WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, USAID announced four new grants to winners of the joint USAID-Humanity United Tech Challenge for Atrocity Prevention. The grants of up to $50,000 will help recipients partner with an operational NGO or an established human rights group to further develop and pilot their innovations to document atrocities and facilitate communication for those at risk.
“We launched the Tech Challenge with Humanity United two years ago to develop technologies to combat and prevent mass atrocities,” said USAID DRG Center Director Neil Levine. “We are pleased to provide funding to these winners who will improve communications with at-risk communities and enable organizations and activists to gather more information from hard-to-access areas.”
The new grants will support four projects: International Evidence Locker; Interactive Voice Response Junction; The Serval Project; and People’s Intelligence:
International Evidence Locker (IEL): IEL is a free, downloadable phone app that collects court-ready evidence while protecting witnesses. It enables a user to take a picture of an atrocity in progress, encrypt it, and send it instantaneously to a secure drop-box at a human rights organization for evidence storage or use in judicial proceedings. With their USAID grant, IEL will review the results of initial field tests conducted by staff of a high-profile human rights organization, then develop and deploy a second generation of IEL that responds to needs identified by frontline human rights defenders.
Interactive Voice Response (IVR) Junction: IVR Junction is a flexible voice-communication tool that allows users with limited connectivity or literacy to record and listen to posts, while the global community can access them online. Aditya Vashistha, a PhD student at the University of Washington and the creator of IVR Junction, will partner with two local organizations in sub-Saharan Africa to connect low-tech users and members of marginalized communities, such as refugees and asylum seekers.
Serval Project: This tool, deployed by Serval and the New Zealand Red Cross, offers software for smartphones that enables mobile communications that function without a phone tower during a disaster. Since the original Tech Challenge prize, the Serval Project has been developing Succinct Data software, which allows data that users enter into a smartphone to be compressed, and then transmitted affordably using cellular, SMS, or satellite connections. With the additional grant, Serval will further improve this prototype and deploy it with the New Zealand Red Cross in the field.
People’s Intelligence: This grant supports the further development of the Stichting People’s Intelligence method, making use of automated SMS or speak-to-tweet technologies to establish a conversation with victims and witnesses of mass atrocities. It will help them better document their stories, provide actionable information to victims and witnesses as well as relevant organizations, and assist with the verification of their stories by independent sources. This USAID grant will allow People’s Intelligence to convene a series of stakeholder consultations to better understand how the tool can be applied in the field.
Chairman Smith, Chairman Ros-Lehtinen, Ranking Member Bass, Ranking Member Deutch and Members of the Subcommittees, thank you for holding this hearing on such a timely and important issue. We, like you, are outraged by the violence waged by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) against Iraqis of all sects, ethnicities, and religions. The U.S. government is very focused on ending ISIL’s reign of terror and ensuring protection and access to humanitarian assistance for all its victims. We are particularly appalled by ISIL’s targeted and systematic efforts to drive out and potentially eradicate entire religious communities from their historic homelands in the Ninewa plains area and Sinjar district. Among ISIL’s clear ambitions is the destruction of Iraq’s rich religious heritage and ethnic diversity and absolute subjugation of all people within its reach.
The Iraqi people need and deserve a government that not only represents all of their voices but also provides basic government services and security, paving a stable and prosperous path forward for all the people of Iraq, regardless of religion or ethnicity. The State Department was very pleased to see the new government formed earlier this week, and we are urging them to quickly demonstrate their commitment to be responsive to the ongoing threat against minority populations, including the abduction of and sexual violence against women and children. We are also working with the Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government and with a wide array of international partners, to address the urgent needs of Iraqi forces, including Kurdish forces, as they continue to battle ISIL.
When ISIL took Mosul on June 9, the world once again was made witness to the heartbreaking human cost of this group’s brutality. Beyond the mass evictions and forced migrations perpetrated against Christians, Yezidis, Shia Muslims including Shabak and Turkmen, and others, we have seen reports of extrajudicial and mass killings, beheadings, abductions, forced conversions, torture, rape and sexual assault, using women and children as human shields, and people being burned or buried alive. Women and girls as young as 12 or 13 have been taken captive, to be sold as sex slaves or put into forced marriages with ISIL fighters.
Meanwhile, we realize that ISIL’s recent assault on northern and western Iraq is an extension of its brutal acts in Syria, where it has conducted a similar campaign of violence and atrocities against the Syrian population, targeting broad swathes of the population. There have been reports of mass killings in Christian and Alawite villages, conversion at gunpoint, beheadings, kidnappings, and extreme oppression and abuse of women from all communities. Two Syrian bishops and a priest were kidnapped by extremists in early- and mid-2013, and their fates remain unknown. And in February, ISIL announced that Christians in Raqqa, Syria must convert, pay a special tax administered during medieval times, or face death—just as it later did in Mosul, Iraq. This, Mr. Chairmen and Ranking Members, to say nothing of the unspeakable atrocities they have committed against members of their own sect, Sunni Muslims, who we’ve seen ISIL crucify in public squares and stone to death Sunni women accused of adultery, proudly tweeting and posting these horrific acts on Youtube and other social media.
The interconnected aspects of ISIL’s campaign of terror in both countries have the potential to further destabilize the region and dramatically increase gross violations of human rights.
Iraqi ethnic and religious minority populations suffer acutely. While exact numbers are not known, many organizations working with displaced Iraqis, as well as religious leaders and activists, believe nearly all of the Christian and Yezidi population in areas controlled or contested by ISIL have been displaced. These are communities that have lived on these lands for thousands of years, forced to flee their ancestral homeland. Shabak and Turkmen Shia have been significantly affected as well, with Turkmen leaders, reporting an estimated 300,000 Turkmen Shia were displaced. My colleagues from the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) and USAID will address the issue of displaced persons more thoroughly, so I will focus my testimony on ISIL’s brutality and persecution. But I do want to note the immensity of the needs the displaced now face, even to meet their most basic of necessities—clean water, something to feed their children, shelter from the scorching heat as well as the looming winter. These are the challenges my PRM and USAID colleagues are grappling with.
After about a week in Mosul, ISIL began ramping up the pace of religious persecution. Christians were barred from receiving work at public sector jobs and wage stipends. Christian churches and offices were looted and occupied by ISIL. Meanwhile, further west near the Syrian border, dozens of Yezidis were kidnapped for a $50,000 ransom to avoid execution. A group of Yezidi men held captive had their eyes gouged out for refusing to convert to Islam. They were then reportedly burned to death.
In addition to their attacks on religious minorities, ISIL targeted religious leaders of any group that opposed its unconditional and absolute dominance. According to UN officials, in June ISIL murdered at least 13 Sunni Muslim clerics in Mosul who had encouraged their followers to reject ISIL. They paid the ultimate sacrifice for refusing to submit to ISIL’s hateful ideology.
By mid-July, ISIL had destroyed hundreds of mosques and shrines throughout the territory it controlled, destroyed Christian statues of the Virgin Mary, and took sledgehammers to the tomb of the Prophet Jonah in Mosul.
Then we learned of the ultimatum against Christians, Yezidis, and at least some Shia groups in Mosul, that they must convert, pay a special tax I mentioned earlier, or vacate the city by July 19—or face execution. This ultimatum prompted a wave of hundreds more displaced families, robbed of all possessions as they fled the city. We received reports that ISIL took a reported five Christians unable to flee due to disability or illness to a mosque and forced them to profess acceptance of Islam.
ISIL’s second major offensive, on August 2 and 3 led to another wave of displaced people from Ninewa—again, many of them from towns with predominantly Christian or other minority populations. Some were fleeing for the second time. We heard heart-breaking reports of a 3-year old child taken from her mother by an ISIL fighter as the family was forced to continue on.
Concurrently, ISIL also advanced into Sinjar district near the Syrian border, a predominantly Yezidi region. With little warning, Kurdish forces retreated in the face of ISIL’s advance and the Yezidi population was left with almost no means of defending itself. Hundreds, if not thousands, were killed, and tens of thousands were stranded on Mount Sinjar where they sought refuge from the immediate onslaught, only to find themselves at risk of perishing from thirst or exposure.
Representatives of the Yezidi community in the United States contacted my bureau, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) immediately to share the terrible stories of suffering they were hearing from relatives trapped on the mountain, communicating via mobile phones they were sometimes able to charge using car batteries. As the crisis on Sinjar unfolded, my staff organized meetings with high-level officials at the State Department and the White House for representatives of the Yezidi community in the United States and we heard firsthand their stories and requests for assistance. They talked about hearing children crying for water in the background of phone calls with relatives. One man told us how he was on the phone with his brother as the family was fleeing ISIL fighters, and when he called back five minutes later no one answered because, as he learned from another relative, his brother had been shot in the back of the head as he was trying to shepherd his family to safety. One woman described how she had heard a woman being raped by ISIL fighters in the background of a call with another woman.
As you know, on August 7, in addition to authorizing operations to protect U.S. personnel, President Obama authorized a humanitarian effort to help save thousands of Iraqi civilians who were trapped on Mount Sinjar without food and water, facing almost certain death. This effort was reinforced by a series of targeted airstrikes to assist forces in Iraq as they fought to break ISIL’s siege of Mount Sinjar and protect the civilians trapped there. The U.S. military conducted seven nightly humanitarian air drops between August 8-13, delivering more than 114,000 meals and 35,000 gallons of water to those displaced on Mount Sinjar. Detailed information—and even GPS coordinates—provided by the Yezidi community in the U.S. on where the people were sheltered on Mount Sinjar helped inform decisions about where to drop aid. Targeted airstrikes helped protect the evacuation route as people were escaping. Our contacts in the Yezidi community also provided us information about where ISIL fighters were advancing or firing on evacuees as they escaped, and we shared this information immediately with the military. During that week, most civilians were able to evacuate from Mount Sinjar.
But not everyone in the surrounding area was able to flee. For example, residents of the village of Kocho were trapped in their village, held hostage for almost two weeks under the threat of death if they refused to convert to ISIL’s brutal, twisted version of Islam. On August 15, residents were rounded up at the village schoolyard, where women and children were loaded onto buses and taken away. The men were taken to the outskirts of town and executed, shot in the back of the head at the edge of shallow ditches.
The women and children from Kocho joined the hundreds upon hundreds of others being held captive by ISIL in various cities in northern Iraq. Hundreds of families have reportedly been pressured to convert, in some cases with severe coercion by, for example, forcing mothers to watch their young children beaten until they could no longer stand. In most cases, girls and unmarried women as young as age 12 are separated from mothers and children. We regularly receive blood-chilling reports of girls distributed to ISIL fighters as spoils of war, sold in markets in the cities as sex slaves, or held in houses in small groups where they are raped by a daily rotation of ISIL fighters. We have seen reports that ISIL trafficked hundreds of Yezidi women to Syria for its fighters there. We recently heard reports that a few dozen Christian women from Qaraqosh who had been unable to flee before ISIL’s recent offensive were taken to Mosul, likely to same fate as ISIL’s other women captives.
Truly, this brutality is beyond imagination, but despite the odds, a few captives have managed to escape, often when their ISIL guards are distracted, for example by airstrikes in the area. One woman shared her reaction after making a 50 kilometer hike from the village where she and her family had been held captive, through the wilderness, to get back to Mount Sinjar and the safe evacuation route the other IDPs had used: “My family—my husband, my two children, and I—were on the run from ISIS. After 20 hours of walking from the town of Til Azir to Mt. Sinjar, everyone was terrified, everyone was shaking, crying. We could only calm down after hearing U.S. jets above us. We felt, ‘There is still someone there to save us.’”
Officials throughout the Administration have been closely tracking developments on the ground, and in Washington we are in regular communication with representatives of the Iraqi Yezidi, Christian, and other religious communities in Iraq. They are sharing helpful information with us about ISIL abuses against their community members in northern Iraq and about humanitarian conditions their displaced community members are facing. These reports are invaluable as the entire U.S. government examines all the viable options for protecting Iraq’s minority vulnerable communities and halting the parade of atrocities ISIL is committing. My staff in DRL hears regularly from contacts in the Iraqi Christian diaspora in the U.S. and Iraqi Christians in Iraq with information about where aid is reaching IDPs and where more assistance or coordination is needed, which we share with colleagues in PRM and USAID, who also share information they hear from these communities with us. We’ve met with church leaders like the Patriarch of the Syriac Catholic Church, advocacy and aid groups like International Christian Concern and Catholic Relief Services, and human rights organizations like Yezidi Human Rights Organization—International. Our diplomats in Iraq have the same kinds of meetings regularly. Likewise, we collect reports from our contacts in religious minority groups facing discrimination about cases of abuse against minorities by local Iraqi or Kurdish security forces.
In Syria, after sustained engagement by U.S. officials, the Syrian Opposition Coalition has committed itself to “the protection and inclusion of all the constituent groups of the Syrian people,” including religious minorities, and to meeting its obligation to “ensure the rights, integration, and participation of all Syrians, regardless of religion…” in the transition process and in the new government. We have received assurances from a number of armed opposition leaders that they understand and are committed to these principles, and we continue to closely monitor the situation.
In Iraq we have repeatedly emphasized to both the Iraqi government and the KRG the need to take measures to protect all Iraqis, including Iraq’s vulnerable religious and ethnic minority communities. During these formative days for the new government, we are continuing to urge political party leaders and lawmakers to be inclusive in their governance, responsive to the needs and concerns of all Iraq’s people. In a phone call with President Obama on Monday, the new Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, expressed his commitment to work with all communities in Iraq. We will continue to press Iraqi and Kurdish regional government officials to take appropriate action to ensure the security and rights of members of ethnic and religious minority communities are respected.
The Government of Iraq has continued to send equipment to the Kurdish forces – the cooperation between Baghdad and Erbil on this effort is at historic levels and we hope to continue to build on that. The Iraqi Air Force continues to provide direct support to Kurdish forces engaged in combat against ISIL. We are also working closely with the Government of Iraq to expedite Foreign Military Sales that will help Baghdad resupply Iraqi forces, including Kurdish forces in the north.
At the same time, we have been and will continue to invest in measures to address the underlying causes of and motivations for violent extremism, religious intolerance, societal polarization, and elected officials. We are working with NGOs, civil society groups, and religious leaders to build relationships between religious communities, combat terrorist propaganda about religious minorities, and administer programs that promote tolerance and empower minorities to better advocate for their interests and rights.
In conclusion, ISIL’s systematic persecution of religious minorities in northern Iraq, and their brutal and oppressive ideology in general, is of utmost concern to the Department and to the Administration. We are painfully aware of the suffering of so many people in Iraq, and in Syria, simply because their beliefs differ from those of these ruthless, inhuman terrorists.
Mr. Chairmen, members of the Committee, thank you again for the opportunity to address you today and for your engagement on this important issue. I would be pleased to respond to any questions you may have. Thank you.
Thank you, Uzra, for that kind introduction. It is my pleasure to welcome you all to the public launch of the Gender Based Violence Emergency Response and Protection Initiative. I’d like to start by thanking the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, as well as Vital Voices, and Avon for their work on this initiative, and for making it possible for all of us to be here today. Let’s give them a round of applause.
We are here today to recognize that through enhanced coordination and strategic partnerships, we can bridge the difference between despair and hope in the life of a person who has experienced violence due to their sex or gender.
With $1 million in seed money, the GBV Initiative fills a gap to assist the most vulnerable individuals with urgent help when it’s most needed. The U.S. Department of State, Vital Voices, and the Avon Foundation have come together to steward a global network of dedicated civil society organizations to provide concrete, targeted assistance to individuals in need, particularly women and girls.
This global network of organizations includes some of the best of their kind from around the world. Lead consortium partners include Promundo, the International Organization for Migration, and the American Bar Association’s Rule of Law Initiative.
Now, when we hear of egregious cases of gender-based violence, like a case of forced marriage or human trafficking or an individual under credible threat of imminent attack due to their sex or gender, we can do more than just to connect people with experts or local organizations and hope for the best. Now, we can directly help those local organizations support the survivors by paying for the critical and timely care that is needed.
Of course, immediate protection of survivors of GBV is essential, but so too is addressing the systemic challenges that perpetuate violence, gender inequality, and injustice. This initiative also provides targeted training to key countries for the implementation of legislation through coordinated community responses and survivor-centered approaches.
This new Initiative addresses this need by supporting a specialized training program for law enforcement, judges, prosecutors, government officials, and NGO advocates, including men and boys. Over the next two years, the project will assist criminal justice professionals and service providers in India, Mexico, Nepal, South Africa, and other countries to develop and provide training that promotes a victim-centered approach to holding offenders accountable for their crimes.
The Gender Based Violence Emergency Response and Protection Initiative is one of many coordinated responses from the U.S. Department of State, and will be implemented in tandem with other key initiatives like the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration and USAID’s Safe from the Start that protects women and girls from the very beginning of conflicts and disasters; and the essential diplomatic, policy and programmatic leadership provided by the Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues to ensure that gender equality and female empowerment are fully integrated in the formulation and conduct of U.S. foreign policy.
Any person who has faced violence due to their gender should not be forever defined by that experience. Access to care and services are an essential part of supporting personal resilience. It is our hope that this Initiative can help fill the need for emergency services, bolster the community of care by supporting a global network of advocates and practitioners, and ultimately, prevent such violence from happening again.
Thank you for your support for this initiative, and congratulations on its launch.
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The Obama administration is sending strong signals that it may expand its air assault against ISIS to Syria, despite the fact that such a move would probably contravene international law. First, National Security Council advisor Ben Rhodes tells NPR that the USA is not ruling out hitting ISIS in Syria. Then, the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey says this: “This is an organization that has an apocalyptic end-of-days strategic vision that will eventually have to be defeated. Can they be defeated without addressing that part of the organization that resides in Syria? The answer is no.” (NYT http://nyti.ms/1roTeo3)
Navi Pillay’s Parting Shot to the Security Council…Outgoing U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay gave her final briefing to the UN Security Council. Her tenure ends at the end of the month, where she will be replaced by Prince Zeid of Jordan–who just happens to currently serve on the Council. Pillay was rather unsparing in her criticism of the ways in which divisions in the council prevented adequete responses to urgent human rights catastrophes. Money quote: “I firmly believe that greater responsiveness by this council would have saved hundreds of thousands of lives” (VOA http://bit.ly/1s5wZiA)
The two U.S. patients who were treated for Ebola have been discharged from Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, where they had been in an isolation ward since returning from Liberia early this month. They are the first patients treated for Ebola on American soil. (NPR http://n.pr/1wdDjLp)
South Africa said on Thursday that due to fears over the spread of the Ebola virus it was banning travellers from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone from entering the country, apart from its own citizens. (Reuters http://bit.ly/1s4VFrr
Up to 30,000 people could have used experimental treatments or vaccines so far in the world’s worst outbreak of Ebola currently plaguing West Africa, British scientists said. (Reuters http://bit.ly/1s4W4u4)
While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease – using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. (VOA http://bit.ly/1wdHWF4)
Hundreds of residents of a Liberian slum lined up to receive rice and water from government officials Thursday in their neighborhood which was sealed off from the rest of the capital in an attempt to halt the spread of Ebola. (AP http://yhoo.it/1we7vWy)
An emergency research call has been launched to help fight the world’s worst Ebola outbreak in West Africa, with the British government and the Wellcome Trust medical charity pledging a combined $10.8 million. (VOA http://bit.ly/1wdIlaI)
Children accused of being members of armed groups in the conflict in Mali are languishing in adult jails while human rights abuses continue, said Amnesty International. (ReliefWeb http://bit.ly/1wdC5jc)
A cash transfer scheme in Zambia provides a bi-monthly cash allowance of $25 and $50 respectively for vulnerable households and households where there are people with disabilities, to help people deal with shocks created by climate. (IPS http://bit.ly/1wdDTZq)
Uganda has been hailed as a success story in fighting HIV/AIDS, with prevalence rates dropping from 18 percent in 1992 to 6.4 percent in 2005. But activists fear a new HIV Bill will lead to lead to people shunning testing and treatment. (IPS http://bit.ly/1s4URmz)
The 40,000 people sheltering from South Sudan’s civil war in a flooded and crowded UN camp are enduring conditions “barely compatible with life and incompatible with human dignity”, and must be helped before disease and danger force them back into the conflict zone, MSF has warned. (Guardian http://bit.ly/1s4X0yA)
Fighting erupted in the Central African Republic capital Bangui, killing a humanitarian worker and injuring dozens of civilians hours after the UN said it would dispatch thousands of peacekeepers to quell religious violence. (Guardian http://bit.ly/1wdH2sh)
Human Rights Watch says South Sudan’s army used child soldiers during recent fighting against opposition forces in violation of international law. (VOA http://bit.ly/1wdIdI7)
The UN refugee agency called for East African countries hosting Somali refugees to make voluntary repatriation possible and sustainable. (VOA http://bit.ly/1wdIw5L)
West Africa must openly confront its political and governance weaknesses to curb the growing drug trade in the region, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo said. http://yhoo.it/1wdIYkq
Former child soldiers in war-torn Somalia are being held in prison conditions in foreign-funded camps, “punishing” rather than rehabilitating them, the top UN children’s envoy said Thursday. http://yhoo.it/1s5wcOw
America has returned to war, of a sort, in Iraq with airstrikes that have intensified in recent days against Islamic State militants. But details about the execution of this limited campaign, which so far includes no reported U.S. ground combat, are thin. (AP http://yhoo.it/1we896t)
About 10,000 mourners on Thursday buried three senior commanders of the armed wing of Hamas who were killed in a predawn airstrike by Israel, the most significant blow to the group’s leadership since Israel’s operation in Gaza began more than six weeks ago.(NYT http://nyti.ms/1roUoQi)
Sri Lanka’s government is scrambling to ease the impact of record harvest losses on millions of farmers as the country enters its tenth month of an acute dry spell. (IRIN http://bit.ly/1s4SLTu)
Thousands of rescuers combed through the wreckage of homes engulfed by landslides in western Japan on Thursday in the slim hope of finding survivors, a day after a wall of mud claimed at least 39 lives. http://yhoo.it/1wdJuyZ
Flooding in Cambodia has killed at least 45 people since last month, officials said Thursday. (AP http://yhoo.it/1we7lyA)
Brazil expands labor rights for domestic workers through new legislation. (AP http://yhoo.it/1s50Jfy)
Police on Mexico’s Caribbean coast arrested 13 activists during a demonstration by Maya Indians against water rate hikes. (NYT http://nyti.ms/1roUtna)
South Sudan’s Looming Famine (UN Dispatch http://bit.ly/1nfAQq7)
How Uganda Stopped Previous Ebola Outbreaks (DW http://bit.ly/1s5yayk)
Microfinance in Jordan isn’t helping to empower women (Guardian http://bit.ly/1s5yvRI)
Can alternative economic indicators ever be any good if they are devised solely by experts? (From Poverty to Power http://bit.ly/1piMipH)
Shouldn’t “anti-poverty” and “pro-middle class” be synonyms? (Campaign for Boring Development http://bit.ly/1piMG7Q)
There always needs to be a product: ‘Self-reflection’, volunteering & the emerging development entertainment industrial complex (Aidnography http://bit.ly/1nfB7tn)
150 million bank accounts – is that enough? (IPA http://bit.ly/1piN32i)
A new study finds cancer affects even simple, ancient multicellular organisms — which means the disease and the deaths it causes may simply be a part of life. (NPR http://n.pr/1wdDd6u)
The international community needs to stop looking at neglected tropical diseases as a sub-Saharan African problem and realize that the G20 countries are now home to the “lion’s share” of the dangerous, debilitating, yet low-profile illnesses, a US expert has warned. (Guardian http://bit.ly/1s4Yf0v)