Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Friday, June 30, 2006

The Plight of Religious Minorities in the Middle East: Can Religious Pluralism Survive?

Congress of the United States
House of Representatives

Committee on International Relations

OPEN hearing of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations, held in Room 2172 of the Rayburn House Office Building: June 30, 2006

Today’s hearing focused on the current status of varying religious groups within the Middle East. In his opening statement, Chairman Chris Smith (R-New Jersey) noted that “we all too often overlook the incredible diversity of religion, liturgy, culture, art, history and literature which the Middle East represents.” Today's testimonies not only discussed the vast diversity of the Middle East, but they also expressed that because we overlook the diversity in the region, we are also turning a blind eye towards the widespread discrimination throughout the greater Middle East and its subsequent Islamisization.

Nina Shea, Vice Chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) made numerous suggestions aimed at preserving religious pluralism in Egypt and Iraq. Shea discussed the plight of the Coptic Christians and the threat of violence that the community has faced in the past. Not only have the Copts been the targets of violence, their community receives little or no justice once such crimes are committed. The Al-Kosheh Massacre is one such example in which twenty Copts were killed in 1999; the government has not punished the perpetrators and refuses to consider its religious significance. Shea suggests that the United States set up a clear timetable for Egypt to implement more religious tolerance and if demands are not met by this deadline, consequences will occur.

Ms. Shea went on to discuss the implications of the US reconstruction policies in Iraq. In a country where non-Muslim minorities face severe discrimination, particularly in the Kurdistan region, the US can no longer build infrastructure in the country and then let the Iraqi people decide who benefits from such modernization. By ignoring this problem, the US had inadvertently allowed the Muslim majority to deprive non-Muslims of the improvements that have been made over the past couple of years.

One of the most powerful testimonies of today’s hearing came from Rosie Malek-Yonan, an Assyrian American and author of The Crimson Field. She, like so many other Assyrians living in the Diaspora, works relentlessly to shed light on the plight of the Assyrian Christians in Iraq. No matter how hard she works, Yonan lamented, no one, including the US, is doing anything to improve the Assyrian situation. For example, the population of Assyrians in Iraq has decreased to only 800,000 from 1.4million since the beginning of the Iraqi war. Yonan made it clear that her people are either dying or being driven away from their homeland.

The importance of today’s hearing was best captivated in Yonan’s story. Because of her words, the Subcommittee and Chairman Smith gave their word that they are listening and they are going to help the plight of her people. Such a sentiment was addressed to all those who testified on behalf of marginalized religious communities. And hopefully this commitment will follow through.

Indigenous Rights Treaty Approved by UN Council

“The United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council endorsed a widespread extension of the rights of the world’s indigenous people,” reports Richard Reynolds on ABC News Online. This “declaration calls on nations with Aboriginal peoples to give them more control over their lands and resources.”

“The declaration won 30 votes in the 47-member council, with 12 abstentions,” Reynolds reposts, now sending it to the General Assembly for final ratification. Kenneth Deer, a native American closely involved in the negotiations says, “this is victorious for all indigenous peoples who have been waiting for centuries for something like this.”

“Diplomats and representatives of a native peoples’ coalition say it will provide states with the basic guidelines for helping their indigenous populations maintain their cultures and separate identities.” The report continues, stating that “indigenous coalition representatives say they believe the big power opposition was largely driven by concern over potential loss of state control over how natural resources are exploited.”

To read this article in full click here.

Report says Afghan Mission is Failing

Tom Regan of the Christian Science Monitor reports that the “U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan is failing because U.S. policies on eradicating the Afghan poppy crop aren’t working.” The Senlis Council, a Paris-based international security and policy advisory group who specializes in drug policies, “predicts violence in the south of the country will escalate because the Taliban has been so effective at exploiting the anger felt by farmers at the destruction of opium crops and by civilians who have suffered in U.S.-led operations.”

“Despite the efforts to destroy poppies, the Southern Afghan province of Helmand is heading for a bumper crop,” Regan reports. Additionally, corruption is a serious problem hurting the anti-drug program. Senlis, which used the field work of nearly two dozen Afghan researchers to compile a report, says that there are “many cases where Afghan officials ignored the crops of large producers who could afford to pay them tribute, but wiped out the crops of poor farmers who couldn’t.”

In his article Regan reports that there are “widely differing views on how the U.S.-led eradication program is going.” He reports that the United Nations News Service says that Afghanistan is a ‘narco-state’ with drug production as the country's largest employer; conversely, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says that the “organization is making ‘great progress’ in targeting the drug lords and criminal organizations that control the heroin supply.”

To read this article in full click here.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

A Democracy Policy in Ashes

Gameela Ismail, wife of political prisoner and former Egyptian presidential candidate, Ayman Nour, says that she will personally deliver ashes from the fire that destroyed the Nour Cultural Center to the US Embassy, according to Joshua Muravchik at the Washington Post.

The Center, located in Bab El-Shariya, was built to promote social services to Egypt’s poor and was part of Nour’s presidential campaign to promote liberalism and democracy throughout the country. On July 1st it was burned to the ground and many supporters of Nour believe the fire was most likely under the orders of the Mubarak government. Although the US has pressured Egypt into some democratic reforms in the last couple of years—the first presidential elections were held last year---the Bush administration’s lack of response to recent abuses carried out by Mubarak’s regime have left Nour’s wife and other Egyptian democrats frustrated by the US government. Ms. Ismail decision to bring the remains of the Center to the US Embassy illustrates this widespread disappointment.

According to this piece,

“Last year U.S. pressure impelled Mubarak to hold Egypt's first presidential election. U.S. pressure also led to a relaxation of constraints on freedom of speech, press and assembly that began to change the quality of public life in Egypt. Given this momentum, it was expected that Mubarak, once reelected, would allow further liberalization. Instead, 2006 has brought a wave of repression and brutality that goes beyond the jailing of Nour. The regime's goons have bloodied and arrested peaceful protesters doing nothing more than expressing solidarity with the dignified protests of Egypt's judges. Spurred by the persecution of its leaders for exposing election irregularities, the extraordinary judges' movement has sprung to the forefront of agitation for reform.

“In response to these abuses, U.S. press spokesmen have issued formulaic criticisms, and Nour's conviction on patently bogus charges led Washington to postpone trade talks. But the mild tone of U.S. protests, the low level at which most have been delivered and the admixture of warm gestures toward the regime -- such as the meetings Vice President Cheney and other top officials held with Mubarak's son and hoped-for heir, Gamal, last month -- have combined to create the impression that the Bush administration has begun to pull its punches on Middle East democracy.

“It's not only in Egypt that the administration is giving this impression. In Iraq, it has acted to shut down dozens of projects designed to nurture the seedlings of democracy: civil society, political parties, women's and human rights organizations, and the like. They had been initiated over the past few years through special allocations to the National Endowment for Democracy; the international democracy-building institutes of the Democratic and Republican parties, the AFL-CIO and chambers of commerce; and several similar organizations -- all of which constitute the core apparatus through which America works to promote democracy globally. In the supplemental appropriation bill just enacted, the administration sought to eliminate these funds until a Senate amendment partly restored them.

“The motive for this action is hard to fathom. Perhaps it was more the result of turf battles than a decision to downgrade democratization. But even this would only show how far democracy has slipped in priority.

“The muted response to Mubarak's depredations is more decipherable. Clearly, the strong electoral performances of Hamas in Palestine and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have sown worry about the consequences of democratization. The dilemma is that Middle Eastern liberals usually spring from the educated elite and have little resonance at the grass roots, while Islamists command substantial popular appeal.

“But this makes our actions toward Egypt all the more foolhardy, for the victims of today's repression represent a possible alternative to both the Islamists and the regime. Alone among Egypt's liberal politicians, Nour has demonstrated a populist touch. He also matched the Islamists' tactic of furnishing social services to poor constituents. That was the purpose of the center in Bab El-Shariya, now destroyed.”

To read this story in full, click here

To read more on the destruction of the Nour Cultural Center, click here

To read more on Nour’s presidential bid, click here

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Iraqi Women Encourage Lawyers to Prosecute Rape as Part of War Crimes

Elizabeth Dwoskin, a correspondent for Women’s E-News, reports that “a prominent women’s group in Iraq, along with advocates of international law in the United States, are beginning to demand justice for thousands of Iraqi women who suffered under the regime of Saddam Hussein.”

“The group in Iraq,” who wish to remain anonymous, Dwoskin says, “formed in 2003 as a network of expatriate women. They are supported in part by a grant from the New York-based Open Society Institute.” In 2004 the Iraqi women also began working with the Global Justice Center, “a New York-based group that advises female leaders in transitional democracies.”

Dwoskin reports that the activists say “their work with the tribunal is a chance to strengthen recent precedents in international law that can be used to prosecute violations of women’s rights and sexual violence within Iraq, even after the tribunal itself has ended.” The tribunal identifies “rape as a war crime, a crime against humanity and a form of torture,” Dwoskin reports, however, “the wording of the statute itself does not ensure that the group of predominantly male judges and prosecutors will include rape in their list of charges in future cases.”

In the article Dwoskin lists two main reasons for this. The first is that “such progressive laws for prosecuting sex crimes are new.” The other is that “Iraq’s domestic rape laws—those with which the judges are familiar—are far less progressive than the laws they will be using in the tribunal.”

“The tribunal judges and prosecutors have asked the women’s group for training in the international legal precedents on sex crimes,” Dwoskin says. The women are also advocating that the tribunal set up “videoconferencing in Kurdistan so that women there can testify from the safety of their homes and communities.”

The point that the women’s group is trying to make, Dwoskin reports, is to “bring this before judges, because when the tribunal is over, they will go back to their benches and be the elite judges of Iraq, so we want them to see how women suffer.”

To read this article in full click here.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Al Santoli's Views on Afghanistan

The latest Asia America Initiative newsletter reports, “Afghanistan, the center of gravity in the post 9/11 war on terrorism is unraveling.” According to the piece, “since March 2006, Afghanistan has suffered the most devastating wave of organized violence since ‘victory’ was declared by the west nearly five years ago.” The piece also states that “the unraveling of Afghanistan is a result of arrogant U.S. policy makers’ dismissal of history and culture and overconfidence that Afghan tribal leaders could be threatened or bribed into submission.”

According to this piece:

“Despite billions of dollars of promised international assistance and the presence of 23,000 U.S. military forces and a Western-installed government entering its fourth year, the Taliban are returning from their mountain sanctuaries in Pakistan with a disciplined and coordinated offensive capability.” As a result, this has “hurt the American image among Afghans and has created increased political pressure on the central government.”

“The failure of the central government began at the June 2002 loya jirga tribal leader’s council to choose the new leader of Afghanistan. King Zahir Shah actually had a majority support. But the night before the vote, prominent U.S. and United Nations officials postponed the voting session and manipulated the process to assure that their favorite, Hamid Karzai, would be the winner.” This caused a loss of “credibility among all Afghan tribes” towards the U.S.

“In order to win the ‘war on terror’ or ‘clash of civilizations,’ international policy makers must acquire a respect for the history and the cultures of the people in the front-line countries and states. Peace can only be sustained through mutual respect and built with consistency and trust. That takes time and patience, beginning with targeted essential assistance in local communities.”

To read more about Al Santoli’s Asia America Initiative click here.

Kurdistan Offers Peace and Hardship to Iraqi Christians Fleeing Baghdad

As reported in an article written by Abdel Hamid Zebari for the Middle East Times, “Iraq and the rest of the world are rightly worried about Shiite and Sunni Muslims forced to flee their homes around the country because of raging communal violence.” However, Zebari says, “the exodus of Christians from the capital has not received the same attention.”

Imad Matti and his family have just moved outside of the Kurdish regional capital of Arbil. The reason for this, Matti says, is “we don’t have any choice. We are afraid of the snakes and scorpions, especially with the children, but it’s better than sleeping without a roof.” According to the article, they are fleeing a situation where “threats from armed groups and attacks on businesses are rife.”

Zebari reports that “Christian leaders are reluctant to speak out about the problems faced by their congregations.” Instead, the Arab League’s representative, Mokhtar Lamani of Morocco drew attention to “a problem which he said has affected all of Iraq’s religious minorities, not just Christians,” Zebari says.

According to the article, it is estimated that “3,500 Christian families who had received threats have fled the capital for the relative safety of Kurdistan.” The sudden influx of Christians has made finding accommodations very difficult, reports Zebari. “Kurdish authorities give some families $100 a month, but that is not enough for Imad Matti to rent a home.” Zebari reports that there are “believed to be around 800,000 Christians still in Iraq.”

To read this article in full click here.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Zebari: “Nobody is for Withdrawal”

In a Wall Street Journal editorial by Robert Pollock, the reporter describes a recent interview he conducted with Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari of Iraq. Pollack first met Zebari in May 2003, when Saddam Hussein had just been overthrown and a sense of great hope for Iraq was in the air.

Since their original meeting, Pollack writes:

“Mr. Zebari has established himself as the great survivor of postwar Iraqi politics, holding his post through four governments.” Pollock adds that Zebari believes “the biggest mistake” the United States made in Iraq “was not entrusting the Iraqis as partners, to empower them, to see them do their part, to have a national unity government,” and that “the biggest sin was to change the mission from liberation to occupation.”

When discussing the continuing necessity of coalition forces in Iraq, Zebari told Pollock that “the new government was perfectly within its rights to ask for the departure of foreign troops.” However, Pollack writes, “he found no takers.” When Pollock asked him about the war debate in the United States and if Iraqis are worried that U.S. troops will leave soon, Zebari said, “yes…nobody is for withdrawal, even a timetable, for the troops.”

To read this article in full, click here.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Jeffrey Azarva: U.S. silence in Egypt, sadly, speaks volumes

Despite Bush’s rhetoric urging Egypt “to show the way toward democracy,” Jeffrey Azarva wrote in an op-ed piece for the Baltimore Sun that he believes the US is currently ignoring all that the Mubarak regime is doing to hinder democratic efforts. On the 30th of April, the Egyptian government announced that emergency laws would stay intact for another two years; these supposedly temporary laws give the government the power to censor media, prohibit public demonstrations and imprison political opponents indefinitely. Ayman Nour, a former Egyptian presidential candidate and leading democracy supporter, is serving five years in jail on fraud charges which many believe to be fabricated. Additionally, on May 25th, Muhammad al-Sharqawi was arrested, beaten and sodomized by Egyptian authorities all because he publicly held up a sign with the message “I want my rights.”

Azarva writes,

“Mubarak's strategy is clear: Deprive Egypt's fledgling liberal opposition of any political space, all the while telling Washington that he is the only bulwark against militant Islam and a terrorist resurgence. The White House bought the gambit. But the administration need not sacrifice democracy for the war on terrorism. Mubarak's survival depends on continuing the fight against terror.

“Each year, the Egyptian government pockets $1.8 billion in U.S. aid. Mubarak treats such funds as entitlement. Yet the State Department is afraid to play hardball. C. David Welch, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, testified to the House Appropriations Committee that cutting aid 'would be damaging to our national interests.'

“Yet Bush's 2002 decision to hold up $134 million in aid until Mubarak released democracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim did not damage U.S. national interests; it augmented them. Not only did the White House win Ibrahim's release, but it also bolstered U.S. prestige.

“Today, U.S. prestige is in free fall.

“When Bush, in his 2005 State of the Union address, implored Egypt ‘to show the way toward democracy,’ brave individuals across the region took the President at his word. Arab liberals who heeded Bush's call feel betrayal. Dictators are emboldened. Democratic allies are already in short supply; alienating them with shortsighted policies will only diminish their ranks.

“Now, when U.S. assistance is needed most, our silence is deafening.”

To read this op-ed piece in full, click here

After a Long Decline, Iraqi Schools Begin to Fill

As reported in The New York Times by Sabrina Tavernise, “enrollment in Iraqi schools has risen every year since the American invasion, reversing more than a decade of declines and offering evidence of increased prosperity for some Iraqis.” Tavernise reports that, according to figures from the Ministry of Education, “the number of children enrolled in schools nationwide rose by 7.4 percent from 2002-2005, and in middle schools and high schools by 27 percent in that time.”

The reasons behind such a phenomenon are not always driven by good news. For example, Tavernise says, “among the highest increases in secondary and high school enrollment were in provinces that have received families who are fleeing the violence of Baghdad and its dangerous outskirts.” However, an “increase in population of about 8 percent to 26 million from 2002-2005 in Iraq is also a cause,” as is economics, she reports. “Kids don’t have to work to help their parents anymore,” says Abdul Zahra al-Yasiri, a school teacher in Karbala in southern Iraq.

“High school enrollment increased more for girls than for boys, while boys made bigger gains in primary schools,” Tavernise reports. UNICEF reports that in 2004, “about 50 percent of all school-age Iraqi boys and 35 percent of school-age girls were enrolled.”

Parents are taking on a stronger role to insist that their children receive an education. A recent survey conducted at a school in a poor area of Mosul showed that “about a quarter of the parents of first graders could not read or write.” As a result, “those families are trying harder to keep their children in school, in part because civil service jobs that require diplomas are paying higher salaries.” Some parents are even going back to school themselves. One such 35 year-old woman declares, “I want progress in Iraq.”

To read this article in full click here.

Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, Looking out for Kurdish People

As reported by Allegra Stratton in New Statesman, Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, first lady of Iraq, wants to show her people that they are better off now than they were under Saddam Hussein’s regime. Besides being married to the president, Hero has made a name for herself by being involved in many media outlets in Iraqi Kurdistan. “She doesn’t have a BlackBerry or talk about bull or bear markets, but she runs a TV station in Iraqi Kurdistan, edits newspapers and leads charities,” Stratton reports.

Hero first began her assent to a media empire in the mid 1980’s when an “Iranian friend gave her a video camera and she set about recording the everyday lives of Kurdish villagers under daily bombardment by Saddam.” Stratton reports that Hero showed Europe the tapes and was told that “her footage shook too much,” an excuse not to use her footage, Hero believes. At the time, Stratton says, “western governments were supporting Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war and weren’t interested in her evidence indicting their ally.”

As Stratton reports, “Hero lives half of every month in Iraqi Kurdistan, ‘among the people’ and the other half in Baghdad with the president.” This is a way for her to see what the people have to contend with everyday and the economic situation that they are faced with. Hero believes that “Iraq’s levels of unemployment have ‘exceeded all limits’ and swollen the ranks of extremists.”

While Hero is an avid supporter of women’s rights and has founded a number of Kurdish women’s organizations, “she does not necessarily believe that the development of Iraq is dependent on women,” Stratton reports. Stratton says that “people in the west have concerns about the south of the country, where women are reportedly forced to wear the hijab and threatened death if found playing sports,” yet Hero isn’t so concerned. To a young Iraqi woman who says her life is worse off than it was under Saddam, she would say, “Your life is not worse now,” Stratton reports.

Hero believes, Stratton says, that “Iraq needs to be given time to work things out.” Hero says, “the west thinks democracy is like a tablet, but it is a huge process.”

To read this article in full click here.

Kurds “Accidental Beneficiaries” of Iraq War

In an article written in The Independent, Patrick Cockburn reports on the “unexpected consequences of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein,” on a region that, “in theory, is not independent, but is more powerful than most members of the United Nations.”

As reported in the article, “Iraqi Kurdistan remains a part of Iraq, but Baghdad has little influence on its actions.” Cockburn reports that “the struggle of the Iraqi Kurds for self-determination has been longer and bloodier than that of any nationalist movement outside Viet Nam.” In 1975 Saddam Hussein “imprisoned or forced hundreds of thousands of Kurds to flee when their independence movement collapsed,” and in the 1980’s his forces “slaughtered 182,000 of them and destroyed 3,800 of their villages as he crushed another of their uprisings during the Iran-Iraq war.”

However, today, Cockburn reports, “the Iraqi Kurds were accidental beneficiaries of George Bush’s determination to overthrow Saddam Hussein in 2003.” As the war continues in most parts of Iraq “the only peaceful parts of the country are the three Kurdish provinces of Arbil, Sulaimaniyah and Dohuk,” Cockburn says.

It is not only in geographic terms that the Kurds have benefited either. The President of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, is a Kurd. “The most effective members of the Iraqi government are Kurds,” Cockburn reports, and they would “like to have a legally independent state of their own.”

To read this article in full click here.