Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Anti-semitism and racism in stadiums in Poland and Ukraine

On 29 May 2012, a friend of mine on Facebook shared a compelling and somewhat disturbing video that drew my attention to a recent BBC Panorama programme about racism and anti-semitism in football stadiums in Poland and Ukraine. The programme puts the spotlight on football fans with "a reputation for violence and racism" in Poland and Ukraine - many of whom glorify Nazism, anti-semitism and racism by making Nazi salutes on the terraces, taunting black players with monkey chants, chanting anti-semitic slogans and attacking foreign fans during football matches. The programme is particularly disturbing because the two countries - Poland and Ukraine - are poised to co-host the Euro 2012 championship.

The Panorama programme, Euro 2012: Stadiums of Hate, reveals evidence of racism, fascism, xenophobia and anti-semitism in Poland and Ukraine, and raises questions whether UEFA - the organizer of Euro 2012 - chose the right hosts.

The programme is hard to watch and some viewers may find it disturbing.


Blatant racism and anti-semitism in stadiums in Poland and Ukraine is outrageous. Even more outrageous is the impunity enjoyed by violent and racist fans. Law enforcement officers are either unable or unwilling to protect targeted ethnic and religious minorities.

Some viewers of the documentary have argued that it's biased. Others say it's a manipulation and a smear campaign against Poland and Ukriane - the co-hosts of Euro 2012.

However, the video report speaks for itself. Racism and anti-semitism are ugly realities in Polish and Ukrainian football, and there is evidence to show that these social ills go beyond football in these societies and haunt ethnic and religious minorities in everyday life. This piece of investigative journalism simply shines light on an existing problem.

It's worth highlighting at this point that racist violence is not uncommon in Ukraine. Violent attacks on individuals in Ukraine are well-documented.

All eyes will be on Poland and Ukraine during the UEFA Euro 2012 championship, which starts on 8 June 2012. Any racist or anti-semitic attack or chants during the tournament would be an embarrassment for UEFA and a setback for civilization in Poland, Ukraine and Europe in general.

*Photo: Kiev Ukraine News Blog.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The state of human rights in Cameroon 2011

Amnesty International recently released its annual report, which documents the state of human rights in 155 countries and territories in 2011. As a Cameroonian, it is natural that as soon as I had access to the report, I immediately turned to the section that shines light on the state of human rights in Cameroon. The 2012 annual report raised the same concerns documented in previous reports - an indication that Cameroon is, at best, stagnating in the field of human rights.

Amnesty International Report 2012 contains a pinch of good news related to the death penalty in Cameroon. However, bad news in the report outweighs the good and shows that the government of Cameroon failed in 2011 to fulfill its obligations under international human rights law. Concerns raised in the annual report 2012 (see p. 97-99) include: impunity, violations of the right to freedom of expression, freedom of association and assembly, and violations suffered by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

According to Amnesty International, security forces who ordered or committed human rights violations, including killings, during demonstrations in 2008 continued to enjoy impunity. Journalists and critics of the government were detained in 2011 and cases of violations of the right to free expression abound in the report: Bertrand Zepherin Teyou, a writer arrested while trying to launch his book about the wife of the president. He was arrested in November 2010 and released on 29 April; Paul Eric Kingue - imprisoned in connection with the 2008 demonstrations, Pierre Roger Lambo Sandjo - imprisoned for 3 years after what many believed to be a political trial for composing a song criticizing a controversial Constitutional amendment that eliminated presidential term limits and Reinnier Kaze, a press correspondent arrested on 23 February 2011while covering an opposition demonstration in Douala, the economic capital.

The report reveals that political and human rights groups were routinely denied the right to organize peaceful demonstrations and activities. Eight activists were arrested in Yaounde, the nation's capital, when they met to organize a demonstration in memory of victims of human rights violations during the 2008 demonstrations. Mboua Massock, a political activist, was arrested for trying to organize a demonstration against the October 2011 presidential election. Farmers were arrested for trying to demonstrate against bad roads and inadequate government support for agriculture. The farmers were later released without charge. In February 2011, the chairman of the Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC), chief Ayamba Ette Ottun, and several other people were arrested. On 1 October 2011, security forces interrupted a meeting of the SCNC and arrested 50 people. They were reportedly released without charge several days later.

LGBT people continued to be imprisoned for up to 5 years in relation to sexual orientation. The government reportedly proposed to increase punishment for same-sex relations to up to 15 years imprisonment.

As mentioned earlier, the report contained a pinch of good news. A presidential decree issued on 3 November 2011 commuted death penalty sentences to life imprisonment. For supporters of the death penalty, this is not good news, but for human rights defenders and activists who believe that the right to life is non-derogable and that governments should not kill their citizens, the presidential decree is welcomed. The decree, however, according to Amnesty International, did not commute the sentences of people convicted of murder and aggravated robbery and did not specify how many death penalties were commuted.

A presidential decree commuting death sentences does not mean human rights are respected in Cameroon. The state of human rights in Cameroon is nothing to write home about. Selectively commuting a few death sentences is not enough to propel Cameroon to the ranks of states that respect human rights. The presidential decree that commuted death penalties is welcomed, but there is still a lot of work to be done to make respect for human rights a reality in Cameroon. A catalogue of human rights abuses, including impunity for unlawful killings, repeatedly highlighted over the years by Amnesty International in numerous reports add weight to this assertion.

*Photo: Paul Biya, president of Cameroon. He has been in power since November 1982.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Ratko Mladic: "Europe's highest-ranking war crimes suspect" shows no remorse

Ratko Mladic, the man accused of masterminding the massacre of more than 8,000 Bosniaks in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica during the 1992 - 1995 Bosnian war, appeared in court on 16 May 2012 and showed no remorse or respect for the victims of the heinous crimes he is accused of orchestrating.

The man dubbed "the Butcher of Bosnia" appeared at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the Hague as his war crimes trial began and did the unthinkable. He reportedly stared at family members of victims and/or survivors of the Bosnia war carnage in the audience and drew his hand across his neck as if cutting a throat.

It has been said that actions speak louder than words. We all know what a throat slash or "cut throat"  gesture means. It connotes cutting a person's throat with a blade. Gestures confer different meanings in different cultures, but the "cut-throat" gesture is considered a death threat in many societies.

The throat slash gesture does not help Mladic's case. The 70-year-old former General of the Bosnian Serb army is on trial for genocide (11 counts), war crimes and crimes against humanity. He is Europe's highest-ranking war crimes suspect. [Source]. Mladic was a fugitive for 16 years until he was arrested on 26 May 2011 and extradited to the Hague less a week later.

The 1992 - 1995 Bosnian civil war claimed 100,000 lives and left 2.2million people homeless as Bosnian Serbs carried out a campaign of ethnic cleansing targeting non-Serbs. Mladic was the Bosnian Serb commander during the massacre in Srebrenica and  the 43-month siege of Sarajevo. [Source].

Since General Mladic made his first court appearance in 2011, he has been defiant and has so far shown no remorse. At the moment, he seems to be having fun disrespecting the court and those affected by the massacre in Srebrenica, but at the end of what promises to be a long and difficult trial, I'm confident that victims and families affected by his alleged crimes will have the last laugh.

It has been said that "the wheels of justice turn slowly but exceedingly fine."

For 16 years Ratko Mladic eluded the law but he was finally arrested and dragged to the Hague. As we speak, other people wanted for international crimes, including folks like Omar al-Bashir and Joseph Kony, think they would elude justice. No matter how long they stay at large, they will eventually be nabbed. An African proverb states that "a debt may get moldy, but it never decays." In the same way, an arrest warrant for international crimes may get moldy, but it would never decay.

As for Ratko Mladic, "the Butcher of Bosnia" who doubles as "Europe's highest-ranking war crimes suspect," justice has started taking its course. Irrespective of what he does in the courtroom during his trial, it's only a matter of time before the chickens come home to roost.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Finland: Perussuomalaiset anti-Islamic ties uncovered by YLE

You've probably heard about the Perussuomalaiset (True Finns) political party in Finland. If you haven't - it's a right-wing, anti-immigration, anti-Islamic and Euro-skeptic political party that made shock gains in Finland's April 2011 parliamentary election. The party is no stranger to scandals involving its members of parliament, ordinary members and parliamentary aides. Scandals mostly involve anti-immigration rhetoric and hateful rhetoric against minority groups. A poll commissioned by Helsingin Sanomat in 2011 revealed that supporters of the party have the most negative attitudes towards immigrants, with up to 27% "recognizing a large, or fair amount of racist characteristics in themselves." This poll speaks volumes about the membership of the party, but a recent report by YLE News adds perspective to the composition of the party. The report exposes True Finns' ties to anti-Islamic, far-right movements in Finland.

According to the news report that exposes Perussuomalaiset party's anti-Islamic ties, several members of the party, including members of parliament and politicians, are linked the Finnish Defence League, a far-right, anti-Islamic "street movement". The report also links Perussuomalaiset members and politicians to Suomen Sisu, a nationalistic association based in Helsinki, Finland.

Far-right, anti-Islamic movements linked to the Perussuomalaiset party share something in common with Anders Behring Breivik - the infamous far-right extremist who massacred 77 people in Norway in the summer of 2011: they oppose multiculturalism and the so-called "Islamization of Europe."

It's true that people reserve the right to hold and express critical political opinions, but it's worth highlighting that it's also true that those who exercise their civil and political rights in ways that endanger the safety and freedoms of others must be held accountable. People of good conscience should distance themselves from political movements that promote anti-Islamic views and the bashing of immigrants and other minorities. Such movements that breed hate and thrive on racism, xenophobia and fear mongering are poisonous to society, especially when they are linked to parliament through political parties like the Perussuomalaiset. They intimidate, provoke and antagonize minority groups, thereby creating a hostile environment and putting both the people they claim to protect and the people they bash in harm's way.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

President Barack Obama supports gay marriage

On 9 May 2012, a tweet by Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, drew my attention to a historic interview granted by President Barack Obama to ABC News. The tweet read: "If battleground states may be against gay marriage, then more power to Obama for standing in principle over politics." During the interview that will bring hope to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in states where homophobia and inequality are backed by law, Obama declared his support for gay marriage. Bold and principled move indeed by the "leader of the free world".

Barack Obama told ABC's Robin Roberts, against all odds, that he supports a concept that many kick against.

According to The Huffington Post, Barack Obama is the first sitting president to publicly declare support for same-sex marriage, and this "act of political bravery" could have drawbacks.

LGBT issues are contentious and many advocates of LGBT rights pay a price either by being perceived "gay" or "lesbian", arrested or fined for spreading "gay propaganda". For President Obama, backing gay marriage could cost him votes in so-called swing or battleground states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina in the upcoming 2012 presidential election. The president chose human rights over politics by expressing support for a "politically poisonous" issue. This is commendable.

Cherished principles of equality and freedom demand us to respect people's choices and orientations - whether we agree with them or not - and to treat everyone without discrimination of any kind. Obama's support for gay marriage is in line with basic human rights principles, including principles of equality and freedom of expression. The move that has attracted mixed reactions was welcomed by Amnesty International.

All persons deserve the same rights and protection without discrimination. It is important to understand that limitations on the rights and freedoms of others pose a threat to our own rights and freedoms. A state that has the power to infringe the civil rights of a group of people has the power to infringe the civil rights of all its citizens. Limitations on civil rights and liberties should not be celebrated even if they do not affect us directly.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Are women hated in the Middle East? The Mona Eltahawy debate

It is no secret that the state of women's rights in the Middle East and North Africa is nothing to write home about. Violations of women's rights and limitations on their fundamental freedoms in region abound. The sorry state of women's rights in Egypt and the Middle East was recently highlighted by Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian-American journalist, in an article published in Foreign Policy magazine. In the article, which contained  a telling photograph of a woman brutalized by Egyptian security forces, Mona Eltahawy took the Arab world to task for "a litany of abuses" against women "fueled by a toxic mix of culture and religion." She pins violations of women's rights squarely on misogyny and strongly argues in critical terms that women are hated in Arab societies. This assertion sparked a heated debate.

The article, titled "Why Do They Hate Us?", puts the spotlight on violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms suffered by women in the Middle East. Some violations cited in the article include female genital mutilation (FGM), virginity tests, child and forced marriage, driving ban, no right to vote, endermic sexual harassment, assaults and intimidation by Islamists, and no right to marry without male guardian's blessing. It also brings to limelight scandalous statistics in the region: 90% of ever-married women in Egypt have undergone FGM. In Yemen, 55% of women are illiterate, 75% do not work and only 1 woman serves in the 301-person parliament.

Violations condemned by Mona Eltahawy in this controversial article are indisputable. The world knows about FGM, virginity tests in Egypt, child and forced marriages (case in point: Fawziya Ammodi, a 12-year-old Yemeni girl who was reportedly forced into marriage and died in a painful child birth), the driving ban and no voting rights for women in Saudi Arabia and many other untold violations endured by women in the Middle East.

No one who knows something about women's rights would deny the endemic discrimination and oppression suffered by women in the Middle East. However, many people (including women) have surprisingly kicked against Mona's article. I have read many blog responses and comments provoked by a simply question posed by a concerned women: "Why do they hate us?"

Rather than respond to the violations discussed in the article, critics have attacked the author for focusing on the Middle East and for generalization. One blogger argued that Mona's article is "irresponsible at best". Some have termed it a "misdirected call to arms". Others have argued that it incites hatred and disdain towards the religion the author "pretends to represent". Such strong accusations and negative responses are misdirected attempts to obscure or minimize the plight of women in Egypt and the Middle East - as captured in Mona Eltahawy. It is unfortunate that many would rather defend the status quo that oppresses women than echo a dissenting voice.

Some counter arguments have been more measured and reasonable like the argument put forward by Leila Ahmed. But irrespective of what people think of Eltahawy's article, there is no denying that women's rights are limited in Egypt and in many Middle Eastern societies.

Unlike Mona Eltahawy, I do not think women's rights are violated in the Middle East because women are hated. I would argue that women's rights are violated because the cultural, religious, political and judicial environment in the region is conducive for perpetrators. Make no mistake, the oppression of women is not exclusive to the Middle East. Women are oppressed and discriminated against in varying proportions all across the world. It is primordial to seize every opportunity to highlight the problem.

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