Tag Archives: human rights

Sarkozy ousts more Romas

As French President Nicolas Sarkozy deports another round of Romas, he is becoming increasingly entrenched in a hell of his own making. Calls of condemnation have poured in from the European Commission, while human rights organizations are calling Sarkozy’s actions an attempt to purify French culture, much like the Nazis did during World War II.

Much of the debate centers around the fact that most of the Romas – or gypsies – in France come from Romania and Bulgaria, which entered the European Union in 2007. As the European Commission explains on its website:

“There are between 10 million and 12 million Roma in the EU, in candidate countries and potential candidate countries in the Western Balkans. Roma people living in the European Union are EU citizens and have the same rights as any other EU citizen.”

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The reasoning behind Sarkozy’s deportations are shady at best, and an example of ethnic cleansing at their worst. He claims that Romas are only contributing to more prostitution, crime and violence in the country, and are a burden to the already overloaded social welfare system.

Regardless of the merits of these claims, Sarkozy is in a pickle. Not only are Romas EU citizens, but their wandering lifestyle is protected. As stated by French law, towns of a certain size are required to designate an area specifically for traveling folk and gypsies – or “gens du voyage” – where families have access to schools, churches, and medical and shopping facilities. While some of the people living in these camps are regular French-born citizens in search of a more adventurous way of life, an increasing number are from Eastern Europe.

Sarkozy is no doubt well-versed in French law, but much like Bush’s embarrassing Weapons of Mass Destruction campaign, is trying to pull the wool over our eyes. Perhaps it is his attempt to distract everyone from his very poorly-received retirement bill that recently passed, which will up the retiring age from 60 to 62 by 2018. Or maybe he’s still trying to disentangle himself from the whole Bettencourt affair, where he and his ministries seemed to have taken part in, or at least known about, the L’Oreal heiress’ massive tax evasions.

Or maybe Sarkozy is just trying to implement the most outlandish and shocking new laws before he is ousted from office in April 2012, which he is sure to be. In any case, the French president should plan to feel the wrath of not only his countrymen but of the international community in the days to come.

The things we do for freedom

In honor of the Human Rights Festival currently showing in Paris, I’d like to tell the stories of a few of my immigrant friends in France. As immigration laws get tighter in France and around the world, it’s worth considering their human effects. One must ask, what makes one human more worthy of rights than another? Are country borders more important than saving a human soul? Before we write a law restricting access to those in need, we must realize that in fact every person’s needs are the same, regardless of nationality: clean water and food, decent housing, education, medical care, etc. Governments must reconcile the need of those within their country borders and those who arrive seeking help.

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Mila is Serbian. She came to France 11 years ago with her Serbian husband, who worked in construction. She soon found work in a local grocery store, learned the language and integrated into society. Three years later, she and her husband divorced. She chose to stay in France, and had no problem renewing her visa. All she did when she moved houses following the divorce, was to go to the prefecture to change her address. Her new visa arrived soon after with the same status, even though now she had no links to France, besides having lived in the country for three years. At the time, her country was in the throngs of war – this may be the only reason she was not sent back home. Now, when she goes back to Serbia, she is disgusted by the prices in the clothing and shoe shops. The Serbian economy is no pitiful that an average salary is the equivalent to 150 euros a month. Yet, the prices in the shops are the same as in France. The distance between the rich and the poor is growing, and finding jobs is nearly impossible. Mila’s father has been out of work for 10 years, after the plant where he worked closed. He has since not been able to find work. Mila’s mother has never worked. Thus, every month, Mila sends part of her paycheck home to help her family survive.

Palden is Tibetan. He was born in India and has never been to Tibet. However, he was born with and always has had “refugee” status in India, given no passport but a special travel pass instead. Unlike France or America, one cannot be born into a nationality there. Your nationality is predetermined and the line between Indian and otherwise is strictly separated. For this reason, Palden came to France to find work, to leave his refugee status behind and to make a new life for himself as a French citizen. Once here, he had to stay mum on his life in India. If discovered, he would be sent back. After all, why would a Tibetan need to escape India? He is not in danger there, it is a safe haven. However, he will never have full Indian rights, so he has come to France. Thus, he says he was born in Tibet, speaks a few lines of Chinese at his visa appointment, and is given a French visa for two years before he can apply for citizenship. Once he receives it, he is free to travel anywhere in the world, in particular, Tibet. He can finally return to his unfamiliar homeland and use his knowledge from the Western world to make change in Tibet.

Tsering is also Tibetan. She was born in Tibet. When she was 18, she crossed the mountains with a friend to escape to India. The pair spent a month on foot, through dense snow and freezing temperatures, living off tsampa – patties made of flour and butter tea. They arrived in India, only to find the living conditions far less desirable than expected. Not only were they strangers in a strange land, but they had to adjust to the toxic water, polluted air and new food. The girls were often sick. They couldn’t find work and couldn’t speak Hindi or English. Eventually, they were fed up. They made the decision to go back to Tibet, fulling knowing what this meant: spending another month crossing back over those same mountains into Tibet, where Chinese police would most likely arrest them and put them in jail for 3 to 6 months. They might be tortured, they might not be. But at least they could see their friends and families again.

David is from Chad. His country has been in war on and off for ten years. After graduating from high school, he went to university in Cameroon. He also spent some time in Nigeria learning English. He decided to further his studies in France, where he was soon met with a visa nightmare. Because his country is at war on and off, he is constantly waiting it out, constantly wondering if he will be sent back home the minute peace breaks through for a few hopeful days. In the meantime, he is considered an “asylum seeker.” What he really wants is “refugee” status. At least this way, he will be on the fast track for citizenship or a more stable visa status. As things are now, he has to renew his asylum seeker visa every three months. He can never settle and never feel like he is moving in a linear, forward direction. The word “precarious” comes to mind. So does the word “stress.”

I read an article in Le Monde the other day about two Afghan men who decided to escape their war-torn country to come to London. Thus began a heroic, 6-month adventure halfway across the world. One man sold his taxi upon leaving in order to have enough money for the trip, the other quit his job. Both men spent approximately 17,000 dollars to pay traffickers to help them cross the borders of Iran, Turkey, Greece, Italy, then France. They were Calais, on their way to London (and thinking they were scot free) when they were found by police while sleeping in an abandoned house. The French police told them they’d be alright, that they wouldn’t be kicked out of the country. But upon arriving at the airport (even under the police’s pretext that they would be allowed to stay) they were hustled onto an airplane and sent home to Kabul. Once there, they found that their families had rejected them for having left. Their jobs were gone, they had no home and they now owed traffickers nearly 20,000 dollars each. They did all of this for freedom, making it to the last leg of their trip before meeting an untimely end in France, a country they trusted to provide them safe harbor. As one of the men mentioned to police, they were simply passing through France, not staying indefinitely. So why did the French police expel them?

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And my own story. I worked in Marseille from 2003-2005 as an English assistant. I came back to France in 2008 as a “jeune professionnelle,” which can be loosely translated into “paid intern.” I intended to stay for 18 months and hoped to stay for longer. I worked for a newspaper in Southwest France, run by a vicious alcoholic who polluted our work environment on a daily basis. Over half of the staff were clinically depressed. Eight months later, the business went under and we all got laid off. I found myself in a foreign country, alone and unemployed. When it came time to renew my visa, I did so as an unemployed citizen. My renewal was accepted. I was paid monthly installments to keep me afloat while I looked for a new job. After 8 months of searching, I found a teaching job in Paris. My visa has always said “salariee,” which means I am allowed to work in any capacity in France. However, when I tried to renew my visa this past February, it was rejected, on the grounds that as a “jeune professionnelle,” I had overstayed my welcome in France and had worked illegally for my current employer. I now have one month to do an appeal of the DDTE’s decision and if it doesn’t go through, I am expected to drop my entire life and jump on a plane back home. After a total of four years here, I speak the language almost perfectly, I pay French taxes, I have a full-time CDI (timeline undetermined) work contract – I don’t ask anyone for anything. Yet I am being told to leave.

I tell these stories because when we watch the nightly news or pick up a newspaper, we rarely hear the personal stories behind immigration. All we hear are the talking heads and their impressions of current laws. Perhaps if these same lawmakers took a few moments to listen to what is really going on around them, none of us would be in this mess. I cross our fingers for all of us.

Say it ain’t so – disbelief over Briton Shaikh’s execution

Britain is outraged. Akmal Shaikh’s family is outraged. I’m joining the outrage.

On Tuesday, the Briton Akmal Shaikh was put to death in China for smuggling 8.8 pounds of heroin in a flight from Tajikistan to Xinjiang last year. He didn’t kill anyone, he didn’t threaten to destabilise the Chinese government, he wasn’t out in the streets defaming Mao – he just tried to rope in a whole lot of cash for a whole lot of dope.

Dope. Illegal powder. Powder that, when caught in doses of more than 50 grams at one time, is grounds for the death penalty in China for the person carrying it.

I’m not denying that Shaikh didn’t know the rules or that he didn’t, in fact, break them (he obviously did). I’m more concerned that this rule exists in the first place.

How does China justify killing someone over drug smuggling? My brain just doesn’t register the logic. For killing another human being – yes. Or for terrorist plots against a nation – check. But selling some white stuff that will get you high? Nope. I don’t get it. It’s yet one more area where China has a long way to go in terms of human rights.

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I remember when I was in junior high and heard a rumor about a country somewhere that cut people’s hands off for stealing (part of Shariah Islamic law, incidentally). I was horrified, but somewhere deep inside, I decided that while it was awfully harsh, the crime there must at least be strictly minimized.

While now that I’m all grown up i do see flaws in that plan, it’s true that the punishment, if nothing else, fits the crime. There are reasons why parts of Islamic law say it is necessary to cut off one’s hands for stealing – it prevents the thief from ever stealing again, keeping all the rest of us safe. Yes, it is inhumane, but it somehow makes sense.

China’s law of the death penalty over drug smuggling doesn’t. If we apply a tit for tat policy, Akmal Shaikh should have been forced to smoke up a massive amount of that heroin for a month, then quit cold turkey. Is this inhumane? Maybe. But at least it applies some kind of reasoning. Killing him outright goes from A to Z without addressing the missing letters.

In truth, I’m against the inhumane treatment of anyone, including the world’s most serious offenders. In my world, I wouldn’t instate the death penalty at all. Prisons would still exist, but they’d be centers of reform with teams of psychiatrists working around the clock to ensure that criminals would be out in a few years and back to leading a normal, socially-acceptable life.

Unfortunately, until I become president, our current world governments will have to figure out other ways of keeping each other safe within the established infrastructures while maintaining some essence of human rights. Ordering an execution for a little white powder – or even a lot – isn’t getting us, as a people, anywhere.

Human rights on the line: Obama snubs Dalai Lama and meets with Chinese president

I find it interesting that Obama, the man who speaks loathingly about torture, who caused a cafuffle over Guantanamo and denounced Iran’s violent crackdown on protesters last June, is now seemingly devoid of emotion toward human rights abuses caused by China.

The most recent photos of President Barack Obama have him not sitting white-scarved and smiling with the Dalai Lama like most U.S. presidents before him, but shaking hands with Chinese President Hu Jintao. Sure, Obama has every right to meet with the leader of this swiftly developing nation, but the wounds are still fresh from last month when, during the Dalai Lama’s visit to the U.S., President Obama canceled their planned meeting and postponed it to a still unidentified date.

On November 17, Obama and Jintao met to discuss environmental issues and what Obama calls their shared “burden of leadership” (as he put it to a forum of students in Shanghai). The two talked, shook hands like old friends and agreed in advance not to talk about the sticky issues.

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If anyone still remembers, Obama recently won the Nobel Peace Prize. As shocked as I am over this development, I would think that his top advisors, if not the man himself, would want to protect that award and prove to us naysayers that he does indeed deserve it. Slapping butts with the Chinese president – who recently allowed the execution of two Tibetans who participated in the deadly protests against Chinese oppression in Tibet last year – won’t get Obama any closer to winning international approval on his ability to make equal rights a priority. Especially when the Dalai Lama is a fellow Nobel prize winner himself.

The Times of India had this to say on October 6, before the Jintao/Obama meeting even took place:

“The loud sucking noise you hear? That’s President Barack Obama kissing up to the Chinese.

At least that’s what supporters of the Dalai Lama would have you believe after the U.S President passed up a meeting with the Tibetan leader in Washington D.C. this week – ostensibly to not offend Beijing ahead of Obama’s visit to China next month.

It’s the first time in ten visits to the U.S. in 18 years that the Dalai Lama has failed to meet with the American president. The political and diplomatic slight to the man widely admired in the US has brought forth a volley of criticism against Obama, hitherto hailed a champion of human rights.”

The China-Tibet issue is not the only tolerance card Obama has left undealt. He has yet to ban CIA-organized “extraordinary renditions” – in which suspected terrorists are abducted and shipped offshore, interrogated and usually tortured – despite his supposed opposition to the use of coercive cross-examination techniques.

In fact, Obama’s softening backbone also seems to apply to his definition of torture and consequences for those who practice it. His condemnation of waterboarding last year ended in a retraction to press charges against CIA officials who had employed the tactic. He claims that instead of rehashing the past – and squabbling over wrongs committed by the Bush administration – he and his team were better off focusing their energy on the future. That’s all fine and dandy, except that it sets a mean precedent: if Bush’s authorization of torture was acceptable based on legal rationale, then what is stopping Obama’s administration from following suit?

I don’t doubt that Obama, the man, is against torture, is pro-human rights, is looking out for the genuine good will of every man, woman and child in America. Behind all the media and PR hype, there is a strong, intelligent, liberal and effective man who deserves to be leader, president, Nobel prize holder (perhaps).

But without some of that early grit and resolve that made so many vote for Obama, he’s bound to lose his head among the many self-serving and manipulative world leaders hoping to profit from his hyper-egalitarian nature. And there’s simply nothing human or right about that.

UNTV looks at Paraguay’s mental health crisis

I just watched a clip on CNN international/UNTV about two young men, Julio and Jorge, in Paraguay who were locked up for years in a psychiatric institution. They’ve got autism and because of this, receive no treatment for their illnesses and are shut away from society like unruly, wild animals.

The images shown in the video left me with a grimace, furrowed brow and a sick feeling in my stomach. They showed the two men in their cells, completely naked, where they lived all alone for 23 hours a day, in the same space where they defecated and urinated. One clip shows a nurse feeding Julio with a spatula through the bars of the cell like a circus tiger.

I don’t think you need to be a gung-ho activist to see that this is an enormous violation of human rights. Apparently Paraguay doesn’t have the money to provide for cases like this, and sadly many impoverished countries are stuck in the same situation, with no resources or humane options for the mentally ill. Parents, poor and desperate, turn to the government who then put the children into these prison-like conditions.

Here are some quotes from Alison Hillman, a Mental Disability Rights International lawyer who discovered the two men and has worked to get them out of their predicament:

“They were both detained in tiny isolation cells that might have been 6 feet by 6 feet in size, naked, without access to bathrooms; they slept and ate and resided in the very same space that they defecated and urinated.  They were taken out of their cells to be hosed off.

“… We’ve found really the same conditions everywhere.  The same conditions of isolation, seclusion, segregation from the community and when you have a locked institution, whether it’s an orphanage or a psychiatric hospital or a prison ward, you find abuse, neglect, children tied to beds.  When people are locked away from society, they’re really invisible.”

Jorge’s mother said that the institution told her that her son was of no use to society and needed to be locked away. But, they told her, she could visit him whenever she liked. How sweet.

There’s much more to the story but I don’t want to give it all away. You can download the video onto Real Player here:


And to think we have been wasting the last few days getting Sarah Palin, Arnold Schwarzenegger and others’ opinions on Obama’s mild crack about the Special Olympics when important things like this are actually going on in the world. Geez.

Time to untie the headband, Tenzin

Yes, I call myself a Tibet sympathiser. But then why do I find myself getting increasingly more angry with the Tibetan people? While my thoughts on the subject have lay dormant for several months, my frustration was reignited today when I clicked on the Facebook page of Tenzin Tsundue, the well-known activist who lives his life in the same dingy red bandanna and black sweatshirt and promises to continue doing so until Tibet is free. 

Right now, on Facebook, my friend Dan “is hating wisdom teeth!!!”, while Sinoun “thinks liberals make better lovers.” But nothing trivial for Tenzin, oh no. This is a serious, driven guy who has a one-track mind for Tibet. Having met him in Dharamsala, India as well as for an interview in Minneapolis, his fight for Tibet’s freedom is felt in his every breath and step. On his Facebook page, for what he is “doing right now”, he has written, “Tsundue is joining the all-Tibetan 12hr fasting in Dharamsala today for freedom in Tibet, will think about the dead and the imprisoned and reflect on past actions.”

While I do respect his choice to honor the dead (because even I don’t have the guts to put him down for that), I cannot see the point of any of this nonsense. I am a pacifist and wouldn’t condone a violent approach by the Tibetans (especially when we can see from months ago that this did not work well with the Chinese regime or their staunch sense of pride), but what real, tactical problems does fasting tackle for a people that have been suffering for some fifty years?

Tenzin Tsundue

The man in the red bandanna: Tenzin Tsundue

 What the Tibetans need is a big dose of reality. Let’s take the environment for example. Does anyone remember the name of that woman who built an adult-sized treehouse and lived in it for a year in order to protect her favorite green, leafy vegetable? Or how about those hundreds of people who swore they’d never eat beef again because the production was causing such destruction to the world’s rainforests?

Yeah, me neither. But ask anyone around the world who Al Gore is and what advancements he’s managed to make in the name of environmental protection and the list is tantamount. The issue here is not looking at things as they should be, but how they are. It would certainly be very flowery and nice to say that peace activists should be able to tie a dirty bandanna around their foreheads and have it make a palpable difference. But this is not real life. In life, you just end up with a zitty forehead and 50% of the population thinking you’re an amazing pioneer and the other 50% thinking you’re crazy, while things tiredly remain the same.

If Tenzin – and all the other Tibetan protesters around the world (including myself, because I wouldn’t have spent 3 months living and working with the Tibetan people of India or working as a journalist in their community in Minneapolis, if I didn’t give a !Ø%$! about the cause) want to truly make effective change within Tibet and China, they need to get their butts to college and get into POLITICS.

I know, I don’t like politics either. Many people have an aversion to it. But the reality of today is, change is in the politics. Just as Al Gore has significantly changed the way the world views the environment, Tibetan scholars have the potential to work with China on Sino-Tibetan relations. But where are the Tibetans?

Lobsang Sangay, renowned in the Tibetan community for being the first Tibetan to earn a doctoral degree from Harvard Law School, spoke in Minneapolis a few years ago and offered the same plea: educate yourselves and be the force that this community needs to make real change. Perhaps the community is just getting started, that this next generation will be the one who realizes where the world’s power lies. Because you can wear as many sweaty headbands and spout as many 2nd-grade-level freedom poems as you want, but unless you have the money and smarts as your foundation, you ain’t gonna make it off first base.

Case in point, Tenzin made it all the way to CNN, in an interview with senior correspondent Christiane Amanpour. Forget my piddly little interview in the local Minneapolis papers – he was on CNN. A million people saw that interview, I imagine, but where did it get him? I don’t mean to say that the media plays no role in making change in this world, because there are certain instances where this is true (obviously I wouldn’t be in this business otherwise), but with the Tibetan struggle, where time and again their old tactics have not worked, I am constantly shocked that none of them have gone into politics. 

Tenzin in Minneapolis in 2007

Tenzin in Minneapolis in 2007

My friend was explaining to me that in certain sectors of international politics, like the UN and NATO, China has a representative at every level and the opportunity to block any piece of legislation that doesn’t fit their fancy. So, if, for example, the UNHCR (United Nations Human Rights Council) wants to pass a resolution in favor of Tibetans, there will always be a Chinese representative of the UNHCR to lobby the bill until it stops in its tracks. If it advances to assembly, there are Chinese at every level, ready to block it as well. And if it somehow advances to be debated amongst the security council, those permanent members have ultimate veto power. If a bill does manage to pass, it can be signed with certain conditions so that all rules don’t necessarily have to be adhered to, and basically nothing is set in stone. If you are found to be in violation of a UN resolution, the only punishment is international embarrassment, and often, a mere slap on the hand will do.

So, this means that no matter how many banners Tenzin ties to skyscrapers and no matter how much time he spends fasting, no one is getting past these Chinese diplomats who virtually hold the tiny Tibetan province in their dictatorshipped hands.

But try telling that to any lay Tibetan activist. The concept of doing things the way they should be and not the way they are is too tempting to resist. After all, in the case of Tenzin Tsundue, what is the point of spending those long years at university studying the ins and outs of public policy when you can just tie an old red strip of fabric around your head, scale a tall building with a flag in your hand, and call it “making a difference?”