Ten years ago I sat in a small, hot room in Trujillo, Peru with a colleague and three women each clutching a folder. They held the folders as if they contained a fortune, and we leaned forward as one by one they carefully opened their folder to show us the precious contents. There were a few old photographs and scores of documents peppered with government stamps. When they finished, each woman closed her folder, looked at us, and said “I still don’t know where he is.”
The three women were talking about their husbands, victims of enforced disappearance. Some twenty years earlier the police had taken their husbands somewhere, making assurances to their young wives that they just needed to ask them a few questions and they’d soon be home. Days, then weeks, then years went by and their husbands did not return. The women went from police station to police station, then to the prisons, the hospitals and morgues but no one could tell them where they went, or rather, where they had been taken.
As we listened to them, I watched the way they treated the folders, holding them close to their chests, caressing the documents and photos as they showed them to us. I realised why the folders were so precious t them. It was because this was all they had left of their husbands. Without them, it was as if they had never existed at all.
Enforced disappearance is one of the cruellest human rights crimes.
There is the crime against the primary victim – who has disappeared – and this is compounded by the crime committed against their families and loved ones who endure years and even decades of wondering what has happened to them.
Minasi (75) and his wife Sartabati (68) have seen their church in Mukundipur village attacked on five occasions, in 1966, 1975, 1998, 2007 and 2008. They said they did not think they could cope with another attack. Gajapati District, Orissa. Marcus Perkins/CSW 2009.
25 August 2016 is the eighth anniversary of India’s worst instance of communal violence against Christians. Many of the victim-survivors in Kandhamal, Odisha State, continue to wait for justice.
It is estimated that over 90 people were killed, 600 villages ransacked and 5,600 houses looted and burned in the 2008 attack. Approximately 54,000 people were left homeless, while 295 churches and places of worship were destroyed. Furthermore, an estimated 13 schools, colleges and philanthropic institutions for the sick were looted and burned. Approximately 2,000 Christians were forced to renounce their faith during the violence and 10,000 children were robbed of their education.
At every stage, the response of government, law enforcement and the criminal justice system to this tragedy has been woefully inadequate, undermining justice for the victim-survivors.
Two initial government reports into the incident were heavily criticised by civil society activists as riddled with inaccuracies. They were later overturned by the findings of the National Commission for Minorities (NCM), which reported that the violence was communal and that the Christians were attacked purely on the basis of their religion.
Many newspapers across the world today have chosen as their main image a photograph of a five year-old Syrian boy who has just survived an airstrike. Like that of another little Syrian boy called Aylan Kurdi, who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea last year, the image has gone viral.
It appears that once again the image of a Syrian child has pricked the world’s collective conscience, igniting renewed efforts to alleviate the suffering of Syrian civilians.
The Syrian conflict has a prominent sectarian aspect for which the battle for Aleppo is almost a microcosm, with the government and Shi’a militia on one side, and the largely-Islamist armed opposition groups on the other.
Within this complex picture, civilians from all sides are increasingly vulnerable as none of the warring parties have shown commitment to or respect for international humanitarian law, especially in terms of non-combatants, freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) and other human rights.
Aleppo, the second largest city in Syria used to have 4 million inhabitants. Today nearly half are displaced, either internally or externally.
The city has been a battlefield since 2012, and as the overall situation in Syria has deteriorated relentlessly, attention on the suffering of its inhabitants has ebbed and flowed dependent on fresh atrocities.
As the Prime Minister assembled her new cabinet following the UK referendum on its membership of the European Union (EU), attention was rightly being paid to the how the new-look Government would deal with Britain’s decision to leave. Those appointed by Theresa May know that, whatever their brief, a significant proportion of the Government’s work will be negotiating, executing and accounting for the UK’s withdrawal from EU.
While it is understandable that this unprecedented task will be time consuming for the UK Government, this must not be allowed to supersede its obligation to promote and protect human rights worldwide.
Human Rights within the European Union
For all the debated successes and failures of the EU, what is undeniable is that its various institutions engage in significant human rights work.
The EU delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) regularly speaks with the weight of the 28 member states of the Union, promoting key thematic and country specific human rights issues. During the latest HRC session in June 2016, amongst other work the delegation supported a resolution on Syria and led a resolution condemning the death penalty in Belarus.
There is an EU Special Representative for Human Rights; the current post-holder, Stavros Lambrinidis, engages on behalf of EU member states with countries across the world which are failing to meet their international human rights obligations.
In May 2016, the European Union appointed former European Commissioner Jan Figel as its first-ever Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) outside the European Union. Upon his appointment, the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, said: “The persistent persecution of religious and ethnic minorities makes protecting and promoting this freedom inside and outside the EU all the more essential…Our Special Envoy will help us in this endeavour, sharpening our focus and ensuring that this important issue gets the attention it deserves”.
Once the UK invokes article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and begins the formal and legal process of leaving the EU, it will no longer be associated with any of these important human rights and FoRB initiatives.