Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Friday, March 30, 2007

The plight of Iraqi refugees

The severity of the Iraqi displacement crisis, coupled with the inability of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to handle the overwhelming burden, was the highlight of a Congressional Human Rights Caucus briefing Thursday. Congresswomen Jan Schakowsky, who led the briefing, expressed disappointment in the U.S. State Department for declining the invitation to be represented on the panel. Rep. Schakowsky engaged the panelists present with meaningful questions that helped draw a complete picture of the current humanitarian crisis in Iraq.

An estimated two million Iraqis have fled the country due to sectarian violence. An additional two million (approximate) are internally displaced within Iraq. “The violence is extreme and indiscriminate,” said Kristele Younes, with Refugees International, recounting how one woman was forced to flee Baghdad after receiving threats for cutting hair in a beauty salon. “My welding workshop was visited by American soldiers and then I had threats,” one Iraqi man told Anna Husarska, with The International Rescue Committee, during her recent visit to the country.

Dored Shiba, an Iraqi-Assyrian community leader in Skokie, Illinois, reported to the Caucus the challenges Assyrians face in Iraq. These indigenous peoples of Iraq can hardly live in the south of Iraq due to the sectarian violence, have to pay protection taxes to militias to stay alive in central Iraq, and are referred to as “Christian Kurds” in the north, yet displaced by the Kurds from the Assyrian’s “historical homeland,” said Shiba.

The responsibility to assist both the refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) typically falls on UNHCR. Funding for the organization, however, is far below where it needs to be in order to handle a crisis of such severity. The UNHCR’s budget in 2006 for the Syrian office equated to only $1 per registered refugee within its borders. Additionally, security issues in Iraq prevent UNHCR from fully staffing its office in the country, which further decreases the organization’s ability to assist those displaced.

Panelists expressed similar recommended solutions. The U.S. should contribute additional funds to UNHCR. In addition to this multilateral aid, bilateral aid to Syria and Jordan should also be increased, so as to ease their burdened economies from the massive refugee flows and prevent further border restrictions. Simultaneously, the international community should reassure Iraq’s neighbors that the refugee situation will not be permanent. To help reduce this flow, the U.S. should increase the number of refugees to be resettled to the U.S., as it has a “special obligation” to do so, said Ben Sanders, of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

In order to reduce some of the strain on UNHCR and expedite the resettlement process, the U.S. embassy in Iraq should directly handle the cases involving Iraqis who work, or have previously worked with the U.S. government. These individuals should not have to go through an additional security clearance, since their backgrounds were extensively reviewed in order to initially obtain the contractor position, panelists said. As Sanders said in his testimony, “We have the opportunity to regain our leadership position in the world and support our friends. We should not let them down.”

“Dramatic improvements” of late in opium eradication efforts, U.S. official says

In a briefing at NATO headquarters, Thomas Schweich, the top U.S. official dealing with Afghanistan’s drug problem, said, there have “dramatic improvements” over the last year in curbing opium production the prospects for future eradication efforts are promising, International News Network reported today.

It seems local Afghan authorities are more determined than ever to help, Schweich said.

“We have six poppy-free provinces now, I’m hoping that we can get to 10 or 12 this year, and maybe up to 20 in a couple of years, which is more that half the provinces in Afghanistan,” he said..

Schweich also expressed his support for eradication efforts that are combined with offers to provide the poor farmers with alternative crops.
Counter-narcotics operations in Afghanistan are believed to be crucial to secure the overall stability of the country, as the Taliban insurgents reportedly benefit greatly from opium profits, especially in the volatile south, where they are allegedly developing close relationships with narco-traffickers.

For the full article, click here.

Relief agencies threatened by the Taliban in southern Afghanistan

The Canadian Press reported Wednesday that growing security concerns are impeding the work of relief agencies trying to provide aid to thousands of families in the southern Afghanistan.

Many families in the region are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance, having been internally displaced due to insurgent fighting and drought. In Helmand province, where the Taliban has a strong presence, roughly 5,000 families have had to flee their homes, a United Nations spokeswoman in Geneva said.

According to a senior Afghan official, some Taliban fighters have apparently threatened to kill any team trying to bring outside support to these unfortunate families, unless detained insurgents are released first.

For the full article, click here.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Chaldean nuns murdered in Iraq

Two Chaldean nuns were stabbed to death in their home Tuesday in Kirkuk, Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty reported the next day. Iraqi police reported that the motive of the two intruders, who raided the elderly sisters’ home, is unknown.

For the full article, click here.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Congressional briefing commemorates Halabja massacre

In remembrance of the chemical weapons attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja and surrounding areas on March 16, 1988, under Saddam Hussein’s rule, Qubad Talabany, the Representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government to the United States, gave remarks at a Congressional Human Rights Caucus briefing today. The attack was part of Hussein’s Al Anfal campaign to rid Iraqi Kurdistan of its ethnically Kurdish inhabitants, which lasted from April 1987 to August 1988.

The damage as a result of the attacks is lasting. More than half of Halabja’s citizens still suffer from the aftereffects of the chemical attack, with ailments that include birth defects, infertility, neurological problems and cancer. Additionally the attacks were severely damaging to the environment, with water, soil and fruit rendered potentially hazardous as a result. However, little scientific or medical research as to the extent of the devastation has been conducted, despite the pressing need to do so.

Halabja’s citizens are frustrated by the sympathy they receive that brings little tangible improvement to their lives, Talabany said. To help remedy this, the Kurdistan Regional Government urges the international community to recognize the Halabja atrocities as genocide.

Discussing the ethnic mix of the region, Talabany said, “Kurdistan is a plural region today. Now that we [Kurds], who were the persecuted, are in authority, we need to make sure that we do not ourselves become the persecutors of ethnic minorities." For that reason, the Kurdistan Regional Government continually seeks outside insight on matters of governance, he said. Some critical infrastructure improvements are also needed, since the region only has enough electricity for citizens to use for three hours per day.

Talabany also addressed Kurdish fears of the consequences when U.S. troops leave Iraq. Talabany urged Members of Congress to “remember your friends” when that time comes, particularly since the Kurdistan Regional Government, as Talabany pointed out, serves as a model for the rest of Iraq, with a growing economy and less violence.

New steps proposed to bridge sectarian divide in Iraq

Iraq’s Prime Minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, and President, Jalal Talabani, announced a plan Monday aimed to help reconcile Sunnis and Shiites, according to The New York Times Tuesday. “There is a real struggle going on in the Sunni Arab part of Iraq between those of Al Qaeda and the other more patriotic groups who want a successful Iraq, an Iraq in which everyone’s rights is respected,” said Zalmay Khalilzad, American Ambassador to Iraq.

The plan is set to allow thousands of former members of the Baath Party to serve under the current administration, after each signs a pledge not to make political statements about the current Iraqi government. Baathists are also permitted to collect pensions under the new plan. The plan is anticipated to draw together Shiites, who lead the current government, and Sunnis, who led under Saddam Hussein’s regime.

The proposal comes at a time when American skepticism is low in regards to the Iraqi administration’s dedication to changing the de-Baathification laws to help end violence, said Khalilzad. “To sustain U.S. support, things have to move at a certain pace,” he said, adding that time is running out.

For the full article, click here.

Freedom of press under attack in Afghanistan

The Afghan government has proposed a law that would effectively put an end to what had been a short period of media freedom in Afghanistan, The Associated Press reported Tuesday.

Popular political talk show host Razaq Mamoon was fired from Tolo TV after making offensive comments towards Afghanistan’s Parliament: accusing them of being, the article says, “a den of war criminals and drug smugglers.” Mamoon knew, that he had caught the attention of government leaders. “I started receiving messages from them: ‘We don't know who you’re with or who you’re against. You attack everybody,” he said.

This crackdown on the press has occurred in spite of condemnation from local and international rights group who see media freedom as an important step in democracy-building in the aftermath of the fall of the Taliban.

For the full article, click here.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Irregularities reported in vote for contentious Egyptian amendments

The Egyptian National Council for Human Rights, a state-appointed body, questions the “yes” vote in Monday’s referendum on a set of 34 constitutional amendments, The Associated Press reported today.

The amendments are ostensibly designed to “abolish the emergency laws, allow election supervision by an independent commission and ban political parties based on religion,” according to the article. However, they have drawn the ire of Egyptian oppostion groups and pro-democracy activists who argue that they are actually intended to extend executive authority, stifle the Muslim Brotherhood – an Islamist opposition group that poses the greatest threat to the ruling National Democratic Party – and facilitate the rigging of elections.

The National Council for Human Rights issued a statement indicating that the referendum was beset by a number of irregularities

“Voter lists were inaccurate, some civil society monitors were prevented from observing some polling stations, local authorities in some provinces organized mass voting, and some electoral officials intervened in the voting process and sometimes filled in ballots,” the council said.

The referendum was widely boycotted and many Egyptian voters were left uninformed as President Mubarak held the vote just seven days after approval of the amendments by parliament. Consequently, only 27 percent of the 36 million voters cast their ballots.

For the full article, click here.

Drastic changes needed to restore “broken Afghan consensus”, Times editor says

In a March 17 opinion piece, Washington Times editor Arnaud de Borchgrave addresses what he calls the “broken Afghan consensus.”

De Borchgrave cites a recent report by The Center for Strategic and International Studies, which indicates that almost six years after being liberated from the rule of the Taliban regime, Afghans have largely lost trust in their government as violence continues to escalate and the illicit poppy industry continues to grow.

While thirty-seven countries and some 2,000 NGOs are involved in the Afghan normalization and reconstruction process, foreign aid is often misappropriated or misdirected. De Borchgrave calls for dramatic changes, which he believes will require a multiyear commitment and better collaboration between the many stakeholders in Afghanistan.

For the full article, click here.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Viet Nam threatening family members of dissidents

The Vietnamese government is targeting the family members of dissidents as part of its ongoing crackdown against pro-democracy activists, BosNewsLife reported today. One recent case involves the family of Tran Van Hoa, who is an active member of the People’s Democratic Party of Vietnam. The police have brought his family members in for interrogation in an effort to coerce Hoa into limiting his political and religious activities.

Moreover, the relatives of Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thi Cong Nhan, two prominent human rights lawyers who were recently detained, have been warned not to speak publicly about the cases against their loved ones. In addition, wanted posters have gone up in Ho Chi Minh City for Nguyen Chinh Ket, an activist who is currently traveling internationally to shed light on Viet Nam’s human rights abuses. At the same time, arrest warrants have been issued for Ket’s wife and daughter.

To read the article, click here.

NGO reports Montagnards arrested and deported back to Viet Nam

The non-governmental organization Adhoc has reported that ten Montagnard asylum seekers in Cambodia were arrested in Banlung as they attempted to make their way to Phnom Penh, according to The Cambodia Daily. Ratanakkiri province authorities, including the chief of police and the provincial governor, have denied the allegations. Pen Bonnar, the provincial coordinator for Adhoc, has alleged that the 2005 Memorandum of Understanding was broken as a result of the asylum seekers being detained and deported before being given an opportunity to meet with officials from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In addition to these ten Montagnards, there are reportedly an additional ten still in hiding in the forests of Ratanakkiri.