144 articles, photos and videos about 55 different places around the world, made by hundreds of journalists, photographers and videographers, published by 54 different media organizations.
On the list, international and national print media dominate. There is much good human rights reporting in local and regional media as well, just that not as much reaches an international audience, even in this day and age of more ways to disseminate information than ever. Some publications which appear to do excellent reporting have paywalls so high I rarely get access to them.
There are few spot or hard news stories that make the list, unless they were unusually “scoopy”. The list highlights investigative reporting, features, profiles, analytical pieces that look at patterns not immediately apparent from day to day, and in-depth pieces, and reporting that provides a unique angle. The list does not attempt to reflect the most important human rights stories or issues of the year, though many of them do appear on it.
The 144 pieces are about 55 different places including Afghanistan, Australia, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Bosnia, Brazil, Burma, Canada, Central Asia, China,Colombia, Denmark, Egypt, El Salvador, Europe, Germany, global, Guatemala, Hong Kong, India, Iraq, Ireland, Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Marshall island, the Middle East and North Africa, Nauru, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Sudan, Southern Mongolia, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Taiwan, Thailand, Tibet, Turkey, Uganda, the United Kingdom, the United States, Venezuela, Vietnam, Xinjiang, and Yemen.
The pieces are about a wide range of human rights issues, including activism and advocacy, children’s rights, civil disobedience and nonviolent revolution, corruption and human rights, crimes against humanity, democracy and dictatorship, disabled people’s rights, economic rights, enforced disappearance, environmental rights, extrajudicial detention, freedom of assembly and association (including civil society), freedom of expression (including press freedom), freedom of religion, genocide, the right to health, housing and land rights, human rights defenders, impunity, indigenous people’s rights, legal rights (including due process), LGBT rights, migrants’ rights (including refugees and asylum seekers), minority rights (including casteism, collective punishment, discrimination, and racism), political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, property rights, self-determination, slavery, surveillance and the right to privacy (including use of big data to spy on citizens), terrorism, torture, war crimes, and women’s rights (including domestic and sexual violence). Rights issues present in previous lists but notably absent this year include the death penalty, labor rights and the right to education.
As that list indicates, “human rights” is here understood as those rights contained 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, and issues related to their abuse, protection and defense, and the nonviolent struggle for their fulfillment. Worth noting is that articles related to democracy are included, since it is a right in itself (ICCPR Article 25) as well as the form of government which in itself embodies the best fulfillment of rights and in practice best guarantees their protection.
The list is divided into the following categories: The Best of the Best, Africa, China, Europe, Latin America, Middle East and North Africa, Russia and Central Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia and Oceania, Opinion, Interviews, Photography, and Video.
The Best of the Best
“My Family’s Slave”, Alex Tizon, The Atlantic, June
About the author’s relationship with a woman who worked for his family her whole adult life. While he was growing up, he knew little about her origins or her exact relationship to his family, but as he got older, he began to see that she was basically enslaved. The article is brilliantly sensitive about the dynamics of the relationship. It also explores the historical background of the Philippines that lead to this type of slavery being quite common. Raised in the U.S. and an American citizen, Tizon eventually goes to where Lola came from to find out more about her. I recognize these “what-are-they-exactly” relationships between families and their servants from places I have lived like Ethiopia, India and Uganda, and it also reminded me of the more than 300,000 domestic helpers in Hong Kong, mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia, whose relationships with their employers are contractual and legal and yet exploitative, allowing them to see their own families and children only once every two years for two weeks. Tizon’s aritlce elicited an extraordinary response which can be found here and here. One of my favorites is this one, situating Lola’s story within the context of Philippines history and remarking that the story “is also a testimony to the slave’s ability to deflect the master’s appropriative power. It is as much about Tizon’s shameful secret as it is about Pulido’s resistant dignity.” Some of the responses criticized Tizon for being insufficiently repentant or for having done so little to change Lola’s situation even after he grew up and understood it. But to me, these miss the point: The story was precisely about the many factors that create the conditions for Lola’s slavery, a very important one being the culture and psychology of the family, the ways in which various family members are implicated, and why they act as they do. In this respect, the article was superb. A human rights story, yes — freedom from slavery is a basic right — but also a story about how we treat others, who we regarded as fully human, fully equal to ourselves, and who we do not, how easy it is to fall into habits of regarding others as less than human, less than equal. This happened to be Tizon’s last story before dying, a fact alluded to here: “Editor’s Note: A Reporter’s Final Story”
“Shuanggui: The harsh, hidden side of China’s war on graft, and how one man disappeared into it”, Nathan VanderKlippe, The Globe and Mail, March 24
One of the few articles that has looked in-depth at the Chinese Communist Party’s “shuanggui”, an entirely secret and extrajudicial “disciplinary” system unsurprisingly rife with abuses, and one that has received very little attention, partly because of its secrecy and partly because amongst many Chinese, there’s much less sympathy for Party members who may very well be corrupt than for persecuted dissidents. The article is all the more relevant in light of Xi Jinping’s massive “anti-corruption” campaign, on which foreign media generally have done an unimpressive job of reporting considering its significance within Chinese society. The article piggybacks an excellent report on shuanggui by Human Rights Watch, but in doing so also shows the value great journalism adds, especially in an unfree, repressive country like China. VanderKlippe humanizes the story by profiling the efforts of a wife, Jean Zou, to get her husband, Wilson Wang, released from shuanggui. Eventually he made a coerced confession and then was transferred to the formal judicial system where he was sentenced to six years in prison based on that confession extracted in secret detention.
“This is What a 21st-Century Police State Really Looks Like”, Megha Rajagopalan, BuzzFeed, October 18
This year, finally, reporting on the situation of the Uighurs in Xinjiang got substantial media coverage. Xinjiang is one of the most repressive places in the world, especially if you’re Uighur. This article focuses on the comprehensive surveillance systems in Xinjiang. It’s got a killer opening: “This [Kashgar] is a city where growing a beard can get you reported to the police. So can inviting too many people to your wedding, or naming your child Muhammad or Medina.” Dystopian indeed. Rajagopalan does an exemplary job of piecing together a lot of the evidence that’s out there in bits and pieces to assemble what is the closest yet to a full picture of the extent to which the Communist Party will go in order to fully control a people: checkpoints and massive police presence as a part of a “grid-style social management” system; snap phone searches; apps to monitor Uighurs’ phones remotely; facial, iris and voice pattern recognition technology; surveillance drones; collection of Uighur DNA for a database; and the political re-education centers. Acting or appearing “too Islamic”, sharing “forbidden” information via the internet, receiving a phone call from abroad or having a relative abroad is enough to get you into trouble.
“After the liberation of Mosul, an orgy of killing”, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, The Guardian, 21 November
Abdul-Ahad reports on Iraqi soldiers’ extrajudicial killings of suspected IS soldiers and sympathizers after the former’s re-conquest of the city. Just that Abdul-Ahad was able to get so close to this story is accomplishment enough — one might argue that it pushes the bounds of the ethical to observe these crimes as a bystander, even if that bystander is a journalist. But apart from the highly detailed and engrossing depiction, what makes this article great is that through following the Iraqi soldiers, it situates their killings within larger contexts, including the fact that many of them had been fighting for years through the various conflicts arising from the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and had family and friends who’d suffered at the hands of IS. They are alienated from their own military and political leadership, whom they regard as corrupt, self-serving and inept (they say that if they turned the IS suspects over to the courts, they would bribe their way free). It would be difficult to imagine these soldiers acting as they’re portrayed here without Iraq’s history of violence from the Saddam Hussein dictatorship to the U.S.-led invasion and occupation to the sectarian wars and then IS. The article shows that such gross abuses of human rights rarely come out of nowhere but are conditioned by circumstance.
“Braving Cancer Amid the Chaos of Syria”, text by Caelainn Hogan, photos by Sebastian Liste, New York Times, August 8
Hogan profiles the families of children with cancer receiving treatment at the Children’s Hospital in Damascus against the backdrop of war. They come from many different parts of Syria and many had to cross fronts in the war to get to the hospital. Having a child with cancer is heartbreaking under any circumstances, but the travails associated with the war make it all the more difficult for these parents.
“Refugees Welcome”, Jodi Kantor and Catrin Einhorn, New York Times, July 1, 2016 to March 25
“Refugees Encounter a Foreign Word: Welcome”, July 1, 2016; “They Took in One Refugee Family. But Families Don’t Have Borders”, October 22, 2016; “Wonder and Worry as a Syrian Child Transforms”, December 17, 2016; “Canadians Adopted Refugee Families for Year. Then Came ‘Month 13’”, March 25
This four-article series began in July last year, but I’ll admit it wasn’t until its third installment in December that I began to realize how extraordinary it is, and this was capped off by the last article in March this year. The series follows a group of Canadians and Syrians as they get to know one another over the course of a year. The Syrians are refugees who’ve been granted asylum in Canada. The Canadians are all sorts, but those profiled are middle-aged women who’ve spontaneously decided to extend a helping hand to people newly arrived in their country who are just beginning to figure it out, in deep disorientation and trauma and with few resources. Not only is this a feel-good story about how refugees should always be received (and Canada in general is a model), but it also reveals many of the challenges from the perspectives of both the newcomers and their helpers.
“How to Get Away with Murder in Small-town India”, Ellen Barry, New York Times, August 19
Barry’s reporting was featured in last year’s Best of the Best, two articles on impediments to young Indian women joining the formal work force. This article was her last before departing her post as foreign correspondent in India. It is a masterpiece of journalism, reading like a parable of rural Indian life. Before departing India, Barry goes back to visit a source, a rural politician, and hears about the murder of a woman by her husband. Her pursuit of the story brings out the inter-relation of some of the biggest human rights problems in India, including violence against women, impunity and the reluctance of law enforcement officials to enforce the law, casteism and the brazen manipulation of democracy, while showing the motives and thinking behind each of the actors. It reminded me a little of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold in miniature.
“How Egypt’s Activists Became ‘Generation Jail’”, Joshua Hammer, New York Times, March 14
Hammer profiles Ahmed Maher and several other members of April 6 Youth Movement, one of the most active groups in the revolution that overthrew Mubarak. All are suffering the repercussions of the Sisi era of reimposed dictatorship. As the article puts it, “Sisi’s crackdown on the opposition far exceeds the darkest period of repression during the Mubarak era. Human rights groups claim that as many as 60,000 political prisoners now languish in Egypt’s jails. (At the end of Mubarak’s rule, the figure was between 5,000 and 10,000.) Egypt’s prisons are filled to triple their capacity, and the regime has built 16 more prisons to handle the overflow.” This has been accompanied by the most expansive overhaul of the judicial system in Egyptian history, basically in the direction of tightening the reins over any opposition to the regime. As we in Hong Kong know, the media is much better at covering revolutions than counter-revolutionary crackdowns, but the latter are also a very important part of the story, and the April 6 activists are worthy of our solidarity.
“Boko Haram strapped suicide bombs to them. Somehow these teenage girls survived.” Dionne Searcey, photos by Adam Ferguson, New York Times, October 25
A great piece for a number of reasons. First, I hadn’t really known of this phenomenon previously, though in the region it was widely reported — a sign of how difficult it is for major human rights stories to make it out of Africa. Second, this required finding and interviewing 18 survivors who had been forced to undertake suicide bombings, with all the difficulties that entailed. Many still live in their communities where any contact with Boko Haram, even if it was coerced, excites deep suspicion if not animosity. Because of the above, photographer Adam Ferguson had to be creative to capture images to accompany the article, and has gotten it just right.
“End of Apartheid in South Africa? Not in Economic Terms”, Peter S. Goodman, New York Times, October 24
A much-needed story which gives an excellent overview of one of the most important issues in South Africa today. Yes, the country is now majority-ruled, yet more than 20 years after the end of apartheid, 10% of all South Africans, most of them white, owns more than 90% of national wealth. This is partly an outcome of Mandela’s decision to prioritize peace — he decided to leave the apartheid economy mostly intact. Not only that, but many ANC decisions have actually reinforced housing segregation. For example, though it has built much housing for blacks and provided clean water and electricity to many more, those efforts have been concentrated in the townships, and many other blacks are still essentially squatting on property they do not own and commuting long distances from township to work. “We never dismantled apartheid,” says one commentator. “The patterns of enrichment and impoverishment are still the same.”
In these two pieces, Epstein cuts through a lot of the confusing reporting that appeared the mainstream media and gets to the heart of the matter. One reason for that confusing reporting was that it relied overly much on Western election observers such as John Kerry who overlooked and downplayed many occurrences which compromised the elections and then declared them essentially free and fair, something the Kenyan election commission itself disagreed with, ordering a re-do… which, as it turned out, the challenger Odinga boycotted because so little was done between the first and second to remedy the problems of the first. And so, in the end, Kenya has a leader who’s retained power through a less than proper process (and, on top of that, beaten a rap at the International Criminal Court).
“Meet the Teenagers Who Started a Film Production Studio in Their Refugee Camp”, Megan Iacobini de Fazio, Narratively, November 15
Falls under the category of “hopeful journalism” in a place where there is not much hope, Kakuma, one of the two mega-refugee camps in northern Kenya. (See Ben Rawlence’s excellent City of Thorns, out this year, on the other, Dadaab.) Features the resourcefulness of young people trapped for years, in limbo essentially, awaiting resettlement abroad, but in the meantime, trying to make something of their lives through creative expression about their lives.
“Bonded by spilt blood, South Sudanese refugees in Uganda reach million mark”, Jason Burke, The Guardian, 17 August
About another very under-reported refugee crisis. In August, the number of South Sudanese crossing the border into Uganda reached a million. Another million went to Ethiopia, Sudan and DR Congo. This article focuses on a family of six, a woman and five children, who are not biologically related but came together in Uganda after their loved ones were killed at home. Gloria, at 23 the family leader, walked 60 km with her two children and another she found along the way to reach Uganda. This phenomenon of new family formation in the Ugandan camps is not unusual and is in fact encouraged by those working with refugees there. For all its many other human rights deficits and despite being a poor country, Uganda is very generous and welcoming to refugees, much like Turkey (see article below).
“War Consumes South Sudan, a Young Nation Cracking Apart”, Jeffrey Gettleman, New York Times, March 4
Just as the South Sudanese refugee crisis is under-reported, so is the war there. This article is one of the best at explaining it and focusing on how it has affected people in the country. Apart from the two million South Sudanese refugees, many more are displaced within the country. Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed, and in February, the U.N. made a rare formal declaration of famine in parts of the country. A synopsis: “What happened [in Darfur] is happening here: government-backed militias, and sometimes uniformed soldiers, sweeping into towns, burning down huts, massacring civilians, gang-raping women and driving millions from their homes, leaving many to crowd into disease-ridden camps protected by United Nations peacekeepers.”
Over the course of the year, I didn’t think much was going on with Chinese human rights journalism, especially compared to previous years. The situation has been so bad there for so long, I thought journalists were burnt out or bored covering the same stories of persecution and abuse over and over. But looking back, I can see I was wrong. As before, some of the best human rights journalism is still about China. And that’s a good thing, considering China has one of the worst human rights records in the world.
“China Refuses to Admit It Has a Rape Problem. I Would Know.” Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, Foreign Policy, October 25
In the wake of the many revelations of sexual harassment and worse in the U.S., Allen-Ebrahimian came out with this well-researched and highly knowledgeable piece which has her own experience of rape in China as the focal point. As she puts it, “Unwittingly, I had walked into the middle of a struggle to redefine Chinese identity, in a nation at times unable to come to terms with its own sexual revolution — or the epidemic of violence behind its closed doors.” Allen-Ebrahimian is reacting to Chinese state media’s assertion that sexual harassment is not as common in China as in the West. This is one of the best pieces I’ve come across that has to do with what I consider to be hugely unexamined double standards regarding gender and equality in China.
“Frontier Injustice: Inside China’s campaign to re-educate Uighurs”, Nathan Vanderklippe, Globe and Mail, 9 September (The article is paywalled; text only can be found here)
VanderKlippe again (see above). Here, he focuses on the Communist Party’s mass political “re-education” campaign of Uighurs in Xinjiang called “extremism eradication”, which basically involves de-Islamization. Many people have been forcibly interned in camps to undergo this “re-education” and can be kept there for weeks and even months until they’re deemed to have become sufficiently “patriotic”, all entirely outside of any kind of judicial process. This is on top of many other “security” measures, including a hugely ramped up presence of security forces and requiring Uighurs to submit national ID cards to travel, buy fuel or enter mosques. VanderKlippe ushers an impressive array of evidence about a secretive practice in a very repressive place. He was briefly detained in Xinjiang for reporting this article.
“Uyghur Migrant Life in the City During the ‘People’s War’” and “Love and Fear among Rural Uyghur Youth during the People’s War”, text by Darren Byler, photos by Nicola Zolin and Eleanor Moseman, Living Otherwise and Youth Circulations, November
This two-part series combining commentary and photographs gives a sense of what it’s like to live such heavy oppression and to be the target of intrusive surveillance by virtue of your ethnicity. In particular, it examines how the “People’s War on Terror” has impacted the daily lives of ordinary Uighurs. Much of the content is similar to that of the two articles above, but these pieces give a more initimate view. In closed places like Xinjiang, it can be difficult for accredited foreign journalists to move around freely without monitoring (which can endanger those with whom they come into contact), and in such cases, writing and photos by researchers and photographers like these three can give views that are otherwise difficult to catch. The first part focuses on the “securitization” of Xinjiang and its impact on Uighurs, while the second looks at the everyday lives of two young people in order to show the attempt to lead an ordinary life and preserve dignity under such oppression.
“The Gui Minhai Case Two Years On: A Daughter’s Struggle”, Jojje Olsson, Taiwan Sentinel, October 17
A profile of a reluctant crusader. Angela Gui never expected to have to campaign on behalf of her father, but when the Chinese government kidnapped him in Thailand and detained him incommunicado in China, she was thrust into the role. This piece does an excellent job of describing her experience. She and her father are Swedish citizens, and the article also paints the Swedish government in a poor light. Not long after this, Gui Minhai was pseudo-released, a Communist specialty, and is apparently at his wife’s home in Ningbo. Since then, all’s gone quiet, with his most prominent advocates, including his daughter, apparently deciding that silence is, for now, in his best interests.
“This summer, hundreds of China’s young gay people took their parents on a sea voyage of reconcilation”, Zheping Huang, Quartz, October 13
This is that rare thing: an upbeat human rights story on China. In June, 800 children and parents take a four-day cruise, organized by PFLAG, China’s largest gay support group. Only 15% of gay Chinese have come out to their parents and only 5% are publicly out. Some of the sons and daughter tricked their parents into joining the cruise, then came out to them. The article not only profiles the people on board but uses the cruise to illustrate the lives of gay people in China today and the challenges they face. It also documents how gay groups, just like other NGOs, must negotiate the government’s on-going crackdown on independent civil society: “PFLAG’s operation is an example of how nonprofits in China are pushing to change human rights while carefully navigating the authoritarian state’s extremely limited toleration of such activities.”
“Your news about China depends on intrepid journalists whose names you’ll probably never know”, Zheping Huang, Quartz, October 11
The best article yet about the “news assistants” who work for foreign media in China, much like fixers elsewhere, though these are usually full-time jobs that put the assistants between the rock of their foreign employer, where they often don’t get sufficient credit for their work, and the hard place of the Chinese government’s censorship and surveillance system, where they are often called in “for tea” by state agents keeping tabs on their employer. Chinese citizens are actually banned from working as full-fledged journalists for foreign media, which increases the precarity of their situations. In fact, technically, they’re employed by the Chinese government. “I consider myself a journalist, but my government does not,” says one such assistant.
“NGOs are under threat in China’s latest crackdown against ‘foreign forces’”, Zheping Huang, Quartz, January 4
Huang does it again — his third article on the list. This is the best piece on the Chinese government’s crackdown on NGOs, focused on the new foreign NGO law. No one knows the exact ramifications of the law or the extent to which it will be enforced, but that is just the point: it is meant to send a chill through the NGO community and ensure that the government can control it whenever and however it wants, under legal cover. Apart from examining the law, the article provides excellent background and context, which helps in understanding the situation of independent civil society in China today, which is, simply put, that it was in its infancy and now is being slowly but surely restricted and crushed.
“China’s anti-corruption drive ensnares the lowly and rattles families”, Te-ping Chen, Wall Street Journal, December 20, 2016
Apart from dutifully reporting the news of the latest high-ranking official to be punished for corruption, the media has done a not terribly good job of covering China’s “anti-corruption” campaign. This piece a definite exception. Forced confessions, torture, wrongful convictions. It traces a pig farmer and what happens to him when he tried to retract a forced confession used to send four officials to prison. The families of those four, then, joined 200 others in writing an open letter criticizing the government for creating a climate of fear. Prosecutors threw the pig farmer in prison after he retracted his forced confession. All of this is the norm in a country where the rule of the Party trumps the rule of anything approximating law.
“China’s All-Seeing Surveillance State Is Reading Its Citizens’ Faces”, Josh Chin, Liza Lin, Wall Street Journal, June 2
This year the media really got started piecing together the many pieces of the puzzle of China’s huge rapidly developing systems of surveillance of its own citizens in the digital era. This is one of the best pieces on that, focusing on its employment of facial recognition technology, developed in close collaboration with private companies. China is estimated to have 176 million surveillance cameras. That number will increase to 450 million by 2025. By contrast, the US has 45 million. It used to be that China would look abroad for the technology it needed to, for example, set up the Great Firewall, but these days its own companies can provide almost all the technology it needs to spy on its own people, and this in a country with virtually no protections of the right to privacy.
“Tea and Tiananmen: Inside China’s new censorship machine”, Cate Cadell, Pei Li, Reuters, 29 September
China enlists private companies to not only spy on (see above) but also censor its own people. The value of this report is that it gets employees of Toutiao, a news feed app, to discuss how it is actually the company that hires the censors directly. This sort of information is widely suspected but it’s not that often hard evidence is uncovered, as here. What also becomes clear is how quickly this system is expanding. The employee/censor says, “We had about 30–40 employees two years ago; now we have nearly a thousand….” The work is not called censorship but “auditing”. In this respect, much if not most censorship in China is outsourced. Companies are motivated to police themselves and their services so as to avoid punishmnet by the government.
“Big Data meets Big Brother as China moves to rate its citizens”, Rachel Botsman, Wired, 20 October
This is the best, most in-depth explainer I’ve yet come across on the Communist Party’s Social Credit Rating system, which it is piloting and hopes to implement fully by 2020. Nothing better represents the Communist vision of society thatn SCR, which is just about diametrically opposed to the rights vision as it can get. The stated purpose of SCR is to enhance trust in society… by compelling people to act as the government wishes, using secret algorithms which spew out arbitrary judgments: if you play video games, you’re an idle person; if you buy diapers, you’re responsible (as you’re probably a parent); sharing “positive energy” about how well the government is doing makes your score go up, mentioning forbidden topics makes your score go down, and your score also goes down if your online friends do any of the non-permissibles. The number and variety of punishments will be vast, and blacklisting will be rampant. As the government itself states, SCS will “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step”. As the article puts it, “…the government is attempting to make obedience feel like gaming.” Unfortunately, the article, while describing the system well, takes no human rights approach. There are no effective laws in China ensuring the right to privacy and there will no form of due process associated with SCS. That’s bad enough but when you recall that this is in one of the world’s most repressive dictatorships with a long history of both spying on and abusing its subjects, then it’s hard to think that SCS will be used by that regime in any way that respects their rights.
“China invents the digital totalitarian state”, The Economist, December 17, 2016
“Digital totalitarianism” is a good term to describe China’s ambitions in terms of linking up technologies to exert control over its people. This is another very good piece on the Social Credit System. It’s accompanied by another on big data and China’s digital dictatorship.
“The love that survived a Chinese labour camp”, Celia Hatton, BBC, 9 July
On the eve of Liu Xiaobo’s death in state custody, Hatton does a wonderful job of putting together the love story of him and Liu Xia. He was imprisoned for over half of their marriage. They married in 1996 and held the banquet in the cafeteria of the labor camp where Xiaobo was sentenced at the time. At his trial in 2009, Xiaobo made his last public statement, in which he said, “I am serving my sentence in a tangible prison, while you wait in the intangible prison of the heart. Your love is the sunlight that leaps over high walls and penetrates the iron bars of my prison window, stroking every inch of my skin, warming every cell of my body, allowing me to always keep peace, openness, and brightness in my heart, and filling every minute of my time in prison with meaning.” Their story is the story of a China dream which, up to now, has never been fulfilled.
“China lawyer’s family says US helped them flee”, Gerry Shih, AP, May 7
This article broke the news of how the family of rights lawyer, detainee and torture victim Xie Yang managed to escape China. The story reads like a thriller. The family was in a Bangkok jail, expecting to be deported, with Chinese security agents waiting outside, when US officials arrived and whisked the family out the backdoor and off to the airport, where their Chinese counterparts caught up with the family and forced a showdown. By that point, Xie had already been detained on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power” for nearly two years. In January, his wife helped release his account of being tortured in detention. From that point on, she felt her life and those of her children were at risk and this is what motivated her escape. Their 14-year-old daughter was detained when attempting to board a train to Hong Kong, alerting Chen that they were on a blacklist. They made their way to a safehouse in Bangkok, where they were captured by Thai authorities, probably with Chinese assistance. And only due to last-minute US intervention were they able to escape. They now live in the US. Xie has since been pseudo-released and is under constant monitoring in China. It is unclear when if ever the family will be able to reunite.
“China forces lawyer on 3,000-kilometer road trip, raising new questions about justice”, Nathan Vanderklippe, The Globe and Mail, May 8
Bizarre cruelty becomes more bizarre. Lawyer Chen Jiangang reveals Xie Yang’s (see above) torture allegations. Then, on holiday, he’s car-jacked by several dozen armed police and “forced to drive back to Beijing in his Honda Accord accompanied by two members of China’s secret police and an official with the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Justice… a kind of mobile house arrest.” The car-jacking had a point: it was meant to keep Chen on the road while his client Xie was tried for “inciting subversion of state power and disrupting court order” in Beijing. Instead, Xie was “represented” by government-appointed lawyers and plead guilty. Foreseeing his probable fate, a year earlier, Xie had written, “If, one day in the future, I do confess — whether in writing or on camera or on tape — that will not be the true expression of my own mind. It may be because I’ve been subjected to prolonged torture.”
“A human rights activist, a secret prison and a tale from Xi Jinping’s new China”, Tom Phillips, Guardian, January 3
This is the most extensive journalistic account of the 23 days the Swedish human rights campaigner Peter Dahlin spent in Chinese state custody, published about a year after his experience. Dahlin was the only foreigner detained as part of the crackdown on rights lawyers and related activists which started on 9 July 2015. The article goes back in time to describe the work Dahlin was doing in China, how, because of the crackdown on civil society more generally, it had become all but impossible to continue, and he was planning to leave China in a matter of days when he was arrested, along with his Chinese girlfriend, who was also kept in detention, though she had nothing whatsoever to do with his rights work. Dahlin was eventually forced to make a video “confession” as a condition of his release and the confession was aired on Chinese television. Since this account, both Dahlin and his girlfriend have written about their experience in the book, The People’s Republic of the Disappeared, on this year’s best-of human rights books list.
“’Flee at Once’: Chinese Besieged Human Rights Lawyers”, Alex W. Palmer, New York Times, July 25
Appearing two years after the most recent crackdown on rights lawyers and related activists began on 9 July 2015, this is a good review of their story, told from the point of view of Liang Xiaojun, one of the lawyers who wasn’t detained. The article also reviews the two-decade-long history of rights lawyers in China, though I would dispute its characterization of the latest crop of lawyers as “radical” — indeed, a characteristic of all Chinese rights lawyers is their moderation and the belief in working for incremental progress. In spite of the danger, Liang agrees to take the case of a detained lawyer, Xie Yanyi. In January, Xie was released “on bail” and his movements are tightly monitored.
“Autistic Boy’s Death One of Many Linked to Squalid ‘Care Center’ In China”, Chris Buckley and Adam Wu, New York Times, March 20
This well-told story reads like a parable of the disregard for human life of the Chinese bureaucracy. A mentally disabled boy goes missing. In spite of the father’s pleas, the authorities do nothing to help, and the father spends months searching for him, though he was picked up by the authorities a week after his disappearance. He is eventually found dead in a squalid care home a few hundred kilometers away, one of 21 at the center to have died within a matter of months.
“Chased by the law in Southern Mongolia”, anonymous, Narratively, 19 April
A foreign videographer goes to Southern Mongolia (called Inner Mongolia by the Chinese, and a province of the People’s Republic of China) to make a documentary exploring the struggles of semi-nomadic herders. One rarely hears anything about these people in the media though from time to time news of protests leaks out. It’s really one of the many blank areas of China coverage. The videographer gets to detained on his way to cover a herders’ rights protest but is released the next day. He’s detained again that day. The police want to see the content on his laptop. He manages to fool them. He tells the story because he says if he’s treated in this manner, one can only imagine what happens to the people he’s covering. eventually leaves China to make this excellent documentary: The Nomadic People Caught in the Crosshairs of China’s Economic Boom
“The Lost Children of Tuam”, Dan Barry, New York Times, October 28
About an institution run by a Catholic order in Ireland apparently systematically neglecting and mistreating children in its care and then secretly burying them in underground tunnels, at first glance, this may not appear a human rights story, except perhaps in a historical sense, but reading it, I actually felt uplifted at the thought of how much Ireland has changed in such a short time, getting out from under the authority of a corrupt church which had near-dictatorial powers over even an ostensibly democratic country. As this article shows, Ireland decriminalized homosexuality in 1992, removed restrictions on the sale of contraception in 1993, legalized divorce in 1996, and in 2015 became the first country to vote by referendum to legalize same-sex marriage — by 62% no less, and now has a gay prime minister. The panoply of Catholic religious orders which abused women and children in various institutions were funded by the state, but now the Irish people have broken its grip and next year will decide on whether to legalize abortion. This isn’t the first piece on this story. It’s been well-known in Ireland for three years, but this very well put together, with the photos and video and text, and very well-written. Also, it emphasizes the dogged dedication of one ordinary person to bring this story to light, Catherine Corless, a true hero. Reading it, I thought of Sinead O’Connor all those years ago tearing up the Pope’s picture on Saturday Night Live. She, an abuse victim herself, was shunned for it, and just think of all that’s come to light since. I always identified with her sheer rage at the hypocrisy and injustice. Ah, how far a society can come in such short time! Ireland, you’re an inspiration. Accompanying article: To Find the Story of the Lost Children of Tuam, I Needed a Guide
“When Denmark criminalised kindness”, Lisbeth Zornig Andersen, Granta, 7 December 2016
Andersen’s personal account of being prosecuted and convicted on people-smuggling charges for transporting a family of Syrian refugees across Denmark from the German border to the Swedish border. She tells of a widespread initiative on the part of Danish citizens, organized primarily via Facebook, to support the refugees streaming across the border, and of the eventual crackdown by the state. The two sides represent the two sides of the European response to the large number of refugees that came to its countries: on the one hand, open arms; on the other, the cold shoulder, and even worse. When one thinks of how welcoming countries from Turkey to Uganda have been in accommodating millions of refugees, it’s astounding just how stingy, incompetent, unenlightened and impoverished of spirit official Europe appears.
“In Angela Merkel, German Women Find Symbol, but Not Savior”, Katrin Bennhold, New York Times, September 13
Good, well-told, straight-forward account of how impervious German society has been to the social advancement of women in many sectors. As a young apprentice at a wind energy company puts it, “There are lots of women at my level, and then there is Angela Merkel. There aren’t many women in between,” or, as the country’s best-known feminist, Alice Schwarzer puts it, ““Since 2005, little girls can decide: Do I become a hairdresser — or chancellor?”
“The trans experience in Colombia: ‘This is where we work — and this is where we are killed’”, Kate Lyons, The Guardian, 8 October
Catholic influence + macho culture = violence against transgender women. In the past eight years, 74% of all murders of trans people occurred in Latin America. Life expectancy for trans women there is estimated to be between 35 and 41 years. 12 murders of trans women have occurred this year alone in just one area of Bogotá, which is ironically also about the only place they feel free to come out. This article gives a good overview of the situation of trans people in Colombia, exploring both how bad things have been for them and how they might be starting to get better.
“Wisdom of the Cosmos” is the translation of Arandu Arakuaa’s name from Tupi Guarani, a language spoken by indigenous people in Brazil and elsewhere in South America. Arandu Arakuaa play heavy metal combined with indigenous instruments. Brazil has 170 indigenous languages, but 40 of them have fewere than 100 speakers. It’s reckoned 30% of those languages may disappear in the next 15 years. Efforts to promote and preserve of indigenous languages run parallel with other efforts to counteract governmental and developer initiatives to control indigenous lands. Many of Arandu Arakuaa’s lyrics address these conflicts. Their audience is mostly non-Tupi Guarani-speaking, and the band deals with the challenge by sub-titling its videos in Portuguese.
“Operation Car Wash: Is this the biggest corruption scandal in history?”, Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, 1 June
One of the best articles I’ve coming across at showing the relationship between corruption and democracy, and what happens when a substantial effort is made to dismantle a system mired in corruption for decades and to improve democratic accountability. You have the astounding situation where some of the biggest crooks managed to impeach a president who herself was not corrupt, though she had presided over a party that had adopted the corrupt practices of most of the Brazilian political situation. Now those bigger crooks are in power, and it remains to be seen whether all of the efforts to clean up Brazilian politics will amount to much in the end. Brazil is an extraordinarily dynamic but also deeply unequal society. Its potential as a democracy is enormous, and one can only root for those forces which will compel it in a cleaner, more democratic direction. It’s hard to know, outside of the judiciary, what those forces will be exactly. For years, people had faith in Lula’s Workers’ Party, but it too was drug down into the murk of official corruption. Whether you consider Lula himself, who is indicted but planning to run for president again, corrupt or not, it’s hard to see how his party can run on an anti-corruption platform. And corruption, along with inequality, is the force most holding Brazilian democracy back. Watts tell the Operation Car Wash story clearly and with narrative flair.
“The Story Behind the Fire That Killed Forty Teenage Girls at a Guatemalan Children’s Home”, Francisco Goldman, New Yorker, March 19
In-depth reporting on one of those news items that otherwise tends to be little more than a blip in the world at large, reveals the intricate web of dysfunctional relations between a number of entities, including the state, which lead to the horrific incident of forty teenage girls dying from a fire at a children’s home in Guatemala. Overall, the impression is a systematic lack of care for the lives of children. While it is possible that individuals locked the girls in a room from which they couldn’t escape, it takes a nation, as they say, for something like this to occur. This is a year after a judge found that the home’s practices violated children’s rights.
“The Girl Gangs of El Salvador”, Lauren Markham, Pacific Standard, September 12
El Salvador is one of the Central American countries plagued by gang violence. This article looks at how and why girls join gangs and what happens to them. It focuses on telling the stories of girls who end up at a prison for girls in San Salvador. El Salvador has amongst the highest homicide and femicide rates in the world. The girls this article focuses on have most likely committed crimes, so they are perpetrators of a sort, but they are also victims. As the article says, “In a patriarchal society increasingly controlled by violent, male-dominated organized crime groups, rape, domestic violence, and the murder of women have become commonplace.” Within this context, girls often find themselves with few choices. Parts of this article found their way into Markham’s excellent book, which also came out this year, The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life, featured on The Best Human Rights Books of 2017.
“How Venezuela Stumbled to the Brink of Collapse”, May 14, “How Does Populism Turn Authoritarian? Venezuela is a Case in Point”, April 1, “In Venezuela’s Chaos, Elites Play a High-Stakes Game for Survival”, May 6, Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, New York Times
Throughout the year, Fisher and Taub wrote many articles focused on issues of democracy around the world, all very useful. Their three-article series on Venezuela was amongst the best.
Middle East and North Africa
“Living in a void: Life in Damascus after the exodus”, Khaled Khalifa, The Guardian, 22 August
A novelist, Khalifa is one of the few amongst the people he knows who has remained in Syria throughout the war. He writes about why he has remained and what it is like.
“As Atrocities Mount in Syria, Justice Seems Out of Reach”, Anne Barnard, Ben Hubbard, Ian Fisher, New York Times, April 15
The value of this article lies in its attempt to assess the possibility of bringing to account those responsible for the crimes of the Syrian war. There is now a mountain of documentation, but so far, no justice. More than 400,000 killed, half the country displaced, 100,000 missing, tens of thousands in government custody. No cases at the International Criminal Court, blocked by Russia and China on the UN Security Council. Meanwhile, it appears the view amongst many foreign powers is that they must reconcile themselves to Assad’s continued rule. Imprisoned and tortured on four occasions for taking humanitarian aid to protesters and rebels, Abu Ali al-Hamwi says, “There is no justice. “And because there is no justice, there is no hope.”
Considering the severity of the humanitarian situation, the mainstream media’s coverage of the war in Yemen has been scant and cursory. The New York Times stands out for having published a few excellent pieces.
“‘It’s a Slow Death’: The World’s Worst Humanitarian Crisis”, Shuaib Almosawa, Ben Hubbard, Troy Griggs, New York Times, August 23
Repeated bombings of populated areas by the Saudi-led coalition of Arab countries killing many civilians and destroying vital infrastructure, their on-again off-again partial blockade preventing much-needed food and medicine entering the country, malnutrition, poor sanitation, a cholera outbreak that has killed over 2,000 and infected over half a million.
“Yemen’s War is a Tragedy. Is it also a Crime?”, Megan Specia, New York Times, November 22
The situation as detailed by the article above leads to the obvious question of whether or not crimes against humanity are being committed in the war in Yemen, which this article explores. Since Saudi Arabia entered the war in 2015, 17 million Yemenis have been classified as “food insecure”. Its coalition has blockaded ports through which most food would normally reach the country. In three to four months, most of Yemen could be facing famine. It is a crime against humanity or a war crime to intentionally block access to food and medical supplies such as chlorine tablets to sanitize water. Up to August this year, an estimated 5,000 civilians have died, 1,000 of them children, 3,233 in coalition airstrikes, some directly targeting civilians. The process of holding anyone accountable could be “long and winding”. Unfortunately, all too few articles about human rights are framed in terms of international human rights and humanitarian law, which makes this one all the more welcome.
“2 Paths for Yemen’s War-Scarred Children: Combat, or Marriage”, Nour Youssef, New York Times, October 9
As a knock-on effect of the war and the destruction and poverty it has caused, “Desperate families are increasingly selling their daughters off as child brides or letting their boys be recruited as child soldiers,” also meaning the end of the children’s education, if indeed they were getting one at that point anyway. About 12,000 of the country’s 14,400 schools have closed. One in two Yemeni children suffers from stunted growth. The number of child soldiers has doubled.
Three excellent articles focused on the Yezidi women who escaped slavery under IS.
“Life after ISIS Slavery for Yazidi Women and Children”, Cathy Otten, New Yorker, August 31
Living in Iraqi Kurdistan at the time of IS’s invasion of Yezidi lands, Otten was well placed to cover the story. Her excellent book on the subject, With Ash on Their Faces, came out this year and is featured on The Best Human Rights Books of 2017 list. An excerpt from the book can be found here.
“‘I was sold seven times’: The Yazidi women welcomed back into the faith”, Emma Graham-Harrison, The Guardian, 1 July
This article is firmly focused on the return of the Yezidi women, and in particular, on their pilgrimage of sorts to the holy village of Lalish to conduct rituals as part of their return to the Yezidi community. Strikingly, lead by their religious patriarch, the Yezidis are welcoming the women back, and going against tradition in doing so.
“Freed from ISIS, Yazidi Women Return in ‘Severe Shock’”, Rukmini Callimachi, New York Times, July 27
This article focuses squarely on the approximately 180 women, children and girls freed IS captivity as a result of the re-taking of Mosul by Iraqi troops. Its depiction is much grimmer than the one above, especially in regard to the physical and mental state of the former captives. One doctor reports that 90% of the women are suffering from shock, sleeping for days on end and ceasing to speak.
“Revealed: male rape used systematically in Libya as a weapon of war”, Cécile Allegra, The Guardian / Le Monde, 3 November
Based on a report which originally appeared in Le Monde. Allegra is doing a documentary for Arte on the case. Her report, in turn, is based on the work of Libyan exiles based in Tunis, who have collected evidence of systematic rape of men in Libya. In the cases presented, the use of rape appears to be in revenge for perceived offenses committed by the groups to which the men belonged, but the practice also appears to be less than discriminate, with, for example, sub-Saharan African migrants thrown into cells with captives of warring militias. This is one of two articles about male rape on the list, the other about Tamils in Sri Lanka. In addition, the UNHCR published a report this year on male rape in Syria, which the report author discusses here.
This A-Z is a creative way to use International Women’s Day to look back over events of the past year in Egypt related to women’s rights, everything from Mozn Hassan winning the Right Livelihood Award, to busloads of women teachers being stopped by armed men who forced them to wear the niqab, to female circumcision being made a felony though it’s almost never prosecuted, to a woman journalist being one of the first to bring a harassment suit against a male superior, to attempts to outlaw “verbal divorce”, and the low percentage (23) of women in the workforce. It made me wonder what an A-Z in other places I know well would look like.
“Egypt’s Failed Revolution”, Peter Hessler, New Yorker, January 2
A kind of journalism I’m usually not too enamored of, based as it is on hobnobbing with the high and mighty, but here, in doing so, Hessler tells a story that otherwise could not have been told, and these days there are plenty of excellent articles and books on what things look like from below.
“Egypt’s Cartoonists Are Drawing a Lost Revolution” , Josh O’Neill, The Atlantic, November
O’Neill goes to a comics convention and finds a lot of inspiring work, focused to a large extent on the political and social situation in Egypt today after the 2011 revolution and the subsequent re-imposition of dictatorship. The work shows that the spirit of the revolution lives on, and while the dictatorship is severe, many people are finding other avenues to express themselves and to develop civil society. “It’s a hard time to tell the truth in Egypt,” says Magdy El Shafee, cartoonist and co-founder of the annual Cairo Comix Festival. “And it’s getting harder.”
Russia and Central Asia
“Bill Browder, Putin Enemy №1”, Sean Flynn, GQ, December issue
This should be called “Putin kills people”, a line from the story, but it’s got the title it does because Browder was named a GQ Man of the Year. It’s written in that racy style you find in GQ and Esquire and the like, which doesn’t really appeal to me, and if you’ve read Browder’s great 2015 book, Red Notice, you won’t find much new here, but it’s a great article for two reasons, one is that it does a good job of depicting the pall that falls over anyone who crosses Putin, even if that person happens to live abroad and be a foreigner, and in this sense, gives a sense of the sort of fear that pervades Russia these days, and secondly, it’s one of the best accounts yet of how, first, the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act and then the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act got passed. The first deals with corrupt rights abusers in Russia, the second the same group worldwide. Both honor Serge Magnitsky, who was Browder’s accountant, uncovered official corruption, and died in a Russian prison. Reading this article, I thought, There need to be more takedowns of the despotic, corrupt Chinese Communist Party like this. The huge downside for Putin of fiddling in the US elections is the way it lead to a much more widespread understanding amongst many Americans that he’s an evil dictator, and against that backdrop, you get stories like this that don’t even pretend to give an “objective” view of him. The same sort of understanding of the CCP, which is much more powerful than Putin and exerts much stronger control over its people, needs to become conventional wisdom among Americans. Many are lobbying the US to apply the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act to Chinese officials.
“The New Face of Russian Resistance”, Masha Gessen, New York Review of Books, June 14
June 12 protests were the most geographically widespread in Russian history, the biggest since 100,000 marched in Moscow five years ago, and, as Gessen points out, they were also the youngest, “barely pubescent”. In all, 1,700 people across the country were jailed, the single largest wave of arrests in decades. Gessen uses the occasion to reflect on the opposition to Putin’s rule over recent years, both in order to take stock of where Russia is at and to characterize these protests as different. Still, as she points out near the end of the piece, the chance of these protests enduring as a political movement is low (in fact, little else has been heard of them since), and there is a pattern of waves of protest against Putin followed by the people who participated giving up.
‘Democracy was hijacked. It got a bad name’: the death of the post-Soviet dream, Shaun Walker, Guardian, 8 December 2016
On the 25th anniversary of the independence of the ’stans from the Soviet Union, a melancholy meditation on the democracy that never came, the transition that never occurred, and the fact that the vast majority of people across the region live worse lives than before independence under corrupt dictatorships that show no sign of changing.
“Dozens of men say Sri Lankan security agents raped and tortured them”, Paisley Dodds, Associated Press, 9 November
More than 50 Tamil men abducted and tortured by Sri Lankan security forces between early 2016 and early this year, eight years after the end of the civil war. The men are now asylum seekers in Egypt. This article is based on an extensive investigation, including reviews of 32 medical and psychological evaluations and interviews with 20 of the men, who say they were accused of trying to revive a rebel group. Meanwhile, Sri Lanka is being rehabilitated internationally. Though it has repeatedly failed to investigate war crimes allegations related to the civil war, its soldiers are sent on UN peacekeeping missions. In Haiti, 134 were found to have engaged in sex with minors, and none were ever prosecuted.
“Social media brings Pakistan’s persecuted women rare justice after the violence”, Farhad Mirza and Sophie Hemery, The Guardian, 26 October
File under: feel good story. I’m not sure how representative the tales told here are, but at any rate, they’re heartening. The article profiles an acid attack survivor, a transgender lawyer who receives death threats, and a law student stabbed 23 times by a classmate. They all used the internet to further the cause of justice in a country with one of the biggest digital gender divides in the world — 70 to 85% of Pakistani internet users are men. While showing Pakistan has a long way to go toward gender equality, the article shows that, in some cases, progress is being made.
“Counting the dead in Manipur’s shoot-to-kill war”, BBC, 3 July
A story that’s gone all but unreported in the international press, there has been on-going low-grade insurgency in the Indian state of Manipur for decades. Security forces have been allowed to act with impunity, and the result is predictable: Human rights groups have gathered evidence of 1,528 extrajudicial killings. Up to now, not a single murderer has been held accountable. Twelve days after this report, the Indian Supreme Court ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation to investigate at least 87 killings, a drop in the bucket but, if done properly, it could be the beginning of accountability. This article and the accompanying video do an excellent job of telling the stories of the family members of victims. The video actually interviews one of the police killers who admits to killing over one hundred people himself.
Southeast Asia, Australia, and Oceania
“Rohingya Recount Atrocities: ‘They Threw My Baby into a Fire’”, Jeffrey Gettleman, New York Times, October 11
When the news broke, a flood of stories began to appear in the media, so many it was hard to keep track of them all. Of the many I read, this is one of the best. It keeps the focus on a single survivor, Rajuma, who made it to a refugee camp in Bangladesh, and tells her story in-depth. Here, Gettleman discusses how ambivalent and conflicted he feels about doing this sort of story. His emotions are understandable, but I firmly believe these stories need to be told. The real shame is that more is not done to help the survivors and to hold the perpetrators accountable. Sergey Ponomarev’s accompanying photos are masterful; another is recognized below in the photos section of the best-of list.
“Massacre at Tula Toli: Rohingya recall horror of Myanmar army attack”, Oliver Holmes, The Guardian, 7 September
Holmes was one of the first out with the story, about a week after the Burmese army’s mass killing of Rohingyas began and before it had even become clear exactly what was happening. Holmes focuses on one village, Tula Toli, and presents the stories of several individual villagers out of the many he interviewed. At this point, about 160,000 had fled to Bangladesh; eventually the number would reach half a million, added to the hundreds of thousands who had already fled down through the months and years before.
“Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar’s great hope fails to live up to expectations”, Poppy McPherson, The Guardian, 31 March
This appeared months before the army’s most recent organized attacks on Rohingya civilians, and the steady drumbeat of disappointment in Aung San Suu Kyi has been building since. The value of this article lies in the documentation of the many events that have lead to (mostly foreign) disillusionment. The thing is, already earlier this year, army attacks on civilians lead to reports of atrocities and tens of thousands fleeing to Bangladesh. The problem is not new, only the scale of it and the world’s attention. Already last December more than a dozen fellow Nobel Peace laureates wrote to the UN Security Council warning of genocide. The question is whether Aung San Suu Kyi is more a bystander or a perpetrator. She certainly appears to have been informed of developments as they were occurring and done little to prevent them, but this article may not entirely accurately portray the political dynamics between the NLD and the army or the fact that Burma is still far from a full democracy.
“Myanmar, Once a Hope for Democracy, Is Now a Study in How it Fails”, Max Fisher, New York Times, October 19
In the wake of the latest atrocities against the Rohingya, Fisher looks at the issues of democratic transition in Burma and the risk of it becoming an “illiberal democracy” (basically a contradiction in terms), in particular examining attitudes of the people and finding, unsurprisingly, they have a rather authoritarian mindset. Fisher also interviews several of those critical of the situation in Burma and the government, including Daw Nyo Nyo Thin, a strong grassroots activist who joined the NLD and was then dropped for being too independent. She says, “People think Aung San Suu Kyi is a god, she can do anything she wants. This is our education, that we should follow the leader.” The article might have examined more closely the messy situation of the government where the military structurally still has great power as well as the fact of many unresolved conflicts between the government and minorities in border regions, not just the Rohingya.
“Myanmar Is Not a Simple Morality Tale”, Roger Cohen, New York Times, November 25
Classified under “Opinion”, this piece straddles news. And a useful corrective to the threadbare narrative: The same people who made Aung San Suu Kyi a saint are making her a villain. Cohen points out it’s more complicated than that. First of all, she doesn’t have power; she’s in a position called “state counselor” essentially created for her. The military retains control over key aspects of the government and, of course, security. If her goal is to eventually shift Burma to a real democracy, she has to play the long game. This does not exonerate her from her failure to speak out, simply says that the political situation in Burma in general is fraught and the atrocities committed against the Rohingya are, as overwhelmingly huge as they are, one part of that larger puzzle. People thought the elections in which the NLD won an overwhelming majority in the 75% of the parliament not reserved for the military were the decisive step and that now Burma was democratic. So it has not proven. I would not say the prospects of Burma successfully transitioning to democracy look too great at the moment, though. Anyway you look at it, she may lose in the end.
“Murderous Manila: On the Night Shift”, James Fenton, New York Review of Books, February 9
One of the most perceptive, insightful articles on the EJKs (extrajudicial killings, which have become so widespread they’ve gotten their own well-known acronym in the Philippines) since Duterte came to power. Fenton explores the killings, mostly at night and reports on the feeling on the street. 69% say EKJs are either somewhat or very serious, but 88% say drug problems have declined in their area since Duterte came to power. “And that is the perception that appears to have trumped all others.”
“The silencing of Leila de Lima- Duterte’s ‘first political prisoner’”, Anne Marie Goetz, Open Democracy, 7 July
Leila de Lima was imprisoned in February by the Duterte government and refused bail because the charges against her related to alleged drug trafficking. This is absurd and so far the only evidence the government has presented is perjured testimony of convicted drug lords who have an incentive to cooperate with the government. de Lima is a Philippines senator and was the former head of the the country’s Human Rights Commission. During that time, she was already criticizing Duterte’s rights-abusive policies as mayor of Davao, and she’s continued to criticize the thousands of extrajudicial killings that have occurred since he became president. So her imprisonment is payback, but she remains as feisty as ever. She is considered a prisoner of conscience. The New York Times interviewed her in prison, and she was named a Foreign Policy Global Thinker of 2017, and one of Time Magazine most influential people of 2017.
“What Happens When the Government Uses Facebook as a Weapon”, Lauren Etter, Bloomberg, December 7
As the lead says, “It’s social media in the age of “patriotic trolling” in the Philippines, where the government is waging a campaign to destroy a critic — with a little help from Facebook itself.” The story of Maria Ressa, co-founder of Rappler, one of the Philippines’ leading online news sites. She gave Duterte a breakthrough interview when he was a candidate. Due to critical coverage, as president, he turned against her. “The same Facebook personalities who fought dirty to see Duterte win were brought inside the Malacañang Palace. From there they are methodically taking down opponents…. as Ressa began probing the government’s use of social media and writing stories critical of the new president, the force of Facebook was turned against her.” It was actually an article Ressa wrote on the Duterte regime’s unscrupulous use of the internet, “Propaganda War: Weaponizing the Internet”, which earned her its animosity. She received so many threats, she hired an armed guard. While 10 days before the French elections, Facebook announced it would suspend 30,000 fake accounts, it has failed to act in the Philippines, even though the violence threatened on Facebook there is exponentially greater. Ressa has repeatedly attempted to engage Facebook on the matter, thus far to no avail, and also met US lawmakers. Rappler relies on Facebook for most of its traffic, and Ressa is afraid that if she speaks too loudly, Facebook might crush it. In November, Facebook announced a new partnership with the Duterte regime.
“Refugees Trapped Far from Home, Farther from Deliverance”, Damien Cave, Adam Ferguson photos, New York Times, November 18
About the asylum-seekers holding out at an Australian refugee camp on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. Australia closed the camp and moved many of the refugees elsewhere, but hundreds refused to be moved, insisting that their cases be dealt with in an expeditious manner — most of them have been trapped on Manus Island for year. Their experience highlights the cruelty of Australia’s refugee policy as regards those who seek to enter Australia by boat. UN officials say they’ve never seen a wealthy democracy go to such extremes to punish asylum seekers. Less than a week after this article appeared, Papua New Guinea authorities forcibly removed these hold-outs, beating them with metal rods. Great photos by Adam Ferguson.
“Broken Men in Paradise”, Roger Cohen, New York Times, December 9, 2016
Nearly a year before the above article appeared, Cohen was already asserting, “The world’s refugee crisis knows no more sinister exercise in cruelty than Australia’s island prisons… The toll among Burmese, Sudanese, Somali, Lebanese, Pakistani, Iraqi, Afghan, Syrian, Iranian and other migrants is devastating: self-immolation, overdoses, death from septicemia as a result of medical negligence, sexual abuse and rampant despair. A recent United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees report by three medical experts found that 88 percent of the 181 asylum seekers and refugees examined on Manus were suffering from depressive disorders, including, in some cases, psychosis.” Laughably, Australia thinks it needs to take such measures to prevent inundation of refugees, while a small, poor country like Uganda has generously taken over a million South Sudanese. This is an excellent portrait of the lives of the people in the Manus “refugee processing center” months before it was closed down to relocate the refugees elsewhere.
“‘I hope you’re ready to get married’: In search of Vietnam’s kidnapped brides” Kate Hodal, The Guardian, 26 August
Hmong young men befriend Hmong young women, often initiating contact on Facebook, and then eventually abduct them and sell them to people in China who forcibly marry them off. Often their elders know little about the world in which these young people live, and campaigners have been working to make them more aware so that they can better prevent these kidnappings. Excellent reporting on the Vietnam side of the border. The Chinese demand and trafficking system need exploration.
“How the Opposition is Silenced in Hong Kong and Thailand”, Gina Tam, Tyrell Haberkorn, Foreign Affairs, September 15
Looks at the imprisonment of Umbrella Movement leaders Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow in Hong Kong and of democracy activist Pai in Thailand within two days of each other, pointing out similarities in their cases. “Putting these individuals behind bars may make the regimes they challenge feel temporarily more secure, but they will leave an impact on the prospects for democracy and the rule of law in the region no less costly than the use of extrajudicial violence…. the biggest threats to freedom of speech and assembly do not always come from direct censorship and suppression of dissident voices. Both the imprisonment of the three Umbrella Movement protestors in Hong Kong and the imprisonment of Pai are clear examples of an authoritarian government’s attempt to silence a dissident voice. Both are cases of “rule by law,” in which citizens within countries that seemingly protect rights are being silenced using laws interpreted in novel ways or applied in unprecedented circumstances. Wong, Law, Chow, and Pai are important because they challenge the legitimacy of the authoritarian regimes they live under and, in so doing, begin to imagine more just and democratic polities.” In both Hong Kong and Thailand, the problem is much bigger than just these two cases.
United States and Canada
I would have expected that many of the stories of the year would have to do with the resistance to Trump and all that he stands for. But while the spot and hard news reporting on individual events (like the Women’s March and airport protests against the first travel ban) associated with the resistance has been fine, there has been little creative or investigative reporting of great merit. Have I just missed the good stuff, or is this a lapsus in journalism? After all, the year started with what was almost certainly the biggest single-day demonstrations in U.S. history, and throughout the year, the resistance evolved in new and interesting ways, and in many respects, to the extent that this phenomenon can be considered a movement, it is quite different from movements that have come before. How is that reflected in the media? According to my reading, not much. You’d think that after Trump’s surprise victory, the media would have been more interested in covering the grassroots, detecting the undercurrents. I’ve selected a few good pieces of reporting, and there have been some good ones, but considering the size and significance of the phenomenon, there should be a lot more. Among other things, there are so many amazing stories there about ordinary people doing amazing work defending rights and fighting for a better world. Still, I should stop the harping: The articles below are all outstanding. For all the hype about “fake news”, the U.S. has the distinct benefit of having some the best reporters and best reporting in the world.
TIME Person of the Year 2017: The Silence Breakers, Stephanie Zacharek, Eliana Dockterman, Haley Sweetland Edwards, TIME, December
There’s been so much coverage of sexual harassment and assault allegations over recent months, that it seems a little strange to just pick one story to feature, and you could argue that the New York Times article that broke the Weinstein story and started the avalanche should get the recognition, but TIME, in making “The Silence Breakers” its People of the Year, did an excellent job putting the whole package together, featuring the victims, telling their stories, photographing them, and putting together a kind of history of a year of events and episodes, each in itself memorable but also liable to get lost in the blur of it all happening so fast. Important is that TIME in its timeline of events begins with the Women’s March on Washington on 20 January: On the one hand, there is a president in the White House who has gloried in sexual assault and supports a candidate running for the Senate who’s been accused of molesting girls; on the other, all these (mostly) women standing up. Which side will win? Yes, the Silence Breakers are strong, but so is patriarchy. The movement against sexual harassment and assault will only win if the Women’s march and the breaking of silence are the beginning of actions taken to change the culture in which such male behavior can prevail.
“The Worst (and Best) Places to Be Gay in America”, Frank Bruni, New York Times, August 25
This article is just cool . It combines profiles of gay people across the country with maps showing just how uneven and yet — according to Bruni — inevitable, progress can be. The clear image arising is, if you are gay, where you live in the U.S. can make a big difference in how safe, protected and accepted you feel. So well put together, this is the sort of piece that makes you care even if you don’t come to it with a particular interest.
“The New Front in the Gerrymandering Wars: Democracy versus Math”, Emily Bazelon, New York Times, August 29
Democracy lies in the details, especially when it comes to free and fair elections. And in the US, one of the biggest threats to democracy is gerrymandering. In Wisconsin, it appears the Republicans may have gotten so carried away that they’ll get caught this one time. This is the article about how it all came about. The case is currently before the US Supreme Court. Even prominent Republicans have urged the court to rule against the gerrymanderers. It is probably the most important case the justices will face in regard to democracy in the US since Citizens United, which it horribly botched, opening nearly all valves on unrestricted campaign spending in the name of “free speech”. Let’s hope it does better here.
“Detective Guevara’s Witnesses”, Melissa Segura, BuzzFeed, April 17
Reynaldo Guevara is accused of framing 51 people for murders from the 1980s through the early 2000s in the Humboldt Park section of Chicago. This led 48 men and one woman to be sentenced to a total of more than 2,300 years in prison. The really inspiring thing about the article is the people — mostly working class women, some with poor English and little understanding of the law — who kept fighting for the rights of their convicted loved ones in the face of official indifference. The group started in 1999 when the aunts of Roberto Almodovar began calling meetings with others whose loved ones had been convicted due to Guevara. It’s also an indictment of Chicago’s criminal justice system: “Chicago’s police brass, its prosecutors, its judges, police oversight commissions, and even federal authorities had ample warnings about Guevara, numerous chances to make amends for the injustices he stands accused of committing and to stop him from perpetrating more. They didn’t.” In 2013, faced with lawsuits, the city authorities finally ordered an independent review of Guevara’s cases, which eventually found “no widespread pattern of wrongdoing.” Ten days after this report, Roberto Almodovar was released from prison after 23 years.
“The Fallout: The US Tested 67 Nuclear Bombs in Their Country. Now They’re Dying in Oklahoma”, Zoe Carpenter, Narratively, July 7
A genuinely hidden story. Following World War II, the US used the Marshall Islands as a testing ground for its nuclear weapons program, detonating more than 60 bombs over a dozen years. Its where the infamous Bikini Atoll is located. Children played in the ash from the fallout. In 1986, the islands gained independence, and the treaty creaeting the country also granted its citizens the right to live and work in the US. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of Marshall Islanders coming to the US increased by 237%. They’re granted permanent residency but not citizenship and rank as the single poorest ethnic group in the country. They live, work and pay taxes in the US but are ineligible for Medicare and Medicaid. Few live into their seventies, dying of diabetes, kidney failure and heart disease. They also have high rates of cancer. Some of these diseases are arguably traceable back to the nuclear tests. For examples, the Marshallese diet is heavy on white rice, pasta and canned meat since the bombings ruined the islands’ traditional foods. This article focuses on the Marshallese who ended up in Enid, Oklahoma of all places (3,000 of its 51,000 residents are from the islands), and in particular, on one man, Terry Mote.
“Inside the CIA’s Black Site torture room”, Larry Siems, The Guardian, 9 October
In 2002, Gul Rahman died of hypothermia in a CIA Black Site cell in Afghanistan. In August this year, his family and two surviving prisoners, seeking restitution for torture, reached an out-of-court settlement with two CIA psychologist contractors. As a result of the lawsuit, the CIA and Pentagon were forced to declassify 274 documents that provide the fullest picture yet of the suffering inflicted upon the three men in the CIA torture dungeon. After all these years, US torturers have faced almost no accountability for their crimes, and, of course, unbelievably, Guantánamo is still open.
“Obama’s Lost Army”, Micah L. Sifry, New Republic, February 9
The sub-title reads, “He built a grassroots machine of two million supporters eager to fight for change. Then he let it die. This is the untold story of Obama’s biggest mistake — and how it paved the way for Trump.” Not only is this great investigative work by someone specializing in tech and activism, it’s also about tensions in competing paradigms about how to bring about desired political outcomes: movement politics versus party politics, grassroots or “dreamers” versus insiders, and about the use of the internet for activism. It has the potential drawback of perhaps concentrating so narrowly on the internet as the key to maintaining and developing a movement that it mistakes it for the real world. After all, the Democrats control only 32 out of 99 state legislative chambers, only 16 of 50 state houses; at state level, Democrats lost almost 1,000 seats during the Obama years. Those kinds of stats are hardly down to Obama letting the online campaign lapse; instead, letting the online campaign lapse is related to the wider issue of the dysfunctionality of the party and its ambivalent relationship to movement politics.
“Michigan remains a battleground in a juvenile justice war keeping hundreds in prison”, Allie Gross, Detroit Free Press, November 19
In four cases that have come before the US Supreme Court since 2005, it’s continually restricted life sentencing for juveniles, and now is faced with a case to see whether it will ban it categorically. In 2005, the US Supreme Court banned the death penalty for people who committed their crimes before turning 18. In 2010, it outlawed juvenile sentences of life without the possibility of parole in all cases but homicide. In 2012, it barred mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles in all cases. And in 2016, it made that ruling retroactive for the more than 2,000 inmates already sentenced. This article is about how the state of Michigan, which has one of the highest number of juveniles on life withot parole, is dragging its feet in implementing the Supreme Court ruling, as well as the movement afoot to try to get it to promptly comply. A very detailed, intricate, and comprehensive article that both “gives the facts and gets the story”.
“Freedom a Struggle after Years of Solitary Confinement”, Rich Lord and Kate Giammarise, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 29
“You get used to being by yourself for so long, when you get out, you’re not used to people being near you and touching you.” This article profiles a man in Pennsylvania who was recently released from prison after spending two and a half years in solitary confinement. In 2011, the UN Special Raporteur on Torture called for a ban on solitary confinement of more than 15 days, but the US has a whole system designed around the practice, and although some steps have been taken to reduce the number in solitary and restrict its use, as recently as 2016, Pennsylvania went to court to continue holding in solitary a man who had already been there for 36 years! Both this and the previous story show just how difficult it is to reform practices of the US criminal justice system which lie clearly outside international human rights law and standards.
“Hundreds Face Conspiracy Charges for Actions of a Few During Inauguration Day Protests”, Eoin Higgins, The Intercept, October 25
However democratic the US might be in some respects, it is extremely harsh in others, even downright hostile to rights, as this article demonstrates. It’s about the over 200 people arrested at protests in Washington DC the day before Trump’s inauguration and now being charged with conspiracy to riot, with penalties of up to 70 years in prison. The cases started in mid-November and are being staggered in groups of eight or so defendants each. Worth keeping an eye on. See also the opinion piece below written by one of the defendants.
“Minneapolis City Council Candidate is a Socialist Who Gets Things Done”, Zaid Jilani, The Intercept, October 26
This article appeared shortly before the November elections. It’s about a young woman who started out as an activist working on the $15 an hour minimum wage campaign and who decided to run for the Minneapolis city council. In a nutshell, you could say this is a story about “how democracy works” in the Trump era, how the resistance works, what new things are happening, what innovations are taking place, how they’re occurring. It’s a major story that’s going under-reported. This story also shows why there’s always hope in a democratic system- it allows for change. As it turns out, Ginger didn’t win. She became the first candidate in Minneapolis’ ranked voting system to get the most first-place votes but still lose, narrowly, to an opponent with more second and third place votes. But two of her allies, who both happen to be black and transgender, got on the council, and this on a day that was considered a triumph for US progressivism
“The Exhausting Work of Tallying America’s Largest Protest”, Kaveh Waddell, The Atlantic, January 23
About how the effort came about to actually count how many people took part in the Women’s March in how many different places around the U.S. and the world. Focuses on two professors, Jeremy Pressman and Erica Chenoweth. As someone who lives in a place, in Hong Kong, that’s amass with pro-democracy and progressive demonstrations and where there are wildly differing estimates of number of participants, usually aligned with political views (the police and government estimate low, the organizers estimate high), I understand the value of actually trying to pin down how many people were there. Since the Women’s March, almost certainly the biggest in U.S. history, the counters have set up a website and have continued to count other events up to now. And the eventual figures of the Women’s March? Total marchers in the U.S.: low estimate- 3,267,134; best guess- 4,157,894; high estimate- 5,246,670. Total of U.S. towns and cities: 654. Total marchers abroad: low estimate- 267,292; best guess- 308,480; high- 358,821. Total of foreign towns and cities: 915.
“The resistance to Trump is blossoming — and building a movement to last” (9 November) and “The Trump resistance can best be described in one adjective: female” (23 July), L.A. Kaufmann, The Guardian, 9 November
The first piece does what the media should be doing much more: looking for patterns, articulating the history, evaluating the effectiveness and the importance of the resistance to Trump. It starts with women’s march, then travel ban protests at airports, and goes from there. The second piece emphasizes the leading role that women have played in the resistance.
“How a New Generation of Progressive Activists Is Leading the Trump Resistance”, Tim Dickinson, Rolling Stone, August 24
This article profiles groups, in particular, Indivisible, Swing Left, Our Revolution, Sister District, Run for Something, all of which are trying different ways of doing politics, in general, adopting various movement and mobilization principles and practices. It raises the question of what needs to be done to get more rights-respecting politicians elected and turn the U.S. in the direction of becoming a more rights-respecting revolution. What Trump’s victory and Republican dominance in Congress and states across the country is that the country cannot simply rely on the gradual demographic evolution that’s making it ever less white, especially in the face of big money, gerrymandering and continual attempts to restrict the right to vote. Will these groups have an impact? It remains to be seen.
“This Is What It’s Like on the Front Lines of Trump’s Travel Ban”, Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn, Mother Jones, February 13
Probably the best overview of the lawyers’ work. While state attorneys general and groups like the American Civil Liberties Union were trying to block the travel bans in court, across the country, the airport lawyers were like the foot soldiers helping the real life people affected by the bans. Their story is truly inspiring. The 300-plus lawyers who worked shifts at O’Hare airport providing free legal aid to those affected by Trump travel bans were recognized with the 2017 Chicagoans of the Year award.
“The Minnesota 8 face deportation to a land they’ve never seen”, Susan Du, City Pages, January 11
What is good about this article is that it traces the backgrounds of the men facing deportation. All came to the U.S. as children with their families, refugees from Cambodia. All were convicted of crimes as teenagers, in most cases the crimes were misdemeanors (such as breaking a window in a bar), but that opened the door to deportation proceedings. Most have since been living “clean” in the U.S. for many years. It’s the only country they know. They have families and jobs and stable lives. And they risk deportation to a country where they’ve never lived, don’t speak the language and are not citizens. In the spring, five were deported. Three eventually were granted leave to remain. The New Yorker reported on the case in April, and Al-Jazeera did a program on them in September. Over one hundred Cambodian-Americans face a similar fate, and more than 800 have been deported since 2002. Deportation proceedings against the Minnesota 8 started under the Obama administration. While Trump has received much criticism for his travel bans, he’s really just continuing practices that have continued throughout the administrations of all recent presidents. At root, the problem is a screwed-up immigration system that needs reform.
“Learning Tibetan One Weekend at a Time”, Tenzin Sangmo, March 31
The Sunday Tibetan language school in New York was founded in 1996, did not have a permanent address until three years ago, and will soon new to the new Tibetan Community Hall in Woodside. It now has close to 300 students and almost 30 teachers, this at a time when Tibetans in exile are losing their language and Tibetans in Tibet who wish to promote it are repressed by the Chinese occupation government. Tenzin Sangmo, a Tibetan exile who grew up in India and has recently moved to New York, tells the school’s history and profiles the people behind it.
“’Not Invisible Anymore’: Standing Rock a Year After the Pipeline Protests”, Dan Gunderson, MPR News, September 13
What’s most impressive about the people interviewed in this article is how upbeat and optimistic they are, given their protests did not bring about the win they wanted and the pipeline project they tried to block continues apace. I say this as someone who’s living through a period of pessimism in Hong Kong following the Umbrella Movement. As Gunderson puts it, the water protector demonstrations at Standing Rock changed people and politics there. “There’s a sense of liberation, a sense of freedom, and a sense of worth. I can actually do something,” says Standing Rock Chair Dave Archambault. “A year and a half ago…, we were invisible people,” says Linda Black Elk, a teacher at Sitting Bull College on the reservation who spent months helping coordinate medical care at the camp, “and we’re not invisible anymore… that visibility is a gift… we are going to use… for the greater good.”
“Holy Rage: Lessons from Standing Rock”, Louise Erdrich, New Yorker, December 22, 2016
“By staying on message and advancing through prayer and ceremony, Standing Rock’s pipeline protesters, or water protectors, have offered the world a template for resistance…. Besides frostbite, what did people take away from there? This was probably the first time many non-Native people had been on a reservation, or in the presence of Native ceremonies. That’s a positive. The more people understand that Native Americans have their own religious rituals and objects of veneration — which to many non-Native people are simply features of the landscape — as well as cathedrals and churches, the better. Understanding the natural world as more than just a resource for energy, or a recreational opportunity, or even a food resource, gives moral weight to the effort to contain catastrophic climate change.”
“Native Americans Prepare to Battle Trump Over Utah National Monument”, Stuart Leavenworth, McClatchy, March 20
The fight over Bears Ears National Monument has received much less attention than the the struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline, largely because the resistance hasn’t been as colorful or strong, but this article does an excellent job of depicting the dynamics between Native Americans, their white neighbors, and state and federal governments in balancing Native American historic rights to their land and white interests. What is most striking is how little communication and understanding exist between Native Americans and their white neighbors, reminding of the virulent reaction against the anti-DAPL protest by many white North Dakotans. The picture that emerges is that white people who live in the vicinity of Native Americans and use their historic lands have very little sympathy with their history and often regard them with hostility and contempt. The accompanying video is excellent. As expected, in early December, Trump reduced Bears Ears by 85% along with another national monument in the biggest reduction of federal land protection in the country’s history.
“Edith Windsor, Whose Same-Sex Marriage Fight Led to Landmark Ruling, Dies at 88”, Robert McFadden, New York Times, September 12
One of the best obituaries I’ve read in a long time, whether about rights or any other subject. “Four decades after the Stonewall Inn uprising fueled the fight for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in America, Ms. Windsor, the widow of a woman with whom she had lived much of her life, became the lead plaintiff in what is widely regarded as the second most important Supreme Court ruling in the national battle over same-sex marriage rights.” The article that followed two days later, “How Edie Windsor Championed Gay Rights- She Was Everywhere”, by Louis Lucero II (New York Times, September 14), is equally wonderful and enlightening. Windsor was a true human rights hero who advanced the cause. Her story is fascinating and truly representative of the times in both its lows and highs.
“Foster Care as Punishment: The new Reality of ‘Jane Crow’”, Stephanie Clifford, Jessica Silver-Greenberg, New York Times, July 21
As if you couldn’t find another way to keep black people (and other people of color) down. This is about police removing children from parents’ legal guardianship for questionable reasons, for example, that the child got lost and the police blamed the parent for it. In some cases, they also charge the parent with endangering the welfare of the child. In New York, the Child Services agency’s legal requests for removal have skyrocketed, and parents often have little recourse to fight them. A new name has been coined to describe this new criminalization of parents, which hits women especially hard, and in particular black and Hispanic women: Jane Crow. Excellent reporting, with profiles of parents who have been victimized and investigation into the system behind the removals.
“The Hamilton Hustle”, Matt Stoller, The Baffler №34, 2017
A fun, entertaining article that criticizes the Democratic political establishment, from Obama to Hillary, for its love of the musical “Hamilton”, which pretty much whitewashes American history, turning a man who opposed democracy into a champion of it. I’ve never seen the play and couldn’t quite believe the hype surrounding it since I’d always thought of Hamilton in these terms and was puzzled that he could somehow be regarded as a hero. Stoller goes on to document how the oligarchical economic policies Hamilton championed are directly connected to the secessionism that lead to the Civil War as well as to the economic policies of the financial elites and much of the political establishment, including the Obama/Hillary arm of the Democratic party, in the U.S. today. A great article about how a nation lies to itself about its history and, in the process, has difficulty sorting out just what it is about its democratic legacy that it should really cherish.
“My President Was Black”, Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic, January/February issue
An excellent essay, elegiac in tone, not least of due to what’s come after, about what Obama’s presidency meant to Coates personally and to black people. “Barack Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012 were dismissed by some of his critics as merely symbolic for African Americans. But there is nothing “mere” about symbols. The power embedded in the word nigger is also symbolic. Burning crosses do not literally raise the black poverty rate, and the Confederate flag does not directly expand the wealth gap.Much as the unbroken ranks of 43 white male presidents communicated that the highest office of government in the country — indeed, the most powerful political offices in the world — was off-limits to black individuals, the election of Barack Obama communicated that the prohibition had been lifted.” This is also the last full essay in Coates’ book, We Were Eight Years in Power, on this year’s best-of human rights books list.
“Want to fix gun violence in America? Go local.”, Aliza Aufrichtig, Lois Beckett, Jan Diehm, Jamiles Lartey, The Guardian, [January]
Near the start of the year, this excellent article appeared. “There were more than 13,000 gun homicides in the US in 2015, across nearly 3,500 cities and towns. But the toll of this gun violence was not distributed equally. Half of America’s gun homicides in 2015 were clustered in just 127 cities and towns…” It gets even worse: People who live in urban areas with the highest incidence of gun violence have gun homicide death rates 400 times higher than those of high-income countries. Full of nifty city maps showing the coincidence of gun deaths and other problems, this article argues that the best way to deal effectively with gun violence in the US is to address its multiple causes in these areas of highest incidence. It might have gone a step further to suggest how to do that.
“Year One: Reflections on a Year with Trump”, New York Review of Books, November
NYRB asks writers of different backgrounds to reflect on the first year of the Trump presidency. While all give food for thought and cover the matter from an interesting variety of angles, I especially appreciate the ones with stronger rights focuses, in particular, Judith Shulevitz’s “Resistance Research”, Elizabeth Joh’s “Stress-testing the Constitution”, and David Cole’s “One of Us”.
the defenders, The Guardian
When I last checked in late November, 170 environmental defenders had been killed this year. The series was inspired by the murder of Honduran activist Berta Cáceres in 2016 and is a collaboration with the NGO, Global Witness. It tallies the number of murders and contains many articles about the murders as well as a full list of those killed and a map of the countries where the killings occur. Brazil tops the list, followed by Colombia, the Philippines, India, DR Congo, Mexico, Central America and Burma. Environmentalism and human rights are all too often regarded as separate issues. This series puts the focus squarely on the strong overlap.
Disability, New York Times
This series is meant to give a better sense of what it’s like living with a disability, being a person with a disability. As such, it doesn’t focus on rights per se, but insofar as it extends the understanding or people living with disabilities, it certainly goes toward furthering their rights. There are plenty of great pieces, but I’ll choose two that have stuck with me.
“Where All Bodies Are Exquisite”, (August 9) is by the artist Riva Lehrer who was born with spina bifida at time when most didn’t live past two due not least of all to insufficient medical knowledge and practices regarding spina bifida newborns. She writes about the idea of beauty, coming to terms with her own appearance, and the many portraits of disabled people she’s done.
“The Price of ‘Disability Denial’” (Catherine Kudlick, May 24) says, “One of the little-recognized side effects of disability denial is that it inhibits the firing of the synapses that enables people to think of themselves as having rights.” Kudlick writes about an experience of discrimination the year before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed At that time, she didn’t quite know how to tackle it. The piece is about her growing awareness and self-confidence as a person with both a disability and rights.
“The new arrivals: A long-term project tracking migrants and refugees as they arrive in Europe”, The Guardian, El Pais, Le Monde, Spiegel Online
This collaborative project between four big European periodicals is a great idea. It appears to have gotten off the ground much better at El Pais and Le Monde than at The Guardian or Der Spiegel. El Pais in particular seems to be trying to put a positive spin on the topic (see its “España, laboratorio migratorio de Europa”), and indeed, it appears from afar that Spain has done a better job welcoming and integrating immigrants than most countries in Europe, but in general there appears to be an agreement to balance articles about the “problem” of immigration with largely hopeful ones, enabling readers to see it as a benefit, an advantage, potentially for all involved, and to envision a better Europe in the future.
When papers open their pages to the oppressed. I’ll admit: to me some of the best human rights op-eds are from human rights defenders and others imprisoned or persecuted for fighting for their rights. The mainstream media do the cause a great service when they allow these people to speak directly to the public in their own voices. There are other great pieces here written by rights advocates. Rather than cull too drastically, I decided it was best to present a wide array.
“Flawed Justice for the Butcher of Bosnia”, Janine di Giovanni, New York Times, November 22
Last year, I read Julian Borger’s The Butcher’s Trail: How the Search for Balkan War Criminals Became the World’s Most Successful Manhunt, the inspiring story of how the international tribunal in the Hague eventually brought to trial and convicted virtually everyone it indicted, even though it could avail itself of no enforcement mechanisms of its own. On November 22, Ratko Mladic, one of the biggest perpetrators was convicted on 10 of 11 counts of genocide and at the end of this year, the tribunal will close down, job well done. But as di Giovanni points out, justice was 22 years in coming, Mladic received a life sentence at the age of 75, and while 162 perpetrators were indicted and 5,000 witnesses testified at the Hague, 100,000 were killed, 50,000 raped and 2.2 million had been displaced in Bosnia. In the context of the immensity of such crimes, justice appears flawed and delayed indeed. Perhaps even less can be expected in regard to Syria and other places in the world where atrocities are being committed today.
“Why Do So Many Indian Children Go Missing?”, Sonia Faleiro, New York Times, November 19
It’s hard to get reliable figures. A government ministry says that betwen 2012 and 2017, 242,938 Indian children disappeared, but a government database counts 237,040 for the years 2012 to 2014 alone. An anti-trafficking NGO estimates the figure could reach 500,000 a year. Whatever the case, the number is immense, and this is a tremendously under-reported phenomenon. Acute poverty is considered the main factor. At least half of Indian minors live in destitution. Indian has the largest number of slaves of any country in the world. While Indian public opinion has mobilized against rape, the murder of journalists and farmer suicides, it has not done so for missing children.
“Six Key Phrases to Construct Civil Society”, Xu Zhiyong, China Change, November 19
Xu’s first major public statement since his July release from a four-year jail term shows how little that changed him: He is as optimistic as ever, going against the grain of the current conventional wisdom on China, which is decidedly downbeat. Xu’s main message is that power, ultimately, lies with the people, and it’s not a matter of engaging in large-scale political activity, which anyway is all but impossible in such a repressive country; rather, it’s a matter of acting like a citizen in ways big and small. As Xu says, if all 1.3 billion Chinese simply acted as if they actually possessed the rights enshrined in the country’s constitution, it would be a very different place.
“How Prosecutors Turn a Protest into a ‘Riot’”, Elizabeth Ariadne Lagesse, New York Times, November 15
See The Intercept article above for background to this story of over 200 protesters arrested on the day of Trump’s inauguration and now facing charges of engaging in a riot, inciting a riot, conspiracy to riot and property damage. This piece is by one of the defendants who is also a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union. The government has not provided most defendants with evidence of their wrongdoing, which in most cases appears to amount to little more than being there, yet it is attempting to coerce them into plea bargains. Lagesse says this is a common problem across the US, with 90% of defendants pleading guilty before their cases reach trial, and so, she says, “It’s time for us to confront the true implications of our society’s promise that we are innocent until proven guilty.”
“My Life After Sexual Assault”, Diana Nyad, New York Times, November 9
One of the best pieces that has appeared in this period of a tide of allegations of sexual harassment and assault. Nyad was molested by her swimming coach when she was 14 and writes of that assault’s lifelong repercussions. The molestation continued through high school. “I didn’t suffer the Holocaust. I’ve never been through the horrors of war. I don’t paint my youth as tragic, yet I spent every day of my high school years terrified that it would be yet another day that he would summon me after practice, for a humiliating ride in his car or a disgusting hour in the motel down the street.” “We need to construct an accurate archive of these abuses. And we need to prepare coming generations to speak up in the moment, rather than be coerced into years of mute helplessness.”
“Brazilian Women Can Learn to Yell”, Vanessa Barbara, New York Times, November 9
Portrays well the subjective experience of a woman who lives in a society in which she was raised to not speak up and in which there is the sense that she could be vulnerable to assault at any time.
“Spain’s attempt to block Catalonia’s referendum is a violation of our basic rights” (21 September) and “This is not just about Catalonia. This is about democracy itself” (6 November), Carles Puigdemont, The Guardian
One written right before the October 1 independence referendum, the other a month after, by the head of the Catalan government. I am still a bit puzzled as to why he called the referendum when opinion polls consistently showed close to a half-half split on the issue, and therefore conflicted, but at a time when there was so much spin in the air, it was important to let the man speak for himself directly to the public beyond Spain. Catalans certainly have the right of self-determination and Spain merits unequivocal censure for trying to deny them that right, as does the EU for dumbly backing it up. Spain has a years-long history of blocking more moderate Catalan efforts to achieve greater autonomy, clearly the most immediate cause of the current impasse.
“Prison is an inevitable part of Hong Kong’s exhausting path to democracy” (28 September) and “A brief taste of freedom reminds me to never stop fighting for Hong Kong” (29 October), Joshua Wong, The Guardian
After Joshua was imprisoned in August, The Guardian and he had a great idea of publishing regular missives from him there, in the great tradition of prison letters. As it happened, he was bailed in November pending a January appeal. Hopefully, the series will continue as it’s very important for the rest of the world to hear his voice. He speaks the truth on HK.
“Prison isolates and so does your silence”, Ahmed Naji, Mada Masr, October 18
Part of the campaign to #FreeAlaa Abd El Fattah, a hero of the Egyptian revolution serving one five-year sentence and facing another trial that may add to his prison time. Written by Ahmed Naji, who infamously became the first Egyptian writer imprisoned in modern times solely for what he wrote, his novel Using Life, which is just coming out in English in November. Naji was for some time a cell mate of Abd El Fattah. In this piece, he remembers their time together in prison and explains why it’s important that the rest of the world remember Abd El Fattah and other political prisoners and continue to show solidarity with them.
“Democracy Can Plant the Seeds of Its Own Destruction”, Thomas B. Edsall, New York Times, October 19
An excellent review of recent literature on “the prospect of democratic breakdown”, obviously with Trump in mind, but its purview is wider and more theoretical than talking Trump; therein lies its value as well.
“A Record of 709”, Xie Yanyi, China Change, October 15
This is Xie Yanyi’s account of his one and a half years in detention without trial from July 2015 to January 2017, gleaned from a book he has written about it. He was detained as part of the crackdown on rights lawyers and related activists which swept hundreds up in its net. His is the second extensive account by a lawyer of his detention, the first being Xie Yang’s.
“The Next Arab Spring? Women’s Rights”, Kamel Daoud, New York Times, October 1
Poorly chosen and somewhat misleading title, but don’t hold that against it. Daoud’s piece a perfect example of how a good op-ed can remind of an issue the media’s overlooked — in this case, Tunisia’s Islamist democrats, Ennahda, and their advocacy of changes to civil law on women’s rights, which have implications much wider and deeper than that of women being allowed to drive (in 2018) in Saudi Arabia, a story that garnered all the attention (it is an important one). In particular, the president of Tunisia advocates “equal inheritance rights for Muslim women and their right to marry non-Muslim foreigners”, which would make Tunisia a much different place from most other Arab countries.
“How to Treat Refugees with Dignity: A Lesson from Turkey”, Rula Jebreal, New York Times, September 27
When it comes to human rights, Turkey’s hardly considered a paragon these days, but in one respect, it is held up as a model: its hospitality toward Syrian refugees. Of the five million who have fled their country, most have ended up in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Lebanon has a population of six million and already hosts 450,000 Palestinian refugees, to which it has now added 1.5 million Syrians, but since it doesn’t want them to become permanent residents, it doesn’t officially recognize the camps or allow the UN in and discriminates against the refugees in various ways, for example in education. Jordan has 1.3 million Syrian refugees. Turkey’s welcomed 3 million. One city, Gaziantep, hosts 600,000, most of whom live in the city proper (40,000 live in five camps). The refugees have access to free health care and schools, and Turkey’s committed to providing them a path to citizenship.
“Letters to Samira 1 to 7”, Yassin al-Haj Saleh, Al-Jumuriya, 30 July to 27 September
A series of seven letters written by al-Haj Saleh to his wife, who on 9 December 2013 was kidnapped along with the renowned human rights defender Razan Zeitouneh and two others, probably by an Islamist militia, and has not been heard from since. Previous to the Syrian revolution and civil war, both husband and wife had been political prisoners of the Assad regime, Al-Haj Saleh for 16 years. He is currently in exile in Istanbul. Penetrating, difficult, heartfelt and analytical, the letters give just about the best insight into Syria of anything I’ve come across in recent years. Al-Haj Saleh’s book, The Impossible Revolution, a collection of articles written between 2011 and 2015, also came out this year and is on my best-of-year list for human rights books.
“The Forgotten Victims of Agent Orange”, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Richard Hughes, New York Times, September 15
There are still thousands of victims of the US military’s use of Agent Orange during the war in Vietnam. In 1967 alone, the US sprayed 5.1 million gallons of herbicide across Vietnam. While American soldiers affected by Agent Orange have received some compensation, Vietnamese have received none, and only $20 million of aid. The US claims no definitive connection between AO and the injuries said to be caused by it has ever been made, but this sounds exceedingly disingenuous. Since it would only cost $350 million over 10 years to provide the aid needed, this isn’t really about money; it’s about denial.
“In El Salvador, ‘Girls Are a Problem’”, Catalina Lobo-Guerrero, New York Times, September 2
El Salvador is one of the world’s deadliest countries for women. In 2016, 542 women were killed, 1 in every 5,000, but the number is greater, since it is just the bodies that end up in morgues that get counted. Three out of four acts of sexual violence take place in the home. Seven of every 10 victims are under 20. The society neither protects them nor takes care of them when they are victims of violence. It also lets crimes against them go unpunished.
“China Looks at Western Universities and Smells Weakness”, Christopher Balding, Foreign Policy, August 24
A reaction to Cambridge University Press’s announcement it had removed over 300 articles from China Quarterly on its Chinese website in response to a state regulator’s request, but the focus is on “the broader complicity of Western organizations, universities, and academics in helping China export its academic censorship around the world.” Western universities have rushed to recruit Chinese students, make partnership agreements with Chinese universities, and 12 have even built new campuses in China. When criticized, they have said that this exchange will gradually help Chinese universities liberalize, but now it appears the reverse is the case. Balding also has several sensible recommendations to stop the pernicious influence of Chinese censorship on Western universities and reset the relationship.
“Denne grå sommeren har vi mistet noe av oss selv. Vi er skremt til taushet.”, Harald Stanghelle, Aftenposten, 19 August
The only piece on the list originally written in a language other than English (my translation from Norwegian, “This grey summer, we’ve lost something of ourselves. We are frightened into silence.”). Because I thought it did such a good job of portraying the moral bankruptcy of Norway’s China policy, which, unfortunately, is not confined to that country but has spread to most democratic rich countries. Stanghelle contrasts the Norwegian Prime Minister’s effusive expression of grief at the death of her favorite musician, Prince, in 2016, with her refusal to so much as utter the name Liu Xiaobo after his death in July. To add insult to injury, she defended herself by saying that even Norwegian politicians have the right to a holiday. But Stanghelle’s main point, apart from pointing out the hypocrisy, Stanghelle’s main message is that the refusal to stand up for rights in China and elsewhere means that Norway’s image of itself as a defender of rights worldwide is changing, and not for the better. Even in the narrow terms of Realpolitik, Stanghelle does not see that to be in Norway’s interest. I couldn’t agree more. On Norway, the EU, the US and the rest.
“Did Oslo Kowtow to Beijing?”, China File, December 21, 2016
In 2010, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded Liu Xiaobo the Peace Prize. China broke off relations with Norway to protest, even though it is not the Norwegian government that awards the prize. In December 2016, Norway and China announced they would normalize relations. The terms made it appear a capitulation on Norway’s part. This excellent debate contains eight voices. They all raise excellent points, but with the exception of one, their answer the eponymous question is yes.
“Human Dignity and Its Enemies”, John Fitzgerald, Inside Story, 16 August
One of the best meditations on the death of Liu Xiaobo, on what he meant, and on the wider implications for China and the world of the rule of the people who killed him. Fitzgerald dissects what Liu referred to as the Communist Party’s “enemy mentality”, “a deep and uncompromising loathing of societies that value human dignity.” Few Western commentators these days write as clearly and incisively as this about what Party rule is really all about: “An enemy mentality designed to suppress dissent in China could, if Beijing got its way, undermine all societies that value dignity and freedom and disarm the states that protect them.”. I’m still trying to come to terms with the fact that the democratic world looked the other way as a Nobel Peace Prize winner died in state custody. “Let’s face it, the only way to live in dignity, inside this depraved society we inhabit, is to resist. That being so, to go to prison is really nothing more than to maintain simple human dignity, it’s really nothing to brag about.” — Liu Xiaobo to Liao Yiwu in 2000.
“Liu Xiaobo’s unbearable fate is stark symbol of where China is heading”, Tania Branigan, The Guardian, 26 June
Branigan wrote this more than two weeks before Liu’s eventual demise, when there was still a sliver of hope for some humanity from the Communist Party, but she had been a correspondent in China for years and knows exactly what this story was all about, as the title sums up. Branigan was about to meet Liu for the first time on the very day in 2008 when he was arrested for his suspected role in publishing Charter 08, a manifesto for a democratic, right-respecting China that basically cost him his life. “‘Where is China headed in the 21st century?’ asked Charter 08…. Beijing has given its answer, and his name is Liu Xiaobo.”
“Egypt’s Government Can’t Crush Independent Journalism”, Lina Attalah, New York Times, June 4
An astonishingly optimistic take on the extremely poor state of the freedom of the press in Egypt by the editor of Madr Masr, one of the country’s most independent media voices, which itself happens to be blocked in Egypt using the same technology as China uses for the Great Firewall. It’s still publishing on Facebook and Google Drive so that people inside Egypt can read it. Their new slogan is borrowed from Iranian artist Shirin Aliabadi: “Freedom is boring, censorship is fun” because, says Attalah, Madr Masr has “learned how to thrive in precarity…. The state is powerful and will always be more powerful. But we have also been building power. We at Mada Masr belong to the many in Egypt today who did not disappear when we lost but instead remain in the hide-outs created by that political void. At moments of crisis, at times of direct collision with state power, those hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of us have not really drowned in despair, but rather we have been able to craft politics. And in being political, we recognize and grab moments of possibility, even if they come wrapped in crisis.” Mada Masr was profiled in a piece that made the 2015 best-of list.
“Tiananmen survivor Rose Tang: Be separatists, be proud, and let the revolution begin in Hong Kong”, Rose Tang, Hong Kong Free Press, 4 June
Rose Tang uses the occasion of the twenty-eighth anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre to address the Hong Kong people with a clear, radiant, defiant, forceful and upbeat message at a time which, to many, doesn’t seem that upbeat, whether in China or Hong Kong. Just when you thought nothing new could be said about the ’89 demonstrations in China. Opinion pieces which appear in the mainstream press are often so manicured, carefully groomed, respectable, presentable. Not here. Rose Tang lets it all hang out and the result is an essay suffused with the spirit of freedom, which is exactly what the 1989 demonstrations in China and the 2014 Umbrella Movement in HK were all about. Rose’s piece reminds that so much of the media, especially in less free parts of the world, is about telling people subtly, subliminally what they cannot and should not think and that the best remedy for that is to say exactly what you think, no matter how many taboos are broken. Rose’s blog piece is a more extensive version with a different title.
“Why Saudi Women Are Literally Living ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’”, Mona Eltahawy, New York Times, May 24
This is an opinion piece that will blow you away. Begins with the beating and forcible repatriation from Manila of a woman escaping a forced marriage, this while the US and Saudi Arabia were signing a huge weapons contract and Duterte was visiting the country. ‘“As Saudi women, we are unfortunate enough to have rich and well-connected abusers in this corrupt world,” the lawyer and activist Moudi al-Johani told me. “The patriarchal and extreme Saudi mentality views women as property which belongs to the state and the family.”’ And don’t be fooled by the revolutionary (!) Saudi decision later in the year to allow women to drive — that’s just the very tip of the iceberg. #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen
“Don’t Profit from Abuses in Bahrain”, Nabeel Rajab, New York Times, May 17
Bahrain is one of the considerable number of places in the world that should be on the its conscience: One of the sites of the Arab Spring in 2011, it faced a massive crackdown, and continues to, while the rest of the world looks the other way, partly because of a US base there, partly because of oil, partly because its monarchy is an implacable foe of Iran and characterized the uprising as Iran-inspired if not directed because it was lead by the Shiites, who make up a majority in the Sunni-dominated kingdom. Rajab is amongst the leaders of the uprising who are continually persecuted. Since 2011, he’s been imprisoned too many times to count, the last being in 2016, and this year, he was sentenced to two more years in prison as well as facing several other prosecutions, not least of which is one for publishing a letter to the New York Times in September last year, in which he stated that there are 4,000 political prisoners in Bahrain, a country of barely a million people. Altogether, he faces charges that could lead to 18 years in prison. Rajab published this in the week before Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, where he sold weapons while Saudi Arabia is bombing Yemen and is also selling weapons without human rights restrictions to Bahrain, which is participating in the Saudi bombing of Yemen. “Some of my fellow activists have been tortured, sentenced to life imprisonment, even killed. But I believe that respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms is the way to attain peace, stability and prosperity in any nation; I have devoted my life to that ideal.”
“How Censorship Works”, Ai Weiwei, New York Times, May 6
Gets to the heart of why censorship is so evil and the perverting, distorting effect it has on the censored society. “Life in China is saturated with pretense. People feign ignorance and speak in ambiguities. Everyone in China knows that a censorship system exists, but there is very little discussion of why it exists…. The harm of a censorship system is not just that it impoverishes intellectual life; it also fundamentally distorts the rational order in which the natural and spiritual worlds are understood. The censorship system relies on robbing a person of the self-perception that one needs in order to maintain an independent existence. It cuts off one’s access to independence and happiness.” Ai describes well the psychology of “the self-censored majority” who “[e]ach time they display their servility bring warmth to the hearts of the authoritarians and harm to the people who protest.” From the anthology, Rules of Resistance: Advice from around the Globe for the Age of Trump, which is on this year’s best-of human rights books list.
“Why we are on hunger strike in Israel’s prisons”, Marwan Barghouti, New York Times, April 16
This message was smuggled out of an Israeli prison where for the last 15 years, Barghouti has been serving five life sentences and 40 years on murder and terrorism charges. He refused to defend himself in Israeli court because he refused to recognize its jurisdiction in occupied land. It explains why 1,000 Palestinian prisoners started a hunger strike. In this case, it was not for any ultimate objective like freedom for Palestine or an end to occupation but simply for better prison conditions, a sign of just how deplorable Israeli oppression of Palestinians has become, in this, the 50th year of occupation. Over the past five decades, 800,000 Palestinian males have spent time in Israeli prisons, 40% of the population. There are about 6,500 today. “What is it with the arrogance of the occupier and the oppressor and their backers that makes them deaf to this simple truth: Our chains will be broken before we are, because it is human nature to heed the call for freedom regardless of the cost.” Israel waged a propaganda campaign against Barghouti in revenge for his leadership of the strike, leaking video of Barghouti allegedly clandestinely breaking the hunger strike. Unfortunately, it did nothing to address the prisoners’ concerns, or for that matter, those of their people, who remain under illegal occupation, constantly aggressed upon by the illegal Israeli settlements in their midst.
“‘Sometimes I laugh at this farce’: Six writers on life behind bars in Turkey”, Kareem Shaheen, Maeve Shearlaw, The Guardian, 23 March
As the lead explains, “Six persecuted writers describe the mental and physical toll of living in the country that jails more journalists than any other”. Three were charged with “terrorist propaganda”, the rest with “attempting to bring down the government”, all ludicrous charges. Of course, as bad as it is for writers in Turkey, they are one group amongst many targeted by Erdogan in the biggest crackdown ever in a country not known for its respect for rights even at the best of times. Very moving personal accounts of unjust imprisonment, conditions inside, and their effects on the persecuted.
“Turkey is headed for dictatorship, but voters can still turn the tide”, Can Dündar, The Guardian, 23 March
Dündar was the editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet. He resigned after the 2016 coup and fled to Germany. Eleven of his colleagues are imprisoned, along with upwards of 150 journalists. 12 members of the second-largest opposition party in parlaiment. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of civil servants and four thousand academics have been fired. When I read this headline, I thought Dündar was being hopelessly optimistc: There was no way Erdogan would let the “no” vote prevail. No referendum of this magnitude should have ever been held in the midst of the biggest crackdown in Turkey’s history: how could it possibly be fair? And yet, that was exactly the point. In fact, it turned out very close: 51% of the population, if the poll was accurate, voted to hand over their democracy, which was already compromised, to a strongman. Even considering the Turkish government’s control of the press, it was yet another sign in the past year and more of the degree to which citizens are willing to participate in their own oppression. I should be optimistic like Dündar — how else can you persevere? — but sometimes it’s hard.
“Half a Cheer for Democracy in Pakistan”, Manan Ahmed Asif, New York Times, March 20
On Pakistan’s “decision to merge the war-torn and neglected Federally Administrated Tribal Areas with the adjoining Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, earlier known as the North-West Frontier Province.” From a rights perspective, this was, on paper at least, a momentous decision: “This provides a way for the people of the Tribal Areas to become full legal citizens, to elect their own representatives directly, to have the laws of Pakistan apply to them, to sue for justice in Pakistani courts and to be compensated for the destruction of their homes in the war on terrorism — all rights that they do not have now.” Up to now, unbelievably, through all these decades, the people of these places were governed according to British colonial regulations. This is a matter that’s received very little international press attention even though since Pakistan started anti-militant group operations in 2014, millions of people in this region have been displaced. Some of the reforms that replace colonial-era regulations themselves fall short of human rights standards (thus, the “half a cheer” of the title), but it’s a significant step forward nonethless, if what’s on paper becomes the reality in people’s lives.
“Protest and persist: Why giving up hope is not an option”, Rebecca Solnit, The Guardian, 13 March
I often find Solnit’s much-loved essays a little flaky and predictable, but what I liked about this one was this clear message: “The true impact of activism may not be felt for a generation.” This is because I am constantly surrounded by people who become downcast at the slightest failure and spend a considerable amount of time arguing against pessimism and cynicism. Becoming an activist means committing yourself to the long struggle. There’s hardly a victory in the realms of democracy and human rights that’s been won with a protest or two. Solnit says, “I sometimes wonder when I’m at a mass march like the Women’s March a month ago whether the reason it matters is because some unknown young person is going to find her purpose in life that will only be evident to the rest of us when she changes the world in 20 years, when she becomes a great liberator.” Hope, she says, “navigates a way forward between the false certainties of optimism and of pessimism, and the complacency or passivity that goes with both.” Solnit’s “been moved and thrilled and amazed by the strength, breadth, depth and generosity of the resistance to” Trump while at the same time “worried about whether it will endure.” But, as she says, “For many groups, movements and uprisings, there are spinoffs, daughters, domino effects, chain reactions, new models and examples and templates and toolboxes that emerge from the experiments, and every round of activism is an experiment whose results can be applied to other situations.” This is why I say as long as people continue to resist, there is always hope. It is only when people give up that hope is lost.
“The Bookseller’s Decision”, Yaxue Cao, China Change, December 30, 2016
I remember reading this on the very same subway line in Hong Kong that the bookseller Lam Wing-kee was taking to go back up to the border with the mainland and cross it back into Communist Party custody. On the way there, he changed his mind. This piece honors the choice he made, reviewing his case in some detail in order to bring into relief the difficulty and magnitude of that decision. Cao says Lam’s decision not to go back and instead reveal to the world his treatment at the hands of the dictatorship that had essentially kidnapped him was “one of the most important events of the year. In it is the kernel of hope I’m bringing with me into 2017, and beyond.” Yes, we do all have a choice. It may be hard, but we do. It may have consequences, but we do. We do.
“She’s in Pussy Riot. He’s on the Far Right: How Maria Alyokhina and Dmitry Enteo Fell in Love”, Lizzie Crocker, The Daily Beast, October 16
As the headline suggests, the slant of the article is the gossipy, and that’s the worst of it. the best of it is that it lets Maria Alokhyina talk about what it’s like in Russia and the play she’s performing in Burning Doors, touring with the legendary Belarus Free Theater, about three political prisoners in Russia. She plays herself in the play. She’s also got a new book out, and unfortunately, there’s little attention to that. The best thing about the interview is that it shows Alyokhina in all her messiness, the fact that she doesn’t feel the need to project an image of being all put together, let alone a kind of saintly Mandela, and this in itself is a good message in a year when many began to realize that Aung San Suu Kyi may not be the perfect saint she was for so many years made out to be. Activists are human. That’s their strength. This is an interview with an all-too-human activist, one who dares to let it all hang out in public. This comes dangerously close to the sort of deplorable garbage journalism of which there is a great abundance these days, but it’s saved by Alokhyina’s let-it-all-hang-out charm.
“The Tragic Legacy of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently”, David Remnick, New Yorker, October 21
In October, Syrian Kurdish forces with air support from the US retook Raqqa from IS. After that, Remnick interviewed Abdalaziz Alhamza, one of the leaders of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, described well by Remnick as “a kind of underground reporting squadron, citizen journalists who, at tremendous risk to their lives, used every possible tool to smuggle out to the world words and images describing life under ISIS rule.” They’re also the subject of the excellent documentary, “City of Ghosts”. Now that IS had been vanquished, Remnick wanted to know what Alhamza thought. His answer was succinct: “This is a liberation in the media. Not in Raqqa.” In the interview, Alhamza tells his own history, of his childhood and youth, protests against Assad, the invasion of Raqqa by IS, and how he became a citizen journalist. He was arrested and tortured three times, and that was before the IS took over. Then he fled to Turkey (and later to Germany). Together with colleagues in Raqqa, he founded RBSS. And he explains how the people of Raqqa feel now that the IS is no longer there. 90% of their city is destroyed and everyone has lost loved ones. It does not feel like victory to them.
“Bhuchung D. Sonam: Poet, Translator and Publisher”, Tenzin Dickie, Tibetan Review, July 19
An excellent interview with the co-founder of arguably the first independent publishing house of Tibetan poetry in history, TibetWrites and its imprint Blackneck Books, whose mission is to find and promote new Tibetan writing both within Tibet and in exile. Sonam: “I don’t think of myself as a writer. I primarily write because it eases the pain of exile and dislocation…. Because me and you and all of us at this point in time — we are all products of occupation and exile and dislocation and in the process we have accumulated a lot of pain, hurt, frustration and desperation inside and writing is a creative process helps me to deal with some of these things.” He also speaks of being born in China-occupied Tibet and fleeing to India, the experience of exile, and the story behind the founding of TibetWrites.
“Sanders on Trump and the challenge for the left- full transcript”, Ed Pilkington, The Guardian, 10 March
“G: What would you say to a young person who is feeling scared, close to despair, thinking the country has moved against them. What should they do?
“Sanders: This is what they should do. They should take a deep reflection about the history of this country and understand that absolutely these are very difficult and frightening times, I would not deny that for a second. But also understand that this country has had a very rocky road in terms of democracy and civil liberties and civil rights. In moments of crisis what has happened time and time again is people have stood up and fought back. So despair is absolutely not an option.”
An extensive interview including Sanders’ reflections on the elections, the US under Trump, the resistance, and the state of the Democratic Party.
Many of the most striking images this year came from the battle of Mosul and the Rohingya exodus from Burma. I am conflicted about presenting them here. They are so extreme and dramatic (some of the most graphic images I’ve not presented but can be found through the links). On the one hand, there is something voyeuristic about viewing images of others’ suffering. On the other, they do indeed “bring to life” the gravity of their experience and hopefully awaken some kind of response from the viewer other than just staring. If successful, they make us connect with the humanity of others (but of course, that depends as much on the viewer as on the image or photographer). Actually, some of my favorite human rights-related images are more along the lines of the ones above, accompanying the listed articles, which just show ordinary people leading their ordinary lives and yet are linked to important and widespread rights issues. One reaction to the photos below can be, well, that happens there, not here — what I call “compartmentalization” — you put it over there, say “how horrible” and then get on with your life. “How can you care about democracy in Hong Kong when this is happening in Burma or Iraq?” When I look at these photos, and those above, I think, “We are all human beings, everywhere. We must care for each other, show solidarity with one another, and work toward a world where rights are respected everywhere.”
“The Story Behind the Most Haunting Images of the Rohingya Exodus”, Kevin Frayer, Time, October 15
I tried to avoid using Frayer’s photo as the main image at the top of this best-of-year list, so widely it has circulated, but when push came to shove, it was the obvious choice, not only because it is a great photo in its own right but I came to think that somehow it characterizes the year as a whole so well, the distressed if not desperate feelings of many, the fact that we are still quite poor at treating each other well and helping each other out in these troubling times. The boy’s cry is the cry of humanity. And, well, at least this boy is still alive, and strong enough to climb up on the truck, and so there is still hope. Other images in the series depict malnourished children and a baby no longer alive. Despair is relative.
“The Cost of Liberation: Documenting Life amid the Battle of Mosul”, Cengiz Yar, The Intercept, July 12
Exceptional documentary work that focuses on the suffering of civilians.
“The Battle for Mosul”, Ivor Prickett, New York Times
From January to October, Prickett photographed the battle for Mosul. His photos consistently focuses on the effects of the violence on civilians.
Carl Court captured the following image as Kurdish and Iraqi army troops moved toward Mosul for the final offensive.
The following photo by Sergei Ponomarev is from a series about the Rohingya flight from Burma. The article it accompanies can be found in the list above. It is partly the look on Rajuma’s face, partly the way the light falls across her, that give a sense of dignity to a woman who has survived unimaginable horror. I do not know whether I would appreciate the photo as much if I had not read her story. Judge for yourself.
The following two portraits were winners of the Taylor Wessing photographic portrait prize. The first, by Cesar Dezfuli, depicts 16-year-old Amadou Sumaila, who had just been rescued from the sea off the Libyan coast by a European vessel. The second, by Abbie Trayler-Smith, is of a young woman being transported on a Oxfam bus evacuating people from Mosul.
Another excellent portrait, by Sara Hylton, of two girls at an orphanage in Juba, South Sudan, but I am ambivalent that this photo appeared in an article about “fashion” in Juba. I very much doubt that these two girls were wearing the spare orphanage uniform to make a fashion statement.
Another excellent portrait, this of Said Ghullam Norzai and Wali Khan Norzai, taken by Christopher Thomond, and from the article, “He lost his wife, six children, his peace of mind- and his British asylum claim”.
There were many amazing images from the independence referendum in Catalonia and related events. Here is one that struck me. I don’t know the photographer; I saw it in this tweet.
The following photo is from a series taken by Thomas Peters in Xinjiang. The series in general presents the breadth of Uighur life there, and every photo is excellent, but this is one of the few directly related to the Chinese government’s repression in the name of a war on terror. It’s just so ordinary, and the story behind it testifies to the ordinary coercion of the Uighurs’ everyday life under Communist Party rule. “Shopkeepers line up with wooden clubs to perform their daily anti-terror drill outside the bazaar in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, on March 24, 2017. Three times a day, alarms ring out through the streets of China’s ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar, and shopkeepers rush out of their stores swinging government-issued wooden clubs. In mandatory anti-terror drills conducted under police supervision and witnessed by Reuters on a recent visit, they fight off imaginary knife-wielding assailants. Armoured paramilitary and police vehicles circle with sirens blaring.”
Perhaps it is because I know these young men that I find this image by Tyrone Siu affecting. It also has to do with the context: These four student leaders were heading into the courtroom where three of them would be sentenced to prison for their roles in a nonviolent protest that triggered the Umbrella Movement of 2014. In this moment, they are on the threshold of history, a new era in which young people are sent to prison simply for advocating for the rights of all Hong Kong people.
The following photo by Vincent Yu is of the candlelight march for Liu Xiaobo which snaked its way through Hong Kong shortly after the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s death in Chinese state custody.
Emily Wang’s photo of Lee Ching-yu shows such dignity, strength and pride. The words on her arms say, “I am proud of you, Lee Ming-che” and are addressed to her husband, who was detained in China and, later, sentenced to five years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power”, essentially for doing no more than sending press clippings to friends in China on democracy issues.
“‘The Fight’: Bolivian disability rights activists use direct action to fight for a basic pension of US$72 a month”, Violeta Ayala and Dan Fallshaw, The Guardian, May 5
About the march of people without disabilities to La Paz, Bolivia to speak with President Evo Morales about a basic pension. The government response? Riot police, barricades, tear gas and water cannons. Profiles four of the march’s most prominent leaders. An article about what happened after the film was made.
“The boy who started the Syrian war”, Jamie Doran, Al Jazeera, 10 February
The title is a bit facetious since what this at-the-time 14-year-old boy did in February 2011 was to scrawl anti-Assad graffiti on his school wall. He and others were taken into custody and tortured, and protests against their treatment sparked the Syrian revolution. The war would come later. Now the boy, Mouawiya Syasneh, is a young man fighting in the Free Syrian Army. The film shows him looking back on this span of time and all the changes since then.
“She Wants Independence. In Egypt, That Can Be Dangerous”, Mona El-Naggar, Mark Meatto, Yousur Al-Hlou, New York Times, December 3
This video follows a young Egyptian woman who works for a human rights organization and is trying to move out from her traditionally religious family to live with friends. It is a story of her political and personal awakening as well as the challenges she faces in a society that is both a dictatorship and infringes women’s freedoms in the name of religion. “I know that as long as I’m living in Egypt, I’ll be in a fight. Because if I don’t protect a right that I fought for, someone will take it away from me.” Police tried to arrest her for waving a rainbow flag at a concert. She now lives in hiding. Really a fantastic 20 minutes. I almost felt the film got too close to her and wondered whether she might face repercussions for letting journalists this far into her life. An inspiring young woman. I hope for the best for her.
“How Saudi Women Fought for the Right to Drive”, Yousur Al-Hlou, New York Times, September 30
Lets the activists speak, gives a sense of what a long hard slog it’s been, and does this simply and elegantly by profiling several women behind the struggle to drive. You have to fight so hard to gain so little. Great elation at the royal decree, but, so many problems still: As Manaa al-Sharif put it, now maybe Saudi Arabia can consider recognizing women as citizens with equal rights by abolishing the guardianship law, which grants men (whether fathers or brothers or husbands) “guardianship” over all women.
“The infamous Chalk Girl”, San San F Young, The Guardian, June 17
In December 2014, just after the end of the Umbrella Movement, Hong Kong police arrested a 14-year-old schoolgirl for drawing chalk flowers around a masking-tape picture of an umbrella on a wall and then proceeded to attempt to remove her from her father’s guardianship. This was met with outrage and made “Chalk Girl” famous overnight, though an image of her face never appeared in the media. Now the film-maker profiles the still-nameless Chalk Girl two years later to see what has become of her and how she feels about the political situation in Hong Kong today. The depiction represents the alienation and deep sense of grievance at injustice felt by many Hong Kong young people.
“Mother’s Day: When seeing your mother means a trip to prison”, Elizabeth Lo, New York Times, May 11
A simple and effective film that follows a group of children who go to visit their mothers in a California prison on Mother’s Day. More than five million U.S. children have a parent who is incarcerated. As the filmmaker says, “We made ‘Mother’s Day’ to remind us of the steep price an entire generation of youth — and by extension, our nation — has to pay because of systems that remain broken across America. The incarceration epidemic is not just today’s problem; it’s a structural disaster that stretches across generations, and will be with us for many years to come.”
“Kidnapped, tortured, and thrown in jail: My 70 days in Sudan”, Phil Cox, The Guardian, 5 April
Film-maker Phil Cox returns to Darfur twelve years after he reported on it, to find out the Sudanese government has put a price on his head. He and his crew ended up making a Channel Four film based on their own experience. “… what happened to us took us really into the heart of what the Sudanese government is doing to its people….”
Kong Tsung-gan is the author of Umbrella: A Political Tale from Hong Kong, the first comprehensive account of the Umbrella Movement, and a series of articles based on the book. He writes on issues of democracy and human rights in Hong Kong for Hong Kong Free Press, and monitors the human rights situation in Hong Kong, in particular prosecutions of pro-democracy leaders and activists. He is a writer, activist and educator who has lived and worked in 15 different countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America.