Detainees in North Korea are forced into gruelling manual labour and beaten so severely it may be a form of torture, the UN has said, as it warned that Covid-19 had exacerbated human rights concerns in the notoriously oppressive country.
In a report to be presented at the UN general assembly in September, the UN secretary general, António Guterres, said fresh accounts given to the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) had added to “a growing body of information confirming consistent patterns of human rights violations”.
They included a woman who said she was hit so hard with firewood that “the skin on my face tore open, my chin became dislocated and four of my teeth were knocked out”. Another described how she and her fellow inmates were forced into agricultural work: “[I] dragged the cart that cows normally pull,” she told the OHCHR.
In February the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, said torture and forced labour were rife in North Korea’s detention centres, and amounted to possible crimes against humanity.
The new report, including accounts from 2010 until 2019, focuses again on the “systematic and widespread” use of beatings and other disproportionately harsh punishments meted out to detainees, as well as forced labour.
One former detainee said she was beaten with a stick, chair and leather belt by officers from the security ministry, adding: “Some detainees were asked to place their heads on the bars [of the cell] and the guards would beat us with a club … we were just like punching bags to them.”
“The severity of beatings described may constitute torture, which is prohibited without exception under international law,” the report noted.
Mistreatment documented “may also constitute torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”, it added, including severe forms of physical punishment for minor infractions.
One person said that, after a detainee had been found to be snoring at night, all 12 cellmates were ordered to do 1,000 squats. “I was young so it was OK, but those who were older fainted on the spot,” they said.
The use of stress positions was also detailed, with one man saying: “In the fixed position, you had to be on your knees with the rest of your body off the ground, with your hands extended forward; you had to stay like that for hours. If you moved, they made you stick your hands out and hit them with a cane.”
With the pandemic restrictions having cut off the “lifeline” of essential humanitarian supplies, the UN said it also feared the food situation for detainees – and for the population as a whole – had worsened. The country has seen a steep decline in trade with China during the pandemic, which, along with a series of natural disasters and the impact of international sanctions, has triggered an economic crisis.
Accounts given to the OHCHR indicated the food received was inadequate and poor quality. Two escapers separately stated that they had been aware of deaths as a result of malnutrition. “We were fed only corn meal, about 100 grams three times a day,” said one former inmate.
Many accounts centre on North Korea’s continued reliance on forced labour, including from conscripted soldiers, members of the general population, and children. Detainees described their work to OHCHR, ranging from making artificial eyelashes to hard manual labour such as farming, logging and construction.
Those who had escaped said that if they did not meet their quotas they were punished with beatings, cuts to their already meagre food rations, and spells in solitary confinement.
One worker described how “two to three guards watch over you while armed with automatic guns”.
Most of the testimonies come from former detainees of North Korea’s prisons, pre-trial holding centres or labour camps. But the report also says escapers spoke of people they knew who had been sent to political prison camps for “disloyalty”, such as attempting to go to South Korea, religious activity or criticism of the state.
North Korea denies the existence of the camps, but the UN noted: “The threat of being sent to a political prison camp (kwanliso) permeates all aspects of civil and political life.”
The OHCHR said recent accounts indicated that crackdowns had been intensified against anyone found to be involved with foreign media, particularly films, television dramas and music from South Korea.
“Although cellphones are becoming increasingly prevalent, using cellphones to call abroad is also monitored with harsh sentences imposed on those caught, such as imprisonment of up to two years in a kyohwaso [prison],” the report said.
In July, young North Koreans were warned by the official newspaper of the ruling party to adhere to the country’s “superior” standard language – the dialect from around Pyongyang – and follow “traditional lifestyles” as part of efforts by Kim Jong-un’s regime to stamp out cultural influences from South Korea.
The OHCHR said it had invited the North Korean government to contribute to the report but that at the time of writing no response had been received.
‘It helped me get away from crime’: Cape Town’s College of Magic – a photo essay | Global development
To fans of JK Rowling’s books, the story may sound somewhat familiar: a young boy living in difficult circumstances is enrolled in a mysterious school far from home, where his life is changed for ever by the transformative power of magic.
Anele Dyasi’s story is no fairytale, though, and the school in question is not Hogwarts, but the College of Magic in Cape Town, a unique institution that has been training some of the continent’s most skilled illusionists since the 1980s.
Dyasi, who grew up in the sprawling township of Khayelitsha, where violent crime is rife and opportunities are few and far between, was 10 when the college began to train him in the ways of magic and sleight of hand. Within four years he was representing South Africa at magic competitions as far afield as Las Vegas and Beijing and had become a role model for a new generation of budding magicians.
“I think of it more as a college of life,” says Dyasi, now 23, and a teacher at the college. “It helped me get away from the crime and gangsterism.”
Dyasi says the most important things he learned in his six years as a student at the college had less to do with magic and more to do with self-confidence and effective communication: skills that he feels have left him in a good position to face life’s challenges.
On this particular Saturday, clad in a flamboyant polka-dot blazer over a plain white T-shirt, he is teaching closeup card magic to a class of fifth-year students who scrutinise every move of his fingers as they try to figure out the trick. Outside the window, younger students are juggling with batons and doing circuits around the car park on unicycles.
Less research has been done on the educational benefits of learning magic than other performing arts such as music, dance or circus. But the studies that do exist have linked it to physical and psychological benefits such as improved focus, a greater ability to solve problems and think laterally, better interpersonal skills, increased self-worth and an enhanced aptitude for teamwork.
“When we started out we never thought of all the spin-off benefits,” says David Gore, founder and director of the college. “We didn’t realise just how powerful magic was as a tool.”
The college’s students frequently give public performances at local venues, and Gore says he has observed how, within a matter of months, first-year students who arrived at the college shy and recalcitrant routinely end up being confident enough to perform on stage in front of hundreds of strangers.
Gore was just 19 when he and a colleague marched into the offices of a local newspaper wearing top hats and tailcoats and announced that they were starting a school for magicians. The newspaper published a story and before long 34 children had signed up. In the 40 years since, several thousand more students have come and gone through the hallways of the ramshackle Victorian mansion that houses the college.
Built in the late 1800s, the building has a distinctively Hogwarts-esque feel, replete with crooked staircases, secret doorways hidden behind bookshelves, and a special enclosure for the rabbits and doves occasionally used in performances.
“It’s a lot more fun than my other school,” says Duma Mgqoki, a fourth-year student and aspiring magician, who says he enjoys wowing the other children in his neighbourhood with the tricks he learns at the college.
While many of the college’s alumni have careers in magic and its associated arts, performing at children’s parties or corporate functions, or becoming TV entertainers, others say the college helped prepare them for a range of non-magical careers.
“Growing up, I went through a lot of trauma and depression. But here I felt free,” says Anela Gazi, a recent graduate of the college from Mfuleni township, who is starting her own shoe-cleaning company.
“This place prepared me for everything. It made me grow. It made me strong. I didn’t even know I could become the person I am now,” she says.
At the college, students from some of the city’s most underprivileged townships are learning alongside others from the wealthiest suburbs.
Twenty-seven years after the end of apartheid, Cape Town remains one of the world’s most divided cities, and many schools, indeed whole neighbourhoods, offer little in the way of ethnic diversity.
“We believed what we were offering should be available to everyone, and we did that from day one,” says Gore, who flouted the laws of the apartheid regime in the 1980s by insisting on teaching multiracial classes.
The college operates as a nonprofit organisation, and helps to find sponsors to cover the fees of those who could not otherwise afford the courses. It also arranges transport to enable those from more distant areas to attend.
“This is the rainbow nation,” says Dyasi after his class, pointing up at the building behind him. “We don’t judge each other here. Everyone is here to achieve the same thing: to become better magicians. It brings out the best in everyone.”
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Texas anti-abortion law shows ‘terrifying’ fragility of women’s rights, say activists | Global development
The new anti-abortion law in Texas is a “terrifying” reminder of the fragility of hard-won rights, pro-choice activists have said, as they warn of a “more aggressive, much better organised [and] better funded” global opposition movement.
Pro-choice campaigners have seen several victories in recent years, including in Ireland, Argentina and, most recently, Mexico, where the supreme court ruled last week that criminalising abortion was unconstitutional. Another is hoped for later this month when the tiny enclave of San Marino, landlocked within Italy, holds a highly charged referendum.
But Texas’s law, which bans abortions after about six weeks, once embryonic cardiac activity is detected, and does not make exceptions for incest or rape, has sent shock waves around the world, making pro-choice activists realise they can take nothing for granted.
Sarah Shaw, head of advocacy at MSI Reproductive Choices, said: “Even though we have seen little gains here and there, in some places, we can never, ever be complacent because we’re only ever really hanging on to these rights by the skin of our teeth.”
She said the Texas law was “really terrifying” because of the emboldening message it sent to other anti-choice governments and organisations, with the fact it had happened in the US giving it “a huge weight and legitimacy”.
“This is all happening in the context of a rising, much more aggressive, much better organised, better funded and much more legitimised opposition movement than we’ve ever seen before,” Shaw said.
Pro-choice campaigners say they have faced increasingly vocal opposition from organisations that started on the US religious right but have spread to other countries, such as 40 Days for Life, a group that distributes graphic and misleading leaflets to women outside UK abortion clinics.
Heartbeat International, a conservative US Christian federation, funds and coordinates a network of anti-abortion “pregnancy resource” centres, many of them in sub-Saharan Africa, to provide women with what it calls “true reproductive help”.
“It’s a transnational movement now,” said Shaw. “What we’re seeing is them [US organisations] exporting their playbooks and their money overseas.”
Attacks on abortion rights usually happen in countries where other human rights are under threat, according to analysts. Last year, more than 30 countries, many of them led by authoritarian strongmen or rightwing populists, including Belarus, Uganda, Hungary, Egypt and Donald Trump’s US administration, signed a non-binding anti-abortion document known as the Geneva consensus declaration. The text was also seen as being anti-LGBTQ, as most of the signatories had not legalised same-sex marriage and several prosecute their LGBTQ+ citizens.
Among the signatories was Poland, which is one of only three countries to have significantly rolled back abortion rights since 2000, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The other two are Nicaragua and the US.
In October last year, Poland’s constitutional tribunal ruled that terminations due to foetal defects were unconstitutional. Three months later, a near-total ban on abortions was imposed. Abortion is now only legal in the case of rape, incest or a threat to the mother’s health.
Meanwhile, human rights observers have said that a Nicaraguan law punishing abortion without any exceptions, passed in 2006, has simply forced women to seek unsafe backstreet terminations.
Marge Berer, coordinator of the International Campaign for Women’s Right to Safe Abortion, said setbacks were all too common, with breakthrough moments often followed by backlashes.
“My experience of this is one step forward, two steps forward, or one step back, 10 steps back,” she said. “And much of it, if not all of it, depends on who is the head of the government of the day.”
Berer, who has been involved in the pro-choice movement for almost 40 years, said the overall picture was brighter than it had been then: fewer deaths from unsafe abortions, and many more countries where terminations are legal.
But, she added, she was not hugely optimistic about the future. “There’s so much misogyny in the world. And I don’t know how anybody is going to make that go away,” she said. “For me, that’s the real problem. It’s that when misogyny takes over on a policy level, it’s very nasty.”
However, there is more hope among activists in Latin America, where the marea verde, or green wave, has swept through first Argentina and, last week, Mexico, where the supreme court struck down a state law that imposed prison terms for having an abortion. While it did not automatically legalise abortion, the decision is thought to set a binding precedent for the country’s judges.
Eugenia López Uribe, regional director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, said the legal change was the result of “40 years of hard work” by campaigners, with mass demonstrations, backroom lobbying and “a mainstreaming” of women’s rights in public discourse.
She said the ability of the Catholic church to tell people what to do when it came to abortion and contraception had been greatly reduced. “What we know from different surveys … is that in reality Catholics … feel that this is a private decision that you have to do with your own conscience.”
As women in Texas bear the brunt of the law brought in by the governor, Greg Abbott, their Mexican allies across the border were planning to take the fight north, she added.
“The ‘green wave’ hasn’t reached the United States so this is a very good opportunity for [it] to cross the border of the Rio Grande and go to the United States. We can make it go even further. We’ve been used to thinking about it in Latin America. Now is the time for North America.”
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