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Opinion: 'These human rights abuses have a very real and clear link to Ireland'

Ireland has the potential to make a difference in two situations that have been raising concerns for human rights groups.

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AZERBAIJAN AND BAHRAIN are two countries that have recently been raising concerns for human rights groups because of increasing repression against journalists, pro-democracy supporters and human rights defenders. Why should this be of concern to you? Because Ireland is represented in both situations and our reaction has the potential to make a difference – for better or worse.

Repression in Azerbaijan

In Azerbaijan, this summer has seen a crackdown on journalists and human rights activists. One prominent story is that of Leyla and Arif Yunus, prominent activists married for 36 years, and arrested on 30 July accused of spying. They are now separated by prison. Other leading Azerbaijani activists such as Rasul Jafarov and lawyer Intigam Aliyev have been detained in pre-trial detention, and another journalist was reportedly brutally beaten.

Azerbaijan is the current Chair of the Council of Europe, Europe’s main inter-governmental human rights organisation, home to the European Court of Human Rights. Ireland is a founding member. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and others have condemned the arrests and detentions and called on the Council of Europe to act. Even the Council of Europe’s own Commissioner for Human Rights has expressed his concern about the situation in Azerbaijan. Yet there has been little action or comment from the Council so far.

While appalling at any time, it is a blatant snub to the values of the Council of Europe that Azerbaijan would initiate this crackdown on human rights activists during its Chairmanship of the Council of Europe. But the silence of the Member of the Council (including Ireland) risks being viewed as implicit approval of such tactics.

Crackdown in Bahrain

In Bahrain, 2011 saw a severe crackdown by troops on demonstrators seeking improved democracy, and mass arrests. Human Rights Watch reported that medical professionals who treated protestors were arrested and tortured. Despite the establishment of an Independent Commission of Inquiry into those events, there are reports of increasing oppression against human rights activists and journalists. Just a few days ago, on 29 August, the authorities detained a leading human rights defender, Maryam Al-Khawaja, who was on her way to visit her activist father who is in prison on hunger strike. The charges against her reportedly include ‘insulting the King’. She faces a lengthy prison sentence if convicted.

The situation in Bahrain also has a very real and clear link to Ireland. Ireland trains many of their doctors through a constituent university of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland-Bahrain. On 1 September, a group of Bahraini NGOs wrote to the Oireachtas Committee on Education and Social Protection asking the Committee to ensure that human rights “are factored into the upcoming accreditation of Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI)-Bahrain by the Irish Medical Council”. They challenge the silence of RCSI on the situation, and, worryingly, say that “[t]he hundreds of people who continue to be injured while exercising their right to express their opinions through protest fear visiting RCSI-affiliated hospitals.”

Shining a light on oppression

The situations in both of these countries raise the question of how we should engage with non-democratic countries – particularly those that initiate crackdowns on individuals working for human rights, democracy and freedom of expression. So what can be done?

Shining a light on situations of oppression has long been one tool – pioneered by Amnesty International – to support jailed activists. So, we can all pay attention to what is going on. If you are on social media, like, retweet, favourite and follow NGOs such as the highly-regarded Irish-based Front Line Defenders, and Amnesty International-Irish Section that report on these situations and their Irish angle.

You can also send a message to your local TD and to the Minister for Foreign Affairs – easily done via email or social media – asking them to raise their voice in the Dail, directly with the respective governments, and in international forums such as the EU, UN and Council of Europe on these issues. It may not seem like much, but international attention to situations puts pressure on governments and it has been shown to work to get human rights defenders released. At the very least, it will show that Irish people do not approve of what these governments are doing and will not sit silently by.

Kirsten Roberts is a human rights and international law specialist at King’s College London. Follow her on Twitter @KirstenJRoberts

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