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With three human rights defenders abducted in less than one week by people suspected of working on behalf of the Zimbabwean authorities, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Open Society Institute called today for an immediate halt to abductions and for the abductees to be freed immediately.
The human rights groups came together to call on regional and international organizations to take strong action to protect those who fight for human rights in Zimbabwe. The abduction of activists is taking place at a time when the country is facing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, including a cholera outbreak and severe food shortages for which the government is seeking international help.
"Behind the political crisis and health emergency, there is a worsening human rights crisis in Zimbabwe, with the most recent development being this unprecedented spate of abduction of human rights defenders," said Irene Khan, Secretary General of Amnesty International. "This shows the audacity of a regime that is desperate to stay in power, no matter what the cost. The only way out of this problem is through unified pressure from outside, in particular of African leaders."
The organizations urged the African Union, the Southern African Development Community and the United Nations to lead the way in exerting pressure on President Mugabe and called on African leaders to issue a unanimous and public condemnation of such actions. They called for pressure to be placed on the authorities in Zimbabwe to observe their international obligations, end enforced disappearances, and investigate and hold those responsible to account.
"The situation in Zimbabwe is spiraling out of control," said Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch. "The government has made clear it can't end the humanitarian crisis and won't end the vicious pursuit of its opponents. Regional and international leaders need urgently to respond."
Harassment and ill-treatment of human rights defenders and their family members has intensified in recent days. Three human rights defenders and a family member of a prominent human rights lawyer have all been abducted, and their whereabouts remain unknown. The evidence points to officials working on behalf of or with the acquiescence of the Zimbabwean authorities.
"The fight to ensure that human rights are respected in Zimbabwe is more critical than it has ever been," said Aryeh Neier, president of Open Society Institute. "The AU and SADC with the support of the UN should provide the leadership that would demonstrate that Africa has the capacity and the will to resolve a grave crisis in a manner that mitigates the suffering of Zimbabweans."
Although it remains unclear who abducted the four, the Zimbabwe authorities have a clear responsibility to determine and reveal the whereabouts of the abductees, the human rights groups said. Their failure to do this, let alone to acknowledge the abductions, places the abductees outside the protection of the law and may constitute an enforced disappearance which is a serious violation of international law.
"The way this case has been handled demonstrates the complete breakdown of the rule of law in Zimbabwe," said Beatrice Mtetwa, an award winning human rights lawyer in Zimbabwe who is handling the case. "Citizens have not been able to rely on the courts for protection."
Background on the Abductions:
* On December 3, 2008, Jestina Mukoko, the director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP), a national human rights organization, was forcibly taken from her home in Norton, Harare, early in the morning by about 15 men in plain clothes - some armed with handguns - who identified themselves as police from the Law and Order section of the Zimbabwe Republic Police. However, police in Zimbabwe have denied holding Ms Mukoko. Ms. Mukoko's lawyers submitted a habeas corpus application to the High Court on Friday, December 5, but no judge has yet agreed to hear the case.
* On December 5, at around midnight, Zacharia Nkomo, the brother of Harrison Nkomo - another leading human rights lawyer who was working on Jestina Mukoko's case - was abducted by four unidentified men in civilian clothes from his home in Rujeko, Masvingo. The men responsible for the abduction were travelling in two green-and-silver Toyota Virgo twin cabs.
* On December 8, two Zimbabwe Peace Project employees, Broderick Takawira, a provincial coordinator and Pascal Gonzo, a driver, were abducted by five unidentified men who forcibly entered the group's premises in Mount Pleasant, Harare. The unidentified men -- who were in civilian clothes --forced the two men into one of six Mazda "Familia" sedans that were waiting outside.
Other employees of the group have also reported being followed by unknown persons in other parts of Zimbabwe.
"Manchin is making another push to accelerate fossil fuel permitting," said one climate group. "But what we urgently need is to make it easier to permit clean energy projects."
The U.S. climate movement this week vowed to keep fighting against Sen. Joe Manchin's thrice-defeated "dirty deal" after the West Virginia Democrat indicated he intends to work with House Republicans to force through fossil fuel-friendly permitting reforms.
Frontline climate campaigners and progressives in both chambers of Congress worked tirelessly last year to quash Manchin's proposals—while also advocating for updates to permitting policy that would speed up the renewable energy transition.
The GOP took narrow control of the House earlier this year, and the chamber's Natural Resources Committee is now led by Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.). Manchin, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, met with him on Wednesday to discuss permitting legislation.
"Permitting reform as proposed in recent legislation would undermine effective tools used to protect air, water, and climate from the most damaging new infrastructure under consideration."
"They're going to work on something," Manchin said of the House, according to E&E News. "I think it's a high priority, which both sides know that we need it. Everyone has come to agreement that you got to have permitting. Let's take the politics out of it, and do what's doable."
After the meeting, Westerman said he saw "common ground between Sen. Manchin and myself."
The same day, the Republican Study Committee, the largest House GOP caucus, convened to discuss priorities for debt ceiling negotiations. According to a leaked portion of a slideshow, one policy endorsed by the committee for those talks is "enact a package of inflation-busting reforms to increase domestic energy capacity and reduce associated regulatory and permitting barriers."
Meanwhile, the Green New Deal Network—a U.S. campaign that includes 15 national organizations–pledged Wednesday that "we'll be here, ready to kill Manchin's dirty deal all over again."
\u201cManchin is making another push to accelerate fossil fuel permitting. But what we urgently need is to make it easier to permit clean energy projects. \n\nhttps://t.co/pewl5Mk6eh\u201d— Climate Solutions (@Climate Solutions) 1675364765
The battle over the dirty deal, as critics call it, began last summer, when Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) agreed behind closed doors to push through permitting reforms in exchange for Manchin's support for the Inflation Reduction Act. Despite Manchin and Schumer's efforts to advance various versions of a permitting bill, it was blocked in September and then twice in December.
"Defeated for the third time this year, this zombie bill would have fast-tracked dangerous fossil fuel and mining projects that would undercut the positive impacts of the Inflation Reduction Act," Chelsea Hodgkins, Oxfam America's climate policy adviser, said in mid-December. "Sen. Manchin's proposal would do nothing to address the real barriers to renewable energy development, which include fully resourcing underfunded agencies and investing in community-supported renewable systems."
Manchin and Westerman's meeting came after Politicoreported Tuesday that Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who supported including the dirty deal in a December military spending package, "is bullish about the prospects of passing a bill to ease permitting rules now that the House is in GOP hands."
Capito, who will again serve as ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee, told Politico that "permitting—it's a very important aspect of energy development and we have a big role in that at EPW. One of the reasons it failed [last year] is because it didn't go through the committee process. I would love to see us try to work through a committee process that can be successful in the end."
\u201cBarrasso, in a separate recent interview with me, struck a different tone than last year, when he criticized the Manchin effort. \u201cWe have a really fertile opportunity here \u2014 a much better opportunity \u2014 to do the kind of permitting we need for all sources of energy,\u201d he said\u201d— Joshua Siegel (@Joshua Siegel) 1675173634
"I'm certainly going to be pressing and we're going to be having meetings with our House colleagues on this very issue," Capito said during a Thursday press briefing. "We'll look and see what the House comes up with and see if it's something I think we can get good compromises on."
"Finding reasonable compromise to permit pipelines and power lines and other things is important to both sides," added Capito—who, like Manchin, wants to see the controversial and long-delayed Mountain Valley Pipeline completed. "If you want more renewable, you can't do it without transmission. If you want more natural gas, like I do, you can't do it without pipelines."
E&E News reported that House Republicans now plan "to use, as a starting point, legislation introduced in previous sessions of Congress by Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), known as the 'Builder Act,' which would achieve the main goals of speeding up permits for energy projects by making changes to the National Environmental Policy Act," or NEPA—which is expected to anger Democrats.
Asked by the outlet whether he would accept changes to NEPA as part of a deal, Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee—who, as the panel's chair last year, led Democratic opposition to Manchin's legislation—said, "No."
Amid discussion on Capitol Hill this week, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists asked six experts to weigh in on permitting reform. Associate editor Jessica McKenzie summarized their arguments in a series of tweets:
\u201cThen we have a series of specific recommendations from @sanjay_patnaik and Rayan Sud on how to optimize and modernize the permitting process: https://t.co/eNhB4xoEek\u201d— Jessica McKenzie (@Jessica McKenzie) 1675265445
\u201cDid a renewable energy project fail to get permitted? Don't blame the environmental review or the permitting process, writes Jamie Pleune; blame a lack of agency capacity and time spent waiting for information from permit applicants. https://t.co/2wrOHyQ5uy\u201d— Jessica McKenzie (@Jessica McKenzie) 1675265445
\u201cWhat's fascinating about these commentaries is how not everyone is "on the same side" of the argument but nonetheless certainly themes and points of agreement emerge...https://t.co/9mAO8WXWdr\u201d— Jessica McKenzie (@Jessica McKenzie) 1675265445
"Reform advocates rightly emphasize the need for rapidly constructing wind, solar, geothermal, energy storage, and transmission," wrote Dustin Mulvaney, a professor in the Environmental Studies Department at San José State University and fellow with the Payne Institute for Public Policy at the Colorado School of Mines.
"The problem is that streamlining environmental rules and regulations could have the opposite effect, unless the 'streamlining' is achieved via planning processes that include stakeholder feedback," he stressed. "More important, permitting reform as proposed in recent legislation would undermine effective tools used to protect air, water, and climate from the most damaging new infrastructure under consideration—namely oil, gas, and tar sands pipelines."
"There is no real doubt that the 5th Circuit's decision is going to lead to more abusers murdering their wives and girlfriends," said one gun control advocate. "It will also increase mass shootings."
The right-wing 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday struck down a federal law barring people with domestic violence restraining orders from owning firearms, a ruling that gun control advocates said will cost lives.
A three-judge panel of the New Orleans-based appellate court said in its decision that the overturned law is an unconstitutional impediment to the right to bear arms. The judges based their ruling on New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, a June 2022 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down that state's limits on carrying concealed guns in public.
The judges—who were all appointed by Republican presidents—wrote that under Bruen, the law prohibiting people with domestic violence restraining orders from owning guns "fails to pass constitutional muster," and that the ban is an outlier "that our ancestors never would have accepted."
Responding to the ruling, Shannon Watts, founder of the gun control advocacy group Moms Demand Action, tweeted, "Given that domestic violence is often a precursor to gun violence, this ruling is a death sentence for women and families in the U.S."
\u201cI can feel my blood pressure rising with each paragraph of this Fifth Circuit opinion\n\nIt concludes that 'our ancestors would have never accepted' banning perpetrators of domestic violence from possessing guns\n\nTwo quick questions: whose ancestors and why should I care?\u201d— Barred and Boujee (@Barred and Boujee) 1675369956
"When someone is able to secure a restraining order, we must do everything possible to keep them and their families safe—not empower the abuser with easy access to firearms," Watts added. "This dangerous and deadly ruling cannot stand and must quickly be overturned."
Slate senior writer Mark Joseph Stern warned via Twitter that "there is no real doubt that the 5th Circuit's decision is going to lead to more abusers murdering their wives and girlfriends. It will also increase mass shootings."
Stern noted that the U.S. Supreme Court "held that gun restrictions are only constitutional if they have historical analogs from 1791 or 1868. But domestic violence was widely accepted in those eras. So, the 5th Circuit says, the government can't disarm alleged domestic abusers today."
\u201cThe Dobbs decision overturning Roe was an act of violence against women. The 5th Circuit ruling that domestic abusers can keep their guns - also likely headed to SCOTUS - is another one.\nHow many times does it need to be made plain that Republican HATE women?\u201d— Laura Chapin (@Laura Chapin) 1675374618
"To be clear—the reason there weren't laws disarming domestic abusers in 1791 or 1868 is because women were not equal citizens and domestic violence was not deemed a criminal offense by the men who made and enforced the laws," Stern added.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the presence of a firearm in a domestic violence situation increases the risk of homicide by 500%. Each year, more than 600 U.S. women are shot to death by their intimate partners. That's one killing every 14 hours.
"Enacting an ideological agenda driven by ignorance and prejudice, instead of science and compassion, is not the way forward."
Civil rights advocates on Thursday sharpened their focus on the Republican-controlled Oklahoma Legislature as lawmakers prepare to convene on February 6, beginning a session during which they're set to consider no fewer than 15 proposals attacking transgender people's right to obtain healthcare.
The state is at the forefront of a nationwide assault on transgender rights, with lawmakers planning to bring up for debate bills including the so-called Save Adolescents from Experimentation Act (S.B. 878), which would prohibit gender-affirming healthcare for adolescents; the Millstone Act of 2023 (S.B. 129), which would expand that proposed ban to transgender people up to age 26; and S.B. 250, which would threaten providers who accept Medicaid with a loss of reimbursement funds if they provide gender-affirming care.
The ACLU, Lambda Legal, and the ACLU of Oklahoma released a joint statement Thursday promising "swift legal action" if any of the legislation is passed.
\u201cTogether with @ACLU & @ACLUOK, Lambda Legal is prepared and committed to take legal action against any proposed restrictions on gender-affirming care for transgender Oklahomans. \n\nRead our full statement \u2b07\ufe0f \n\nhttps://t.co/BSzJubHK3d\u201d— Lambda Legal (@Lambda Legal) 1675355382
"Access to healthcare is a human right, and our Constitution promises every person the right to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into their lives," said Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, counsel and healthcare strategist at Lambda Legal. "Targeting some of our most vulnerable youth—transgender young people who need love, support, and access to the medical care they need—for discrimination is wrong and dangerous. Enacting an ideological agenda driven by ignorance and prejudice, instead of science and compassion, is not the way forward."
"We will not hesitate to defend transgender Oklahomans' rights to equality, liberty, and nondiscriminatory access to the healthcare they need," Gonzalez-Pagan added.
As Common Dreamsreported last month, transgender rights advocates were alarmed when the Millstone Act was introduced, marking the "startling new evolution" of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation as it waged an attack on the rights of transgender adults as well as adolescents—against long-standing guidance from theAmerican Medical Association, theAmerican Psychiatric Association, and theAmerican Academy of Pediatrics.
"Gender-affirming care is lifesaving," said Harper Seldin, staff attorney at the ACLU's LGBTQ and HIV Project. "Every major medical association opposes bans on gender-affirming care, and these bills will push medical providers out of Oklahoma, which is already facing a shortage of doctors. These proposed bans do not protect anyone in Oklahoma... Oklahoma legislators have no business telling parents that they cannot seek lifesaving care for their transgender children, or stopping adults from accessing safe and effective care for themselves, just because they are transgender."
Last week Utah became the latest state to bar transgender adolescents from accessing gender-affirming healthcare. Arizona, Alabama, and Arkansas have also passed such bans into law, but a federal judge temporarily blocked Arkansas' law in 2021.