Boko Haram and the Nigerian School-Girls: Applying a Rights Centred Approach in Change

Last month, when over 200 girls were kidnapped from their boarding school in Nigeria Western social media was alive with pledges to stand with the families driving the #BringBackOurGirls campaign but now, a month later, the hashtag is no longer trending as our attentions are invariably turned instead to the FIFA World cup and other such ‘pressing’ matters.  The time has come to shift our focus back to the human rights situation in Nigeria and to deliver results.

 If you have a Twitter account, watch the news, listen to the radio, or just talk to people in the UK, then the news of the kidnapping of more than 200 girls from a boarding school in a remote North-Eastern Nigerian village will not have escaped your attention, and nor will the BringBackOurGirls hashtag.  What you may not know, however, due to the fickle nature of the British press, is that on Monday the 2nd June authorities in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, issued a statement banning further rallies around the campaign, stating ‘security fears’. A day later this statement was overturned and denied.

 You may also not know that on 12th June British Foreign Secretary, William Hague hosted a sideline event on how to ‘tackle’ Boko Haram as part of the ‘End Sexual Violence’ global summit in London.  The discussions, attended by representatives from several West African governments, including Nigeria and Cameroon as well as a number of Western countries looked at ‘terrorism’ in Nigeria. There was a particular focus on the activities of Boko Haram. 

Speaking at the summit, William Hague announced a ‘package’ for Nigeria, which would include further investment in and training for the military, education programmes and development programmes.  It was also announced that the response must be “fully in accordance with human rights”. 

Following on from this statement, the governments of the UK, the USA and France, who pledged this support should ensure recognition of the various actors involved in the situation in Nigeria and should take an inclusive attitude to the provision of assistance, which must place human rights at its centre.  The rhetoric sounds positive but it was also lacking substance and understanding of the situation on the ground in Nigeria. 

In light of recent events in Nigeria the obvious human rights topic up for discussion is the right to education and while this was touched upon, security and the provision of military training were the main focuses.  There was no mention of the abducted school-girls, or what would be done to ensure their safe return to their school and families, nor any mention of their human rights.  No mention of the violation of these girls’ right to education, their right to liberty or security of person. Nor was any mention made of how the programme would work in accordance with human rights, or how it would ensure an inclusive approach, based on local expertise.  For any programme to be successful in Nigeria, it must not only place human rights at its centre, but also consider the social situation in Nigeria and why it is a precursor to Boko Haram’s strength.

Boko Haram purportedly translates into English as ‘Western education is forbidden’.  With a reputation as an Islamist group, Boko Haram are alleged to be seeking to overthrow the Nigerian government, who they believe to be ‘corrupting Muslim values’.  In attempts to create an Islamic State, wealthy Boko Haram leaders have built Islamic schools, which many poor families have enrolled their children at.  With chronic poverty rife in rural Nigeria, these schools are an accessible alternative to state-run secular schools for many.  Until the situation of poverty and accessible education is addressed and social and economic rights are respected in Nigeria, Boko Haram is likely to continue gathering support, as it provides a perceived avenue for education and poverty alleviation in the country.


Laura Tyrrell


The first “10-20” Syrian refugees arrived in the UK in April 2014.  They were granted temporary refugee status on the UK government Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme for Syrian Refugees (VPR scheme) – the other 2.5 million are still in limbo in countries neighbouring Syria.  And their numbers are increasing daily. 

Due to the ongoing Syrian civil war, the estimated number of Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries has now risen to 2.5 million.  This year, the UNHCR predicts that there will be a sharp increase in these numbers, estimating a possible rise to a terrifying 4.1 million by the end of 2014.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, warned that financial, economic and technical support are now not enough, and that resettlement is becoming a necessary long term solution.  The UNHCR therefore called last year on the international community to take in 30,000 of the most vulnerable refugees by the end of 2014.  Many states responded – Germany being the most generous with a resettlement offer of 10,100, and the United States giving an open-ended offer.    The camps accommodating the Syrians are at breaking point, as are the host countries.  With conditions in the makeshift camps deteriorating rapidly, a lack of food, clean water, adequate shelter and basic healthcare are of serious daily concern.  Overcrowding is fast becoming their biggest problem, showing no signs of relenting: one camp in Lebanon is registering 1,000 new refugees a day.  Indeed it is overcrowding that is now causing tensions between host countries, citizens and the refugees; in Lebanon, for example, a fifth of the Lebanese population is now made up of Syrian refugees.  This overwhelming influx has prompted talks in Lebanon of setting a limit to the number of refugees granted refuge.

In stark contrast, the UK refused to take part in the scheme at all – arguing they had already pledged a generous amount of money in aid (to date, the government has pledged £600 million, the second highest pledge after the United States).

This is true, but in the current situation it is clear that large financial pledges are now not enough.

A Government U-Turn on this decision occurred only after a powerful coalition of specialist refugee charities wrote an open letter on 17th January 2014 urging the UK government to participate in the UNHCR scheme, and a similarly worded open letter to the British Prime Minister from peers on 23rd January.  These events remain instrumental to Teresa May’s January 29th statement confirming a unique UK resettlement scheme (the VPR scheme) running in parallel with – but not actually with – the UNHCR scheme. 

The UK government agreed at the beginning of 2014 to take only 500 refugees over a 3 year period after engaging in negotiations with specialist charities.

While May’s move is welcomed, many feel it is too little, and that the UK could do more to help.  Maurice Wren, CEO of Refugee Council, voiced the common concern: ‘it’s disappointing to hear that the government will only support several hundred refugees, when the ongoing need is clearly colossal’.  

The government insist that the VPR scheme is ‘designed to focus on need rather than to satisfy a quota,’ and this is why an emphasis on numbers in this case is wrong.  Let’s be clear: the subjects of these schemes are all victims of war, each with their own terrifying and traumatic story, and half of the 2.5 million refugees are children.    Given this, it follows that an emphasis on numbers is actually crucial to alleviating the pressure on neighbouring countries.  It is unsettling to think that UK government policy makers feel this is an acceptable response to the crisis.

Looking to the future, mainly due to the generous offers from Germany and the US, the UNHCR feel they will fulfil their initial target of resettling 30,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2014, and it is looking to future programmes.  The UNHCR has now announced that they will extend the plea to Western countries to welcome a further 100,000 Syrian refugees during the course of 2015 and 2016 – though at present it seems unlikely that the UK government will take part, judging by events so far.

The UK should be helping to lead the way and creating an example, not doing the bare minimum as a tick box exercise.  Indeed, the hypocrisy in asking neighbouring countries to continue to welcome displaced Syrians, but not actually opening the UK’s borders speaks for itself.  As the concerned international community, we cannot contain the problem any longer, we must become fully committed to long term solutions to this crisis. 

Apart from the resettlement scheme, there are other efforts the UK Government could be making.  The UNHCR has stressed that governments can offer alternative solutions to resettlement, including: reuniting family already in the UK, scholarships for Syrian students, and medical evacuation for life-saving treatment.  None of these have yet been set into motion in the UK.  

In whatever form it is, the UK government’s response to finding a long term solution to this crisis surely must be more than 10 resettled refugees a month and money pledged in aid.

 Jessica Vicary

Guatemala: No Going Back! Conference, May 31st

Guatemala: No Going Back! Conference, May 31st

Guatemala: No Going Back! is a action-led, one-day conference of inspiring speakers, interactive workshops, and discussion. Students, activists, NGO representatives, and speakers from both UK-based organisations and from Guatemala will convene to learn about the new human rights challenges facing Guatemala and to discuss ways to affect change together.

The conference will take place at the Amnesty UK Human Rights Action Centre. Register here.





The influx of migrants arriving by boat on the Italian coast has continued to grow during the first months of 2014. Around 1500 migrants were rescued on the morning of Easter Saturday. Italy appeals to Europe for solidarity and a burden sharing solution.


The number of migrants landing on the Italian coast in the Mediterranean Sea has risen dramatically during the last few years. Conflicts in North Africa associated with the Arab Spring[1] contributed significantly to this increase in arrivals to Lampedusa, part the Italian Pelagie Islands in the Mediterranean Sea, in 2011.

The new wave of migration from Syria is leading to alarming figures: according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) around 20,000 have completed the journey since the beginning of the year.

Over Easter, Italian units deployed by Operation Mare Nostrum rescued over 1500 migrants spotted 100 miles off Lampedusa[2]. After the “Lampedusa tragedy” in October 2013 when more than 100 African migrants lost their lives in a desperate attempt to reach the European coast, world attention turned to Italy.

“This is not an Italian problem”, Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini said in front of the parliamentary committee at the beginning of April, adding that “our effort is to make others understand that this is a common problem”.

Indeed this is a European issue- what has been defined as “the crisis of migration”. European countries are now currently facing a very real issue of thousands of people attempting to flee extreme conditions of poverty, inequality and conflict.

Although asylum is a human right enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration, the legal channels open to asylum seekers to reach a safe country of refuge are increasingly limited. The European politics in the Mediterranean Sea has mainly been to prevent migrants from reaching Europe by boat thus leading countries to constantly violate their obligations under both international and European human rights law.

According to a report issued by Amnesty International in 2013[3], collective expulsions (mainly of Syrians fleeing war) have been occurring recently on the Greece-Turkey border. This has seriously undermined one of the basic principles of the asylum system, the so-called non-refoulement. Furthermore, even when migrants manage to reach the European territory they are treated as criminals and held in detention centers, most of the time in degrading human conditions.

 “It is very important that European countries all over the continent keep their borders open and [provide] adequate assistance”, said the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antόnio Guterres, on 22 November 2013.

And now the Italian government is under pressure. Rome’s policy on migration has been strongly criticized in its attempt to unofficially encourage migrants arriving to Italy continuing their journeys to other Schengen countries, mainly in the north of Europe. A policy such as this one only creates discontent and chaos among European countries given that, according to the 2003 Dublin regulation, asylum applications can only be processed in the country where refugees first set foot on EU soil. This is clearly a way of shifting on others the burden of responsibility for these people.

Migration policies need to be reviewed. The abolition of the law which criminalised migrants has represented a good starting point at domestic level[4]. The coming Italian presidency of the European Union will be the opportunity for Italy to show it cares about the rights of these people. Europe recognises that life is an inalienable value, that fairness is a target to be constantly pursued and that justice should guide the decisions of our governments. It is now time to act as a unified region facing the issue together.

Italy calls on Europe for a burden-sharing solution, respectful of the principle of solidarity in an era where boundaries among countries are increasingly blurred. What is needed now is a rapid and comprehensive implementation of the Common European Asylum System developed since 2007. This will lead to a fairer distribution system and a reliable mechanism to identify overburdened national asylum systems.

Serena Gonfiantini


[1] In 2011 the conflicts associated with the fall of the former president of Tunisia Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from power in Tunisia compelled many Tunisians to leave; furthermore, fall of the Qaddafi regime in Lybia and the NATO intervention also increased the number of asylum seekers arriving to the European Shores.

[2] Mare Nostrum is a humanitarian operation which has been launched by Italy on October 2013 to tackle the immigration emergency.

[3] AI. 2013. Frontier Europe. Human Rights Abuses on Greece’s Border with Turkey.

[4] On 2nd of April 2014 the Italian Parliament repealed law 94/2009 (so called “Bossi-Fini” from its promoters) which criminalised migrants.


The Right to Peaceful Protest in Colombia: Does the Law Align with Reality?

Peaceful Protest is Human Right

The right to protest peacefully is a fundamental tenet of a free democratic society.  The right is grounded in international legal instruments such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights under article 19, the freedom of expression, and article 21 and 22, the freedom of association, as well as many national constitutions and laws.  It is a right especially protected given its nature as a form of expression of popular will.  The only time this right may be curbed or limited is for the protection of national security, public health or the protection of the rights and freedoms of the people.  The nature of the limitation of the right must be directly proportional to the threat to public order or national security that the protest represents.

The very existence and global acceptance of fundamental human rights demonstrates the necessity to monitor the State’s treatment of its citizens and ensure that the population is respected and given the dignity it deserves.  Human rights law keeps the State in check to make sure it cannot abuse its position of power.  Peaceful protests are a form of civic action to demonstrate resistance to a government-enacted policy or dissatisfaction with unresolved problems.  When citizens feel they have exhausted all options in terms of communicating with the State and have received no acknowledgement, peaceful protest must be a viable route to ensure complaints are heard.  If civil society is not permitted to react against its government, the governing system is perceived as autocratic and unwilling to listen to the people and incorporate their ideas in policy. 

In this respect the State cannot be described as democratic. 

Dissent and the possibility to say ‘no’ are what characterise a healthy democracy where citizens feel they can actively participate in society, can peacefully protest and their voices will be listened to.  In a healthy democratic State, citizens should feel free to express their ideas and opinions in public spaces without being threatened by authorities.

The Right to Protest in Colombia

Colombia has a great tradition of popular uprisings which are no less prevalent today.  People gather in great swathes in the capital city to demand their rights and call on their government to listen.  Strikes have also characterised the past decades of Colombian history, the huge agrarian strikes scarring the recent memory of the country with a surge of violence.  On the outside at least it appears that Colombia maintains its status a liberal democracy, allowing manifestations and demonstrations to occur. 

However, this activism cannot be a veil for the injustice that pervades behind the scenes. 

Many activists have been unlawfully detained and many others treated unjustly by the police.  A reoccurring theme is the premature involvement of the police in protests which are peaceful and do not represent a threat to public security.  A controversial law was passed in 2011 with articles specifying that obstruction of public roads and thoroughfares is a criminal offense.  Although courts ruled this law did not infringe on the rights of Colombians, it is easy to see how this could be used to criminalise those occupying public spaces in peaceful protest. 

The Colombian constitution reiterates the fundamental nature of the rights expressed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, thus the State has the duty to respect, protect and fulfil the right to freedom of expression and association.  Much of the rural and indeed urban population of Colombia have no physical access to justice given their lack of capital to pay for legal representation and the slow and often impossible nature of the justice system in the country.

Therefore the right to protest peacefully is of fundamental importance in a country that has experienced so much injustice yet continues to fight for restitution and reparations.  The only way many feel they can make their voice heard in the public sphere is by occupying public space and expressing their opinions.  It is important that people understand their rights and in turn that the State protects them so that the liberal democracy Colombia claims to be can thrive and a lasting peace between all actors in the conflict can be reached and maintained.  


Hannah Matthews

Sexual Violence in Colombia: the role of the government and their legal obligations

Sexual violence in conflict is not a new phenomenon.  Rape and other forms of sexual violence have been used as weapons of war against innocent women, men, girls and boys in conflicts across the world, so much so that the practice has almost become normalised and treated as an inevitable consequence of conflict, and so is a difficult issue to address. 

On Monday 17th February, Britain’s foreign minister, William Hague, visited Bogota, urging world leaders to prioritise tackling sexual violence and rape in armed conflict.  The first visit by a British foreign minister to Colombia in 27 years, the event aimed to raise awareness about sexual violence in war zones as Hague emphasised the importance of changing “global attitudes to these crimes” and focusing global efforts on prosecuting those responsible.

“These crimes must no longer be regarded as something that simply happens in conflict zones. The suffering of women must never again be treated as an issue of secondary importance, and survivors must never be shunned and abandoned for they should be supported and freed from stigma,” Hague commented whilst announcing the UK government’s commitment to allocating funds to train Colombian prosecutors to deal with cases of sexual violence.

In the Colombian context, armed groups have committed sex crimes and exploited women as sex slaves, using sexual violence to instil fear among communities, dehumanise the victims, and impose social and military control in various areas.  In these cases there has almost been total impunity.  Women’s rights groups continuously call on the Colombian government to do more to provide justice and support to survivors of sexual violence and punish gender-related crimes perpetrated by Colombia’s armed forces and guerrilla forces.  In a landmark 2008 ruling, Colombia’s Constitutional Court concluded that “sexual violence against women is a habitual, extensive, systematic and invisible practice in the Colombian armed conflict.”  However, the proliferation and prevalence of sexual violence demonstrates the lack of will and resources available to address the issue.

Conflict related sexual violence needs to be understood in its social and cultural context.  Colombia’s strongly patriarchal system continues alongside other factors such as poverty and social, political and economic marginalisation that create a permissive context for the use of violence against women.  Addressing this issue will involve a huge movement of cultural reconsideration as there is no single isolated factor that must be tackled, rather a multitude of issues and mentalities.  However, the acknowledgement of sexual violence in conflict as a serious breach of international law and of fundamental human rights is a step in the right direction. 

In September 2013, 113 countries convened at the United Nations in support of the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict.  Among other things, this declaration called for adequate funding for sexual violence prevention and response efforts, comprehensive, improved, and timely medical and psychosocial care for survivors, the exclusion of crimes of sexual violence from amnesty provisions in peace accords, the full participation of women in all decision-making processes during conflict, post-conflict, and peace time, strengthened regional efforts to prevent and respond to rape in war, military and police training on prevention and protection obligations, and improved collection and access to data and evidence of sexual violence during conflict.  An International Protocol on the Investigation and Documentation of Sexual Violence in conflict has also been proposed which hopefully the G8 will agree on late this year.

Declarations raise awareness and encourage States, and indeed the public, to engage in debates surrounding controversial topics.  However they must not become a veil for states to hide behind and perpetuate their inertia.  The true measure of dedication to a cause is action and Colombia must demonstrate its commitment by enacting policies and programmes according to the new international standards.  

Hannah Matthews