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Blog posts for 2011
Submitted by Martha Thompson on Fri, 01/14/2011 - 1:12pm.
Looking at Haiti one year after the January 12, 2010, earthquake is deeply disturbing. The life of a Haitian earthquake survivor in Port-au-Prince is precarious, difficult, and a constant struggle. The failures of the aid organizations, the vacuum that exists in government, and the reluctance of donors to make good on their pledges are all problems of this particular disaster. This is all made much worse by the cholera epidemic in the north of the country that has now claimed 3,600 people's lives and the disputed elections that have caused violence and unrest and insecurity. Gangs have moved into this gap, further increasing insecurity for people.
But these things have not just happened as a matter of course; they are not even inevitable. They were not inevitable results of the devastating earthquake in China in 2008 or even the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. That 2005 earthquake in particular was not a shining example of disaster response, but survivors were much further along one year later than they are in Haiti. Disasters do not make a clean sweep, but they bring into clarity the fault lines in societies. The earthquake laid bare the inequities in Haitian society with breathtaking clarity, and the passing of time has only highlighted them.
Since this is a blog and not a book, let's just look at one factor that contributes to the disaster of the disaster response, the shelter emergency. A year later, the fact that 1.4 million people are still living in tents almost numbs us through repetition. But why are they still in tents? That question can be quickly answered by saying the aid agencies did not provide temporary housing, and they are not moving into reconstruction. But why aren't they? That question leads down to the fault lines.
You cannot build temporary housing without raising issues about land use. In a small, overcrowded island nation with a highly skewed distribution system and a corrupt political system, land ownership and land use are explosive issues. The peasant organizations have highlighted the issues around rural landlessness but urban land use is just as skewed. Many neighborhoods are on occupied land, using squatters' rights. Others are charged high rents for small pieces of land. The landlords know that the earthquake is a moment this could be shaken up. It's happened in other countries; people have moved on to land and stayed.
Temporary housing is more permanent than tents — it's much harder to remove, which makes it easier for people to claim their space by virtue of being there. Aid agencies are not building temporary, let alone permanent, housing, because the government and the landlords will not let them. Our partners tell us that the government won't let people go back to two main areas of land near the center of the city, Fort Nacional and Bellair, although people are ready to do so. The only places the government has allowed temporary housing to be built on a large scale are the sites outside of Port-au-Prince that they want to relocate people to.
The Chinese saying that disaster equals opportunity works a number of ways. The earthquake could open a crack of opportunity for people in the city slums to get more adequate housing than they ever have had, built by foreign aid monies. Or it opens a crack of opportunity for the government and the landlords to clear unwanted squatters off their land permanently. The marginalized in Haiti who flock into Port-au-Prince do not have resources to rent decent housing. Their right to decent housing is not only ignored by the government; the government works against it. As far as the government and the wealthy landlords are concerned, the slums of Port-au-Prince should be removed and they should control this land; the earthquake could provide them that chance. And so in no way can temporary housing be built, because it opens the crack of opportunity for the marginalized, not for those that hold power — these are the real fault lines in Haiti.
Submitted by Kara Smith on Thu, 01/13/2011 - 7:44am.
At the urging of a number of organizations working with displaced women in Haiti, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) recently issued groundbreaking recommendations to the government of Haiti to address and prevent gender-based violence (GBV) in displacement camps.
KOFAVIV (Komisyon Fanm Viktim pou Viktim, which translates to the Commission of Women Victims for Victims), a UUSC partner, has been courageously confronting the growing prevalence of sexual violence in Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake. Donations to the UUSC/UUSA Haiti Earthquake Relief Fund have supported KOFAVIV's services to survivors of violence, which includes training GBV agents to work in the camps and conducting education and awareness activities. They have also been at the forefront of documenting cases of GBV and the fight to protect survivors.
In coalition with other Haitian organizations protecting women from GBV, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and legal organizations, this work has resulted in an unprecedented set of recommendations to the Haitian government from the IACHR.
The IACHR granted the following measures:
1. Ensure medical and psychological care is provided in locations available to victims of sexual abuse of 22 camps for those internally displaced. This precautionary measure decision, in particular, ensures that there be:
a. privacy during examinations;
b. availability of female medical staff members, with a cultural sensitivity and experience with victims of violence sexual;
c. issuance of medical certificates;
d. HIV prophylaxis, and;
e. emergency contraception.
2. Implement effective security measures in the 22 camps, in particular, provide street lighting, an adequate patrolling in and around the camps, and a greater number of security forces patrolling in women and in police around the camps;
3. Ensure that public officials responsible for responding to incidents of sexual violence receive training enabling them to respond adequately to complaints of sexual violence and to adopt safety measures;
4. Establish special units within the police and the Ministry Public investigating cases of rape and other forms of violence against women and girls, and;
5. Ensure that grassroots women's groups have full participation and leadership in planning and implementing policies and practices to combat and prevention of sexual violence and other forms of violence in the camps.
Submitted by Kara Smith on Mon, 01/10/2011 - 12:24pm.
This is the time of year when we reflect back on the past year — what has happened, what we did, and what we want to do differently. As I watched the 2010 year-in-review news programs, most of them began by recounting the tragedy of the earthquake in Haiti, one year ago today, and the bleak events that followed — a lack of and disorganization of aid, the cholera outbreak, and election turmoil.
Seeing the shots of babies being plucked out of rubble, the wounded on cots that barely resembled hospital beds, and people living in makeshift tents, I once again began to feel the overwhelming weight of the feeling that says: There is nothing that I can do. This crisis is just way too big.
While it is true that this crisis is way too big and complicated to be fixed by one person, one organization, one government entity, I know that each of us comes to a moment like I did one year ago and says, "What can I do?" Each of us has a different answer, our partners included.
For the director of Camp Oasis, the answer was, "I can protect 40 orphaned girls from a life of prostitution."
For the staff of Konbit Fanm SAJ (KFS), it was, "We can assist 75 women earthquake survivors to become economically independent."
For the executive director of the Papaye Peasant Movement (MPP), it was, "We can create temporary employment opportunities through community-service projects for over 1,200 people."
For the staff of Other Worlds, it was, "We can support a multimedia education and movement-building collaborative that lifts up the voices of grassroots Haitians."
For the women of KOFAVIV, it was, "We can help protect women and girls from gender-based violence in the camps for displaced people."
And for me, it was to make a donation to the UUSC-UUA Haiti Earthquake Relief Fund. It was to make sure that my representatives in Congress know that I am expecting them to act on behalf of the Haitian people. It will be to get involved with a volunteer trip to Haiti. And it will be to work diligently with my colleagues at UUSC to help our members and supporters feel like there is something that they can do. Because no matter how difficult the news is coming out of Haiti, I know that all of us working on what we can do will help create a just recovery for the people of Haiti.
Submitted by Shelley Moskowitz on Mon, 01/10/2011 - 8:14am.
Shelley Moskowitz, UUSC's manager of public policy and mobilization in Washington, D.C., wrote the following blog post on Saturday, January 8, 2010, in the hours following the mass shooting in Arizona at a public event held by Representative Gabrielle Giffords.
My heart aches at the news of the shooting in Arizona. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, a 40-year-old legislator, was holding one of her regular Congress on Your Corner community meetings in front of a Tucson grocery store when a man carrying a gun allegedly shot her and 11 others at close range.
I do not personally know Rep. Giffords or her staff. But I do know that she was one of 10 members of Congress who received threats during last year's health-care reform debate. And while no one yet knows for certain what motivated today's shooting, we do know that in the months leading up to the 2010 midterm elections, the Arizona Daily Wildcat newspaper reported that "Sarah Palin has re-launched her 'Take Back the 20' campaign. Its aim — pun intended — is to unseat Democratic incumbents who supported last year's health care reform package. . . . Tucson's Gabrielle Giffords is among the 20 Democratic incumbents whom Palin intends to use for target practice." The report also noted that "earlier this year, Palin drew sharp criticism for featuring a map on her web page riddled with crosshairs targeting Democrats in vulnerable congressional districts." That website was pulled off the internet in the hours after the shooting today, and Sarah Palin has just issued a condolence statement on her Facebook page.
I'm trying to make sense out of all this madness. I have been a public-interest advocate in Washington, D.C., for over 20 years, and I know how heated policy and political debates can be. But what is difficult to see from outside the beltway is the humanity of the people who serve on Capitol Hill. On January 5, I attended a beautiful interfaith service organized by a bipartisan group of congressional leaders and held in the morning just before they were sworn in for the 112th session of Congress. It is one of those rare moments before the partisan bickering begins when the rich diversity of our elected officials' backgrounds and beliefs is shared through readings, songs, and prayers that inspire them to be public servants. I wish those moments were more visible — but that doesn't fit into the pervasive angry narrative about life in Washington, D.C.
I don't know what will happen next. Will there be more violence or will our differences be worked out through the myriad of nonviolent ways we can exercise our power in this country? Will members of Congress and their staff stop holding public meetings with their constituents? Will anyone care? A thousand questions run through my mind right now. The latest report is that 6 people, including a child and a judge, have died from today's attack and18 people are injured, including Rep. Giffords, who is in critical condition after surgery. My heart aches. But I recommit myself to work for democracy, peace, and justice — and I encourage all who read this to do the same.
Submitted by Daniel Karp. on Fri, 01/07/2011 - 1:21pm.
In 1988, the plight of a young, poor, and seemingly invisible community living in tenements, amidst gang violence and deeply systemic racism, was broadcast far and wide. This was personally transformative and pulled the curtain on living conditions theretofore unrecognized by a privileged white kid from affluent Connecticut. By the way, that kid was me.
In pursuit of a way out, six young men from Compton, Calif., better known as N.W.A, told the story of their lives through sampled beats and rhythmic spoken word — some call it rap. The wick they lit followed the worldwide release of their inflammatory protest song called "F**k tha Police."
Sweeping vitriolic response to the song surprised few in the music world. The FBI and the U.S. Secret Service sent letters to Ruthless Records and began surveillance on rappers Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre. Concert dates were canceled. Police increased pressure in Compton, Inglewood, and Watts. For many black urban youth, the situation seemed to go from bad to worse.
Today, I read the "Gaza Youth's Manifesto for Change" and again felt the powerful sensation of standing on a levee torn asunder by tidal forces. Though often tenuously constructed and with generously sprinkled vulgarities, the Gaza youths' plea for sanity displays striking commonalities between disenfranchised youth in Los Angeles circa late 1980s and those living in the occupied territories of Palestine today. The shared vernacular is unmistakable and demands acknowledgement of lives bound by concrete walls and doomed to inferiority complexes from an endemic denial of basic human rights.
The daily struggle for Palestinians is also different and in many ways incomparably worse than life around Compton in the years before Rodney King and Reginald Deny were plucked from anonymity. You'd be hard-pressed to find many rap songs about two hours of daily electricity and little access to clean water. Nor would many urban youths accept the indignity and injustice of daily, armed, and often tense check points.
Nonetheless, rights in name are rights in vain when whole communities are denied their full measure of social justice. Racial double standards have long existed in the United States. In Israel, where institutionalized racism is quickly becoming the order of the day, one rule exists for Jews and another for Arabs.
No matter where the injustice, speaking truth to power is and always will be a revolutionary act requiring a certain level of sacrificial resignation. Will I be punished for my actions? Will I be silenced for telling the truth?
The Gaza Youth Breaks Out group has courageously pulled the curtain back on Palestinian suffering and shattered the hegemony of various power structures quartering the occupied territories. Now its members wait to see from where and how swiftly the storm of retribution arrives.
Is the manifesto terse and uncomfortable at times? Yes. Is it inflammatory, angry, and immature? A bit. Is it exactly what the world needs to finally accept that the occupied territories of Palestine represent a collective failure so universal that we each shoulder a small measure of blame for the suffering of nearly four million stateless people? Without any doubt.
Twenty-some years ago, N.W.A. brought the streets of Compton to life for millions. I think they'd be happy to know that in Gaza today, young people are picking up where they left off, sounding back with an answer to Dre's line, "Why don't you tell everybody what the f**k you gotta say?"
Submitted by Bill Schulz on Thu, 01/06/2011 - 2:14pm.
The following post, "Human Rights 2011: These Tests Will Tell," by UUSC President William F. Schulz, was originally published in the Huffington Post on December 31, 2010.
It's the time of year to draw up 2010's "best" and "worst" lists. When it comes to human rights, that's pretty easy. The repudiation of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" would be on the on the credit side; the continued ravishing of civilians, especially women, in Congo on the debit; and some events right in the middle: Charter 08 author Liu Xiabao was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, sure enough, but Liu Xiabao still languishes in a Chinese prison.
What is far trickier is to spot future trends. Calvin Coolidge once peered into his crystal ball and offered this brave prognostication: "When people are out of work, unemployment will result." Similarly, it is safe to assume that the Chinese will continue to restrict freedoms; that the United States will continue to employ the death penalty; and that some strongman somewhere will steal an election.
Perhaps the more meaningful course is simply to identify those human-rights stories to watch in 2011. How these challenges are resolved will tell us much about where human rights are going.
Will Laurent Gbago survive? Africa, long notorious for allowing corruption and brute force to thwart the popular will in elections, has seen a few positive signs in recent years that norms may be shifting. Ellen Sirleaf Johnson's election in Liberia in 2005; the surprisingly peaceful adoption of a new constitution in Kenya last summer and recent closely contested elections in Tanzania and Guinea have fueled the hope that the continent may be looking with greater favor on legitimate democracy. But now comes Cote d'Ivoire's Laurent Gbago, the clear loser in the recent presidential election there, refusing to vacate his office. The international community has unanimously called on Gbago to step down and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has even threatened military intervention. If Gbago survives or the country devolves once again into civil war, it will send an unmistakable signal that, despite President Obama's calls for Africans to take responsibility for good governance, that message has not yet been widely adopted. Robert Mugabe, among others, will be taking note.
Will Sudan stay "peaceful?" In January south Sudan will almost certainly vote to secede from the north. The last civil war in Sudan cost 2.5 million lives and helped generate the genocide in Darfur. Relative calm has prevailed recently in Darfur and the south but secession could prompt the government in Khartoum to reinstitute its reign of terror in both places. The international community must make clear that that is not an option.
Will the ICC convict? No development in the human-rights world over the past decade has held greater promise than the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC). But thus far the court has failed to convict any of those it has indicted and, what's worse, has been characterized by chaotic administration and sloppy prosecutions. The stakes are enormous: if the ICC is discredited, the best hope for a way to hold tyrants to account for human-rights crimes will be lost. The ICC's critics will be delighted. So will the tyrants.
Will Medvedev prevail? With the murders of journalist Anna Politovskaya, human-rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov, Chechen human-rights activist Natalya Estemirova, and many others like them having gone unsolved in Russia, profound questions have arisen as to whether the rule of law carries any meaning there. President Dmitry Medvedev has spoken frequently of the need for an independent judiciary, less concentrated power, and more competitive elections; he even vetoed a proposed law that would have restricted antigovernment demonstrations. But until those responsible for attacks on human-rights defenders are brought to justice, his sentiments, benign as they appear, can only be interpreted as reflecting duplicity or powerlessness. If the former, Medvedev deserves to be replaced when his term of office ends in 2012; if the latter, he will be.
Will Aung San Suu Kyi stay free? There is no greater human-rights heroine in the world today than the leader of the democracy movement in [Myanmar]. Suu Kyi is currently engaged in a complicated chess game with the Burmese generals and some of her own supporters to determine the best strategy to employ against Southeast Asia's most brutal regime. She has, for instance, recently rolled back her call for sanctions against the state. The stakes are high — not just her freedom but Burma's too.
Lots of other stories deserve attention too: Will Venezuela slip further into autocracy? Will the US ever figure out what to do with the Guantanamo prisoners? But how these five play out will have profound implications for the future of human rights and, not incidentally, for tens of millions of people. Stay tuned.
Submitted by Gretchen Alther. on Thu, 01/06/2011 - 8:38am.
The Watan card.
Imagine you're a peasant farmer in rural Pakistan and massive floods have destroyed your modest mud-brick home, devastated your crops, and carried away all of your possessions. If you were lucky, you spent a few months in a camp where aid agencies provided a place to sleep and basic meals. Now you've returned home — perhaps with a tent and some blankets, but maybe not — and you're trying to find a way to feed your family and rebuild your life.
A rapid infusion of cash right now could be very helpful. Then you could prioritize and get the things you most need: maybe some seeds, food, blankets, perhaps some medicine.
This is the basic idea behind the prepaid debit cards, called Watan ("homeland" in Urdu) cards, issued by the Pakistan government to people living in flood-affected areas. This system is intended to deliver much-needed support directly to flood survivors, ensuring speed and transparency. The cards initially are charged with 20,000 Pakistani rupees (about US$230). Additional installments will be made, though it's unclear when and how much.
Because your residency is registered in the government's database, you're eligible for a Watan card. You get this card, but no one explains the system to you. Like the majority of people you know, you've never learned to read, and you probably don't have a bank account. You don't need an account to use your card, but it means you've never used an ATM — and those require reading skills. Furthermore, ATMs are few and far between in rural Pakistan — you'll have to go to a large town to find one, and then you'll have to ask someone to help you. Hopefully, you'll find a person who'll explain the Watan card to you, help you withdraw the full amount, and then tell you to keep your card for when the next installment is made.
But perhaps you'll come up against the kind of thing we heard stories about on our recent assessment visit to Pakistan: people helping survivors withdraw cash for a fee, people buying cards from uninformed survivors, people keeping survivors' "used" cards, and landowners demanding cards or cash from tenant farmers.
Or maybe you're a survivor of the floods, but you're originally from somewhere else and you never registered your new residency with the government. In this case, you're likely out of luck. The process for establishing your residency after the fact is unclear and arduous at best. Or perhaps your husband was registered — you were not — and he has since passed away. You, also, are likely out of luck. And if you're an Afghan refugee who's home in Pakistan was destroyed in the floods? Sorry, you were never able to get on the list in the first place.
The Pakistan government is aware of the problems with the Watan cards, and surely some officials are trying to overcome the enormous system challenges. No doubt, for some people, Watan cards are making a critical difference. But for many, at best, they're frustrating and confusing, and at worst, they're actually pushing people further away from recovery. UUSC is working with local organizations in Pakistan to help those survivors who are at risk of being pushed further down the ladder of recovery because of gender, class/caste, religion, nationality, and geography. Help us help by supporting our Pakistan flood relief efforts.
UUSC's Rights in Humanitarian Crises team — Martha Thompson and Gretchen Alther — visited flood-affected areas of Pakistan in December. Check back for forthcoming blog posts and updates.