Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Mounting concerns for internally displaced Iraqis

As the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Iraq continues to grow, the circumstances that they confront only worsen. At present 1.9 million persons are displaced within Iraq - about 700,000 since the Samarra bombing in February 2006 - with approximately 160,000 IDPs moving to northern Iraq since 2003, said Kristele Younes of Refugees International in an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on Tuesday.

After fleeing violence and usually encountering more to reach the northern part of the country, persons of every socioeconomic class must then pass through security checkpoints, providing proof of a Kurdish guarantor to "attest to the identity and the morality of the displaced" in order to obtain access to Iraqi Kurdistan, Younes said. Access does not come easily, as "we are seeing a very disturbing game of ethnic chess that is being played by the Kurdish authorities with Christians being favored, with Shia being discriminated against, and with Kurds sometimes being prevented to go to the north so that the Kurdish authorities can keep some Kurdish populations within Iraq to make sure that they have voting constituencies there," she added.

Once there, the IDPs are still unable to receive proper assistance, in part due to the "lack of political will from the central government and Kurdish government to help the displaced," Younes said. The problem lies partly with the food-ration card issued by a person's city of residence, which also doubles as a voter-registration card. When displaced, the provincial authorities are often hesitant to transfer the card, making it nearly impossible to obtain the food rations.

Additionally, the cost of living is extremely high. Fuel costs three-times more in Iraqi Kurdistan than it does in Bagdad. The cost of rent has increased drastically, since fewer than 1 percent of IDPs live in camps. Most IDPs are unable to find stable employment. Education for IDP children is also lacking, since very few Arab-speaking schools exist in Iraqi Kurdistan. "So really the economic condition of the displaced is very worrying," Younes concluded.

For the complete interview, click here.

The need for humanitarian aid to Burma

The policies of many Western countries towards Burma's ruling military junta are misplaced, according to a recent Washington Post op-ed by Morton Abramowitz, a former U.S. ambassador to Thailand and Jonathan Kolieb, a research associate at the Century Foundation. The solution, as the writers see it, lies not with imposing sanctions on the junta, but with a focus on the people of Burma.

Over half of Burmese children have never gone to school and 30 percent of those under the age of five are malnourished. One third of all Burmese live in poverty, and the average life expectancy is declining. The healthcare crisis is growing, with AIDS and HIV becoming endemic. In fact, at least 37,000 Burmese died of AIDS-HIV in 2005, and an estimated 600,000 are currently living with the disease.

The writers say that the $150 million in aid arriving in the country each year is just a small fraction of what is needed. They suggest that the figure should be closer to $1 billion. These funds would help fix the shattered infrastructure of some of the country’s vital institutions, particularly the healthcare system.

To read this article, click here.

Syria arrests refugees from Iran, Human Rights Watch requests release

Syrian authorities recently arrested six ethnically Arab men who were refugees from Iran, according to Reuters Foundation AlertNet. Of the six men, five are officially recognized as refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and all were in Syria legally. The cause for their arrests is unknown, and neither family members nor human rights groups have been able to find out more about the whereabouts of the men or the reason for their arrests. The men were arrested on March 5.

Since a series of attacks began in the Iranian city of Ahvaz in 2005 and 2006, Iranian Arabs have been persecuted in the region, with 12 being executed and an additional 13 waiting for execution.

Last May, Syria detained and sent back four Iranians of Arab ethnicity to Khuzistan, Iran. These four are currently being held by the Iranian government and remain at risk of being executed.

To read this article, click here.

Egypt restricts Iraqi refugee entry

As a result of the violence in Iraq, close to 2 million Iraqis have fled. Behind Jordan and Syria, Egypt is a highly-sought destination. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry has now changed the stipulations for Iraqi refugees attempting to obtain visas into Egypt, according to a Reuters Foundation AlertNet article today. Until now, Iraqis have been able to apply for visas at point of entry into Egypt. Now, however, visa applications will only be accepted in advance of departure through Egyptian consulates.

The change comes in light of security concerns, according to Senior Foreign Ministry official Mahmoud Aouf. “This decision is due to the nature of the security circumstances accompanying the entry of Iraqis into Egypt at this stage. The sensitivities of Egyptian national security requirements must be respected,” Aouf said. The Iraqi embassy estimates that 120,000 Iraqis have fled to Egypt since 2003. However, only 5,000 to 6,000 have registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

For the full article, click here.

Iraq’s national reconciliation and accountability law

In a desperate attempt to end the sectarian violence in Iraq through reconciliation with Sunni resistance groups, the Iraqi government has issued a draft of the “Law of Accountability and Justice,” according to a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty article last Friday. The draft calls for the revision of the de-Ba’athification law established by the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003. The names of the individuals and groups involved in the development of the law have not been revealed due to the sensitivity of the issue and the potential for retaliation.

Leaders of the groups are tending toward reconciliation with the government, as incompatibility with al-Qaeda goals and tactics increase. One leader of the Mujahedin Army in Iraq told Al-Jazeera television, “Once these factions, along with all good mujahedin, see that negotiations serve the interest of the country, the people, and the nation, they will not hesitate to do so, will not hide it, and will take this option immediately.”

Not all groups in Iraq are pleased with the draft though. Some Shiite and Kurdish leaders expressed criticism by saying, according to the article, “it is wrong to welcome former Ba’athists, who persecuted Shia and Kurds, back into the fold of Iraqi politics.” These same critics believe that sectarian violence will increase as a result of the draft. Even Ahmad Chalabi, the de-Ba’athification Commission leader, said it is too early to present the law to parliament since the wounds of the victims of the Ba’ath Party have not healed yet. The final decision on the law will come from parliament itself.

For the full article, click here.

U.S. ambassador calls for release of Vietnamese political prisoners

U.S. Ambassador to Viet Nam Michael Marine today urged the Vietnamese government to release political prisoners and to open up its rigid single- party system, according to The International Herald Tribune. In a opinion article written by Marine, and disseminated to news outlets in Viet Nam, the ambassador called for the release of all political prisoners, naming a few including Father Nguyen Van Ly.

Ly, a Catholic priest and prominent dissident, was recently sentenced to eight years in prison for creating a new political party that unified dissident groups both inside and outside the country. Marine said Ly and others were arrested for peacefully expressing their views and need to be released. A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry responded to these charges by saying that there are no political prisoners and Viet Nam only arrests people for breaking the law.

Despite the harsh tone of the article with respect to political rights, Marine also praised the Vietnamese government for opening up to the outside world economically and easing restrictions on religion.

To read this article, click here.

Rights group says religious freedom is under attack in Viet Nam

Pointing to the recent conviction and imprisonment of Vietnamese priest and democracy activist Nguyen Van Ly, Freedom House issued a statement saying the Vietnamese government is once again increasing it oppression of its citizens. In Freedom House's most recent ratings, Viet Nam was ranked as “Not Free” with a score of a 7 for political rights and a 5 on civil rights on a scale from 1 to 7 (1 being most the open and free and 7 being least.)

Freedom House noted some progress by the regime over the past year, but they now worry that Viet Nam is slipping back into its old ways after being admitted into the World Trade Organization and acquiring Permanent Normal Trade Relations status with the United States.

To read this article, click here.

New amendments may pave way for radicalism in Egypt

The “yes” vote in a March 26 national referendum in Egypt on a set of 34 proposed constitutional amendments was a “missed opportunity to have more openness in the political system,” according to Hala Mustafa and Augustus Richard Norton in an Daily Star op-ed on Wednesday. The writers say that the Egyptian government’s grip on power has tightened with the approval of the amendments, allowing for the potential rise of radicalism in the generation to come.

The referendum included amendments that greatly impact the freedoms of the Egyptian people. Articles protecting free speech, privacy and the right of dissent were removed. Another amendment weakened the judiciary’s role in monitoring elections. The embrace of Sharia law, however, was not changed. Consequently, “women remain less than fully equal citizens, and the amendments, advertised as ‘promoting democracy’, do nothing of the sort on behalf of women,” Mustafa and Nortan write. Additionally, the writers say that “instead of empowering liberal and secular voices that may counterbalance Islamists trends; instead of encouraging Islamist activists to seek political compromise with non-Islamists, the new amendments work against moderate, especially liberal, voices.”

The outcome of the referendum has only been supported by the ruling National Democratic Party. Other major political entities such as the Muslim Brotherhood are boycotting the results. Moreover, many local and international groups and observers do not agree with the Egyptian government’s assertion that more than 27 percent of registered voters cast their ballots. The writers conclude that, if the amendments are allowed to stand as passed, “the path to democracy will be a longer journey because of the March 26 referendum.”

For the full article, click here.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Arab relocation could escalate tensions in Kirkuk

On March 29, the Iraqi cabinet endorsed a decision to relocate Arabs who had come to Kirkuk under Saddam Hussein’s Arabization policy, in exchange for compensation. An estimated 8,000 Arab families have said they are willing to leave Kirkuk, according to an IRIN article Tuesday. Iraqi Justice Minister Hashim al-Shibli, who heads the committee overseeing the Kirkuk talks, said that the return process is “voluntary” and will be implemented “without coercion.” Willing participants, pending proof they moved to Kirkuk after July 1968 – when Hussein’s Baath party took office – will be paid $15,000 and given land in their hometown, according to the article.

The new policy has been met with Arab resistance though. One member of Kirkuk’s provincial council, Sheik Abdullah al-Obeidi, who is also a representative of Sunni Arabs, said: “We strongly reject any incorporation of Kirkuk into the Kurdistan Regional Government [KRG].” Jassim Hassan, an Arab Kirkuk resident since 1984, reacted to the proposal: “The government gave me a piece of land, which belonged to no one, and helped me to build my house. I will never leave this city, only my dead body.”

The measure has one Kirkuk-based political analyst concerned about mounting tensions. Hafidh al-Jawari believes that the referendum to decide if Kirkuk will fall under the jurisdiction of the KRG, which is set to take place by December 2007, should be postponed. Relocating thousands of Arabs who have resided in the province for the last two decades and “turning the city into a Kurdish one overnight will only increase violence between the Kurds on one side and Arabs and Turkomen on the other,” he said.

For the full article, click here.

The importance of resolving the status of Kirkuk

Local development and refugee resettlement, among other issues in Iraq, hinge upon the resolution of the status of Kirkuk, according to an article by Nouri Talabany in the Winter 2007 edition of Middle East Quarterly. In accordance with Article 140 of the new Iraqi constitution, a local census and referendum is set to take place by December 2007 to decide if Kirkuk will fall under the jurisdiction of the Kurdistan Regional Government. “However, if Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki does not implement the article within the allocated time, ethnic and sectarian unrest could explode in Kirkuk, the effects rippling throughout Iraq,” Talabany writes.

Tensions in the area were exacerbated by the policies implemented under the Baathist regime, Talabany says, resulting in large-scale displacement. The discovery of oil in the region in 1927 also contributes to disputes over the future of the area. Despite these tensions, there is a need to smoothly transition Kurds back into the area, Talabany says, and Arabs who choose to relocate to southern or central Iraq will be assisted.

Some proposals, however, recommend that the referendum on Kirkuk be postponed. The International Crisis Group, according to Talabany, proposed that the Iraqi government invite the United Nations Security Council “to appoint an envoy to start negotiations to designate the Kirkuk governorate as a stand-alone, federal region for an interim period” and postpone the referendum due to the potential exacerbation of sectarian violence. Talabany, however, believes that since “various ethnic and sectarian communities coexisted peacefully until Abdul-Karim Qasim’s 1958 coup d’etat,” the “Kurdish empowerment through the democratic process [in the December 2007 referendum] need not mean disenfranchisement for the local Arabs and Turkoman communities. There is no reason why the various communities within Kirkuk cannot coexist peacefully again.”

For the full article, click here.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Four women's rights activists arrested in Iran

During an attempt to gather signatures as part of a campaign targeting discriminatory laws against women, four Iranian women activists were arrested and brought to a Tehran detention center, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported today.

This marks the second time that Sara Aminian, her unnamed husband, Nahid Keshavarz, Mahbubeh Hosseinzadeh, and Soussan Tahmasebi have been arrested for speaking out for women’s rights. They had been previously detained in March for their role in nonviolent demonstrations.

For the full article, click here

The roots of the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan

In an op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times, columnist Nicholas D. Kristof references an interview he recently conducted with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. According to Kristof, Karzai made serious accusations of “official Pakistani duplicity”, and made it clear that he believes that Pakistan is supporting the Taliban’s resurgence in southern Afghanistan and offering safe haven to many Taliban leaders.

Karzai implied that the Pakistani government would have an interest in securing the failure of the Afghan government, so as to make the country, in Kristof’s words, “a helpless puppet of Pakistan.”

From Kristof’s own perspective, he suggests that Karzai exaggerates the role of the Pakistani government in the catastrophe in southern Afghanistan. He says that the U.S. has not been fully committed to addressing the critical challenge that the situation in Afghanistan presents.

“We haven’t done nearly enough to build up the Afghan Army and police, which don’t antagonize conservative Afghans the way U.S. troops often, do. We fumbled the reconstruction and aid projects needed to win hearts and minds. My vote is for a big push to battle maternal mortality, because 18,000 Afghan women die annually in childbirth — dwarfing the 4,000 Afghans who died last year in Taliban-related violence,” Kristof says. He also goes on to urge the Afghan government to combat corruption and drug trafficking within its ranks.

The full article can be accessed by subscription only by clicking here.

Growing skepticism in Helmand

The unrelenting Taliban insurgency has had a particular strong impact in the southern province of Helmand, and as a result many humanitarian organizations have stayed out of the area due to security concerns, IRIN reported Monday.

The lack of development efforts in Helmand has undermined prior progress and contributed to growing skepticism.

“We have more bloodshed, more poverty and more grievances than during the Taliban's time,” Haji Agha, a resident of Lashkargah, the provincial capital, told IRIN.

Trust in the Afghan government’s ability to respond to public needs is decreasing, schools are closing down, and unemployment rates are rising. The growing sense of neglect in Helmand makes the province an attractive breeding ground for the Taliban to acquire new recruits and sympathizers.

IRIN also refers to a report by the Senlis Council released on March 19 that said: “Afghans increasingly believe that the international community is losing Afghanistan to the Taliban.”

Consequently, new development strategies would be beneficial for promoting faith in the government and safeguarding against further support for the Taliban.

For the full article, click here.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Viet Nam abolishes unconstitutional decree on detention

The Vietnamese government has officially abolished one particular aspect of Decree 31, a national security law passed in 1997, according to Thanh Nien. The clause in question allowed provincial governors to impose probation on individuals who undermine national security in a manner not severe enough to warrant prosecution. The possibility of banning this practice was initially suggested last year by the government, and it was officially signed off on by President Nguyen Minh Triet last week.

The measure was deemed to be no longer necessary, and was said to be in conflict with constitutional rights and international norms.

To read this article, click here.

U.S. Congressional forums to reevaluate development strategies in Afghanistan

The Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce will be organizing two Congressional forums concerning U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. The chamber believes there is an urgent need to reassess U.S. assistance to Afghanistan, as funds are going largely to security, while many development projects are being neglected, Bakhtar News reported Sunday.

According to the article, the forums are expected to feature “key senators, policy makers, top officials of the Bush administration and influential members of the business community.” The first forum is scheduled for April 14.

For the full article, click here.

Growing gender imbalance in Viet Nam

There is a growing imbalance between the number of females and males being born in Viet Nam, Thanh Nien Daily reported today. Due to the severity of the problem, a recent conference was held to discuss the issue.

For every 100 girls born, 110-118 boys are born (depending on the province). This disparity has been linked to a cultural preference for male children. In Viet Nam, which has one of the world’s highest rates of abortion, parents are willing to take medical action if they discover that their unborn child is a girl.

Viet Nam is the world’s 13th largest country in terms of population, with over 83 million people. Some experts are predicting the population will reach the 100 million mark by 2024. Malnutrition is still a problem for many children under the age of five, especially in the Central Highlands and the northwest region.

To read this article, click here.

Mubarak further enshrines authoritarian rule

In today’s Think Tank Town on washingtonpost.com, Amr Hamzawy discusses the consequences of the recent changes to the Egypt’s constitution that were approved in a national referendum on March 26.

The amendments, which were set forth by President Hosni Mubarak and the ruling National Democratic Party, have caused national and international outrage. They are believed to be aimed at discouraging meaningful political reform and ensuring the administration’s continued control in all aspects of Egyptian politics. They prevent any religious opposition – namely the Muslim Brotherhood – from gaining political recognition, as the amendments ban the establishment of a political party with a religious framework.

The referendum had a remarkably low voter turnout, which only indicates that Egyptians have become increasingly alienated from political life as they find their viewpoints consistently suppressed.

For the full article, click here.

The resurgence of the Taliban

There are obvious signs that the situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating. The resurgent Taliban is looming larger than ever, as demonstrated by the precipitous increase in kidnappings and Iraqi-like suicide bombings, and have succeeded in intimidating the international community and the government of President Hamid Karzai. Kathleen McGowan addresses this concern in an op-ed in today’s New York Times.

McGowan describes a particular kidnapping which underlines the effectiveness of the Taliban’s strategy. Karzai’s decision to release five captured Taliban leaders in exchange for a kidnapped Italian journalist puts him in a bad-light, McGowan writes, as the release of two Afghan journalists also captured by the Taliban was not part of the deal. Consequently, Karzai has been accused of valuing the life of a foreigner more than those of his own people.

For the full article, click here.