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Entries tagged "human rights"

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Camila Vallejo's Letelier-Moffitt Acceptance Speech

October 17, 2012 ·

I would like to thank the Institute for Policy Studies. I thank IPS not only for this Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award  that you've given the Chilean Students Movement for our struggle to recover the right to an education, but also for what you stand for and your ties to everything that's happening today in Chile.

Camila Vallejo speaksAfter 39 years, it's impossible — even for young people like us who were born after 1988 — to study the history of Orlando Letelier or anyone else who was tortured or assassinated during the dictatorship without feeling paid. We feel the pain of injustice, the pain of that inhumanity, and the pain of a great blow to democracy that hasn't healed to this day.

And although there's been a powerful attempt to erase our collective memory and silence our entire nation, in Chile we won't forget. We can't forget the Pinochet dictactorship's victims, just as we can't forget the aspirations of the movement that gave rise to Salvador Allende's government.

That movement was interrupted by a violent coup and a brutal and bloody dictatorship. But it wasn't defeated, it was interrupted. Its driving force and principles were to defend the interests and dignity of the people.

That movement respected human rights while aspiring to grant all men and women access to a decent education and quality health care. That movement aimed to bring the benefits of our nation's natural wealth to all Chileans. That movement built sovereignty while strengthening democracy.

In that movement, men and women developed the awareness and will to organize for justice and freedom.

I believe that the Institute, through its work, represents women and men like Ronni and Orlando — people who embodied this movement's ideals and gave their lives for their activism.

It is with sorrow, but also with joy and hope that we cherish the ideas and ideals that embody this movement — the defense of human rights and the struggle for social justice.

Many Chileans are now taking back the reins of history, as indicated by today's great social movements. We must recover from the Pinochet dictatorship's terrible consequences if we want to have a true democracy.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights affirmed that even today there still is no justice in Chile because our electoral sytstem guarantees that human rights violators are over-represented in our parliament, relative to their victims.

In our country, there is no justice. Even if we don't have a dictator anymore, we still haven't gotten rid of the political model that his regime imposed upon us — a market-driven dictatorship. This neoliberal model has proven to be incompatible with respect for human rights. When the great wealth of the very few is derived from the life and work of the vast majority, it isn't compatible with democracy.

Our best way to thank you for this award is to carry on with the historic work to which we have dedicated our lives. We will continue to fight for universal, high-quality, and free public education, workers' rights, and excellent health care for all. We will fight to nationalize Chile's natural resources once again. We will continue the struggle for self-determination and respect that our indigenous peoples deserve.

Today, Chile's indigenous people are a shining example of resistance to the repression and militarization they endure at the hands of our government. We should fight for a new Chilean Constitution, which will shed the neoliberal state the dictatorship imposed on us for the  benefit the nation's richest people.

As Allende said, the Chilean people's struggle isn't a fight among generations, and it's certainly not the monopoly of one political party. This must be a struggle by workers, students, professionals, and many social and political movements ready to take on the challenge of joining together despite our differences, because we have grasped the historic challenge that we face.

That is why I would like to dedicate this award not just to all Chilean students, who technically won it, but also to our professors and teachers, as well as the indigenous peoples of Chile.

Appropriately enough, in Chile we celebrate Teachers Day every October 16. Just yesterday, we paid tribute to them.

I am also dedicating this award to the indigenous Mapuche people currently held as political prisoners — including the four who have been on a hunger strike for nearly two months. After hundreds of years of resistance, they are not giving up the fight for their land or their right to their own culture. This award is for everyone who is fighting to make Chile a better place.

Camila Vallejo is the vice-president of the Confederation of Chilean Students (Confederación de Estudiantes de Chile). She and Noam Titelman accepted a 2012 Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award from the Institute for Policy Studies.

PHOTO: Human Rights Activism in Bahrain

April 19, 2012 ·

Photo by Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters.

Eight Fearless Mexicans

December 17, 2011 ·

An unprecedented number of Mexicans have received international recognition over the past year for their courageous work on behalf of migrants, workers, and the millions of victims of the country’s spiraling violence, institutional decomposition and appalling inequality.

Most recently, Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, received a nod from TIME Magazine, which proclaimed that "the protester" was the 2011 "person of the year."

Below, we profile some of these movement leaders, artists, grass roots organizers, labor leaders, and clergy people who are working in the front trenches of the struggle for human rights. Through them we can hear the voices of millions more Mexicans crying out for justice and for the very soul of their nation.

They urge us to respond to the frightening militarization of Mexico, the hyper-exploitation of the poor, indigenous, and working classes; and the infuriating impunity enjoyed by well-connected and ruling-class criminals. They embody the struggle to end the profound injustice — both economic and legal — at the root of the murderous crime wave sweeping the country.

These eight distinguished advocates have been recognized because the Mexican government has failed to respond to a growing national emergency. As Mexico’s crisis deepens, these patriots have gone abroad to sound an urgent alarm — amplified by the human rights, labor, and cultural groups who invited them — that Mexico is at the breaking point.

These are the kinds of Mexicans that President Obama, the U.S. Congress, the media, the American public, and philanthropic foundations should be listening to and taking their cues from. These are the voices of those who have lived the tragic consequences of bad bi-national policies — so unlike President Calderon and his supporters north of the border who echo the hollow victories of the drug war and repeat market based delusions of success in the face of NAFTA’s bitter harvest.

The need for profound systemic changes on both sides of the border is painfully clear. 50 thousand Mexicans have died since President Calderón escalated the drug war. Millions are displaced by the economic disaster of “free trade.” In Mexico, as in the United States, ultra-rich plutocrats have hijacked the political system and are trying to foreclose on a dignified future for the poor and middle classes.

We need intelligent strategies and urgent action to end the “war on drugs,” level the economic playing field, and to make real our democratic aspirations on both side of the border. We must not let the inheritance of Mexico’s NAFTA generation be a disintegrating society where neither jobs nor educational opportunities exist for an expanding and politically repressed underclass.

In 2012, both Mexico and the United States will hold presidential elections. These elections, while no doubt important, won't bring the kind of deep changes needed in both countries. Such change and the movement necessary to make it happen must be driven from below — by those who bear the greatest burdens of inequality and have the most to gain by shattering the toxic status quo.

During 2011 movements led by victims of violence and those who are alienated from politics as usual have broken through the discourse of silence, altered the political landscape, and brought calls for revolutionary change back into view in both our countries.

The new struggle for fundamental reform is just getting underway and will take many forms, some of them unpredictable. But you can be sure that, as resistance to war and inequality grows on both sides of the border, the Mexicans leaders profiled below will be on its frontlines. They'll join their voices together with millions more on both sides of our shared border.

  • Abel Barrera, an anthropologist and human rights defender of indigenous and rural communities, who founded the respected and successful NGO Tlachinolan in the southern and impoverished state of Guerrero, was honored by the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights;
  • Javier Sicilia, a leader of the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, was awarded a “people’s choice” human rights prize by Global Exchange; The movement is led the victims of the “drug war”. He was also profiled in TIME Magazine’s 2011 Person of the Year issue.
  • Gael Garcia, a well-known Mexican actor, and AMBULANTE, an organization he co-founded, headlined the Washington Office on Latin America’s (WOLA) annual gala in recognition for his passionate and committed work to give visibility to the plight of migrants who undertake the perilous journey north and to the organization’s work to promote documentaries and to bring these films to the Mexican population;
  • Father Pedro Pantoja received the Letelier–Moffitt International Human Rights Award from the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC on behalf of Bethlehem, the Migrants’ Shelter of Saltillo, for its work to protect migrants in Mexico from kidnapping, extortion, sexual abuse, and murder — courageously challenging organized crime and corrupt public officials.
  • Marta Ojeda, a long time maquiladora activist, was saluted by the New York Radio Festival and received an award for her organization, the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras and “La Frontera,” a documentary investigation of organized crime, violence and impunity and injustice along the Mexico-U.S. border; Marta connects the dots between the neoliberal policies, economic dislocation, arms industries, money laundering corruption, and impunity that have submerged Mexico in a deep crisis.
  • Napoleon Gómez Urrutia is the president of Mexico's mine workers union. He received the AFL-CIO Kirkland Award in recognition of his brave work, which included accusing the Mexican government of industrial homicide following a mine explosion that killed 65 miners — and whose bodies remain buried. The government retaliated with bogus charges, and he has been forced into de facto exile in Canada.
  • Sister Consuelo Morales, who received the Human Rights Watch’s Alison Des Forges Award for her work in Mexico to defend victims of human rights violations and hold their abusers accountable. She has worked with indigenous communities and street children, and she founded Citizens in Support of Human Rights (CAHDAC) in her native Monterrey.
  • Tita Radilla was granted an award by Peace Brigades International and the Alliance for Lawyers at Risk for her relentless struggle for human rights.She has worked for more than 30 years with the Association of Relatives of Disappeared and Victims of Human Rights Violations (AFADEM), demanding justice for the victims of enforced disappearance in Mexico.

Ted Lewis directs the Mexico Program of Global Exchange. Manuel Perez-Rocha is an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow.
An earlier version of this post ran on Global Exchange's blog.

Gold or Water? A Deadly Debate in El Salvador Mines

August 31, 2011 ·

We are inside a greenhouse, gazing at row after row of hydroponic tomatoes and green peppers, learning why people in this community in northern El Salvador are receiving death threats. We have been sent by The Nation magazine to chronicle the struggle by people here to protect their river from the toxic chemicals of global mining firms intent on realizing massive profits from El Salvador’s rich veins of gold.

Before going to the greenhouse, we spend the morning at the home of Carlos Bonilla, a farmer in his sixties whose handsome face is creased with the wisdom, suffering, and joy of decades of struggles for justice. Over a delicious meal of local tortillas, vegetables, and chicken, Carlos and a group of eight young people tell us their stories.

“We reject the image of us just as anti-mining. We are for water and a positive future. We want alternatives to feed us, to clothe us.”

These young people run a radio station, Radio Victoria, where they broadcast to a growing audience across this mountainous terrain. They tell us about giving air time to local leaders who, beginning seven years ago, found themselves facing a new threat: Mining firms, granted permits to explore for gold in the watershed of the great Lempa River (which supplies water to over half the country’s 6.2 million people), entered these communities with promises of jobs and prosperity.

Gold is now selling for more than $1500 an ounce. Local organizer Vidalina Morales tells us: “Initially, we thought mining was good and it was going to help us out of poverty…through jobs and development.”

But, then, a strange thing happened. A stream dried up near the exploration wells that a Canadian firm, Pacific Rim, was digging. Concerned, Vidalina and other activists traveled to nearby Honduras to meet with members of communities where large mining projects were already underway. They returned with grisly stories of cyanide poisoning the soil and water (cyanide is used to separate the gold from the surrounding rock), and people in mining areas suffering skin diseases and other ailments.

This wasn't what they wanted, especially near the Lempa River. Local people in northern El Salvador began to organize against the mining firms. First, they linked up with other groups across this province of Cabañas to coordinate opposition. Next, they found allies in other provinces and in the capital San Salvador, and they formed a National Roundtable on Mining. After discussion and debate, the Roundtable decided that the only way to save their vital water source was to organize for a national ban on gold and other metals mining. 

Then, they tell us, the death threats began. Some came as anonymous phone calls, some as untraceable text messages, some as people were stopped by men in cars. In June 2009, a dynamic local cultural leader, Marcelo Rivera, disappeared; his body was found in the bottom of a well, with signs of torture reminiscent of the bloody civil war that convulsed this region in the 1980s. 

Half a year later, two other people opposed to mining were gunned down. One was eight-months pregnant and held her two-year old in her arms when she was murdered. Then, two months ago, a college student volunteer with the Environmental Committee of Cabañas, Juan Francisco Duran, was found dead, two bullet holes to his head. He was last seen in Cabañas putting up anti-mining posters.

In this poor country, where mining firms have spread around a great deal of money and promises, people are getting threatened and killed.

As we travel the remote roads of Cabañas with Vidalina and others here, we are struck by how their aspirations are not unlike those of people we have met in the Philippines, Trinidad, and even the United States. They want healthy food and safe drinking water for their kids. They want a vibrant local economy that provides good jobs and livelihoods. They do not want giant firms, unaccountable to them, determining their futures.

Yet in this poor country, where mining firms have spread around a great deal of money and promises, people are getting threatened and killed. 

Carlos, Vidalina, Marcelo, Juan Francisco… ordinary people taking extraordinary actions as they protect their water and their democracy. And, in this case, there are simple things that people elsewhere can do to support this struggle for water over gold. To share just one: The Committee in Support of the People of El Salvador (CISPES) is asking people to write the Attorney General of El Salvador to demand a thorough investigation into the killings to find not only the killers but also the “intellectual authors” - the masterminds - behind their actions.    

Our next blog will offer another chapter in this story, the fight to get the national Salvadoran government to support the proposed mining ban. And, a subsequent blog will move to the global level of this fight, as U.S. and Canadian mining firms use “free trade” agreements to bring legal cases against El Salvador in international courts. 

As we leave Carlos’s house that day and visit the greenhouse and communal farm lands, Vidalina entreats us not to write about their struggle as simply a defensive one: “We reject the image of us just as anti-mining. We are for water and a positive future. We want alternatives to feed us, to clothe us.”

This article was originally published in Yes! Magazine

Crossing the Lexicon

May 14, 2011 ·

Osama bin Laden's demise raises many moral, legal, political, and historical questions. As I've edited and posted a steady stream of commentary about this post-9/11 milestone, one persistent editorial question has touched on all these issues.

Specifically, which verbs are appropriate for conveying what U.S. Special Forces did to carry out their mission after they burst into the al-Qaeda leader's Pakistani compound? Did they simply kill bin Laden? Murder him? Assassinate him? Execute him?

Most Americans consider Osama bin Laden a dangerous and evil man. With so many of us feeling that the world is better off without him, few are questioning the legality of the operation that ended his life. As a former New Yorker who lives in Arlington, VA, it's easy for me to relate. I was already at work in a downtown DC newsroom on September 11, 2001 when those planes flew into the twin towers and the Pentagon, and several years earlier my daily commute required me to change trains underneath the World Trade Center. I still wince whenever I glance at the Manhattan skyline. Yet, as an editor committed both to accuracy and to speaking truth to power, I need to probe this issue carefully.

One of the dictionary definitions of assassination is "to murder (a usually prominent person) by sudden or secret attack often for political reasons." The Saudi-born terrorist certainly was killed at home, and he was killed for reasons that could easily be described as "political." However, Merriam-Webster defines "murder" as "the crime of unlawfully killing a person especially with malice aforethought." That's more problematic because it raises another question: did the U.S. government commit a crime by killing bin Laden?

This is no abstract concept. In the 1970s, Congress delved into the issue following years of CIA covert operations that relied on assassination as a foreign policy tool. (Fidel Castro survived the CIA's attempts to kill him by, among other things, trying to get him to smoke a toxic cigar. The U.S. government was complicit in the killing of Patrice Lumumba, the democratically elected leader of what's now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.) Ultimately, President Gerald Ford, under pressure from lawmakers in the wake of the Church Committee's findings about those CIA activities, barred the unseemly practice with an executive order. Subsequent U.S. presidents renewed the order, except for George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who rejected this restriction in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

This hard question is getting short shrift in the mainstream media. The Washington Post, for example, merely explained that certain killings are "exempt from the assassination law" by quoting legal adviser to the State Department Harold Koh. A former dean of the Yale Law School and a prominent expert on international human rights, Koh claimed in March 2010 that "the use of lawful weapons systems — consistent with the applicable laws of war — for precision targeting of specific high-level belligerent leaders when acting in self-defense or during an armed conflict is not unlawful…And hence does not constitute 'assassination.'"

Human Rights First appears to support Koh's view. Responding to claims by Omar bin Laden that his father's killing violated international law, the group states that "assuming the existence of an armed conflict against al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden was targetable."

Some prominent progressives, meanwhile, have raised strong questions about the framework embraced by Koh and Human Rights First. Marjorie Cohn, a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and a former National Lawyers Guild president, says that "extrajudicial executions are unlawful, even in armed conflict." Noam Chomsky calls the operation that ended bin Laden's life a "political assassination."

Center for Constitutional Rights president Michael Ratner finds that the fluctuating set of "facts" about "the circumstances of bin Laden's killing indicate that the order to the Navy SEALs was to kill, although with all the changes in the story we cannot be sure." It's a key distinction. "Such an order to kill, whether bin Laden or others killed by drones in Pakistan, is likely contrary to international law and could constitute summary execution," Ratner told me in an email.

Referencing the same ambiguities, AlterNet's Joshua Holland helpfully unpacks the competing arguments, variously rooted in international and U.S. domestic law, and concludes:

What's clear is that people on both sides of the debate have had an emotional reaction to bin Laden's death. They're embracing as fact whatever claims support their reactions, and selecting only those sources of law that lend credence to their previously held assumptions.

So, it seems, reasonable people, including progressives, can disagree. What do you think? Please weigh in by commenting below or posting your opinions on the IPS Facebook page.

Emily Schwartz Greco, the managing editor of OtherWords, an Institute for Policy Studies editorial service that provides bold opinions for newspapers and new media.

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