Why I Decided To Go Back To Prison

 

At age 17, Shaka Senghor was shot three times in his own neighborhood.  Living in reactionary fear, he then killed a man and was sent to prison. There, he was hostile and angry becoming the “worst of the worst,” eventually landing him in solitary confinement for seven years. After receiving a profound letter from his son, he re-examined his life and began a difficult self-transformation. With the help of mentors, his family and partner, literature and writing, he practiced forgiveness and reconciliation. He spent two decades in prison before he was released. Shaka received a fellowship at MIT Media Lab, became a professor at the University of Michigan and now works with formally incarcerated men and women who are integrating back into society. Additionally, he mentors at-risk youth going down a path reminiscent of his own, creating an empathetic space for change. 

His compelling blog piece was written for the Article 3 blog series on U.S. criminal justice reform and details his experience of returning to prison in an entirely different context. 

 
 

 

For the first time in the five years I have been home, the emotions of what 19 years in prison did to me hit me like a brick in the face. Just two weeks prior, I had been invited to speak at a Black History Month program at Handlon Correctional Facility. When I walked inside the prison, everything about serving time came rushing back to me. The sound of gates crashing closed, officers barking orders and the laughter and jokes of incarcerated men, all reminded me of the years I spent inside. However, the thing that struck me at the core of my being was the utter disdain and disgust that I saw in the eyes of two officers who stared me down with such intense hatred that it caused the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up. They didn’t want me there and it was very apparent that they were holding a grudge against me because of my past. In fact, I would later learn that several officers had taken the flier with my face on it, which had been posted around the facility, and shared it amongst each other as they talked about how angry they were that I was being allowed back inside. This was just another in a long line of reminders that there are some people who truly don’t believe in second chances.

Despite the anger in their eyes, I smiled, because at the end of the day I wasn’t there for them. I was there to fellowship with my brothers. I was there to pour love, hope and inspiration into men who continue to inspire my work today. I was there because I wanted these men, my brothers, to know they weren’t and will never be forgotten, at least not by me. I drove to the prison because I wanted to tell them face to face, man to man, brother to brother that I carry them in my heart everywhere I go, and that every time I share my story, I am sharing their story because we are forever connected by the misfortune of our circumstances. Most importantly, I drove the 2 hours to the prison to be searched and run through metal detectors several times because I want these brothers — my brothers — to know that they have a second chance to do something meaningful with their lives. Yes, that’s why I was there.

Once inside the auditorium where I was scheduled to speak, thoughts of how the men would react to my presence bounced around in my head. I wondered how many of them I had served time with. I wondered what old friends would look like. I wondered who would absorb the food for thought I had to share. Although I had thought about what I was going to say on my drive up to Ionia, when the first brother walked in the room and came up and hugged me, all of that went out of the window. In that moment, I knew that I had to let my soul speak and not my head.

As the men filed in, my heart began to break inside. Men I had grown up with, who were once vibrant with life despite their circumstances, were now showing the signs of being beat down and broken by the reality of incarceration. Their eyes no longer shined with the optimism of men who believed they would be given a second chance. Their faces were somber and heavy with the sadness and pain of being left to wither away in the cold and indifferent world of prison. In addition to the men whose spirits appeared to be broken was another reality that has always troubled me — mental illness. Over a third of the 150 men who were present showed clear signs of being under the influence of heavy psychotropic drugs. But in the midst of this all, there were glimmers of light that manifested in the form of my former bunkie and a few other men who I had served time with. Their smiles were bright and I could see and feel the love and pride in their eyes. It was that energy that fed my soul for the next hour and a half. By the time I was done, that light had expanded across the auditorium and all of the men were now smiling and laughing as I joked with them and loved on them as a brother, friend and man of my word. Before I came home, I told them I would never forget them, and five years later my word remains intact.

When I was done they gave me a standing ovation, and one by one they came and gave me hugs and shook my hand. Today I heard “I am proud of you” over 100 times!!! When I got in my truck to leave, I thought about the drive up there and it struck me that the last 24 years of my life has been connected to prison. As I drove past the other 3 prisons on the same road, I asked the Creator would it always be like this and why I was chosen for this calling. Within one minute of asking these questions, a song in my play list by the artist T.I. came on called ‘Hallelujah.’ It was one of his song’s I normally skip past because I don’t care for the beat, but this time I just let it play out and it blew my mind because the song was talking about his life in prison. Normally that wouldn’t be that big of a deal to me because it’s the reality that many rappers understand far too well. However, as soon as that song went off 2Pac’s song ‘Hold Ya Head’ from his Makaveli album came on. Back-to-back songs about prison right after I had asked the question. There was no doubt in my mind that the Creator had spoken and its with this understanding that I will continue doing everything in my power to offer hope and inspiration in places where its needed most. My belief is that we are at a moment in history that can forever change how we treat them men and women on lockdown, especially those with mental illness. A little bit of hope goes a long way. 

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Shaka Senghor is a writer, mentor and motivational speaker whose story has inspired youth and young adults at high schools, universities, and conferences across the nation. He is founder of the Atonement Project, a recipient of the 2012 Black Male Engagement (BMe) Leadership Award, a 2013 MIT Media Lab Director’s Fellow, a Fellow in the inaugural class of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Community Leadership Network, and teaches a course on the Atonement Project at The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In 2014, Shaka shared his story on the world-renowned TED stage and in just four months his talk reached more than 1,000,000 views.  

Shaka was recently named the 2015 Manchester University Innovator of the Year and currently serves as the Director of Strategy for #Cut50, a national bipartisan initiative to safely and smartly reduce our incarcerated population by 50 percent over the next 10 years by convening unlikely allies, elevating proven solutions, and communicating a powerful new narrative.

Ai Weiwei's Alcatraz Exhibition '@Large' Opens September 27th

Alcatraz

This article was originally written by Andrew Dalton of SFist. Celebrated Chinese dissident, architect and artist Ai Weiwei's highly anticipated exhibition "@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz" will open this fall on September 27th and run through the end of April 2015. The exhibition will feature seven site-specific installations in four different locations on the former federal prison island, three of which are not normally open to the sightseeing public.

The exhibition is being put on by San Francisco's FOR-SITE foundation along with the stewards of the island at the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. According to this morning's official announcement, it will offer "a new cultural lens through which to experience the notorious military and federal penitentiary turned national park."

The works are meant to explore questions of human rights and freedom of expression in the context of incarceration, detainment and protest. Ai himself was secretly detained by the Chinese government for 81 days in 2011 on charges of tax evasion. Since his passport was revoked and he is still not permitted to leave the country, don't expect the artist to make an appearance at the site. The works were developed in Ai's Beijing studio.

From the official announcement:

The large-scale sculpture, sound, and mixed-media works will be installed in the two-story New Industries Building where “privileged” inmates were permitted to work; the main and psychiatric wards of the Hospital; the A Block cells, the only remaining section of the military prison that was constructed in the early 20th century; and the Dining Hall.

Aside from the dining hall, all of those locations are usually off limits to visitors. During the exhibition's five-month run, they will all be open to the ticket-buying public.

Tickets go on sale to the general public through Alcatraz Cruises next month on June 27th and will include access to the exhibition as well as the general Alcatraz audio tour. Tickets to Alcatraz typically sell out weeks in advance, but expect them to go even faster with the extra cultural draw. A limited number of same-day tickets will be set aside for anyone who can make it to the Early Bird boat at 8:45 a.m. daily. Tickets will be $50 for adults and juniors, $38.25 for children (5-11), and $48.25 for seniors.

[Official Site] Tickets via Alcatraz Cruises

Feature photo by Sam Breach.

Remembering the Grace of Dr. Maya Angelou

This week the literary and civil rights world lost an true heroine, advocate and mentor, Dr. Maya Angelou. She will be remembered not only for her pursuit of justice and her literary genius, but also for the graceful way in which she conveyed her messages. We believe that the below video captures this grace. Her words and spirit will be missed. To read about her legacy, click here.

Confronting Evil: Genocide in Rwanda

Alison Des Forges was Human Rights Watch's senior advisor in the Africa Division and one of the world's foremost experts on Rwanda. In the period leading up to the genocide, she worked tirelessly to alert world powers to the impending crisis in Rwanda. Her efforts did not stop when the genocide ended. She continued painstakingly gathering information on these horrific crimes, which she compiled into what has become one of the main reference books on the Rwandan genocide: "Leave none to tell the story: Genocide in Rwanda", published in 1999. Alison Des Forges campaigned vigorously for justice for the genocide until her sudden death in a plane crash in the US on February 12, 2009. She also documented human rights abuses by the new government of Rwanda after the genocide and advocated for accountability for all abuses, past and present.

Mobilizing Social Media for Human Rights

Peter Bouckaert is the emergencies director at Human Rights Watch specializing in the laws of war. He was previously part of fact-finding missions to Lebanon, Kosovo, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Macedonia, Indonesia, Uganda, Sierra Leone, and various other conflicts and has testified before the United States Senate, the ICTY in the Hague, and the Council of Europe. In this interview with the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, he discusses the transformative role of digital diplomacy and information sharing via social networks in conflict zones. You can follow Peter Bouckaert on Twitter @bouckap.How has Twitter changed the way you work? How does Human Rights Watch use social media platforms to draw people’s attention to human rights crises?

We should not fool ourselves into thinking that we can solve the world’s problems with social media or other technological innovations, but Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and other social media platforms have become powerful tools for the human rights movement. At the core of our work at Human Rights Watch is our on-the-ground impartial investigations of human rights abuses and war crimes. Social media helps us get our information out and put pressure on public officials to stop the killings in the Central African Republic, for example. However, I think we need to distinguish between the kind of fact-driven social media campaigns that we conduct, reporting real-time information from the ground, and the more passive “feel good” social media campaigns that fool you into thinking that retweeting or liking something on Facebook will make a difference.

How do you envision Human Rights Watch’s role in mass atrocity prevention and reporting on crises, especially in situations where there is a lack of political leadership and mainstream news outlets are not giving a particular crisis sufficient media coverage?

The philosophy of Human Rights Watch’s emergency work is simple: we believe that we can save lives and end abuses in conflict zones by impartially reporting on abuses and war crimes in real time. We ensure policy makers have a real-time view of what is happening and are pushed to take appropriate actions to stop the abuses or killings. We try to cut through the fog of war with our reporting, and always report on abuses conducted by all parties to the conflict. We cover the high-profile conflicts that you hear about on the large news outlets, but also try to draw greater attention to underreported crises that urgently require more attention. Our social media campaigns are especially important in the case of underreported crises, because we can influence the media to pay attention to a particular story, thereby mobilizing the public to get involved.

Do you think your live-tweeting from the Central African Republic (CAR) has had an impact on the international community’s response to the crisis there or is political will still lacking? Can these digital tools offer some promise for action against mass atrocities?

Our campaign to draw more attention to the atrocities in the Central African Republic involved a series of strategies, and not just the use social media. First of all, we hired one of the world’s best photographers and documentary filmmakers, Marcus Bleasdale, to work together with me on the ground in CAR, and we collaborated on a number of strategically placed articles inForeign PolicyJeune AfriqueLe Monde, the New York Times, the Washington Post, theTelegraph, and other media outlets that we knew policy makers and the public pay attention to. We contacted Christiane Amanpour at CNN, and other top broadcasters, and worked together on providing major stories for them, especially in situations when they didn’t have correspondents on the ground.

But what was observable to me was how our live reporting from CAR using social media, particularly Twitter, was hugely influential and changed the game. People -from humanitarians to journalists, from diplomats to locals- often approached me in Bangui asking if I am “@bouckap”, which is my Twitter handle. Clearly, many of the decisions that were made in responding to the CAR crisis, whether by the French military or by United Nations and humanitarian organizations, were influenced by the pressure we generated over Twitter. It works, but you need to be reporting reliable information from the ground, as well as images – my followers just love images.

Let me just give one concrete example of the power of Twitter in this crisis. In January, I found myself at the scene of a brutal lynching in Bangui, with anti-balaka fighters literally carving up two Muslim bodies in front of us, just 50 meters away from where French soldiers were standing passively nearby. I tweeted what I saw and within minutes was getting media calls from major French news outlets, including BBC Africa French service, Radio France International, and others. Half an hour later, the French Ambassador and General Soriano, the commander of the French forces in CAR, each called me separately to come see them. They were completely shaken by what Human Rights Watch staff were seeing and tweeting about. The next day, our Paris director was asked to attend a meeting with more than a dozen senior French officials. Of course, it appears that they wanted to control the damage of our tweeting, but they failed to understand that we are constantly on the ground using social media to document and our report human rights abuses, while the French military sends out one press release a week with rosy information that no journalist trusts. A day after, the French army chief of staff flew into Bangui, and a journalist accompanying him burst out laughing upon arrival in Bangui, saying, “All they could talk about on the flight in is “Les tweets de Human Rights Watch“! That is the power of social media, and they felt it.

Can you quantify the type of impact your Twitter reports have had on raising awareness among the global public about the situation in CAR? Has your number of followers greatly increased?

I’m not really a natural person on Twitter, and I use it as a professional tool to get out the message about what was happening in CAR. We really started on December 5, when deadly fighting broke out in Bangui and Bossangoa. That same night, Mandela died, and Thomas Fessy, the BBC correspondent, woke me up, saying, “Mandela died and now we are screwed, the CAR story will be dead as well.” Actually, that was the case, but we both started live-tweeting what we were seeing day to day, and slowly interest in the CAR crisis just skyrocketed on social media, to the point where we were trending, especially in France and other European countries. My number of followers grew from about 2,000 to 13,000, and many tweets I send out were retweeted hundreds of times.  I have a very active group of followers, who are dedicated to digitally working together to stop the killings.

What are the main challenges that you face on the ground?

Using social media to report on the crisis in CAR is quite different from using it to talk about your personal life. It takes a tremendous amount of equipment and effort to assemble the information that we put out on Twitter. We often traveled more than 12 hours a day over very rough roads in a country without infrastructure, and then had to set up camp, start up a generator, hook up a satellite dish, upload the pictures we took that day, and started sending out the information. That’s the main challenge, just getting out to these very remote areas and getting accurate information, dealing with all kind of problems along the way, from broken-down cars to hostile men with guns. It takes a lot of effort to pull that information together. But it makes a difference. I recently met with a top UN humanitarian official in Bangui, I noticed that the majority of the information she had marked on her country map had come from our tweets, being used to plan the humanitarian response for the country. It’s at moments like that that you realize you can make a difference in 140 characters.

In your tweets, you have reported about directly confronting armed groups about abuses committed against civilians. Has it had some kind of effect on them?

Yes, I think it is fundamentally important to confront the armed groups doing the killings directly. You need to do so for several reasons. First of all, they need to know that we are monitoring their crimes, and that they could one day be held accountable for their actions – this does have a deterrent effect. Second, they also need to understand what we are doing in the country.  That we are there to protect all civilians from people trying to hurt them, including the civilians in whose name they claim to fight. We pull no punches at these meetings and make things very clear, but normally they treat us with a lot of respect and deference because they know what we have done for their communities. Ruthless Seleka fighters respect us and thank us for the work we have done to protect Muslims and know we genuinely care about the Muslim communities. Third, we have to confront them because sometimes we do save lives immediately. In 2007 I confronted a rebel leader in CAR about his use of child soldiers. He was so worried about being eventually prosecuted that he didn’t sleep all night and tracked us down the next day and asked us to help in demobilizing the kids he had forced to take up weapons.

Lastly, we also learn a lot about the motivations of those doing the killing during such meetings. In a meeting just last week, an anti-balaka leader in Bohong told me it was really difficult for him to accept that Muslims remained in his town.  He informed us that the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels had burned down all the non-Muslim homes, forcing many to live out in the open while Muslims still had adequate shelter. That unknown fact was clearly a great trigger in the local tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims, so I immediately communicated with the humanitarian community to deliver emergency tarps to Bohong as quickly as possible so non-Muslims could rebuild their roofs. You only learn such facts if you talk to people, including rebel leaders.

You have also taken pictures of perpetrators of human rights abuses? Do you think they can be used for eventual prosecution and evidence in to perpetrators accountable?

I normally don’t post too many pictures of perpetrators on social media, but I do take pictures of perpetrators and their crimes for evidentiary purposes. I have testified at war crimes trials before, and the pictures were always important evidence. It is remarkable how perpetrators in CAR have committed the most extreme acts of violence, but are often not bothered at all about letting us film their crimes. In many other crises, I would have to take serious risks to take such images. But this is one of the impacts of the explosion of social media – in some places, people have become so used to being filmed, and filming themselves, that they don’t realize anymore they are being filmed committing crimes. I exposed a rebel group in Libya who executed over 60 prisoners after capturing and killing Qaddafi. They had filmed themselves abusing the prisoners. I just had to match the men in the video with the pictures of the executed bodies I found at a nearby hotel, and we knew who was responsible.

Finally, what can your followers do to help raise awareness and put pressure on leaders to finally send more peacekeepers to CAR?

This campaign only works if my followers help us keep up the pressure by retweeting our information, and by urging others to follow me and Human Rights Watch on Twitter. Our social media work won’t make a big difference if nobody retweeted our information – that is what social media is all about, getting the word out and building up pressure. During the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the US National Security Advisor Anthony Lake told our Rwanda expert Alison Des Forges that he had one piece of advice for her: “Shout louder”. What he meant is that the only way human rights groups could force governments to act to stop the genocide was to mobilize public pressure. That is exactly what we are still doing today, shouting louder.

This article has been reposted in its entirety from the Canadian International Council.

Glancing Back at 2013

Glancing-Back-at-2013

This year was rife with important milestones, achievements and events related to the human rights movement. We’ve compiled the milestones that most resonated with us. Let us know what resonates with you in the comments section below. 1) Defeated Militia: Colonel Sultani Makenga, Commander of the M23 rebel group in the eastern DRC, surrendered in Uganda along with 1,700 of his rebel fighters this past November. The M23 were ambushed by the Congolese army (also backed by 3,000 UN fighters) and were forced to either be captured or flee. It was under these pressures that they declared a ceasefire, ending a very bloody 20-month uprising.

2) In RemembranceNelson Mandela, former South African President and beloved anti-apartheid leader, died on December 5th 2013. Widely called “Madiba,” Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years for his political activities during apartheid in South Africa.  Despite his imprisonment he preached the importance of reconciliation and represented survival in the struggle for human dignity. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 and leaves behind a legacy of equality, justice and freedom.

Seamus Heaney, an Irish poet and playwright who won the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature in 1995, died on August 30th, 2013. One of his most famous poems spoke of suffering and conflict in Northern Ireland. Below is an excerpt; for the full poem click here.

History says, Don't hope On this side of the grave, But then, once in a lifetime The longed-for tidal wave Of justice can rise up And hope and history rhyme.

3) AppointmentsSamantha Power’s appointment as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations began on August 5th, 2013. Power is widely considered one of the most important thought leaders and is most known for her strong human rights background and specifically for her extensive genocide research. She wrote “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” a study on the response of U.S. foreign policy in regards to various cases of genocide. She also authored “Chasing the Flame: One Man's Fight to Save the World,” a book about the heroic life of Sergio Vieira de Mello.

4) Symbol of Defiance: Surviving a gunshot wound to the head for defending her right to an education, Malala Yousafzai continues to promote girls education and serves as an inspirational role model for millions of girls around the world. Malala publically debuted with a moving speech to the UN to mark her 16th birthday.  Malala tells her story of being shot by the Taliban in Pakistan in newly published book, “I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban.”

5) Most Perplexing Conflict: Syria’s civil war continues to escalate in intensity, complexity and scope. For more than two years, violent conflict has ravaged this country and has maimed or taken the lives of thousands of innocent civilians and produced an epic refugee crisis with estimates of 6.5 million people now forcibly displaced with little access to aid or security. Widely considered one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises partly due to the internal chemical weapons attacks that have killed more than 10,000 Syrians, international observers remain baffled as to a viable political (non-military) solution that would result in meaningful peace and lasting stability.

6) More than Meets the Eye: When Edward Snowden, former CIA worker, leaked classified details of the NSA surveillance program, he initiated a controversial, if not historic, debate on privacy vs. security in a post 9/11, digital world, questioning how far the government should go to protect the American public. At the core of this debate is whether the metadata surveillance collected in the name of national security is pursued at the expense of civil liberties, such as privacy rights and freedom of expression. Human rights defenders say current surveillance policies must be reformed to respect privacy and maintain freedom of speech. This is a debate worth following as the implications are serious and far-reaching. For more information click here.

7) Notable Movies: 12 Years a Slave, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Anita and Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.

8) Favorite Reads: The Lemon Tree, The Glass Palace, Long Walk to Freedom, The Kitchen House, Strength in What Remains.

9) Favorite Tweets

@CivCenter: When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.” -Kenyan proverb

@AmbassadorPower: Violence against women isn’t cultural, it’s criminal. Equality can't come eventually; we must fight for it now.

10) Stunning Statistic: The NSA tracks 5 billion cell phone records daily!

'We Live and Die Here Like Animals' by Peter Bouckaert

Bleasdale

This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy and is written by Peter Bouckaert, Director of Emergencies at Human Rights Watch. MB copy

BOSSANGOA, Central African Republic — In the schoolrooms of the northern Central African Republic (CAR), the blackboards still show dates from late March -- when Seleka rebels seized power in the country and a nightmare began. Since then, the armed Seleka, whose collective name means "alliance" in Sango, the local language, have ruled through fear: burning down village after village, firing randomly at civilians from their pick-up trucks, executing farmers in their fields, and murdering women and children. Their brutality continues to spread like a deadly cancer.

Hundreds of thousands have been forced to flee their homes and hide deep in the bush, where countless have died from disease. The Ouham prefecture, where 170,000 people have been displaced, is the country's worst-affected area. Around Bossangoa, Ouham's capital, it is possible to drive for hours without seeing a single person in a village -- and the sound of a car engine is enough to stir terror among the displaced walking along rutted, rural dirt roads in search of safety.

In early November, as I traveled around the region with photographer Marcus Bleasdale to document the widespread violence, people often mistook our car for a Seleka military vehicle. One day, our passage was blocked by the meager bundles of belongings dropped by a family that had fled into the bush as they heard us approach. We found a toddler crying on the road: His parents had lost him as they ran away. When they emerged a few minutes later, after much coaxing, they explained that they had been walking all night to reach Bossangoa, where some 40,000 people are living in dismal, cramped conditions around a Catholic church. "There are so many children dying... from malaria and typhoid fever," the exhausted father told us. His family had fled their town after a Seleka attack in mid-October that killed dozens. "There is no food, but most of the people are still hiding in the bush because of the long distance to Bossangoa, and the insecurity on the roads."

Since its independence from France in 1960, almost every political transition in the CAR has been marred by violence, and those who commit it have rarely been brought to justice. Recent developments are no exception: The Seleka, a coalition of three rebel factions that had been independently fighting the central government for several years, formed in late 2012 over President François Bozizé's failure to bring promised development to the marginalized north, where security and social services were almost totally absent, and to implement power-sharing peace agreements. After a months-long offensive, the Seleka seized Bangui, the CAR's capital, and ousted Bozizé in March.

Almost all of the Seleka's leaders and fighters are Muslims, a small minority in the CAR that has suffered discrimination at the hands of leaders from the country's Christian majority. Many of the Seleka may not even be CAR citizens, but instead come from Sudan and Chad. CAR's self-declared president, Michel Djotodia, a former Seleka leader, has ordered the rebel forces to disband, but they continue to rule with the gun, particularly throughout the north.

Worsening the situation, fury with the Seleka is now spilling over into vicious armed resistance among Christians. One Muslim woman remembers a Christian militant saying to her during an anti-Muslim attack in Ouham that killed hundreds in September, "Muslims overthrew President Bozizé, and there will be no safety for Muslims until [the] Seleka [are] gone." At another massacre of Muslims the same month, a militia leader told captured villagers, "We will kill all the Muslims, and we will kill all of your livestock," before his fighters cut the throat of one man and opened fire on the others, killing four more. If nothing is done, the CAR could descend into a deep, inter-communal religious conflict -- with much greater bloodshed than even what we've seen thus far. In early November, the United Nations went so far as to warn that the current conflict is at risk of escalating into genocide.

Already, the human toll, as recounted by those who have survived or witnessed violence, is shocking. Nicole Faraganda, 34, gave birth to a little girl on Oct. 9 in the village of Wikamo in Ouham. The next day, four vehicles with Seleka fighters tore down the road in front of her hut, spraying gunfire at the fleeing population. Still recovering from giving birth, Nicole was a bit slower than her fellow villagers, and she was shot dead, as was a 12-year-old neighbor, Samuel Denamjora. The Seleka fighters then got out of their vehicles, looted the local school and hospital, and systematically burned down hundreds of thatched-roof homes.

The Seleka fighters proceeded to the market town of Ouham Bac, where they shot down another nine civilians. Three more died from drowning after jumping into a nearby, fast-flowing river to escape the gunmen. One of the victims, Gaston Sanbogai, 22, was a blind man left behind by his neighbors when they fled. He tried to hide in the bushes near his home, but the Seleka fighters found him, pulled him out, and shot him dead.

At the large but deserted market town of Ndjo, we asked the few local villagers we could find to take us to their hiding places in the bush. Over four kilometers, we had to wade through a waist-deep river and follow narrow tracks. At the first lean-to shelter, we found the dignified village chief of Ndjo, 55-year-old Rafael Newane, whose face was lined with sadness. He showed us the graves of two of his grandchildren, Frediane Mobene, 9 months, and Oreli Newane, 6 months, who had died just a week before, three days apart, from untreated malaria.

At the next shelter, we found Placide Yamini, Ndjo's medical officer, who had buried his sister, dead from malaria 48 hours before. He told us that, every week, there are four or five deaths among the displaced villagers. Despite his medical training, he is unable to help most of them: Seleka fighters looted Ndjo's hospital and its pharmacy on Sept. 16, leaving Yamini without medications. He showed us his tiny medical kit, which held just a single bandage and a few surgical tools, and said he had been living like this since the Seleka came to power. "We live and die here like animals," he added, barely able to contain his anger.

Those who have made it to Bossangoa live in desperate conditions: Every structure and inch of space around the town's Catholic church -- its seminary, guest house, school, library, storage rooms, soccer pitch, and the surrounding fields -- have been taken over by displaced people, all Christians. The camp is so crowded, and filled with noise and the smoke of cooking fires, that it is difficult to walk among the tiny tents, hardly large enough for two people but sheltering entire families. We had to use local guides to avoid getting lost.

Just down the road, hundreds of displaced Muslims have sought safety at the town's school. This separation, and the presence of Seleka fighters in Bossangoa under the command of a man who calls himself General "Yaya" and only converses in Arabic, is a reminder that, even while serving as something of a safe haven for villagers who have nowhere else to go, Bossangoa is not entirely secure. As we were walking in the church camp one day, a Christian boy came running to the local priest to say his uncle had just been shot dead by Seleka fighters at a nearby checkpoint. When we went to investigate, we found the uncle still alive but badly beaten. He had crossed into the Muslim quarter of town to look for his straying livestock. A displaced Muslim woman started yelling at him, and then told the Seleka fighters to kill him, accusing his parents of fighting against Seleka. The Seleka fighters beat the uncle with the back of their guns, and then brought a knife to cut his throat. He struggled and managed to run away. The Seleka fighters fired at him but missed.

Farming has also become a dangerous occupation for Bossangoa's besieged civilians. Almost every day, Seleka fighters and armed cattle herders shoot farmers dead, but many still take extraordinary risks to go to their fields to find food. On Oct. 24, Thierry Demokossai, 40 and the father of five, was working in his manioc field together with several neighbors when four Seleka fighters approached on foot. Without any provocation, they shot him in the head and then killed two of his neighbors, according to his grieving wife.

After months of suffering such abuses at the hands of Seleka fighters, the mostly Christian communities of the northern CAR have begun to organize an armed response. Bozizé, the deposed president, organized village self-defense forces years ago to fight an epidemic of criminal gangs known as coupeurs du route ("road bandits"). Today, these militias, called anti-balaka (balaka means "machete" in Sango), are fighting the Seleka. They are armed with homemade hunting weapons, knives, and swords, and adorned with colorful fetishes that they believe protect them from bullets.

A leader of the anti-balaka forces whom we met in Ouham said, "The anti-Balaka are exclusively Christian, and our aim is to liberate the Christian population from the yoke of the Muslims. We are not a rebel group, our fight is only against the Seleka and to protect the population from them. We are the youth, organized by ourselves in self-defense." But worryingly, the anti-balaka do not just target Seleka: On a number of occasions, they have devastated Muslim communities.

In the early morning of Sept. 6, anti-balaka forces working with military elements loyal to Bozizé carried out a series of brutal surprise and near-simultaneous attacks on Seleka bases and Muslim communities in several villages around Bossangoa, killing dozens. Muslim males, regardless of age, faced death. Tala Astita, 55, was in the town of Zere when its Muslim quarter was attacked at 5 a.m. Fighters carrying AK-47s came to her house and ordered her husband, Bouba Gai, and her 13-year-old son, Halidou Bouba, to lay down before hacking them to death with machetes. The attackers then set the house on fire and tossed the two corpses into the flames. Other Muslims were similarly murdered. Astita escaped by convincing the killers she was a Christian. She then hid for several weeks in the bush and disguised her 3-year-old son as a girl with earrings to save his life. Her 14-year-old daughter, Kande Bouba, as well as her husband's other wife and 4-year-old daughter, were taken away alive by the anti-balaka during the attack on Zere and remain missing.

At the same time as the attacks, anti-balaka forces raided dozens of Muslim-owned cattle camps, killing people and stealing thousands of cattle. Particular brutality was reserved for the nomadic Mbororo Muslims, despised by Christian farmers long before the current conflict because they often herd cattle into farmers' fields and destroy crops. The tensions between sedentary Christians and nomadic Muslims show that claims to the land are yet another dimension of the CAR's violence -- much like they have been in Darfur.

Aishatu Isa, an Mbororo woman in her forties, was in a cattle camp near the town of Ber Zembe when fighters attacked around mid-day. Surrounding the nomads, they took Isa's 3-year-old boy, Khalidou Ngadjo, from her arms while gathering all of the male members in the camp. The attackers slit the young boy's throat, then the throats of Bouba Keriyo, 10, and Tahirou, 14. They also slit the throat of the one adult male in the camp, named Yaya Douka. The women were allowed to leave after witnessing the killings, but as they ran, they heard the fighters arguing as to whether the women should live or die.

The anti-balaka's attacks have triggered brutal reprisals by Seleka fighters against Christian communities. This heinous cycle of inter-religious violence only continues to intensify, threatening to explode into an all-out war between Christians and Muslims.

Up to now, the response of the international community has been minuscule. A small African military force, called FOMAC, rarely leaves its bases and often yields to the authority of the Seleka. It thus does little to help the civilian population -- aside from running a brisk trade in beer from their compound in Bossangoa. A more robust peacekeeping force, like the United Nations force now deployed in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, is needed.

Because the Seleka have targeted humanitarian organizations, enhanced security is particularly necessary to permit the unfettered provision of aid. To date, very little of what food, water, and medical assistance have been sent has reached the displaced; in many of the villages we visited, we were the first foreigners anyone had seen since Seleka took power.

As we returned from our drives through Ouham, we were greeted not by the panic we had seen initially, but by villagers emerging from the bush, waving and yelling "Merci." The people of the CAR deserve better than the glimmer of hope that seeing a car carrying people who do not wish to harm or kill them brings. They deserve immediate relief, as well as eventual justice, served to those who have committed crimes -- and breaking the CAR's longstanding cycle of violence and impunity.

Photo by Marcus Bleasedale/VII

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Peter-Bouckaert Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch's emergencies director and an expert in humanitarian crises, is responsible for coordinating the organization's response to major wars and other human rights crises. A Belgian-born Stanford Law School graduate, specializing in the laws of war, Bouckaert is a veteran of fact-finding missions to Lebanon, Kosovo, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Macedonia, Indonesia, Uganda, Sierra Leone, and many other war zones. Mr. Bouckaert's previous assignments have included investigating the September 28, 2009 stadium massacre and rapes in Guinea, the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah conflict, and the 2005 massacre of hundreds of protesters in Andijan, Uzbekistan. Most recently, Mr. Bouckaert investigated human rights abuses during the 2011 conflict in Libya, including the use of landmines and arbitrary arrests of African migrant workers. He has testified about war crimes before the United States Senate, the Council of Europe, and at the Yugoslav Tribunal (ICTY) in the Hague, and has written opinion pieces for papers around the world. His work has been profiled in Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, The Stanford Lawyer, and The Santa Barbara

In Honor of Human Rights Day: The Honorable Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe Reflects on U.S. Leadership Towards Human Rights

Written by Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, Former US Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council, for the A3A blog in honor of International Human Rights Day. In the lead up to International Human Rights Day, I had the opportunity this past week to participate in the annual Human Rights First summit in Washington, D.C. Human Rights First CEO Elisa Massimino asked me to share my reflections on my tenure as the first US Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.  Our conversation was framed around the question of US leadership on human rights and what difference full and wholehearted US engagement can make in multilateral organizations like the UN Human Rights Council.  The simple but clear answer from my experience is that principled, pragmatic US engagement can make a huge difference.

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Press conference with cross-regional co-sponsors of the Syria resolution, including Turkey, Jordan, UK, France, Qatar, Italy, Saudi Arabia, US. Photo by U.S. Mission Geneva / Eric Bridiers

When the US arrived as a new member four years ago, the Council was perceived both domestically and globally as the poster child for UN bureaucratic dysfunction.  Most egregious crisis and chronic human rights situations were ignored, and core civil and political rights so essential to human rights advocacy were de-emphasized.  Obstructionist regional group dynamics - - through which members of groups prevented criticism of each other so that they in turn would be protected from future criticism - - was the modus operandi of most voting members.  The views of human rights defenders, civil society actors and victims were not incorporated into the work of member states, and their voices were sometimes squelched in the chamber where member states worked.  In effect, this all meant that most meaningful action on human rights was blocked.

With a full and realistic understanding of these weaknesses, we set out three core priorities:

1.   To make a difference on the ground and in the halls of the UN for human rights defenders and victims;

2.  To enhance the efficacy of the Council in addressing crisis and chronic human rights situations;

3.  To find new avenues to work cooperatively with other nations cross-regionally toward effective human rights protection and promotion.

These priorities became touchstones for US engagement at the Council.  In the past 4 years, we made significant progress in all three areas.  The Council agenda now includes most of the world’s worst human rights crisis situations and chronic human rights settings, including Iran, Syria, Sudan, Sri Lanka, DPRK and many others.  Freedom of expression and Freedom of association and assembly have regained a place of importance as foundational elements for the work of human rights defenders around the globe.  The voices of victims and civil society actors are protected in the Council chamber and human rights advocates and defenders play a significant role in influencing the Council’s agenda.  And very importantly, most initiatives are co-sponsored by creative cross-regional coalitions, rather than by parochially oriented groups of countries from the same region.

 Reception in honor of Somalian Prime Minister, with members of civil society including Juile DeRivero, Geneva Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch. Photo by U.S. Mission Geneva.

At the Human Rights First summit, Elissa asked how such a dramatic turn around could have happened in such a short period of time, and what tactics the US employed to help in this reform process.  There are several answers.  First off, passion, clarity of purpose and basic skills of human interaction go a long way in diplomatic settings.  Delegations are made up of people, who often are impacted as much by how a message is delivered, as by the substance of the message itself.  We found that early outreach to small delegations from all regions of the world was a great way to show respect and find new allies.  Listening well, making the effort to understand the views of others, and finding ways to incorporate their concerns into our initiatives went a long way in building trust and new partnerships.

Second, it was very important to seize opportunities when they presented themselves.  The Arab spring brought a wave of popular demands and protests across an entire swath of the Middle East and North Africa region.  Those human rights developments presented Council members with a whole new set of country situations to consider and challenged members to consider their responsibilities in a new light.  While Libya, as a sitting member of the Council would have never made it to the agenda in the past, the spirit of the Arab awakening shook up the dynamics and caused many counties in the region to consider anew whether they really wanted to back a dictator like Qaddafi while he declared to the world that he would “hunt down the opposition like rats.”  Similarly, in case of Syria, the emotional impact of a news report about a funeral for peaceful protestors at which family members were gunned down by Assad forces, made it possible to convince voting members to hold an urgent session and get Syria onto the Council agenda. The human rights and humanitarian crisis in Syria has dominated the agenda at the Council ever since that first urgent session in April 2011. While Council members have not been able to find a way to end the bloodshed, the Council did establish a Commission of Inquiry that has been methodically investigating and documenting evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity so that those responsible will be held accountable.  Before the Arab spring, this would have been inconceivable at the Human Rights Council.  In effect, the Arab awakening brought an awakening to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, and we seized the opportunity.

  Syria Commission of Inquiry presenting their findings in the Human Rights Council chamber. Photo by U.S. Mission Geneva / Eric Bridiers

Syria Commission of Inquiry presenting their findings in the Human Rights Council chamber. Photo by U.S. Mission Geneva / Eric Bridiers

None of the significant changes in the working dynamics at the Human Rights Council would have been possible but for an entire group of gifted diplomats from around the world, open to new ways of working together and willing to trust and partner with the United States.  But the decision made by President Obama early in his first term along with Secretary Clinton and Ambassador Rice, to distinctly shift the US policy stance toward the Human Rights Council from one of principled resistance to one of principled but pragmatic engagement, has meant that the full effect of US leadership could be made manifest.

If there is one overriding basis for knowing that US leadership at the Council has made a difference, it is that human rights defenders turn to the US delegation on a daily basis to ask for support in championing their causes and to help ensure that their voices are heard.  The people who risk their lives on the front lines of the struggle for human rights believe that the United States presence at the Council has real and positive impact.  Their message has been received and the US will not disregard their call or turn back.

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Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe served as United States Representative to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, the lead UN body responsible for the promotion and protection of human rights.

Appointed by President Obama as the first U.S. representative to the Council, Ambassador Donahoe served during a period marked by transformative change, as people around the world have given ever-greater voice to their desire to forge their own destinies and live with liberty, dignity, justice, and opportunity.

Before undertaking her role as Ambassador, Ms. Chamberlain Donahoe was an Affiliate Scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at Stanford University. Her Ph.D. dissertation, entitled:  “Humanitarian Military Intervention: The Moral Imperative Versus the Rule of Law,” addressed conflicting legal and ethical justifications for humanitarian military intervention.

Nelson Mandela: His Legacy Lives On

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nelson-mandela-released-sized(2)Yesterday the world lost one of its most beloved leaders, Nelson Mandela, former South African President and anti-apartheid leader. The news was met with somber reactions as his life was reflected upon and his death mourned. According to CNN, he will be buried in a state funeral on Sunday, December 15th in Qunu, South Africa. The official memorial service will be at the First National Bank Stadium in Johannesburg on Tuesday, December 10th, which is also International Human Rights Day, appropriately fitting.

South African President Jacob Zuma addressed his country yesterday with the sad news. He said "our nation has lost its greatest son, our people have lost a father. Although we knew that this day would come, nothing can diminish our sense of a profound and enduring loss."

An enduring loss, indeed. U.S. President Barack Obama also made a heartfelt statement yesterday where he reflected on Mandela's legacy and also on his own experience protesting against apartheid. The full video of his statement is below.

To learn more about Nelson Mandela, A3A strongly recommends reading his inspiring, autobiography "A Long Walk to Freedom." Rest in Peace, Mr. Mandela. Your legacy lives on.

Cover Photo by Andy Wong/AP. Post Photo by Getty Images.

Alarming Threats Against Human Rights Defenders

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The Arab Spring uprisings brought sweeping change to a region greatly in need of freedom and a pro-democracy movement. Through the use of social media and other forms of technology, "cyber activists" and other frontline defenders found ways to mobilize and assemble in unprecedented ways. Yet, in the face of breathtaking demands for democracy in record numbers, a recent report issued at the United Nations this past week suggests that threats and attacks are continuing and intensifying against human rights defenders in the middle east and elsewhere around the world. It seems that internet access in repressive regimes presents a double-edged sword for cyber-activists. The human rights community, governments and corporations need to think through more effective ways to ensure the protection of human rights defenders and cyber activists.

To read the full report issued by the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders which provides in-depth analysis and global case-studies, please click here.