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Uyghur battles to escape painful past while rebuilding life in Albania

South China Morning Post, 28 September 2013. Abu Bakker Qassim was tortured in China and wrongly incarcerated in Guantanamo – but is finding a semblance of peace in a small Balkan state, writes Jo Baker

For a loaded question, it gets an understated reply. “Back in time?  I would tell myself not to get involved in politics,” says Abu Bakker Qassim, wryly. “Not unless I knew what I was doing.”

Meeting in the leafy, low-lying Albanian capital, this one of Tirana’s more politically controversial residents is now far from the Americans who held him incommunicado at Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp for more than four years. He is far too, from the Pakistanis who sold him and others of the Uyghur ethnic minority to the Americans for 5,000 dollars a head. And he is perhaps farthest from his family in Xinjiang province, western China, who he feels certain that he will not see again.
With seven years in Albania now behind him, Qassim’s days are defined by the slow burn of the…

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Bruce Lee and the enduring jeet kune do spirit

South China Morning Post, April 2013. Forty years after his death, two of Bruce Lee’s siblings reminisce about their famous brother’s life and a legacy that is inspiring a whole new generation of fighters. Jo Baker reports

Hard bodies abound. At the annual One Asia Mixed Martial Arts Summit, big names, tight muscles and a whole lot of spin are building an air of promise laced with testosterone.

The most highly billed appearances, however, are those of a pair who are not part of the fight club here at Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands resort. As the first day of talks wind down, a convention room fills and falls quiet for two unassuming figures in their autumn years.

Neither compete, but they are happy to spin some eagerly received yarns about a long-dead fighting legend.

“Bruce was way ahead of his time in martial arts,” announces Bruce Lee’s younger brother, Robert Lee Chun-fai. “He wanted to show that there really is no set way in fighting and there is no limit. He believed that martial…

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Recovering the right to be human

For the Helen Bamber Foundation in London, to commemorate Human Rights Day, December 2011
“I would say this is a place that recognises who you are, what you have suffered and lost, tells your story when you cannot, and documents your injuries. It recognises and acknowledges you, for otherwise no one would ever know who you are and what’s happened to you. In this way, we help our clients understand that that they have the right to be human.” – Helen Bamber

More than six decades since the UN Universal Declaration was signed, human rights standards continue to unite millions of people in their efforts to have every person treated according to his or her inherent dignity and worth. Yet for clients at the Helen Bamber Foundation, the concept sometimes proves challenging.
For a start, many who visit its therapy rooms may not have encountered these tools in a country that genuinely recognises them, as the UK does – comparatively speaking. Yet more profoundly challenging is the fact that…

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Building alliances: Indigenous women leaders unite against development-based violence

UN Women, 23 November 2012

The sound of helicopters still makes Soi Tonnampet shake, years later. It takes her back to the first time she and others from her indigenous community, the Karen, fled from an operation to clear areas of national parkland in Northern Thailand. She recalls that during their first three-day escape through the forest – one of many – an elderly woman died and another woman miscarried.

Indigenous women shared their concerns about development-induced violence,
and the strategies they have used to address it during the four-day meeting.
Photo credit: UN Women/Jo Baker


For Lori Beyer, who is helping indigenous women contend with mining operations in the Philippines, gender-based violence has a different face. “Many of the male campaigners have to go into hiding,” she says. “It makes the women more vulnerable to sexual harassment, intimidation and sometimes worse.”

Although they come from villages far apart, indigenous women’s network members…

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Around the ASEAN Summit, the region's women rally

UN Women, 20 November 2012

As world leaders meet in Phnom Penh to discuss the future of the region at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on 16 – 20 November, diverse civil society groups have been working to keep their fingers on the pulse and their voices at high volume.

Particularly vocal among these have been women’s rights groups, for whom the Summit and its People’s Forum are emotional rallying points – a chance to amplify issues being discussed by women in homes, civic spaces and workplaces across Southeast Asia. These range from gender-based violence to sustainable development priorities and the scarcity of female decision-makers.

At the Cambodian Women’s Forum, held in the lead up to the ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh, a  member of the Cambodian Women’s Caucus takes notes as a campaign statement is drafted.  Credit: UN Women/Jo Baker

For one dynamic network, preparations have been long in the making. The Southeast Asia Women’s Caucus on ASEAN, a…

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Policy paper: Reprisals Against Human Rights Defenders at the UN HRC

International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), 2012

Respect and Protect? Exploring the need for the United Nations Human Rights Council to strengthen its response to reprisals. This policy paper  with the International Service for Human Rights, falls among an expanding body of concern about the reprisals that continue to take place against human rights defenders who cooperate with the Council’s key mechanisms, and the Council’s responsibilities in this regard. It was written in late 2011 thanks to input from a wide range of human rights practitioners working with and at the UN Human Rights Council.

By addressing the extent to which the Council mechanisms rely on private actors and intermediaries, the study contends that it cannot effectively fulfill its mandate without better protecting them – and being seen to be doing so.

I first look at the nature of the relationship between Council and cooperator, and the Council’s recognition of its risks, before outlining key limitations…

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Where violence and HIV meet: Intersections are explored at this year’s International AIDS Conference, and the Kolkata Conference Hub

Say NO UNiTE (link), 26 July 2012

Held every two years, the International AIDS Conference is the world’s largest conference on HIV, and plays a fundamental role in shaping the global response to HIV, and keeping HIV and AIDS on the international political agenda.

While the global climate for this year’s event in Washington DC (22-27 July) has seen  funding for the global HIV response diminish, important achievements are emerging on, among other areas, most-at-risk populations, the intersection of violence and HIV, parent-to-child transmission, and treatment as prevention. Attending for the first time as an official co-sponsor of UNAIDS, UN Women has been working to champion gender equality and women’s empowerment in the global response to HIV.

Among the week’s discussions, UN Women convened and moderated a panel of women leaders to highlight achievements in women’s leadership that are driving change and transformation of the HIV response; and co-sponsored events focused on…

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