Why Was Vietnam Elected to the UN Human Rights Council?
Last week, the UN elected serial human rights repressor Vietnam to its 47-seat Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Despite operating a single party communist regime—under which freedom of speech, right to protest, and many other liberties are routinely denied—Vietnam received the most votes from UN members out of the 14 newly elected countries (184 out of 192). Which is kind of ironic when you consider that voting is a practice not many of the country’s 90 million citizens are too familiar with.
The result is just as hypocritical as it is confusing; in the past, Vietnam’s Hanoi regime has stubbornly refused permission for the UNHRC to investigate allegations of human rights abuses. Over 50 dissidents have been imprisoned already this year for exercising their right to free speech, while others are routinely beaten, harassed, and intimidated. Uprisings from minorities and religious groups aren’t tolerated either, and are often crushed with completely unnecessary force. For example, a small group of Catholic protesters in Nghe An Province were recently met bya reported 3,000 police and soldiers wielding guns, batons, and grenades.
A Lawyer Fighting for Guantanamo’s Hunger Strikers
Clive Stafford Smith spent years working as a death-row lawyer in the South before becoming the legal director of the UK branch of Reprieve. Reprieve is a non-profit organization that has long campaigned for the rights of death-row prisoners. Since 2002 Reprieve has helped release prisoners from Guantanamo Bay—a campaign led by Stafford Smith himself.
Not only has Stafford Smith seen first hand the inside of the prison, he’s also maintained relationships with former detainees and built relationships with those currently on hunger strike. The hunger strike in Guantanamo began on February 11, 2013, and it’s gotten to a stage where some prisoners are being force fed, arguably in violation of their human rights.
We discuss Guantanamo and the future of drone warfare—which Reprieve condemns as “the death penalty without trial.”
(Source: Vice Magazine)
Meet the Lawyer Representing Osama bin Laden’s Son-in-Law
The term “polarizing figure” has become a lazy way to describe politicians, pundits, and media figures for essentially being very loud about mostly superficial things. But there are still a number of people around who fit the definition perfectly. Defense attorney Stanley Cohen is one of those people, capable of simultaneously evoking both absolute hatred and adoration from various parts of society. In fact, he’s the only lawyer I’ve ever come across who has a Haters section on his own website.
Stanley has accumulated a list of clients including Hamas, Hezbollah, the IRA, and al-Shabaab. Most recently, he’s added two new clients to his portfolio: Mercedes Haefer, who’s accused of taking part in cyberattacks against PayPal as part of the Anonymous collective, and Suleiman Abu Ghaith, Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law and a man accused of acts of terrorism against the United States.
Stanley has been referred to as “the terror lawyer” by conservative US pundit Sean Hannity, a “savage lawyer” by professional anti-Muslim subway activist Pamela Geller, and beat Noam Chomsky and Norman Finklestein to the coveted title of Worst of the Worst Self-Hating, Israel-Threatening Jews.” At the same time, Stanley has been hailed as something of a champion of free speech and antiestablishmentarianism by internet activists, and for defending the human rights of the disenfranchised.
Stanley was kind enough to let me interview him, and we spoke about his nemesis, his career, and getting hassled by the IDF.
Stanley with the American poet Peter Spagnuolo (left) and Yasser Arafat. Photo by Peter Spagnuolo via
VICE: Hi, Stanley. Thanks for taking the time to do this interview.
Stanley Cohen: Sure. So, it’s good to know that Eric Holder finally admitted that the US drone program killed four Americans.
Yeah. They already announced those missing four a while ago, so it’s like, “Gee, guys, did it take you two fucking years to figure this out?”
Eric Holder has become something of a nemesis to you, right?
Yeah—fuck Eric Holder. Eric Holder is no different from every other attorney general in recent history. We haven’t had an independent, dynamic, enlightened, historical US attorney general since Ramsey Clark. Basically every attorney general down the line has been swallowed up by the political agenda of whoever the president is, and it’s typically worse with the Democrats than even the Republicans. So yeah—Holder is a good team player, unlike, “I Have a Drone,”[Obama] who won’t admit it, but I’m sure goes to sleep at night believing he spoke to the creator during the day. Holder is just a petty hack.
In all your work in Israel or Palestine, have you ever actually had an encounter with the IDF?
Yeah, I’ve had encounters at crossings, I’ve had encounters at the Wailing Wall, I’ve had encounters where I was on an investigation and we were avoiding road blocks because I had to get into Tulkarem [the then-Hamas stronghold in the West Bank] at a time when it was basically locked down, so I got a local cab. It was kind of funny—the Palestinian didn’t know who I was, but when I said I needed to get to Tulkarem, he said I couldn’t get in. So I said, “Look, if you can get me there and get me out of there, there will be a big, healthy tip for you.”
A Mass Grave Raises Questions in a Libyan Ghost Town
At an army checkpoint on the way into the Libyan city of Misrata, an angry police officer with a pistol tucked into his pants demands I give a blood sample before locking me in a trailer. For what should be obvious reasons, this is a deeply paranoid town. When I eventually get into the center of the city, a protest against the Tawergha—a black-skinned tribe that used to live 25 miles away in the neighboring town of the same name—is in full swing. Worked-up young men tell me they’re ready to kill if they don’t get what they want.
The demonstrators want to know who I am. They want to know where I’ve come from and they want to know what I think about human rights. “So what do you think of this organization, Human Rights Watch (HRW)?” Hassan, a former English teacher, asks me.
I quietly assure Hassan that I view all human rights organizations as parasitic scum feeding on the aftermath of war and turning it into dirty money to be squirreled away into its employees’ snakeskin pockets. “They turn tragedy into PR stunts,” I tell him. “They have to transform victors into villains. That’s how they make their money. It’s sad. It’s perverse. But it’s all they know.”
Hassan nods slowly while other anti-Tawerghan protesters crowd around.
"Public opinion matters a great deal to us," he says, seriously. "During the revolution, Misrata withstood great pressures and made great sacrifices. It was a hero, a champion. But now people are starting to say that we are the bad guys. It’s not right."
The acid of toxic loathing that’s disfiguring Misrata’s public image is its intense hatred of the Tawergha tribe. It’s one of many tribal feuds that have festered since the revolution, further destabilizing the country at a time when the government is struggling to maintain any semblance of control. The feuds have also helped to ensure that violence, guns, and explosions continue to slosh around the country, staining the reputation of free, postrevolution Libya.
Yemen Wants Their Guantanamo Detainees Back
In some regards, the Yemeni government’s recent demand for the repatriation of Yemeni detainees who have been languishing in Guantanamo Bay for nearly a decade seemed to come out of left field, as did the prison hunger strikes that prompted it. President Obama’s 2008-election-campaign promises to close the notorious prison remain unfulfilled. According to recent polls, roughly 70 percent of Americans back the president’s decision to ignore his pledge and keep the prison open; polls taken at the start of his 2012 term put support for Guantanamo’s closure at a tepid 53 percent.
It’s a mistake, however, to say that the detainees have completely disappeared from most Yemenis’ minds. Of the 166 detainees who remain held without charge in Guantanamo Bay, 91 are Yemeni. It’s not quite as popular an issue as the drone strikes, but Yemenis still bring up Guantanamo on a nearly weekly basis. Many see the legal limbo of their fellow countrymen as a kind of tragicomic joke.
Recently in Sanaa, dozens of family members of Guantanamo detainees gathered at the American embassy to protest their internment.
“We demand that the American government release all detainees,” one father said, holding up a poster of his son. “The Yemeni government should do everything in its power to pressure them. Does Obama think that there’s a Yemeni exception when it comes to human rights?”
My Lunch with One of the World’s Top Human Rights Violators
I don’t ever remember getting a call. I don’t remember what they told us on the way. All I can remember is being hurried through to a back room of some regional Russian airport and waiting.
You’ll have to forgive me, a lot of this story is blurry. See, when a Russian offers you vodka, you must accept. Now, I’m not one to turn down a free drink regardless of international diplomacy, but in early 2007 I wasespecially eager to improve the image of Americans abroad (which, at the time, was “Jabba the Hut wearing a cowboy hat screeching ‘WHY DON’T YOU TALK ENGLISH.’”)
I asked our translator when we’d be arriving in Sochi, and he just smiled and shook his head. He said goodbye, wished me luck and safety, and left. My two lead producers, Eric— a charming little schmoozer whose habit of partying like he was still in college never got in the way of his work, and Debbie— a depressing, oblivious, lump who hyphenated her three syllable long maiden name to her husband’s three syllable long surname even though they fucking rhymed, were called over to a corner to talk with Vlad, our fixer. When shooting a show abroad, it pays to have a local on your team to navigate the sea of con-men wearing official uniforms — and Vlad, an imposing scowl of a man, almost certainly ex-KGB, was as good as you could get. The conversation was in heated whispers; short, angry bursts of air punctuated by flailing arm gestures.
Eric, visibly shaking off the news, approached me.
“The Russians gave away our fucking hotel rooms to the IOC. There’s not a goddamned room left in all of Sochi.”
I stuttered a bit before I could even get out a “Wait— what? Where are we—”
“Oh don’t worry,” he sneered, “they’ve got a plan for us. They’re sending us to Chechnya.”
Now, at this point, my only knowledge of Chechnya was a vague recollection of that Moscow theater hostage crisis— y’know, the one where like 50 Chechen rebels stormed a theater and the Russians unceremoniously gassed the shit out of everyone, killing like 150 people? Yeah, that one. As we made preparations to board the small twin-engine jet, I had no idea what we were getting into. For all I knew, Chechnya was a full-on fucking war-zone. Rumors started swirling that the last American to set in foot in Chechnya was sent home in a body bag, some AP reporter who got herself exploded at a soccer game. This was NOT what I signed up for. We weren’t here to shoot goddamned Restrepo, we were here to produce a fucking beauty pageant.
NYC Cops Will Arrest You for Carrying Condoms
The woman asked Officer Hill why he was stopping her.
She wore jean shorts and a tight red shirt and had stood outdoors for half an hour. She’d had a conversation with a passing man. When Officer Hill searched her bag, he found a condom and $1.25.
He arrested her for “loitering for the purpose of prostitution.” On the supporting deposition, he filled in the blanks for what she was wearing and how many condoms she had.
When I read over the deposition in the PROS Network’s Public Health Crisis (PDF), a study of how the NYPD arrests folks for carrying condoms, I thought of all the tight shirts I’d worn while idling outside on delicious spring days. I thought, She sounds like me. She sounds like my friends.
The NYPD will arrest you for carrying condoms, but that depends entirely on who you are. If you’re a middle-class white girl like me, you’re probably safe. But say you’re a sex worker or a queer kid kicked out of your home. Say you’re a trans woman out for dinner with your boyfriend. Maybe you’ve been arrested as a sex worker before. Maybe some quota-filling cop thinks you look like a whore.
Then you’re not safe at all.
Like most laughably cruel tricks of the justice system, you probably wouldn’t know that you could be arrested for carrying condoms until it happened to you. Monica Gonzalez is a nurse and a grandmother. In 2008, Officer Sean Spencer arrested her for prostitution while she was on the way to the ER with an asthma attack. The condom he found on her turned out to be imaginary. Gonzalez sued the city after the charges were dropped. But if the condom were real, why should she have even been arrested at all?
Bahrain’s PR Campaign Is Doomed to Fail
Hey, do you happen to be the proprietor of a family-run dictatorship in the Middle East? Tired of seeing stories about your country that are all, “Bahrain Princess Accused of Torture” and “Teenager Killed in Bahrain Anniversary Protests” and “The US Sold a Bunch of Weapons to Bahrain During Its Brutal Crackdown” and even “King of Bahrain Beats Up Arab Pop Star on a Yacht”? That sure is some bad “optics,” as they say in the business, and you probably can’t repair your reputation solely through articles titled “Bahrain a Land of tolerance…” in government-run media outlets, especially when that ellipsis might be an indication that even the “journalists” on your payroll can barely believe the shit they’re writing.
One way to solve your image problem would to welcome reform and stop committing gross human rights violations—ha, ha, just kidding! Clearly that’s not on the table, so you need to spend millions on PR and invite journalists to your brand new Formula 1 race track to see how lovely it is. According to Bahrain Watch, that’s what the country’s regime has been doing: It’s spent at least $32 million on image management since the start of the Arab Spring. I’m familiar with this because one of these companies threatened to sue the Guardianfor libel after I wrote an article with Nabeel Rajab which accused the Bahraini security forces of torturing employees at the F1 track. The PR firm did not question that torture had taken place, just that it had not happened on the premises of the F1 track. The libel threat was eventually withdrawn after a footnote was added to the article, but the point was made: We have money and we will bully and threaten you if you criticize us.
I Was Tortured as a Bahraini Political Prisoner
Thirty-six-year-old Bahraini journalist Ahmed Radhi was one of the roughly 500 prisoners of conscience who were detained following the citizen uprising against Bahrain’s government that began in February 2011. The Bahrain Center for Human Rights estimates that the country has the highest number of political prisoners per capita worldwide. Ahmed told us about the supposed reasons for his detention and the extremely poor conditions he faced while in prison.
Being a journalist in Bahrain comes with many risks. The press has no freedom to move and work independently without being harassed by the regime. I was investigated by the Ministry of Information for reporting on the US presence in Bahrain, but it was a May 13 phone interview with the BBC, during which I criticized a proposed union of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, that led to my recent arrest. Clearly, America and Saudi Arabia are topics that the Bahraini regime doesn’t want anyone to discuss.
I was arrested on May 16—police and masked civilians surrounded and broke into my father’s house at around 3:30 AM without a court order. I was interrogated from the moment I was arrested until I reached the Criminal Investigation Department building.
I Spoke to the Author of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill
David Bahati’s anti-homosexuality bill, which, depending on who you ask, may or may not included language that would sentence gay people to death and a bunch of other stuff that sets society back by about 200 years, is due to be tabled in Uganda’s Parliament any day now. This, obviously, is terrible news for gay people in Uganda and human rights in general.
Clare Byarugaba, co-coordinator of the Civil Society Coalition for Human Rights and Constituional Law (CSHRCL), is mentally exhausted with the “mind-fuck” of checking parliament’s order papers every day, and pessimistic. “Hope for gay rights in Uganda is like expecting corruption in Uganda to end. It will never end. The population is behind the bill and MPs go with the majority.”
I recently met up with Morgan, Bad Black, and Joseph, friends I made in August while covering the country’s first Gay Pride, and they’re terrified about the consequences of the bill passing. They have already been chased out of the one-room house they all shared in the Bwaise slum because the police believe that they’re “recruiting” young people into homosexuality. The issue of “recruitment” is one of the Ugandan government’s principal concerns, with David Bahati telling Clare that he believes homosexuality is an addiction and that people, particularly children, are lured into it.
It took David two weeks to get back to me, but the day before I left Uganda, he granted me an interview.
VICE: Hi David. Can you run me through this bill?
David Bahati: The bill basically has four components. The first component is to outlaw homosexuality. The second component is about the emerging issues within homosexuality we’ve seen over time, including the promotion of it. The bill also concentrates on the inducement of children. There’s no law that stops same-sex marriage, so we want to outlaw and prohibit it and see rehabilitation and counselling for the victims of this grave, evil practice.
Has the death penalty been taken out?
Yes. [NB: according to Clare Byarugaba / CSCHRCL the bill that will be tabled still has the death penalty in.]
What evidence has been taken to the Legal Affairs Committee that people are recruiting children into homosexuality?
The committee has considered the bill and passed it and got all the necessary information it needed to make a decision. We have abundant evidence of what is happening in our community—parents and children have come to us. We’re in the business of defending the family between man and woman, as the holy scripture and Qur’an dictates.
What research is the bill based on?
We have enough information about how our society works. Family is between man and woman. Anything beyond that should be outlawed. Most of the research we have is just from life. My mom was with my dad. I know the Bible and the Qur’an are against homosexuality. When an anal organ is used for things it’s not supposed to be used for, it’s hazardous. I don’t need to be taught anything beyond that.