July 12th, marked the one year anniversary of the murder of leading political activist and government critic Kem Ley. Colleagues and friends Cambodians held memorial services in Phnom Penh and elsewhere to pay tribute to his courageous investigative journalism and service to truth. Other observers reiterated their concerns about the inadequacy of the criminal investigation and the suspect claims of Oeuth Ang, who was sentenced to life in prison for the murderer, that he acted alone. Phil Robertson, the head of Human Rights Watch- Asia, reports that at least 160 NGO’s from around the globe continue to demand that Cambodia establish an independent and impartial commission of inquiry, in line with the UN Principles of Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extralegal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions.
In a darkly ironic twist, on the very same date, the Cambodia government issued a new bill which prohibits political parties from being affiliated with convicted criminals, a move many observers have described as another covert attempt to stifle political opposition. Considering that many opposition members and outspoken critics of the government have already been convicted for breaking some of Cambodia´s more recent laws which curtail freedom of expression, the bill will surely impact the leadership of the opposition and its efficacy in the 2018 general election campaign.
Democratic Republic of the Congo
The DRC’s president, Joseph Kabila, might once be trying to prolong his mandate. Although elections were initially announced in December, his electoral commission now mentions that holding the elections in 2017 might “not be possible” due to voter registration, and that voting might be postponed for next year. Opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi responded that, with this declaration, Kabila “had declared war on the Congolese people”. The current president has been accused of violating the DRC’s constitution by being in power for more than two terms.
As the violent conflict within the country continues, the U.N. identified 38 more mass graves in Congo’s Kasai region, bringing the total to at least 80 such graves since the outbreak of the insurrection last August. The Congolese government blamed the Kamuina Nsapu militia for the graves, yet witnesses claim they saw army trucks dumping bodies in these graves. In an effort to help the people of Congo, the EU and Canada have recently announced that they will send more humanitarian aid to the region.
US and Russia have reached agreement on a cease-fire in southwest Syria, after a meeting between Trump and Putin in Hamburg. The agreement is open-ended, with no set end date. US officials have described it is as being part of a broader US effort to lower violence in Syria. After the cease-fire agreement started, U.N. officials have confirmed that the deal was “generally holding”.
The potential defeat of ISIS sparks more and more discussions about Syria’s political future. Last week, US-backed forces advanced significantly in Raqqa, ISIS self-proclaimed capital. Moreover, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights recently claimed that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been killed.
Meanwhile, Syria’s Central Bank announced the introduction of a new banknote- a 2000-pound bill (worth around $4), featuring the portrait of President Bashar al-Assad on it. The note is the highest denomination yet for the Syrian pound, as the value of the currency has dropped significantly during the war. Some have called putting al-Assad’s portrait on the bill a way of reasserting his power and the authority of the state.
Looking forward to the Presidential election in 2018, Mexico’s largest political party may consider supporting a candidate from outside its own ranks, according to the party’s President Enrique Ochoa. The Institutional Revolutionary Part or PRI will decide in August whether to use non-PRI candidates for the July 2018 election, a decision that will be taken in the national assembly. The move would seek to distance PRI from a number of governors and former governors who have been caught up in corruption allegations during the Presidency of Enrique Pena Nieto. The candidate they put forward will compete against the leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
Tuesday July 11th saw Maldives President Abdulla Yameen lose his majority in parliament after 10 lawmakers from his own party defected to the opposition, before presenting an impeachment motion against Yameen’s aly, Speaker of Parliament Abdulla Maseeh Mohamed. The opposition coalition now holds 45 seats in the 85-seat parliament. Many, including exiled former leader Mohamed Nasheed, are encouraging the President, who is hoping to campaign for a second five-year term in 2018, to resign.
Robert Mugabe’s health continues to decline, having made his third visit to Singapore this year on July 7th. Many are beginning to claim that Mugabe is “running the show from his hospital bed.” His wife, Grace Mugabe, has remarked that were he to die before the next election, she would have him run as a corpse. No doubt, this presents Zimbabwe’s political future as increasingly unclear.
On July 13th, police fired tear gas and water cannon on opposition supporters from the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Protestors gathered on the streets of Harare in response to supposed plans written by the country’s electoral committee to ensure a victory for Mugabe in the next election.
Leopoldo López, the most prominent political prisoner in Venezuela, was released on Saturday in an unexpected move by President Maduro’s government, in a possible sign that the Maduro regime is giving into pressure after 100 days of protests and riots in the streets. López was imprisoned for three years after a demonstration in the capital of Caracas left three people dead in February 2015. The Maduro government claimed López was suffering from health concerns and that his release was a humanitarian act, although López’s political supporters say this indicates a weakening of the Maduro regime after diplomatic isolation and months of popular unrest.
On Sunday, Venezuelans will vote on whether they support the government’s plan to elect a National Constituent Assembly to overhaul the 1999 constitution. President Maduro does not recognize the legitimacy of the referendum, and intends to move forward with the July 30 vote to elect the assembly, or ANC. The opposition hopes the vote will prove the popular opposition to the ANC and pressure Maduro to drop the plan altogether, although this seems unlikely.
Oscar Pérez, the former policeman who piloted the helicopter that attacked government buildings, was seen at a vigil on Thursday mourning those killed in anti-government demonstrations. Pérez called for a general strike against the government on July 18 – calling the day “zero hour” – and urged people in Venezuela to support a symbolic vote against the government’s proposed plan to rewrite the constitution.
On July 10th 80 Americans (32 men and 48 women) were arrested whilst protesting the new healthcare bill. Protestors had gathered in the hallways and offices of both the Senate and the House, chanting slogans such as “Trumpcare=death,” “Kill the bill, don’t kill me,” and “Hey hey, ho ho, Trumpcare has got to go.” It is estimated that if passed, the bill would result in an additional 22 million people losing insurance by 2026.
In other news, over a dozen states have refused to comply with Trump’s voter commission, the equivalent of 1/3 of the population. Besides the fact that the goals of the commission remain unclear, many states are hesitant to hand over sensitive voter data, which includes social security numbers and voter history since 2005.
It was also revealed that Donald Trump Jr. met with Russian officials during his father’s campaign less than a week before the Democratic National Committee hack that exposed several thousand emails. Emin Aglarov, whose father worked with Donald Trump in 2013 to organize the Moscow Ms. Universe pageant, brokered the meeting between Trump Jr. and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. Supposedly, Ms. Veselnitskaya had access to damaging information on Clinton, but Trump Jr. has claimed that the meeting concerned Russian adoption.
A helicopter attacked two government buildings in Caracas on June 28 using guns and grenades. The helicopter was piloted by Oscar Pérez, a former captain in the CICPC, Venezuela’s intelligence and investigative body. The Venezuelan government says the CIA and the US embassy are behind the attack, although they offer no evidence to prove the claims. Some opposition members in Parliament express suspicion that the Venezuelan government staged the incident to justify a crackdown on critics. The CICPC helicopter flew a banner reading “350 Libertad” in reference to article 350 of the Venezuelan constitution, which states that the Venezuelan people will not recognize any authority that opposes democracy and human rights.
Violent riots and anti-government demonstrations continue around the country. Roughly 68 businesses have been looted in the city of Maracay, and the headquarters of the PSUV governing party were also burned in the violence. At least four people have been killed and eight injured in Barquisimeto, west of Caracas, bringing the total number of casualties to at least 80 since the protests began in April. The Attorney General’s office announced it was investigating allegations of government raids and detentions. Opposition protesters, led by the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) are calling for early elections and an end to the government’s plan to rewrite the constitution.
On Sunday, President Maduro raised the country’s minimum wage by half, although given the falling value of the currency the new wage remains 17% lower since the last increase in May. The currency has fallen 99.7% since Maduro’s election in 2013, deepening the country’s economic and political crisis and leaving millions struggling to afford food.
As ISIS holds less and less territory in Syria and after two US attacks on Iranian-backed forces in the region, many wonder how the US’ implication and role in the war is changing, especially with regards to its relations with Russia. Meanwhile, on Sunday, a car filled with explosives blasted in Damascus killed at least eight people. Two other such cars were intercepted and stopped by the police.
Focusing on the people in Syria, a recent UN refugee agency report says more than 440,000 internally displaced Syrians and 31,000 of those who fled abroad have come back to their home country this year. The UN warns, however, that the conditions for safely returning “are not yet in place”. Moreover, apart from the war, some areas of Syria have become unsafe due to a sudden polio outbreak. Health officials are now trying to urgently vaccinate around 320,000 children after at least 22 were left paralysed because of the disease. Health workers might have to coordinate with ISIS and other extremist groups to carry out the vaccination work.
United States of America
On the 26th of June, the Supreme Court passed certain parts of President Trump’s Travel Ban in a 9-0 decision, albeit with certain restrictions on the extent of Presidential power over American borders. The enforced ban is presumed to be much more limited in scope than President Trump’s original executive order. The justices also specified that the order “may not be enforced against foreign nationals who have a credible claim of a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States.”
On the 28th of June, the office of the Vice-President announced that “a letter will be sent today to the 50 states and District of Columbia on behalf of the Commission requesting publicly available data from state voter rolls and feedback on how to improve election integrity.” Many states responded the day after, refusing to supply President Trump’s Election Integrity Commission with their full voter-roll data, which includes addresses, party affiliations and voting history since 2006. It is feared that such information might be used to pass disenfranchising legislation.
Finally, on Sunday July 2nd, dozens of protests were held across the United States pressuring Congress to impeach President Trump. Although there were protests in larger cities such as New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, but also in smaller cities such as Davenport, Iowa and Amarillo, Texas.
Mexico remains an unsafe place for journalists, after recent assassinations and alleged government spying on journalists’ and activists’ phones. This caused Wednesday’s “#sosprensa” protests, where journalists gathered in front of the Government to denounce the state of vulnerability of free press in the country. At the end of the protest, the participants visibly wrote “SOS PRENSA” on the ground, yet the local authorities quickly came to erase the message.
Last Monday, Zimbabwean political activist and founder of the “This Flag” movement, Ewan Mawarire, was briefly detained by the authorities after joining a peaceful student demonstration against university tuition hikes. Mawarire has repeatedly faced allegations of instigating violence and planning to subvert the government, which carry a maximum penalty of twenty years imprisonment. International human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, warn that the government is striving to criminalize Mawarire’s advocacy and silence him, all the more actively in light of the upcoming 2018 general election.
Zihindula Mukegwa, the former spokesman for President Joseph Kabila, said in a televised interview that the Kabila government will hold elections by the end of the year, blaming voter registration problems on the delay. His remarks contradict popular criticism of Kabila, who remains in power past the two term limit enshrined in the country’s constitution. Mukegwa states that Kabila is in fact abiding by the constitution by following a provision that allows the President to stay in power if another candidate is not elected. Opposition politician Martin Fayulu claims Kabila is manipulating the election process using similar tactics Mobutu used during his 32 years in power.
Seven in ten people in one survey oppose Kabila’s extension past the two term limit, although organized opposition to his rule remains divided. Over 40 people have died and hundreds have been arrested in the demonstrations, leading to criticism from human rights groups around the world.
Meanwhile, the WHO has declared an end to a two-month long Ebola outbreak in DRC. It is the 8th outbreak of Ebola in the country since 1976. Officials stressed the importance of strengthening the health system, especially in Bas-Uele province where the cases emerged, and cooperating with the government to ensure survivors have access to care and preventative education
More than two weeks after the country’s commune elections, there is no consensus between Hu Sun’s government, the major opposition party (CNRP), and a cluster of NGOs (which calls itself the Situation Room) regarding the fairness and legitimacy of the vote. Both the CNRP and the Situation Room agree that, while election day itself was without significant rates of fraud or voter intimidation, repression of opposition members, unequal representation in the media, and the overall political atmosphere in Cambodia precluded the elections from being “completely free and fair”.
In response, Prime Minister Hu Su has questioned the legality of the Situation Room, suggesting it violated NGO registration regulations and has sought to instigate another “color revolution”. On June 28th, the government initiated an investigation into the group, a move many observers describe as “another blow on Cambodia’s civic society”.
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.