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Inter Press Service (IPS) Human Rights Feed
Responding to growing criticism by human rights groups and foreign governments, U.S. President Barack Obama Thursday announced potentially significant shifts in what his predecessor called the “global war on terror”.
In a major policy address at the National Defense University here, Obama said drone strikes against terrorist suspects abroad will be carried out under substantially more limited conditions than during his first term in office.
He also renewed his drive to close the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which currently only holds 166 prisoners.
In particular, he announced the lifting of a three-year-old moratorium on repatriating Yemeni detainees to their homeland and the appointment in the near future of senior officials at both the State Department and the Pentagon to expedite the transfer the 30 other prisoners who have been cleared for release to third countries.
In addition, he said he will press Congress to amend and ultimately repeal its 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) against Al-Qaeda and others deemed responsible for the 9/11 attacks “(in order) to determine how we can continue to fight terrorists without keeping America on a perpetual war-time footing.”
The AUMF created the legal basis for most of the actions – and alleged excesses — by U.S. military and intelligence agencies against alleged terrorists and their supporters since 9/11.
“The AUMF is now nearly 12 years old. The Afghan War is coming to an end. Core Al-Qaeda is a shell of its former self,” he declared. “Groups like AQAP (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) must be dealt with, but in the years to come, not every collection of thugs that labels themselves Al-Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States.”
“Unless we discipline our thinking and our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states,” he warned.
His remarks gained a cautious – if somewhat sceptical and impatient – welcome from some of the groups that have harshly criticised Obama’s for his failure to make a more decisive break with some of former President George W. Bush’s policies and to close Guantanamo, and his heavy first-term reliance on drone strikes against Al-Qaeda and other terrorist suspects.
“President Obama is right to say that we cannot be on a war footing forever – but the time to take our country off the global warpath and fully restore the rule of law is now, not at some indeterminate future point,” said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Romero especially praised Obama’s initial moves to transfer detainees at Guantanamo but noted that he had failed to offer a plan to deal with those prisoners who are considered too dangerous to release but who cannot be tried in U.S. courts for lack of admissible evidence. He also called the new curbs on drone strikes “promising” but criticised Obama’s continued defence of targeted killings.
Obama’s speech came amidst growing controversy over his use of drone strikes in countries – particularly Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia – with which the U.S. is not at war. Since 9/11, the U.S. has conducted more than 400 strikes in the three countries with a total death toll estimated to range between 3,300 and nearly 5,000, depending on the source. The vast majority of these strikes were carried out during Obama’s first term.
While top administration officials have claimed that almost all of the victims were suspected high-level terrorists, human rights groups, as well as local sources, have insisted that many civilian non-combatants – as well as low-level members of militant groups — have also been killed.
In a letter sent to Obama last month, some of the country’s leading human rights groups, including the ACLU, Amnesty International, and Human Rights First, questioned the legality of the criteria used by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) to select targets.
Earlier this month, the legal adviser to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Harold Koh, also criticised the administration for the lack of transparency and discipline surrounding the drone programme.
In his speech Thursday, Obama acknowledged the “wide gap” between his government and independent assessments of casualties, but he strongly defended the programme as effective, particularly in crippling Al-Qaeda’s Pakistan-based leadership, legal under the AUMF, and more humane than the alternative in that “(c)onventional airpower or missiles are far less precise than drones, and likely to cause more civilian casualties and local outrage.”
“To do nothing in the face of terrorist networks would invite far more civilian casualties – not just in our cities at home and facilities abroad, but also in the very places – like Sana’a and Kabul and Mogadishu – where terrorists seek a foothold,” he said.
According to a “Fact Sheet” released by the White House, lethal force can be used outside of areas of active hostilities when there is a “near certainty that a terrorist target who poses a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons” is present and that non-combatants will not be injured or killed. In addition, U.S. officials must determine that capture is not feasible and that local authorities cannot or will not effectively address the threat.
The fact sheet appeared to signal an end to so-called “signature strikes” that have been used against groups of men whose precise is identity is unknown but who, based on surveillance, are believed to be members of Al-Qaeda or affiliated groups.
If the target is a U.S. citizen, such as Anwar Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric who the administration alleged had become an operational leader of AQAP and was killed in a 2011 drone strike in Yemen, Obama said there would be an additional layer of review and that he would engage Congress on the possibility of establishing a secret court or an independent oversight board in the executive branch.
On Wednesday, the Justice Department disclosed that three other U.S. citizens – none of whom were specifically targeted – have been killed in drone strikes outside Afghanistan.
On Guantanamo, where 102 of the 166 remaining detainees are participating in a three-month-old hunger strike, Obama said he would permit the 56 Yemenis there whose have been cleared for release to return home “on a case-by-case basis”. He also re-affirmed his determination to transfer all remaining detainees to super-max or military prisons on U.S. territory – a move that Congress has so far strongly resisted. He also said he would insist that every detainee have access to the courts to review their case.
In addition to addressing the festering drone issue and Guantanamo, however, the main thrust of Thursday’s speech appeared designed to mark what Obama called a “crossroads” in the struggle against Al-Qaeda and its affiliates and how the threat from them has changed.
“Lethal yet less capable Al-Qaeda affiliates. Threats to diplomatic facilities and businesses abroad. Homegrown extremists. This is the future of terrorism,” he said. “We must take these threats seriously, and do all we can to confront them. But as we shape our response, we have to recognise that the scale of this threat closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11.”
“Beyond Afghanistan,” he said later, “we must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror’ – but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.”
Obama also disclosed he had signed a Presidential Policy Guidance Wednesday to codify the more restrictive guidelines governing the use of force.
White House officials who brief reporters before the speech suggested that, among other provisions, the Guidance called for gradually shifting responsibility for drone strikes and targeted killings from the CIA to the Pentagon – a reform long sought by human-rights groups.
*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.
Development groups and corruption watchdogs are applauding landmark new standards adopted Wednesday by an international initiative focused on ensuring greater transparency among oil and mining companies operating particularly in developing countries.
Yet some civil society advocates are also warning that the new standards, agreed ahead of a board meeting of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) being held Thursday and Friday in Sydney, don’t go far enough.
“The EITI needs to keep its bite,” Corinna Gilfillan, an EITI board member and director of the U.S. office of Global Witness, an advocacy group, said following the unveiling of the new standards. “It needs to apply and build on its new rules and be prepared to be a driver rather than a follower of governance reform to avoid diminishing relevance.”
EITI has been in place since 2002, created out of civil society discussions over how resource-rich developing countries can escape the “resource curse” – ensuring that income from their extractives industries is used for public-sector funding rather than risk being siphoned off by corrupt government officials or cronies. Over the past decade, the initiative is said to have facilitated reporting on nearly a trillion dollars in revenues from natural resources.
EITI includes governments, the private sector and civil society, currently covering 39 countries and requiring those members to engage in public reporting of revenues from within their extractives sectors. While most of those members are in Africa, on Wednesday the heads of France and the United Kingdom agreed to become members, following a similar pledge made by the United States in 2011.
Other Western countries engaged with EITI in some respect include Norway, where the EITI secretariat is housed, and Australia. When the U.K. hosts the Group of Eight (G8) rich countries next month, transparency is slated to be a central focus.
While there has been much optimism about the aim and provenance of EITI, recent years have offered increasing evidence that its requirements have not been strong enough. According to a 2011 internal evaluation, compliance with EITI requirements was not necessarily “bring[ing] about fundamental changes” in line with the initiative’s principles.
Evidence of this failure can be seen in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Although an EITI member, Congo’s government “was able to sell in secret five major mining assets to anonymous shell companies,” according to research by Global Witness. “As a result, the DRC may lose out on around 1.36 billion dollars, twice the country’s health and education budgets.”
In mid-April, the EITI board temporarily suspended Congo, citing a failure to ensure “full disclosure and assurance of the reliability of the figures”. Yet the growing evidence of the EITI standards’ potential ineffectiveness also led to the push for the new rules unveiled Wednesday.
“The new EITI Standard will address a number of the recommendations made [by civil society], including requiring more transparency of state-owned companies and natural resource funds,” Jonas Moberg, head of the EITI international secretariat, told IPS ahead of the Sydney conference.
The standards will now impose significant new reporting requirements on EITI member countries, requiring regular project-to-project details, covering extraction licenses, how those licenses were awarded, and companies involved in the sector. State oil companies, too, will now need to disclose how much product they’re selling.
“The EITI has finally recognised that, when it comes to complex industries, merely disclosing payments is not enough,” Daniel Kaufmann, president of the Revenue Watch Institute, a U.S. watchdog group, said Wednesday. “The new Standard could make EITI more effective in addressing the vast governance challenges facing resource-rich countries.”
The extractives industry can have a “tremendous impact – good or ill” on a country’s development, Robert F. Cekuta, a U.S. State Department official, said at the EITI conference Wednesday.
“Mismanagement of these resources, as we have seen too many times, can impede economic growth, reduce opportunities for trade and investment, divert critically needed funding from social services and other government activities, and contribute to instability and conflict,” he noted.
“At the same time … proper, sound management of the sector means revenues generated from oil, gas and mining can fuel a country’s economic growth, producing jobs and fostering responsible investments in infrastructure, health, education, and other high-impact sectors, as well as appropriate savings.”
While Cekuta expressed his government’s strong support for the new rules, the U.S. has already passed legislation – known as Section 1504 of the financial regulatory Dodd-Frank Act – that would impose stronger standards on U.S.-listed extractives companies than the new EITI rules would require. The European Union is expected to put in place a similar law next month.
For this reason, some proponents of greater transparency have expressed concern that EITI is losing its pioneering role.
“The EITI’s influence rests on its being seen as a totemic reformers club which governments and companies want to be part of,” Global Witness said following the announcement of the new standards. “This attraction will fade if the initiative is seen to be merely playing catch-up with more dynamic reforms taking place elsewhere.”
The group points in particular to a rollback on civil society calls to require that extractives contracts be publicly disclosed, an obligation that the new standards would merely encourage rather than mandate. Likewise, the new standards will only require that full company ownership information is publicised by 2016.
Global Witness and others are also pushing EITI to ensure that the new reams of data are as user-friendly as possible, in order to encourage collation and analysis by public watchdogs.
Meanwhile, an interesting disconnect has cropped up between events in Sydney and Washington. On the one hand, several of the world’s largest oil companies – including ExxonMobil, Shell and Chevron – sit on the EITI board and are thus inferred to be in agreement with the newly revised transparency rules.
On the other hand, these companies are currently part of a lawsuit here attempting to dismantle Section 1504 of the Dodd-Frank Act, the legislation on which the new EITI standards are mostly closely based.
“Protection of the law is essential for investors to asses a company’s risk and for communities in resource-rich countries to hold governments to account,” Ian Gary, senior policy manager of Oxfam America’s oil, gas and mining programme, said from Sydney.
“This lawsuit is wholly incompatible with the industry’s transparency commitments and support of payment disclosure through [EITI]. It is unacceptable that oil companies should receive reputation benefits by supporting a transparency initiative while at the same time fighting a landmark payment disclosure law in U.S. courts.”
There is a “deficit of justice” in Brazil, where the police themselves sometimes join the ranks of organised crime, in the form of militias, according to Amnesty International.
In the past few years, significant advances have been made in Brazil in terms of ensuring basic rights, but there are still problems in many areas, Atila Roque, director of the Brazilian chapter of the London-based rights group, said Wednesday.
Amnesty’s Annual Report 2013: The State of the World’s Human Rights, released Wednesday, analyses the situation in 159 countries and dedicates over four pages to Brazil. It notes the country’s high rates of violent crime, and the excessive use of force and even torture by those in charge of law enforcement.
“The threat to the life of the population in general posed by criminal activities is still serious, and the state bodies that should guarantee the rights of society often become the agents of violations of those rights,” Roque told IPS.
Rio de Janeiro’s militias - squads of rogue police who have formed illegal vigilante gangs and dominate entire neighbourhoods – are an extreme case, Roque said, because they are made up of agents who “use the uniform as an instrument to break the law and join the world of crime.”
The activist said the state is having trouble fighting this new form of organised crime.
“This phenomenon has gained visibility in recent years and reveals, above all, a process of deterioration in public security, because of the failure to contain the expansion of organised crime within the very ranks of the police,” Roque said.
The policy of creating ‘Police Pacification Units’ in Rio de Janeiro favelas or shantytowns has been one of the measures used to bring down soaring homicide rates. But the community policing strategy has not extended to favelas dominated by the militias made up of corrupt police.
“If this problem is not addressed in-depth, there will be no improvement in terms of justice and human rights,” Roque said.
The Amnesty report says at least 200,000 more guards are needed in the country’s prisons, where it describes conditions as “cruel, inhuman and degrading.”
Roque said that due to an aggressive incarceration policy, the prison population in this country of 198 million people has climbed to over 500,000 – a number only surpassed by the United States, China and Russia.
Worse, over 40 percent of inmates have not yet been sentenced, and a number of them may not even be found guilty in the end.
An Amnesty delegation that visited prisons in the state of Amazonas in northwest Brazil last year to investigate reports of abuse “saw inmates in foetid, overcrowded, insecure cells.
“In several prisons women and minors were detained in the same units as men, and there were numerous reports of torture, including near-suffocation with a plastic bag, beatings and electric shocks by the state military police,” the report added.
Indigenous people especially vulnerable
The Amnesty report also focuses on the plight of the Guarani-Kaiowá indigenous people in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, who are facing intimidation, violence and threats of being forced off their ancestral land.
“Peasant and indigenous leaders in that region are vulnerable to violence at the hands of landowners, and the risk of death remains high,” Roque said, referring to “the organised extermination of a people with the collusion of the state in the face of apathy on the part of society.”
Amnesty criticised a July 2012 attorney general’s office resolution authorising mining and hydroelectric projects and military constructions in indigenous territories without the prior consultation to which they are entitled under International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, which was ratified by Brazil in 2002.
Flavio Machado, regional coordinator of the Conselho Indigenista Missionário (CIMI), a Catholic missionary organisation that works on behalf of indigenous rights, told IPS that native people are “completely disregarded” by the authorities in Brazil and are facing the most complex situations seen since the 1964-1985 dictatorship.
“There is a concerted attack on indigenous people. The demarcation of indigenous territory is moving ahead slowly, and they are treated as second-class citizens,” said Machado, who worked with Amnesty on the indigenous rights section in the organisation’s annual report.
The 45,000-strong Guarani-Kaiowá community is the second-largest native group in the country, where 0.4 percent of the population is indigenous. Most of the Guarani-Kaiowá live in small areas of land in the southern part of the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, where they face alarming levels of violence.
The overall homicide rate in Brazil is 27.4 per 100,000 population, according to the 2012 Map of Violence. But the murder rate among the Guarani-Kaiowá is 140 per 100,000, Machado said.
In the last 10 years, 12 indigenous leaders were killed in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul alone. Most of them were Guarani-Kaiowá.
“The violence is exercised by ranchers and their paid gunmen,” reported CIMI, which is linked to the Catholic bishops’ conference. “There is a militia to kill indigenous people and prevent the demarcation of their ancestral land by the authorities. So far only 10 percent of their territory has been officially recognised.”
But Machado said the most serious problem faced by the Guarani-Kaiowá is the high suicide rate, caused by anguish over the lack of prospects for the future. According to the Health Ministry’s special office on indigenous health, there were 611 suicides in that ethnic group between 2000 and 2012.
Survival International, a human rights organisation that campaigns for the rights of indigenous peoples, reported that ”the Guarani suffer a wave of suicide unequalled in South America.”
“This is the consequence of the process of confinement in small areas without possibilities for development,” Machado said.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has not received representatives of the country’s indigenous groups since taking office in January 2011, despite their numerous requests, CIMI reported.
For years India’s pro-liberalisation, Congress party-led coalition government chafed at civil society groups getting in the way of grand plans to boost growth through the setting up of mega nuclear power parks, opening up the vast mineral-rich tribal lands to foreign investment and selling off public assets.
Now, at the end of its tether, the Interior Ministry has cracked the whip on hundreds of non-governmental organisations engaged in activities that “prejudicially affect the public interest.”
"...The government is trying to promote globalisation while cracking down on the globalisation of dissent." -- Achin Vanaik
On Apr. 30 several NGOs were informed that the bank accounts through which they receive foreign funding had been frozen.
“It is shocking what the government has done – but not surprising given the increasingly authoritarian, undemocratic and repressive measures being directed…against anyone who is seen to challenge or disagree with their positions and decisions,” Lalita Ramdas, anti-nuclear campaigner and board chair of Greenpeace International, told IPS.
Ramdas said NGOs concerned with nuclear power, human rights, environment and ecology – areas where corporate and industrial interests were likely to be questioned – appeared to be particular targets of the government order.
Among the worst affected is the Indian Social Action Forum (INSAF), a network of more than 700 NGOs that is currently challenging, in the Supreme Court, the government’s restrictions on foreign funding reaching groups that engage in activities that can be described as “political” in nature.
In its court petition INSAF described itself as an organisation that believes that “the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution of India need to be safeguarded against blatant and rampant violations by the State and private corporations.”
INSAF said it has “actively campaigned against land grabs by corporations, ecological disaster by mining companies, water privatisation, genetically modified foods, hazardous nuclear power (and) anti-people policies of international financial institutions like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank.”
INSAF declared in court that it “firmly believes in a secular and peaceful social order and opposes communalism and the targeted attacks on the lives and rights of people including religious minorities, and regularly organises campaigns, workshops, conventions, fact-findings, people’s tribunals, solidarity actions for people’s movements and educational publications.”
“With that kind of a profile we were expecting this crackdown,” Anil Chaudhary, coordinator of INSAF, told IPS. “Still, the government could have waited for the Supreme Court verdict.”
“At this rate,” he said, “organisations working against discrimination of women and (advocating) for their empowerment through participation in local bodies could be termed “political”, as (well as) organisations working for farmers’ rights.
“The same arbitrariness can be applied to green NGOs trying to protect the environment against mindless industrialisation.”
Chaudhary thinks it unfair that NGOs critical of government policies are being singled out. “Instead of selectively freezing the funding of groups under INSAF, the government should order a blanket ban on all foreign funding.”
Among INSAF’s many campaigns is an intiative to bring international financial institutions like the World Bank under legislative scrutiny for their activities in India.
It cannot have escaped the government’s attention that INSAF’s campaigns have run parallel to powerful movements for transparency and clean governance led by social activist-turned-politician Arvind Kejriwal, founder of the Aam Admi Party (Common Man’s Party) that plans to contest general elections due in 2014.
Kejriwal, whose social activity led to the passage of the 2005 Right to Information Act, has also been closely associated with transparency campaigns led by Anna Hazare, who mounted a Gandhian-style fast against corruption in April 2011 that rallied over 100,000 ordinary people.
Street protests demanding good governance have since been a thorn in the side of the government. When they peaked in December 2012, following the gang rape of a young woman in a bus in the national capital, police took to beating protestors.
The government, starting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, has also been frustrated by NGOs’ efforts to stall work on a string of mega nuclear parks along peninsular India’s long coastline, especially at Jaitapur in Maharashtra, Mithi Virdi in Gujarat and Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu.
In February, the government froze the accounts of two leading Tamil Nadu-based NGOs allegedly associated with the protests at the site of the Kudankulam plant, signalling a new and tough stance against civil society groups fighting the displacement of farmers and fishermen by mega development projects.
The two NGOs, the Tuticorin Diocesan Association and the Tamil Nadu Social Service Society, received four million and eight million dollars respectively over a five-year period that ended in 2011, according to declarations they made to the government.
With strong backing from the Church, the groups continue to operate despite the freeze on their assets.
During the same five-year period a total of about 22,000 NGOs across India received roughly two billion dollars in foreign contributions, going by government records.
Unexpected protests have surfaced from among the Congress party’s partners in the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Devi Prasad Tripathi, general secretary of the Nationalist Congress Party and member of parliament, reminded Interior Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde that the UPA is “committed to protecting and promoting secular, democratic and progressive forces in the country.”
“Effectively, the government is trying to promote globalisation while cracking down on the globalisation of dissent,” commented Achin Vanaik, professor of political science at the Delhi University.
The government’s move stands in stark contrast to promises made not two years ago at the Fourth High Level Forum on Aid and Development Effectiveness in Busan, South Korea, where 159 governments and member organisations honoured the vital role played by the non-profit sector by pledging to foster an “empowering” climate for civil society.
In his most recent report to the United Nations General Assembly, Maina Kiai, special rapporteur on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, noted with grave concern that India has repressed “peaceful protestors advocating economic, social and cultural rights, such as…local residents denouncing the health impact of nuclear power plants.”
Every three years since 2007, a global advocacy organisation called Women Deliver has convened an international conference to talk about issues relating to the health and well-being of girls and women.
UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, has been privileged to participate in these conferences, and looks forward to joining multilateral organisations, NGOs and global leaders for the third Women Deliver conference in Kuala Lumpur this weekend.
Our focus this year will be on two issues that affect not just women and girls, but development in general, because research shows that voluntary family planning and maternal health are two key vectors for lifting developing nations out of poverty.
We will unveil new initiatives for each and seek to galvanise the world community for both programmatic and financial support. UNFPA has promoted voluntary family planning since it began operations in 1969, and if we have learned anything in the decades since, it is that the ability of women to plan when and at what intervals they will have children is essential to national progress in everything from education to health to economic prosperity.
Equally important, we have learned that family planning is about more than just condoms and other family planning commodities. It’s about human rights, information and education.
At the Women Deliver conference, UNFPA will launch a new partnership with the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) to increase access to family planning in some of the world’s most hard-to-reach areas. In cooperation with IPPF, we will seek to galvanise political commitments from 13 nations with statistically low contraceptive prevalence rates in order to increase support for programmes to educate women and men about the benefits of family planning.
UNFPA’s second major initiative will actually take place in the days leading up to Women Deliver, when we will co-host a symposium on the crucial, frontline role midwives play in lowering maternal deaths, reducing disabilities related to childbirth, and improving overall national health indicators.
More than 230 midwives will be joined by leading U.N. agencies, civil society representatives, policy makers and officials from donor nations to discuss ways to increase the numbers and improve the skills of midwives in developing countries.
At the symposium, UNFPA, alongside its partners from Intel, the World Health Organization and Jhpiego, the NGO affiliated with Johns Hopkins University, will roll out a new online training module for frontline maternal health workers to help train them to deal with issues such as pre-eclampsia, excessive post-birth bleeding and prolonged and obstructed labour. These medical complications can be matters of life and death for women giving birth in the developing world, so this is a critically important initiative.
But it is clear that these family planning and maternal health initiatives will succeed only if they are embraced by government leaders in a position to fund and support them. And there are often obstacles to that embrace.
The first obstacle, of course, is money. Governments struggling to meet the basic needs of their citizens face severe competition for scarce resources. But family planning and maternal health are so critically important to long-term development that they should be among the top spending priorities for developing nations’ governments.
And because helping underdeveloped nations rise out of poverty is so vital to international security and the global economy, voluntary family planning and maternal health should be investment priorities for developed nations as well.
The second obstacle standing in the way of family planning initiatives, in particular, are some cultural practices. The sad fact is that some societies still deny the human rights of half of their populations in the name of cultural traditions that do physical, social and psychological damage to women and girls.
As UNFPA sees it, the time has long passed when men can or should be allowed to dictate the reproductive rights of women. Young girls should not be forced into marriage. Sex should always be un-coerced. And every woman should have the means to enjoy her human right and freedom to choose if or when she will have children, and how many she will have.
We will be raising these issues at Women Deliver in Kuala Lumpur, and I hope all who attend will come away from the conference with a re-energised commitment to the central role these issues play in humanity’s future and to address the challenges of family planning and maternal health forthrightly.
*Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin is a United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund.
Those responsible for the Bangladesh building collapse that killed more than 1,000 garment workers should be given life in prison, a government-appointed committee has said.
The investigating committee, appointed by Bangladesh’s interior ministry, recommended life in prison for the owner of the five factories based in the building on the outskirts of Dhaka.
The Apr. 24 collapse of the Rana Plaza building, the deadliest garment industry accident in history, highlighted the hazardous working conditions in Bangladesh’s 20 billion dollar garment industry and the lack of safety for millions of workers, who earn as little as 38 dollars a month.
The committee found that the ground on which the Rana Plaza was built was unfit for a multi-storey building and the construction itself was “extremely poor quality”.
“A portion of the building was constructed on land which had been a body of water before and was filled with rubbish.” Khandaker Mainuddin Ahmed, the committee head, told the Association Press news agency on Thursday.
Ahmed said Sohel Rana, owner of Rana Plaza was “the main culprit, and because of him 1,127 people have died.”
The report found that Rana ignored construction codes by converting the originally designed six-storey building meant for a shopping mall and commercial space into an eight-storey factory complex where over 3,000 labourers toiled.
Khandaker said Rana, and the factory owners, four of whom have been arrested, forced employees to go to work on Apr. 24 despite cracks which appeared in the building the day before.
“They threatened the workers that they would be fired and that their salaries would be cut if they refused to go to work.”
The committee also said the owners used generators in upper floors, defying building regulations. Combined with other industrial machinery the weight of the generators triggered the collapse.
New safety reforms
A U.S. delegation is to arrive on Sunday led by Wendy Sherman, the State Department’s under secretary for political affairs. They will meet officials from the Bangladeshi government.
“They’ll talk about labour law reforms,” U.S, ambassador Dan Mozena said.
“They’ll talk about fire safety standards, a minimum standard for every factory, and they’ll talk about minimum structural soundness standards.”
If the proposals are accepted, “it will become the largest ‘better work’ programme in history,” Mozena said.
The Bangladeshi government has already pledged to tighten factory safety inspections and make it easier for workers to form unions and set up a panel to raise wages for the three million garment workers.
Mozena said there were still “some outstanding issues” to be addressed, without elaborating.
Poor wages and repeated fatal accidents have led to a string of protests in the main garment-manufacturing hubs, halting shipments and forcing some retailers to divert orders to other countries.
More than 2,500 people were rescued after the disaster and the committee has urged the government to provide them with free medical treatment.
*Published under an agreement with Al Jazeera.
As the European Union accuses Hungary of shifting towards authoritarianism, a spike in emigration from the country has led many to speak of a politically motivated exodus. Others suggest that economic conditions play a role in the westward flow of brainpower that is leaving Hungary’s future uncertain.
Observers agree that ever since the conservative party Fidesz won a two-thirds majority in parliament in 2010, the government has taken many steps to concentrate power, including by limiting the independence of the judiciary as well as freedom of speech.
The government also approved a new constitution that enshrines the values of Christianity, family and patriotism, having drafted it without consulting other parties or civil society groups.
“We are thinking of leaving the country,” says Sára, a young mother in her thirties who lives in Újlipotváros, one of Budapest’s preferred districts among the liberal intelligentsia and middle classes. “My partner, my fourteen-month-old child and I are no longer considered a family under the new constitution,” she explains.
“It’s not just that we can’t pay taxes together. The feeling also makes us mad – with what right does this government say we are not a family? While the rest of Europe is enlarging the definition of family to even include homosexuals, we are going in the opposite direction.”
Many have already made the decision Sára is now considering, but the real reasons behind the emigration phenomenon remain the object of a heated political debate.
While official estimates state that 300,000 Hungarians live abroad, Gyorgy Matolcsy, governor of the Central Bank, recently spoke of half a million Hungarians leaving their homeland in recent years, which would constitute 5 percent of Hungary’s population of 10 million.
Currently about 250,000 Hungarians are registered abroad, although real numbers are likely higher because many migrants do not want authorities to know they left in order not to preclude current or future state benefits.
Austria, Germany and the United Kingdom are the preferred destinations for these immigrants. London may be home to up to 200,000 Hungarians, so many that it is popularly referred to as the second largest Hungarian city."My partner, my fourteen-month-old child and I are no longer considered a family under the new constitution."
-- Sára, a young mother
Yet unlike other countries in the post-communist region, Hungarians have traditionally resisted migrating, partly due to the strength of Hungary’s social safety net, but also for cultural reasons.
Politicians are struggling to explain why this tendency has suddenly changed. The debate has erupted around the worrisome 56 percent of students who consider leaving Hungary, a group that has often participated in international programs and can easily integrate in Western European labour markets.
“The issue has become politicised, but it is underlined by economic and structural factors,” Béla Soltész, a migration researcher at Corvinus University in Budapest, told IPS.
“There is an opposition discourse which blames the phenomenon on bad management by the government, particularly in the education sector, whereas the government pushes the view that those leaving the country are becoming unfaithful to it, putting their individualistic and materialistic needs in front of the good of the country,” Soltész says.
“Both are simplifying the issue,” he adds. “This is a 10-year phenomenon that began gradually with the opening of the European Union’s labour market. In some ways Hungary is catching up with the region.”
Although reliable data on them are lacking, many of the immigrants are well-educated opposition sympathisers with access to social media, which gives greater visibility to the “best and brightest” in the debate.
Some in this group have been affected by recent educational reforms – especially since students now have to sign contracts in order to benefit from state support as they go through their education and must pay back this support if they move abroad.
But in a country where doctors make an average of 700 euros per month, the role of high unemployment and a lack of economic and professional prospects may be more significant than political discontent.
Hungary’s gross domestic product decreased by 1.7 percent in 2012 and no growth is expected in 2013. Unemployment now exceeds 10 percent and is three times higher in the case of the younger generation.
“People with technical formation can nowadays very easily compare their salary with that of their peers in Norway, the UK or Holland, where pay can be ten times higher. And then they may blame the government for these differences,” Soltész told IPS.
While recent youth migration may be short-term, the growth in Hungarian professional networks abroad might turn it into a more permanent phenomenon in the future, Soltész warned. “The most skilled and bright are leaving and the remittances are not that high.”
“Reinsertion could be difficult because the labor market is very informally structured,” Soltész noted. “Qualifications obtained abroad are less important or understood than personal contacts.”
“And we don’t know what will happen to the people who do their whole education abroad and build their professional contacts there.”
Israel’s crippling blockade of the coastal territory of Gaza is pushing desperate young Palestinians to ever more extreme measures in the search for livelihoods, despite an agreement granting Gazans greater access to their agricultural land.
In search of work, some Gazans try to enter Israel by jumping the fence that separates it from Gaza. Others continue to be shot dead or are seriously injured by Israeli soldiers as they try to farm land bordering the fence, and still others who choose an underground path die when tunnels linking Gaza with Egypt collapse.
Yet an agreement between Hamas and Israel’s COGAT (Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories) following a ceasefire in November stated that Gazans would be able to access most of their agricultural land in Israel’s self-declared 300-metre buffer zone, which runs along the border, by reducing the zone to 100 metres.
The buffer zone is comprised of some of Gaza’s most fertile land in a territory desperately lacking space. Gaza is one of the most densely populated territories in the world, with more than 1.5 million people squashed into an area 41 kilometres long and six to 12 kilometres wide.
Despite the Hamas-COGAT agreement, “the situation remains volatile and unpredictable, and the farmers are extremely vulnerable,” Muhammad Suliman, from the Gaza-based human rights organisation Al Mezan, told IPS. “Palestinians continue to be shot and killed in and near the buffer zone at certain times, while at other times nothing happens.”
Meanwhile, fishermen at work within the Israeli-imposed fishing zone, which was three nautical miles until Israel announced on May 21 that it would extend the zone to six nautical miles, are also being shot at and arrested.
Forced to rely on aid
A bitter paradox is unfolding in that while Gaza’s economic desperation has been somewhat buffered by a rise in international aid and work by non-governmental organisations in the strip, unemployment has skyrocketed, and Gaza is now one of the world’s most aid-dependent territories.
“More than 85 percent of Gazans are dependent on aid to survive, while youth unemployment stands at over 55 percent,” Suliman said."Wouldn't it be better for Israel to lift its blockade and allow Gazans to be self-sufficient?"
-- Chris Gunness
“The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) is going around begging the international community for donations to help Gazans survive economically,” a spokesperson for UNRWA, Chris Gunness, told IPS. “Wouldn’t it be better for Israel to lift its blockade and allow Gazans to be self-sufficient?”
“Unless the blockade is lifted and some of the world’s most entrepreneurial and business-minded people are allowed to leave Gaza in pursuit of business ventures, Gaza will remain increasingly desperate and dependent on international aid,” Gunness added.
According to Al Mezan, Israeli naval attacks on Gazan fishermen have escalated since the November ceasefire, including the sinking of six Palestinian fishing boats and damage to nine power generators and 41 lamplights used by fishermen at night during the first week of May. The Israeli navy also shot at Palestinian fishing boats in 13 separate incidents.
Al Mezan stated that last week Israelis shot with machine guns at a group of fishing boats off the coast of Beit Lahiya in the northern part of the Gaza Strip. Israeli military boats arrested two men, Mahmoud Zayid, 27, and his brother Khalid, 25, from a small fishing boat, which was about 400 meters off the coast and approximately 1.5 nautical miles south of the Northern Israeli restricted zone.
In another attack on May 19, Israeli naval vessels opened fire at Palestinian fishing boats off the coast of Deir Al-Balah in the Middle Gaza district. The boats were also within the Israeli-sanctioned fishing zone, about three nautical miles from shore, when they were attacked.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) states that under the 1993 Oslo Accords, Palestinian fishermen were permitted to go 20 nautical miles out to sea. Since Israel imposed the blockade in 2006, the area has been reduced to 6 nautical miles, to devastating effect. In 2006, 2,500 tonnes of sardine were caught, in comparison to 234 tonnes in 2012.
According to the international aid organisation Oxfam, such economic restrictions by Israel are pushing young Gazans to risk their lives by jumping the fence into Israel to seek employment or entering the tunnels linking Gaza with Egypt’s Sinai peninsula.
Working in conjunction with Oxfam, Al Mezan reported that in the last year 101 people attempted to climb the perimeter fence, with 53 of those younger than 18. And according to Al Mezan’s Suliman, 18 Palestinians were also killed and 26 injured in the tunnels.
In one case last year, a young man, Mahmoud, and two of his friends tried to climb the fence. Mahmoud’s two friends were shot dead by Israeli soldiers while Mahmoud escaped with a bullet injury to his leg. The young man had lost his previous part-time job at a café, where he earned 4 dollars a day. Desperate to help support his large family, Mahmoud had taken the risk of entering Israel.
90 Palestinians, including 11 children and three women, were killed in the buffer zone in the last three years, and as Suliman pointed out, “while some of these were fighters killed during Israel’s military assault on Gaza last November, most of those killed were civilians.”
Hardly a day goes by without a news story on some violation of women’s rights. In recent months, appalling incidents of violence against women and girls, from Delhi to Johannesburg to Cleveland, have sparked public outrage and demands to tackle these horrific abuses.
In Bangladesh and Cambodia, the shocking loss of life by garment factory workers, many of them women, sparked global debate on how to secure safe and decent jobs in our globalised economy. In Europe, the disproportionate impact on women of austerity cuts, and the use of quotas to get more women on corporate boards continue to make headlines.
Even though women have made real gains, we are constantly reminded how far we have to go to realise equality between men and women.
World leaders recognised the pervasiveness of discrimination and violence against women and girls when they signed onto the visionary Millennium Declaration in 2000. Amongst the eight Millennium Development Goals, they included a goal to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment.
With these goals set to expire in 2015, we are now in a race to achieve them. We are also in the midst a global conversation about what should replace them. It’s time for women to move from the sidelines to the centre.
In a new post-2015 development agenda, we must build on the achievements of the MDGs while avoiding their shortcomings. Everyone agrees that the goals have galvanised progress to reduce poverty and discrimination, and promote education, gender equality, health and safe drinking water and sanitation.
The goal on gender equality and women’s empowerment tracked progress on school enrolment, women’s share of paid work, and women’s participation in parliament. It triggered global attention and action. It served to hold governments accountable, mobilise much-needed resources, and stimulate new laws, policies, programmes and data.
But there are glaring omissions. Noticeably absent is any reference to ending violence against women and girls. Also missing are other fundamental issues, such as women’s right to own property and the unequal division of household and care responsibilities.
By failing to address the structural causes of discrimination and violence against women and girls, progress towards equality has been stalled. Of all the MDGs, the least progress has been made on MDG5, to reduce maternal mortality. The fact that this has been the hardest goal to reach testifies to the depth and scope of gender inequality.
To make greater progress, UN Women proposes a stand-alone goal to achieve gender equality, women’s rights and women’s empowerment that is grounded in human rights and tackles unequal power relations. We envision three areas that require urgent action.
First, ending violence against women and girls must be a priority. From sexual violence in the camps of Haiti and Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to intimate partner shootings in the United States and elsewhere, this violence causes untold physical and psychological harm. It is one of the most pervasive human rights violations, and carries tremendous costs for individuals, families and societies.
Second, women and men need equal opportunities, resources and responsibilities to realize equality. Equal access to land and credit, natural resources, education, health services including sexual and reproductive health, decent work and equal pay needs to be addressed with renewed urgency. Policies, such as child care and parental leave, are needed to relieve working women’s double duty so women and men can enjoy equality at work and at home.
And third, women’s voices must be heard. It is time for women to participate equally in decision making in the household, the private sector and institutions of governance. Despite progress in recent years, women comprise just 20 percent of parliamentarians and 27 percent of judges. For democracy to be meaningful and inclusive, women’s voices and leadership must be amplified in all public and private spaces.
Any new development agenda must be grounded in human rights agreements that governments have already signed onto. This includes the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action, and U.N. resolutions, including the recent agreement of the Commission on the Status of Women on eliminating and preventing all forms of violence against women and girls.
There is plenty of evidence to show that countries with a higher status of women also enjoy higher levels of social and economic performance. There is also evidence to guide countries on what works, from equitable labour market policies, to the removal of discriminatory laws and policies, to universal social protection and social services, to security and justice reforms that end impunity for violence against women and girls. The activism of the women’s movement everywhere has been critical in demanding and driving change in all of these areas.
The discussions to shape the post-2015 global development agenda offer a real opportunity to drive lasting change for women’s rights and equality. A strong global goal can push our societies to the tipping point of rejecting violence and discrimination against women and girls and unleash the potential of half the population for a more peaceful, just and prosperous world and a sustainable planet.
*Lakshmi Puri is Acting Head of UN Women and Assistant Secretary-General.
Nangnyi Foung reaches into the dryer, pulls out another pair of pants and places it on the ironing board. “I still have several more loads to go,” she says as the clock strikes nine p.m., marking the start of her 14th hour on the shift.
She has been on her feet in this laundromat in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai since seven in the morning and had been hoping to call it a day when two more customers walked in.
She is not in a position to turn anyone away: “I need the money. My family needs me to work,” she tells IPS, her voice tinged with desperation as she begins yet another load.
Six do-it-yourself washing machines stand like sentries at the entrance of this storefront-turned-laundromat. A flight of stairs leads to Nangnyi Foung’s living quarters, where she retires late at night only to collapse in exhaustion before waking up and beginning all over again.
Originally from the Shan State in neighbouring Myanmar (formerly Burma), Nangnyi Foung came here saddled with debt.
Fleeing persistent violence in her home country, she took out loans and paid middlemen hefty sums in order to win safe passage to Thailand, where, she had heard, employment opportunities awaited.
Ten years later Nangnyi Foung is still working to pay off her debt, awaking daily to a rigorous fourteen-hour shift of washing and ironing. Her earnings after seven days’ work without a single day off amount to little over six dollars, much of which is remitted back home.
Reaching for the steaming iron Nangnyi Foung tells IPS she saves on living expenses by sleeping in the basement of this facility. If she also had to pay for lodging she would not be able to send money home to her family of four.
Accounting for over 80 percent of Thailand’s 2.5-million-strong migrant labour force, Burmese migrants like Nangnyi Foung provide a lifeline to cash-strapped families back in Myanmar, one of Southeast Asia’s poorest countries that is struggling to recover from decades of economic stagnation.
Today, the minimum wage in Myanmar – about 180 dollars a month – buys eight to 10 times fewer daily consumption commodities like rice, salt, sugar and cooking oil than it did twenty years ago. The average Burmese lives on less than a dollar per day.
Though Myanmar is the world’s largest exporter of teak, jade, pearls, rubies and sapphires, and boasts lucrative extractive industries such as mining, timber and power generation, very little of the country’s natural wealth trickles down to the masses: approximately 32 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, while unemployment is at 5.4 percent.
According to a 2006 survey of migrant workers from Myanmar, conducted by the Asian Research Centre for Migration, more than two-thirds of the 600 respondents admitted to being unemployed before migrating to Thailand.
Remittances jump hurdles
While migrant workers fill crucial gaps in Thailand’s labour market, and their remittances account for five percent of Myanmar’s gross domestic product (GDP), neither government has attempted to make the flow of money between workers and their families any easier.
Despite the existence of commercial banks or official ‘Xpress Money’ outlets, most migrants prefer to use the informal remittance channel known as the “hundi” system.
These unauthorised transactions involve dealers in Thailand relaying messages to members of their network in Myanmar, who then deliver the necessary amount to the family.
Some migrants rely on friends and loved ones who travel between the neighbouring countries to act as conduits, thereby circumventing costly bank transfers.
“The banks can’t be trusted and they require a work permit, a letter of recommendation from our employer and a passport,” Nangnyi Foung says, documents very few migrants have access to.
Migrants with families in rural areas go through brokers, who deliver cash to the recipient’s doorstep, eliminating the hassle of them having to locate cash points.
According to a new report released Monday by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), Asian countries dispatched over 60 million migrants into the world, “who sent almost 260 billion dollars to their families in 2012. This represented 63 percent of global flows to developing countries.”
Yet the continent seems ill equipped to deal with the influx of remittances, which benefit one in 10 Asian households.
“Although the clear majority of the region’s population lives in rural areas, 65 percent of payment locations are in urban areas,” the report found. In most Asian countries, only banks are authorised to deal with foreign currency transactions, making it difficult for poor rural communities to access funds coming in from abroad.
The report stressed the urgent need to provide remittance-receiving families with “more options” to secure and spend this money, especially since nine Asian countries currently receive remittances “exceeding 10 percent of GDP.”
The report has particularly vital policy implications for Southeast Asia, where 13 million migrants are currently living and working abroad. Thailand has become a “net importer” of migrant labour – attracting more than double the number of migrants to work in its expanding economy than it is sending abroad.
Women forfeit rights for employment
Constituting nearly 49 percent of the global population of 214 million migrant workers, women are responsible for the lion’s share of remittances flowing around the world.
Acutely aware of their families’ needs, like food, housing costs, education for children or younger siblings, and healthcare – women often endure extreme conditions in order to remit money back home.
The town of Mae Sot, located along the Thai-Myanmar border, hosts the largest number of women migrant workers in Thailand, who toil over fifteen hours a day in garment factories. In 2012, this sector netted estimated profits of 6.3 billion, while labourers who keep the industry running earned between 66 and 100 dollars per month.
Kyoko Kusakabe, associate professor of gender and development at the Asian Institute of Technology and co-author of ‘Thailand’s Hidden Workforce’, told IPS that most female migrants in Mae Sot “avoid labour strikes and forfeit their rights in favour of (continued employment).”
She says this is part of a culture that forces women to be “responsible” from a very young age, while their male counterparts have few obligations.
According to Kusakabe, this culture is reflected in remittance patterns: when the economy is booming, remittances from men increase, falling again when the economy enters a slump. Remittances from women, on the other hand, remain steady regardless of the overall economic climate, suggesting that women save more, or forego their own needs during times of economic austerity in order to preserve their family’s lifeline.
Her research found that even if women are not paid their salaries, or lose their jobs, they borrow money in order to send home, fearful that their children or parents will starve without financial support.
The U.S. Congress moved closer here Wednesday to imposing a full trade embargo against Iran and pledged its support to Israel if it felt compelled to attack Tehran’s nuclear programme in self-defence.
The Senate voted 99-0 to adopt a resolution that urged President Barack Obama to fully enforce existing economic sanctions against Iran and to “provide diplomatic, military and economic support” to Israel “in its defense of its territory, people and existence”.“Attacking the president's waiver authority is a cynical attempt to weaken his hand at the negotiating table and sabotage diplomatic efforts." -- NIAC's Jamal Abdi
Washington, it said, should support Israel “in accordance with United States law and the constitutional responsibility of Congress to authorize the use of military force” if Israel “is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran’s nuclear weapons program.”
The measure also re-affirmed the official policy of the administration of President Barack Obama that it would take whatever action necessary to “prevent” Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
At the same time, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Republican-led House of Representatives unanimously approved new sanctions legislation that, if passed into law, would blacklist foreign countries or companies that fail to reduce their oil imports from Iran to virtually nil within 180 days.
The same bill would expand the current blacklisting of companies that do business with Iran’s financial sector to include those engaged in the country’s automotive and mining sectors, as well.
In perhaps its most controversial section, the bill also eliminates President Obama’s ability to waive most sanctions for national-interest or national-security reasons.
Such waiver authority, which has been routinely included in existing sanctions legislation, has been used by Obama to ensure that countries that have historically enjoyed important trade and financial relations with Tehran continue cooperating with Western-led international efforts to pressure Iran to curb its nuclear programme.
The president’s waiver authority is also considered critical to prospects for a negotiated agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (U.S., Britain, France, China, Russia plus Germany) by which such curbs would be accepted by Tehran in return for easing sanctions.
Both moves come as the Senate Republicans unveiled yet another bill even more far-reaching than that approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee by blacklisting companies that do any trade with Iran and deprive the president of all waiver authority. Under the draft legislation, which so far lacks any Democratic co-sponsors, sanctions could be eased or lifted only by an act of Congress.
Approval of both the Senate resolution and the House bill were hailed by American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the premier group of the Israel lobby here.
“The passage of this resolution is an extremely significant and timely state of solidarity with Israel and a restatement of America’s determination to thwart Iran’s nuclear quest – which endangers America, Israeli, and international security,” it said about the Senate action.
The House bill, it noted with approval, would impose a de facto commercial embargo against Iran and would “maximise the effectiveness of American economic and diplomatic efforts as Iran nears a nuclear weapons capability.”
But other observers said the latest Congressional moves marked a dangerous escalation in tensions at a critical moment.
“Congress should abstain from any more reckless threats or sanctions that push us closer to the brink of war with Iran,” Jamal Abdi of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) said of the Senate action.
“Attacking the president’s waiver authority is a cynical attempt to weaken his hand at the negotiating table and sabotage diplomatic efforts,” he added about the House bill. “If the president can’t lift sanctions in exchange for concessions, the Iranians will have little incentive to cooperate.”
The latest Congressional moves came as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released its latest quarterly report on Iran’s nuclear programme detailing the installation of more advanced centrifuges that are used to enrich uranium, a buildup of stockpiles of 3.5-percent and 20-percent enriched uranium, and advances in the construction of its heavy-water reactor at Arak.
While a number of senators made much of the latest report, suggesting that Tehran was on the verge of building a nuclear weapon, experts here said that the report offered no major surprises and that Iran’s 20-percent enriched stockpile – which could most easily be further enriched to bomb grade – remained substantially below what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last September defined as Israel’s “red line”.
“The report findings underscore the urgent need to intensify negotiations with Tehran to resolve the political questions surrounding Iran’s nuclear program and to resolve the outstanding questions regarding the potential military dimensions of the program,” according to an analysis by the Arms Control Association (ACA) here.
“But, at the same time, the findings reinforce earlier assessments that Iran remains years away from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
Iran has repeatedly denied that its nuclear programme is designed to develop a weapon, and, since 2007, the U.S. intelligence community has insisted that the country’s leadership has not yet decided to build one. But the progress Iran has made in building and mastering the technology would shorten the time it would need to construct a bomb if such a decision were made, according to nuclear experts.
On the diplomatic front, meanwhile, progress has been more or less frozen since the latest P5+1 meeting with Iran in Almaty, Kazakhstan in early April when Tehran rejected a Western offer to ease sanctions on gold and precious-metal trade and some Iranian exports in exchange for suspending 20-percent enrichment and transferring its existing 20-percent stockpile out of the country.
Most observers believe the new talks are unlikely until after Iran’s elections next month and the inauguration of a new president, despite the fact that decisions on nuclear issues are ultimately made by the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Among the favoured candidates approved this week by the Guardian Council is Iran’s nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, who is considered by veteran Iran watchers a hard-liner who has often frustrated his P5+1 interlocutors.
Some had hoped that former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who entered the race at the last minute and has occasionally urged better relations with the West, would offer a major challenge, but his candidacy was rejected by the Council.
Another approved candidate in the race, Hasan Rowhani, served as former president Mohammed Khatami’s chief nuclear negotiator. In that post, he struck a deal to suspend enrichment with the so-called EU-3 (Britain, France, and Germany). But his lack of prominence makes him an underdog in a race dominated by conservatives closely associated with Khamenei.
Whether the flurry of new threats and sanctions by Congress will affect the election – or the calculations of Khamenei himself – remains to be seen.
Even the strongest supporters of sanctions have conceded that the economic pressure they’ve exerted on the regime to date has not produced the desired result and may even have strengthened regime hardliners who are convinced that Washington’s ultimate aim is “regime change” – a conviction that is likely to be strengthened by a review of Wednesday’s Senate debate.
*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.
Following on Nawaz Sharif’s victory in the May 11 national elections in Pakistan, many analysts are indicating cautious optimism on the prospect that the new prime minister can strengthen bilateral relations with the country’s neighbours, particularly India.
While entrenched interests among Pakistan’s powerful security establishment constitute one prominent obstacle to any such optimism, a more significant hindrance could be scepticism among the country’s other two neighbours – Afghanistan and Iran – over Sharif’s own past, including his dealings during his two previous stints as prime minister.
Better relations with India
For the moment, Sharif himself is attempting to stoke this optimism. During his election campaign, Sharif pledged to revive India-Pakistan relations, which soured during Pervez Musharraf’s presidency from 2001 to 2008, and during a post-election phone call Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed his wish for a “new course” between the two countries.
Following through on this vow, however, will be very difficult. Pakistan has long used ethnic tensions against India, as against Afghanistan, and changing this policy will require both a new mindset and a new set of convictions.
Sayeed Salahudeen, chief of the Muttahida Jihad Council (MJC) and the Hizb-ul-Mujahedeen, a powerful separatist Kashmiri militia group believed to be based in Pakistan, has already warned Sharif not to abandon the “Kashmir cause” over “friendship with India”. As long as “Kashmir is under India’s occupation”, Sulahudeen continued, “the national security of Pakistan, the safety and security of its borders, and its economic stability is at stake.”
Pakistan’s support for Kashmiri militants has been an essential part of Pakistan’s approach toward India, and any attempt to end this will take time. During his election campaign, Sharif stated that the Kashmiri conflict “needs to be resolved peacefully, to the satisfaction of not only both countries but also of the Kashmiri people.”
Sharif also promised a full investigation into the Kargil conflict, the 1999 incident in which Pakistani soldiers and Kashmiri militants infiltrated Indian side of the Line of Control, setting off a major crisis between the two nuclear powers. Sharif, who was prime minister at the time, has long claimed that Musharraf, as the military commander, had acted on his own, although another Pakistani army general insisted in January that Sharif himself was not as ignorant about the plans as he has said.
The new prime minister has also said he plans to investigate the alleged involvement of Pakistan’s powerful Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency in the 2008 Mumbai bombings, another key action that would please India but thoroughly aggravate powerful elements within the Pakistani establishment.
The India-Pakistan conflict is today deeply rooted, and governments in Pakistan, both civilian and military, have for decades viewed India as a strategic rival. Indeed, the potential “threat” from India has consistently been the army’s justification for its massive budget.
While civilian governments have generally opposed increasing military expenditures, the military-intelligence establishment continues to exert considerable influence, particularly in foreign and security policymaking. Sharif’s post-election statement that the prime minister would now be “the army chief’s boss” was an attempt to mitigate this concern, but it remains unclear whether he will be able to effectively follow through.
Sharif appears to hope that expanding economic ties between the two countries will weaken resistance to enhancing relations between the two long-time rivals. India’s economy has grown at a much more rapid pace than Pakistan’s over the past decade, and building stronger commercial ties to its giant western neighbour offers Islamabad perhaps the most direct route to getting its own economy out of the doldrums.
While Sharif has established a certain credibility regarding his desire for better relations with India, the same does not hold true for Afghanistan where the new prime minister does not enjoy much popularity.
This is due not only to his support for warring jihadi factions in 1992, but also because Pakistan under his watch became the first country to recognise the Taliban as the legitimate Afghan government in 1997. In addition, Afghans have yet to forget Sharif’s attempt to impose Sharia law in 1999, the same set of decrees the Taliban brutally imposed in Afghanistan.
In his congratulatory message to Sharif, Afghan President Hamid Karzai expressed his hope that the two countries would be able to cooperate “to root out terrorism”. However, this was viewed mostly as a formality.
“If Pakistan’s political officials want to show good faith,” an Afghan news website states, “they have to confront terrorist groups inside Pakistan that are organised by ISI.”
Indeed, concern over an uncomfortably close association between Sharif and the Taliban intensified during the candidate’s pre-election gathering in Lahore. If he won, Sharif promised, he would pull Pakistan back from the U.S.-led international “war on terror” coalition. If such a statement were not meant to “blackmail” the United States, an editorial in Afghanistan’s Hasht-e Sobh newspaper stated, it means “he is serious in what he is saying.”
In a separate interview with the Hasht-e Sobh, Mahmoud Karzai – Hamid Karzai’s brother and a possible presidential candidate for Afghanistan’s 2014 election – accused Pakistan of attempting to annex Afghanistan, the prospects for which the country “tasted during Taliban rule”.
Such rhetoric refers to an old dispute over the British-drawn boundary that divides Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as Pashtun tribal areas, though the region continues to be prone to frequent violence and remains a source of tension between the two countries. Whether Sharif can dispel such suspicions will yet another challenge he faces in improving ties with his neighbours.
Iran and Saudi Arabia
Iran, which also accumulated its share of complaints about Islamabad’s behaviour under Sharif in the 1990s, is not expected to play a primary role in Pakistan’s regional policies, barring a major event such as a military crisis or controversy around gas pipelines.
Contrary to some analyses, any Iranian scepticism regarding the new Pakistani government is not related to the Islamabad’s alleged support for Sunni insurgents in Balochistan province, on the Iranian side of the border. In fact, Iran and Pakistan have established a cooperative relationship on this front.
Rather, scepticism stems, again, from Nawaz Sharif’s support of the Taliban during the 1990s, as well as his close associations with Saudi Arabia which, among other support, gave him safe haven during the years he was exiled from Pakistan after his ouster by Musharraf in 1999.
Iran and Afghanistan almost went to war in 1998, after Taliban militants murdered Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e Sharif. Because of Sharif’s support for the Taliban, as well as his close ties to Riyadh, Tehran’s chief rival in a region that has become increasingly polarised along sectarian lines, Iran’s hard-line media has reacted with concern to his return as prime minister.
Among other things, Tehran is concerned about the fate of the cross-border natural-gas pipeline between Iran and Pakistan despite strong U.S. opposition. Pakistan desperately needs Iranian gas to meet its growing energy needs, and outgoing Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad inaugurated the final construction phase of the pipeline in March.
Pakistan received 500 million dollars to start building the pipeline in its territory, running through Balochistan into Karachi, and the deal is clearly to Pakistan’s advantage.
However, if a story by one influential Pakistani newspaper is true, that deal could now find itself in jeopardy. The Dawn newspaper has reported on Sharif’s rumoured suggestions to Saudi Arabia that “he may be open to reviewing the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline.”
The global fight against HIV/AIDS has seen recent hard-won breakthroughs, including the discovery of the genetic hiding place of the virus by doctors in Australia, a 50-percent drop in new infections across 25 low- and middle-income countries, and an increase of 63 percent in the number of people with access to HIV medication.
But ending stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV has proved more resistant, particularly so for those who are part of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender or Queer (LGBTQ) community."Right now we are on the brink of reaching the response’s full potential to save lives." -- Michel Sidibé
Since its inception in 1995, UNAIDS has been a leader in strengthening the response to HIV/AIDS, as well as providing access to health care and assistance to those living with the virus and in working with grassroots communities to help them reduce their vulnerabilities.
With May 17 marking the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, IPS spoke with Michel Sidibé, executive director of UNAIDS, about how discrimination affects efforts to stem the spread of HIV/AIDS, how that fight is moving forward, and the post-2015 development agenda.
Excerpts from the interview follow.
Q: What is the impact of criminalisation of homosexuality on the policies UNAIDS is implementing?
A: UNAIDS is seeking to advance the vision of Zero new HIV infections, Zero discrimination and Zero AIDS-related deaths. To get there, we need to have universal access HIV prevention, treatment, care and support.
Some of the populations most highly affected by HIV are gay men and other men who have sex with men, as well as transgender people. If criminalised, there is virtually no way they can access the HIV information, commodities and services they need to avoid HIV infection and to stay alive and healthy if HIV positive. Nor can they mobilise their communities and support each other to avoid risky behaviour.
Furthermore, criminalisation of homosexuality is both driven by discrimination and leads to discrimination. Many gay men living with HIV face double discrimination – for being gay and for living with HIV. We will never reach the goal of zero discrimination as long as homosexuality is criminalised.
Q: With 76 countries still criminalising homosexuality, how do you plan to reach out to LGBT communities in those countries? And worldwide?
A: It is very difficult to reach LGBT communities in these countries. However, at the same time, in such places, HIV has often been an important entry point, sometimes the only entry point, for the health and human rights of LGBT people.
While laws criminalise, the public health sector has often understood how important it is to reach these populations. They have estimated their population’s size, done epidemiological studies, included them in national AIDS responses and have implemented tailored programmes. We support them to do so, regularly convening leaders of the LGBT community with government to work together on strategies to respond to HIV.
We also ask our staff to work with the ministry of justice and with police to enable these public health responses even where homosexuality is criminalised. We need a great expansion of programmes, greater protection of rights and attention to the new and younger generation of LGBT people who need access to HIV services.
Q: Do you have a specific campaign focused on the LGBT community?
A: We do not have a specific campaign, but we are working on the HIV-related rights and needs of the LGBT community from many angles. In terms of financing the AIDS response, we are asking countries to be much smarter in their HIV investments, in particular, to put resources and programmes towards populations highly affected by HIV.
In terms of access to health services, we are seeking to expand HIV prevention and treatment to all people in need and know that many LGBT people are not getting access to these services. We hope to improve their access through promoting more user-friendly health services as well as greater outreach programmes to their communities.
In terms of human rights, we promote the fact that they, like all people, have human rights. Like the U.N. secretary-general and the high commissioner for human rights, we call for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, as well as for their rights to non-discrimination, freedom from violence, health and participation and inclusion.
Q: What is the UNAIDS agenda for the post-2015 new development goals?
A: UNAIDS remains firmly committed to supporting countries to achieve universal access to HIV prevention, treatment care and support. This means ensuring that everyone in need has access to HIV services without stigma and without discrimination.
Although there has been much progress in ensuring that even the most marginalised in society have access there is still a lot of work to do. To end stigma and discrimination around HIV we work with a broad range of partners including, community based organisations, faith-based organisations, political leaders, scientific committees, law enforcement bodies and many other groups.
Our response focuses on expanding the evidence base and increasing political engagement; engaging stakeholders to invest in programmes to reduce stigma and discrimination and increase access to justice; strengthening technical support for addressing punitive laws, practices, stigma and discrimination and strengthening support to civil society.
Q: There have been some breakthroughs in medical research on HIV and AIDS in recent months. Can we hope for a world free of AIDS in a few generations?
A: HIV has been one of the defining issues of our time and I strongly believe that we can end the AIDS epidemic. Right now we are on the brink of reaching the response’s full potential to save lives – so now more than ever countries need to commit to action and look to a future without AIDS.
With the disqualification of former president and current chair of the Expediency Council Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani by a vetting body, the Guardian Council, Iran’s presidential campaign is opening with many in the country in a state of shock.
Although the eight qualified candidates offer somewhat of a choice given their different approaches to the economy and foreign policy, the disqualification of Rafsanjani has once again raised the spectre that the conservative establishment intends to manipulate the electoral process in such a way that only a conservative candidate will win when voters cast their ballots Jun. 14.
Rafsanjan’s candidacy, which received solid support from former reformist president Mohammad Khatami, had created hope among a section of the Iranian population — unhappy with the policies of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — that a real contest over the direction of the country was possible.
In his first statement after declaring his candidacy, Rafsanjani had made clear that returning the country towards “moderation” and away from the “extremism” that had taken hold in both domestic and foreign policy was his objective.
His stature and name recognition had immediately catapulted him as the most formidable candidate against the conservative establishment.
The possibility that the Guardian Council would disqualify a man who is the appointed chair of the Expediency Council and an elected member of the Clerical Council of Experts was deemed unfathomable to many.
In the words of conservative MP Ali Mottahari, who had pleaded with Rafsanjani to register as a candidate, “if Hashemi is disqualified, the foundations of the revolution and the whole system of the Islamic Republic will be questioned.”
Rafsanjani’s unexpected disqualification poses a challenge for his supporters, who include centrists, reformists and even some middle-of-the-road conservatives such as Mottahari: who, if anyone, will they now support in the election?
The slate of approved candidates includes two individuals — former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani and former first vice president Mohammadreza Aref — who hold mostly similar views to Rafsanjani.
In fact, both had said that they would withdraw if Rafsanjani’s candidacy was approved. But neither is as well known as the former president and they will now have to compete against each other in attracting likeminded voters.
Rowhani has chosen to run as an independent, while Aref is running as a reformist. While Rafsanjani’s candidacy had energised and unified the reformists and centrists, the campaign of these two lesser known candidates may be cause for disunity and/or voter apathy.
A third candidate, Mohammad Gharazi — who may also have centrist tendencies — is even less known throughout the country.
He served first as the minister of petroleum and then post, telegraph, and telephone in the cabinet of then-prime minister Mir Hossein Mussavi — now under house arrest after his 2009 presidential bid — and then in Rafsanjani’s cabinet when he served as president.
But since 1997, Ghazari has not held public office. Furthermore, no one really knows his views or why he was qualified when several other ministers with more recent experience were not.
Reformist supporters, already distraught over the previous contested election and continued incarceration of candidates they voted for in 2009, may see Rafsanjani’s disqualification as yet another sign that their vote will not count.
Apathy or abstention in protest among supporters is now a real issue for the centrists and reformists. This challenge may — and only may — be overcome if one of the candidates agrees to withdraw in favour of the other and the popular former reformist president Khatami throws his support behind the unified candidate in the same way he did with the candidacy of Rafsanjani.
But even this may not be enough. The reality is that the low name recognition of both candidates limits the impact of such political manoeuvring and coalition-building by the reformists, especially if the conservative-controlled security establishment makes campaigning and the spread of information difficult. Already Aftab News, a website affiliated with Rowhani, has been blocked.
This leaves the competition among the other five candidates who come from the conservative bloc. One, former presidential candidate, Mohsen Rezaee, is also running as an independent and is both the most likely to last until Election Day and the least likely to garner many votes.
It is the competition among the other four conservative candidates — Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, former Parliamentary Speaker Gholamali Haddad Adel, and current nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili — that will in all likelihood determine the fate of the election.
If Rafsanjani had been qualified, there would have been an urge for unity among these candidates since, without such unity, the former president could have received the 50 percent plus one necessary to win in the first round.
Now, however, the same forces that had prevented the conservative candidates from rallying behind one candidate remain in play.
Polls published by various Iranian news agencies, although not very reliable, uniformly suggest that Qalibaf is the most popular conservative candidate because of his management of the Tehran megapolis and the vast improvement in the delivery of services he has overseen there.
But Qalibaf’s relative popularity has not yet been sufficient to convince other candidates to unite behind him. This may eventually happen after televised presidential debates if he does well in them and if Velayati and Haddad Adel drop out in his favour since, from the beginning, the three of them had agreed that eventually the most popular should stand on Election Day.
But there is no guarantee that this will happen. Velayati in particular has ambitions of his own and has implied that Leader Ali Khameni’s preference should be given at least as much weight as polls, giving rise to speculation that he is the Leader’s preferred candidate despite clear signs that he has not been able to create much excitement even among conservative voters.
Convincing the hard-line candidate Jalili to drop out in favour of Qalibaf will be even harder.
In fact, from now until Election Day there will probably be as much pressure on Qalibaf to drop out in favour of Jalili as the other way around in the hope that a unified conservative candidate can win in the first round, avoiding the risk of either Rowhani or Aref making it to the second round where the top two candidates will have to compete on Jun. 21.
Jalili is the least experienced — and well known — of all the conservative candidates and, in a campaign in which economy is the number one issue by far, there are real concerns regarding whether he is experienced enough to manage Iran’s deep economic problems.
But his late entry in the presidential race, minutes after Rafsanjani entered it, has also given rise to speculation that he, instead of Velayati, may be the Leader’s preferred choice.
What is not a subject of speculation is the fact that Jalili takes the hardest line of all the candidates.
His campaign slogan of “hope, justice, and resistance” suggests that he is the most likely to continue current policies, although perhaps with less bombast and populist flair than the current president.
As such, Jalili stands apart from the other seven candidates who will campaign on the need for both change and competent leadership.
Jalili jumped into the race at the last minute as a hard-line counter to Rafsanjani’s call for moderation. Ironically, with the latter’s disqualification, he now stands alone as the candidate whom others will try to mobilise voters against.
Indigenous communities in remote areas of Brazil have begun to recognise that they have the right to not be hungry, and are learning that food security means much more than simply having food on the table.
Rosiléia Cruz, 19, dreams of studying journalism. She chooses her words carefully during her interview with Tierramérica* by mobile phone from Tabatinga, in northwest Brazil, which can only be reached by plane or river travel.
Cruz is a member of the Ticuna indigenous ethnic group, one of the most numerous in the country. The Ticuna live in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, in the Alto Solimões region around the river of the same name, near the borders of Peru and Colombia.
The lands of their ancestors were invaded for decades by “seringueiros” (rubber tappers), fishermen and loggers, who left poverty and destruction in their wake.
Up until three years ago, young people like Cruz had few prospects, and many sought relief in alcohol and even suicide.
But in January 2010, the Joint Programme on Food and Nutrition Security for Indigenous Women and Children opened a window of hope, with activities aimed at creating agricultural and other nutritional solutions, but with particular emphasis on training and awareness raising.
Cruz forms part of a group of 50 young people from Ticuna and Kokama indigenous communities participating in communications workshops held in local schools. At the Umariaçu II community school in Tabatinga, she learned how to conduct interviews, take photographs, and produce daily news billboards and radio programmes.
She was thrilled by the opportunity to handle a microphone or camera in order to question the village chief about community problems, explain the importance of breastfeeding to mothers-to-be, or inform children about healthy habits, soft drinks, processed foods and the fruits of the region.
“There are a lot of young people that we can rescue from alcoholism,” she said. “We just prepared a news report on ‘Indian Day’ (a Brazilian holiday celebrated every Apr. 19) and I’m going to participate in Indigenous Babies Week.”
The aim of the workshops is to motivate young people to promote and defend their rights. An agreement with a local television station made it possible for the youngsters to be trained in the use of the equipment donated by the joint programme. The radio station in Tabatinga provided them with space in its Saturday programming schedule so that they could broadcast their own radio show.
The group also uses loudspeakers mounted on posts in their villages to get their message across. The daily news billboards are displayed on the walls of medical clinics and schools, and internet workshops have provided them with the skills to run their own website, which will be launched on May 21.
Once all the workshops are completed, the participants will share what they have learned with other students. Partnerships with local governments, universities and indigenous organisations will ensure continuity, and the internet will serve as a platform to disseminate the results, expand communication and inspire other young people.
These experiences form part of a wider project to help Ticuna and Kokama communities to organise in order to demand health care, education and economic and political participation.
The joint programme is an initiative of the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) Achievement Fund, set up with a financial contribution from the government of Spain and administered by various United Nations agencies, including the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in partnership with the Brazilian government.
Now in the stage of collecting data and evaluating results, since it will conclude in June, the programme focused on the municipalities of Tabatinga, Benjamin Constant and São Paulo de Olivença in the northwestern state of Amazonas, and the municipality of Dourados in the southwestern state of Mato Grosso do Sul, which are home to a combined total of 53,000 indigenous people.
These areas were chosen because of their high rates of malnutrition, substance abuse and violence, as well as their remote and difficult-to-reach locations. It is hoped that the positive results expected can be extended to other regions of the country, Fernando Moretti, the national coordinator of the joint programme, told Tierramérica.
In the three and half years since the programme was launched, International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 169 on indigenous and tribal peoples has been translated into the Guaraní, Terena and Ticuna languages. Brazil ratified the convention in 2002, but its implementation remains a challenge.
Another concrete outcome was the publication of a book that shares the perceptions of 25 children and adolescents in villages in Mato Grosso do Sol and neighbouring Paraguay on food and nutrition security. The book, which includes photographs, letters and artworks, will be distributed in a Portuguese-Guaraní bilingual edition to schools, libraries and cultural centres.
“When we talk about food security, it is not simply a matter of food production, but also of training in health and self-esteem,” said Moretti.
The activities are aimed at motivating people to use the region’s biological and agricultural diversity sustainably.
Communities were provided with rural technical assistance and guidance for the establishment of agro-forestry systems, which combine farming with sustainable use and recovery of local forests, and of school gardens. In Dourados, indigenous farmers reintroduced yerba mate – used to prepare a hot beverage widely consumed in southern Brazil and neighbouring countries – and other native plant species with significant commercial potential.
In the village of Panambizinho, two plant nurseries were constructed, and the local residents learned how to make eco-friendly stoves that use less firewood, thus preserving the forest, and reduce harmful smoke emissions.
There were also discussions of concepts and practices related to healthy eating and disease prevention. Awareness raising and the creation of opportunities allowed the project to grow naturally, said Moretti.
Some families created gardens in their homes. Indigenous community members were trained to measure and weigh babies and children in order to provide data on these populations to the Food and Nutrition Security System.
In Alto Solimões, the ILO is supporting an association of craftspeople with a market study to help their products reach buyers.
For Moretti, what was most important was strengthening institutions and expanding interaction with the indigenous population. From now on, there will be two indigenous representatives on the National Council for Food and Nutrition Security, the agency responsible for implementation of the Zero Hunger policy launched by the Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva administration (2003-2011). Indigenous community members are also organising to participate in municipal councils.
In Dourados, the National Indigenous Fund and UNICEF organised a colloquium in order to create a network for the protection of indigenous children and adolescents and to define the measures to be adopted in cases of abuse, abandonment and alcoholism. A similar event will be held with communities in Alto Solimões on Jun. 17-19.
An ethnic mapping exercise was also conducted, which included the identification of what is produced in each region. “These are tools that the indigenous people themselves will be able to use,” stressed Moretti.
* This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network.
As news of the death of former Argentine dictator Jorge Rafael Videla in a prison cell spread around the world, Julia Parodi, who was in this South Korean city to receive the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights on behalf of HIJOS, said he died in the right place.
HIJOS, the acronym for “Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice Against Oblivion and Silence”, is an Argentine rights group founded in 1995 when children of people “disappeared” by that country’s 1976-1983 military regime came together to hold escraches or outings of human rights violators.
An estimated 30,000 people were forcibly disappeared during the Argentine dictatorship’s systematic suppression of dissent. In 1976, then army chief Videla led the junta made up of the commanders of the three military forces after the coup d’état that overthrew the democratic government of Isabel Perón.
Videla, who died on May 17, may be physically no more, the 25-year-old Parodi told the audience in her acceptance speech, but Argentina is still trying to correct the historical wrongs of the regime he led for most of its seven years in power.
Parodi was with her colleague Marcos Kary in Gwangju to share the human rights experiences of Argentina and South Korea.
The Gwangju Prize is awarded by the May 18 Memorial Foundation in South Korea, which like HIJOS was established by the families of those subjected to the brutal excesses of a dictatorship. Protests against the rule of South Korean military commander and strongman Chun Doo-hwan (1979-1988) had culminated in the May 18-27, 1980 uprising in Gwangju, also known as 518, an allusion to the date the bloody crackdown began.
In spring 1980 there was a wave of demonstrations across South Korea. In Gwangju, in the southwest, the military responded with brute force, firing indiscriminately into crowds. Even passersby were killed. The final death toll is still uncertain, but up to 2,000 people may have died.
The uprising is seen as a pivotal moment in the struggle for South Korean democracy.
The May 18 Memorial Foundation was established in 1994, and the Gwangju Prize was created in 2000. Xanana Gusmao, who fought for the freedom of East Timor in Southeast Asia and was elected as its first president when it became a new country in 2002, was the first recipient of the prize.
The award has since gone to other leaders in South Asia, notably Aung San Suu Kyi, the icon for democracy in Myanmar/Burma, in 2004; Manipur’s Irom Sharmila, fighting the excesses of the military in northeastern India, in 2007; and Dr Binayak Sen, a civil rights activist working for the rights of tribal populations in India, in 2011.
For the first time, however, the prize has gone this year to an organisation so many miles and whole continents away from the parent country. HIJOS was chosen for its dedication to get justice for victims of human rights abuses during Argentina’s dictatorship.
Parodi and Kary, both students who work for and represent HIJOS, are not the children of any of those who fell prey to the atrocities of the regime, but are willing to carry on the job that the daughters and sons of the victims began nearly two decades ago.
Like other human rights groups in their country, their aim is to help restore truth and bring justice to Argentine society. The organisation has helped collect evidence, arranged legal assistance for those wishing to prosecute human rights violators, and offered psychological support.
Videla’s sentencing was a part of this effort. Tried and sentenced to life for human rights abuses soon after democracy was restored, he only served a few years in prison before he was released under a broad presidential pardon from Carlos Menem (1989-1999).
But the sustained efforts of organisations like HIJOS ensured that this impunity would not be permanent.
In the mid-2000s, the Argentine Supreme Court struck down the presidential pardon for the former members of the junta, as well as the two late 1980s amnesty laws, ruling that they were unconstitutional.
“In the period that no trials took place,” Parodi told IPS, “we undertook social action by identifying the perpetrators of atrocities and distributing leaflets to their neighbours indicating that the people next door were responsible for the brutal abuses that happened in the 1970s and 1980s.”
The human rights trials resumed after the pardons and amnesty laws were thrown out. In the central city of Córdoba, where Parodi and Kary work, there have already been four trials involving 400 victims and 43 accused, said Parodi. And a fifth trial began in December 2012 and will last another two years, the two activists told IPS.
However, helping to bring the perpetrators to court is not the end of HIJOS’s job, Parodi said, adding that there is still a lot to be done for human rights in their country.
“Human rights continue to be suppressed in Argentina,” Kary told IPS. “The military may no longer be in power, but the police continue to wield power, and their mindset has never really changed. Torture in jails continues.”
Meanwhile, the Gwangju Prize – and its 50,000 dollar cash award – has given the organisation an opportunity to share its human rights experience with rights groups and democratic movements in Asia. It is the first international recognition that HIJOS has received, and one it hopes to build on in its fight for human rights.
As people around the world continue to migrate into cities, swelling urban populations, they have sparked growth in another area: crime and security issues.
“Big cities are…where the greatest opportunities are, but also where more criticalities concentrate,” said Piero Fassino, mayor of Turin, Italy, at the plenary session of the Forum of Mayors on Crime Prevention and Security in Urban Settings, held in Turin from May 20 to 21.
“While the quality of services to citizens are usually higher in those centres, they also present more problems of social alienation, youth unrest and crime,” Fassino added."[Cities] present more problems of social alienation, youth unrest and crime."
-- Piero Fassino
The forum, organised by United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) with the United Nations Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) and the municipality of Turin, sought to reduce inequality and injustice in urban settings and address the dynamics of security and crime preventions.
The challenge for the future is to take advantage of opportunities offered by urbanisation while reducing episodes of crime and violence that hinder sustainable development, particularly for the most vulnerable people: women, youth and marginalised groups.
“From 1960 to 1990, urbanisation was accompanied by a severe increase [in] crime and violence, which affected the majority of cities and towns in both the developed and the developing world,” explained Cecilia Andersson, human settlements officer of the Safer Cities Programme of UN-HABITAT, during her opening speech.
“This situation required change. It required the cities and towns themselves to take responsibility to deal with these issues,” she added.
Mayors and representatives of 18 municipalities around the world from Cape Town to Bangkok, from Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) to Seoul, discussed the biggest challenges they encountered and the best measures to take to address them.
Martin Xaba, head of the Safer Cities and I-Trump Department of Durban, South Africa, explained how the local municipality decided in 2000 to adopt the Safer Cities strategy.
“The strategy requires the implementation of both reactive and proactive approach,” Xaba explained. While adequate responses to crime are always needed, “prevention remains the most effective tool, and this is where community involvement becomes critical”.
Such tools, in the case of Durban, include campaigns for crime awareness and against the abuse of women and children, workshops on drug abuse, and the active participation of the community in ward safety committees.
It was “upon the request of African mayors, who were having an issue with regards to safety in their cities” that the programme Safer Cities began in Africa, Andersson explained to IPS, with Johannesburg, South Africa and Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania as pilot cities. The programme has since gone global.
Meanwhile, local leaders say that exchanging ideas among cities does work. Antonio Frey, director of local security in Santiago del Chile, told IPS, “The experience of Cape Town, South Africa, is very interesting for us. They managed to recover public spaces, thanks to the involvement of citizens from marginalised areas.”
“This strategy has positive effects in the long run, because those people recover that space, and then take care [of] and manage it.”
Despite the substantial differences between cities in terms of crime rates and types of crimes, a key requirement to enhance safety and security is the decentralisation of policies from the national to local level.
When policies are not decentralised, improving circumstances becomes very difficult, as Bilal S. Hamad, mayor of Beirut, could attest during his speech at the plenary session.
In Beirut, a lack of decentralisation is hindering the municipality’s ability to intervene on crime and safety issues. “The central government has its hand in the affairs of the municipality,” Hamad lamented. The city is not in charge [of] a police force, and the central government put someone in the role of governor, “taking all the executive power in the city of Beirut”.
In another example, inadequate housing is a problem indirectly connected to crime, but “we don’t have full power [over] it, because it’s the central government which controls that”, insisted Hamad.
According to Andersson, apart from decentralisation, cooperation is also essential. “The best results come when all the various departments in a municipality [understand] that they have a role to play with regards to providing safety and security for the inhabitants of the city,” she told IPS.
Interestingly, crime and violence differ significantly from city to city, and developed and developing countries do not necessarily face separate types of crimes.
“In developing countries, the biggest challenge is always finding resources,” Andersson told IPS, particularly moving resources from national to local governments. Some problems, however, affect most cities, regardless of the country in which they are located. “Across borders, in all regions, the issue of women and girls’ safety…comes out quite clearly,” Andersson said.
This issue, by limiting the freedom of women and girls, prevents them from participating in and contributing to their communities. As Andersson clarified during the conference, “Communities where all citizens are empowered to participate in social, economic and political opportunities…are instrumental [in reducing] poverty.”
For more than 100 days, detainees at American detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have been on hunger strike, drawing international attention back to the prison that U.S. President Barack Obama vowed during his first presidential campaign to close down.
Ramzi Kassem, associate professor of law at the City University of New York, is one of the lawyers who voluntarily defend prisoners of the “war on terror” being held at Guantanamo Bay. He currently represents seven detainees of various nationalities at Guantanamo and one at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan.
The facility was established in January 2002 by the administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush to hold alleged enemies in the so-called global war on terror.
As pressure from the strike grew, Obama said on Apr. 30 that he would try again to close Guantanamo, despite persistent congressional opposition. “I think it is critical for us to understand that Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe,” the president said. “It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us in terms of our international standing.”
In an interview with IPS correspondent Robert Stefanicki, Kassem described the brutal manner in which detainees are force-fed, the legal situation of the prisoners, and how the experience has been unique for him.
Q: What is the current scope of the hunger strike?
A: I was at Guantanamo on Feb. 6 this year, and on that day my client told me that the hunger strike had begun. Now even the U.S. government admits that more than 100 prisoners out of 166 are protesting.
But based on information from my clients, in reality, all of them are on strike, with the exception of those who are sick, old and “high value” detainees kept in complete isolation. The discrepancy comes from the fact that the U.S. government has a narrow definition of a hunger strike, just like it has a narrow definition of torture.
Q: Why are they protesting?
A: My client Moaz al-Alawi told me he is refusing food and drink to protest his indefinite imprisonment without charge and without fair process. This is the only way for prisoners to exercise their autonomy and dignity.
Those people were taken from their families over a decade ago. Very few have been tried or charged. Over half of Guantanamo’s current population has been approved for release by various U.S. security agencies: the CIA, FBI, and the Department of Defence."The U.S. government has a narrow definition of a hunger strike, just like it has a narrow definition of torture."
-- Ramzi Kassem
Yet they are still in prison. One of my clients, Shaker Aamer, was cleared for release by the Bush and Obama administrations, and the UK government has been demanding his freedom for years, but he is still there, now on hunger strike.
Q: Do the prisoners have concrete demands?
A: The prisoners want Barack Obama to deliver on his promise to close the prison and send them home. Until the government takes some concrete steps in that direction, I think the hunger strike will continue. It may stop when some people are released, beginning with those cleared for release long ago.
Q: What are U.S. authorities doing to stop the protest?
A: Several prisoners are being force-fed. Force-feeding someone against his or her will is a violation of medical ethics and international law. Other prisoners in Guantanamo refuse food from their captors but accept feeding; they protest by making the U.S. military feed them by tube.
Although it is legal to feed those men, it is still illegal to do it in such a brutal way – sending five guards to take the prisoner violently, beat him up, restrain him in a chair, and tie down his arms, legs and head, so he cannot move. Then they put the tube through his nose down to the stomach. No anesthetic or lubricant.
Q: Do your clients claim innocence?
A: The fundamental concept in any legal system is that one is innocent until proven guilty. In this case you have people who have not even been charged.
At its peak, Guantanamo had 800 inmates. Now it has 166. The majority was released unilaterally by the U.S. government, not by court order.
I’ve seen several cases where the evidence did not support the accusation. When those cases were moved forward to trial level, federal judges ruled in favour of the prisoners in over 75 percent of the cases.
I am not saying that there aren’t any criminals at Guantanamo. If they are suspected criminals, they should be charged in a court of law that recognises the basic principles of fair process: presumption of innocence, no secret evidence, reliable evidence not extracted under torture.
Some families of my clients told me, “If my son or my husband did anything wrong, charge him. If he is convicted by a fair court, we would not have any objections. If you are not going to charge him, then release him.”
Q: Why is the U.S. government reluctant to bring Guantanamo detainees to court?
A: The U.S. government is reluctant because if you have torture, the case does not fly in court. All the prisoners of Guantanamo have been tortured one way or another.
Q: Are the concerns that released prisoners could return to terrorist activities justified?
A: When we say “return”, we assume that they were there. There is no proof of that. Also, there is no empirical evidence for the concern that they may engage in something wrong after release.
Even if you believe in U.S. government numbers – and I don’t – 77 percent of prisoners from Guantanamo have gone back to normal peaceful life.
Q: How is working at Guantanamo unique for a lawyer?
A: First, we have to fight for access to our clients. Then we stumble over numerous other restrictions: requirements of being a U.S. citizen, security clearance by the FBI, traveling to Cuba to meet the client.
In a normal criminal case, when given a report that the government wants to use against my client, first I would review this report with him. In Guantanamo such a report is classified, not to be shared with the client, so I have to develop the defence on my own—a big handicap.
Q: Were you surprised by recent revelations that authorities in Guantanamo listen to the conversations between prisoners and their lawyers?
A: For us it was confirmation, not a revelation. In 2005, when I first met with my clients in Guantanamo, I did not believe them when they said conversations were being recorded. But now I know my clients have always been right.
The prosecution at the military commission admitted that smoke detectors are in fact cameras and microphones. The government may not use these recordings in court against my clients, but the intelligence services are using them for whatever purposes they want.
Q: Do the lawyers at Guantanamo feel helpless?
A: We try to change the situation as much as we can. Our role is not necessarily to win in court. We have to amplify the voices of our clients to ensure they are heard by the media, NGOs and the public.
News from Guantanamo pressured the U.S. government to release prisoners. I hope this time pressure from the hunger strike will bring real change: closing Guantanamo, a place that has no right to exist.
For the last month Gibson Severe and his wife, Merjury Severe, known opposition supporters from Hurungwe district in Zimbabwe’s Mashonaland West Province, have been hiding out in the country’s capital Harare.
The Movement for Democratic Change – Morgan Tsvangirai (MDC–T) supporters were forced to flee their rural home in Hurungwe district after Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) militias threatened them for encouraging people to participate in the recently-ended mobile voter registration.
“It’s been a month since we left Hurungwe district after the Jochomondo militia, which has known links to Zanu-PF, besieged our rural home accusing us of encouraging people to register to vote for the MDC-T,” Gibson Severe told IPS.
Since last year, the Jochomondo militia has allegedly terrorised residents in Zimbabwe’s northern Hurungwe district, a Zanu-PF-stronghold, making it almost impossible for opposition parties to campaign in the region.
Merjury Severe told IPS that elections in this southern African nation have become associated with threats and violence.
“This is not the first time we have been subjected to intimidation. In the 2008 presidential runoff we were beaten up for being MDC-T sympathisers,” she said.
Zimbabweans will go to the polls sometime later this year to vote for a new president. Current President Robert Mugabe, 89, has been in office for 33 years in a reign characterised by corruption, oppression, forced land seizures and a failing economy.
However, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai recently told media that the date for the elections would only be set after voter registration was completed. Although mobile registration has ended, voters can still register at the Registrar General’s office.
But as Zimbabwe’s first round of 30-day mobile voter registration ended on Sunday, May 19, the process was marked by long queues, slow registration and intimidation by violent gangs with suspected Zanu-PF links.
Pedzisai Ruhanya, director for the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute, an independent public policy think-tank, told IPS that the process had been fraught with chaos. “The mobile voter registration exercise was not done properly. It was chaotic and characterised by political gerrymandering.”
Zanu-PF-linked militias who call themselves Al-Shabaab, named after Somalia’s Islamic terrorist group, are alleged to have threatened the electorate in Midlands Province.
“The mobile voter registration exercise here irked Zanu-PF stooges who have directed their anger towards teachers in rural communities, fiercely warning them against voting for the (two) MDC formations,” a local councilor from Midlands Province told IPS. The MDC split in 2006 into the MDC-T and the MDC-Ncube, which is led by Professor Welshman Ncube.
Officials from Marondera, the capital of Mashonaland East Province, situated some 72 km east of Harare, said villagers were forced by suspected Zanu-PF-linked militias to participate in the voter registration process.
“People were being abused by Zanu-PF militias, who were singing liberation war songs and chanting party slogans, and forced into (going to) register to vote,” a local district official in Marondera told IPS.
Police from Mashonaland Central Province’s Bindura and Mazowe towns, which are located about 90 km north of Harare, said that people there still live in fear of a repeat of the violence that ensued during the country’s previous elections. Many are scared just to publicly support political parties.
“Nobody wears MDC-T shirts here after the 2008 violent elections that left thousands of people maimed. Zanu-PF is going to use this to win this election, by reminding people about the June 2008 atrocities,” a top police official told IPS.
Global rights group Amnesty International reported that the 2008 presidential runoff had been “held against a backdrop of widespread killings, torture and assault of perceived opposition supporters.”
Human Rights Watch said in its January 2013 report titled “Race Against Time: The Need for Legal and Institutional Reforms Ahead of Zimbabwe’s Elections,” that over 200 people died in the 2008 election violence.
So far, no arrests have been made in any of the cases of apparent intimidation. However, Zanu-PF spokesperson Rugare Gumbo dismissed the reports.
“There is nothing like terror groups linked to our party. Why should we beat people into submission when it’s well known that the MDCs have lost supporters to Zanu-PF?” Gumbo told IPS.
However, renowned political commentator Rejoice Ngwenya told IPS that
Zimbabwe’s mobile voter registration process was flawed.
“Mobile voter registration was disjointed and weak, perhaps deliberately. There is no voter education in Zimbabwe … the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) has neither the capacity nor the political will (to carry out voter education).
“But civil society organisations and political parties are giving it their best shot, although they still encounter a very uncooperative legislative piece – the Public Order and Security Act.”
The act gives untold power to the police, and many have claimed that Mugabe has used the country’s security forces to intimidate his opposition.
Local rights groups also expressed concern about the mobile voter registration.
“We embrace the exercise. But we are worried by the manner in which it was being conducted in rural areas, where Zanu-PF members were distributing membership forms, purporting to carry out voter registration,” David Chidende, programme manager for Youth Information and Education For Behaviour Change, a democracy lobby group, told IPS.
It is also alleged that in Zanu-PF strongholds there were large numbers of voter registration centres, while in MDC-dominated areas there were a limited few. Ruhanya said: “Perceived anti-Zanu-PF political activists linked to (both) MDC formations were given limited sites to register to vote.”
A Zanu-PF central committee member told IPS on the condition of anonymity: “Officials were first registering voters in constituencies where Zanu-PF mobilised supporters to register in their numbers.”
Once Mugabe approves the country’s new constitution, a second round of voter registration and inspection will take place.
“We still have an additional 30-day voter registration period provided for by the draft constitution,” ZEC chairperson, Justice Rita Makarau, told the local Financial Gazette newspaper.
Ruhanya urged authorities to conduct the next round of voter registration exercise differently “in order for Zimbabwe to have free and fair elections.”
When a five-year-old was rescued from the basement of a building in the eastern part of India’s capital, New Delhi, the doctors treating her were horrified to find the little girl had not only been raped by two men several times, but the perpetrators had also inflicted severe perineal injuries by inserting foreign objects into her body.
Tied to a bed for nearly two days, the girl was raped and brutalised by a young neighbour and his friend, even while the police ignored her parents’ repeated requests to trace their missing child.
“Violence against a child, even if it occurs inside (his or her) own home, must not be seen as a private issue. It is violence and it is a public issue." -- Shantha Sinha
“We pleaded with the police. We called the (hotlines). But they did not act instantly and when she was rescued in such a horrible state, cops offered me some money to keep quiet and said I am fortunate that she is still alive,” the girl’s father told IPS.
Coming after a season of anti-rape protests in New Delhi over last December’s fatal gang-rape of a young medical student inside a bus, this latest incident, coupled with police inaction, triggered fresh agitation in the national capital.
In the same month, another five-year-old girl in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh succumbed to her injuries after enduring similarly unspeakable horrors.
Stories of rape and abuse, often involving fatalities, are pouring in every day now, with the latest figures showing that child rapes in India have risen 336 percent between 2001 and 2011.
Human rights activists lament that these figures represent only reported cases, while the actual number may be much higher.
Many of these rapes occur in the confines of the victim’s own household, sometimes by family members or other known assailants, other times by unknown attackers.
According to a recent report by the New Delhi-based Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR), sexual offences against children in India have reached an “epidemic proportion”.
The 56-page report, citing National Crimes Record Bureau (NCRB) statistics, stated that rape cases increased from 2,113 cases in 2001 to 7,112 cases in 2011, with a total of 48,338 cases in that period.
ACHR Director Suhas Chakma told IPS these numbers represent “only the tip of the iceberg, as the large majority of child rape cases are not reported to the police”, while other forms of sexual assault against children pass largely under the radar of the authorities.
Chakma attributes the increase partly to the “tremendous rural-urban migration” of the last 15 years that has resulted in a clash of cultures, as migrant workers from India’s remote agricultural belts come face to face with an urban lifestyle.
“Pornography is now at everyone’s fingertips,” he noted, adding that India’s socio-economic upheaval of the last decade and a half have “impacted behaviours”.
The state of Madhya Pradesh recorded the highest number of child rapes, with 9,465 cases from 2001 to 2011; the western state Maharashtra came a close second, with 6,868 cases; while Uttar Pradesh, located on the northern border, reported 5,949 cases.
The report found that every single Indian state reported high numbers and experienced an increase in cases.
Not a private matter
When it comes to child abuse, said Shantha Sinha, chairperson of India’s National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), there cannot be any distinction between private and public space.
“Violence against a child, even if it occurs inside (his or her) own home, must not be seen as a private issue. It is violence and it is a public issue,” Sinha told IPS.
She stressed the need for citizens to report as many details as possible about such cases to the proper authorities – maintaining anonymity if necessary – such as the countrywide Child Welfare Committee (CWC).
Homes of horror
According to the ACHR, rape is especially rampant in juvenile homes established under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act of 2000.
The government of India supports at least 733 juvenile homes under the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS) of the ministry of women and child development; but government oversight has been unable to stem abuse.
“All juvenile homes are centres of sexual abuse,” said Chakma. “There is no supervision whatsoever and the offenders are mostly staff members.”
He alleged that the government has failed to establish proper “inspection committees”, charging that the issue is not even on the agenda for minister-level discussions. Chakam also blasted the NCPCR for being “useless.”
According to a report by NCPCR member Vinod Kumar Tikoo, who visited three such homes in the Ambala district of India’s northern Haryana state after reports of physical and sexual abuse, the conditions of the facilities are “shocking.”
In one of the homes, Tikoo found girls and boys living together but could see “no evidence” of a professional staff, trained caretakers or security measures. The operation seemed to be an “entirely family affair.”
“The husband–wife duo managing one of the other homes seemed unaware of the roles, responsibilities and…the jurisprudence governing child protection in an official child care institution,” he said.
Conditions are particularly threatening to girl children. In one of the homes, the only toilet facility available for girls was located on the terrace, surrounded by water.
According to the report, many of the managers of these homes simply bring in abandoned or runaway children from hospitals, railway stations and bus-stands, without presenting them to the concerned Child Welfare Committee, which exist in every state.
According to Sinha, security in juvenile homes is a complex issue and calls for rigorous government monitoring and intervention. She recommended that the state “redefine” the meaning of these homes, and run them instead as training and resource centres, thereby offering these kids the chance for a more independent future.
Poor legal infrastructure
Other experts believe the answer lies in amending the Juvenile Justice Act, which does not currently provide an adequate support system for families too poor to embark on lengthy legal battles.
Chakma said it is “essential” that the government create a victim assistance fund, which aggrieved parties can utilise to seek justice and punitive measures through the courts.
“India enacts laws without any judicial impact assessments. So the judicial infrastructure has to be upgraded too,” he said.