Seattle Human Rights Day & AI Write-a-Thon

I celebrated Human Rights Day twice this year. Only twice. Down from the 4 events, out of 5 possible, last year, which was the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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Sarvenaz & Aisha table for AI

Our Amnesty International group co-sponsored the Seattle Human Rights Day on December 10 this year, so we got a table before and after the event and collected a lot of signatures and new members for our listserv.

First there was a brief presentation by Students for Bhopal on the recent 25th Anniversary of the Union Carbide leak and the ongoing environmental disaster urging us to take action. The Hush Baby video below was shown, with the warning that it is graphic and disturbing (because of the birth defects still being suffered by the children of Bhopal).

For more information see the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal:

http://www.bhopal.net/

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Communidad a Coumunidad accepts the UN Award

Human Rights awards were then given by both the city and Seattle Chapter of the UN Association. Awardees included Suk Lin Zhou, a young woman who helped for an ACLU chapter at her school; Pride Foundation; Comunidad a Comunidad, a Bellingham grass roots, women-led organization working with farm workers on food justice issues (and winner of the UN award); Joe Martin, advocate for the homeless; and Legal Voice, which helps protect women’s legal rights.

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Joe Martin accepts an award from the city

Joe Martin accepted the award on behalf of his fellow rabble-rousers who advocate for the homeless. Joe said that especially struck me as both true and sad was that a book written during the 60’s “war on poverty” didn’t say much on homelessness, because in spite of so much bitter poverty, there weren’t many homeless yet back then.  We’ve went backwards, in some respects. I’ve noticed the increase just in the time since my family first lived in Portland, a city large enough to have a homeless problem, in 1978, and especially with teenagers, who I don’t remember seeing many of on the streets back then.

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Professor Adrien Wing – Keynote Speaker

Professor Adrien Wing from the University of Iowa was our keynote speaker.  She talked about human rights and Muslim women, including the banning of head scarfs in schools in France as well as being forced to cover in some countries in the Muslim world.  She talked about various layers of oppression and privilege, such as the freedom of travel to other countries with a US passport when their residents can’t travel freely here. Also the fluid nature of race and perceived race as a social construct depending on where you travel. Micro-credits for women are a positive development, and help raise all of society.  Dr. Wing contrasted the hundreds spent on micro-credits vs the billions to be spent and to be spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We tabled for a while after the program as well, also checking out the tables and exchanging information with the other event co-sponsors and honorees.

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Casey and Sofia write for freedom

Then on Saturday, December 12, our local AI group took part in Amnesty International’s Global Write-a-Thon, holding our event at the Victrola Coffee House on 15th in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.

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Sofia from our group arranged everything with the coffee house, and we had a section in the back of the cafe with our actions and writing material laid out. Some of us found room at the tables back there, and others disbursed to other tables throughout the cafe, writing letters for up to 2 hours.

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Rita Mahato

Some of our cases were well known to long time group members, such as Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar (Burma) and journalist Shi Tao of China. Others were less well known, such as Birtukan Mideksa, a member of the opposition party who disputed the elections in Ethiopia; Alisher Karamatov and Azam Farmonov, human rights defenders of farmers in Uzbekistan; and Rita Mahato, who is receiving death and rape threats for her work helping women in Nepal against acts of violence.

Most of the people we wrote on behalf of are prisoners of conscience, in prison solely for their beliefs; while others, like Rita Mahato, face threats in their work as human rights defenders which their government and local authorities do not take seriously and will not defend them from. Like all of AI’s ongoing letters, faxes and e-mails, Amnesty International sections from around the world take part in our annual write-a-thon, in the weeks around Human Rights Day.

People world wide writing letters for the freedom and safety of prisoners of conscience is the very idea that Amnesty International was founded on, and still at the very core of how we work, even though cases, issues and the methods we use (including on line actions) have expanded.  The basic, seemingly crazy, idea; that hundreds of politely worded letters from around the world asking those in power to free those unjustly held would actually bring about their freedom. Yet, in so many cases, it does!

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Ma Khin Khin Leh -freed prisoner of conscience

Among those freed from last year’s global write-a-thon is Ma Khin Khin Leh, a school teacher in Myanmar (Burma), freed from 10 years of a life in prison sentence on February 21, 2009. She was arrested for allegedly planning a demonstration to protest the deteriorating economic and human rights situation in Myanmar. Ma Khin Khin Leh was reunited with her daughter, who was 3 at the time of her arrest.

All those letters and online actions, e-mails, and faxes do make a difference!

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Bhopal – Still Being Poisoned 25 Years Later

Yesterday marked the 25th Anniversary of the Bhopal disaster. As Amnesty International notes in their report Dodging Responsibility: Corporations, Governments and the Bhopal Disaster, “a quarter of a century later the community remains ravaged and is still campaigning for justice.”

Shortly before midnight on 2 December 1984 thousands of tonnes of deadly chemicals leaked from Union Carbide’s pesticide plant in Bhopal, central India. Around 7,000 and 10,000 people died in the immediate aftermath and a further 15,000 over the next 20 years.  Nearly 25 years later, the site has not been cleaned up, the leak and its impact have not been properly investigated, more than 100,000 people continue to suffer from health problems without the medical care they need, and survivors are still awaiting fair compensation and full redress for suffering.

Union Carbide didn’t adequately take responsibility at the time of the accident, and even obstructed efforts to determine what chemicals were involved in the deadly accident.

While thousands were dying in Bhopal as a result of exposure to approximately 54,000 pounds of methyl isocyanate (MIC) and 26,000 pounds of reaction products, company officials denied that MIC was toxic. To this day Union Carbide has not named the reaction products that leaded with the MIC, hampering efforts to treat victims.

Even worse, Union Carbide “walked away from Bhopal without adequately cleaning up the factory site, leaving the victims to cope with the pollution.” As you can see near the end of this video, the poisons have seeped into their water supply.  This disaster is still going on.

Indian courts tried to seek justice from Union Carbide:

In December 1991 the Chief Judicial Magistrate in Bhopal ordered Warren Anderson, then Chief Executive Officer of UCC, to appear in court to face charges of culpable homicide not amounting to murder in connection with the gas leak. He did not appear. Efforts to extradite him from the USA have failed.

The Indian government has not been too responsive either:

A public interest litigation case brought in 2004, seeking clean up of the site and other rehabilitation measures, is still before the Madhya Pradesh High Court. Although the High Court ordered the government to clean up the site, the government has not done so and legal arguments about liability have dragged on in the courts.

US refuses to take responsibility as well:

Efforts by the victims to get redress through the US court system have also failed. Union Carbide’s legal team first argued that the Indian courts were a better forum for the case.  The US District Court upheld the motion to send the Bhopal case to the Indian courts, on the condition that Union Carbide submit to the jurisdiction of the Indian courts. Union Carbide appealed against the condition. In a complete about-turn, the company then claimed in the appeals court that: “Indian courts, while providing an adequate forum, do not observe due process standards that would be required as a matter of course in this country.”

Meanwhile, Dow Chemical has taken over Union Carbide. They claim no responsibility also.

In February 2001 UCC became a wholly owned subsidiary of the Down Chemical Company (Dow). Even though Union Carbide continued to be a separate legal entity, its corporate identity and all of its business is fully integrated with that of Dow. Dow Chemicals has publicly stated that it has no responsibility for the leak and its consequences or for the pollution of the plant.

Amnesty International is calling for both India and Dow Chemicals to take responsibility, and has online actions for both at:

http://www.amnesty.org/en/news-and-updates/bhopal-end-25-years-injustice-20091030

Read AI’s report, Dodging Responsibility: Corporations, Governments and the Bhopal Disaster at:

http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/ASA20/002/2009/en/79a5264e-2dd2-44f1-8c92-b2f0cd8f5c72/asa200022009en.pdf

See also:

International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal: http://www.bhopal.net/

25 years is too long for no clean up and no accountability!

Bhopal, Tiananmen Square & Accountability

So, last weekend our local Amnesty International group had events on both Bhopal and Tiananmen Square.  I know some are going to say they’re both too far in the past.  Surely everything is settled now, everything is different now?  Yet much isn’t.

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photo from the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal

I unfortunately missed the two films on Bhopal shown that Friday night, Hush Baby, and Secrets and Lies. I remembered the film we co-sponsored a few years back on Bhopal, when AI was involved in the issue as part of our Corporate Accountability Network.  It was the children who got the worst of the initial toxic leak in 1984, as whatever the chemical mixture is (and Dow, which has bought out Union Carbide, still isn’t telling), it stayed very close to the ground as families were trying to flee the horror in the middle of the night. 

Sadly, it is still the children getting the worst of it, born with birth defects as Union Carbide is not taking responsibility for cleaning up the still toxic brew, which is seeping into the groundwater.

According to the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal:

The monsoons of two decades have washed the chemicals deep into the soil and into the underground acquifers which feed wells and boreholes. The drinking wells and tap of communities living within a considerable radius of the plant have been contaminated with chemicals that are implicated in cancers and birth-defects. People have no other water supply and have been forced to drink and wash in Union Carbide’s diluted poisons. 20,000 people are affected.

I did make the panel discussion on Bhopal last Saturday, which included two members of the Bhopal Survivors Tour and Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana from the University of Washington. 

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Satinnath Sarangi, who founded the Sambhavna Clinic for Bhopal Survivors, talked about the difficulty of getting information or even being able to treat survivors with effective methods starting right after the disaster, when Union Carbide put the pressure on the Indian government to stop.  Evidently their lawyers had warned that to admit the treatment was working would be admitting liablility.  No accounting for what gases leaked has ever been given, due to claims of “trade secrets,” even though that is information seriously needed to help survivors.  It has been a struggle to even get clean water shipped in for the impoverished community near the still leaking site. Meanwhile, Dow claims the case can’t be heard in the Indian courts because they’re an American country, yet the case keeps being denied in the U.S. because it happened on foreign soil.

Safreen “Rafat” Khan, a 16 year old second-generation victim talked about the effects on her family, where her mother, father, and older brother are all sick from the poisons.

Then Dr. Sathyanarayana brought it home with the “toxic trespass” that is happening in all of us.  She brought up the study from the Toxic-Free Legacy Coalition published last year which got a lot of press, including this article in the Seattle Times. All the participants, and certainly all of us as well, have multiple toxic chemicals in us.  The recent issue of BPA in baby bottles and the plastic water bottles many of us used is one example. Cosmetics are another.  These chemicals are deemed “innocent until proven guilty” instead of being tested for safety thoroughly first. 

It seems overwhelming to deal with.  Should we be alarmed?  When she starts citing the higher incidence of cancers like breast and prostate cancers at small doses, and you start realizing how many people you know with cancer. . .

Back to Bhopal, by far one of the worst, if not the worse example of “toxic trespass.” One of the things that the survivors are asking is for people to take action by contacting their Congressional Representative to sign on to a “Dear Colleague” letter “which is addressed to the CEO and Board of The Dow Chemical Company asking Dow to present Union Carbide in Indian Criminal court and clean up the spreading toxic mess in Bhopal.”

Then on last Sunday, at Hing Hay Park (and again Thursday at UW), we commemorated the 20th Anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown (as we’re supposed to call it as AI members, although, personally, I think “massacre” is more accurate). 

The student protests on Tiananmen Square of April and May 1989 were quite amazing and courageous even to those of us watching on tv miles away.  Eventually workers and ordinary citizens joined in. Until the tanks rolled in and orders came down to end the protests, and the people found their army, who some of them believed would never fire on them, shooting them.

A trifle overblown production, but this video does give some idea of what happened:

According to Amnesty International, between 20 to 200 people involved in the Tiananmen demonstrations remain in prison.  Of course, no investigation has ever been made, nor accountability for the crack down itself.

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One of our speakers at the Saturday commemoration at Hing Hay Park was Fang Zheng, who lost both his legs as he pushed a young woman out of the way of an advancing tank at Tiananmen, only to be run over himself.  China denied him the right to participate in the Paralympics because they didn’t want to explain how he lost his legs.

Here’s an interview from Al Jazeera, translated into English:

The Seattle Times gave our rally some coverage, focusing on Fang Zheng. Also speaking Sunday were Jane for the the Federation for a Democratic China, Don Crevie for Amnesty International, a representative from student’s group from Hong Kong and speakers from both the Democratic and Republican parties.

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It was hot, and a little windy for the Sunday rally.  Nothing like the wind that changed plans for the evening of the anniversary vigil on Thursday, June 4 starting on the HUB lawn at UW.  The students from Hong Kong set up and mc’d the vigil, and Jane spoke first, giving us a moving account (in Chinese and English) of the events of Tiananmen Square, which she had taken part in 20 years ago. One of the things she talked about was how they sent in soldiers from the countryside, telling him the students were the enemy, whom the students repeatedly tried to reach out to and lecture on what was really happening (which was mentioned by a former soldier, turned artist, in a New York Times article as well).

While the day was a hot, it cooled down and clouded over by the time of the rally.  Then the winds hit, starting toward the end of Jane’s speech.  In addition to blowing out all our candles, the screen they were going to show scenes from PBS’ The Tank Man was blowing way too much, and the canopy was blowing away as well.

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We ended up moving the rally inside the HUB, where Don carried on with AI’s concerns about China. 

The students had wanted to show the section of Tank Man where they talk to current Chinese students, none of whom know of what happened at Tiananmen because the government wants it covered up.

Certainly one of the most indelible images of the Tiananmen crackdown, the photos of the young man in a white shirt standing in front of a column of tanks never ceases to fascinate me, or many others, who have tried to find out his identity and what happened to him.This week the Lens, a New York Times photojournal blog, included a feature of him and the four most common photos of his stand off. A fifth photo showed up in response to the blog, showing the young man just standing and waiting for the tanks to arrive from the distance, as nearly everyone else flees.

The video footage is equally amazing.  Here is this young man, carrying his shopping bags, forcing a tank to stop.  The driver of the tank tries to move around him, and he keeps moving with it, and finally climbs up on the tank, opens the hatch and says something to the soldiers inside (perhaps lecturing them, as so many students had in the days leading up to the crack down).  He then gets off the tank and (while it isn’t in this video), is led off by a couple of bystanders.

Incredible!  Everyone who describes watching the scene unwind at the time was sure he would be run over or shot. How incredibly brave, or foolish, depending on how you want to look at it.  Did he disappear and maybe make his way out of China or just fade back into his regular life, or did the authorities get him? 

Of course, the repression is still happening.  One of Amnesty’s ongoing actions is for Shi Tao, a journalist in prison for sending an e-mail in April 2004 to a U.S. based pro-democracy website, summarizing government instructions to downplay the then upcoming 15th Anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown.  Yahoo! gave up his identity to authorities.

Amnesty International also reports that in advance of the Tiananmen Square anniversary, some activists were taken away, others placed under house arrest, and internet sites including Twitter, Flickr and Hotmail were shut down.

So, yes, both Bhopal and the Tiananmen Square crackdown are still issues.  Accountability and justice still needed, even after all these years.