Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Friday, February 16, 2007

Booming economy “backfiring” on Vietnamese women

Women’s E News reported Thursday that Vietnam’s economic boom has not translated into gains for women. According to the piece:

“A month after a booming Vietnam joined the WTO, a U.N. committee flags violations of women’s rights, especially in rural areas. Democracy activist plan to broadcast the findings in underground media and lobby Vietnam’s trade partners.”

CEDAW expressed concerns over trafficking and HIV-AIDS, along with unsafe working conditions in textile and garment factories, where women make up the majority of the workforce. Rural women and ethnic minorities suffer the most, particularly from poverty.

For the full story, click here.

Bush acknowledges deteriorating situation in Afghanistan

President Bush addressed the American Enterprise Institute yesterday regarding his devotion to making an effort to improve the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, The Washington Post reported today.

In his speech, Bush tried to convey the importance of securing the well-being of the Afghan people, and thus preventing human rights abuses. While the war in Iraq has been the number one priority in Washington over the past several years, the remnants of the ousted Taliban government have regrouped and launched a potent new challenge.

Bush thus proclaimed that the new strategy in Afghanistan is to be a proactive one, acknowledging the escalating violence. He realizes the immediate necessity of more troops “for the foreseeable future” and also called on Congress to provide him with $11.8 billion to accelerate training, reconstruction and counter-narcotics programs – thus providing Afghans with greater economic, political, and military assistance in the fight against Islamic extremists.

For full article, click here.

Talibanization a threat to Afghanistan

In September of last year, Pakistan’s government signed a peace agreement which prohibited military raids in the northern regions. However, it seems that since the agreement there has been an enormous increase in attacks along the Afghan-Pakistan border. Subsequently, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry is insisting that Pakistan tighten its control over the Taliban and al-Qaeda networks, The Washington Post, reported on Wednesday.

Recently there have been massive attacks on U.S. border camps in the region, and there is fear of even larger attacks in the spring, as Eikenberry believes that members of the Taliban and al-Qaeda are working together; training and rigorously recruiting new members.

Recently, the U.S. pledged to send additional troops to Afghanistan. However, this is only to assist the NATO troops already in the area. With the assistance of the additional troops, NATO is expected redirect its troops in order to weaken the Taliban. While, the U.S. intends to keep the number of American troops in the area to a minimum.

According to the general, increased fighting will successively weaken Afghan support for President Hamid Karzai. “The long-term threat to campaign success…is the potential irretrievable loss of legitimacy of the government of Afghanistan,” Eikenberry said. His plea is a time-sensitive one; the fighting could escalate to a point in which there will be no foreseeable successful future for Afghanistan.

For the full article, click here.

CHRC holds briefing on human rights education

During a briefing today arranged by the bipartisan Congressional Human Rights Caucus and the International Human Rights Education Consortium, a panel discussed the importance of human rights education, and the need to help Congress address this important issue. Witnesses included Dr. Reuben E. Brigety II, Dr. Jo-Marie Burt, H. Victor Conde, Ed O'Brien, Theodore Orlin, and Felisa Tibbitts.

All of these individuals are dedicated to the understanding and application of human rights. They also believe that education, training, collaboration, and research are essential components of the global human rights movement. In addition, they stressed ensuring accountability, providing an ethical framework for the development of just and peaceable communities, and building a culture of human rights in everyday life at the national, regional, and global levels.

According to Theodore Orlin, the Clark Professor of Human Rights Scholarship and Advocacy at Utica College and the current President of the International Human Rights Education Consortium (IHREC), we need to see a general appreciation of the significance of proliferation in human rights education. The United States needs to be consistent in our commitment to human rights to reach the ultimate goal, which he considers a universal respect of dignity. There is no easy fix, he said, but education is the most effective way to bring about change. However, he sees a lack of resources regarding funding – IHREC is not asking for millions, simply small grants – with no bureaucratic ties.

Dr. Jo-Marie Burt took a different approach in discussing the importance of a growing international awareness. She said that supporting and promoting human rights education in newly developed and democratized countries in Latin America is important. She also talked about the significance of transitional justice, in reference to dealing with the legacy of old authoritarian regimes. The international community should promote new mechanisms, she said, by establishing truth trials where the criminals are held responsible. This is the only way to achieve accountability for the victims, she argued. Burt said that we can not accept a situation like the one in Uruguay, where victims were told to simply “forgive and forget – bury and move forward”.

H. Victor Conde, J.D., an international human rights lawyer, educator, and author from California, believes the United States have failed miserably in teaching human rights within our own school systems, and as a professor he would give the United States a D on our general knowledge of human rights. The majority of Americans today remain functionally illiterate on human rights, he said, arguing that only one out of forty college students would be able to recognize five articles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In addition, he believes the United States is acting rather hypocritical in trying to “teach” the international community human rights. To do so with integrity, he said we must first educate ourselves objectively and reach our standards of a tolerant, pluralistic, broad and diverse society.

Ed O'Brien, Executive Director of Street Law Inc., a Washington-based NGO working to raise legal awareness, democracy and human rights in all 50 states and over 30 countries, agreed with Conde that the United States needs to reinvigorate its role as a world leader in promoting human rights and demonstrate this commitment through support of human rights education at home. O’Brien requested that the Human Rights Caucus call on the Bush administration to pay attention to the United Nations World Programme for Human Rights Education. This program calls on all countries to develop a plan for implementation of human rights education in their primary and secondary schools. To date, the United States seems to have ignored this mandate.

Finally, Felisa Tibbitts, Executive Director and founder of Human Rights Education Associates (HREA), stressed the need for a stronger community of human rights educators and advocates around the world. She believes dignity is the key word in being one step ahead of the game, and she finds inspiration in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states “that every individual and every organ of society…shall strive by teaching and promote respect for these rights and freedoms.” She also made the important point that human rights are truly a dynamic field, and a critical component in promoting and teaching human rights on a national, regional and global stage is to remember to attack both the mind and the heart, although she cautioned that we must convey the stories of human rights violations to our children very delicately.

U.S. and Egypt jointly devise plans for the future

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s recent visit to Egypt has rekindled the relationship between the two nations, according to an article in Cairo’s Al-Abram Weekly Online this week. While the two countries differ on a variety of issues, a strong and mutual relationship is essential for the future two nations as well as for success in the Middle East, the reported this week, the article says.

While Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has repeatedly cancelled his trips to the U.S – it is very likely that this year will be no different – there have been a series of meetings between high ranking Egyptian and U.S. officials. Discussions have centered around stability in the Middle East, reform, U.S. aid to Egypt, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is of particular importance for Egypt, due to the increasing domestic tensions that it is causing. Egyptians officials have stressed the need for an independent Palestinian state, while the U.S. has only suggested a “political horizon” for the future. However, a resolution to this conflict is significant to U.S. foreign policy as well. According to the Baker Report, resolving the conflict between the two nations is a key component in regional stabilization in the Middle East. The writers of the article are hopeful that the U.S. and Egypt will be able to devise a realistic plan and begin implementing it before the end of Bush administration, and indeed, the current U.S. administration’s timeline affords the U.S. an opportunity to place more political pressure on Israel.

Another topic of major concern for the two nations is free trade. This discussion has, in the past, been inhibited by political initiatives; however, if the Bush administration hopes to instill democratization and open trade in the region, Egypt will have to be an integral player in this process, the article says.

For the full article, click here.

“Afghanistan is ours to lose”: House Foreign Affairs Committee hears grim testimony from panel of experts in first of planned series of hearings

At a hearing Wednesday aptly titled “Afghanistan on the Brink,” Congressman Mark Kirk and a panel of outside experts testified before members of Congress that the situation in Afghanistan is dire and worsening. Without more funding and a concerted effort to reverse the inroads made by a resurging Taliban, the prognosis for the country’s future is bleak, panelists asserted.

Rep. Kirk focused his remarks on the rise of the “narco-Taliban,” and urged the U.S. intelligence community to highlight the fundamental link between drug trafficking and terrorism. He pinpointed loss of control in North and South Waziristan, along with a “de facto Taliban state” in Helmand as the biggest problems facing U.S. and NATO forces. These encroachments will lead to a bloody spring, he warned. The U.S. should become the lead NATO partner in poppy eradication efforts, which he characterized as failing. Rep. Kirk added that Members of Congress should caution against paying “100 percent attention” to Iraq.

Lt. General David Barno, Director of the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, spoke of what he called Afghanistan’s positives, saying the country is on the cusp of emerging from 25 years of warfare. The Afghan people are deeply tired of fighting, and fear the U.S. will abandon them again. “Afghanistan is ours to lose,” Lt. General Barno said. He cited as major challenges Afghanistan’s lack of natural resources, creating infrastructure where none had existed, and said Afghanistan is “hundreds of years behind its neighbors.” It is in the U.S. national interest to “look to the neighborhood” he said, and added the conflict is not just about Afghanistan – it is also about securing a democratic Muslim state in the region.

New America Foundation Senior Fellow Peter Bergen said that a surge in Afghanistan can actually work. He echoed Rep. Kirk in calling for a plan to deal with tribal areas where Taliban presence is strong. The Pakistani government must become serious about dealing with members of the Taliban leadership who have found a safe haven there, said Bergen, but added that the U.S. should collaborate with Pakistan instead of pressuring Musharraf to get the desired results. Bergen warned that without poppy, 50 percent of Afghanistan’s economy would “go away.” The U.S. must explore serious alternatives – specifically crop substitution with subsidies for farmers – before pursuing eradication. Afghanistan needs “a mini-Marshall Plan,” he said.

Center for Strategic International Studies Chair in Strategy Anthony Cordesman told the Committee that “strategically we are losing” in Afghanistan. He added, it’s not how we plan to spend the money that matters but the facts on the ground; not where we throw money but how it sticks. Much higher aid levels are needed as part of an integrated effort, said Cordesman, noting that pledged aid is simply “not showing up.” The U.S. should seek better measures of effectiveness. For instance, less than half of all policemen who were trained and equipped through international aid funding are still on the job. “We can’t afford to live in a world of illusions,” Cordesman said. “We have to be real if we’re going to win.”

Hanoi bars foreign rights activist

Viet Nam has refused to grant a visa to Arne Liljedahl Lynngaard, chairman of the human rights group, Rafto Foundation, AFP reported on Wednesday. The Rafto Foundation awarded its annual prize to Quang Do, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, and Lynngaard planned to travel to Viet Nam to present the award.

Do is the deputy leader of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, but has been under house arrest for more than two decades. Under normal conditions, Do would have flown to Norway to accept his prize, however, fearing that the government would refuse his reentry, he choose to stay in Viet Nam. The Rafto Foundation’s annual award is given to those who promote democracy and freedom of expression. Four previous award-winners went on to win the Nobel Prize.

For the full article, click here.

Continued pressure applied to opposition group

Egyptian officials arrested 80 Muslim Brotherhood members on Thursday, Reuters reported on the same day. Three of the detainees are elected members of the Egyptian parliament; all face charges of possessing anti-government literature, and belonging to an outlawed group.

The Muslim Brotherhood believes that the government is trying to curtail a potential Brotherhood victory in the upper house of Egyptian parliament in the upcoming elections in April. According to Muslim Brotherhood deputy leader Mohamed Habib, “this is an attempt to marginalize the role of the Brotherhood in Egyptian political life, an attempt to impede our political path and snarl our plans and strategies.” Since a student-led protest in the December, the government has continued to keep a close eye on the group.

In the most recent elections, the Muslim Brotherhood won twenty percent of the seats in the lower house. Currently only recognized political parties are allowed to put forth a presidential candidate; however if the group was to be as successful in the upcoming elections, it is possible that they would be able to pass legislation which would invalidate this law.

For the full article, click here.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

New policies needed to win in Afghanistan

In an op-ed in today’s Washington Times on the growing issue of opium in Afghanistan, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen argues that a new policy focused on eliminating the production of opium is the only way to defeat the Taliban, as funding for the Taliban’s military equipment as well as the money used to pay their soldiers and bribe government officials comes from the drug trade. Finding alternative livelihoods for those now growing and producing the drug is crucial if the Taliban is to be combated, Ros-Lehtinen says. Other suggestions offered by Ros-Lehtinen include training of Afghan police by Colombian antinarcotics personnel and development of a unified policy for tackling the issue. With the odds of succeeding in Afghanistan dwindling, this may be the only way for the United States to bring stability to the country, she says.

For the full article, click here.

Nominees for Ambassadors to Iraq and Afghanistan testify before the Senate

This morning, in a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ryan C. Crocker and William B. Wood testified in regards to their nominations as Ambassador to the Republic of Iraq and Ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, respectively. Senator John Kerry from Massachusetts, who presided over the hearing, opened by discussing how the wars in both nations are “vital to American national interest.” The war in Iraq, which needs a political, rather than military solution, Kerry said, has disastrous consequences which have made the U.S. less safe, the Middle East more volatile and relations between the U.S. and Iran touchier. Afghanistan, Kerry continued, has reached a critical juncture where corruption and income disparity, among other concerns, have taken their toll.

Wood, has more than 30 years experience in the foreign service, and has served as Ambassador to Colombia since July 2003. As Ambassador, Wood said his focus would be on finding the right combination of security and law enforcement with humanitarian assistance and aid- continuing with current strategy. He also noted that the proposed budget includes $10.6 billion to aid Afghanistan over the next two years. Two billion is to be used for economic reconstruction and aid, with special efforts aimed at the poorer southern region. The remainder will be spent on the police and security sectors.

In response to Senator Lugar’s concern about the fourth attempt at Afghan police reform (twice by the Germans and once by the U.S.), Wood addressed the issue as one of fundamental importance. If a community does not trust the police, Wood said, the police are seen instead as an internal repressive force.

To fight the drug trade, Wood said he would consult politicians both in and outside Afghanistan. For this, he believes his experience in Colombia will be useful. The flowers that contain the poppy seeds used to produce opium are easier to kill than the weeds used to produce coca. Additionally the Afghan flower has a shorter growing season. Further expanding on the differences, Wood said, “Colombian drugs represent a World Trade Tower tragedy in the U.S. every year,” referring to the number of Colombian cocaine-overdoses in the U.S. Afghanistan, on the other hand, illicitly exports only 10% of its opium supply to the U.S. These facts lead Wood to believe that the industry can be dealt with, but do not cheapen the importance of the task, commenting, “Destroying the drug trade is critical to achieving our [political, security, and humanitarian] goals.”

Crocker, has more than 35 years experience in the foreign service, and has served as Ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan since November 2004. Crocker began his address by stating that the average Iraqi does not believe that the Iraqi government or the coalition forces have brought security to the country. Though he agrees with Senator Kerry that the core of the problem and its solution is political, Crocker stated that “violence dominates the political discourse.”

When asked by Senator Feingold whether Crocker believes that an increase in the number of U.S. troops sent to Iraq will help increase security against sectarian violence, Crocker responded that “our role in support is crucial” since the Iraqi police force is not ready to independently handle the violence. Crocker stressed, however, that the most important aspect is the commitment of the Iraqi forces. The five brigade increase will play a critical supporting role since the mission is different from those of the past, Crocker said, but the Iraqi government has to be held accountable for their responsibility in reducing sectarian violence.

In addition to “dampening down on violence,” Crocker said that his other priorities as Ambassador would include economic, political and social reforms, such as reforming the de-Baathification process and the constitution. Additionally, he would emphasize a regional dynamic, including Iraq’s neighbors who serve as a counterweight to Iran’s role in the conflict.

Crocker closed his initial address to the Senate committee by stating, “Failure would feed forces of terror and extremism well beyond Iraq’s borders. We would all pay the price.”

The Senate will not vote on Ambassador Crock and Ambassador Wood’s nominations until they return from a week long recess.

Microfinance pioneer to enter politics

Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank and the winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize, has decided to create a political party in order to help lift Bangladesh from the current political crisis, The Times Online reported Tuesday. Yunus, known as the “banker to the poor,” has asked that all Bangladeshis help him to build a better country in the wake of last month’s imposition of a military-backed government and election cancellations. Yunus sees it as his duty to make the jump into politics, though he realizes this might stir up controversy. The democratic system in Bangladesh had been led by two widows that have alternated between prime Minister and opposition leader for almost 16 years. Yunus’s popularity in the countryside is questionable, and many worry he will not be able to garner enough support to challenge the current structure.

To read the article, click here.

Viet Nam’s religion policy less than forthcoming

The Pope met with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung last month in an attempt to improve relations between the two, but many problems still exist, according to ZENIT News Agency. The Vietnamese government’s policies indicate support for religious freedom, but in reality, some groups, notably Catholics, have not been afforded full rights. Viet Nam, the article claims, sees religion as a power to be “harnessed” rather than for the value the people place upon it. Indeed, Hanoi maintains control over all worship and religious institutions.

A recent government white paper released February 1, illustrates the fear of religion evident in Hanoi, stating, “Followers may not negatively impact national customs and tradition or community unity.” According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, forced renunciations still occur throughout the country at the hands of the government. They have also reported that many churches remain closed and new detentions are still occurring. Though policy may have opened the door to religious freedom, the situation on the ground is not indicative of this.

For the entire article, click here.

U.S. government contradicts rights organizations over alleged persecution in Central Highlands

Assistant Secretary of State Ellen Sauerbrey recently visited the Central Highlands of Viet Nam and met with several Montagnards, BBC News reported last week. Sauerbrey met, without government presence, with seven Central Highlanders who had been forced to return to Viet Nam after fleeing to Cambodia. Based on what she saw, Sauerbrey concluded that the Vietnamese government is not violating the rights of the Central Highlanders who are being repatriated. This pronouncement stands in opposition to the reports of many respected human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Sauerbrey guessed that the Montagnards’ reasons for attempting to resettle in Cambodia were motivated by financial need, rather than by political or religious persecution.

To read the entire article, click here.

Statement of Chairman Tom Lantos at Hearing "Afghanistan on the Brink: Where Do We Go From Here?"

February 15, 2007

Three weeks ago, I arrived in Kabul with Speaker Pelosi and my colleagues in the national security leadership of the House. We were moved by the dedication, courage and professionalism of U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan. And we were struck by how this desolate and hard-hit land of multiple ethnicities, cultures and tribes has come together in the last few years. But I must say it was painfully clear that with the current security situation, and with indications of a new assault by the Taliban planned for this spring, things could well fall apart. Afghanistan is once again on the brink.

The situation is a far cry from the outpouring of global solidarity in the wake of the 9-11 attacks, and the universal expressions of support for an assault on the Taliban back then. Who would have thought that just a few years later it would come to this: Insufficient troops to get the job done.
A shortage of financial support. A handful of countries shouldering the burden and taking on the risks for all members of NATO.

The United States and our allies face a pivotal decision. We cannot continue to under-commit our resources to this crucial effort in the first front in the global struggle against terrorism. We must use a different, more creative approach - one that takes a hard line against those who finance the Taliban and al Qaeda, and who poison the world by supplying more than 90 percent of its heroin - and in this connection, I want to commend my friend from Florida, the Ranking Member, for an excellent article that appeared just this morning. We need an approach that involves the Afghan people in deciding their fate; one that truly encompasses the broader international community, which has a vested interest in a stable and secure Afghanistan.

For several years, I have been calling on the U.S. and NATO's military leadership in Afghanistan to change their policy of ignoring narco-trafficking. Right now, they will only destroy opium stockpiles and drug laboratories if they happen to come across them during other combat operations. We have been told that the military "doesn't do counter-narcotics," even as they admit that narcotics profits feed our battlefield enemies. After several years of record opium harvest and rampant drug corruption with no end in sight, we no longer have the luxury of indulging in this artificial and meaningless distinction.

We need to reverse this trend now. I call on our own government and on NATO to immediately create and deploy counter-narcotic interdiction combat units to go after drug kingpins, warlords and Afghan officials that process and traffic opium.

Yes, we must pursue eradication and rural development programs to create alternatives to poppy cultivation. But relying solely on long-term, incremental, multi-year campaigns of eradication and development will not do the job alone. The place is awash in opium, and we need to drain the swamp.

We must target those who profit most handsomely from opium trafficking. Up to now, they have been able to operate with impunity. They even gleefully invite foreign journalists and film crews to document their operations.

These criminals must be put on notice.
Narcotics trafficking is part of the battlefield in Afghanistan, and we must treat it as such.

But military pressure cannot be the only instrument in the war against opium in Afghanistan. If we are to expect success, the Karzai government must commit to bring these vicious criminals to justice.

Incredibly, some are members of parliament. I urge this Administration to work with President Karzai to make public a list of major drug traffickers.
Honor is an important factor in Afghan society, and what could be more dishonorable than having your name publicly listed as a trafficker of drugs
- a Most-Wanted Hall of Shame.

Ultimately, the war against opium must be led by the Afghan people. I call upon President Karzai and this Administration to organize a Loya Jirga, or a traditional Afghan Assembly, with tribal elders and local leaders to gain support in the counter-narcotics effort. I am convinced that village leaders across the country recognize the moral and even religious calamity that the drug trade has befallen on their society. We must help empower them to institute a change in culture and attitude toward the poison that has plagued their land for so long.

Our efforts to promote a free and secure Afghanistan will not be successful unless our European allies and the Gulf nations step up. It is simply unacceptable that NATO commanders are left to beg for troops from countries like Germany, France, Italy, and Spain. It is an outrage that only troops from the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, Denmark and the United Kingdom are deployed to the most hazardous spots. No longer should American taxpayers have to pay the lion's share of the bill while the Saudis receive more than 300 billion dollars of windfall oil profits. No longer should this Administration stand passively by while our so-called allies take advantage of American generosity and courage.

I am baffled by the short-sightedness of our European friends and oil-rich neighbors. A failed Afghanistan would be a detriment to all of us. In 2004, the world witnessed train bombs in Madrid and suicide bombers in Riyadh. A failed Afghanistan would be a launching pad for terrorists to cause even more mayhem in cities across the globe.

Stronger counter-narcotics efforts, Afghan engagement, and holding our allies accountable must be the hallmarks of our new strategy in Afghanistan.
The gloves must come off if we are to prevail against the Taliban and the drug lords. This is a crucial year for Afghanistan.

I am pleased to note that as we conduct this hearing, the President has decided to send 3,000 additional American troops that were originally going to Iraq to Afghanistan, presumably as a "surge" to counter the expected Taliban spring offensive. I think the President should be bolder and send all of the 22,000 troops of the Iraqi surge to Afghanistan, where they could actually make a difference.

I am pleased now to turn to my esteemed colleague, the Ranking for any remarks that she may choose to make.

7,000 Iraqi refugees to be granted asylum in U.S.

The Bush administration announced that it will allow 7,000 refugees to resettle in the U.S. over the course of the next year, according to a BBC News report today. Thus far, the administration has granted entry to only 463 Iraqi refugees. According to U.N. estimates, 40,000-50,000 refugees flee Iraq each month.

The U.S. plan would allow for the 7,000 Iraqi refugees targeted for entry to be resettled from the neighboring countries that they have already sought asylum in. This move should relieve some of the pressure on Jordan and Syria. According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees figures, about 1,000,000 Iraqis have fled to Syria, and around 750,000 to Jordan, with many others fleeing to additional locations. Nasser Judeh, a Jordanian government spokesman, in comparing the numbers in the U.S. proposal to the extent of the problem in Jordan, said, “Seven thousand Iraqi refugees is just 1% of the number we have.”

U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack assured the international community that the figure is a “target.” Additional refugees could be granted asylum at a later date.

The U.S. also pledged $18 million to contribute toward the $60 million UNHCR requested from the international community to assist with additional resettlement efforts. “The dimension of the problem is so huge that nothing is ever enough,” said High Commissioner Antonio Guterres. He continued, “But I think it is a very good start, a very good step in the right direction.”

For the full article, click here.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The future of the United Nations under Ban Ki Moon

During a full committee hearing Tuesday, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs addressed the future of the United Nations under Ban Ki Moon. Witnesses included President of the United Nations Foundation, Timothy E. Wirth, Former United States Senate Majority Leader, George Mitchell, and Former U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, John Bolton.

While supportive of the U.N.’s founding principals, many committee members were critical of the organization’s past. The recent Oil-For-Food scandal and peace-keeping missions gone awry were the beginning of a lengthy list indicating widespread internal problems. Chairman Tom Lantos said, “Reality hasn’t matched the ideals.” However, the witnesses as well as the members went on to indicate that the U.N. can effectively serve U.S. foreign policy. The meeting covered issues of internal reform, the status of peace-keeping operations, budget, Darfur, and the newly formed Human Rights Council.

Internal reform, which became a key issue for Former Secretary General Kofi Annan in the wake of scandal, continues to plague the organization. Members affirmed the need for accountability, transparency, and greater effectiveness from the United Nations. However, it was voiced that while the U.S. can remain critical of its policies, the UN remains a body composed of sovereign states – it is the responsibility of those states to work together to make the UN a more efficient assembly. Bolton, in particular, affirmed recent UN progress to be minimal.

Mitchell, one of the nation’s leading experts on UN reform, said he considers the United Nations to be an important institution looking to the future interest of United States foreign policy. He said he embraced the prospect of making fundamental institutional reforms within the United Nations, even though this could be controversial and cause vigorous debates. There is an immediate need for accountability, credibility, transparency and flexibility due to the failed or critical operations of the last few years. These have undermined both authority and legitimacy. He is in support of the United Nations continuously making efforts to put an end to deadly crises in the world community, and he believes this requires strong U.S. commitment and leadership.

Bolton discussed the importance of an effective and efficient United Nations. He demanded to see results in an organization with “a culture of inaction.” What the UN truly needs, Bolton said, is to “convert words into a program of action.” As of now, the pace of U.N. reform is simply too excruciatingly slow. Bolton advocated a radical overhaul and strategic refit of the United Nations in changing the culture of funding from assessment to voluntary funding.

Wirth gave the new UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon ten points to measure success when looking back in five years from now. First he mentioned the need for a general strengthening of multilateral relationships; the importance of reforms in the areas of cooperation in peacekeeping and peacemaking; finding a solid economic foundation in the budget; he mentioned the significance of coming to terms with the situation in the Middle East; a strengthening of the non-proliferate regime; a resolution to the horrific humanitarian situation in the Darfur region in Sudan; a redefining of the role of energy to engage on a path to sustainable development; the U.S. joining or reengaging in the United Nations Human Rights Council; the position of Israel and finally the United States and other members upholding their promises to the budget, paying on time and sufficiently. Based on these points Wirth envisioned a revitalized United Nations

Monday, February 12, 2007

Breaking the silence on female circumcision in the Muslim world

In an op-ed in today’s Baltimore Sun, Thomas von der Osten-Sacken and Thomas Uwer of the German NGO, WADI, urged western governments and the international human rights community to take a stand against the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). The writers argue that more must be done to raise awareness on FGM and at the same time put pressure on regional authorities to recognize this problem.

In FGM, the clitoris – considered a dirty organ – is cut in order to curb sexual desire and preserve “honor” before marriage. Many girls die of bleeding after being mutilated, and others are traumatized and suffer adverse health effects. FGM also increases the risks of problems during childbirth.

Recent information from Iraqi Kurdistan shows that almost 60 percent of Kurdish women had undergone this deplorable procedure - highlighting the fact that FGM is more than just an African phenomenon. Silence on this issue in the Middle East does not mean that problem is nonexistent. Instead, it is reflective of the insufficient freedoms afforded to feminists and independent civil society to raise the issue.

Most women, when asked, justify FGM by tradition and religion. A large concern is that many rural mullahs make women believe that Islam obliges them to undergo the procedure. Islamic scholars in general on divided on the issue, with some saying no obligatory rules exist, while others refer to the mention of female circumcision in religious texts.

For full article, click here.

Iraqi refuges in Syria live with daily fear of being deported

There is a growing fear of deportation amongst Iraqi refugees in Syria, Reuters AlertNet reported today. The Syrian government has implemented more stringent immigration rules for Iraqis. Today, many of the 1 million displaced Iraqis in Syria seem to be desperately looking for certainty or a simple promise that they will not be deported to an unsure fate in their war-torn homeland.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres recently traveled to Syria, where he listened to the main concerns of Iraqi refugees within the country. UNHCR is currently working in Syira, distributing registration application papers, and establishing a hotline for Iraqis facing immediate deportation.

According to UNHCR estimates, 1.8 million Iraqis are internally displaced and an additional 2 million are believed to have sought asylum in neighboring countries like Syria and Jordan. Last month, UNHCR called for $60 million in aid to help provide assistance to Iraqi refugees.

For full article, click here.

The need for Turkish-Kurdish cooperation

Richard Holbrooke, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, reports to The Washington Post today from Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.

As part of his visit, Holbrooke has met with leaders from both Turkey and Kurdistan to discuss the necessity of rapprochement, compromise and cooperation, as interdependence is needed to address vast economic, political and security issues in the region. Holbrooke sees Kurdistan as a potential buffer between Turkey and central Iraq, while Turkey could become the protector of a Kurdistan that remains a part of Iraq but is afforded expanded governmental autonomy.

Holbrooke also emphasizes the distinctive need for intense encouragement and mediation by the United States to help Turkish and Kurdish leaders stave off conflict.

For full article, click here.

U.S. to help remove Agent Orange contaminants

The U.S. government announced it will give no less than $400,000 toward removing and cleaning dioxin from the soil at a former U.S. base in Danang, Viet Nam, The Associated Press reported today.

Dioxin is a highly toxic ingredient of Agent Orange, an herbicide used by the U.S. military during the Viet Nam War to destroy cover for the Viet Cong. This action represents a major step towards improving the diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and Viet Nam. U.S. Ambassador Michael Marine said that the United States is “committed to supporting the well-being of the people of Vietnam”.

Vietnamese officials maintain that four million citizens have suffered birth defects or other health consequences due to dioxin contamination. Additionally, the chemical's environmental impact has been a source of contention between the US and Viet Nam for years, as the U.S. government previously declared that there was no direct link between the chemical and the health consequences seen.

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Violence against Algerian women is still a strong taboo

After returning from a 10-day fact-finding mission in Algeria, Yakin Ertürk, U.N. Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur on violence against women, urged the international community to take serious measures to combat female-targeted violence in Algeria, U.N. News Service reported last week.

According to Ertürk, recent surveys indicate that discrimination and violence against women is still a major concern in Algeria, but victims are often afraid to speak out because of crippling social taboos.
There has been progress, as evidenced by the adoption of a national charter of peace and reconciliation in 2005, which denies amnesty to perpetrators of egregious crimes such as rape and collective massacre. However, Ertürk hopes to see further freedoms for feminists. She is also hopeful that Algerian civil society can raise the issue and she called upon the Algerian government to adopt international agreements and conventions that guarantee equal rights for women.
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