Inter Press Service » Crime & Justice http://www.ipsnews.net Journalism and Communication for Global Change Sat, 02 Aug 2014 08:20:14 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.1 Indigenous Leaders in Costa Rica Tell Ban Ki-moon Their Problems http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/indigenous-leaders-in-costa-rica-tell-ban-ki-moon-their-problems/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=indigenous-leaders-in-costa-rica-tell-ban-ki-moon-their-problems http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/indigenous-leaders-in-costa-rica-tell-ban-ki-moon-their-problems/#comments Fri, 01 Aug 2014 22:13:04 +0000 Diego Arguedas Ortiz http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135883 A Costa Rican indigenous family runs to take shelter in the community of Cedror in the indigenous territory of Salitre on Jul. 6, afraid of being attacked by landowners who occupied their land after setting fire to their homes and belongings the day before. Credit: David Bolaños/IPS

A Costa Rican indigenous family runs to take shelter in the community of Cedror in the indigenous territory of Salitre on Jul. 6, afraid of being attacked by landowners who occupied their land after setting fire to their homes and belongings the day before. Credit: David Bolaños/IPS

By Diego Arguedas Ortiz
SAN JOSE, Aug 1 2014 (IPS)

Indigenous people in Costa Rica, hemmed in by violent attacks from farmers and ranchers who invade their land and burn down their homes, have found a new ally: United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who met with 36 native leaders during a recent visit to this country.

The leaders, representing eight indigenous groups, described the violence faced by native people in Costa Rica, and the many struggles they face, even in simply getting identity cards.

But they underlined that their most pressing concern is the occupation of indigenous areas by “the white man”, which has led to an escalation of attacks from landowners, who invade their ancestral territory and try to drive them off the land, despite a law that guarantees their right to collective ownership of their territory.

The latest violent episode occurred in the community of Cedror, in the Salitre indigenous territory in the southeast of the country.

The Bribri people in Salitre had begun a process of recovering territory occupied by landowners or “finqueros”, who responded by burning down their modest homes and blocking access to their territory.

The violence, which continued from Jul. 5 to 8, prompted a visit to Cedror by the deputy minister of political affairs, Ana Gabriel Zúñiga, sent by President Luis Guillermo Solís, along with representatives of the Defensoría de los Habitantes – ombudsperson’s office – and the Ministry of Justice and Peace.“We don’t want to be beggars of the state. If they approve our law, we could develop ourselves according to our vision that we must protect the forests and water.” -- José Carlos Morales

A mob of around 80 thugs converged on the community on Jul. 5, armed with rocks and guns, chased the local indigenous people out of their homes, and then burned down the huts, with all of the families’ belongings inside.

Ligia Bejarano, one of the indigenous leaders who informed the U.N. secretary-general of the situation, told him that in 2010 native people were thrown out of the legislature when they went to lobby for approval of a new law on indigenous affairs.

According to Bejarano, Ban was very receptive and told them he was aware of the latest attack on native people in this Central American country, where members of indigenous groups represent 2.6 percent of the population of 4.5 million.

The secretary-general paid an official visit to Costa Rica on Jul. 30, and spent an additional four days in the country on vacation.

“I stress that dialogue is a very powerful tool and that we must continue to foment it, as long as there is grassroots community participation,” Magaly Lázaro, a member of the Brunca indigenous community who also participated in the meeting with Ban, told IPS.

“This is a group of marginalised populations who have long been discriminated against by societies,” Ban said shortly after the meeting, referring to indigenous people during a conference held in the San José-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

“I do take away the empty feeling that it was very short, for such an important meeting – five minutes weren’t enough for me to say what I feel; you can’t sum up so many things because the problem is bigger than what was discussed,” another of the three female participants, Justa Romero, told IPS.

The indigenous territory with the worst problems is Térraba, 150 km southeast of San José. Around 85 percent of the community’s land has been occupied by non-indigenous outsiders, according to the 2012 State of the Nation report drawn up by the National Provosts Council.

This is happening despite the fact that Costa Rica’s Indigenous Law, in force since 1977, declared native territories inalienable, indivisible, non-transferable and exclusive to the indigenous communities living there.

In other words, even if outsiders buy land in indigenous territories, the purchase and land title are invalid.

The native leaders told IPS that in the meeting with Ban they asked him to help them get the authorities to accelerate the adoption of measures to ensure respect for their rights and support for their autonomous development.

“Now we want to see how many non-indigenous people are in our territory,” Romero, a Bribri native who belongs to the Commission of Indigenous Women of Talamanca Association (ACOMUITA) in the country’s southern Caribbean region, told IPS. “But it’s not just a question of saying ‘we found this or that’ – I mean we should go and remove them and demonstrate that the land truly belongs to indigenous people.”

According to the 2011 national census, the roughly 100,000 members of the Brunca, Ngäbe, Bribri, Cabécar, Maleku, Chorotega, Térraba and Teribe communities live in 24 indigenous territories scattered around the country. Altogether, these areas cover 350,000 hectares of land – around seven percent of the national territory.

After visiting Salitre, Deputy Minister Zúñiga said the administration of Solis, who took office as president in May, recognises indigenous people’s right to their land and will support them in recovering their territory.

“We have started to carry out an analysis of all aspects related to the demarcation of Salitre and we are taking the first steps to see who [non-indigenous people] have farms in the territory and who has the right to be indemnified,” Geiner Blanco, a member of the Maleku indigenous community and a presidential adviser on native affairs, told IPS.

A bill aimed at overcoming the gaps and problems in the country’s institutions with respect to indigenous affairs has been stalled in the legislature for 19 years.

The proposed reforms include the governance of native territories by indigenous councils; the removal of all non-native people from the territories; and education for indigenous children designed in line with the native world vision and culture.

“We don’t want to be beggars of the state,” Brunca indigenous leader José Carlos Morales told IPS. “If they approve our law, we could develop ourselves according to our vision that we must protect the forests and water.

“But they don’t want to pass it. They want us to keep being beggars,” said Morales, who helped draft the 1977 Indigenous Law and worked for five years in the United Nations Human Rights Council’s indigenous rights body.

Lázaro, a 29-year-old member of the Brunca community, told IPS that she would be happy just to stop being plagued by the fear she started to feel in August last year, when she was visiting Salitre and preparing a meal with the women and children while the men went out to patrol the borders of the territory.

“We were about to eat when a bunch of people came up with sticks and clubs and surrounded us in a question of just a few seconds,” she said. “It was a mob of finqueros and white people; I had heard of that kind of violence, but I hadn’t experienced it, and the fear has stayed with me.”

Edited by: Estrella Gutiérrez / Translated by: Stephanie Wildes

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In Pakistan, Militants Wear Aid Workers’ Clothing http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/in-pakistan-militants-wear-aid-workers-clothing/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=in-pakistan-militants-wear-aid-workers-clothing http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/in-pakistan-militants-wear-aid-workers-clothing/#comments Fri, 01 Aug 2014 18:40:42 +0000 Ashfaq Yusufzai http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135878 Fearing the presence of militants, personnel from law enforcement agencies keep a strict watch on camps set up by relief groups in the Bannu district of Pakistan’s northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IP

Fearing the presence of militants, personnel from law enforcement agencies keep a strict watch on camps set up by relief groups in the Bannu district of Pakistan’s northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IP

By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Aug 1 2014 (IPS)

Muhammad Tufail, a 22-year-old resident of Mardan, one of 26 districts that comprise Pakistan’s northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, has recently become a volunteer aid worker.

Moved by the plight of nearly a million refugees fleeing a military offensive in the North Waziristan Agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which began on Jun. 15, Tufail now spends his days distributing food rations and medical supplies to beleaguered residents of huge camps for the displaced.

Tufail tells IPS that he and other volunteers see to the needs of some 10,000 families on a daily basis. “We cannot leave our people in distress,” the young man says with conviction.

“We have been keeping a strict eye on the relief camps organised by some jihadist outfits. We want to make sure they are not used for the recruitment of civilians for terrorist activities.” -- Akram Khan, a police inspector in Bannu
His passion is admirable, but the organisation he works for is dubious at best. Known simply as the Al-Rehmat Trust (ART), this charity group is widely considered a front for the outlawed Kashmir-based Jaish-e Mohammed (‘the army of Mohammed’ or JeM).

Banned in Pakistan since 2002, JeM is today a designated terrorist organisation, and stands accused of orchestrating the 2001 Indian Parliament attack.

Though the group itself has been lying low since 2003, its huge membership reveals itself during times of national crisis as efficient and well-endowed providers of relief.

“We were the first to start rescue efforts when a massive earthquake hit northern Pakistan in 2005,” Tufail tells IPS proudly. “Our volunteers rescued people from the debris and saved their lives.”

“I have devoted my own life to serve the people from this platform because ART serves people selflessly,” he says confidently.

It is this very gumption – expressed by scores of impressionable young people who serve these front groups – that have officials and law enforcement personnel extremely concerned about the influence of terrorist organisations during times of trouble.

“We have been keeping a strict eye on the relief camps organised by some jihadist outfits,” Akram Khan, a police inspector in Bannu, home to the majority of the IDPs, tells IPS. “We want to make sure they are not used for the recruitment of civilians for terrorist activities.”

Still, he is concerned that the sprawling camps, filled to beyond their capacity with desperate, vulnerable and traumatised civilians, provides a perfect recruiting ground for terrorists dressed as aid workers.

“The displaced are in need of monetary and social assistance”, which jihadist elements are more than willing to provide, he says.

“The nation is already experiencing hard times due to soaring terrorism – we can’t afford to allow militant groups to grow at the cost of displaced people,” he adds.

Yet this is exactly what appears to be happening, political analyst Dr. Khadim Hussain, chairman of the Baacha Khan Trust Education Foundation, tells IPS.

Besides JeM’s charity wing ART, the Jamat ud-Dawa (JuD), a missionary-style front group for the feared Lashkar-e-Taiba (‘army of the good’ or LeT) has also been active in relief efforts, rushing to the aid of those displaced by natural or man-made disasters, and winning the hearts of many who see the government’s emergency response as inadequate, he says.

The Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation (FIF), also believed to be a front group for the LeT, has been providing medicines and foodstuffs to thousands of families who don’t know where their next meal will come from.

“We were the first to reach Bannu and start relief work because we couldn’t bear to see our Muslim bretherin in crisis,” Muhammad Shafiq, a volunteer with ART, tells IPS.

Shaukat Ali Mahsud, a displaced man with a family of seven to care for, says he is “thankful to both the organisations for their sincerity and devotion”.

“These people are helping us. They are not terrorists, they are just very good Muslims,” he tells IPS, adding that he personally knows dozens of families who have received life-saving support from volunteers with one of the many groups believed to be charity wings for terrorist outfits.

“We will never forget their help in these trying times,” he asserts.

Government turns a blind eye

Several major players in the world of geopolitics – including India, the United States and the United Kingdom – have designated groups like JeM and LeT as “deadly terrorist organisations” and accused them of waging proxy wars in Indian-occupied Kashmir.

Due to heavy international pressure, both groups have been keeping a relatively low profile, but the massive humanitarian crisis caused by the government’s efforts to wipe out the Taliban from their mountainous stronghold on the Afghan border has brought JeM and LeT back into the limelight, Muhammad Shoaib, an analyst at the University of Peshawar, tells IPS.

“These outfits, with the help of the state, have carefully maintained their welfare wings to prove that they are more than just militant formations,” he states.

The allegation that major terrorist groups enjoy government support is not new, and takes on added weight during times of national crisis.

For instance, numerous secular NGOs eager to commence relief operations among the displaced have been unable to secure the required ‘No Objection Certificate’ (NOC), a document issued by the government as proof that a particular programme or activity is authorised by the state.

Jawadullah Shah, who heads the Rural Health Foundation, hasn’t been able to secure an NOC despite submitting an application to the government on Jun. 18. He says the delay is preventing his organisation from carrying out aid work.

On the other hand, he tells IPS, ART has been actively working with the affected populations without any hindrance.

“The government, as well as army officers, are extremely cooperative; it has been smooth sailing,” according to ART volunteer Shafiq.

Meanwhile, the JuD, which stands accused of orchestrating the 2013 attack on the Indian consulate in Jalalabad, western Afghanistan, is also extremely active in the aftermath of disasters, despite being branded a terrorist operation by the United Nations Security Council in 2008.

The Pakistan government says there is no evidence linking the group with terrorist activity.

“We are running hospitals, schools and colleges for the poor people in Pakistan,” Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, founder of the JuD who has been accused by the Indian government of plotting the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, tells IPS.

“Helping displaced people is our foremost duty. We sent relief goods worth over five million dollars to flood-hit areas of Pakistan 2010 and we have so far sent supplies worth two million dollars to Bannu,” he adds.

The FIF, believed to be closely aligned with the LeT and the JuD, is also playing a major role.

“We have deployed 500 volunteers to Bannu. We dispatch 10 trucks with relief goods almost every day,” FIF’s chairman Hafiz Abdur Rauf tells IPS.

Though the displaced are grateful for the assistance, experts and officials are determined to stamp out what they see as militant groups infiltrating vulnerable populations and recruiting foot soldiers from their midst.

Hussain, of the Baacha Khan Trust Education Foundation, does not mince his words when describing the systematic recruitment operation: “As we have witnessed during disasters like the earthquake in 2005, the military operation in Swat in 2009 and the floods in 2010, these groups use charity work to win the hearts and minds of Pakistani people by creating ‘soft corners’ of moral and economic assistance.”

Instead of allowing the radicalisation of displaced people, the government should be de-radicalising the militants to achieve lasting peace, he tells IPS.

The very simple and effective strategy pursued by militant groups must not be allowed to continue unchecked, he adds.

“The war against militants currently being waged in the northern province will be meaningless if other militant entities are allowed to grow with impunity at the same time,” Hussain concludes.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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How Farming is Making Côte d’Ivoire’s Prisoners ‘Feel Like Being Human Again’ http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/how-farming-in-making-cote-divoires-prisoners-feel-like-being-human-again/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=how-farming-in-making-cote-divoires-prisoners-feel-like-being-human-again http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/how-farming-in-making-cote-divoires-prisoners-feel-like-being-human-again/#comments Fri, 01 Aug 2014 10:11:39 +0000 Marc-Andre Boisvert http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135863 Prisoners at Saliakro Prison Farm in Côte d’Ivoire. Prisoners, who were selected on account that they are non-violent and condemned for short and medium term sentences, have a relative freedom to move within the gated farm. Credit: Marc-André Boisvert/IPS

Prisoners at Saliakro Prison Farm in Côte d’Ivoire. Prisoners, who were selected on account that they are non-violent and condemned for short and medium term sentences, have a relative freedom to move within the gated farm. Credit: Marc-André Boisvert/IPS

By Marc-Andre Boisvert
SALIAKRO/ABDIJAN, Côte d’Ivoire, Aug 1 2014 (IPS)

François Kouamé, prisoner Number 67, proudly shows off a sow and her four piglets. Dressed in his rubber boots, he passes by two new tractors as he happily makes his way to a field where pretty soon cassava and corn plants will start growing. “Look at those sprouts. It is a lot of work!”

Being imprisoned in one of the world’s most impoverished country’s is far from an easy ride. But Ivorian authorities are searching for alternatives to the overcrowded prisons and malnourished prisoners here. And they just may have found the answer — in a farm.

The Saliakro Prison Farm, where Kouamé is currently serving out the remainder of his one-year prison sentence, is the first of its kind in Côte d’Ivoire. He was one of the first detainees to be sent here in December 2013.

The 21 buildings on the farm, built on a former summer camp, are to provide accommodation for 150 prisoners who have been sentenced for less than three years for non-violent crimes. Here they will learn new skills in farming.“Our objective is truly to make prison time an opportunity for a sustainable change in life.” -- Bernard Aurenche, country representative of Prisoners Without Borders

For Kouamé, being on a farm is a relief compared to the six months he spent in Soubré State Prison for cutting trees in a neighbouring cocoa plantation.

“We were sleeping four persons in a space that could contain only one person. And we were granted only a bowl of rice per day,” says the young man.

Now he eats three meals a day, and stays in a clean room with 16 other prisoners. Each man has his own bunk bed, a closet and plenty of space to move about in.

Mamadou Doumbia, 32, is serving a two-year sentence for stealing computers. The quiet and articulate man is relieved to be on the farm. He spent 11 months in Agboville prison, in Agnéby Region close to Abidjan, the country’s economic capital.

He reveals a dark portrait of life in Agboville prison. Rape, malnutrition and pests are some of the many things he says he witnessed.

“I feel like being human again,” he tells IPS.

Though life on the farm is no vacation. Inmates must wake up at 5:30 am and be ready for work no later than 7am. They work till 3pm, only taking a short break for lunch. Evenings are their own to do with as they will, but they have to be in their dormitories by 9pm.

Through the Saliakro project, Ivorian authorities and backers hope to improve inmate conditions, reduce costs and help reintegration.

Overpopulation and malnutrition

Côte d’Ivoire has relatively modern prison facilities compared to the rest of West Africa, where most countries have not invested in new prisons since the 1970s. In neighbouring Ghana, the Jamestown Colonial fort only ceased to be used as a penitential facility in 2008.

In Guinea-Bissau, the country had to wait for the United Nations to build a prison in order to stop cramming prisoners into what is now a beautiful colonial house, renamed Casa dos Direitos or the House of Human rights. Mali, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia all have overcrowded prisons dating back to the 1960s.

Still, Ivorian prisons were planned for another era. In the Abidjan Detention and Correction Centre, known by its French acronym MACA, overpopulation is an understatement. The building, conceived in the 1980s for 1,500 prisoners now has a population of over 5,000.

“Hygiene is very difficult. There are frequent water disruptions,” Jean a prisoner at MACA, who prefers to remain anonymous as prisoners are not allowed to speak to journalists, tells IPS over the phone.

And now, even if the government and international donors start to reopen detention centres in the north, closed by a decade of de facto separation with the south, congestion in state prisons remain dire.

The prison in Man, a town in west Côte d’Ivoire, holds several perpetrators of the 2010-2011 post-electoral crisis that resulted in over 3,000 deaths.

While it has been renovated in the last year, newer does not mean less crowded. It was built to hold only 300 inmates but it currently holds twice as many. Didier, who is awaiting trial in Man Prison, says the basic meals of rice have left him hungry. “We don’t [get to] eat three meals. Most of the time we eat only once,” he tells IPS over the phone.

In May, five prisoners from Man died and several others were hospitalised. Dr. Viviane Lawson Kiniffo, the prison’s doctor, told Ivorian media that promiscuity, malnutrition and hygiene were big issues.

Self-sufficiency and reintegration

Back in Saliakro, Justice Minister Gnenema Coulibaly inaugurates Côte d’Ivoire’s first prison farm in front a selected group of VIPs. “More farm prisons will soon be open,” he says.

Coulibaly has several reasons to be satisfied. Aside from improving inmate’s living conditions, once fully functional, Saliakro Prison Farm will relieve prison budgets by several hundred dollars as, besides feeding its own prisoners, it will produce enough to make a profit from selling produce on local markets.

But the 450 hectares of are not only there to deliver a relief to state budget.

“It is more than about feeding themselves. It is also about getting those prisoners back to a normal life. It is about learning new skills and being able to reintegrate and participate fully in society,” Saliakro’s superintendent, Pinguissie Ouattara, tells IPS. “This is about bringing an alternative to crime, and decreasing the crime rate.”

Saliakro is not on any map: this town does not exist. But it is the contraction of Kro, which means “village” in the local Baoule language and “Salia”, the first name of former superintendent Salia Ouattara who died in 2007.

“Our objective is truly to make prison time an opportunity for a sustainable change in life,” Bernard Aurenche, country representative of Prisoners Without Borders, a French NGO, tells IPS.

He explains that the 150 prisoners are backed by trained agronomists. Participants in the project will deepen their agricultural knowledge and will be paid 300 CFA (about 70 cents) per day for work.

“This will allow them to collect money to grow their own crops once they leave. It is also about reinsertion into real life. And getting confidence.”

One of the tractors that Prisoners Without Borders has bought for the Saliakro Farm project in Côte d’Ivoire. Learning to use modern machinery was an important step in the programme. Credit: Marc-André Boisvert/IPS

One of the tractors that Prisoners Without Borders has bought for the Saliakro Farm project in Côte d’Ivoire. Learning to use modern machinery was an important step in the programme. Credit: Marc-André Boisvert/IPS

Kouamé is more realistic. He was a farmer before, but tells IPS that he has learned much from the agronomists here. “I have learnt here many things that will make my farm more profitable, notably by diversifying production.”

But the road is still bumpy. Funding, which has been provided by the European Union, now needs to be secured for a longer term. And still, a better selection process of prisoners needs to be found as, so far, selection of participants was not based on any clear criteria.

But prison superintendent Ouattara, who also manages the Dimbokro Prison a few kilometres from Saliakro, is positive.

“It is the beginning. We will need to adjust. But we strongly believe that there will be a positive outcome for those men. Much more than leaving them by themselves doing nothing.”

Edited by: Nalisha Adams

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Laws that Kill Protesters in Mexico http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/laws-that-kill-protesters-in-mexico/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=laws-that-kill-protesters-in-mexico http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/laws-that-kill-protesters-in-mexico/#comments Thu, 31 Jul 2014 22:34:02 +0000 Daniela Pastrana http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135859 Students from the high school attended by José Luis Alberto Tehuatlie, during the boy’s Jul. 22 funeral in the town of San Bernardino Chalchihuapan, in the Mexican state of Puebla. Credit: Daniela Pastrana /IPS

Students from the high school attended by José Luis Alberto Tehuatlie, during the boy’s Jul. 22 funeral in the town of San Bernardino Chalchihuapan, in the Mexican state of Puebla. Credit: Daniela Pastrana /IPS

By Daniela Pastrana
SAN BERNARDINO CHALCHIHUAPAN, Mexico , Jul 31 2014 (IPS)

People in this town in the central Mexican state of Puebla found out the hard way that protesting can be deadly.

A new law passed in Puebla makes it possible for police to use firearms or deadly force to break up demonstrations.

Local inhabitants felt the impact of the measure during a harsh crackdown on a protest against another law that they say undermines their autonomy.

A dead 13-year-old boy, another who lost three fingers, a third with a broken jaw and teeth knocked out, a driver who lost an eye, and 37 others injured by beatings and tear gas were the price this Nahua indigenous town of 3,900 people paid for blocking a road to demand the repeal of a state law that transferred responsibility over civil registries from local community authorities to the municipalities.

“It’s not fair that they attack the people like this just because we are asking that our community life, our authorities, be respected,” Vianey Varela, a first year high school student, told IPS.

On Jul. 9, when local residents blocked the Puebla-Atlixco highway some 150 km from Mexico City, the state police first used the powers given to them by the Law to Protect Human Rights and Regulate the Legitimate Use of Force by the police, which the state legislature passed in May.

The “Ley Bala” or Bullet Law, as it was dubbed by journalists, allows Puebla state police to use firearms as well as “non-lethal weapons” to break up “violent” protests and during emergencies and natural disasters.

The roadblock was mounted to protest another state law approved in May, which took away from the local authorities the function of civil registry judges or clerks and put it in the hands of the municipal governments.Since May, in at least 190 villages and towns in the state, no one has been born, no one has died, and no one has been married – at least officially, because there are no records.

As a result, since May, in at least 190 villages and towns in the state, no one has been born, no one has died, and no one has been married – at least officially, because there are no records.

Javier Montes told IPS that he became “presidente auxiliar”- a post just under mayor – of San Bernardino Chalchihuapan in May, but added that “I still haven’t signed a thing. The archives are in our care, but we don’t have stamps or the necessary papers. And in the municipal presidency [mayor’s office] they don’t know what to do, so in the meantime nothing is being registered.”

“We sent letters to all the authorities,” said Montes, who has received anonymous threats for speaking out. “They never responded. When the ink and paper ran out, and our fingers were worn out from so much typing, we went out to protest and this is what happened.”

The town is in the municipality of Ocoyucan and the local inhabitants belong to the Nahua indigenous community. According to the latest estimates by the government’s National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples, the native population of Puebla is one million people – one quarter of the state’s total population.

In Mexico’s municipalities there is a “presidente” or mayor, and “presidentes auxiliares”, who are the highest level authorities in the communities, many of which are remote and located far from the seat of the municipal government.

The presidentes auxiliares name the police chief and run the town. And up to May they were also the civil registry judges or clerks..

They are directly elected by local voters without participation by the political parties, and they tend to be highly respected local leaders who are close to the people.

In the Jul. 9 police crackdown, 13-year-old José Luis Alberto Tehuatlie was hit by a rubber bullet in the head and died after 10 days in coma.

The Puebla state government initially denied that rubber bullets had been used. But the public outrage over the boy’s death forced Governor Rafael Moreno to announce that he would repeal the law.

Puebla is not the only place in Mexico where there have been attempts to regulate public protests. In the last year, the legislatures of five states have discussed similar bills.

The first was, paradoxically, the Federal District, in Mexico City, which has been governed by the leftwing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) since 1997.

In the capital street protests are a daily occurrence, but since the very day that Enrique Peña Nieto was sworn in as president, on Dec. 1, 2012, demonstrations and marches have frequently turned violent.

A Federal District bill on public demonstrations, introduced in December 2013 by lawmakers from the rightwing opposition National Action Party, failed to prosper.

In April, the southeastern state of Quintana Roo, ruled by the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), became the first part of Mexico to regulate protests.

A state law, the “Ley de Ordenamiento Cívico”, known as the “anti-protest law,” is a toned-down version of another initiative that would have required demonstrators to apply for a permit to protest at least 48 hours ahead of time.

But the law maintains the ban on roadblocks and allows the police “to take pertinent measures” against demonstrators.

Other initiatives to regulate and allow the “legitimate use of force” have been adopted in the states of San Luis Potosí and Chiapas.

Global rights groups like Article 19 and Amnesty International have spoken out strongly against these laws aimed at regulating demonstrations, pointing to a worrisome tendency towards the criminalisation of social protests in Mexico since 2012.

But the governmental National Human Rights Commission has failed to make use of its legal powers to promote legal action challenging the anti-protest initiatives as unconstitutional.

On the contrary, in October 2013 it recommended that the Senate amend article 9 of the constitution referring to the freedom to hold public demonstrations and to the use of public force.

The Jul. 9 protest was not the first time rubber bullets have been used in Puebla.

Just hours before Tehuatlie’s death was confirmed, the Puebla state secretary of public security, Facundo Rosas, showed a document from the secretariat of national defence which indicated that the government had not purchased rubber bullets under the current administration.

However, in December 2011 the state human rights commission rebuked the Puebla police chief for the use of rubber bullets to evict local residents of the community of Ciénega Larga, when 70-year-old Artemia León was injured, as reported by the Eje Central online news site.

It became clear in conversations that IPS held with people in San Bernardino Chalchihuapan that they are very angry. Hundreds of people attended the boy’s funeral, on Jul. 22, where many of them called for the governor’s resignation.

“Why doesn’t he try the rubber bullets on his own kids,” said one man after the funeral, which was attended by some 40 “presidentes auxiliares” from other communities.

So far no one has been held accountable for the boy’s death.

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Cameroon’s Muslim Clerics Turn to Education to Shun Boko Haram http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/cameroons-muslim-clerics-turn-to-education-to-shun-boko-haram/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=cameroons-muslim-clerics-turn-to-education-to-shun-boko-haram http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/cameroons-muslim-clerics-turn-to-education-to-shun-boko-haram/#comments Thu, 31 Jul 2014 08:34:44 +0000 Ngala Killian Chimtom http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135844 Sheik Oumarou Malam Djibring, a member of Cameroon’s Council of Imams, called on the country’s Muslims to be vigilant against the extremist group Boko Haram and to report any strange and suspicious-looking individuals. Credit: Ngala Killian Chimtom/IPS

Sheik Oumarou Malam Djibring, a member of Cameroon’s Council of Imams, called on the country’s Muslims to be vigilant against the extremist group Boko Haram and to report any strange and suspicious-looking individuals. Credit: Ngala Killian Chimtom/IPS

By Ngala Killian Chimtom
YAOUNDE, Jul 31 2014 (IPS)

Motari Hamissou used to get along well with his pupils at the government primary school in Sabga, an area in Bamenda, the capital of Cameroon’s North West Region.

In the past, Hamissou also lived in peace with his neighbours. No one was bothered by his long, thick beard or the veil his wife, Aisha Hamissou, wore, or the religion they followed.

According to the 2010 general population census, Muslims constitute 24 percent of this Central African nation’s 21 million people, most of whom live in Cameroon’s Far North, North and Adamawa Regions; all on the border with Nigeria. Cameroon’s north western boarder runs along the length of Nigeria’s eastern boarder, stretching all the way to Nigeria’s predominantly Muslim north — a stronghold of the Nigerian extremist group, Boko Haram.

But the intermittent attacks and abductions perpetrated by Boko Haram in Cameroon’s North West Region has destroyed the peace and accord that Hamissou enjoyed with his pupils and neighbours.

The most recent attack by the group was on Jul. 27 when the wife of Cameroon’s Vice Prime Minister Amadou Ali was kidnapped in the northern town of Kolofata. The group is said to have increased its attacks from Nigeria into neighbouring Cameroon. Since the group first took up arms five years ago for a Muslim state in Nigeria, more than, some 12,000 people in that West African nation have died in the crisis, according to figures from Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.

Now Hamissou’s own pupils call him “Boko Haram” in reference to the group. The name, Boko Haram, means “Western education is a sin” in the local Nigerian dialect, Hausa.

“They see our beards or the veils our wives [wear] and immediately link us to the sect,” Hamissou tells IPS.

“I am a teacher. I teach Western education. How can I teach Western education and at the same time say that it is forbidden? That’s incomprehensible,” he adds.

Arlette Dainadi, a 12-year-old schoolgirl who attends the same primary school that Hamissou teaches at, tells IPS some of her peers have gone as far as taking off her veil and shouting: “Boko Haram! Boko Haram!”

Aisha Hamissou tells IPS that even adults have taken to name-calling.

“I can’t move and interact freely with other people without being called names. People call me Boko Haram,” she explains, almost bursting into tears.

In a concerted effort to distance themselves from the extremist group, Muslim groups and leaders in Cameroon, including the Association of Muslim Students and the Cameroon Council of Imams, have been organising workshops, seminars and public demonstrations to sensitise the general public about their stance against the extremist sect.

Sheik Oumarou Malam Djibring, a member of Cameroon’s Council of Imams, tells IPS that Boko Haram’s campaign against Western education, as well as the atrocities it exacts on innocent people, has nothing to do with Islam.

“Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance. Departing from these precepts is actually against Islam,” he says.

Members of the Cameroon Council of Imams and Muslim leaders have embraced “Boko Halal”,”an Hausa idiomatic expression which means education is allowed or permitted as contained in the Quran.

Islamic teacher and religious leader Sheik Abu Oumar Bin Ali tells IPS that Muslim scholars have been major drivers of education.

“Abu Ja’far Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi was a leading Muslim scholar who founded the branch of mathematics known as algebra… So it’s stupid for anyone to link Muslim with a hatred for Western education,” he says.

But Ahmadou Moustapha, a traditional Muslim ruler in Cameroon’s Far North Region, tells IPS that Boko Haram has definitely been recruiting young Muslims in the region.

“They come here and forcefully whisk away our young people,” Moustapha explains.

“I believe they go and intoxicate them with their hate beliefs.”

According to Professor Souaibou Issa, from the University of Ngaoundere in Cameroon’s Adamawa Region, the group is even more dangerous because “you never know what their linkages are, you don’t know what exactly their focus is, and you don’t know who the actors are. There is widespread suspicion, and the states are fighting invisible enemies.”

Mallam Djibring called on the country’s Muslims to be vigilant and report any strange and suspicious-looking individuals.

Editing by: Nalisha Adams

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China’s ‘Left-Behind Girls’ Learn Self-Protection http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/chinas-left-behind-girls-learn-self-protection/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=chinas-left-behind-girls-learn-self-protection http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/chinas-left-behind-girls-learn-self-protection/#comments Wed, 30 Jul 2014 22:15:58 +0000 IPS Correspondents http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135833 By IPS Correspondents
UNITED NATIONS, Jul 30 2014 (IPS)

A normally quiet second-grade student, Yuan Yuan* suffers from a mild mental disorder that impacts her ability to learn and communicate. Her father, also mentally disabled, left her several years ago to find work in the city and his family hasn’t heard from him since. Unable to support the family, her mother also left and never returned.

Yuan Yuan’s paternal grandparents have been caring for her since. But they are not always there.

“I am scared of that man… he laughed at me and touched me. I don’t like him,” eight-year-old Yuan Yuan admitted during a visit from Zhang Xinyu, a programme officer with the Beijing Cultural Development Centre for Rural Women (BCDC), after a local Women’s Federation referred her complaint that a 70-year-old neighbour had sexually assaulted her.

In Yuan Yuan’s case, BCDC paid for her medical treatment and worked together with the local Women’s Federation to ensure they could respond and prevent any further attempts of the neighbour to access the child.

Yuan Yuan is among more than 2,500 girls being helped by a programme funded by the United Nations Trust Fund to End Violence against Women, which is managed by UN Women on behalf of the U.N. system

The programme has brought together teachers, guardians, local police officers and health-care providers to protect China’s “left-behind girls”.

China’s rapid economic growth, driven by manufacturing industries on the eastern side of the country, combined with high unemployment and low wages in the central and western regions have driven China’s incredible internal migration of an estimated two million people moving from the rural countryside to its industrial cities.

“To protect ourselves and learn how to say NO to strangers is very important,” says Xiao Mei, a student in the 7th grade.
In many cases, parents are compelled to migrate to the cities without their children because of the hukou (household registration) system, which stipulates that children access public schooling only in their home town or village.

According to a 2012 report by the All-China Women’s Federation, the number of left-behind children totals over 61 million, with the number of girls totaling over 28 million.

Close to 33 per cent of all left-behind children are raised by their grandparents, while 10.7 per cent are raised by other villagers or relatives, and at least 3.4 per cent are forced to fend for themselves.

In addition to funds, the UN Trust Fund, UN Women provides technical assistance to BCDC on reducing the risk of sexual violence against rural children, with a particular focus on girls whose parents have migrated to the cities. The programme seeks to increase girls’ sexual knowledge and self-protection; ensure that both guardians and the community are willing and able to provide the guidance needed to reduce their vulnerability to sexual abuse; and to alter the social environment that promotes sexual violence and empower women and girls.

“To protect ourselves and learn how to say NO to strangers is very important,” says Xiao Mei, a student in the 7th grade. She says she was very proud that she could share a training manual and her learned self-protection skills with her siblings. “My older sister said to me that she was very shy and never had this information in the past.”

By the end of 2013, 500 local teachers, 5,000 students and 2,200 guardians had participated in training programmes on awareness and prevention of child sexual abuse and 210 ‘backbones’ – women and men leaders active in the community – had participated in trainings on the dangers of child sexual abuse.

The programme implemented by BCDC has set up six resource centres (three community-based and three in schools) to protect children and prevent sexual violence.

In villages, they establish managerial groups and in schools, teachers organise activities around the themes of left-behind girls’ safety, such as reading activities, lectures and performances to raise awareness of prevention of child sexual abuse.

Furthermore, with the funding from the UN Trust Fund, technical support from UN Women and national experts, a series of handbooks on girls’ safety education, covering everything from knowledge about sex and sexual abuse to gender-based violence, were produced and disseminated.

Shen Xiaoyan, a primary school teacher in Suizhou, a city in central China, recalls a remark by a colleague when she was preparing a presentation for a student sexual safety training in 2013: “These things [sexual education materials] appear so normal to me [now]. Why did I feel embarrassed about them only a few years ago?”

The programme has changed attitudes and removed barriers of silence, with several stakeholders reporting cases of sexual abuse.

“After training and project activities, local residents and government officials have become willing to seek out all possible resources to help victims of child sexual abuse,” said the BCDC’s Xinyu.

“In the past, this kind of information was considered secret, deterring victims and family from revealing it to other people.”

In a testament to the growing attention to the plight of left-behind children and the sexual abuse against left-behind girls, proposals influenced by the programme were submitted in 2012 by the Women’s Federation to the People’s Congress and the People’s Political Consultative Conference in Suizhou.

In 2013, the Educational Department in Suizhou issued a policy document requiring the strengthening of safety education for students in all primary and middle schools.

(END)

*Name changed to protect her identity.

Beijing20Logoen png

This article is published under an agreement with UN Women. For more information, check out the In Focus editorial package on The Girl Child on the new Beijing+20 campaign website.

 

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Outlawing Polygamy to Combat Gender Inequalities, Domestic Violence in Papua New Guinea http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/outlawing-polygamy-to-combat-gender-inequalities-domestic-violence-in-papua-new-guinea/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=outlawing-polygamy-to-combat-gender-inequalities-domestic-violence-in-papua-new-guinea http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/outlawing-polygamy-to-combat-gender-inequalities-domestic-violence-in-papua-new-guinea/#comments Mon, 28 Jul 2014 14:07:55 +0000 Catherine Wilson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135791 The PNG Government has recently introduced legislation to outlaw polygamy and increase the country's rate of official marriage and birth registrations. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

The PNG Government has recently introduced legislation to outlaw polygamy and increase the country's rate of official marriage and birth registrations. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

By Catherine Wilson
SYDNEY, Jul 28 2014 (IPS)

New legislation recently passed in the southwest Pacific Island state of Papua New Guinea (PNG) outlawing polygamy has been welcomed by experts in the country as an initial step forward in the battle against high rates of domestic violence, gender inequality and the spread of AIDS.

“If polygamy remained acceptable, wives would never speak for their rights and they and their children would continue to be silent victims of violence,” Dora Kegemo and Dixie Hoffman of the Women and Children’s Access to Community Justice Programme in Goroka, Eastern Highlands, told IPS. “So banning polygamy under this new law will help to empower women.”

The Civil Registration Amendment Bill makes it compulsory to register all marriages, including customary ones. Marriages involving more than one spouse, however, will not be recognised. The government believes this move will also help to increase the registration of births in a country where an estimated 90 percent of the population do not have birth certificates.

Formal identification of children is urgently needed to begin improving a range of human rights and child protection issues in PNG, such as child labour and trafficking. It is estimated that children make up about 19 percent of the labour force here. Two years ago, a study in the capital, Port Moresby, by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), revealed that 43 percent of children surveyed were engaged in commercial sexual exploitation.

Until the law was passed, customary marriages, including polygamous ones, which are common in rural areas, were not officially recorded. Polygamy is particularly prevalent in the mountainous highlands region where men have traditionally taken up to five or six wives in order to increase agricultural productivity and better manage the domestic responsibilities of large extended families. Studies over the past decade suggest that an estimated 25 percent of unions in the highlands are polygamous.

But Jack Urame, director of the Melanesian Institute in the Eastern Highlands, who personally supports the government’s move to ban polygamy, says that its practice today has changed under the influence of the cash economy and western notions of commodity wealth.

In the past, “only the big men or the leaders and those who had the economic strength to take care of the women would have many wives,” he explained. But now the practice is prone to greater abuse when men use cash to acquire multiple wives as a means of displaying monetary wealth.

These marriages do not last, Urame said, and when they break down children are affected. “Many children who come from such broken marriages are disadvantaged and this contributes to the many social problems [we face].”

Domestic and gender violence affects up to 75 percent of women and children in this island state and is associated with adultery, financial problems, alcohol abuse and polygamy. Many cases involve the abuse and neglect of wives, as well as children, when a husband enters into further relationships.

Following a visit to the country in 2012, Rashida Manjoo, United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women, reported that “the practice of polygamy also creates tension between women within the same family and has led to cases of violence, sometimes resulting in murder of the husband or additional wife or girlfriend.”

Urame believes that banning polygamy will help to combat family violence and gender inequality, while Kegemo says wider laws preventing violence against women are needed as well.

Concerns have also been raised about the impact of polygamy on the spread of HIV/AIDS. While no specific study has been conducted on connections between polygamy and the disease, Peter Bire, director of the National AIDS Council, highlighted that high-risk behaviours could not be ignored.

“What we know is that multiple and concurrent sexual partnerships, in a context of low and inconsistent condom use, are important contributing factors,” he told IPS.

Another factor is that “sex outside of polygamous marriages is common and, because of the gender inequality problem in PNG, it is usually the husbands who can be blamed for being unfaithful,” he stated, adding that promiscuity puts wives at a high risk of contracting the virus.

The national HIV prevalence in people aged 15-49 years is estimated at 0.8 percent of the population, rising to 0.91 percent in the highlands region. HIV-positive cases in the country increased from 3,446 to 31,609 in the decade to 2010 with men comprising 37 percent and women 61 percent.

Bire said that, while the country’s HIV/AIDS Management and Prevention Act criminalises the intentional transmission of HIV, more comprehensive human rights laws, especially ones to better protect women, are needed to help fight the disease.

But “as with many laws and policies in PNG, implementation remains a challenge,” he continued.

In rural areas, where more than 80 percent of the population live, geographical barriers, such as dense rainforest and rugged mountains, as well as wider corruption, are factors in the limited development of the country’s infrastructure and outreach of government services, including law enforcement.

Despite these hurdles, many are hopeful that small steps like the recent polygamy law will eventually bring a better deal for women.

(END)

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Thousands of New Yorkers Protest Gaza Killings http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/thousands-of-new-yorkers-protest-gaza-killings/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=thousands-of-new-yorkers-protest-gaza-killings http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/thousands-of-new-yorkers-protest-gaza-killings/#comments Sun, 27 Jul 2014 14:41:54 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135759 The Israeli offensive in Gaza has killed 1,050 people, mostly civilians, as of Jul. 26, 2014. Credit: Kanya D’Almeida/IPS

The Israeli offensive in Gaza has killed 1,050 people, mostly civilians, as of Jul. 26, 2014. Credit: Kanya D’Almeida/IPS

By Kanya D'Almeida
NEW YORK, Jul 27 2014 (IPS)

Thousands of New Yorkers took to the streets in multiple protests this past week against the Israeli offensive in Gaza, which has left at least 1,049 Palestinians dead and over 6,000 injured since Jul. 8.

Among demonstrators’ many demands was that the U.S. government end its massive flow of aid and arms to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), one of the world’s most powerful militaries.

The Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation estimates that the United States has shelled out over 100 billion dollars’ worth of military and economic aid since 1949.

Protests on Thursday, Jul. 24 drew over a thousand people, holding signs proclaiming U.S. complicity in the war on Gaza. Credit: Kanya D'Almeida/IPS

Protests on Thursday, Jul. 24 drew over a thousand people, holding signs proclaiming U.S. complicity in the war on Gaza. Credit: Kanya D’Almeida/IPS

In 2007, the U.S. government pledged to provide 30 billion dollars worth of weapons to Israel in the decade 2009-2018. This year, according to the FY2015 budget submitted to Congress, the Barack Obama administration set aside three billion dollars for military aid.

The protests also had particular significance for New York City, whose former mayor, Michael Bloomberg, announced in 2011 his support for a 100-million-dollar partnership between Cornell University and Israel’s Institute of Technology (the Technion) that would allow the construction of a state-of-the-art new complex on Roosevelt Island.

 

Thousands of U.S. citizens have called on the government to end military aid to Israel. Credit: Kanya D'Almeida/IPS

Thousands of U.S. citizens have called on the government to end military aid to Israel. Credit: Kanya D’Almeida/IPS

An alliance known as New Yorkers Against the Cornell-Technion Partnership (NYACT) says the Technion is “complicit in Israeli’s violation of international law and the rights of Palestinians”, namely its mandate to develop and design weapons and technologies that are used to enforce the occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza.

Among other ‘achievements’, students at Technion were instrumental in creating the remote-controlled Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer, the IDF’s weapon of choice in demolishing Palestinian homes; and its Autonomous Systems Program (TASP) was responsible for developing the so-called ‘stealth drone’, capable of carrying two 1,100-pound ‘smart bombs’ for a distance of up to 2,000 miles.

Highly visible at both protests were members of the organisation known as ‘Neturei Karat International: Jews Against Zionism’, who carried signs proclaiming, “Jews reject the Zionist state of Israel and its atrocities”.

A statement prepared by the organisation 'Jews Against Zionism' appeals to world leaders to "stop the latest ongoing cruelty and the attack on the people of Gaza." Credit: Kanya DAlmeida/IPS

A statement prepared by the organisation ‘Jews Against Zionism’ appeals to world leaders to “stop the latest ongoing cruelty and the attack on the people of Gaza.” Credit: Kanya DAlmeida/IPS

Others waved placards claiming “New York Jews Say ‘Not in Our Name’.”

Thursday’s action, which brought out over 2,000 people, was part of the National Day of Action for Gaza, endorsed by over 55 U.S.-based human rights groups. The protest followed on the heels of a demonstration by Jewish Voice for Peace on Jul. 22, which saw the arrest of nine Jewish activists for occupying the office of The Friends of the Israel Defense Forces in Manhattan.

The Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) has cost Israel billions of dollars in investments. Credit: Kanya D'Almeida/IPS

The Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) has cost Israel billions of dollars in investments. Credit: Kanya D’Almeida/IPS

One of the co-organisers of the march, Adalah-NY, handed out leaflets urging demonstrators to support the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel, a non-violent civil society-based campaign modeled on the international boycott movement that was instrumental in dismantling apartheid in South Africa.

Roadside vendors joined a massive protest on Friday, Jul. 25, that snaked through lower Manhattan. Credit: Kanya D'Almeida/IPS

Roadside vendors joined a massive protest on Friday, Jul. 25, that snaked through lower Manhattan. Credit: Kanya D’Almeida/IPS

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Oil Lubricates Equatorial Guinea’s Entry into Portuguese Language Community http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/oil-lubricates-equatorial-guineas-entry-into-portuguese-language-community/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=oil-lubricates-equatorial-guineas-entry-into-portuguese-language-community http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/oil-lubricates-equatorial-guineas-entry-into-portuguese-language-community/#comments Fri, 25 Jul 2014 16:10:59 +0000 Mario Queiroz http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135748 Equatoguinean President Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has sidestepped accusations of human rights violations and won his country membership in the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP). Credit: Embassy of Equatorial Guinea/CC-BY-ND-2.0

Equatoguinean President Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has sidestepped accusations of human rights violations and won his country membership in the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP). Credit: Embassy of Equatorial Guinea/CC-BY-ND-2.0

By Mario Queiroz
LISBON, Jul 25 2014 (IPS)

Evidently, oil talked louder. By unanimous resolution, the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP) admitted Equatorial Guinea as a full member, in spite of the CPLP’s ban on dictatorial regimes and the death penalty.

At the two-day summit of heads of state and government that concluded on Wednesday Jul. 23 in Dili, the capital of East Timor, Portugal was the last nation to hold out against the inclusion of the new entrant. Portuguese prime minister, conservative Pedro Passos Coelho, finally yielded to pressure from Brazil and Angola, the countries most interested in sharing in the benefits of Equatorial Guinea’s oil wealth.

The CPLP is made up of Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, East Timor, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Portugal, and São Tomé and Príncipe.

“Obiang never thought entry to the CPLP would be possible, but in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea, all the president’s goals are possible." -- Ponciano Nvó, a lawyer and distinguished defender of human rights
Between its independence in 1968 and the onset of oil exploration, Equatorial Guinea was stigmatised as a ferocious dictatorship.

But when the U.S. company Mobil began drilling for oil in 1996, the dictatorship of President Teodoro Obiang, in power since 1979, was afforded the relief of powerful countries “looking the other way.”

Gradually, the importance of oil took precedence over human rights and countries with decision-making power over the region and the world became interested in sharing in crude oil extraction. Oil production in Equatorial Guinea has multiplied 10-fold in recent years, ranking it in third place in sub-Saharan Africa behind Angola and Nigeria.

“The kleptocratic oligarchy of Equatorial Guinea is becoming one of the world’s richest dynasties. The country is becoming known as the ‘Kuwait of Africa’ and the global oil majors – ExxonMobil, Total, Repsol – are moving in,” said the Lisbon weekly Visão.

Visão said this former Spanish colony has a per capita GDP of 24,035 dollars, 4,000 dollars more than Portugal’s, but 78 percent of its 1.8 million people subsist on less than a dollar a day.

In the view of some members of the international community, “Since 1968 there have been two Equatorial Guineas, those before and after the oil,” Ponciano Nvó, a lawyer and distinguished defender of human rights in his country, told IPS during a three-day visit to Portugal at the invitation of Amnesty International.

In spite of average economic growth of 33 percent in the last decade, the enormous wealth of Equatorial Guinea has not brought better economic conditions for its people, although it has lent a certain international “legitimacy” to the regime, crowned now with the accolade of membership in the CPLP.

Since Equatorial Guinea’s first application in 2006, the CPLP adopted an ambiguous stance, restricting it to associate membership and setting conditions – like the elimination of the death penalty and making Portuguese an official language – that had to be met before full membership could be considered.

“Portugal should not accept within the community a regime that commits human rights violations; it would be a political mistake,” and also a mistake for the CPLP, Andrés Eso Ondo said in a declaration on Tuesday Jul. 22.

He is the leader of Convergencia para la Democracia Social, the only permitted opposition party, which has one seat in parliament. The other 99 seats are held by the ruling Partido Democrático de Guinea Ecuatorial.

In Portugal, reactions were indignant. The president himself, conservative Aníbal Cavaco Silva, remained wooden-faced in his seat in Dili while the other heads of state welcomed Obiang to the CPLP with a standing ovation. Meanwhile, in Lisbon, prominent politicians were heavily critical of the government’s accommodating attitude.

Socialist lawmaker João Soares said allowing Equatorial Guinea to join the CPLP is “shameful for Portugal and a monumental error,” while Ana Gomes, a member of the European Parliament for the same party, said it was unacceptable that the community should admit “a dictatorial and criminal regime that is facing lawsuits in the United States and France for economic and financial crimes.”

“The dead are not only those who have been sentenced to death in a court of law, some 50 persons executed by firing squad after being convicted; we should multiply that number by 100 to reach the figure for the people who have disappeared,” and who were victims of repression, Nvó told IPS.

In the 46 years since independence, “during the first government of Francisco Macías Nguema, all the opposition leaders were murdered in prison, without trial, having been accused of attempts against the president. The ‘work’ was carried out by the current president, when he was director of prisons and carried out a cleansing, before overthrowing his uncle,” he said.

Before oil was discovered, “Obiang never thought entry to the CPLP would be possible, but in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea, all the president’s goals are possible,” he complained.

In Nvó’s view, joining the CPLP “is another step in Obiang’s strategy of belonging to as many international bodies as possible for the sake of laundering his image. He used to belong to the community of Hispanic nations, but then he came to believe that he would never get anywhere with Spain; then he joined La Francophonie, but that did not last because of his son’s troubles with the French courts.”

Now, however, the CPLP has been satisfied with a moratorium on the death penalty, which remains on the statute books. Its enforcement depends only on the fiat of the head of state. “It’s an intellectual hoax,” Nvó said.

The Equatoguinean foreign minister, Agapito Mba Mokuy, told the Portuguese news agency Lusa on Tuesday that his country “was colonised for a longer period by Portugal than by Spain (307 years under Portugal compared to 190 under Spain), so that the ties to Portuguese-speaking countries are historically very strong.”

“Joining the CPLP today is simply coming home,” he said.

In a telephone interview with IPS, former president of East Timor José Ramos-Horta said, “I agree with the forceful criticisms denouncing the death penalty and serious human rights violations that are committed in that country.” In his view the denunciations of the regime made by international organisations are to be credited.

However, Ramos-Horta believes that “concerted, intelligent, prudent and persistent action by the CPLP upon the regime in Equatorial Guinea will achieve the first improvements after some time.”

In exchange for admission, Ramos-Horta recommended the CPLP should establish an agenda to force Obiang to eliminate the death penalty, torture, arbitrary detentions and forcible disappearances.

It should also include, he said, improved facilities and treatment for prisoners; access to inmates by the International Red Cross; and later on, the opening of an office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Malabo.

One of the most critical voices raised against the events in Dili was that of political sciences professor José Filipe Pinto, who asserted that a sort of “chequebook diplomacy” had prevailed there, with Malabo offering to make investments in CPLP countries, relying on its resource wealth.

In his opinion, “an organisation must have interests and principles,” and he regretted that “some elites and the crisis conspired to exempt the latter.”

(END)

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U.S., Regional Leaders Convene over Migration Crisis http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/u-s-regional-leaders-convene-over-migration-crisis/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-regional-leaders-convene-over-migration-crisis http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/u-s-regional-leaders-convene-over-migration-crisis/#comments Fri, 25 Jul 2014 11:53:34 +0000 Julia Hotz http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135744 The presidents of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador speak at the Organisation of American States on Jul. 24, 2014 in Washington, DC. Credit: Juan Manuel Herrera/OAS

The presidents of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador speak at the Organisation of American States on Jul. 24, 2014 in Washington, DC. Credit: Juan Manuel Herrera/OAS

By Julia Hotz
WASHINGTON, Jul 25 2014 (IPS)

As the presidents of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala prepare to meet with President Barack Obama Friday, more than 40 organisations issued a petition urging U.S. lawmakers to meet their “moral and legal obligations” by providing emergency aid to Central American children and families.

The petition, spearheaded by the Washington Office of Latin America (WOLA), an advocacy group here, insists that “more border security will not help,” and is instead calling for the U.S. to provide children and families with “all due [legal] protections” and “face the root causes of violence at the community level.”“What we’d like to see [from Friday’s meeting] is a package of assistance to Central America that is focused entirely on the civilian side of what it takes to protect.” -- Adam Isacson

In the last nine months, more than 50,000 unaccompanied children have crossed the U.S. southern border, and the wave shows no signs of abating. Many are now facing deportation.

Less than 24 hours after WOLA released their petition, a separate batch of legal groups accused the U.S. government of violating both international and domestic law, based on its inspection of the New Mexico-based Artesia Family Detention Facility.

After representatives from 22 organisations interviewed families detained at Artesia, the groups concluded that the U.S. government is violating both their moral responsibility to provide the refugees with physical and mental health support, as well as their legal obligation to guarantee them due process.

“Family detention is always an awful and damaging process, but the conditions at the Artesia Family Detention facility in New Mexico should make every American hang their head in shame,” the groups said in a statement.

“The Administration’s intent to deport everyone as quickly as possible for optics is sacrificing critical due process procedures and sending families – mothers, babies, and children – back despite clear concerns for their safety in violation of US and international law.”

Fixing the roots

While such humanitarian concerns surrounding the Central American migration crisis persist from a variety of sources, top officials from both the U.S. and Central America are considering both long-term and short-term intervention from the top-down.

As a pre-cursor for Friday’s meeting between U.S. President Obama and the Central American presidents, foreign ministers from the three respective nations – collectively known as the “Northern Triangle” – convened on Thursday at the Wilson Center, a think tank here, to discuss the crisis’ roots and debate its solutions.

While all three of the Northern Triangle’s representatives agreed that there was not one cause behind the current crisis, they collectively cited the drug smuggling network, the prevalence of organised crime, and lack of taxpayer dollars as their biggest problems.

As such, the three ministers advocated for “all-encompassing” reform, both to stop the short-term crisis at the border, and to provide economic and educational opportunities- such as universal secondary school coverage- for children and adults alike.

Call for legal protections

While Michelle Brané , director of migrant rights & justice at the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC), a New York-based advocacy group that participated in Artesia’s inspection, agrees with the Northern Triangle’s conclusion that such a “holistic response…addressing root causes” is necessary, her central issue is with U.S. justice system.

“The problem is that our court system is woefully under-funded,”Brané told IPS, hopefully adding that “we can create a due process system that works,” even if it takes years.

Clarifying that she is “not saying everyone should stay, [but rather] that everyone should have a fair shot at presenting their case,” Brané believes that providing attorneys to represent these migrants and using alternative detention centres, such as shelters and community support programs,  are both more humane and “cost-effective” solutions than the status quo.

Asked about the desired outcome of Friday’s presidential meeting, Brané informed IPS that she would like to see “[the U.S.] take a leadership role in protection, as opposed to a ‘close the borders’ stance and lack of respect for human rights law.”

“This is more than just something that requires them to stem the flow to stop up the borders,” Brané told IPS. ‘It really requires…strengthening protections systems, as opposed to interception.”

Adam Isacson, senior associate for regional security policy at WOLA, echoed Brané’s call for more protections.

“What we’d like to see [from Friday’s meeting] is a package of assistance to Central America that is focused entirely on the civilian side of what it takes to protect,” Isacson told IPS.

While his list of desired protections included “getting police to respect people”, “a much stronger justice system,” and “more emphasis on creating opportunities,” Isacson added that such requests be “combined with Central American presidents’ commitment to raise more taxes from their wealthiest.”

Isacson further agrees with WRC’s Brané in that there is a need for systematic reform of the U.S legal system, calling for “more capacity” and a reduction in the average trial’s wait time, which he believes can be up to two or three years.

Yet others, including the Virginia-based Negative Population Growth (NPG) nonprofits, have expressed different legal concerns.

“Asylum and refugee status is something for specific persecution, and it’s not intended to be a relief measure for general societal strife,” Dave Simcox, senior adviser of NPG, told IPS.

Simcox also told IPS that there is a distinction between being trafficked and being smuggled, and while “a few [migrants] will be able to make the case that they were taken against their will for exploitation,” he ultimately agrees with NPG President Don McCann, who argued in a statement that “granting refugee or temporary protected status on the current wave from Central America would be a disastrous precedent,” and that U.S leaders should instead apply “strong deterrent measures” by “supplementing border forces” with additional personnel and fencing.

But Isacson thinks “judges will get it right much more than border patrol agents on the spot will get it right,” and believes that that providing due process to such migrants is the best way for the U.S. to “enforce its own laws.”

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OPINION: Empowering DR Congo’s Sexual Violence Survivors by Enforcing Reparations http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/op-ed-empowering-dr-congos-sexual-violence-survivors-by-enforcing-reparations/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=op-ed-empowering-dr-congos-sexual-violence-survivors-by-enforcing-reparations http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/op-ed-empowering-dr-congos-sexual-violence-survivors-by-enforcing-reparations/#comments Thu, 24 Jul 2014 08:26:58 +0000 Sucharita S.K. Varanasi http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135716 Rape survivor Angeline Mwarusena. Reparations, both monetary and non-monetary, can provide emotional, psychological, physical, and economic relief for the pain, humiliation, trauma, and violence that sexual violence survivors have endured, according to Physicians for Human Rights. Credit: Einberger/argum/EED/IPS

Rape survivor Angeline Mwarusena. Reparations, both monetary and non-monetary, can provide emotional, psychological, physical, and economic relief for the pain, humiliation, trauma, and violence that sexual violence survivors have endured, according to Physicians for Human Rights. Credit: Einberger/argum/EED/IPS

By Sucharita S.K. Varanasi
BOSTON, Jul 24 2014 (IPS)

Before a sexual violence survivor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has her day in court, she must surmount many obstacles. Poor or nonexistent roads and costly transportation may prevent her from going to a police station to report the crime, or to a hospital to receive treatment for the injuries sustained during the violence.

Inadequate training of law enforcement, limited resources for thorough investigations, and lack of witness protection may also compromise her case.

In the DRC, another impediment is a heavy reliance on traditional forms of justice. Sexual violence survivors are compelled by their families and communities to seek redress through traditional mechanisms because the process often leads to the survivor’s family receiving some type of compensation, such as a goat.

However attractive traditional justice may be for the family of those victimised, the survivor is rarely at the centre of the process. Understanding the various hurdles that a survivor must overcome in accessing the formal legal system is the first step in a survivor’s pursuit of justice.

Until recently, the international community has largely ignored the fact that even if survivors overcome many of these challenges and win their legal cases, they rarely receive reparations.

During a roundtable discussion hosted by Physicians for Human Rights, Georgetown University Institute for Women, Peace and Security, and Columbia School of International and Public Affairs earlier this year, experts identified reasons why survivors are unable to retrieve these hard-won reparations, and issued a set of recommendations that aim to help reverse this trend.

Sucharita S.K. Varanasi, a senior programme officer with Physicians for Human Rights says that in order to receive court-ordered monetary compensation, survivors of sexual violence in DRC must  navigate the onerous post-trial process alone. Courtesy: Physicians for Human Rights

Sucharita S.K. Varanasi, a senior programme officer with Physicians for Human Rights.

In order to receive court-ordered monetary compensation, survivors of sexual violence must  navigate the onerous post-trial process alone – without counsel or support – and either pay upfront prohibitively expensive administrative fees and duties or collect and present difficult-to-obtain paperwork necessary to waive these fees.

Overcoming these obstacles can prove daunting – even insurmountable – for individuals who are well-resourced and connected, let alone for the majority of survivors who are financially indigent and disenfranchised.

The international community is finally paying apt attention to the fact that even if a survivor surmounts the many obstacles she faces in pursuing justice, it may never lead to compensation or to her perpetrator being brought to justice.

The roundtable participants, including key international stakeholders in the DRC, provided short-term recommendations to help survivors receive their judgments in hand. These include the training of judges on relevant Congolese laws to help survivors; direct international funds to help survivors navigate the post-trial process; engagement and education of community chiefs within traditional justice mechanisms about survivors’ rights and the need to direct survivors to the formal court system; and the strengthening and enforcement of penitentiary systems so that sentences are upheld and punishment can be a deterrent to committing such crimes in the future.

Long-term recommendations from roundtable participants included the need to marshal political will, creating both a sovereign mineral fund and a victims’ fund, and reforming the legal sector by creating mixed chambers and revising key pieces of legislation. Significantly, long-term strategies to support reparations for survivors must also take into consideration collective community responses for the many survivors who never report their violation or never engage in the justice process.

These recommendations are by no means exhaustive, but showcase a desire and commitment from international actors to help survivors receive monetary judgments.

Reparations, both monetary and non-monetary, can provide emotional, psychological, physical, and economic relief for the pain, humiliation, trauma, and violence that sexual violence survivors have endured.

Enforcing monetary reparations justifies the hardship and difficulty of pursing justice in the first place for the survivors. The international community can help a sexual violence survivor move from a position of pain to power. The main question is whether we are willing to urge local governments and community leaders to make it happen.

Sexual violence survivors waiting to testify in a Congolese mobile court. Courtesy: Physicians for Human Rights

Sexual violence survivors waiting to testify in a Congolese mobile court. Courtesy: Physicians for Human Rights

Sucharita S.K. Varanasi is a senior programme officer, at the Programme on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones with Physicians for Human Rights. She travels and works in DRC and Kenya.

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U.S., Russia, China Hamper ICC’s Reach http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/u-s-russia-china-hamper-iccs-reach/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-russia-china-hamper-iccs-reach http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/u-s-russia-china-hamper-iccs-reach/#comments Tue, 22 Jul 2014 18:10:39 +0000 Joel Jaeger http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135685 President of the International Criminal Court Sang-Hyun Song speaks at a U.N. event. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

President of the International Criminal Court Sang-Hyun Song speaks at a U.N. event. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

By Joel Jaeger
UNITED NATIONS, Jul 22 2014 (IPS)

Despite making important strides in the first dozen years of its existence, the International Criminal Court (ICC) faces a daunting task if it hopes to create a reputation as a truly global institution.

With a skewed distribution of states parties and cases, the ICC has struggled to mature at its seat in The Hague as an effective and comprehensive purveyor of justice.“It is a global entity. It is not a universal entity.” -- William Pace

The Rome Statute, the ICC’s founding treaty, authorises the Court to prosecute individuals who have committed genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes. It was adopted in 1998 and came into force in 2002.

Some 122 states have ratified or acceded to the Rome Statute, but many of the world’s most populous countries have remained outside its jurisdiction.

William Pace, the convenor of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court (CICC), told IPS, “[The ICC] doesn’t apply to half the people on the planet, but it applies to almost two-thirds of the member states of the United Nations, which is also over three billion people.

“It is a global entity,” he said. “It is not a universal entity.”

Richard Dicker, director of Human Rights Watch’s international justice programme, told IPS that “There is unevenness in state party representation, with Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa in particular being starkly missing.”

The most crucial impediment to the ICC’s global reach is the fact that the United States, Russia and China have not joined the ICC and continue to obstruct its functioning with U.N. Security Council vetoes.

Cases can be brought to the ICC by the chief prosecutor, by the countries themselves or by referral from the Security Council. The judicial functioning of the Court is independent of the United Nations, but when Security Council referrals become involved, politics can easily creep in.

Most recently, Russia and China prevented the Security Council from referring the conflict in Syria to the ICC on May 22.

Dicker called the United States, Russia and China key obstacles to the ICC’s future.

“These three who have remained outside the reach of the Rome Statute of the ICC have shielded themselves and, through their use of the veto on the Council, their allies from accountability when national courts in those countries don’t do the job,” he said at a recent press conference on the future of the ICC.

Without U.S. ratification of the Rome Statute, the ICC will find it difficult to achieve global legitimacy.

Dicker told IPS that the United States’ attitude has slowly evolved since the early 2000s, when “the [George W.] Bush administration was on a crusade against the International Criminal Court.”

In the wake of increased flexibility towards the Court in the later Bush years, “the Obama administration has significantly strengthened the cooperation afforded by the U.S. government to the Court,” he said. However, U.S. diplomatic support for the Court has only extended to “situations where the Court’s position and U.S. foreign objectives coincide.”

The U.S. Congress has not overturned the American Servicemembers Protection Act of 2002, also known as the “Hague Invasion Act.” According to Human Rights Watch, the law “authorizes the use of military force to liberate any American or citizen of a U.S.-allied country being held by the Court.”

The United States’ non-participation in the ICC damages the Court, but not irrevocably.

“It was constantly said throughout the treaty negotiation period of the 1990s and the ratification period of the last decade that if you don’t have the United States as a part of the ICC, it won’t work,” Pace told IPS. “Well, it is working, even with the handicap of having the great powers against it, but it is up, it’s running and I don’t know a week that goes by that someone doesn’t invoke the ICC.”

As the Court conducted its first investigations and prosecutions, it encountered significant opposition from the African Union (AU). All eight of the countries currently under investigation by the ICC are African, spurring accusations that the Court is unfairly targeting the continent.

The cases in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, and Mali were referred to the ICC by the countries themselves, while the cases in Sudan and Libya were referred by the Security Council and the cases in Kenya and Côte d’Ivoire were brought to the Court by the chief prosecutor.

“The politics of Kenya and Sudan are escalating the tensions between the ICC and the African Union,” Stephen Lamony, the CICC’s Senior Adviser for Africa, told IPS.

The indictments of President of Sudan Omar al-Bashir and Uhuru Kenyatta – who was later elected president of Kenya – in 2009 and 2011 provoked criticism by the AU that the ICC was a tool of Western imperialism.

Why is a court based in Europe targeting African leaders, critics ask, but ignoring atrocities in Syria, Gaza, or North Korea?

The AU has been developing an African Court of Justice and Human Rights to compete with the ICC, “to ensure that Africans are prosecuted in Africa,” said Lamony.

However, at the end of June the AU voted to give sitting heads of state immunity from the incipient African Court, leading African grassroots activists to fume that the problem is not the ICC, but the culture of impunity amongst African leaders.

“The heads of state are trying to protect themselves, and the ordinary man and woman are saying ‘no, you should be held to the same standards. You should stop committing these crimes against us,’” Lamony told IPS.

Six of the 10 situations under preliminary examinations by the ICC are in non-African countries. If one of these countries is chosen to be the next object of investigation, the Court may dispel some, but not all of the criticism it has received for focusing on Africa.

According to Lamony, “At this stage, no African leader is threatening to withdraw from the ICC,” because the condemnation of the Court mainly comes from countries that are not states parties.

Despite the imbalance in the makeup of the ICC’s states parties and its Africa-heavy case load, much of civil society is convinced that its very existence changes the international landscape.

“Justice is not living in tents or trailers anymore. It is now a permanent institution in the ICC,” Dicker said. “And that fact alone spurs expectations and demands for justice where mass atrocity crimes occur.”

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Malnutrition Hits Syrians Hard as UN Authorises Cross-Border Access http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/malnutrition-hits-syrians-hard-as-un-authorises-cross-border-access/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=malnutrition-hits-syrians-hard-as-un-authorises-cross-border-access http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/malnutrition-hits-syrians-hard-as-un-authorises-cross-border-access/#comments Sat, 19 Jul 2014 12:09:41 +0000 Shelly Kittleson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135643 Syrian mother and child near Ma'arat Al-Numan, rebel-held Syria, in autumn 2013. Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS

Syrian mother and child near Ma'arat Al-Numan, rebel-held Syria, in autumn 2013. Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS

By Shelly Kittleson
BEIRUT, Jul 19 2014 (IPS)

Gaunt, haggard Syrian children begging and selling gum have become a fixture in streets of the Lebanese capital; having fled the ongoing conflict, they continue to be stalked by its effects.

Most who make it across the Syria-Lebanon border live in informal settlements in extremely poor hygienic conditions, which for many means diarrhoeal diseases, malnutrition, and – for the most vulnerable – sometimes death.

By the end of January, almost 40,000 Syrian children had been born as refugees, while the total number of minors who had fled abroad quadrupled to over 1.2 million between March 2013 and March 2014.Most who make it across the Syria-Lebanon border live in informal settlements in extremely poor hygienic conditions, which for many means diarrhoeal diseases, malnutrition, and – for the most vulnerable – sometimes death.

Lack of proper healthcare, food and clean water has resulted in countless loss of life during the Syrian conflict, now well into its fourth year. These deaths are left out of the daily tallies of ‘war casualties’, even as stunted bodies and emaciated faces peer out of photos from areas under siege.

The case of the Yarmouk Palestinian camp on the outskirts of Damascus momentarily grabbed the international community’s attention earlier this year, when Amnesty International released a report detailing the deaths of nearly 200 people under a government siege. Many other areas have experienced and continue to suffer the same fate, out of the public spotlight.

A Palestinian-Syrian originally from Yarmouk who has escaped abroad told IPS that some of her family are still in Hajar Al-Aswad, an area near Damascus with a population of roughly 600,000 prior to the conflict. She said that those trapped in the area were suffering ‘’as badly if not worse than in Yarmouk’’ and had been subjected to equally brutal starvation tactics. The area has, however, failed to garner similar attention.

The city of Homs, one of the first to rise up against President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, was also kept under regime siege for three years until May of this year, when Syrian troops and foreign Hezbollah fighters took control.

With the Syria conflict well into its fourth year, the U.N. Security Council decided for the first time on July 14 to authorize cross-border aid without the Assad government’s approval via four border crossings in neighbouring states. The resolution established a monitoring mechanism for a 180-day period for loading aid convoys in Turkey, Iraq and Jordan.

The first supplies will include water sanitation tablets and hygiene kits, essential to preventing the water-borne diseases responsible for diarrhoea – which, in turn, produces severe states of malnutrition.

Miram Azar, from UNICEF’s Beirut office, told IPS that  ‘’prior to the Syria crisis, malnutrition was not common in Lebanon or Syria, so UNICEF and other actors have had to educate public health providers on the detection, monitoring and treatment’’ even before beginning to deal with the issue itself.

However, it was already on the rise: ‘’malnutrition was a challenge to Syria even before the conflict’’, said a UNICEF report released this year. ‘’The number of stunted children – those too short for their age and whose brain may not properly develop – rose from 23 to 29 per cent between 2009 and 2011.’’

Malnutrition experienced in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life (from pregnancy to two years old) results in lifelong consequences, including greater susceptibility to illness, obesity, reduced cognitive abilities and lower development potential of the nation they live in.

Azar noted that ‘’malnutrition is a concern due to the deteriorating food security faced by refugees before they left Syria’’ as well as ‘’the increase in food prices during winter.’’

The Syrian economy has been crippled by the conflict and crop production has fallen drastically. Violence has destroyed farms, razed fields and displaced farmers.

The price of basic foodstuffs has become prohibitive in many areas. On a visit to rebel-held areas in the northern Idlib province autumn of 2013, residents told IPS that the cost of staples such as rice and bread had risen by more than ten times their cost prior to the conflict, and in other areas inflation was worse.

Jihad Yazigi , an expert on the Syrian economy, argued in a European Council on Foreign Affairs (ECFR) policy brief published earlier this year that the war economy, which ‘’both feeds directly off the violence and incentivises continued fighting’’, was becoming ever more entrenched.

Meanwhile, political prisoners who have been released as a result of amnesties tell stories of severe water and food deprivation within jails. Many were detained on the basis of peaceful activities, including exercising their right to freedom of expression and providing humanitarian aid, on the basis of a counterterrorism law adopted by the government in July 2012.

There are no accurate figures available for Syria’s prison population. However, the monitoring group, Violations Documentation Centre, reports that 40,853 people detained since the start of the uprising in March 2011 remain in jail.

Maher Esber, a former political prisoner who was in one of Syria’s most notorious jails between 2006 and 2011 and is now an activist living in the Lebanese capital, told IPS that it was normal for taps to be turned on for only 10 minutes per day for drinking and hygiene purposes in the detention facilities.

Much of the country’s water supply has also been damaged or destroyed over the past years, with knock-on effects on infectious diseases and malnutrition. A major pumping station in Aleppo was damaged on May 10, leaving roughly half what was previously Syria’s most populated city without running water. Relentless regime barrel bombing has made it impossible to fix the mains, and experts have warned of a potential humanitarian catastrophe for those still inside the city.

The U.N. decision earlier this month was made subsequent to refusal by the Syrian regime to comply with a February resolution demanding rapid, safe, and unhindered access, and the Syrian regime had warned that it considered non-authorised aid deliveries into rebel-held areas as an attack.

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Child Migrants – A “Torn Artery” in Central America http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/child-migrants-a-torn-artery-in-central-america/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=child-migrants-a-torn-artery-in-central-america http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/child-migrants-a-torn-artery-in-central-america/#comments Fri, 18 Jul 2014 22:39:35 +0000 Thelma Mejia http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135637 At the conclusion of the International Conference on Migration, Childhood and Family, civil society organisations called for migrants to be seen as human beings rather than just statistics in official files. Credit: Casa Presidencial de Honduras

At the conclusion of the International Conference on Migration, Childhood and Family, civil society organisations called for migrants to be seen as human beings rather than just statistics in official files. Credit: Casa Presidencial de Honduras

By Thelma Mejía
TEGUCIGALPA, Jul 18 2014 (IPS)

The migration crisis involving thousands of Central American children detained in the United States represents the loss of a generation of young people fleeing poverty, violence and insecurity in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, the countries of the Northern Triangle of Central America where violence is rife.

Some 200 experts and officials from several countries and bodies met in Tegucigalpa to promote solutions to the humanitarian emergency July 16-17 at an International Conference on Migration, Childhood and Family, convened by the Honduran government and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

The conference ended with a call to establish ways and means for the countries involved to implement a plan of action with sufficient resources for effective border control and the elimination of “blind spots” used as migrant routes.

They also called for the rapid establishment of a regional initiative to address this humanitarian crisis jointly and definitively, in recognition of the shared responsibility to bring peace, security, welfare and justice to the peoples of Central America.“It is like someone has torn open an artery in Honduras and other Central American countries. Fear, grinding poverty and no future mean we are losing our lifeblood – our young people. If this continues to happen, the hearts of our nations will stop beating” – Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga of Honduras

But the declaration “Hoja de Ruta: Una Invitación a la Acción” (Roadmap: An Invitation to Action) does not go beyond generalisations and lacks specific commitments to address a crisis of unprecedented dimensions.

The U.S. government says that border patrols have caught 47,000 unaccompanied minors crossing into the United States this year. They are confined in overcrowded shelters awaiting deportation.

José Miguel Insulza, Secretary General of the Organisation of American States (OAS), told the conference that in 2011 there were 4,059 unaccompanied minors who attempted to enter the United States. But this figure rose to 21,537 in 2013 and 47,017 so far in 2014.

“These huge numbers of children are from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. According to the data, 29 percent of the minors detained are Hondurans, 24 percent are Guatemalans, 23 percent are Salvadorans, and 22 percent are Mexicans,” said Insulza, who called for the migrants not to be criminalised.

Images of hundreds of children, on their own or accompanied by relatives or strangers, climbing on to the Mexican freight train known as “The Beast” on their way to the U.S. border, finally aroused the concern of regional governments.

The U.S. administration’s announcement that it would begin mass deportations of children apprehended in the past few months was also a factor. Honduran minors began to be deported on July 14.

The Tegucigalpa conference brought together officials and experts from countries receiving and sending migrants. According to analyses by participants, in Guatemala migration is motivated by poverty, while in El Salvador and Honduras people are fleeing citizen insecurity and criminal violence.

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández said these migrants were “displaced by war” and that an emergency “has now erupted among us.”

Out of every nine unaccompanied minors who cross the border into the United States, seven are Hondurans from what are known as the “hot territories” of insecurity and violence, the president said.

Ricardo Puerta, an expert on migration, told IPS that the Central American region is losing its next generation. “This is hitting hard, especially in countries like Honduras where people are fleeing violence and migrants are aged between 12 and 30.

“We are losing many new and good hands and brains, and in general they will not return. If they do come back it will be as tourists, but not permanently,” he said.

Laura García is a cleaner. She earns an average of 12 dollars for each house or office she cleans, but she can barely get by. She wants to emigrate, and does not care about the risks or what she hears about the hardening of U.S. migration policies, whose officials endlessly repeat that Central American migrants are “not welcome”.

“I hear all that, but there is no work here. Some days I clean two houses, some days only one and sometimes none. And as I am over 35, no one wants to give me a job because of my age. I struggle and struggle, but I want to try up in the North, they say they pay well for looking after people,” she told IPS in a faltering voice.

She lives in the poor and conflict-ridden shanty town of San Cristóbal, in the north of Tegucigalpa, which is controlled by gangs. After 18.00, they impose their own law: no one goes in or out without permission from the crime lords.

“They say that a lot can happen on the way (migrant route), attacks, kidnappings, rapes, they say a lot of things, but with the situation as it is here, it’s the same thing to die on the way than right here at the hands of the ‘maras’ (gangs), where you can be shot dead at any time,” Garcia said.

At the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington on July 7, Honduran cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga spoke about the despair experienced in Honduras and the rest of Central America.

“It is like someone has torn open an artery in Honduras and other Central American countries. Fear, grinding poverty and no future mean we are losing our lifeblood – our young people. If this continues to happen, the hearts of our nations will stop beating,” said the cardinal in a speech that has not yet been disseminated in Honduras.

Rodríguez Maradiaga criticised the mass deportations of Honduran children who have started to arrive from Mexico and the United States. “Can you imagine starting your adult life being treated as a criminal? Where would you go from there?” he asked.

The Catholic Church in Honduras has insisted that fear and extreme poverty, together with unemployment and violence, lead parents to take the desperate measure of sending their children off on the dangerous journey of migration in order to save their lives. The Church is demanding inclusive public policies to prevent the flight of a generation.

Violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador is considered to have grown as a result of the displacement of drug trafficking cartels from Mexico and Colombia, due to the war on drugs waged by the governments of those countries.

In 2013, the homicide rate in El Salvador was 69.2 per 100,000 people, in Guatemala 30 per 100,000 and in Honduras 79.7 per 100,000, according to official figures.

At present over one million Hondurans are estimated to reside in the United States, out of a total population of 8.4 million. In 2013 remittances to Honduras from this migrant population amounted to 3.1 billion dollars, according to the Honduran Association of Banking Institutions.

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Why No Vetoed Resolutions on Civilian Killings in Gaza? http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/why-no-vetoed-resolutions-on-civilian-killings-in-gaza/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=why-no-vetoed-resolutions-on-civilian-killings-in-gaza http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/why-no-vetoed-resolutions-on-civilian-killings-in-gaza/#comments Fri, 18 Jul 2014 21:27:54 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135633 Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (centre right) briefs the Security Council on Jul. 10 on the crisis in Israel and the Gaza Strip.  Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (centre right) briefs the Security Council on Jul. 10 on the crisis in Israel and the Gaza Strip. Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Jul 18 2014 (IPS)

As the civil war in Syria continues into its fourth year, the Western nations sitting on the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) have unsuccessfully tried to condemn the killings of civilians, impose punitive sanctions and accuse the Syrian government of war crimes – in four vetoed and failed resolutions.

The United States, France and Britain forced a vote on all four resolutions despite implicit threats by China and Russia, allies of beleaguered Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to exercise their vetoes. And they did.The question looming large over the United Nations is why China and Russia aren't initiating a new draft resolution condemning the aerial bombardments of civilians in Gaza, demanding a no-fly zone and accusing Israelis of war crimes.

All five countries are veto-wielding permanent members of the UNSC.

The vetoes drew strong condemnations from human rights groups, including a coalition of eight non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which described the last veto by Russia and China as “a shameful illustration of why voluntary restraint on the use of the veto in mass atrocity situations is essential to the Council’s ability to live up to the U.N. charter’s expectations.”

But the question now looming large over the United Nations is why China and Russia aren’t initiating a new draft resolution condemning the aerial bombardments of civilians in Gaza, demanding a no-fly zone and accusing Israelis of war crimes.

Such a resolution is certain to be vetoed by one, or all three, of the Western powers in the UNSC, as China and Russia did on the resolutions against Syria. But this time around, it will be the Western powers on the defensive, trying to protect the interests of a country accused of civilian killings and war crimes.

Still, an Asian diplomat told IPS that even if a draft resolution is doomed to be shot down during closed-door informals for lack of nine votes, an attempt could have been made to expose the mood of the UNSC  - just as Western nations keep piling up resolutions against Syria even when they are conscious of the fact they will be vetoed by Russia and China, embarrassing both countries.

Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and coordinator of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco, told IPS just as the Russians and Chinese have blocked Security Council action regarding Syria’s attacks on civilians in crowded urban areas, the United States has successfully blocked Security Council action regarding Israeli attacks on civilians in crowded urban areas.

Though both involve serious violations of international humanitarian law, precedent would dictate that U.N. action on Israel’s assault on Gaza would be even more appropriate because it is an international conflict rather than a civil war, said Zunes, who has written extensively on the politics of the Security Council.

“What is hard to explain is why the Security Council has not been willing to force the United States to take the embarrassing step of actually vetoing the measure, as it has on four occasions with Russia and China in regard to Syria,” he asked.

Ian Williams, a longstanding U.N. correspondent and senior analyst at Foreign Policy in Focus, told IPS the UNSC is determined to prove that governments do not have principles, only interests.

Since the end of the Cold War, the Palestinians have had no sponsors or patrons.

He said even the Russians and the Chinese weigh the strength of the Israel Lobby in the U.S., and increasingly in Europe, and calculate whether it is in their interests to alienate Washington even more.

Since they see few tangible diplomatic, economic or political benefits from backing the Palestinians, let alone Hamas, they allow atrocities to go unchecked in Gaza while raising their hands in horror about lesser, and less calculated, crimes elsewhere, said Williams.

“And the Russians would have to explain why they defend Assad for similar behaviour against his own people,” he added.

Only popular indignation will force the hand of governments – and the French government knows that, which is why they have banned pro-Palestinian demonstrations, he noted.

Addressing an emergency meeting of the UNSC Friday, Dr Riyad Mansour, the permanent observer of the State of Palestine, told delegates the 10-day death toll from heavy F-16 air strikes has been estimated at 274, mostly civilians, including 24 women and 62 children, and over 2,076 wounded and more thatn 38,000 displaced.

These are figures, he said, that could be corroborated by U.N. agencies on the ground.

Mansour accused Israel of war crimes, crimes against humanity, state terrorism and systematic violation of human rights.

But as of Friday, there were no indications of a hard-hitting resolution focusing on the plight of the 1.7 million residents under heavy fire and who are being defended by the militant group Hamas, accused of firing hundreds of rockets into Israel, with just one Israeli casualty.

Vijay Prashad, George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Professor of International Studies at Trinity College, told IPS that a declaration – adopted at a summit meeting of leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) in Brazil last week – mentions Palestine and Israel in terms of the Middle East peace process, but it does not take a direct position on the ongoing war on Gaza.

“It would have been an apposite place to have crafted a separate and pointed resolution in solidarity with the Palestinians alongside the stated claim to the celebration of the U.N. Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian People,” he said.

He added that it also says something about the lack of confidence by the BRICS members on the Security Council who felt betrayed by Resolution 1973 (on Libya) and did not draft a resolution to call for a No Fly Zone over Gaza based on the principles of Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

The West has drafted resolutions on Syria, knowing that Russia and China would veto them as a way to deliberately put their rivals in a poor light, he added.

He asked why the BRICS states on the Security Council (currently Russia and China) did not produce a resolution to show the world that the West (or at least the U.S.) is willing to allow the calculated slaughter of the Palestinians at the same time as they want to be the ones to arbiter who is a civilian and what it means to responsibly protect them.

This only shows the BRICS states are not willing to directly challenge the West not in a defensive way (by vetoing a Western resolution), but in an aggressive way (by making the West veto a resolution for ending the slaughter in Gaza), he added.

Brazil, the current chair of BRICS, said in a statement released Friday the Brazilian government rejects the current Israeli ground incursion into Gaza, which represents a serious setback to peace efforts.

“Such an offensive could have serious repercussions for the increased instability in the Middle East and exacerbate the already dramatic humanitarian situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” the statement said.

“We urge the Israeli forces to strictly respect their obligations under the International Humanitarian Law. Furthermore, we consider it necessary that Israel put an end to the blockade on Gaza immediately.”

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Pakistani Rights Advocates Fight Losing Battle to End Child Marriages http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/pakistani-rights-advocates-fight-losing-battle-to-end-child-marriages/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=pakistani-rights-advocates-fight-losing-battle-to-end-child-marriages http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/pakistani-rights-advocates-fight-losing-battle-to-end-child-marriages/#comments Wed, 16 Jul 2014 15:53:22 +0000 Irfan Ahmed http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135594 Seven percent of all young boys are married before the legal age in Pakistan. Credit: Irfan Ahmed/IPS

Seven percent of all young boys are married before the legal age in Pakistan. Credit: Irfan Ahmed/IPS

By Irfan Ahmed
LAHORE, Jul 16 2014 (IPS)

At first glance, there is nothing very unusual about Muhammad Asif Umrani. A resident of Rojhan city located in Pakistan’s eastern Punjab province, he is expectantly awaiting the birth of his first child, barely a year after his wedding day.

A few minutes of conversation, however, reveal a far more complex story: Umrani is just 14 years old, preparing for fatherhood while still a child himself. His ‘wife’, now visibly pregnant, is even younger than he, though she declined to disclose her name and real age.

The young couple sees nothing out of the ordinary about their circumstances; here in the Rajanpur district of Punjab, early marriages are the norm.

Girls in rural areas are often given in marriage in order to settle disputes, or debts. Some are even ‘promised’ to a rival before they are born, making them destined to a life of servitude for their husband’s family. -- Sher Ali, a social activist in Rojhan city
Umrani’s father, a small-scale farmer, tells IPS he is “proud” to have married his son off and “brought home a daughter-in-law to serve the family.”

Similar sentiments echo all around this country of 180 million people where, according to the latest figures released by the Pakistan Demographic Health Survey (2012-2013), 35.2 percent of currently married women between 25 and 49 years of age were wed before they were 18.

According to the UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, seven percent of all boys are married before the legal age in Pakistan.

Families like Umrani’s are either blissfully unaware of, or completely indifferent towards, domestic laws governing childhood unions.

Intazar Medhi, a lawyer based in Lahore, tells IPS that the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 – which prohibits girls under the age of 16 and boys under the age of 18 from being legally wed – is one of the least invoked laws in the country.

While the Act is in force in every province, and was recently amended by the government of Sindh to increase the legal marriage age of both boys and girls to 18, it is hardly a deterrent to the deeply embedded cultural practice.

For one thing, violators are fined a maximum of 1,000 rupees (about 10 dollars), what many experts have called a “trifling sum”; and for another, the law doesn’t extend to the many thousands of ‘unofficial’ marriage ceremonies that take place around the country every day.

In a country where 97 percent of the population identifies as Muslim, few nikahs (marriage agreements under Islamic law) are registered with an official state authority.

Scores of married couples live together for years without any documentary evidence of their union, with many families preferring to avoid legal formalities.

It is thus nearly impossible for government officials to estimate just how many such ‘illegal’ unions are taking place, or to dissolve contracts that entail nothing more than the presence of a religious person and witnesses for the bride and groom.

Some advocates like Intezar believe the problem can be rectified by following the example of the Sindh province, whose amendment of the 1929 Act upped its punitive power to include a three-year non-bailable prison term and a 450-d0llar fine for offenders.

He thinks setting 16 as the official marriage age – the same age at which Pakistanis receive their Computerised National Identity Cards (CNICs) – will make it easier for law enforcement officials to take action against those responsible for marrying off young children.

The government, he says, must also take steps to ensure timely birth registrations as millions spend lifetimes without any documentary proof of their existence.

Tradition trumps law enforcement

But for Sher Ali, a social activist based in the same city as Umrani’s family, a single law will not suffice to clamp down on a centuries-old practice that serves multiple purposes within traditional Pakistani society.

For instance, he tells IPS, girls in rural areas are often given in marriage in order to settle disputes, or debts. Some are even ‘promised’ to a rival before they are born, making them destined to a life of servitude for their husband’s family.

Various tribes also have different standards for determining an appropriate marriage age. For example, Sher explained, in some regions like the Southern Punjab, a girl is deemed ready for marriage and motherhood the day she can lift a full pitcher of water and carry it on her head.

In a country where the annual per capita income hovers at close to 1,415 dollars and 63 percent of the population lives in rural areas, girls are considered a burden and cash-strapped families try to get rid of them as early as possible.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to ending child marriages is the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), an unofficial parliamentary advisor, which also wields tremendous power to influence public opinion.

When the Sindh government announced its plans to extend the marriage age, CII Chairman Maulana Muhammad Khan Sherani denounced the move as an effort to “please the international community [by going] against Islamic teachings and practices.”

Comprised of prominent religious scholars, the Council has repeatedly urged the parliament to refrain from setting a “minimum marriage age”. Though parliament is not legally bound to any suggestions made by the body, many allege that the extent of its political power renders any ‘advice’ a de facto order.

Indeed, repeated assertions by religious groups that puberty sanctions marriage has led to a situation in which girls between eight and 12 years, and boys in the 12-15 age bracket, find themselves husbands and wives, while their peers are still in middle-school.

Speaking to IPS over the phone from Malaysia, Dr. Javed Ahmed Ghamidi – who is known as a moderate and had to leave the country after receiving several death threats from extremists – said that since Islam does not specify an exact marriage age, it is up to the government to draft necessary laws to protect the rights of its citizens.

He fully supports the implementation of a law that only allows legal unions between people who are old enough to run a household and bring up children.

“Such laws are not at all in conflict with the teachings of the religion,” he insisted.

Qamar Naseem, programme coordinator of Blue Veins, an organisation working to eliminate child marriages, pointed out that such a law is not only a domestic duty but also an international obligation, since the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopted a resolution against child, early and forced marriages in 2013.

Supported by over 100 of the world body’s 193 members, the resolution recognises child marriage as a human rights violation and vows to eliminate the practice, in line with the organisation’s post-2015 global development agenda.

Various studies have documented the impact of child marriage on Pakistani society, including young girls’ increased vulnerability to medical conditions like fistula, and a massive exodus from formal education.

Experts say Pakistan has the highest school dropout rate in the world, with 35,000 pupils leaving primary education every single year, largely as a result of early marriages.

Slowly, thanks in large part to the tireless work of activists, the tide is turning, with more people becoming aware of the dangers of early marriages.

But according to Arshad Mahmood, director of advocacy and child rights governance at Save the Children-Pakistan, much more needs to be done.

He told IPS there is an urgent need for training and education of nikah registrars, police officers, members of the judiciary and media personnel at the district level in order to discourage child marriages.

Effective laws must be coupled with the necessary budgetary allocation to allow for implementation and enforcement, he added.

“People will have to be informed that child marriages are the main reason behind high maternal and newborn mortality ratios in Pakistan,” he concluded.

(END)

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Outdated Approaches Fuelling TB in Russia, Say NGOs http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/outdated-approaches-fuelling-tb-in-russia-say-ngos/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=outdated-approaches-fuelling-tb-in-russia-say-ngos http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/outdated-approaches-fuelling-tb-in-russia-say-ngos/#comments Mon, 14 Jul 2014 06:24:16 +0000 Pavol Stracansky http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135533 By Pavol Stracansky
MOSCOW, Jul 14 2014 (IPS)

When Veronika Sintsova was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 2009, she spent six months in hospital before being discharged and allowed to continue treatment as an outpatient.

Today clear of the disease, the 35-year-old former drug user from Kaliningrad says the fact that she beat tuberculosis (TB) is not because of, but rather in spite of, the way many people with tuberculosis are treated in Russia.

“I think it would be fair to say that Russian authorities don’t take the problem of tuberculosis seriously,” she told IPS.

Tuberculosis is a major health threat in Russia, where it is the leading infectious disease killer.The country has the highest rates of multi-drug resistant (MDR) and extremely drug resistant (XDR) tuberculosis in Europe and the third highest in the world. And those rates are climbing.Tuberculosis exploded in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union as health care infrastructure crumbled, the country was thrown into economic crisis and crime and poverty soared, leading to overcrowded penal institutions.

It also has the 11th highest burden of all TB in the world, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), which just last week said that parts of the country were “disaster areas” for the disease.

Tuberculosis exploded in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union as health care infrastructure crumbled, the country was thrown into economic crisis and crime and poverty soared, leading to overcrowded penal institutions.

But, say NGOs in Russia and international groups working to combat the disease, the continued use of outdated and inefficient approaches to the disease are still fuelling its spread.

Long stays in health facilities filled with people with TB were a cornerstone of the Soviet health care system’s approach to the disease, and have remained, even though they were abandoned years ago in the West because they were seen as contributing to the spread of the disease.

But it is not just in health care facilities where people with TB are being failed. The disease is rife in Russian jails. Overcrowding, poor conditions and bad nutrition all contribute to high infection rates with one in seven prisoners having active TB, according to the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service.

The way prisoners with TB are treated typifies the general approach to the disease by authorities. Sintsova said that although she was treated well by doctors, it was during a sixth month spell in prison for a drug offence that she had what she says was “the worst experience” of all the time she had the disease because fellow inmates and wardens took no pity on her when she left her cell.

“They would shout out ‘tuberculosis sufferer on a walk’ as I went along. That really hurt me. It was probably the worst thing I experienced in all the time I had tuberculosis,” she told IPS.

And this abuse is typical, she said, of the way many people with the disease are viewed in Russia. TB is common among those at the margins of society – drug users, alcoholics, people with HIV and those in dire poverty. “In our society, a drug user is not a person and their death from tuberculosis is seen as something they deserve,” Sintsova, who herself has HIV, told IPS.

Third sector groups working with TB sufferers say approaches towards such people need to be changed. Anya Sarang, president of the Andrei Rylkov Foundation for Health and Social Justice, has previously told local media that the “unjustified imprisonment of Russian people, especially drug users, leads to prison overcrowding” which in turn fuels continued TB infection.

Others point to the need to provide integrated care for people with co-infections, such as HIV and hepatitis C. Oksana Ponomarenko, Russia country director for the U.S. organisation Partners in Health (PIH) which works with TB patients in Russia, said on the group’s website: “The biggest problem lies in the fact that each health system in Russia is vertical and operates separately –TB, drug addiction services, HIV care, psychiatric services, among other health programs.

“At federal level and in individual regions these programs are not connected. Often, clinicians in one programme will not have complete information on other nearby services and programmes.”

PIH and other local organisations have started programmes to try and provide integrated treatment to people with TB in some cities, including a mobile clinic.

Some success has been reported in a scheme in the city of Tomsk where prisoners with TB are all housed in one facility. If released before their treatment has finished, they are placed straight into hospital to prevent infecting others when they return to wider society.

PIH says that its methods have been adopted as official state policy on TB and legislation was recently brought in to emphasise the importance of ambulatory, rather than institutional, care in TB treatment. The government has also increased spending on TB in recent years, modernised diagnostic equipment and overhauled research institutes specialising in TB.

But what worries many working with TB patients is the Kremlin’s approach to some of the biggest international funders of TB projects. It recently decided to reject money from the Global Fund for Aids/TB and Malaria, justifying the move by saying that Russia is now a donor to the Global Fund and that it would be wrong for it to continue to take money from it.

Some see the move as entirely political and part of attempts by the Kremlin to crack down on foreign NGOs operating in Russia. Another major funder of groups working on TB programmes, USAID, was expelled from the country in 2012 and forced to stop operating, on the grounds that it was interfering in Russian politics.

Some projects, including a few run by PIH, have already been affected.

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Honduran Secrecy Law Bolsters Corruption and Limits Press Freedom http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/honduran-secrecy-law-bolsters-corruption-and-limits-press-freedom/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=honduran-secrecy-law-bolsters-corruption-and-limits-press-freedom http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/honduran-secrecy-law-bolsters-corruption-and-limits-press-freedom/#comments Wed, 09 Jul 2014 16:25:58 +0000 Thelma Mejia http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135455 The social role of journalists in Honduras is restricted under the official secrets law because they will not be able to report information that the state regards as “classified,” under the controversial new regulations. Credit: Thelma Mejía/IPS

The social role of journalists in Honduras is restricted under the official secrets law because they will not be able to report information that the state regards as “classified,” under the controversial new regulations. Credit: Thelma Mejía/IPS

By Thelma Mejía
TEGUCIGALPA, Jul 9 2014 (IPS)

The new official secrets law in Honduras clamps down on freedom of expression, strengthens corruption and enables public information on defence and security affairs to be kept secret for up to 25 years, according to a confidential report seen by IPS.

The Law on Classification of Public Documents related to Security and National Defence, better known as the official secrets law, was approved on the eve of the conclusion of the last parliamentary term, on Jan. 24.

“It [information about corruption] would be classified for 25 years, by which time the statute of limitations for prosecuting public servants for corruption would have expired, and no one would be held accountable,” says the IAIP
In a marathon two-day session, Congress approved a hundred decrees and laws to smooth the path of the new government of President Juan Orlando Hernández, who took office Jan. 27 and belongs to the right-wing National Party, like his predecessor Porfirio Lobo.

“This law lets the government behave like a cat that covers its own dirt,” shopkeeper Eduardo Tinoco told IPS wryly. He pays 20 dollars a week extortion money to one of the gangs that control El Sitio, a neighbourhood in the northeast of the capital.

“I pay taxes here for everything, even to be allowed to live, and that secrecy law will only be used to cover up the diversion of funds used for security and other government business. There are no two ways about it,” said Tinoco, who owns a small grocery store.

The law was blocked in October 2013 because of opposition from the Honduran Community Media Association (AMCH) and international groups, which regard it as a violation of the right to information and freedom of expression.

But it was reconsidered in January. How this occurred is not really known, because there are no audio records in the parliament archives that indicate when the bill was reintroduced, legislature officials told IPS on condition of anonymity.

A report by a team of experts for the Institute for Access to Public Information (IAIP) says that the official secrets law lacks a clear definition of “national security” and this ambiguity opens the way to discretionality, so that anything considered sensitive may be classified as secret.

The IAIP is the autonomous state body responsible for ensuring transparency in Honduras, according to the Law on Transparency and Access to Public Information. IPS obtained the report, which is due to be made public in a few weeks.

Article 3 of the official secrets law indicates that the following can be classified as confidential, in the interests of “national security”: “matters, actions, contracts, documents, information, data and objects whose knowledge by unauthorised persons may harm or endanger national security and/or defence and the fulfilment of its goals in these areas.”

The law sets four classification levels: private, confidential, secret and ultra secret, with periods of secrecy of five, 10, 15 and 25 years respectively, which may be extended as determined by the National Security and Defence Council which is responsible for classifying and declassifying material.

This Council is made up of the three branches of state, the Attorney General’s Office, the ministers of Defence and Security, the national Information and Intelligence Office and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the armed forces.

Information classified as “private” is lower level information, documentation or strategic internal material within state bodies that could cause “undesired institutional effects” if they came to light.

“Confidential” is the term attributed to intermediate level information, which could cause “imminent risk” or a direct threat to security, national defence or public order if it were made public, the law says.

Materials classified as “secret” are high level information at the national level, in the strategic internal and external spheres of the state, revelation of which poses an imminent danger to “constitutional order, security, national defence, international relations and the fulfilment of national goals.”

Finally, “ultra secret” is the highest level classification and is described as material which, if in the realm of public knowledge, would provoke “exceptionally serious” internal and external harm, threatening security, defence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, and the achievement of national goals.

Omar Rivera, of the Civil Society Group (GSC), an association of political advocacy and human rights organisations, told IPS that the “broad discretionality provided by the law is very worrying, because it provides a cloak of secrecy that can cover everything.”

His main concern is related to the security tax that has been levied on businesses and individuals for the past two years, as a contribution to the fight against insecurity and violence. This law “will make it impossible to get factual information on how the millions of dollars the state collects are spent,” he said.

The IAIP report highlights the same discretionalities, pointing out that any information about a public official being implicated in corruption can be classified as “ultra secret”.

In this case it would be classified for 25 years, by which time the statute of limitations for prosecuting public servants for corruption would have expired, and no one would be held accountable, the report analysing the law says.

Meanwhile, human rights expert Roberto Velásquez told IPS that the law directly targets journalism and freedom of expression, by putting a stranglehold on investigating or disseminating information.

He was referring to Article 10 of the law, which establishes that “when it can be foreseen that classified material may come to the knowledge of the media, these shall be notified of the nature of the material, and shall respect its classified nature.”

Also, any person having knowledge of classified information is obliged to “keep it secret” and report it to the nearest civil, police or military authority.

The new law directly contradicts the Transparency Law, in force for the past five years, by removing the IAIP’s powers to classify information regarded as secret, and overriding guarantees for freedom of expression and investigative journalism.

Doris Madrid, the head of IAIP, told IPS that it is hoping that the official secrets law will be reformed, on the grounds that it is unconstitutional and violates international treaties, but a proposal to revise or repeal it was turned down in Congress in March.

IPS learned that Transparency International made the signing of an agreement with the government on Open Budgets conditional on a revision of the law.

Honduras is regarded as one of the Latin American countries with the highest perception of corruption and insecurity. In April, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) indicated that this country of 8.4 million people has the highest murder rate in the world.

The Observatory on Violence at the National Autonomous University of Honduras reported this rate as 79.7 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. But now the authorities have refused to give any more figures on violent deaths to the Observatory, its members have complained.

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FATCA Just a Band Aid for Latin American Tax Evasion http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/fatca-just-a-band-aid-for-latin-american-tax-evasion/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=fatca-just-a-band-aid-for-latin-american-tax-evasion http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/fatca-just-a-band-aid-for-latin-american-tax-evasion/#comments Fri, 04 Jul 2014 10:09:58 +0000 Emilio Godoy http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135375 Capital flight from developing countries of the South. Credit: Tax Justice Network

Capital flight from developing countries of the South. Credit: Tax Justice Network

By Emilio Godoy
MEXICO CITY, Jul 4 2014 (IPS)

The U.S. Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act is unlikely to contribute much to combating persistent tax evasion in Latin America, which will require more national and multilateral instruments, experts say.

FATCA, as it is better known, was approved in March 2010 and finally came into force on Jul. 1 after a number of delays. It is a reciprocal agreement, which means that other countries may learn which of their citizens have accounts in the United States.

The law requires governments and financial institutions worldwide to report to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) financial information about U.S. citizens who are resident or have assets abroad.

“The limiting factor for developing countries is that it is bilateral. Mexico, for example, would benefit from receiving information about its residents who have accounts in the United States, but these residents may also have accounts in other jurisdictions,” analyst Andrés Knobel of the London-based Tax Justice Network told IPS.

Knobel and other experts consulted by IPS say that tax evasion and avoidance have reached such proportions that firm national policies and multilateral instruments will be needed to combat them. FATCA could coexist with and support these.

Knobel also complained that, although there is reciprocity between the U.S and its partners, the exchange is unequal.

The U.S.  “demands more information from its partners but gives less. The information is supposed to be for tax purposes, but the authorities decide what they use it for,” he said.

Under FATCA, banks, investments funds and other financial institutions must identify U.S. citizens’ accounts abroad and notify the IRS of their account numbers, balances, names, addresses and U.S. identification numbers.

The law covers investments greater than 50,000 dollars. Institutions that fail to comply risk the withholding of 30 percent of any payments originating in or passing through U.S. territory.

The IRS has registered over 77,000 institutions worldwide out of a total of between 200,000 and 400,000 that should adhere to FATCA. In Latin America 3,800 institutions have come to an agreement with the IRS so far, while 800 have not.

The U.S. has signed bilateral agreements with over 70 countries, in two categories.

The first requires financial institutions to report information about U.S. citizens to their national tax authority, which is to advise the IRS. The second calls for the financial agency to report the information directly to the IRS.

“FATCA has potential for preventing tax evasion, but better mechanisms are needed to process the information quickly and take action as a result,” academic Benito Rivera, of the Faculty of Higher Studies at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, told IPS.

“Agreements have been signed, but fiscal paradises have not been touched, although some transactions have been identified,” he said.

In its report on Tax Administration 2013, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) said that in Chile, taxpayers’ fiscal debt had increased continuously between 2005 and 2011.

Average growth during this period was 13 percent. The country has a tax burden of nearly 20 percent of GDP.

Mexico, with a tax burden of 18 percent, had similar growth figures, although data since 2010 are lacking. This is also the case with Brazil, which has a tax burden of 32 percent, and Colombia, with 17 percent.

In Argentina the tax burden has fallen by 48 percent, although the level of tax debt is still high. Its present tax burden is 33 percent.

The OECD estimates that at least 500,000 individuals in Latin America have a combined fortune of seven trillion dollars, with no certainty that they are paying appropriate taxes.

The Economic Commission for Latin American and the Caribbean (ECLAC) puts income tax evasion at nearly 50 percent in Argentina, 47 percent in Chile, 64 percent in Ecuador and 42 percent in Mexico.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has also warned of tax avoidance and evasion by means of “financial engineering.”

In the document “Spillovers in International Corporate Taxation,” published in May, the IMF indicates that foreign direct investment (FDI) that leaves Brazil turns up in known fiscal paradises like the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands, the Bahamas, the Netherlands and Luxemburg.

In another example, it says that FDI arriving in El Salvador comes from countries like Panama and the Cayman Islands.

“With FATCA, more information will be available, but there will be loopholes for rich companies and individuals to avoid the exchange of their information,” Knobel said.

He recalled that “for a long time, organisations have been asking for automatic information exchange. We asked for public registers of final beneficiaries, the real owners of any financial activity that takes place.”

The U.S.-Mexico FATCA agreement, signed in November 2012, shows the disparity in the information provided. Mexico is required to report the total amount of interest, dividends and other income generated and paid by the account assets, as well as total income from sales of possessions that are recorded in the account.

But the U.S. will only inform Mexico of the total amount of interest paid on a deposit account, dividends or any other source of income.

In the case of Chile, the national tax authority must ask U.S. account holders for their tax identification number and written consent. It must report annually to the IRS the number and balance of non-consenting accounts.

Under the agreement, the U.S. “shall cooperate with Chile to respond to requests to collect and exchange information on accounts held in U.S. financial institutions by residents of Chile.”

There are at least 60 tax havens in the world, including U.S. territories like the northeastern state of Delaware, which has big tax discounts. For this reason, Washington has negotiated favourable bilateral agreements.

The Tax Justice Network’s 2013 Financial Secrecy Index ranks the U.S. in sixth position, behind Switzerland, Luxemburg and Hong Kong, among others. In Latin America, only Panama is placed among the top 20.

In February, the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs criticised the FATCA in its report “Offshore Tax Evasion: The Effort to Collect Unpaid Taxes on Billions in Hidden Offshore Accounts.”

The report criticised the thresholds for reporting accounts, the failure to aggregate data from different institutions and potential tax evasion through offshore shell companies.

The law will not solve the problem of reporting information; its regulations have created a number of loopholes, the report says.

“It will take a few years for it to meet its goals. It would be desirable for the competent authorities to meet regularly to analyse procedures and speed of action,” Rivera said.

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Illicit Drug Deals Multiply on the Dark Net http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/illicit-drug-deals-multiply-on-the-dark-net/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=illicit-drug-deals-multiply-on-the-dark-net http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/illicit-drug-deals-multiply-on-the-dark-net/#comments Thu, 03 Jul 2014 14:27:54 +0000 Chau Ngo http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135364 Drug transactions are usually conducted using the online peer-to-peer currency bitcoin, which remains in escrow until it is transferred to the seller after the product is delivered. Credit: BTC keychain/cc by 2.0

Drug transactions are usually conducted using the online peer-to-peer currency bitcoin, which remains in escrow until it is transferred to the seller after the product is delivered. Credit: BTC keychain/cc by 2.0

By Chau Ngo
UNITED NATIONS, Jul 3 2014 (IPS)

In its two years of operation, the online marketplace Silk Road raked in 1.2 billion dollars in revenue and amassed an estimated 200,000 registered users – a success story that would be any start-up’s dream.

But the site was shut down by the FBI last October amid charges that it was essentially the Amazon.com of illegal drugs, shedding light on the increasing sophistication of a cyber drug trade that offers both buyers and dealers high-tech anonymity.“The new markets that have replaced Silk Road can now encrypt all communications and use advanced techniques to launder the bitcoins used in transactions." -- Prof. David Hetu

In its World Drug Report 2014 released last week, the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) warns that illicit online drug sales will pose unique challenges for law enforcement.

“The online marketplace for illicit drugs is becoming larger and more brazen,” it said. “If the past trend continues, it has the potential to become a popular mode of trafficking in controlled substances in years to come.”

The growth of online drug dealing has gone hand in hand with advancements in technology. The UNODC’s review of global drug seizure data shows that cannabis seizures obtained through the postal service rose 300 percent in the decade from 2000 to 2011.

The majority of the reported seizures came from Europe and the Americas, with high-quality drugs and new psychoactive substances, according to the report.

Governments’ efforts to curb this crime brought down a number of networks last year, with Silk Road being the most prominent case so far. The United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested the website’s owner, Ross Ulbricht, a 29-year-old physics graduate, and seized bitcoins worth 33.6 million dollars at the time of the capture.

Silk Road was for some time the most sophisticated and extensive marketplace on the Internet, where dealers sell illegal goods and services, including illicit drugs of almost every variety, the FBI said.

So far the value of cyberspace drug trafficking is still marginal in comparison with the overall drug trade, which is in the hundreds of billions of dollars, according to David Hetu, assistant professor of criminology at the University of Montreal, who specialises in cybercrime. But the upward trend is troubling.

“We are seeing an exponential growth of virtual drug markets,” he told IPS. “What we have seen is a lot of markets with a heavy focus on drugs and prescription drugs.”  

There are some 200,000 drug-related deaths worldwide every year, and 39 million people had drug disorders or dependence in 2012, according to the U.N. Despite a stabilisation of drug use around the world, illicit opium production still rose to a record level last year, with Afghanistan continuing to be the world’s largest producer.

Taking advantage of high tech

Online drug trading has existed since the early days of the Internet. However, its sophistication has only accelerated recently, experts say. Technology has enabled online dealers to offer goods and services, and make transactions anonymously.

“Two distinct technologies that have emerged in the past decade – anonymous networks such as Tor, and pseudonymous payments systems such as Bitcoin – have made it possible to create online anonymous markets which provide reasonably good anonymity guarantees,” Nicolas Christin, assistant research professor at Carnegie Mellon University, told IPS.

“This is the most important development in online drug dealing in the past three years.”

In his research paper “Traveling the ‘Silk Road’: a measurement analysis of a large anonymous online marketplace,” Christin noted that the top three items for sale on this website were “weed”, “drugs” and “prescriptions”.

Introduced in 2009 as a virtual currency, the bitcoin has no physical existence. Operating on an electronic system built on the peer-to-peer network where users are directly connected instead of going through the central servers in the traditional system, transactions in bitcoins are almost untraceable and anonymous.

Despite not being recognised by any central bank or government, the bitcoin is widely seen as not being illegal. People can buy anything from from pizzas to houses with bitcoins, as long as the sellers accept it.

Tor, or The Onion Router, is software that enables data to transmit globally almost untraceably. It allows users to connect to another location in the network while keeping their Internet Protocol address invisible – known as the Dark Net.

Because of the technical issues, buying drugs online is more complicated than in the streets, said David Hetu. However, it is not too difficult for those who seek to circumvent law enforcement. All that a buyer needs to do is to buy bitcoins online, install Tor, choose to buy drugs from the listings and have it delivered at home through the postal service.

For dealers, drug trafficking has become easier with technology. After Road Silk was taken down by the FBI last year, new markets emerged just within days.

“The new markets that have replaced Silk Road can now encrypt all communications and use advanced techniques to launder the bitcoins used in transactions,” Hetu said.

“This makes it much more difficult for law enforcement to trace buyers and vendors.”

International cooperation

There is no reliable data on how many people are buying drugs online, but the types of drugs being sold are multiplying, according to the UNODC.

Before its shutdown, Silk Road was the marketplace for a vast majority of illegal drugs, with nearly 13,000 listings of controlled drugs, the FBI said. Despite the anonymity of transactions, the FBI said dealers might be located in more than 10 countries, stretching from North America to Europe.

Cyberspace drug dealing is particularly challenging, as offenders can easily and quickly adapt their practices to avoid risks posed by law enforcement, Thomas Holt, an assistant professor at Michigan State University’s School of Criminal Justice, told IPS.

Holt, whose research focuses on cybercrime and identity theft, said that law enforcement agencies need to engage in undercover operations to understand the practices of buyers and sellers within the market.

“International cooperation is essential to these efforts as the buyers and sellers may be half a world away from one another,” he said.

“Incorporating postal inspectors, customs agents, and other agencies is vital to ensure that points in the supply chain could be more effectively cut off and make it more difficult for buyers to obtain products.”

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