Washington Week on Human Rights: May 31, 2016

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Yesterday at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, proceedings began in a pre-trial hearing for accused 9/11 terrorist Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four co-conspirators. The hearing will examine treatment of the detainees and is likely to include closed-door testimony from detainee Abu Zubaydah. Human Rights First is at Gitmo this week to monitor the proceedings. Last week, news reports indicated that the Obama Administration will soon transfer nearly two dozen detainees to approximately six countries. These detainees are among those who have been cleared for transfer by defense, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies. The remaining detainees who will not be transferred in the near term—a number not to exceed 60—would be relocated to one of thirteen stateside detention facilities, pending congressional approval. This would result in annual operating savings of up to $85 million compared to the cost of detention operations at Guantanamo. There are currently 80 detainees held at Guantanamo, which costs approximately $445 million per year to operate–about $5.5 million per detainee. The administration’s plan is in line with recommendations made in Human Rights First’s blueprint, “How to Close Guantanamo.” 

Global Refuge Crisis

Last week, at least 880 migrants and refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean died, making May one of the deadliest months for those fleeing via boat. Many speculate that the victims were being transported by smugglers. The U.N. Refugee Agency notes that since the beginning of this year at least 2,510 migrants and refugees have died in shipwrecks and capsizes. The news comes as World Refugee Awareness Month begins on June 1 and as the world struggles to assist the greatest number of refugees since World War II. While the United States has a long history of leadership in providing refuge to victims of religious, political, ethnic, and other forms of persecution, its response to the Syrian refugee crisis has fallen short. In Fiscal Year 2016, the president determined the United States would resettle 85,000 refugees, including “at least 10,000” Syrian refugees—about two percent of the Syrian refugees in need of resettlement. As of the end of April, seven months into the fiscal year, the United States had resettled only 1,736 Syrian refugees, only 17 percent of the 10,000 Syrian refugees the U.S. government has pledged to resettle. In April, Human Rights First released a new report detailing the slow progress the Obama Administration has made toward its goal of resettling at least 10,000 Syrian refugees by September 30, 2016. Human Rights First notes that in order to advance U.S. national security interests and continue to provide global leadership on refugee resettlement, the United States should significantly increase the number of Syrian refugees it plans to resettle in FY 2017.


June 1 marks the beginning of Pride Month, a time to celebrate the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people around the world and to recommit to supporting international LGBT activists on the front lines of defending these rights. During the past year, LGBT communities around the world have continued to face violence and persecution. For example, lawmakers in Kyrgyzstan continue to consider an anti-LGBT propaganda law that emulates Russia’s infamous law banning “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” but would allow for more severe penalties, including the possibility of jail time. Though that legislation and other activities seeking to diminish the rights of LGBT men and women persist, the past year has also seen a number of hard-fought victories for equality. For the duration of Pride Month, Human Rights First will showcase the stories of brave human rights defenders and their efforts to celebrate LGBT communities and exercise their right to live openly and freely.

Defense Authorization

This year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) fails to include a provision to increase the number of Afghan Special Immigrant Visas (SIV), undermining efforts to afford essential protections to vulnerable individuals who aided the United States in Afghanistan. The Afghan SIV program allows Afghans who provided crucial support to the U.S. armed forces and other U.S. government agencies operating in Afghanistan to be resettled in the United States. Many linguists, contractors, and security guards who worked with the U.S. military have found protection by using the visas to escape well-documented threats from the Taliban and other groups hostile to the United States. Currently, 10,000 Afghan applicants are waiting in the SIV application backlog, and the State Department has fewer than 4,000 visas remaining—a shortfall of more than 6,000 visas. The State Department requested 4,000 additional visas so that it can continue processing applications and issuing visas. Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), John McCain (R-AZ), Jack Reed (D-RI) and Thom Tillis (R-NC) introduced an amendment last week to provide 4,000 additional Afghan Special Immigrant Visas for the program. The Senate will take up NDAA and its amendments when it returns on Monday, June 6th.
Take action and tell the Senate to keep the door open for Afghan interpreters.

Quote of the Week:

“At a time when many conflicts seem intractable, seem as if they will never end, we have shown that hearts can change and that a different future is possible when we refuse to be prisoners of the past.  We’ve shown how peace can be better than war.  We’ve shown that progress and human dignity is best advanced by cooperation and not conflict.

“When there is freedom of expression and freedom of speech, and when people can share ideas and access the Internet and social media without restriction, that fuels the innovation economies need to thrive.  That’s where new ideas happen.

“When there is freedom of religion, it not only allows people to fully express the love and compassion that are at the heart of all great religions, but it allows faith groups to serve their communities through schools and hospitals, and care for the poor and the vulnerable.  And when there is freedom of assembly — when citizens are free to organize in civil society — then countries can better address challenges that government sometimes cannot solve by itself.  So it is my view that upholding these rights is not a threat to stability, but actually reinforces stability and is the foundation of progress. ”

-President Obama’s Address to the People of Vietnam, May 24, 2016

We’re Reading

ABC News reports on the efforts of Chase Millsap, a U.S. veteran who served three combat tours in Iraq, to gain asylum for his friend, an Iraqi officer that served alongside him. 

The Washington Times reports on a record day for Syrian refugee approvals, a hopeful sign that the State Department is ramping up efforts to reach a goal of settling 10,000 by the end of FY2016.

After a recent delivery of military vehicles to Egypt, The Washington Post argues that all future arms support to the Middle East nation should be contingent on a public statement by President Sissithat the United States is not the enemy. 

The Associated Press reports that a Bahraini appeals court handed down a verdict doubling the prison sentence for the primary Shiite opposition leader in the country. While The Guardian covers today’s release of Zainab al-Khawaja and her toddler son from prison.

We’re Listening to:

NPR‘s Renee Montagne discusses the current global refugee crisis, speaking with Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank.

We’re Watching

Last week, Human Rights First released a new video entitled, “Shandra’s Story: Surviving Modern Slavery,” telling the story of Shandra, a survivor of human trafficking who now works to provide other survivors with mentorship, empowerment, direct services, and skills training. The video helped launch our new page, Understanding Modern Slavery.

Around Town

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Middle East Institute will hold a discussion entitled, “The Rise of Gulf Arab Cities.”  The discussion will feature Sultan Sood Al Qassemi, columnist based in the UAE; and David Rothkopf, CEO and editor of FP Group. 2:00 PM, Service Employees International Union, 1800 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington, D.C.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Woodrow Wilson Center Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies will hold a discussion entitled, “The Role of Media in Russian Democracy.” The discussion will feature Nataliya Rostova, visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. 10:00 AM, WWC, One Woodrow Wilson Plaza, Ronald Reagan Building, 1300 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Fifth Floor, Auditorium, Washington, D.C.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The United States Institute of Peace and Oxfam America will hold a discussion entitled, “A World on Fire: Strengthening Humanitarian Response: After Istanbul, Next Steps Toward UN Forums,” focusing on migrants and refugees. The discussion will feature Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration Anne Richard; USAID Acting Assistant Administrator Thomas Staal; Elizabeth Ferris, research professor at Georgetown University; Ray Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America; Fadi Hallisso, CEO and co-founder of Basmeh and Zeitooneh; Kimi Ghattas, journalist at the BBC; and Nancy Lindborg, president of USIP. 9:30 AM, USIP, 2301 Constitution Ave NW, Washington, D.C.


Published on May 31, 2016


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