Mr. Chavez and the Jews

In Venezuela, respect for minorities is all but hot air, photo: a•Andres/flickr

Merely a decade ago, close to 20,000 Jews called Venezuela their home. Yet in these past ten years, during President Hugo Chavez extended tenure, their number has dropped to less than 9,000. This exodus intensified between 2008-2010, with over 5,000 leaving the country, mostly heading to Miami in the US.

If someone were to rank the most embattled Jewish communities in the world today, the Jewish community of Venezuela would certainly be high on the list. Yet this has not always been the case. Venezuela’s Jewish community is among the oldest in South America, dating back to the middle of the 17th century, when groups of Marranos (Spanish and Portuguese descendants of baptized Jews, which secretly continued to adhere to Judaism) lived in Caracas and Maracaibo.

In the middle of the 19th century, the Jewish community in Venezuela became fully established, with a majority of the Jewish population descending from a continuous influx of European and North African immigrants. Most settled in and around the capital city of Caracas, comprising a tightly knit community converging around the Club Hebraica, a large complex in the eastern part of the city.

Europe’s Pariah People

One man in ten million, photo: Zsolt Bugarszki/flickr

With over 10 million members, the Roma (also called Romani) constitute today’s largest EU minority group. Scattered across a dozen countries, with their largest concentrated populations in Central and Eastern Europe, they have become Europe’s current pariah people.

In July of this year, French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced his government’s plans to deport thousands of Romanian and Bulgarian Roma migrants back to their home countries. Already in 2009, roughly 10,000 Roma were expelled from France, and around the same number has been driven out thus far this year. In Italy, where authorities already started to deal with the ‘Roma question’ back in 2008, large-scale evictions of Roma from settlements across the country are already taking place. In Milan alone, officials have expelled over 7,000 Roma over the past two years.

France and Italy are, however, not alone in evicting the Roma. Across Western Europe, politicians and public officials are tripping over themselves with declarations proclaiming that Roma as an ethnic group are dangerous and predisposed to crime and other antisocial behavior, and must therefore be removed from society as quickly as possible. In light of this, numerous Western European countries (namely Germany, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and the UK) have either already moved to expel the Roma, or intend to do so in the nearby future.

In Eastern Europe, meanwhile, where most Roma live, the situation has never been anything but hideous. Across the region, Roma communities are denied equal access to adequate housing, education, health, water and sanitation, and thus remain deprived of all prospects. In addition, anti-Roma violence remains a serious and, in many places even an increasing problem, exacerbated by the fact that most perpetrators of violence against Roma continue to act with impunity.

However, discrimination against the Roma is not a new phenomenon.

Keyword in Focus

Keyword in Focus: Gay Rights

Gay rights are human rights, photo: William Murphy/flickr

In the wake of an Ugandan newspaper publishing the names and pictures of the country’s “top homosexuals” recently (with an appalling banner reading ‘Hang them’ on the cover), gay rights across the world and particularly in Africa have become a topic of discussion once more. As many Ugandan homosexuals said in response to the publishing of what can only be described as a ‘hit list’, the situation had been much calmer and more stable prior to the publishing of this article and in the years before homosexuality had become a religiously and politically charged issue on the continent.

With well-documented involvement from western, especially American evangelical groups in stigmatizing and condemning homosexuality openly and vociferously, the space for maneuver for many African gays has become suffocatingly narrow. They are trapped between traditional norms that do not approve of homosexuality; attitudes that had simply lain dormant or been overlooked until recently, and a religiously conservative movement that has systematically stoked intolerance and hatred against gays.

Will the situation for the LGBT community only get worse or are we witnessing a mix of setbacks and progress worldwide, with true human rights respected in some places, while a wave of intolerance and prejudice hits others?

We hold an excellent set of resources on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights in the ISN Digital Library. Feel free to explore and let us know what you found particularly interesting. Here are some highlights:

  • An ETC paper on the LGBT community as an ‘easy target’
  • A News Article on the position of gays and lesbians in the military

Plus a host of excellent Links and Organizations.

The Exception as Rule: Protracted States of Emergency

State of Emergency, photo: Cold Storage/flickr

Declaring a state of emergency opens the door to an exceptional world, one in which government power is temporarily prioritized over individual rights. Unfortunately, many countries (see examples below) have made the exception a permanent rule.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) recognizes each state’s right to declare a state of emergency in times of public crisis that pose a direct threat to the nation. This allows the state to derogate from certain human rights obligations under the Covenant. Declaring a state of emergency grants governments exceptional powers, thus allowing them to curtail certain individual rights.

Although certain rights are non-derogable even at a time of national emergency – among others, the right to life, prohibition of torture, freedom from slavery, the right to recognition before the law – governments can limit the freedom of the press, deploy armed forces domestically, search homes without a warrant, confiscate private property, and arrest without charges.

In order to avoid governmental abuse, the ICCPR makes clear a state of emergency must be guided by certain principles. First, the crisis at hand must be of present and real danger to the state’s political or territorial existence. Second, it must be temporary, meaning that states can only declare a state of emergency for as long as the crisis is still present. And third, the state of emergency must be clearly declared and communicated both to the domestic population and to the international community.

Digital Rights Progress

Free Internet? courtesy of Nemo's great uncle/flickr

Digital Rights have long been recognized as crucial to development and growth. Having a right to an internet connection is a vital component of making the freedom of expression real and meaningful. Both rights are secured in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but the full implementation of these rights remains rare.

Access to digital resources online is also crucial to global knowledge transfers, from the north to the south. This was acknowledged in the Millennium Development Goals declaration in 2000 already, with a specific target in its 8th goal: “In cooperation with the private sector, make available the benefits of new technologies, especially information and communications.”

We are starting to see more and more initiatives by various countries to broaden this access, particularly broadband penetration. Finland recently declared broadband access a right. In practice this means that internet providers will have to extend the internet network in Finland to make sure that every citizen has access at a reasonable cost.