Best human rights journalism of 2015

When I first started thinking about this near the beginning of November, I thought 2015 was not such a great year for human rights journalism, but when I actually sifted through the messy folder where I keep press clippings I come across over the course of the year, I found that my first impression was wrong; in fact, it was not such an off-year after all. Indeed, there has been some astoundingly good human rights journalism.

The downgrading of human rights in the priorities of many governments around the world, their general neglect of international human rights law, norms and mechanisms, and the oppressive situation in many countries has been reflected in the editorial decisions of a great many news organizations around the world to shift attention away from human rights issues per se. But since so many of the world’s most pressing issues are inherently human about human rights or related to human rights, they’re hard to avoid! Not only that, but there’s a great many journalists out there interested in rights and such a plethora of news organizations and initiatives that one way or another, things get covered.

That’s a good thing since, given the attitudes of many governments towards rights, the media play a more important role than ever in keeping the focus on them. We are at a bit of a unique historical juncture: While governments are less interested in rights, people around the world are arguably more interested, and more aware, than ever. Independent media can help to promote that interest and awareness. That, in turn, will eventually have an impact on governments. As someone who is not a journalist but a rights advocate, I notice how much easier my work is if the media’s covering the issues I’m working on. It’s easier to get both governments and people to pay attention and to pressure governments to respect and protect rights.

I originally planned to try to limit the number of pieces I selected to 20 or so, but looking over the list, I saw that would be quite arbitrary, and so, instead, I’ve selected dozens. I’ve divided them into categories, by regions of the world and a topic (migrants), as well as separate categories for human rights and the arts, human rights photography, human rights websites, and a collective award for reporting that made a difference.

A note about key terms:

This list focuses primarily on written journalism, as well as a bit of photography, and, in a few cases, video related to articles. “Journalism” is understood here in a broad sense: hard news, investigative, feature, interview, op-ed, essay, photography — basically anything that appears in online newspapers and magazines, blogs and websites and is aimed at a general audience (academic articles are not included). The list tends to steer clear of hard news stories that are widely covered, though it’s interested in pieces that look at something everyone’s covered from a unique angle.

“Human rights” is likewise understood in a broad sense: the full panoply of internationally recognized and legal human rights, including political, civil, economic, social and cultural, as well as struggles for freedom and democracy and attempts to repress them. In effect, some rights and issues get much more attention than others — that’s my fault and perhaps also that of news organizations as well.


The list is a result my reading patterns. I don’t read everything and I rely too heavily on a few sources. I’ve tried as best I could to cut out as many stories from The New York Times and The Guardian as possible (!), but you’ll see they’re still over-represented.

Same goes for places and topics. Because I live in a place dominated by the Partystate and work on issues related to its rights abuses, China gets more attention. Other areas are largely overlooked — for example, sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. All I can say is I hope others publish similar lists that give greater weight to the regions and issues under-represented here.

There are so many great journalists out there doing great work, so many important stories they’re covering. Much of it goes under the radar, my radar at least. It is my regret that I can only recognize a small number here.

I would be happy to know your views: What did I miss? Any selections you disagree with?

Categories (in the order they’re presented below)

The best of the best; Migrants; Africa; China and China-affected regions (including Taiwan, Hong Kong and Tibet); Europe; Latin America; Middle East; Russia and Central Asia; South Asia; Southeast Asia; United States; Global; Human rights and the arts; Human rights photography; Collective human rights reporting that made a difference

The list

the best of the best

Syria’s truth smugglers,” Julian Borger, The Guardian, May 12

Astonishing investigative reporting on astonishing documentation of the atrocities of the Assad regime.

’They were torturing to kill’: Inside Syria’s death machine,” Garance Le Caisne, The Guardian, October 1

The story of ‘Caesar’ a photographer working for the Syrian regime who smuggled evidence of torture out of the country. Obsessive reporting by a journalist who didn’t give up trying to get access to ‘Caesar’ and comes away with the report of a lifetime — the inside story of how he got those gruesome photos providing ample evidence of torture and murder by the Assad regime out of Syria and to the wider world. Related to Le Caisne’s book, Opération César: au coeur de la machine de mort Syrienne.

Francisco Goldman’s seven-part series stretching back to 2014 on the 43 missing students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School, The New Yorker, plus his article on the downfall of the Guatemalan president

The Disappearance of the Forty-Three,” October 24, 2014

Could Mexico’s Missing Students Spark a Revolution?” October 30, 2014

The Protests for the Missing Forty-Three,” November 12, 2014

An Infrarealista Revolution,” December 4, 2014

Who is Really Responsible for the Missing Forty-Three?” February 7

The Missing Forty-Three: The Government’s Case Collapses,” June 8

Mexico’s Missing Forty-three: One Year, Many Lies and a Theory that Might Make Sense,” September 30

From President to Prison: Otto Pérez Molina and a Day for Hope in Guatemala,” Francisco Goldman, The New Yorker, September 4

Epic. And tenacious. Reads like a sequel to Goldman’s excellent 2014 The Interior Circuit (highly recommended reading). Through telling the story of the murder of the 43, the nationwide protests against the incompetent investigation, corruption and possible complicity of the state, Goldman tells the story of a nation both depressing (massive violence, collusion between state and drug gangs) and inspiring (ordinary citizens rising up to demand better). Plus, he’s simply a great writer. And to top it off, the piece on Guatemala is much better than anything found in the mainstream daily press at conveying both a sense of the historical moment and how all the different threads came together — the role of the UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala — , the months-long street protests — to achieve the result of the forced resignation and arrest of a president (and ex-military man) for corruption.

Alexa Olesen’s PEN report and related articles

Censorship and Conscience: Foreign Authors and the Challenge of Chinese Censorship

Chinese Censorship of Western Writers is Now Normal. Where’s the Outrage?” Foreign Policy, June 5

BookExpo America Plays Backdrop to Muscular Chinese Propaganda Display,” PEN America, May 28

Suberb research in the report, superb advocacy in the articles started a real discussion amongst authors and publishers and lead to real changes.

They Have Miao,” Angela Köckritz, Die Zeit, January 14

A German reporter describes the experience of having her Chinese assistant detained in connection with the 2014 Hong Kong occupations. Brilliant, personal, up-close report on how the Partystate security apparatus goes about its dirty business. Die Zeit held off on publication out of fear it might harm Zhang Miao. Zhang Miao was released in early July without charge after nine months in detention. Others detained on the mainland in connection with the 2014 HK occupations have not been so fortunate.

I’m a petitioner — open fire!” Chaohua Wang, London Review of Books

There’s no better single narrative of the background and context of the extraordinary crackdown on rights lawyers in China. What started it all? Why did the Partystate do it? How did it decide which lawyers to go after? Find it here. Wang does a fine job of sewing all the threads together.

The Radical Humaneness of Norway’s Halden Prison,” Jessica Benko, The New York Times, March 26

While most of the stories in the list are about abuses or people fighting for their rights, here’s a good news story about a country that does it right. Havel said the way a society treats its animals is an indicator of its level of civilization. Perhaps as good an indicator is the way it treats its prisoners, who can easily be amongst the most despised (at least animals are “innocent” and edible). A brilliant report on how Norway achieves this. Of course, it can’t just happen out of nowhere — it’s no surprise that Norway also happens to be one of the most democratic, rights-respecting, and, not least of all, economically fairest countries in the world.

A Chinese Folk Artist’s Descendants Are Split by the Government’s Use of Their Family Legacy”, Ian Johnson, The New York Times, December 5

Beautifully written. Reads like a parable of life under the Partystate through its various shifting periods of arbitrary treatment of the people it rules. First, the family’s business is essentially stolen by the Partystate, which forces it to train workers for a new state-owned enterprise producing similar items at a cheaper price. Then, during the Cultural Revolution, the family patriarch is nearly beaten to death and left barely able to walk up stairs. Then, in 1994, in a supposedly new period, the family successfully sues the Partystate SOE, the court orders the latter to cease and desist commercial production, but the SOE ignores the court order and continues to produce. Then in the Xi era, the Partystate uses the family’s figurines in its “China Dream” propaganda campaign though the family would prefer they not be used. Across the land billboards trumpeting the “China Dream” and featuring the “peasant girl” don’t show the dark history behind her. All in humble newspaper article.


A Family Swept Up in the Migrant Tide,” Anemona Hartocollis with photographs by Sergey Ponomarev and Mauricio Lima, The New York Times, October 22

A reporter and two photographers follows a Syrian family from the moment the enter the EU, in Greece, to the moment they arrive in Sweden. Shows up-close, from their point of view, the experience of fleeing from war and seeking safe haven in a place where many don’t want you. Reporting like this helped to bring out the enormous generosity shown by hundreds of thousands of Europeans and a couple of their governments which existed side by side with the hostility and ambivalence.

The Displaced,” Jake Silverstein, Andrew E Kramer, Marc Santora, Susan Dominus, photographs by Lynsey Addario, The New York Times, November 5

The sort of journalism that takes numbers (almost 60 million displaced worldwide, the most since World War II) and turns them into faces, in this case three different children from three different conflicts, in Ukraine, South Sudan and Syria. Great words, great photos, great package. With reporting like this, it’s hard to understand why the world wouldn’t show solidarity with these people. And the thing is, as much as the journalistic focus is turned toward the arrival of hundreds of thousands in Europe, the vast majority of displaced people are internally displaced within their own countries or end up in less prosperous places like Turkey, Pakistan, Iran or, here, Lebanon, existing for the most part outside the media’s eye.


These two pieces together give a sense of a South Africa splitting at the seams both from above (the students who have the opportunity to go to university are amongst the more fortunate) and from below (the mine workers massacred at Marikana). This is due to a corrupt ANC that in practice has a monopoly on political power. Davies’ report is a brilliant in-depth investigation of 2012 massacre in which 112 were shot, 34 fatally. Fairbanks’ article gives a good sense of what university students are thinking and of the generational divide. The two together give a sense that South Africa’s future is very much up for grabs.

The savage truth behind the Marikana massacre,” Nick Davies, Mail and Guardian, May 22

Why South Africans have turned on their parents’ generation,” Eve Fairbanks, The Guardian, November 18

China and China-affected regions (including Taiwan, Hong Kong and Tibet)

China’s ‘factory girls’ have grown up — and are going on strike,” Coco Feng, Jane Li and Echo Hui, Quartz, March 9

As stated at the end of the article, “The authors were embedded for six weeks at the Panyu Migrant Workers Center, a labor rights NGO in Guangdong Province, as part of an internship program set up by the Journalism and Media Studies Centre of The University of Hong Kong.” Great project, great article. The headline suggests women workers in China are becoming more aware of their rights and are more willing to fight for them. This is the case, but the upbeat tone of the article is cast in a different light by the crackdown on labor rights activists in Guangdong in December. Nine months later, a project like this would be much more difficult, if not impossible, to do, a sign of the worsening situation of human rights workers in China.

Unsafe harbour: Academic freedom in Hong Kong,” David Matthews, Times Higher Education, September 10

Just about everywhere you turn in Hong Kong, you see manifestations of mainlandization. The judiciary and the universities are the two sectors of society that up to now have best withstood the onslaught. After the Umbrella Movement in which students and young people played such a central role, often with the support and sympathy of their professors and teachers, the Partystate’s decided to go for the jugular. Matthews describes well what that looks like on the ground.

China Fences In Its Nomads, and an Ancient Life Withers,” Andrew Jacobs, The New York Times, July 11

A number of excellent reports by NGOs in recent years have focused on what in other contexts might be labelled “ethnic cleansing”, a huge campaign to move nomads off their land and into what in some senses resemble concentration camps. The media haven’t done as good a job of covering this huge issue, not least of all, presumably, due to difficulty of access to areas where this has been occurring. This is one of the best journalistic accounts.

Tibetans Fight to Salvage Fading Culture in China,” Edward Wong, The New York Times, November 28

A Tibetan’s Journey for Justice,” Jonah M. Kessel, The New York Times, November 28

The article and the video accompany each other. The video focuses more tightly on Tashi Wangchuk’s attempts to sue the state to compel it to provide more Tibetan education to Tibetans. The article’s focus is wider. Reading it, and watching the video, I was amazed at how outspoken Tashi was and found myself hoping he would not be detained or worse for his courage to speak, especially to foreigners. The article says it like it is, and also notes that access to Tibetan language education has significantly declined in recent years. Read this and Andrew Jacobs’ article above to get a sense of what Tibetans mean when they speak of “cultural genocide” (and then remember how tightly restricted and controlled religion, at the heart of Tibetan culture, is).

Memories of Torture and Hope for Redemption in a Chinese Village,” Matthew Sheehan, The World Post, November 23

I’m of two minds about this piece. On the one hand, it presents itself as far too confident that the Partystate really is trying to do something about torture. In this sense, it strikes me as naive, especially considering all the reports that came out this year indicating that torture in China is systematic and deeply entrenched; to put it quite simply, the judicial system as it currently operates couldn’t exist without it. On the other, it’s a great profile of torture victim Liu Renwang. It’s not that often that journalists go out of their way to give such coverage to an ordinary person who was a victim of torture (as opposed to a high-profile rights defender). One reason Liu got the attention is because he had the audacity to post online drawings depicting the torture he endured. His story is otherwise all too common in China. Matjaz Tancic’s photos are powerful and give a good sense of Liu’s life in Youyu village.

Two very different men visit DC: China’s leader and his teenage nemesis,” Emily Rauhala, Washington Post, September 24

This is another of those great “angle” reports. Everyone was writing about Xi’s visit to Washington, quite a few were writing about Joshua Wong being there as well, but few wrote about them being there at the same time, or that they represented two very different visions of China, or that they also represented two very different choices foreign governments have to make. Rauhala’s right. In a sense, it’s as simple as that. Sad to say, it’s pretty clear what choice they’re making.

At UN, China uses intimidation tactics to silence rights activists,” Sui-Lee Wee and Stephanie Nebehay, Reuters, October 6

This is an issue that’s been going on a long time. It’s good to see the press covering it, and these two from Reuters do a great job.

Vivienne Zeng’s interviews with student leaders Agnes Chow, Nathan Law, Joshua Wong, and with Chen Guangcheng, Hong Kong Free Press

Zeng asks great questions and lets people talk, giving voice to student pro-democracy activists who are much written about but rarely have an opportunity to present their views in their own words to the media in an extended way (as opposed to a one-sentence sound bite in a news report). What emerges is their humanity and perspicacity — these are people who think deeply, are self-critical, and have the courage to act. The interviews with Chow and Law were conducted around the first anniversary of the start of the Umbrella Movement in September, the ones with Wong and Chen during their visits to the UK in October, coinciding with Xi Jinping’s.

Meet Lu Jun, One of China’s Most Wanted Social Activists,” Josh Chin, The Wall Street Journal, September 6

Josh Chin took the time to profile Lu Jun, the leader of well-known Chinese NGO Yirenping now living in exile in the US. Much of the Partystate’s crackdown on civil society over the past year and more has centered on people in one way or another related to Yirenping. And that was what attracted the Partystate’s animosity, the independent nature of their relationships to one another, the fact that “organizing” of any kind was going on outside of its control. In fact, Yirenping’s always made a point of steering clear of the explicitly political, of being a social service organization, but that didn’t save it from the Partystate’s wrath. An excellent profile, which Chin uses to examine the Partystate’s fears of foreign funding of NGOs. If you read this and Chaohua Wang’s piece (see above) on the crackdown on rights lawyers together, you’ll have a good sense of what the Partystate crackdown on civil society is all about.

Yushu: A Tibetan Town Rebuilt in Beijing’s Image,” Emily Rauhala, Time, April 15

While the Partystate likes to showcase such “achievements” as the swift rebuilding of Jyekundo after the earthquake, Tibetans are entirely excluded from the rebuilding decision-making process, representative of their exclusion from “development” in general in Tibetan regions. As Rauhala puts it, “the price of recovery is sacrificing identity,” a high price which Tibetans never even had the opportunity to choose to pay. Written with great sensitivity and insight.

China’s Race Problem: How Beijing Represses Minorities,” Gray Tuttle, Foreign Affairs, May/June

That’s what the article’s about, the extensive systematic repression of minorities. It’s not just some by-product, some externality but built into the guts of the system.

China: Inventing a Crime,” Perry Link, New York Review of Books, February 9

On Pu Zhiqiang and the absurd charges against him, based on his Weibo posts.

Gao Yu’s Real Crime,” Ho Pin, The New York Times, April 28

Ho Pin is supposedly the editor to whom Gao Yu leaked “state secrets”. Here, he tells the real story behind what happened. He’d already received the documents from someone working for the Partystate. He drafted an affidavit explaining this but the Chinese Consulate in New York refused to accept it and court trying Gao Yu in Beijing excluded his testimony. Gao Yu’s “real crime”, he says, was to displease Partystate leaders with her criticism of their policies.

To Obama: Why China does not have a Mandela,” Yaxue Cao, China Change

On the occasion of Xi Jinping’s visit to the US. About Huang Wenxun, China’s youngest political prisoner, who tried to write to Obama and tell him what to say to Xi. Goes on to profile several of the Chinese rights defenders beaten down by the Partystate. Goes on to remember Obama’s words at Mandela’s funeral.

The Powers That Be and the ‘R-word’ in Taiwan,” J Michael Cole, Thinking Taiwan, August 2

Great piece examining the rhetoric and propaganda employed by Taiwanese politicians of a decidedly authoritarian bent. The r-word is “rational”. They tell young people to act “rationally”. Same sort of rhetoric employed by the Partystate and HK government. The thing is, they don’t rule according to rationality but force. Then they turn around and tell others who don’t have a say to be “rational”. The hypocrisy apparently pervades the political classes in these Chinese-majority societies. The difference is, Taiwanese can change that at the polls next year, but only if they’re not so “rational”.


Apart from migrants, the human rights stories that dominated in Europe had to do with rising social and political movements that sought to reform, transform and reinvigorate democracy on the tired old continent. By the end of the year, such stories had been displaced by ‘security’ stories related to terrorism, and some groups lost some of their luster as centrist Ciudadanos overtook Podemos in the Spanish polls and Greek youths were marginalized by Syriza’s capitulation to the EU.

The Podemos revolution: how a small group of radicals changed European politics,” Giles Tremlett, The Guardian, March 31

Best article on the movement. But now, by the end of the year, the headline has a whiff of exaggeration. We’ll see how they do in the upcoming Spanish elections.

Young Greek radicals don’t just want power; they want to remake the world,” Paul Mason, The Guardian, June 7

Another article with a rah-rah headline that looks somewhat deflated by year’s end. Still, what matters is perseverance. Across the world, from Hong Kong to Greece and perhaps further afield, a political divide between the generations is apparent. The question is, will the youths of today persist and eventually achieve a more just, rights-respecting, democratic world than their parents have managed?

How Britain and the US decided to abandon Srebrenica to its fate,” Florence Hartmann and Ed Vulliamy, The Guardian, July 4

Both Hartmann and Vulliamy have been on this case since the beginning — this year marks the twentieth anniversary. Hartmann served as spokeswoman for the ICTY and was later convicted by the court of, essentially, leaking confidential documents. This piece is based on her book-length essay, Le Sang de la realpolitik, l’affaire Srebrenica. Such tenacity is necessary if future incidents of this sort are to be avoided. ‘Looking on’, however, seems to have become something of a contagion (see Syria, not much further from Europe’s heart than Bosnia, as Europeans discovered this summer).

Latin America

Despair, and Grim Acceptance at Police Killings in Brazil,” Simon Romero and Taylor Barnes, The New York Times, May 21

… she ran toward the police officer holding the gun.

“I grabbed him by the vest and yelled, ‘You killed my boy, you wretch,’ ” said his mother, Terezinha Maria de Jesus, 40.

No Charges Against Rio Police in Fatal Shooting of 10-Year-Old Boy,” Simon Romero, The New York Times, Nov 10

“Sometimes I close my eyes and imagine he’s still alive,” she said of Eduardo.

“Then I open my eyes and it’s as if the world is beating me down,” she added. “My boy is dead.”

Middle East

David Kirkpatrick, The New York Times for keeping Shaimaa el-Sabbagh’s story alive for months after she was killed

One case that illustrates the brutality of the Egyptian regime and its careless disregard for life. With so many abuses to cover, it would have been easy to let this drop, but Kirkpatrick kept coming back to it and made sure that the world knew what was going on. Of course, the vast majority of the regime’s abuses happen out of the media’s eye, but this one didn’t.

Coming to Mourn Tahrir Square’s Dead, and Joining Them Instead: Killing of Shaimaa el-Sabbagh in Cairo Angers Egyptians,” February 3

The Killing of Shaimaa el-Sabbagh: Reporter’s Notebook,” February 4

Egypt to Charge Officer in Killing of Shaimaa el-Sabbagh,” March 17

Egyptian Official Says Protester, Shaimaa el-Sabbagh, Died in Shooting Because She Was Too Thin,” March 22

Egyptian Police Officer Convicted in Killing of Activist,” June 11

The New York Times six-part series, “The Trials of Spring,” June 7, on women who played important roles in their countries during the Arab Spring, made in conjunction with a feature-length documentary by the same name.

These articles make a compelling case for the integral role of women in the Arab Spring and the suffering they endure in the countries where significant blowback has occurred (ie, all but Tunisia). Excellent reporting all around; excellent short videos.

Making Herself Heard, Before and After Tunisia’s Uprising,” Carlotta Gall

The Brutal Silencing of a Woman at the Forefront of Libya’s Rebellion,” David Kirkpatrick

A Quickly Stifled Attempt to Ease Suffering in Bahrain,” Kareem Fahim

Brides of Syria Were Joined in Opposition to Violence,” Anne Barnard

Stripped, Beaten, Humiliated” and Barred from Her Own Trial in Egypt,” David Kirkpatrick

In Yemen, A Brief Moment Before Women Were Pushed Aside Again,” Kareem Fahim

The videos accompanying the articles

The battle to be Israel’s conscience: can B’Tselem convince Israelis to listen?” Eve Fairbanks, The Guardian, March 12

Perhaps the year’s single best journalistic study of a human rights organization, including its operations, the challenges it faces and the complex social and political context in which it does its work.

Leslie T Chang’s reporting on the media in Egypt

The news website that’s keeping press freedom alive in Egypt,” The Guardian, January 27

The upbeat (if imperiled)…

Egypt’s Media: Endorsing Repression,” New York Review of Books, September 15

… and the downbeat

Sisi’s Way: Egypt’s prisons,” Tom Stevenson, London Review of Books, February 19

This shows just how bad it is in Egypt. Worse than under Mubarak. Meanwhile, the US restores aid flows to the very military committing the crimes against its own citizens.

Russia and Central Asia

Russia: Another Dead Democrat,” Amy Knight, New York Review of Books, March 2

On why Boris Nemtsov was murdered. Speculates that it had to do with vocal opposition to Putin’s Ukraine policy. At the time of his death, he was working on a report documenting Russia’s covert military involvement in Ukraine. Includes a partial yet long list of “enemies” of the Kremlin killed during Putin’s reign. Virtually all of the cases are unsolved or still have many unanswered questions about who ordered the killings.

My father was killed by propaganda,” Zhanna Nemtsova, The Guardian, June 19

Nemtsov’s daughter says the dehumanizing rhetoric of Russian state TV incites violence against “enemies” of the state.

Inside the Kremlin’s hall of mirrors,” Peter Pomerantsev, The Guardian, April 9

A detailed look at Putin’s use of the media and internet for propaganda

Dogged reporting in Azerbaijan landed a US-trained journalist in prison,” Dana Priest, Anita Komuves and Courtney Mabeus, Washington Post, September 12

The rather understated headline belies the fact that this is a very in-depth, well-researched report on the saga of Khadija Ismayilova’s ground-breaking reporting on corruption amongst Azerbaijani elites and the government’s persecution and imprisoning of her in retribution. A lot’s been written about her case, but this is the best at putting together all of the disparate elements in one coherent narrative. Part of an excellent Post series called Controlling the Story, “examining the human cost of reporting the news around the world.”

A Century after Armenian Genocide, Turkey’s Denial Only Deepens,” Tim Arango, The New York Times, April 16

Excellent report on Turkish denial of genocide in the face of massive historical evidence to the contrary.

A Century of Silence: A Family Survives the Armenian Genocide and its long aftermath,” Raffi Khatchadourian, The New Yorker, January 5

Profile of an Armenian family still living in eastern Turkey. Explores the legacy of the genocide in their lives.

South Asia

Silenced — the day my daughter was shot in front of me,” Mahenaz Mahmud, BBC, June 2

The title says it all. “Sabeen Mahmud was a passionate supporter of free speech. She ran a space in a Karachi cafe for people to talk freely about politics, society and human rights.” A gunman killed her as she drove home, one in a string of attacks on liberal activists in Pakistan. “Her mother, Mahenaz, who was next to her, talks about her remarkable daughter.” This case deserved more attention than it got. Even otherwise well-informed Pakistani friends I spoke to had not heard of it. I was heartened that Foreign Policy recognized Sabeen as one of its Global Thinkers of 2015 “for creating a safe space in an illiberal society” and Lois Parshley wrote a moving tribute. This is the only photo I’ll insert in the list:

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Southeast Asia

A Poet’s Election Victory Over a Former General Speaks of a New Myanmar,” Thomas Fuller, The New York Times, November 14

One of those great “angle” stories. Everyone’s doing a dutiful piece on the Burmese elections. Fuller finds this one case and uses it as the perfect symbol of the change afoot in the country. Not only is Tin Thit a poet but also a former political prisoner of the regime represented by the very person he defeated in the election. Full of great quotes: Why did voters choose him? “Human dignity had been lost for 50 years. They wanted it back.” A worker who voted for him: “Until yesterday I did not know what happiness was. I was so happy that my vote mattered.” And the ex-general explaining his defeat: “I think I got almost all the votes from soldiers and the police. I just lost the people’s vote.”

Tin Thit’s latest poem, “Democracy Wish”:


The moon is all alone

It’s so alluring and making me dizzy,

I wish all the rooftops would light up with the full moon’s brightness.

But I do not need to pray because my wish is already granted.

United States

I missed most coverage of Black Lives Matter. My wrong. The obvious civil rights cause of the day in the US. Still, three of the four stories below are related to it. Maybe I felt the movement was a little too (understandably) fixated on the effects (black people killed by police) and not enough on the causes (racial and economic inequality, proliferation of weapons, a culture of violence, insane incarceration rates, housing segregation, a dysfunctional political system corrupted by the influence of big money) or strategies for solutions. The real story would be a movement that matures rather than fading away not long after birth (see Occupy Wall Street).

The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” Ta-Nahesi Coates, The Atlantic, October

Compared to Coates’ 2014 essay on reparations and his National Book Award-winning Between the World and Me, this long essay got much less attention but it is every bit as deeply researched as the essay on reparations and just as psychologically penetrating as his book in its description of the effects on black families of their encounters with the criminal justice system.

The Grape Strike that Transformed a Nation, 50 Years Later,” Stephen Magagnini, Sacramento Bee, September 6

Marks one of the more forgotten anniversaries. An event seminal in promoting the civil rights of immigrants and low-paid workers. And all the more relevant at a time when a $15 minimum wage and immigration are on the agenda. As the article says, Filipino farmworkers were the first to strike; Cesar Chavez and thousands of Latinos followed. The strike launched an army of activists and awakened the ‘sleeping giant’ of Latino politics. A key turning point was the international table grape boycott, which revolutioned labor tactics. With migrant rights, organized labor and low-wage work being what they are today, we’ve still got a long way to go.

Housing Apartheid, American-style,” Editorial Board, The New York Times, May 16

End the Gun Epidemic in America” Editorial Board, The New York Times, December 4

The editorial on the gun epidemic in America got a lot more attention than “Housing Apartheid” because it appeared on the front page and followed on yet another outrageous massacre, but the Times really clobbered it with the housing apartheid editorial too. It’s as if the Times editorial board is making up for a lost decade following on pretty screwed-up coverage in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. This new outspokenness is commendable and most purposeful. Not only that but the editorials are well-researched and specific in their recommendations. They stress that the gun epidemic and housing segregation are political problems and politicians need to be held accountable for solving them.


Human rights groups face global crackdown ‘not seen in a generation’,” Harriet Sherwood, The Guardian, August 26

There’s far too little global, cross-regional coverage of rights issues. Media organizations with the resources need to give this angle more attention. Many reports have appeared about the efforts of various governments to constrain independent civil society. This article stitches them all together to show the disturbing pattern. We’re not exactly in a golden age of enlightened government, are we?

Has the west given up on democracy?” Mathew Burrows and Maria Stephan, Open Democracy, May 22

The headline is meant to be provocative but comes off as too polite. The answer, simply put, is yes. Western democracies, whether the EU or the US, are plagued by various forms of political dysfunctionality, and they find it all but impossible to assert democratic values abroad. Trade and security constantly trump rights and democracy on their foreign policy agendas. Post-Bush, Obama’s played the non-interference-in-sovereignty thing to the hilt. It beats military invasion, but meanwhile the Iranian uprising, the Arab Spring, the Umbrella Movement have come and gone while the US offered very little support (or, in some cases — Egypt, Bahrain — seemed to largely side with the oppressor). The EU’s just a mess, with so many democratic deficits, even if it wanted to, any speech about democracy would fall on deaf ears. It would be worth mentioning that in recent decades, not a single terrorist movement (as opposed to individual terrorist acts) has emerged from a democratic country. A well-functioning democracy helps to keep people safe. Meanwhile, as the article points out, authoritarians have formed something of an informal club, a mutual support network.

human rights and the arts

Ian Johnson’s interviews with Liao Yiwu, Ai Weiwei and Hu Jie and review of Carolyn Drake’s book of photography, Wild Pigeon, all in New York Review of Books

China’s Invisible History: An Interview with Filmmaker and Artist Hu Jie,” May 27

I try to talk less: An Interview with Liao Yiwu and Ai Weiwei”, September 12

China: What the Uighurs See,” April 13

All about engaged art and artists, by a sensitive observer with a profound understanding of the issues at stake.

The Memory Keeper: The oral histories of Russia’s new Nobel laureate,” Masha Gessen, The New Yorker, October 26

Great introduction to the work of Svetlana Alexievich, deservedly awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. (See her great acceptance speech too.) Alexievich has spent her career documenting the “human voice”— the women of World War II, the Russian veterans of the Afghanistan occupation, the survivors of Chernobyl, and most recently, “post-Soviet man”. Her work shows that human voice must be at the very core of respect for human rights, and respect for the human rights at the very core of any decent society.

The Protest Artist Who Stumps Putin,” Masha Gessen, The New Yorker, November 12

Profile of Petr Pavlensky, who most recently set fire to a wooden door at Russian secret police headquarters and stood there waiting for the police to arrive and arrest him. He previously nailed his scrotum to Red Square.

A Gaza Artist Creates 100 Square Feet of Beauty, and She’s Not Budging,” Judi Rudoren, The New York Times, February 27

One of those ‘small’ pieces that captures the essence of a big issue. Alienated by Gaza’s restrictive religiosity and constant conflict with Israel, artist Nidaa Badwan decides to confine herself to her small room, the only sane place, the only place she can shape according to her desire. Not only is her act a kind of performance art, but within her room, she has also produced art in more traditional forms. See her website for more.

Stranger Still: Kamel Daoud and Algeria,” Adam Shatz, The New York Times, April 1

About the man who wrote what turned out to be one of the more discussed novels in recent years, The Meursault Investigation. Daoud comes from a journalist background and has a record of going against the grain, in stance anti-colonialist, anti-PanArab nationalist, anti-military regime, anti-Islamist, the whole host of ills to plague not only his country but a great many in the Arab world. Shatz adeptly uses the profile of the man to say a great deal about the country as well. (The novel, by the way, is well worth reading, much better the over-rated Camus novel that both inspired and provoked it.)

And that was only one of Shatz’s two excellent profiles of artists, the other being…

Drawing Blood: A French graphic novelist’s stunning memoir of the Middle East,” Adam Shatz, The New Yorker, October 19

About Riad Sattouf, author of the five-book series, The Arab of the Future (only one out in English so far, two in French). Sattouf poses as your average guy who’s just writing a story, true enough; but a better representation of the scourge of patriarchy — the strictly hierarchical ordering of the family, the society, governance according to male fiat, here in its Arab form but global in its dimensions — is hard to find.

Rebel Without a Country,” Isaac Stone Fish, Foreign Policy, August 31

About the exile in Japan of Chinese political cartoonist Wang Liming (aka Rebel Pepper)

Drawing the line: Cartoonists under threat,” Shawn W Crispin, Committee to Protect Journalists, May 19

The year started with the Charlie Hebdo massacre, but that was hardly an isolated incident when it came to attacks on and persecution of cartoonists. There’s Zunar of Malaysia, facing 43 years in prison on nine charges of sedition; Aseem Trivedi of India, facing life in prison for his portrayals of political corruption; and cartoonists in Bangladesh, Ecuador, Iran, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Syria, Venezuela and the US under threat of imprisonment and lawsuits by governments, dismissal by employers, and violence by thugs. In the Iranian case, a cartoon about a child conversing with a cockroach lead to exile. The cartoonist, Mana Neyestani, produced a graphic novel, An Iranian Metamorposis, documenting the Kafkaesque case in detail.

Literature as last bastion: suppression, solidarity and language in Ukraine,” Natalka Sniadanko, The Guardian, November 11

The struggle of Ukrainian to be a viable literature in the post-Soviet era, the struggle of Ukrainian writers and publishers, of the Ukrainian language. And this in an independent nation of 45 million. I was reminded of similar issues in Tibet, an occupied nation where culture and language are under constant assault. Read together with Dechen Pemba’s “The language of languages” (see below) and Edward Wong’s “Tibetan’s Fight to Salvage Fading Culture in China” (see above).

The language of languages,” Dechen Pemba, Lalit Mag, November 22

“On what goes into and out of Tibetan.” The importance of translation for the survival of a culture and language, and for communication with the wider world. “Using our language is akin to asserting our right to exist.” “Imagine a Tibetan education curriculum solely made up of literature in translation — would China allow Tibetan schoolchildren to grow up reading Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, 1984 by George Orwell and Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie?”

Finnish punk band with a difference takes a punt at Eurovision title,” David Crouch, The Guardian, February 27

The only article in the list about the rights of people with disabilities, much to my chagrin, especially given that significant progress has been made on these rights in many countries in recent years. Together with LGBT and women’s rights, you’d have to say these are the three areas of rights optimism these days. And cool in that it’s just guys being guys.

human rights photography

Nilüfer Demir, DHA: body of three-year-old Syrian Kurd Alan on Turkish beach

See the following links for information behind one of the most widely disseminated photos of the year: an interview with the photographer, a piece about how the international media got the name and ethnic identity of the boy wrong, a piece that tells what happened to the boy’s corpse and family after the photo was taken. A photo with a huge backstory and effect.

Where love is illegal” — portraits of victims of homophobic attacks worldwide, Robin Hammond

While we celebrate progress on LGBT rights in leaps and bounds in some parts of the world, this series reminds us how dire, indeed life-threatening, the situation is in many other parts. Truly global in focus and scale. The photos are imbued with beauty, dignity, tragedy, horror, and remind of the immediate physical consequences of the abuse of rights. See also this article on the photo project.

“Dying to Breathe” — Sim Chi Yin’s photographs of He Quangui, a Chinese miner dying of silicosis

See this link for a slideshow and description of the difficulty Sim Chi Yin found in getting the photos published, this link for other good images, this link for an excellent radio program in which Sim Chi Yin explains how the project came about and traces the development of her relationship to He and family, and this link for Sim Chi Yin’s report (and photos) of what happened after He died on August 1.

Shehab Uddin’s “Chain of Poverty”, a collaborative project with poor people in Bangladesh, including three exhibitions, “No life on the street”, “This is the life” and “Born into a poor family”

Uddin collaborates with the people whose lives are documented in the photographs, a participatory approach that reminds of Carolyn Drake’s with Uighurs in Xinjiang (see Ian Johnson’s article above). See this link for a slideshow of selected photos and a description of the project.

human rights websites of the year

China Change

For bringing an abundance of Chinese voices to an English-language readership. It’s simply outdone itself this year. What an excellent resource. (full disclosure: one of my essays was published there)

Human Rights Watch

Recently redesigned, the best single go-to source to keep abreast of human rights worldwide. A mixture of full-length research reports, ‘dispatches’ (brief takes on current events), press releases, statements, and more videos than ever. Its reporting in the lead-up to the Burmese elections was outstanding (and bordered on the journalistic). It used to be human rights organizations said, We’re about research and advocacy (also campaigning in some cases). Their primary “interfaces” were with the media and governments (or their membership, in the case of campaign orgs). With its website, HRW’s seen that reaching out directly to the general public is also important.

Collective human rights reporting that made a difference

International media coverage of the detention of five women’s rights activists in China

It’s arguable that this, together with the campaigning work of human rights organizations and the solidarity of the global women’s rights movement, lead to their release. While there were some especially excellent articles, I don’t really want to single any out as it was really a collective effort. If you’re interested, just do a search for “Chinese women activists” or “five Chinese feminists” or #FreeTheFive, and dozens of articles will appear. I know independent, objective journalism is not supposed to be about campaigning or a “force for good” in any but the most abstract and general sense, but this case got a lot of us thinking of the “synergy” (horrible word) that can exist between media and campaigning organizations and can lead to outcomes like this, even in the case of the largest dictatorship in the world that can often seem immune to outside pressure. So, yes, media, we’ll be thinking about how we can “leverage” (another horrible word) you more. Later in the year there was the release of Gao Yu on medical parole, another case in point. Of course, these are only six people. But six people matter.


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Author of ‘Umbrella: A Political Tale from Hong Kong’ and ‘As long as there is resistance, there is hope: Essays on the Hong Kong freedom struggle…’

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