Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Friday, March 23, 2007

Peacemakers in action

Thursday at the National Press Club, the Tannenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding launched their newest book, Peacemakers in Action: Profiles of Religion in Conflict Resolution, which highlights the important role religious leaders play in resolving conflicts. Before introducing a few of the profiled peacemakers, the basic profile, techniques and common threads of a peacemaker were addresed

Relatively unknown to the media, a peacemaker is an individual who, regardless of gender or religious beliefs, serves as a religious leader to his/her country,. Some common techniques are put into practice by these religious leaders, including the use of religious texts/narratives in light of a contemporary context, peace education, and activating the “power of the pulpit” – essentially combining messages of peace with religious messages, nonviolent action, interfaith outreach, and the global community.

David Little, the book’s editor and a professor at the Harvard Divinity School, addressed the common threads drawn out by the profiles highlighted in the book. To begin with, Little said that religion itself is not a cause of violence. That becomes the case only after religion has been manipulated or taken to an extreme, he said, adding that religion can also serve as a source of peace and pursuing peace through nonviolent means promotes justice. However, religion can often prompt a hostile response in the short-term. Hostility, though, is best overcome by willingly bearing the costs of risk, he said. Little also highlighted the importance of women in peacemaking, particularly – as the Tannenbaum Center has spotlighted – in Afghanistan and South Africa. Even with these common threads, though, views on the use of force with peace vary among the peacemakers, Little said.

Joining the book launch via conference call was Reverend Canon Andrew P.B. White. As a British priest of the Anglican Church who resides in Iraq, White has come to be known as the “vicar of Baghdad.” When asked why he chose to stay in Iraq despite the violence – which he claimed is 100 times worse than what is reported on television – White replied, “We have to be as radical in our peacemaking as terrorists are in their war-making.” He continued by saying that since religion is part of the cause of the conflict, it must also be part of the “cure.”

This cure can only be achieved through relationships, trust and dialogue, which includes talking with the “really bad guys,” as White referred to them. “They’re really bad people but they’re so nice to me,” he said about these individuals. A line must still be drawn though, he said. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is one group White is deliberately not speaking with, since experience has taught him that dialogue with the group is frivolous.

White expressed hope for progress in the future, as he referenced a mechanism in place between Sunni and Shia religious leaders that could bring positive change. This effort needs government support, though, he said emphatically, as the Pentagon currently supports the unnamed initiative, but the State Department is reportedly attempting to undermine it.

Other efforts to bring about peace through the use of local religious leaders include the anticipated presence of women in upcoming meetings. Additionally, he argued that when people are allowed to hear each other’s story and become familiar with one another, hatred begins to disappear. White’s final recommendation was a reengagement with the Iraqi people that recognizes their cultural richness and diversity and meets local needs.

Despite the loneliness and severity of the work, hope prevailed in the voice of each peacemaker present at the book release.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The situation in Afghanistan

A forum with United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG) for Afghanistan Tom Koenigs was held at the United States Institute of Peace on Wednesday. Ambassador Koenigs has served as the U.N. SRSG for Afghanistan ssince February of last year.

Koenigs opened today’s discussion by mentioning his concern in regards to the escalating insurgency being carried out by the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan. He says it is imperative that the governments in both countries recognize and address this matter immediately, as they have been in the past denied the presence of an active insurgency. Additionally, the fact that each state has a history of offering sanctuary to the other’s opponents has fomented bitterness and mistrust between the two neighbors. It is thus vital, Koenigs said, to build a new relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan that facilitates sound governance, security, and development in order to stabilize the border area.

Koenigs acknowledged that constructing a viable strategy to deal with the insurgencies is difficult. He noted that is seems as is difficult to gauge the actual number of active Taliban fighters, which makes the group appear as if it is immune to losses. Koenig also refered to the conflict as an asymmetric war, as the Taliban considers there to be no difference between civilian and military casualties. New trends, such as the precipitous increase in Iraqi-like suicide bombings, illustrate this development. Last year there were139 suicide bombings in the region and this year the Taliban reportedly announced that their goal is 2,000. To compound the problem, there seems to be an unprecedented rise in hostility among ordinary Afghans toward Westerns, as frustration over the occupation mounts and the Karzai government and the international community struggles to build confidence among the Afghan people.

Only by injecting the country with much needed resources and building local Afghan capacity can the international community truly help the government in Kabul establish its legitimacy and win back support from the Afghan people, Koenigs says, adding that 2008 could and should be a decisive year.

Democratic backsliding in Middle East addressed at NED/CSID event

At a joint panel of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) today in Washington, regional experts expressed concern over what they see as a backsliding of democracy in the Middle East of late.

Shadi Hamid, a founding board member of the Project on Middle East Democracy and a Marshall Scholar at Oxford University, said that after a wave of optimism among Arab democratic supporters in 2005 in the wake of notable reforms in some nations, a “total 180 has taken place in the last few years.” The United States – fearful that democratically-elected alternatives in the region could be Islamist, as was the case with the ascendance of Hamas in Palestine in early 2006 – has allowed Arab dictators to crush their opposition, he said.

“There was a democratic moment, but the moment passed,” Hamid said.

Hamid also said that, whereas U.S. regional policy had previously conveyed a rigid dichotomy of “dictators versus democrats,” it now stresses “moderates versus extremists.” The irony though, according to Hamid, is that the current Arab moderates in power are dictators, while the current Arab extremists in power are democrats. To help remedy these inconsistencies and promote genuine democracy in the region, he said that the U.S. needs to formulate a coherent policy that would, among other things, engage nonviolent Islamists, bringing a select subset to the U.S. as part of exchange programs; engender dialogue between Islamists and secularists; and create the conditions on the ground necessary to empower democratic groups. Doing this would also be consonant with U.S. national security priorities, as granting Arabs the legitimate avenues of expression that are inherent to democracy would also help to keep frustrated individuals from resorting to illegitimate avenues of expression such as terrorism.

Amr Hamzawy, a prominent Egyptian political scientist currently working at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, added that Arabs were wrong to assume that the notable concessions granted by governments in Egypt and Lebanon in recent years could be duplicated throughout the region. The Middle East today, Hamzawy said, is still beset by unbalanced governments that allow far too much executive authority, weak opposition parties, and a lack of a politically moderate center that can serve as an alternative to autocracy and theocracy. Hamzawy also addressed recent developments in Egypt, where a forthcoming referendum is expected on constitutional amendments that he says would further stifle opposition parties – namely the Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood – and extend executive power under the pretense of counter-terrorism.

Radwant Masmoudi, the founder and president of CSID, also linked reduced U.S. pressure on Arab autocrats of late with the Islamist threat made manifest by the ascendance of Hamas and Hezbollah last year and the strong showing of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 2005 Egyptian parliamentary elections – a development that Masmoudi attributed partially to purposeful tampering by an Egyptian government that recognized the potential advantages of such an outcome – but chided the Bush administration for failing to envision that such a scenario could occur. Masmoudi went on to attempt to dispel several common myths held by outsiders to the region. These include views that there is not a genuine desire for democracy in the region (he pointed to a recent Gallop poll that offers overwhelmingly evidence to the contrary); external pressure doesn’t create reform (U.S. pressure for democracy was effective in 2004 and 2005, he said); and secularists and Islamists can’t cooperate (both sides are willing, but Arab governments are wary of the possible implications, he noted). Masmoudi argued that the Middle East is at a crossroads; the significant unemployment rates currently evident throughout the region could spell problems in several years as a populace that is mostly under 21 comes of age. The U.S. must recognize that if the threat to regional stability that this impending development embodies is to be curtailed, democratic governments, which offer their citizens the best hope for expanded opportunities, must be supported.

Vietnamese government to take action against dissidents

The Vietnamese government has said that it will take action against dissidents who support a multiparty system for the socialist nation, The Associated Foreign Press reported today. The government recently detained several democracy activists in an attempt to, “defend its political system against pro-democracy activists,” according to Deputy Public Security Minister Senior Lieutenant General Nguyen Van Huong. The Vietnamese constitution only allows for a one party system and creating a new party or inciting others to create a party is illegal.

A spokesman for Foreign Minister Pham Gia Khiem said that Viet Nam has a different view of human rights given their political system and their economic and social circumstances. The statement comes on the heels of protests from members of the United States Congress ahead of a meeting between Khiem and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Human Rights Watch recently categorized the current actions by the government as “one of the worst crackdowns on peaceful dissidents in 20 years.”

To read this article, click here.

Trial of Vietnamese priest to start next week

Nguyen Van Ly, a Vietnamese priest in the Catholic Church, along with four associates, will go on trial next week on charges involving the dissemination of anti-government material, The International Herald Tribune reported Wednesday. If convicted, the defendants would face up to 20 years in prison for their actions. Ly has long been an outspoken dissident, previously spending 10 years in prison for speaking out against the policies of the government.

Pietro Parolin, the undersecretary of state for the Vatican, brought up Ly’s case when he visited Viet Nam earlier this month. The Vatican and the Vietnamese government are working towards improving their relationship, with the ultimate goal of normalized relations. There are approximately 6 million Catholics in Viet Nam, a country of 84 million citizens.

According to the authorities, Ly, a founding member of the Vietnam Progression Party, was attempting to merge his party with Vietnamese democracy activists in other countries. Ly’s arrest in 2001 came directly after he submitted written testimony to the United States Congress urging them not to ratify a trade treaty with Viet Nam.

To read this article, click here.

Kirkuk bishop’s recommendations for peace

The observations of Monsignor Louis Sako, Chaldean Archbishop of Kirkuk, on the changes in Kirkuk, Iraq since the onset of the war were highlighted Tuesday on AsiaNews.it. Sako noted that there have been many positive developments as a result of the U.S. invasion, including: greater freedom of expression and freedom to vote, the establishment of city councils and a national parliament, a new constitution, 25 percent representation of women in parliament, increased numbers of political parties, advances in technology, and a new justice system.

However, there have also been some devastating setbacks, including terrorism, lack of security, rampant unemployment, mass emmigration, and fear of what the future holds, Sako said

The archbishop believes that a solution can still be reached, just not through military action. “Peace cannot be brought about by war. War is always something bad and costs money, lives and time. Iraqi men and women have lost patience. The conflict has broken their trust and relationships. The current security strategy won't help a lot,” Sako says.

Rather, he says that a solution will be reached only through “peaceful and civilized dialogue,” and that such a solution must allow for: reconciliation at all levels of society (except for convicted criminals); a strong central government in Baghdad with effective branches in each province; economic reconstruction through investment and coordination; the promotion of peace by religious leaders through media outlets; and the involvement and support of the international community and neighboring countries.

For the full article, click here.

The human cost of the war in Iraq

The humanitarian aspect of the war in Iraq was the topic of discussion at Georgetown University Wednesday as the University commerated Iraq Remembrance Week. Dr. Susan Martin, the director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University, introduced four panelists, who each highlighted different aspects of the severity of the humanitarian crisis in Iraq as a result of the war. Each panelist also discussed various approaches to assistance.

Roberta Cohen, of the Brookings Institution, began the discussion with an overview of the relationship between the ongoing sectarian violence and displacement. Extremist groups are driving out Iraqis, essentially creating a “de facto ethnic segregation,” Cohen said, since those fleeing their homes are relocating to areas where they are part of an ethnic majority. The extremist groups, both Sunni and Shia affiliated – with Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army at the forefront – use threats, violence and discrimination to keep asylum seekers from considering returning home, according to Cohen, and resort to gruesome tactics, such as sewing dog heads on corpses, to do so.

Estimates indicate that roughly1.9 million Iraqis have been displaced in all. More than 700,000 of those have been internally displaced since the February 2006 bombings in Samarra, Cohen said. With Red Crescent assistance, about 4,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) currently reside in government-run improvised shelters.

Adam Shapiro, a human rights advocate and independent filmmaker, addressed the estimated 15,000 Palestinian refugees who have been living in Iraq since the onset of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 1948. Since 2003, the Iraqi government has been unwilling to grant long-term residency permits to the Palestinians, instead forcing them to update their permits on a monthly basis. Many, however, refuse to do so, since Palestinians, who are considered an outsider group by many Iraqis, Sunni and Shia alike, are often kidnapped and targeted for attack on the basis of their national identity by the Badr militia, Shapiro said.

The vast majority of these Palestinian refugees have attempted to flee from Iraq to neighboring countries, but are stuck in “no man’s land” at the closed Iraqi borders of Jordan and Syria, Shapiro said. Additionally, traditional resettlement countries have accepted very few Palestinian refugees from Iraq. Governments are hesitant to assist the group due to the political implications of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and association with a Hamas-led government, according to Shapiro. The group also does not fall under the care of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, as they reside outside of the limitations of the agency.

Wendy Young, of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Washington Regional Office, referred to the situation as the “largest refugee crisis since the Palestinians in 1948” with every 1 in 8 Iraqis being displaced or having fled the country, resulting in 40,000-50,000 individuals displaced each month. Iraqi IDPs face a plethora of challenges, Young said. More than 100 Iraqis are killed and 200 to 500 are injured each day, 80 percent of Iraqi doctors have abandoned their professions, more than 50 percent of the population is unemployed, inflation is above 70 percent, 75 percent of Iraqi children no longer attend school, and 70 percent of all Iraqis lack access to clean water.

As the last panelist to speak, Larry Bartlett, the deputy director of the Office of Assistance for Asia and the Near East with the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, focused on steps the U.S. has already taken to provide humanitarian assistance. The U.S. must continue to ensure the preservation of first country asylum, he said, meaning that a refugee should be able to seek asylum in the first country s/he enters after leaving Iraq, rather than having to continue on to an additional country. This requires an assurance from the governments of Jordan, Syria and Egypt to keep their borders open and permit Iraqi asylum seekers access to schools and other basic services.

Bartlett’s second point was that the U.S. will continue to fund programs for vulnerable Iraqis through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), various international organizations and nongovernmental organizations. The U.S. has allocated one third of their funding for UNHCR’s appeal. Bartlett made clear, however, that the State Department believes efforts should be multi-lateral, as other countries should make substantial contribute to the appeal.

The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program grants entry to the largest number of asylum seekers worldwide, Barlett said. While the number of Iraqi refugees permitted to resettle in the U.S. thus far has been minimal, by the end of the year 7,000 additional refugees should be resettled in the U.S. Bartlett acknowledged that the program is a “work in progress” and “will never be a primary solution to the problem.”

In addressing proposed solutions, Cohen specifically called on the U.S. government to increase its financial assistance to UNHCR and to increase the number of Iraqi refugees to be resettled in the U.S., due to the “special obligation” that accompanies the U.S. role in the conflict. She also mentioned that proposed ethnic partitions of Iraq could result in a view that the international community is facilitating ethnic cleansing. Shapiro urged all members of the audience to pressure their Congressional representatives to grant the State Department the funds needed for additional assistance.

UNHCR recently issued a $60 million appeal. Once those funds are received, an additional appeal will be issued. One third of all of these funds will go towards IDP protection. Additionally, durable UNHCR solutions will focus on resettlement to third countries and reintegration into the countries refugees have entered to seek asylum, since repatriation is “not feasible” due to security concerns, according to Young. Set to refer 20,000 refugees for third country resettlement by the end of the year, UNHCR will concentrate on 11 categories of vulnerable individuals, including religious minorities, unaccompanied children, and high profile individuals such as journalists and contractors for Western companies/governments.

The severity of the humanitarian conflict, which was vividly highlighted by each panelist, is undeniable. Though steps have been taken towards progress, the proposed solutions still fall well short of all that is needed to reduce the human cost of war in Iraq.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Iran releases two prominent women’s rights activists

After having been imprisoned for 16 days – 10 of them in solitary confinement – Shadi Sadr and Mahboubeh Abasgholizadeh, two prominent Iranian women’s rights activists, were released on bail Monday, Women's Learning Partnership reported the next day. The two women had been detained since March 4 on charges of acting against national security and participating in an illegal gathering in June 2006 after they held a peaceful protest.

Meanwhile, the Iranian government continues to escalate their harassment of civil society activists for supposedly promoting divisiveness. An unknown number of Iranian women’s activists, teachers, and journalists remain in detention, and the government has closed many civil society organizations.

For the full article, click here.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

H.I.V./AIDS cases on rise in Afghanistan

In an article in Sunday’s New York Times, the publication addresses the arrival and spread of H.I.V./AIDS in Afghanistan. This should be of grave concern as the Afghan Government and U.S. and NATO forces are trying to rebuild the country after two decades of strict Islamic control under the Taliban.

In comparison with other developing countries, Afghanistan still has a low prevalence of H.I.V/AIDS, but health experts warn that it is currently very susceptible as, according to the article, “Afghanistan is surrounded by countries with the fastest-growing incidence of AIDS in the world — Russia, China and India.” The return of more than two million refugees, and the fact that many Afghans are going abroad to search for work and returning, are other contributing factors. Additionally, foreign prostitutes have arrived in Kabul in recent years along with the influx of foreigners and foreign assistance.

Sadly, H.I.V and AIDS are still considered taboo in Afghanistan, antiretroviral drugs are limited, and some in rural areas, such as one farmer whose wife and son contracted the disease, are simply told, ‘Just trust in God.’

There are currently no AIDS treatment centers in Afghanistan – only a single confidential clinic in the capital that just monitors the disease. However, the World Bank is providing $10 million to fight H.I.V./AIDS in the country; helping the Afghan Health Ministry to promote basic health education and mitigate the stigma of AIDS.

For the full article, click here.

Afghan artifacts safely returned to national museum

After more than seven years at a museum in Switzerland 1,423 valuable Afghan artifacts were returned to the National Museum of Afghanistan on Saturday, The Associated Press reported the next day.

The large collection was shipped out of the country in 1999, while Afghanistan was under Taliban rule, to protect it from looters and vandals in hopes of preserving vital pieces of Afghan cultural heritage.

For the full article, click here.

Monday, March 19, 2007

U.S. and E.U. need to speak out for rights in Egypt, NY Times says

In an editorial in Saturday’s New York Times, the publication expresses grave concern over the worsening human rights situation in Egypt.

The Times encourages President Bush and the European Union to take measures that would help stem the tide of recent abuses and protect independent pro-democracy groups working within the country.

President Hosni Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party is pressing for constitutional amendments believed to be aimed at further limiting freedom, even though Mubarak has made claims to the contrary. Last week, Egyptian police violently disbanded a peaceful protest against the new legislation, arresting several demonstrators.

For full article, click here.

Remembering the Halabja Massacre

March 16 marked the 19th anniversary of the Halabja Massacre of 1988. Almost two decades ago, the largest-scale chemical weapons attack against a civilian population in modern times was carried out in Iraqi Kurdistan under orders from Saddam Hussein.

Thousands died as the result of the attack. Others have been suffering from serious afteraffects, including cancer and birth defects, ever since.

The world must remember Halabja in order to promote a community of consciousness that can help to safegaurd against future genocides. The powerful truth is that as witnesses to human rights violations we have a choice of action or indifference.

To access an internet film on the incident, click here.

Viet Nam to contemplate releasing journalist

Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Pham Gia Khiem has alluded to the possibility of releasing imprisoned journalist Nguyen Vu Binh, The Washington Post reported Saturday. This possibility was raised after Khiem met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who brought up the case in last Friday’s meeting. Binh has been in prison since 2002 on a seven-year sentence. The journalist’s health could be a key issue, as his family has reported that the 39-year-old, who has hypertenion and liver disease, is no longer able to pick up his five year-old daughter.

Binh was the only person mentioned by name during the meeting between Rice and Khiemon, according to an unnamed U.S. official. Binh was a reporter for an official communist newspaper, but was arrested for allegedly spying by passing information over the internet to overseas groups. This potential release of Binh would come amidst a crackdown on journalists and pro-democracy activists that has intensified in recent weeks. Among the recently detained dissidents are two lawyers and a Catholic priest who is thought to be a founding member of the pro-democracy movement, “Block 8406.”

To read the article, click here.

Numerous allegations of human rights violations of Khmer Krom in Viet Nam

There are a growing number of reports surfacing indicating that the Vietnamese government is violating the basic rights of the Khmer Krom people, according to a Huntington News report. The Khmer Krom, who are generally Buddhist, are believed to be the first inhabitants of the Mekong Delta, and their society revolves around their community-owned temples. Rebecca Sommer, a documentary filmmaker and expert on Viet Nam, believes Hanoi’s continued policy of “Vietnamization” will eventually bring about the destruction of this once prosperous group.

The integrity of the temples is compromised by the construction of houses for ethnic Vietnamese on their temple grounds. Other intrusions into the daily lives of the Khmer Krom include a lack of education in their native language. According to Sommer, the repression of their religion is unusually harsh, with monks being disrobed, jailed, tortured, and sometimes killed. Their temples are routinely infiltrated by agents of the government, and they are not allowed to celebrate certain holidays (or must celebrate them at another time of year), so that the government can further their control this indigenous group.

Last month, authorities arrested approximately 60 Khmer Krom monks involved in a peaceful protest and warned the Khmer Krom that they would be arrested if they showed any solidarity. The temples involved in the protest are still surrounded by heavily armed police, more than a month after the incident. Six monks were disrobed and remain in custody, while the others are currently under house arrest.

To read the article, click here.

Unrelenting repression of democratic opposition in Egypt

In today’s Washington Post, Anthony Shadid, in the second installment of a multi-part series on the democratic movement in Egypt, discusses the evolution of the controversial relationship between the United States and Egypt.

In a speech in June 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared that the U.S. would take serious steps to promote democracy in Egypt, including putting pressure on Egyptian government to grant greater freedoms to its citizens. However, it seems, as Shadid writes, “pragmatic priorities triumphed over promises.” Secretary Rice sent a strikingly different message after the December. 7, 2005 Egyptian elections, saying, “We can’t tell Egypt what its course can be or should be.”

Indeed, it now seems that the U.S. is backing further away from our key ally in this troublesome region. “The Americans now prefer stability over democracy”, said George Ishaq, a demoralized Egyptian opposition leader.

Meanwhile, the Egyptian government has continued to relentlessly crack down on democratic opponents. Hundreds have been arrested, with many being members of the Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, which poses the most serious threat to the ruling National Democratic Party.

For the full article, click here.
For Sunday’s article, click here.