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IRIN - Human Rights


Rohingya death count, war games, and a non-coup in Zimbabwe: The Cheat Sheet

Fri, 17 Nov 2017 15:27:22 +0000

Every week, IRIN’s team of specialist editors scans the humanitarian horizon to curate a reading list on important and unfolding trends and events around the globe:   Plus ça change in Zimbabwe   It all started with tanks; except the military vehicles globally reported on the outskirts of Harare on Tuesday evening weren’t tanks at all, but infantry fighting vehicles. Anyway, things like tanks on the streets, the president under house arrest, a man in uniform on state TV insisting it’s all a temporary measure, everything will return to normal shortly. Has to be a coup, right? Not so fast. It’s increasingly apparent that Zimbabwe’s army has no intention of effecting fundamental political changes. It may have determined it’s time for President Robert Mugabe, 93, in power since 1987, to leave office, but they haven’t actually yet deposed him, and still refer to him as the head of state. And, as this article published by African Arguments postulates, what’s really been happening in recent days is a “realignment” and an “internal settling of scores” within the long-ruling ZANU-PF party. “This is no revolution giving the power to the people. The army has done its duty in giving power back to the party,” it concludes. For more on life after Mugabe, read our recent analysis (Not that we’re claiming we saw this coming).   Libya’s descent   Libya is hell for migrants, with rape, extortion, and imprisonment rife. Utter chaos has allowed smugglers – allied with some of the country’s militias and competing political forces – to run rampant. Two months ago, the UN launched an action plan to get an “inclusive political process” going again and establish some sense of stability. But Ghassan Salamé, the UN’s special representative in Libya, hinted in a Thursday briefing to the Security Council that it would be a complicated and long road ahead: “Elections should not take place until we are certain that they will not add a third Parliament or fourth government.” It’s in part thanks to political instability that Libya’s economy is in a bad way. Despite a small rebound in oil outputs, inflation is rising and the country is unable to fund much in the way of food imports or defend its foreign reserves. On the ground – with many going unpaid and food prices rising steadily – some Libyans are getting desperate. Reuters reports that in Tripoli, people are selling foreign currency and jewelry to pay for medical care. Whose fault is the economic collapse? According to Libya’s Central Bank Governor Sadiq al-Kabir earlier this week: “everyone”.   Tracking deaths in Bangladesh’s swelling Rohingya camps   Health authorities in Bangladesh are investigating a measles outbreak in the crowded Rohingya camps of Cox’s Bazar, to where more than 620,000 refugees have fled since late August. In that time, there have been at least 412 cases. Aid groups have warned that disease outbreaks are likely in the makeshift camps, where authorities have struggled to keep pace with the swelling refugee numbers and even basic water and sanitation systems are severely inadequate. Ongoing tests of drinking water sources in the camps, for example, found 83 percent tested positive for faecal contamination. It’s forced health authorities and aid groups to keep a close eye for early signs of problems. Health providers have set up an early warning reporting system in Cox’s Bazar, tracking everything from severe diarrhoea and respiratory infections to a recent, worrying uptick in cases of “unexplained fever” – there were more than 36,000 reported cases as of early November. This surveillance system is also a thorough, if dispassionate, record of what’s killing people in the camps, which now have the population, but none of the infrastructure, of a bustling city. Until 4 November, the system recorded 143 deaths since the most recent influx began. For more, read some of IRIN’s recent reporting looking at the monumental task of setting up a health system from scratch, and the very real problem [...]

Where are Burundi’s missing witnesses to crimes against humanity?

Thu, 16 Nov 2017 16:22:41 +0000

In Burundi, it’s not just witnesses to the politically motivated string of murders, torture, and rapes who are going missing, it’s also the perpetrators, underscoring the enormous scale of the challenge now facing the International Criminal Court. So great are the risks to the “life and wellbeing” of potential witnesses to alleged crimes against humanity committed by state agents here that ICC judges agreed for the first time to deliberate in secret before deciding the tribunal’s chief prosecutor could step up her enquiries. Fears of a Kenya-style witness tampering campaign appear well-founded: Several people with first-hand knowledge of crimes implicating police, soldiers, and militia members have disappeared or been killed in Burundi, according to relatives and rights groups. An ICC judges’ ruling has authorised Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda to elevate her “preliminary examination” to an “investigation”, paving the way for eventual arrest warrants, criminal charges, and trials. The judges cited Bensouda’s affirmation: “[The] Government of Burundi has not merely been uncooperative but has actively sought to target, both in Burundi and abroad, persons who it perceives could implicate it in the crimes alleged, as established by additional sources.” And, in another unprecedented decision, the judges allowed Bensouda to wait a full 10 days before informing the Burundian government that such permission had been granted. In so doing, they granted time for witness protection measures to be put in place and lent credence to Bensouda’s view that the “concrete possibility of an investigation [was] likely to affect the calculations of those implicated by the crimes”. The alleged crimes in question include: murder and attempted murder, imprisonment or severe deprivation of liberty, torture, rape, enforced disappearance, and persecution. According to the prosecutor, high-ranking officials of the Burundian government, the police, the intelligence service, the military, and also the Imbonerakure (the ruling party’s youth wing), appear to be those most responsible for the most serious crimes. “The Chamber considers that multiple sources indicate that the Government of Burundi has interfered with, intimidated, or harmed victims and witnesses,” the judges’ decision read. 30 months of hell Such a campaign appears to have begun soon after the country was plunged into a violent crisis in April 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza’s announcement that he would run for a third term in office (widely deemed unconstitutional) prompted street protests, a heavy-handed response from security forces, and an attempted coup. A list of dozens of Burundians “forcibly disappeared” over the past two-and-a-half years has been published on a dedicated website called Ndondeza, which is the Kirundi for “Help me to find him”. Names on the list include those of activists and politicians from various parties, journalists, state intelligence agents, police and army officers, Imbonerakure members, and would-be refugees detained while trying to leave Burundi. “People implicated in crimes are often eliminated in the same way as their victims,” explaned Pacifique Nininahazwe, who is president of the Forum pour la Conscience et le Développement (the organisation behind the Ndondeza campaign) as well as a leading opponent of Nkurunziza’s third term in office. Speaking to IRIN by phone from Europe where he is living in exile, Nininahazwe said there were already several cases of Imbonerakure members being eliminated after having been “implicated in odious crimes”, including those who attempted to assassinate Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, the country’s leading human rights activist. Missing perpetrators Among this category of missing is Aimé Aloys Manirakiza, who has not been seen since May 2017. “He was one of the Imbonerakure in Musaga zone,” Manirakiza’s wife, Allaine Vanessa Kaneza, said in a blog post, the authenticity of which she confirmed to IRIN by phone from Rwand[...]

A shot across the bows from The Hague as ICC investigates Burundi

Fri, 10 Nov 2017 15:23:59 +0000

By authorising a full-scale investigation into alleged crimes against humanity committed by state actors in Burundi, judges of the International Criminal Court want to send a clear message to perpetrators of such crimes across the world: If you think pulling out of this tribunal will let you off the hook, think again. On 27 October, Burundi became the first party to withdraw from the Rome Statue, the ICC’s legal foundation. But in response to an unpublicised 5 September request from the court’s prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, the judges of Pre-Trial Chamber III ruled that the court still “has jurisdiction over crimes allegedly committed while Burundi was a state party to the ICC Rome Statute”. The judges handed down the ruling on 25 October but kept it under seal in order to protect witnesses until a redacted version was released on Thursday. In a crucial interpretation of the statue, which sets an important precedent, they determined that the ICC’s jurisdiction “remains unaffected by a withdrawal of a State Party from the Statute”. “It was a surprise move for everyone, including the government of Burundi,” international law expert Benjamin Dürr told IRIN. Step forward By elevating its engagement with Burundi from the “preliminary examination” started in March 2016 – a process that simply determines issues of jurisdiction and admissibility – to an “investigation”, the judges have now opened the door to indictments and arrest warrants being issued. This is precisely what a UN Commission of Enquiry urged the court to do in a September report that detailed crimes allegedly committed by people at “the highest level of the state” and within the security services in Burundi since April 2015, when protests against President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term in office prompted protests met with a very harsh response. Crimes allegedly include “extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture, sexual violence, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and enforced disappearances”. In their ruling, the judges referred to estimates that “at least 1,200 persons were allegedly killed, thousands illegally detained, thousands reportedly tortured and hundreds disappeared”. Roadblocks However, the ruling doesn’t mean international prosecutions of these crimes are now inevitable, let alone imminent. Burundi has the right to ask the ICC prosecutor to defer the investigation on the grounds that the crimes in question are being investigated by domestic courts. Even if this claim lacks much foundation (the ICC judges deemed Burundian authorities “inactive” in this regard), such a move would oblige the prosecutor to issue a fresh request to the judges to open an investigation. Both Burundi and the prosecutor would then be allowed to appeal the judges’ response to such a request. This process could take years. Another caveat: The collapse of ICC cases against prominent Kenyans, including President Uhuru Kenyatta, and the moribund state of the case against President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, illustrate how hard it is to prosecute incumbent leaders. The judges also ruled that Burundi is still obliged to cooperate with the ICC despite its withdrawal. If it fails do so, the UN Security Council could in theory impose sanctions, as it already threatened to do in August amid worsening security. Those in power unmoved The response from the country’s government and Nkurunziza’s ruling CNDD-FDD party was vitriolic. The country’s ambassador to the UN, Albert Shingiro, tweeted that the judges’ ruling was a “non-event” and described it as “another attempt to destabilise Burundi that will fail as its previous [attempts did]”. Government spokesman Willy Nyamitwe was equally strident, saying on Twitter: “As usual, the @IntlCrimCourt plunges into outrageous lies to implement Westerners’ hidden agenda to destabilise #Africa.” Justice Minister Aimée Laurentine Kanyana went as far as challenging the lega[...]

Refugees warn of looming civil war in Cameroon

Thu, 09 Nov 2017 17:31:10 +0000

As Patrick Ndong was getting ready to leave home for his poultry farm in the Cameroonian commune of Akwaya, a group of soldiers stormed into his compound and began shooting in the air.   Ndong took to his heels, but as he did so he could see soldiers dragging young boys from the village into a waiting van.   “They [the boys] were shouting for help,” Ndong told IRIN. “One woman was crying and rolling on the floor because her son had been shot.”   Like many others who fled Akwaya in English-speaking southwest Cameroon, Ndong spent three days in the bush before crossing the border into the tiny Nigerian village of Utanga, in Cross River State.   “I had to eat leaves to survive,” said Ndong, a livestock breeder. “I’ll never forget the day soldiers totally destroyed my life.”   That was on 1 October, the day when thousands of Cameroonians in the two English-speaking regions took to the streets demanding secession from the rest of the majority Francophone country.   The security forces responded with violence. Just in Bamenda, the capital of Northwest Region, Amnesty International said 17 people were killed. There is now mounting concern that Cameroon’s “anglophone crisis” is spinning out of control.   Fleeing refugees   The refugee flow from Akwaya - a collection of villages sandwiched between Nigeria and Cameroon - and other locations in western Cameroon, is just one example.   At least 20,000 people are currently sheltering in a string of communities in Nigeria’s Cross River state, according to state government officials.   “The influx of people has not ceased yet,” John Inaku, the director-general of the State Emergency Managing Authority told IRIN. “They are still coming in, even up till this morning.”   The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, said last week that 5,000 people had been registered or were awaiting registration, but added that it was working on a contingency plan of up to 40,000 people crossing into southeastern Nigeria.   “Our fear, however, is that 40,000 might actually be a conservative figure in a situation where the conflict might continue,” warned UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch.   Tensions are indeed increasing. On Tuesday, two Cameroonian gendarmes were killed in Bamenda in an overnight raid on a security checkpoint, reportedly by English-speaking separatists. A third officer was killed in an ambush on a patrol an hour later.   No one yet knows how many people died in Akwaya, but “the government has forced our people into carrying arms,” said 39-year-old Solomon Ode, who fled to Utanga last month. “This is going to turn into a full-blown war.”   Activists of the Southern Cameroonian United Front had warned for months that they would symbolically declare Northwest and Southwest Cameroon the so-called independent Republic of Ambazonia on 1 October.   There were large protests in support across the regions’ major towns, but it was in places like Akwaya where some of the worst violence was committed by the security forces, and which went largely unreported.   “We wanted to tell the world that we are no longer slaves of Cameroon,” said John Tita, who marched with protesters in Buea, the capital of Southwest Region, before returning to Akwaya later in the day to find his house destroyed, allegedly by the army.   One woman told IRIN her 14-year-old son was shot by soldiers inside her compound in Akwaya and was then taken away. “I don't know if he's dead or alive,” she said. “There was blood all over his body.” Mbom Sixtus/IRIN Protesters in Bamenda burn the Cameroon flag Chronology of crisis   Anglophones make up roughly one fifth of Cameroon's population of 23 million. Originally part of British-administered Cameroon, the previously separate region voted to join the rest of the country in 1961. But they have complained of discrimination and marginalisation for decades.   Over the[...]

US ramps up military strikes in Somalia

Wed, 08 Nov 2017 10:45:30 +0000

When Ali Osman Diblawe arrived in Bariire he was barefoot and winded. He had sprinted the 2.5 kilometres from his farm to the southern Somali town after hearing a barrage of gunfire tear through his small village soon after the early morning prayer. That was on 25 August. In the days prior, he and at least two others on the farm had seen what they thought was an odd-looking black bird in the sky. “There was something small and dark that was flying high over the town in the morning when we went to our farms and in the evening when we came home,” Diblawe told IRIN over a phone. “It was far away, but I thought that’s a drone, that looks like a drone.” Anxious, he approached the local Somali National Army commander to voice his concerns over what he suspected was US surveillance of the village. He explained that although the farmers had small arms – as many do in rural Somalia, where there are ongoing clan conflicts – they were not members of the jihadist group al-Shabab. He returned to his village on 24 August hoping he had been listened to. The next morning the shooting started and Diblawe ran. When he plucked up the courage to return home he saw the bodies of 10 of his neighbours sprawled on the ground. Standing over them were the SNA soldiers who had killed them, and the handful of US Special Operators who had orchestrated the operation. Diblawe’s warning had fallen on deaf ears. Local media first misreported the incident as a US drone strike. They later clarified that the 10 people had been killed in a joint US-Somali ground operation – confirmed in a statement issued by the US Africa Command, known as AFRICOM. The raid came six months after President Donald Trump had loosened regulations restricting operations in Somalia, and five months after the first US soldier was killed in the country since the infamous Black Hawk Down incident in 1993. The Bariire raid exemplifies what has been a gradual ramping-up of US military activity in Somalia over the last three years, one in which drones – both armed and for surveillance – have played a central role. This includes the first air strike against so-called Islamic State in Somalia on 3 November.  According to an AFRICOM statement, the drone attack killed “several terrorists” near Qandala, a small port town in northeastern Puntland that IS briefly occupied late last year. “In 2011 there were four or five maybe six [air] strikes and US ground operations, and that trend continued up until 2015,” said Jack Serle, a specialist investigator with the Bureau for Investigative Journalism’s drone warfare team. “But in 2015 the pace of strikes really accelerated and we’re now tracking at least 20 airstrikes and ground operations this year, which is the highest we’ve ever recorded.” Christina Goldbaum/IRIN Somali soldier with Ugandan AMISOM troops Relaxed rules of engagement In March, the Trump administration designated parts of southern Somalia an “area of active hostilities”, a move which gives commanders in the field greater autonomy over the use of force. Prior to the policy change, US forces in Somalia had been operating under the more restrictive Barrack Obama-era guidelines known as the Presidential Policy Guidance. Implemented in May 2013 in an effort to reduce the number of civilian casualties in counter-terrorism operations, the guidelines require high-level deliberations among cabinet officials to confirm that targets outside of traditional war zones pose a threat to Americans, and that there is near certainty no civilians will be killed. The undoing of these regulations came after significant lobbying from the Pentagon and General Thomas Waldhauser, the AFRICOM commander. Yet in the initial three months after the new policy was implemented, there was no change in the number of strikes: there was one strike in April, one in May, and one in June. But t[...]

Who owns Kenya?

Fri, 03 Nov 2017 16:04:08 +0000

Two elections in two months have not settled Kenya’s political crisis. But the impasse is not really about who will sit in State House. It’s a deeper question: it’s about who owns Kenya – its citizens or a historically entrenched political elite. Kenya went back to the polls on 26 October after the Supreme Court annulled the first attempt in August. Incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta won easily after his main opponent, Raila Odinga, withdrew from the race alleging the inability of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission to carry out a credible poll. Some have proposed that the political crisis is nothing more than a dispute between two of Kenya’s famously power-hungry politicians, each accusing the other of trying to vault into office by fraudulent means. Others blame the ethnicisation of Kenya’s politics and the deep tribal fault lines within Kenyan society. Still others maintain that the country’s winner-take-all political system, which does not allow those rejected by voters a cushy and safe landing. All these diagnoses fail to identify the central conflict that connects all these issues – the struggle to bend the country’s post-colonial extractive state to the will of a new and progressive constitution. It is a war that has been silently waged for at least 55 years. Colonial constitution In 1962, Kenyan representatives to the Lancaster Constitutional Conference agreed on a constitution broadly similar to the one the country finally adopted in 2010. It established a Bill of Rights. It created regional assemblies and local government in an effort to devolve power from the centre. It even had a Supreme Court. Yet in less than a decade, it would be so mangled through amendments that in 1969 it was officially recognised as a different document. Kenya’s current attorney-general, Githu Muigai, noted way back in 1992 that the independence constitution was incompatible with the inherited authoritarian colonial administrative structure. “Unhappily, instead of the latter being amended to fit the former, the former was altered to fit the latter, with the result that the constitution was effectively downgraded,” Muigai wrote. In short, under the ruling KANU party, the colonial state and its logic of extraction of resources from the many to enrich the few – initially British colonials, but now a similarly tiny African political elite – prevailed and undid the constitution. What followed was an “eating” binge as politicians and senior officials and their families and friends grabbed whatever they could lay their hands on. By the late 1980s, the looting and oppression sparked a reaction from citizen groups, media, and churchmen who pushed hard for a new constitution, even in the face of violent government crackdowns as well as state-led attempts to co-opt and hollow out their demands. The popular agitation came to fruition in August 2010 when the current constitution was finally promulgated. Yet the colonial state did not just fade away. Its more egregious aspects were simply renamed and allowed to hide in plain sight. The hated provincial administrators became county commissioners; the police, though nominally independent, still remained “a citizen containment squad”, as an official report into police reforms had labelled them. Under Kenyatta, the state retained its authoritarian character but with a fresh, likable face. Its violence, however, was never far below the surface, as was witnessed in the aftermath of its bungled responses to extremist attacks such as the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in September 2013, when the government scapegoated entire communities to cover up its failures. And, more recently, in the brutal crackdown on people protesting the two elections in which nearly 70 people have died. Where to now? The Supreme Court annulment of the August poll came as a real shock to a political and economic elite who had assumed the ballot wo[...]

‘I have to help my family’

Thu, 02 Nov 2017 01:58:16 +0000

The boy took a deep breath before lifting up two bags full of red bricks, balancing the load on his shoulders. The sun burned his bare feet as he walked through the refugee camp, his back hunched under the weight. A 10-year-old Rohingya, Mohammed has been working non-stop for the past two weeks, helping his struggling family earn a living in the world’s fastest growing refugee camp.  Leaving their former lives in Myanmar’s Rakhine State to set up homes in the teeming camps of southern Bangladesh cost the family hundreds of dollars – money that must now be recouped, one brick at a time. “We had to pay for the boat ride to Bangladesh and the material to build a house here,” Mohammed told IRIN as he set about earning his day’s wages – about $0.04 a brick. “I’m helping my parents earn money.” There is a severe shortage of safe spaces for kids in the camps, more than two months after a new wave of violence in Rakhine began pushing more than 600,000 Rohingya across the border. With desperate Rohingya families like Mohammed’s arriving with nothing, advocates say children are at high risk of exploitation and abuse. “It’s a child protection disaster waiting to happen,” said Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who heads Save the Children. Stefanie Glinski/IRIN Mohammed, 10, is a brick collector. He earns three Taka, or about $0.04, for each brick he carries. Safe spaces  While official data and numbers of Rohingya child labourers have yet to be collected, experts worry the situation could get out of hand. More than half the new arrivals are children. Yousuf Ali, who works with local non-profit YPSA, said it’s clear many children have already started working. Most are employed by Bangladeshi businesses and earn the equivalent of between $1.20 and $1.80 a day. “Most families are open to having their children employed, as they have no other means to survive,” Ali said. Conditions in the refugee camps are chaotic. Heavy rain continues to turn the area into deep mud fields and families are scrambling to establish a living. An army of aid groups and volunteers has rushed in to help, but the sheer numbers are immense.   Families say it costs $120 to buy bamboo and plastic sheeting from local vendors – a significant portion of their savings. Aid groups estimate more than 400,000 children, including girls and boys who arrived before the latest wave of refugees, can’t access schools or other learning places.  With so few safe spots for children, it raises real risks of trafficking and child labour, said Torgeir Lind, an expert on psychosocial support with the Norwegian Red Cross. “The needs in the camps are huge,” Lind said. “There are lots of children, but not enough schooling. That means that there are no daytime activities for children.” The supply chain Child labour is a problem in refugee emergencies around the world, as it often is in host communities.  A study in Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp, for example, estimated 13.3 percent of children aged seven to 17 were working. “If this is the overarching situation around the world, then we need to look at the Rohingya camps,” said Sheema Sen Gupta, UNICEF’s deputy representative in Bangladesh. “Families arrive here with nothing. What happens once they have pitched their tents? They have a meal a day or don’t eat for days. Instead of sitting around, children go and find work.”  Gupta said it’s repeatedly host communities that exploit children. Often, they don’t look at it as a form of exploitation, but see children as part of the available workforce.  Kashan, a local Bangladeshi who didn’t want to share his full name, owns several ice cream businesses in the Rohingya camps. Weeks ago he quit his job as a construction worker, realising that the refugee influx provided an opportunity to make[...]

Election leaves western Kenya angry and bitter

Thu, 26 Oct 2017 17:28:04 +0000

After tyres finish burning, what is left is a matted mesh of singed black wire. In Kenya’s western city of Kisumu, they hug curbs and roundabouts, leaving dark, circular footprints where the road melted underneath.   This is the Nyanza heartland of opposition leader Raila Odinga, where demonstrations have erupted since August against the Independent Electoral and Borders Commission’s perceived bias, and again today as Kenyans go to re-run elections – polls the opposition have boycotted.   The protracted election crisis has accustomed people in Nyanza to defiance. Here, the explosion of a tear gas canister is met with cheers. Protesters run into the white fumes. They salvage undetonated canisters and throw them back at police the next time. Even as live rounds crack into the air, in the distance a spinning slingshot always emerges.   It was in some ways no surprise then that on the eve of the 26 October election, Odinga – twice a losing presidential candidate – announced he was transforming his National Super Alliance (NASA) into a National Resistance Movement to confront the “electoral dictatorship” of the ruling Jubilee Party.   The trigger was the inability of the Supreme Court, in dramatic televised failure on Wednesday, to reach a quorum and rule on a petition to postpone the poll re-run.   The court had earlier nullified the August presidential election over procedural failures. Few neutral observers believed a divided IEBC had been able to fix its problems over the past 56 days.   Residents of Mamboleo, a neighbourhood outside Kisumu City, certainly did not. Like protestors throughout Nyanza, they set up roadblocks to prevent ballot papers from being delivered on Wednesday. All along the shoddy, pot-holed dirt road, piles of stones and bricks – even a telephone pole – were laid out.   As paramilitary GSU escorted a convoy of vehicles, screams and hoots, wild and crude, came from protesters hiding behind gates and in between corrugated metal shacks – and from police themselves. Tear gas and rocks were exchanged, insults too. Doors were kicked in and shots fired in the air.   Turnout was so low today in four counties in Nyanza that the IEBC postponed the vote.   These are alien scenes for Kenya, a middle-income regional leader. But they offer a disturbing glimpse into the possibility of the abyss beyond this disputed election. April Zhu/IRIN Raila Odinga addresses a NASA rally Victims   Odinga has voiced an anger that has been swirling here over the perceived manipulation of the institutions of the state by President Uhuru Kenyatta, and the alleged victimisation of a region and people seen as opposing him.   You hear it at the People’s Parliament in Kisumu’s city square where the supposed words of Thomas Jefferson are approvingly repeated: “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty”.   The “resistance” already has its martyrs. Last week, 18-year-old Michael Okoth Okello was killed in the violent aftermath of anti-IEBC demonstrations in Kisumu – shot in the neck by police.   The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights released a report highlighting cases of violence in the wake of the annulled 8 August election. The report documents 37 deaths, 35 of them committed by the police.   Kenyans living in NASA strongholds like Nyanza and pockets of Nairobi – especially those like Odinga of Luo ethnicity – were disproportionately represented among the victims.   There have been high-profile condemnations of ethnically targeted police brutality, like the campaign “Luo Lives Matter” championed by Kisumu Governor Anyang’ Nyong’o.   Many here in Kisumu point to the difference in police response when Kikuyus – the country’s largest ethnic group and generally seen as supportive of Kenyatta – [...]

Irresponsible data? The risks of registering the Rohingya

Mon, 23 Oct 2017 05:52:36 +0000

Massive amounts of personal and biometric data are being gathered from hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. This should set off multiple alarm bells.   As bystanders to likely crimes against humanity against the Rohingya, the humanitarian community has a particular responsibility to ensure their rights are not violated further, through data and technology. Now is the time to push for safeguards, before it’s too late.   Gathering data on marginalised groups can be a risky business, and the Rohingya are no strangers to having information about them used to further diminish their human rights. What is being proposed in Bangladesh raises broad concerns about the responsible and ethical use of data and is potentially dangerous.   The Bangladeshi government registration process includes scanning in “biometric” data – at this stage, fingerprints, with the UN providing “technical assistance”. At the same time, the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, announced this week that it is carrying out a separate counting exercise, including taking photographs.   Refugees may reasonably think their access to aid and protection may depend on one or both registrations, so the power asymmetry is stark between those designing and carrying out the data collection and those on the receiving end of it.   The responsible data considerations are numerous and complex.   What data should be collected, by whom? Who has access to it? In case of machine or human error, what processes are in place to review and make changes? What could be the unintended consequences of these growing databases? How could the data be abused?   All of these questions, and more, need to be thought through and the conclusions intentionally planned into any kind of data collection about the Rohingya, before more harm is done.   Registering the Rohingya   According to local media, Bangladeshi firm Tiger IT has provided the government with a software system to register Rohingyas. It will record the individual’s fingerprints, alongside name, gender, age, photograph, parents’ names, birthplace, nationality, country, and religion – all of which will be linked to an ID card. The card does not use the term “Rohingya”, and some are refusing to be registered because of this omission.   The experience in Bangladesh echoes that in Myanmar. The 2014 census in Myanmar listed 135 ethnic groups but deliberately omitted any option for “Rohingya”. This led many to refuse the national ID cards that followed, which used the loaded substitute term “Bengali”. Rohingya worried that this was just another attempt to erase them as a community. In a mirror move, a Bangladeshi census in 2016 labelled Rohingya as “Myanmar nationals” – a status Myanmar itself does not recognise.   This month, UNHCR announced it is engaged in a separate counting exercise: Once refugees’ information, including photographs, have been gathered digitally with an unnamed “app”, a laminated yellow card with a unique number is assigned by the Bangladeshi government’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission. It’s unclear how, if at all, this exercise links up with the other registration, led by the Department of Immigration and Passports.   Producing separate datasets (and possibly providing more than one official identification card) is not an efficient use of resources and indeed might lead to complications for the refugees on the receiving end of the questions and the cards.   Roger Arnold/UNHCR Rohinyga refugees are being registered in Bangladesh Using biometric data as proof of identity might allow aid and services to be delivered to Rohingya refugees more effectively, but it’s a double-edged sword for several reasons:     Firstly, it can be used to driv[...]

#MeToo in the humanitarian world

Fri, 20 Oct 2017 16:22:11 +0000

Our friends and family sometimes think the humanitarian world is populated by saints. The general public might also think that (our fundraising campaigns certainly play on this). However, those of us who live in it know our sector is not so different from others. We walk amongst mortals – flawed human beings. We* are two of those millions who tweeted #MeToo – recalling our own many experiences of harassment, from when we were schoolgirls, to this day – make no mistake, it is a pervasive factor in every woman's life. But even though we are aid workers, we too experience sexual harassment and assault in the humanitarian world.   Since the 1990s, reports have documented UN peacekeepers engaging in sexual exploitation and abuse. The humanitarian aid world had their own scandal in 2001 in Guinea-Conakry, Liberia, and Sierra Leone when female refugees complained about being forced to trade sex for food. These led to a better understanding of the vulnerability of aid recipients to abuse and exploitation and led to high-level initiatives to root out sexual abuse by UN staff (to varying degrees of success).  The sexist culture in our sector needs to be called out and things need to change: It’s time to end all those times women have to smile wanly at sexist jokes; evade the clutches of some grabbing, entitled man; or trade warnings with each other about this or that male colleague (oh, there are Harvey Weinsteins in our midst). The sexist culture in our sector needs to be called out and things need to change   Recently, female aid workers have spoken out about the sexual assault and harassment they face in the course of their work, including the brave women who spoke publicly about being assaulted in the Terrain Hotel in South Sudan in August 2016, a horrifying event. In 2016, an organisation called ‘Report the Abuse’ was created to highlight the sexual abuse of aid workers. It folded in 2017 – not due to lack of interest, but due to a lack of resources. Sexual violence is a problem in our sector. We don’t have all the numbers, but the ones we do know already show us that it’s a problem. Pervasive culture Let's have a few examples: In one of our organisations, rating the sexual desirability of co-workers is a common pastime. It sounds kind of fun as a field drinking game. Until it's your boss talking about the length of the skirts the receptionist wears. She's 20 years his junior. In a prestigious humanitarian organisation one of us used to work for, women would do their best to avoid being posted to missions in Africa, not due to hardships in the field but in order not to have to deal with the constant use of sex workers by their male colleagues. Just fun between consenting adults! All forgotten in the morning back at the office! But the winks and knowing smiles amongst men permeate and corrode the atmosphere, bringing with it a culture of objectifying and degrading women. Not to mention the damage it does to the reputation of aid organisations that locals view as exercising their (mainly white) privilege. And let's face it. There is more than a whiff of hypocrisy to be "helping people in Africa" whilst paying for sex. Abuse of power amongst staff is common. There are many women in our sector, but the senior leadership is still mainly dominated by men. How many cases do you know of male country directors sleeping with junior staff? In some offices, it's a rite of passage for first-missioneers. One of us remembers her creepy boss who touched her inappropriately and asked her for 'an agreement of bodies' whilst trying to get his help on a tricky negotiation with a local partner. He then pressured her to go for drinks with him. “Did I go? Yes. I asked a friend to come with me though. Did I report it? Hell no! I didn't want to risk my reputation in the organ[...]