Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Friday, March 09, 2007

Congressional hearing on the Middle East and South Asia

At a Congressional hearing of the Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia Wednesday, Ambassador Richard A. Boucher, the assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, addressed Congress regarding the current situation in the region with respect to a number of issues, including terrorism and non-proliferation; crime and illicit narcotics; U.S. foreign assistance programs, and the promotion of U.S. trade and exports.
The Bureau of South and Central Asian affairs currently deals with U.S. foreign policy and U.S. relations with the countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. However, at the regional overview the main focus was U.S. policy with regards to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

Subcommittee Chairman Gary L. Ackerman opened the discussion by expressing his concern over the lack of progress in these three countries. Ackerman said that he has strong doubts that these countries are currently equipped to face all the threats and challenges of the region. There are numerous concerns, and we have seen the danger of these states failing, he said. He also noted that in the five years of strong U.S. commitment in Afghanistan our record has been mixed. Ackerman said there should be strong concern over record opium poppy growth in the country, as the profits often go to the Taliban. He believes this to be severely undermining our efforts at witnessing reconciliation and promoting prosperity and democratic progress. Ackerman mentioned that now is the time for Pakistan to step up, considering the $8 million they receive every month in support of counterterrorism activities. He said, they should not, as has been reported, act as a safe-heaven for Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Boucher agreed that the fundamental U.S. goals in the region are crucial, since failure would be dangerous. He also stated the importance of assessing the whole region, and not simply Afghanistan. The core of U.S. efforts in the region should be to secure the benefit of good governance for all, he said, stressing the importance of judicial improvements. Boucher also believes Pakistan and India to be vital partners in the fight for transparent democracy in the region and is hoping to maintain long-term friendships with these countries. In response to Ackerman’s accusations that Pakistan is not living up to U.S. expectations with regards to counterterrorism activities, Boucher recognized the obstacles, but insisted, “It is the implications of the conditionality of these issues that prevents us from doing more.” Ackerman would not give a straight answer as to whether the administration should put more muscle behind our policy toward Pakistan.

Finally, Boucher touched upon the implications of the growing poppy problem. He maintained that while the U.S is currently engaged in an extensive strategy to promote a different and prosperous rural economy in Afghanistan, no one crop has been identified as an alternative to poppy.

U.S. human rights report provokes anger in Egypt

BBC News reported today that the Egyptian government is angry with the harsh criticism they received in the U.S. State Department’s annual report on human rights violations, released earlier this week.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Aboul-Gheit, according to the article, “accused the U.S. of interfering in its affairs,” and told the BBC that Egypt was committed to protecting human rights.

For the full article, click here

Concerns about Egypt’s human rights record

The U.S. State Department’s annual report on human rights violations listed several concerns regarding the current conditions in Egypt, among them, poor conditions in prisons and detention centers, The Associated Press reported Thursday.

Other significant violations mentioned in the report included, according to the article, “executive branch limits on an independent judiciary, denial of fair public trial and lack of due process, and restrictions on civil liberties.”

For the full article, click here

Several Iranian women’s rights activists still in solitary confinement

The Iranian government has released most of the women detained Sunday for their involvement in a nonviolent protest in Tehran, but three still remain in jail under solitary confinement and have begun a hunger strike to protest their detention, The Associated Press reported Thursday. The names of only two of the women remaining in detention were disclosed: Jila Baniyaghoob, a journalist; and Shadi Sadr, a lawyer.

Meanwhile, the women who were released were barred from attending a planned demonstration to commerate International Women’s Day on Thursday. The demonstration never materialized.

U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack spoke out against the arrests Thursday, echoing previous condemnations issued by international rights groups.

“These repressive actions by the regime highlight an alarming trend of intolerance toward the expression of independent views by the Iranian people,” McCormack said.

For the full article, click here.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Taliban commander arrested sporting a burqa

The Afghan National Army (ANA) captured Taliban Commander Mullah Mahmud, dressed in a burqa, yesterday in Kandahar province, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The commander, allegedly involved in training suicide bombers, was reportedly attempting to evade the ANA by disguising himself in a burqa.

For the full article, click here.

Corruption looms large in Iraq

Corruption in Iraq is at an all-time high, and is even worse than under Saddam Hussein, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported today. “There are eight ministers and 40 director-generals against whom corruption charges have been brought and they have all fled abroad,” said Radi al-Radi, head of Iraq’s Commission on Public Integrity.

For the full article, click here.

Challenges to women’s empowerment in Afghanistan

Afghanistan has weathered numerous changes throughout its history, especially in regards to the women’s movement. Challenges facing Afghan women were precisely the topic of discussion today at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) to commemorate International Women’s Day. Ms. Nilofar Sakhi, a visiting fellow at NED, began her presentation by briefly recounting the history of the women’s movement in her homeland.

The core issues facing the movement cannot effectively be addressed without gaining a historical context. The 1920s rang in the first era of change in the country with the establishment by Queen Surya of the first women’s organization, Organization for Women’s Protection and Legal Rights. Additionally, income-generation programs and cultural programs began to be implemented. These changes grew to include women in the police force and electoral politics offices. However, improvements began to backslide during the 1990s. The era from 1994 to 2001 is aptly labeled “Gender Apartheid.” From 2001 through the present, improvements, in part with the assistance of the international community, have slowly resurfaced. These recent efforts, and the obstacles thereto, are where Ms. Sakhi has concentrated her research.

The make-up of Afghanistan’s women’s movement is as follows: 20 percent women’s associations, which include shuras, youth associations, and associations within schools and universities; 55 percent nongovernmental organizations; 10 percent networks; 10 percent individuals; and 5 percent women’s ministry. These groups/persons regularly butt up against a patriarchal system derived from political instability, lack of law enforcement and poverty. As political instability increases, the social sector is the first to feel the impact. Additionally, law enforcement is not upheld in rural areas, where traditional elder councils – which exclude women – are the sole decision makers. Poverty also plagues women due to dependency on male family members for survival. Even those women who have jobs do not have control over their income. Cruel cultural practices, self-immolation and increased female mortality rates often derive from this Afghan system of strength and patriarchy.

As a result of these core issues, certain challenges arise. Due to targeted attacks, women are usually kept from the rebuilding process because their families are so concerned with the lack of security. On the legal front, police are not trained to be sensitive to domestic violence. The viewpoint of the person in power also matters to the movement, as they may hold a modernist, reformist or conservative approach. Additionally, the court system does not protect women from cruel cultural practices such as stoning or “baad” (the trading of women among tribes to compensate for tribal violence).

Additional challenges arise in regards to women living in rural areas. Rural women have thus far been excluded from the movement due to geographic and media isolation. Lack of security and the presence of opposition forces in the rural areas are also problematic.

Capacity building programs, not present before 2001, often do not educate men on women’s rights. Such programs also tend to be short-term, frequently neglect rural women, and lack management training and accountability.

In regards to economic challenges, women have fewer job opportunities available to them. Additionally sustainable programs often do not have a long-term or income-generating focus.

“In order to not repeat what happened decades ago” and to see some notable improvements in women’s conditions, Ms. Sakhi made a number of recommendations. Visible security measures need to be made. Educational curriculum, especially textbook depictions of work/gender divisions, need to be reformed. A space for women should be created in mosques and religious institutions. One way this could be done is to bring religious leaders to preach on the Quranic verses that strongly favor women’s rights, both in a religious setting and to the media. Emphasizing the possibility for change, Ms. Sakhi recounted how the same mullah who stopped her from opening a women’s school, later spoke to the media about women’s rights.

Another recommendation is to establish family courts in provinces to investigate domestic cases, rather than to have all matters pass through Kabul. Additionally, Ms. Sakhi said that more job opportunities should be created for both urban and rural women, including long-term and income-generating projects. As a last recommendation, Ms. Sakhi suggested that men be included in gender-sensitive programs.

Though challenges were reaffirmed and slight pessimism was shown through remarks from audience members, Ms. Sakhi remained positive and hopeful, maintaining that change does not come overnight but has to start somewhere.

U.S. State Department report addresses human rights throughout world

In an analysis of how governments worldwide handle the “non-negotiable demands of human dignity,” as President Bush calls them, the U.S. State Department, in its annual report released Tuesday, declared the genocide in Darfur as the world’s gravest human rights abuse in 2006. Certain aspects of the report were highlighted by the International Herald Tribune the same day.

Among the 44 pages on the situation in Iraq, abuses included: government corruption; police involvement in the disappearances and torture of prisoners; and increasing violence, including “targeted Sunnis in large-scale death squads and kidnapping activities.” Though human rights abuses continued in Afghanistan, the report notes that last year police were monitored more closely and were better trained.

The report was released in the middle of, or just days before, talks with countries whose handling of human rights was strongly criticized, including Sudan, North Korea and Iran. Not all countries received negative feedback, however. Among others, Liberia was recognized for President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s dismissal of corrupt officials; Congo for its first democratic elections in 45 years; and Indonesia for its reduction in “killings by the armed forces and the police in politically sensitive areas.”

In an unusual occurrence, the report even critiqued the U.S. government’s handling of terror suspects. “Our democratic system is not infallible, but is accountable,” the report said. Additionally, Barry Lowenkron, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, remarked, “We recognize that we are issuing this report at a time when our own record and actions we have taken to respond to the terrorist attacks against us have been questioned. We will continue to respond to the concerns of others.”

For the full article, click here.
For the U.S. State Department’s 2006 Annual Report on Human Rights, click here.

Unexploded ordinance are still a problem for Vietnamese

A15-year-old Vietnamese boy was killed recently when he came across a silver ball while tending to his family’s livestock, The Washington Post reported yesterday. The silver ball was an unexploded shell from a cluster bomb dropped by the United States over 30 years ago that exploded as the boy was playing with it.

Despite ordinance removal efforts, peasant farmers and their families are the ones must affected by this problem. One estimate tells the entire story: at the current pace it will take 100 years to remove all of the unexploded ordinance from just one province, Quang Tri. According to government figures, there remains anywhere from 350,000 to 850,000 tons of ordinance throughout the country.

In response to the teenager’s death, 46 countries have moved to ban the production and use of cluster munitions. However, the three largest producers of such weapons, the United States, China and Russia, did not sign onto this agreement.

Quang Tri is one of the more impoverished provinces in Viet Nam, with over 60 percent of residents living below the international poverty line. Since the end of the Viet Nam War, 38,000 people have been killed by unexploded ordinance and an additional 64,000 have been wounded.

To read this article, click here.

Egyptian Bloggers fear new precedent emerging

With the imprisonment of 22 year-old blogger Abdel-Karim Suleiman for four years, many of Egypt’s 5,000 bloggers are wondering what the future may hold, according to an article published by The Washington Post Monday. Suleiman, previously a law student at al-Azhar Islamic University, accused the institution of promoting extremism and called some companions of the Prophet Mohammad terrorists. In addition, he likened President Hosni Mubarak to the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt.

In Egypt, blogs are an outlet for causes not usually addressed by the traditional media, including Christian issues. The Egyptian government is defiant and claims that their policies and actions are an internal matter, as they brush away criticism from human rights groups. However, since the arrest of Suleiman, many bloggers are beginning to fear what may become of them at the hands of their government. Tellingly, Reporters Without Borders has added Egypt to its Internet Black Holes list.

The blogging community has played an important role in getting important stories into the mainstream in recent months. They are responsible for disseminating footage of police officers sodomizing a bus driver, and they have brought attention to incidents of sexual harassment of women in Cairo.

To read this article, click here.

Vatican delegation and Viet Nam officials begin talks

A delegation from the Vatican began high-level discussions with Vietnamese officials yesterday, The Asssociated Press reported the same day. The meeting comes a month after Pope Benedict XVI and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung met. According to Pietro Parolin, the undersecretary of state for the Vatican, “Our desire is to establish diplomatic relations.”

There has long been animosity between the two sides because Viet Nam has consistently insisted on having final say on almost all of those appointed by the Catholic Church. On the issue of appointments, Nguyen The Doanh, vice director of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, has said that the goal should be to reach a consensus on the candidates.

Parolin has said that he will inquire about the status of Father Nguyen Van Ly, a dissident priest who was recently removed from his church and sent to a smaller parish.

To read this article, click here.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Iranian refugees stuck in state of limbo along Iraqi-Jordanian border

For the past two years a group of Iranian Kurds has been living in al-Karama, a makeshift refugee camp inside Iraq at the border with Jordan, hoping for third-country resettlement, according to a Voice of America report Monday. The group of 200, some of whom have been refugees for decades, fled in 2005 from al-Tash refugee camp in Anbar province due to violence but were denied entry to Jordan. The Jordanian government, according to published reports, fears a flood of refugees will result if the Iranian Kurds are granted visas.

In recent months the refugees have even resorted to demonstrations and hunger strikes to try and elicit help from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other organizations. An UNHCR official in Amman says there is little the agency can do to help the group, commenting, “We have been in touch with the Jordanian authorities. They were denied entry. And where they are currently, in the no man's land, it is very difficult for UNHCR to actually provide effective protection and assistance.” UNHCR did offer to relocate the group to the Kaveh refugee camp in northern Iraq; however, the group denied the offer, seeing it as a step away from their desired third country relocation.

Other avenues of assistance have proven fruitless to date. The Swedish Embassy in Amman has granted visas to 500 other Iranian Kurds, but can do nothing for this group until Jordan grants them asylum. The Jordanian Relief Agency has evaluated the living conditions in the camp. Iraqi troops even have offered limited medical assistance to sick toddlers. The U.S. State Department is also aware of the group and claims to be working with UNHCR, Iraq and Jordan on the issue.

The sense of desperation among group members is readily evident, as one refugee recalls, “I have (lived) three generations as a refugee in Iraq. My father came to Iraq as a young man and died here. I was only a kid. Now I am an old man. This is my son, he has not been schooled. Why should it be this way?"

For the full article, click here.

Preserving Iraqi Culture

Before the onset of the ongoing conflict in Iraq, approximately 10,000 archeological sites magnificently displayed an Iraqi culture dating back to the dawn of civilization. Now, in light of the conflict, those same poorly guarded sites are continually plundered, financing the insurgents who abscond with these artifacts and deprive future generations of Iraq’s personal art history, according to Matthew Bogdanos, a Marine Reserves Colonel and co-author of a book on the subject, in a New York Times op-ed Tuesday. Failure to protect these antiquities, for which the U.N. and NATO also do not take much responsibility, is convincing Iraqis and others in the Middle East that the U.S. does not care about the preservation of Iraq’s culture.

One solution Bogdanos proposes is to extend the foreign sponsorship of previous archeological digs to include forces to protect the sites. These include, Bogdanos writes, “the Germans at Babylon and Uruk, the British at Ur and Nimrud, the French at Kish and Lagash, the Italians at Hatra, and the Americans at Nippur.” At each of the sites, the respective nations, given Iraqi approval, could then post guards around the clock to prevent further looting. Forces would also train Iraqi recruits, forcing terrorists to seek other funding and showing concern for Iraqi culture.

Some European governments, however, believe that such a proposal is a support statement for the war. “But surely they could be persuaded that it would be a humanitarian effort to protect a cultural heritage rich with common ancestry that predates the splits among Kurds, Sunni Arab and Shiite,” Bogdanos says.

Additionally, Bogdanos says that U.S. troops should be required to receive cultural training before deploying, like the seminars conducted by the Archeological Institute of America at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

For the complete op-ed, click here.

Malalai Joya decries current situation in Afghanistan

In an interview with Australia’s Daily Telgraph published today, Malalai Joya, a parliamentarian with the Afghan National Assembly, says that the dreams of progress brought on by the 2005 elections have not been realized. On her trip to Australia, Malalai will attempt to convey this message and raise awareness on the situation in her home country.

“Everyone wants to be alive, especially the young generation,” Malalai says. “They have lots of hopes, but right now I have no personal hopes because first I am thinking of our people, who have no kind of liberation, no education and who have no human rights – particularly the women of Afghanistan.”

She encourages Australia to act independently of the United States, as Malalai has suggested that U.S. support of former Northern Alliance members in Afghan government has only destabilized the country further, since she considers many warlords and criminals.

For the full article, click here.

Human rights in Afghanistan still a persistent concern

The U.S. State Department’s annual global survey of human rights practices was released yesterday, and Afghanistan, despite receiving millions in U.S. aid for human rights and democracy programs, failed to live up to expectations in 2006, the Associated Press reported today.

When presenting the report yesterday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, “Too often in the past year we received painful reminders that human rights, though self-evident, are not self-enforcing.”

It is believed that there have been small improvements on human rights issues in the last year, but Afghanistan is still experiencing persistent, “politically motivated or extrajudicial killings by the government or its agents,” the State Department report said. Additionally, Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government is still not living up to established demands regarding the protection of basic human rights.

For the full article, click here.

UNHCR addresses Iraqi refugees at Arab League meeting

The plight of Iraqi refugees was the main concern voiced by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Antonio Guterres on Sunday at an Arab League meeting in Cairo, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported Tuesday. After recognizing the “extreme generosity” of Syria and Jordan for hosting almost 2 million refugees combined, Guterres called on the Arab League to play a larger role in assistance.

Naming the situation the “biggest displacement crisis in the Middle East” since 1948, Guterres also addressed a rise in intolerance and xenophobia in developed countries, particularly toward refugees and migrants. “Let us be perfectly clear: refugees are not terrorists; they are first and foremost victims of terror,” he added.

In response to the growing Iraqi displacement crisis, with up to 50,000 Iraqis fleeing their homes each month, UNHCR will host a ministerial-level conference in Geneva in April. The conference will address the humanitarian concerns facing Iraqi refugees, the severity of the crisis, and the need for additional assistance and innovative solutions.

For the full article, click here.
For more on the upcoming UNHCR conference, click here.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Iran arrests journalists and women activists

An unknown number of journalists have been detained by the Iranian government, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported today. The journalists are accused of promoting separatist aims and being funded by foreigners. Those arrested have allegedly admitted to publishing material that the Iranian government deems “divisive” and serving “extreme ethnic” ideas. The journalists are apparently funded through monthly funds originating from other countries.

Meanwhile, yesterday the Iranian government arrested between 26 and 40 women activists who were demonstrating outside the Tehran Revolutionary Court. They were protesting security measures and incessant summoning of activists for interrogation by security officials. Some reactionary violence occurred when the demonstration was broken up. The arrests of women protesting a trial involving five female activists outside of the same court was also reported. According to the article, the women in question were charged with “engaging in publicity against Iran’s government, acting against national security, and participating in an “illegal” gathering last year.”

To read more, click here.

Viet Nam expects record FDI this year

The initial estimate for total foreign direct investment (FDI) in Viet Nam in 2007 was approximately $11 billion, according to Thanh Nien Daily. However after $1.2 billion was committed in February alone, the new estimates for the year top $12 billion. The February figure marked an increase of 27 percent from last February.

Many of the countries looking to invest in Viet Nam are in the high-tech sectors and are planning on implementing projects that will bring in over $20 billion. This drastic increase in FDI has led the government to increase its estimate for the 2006-2010 period to a total of $55 billion in FDI.

To read the article, click here.

Mexico to continue to back VN for seat on UNSC

The Mexican government has signaled that it will continue its support for Viet Nam’s bid to secure a seat in the U.N. Security Council for the 2008-2009 session, Nhan Dan reported today. Mexico is also attempting to encourage other Latin American countries to support Viet Nam’s candidacy for one of the non-permanent seats on the 15 member body. In a meeting between the two sides, representatives have agreed to more contact and cooperation between the two countries. Trade between Mexico and Viet Nam eclipsed $300 million last year and both countries are looking to strengthen ties.

To read the article, click here.

Improving economic situation for women as key to promoting gender equity

Currently, women comprise the majority of poor throughout the world (including the United States), according to The Economist. An estimated 70 percent of the world’s poor are female, and in the United States 14 percent of women live in poverty compared to 11 percent of men. The World Bank is attempting to address this concern by focusing more of its money toward enhancing women’s economic participation. Women in industrialized countries have not fully caught up to men, and the disparity is greater in developing nations, where many institutionalized hurdles remain.

Throughout the world, women earn, on average, 22 percent less than men and have access to only a fraction of the credit. The Grameen Bank, whose founder won the Nobel Peace Prize last year, has almost exclusively targeted women with its loans and requires that property built/acquired with the loan money stays in the women’s name.

Plenty of evidence exists that shows that giving women more financial power will lead to economic development. Households where women contribute economically spend less on tobacco and alcohol and more on food. Additionally, through modernizing the economy, the “value of brute force falls,” giving rise to a more open society for women.

To read this article, click here.

House may take on Armenian genocide

It seems that the United States House of Representatives is poised to bring a non-binding resolution to the floor that would describe the atrocities committed in 1915 by the Ottoman Empire as genocide, according to an op-ed by Jackson Diehl in today’s Washington Post. This is not the first time this issue has been brought up, but the current resolution is unique in that it has a real possibility of passage – especially with the support of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The resolution would claim as fact that 1.5 million were killed during the Armenian genocide and essentially nothing was done about it, leading the way for Hitler and the Holocaust. Both sides of this debate appear to be playing politics as well. The sponsor of the resolution, Rep. Adam Schiff, estimates that there are between 70,000 and 80,000 ethnic Armenians in his district, and Pelosi’s district also has a large number. Although the message of the resolution is theoretically strong, in the end, it is non-binding, Diehl writes.

To read the article, click here.