Inter Press Service » Religion http://www.ipsnews.net Journalism and Communication for Global Change Thu, 17 Apr 2014 10:41:02 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8.3 Afghanistan Turns a Political Corner http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/afghanistan-turns-political-corner/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=afghanistan-turns-political-corner http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/afghanistan-turns-political-corner/#comments Thu, 17 Apr 2014 07:30:24 +0000 Giuliano Battiston http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133725 The Afghanistan presidential election is turning out to be a tale of two narratives. The more positive and democratic one could be winning the day. By one narrative, Afghans voted in numbers and with fairness as never before. The second is the older and possibly weakening one of corruption and threats. For the moment, many […]

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Young voters in Jalalabad show off the ink on their fingers as a mark that they voted. Credit: Giuliano Battiston/IPS.

Young voters in Jalalabad show off the ink on their fingers as a mark that they voted. Credit: Giuliano Battiston/IPS.

By Giuliano Battiston
JALALABAD, Afghanistan, Apr 17 2014 (IPS)

The Afghanistan presidential election is turning out to be a tale of two narratives. The more positive and democratic one could be winning the day.

By one narrative, Afghans voted in numbers and with fairness as never before. The second is the older and possibly weakening one of corruption and threats.

For the moment, many Afghans are proud just that they voted, and that going by official figures, they did so in large numbers. Seven million voted in the presidential elections, a big jump from the 2009 turnout.“When the final results will be announced, there might be some complaints, nothing more."

The turnout was 58 percent of an estimated 12 million eligible voters, marking a 20 percent increase over the 5.6 million votes in the election in 2009.

“We’ve sent a clear message with our vote: Afghan people want radical change, it has to be positive, and it’s going to be made by ourselves,” professor of international criminal law Wahidullah Amiri tells IPS.

Amiri teaches at Nangarhar University. Founded in 1963, this is the second largest university in the country, with around 8,000 students, including 1,200 female students, enrolled in 13 faculties. The campus is spread over 160 hectares in Daroonta, a village 10 km from Jalalabad, capital of Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan.

The enthusiasm here over the polling, which went far better than expected, is evident: “The turnout was beyond any expectations,” Prof. Abdul Nabi Basirat, who heads the department of international relations at the political science facultym tells IPS. “The international community did not expect that, we Afghans did not expect it, and even I did not.

“It’s a landmark, showing that Afghans are taking charge of their own future, selecting the successor to [outgoing president Hamid] Karzai. We bravely confronted the Taliban threats without the help of NATO or other external players.”

The Afghan government deployed more than 350,000 soldiers and policemen to protect the vote, with the International Security Assistance Force playing only a marginal role, much smaller than in 2009. The Taliban did not manage to carry out a single large-scale assault in any major city.

“Substantially, the Taliban failed to disrupt the election process,” the dean of the political science faculty at Nangarhar University, Naqibullah Saqeb, tells IPS. “Their failure is a success for the Afghan government. Many were saying it would have been challenging, if not impossible, for the government to run the elections, due to its weakness and due to Taliban strength. We have done it.”

The Taliban movement – deeply divided over this year’s election – claimed to have carried out “nearly 1088 attacks” nationwide at “polling centres and the vehicles and convoys carrying votes, election material and ballot boxes.”

The Afghan interior minister announced the ministry had counted 690 security incidents. The figures do not match, but they still indicate that the Taliban are far from being a spent force, depicting the emergence of two different electoral narratives.

One narrative took place in Afghanistan’s cities and urban areas, which enjoy relative security and a higher turnout, and the other in the insecure rural areas, especially in the volatile south-east of the country, with very different patterns of voter participation.

Koshal Jawad belongs to one of the areas contested between the government and the Taliban. “I wanted to vote, but I couldn’t,” Jawad, a student of political science planning to present his final dissertation in two months, tells IPS.

“I live in Haska Mena [also called Dih Bala] district, bordering Pakistan. In the past 12 months it has become unsafe. We now have hundreds of Taliban there, mainly Pakistani people. They did not allow us to vote: they stopped the cars, and checked the fingers, to see if anyone had a finger dipped in ink, which shows you’d voted.”

“Nobody really knows how many voters there are, how many of them hold a voter card, or how many of the ballots cast will turn out to have really been linked to voters,” writes Martine Van Bijlert, co-director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network.

In the more insecure areas, elections were neither transparent nor accountable, says Van Bijlert. “Alongside a robust, genuine and determined vote, there are indications of significant irregularities: old patterns of intimidation, ballot-stuffing, and ‘ghost polling stations’ in remote and insecure areas.”

The Independent Election Commission (IEC) is verifying all the ballot boxes received from about 6,400 polling centres and 20,000 polling stations across 34 provinces. The Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) has registered more than 3,000 complaints, and the independent Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan has registered 10,000 cases of alleged irregularities.

“Fraud is still part of the electoral process, this is clear,” says Amiri. “But to such a limited extent in comparison to 2009 that it will not affect the overall legitimacy of the process to Afghan eyes.”

Preliminary results are expected Apr. 24, with the final result due on May 14, but many believe no candidate will win more than 50 percent of the vote. That could lead to a runoff between the two leading candidates, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, an academic and former World Bank official and former minister of finance, and Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister and a prominent leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.

The first results covering 10 percent of the overall vote give Abdullah Abdullah 41.9 percent and Ashraf Ghani 37.6 percent.

Meanwhile, campaign officials have been carrying out their own counts, claiming victory for their candidates.

“It’s part of the game. Politics is competition, where one player wins and the other loses. Usually losers are not eager to admit they are losers, so everyone claims to be the winner,” Muhtarama Amin, a member of the Nangarhar provincial council, tells IPS.

“When the final results will be announced, there might be some complaints, nothing more,” she says. “We are a maturing political system: any candidate knows that massive fraud would undermine his legitimacy, leading soon to the collapse of his government.”

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Taliban Screens a New Silence http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/taliban-back-scene/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=taliban-back-scene http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/taliban-back-scene/#comments Sun, 13 Apr 2014 08:57:43 +0000 Ashfaq Yusufzai http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133628 Mushfiq Wali, a 22-year-old shoemaker in northern Pakistan, loves watching films in the local Pashto language. But he says the Taliban are a killjoy: their bomb attacks have led to the closure of movie theatres, again. “They don’t spare anything that brings happiness.” The extent of freedom to listen to music and to go to […]

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After brief and scattered successes, entertainment has gone back into hiding following bomb attacks by the Taliban. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS.

After brief and scattered successes, entertainment has gone back into hiding following bomb attacks by the Taliban. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS.

By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Apr 13 2014 (IPS)

Mushfiq Wali, a 22-year-old shoemaker in northern Pakistan, loves watching films in the local Pashto language. But he says the Taliban are a killjoy: their bomb attacks have led to the closure of movie theatres, again. “They don’t spare anything that brings happiness.”

The extent of freedom to listen to music and to go to the cinema has become a barometer of the influence of the Taliban, and of just normal living. Music and cinema have been emerging as the language of a challenge to the Taliban, as surely as the Taliban have attacked music.The extent of freedom to listen to music and to go to the cinema has become a barometer for the influence of the Taliban.

“The past five years have been very difficult for musicians because of Taliban militants. Now we are heaving a sigh of relief as acts of terror have gone down,” singer Gul Pana told IPS earlier this year. But the Taliban have hit back.

On Feb. 11, Taliban militants hurled two grenades at Shama Cinema in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in the north of Pakistan, killing 15 people. The attack came soon after five people were killed at the Picture House cinema hall in another terror attack on Feb. 2.

“Such incidents are very depressing for people who seek a few moments of leisure after a hard day’s work,” Wali said. “We have no internet, TV or other entertainment facilities at home, so we would go to cinema halls for some happiness.”

Opposition to movies, music and dance has always been a part of the Taliban agenda. They killed Wazir Khan Afridi, a veteran singer who recorded 50 albums, on Feb. 26. Afridi had been kidnapped three times before, but was freed on those occasions on condition he quit singing.

“The Taliban have set fire to over 500 CD and music shops in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to frighten people and force them to wind up businesses that are against their brand of Islam,” Ghulam Nabi, who seeks to promote culture in the region, told IPS.

The Taliban have many bases in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in the north bordering Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. They have been targeting music shops and musicians, and believe that music is un-Islamic.

In January 2009, militants had slit the throat of dancer Shabana Begum in Swat, one of the districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and hung her body from an electricity pole. The incident forced other artistes to stay at home or leave the city. Thousands of dancers and musicians fled Swat from 2007 to 2009 when the area was under Taliban rule.

Peshawar used to have 21 cinema houses, each with a capacity of around 200, before the advent of militancy. The city is now left with just 11 movie theatres. Cinema halls are also being closed down in neighbouring Mardan district.

Jehangir Jani, 54, a well-known Pashto film actor, is perturbed. “It is highly condemnable that the Taliban are depriving people of entertainment. I am sure the insurgents will not be able to shut down cinema houses for very long as people cannot live without movies,” he told IPS.

Jani, who is a household name in Pashtun areas, has had to go to Afghanistan many times to film. “In Afghanistan, films are being produced for CDs. Pashtuns have traditionally been film buffs.”

Films in the Pashto language, widely spoken in Afghanistan, are popular in some Pakistani areas as well. “They are watched by people from FATA as well as Afghanistan,” said cine-goer Zahirzada Khan.

Cinema houses are a cheap source of entertainment, he said. “The closure of cinema halls after back-to-back bombings is very upsetting.”

Kashif Shah, manager of a Peshawar cinema hall, said hall owners received letters earlier this year asking them to stop the “shameful trade” of screening movies. “The Taliban warned that they would make an example of us,” Shah said. His hall is now shut.

Shah said the Taliban’s campaign would end up isolating them. “Even their well-wishers have turned against them.”

But the terror threat persists. Police say they don’t have enough personnel to guard cinema halls, and have directed cinema theatres to make their own security arrangements.

“We have told movie hall owners to install cameras and metal detectors at the gates,” senior superintendent of police Najibullah Khan told IPS. “We don’t have enough personnel, but we are ready to train private security guards to prevent such incidents.”

The police have arrested 15-year-old Hasan Khan, who was paid 80 dollars by the Taliban to hurl grenades at the Shama Cinema.

For the time being, Peshawar is going without films.

Jehanzeb Ali, a 35-year-old mechanic from Mardan, told IPS that he used to watch a film every Sunday. “We used to visit Peshawar, watch films and eat out. Now I haven’t seen a movie for a month.”

The cultural challenge to the Taliban had made tentative but isolated advances in recent years. “In the last few years, I have sung more than a dozen songs against the Taliban,” award-wining singer Khyal Muhammad told IPS in 2011. “I got threatening messages on the mobile phone,” he said. “But I will continue to sing because it gives me strength.”

For some time after 2010 it did appear that music and cinema were on a winning track – despite repeated attacks on musicians and music stores. Cinema houses that were closed down began to reopen.

But all along, those in the business have struggled to keep music playing and the show going. “The endless series of bomb attacks on CD and music shops has become the order of the day, but we are undeterred,” Sher Dil Khan, president of the CD and Music Shops Association in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the north of Pakistan, told IPS in 2011. “We will continue to produce new dramas and songs.”

The big encouragement came with the elections in 2013 when cricketer turned politician Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaaf party won the election in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. After the resumption of open sales of music, and the occasional theatre performance, music returned in full swing – in many if not all areas. Now, silence has advanced again.

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Iraqi Sunnis Seek a Say http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/iraqi-sunnis-seek-say/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=iraqi-sunnis-seek-say http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/iraqi-sunnis-seek-say/#comments Sat, 12 Apr 2014 09:33:34 +0000 Karlos Zurutuza http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133624 Sunni Muslims have set up a new party amidst uncertainties as to whether elections can be held as scheduled in the troubled western regions of Iraq. Polling for the 328-seat Iraqi parliament is due Apr. 30. Ahead of the scheduled election, tribal, political and religious leaders, and also lawyers, engineers and other professionals,  gathered in Erbil […]

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Members at the inaugural meeting of Karama, a newly founded umbrella party for Iraqi Sunnis. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS.

Members at the inaugural meeting of Karama, a newly founded umbrella party for Iraqi Sunnis. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS.

By Karlos Zurutuza
ERBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan , Apr 12 2014 (IPS)

Sunni Muslims have set up a new party amidst uncertainties as to whether elections can be held as scheduled in the troubled western regions of Iraq. Polling for the 328-seat Iraqi parliament is due Apr. 30.

Ahead of the scheduled election, tribal, political and religious leaders, and also lawyers, engineers and other professionals,  gathered in Erbil in the Kurdistan region of Iraq April 8 to set up a new party, Karama (Dignity).Karama hopes to become an effective political voice for Sunnis, but Jassim cautions that Karama is a project “in the long-term”.

The Sunni Arabs came from several western towns of Iraq, where fighting and unrest have not yet ended, 11 years after former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was toppled.

No bloc is expected to get a majority but Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is the favourite to lead. Shia Arabs are split between the prime minister’s State of Law party, the Sadrist Movement and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.

Karama candidate Afifa Agus al-Jumaili says a third consecutive term for Maliki would be “disastrous” for all Iraqis.

“The Sunni provinces of Iraq have turned into a combat zone between tribal militias, Al-Qaeda and Maliki’s Shias,” Jumaili tells IPS. She sees Karama as the “only chance for Sunni Iraqis of all walks of life to get back their rights and dignity.”

Karama is among 276 political entities approved by the Independent High Electoral Commission to contest the election. It’s among several parties looking to win over supporters of the now fragmented secular and Sunni Iraqiya coalition. That coalition won the last elections but was ousted by a Shia coalition, that brought Maliki to power.

The Sunni population is variously estimated to be 20 to 40 percent of Iraq’s population of 32 million. Sunnis have been complaining of increasing marginalisation by the predominantly Shia political leaders.

“The sad irony of all this is that we are forced to gather in the Kurdish Autonomous Region of Iraq because an event like this is simply not feasible in Arab Iraq,” says Jumaili.

Despite their initial opposition to a federal model for the country, Iraqi Sunnis have increasingly been demanding an autonomous region similar to that for the Kurds.

Jumaili is originally from Hawija town 230 km north of Baghdad. Apr. 23 will mark a year since Iraqi special forces killed 51 protesters in this town. At least 215 more were killed in violence that followed.

In its World Report 2014, Human Rights Watch says security forces “responded to peaceful protests with threats, violence, and arrests, using lethal force on demonstrators who had been gathering largely peacefully for five months.” It spoke of “arbitrary and often massive arrests.”

Following the killings, anti-government protests picked up new momentum, particularly in mid-December after several bodyguards of Finance Minister Rafie al-Issawi, the highest-ranking Sunni Arab in the cabinet, were arrested on suspicion of engaging in terrorism.

Sunnis are functionally excluded from government. The few who participate are coopted by Maliki.

The protests for rights and over the deaths has dragged the west of the country into unprecedented chaos since the peak of sectarian violence between 2006 and 2008.

Among the most prominent protesters is Ghanim Alabed, a resident of Mosul town about 400 km northwest of Baghdad.

“Mosul has become a real nightmare over the last year,” Alabed, who has joined Karama, tells IPS. “Car bombs, kidnappings, killing of tribal leaders or simply ordinary civilians are sadly common currency among us, yet again.”

Alabed says most attacks are carried out by “either the army or Shia militias.” He says local journalists are increasingly being targeted. At least 50 journalists have been killed in Mosul alone since 2003.

The U.S. based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) named Iraq the “worst nation” in its 2013 Impunity Index of unsolved journalist murders.

“I cannot set foot in Mosul, Baghdad or any other Arab part of Iraq because I know they will kill me straightaway,” says Alabed, who moved to Erbil with his family a few months ago.

His face is familiar to almost every Iraqi, and not just for his public appearances at many demonstrations. Cartoons portraying him as a terrorist leader have been shown on a government-funded TV channel.

“Americans had labelled all Sunni insurgents ‘Al-Qaeda’ and, today, Maliki still sticks to that line,” says Alabed. “But the truth is that most of us hate Al-Qaeda because we know that they are backed by Iran. Their sole aim is to destroy our society and prevent us from sharing power.”

The proof, he says, is that Islamic extremists hardly ever target Shias in his hometown.

The death toll is increasing by the day. Mera Faris Hassan, a tribal leader from Samarra, 130 km northwest of Baghdad, is mourning the death last week of Sheikh Juma al-Samarrai in his hometown.

Hassan tells IPS a curfew is in force in Samarra. He condemns constant attacks from both the government and unidentified groups.

“Through Karama we will struggle to get rid of policies meant only to justify repression against our people,” says Hassan. “We deserve to get back our legitimate rights as Iraqis.”

The emergency situation extends to virtually every Sunni area in Iraq. But Fallujah, 60 kilometres west of Baghdad, could well be facing the worst of the unrest.

Karama candidate Mohamed Jassim speaks of a mass exodus of civilians from Fallujah to Baghdad and Erbil. The situation in Fallujah, he says, is a “humanitarian catastrophe”.

“Every main road is blocked and the only way in and out is through secondary roads, and often on foot. The outskirts of the city are under the control of armed gangs but it’s difficult to know whether they are Al-Qaeda fighters or tribal militias because most are masked and carry no emblems.

“The biggest threat, though, comes from the constant bombings by the Iraqi air force,” the 44-year-old candidate tells IPS.

Karama hopes to become an effective political voice for Sunnis, but Jassim cautions that Karama is a “long-term” project. At this nascent stage and under the difficult circumstances it is hard to gauge whether Karama can emerge as a Sunni political force to contend with.

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Taliban Provokes New Hunger for Education http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/taliban-provokes-new-hunger-education/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=taliban-provokes-new-hunger-education http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/taliban-provokes-new-hunger-education/#comments Mon, 07 Apr 2014 06:41:26 +0000 Ashfaq Yusufzai http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133460 Following scattered defiance of the Taliban earlier, a new wave of students is now heading for education in schools and colleges across the troubled north of Pakistan. “There is a steady increase in enrolment of students because parents have realised the significance of education, and now they want to thwart the Taliban’s efforts to deprive […]

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Girls at a makeshift school in Khyber Agency in the troubled northern region of Pakistan. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS.

Girls at a makeshift school in Khyber Agency in the troubled northern region of Pakistan. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS.

By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Apr 7 2014 (IPS)

Following scattered defiance of the Taliban earlier, a new wave of students is now heading for education in schools and colleges across the troubled north of Pakistan.

“There is a steady increase in enrolment of students because parents have realised the significance of education, and now they want to thwart the Taliban’s efforts to deprive students of education,” Pervez Khan, education officer in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), tells IPS.

In 2012, he says, the literacy rate for girls was three percent in FATA. That rose to 10.5 percent in 2013."Anything opposed by the Taliban benefits the people.” -- Muhammad Darwaish, a shopkeeper in Khyber Agency

The boys literacy rate shot up correspondingly to 36.6 percent compared to 29.5 percent.

The Taliban are opposed to modern education. They have destroyed about 500 schools, including 300 schools for girls.

Khan says the Taliban’s campaign against education is only propelling more of the tribal population towards schools.

“The majority of people know that the Taliban are pursuing anti-people activities, such as damaging schools, and therefore they are now coming in droves,” he says.

Muhammad Darwaish, a shopkeeper in Khyber Agency, agrees with Khan. “I enrolled my two daughters and one son in school because I am now convinced that education will benefit them. Anything opposed by the Taliban benefits the people.”

Saeeda Bibi, one of his daughters, says she enjoys school. “I go to school everyday and am very happy there. Before, I used to pass the whole day in the streets.”

Darwaish says he will make every effort to keep his children in school. “I am poor but I will make all efforts to see my children educated.”

Khyber Agency, one of the seven tribal agencies within FATA, has faced some of the worst of Taliban violence. Since 2005, 85 schools have been blown up, depriving about 50,000 children of a school to go to on the militancy-stricken Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

But Khyber Agency saw a 16.1 percent rise in enrolment last year compared to 2012.

Like Darwaish, scores of parents in FATA are now taking the education of their sons and daughters more seriously.

Abdul Jameel of Kurram Agency sends both his sons to school. “Militants have blown up three schools in our area, due to which my children sat at home. They are back because now the Taliban-damaged schools have been reconstructed.”

Director of Education in FATA, Ikram Ahmed, says they have seen a 21.3 percent rise in boys and girls enrolment in Kurram Agency, 7.5 percent in South Waziristan, 4.3 percent in North Waziristan and 5.1 percent in Orakzai Agency.

In all 124,424 girls are enrolled in 1,551 primary schools, 19,614 girls in 158 middle schools, 13,837 girls in 42 high schools and 1,134 girls in five higher secondary schools in FATA, Ahmed tells IPS.

“In the past few years, militant activities and the poor law and order situation in tribal areas badly hampered girls’ education but the government’s measures have paid off,” he says.

“The massive allocation of 3.67 billion rupees [37 million dollars] offset the impact of damage caused to educational institutions during the war against terrorism.”

Annually, education was given top priority in the development programme of 2013 – at 24.64 percent of the FATA budget of 18.5 billion rupees (188 million dollars).

The current year will bring 38 new middle schools, 125 primary schools and three hostels for female teachers.

Akram says that in some areas the army damaged schools because militants had been using them. “About 10 schools were destroyed by the army in South Waziristan where Taliban militants lived,” he says. All those schools are being rebuilt.

“In some areas, the government has established tent schools to provide education to children and at other places dozens of well-off people have offered private buildings and structures to be used as schools,” he says.

Bismillah Khan, one of the 20 lawmakers from FATA, tells IPS that the government will provide more scholarships and free textbooks to support poor students.

“We have suffered a great deal due to prolonged militancy,” says Iqbal Afridi, a leader of the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek Insaf. “Our students have suffered, businessmen and farmers have lost their work, and the only way to make progress is education. The good news is that people now want to educate their children at any cost.”

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Italian Doctors Abort a Law http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/italy-aborts-law/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=italy-aborts-law http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/italy-aborts-law/#comments Sat, 05 Apr 2014 07:19:47 +0000 Silvia Giannelli http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133355 Two out of three doctors in Italy are ‘conscientious objectors’ to abortion, according to new data. The Italian Ministry of Health reveals that in 2011, 69.3 percent of doctors refused to carry out abortions, with peaks of over 85 percent in some regions. In the face of such numbers, the ruling of the European Committee […]

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A demonstration in support of abortion rights in Dublin. Credit: Irish Family Planning Association.

A demonstration in support of abortion rights in Dublin. Credit: Irish Family Planning Association.

By Silvia Giannelli
ROME, Apr 5 2014 (IPS)

Two out of three doctors in Italy are ‘conscientious objectors’ to abortion, according to new data. The Italian Ministry of Health reveals that in 2011, 69.3 percent of doctors refused to carry out abortions, with peaks of over 85 percent in some regions.

In the face of such numbers, the ruling of the European Committee of Social Rights of the Council of Europe against Italy earlier this month over a complaint for violating the right to protection of health came as no surprise.“Many doctors object simply because they have nothing to gain from doing this extra work.”

“The Italian situation really worries us, and this is why we filed the complaint,” Irene Donadio, advocacy officer at the International Planned Parenthood Federation European Network (IPPF_EN) told IPS. “We believe that there is a problem with the functioning and application of the abortion law, which, in fact, would be a good law but is often violated.

“We acknowledge the fact that the right to conscientious objection is included in the same law, but the right of women to access a service that is legal and fundamental for their health needs to be respected as much as this right.”

IPPF_EN sees the high number of conscientious objectors in Italy as the main cause behind refusal of women’s right to termination of pregnancy.

IPPF_EN, with the help of several Italian associations, presented to the Committee a scenario of never-ending waiting lists and arbitrary suspensions of the service. It listed many instances where women were forced to travel for abortions within the country or to go abroad.

“According to data from the Ministry of Health, the number of voluntary interruptions of pregnancy per year is around 110,000,” Giuseppe Noia, president of the Italian Association of Catholic Gynaecologists Obstetricians (AIGOC) told IPS.

“If we consider that there are about 1,500 non-objecting physicians, each physician carries out around 74 abortions per year, that is an average of five or six per month. The fact that non-objectors are overloaded and cannot guarantee an efficient system is therefore absolutely false,” Noia said.

In its response to the Council, the Ministry had said that due to a decline in abortions, “the workload for non-objecting doctors was cut by half in the last 30 years” and therefore “it appears difficult…to maintain that the high number of conscientious objectors would be an obstacle for accessing the interruption of pregnancy.”

The ministry’s note does not elaborate on the geographical distribution of objectors across the country. This is what, according to the Council of Europe, creates a disparity in treatment depending on where the woman seeking an abortion resides.

In the southern region of Basilicata, according to official data, 85.2 percent of physicians are conscientious objectors, in Apulia they account for 79.4 percent of the total, and in Sicily 81.7 percent.

“The situation is generally worse in the South, but also Lombardy [in the north bordering Switzerland] has serious problems, and we know that this is because is a not very laic region,” Silvana Agatone, president of  the Free Italian Association of Gynaecologists for the Application of Law 194 (LAIGA) told IPS. Law 194 is the law that regulates abortion in Italy.

The decrease in abortions claimed is subject to different interpretations. The ministry maintains that this is due to “the promotion of a higher and more efficacious recourse to conscious procreation.” But Marilisa D’Amico, a lawyer who was involved in presenting the complaint, says that the increase of cases of spontaneous abortions, or miscarriages, “can only be explained as an increase of clandestine abortions” presented as miscarriages. There were less than 57,000 such abortions in 1990, 68,000 in 2000 and more than 76,000 in 2011, according to ISTAT.

The official figures show a constant increase in the number of miscarriages through recent years.

LAIGA provided a list of 45 hospitals that have a gynaecology unit but do not perform terminations of pregnancy, disregarding Article 9 of the Italian law on abortion. This article states that hospital establishments and authorised nursing homes shall ensure that procedures for the termination of pregnancy are guaranteed.

Clandestine abortions continue to take place, says Massimo Srebot, head of the department of obstetrics and gynaecology at the Lotti Hospital of Pontedera in Tuscany region, the first structure in Italy to introduce RU-486, a pill that blocks the action of the hormone progesterone in order to cause abortion without surgical intervention.

“Women who find obstacles in public hospitals seek alternative channels with physicians who, upon receiving a bribe, are willing to simulate a spontaneous abortion. These are conscientious objectors only when they have to work for free. They turn a blind an eye to their conscience in their private clinics.”

Srebot says “many doctors object simply because they have nothing to gain from doing this extra work.” Also, “carrying out abortions doesn’t help a doctor’s professional career because it is not a high-level specialisation operation.”

Srebot has proposed new solutions to ensure the respect of Law 194. One option would be to nominate a non-objector as a sub-head physician for every public hospital.

“I truly respect the real conscientious objectors, but there are those who speculate on women’s difficult situations, they don’t sustain them, they don’t help them preventing further incidents, they only wait for them to get pregnant again, so they once again cash in.”

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Misgivings Rise Over Afghan Poll http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/misgivings-rise-afghan-poll/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=misgivings-rise-afghan-poll http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/misgivings-rise-afghan-poll/#comments Fri, 04 Apr 2014 06:40:40 +0000 Giuliano Battiston http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133407 “If Abdullah will become president, the will of [the] Afghan people will be respected. Otherwise – especially if Zalmai Rassoul will be indicated as the winner – a new conflict will start and our country will become more insecure.” The remark by Abdullah Abdullah supporter Qazi Sadullah Abu Aman is typical of the uncertainties and […]

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Local party workers on the campaign trail in Mazar-e-Sharif. Credit: Giuliano Battiston/IPS.

Local party workers on the campaign trail in Mazar-e-Sharif. Credit: Giuliano Battiston/IPS.

By Giuliano Battiston
FAIZABAD, Afghanistan, Apr 4 2014 (IPS)

“If Abdullah will become president, the will of [the] Afghan people will be respected. Otherwise – especially if Zalmai Rassoul will be indicated as the winner – a new conflict will start and our country will become more insecure.” The remark by Abdullah Abdullah supporter Qazi Sadullah Abu Aman is typical of the uncertainties and accusations rising as election day draws close on Saturday.

Sitting in his two-storey house in Faizabad, the largest city in the northeastern Badakhshan province, Abu Aman says only a massive fraud in favour of Rassoul, the presidential candidate backed by outgoing President Hamid Karzai, can stop former foreign minister and prominent Tajik leader Abdullah winning."The Independent Election Commission is independent only in name. It knows the ways here, but does not act.” -- Dr Anisgul Akhgar, director of the Relation & Cooperation Women Organisation

Abu Aman is one of the most authoritative figures in the province, as former head of the Provincial Peace Council, the government institution that runs the peace process with armed opposition groups, and a former member of the Afghan Upper House (Meshrano Jirga).

Abu Aman is a member of Jamiat-e-Islami, the predominately Tajik Islamist political party founded in the 1970s by Burhanuddin Rabbani. This was one of the major Afghan mujahedeen parties that fought the Soviet occupation in the eighties. He is also a candidate for election to the council of Badakhshan, one of the 34 Afghan provinces whose representatives will be elected Apr. 5, simultaneously with a new president to succeed Karzai.

“People will vote for him [Abdullah Abdullah] because he was a mujahed [religious fighter] who bravely fought the Soviets, and because he understands the problems of ordinary people. He is the right man to replace Karzai, whose government is corrupt and was unable to provide a better life for Afghans,” Abu Aman tells IPS.

Karzai, he says, has “activated the governmental machine to help Rassoul.”

Just a few hundred metres from Abu Aman’s house is the provincial office for Rassoul’s campaign. The office is headed by Basiri Khaled, a former mujahed with huge appeal.

He admits that Abdullah is a strong competitor: “He is known by everybody, kids and old men – and when you go to the bazaar you buy the product you already know. This is true. But Zalmai Rassoul has more chances to win, due to his programmes: he has promised to build schools, hospitals, roads, and to create new jobs through the mineral sector.”

In 2009, Khaled had coordinated Abdullah’s campaign; now he is running Rasoul’s. He sees no incoherence here, and says he still is a member of the Jamiat-e-Islami: “I’m a Jamiati since I was a kid,” he tells IPS. “I was a strong commander, the first to push away the Soviets from Badakhshan. I have fought together with commandant Masoud [the iconic leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, killed in September 2011, whose portraits overlook the main buildings here]. Nobody can expel me from the party.”

As evidence of the strength of his preferred candidate, Khaled says “thousands of people took part in his rally here in Faizabad.”

That may not mean much. “All candidates spend a lot of money to bring a huge number of people to their gatherings,” says Samiullah Saihwn, who works for the local radio Bayan-e-Shamal. “They gave money to the local commanders, and to community and village leaders to ensure broader participation. So it’s hard to understand who really will get the votes.”

On Mar. 31, Saihwn chaired a debate with some of the provincial council candidates. Promoted by the Badakhshan Civil Society Forum (BCSF), the debate was vibrant and frank. Many of the 250 or so people gathered at the Setara-e-Shar wedding hall in the city fired some very blunt questions.

“We had organised something similar in the earlier elections,” BCSF director Saifuddin Sais tells IPS. “But this was the first debate in town for the 2014 elections. We also have promoted debates and seminars in five rural districts, reaching more than 1,000 people and explaining to them the electoral process and their rights.”

Despite the awareness programmes by the BCSF, the gap between Faizabad and the rural areas remains huge.

“In Faizabad people somehow know their political rights, they know they can choose whoever they want, but in districts they have no information, no idea of what is going on,” says Saihwn. “They just follow what a local mullah, a commander or a power broker tells them. Ability is not a criterion.”

Dr Anisgul Akhgar, director of the Relation & Cooperation Women Organisation (RCWO), agrees. “Here in the city I perceive a great will to vote. Here anyone is free to select any of the candidates. But in rural districts local power brokers collect voter cards or indicate the people who have to be voted for.”

She fears that the election may therefore be unfair. “No effective measures have been taken to prevent fraud and rigging. The Independent Election Commission [the institution that should manage all the electoral process] is independent only in name. It knows the ways here, but does not act.”

Despite such apprehensions, Akhgar, a women’s rights activist since the days of the Taliban regime, will vote. “I will use my constitutional rights and I am encouraging all the women I know to do the same,” she tells IPS.

Zofanoon Hassam, head of the provincial Women Affairs Department, is also trying to encourage women’s participation.

“Through our awareness programmes we have spoken with more than 2,000 women. We have a registration centre here at our main office, and many women got their electoral cards here. According to our estimate, around 78,000 women in Faizabad – 44 percent of the total number – got it. We are particularly proud of this.”

The road to equal inclusion of women in politics is still long and difficult. “In many areas women are told who to vote for by their husbands. It’s a bad habits like this we are trying to dismiss. But more time is needed,” Hassam tells IPS.

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Afghans Set to Vote on Ethnic Lines http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/afghans-set-vote-ethnic-lines/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=afghans-set-vote-ethnic-lines http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/afghans-set-vote-ethnic-lines/#comments Wed, 02 Apr 2014 08:11:29 +0000 Giuliano Battiston http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133368 Ethnicities will come to the fore in the Afghan elections due Saturday this week, even though it appears that the young are beginning to break away from such loyalties. On Apr. 5, around 12 million voters will have the chance to elect a new president to replace President Hamid Karzai, constitutionally barred from a third […]

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Young girls prepare to sing a song in support of presidential candidate Gul Agha Sherzai in Kunduz city in North Afghanistan. Credit: Giuliano Battiston/IPS.

Young girls prepare to sing a song in support of presidential candidate Gul Agha Sherzai in Kunduz city in North Afghanistan. Credit: Giuliano Battiston/IPS.

By Giuliano Battiston
KABUL, Apr 2 2014 (IPS)

Ethnicities will come to the fore in the Afghan elections due Saturday this week, even though it appears that the young are beginning to break away from such loyalties.

On Apr. 5, around 12 million voters will have the chance to elect a new president to replace President Hamid Karzai, constitutionally barred from a third mandate."What is more important is that the people – particularly the civil society – have pushed the candidates to present articulated platforms.” -- Aziz Rafiee, director of the Afghan Civil Society Forum Organisation

Officially opened on Feb. 2, the race remains open and it’s still hard to predict who will get the chair at the Arg, the presidential palace in Kabul where Karzai has been since 2001 – just after the overthrow of the Taliban regime.

The political and economic power Karzai has accumulated is likely to be inherited by his replacement – whatever the ethnicity.

Pashtuns form the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, about 40 to 60 percent, followed by Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks. Precise numbers are disputed, and ethnicities often overlap.

There are three in the lead among the eight candidates: Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, an academic and former World Bank official and former minister of finance; Abdullah Abdullah, former foreign minister and a prominent leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and Karzai’s main rival in the disputed 2009 elections; and Zalmai Rassoul, national security adviser to President Karzai for eight years and foreign minister 2010-2013. He is seen as the contender backed by the outgoing president.

Many promises are being made – reconstructing the fragile economy, relaunching the peace process with armed opposition groups, and bringing security to the war-torn country – but the contenders seem to focus above all on ethnicity.

“The candidates are relying on ethnic, linguistic, or religious affiliation, because they do not have any political source of legitimacy,” Hamidullah Zazai, managing director of Mediothek Afghanistan, an organisation promoting pluralism in the media, tells IPS.

“One contender says ‘I’m the Tajik representative, you Tajik people should vote for me’, another says ‘I’m the Pashtun representative, you Pashtun people should vote for me’. The ethnic appeal occludes what is more important: programmes, ideas, plans for our future, which are still uncertain.”

Aziz Rafiee, director of the Afghan Civil Society Forum Organisation, tells IPS “there are five important factors in the voting process: ethnicity, regional location, language, branch of religion and political affiliation. Amongst these five dividing and sometimes overlapping lines, ethnicity is still considered the most important by many voters.”

To ensure broader constituencies, candidates have drawn the political chessboard also along ethnic lines: Zalmai Rassoul, considered a weak candidate without the support of Karzai’s pervasive power system, has chosen as his running mate the Tajik Ahmad Zia Massoud, brother of Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was the iconic commander of the Northern Alliance before he was killed in 2001. For second vice-president he has proposed Habiba Sarabi, a Hazara, former governor of Bamiyan province.

Rassoul does not speak Pashtu fluently and is not regarded by many Afghans as a “real Pashtun”. He enthusiastically announced the support of both Qayum Karzai, President Karzai’s elder brother (with a huge constituency in Pashtun-dominated south Afghanistan), and Nader Naeem, son of Mohammed Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan from 1933 until 1973.

Abdullah is a mixed Tajik and Pashtun, but he is seen as a Tajik due to his prominent role within the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance. “By choosing for vice-president the Pashtun Mohammad Khan, he made an interesting choice,” Fabrizio Foschini, researcher with the Afghanistan Analysts Network, tells IPS. “Mohammad Khan is a member of the political branch of the Hezb-e-Islami party, and thanks to him Abdullah can compensate his weakness in the south-south east of the country.”

However, according to Foschini, Abdullah’s real strength is his second vice-presidential candidate, Mohammed Mohaqeq, a Hazara who could secure a large number of votes in the central areas.

Some believe that Abdullah is losing ground while Ahmadzai is gaining. “Ghani [Ahmadzai] had a stroke of genius selecting for vice-president General [Abdul Rashid] Dostum,” says Foschini. “While the Hazara and Tajik vote is highly fragmented, the Uzbek vote will go almost completely to Dostum. Prior to Ghani’s choice, nobody would ever have guessed that an Uzbek might aspire to the second chair.”

To be accepted as running mate, the Uzbek Abdul Rashid Dostum – a powerful northern warlord in the 1990s and founder of the Jombesh party, National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan – “was asked by Ghani to apologise for his past crimes, and this is something revolutionary,” Mir Ahmad Joyenda, former parliamentarian and now deputy director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, an NGO based in Kabul, tells IPS.

Joyenda say ethnicities still play a role in the Afghan political landscape but believes that things are changing. “In the past 12 years we have seen changes, mostly in the main cities. There are people – especially the young – who are interested in voting for a candidate offering effective programmes.”

Rafiee of the Afghan Civil Society Forum Organisation agrees. “We can say that Afghans are acting more politically compared to the 2005 and 2009 elections. People will not vote 100 percent along ethnic lines. What is more important is that the people – particularly the civil society – have pushed the candidates to present articulated platforms.”

The next Afghan president will be elected mostly on the ethnic balance of the vote “but ethnic/religious walls are going to be slowly demolished,” says Zazai of Mediothek Afghanistan.

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Fighting Now Brings Disease http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/fighting-now-brings-disease/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=fighting-now-brings-disease http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/fighting-now-brings-disease/#comments Sat, 29 Mar 2014 10:21:11 +0000 Mutawalli Abou Nasser http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133295 For just that moment, the refugees in Yarmouk camp in Damascus made news. After months of facing starvation and death in the shadows of the Syrian civil war came packets of food and aid in January – with cameras in tow. The refugees poured out on the streets in a river of desperation to claim […]

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The celebrations over food aid at Yarmouk camp in Damascus were short-lived. Credit: Niraz Saeed/IPS.

The celebrations over food aid at Yarmouk camp in Damascus were short-lived. Credit: Niraz Saeed/IPS.

By Mutawalli Abou Nasser
DAMASCUS, Mar 29 2014 (IPS)

For just that moment, the refugees in Yarmouk camp in Damascus made news. After months of facing starvation and death in the shadows of the Syrian civil war came packets of food and aid in January – with cameras in tow.

The refugees poured out on the streets in a river of desperation to claim the first deliveries of aid that made it into the besieged area. Grown men were reduced to tears as their terror and isolation were momentarily broken.The escape from siege and warfare in January was as brief as it was desperate.

But the camera crews have since moved on, and hunger, violence and disease have returned to torment the people stuck in the camp.

Yarmouk camp in Damascus used to be the largest community of Palestinians living in Syria. They had to leave their homeland in the wars of 1948 and then 1967. It was a flourishing and vibrant neighbourhood in the capital, home to more than 100,000 people.

By late 2012 the camp became embroiled in the increasingly malignant civilian conflict, and it has suffered for it. Rebels have been engaged in long and bloody battles with the forces of President Bashar Assad.

Yarmouk has faced siege tactics, indiscriminate bombardment, and sniper fire, as have other neighbourhoods. The tactic seems to have been to subdue whole populations. It seems to have succeeded.

Rebels in many of the besieged areas, including Yarmouk, entered into fragile truce with government forces and their allied militias earlier in the year. A string of local agreements were brokered to put the fighting on hold, and to allow food and medicine in and civilians out.

The escape from siege and warfare in January was as brief as it was desperate. “UNRWA [the United Nations Relief and Works Agency] remains deeply concerned about the desperate humanitarian situation in Yarmouk and the fact that repeated resort to armed force has disrupted its efforts to alleviate the desperate plight of civilians,” UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness said in a statement.

Until recently resourceful volunteers had been working to maintain some rudimentary education system for the children and adolescents trapped in the camp. Working without institutional support, they were doing what they could to ensure the conflict would not leave a lost generation in its wake.

Now, the teachers and volunteers have had to close the classrooms. It’s not just bombs and snipers that have put a stop to their work but disease. The collapse of the healthcare system, chronic shortages of food and clean water, and accumulation of waste are combining to give rise to a number of health epidemics.

“One of our students fell unconscious in class, we took him to hospital and they diagnosed him with hepatitis,” Dr Khalil Khalil, a founding teacher of the makeshift school project, told IPS. “We then had all of our students tested and found at least seven other cases. The spread of this and other contagious diseases means a decision has been made to stop convening the classes.”

Making all this worse, fighting has erupted again. “The recent truce failed and the amount of vaccines and medication that made it into the camp were nowhere near sufficient to treat the plethora of diseases and illnesses we see spreading through the camp, especially among children,” Wissam Al-Ghoul, community health worker at the local Palestine Hospital, told IPS.

Fighters from both sides used the insufficient quantities of aid that did make it into the camp to reward their own.

“Members of the security services at the checkpoints seized some of the aid to distribute among their people, and rebel fighters stole some of the aid for their families and people close to them,” said food aid organiser Abou Salmi. “There is no order, and we suffer for that.”

About 7,000 parcels of aid are believed to have made it through the blockade in January. UNRWA concedes this was a “drop in the ocean” for the approximately 20,000 people who remain trapped in the camp.

In the spell when the siege was lifted, government forces and the Palestinian factions allied to them kidnapped many they suspected of supporting the rebels. Those picked up included children.

At least 30 men and adolescents have been detained, and their whereabouts remain unknown.

“Members of the Syrian security services, along with their allies from the PFLP-GC [a Palestinian faction allied to the Syrian government] detained at least 10 young men in front of my own eyes…We also know of people being lured to outlying buildings, and they were then kidnapped and whisked away,” said an UNRWA staff member who was among the team that oversaw the food aid. She asked not to be named for security reasons.

Each side blames the other for the breakdown in the ceasefire. “The regime did not release any of the detainees it had promised to, or secure the safe passage of food,” said Abu Khitaab from the ideologically extreme rebel battalion Jubhet al-Nusra.

“We pulled out of the camp fully as agreed but instead of releasing prisoners the regime began kidnapping young students and activists and to occupy some buildings inside the camp. We could not tolerate this, so we moved back in and resumed the battle.”

Regardless of who carries the responsibility for breaking the deal on which the ceasefire was built, for the innocent within Yarmouk the reality has returned to the same difficulties – a steady descent back into virtual imprisonment, and the chaos of fighting. Now, with disease added on.

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Fighting a ‘Losing’ War With the Taliban http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/taliban-fight/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=taliban-fight http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/taliban-fight/#comments Wed, 26 Mar 2014 08:18:08 +0000 Ashfaq Yusufzai http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133216 Pakistan is in the midst of a heated debate on continuing military operations against the Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), especially after the brutal killing of 23 army soldiers last month. Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan claims that the government acknowledges that the army’s chances of success are very low. Imran Khan, head of […]

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A police car attacked by militants near Peshawar. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS.

A police car attacked by militants near Peshawar. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS.

By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Mar 26 2014 (IPS)

Pakistan is in the midst of a heated debate on continuing military operations against the Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), especially after the brutal killing of 23 army soldiers last month.

Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan claims that the government acknowledges that the army’s chances of success are very low. Imran Khan, head of the Pakistan Tehreek Insaf (PTI) party, has been pressing for talks with the Taliban.“Our soldiers are fighting their own people. Militancy will never decrease through military action.”

“Militancy has increased in spite of the army’s presence. Around 50,000 people, including 5,000 soldiers, have been killed by the terrorists,” Khan tells IPS. His party is in power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province that adjoins FATA in the north of Pakistan.

“We have been urging peace talks because the military’s intervention is no solution to terrorism. The Taliban are killing our soldiers and civilians in a war started at the behest of the U.S.,” Khan tells IPS.

The government and the Taliban have formed their respective committees to hold peace talks. But the efforts came under strain after the brutal killing of 23 Frontier Corps soldiers by the Taliban in Mohmand Agency in FATA on Feb.16. The army men had been in captivity since 2010.

Khan says, “Our soldiers are fighting their own people. Militancy will never decrease through military action.”

In a TV interview last month, Khan claimed that the army chief had told Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that military operations couldn’t root out militancy. There was much hue and cry over his claim.

“Khan’s statement aims to demoralise the army,” said Khursheed Shah, opposition leader in the National Assembly. Shah accused Khan of stabbing the army in the back.

Information Minister Pervez Rasheed said the army was capable of fully eliminating the Taliban. “The beheading of 23 soldiers is condemnable. Even India, our archrival, treated our captured soldiers in accordance with the Geneva Convention and didn’t behead anyone,” he tells IPS.

Senator Muhammad Adeel of the Awami National Party alleged that Imran Khan was trying to underestimate the army.

However, many say Khan is not wrong.

“Khan’s statement that there are only 40 percent chances of military operations succeeding against the Taliban has stirred a heated debate in Pakistan, and he is not entirely wrong,” political analyst Muhammad Shoaib, who teaches at the University of Peshawar, tells IPS.

According to the army, the Taliban have killed 460 people since Sep 9. last year when an all-party conference decided to hold talks with the militants.

Shoaib said the killing of the 23 soldiers indicated that the militants were still going strong. “They were kept hostage for four years, killed and even a video of the killings released,” he pointed out.

Analysts say the situation in FATA is far more complex today than it was before the deployment of the army.

Jalal Akbar, political science teacher at Gomal University in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, said there were instances earlier of militants releasing their captives.

“In 2007, pro-Taliban militants had kidnapped 250 soldiers in FATA’s South Waziristan Agency, but released them when their own men were freed by the government,” says Akbar.

Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants have been targeting Pakistani and Afghan forces from FATA. They took refuge there after the Taliban government in Kabul was toppled by U.S.-led forces in 2001.

Many believe the army is at a disadvantage in FATA as the militants carry out guerrilla warfare.

Muhammad Rafiq, a retired army officer, tells IPS, “The majority of our soldiers are not used to fighting in the mountains and forests. The army is unable to fight the Taliban there because of the geographical terrain.”

Some Pakistanis believe military operations only provoke more brutal acts by the militants.

In Swat, a district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where the Taliban held sway from 2007 to 2009, people still remember the gruesome acts of violence.

“Every morning we would see the beheaded bodies of soldiers hanging from electric power poles,” says Nasirullah Khan, a former police inspector in Swat.

The Taliban’s writ still runs large in FATA.

Dr Jawad Shah, a polio officer, says the Taliban don’t allow polio vaccinations in Waziristan, and the army is unable to stop them.

“Of the targeted 300,000 children, we have not been able to vaccinate even a single child because the Taliban are in full control there.”

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Executions Rising in Iran http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/executions-rising-iran/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=executions-rising-iran http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/executions-rising-iran/#comments Thu, 20 Mar 2014 10:20:58 +0000 Isolda Agazzi http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133106 As many as 700 people were sentenced to death in Iran last year, according to United Nations estimates. Most were charged with drug-related crimes and belonged to ethnic minorities, new studies show. “Despite signs of openness with the election of President (Hassan) Rohani almost a year ago, the human rights situation in Iran has dramatically […]

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By Isolda Agazzi
GENEVA, Mar 20 2014 (IPS)

As many as 700 people were sentenced to death in Iran last year, according to United Nations estimates. Most were charged with drug-related crimes and belonged to ethnic minorities, new studies show.

“Despite signs of openness with the election of President (Hassan) Rohani almost a year ago, the human rights situation in Iran has dramatically deteriorated,” Taimoor Aliassi, U.N. representative of the Association of Human Rights in Kurdistan of Iran – Geneva, told IPS.“Iran is the second executioner country in the world behind China, but the first one per capita." -- Raphaël Chenuil-Hazan, executive director of French NGO Ensemble Contre la Peine de Mort

At least 687 prisoners have been executed in 2013, 68 percent of them after the presidential election in June 2013, Aliassi said. This is the highest figure in 15 years.

The vast majority, he said, were from ethnic minorities such as Kurds, Baloch and Baha’is. “The repression of these minorities has accentuated.”

Aliassi’s comments followed a report by Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Iran, detailing the executions. The Iranian government labelled the findings “not objective” and “mostly a compilation of unfounded allegations.” It is opposing the renewal of Shaheed’s mandate.

“Last year, there were two executions a day,” Shaheed said at a meeting in Geneva earlier this week on rights in Iran. “Sixty percent of them were related to drug crimes. Many did not have access to lawyers, and confessions were got under torture. Three juveniles were among those hanged.”

Shaheed contested the Iranian government allegation that his report is based on opposition sources, or even terrorists. “Even though I could not get into the country, I talked to 700 people. I do my interviews by Skype. If I was able to go to Iran, there would be government views in my report. It would be in its advantage.”

“Iran is the second executioner country in the world behind China, but the first one per capita,” Raphaël Chenuil-Hazan, executive director of the French NGO Ensemble Contre la Peine de Mort, told IPS. The NGO was created in 2000 to investigate death penalties. It launched the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty that holds a congress every three years.

“The death penalty is a benchmark for human rights,” Hazan said. “It opens the door to the scrutiny of other human rights violations like juvenile justice, ethnic minorities, public executions, torture and unfair trials. We manage to work with grassroots NGOs in all countries, including China and Iraq, but not in Iran.”

The Iranian government, Hazan said, like North Korea “does not allow local NGOs to come to our congress. Our sources are individuals we identify in the prisons. Last year we counted 687 executions. We know it is more, but this is the figure we are able to prove in our report.” The U.N. report is in line with findings by NGOs.

Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, spokesperson of Iran Human Rights, an NGO based in Oslo with members both inside and outside Iran told IPS that “56 percent of the figures included in this report are official, and 44 percent have been confirmed by us independently.”

Last year, he said, the group “documented 59 public executions, all of them announced officially. Children are also watching executions since there is no age limit. But there are so many secret executions in prisons that we need independent investigations.”

According to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by Iran, countries that have not abolished the death penalty can impose it only for the most serious crimes.

“Since 2010, more than 1,800 people have been executed on drug-related charges. But is the possession of 30 grams of heroin, morphine, opium or methadone a ‘most serious crime?’” said Hazan.

Other reasons for capital punishment are “corruption on earth”, rebellion, sexual offences including same-sex relations, organised crime, robbery and smuggling, murder and other religious offences. At least 28 women were hanged publicly in 2013, according to the Special Rapporteur.

Some NGOs accuse the government itself of fostering drug addiction for political reasons, particularly in the Kurdish area. “It is practising an anti-Kurdish policy of pushing youth into drugs and then arresting them,” Karen Parker, a human rights attorney based in San Francisco, told IPS.

Gianfranco Fattorini, of the Mouvement contre le racisme et pour l’amitié entre les peuples (MRAP), a French NGO that supports against racism and discrimination, told the meeting in Geneva that 20 Kurdish activists are known to be on death row and 25 Kurdish political activists have been sentenced to death for propaganda against national security and similar charges.

Diane Ala’i, of the Baha’i International Community, an international NGO representing members of the Baha’i faith, says the persecution of Baha’is is engrained in the constitution that recognises only three religious minorities – Christians, Jews and Zoroastrian. Members of the Baha’i religious minority are persecuted from the time they are born till they die, said Ala’i at the meeting in Geneva.

“Children are ostracised at school; youngsters are denied access to university and to jobs in the public sector. Today 136 Baha’is are in prison only because they are Baha’is. The accusation goes from enmity against god, to being spies or belonging to an illegal organisation. Some of these people are elderly; others are young mothers who have to take their children into prison.”

She added that their cemeteries are bulldozed and “it is clear that these horrible acts are condoned by the authorities.” Violent crimes and incitement to hatred are rising against Baha’is and other minorities, but none of these cases have been investigated by judicial authorities. “This is government orchestrated,” she said.

But more and more Iranians are showing solidarity with the Baha’is, she said. Last week, 75 prominent activists asked the head of the judiciary to give the benefit of Islamic law even to “unrecognised religious minorities” like the Baha’is.

Influential personalities like renowned film-maker Asghar Farhadi have signed an open charter to ask for abolition of the death penalty, following a campaign called Legam (step by step abolition of the death penalty) initiated last November.

“Since they are well known, they encounter fewer risks to go to prison. This shows that civil society is advancing. Now it is up to the government to show that it is opening up too,” said Hazan.

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Amidst the Guns, Free Choice for Crimeans http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/amidst-guns-free-choice-crimeans/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=amidst-guns-free-choice-crimeans http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/amidst-guns-free-choice-crimeans/#comments Wed, 19 Mar 2014 09:54:09 +0000 Zack Baddorf http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133077 Crimean officials have reported that roughly 97 percent of Crimeans voted for independence from Ukraine on Sunday, with a turnout of about 80 percent. Yet the security situation in Crimea has led many to question how free the vote really was. “Leaving the question of the referendum’s legality aside, the situation on the ground is […]

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A Russian armoured personnel carrier in Simferopol, the provincial capital of Crimea. Credit: Zack Baddorf/IPS.

A Russian armoured personnel carrier in Simferopol, the provincial capital of Crimea. Credit: Zack Baddorf/IPS.

By Zack Baddorf
SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine , Mar 19 2014 (IPS)

Crimean officials have reported that roughly 97 percent of Crimeans voted for independence from Ukraine on Sunday, with a turnout of about 80 percent. Yet the security situation in Crimea has led many to question how free the vote really was.

“Leaving the question of the referendum’s legality aside, the situation on the ground is hardly conducive to free expression of one’s will,” Dr. Anna Neistat, Human Rights Watch associate director who is now in Crimea, told IPS.“In the lead-up to the referendum the authorities spared no effort to control information and silence critics." -- Dr. Anna Neistat, Human Rights Watch associate director

“With unmarked armoured personnel carriers without licence plates in the streets, surrounded by fully armed men, and subjected to incessant pro-Russian propaganda, Crimeans [felt] that the choice has already been made for them,” she said.

Russian armed personnel carriers were parked on street corners throughout the Crimean capital Simferopol. The Russians have since surrounded and taken ground inside Ukrainian military bases throughout the peninsula.

Paramilitary groups of Cossacks, a Slavic people, brought from Russia roamed the streets on the day of the vote and leading up to it. Joined by members of local “self-defence” groups wearing distinctive red armbands, they attacked foreign and local journalists.

Slovak photojournalist Jan Husar was the victim of such an attack.

On Mar. 12, just a few days before the vote, Husar was taking photos at Simferopol airport of local militants barring flights coming from Kiev and Istanbul. They only let planes flying in from Moscow land.

Outside the airport terminal, he took a picture of a car passing by. “In the car were some guys,” he told IPS. “They jumped out. One had a handgun.” Husar speculates they may have been the Russian secret service.

They demanded to see his papers. A group of Cossacks started surrounding Husar. The two unidentified men from the car left after Husar deleted the picture of their vehicle but the Cossacks stayed.

They started to push him towards a nearby forest. Only after the intervention of a local resident did they let Husar go, but they kept his camera memory cards.

“In the lead-up to the referendum the authorities spared no effort to control information and silence critics,” Neistat told IPS. The units attacking journalists “acted completely outside of the law, with no clear chain of command and no accountability.”

“So imagine if you were a guy who was a [political] leader who wanted to speak out,” Husar said. “You could get in a really, really dangerous situation.”

Some activists in Crimea experienced just that. Viktor Neganov, leader of the Euromaidan movement in the Crimean city Sevastopol, led about 100 Ukrainians in his hometown to call for an end to corruption. At one protest, a pro-Russian crowd confronted the activists. They attacked Neganov, knocking him down.

“They started to punch me, I tried to protect myself but there were too many people – 10 or 20 from different sides,” Neganov told IPS.

Neganov said the protests were infiltrated and orchestrated by Russian spies and military officers pretending to be ordinary citizens. After facing threats later, he slipped away from Crimea.

Despite the crackdown, many voters also told IPS they had little concern about Russian troops occupying their homeland.

“I’m supporting the Russian troops. If there weren’t Russian troops, there would be something like what happened at Maidan in Kiev,” said Vladimir Ifirich, who said he voted for Crimea to join Russia.

The Maidan in Kiev has been the centre of pro-democracy protests over the past several months. Those protests have come to be known as the Euromaidan movement since the movement was started in opposition to former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to not sign a European Union trade deal.

Voter Gunadi Blinsky, a 60-year-old emergency service worker in Simferopol, also doesn’t mind the Russian military presence.

“Actually we don’t experience any inconvenience with Russian troops here,” he told IPS. “The other day, we were at the theatre, today we’re going to a concert. So no problem at all.”

Construction plant worker Natasha Mamayeva echoed an indifference to the Russian occupation. “Everything is calm,” she said. “So far the Russian troops have done no harm to local people.”

On Tuesday, Russian troops stormed a Ukrainian military base in Crimea, killing a Ukrainian soldier and wounding another in the process of taking control. In the Crimean port city Yalta, Russian troops were reported to have kidnapped a Ukrainian military foreign intelligence service chief.

At a polling station in Simferopol with Soviet-style music being blasted out, local election official Ivana Lubov-Dutrianko told IPS that the vote was free and fair.

“Everything is quiet here,” she said. “Please tell the truth: Nobody forced anyone to vote. Everyone is free to vote how they want.”

But in Bakhchisarai town, just a half hour’s drive south of Simferopol, many boycotted the vote. It’s the heartland of the Turkic ethnic group, the Tatars, who make up about 12 percent of the Crimean population. The entire Tatar population was forcibly deported from Crimea in 1944 by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

“If the diplomatic efforts fail, obviously some Tatars will join the insurgency and run a guerrilla war,” according to Imiril Mirov, the Bakhchisarai district government chief.

But there is no sign of any Tatar resistance movement. “We have no armed units, no self-defence, nothing at all,” Mirov told IPS. The primary goal is to avoid bloodshed, he said.

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Monk Sparks Row Between Spain and China http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/monk-sparks-row-spain-china/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=monk-sparks-row-spain-china http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/monk-sparks-row-spain-china/#comments Mon, 17 Mar 2014 09:36:09 +0000 Saransh Sehgal http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132932 Thubten Wangchen, a Tibetan Buddhist monk with Spanish nationality, has become a thorn in Spain-China relations since Spanish High Court judge Ismael Moreno sought international arrest orders for top Chinese leaders last month following a petition by the monk. Thubten filed a case of genocide against former Chinese president Jiang Zemin and former prime minister […]

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The Buddhist monk Thubten Wangchen has sparked a confrontation between Spain and China over human rights in Tibet. Credit: Saransh Sehgal/IPS.

The Buddhist monk Thubten Wangchen has sparked a confrontation between Spain and China over human rights in Tibet. Credit: Saransh Sehgal/IPS.

By Saransh Sehgal
BARCELONA, Mar 17 2014 (IPS)

Thubten Wangchen, a Tibetan Buddhist monk with Spanish nationality, has become a thorn in Spain-China relations since Spanish High Court judge Ismael Moreno sought international arrest orders for top Chinese leaders last month following a petition by the monk.

Thubten filed a case of genocide against former Chinese president Jiang Zemin and former prime minister Li Peng and three other top officials over allegations that they committed genocide in Tibet.“Behind the motivation to pursue this case is only one agenda - that the world should know the reality of Tibetan suffering under the Chinese regime." -- Thubten Wangchen, a Tibetan Buddhist monk

The lawsuit seeks to indict Chinese leaders of having information on torture, executions and “forced family planning policies that included widespread abortion and forced sterilisations” against Tibetans. The judge ordered Interpol to issue an arrest order seeking capture and imprisonment of Chinese leaders for genocide, torture and crimes against humanity.

The Chinese government has protested against Spain’s involvement in what it called domestic issues. Soon after the judgment, China’s Foreign Ministry reminded Spain that fiscal repayments on loans from China might be approaching.

“Whether or not this issue can be appropriately dealt with is related to the healthy development of ties. We hope the Spanish government can distinguish right from wrong,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said after the ruling.

China holds a major stake of Spanish debt, and following the order, the Spanish parliament approved a ruling party proposal limiting the global reach of its courts to pursue cases of genocide and other crimes against humanity committed overseas.

The ruling People’s Party (PP) tabled a fast-track legal amendment to curb the use of universal jurisdiction that would virtually do away with the idea of universal jurisdiction in Spain. The amendment is in effect to diminish the global reach of the jurisdiction of Spanish courts.

The legal reform to limit the universal jurisdiction was voted in by both chambers of the parliament and entered into force Mar. 15.

Opposition parties are now accusing China of exerting pressure on Spain to overlook its commitments on human rights.

Thubten told IPS that the government’s reform move “is sad news not only for Tibetan people, but also for the people of Spain. The PP is bowing to Chinese pressure because of economy and debt.”

If this continues, he said, “15 years from now the Spanish people will ask the Chinese for jobs and welfare.”

Several human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have signed an open letter calling the reform in law a “devastating blow for universal jurisdiction and for Spain’s international obligations to ensure that grave crimes don’t go unpunished.”

Thubten and his supporters were using a Spanish law dating back to 1985 that allows suspects to be tried for human rights cruelties committed abroad when a Spanish person is subjected to them. Spanish judges have invoked the doctrine of universal jurisdiction to inspect human rights exploitations overseas, especially in Latin American countries.

The law was used to arrest of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in London in 1998 on the orders of Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón. Spanish courts also tried to prosecute al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and many others. But in practice, very few cases have been brought to trial.

Thubten, who was born in Tibet in 1954, fled into exile with his family to Nepal in 1959, the same year when Tibet’s spiritual leader the Dalai Lama escaped to India. He brought the case in a Spanish court in 2006 along with the Spanish NGOs Comité de Apoyo al Tibet and Casa del Tíbet.

“Behind the motivation to pursue this case is only one agenda – that the world should know the reality of Tibetan suffering under the Chinese regime,” Thubten said.

The death toll from self-immolations in protest against Beijing’s hardline policies in Tibet has reached 127, he said. “With massive Chinese military presence inside Tibet controlling the people, Tibetans are living under constant repression with no freedom of religion or movement.”

Thubten is calling for a more unified European policy on human rights towards China. “We urge the EU [European Union] to play a major role by appointing an EU special coordinator on Tibet.”

Thubten added: “From my small action, I’m giving moral support to my Tibetans who live inside Tibet.”

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Religion and Conservation Do Mix http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/religion-conservation-mix/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=religion-conservation-mix http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/religion-conservation-mix/#comments Sun, 16 Mar 2014 09:46:48 +0000 Dr. Bradnee Chambers http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132918 Bradnee Chambers, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals, believes wildlife conservation is a goal that religions must take on.

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Bradnee Chambers, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals, believes wildlife conservation is a goal that religions must take on.

By Bradnee Chambers
BONN, Mar 16 2014 (IPS)

They say religion doesn’t mix well with certain subjects, but in the case of conservation and religion this old rule of thumb doesn’t seem to apply.

Conservationists have been increasingly aligning with different religious groups to further their work, either by promoting conservation projects on the ground, or by working with religious groups to promote good conservation principles to their flocks of followers.

High in the Tibetan Plateau where some of the last snow leopards roam, Buddhist monks regularly send out patrols to ensure that the highly endangered cats are not taken by poachers. According to George Schaller, who works for a conservation group called Panthera, Buddhism has as a basic tenet – the love, respect and compassion for all living beings. For the last 3,000-4,000 snow leopards this is welcomed help to ensure their continued existence.Environmental organisations are increasingly seeing the advantage of working with different faiths to protect endangered wildlife.

In Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, Islamic clerics working with the World Wildlife Fund have issued a fatwa, a code of law under which violations are considered immoral and forbidden, to protect endangered animals. This fatwa could play an important role in protecting species such as the Asian Elephant sought after for its ivory, and even aquatic mammals such as dugongs, dolphins and whales.

Pope Francis, who took his name from the St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and the environment, has on many occasions made strong statements on the subjects of climate change and nature protection. For example, upon meeting the Ecuadoran President, he is reported to have advised him to “take good care of creation. St. Francis wanted that. People occasionally forgive, but nature never does. If we don’t take care of the environment, there’s no way of getting around it.”

Some conservation groups say that there is still more to be done as there are links between the ivory trade and religious artefacts such as crosses and rosaries.

The Shembe Church of South Africa, officially a Baptist group but deeply immersed in Zulu customs, recently agreed to replace its leopard and animal hides seen as a symbol of wealth and prestige with faux skins.

Environmental organisations are increasingly seeing the advantage of working with different faiths to protect endangered wildlife. Most of the largest religions promote harmony with nature.

Christianity teaches that humans are meant to be stewards over God’s creation with a moral obligation to protect nature. Hindus believe that the Divine is everywhere and we are not separate from nature. Muslims have many elements in their religion advocating environmental protection. Over 80 percent of the world population follow one religion or another so the potential alliance is potentially very powerful.

In 1995, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh recognising the common goals between religion and conservation, founded ARC, the Alliance of Religions and Conservation. The group based in the United Kingdom works with religious groups to develop environmental programmes founded on their own core teachings, beliefs and practices. GreenFaith does similar work promoting social and environmental justice in the U.S.

The alliance between religion and conservation couldn’t come at a better time, because the threats to international wildlife have never been greater. The Convention on Migratory Species is one of the few global wildlife conventions in place; it protects species moving between countries, but finds its tasks increasingly difficult to carry out with regard to the most iconic animals in the world.

Big cats, dolphins, whales, sharks,  gorillas, elephants, bats, birds of prey and even monarch butterflies which have roamed the Earth for millennia are in danger either from direct threats such as poaching, illegal trade, overfishing, bycatch or loss of their habitat. Then there are indirect threats from climate change affecting their breeding and feeding patterns.

In the face of these threats unprecedented in human history, conservationists are exploring new avenues to protect these species. So why not religion? Conservation and wildlife organisations see the opportunity. Religion is not a threat to wildlife, but it could be a major ally for wildlife conservation because it can change and influence our fundamental values.

A question often asked is,why protect wildlife? Development can improve lives so why forgo it in place of killing off a few species? One can go through all the different arguments – its economic worth, its value importance for future generations or simply its beauty. But the powerful answer must be because it is part of our culture and therefore part of our beliefs and even our own identify. Once it’s second nature and part of a value system, no one will ever again ask the question why protect it.

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Past Crimes Haunt Afghan Progress http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/past-crimes-haunt-afghan-progress/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=past-crimes-haunt-afghan-progress http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/past-crimes-haunt-afghan-progress/#comments Sun, 16 Mar 2014 09:45:35 +0000 Giuliano Battiston http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132923 As Afghanistan heads for presidential elections Apr. 5, people are asking if the country’s massive legacy of human rights violations will be swept under the carpet yet again by the new government. Civil society activists in Bamiyan city – capital of the central province by the same name where the Taliban in 2001 destroyed two […]

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A view of Bamiyan from a surviving Buddhist cave. Credit: Giuliano Battiston/IPS.

A view of Bamiyan from a surviving Buddhist cave. Credit: Giuliano Battiston/IPS.

By Giuliano Battiston
KABUL, Mar 16 2014 (IPS)

As Afghanistan heads for presidential elections Apr. 5, people are asking if the country’s massive legacy of human rights violations will be swept under the carpet yet again by the new government.

Civil society activists in Bamiyan city – capital of the central province by the same name where the Taliban in 2001 destroyed two ancient Buddha statues – seem particularly interested in what the presidential candidates have to say about “transitional justice”.“The past cannot be removed. It is never too late to deal with it.” -- Ali Wardak, an Afghan professor

The term refers to the set of judicial and non-judicial measures, including criminal prosecution, truth commissions and institutional reforms, which a country implements to redress past human rights abuses, according to the International Centre for Transitional Justice.

“Justice is necessary to achieve peace,” Ismail Zaki, regional coordinator of the Civil Society Human Rights Network (CSHRN), told IPS here.

“Without justice, peace is not a real, strong, stable peace. I would say that justice – which also means accountability for past crimes – is even more important than peace,” he said.

Any peace process, in order to be effective, must enable acknowledgement of past crimes, says Said Hussein Shah Hussainy, monitoring and investigating unit assistant at the local branch of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC).

Both Zaki and Hussainy say it is important to revise and implement the government’s 2005 Action Plan for Peace, Reconciliation and Justice aimed at redressing past human rights abuses in Afghanistan.

Adopted by President Hamid Karzai, and supported by the international community, the Action Plan envisaged five activities, including truth-seeking, reconciliation and accountability measures.

But to date it has largely not been implemented, say researchers Niamatullah Ibrahimi and Emily Winterbotham in “Caught Between Past and Present”, a study based on interactions with the victims of three massacres in Afghanistan.

“The favoured strategy of both the Afghan government and the international community for addressing legacies of past and present human rights violations and war crimes in Afghanistan has been to sweep them under the carpet,” writes Sari Kouvo, co-founder and co-director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network, in a paper titled “A Plan Without Action”, published in July 2012.

The international NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) had sent a questionnaire on key human rights challenges in Afghanistan to all 11 candidates in the Apr. 5 presidential race. The few who responded seemed willing to change the course on transitional justice – at least on paper. Their replies were released Feb. 9.

Abdullah Abdullah, one of the leading contenders and head of the National Coalition of Afghanistan, told HRW that “transitional justice is one of the most important discourses in our society.”

But he had a word of caution too. In order to avoid “political misuse and the strengthening of a spirit of vengeance,” he said, “it is necessary to create the appropriate cultural, moral and legal backdrop through which the discussion of transitional justice can be had.”

Apart from him, only three other candidates – Qutbuddin Helal, Daoud Sultanzoy and Qayum Karzai – chose to answer the HRW questionnaire. Later, however, Qayum Karzai, elder brother of President Hamid Karzai, dropped out of the presidential race in favour of another candidate.

Even Helal, linked to the radical, Islamist party Hezb-e-Islami, told HRW that “punishment and accountability for human rights violators is important.” He argued for prosecution “in case credible evidence exists so that they become a lesson for others.”

Civil society activists, however, worry that calls for transitional justice might exacerbate conflict if not properly handled.

“Before working on transitional justice, there needs to be a legitimate and respected government in full control of the country,” Ali Jan Fahim, a member of CSHRN in Bamiyan told IPS.

“Only then, when the warlords are no longer in power, will it be possible to work on it. If we were to do it before that, they would kill us, or at least they would create more instability,” he said.

Amir Sharif, sociology lecturer at Bamiyan University, told IPS, “Today the criminals and their supporters are in government, they have power. We should focus more on national unity.

“We will be able to discuss a special court – either national or international – only further down the road when there is a strong, functioning, central government accepted by most of the population.”

Zaki of CSHRN said, “Before dealing with the issue of transitional justice, time is required. The time is not ripe yet. We need to let the idea take shape in people’s mind. We need to work on it carefully.”

Citing internal power dynamics, a culture of impunity and the international community’s lack of will, some say that transitional justice is impracticable.

“I doubt if it will happen in future. The criminals are more powerful now than before, and those who have suffered abuse do not have any means to demand justice,” Gholam Hussein, director of the NGO Shuhada, told IPS.

Ali Wardak, an Afghan professor who teaches at the Centre for Criminology of the University of Glamorgan in Britain, holds a different view.

“The AIHRC survey, ‘A Call for Justice’, showed that the Afghan population wants justice and accountability and we know that without justice there cannot be lasting peace,” he told IPS.

“The past cannot be removed. It is never too late to deal with it.”

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Tahrir Square Finds a GrEEK Neighbour http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/tahrir-square-finds-greek-neighbour/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=tahrir-square-finds-greek-neighbour http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/tahrir-square-finds-greek-neighbour/#comments Fri, 07 Mar 2014 08:11:46 +0000 Rachel Williamson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132481 The group of buildings near Tahrir Square could be modern campus-style office space anywhere. It’s hard to believe that just outside the heavy steel gates lies downtown Cairo, the noisy, polluted and now troubled heart of Egypt. The buildings are now a new IT hub called the GrEEK, after its history as a Greek school […]

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IT entrepreneur Marwa Sadek, the face of a new Egypt. Credit: Rachel Williamson/IPS.

IT entrepreneur Marwa Sadek, the face of a new Egypt. Credit: Rachel Williamson/IPS.

By Rachel Williamson
CAIRO, Mar 7 2014 (IPS)

The group of buildings near Tahrir Square could be modern campus-style office space anywhere. It’s hard to believe that just outside the heavy steel gates lies downtown Cairo, the noisy, polluted and now troubled heart of Egypt.

The buildings are now a new IT hub called the GrEEK, after its history as a Greek school and its current incarnation as a technology hub, and are the intended nucleus of a rising Egyptian ‘Silicon Alley’.The possibility of disruption from Tahrir Square to business as usual at the tech hub is a continuing reminder here that Egypt is not out of the political woods yet.

The location was the chief attraction for venture capitalist Ahmed Alfi when he decided in 2012 to build an ‘ecosystem’ for tech entrepreneurs.

The campus is close to the junction of the main metro lines and just a few stops from the national train station. Alfi said residents of Greater Cairo and from many of the surrounding cities could be at the business park within an hour and a half.

Alfi has ten tenants already in the office space he lets out, and “four or five” negotiating space, he told IPS.

Rent for a 50-square-metre office can vary from 450 dollars per month to 1,500 dollars on the lower floors. To put that in context, the new minimum wage for public sector workers is 172 dollars a month.

Alfi is clear about his aims for the campus: to give Egypt’s engineers and scientists a place to build technology businesses and thereby boost the sputtering economy. “My interest is its impact on the culture of entrepreneurs and on the Egyptian economy,” said Alfi.

“I don’t feel a responsibility towards the restoration of downtown. I mean, there’s some, but I feel a responsibility towards taking the really, really smart kids here who aren’t part of an ecosystem and getting them to work together and get some dynamism to happen.”

Those “kids” are the much talked of entrepreneurs in Egypt’s tech revolution who are reimagining their country as they want it to be. They are educated, usually bilingual, and tapped into regional entrepreneurial and business networks.

Marwa Sadek, founder of the digital marketing agency 20 Uses, mentored start-ups in Alfi’s Flat6Labs business incubator for the last two years, and couldn’t wait to get involved when she heard about the venture.

“I wanted to be in a place that is a business hub,” she said, having moved into a fashionably spartan second floor office in January. “When all the companies move in, the GrEEK campus is going to be a strong source of economic activity.”

Not only has the exposure to other businesses expanded 20 Uses’ client base, Sadek will soon have all the facilities on site needed to run a business, such as meeting rooms and cafes.

Yassar el-Zahhar chats happily about the plans for his health food start-up to service the geeks on the new campus. “You can smell the success here,” he told IPS. “Being here makes me take the power from the entrepreneurs around me.”

But all the excitement and business acumen inside the campus are unlikely to benefit those working just outside the gates. Continuing political agitation in Tahrir Square is one factor that raises questions just how much positive influence will flow out into the wider community.

Sadek’s main problem is the proximity to the square. She’s had to postpone meetings “three or four times” in the last two months because protests made the campus difficult or dangerous to reach.

Sadek said this would not discourage her from working from the GrEEK. But the possibility of disruption from Tahrir Square to business as usual at the tech hub is a continuing reminder here that Egypt is not out of the political woods yet.

GrEEK seems a world apart from Tahrir Square. The downtown area is “full of nasty people,” said el-Zahhar. “You can’t walk in peace in downtown.”

That means business for his food outlet at the GrEEK haven. “This will be protecting you. Protecting the girls, protecting the nice guys… I don’t think downtown will make any use of us, we are here to make money not spend money.”

Across the road from the GrEEK, Reda Feuad sipped tea in his IT shop as he waited for customers. Feuad doesn’t see the upstarts next door replacing his long-standing relationships with clients around the country.

The generational and educational difference between Feuad and the GrEEK tenants was clear: where Feuad spoke Arabic only and connected with his Egyptian clients via phone and sometimes in person, his new neighbours have regional and international ambitions, speak two or more languages and are constantly available by phone, and email, Facebook and Twitter.

No signs of this are evident yet, but some expect the influx of smart, innovative problem solvers to have some impact on the downtown area.

Heba Gamal, managing director of the economic development NGO Endeavour Egypt, hoped it would revive the community through foot traffic and social interactions with “young, enthusiastic, excited” business leaders.

“I think the downtown culture will be affected because it will want to, I mean smart entrepreneurs will definitely come in and want to tailor to that new segment of clientele that is suddenly available to them,” she said.

GrEEK CEO Tarek Taha is keen to be a good neighbour and has commissioned local carpenters and furniture makers to renovate heritage-listed buildings.

“We clearly understand where we’re located and we want to have an impact within the environment around us… I know this is a really small incremental effect but it’s very important to us.”

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Russians Back Crimea Action, They’d Better http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/russians-back-crimea-action-theyd-better/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=russians-back-crimea-action-theyd-better http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/russians-back-crimea-action-theyd-better/#comments Thu, 06 Mar 2014 07:11:06 +0000 Pavol Stracansky http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132495 Elena Smolenskaya doesn’t hesitate a second when asked what she thinks about the Russian military intervention in Crimea. The 23-year-old Moscow student is convinced that President Vladimir Putin had no choice but to order troops into the country. “The military action was right to protect Russian people in Crimea. This is why the majority of […]

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A post on the Russia-Ukraine border. Demarcation of the border is often flimsy. Credit: Susan Astray/CC2.0.

A post on the Russia-Ukraine border. Demarcation of the border is often flimsy. Credit: Susan Astray/CC2.0.

By Pavol Stracansky
MOSCOW, Mar 6 2014 (IPS)

Elena Smolenskaya doesn’t hesitate a second when asked what she thinks about the Russian military intervention in Crimea. The 23-year-old Moscow student is convinced that President Vladimir Putin had no choice but to order troops into the country.

“The military action was right to protect Russian people in Crimea. This is why the majority of Russian people support what President Putin is doing. He is protecting Russian interests,” she told IPS.“The adoption of more restrictive laws is a possibility against the current backdrop of anti-Western hysteria in state-sponsored and loyalist media.”

Elena’s view is far from uncommon – especially in areas outside the country’s major cities where support for Putin has always been highest – and appears to be growing every day.

Before the Ukrainian revolution polls in Russia had shown that the majority of Russians were against intervention in their western neighbour’s affairs, but the mood appears to have shifted in the last few weeks.

While there were demonstrations in Moscow against the occupation at the weekend – swiftly suppressed with the arrest of hundreds – there were much larger counter protests in support of it. In Russia’s second city, St Petersburg, more than 15,000 turned up at a rally supporting the military operation in Crimea.

Local analysts say that many Russians see the new government in Kiev as strongly anti-Russian and made up of dangerous neo-fascists. This image was reinforced when soon after Moscow-friendly former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych fled the country, its new leaders proposed a law banning Russian as an official language.

In a survey by the independent Russian Levada polling group at the end of February, 43 percent of respondents described the Ukrainian protests and subsequent revolution as a violent coup, and almost a quarter categorised it as a civil war. A poll by the same organisation showed that a third thought that the overthrow of the Yanukovych regime was led by Ukrainian nationalists supported by Western secret service agents.

Clashes in Eastern Ukraine between pro-Russian locals and supporters of the Kiev government after the revolution reinforced these views.

As attention turned to Crimea, which was part of Russia until 1954 when then Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev made it part of Ukraine republic within the Soviet Union, many agreed with Kremlin claims that military intervention was a necessity to protect the almost 60 percent of Crimea’s population that is ethnic Russian, and help protect a people and culture which many in Russia see as their own.

Vasily Gomelsky, a 56-year-old clerk in Moscow, told IPS: “President Putin is right and I completely support him. He just wanted to protect the Orthodox [Christian] civilisation that has been there for hundreds of years. We were all afraid of what might happen if neo-fascists [in Kiev] take over there.”

Russian media, much of which is formally or informally state-controlled, has widely pushed the same view.

The Komsomolskaya Pravda national daily carried an interview with a 20-year-old Russian activist present at the pro-EU Euromaidan demonstrations in Kiev earlier who claimed that there were “German and American mercenaries” among the protestors leading younger members of the Ukrainian radical far right Pravy Sektor movement.

Criticism of the occupation in any media has been scarce. Where it has occurred it has, in some cases, been swiftly dealt with by the authorities.

Prof. Andrei Zubov of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations – which was founded by and remains institutionally a part of the Russian Foreign Ministry – wrote an article in the Vedemosti national daily condemning the intervention and likening President Putin to Hitler.

In another interview he said that the Russian president had “clearly lost his mind.”

He was sacked early this week. He said he believed the Foreign Ministry had forced his bosses to get rid of him.

Some critics say the professor’s dismissal typifies the approach to dissent of an administration which has been widely condemned by activists and the international community for its crackdown on rights since Putin began his latest presidential term in 2012.

The adoption of controversial legislation on gay propaganda, a crackdown on third sector organisations, repression of political opponents and systematic harassment of activists, among others, have all been cited as examples of Russian authorities’ disregard for rights.

Others warn that new-found support in the wake of the conflict will allow President Putin to pursue even more rigorous curbs on basic freedoms.

“Overall, Putin’s foreign policy commands support. The Crimean conflict will allow him to consolidate the country and the majority of the population will, in the end, support him. It will also allow him to put an additional squeeze on dissent,” Nikolai Sokov, a Senior Fellow at the Vienna Centre for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation (VCDNP), told IPS.

Just last week an anti-terrorist bill giving security forces sweeping powers in cases of suspected terrorism was approved by Russian parliament in a first reading.

The bill included, among other things, heavily-criticised controls of internet use. But it was approved without problems and one MP was reported as saying that critics need only go to Kiev to see why the bill was so desperately needed.

“The bills were actually introduced several weeks ago but the Ukraine conflict ensured they would be adopted,” said Sokov.

Also, the Russian State Agency for Financial Monitoring said Wednesday that it had launched an investigation after uncovering that Ukrainian ultra-nationalists were being funded by the same donor organisations as some Russian NGOs.

Controversial legislation forces NGOs in Russia which receive finance from abroad to be registered as ‘foreign agents’, and are subject to regular checks by local authorities.

Tanya Lokshina, Russia programme director at Human Rights Watch, told IPS: “The news of the investigation is very threatening for all NGOs which receive foreign funding.”

She added: “The adoption of more restrictive laws is a possibility against the current backdrop of anti-Western hysteria in state-sponsored and loyalist media.”

Meanwhile, support for President Putin among ordinary Russians appears firm with many saying it is he, rather than the West, who is looking to avoid escalating the current crisis into a war.

“Some people did fear that [occupying Crimea] could lead to war, but as we have seen, President Putin has acted sensibly with regard to this. He is looking out for Russian interests, not looking for confrontation,” Smolenskaya told IPS.

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Uganda’s Anti-Gay Bill Puts U.S. Aid at Risk http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/ugandas-anti-gay-bill-puts-u-s-aid-risk/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=ugandas-anti-gay-bill-puts-u-s-aid-risk http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/ugandas-anti-gay-bill-puts-u-s-aid-risk/#comments Wed, 26 Feb 2014 00:41:54 +0000 Bryant Harris http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132093 Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s authorisation of the Parliament’s so-called “kill the gays” bill has led Washington officials to announce a review of U.S. aid to the African country. While the new law no longer provides the death penalty for LGBT people, as it did when parliament first introduced it, it escalates existing penalties on homosexuality, […]

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A scene from the award-winning documentary "Call Me Kuchu", which follows the fight of courageous LGBT rights activist David Kato and his friends against the rampant homophobia in Uganda. Credit: Katherine Fairfax Wright

A scene from the award-winning documentary "Call Me Kuchu", which follows the fight of courageous LGBT rights activist David Kato and his friends against the rampant homophobia in Uganda. Credit: Katherine Fairfax Wright

By Bryant Harris
WASHINGTON, Feb 26 2014 (IPS)

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s authorisation of the Parliament’s so-called “kill the gays” bill has led Washington officials to announce a review of U.S. aid to the African country.

While the new law no longer provides the death penalty for LGBT people, as it did when parliament first introduced it, it escalates existing penalties on homosexuality, allowing the state to imprison people for life if they engage in “aggravated homosexuality,” defined as repeated instances of gay sex between consenting adults or acts involving minors, disabled, or HIV-positive people.Lively claimed that gays were responsible for the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide, and asserted that they were now targeting Uganda by trying to “convert” Ugandan children.

The European Union, the United Nations and the Catholic Church have all strongly condemned the new law, which escalates existing penalties for homosexuality.

“Now that this law has been enacted, we are beginning an internal review of our relationship with the Government of Uganda to ensure that all dimensions of our engagement, including assistance programmes, uphold our anti-discrimination policies and principles and reflect our values,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced Monday.

Some European countries, including Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands, have already halted financial aid to Uganda in protest, while others, like Austria and Sweden, are similarly reviewing their aid commitments. Prominent U.S. policymakers are calling on the United States to temporarily cut off the 456.3 million dollars in aid to Uganda that Congress has appropriated for the coming fiscal year.

“We need to closely review all U.S. assistance to Uganda, including through the World Bank and other multilateral organisations,” U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy said Tuesday. “I cannot support providing further funding to the Government of Uganda until the United States has undergone a review of our relationship.”

Ugandan health and sanitation programmes in particular rely on foreign aid support, especially when it comes to combating HIV/AIDS. Uganda has an HIV prevalence rate of 7.2 percent, a rate that is roughly doubled for men who have sex with men.

“We are also deeply concerned about the law’s potential to set back public health efforts in Uganda,” Kerry said, “including those to address HIV/AIDS, which must be conducted in a non-discriminatory manner in order to be effective.”

As the new Ugandan law prosecutes organisations aiding LGBT individuals, a high-risk group for HIV transmission, Uganda’s actions could have an adverse affect on Ugandan organisations that partner with and receive funding from PEPFAR, the United States’ flagship anti-AIDS programme.

“From a purely operation standpoint … we know that the law itself has specific ramifications for PEPFAR assistance,” Timi Gerson, the director of advocacy for American Jewish World Service (AJWS), a development organisation with operations in Uganda, told IPS. “They’re going to have to look at how this law is going to impact its ability to run those programmes.”

Gerson is hesitant about freezing all aid to Uganda, however.

“AJWS doesn’t support the cutting of fundamental aid to those countries. We don’t support stopping aid to ordinary Ugandans,” she said.

“I wouldn’t talk about cutting aid, I would talk about shifting aid. I think the real question is how you would do that on the ground in light of the situation, so that has to be first and foremost in the [U.S.] review.”

U.S. evangelical influence

Some pro-LGBT advocates are more ambivalent about U.S. aid funding in Uganda, however. They point to an unacceptable trend of U.S. funding being administered by socially conservative Christian groups that have long espoused an anti-LGBT agenda, creating an environment where anti-LGBT legislation enjoys widespread support.

U.S. funding often ends up in the hands of conservative religious groups via a complex system of grants, sub-grants and further sub-grants awarded by sub-grantees.

“[The conservatives] are doing a lot of excellent work when it comes to services like orphanages and very good, well-funded schools,” Rev. Kapya Kaoma of Political Research Associates, a social justice advocacy group, told IPS.

“The conservative schools have very good libraries, unlike other schools, but have books that present a conservative angle regarding Ugandan politics. That is an advantage for them.”

Kaoma noted that organisations headed by people like Martin Ssempa, a vehemently anti-LGBT Ugandan pastor, have received 60,000 dollars in sub-grants from organisations receiving U.S. PEPFAR funds. (Ssempa also opposes the use of condoms.)

“I hear these calls to suspend aid and I am conflicted about that,” said Kaoma. “I don’t think that’s the best way to go, as suspending aid only hurts the poor and not the rich. Museveni won’t lose a single thing.”

Instead, he advocates sanctions on Ugandan individuals responsible for the law – and on U.S. evangelicals who he says have fuelled Uganda’s anti-LGBT movement.

“The alternative is selective sanctioning targeting the people who are responsible, all the anti-gay speakers,” he said.

“If they can be sanctioned, there can be a law that says no money can move from any U.S. organisation to an [anti-LGBT] group in Uganda – then they will start feeling the pinch. If they cut aid, it could just increase hatred against LGBT people as retaliation.”

Kaoma said that he is particularly eager to prevent certain individuals from entering Uganda. He lists prominent U.S. evangelicals such as Scott Lively, Caleb Lee Brundidge, Don Schmierer and Lou Engle as having directly influenced Uganda’s anti-LGBT law.

In March 2009, Lively held a conference for Ugandan political, clerical and civic elites, where he spoke to them about the “gay agenda”. Lively claimed that gays were responsible for the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide, and asserted that they were now targeting Uganda by trying to “convert” Ugandan children.

Kaoma attended and filmed the 2009 conference, featuring Lively, Brundidge and Schmierer. A week later, Ugandan parliamentarians circulated the first draft of recently enacted law.

“The original bill reads like Scott Lively speaking again,” Kaoma said.

The Centre for Constitutional Rights, a U.S.-based watchdog, is currently representing Sexual Minorities Uganda, a Ugandan LGBT advocacy group, as it sues Lively in a U.S. court for his alleged influence on the legislation.

Lively has conducted similar anti-LGBT activism throughout Africa as well as in Ukraine and Russia.

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New Discontent Surfaces in Bosnia http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/new-discontent-arises-bosnia/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=new-discontent-arises-bosnia http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/new-discontent-arises-bosnia/#comments Sat, 22 Feb 2014 10:05:51 +0000 Vesna Peric Zimonjic http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=131903 Thousands of people have rallied in streets of major Bosnian cities since last week, demanding social justice, decent living conditions and resignation of top officials who they openly blame for unprecedented poverty and the country’s economic decline. The first protest rallies since the end of the bloody 1992-95 war began earlier this month in the […]

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By Vesna Peric Zimonjic
BELGRADE, Feb 22 2014 (IPS)

Thousands of people have rallied in streets of major Bosnian cities since last week, demanding social justice, decent living conditions and resignation of top officials who they openly blame for unprecedented poverty and the country’s economic decline.

The first protest rallies since the end of the bloody 1992-95 war began earlier this month in the north-eastern town of Tuzla, where thousands of workers from five major privatised companies had received no payments in years. They were joined in following weeks by thousands of unemployed young people and pensioners."The biggest fear of ruling elites all over and their nightmare is for ordinary people (of all ethnicities) to unite."

Backed by social networks and informal groups, the protests spread to capital Sarajevo and to Zenica, Kakanj, Travnik, Jajce, Brcko, Bihac, Mostar and several other towns. International media immediately dubbed the protests, some of them turning violent, the “Bosnian spring”. Some call it “the winter of Bosnian discontent”.

“It’s still winter here and we’d rather describe the events as an expression of widespread discontent and an introduction to ending the arrogant, unemotional and even scornful behaviour of authorities towards most people, who live in poverty,” Kemal Kurspahic, co-founder of the Media in Democracy Institute in Bosnia, told IPS.

Data from the central Bosnian statistics office puts the unemployment rate at 44 percent. It says that one in five out of 3.8 million people in Bosnia live below the poverty line. For the employed, the average monthly salary is 570 dollars.

“More and more people live in misery and poverty. They are hungry,” Vahid Sehic from the NGO Forum of Tuzla Citizens told IPS.

After the bloody war of the nineties ended with the loss of some 100,000 lives, the country’s industry came to a standstill. It seemed at first that recovery could be at hand, but the slow transition into a market economy entailed a complete change from what used to be former Yugoslavia with its deeply rooted social benefits.

“There are practically two decades of economic devastation, where private interests of the ruling elite, masked as ‘protection of national interest’ served as an excuse for unfair distribution of wealth among the privileged,” said Kurspahic.

The complicated regulation of the internationally sponsored Dayton Peace Accords, that defined the power structure for former warring ethnicities – Bosniak Muslims, Croats and Serbs – had a devastating effect on any possibility of creating an efficient state with a positive investment climate.

Bosnia-Herzegovina is divided into two entities – the Bosnian Serb Republic of Srpska (RS) and the Muslim-Croat Federation, both topped with a Sarajevo-based central authority. Vetoing decisions at the central level have often blocked any initiatives for reforms.

Both entities have their own governments and parliaments, plus a central one in Sarajevo. The Federation is divided into 11 cantons created on ethnic lines for areas with a Muslim or Croat majority. This in practice means that the Muslim-Croat Federation area has 11 local governments with 11 prime ministers.

Most political leaders now are those who were leaders of major national parties during the 1992-95 war. That is “about 80 percent,” said Kurspahic. “Approximately half of Bosnia’s budget goes to salaries in administration.”

Privatisation of major industrial complexes was mostly hasty. It enabled newly born tycoons, close to people in power, to size down or even shut dozens of companies and make quick profits by selling their assets before declaring bankruptcy. Bosnian media has widely reported that new owners often failed to comply with privatisation contracts and failed to pay workers for years.

One of the worst instances is the Sodaso factory in Tuzla. It produced 80 percent of the table salt consumed in former Yugoslavia, amounting to 208,000 tonnes in 1991. In 1999, it produced 21,000 tonnes.

Besides, Tuzla had an additional burden to cope with. After the fall of the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica in July 1995, when Bosnian Serb forces executed some 7,000 men and boys, their family members adding up to some 35,000 children, women and the elderly were transported to Tuzla.

Since protests began, several cantonal prime ministers, including Tuzla’s, have resigned. Sarajevo protestors have been offered negotiations by authorities over the modifications of certain laws, and new elections. The authorities have agreed to create ‘plenums’ in major cities such as Sarajevo that include representatives of political parties and leading civil society organisations in order to negotiate possibilities of fresh elections or other peaceful means for ending the protests.

“This is the first time we saw fear in people in power,” Sehic said. “They worry that the social unrest will spread, and that the story of ‘endangered ethnicity’ will go down the drain; this means they go down the drain as well.”

Several analysts point out that the protests in Bosnia carried no ethnic dimension. “It was more solidarity of people with no rights, the poor and unemployed, regardless of their nation,” said Zarko Papic from the Sarajevo-based NGO, the Initiative for Better and Humane Inclusion.

Svetlana Cenic who teaches economics at the University of Banjaluka in the Republic of Srpska says there can be no serious changes in Bosnia Herzegovina without the social unity of all ethnicities.

“The hungry belly is mine as well as yours, it does not differ between ethnicities,” she said. “The biggest fear of ruling elites all over and their nightmare is for ordinary people (of all ethnicities) to unite.”

That does not seem very likely. Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik visited Belgrade almost immediately after the unrest in the Federation began, and told journalists after his meeting with first Vice Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic that there were no reasons for Bosnian Serbs to join the protest, claiming that “the RS will remain calm” as “some forces from the Federation want escalation of unrest into the RS.”

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Myanmar Ethnic Strife Spills Over to Malaysia http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/myanmar-ethnic-strife-spills-malaysia/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=myanmar-ethnic-strife-spills-malaysia http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/myanmar-ethnic-strife-spills-malaysia/#comments Thu, 20 Feb 2014 11:24:04 +0000 Kalinga Seneviratne http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=131833 Two Myanmar Buddhist politicians who were visiting Malaysia narrowly escaped a late night assassination attempt outside a leading shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur this month. The incident has raised fears of an overseas spillover of the religious violence that has engulfed their state of Rakhine in recent years. Aye Maung and Aye Thar Aung are leaders […]

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Border guards in Bangladesh refuse entry to Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in November 2012. Credit: Anurup Titu/IPS.

Border guards in Bangladesh refuse entry to Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in November 2012. Credit: Anurup Titu/IPS.

By Kalinga Seneviratne
SINGAPORE, Feb 20 2014 (IPS)

Two Myanmar Buddhist politicians who were visiting Malaysia narrowly escaped a late night assassination attempt outside a leading shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur this month. The incident has raised fears of an overseas spillover of the religious violence that has engulfed their state of Rakhine in recent years.

Aye Maung and Aye Thar Aung are leaders of the Arakan National Party (ANP), representing the mostly Buddhist Rakhines, the largest ethnic group in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine, which was known as Arakan during British colonial times. Gunmen riding a motorcycle fired a number of shots at a car carrying them and their companions in a busy shopping area of the Malaysian capital, but no one was injured, according to eyewitness reports.“We have set up a committee of inquiry with Buddhists, Muslims and persons of no religious affiliation to look at the issue and determine what is really happening and provide some solutions." -- Dr Chandra Muzaffar

The Buddhist leaders returned to Myanmar a day after the incident. Aye Maung told a news conference that it was a well-planned terrorist attack. “I strongly believe the attack was a planned assassination attempt on our lives,” he claimed. “Our internal disturbances have now reached overseas, and we can now firmly conclude from this incident that the terrorists are now well established in foreign countries, especially in Malaysia.”

Some Muslim groups in Malaysia, however, claim that the ANP has staged the drama in order to gain the sympathy of Buddhists in Myanmar ahead of the general election there in 2015.

Rakhine state has witnessed several episodes of violence since 2012 between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, leaving scores dead and displaced. Many of the victims were from the Rohingya Muslim minority, considered by most Myanmar Buddhists as illegal migrants from Bangladesh.

Thousands of Rohingyas have fled to Muslim-majority Malaysia, where about 250,000 Myanmar nationals – both Buddhists and Muslims – are believed to reside, with many employed in low-paying jobs at restaurants and construction sites.

The Malaysian police have been quick to blame Myanmar migrants for the shooting incident.

But Malaysian political analyst Dr Chandra Muzaffar, head of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), said a lot of Muslims in the region have been unhappy with the way Rohingyas are being treated inside Myanmar.

“Certain groups must be reacting because of certain perceptions of these politicians,” he told IPS from Kuala Lumpur. “Police need to investigate thoroughly to find out who was behind this.”

Kuala Lumpur’s acting investigations chief Khairi Ahrasa said in a media statement that a special squad, headed by him, has been set up to investigate the case “which has elements of political involvement.”

He also said they are investigating whether the killing of a Myanmar national, Ko Aung Gyi, in the city a day later has any connection with the shooting incident.

Ko Aung Gyi, a member of the 88 Generation Students group who hailed from Rakhine, was killed soon after his meeting with the Rakhine delegation. The former student leader turned political activist from Rakhine had been living in Malaysia with his family for several years. According to his wife, Ma Su Su Myint, he was killed after being called to discuss a business matter.

There have been a number of killings within the Myanmar migrant community in Malaysia in the past year. In late May 2013, violence in the community in Kuala Lumpur left at least two people dead, and was widely linked to the Rakhine state’s troubles. Earlier that month, Indonesian police arrested four men who were later found guilty of attempting to bomb the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta. The bomb plot’s mastermind said the conspirators were trying to avenge the killings of their Muslim brethren in Myanmar.

JUST has been concerned about the escalating tension between Muslims and Buddhists in the region and in November organised an inter-faith dialogue in Kuala Lumpur attended by Buddhists from across Asia and Muslims from Malaysia and Indonesia.

“We have set up a committee of inquiry with Buddhists, Muslims and persons of no religious affiliation to look at the issue and determine what is really happening and provide some solutions,” Muzaffar told IPS.

The six-member delegation of ANP leaders that was visiting Malaysia when the attack took place was basically the core political leadership of Buddhists in the Rakhine state. They were in Malaysia to meet exiled Myanmar Buddhists, collect donations and drum up support for their campaigns.

They were also believed to have held a town hall-style public talk and discussion titled “Reform in Burma and Arakan Politics” in Kuala Lumpur, according to a blog by Myanmar exile Hla Oo, who says Aye Maung is “bitterly hated” by Rohingya Muslims.

Aye Maung’s Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) and the Arakan League for Democracy (ALD) – originally two rival groups – formally agreed to merge and form ANP (Arakan National Party) in October 2013, thus making it a formidable force in the state ahead of the 2015 general elections.

RNDP’s former stronghold was northern Rakhine while ALD’s bases were in southern Rakhine. ALD won 11 out of 26 seats in Rakhine in the 1990 general elections. ALD didn’t participate in the 2010 elections but RNDP participated and won 16 seats in Rakhine.

The ANP leadership applied for official registration to Myanmar’s Union Election Commission on Oct. 15 last year, but their application was only granted on Jan. 13 this year.

Muzaffar believes that the Myanmar government is not doing enough to stop the violence in the state and the military may be trying to use Buddhist nationalism to perpetuate military rule beyond the 2015 elections.

Referring to the Association of South East Asian Nations grouping of which Myanmar is a member, he said, “Other ASEAN governments can’t do anything to stop this, but they can get a dialogue going under the ASEAN charter of 2007.

“The international community could also help…but the problem is all are hoping to get a big slice of the Myanmar pie and western governments don’t want to antagonise the Myanmar government.”

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Students Take On the Army http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/students-take-army/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=students-take-army http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/students-take-army/#comments Mon, 17 Feb 2014 08:17:12 +0000 Ashfaq Yusufzai http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=131693 Disturbed by civilian casualties and moved by the plight of people living like refugees in their own country, students from Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are demanding an end to army operations against militants on their native soil. “We are sick of military action in FATA as it has not eliminated the Taliban but […]

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Ayesha Gullalai (left) from the Pakistan Tehreek Insaf is campaigning for an end to military operations. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS.

Ayesha Gullalai (left) from the Pakistan Tehreek Insaf is campaigning for an end to military operations. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS.

By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Feb 17 2014 (IPS)

Disturbed by civilian casualties and moved by the plight of people living like refugees in their own country, students from Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are demanding an end to army operations against militants on their native soil.

“We are sick of military action in FATA as it has not eliminated the Taliban but killed, injured and displaced innocent people,” Khan Bahadar, president of the FATA Students Federation (FSF), tells IPS.

“The tribal population has been facing a hard time since the Pakistan army took control of FATA in 2004. The army, primarily sent to fight Taliban militants, has caused a mass exodus from the conflict area. The insurgents stay unharmed.”"Of late, the youth have become a voice for FATA people.” -- Ayesha Gullalai, a member of the National Assembly

The Taliban took refuge in FATA near the 2,400-km porous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan after their government in Kabul was toppled by U.S.-led forces in 2001. As a frontline state in the U.S.-led war on terror, Pakistan began military action against the Taliban in FATA in 2004, triggering mass displacement.

“About 2.1 million people from FATA are now living in the nearby Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. They are in deep distress as they have had to give up their jobs, businesses and farming activity,” says Bahadar, 19, a student at the University of Peshawar.

Many students from FATA were studying in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

FSF was formed last year to build pressure on the government to end military operations in all seven agencies of FATA and facilitate an early return of displaced people to their homes.

Bahadar says the campaign by students from FATA is gathering momentum.

FSF vice-president Burhanuddin Chamkani says, “We have been holding demonstrations in Peshawar and Islamabad to spotlight the problems of our people. Military operations are no solution to prolonged terrorism.”

Chamkani is from the North Waziristan Agency in FATA. He too says civilians have been killed or maimed in military action but the militants remain unscathed.

“At least five people, including women and children, were killed in an army air strike in North Waziristan Jan. 21 in retaliation for a suicide attack on an army convoy that had killed 22 soldiers a day before,” he says.

Another organisation, the Waziristan Students Federation (WSF), is planning to step up its campaign.

Muhammad Irfan Wazir, an office-bearer of the WSF, says around 20,000 youths from FATA are studying in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Most have not been able to visit their families due to terrorism, he says.

“One has to pass through several army checkpoints before reaching their homes in FATA. They are homesick.”

WSF has planned protests, walks and seminars to sensitise the public, army and government.

“We are demonstrating at the University of Peshawar on weekends,” Wazir says. “We are also holding charity events and musical shows to raise money for displaced people living in camps in Peshawar and other areas.”

The responsibility to stop military operations lies with the federal government which directly controls FATA, he says.

“We have staged at least one dozen demonstrations near the Governor’s House to halt military action, but to no avail.”

Muhammad Javid, a teacher at Gomal University in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa says the continuing military offensive has angered students, who are actively campaigning against it.

“Students are justified in demanding an end to army action as it has not brought peace to these areas,” he tells IPS.

They are campaigning to ask the government to start talks with the Taliban.

The Pakistan Tehreek Insaf (PTI) party, which is in power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, also believes that dialogue with militants can end the suffering of people in FATA.

“We have been a staunch supporter of peace talks with militants,” PTI’s Ayesha Gullalai, a member of the National Assembly, tells IPS.

She says the federal government is oblivious to the woes of people in her native Waziristan.

“It’s the government’s responsibility to evacuate the civilian population before any action. It is in contravention of the United Nations charter of human rights to kill and injure non-combatants,” she tells IPS. The military doesn’t target civilians deliberately but there are incidents of civilian casualties, she says.

“The campaign by tribal students is welcome. Of late, the youth have become a voice for FATA people.”

Sagheerullah Khan, 20, who lives in a local hostel in Peshawar, is a native of Waziristan. “Unnecessary military operations in FATA coupled with U.S. drone attacks in which mostly innocent people are killed have caused the local population to turn against the government,” he says. This only produces more militants, he says.

“The indiscriminate army shelling poses a constant threat to people.”

Youths from FATA who are studying in Peshawar say they have been raising the issue of civilian deaths with their representatives in the National Assembly and Senate.

The fight to end army operations on their native soil, they say, will go on.

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