On Wednesday it was announced that the 13-month investigation into the group of five human rights workers known as the ‘Adhoc 5’ had concluded. The 420-day detention of senior officials Ny Sokha, Nay Vanda, Yi Soskan, Li Mony and senior election official Ny Chakrya has been criticized by several international organizations, including but not limited to the United Human Rights Office, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Earlier in the year, the five were in the running for the Martin Ennals award.
On the same day, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen reaffirmed his promise to maintain power at any cost. Sen underscored that “As long as your tongue and your writing insult, I say that Cambodia is still at war,” and that “To protect the peace for millions of people if necessary, 100 or 200 people must be eliminated.”
Meanwhile, several non-violent protests took place over the course of the week. In Kratie, 200 villagers took to the street to protest rubber planation company Doty Saigon-Binh’s attempt to limit their mobility. Ultimately, it was negotiated that villagers could travel freely 24 hours, but the time limit for the transportation of goods would remain limited. Likewise, over 500 garments workers for the company International Fashion Royal staged a walkout in response to the dismissal of Bo Thet, their union rep. According to reports, the company had prevented workers from paying their union over a seven month period. Later on Thursday, the Kampuchea Krom community was forbidden from protesting at the Nation Assembly in response to the continued human rights abuses of the Krum under present-day Vietnamese people.
On Monday, a group of nine activists, journalists and human rights lawyers filed a criminal complaint alleging that the government intentionally infected their phones with software to spy on their activities. The software gives the attacker access to the phone’s files, camera, and microphone. Those potentially targeted by the spying, 88 documented cases altogether, include journalists and activists who have exposed government corruption.
The country is witnessing an important precedent, as Maria de Jesus Patricio Martinez seeks to become the first indigenous woman to run for President in Mexico. Patricio, an indigenous Nahua, is a traditional healer and has been nominated by Mexico’s National Indigenous Congress and the Zapatista National Liberation Army to represent them in next year’s election.
Mexico also hosted the Organization for American States’ (OAS) General Assembly meeting this week, which saw clashes and disagreement over how to handle the political crisis in Venezuela. Venezuela’s foreign minister, Delcy Rodriguez, criticized diplomats for promoting oversight of President Nicolas Maduro’s government and facilitating the interests of imperialist powers. Rodriguez walked out of the summit on Monday.
On June 22 Republican Senators revealed the health care bill, written behind closed doors, in a continued effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). The bill, which cuts taxes and Medicaid as well as eliminating the insurance mandate, was drafted without any Senate hearings or Democratic amendments. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is moving for a vote next week, despite uncertainty over whether there will be enough votes for the bill to pass.
The bill, and the secret proceedings around its drafting, have drawn strong opposition from Democrats and civil society. Senate Democrats used parliamentary procedures to tie up the Senate floor on Monday, hoping to draw attention to the secretive procedures of the bill’s drafting. After the bill was revealed, a group of protesters with disabilities held a demonstration at the office of Senator McConnell before being forcibly removed by police.
This week President Trump held a rally with supporters in Iowa, touting victory after Republicans won in a Georgia special Congressional election. Trump has made several recent statements denouncing Robert Mueller’s role as special counsel in the Justice Department’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential election. He claimed the relationship between Mueller and former FBI director James Comey is “very bothersome.” Mueller served as the director of the FBI from 2001 to 2013 before Comey assumed his duties.
Romania’s parliament gave prime minister Sorin Grindeanu a no-confidence vote on Wednesday, making him and his government step down after only six months in office. The Social Democrat party, which has a majority in parliament, was initially the party to propose the Grindeanu government. However, it withdrew its support for the government last week. Some Social Democrats say they have been unhappy with Grindeanu’s failure to uphold his ambitious governing program, while Grindeanu and opposition members accuse Dragnea, the Social Democrat leader, of changing the government in an attempt to hold power into his hands. Discussions around appointing a new prime minister are to be held next week.
Another important development in Romania is the recent launch of the new “Respect” campaign, meant to promote democracy and human rights. It is now fighting the “Coalition for Family”, an organization that wants to change the country’s constitution in order for the document to specifically mention that families are based on the union between a man and a woman, thus excluding any possibility for recognizing LGBTQ families. The “Coalition for Family” gathered three million signatures for a referendum on the constitution, yet it has faced serious backlash from national and international LGBT groups. The “Respect” platform, supported by almost 100 Romanian organizations, asks politicians not to approve this referendum.
In the northwestern reigion of Idlib, Syrians from the village of Ma’art al-Nu’man have been protesting the actions of Hayat Tahrir a-Sham (HTS), formerly Al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch known as al-Nusra. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels have controlled this small village of just over 80,000 since late 2012, but have seen their authority begun to wane owing to the growing power of the HST as well as to increasing in-fighting amongst the rebels. Posters read such things as “The People Are Stronger Than You” and “You cannot humiliate what Bash Al-Assad couldn’t.”
Meanwhile, American forces recently shot down two planes, the former Syrian, and the latter Iranian. Fearing that the approaching drones might be headed for al-Nufra, the town in which the United States has educated any rebel leaders, the American government claims to have acted in self-defense, but many fret that such “incidents” may lead to a possible war between Iran and the United States as the power vacuum in Syria continues to grow.
UN investigations continue in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Violence escalated after president Joseph Kabila refused to step down after his term ended. On Thursday, a bomb exploded near a school, where three students were injured while taking their exams.
This week, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the top United Nations human rights official, spoke about the crisis in the DRC. Al-Hussein linked the government to the Bana Mura militia, which has been accused of mass killings and atrocities. He suspects the government has been arming the militia. The official called for an official investigation, independent from the DRC’s government, yet the Congolese authorities quickly rejected the idea. Furthermore, the Catholic Church in Congo recently confirmed over 3000 killings and the destruction of 20 villages, 10 of them by the Congolese army.
Unrest continues in Venezuela, as president Maduro recently promoted several military men to be part of his cabinet. Among them are general Antonio Benavides, previously sanctioned by the US for human rights abuses, and General Carlos Osorio, who has been accused of trafficking hard-to-find food. The generals will replace some previous members of the cabinet, who will be running for a special assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution. The election for the special constitutional assembly, however, has been heavily criticized by the opposition, who says it favours Maduro and his party. Others oppose the rewriting of the constitution in principle.
As a response to the unrest, the OAS (Organization of American States) has been considering adopting a declaration to condemn Venezuela for its abuses. So far, however, the declaration has not passed, despite being heavily backed by the US and Mexico.
Focusing on the people of Venezuela protesting on the streets, several news sources have featured the works of artist Oscar Olivares, who started making digital paintings depicting the situation in Venezuela. It is said that Olivares, initially inspired by the death of a childhood friend in the protests, has become an “icon” for the protesters.
One of Zimbabwe’s principle opposition parties, the National People’s Party (NPP) experienced a significant setback on Wednesday when it was announced that several of its high profile officials had resigned. Bekezela Maduma Fuzwayo, previously the Matabeleland South interim chairperson said that he desired to “concentrate on my studies,” but many party officials paint a different story, pointing towards increased factionalism and tribalism within the party. As a result, it is believed that the NPP’s bargaining power to form a coalition with other opposition parties will be weakened.
In turn, President Mugabe and his party ZANU-PF are reported to have been using death threats and other such heavy-handed tactics as a means of encouraging Zimbabweans to attend his rallies.
Meanwhile, in an act of non-violent resistance, journalists Wisdom Mudzungairi and Everson Mushava have refused to testify in the case against fellow journalist Godfrey Tsenengamu who criticized First Lady Grace Mugabe earlier this year. The journalists pointed to “journalistic privilege and the constitutionally protected freedom of expression and freedom of the media, which protects the confidentiality of journalists’ sources of information.” According to the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights), the case against Tsenengamu represents a clear case of censure.
On an equally positive front, Heal Zimbabwe (HZT) worked alongside Bare High School to organize a Sports for Peace Tournament last Saturday, 17th June. With over 300 people in attendance, organizers hoped encourage their community to uphold peace in the run up to the election in 2018. 201 participants signed an HZT pledge worded to this effect.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Hun Sen lifted an order exiling Sam Rainsy, the former opposition leader who previously served as the President of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). It remains uncertain whether Mr. Rainsy will be imprisoned upon his return; without a royal pardon, the likelihood of arrest appears high in the face of numerous convictions amassed against him for criticizing the government and alleging the state had ordered the assassinations of political analyst Kem Ley.
The local (commune) elections on June 4 led to a narrow victory for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party, but the process was criticized by Human Rights Watch as neither free or fair due to threats to free speech and imprisonment of political opponents. Nevertheless, the CNRP garnered almost half of the votes, signalling the possibility of strong competition in the 2018 Parliamentary elections. Mr. Rainsy has said he will run for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s position in next year’s elections.
Nine former African presidents and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan have warned that the ongoing political crisis in the DRC stemming from President Joseph Kabila’s refusal to step down at the end of his constitutional mandate and the failure to organize an election to replace him puts the country’s future in “grave danger.” A December agreement between Kabila’s ruling coalition and opposition leaders requires that an election be held before the end of the year, however it appears increasingly unlikely that one will take place in the face of significant delays in voter registration and mobilizing financing.
The DRC is also facing a health crisis, as it was reported this week that two outbreaks of vaccine-derived polio, which occurs in areas with low immunization rates and is exacerbated in communities with poor sanitation, have been identified in the country. At least four cases of the disease have been identified, and the World Health Organization has warned that there is a high risk that the virus could spread.
A new report by Amnesty International criticizes treatment of asylum seekers by Mexico and the United States after the Trump administration enacted stricter immigration measures with the Executive Order on Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements on January 25, 2017. The report, based on extensive field research on the US-Mexican border since February 2017, cites the endangerment of asylum seekers trying to cross the Mexican border into the United States.
The report claims that people fleeing violence in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala are being turned away or held in overcrowded detention centers without the option to claim asylum, and are often turned back to Mexico, which in turn deports them back to their countries of origin – a violation of international law. Amnesty International’s Americas Director, Erika Guevara-Rosas, stated that the United States and Mexico are “partners in crime” in the push-backs, which Guevara-Rosas deemed a “burgeoning human rights catastrophe.”
Humanitarian agencies and human rights organizations are growing increasingly concerned after a UN panel noted that the intensifying airstrikes by the American-led coalition against Islamic State targets in Syria have killed hundreds of civilians in and around Raqqa, and have displaced 160,000 people. Focusing on American military conduct for the first time since the conflict in Syria began, the panel stated that the intensification of airstrikes in the campaign to retake Raqqa has taken a remarkable civilian toll, and resulted in a “staggering loss of civilian life.” Groups monitoring the conflict’s effect on civilians have voiced their increasing concern over these developments, which was further underscored last week by reports that coalition forces had used munitions containing white phosphorous, which is banned in populated areas under international law.
Protesters set fire to the Supreme Court in Venezuela on Monday, continuing three months of unrest throughout Venezuela. The violence broke out after the Supreme Court voted to reject a measure to prevent President Nicolas Maduro from rewriting the country’s constitution by electing a constituent assembly. The legal challenge was brought by Luisa Ortega, a former ally of President Maduro who now opposes the regime; Ms. Ortega has also alleged that 13 judges appointed to the court in 2015 were put there illegally and should be replaced.
Last week, the head of Venezuela’s National Defence Council, Alexis López Ramírez, resigned over President Maduro’s plans to create the constituent assembly, citing disagreement with how the members would be selected and the way it was convened. In the face of triple-digit inflation, as well as dire shortages of food and medicine, protesters demand President Maduro’s resignation and are calling for elections.
The leader of Zimbabwe’s opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change – Tsvangirayi (MDC–T), is launching a challenge 93-year-old President Robert Mugabe in next year’s general election. This will be the fourth time Morgan Tzvangirai has challenged President Mugabe in a presidential election. Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party is campaigning to win over voters, particularly the youth, amid frustration at high unemployment, skyrocketing inflation, and a breakdown in social services.
Meanwhile, Zimbabwe’s Catholic Bishops have made an appeal to President Mugabe and other political leaders to reject violence and coercion in the 2018 general elections, and urged leaders to respect the Constitution of Zimbabwe, which deems that elections should be free and fair.
Officials say that the special counsel overseeing the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election has widened the probe to include whether President Trump attempted to obstruct justice. The obstruction of justice investigation into Trump, who previously was not personally under investigation, began days after FBI Director James Comey was fired on May 9. Comey testified last week before the Senate Intelligence Committee that he believed that he was fired “in some way, to change — or the endeavor was to change the way the Russia investigation was being conducted.” Officials have also stated that investigators are also now looking for evidence of possible financial crimes committed by Trump associates.
Also this week, 196 Democratic members of Congress agreed to file a lawsuit against Trump, alleging that he is in violation of the foreign emoluments clause of the Constitution, which restricts the acceptance of gifts and benefits from foreign leaders. The lawsuit, which is one of several that have been recently filed alleging constitutional violations stemming from Trump’s business ties, has so far drawn more congressional plaintiffs than any legal action previously taken against a president, although so far no Republicans have joined. The suit alleges that by retaining interests in his businesses, Trump may be receiving benefits from foreign states without Congressional approval.
Additionally, in a serious incident on Wednesday a lone gunman opened fire on members of the Republican congressional baseball team as they practiced for an annual charity game that takes place between Democratic and Republican members of Congress. Four people were injured, including House majority whip Steve Scalise, who is still in critical condition. Information is still coming out about the gunman,James Hodgkinson, who was killed in the shootout, but he appears to have had a record of domestic violence and was a fervent opponent of President Trump. The incident, although there was a great deal of unity and solidarity between Democrats and Republicans in its immediate aftermath, will likely set off a renewed debate over gun control policies, which tends to be contentious and highly partisan in the US.
Cambodia had its nation-wide commune elections on Sunday which resulted in significant gains for the opposition CNRP party, despite a general victory for the ruling CPP. CNRP received 46 percent of the vote, an increase from 30 percent in the last local elections in 2012; CPP received 51 percent, down from 62 percent in 2012.
The election had its fair share of problems, though they pale in comparison to the 2013 national elections which featured a riot in Phnom Penh, voters being chased from polling stations, widespread voter list problems, registration rates exceeding 125 percent in some provinces, and a yearlong opposition boycott of parliament over the results. This year, a handful of CNRP voters were temporarily detained, 12 election observers were illegally booted from their polling stations, and soldiers were seemingly stationed in communes with tight races in order to swat the vote in the ruling party’s favor. Still, the election proceedings earned praise from the UN for being successful.
On Friday the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called for an international investigation into widespread human rights violations and abuses committed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Kasai region. At least 42 mass graves have been found in the area, which since last August has been facing increased violence between militia and government forces, and the UN fears that the actual number of graves may be higher. Violence in the DRC has risen nationally since President Joseph Kabila decided to stay in power beyond the end of his mandate, which ended in December 2016.
In a political litmus test for Mexico’s upcoming 2018 national elections, a gubernatorial election for Mexico’s most populous state ended in victory for the ruling party. According to the preliminary results are being reported, the ruling PRI candidate won with 33.7 percent, and the left-wing MORENA candidate received 30.8 percent. MORENA leader and favorite candidate for 2018, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has already said that he would demand an examination of ballots, suggesting that PRI had engaged in fraud to win the election.
Another journalist has been shot this week, and is currently at an Acapulco hospital in serious condition. Marcela de Jesus Natalia is a journalist who hosts a program on an indigenous radio station in the state of Guerrero. She hadn’t previously had any known threats.
On Wednesday US-backed Kurdish and Arab forces entered the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa, beginning what could potentially be a months-long campaign to reclaim ISIS’s largest stronghold in Syria. If successful, the operation, led by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and backed by US airpower, would strip ISIS of its second largest city; a simultaneous campaign to retake the largest city is already underway in Mosul, Iraq.
The campaign to retake the city, where tens of thousands are thought to still be residing, has not been without controversy. Images and witness reports from Raqqa suggest that the US-led coalition may have used munitions loaded with white phosphorous, the use of which international law prohibits in populated areas. International law does not prohibit militaries from possessing and using white phosphorous outright, and many Western militaries utilize it to create smoke screens and conceal troop movements. However, it can also be used as an incendiary weapon, and is therefore banned in civilian areas. The spokesman for the taskforce would not discuss the use of specific munitions as a matter of policy, and the use of the substance in populated areas has yet to be confirmed.
On Thursday, former FBI Director James Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee in a highly anticipated congressional hearing. In his more than two hours of public testimony, Comey calmly leveled severe accusations and sharp criticisms at President Donald Trump. Under oath, Comey accused the president of firing him in an attempt to undermine the FBI’s investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia’s alleged efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election. Specifically, Comey stated that he believed that Trump directed him to drop an FBI probe into his former national security advisor Michael Flynn that was taking place as a part of the broader Russia investigation. Comey, who was fired by Trump on May 9, went on to state “It’s my judgment that I was fired because of the Russia investigation. I was fired, in some way, to change — or the endeavor was to change the way the Russia investigation was being conducted.” Critics of Donald Trump say that any such efforts by the president to hinder an FBI investigation could amount to obstruction of justice.
Trump, in response, branded Comey a “leaker” and a “liar,” but stated that he believed that the testimony afforded him “total and complete vindication.” Asked if he would be willing to say that under oath and give his version of events, Trump replied “100%.”
In the latest regional outcry regarding Venezuela’s ongoing crisis, Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski has called for international arbitration in Venezuela, but only after political prisoners are released. He said that no dialogue could be possible unless they were let out. He suggested that after this demand was met, then three friendly nations could join three more critical countries to provide international arbitration for the crisis.
Meanwhile, President Maduro has said that he will be writing to the Pope asking him to mediate the political conflict because he alleges that the opposition parties have been “training children for terrorist groups” because so many teenagers are participating in the protests. He has referred to the protesters as terrorist groups often in the past. This is seemingly a response to the death of a 17-year-old last week during protests in Caracas. Witnesses said he died after being hit in the chest by a tear-gas canister fired by police, but the administration is claiming he died from a “homemade explosive.” The Venezuelan chief prosecutor’s office has ordered an investigation into the matter. The death toll since the start of the protests in April has now surpassed 80.
President Robert Mugabe went on a speaking tour across Zimbabwe last week in an early campaign push for the 2018 elections, which came right after his week-long trip to Cancún for a conference on disaster risk reduction. Promptly after, in a move that raised many eyebrows, he left for New York for yet another summit, the UN summit on oceans. Being that Zimbabwe is a landlocked country, this trip seems to be less relevant than the one before. The 93-year-old president has received a great deal of criticism for his frequent overseas trips while his country continues to buckle under a cash shortage. Still, he and his ruling party are pushing ahead for the 2018 elections.
First Lady Grace Mugabe has meanwhile blasted NGOs working in Zimbabwe: “We are having a bumper harvest this year so there is no need for NGOs anymore. We don’t need them anymore because they always want to come here and disturb our politics.” President Mugabe has made these accusations to NGOs prior to all previous general elections. The organizations in question again denied the allegations of political meddling, noting that they work to provide aid to the country because of “the government’s incompetence and failure to feed [its] starving communities.”