Saudi Claims to Ease Yemen Blockade a Cruel Fiction

Saudi Claims to Ease Yemen Blockade a Cruel Fiction


Women sit on cooking gas cylinders lined up outside a gas station amid supply shortage in Sanaa, Yemen November 7, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

Saudi Arabia today attempted to sell its changes to the full blockade on all Yemen land, air, and sea ports as concrete humanitarian progress today.

They aren’t.

The Saudi ambassador to the United Nations, Abdallah al-Mouallimi, said the coalition would allow ports in allied government-controlled territory to open—in Aden, the country’s second largest city, for example—but all ports in the Houthi-Saleh controlled north—like Hodeida port and Sanaa airport—were to remain closed until the coalition decided sufficient steps had been taken to prevent weapons from entering the country.

Under the laws of war, the coalition can block weapons from going to its adversary, the Houthi-Saleh forces, but it also must allow humanitarian assistance to the civilian population and not use starvation as a weapon of war. The full blockade violated these legal obligations, but so does the ostensibly scaled-down version: the Saudi government seems to be seeking global praise for ending the blockade on its own allies.

The same day the ambassador made his remarks, the UN’s lead humanitarian agency released a short report. Read in the context of Yemen’s grave humanitarian crisis—millions close to starvation, the world’s worst cholera epidemic, the vast majority of the population reliant on aid—the report portends the devastating impact of the coalition’s blockade.

Yemen is “dependent on imported food, medicines and fuel.” Nearly 80 percent of imports—commercial and humanitarian—come through Hodeida and Saleef ports, both to remain shuttered by Saudi Arabia. Other ports, like Aden, are crucial and should remain open—but no port, including Aden, has the capacity to handle the hundreds of thousands of metric tons of cargo it takes to feed and treat Yemen’s civilian population, or to fuel its hospitals.

Last year, the coalition closed Sanaa airport. Many thought it was temporary. More than a year later, the airport remains closed. If the same happens with Hodeida port, Yemen’s civilians will further suffer. Many could die.

Before Saudi Arabia’s complete closure of Yemen air, sea and land space last week, the UN was already raising alarm bells, calling on all parties to better facilitate humanitarian access. That is the baseline—compliance with laws of war obligations, efforts by all sides to ensure aid is getting in and reaching those who need it most. The baseline is not allowing aid to reach civilians controlled by your allies but not those under enemy control, as Saudi Arabia seems to be proposing.

Security Council members should make this clear—by sanctioning those obstructing aid to Yemen, be they Saudi Arabia, its coalition members, or Houthi-Saleh forces—before more sick and hungry Yemeni children die preventable deaths. 

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Guatemala: Courts Jeopardizing Fight Against Impunity

Guatemala: Courts Jeopardizing Fight Against Impunity

(Guatemala City) – The remarkable progress Guatemala has made in prosecuting corruption and abuse could be reversed if the country’s highest courts don’t stop the egregious delays that are keeping powerful defendants from going to trial, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

Running out the Clock

How Guatemala’s Courts Could Doom the Fight against Impunity

The 56-page report, “Running Out the Clock: How Guatemala’s Judiciary Could Doom the Fight against Impunity,” documents a pattern of repeated and unjustifiable delays in criminal cases brought by the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and the Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office.

“The fight against impunity in Guatemala has reached a critical moment,” said Daniel Wilkinson, managing director for the Americas at Human Rights Watch. “After surviving desperate efforts by the president and congress to sabotage its work, the UN-sponsored commission investigating corruption and abuse must now contend with a judicial branch whose failures could prevent its most critical cases from ever going to trial.”

In August 2017, President Jimmy Morales ordered the expulsion of the CICIG commissioner, Iván Velásquez. In September, Congress sought to eviscerate the laws that CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office are using to prosecute cases of corruption and abuse of power. The Constitutional Court blocked both efforts, after tens of thousands of Guatemalans took to the street in protest and the human rights ombudsman filed appeals.

Since CICIG began operation in 2007, Guatemala has made enormous progress in promoting accountability for abuses of power. The most dramatic breakthrough came in 2015, when the joint efforts of CICIG and local prosecutors exposed multiple corruption schemes, implicating officials in all three branches of government, and prompting the resignation and arrest of then-President Otto Pérez Molina.

Yet, more than two years on, these prosecutions have joined a growing list of cases against powerful defendants in which criminal cases have been bogged down in pretrial proceedings, some for more than five years.

Human Rights Watch extensively reviewed criminal proceedings in eight high-profile cases and interviewed dozens of judges, prosecutors, lawyers, and CICIG investigators familiar with these cases. It found a consistent pattern in which defense lawyers are able to trigger prolonged delays with repeated, often unjustified, appeals to court decisions and petitions seeking the recusal of judges.

Guatemalan law sets clear limits on the amount of time courts have to address these appeals, but the courts routinely fail to comply with those limits.

In one case, a former national police director and former deputy minister of the interior was charged in 2012 with ordering the execution of suspected criminals. Five-and-a-half years later, the case has yet to go to trial. It was stalled for more than three years as a result of repeated recusal petitions, against the same judge, that rehashed arguments that had already been rejected. Appellate courts regularly failed to meet the applicable deadlines.

This problem is not limited to CICIG’s cases but also affects others pursued by local prosecutors without the commission’s help, including the prosecution of the former dictator, Efraín Rios Montt, for genocide. Nor is this a recent problem. Cases involving human rights atrocities have suffered similar setbacks in the past.

CICIG has a mandate to operate in Guatemala until September 2019. Attorney General Thelma Aldana’s term expires in May 2018.

“If defendants are able to run out the clock on the commission’s mandate – or even just on the attorney general’s term in office – the efforts to prosecute these cases could fail, and the forces of corruption and impunity in the country could emerge stronger than ever,” Wilkinson said.

Courts generally fail to adhere to the time limits for resolving appeals established in Guatemalan law. Appeals that should be resolved within a month routinely take 6 to 12 months. The impact of missed deadlines is compounded by egregious bureaucratic delays. Judges routinely neglect to re-schedule promptly proceedings that have been suspended or postponed because of appeals or other disruptions, such as the failure of defense lawyers to show up for a hearing.

The courts have, but do not use, powers that could allow them to avoid many of the worst delays without prejudicing the rights of defendants, Human Rights Watch said. Judges can decline to hear unfounded appeals and courts can continue with proceedings while appeals are pending – so long as there is no risk of irreparable harm. But this seldom happens.

Guatemala’s Supreme Court is among the worst offenders. In two of the cases from 2015, the Supreme Court took nine months to resolve appeals that should have been decided within a month. The court has also failed to use its authority to ensure that lower court judges comply with the legally mandated deadlines.

The Constitutional Court has played a decisive role in 2017 in shielding CICIG from efforts by Morales and Congress to sabotage its work. But it has also been responsible for some of the longest delays. It took 18 months to resolve one appeal documented in the report and almost 22 months for another.

“Working with CICIG in recent years, the Attorney General’s Office has grown into a credible institution, capable of prosecuting corrupt officials and powerful mafias once considered untouchable,” Wilkinson said. “But for Guatemala to make real progress in fighting impunity it needs more than investigations and arrests. It also needs courts that are able to bring trials to a conclusion.”

Cases Reviewed in the Report:

  • Corrupt Military Officers Case: Eight former Defense Ministry officials were charged in 2009 with embezzling more than US$70 million from the government. Eight years later, the case has yet to go to trial. Almost all courts involved in the case failed to meet the applicable deadlines, including the Constitutional Court, which took 18 months to rule on one appeal.
  • Blanco Lapola Case: A former national police director and former deputy minister of the interior was charged in 2012 with ordering the execution of suspected criminals. Five-and-a-half years later, the case has yet to go to trial. The case was stalled for more than three years as a result of repeated recusal petitions against the same judge that rehashed arguments that had already been rejected. Appellate courts regularly failed to meet the applicable deadlines.
  • La Línea Case: Former President Otto Perez Molina and former Vice President Roxana Baldetti were charged along with 28 other officials for allegedly organizing a scheme to defraud the customs authority by collecting bribes instead of customs duties. More than two years later, the case has not gone to trial. It was held up for about a year-and-a-half because of delays in rescheduling hearings promptly after repeated disruptions caused by – among other things – the failure of defendants or their lawyers to show up in court.
  • Impunity Law Firm Case: A judge was charged with receiving a bribe to impose conditional liberty instead of pretrial detention for three suspects arrested in the La Línea case. More than two years later, the case has not yet gone to trial. Recusal petitions held up the case for more than a year.
  • Phantom Jobs Case: A former president of Congress was charged with hiring people in Congress who never performed any work for that institution, and pocketing those wages himself. More than two years later, the case has not yet gone to trial. Delays in rejecting a recusal petition presented by a defendant held up the case for almost 15 months.
  • Genocide Case: Former dictator Efraín Rios Montt was charged in 2012 with genocide for the mass slaughter of Mayan communities in the early 1980s. He was convicted in 2013, but the Constitutional Court nullified the verdict and ordered a new trial. After a delay of more than two years, mostly caused by the slow rescheduling of the trial, a court ruled in 2015 that Ríos Montt’s deteriorating mental health had left him unfit for a regular trial, and ordered that he instead be subject to special proceedings that do not allow for a guilty verdict. After two more years of delay, of which one year was due to the Constitutional Court not respecting a deadline, these proceedings only began in October.
  • Myrna Mack Case: Three former military intelligence officers were charged in 1996 for the 1990 assassination of anthropologist Myrna Mack Chang. One defendant was convicted and two were acquitted in 2002, 11 years after they were charged. Courts repeatedly failed to respect deadlines in at least 12 constitutional appeals as well as in the numerous other appeals and recusal petitions that were filed.
  • Dos Erres Case: Seventeen soldiers were charged in 1999 and 2000 for a massacre in 1982. Five of them were convicted in 2011 and 2012, 12 years after the first arrests were made. Courts took more than three years to resolve five constitutional appeals.

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Shuttering Social Media During Somaliland’s Elections

Shuttering Social Media During Somaliland’s Elections


People work in a printing studio as they prepare materials to mark the break-away of Somaliland from Somalia in Hargeysa, May 16, 2015. 

© 2015 Reuters

On November 13, the self-declared autonomous state of Somaliland will be holding presidential elections, the third since declaring independence from Somalia in 1991. The incumbent is stepping down and the elections are pitting the ruling party’s candidate against two opponents, in what commentators describe as a close race.

Today, the national electoral commission announced at a press conference that it will be imposing a shutdown of social media from November 13 until the election results come out.

While governments have sought to justify such bans on the grounds that election commentary may spark violence or the proliferation of “fake news,” the public’s access to information is key to free and fair elections.

A May 2015 joint declaration by inter-governmental experts on freedom of expression states that shutting down entire parts of communications systems, “can never be justified under human rights law.” Government restrictions should be law-based and a necessary and proportionate response to a specific security concern, not simply to curtail the flow of information.

The proposed Internet shutdown would be a first in Somaliland, but not in the region. In several countries, including Sudan, South Sudan, and Ethiopia, telecommunications authorities have deliberately blocked the Internet for days or longer during periods of social unrest and elections.

In November 2016, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights raised concerns over, “the emerging practice of State Parties of interrupting or limiting access to telecommunications services such as the Internet, social media, and messaging services, increasingly during elections,” and called on governments to guarantee, respect, and protect citizens’ rights to freedom of information and expression through access to Internet services.

Somaliland officials should acknowledge the critical role the Internet plays in its development and democratization process. And, if they are concerned about the spread of “fake news” and social unrest, they can disseminate accurate information and discourage violence.

Somaliland has the chance to conduct elections in a manner that promotes genuine participation. It should step back from taking measures that would thwart this.

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Human Rights Watch: New ‘Promise Award’

Human Rights Watch: New ‘Promise Award’


Chris Cornell

Jeff Lipsky

(Los Angeles) – The Los Angeles Committee of Human Rights Watch will present its inaugural Promise Award to the song The Promise on November 14, 2017, Human Rights Watch announced today.

Inspired by the film and song that powerfully depicted the atrocities committed against the Armenian people, the award recognizes an outstanding song, television show, or film that advances the values of equity and justice in an original and powerful way. Fittingly, the inaugural honor will be given to the late legendary singer and songwriter Chris Cornell in recognition of his song, The Promise. The award will be presented at The Voices for Justice Human Rights Watch Annual Dinner at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, at 6:30 p.m. on November 14.

The pioneering recording artist Chris Cornell, who sadly passed away in May, wrote the title song for the film, The Promise, the first major Hollywood film about the Armenian genocide. The song and its video fittingly weave the genocide with humanitarian crises of today. The song focuses on courage, perseverance, and hope – connecting with emotions that characterize and amplify the worldwide struggle for human rights. Cornell donated all proceeds from the song to benefit refugees and children, and his song continues to inspire millions as an anthem for the human rights movement.

“We are proud to name this award after The Promise, and present the inaugural award to Chris Cornell’s inspiring song,” said Justin Connolly, director of the Human Rights Watch Los Angeles Committee.

The Promise film has greatly raised awareness about the atrocities during the Armenian genocide in 1915 and recruited the general public and leaders from around the world to fight for human rights with its #KeepThePromise social media campaign. All proceeds from the film are being donated to non-profit organizations and humanitarian causes – including the establishment of The Promise Institute for Human Rights at UCLA.

The renowned singer, songwriter, film composer, and human rights activist Serj Tankian – also known for leading the Grammy-winning band, System Of A Down – will present the award. Tankian also served as the executive music consultant for The Promise and also contributed a song for the film’s soundtrack.

The Los Angeles Committee supports Human Rights Watch through outreach, advocacy and fundraising. It is part of a network of committees across 22 cities in East Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and North America. For more than 25 years, the committee has dedicated itself to broadening awareness of human rights issues throughout Southern California.

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China: Revise Draft National Supervision Law

China: Revise Draft National Supervision Law


A warning sign is seen outside the Shanghai No.1 Detention Center in Shanghai, China. 

© 2010 Reuters

(New York) – China’s legislature should substantially revise its new draft National Supervision Law to include fair trial protections for corruption suspects, Human Rights Watch said today. The draft National Supervision Law does not guarantee detainees access to lawyers or family members, and allows them to be held in a secret location for up to six months.

Once in effect, the law will further strengthen the Chinese Communist Party’s control over its ongoing anti-corruption campaign, one that has been driven by the party disciplinary agency, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI).

“Giving China’s graft-busters the authority to hold people incommunicado for months encourages forced confessions and other well-documented abuses,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “Mistreating suspects is likely to hinder, rather than help, the purported campaign to fight corruption.”

Putting a veneer of legality on an extra-legal detention system makes it no less abusive.

Sophie Richardson

China Director

On November 6, 2017, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee Legislative Affairs Commission released a draft National Supervision Law. The draft law outlines the powers and functions of a new anti-graft agency, the National Supervision Commission, which is slated to start work in March 2018. The commission will consolidate existing graft-fighting powers vested in various government departments. It will be empowered to investigate anyone exercising public authority – including officials, managers in state-owned companies, and public school managers. The commission will be led by the Communist Party and will share space and personnel with the CCDI.

The National Supervision Commission will have a range of investigative powers, including the powers to detain a corruption suspect for investigation under a new mechanism called “liuzhi.” Liuzhi is designed to replace shuanggui, a secret detention mechanism run by the party for party members. Human Rights Watch has criticized shuanggui’s use of arbitrary detention, solitary confinement, torture, and enforced disappearance, and has called for its abolition.

Liuzhi will, at least on paper, offer some improvements over shuanggui. Under the draft law, liuzhi will be codified and subjected to stricter internal procedures; detentions will have time limits – three months, and, upon approval, another three months; families will be notified within 24 hours; and interrogations will be videotaped.

But these limited measures are unlikely to deter abuses. While interrogators will now be required to videotape the interrogations, they are not obligated to disclose them to the detainees, making it difficult to seek accountability. The requirement that family members be notified comes with the caveat that such notification can be waived if it “impedes investigation.”

Still, liuzhi will afford graft investigators enormous power over detainees, providing no basic fair-trial protections. Liuzhi detainees are not guaranteed access to lawyers or redress mechanisms should they encounter abuses; they will also be held in undisclosed “designated locations,” likely solitary confinement cells. Shuanggui is usually carried out in unofficial facilities, typically rooms in hostels with special features, such as padded walls or a lack of windows, to prevent suicides or escapes. There is also no effective external or independent oversight over the conduct of the commission’s graft investigators.

It is estimated that tens of thousands of people have been subjected to shuanggui every year. Former detainees, lawyers and family have told Human Rights Watch that those held in shuanggui are subjected to prolonged sleep deprivation, being forced into stress positions for extended periods of time, deprivation of water and food, and severe beatings. According to one officer who has carried out shuanggui, the indefinite isolation of the detention – which itself can amount to torture – causes detainees’ minds to “collapse after… three to five days” and “answer everything you ask.” After “confessing” to corruption, they are typically brought into the criminal justice system, convicted, and sentenced to often lengthy prison terms.

Chinese lawyers and constitutional law scholars have raised concerns about liuzhi as well as questioned if the draft law violates the institutional arrangements as outlined in the Chinese constitution, by adding one top government authority to the existing three institutions that answer to the National People’s Congress.

“Putting a veneer of legality on an extra-legal detention system makes it no less abusive,” Richardson said. “The Chinese government claims that the draft law shows it’s committed to the rule of law, but if that were true it would abolish liuzhi and shuanggui, and investigate and prosecute corruption through a state-run, rights-respecting justice system.”

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Kids Update, Programming Note

Kids Update, Programming Note

I’ve skipped a few weeks of cute-kid updates, largely because I was at DAMOP for a week, and then catching on stuff I missed while I was at DAMOP for a week. The principal activity during this stretch has been SteelyKid’s softball, with a mad flurry of games at the end of the season to make up for all the rained-out games. This has been sort of stressful, but it also led to the greatest Google Photos animation ever, so…

Anyway, softball was fun, providing the opportunity for me to take no end of photos with my telephoto lens, some of which are pretty good. SteelyKid was way into running the bases, which ended up providing material for a blog post, so everybody wins. And I got a lot of photos like this one:

SteelyKid is pretty intense when she runs the bases.

Of course, while the intense running and dark helmet make her look a little intimidating in that, she’s still a cheerful eight-year-old, which means there’s really not a lot of killer instinct going on. For example, while she was playing first base, she high-fived every player on the other team who reached base safely:


Softball’s kind of a slow game, so boredom is always a danger when you have an eight-year-old’s attention span. She finds ways to pass the slower moments, though:

SteelyKid working on her fitness while her teammates bat.

(That’s not the greatest photo because the sun is setting more or less directly behind that dugout, but GIMP makes it tolerably clear…)

Speaking of short attention spans, The Pip has also come to a lot of the games, though he mostly just runs around and pays no attention to softball. Here he is stalking Kate, who’s watching SteelyKid play:

Stealthy Pip.

He’s like a ninja. In safety orange.

Much of the time, though, he’s pretty effective at keeping one or both of us from watching the game, frequently roping us into games of hide and seek or tag:

The Pip was It. Now Kate is.

(I also let him chase me around, but I’m the one who knows how to work the good camera. And more importantly, I’m the one who has editorial control over what pictures get posted here…)

And when all else fails, he can plop down on the ground and play in the grass:

“Dad, do I have grass in my hair?”

On the “programming note” side of things, I’m also aware that I haven’t posted the Forbes blog recap from May. I’m planning to type that up and post it probably Wednesday morning. Wednesday afternoon, we’re leaving on vacation for a while, going to Mexico with family, so you can expect a lot of photos of the kids doing tropical things in a few weeks…

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APEC/ASEAN: Prioritize Rohingya Crisis

APEC/ASEAN: Prioritize Rohingya Crisis


Security officers gather before a ceremony for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Manila, Philippines, November 5, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

(New York) – World leaders meeting for summits in Asia on November 10-14, 2017, should address Burma’s Rohingya crisis and the deteriorating human rights situations in Vietnam, the Philippines, and Cambodia, Human Rights Watch said today.

Heads of government from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), including the United States, China, Japan, Russia, Canada, Australia, and Mexico, will be meeting in Da Nang, Vietnam, on November 10. Leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will be meeting in Manila, Philippines, on November 12, along with associated ASEAN side-summits with the US, European Union, Japan, and South Korea, among others. Most of these leaders will then attend the annual East Asia Summit in Angeles, north of Manila, on November 13-14.

Since August 25, the Burmese military has carried out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine State. Security forces have committed massacres, rape, looting, and mass burnings of homes and property, causing the flight of more than 600,000 Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh. Human Rights Watch has determined that the atrocities amount to crimes against humanity. The campaign has led several countries to suspend military engagement with Burma and reimpose targeted sanctions and travel restrictions on high-level military leaders. Tougher measures are needed to press Burma to end the abuses, acknowledge rampant rights violations, ensure the safety of the internally displaced, and give access to independent fact-finders.

“The Rohingya crisis is among the worst human rights catastrophes in Asia in years and demands concerted global action,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “World leaders shouldn’t return home from these summits without agreeing to targeted sanctions to pressure Burma to end its abuses and allow in independent observers and aid groups.”

The United Nations Security Council should impose an arms embargo and targeted economic sanctions and travel bans on military officials implicated in atrocities. While the Security Council has not passed a resolution condemning the abuses, on November 6 it issued a Presidential Statement expressing concerns about the violence and calling on Burma to cooperate with UN bodies responsible for investigating the abuses. The Security Council should now take more meaningful action, but in the meantime concerned governments, especially those in Asia, can take coordinated bilateral or multilateral actions to impose targeted sanctions and travel bans.

Leaders at the Asia summits should jointly call on the Burmese government to allow access to northern Rakhine State by the UN fact-finding mission created by the Human Rights Council in 2016, as well as other UN human rights and humanitarian staff. UN Secretary-General António Guterres will be attending parts of the ASEAN and related summits in the Philippines, and UN General Assembly members are currently debating a resolution on Burma to be adopted later this year.

World leaders shouldn’t return home from these summits without agreeing to targeted sanctions to pressure Burma to end its abuses.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

Leaders gathering in Asia should also be discussing the creation of judicial mechanisms to hold perpetrators of abuses in Burma accountable, including via the General Assembly and Human Rights Council. The Security Council should refer the situation in Burma to the International Criminal Court.

“The International Criminal Court was created precisely to deal with crimes against humanity like those being committed in Burma,” Adams said. “Members of the Security Council attending the Asia summits should be discussing referring the situation in Burma to The Hague.”

The plight of displaced Rohingya should also be addressed at the Asia summits. Leaders should be clear that their governments will oppose plans for displaced Rohingya that do not meet core international standards prohibiting forced returns, or returns that would result in further abuses. A discussion of the key issues can be found in Human Rights Watch’s “Ten Principles for Protecting Refugees and Internally Displaced People Arising from Burma’s Rohingya Crisis.”


During the APEC summit in Vietnam on November 10, visiting leaders should raise concerns about Vietnam’s escalating crackdown on dissidents and human rights defenders. Human Rights Watch recently compiled a list of 105 political prisoners in Vietnam, highlighting 15 cases in a campaign for their release. Dozens of other dissidents remain in arbitrary detention, awaiting trial.

“Vietnam’s abusive one-party state is hosting a major summit while more than a hundred dissidents are languishing in prison,” Adams said. “Visiting leaders concerned about human rights need to call on the Vietnam government to release these prisoners and stop prosecuting peaceful dissent.”

Prior to the summit, Vietnamese authorities have placed other activists under house arrest or summoned them for questioning, according to reports from local human rights advocates.

Free Vietnam’s Political Prisoners!

Free Vietnam’s Political Prisoners!

More than 100 political prisoners are currently locked up simply for exercising their basic rights.

Under Vietnam’s criminal law, criticizing the government or Vietnamese Communist Party can be treated as a national security threat. The government does not allow independent political parties, labor unions, or human rights organizations. Approval is required for any public gathering and permission is never granted for meetings, marches, or protests that are political or criticize the government or party. Religious groups in Vietnam can only operate under government oversight. Authorities regularly monitor, harass, and sometimes use violence to break up religious groups that operate outside of official control.

In recent years, Vietnamese authorities have also been using new means to curb criticism and political activism, including physical and psychological harassment by plainclothes thugs, heavy police surveillance, extrajudicial house arrest, and pressure on employers, landlords, and family members of activists. Restriction on freedom of movement is used to prevent bloggers and activists from participating in public events or attending trials of dissidents. Outright physical assaults against dissidents continue to occur frequently.

Pressing Vietnam on human rights could help bring attention to other governments with poor rights records attending APEC, such as China and Russia.

“Why should it be a crime to criticize a government? That’s a question that ought to be asked of APEC’s Vietnamese hosts,” Adams said. “But it’s a question that will make other visiting leaders uncomfortable as well.”


Leaders attending the ASEAN meetings and associated summits from November 12-14 will have an opportunity to raise concerns about Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s murderous “war on drugs,” a campaign of extrajudicial killings targeting drug dealers and users, whose victims are predominantly the urban poor, including children. The anti-drug campaign has also seriously harmed free speech and political space in the Philippines. The government in February detained an important critic of the “drug war,” Senator Leila de Lima, on spurious and politically motivated charges. President Duterte has repeatedly threatened human rights advocates and lawyers, and warned that he will impose martial law nationwide.

Philippines’ ‘War on Drugs’

Philippines’ ‘War on Drugs’

Since taking office in June 2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has carried out a “war on drugs” resulting in the deaths of over 12,000 Filipinos.

“Surely someone from among the 20 world leaders at these summits can confront Duterte about his horrific and unprecedented ‘drug war’ killings,” Adams said. “Widespread summary executions of drug suspects are not just illegal, they are ineffectual and cruel.”

Counter-narcotics policies and addiction treatments in many countries around the world, including Canada and in the EU, have moved toward public health approaches emphasizing voluntary and community-based treatment. In the US, the federal government’s response to the opioid crisis has begun to emphasize drug dependence treatment over enforcement. President Donald Trump recently declared a public health emergency with respect to the opioid crisis, although his administration has not yet taken adequate action to implement a more public health oriented approach.


Leaders at the ASEAN summits should press Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to drop his government’s baseless legal attacks on the main opposition party, and demand the release of opposition politicians jailed on trumped-up charges.

Hun Sen has been in power for almost 33 years, making him the longest-serving head of government in Asia and nearly the longest-serving government leader in the world. His ruling party, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), has long dominated Cambodia’s political system as the CPP-controlled police, army, and courts have used bogus legal charges, threats, bribes, and outright violence to maintain political control.

30 Years of Hun Sen

Violence, Repression, and Corruption in Cambodia

In recent months, the CPP has forced the closure of an important newspaper, stopped broadcasts of independent radio, and harassed human rights organizations. The government appears intent on eliminating the primary political opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). Only three months after the June commune elections in which the CNRP won 43 percent of seats, the government arrested one of CNRP’s leaders, Kem Sokha, on spurious charges of treason. The party’s former president, Sam Rainsy, remains in exile due to an earlier baseless case against him. Hun Sen has also threatened other CNRP legislators with prosecution. On November 16, Cambodia’s CPP-controlled Supreme Court is expected to rule on a politically motivated case whether to permanently dissolve the CNRP.

“As ASEAN meets, democracy is failing in Cambodia,” Adams said. “Cambodia’s friends should denounce Hun Sen’s efforts to reinstate one-party rule and demand that he drop the bogus legal cases against the political opposition and its leaders.”


Thai Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha led the May 2014 military coup ousting Thailand’s democratically elected government. General Prayut’s junta rules Thailand with impunity, having banned political activity and peaceful assembly and arbitrarily detained thousands of people for criticizing the government, military, or monarchy, even for parodies and satire. More than 1,400 civilians await trial in military courts. Lese majeste (insulting the monarchy), sedition, and other charges are routinely used to suppress free speech and threaten dissidents.

The military junta’s promises to restore civilian democratic rule have been broken repeatedly, with proposed timelines and dates passing without progress. Even if an election date is set, without substantial reforms the process is unlikely to result in free and fair elections. Under an August 2016 constitution adopted by a deeply flawed referendum, the junta would still maintain control, with a junta-appointed Senate serving as the largest political force in parliament and having a direct role in selecting the prime minister.

“Thailand was once one of Asia’s leading democracies, but now it is stagnating under military rule,” Adams said. “Thailand’s allies should use the Asia summits to insist that improved relations depend on the government abandoning ‘managed democracy’ and restoring civilian democratic rule and political freedoms.”

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Physics Blogging Round-Up: May

Much delayed, but this works out well because it’ll give you something to read while we’re away in Mexico on a family vacation. Here’s what I wrote for Forbes in the merry month of May:

— In Science, Probability Is More Certain Than You Think: Some thoughts on the common mistake people make in saying that science only predicts probabilities of future outcomes.

— A “Cosmic Controversy” Is Mostly A Distraction: A lament about the neglect of science we know to be true versus more speculative stuff.

— Why Do We Invent Historical Roots For Modern Science?: Claims of ancient origins for current ideas in science often have more to do with modern concerns than historical reality.

— What Things Should Every Physics Major Know?: A look at the very broad topics that are truly essential for an undergraduate physics degree.

— Science Communication Is A Two-Way Street: The calmer version of a Twitter rant about how failures in science communication can’t be blamed only on scientists; the non-scientists who actively push us away also bear some responsibility.

Kind of a lot of noodle-y stuff in this month, largely because of my day job. I was team-teaching our Integrated Math and Physics class with a colleague from Math, and the class met for a couple of hours a day four days a week. It also used a book that I’d never used before, which means that even though the subject matter (introductory E&M) was familiar, it was essentially a new prep because all my notes needed to be converted to match the notation and language of the new book. That didn’t leave an enormous amount of mental energy for blogging.

Traffic-wise, the physics major post was a big hit, and most of the feedback I got was positive. Many of the others were a little too inside-baseball to get read all that widely, which is a Thing.

Anyway, that’s what I was blogging about not all that long ago.

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EU: Seek Stronger Central Asia Rights Commitments

EU: Seek Stronger Central Asia Rights Commitments


From left to right: Mr Neven MIMICA, Member of the European Commission; Ms Federica MOGHERINI, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy; Mr Erlan IDRISSOV, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan; Mr Erlan ABDYLDAEV, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Kyrgyzstan; Mr Aslov SIRODJIDIN, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Tajikistan; Mr Rashid MEREDOV, Foreign Affairs Minister of Turkmenistan; Mr Abdulaziz KAMILOV, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Uzbekistan.

2016 European Union

(Brussels) – The European Union should make respect for human rights and an end to decades of repression a core component of its engagement with Central Asian countries, Human Rights Watch said today. In the past year, Central Asia has seen some positive developments, after Uzbekistan’s new president took power in September 2016 and, in Kyrgyzstan, the region’s first peaceful transfer of power from one elected leader to another in October 2017.

On November 9 and 10, 2017, the European Union’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, and the head of its cooperation and development agency, Neven Mimica, will join a regional meeting in Samarkand with the foreign ministers of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. On November 8, Mogherini and Mimica are paying a one-day visit to Kyrgyzstan, following the presidential election there on October 15.

“The glimmers of hope in the region should not be taken for granted, nor their fragility underestimated,” said Philippe Dam, Europe and Central Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Recent developments showed that change is possible, but tangible progress on rights will require greater political will from Central Asian leaders.”

Central Asian countries have distinct human rights records – but none can be portrayed as championing respect for international human rights standards, and all have used politically motivated detention against critics.

In Uzbekistan, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has taken some positive steps to improve the human rights situation during his first year in office, with the release of at least 16 critics detained on politically motivated grounds. Other measures include the moderate easing of certain restrictions on freedom of expression, the removal of a large number of names from the security services’ “black list,” pledges to increase the accountability of government institutions to citizens, and a ban on forced mobilization of teachers, doctors, and college students in the country’s cotton fields.

The European Union should see these actions as steps in the right direction, but also insist that the Uzbek government should make lasting changes to protect human rights. Thousands are still behind bars on politically motivated grounds, including human rights defenders, journalists, religious figures, and other perceived government critics.

On September 27, Bobomurod Abdullaevon, an independent journalist, was detained on what appeared to be a politically motivated charge. On the same day, police also detained Nurullo Muhummad Raufkhon, an author, at Tashkent airport on his arrival home after two years of exile and charged him with extremism for a book in which he criticizes the former longtime repressive leader, Islam Karimov, who died in September 2016. The author was released on October 1, but still faces charges. Authorities also use a penal code provision to arbitrarily extend prison sentences. There has been nearly total impunity for the torture of people in government custody, and the International Committee of the Red Cross has not been able to carry out independent monitoring in Uzbekistan since 2013.

In Kyrgyzstan, the European Union should seize the opportunity of the recent presidential election to urge President-elect Sooronbai Jeenbekov to put human rights front and center when he takes office. Human Rights Watch is concerned about increased pressure on nongovernmental groups and the media in the period before the election, including through multi-million Kyrgystani Soms defamation lawsuits on behalf of the outgoing president by Kyrgyzstan’s prosecutor general.

The EU decision, announced just days before the election, to negotiate an enhanced partnership agreement, means it should urge Jeenbekov to ensure that journalists and human rights defenders in Kyrgyzstan can work without fear of reprisal or harassment. The EU should also unequivocally call on the Kyrgyzstan authorities to release the human rights defender Azimjon Askarov, who was wrongfully sentenced to life in prison for his alleged role in the June 2010 conflict in southern Kyrgyzstan. The government has yet to carry out the UN Human Rights Committee’s ruling to free Askarov and quash his conviction.

In Kazakhstan, the authorities have continued to silence critics and to bring charges against them since the previous EU-Central Asia gathering in October 2016. In November 2016, two activists, Max Bokayev and Talgat Ayan, were each sentenced to five years in prison after peacefully protesting land reform proposals.

The government has also carried out a large-scale crackdown to suppress independent trade union activity. In January, a court closed the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan (KNPRK) for failing to register in accordance with the restrictive trade union law. Amin Yeleusinov and Nurbek Kushakbaev, both trade union activists, were jailed in politically motivated trials after their involvement in peaceful protests in western Kazakhstan in January that the government declared illegal.

Since 2011, Kazakhstan authorities have repeatedly misused the overbroad and vague criminal charge of “inciting social, national, clan, racial, class, or religious discord” to prosecute numerous activists, human rights defenders, and journalists, and have closed down critical media outlets. As the European Commission is seeking the ratification of an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Kazakhstan, it should signal that it also expects the release of the detained land-rights and labor activists and meaningful legal reforms.

Human rights conditions in Tajikistan have rapidly deteriorated since 2015 as authorities deepened a widespread crackdown on freedom of expression and association, peaceful political opposition activity, the independent legal profession, and religious freedom. Well over 150 political activists, including lawyers and journalists, remain unjustly jailed. The authorities have demonstrated an increasingly aggressive stance toward international organizations such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). The relatives of dissidents abroad who peacefully criticize the government are subjected to violent retaliation orchestrated by Tajik authorities.

Finally, Turkmenistan remains one of the most repressive and closed countries in the world, cut off from any independent human rights scrutiny. The rare foreign media representatives allowed into the country are under government surveillance. Activists and correspondents who provide information to foreign outlets face government retribution, and journalists face arrest or harassment.

More than 100 people, including dozens arrested in the early 2000s, have been forcibly disappeared in the prison system, cut off from all contact with family, lawyers, and loved ones, in some cases for nearly 15 years. Families have no official information about whether their loved ones are dead or alive. The EU should press Turkmenistan to end all enforced disappearances, including of political opponents, and inform the families of people being held about their whereabouts.

During their ministerial meeting in October 2016, EU and Central Asia ministers agreed to stress the importance of the protection of human rights, fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law. In June 2017, Foreign Affairs Conclusions on Central Asia adopted by EU Member States recognized the “serious challenges to human rights” in the region.

“The EU-Central Asia meeting in Samarkand is a test for Brussels’ ability to press for genuine and sustained human rights improvements,” Dam said. “To ensure there is no turning back, the EU should secure commitments to meaningful reforms from leaders in the region, starting with freeing anyone held on political grounds and ending harassment and pressure on independent activists and the media.” 

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Physics Blogging Round-Up: June

To make up for last month’s long delay in posting, I’ll knock out this month’s recap of Forbes blog posts really quickly. Also, I still have Vacation Brain, so writing anything really new isn’t in the cards…

— What Should Non-Scientists Learn From Physics?: You probably won’t be surprised to hear that, in my opinion, it’s not a specific set of facts, but an attitude toward the world.

— Softball Physics: How Far Can You Run While The Ball Is In The Air?: In which SteelyKid learning softball’s “tag up” rule the hard way leads to an interesting problem in physics.

— How Long Would A Fidget Spinner Spin In Space?: If we’re going to have a bunch of the things in the house, I might as well get a blog post out of it…

— How Laser Cooling Continues To Open Up New Possibilities For Physics: A delayed reaction to some talks at DAMOP about new research areas that are rooted in the development of laser cooling back in the 1980’s. Written while in Mexico on vacation.

— The Physics Of Vacation: It’s All About Phase Transitions: Another post written in Mexico while on vacation, this one about being on vacation, specifically the way phase transitions of water have a huge impact on the experience.

Predictably enough, the post capitalizing on a recent fad is the runaway winner, traffic-wise. I was disappointed that the softball one didn’t get more traction, because I thought it was cute. Probably should’ve put “Baseball” in the title rather than “Softball,” since I mention both, and some baseball fans are louts. The two written on vacation went basically nowhere, traffic-wise; this is probably partly because I was on vacation and not able to actively social-media bomb them, partly a summer melt thing (traffic always dips in the summer) and partly a matter of topic selection. But those are the things I felt like writing about, and that’s the whole point, here…

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