New Amnesty International leader on human rights and Trump

The new leader of Amnesty International says many world leaders, especially President Trump, are rolling back gains made in respecting human rights, with the Trump administration’s separation of families at U.S. borders “one of the worst atrocities” seen in a long time.

“The presidency of Donald Trump is a major challenge for the people of the U.S. and the people of the world,” Kumi Naidoo said Thursday, suggesting the psychological damage of the border separation policy alone could be long-lasting.

“Overall on human rights he has set us back … and it should be no surprise that Donald Trump will be in my vision of activism and will be somebody who will receive quite close focus by Amnesty as a global movement.”

With a background of activism against apartheid in his native South Africa and for environmental issues as a director of Greenpeace, Naidoo said he intends to make Amnesty “bigger, bolder and more inclusive.” He began a four-year term at the helm of the London-based rights group this week.

“What I hope to do at Amnesty is to intensify our appetite for peaceful civil disobedience,” he said. Although world leaders often ignore letters and meetings, he said that “when you mobilize thousands of people on their doorstep … that seems to work much better.”

Despite the recent setbacks for human rights, Naidoo said he is optimistic. Amnesty has a global membership of 7 million people and he said he would like to see that increase to 70 million, especially among younger people. “Young people will not accept wisdom that they are the leaders of tomorrow; they will assert their leadership now,” he said.

[Los Angeles Times]

A message for World Humanitarian Day August 19

August 19 was designated as World Humanitarian Day by the UN General Assembly in 2008 to mark the bombing that targeted the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq on Aug. 19, 2003.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has launched a petition with world leaders for the protection of civilians and aid workers in armed conflict. “Each year on World Humanitarian Day, we stand in solidarity with the millions of people affected by conflict and the aid and health workers who risk their lives to assist them. We take the day as an opportunity to remind the world of our collective responsibility to bring that suffering to an end,” said OCHA in a message.

Today, in conflict zones all over the world, civilians are routinely killed or maimed, towns and cities are damaged and destroyed, in targeted or indiscriminate attacks. Three out of four victims of explosive weapons in 2017 were civilians.

People are cut off from food, water and life-saving assistance, in some cases, starved as a deliberate tactic of war, it said.

Humanitarian and medical personnel are killed, injured, kidnapped or otherwise prevented from reaching people in need. They are exposed to legal obstacles and even forms of punishment for impartially providing aid and care to people who need it to survive, said the message.

The petition was launched prior to next month’s gathering of world leaders in New York for the annual UN General Assembly General Debate.

[Xinhua]

Aid workers in danger globally

Last year, a total of 158 major attacks on humanitarian operations across 22 countries affected 313 aid workers globally, resulting in deaths, injuries or kidnappings.

While the number of attacks reduced in comparison to 2016 figures, there was an uptick in the number of victims, data from Aid Worker Security Database (AWSD) show. Of the 313 victims of attacks, 139 were killed—the second highest recorded annual death toll ever.

South Sudan, which has been a center of aid worker attacks, accounted for more than quarter of global incidents. AWSD says the kidnappings “suggests a troubling trend of armed groups using this tactic to assert control over aid operations.”

The lack of security for aid workers has a devastating cyclic effect on citizens in conflict zones. Unsure of their workers’ safety, humanitarian organizations often suspend operations in areas where insecurity is severe. And, as a result, citizens in those areas in dire need of critical aid items, including food and medicine, remain in want. As heightened conflicts often limit access of international aid organizations and their workers, a majority of killed aid workers in 2017 were with national and local humanitarian groups and non-profits.

[Quartz]

Save the Children warns urgent de-escalation needed in Gaza

Save the Children is deeply concerned about the mental health impact that the ongoing violence in Gaza is having on children. Research, conducted earlier this year, found that feelings of depression, hyperactivity, a preference for being alone, and aggression were reported by 95 percent of children in Gaza.

And over the past couple of days, we have seen a severe and deeply dangerous escalation on the Gaza-Israel border, with reports of dozens of casualties on both sides. More than 180 rockets and mortar shells from Gaza have hit Israel, with 11 reported injuries including one woman with serious injuries. Gaza was hit more than 200 times throughout Wednesday night and into Thursday.

Fears are growing that we could be on the brink of another large-scale conflict, with serious concerns for the physical and mental well-being of children who get caught up in the violence.

Maher Abdullah, a Senior Education Officer for Save the Children in Gaza, said that situation was extremely fragile. “My children were terrified – they didn’t sleep. Some of the airstrikes were so close that the building shook like it was an earthquake.

On the Israeli side, large tracts of open farmland were also hit, and warning sirens rang late into the night, with authorities suggesting that they may have to evacuate communities living near Gaza due to the latest escalation.

[Save the Children]

Among the effects of the oppressive worldwide heatwaves

Last week saw record breaking temperatures across the globe. What is at risk in this increased heat?

  1. Infrastructure fails. Materials like steel can start to expand above certain temperatures. In 2018, a steel bridge in Chicago had to be hosed down with cold water because the joints had expanded and could no longer open for boats to travel underneath. In 2012, rail lines deformed by heat in Illinois caused a freight train to derail and cause the collapse of an overpass.
  2. Planes can’t take off. In higher temperatures, planes need to be going faster in order to get off the ground. So longer runways are needed to be sure a plane has sufficient time to reach the necessary ground speed. In 2012 in Washington, D.C., when temperatures reached 100 degrees, a plane’s wheels sunk into the exceedingly hot tarmac and became stuck, delaying the flight for several hours.
  3. Asphalt can burn you. Asphalt can get as high as 20 degrees hotter than ambient temperatures during a heat wave and hot enough to burn you if touched. In 2018, asphalt along the Hume Highway which links Sydney and Melbourne in Australia actually melted when temperatures exceeded 47.3 degrees Celsius or just over 117 degrees Fahrenheit. The Humane Society warns that your animals and pets can overheat with extended exposure to hot asphalt.
  4. Bodies suffer serious health risks. Too much heat exposure usually starts with dehydration, heat rash, and muscle cramps. If not addressed, these symptoms can progress to heat exhaustion or heat stroke. People over 65, children, anyone with a medical condition, or those who work outdoors are more at risk. There is also evidence that heat disrupts our sleep, our ability to think clearly, and healthy birth rates.
  5. Crops suffer. It’s no surprise that plant life suffers in extreme heat just as we do. Heat sensitive and widely consumed crops like maize, soy, and spring wheat are likely to be among the most affected. Past heatwaves saw crop yields for maize, fruit, and even wine drop by as much as 30% in Italy and France.

[Everyday Einstein]

Humanitarian ship continues to rescue migrants in the Mediterranean

A humanitarian ship, run by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors without Borders,  rescued 141 migrants packed onto wooden boats off the coast of Libya on Friday in its first mission since it was caught in a standoff with Italy and Malta over their refusal to let rescued migrants ashore.

When Italy turned the Aquarius away in June, and Malta followed suit, the ship spent a grueling nine days at sea before eventually disembarking the migrants in Spain.

Italy’s new government, which took power in June, refuses to take in migrants rescued by humanitarian ships, accusing them of acting as a “taxi service” in a bid to get EU partners to shoulder more of the burden of migrant arrivals.

“In its callous refusal to allow refugees and migrants to disembark in its ports, Italy is using human lives as bargaining chips,” Amnesty International‘s Matteo de Bellis said on Wednesday, condemning EU policies for the central Mediterranean.

Due to pressure from Italy and Malta, most charity ships are no longer patrolling off the coast of Libya. Though departures from Libya have fallen dramatically this year, people smugglers are still pushing some boats out to sea and an estimated 720 people died in June and July when charity ships were mainly absent, Amnesty International estimates.

[Reuters]

Samaritan NGO rescue ships no longer welcome in European waters

Since 2015, there has been a dramatically decreased numbers of refugees arriving by sea in Europe. The European Union unanimously agreed to triple spending for its border and coast guard agency. Italy has banned the aid organizations from operating rescue vessels in its territorial waters, and Malta denies them entry to its harbors when refugees are on board.

For the past three years, NGO-linked rescue ships –as many as 12 in 2017, now just five–have picked up refugees largely in international waters and delivered them to European ports, where they can apply for asylum. The group SOS Méditerranée says that during its two years of emergency sea rescues, it alone has rescued more than 29,000 migrants.

As recently as a year ago, there was little fuss about the ships operated by charity groups such as Refugee Rescue (Northern Ireland), Médecins Sans Frontières (France), Jugend Rettet and Sea-Watch (Germany), Boat Refugee Foundation (Netherlands), and Save the Children (United Kingdom), among others. Many Europeans seemed to see them as high-minded Samaritans saving the lives of helpless seaborne migrants

In July Claus-Peter Reisch, the captain of a German NGO ship named Lifeline, was charged with entering Malta’s waters illegally with 234 migrants, whom the ship’s crew had picked up in waters off Libya on June 21. The impounding of the Lifeline–as well as the new prevention measures–has rekindled a debate about the ethics involved in the EU’s response to refugees headed for its shores: Are the rescue ships saving innocent lives because EU states have failed to do so? Or are they collaborating with the human smugglers who, it is claimed, deliver refugees right to the ships? And further: Is it just to turn back or not rescue refugees at sea, in order to deter others? And is there a legitimate basis for criminalizing the basic humanitarianism involved in saving migrants who might otherwise drown?

In the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, the journalist Wolfgang Luef expressed shock that there was divided opinion in Germany on the matter of whether to help dying people or just leave them to perish. This is the “first step to barbarism,” he opined ominously, “the beginning of the end of the European idea.”

[Foreign Policy]

Trump and Governor Brown make dueling claims on cause of California fires

As twin wildfires have destroyed more than 1,000 homes in Northern California, President Trump and California Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown are both making claims – and provoking criticism – about why the fires continue to spread.

California Gov. Brown said during a press conference last week that climate change is a factor. He spoke of climate change and said the “more serious predictions of warming and fires to occur later in the century, 2040 or 2050, they’re now occurring in real time. You can expect that — unfortunately — to continue intensifying in California and throughout the Southwest.”

Trump tweeted Sunday claiming the fires are “being magnified” by environmental laws that stop water from being effectively used. He also called for clearing more trees.

A spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection shot back, according to a reporter for BuzzFeed, saying the department has “no idea” what Trump is talking about. “We have plenty of water for the firefight. The Mendocino complex is next to Clear Lake and the Carr fire has the Whiskeytown Lake and Lake Shasta,” the spokesman said.

Thousands of firefighters are currently battling the flames of close to 20 active fires, which are threatening communities from Redding in Northern California to Orange County in Southern California. The Mendocino Complex fire burning just north of wine country in Northern California became the state’s largest-ever fire.

[AP]

Europe criminalizing humanitarianism

Over the course of June and July, through a patchwork of frantic stopgap measures and pledges, European leaders fortified Europe’s borders along its southern perimeter in another push to restrict migration to the continent. This clampdown now also includes efforts to beach the last of the charity-run rescue boats that scoop up refugees out of the Mediterranean Sea–where more than 10,000 have perished since 2014.

Italy’s new populist leadership insists that it will no longer serve as Europe’s refugee dump, a stance that involves violating international law by turning refugees away from its coasts, even those rescued by its own navy. The German government wants to add Algeria, Tunisia, Georgia, and Morocco to a list of so-called safe countries from which it will accept very few or zero refugees. Hungary has even taken the step of formulating a law making the aid of refugees in the country a punishable offense.

The amalgam of restrictions, which effectively truncate the right to political asylum by limiting refugees’ access to Europe, has staunch supporters beyond hard-right populists. Many center-of-the-road liberals claim that further curbing refugee flows is the only way to arrest the nationalist right’s stunning ascent in Europe–and salvage what’s left of asylum rights.

These prickly ethical questions about ends and means are being debated nowhere more furiously than in the European country that takes pride most in its tradition of moral philosophy, from Immanuel Kant to Jürgen Habermas. In one sense, the back-and-forth in Germany–in newspapers and on television, in universities and in pubs–may be a healthy means of coming to clarity on Europe’s present moral conundrum.

But it also illustrates that, at a time of political crisis, Europe’s humanitarian principles aren’t nearly as inviolable as its citizens once believed.

[Foreign Policy]

Russia names actor Steven Seagal as humanitarian envoy

Russia has appointed action movie star Steven Seagal as a special envoy for humanitarian ties with the United States.

The Foreign Ministry announced the move Saturday on its Facebook page, saying Seagal’s portfolio in the unpaid position would be to “facilitate relations between Russia and the United States in the humanitarian field, including cooperation in culture, arts, public and youth exchanges.”

Seagal is an accomplished martial artist — like Russian President Vladimir Putin. The actor, who was granted Russian citizenship in 2016, has vocally defended the Russian leader’s policies, including Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, and has criticized the U.S. government.

Last year, Ukraine banned Seagal from entering the country for five years, citing national security reasons.

[AP]