Inter Press Service » Press Freedom http://www.ipsnews.net Turning the World Downside Up Fri, 27 Feb 2015 15:27:23 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.1.1 Human Rights in Asia and the Pacific: A “Regressive” Trend, Says Amnesty Internationalhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/human-rights-in-asia-and-the-pacific-a-regressive-trend-says-amnesty-international/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=human-rights-in-asia-and-the-pacific-a-regressive-trend-says-amnesty-international http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/human-rights-in-asia-and-the-pacific-a-regressive-trend-says-amnesty-international/#comments Wed, 25 Feb 2015 23:03:11 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139360 Protestors armed with bamboo sticks faced police in riot gear in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, on May 4, 2013. Credit: Kajul Hazra/IPS

Protestors armed with bamboo sticks faced police in riot gear in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, on May 4, 2013. Credit: Kajul Hazra/IPS

By Kanya D'Almeida
UNITED NATIONS, Feb 25 2015 (IPS)

The cradle of some of the world’s most ancient civilizations, home to four out of the planet’s six billion people, and a battleground for the earth’s remaining resources, Asia and the Pacific are poised to play a defining role in international affairs in the coming decade.

But what does the future look like for those working behind the scenes in these rising economies, fighting to safeguard basic rights and ensure an equitable distribution of wealth and power in a region where 70 percent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day?

In its flagship annual report, the State of the World’s Human Rights, released Wednesday, Amnesty International (AI) slams the overall trend in the region as being “regressive”, pinpointing among other issues a poor track record on media freedom, rising violence against ethnic and religious minorities, and state repression of activists and civil society organisations.

The presence of armed groups and continuing conflict in countries like Pakistan, particularly in its northern tribal belt known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), as well as in Myanmar and Thailand, constitute a major obstacle to millions of people trying to live normal lives.

Much of the region’s sprawling population is constantly on the move, with the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) counting 3.5 million refugees, 1.9 million internally displaced people (IDPs), and 1.4 million stateless people, mostly hailing from Afghanistan and Myanmar.

UNHCR has documented a host of challenges facing these homeless, sometimes stateless, people in the Asia-Pacific region including sexual violence towards vulnerable women and girls and a lack of access to formal job markets pushing thousands into informal, bonded or other exploitative forms of labor.

Intolerance towards religious minorities remains a thorny issue in several countries in Asia; Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have allowed for the continued prosecution of Shi’a Muslims, Ahmadis and Christians, while hard-line Buddhist nationalist groups in both Myanmar and Sri Lanka have operated with impunity, leading to attacks – sometimes deadly – on Muslim communities.

Meanwhile, ethnic Tibetans in China have encountered an iron fist in their efforts to practice their rights to freedom of assembly, speech, and political association. Since 2009, about 130 people have set themselves aflame in protest of the Chinese government’s authoritarian rule in the plateau.

A dark forecast for women and girls

Despite all the conventions ratified and millions of demonstrators in the streets, violence against women and girls continues unchecked across Asia and the Pacific, says the AI report.

In the Pacific island of Papua New Guinea, home to seven million people, an estimated 75 percent of women and girls experience some form of gender-based or domestic violence, largely due to the age-old practice of persecuting women in the predominantly rural country for practicing ‘sorcery’.

In the first six months of 2014, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission had recorded 4,154 cases of violence against women, according to the AI report, while India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reported an average of 24,923 rapes per year.

A 2013 U.N. Women study involving 10,000 men throughout Asia and the Pacific found that nearly half of all respondents admitted to using physical or sexual abuse against a partner.

According to the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), two out of every five girls in South Asia could wind up as child brides, with the highest prevalence in Bangladesh (66 percent), tailed closely by India (47 percent), Nepal (41 percent) and Afghanistan (39 percent).

“In East Asia and the Pacific,” the organisation said, “the prevalence of child marriage is 18 percent, with 9.2 million women aged 20-24 married as children in 2010.”

Holding the State accountable

Amnesty’s report presents a cross-section of government responses to activism, including in China – where rights defender Cao Shunli passed away in a hospital early last year after being refused proper medical treatment – and in North Korea, where “there appeared to be no independent civil society organisations, newspapers or political parties [and] North Koreans were liable to be searched by the authorities and could be punished for reading, watching or listening to foreign media materials.”

Imposition of martial law in Thailand saw the detention of several activists and the banning of gatherings of more than five people, while the re-introduction of “colonial-era sedition legislation” in Malaysia allowed the government to crack down on dissidents, AI says.

Citizens of both Myanmar and Sri Lanka faced a virtually zero-tolerance policy when it came to organised protest, with rights defenders and activists of all stripes detained, threatened, attacked or jailed.

Throughout the region media outlets had a bad year in 2014, with over 200 journalists jailed and at least a dozen murdered according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Amnesty’s report also found torture and other forms of ill treatment to be a continuing reality in the region, naming and shaming such countries as China, North Korea, the Philippines and Sri Lanka for their poor track record.

An earlier Amnesty International report, ‘Torture in 2014: 30 years of broken promises’, found that 23 Asia-Pacific states were still practicing torture, three decades after the U.N. adopted its 1984 Convention Against Torture.

The report found evidence of torture and ill treatment ranging “from North Korea’s brutal labour camps, to Australia’s offshore processing centres for asylum seekers or Japan’s death rows – where prisoners are kept in isolation, sometimes for decades.”

In Pakistan the army, state intelligence agencies and the police all stand accused of resorting to torture, while prisoners detained by both the policy and military in Thailand allege they have experienced torture and other forms of ill treatment while in custody.

In that same vein, governments’ continued reliance on the death penalty across Asia and the Pacific demonstrates a grave violation of rights at the most basic level.

Amnesty International reported that 500 people were at risk of execution in Pakistan, while China, Japan and Vietnam also carried on with the use of capital punishment.

Perhaps the only positive trend was a rise in youth activism across the region, which is home to 640 million people between the ages of 10 and 24, according to the United Nations. The future of the region now lies with these young people, who will have to carve out the spaces in which to build a more tolerant, less violent society.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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OPINION: Can the Violence in Honduras Be Stopped?http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/opinion-can-the-violence-in-honduras-be-stopped/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-can-the-violence-in-honduras-be-stopped http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/opinion-can-the-violence-in-honduras-be-stopped/#comments Sun, 22 Feb 2015 17:57:50 +0000 LisaHaugaard, Sarah Kinosian, and William Hartung http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139291 For the fourth year running, San Pedro Sula has been one of the most dangerous places on the planet outside of a war zone. Credit: daviditzi/Flickr

For the fourth year running, San Pedro Sula has been one of the most dangerous places on the planet outside of a war zone. Credit: daviditzi/Flickr

By Lisa Haugaard, Sarah Kinosian, and William Hartung
WASHINGTON, D.C., Feb 22 2015 (IPS)

Honduras is one of the most violent nations in the world. The situation in the country’s second largest city, San Pedro Sula, demonstrates the depth of the problem.

For the fourth year running, San Pedro Sula has been one of the most dangerous places on the planet outside of a war zone. Its murder rate in 2014 was an astonishing 171 per 100,000. The city, which is caught in the crossfire between vicious criminal gangs, has been the largest source of the 18,000 Honduran children who have fled to the United States in recent years.

The vast majority of killings in Honduras are carried out with impunity. For example, 97 percent of the murders in San Pedro Sula go unsolved.

Corruption within and abuses by the civilian police undermine its effectiveness. A controversial new internal security force, the Military Police of Public Order (Policia Militar del Orden Publico, or PMOP), does not carry out investigations needed to deter crime and is facing a series of allegations of abuses in the short time it has been deployed. There are currently 3,000 PMOP soldiers deployed throughout the country, but this number is expected to grow to 5,000 this year. The national police feel that the government is starving them for funds and trying to replace them with PMOP."The vast majority of killings in Honduras are carried out with impunity."

The rise of PMOP is part of a larger trend toward the militarization of government and civil society. The military is now in charge of most aspects of public security in Honduras. But the signs of militarization are everywhere. Each Saturday, for example, 25,000 kids receive military training as part of the “Guardians of the Homeland” program, which the government says is designed to keep youths age 5-23 from joining the street gangs that control entire sections of the country’s most violent cities.

But putting more guns on the street is unlikely to sustainably stem the tide of violence in Honduras. What would make a difference is an end to the climate of impunity that allows murderers to kill people with no fear of consequences.

“This country needs to strengthen its capacity and will to carry out criminal investigations. This is the key to everything,” said an expert on violence in Honduras who spent years working in justice agencies there, and who spoke on condition of anonymity for reasons of personal safety.

The Three-Fold Challenge

The Honduran government faces three key challenges: It must reform a corrupt and abusive police force, strengthen criminal investigations, and ensure an impartial and independent judiciary.

Police reform appears to be stalled. There was some hope after the surge of civilian pressure for reform that followed the 2011 killing of the son of the rector for the Autonomous National University of Honduras and a friend. The Commission for the Reform of Public Security produced a series of proposals to improve the safety of the Honduran citizenry, including recommendations for improving police training, disciplinary procedures, and the structure of pubic security institutions.

Unfortunately, the Honduran Congress dissolved the commission in January 2014, during the lame duck period before President Juan Orlando Hernandez took office. Few of its recommendations have been carried out.

“They could have purged and trained the police during this time. But instead they put 5,000 military police on the street who don’t know what a chain of custody is,” lamented the expert on violence.

The Honduran government claims that over 2,000 police officers have been purged since May 2012, but there is little public information that would allow for an independent assessment of the reasons for the dismissals. And even when police are removed, they are not prosecuted; some are even allowed to return to the force. This is no way to instill accountability.

Meanwhile, the independence of the Honduran justice system is under attack. Since November 2013, the Judiciary Council has dismissed 29 judges and suspended 28 without an appropriate process, according to a member of the Association of Judges for Democracy. “This means that judges feel intimidated. They feel if they rule against well-connected people, against politicians, they can be dismissed.”

In an attempt to improve investigations and prosecutions, special units have been created to investigate specific types of crimes. For example, the Special Victims Task Force was created in 2011 to tackle crimes against vulnerable groups such as journalists, human rights advocates, and the LGBT community. This approach has been funded by the United States. It has promise, but the results are unclear so far. So is the question of whether the success of these specialized efforts can lead to broader improvements in the judicial system.

Protecting the Protectors

Providing security for justice operators is a particularly daunting problem. From 2010 to December 2014, 86 legal professionals were killed, according to information received by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Although the state provides some protection, the funding allocated for this purpose is inadequate. “In a country with the highest levels of violence and impunity in the region,” noted the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, “the State necessarily has a special obligation to protect, so that its justice sector operators can carry out their work to fight impunity without becoming victims in the very cases they are investigating.”

To try and target the problems driving the endemic violence in Honduras, the government, joined by the governments of Guatemala and El Salvador, has released its Alliance for Prosperity plan, which is designed to increase investment in infrastructure and encourage foreign investment. The Obama administration has announced that it will ask Congress for $1 billion to help fund the initiative, but details about the security strategy are scarce.

It remains to be seen exactly how this money will be spent. Looking at San Pedro Sula, it is clear that a dramatic change in political will would be needed for any initiative of this kind to be successful. International donors should not support a militarized security strategy, which would intensify abuses and fail to provide sustainable citizen security.

Funding for well-designed, community-based violence prevention programs could be helpful, but only if there is a government willing to reform the police, push for justice, and invest in the education, jobs, violence prevention, health, child protection, and community development programs needed to protect its poorest citizens.

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

Edited by Roger Hamilton-Martin

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Threats, Deaths, Impunity – No Hope for Free Press in Pakistanhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/threats-deaths-impunity-no-hope-for-free-press-in-pakistan/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=threats-deaths-impunity-no-hope-for-free-press-in-pakistan http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/threats-deaths-impunity-no-hope-for-free-press-in-pakistan/#comments Fri, 20 Feb 2015 14:47:31 +0000 Ashfaq Yusufzai http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139278 Journalists in Pakistan protest against the killing of their colleagues. Credit: Rahat Dar/IPS

Journalists in Pakistan protest against the killing of their colleagues. Credit: Rahat Dar/IPS

By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Feb 20 2015 (IPS)

It is no surprise that most Pakistani journalists work under tremendous stress; caught between crime lords in its biggest cities, militant groups across its tribal belt and rival political parties throughout the country, censorship, intimidation and death seem almost to come with the territory.

But while many have become accustomed to working with a degree of fear and uncertainty, none could have been prepared for the number of tragedies that unfolded in 2014, the worst year ever for the media in Pakistan.

All told, last year saw the deaths of 14 journalists, media assistants and bloggers, while dozens more were injured, kidnapped or intimidated.

Reports by rights groups here point to a culture of impunity that is rendering impossible the notion of a free press, which activists and experts say is crucial to development and peace in a country mired in poverty and conflict.

Deaths, attacks, violence

“Pakistan’s media community is effectively under siege. Journalists, in particular those covering national security issues or human rights, are targeted from all sides in a disturbing pattern of abuses carried out to silence their reporting." -- David Griffiths, Amnesty International’s deputy Asia-Pacific director
A report released last month by the Pakistan-based Freedom Network (FN) documents numerous assassinations and attacks including the Jan. 1 shooting of Shan Dahar, a reporter with Abb Takk Television in Larkana, a city in the southern Sindh Province.

The local media initially reported that stray bullets fired during New Year’s Day celebrations hit Dahar, but subsequent investigations suggest that the killing was planned.

At the time of his death, the reporter had been working on a story about Pakistan’s sprawling black market for unregulated drugs; some believe that those with vested interests in the industry had a hand in his death.

Other documented deaths include the Jan. 17 killing of Waqas Aziz Khan, Ashraf Arain and Muhammad Khalid in a suburb of Karachi when gunmen opened fire on a media van used for live transmissions by Express TV.

While none of those killed were journalists – one was a security guard, one a driver and the other a technician for Express TV – activists here say their deaths represent the deadly climate for anyone involved, however remotely, with the press.

The FN report tracks patterns and challenges ahead for the industry in Pakistan, including trends such as the invocation of laws on blasphemy and treason to intimidate media houses, and the use of crippling fines and blanket bans on coverage that have forced many outlets to practice self-censorship in an effort to stay afloat.

In what the Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) called a “chilling” example of these laws, last November one of the country’s Anti-Terrorism Courts sentenced four citizens to 26 years each in prison, plus a 12,800-dollar fine apiece, for airing a “contentious” television programme, supposedly in violation of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

Climate of impunity

Other incidents that have media workers here on edge include the April 2014 assault on Hamid Mir, a senior reporter for Geo TV, who was fired at by gunmen on motorcycles while on his way from the airport to his office in Karachi.

Though he survived the attack, and his since undergone a successful operation, his assailants are still at large, and the threat to his life is still very much alive.

Mazhar Abbas, a former president of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, tells IPS that the government’s inability to ensure freedom of expression has put reporters in an extremely difficult situation.

“The problem is that nobody knows who is killing the journalists,” he says. A complete dearth of official information on the perpetrators, combined with a lack of proper investigations, means that far too many journalists continue to operate within a climate of uncertainty and impunity, experts say.

In the northern Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), journalists suffer constant threats and attacks from the Taliban and other militant groups that have operated on the border of Afghanistan since fleeing the U.S. invasion of their country in 2001.

Since the War on Terror began, 12 journalists in FATA have lost their lives, while scores of others have fled to Peshawar, capital of the neighbouring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

For others, being out of reach of terrorist groups does not necessarily guarantee security. According to Amnesty International, hundreds of journalists in Pakistan experience threats, harassment and violence, sometimes even at the hands of the intelligence services.

The rights group’s recent report, ‘A Bullet has Been Chosen for You’, presents 34 cases in which journalists have been killed in retaliation for their work since 2008; only one of the perpetrators has been booked for the crime. The report blasts the authorities for failing to stem the bloody wave of violence against media workers, which activists say constitutes a grave violation of human rights.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) estimates that 56 journalists have been killed in Pakistan since 1992. This figure, however, includes only those cases in which there was a clear motive for the death; activists here believe the true number of murders could be much higher.

Even those who aren’t killed exist in a kind of grey space, where they constantly fear reprisals for investigations or exposures that implicate any number of political actors.

“Pakistan’s media community is effectively under siege,” said David Griffiths, Amnesty International’s deputy Asia-Pacific director, when the report was released last year. “Journalists, in particular those covering national security issues or human rights, are targeted from all sides in a disturbing pattern of abuses carried out to silence their reporting.

“The constant threat puts journalists in an impossible position, where virtually any sensitive story leaves them at risk of violence from one side or another,” he added.

In a country that is ranked 126th on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), just a few places ahead of nations like Myanmar, Afghanistan and North Korea, experts say that a free press is essential to educating the public and exposing fraud, theft and rights violations on a massive scale.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Sri Lanka Gets Temporary Reprieve Over U.N. Report on War Crimes Chargeshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/sri-lanka-gets-temporary-reprieve-over-u-n-report-on-war-crimes-charges/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=sri-lanka-gets-temporary-reprieve-over-u-n-report-on-war-crimes-charges http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/sri-lanka-gets-temporary-reprieve-over-u-n-report-on-war-crimes-charges/#comments Tue, 17 Feb 2015 03:36:31 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139214 The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr. Zeid Raad Al Hussein (right), opening the 27th Session of the Human Rights Council September 8, 2014. Credit: U.S. Mission Geneva/ Eric Bridiers;

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr. Zeid Raad Al Hussein (right), opening the 27th Session of the Human Rights Council September 8, 2014. Credit: U.S. Mission Geneva/ Eric Bridiers;

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Feb 17 2015 (IPS)

The 47-member Human Rights Council (HRC), responding to a request by the newly-elected government in Colombo, has deferred the release of a key U.N. report on human rights violations and war crimes charges against the Sri Lankan armed forces and Tamil separatists who fought a devastating decades-long battle which ended in 2009.

The request to the Geneva-based HRC came via the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who sought the postponement of the long-awaited report, originally due in March, until September this year.

“This has been a difficult decision,” Zeid said Monday."A delay is only justifiable if more time will lead to a stronger report and to a concrete commitment by the new Sri Lankan authorities to actively pursue accountability."

“There are good arguments for sticking to the original timetable, and there are also strong arguments for deferring the report’s consideration a bit longer, given the changing context in Sri Lanka, and the possibility that important new information may emerge which will strengthen the report.”

But he pointed out that the deferral of the report was “for one time only,” and guaranteed it would be published by September.

Richard Bennett, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Director told IPS the decision to delay, until September, the release of a key report into widespread human rights violations during the conflict in Sri Lanka must not allow the perpetrators of horrific crimes during the country’s armed conflict to escape punishment.

“Sri Lankan victims of human rights violations deserve truth and justice,” he said.

Survivors of torture, including sexual abuse, people whose family members were killed or forcibly disappeared have waited a long time for this report.

“A delay is only justifiable if more time will lead to a stronger report and to a concrete commitment by the new Sri Lankan authorities to actively pursue accountability. This includes by cooperating with the U.N. to investigate conflict-era abuses and bring perpetrators to justice,” he added.

Bennett warned the Human Rights Council to be vigilant and “ensure that all those coming forward to give testimony are protected from any potential threats from those who do not want justice to prevail.”

The government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, which was unseated after national elections last month, refused to cooperate with the three member U.N.Panel of Inquiry comprising Martti Ahtisaari, former President of Finland and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Silvia Cartwright, former Governor-General and High Court judge of New Zealand, and judge of the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts in Cambodia and Asma Jahangir, former President of Pakistan’s Supreme Court Bar Association and of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

But the new government of President Maithripala Sirisena sought the postponement of the report’s release and has offered to set up a “domestic mechanism” not only to probe war crimes charges but also stall any possibility of an international war crimes tribunal.

Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the High Commissioner told IPS Zeid had also spoken by telephone with Sri Lanka’s new Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, who is expected to attend the next regular session of the Human Rights Council which begins March 2.

Brad Adams, Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, told IPS he was pleased with Zeid’s statement.

“It’s very clear this approach will take away any chance the new government can say they haven’t had enough time to start a serious justice effort. By September we will all be able to judge the sufficiency of their efforts,” he added.

In a statement released Monday, Zeid said he has received clear commitments from the new Government of Sri Lanka indicating it is prepared to cooperate “on a whole range of important human rights issues – which the previous Government had absolutely refused to do – and I need to engage with them to ensure those commitments translate into reality.”

He also pointed out that the “three distinguished experts who were appointed by his predecessor Navi Pillay to advise the investigation, had informed him that, in their unanimous view, a one-off temporary deferral would be the best option to allow space for the new Government to show its willingness to cooperate on human rights issues.”

“Taking all this into account, I have therefore decided, on balance, to request more time to allow for a stronger and more comprehensive report,” Zeid said.

“I am acutely aware that many victims of human rights violations in Sri Lanka, including those who have bravely come forward to provide information to the inquiry team, might see this is as the first step towards shelving, or diluting, a report they have long feared they would never see.”

“I fully understand those fears and deep anxieties, given the history of failed or obstructed domestic human rights inquiries in Sri Lanka, and the importance of this international investigation being carried out by my team at the UN Human Rights Office.”

He said there should be no misunderstanding because “I give my personal, absolute and unshakable commitment the report will be published by September.”

Like his predecessors, he said, he believes that one of the most important duties of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is to act as a strong voice on behalf of victims.

“I want this report to have the maximum possible impact in ensuring a genuine and credible process of accountability and reconciliation in which the rights of victims to truth, justice and reparations are finally respected,” he declared.

The U.N. inquiry was the result of a resolution adopted by the HRC back in March last year which requested the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights “to undertake a comprehensive investigation into alleged serious violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes by both parties in Sri Lanka”

The HRC requested Zeid’s office “to establish the facts and circumstances of such alleged violations, and of the crimes perpetrated, with a view to avoiding impunity and ensuring accountability,” with assistance from relevant experts.

The resolution requested the Office to present a comprehensive report at its 28th session in March 2015.

The author can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

Edited by Roger Hamilton-Martin

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“Drastic Decline” Seen in World Press Freedomhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/drastic-decline-seen-in-world-press-freedom/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=drastic-decline-seen-in-world-press-freedom http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/drastic-decline-seen-in-world-press-freedom/#comments Fri, 13 Feb 2015 00:44:26 +0000 Leila Lemghalef http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139134 Source: Reporters Without Borders

Source: Reporters Without Borders

By Leila Lemghalef
UNITED NATIONS, Feb 13 2015 (IPS)

A leading advocacy group warns of a “worldwide deterioration in freedom of information” last year.

Out of the 180 countries being surveyed, two-thirds have slipped in standards compared to last year, according to the Reporters Without Borders’  World Press Freedom Index 2015. The best have become less near-perfect, and the worst have gotten even worse.“We live in a world where there is much more data available. But how we can trust that data, the source of that data, and how we might understand that data, is subject to all kinds of forces." -- Charlie Beckett

Finland and Eritrea remain at first and last place, respectively. Norway and Denmark are in 2nd and 3rd place, while Turkmenistan and North Korea are second runner-up and runner-up to Eritrea, respectively.

In an interview with IPS, the U.S. Director of Reporters Without Borders, Delphine Halgand, brought up several cases, including China “the world’s biggest prison for journalists”, and Azerbaijan, which has “managed to eliminate almost all traces of pluralism”.

Since 2002, Reporters Without Borders has been publishing the Index to measure the degree of press freedom. The Index is not a measure of the quality of media.

“It’s a way for anybody to be aware of how press freedom, journalists, are attacked, in many countries. Sometimes they don’t have any idea. Like, ‘we love to go to Turkey, we love to go to Vietnam, but we don’t have the idea that there’re so many news providers that are targeted in these beautiful countries.’ So it’s a way to highlight this very important issue,” said Halgand.

She said that this year, for the first time, a lot of the data has been made public in order to improve the transparency and methodology used in the Index, which uses qualitative and quantitative criteria.

The 2015 Index trends are grouped into seven causes:

Measuring up

Press freedom and how to measure it is a very complex question today, said Halgand.

“Press freedom in Sudan isn’t the same thing as press freedom in Italy. So that’s why we try to work around these seven criteria of pluralism, media independence, self-censorship, legislative frameworks, transparency, infrastructure, abuses.

“It’s a complex issue definitely and that’s why we need to use many criteria to try to be as precise as possible. But even if we try to put this complicated issue into criteria, of course the situation is always unique in each country,” she told IPS.

Charlie Beckett is professor at the London School of Economics (LSE) in the department of media and communications, and is also the director of Polis, which is the LSE’s journalism think tank.

“Whilst at some levels it’s very complicated,” he told IPS, “at some levels it’s very simple.

“If you look at journalists that have been put in jail, if you look at journalists who have been hurt physically, then it’s quite crude but that’s quite a good measure of basic journalistic freedom. And I know personally, I’ll start to worry about the more subtle things, such as disinformation, I’ll worry about them, but my life isn’t being threatened if I’m a journalist.

“So first give me my basic freedoms and you know, then we can talk about the more sophisticated problems.”

The more sophisticated problems include surges in data.

“I think it’s increasingly difficult to measure media freedom because increasingly media has become so complex,” Beckett told IPS.

“We live in a world where there is much more data available. But how we can trust that data, the source of that data, and how we might understand that data, is subject to all kinds of forces.

He explained that it is no longer straightforwardly about censorship, or laws, or even about the physical manifestation of violence against journalists.

There’s also the “chilling climate” wherein if one journalist gets killed, the other 99 are much more likely to do as they’re told, he said.

“Even where the press is publishing something, you don’t know under what circumstances. Are they being intimidated, are they being bribed, are they being pressurized?”

Another point is that “there’s no point in having free journalists if people aren’t free to share the information, for example, themselves”, as Beckett said.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Sri Lanka Seeks U.S.-U.N. Backing for Domestic Probe of War Crimes Chargeshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/sri-lanka-seeks-u-s-u-n-backing-for-domestic-probe-of-war-crimes-charges/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=sri-lanka-seeks-u-s-u-n-backing-for-domestic-probe-of-war-crimes-charges http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/sri-lanka-seeks-u-s-u-n-backing-for-domestic-probe-of-war-crimes-charges/#comments Fri, 06 Feb 2015 21:10:22 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139055 The immediate aftermath of the war saw thousands of tourists flocking to the region, gawking at the remnants of a bloody past. Their numbers have since dwindled and a war tourist trail now remains mostly deserted. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

The immediate aftermath of the war saw thousands of tourists flocking to the region, gawking at the remnants of a bloody past. Their numbers have since dwindled and a war tourist trail now remains mostly deserted. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Feb 6 2015 (IPS)

Sri Lanka’s newly-installed government, which has pledged to set up its own domestic tribunal to investigate war crimes charges, is seeking political and moral support both from the United States and the United Nations to stall a possible international investigation.

Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera is due in the United States next week to press the country’s case before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.“Any domestic investigation would not negate the need for continued international action and engagement to ensure justice and accountability in Sri Lanka, or Sri Lanka’s need to cooperate with the United Nations." -- David Griffiths

The United States was one of the prime movers of a resolution adopted last March by the 47-member Human Rights Council to appoint a U.N. panel, headed by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, to probe into “alleged serious violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes by both parties in Sri Lanka” at the end of decades-old war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) back in 2009.

During his visit to New York, Samaraweera is also scheduled to meet with representatives of Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Asked about the new government’s proposed “domestic mechanism”, HRW’s Asia Director Brad Adams told IPS, “We do not expect the government to conduct a serious investigation.”

He specifically mentioned the former Army Chief Sarath Fonseka – who led the armed forces to victory against the LTTE – being a member of the current government thereby politicising any such domestic investigation.

Adams also hinted the investigation could get embroiled in local politics since the newly-elected president, Maithripala Sirisena, is planning to hold island-wide parliamentary elections in June this year.

“The United Nations should continue to be at the centre of the current process,” he added, but still complimented the government for reaching out to HRW.

“We are very encouraged and we are happy to meet with the foreign minister,” Adams said.

David Griffiths, deputy director for Asia-Pacific at Amnesty International, told IPS President Sirisena and other officials in the new administration have promised Sri Lanka will restore rule of law and conduct domestic investigations into alleged crimes under international law.

He said commitments have also been given to investigate the killing of journalists.

“These are important pledges which are to be welcomed, provided that the investigations are conducted promptly and in good faith, with independence, adequate resources and effective witness protection, and provided that where sufficient admissible evidence exists, they lead to the prosecution of those suspected of the crimes, regardless of their rank or status.”

What’s crucial, said Griffiths, is that a change in rhetoric must be matched by a change in political will and followed by action.

He pointed out that Amnesty International has documented Sri Lanka’s long history of ad hoc commissions of inquiry that have not delivered justice – the new administration must address this legacy of impunity.

“Any domestic investigation would not negate the need for continued international action and engagement to ensure justice and accountability in Sri Lanka, or Sri Lanka’s need to cooperate with the United Nations,” he declared.

Asked about the remote likelihood of Sri Lanka being hauled before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, Dr. Palitha Kohona, Sri Lanka’s outgoing Permanent Representative to the United Nations and a former chief of the U.N. Treaty Section, told IPS, “The ICC acquires jurisdiction over an alleged violator of its provisions only after the relevant state becomes a party.”

Sri Lanka is not a party, but a state could voluntarily submit to the jurisdiction of the court.

Importantly, said Dr. Kohona, it is individuals and groups who can be indicted before the ICC because crimes are committed by individuals and groups.

“An individual can be indicted if his country is a party to the ICC Statute, or if the Security Council has referred the matter to the ICC or if a state voluntarily accepts the jurisdiction of the ICC,” he explained.

A prosecution is not automatic. It follows a long process of investigation, he added.

According to the United Nations, the United States included Art 98 (2) which prohibits a person being surrendered to the ICC contrary to the provisions of a state’s treaty obligations.

The United States has concluded 143 bilateral agreements, including with Sri Lanka, for this purpose. The United States signed but did not ratify the Rome Statute that created the ICC.

Another possibility, as in the case of non-ICC member Sudan, is that the Security Council can decide on hauling Sri Lankan individuals before the court.

But any such resolution in the Security Council could be vetoed either by China and Russia, or both, since they have close political ties to Sri Lanka –at least to the former government President Mahinda Rajapaksa, which denied war crimes charges and refused to cooperate with the U.N. investigations.

Amnesty’s Griffiths told IPS the adversarial relationship promoted by Sri Lanka’s former leadership vis-à-vis the United Nations was unhealthy and unproductive, and the new Sri Lankan government has now vowed to “prioritize” its engagement with the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

The Sri Lankan government has committed to a large number of important reforms in a very short period of time, and international expertise and technical assistance could help it to fulfil its reform agenda, particularly where truth seeking, reparation and justice are concerned, he added.

“Amnesty International cannot stress enough the need for justice for the victims of appalling human rights abuses and their families,” Griffiths said.

Last year, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein criticised the former Sri Lankan government for its refusal to cooperate with the investigation.

“This continuing campaign of distortion and disinformation about the investigation, as well as the insidious attempts to prevent possible bona fide witnesses from submitting information to the investigating team, is an affront to the United Nations Human Rights Council which mandated the investigation,” he added.

“The Government of Sri Lanka has refused point blank to cooperate with the investigation despite being explicitly requested by the Human Rights Council to do so,” Zeid said.

“Such a refusal does not, however, undermine the integrity of an investigation set up by the Council — instead it raises concerns about the integrity of the government in question. Why would governments with nothing to hide go to such extraordinary lengths to sabotage an impartial international investigation?” he said.

The report of the U.N. panel is expected to go before the next session of the Human Rights Council in March. But Sri Lanka is seeking a deferment.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

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Battling Terrorism Shouldn’t Justify Torture, Spying or Hangings, Says U.N. Rights Chiefhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/battling-terrorism-shouldnt-justify-torture-spying-or-hangings-says-u-n-rights-chief/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=battling-terrorism-shouldnt-justify-torture-spying-or-hangings-says-u-n-rights-chief http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/battling-terrorism-shouldnt-justify-torture-spying-or-hangings-says-u-n-rights-chief/#comments Thu, 05 Feb 2015 22:44:24 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139033 UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein. Credit: UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein. Credit: UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Feb 5 2015 (IPS)

The United Nations, which is the legal guardian of scores of human rights treaties banning torture, unlawful imprisonment, degrading treatment of prisoners of war and enforced disappearances, is troubled that an increasing number of countries are justifying violations of U.N. conventions on grounds of fighting terrorism in conflict zones.

Taking an implicit passing shot at big powers, the outspoken U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein of Jordan puts it more bluntly: “This logic is abundant around the world today: I torture because a war justifies it. I spy on my citizens because terrorism, repulsive as it is, requires it.“The space for dissent in many countries is collapsing under the weight of either poorly-thought out, or indeed exploitative, counter-terrorism strategies. " -- Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein

“I don’t want new immigrants, or I discriminate against minorities, because our communal identity or my way of life is being threatened as never before. I kill others, because others will kill me – and so it goes, on and on.”

Speaking Thursday at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., Zeid said the world needs “profound and inspiring leadership” driven by a concern for human rights and fundamental freedoms of all people.

“We need leaders who will observe fully those laws and treaties drafted to end all discrimination, the privation of millions, and atrocity and excess in war, with no excuses entertained. Only then, can we help ourselves out of the present serious, seemingly inexhaustible, supply of crises that threatens to engulf us,” he declared.

Last year, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was accused of subjecting terrorist suspects to “enhanced interrogation techniques”, including water-boarding, sleep deprivation and physical duress.

The Western nations, who have been involved in air attacks inside Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya, have both justified and dismissed thousands of civilian killings as “collateral damage” – even as they continue to preach the doctrine of human rights and the sanctity of civilian life inside the General Assembly hall and the Security Council chamber.

And, meanwhile, there are several countries, including Jordan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, which continue to justify the death penalty in the execution of terrorists and the public flogging of bloggers and political dissenters – as part of the war against terrorism.

Last week, the Islamic State of the Levant (ISIL) was accused of brutally killing a Jordanian air force pilot because Jordan was part of a coalition launching air attacks on ISIL forces.

In return, Jordan reacted swiftly by executing two convicted prisoners – with links to al-Qaeda – as a retaliation for the killing of the pilot.

“It was an eye for an eye,” a Jordanian was quoted as saying.

Last December, 117 of the 193 U.N. member states adopted a General Assembly resolution calling for a moratorium on the death penalty. But the executions have continued.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has publicly opposed capital punishment, says “the death penalty has no place in the 21st century.”

Javier El-Hage, general counsel at the Human Rights Foundation (HRF), told IPS his group applauds the high commissioner’s call for ‘better leadership’ and a ‘global rethink on education’ as the two main weapons the world could benefit from in the struggle against the ‘causes of the worst conflicts and atrocities across the world,’ present and past.

Specifically, on the area of leadership, Prince Zeid called for leaders that are ‘driven by a concern for the fundamental freedoms of all people,’ who fully observe international human rights treaties.

On the educational front, he said children everywhere should be taught what ‘bigotry and chauvinism are,’ the ‘terrible wrongs they can produce,’ and that ‘blind obedience can be exploited by authority figures for wicked ends.’

“As the high commissioner suggests, the worst atrocities of human kind have in fact been caused by bigoted, chauvinist authoritarian leaders representing a fraction or even a majority of a country’s population, but who, through achieving a monopoly in education and information by cracking down on dissent and independent media, pushed radical economic, nationalist, racist or religiously extremist agendas in a way that trampled the rights of minorities and dissenters of all kinds,” Hage added.

For example, nationalist, racist or religiously extremist agendas were used against Jews in Germany, Ukrainians in the Soviet Union, Kurds in Turkey, and against blacks until recently in apartheid South Africa and even most of the Western World until the abolition of slavery.

These discriminatory agendas are still being pushed today against the Uyghur and Tibetan peoples in China and against Christians and different Muslim faiths under theocratic dictatorships across the Middle East, including the ones like Saudi Arabia or Jordan that are friendly to Western democracies, as well as the ones like Iran or Syria that aren’t.

Zeid said international human rights law represents a distillation of humanity’s experience of atrocities, and the remedies to prevent them. But today, leaders are too often deliberately choosing to violate those laws, he complained.

“In the years after the Holocaust, specific treaties were negotiated to cement into law obligations to protect human rights. Countries the world over accepted them – and now alas, all too frequently, ignore them in practice.”

He pointed out that forceful reprisals against atrocities – including attacks on children and “the savage burning of my compatriot the pilot Mu’ath al Kassassbeh” by ISIL – are having limited impact.

“Just bombing them or choking off their financing has clearly not worked… for these groups have only proliferated and grown in strength. What is needed is the addition of a different sort of battle-line, one waged principally by Muslim leaders and Muslim countries and based on ideas.”

Zeid noted a knock-on effect on key civil and political rights in other countries: “The space for dissent in many countries is collapsing under the weight of either poorly-thought out, or indeed exploitative, counter-terrorism strategies. Human rights defenders are therefore under enormous pressure in many parts of the world today…They risk imprisonment or worse in the peaceful defence of basic rights.”

HRF’s El-Hage told IPS throughout the 20th Century, leaders of the Soviet Union and its satellites around the world installed single-party state apparatuses — with strong propaganda machineries and no independent media, instead of open education — that advanced radical economic agendas to the detriment of the majority of their populations.

This not only triggered atrocities, such as mass starvation, which were not a result of direct physical repression of minorities (like the Ukrainian famine), but instead of an economic policy that rejected individual rights and limited the ability of small farmers and business owners to provide for themselves by controlling their own mobility, access to resources, property rights, freedom of information and their ability to associate with others in mutual cooperation.

While promoting the idea that they could help the masses, these authoritarians let the individual members of such masses suffer—even starve, he added.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

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Twiplomacy Gets Its Day in the Sun at U.N.http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/twiplomacy-gets-its-day-in-the-sun-at-u-n/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=twiplomacy-gets-its-day-in-the-sun-at-u-n http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/twiplomacy-gets-its-day-in-the-sun-at-u-n/#comments Thu, 05 Feb 2015 20:17:19 +0000 Josh Butler http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139024 Behind the scenes at the UNTV studio where Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was recorded answering some of the 5,000 questions sent to him via Twitter and Chinese network, Weibo. Mr. Ban’s response to the questions, some of which were asked on-air, was streamed live on Facebook, Livestream, Tumblr and UN Webcast. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

Behind the scenes at the UNTV studio where Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was recorded answering some of the 5,000 questions sent to him via Twitter and Chinese network, Weibo. Mr. Ban’s response to the questions, some of which were asked on-air, was streamed live on Facebook, Livestream, Tumblr and UN Webcast. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

By Josh Butler
UNITED NATIONS, Feb 5 2015 (IPS)

Formerly derided as the domain of time-wasting and self-obsession, social media has emerged as an unlikely shining light for international relations and social activism.

The trend has been dubbed ‘twiplomacy’ – Twitter diplomacy – with world leaders, diplomats and non-governmental organisations alike harnessing the people power of social media to amplify their own messages and goals.“Social media is a megaphone. You won’t reach everybody, but it levels the playing field." -- Anna Nelson

“[Today] 84 per cent of governments have a Twitter presence. There are 130 heads of states and government on Twitter,” said Adam Snyder, global digital and social media strategist with the communications firm Burson Marsteller.

“It is giving people accessibility to their leaders. It takes activism and communicating with your government to a new level.”

Snyder was speaking on the results of his firm’s latest report, also titled ‘Twiplomacy,’ at the United Nations’ first ever Social Media Day on Jan. 30 in New York City.

That an entire day was devoted to the likes of Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter shows the degree to which the U.N. considers social media a tool for diplomacy and change.

“There’s the old-fashioned idea of diplomacy, having a hotline between one country and another. Now there’s a Twitter line between countries,” Snyder said.

The U.N.’s Social Media Day heard from diplomats, advocacy groups, strategists, executives and journalists on the effect of technology on political and social discourse.

“[Social media] is helping to demystify diplomacy, and opening doors to what we do,” said Michael Grant, deputy permanent representative of Canada to the U.N.

Advocacy groups

Through harnessing the power of viral videos, Twitter hashtags and strategic outreach, even the smallest of social campaigns can become globally ubiquitous.

Recent notable examples, including ‘black lives matter’ (protesting the deaths of black men at the hands of police), and ‘bring back our girls’ (calling for the release of 270 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram), saw the transformation of essentially local campaigns into slogans recognised worldwide.

Anna Nelson, spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and editor of its Intercross blog, told IPS social media had radically changed the way her agency and many others executed campaigns.

“When a crisis or disaster happens, people want to do something. It’s hard to give them an outlet to do anything, especially in a war zone, but social media gives people the opportunity to participate in fundraising or awareness,” Nelson said.

“People want to make a difference, but it was sometimes impossible before. For aid agencies, social media is a very powerful tool.”

Nelson spoke on Friday about the ICRC’s efforts in using social media to highlight issues around conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria and Ukraine.

She said social media has been hugely effective in helping ICRC reunite families separated in crises. She also singled out a 2011 TEDx event the ICRC curated in Geneva, which included a talk by an Afghan man with no legs and one arm.

A video of the talk, raising awareness of the Afghanistan conflict, has since been translated into many different languages and viewed 700,000 times. She said social media allowed even smaller organisations to bring global attention to their causes.

“Social media is a megaphone. You won’t reach everybody, but it levels the playing field,” Nelson told IPS.

Andre Banks, executive director of LGBT advocacy group All Out, also spoke on Friday about awareness and activism successes achieved through social media. He outlined a recent campaign that was successful in forcing a prominent hotel chain to discontinue their indirect funding of anti-gay groups, through mass mobilization of All Out’s social media supporters.

“Social media is the critical way we ask people to get engaged, and also get their own networks engaged,” Banks told IPS.

“Without social media, it would have been impossible for us to be the kind of success we have been.”

Banks also said the new technology allowed the messages of All Out and other advocacy groups to be placed in front of a wider, larger group of potential supporters than ever before.

“The most interesting thing is that social media helped us get supporters we wouldn’t have been able to get. Half our network are straight people,” he said.

“They’re not in LGBT communities, but their friends, family or colleagues are. People who don’t identify as LGBT still see our messages. It lets us reach outside that community.”

Nelson and Banks both also acknowledged the pitfalls of ‘clicktivism’ or ‘slacktivism,’ a term denoting the online sharing of social or political issues without any material support of that issue; however, Nelson said she did not consider the trend as a concern to aid agencies or charities.

“If someone wants to use social media and tell their friends about something happening somewhere, I’m all for that. I don’t see that as lazy or incidental,” Nelson said.

“If that’s all you can do, that’s still something. Anything that leads to people giving a thought to something, or getting motivated, is good.”

Diplomats

“International diplomacy no longer takes place exclusively behind closed doors,” said Maher Nasser, acting head of the U.N. Department of Public Information, in opening a panel on how diplomats use social media.

The Twiplomacy report states more than 3,500 embassies and ambassadors are active on Twitter, and that all but one of the G20 governments have an official Twitter presence.

As of November 2014, world leaders had sent a total of 2.2 million Tweets, averaging four posts each day.

While no speaker at the Social Media Day could point to a specific example of social media being used directly for negotiations, official correspondence or decision-making, it was agreed unanimously that social media is today almost essential in spreading information and messages.

Grant said, in his position as deputy permanent representative of Canada, he uses Twitter daily to both find and spread information.

“Is social media absolutely 100 per cent required? No, it isn’t. But I think you can do your job better by engaging with social media,” Grant said. “Is it 100 per cent part of diplomacy? Yes it is.”

Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development has 420 social media accounts in 91 countries, on platforms including Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, LinkedIn and Weibo.

There are more than 50 Canadian heads of mission active on Twitter.

Grant said Canada uses social media to “replicate and amplify messages,” such as diplomats’ speeches and public appearances, as well as more practical information such as warning Canadians overseas of conflict or natural disaster.

“We use Facebook and Twitter in emergencies, to target Canadians in affected areas… it’s very much part of our mainstream,” he said.

However, despite the name and the aim of the day, Grant said social media was not yet materially changing diplomacy or international relations.

“It is changing, but not as dramatically as one would think,” he said.

Masood Khan, permanent representative of Pakistan to the U.N., was even blunter in his assessment.

“My participation [in social media] is static. I don’t have any clear directions from my government. It’s a grey area, they haven’t made up their mind,” he said.

Khan said “digital wars” had already started between some members of the Security Council, with confidential information allegedly leaked to journalists through social media.

“You have all these allegations about espionage… In the Security Council, members love to Tweet. Even the most confidential information would appear in the newspapers, New York Times and Washington Post, and usually the source would be a Tweet,” he said.

“[Members] would blame each other, that it was done by the others… In that sense, Twitter wars have started, and we have to find ways to resolve those conflicts.”

With social media becoming an evermore pervasive facet of modern life, and a growing force in diplomacy and non-governmental work, this will not be the last we hear of Twiplomacy in action in international relations.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Glimmer of Hope for Assangehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/glimmer-of-hope-for-assange/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=glimmer-of-hope-for-assange http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/glimmer-of-hope-for-assange/#comments Fri, 30 Jan 2015 19:17:00 +0000 Gustavo Capdevila http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138943 Julian Assange in one of his rare public appearances in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he has been in hiding since June 2012. Credit: Creative Commons

Julian Assange in one of his rare public appearances in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he has been in hiding since June 2012. Credit: Creative Commons

By Gustavo Capdevila
GENEVA, Jan 30 2015 (IPS)

There is a window of hope, thanks to a U.N. human rights body, for a solution to the diplomatic asylum of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, holed up in the embassy of Ecuador in London for the past two and a half years.

Authorities in Sweden, which is seeking the Australian journalist’s extradition to face allegations of sexual assault, admitted there is a possibility that measures could be taken to jumpstart the stalled legal proceedings against Assange.

The head of Assange’s legal defence team, former Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón, told IPS that in relation to this case “we have expressed satisfaction that the Swedish state“ has accepted the proposals of several countries.

The prominent Spanish lawyer and international jurist was referring to proposals set forth by Argentina, Cuba, Ecuador, Slovakia and Uruguay.

The final report by the U.N. Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR), adopted Thursday Jan. 28 in Geneva, Switzerland, contains indications that a possible understanding among the different countries concerned might be on the horizon.

The UPR is a mechanism of the Geneva-based Human Rights Council to examine the human rights performance of all U.N. member states.

The situation of Assange, a journalist, computer programmer and activist born in Australia in 1971, was introduced in Sweden’s UPR by Ecuador, the country that granted him diplomatic asylum in its embassy in London, and by several European and Latin American nations.

The head of the Swedish delegation to the UPR, Annika Söder, state secretary for political affairs at Sweden’s foreign ministry, told IPS that “This is a very complex matter in which the government can only do a few things.”

Söder said that in Sweden, Assange is “suspected of crimes, rape, sexual molestation in accordance with Swedish law. And that’s why the prosecutor in Sweden wants to conduct the primary investigation.

“We are aware of Mr. Assange’s being in the embassy of Ecuador and we hope that there will be ways to deal with the legal process in one way or the other. But it is up to the legal authorities to respond,” she said.

Assange’s legal defence team complains that Sweden’s public prosecutor’s office is delaying the legal proceedings and refuses to question him by telephone, email, video link or in writing.

Garzón noted that parallel to the lack of action by the Swedish prosecutor’s office, there is a secret U.S. legal process against Assange and other members of Wikileaks, the organisation he created in 2006.

“The origin of the U.S. legal proceedings against Assange was the mass publication by Wikileaks of documents, in many cases sensitive ones, which affected the United States,” said Garzón.

Wikileaks’ publication of hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables and other classified U.S. documents revealed practices by Washington that put it in an awkward position with other governments.

Assange sought refuge in the embassy after exhausting options in British courts to avoid extradition to Sweden to face questioning related to allegations of rape and sexual molestation, of which he says he is innocent. He has not been charged with a crime in Sweden and is worried that if he is extradited to that country he will be sent to the United States, where he is under investigation for releasing secret government documents.

If the legal process in Sweden begins to move forward, there would be a possibility for him to be able to leave the Ecuadorean embassy, where he took refuge on Jun. 19, 2012, and give up the diplomatic asylum he was granted by the government of Rafael Correa on Aug. 16, 2012.

In the UPR report, Sweden promised to examine recommendations made by other countries and to provide a response before the next U.N. Human Rights Council session, which starts Jun. 15.

Garzón has urged the Swedish government to specify a timeframe for the legal action against Assange, as the delegation from Ecuador recommended in the UPR.

“The Human Rights Committee, another specialised U.N. body, stipulates that precise timeframes must be established for putting a detained person at the disposal of a judge,” he pointed out.

Söder told IPS that Sweden’s legal system does not set any deadline for the prosecutor to complete the pretrial examination phase, as reflected in the Assange case.

Garzón is also asking Sweden to introduce, as soon as possible, “measures to ensure that the legal proceedings are carried out in accordance with standards that guarantee the rights of individuals, concretely the right to effective judicial recourse and legal proceedings without undue delays.”

He also called for the adoption of administrative and judicial measures to make investigations before the courts more effective. With respect to this, he mentioned “the practice of measures of inquiry abroad, in line with international cooperation mechanisms.”

In addition, the international jurist demanded measures to ensure that people deprived of their freedom are provided with legal guarantees in accordance with international standards.

The Swedish delegation agreed to study a recommendation by Argentina to “take concrete measures to ensure that guarantees of non-extradition will be given to any person under the control of the Swedish authorities while they are considered refugees by a third country,” in this case Ecuador.

These should include legislative measures, if necessary.

This is important because Assange is facing the threat that the Swedish or British authorities could accept an extradition request from the United States for charges of espionage, which carry heavy penalties.

In his comments to IPS, Garzón said he was “disappointed” that the Swedish state has not accepted one of Ecuador’s recommendations.

He was referring to the request that Sweden streamline international cooperation mechanisms on the part of the judiciary and the prosecutor’s office in order to ensure the right to effective legal remedy, specifically in cases where the person is protected by the decision to grant asylum or refuge.

It was stressed in the UPR that the right to asylum or refuge is considered a fundamental right, and must be respected and taken into account, making it compatible with the right to legal defence.

The director-general of legal affairs in Sweden’s foreign ministry, Anders Rönquist, argued that there is no international convention on diplomatic asylum.

The only one referring to that issue is the inter-American convention, he said, adding that the International Court of Justice in The Hague does not require recognition of diplomatic asylum.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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OPINION: Looking Two Steps Ahead into Saudi Arabia’s Futurehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/opinion-looking-two-steps-ahead-into-saudi-arabias-future/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-looking-two-steps-ahead-into-saudi-arabias-future http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/opinion-looking-two-steps-ahead-into-saudi-arabias-future/#comments Mon, 26 Jan 2015 20:08:41 +0000 Emile Nakhleh http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138838 King Abdullah (left) and his younger brother, Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, who is now king. Credit: Tribes of the World/cc by 2.09

King Abdullah (left) and his younger brother, Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, who is now king. Credit: Tribes of the World/cc by 2.09

By Emile Nakhleh
WASHINGTON, Jan 26 2015 (IPS)

Much has been written about King Abdullah’s legacy and what Saudi Arabia accomplished or failed to accomplish during his reign in terms of reform and human rights. Very little has been written about the role that Muhammad bin Nayef, the newly appointed deputy to the crown prince, could play in the new Saudi Arabia under King Salman.

King Salman is 79 years old and has reportedly suffered one stroke in the past that has affected his left arm. The next in succession, Crown Prince Muqrin, is 69 years old.The future King Muhammad also will have to deal with high unemployment among Saudi youth and the massive corruption of the royal family.

Muhammad bin Nayef—or MBN as he is often referred to in some Western capitals—is only 55. As age and ill health incapacitate his elders, MBN could play a pivotal role as a future crown prince and a potential king in the domestic politics of Saudi Arabia, but more importantly in the kingdom’s regional politics.

The uncomfortable truth is that under King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia maintained a terrible human rights record, undermined the democratic ideals of Arab Spring, and supported dictatorships in Egypt and Bahrain. It also promoted ugly sectarianism, preaching an ideology that gave rise to the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and other terrorist organisations. The kingdom supposedly did all of these things in the name of fighting Iran.

The equally inconvenient truth is that the Obama administration in the past four years has barely objected to Saudi Arabia’s undemocratic, corrupt, and repressive policies. The Saudi noose around the American neck should no longer be tolerated. MBN, two kings down the line after Salman and Muqrin, could reset Saudi Arabia’s domestic and regional policies and free Washington of Riyadh’s burden.

As king, MBN would be the first such monarch of the second generation of al-Saud. As a relatively young ruler, he would be comfortable in entertaining new ideas and communicating credibly to Saudi youth. I base this analysis on interactions I had with him during my government service several years back.

I discerned several characteristics in MBN that could help him as a future king of Saudi Arabia to nudge the country forward and perhaps usher in a period of real reform. He has a sophisticated knowledge of the root causes of terrorism and radicalisation and how to combat them. He also has a pragmatic approach to regional politics, especially Iran’s role as a regional power, and the linkage between regional stability and Saudi security.

Counterterrorism and deradicalisation

According to media reports, MBN started a comprehensive deradicalisation programme in Saudi Arabia with an eye toward persuading Saudi youth to recant radicalism and terrorism. His two-pronged strategy has exposed youth to moderate Islamic teachings and provided them with jobs and financial support to buy a house and get married.

MBN believes that extremist ideology, economic deprivation, and hopelessness drive young people to become radicalised. Despite the relative success of his programme, however, more and more Saudi youth have joined the ranks of radical groups, such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and IS.

MBN must have realised by now that the roots of radical Sunni ideology come from the mosque sermons and religious fatwas of Salafi-Wahhabi Saudi clerics. Even as he receives hundreds of thousands of dollars to get settled in a home as a married man with a job, a young Saudi continues to be exposed to the poisonous ideology spewed by some religious leaders just outside the walls of the deradicalisation “school.”

Lacking a position of national authority beyond his counterterrorism portfolio, MBN could not really address the source of radical ideology without bringing the wrath of the Saudi religious establishment down on his head. As king, however, he might be able to tackle this sensitive issue.

MBN will face huge obstacles if he decides to address this issue—politically, historically, and culturally. Conservative, intolerant radical Sunni ideology has existed in Saudi Arabia for a long time and can be traced back to the 18th-century teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Since then Saudi culture has been imbued with this interpretation of Islam.

However, as a king representing a younger, Western-educated generation of royals and cognizant of the growing desires of Arab youth for freedom, MBN might feel more empowered to face down the religious establishment in the country.

Furthermore, he might feel less bound by the generations-old agreement between the founder of Saudi Arabia and the al-Shaykh family, which gave al-Saud greater leeway to rule and reserved to the Salafi religious establishment the authority to act as the moral guardian of Saudi society.

Domestic and regional politics

Significant segments of the Saudi people want economic and political reform. They have expressed these views in petitions, on social media, and in action. Shia activists have protested systemic regime discrimination for years. The Saudi government has illegally jailed these activists, convicted them in sham trials, tortured them with impunity, and even killed them.

The future King Muhammad also will have to deal with high unemployment among Saudi youth and the massive corruption of the royal family. In order to avoid a “Saudi Spring,” which is destined to erupt if current policies continue, MBN will have to inject large amounts of money into job creation projects.

He will also have to provide a new kind of education, which would allow Saudi job seekers to compete for employment in the technology-driven, 21st-century global economy. Despite the astronomical wealth Saudi Arabia has accumulated in the past half-century, Saudi education still produces school graduates unqualified to compete in the global economy. As a modernising king, MBN will have to change that.

Regionally, MBN realises that Gulf stability is integral to Saudi security. For Gulf security to endure, he will have to accept Iran as a significant Gulf power and search for ways to develop a mutually beneficial partnership with his Persian neighbour. Iran could be a helpful partner in helping settle the conflicts in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and other spots in the region.

If the P5+1 bloc concludes a nuclear agreement with Iran, the United States and Iran would embark on a new relationship, with which Saudi Arabia will have to come to terms.

MBN will also realise, for example, that continued conflict in Bahrain will ultimately destabilise the Gulf region, which will harm Saudi interests. As such, he would have to push al-Khalifa to institute genuine political reform in Bahrain, end systemic discrimination against the Shia majority, and include them in the economic and political process. As a first step, he would have to withdraw Saudi troops from Bahrain, where they have failed to quell anti-regime protests.

Will MBN be able to do it?

Based on MBN’s knowledge of the region and of the terrorist threat to his country, the chances of instituting real political and religious reform during his future reign are 60-40 at best. As a prerequisite for success, he will have to consolidate his power vis a vis the conservative and powerful elements within the royal family. Most importantly, he will have to overcome the opposition of the religious establishment.

His success could be historic. But his failure would be catastrophic for the future of Saudi Arabia. Al-Saud and other Gulf ruling families would not be able to maintain control forever over a population that is increasingly alienated, unemployed, and constantly yearning for a more hopeful future.

The United States should also pay close attention to MBN’s chances of success and should tacitly encourage him to move forward with courage. Regardless of the party controlling the White House, Washington can’t remain oblivious to what’s happening in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies.

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

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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OPINION: After the Terrorist Attacks in Parishttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/opinion-after-the-terrorist-attacks-in-paris/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-after-the-terrorist-attacks-in-paris http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/opinion-after-the-terrorist-attacks-in-paris/#comments Tue, 20 Jan 2015 15:43:24 +0000 Johan Galtung http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138734

Johan Galtung is Professor of Peace Studies and Rector of the TRANSCEND Peace University, and the author of over 150 books on peace and related issues, including '50 Years – 100 Peace and Conflict Perspectives' published by TRANSCEND University Press. In this column, he looks behind the Western concept of “freedom of expression” and argues that “there is no argument against humour and satire as such, but there is against verbal violence”.

By Johan Galtung
KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 20 2015 (IPS)

What happened in Paris on Jan. 7 – known all over the world – is totally unacceptable and inexcusable.

As inexcusable as 9/11, the coming Western attack and the Islamist retaliation, wherever. As inexcusable as the Western coups and mega-violence on Muslim lands since Iran 1953, massacring people as endowed with personality and identity as the French cartoonists.

But to the West they are not even statistics, they are “military secrets”.

However, the unacceptable is not unexplainable.

Johan Galtung

Johan Galtung

In this tragic saga of West-Islam violence, the way out is to identify the conflict and search for solutions. I wonder how many now pontificating on Paris – a city so deep in our hearts – have taken the trouble to sit down with someone identified with Al Qaeda, and simply ask: “What does the world look like where you would like to live?”

I always get the same answer: “A world where Islam is not trampled upon but respected.”

“Trampled upon” sounds physically violent – but there are two types of direct violence intended to harm, to hurt: physical violence with arm-arms-armies; and verbal violence with words, with symbols, with, for example, cartoons.

The naiveté in blaming the secret police for not having uncovered the brothers on time is crying to the heavens. What happened to Charlie Hebdo was as predictable as the reaction to the 2005 cartoon in Jyllands-Posten, whose cultural editor thought he should save Danish media from the self-censorship he had found in Soviet journalists.

But one thing is political criticism of and in the former USSR, quite another is existential stabbing right in the heart of the basis of existence.“There are two types of direct violence intended to harm, to hurt: physical violence with arm-arms-armies; and verbal violence with words, with symbols, with, for example, cartoons”

Undermine the spiritual existence of others – as Charlie Hebdo did all over the spiritual world – but there may be reactions to that verbal violence. Some of the others deeply hurt by Charlie Hebdo and its cultural autism, sitting in some office and sending poisoned arrows anywhere, may celebrate the atrocity – but inside themselves, not publicly.

The West has one presumably killing argument in favour of verbal violence for spiritual killing: freedom of expression – a wonderful freedom, deeply appreciated by those who have something to express.

And very easily undermined, not by censorship by self or some Other, but by freedom of non-impression, the freedom not to be impressed: let expression happen, let them talk and write, but do not listen and read, make them non-persons. Nevertheless, a major achievement of, by and for the West more than elsewhere.

How simple life would be if that freedom were the only norm governing expression! Say or write anything about others as if they were stones, inanimate objects, unimpressed by oral and written expression. But human beings are not.

Of course, the targets of verbal violence can opt for the freedom of non-impression, shutting themselves off from the perpetrators, neither reading nor listening. Do we really want that, a
society now polarised by cartoons – into those who laugh and enjoy, and those who are hurt, suffering deeply?

We do not, and that is why there are others value, other norms, in the land of expression: consideration, decency, respect for life. We have libel laws asking not only “is it true?” but “is it relevant?” to cut out nastiness in, for example, political “debate”.

We rule out hate speech, propaganda for torture, genocide, war, child pornography. Some people unable to argue about issues insult persons instead; that is why they are often – perhaps not often enough – called to order: stick to the issue!

Many, unable to understand or argue with converts to Islam in France, overstep norms of decency instead.

Islam retaliated, and in Paris overstepped its own rule about doing so mercifully. No Muslim can retaliate with spiritual killing of Judaism-Christianity because both are believed to be the “incomplete message”. Bodies were killed in return for spiritual killing instead.

Incidentally, there is somebody else doing the same: the United States, very attentive to critical words as indicative not only of somebody being anti-American, but even a threat to America, to be eliminated. Could “freedom of expression” also be a tool to lure, smoke them out into the open, make them available for killing by snipers?

How should the Islamic side have handled the issue? The way they tried, and to some extent managed, in Denmark: through dialogue. They should have invited the Charlies to private and public dialogue, explaining their side of the cartoon issue, appealing to a common core of humanity in us all.

There is no argument against humour and satire as such, but there is against verbal violence hitting, hurting, harming others.

The Islamic side should also control better its own recourse to self-defence by violence: only legitimate if declared by appropriate Muslim authority. That the West fails to do so – just look at the enormities of violence unleashed upon Islam since 1953 – is no excuse for Islam to sink down to Western governmental levels, using democracy as a blanket cheque for war.

The two sides have millions, maybe billions, of common people who can easily agree that the key problem is violence by extremist governments and others. The task is to let such voices come forward with concrete ideas. Like the next Charlie online, hiring a Muslim consultant to draw a border between freedom and inconsideration?

This could have saved many lives, in Paris and where the West retaliates. (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)

Edited by Phil Harris   

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

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U.N. Helpless as Saudi Flogging Flouts Torture Conventionhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/u-n-helpless-as-saudi-flogging-violates-torture-convention/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-n-helpless-as-saudi-flogging-violates-torture-convention http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/u-n-helpless-as-saudi-flogging-violates-torture-convention/#comments Thu, 15 Jan 2015 21:16:44 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138673 Raif Badawi.

Raif Badawi.

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Jan 15 2015 (IPS)

Flogging a dead horse, as the old idiom goes, is far removed from flogging a live Saudi blogger.

But the latest cruel punishment meted out by the rigidly conservative and authoritarian regime in Saudi Arabia has triggered widespread condemnation.“His flogging and 10-year sentence are testament to the extreme lengths to which the Saudi Arabian authorities will go in order to crush dissent.” -- Sevag Kechichian of Amnesty International

The strongest criticism came Thursday from the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, a former permanent representative of Jordan to the United Nations, who said: “Flogging is, in my view, at the very least, a form of cruel and inhuman punishment.

“Such punishment,” he said, “is prohibited under international human rights law, in particular the Convention against Torture, which Saudi Arabia has ratified.”

The Saudi decision makes a mockery of the international convention, as do other violations, including torture of terrorist suspects by U.S. intelligence agencies.

But the United Nations remains helpless and is unable to hold these countries accountable for violations or punish them for infractions because member states reign supreme in the world body – except when penalised by the Security Council.

The Saudi punishment was meted out to Raif Badawi, who was publicly flogged 50 times last Friday and is reportedly due to be flogged every Friday, the holy Sabbath for Muslims, until his sentence of 1,000 lashes has been fully carried out.

Sevag Kechichian, Amnesty International’s (AI) Saudi Arabia researcher on the case, told IPS, “Raif Badawi is a prisoner of conscience, and he was simply trying to uphold his right to freedom of expression and he is being punished for it in a horrifying manner.

“His flogging and 10-year sentence are testament to the extreme lengths to which the Saudi Arabian authorities will go in order to crush dissent.”

Instead of announcing a second round of brutal floggings, the Saudi Arabian authorities must heed the international outcry over his case and order his immediate and unconditional release, he added.

Amnesty also noted that Saudi Arabia had condemned last week’s attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris as ‘cowardly’.

“The next day, they flogged Raif Badawi for exercising his right to free expression. We need to expose this hypocrisy. We need to embarrass them into action, now.”

Adam Coogle, Middle East Researcher at Human Rights Watch, told IPS the statement by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) correctly labels the flogging punishment as torture and calls on Saudi Arabia to abolish the practice.

“We welcome OHCHR’s press statement but call on him [Zeid] and the United Nations to continue to monitor and publicly criticise Saudi Arabia when they impose harsh and draconian punishments on peaceful activists and dissidents,” he added.

In what was described as an “unusual diplomatic rebuke,” the United States last week lashed out at Saudi Arabia, one of its closest allies in the Middle East, and urged the government to rescind its sentencing and review the case.

The United States strongly opposes laws, including apostasy laws, that restrict the exercise of freedom of expression and religion, and urges all countries to uphold these rights in practice, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki, told reporters.

Javier El-Hage, general counsel of the Human Rights Foundation (HRF), told IPS the government of Saudi Arabia is making a mockery of that country’s obligations under the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

He said “the U.N. Committee against Torture should call on Saudi Arabia’s government to immediately cease flogging Mr. Badawi, as that type of punishment constitutes a clear violation of Saudi Arabia’s obligations under the Convention against Torture.”

According to Article 20 of this Convention, he said, the U.N. Committee Against Torture has the power to carry out “ex officio investigations if it receives reliable information that appears to contain well-founded indications that torture is being systematically practiced in the territory of a State Party.”

While they don’t have the coercive power to force Saudi Arabia to stop the flogging, as is the case with most international law obligations, the committee can certainly report on the topic, condemn Saudi Arabia and issue recommendations, he noted.

In a statement released Thursday, Zeid appealed to the King of Saudi Arabia to exercise his power to halt the public flogging by pardoning Badawi, and also to urgently review this type of extraordinarily harsh penalty.

Badawi, an online blogger and activist, was convicted for exercising his right to freedom of opinion and expression on a website he founded called Free Saudi Liberals. He was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment, 1,000 lashes and a fine of one million riyals (266,000 dollars).

Badawi’s case was just one of a succession of prosecutions of civil society activists, said the statement.

On Monday, an appeals court upheld the conviction of Badawi’s lawyer and brother-in-law Waleed Abu Al-Khair on charges that include offending the judiciary and founding an unlicensed organisation. Al-Khair’s sentence was extended from 10 to 15 years on appeal.

The U.N. Committee against Torture has repeatedly voiced concerns about states’ use of flogging and have called for its abolition.

Saudi Arabia’s report on its implementation of the Convention is up for review by the Committee against Torture next year.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

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Press Looks at Future After “Charlie”http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/press-looks-at-future-after-charlie/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=press-looks-at-future-after-charlie http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/press-looks-at-future-after-charlie/#comments Thu, 15 Jan 2015 17:33:52 +0000 A. D. McKenzie http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138664 By A. D. McKenzie
PARIS, Jan 15 2015 (IPS)

In the wake of last week’s attack on French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo that left 12 people dead, a heated battle of opinion is being waged in France and several other countries on the issue of freedom of expression and the rights of both media and the public.

On one side are those who say that freedom of expression is an inherent human right and a pillar of democracy, and on the other are representatives of a range of views, including the belief that liberty comes with responsibility for all sectors of society.

“I’m worried when one talks about our being in a state of war,” said John Ralston Saul, the president of the writers group PEN International, who participated in a conference here Jan. 14 on “Journalism after Charlie”, organised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

“The war against fundamentalists isn’t going to work,” he said, arguing that education about freedom of expression has to start at a young age so that people know that “you have to have a thick skin” to live in a democracy.“Ignorance is the biggest weapon of mass destruction, and if ignorance is the problem, then education is the answer” – Nasser David Khalili, Iranian-born scholar and philanthropist

PEN International, which promotes literature, freedom of expression and speaks out for “writers silenced in their own countries”, has strongly condemned the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, but the organisation is also worried about how politicians are reacting in the aftermath.

It called on governments to “implement their commitments to free expression and to desist from further curtailing free expression through the expansion of surveillance.”

In the Jan. 7 assault, two hooded gunmen gained access to the offices of Charlie Hebdo during an editorial meeting and opened fire, killing cartoonists, other media workers, a visitor and two policemen. The attackers were in turn killed by police two days later, after a huge manhunt in the French capital, where related attacks took place Jan. 8 and 9.

In the other acts, a gunman killed a young female police officer and later held hostages at a kosher supermarket, where police said he murdered four people before he was killed by the security forces.

Charlie Hebdo had been under threat since 2006 when it republished controversial Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad originally published in 2005, and in 2011 its offices were firebombed after an edition that some groups considered offensive and inflammatory.

Several critics accused the magazine of Islamophobia and racism, while the cartoonists defended their right to lampoon subjects that included religious leaders and politicians.

Before the attacks, the magazine’s circulation had been in decline, with readers apparently turned off by the crudeness of the drawings, but the publication is now being given wide moral and financial backing.

More than three million people of different ethnicities and faiths marched in Paris and other cities last Sunday in support of freedom of expression, including some 40 world leaders who joined French government representatives.

Among those marching, however, were officials from many countries active in “restricting freedom of expression”, according to PEN International and other groups. “This includes murders, violence and imprisoned writers on PEN’s Case List. These leaders, when at home, are part of administrations which are serious offenders,” said the organisation.

Saul told IPS that in the last 14 years, PEN International has noted a “shrinking in freedom of expression” in Western countries, “not only of writers and journalists but of citizens”. He said that the main problem for the organisation was impunity.

While everyone condemned the Charlie Hebdo attacks, some participants at the UNESCO conference argued that the media need to act more responsibly, especially as regards the portrayal of minority or marginalised communities.

As the debates took place, the latest edition of the magazine was being distributed, with another cover portraying Muhammad, this time holding a placard saying “Je Suis Charlie” and with the caption “All is forgiven”.

“The media must mediate and refrain from the promoting of stereotypes,” said French senator Bariza Khiari, in a segment of the conference debate titled “Intercultural Dialogue and Fragmented Societies”.

She said that most adherents of Islam were “quietly Muslim”, keeping their religion to themselves while respecting the secular values of the countries where they live. “But we have to recognise the existence and importance of religion as long as religion does not dictate the law,” she argued.

Khiari told IPS that the radicalisation of some French youth was taking place because of their hardships in France and the humiliation they faced on a daily basis. These include Islamophobia, joblessness and stops by the police.

The senator said she hoped that young people as well as the media would reflect on what had happened and draw some lessons that would result in positive advances in the future.

Annick Girardin, the French Secretary of State for Development and Francophonie, said that democracy meant that all newspapers of whatever belief or political learning could publish in France and that people have access to legal avenues. But she acknowledged that there was a failure of integration of everyone into society.

Regarding the protection of journalists, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova told IPS that “now was the time” for the United Nations and particularly UNESCO “not just to reaffirm our commitment to freedom of expression” but to consider other initiatives.

“Something that is probably not so well known to the general public is that we are constantly in contact with governments where these cases (attacks on journalists) have happened in order to remind them of their responsibilities and asking for information on the follow-up measures, and I would say that even if they are not spectacular, we’ve still seen more and more governments who are taking this seriously.”

Alongside journalists and cartoonists, the UNESCO conference included Jewish, Muslim and Christian representatives who called on the state to do more to educate young people about the co-existence of secular and religious values and ways to live together in increasingly diverse societies.

“Ignorance is the biggest weapon of mass destruction, and if ignorance is the problem, then education is the answer,” said Nasser David Khalili, an Iranian-born scholar and philanthropist who lives in London.

One topic overlooked however was the less discernible attacks on journalists, in the form of press conglomeration, cuts in income and a general lack of commitment to quality journalism.

“Freedom of expression has no meaning when you can’t find a job and when media is controlled by big groups,” said a former journalist who left the conference early.

Edited by Phil Harris

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OPINION: Islamic Reformation, the Antidote to Terrorismhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/opinion-islamic-reformation-the-antidote-to-terrorism/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-islamic-reformation-the-antidote-to-terrorism http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/opinion-islamic-reformation-the-antidote-to-terrorism/#comments Wed, 14 Jan 2015 15:02:55 +0000 Emile Nakhleh http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138639

Emile Nakhleh is a Research Professor at the University of New Mexico, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of “A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World.”

By Emile Nakhleh
WASHINGTON, Jan 14 2015 (IPS)

The horrific terrorist attack on the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo has once again raised the question about violence and Islam. Why is it, some ask, that so much terrorism has been committed in the name of Islam, and why do violent jihadists seek justification of their actions in their religion?

Regardless of whether or not Said and Cherif Kouachi, the two brothers who attacked Charlie Hebdo, were pious or engaged in un-Islamic behavior in their personal lives, the fact remains they used Islamic idioms, such as “Allahu Akbar” or “God is Great,” to celebrate their bloody violence. Other Islamic terrorists have invoked similar idioms during previous terrorist operations.“Modern Pharaohs” and dynastic potentates continue to practice their repressive policies across the Middle East, totally oblivious to the pain and suffering of their people and the hopelessness of their youth.

Although many Muslim leaders and theologians worldwide have denounced the assault on the Paris-based magazine, many Muslim autocrats continue to exploit Islam for selfish reasons. For example, during the same week of the attacks in France, Saudi Arabia convicted one of its citizen bloggers and sentenced him to a lengthy jail term, a huge fine, and one thousand floggings. His “crime:” calling for liberal reforms of the Saudi regime.

Since Sep. 11, 2001, scholars of Islam have explored the factors that drive Islamic radicalism and the reasons why radical activists have “hijacked” or “stolen” mainstream Islam. Based on public opinion polls and expert analysis, most observers assess that two key factors have contributed to radicalisation and terrorism: a regime’s domestic and foreign policy, and the conservative, intolerant Salafi-Wahhabi Islamic ideology coming mostly out of Saudi Arabia.

For the past decade and half, reasoned analysis has suggested that Arab Islamic states, Muslim scholars, and Western countries could take specific steps in order to neutralise these factors. This analysis concedes, however, that the desired results would require time, resources, courage, and above all, vision and commitment.

What drives domestic terrorism?

In the domestic policy arena, economic, political, and social issues have framed the radical narrative and empowered extremist activists. These include: dictatorship, repression, corruption, unemployment, inadequate education, poverty, scarcity of clean water, food, and electricity, and poor sanitary conditions.

High unemployment, which ranges from 25-50 percent among the 15-29 cohort in most Arab and Muslim countries, has created a poor, alienated, angry, and inadequately educated youthful generation that does not identify with the state.  Many turn to violence and terrorism and end up serving as foot soldier “jihadists” in terrorist organisations, including the Islamic State, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and others.

Autocratic regimes in several Arab and Islamic countries have ignored these conditions and the ensuing grievances for years while maintaining their hold on power. “Modern Pharaohs” and dynastic potentates continue to practice their repressive policies across the Middle East, totally oblivious to the pain and suffering of their people and the hopelessness of their youth.

In the foreign policy arena, public opinion polls in Arab and Muslim countries have shown that specific American policies toward Arabs and Muslims have created a serious rift between the United States and the Islamic world.

These include a perceived U.S. war on Islam, the continued detention of Muslims at Guantanamo Bay, unwavering support for the continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, on-going violations of Muslims’ human rights in the name of the war on terrorism, and the coddling of Arab Muslim dictators.

Islamic radicals have propagated the claim, which has resonated with many Muslims, that their rulers, or the “near enemy,” are propped up, financed, and armed by the United States and other Western powers or the “far enemy.” Therefore, “jihad” becomes a “duty” against both of these “enemies.”

Although many mainstream Muslims saw some validity in the radicals’ argument that domestic and foreign policy often underpin and justify jihad, they attribute much of the violence and terrorism to radical, intolerant ideological interpretations of Sunni Islam, mostly found in the teachings of the Hanbali school of jurisprudence adhered to by Saudi state and religious establishment.

Some contemporary Islamic thinkers have accordingly argued that Islam must undergo a process of reformation. The basic premise of such reformation is to transport Islam from 7th Century Arabia, where the Koran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, to a globalised 21st century world that transcends Arabia and the traditional “abode of Islam.”

Calls for Islamic Reformation

Reformist Islamic thinkers—including Syrian Muhammad Shahrur, Iranians Abdul Karim Soroush and Mohsen Kadivar, Swiss-Egyptian Tariq Ramadan, Egyptian-American Khaled Abu El Fadl, Sudanese-American Abdullahi Ahmad An-Naim, Egyptian Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, and Malaysians Anwar Ibrahim and Farish Noor—have advocated taking a new look at Islam.

Although their work is based on different religious and cultural narratives, these thinkers generally agree on four key fundamental points:

1. Islam was revealed at a specific time in a specific place and in a response to specific conditions and situations. For example, certain chapters or suras were revealed to Muhammad in Medina while he was fighting several battles and struggling to create his umma-based “Islamic State.”

2. If Islam desires to be accepted as a global religion with universal principles, Muslim theologians should adapt Islam to the modern world where millions of Muslims live as minorities in non-Muslim countries—from India and China to the Americas and Europe. The communal theological concept of the umma that was central to Muhammad’s Islamic State in Medina is no longer valid in a complex, multicultural and multi-religious world.

3. If the millions of Muslims living outside the “heartland” of Islam aspire to become productive citizens in their adopted countries, they would need to view their religion as a personal connection between them and their God, not a communal body of belief that dictates their social interaction with non-Muslims or with their status as a minority. If they want to live in peace with fellow citizens in secular Western countries, they must abide by the principles of tolerance of the “other,” compromise, and peaceful co-existence with other religions.

4. Radical and intolerant Islamic ideology does not represent the mainstream body of Muslim theology. Whereas radicals and terrorists, from Osama Bin Ladin to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi have often quoted the war-like Medina Koranic suras, Islamic reformation should focus on the suras revealed to Muhammad in Mecca, which advocate universalist principles akin to those of Christianity and Judaism. These suras also recognise Moses and Jesus as prophets and messengers of God.

Reformist thinkers also agree that Muslim theologians and scholars all over the world should preach to radicals in particular that Islam does not condone terrorism and should not be invoked to justify violence. Although in recent years would-be terrorists invariably sought a religious justification or a fatwa from a religious cleric to justify their terrorist operation, a “reformed” Islam would ban the issuance of such fatwas.

Failed reformation attempts

Regimes have yet to address the domestic policies that have fueled radicalism and terrorism.

In terms of the Salafi-Wahhabi ideology, Saudi Arabia continues to teach the Hanbali driven doctrine in its schools and export it to other countries. It’s not therefore surprising that the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) bases its government and social “philosophy” on the Saudi religious ideology. According to media reports, some Saudi textbooks are currently being taught in schools in Iraqi and Syrian territory controlled by IS.

Semi Ghesmi, a Salafist student and elected head of the National Students Union in Tunisia, supports what he calls the "jihad" in Syria. Credit: Giuliana Sgrena/IPS

Semi Ghesmi, a Salafist student and elected head of the National Students Union in Tunisia, supports what he calls the “jihad” in Syria. Credit: Giuliana Sgrena/IPS

Calls for reformation have not taken root in the Sunni Muslim world because once the four schools jurisprudence—Hanbali, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanafi—were accepted in the 10th century as representing the complete doctrine of Sunni Islam, the door of reasoning or ijtihad was closed shut. Muslim theologians and leaders would not allow any new doctrinal thinking and would readily brand any such thought or thinkers as seditious.

An important reason why the calls for reformation have fallen on deaf ears is because in the past two decades, many of the reformist thinkers have lived outside the Muslim heartland, taught in Western universities, and wrote in foreign languages. Their academic arguments were rarely translated into Arabic and other “Islamic” languages.

Even if some of the articles advocating reformation were translated, the average Muslim in Muslim countries with a high school or college education barely understood or comprehended the reformists’ theological arguments renouncing violence and terrorism.

How to defeat Islamic terrorism

If Arab Islamic rulers are sincere in their fight against terrorism, they need to implement drastically different economic, political, and social policies. They must reform their educational systems, fund massive entrepreneurial projects that aim at job creation, institute transitions to democracy, and empower their people to become creative citizens.

Dictatorship, autocracy, and family rule without popular support or legitimacy will not survive for long in the 21st century. Arab and Muslim youth are connected to the outside world and wired into massive global networks of social media. Many of them believe that their regimes are anachronistic and ossified. To gain their rights and freedoms, these youth, men and women have come to believe their political systems must be replaced and their 7th century religion must be reformed.

Until this happens, terrorism in the name of Islam, whether in Paris or Baghdad, will remain a menace for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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In Sri Lanka Cartoonists Aren’t Killed – They’re Disappearedhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/in-sri-lanka-cartoonists-arent-killed-theyre-disappeared/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=in-sri-lanka-cartoonists-arent-killed-theyre-disappeared http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/in-sri-lanka-cartoonists-arent-killed-theyre-disappeared/#comments Tue, 13 Jan 2015 19:00:04 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138622 Sri Lankan columnist and cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda has been missing for almost five years. Credit: Vikalpa | Groundviews | CPA/CC-BY-2.0

Sri Lankan columnist and cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda has been missing for almost five years. Credit: Vikalpa | Groundviews | CPA/CC-BY-2.0

By Kanya D'Almeida
COLOMBO, Jan 13 2015 (IPS)

Scenes from the brutal shooting of 12 journalists with the French satirical weekly ‘Charlie Hebdo’ have monopolised headlines worldwide ever since two men opened fire in the magazine’s Paris office on Jan. 7.

Millions have marched in the streets against what is widely being billed as an attack on free speech, and the work of the magazine’s cartoonists has gone viral.

Several thousands miles away, in Sri Lanka, a different attack on press freedom has not received even a fraction of the attention. Perhaps because, in this particular tragedy, the leading character was not killed. He simply vanished without a trace.

“One sure way to reverse the dangerous trajectory Sri Lanka has been going down during the past decade is to seriously address the pleas of those like Sandhya Eknaligoda, whose husband Prageeth remains missing five years on [...]." -- Sumit Galhotra, Asia Researcher for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
The last time anyone heard from Prageeth Eknaligoda was on Jan. 24, 2010. Just after 10 p.m. he called to inform his wife, Sandhya, that he was on his way home from the office. He never arrived.

From local police stations all the way to the United Nations in Geneva, she has searched for answers as to his whereabouts, but found none.

Rights groups like Amnesty International believe the authorities played a role in his disappearance, while neighbours report seeing an unmarked white van parked outside his house the day he went missing – a vehicle widely associated with enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka.

A cartoonist and columnist for Lanka eNews (LEN), Eknaligoda had long used his pen to draw attention to corruption, human rights abuses and eroding democracy in Sri Lanka.

One of his most widely shared images depicts the back of a half-naked woman facing a gang of laughing men. Scratched on the wall behind her are the words “Preference of the majority is democracy”, which some commentators claimed was a reference to the powerlessness of minorities in a largely Sinhala-Buddhist country.

He also turned his sharp pen to the issue of education, sketching out in glaring detail the impact of a weak school system on the youth, including one cartoon that depicted the tragic suicide of a student at a leading girls’ school in the capital, Colombo.

In a country that is ranked fourth – between the Philippines and Syria – on the Impunity Index compiled by the leading media watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), it was perhaps only a matter of time before Eknaligoda was forced to answer to the powers that be.

But because there is no evidence to show he suffered the same fate as the 19 Sri Lankan journalists who have been killed in cold blood since 1992, Eknaligoda is not included among those who paid with their lives for their writings.

Because his body was never found, there is no gravesite around which to gather to mourn his death. In fact, former Attorney General Mohan Peiris told a United Nations Committee against Torture in 2011 that Eknaligoda was still alive and living in a foreign country – a statement he later retracted.

As far as the family is concerned, disappearance is a fate worse than death. In an interview with IPS in 2012, Sandhya Eknaligoda explained, “Not knowing where your loved one is, that is mental torture. And it is worse than physical torture, where at least the world can see the marks of your suffering.”

New government, new hopes

On Jan. 7, as news of the Charlie Hebdo massacre reached heads of state around the world, Sri Lanka’s then-president Rajapaksa was among those to immediately offer condolences to the victims’ families.

Those who have closely followed Eknaligoda’s case called the statement hypocritical, given the government’s alleged indifference to a free press in Sri Lanka.

So when Rajapaksa was ousted at the Jan. 8 presidential election, replaced by his former party secretary Maithripala Sirisena, experts and activists began, tentatively, to hope for accountability.

“Maithripala Sirisena’s stunning win marks an opportunity for Sri Lanka to improve the climate for press freedom,” Sumit Galhotra, Asia researcher for CPJ, told IPS. “While he has pledged to eradicate corruption and ensure greater transparency, we will be watching closely to see if he follows these verbal commitments with concrete steps.

“One sure way to reverse the dangerous trajectory Sri Lanka has been going down during the past decade is to seriously address the pleas of those like Sandhya Eknaligoda, whose husband Prageeth remains missing five years on and to begin combating the culture of impunity that has flourished in the country when it comes to anti-press violence,” he added.

Among a long list of atrocities that the journalistic community has suffered was the assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge in broad daylight on Jan. 8, 2009. Founder-editor of the major English-language weekly, the Sunday Leader, Wickrematunge was an outspoken critic of all forms of abuse of power and human rights violations.

Addressing a crowd of some 50 people who gathered at his gravesite on the morning of the presidential poll exactly six years after Lasantha’s death, his brother Lal Wickrematunge called attention to the failure of the “numerous squads assigned to handle investigations into the murder [to make] any headway.”

Now, as the new government assumes office, activists say there will be a renewed push for justice.

It is still early days, but already there have been some positive steps.

“Some of the websites that were blocked like TamilNet and Lanka eNews are accessible now, and these are good signs,” Ruki Fernando, a prominent grassroots activist here, told IPS.

“But there are a number of cases, like Prageeth’s, Lasantha’s and many, many others – including numerous cases against the [Jaffna-based Tamil language daily newspaper] Uthayan – that need to be expedited.

“That doesn’t mean that Lal [Wickrematunge] or Sandhya [Eknaligoda] are asking for political favours,” he asserted. “All they’re asking is that the normal course of justice, which was been obstructed so far, be allowed to proceed in an independent manner without political interference.

“These are things we expect from the new regime in its first 100 days,” Fernando stated. “Until they are implemented, I don’t have much confidence – I only have hope.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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OPINION: The Paris Killings – A Fatal Trap for Europehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/opinion-the-paris-killings-a-fatal-trap-for-europe/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-the-paris-killings-a-fatal-trap-for-europe http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/opinion-the-paris-killings-a-fatal-trap-for-europe/#comments Mon, 12 Jan 2015 18:35:46 +0000 Roberto Savio http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138602

In this column, Roberto Savio, founder and president emeritus of the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency and publisher of Other News, argues that the wave of indignation aroused by last week’s terrorist attack on French magazine Charlie Hebdo runs the risk of playing into the hands of radical Muslims and unleashing a deadly worldwide confrontation.

By Roberto Savio
ROME, Jan 12 2015 (IPS)

It is sad to see how a continent that was one cradle of civilisation is running blindly into a trap, the trap of a holy war with Islam – and that six Muslim terrorists were sufficient to bring that about.

It is time to get out of the comprehensible “We are All Charlie Hebdo” wave, to look into facts, and to understand that we are playing into the hands of a few extremists, and equating ourselves with them. The radicalisation of the conflict between the West and Islam is going to carry with it terrible consequences

Roberto Savio

Roberto Savio

The first fact is that Islam is the second largest religion in the world, with 1.6 billion practitioners, that Muslims are the majority in 49 countries of the world and that they account for 23 percent of humankind. Of these 1.6 billion, only 317 million are Arabs. Nearly two-thirds (62 percent) live in the Asia-Pacific region; in fact, more Muslims live in India and Pakistan (344 million combined). Indonesia alone has 209 million.

A Pew Research Center report on the Muslim world also inform us that it is in South Asia that Muslims are more radical in terms of observance and views. In that region, those in favour of severe corporal punishment for criminals are 81 percent, compared with 57 percent in the Middle East and North Africa, while those in favour of executing those who leave Islam are 76 percent in South Asia, compared with 56 percent in the Middle East.

Therefore, it is obvious that it is the history of the Middle East which brings the specificity of the Arabs to the conflict with the West. And here are the main four reasons.“We are falling into a deadly trap, and doing exactly what the radical Muslims want: engaging in a holy war against Islam, so that the immense majority of moderate Muslims will be pushed to take up arms … instead of a strategy of isolation, we are engaging in a policy of confrontation”

First, all the Arab countries are artificial creations. In May 1916, Monsieur François Georges-Picot for France and Sir Mark Sykes for Britain met and agreed on a secret treaty, with the support of the Russian Empire and the Italian Kingdom, on how to carve up the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War.

Thus the Arab countries of today were born as the result of a division by France and Britain with no consideration for ethnic and religious realities or for history. A few of those countries, like Egypt, had an historical identity, but countries like Iraq, Arabia Saudi, Jordan, or even the Arab Emirates, lacked even that. It is worth remembering that the Kurdish issue of 30 million people divided among four countries was created by European powers.

As a consequence, the second reason. The colonial powers installed kings and sheiks in the countries that they created. To run these artificial countries, strong hands were required. So, from the very beginning, there was a total lack of participation of the people, with a political system which was totally out of sync with the process of democracy which was happening in Europe. With European blessing, these countries were frozen in feudal times.

As for the third reason, the European powers never made any investment in industrial development, or real development. The exploitation of petrol was in the hands of foreign companies and only after the end of the Second World War, and the ensuing process of decolonisation, did oil revenues really come into local hands.

When the colonial powers left, the Arab countries had no modern political system, no modern infrastructure, no local management.

Finally, the fourth reason, which is closer to our days. In states which did not provide education and health for their citizens, Muslim piety took on the task of providing what the state was not providing. So large networks of religious schools and hospital were created and, when elections were finally permitted, these became the basis for legitimacy and the vote for Muslim parties.

This is why, just taking the example of two important countries, Islamist parties won in Egypt and Algeria, and how with the acquiescence of the West, military coups were the only resort to stopping them.

This compression of so many decades into a few lines is of course superficial and leaves out many other issues. But this brutally abridged historical process is useful for understanding how anger and frustration is now all over the Middle East, and how this leads to the attraction to the Islamic State (IS) in poor sectors.

We should not forget that this historical background, even if remote for young people, is kept alive by Israel’s domination of the Palestinian people. The blind support of the West, especially of the United States, for Israel is seen by Arabs as a permanent humiliation, and Israel’s continuous expansion of settlements clearly eliminates the possibility of a viable Palestinian State.

The July-August bombing of Gaza, with just some noises of protest from the West but no real action, is for the Arab world clear proof that the intention is to keep Arabs down and seek alliances only with corrupt and delegitimised rulers who should be swept away. And the continuous Western intervention in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and the drones bombing everywhere, are widely perceived among the 1.6 billion that the West is historically engaged in keeping Islam down, as the Pew report noted.

We should also remember that Islam has several internal divisions, of which the Sunni-Shiite divide is just the largest. But while in the Arab region at least 40 percent of Sunni do not recognise a Shiite as a fellow Muslim, outside the region this tends to disappear, In Indonesia only 26 percent identify themselves as Sunni, with 56 percent identifying themselves as “just Muslim”.

In the Arab world, only in Iraq and Lebanon, where the two communities lived side by side, does a large majority of Sunni recognise Shiites as fellow Muslims. The fact that Shiites, who account for just 13 percent of Muslims, are the large majority in Iran, and the Sunni the large majority in Saudi Arabia explains the ongoing internal conflict in the region, which is being stirred by the two respective leaders.

Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, then run by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (1966–2006), successfully deployed a policy of polarisation in Iraq, continuing attacks on Shiites and provoking an ethnic cleansing of one million Sunnis from Baghdad. Now IS, the radical caliphate which is challenging the entire Arab world besides the West, is able to attract many Sunnis from Iraq which had suffered so many Shiite reprisals, that they sought the umbrella of the very group that had deliberately provoked the Shiites.

The fact it is that every day hundreds of Arabs die because of the internal conflict, a fate that does not affect the much larger Muslim community.

Now, all terrorist attacks in the West that have happened in Ottawa, in London, and now in Paris, have the same profile: a young man from the country in question, not someone from the Arab region, who was not at all religious during his teenage years, someone who somehow drifted, did not find a job, and was a loner. In nearly all cases, someone who had already had something to do with the judicial system.

Only in the last few years had he become converted to Islam and accepted the calls from IS for killing infidels. He felt that with this he would find a justification to his life, he would become a martyr, a somebody in another world, removed from a life in which there was no real bright future.

The reaction to all this has been a campaign in the West against Islam. The latest number of the New Yorker published a strong article defining Islam not as a religion but as an ideology. In Italy, Matteo Salvini, the leader of the right-wing and anti-immigrant Lega Nord has publicly condemned the Pope for engaging Islam in dialogue, and conservative Italian pundit Giuliano Ferrara declared on TV that ”we are in a Holy War”.

The overall European (and U.S.) reaction has been to denounce the Paris killings as the result of a “deadly ideology”, as President François Hollande called it.

It is certainly a sign of the anti-Muslim tide that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was obliged to take a position against the recent marches in Dresden (Muslim population 2 percent), organised by the populist movement Pegida (the German acronym for “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West”). The marches were basically directed against the 200,000 asylum seekers, most of them from Iraq and Syria, whose primary intention, according to Pegida, was not to escape war.

Studies from all over Europe show that the immense majority of immigrants have successfully integrated with their host economies. United Nations studies also show that Europe, with its demographic decline, requires at least 20 million immigrants by 2050 if it wants to remain viable in welfare practices, and competitive in the world. Yet, what are we getting everywhere?

Xenophobic, right-wing parties in every country of Europe, able to make the Swedish government resign, conditioning the governments of United Kingdom, Denmark and Nederland, and looking poised to win the next elections in France.

It should be added that, while what happened in Paris was of course a heinous crime, and while expression of any opinion is essential for democracy, very few have ever seen Charlie Hebdo and its level of provocation. Especially because in 2008, as Tariq Ramadan pointed out in The Guardian of Jan. 10, Charlie Hebdo fired a cartoonist who had joke about a Jewish link to the French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s son.

Charlie Hebdo was a voice defending the superiority of France and its cultural supremacy in the world, and had a small readership, which it obtained by selling provocation – exactly the opposite of the view of a world based on respect and cooperation among different cultures and religions.

So now we are all Charlie, as everybody is saying. But to radicalise the clash between the two largest religions of the world is not a minor affair. We should fight terrorism, be it Muslim or not (let us not forget that a Norwegian, Anders Behring Breivik, who wanted to keep his country free of Muslim penetration, killed 91 of his co-citizens).

But we are falling into a deadly trap, and doing exactly what the radical Muslims want: engaging in a holy war against Islam, so that the immense majority of moderate Muslims will be pushed to take up arms.

The fact that European right-wing parties will reap the benefit of this radicalisation goes down very well for the radical Muslims. They dream of a world fight, in which they will make Islam – and not just any Islam, but their interpretation of Sunnism – the sole religion. Instead of a strategy of isolation, we are engaging in a policy of confrontation.

And, apart from September 11 in New York, the losses of life have been miniscule compared with what is going on in the Arab world, where just in one country – Syria – 50,000 people lost their lives last year.

How can we so blindly fall into the trap without realising that we are creating a terrible clash all over the world? (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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

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Attack on French Magazine a “Black Day” for Press Freedomhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/attack-on-french-magazine-a-black-day-for-press-freedom/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=attack-on-french-magazine-a-black-day-for-press-freedom http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/attack-on-french-magazine-a-black-day-for-press-freedom/#comments Thu, 08 Jan 2015 00:57:08 +0000 A. D. McKenzie http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138557 Drawing for peace - a signature cartoon by Plantu

Drawing for peace - a signature cartoon by Plantu

By A. D. McKenzie
PARIS, Jan 8 2015 (IPS)

“They are cowards who react to satire by going for their Kalashnikovs.” That was how renowned French cartoonist Plantu described the killers of 10 media workers and two policemen in Paris Wednesday.

One of the murdered journalists, cartoonist Bernard Verlhac who went by the pen name of Tignous, was a member of Cartooning for Peace, the organisation that Plantu founded with former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2006, following the protests sparked by the controversial Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad.

Tignous worked for Charlie Hebdo, the satirical French magazine that the murderers targeted.

According to police and eyewitness reports, two hooded gunmen entered the premises of the magazine and opened fire in the late morning. After they fled the scene, in a car driven by a third participant, 12 people were confirmed dead and at least 11 injured, some critically.“Cartoonists – Christian, Muslim, Jewish cartoonists – are scandalised and angry. And to express ourselves, we take up a marker and we draw” – Plantu, co-founder of Cartooning for Peace

Video footage, filmed from neighbouring buildings, showed the attackers killing an injured policeman as he lay in the road. On Wednesday night, the police presence in France’s capital city was huge as security officials tried to track down the attackers who reportedly had been identified.

French President François Hollande said in a public address that the killers would be brought to justice and “severely punished” for their actions. Appealing for unity, he said the attack was an assault on national ideals and freedoms, including freedom of expression.

Meanwhile, many French residents took to social media to express solidarity with the magazine’s staff, posting images with the words “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie), and thousands gathered on the historic Place de la Republique in Paris, and in several other cities in France.

The magazine had been a target for several years, since it published cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. In 2011, assailants firebombed its offices in the city’s 11th district, and its cartoons have been considered offensive by various groups over the past two years. Its cover this week featured the controversial French writer Michel Houellebecq, whose newly published novel “Soumission” portrays a future France living under an Islamic regime.

But condemnation of the murders came from all sides of the religious and political spectrum on Wednesday. The French Muslim Council said the “barbaric action” was also an attack “against democracy and the freedom of the press,” while the Protestant Federation of France expressed “revulsion” and said the “hateful” acts could have no justification in any religion.

Irina Bokova, the director-general of Paris-based UNESCO, the United Nations cultural agency, said she was “horrified” by the attack. “This is more than a personal tragedy,” she stated.  “It is an attack on the media and freedom of expression.  The world community cannot allow extremists to silence the free flow of opinions and ideas.  We must work together to bring the perpetrators to justice and stand together for a free and independent press.”

Rights group Amnesty International said the attack was a “black day” for freedom of expression and a free press, while the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) called the assault a “barbaric act of violence against journalists and media freedom.”

EFJ president Mogens Blicher Bjerregaard stressed that journalists today face a greater range of dangers and threats than ever before.

Last year, 118 journalists and media workers died for doing their jobs, according to the EFJ and other organisations, bringing the total to more than 700 deaths over the past decade.

On Nov. 2, the United Nations marked the first international Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists. The organisation said that the majority of the killings “were deliberate murders committed in connection with journalists’ denunciation of crime and corruption.”

Charlie Hebdo’s recent cartoons had poked fun at the head of IS, or the Islamic State, and had even seemed to forecast an attack, saying that fighters had until the end of January to “present their wishes” – a reference to the French tradition of government ministers presenting their “voeux” to the press each new year.

From around the world, condemnation of the acts and condolences for the victims’ families were transmitted to France by heads of state and foreign ministers. But perhaps the most profound messages came from colleagues in the media world – cartoonists.

Plantu said that Cartooning for Peace, where staffers worked late into the evening, had received thousands of messages and drawings.

“We are angry,” he said on French television. “Cartoonists – Christian, Muslim, Jewish cartoonists – are scandalised and angry. And to express ourselves, we take up a marker and we draw.”

He said that Cartooning for Peace had been created for the very purpose of creating bridges between people, religions and regions and that cartoonists’ work was “stronger” than the “barbaric acts” committed by the “cowards” on Wednesday.

Plantu told IPS at a conference last year in the southern French city of Montpellier that the work of the non-profit organisation was important in promoting dialogue, understanding and mutual respect by using cartoons as a universal language.

At that conference, one of the featured participants was Tignous, who showed himself to be funny in both speech and drawing. As he and a journalist got lost trying to make it to the conference centre, he cracked jokes about his legs being too short to jump fences, but he ended up being the one to find the right direction.

Later at the conference, he produced cartoons that had the audience laughing out loud. For him, and other cartoonists, the work was about freedom to poke fun at extremists and political hypocrites.

At the creation of Cartooning for Peace, the founders said the initiative was meant to highlight the notion that cartoonist’s influence comes with a “responsibility to encourage debate rather than inflame passions, to educate rather than divide.”

According to commentators, Charlie Hebdo may have inflamed passions with its satire, but the killings on Wednesday seemed an attempt to end all debate, and to foster further division in France, where the extreme-right National Front party has been rising in popularity.

“The targeted assassinations were staged in order to establish terror and muzzle journalists, cartoonists but also every citizen,” Cartooning for Peace said in a statement. It added that the attackers would not have the last word because “art and freedom will be stronger than any intolerance.”

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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OPINION: Political Islam and U.S. Policy in 2015http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/opinion-political-islam-and-u-s-policy-in-2015/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-political-islam-and-u-s-policy-in-2015 http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/opinion-political-islam-and-u-s-policy-in-2015/#comments Tue, 06 Jan 2015 18:16:46 +0000 Emile Nakhleh http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138538 President Barack Obama speaks at Cairo University in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, Jun. 4, 2009. In his speech, President Obama called for a 'new beginning between the United States and Muslims', declaring that 'this cycle of suspicion and discord must end'. Credit: White House photo

President Barack Obama speaks at Cairo University in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, Jun. 4, 2009. In his speech, President Obama called for a 'new beginning between the United States and Muslims', declaring that 'this cycle of suspicion and discord must end'. Credit: White House photo

By Emile Nakhleh
WASHINGTON, Jan 6 2015 (IPS)

This year, Arab political Islam will be greatly influenced by U.S. regional policy, as it has been since the Obama administration came into office six years ago. Indeed, as the U.S. standing in the region rose with Obama’s presidency beginning in January 2009, so did the fortunes of Arab political Islam.

But when Arab autocrats perceived U.S. regional policy to have floundered and Washington’s leverage to have diminished, they proceeded to repress domestic Islamic political parties with impunity, American protestations notwithstanding.Coddling autocrats is a short-term strategy that will not succeed in the long run. The longer the cozy relationship lasts, the more Muslims will revert to the earlier belief that America’s war on terrorism is a war on Islam.

This policy linkage, expected to prevail in the coming year, will not bode well for political Islam. Like last year, the U.S. will in 2015 pay more attention to securing Arab autocrats’ support in the fight against Islamic State forces than to the mistreatment of mainstream Islamic political parties and movements, which will have severe consequences in the long run.

Since the middle of 2013, the Obama administration’s focus on the tactical need to woo dictators in the fight against terrorist groups has trumped its commitment to the engagement objective. America’s growing support for Arab dictators meant that Arab political Islam would be sacrificed.

For example, Washington seems oblivious to the thousands of mainstream Islamists and other opposition activists languishing in Egyptian jails.

What is political Islam?

Several assumptions underpin this judgment. First, “political Islam” applies to mainstream Islamic political parties and movements, which have rejected violence and made a strategic shift toward participatory and coalition politics through free elections.

Arab political Islam generally includes the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan, Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, al-Nahda in Tunisia, and al-Wefaq in Bahrain.

The term “political Islam” does not include radical and terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL or IS), al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, Iraq, and Syria, or armed opposition groups in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya. Nor does it apply to terrorist groups in Africa such as Boko Haram, al-Shabab, and others.

Unfortunately, in the past three years, many policy makers in the West, and curiously in several Arab countries, have equated mainstream political Islam with radical and terrorist groups. This erroneous and self-serving linkage has provided Washington with a fig leaf to justify its cozy relations with Arab autocrats and tolerance of their bloody repression of their citizens.

Repression breeds radicalism

It has also given these autocrats an excuse to suppress their Islamic parties and exclude them from the political process. In a press interview late last month, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi forcefully denounced the Muslim Brotherhood and pledged the movement would not enter the Egyptian parliament.

Egypt’s recent terrorism laws, which Sisi and other Arab autocrats have approved, provide them with a pseudo-legal cover to silence the opposition, including mainstream political Islam.

They have used the expansive and vague definitions of terrorism included in these decrees to incarcerate any person or group that is “harmful to national unity.” Any criticism of the regime or the ruler is now viewed as a “terrorist” act, punishable by lengthy imprisonment.

The Dec. 28 arrest of the Bahraini Sheikh Ali Salman, Secretary General of al-Wefaq, is yet another example of draconian measures against peaceful mainstream opposition leaders and parties in the region. Regime repression of these groups is expected to prevail in 2015.

Second, whereas terrorist organisations are a threat to the region and to Western countries, including mainstream political Islam in the governance of their countries in the long run is good for domestic stability and regional security. It also serves the interests of Western powers in the region.

Recent history tells U.S. that exclusion and repression often lead to radicalisation.  Some youth in these parties have given up on participatory politics in favour of confrontational politics and violence. This phenomenon is expected to increase in 2015, as suppression of political Islam becomes more pervasive and institutionalised.

Third, the serious mistakes the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Nahda made in their first time ever as governing parties should not be surprising since they lacked the experience of governance. Such poor performance, however, is not unique to them.  Nor should it be used as an excuse to depose them illegally and to void the democratic process, as the Sisi-led military coup did in Egypt in 2013.

Although Islamic political parties tend to win the first election after the toppling of dictators, the litmus test of their popular support lies in succeeding elections. The recent post-Arab Spring election in Tunisia is a case in point.

When Arab citizens are provided with the opportunity to participate in fair and free elections, they are capable of electing the party that best serves their interests, regardless of whether the party is Islamic or secular.

Had Field Marshall Sisi in 2013 allowed the Muslim Brotherhood and President Mohammed Morsi to stay in power until the following election, they would have been voted out, according to public opinion polls at the time.

But Sisi and his military junta were not truly committed to a genuine democratic transition in Egypt. Now, according to Human Rights Watch reports, the current state of human rights in Egypt is much worse than it was under former President Hosni Mubarak.

The U.S. and Political Islam

Upon taking office, President Obama understood that disagreements between the United States and the Muslim world, especially political Islam, were driven by specific policies, not values of good governance. A key factor driving these disagreements was the widely held Muslim perception that America’s war on terror was a war on Islam.

The Obama administration also realised that while a very small percentage of Muslims engaged in violence and terrorism, the United States must find ways to engage the other 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide. That drove President Obama early on in his administration to grant media interviews to Arab broadcasters and give his historic Cairo speech in June 2009.

However, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on, and as drone strikes caused more civilian casualties in Yemen, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, many Muslims became more sceptical of Washington’s commitment to sincere engagement with the Muslim world.

The Arab uprisings beginning in 2011 known as the Arab Spring and the toppling of dictators prompted the United States to support calls for freedom, political reform, dignity, and democracy.

Washington announced it would work with Islamic political parties, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Nahda, as long as these parties were committed to peaceful change and to the principles of pluralism, elections, and democracy.

That unprecedented opening boosted the fortunes of Arab political Islam and inclusive politics in the Arab world. American rapprochement with political Islam, however, did not last beyond two years.

The way forward

Much as one might disagree with Islamic political ideology, it’s the height of folly to think that long-term domestic stability and economic security in Egypt, Bahrain, Palestine, or Lebanon could be achieved without including the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Wefaq, Hamas, and Hezbollah in governance.

Coddling autocrats is a short-term strategy that will not succeed in the long run. The longer the cozy relationship lasts, the more Muslims will revert to the earlier belief that America’s war on terrorism is a war on Islam.

The Arab countries that witnessed the fall of dictators, especially Egypt, will with Washington’s acquiescence revert back to repression and autocracy, as if the Arab Spring never happened.

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

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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OPINION: We Have So Much to Learn From Cubahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/opinion-we-have-so-much-to-learn-from-cuba/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-we-have-so-much-to-learn-from-cuba http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/opinion-we-have-so-much-to-learn-from-cuba/#comments Tue, 30 Dec 2014 08:10:05 +0000 Robert F. Kennedy Jr http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138433

This is the first of three articles written by Robert F. Kennedy – son of late U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and nephew of President John F. Kennedy – which address relations between the United States and Cuba during the 60-year period of the U.S. embargo against the island nation. The second article – “JFK’s Secret Negotiations with Fidel” – will run on January 5, 2015 and the third – “Sabotaging U.S.-Cuba Détente in the Kennedy Era” – on January 6, 2015.

By Robert F. Kennedy Jr
WHITE PLAINS, New York, Dec 30 2014 (IPS)

Earlier this month, President Barack Obama announced the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than five decades of a misguided policy which my uncle, John F. Kennedy, and my father, Robert F. Kennedy, had been responsible for enforcing after the U.S. embargo against the country was first implemented in October 1960 by the Eisenhower administration.

The move has raised hopes in many quarters – not only in the United States but around the world – that the embargo itself is now destined to disappear.

Robert F Kennedy Jr

Robert F Kennedy Jr

This does not detract from the fact that Cuba is still a dictatorship. The Cuban government restricts basic freedoms like the freedoms of speech and assembly, and it owns the media.

Elections, as in most old-school Communist countries, offer limited options and, during periodic crackdowns, the Cuban government fills Cuban jails with political prisoners.

However, there are real tyrants in the world with whom the United States has become a close ally and many governments with much worse human rights records than Cuba – Azerbaijan, for example, whose president Ilham Aliyev boils his opponents in oil, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, China, Bahrain, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and many others where torture, enforced disappearances, religious intolerance, suppression of speech and assembly, mediaeval oppression of women, sham elections and non-judicial executions are all government practices.

Despite its poverty, Cuba has managed some impressive accomplishments. Cuba’s government boasts the highest literacy rates for its population of any nation in the hemisphere. Cuba claims its citizens enjoy universal access to health care and more doctors per capita than any other nation in the Americas. Cuba’s doctors, reportedly, have high quality medical training.“It seems stupid to pursue a U.S. foreign policy by repeating a strategy that has proved a monumental failure for six decades. The definition of insanity is repeating the same action over and over, and expecting different results. In this sense, the [Cuba] embargo is insane”

Unlike other Caribbean islands where poverty means starvation, all Cubans receive a monthly food ration book that provides for their basic necessities.

Even Cuban government officials admit that the economy is smothered by the inefficiencies of Marxism, although they also argue that the principal cause of the island’s economic woes is the strangling impact of the 60-year-old trade embargo – and it is clear to everyone that the embargo first implemented during the Eisenhower administration in October 1960 unfairly punishes ordinary Cubans.

The embargo impedes economic development by making virtually every commodity and every species of equipment both astronomically expensive and difficult to obtain.

Worst of all, instead of punishing the regime for its human rights restrictions, the embargo has fortified the dictatorship by justifying oppression. It provides every Cuban with visible evidence of the bogeyman that every dictator requires – an outside enemy to justify an authoritarian national security state.

The embargo has also given Cuban leaders a plausible monster on which to blame Cuba’s poverty by lending credence to their argument that the United States, not Marxism, has caused the island’s economic distress.

The embargo has almost certainly helped keep the Castro brothers [Fidel and Raul] in power for the last five decades.

It has justified the Cuban government’s oppressive measures against political dissent in the same way that U.S. national security concerns have been used by some U.S. politicians to justify incursions against our bill of rights, including the constitutional rights to jury trial, habeas corpus, effective counsel and freedom from unwarranted search and seizure, eavesdropping, cruel and unusual punishment, torturing of prisoners, extraordinary renditions and the freedom to travel, to name just a few.

It is almost beyond irony that the very same politicians who argued that we should punish Castro for curtailing human rights and mistreating prisoners in Cuban jails elsewhere contend that the United States is justified in mistreating our own prisoners in Cuban jails.

Imagine a U.S. president faced, as Castro was, with over 400 assassination attempts, thousands of episodes of foreign-sponsored sabotage directed at our nation’s people, factories and bridges, a foreign-sponsored invasion and fifty years of economic warfare that has effectively deprived our citizens of basic necessities and strangled our economy.

The Cuban leadership has pointed to the embargo with abundant justification as the reason for economic deprivation in Cuba.

The embargo allows the regime to portray the United States as a bully and itself as the personification of courage, standing up to threats, intimidation and economic warfare by history’s greatest military superpower.

It perpetually reminds the proud Cuban people that our powerful nation, which has staged invasions of their island and plotted for decades to assassinate their leaders and sabotaged their industry, continues an aggressive campaign to ruin their economy.

Perhaps the best argument for lifting the embargo is that it does not work. Our 60-plus year embargo against Cuba is the longest in history and yet the Castro regime has remained in power during its entire duration.

Instead of lifting the embargo, different U.S. administrations, including the Kennedy administration, have strengthened it without result. It seems silly to pursue a U.S. foreign policy by repeating a strategy that has proved a monumental failure for six decades. The definition of insanity is repeating the same action over and over expecting different results. In this sense, the embargo is insane.

The embargo clearly discredits U.S. foreign policy, not only across Latin America, but also with Europe and other regions.

For more than 20 years, the U.N. General Assembly has called for lifting the embargo. Last year the vote was 188 in favour and two against (the United States and Israel). The Inter American Commission on Human Rights (the main human rights bodies of the Americas) has also called for lifting the embargo and the African Union likewise.

One reason that it diminishes our global prestige and moral authority is that the entire embargo enterprise only emphasises our distorted relationship with Cuba. That relationship is historically freighted with powerful ironies that make the United States look hypocritical to the rest of the world.

Most recently, while we fault Cuba for jailing and mistreating political prisoners, we have simultaneously been subjecting prisoners, many of them innocent by the Pentagon’s own admission, to torture – including waterboarding and illegal detention and imprisonment without trial in Cuban prison cells in Guantanamo Bay.

While we blame Cuba for not allowing its citizens to travel freely to the United States, we restrict our own citizens from traveling freely to Cuba. In that sense, the embargo seems particularly anti-American. Why does my passport say that I can’t visit Cuba? Why can’t I go where I want to go?

I have been a fortunate American. I have been able to visit Cuba and that was a wonderful education because it gave me the opportunity to see Communism with all its warts and faults up close. Why doesn’t our government trust Americans to see for themselves the ravages of dictatorship?

Had President Kennedy survived to a second administration, the embargo would have been lifted half a century ago.

President Kennedy told Castro, through intermediaries, that the United States would end the embargo when Cuba stopped exporting violent revolutionists to Latin America’s Alliance for Progress nations – a policy that mainly ended with Che Guevara’s death in 1967 and when Castro stopped allowing the Soviets to use the island as a base for the expansion of Soviet power in the hemisphere.

Well, the Soviets have been gone since 1991 – more than 20 years ago – but the U.S.-led embargo continues to choke Cuba’s economy. If the objective of our foreign policy in Cuba is to promote freedom for its subdued citizens, we should be opening ourselves up to them, not shutting them out.

We have so much to learn from Cuba – from its successes in some areas and failures in others.

As I walked through the streets of Havana, Model-Ts chugged by, Che’s soaring effigy hung in wrought iron above the street, and a bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln stood in a garden on a tree-lined avenue.

I could feel the weight of sixty years of Cuban history, a history so deeply intertwined with that of my own country. (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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

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Uzbekistan Gears Up to Vote for Rubberstamp Parliamenthttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/uzbekistan-gears-up-to-vote-for-rubberstamp-parliament/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=uzbekistan-gears-up-to-vote-for-rubberstamp-parliament http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/uzbekistan-gears-up-to-vote-for-rubberstamp-parliament/#comments Fri, 19 Dec 2014 15:02:14 +0000 Joanna Lillis http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138344 The chairman of a Tashkent polling station opens a curtain to a voting booth during the Uzbek presidential election of December 2007. Uzbekistan’s Dec. 21 parliamentary elections feature only four staunchly pro-regime parties to fill the 150-seat lower house, or the Legislative Chamber. No opposition parties are permitted to legally exist in Uzbekistan, and independent candidates are barred from standing. Credit: OSCE

The chairman of a Tashkent polling station opens a curtain to a voting booth during the Uzbek presidential election of December 2007. Uzbekistan’s Dec. 21 parliamentary elections feature only four staunchly pro-regime parties to fill the 150-seat lower house, or the Legislative Chamber. No opposition parties are permitted to legally exist in Uzbekistan, and independent candidates are barred from standing. Credit: OSCE

By Joanna Lillis
TASHKENT, Dec 19 2014 (EurasiaNet)

Uzbekistan’s parliamentary elections on Dec. 21 will offer voters a choice, but no hope for change.

Only four staunchly pro-regime parties – the Liberal Democratic Party of Uzbekistan, the People’s Democratic Party of Uzbekistan, as well as the National Revival and the Justice parties – can field candidates for the elections to fill the 150-seat lower house, or the Legislative Chamber.“People have gotten used to all these elections as something staged, and they don’t really care what the outcome will be, because most people think it will all be the way the authorities want it to be." -- A Tashkent-based businessman

They will be joined by representatives of the Ecological Movement of Uzbekistan, which has a “green” quota of 15 seats reserved under electoral law.

No opposition parties are permitted to legally exist in Uzbekistan, and independent candidates are barred from standing.

“The state of political freedoms [in Uzbekistan] is non-existent,” Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, told EurasiaNet.org. “Genuinely independent voices have not been allowed to register and participate in this election, as in all previous ones.”

HRW and other watchdog groups routinely rank Uzbekistan as among the most repressive states on earth. That reputation is not stopping strongman President Islam Karimov from touting this election as evidence that Uzbekistan – which he has led for over two decades, brooking no opposition to his iron rule – is on the path to democracy.

Uzbekistan is “building an independent democratic state” and “creating a civil society” that prioritises “human interests, rights, and freedoms and the supremacy of the law,” he claimed in his Constitution Day speech earlier in December.

Critics say Karimov is merely attempting to add a democratic veneer to a dictatorial system. Thousands of political prisoners are languishing in jail, the media is muzzled, and most civil society activists are “either in prison or in exile,” said Nadejda Atayeva, a France-based human rights campaigner exiled from Uzbekistan.

“The Uzbek government is doing all it can to portray this election as legitimate, without actually making it legitimate – without making the election free and fair,” Swerdlow says, adding that Tashkent is harnessing the vote “as an act of consolidation and public mobilisation around the regime.”

Observers expect a high turnout. “Uzbekistan has never had free and fair elections, but the government will ensure that the turnout is sufficiently high,” Alexander Melikishvili, a Washington-based analyst at the IHS Country Risk think-tank, told EurasiaNet.org.

“The government will organise voting drives among public sector employees, and local administrations will compel people to vote through the community (mahalla) councils.”

Voters in Uzbekistan readily acknowledge that mahallas – state-sponsored residents’ councils that control local affairs – rely on coercive measures to get out the vote.

“Mahalla committees will be going round the houses asking people to go to vote,” one Tashkent-based businessman told EurasiaNet.org on condition of anonymity. “That’s exactly what happened last time there were parliamentary elections.”

The public will dutifully turn up at polling booths to avoid reprisals, he added, but will cast their votes without enthusiasm. “People have gotten used to all these elections as something staged, and they don’t really care what the outcome will be, because most people think it will all be the way the authorities want it to be,” he said.

In practical terms, the parliamentary elections mean little for day-to-day affairs in Uzbekistan. As David Dalton, an Uzbekistan analyst at the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit, points out, “Voting to parliament is heavily controlled, and the real levers of power are anyway located elsewhere.”

International observers will be in Uzbekistan on election day, but the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, or ODIHR, the election-monitoring arm of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, will field only a limited mission, partly due to what it describes as “the limited nature of the competition” in the election.

ODIHR has never deemed conditions conducive to sending a full observation mission to Uzbekistan, or judged an election in the Central Asian nation to be free and fair.

Meanwhile, Karimov has been on what Swerdlow describes as a “media blitz” in an attempt to legitimise “an electoral process that’s genuine in form, but not in substance.”

That may be designed to help bolster the legitimacy of another, far more important vote next year: a presidential election due in the spring, in which Karimov has not stated if he will stand, although he has hinted he will.

Editor’s note:  Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specialises in Central Asia. This story originally appeared on EurasiaNet.org.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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