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worse than you thought

'crucifixion' of beheaded bodies, saudi arabia
note:: this was supposed to be up on wednesday, because, really, it's a "worldwide wednesdays" post. but i couldn't finish it wednesday. nor could i finish it thursday. some things are just too heavy to bear all at once and, with a number of other things that have been going on in the last few days, this post was one i needed to take slowly. 

hearing all the bad news from around the world, it's easy to think that there are certain countries that are just far worse than all the others. and indeed, there are. the problem is that we aren't hearing about a lot of them. so today, just to make us feel that much worse about the state of the world, but also as a reminder of where we should give some of our attention, even if these stories are not in the news.

first off, if you think you can handle it, i highly recommend getting your hands [or your eyes, since it's available as a free digital download] on the human rights watch annual report. it's illuminating, however, at 660 pages, it's also likely to be the most depressing thing you'll read until they release next year's report. [and, yes, if you want to know, i am in the process of reading the entire thing. because i'm in a chipper mood today and that makes me uncomfortable.]

if the hrw report isn't enough to kill off your hope for the world entirely, of course, you could dig into the annual report of amnesty international. there is, of course, significant overlap between the two, but both organisations have different resources and isn't it always better to get back up if you're accusing people of war crimes or crimes against humanity?

for this post, i've decided to focus on countries and groups that don't tend to get as much attention in the north american press. [i don't think that they get a lot of attention from the mainstream press in europe, either, although i could be wrong about that.] so while syria might rank at the top [or bottom] of the list, i think that people are aware enough of conditions there that it's broadly understood it is a problem area. same for iraq and afghanistan, although i do recommend reading the sections on those countries, because what we see in the media doesn't give a detailed picture of what is actually going on in any of those places.

there are three broad ways in which governments can participate in human rights violations. all of them are deeply problematic, but some of them are easier to spot, and tend to get noticed more. the first, of course, is to participate in those violations themselves through torture, imprisonment on spurious grounds, forced displacement, etc. the second is to simply turn a blind eye to non-governmental agents who commit atrocities, often because it is not in their interests to put a stop to them. the third is to use the law as a cudgel, restricting free expression in various forms, passing regulations that are directed at a particular group, etc. that last one is especially insidious, because it can go unnoticed, or be presented as a reasonable response to security threats. among the worst of the worst, there are nations where one or all of these are present.

china :: it seems like china has made these lists forever and that's basically because they have. perhaps no country in the world is as adept at manipulating its own laws and using its own police forces to crush dissent and, despite increased trade, greater public scrutiny and a constant stream of criticism, the chinese government remains unrepentant about their record.

aside from actual political dissent groups, the government's favourite targets are journalists and publishers. the committee to protect journalists estimates that one quarter of the journalists imprisoned in the entire world are in china, which is a record that no one should be proud of. charges against those arrested include things like "picking fights and stirring up trouble" and while the weirdness of that statement might be due in part to the difficulties in translation, it's safe to say that the definitions of those terms are sufficiently vague to give the government room to apply it to cases as it sees fit.

also worrisome is the fact that the chinese government has started to flex its muscles in previously liberal hong kong. only a month ago, they convicted two journalist-publishers there after they exported magazines to mainland provinces. the beijing government wants to flex its muscles to bring hong kong in line and to stop its liberal influence from spreading to other regions. unfortunately, the chilling seems to be quite effective, as more and more young chinese turn away from journalism, in large measure because of the restrictions placed on them.

of course, china doesn't limit its state repression to journalists. in recent years, it's tightened the vise on human rights lawyers [hence depriving others of proper representation] and even on labour rights activists [a group one would think would get a sympathetic ear from a communist government].

but surely, you say, as china becomes more open to the rest of the world and seeks to expand its financial ties and influence, that record must be improving? well, no. in fact, as far as anyone can tell, things are getting worse since the election of president xi jinping in 2012. his administration has extended internet controls, jailed those who've spoken out against him, extracted suspect confessions after interrogations that can last months, and limited public discussion not just of political topics, but of cultural issues like the acceptance/ persecution of ethnic or religious minorities and homosexuals. nor do any governments seem inclined to push their advantage with china, lest they be denied access to the world's most lucrative new market.

so the good news is that there is a greater spotlight on china, so that their repression is more obvious than ever. the bad news is that their government doesn't care and neither does anyone else's.

sudan and somalia :: i already posted about this a little while ago, so i won't go into a lot of detail but i figured it was worth mentioning because, for the level of violence and repression, the situation gets very little attention. in fact, sudan and somalia rate worse than afghanistan and iraq when it comes to human rights violations. that should give some perspective on exactly how bad things are.

democratic republic of congo :: conflict has been rife in central africa for decades, fueled by cultural/ tribal rivalries that have been exacerbated in the supposedly post-colonial era. once the heart of the area known as the belgian congo [and the setting for joseph conrad's heart of darkness], this country was the sight of horrific violence and colonialist genocide before abruptly gaining its independence, which happened before the infrastructure to make the country viable had been put in place. no sooner had the new nation of zaire elected their first modern leader, then he was overthrown and murdered in a coup backed by the u.s. and its cold war allies.

the man installed as his replacement, joseph mobutu, better known as mobutu sese seko, proved to be as ruthless as the belgians, engaging in campaigns of ethnic cleansing and maintaining single-party rule until the end of the cold war signalled the end of western support for dictators of his ilk. having previously been the united states' favoured son in central africa, when mobutu sheltered rwandan hutu leaders responsible for the country's 1994 genocide, the united states quietly allowed forces from rwanda and uganda to invade the drc and remove their former golden boy from power. [don't attribute that to a realisation on the part of america that their support of him had been wrong; like manuel noriega before him, mobutu had outlived his usefulness and become an embarrassment.]

sadly, even after mobutu fled the country and was replaced by insurgent leader laurent kabila, things remained contentious and highly unstable, with half a dozen surrounding countries having been drawn into ongoing conflicts between the government [now headed by laurent kabila's son, joseph] and various rebel factions. the latest flare-up of tensions came in 2015, when joseph kabila announced his intention to seek a [constitutionally prohibited] third presidential term.

it's hard to take in the scale of horror in the drc. in recent years, it's been that as many as 45,000 people were being killed every month. there are as many as half a million rapes per year. thousands of people in lubumbashi were forcibly evicted from their land by corporate interests working on behalf of the belgian groupe forrest international and have, to date, been unable to obtain remuneration through the court system. indeed, international corporations have been complicit in some of the worst child labour violations in the world in their quest for cobalt [used in large numbers of electronic devices].

the bottom line here seems to be that the democratic republic of congo has been the victim of its own abundance of resources; the lure of control of them has proven overwhelming for those within the country [and sometimes from adjacent countries] while plundering and interference from outside has entrenched misery for over a century.

saudi arabia and yemen :: these two have become intertwined in recent years, as the dominant nation on the arabian peninsula has lead efforts to clamp down on a post-arab spring rebellion in neighbouring yemen. while not exactly loved in the western world, saudi arabia has the reputation for being one of the more stable, reasonable powers in a region that seems in danger of destroying itself. as it turns out that that conception has more to do with the fact that we want to make ourselves feel better about buying oil from them, because saudi arabia's record on human rights is atrocious. what constitutes atrocious? well, it's never a good sign when a global humanitarian organisation recommends you be suspended from the united nations human rights council.

the recommendation stems from the fact that saudi arabia has gotten a little overeager in its attacks on the houthi rebels in yemen, bombing civilian targets like mosques. human rights watch also pointed out that airstrikes seemed to be punitively hitting businesses, threatening yemen's economic viability no matter what government is in charge, and potentially exposing the country to foreign control if they are forced to seek international support. an attack on a market in march of this year, for instance, left nearly a hundred people dead, a quarter of those children, while it "may have" killed ten rebels.

of course, one could argue that the saudis aren't doing anything worse abroad than they are at home. their record on women's rights is atrocious; aside from the infamous law that prohibits women from driving [authorities are considering a change that would allow women over 30 to drive earlier than 8pm, provided they wore no makeup], only 15% of women work outside the home and the right to vote in even local elections was only granted them in december 2015.

things are even worse for the lgbtq community. the government supports execution for homosexual activity and is considering amending the law to allow for the execution of those who come out online.

the use of capital punishment has not merely continued, but increased over the last several years. as of the end of july, saudi arabia has executed more than a hundred people in 2016, well on track to 'besting' last year's total of 158. [although, to be fair, 47 of this year's executions took place on one day, january 2nd.] it's alleged that confessions to capital crimes are often obtained through beatings, sleep deprivation, and isolation.

most people would assume that the reason saudi arabia's miserable behavior doesn't get reported is because so many countries are dependent on them for oil. certainly, that's part of the problem, but an even larger part may be that western arms manufacturers are doing big business selling the country weapons that have a nasty habit of turning up at the sites of civilian bombings. that market attack mentioned earlier? carried out using american bombs. the united kingdom defended its sales of weapons to the saudis by claiming there was no evidence that they had carried out human rights violations in yemen. they were later forced to slink back and admit that they'd been wrong, or at least that they couldn't determine if violations had occurred. the same week that justin trudeau became the first prime minister to walk in toronto's pride parade, he agreed to honour a deal to sell light armoured vehicles to a country that beheads homosexuals.

in china, western powers are reluctant to press too hard about human rights because they don't want to jeopardize corporate access to their market. with saudi arabia, the connection is much more direct: businesses in canada, the u.s. and the u.k., among others, make good money from saudi arabia's illegal attacks on yemen.

i could go on. in fact, when amnesty international listed its worst human rights violations of 2015, sudan, somalia, and the democratic republic of congo didn't make the list, but hungary, israel, gambia and russia did. nor are such violations the purview of areas wracked by poverty and corruption. canada has routinely been criticized for its treatment of first nations people and the legacy of pain caused by forced removal of children, the violence and abuse of the schools they were sent to, and the disastrous state of even basic services to reserves now.

i'll spare you any more tales from the dark side for now, but if this post accomplishes anything other than making you head to the liquor cabinet to make a stiff drink, i hope it is this: there are many, many things that are wrong with this world and many people suffer horribly so that we can enjoy comforts that would be unimaginable to them. the task of improvement is overwhelming when taken as a whole, but if many people make an effort to understand individual problems and to ask questions of the people they elect and the people they support through their spending, the scope of the problem will start to dwindle. 


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