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21.03.2020 – Pressenza New York

How the 1960 Sharpeville massacre sparked the birth of international human rights law
The Sharpeville Massacre (Image by Godfrey Rubens via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA)

The Conversation

It’s been 60 years since the Sharpeville massacre, when 69 unarmed civilians were killed by armed South African police on March 21 1960. The significance of the date is reflected in the fact that it now marks the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Without the Sharpeville massacre, we may not have the international human rights law system we have today. In 1960, states had no binding international human rights obligations with oversight mechanisms. All that changed following the world’s moral outrage at the killings.

The story of March 21 1960 is told by Tom Lodge, a scholar of South African politics, in his book Sharpeville.

On that day, demonstrations against the pass laws, which restricted the rights of the majority black population in apartheid South Africa, began in the early morning in Sharpeville, a township in Transvaal. By lunchtime, the crowd outside the police station had grown to an estimated 20,000 people. All the evidence points to the gathering being peaceful and good-humoured.

Just after 1pm, there was an altercation between the police officer in charge and the leaders of the demonstration. Amid confusion, two shots were fired into the air by somebody in the crowd. In response, a police officer shouted in Afrikaans skiet or n’skiet (exactly which is not clear). This translates as “shot” or “shoot”. Another officer interpreted this as an order and opened fire, triggering a lethal fusillade as 168 police constables followed his example. By the end of the day, 69 people lay dead or dying, with hundreds more injured.

The power of an event

In my own research on international human rights law, I looked to complexity theory, a theory developed in the natural sciences to make sense of the ways that patterns of behaviour emerge and change, to understand the way that international human rights law had developed and evolved. One of the insights was that international law does not change, unless there is some trigger for countries to change their behaviour.

Significant reshaping of international law is often the result of momentous occurrences, most notably the first and second world wars. But change can also be prompted by seemingly minor events in global affairs such as the Sharpeville massacre – the so-called butterfly effect.

The term “human rights” was first used in the UN Charter in 1945. In 1946, the UN established the Commission on Human Rights, whose first job was to draft a declaration on human rights. The commission completed this task, under the chairmanship of Eleanor Roosevelt, when it finalised the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

But attempts to transform this non-binding moral declaration into a binding legal code were immediately bogged down in cold war disputes. The logjam was only broken after the Sharpeville massacre as the UN decided to deal with the problem of apartheid South Africa.

Apartheid before the UN

The subject of racial discrimination in South Africa was raised at the UN General Assembly in its first session, in 1946, in the form of a complaint by India concerning the treatment of Indians in the country. But it was not until after Sharpeville that the UN made clear that the country’s system of racial segregation would no longer be tolerated.

As part of its response, the General Assembly tasked the UN Commission on Human Rights to prepare the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the first global human rights treaty. It was adopted on December 21 1965. The argument against apartheid was now framed as a specific manifestation of a wider battle for human rights and it was the only political system mentioned in the 1965 Race Convention: nazism and antisemitism were not included.

The adoption of the Race Convention was quickly followed by the international covenants on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and on Civil and Political Rights in 1966, introduced to give effect to the rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

March 21 is a public holiday in South Africa in commemoration of the Sharpeville massacre. Cornell Tukiri/EPA

‘Gross and systematic’ violations

As well as the introduction of the Race Convention, Sharpeville also spurred other moves at the UN that changed the way it could act against countries that breached an individual’s human rights.

At its inaugural session in 1947, the UN Commission on Human Rights had decided that it had “no power to take any action in regard to any complaints concerning human rights”. For the next two and a half decades, the commission held to this position on the basis that the UN Charter only required states to “promote”, rather than “protect”, human rights.

But in the aftermath of the Sharpeville massacre, the UN adopted a more interventionist stance to the apartheid state. As the number of UN members from Africa increased, the commission reversed its “no power to act” position and turned its attention to the human rights situation in South Africa.

The key developments were the adoption of Resolution 1235 in 1967, which allowed for the examination of complaints of “gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, as exemplified by the policy of apartheid”, and Resolution 1503 in 1970, which allowed the UN to examine complaints of “a consistent pattern of gross and reliably attested violations of human rights”.

These resolutions established two important principles: that the human rights provisions in the UN Charter created binding obligations for member states, and the UN could intervene directly in situations involving serious violations of human rights.

This set the UN on the path towards the recognition of “all human rights for all”, and, eventually, the establishment of the Human Rights Council, and the Universal Periodic Review of the human rights performance of all states.

On this 60th anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre, the world should remember the contingency and fragility of the international human rights law system that we so easily take for granted today.

19.03.2020 – Countercurrents

Coronavirus pandemic: China and Cuba send medical teams, equipment and medicine to countries

By Countercurrents Collective

China and Cuba have stepped in with practical measures at international level amidst the near-collapse health care situation in a number of capitalist countries in the face of coronavirus pandemic.

China sending million masks & gloves to France

China is shipping one million surgical masks and gloves to France as the EU member struggles to contain the coronavirus, with Europe becoming the new focal point of the global pandemic.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian confirmed the shipments on Wednesday in an interview with France’s BFM TV.

The first of two planes has already arrived via Belgium and a second will arrive on Thursday, he said.

China’s gesture comes after France sent 17 tonnes of equipment to Beijing when the Covid-19 virus first broke out in Wuhan last December.

France reported 89 new deaths from Covid-19 on Wednesday, updating the total to 264. The number of confirmed cases has also risen to 9,134 – up from 7,730 on Tuesday – health agency director Jerome Salomon said.

China’s medical team and equipment in Italy

Last week, China shipped a planeload of medical supplies including respirators and masks to Italy, which has suffered more than any other European country so far, and has seen hospitals overloaded with the rapidly increasing numbers of cases.

Along with the 30 tons of equipment, China also sent nine of its medical staff to Italy to help in its battle against the disease.

Italian Red Cross head Francesco Rocca said the country was in “desperate need” of the masks and was grateful for the donation in a moment of “great difficulty.”

“Today, Italy is not alone,” said Italy’s Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio. “Many people in the world are supporting us.”

It is the third team of experts deployed by the Chinese authorities.

EU is not helping

Earlier reports said:

Italy requested the EU and EU member-countries to send medical equipments to fight coronavirus. But the EU and its member-countries declined to help citing the reason that they do not want to deplete their stocks.

Earlier this week, Italy’s permanent representative to the EU, Maurizio Massari, complained that Italy’s plea for medical help to combat the coronavirus outbreak crippling the country had gone unanswered.

Massari noted that while the EU had ignored Italian requests for aid, China had begun helping bilaterally.

“Italy, the European country struck hardest by the coronavirus, has done everything it can to contain and manage the epidemic,” he said.

The Italian minister said: “We must ensure, under EU co-ordination, the supply of the necessary medical equipment and its redistribution among those countries and regions most in need. Today, this means Italy; tomorrow, the need could be elsewhere.

“Italy has already asked to activate the European Union Mechanism of Civil Protection for the supply of medical equipment for individual protection.

“But, unfortunately, not a single EU country responded to the commission’s call. Only China responded bilaterally. Certainly, this is not a good sign of European solidarity.”

China sends masks to Serbia

Caught off guard by the EU’s ban on medical exports, Serbia found help in China as it struggled to prepare for the Covid-19 outbreak, the Serbian president said, adding that it has become clear that European solidarity is a myth.

Serbia is the latest country to impose severe restrictions on travel and public gatherings in response to the global epidemic.

As President Aleksandar Vucic declared a national emergency on Sunday, he had some scalding remarks for the EU.

The crisis has proven that European solidarity, only exists “on paper,” Vucic said, citing the ban on the export of medical equipment and supplies imposed by EU members to non-EU countries in response to the outbreak.

“Only China can help us in this situation”, the Serbian leader added, saying he recently wrote a letter to China’s President Xi Jinping “asking him for help and calling him a brother.”

Serbia received five million masks from China that it couldn’t get in Europe and an offer to send doctors to help tackle the disease, the president said.

“I say to foreigners: don’t come to Serbia, except for the Chinese who are called upon to come, their doctors, the people who help us,” Vucic said.

According to official sources, the country had to shop for respirators on a “semi gray market.”

Starting Monday, Serbia has shut down all teaching facilities, mobilized the military to guard sensitive sites such as hospitals, and closed the borders to everyone apart from citizens.

Serbs will have to remain in quarantine after coming back or face prison terms of up to three years.

As of Monday, there are 55 confirmed coronavirus cases in Serbia, which has a population of seven million. Two of the patients are in serious condition. The virus has also reached other Balkan nations with the exception of Montenegro.

The health crisis has put EU cohesion to the test.

Spain Iran Iraq

China has already sent medical missions and shipments of supplies to Spain, Iraq and Iran.

Beijing has been praised by the World Health Organisation for its efforts against the coronavirus. Authorities responded to the outbreak by building new hospitals in a matter of days and locking down Hubei province, which has a population of 58 million, to contain the spread of the disease.

To the U.S.

In addition to the government help, Chinese billionaire Jack Ma sent a shipment of surgical masks and Covid-19 test kits to the U.S., which has its own shortage of kits.


Ma said Monday he would also donate masks and test kits to all countries in Africa.

Despite its efforts to step up and aid other hard-hit countries, China has faced a barrage of negative media coverage in the West, with Trump administration officials repeatedly referring to Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus” and the “Wuhan virus” given the fact that it originated there in December.

Cuba’s medical team to Italy

Socialist country Cuba has already sent medical team to Italy to help the EU-member fight coronavirus.

Cuba’s team to Venezuela

A specialized Cuban technical delegation traveled to Venezuela March 15 to support the country’s Covid-19 containment strategy.

Cuba’s medicine to China to fight coronavirus

Among the thirty medicines the Chinese National Health Commission selected to fight the coronavirus is a Cuban anti-viral drug, Interferon Alpha 2b. This drug has been produced in China since 2003, by the enterprise ChangHeber, a Cuban-Chinese joint venture.

Cuban Interferon Alpha 2b has proven effective for viruses with characteristics similar to those of coronavirus, officially named COVID-19.

Cuban biotech specialist Dr. Luis Herrera Martinez explained, “its use prevents aggravation and complications in patients, reaching that stage that ultimately can result in death.”

Cuba first developed and used interferons to arrest a deadly outbreak of the dengue virus in 1981, and the experience catalyzed the development of the island’s now world-leading biotech industry.

In 1981, the Biological Front, a professional interdisciplinary forum, was set up to develop the industry in Cuba. While most developing countries had little access to the new technologies (recombinant DNA, human gene therapy, biosafety), Cuban biotechnology expanded and took on an increasingly strategic role in both the public health sector and the national economic development plan. It did so despite the U.S. blockade obstructing access to technologies, equipment, materials, finance, and even knowledge exchange. Driven by public health demand, it has been characterized by the fast track from research and innovation to trials and application, as the story of Cuban interferon shows.

Interferons are “signaling” proteins produced and released by cells in response to infections that alert nearby cells to heighten their anti-viral defenses.

Countries ask Cuba to send medicine

The Cuban medication Interferon Alpha 2B has been requested by more than ten countries.

Coronavirus-hit cruise ship docks in Cuba for passengers to evacuate

A British cruise ship that has been stranded for more than a week in the Caribbean after several cases of the new coronavirus were confirmed onboard is set to dock in Cuba on Wednesday to allow weary passengers to disembark and fly home.

Britain’s Foreign Minister Dominic Raab expressed gratitude on Tuesday in parliament to Communist-run Cuba for offering a safe haven to the Braemar, which has more than 1,000 mainly British passengers and crew aboard after several Caribbean ports refused to let it dock.

“Prevention and contention of new coronavirus require the efforts of entire international community,” said Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez. “Let’s reinforce health care, solidarity and international cooperation.”

Passengers would return to Britain from the capital’s international airport in the evening on four charter flights including a separate one for passengers who had received a positive diagnosis for coronavirus or displayed any flu-like symptoms.

Any not considered well enough to fly would be offered support and medical treatment in Cuba.

The ship was refused docking in Barbados and the Bahamas, which are both part of the British Commonwealth – an irony not lost on some passengers.

“We should all remember what #Cuba has done for us, stepping in when none of the British Commonwealth countries and protectorates in the region offered any help,” tweeted one passenger aboard the Braemar, Steve Dale.

Cuban authorities are screening travelers at airports and have stepped up the production of facemasks while banning large cultural events. Family physicians are paying more home visits to monitor local communities.

Yet the government has not canceled flights from countries hardest hit by the pandemic, restricted internal movement or banned social gatherings, in contrast to other countries in the region, eliciting concern among some Cubans, as has the arrival of the Braemar.

A March 18, 2020 datelined Granma report, headlined “A safe port amidst adversity” said:

The humanitarian and altruistic dimensions of the events could make them stuff of a movie scene. The crew of the MS Braemar, owned by the British Fred Olsen cruise line, spent several days sailing the Caribbean with passengers aboard suffering coronavirus infections.

Despite diplomatic efforts by the UK government, the ship was refused entry to several ports in the region. But there was nothing fictional about the urgent situation of passengers, including the sick whose lives were endangered, with the rest facing possible infection, in the middle of the ocean.

Cuba said yes, and offered a safe port in the midst of adversity, with modesty, not seeking headlines in the media, for absolutely nothing in return. Such a decision perhaps generated incomprehension on the part of some, those who are unaware of the value of a helping hand during a catastrophe.

But, for most Cubans, the opportunity to help fills us with patriotic pride, with the emotion only understandable by women and men of good will in all latitudes. Because in “times of coronavirus,” the words “help, cooperate, work together” should be the norm, across the planet. Because human civilization should understand, once and for all, that only together can we overcome common challenges and tragedies.

Cuba, true to its principles, could not act otherwise, nor is this the first time we have done so. Solidarity is in the genes of the Cuban people. It is part of our unique identity and has written memorable chapters in our history.

Perhaps for these reasons, in the time of Covid-19, the eyes of the world look hopefully to Cuba, and our people, who despite hardships and a fierce blockade, did not hesitate to respond.

Requests for support have arrived from various parts of the world.

Meanwhile, others are sending thousands of military personnel to Europe to conduct the most extensive maneuvers since the Cold War, while leading an insulting campaign against Cuban medical collaboration around the world. Cuba’s response? An army of white coats at the service of the dispossessed: more than 400,000 health professionals who, over 56 years, have carried out missions in 164 nations.

Women and men from this Caribbean island have faced Ebola in Africa, blindness in Latin America and the Caribbean with Operation Miracle, and cholera in Haiti. Twenty-six Cuban brigades from the Henry Reeve International Contingent of Doctors Specialized in Disasters and Major Epidemics – recognized with the Dr. Lee Jong-wook Public Health Award, granted by the Executive Council of the World Health Organization – helped during difficult times in Pakistan, Indonesia, Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Venezuela, among others.

In fact, this event is nothing like a film. It is an expression of solidarity from the Cuban people, who understand health as a human right, help any way we can and share what we have, with those who need it most in difficult times.

Martí said: “Cuba does not go around the world begging. She goes as a sister and works with authority as such. By saving herself, she saves.” Then and now, and into the future.

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer

We must act and dare the appropiateness and not whatever comes to our mind not floating in the likelihood but grasp the reality as brave as we can be freedom lies in action not in the absence of mind obedience knows the essence of good and satisfies it, freedom dares to act and returns God the ultimate judgment of what is right and what is wrong, Obedience performs blindly but Freedom is wide awake Freedom wants to know why, Obedience has its hands tied, Freedom is inventive obedient man respects God’s commands and by virtu of his Freedom, he creats new commands. Both Obedience and Freedom come true in responsability (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

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