security hunters", and to suggest that humanitarian migrants should not move to Finland. This twisted view of immigration is inflammatory. Like the hundreds of thousands of Finns who emigrated to Sweden and other parts of the world in the 1960s and 1970s, many people moving to Finland nowadays are hardworking individuals forced by man-made or natural circumstances to migrate. Finland cannot afford to completely close its borders in a globalized world. Even if it could, the social and economic consequences would be damaging. According to Statistics Finland, Finland's population is ageing and labour shortage is eminent. The country had the world's fastest greying population in 2007 and looming labour shortage can only be solved by attracting labour from abroad. Birth rate is low and more people are  exiting work than entering it. [Source]. In 2011, a woman in Finland would give birth to an average of 1.83 children during her reproductive period, which is below the approximately 2.1 children per woman threshold on population renewal. [Source].

According to the European Commission, population ageing will have "repercussions" on Finland's labour market, economic growth and public finances. [Source].

It is true that other strategies, such as postponing retirement, could counter the effects of Finland's ageing population. However, measures such as attracting labour from abroad should not be completely ruled out. Arguing that Finland is for Finnish people does a disservice to the nation by creating a hostile environment for foreign nationals who, if given a fair chance, could contribute enormously to the economic wellbeing of the state.

From a civil and political perspective, as a member of the international community, Finland has an obligation to welcome so-called humanitarian migrants (refugees). People reserve the right under international law to seek protection from persecution or any form of ill-treatment in their country of nationality. This right is enshrined in the landmark 1951 UN Refugee Convention and its Optional Protocol to which Finland is a party. James Hirvisaari (and Perussuomalaiset as a whole) cannot change this - at least for now. The MP's egoistic view of "Finland-as-it-ought-be" is misguided and designed to score political points. His controversial blog post is yet another cheap shot directed at Finland's immigrant and refugee population.

James Hirvisaari was convicted for inciting hatred against an ethnic group by a court in Finland in 2011. The conviction was in relation to a text posted on his blog on the Uusi Suomi website. His divisive and inflammatory rhetoric is therefore not surprising, but it should not be entertained.

*Photo: StoryMoja.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Finland: Demand justice for killing of Jyri Jaakkola

On 27 April 2012, I attended a seminar in Helsinki in memory of Jyri Jaakkola, a Finnish activist who was killed in Mexico two years ago. The seminar titled "Mahdollisuus Oikeuteen Meksikossa? Jyri Jaakkolan Muistoseminaari", was organized by Amnesty International - Finnish Section, Helsinki University's Political and Economic studies department and Ius Gentium - the Finnish Society for International Law. Participants included lawyers, human rights defenders, activists, politicians, journalists and people from other walks of life. The family of Jyri Jaakkola was represented at the seminar.

According to Amnesty International, Jyri Jaakkola was killed on 27 April 2010 during at attack on human rights observers in Mexico's southern state of Oaxaca. The attack by armed men left the Finnish activist, Jyri Jaakkola, and a Mexican human rights defender, Bety Cariño, dead. Several other people, including journalists and observers from other countries like Germany, Italy and Belgium, who were part of an International Caravan of Human Rights Defenders were wounded. The group of about 30 people was ambushed while on its way to document human rights violations in the indigenous Triqui area. [Source].

Two years after the armed attack that left two human rights defenders dead and many other people wounded, the Mexican authorities have brought no one to justice.

During the seminar in memory of Jyri Jaakkola, exactly two years after he was killed, a petition to Mexico's Attorney General, Marisela Morales Ibañez, demanding justice for the killings, was circulated for signing. According to information on the petition by Amnesty International in Finland, the investigation into the killings has not come to fruition. No one has been brought to justice and the government of Mexico's efforts to protect human rights defenders will not been realized unless the government shows a strong will to stop impunity. Amnesty International demands that crimes against human rights defenders, like Jyri Jaakkola and Berty Cariño, should be thoroughly and promptly investigated. The organization notes that the lack of witness protection slows investigations and demands that Mexico ensures that witnesses receive the protection they need to enable them voluntarily testify without fear of retribution.

I encourage you to sign the petition demanding justice for the killings Jyri Jaakkola and Bety Cariño. I signed it already. The petition is in Finnish, but don't worry if you do not understand the language. Simply fill in the required fields in the form - keeping in mind that: "Etunimi" means first name, "sukunimi" means surname and "paikkakunta" means town. (P.s. that is Finnish 101 for you). Check the boxes blow the petition form if you want your name to appear on the front page of the petition and if you want Amnesty to send you information about petitions, campaigns and other activities. It is worth highlighting that Amnesty International has been demanding justice in this case since 2010.

We must not forget Jyri Jaakkola and Bety Cariño. Take action now.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Alarming jump in support for far-right in France

I was unusually disconnected from all news channels on the day the French went to the polls for the first round on the 2012 presidential election. When I eventually turned to a news channel at about 9:30pm, I was alarmed but not surprised by news of massive support enjoyed by Marine Le Pen, candidate for the far-right National Front Party. This historic show of support for the far-right in France comes less than one week after Ander Behring Breivik and right-wing extremism went on trial in Oslo. Breivik, the man who massacred 77 people in Norway in July 2011, strongly opposes multiculturalism and immigration from non-European countries - a view shared by many far-right militants across Europe.

According to France 24, about 80% of French voters turned out for the first round of the 2012 French presidential election on 22 April 2012 and Marine Le Pen secured a record 17.90% of all votes cast. Information on the website of the French Ministry of Interior shows that a total of 6 421 802 votes were cast for Marine Le Pen. [Source].

The National Front, it is worth mentioning, promulgates anti-immigration, anti-Islam and Euro-skeptic views. According to a revealing article, titled Marine Le Pen, France's (Kinder, Gentler) Extremist, published in The New York Times on 29 April 2011, the party was built out of "avowed fascists, former members of the Vichy government that had been loyal to Hitler, anti-Jewish zealots, anti-immigration nationalists and staunchly conservative Catholics."

Growing support for a party with Nazis and fascist ties represents a step backward to a time when radical views against minorities were commonplace. This explains why a jump in support for the National Front is disturbing.

Marine Le Pen reportedly holds strong views on Islam and is suspicious of Muslims. In December 2010, she likened Muslims praying on the streets in France to the Nazi occupation. [source]. She has been credited with bringing the National Front back into the spotlight and for trying to "refresh the image of the far-right." But xenophobia cannot be modernized, neither can its image be refreshed. Xenophobia, like a cankerworm, destroys society by creating a "we" against "them" mentality. Xenophobia is divisive and must be completely eradicated. Political parties that flirt with xenophobia do a disservice to society.

In her speech after polls closed on 22 April 2012, Marine Le Pen said "...nothing will ever be the same again" in France. I'm afraid she is right - because it is true that with a jump in support for the far-right, nothing will ever be the same again for immigrants and other visible minority groups in France. The results of the 2012 French presidential election indicate that more people are harboring anti-immigrant and anti-Islam sentiments. Racism and discrimination thrives under such conditions.

There is a social and moral crisis in France and in many European countries, including Finland, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands and many other European countries where far-right populism, racism and xenophobia have recently made significant gains. A society is morally bankrupt when a group of people are unduly treated with contempt and feared simply because of race, color, origin or creed.

*Photo of Marine Le Pen. Source: Socialdust.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Norway: Anders Behring Breivik and right-wing extremism on trial

Anders Behring Breivik, the man behind the 22 July 2011 massacre in Norway appeared in court this morning to stand trial for the cold-blooded killing of 77 people -  mostly teenagers - last summer. The man whose name is now synonymous with right-wing extremism, appeared in court this morning, stone-faced, defiant and showing no remorse for masterminding and executing what has been called "Norway's worst peacetime massacre."

The defiant 33-year-old right-wing extremist appeared in court and pleaded not guilty at 10:25am Oslo time. He acknowledged the killings but said he will not plead guilty because he was acting in "self defence."

Before entering a not guilty plea, Breivik said he does not recognize the court because it gets its mandate from political parties that support "multiculturalism" - echoing his fight against multiculturalism.

In today's trial, all the names of the victims were read out with a graphic description of how they were killed or wounded.

As I watched Breivik's first day in court this morning (see photo), I imagined the pain families of victims and survivors of his deadly rampage will have to endure throughout the trial. Listening to the names of the victims and how they lost their lives was very disturbing. Breivik showed no emotion when the prosecutor read out the names of victims of his carnage, but he appeared to shed tears when his propaganda video was aired in court.

However, there is hope that Anders Breivik will bear the full weight of the law for his "monstrously horrendous" acts - especially after results of a second mental assessment released on 10 April 2012 concluded that he was mentally competent at the time of the massacre (contrary to an initial conclusion that Breivik suffers from paranoid schizophrenia). Besides, his plea of self-defense makes no sense. Commonsense tells me that you can't attack and kill a bunch of unsuspecting unarmed kids in a summer camp in peacetime and successfully claim self-defense. Reports show that Breivik's actions were premeditated over a long period of time.

According to Breivik, the killing was in a bid to save Europe from "Islamic colonization" - a phrase widely used by right-wing extremists across Nordic and Western Europe as a justification for anti-immigration and Islamophobic sentiments.

Across Europe, many right-wing political parties share Breivik's tough stance against Islam and multiculturalism.

For example, in Finland, the Perrussuomalaiset (True Finns) espouse "traditional Finnish cultural values" as opposed to multiculturalism; in Denmark, the Danish People's Party (DPP) is anti-islamist and wants to ban immigration from non-western countries; in Sweden, the Sweden Democrats (SD) has close ties with Denmark's anti-Islamist DPP; in the Netherlands, there's the Dutch Freedom Party led by a fervent anti-Islamist. [Source]. The list goes on.

Analysts have said that Anders Breivik will use this high profile trial as a platform to promulgate his toxic anti-Islamist and anti-multiculturalism views. Regardless of what happens during the trial, I'm confident that justice will be served.

Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides that:

"In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language."

It follows that the ICCPR obligates States parties to allow many cultures to co-exist in society.

Norway and other countries that have ratified that ICCPR have an obligation under international law to protect religious, ethnic or cultural minorities from right-wing extremists and nationalists who seek to "assimilate" or terrorize linguistic, religious or ethnic minorities. From a legal (international human rights law) standpoint, immigrants from so-called "non-western" countries and other minority groups have the right to maintain and enjoy their own cultures while undergoing integration into society in a receiving country. They must not be forced to give up their culture, language or religion. On the other hand, minority groups must not force their culture, language, religion or way of life on the majority in the receiving country.

If it is found that Breivik was mentally stable during the 22 July massacre, he faces a sentence of 21 years in prison, which could be renewed to keep him imprisoned for life [Source] - locked away from the public he terrorized on that fateful summer afternoon.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Finland: Distasteful suggestion that minorities should wear armbands

In Hitler's Germany, people from minority groups - Jews, Roma and homosexuals - were forced to wear armbands. Jews were marked with Jewish stars and armbands by the NS regime in ghettos and concentration camps. In concentration camps, they wore signs to distinguish them from non-Jewish prisoners. [Source]. A look into history is necessary in order to put into perspective a controversial blog post by Helena Eronen, a Perussuomalaiset aide in Finland. The assistant of a "True" Finns Party MP suggested in a blog post that people from minority groups in Finland should be forced to wear symbols on their sleeves.

Helena Eronen blogged on Wednesday 11 April 2012 that foreigners, Swedish-speaking Finns and homosexuals should be forced to wear symbols so that the police can easily identify their background. [Source]. She said for instance that marks will help the police easily identify a Muslim from Somalia or a beggar from Romania. According to Eronen, Muslims should be marked with a crescent, Russians with a sickle and hammer, Cambodians with landmines and Americans with hamburgers. [Source].

She wrote the blog post after reports of racial profiling by Finnish police.

Some have called Helena Eronen's blog post "satire", but to many others, including me, it's distasteful, offensive and proposes institutionalized racial or ethnic profiling. Her suggestion evokes memories of the holocaust and how a group of people were literally "marked"  for discrimination, degrading treatment and death by a brutal regime.

Eronen is an assistant of James Hirvisaari, an MP of the populist right-wing Perussuomalaiset political party. Hirvisaari was convicted and fined for hate speech in 2011. [Source]. Not surprisingly, he defended his assistant's distasteful comments targeting minorities and reportedly republished her blog post on his own website after it was deleted from where it was originally posted.

The parliamentary group of Perussuomalaiset reportedly decided that Helena Eronen should be sacked immediately from her position as parliamentary aide. This could be an attempt by the anti-immigration and Euro-skeptic party to safe face, but the harm has already been done. What the party is made of is no longer a secret. It remains to be seen whether Eronen's boss - who seemingly shares her views - will give her the boot as decided by the parliamentary group.

*Photo: History in Chronology.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Harsh working conditions in Apple's Foxconn factory

The European Commission defines Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) as "the responsibility of enterprises for their impact on society." According to the Commission, in order for corporations to fulfill their corporate social responsibilities they should integrate human rights, consumer concerns - including social, environmental and ethical concerns into their business operations. [Source]. If you own an iPhone, iPad or iPod, or if you've ever heard of any of these devices, then you probably know that the multinational corporation that designs and sells them is called Apple. There are reports that one of Apple's most important manufacturing suppliers - Foxconn Technology - violates CSR standards and doesn't respect the labor rights of millions of workers in a factory in Chengdu, China.

Apple's Supplier Code of Conduct expressly requires suppliers to, amongst other things, treat workers with dignity and respect and provide safe and healthy working conditions. And Apple's auditing policy requires the company to terminate its relationship with suppliers that do not adequately address problems related to CSR within 90 days. But Foxconn continues to assemble iPads and iPhones for Apple despite reported noncompliance - year after year - to Apple's Suppliers Code of Conduct.

In the last decade, Apple has become one of the "mightiest, richest and most successful" corporations in the world. [Source]. However, the company has so far failed to ensure that human rights are respected all through its supply chain. Workers assembling iPhones, iPad and other sensational devices often reportedly work in harsh and sometimes deadly conditions.

Violations by Apple's suppliers include excessive overtime work, crowded living conditions, improper disposal of hazardous waste, falsifying records, disregard for workers' health and the use of child labor. [Source]. The following YouTube video puts into perspective the difficulties faced by workers building Apple's products in a Foxconn factory in Chengdu, China.

A more damning video report takes Foxconn to task for alleged corporate social irresponsibility.

Companies have both a legal obligation under applicable national and international laws to fulfill their corporate social responsibilities. Apple is no exception.

Addressing CSR  issues is in the interest of both Apple and the millions of vulnerable workers who power the company's success. It's therefore imperative that Apple ensures that all its partners and suppliers, including Foxconn, respect workers' rights.

Apple's products are "trendy" and many people take pride in owning one of such products - turning a blind eye on the plight of workers who produce the so-called gadgets. Consumers have a moral obligation to demand high CSR standards from corporations. In order for big corporations like Apple to stop "corporate misbehavior", it's primordial that consumers become responsible buyers.

According to a revealing story published in The New York Times on 25 January 2012, titled In China, Human Costs Are Built into An iPad, Foxconn is China's largest exporter and, with 1.2 million workers, it's one of the nation's biggest employers. Foxconn has plants throughout China and assembles electronic devices for companies like Amazon, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Nintendo, Nokia and Samsung.

*Photo of Foxconn protest: UKFast Blog.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Cameroon: Human rights workshop shut down

It is no secret that Cameroon does not have a good human rights record. Fundamental freedoms, including press freedom, freedom from arbitrary arrest, torture, cruel or inhuman treatment or punishment, freedom of assembly and expression, are more often than not stifled by a 28-year-old regime. We have seen journalists arrested and imprisoned in relation to their work, we have seen musicians, such as Lapiro de Mbanga, arrested arbitrarily and imprisoned. There are reports of human rights activists threatened, harassed or arrested for doing their work. Rights to free assembly and expression are routinely curtailed by security forces who commonly use lethal force, arrests and intimidation against civilians or brutally crackdown on demonstrators and individuals who peacefully assemble for a cause or express dissenting views. Impunity is endemic, hence many perpetrators of human rights violations walk free. A recent shut down of a human rights workshop in Yaounde sheds new light on limitations on rights and freedoms in Cameroon.

According to Human Rights Watch, the authorities in Cameroon illegally shut down a  human rights workshop on 27 March 2012 in Yaounde, the nation's capital. [Source]. The human rights workshop was scheduled for three days and was to include a discussion of the rights of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals. As if shutting down the workshop was not enough, the authorities arrested one of the organizers - all in violation of the rights to free assembly and expression laid down in international human rights standards and recognized in the Constitution of Cameroon.

The human rights workshop had reportedly been authorized, but was shut down by police, gendarmes and civilians authorities after they realized that discussions will include LGBT rights.

The shut down means that Cameroonian authorities do not recognize LGBT rights as human rights, and think that the rights of sexual minorities should not be discussed in human rights workshops. This is a misguided and wrong understanding of human rights.

This goes to show that the authorities in Cameroon have a twisted understanding of the concept of human rights. The police, gendarmes and administrative officials who authorize human rights workshops and other public gatherings are clearly in need of human rights education. They should have benefited from the workshop rather than shut it down. LGBT rights are human rights.

The Preamble of the Constitution of Cameroon states that "we the people of Cameroon... affirm our attachment to the fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights... and all duly ratified international conventions..." Article 45 of the Constitution states that "duly approved or ratified treaties and international agreements shall, following their publication, override national laws..."

Cameroon is party to numerous treaties and international agreements that obligate the state to respect and protect LGBT rights as well as rights to free assembly and expression. Shutting down a human rights workshop because the agenda included LGBT rights violated the Constitution of the Republic and rights to freedom of assembly and expression of the workshop organizers, participants and all stakeholders.

It is worth mentioning that Amnesty International - Finnish Section - organized a discussion on 1 February 2012 about the human rights situation in Cameroon and the systematic discrimination against LGBT people in the west central African country. I opened the discussion with a presentation of a general overview of the human rights situation in Cameroon. If it was organized in Cameroon, perhaps the event would have been shut down by the authorities. Amnesty International is currently campaigning for the release of Jean-Claude Mbede, a Cameroonian sentenced to 3 years in prison for his alleged sexual orientation. Sign a petition by Amnesty International calling for his release.

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