Thursday, 24 May 2012

Polio–the final showdown

“Polio eradication is at a tipping point between success and failure” – that was the message from the World Health Organisation (WHO) this week as the Global Polio Eradication Initiative launched an emergency action plan.

Victim of PolioThe stakes could not be higher. Polio, an abhorrent viral disease that has crippled hundreds of thousands of people, is on the brink of becoming only the third eradicated disease in human history.

Once destroying lives across the globe, it is now endemic in just three states: Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. The incredible immunisation programme that effectively defeated polio in India earlier this year has brought worldwide eradication efforts to the ‘endgame phase’ and raised genuine hopes of polio-free world just around the corner.

But all of this is at risk. Wiping out the disease in its three remaining will be no easy task, especially considering the critical funding gaps faced by those spearheading the immunisation efforts. One small vaccine per child is all that is required to make the difference between protection and infection– but there can be no escaping the fact that these vaccines and their distribution require financing.Polio eradication Pakistan

Unfortunately, there is no time to waste in securing the necessary commitments from the international community. Where polio is not tackled it spreads, crossing national borders back into states where previous eradication efforts had been successful. Both China and the Democratic Republic of Congo have seen recent outbreaks, with half of victims dying in the latter. India remains at risk, with two more polio-free years required before it is regarded as formally eradicated, whilst several African nations are still facing imported transmission.

Phenomenal efforts are underway to ensure that the fight against polio does not fall at the last hurdle, backed by the United Nations and religious leaders in the (predominantly Islamic) affected states. But they need every last bit of support they can get.

We can all play our part in ending the needless mass paralysis of children, that frequently results in gruelling poverty for the rest of their lives. By making a donation to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative and writing to our leaders, urging them to throw their full weight behind the final push, we can help to ensure that the balance tips the right way: the end of polio- forever.

End Polio Now

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Malawi–equality beckons?

Malawian President Joyce Banda’s announcement that anti-homosexuality laws will be repealed as a matter of urgency has been widely welcomed by human rights activists around the world.

It is a stunning development in a state where just two years ago a gay couple were sentenced to over a decade in prison for declaring their love. Furthermore it raises Steven Monjeza Tiwonge Chimbalanga Malawi imprisonmentthe prospect of Malawi becoming a beacon of light on a continent where anti-homosexuality legislation is commonplace and only one state (South Africa) lends constitutional protections to its LGBT citizens.

Indeed the move presents a stark contrast to neighbouring Zimbabwe where President Mugabe regularly rants about gay people being “worse than pigs and dogs” and to Uganda, where law makers consistently flirt with new and harsher punishments for ‘homosexual acts’.

Of course there is a long way to go. President Banda’s statement of intent is just the first step in a legislative process that will inevitably be dogged by homophobic opponents amongst both the parliament and the public. And even once anti-homosexuality laws are repealed, implementation of equality is a whole different matter. One only needs to look towards European states such as Latvia, where legal protections and stable democratic systems have done little on the ground to adequately protect LGBT citizens from organised bigotry.

Joyce Banda LGBT rightsStill the progress appears genuine and Banda has clearly hit the ground running, by taking such a significant step just one month into her presidency. Furthermore her statement that “our traditional development partners…were uncomfortable with our bad laws” indicates a measure of success for the strategy of linking international aid to LGBT rights, utilised by donor states such as the UK and USA.

The move is also a further symbol of Banda’s seemingly broader progressive tendencies, already illustrated by her decision to use commercial flights rather than the luxurious presidential jet of her predecessor and, more significantly, her refusal to let indicted war criminal Omar Al-Bashir attend the Malawian-hosted African Union Summit this coming July. So far her stance appears daring, in-touch with the international community and appreciative of human rights considerations in at least some areas.

This combination of sensible external pressure and a liberal position from the presidency certainly looks promising for Malawi’s LGBT citizens – a community who have already waited far too long for their rights to be realised.

Malawi LGBT rights all human

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Commanders behind bars

It has been a bad weekend for two of Africa’s most notorious militias – and a good one for justice.

Caesar Achellam capturedOn Saturday, US-backed Ugandan troops detained senior Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander Caesar Achellam in the Central African Republic, where the organisation has been carrying out a string of attacks on civilians.

Achellam, described as one of the LRA’s five-man high command, has been terrorising the populations of the CAR, Uganda, Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo for some twenty-eight years, overseeing the rape of villagers, the conscription of child soldiers and some of central Africa’s most appalling massacres. His capture represents a significant blow to the dwindling-though-deadly LRA, which is now coming under increased increased multi-national military pressure.

Meanwhile, Nigerian security forces were celebrating the capture of Boko Haram’sBoko Haram capture head of operations in the city of Kano, Suleiman Mohammed. Boko Haram, which seeks to impose Sharia law throughout Nigeria, has killed hundreds of people since it bounced-back from near defeat in 2009, including a number Christian worshippers in Kano just two weeks ago. Like the LRA, it will be licking its wounds after losing such a significant commander.

Of course, both organisations have experienced serious blows in the past and neither is on the verge of disappearing just yet. Though the LRA’s time looks increasingly limited, its leader Joseph Kony remains elusive and its apparent splintering into smaller factions may make total defeat significantly harder. Boko Haram on the other hand, still poses a coherent and serious threat throughout Nigeria, to Christians and Muslims alike. Suleiman Mohammed’s capture will hinder operations, at least locally, but the organisation as a whole remains intact and continually brutal – openly threatening further attacks on schools and universities.

Nevertheless this weekend’s setbacks against the two abhorrent organisations can only be positive. Similarly encouraging is the fact that both Achellam and Mohammed were brought in alive – in contrast to the brutal reputation of government death squads in Uganda and the previous extra-judicial killing of a Boko Haram leader in Nigeria. It is a testament to both states that these two men, who denied their many victims any kind of justice, will now face trial….and a life behind bars.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Massacres and injustice in the CAR

David Simpson imprisoned CARA British man, locked in a crowded African jail cell with eighty other inmates, facing the death penalty for a crime he almost certainly did not commit: David Simpson’s on-going ordeal was always bound to catch the media’s attention.

And rightly so; for whatever people think of his exploits running a big-game hunting firm in the Central African Republic, there is no evidence that he was behind the brutal massacre of which he stands accused.

By all accounts it was the Yorkshire-man who found the eighteen victims, a mix of men, women and children, tied together in groups and seemingly killed with boiling water and machetes. Mr Simpson is reported to have led investigators to the site, where they photographed the horrific scene before promptly arresting him and taking him to the jail where he has been held for the past six weeks.

Fair Trials International has already condemned the arrest, hardly surprisingFair Trials International considering the CAR’s well-established record of arbitrary detention and false charges, as noted by major human rights organisations. Yet perhaps even more disturbing than the gross injustice to befall Mr Simpson, are the likely actual perpetrators of the massacre and the government’s clear lack of interest in brining them to justice.

For the prime suspects are, in the eyes of most rational observers, Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) – the now widely known subjects of Invisible Children’s viral Kony 2012 campaign. And whilst Kony 2012 has generated copious amounts of cynicism and accusations of bandwagon jumping this latest massacre, if it is the work of the LRA, is a chilling indication of how serious a threat the organisation remains.

LRA attack site CARIt would be just the latest in a series of LRA attacks on the Central African Republic’s soil, which have wrecked-havoc with the lives of civilians since March. Reports suggest that the LRA has experienced a recent surge in activity and may have splintered into a number of smaller groups. Ominously there are also reports of renewed support from Sudan, once a prominent backer that used the LRA as a proxy against the Ugandan state. Such assertions are far from certain, but as Omar Al-Bashir heads for war with the young South Sudanese state and its neighbours threaten to join the fray, the prospect of him re-kindling the old Khartoum-LRA alliance is certainly not of the table.

This would leave a continually dangerous and erratic rebel group, backed by a war-mongering government, butchering civilians in a state where the authorities would apparently rather take the erratic step of pinning the blame on a foreigner, than effectively dealing with the insurgency. David Simpson and the colleagues imprisoned with him should be given a fair trial based on adequate evidence or be immediately released….but even once that injustice is solved, the Central African Republic faces far bigger problems. 

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Rajapaksa’s racism rumbles on

Rajapaksa war criminalThe Tamil people’s long wait for justice over the abhorrent War Crimes committed by Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brutal government, drags on with little hope that the tyrant will ever face the same kind of international judicial process as Liberian despot Charles Taylor

Yet for those on the ground in Tamil Eelam, justice in itself is not even the key priority right now. Far more pressing is the fact that, as long as Rajapaksa and his thugs remain in power and unpunished, their violent state racism continues to threaten the safety and lives of Tamils living under their control every single day. 

This persecution has continued unabated since the government’s conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ended in 2009 amidst a plethora of massacres and human rights abuses.

As the dust settled the concentration camps emerged, where hundreds ofTamil Concentration Camp 2 thousands of Tamil civilians were rounded up and held in clear violation of international law as part of an attempt to ‘drain the LTTE pond’. Then came regulations under the Prevention of Terror Act (PTA) giving the President and Secretary of Defence unprecedented broad and un-scrutinised powers, whilst continuing the extra-judicial internment system established under the now-defunct State of Emergency.

Hardly a model for a so-called-democratic state.

The further round-up of one hundred and fifty Tamil men this week is just the latest sinister chapter in this on-going saga. Scores of these civilians remain un-accounted for, with neither their location or wellbeing disclosed to family members. Understandably, given the government’s track-record for torturing, executing or simply ‘disappearing’ those suspected of even vague links to the LTTE, fears for their safety are now running high.

At the same time, tensions have been stoked by a controversial display of the banned Tamil Eelam flag at a May Day rally in Jaffna City. The rally was organised by opposition United National Party (UNP) and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). The government has seized upon the incident to publicly denounce both parties as ‘separatists’ and ‘traitors’ – yet opposition activists point out that only state television picked up pictures of the flag, leading to not-unrealistic speculation of underhand government involvement.

As the post-conflict Sri Lankan state slips further away from any vestige of liberal democracy, the need to halt Rajapaksa and his confidents has never been more urgent.