The Best Human Rights Journalism, October to December 2018
Forty-two articles about 27 different human rights issues in 22 places around the world.
This year for the first time, the Best Human Rights Journalism list is being published quarterly. This is the fourth and final quarterly list. The reason for the change is that the end-of-year list was simply getting too long — so much great journalism out there. There will still be a (much shorter) year’s-best list.
In the list, there are 42 stories from 22 different places, including China (3), Greece/European Union, Hungary (4), India, Israel/Palestine (2), Mexico (3), Morocco, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Syria (2), Taiwan, United States (6), Western Sahara, Xinjiang (China) (8), Yemen (6), and global (3).
The stories are about a wide range of human rights issues, including arbitrary detention and concentration camps, freedom of assembly, business and human rights, child soldiers, colonialism and occupation, crimes against humanity, democracy and dictatorship, discrimination, enforced disappearance, ethnic cleansing, freedom of expression, extrajudicial killings, the right to food, impunity, indigenous peoples’ rights, judicial independence, labor rights, LGBT rights, press freedom, freedom of religion, the right of self-determination, surveillance, the United Nations and human rights, war crimes, and weapons production and human rights.
As that list indicates, “human rights” is here understood as those rights in the two principle covenants, the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, as well as in the international human rights treaties that emanate out from them; issues related to their abuse, protection and defense; and the nonviolent struggle for their fulfillment. Worth noting is that stories related to democracy are included, since it is a right in itself (ICCPR Article 25) as well as the form of government which best embodies the fulfillment of rights and in practice best guarantees their protection.
The three other quarterly lists this year had an overview of the good and bad human rights news of the previous three months, but I haven’t tracked the news well enough in these last three to be confident of being able to do that overview justice. On top of that, I sense that there just hasn’t been much good human rights news these past three months. So, instead, I’ll tell a little tale of my reaction to news. First came Amazon’s announcement that it would raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour. Good news, I thought. Then, someone suggested the alternative headline, “World’s richest man finally gives employees just enough to live on”, and someone else pointed out that, back in the day, a Sears salesman could retire a millionaire while an Amazon warehouse employee today wouldn’t come anywhere close. Suddenly, rather than good news, the Amazon announcement seemed more a sign of the debased times in which we live when it comes to workers’ rights.
As far as bad news goes, it would be hard to find a bad human rights news story to compare with Adnan Kashoggi’s murder by Saudi authorities at the Saudi embassy in Turkey. The sensationalism of it shocked the world. As horrific as that was — every bit deserving of all the condemnation it’s received — , in terms of scale, the death and suffering that the Saudi-led coalition has inflicted on the Yemeni population in that country’s war are much greater but haven’t gotten nearly the media attention they deserve. The same goes for the sheer scale of China’s detention of upwards of a million Uighurs in political re-education camps in Xinjiang. Yemen and Xinjiang represent some of the worst large-scale human rights abuses in the world at the moment. The world’s response to them, juxtaposed with its response to the Khashoggi murder, says something about the difficulties the news media and citizens have with proportion. Bolsonaro’s election in Brazil added to the list of leaders elected in democratic countries who are hostile to many aspects of democracy. Bolsonaro is pro-military dictatorship and pro-torture, anti-women’s, indigenous and LGBT rights. It would be hard to think of a more toxic mix from a human rights perspective. Brazil is now yet another country to track to see if things turns out as bad as they could.
Several human rights heroes have died in these past months: Ana González, 93, whose husband, two sons and pregnant daughter-in-law were disappeared by Pinochet in 1976. She never discovered their fate but she kept searching and campaigning, giving heart to others and ensuring Chile remembers. Teodoro Petkoff, 86, who spent 45 years fighting for democracy in Venezuela, founding the Movement Toward Socialism, denouncing Soviet Communism, and, later, Hugo Chávez’ power grab, quitting the party he founded after it endorsed Chávez, and founding the newspaper Tal Cual.
Lyudmila Alexeyeva, 91, the “grandmother of the Russian human rights movement”, Soviet dissident, co-founder of the Moscow Helsinki Group, and opponent of authoritarianism under Putin as well. Palden Gyatso, 85, Tibetan monk tortured and imprisoned by China for three decades. He eventually escaped Tibet to tell the world what was happening there. His Fire Under the Snow is enduring testimony to brutality and the human desire for freedom. All four lead long lives. The same cannot be said for Raed Fares, 46, Syrian nonviolent freedom fighter murdered in Idlib. He ran Radio Fresh, operated citizen air raid alerts, ran basement classrooms and a day care center and trained hundreds of journalists. For many, he was the last remaining symbol of the hope people once had for a free and democratic Syria.
New York Times reporting on the war in Yemen: The New York Times’ coverage of the war in Yemen has been exceptional. It is a very difficult conflict to report, and it has for the most part gone under-reported, even though it is one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world and involves regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well as the US, all of which are implicated in war crimes there.
“The Tragedy of Saudi Arabia’s War” (October 26) and “This is the Front Line of Saudi Arabia’s War in Yemen” (October 20), Declan Walsh, photos and video Tyler Hicks, New York Times
Airstrikes by Saudi Arabia and Yemen have killed at least 10,000 civilians, and about a million people have been displaced, but an economic crisis that was intended as a weapon of war threatens to kill far more people by hunger. Eight million Yemenis are dependent on food aid to survive. Two million children are malnourished, and 400,000 considered critically ill. Overall, an estimated 12 to 14 million Yemenis risk starvation. 85,000 children have been killed. One doctor says, “We’re surprised the Khashoggi case is getting so much attention while millions of Yemeni children are suffering. Nobody gives a damn about them.” The second article focuses on the port of Hudaydah, one of the most contested areas in the recent phase of the war. There have been over 15,000 air strikes since 2015 but the front lines remain largely unchanged.
“How the War in Yemen Became a Bloody Stalemate — and the Worst Humanitarian Crisis in the World”, Robert F. Worth, photos by Lynsey Addario, New York Times
This article is the best yet on the Houthis, the Saudi coalition’s justification for invading Yemen in 2015. It has been attempting to dislodge them for the past three and a half years. They are hardly angels but are considered by some preferable to other alternatives. The article also provides significant background and context on the war, going back to before it started. And it contains Addario’s arresting images of victims of the war. An accompanying article about how the reporters were able to make this article gives insight into just how difficult it is to report from Yemen.
“From Arizona to Yemen: The Journey of an American Bomb”, Jeffrey E. Stern, New York Times, December 15
This article focuses directly on US complicity in war crimes committed in Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition as well as on the link between weapons production and human rights abuses, an issue that should receive far greater media attention than it does. Not only has the US provided the coalition with weapons but also with intelligence and technical support. All recent US presidents have sold tens of billions of dollars in arms to the Saudis. The article details the effects of one bombing attack that came in two installments and profiles a doctor who tried to help one of the victims. In all, at least 31 civilians were killed, 42 injured. Bomb remnants were traced to a Raytheon plant in Arizona. Straining credibility, the Saudis claimed the site, a well, looked like it had a missile launcher. Stern interviews the victims in Arhab, conveying the devastating impact of the strikes. Arguably, this coverage has paid off: Just before Christmas, the Senate voted to end US military assistance to Saudi Arabia. The House, however, did not take a vote, and the US is still a long way away from fundamentally shifting policy on arms sales or even the war in Yemen.
“On the Frontline of the Saudi War in Yemen? Child Soldiers from Darfur”, David D. Kirkpatrick, New York Times, December 28
While the headline focuses on the Sudanese children recruited to fight in Yemen (thus implying that they themselves are victims, as all child soldiers are by definition), the overall number of Sudanese militia fighters sent to the war is estimated to be 14,000, and most are from the Rapid Support Forces (formerly known as the Janjaweed) which were responsible for “the systematic rape of women and girls, indiscriminate killing and other war crimes during Darfur’s conflict” in which 300,000 people were killed and 1.2 million displaced. Estimates of the percentage of those 14,000 soldiers who are children range from 20 to 40 percent.
In addition to the NYT coverage, there was one other excellent article on the war in Yemen:
“Yemen on the brink: how the UAE is profiting from the chaos of civil war”, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, The Guardian, 21 December
Most of the coverage of the war in Yemen has focused on Saudi Arabia, the undisputed leader of the invading coalition. But United Arab Emirates is the other important coalition member, and this is the only article I’ve come across that focuses squarely on its role. What it shows is just how much the war has fragmented. The article above about Saudi Arabia recruiting fighters from Darfur and this article show Saudi Arabia and UAE to a large extent use proxy fighters on the ground, while they bomb from the air. These proxies have shifting loyalties, and their interests don’t entirely align with those of their paymasters. For many ordinary Yemenis, war has simply become the best way to make a living in an economy that the war has destroyed; or, to put it another way, war has become the economy. This article explains the dynamics of the war in better and greater detail than any other: “In fact, it is no longer even a single war. It began as a conflict with two clear antagonists — the Saudi-led coalition allied with the government versus the Houthi militia supported by Iran. But the force and funding of outside intervention — especially from the UAE — has helped to fragment the war into multiple conflicts and local skirmishes that will not necessarily be ended by any peace agreement. Yemen is now a patchwork of heavily armed fiefdoms and chaotic areas, where commanders, war profiteers and a thousand bandit kings… thrive.”
As in the past two quarters of this year, some of the best human rights reporting in the last quarter has been about the mass detention of Uighurs in Xinjiang and other draconian measures taken to control the region.
Because unhindered journalistic access is so difficult, some news organizations have become creative in their coverage, employing high tech to investigate the crackdown. The first two articles below are examples of this.
“China’s hidden camps: What’s happened to the vanished Uighurs of Xinjiang?”, John Sudworth, BBC, 24 October
This article is a full package, explaining the crackdown at length and including interviews with people previously detained and relatives whose loved ones are in detention. But what really makes this an extraordinary contribution to the research on the mass detention of Uighurs in Xinjiang is BBC’s collaboration with GMV, an aerospace firm, to analyze satellite images of suspected camps, comparing earlier images to more recent ones of the same sites. This shows that, among other things, China has over the course of 2017 and 2018 built the biggest prisons in the world in Xinjiang. One alone, Dabancheng, could conceivably have the capacity for as many as 130,000 prisoners, a revelation that helps to understand the scale of the crackdown, in which an estimated one million Uighurs have been detained.
“Tracking China’s Muslim Gulags”, Philip Wen, Olzhas Auyezov, Photos by Thomas Peter, llustrations by Chrisian Inton, Graphics by Simon Scarr, Reuters, November 28
As with the BBC report, Reuters, working with Earthrise Media, avails itself of satellite images to reach the conclusion that existing detention facilities have almost tripled in size in the seventeen-month period from April 2017 to August 2018. Indicating how difficult to impossible it is to report on the ground, Reuters attempted to visit seven of the facilities identified but was told to leave by police, and reporters who visited ten different cities in Xinjiang in the past year were under surveillance from the moment they got off the plane.
While not a news organization, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute employed similar methodology and technology to produce its report, “Mapping Xinjiang’s ‘re-education’ camps”. The report covers 28 facilities, which have seen 465 percent growth since early 2016. The BBC report covers 44 suspected facilities; Reuters, 38. Recent media reports have identified roughly 180 detention facilities. Some estimates range as high as 1,200.
“‘There are no people’: China’s crackdown in the Uyghur heartland”, Ann Scott Tyson, Christian Science Monitor, November 19
Scott Tyson is one of the few foreign reporters known to have recently been able to gain access to an inhabited area of Xinjiang and stay there long enough to report on it in a relatively unhindered way. This piece is from an unnamed “Uyghur village” in Hotan. So many of the people in the village have been detained that there are not enough hands to do the necessary agricultural work. Half the families surveyed in the village were missing a family member, usually the head of household. Their absence is causing, among other things, economic hardship. In all, an estimated 200 of 1,500 villagers are detained. Some villagers say they’re allowed to visit detained family members; others say they have not seen them at all in over a year. The report also corroborates other reports that Han cadres are being sent to live with Uighur families as a means of investigating, controlling and “reforming” them.
The next two reports focus on Uighurs in the diaspora in Australia and the US who have family members who’ve been detained in Xinjiang. It is said that virtually all Uighurs both in Xinjiang and abroad have family or friends who have been detained. In both cases, the freedom of the countries in which these Uighurs now live stands in stark contrast to the oppression in their homeland.
“Detained and in danger: The tortured Australian families who fear for their missing loves ones”, Fergus Hunter, Sydney Morning Herald, 17 November
There are 3,000 Uighurs in Australia. Almost all know someone who has been detained in political re-education camps in Xinjiang. This article is based on interviews with more than two dozen Uighurs in Adelaide, all of whom have relatives in detention. These are the common themes in their stories: “A difficult departure from home seeking a better life; growing alarm from afar as the crackdown intensifies; contact with family becoming impossible as authorities prohibit contact with the outside world; sporadic warnings about the danger, sometimes conveyed in code or through third parties; scant details, desperately sought; children and elders left without people to take care of them.” A six-minute video accompanies the article.
“China is surveilling and threatening Uighurs in the United States”, The Atlantic Magazine, November 27
This is a nine-minute video that some might consider quite basic, but it is a good primer and I have sent it to several people with little to no prior knowledge of the mass detention and surveillance in Xinjiang. It also contains interviews with Uighurs in the Washington, DC area whose relatives are detained.
Throughout the year, scholar Darren Byler has produced outstanding advocacy journalism, bringing to bear his deep knowledge of Xinjiang and Uighur society. There were three particular examples in the last quarter:
“China’s Surveillance Laboratory”, Darren Byler and Timothy Grose, Dissent, October 31
This article depicts the vast interlocking networks of detention and surveillance as a “constant barrage of state-sanctioned violence”: Reeducation camps, mosque monitoring, an extensive network of security checkpoints, “convenience police stations”, cameras, gates, face-scanning machines, and metal detectors. It is not just the estimated one million Uighurs in political re-education camps who have their freedom constrained but the entire Uighur population. Urumqi, the region’s capital, is “is a giant police lab where Muslim minorities are treated as test subjects in an anti-religious experiment.” Recent history is accurately characterized as a spiral of state oppression and Uighur resistance. The article redresses a tiresome narrative that is often reproduced not only in Chinese state media but even Western sources, that terrorism, often linked to Islam, has provoked the state’s reaction. Rather, Byler and Grose say, “Uyghur people we interviewed said the region’s violence proceeds from experiences of loss and injustice, not from ideological motivations.” The authors look at Urumqi as an example of how China is redeveloping cities in Xinjiang to control Uighurs and eradicate “negative” cultural influences.
“China’s Government Has Ordered a Million Citizens to Occupy Uighur Homes. Here’s What They Think They’re Doing.” Darren Byler, ChinaFile, October 24
This is about the million Han Chinese, typically employees of the state, sent to stay in Uighur homes. They are part of the state’s efforts to control and monitor Uighurs en masse, but they see themselves as a part of a helpful civilizing mission. The striking thing about this article is just how open they are about what they think they’re doing; they appear oblivious that others might perceive their activities as patronizingly colonial and oppressive. The article also contains images that workers have posted on social media to show their efforts in a positive light. There is a striking difference between civil servants already working in Xinjiang, who tend to comply wearily with orders to visit the Uighurs and resent the reduced holidays as a result of the work, and those coming from outside Xinjiang who appear both more idealistic and ignorant. A recent year-end review in state-owned Xinjiang Daily tallied 1.2 million cadres who joined 690 million families, conducting 31,490,000 total [interrogations], and made 10.5 million overnight visits.
“‘As if you’ve spent your whole life in prison’: Starving and subdued in Xinjiang detention centers”, Darren Byler, supchina, December 5
This focuses on the detailed testimony given by Gulbahar Jelil, an ethnic Uighur woman born and raised in Kazakhstan, about the one year, three months and 10 days she was detained in Xinjiang. When released, authorities forbade her from telling anyone else about what she had experienced. She escaped to Turkey and defied them, giving an 82-minute interview less than a month after her release.
“TIME Person of the Year 2018: The Guardians and the War on Truth”, Karl Vick, TIME
TIME’s outdone itself for the second year in a row with an excellent spread highlighting human rights. Last year, it was the #MeToo movement. This time around, it’s endangered journalists, or maybe better put, endangered journalism.
This piece does such a good job threading together the many attacks on the press around the world and showing the pattern. It brings home just how many places in the world journalism is under attack. The horrific murder of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi authorities got much attention, but there was also the hounding of Maria Ressa by the Philippines government, the imprisonment of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo in Burma for helping Reuters to document a massacre of Rohingya, Shahidul Alam in Bangladesh, Can Dündar in Turkey, Tatiana Felgengauer in Russia, Arkady Babchenko in Ukraine, the Capital Gazette in the US, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (aka Mother Mushroom) in Vietnam, as well as crackdowns in China and Turkey, infringements of freedom of the press in Hungary and Venezuela, and the dangers of being a journalist in Mexico.
“How McKinsey Has Helped Raise the Stature of Authoritarian Governments”, Walt Bogdanich, Michael Forsythe, New York Times, December 15
Outstanding investigative reporting and writing about a pattern of the consulting company McKinsey providing services to authoritarian regimes. Witness, for instance, the opening, which juxtaposes a McKinsey retreat in the sand dunes of Kashgar, Xinjiang with a political re-education camp located just a short distance away in a region under a major crackdown involving the detention of upwards of one million Uighurs. The cynicism of it is appalling, and symbolic of a certain way of doing business that is all too prevalent in the world these days, a craven practice of “engagement” with despicable regimes, often under the self-serving justification of helping them to change for the better. Four cases of McKinsey’s “engagement” are profiled here: an oligarch and a strongman in Ukraine, Putin’s banks in Russia, Chinese state-run enterprises, and a corrupt regime in Malaysia. There should be much more reporting of this sort on the impact of international business practices on human rights. An academic researching the work of management consultancies in the Gulf sums it up: “‘In the beginning, the best of them want to help, want to do real research, provide data and expert opinions.’ But after initially speaking their minds, she said, they gradually stop. ‘They engage in the art of not speaking truth to power… They self-censor, exaggerate successes and downplay their own misgivings due to the incentive structures they face.’”
“Syria’s Last Bastion of Freedom”, Anand Gopal, The New Yorker, December 20 issue
In the summer of 2017, for the first time anywhere in Syria since 1954, the residents of the town of Saraqib decided to seize control of their future and hold a genuinely free election. The most proximate threat to the experiment wasn’t the Assad regime but Al Qaeda which controlled territory near the town. This article surveys the experience of Saraqib since the start of the uprising in 2011 and then looks at what happened after the 2017 election. The experience is what one might call “instructive”. The story is told through the eyes of Hossein, one of the activists who helped organize the elections.
“The Assassination of Raed Fares, and the Day the Syrian Revolution Died”, Eliza Griswold, The New Yorker, November 27
This article is a kind of elegy. The murdered Raed Fares symbolizes the hopes of the Syrian people for democracy and freedom which over the years of the war have been crushed. His assassination was like a final nail in the coffin. He was a nonviolent freedom fighter who ran a radio station, operated citizen air raid alerts, ran basement classrooms and a day care center, and trained hundreds of journalists. In short, a model of a citizen in a free society. And this was his fate, and the fate of many other Syrians. No one has claimed responsibility for the murders of Fares and a colleague but Islamists are suspected.
“The Bedouins of al-Khan al-Ahmar Halt Israeli Bulldozers”, David Schulman, New York Review of Books, October 26
The story of a small victory that has about it the scent of forestalling the inevitable. The Palestinian Bedouin village of al-Khan al-Ahmar, after months of waiting for the bulldozers of the Israeli army to arrive to demolish it, managed to prevent its demolition with the help of over a hundred activists — Palestinians, Israelis, and a few internationals . Shulman characterizes the attempt to demolish al-Khan al-Ahmar as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing, meant to clear the way for further expansion of illegal Israeli settlements linking Jerusalem to Jericho. One senses that in this particular case, the Israelis will eventually get their way, but dogged resistance of this kind may some day lead to some modicum of justice for the Palestinians, even if that day, at the moment, seems very far away.
“A Day, A Life: When a Medic Was Killed in Gaza, Was it an Accident?”, David M. Halbfinger, video by Yousur Al-Hlou, Malachy Browne, John Woo and David M. Halbfinger, New York Times, December 30
This article focuses on the infamous killing of 20-year-old Palestinian medic Rouzan al-Nazzar on June 1 during the weeks of Palestinian protests at the border between Gaza and Israel. Hers became the most well-known of the 185 killings of Palestinians by Israeli Defense Forces in those weeks. Halbfinger and the Times bring to bear remarkable resources in examining her death and how exactly it occurred. In an ideal world, all killings and human rights abuses would be so thoroughly investigated. In addition to more traditional methods such as interviews, the Times examined over 1,000 videos and collaborated with an organization to create 3D models of the killing. Its conclusion: “…the shooting appears to have been reckless at best, and possibly a war crime, for which no one has yet been punished.” Al-Nazzar was amidst a group of eight medics at the time (two others were injured) and some protesters, none of whom were engaged in violence or threatening or aggressive behavior, and human rights and military experts concurred there appeared little to no justification for firing at them. The article is accompanied by an excellent 18-minute video.
“Nigeria Says Soldiers Who Killed Marchers Were Provoked. Video Shows Otherwise”, Dionne Searcey and Emmanuel Akinwotu; video by Christoph Koettl, Emmanuel Akinwotu, Malachy Browne, Natalie Reneau, Ainara Tiefenthäler, David Botti and Whitney Hurst, New York Times, December 17
This article is about an event that entirely passed me by when it happened on October 29. That in itself gives pause: The Nigerian military can get away with killing so many unarmed demonstrators as well as many other abuses with little attention or condemnation from the rest of the world. In all, on that day in October, “photos and videos recorded… show at least 26 bodies”. The Islamic Movement in Nigeria, the Shiite organization that lead the march, said it had “collected a total of 49 bodies during four days of protests”. This article examines video evidence that “shows the military opening fire on unarmed demonstrators, sometimes shooting indiscriminately into the crowd at close range as people turned and tried to flee” and includes a nine-minute video piecing the incident together. This event is just the tip of the iceberg: Since 2015, “Nigerian security forces have detained scores of children and babies, raped women living in camps for displaced people and carried out civilian massacres” as well as bombing a camp for displaced people, killing dozens of civilians. Indeed, in 2015, Nigerian soldiers targeted the IMN, killing nearly 350 people, “their bodies buried in a mass grave, and the group’s leader was imprisoned. He is still in jail on terrorism charges, despite a federal court order demanding his release.”
“Is One of Africa’s Oldest Conflicts Nearing Its End?”, Nicolas Niarchos, New Yorker, December 29
About the decades-long stalemate between Morocco and Polisario over Western Sahara. The UN Security Council has in the past proposed a referendum to resolve the conflict, but Morocco, which has occupied Western Sahara for decades, refuses to allow it, fearing it would lose. Legally, Western Sahara remains one of the few colonies left in the world not administered by a European power, and over 150,000 Sahrawi refugees have lived for decades in refugee camps near the Algerian town of Tindouf, not far from the border of Western Sahara. Surprisingly, with John Bolton of the Trump Administration providing the push, there were negotiations between Morocco and Polisario at the start of December, the first in six years. But he answer to the eponymous question is almost certainly no: Morocco currently has no motivation to shift from the status quo, and while recent initiatives were positive, there is almost certainly not enough diplomatic pressure on it to force a shift. Morocco has planted upwards of nine million mines in Western Sahara, making it one of the most heavily mined places on earth.
“The Soccer Politics of Morocco”, Aida Alami, New York Review of Books, December 20
I learned from this article that Hong Kong is not the only place where the anthem of the dictator is booed at football matches. There is also Morocco where the boos are a protest against the king who rules with near absolute power: “These days, the national anthem feels like a way to force patriotism onto us, so our reaction has been to boo.” Unlike Hong Kong, Morocco is a place where freedom of assembly is tightly restricted. Thus, the football stadium is one of the few places where people feel free enough to express themselves politically. Much of the protest comes from young people, motivated by their despair at the lack of opportunity in their lives. In this sense, their discontent is similar to that which fueled recent protests in two other northern African countries, Tunisia and Sudan. “During the second half of the game, the tension mounted. Raja finally scored. The air smelled of smoke bombs set off in celebration. Then a revolutionary chant exploded in the stadium. In unison, they sang in Moroccan Arabic ‘Fbladi Dalmouni,’ or ‘In my country, I suffered from injustice.’ The lyrics are astonishingly controversial for a country where jails are filled with hundreds of prisoners of conscience. This defiance spoke of economic hardship, a lack of freedom, and an ardent desire for change.” “In this country, we live in a dark cloud. We only ask for social peace. They left us as orphans, waiting for the punishment of the judgement day. Talents have been destroyed, destroyed by the drugs you provide them. How do you want them to shine? You stole the wealth of our country and shared it with strangers.”
“2,000 Clandestine Graves: How a Decade of the Drug War Turned Mexico into a Burial Ground”, Alejandra Guillén, Mago Torres, Marcela Turati, translated from the Spanish by Ashley Hermosillo Bawell, The Intercept, December 14
In Mexico, 37,485 people were reported missing between December 2006 and last October, according to official records. This report is the result of a year-and-a-half investigation that discovered 1,978 clandestine graves located in 24 of Mexico’s 32 states, a number far greater than the 232 reported by federal authorities. Of course, chances are, this is only a percentage of the overall number of mass graves related to the drug war and associated violence, and only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the estimated 200,000 killed in the drug war over the last decade during two presidential administrations. The article not only presents the evidence but also discusses the difficulties of identifying the remains. The scale and the pervasiveness of the violence is mind-boggling. The new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has promised to do things differently. He certainly has an immense challenge, so entrenched and powerful do this economy and culture of violence seem. This article was originally published in Spanish at adondevanlosdesaparecidos.org and translated into English. It is the only article on the list not originally written in English and reminds that we need more translated journalism, especially in an age of drastically reduced numbers of foreign correspondents and reduced English-language coverage of many parts of the world.
“India’s Farmers on the March”, Rohini Mohan, illustrated by Molly Crabapple, New York Review of Books, December 14
About the marches of tens of thousands farmers in India, most recently in late November, to protest all manner of ills that have befallen them — failed crops, erratic rains, precarious lives — and the Indian government’s inaction in the face of their suffering. “Costs are mounting, while real farm income per cultivator has grown less than half a percent annually. An Indian farmer today earns under 20,000 rupees (about $280) a year on average, a quarter of India’s per capita annual income. According to official statistics available up to 2016, more than 320,000 farmers and farm workers have committed suicide since 1995.” “Farmers’ protests had almost doubled in two years — from 2,683 incidents in 2015 to 4,837 in 2016 — and they continue to erupt. Tear gas and water cannons are regularly used against demonstrators. Last year, police firing with live ammunition killed six farmers at one protest.” Brilliant illustrations by Molly Crabapple, who recently illustrated Brothers of the Gun, which appeared in my Best Human Rights Books of the Year list. Rohini Mohan’s The Seasons of Trouble appeared on the same list in 2015.
“‘I can’t find any of them now’: Dissident writer Ma Jian remembers the freedom fighters of pre-Handover Hong Kong”, Holmes Chan, Hong Kong Free Press, 18 November
Ma Jian is a political writer. It’s seldom he meets an interviewer who’s equally up to snuff on both the literary and political sides. When he does, as here with Holmes Chan, Ma Jian’s a rewarding interviewee, forthcoming and full of insight. He spent a decade in Hong Kong, from 1987 to 1997, and this article focuses on primarily though not exclusively on his sojourn in the city, replete with archival photos. His criticism of HK people as blind to the implications of Communist Party rule in the lead-up to the handover is only partly fair. Tiananmen had just happened. I don’t think HK people were under any illusions, but they felt they had no choice and had to make do as best they could with a situation brought about by decisions beyond their control. That’s HK people’s premier attribute, pragmatism, for better and worse. If you have no say, it may be a good quality to possess, but it also can prevent you from resisting when resistance is called for. That has been the history of HK: The people have had no participation in the key decisions affecting their lives. Having lived in exile for thirty years now, Ma also has plenty of insightful things to say about China today, still under Communist dictatorship, and the complicit role of Chinese intellectuals in tyranny. “This kind of thought control created a unique community, which hates the west, which thinks that China’s nationalism will support Xi’s thought, and that everything is fine… They will actually work hard to assist the totalitarian state to become more effective. This is the reality of China.”
“China’s Bizarre Program to Keep Activists in Check”, Jianying Zha, New Yorker, December 24 & 32 issue
As the headline advertises, this article is ostensibly about “bei lüyou”, or the Chinese police practice of taking people regarded as threats to the regime “on holiday” during sensitive periods, but what really makes the article both affecting and trenchant is Zha’s focus on her brother, Jianguo, who for years has been one of those perceived threats, first as a member of the Democratic Party of China (for which he served upwards of a decade in prison) and more recently because of his following on WeChat. (Zha also had an excellent chapter about her brother in her book, Tide Players.) The second thing that makes the article interesting is what it says about the social context within which the police state “manages” its enemies. In particular, one professor is quoted as saying the main threat to the regime is not from “unrest” but from “inner rot”: “unchecked power overseeing a ‘warped reform,’ entrenched interest groups and fat cats bent on preserving the status quo, and a general unravelling of social trust… the decay had spread through the entire body politic.” That sounds about right.
“China Deals Another Blow to the International Human Rights Framework at its UN Universal Periodic Review”, Andrea Worden, China Change, November 25
About China’s sustained and systematic attempt to undermine the concept of universal human rights and replace it with “human rights with Chinese characteristics”, as well as to persuade the rest of the world to accept the ideology of “authoritarian developmentalism”. Needless to say, this is a far cry from the concept of the universality of human rights which has supposedly prevailed internationally since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Sustained pressure by China at the UN coupled with its economic influence may be making inroads, as suggested by the number of countries that praised China’s human rights record at its November Universal Periodic Review, in spite of the well-documented fact that China has one of the worst human rights records in the world. Astoundingly, China even prevailed upon the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights no less to censor the submissions of civil society actors.This effort to redefine a key cornerstone of the international order over the seventy years should receive more attention than it does. To be read with Ai Weiwei’s piece at the end of this list about the decline in commitment to human rights worldwide.
Patrick Kingsley’s articles on Hungary for the New York Times, including “The Website That Shows How a Free Press Can Die”, November 24; “Orban and His Allies Cement Control of News Media”, November 29; “Hungary Creates New Court System, Cementing Leader’s Control of Judiciary”, December 12; and “Outside Hungary’s State Television, A Protest. On Air: Pigeon Talk”, December 18.
Together, these articles amount to a primer in how to use a nominally democratic system to subvert democratic institutions, in particular, here, the news media and the courts. (Another topic that Kingsley hasn’t covered but which has happened over the same period is the hounding of Central European University out of Hungary.) As the lead to another article Kingsley wrote puts it, “Hungary has the trappings of a 21st century democracy, but uses its devices to exert the same kind of control as the autocracies of the Cold War.” What does that mean in practice? To quote from the first article above, “When Origo [an originally independent news organization] was sold in 2015 [to allies of Orban], 31 news outlets were owned by Orban allies; now 500 are.” So is Hungary still a democracy or not? After all, Orban and his allies have won elections repeatedly since coming to power in 2010. Why would people effectively vote to end their democracy? In this story lies an apparent paradox of our current era, and in this sense, these articles read like a modern-day parable of the dilemma of democracy.
And while he was at it, Kingsley did this one as well:
“‘Better to Drown’: A Greek Refugee Camp’s Epic Misery”, Patrick Kingsley, New York Times, October 2
This is Europe: “9,000 people living in a space designed for just 3,100, where squalid conditions and an inscrutable asylum process have led to what aid groups describe as a mental health crisis.” “The overcrowding is so extreme that asylum seekers spend as much as 12 hours a day waiting in line for food that is sometimes moldy. Last week, there were about 80 people for each shower, and around 70 per toilet, with aid workers complaining about raw sewage leaking into tents where children are living. Sexual assaults, knife attacks and suicide attempts are common.” “Outside Europe, the European Union has courted authoritarian governments in Turkey, Sudan and Egypt, while Italy has negotiated with warlords in Libya, in a successful effort to stem the flow of migrants toward the Mediterranean.” The Times editorial based on the piece.
“In the Valley of Fear”, Michael Greenberg, New York Review of Books, December 20 issue
About the conditions for farm workers in the San Joaquin Valley of California, one of the highest value stretches of farmland in the US, presided over by big growers and run much the same as it has been since the 1930s. Revenues are $47 billion a year, benefitting mostly a few hundred families. The composition of the work force has changed however, with about 80% being undocumented Mexicans, mostly indigenous people. Cancer rates among pickers are high, due to pesticides. Pay for tomato-picking is 75 cents per five-gallon bucket, preferred by pickers to California’s $11 an hour minimum wage. In five hours, a skilled picker can earn $75 to $85, or $20,000 to $23,000 for eight or nine months of work. “We have witnessed families being separated at the border — images of primal outrage. But the cruelties visited upon undocumented immigrants on the lowest rungs of the labor force who already live in the US have received far less attention. Thousands exist in a cordon of terror….” On the one hand, the government tacitly allows the systematic practice of employing undocumented workers, bowing to the demands of politically powerful business interests; on the other, it cracks down on the workers, a policy which on the surface appears self-contradictory until one realizes that keeping the workers living in fear also plays into the hands of their employers. We eat their food, we accept their conditions. Another story about the debased working conditions of workers worldwide in the neo-liberal era of deregulation and privileging of trade and capital over rights and the environment.
“District of Despair: On a Montana Reservation, Schools Favor Whites Over Native Americans” and “On a Reservation, a Second Chance for Prisoners and Their Warden”, Annie Waldman of ProPublica and Erica L. Green of The New York Times, December 28
Excellent two-part report on discrimination against Native Americans in the Wolf Point School District on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation of Montana. While the report keeps a tight focus on Wolf Point, statistics indicate the problems there are typical of those faced by Native American students elsewhere in the US. They have some of the worst academic outcomes of any demographic group, exacerbated by decades of discrimination: “Native students are more than twice as likely to be suspended…. [and] score lower than nearly all other demographic groups on national tests… only 72 percent of Native students graduate, the lowest of any demographic group.” Native young people also have a substantially higher suicide rate than whites. Ruth Fourstar says, “I feel invisible”. That statement is symbolic of the situation of Native Americans in general. The second article focuses on a Native man who used to be head of the Wolf Point school district where he says he fought for years in vain for better treatment of Native students though he was outnumbered by whites on the school board and now finds himself warden of the prison on the reservation where he does remedial work with young prisoners whom the school district failed the first time around.
“Forever prisoners: Were a father and son wrongly ensnared by America’s war on terror?”, Saba Imtiaz, The Guardian, 13 December
“Guantánamo once held more than 650 men; today, only 40 remain, some of whom have been nicknamed ‘forever prisoners’. The majority were transferred out or released by successful legal petitions during the Bush and Obama administrations. Nine detainees have died at Guantánamo, including seven from apparent suicide.” Saifullah Paracha has been detained there for 15 years. He has not been charged with a crime. At 71, he is the oldest prisoner. He “has never had a chance to see the full extent of what he has been accused of, let alone properly defend himself in court. He has not been tried by a military commission, but nor has he been cleared for release by a review board.” In New York, Saifullah’s son Uzair is serving 30 years in a federal prison for “providing material support for terrorism by helping an al-Qaida member”. This article investigates whether either ever committed a crime.
“In Nicaragua, Ortega Was on the Ropes. Now He Has Protesters on the Run”, Frances Robles, New York Times, December 24
While the nationwide protests in April and May that left 322 dead and upwards of 600 imprisoned got a fair amount of international coverage, it’s been hard to find much about the aftermath in the media. This is one of the best pieces, conveying just how draconian the Nicaraguan government’s response has been and the extent to which it is moving the country toward full-on dictatorship. The article provides an overview of the different stages of the crackdown: “The government’s response to the protests came in four stages, starting with a crackdown using a mix of police and paramilitary forces. Next, in July, it began ‘operation cleanup’ to sweep the streets of roadblocks. Even churches were attacked. Then came arbitrary detentions. Finally, there was the criminalization of dissent.” Many Nicaraguans have gone underground. An estimated 60,000 have fled the country, 23,000 to Costa Rica. Hundreds have been charged with terrorism-related crimes. A television station has been shut down, its news director jailed, international human rights observers have been expelled, gas stations that participated in strikes have been closed, and police raided the offices of Nicaragua’s leading human rights organization, confiscating its computers.
“Leslie Kee’s ‘Out in Taiwan’ captures the diversity of Taiwan’s LGBT+ community ahead of historic referendum”, Hong Kong Free Press, 11 November
Singaporean photographer Leslie Kee photographed nearly 200 LGBT couples and individuals for a project called “Out in Taiwan” in a 14-hour marathon photo shoot. I found these portraits very moving in their sheer normality — “just people”, and also in that sense, celebratory of a community. Pictured here is veteran gay rights activist Chi Chia-wei who petitioned the Taiwanese Council of Grand Justices to examine the constitutionality of denying same-sex marriage in 2015. In 2017, the court ruled that the existing marriage law was unconstitutional, paving the way for Taiwan to become the first country in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage. If that sounds like an inspiring success story, wait a moment: On November 24, as part of local elections across the country, referenda on ten measures were held, five of which had to do with LGBT issues. LGBT rights got clobbered, losing all five, a sign of how deeply conservative a significant portion of the Taiwanese electorate still is. The government is still obligated to implement the court’s ruling, but appears to be dragging its feet, knowing it will be doing so against prevailing social winds. Change will not be quite as swift as we first hoped.
“Portraits from the Exodus”, Tracie Williams and John Washington, The Nation, December 14
These moving photos are accompanied by statements from the people in the pictures about why they left their homes in Central America and came north, hoping to enter the United States. They were part of the “caravan” that got so much media attention, not least of all because of Trump’s criticism of and threats to it. There are still several thousand living in a camp near Tijuana, just south of the US-Mexico border. Aura: “I saw the caravan and thought, this is my opportunity. It’s not that we wanted to do this. We had to. I feel sad and hopeless here, but I know I have to hope, so I do.… If they force me home, I’ll turn right back around and try again. I can’t live in Honduras anymore.”
“Portraits from the Caravan”, Photos by Russell Monk, Text by Jose Antonio Vargas, New York Times, December 29
More excellent pictures of some of the people who travelled north hoping to enter the US. The impression that emerges is “unity in diversity”: There are similar themes about why they left home and wish to go to the US while at the same time there are many different kinds of people with many different stories. Some are the sorts that one imagines many would sympathize with, such as the mother and daughter pictured here; others perhaps not so much, but the fact remains that they are all human beings and should be treated with dignity.
“Human dignity is in danger. In 2019 we must stand as one to survive”, Ai Weiwei, The Guardian, 1 January
Technically, this is one day after the end of the period examined here, but it was a very fitting way to end the old year and begin the new. I don’t agree with everything Ai has to say here about human rights, but I do agree that the concept of the universality of human rights is essential to respect for human dignity, which in turn is necessary for a decent society, a decent world. I also agree that human rights have been downgraded in recent years by the powers that be and by many people as well. If you look at the amount of attention other global issues receive, whether “security”, the economy or the environment, it’s relatively rare to see op-eds like this one focused squarely on human rights. I hope for more human rights advocacy of this sort from prominent figures as well as more thinking of this sort about the world we want to see and what needs to be done to realize it.