This year's Blog Action Day focuses on Human Rights, a broad topic indeed. I have chosen 2 themes to suggest for readers to discuss here. While there is a "Canadian connection" between them, in fact they are as diverse as the two countries in which they are occurring.
The first relates to the jailing of two Saudi women activists who are convicted of takhbib (inciting a woman to defy her husband’s authority), relating to the case of Canadian Nathalie Morin who has been much in the news, trying to leave her Saudi husband and take their children with her back to Quebec--or so her mother claims. Two previous posts have addressed the background of the case, and then the original detention of Wajeha Al-Huwaider and Fawzia Layouni.
Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch have written about their sentencing to 10 months in jail and a 2 year travel ban, and the sentence being recently upheld, as have a number of international news outlets, including Saudi writer Ahmed Al Omran at Riyadh Bureau. Al Omran cites Al Huwaider as saying she believes the government has taken an opportunity to punish her for other advocacy over the years, including for a woman's right to drive.
It is difficult to find a Western article that does justice to the injustice of this jailing, while not indulging in simplistic Saudi-bashing. Below is a relatively good article, that takes a broader perspective on social limitations on women while still holding close to the idea of driving as a fundamental right for which these Saudi women activists have faught.
Women's rights supporters condemn Saudi Arabia as activists ordered to jail
Supporters condemn length of sentences as bid by authorities to silence criticism
The Observer, Sunday 29 September 2013
Two prominent female rights activists who went to the aid of a woman they believed to be in distress are expected to go to jail in Saudi Arabia on Sunday after the failure of their appeal against a 10-month prison sentence and a two-year travel ban.
Wajeha al-Huwaider, a writer who has repeatedly defied Saudi laws by driving a car, and Fawzia al-Oyouni were arrested for taking a food parcel to the house of someone they thought was in an abusive relationship. In June they were found guilty on a sharia law charge of takhbib – incitement of a wife to defy the authority of her husband, thus undermining the marriage.
Campaigners say they are "heroes" who have been given heavy sentences to punish them for speaking out against Saudi restrictions on women's rights, which include limited access to education and child marriage as well as not being able to drive or even travel in a car without a male relative being present.
In 2007 a Saudi appeal court doubled a sentence of 90 lashes to be given to a teenager because she had been in a car with a male friend when they were abducted and gang-raped by seven men.
Suad Abu-Dayyeh, an activist for the group Equality Now , said the authorities had been trying to silence the two women for years and their sentence "is unfortunate and scandalous". It marked a dangerous escalation of how far Saudi authorities were willing to go.
"These women are extremely brave and active in fighting for women's rights in Saudi Arabia, and this is a way for the Saudi authorities to silence them," she said. "If they are sent to jail, it sends a very clear message to defenders of human rights that they should be silent and stop their activities – not just in Saudi Arabia, but across Arab countries. These women are innocent – they should be praised for trying to help a woman in need, not imprisoned. They now find themselves at the mercy of the system they have fought so tirelessly to change."
According to reports, this is also the first time in Saudi legal history that a travel ban has been imposed in a case involving domestic issues.
"This case and the system of lifelong male guardianship of women in Saudi Arabia shows that protecting a husband's dominant, even abusive, position in the family is far more important than his wife's wellbeing," said Suad Abu-Dayyeh.
The women themselves believe they may have been set up, that they were contacted by text message by a woman claiming to be the mother of Natalie Morin, a Canadian national married to a Saudi who has herself been campaigning for several years to be allowed to leave the country with her three young children – something she says the authorities will not allow her to do.
The text, in June 2011, said she had been abused by her husband, an unemployed former Saudi intelligence officer, who had then left for a wedding and left her and her children locked in their apartment in the eastern city of Dammam for a week and that they were running out of food and water. When the two women arrived in Morin's street they were immediately arrested.
"Actually when we went to there, the minute we arrived a police car arrived," said Wajeha al-Huwaider. "I'm sure the judge knows that it was a trap and they meant to catch us at that time in order to make a case against us."
At first they were charged with trying to aid Morin escape to the Canadian embassy in Riyadh, but the intervention of a local member of the Saudi royal family led to those charges being dropped, because, said Huwaider, even he was embarrassed at the obvious nature of the set-up.
Morin was also arrested and held for several hours. It was not until a year later that the two women were told they were to face the new charge of takhbib, a law that effectively puts all aid workers and activists helping Saudi women in need of protection from domestic violence, at risk.
Morin was not permitted to testify at their trial earlier this year that she had never met Huwaider and Oyouni. She has declared support for them on her blog writing: "I am sorry for what's happening to madam Wajeha al-Huwaider and her friend." She said the "two Saudi women find themselves in a serious legal problem with jail just for trying to help me … there is no evidence for the charges that are against her and her friend."
Huwaider and Oyouni's conviction has been condemned by numerous human rights organisations, including the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, Equality Now and Pen International.
It is easy for those living in Western democracies to think that human rights abuses happen somewhere else. However, anyone who has bothered to read an Amnesty International report on their own country is soon disabused of that notion.
Canada is frequently cited for human rights violations against our First Nations peoples, Indian, Inuit, or Métis (mixed Aboriginal and European). These are often related to inappropriate arrests, abusive treatment while in custody, or unfair legal outcomes. Nevertheless, there are longer standing systemic issues, including ones more directly related to broader issues of cultural identity loss, educational deficits, family disruption, and poverty.
Recently a UN special report has detailed current failings and labelled Canada's treatment of its indigenous peoples as a "crisis". Below is a comprehensive CBC news article summarizing the special rapporteur's findings, particularly regarding the issues of Aboriginal education and the callous disregard for Aboriginal women who have been murdered or disappeared.
UN aboriginal envoy says Canada is facing a 'crisis'
James Anaya urges Ottawa to call an inquiry into aboriginal women, not to 'rush' education reform
By Susana Mas, CBC News Posted: Oct 15, 2013 1:40 PM ET Last Updated: Oct 16, 2013 9:16 AM ET
James Anaya, the UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people, painted a grim picture of the conditions facing First Nations, saying Canada is facing a "crisis" when it comes to its treatment of indigenous people.
The remark came during a news conference in Ottawa on Tuesday following the completion of his nine-day mission to Canada.
'I urge the government not to rush forward with [education reform] legislation but to re-initiate discussions with aboriginal leaders'- James Anaya, the UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people
"From all I have learned, I can only conclude that Canada faces a crisis when it comes to the situation of indigenous peoples of the country," he said.
Anaya said the Canadian government still has a long way to go in narrowing "the well-being gap" between aboriginals and non-aboriginals.
On the eve of Parliament's return, the UN fact-finder urged the federal government not to "rush" forward with the tabling of a controversial aboriginal education reform bill it intends to introduce this fall.
Anaya also called on the federal government to launch a "comprehensive and nationwide" inquiry into the case of missing and murdered aboriginal women, something the federal government has so far refused to do.
He also urged the federal government to extend the mandate of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission so that it can complete its work.
The TRC's mandate expires next summer but it is unlikely the government will be able to provide all the requested documents in time.
In a written statement to CBC News, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said Anaya's observations are at "the centre of Canada’s preoccupations and explains why the government has taken, and continues to take, effective incremental steps to improve the situation in partnership with Aboriginal Canadians."
"As acknowledged by the rapporteur, positive steps have been taken and challenges remain," Valcourt said.
Funding for aboriginal students
First Nations education reform is expected to be featured in Wednesday's throne speech, and it will also be the centrepiece of the Harper government's aboriginal policy.
The UN aboriginal envoy said while everyone agrees that First Nations education is a priority, he heard a "profound and consistent mistrust" towards the First Nations Education Act being developed by the federal government.
Anaya said he heard "a particular deep concern that the process for developing the act has not appropriately included nor responded to aboriginal views."
"In light of this, I urge the government not to rush forward with this legislation but to reinitiate discussions with aboriginal leaders to develop a process and ultimately a bill that addresses aboriginal concerns and incorporates aboriginal view points," Anaya said.
The UN fact-finder said the federal government could increase the level of funding for aboriginal students "relatively quickly."
But in an interview with CBC News last Tuesday, Aboriginal Affairs minister Bernard Valcourt said education reform would have to come before more funding.
"Reform will take place, funding will follow. But funding will not replace reform because the current system is failing these kids," Valcourt said.
The 2011 national household survey showed that 48.4 per cent of aboriginals aged 25 to 64 had a post-secondary education, compared to 64.7 per cent of non-aboriginals.
Of those aboriginals with post-secondary education only 9.8 per cent had a university degree, compared to 26.5 per cent of non-aboriginals.
Shawn Atleo, the national chief for the Assembly of First Nations, welcomed Anaya's remarks and called on Ottawa to give "serious consideration" to his preliminary observations, pending his official report and recommendations.
"It is our hope that the special rapporteur’s report will help compel action. First Nations are willing and ready for the hard work," Atleo said in a written statement.
Atleo had vowed two weeks ago, during a rally in Ottawa for missing and murdered aboriginal women, to tell the UN fact-finder that Canada is facing a "grave" human rights crisis. He and Anaya met on Monday.
"If the government is wise, which it hasn't demonstrated so far, it will pay very close attention to what the special rapporteur said," said Jean Crowder, the NDP critic for aboriginal affairs, in an interview with CBC News.
Carolyn Bennett, the Liberal critic for aboriginal affairs, told CBC News in a statement that the Conservatives’ "adversarial approach to Aboriginal Peoples on a host of issues has created conflict and distrust, rather than reconciliation and better lives."
Inquiry into aboriginal women
Anaya called the unresolved cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women a "disturbing phenomenon" and an "epidemic." He called on the federal government to launch a national public inquiry into the matter.
While he acknowledged the federal government has taken measures to address the issue of violence against aboriginal women, Anaya said aboriginal people expressed, "a widespread lack of confidence in the effectiveness of those measures."
"I concur that that a comprehensive and nationwide inquiry into the issue could help ensure a co-ordinated response and the opportunity for the loved ones of victims to be heard," he said.
- Aboriginal women inquiry backed by Conservative Yukon MP
- RCMP highlight 10 cases of missing aboriginal women on social media
Anaya said such a move by the federal government would show "a responsiveness" to the concerns raised by families and communities affected.
In that interview with CBC News on Tuesday, Valcourt said that inquiries are for those who want to hide behind the pretext of taking action.
'An inquiry would not bring anything more than we already know.'- Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt
"An inquiry would not bring anything more than we already know. So instead of further study and spinning our wheels, let's take action," he said.
The Native Women's Association of Canada has been calling on the federal government to launch a national public inquiry into aboriginal women for just over a year now.
Conservative MP Ryan Leef, last week, pledged his support for a national inquiry — but only if the provinces are willing to play a role.
While the premiers agreed to support a call by the NWAC, the provinces and territories did not say what role, if any, they would play.
Anaya told reporters he met with the RCMP at the beginning of his nine-day visit to discuss their practices "particularly with regard to investigating or preventing acts of violence against women."
Last week, the Mounties launched a five-day social media campaign calling on the public to help them solve 10 cases involving missing aboriginal women.
The RCMP said the social media campaign was not timed around Anaya's visit.
The UN fact-finder spent the last nine days meeting with government officials, First Nations leaders, and indigenous people in Ontario, Quebec, B.C., Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
Anaya is expected to make his findings public in a report that will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in September 2014.
His visit follows a 2004 report by the previous rapporteur.
Are they indeed issues of human rights, or has that concept been overextended?
What human rights issues do you find compelling?
Other thoughts, feelings, comments?
See also previous Blog Action Day posts, 2010 Water; 2011 World Food Day