Shining a light on a hidden disease
Ten years after the world signed a convention seeking to phase out the use of mercury and mercury mines, a Japanese couple has urged other countries to take a more decisive action to curb the damage caused by the heavy metal both on people and the environment.
Speaking during the fifth meeting of the Conference of Parties to the Minamata Convention (COP-5) in Geneva last week, Hideki and Suemi Sato — both of whom are suffering from Minamata disease, a neurological syndrome caused by mercury poisoning — noted that despite the convention’s ratification in 2013, the dangers of mercury “is still occurring all over the world.”
As such, they called on other countries to “participate in the convention and make efforts to achieve its goals” of reducing the use of mercury in products, as well as its emissions in the environment.
So far, 147 countries have signed onto the convention named after Minamata Bay in Japan that was tainted with toxic mercury wastewater in the 1950s. The waste accumulated in shellfish and fish and eventually poisoned thousands of people.
More than 2,000 victims of the slow-moving disease, which causes neurological damage, muscle weakness, and hearing and speech impairment, have demanded compensation between 1959 and 2023. Just last September, Japan’s Osaka District Court ordered the central government, the prefectural government of Kumamoto, and chemical manufacturer Chisso to pay 2.75 million yen (US$18,400) to each victim.
In response to growing public pressure to strengthen environmental measures, the government in 1970 passed 14 anti-pollution laws in a single session that came to be known as the Pollution Diet Session of 1970. However, Tokyo’s latest decision to dump the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant wastewater into the open ocean were seen by the disaster’s survivors as signs that the government has forgotten the bitter lessons of Minamata.
Elsewhere in Asia, mercury can still be found in cheap, counterfeit cosmetic products that are widely bought in Asian countries like the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, and Pakistan. Mercury is also still widely used to extract gold by small-scale miners, who simply dump the wastewater into rivers. Indonesia — home to a million small-scale miners — has been tagged as a regional mercury hotspot.
Heading off further digital repression
As Vietnam is poised to pass a new cybersecurity decree expanding its controls over the internet, an international human rights group asked a visiting U.N. expert to challenge the draft and highlight its risk to freedom of expression and privacy rights.
In a statement on Nov. 2, Article 19 warned Special Rapporteur on the Right to Development Surya Deva that the draft Decree Law on Cybersecurity would only “intensify censorship and surveillance, requiring online platforms to monitor and remove content proactively and comply with rapid takedown orders.”
The draft would replace a decree governing internet services and online information under its 2019 Cybersecurity Law. Its present form requires, among others, social media users in Vietnam to authenticate their mobile numbers. It will also allow the Communist Party to order tech companies to block a social network account, community page or group that violates the law.
The decree, scheduled to take effect on Dec. 1, will further tighten Vietnam’s already restricted civic spaces both offline and online, the group said. They warned that it would “intensify censorship and surveillance, requiring online platforms to monitor and remove content proactively and comply with rapid takedown orders.”
They urged Deva to “leverage his position” to call on the government to abandon the decree, and to “advocate for freedom of expression protection” as a prerequisite for people’s right to development.
Deva is visiting Vietnam on Nov. 6 to 15 to assess, among others, how Vietnam is promoting its citizens’ right to development, or the right to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development
This fundamental right, groups believe, is threatened by Hanoi’s dismal state of internet freedoms as the government continues to impose stringent controls over the online environment. A recent Freedom House report placed Vietnam as the third worst country in Asia in terms of digital rights, as authorities frequently pressured Internet companies to conform to content moderation and user data requests, and media outlets were subjected to substantial fines for publishing critical reports.
Experts believe this was on par with Vietnam’s efforts to imitate China’s system of surveillance and information control to more effectively suppress dissent within its borders.
No fair elections without opposition
International rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged the international community to condemn the recent mass arrests and targeting of opposition figures in Bangladesh, whose chances of holding fair, free, and credible elections next year are swiftly diminishing.
In its Nov. 1 report on the violent protests that rocked the capital Dhaka last Oct. 28, HRW urged other world governments to insist that elections “cannot be considered fair when the opposition is targeted, harassed, and behind bars.”
“[They] should make clear that they will not continue business as usual with Bangladesh as authorities carry out election abuses,” said HRW deputy Asia director Meenakshi Ganguly. “They should condemn the mass arrests and targeting of the opposition and lay out consequences for trade and diplomatic ties if Bangladesh fails to backtrack on its abuses.”
Hundreds of opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party leaders and members calling for the ouster of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina were arrested in what many believe is part of a systematic crackdown against the opposition ahead of the 2024 elections. Within the next eight days of the protests, police arrested nearly 8,000 BNP leaders and activists, according to the opposition party.
Local media reported that police officials have been ordered to arrest and convict opposition members so they would be disqualified from participating in the national elections. They also noted that courts have been doing more night-time trials recently to speed up convictions before the polls.
Currently, at least half of the 5 million members of the BNP are facing politically motivated charges before Bangladesh’s courts, according to a New York Times report last September.
BNP senior joint secretary general Ruhul Kabir Rizvi said in a virtual press conference that the country’s prisons are basically “overrun with our leaders,” who then suffer torture under police custody.
With the opposition paralyzed by endless court cases, many fear that the upcoming elections could go the way of the 2014 and 2018 elections, where the ruling Awami League swept into power amid allegations of rigging the elections.
Still, this cruel crackdown against the BNP has ironically raised the stakes for Hasina, said Zillur Rahman, executive director of the Dhaka-based Centre for Governance Studies. If she were removed from office, she would likely suffer the same retribution she has inflicted on the BNP.
Protecting journalists during elections
Ahead of a “super-election year” (2024) that will see 2.6 billion people head to the polls, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) called on the world’s governments to protect journalists as they face increased risk of violence during elections.
This, after UNESCO published a new report documenting over 750 attacks against journalists during 89 elections in 70 countries from January 2019 to June 2022. Of these, nearly half were attacked by state enforcement agents, while 29 percent of those attacked were often women journalists.
During the same period, over 120 media outlets also suffered violence ranging from threats and censorship, raids and arson, and even suspension and forced closures. Several governments also authorized internet shutdowns and disruptions, media censorship and digital surveillance of journalists under the guise of public order and national security.
All of these, UNESCO said, threaten not only freedom of the press but also the people’s right of access to information and to participate in public affairs. By 2024, 81 countries will hold elections, prompting the global agency to call on governments and law enforcers, such as police, to ensure the safety and independence of journalists during elections.
Among others, the agency urged them to cultivate good and professional relationships with journalists “so there is more understanding” about their respective roles during coverages.
The report was published on Nov. 2 to mark the annual International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists. That same day, U.N. Secretary Antonio Guterres stressed the importance of journalists in both upholding and enabling democracy across the world. However, their commitment to the truth “means they are often targeted for attack, illegal detention and even death,” Guterres said.
Last year alone, the International Federation of Journalists recorded 67 deaths, with 16 coming from the Asia Pacific, the second deadliest region for journalists. The 2009 Maguindanao massacre — considered the single deadliest attack against journalists in the world — saw 32 journalists among 58 people killed by the ruling Ampatuan clan in southern Philippines as they were escorting a local opposition politician on his way to file his certificate of candidacy for the 2010 polls.
That same year, the U.N. special rapporteurs issued a joint declaration saying that “free and transparent elections are only possible when the electorate is properly informed and has access to plural and sufficient information.”