Rights Wire

The Human Rights Blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice


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Shining a light on human rights abuses in Central Asia

By Zahava Moerdler

As the world focuses its attention on the nuclear deal with Iran and the debt crisis in Greece, many other important issues are left out of the global discourse. In fact, an article about the blatant human rights abuses in Central Asia rarely makes it into the newspaper, let alone onto the front page. Yet, gross injustice and repression persists in the region. Here are some worrisome examples: In Kazakhstan, there is increasing repression of freedom of expression and free media. In Tajikistan, the government persecutes people and groups working on issues such as freedom of expression, religious freedom and political participation. In Kyrgyzstan, while there is a vibrant civil society, some organization are coming under pressure and the parliament is considering two restrictive pieces of legislation: a homophobic “propaganda law” that would restrict freedom of speech and impose penalties for promoting non-traditional sexual relations and a “foreign agents” law that would force groups with foreign funding to register as foreign agents. In Uzbekistan, following the Andijan massacre in 2005, the government cracked down on civil society organizations, imprisoned human rights advocates and evicted international journalists and monitoring groups. Finally, in Turkmenistan, the government employs imprisonment to retaliate against dissenters and refuses to provide information about those imprisoned years ago who have since disappeared.

Despite the lack of media coverage about these issues, there are some in the U.S. government that are still keenly interested in the human rights situation in Central Asia. A recent hearing before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, in which U.S. government representatives laid out a number of their concerns for the region, paints a troublesome picture. First, there seems to be a connection between religious freedom and violent extremism. For example, religious repression correlates with a rise in violent extremism. Robert Berschinski from the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor testified before a Congressional hearing that heavy-handed policies of restricting expression, religion and peaceful gatherings lead to radicalization. This is followed by more restrictive governmental policies, in the hopes of combating extremism. Second, the region lacks meaningful participation in government and a robust opposition, resulting in unhealthy political systems. For example, in Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, who has been in power since 1990, was once again elected in a “predictable landslide victory.” Tajiki elections are neither free nor fair, and media coverage was restricted during the recent elections in Kazakhstan where President Nurzulran Nazabayev was re-elected without any real opposition.

Third, the region has increasingly restricted the work of civil society. In Kyrgyzstan, a law modeled after Russian laws, curtails the effectiveness of civil society groups. Any group receiving foreign funding and involved in political activities would have to register as a “foreign agent.” Additionally, any material published by such groups would have to note that they are distributed by a “non-commercial organization acting as a foreign agent.” In Uzbekistan, journalists are treated deplorably. For example, Muhammod Bekjanov, a journalist, has been imprisoned for 16 years after publishing and editing an opposition newspaper. In Tajikistan, the government has blocked Internet access and restricted freedom of expression. And in Turkmenistan, media censorship and surveillance of journalists is the norm.

One of the most alarming results of the intense human rights repressions across Central Asia is its effect on the radicalization and migration of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq. [This trend was mentioned at the hearing, but it was also something repeatedly brought up in hearings and briefings before various panels on ISIS, Central Asia and Syria] Unfortunately, this has resulted in a negative feedback loop: governments believe that more restrictions are necessary to curb radicalization of their citizens; but more people are radicalized due to these same restrictions.

As these abuses persist in the region, the U.S. and other governments can play a role to curb growing radicalization and human rights abuses. During the hearing, Jeff Goldstein, a senior policy analyst for Eurasia at the Open Society Foundations, argued that the U.S. needs to move resources away from security programs and into governance, education, employment, health care and democratization in the region. He also stressed that there will be no effective reform where there is no will to create it. Therefore, the U.S. must work with movements on the ground in each respective country.

Allison Gill, an expert on Central Asia from Amnesty International, also suggested that the U.S. could take a number of actions specifically concerning Uzbekistan, including: take a leadership role in creating a United Nations report on Uzbekistan’s human rights record; urging the Uzbek government to open the country to independent scrutiny by allowing UN special human rights monitors and ending the restrictions on civil society; calling for the release of all imprisoned journalists and human rights defenders; providing support to Uzbekistan in its effort to amend the Criminal Procedure Code to expressly prohibit torture.

Although the situation in Central Asia seems bleak, there have been some hopeful changes. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have both legislated against child labor in some way, and there is legislation pending to outlaw forced adult labor in Uzbekistan. Additionally, Turkmenistan recently released a number of religious leaders, demonstrating a modicum of religious freedom. These successes show how change is possible in the region. However, Central Asia still has a lot of work to do to promote democracy and freedom of expression, religion and association.

Zahava Moerdler was a 2015 Leitner Center Summer Fellow. She interned with the House Foreign Affairs Committee Democratic Staff.

The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.

Photo credit: Jose Javier Martin Espartosa/Creative Commons


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The uses and abuses of history for both Japan’s government and atomic bomb survivors

By Carolina van der Mensbrugghe

久しぶり、日本。Japan, it has been a while. My seventh time returning to Japan has not rendered me immune to the excitement and anticipation, akin to a homecoming of sorts or reunion with an old friend. As I begin another chapter, comprised of almost a decade’s worth of work, I can’t help but be reminded of how fundamental socio-political and legal questions impacting Japan’s future have changed considerably since I began my undergraduate studies.

Some of my initial questions included: Will Japan reaffirm the US-Japan alliance treaty, or move past it towards a more autonomous security vision? Will Japan uphold or reinterpret Article 9 of its constitution (which renounces war as a sovereign right)? How will these decisions alter Japan’s dynamic with other Asian countries in the region? These question have been largely answered recently, setting the groundwork for historic changes. In July 2014, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, announced a “reinterpretation” of Article 9 to allow for military action with allies. This is a significant departure from the original pacifist meaning, popularly imbued in Article 9 of the 1947 Japanese Constitution, which took a more literal approach to the text’s pledge that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” Public response was seen in extremes, with one man setting himself on fire in central Tokyo in protest. In May 2015, Prime Minister Abe became the first Japanese prime minister to address a joint meeting of Congress. Together with President Obama, he announced a joint vision for security, trade and historical reconciliation between the two allies. New bilateral defense cooperation guidelines were announced, some of which were newly made possible due to the divisive reinterpretation of Article 9 the previous year.

Tangled up in this fundamental question of sovereign military might—an unquestioned afterthought in most developed nations—is Japan’s postwar legacy, which remains an ever present force in contemporary domestic and international politics. How Japan deals with its history, its complex relationship with America, and civilian experience of that lived history, is central to my current work in connection with the Nagasaki City Hall and the Nagasaki Foundation for the Promotion of Peace. Prior to law school, I received a Kathryn Davis Grant to document the lives and stories of atomic bomb survivors in Nagasaki as a project for peace. There, I interacted with and interviewed the Hibakusha, survivors of the atomic bombings. Their stories and experiences are important components of Japanese history that are barely accessible in film and writing, let alone within the United States. More than ever, as the hibakusha pass away, I knew action was required to collect substantial video documentation of the stories of Nagasaki that barely exists.

This summer, I am building upon this work with a team of transcribers and translators that are combing through interviews and hours of footage and testimony. The translated testimonies are beginning to reveal the complexities of humanitarian downfalls in modern warfare and the difficulties of creating legal structures to address postwar civilian ailments. Historian John Dower documents in his book, Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering: Japan in the Modern World, that it was not until 1952, seven years after the atomic bombing and end of the war, that the Japanese government began to extend special assistance to bomb victims. This decision, he says, was due in part to censorship of Nagasaki photographs and testimony, sanitized reporting of the approximately 75,000 deaths in Nagasaki and a desire to move past a visible reminder of the horrors of war.

This delay in aid had terrible consequences. While reading interview transcripts this summer, I am sitting in Espresso D Works, a New York-style hipster café enclave, hidden in ex-pat haven Ebisu, Tokyo. As I continue to sift through my translations, I come across my interview with Sakue Shimohira, age ten at the time of the bombing. Ms. Shimohira has dedicated her life to sharing her story in hopes that future generations remember the past, deepen their empathy towards others, and work toward “the dream of peace.” Her interview breaks down the results of aid-delay in shockingly personal terms:

Before, those injured by the bomb would come together and ask for reparations to cover the medical expenses of their injuries, but they didn’t get any money, and all died. Many people couldn’t bear the pain, and committed suicide. My younger sister committed suicide. Her stomach was infested with maggots [a common side effect as the result of open wounds from exposure to the atomic blast]. At night, it was too dark in the room to remove them. In the morning, I told her to get up so that I could pluck out the maggots, but they were already deep in her flesh. They writhed and fell out in droves. My sister wanted me to commit suicide with her, but since I had been fortunate enough to survive the bomb, I said that I wanted to continue to live, on behalf of my mother and other deceased family. The Hisaisha Kyogikai was [later] established in 1956 for these atomic bomb survivors. With the establishment of the organization, we continued to appeal to the government for support, but they told us to be patient, and offered no help. A lot of people couldn’t afford to go to the hospital, and died.

My concentration is broken by a barista, who approaches and asks me in Japanese whether I like Nagasaki while pointing to a book sharing the same title at my side. I respond with a short explanation of why I am here in Japan and the work I am doing this summer. Surprised by my response, the barista thanks me and remarks that I am “so Japanese” for doing this. This is not an atypical response I receive from Japanese people, many who find it surprising an American would take interest in this history and become so involved. Nevertheless, I find it surprising given that the hibakusha experiences are not isolated, but rather a unique example in an array of cases in the developed world where governments struggle to develop legal structures for victim compensation (including the recent natural and nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan).

This summer marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Jennifer Mason from the Brookings Institute predicts that Prime Minister Abe will be under added intense scrutiny from the United States and Japan’s Asian neighbors, as he prepares for his August 15 speech commemorating this historical landmark. During a tense and rapidly changing time of nationalism in Asia, the uses and abuses of history continue to pervade. However, as John Dower reflects—and I must agree—most of these particular historical considerations leave out the fate of the nuclear victims themselves and yet they are inseparable. I will be traveling to Nagasaki shortly to document these important memorial events as they unfold. Nagasaki City Hall has graciously granted me press access to document some of the key political and educational events surrounding this anniversary. With newfound political importance, I look forward to the historical and personal narratives that will be delivered in favor of reconciliation and memory of these events, as well as what this may mean for the near future.

Carolina van der Mensbrugghe is a 2015 Leitner Center Summer Fellow. She is conducting an independent project documenting the stories of atomic bomb survivors in Nagasaki, Japan with help from the Nagasaki Foundation for the Promotion of Peace and Nagasaki City Hall.

The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.

Photo credit: Carolina van der Mensbrugghe