Today is International Human Rights Day, and the 51st anniversary of the signing of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and debate over the meaning of human rights is being shaped these days by factors such as globalization, militarism and corporate exploitation.
Last week in Seattle, this debate took the center stage, as tens of thousands of activists from all over the world took over the streets of the city in protest of the World Trade Organization’s exclusion of human rights from its trade agenda.
The protesters particularly emphasized the WTO’s negative impact on the environment–as member countries and multinationals shaping the agenda seek to liberalize trade in areas such as fishing, logging and bioengineered crops, which they say would result in overfishing and deforestation, as well as other unforeseen consequences.
Yesterday, Amnesty International and the Sierra Club launched a joint project called “defending those who give the earth a voice” in defense of those who are being persecuted, beaten, harassed, imprisoned, tortured and murdered by governments that are often defending the interests of the multinational corporations.
On July 1992, Alexandr Nikitin, a nuclear engineer and former Soviet submarine captain, was charged for the eighth time with espionage for blowing the whistle on illegal nuclear waste dumping.
Nikitin co-authored a report called “The Russian Northern Fleet: Sources of Radioactive Contamination” which documented the problems of radioactive pollution from mothballed nuclear submarines. Since writing the report, human rights organizations say that he has been continuously harassed by the government.
While many people by now have heard of human rights abuses committed in the state of Chiapas, Mexico, by Mexican military, police and paramilitary forces acting on behalf of the state, few may know what is happening in the state of Guerrero. Perhaps the only point of reference in Guerrero for many people is its most famous city, Acapulco, a tourist resort for millions of Americans.
But the mountainous state of Guerrero is also wrought with state violence and guerrilla fighting. And for several years, national and transnational timber companies have been stripping the forests of the Sierra Madre, prompting many local peasants to hold peaceful protests to halt mass logging there. The logging has been sped up since the implementation of NAFTA, when Mexico repealed the constitutional rights to communal land ownership, eliminated restrictions on foreign ownership of property and relaxed environmental regulations.
The changes paved the way for one of the largest timber companies in the world, the Idaho-based Boise Cascade, to make a five year deal with the Mexican government in 1995, forcing local mills to dramatically increase their local production. Boise Cascade left Mexico last year.
According to Amnesty International and the Sierra Club, the peasants’ protests have been answered with extrajudicial executions, torture rape and arbitrary arrests by the Mexican military against members of the largely indigenous communities. An Amnesty report says that in June 1995, seventeen unarmed peasants were massacred in Guerrero by members of the state judicial police after they had gathered to protest the governor’s decision to resume logging in the area.
And on the morning of May 2, 1999, the Mexican military arrested anti-logging activists Rodolfo Montiel Flores and Teodoro Cabrera Garcia. Both are members of the Sierra de Petlatan and Cocuya de Catalan (OCESP), a local environmental organization that opposes logging in the region. The State Attorney’s office has called them “members of an ecological guerrilla organization.”
- Ellen Dorsey, coordinator of Amnesty International’s Environmental human rights program.
- Steve Mills, Sierra Club.
- Julia Tchernova, daughter of Alexandr Nikitin, a nuclear engineer and former Soviet submarine captain currently on trial for espionage for helping to expose Russia’s illegal dumping of nuclear waste.
- Digna Ochoa y Placido, coordinator of the Law Program of the “Human Rights Center Agustin Pro-Juarez,” (PRODH) an organization that has taken on the legal defense of Montiel and Cabrera. This past August, she was kidnapped for several hours and beaten, an act of intimidation against her for her activities in Guerrero.
- Bishop Zavala, from the Guerrero Province in Mexico.
- To obtain the report on “Defending Those Who Give the Earth a Voice.” www.amnesty-usa.org/justearth