Inter Press Service » Crime & Justice Turning the World Downside Up Sat, 02 May 2015 20:58:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Draconian Ban on Abortion in El Salvador Targeted by Global Campaign Thu, 30 Apr 2015 20:53:51 +0000 Edgardo Ayala One of her defence lawyers hugs Carmelina Pérez when an appeals court in eastern El Salvador declares her innocent of homicide, on Apr. 23. She had been sentenced to 30 years in prison in June 2014 after suffering a miscarriage. In El Salvador women, especially the poor, suffer from the penalisation of abortion under any circumstances. Credit: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

One of her defence lawyers hugs Carmelina Pérez when an appeals court in eastern El Salvador declares her innocent of homicide, on Apr. 23. She had been sentenced to 30 years in prison in June 2014 after suffering a miscarriage. In El Salvador women, especially the poor, suffer from the penalisation of abortion under any circumstances. Credit: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

By Edgardo Ayala
SAN SALVADOR, Apr 30 2015 (IPS)

International and local human rights groups are carrying out an intense global campaign to get El Salvador to modify its draconian law that criminalises abortion and provides for prison terms for women.

Doctors, fearing prosecution, often report poor women who end up in the public hospitals with complications from miscarriages, some of whom are sent to jail for supposedly undergoing illegal abortions.

There are currently 15 women in prison who were sentenced for alleged abortions after reported miscarriages. At least 129 women were prosecuted for abortions between 2000 and 2011, according to local organisations.

The campaign by Amnesty International and local human rights groups collected 300,000 signatures on a petition demanding a modification of El Salvador’s total ban on abortion.

This Central American country of 6.3 million people is one of the few nations in the world to ban abortion under any circumstances and penalise it with heavy jail terms.

The campaign was launched when a woman was freed by an appeals court. She had been found guilty of homicide and spent 15 months in prison.

Carmelina Pérez wept tears of joy when a judge declared her innocent on Apr. 23, after a hearing in a court in the eastern city of La Unión, the capital of the department of the same name.

“I’m happy, because I will be back with my son and with my family, free,” a still-handcuffed Pérez told IPS. She has a three-year-old son in her native Honduras.

Pérez, 21, was working as a domestic employee in the town of Concepción de Oriente, in La Unión, when she suffered a miscarriage. She ended up sentenced in June 2014 to 30 years in prison for homicide – a sentence that was overturned on appeal.

Of the 17 women imprisoned in similar cases since 1998, 15 are still in prison.

That was the year the legislature modified the penal code to make abortion illegal under all circumstances, even when the mother’s life is at risk, the fetus is deformed or unviable, or the pregnancy is the result of incest or rape.

Article 1 of the Salvadoran constitution was amended in January 1999 to protect the right to life from the moment of conception, making it even more difficult to reform the ban on abortion.

Carmen Guadalupe Vásquez, 25, was another one of the 17 women imprisoned, who are referred to by rights groups as “Las 17”. She had been sentenced to 25 years after being raped and suffering a miscarriage. She spent seven years in prison but was pardoned by the legislature in January 2015, after the Supreme Court recognised prosecutorial errors in her trial.

And in November 2014, 47-year-old Mirna Ramírez was released after serving out her 12-year sentence.

At least five other women have been accused and are in prison awaiting final sentencing.

Most of these women sought medical care in public hospitals after suffering miscarriages or stillbirths, but were reported by hospital staff fearful of being accused of practicing abortions. Many were handcuffed to the hospital bed and sent to prison directly, under police custody.

“The total ban on abortion is a violation of the human rights of girls and women in El Salvador, such as the rights to health, life and justice,” Amnesty International Americas director Erika Guevara said at an Apr. 22 forum in San Salvador.

Guevara added that El Salvador’s law on abortion “criminalises the country’s poorest women.”

Although there are no recent figures, a 2013 study carried out by the Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto (Citizens’ Coalition for the Decriminalisation of Abortion) found that 129 women were accused of abortion between 2000 and 2011.

Of this total, 49 were convicted – 23 for abortion and 26 for homicide in different degrees. In these cases, the prosecutor’s office argued that the fetuses were born alive and the mother was responsible for their death.

Of the 129 women accused, seven percent were illiterate, 40 percent had only a primary school education, 11.6 percent had a high school education and just 4.6 had made it to the university. And 51.1 percent of the accused had no income while 31.7 had small incomes.

In El Salvador, it is no secret that middle- and upper-class women have access to safe abortions in private clinics, and are neither reported by the doctors nor arrested and charged.

In its petition to modify the ban, Amnesty International demanded that El Salvador ensure access to safe and legal abortion in cases of rape or incest, where the woman’s health or life is at risk, and where the fetus is malformed or unlikely to survive.

Only the Vatican, Haiti, Nicaragua, Honduras, Surinam and Chile have total bans on abortion, although in Chile the legislature is studying a bill that would legalise therapeutic abortion (under the previously listed circumstances).

Delegates from Amnesty International, the Agrupación Ciudadana, and the Center for Reproductive Rights met on Apr. 22 with representatives of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén of the left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, to demand a reform of the law and deliver the 300,000 signatures.

They also met with the presidents of the legislature and judiciary.

“There is at least a willingness to talk, we see a certain openness,” activist Paula Ávila with the Center for Reproductive Rights, an international organisation based in the United States, told IPS.

Ávila added that as women who have suffered these cases increasingly speak out and tell their stories, the state will have to accept the need to sit down and talk.

The Center, along with the Agrupación Ciudadana and the Feminist Collective for Local Development, demanded a response from the Salvadoran state to a communication sent on Apr. 20 by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IACHR) urging the state to recognise its responsibility in the death of “Manuela”.

Manuela – who never allowed her real name to be revealed – had a stillbirth, was erroneously accused of having an abortion, and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

It was later discovered that she had lymphatic cancer, a disease that can cause miscarriages. She died in prison in 2010 without being treated for her cancer.

The IACHR has accepted the case and has given the Salvadoran state three months to respond with regard to its responsibility for her death.

The debate on the flexibilisation of the total ban on abortion is marked by the “machismo” of Salvadoran society and moralistic and religious overtones, with heavy pressure from Catholic Church leaders and evangelical churches that stands in the way of political changes.

But the release of Carmelina Pérez in La Unión has given rise to hope in similar cases.

For the first time, an appeals court judge dismissed the statement of the gynecologist who testified against the defendant. That decision was key in overturning her conviction.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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U.N. Staffers Secure at Home, Moving Targets Overseas Wed, 29 Apr 2015 20:17:27 +0000 Thalif Deen Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon signs a book of condolences at UNICEF (UN Children’s Fund) headquarters, on the death of the agency’s staff members killed in the 20 April attack on a vehicle in which they were riding in Garowe, Somalia. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon signs a book of condolences at UNICEF (UN Children’s Fund) headquarters, on the death of the agency’s staff members killed in the 20 April attack on a vehicle in which they were riding in Garowe, Somalia. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

By Thalif Deen

When the United Nations spent over 2.2 billion dollars refurbishing its ageing 65-year-old Secretariat building, one of its primary goals was to strengthen security to prevent any violent attacks on the glass house by New York city’s East River.

With a voluntary donation of nearly 100 million dollars from the United States as host country (in addition to its assessed contribution for the renovations), the United Nations has installed bollards and other security devices enhancing the entrances and perimeters of the campus where more than 3,000 staffers now work in a modernised and energy-efficient 39-storeyed high-rise building."We hope [Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon] will recognise the fact that the U.N. has to start making some tougher choices about whether it actually has the means to be able to operate in dangerous locations and protect its staff." -- Ian Richards

The new security measures are expected to be in place by next year while the refurbishment that began in 2008 – financed by the 193 member states with assessed contributions based on “capacity to pay” – is virtually complete.

Acutely conscious of its security, the United Nations is also planning to empty and shut down its historic Dag Hammarskjold library building, keeping it permanently vacant, because of possible terrorist attacks from an adjacent roadway and an exit ramp from the highway – both of which the U.S. government is refusing to close down because it is “not feasible” to do so in a traffic-clogged city.

Still, say U.N. staffers, while they appreciate the protective measures in home territory, the world body has not placed as high a priority on their safety and security in emergency operations in conflict zones.

As international aid workers increasingly come under violent attack overseas, U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos provided a candid assessment last week when she said “respect for the U.N. flag and the Red Cross and Red Crescent flag is disappearing.”

According to the latest statistics, attacks on U.N. staffers have continued to increase over the last decade – with a record high of 264 attacks, affecting 474 aid workers, in 2013 alone.

In early April, four staffers working for the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF were killed in “a horrific attack” in Somalia as a result of a roadside bomb destroying their minivan.

The increasing deaths and the continued attacks have prompted the U.N. staff union to call for the establishment of an independent high-level panel to review U.N. security.

Asked if the establishment of such a panel is at the discretion of member states or a decision by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Ian Richards, president of the Coordinating Committee of International Staff Unions and Associations (CCISUA), representing 60,000 staffers, told IPS the staff union is requesting Ban to set up the panel.

“So it is entirely his discretion. But we hope he will recognise the fact that the U.N. has to start making some tougher choices about whether it actually has the means to be able to operate in dangerous locations and protect its staff,” he said.

In a statement released here, the CCISUA said it has been 10 years since the United Nations Department of Safety and Security was created in the aftermath of the 2003 Canal Hotel bombing in Baghdad.

Employees at the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq, search through the rubble after an explosion in 2003 that killed at least 17 people including the Secretary-General's Special Representative for Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello. Credit: UN Photo/AP Photo

Employees at the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq, search through the rubble after an explosion in 2003 that killed at least 17 people including the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello. Credit: UN Photo/AP Photo

Since that time, the United Nations has been the target of numerous attacks.

The Staff Union says is time to call for an independent high-level panel, modelled on two earlier U.N. panels, the Ahtisaari panel (2003, headed by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisari) and the Brahimi panel (2008, headed by former Algerian Foreign Minister Lakhdar Brahimi), to review security policies and procedures.

The panel should find answers to questions such as: Is the United Nations doing enough to protect its staff? Is the world body better off today in protecting its staff with the Department of Safety and Security? Is it subjecting staff to unnecessary risks with the “stay and deliver” policy?

The CCISUA has also sought answers to several other questions: What were the circumstances of the latest attack (in Somalia), and should anyone be held accountable for the gaps in security leaving staff vulnerable to those types of attacks?

Have politics taken precedence over proper security concerns, since stricter measures were not in place in Puntland, an area that has suffered deadly attacks and repeated threats by the Al Qaeda-linked al Shaabab, a terrorist group that has threatened and repeatedly attacked United Nations staff in Somalia in the past?

The 2008 Report of the Independent Panel on Safety and Security of U.N. Personnel and Premises Worldwide (Brahimi Report) noted that “Member States are not equally well-equipped to provide that security. Indeed, it is quite often in those countries where capacity is modest or lacking all together that the most serious risks exist. All the United Nations can and should expect from the host government is that it provides security to the best of its ability.”

“It is incumbent to the Organization in particular the Secretary-General, and the Department of Safety and Security, to fill in this void, including by ensuring that proper policies, procedures and standards are established and always followed – which in the instance of the latest attack would have born no monetary cost to the Organization,” the statement said.

The Staff Union thinks the secretary-general’s policy of “stay and deliver”, combined with “do more with less”, has shown its limits and has placed staff in more of a high-risk situation than at any time before.

Thus, the Staff Union calls on the secretary-general to immediately initiate a review of security policies worldwide and an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the latest attack on the organisation, so that future such attacks may be prevented.

“The Staff Union believes we owe this to all staff and the families of the victims. The Secretary-General, as chief administrative officer of the United Nations, has an inherent responsibility to seek to ensure the safety of staff,” the statement said.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at

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Kenyan Pastoralists Protest Wanton Destruction of Indigenous Forest Sat, 25 Apr 2015 11:43:44 +0000 Robert Kibet Forest rangers putting out a fire at a charcoal burning kiln in Kenya’s Mau Forest. The future of the country’s indigenous forest cover is under threat but this has little to do with poverty and ignorance – experts say that it is greed which allows unsustainable practices, such as the lucrative production of charcoal and logging of wood. Credit: Robert Kibet/IPS

Forest rangers putting out a fire at a charcoal burning kiln in Kenya’s Mau Forest. The future of the country’s indigenous forest cover is under threat but this has little to do with poverty and ignorance – experts say that it is greed which allows unsustainable practices, such as the lucrative production of charcoal and logging of wood. Credit: Robert Kibet/IPS

By Robert Kibet
NAIROBI, Apr 25 2015 (IPS)

Armed with twigs and placards, enraged residents from a semi-pastoral community 360 km north of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, protested this week against wanton destruction of indigenous forest – their alternative source of livelihood.

With climate change a new ordeal that has caused frequent droughts, leading to suffering and death in this part of Africa, the community from Lpartuk Ranch in Samburu County relies on livestock which is sometimes wiped out by severe drought leaving them with no other option other than the harvesting of wild products and honey.

“People here are ready to take up spears and machetes to guard the forest. They have been provoked by outsiders who are out to wipe out our indigenous forest to the last bit,” Mark Loloolki, Lpartuk Ranch chairman, who led the protesting community members told IPS.

They threatened to set alight any vehicle caught ferrying the timbers or logs suspected to be from their forests.Illegal harvesting of forest products is pervasive and often involves unsustainable forest practices which cause serious damage to forests, the people who depend on them and the economies of producer countries

Their protest came barely a week after counterparts from Seketet, a few kilometres away in Samburu Central, held a similar protest after over 12,000 red cedar posts were caught on transit to Maralal, Samburu’s main town.

Last year, students walked for four kilometres during International Ozone Day to protest against the wanton destruction of the same endangered forest tree species.

A report titled Green Carbon, Black Trade, released by the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) and Interpol in 2012,  which focuses on illegal logging and its impacts on the lives and livelihoods of often some of the poorest people in the world, underlines how criminals are combining old-fashioned methods such as bribes with high-tech methods such as computer hacking of government websites to obtain transportation and other permits.

Samburu County, in Kenya’s semi-arid northern region, hosts Lerroghi, a 92,000 hectare forest reserve that is home to different indigenous plants and animal species. Lerroghi, also called Kirisia locally, is among the largest forest ecosystem in dry northern Kenya and was initially filled with olive and red cedar trees.

It is alleged that unscrupulous merchants smuggle the endangered red cedar products to the coastal port of Mombasa for shipping to Saudi Arabia where they are sold at high prices.

“This is a business that involves a well-connected cartel of merchants operating in Nairobi and Mombasa,” said Loloolki.

In Kenya, the future of indigenous forest cover is under threat but has little to do with poverty and ignorance – experts say that it is greed which allows unsustainable practices, such as the lucrative production of charcoal and logging of wood.

“This forest is our main water catchment source and home to wild animals such as elephants,” Moses Lekolool, the area assistant chief, told IPS. “Elephants no longer have a place to mate and reproduce or even give birth, with most of them having migrated.”

According to Samburu County’s Kenya Forest Service (KFS) Ecosystem Controverter Eric Chemitei, “as a government parastatal, we [KFS] do not issue permits for transportation or movement of cedar posts. However, we do not know how they get to Nairobi, Mombasa and eventually to Saudi Arabia as alleged.”

At the same time, Chemitei told IPS that squatters currently residing inside the forest are mainly families affected by insecurity related to cattle rustling, adding that their presence was posing a threat to the main water towers of Lerroghi, Mathew Ranges, and Ndoto and Nyiro mountains.

He further noted that harvesting of cedar regardless of whether forest was privately or publicly owned was banned in 1999, and that over 30,000 hectares – one-third of the Lerroghi forest – has been destroyed.

Reports from INTERPOL and the World Bank in 2009 and from UNEP in 2011 indicate that the trade in illegally harvested timber is highly lucrative for criminal elements and has been estimated at 11 billion dollars – comparable with the production value of drugs which is estimated at around 13 billion dollars.

In a report on organised wildlife, gold and timber, released on Apr. 16, UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said: “There is no room for doubt: wildlife and forest crime is serious and calls for an equally serious response. In addition to the breach of the international rule of law and the impact on peace and security, environmental crime robs countries of revenues that could have been spent on sustainable development and the eradication of poverty.”

According to the KFS Strategic Plan (2009/2010-2013/2014), of the 3.4 million hectares (5.9 percent) of forest cover out of the Kenya’s total land area, 1.4 million are made up of indigenous closed canopy forests, mangroves and plantations, on both public and private lands.

The plan also indicated that Kenya’s annual domestic demand for wood is 37 million cubic metres while sustainable wood supply is only around 30 million cubic metres, thus creating a deficit of seven million cubic metres which, according to analysts, means that any projected increase in forest cover can only be realised after this huge internal demand is met.

Last year, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Environment Judi Wakhungu said that KFS’ revised policy framework for forest conservation and sustainable management lists features including community participation, community forest associations and benefit sharing.

The policy acknowledges that indigenous trees or forests are ecosystems that provide important economic, environmental, recreational, scientific, social, cultural and spiritual benefits.

Nevertheless, illegal harvesting of forest products is pervasive and often involves unsustainable forest practices which cause serious damage to forests, the people who depend on them and the economies of producer countries.

Forests have been subjected to land use changes such as conversion to farmland or urban settlements, thus reducing their ability to supply forest products and serve as water catchments, biodiversity conservation reservoirs and wildlife habitats.

Meanwhile, the effect of forest depletion on women has been noted by Veronica Nkepeni , Director of Kenya’s Centre for Advocacy and Gender Equality, who told IPS that the “most affected are women in the pastoralist areas, trekking long distances in search of water as a result of the effects of forest depletion leading to water scarcity.”

Edited by Phil Harris    

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U.N. Committee Gets ‘Unhindered Access’ to Azerbaijan’s Detention Centres – But Is it Enough? Fri, 24 Apr 2015 22:08:58 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida Against the backdrop of serious human rights allegations, Azerbaijan is gearing up to host the first-ever European Games. Credit: ResoluteSupportMedia/CC-BY-2.0

Against the backdrop of serious human rights allegations, Azerbaijan is gearing up to host the first-ever European Games. Credit: ResoluteSupportMedia/CC-BY-2.0

By Kanya D'Almeida

Months after being denied access to Azerbaijan’s places of detention, the head of the United Nation’s Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT) announced Friday that her four-member delegation had successfully conducted investigations of Azerbaijani prisons, police stations and investigative isolation units.

“The Azerbaijani Government this time enabled unhindered access to places of deprivation of liberty,” confirmed Aisha Shujune Muhammad, head of the SPT delegation, in a statement published by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

“I can’t think of a single case of the ones we’ve followed – which largely are connected to political activists, journalists and human rights defenders – in which allegations of torture have been effectively investigated." -- Jane Buchanan, associate director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch
As a state party to the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, Azerbaijan is obliged to allow independent experts full access to sites of detention, but last September the SPT was forced to suspend its visit after being prevented from inspecting some sites and barred from completing its work at others, “in violation of Azerbaijan’s treaty obligations”, according to OHCHR.

This month, from Apr. 16-24, SPT members visited a range of sites including pre-trial detention facilities, psychiatric hospitals, and social care institutions.

On Friday the subcommittee presented its confidential preliminary observations to Azerbaijani authorities, including recommendations for strengthening systems to protect those persons deprived of their liberty against torture and other cruel or inhuman treatment.

While welcoming the government’s cooperation, Muhammad stressed, “[The] State party has yet to guarantee all fundamental legal and procedural safeguards to persons deprived of their liberty, including access to a lawyer, a medical doctor, and to contact his or her family.”

Streets empty of political dissidents

The statement confirms what international watchdogs have been warning for the past few years: that ill treatment of prisoners and impunity, particularly with regards to political activists and journalists, is rampant in this land-locked nation of 9.4 million people.

“We have had long-standing concerns about conditions in detention and ill treatment and torture of people detained in police stations, in prisons and other facilities,” Jane Buchanan, associate director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch, told IPS.

“We have huge concerns about fair trials and due process, so we don’t have a sense of optimism at all – nor do I read a lot of optimism into the SPT’s statement. I would not say the trajectory is good.”

She said the situation is particularly worrying for human rights defenders and the media, who are currently weathering a harsh government crackdown against any form of dissent.

In 2014 alone, Human Rights Watch (HRW) recorded over 35 cases of activists, journalists and human rights defenders who were detained or imprisoned on politically motivated charges.

Buchanan said other, local groups have longer lists, whose numbers are closer to the 100 mark.

Even these could be conservative estimates, as many of those who would otherwise be monitoring violations of human rights are now behind bars, or have fled the country to escape prosecution.

“The government is effectively shutting down mechanisms for transparency and accountability for all kinds of things including torture and ill treatment,” she stated.

Amnesty International’s most recent country report for Azerbaijan echoes many of these concerns, highlighting cases like the arrest on May 6 of Kemale Benenyarli, a member of the opposition Azerbaijani Popular Front Party (APFP) who subsequently alleged that she was “beaten, punched, dragged and locked in a cell, where she was kept without food and water until her trial the following morning.”

At the time of her arrest, Benenyarli was among a group of peaceful protestors gathered outside the Baku City Grave Crimes Court, demanding the release of jailed youth activists associated with the NIDA Civic Movement.

Amnesty also reported that another protestor arrested that day, Orkhan Eyyubzade, complained that he was “stripped naked, dragged by the hair, punched, kicked and threatened with rape after he engaged in an argument with police officers during his detention on May 15.”

Other allegations of torture in detention include the withholding of medical treatment, denial of necessary foods due to medical conditions, and the use of physical violence on the part of staff or cellmates, according to HRW’s Buchanan.

“I can’t think of a single case of the ones we’ve followed – which largely are connected to political activists, journalists and human rights defenders – in which allegations of torture have been effectively investigated,” she added.

At present, rights groups say over 50 political prisoners are being held in jails around the country, largely on trumped-up charges.

European Games: A chance to shine a light on injustice?

Against the backdrop of serious rights allegations, which have been escalating since 2012, Azerbaijan is gearing up to host the first-ever European Games under the auspices of the Olympic Movement.

Over 6,000 athletes representing 50 countries are scheduled to participate in the event, which will run from Jun. 12-28 this year.

According to the London-based Business News Europe, the games are budgeted at an estimated eight billion dollars, and billed as the “most spectacular show in Azerbaijan’s history.”

While the government of President Ilham Aliyev hopes to use the games to spotlight his country’s economic development, rights groups are pushing the European Olympic Committees and key National Olympic Committees to instead shift the focus onto human rights abuses and political prisoners.

The Sports and Rights Alliance, a coalition comprised of the likes of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Football Supporters Europe, and Transparency International Germany, recently submitted a letter to Patrick Hickey, president of the European Olympic Committees, arguing that the current crackdown on critics and dissidents is “at odds with key principles of the Olympic Charter that the European Games are meant to uphold.”

The Alliance also urged the sporting body to use its leverage with Azerbaijan to, among other things, demand the immediate and unconditional release of rights activists like Khajida Ismayilova, Leyla Yunus, Arif Yunus, Intigam Aliyev, Rasul Jafarov, Rauf Mirgadirov, Anar Mammadli, Ilgar Mammadov, and Tofig Yagulblu.

“Those participating in the European games being funded by the Azerbaijani government have a real obligation to speak out,” Buchanan stressed.

Among those receiving “funding” to attend the games is Britain’s team of 160 athletes. In February, the Guardian reported that the British Olympic Association (BOA) had admitted that the host country would cover the bulk of the costs associated with getting its teams to Baku.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Media Watchdog Unveils Top Ten Worst Censors Fri, 24 Apr 2015 21:11:42 +0000 Valentina Ieri The collapse of autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt broke the state's stranglehold on the local press, but journalists and bloggers must still be careful what they say. Credit: Cam McGrath/IPS

The collapse of autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt broke the state's stranglehold on the local press, but journalists and bloggers must still be careful what they say. Credit: Cam McGrath/IPS

By Valentina Ieri

While technology has given millions greater freedom to express themselves, in the world’s 10 most censored countries, this basic right exists only on paper, if at all.

According to a report by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which will be officially released at U.N. headquarters on Apr. 27, the worst offenders are Eritrea and North Korea, followed by Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Azerbaijan, Vietnam, Iran, China, Myanmar and Cuba."Countries that were on our list in previous years continue to be on the list. But the forms of censorship have changed." -- CPJ's Courtney Radsch

Courtney Radsch, the advocacy director of CPJ, told IPS, “These countries use a wide range of traditional tactics of censorship, including jailing of journalists, harassment of journalists, prosecuting local press and independent press.”

According to CPJ’s 2014 prison census, Eritrea is Africa’s leading jailer of journalists, with at least 23 behind bars – none of whom has been tried in court or even charged with a crime. Among the other most censored countries on the list is China with 44, Iran with 30, and 17 jailed journalists in Ethiopia.

In countries where governments jail reporters regularly for critical coverage, many journalists are forced to flee rather than risk arrest, said the report.

Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), Felix Horne, told IPS, “If you are a journalist in Ethiopia, you are faced with a stark choice: either you self-censor your writings, you end up in prison, or you are exiled from your country.”

According to the report Journalism is not a Crime, released by HRW in January 2015, over 30 journalists fled Ethiopia in 2014. Six of the last independent publications have shut down and there are at least 19 journalists and bloggers in prison for exercising their right to freedom of expression.

In both Ethiopia and Eritrea, anti-terrorism laws have been used to effectively silence dissenting voices and to target opposition politicians, journalists, and activists, Horne said.

“This law is the ultimate threat for Ethiopian journalists and its use against bloggers and journalists has led to increased rates of self-censorship amongst what is left of Ethiopia’s independent media scene.”

Traditional forms of censorship are going hand in hand with new subtle, modern, and faster strategies such as internet restrictions, regulation of media and press laws, and the limitation of mobile devices.

Radsch underlined, “The situation has gotten worse. We have seen a historical level of imprisonment of journalists and an increasing expansion of censorship (which) developed more sophisticated forms, including pre-publications censorship, restricted access to info content, and content regulations.”

The CPJ report says that in order to avoid an “Arab Spring” in Eritrea, the authorities have strongly limited internet access, with no possibility of gathering independent information.

Radsch highlighted that gathering public information through local internet access – the right to broadband – is recognised by the U.N., as a fundamental human right. But, in Eritrea and North Korea, as well as Cuba, the internet is essentially not permitted.

Access to mobile phones is also restricted.

“There are virtually no phones in Eritrea and there are limited phones in North Korea, where they can get in through smuggling networks from China,” she said, adding that these kind of restrictions are applied not only to reporters, but to the general public more broadly.

According to CPJ, globally, Eritrea has the lowest rate of cell phone users, with just 5.6 percent of the population owning one. In North Korea, only 9.7 percent of the population has cell phones, excluding phones smuggled in from China.

Other countries, including Saudi Arabia, China, Vietnam and Azerbaijan, have internet, but its access is strongly limited through the blocking of web content, restrictive access regulations, and persecuting those who violates the rules, added Radsch.

Censorship in the 10 listed countries affect mainly local journalists, apart from the case of Egypt where foreign reporters have been imprisoned, said Radsch. But censorship is also applied to foreign correspondents in other ways, such as denying entry visas to those countries or by deporting them.

The previous two lists of most censored countries compiled by CPJ date back to 2006 and 2012.

Radsch said, “One of the reasons why we cannot publish these lists every year is because censorship tactics have not changed much from year to year. In general, countries that were on our list in previous years continue to be on the list. But the forms of censorship have changed.”

To keep track of government data is difficult due to their lack of transparency, explained Radsch.

Although the international community is aware of human rights violations in repressive countries, concrete action to protect freedom of expression is still lacking.

Horne underlined that in Ethiopia, for instance, despite its dismal human rights record, the country continues to enjoy significant support from Western governments, both in relation to Ethiopia’s progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and its role as a regional peacekeeper.

“But ignoring Ethiopia’s horrendous human rights situation and the internal tensions this is causing may have long-term implications for Western interests in the Horn of Africa,” Horne concluded.

CPJ is also calling on the international community to ensure that anti-terrorist laws are not used illegitimately by states to strengthen censorship even further against the press.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Talk of Death Squads to Combat New Wave of Gang Violence in El Salvador Thu, 23 Apr 2015 19:00:23 +0000 Edgardo Ayala The funeral of Justo Germán Gil, a member of the police Maintaining Order Unit killed by gang members in the town of San Juan Opico in eastern El Salvador on Jan. 10, 2015. Credit: Vladimir Girón/IPS

The funeral of Justo Germán Gil, a member of the police Maintaining Order Unit killed by gang members in the town of San Juan Opico in eastern El Salvador on Jan. 10, 2015. Credit: Vladimir Girón/IPS

By Edgardo Ayala
SAN SALVADOR, Apr 23 2015 (IPS)

The resurgence of violent crime in El Salvador is giving rise to a hostile social environment in El Salvador reminiscent of the country’s 12-year civil war, which could compromise the country’s still unsteady democracy.

After recent attacks by gangs against police and soldiers, there is talk in the legislature of declaring a state of siege in the most violent urban areas, and the government ordered the creation of three quick response battalions, similar to the ones that operated during the 1980-1992 civil war.

These military units were responsible for a number of massacres of civilians, such as the 1981 mass killing in the village of El Mozote in the northern department of Morazán, where more than 1,000 rural villagers were killed by members of the Atlacatl battalion.

Meanwhile, police and local residents are openly discussing the creation of groups to exterminate gangs, along the lines of far-right paramilitary death squads active in the country from the 1970s until the end of the armed conflict in 1992.“This escalation of violence could have been avoided if an attempt had been made to hold talks including the gangs.” -- Félix Arévalo

“It is extremely dangerous to be talking about a state of siege and all that, because it could affect the country’s democratic process,” the coordinator of the ecumenical Pastoral Initiative for Peace and Life (IPAZ), Félix Arévalo, told IPS.

IPAZ brings together leaders from different religious faiths seeking a negotiated solution to the problem of gang violence plaguing this impoverished Central American nation of 6.3 million.

If approved by parliament, the state of siege would suspend constitutional guarantees such as freedom of assembly and free passage, while militarising areas with high murder rates.

The last time a state of siege was declared in El Salvador was during the November 1989 guerrilla offensive known as “To the limit”, in the midst of the armed conflict that left 75,000 people dead and 8,000 “disappeared”.

The country is now governed by one of the former guerrilla leaders, Salvador Sánchez Cerén of the left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), which became a political party after the 1992 peace accords and has been in power since 2009.

His government says the new wave of violence is part of a backlash by the gangs against the Feb. 14 transfer of their leaders from a medium to a maximum security prison known as Zacatraz, located in the city of Zacatecoluca, 41 km east of San Salvador.

The transferred prisoners included several of the heads of the MS13 and Barrio 18, the two gangs that reached a truce in March 2012 which led to a sharp drop in the number of murders.

Raúl Mijango, who helped broker the truce, told IPS that as a result of the decision to isolate the leaders, younger, more fanatic members who have made violence a way of life now lead the gangs’ activities.

“The last thing these young men are thinking about is stopping this conflict,” he said.

The truce collapsed in May 2013, when then President Mauricio Funes (2009-2014) of the FMLN was forced to remove the minister of justice and security, General David Munguía, one of the main drivers of the talks from within the government, over a technicality.

As of Monday Apr. 20, the gangs had killed – besides civilians – 20 police officers, six members of the military, one prosecutor and six prison guards in an undeclared war also fuelled by the police and military response that has left dozens of gang members dead in clashes.

On Apr. 18, nine gang members were shot by a military squadron in Uluapa Arriba, in the city of Zacatecoluca.

Some police have even openly talked about killing gang members.

“When they (the gang members) run into us, we’re going to kill them,” one police officer wearing a face mask told a local TV station.

And circulating on the social networks are amateur videos of police and locals urging people to kill the “mareros” – members of the gangs or “maras” as they are known in Central America – the same way death squads killed left-wing opponents during the war.

In March, the number of homicides shot up. That month was the most violent so far in the last decade, according to police figures: 481 homicides, an average of 16 murders a day, 56.2 percent more than in March 2014.

If that tendency holds steady, by the end of this year more than 5,000 murders will have been committed, for a homicide rate of 86 per 100,000 population, far above the already high 2014 rate of 63 per 100,000.

El Salvador is one of the world’s most violent countries, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The average Latin American murder rate is 29 per 100,000 inhabitants and the global average is 6.2.

The driving force behind the call for a state of siege are lawmakers from the right-wing Great Alliance for National Union, which holds 11 of the 84 seats in the single-chamber legislature whose term begins May 1, after the March elections.

“This escalation of violence could have been avoided,” said Arévalo, “if an attempt had been made to hold talks including the gangs” – an idea that is staunchly opposed by most political factions, due to society’s outrage against the gangs, which have an estimated combined total of 60,00 members.

In January the government of Sánchez Cerén cut off any possibility of dialogue with the gangs.

Roberto Valent, resident representative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), told IPS that the scaling up of gang activity was in part a response to the state’s attempt, through a stepped-up police presence, to reassert control over territory in the hands of gangs.

Police action is important, he said, to pave the way for prevention, rehabilitation and socioeconomic reinsertion in those areas.

“It’s clearly a reaction to what the state is doing,” said Valent, who was technical coordinator of the National Council for Citizen Security and Coexistence.

The Council, set up by the president in September 2014, was tasked with setting forth proposals for fighting crime, with the participation of different segments of society and technical support from international donors.

In January, the Council proposed 124 measures that the government plans to adopt to fight the wave of crime and violence. Part of the two billion dollars needed to implement a five-year plan have been obtained.

The programme will include educational, healthcare and recreational initiatives, while creating 250,000 jobs for at-risk youngsters.

But in practice, the government has demonstrated more interest in stiffening its policy of cracking down on crime by stepping up police and military action.

The president has announced a restructuring and strengthening of the police, as well as the creation of more elite units to combat the gangs.

IPAZ’s Arévalo said it should be the other way around: “less police action and more prevention and reinsertion.”

“We have stirred up a hornet’s nest; the government acted mistakenly, you can’t implement a plan with corpses falling every which way,” he argued.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Rights Abuses Still Rampant in Bangladesh’s Garment Sector Wed, 22 Apr 2015 20:21:13 +0000 Naimul Haq and Kanya DAlmeida Most of the roughly four million people employed in Bangladesh’s garment industry are women. Credit: Obaidul Arif/IPS

Most of the roughly four million people employed in Bangladesh’s garment industry are women. Credit: Obaidul Arif/IPS

By Naimul Haq and Kanya D'Almeida
DHAKA/NEW YORK, Apr 22 2015 (IPS)

Some say they were beaten with iron bars. Others confess their families have been threatened with death. One pregnant woman was assaulted with metal curtain rods.

These are not scenes typically associated with a place of work, but thousands of people employed in garment factories in Bangladesh have come to expect such brutality as a part of their daily lives.

“I have faced many cases, and been arrested and jailed seven times [...]. The only charge they bring against me is raising my voice in favour of the workers." -- Mushrefa Mishu, president of the Garment Workers’ Unity Forum
Even if they don’t suffer physical assault, workers at the roughly 4,500 factories that form the nucleus of Bangladesh’s enormous garments industry almost certainly confront other injustices: unpaid overtime, sexual or verbal abuse, and unsafe and unsanitary working conditions.

Two years ago, when all the world’s eyes were trained on this South Asian nation of 156 million people, workers had hoped that the end of systematic labour abuse was nigh.

The event that prompted the international outcry – the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory on the morning of Apr. 24, 2013, killing 1,100 people and injuring 2,500 more – was deemed one of the worst industrial accidents in modern history.

Government officials, powerful trade bodies and major foreign buyers of Bangladesh-made apparel promised to fix the gaping flaws in this sector that employs four million people and exports 24 billion dollars worth of merchandise every year.

Promises were made at every point along the supply chain that such a senseless tragedy would never again occur.

But a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released on the eve of the two-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster has found that, despite pledges made and some steps in the right direction, Bangladesh’s garments sector is still plagued with many ills that is making life for the 20 million people who depend directly or indirectly on the industry a waking nightmare.

Based on interviews with some 160 workers in 44 factories, predominantly dedicated to manufacturing garments sold by retailers in Australia, Europe and North America, the report found that safety standards are still low, workplace abuse is common, and union busting – as well as violence attacks and intimidation of union organisers – is the norm.

Violation of labour laws

Last December the Bangladesh government raised the minimum wage for factory workers from 39 dollars a month to 68 dollars. While this signified a sizable increase, it was still less than the 100-dollar wage workers themselves had demanded.

Bangladesh exports 24 billion dollars of garments every year. Credit: Obaidul Arif/IPS

Bangladesh exports 24 billion dollars of garments every year. Credit: Obaidul Arif/IPS

Furthermore, implementation has been slow. According to Mushrefa Mishu, president of the Garment Workers’ Unity Forum representing 80,000 workers, only 40 percent of employers comply with the minimum wage law.

She told IPS that women, who comprise the bulk of factory workers, form the “lifeblood” of this vital industry that accounts for 80 percent of the country’s export earnings and contributes 10 percent of annual gross domestic product (GDP); yet they have fallen victim to “exploitative wages” as a result of retailers demanding competitive prices.

Indeed, many factories owners concur that pressure from companies who place bulk orders to scale up production lines and improve profit margins contributes to the culture of cutting corners, since branded retailers seldom factor compliance of safety and labour regulations into their costing.

“[These] financial costs [are] heavy for the factory owners,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director for Human Rights Watch, told IPS. “They argue that a small compromise on the profit margin can go a long way in helping Bangladesh factories achieve compliance.”

Wherever the blame for non-compliance lies, the negative consequences for workers – especially the women – are undeniable: an April 2014 survey by Democracy International found that 37 percent of workers reported lack of paid sick leave, while 29 percent lacked paid maternity leave.

Workers who are unable to meet production targets have their salaries docked, while HRW’s research indicates that “workers in almost all of the factories” complained of not receiving wages or benefits in full, or on time.

Forced overtime is exceedingly common, as are poor sanitation facilities and unclean drinking water.

Collective bargaining – a risky business

Faced with such entrenched and systematic violations of their rights, many garment workers are aware that their best chance for securing decent working conditions lies in their collective bargaining power.

Although the Bangladesh government raised the minimum wage for garment workers to 68 dollars a month, activists say only 40 percent of employers comply. Credit: Obaidul Arif/IPS

Although the Bangladesh government raised the minimum wage for garment workers to 68 dollars a month, activists say only 40 percent of employers comply. Credit: Obaidul Arif/IPS

But union busting and other anti-union activity are rampant across the garments sector, with many organisers beaten into submission and scores of others terrorised into keeping their heads down.

Although Bangladesh has ratified International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions 87 and 98 on freedom of association and collective bargaining, those who try to exercise these rights face harsh reprisals.

“I have faced many cases, and been arrested and jailed seven times but later released because they found no [evidence] against me,” Mishu, of the Garment Workers’ Unity Forum, told IPS. “The only charge they bring against me is raising my voice in favour of the workers. Whenever we raise our voices against the garments factory owners, instead of negotiating with us they apply force to silence us.”

Mishu’s testimony finds echoes in numerous incidents recorded in HRW’s report, including an attack in February last year on four activists with the Bangladesh Federation for Workers Solidarity (BFWS) that left one of their number so badly injured he had to spend 100 days in hospital.

Their only crime was helping employees at the Korean-owned Chunji Knit Ltd. Factory fill out union registrations forms.

Other incidents include a woman being hospitalised after an attack by men wielding cutting shears, activists threatened with death or the death of their families, and one organiser being accosted on his way home and slashed so badly with blades he had to be admitted to hospital.

“We find that factory owners […] use local thugs to intimidate and attack union organisers, often outside the factory premises,” HRW’s Ganguly explained. “And then they blithely disclaim responsibility by saying that the attacks had nothing to do with the factory.”

In one of the worst examples of anti-union activity, HRW reported that an activist named Aminul Islam was “abducted, tortured and killed in April 2012, and to date his killers have not been found.”

Although hard-won reforms have raised the number of unions formally registered at the labour department from just two in 2011-2012 to 416 in 2015, overall representation of workers remains low: union exist in just 10 percent of garment factories across Bangladesh.

Factory safety

Ganguly told IPS that because the Bangladesh garment industry grew very rapidly, “a lot of factories were set up bypassing safety and other compliance issues.”

Between 1983-4 and 2013-14, the sector mushroomed from just 120,000 employees working in 384 factories to four million workers churning out garments at a terrific rate in 4,536 factories, which run the gamut from state-of-the-art industrial operations to “backstreet workshops” and everything in-between.

Unchecked expansion in the 80s and 90s meant that many of these buildings were disasters waiting to happen. While incidents like the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse and the 2012 Tazreen factory fire, which killed 112 people, have largely taken the spotlight, a string of similar calamities both before and after suggest that Bangladesh has a long way to go to ensure worker safety.

Figures quoted by the Clean Clothes Campaign point out that between 2006 and 2010, 500 workers died in factory fires, 80 percent of which were caused by faulty wiring.

Since 2012, 68 factory fires have claimed 30 lives and left 800 workers injured, according to the Solidarity Center.

Atiqul Islam, president of the industry’s leading trade body, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), told IPS that factory owners are taking far more precautions now to ensure that preventable or ‘man-made’ disasters remain a thing of the past.

Before the Rana Plaze incident, he said, there were only 56 inspectors overseeing thousands of factories. Now, there are over 800 inspectors, trained by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to keep a check on the many operations around the country.

Indeed, regulations like the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, an initiative carried out on behalf of 175 retailers based primarily in Europe, which is overseeing improvements in over 1,600 factors, as well as the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety that is looking into improvements in 587 factories at the behest of 26 North American retailers, indicate progress.

But as Ganguly said, “Much more needs to be done to ensure worker rights.”

For a start, experts say that proper compensation must be paid to survivors, or families of those who lost their lives due to negligence in the Rana Plaza and Tazreen Fashions disasters.

As of March of this year, only 21 million dollars of the estimated 31 million dollars’ compensation has so far been pledged or disbursed. HRW also found that “15 companies whose clothing and brand labels were found in the rubble of Rana Plaza by journalists and labour activists have not paid anything into the trust fund established with the support of the ILO to manage the payments.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Backlash Follows South Africa’s Xenophobic Attacks on Africans Tue, 21 Apr 2015 16:37:04 +0000 Lisa Vives By Lisa Vives

Shocking images of South Africans beating foreign-born residents residing in Durban, Johannesburg and other parts stunned the continent which had taken a message of brotherhood from former president Nelson Mandela.

At least six people were killed, more than 5,000 displaced and shops were looted and razed in the attacks which have been building over weeks. Most of those affected were refugees and asylum seekers who were forced to leave their countries due to war and persecution, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees said.

The riots forced President Jacob Zuma to cancel a state visit to Indonesia and visit one of the camps in the Durban suburb of Chatsworth, where more than a thousand foreign nationals were sleeping in tents and relying on volunteers for food. Many were boarding buses to return to Malawi, Zimbabwe, and other home countries.

“It is not every South African who says go away, not at all. It is a very small number who say so,” Zuma said. “We want to live as sisters and brothers.”

The spark for the attacks was linked to comments by Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini at a traditional event north of KwaZulu Natal. At first he seemed to be criticising South Africans for being lazy and not wanting to plough their fields. “When foreigners look at (us), they say ‘let us exploit this nation of idiots. As I speak, you find their unsightly goods hanging all over our shops. They dirty our streets. We cannot even recognise which shop is which, there are foreigners everywhere.”

He later denied the statement until media replayed a recording of it.

Retaliation against the attacks was seen in Mozambique after a national was seen murdered on TV. South African vehicles were pelted with stones. In Nigeria, South African companies were reportedly threatened with closure. Protests were seen at various South African embassies across the continent, and several South African musicians were forced to cancel concerts abroad.

Sasol, an energy and chemical giant, evacuated 340 South Africans from Mozambique over fears for their safety. In Zambia, a privately owned radio station stopped playing South African music in protest.

An anti-xenophobic peace march organised by South African local officials took place on Apr. 16 and was well attended. Some 5,000 people including religious leaders and politicians marched in solidarity with foreign nationals. The atmosphere was mostly calm, with protesters singing solidarity songs.

Still, Jean-Pierre Lukamba, an immigrant from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, feared for the worst. “They are using us as scapegoats,” he said.

“Every day, migrants are living in this fire. It’s not just attacks. It’s institutionalised xenophobia. The government must do something. Those people aren’t just mad for no reason. They want electricity, they want jobs, they want water.”

Lukamba said he’s part of an organisation trying to negotiate between the two sides. “They don’t understand the history of Africa; if they do, they would know each of us, we are one,” he said.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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To Defend the Environment, Support Social Movements Like Berta Cáceres and COPINH Mon, 20 Apr 2015 19:06:36 +0000 Jeff Conant Berta Cáceres. Courtesy of the Goldman Prize

Berta Cáceres. Courtesy of the Goldman Prize

By Jeff Conant
BERKELEY, California, Apr 20 2015 (IPS)

The 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize for Central and South America has been awarded to Berta Cáceres, an indigenous Honduran woman who co-founded the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, known as COPINH.

If there is one lesson to be learned from the events that earned Cáceres the prize it is this: to defend the environment, we must support the social movements.COPINH’s leadership has made it a driving force in preserving the country’s cultural and environmental heritage – and earned it the ire of loggers, dam-builders, palm oil interests, and others whose wealth depends on the depredation of the natural world and its defenders.

Like many nations rich in natural resources, Honduras, in the heart of Central America, is a country plagued by a resource curse. Its rich forests invite exploitation by logging interests; its mineral wealth is sought by mining interests; its rushing rivers invite big dams, and its fertile coastal plains are ideal for the industrial cultivation of agricultural commodities like palm oil, bananas, and beef.

Honduras is also the most violent country in the Western Hemisphere. The violence is largely linked to organised crime and to a political oligarchy that maintains much of the country’s wealth and power in a few hands. With the country’s rich resources at stake, environmental defenders are frequently targeted by these interests as well.

Some of the best preserved areas of the country fall within the territories of the Lenca indigenous people, who have built their culture around the land, forests and rivers that have supported them for millennia.

In 1993, following the 500th anniversary of Colombus’ “discovery of America,” at a moment when Indigenous Peoples across the Americas began to form national and international federations to reclaim their sovereignty, Lenca territory gave birth to COPINH, the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras.

In the 22 years since, COPINH’s leadership in the country’s popular struggles has made it a driving force in preserving the country’s cultural and environmental heritage – and earned it the ire of loggers, dam-builders, palm oil interests, and others whose wealth depends on the depredation of the natural world and its defenders.

Since the early 1990’s, COPINH has forced the cancellation of dozens of  logging operations; they have created several protected forest areas; have developed municipal forest management plans and secured over 100 collective land titles for indigenous communities, in some cases encompassing entire municipalities.

Most recently, in the accomplishment that won Berta Caceres, one of COPINH’s founders, the Goldman Environmental Prize, they successfully pressured the world’s largest dam builder, the Chinese state-owned company Sinohydro, to pull out of the construction of a complex of large dams known as Agua Zarca.

Berta became a national figure in Honduras in 2009 when she emerged as a leader in the movement demanding the re-founding of Honduras and drafting of a new constitution. The movement gained the support of then-president Manuel Zelaya, who proposed a national referendum to consider the question.

But the day the referendum was scheduled to take place, Jun. 28, 2009, the military intervened.  They surrounded and opened fire on the president’s house, broke down his door and escorted him to a former U.S. military base where a waiting plane flew him out of the country.

The United Nations and every other country in the Western Hemisphere (except Honduras itself) publicly condemned the military-led coup as illegal. Every country in the region, except the United States, withdrew their ambassadors from Honduras. All EU ambassadors were withdrawn from the country.

With the democratically-elected president deposed, Honduras descended into increasing violence that continues to this day. But the coup also gave birth to a national resistance movement that continues to fight for a new constitution.  Within the movement, Berta and COPINH have devoted themselves to a vision of a new Honduran society built from the bottom up.

Since the 2009 coup, Honduras has witnessed a huge increase in megaprojects that would displace the Lenca and other indigenous communities. Almost 30 percent of the country’s land is earmarked for mining concessions; this in turns creates a demand for cheap energy to power the future mining operations.

To meet this need, the government approved hundreds of dam projects. Among them is the Agua Zarca Dam, a joint project of Honduran company Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA) and Chinese state-owned Sinohydro, the world’s largest dam developer. Slated for construction on the Gualcarque River, Agua Zarca was pushed through without consulting the Lencas—and would cut off the supply of water, food and medicine to hundreds of Lenca familes.

COPINH began fighting the dams in 2006, using every means at their disposal: they brought the case to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, lodged appeals against the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector arm of the World Bank which agreed to finance the dams, and engaged in non-violent civil disobedience to stop the construction.

In April 2013, Cáceres organised a road blockade to prevent DESA’s access to the dam site. For over a year, the Lenca people maintained a heavy but peaceful presence, rotating out friends and family members for weeks at a time, withstanding multiple eviction attempts and violent attacks from militarised security contractors and the Honduran armed forces.

The same year, Tomás Garcia, a community leader from Rio Blanco and a member of COPINH, was shot and killed during a peaceful protest at the dam office. Others have been attacked with machetes, imprisoned and tortured. None of the perpetrators have been brought to justice.

In late 2013, citing ongoing community resistance and outrage following Garcia’s death, Sinohydro terminated its contract with DESA. Agua Zarca suffered another blow when the IFC withdrew its funding, citing concerns about human rights violations. To date, construction on the project has come to a halt.

The Prize will bring COPINH and Honduras much-needed attention from the international community, as the grab for the region’s resources is increasing.

“This award, and the international attention it brings comes at a challenging time for us,” Berta told a small crowd gathered to welcome her to California, where the first of two prize ceremonies will take place.

“The situation in Honduras is getting worse. When I am in Washington later this week to meet with U.S. government officials, the President of Honduras will be in the very next room hoping to obtain more than one billion dollars for a series of mega-projects being advanced by the governments of Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and the United States — projects that further threaten to put our natural resources into private hands through mines, dams and large wind projects.

“This is accompanied by the further militarisation of the country, including new ultra-modern military bases they are installing right now.”

Around the world, the frontlines of environmental defence are peopled by bold and visionary social movements like COPINH and by grassroots community organizers like Berta Cáceres.

“In order to fight the onslaught of dams, mines, and the privatisation of all of our natural resources, we need international solidarity,” Berta told her supporters in the U.S. “When we receive your solidarity, we feel surrounded by your energy, your hope, your conviction, that together we can construct societies with dignity, with life, with rebellion, with justice, and above all, with joy.”

If the world is to make strides toward reducing the destructive environmental and social impacts that too often accompany economic development, we need to do all we can to recognise and support the peasant farmers, Indigenous Peoples, and social movements who daily put their lives on the line to stem the tide of destruction.

Learn more about Berta Cáceres and COPINH in this video celebrating her Goldman Prize award.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Investigation Tears Veil Off World Bank’s “Promise” to Eradicate Poverty Thu, 16 Apr 2015 22:39:25 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida Nearly 50 percent of the estimated 3.4 million people who were physically or economically displaced by World Bank-funded projects in the last decade were from Africa and Asia. Credit: Abdurrahman Warsameh/IPS

Nearly 50 percent of the estimated 3.4 million people who were physically or economically displaced by World Bank-funded projects in the last decade were from Africa and Asia. Credit: Abdurrahman Warsameh/IPS

By Kanya D'Almeida

An expose published Thursday by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and its media partners has revealed that in the course of a single decade, 3.4 million people were evicted from their homes, torn away from their lands or otherwise displaced by projects funded by the World Bank.

Over 50 journalists from 21 countries worked for nearly 12 months to systematically analyse the bank’s promise to protect vulnerable communities from the negative impacts of its own projects.

"The situation is simply untenable and unconscionable. Enough is enough.” -- Kate Geary Oxfam’s land advocacy lead
Reporters around the world – from Ghana to Guatemala, Kenya to Kosovo and South Sudan to Serbia – read through thousands of pages of World Bank records, interviewed scores of people including former Bank employees and carefully documented over 10 years of lapses in the financial institution’s practices, which have rendered poor farmers, urban slum-dwellers, indigenous communities and destitute fisherfolk landless, homeless or jobless.

In several cases, reporters found that whole communities who happened to live in the pathway of a World Bank-funded project were forcibly removed through means that involved the use of violence, or intimidation.

Such massive displacement directly violates the Bank’s decades-old Twin Goals of “[ending] extreme poverty by reducing the share of people living on less than 1.25 dollars a day to less than three percent of the global population by 2030 [and] promote shared prosperity by improving the living standards of the bottom 40 percent of the population in every country” – goals that the Bank promised to “pursue in ways that sustainably secure the future of the planet and its resources, promote social inclusion, and limit the economic burdens that future generations inherit.”

Far from finding sustainable ways of closing the vast wealth gaps that exist between the world richest and poorest people, between 2009 and 2013 “World Bank Group lenders pumped 50 billion dollars into projects graded the highest risk for “irreversible or unprecedented” social or environmental impacts — more than twice as much as the previous five-year span.”

The investigation further revealed, “The World Bank and its private-sector lending arm, the International Finance Corp., have financed governments and companies accused of human rights violations such as rape, murder and torture. In some cases the lenders have continued to bankroll these borrowers after evidence of abuses emerged.”

Nearly 50 percent of the estimated 3.4 million people who were physically or economically displaced by large-scale projects – ostensibly aimed at improving water and electricity supplies or beefing up transport and energy networks in some of the world’s most impoverished nations – reside in Africa, or one of three Asian nations: China, India and Vietnam.

Between 2004 and 2013, the World Bank, together with the IFC, pledged 455 billion dollars for the purpose of rolling out 7,200 projects in the developing world. In that same time period, complaints poured in from communities around the world that both the lenders and borrowers were flouting their own safeguards policies.

In Ethiopia, for instance, reporters from the ICIJ team found that government officials siphoned millions of dollars from the two billion dollars the Bank poured into a health and education initiative, and used the money to fund a campaign of mass evictions that sought to forcibly remove two million poor people from their lands.

Over 95,000 people in Ethiopia have been displaced by World Bank-funded projects.

Financial intermediaries

In a report released earlier this month, Oxfam claimed that the “International Finance Corporation has little accountability for billions of dollars’ worth of investments into banks, hedge funds and other financial intermediaries, resulting in projects that are causing human rights abuses around the world.”

In the four years leading up to 2013, Oxfam found that the IFC invested 36 billion dollars in financial intermediaries, 50 percent more than the sum spent on health and three times more than the Bank spent on education during that same period.

The new model, of pumping money into an investment portfolio in financial intermediaries, now makes up 62 percent of the IFC’s total investment portfolio, but the “painful truth is that the IFC does not know where much of its money under this new model is ending up or even whether it’s helping or harming,” Nicolas Mombrial, head of Oxfam International’s Washington DC office, said in a statement on Apr. 2.

Investments made to what the Bank classifies as “high-risk” intermediaries have caused conflict and hardship for thousands on palm oil, sugarcane and rubber plantations in Honduras, Laos, and Cambodia; at a dam site in Guatemala; around a power plant in India; and in the areas surrounding a mine in Vietnam, according to Oxfam’s research.

In response to widespread criticism over such lapses, the Bank is now in the process of overhauling its safeguards policy, but officials say that instead of making vulnerable communities safer, the new policy will only serve to increase their risk of displacement.

Citing current and former Bank employees, the ICIJ investigation claims, “[The] latest draft of the new policy, released in July 2014, would give governments more room to sidestep the Bank’s standards and make decisions about whether local populations need protecting.”

In a response to the ICIJ investigation released today, Oxfam’s land advocacy lead Kate Geary stated, “ICIJ’s findings echo what Oxfam has long been saying: that the World Bank Group – and its private sector arm the IFC in particular – is sometimes failing those people who it aims to benefit: the poorest and most marginalised […].

“It’s not just Oxfam and the ICIJ who say this – these disturbing findings are backed up by the Bank’s own internal audits which found, shockingly, that the Bank simply lost track of people who had to be “resettled” by its projects. President Kim himself has acknowledged this as a failure – and he’s right. The situation is simply untenable and unconscionable. Enough is enough.”

She stressed that the Bank must “provide redress through grant funding to those people it has displaced and left worse off […], enact urgent and fundamental reforms to ensure that these tragedies are not repeated [and] revise its ‘Action Plan on Resettlement’, released just last month by Kim in response to the critical audits, because it is inadequate to stem the terrible results of the worst of these projects.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Call for a Modern ‘Legal Arsenal’ to Fight All Crimes Thu, 16 Apr 2015 00:14:57 +0000 Jaya Ramachandran By Jaya Ramachandran
VIENNA, Apr 16 2015 (IPS)

A modern ‘legal arsenal’ comprising the rule of law is the best weapon to combat crime and terror and to end the vicious circle of poverty, according to experts gathered in Doha, Qatar, for the Apr. 12-19 United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, organised by the Vienna-based United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

The International Organization for Victim Assistance has calculated that investing 0.1 per cent of the global gross domestic product in planning, training, developing, implementing and evaluating actions to prevent crime and bolster criminal justice systems would free up one trillion dollars by 2030 and would save hundreds of thousands of lives while fostering sustainable development.

UNODC said in a press release simultaneously issued in Vienna and Doha on Apr. 15 that several speakers from terrorism-afflicted States had shared their perspective on how to address the causes of that scourge.

To halt the spread of groups like Al-Qaida and Da’esh, and their crimes against humanity, the press release said, Iraq’s representative pleaded for a strategy that must include Security Council action and a guarantee of the implementation of that body’s resolutions.

It would also require stepping up international cooperation, particularly on freezing flows of funds and foreign fighters, and promoting the battle against organised crime groups operating behind “shell” companies.

Libya’s representative appealed for international assistance to recover its plundered assets, bolster border control and support his government’s endeavours to simultaneously promote stability while fighting against the presence of Da’esh. As Libya was a gateway to Europe, he said, what was happening in his country would have an impact on States around the world.

In fact, no country could claim to combat terrorism on its own, the press release quoted Morocco’s representative saying. He emphasised that international cooperation was essential. His country had introduced several reforms with the aim of creating a “legal arsenal” to tackle various forms of crime, including terrorism, smuggling of migrants and money-laundering, as well as to address the unique challenge of foreign fighters.

The best addition to that arsenal was regional and international cooperation, he said, noting that UNODC had the potential to help track down States that harboured terrorists and criminals or contributed to their activities.

Continuing, he highlighted that success in crime prevention and criminal justice did not depend on the number of security forces, but on the adoption of effective means to respond to multifaceted threats in a way that respected human rights. As such, Morocco had adopted a multi-pronged approach in its public policy to combat terrorist groups by “drying up” their funding through strong mandatory measures and protecting the country’s religious environment from excesses.

A number of speakers also called for action to make similar processes easier. Representing another view, the UNODC said, a speaker for Amnesty International called on the Congress to address human rights violations that resulted from “overzealous” policing, as well as the punishment of women, marginalised individuals, the poor and those transgressing social norms.

Edited by Kitty Stapp


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Europe’s Unregulated Lobbying Opens Door to Corruption, Says Rights Group Wed, 15 Apr 2015 23:48:34 +0000 Sean Buchanan By Sean Buchanan
ROME, Apr 15 2015 (IPS)

Lobbying is an integral part of democracy, but multiple scandals throughout Europe demonstrate that a select number of voices with more money and insider contacts can come to dominate political decision-making – usually for their own benefit.

In a report titled ‘Lobbying in Europe: Hidden Influence, Privileged Access’ released Apr. 15, Transparency International said that the lack of clear and enforceable rules and regulations is to blame and called for urgent lobbying reform.

The report from the global civil society coalition against corruption found that of 19 European countries assessed, only seven have some form of dedicated lobbying law or regulation, allowing for nearly unfettered influence of business interests on the daily lives of Europeans.

“In the past five years, Europe’s leaders have made difficult economic decisions that have had big consequences for citizens,” said Elena Panfilova, Vice-Chair of Transparency International. “Those citizens need to know that decision-makers were acting in the public interest, not the interest of a few select players.”

Using international standards and emerging best practice, the report examines lobbying practices as well as whether safeguards are in place to ensure transparent and ethical lobbying in Europe and three core European Union institutions – European Commission, European Parliament and Council of the European Union.

Slovenia comes out at the top with a score of 55 percent, owing to the dedicated lobbying regulation in place, which nevertheless suffers from gaps and loopholes. Cyprus and Hungary rank at the bottom with 14 percent, performing poorly in almost every area assessed, especially when it comes to access to information.

Eurozone crisis countries Italy, Portugal and Spain are among the five worst-performing countries, where lobbying practices and close relations between the public and financial sectors are deemed risky.

Noting that the three E.U. institutions on average achieve a score of 36 percent, Transparency International said that “this is particularly worrying, given that Brussels is a hub of lobbying in Europe and decisions made in the Belgian capital affect the entire region and beyond.”

According to the report, none of the European countries or E.U. institutions assessed “adequately control the revolving door between public and private sectors, and members of parliament are mostly exempt from pre- and post-employment restrictions and ‘cooling-off periods’, despite being primary targets of lobbying activities.”

“Unchecked lobbying has resulted in far-reaching consequences for the economy, the environment, human rights and public safety,” said Anne Koch, Transparency International’s Director for Europe and Central Asia. The research highlights problematic lobbying practices across a wide range of sectors and industries in Europe, including alcohol, tobacco, automobiles, energy, finance and pharmaceuticals.

“Unfair and opaque lobbying practices are one of the key corruption risks currently facing Europe,” said Panfilova. “European countries and E.U. institutions must adopt robust lobbying regulations that cover the broad range of lobbyists who influence – directly or indirectly – any political decisions, policies or legislation. Otherwise, the lack of lobby control threatens to undermine democracy across the region.”

Edited by Phil Harris    

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Acid Attacks Still a Burning Issue in India Wed, 15 Apr 2015 04:32:46 +0000 Neeta Lal Thousands of young women around the world who have survived acid attacks are forced to live with physical, psychological and social scars. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Thousands of young women around the world who have survived acid attacks are forced to live with physical, psychological and social scars. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

By Neeta Lal
NEW DELHI, Apr 15 2015 (IPS)

Vinita Panikker, 26, considers herself “the world’s most unfortunate woman”.

Three years ago, a jealous husband, who suspected her of having an affair with her boss at a software company, poured a whole bottle of hydrochloric acid on her face while she was asleep. The fiery liquid seared her flesh, blighting her face almost entirely while blinding her in one eye.

"It is far less tangible but the discrimination – from friends, relatives and neighbours – hurts the most." -- Shirin Juwaley, an acid attack survivor and founder of the Palash Foundation
What remains today of a once pretty visage is a disfigured and taut stretch of burnt skin with nose, lips, and eyelids flattened out almost completely. Despite spending 10,000 dollars on 12 reconstructive surgeries and two eye operations, the acid attack survivor is still partially blind.

From earning a five-figure salary as a software professional, Panikker today ekes out a living as a cook at a local non-profit. “My life has taken a 180-degree turn,” she tells IPS. “From a successful career woman, I’m now a social reject with neither resources nor family to call my own.”

Acid attacks in India have ravaged the lives of thousands of young women whose only fault was that they repudiated marriage proposals, rejected sexual advances from men they didn’t fancy, or were caught in the crossfire of domestic disputes.

In India’s patriarchal society, men who take umbrage at being spurned turn to acid as a retributive weapon.

“Acid attacks severely damage and burn skin tissue, often exposing and even dissolving the bones,” explains Rohit Bhargava, senior consultant dermatologist with Max Hospital in Noida, a suburban district in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, where 185 out of 309 acid attacks reported in 2014 took place.

“Long-term consequences include blindness, permanent scarring of the face and body, disability and lifelong physical disfigurement,” the doctor tells IPS.

But some survivors, whose appearance changes overnight, say the psychological scars are the ones that take longest to heal. There are social ramifications too, as the attacks usually leave victims disabled in some way, thereby increasing their dependence on family members for even the most basic daily activities.

Shirin Juwaley, an acid attack survivor who launched the Palash Foundation to address social reintegration and livelihood alternatives for people with disfigurement, says social exclusion is far more painful than any physical injury inflicted on an acid attack victim. “It is far less tangible but the discrimination – from friends, relatives and neighbours – hurts the most,” she tells IPS.

In 1998, Juwaley’s husband doused her with acid after she sought a divorce. Despite several police complaints, he still roams free, while Juwaley has had to painfully piece her life back together again.

Today she has a busy schedule, and travels the world addressing conferences and symposia on the social, financial and psychological impact of acid burns. Her organisation also studies the social exclusion of people who live with altered bodies.

Slow progress on legal deterrents

The Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI), a London-based charity, tentatively estimates that some 1,000 acid attacks occur every year in India. However, in the absence of official statistics, campaigners put the true figure even higher: at roughly 400 every month.

“The fear of reprisals inhibits many women from coming forward to report their ordeal,” explains Ashish Shukla, a coordinator at Stop Acid Attacks, a Delhi-based non-profit that has rehabilitated and empowered over 100 acid attack victims since its inception in 2013.

“In India, acid attacks are even worse than rape as the victims, who are usually female, are subjected to humiliation on a daily basis. Most of the women are shunned and ostracised […],” explains Shukla.

The activist adds that public and government apathy results in a double victimisation of the survivors. “They are forced to repeatedly appear in court, recount their trauma, and [visit] doctors even as they grapple with their personal tragedy of physical disfigurement, loss of employment and social discrimination,” elaborates the activist.

As per the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2013, a person convicted of carrying out an acid attack in India can be sentenced to anything from 10 years to life imprisonment.

The Supreme Court ruled on Jul. 16, 2013, that all states regulate the sale of easily available substances like hydrochloric, sulfuric, or nitric acids – common choices among perpetrators – adding that buyers must provide a photo identity card to any retailer, who in turn should record each customer’s name and address.

However, most retailers IPS spoke to demonstrated complete ignorance of the law. “This is the first time I’m hearing about this ruling,” Suresh Gupta, owner of Gupta Stores, a small, family-owned outfit in Noida, tells IPS.

Campaigners say that this horrific form of gender-based violence will not end until the government makes it much harder for offenders to procure their weapon of choice; currently, one-litre bottles of acid can be purchased over the counter without a prescription for as little as 33 cents.

The Supreme Court has condemned the Centre for failing to formulate a strong enough policy to curb acid sales. In early April, the Court directed private hospitals to treat acid attack survivors free of cost, and additionally ruled that states must take action against medical facilities that fail to comply with this directive.

Experts say India should take a leaf out of the books of neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh by firming up implementation of existing laws. In Bangladesh, acid assaults have plummeted from 492 cases in 2002 to 75 last year, according to ASTI, since the government introduced the death penalty for acid attacks.

Stiffer legislation in Pakistan has resulted in a 300-percent rise in the number of women coming forward to report the crime.

Progress in India has been slower, although the state governments of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh have set a good precedent by funding the entire cost of medical treatment for some acid attack survivors.

Ritu Saa is one such example. The 20-year-old who had to give up her studies following an acid attack in 2012 by her cousin is today a financially independent woman. She works at the Cafe Sheroes’ Hangout, an initiative launched by the Stop Acid Attacks campaign in the city of Agra in Uttar Pradesh, which employs several survivors.

“The campaign and the government have really helped me a lot,” Saa tells IPS. “Today, I have a job, a decent salary, good food, accommodation and am standing on my own feet.”

While acid attacks have traditionally been perceived as a problem involving male perpetrators and female victims, advocates say that attacks on men are also surging, with a third of all cases reported each year involving males embroiled in property or financial disputes.

Rights activists and campaigners contend that until the government formulates and enforces a multi-pronged approach to ending this grisly practice, scores of people in this country of 1.2 billion remain at risk of suffering a fate that some say is worse than death.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Opinion: Two Winners and One Loser at the Summit of the Americas Tue, 14 Apr 2015 10:58:35 +0000 Joaquin Roy

In this column Joaquín Roy, Jean Monnet Professor of European Integration and Director of the European Union Centre at the University of Miami, argues that U.S. President Barack Obama earned a place in history at the recent Summit of the Americas for taking the first steps towards overturning a policy that has lasted over half a century but has failed in its primary goal of ending the Castro regime in Cuba. The other winner, he says, is Cuban President Raúl Castro, who wisely accepted Obama’s challenge and rose to the occasion, while Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro failed in his attempt to have the summit condemn Obama.

By Joaquín Roy
MIAMI, Apr 14 2015 (IPS)

U.S. President Barack Obama has earned a place in history for taking the first steps towards rectifying a policy that has lasted over half a century without ever achieving its primary goal of ending the Castro regime in Cuba.

At the Seventh Summit of the Americas, held in Panama City Apr. 10-11, Obama set aside the tortuous negotiations with his Cuban counterpart Raúl Castro and the impossible pursuit of consensus with his domestic opponents. Going out on a limb, he made an unconditional offer. He knew, or he sensed, that Castro would have no option but to accept.

Joaquín Roy

Joaquín Roy

The Cuban economy is on the verge of collapse and the regime is receiving subtle pressure from a population that has already endured all manner of trials.

Signs of weakening in Venezuela, its protector, with which it exchanged social favours (in the fields of health and education) for subsidised oil, are gathering like hurricane storm clouds over the Raúl Castro regime

Instead of shaking the tree to knock the ripe fruit to the ground, Obama chose to do the unexpected: to prop it up and instead encourage its survival.

Obama is committing to stability in Cuba as the lesser evil, compared with sparking an internal explosion, with conflict between irreconcilable sectors and the imposition of a military solution more rigid than the current level of control. Washington knows that only the Cuban armed forces can guarantee order. The last thing the Pentagon aspires to is to take on that unenviable role.

Thus, between underpinning the Raúl Castro government and the doubtful prospect of attempting instantaneous transformation, the pragmatic option was to renew full diplomatic relations and, in the near future, lift the embargo.

Raúl Castro, for his part, yielded ground on the oft-repeated demand for an end to the embargo as a prior condition for any negotiations, and has responded wisely to the challenge. He contented himself with the consolation prize of reviewing the history (incidentally, an appalling one) of U.S. policy towards Cuba, in his nearly one-hour speech at the Summit.

“Obama is committing to stability in Cuba as the lesser evil, compared with sparking an internal explosion, with conflict between irreconcilable sectors and the imposition of a military solution more rigid than the current level of control”
To sugar the pill, however, he generously recognised that Obama, who was not even born at the time of the Cuban Revolution, shares no blame for the blockade. In this way, Castro contributed decisively to Obama’s triumph at the summit.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has emerged from this inter-American gathering as the clear loser. The key to his failure was not having calculated his limitations and having undervalued the resources of his fellow presidents. Initially, Maduro logically exploited Obama’s mistake in decreeing that Venezuela is a “threat” and imposing sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials.

A large number of governments and analysts criticised the language used in the U.S. decree. In the run-up to the summit, Obama publicly recanted and admitted that Venezuela is no such threat to his country.

Maduro’s weak showing at the Summit was due to a combination of his own personality, the reactions of important external actors (significantly distant from the United States), the weak support of many of his traditional allies or sympathisers in Latin America, and the absence of unconditional support from Cuba.

It should be noted that the United States barely made its presence felt over this issue, although U.S. State Department counsellor Thomas Shannon made an effort to smooth over Maduro’s excesses and visited the Venezuelan president in Caracas ahead of the summit.

Maduro’s actions were already burdened by the imprisonment of a number of his opponents on questionable charges. As a result, protests spread worldwide, especially in Latin America, but also in Europe.

A score of former Latin American presidents signed a protest document which was presented at the summit.

Although these former presidents might be regarded as conservative and liberal, they were joined by former Spanish president José María Aznar (a notorious target of attacks by the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and, afterwards, Maduro himself) and former Spanish socialist president Felipe González, who offered to act as defence lawyer for Antonio Ledezma, the mayor of Caracas, who is one of those imprisoned by the Venezuelan regime.

Maduro’s attempt to have a condemnation of the U.S. decree included in the summit’s final communiqué ended in another defeat. Although efforts were made to eliminate direct mention of the United States, the outcome was that the summit issued no final declaration because of lack of consensus.

In spite of the loquacity of its partners and protégés in the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), Venezuela’s Latin American supporters showed caution and avoided direct confrontation with Washington.

The same was evidently true of the Caribbean countries; fearful of losing supplies of subsidised Venezuelan oil, they made their request to Obama for preferential treatment by the United States at the meeting of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) in Jamaica earlier in the month.

But Maduro’s main failure was not realising that Raúl Castro would have to choose between fear of diminished supplies of cheap Venezuelan crude and rapprochement with Washington. It remains unknown how Cuba will be able to continue supplying Cuban teachers and healthcare personnel to Venezuela, until now the jewel in the crown of the alliance between Havana and Caracas in the context of ALBA.

Translated by Valerie Dee/Edited by Phil Harris   

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS – Inter Press Service. 

Joaquín Roy can be contacted at

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State of Palestine in Overtime Thu, 09 Apr 2015 17:35:10 +0000 Joseph Chamie Israeli soldiers and police blocking Palestinians from one of the entrances to the old city in Jerusalem. Credit: Mel Frykberg/IPS

Israeli soldiers and police blocking Palestinians from one of the entrances to the old city in Jerusalem. Credit: Mel Frykberg/IPS

By Joseph Chamie

The large majority of countries, and most of the people in the world, already recognise Palestine as an independent state.

Among the member states of the United Nations, for example, 135 countries – representing about 82 percent of world population – officially recognise Palestine as an independent state versus 50 countries that do not recognise the Palestinian state.

Source: Author's calculations based on official data

Source: Author’s calculations based on official data

Large majorities of countries throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America recognise the state of Palestine, including Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan and South Africa.

In addition, the European nations that have officially given diplomatic recognition to the Palestinian state include Albania, Belarus, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Georgia, Hungary, Iceland, Malta, Poland, Romania, Russia Federation, Slovakia, Sweden and Ukraine.

In addition to Israel, key countries that do not recognise Palestine as an independent nation include France, United Kingdom, the United States – each with a veto in the U.N. Security Council – as well as Australia, Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Republic of Korea, Spain and Switzerland.Even with the international community’s considerable resources, numerous pronouncements and stated desires to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, few are optimistic that the two-state solution is achievable in the near term.

The general position of these countries is that the recognition of an independent Palestinian state can only be achieved from direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

However, due to frustration over stalled peace talks many of the countries whose governments do not currently recognise the Palestinian state are encountering initiatives and pressures from parliaments and the general public to modify their policies.

In Europe, for example, the parliaments of Belgium, Britain, Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Portugal and Spain have passed non-binding advisory resolutions recommending their respective governments recognise the state of Palestine. Also, the European Parliament adopted a resolution supporting Palestinian statehood in principle.

A recent German survey has also reported that a broad majority of German citizens are in favour of their governments’ recognition of a Palestinian state. The study found that 71 percent supported the German government’s recognition of a Palestinian state, with 15 percent rejecting it, and 14 percent abstaining.

Also, a multi-country survey done several years ago found that more people backed recognition of Palestine as an independent state than opposed it. Across the 19 countries survey, 49 percent supported the proposal while 21 percent said their government should oppose recognition of a Palestinian state.

In the United States public opinion regarding Palestinian statehood has fluctuated considerably over time. As recently as 2012, a majority of the American public, 51 percent, supported the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with 37 opposing it and 12 percent having no opinion.

A survey of Americans in March 2015 reported that 39 percent are in support, 36 percent in opposition and 25 percent with no opinion concerning the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Among both Israelis and Palestinians views on Palestinian statehood vary depending on the specifics of the survey question and when it was posed. Less than two years ago, the majority of both Israelis and Palestinians, 63 and 53 percent, respectively, supported a peace agreement based on the general notion of a two-state solution.

However, when details of the two-state solution are spelled out regarding such contentious issues as territorial compromise, settlement evacuation and dividing Jerusalem, support collapses. Approximately three-quarters of Jewish Israelis recently polled, for example, opposed the establishment of a Palestinian state along the pre-1967 borders.

Similarly, following the disappointing failure of recent U.S.-mediated peace talks, a poll of Palestinians found about one-third expressed support for a two-state solution.

In addition to the collapse of the U.S.-mediated Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, an important element influencing this possible shift in the policies of countries that do not recognise Palestine is the election campaign statement made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that caused an international uproar.

Although he subsequently toned down his remark, the Israeli prime minister pledged prior to the Israeli election that a Palestinian state would not be established on his watch.

Awaiting the formation of the next Israeli government, the United States, key members of the European Union and several other countries have stated that they are reassessing aspects of their relations with Israel. For some of those governments, those reassessments could include recognition of Palestinian statehood.

Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg indicated, for example, that in the wake of Netanyahu’s apparent refusal to back a two-state solution, the world, including the British Parliament, would have no option, inevitably, but to recognise a Palestinian state.

Source: Author's calculations based on poll data by Gallup and Washington Post/ABC

Source: Author’s calculations based on poll data by Gallup and Washington Post/ABC

While the Obama administration continues to believe that the two-state solution is the best way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is unlikely to recognise a Palestinian state any time soon. The U.S. administration may not object, however, to a draft resolution on an Israeli-Palestinian peace framework that has been informally circulated in the U.N. Security Council.

France’s foreign minister Laurent Fabius indicated recently that his country along with its allies intend to propose a U.N. Security Council resolution in the coming weeks that could present a framework for negotiations toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The proposal is expected to stress the right of both peoples to live in their respective nation-states and declare that the conflict must end through negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.

An earlier informal draft resolution, which was circulated in late 2014 and penned by France, pushes for a lasting, comprehensive peaceful two-state solution. Essentially it aims to achieve two independent, democratic and prosperous states, Israel and a sovereign, contiguous and viable State of Palestine living side by side in peace and security within mutually and internationally recognised borders, no later than 24 months after the resolution’s adoption.

The key elements of the draft framework for the negotiated two-state solution are to be based on: (a) the borders on 4 June 1967 with mutually agreed limited land swaps: (b) security agreements that respect sovereignty of a non-militarized Palestinian state, with a full phased withdrawal of Israeli forces; (c) an agreed, just and realistic solution to the refugee question; (d) Jerusalem as the shared capital of the Israel and Palestine; and (e) agreed settlement of other outstanding issues, including water.

If the U.N. Security Council adopts the French draft resolution, which will require the U.S. not to exercise its veto, an international peace conference on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to be convened. This event is then to be followed with France and its other European allies recognising an independent Palestinian state built principally on the 1967 borders.

Achieving a two-state solution today has become considerably more complicated logistically than when originally proposed by the U.N. in 1947 due to changing demographics.

For example, when U.N. Resolution 181 divided Mandatory Palestine into two states, one Jewish and other Arab, their respective populations were approximately one-tenth their current sizes, each less than 0.9 million. Today the Israeli population has grown to 8.3 million and the Palestinian population in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip stands at about 4.5 million, with more than 5 million additional Palestinians residing in neighbouring countries.

Even with the international community’s considerable resources, numerous pronouncements and stated desires to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, few are optimistic that the two-state solution is achievable in the near term.

Many, especially Israelis and Palestinians, have concluded that the two-state solution is no longer practical, with the chances of achieving a two-state solution in the next five years being slim or non-existent and the one-state solution becoming increasingly the de facto reality.

It seems abundantly clear that the various peace initiatives to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the past 40 years have not achieved the desired goal. With most of the world now recognising the state of Palestine, the world’s major powers need to resolve this nearly 70-year conflict and bring about a lasting peace for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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At Least 18 Already Killed in Yarmouk Attacks: Amnesty International Thu, 09 Apr 2015 03:16:05 +0000 Josh Butler By Josh Butler

At least 18 civilians have already been killed in the attack on the Syrian refugee camp of Yarmouk, according to Amnesty International.

The Palestinian refugee camp, on the outskirts of Damascus, was besieged by members of the so-called Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra last week. By Apr. 4, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that 90 percent of the camp was controlled by militants.

Amnesty reported Wednesday that those living in the camp have come under sniper fire and clashes between armed groups, as well as shelling and barrel bombing by Syrian government forces. Fighting in the camp, which houses around 18,000 refugees, has largely been between IS and members of Palestinian militia group Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis.

Residents told Amnesty 25 barrel bombs have been dropped on the camp, mostly during night hours.

Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International’s deputy Middle East and North Africa director, accused the Syrian government of committing a “war crime” in dropping barrel bombs on the camp.

“The use of barrel bombs against a besieged and starving civilian population is yet another demonstration of the Syrian government flouting international humanitarian law and its callousness towards civilians,” he said in a statement on Amnesty International’s website.

“Shelling and dropping barrel bombs on a populated civilian area is a war crime. All such attacks must end immediately.”

Amnesty reported a 12-year-old girl killed by a sniper, and a humanitarian worker shot in crossfire, were among at least 18 killed in Yarmouk in the last week, and warned many more deaths were on the way if fighting continued.

“Thousands more are at risk as Syrian government forces have intensified the shelling and aerial bombardment of the camp in response to the IS takeover of the area, including by dropping barrel bombs,” Amnesty said in a statement on its website.

Fighting may soon intensify, with reports the Syrian government has offered to arm Palestinian forces fighting IS militia. Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) Official Anwar Abdul Hadi said Tuesday that “Syrian authorities are ready to support the Palestinian fighters in a number of ways, including militarily, to push IS out of the camp.”

Amnesty claimed no relief organisations remained in the camp, and that Syria government and IS forces have blocked medical and humanitarian assistance. One of Yarmouk’s two medical facilities was hit by a missile on the first day of the siege.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) wrote on social media Wednesday that food packages distributed to refugees in the camp have run out. On Twitter, UNRWA said it was assisting 94 civilians who had managed to escape Yarmouk overnight and take refuge in a school.

Amnesty’s Sahraoui said civilians faced “an agonising struggle for survival.”

“After enduring a crippling two-year-long government-imposed siege, now they are pinned down by sniper fire fearing for their lives as shelling and aerial attacks escalate,” he said.

“Immediate and unfettered access to Yarmouk by independent humanitarian agencies is desperately needed to alleviate this relentless suffering.”

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Environmental Terrorism Cripples Palestinian Farmers Mon, 06 Apr 2015 09:52:59 +0000 Mel Frykberg Israeli settlers are hacking down Palestinian olive trees in an act of environmental terrorism “aimed at intimidating their Palestinian neighbours and economically crippling many Palestinian farmers who rely on harvesting olives to make a living”. Credit: Mel Frykberg/IPS

Israeli settlers are hacking down Palestinian olive trees in an act of environmental terrorism “aimed at intimidating their Palestinian neighbours and economically crippling many Palestinian farmers who rely on harvesting olives to make a living”. Credit: Mel Frykberg/IPS

By Mel Frykberg
AL SHUYUKH, Southern West Bank, Apr 6 2015 (IPS)

Exactly which olive trees do you want to see? The Israeli settlers have cut down thousands. Can you be more specific?” asked the taxi driver, telling IPS that he wished to remain anonymous.

About a week ago, Israeli settlers from the illegal settlement of Mezad, in the southern West Bank near the city of Hebron, cut down approximately 1,200 Palestinian olive trees in an act of environmental terrorism, a vindictive act aimed at intimidating their Palestinian neighbours and economically crippling many Palestinian farmers who rely on harvesting olives to make a living.Israeli settlers are hacking down Palestinian olive trees in an act of environmental terrorism aimed at intimidating their Palestinian neighbours and economically crippling many Palestinian farmers who rely on harvesting olives to make a living

Not only is the harvesting of olives a major part of the Palestinian economy, supporting over 80,000 families, but it is also central to Palestinian culture and lifestyle.

Olives and olive oil are regularly served with Palestinian meals. The fruit and its oil have affectionately been called “green gold” by Palestinians, while ancient olive trees are incorporated into Palestinian art including paintings and embroidery.

As IPS attempted to take pictures of the remaining carcasses of the 1,200 olive trees hacked down by the settlers, bordering Mezad settlement, Israeli soldiers guarding the site started to approach.

We quickly left as the taxi driver, and an elderly Palestinian farmer who had shown us the way, did not want a confrontation.

This was the third attack on the olive trees, which belonged to Muhammad al Ayayadah, over a period of several months.

Mezad settlement is built on Palestinian land that was confiscated by Israel and the settlers appear to be trying to take over more land for expansion of their settlement.

The regular cutting down of olive trees, and the prevention of access to these trees by Israeli security forces, often forces Palestinian farmers off their land as crop losses can cripple them financially.

According to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Applied Research Institute Jerusalem (ARIJ), approximately 800,000 olive trees have been uprooted since Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza in 1967.

Following the farmers’ eviction, Israel settlers can argue that the land has been abandoned and then move in and take it over with Palestinians having little legal recourse.

“No action will be taken against the settlers by the Israeli police. The police will say they are coming to investigate but most times they don’t even show up,” ARIJ spokesman Suhail Khalilieh told IPS.

“Even if they do show up, they will say there is no hard evidence that settlers were behind the attack or they will say that the attack was in retaliation for Palestinians throwing stones.

“Moreover, most of the settler attacks take place under the guard of the Israeli military who do nothing to stop the vandalism,” added Khalilieh.

Israeli settler attacks on Palestinians and their property have also included the burning of homes and cars, the killing of livestock, stone-throwing attacks, running school children over and poisoning water wells.

One of the more serious acts of vandalism, in the eyes of a conservative and religious Palestinian society, has been the numerous arson attacks on mosques throughout the West Bank.

IPS visited one mosque which had been set on fire by the settlers where the settlers had placed piles of burnt Korans next to the bathroom in a concerted effort to offend.

According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 324 incidents of settler violence against Palestinians and their property were reported during 2014 alone.

While Palestinian farmers are struggling to survive, a simultaneous development in East Jerusalem has Palestinians concerned.

The Israeli authorities plan to build a construction waste site on land in occupied East Jerusalem.

The construction of the facility involves further expropriation of privately owned Palestinian land in the Shuafat and Issawiya neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem.

Thousands of tonnes of construction waste from all over Jerusalem will be brought in to the site over the next 20 years.

The land grab will also see the eviction of Bedouin families living in an encampment between Jerusalem and the Israeli settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim.

The area between Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim is a controversial corridor known as E1. Israeli settlement expansion and construction there has caused friction between the U.S. administration and the Israeli government because the West Bank has effectively been cut off from Jerusalem.

Legal action taken by a number of Israeli rights groups on behalf of the Palestinians in Israeli civilian courts has so far not helped.

“The Israeli courts have not ruled against the construction in the E1 corridor as they have no civil authority over the West Bank which falls under Israeli military jurisdiction and this military rule is behind the continued expansion of the E1 corridor,” Khalilieh told IPS.

“Even if the Israeli civilian courts had ruled against this land expropriation and settlement building, it could not over ride decisions taken by Israel’s civil administration, or military rule, which will always justify its action under security or state needs.”

Edited by Phil Harris    

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College Massacre Throws Up Questions about Kenya’s Security Mon, 06 Apr 2015 09:11:00 +0000 Lisa Vives By Lisa Vives
NEW YORK, Apr 6 2015 (IPS)

In a prepared speech after the murder of dozens of Kenyans last year, President Uhuru Kenyatta declared a national war on terror. “This is a war against Kenya and Kenyans,” he said. “It is a war that every one of us must fight.”

It was a speech he gave in December after the killing of 36 miners working in a quarry not far from the border with Somalia. They were reportedly slain by members of the terrorist group Al-Shabaab.

Once again, a few days ago, Kenyans reeled in shock, but this time at news of the massacre of at least 147 students – nearly all young Christian males – by a small rebel band filtered through the media.Despite its peaceful appearance, the [Garissa] university college was a known target for the fury of the Somali-based Al-Shabaab group which has been at war with Kenya for many years. The fact that only a small handful of security guards were on duty when the attack began shocked many.

The slaughter began in the dark pre-dawn hours of Apr. 2 while everyone slept until they were awakened by the popping sounds of gunfire. The militants urged students to cooperate. “If you want to survive, come out. If you want to die, stay inside,” they warned the still-groggy students.

“I knew those guys were lying,” said a 23-year-old student Elosy Karimi who described to a reporter how she hid in the ceiling above her bunk bed for over 24 hours.

President Barack Obama, still planning a trip to Kenya, commiserated: “Words cannot adequately condemn the terrorist atrocities that took place at Garissa University College, where innocent men and women were brazenly and brutally massacred. We join the world in mourning them, many of whom were students pursuing an education in the pursuit of a better life for themselves and their loved ones. “

“They represented a brighter future for a region that has seen too much violence for far too long.”

Garissa University College lies northeast of Nairobi, near to the border with Somalia. A small school with a staff of 75, it was recently upgraded to give technical and vocational degrees as part of Moi University. Computer science and information technology were introduced last year. But the bucolic nature of the college, highlighted by a flock of sheep, green leaves and natural springs, was apparent on the school’s website.

Despite its peaceful appearance, the university college was a known target for the fury of the Somali-based Al-Shabaab group which has been at war with Kenya for many years. The fact that only a small handful of security guards were on duty when the attack began shocked many.

It was particularly inexplicable as there had been recent warnings of an Al-Shabaab attack at Garissa and other universities. A travel advisory issued by the British government just days earlier had warned against travel to Garissa.

While some foreign media outlets describe Kenya as “powerless in the face of a ruthless terrorist organisation,” Kenya is a major military power in the region, having one of the highest defence budgets in Africa, thanks to two decades of a steady increase in military spending.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), an independent research organisation, the country purchased 19.8 billion Kenyan shillings (216 million dollars) worth of advanced weapons in five years between 2010 and 2014, up from 919.4 million Kenyan shillings (10 million dollars) between 2005 and 2009 — marking a huge jump in the period — which is the highest in the East Africa.

Yet four gunmen managed to hold off elite counter-terror police and military units called to the scene while they systematically massacred “hostages.” This is hardly unprecedented,” Patrick Gathara, a security analyst wrote in Al Jazeera news service.

“Much the same happened at Westgate (Mall) where four gunmen supposedly kept hundreds of cops and soldiers at bay for four days, apparently taking time off to pray and relax while the security agents looted the mall.”

“The government responded with a crackdown that targeted the ethnic Somali population within Nairobi – little more than an exercise in scapegoating and extortion,” he recalled. “Similarly, Garissa itself, which is populated mainly by ethnic Somalis, has been the site for ‘security operations’ – another term for collective punishment – for well over half a century.”

Government’s failure to stem the rise in insecurity has not gone unnoticed in the Kenyan community, especially since Kenya’s incursion into Somalia in Operation Linda Nchi in 2011. A reduction of troops was expected in 2014 after complaints by the Somali government.

A Twitter feed titled #GarissaAttack quickly filled up with comments and complaints. Ory Okolloh Mwangi, well-known ‘Kenyan pundit’, wrote: “When you look at the resources poured into winning one single seat in Kajiado Central, and then how we are responding to Garissa. Ai?”

Senator James Orengo pleaded:  “We know very well the consequences of a war of occupation. We must withdraw our troops from Somalia to end this. We must rethink our strategy and have a targeted and principled way of engaging Somalia rather than put our people at risk.”

Questions are forming, wrote Gathara, about whether this disaster is just the latest in a series of preventable terrorist atrocities that have now claimed more than 350 lives in the last two years.

An earlier security operation, a week into the Kenyatta presidency, saw the indiscriminate arrest of over 600 Garissa residents, including newly-elected local leaders, by a security team the government itself had described as “rotten”, wrote Gathara.

“Now, after the latest Garissa atrocity, President Kenyatta has issued another directive of dubious legality,” continued Gathara, namely calling up 10,000 new officers despite a court order freezing police recruitment following a corruption-riddled exercise last year.

“What is Kenya’s plan as far as Somalia is concerned?” asked Abdullahi Boru Halakhe, East Africa researcher with Amnesty International, regarding the Kenya’s troops stationed in Somalia. “What does the exit plan look like? Is it two years? Is it three years”?

Edited by Phil Harris    

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Effective War Crimes Inquiry Could Heal Sri Lanka’s Old Wounds Sat, 04 Apr 2015 15:06:37 +0000 Amantha Perera Dawn breaks over a war memorial honouring government forces at Elephant Pass, in northern Sri Lanka. Many feel that the country has a long way to go before the wounds of conflict are healed. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Dawn breaks over a war memorial honouring government forces at Elephant Pass, in northern Sri Lanka. Many feel that the country has a long way to go before the wounds of conflict are healed. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Amantha Perera
COLOMBO, Apr 4 2015 (IPS)

Jessi Joygeswaran seems like your typical 23-year-old young woman. She has an infectious smile and laughs a lot when she talks. Like many other young women anywhere in the world, her life is full of dreams.

“I want to go to university, I want to do a good job,” she tells IPS. She seems sure that she can make her dreams come true.

“Before we can move [forward], we need to accept our shared, horrible past.” -- Jessi Joygeswaran, a resident of Sri Lanka's former war zone.
In fact, Joygeswaran’s life has been anything but ordinary. She grew up in a war zone, and now spends her days thinking as much about such issues as war crimes probes and national reconciliation as she does about her own future.

Hailing from the minority Tamil community, the young woman was born and bred in the Vanni, the vast swath of land in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province that bore the brunt of the island’s 26-year-long civil war that only ended in mid-2009.

In 2006 Joygeswaran, just 14 at the time, had to flee from her ancestral home in the village of Andankulam, in the northwestern Mannar District, when fighting erupted between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eealm (LTTE), a rebel group attempting to carve out a separate state in the Tamil-speaking north and eastern provinces of Sri Lanka.

“We were running from bullets and shell-fire for three years,” she recalls. It was April 2009 when she and her family finally escaped the horror. “Death was a possibility every second,” she says, the smile vanishing from her face.

Even after the war ended, the Vanni’s troubles did not. A quarter of a million people who escaped the war were restricted to relief camps that looked and felt more like detention centres, where they remained until late 2010.

Over 400,000 people who had fled the region during various stages of the conflict returned to scenes of devastation, forced to rebuild their lives from scratch while coming to terms with the death or disappearance of thousands of their kin. Homelessness, trauma and fear were the order of the day.

A new government – a new era?

All of that changed this past January when Sri Lanka voted in a new president, Maithripala Sirisena, ousting the incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose defeat of the LTTE enabled him to exercise an iron grip over the country.

On Jan. 8, for the first time in her life, Joygeswaran voted alongside her countrymen. Despite all past discrimination against her minority community, she is completely invested in the new national government.

“We voted for justice and peace for all,” she asserts. It is a humble aspiration, but one shared by a majority of people in this island nation of 20 million, where generations of bloodshed resulting in a death toll of between 80,000 and 100,000 had many doubting that the country would ever return to a state of normalcy.

The first 60 days of the new government have been a mixed bag, especially for northern Tamils. Travel restrictions and a suffocating military presence – with members of the armed forces overseeing virtually every aspect of daily life – have eased; but there is still limited progress on more delicate issues, like a comprehensive inquiry into wartime abuses.

The last days of the war could have resulted in a civilian death toll of about 40,000, according to an advisory panel set up by the United Nations Secretary-General – a figure hotly disputed by the previous government.

A new book by the respected research body, University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), titled ‘Palmyra Fallen’, says the figure could be as high 100,000.

Both government forces and the LTTE have been accused of human rights violations during the last bouts of fighting.

Three resolutions put forth at the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) have sought an international investigation into the end of the war. The Rajapaksa government, determined not to allow “foreign interference” in what it called a purely domestic issue, set up its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) but its recommendations have largely been left on paper.

There is an ongoing commission on disappearances, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has begun an island-wide survey on families of the missing.

But not one of these measures has led to a single prosecution or judicial complaint against the perpetrators.

Balancing local efforts with international standards

Sirisena’s government has promised a fresh probe, with international inputs. The new foreign minister, Mangala Samaraweera, has been traveling the globe since assuming office, trying to convince the international community to allow Sri Lanka some breathing room in which to push through an indigenous, credible reconciliation process.

So far his charms seem to be working. The United States, United Kingdom and other western nations agreed to postpone the release of a U.N. Human Rights Council investigation report into wartime human rights abuses. It was due in March and now will be unveiled in September.

The government announced on Mar. 18 that it was considering lifting proscriptions issued on Tamil diaspora groups, in a move that many feel is aimed at garnering the support of moderate Tamils around the world. While no official figures exist, Sri Lanka’s Tamil diaspora is believed to number close to 700,000.

“The government of President Sirisena is seriously committed to expediting the reconciliation process. In doing so, the Sri Lankan diaspora whether it be Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim, has am extremely important role to play,” Samaraweera told Parliament on Mar. 18.

Despite this nod to the diaspora, government officials have made clear that the mechanism for investigating possible war crimes committed by both sides must be a robust, national initiative, without foreign interference.

“Any charges […] against our security forces have to be investigated, [but] it has to be handled by the local mechanism, that is what we have always stated,” Power and Energy Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka told the Foreign Correspondents Association in February.

But it will take some muscle to convince the international community that Sri Lanka is capable of initiating a successful probe with the power to go from theory to practice.

“This is why Amnesty International (AI) and other organisations have urged the Sri Lankan authorities to cooperate with the U.N. and take advantage of international expertise in the development of a credible, effective and truly independent mechanism – one that will not be vulnerable to the kinds of threats and political pressures that have obstructed previous efforts,” David Griffiths, AI’s deputy Asia Pacific director tells IPS.

AI and several other international organisations also favour the setting up of a special tribunal to try any human rights violators.

Among other unresolved issues are allegations that the armed forces conducted summary executions of surrendered LTTE cadres, as well as possible incidents of sexual abuse of persons in captivity. The LTTE has been accused of using civilians as human shields, as well as for conscripting children into its ranks, among other things.

“It is important for everyone concerned and for Sri Lanka’s future that all allegations of crimes under international law are fully investigated and, where sufficient admissible evidence exists, those suspected of the crimes are prosecuted in genuine proceedings before independent and impartial courts that comply with international standards for fair trial.  Victims must be provided with full and effective reparation to address the harm they have suffered,” Griffiths says.

Already some positive changes have occurred under the new government. Ruki Fernando, a researcher with the Colombo-based rights group INFORM, tells IPS that the appointment of a civilian governor to Jaffna, replacing a former military officer, as well as the government’s releasing of lands acquired by the military, bode well for the future.

“I am cautiously optimistic, but it is a long road ahead,” he says.

In Joygeswaran’s words: “Before we can move [forward], we need to accept our shared, horrible past.”

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Death Sentences up, Executions down in 2014 Thu, 02 Apr 2015 21:51:50 +0000 Josh Butler By Josh Butler

Governments worldwide sentenced at least 2,466 people to death in 2014; judgements which have been condemned by rights group Amnesty International.

Amnesty’s annual Death Sentences and Executions report, released Wednesday, documented a 28 percent uptick in death sentence judgements compared to 2013.

This increase was largely due to sharp spikes in death sentences in Egypt and Nigeria, where courts imposed mass sentences against scores of people in some cases,” the report outlined.

There were 509 death sentences recorded in Egypt and 659 in Nigeria, up from 109 and 141 respectively.

Many of these sentences came in response to terrorism threats. Pakistan, which had placed a six-year moratorium on the death penalty, reinstated capital punishment after the attack in December 2014 at a Peshawar school, where terrorists killed 145 people including 132 children.

People in at least 55 countries were sentenced to death in 2014.

Actual executions decreased in number, with 607 recorded executions in 2014 representing a 22 percent fall compared to the 778 recorded in 2013.

In launching the report at United Nations headquarters in New York, Amnesty International’s Renzo Pomi stressed the reported numbers were a bare minimum, due to difficulty in collecting accurate numbers.

“For sure, these are significantly underestimated from the real figures,” Pomi said.

“We have no data from China, because the numbers are considered a state secret.”

Amnesty stated that “thousands are executed and sentenced to death [in China] every year” but that secrecy makes the actual numbers “impossible to determine.”

“We call on China to be more transparent on its use of the death penalty,” Pomi said.

He said Amnesty condemned government use of death sentences in an attempt to solve crime problems, saying such attempts are “deceiving the public” and are often used “to cover inefficient systems.”

After China, Iran was said to be the world’s next most prolific executioner, with 289 executions; however, Amnesty stated at least 454 more were not acknowledged by authorities. Saudi Arabia carried out at least 90, Iraq at least 61, and the United States of America recorded 35 executions.

While executions dropped in 2014, Pomi expressed alarm that death sentences were widely being imposed for less serious crimes, such as drug crimes, adultery, blasphemy and robbery.

“The concern is the death penalty is being imposed not for the most serious of crimes, but for crimes that don’t fit in this category,” he said.

“The death penalty often discriminates against the poor and ethnic minorities. There have been grossly unfair trials and evidence extracted under torture, thereby increasing the risk of executing people innocent of the crime for which they have been condemned.”

Amnesty believes almost 20,000 people worldwide were under death sentences at the end of 2014.

Follow Josh Butler on Twitter @JoshButler

Edited by Roger Hamilton-Martin

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