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5 easy ways to promote human rights in 2014

Strawberries and chocolate go together like cancer and child slave labor.
Sandra Mu, Getty Images

Do you wish you could help make the world a better place, but are too busy to join the Peace Corps?

Well, never fear--these five steps to promote human rights require neither a huge time commitment nor a major lifestyle change.

All you have to do to have a huge impact is sign a few petitions and pay a little more attention to where your food, clothing and entertainment come from.

Be sure to spread the word, so your friends can make a difference too!

Buy child-slave-labor-free chocolate
Buy child-slave-labor-free chocolate Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Buy child-slave-labor-free chocolate

It is estimated that 70% of the world's chocolate comes from beans grown on cocoa farms in West African countries like Ivory Coast and Ghana, where hundreds of thousands of children work for 80 to 100 hours a week under brutal conditions.

The children--mostly 11 to 16 years old or even younger--are either purchased under false pretenses from their impoverished parents, or outright kidnapped.

At the cocoa farms the children are forced to work without pay, education, or adequate food, and are often beaten. Most will never see their families again.

Some chocolate companies (notably Hershey) have simply refused to address the pervasive abuses of their cocoa suppliers.

However, it isn't hard to keep child slave labor out of your chocolate.

According to chocolate expert Clay Gordon, the best way to ensure your treats are slavery-free is to purchase short-supply-chain chocolates identified as "direct trade," or better yet, single-origin goodies labeled "bean-to-bar."

Bay Area residents need look no farther than our own San Francisco-based Dandelion Chocolate for bean-to-bar confections made right here in the Mission District.

The next best thing to single-origin chocolates are products labeled Fair Trade, Equal Exchange, Fairtrade, or Rainforest Alliance (with the last having the added advantage of guaranteeing treats that are sustainably produced, as well as slavery-free).

We North Bay residents are fortunate enough to have our own Petaluma-based Fair Trade-certified retailer, Sjaak's Organic Chocolates.

Sjaak's (pronounced like the French name "Jacques") also makes delicious vegan confections, so customers can enjoy locally-made, organic chocolate that is free from both child and animal suffering.

Other slavery-free chocolate producers include large companies like Cadbury, Clif Bar, Newman's Own Organics, and Ben & Jerry's, as well as smaller retailers such as Cloud Nine, Dagoba Organic Chocolate, Sweet Earth, Taza, The Endangered Species Chocolate Company, and Lulu's (which is raw, vegan, organic, and low-glycemic as well as fair-trade!).

Want to do more? Take a moment to sign a petition to major cocoa traders asking them to stop supporting child slave labor.

Support gay rights at the 2014 Winter Olympics
Support gay rights at the 2014 Winter Olympics Matthew Stockman, Getty Images

Support gay rights at the 2014 Winter Olympics

Russia made headlines in June 2013 with its new law banning any public show of support (defined as "propaganda") for lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender people.

Activists claim the law has contributed to hate speech and hate crimes against LGBT Russians, including "at least 26 murders," by stoking widespread homophobia.

Despite a worldwide outcry, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has refused to take a stand against a law that violates its own charter.

In response, an international consortium of pro-gay rights athletes and activists formed Principle 6, named for the anti-discrimination clause in the IOC's charter.

By wearing Principle 6 clothing, Olympic athletes, fans and supporters can show solidarity with LGBT Russians without violating the so-called propaganda ban.

Principle 6 has also become an official sponsor of the Australian Men's and Women's Olympic bobsled teams; watch for the red "6" logo on their sleds during the Games in February!

The majority of the proceeds from the sale of Principle 6 gear (made by Los Angeles's sweatshop-free American Apparel) will go to LGBT-rights groups in Russia.

Gay-rights supporters can also sign a Principle 6 petition to the IOC sponsored by Athlete Ally, as well as a petition to Russian President Vladimir Putin and other world leaders hosted by All Out.

Buy organic strawberries only
Buy organic strawberries only Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Buy organic strawberries only

California produces 90% of the nation's strawberries, most of which are treated with what one expert called "the most toxic chemical on earth," methyl iodide.

According to Pesticide Action Network, methyl iodide is "so reliably carcinogenic" that scientists use it to create cancer cells for laboratory experiments.

Methyl iodide does not accumulate in the strawberries themselves, but it can contaminate groundwater and drift through the air, threatening the health of farmworkers and anyone who lives near a fumigated strawberry field.

In addition to cancer, the chemical can cause late-term miscarriages, neurological damage, and thyroid disorders among people working with or near the fumigant.

To protect farmworkers, their neighbors, and our groundwater from this toxic compound, be sure to purchase only organic strawberries, and urge your friends to do the same. At farmers' markets, be suspicious of berries labeled "no-spray," as they may have been fumigated with methyl iodide before planting.

The more consumers demand organic strawberries, the more growers will get the message that using methyl iodide and other poisonous chemicals in agriculture is unacceptable.

Please also sign the Pesticide Action Network's petition to the EPA, demanding that the agency reevaluate its industry-influenced decision to approve the use of methyl iodide in the United States.

If California won't do the right thing, perhaps the EPA will.

Fight slavery in Uzbek cotton fields
Fight slavery in Uzbek cotton fields

Fight slavery in Uzbek cotton fields

Every year, according to the anti-slavery organization Walk Free, the government of Uzbekistan forces over a million of its citizens to leave their homes, jobs and schools to pick cotton in state-owned fields.

Both children and adults are subjected to this slave labor, and are beaten and threatened for failing to meet daily quotas.

During the harvest time, Uzbek schools are closed and hospitals become dangerously understaffed, as even teachers, doctors and nurses are conscripted to pick cotton.

Over 100 clothing retailers have pledged not to buy slave-picked Uzbek cotton, but some of those companies--including Target and Nike--continue to purchase supplies from Daewoo International, which buys about 20% of the annual Uzbek cotton crop.

To fight state-sponsored slavery in Uzbekistan, sign these petitions to Target and Nike, and buy slavery-free apparel from H&M or Adidas instead.

Boycott Vietnamese "blood cashews"
Boycott Vietnamese "blood cashews" Midori,

Boycott Vietnamese "blood cashews"

Cashew nuts are a delicious, nutritious, and highly popular food. However, husking cashews is a nasty business.

Cashew resin is caustic, and the dust released while husking the nuts (actually seeds) can cause respiratory diseases and blindness.

Small wonder, then, that workers willing to process cashews are hard to come by.

Vietnam--the world's leading cashew exporter--has solved this problem by creating fake drug rehabilitation centers where tens of thousands of detainees are forced to husk and peel cashews for six to seven hours a day.

According to Human Rights Watch, children as well as adults are rounded up and sent to the forced labor "rehab centers," where they may be imprisoned for years.

Boat People SOS (BPSOS) reports that the Vietnamese government also forces political prisoners and other inmates to process cashews.

In many cases, the slave laborers are denied access to gloves or masks that could protect them from severe burns, respiratory distress and vision loss.

Those who protest are routinely beaten, whipped, starved, shocked, and punished with solitary confinement.

Sadly, the United States is the world's number one purchaser of cashews from Vietnam.

To combat the scourge of Vietnam's "blood cashews," join the boycott. Look for nuts sourced from Nigeria or Peru instead.

If you can't find the source of your favorite cashews on the packaging, contact the manufacturer and make your preferences known.

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