Growing Religious Intolerance in Myanmar as Guilty Verdict Handed Down in Buddha Bar Case

The conviction and sentencing of two managers and the owner of a bar in Myanmar on Tuesday for displaying an image of the Buddha wearing headphones should be overturned immediately and is a chilling indication of the growing climate of religious intolerance in the country, Amnesty International said.

Tun Thurein and Htut Ko Ko Lwin from Myanmar and Philip Blackwood from New Zealand were imprisoned for “insulting religion”. The charges stem back to December 2014 when the Buddha image was used to promote their Yangon bar online.

“Today’s verdict is yet another blow to freedom of expression in Myanmar. While international human rights law permits restrictions to the right to freedom of expression, these restrictions are clearly defined and limited in scope. There is no way that the charges and prosecution in this case can meet the narrow human rights criteria for restricting this right under international human rights law,” said Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s Research Director for South East Asia and the Pacific.

“It is ludicrous that these three men have been jailed simply for posting an image online to promote a bar. They should be immediately and unconditionally released,” Abbott said.

The case against Tun Thurein, Htut Ko Ko Lwin and Philip Blackwood comes amid growing religious tensions in Myanmar. National and international NGOs have raised concerns about hardline Buddhist groups using inflammatory language to incite hostility, violence and discrimination. However, the authorities have yet to take concrete action to address the growing use of hate speech.

Myanmar has seen a disturbing rise in religious intolerance in recent years, often fuelled by hardline Buddhist nationalist groups, leading to increased hostility and discrimination against non-Buddhists and Muslims in particular.

“The shrinking space for religious freedom in Myanmar is deeply worrying, as is the growing influence of rhetoric by hardline Buddhist nationalist groups. Authorities should do all they can to reverse this disturbing trend – not seek to inflame the situation further by pursuing cases like this,” said Rupert Abbott.

On December 4th 2014 writer Htin Lin Oo was also charged with “insulting religion” by the Chaung-U Township Court in Sagaing Region after he criticized the use of Buddhism as a tool for discrimination in a speech at a literary event. He is currently on trial and faces up to three years in prison.

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Violent Crackdown Against Students Continues in Myanmar

A violent crackdown on students in Myanmar continues as students attempting to march from Letpadan to Yangon in protest beaten and seriously injured by riot police and armed groups on March 10th. A number of students were also arrested. They were protesting against a new law on education which restricts academic freedom. Five days previously, students protesting the same law at the Sule Pagoda in Yangon were severely beaten and arrested.

The National Education Bill was enacted by Parliament on September 30th 2014. Student organizations and independent experts were highly critical of the law, which they claim restricts academic freedom. In response, they issued a list of ten demands for an amended statute, which include the adoption of ethnic languages in school curricula and the right to form student and teacher unions. A number of protests against the law have been held since November 2014.

The students in Letpadan were attacked when they attempted to dismantle police blockades preventing them from continuing their march. The same day, students in Yangon held protests in reaction to the crackdown, which were also quashed by police and members of government-sponsored youth groups.

On March 3rd, students in Letpadan had attempted to resume their march and the Burmese authorities deployed over 300 police officers, leading the approximately 100 students in Letpadan to stage a sit-in. The march had been suspended temporarily since a draft amendment bill – the result of negotiations held between authorities and student organizations – was agreed on February 11th.

The agreed bill had been presented to Parliament on February 16th 2015, but the government presented a separate amendment bill at the same time that did not comply with the students’ demands. Discussions on both bills took place in February 2015, but no resolution was reached, leading to the resumption of protests.

Human rights organization Front Line Defenders expressed its grave concern at the crackdown on student protesters in Myanmar, which it believes results directly from their legitimate exercise of freedom of assembly and freedom of expression in the context of the right to education. The incidents come in a wider context of widespread restrictions on protests in Myanmar. The organization calls on the authorities to release all detained protesters and to carry out an immediate, thorough and impartial investigation into allegations of excessive use of force against the students.

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Transparency Needed as Two New Suspects Charged Before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia

Ms. Ros, Ms. Fenies and Ms Ou, civil parties in case n°002 in Phnom Penh, August 2014. Photo courtesy FIDH.

Ms. Ros, Ms. Fenies and Ms Ou, civil parties in case n°002 in Phnom Penh, August 2014. Photo courtesy FIDH.

Human rights organizations welcome the charges brought against two former Khmer Rouge commanders but say that serious concerns remain over attempts at political interference and lack of transparency in the court proceedings. On March 3rd, the international Co-Investigating Judge of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) charged two new suspects with crimes against humanity in ongoing Cases 003 and 004.

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) said Thursday that they hope that this step forward taken by the international Co-Investigating Judge will expedite the much-delayed legal process in these cases and said that the Court should also ensure that the two suspects, who are not under an arrest warrant, will cooperate with the Chambers and appear before the Court when needed.

“This new development sends an encouraging signal to the almost 2000 victims who applied to participate as Civil Parties in Cases 003 and 004 and have been waiting for justice for more than 40 years. We hope this will trigger more transparency in the progress of these cases, but remain concerned by attempts at political interference by Cambodian authorities,”  said FIDH and its member organizations.

In Case 003, the ECCC International Co-Investigating Judge charged Meas Muth, former commander of the Khmer Rouge navy, in absentia with the crimes of homicide, crimes against humanity (murder, extermination, enslavement, imprisonment, persecution on political and ethnic grounds, and other inhumane acts) and war crimes (unlawful confinement of civilians, willful deprivation of a prisoner of war or civilian’s rights to fair and regular trials, willful killing, unlawful deportation or transfer, willful causing of great suffering or serious injury to body or health, and torture). These crimes were allegedly committed in various security centers, against Vietnamese, Thai and other foreigners at sea, and on the islands over which Democratic Kampuchea claimed sovereignty.

In Case 004, the ECCC International Co-Investigating Judge charged Im Chaem, former district commander during the Khmer Rouge regime, in absentia with homicide and crimes against humanity (murder, extermination, enslavement, imprisonment, persecution on political grounds, and other inhumane acts). These crimes were allegedly committed at the Phnom Trayoung security centre and the Spean Sreng worksite.

Four cases have been brought before the ECCC, a hybrid UN-backed tribunal established to judge former high ranking officials from the Khmer Rouge regime.

In Case 001, Kaing Guek Eav, known as “Duch”, was sentenced in appeal in February 2012 to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in the S-21 detention and torture centre he was heading at Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh during the Khmer Rouge regime.

Case 002 was initially targeting four former senior Khmer Rouge leaders, but now only two of them, Nuon Chea, ideologist of the Khmer Rouge regime and Pol Pot’s right hand man, and Khieu Samphan, former Head of State of Democratic Kampuchea, are being prosecuted. Ieng Sary has died and Ieng Thirith was declared unfit to stand trial. After a severance order, Case 002 was divided into different trials.

After a trial in Case 002/01, the ECCC Trial Chamber, in August 2014, found Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea guilty of crimes against humanity related to forced movements of population and the execution of former Khmer Republic soldiers and officials and sentenced them to life imprisonment. This decision is under appeal. The trial inCase 002/02, targeting the two same accused, is currently ongoing and concerns the alleged crimes of genocide, forced marriages and rape, treatment of Buddhists, internal purges, targeting of former Khmer Republic officials, as well as 4 security centers, 3 worksites and 1 cooperative.

Cases 003 and 004 have been brought by the international Co-Prosecutor late 2009 and are being investigated by the Co-Investigating Judges since then. Case 003 is said to be targeting two suspects, among them former Khmer Rouge navy commander Meas Muth, and Case 004 four suspects, among them former Khmer Rouge district commander Im Chaem.

FIDH released a documentary which tells the story of three Cambodian women living in France who travel to Phnom Penh on August 4th 2014 to attend the historic verdict against two of the highest-ranking living political leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime. when leaders Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea received life sentences.

Case No. 002 – History of a Verdict follows 
Mrs. Féniès, Mrs. Ou and Mrs. Ros, who were all victims of international crimes under the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979. With the help of FIDH they filed a complaint as civil parties before the ECCC, seeking justice for themselves and their families who died under the Khmer Rouge regime, a justice they were awaiting for almost 40 years.

Khmer Rouge rule under the leadership of Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan and others resulted in the deaths of as many as two million Cambodians, more than one-quarter of the population. Pol Pot, known as “Brother Number One,” died in 1998 after years of protection from Thailand and China.

The Khmer Rouge took power in April 1975, at the end of the United States’ war in Indochina. Led by Pol Pot and Nuon Chea, they ruled the country until January 7th 1979, when Vietnam drove them out. Estimates suggest that as many as two million of Cambodia’s eight million people were killed or died from disease, starvation, or forced labor during this period.

You can view the documentary, with sub-titles in French, English, Spanish and Khmer here:

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Amnesty: Global Outlook On State Of Human Rights Bleak But Solutions Possible

410AC77B-ACDD-4E27-B472-D695F72581C2_w640_r1_cx8_cy0_cw76_sWorld leaders must act urgently to confront the changing nature of conflict and protect civilians from horrific violence by states and armed groups, urged Amnesty International as it launched its annual assessment of human rights around the world. The group said that there is a tightening muzzle on free speech across the Asia Pacific region as governments locked up dissenting voices on the pretext of national security.

The international human rights organization called the global response to atrocities by states and armed groups ‘shameful and ineffective’. The report highlights horrific violence by states and armed groups and global failure to protect civilians and says that governments must ‘’stop pretending the protection of civilians is beyond their power.’’

Without action, Amnesty forecasts growing restrictions on free speech, rising religious intolerance and a worsening refugee crisis in Asia-Pacific. ‘’Speaking out is becoming a crime in too many countries, leaving media and civil society less space to operate,” said Richard Bennett, Asia Pacific Director at Amnesty International.

“Over the past year, we saw governments use draconian security laws to suppress civil society, locking up and punishing critical voices on the pretext of ‘national security’. States are growing increasingly fearful of the power of new technology and are suppressing the use of online tools,” Bennett added.

Governments from Pakistan to Vietnam were in 2014 stifling open debate, often locking up and targeting dissenting voices under the guise of national security. “There’s a tightening muzzle on free speech across the Asia Pacific region. In a positive sign, we saw growing youth activism across Asia in 2014, as people embraced new technologies to claim their rights. However, many governments reacted to this trend with further oppression online,” said Rupert Abbott, South East Asia Research Director.

In Southeast Asia, the trend is downward. In Vietnam, authorities showed little tolerance for dissent, no matter how innocuous, said Rupert Abbott. In 2014, at least 18 bloggers and activists were tried and sentenced under Article 258 for ‘abusing democratic freedoms’. And at least another five more bloggers were arrested and charged under the same provision for posting or writing articles critical of the government, officials and policies. ‘’This harsh and growing crackdown on freedom of expression must end,” Rupert Abbott said.

The Lao government has also kept a tight grip on freedom of expression. Abbott said that the continuing failure to adequately investigate the enforced disappearance of Sombath Somphone, a prominent member of civil society, had a chilling effect on freedom of expression and civil society generally.

“Last year saw a real backslide on human rights in Myanmar. Arrests of peaceful protesters picked up pace, as the government used draconian laws to silence critics and peaceful protesters,’’ Abbott said. At least 10 media workers were imprisoned at the end of the year, adding to the growing numbers of new prisoners of conscience in the country’s jails. In July, five staff members of the Unity newspaper were sentenced to 10 years in prison after publishing an article about an alleged secret chemical weapons factory. ‘’Although their sentences have been reduced to seven years on appeal, the verdict was a stark example of the restrictions still facing media workers in the country,” he added.

Amnesty warned that space will continue to shrink for civil society and media, with legislation – including national security laws in, for example, South Korea, Thailand and Myanmar– used to silence those critical of the authorities. Governments across the region – in, for example, China, North Korea, Vietnam and Laos – will most likely continue to try to control public.

Buddhist extremist groups in Myanmar and Sri Lanka used hate speech or violence against other groups; repressive blasphemy laws in Pakistan and Indonesia were used to target mainly minority groups; while India has seen an alarming escalation of rhetoric from a range of actors against Muslim and Christian minorities.

Tens of thousands of persecuted Rohingya fled Myanmar and many were held in appalling conditions by traffickers. China, and other countries, continue to forcibly return people to North Korea, where they are often subject to arbitrary imprisonment, forced labour, torture or other ill-treatment, and may be subject to execution. Australia toughened up its harsh policies towards refugees, turning back boats and continuing to ship asylum seekers to offshore processing centers. Asian migrant workers continue to face deplorable conditions, both inside and outside of the region.

“2014 was a catastrophic year for millions caught up in violence. The global response to conflict and abuses by states and armed groups has been shameful and ineffective. As people suffered an escalation in barbarous attacks and repression, the international community has been found wanting,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.

“The United Nations was established 70 years ago to ensure that we would never again see the horrors witnessed in the Second World War. We are now seeing violence on a mass scale and an enormous refugee crisis caused by that violence. There has been a singular failure to find workable solutions to the most pressing needs of our time.”

Amnesty International is urging governments to ensure their response to security threats do not undermine fundamental human rights or fuel further violence. “The global outlook on the state of human rights is bleak, but there are solutions. World leaders must take immediate and decisive action to avert an impending global crisis and take us one step closer to a safer world in which rights and freedoms are protected,” said Salil Shetty.

Amnesty International’s Annual Report provides a comprehensive overview of human rights in 160 countries during 2014, including 29 countries in Asia Pacific where there has been a harsh crackdown on freedom of expression across the region. You can view it in full here and watch this video:

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”We must hope that, looking backward to 2014 in the years to come, what we lived through will be seen as an ultimate low point from which we rose up and created a better future,” Salil Shetty said.

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Three More Bloggers in Vietnam Sentenced Under Infamous Article 258

The three sentenced bloggers. RFA photo.

The three sentenced bloggers. RFA photo.

Reporters Without Borders is denouncing the jail sentences recently handed down to three Vietnamese bloggers under criminal code article 258, which penalizes “abusing democratic freedoms.” The press freedom organization called the sentences ‘’clearly unjust’’ and stated that they are a violation freedom of information and expression.

Le Thi Phuong Anh, Do Nam Trung and Pham Minh Vu received sentences on February 12th ranging from 12 to 18 months in prison by a people’s court in the southern province of Dong Nai.

“We strongly condemn the court’s verdict and call for the immediately release of these jailed citizen-journalists,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific desk.

“These harsh sentences show that the Communist Party does not fear the consequences of its violations of fundamental freedoms and human rights. To put pressure on the authorities, we urge the international community to react and to demand the release of all bloggers and citizen-journalists imprisoned in Vietnam.”

All media is state-run in Vietnam and dissent is not allowed. Many arrests of journalists and bloggers have come under Vietnam Penal Code article 258, which Human Rights Watch calls ‘’one of several vague and elastic legal provisions routinely used to prosecute people for exercising their right to freedom of expression.’’

Arrested while covering an anti-Chinese demonstration by South China Sea oil rig workers on May 15th, they were accused in connection with their Facebook posts about anti-Chinese protests and China’s violations of Vietnam’s territorial waters. The issue often gives rise to accusations by members of the public that Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party is too lax with China. In its verdict, the court said the bloggers had used their Facebook accounts to “disseminate content (articles and photos) that incited and led to anti-state demonstrations.”

Ruling that a total of 157 posts had “insulted the prestige of the state and Communist Party and undermined the trust of the people, especially workers, students and young people, in the Party,” the court sentenced Anh, Trung and Vu to 12, 14 and 18 months in prison respectively.

The authorities also confiscated two motorcycles, several mobile phones and cash from the bloggers, whose sentences reflect the increasingly tough line being taken by the authorities and their frequent use of article 258 to jail independent news providers.

The same article was used to strip the newspaper Nguoi Cao Tuoi (Elderly People) of its license on January 7th and initiate proceedings against its editor, Kim Quoc Hoa, who is facing possible dismissal. Hoa has received threats from the highest government level in the past in connection with his coverage of corruption involving senior officials.

Three days before the trial, Australian MP Bernie Ripoll sent a letter to Vietnam’s President Truong Tan Sang request to suspend the case, release the bloggers and respect the commitments under the International Covenant Civil Rights and Political Vietnam signed.

The Committee to Protect Journalists and several other human rights organizations have called for Vietnam to scrap the controversial article 258. The brief but powerful law states that:
1. Those who abuse the rights to freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of belief, religion, assembly, association and other democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State, the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and/or citizens, shall be subject to warning, non-custodial reform for up to three years or a prison term of between six months and three years.
2. Committing the offense in serious circumstances, the offenders shall be sentenced to between two and seven years of imprisonment.

Vietnam, which is ranked 175nd out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, saw its situation deteriorate in 2014. The index’s annual global indicator measures the overall level of violations of freedom of information in 180 countries year by year. Press freedom continues to decline. The country is the world’s second largest prison for bloggers and netizens, second only to China.

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Doctors Without Borders Resumes Much Needed Services in Myanmar’s Rakhine State

An MSF doctor gives a rehydration solution to a child with diarrhea at an MSF clinic in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Pauk Taw township, February 2013. Photo courtesy Kaung Htet / MSF.

An MSF doctor gives a rehydration solution to a child with diarrhea at an MSF clinic in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Pauk Taw township, February 2013. Photo courtesy Kaung Htet / MSF.

As Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) resumes operation in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, tens of thousands of people are able to access basic health care and emergency referral from for the first time in over nine months. Following instructions from the Myanmar government to MSF Holland to cease activities last February, these primary health clinics restarted on December 17th, 2014 and have already made a big impact in less than two months. Yet, the medical humanitarian organization says there is a huge need to do more.

“We welcome the progress we have made so far, but stress there is space to do more, space we at MSF are willing and able to fill,” said Martine Flokstra, MSF Myanmar Operational Adviser in Amsterdam. “We hope to continue this dialogue with the authorities to ensure that those who need it most in Rakhine state are able to access the health care they need,” Ms. Flokstra added.

MSF provided me with an update regarding their progress since restarting work in Rakhine State.

Since MSF’s suspension from Rakhine in February 2014, MSF has gradually restarted activities in close collaboration with the Ministry of Health. On June 2th 2014, MSF was invited to provide medical staff, resources such as vehicles and medical supplies for the Ministry of Health Rapid Response Teams in Sittwe and Pauktaw Townships. MSF also restarted support to the Ministry of Health for HIV patients that were previously under MSF care before its suspension in February 2014.

Since December 17th 2014, MSF has been able to restart in three fixed primary health clinics and six other temporary clinic locations in Maungdaw Township.

Currently MSF is providing primary health care and HIV treatment and care services in four townships: Maungdaw (HIV and primary health care), Buthidaung (HIV), Sittwe (primary health care) and Pauktaw (primary health care). MSF also provides referral support through a speedboat for use by the Ministry of Health for life saving referrals throughout all townships in central and northern Rakhine.

MSF conducts a mobile clinic at Sintemaw IDP camp, Rakhine state, Myanmar. Photo courtesy Aye Pyae Sone / MSF.

MSF conducts a mobile clinic at Sintemaw IDP camp, Rakhine state, Myanmar. Photo courtesy Aye Pyae Sone / MSF.

Since restarting these primary health clinics on December 17th MSF has done about 6,700 outpatient consultations, seeing predominantly people with watery diarrhea, respiratory infections, and patients with chronic conditions who used to get the medications they need to manage their disease from MSF before those services were suspended. The teams have also conducted more than 2,394 consultations for reproductive health, including ante-natal and post-natal care as well as family planning.

Despite being required to suspend activities in Rakhine last February by the authorities, MSF Holland has been working with the Ministry of Health in Rakhine since last July, providing medicine and personnel to support mobile primary health care teams in Sittwe and Pauktaw Townships, and has continued its support of HIV patients in Buthidaung and Maungdaw. Throughout this period MSF also continued to provide direct care and treatment to more than 35,000 HIV/AIDS patients, and more than 3,000 tuberculosis patients, most of whom are also HIV positive, across Myanmar.

MSF has worked in Myanmar since 1992 and currently has medical projects in Rakhine, Shan and Kachin states, the Tanintharyi region, and in Yangon. MSF offers services including basic health care, reproductive care, emergency referrals, and malaria treatment.

In February 2014, MSF received a written order from the Burmese government to cease all operations in the country, which led to a full closure of all Dutch MSF clinics. This act left patients confused and desperately concerned across the whole country and has human rights organizations concerned about the escalating humanitarian health crisis in Rakhine state. Ongoing conflict, forced displacement and poverty have all had an impact on the general health of people living in certain parts of Myanmar.

MSF has a long history of working in Myanmar, focusing on serving populations within the country that otherwise would not be able to access health care. This includes approximately 30,000 people living with HIV/AIDS, several thousand living with TB and members of marginalized groups such as the Rohingya.

During one recent camp clinic, 40 percent of the children under five years of age that MSF saw were suffering from acute diarrhea. “Our children are dying from diarrhea,” said one man in a displacement camp in Pauktaw Township. “We all have diarrhea. We need more health care. Our latrines are full. We can only dig holes up till 40 centimeters [deep] and then we hit the salty water, so what should we do? The nearest source of water where we dare to go is 40 minutes by canoe.”

In one of MSF’s largest programs in any country, teams have been working across Rakhine for nearly 20 years, providing primary and maternal health care and treating diseases such as malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis (TB). Since 2005, MSF has treated more than 1.2 million people from all ethnic groups in Rakhine State for malaria. Rakhine is Myanmar’s second-poorest state and has historically received less investment in health care than other areas of the country. Over the years, MSF has treated hundreds of thousands of people across the state.

Violence and displacement have worsened the harsh living conditions that many people in Rakhine were already enduring and further limited their access to health care. The stateless Rohingya lack basic rights and freedoms and are subjected to severe restrictions and abusive treatment. Their health situation has been unacceptably poor for years.

For many years, malnutrition and maternal and primary health care needs have been particularly acute in the community, while gaps in official health care services have been more pronounced in areas where Rohingya live.

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North Korea Lacks Allies While Deplorable Rights Record Is On Display

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) visits the Ministry of State Security in Pyongyang to congratulate security personnel during the founding anniversary of the security institution in an undated photo. AFP Photo/KCNA via KNS

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) visits the Ministry of State Security in Pyongyang to congratulate security personnel during the founding anniversary of the security institution in an undated photo. AFP Photo/KCNA via KNS

As officials in Moscow confirm that a North Korean leader plans to visit Russia in May, Human Rights Watch says that Kim Jong-Un and senior members of his government should be held accountable for overseeing grave rights abuses and crimes against humanity.

The spring visit would be the first overseas trip for Kim since coming into power in 2011. Festivities are planned to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Soviet victory over Germany in World War II. Chinese president Xi Jinping is expected to attend; US President Barack Obama and South Korean President Park Geun-Hye have also been invited but not confirmed.

Kim may be looking ahead to form allies to avoid prosecution by the International Criminal Court. North Korea’s relations with China have chilled recently after its third nuclear tests. The United Nations Security Council would have to pass a resolution referring North Korea to the ICC. Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council, and is a potential veto, along with China.

Russian officials have not specified by name that it will be Kim Jong-Un who will attend. On Wednesday, Yonhap news agency quoted the office of the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as confirming via email that “About 20 state leaders have confirmed their attendance, and the North Korean leader is among them.”

The United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) found that crimes against humanity are ongoing in North Korea. In releasing its findings in February 2014, the COI said a grim array of human rights abuses, driven by “policies established at the highest level of State,” have been and continue to be committed in DPNK, including extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions, and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds; the forcible transfer of populations, enforced disappearances and knowingly causing prolonged starvation.

“Kim Jong-Un’s power is built on the continued abuses inflicted on the North Korean people because he sits at the helm of a central government apparatus that uses public executions, extensive political prison camps, and brutal forced labor to maintain control. What’s changed is the international community has now finally recognized the need to bring him before an international tribunal to address those unspeakable crimes,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said Friday.

In March, the Human Rights Council (HRC) adopted a resolution supporting the COI’s findings and, in November, the third committee of the UN General Assembly followed suit by approving a resolution by a resounding vote. On December 18th, the entire UN General Assembly approved that resolution. The COI and the HRC urged the UN General Assembly to formally submit the report to the Security Council. The resolution said that the Security Council should refer North Korea to an international criminal court for possible prosecutions of its leaders, and to consider imposing targeted sanctions against those most responsible for abuses.

Following the vote, for the first time ever, North Korea’s grave human rights situation was taken up as a standing agenda item by the UN Security Council.

In the release of its World Report 2015 released Thursday, Human Rights Watch said that the North Korean government denies basic freedoms in the country and operates a network of political prisons and forced labor camps that systematically brutalize and often result in the deaths of those the government accuses of crimes.

“Now, at long last, the human rights crimes of the North Korean government are in the spotlight and no one can deny the horror North Koreans are experiencing,” said Robertson. “It’s time for justice for the North Korean people – meaning that governments around the world need to put human rights front and center in all their dealings with the rulers in Pyongyang.”

A map showing selected prison camps in North Korea. Graphic courtesy the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

A map showing selected prison camps in North Korea. Graphic courtesy the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

The North Korean government continues to practice collective punishment by sending an offender and three generations of his family to political prison camps, known as kwan-li-so. The living conditions are horrific and the abuses include induced starvation, lack of medical care, proper shelter and clothes, torture and abuse by guards and forced labor in dangerous conditions.

In October, a North Korean United Nations diplomat publicly acknowledged that “reform through labor” centers exist in North Korea where “people are improved through their mentality and look on their wrongdoings.” But Pyongyang still denies kwan-li-so camps operate in the country.

Robert King, the US Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights speaking in Brussels January 21st before the European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights, said that the ‘’COI report was a very important step, but it is not the end. It has created momentum for the international community to continue to focus on D.P.R.K. abuses.” He commended the establishment of a field office under the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to preserve and document evidence of atrocities in order to enable future accountability. ”South Korea has agreed to host this office…[which] will play an important role in maintaining visibility on the ongoing human rights abuses in the North. We expect to see this office open in the next two months so that it can continue to build upon the foundation established by the Commission,’’ he said.

King added that the only way for North Korea to end its isolation is by abandoning its current course and observing international laws and obligations. ‘’Ultimately, we will judge the North not by its words, but by its actions — the concrete steps it takes to address the core concerns of the international community, from its nuclear program to its human rights violations,’’ he said.

For the past ten years, the DPRK has ignored human rights resolutions and reports of the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly. International pressure is mounting, however, and we may be seeing signs that the regime is starting to scramble in an attempt to appear cooperative and find allies. The North Korean government recently invited the European Union to visit the North Korea. In the lead up to the UNGA resolution vote, North Korea invited the UN Special Rapporteur and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit, but withdrew these offers after the critical General Assembly resolution was adopted. North Korea responded to the resolution by threatening a fourth nuclear test.

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New Charges Against Peaceful Protesters in Myanmar

On January 20th, a new charge was brought against six human rights defenders in Myanmar for staging an unauthorized protest in violation of Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law. They have been charged with various offenses, including protesting without permission, and have been held in detention since their arrest on December 30th 2014 for participating in a peaceful protest against the shooting and killing of a protester the week before.

Daw Naw Ohn Hla, Daw Sein Htwe, Daw San San Win, Ko Nay Myo Zin,  Ko Tin Htut Paing and Ko Thant Zin are environmental rights defenders who have been instrumental in calling for the suspension of the controversial Chinese-backed Letpadaung copper mining project in Sagaing region, which they believe is harming the environment. Villagers have protested the project over the lack of fair compensation for their confiscated lands as well as environmental destruction and defilement of religious structures.

On December 30th 2014, human rights activists Daw Naw Ohn Hla, Daw Sein Htwe, U Nay Myo Zin and Ko Tin Htut Paing were arrested for participating in a peaceful protest in front of the Chinese Embassy in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, the day before. They were among around 100 protesters calling on the Myanmar authorities to carry out an investigation into the death of Khin Win. She was shot dead on December 22nd when police opened fire on her and other protesters demonstrating against land being taken over for the Letpadaung copper mine project in Sagaing region.

The six human rights defenders were informed of the fresh charge when they appeared in the second hearing of the trial against them. The charge relates to their participation in a protest of approximately 100 people in front of the Chinese Embassy in Yangon on December 30th 2014. Daw Naw Ohn Hla, Daw Sein Htwe, Ko Nay Myo Zin and Ko Tin Htut Paing were arrested at the demonstration and Daw San San Win and Ko Thant Zin presented themselves to the authorities and were detained on January 13th and 20th 2015.

The defenders are currently being detained in Insein prison in Yangon, and have been accused by the Dagon Township Court of committing violations of the Penal Code, including publishing or circulating information which may cause public fear or alarm and may incite persons to commit offences “against the State or against the public tranquillity” (Section 505(b)); assaulting or preventing a public servant from the discharge of his duty (Section 353); rioting (Section 147); doing obscene acts in public (Section 294); and “intimidation” (Section 506). If convicted on all charges, they face a possible sentence of over eight years’ imprisonment.

Daw Naw Ohn Hla has faced ongoing judicial harassment due to her opposition to the mining project. She was given an award from the N-Peace Network along with other Asian peace activists at a ceremony in Bangkok on October 24th 2014. N-Peace, a network of peace advocates in Asia honored Daw Naw Ohn Hla for her work to advance women, peace and security.

International human rights organization Front Line Defenders is concerned at the detention and charging of the six defenders and says the charges are directly related to their environmental rights activities.

The organization is urging the authorities in Myanmar to immediately drop all charges against, and unconditionally release them. Front Line Defenders believes that they are being held solely as a result of their legitimate and peaceful work in the defense of human rights.

Amnesty International is also calling on the Myanmar authorities to immediately and unconditionally release and drop the charges against them. The organization is urging the authorities to ensure that they are not tortured or otherwise ill-treated; that they have regular access to family members and lawyers of their choosing; that they are not transferred to remote prisons; and are provided with any medical treatment which they may require.

In addition, Amnesty calls on Myanmar authorities to conduct a ”prompt, thorough, impartial and effective investigation into the killing of Khin Win’’ and other allegations that police used excessive force against the Letpadaung protesters and bring those responsible for human rights violations to justice in trials which meet international standards of fairness, without recourse to the death penalty.

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Laos Must Immediately Act on Human Rights, End Disappearances

A 2005 photo of Sombath Somphone in the Philippines. Photo courtesy his family.

A 2005 photo of Sombath Somphone in the Philippines. Photo courtesy his family.

The government of Laos should take the opportunity to pledge concrete measures to address its pervasive human rights problems as the United Nations Human Rights Council reviews that country’s record, rights groups say.

Laos will appear for the country’s second Universal Periodic Review on Tuesday at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) says that this represents an important opportunity for Laos to strengthen its commitment to human rights at home, by guaranteeing the freedom and protection of civil society through official provisions.

In a June 2014 submission to the council, Human Rights Watch raised concerns about the enforced disappearance of civil society leader Sombath Somphone, severe restrictions on fundamental freedoms to expression and assembly, the denial of labor rights and abusive drug detention centers.

“The lack of progress in the disappearance of a leading activist is sadly emblematic of the Lao government’s failure take action on a wide range of serious human rights problems,” said Philippe Dam, acting Geneva advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “UN member countries should make clear their dissatisfaction with Laos’ inaction and insist upon genuine reform.”

There are serious risks facing HRDs, according to ISHR. The climate of fear and intimidation is such that sensitive topics are avoided. Human rights defenders prefer to be known as ‘community workers’ and are afraid of reprisals if they are associated with regional and international human rights organisations. There are at least nine unresolved cases of enforced disappearance, following the arbitrary detention by Laos’s security forces, in November 2009, of activists in various locations across the country.

The International Federation for Human Rights and Laos Movement for Human Rights expressed their deep disappointment that Laos completely ignored the recommendations made by the European Union regarding enforced disappearances, and says that Laos ‘’has failed to respect the international treaties that it has signed or ratified, as well as several provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.’’

Defamation and misinformation are criminal offences, carrying lengthy prison terms and even the possibility of execution. Due to high levels of official and self-censorship, legal cases are in fact extremely rare.

According to the United States Department of State’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2013, authorities may prohibit the dissemination of materials the Ministry of Information and Culture deemed indecent, subversive of ‘national culture’, or politically sensitive. Any person found guilty of importing a publication considered offensive to the national culture may face a fine or imprisonment for up to one year.

Defenders working on land and environment rights are particularly threatened. Margaret Sekaggya, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders from 2008-2014, expressed her concern about cases of land rights defenders in the country, who remain at risk of arbitrary detention, ill-treatment and enforced disappearance as a result of exercising their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, of association and of expression.

Civil society activists told Human Rights Watch that the Sombath case has had a severe chilling effect on activism in Laos, which has made them fear raising the case with the authorities.

Despite having accepted relevant recommendations during its previous UPR, Laos signed in 2008, but has not ratified, the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which rights groups say Laos must do. Enforced disappearances violate a range of fundamental human rights protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which the government has ratified, including prohibitions against arbitrary arrest and detention; torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment; and extrajudicial execution.

Lao authorities’ have not made progress in the enforced disappearance of prominent civil society leader and Magsaysay award winner Sombath Somphone in Vientiane in December 2012. Although closed-circuit television (CCTV) footage captured him being apprehended at a police checkpoint, Lao authorities have recently claimed someone other than Sombath was shown being driven away. They continue to refuse offers of technical assistance from governments to assess the video footage or provide other investigative support.

Human Rights Watch says that Laos is obligated under international human rights law to prevent and remedy any enforced disappearances. Despite widespread calls for accountability, both regionally and internationally, questions about the enforced disappearances are met with denials or silence by senior officials of the Lao government.

ISHR recommends that the Government of Laos immediately establish an independent commission to carry out a thorough, transparent and impartial investigation into the disappearance of Sombath Somphone, to make his fate and whereabouts known, and to bring those responsible to justice.

The Constitution of Laos guarantees the right to freedom of expression. In practice, however, this right is heavily restricted. The government has long controlled all newspapers, television and radio in the country, and bars media reporting if it considers it contrary to undefined “national interests” or “traditional culture and dignity.” On January 27th 2012, the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism ordered Ounkeo Souksavanh, host of the country’s only call-in radio show, ‘Wao Kao’, to cancel his program. Ounkeo had discussed sensitive topics with callers to the show, including government land seizures.

The Penal Code prohibits organizing or participating in protest marches or demonstrations ‘with the intention of causing social disorder’. Those who do organize protests, or who attempt to do so, can receive sentences of up to five years in prison.

In September 2014, the Lao government adopted a draconian Internet decree that significantly restricts freedom of expression online using provisions that go well beyond internationally accepted limits on free speech contained in article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Laos ratified in 2009.  The law sharply limits the types of information that can be shared — including “false information” about the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, or any information the government finds “distorts truth or tarnishes the dignity and rights of individuals, sectors, institutions and organizations.”

Workers are prohibited from establishing or joining a trade union of their own choosing since all unions must be part of the government-controlled Lao Federation of Trade Unions. They are also unable to exercise their right to strike because of restrictions in labor law and authorities’ proven willingness to forcibly break up workers’ protests.

Laos has also tightened government control in the operating guidelines for the Non-Profit Associations (NPAs), local civil society organizations, as well as the decree overseeing the activities of international NGOs. These increase requirements for notification and permission to receive or spend international development funds; limitations on areas of permitted work; and limitations or prohibitions on any speech or activities deemed to offend government-defined notions of peace and social order. The result will be greater bureaucratic scrutiny over programs and budgets of non-governmental groups working in development and other grassroots projects in the country, Human Rights Watch says.

The Lao government maintains a system of drug detention centers where detainees are held for months and sometimes years without a court ruling, judicial oversight, or an appeal mechanism. Human Rights Watch found that detainees at the Somsanga center outside Vientiane received little effective medical treatment, and were instead locked in cells inside barbed wire compounds, and subjected to beatings.

“The Lao government has a long record of using enforced disappearances, oppressive laws, and long prison terms to silence its critics,” Dam said. “Governments should use the opportunity of UN review of Laos to make clear they stand with ordinary citizens against the abuses by unaccountable Lao officials.”

The Special Rapporteurs on freedom of expression, human rights defenders, independence of judges and lawyers, and torture received reports of alleged torture by detention personnel, denial of legal aid for detained human rights defenders and refusal of their requests to meet with family and lawyers.

In its last Universal Periodic Review in May 2010, Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos) received a total of eight recommendations with respect to human rights defenders (HRDs), five regarding the right to the freedom of assembly and expression, and three regarding the free activities and safety of civil society, in particular calls to free activists detained owing to their participation in peaceful demonstrations. Laos accepted only one of these recommendations, committing to allow media and civil society to undertake education, advocacy, monitoring, and reporting of human rights issues.

Laos also has not taken significant steps to meet commitments the government made during its first Universal Periodic Review in 2010, Human Rights Watch said. The government has failed to end severe restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and the media, association and peaceful assembly.

ISHR says that Laos should develop and enact specific laws and policies to recognise and protect the work of HRDs, facilitate the establishment of non-governmental organisations and give full force and effect to the international Declaration on Human Rights Defenders at the national level. Laos should demonstrate strong, high-level political support for HRDs through public statements by its officials which recognize their important and legitimate work.

Additionally, Laos should combat impunity by undertaking a thorough, impartial, and effective investigation of all allegations of enforced disappearances and all violations against HRDs, and ensure the prosecution of perpetrators and access to effective remedies for victims.

The government should also address the on-going repression of civil and political rights, including freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, to ensure protection of all human rights defenders and members of civil society. Specifically, Laos should remove restrictions in the Penal Code on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, should decriminalize defamation and misinformation, and should repeal the law which restricts online communications.

Finally, ISHR recommends that Laos ensure the creation of a strong, independent National Human Rights Institution, which adheres to the Paris Principles and includes a focal point for HRDs.

Laos is ranked in 171st place out of 180 in Reporter’s Without Borders’ 2014 Press Freedom Index.

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EU Must Pressure Vietnam on Human Rights During Upcoming Dialogue

The European Union (EU) should use upcoming talks with Vietnam to demand that Hanoi urgently address serious human rights violations, rights groups said Friday. The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) made the call ahead of the fifth EU-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue, which is scheduled to begin January 19th in Brussels as Vietnam continues to repress human rights defenders who suffer ongoing harassment, arbitrary detention and imprisonment.

“As the human rights situation in Vietnam shows no signs of improvement, the EU must use the dialogue to present clear, measurable, and time-bound recommendations for the Vietnamese government to implement,” said FIDH President Karim Lahidji.

The organizations say that EU recommendations must include an end to the harassment and arbitrary arrest of bloggers, activists, religious followers, and human rights defenders as well as the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners.

In 2014, Vietnam detained or imprisoned at least 12 bloggers and human rights defenders and it currently holds about 200 political prisoners, the largest number in Southeast Asia, the largest number in Southeast Asia.

Towards the end of 2014, Vietnamese authorities intensified the crackdown on freedom of expression with the arrest of three prominent bloggers. Hong Le Tho and Nguyen Quang Lap were detained on November 29th andDecember 6th, respectively, under Article 258 of the Criminal Code for “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State.” On December 27th, Nguyen Dinh Ngoc was arrested for “illegal activities” and detained on unspecified charges. Many activists were also harassed and assaulted by covert security agents for reporting human rights abuses, including independent journalist Truong Minh Duc in November 2014.

Vietnam is ranked 174th out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Vietnam is the world’s second biggest prison for bloggers and cyber-dissidents, after China. It is also on RSF’s list of Enemies of the Internet because of its persecution of bloggers and cyber dissidents.

The organizations say the EU must also demand that Vietnam urgently repeal or amend various provisions of the Criminal Code that authorities continue to use to imprison peaceful dissidents. In addition to Article 258, other draconian provisions that are not in line with international law include: Article 79, which sanctions “activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration”; Article 87, which punishes activities “undermining national solidarity, sowing divisions between religious and non-religious people”; and Article 88, which outlaws “conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.”

With regard to economic, social, and cultural rights, the EU must urge Vietnam to implement all the recommendations made by the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (CESCR) on December 15th 2014. The CESCR’s concluding observations echoed the findings and recommendations contained in a report that documented serious and ongoing jointly released by FIDH and VCHR on 11 November 2014 violations of economic, social and cultural rights in Vietnam.

The CESCR denounced the absence of effective and accessible remedies for victims of violations of economic, social, and cultural rights. It expressed concern over the intimidation of individuals who claimed violations of their rights, such as those protesting against forced evictions or poor working conditions. The CESCR also deplored the widespread economic exploitation of children and the adverse impact of development programs on the enjoyment of economic, social, and cultural rights by ethnic minorities.

The CESCR called for the establishment of a national human rights institution that complies with the Paris Principles and the creation of an enabling environment for the free establishment and functioning of independent civil society organizations. It urged Vietnam to improve worker rights by removing excessive restrictions on the right to strike, enabling citizens to form and join trade unions of their choice, and repealing legislation that authorizes child labor.

“The UN Committee’s conclusions are significant because they underscore the link between economic activities and human rights abuses in Vietnam,”said VCHR President Vo Van Ai. “In an effort to strengthen economic relations and regain its position as Vietnam’s biggest export market, the EU must not overlook the serious human rights violations that continue to take place in the country.”

On August 7th 2014, FIDH and VCHR filed a complaint to the EU Ombudsperson to demand that the office address the European Commission’s refusal to take human rights into account in negotiations for trade and investment agreements with Vietnam. As a result of the complaint, the EU Ombudsperson formally opened a case on September 3rd 2014.

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