Justice for Syrians?

For nearly a year now, Syrians have been suffering through a living hell. The regime in Damas is clinging on to power, and the repression has been horrifying. In the last few weeks, violence has been escalating, and it’s been absolutely heartbreaking to watch the news out of Syria. Today, the “Friends of Syria” conference – hosted by the government of Tunisia – is expected to call for an immediate end to the military campaign against civilians, and the creation of humanitarian corridors for aid delivery. This follows the miserable failure of the UN Security Council to pass any kind of meaningful resolution. More than just an important step towards international action on Syria, the “Friends of Syria” conference highlights the obsolescence of the Security Council has an institution to preserve global peace and security. The UN has been side-stepped on the Syria issue – even with Kofi Annan being appointed as mediator, the limits of the international organization’s ability to implement its own mandate are, once again, laid bare.

Military intervention in Syria is not an easy proposition. Unlike Libya, Syria is more densely populated, so air strikes will likely cause more “collateral damage” (i.e. civilian deaths). Furthermore, the presence of anti-aircraft missiles means that war planes would have to drop bombs from a higher altitude, again decreasing the precision of air strikes. Recent history shows that there is very little support in the West to either send ground troops or finance such an operation – with Europe in crisis, and a U.S. election on the horizon, that possibility is essentially non-existent. That’s not to say that small contingents of “military advisers” or covert special forces cannot be sent to Syria, but it seems unlikely that these strategies would be game-changing. Sanctions on Syria are starving the regime for cash, and some analysts argue that the government will be broke soon – but I don’t have any doubts that the Al-Assad regime has access to all kinds of shadowy networks that will continue to finance his campaign.

Unless the international community is able to bring the Syrian National Council and the regime to a negotiating table, I don’t see how this conflict gets resolved. I hope that this happens, because I don’t know how many more videos such as this one we can tolerate before we decide that, as a global community, we are unable to protect our most vulnerable, that we are powerless in the face of injustice and oppression.


Below is a post I wrote on the same topic for UN Dispatch on February 22nd:

This morning, a harrowing video of French journalist Edith Bouvier calling for help was published on YouTube. Bouvier was injured yesterday in the bombing that killed American journalist Marie Colvin and French photographer Rémi Ochlik, and she is currently in a precarious medical condition. In the video, she describes how her left leg has an open fracture, and a Syrian doctor explains how she needs immediate medical attention and surgery which they are unable to provide. Bouvier asks the French authorities to please provide adequate transportation for her to be able to go to Lebanon and receive treatment.

Another journalist colleague, French photographer William Daniels, emphasizes the need for Bouvier to be evacuated – as he speaks, you can hear bombs in the background. The doctor and Daniels talk about the lack of food, water and medical equipment, an assessment echoed in an interview with a French surgeon, Jacques Bérès, who has been on the ground in Homs for nearly three weeks. Dr. Bérès discusses the difficulty of working in an environment where there are constant attacks and bombardments, and notes that there has been no humanitarian evacuation of the most vulnerable. In his makeshift hospital, he sees wounded combatants but also women, children and civilians caught in the cross-fire.

Bouvier’s distressing video is yet another indication of how dire the situation is in Homs (for a chilling account of what’s happening in the besieged city, check out Marie Colvin’s last dispatch from Homs.) Indiscriminate bombings and attacks from government forces are in direct contravention of the laws of war. And while the regime in Damascus has long ago swept aside humanitarian and international law considerations, the international community has yet to respond in a meaningful manner. What will it take? According to analysts, the sanctions imposed on Syria will mean that the government will run out of foreign exchange in the next “three to five months”, and that, once starved for cash, the regime will not be able to pursue its deadly campaign. But what happens in the intervening months? The international community – and in particular the UN Security Council, which has so far has been stymied by two of its members – has a responsibility to uphold fundamental principles of global peace and security. Right now, Syrian lives are being sacrificed because of high-level political disagreements and posturing.

The targeting of foreign journalists is only one of the many crimes committed by the regime. I am sure that the recently killed reporters – Colvin, Ochlik and Shadid – would not want us to dwell on their individual stories, yet their deaths serve to highlight the insanity of the situation in Syria and will hopefully lead their respective governments to take real action.

French president Sarkozy called the deaths of the journalists “murders”, and said that “those responsible will have to be accountable.” French foreign minister Alain Juppé was even more direct, saying that the Bashar Al-Assad regime was “responsible”, and that the “regime in Damascus owes [France] an answer” and that France will be “seeking accountability for these acts”. (Whether or not these statements translate into action, particularly as France prepares for a contentious presidential election in April, remains to be seen.)

Bouvier’s video is one of many, many videos depicting the horror of what is happening in Syria. Will she be rescued by her government? More importantly, will her plight and the deaths of her colleagues at least not be in vain? Will the plight of Syrians – attacked, held hostage and targeted by their own government – continue to elicit lukewarm actions, or will the international community organize meaningful, collective action to help end the bloodbath in Syria?

On the fragility of democratic rights (and why I’ve been MIA)

Since last summer, I’ve been in charge of communications and fundraising at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. Following years of working in international development and concentrating on international issues professionally and academically, this was an interesting challenge for me, and a new area of focus. It’s been a great learning experience on many levels. As the communications and fundraising person, I was for the first time on the “other” side of the organization. In international development circles and the aid industry, there are ongoing debates about the gap between fundraisers and marketers, and the field practitioners and others who focus on “substance.” People in these industries frequently complain about how little – if any – genuine collaboration exists between these areas.

I’m lucky to have landed in an organization where the staff is a tight-knit group, and the communications and fundraising strategies have historically been intrinsically linked to the organization’s work and its advocacy. For me, this has meant that I’ve had the opportunity to learn (a lot, and quickly) about civil liberties issues in Canada. One of the major issues the CCLA has focused on in the past year is what happened during last summer’s G20 summit in Toronto. As is the case with almost every high-level international summit, civil society groups planned protests and demonstrations on the margins of the official summit. A large number of unions, NGOs, community and student groups came to Toronto to voice their concerns on a wide range of issues: protesting the austerity agenda and cuts in public services, a lack of focus on poverty alleviation, their perception that the global corporate agenda was trumping people’s rights. Whatever their issues may be, regardless of whether we as individuals or the government agrees with their views, the Toronto protests were an opportunity for groups to speak up. In Canada, this is protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of assembly. A nearly 30 year old document, the Charter contains many of the principles which underlie the international human rights regime – fundamental freedoms, democratic rights, mobility rights, equality rights…

In a report last summer, this is how CCLA characterized the importance of freedom of assembly:

…However, freedom of peaceful assembly is as important as the right to vote in a democracy. It should be treated with the same respect. Democracy is governance for the people by the people and politicians are expected to hear, consult, and engage with the people in between elections to govern effectively.  But access to politicians is unequally distributed: rich people have their lobbyists and poor people have their feet.  Marching in favour of or against a proposed policy is often the only way to be heard for people whose op-ed will not be published in the Toronto Star and whom the Minister will not meet at a cocktail party or a fundraising event.

This video gives you a pretty good sense of the completely inappropriate response from law enforcement and riot police last summer in Toronto:

Unfortunately, even a modern democratic state like Canada is not free from the abuse of rights. During the G20 last summer, law enforcement authorities (including the local Toronto police, the Ontario police, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), and police officers from all across Canada) cracked down on peaceful protests: demonstrations were violently dispersed – including in the so-called “free speech zone” -, protesters, passers-by, tourists and anyone who happened to be at the wrong place, at the wrong time, were rounded up for arrest. Over 1,100 people were arrested at the G20 last summer, the biggest mass arrest in Canadian peace time history. There were so many issues at the summit, and then a complete lack of accountability from the federal and provincial government, who are dismissing the evidence and the facts that something went terribly wrong last summer.

The photo to left is John Pruyn speaking at the rally CCLA and others organized last week to mark the one year anniversary. Mr. Pruyn, a Revenue Canada employee and part-time Christmas tree farmer, had his prosthetic leg ripped off by police during his arrest last summer. Pruyn was waiting for his wife and daughter at the subway station when he was violently arrested, and subsequently detained for 27 hours.

If you have a moment, I suggest taking a listen to some of the personal testimonies from the public hearings CCLA held back in November. There are horrifying stories of gay men and women being harassed by police, of dehumanizing, repeated strip searches, of beatings and violent arrests. The report based on the hearings, A Breach of the Peace, is also worth checking out.

I’m not Canadian, but in my three years here, I’ve come to appreciate this country, in particular for its attachment to social and human values – the treatment of minorities, the availability of social services, a generally progressive polity. Every day, in my job, I tell stories of rights being violated and abused – the G20 protests have been a big story, but there are also other areas of significant concern: the recent strike by postal workers was essentially shut down by the majority government through “back to work” legislation. Again, whether or not we agree with the demands of the postal workers’ union, we should be worried about the assault on collective bargaining rights and freedom of association.

There are countless examples of rights and freedoms being slowly and quietly eroded in Canada. There is no need to panic (yet?), but what this should remind us is that, even in a progressive country like Canada, people’s rights and freedoms are fragile. The fights we undertake also underscore just how critical democratic rights beyond the right to vote are. Around the world, democracy advocates need to ensure that they’re fighting for a free press, for equal rights for men and women, for the right to speak up against your government.

My work at CCLA has really brought home for me this notion that freedoms and rights are an intricate, dynamic web. The legal regimes that protect us – whether nationally or internationally – are not to be taken for granted. What I see daily are attempts to circumvent and erode the civil liberties, individual and collective rights that are the hallmark of modern life. I truly believe that human rights – civil liberties, fundamental freedoms – are absolutely critical to maintaining a civilized society. When we fight for rights in Canada, we’re also affirming the centrality of these rights globally.


June marked one year since the G20 summit was held in Toronto, and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association was in overdrive to make sure that the issue stays on top of the agenda, and that accountability mechanisms that work are put in place. My colleagues and I have been speaking to the media extensively on this issue (below is a clip of our general counsel talking about how CCLA human rights monitors at the G20 were arrested), and we organized several events with a number of partner organizations to reflect on lessons learned, and to keep the pressure on the government to take the massive violation of civil liberties that occurred last summer seriously.


To see more about the events we organized, click on the image:

June 21st - A gala honouring 21 Canadians for their contributions to democracy

Battle for Abidjan

I don’t want to draw the parallel too much, but as I wrote for UN Dispatch yesterday, I think there might be a useful historical comparison between the current events in Cote d’Ivoire and the siege of Monrovia, which precipitated the end of the second civil war in Liberia in 2003.

Of course, things were quite different in Liberia. Following more than decade of unrest, the country was in shambles, and there was little restraint among warring factions. I’m not on the ground to confirm, but other than the horrifying massacre at Duekoue, I have not heard many reports of widespread, indiscriminate, full-blown violence. For all the differences between the two conflicts, Laurent Gbagbo’s desperate hold on power is profoundly reminiscent of Charles Taylor’s in Liberia. Like Taylor, Gbagbo has his most loyal men controlling key areas, while he continues to sit in the presidential palace. Monrovia’s unique geography played into the hands of advancing rebel forces, who were able to isolate Taylor in the center of Monrovia by taking over bridges leading into the city. In Abidjan, the layout is different, but, similarly to Monrovia, there are islands and bridges, which are strategically important in urban warfare – whoever gains control of access routes has the advantage.  The airport, which is currently controlled by UN and French forces, is on an island. The presidential palace sits on a peninsula.

I don’t know how long this siege will last. Gbagbo will not step down, and will not leave easily. The best case scenario is that he’s currently negotiating exile conditions in a third country and will get airlifted with his family. Worst case scenario is that the presidential palace where he sits is stormed by rebels and he is killed. At this stage, I’d say both of these possibilities are equally as realistic.

It’s our responsibility to bear witness to what is happening in Cote d’Ivoire now. Unspeakable crimes have already been committed by both sides of the conflict, and will continue to happen. Media and public attention are not silver bullets, but along with the real threat of prosecution, may help attenuate the levels of violence. At least, that is my hope.

Photo credit:
Côte d’Ivoire – Reuters
Liberia – Corbis/Jehad Nga

Investing in women: a human rights approach

At Women Deliver, a message is extolled throughout the dozens of sessions, plenaries, panels and press conferences: “Invest in women and girls, it pays.” This simple message, however, has several layers of subtext. Many of the conference’s attendees are emphasizing the broader concepts that underpin it – one of the great takeaways of this conference, at least in my mind, is that it will take more than an additional $12 billion to ensure that women and girls around the world are able to fully realize their rights. Among these concepts, is the notion that women’s s rights are, first and foremost, human rights.

I listened to Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and current president of Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative,  speak about the importance of framing maternal health with a human rights approach. She eloquently articulated the need for a holistic human rights approach towards the issues affecting girls and women. Robinson noted that so much of what we talk about when we talk about improving maternal health and reproductive rights is related to broader, human rights issues: access to health care and family planning, nutrition, religious and cultural dimensions, discrimination, domestic violence, early childhood marriages, to name a few.

And indeed, there is a very strong case to be made for envisaging maternal health as a broader human rights issue. Ever since the 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo and the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, women’s rights are being increasingly framed as human rights. This is critical because it can help circumvent the barrage of opposition typically put up by conservative groups. Religious leaders, right-leaning or traditional family-oriented groups have all at some point or another been antagonistic to the notion of women having control of their bodies and fertility.

I attended two panels today where this point was driven home very vividly. First, was the panel entitled “Delivering Solutions at the Margin: Reaching the Hard to Reach”. The conversation, which was moderated by Mary Robinson, featured several activists and advocates for women’s rights in vulnerable environments. One speaker, Martha Sanchez, who works for organizations advocating the rights of indigenous women in Central America and Mexico, spoke powerfully on this issue. She explained that issues related to indigenous women’s rights and maternal health were often circumscribed by structural discrimination and stigma. Dealing with this marginalization requires a holistic approach: you cannot look at maternal health in a silo: it belongs to a much broader picture of persistent inequity and unequal access.

In the same vein, Malika Saada Saar, president of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights,  spoke of the oft-forgotten American women who are not able to avail themselves of their rights. Specifically, Saar discussed the case of pregnant women in U.S. prisons who are shackled when they begin labor, and until after they deliver their baby. Often, these new mothers have to breastfeed their newborns while still shackled, and then have to deal with the trauma of having their children taken away from them and put into foster care. She spoke movingly about how this “drachonian practice” is, in effect, depriving women of their rights and is tantamount to “cruel and unusual punishment”, thus establishing the link between women’s rights, human rights and legal protection.

Fulfilling Millennium Development Goal 5 (reducing maternal mortality by three quarters and ensuring universal access to reproductive health) is not just an issue of financing programs that build clinics, train health workers, and provide services. It is an issue of fair, transparent, equal and indiscriminate access. Maternal health and reproductive rights are also fundamentally part of a broader narrative of respecting and promoting human rights. There are several international legal instruments which should, in theory, guarantee women’s rights.

The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is one of those treaties which, in theory, were it fully enforced, would ensure (among other things) that women would have safe and equal access to health care. Regarding maternal health specifically, Article 12 of CEDAW states that”States Parties shall ensure to women appropriate services in connection with pregnancy, confinement and the post-natal period, granting free services where necessary, as well as adequate nutrition during pregnancy and lactation.”

“Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights” is the rallying call for those who advocate for a comprehensive approach that tackles the complex, multi-dimensional issue of maternal health and reproductive rights. In her concluding remarks at this afternoon’s panel, Mary Robinson spoke of the need to be proactive in dealing with the barriers that “dehumanize us.” She urged attendees to “go beyond the statistics”, to really look at whether people at the margins are being reached and their needs, addressed.

Poverty, inequality and discrimination are among some of the structural barriers that need to be done away with in order for not just MDG5 to be achieved, but also the full spectrum of women’s rights to be realized.