Human Rights Day 2012: Are you more Paul McCartney or John Lennon?

When I was about twelve years old I saw a documentary on The Beatles that had an interview with their producer George Martin. When it came explaining the way the song “Getting Better” came to be, he said that McCartney was always the one who saw the positive in anything, hence the title. Lennon, on the other hand, had a sardonic wit about him that took the notion of “getting better” and turned it on its head. That’s why in the song you hear McCartney saying “It’s getting better all the time,” followed by Lennon’s “It can’t get no worse.”

The end of the year is always a ripe time to take stock on anything, from personal goals to the state of the world. Today also happens to be International Human Rights Day, and as much as I’d like to think things are more McCartney-like “getting better” in terms of the respect, protection and fulfillment of human rights across the globe, I have to lean Lennon-wise and wonder if it “cant’ get no worse.”

I took a look at a post I wrote last year at this time, Dear Santa, here’s my human rights Xmas wish list and not much on the list was granted. To sum up: 
  • I wanted the Canadian government to at least be smarter, and I have seen no evidence to support this. If anything, the Harper government has gone out of its way to ignore the rights of First Nations people, minorities, and women (feel free to add “etc.”), while dismissing any organization brave enough to stand up for environmental rights. They basically said screw off to the United Nations when the Special Rapporteur on the right to food knocked on our door earlier this year, and their bombastic language of “retaliation” against Palestinians for asking for non-member observer status at the UN is disgracefully un-Canadian.
  • I wanted Bashar al-Assad to be removed from Syria. Santa didn’t do good on that. My Xmas note pointed out that 5,000 people had been killed by December 21 2011; now we’re up to 40,000 and possibly the use of chemical weapons sometime soon. I really don’t want to write “get rid of al-Assad” on my Xmas list next year.
  • While on the subject of nutty leaders, I asked Santa to do something about President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe (he didn’t) and President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen (Santa did listen; the guy’s gone).
  • I asked for reforms in the political system in Bahrain, where a friend of mine has been jailed since April 2011 and sentenced to life in prison. He’s still there, and dammit Santa, another friend is now in the slammer for tweeting. For tweeting. I mean, come on.
  • I wanted police in Egypt to be a little nicer with peaceful protesters. The police were nice for a while, but then again there were fewer protests. Now they’ve flared up because the new president, Mohamed Morsi wanted to add sweeping powers to his authority. Dude, this is why the country cried foul in the first place.
  • The Occupy movement needed a bit of leadership. Which movement?

I had 12 requests for Santa on my list, and apart from getting rid of Yemen’s president, the only other thing Santa delivered on was a white Christmas. I’d have reason to be pissed off if I were a kid wishing for these things.
So this year I won’t draw up a list of things-I’d-Like-Santa-to-do-but-I-know-he-won’t. But I need to hear it’s getting better. After a law was pushed in Uganda urging the death penalty for gays (can’t get no worse), the death penalty clause was dropped (it’s getting better), but the damn law is still there (not good). As Palestinians gain observer non-member status at the UN (getting better), the Israelis announce new settlements in violation of international human rights law (can’t get no worse). As the Rohingya people continue to suffer human rights violations in Myanmar (can’t get no worse), Aung San Suu Kyi needs to respond more forcefully about what’s happening (still waiting for it to get better). As journalists, activists, scientists and just about anybody find themselves unlawfully detained in countries like Iran (can’t get no worse), there needs to be more people ready to speak up and voice their anger at states that disregard human rights obligations (getting better). A young girl gets shot in the head in Pakistan by the Taliban for promoting girls’ right to education (can’t get no worse), but she survived and sparked an even stronger worldwide movement to make her dream a reality (getting better). As individuals, groups and states perpetuate hatred, ignorance and inequality to justify their human rights violations and abuses through misinterpretation and distortion of religion and culture (can’t get no worse), there needs to be a growing presence of people on a global scale –from all cultures, ages, ethnicities, abilities, sexual orientation, and plenty of other things that make us human – who fight against them and take a stand to say, “This isn’t right” (getting better).  In an era when anyone with a good internet connection can learn about human rights violations taking place in their own backyard or in a land they’ve never visited, there should not be an excuse not to act, whether you choose to be part of Amnesty’s letter writing campaign, sign any one of Avaaz’s petitions, or those from CIVICUS or FrontLine Defenders.  Those are small steps, and most take no more time than checking your latest Facebook feed or playing a round or two of Angry Birds.

Celebrating human rights and ensuring their enjoyment is a lot more than signing a petition to free a prisoner in a repressive country. It’s about recognizing how deeply human rights are part of our lives and how their realization help shape the lives of individuals, groups, communities, and entire societies.  The theme for this year’s celebration of Human Rights Day is “My Voice Counts.” As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, stated in remarks to celebrate the occasion: “Millions of people have gone on to the streets over the past few years, some demanding civil and political rights, others demanding economic, social and cultural rights. This groundswell is not simply a question of people demanding freedom to say what they think. They have been asking for much more than that. They have been asking for their right to participate fully in the important decisions and policies affecting their daily lives. That means not only the democratic processes, but also the key economic decisions that can have such a huge impact on individuals, families, and even entire groups and nations.”
Happy Human Rights Day to you all. Maybe things are getting better.
P.S. Santa: Don’t forget what I said about al-Assad. 

Top 20 depressing facts to mark 100 days of a hunger strike for freedom

Abdulhadi al-Khawaja has spent 100 days on his hunger strike for freedom. Here are my top 20 depressing facts to mark this grim milestone:
  1. He’s innocent.
  2. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report identified reforms the government was supposed to undertake but hasn’t, otherwise he’d be free.
  3. He never should have been tried in a military court.
  4. He never should have been sentenced to life in prison for managing a terrorist organization. He was co-founder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. It’s unclear how “terrorist” and “human rights” get mixed up so badly.
  5. Even after a new civil trial was recently announced, he should have been released on humanitarian grounds.
  6. A retrial in civil court should have happened a year ago.
  7. As for #6: Not really, because he shouldn’t have been arrested in the first place.
  8. Apart from being a citizen of Bahrain, he’s also a Danish citizen and should have been released a long time ago as a result.
  9. He’s been drugged, tied to a bed, and force-fed in order to be kept alive.
  10. He was tortured after his arrest in April 2011.
  11. He was tortured on other occasions as well.
  12. He’s a nice guy. I can vouch for him, I’ve known him for years.
  13. The Bahraini government continues its crackdown on protesters.
  14. Hundreds of innocent civilians have been unlawfully detained in Bahrain since the protests began in February 2011. Many others like Abdulhadi have been handed harsh sentences, even for helping injured protesters. If you don’t buy that, read Amnesty’s report.
  15. The government arrested his friend Nabeel Rajab, who has been a critic of the government but has maintained the necessity for peaceful, non-violent protests.
  16. The government arrested his daughter more than once, and she’s still sitting in jail.
  17. After 100 days on a hunger strike, force-fed or not, there will come a point sooner rather than later when his health will become critical and he may die.
  18. He is a pain to the Bahraini government. But the government knows the country will implode if he dies in their custody, so as much they hate him, they need to keep him alive.
  19. If he dies, people will be galvanized into further action to claim their rights. If he lives, chances are the same will happen. Sounds like a win-win scenario for human rights, even though one option means he sacrifices himself, an act he is committed to undertaking.
  20. Thousands of people in Bahrain, citizens from around the world, representatives of governments and non-governmental organizations have called for his release. Is there really something we’re not seeing here?

Let freedom reign. The sun never set on so glorious a human achievement.
– Nelson Mandela

A letter to my sons: one friend’s sacrifice

Dear Alexandre, Dear Sam,


After the battle at Hogwart’s Castle in the final Harry Potter novel, there comes a point when Harry chooses to confront Lord Voldemort on his own in the forest. He knows he will likely die, but it’s a decision he feels he must take because too many of his friends have suffered and died protecting him. Harry makes the ultimate sacrifice, and for a brief time, we do think he has died.


I have a friend who is making a sacrifice that is not all that different than what Harry chose to do. He has seen his friends, family and people he does not know suffer as a result of fighting for their rights. He himself was arrested, tortured, and sentenced to life in prison last year only because he asked for these rights. His sentence was unfair and criticized the world over, yet still he remains in jail. About a couple of months ago he came to a decision that would, in one way or another, end his sentence: he would either be set free or die. He chose to stop eating, and has not eaten anything for the past 76 days. The people who put him away have no intention of letting him go.


He did nothing wrong. Like me, he has fought for the rights of others, but he has done so in a country where human rights are selectively applied: some people have rights, while others who protest against the government risk getting arrested, hurt by the police, killed or sent to prison.


There are a lot of people in his country, Bahrain, who are trying to set him free. His wife, his daughters, his friends and former colleagues have all tried to let the world know that his life sentence is unfair. And he’s not the only one: many other people are also facing the same fate as him, all because they demanded the government to respect the rights of the people living there.


It’s hard to imagine that something like this can actually be true. This is the kind of stuff Lord Voldermort would do to Harry Potter and his friends. The only difference is that this is real, and there won’t be anyone around to wave a magic wand and zap my friend free. The people in Bahrain asking for my friend’s freedom are not alone: millions of people around the world are asking for his release. Lots of people from human rights organizations want him set free. Their appeals for his freedom are always ignored.


My friend is a stubborn man. He has said that his hunger strike will be “freedom or death,” and I know he means it. He’s playing a game of chicken with his government, and he won’t give up. If they don’t release him, he will die. It’s been hard for me to accept this, but I realize he’s doing this for greater freedom of the people of Bahrain. He is an unwilling hero, and he is prepared to sacrifice his life to let the world know that his government is committing human rights violations and doesn’t care what anybody thinks. I feel for him, I feel for his family. And I’m filled with anger and sadness at the plight my friend is in. No one should have to suffer like this. The decision to go on his hunger strike was his own, but the conditions that led him to do this were created by mean-spirited people in positions of power who are afraid of him. What they don’t realize is that, even if he does die, others who believe in the same things as he does will continue his struggle. One way or another, there will be a day in Bahrain where everyone has the same rights. I just don’t want my friend to pay the highest price imaginable for that day to be a reality.


I’m sorry I wrote a letter that isn’t uplifting – some days are harder than others to find happiness.



Je t’aime Alexandre, je t’aime Sam.