USA must be held to account for drone killings in Pakistan


On a sunny fall afternoon in October 2012, 68-year-old Mamana Bibi was killed in a drone strike that appears to have been aimed directly at her. Her grandchildren recounted in painful detail to Amnesty International the moment when Mamana Bibi, who was gathering vegetables in the family fields in Ghundi Kala, North Waziristan was blasted into pieces before their very eyes. Nearly a year later, Mamana Bibi’s family has yet to receive even any acknowledgment from US authorities that she was killed, let alone justice or compensation for her death.

Amnesty International’s investigations into drone strikes in north western Pakistan have shown that some of these drone strikes could amount to war crimes.

It is time for the USA to come clean about drone killings in Pakistan: time to investigate those responsible and give Mamana Bibi’s family and others like them justice.


Fostering everyday activists: starting with schools

Blogs - HRE - 1BY GOPIKA

Having grown up in a country like India, with its history of epic narratives, I cannot begin to imagine a world without the existence of stories. What took me a long time to truly understand, however, is that all stories are told by people, and people have the power to mould stories in ways of their choosing- characters take form, battles are fought and enemies are created, solely through the vision of a specific group of storytellers. I then realised how some stories are more prevalent and visible than others, and that they are almost always spread by the ones with the loudest voices.

There’s much to be said about the story of ‘women in India’ as of late. One doesn’t have to try too hard to interpret the highlights of this story – the images of violence and rape, the calls for safety and protection, the endless debates on archaic laws: we, as women, are apparently victims. We are inspiring a new generation of acronyms (VAW, GBV, FGM) that capture the things that are being ‘done to us’. We are passive recipients of the potential dangers that could occur in society’s dark alleyways and crowded buses.

But then I think to myself, what about the other stories? The stories of women challenging and pushing back against socially-defined norms and behaviours in their everyday lives. Let’s talk about these everyday activists who are silently, structurally, questioning deeply ingrained systems of patriarchy and power…

  • .. about the kindergarten teacher questioning gender stereotypes in her classroom of five-year-olds.
  • .. about the Anganwadi worker who collects money from local villagers when her under-resourced Centre runs out of biscuits for the children
  • .. about the woman who walked away from physically and mentally abusive relationship after fifteen years
  • .. about the girls group started by young people in a community youth centre in New Delhi, bringing people from a cross-section of the city together through music

I’ve met and known all of these women during the course of my life so far. Most of them have had to work against the odds to bring about the changes they had envisioned for their own lives and worlds, and I can’t seem to ever find stories about them unless I look hard. But what if they didn’t have to work against all odds? What if we lived in a world that nurtures these everyday activists? How would this be possible?

Start young.

As a young person in school, I never really had the opportunity to take the lid off issues, swim around in them, and ask stupid questions about my experience of being a girl and what that meant in a society that held women and girls in such low regard. We need to begin at the roots.  We need to be able to give young people this opportunity- to discuss and debate situations that are relevant to their everyday lives – to talk about negotiation, relationships, consent, love, pleasure, identities, insecurities…. and the list goes on.  We need an education that inspires questioning and rethinking of how we want not just women, but also men, to be perceived. We need an education that talks to us about how we want to treat each other and be treated.

So while people keep arguing about what needs to change in the system for ‘our women’ to be safe, we are missing out on this key opportunity to foster this kind of everyday activism, at the smallest of levels. Let’s begin by building school environments that are gender equal; that can help a young person negotiate and make informed decisions about their lives and can talk freely about this journey to their peers and elders. This is truly an uphill climb. It relies not merely on taking a class once a week, or having a counsellor in the school- but more broadly and structurally on schools taking a journey of self-inquiry: asking themselves tough questions about the spaces they create for young people, the governance structures they have in place, the attitudes and practices that they foster.  It requires schools and people who manage education within this system to develop a vision together, and to integrate it into the way the school functions. It will not take extra resources- in fact, all it really needs is the willingness to explore the possibilities.

In practice, this is a challenging prospect. But in my mind, we need to start somewhere. Schools need to take these active steps in ways that take into account their local contexts and realities, without viewing this as something extra that they have to ‘implement’. One of the ways to do this is by exposing students to realities that are different from their own- interactions, discussions, visits to communities and individuals who are ‘doing things a little differently’. This allows them to construct and explore different narratives that may subvert dominant stories that they are exposed to outside of school spaces. It’s from here where activists emerge- young people who feel the necessity to challenge their own realities, and are uncomfortable with accepting what they are told: about themselves, others around them and the world at large. And there are a hundred other ways. This is an exciting prospect- schools as living laboratories that have the power to shape and change gender-insensitive assumptions and behaviours that we have to come to accept as normal in our societies today.

A lot needs to change about the world. I often get overwhelmed deciding where my contribution lies, and if I’m making one at all. And then I remind myself that I am an everyday activist too – I attempt and will continue to attempt to build a narrative that is different, that is unique and that makes people think twice about their attitudes and actions towards women specifically, and to citizens in general. I want to be part of a generation that can help build multiple stories that highlight the rich, beautiful and inspiring lives of the women and girls around me, and I am optimistic about this possibility. Solidarity and action come from having shared experience on the one hand, and sharing diverse experience on the other.  And in my mind, the way to begin crafting a society that encourages both of these, is at the lowest common denominator- in the microcosm of the school space, where we have an opportunity to tell stories about these everyday activists and establish a different vision of the world.

(Gopika is a Team Member of Amnesty International India’s Human Rights Education (HRE) Team that works on creating human rights friendly environments in schools. For more information on HRE, visit http://www.rights4edu.org)


Why is Commonwealth giving Sri Lanka carte blanche to abuse human rights?


Today (Friday, 27 September, 2013) marks a decisive opportunity for the Commonwealth to show real leadership on human rights in Sri Lanka, but one it looks like the organisation will not seize. In New York, a Commonwealth group of foreign ministers, with human rights at the heart of their brief, will meet – but this body has in the past failed to take meaningful action Sri Lanka’s appalling human rights record, and there is no indication that they will do so today.

Today’s meeting takes place less than two months away from a Commonwealth summit to be held in Sri Lanka. The Commonwealth’s silence on human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, past and present, is nothing short of shameful.

If this summit still goes ahead in Colombo in November, leaders of Commonwealth countries will be lining up to shake hands with Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa – the man who oversaw the army’s defeat of the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) in 2009, in an operation that left tens of thousands of civilians dead and involved such extensive abuses that Sri Lanka has been accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Since then President Rajapaksa has steered his country in what the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has described as “an increasingly authoritarian direction”.

President Rajapaksa will use each photo opportunity with his global counterparts to show that his country has now been accepted back into the international fold, and that past crimes are no longer a concern.

Whoever chairs the Commonwealth Summit usually then chairs the Commonwealth itself for the next two years.

It is extraordinary that the Commonwealth would give such a seal of approval to Sri Lanka. The country’s leaders stand accused of war crimes committed during the last stages of the armed conflict, described in a UN report as “a grave assault on the entire regime of international law”. Today, the government is shoring up its power and slowly but surely dismantling institutions that should protect human rights.

As Chair of the Commonwealth, President Rajapaksa would be expected to help the Secretary-General address any violations of human rights and other Commonwealth values – it’s difficult to think of a bigger irony. Sri Lanka has shown complete disregard for the Commonwealth’s principles. The 2009 Trinidad Affirmation, which enshrines the organization’s values including human rights, reads like a checklist of what the Sri Lankan authorities have failed to do.

The Commonwealth leadership, meanwhile, has so far remained silent – despite repeated condemnation of the persistent human rights problems in Sri Lanka by the UN Human Rights Council, by Sri Lankan civil society, Amnesty International and many others.

During the armed conflict, and in particular during its final bloody months, according to UN estimates 40,000 civilians or more may have been killed. While many died at the hands of the Tamil Tigers, government forces were responsible for the vast majority of casualties. Shelling of areas with a heavy concentration of civilians, including hospitals, extrajudicial executions of prisoners and widespread sexual violence against women and men only begins to describe the horrors the Tamil population in Sri Lanka’s north were put through by the army.

The Sri Lankan government continues to proclaim, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, that its troops followed a “zero civilian casualties” policy. Its own domestic bodies examining the conflict have been little more than window dressing for the international community. To this day, the alleged perpetrators of one of the most large-scale massacres of civilians in the past decade continue to walk free, with Sri Lanka rejecting continued calls for an independent and credible international investigation into alleged war crimes .

Since 2009, Rajapaksa has sought to concentrate power further for himself, his family and those loyal to him. He has removed presidential term limits, placed key government institutions under his direct control, and continued the use of draconian security legislation that grant the security forces sweeping powers.

The independence of the judiciary is a fundamental Commonwealth value. In January of this year, the government impeached Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake on charges of misconduct; her real “offence” appears to have been her failure to side with the Presidency.

The administration has cracked down harshly on anyone standing in its way and treats dissent as treason. Harassment, threats, beatings, so-called “white van” kidnappings. Government critics like journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda and activists Lalith Kumar Weeraju and Kugan Murugan have disappeared. The authorities and those acting on their behalf have targeted human rights defenders, opposition politicians, journalists, trade unionists and others, in particular those in still heavily militarized mostly Tamil north.

It would be a travesty to reward Sri Lanka with the Commonwealth Summit and role of Chair for two years, thus giving a member state a free pass for the past and continuing violations and damaging the organization’s credibility, perhaps irreparably.

Friday’s meeting, and the summit in November, still provide a chance to rescue the organization’s reputation. We hope that Secretary-General Kamlesh Sharma and Commonwealth countries seize that opportunity – on behalf of human rights in Sri Lanka and around the world.


A Time for Truth

Sri LankaBY RC

At the end of crackly telephone line, Selvan said to me, “if I had a choice, do you actually think I’d risk it all to sail on open ocean in a rickety fishing trawler for 23 days, minimum supplies, without basic swimming skills, to arrive in a country where I have no family, no friends, no job?”

I’d know him for some time now, and although Selvan was passionate and prone to impulse, I did know that he would never abandon his home, his mother and all things familiar, for a reason that was not substantial enough.

From a young age, like so many of his generation, Selvan’s life was entrenched in complexities that protracted war brings. Selvan’s father and uncle were amongst the 158 people who were rounded up under suspicion of LTTE links, and loaded onto buses by the army in Batticaloa’s Eastern University campus in 1990. His father was a fisherman, who along with his brother and thousands others sought refuge in the university campus as violence enveloped the nearby towns from July 1990 onward. As the army-driven bus rolled out the campus, the 158 were never to be seen again. From the beginning of 2004, Selvan had been receiving threats from Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP) upon refusing recruitment into their paramilitary. The TMVP, an eastern group that had split off from the LTTE as internal rivalry grew, had been allegedly recruiting youth en masse into its forces to fight the LTTE, while working in alliance with the Sri Lankan army. Having somehow avoided forced conscription, Selvan later ended up being taken into police custody on false charges, tortured and interrogated in custody, and persecuted after his first attempt to leave the island by boat had failed in 2009.

The civil war had created a life of strife, allowing escaping on a boat as the only choice even 2 years after the ending of the war. When I finally got to see Selvan in Australia, he was gaunt, sunburnt and weather-beaten. He told me about the vomit and the stench of being at sea with 33 scared, sea-sick and desperate people. He told me about the running out of drinking water 16 days into the journey, of the boat rolling on nightmarishly large waves. He recounted begging at the captain’s feet to not turn the boat around when demands for more smuggling-money weren’t received well. He recalled sharks swimming around the boat when the engine failed.He told me about how he volunteered to climb to the mast to light flares at night to attract planes flying overhead, while their tiny trawler bobbed inconspicuously on open ocean.

But most of all, he kept coming back to the point of how the years of war brought him from one phase of despair in Sri Lanka to another; and from being at others’ mercy in his homeland, to being at the mercy of a people-smuggler at sea. From so many who escaped the island’s war and its fallout, this is the chorus you’ll hear.

Sri Lanka

Lucky for Selvan, unlike many others, or his uncle, he made it alive. More like him continue to arrive on Australian shores seeking refuge, but to a different reception from now on. The recent Australian policy allows for indefinite detention of asylum-seeker in offshore processing centres in Manus. The move aimed at deterring boats carrying asylum-seekers, is unjust, inhumane, and an ‘outsourcing’ of human rights responsibility. Nearly 90%of all asylum-seekers are proven to have genuine grounds to seek refuge – like Selvan, they are victims of torture, sexual violence and persecution.

As a signatory to the Refugee Convention, Australia is obligated to process claims of asylum-seekers, in its territory. And if it were to step up to the game from ground up, addressing the flow of asylum-seekers would require Australia and her international alliances to question and call for change in the human rights situation in Sri Lanka.

Listen to an asylum seeker’s view

Four years on, the ripple effect of the war in Sri Lanka persists while the lack of accountability continues to baffle. While money is poured into building infrastructure, improving tourism in the North-East, thousands still continue to live resettled lives without basic facilities. Families of the disappeared continue to seek answers. Victims of grave sexual abuse by armed forces are yet to have their claims investigated. All while the militarization in the north and east continues to expand. Many will tell you that despite the war ending four years ago, such little has changed for the better for communities in the east and north. It is not uncommon to hear fisherman talking of restrictions placed on where they can or cannot fish, due to expanding naval security zones. Where once nets were cast freely, local fisherman aren’t allowed. And in many areas where once grain was grown, land is seized for military camps, or simply lies fallow.

Sri Lanka

As reports and evidence of large scale deaths of civilians in Sri Lanka made news after May 2009, most of the world stood idly by, when compared international intervention executed, say, in Libya. The process for bringing to book those who were involved in human rights violations in Libya has been swift and internationally steered. But here in Sri Lanka successive opportunities to kick into action an internationally recognized investigation, have come and gone. Despite there having been UN periodic review, a high-level visit by the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and with CHOGM looming around the corner, justice for victims of grave human rights violations and atrocities, is still on hold.

The role that India can play in initiating this justice process must not be underplayed. If India were to emerge as an assertive power in the Global South, it’s responsibility to insist on, guide and ensure an accountability process in Sri Lanka is paramount. As the 24st session HRC is underway, the global lens must refocus on the fact that in Sri Lanka’s post-war context reconciliation, justice, peace and recovery cannot be mutually exclusive.


The Age of Consent


What is it about India that makes the right to consent such ground-breakingly alien notion to swallow? How have we come to embrace that all-pervading sense of kuch bhi ho sakta hai, given enough money, power or unbelievable persistence? From the next-door auntie deciding the due date and career paths of your imaginary children, to Bollywood that persuades us that the boy will always get the girl, if he stalks her long enough, from a culture of gender violence that assumes that women are always asking for it, and finally, to our gross domestic love affair with growth that seeks to make poverty vanish by pushing indigenous and historically disadvantaged cultures to the margins, despite their overwhelming dissent- it seems almost impossible for us to take ‘no’ for an answer from those most directly affected by our overreaching decisions.

What changes, then, when the voiceless finally are allowed to write their own history and determine their own development? What happens when they are informed of the environmental, social and human rights impacts of this larger ‘public purpose’ that is inflicted upon them? What if they were made aware of their rights and knew how to exercise them? And what can we learn from them, if we would only listen?

On August 19th, Vedanta Resources, was forced to accept a unanimous ‘no’ from the indigenous communities of Niyamgiri, who have been resisting Vedanta’s mine plans in their sacred hills for over a decade. What makes Niyamgiri historic is that this is perhaps the first time that the exercise is not one of token ‘consultation’, as is often the case with environmental public hearings, but one of seeking free, prior, informed consent (FPIC) pertaining to their cultural and customary rights. Advocated by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), FPIC has now been echoed in the National Advisory Council’s recommendations to PESA (Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act 1996), in December 2012 and then in August 2013, post the Niyamgiri hearings.

The Supreme Court judgment of April 2013, by leaving the decision to the gram sabhas, was a landmark affirmation of civil, political and religious rights extending to those cultures we have historically undermined and scarcely understood.

Even during the run-up to the gramsabhas, there were attempts to restrict the sanctitude of Niyamgiri hills by the Odisha government. First, to 12 villages in the immediate vicinity of the mine site, then, once the hearings began, to restricting religious rights to only village deities. (Imagine confining the holiness of Ayodhya or the Vatican to less than a 5 km radius.)

Once the referendum began, district officials were made to trek for hours through the mountains and rain to register the opinions of the Dongria and Kutia Kondh adivasis and other local communities. If the Ministry of Tribal Affairs had its way and the Supreme Court judgment implemented in its true spirit, they would have had to trek to an additional 100 villages before possibly arriving at the same decision. It would have certainly been a much-needed, humbling exercise in seeing true democracy as it finally trickled down to those who have seen the least evidence of it.

Neither were the hearings free from intimidation and taint. Sources spoke of CRPF combing in the run-up to the referendum citing Maoist presence, and of the unmissable security buildup during the hearings, police allegedly outnumbering the Dongria Kondhs. “Shake that bush and 3 CRPFwallahs will fall out,” said one of the locals to journalists, some of whom were also at the receiving end of state scrutiny.

The legitimate process of consent-seeking was further maligned by those quick to paint a decade-long, non-violent struggle red, or allege a foreign hand.

If only we had collectively listened, with the same respect we accord to wizened economists in their sanitized bubbles, we would have been witness to a nuanced development debate at its most basic level, with compelling arguments against growth for the sake of growth made by one of India’s most ‘primitive’ tribes and perhaps its foremost environmentalists.

Once the 7th gram sabha voted against Vedanta, clocking in a majority, the paranoia as to how the process might have been conducted transformed to joy for those who were following the case. People across time zones – – from Delhi to Koodankulam to London – were celebrating and protesting, in the light of Vedanta’s impending Annual General Meeting. On August 19th, as Jerapa, the 12th gram sabha registered its final answer; there was not a shred of doubt left. The spirit of universal law, as embodied by Dongria Kondh deity Niyamraja, had prevailed, guided by the consent of those who revered it most.

Close on the referendum’s heels, the new Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill was passed in the Parliament, laying down 80% mandatory consent of communities for private sector projects, and 70% in the case of public-private partnerships (PPP). The Act also makes provisions for social impact assessment (SIA) that must be carried out in consultation with gram sabhas at the village level. However, SIA is not mandatory in cases of acquisitions sanctioned by Parliament, and in the case of ‘other emergencies’ that could possibly be misused. While the new, significantly diluted bill was received with an uproar from industry, a large number of industries that undertake large-scale land acquisition, from coal, to SEZs and atomic energy, have been exempted from its enlightened provisions on consent, assessment and consultation.

On another level, the sense of victory for indigenous community rights seemed almost too good to be true, and to some extent, it is. The alumina refinery at the base of the Niyamgiri hills resumed operations after a period of 7 months on July 12, 2013, a week before the hearings were to begin. Post the hearings, the Odisha government has openly voiced that Niyamgiri is only a minor setback, and that bauxite will be sourced from neighbouring Schedule V tribal areas.

For now, though, Niyamgiri is a source of inspiration to millions across this country faced by projects that refuse to acknowledge their existence, their cultures, their livelihoods, their struggles and their definitions of development.

With time, as we get used to used to the idea of asking permission, and not seeing it as an affront to but a sign of a mature democracy, I hope that we are able to learn from and realize the wisdom of cultures that do not need advanced degrees in geology to realize that it is bauxite that protects the streams, that biodiversity and cultures are things to be revered and preserved and that mere monetary compensation is not necessarily development. One can only hope that a little consent, to begin with, will a go long way.

(Aruna is a Senior Researcher with Amnesty International India and the views expressed in the blog are her own and does not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Amnesty International)