Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Friday, May 04, 2007

Darfur through an ecological prism

In an article in Time magazine last week, Alex Perry writes on his travels in Irba, Chad, which is home to six camps for Darfurian refugees, and his views on the crisis in the region.

Perry relays the grim accounts given by relief workers in the camps regarding the scarcity of available natural resources. “The water is going. The firewood is gone. The land has lost its ability to regenerate, says Palouma Ponlibae, an agriculture and natural resources officer for the relief agency CARE. “The refugees are going to have to move. There’s going to be nothing here to sustain life.”

Perry sees the dearth of natural resources in the region, which he says has been brought by global warming-induced desertification and declining precipitation, as a major reason for the crisis and cautions against directly attributing the conflict to ethnic tensions between Arabs and black Africans. “But what is often overlooked,” Perry writes, “is that the roots of the conflict may have more to do with ecology than ethnicity. To live on the poor and arid soil of the Sahel – just south of the Sahara – is to be mired in an eternal fight for water, food and shelter. The few pockets of good land have been the focus of intermittent conflict for decades between nomads (who tend to be Arabs) and settled farmers (who are both Arab and African).”

“The shifting dynamics of the fighting in Darfur illustrate why the prism through which the war is commonly explained – ethnic animosity between Arabs and blacks – may be less applicable than other factors, including the environment,” Perry writes.

In addition to a large peacekeeping force, Perry sees “sensible land-use policies and careful water management” as vital in future assistance interventions.

For the full article, click here.

Iraq placed on U.S. watch list for gross violations of religious freedom

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom added Iraq to its “watch list” on Wednesday due to the severe deterioration of religious freedom in the country, The Associated Press reported the same day.

The commission said that the Iraqi government holds substantial responsibility for the escalation of sectarian violence, even though militias and terrorist groups perpetrate a large portion of the attacks. Additionally, Sunni and Shiites Muslims, as well as adherents of minority faiths, are subject to abuse by state security forces and armed Shia factions with ties with the government. The Iraqi government’s failure to address religiously based attacks, despite considerable security assistance from U.S.-led coalition forces, “could ultimately constitute tolerance of egregious, ongoing and systematic violations of religious freedom,” the report said.

As a watch list country, Iraq will be recommended for “country of particular concern” status next year if the situation is not remedied. This designation would expose Iraq to the possibility of U.S. sanctions.

For the full article, click here.

Ambassador Ricciardone says there is freedom of speech in Egypt

United States Ambassador to Egypt Francis Ricciardone claimed in a February interview on Egyptian television that there is freedom of speech in Egypt, according to a New York Sun editorial Thursday. The transcript of the interview is posted on the web site of the American embassy in Cairo, and the link is available through the article.

The Sun is highly critical of Ricciardone’s affirmation and denounces it by citing several passages from the State Department’s most recent human rights report. The report states that the Egyptian government’s “respect for human rights remained poor, and serious abuses continued in many areas.” These include severe restrictions on civil liberties and religious freedom. The reports also cites how little tolerance the government has for nonviolent demonstrations, as evidenced by various incidents in the past several years. In addition, the government controls all ground-based domestic television and radio stations and owns stocks in daily newspapers. Furthermore, a state of emergency has been in place in the country almost continuously since 1967.

The Sun advises Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is in Egypt this week for a regional conference on Iraq, “to recall Mr. Ricciardone and reassign him somewhere he can do less damage to American interests by distorting reality and freelancing in contradiction to administration policy.”

For full article, click here.

NY Times columnist’s ironic take on potential Bush speech on Iraq

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman presented an ironic take on Wednesday on what might be said if President Bush, and not Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, spoke at this week’s regional conference on Iraq.

Friedman, as Bush, begins by apologizing to Arab and Muslim nations for the invasion of Iraq. After the apology, he says that if the U.S. loses in Iraq, it will be the victory of nihilistic Islamist suicide bombers who are only interested in destroying America. Citing different suicide bombings and events in the Arab world, in particular Morocco, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, he warns that if they don’t support U.S. action in Iraq these countries are only bringing chaos upon themselves. He also calls on the help of European nations, China and Russia and invites them to propose ways to handle the situation in Iraq.

For the full piece by subscription only at TimesSelect, click here.

NY Times columnist’s ironic take on potential Bush speech on Iraq

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman presented an ironic take on Wednesday on what might be said if President Bush, and not Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, spoke at this week’s regional conference on Iraq.

Friedman, as Bush, begins by apologizing to Arab and Muslim nations for the invasion of Iraq. After the apology, he says that if the U.S. loses in Iraq, it will be the victory of nihilistic Islamist suicide bombers who are only interested in destroying America. Citing different suicide bombings and events in the Arab world, in particular Morocco, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, he warns that if they don’t support U.S. action in Iraq these countries are only bringing chaos upon themselves. He also calls on the help of European nations, China and Russia and invites them to propose ways to handle the situation in Iraq.

For the full piece by subscription only at TimesSelect, click here.

Amnesty International praises new material support waivers

Amnesty International issued a press release this week praising the authorization on Monday of two new “material support of terrorism” waivers. The waivers, which were signed by U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, will enable asylum seekers who helped terrorist organizations under duress to still be eligible for entry into the U.S.

“Amnesty International applauds Secretary Chertoff’s decision…but much more must be done to fix overly broad terrorism definitions. Many legitimate refugees and asylum seekers remain ineligible for protection, because they’re wrongly considered terrorists under current law,” said Sarnata Reynolds, Amnesty International’s USA refugee program director.

Reynolds also said that although the waivers are a big step for asylum seekers, a procedure has to be put in place to allow them to take advantage of it.

For full press release, click here

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Recent polls suggest Arab opinions of U.S. are alarmingly low

At a House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing Thursday on Capitol Hill, U.S. lawmakers and regional experts discussed the results of a recent public opinion poll conducted throughout the Arab world that reveals a stark disconnect between relatively favorable perceptions of U.S. values, culture, and people, and overwhelmingly negative views toward American policy.

According to Dr. James Zogby of Zogby International, the U.S.-based company that conducted the study, this sense of resentment towards U.S. actions cuts across socioeconomic lines and is also evident among Arabs who have lived and worked with Americans.

The statistics Zogby cites are striking. Our approval ratings tend to fall below 20 percent throughout the region – including decidedly low marks in Saudi Arabia (8 percent) and Egypt (1 percent) – with the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Iraq war being cited as major sources of discontent. This rampant anti-Americanism, along with regional instability and economic depravity, has fueled support and/or tolerance for Islamic extremists, Zogby said. He added that regional discontent intensified even further in 2006 as the result of several key events: the controversy over Dubai Ports World, Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, and the steep escalation of sectarian violence in Iraq.

Statistics from Egypt were perhaps the most arresting. In a country that receives billions in annual U.S. aid, 50 percent of residents polled saw a clash between the West and the Muslim world as inevitable, 75 percent said that strict Sharia law should be imposed in every Islamic country, the same percentage said that all U.S. policy in the region is aimed at “stealing oil,” and over 50 percent said that America and/or Israel had a hand in perpetrating the attacks of 9/11. Pollack linked these numbers to “virulently ant-American” media coverage in the country and a general suspicion of American motives in the U.S./Egypt partnership.

In Iraq findings were more mixed. While two-thirds of Iraqi respondents favored the withdrawal of U.S. troops within a year’s time, only one-third wanted forces to leave within 6 months. And while Iraqis of all ethnicities tended to disapprove of the actions of al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, distinct differences across ethnic lines were apparent on the issue of U.S. occupation. Sunni Arabs harbored an overwhelming negative view of the U.S presence; Shiite Arabs were more moderate, but were still mostly critical; and the Kurds, who have benefited from U.S. protection in northern Iraq since the early 1990s, were mostly supportive.

While acknowledging the legitimacy and implications of the results, some committee members, as well as the other witness present, Dr. David Pollack of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, struck a defensive tone. Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) said he “struggled with being apologetic” when many of the countries in the region were “far from free,” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) contended that approval for the ouster of Saddam Hussein was being underreported, and Pollack called the study “at best an imperfect snapshot of what people will say to strangers.”

Cambodians arrested for helping Montagnards

Three Cambodians were arrested in April for helping 18 Montagnard refugees from Vietnam secure asylum in Cambodia with the help of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), according to The Cambodia Daily.

The three have been charged with human trafficking because they were allegedly paid by the asylum seekers. Fellow villagers of the three men have said that the money was just used to purchase food and rice for the Montagnards. UNHCR has said that it is concerned with the case, but since the three men are Cambodian, it is not within the agency’s power to act. The U.N. center for human rights is now following the case and has met with relatives of the three men.

USCIRF seeks CPC reinstatement for Viet Nam

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) on Wednesday called upon the State Department to put Viet Nam back on the list of countries of particular concern (CPC), according to Agence France Presse. The USCIRF points to the stalling and reversal of increased religious freedom since the country was removed from the CPC last year and was given a place in the World Trade Organization.

When Viet Nam was removed from the CPC list the USCIRF openly voiced its disappointment, citing issues with restrictions on ethnic minority Christians and Buddhists.

To read this article, click here.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Diminished U.S. credibility, aid to repressive states hurting global human rights promotion, lawmakers say

The damage that America’s reduced moral standing globally is having on U.S. efforts to promote human rights compliance overseas was a main cause for collective concern at a House Foreign Committee Affairs hearing today on Capitol Hill, a little over a month after lawmakers coalesced around the same issue in their initial assessment of the State Department’s 2006 country reports on human rights.

Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) led the charge for a more critical self-assessment as a way of combating the threat that negative global perceptions of the U.S. – as evidenced by the results of a exceedingly negative recent world opinion poll that suggests that America is betraying its core ideals – pose to national interests. The centerpiece of this effort should be an annual report developed by a legislative commission that address America’s human rights record, he said

Others were less accusatory, but nonetheless echoed Delahunt’s concerns. Rep. Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) cautioned against equating forced interrogation of detainees in Guantanamo Bay with the torture carried out by Islamic extremists and authoritarian regimes in countries like China, Burma, Iran, and Ethiopia. Still, he railed against U.S. economic support for some of the nations he mentioned, saying that American taxpayer and business dollars shouldn’t be used to prop up repressive governments. Barry Lowenkron, a State Department official in the bureau of democracy, human rights and labor and the lone witness present, also acknowledged that flagging legitimacy was a concern, but stopped short of saying that it severed our ability to promote democratic values abroad. Despite our failings, Lowenkron said, our preservation of self-corrective mechanisms (i.e. governmental checks and balances and the independent press) is the “ultimate strength” of U.S. democracy.

In addition to sounding the alarm on American failings, committee members pressed Lowenkron on egregious rights abuses elsewhere. The situation in China, where the government continues to repress dissidents and religious and ethnic minorities in spite of the spotlight cast by the upcoming 2008 Olympics in Beijing, was a major point of emphasis. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) said that the U.S. should leverage China’s designation as a country of particular concern to punish the government for its restrictions on dissent and its ‘genocidal’ one-child-per-couple policy. Lowenkron, for his part, echoed Smith’s sentiments and chided Chinese officials for ignoring State Department efforts to promote bilateral dialogue.

On Egypt, Delahunt contended that a totalitarian regime was consolidating executive authority and committing egregious acts of torture. While Lowenkron agreed that Cairo had significantly tightened its grip on opposition, he rejected the totalitarian designation and refused to rate the torture of detainees in Egypt as more severe than torture committed elsewhere. “Torture is torture,” and it shouldn’t be rated on a sliding scale, Lowenkron said.

Lowenkron was more forthcoming in response to Smith’s concerns regarding Viet Nam, specifically the government’s ongoing crackdown on pro-democracy voices and the plight of persecuted Christian Montagnards asylum seekers. Lowenkron said that he addressed the crackdown in talks with Vietnamese officials last week and praised U.S. Ambassador to Viet Nam Michael Marine’s efforts on behalf of dissidents. Regarding the Montagnards, Lowenkron said that the U.S. had left the processing of asylum claims solely to the United Nations refugee agency in order to streamline the procedure, but said that he would look into Smith’s concerns that more comprehensive efforts were needed.

The governments of Sudan, Russia, and Venezuela were also major targets of collective criticism in the hearing.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

U.N. chief calls for global support for Iraqi reconstruction

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said that supporting an economic and political reform package for Iraq will encourage national reconciliation, The Associated Press reported Sunday.

Ban will be attending a conference in Egypt Thursday to launch the International Compact with Iraq, which contains economic and political initiatives aimed at healing the ongoing sectarian violence in the country. Notable provisions include amnesty for insurgents who renounce violence and the creation of a human rights commission. Ban said that the compact can make a difference by sending a “strong message” to the Iraqi people regarding the need to facilitate national reconciliation. Ban and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will look to push conference participants to forgive Iraq’s debts and allocate financial assistance to help realize the compact’s objectives. However, Arab countries have said they would only be willing to do so if the Shiite-led Iraqi government strengthens its efforts to reach out to Sunni Arabs. Al-Maliki, though, said last week that he would not tolerate other Arab countries setting conditions on his government

For full article, click here.

Combating HIV/AIDS and hepatitis in Egypt

Members of Egyptian civil society and leading international actors are collaborating to raise awareness on two infectious diseases, HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C, of much concern in Egypt, according to an article by Shane McNeil published in Egypt Today Magazine.

While the number of reported HIV/AIDS cases in Egypt is relative low, the World Health Organization reports that the country has the highest prevalence of hepatitis C in the world. Egyptian community leaders are working with agencies of the United Nations in an attempt to keep the numbers from rising further. An educational campaign aimed at dispelling myths and misconceptions about the diseases has been launched. As part of the initiative, there are also plans to set up confidential counseling and testing centers and hotlines to provide information on the diseases.

UNICEF’s Communications Officer Simon Ingram says of the campaign’s focus on the media: “A lot of the information coming from the media is unnecessarily alarmist. They spread misconceptions and crazy notions about the diseases, but we believe the media can be vital allies in getting the facts out about the illnesses.”

For the full article, click here.

Education is key in Afghanistan

Seekena Yacoobi, an educational advocate with Afghan Institute of Learning, is fighting to change America’s foreign policy towards Afghanistan in hopes of making education a more prominent issue, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Sunday.

Sixty percent of Afghan society is illiterate and more than half of all Afghan children don’t attend school. Yacoobi says that the military war in Afghanistan is doomed to fail unless there’s also a war on illiteracy. She recognizes the threat embodied by the resurgent Taliban, but says that this doesn’t minimize the importance of education or the need to give more aid to the education system, even if it means cutting military expenditures.

The Afghan Institute of Learning is a leading organization in promoting and providing education in Afghanistan, helping 350,000 Afghan girls and women through classes in health, finances, voting and other topics.

“I’ve been doing this for 17 years, first in the refugee camps, then in the Taliban underground, and now inside Afghanistan. I can see the impact. I can see the change in society,” Yacoobi says.

For the full article, click here.

International campaign against stoning initiated by Kurdish activists

A petition written by Houzan Mahmoud and released on April 26 condemns the recent murder of a young Kurdish girl by stoning. Doa, a 17-year-old girl of Yazidi faith, was stoned to death on April 7 in the town of Bashiqa in front of hundreds of people when it was discovered that she had fallen in love with a Muslim Arab. The authorities did not do anything to prevent or stop the brutal “honor killing.”

The petition calls on all human rights and women’s rights organizations, political parties and activists to firmly condemn the stoning. The Kurdistan Regional Government is held responsible for failing to protect women and enforce laws against criminals. The condemnation of Doa’s stoning relates to a larger campaign to protect women from inhumane and backward practices in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The petition demands that the Kurdistan Regional Government bring Doa’s killers to justice; sets laws against terror, killings and oppression of women; and criminalizes stoning to death so as to avoid its establishment as a norm and a practice in Kurdish society.

LCHR’s Iraqi staff is part of the effort to prevent honor crimes in the region.

For the full text of the petition, click here.

Monday, April 30, 2007

12 Brotherhood members arrested as crackdown continues

Egyptian authorities arrested at least 12 members of the Muslim Brotherhood on Sunday for holding a secret meeting in Menoufiya, The Associated Press reported today.

Taking these latest arrests into account, the Egyptian government has detained 55 Brotherhood members this month as part of their intensified crackdown on the Islamist group. The Brotherhood, which is considered the strongest threat to Mubarak’s rule, plans to have 20 candidates run for seats in the upper house of parliament during the upcoming June elections.

Two lawmakers, Sabri Amer and Ragab Abu Zeid, were part of the group detained Sunday.

For the full article, click here.

Nangarhar protesters denounce U.S., Karzai in aftermath of civilian deaths

Hundreds of Afghans joined in an angry demonstration in Nangarhar province on Sunday over the killing of six civilians in a raid by U.S.-led forces, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported today.
The protesters railed against the U.S. and Afghan President Hamid Karzai: “We do not want them. We do not want this kind of life in the future. America is our enemy. America is our enemy! Karzai is our enemy!”

For the full article, click here.

Congressional committee passes resolution calling for human rights reforms in Viet Nam

The House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously passed a resolution on April 26 that calls upon the Vietnamese government to implement human rights reforms, according to the Pasadena Star-News. The resolution was sponsored by Representative Chris Smith (R-N.J.).

The case of Father Nguyen Van Ly, who was sentenced to eight years in prison last month, exemplifies the country’s shameful human rights record, according the article. Six other dissidents were indicted along with Ly, including Nguyen Phong, who received six years for establishing the Viet Nam Party of Progress, which opposes the ruling Communist Party,.

Ly, who has spent almost 14 years of his life in prison for promoting freedoms, has said: “If the United States and other countries truly sympathize with my ill-fated people and truly care about human rights, especially the right to religious freedom, of the Vietnamese people, you must not help the Communist Government prolong its totalitarian rule.”

To read this article, click here.

Unconventional strategies suggested for combating Afghan opium

A lack of success in tackling Afghanistan’s serious opium problem has led to suggestions that new, unconventional strategies be utilized, BBC News reported from Helmand Province on Saturday.

As Helmand is expected to produce more opium poppies than ever this year, the strategy of helping farmers to switch to alternative crops such as wheat has not been as successful as hoped. The British Ambassador to Kabul, Stephen Evens, tells BBC News, “It will take time; I think the policy is right but it is not something that is going to deliver this year or next year. Ten or 25 years to have a serious impact on narcotics production and trafficking here, I think that would be realistic.”

For some, this timeframe is simply not satisfactory; Americans have suggested using aerial spray to destroy the fields, while other argue that legalizing and licensing poppy for medicinal usage could be the solution. British parliamentarian Tobias Ellwood says of the latter, “This would be a way to win over the hearts and minds of farmers and will deny the terrorists the money they’re getting for sale of heroin and opium. It will also help create a market so they can be moved onto other products as well.”
For the full article, click here.