North Korean Brides for Sale

The one child policy in China is infamous for its strict controls limiting phenomenal population growth. However, such a policy has backfired, as a cultural preference for sons over daughters has resulted in high levels of abortion and staggering amounts of female infanticide – young girls are twice as likely to die as young boys in their first year of life. As of 2004, there were 120 boys for every 100 girls in China. In the three provinces closest to North Korea, the ratio of young men to women is 14 to 1, according to an estimate from the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. This imbalanced gender ratio has created opportunities for illegal, yet massive industries for human trafficking, leaving men searching for alternative means to find their ‘wives’ as it is becoming increasingly difficult to find Chinese partners through traditional channels.

The human trafficking industry has identified a large market in China and started to take advantage of the search for wives. Chinese males who are ‘buying’ their wives, however, do not wish it to become public knowledge. They have therefore started to look for females who look similar to Chinese women; North Korean women are deemed to be an easy target. North Korean women living in China are exceptionally vulnerable to human trafficking due to their status as illegal immigrants and escapees. The methods these trafficking organisations use vary, but the majority play upon the strong will of North Korean escapees. They will hire smugglers who know the exact routes to get out of North Korea, with the least amount of risk involved, and use them to bring North Korean women into China. Both trafficking organisations and North Korean individuals who are trying to escape then pay the smugglers. Once they escape, the individuals are then taken to so-called ‘safe houses’ and smugglers leave them there, as they have often already made arrangements with different human trafficking organisations to pick escapees up from the ‘safe house.’ Once the escapees are sold, it is impossible to find them. This is one of the fundamental reasons for which North Korean escapees’ families are torn apart, unable to see their family members ever again as they have already been sold to different traffickers in different regions.

The exact numbers of North Korean women who are being trafficked into China as wives of Chinese men are not known; measuring how many North Korean escapees exist seems to be impossible due to the sensitivity of the subject matter. According to Mr Kim, a missionary in the region who helps women trafficked into China, approximately 80% of escapees are women and girls who have become the ‘commodities for purchase.’ The most popular marketplaces are in the three Chinese provinces closest to the North Korean border—Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang—but North Korean brides are sold to men throughout China. Kim also points out that most of the buyers are farmers; some with mental or physical disabilities, as those male groups are seen as unsuitable husbands in the eyes of Chinese people. Furthermore, women who were have fled from these ‘husbands’ have testified that most North Korean ‘brides’ are subject to horrible sexual, mental, and physical abuses such as forced abortion if they become pregnant with a baby girl, forced starvation, continual beating, and worse.

As previously mentioned, North Korean escapees are exceptionally vulnerable to the human trafficking industry –they are vulnerable to recapturing, unfair treatment and discrimination from Chinese as well. I would argue that these issues surrounding North Korean escapees and refugees must be brought to the fore, and require the attention of the global public. Human rights issues concerning North Korea are scarcely reported due to the country’s closed political nature, but as the number of refugees who find their way into South Korea increases, there is a growing number of reports on North Korean escapee-related issues. I can only hope that these issues will receive attention from all over the world, as North Koreans deserve the same human rights as we all do.

The Pussy Riot Controversy: Freedom of Speech vs. Breaching the Peace

All-female Russian punk band Pussy Riot has been thrown into the spotlight following three controversial jail sentences for its members. The women were found guilty of “premeditated hooliganism performed by an organized group of people motivated by religious hatred or hostility”. The arrests followed a spontaneous concert, for which the group are most known for, at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Saviour – it was in this appearance they performed a song that translates to ‘Mother of God Drive Putin Away’.

This has created an international media storm – but Western media has arguably sensationalised one side of the events at play. Most notably removed from reports by major Western media outlets is the Russian public view. In 2012, an approximate 58 million people openly identified themselves with the Russian Orthodox Church. With lyrics during their performance including attacks on, “the Church’s praise of rotten dictators”, Pussy Riot has offended the Church and subsequently, a majority of the Russian public in direct persecution of their faith. Anatoly Karlin of Al-Jazeera News questions the hypocrisy of Western Pussy Riot supporters, as he asks us all to examine Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which reads:

“Everyone has the right of freedom of expression… The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such [conditions and restrictions] as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security… for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others…”

This leads us to question whether or not similar actions and arrests are inherent in the United Kingdom, and why Pussy Riot has generated a media storm and public support from numerous celebrities, including Madonna and Paul McCartney. Does an attack on someone’s faith qualify for arrest, under the need for protection of morals? Whilst some deem the church to be the centre of the attack, others see them as caught in the crossfire and thus, are as a result less sympathetic to the punishments dealt out to the band members.

Karlin asks us to consider what the British public would realistically do had the arrests been made against Right Wing protesters using strong language against feminism? Undoubtedly, the reaction seen would be far from the current public outcry –demanding leniency for the musicians. There is thus a fine line between hindering the right to freedom of speech, and breaching the peace, which we must bring to attention if we are to truly understand it.

Rachel Denber of CNN takes both sides of the controversy into account, remarking, “There is no basic human right to barge into a church to make a political statement, jump around near the altar, and shout obscenities. But there is most certainly the right not to lose your liberty for doing so, even if the act is offensive”. The women were held awaiting trial for over six months before two were given custodial sentences of two years. While awaiting their trials, Amnesty International UK reports that the women were forbidden from meeting with their families. Following the trial and overwhelming media attention, Yekaterina Samutsevich, the member of the band to be freed after having been given a delayed sentence, has subsequently filed a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights, “for violations of her freedom of speech, lawless criminal persecution and groundless arrest”.

Many people will inevitably agree that Pussy Riot have undergone mistreatment by the police and the courts system, as fundamental breaches of their human rights have undoubtedly occurred. However, Western media has yet to question the state of their activism: to portray their political beliefs, they have (although possibly inadvertently) quashed the fundamental faith of a majority of the Russian public. Putin has publicly called for leniency to be shown to the girls during their conviction, leading the girls’ lawyers to believe that “he is clearly worried and traumatised by the international reaction”, again demonstrating the political power they hold via this creation of a media storm.

This story is likely to remain in the news whilst the Western public support strives to legitimate their claims for the girls’ freedom. What we can thus far deduce is a need for heightened awareness – by accepting wholeheartedly claims from either side of this undeniably political case is to be a sheep to either end of prominent media. How far is too far when it comes to activism? Sensationalism by both the Russian and Western media has resulted in mass media frenzy. We now question if this is simply the David and Goliath scenario we have read of. What once seemed like a straightforward breach of human rights now appears to be a complex and controversial case, with more to it than meets the eye.

“One Party, Two Systems?” Examining the enforcement of National Education in Hong Kong

Protests against implementation of education standards by Mainland China

With an estimated 8 million citizens, Hong Kong is often described as ‘Asia’s World City’. A former British colony, Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) as part of a reunification process outlined in the 1980’s. As such, Hong Kong was to abide by the ‘one party, two systems’ policy outlined by the former paramount leader of the People’s Republic, Deng Xiaoping.

Introduced in Primary schools this September, the National Education scheme featured controversial lessons on “appreciating Mainland China”. This was met by public outcry and mass-protests, as crowds“estimated by the police at 32,000 and by organizers at 90,000 marched on July 29 to denounce the teaching manual as ‘brainwashing’”. It is said that the system would wash over negative aspects of history, including the Tiananmen Uprising of 1989. This implementation of a Mainland Chinese belief system highlights a direct affront to the ‘one party, two systems’ slogan. With higher levels of autonomy, Hong Kong has one of the highest per capita GDP’s in the world. However, one must question whether this autonomy truly exists in practice, or merely theoretically. Whilst Hong Kong does operate with a multi-party system, elections are not open to the public – the Chief Executive is appointed by a select group of people chosen to represent the public’s interests.

Growing protests and anger from the Hong Kong public stems from the belief that this system intends to “glorify one-party rule and whitewash the communists’ crimes against the Chinese people”. These protests mark just one issue in a wider ranging discontent with the Mainland. Hong Kong is experiencing the highest perceived level of dissatisfaction with the People’s Republic of China since becoming an SAR in 1997. There have also been recent objections from the public concerning the influx of Mainland mothers crossing the border to give birth in order to gain a wide range of health and education benefits. Intensified negative feelings have perhaps established a stronger ‘Hong Kong identity’ for its citizens, and one that does not necessarily stem from being Chinese.

This brings in to question the upholding of the 50-year grace period policy –where no change is to be implemented until 2047. Is the execution of a ‘Mainland appreciation’ class for young children not forcing such change the People’s Republic of China has promised to avoid? Consider Article 26(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which outlines that ‘parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children’. The forced implementation was withdrawn late last month after protests reached new levels, with university students engaging in hunger strikes in order to gain back a level of agency within the public education system.

We must now bring in to question –what is next for Hong Kong? With an independent legal system, and a tradable currency pegged to the US dollar, Hong Kong has clearly maintained a significant level of autonomy since the 1997 handover from British rule. However, what remains unclear for the future is whether this level of freedom will be maintained throughout the rest of the 50-year grace period, or if we will see continuous discontent and grievances regarding a people’s struggle for democracy.

The future of Saudi Arabia lies in Hamza Kashgari

(and incidentally, vice versa…)

On the occasion of Mawlidon February 4, 2012, Hamza Kashgari, a columnist for the Jeddah-based daily Al-Bilad, published three tweets about an imagined meeting with Muhammad, addressing him as an equal. One tweet read, “On your birthday, I shall not bow to you. I shall not kiss your hand. Rather, I shall shake it as equals do, and smile at you as you smile at me. I shall speak to you as a friend, no more.”

30,000 agitated responses and several death threats later, Kashgari deleted the posts and issued a formal apology. But the damage had already been done. As of 6pm (GMT) today, a Facebook page entitled « “The Saudi people want the execution of Hamza Kashgari” » had 26,708 members, a figure larger than the number of people who have signed a petition urging the Saudi government to drop all charges of blasphemy against him.

Today, the High Court and Judge Datuk Rohana dismissed the habeas corpus application filed by his lawyers. Kashgari’s counsel, Surendran, told the press that Hamza was denied his rights as he was illegally deported back to Saudi Arabia, before commenting on Rohana’s decision, saying that the court had failed in its duty to safeguard personal liberties.

Hamzi may have been careless in mocking the religious authorities, and has certainly caused a lot of commotion within the Muslim community – Sheikh Nasser Al Omar wept as he pleaded to the King for Kashgari to be executed. A stopover in the Muslim nation of Malaysia (where he was arrested at Kuala Lumpur airport and sent back to Saudi Arabia) may not have been the best idea either, but nothing he did remotely resembles a capital crime. In any other country, his tweets would have gained him his 15 minutes of fame. Only two days ago (on his 88th birthday) did Robert Mugabe mock press reports claiming he was gravely ill with the words, « I have died many times. That is where I have beaten Christ. Christ died once and resurrected once ». Granted, a completely different situation, but nonetheless it demonstrates the absurdity of Saudi Arabia’s riculously severe and anachronistic enforcement of law and order. As Human Rights Watch’s Middle East director, Sarah Leah Whitson, put it, « It is near certain [Hamzi] will not get a fair trial in Saudi Arabia, where religious scholars have concluded that he is guilty of apostasy and should be put to death. »

Kasghari’s case certainly brings to light the great juxtaposition that is Saudi Arabia. It is not the first time Saudi Arabia has made headlines with its controversial convictions. Just a few months ago, newspapers were filled with the stories of women protesting the driving ban. Although many who visit the country are charmed by its people’s courtesy and hospitality, sooner or later Saudi Arabia has to decide which century it belongs to. It cannot strive to become a place of modernity and advancement and at the same time restrict and regulate peoples’ freedom. If Saudi authorities go through with the execution of this man over a tweet, who knows what its future may be? A life is on the line, and even though Hamza Kashgari may merely be, at this point, a terrified human being, he in some ways dictates the future of Saudi Arabia. As the world holds its breath, Saudi Arabia can choose to divert from it’s typically despotic nature, or to completely overstep the mark. In the case of the latter (let’s hope not), how will the world react? In any case, it’s bound to be an eye-opening episode, so keep your eyes peeled…

“Khodorkovsky” – Jigsaw Falling into Place?

As Russia’s protest movement gathers momentum, the name of Mikhail Khodorkovsky is again on everyone’s lips. The organisers of the February 4th demonstration in Moscow are finalising a list of forty political prisoners, no doubt benefiting from public interest in his plight, whose release are their foremost demand, presidential candidates who once lauded his sentences have suddenly prioritised his clemency in their electoral manifestos and even messieurs Putin and Medvedev offered tentative signs of redemption.

Cyril Tuschi’s Khodorkovsky has in recent months revived international interest in the long-running case, all too often dismissed as emblematic of Russia’s entangled judicial anarchy. The hottest ticket at last year’s Berlin Film Festival, after reports of the directors’ copies being mysteriously stolen at a mixing studio in Bali and Berlin on the eve of its premiere, screenings have since trickled the world over.

Khodorkovsky is both a personal and an outsider’s interpretation of the case and Putin’s Russia. Tuschi, a German of direct Russian lineage, tries to relate to the country of today, his wide Tarkovskian shots of the surroundings of Khodorkovsky’s first Siberian jail evoking nostalgia and discomfort. But as he makes clear from the offset, he has only fully realised the case’s dimension while visiting Siberia on the trail of Yukos’ vanished assets, and is determined here to understand the man, his times, motivations and those of others for his downfall.

Drawing on an impressive host of witnesses, including relatives, Western and Yeltsin-era politicians and business and civil society associates, Tuschi delves into Khodorkovsky’s university and Komsomol years, upstart years in banking and rise to riches in Yukos, culminating in Putin’s vengeance which he aptly documents. He is even able to secure an interview with the man himself, during the second trial, a feat no journalist apparently has claimed since the arrest in 2003.

Operating on a budget of a mere €400,000 and little-known to the outside world, Tuschi has produced the most wide-ranging account yet of Khodorkovsky, at least for the benefit of a wider audience. But despite his pains to show the efforts to secure representation from the “other side,” namely the Russian government and its partners in the plundering of Yukos, the documentary appears starkly one-sided, its few opposing interventions coming in the unreliable shape of Dmitri Gololobov, the company’s former leading laywer. Tuschi’s lack of appreciation of the truly criminal confines of the 90s, and glossing over of Khodorkovsky’s more dubious activities in those years, even when mentioned, are worrying. In a film that searches for answers to Khodorkovsky, the many assembled testimonies are disparate and often unrelated, rendering the product at times disjointed and incoherent.

Unscrupulous and plundering oligarch, now reformed man of principle, embodying the political and moral compass of which Russia has for so long been bereft? This documentary, while ambitiously trying to answer that conundrum, does not quite decisively do so. A more conclusive account will doubtless take its time.

“Section Spéciale”: A Showcase For Unjustified Justice

On Thursday 6th October, the Amnesty International group of Strasbourg hosted a showing of the film “Section Spéciale” at the Odyssée cinema with Jean-Paul Costa, then President of the European Court of Human Rights, present to answer questions surrounding the topic of human rights violations throughout time.

“Section Spéciale” is set during the emergence of the Vichy government’s rule in “la zone libre” of France. The plot goes somewhat like this:

During the occupation of France, a young German naval officer is killed in Paris by a group of leftist activists. The Vichy government seeks to appease the Germans by locating the perpetrators and agreeing to the execution of six people, and a special section is set up for this purpose. The section consists of judges who are either too ambitious, too cowardly or too inhumane to refuse such work. Several communist militants, although innocent of the crime, are immediately imprisoned and tried by a closed court. A week after the murder on the subway, three alleged “terrorist” Communists are executed.

The film shared the Best Director prize at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival, and was nominated for a Golden Globe award for Best Foreign Film. Even today, it represents the universality of human rights violations occurring all over the globe, and not just under unstable rule or in developing countries. Atrocities like those committed in the Second World War take place everyday around us, and the difference between right as wrong has not changed.

Europe has learnt a lot from the World Wars: the existence of multinational institutions based on a liberal concept of co-operation which have flourished for the past decade, and World War Three has yet to occur. But we still see human rights violations on an everyday basis. Do governments still feel the need to justify crimes by committing crimes themselves? It is concepts such as the death penalty and other drastic « justification » methods that bring to light the question, “What really is justice?”

Justice is a term we use everyday without batting an eyelid. In a simple sense, and at least to me, justice is the quality of being both fair and reasonable, but also the administration of the law or authority in maintaining this. People pay the price for crimes committed, and families of victims almost always seek justice, whether it is to aid the grieving process or simply to «make things right ». But sometimes this hunger for justice, and the pressure put on governments to supply it, leads to what I can only deem as “unjustified justice.” An excellent case for this concept is the execution of Troy Davis by the state of Georgia. Although evidence initially pointed to Troy Davis as the murderer of Officer MacPhail, the proof against him disintegrated with time. Four witnesses admitted in court that they had lied in their testimonies, four witnesses implicated another man as having killed Officer MacPhail and three original state witnesses described police coercion during questioning, including one who was 16 years old at the time of the murder. Yet the execution still took place, even as the evidence for Mr Davis was no longer substantial.

In the film, the flames of totalitarianism had to be stoked with innocent blood, and it is especially convenient for governments if the accused are thoroughly expendable in their eyes. In Europe, 92% of states have abolished the death penalty, but in the United States, the statistics are alarmingly different. 34 out of 50 states still use the death penalty as a form of punishment, although a 2010 poll by Lake Research Partners found that a clear majority of voters (61%) would choose a punishment other than the death penalty for murder, including life with no possibility of parole or restitution to the victim’s family (39%), life with no possibility of parole (13%) or life with the possibility of parole (9%).

The plot of the film and the case of Troy Davis are both prime examples of how justice is often served solely for justice’s sake. Justice is the quality of being both fair and reasonable, but more often we are seeing hurt and harm inflicted on someone for their wrongdoing, more simply known as revenge. Compensating measures of justice for wrongdoing, is not justice at all. Fair, perhaps, but not at all reasonable. It is here that one can see the fine line between justice and revenge, a line that is still traversed by individuals and governments to this day.