Thursday, 29 July 2010

A long time coming

Today, a goal that thousands of individuals and NGOs have campaigned on for decades, came one step closer to reality: the United Nations General Assembly finally recognised that access to clean water and sanitation is a human right.

It’s been a long time coming and whilst politicians around the world dithered and split hairs millions of lives have been lost. The statistics speak for themselves – 884 million people have no clean drinking water and 2.6 billion have no basic sanitation.

It is worth pausing for a minute and remembering that every single one of those numbers represents a human life. Imagine watching a child die of cholera or diarrhoea –for most the very thought is too horrific to bear. But every single day four thousand children die of diseases related to inadequate water or sanitation. They scream out in thirst, waste away and spend their last hours in agonising pain. All because of something we take for granted.

That’s a disgrace.

Water Aid, an excellent UK based charity dedicated to providing clean water and sanitation, point out that it costs just £15 person. So how can the developed world have failed so badly so far?

We can draw hope from today’s resolution and from the upcoming report on water to the UN Human Rights Council in October 2011. This could mark the beginning of the end of this abhorrent situation.

However, there remains much to be done. Whilst the Human Rights Council discussion may lead to binding measures, this resolution currently places no obligations on states. Furthermore a shocking 41 states –including the UK and USA- refused to vote in favour of it. The Obama administration claims that it may undermine later, more robust agreements- but this seems little more than a weak excuse and comes with no explanation as to why that would be the case. Meanwhile Cameron’s government has barely sought to justify its frankly inexcusable position.

In truth such reluctance, at least in part, is down to self interest. At a time of economic hardship, with cutbacks needed at home, certain governments will fear that accepting water and sanitation as a human right will obligate them to make domestically unpopular increases to aid budgets.

This is unacceptable.

Times may be hard for us, but nowhere near as hard as they are for the millions drinking filthy water until their organs fail – simply because they lack the basic facilities to which they are entitled.

We all have a duty to pressure our governments and support groups such as Water Aid, to make sure that the fundamental right of clean water and sanitation is realised.
For everyone.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

The terror spreads

It had been predicted for some time. Yet still, no one was prepared for the ferocity with which it unfolded. Last Sunday Al-Shabab militants from Somalia took their fight to Uganda.

Their target was a bar in Kampala where people were packed in to watch the World Cup final. Their aim was to pressure Uganda’s government into withdrawing troops from the African Union force that is currently struggling to prevent Al-Shabab and their fellow fundamentalists Hizbul-Islam from turning the whole of Somalia into to an Islamic Republic under Sharia Law.

Their victims were 76 innocent Ugandan men, women and children.

Uganda and Burundi are on the front line against Al-Shabab's brutal insurgency (see my previous
piece for more background details). An intervention by Ethiopia in 2006 was short lived- despite back up from American bombers – and arguably served only to bolster the Islamists’ recruitment. This left the Ugandan-Burundian AU force to hold off the rising tide of militant fundamentalism and set up both nations prominent targets for attacks.

Whether Al-Shabab’s projection of its violence will achieve its goal remains to be seen. Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni has
vowed to bolster the Ugandan force in Somalia and crush the militants. But this is far from certain; there are growing calls for withdrawal from the Ugandan population and the country already faces its own insurgency in the North. Furthermore, Museveni- a dictatorial leader with an appalling human rights record- has a habit of reverting to nationalist rhetoric and erratic military force. There is no guarantee he will either follow through on his vows or succeed in his aims.

If Uganda does pull out, Burundi will surely follow rather than go it alone against an ever more powerful insurgency. The tragedy is that no state will take their place. Perhaps understandably, owing to the military quagmire that has unfolded in Afghanistan, Western nations refuse to even consider sending troops to Somalia. Combined with the concurrent lack of political and military will across the rest of the world, this means that it will be the AU not the UN taking on Al-Shabab and their ilk.

Yet this reluctance may be fundamentally short sighted. An Al-Shabab/Hizbul-Islam ruled Somalia would be a hotbed for terrorism, criminality and human rights abuses that will affect the entire globe. Economically supporting the floundering Somali government and replacing the AU troops with a robust UN force could realistically prevent this from coming to pass. Trying remove such a regime in five or ten years time will be infinitely harder.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Throwing the book at BP

On Thursday – 80 days after BP executives first admitted that oil from their stricken rig was pouring out into the Gulf of Mexico – the company finally stopped the leak. The Louisiana coastline has been devastated, tourism and fishing industries have been wrecked, thousands of birds, fish and animals have been killed …and BP’s reputation is in tatters.

The last point may be a small positive in a story of utter destruction and hopelessness. Politicians across the US, including
Barak Obama, have been un-relentless in their criticism. A unprecedentedly huge compensation package has been agreed, talk of criminal charges has been raised and BP’s behaviour in other areas- namely regarding lobbying over the release of Abdel Basset al-Megrahi – has been dragged into the spotlight. Unfortunately the company’s involvement in the occupation of West Papua will probably escape scrutiny – but its true colours are nevertheless being recognised –and attacked – on the international stage.

This is an encouraging sign in an age where companies shunning corporate social responsibility to human rights and the environment are often afforded a kind of political immunity so long as they return a profit. Of course NGOs regularly attack companies such as Total for their
horrendous abuses in Burma, Nestle for their exploitation of mothers in the developing world or Chevron for the environmental armageddon they brought to Ecuador, but all too often our governments turn a blind eye to such irresponsible and immoral behaviour.

The criticism now directed at BP by senior politicians is a step in the right direction and raises hopes that- in future, multinationals may not be given such a free ride by our leaders.

Of course, it would be naïve to expect that this is the start of a new era in which companies are unreservedly held to account for their actions. Activists have been quick to point out that far more oil is
annually spilt into the Niger Delta by companies such as Shell, than was spilt into the Gulf of Mexico by BP – yet Obama and the Western world remain silent. Similarly, revelations of tobacco giant Philip Morris’ use of child labour in Kazakhstan have received little attention from British or American politicians. As always, events that become an issue when they affect our nations are conveniently ignored when they devastate lives thousands of miles away.

Nonetheless, the strong and deserved attacks on BP will make it that little bit harder for big business to ignore environmental or human factors in the future. It is just possible some progress is being made.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Freedom calls

Another good news story broke yesterday – this time from West Papua (see my previous piece for more background about the region). Long-time political prisoners Filep Karma and Yusak Pakage, who were handed 15 year jail terms in 2004 for peacefully raising West Papua’s flag (a crime in the eyes of the Indonesian occupiers) were released early and handed presidential pardons. This is not only a great development in the struggle for freedom and human rights in West Papua, but a testimony to the power of activists around world. The role of international pressure, generated by groups such as the Free West Papua Campaign and Amnesty International, undeniably played a key role in the decision to right this wrong. It is proof that pressure works.

Still, there is much to be done. One hundred and seventy peaceful activists remain imprisoned in appalling conditions, facing inhumane torture on a daily basis, for protesting against Indonesia’s occupation of their land and genocide against their people.

Yet as the oppression goes on, so does the resistance. In the wake of the releases hundreds of protestors camped outside the provincial parliament in Jayapura demanding human rights and a free referendum on independence as promised to them under the 1962 New York Agreement (which was signed by Indonesia). Today Imam Setiawan, Jayapura's police chief, stated that the police are ready to use force- including live ammunition - to disperse the crowd.

This cannot be allowed to happen.

If the world turns away now a crackdown will almost inevitably ensue, leading to more deaths and heightened persecution of the West Papuan people. But if the international community stands tall and calls on the Indonesian forces to show restraint, it will make armed dispersal of the protest almost impossible. This will bolster the non-violent resistance and could be a pivotal moment in beginning the end of the occupation. That is why- wherever you are – it is imperative you write to your representative and ask them to request that your foreign secretary immediately contacts the Indonesian government and urges them not to deploy troops against the demonstrators.

Freedom is calling. It’s up to us to answer.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Hope for Cuba

Cuba, far from the revolutionary utopia many once portrayed it to be, remains one of the most oppressed nations in the world. An absence of democracy, ruthless repression of the media and appalling human rights abuses have continued to blight the country since Raul Castro took the reigns of power from his brother Fidel in 2006. But recent developments have given a glimmer of hope for the Cuban people.

Yesterday negotiations between the Cuban authorities, the Spanish government, and the Catholic Church (which often gets a harsh press when it comes to human rights issues) resulted in a promise for 52 political prisoner releases – the largest multiple release in years.

In response to the news, dissident activist Guillermo Farinas (left) ended his hunger strike. He had been refusing food for 130 days since fellow activist Orlando Zapta Tamayo died after himself hunger striking for 85 days.

Perhaps more significantly still, the move was openly welcomed by the US and Spain, the latter asking the EU to soften its common position on Cuba in response. This is an opportunity not to be missed. A warming of relations now –whilst no giving to much ground – may encourage Raul’s regime to make further advances concerning human rights.

The EU and US should work together to decide concrete concessions to hand Havana in response to key milestones: freeing journalists, allowing dissent and accepting freedom of religion being three such starting points.

Cuba’s 11 million citizens are still deprived their basic freedoms. But there are now signs of hope.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Kurdistan- no peace without justice

Yesterday clashes between the Turkish Army and the main Kurdish rebel group (the Kurdish Workers Party or PKK) killed fifteen people. These were the latest deaths in a twenty-six year conflict that has killed more than forty-thousand. They also mark the continuation of a recent escalation in the conflict; one that has killed over one hundred and twenty Turkish soldiers and fifty Kurdish militants since March.

In response to the increasing violence Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to fight until the PKK is
annihilated. It is a strategy doomed to fail.

Conflicts across the world- from Northern Ireland to East Timor have shown that peace can only be achieved with justice. A recent Human Rights Watch
report on Turkish-occupied Kurdistan highlights repression of discussion on ‘the Kurdish issue’, police mistreatment of Kurdish activists and the detention of those protesting for rights in the region – scores of them children. Looking at these factors in conjunction with the banning of the Kurdish Democratic Society Party (which had held 21 parliamentary seats) by the Turkish Constitutional Court late last year, it is easy to understand the Kurds’ grievances.

Rather than throwing more military force at the PKK and increasing the cycle of violence Erdogan and his government should undermine support for armed rebellion by ensuring that Turkey’s Kurdish citizens are afforded human rights and freedoms. This doesn’t even need to mean full independence for Turkish-occupied Kurdistan, but affording greater level of autonomy and ending the repression would take away the incentive for young men and women to take up arms against the Turkish state. It’s a simple solution- but one that successive Turkish governments have failed to recognise.

Of course, such changes can only be realised in a reformed Turkish society- one where the army doesn’t hold sway over politics and where nationalism doesn’t stifle free speech. The conviction and murder of Turkish-Armenian journalist
Hrant Dink three years ago was reflective of a militant nationalist sentiment that still dominates Turkish politics today and consistently scuppers efforts to positively resolve the situation in Kurdistan.

If it isn’t laid to rest then attacks like yesterday’s will go on and on.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Why Tibet will be free

I’d like to apologise for my lack of blogging activity recently- there’ve been two main reasons for this. Firstly I’ve been finishing up university, moving home and looking for jobs (which takes up a lot more time that you might think!) Secondly, over the last week I’ve been at a camp in New York meeting, networking, sharing skills and training with other Tibet activists from around the world.

The camp was incredible- the amount I learnt, the people I got to know and the speakers we heard exceeded all my expectations. But perhaps most importantly it reinforced my conviction that, within our lifetimes, Tibet will be free.

Why? Because the movement for freedom and human rights in Tibet is getting lager, more committed, better organised and better trained almost every single day. The level of education -both in terms of knowledge and skills is amazing and new people are constantly flocking to join the struggle. Just a few days after I got back from New York, the UK-based movement hosted a huge Tibet festival in central London to mark the Dalai Lama's birthday. Over a thousand people- many with no previous knowledge of Tibet, came through the gates and (whilst having a great day out) found out more.

This sort of thing goes on all around the world and as a result hundreds of thousands of people across every continent regularly take part in some way or another: from hanging banners off buildings to meeting with their MPs to utilising international law mechanisms in defence of Tibetan political prisoners. Meanwhile links are being built with Chinese democracy activists and the East Turkestan movement as well as broader human rights campaigns and freedom fighters from countries such as Burma. Crucially contact with those inside Tibet is also being improved – so that we can tell their stories to the outside world, and let them know that we are supporting them.

This sort of movement is a force to be reckoned with – even for a rising superpower. The Chinese Communist Party holds onto power in Tibet (as well as in China and the other occupied regions) by force and fear. This can only last so long. The constant damage to their image, strengthening of internal non-violent resistance movements and political pressure from around the world will ultimately make the occupation to costly to maintain- on both a financial and sociopolitical level.

It’ll take time, it’ll be a hard struggle and everyone has their part to play. But one day Tibet will be free. Just like Burma, Zimbabwe, Sudan and other such nations will be.

And for those who find this hard to believe just remember that many people could never envisage the end of the USSR, apartheid or the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but at their worst points it seemed that such regimes would last forever. Just as the Berlin Wall came down, Nelson Mandela walked to freedom and the Indonesian flag was lowered in Dili- so too will the Tibetans one day have their freedom, their human rights and their country back.