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whlw: no. 289

January 10 – 16, 2022

Hey, this is Sham, your very own news curator. I'm still replying to all of you <3 Thank you so much for your patience. This week, I'm focusing on three big news stories that show how global and very-connected our challenges and solutions are. Like
  • The historic trial of Syria's Anwar R in Germany
  • Migrant workers in Lebanon want to go home to Kenya
  • Hundreds of migrants from Honduras march towards United States
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Now without further ado, here's what happened last week,

what happened last week

We sought justice for at least 27 people who were murdered in Syria some ten years ago – and the trial took place in Germany
Refresher: A lot of crimes have been committed since the beginning of the so-called Arab Spring; a lot of them have been committed by the Syrian government and President Bashar al-Assad. Ever since, those who suffered and managed to escape are (still) seeking justice in courts all around the world, especially Germany, Austria, Sweden and Norway

A court in Koblenz, Germany convicted a man of murder and torture which he committed in Syria some 10 years ago. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Why this matters: This was the first time Syrian victims had the chance to face in court someone from the Assad government who had committed crimes against them. (Mostly) thanks to Syrian survivors, lawyers and activists, victims spoke in court as witnesses, ‘this is a milestone but still just one step on the road to full accountability.‘

Tell me more about this man
Anwar R is 58 years old. Ten years ago, around 2011/12, he was head of investigations in the Branch 251 of Syria's General Intelligence Directorate; a prison famously known as Al-Khatib, one of the cruelest in the country. Anwar R. is convicted on a lot of horrible charges as the court believed and proved that he is responsible for the murder of (at least) 27 people as the result of his position of authority. During his time at Branch 251, at least 4,000 people were imprisoned. A lot them were tortured and sexually assaulted. Anwar R’s lawyers say, (I rephrase) ‘he defected from the regime in 2012; never approved torture, even punished soldiers for abusing prisoners. Plus: An employee of a criminal regime cannot just pick up the phone and yell injustice!.

But he has a Syrian passport and committed those crimes in Syria. How can he be convicted in Germany?
Let me introduce you to the very fancy principle of ‘universal jurisdiction,’ which is (my favorite) part of German law. Other countries, like Sweden, have similar (they call them) expansive laws. ‘Universal jurisdiction’ basically allows for the prosecution of really, really, really, really horrible crimes such as genocide or war crimes in other countries. I say basically because, in practice, things work a bit differently as it is up to prosecutors whether to open a case or not. Some cases do get shut down when it is not in Germany’s interest.
  • For example: When four Iraqis wanted to open a case against the former defense secretary of the United States, Donald H. Rumsfeld (and others) because of what the U.S. military did/allowed to happen at Guantánamo Bay and the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, it was quickly dismissed. But trials of former Islamic State militants for genocide or the Syrian government for torture are low-risk politically.
Did you know that the German legal system is more and more becoming a place to seek justice for crimes committed far outside Germany's border? According to a 2020 report, more than twelve active cases related to crimes committed in Syria are taking place in Germany. 
What about the International Criminal Court? 
The International Criminal Court, short ICC, is (ironically) more limited in its scope. It can prosecute crimes only in countries that have said ‘yes’ to its jurisdiction, unless the U.N. Security Council insists that some people have to be prosecuted, or in the case of Syria, should not (back then, in 2014,
Russia and China were like, ‘na, let’s not get into this’). Not every country in the world is part of the ICC. For example, the United States, Israel, Syria and Saudi Arabia are not. This is why it’s good we have other systems, like the principle of ‘universal jurisdiction’, in place.

How did this trial came to be in the first place?
Oh, it was luck! Seven years ago, a Syrian human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni recognized Anwar R at his refugee center in Berlin. At first, he could not figure out how he knew him. It was only after another refugee told him that a regime official was in the facility that it all fell into place. In court, Bunni recounted how Anwar R was the man who had detained him outside his house in the Kafr Souseh neighborhood of Damascus in 2006, after which he spent five years in prison. After recognizing him in Berlin, Bunni filed a complaint with police, and Anwar R was eventually arrested in 2019. *cough this is a movie script cough*

How's the situation in Syria now?
Syrian activists living in Germany and abroad are like, ‘this is great and all but these atrocities continue in Syria today.‘ The German-Syrian human rights organization
Adopt a Revolution said in a statement that the German government should stop deportations to Syria and make sure that Anwar R’s superiors do not go unpunished. Wafa Ali Mustafa, a Syrian journalist and activist in Berlin, also highlights that 'this is just a beginning.' (FYI: Her father is still in prison in Syria. It's been more than 3000 days.)

Which sources did you use to write this piece, Sham?
I love that question. To write this summary for you, I read 
this article from January 13, 2022 by Loveday MorrisThe Washington Post's Berlin bureau chief and Vanessa Guinan-Bank, this other article by Morris from March 6, 2021 (where she explains in detail why German law can seek justice for far-away injustices), this overview of this specific case by European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, an independent, nonprofit non-governmental organization based in Berlin, Germany. I also wanted to know more about Al-Khatib and found this insightful piece from April 29, 2020 by Will Christou and Walid al Nofal for Syria Direct, an independent news organization based in Amman, Jordan. As always, whenever I thought you needed some additional links, I linked them right in the text.
We, Kenyan migrant workers, are fighting for our right to return home in Lebanon

Lebanon isn't doing great at the moment; we all know by now. Migrant workers are especially vulnerable to the country's economic crisis at the moment. Things got really bad after the explosion in Beirut’s port on August 4, 2020. As of last week, more than 20 people from Kenya, who came to the country as housemaids, are now camping in front of their consulate in the Lebanese capital to demand to be flown home.

Why this matters: Many of the country's some 250,000 migrant domestic workers (who mostly come from Ethiopia, the Philippines, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) are in a very precarious situation as the country's labour laws do not protect them; their status is controlled by the very restrictive the 'kafala (sponsorship) system' and the system ties the migrant workers' legal residency to their employer. Some workers' situations even look like modern slavery. Physical, verbal and sexual abuse has become common, too. The economic crisis the country is in at the moment has made things even worse for many of them. This is a (sadly) perfect example of how racism, capitalism and sexism can negatively impact someone all at the same time.

How bad is it?
Really bad. For example, last week
(trigger warning: physical abuse) this video went viral on social media that showed how an employer was dragging a female migrant domestic worker by her hair and hitting her, ignoring her screams and distress calls. And to make matters even worse: According to Lebanese media, the man was ultimately released as the worker did not file a complaint against him and said he did not mistreat her.

Why can't they just fly home?
Some of the women camping say they have been waiting months to leave but cannot because employment agencies (they hold their passports) and the consulate keep making things difficult for them, (I rephrase) 'They tell us to pay for the flights home ourselves but with what money? We don't even have money to send home and that is why we came to work here in the first place. We are fed up.'

The consulate is making things worse for them? 
Oh, yeah. The consulate is... famous, to say the least. In 2020,
Tamara Qiblawi did this investigative piece into Lebanon's Kenya consul, Sayed Chalouhi (you can already tell by the name that he is, interestingly, not a Kenyan citizen), for CNN and oh. my. God. I can assure you your blood is going to boil just reading all those accounts and complaints by Kenyan migrant workers against him and the consulate in general.

Who is responsible here?
Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher for Human Rights Watch, says: “The Lebanese government, countries of origin, and international humanitarian agencies should ensure that those workers who want to return home can do so." 

How's the situation in Lebanon for everybody else?
Not good. Human Rights Watch published its 764-page
World Report last week, and its analysis of Lebanon is really scary. The human rights situation in the country got way, way worse last year.

Give me the stats
More than 80 percent of the country’s residents did not have access to basic rights, according to the United Nations. The World Bank has described Lebanon’s crisis as a “deliberate depression,” meaning, it believes that Lebanese leaders are mismanaging the country on purpose, and ranked it among the top three most severe global financial crises since the mid-nineteenth century.

That sounds tough.
Yes. For marginalized communities, it's even worse. Refugees, people with disabilities, migrant workers, and LGBTQ people, have been impacted the most by what's happening.

Which sources did you use to write this piece, Sham?
This piece was written with the help of
this article by Matt Kynaston for Middle East Eye, Human Rights Watch World Report 2022, this report from June 2021 by several United Nations agencies on how migrant workers' rights are women's rights, an long-read investigative piece by Tamara Qiblawi for CNN and a video shared on Twitter by user @AdhamMG.

We, coming from Central America, are searching for a better life in the United States
On Saturday, more than 700 people from different countries such as Honduras, Haiti, Venezuela and Nicaragua marched (literally, they walked by foot) from the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula towards the United States, wanting to pass through Guatemala and Mexico.  Unfortunately, at the Guatemalan border, most were stopped and/or sent back by border agents.

Why this matters: The Central American migration 'crisis' and these so-called caravans aren't new; this caravan is just the first one of 2022. According to the United Nations, last year's number of migrants from Central America were the highest ever. Nearly one million people in the region left their homes due to a lack of opportunities (main factor), gangs, organized crime, all the dumb sh*t that the COVID-19 pandemic is responsible for, and climate change. Experts assume that there will be more people attempting to do the same thing this year.

Zoom out: This is a longer trend. According to
Migration Data Portal, the number of migrants from Central America has increased significantly over the past 30 years, by 137 per cent between 1990 and 2020, from 6.82 million to almost 16.2 million; with most coming from Honduras and Guatemala.

Why do they go by foot?
Most migrants believe that travelling in a group is safer and/or cheaper than trying to hire smugglers or trying on their own. This comes as no surprise because, in December 2021, 56 migrants died when a truck carrying more than a hundred foreigners overturned on a highway in southern Mexico. Most people just don't want to take that risk again.

What now?
The United States is thinking about throwing money at the problem; President Joe Biden has said 'yes' to some proposals for US$7 billion in aid to Guatemala,
El Salvador and Honduras in hopes that people will not want to emigrate any longer. Honduras' new (leftist-y) president, Xiomara Castro, will take office on January 27. She campaigned on a promise to improve the lives of Hondurans after 12 years of conservative governments created more economic and social problems than solutions.

Which sources did you use to write this piece, Sham?
A huge thank you goes out to Claudio Escalón who wrote up a really good
summary on January 16, 2022 for Associated Press/ABC News, a regional data overview by Migration Data Portal by the International Organization for Migration and a new report from November 2021 about the main causes of migration in this region, written by WFP, the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a nonpartisan think tank; and MIT’s Civic Data Design Lab. Check out this beautiful visualization website they created specifically for this report.

Nigeria: Twitter, which never really left, is now back. The government called off its ban after the social media company agreed to some conditions (like paying taxes there). A yay but also nay: The country lost US$1.45 billion as a result of the Twitter ban, according to this report by Quartz.

Cameroon: 24 team are battling it out for the prestige of winning the 33rd Africa Cup of Nations. The prize money: US$16.8 million.

Taiwan: A same-sex couple became the first in the country to legally adopt a child. Congrats Wang Chen-wei and Chen Chun-ju! Now, be the best parents Joujou could ever ask for. #nopressure

Uganda: The country is immunising eight million children against polio at the moment.

On a funny note
Cambodia is mourning the death of a rat named Magawa. He was trained at an early age to smell a chemical in the explosives and sniff them out in fields – with a lot of success. 

In a five-year international career, Magawa sniffed out more than 100 landmines and explosives in Cambodian fields.

He was even awarded a gold medal for this life-saving work.

Did you know that Cambodia is one of the world's most heavily landmined countries?
That's it from me for this week. If you want to stay connected on social media, follow me on Twitter or on Instagram.

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