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 on: Oct 01, 2014, 06:56 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Kuwait, Fighting Dissent From Within, Revokes Citizenship

SEPT. 30, 2014

KUWAIT CITY — Moving to grind out political dissent at home while the world’s attention is focused on fighting militant extremists in Iraq and Syria, the government of Kuwait is increasingly wielding a penalty that was once rare here: revoking citizenship.

The severity of the punishment, imposed for offenses that sometimes amount to little more than disagreeing with the government, has stoked bitterness and raised an unaccustomed fear that new lines are being drawn between loyalty and treason.

Kuwait, where citizens have elected full-throated Parliaments for decades and lawmakers have publicly criticized official corruption, has been the most politically open of the conservative Persian Gulf monarchies.

But as tensions in the country have been growing, analysts said, the revocations have raised concerns that Kuwait is also taking cues from some of its more repressive neighbors in the region, including some that have won praise from the United States for joining the military campaign against the Islamic State.

“They are sending a message,” said Sulaiman al-Jassem, a Kuwaiti human rights activist who is one of many people here facing criminal charges for what the activists say are essentially political acts, like attending protests. “There are no limits,” he said.

According to the state news agency, Kuwait’s government has revoked the citizenship of more than two dozen people in the past three months, including 18 on Monday.

Ahmed Jabr al-Shammari, one of those whose citizenship was revoked, ran a television channel and newspapers that gave space to opposition figures and antigovernment points of view. The government, after suspending his media outlets, eventually shut them down in July and took away Mr. Shammari’s citizenship — leaving him essentially “stateless,” he said.

The gulf monarchs saw new threats to their power emerge after the popular uprisings across the Arab world in 2011, and they have used a set of similar tools to beat back challenges. Human rights workers have watched with alarm as the governments have issued or threatened to issue new laws to contain dissidents, including arresting them for public gatherings, speeches or social media postings — and increasingly stripping them of citizenship.

Though there has been a spurt recently, the practice has been growing for several years. In 2011, the United Arab Emirates took passports from Islamist activists who had been naturalized citizens; a lawyer for the men said it was because they had demanded political change.

Bahrain stripped 31 dissidents of their citizenship in 2012, including former members of Parliament and exiled political activists. Most recently, a court in Bahrain revoked the citizenship of nine men on Monday who the authorities said were trying to smuggle weapons into the country. (The court also sentenced the men to life in prison.)

Claire Beaugrand, a specialist in Persian Gulf affairs at the French Institute for the Near East, said the crackdown was reversing movement in the past decade toward greater openness in some of the gulf states, including Bahrain.

“Now the trend is counterrevolution, and they are dismantling liberal measures they had taken before,” Ms. Beaugrand said, adding that the repression often came shrouded in official discourse about fidelity to the state — “who is loyal and who is not.”

Few places had as much to lose as Kuwait, which was long seen as resistant to the region’s political torpor. Opposition groups here led to the removal of the prime minister in 2011, and political activists and lawmakers more recently have urged the government to reject a regional security pact, fearing that it would undermine the country’s relative freedoms.

“In Kuwait,” Ms. Beaugrand said, “people are aware that they have rights and more freedoms than other gulf states.”

The strict measures, though, also reflected a growing acrimony in Kuwait’s political debates. As a diverse but fractured opposition movement has made bolder demands of the government — as well as statements viewed by officials as provocative — the authorities have appeared more determined to stifle any complaints.

Belkis Wille, a Kuwait researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the severity of the measures taken against government opponents had steadily increased over the past few years. “Now we’re seeing this dramatic new step of citizenship revocation,” she said.

Losing citizenship cuts a Kuwaiti off from the oil-rich country’s generous system of state benefits, including health care, housing and education — what Mr. Jassem, the democracy activist, called the “golden lottery ticket.” In some ways, those who have had their citizenship revoked are placed among more than 100,000 Kuwaiti residents who have been denied citizenship, despite being in the country for generations in many cases.

Musallam al-Barrak, a prominent opposition figure and frequent guest on Mr. Shammari’s television channel, compared the revoking of citizenship to a “civil execution” and called it a desperate measure by the government. “It indicates their weakness,” he said, “not their strength.”

To explain the revocations, the authorities have cited provisions of the 1959 citizenship law in Kuwait, which permits the government to revoke citizenship, including when naturalized citizens have committed crimes or obtained citizenship through fraud. Calls seeking comment from a spokesman for the cabinet, which issued the revocations, were not returned.

Abdullah al-Barghash, a former opposition member of the Kuwaiti Parliament, was stripped of his citizenship in July. In August the cabinet revoked the citizenship of an ultraconservative religious cleric, Nabil al-Awady. The group revoked on Monday also included Saad al-Ajmi, an opposition spokesman.

Even those who saw legitimate reasons for some revocations said Mr. Shammari’s case set a chilling precedent. He not only was Kuwaiti-born, they said, but also was charged under a law that allows the authorities to revoke the citizenship of people seeking to “undermine the economic or social system of the country.”

Mr. Shammari also appeared to have been swept up in a palace drama, aligned with one party in a royal power struggle that has upended Kuwait’s politics and exposed fissures within the ruling Sabah family. The feud broke into the open late last year when rumors circulated about secret recordings that were said to reveal a conspiracy to overthrow the government.

The controversy, which was discussed on social media as well as on Mr. Shammari’s television channel, so unnerved the government that it issued an order banning discussion of the recordings.

In a recent interview in his office, where he was signing severance checks for hundreds of employees who were ordered by the government to find other work, Mr. Shammari said he would challenge the cabinet’s decision in the courts.

He said he had little to worry about personally — his publishing and real estate interests have made him wealthy, and his white Rolls-Royce was parked downstairs — although the loss of citizenship seemed to exclude him from politics. He was more concerned about his four children, who by Kuwaiti law derive their citizenship from their father. “There is no role for people who lose their nationality,” he said.

A Kuwaiti court declined last week to rule on his case, saying it was outside its jurisdiction.

 on: Oct 01, 2014, 06:54 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Nigeria’s Actions Seem to Contain Ebola Outbreak

SEPT. 30, 2014

With quick and coordinated action by some of its top doctors, Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, appears to have contained its first Ebola outbreak, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday.

As the epidemic rages out of control in three nations only a few hundred miles away, Nigeria is the only country to have beaten back an outbreak with the potential to harm many victims in a city with vast, teeming slums.

“For those who say it’s hopeless, this is an antidote — you can control Ebola,” said Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, director of the C.D.C.

Although officials are pleased that success was achieved in a country of 177 million that is a major transport and business hub — and whose largest city, Lagos, has 21 million people — the lessons here are not easily applicable to the countries at the epicenter: Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Public health officials in those countries remain overwhelmed by the scale of the outbreak and are desperate for additional international assistance.

Nigeria’s outbreak grew from a single airport case, while in the three other countries the disease smoldered for months in remote rain-forest provinces and spread widely before a serious response was mounted.

Ebola, Dr. Frieden said, “won’t blow over — you have to make a rapid, intense effort.”

While the danger in Nigeria is not over, the health minister, Dr. Onyebuchi Chukwu, said in a telephone interview that his country was now better prepared, with six laboratories able to make diagnoses and response teams and isolation wards ready in every major state.

After the first patient — a dying Liberian-American — flew into Lagos on July 20, Ebola spread to 20 other people there and in a smaller city, Port Harcourt.

They have all now died or recovered, and the cure rate — 60 percent — was unusually high for an African outbreak.

Meanwhile, local health workers paid 18,500 face-to-face visits to repeatedly take the temperatures of nearly 900 people who had contact with them. The last confirmed case was detected on Aug. 31, and virtually all contacts have passed the 21-day incubation period without falling ill.

The success was in part the result of an emergency command center financed in 2012 by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to fight polio. As soon as the outbreak began, it was turned into the Ebola Emergency Operations Center.

Also, the C.D.C. had 10 experts in Nigeria working on polio and H.I.V., who had already trained 100 local doctors in epidemiology; 40 of them were immediately reassigned to Ebola and oversaw the contact tracing.

The chief of the command center, Dr. Faisal Shuaib, gave credit to a coordinated effort by the Health Ministry, the C.D.C., the World Health Organization, Unicef, Doctors Without Borders and the International Committee for the Red Cross.

Also, he noted, Nigeria has significant advantages over poorer countries where the outbreak is out of control.

It has many more doctors per capita, some educated abroad at top medical schools.

It has standing teams of medical investigators, with vehicles and telephones, who normally trace outbreaks of other ills like cholera or Lassa fever.

Lagos University Teaching Hospital was able to do Ebola tests in six hours.

The hospitals where patients were isolated were equipped to do tests for electrolytes and blood proteins, both of which must be kept in balance as patients are fed orally or intravenously to replace fluids lost to diarrhea and vomiting.

And air-conditioned hospitals let people wearing protective gear work longer without overheating.

Nigeria also had some luck. Although the first patient, a businessman named Patrick Sawyer, was vomiting on his flight in, none of the roughly 200 others on the plane fell ill. Others did after helping him into a taxi to a hospital.

And a patient in Port Harcourt went to her church and became violently ill during a ceremony in which the congregation laid hands on her. But none became infected.

Dr. Sue Desmond-Hellmann, the Gates Foundation’s chief executive, said she was “heartened to see this positive result of the efforts of so many in Nigeria.”

On July 17, Mr. Sawyer defied medical advice and left a hospital in Monrovia, Liberia, where he was being held for observation after caring for his sister, who died of Ebola, although it was unclear whether he knew what she had.

Nigerian news reports said he used Liberian government contacts for permission to leave, flying to Lagos by way of Ghana and Togo. He planned to go to an economic development conference there and then fly back to Coon Rapids, Minn., for his children’s birthdays, according to media interviews with his widow.

Taken to a small private hospital after he collapsed, he denied any contact with Ebola victims and was initially treated for malaria. He died on July 25.

“That hospital had zero infection control,” Dr. Frieden said.

A nurse who helped reinsert an IV line when Mr. Sawyer was delirious and bleeding wore no gloves, had a cut on her hand and did not wash it, he said. She later died.

After malaria treatment failed, Ebola was “high on the index of suspicion,” Dr. Shuaib said.

He learned about Mr. Sawyer’s diagnosis as he sat chatting in his office with a colleague.

“I thought: ‘Oh, my God, not Nigeria. Not Lagos.’ I knew the potential for it to spread in a densely populated place.”

Even though the emergency center swung into action quickly and aggressive contact tracing was possible because Nigeria’s Port Health Services obtained records of Mr. Sawyer’s travel, there were still problems.

It took 14 days, Dr. Frieden said, for the first isolation ward to open in a former tuberculosis ward.

“Health workers initially wouldn’t go in,” he said. “They were afraid. We ultimately trained 1,800 staff.”

Wards were reconfigured to add space between beds, put in washing stations with chlorinated water and create rooms where doctors and nurses could carefully don and remove protective gear. The worked in teams of two so they could watch each other and prevent mistakes.

Also, according to a C.D.C. study released Tuesday in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, inaccurate news media reports before the government began offering official information “created a nationwide scare.”

Sales of false cures, including “Blessed Salt,” shot up, and two Nigerians died of drinking large amounts of saltwater.

But Dr. Shuaib emphasized that even terrified Nigerians did not deny the virus’s existence or attack health workers, as happened in the other countries. “No conspiracy theories entered the debate,” he said.

Nigeria’s success shows how important preparation is, said Dr. Frieden, adding, “Some countries that could well be the next Lagos still don’t have a clue about how to deal with this.”

 on: Oct 01, 2014, 06:52 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad

World Bank accuses itself of failing to protect Kenya forest dwellers

Leaked document says World Bank violated its own safeguards in dealings with Sengwer people evicted from their lands

John Vidal, Monday 29 September 2014 14.36 BST   

A leaked copy of a World Bank investigation seen by the Guardian has accused the bank of failing to protect the rights of one of Kenya’s last groups of forest people, who are being evicted from their ancestral lands in the name of climate change and conservation.

Thousands of homes belonging to hunter-gatherer Sengwer people living in the Embobut forest in the Cherangani hills were burned down earlier this year by Kenya forest service guards who had been ordered to clear the forest as part of a carbon offset project that aimed to reduce emissions from deforestation.

The result has been that more than 1,000 people living near the town of Eldoret have been classed as squatters and forced to flee what they say has been government harassment, intimidation and arrest.

The evictions were condemned in February by the UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples and the UN committee on the elimination of racial discrimination, and drew in the president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, who expressed alarm at what was described by 360 national and international civil society organisations and individuals as “cultural genocide”. An Avaaz petition collected 950,000 names calling for the bank to urgently halt the “illegal” evictions.

Following a request by the Sengwer to assess the impact of the bank’s funding of the project, the bank’s inspection panel decided in May that it had violated safeguards in several areas. At the same time, the bank’s management decided to ignore most of the independent panel’s recommendations.
Homes of Sengwer people stand burning in Embobut, Kenya. Homes of Sengwer people stand burning in Embobut, Kenya. Photograph: Forest Peoples Programme

“Unfortunately, the World Bank’s own leaked management response to the report denies many of the findings, evidently sees little importance in the fact that violation of safeguard policies has occurred, and presents an inadequate action plan to be considered by the bank’s board. It simply proposes more training for forest service staff, and a meeting to examine what can be learnt,” said a spokesman for the UK-based Forest Peoples Programme.

“President Kim said the bank would not be bystanders, but only by taking seriously the many breaches of its own safeguards and approving the action plan requested by the Sengwer people themselves to overcome the human rights violations that these breaches have contributed to will the bank be able to demonstrate that the president has been true to his word,” said Peter Kitelo, a representative of Kenya’s Forest Indigenous Peoples Network.

A final decision on the project will be made on Tuesday when the World Bank board meets in Washington under the chairmanship of Kim to decide on the bank’s response to the inspection panel report. If the board decides to endorse the action plan, the evictions are certain to be completed. More than half the people evicted are thought to have returned to their lands.

“The eviction of such ancestral communities leaves the indigenous forests open to exploitation and destruction; whereas securing such communities rights to their lands and responsibility to continue traditional conservation practices, protects their forests,” said the Forest Peoples Programme.


Kenyan families flee Embobut forest to avoid forced evictions by police

Authorities act on perceived threat to water supplies, but human rights groups question legality of uprooting indigenous people

John Vidal, Tuesday 7 January 2014 12.03 GMT   

Families in Kenya were reportedly fleeing their homes and taking what possessions they could on Tuesday after police gathered near the Embobut forest to evict thousands of indigenous Sengwer people and others said to be threatening urban water supplies.

The forest, in the Cherangani hills near the town of Eldoret in western Kenya, has been the ancestral home of marginalised hunter-gatherer Sengwer communities for centuries, but the area has been invaded in the past 20 years by many thousands of other people seeking land to grow food.

The authorities claim the result has been wholesale destruction of the forest and the drying up of rivers that provide drinking water and irrigation for many nearby towns and villages. Exact numbers of people living in the forest are uncertain, but estimates range from 7,000 to 15,000.

"Reports reaching us from Sengwer community members in Embobut today tell of a chaotic situation as people are threatened and are in fear of their safety," a spokesman for the UK-based Forest Peoples Programme said. "Some families are fleeing their homes in fear of forceful evictions; 150 police and forest guards, including also 30 riot police, are massing to carry out the evictions from the three locations of Tangul, Kipsitono and Maron near the forest. More troops may join."

At least two successive Kenyan governments have threatened the Sengwer communities and forest squatters with evictions. In the past two years, many houses have been burned down in attempts to force people to move. In November 2013, President Uhuru Kenyatta went to Embobut and promised people money to move, but the offer has been widely ignored. The government deadline for moving from the forest expired last week.

But more than 40 Kenyan and international human rights and environment groups this week questioned the legality of the imminent evictions of the Sengwer and the way the Kenyan authorities have tried to remove indigenous people from forested land in the name of conservation.

"[This eviction] would violate the human rights of the indigenous Sengwer/Cherangany peoples, and their right to the customary sustainable use and conservation of biodiversity, if they are forcibly evicted from their ancestral lands and deprived of their own indigenous means of subsistence integral to their forest life, identity, their characteristic sources of food, water, health and shelter and to their cultural survival as a people," the groups said in a joint statement.

The Forest Peoples Programme added: "For many years the government has been trying to move the indigenous inhabitants of Embobut off their land by burning their homes. They have done this in the name of a 'fortress conservation' approach, which seeks to remove local people from their lands. As all pre-eminent conservation organisations now acknowledge, such an approach only ever makes the environmental situation worse, and adds a human rights disaster to the environmental crisis."

According to the Nairobi-based UN Environment Programme, the rolling Cherangani hills are among the country's five most important water catchment areas. Conservation of the upland areas is considered to be vital to prevent water shortages in cities.


World Bank and UN carbon offset scheme 'complicit' in genocidal land grabs - NGOs

Plight of Kenya's indigenous Sengwer shows carbon offsets are empowering corporate recolonisation of the South

Thursday 3 July 2014 07.00 BST

Between 2000 and 2010, a total of 500 million acres of land in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean was acquired or negotiated under deals brokered on behalf of foreign governments or transnational corporations.

Many such deals are geared toward growing crops or biofuels for export to richer, developed countries – with the consequence that small-holder farmers are displaced from their land and lose their livelihood while local communities go hungry.

The concentration of ownership of the world's farmland in the hands of powerful investors and corporations is rapidly accelerating, driven by resource scarcity and, thus, rising prices. According to a new report by the US land rights organisation Grain: "The powerful demands of food and energy industries are shifting farmland and water away from direct local food production to the production of commodities for industrial processing."

Less known factors, however, include 'conservation' and 'carbon offsetting.'

In west Kenya, as the UK NGO Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) reported, over a thousand homes had been torched by the government's Kenya Forest Service (KFS) to forcibly evict the 15,000 strong Sengwer indigenous people from their ancestral homes in the Embobut forest and the Cherangany Hills.

Since 2007, successive Kenyan governments have threatened Sengwer communities in the Embobut forest with eviction. A deadline for residents to leave the forest expired in early January, prompting the most recent spate of violence. The pretext for the eviction is that the indigenous Sengwer – labelled wrongly as 'squatters' – are responsible for the accelerating degradation of the forest.

Elsewhere in Kenya's Mount Elgon forest, however, the KFS' track record reveals a more complicated story. In 2010, the indigenous Ogiek were issued a deadline to relocate in the name of forest conservation and reforestation. In February this year, Survival International reported that, like the Sengwer, the Ogiek continued to be violently evicted from their homes in violation of court orders, with reports of government officials and their supporters seizing their land.

While deforestation is undoubtedly linked to the activities of poor communities, the Kenyan government's approach illustrates favouritism toward parochial vested interests. In addition to the indigenous communities, the forests are also inhabited by many thousands of tea-planters, loggers, and squatters.

According to an internal report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2000, reviewing the Kenyan government's internationally-funded conservation programme, "the forests of Mt Elgon are not being sustainably managed." The report highlighted "unsustainable harvesting of both indigenous and plantation forest on Mt Elgon," routine flouting of "regulations and procedures for sound management", "the rate of forest plantation harvesting" far exceeding "the rate of replanting", lack of supervision of controls on "forest harvesting operations authorised by the Forest Department," and consequently "extensive loss of forest resources."

The IUCN review also alluded to the role of the Kenyan government's relationship with RaiPly Ltd, a Kenyan company involved in manufacture of wood products: "It is not known why or how RaiPly presumably received a license to harvest indigenous species, thus circumventing the ban on harvesting in indigenous forests."

Official Kenyan parliamentary records from May 1999 show that Kenyan political representatives have been concerned about these issues for some time. One question put to Kenya's then assistant minister for natural resources, Peter Lengees, by a Kenyan MP pointed out that "trees are being cut in Mt. Elgon forest," threatening the region's rivers "from both sides." Local government officials, the MP accused, "have shared up the area between these two rivers" which are now "drying up."

Lengees denied any knowledge of this, prompting a further question from late politician George Kapten, who said that "lorries from Raiply" had been ferrying high-value teak timber from Mount Elgon forest. "And I wish to add that the highest authority in this country has shares in RaiPly", he added. Lengees repeated his denial but admitted that RaiPly was "licensed to cut trees from some forests in Kenya."

Currently, RaiPly is among several major companies that are exempt from a partial government ban on logging. Effectively, the government is permitting powerful logging companies to accelerate deforestation to buoy the Kenyan economy while systematically persecuting indigenous communities whose environmental impact is comparatively negligible.

The devastating plight of Kenya's indigenous peoples is symptomatic of the flawed approach to conservation on the part of international agencies.

The World Bank's Natural Resource Management Programme (NRMP) with the Kenyan government, launched in 2007, has involved funding for projects in the Cherangany Hills under the UN's Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) programme, including "financing REDD+ readiness activities" some of which began in May 2013.

Under the REDD scheme companies in the developed world purchase carbon credits to invest in reducing emissions from forested lands. Those credits turn up on the companies' balance sheets as carbon reductions. In practice, however, REDD schemes largely allow those companies to accelerate pollution while purchasing land and resources in the developing world at bargain prices.

A FPP background brief on the role of the World Bank claims that the implementation of NRMP – overseen by the very same KFS forces conducting a scorched earth campaign in Cherangany – violates the Bank's own operational safeguard policies. A formal Sengwer complaint to the Bank lodged in January last year alleged that human rights abuses by Kenyan forces were "a direct result" of the World Bank-funded programme:

"One example of the harm caused by the project was that it changed the border of the Cherangany forest reserves," according to the FPP brief, "such that Sengwer families, without any consultation or notice, found themselves on the inside of the forest reserve and therefore automatically subject to eviction by the KFS, evictions effectively funded by the World Bank. These evictions were customarily executed by burning homes and food stores in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2013."

In a statement in February, the World Bank disavowed any link between its programme and the forced evictions, but also offered to the Kenyan government:

"... to share best practices in resettlement in line with its safeguard policies. These seek to improve or restore the living standards of people affected by involuntary resettlement."

A letter to the Bank in March by No REDD in Africa network (Nran) – a group of African civil society organisations - signed by over 60 international NGOs accused the Bank with the above words of "both admitting its complicity in the forced relocation of the Sengwer People as well as offering to collude with the Kenyan government to cover-up cultural genocide."

As "carbon credit financier and broker", the World Bank is "aiding and abetting the forced relocation of an entire Indigenous People through its Natural Resource Management Plan (NRMP) which includes REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), in the Cherangany Hills", said the letter.

The Sengwer's complaint is currently under investigation by the World Bank Inspection Panel. Although the report is now complete, a Bank spokesperson, Phil Hay, said that it would not be reviewed by the Board until August or September.

"The World Bank is not associated with the evictions and has not supported or financed resettlement in forest areas under the now closed Natural Resource Management Project (NMRP)", said Hay. "Nonetheless we are not bystanders either. We have been concerned about how the evictions have been handled and have been in frequent touch with the Kenyan government."

Notably, the Bank's professed concern here is with "how the evictions have been handled", not with evictions being carried out in the first place.

A damning new report from the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) based in Washington DC thus warns that the UN and World Bank approach to REDD is paving the way for large-scale "carbon grabs" by foreign governments and investors, putting at risk the land rights, livelihoods and lives of indigenous communities.

The report surveyed 23 low and middle income countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, covering 66 percent of the developing world's forests, concluding that REDD had not established laws or mechanisms by which indigenous peoples and local communities could profit from the carbon in the forests they inhabited.

"Their rights to their forests may be few and far between, but their rights to the carbon in the forests are non-existent", said Arvind Khare, RRI executive director.

At the United Nations climate negotiations in Warsaw in November 2013, delegates reached an agreement that would allow REDD to move forward which, however, excluded questions around who should control and benefit from the new carbon value found in standing forests.

Instead, the World Bank Carbon Fund's approach to defining carbon rights has been widely criticised by civil society groups for creating conflict between new property rights to carbon, and existing statutory and customarily held rights of local communities. The lack of clear safeguards and measures opens up an unprecedented opportunity for corporate and government land grabbing.

Tony La Viña, Dean of the Ateneo School of Government and chair of the intergovernmental REDD negotiations at the climate conferences in Copenhagen and Durban, said: "The carbon markets, when up and running, need to support the forest stewardship of the people who live there, and not provide national governments with yet another tool to dispossess their citizens from the natural resources they have cared for and depended on for generations."

According to the No REDD in Africa network, it is precisely because indigenous people and their rights are not factored into REDD principles that their implementation could lead to outright genocide.

Chris Lang, a British forestry expert who runs the REDD Monitor blog, agrees that under REDD schemes involving forested or agricultural land, "the rights to the use of that land could be taken away from indigenous peoples who depend on their forests for their livelihoods. Destroying livelihoods on this scale could conform to the parts (a), (b), and (c) of the [UN Convention] definition of genocide."

This article was inspired by a blogpost by British film-maker Dean Puckett who will be traveling to Kenya in August to investigate the plight of the Sengwer.

 on: Oct 01, 2014, 06:46 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad

Satellite images show Aral Sea basin 'completely dried'

An area of the Central Asian inland sea – once the fourth largest in the world – was left parched in August, according to Nasa photographs

Enjoli Liston, Wednesday 1 October 2014 10.10 BST      

A large section of the Aral Sea has completely dried up for the first time in modern history, according to Nasa.

Images from the US space agency’s Terra satellite released last week show that the eastern basin of the Central Asian inland sea – which stretched across Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and was once the fourth largest in the world – was totally parched in August. Images taken in 2000 show an extensive body of water covering the same area.

“This is the first time the eastern basin has completely dried in modern times,” Philip Micklin, a geographer emeritus from Western Michigan University told Nasa. “And it is likely the first time it has completely dried in 600 years, since Medieval desiccation associated with diversion of Amu Darya to the Caspian Sea.”

In the 1950s, two of the region’s major rivers – the Amu Darya and and the Syr Darya – were diverted by the Soviet government to provide irrigation for cotton production in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, starving the Aral. It has been diminishing ever since, with the sea level dropping 16 metres between 1960 and 1996, according to the World Bank. Water levels are believed to be down to less than 10 per cent of what they were five decades ago.

A lack of rain and snow on the Pamir Mountains has contributed to the particularly low water levels this summer, said Micklin.

The Nasa satellite began taking pictures of the Aral Sea in 2000. Back then, it had already separated into the northern portion in Kazakhstan and the southern portion in Uzbekistan. The southern area of the Aral also split into western and eastern areas.

Efforts have been made to try and improve conditions in the north Aral sea, which were hailed as a partial success. But water from the Amu Darya and south Aral is still used to maintain Uzbekistan’s crucial cotton industry. Though water levels do fluctuate, few believe they could ever return to those seen in the 1960s .

More than 60 million people live around the Aral Sea basin. The lack of water has devastated the region’s fishing industry, leaving ship graveyards as well as large areas of salted sand, which is easily kicked up by winds and contributes to health problems.

 on: Oct 01, 2014, 06:44 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Hong Kong democracy protests swell as Chinese celebrate National Day

Demonstrations continue into sixth day as chief executive Leung Chun-ying insists Beijing will not back down over elections

Tania Branigan in Hong Kong
The Guardian, Wednesday 1 October 2014 11.51 BST   

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests will hit their highest numbers yet as China celebrates its National Day, the student leader who helped precipitate the demonstrations has said.

Joshua Wong, of Scholarism, said: “The numbers today will definitely be bigger than yesterday,” as the protests continued into a sixth day and Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, insisted Beijing would not back down on new electoral rules that would allow the Communist party leadership to choose candidates for the region to vote on.

The Hong Kong chief executive is currently elected by a 1,200-member committee but the protesters say Beijing has reneged on an agreement to grant them open elections by 2017.

“We hope citizens will join the civil disobedience, will keep safe and will rely on the principle of non-violence. We hope they can invite more of their friends and family members to voice their opinions on universal suffrage and [their wish that] CY Leung should step down as soon as possible,” Wong said.

Earlier, Wong and other activists turned their backs in a symbolic gesture of protest as the flag was raised at the annual National Day ceremony – marking the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 – attended by the chief executive.

Leung did not refer to the mass movement in his speech at a reception, but said: “It is understandable that different people may have different ideas about a desirable reform package. But it is definitely better to have universal suffrage than not.

“It is definitely better to have the [chief executive] elected by 5 million eligible voters than by 1,200 people. And it is definitely better to cast your vote at the polling station than to stay home and watch on television the 1,200 members of the election committee cast their votes.”

In Beijing, the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, did not comment on the biggest challenge to the Communist party for decades, but vowed in a National Day speech to “steadfastly safeguard” Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability.

Crowds in the core protest zone around government offices at Admiralty had already soared into the tens of thousands by mid-afternoon. Overnight, the protesters of the “umbrella revolution” stood through a thunderstorm with umbrellas previously used to ward off teargas and shelter from the sun.

A new protest area also sprang up in Tsim Sha Tsui, a tourist hub known for its museums.

Meanwhile, pro-Beijing groups joined National Day celebrations in the city.

While the protests have been sparked by Beijing’s insistence that universal suffrage for the 2017 election of the next chief executive must be tightly controlled, underneath that lie broader concerns about the future of the region and its ability to protect its identity and freedoms.

The demonstrations have developed their own life, with many of those attending saying they did not identify with Occupy Central or the student groups.

Police have stepped back, maintaining a discreet presence, after the use of teargas and pepper spray at the weekend inflamed rather than dispersed the protests.


Who guides Hong Kong’s ‘Umbrella Revolution’ pro-democracy movement?

Hong Kong’s protesters come from a huge swath of society and have no single leader, but there is a group of figureheads

Jonathan Kaiman in Beijing
The Guardian, Tuesday 30 September 2014 18.48 BST   
Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution has no singular leader – the protesters come from a huge swath of Hong Kong society, and have a range of demands – but it does have a handful of de facto spiritual guides. They can be divided into two camps. Leaders of the influential protest movement Occupy Central with Love and Peace – Benny Tai, Chan Kin-Man and Chu Yiu-Ming – are generally middle-aged, politically experienced, and self-restrained. This older group may have been eclipsed by student leaders Joshua Wong and Alex Chao. They tend to be more idealistic, headstrong, and social media-savvy than their elder counterparts.

Joshua Wong Chi-fung

Wong, 17, the razor-thin leader of the student group Scholarism, has been one of the city’s most outspoken pro-democracy activists for three years. Wong founded the group in 2011 to protest a Beijing-backed proposal to implement a “patriotic education” curriculum in the city’s public schools; the following autumn, he mobilised 120,000 people to occupy the city government headquarters, leading officials to shelve the plan.

As a testament to his influence, state media has attempted to discredit him by portraying him as an “extremist” with shadowy ties to the US (he firmly denies the charge). Police arrested him on Friday night after a group of students scaled a fence to invade the government complex. By the time they released him on Sunday afternoon, his detention had already catalyzed further demonstrations.

Despite his age, Wong is known as a political firebrand: ”You have to see every battle as possibly the final battle,” he told CNN recently. “Only then will you have the determination to fight”.

Alex Chow Yong-kang

Chow, 24, is general secretary of the Hong Kong Federation of Students – Scholarism’s closest ally – and a student of sociology and comparative literature at Hong Kong University. He has also worked as a journalist at Ming Pao, a pro-democratic local newspaper, according to his Facebook page. In July, Chao organised an unofficial “occupy” protest on a public thoroughfare hours after the conclusion of an annual rally; the sit-in precipitated more than 500 arrests. “It’s not enough to repeat the march and the assembly every year,” he said at the time. “We have to upgrade it to a civil disobedience movement.” Although Occupy Central has called for the Umbrella Revolution protesters to disperse by Thursday, Chow told the New York Times that “residents may occupy various government departments” by then if the government refuses to budge.

Benny Tai Yiu-ting

Tai, the 50-year-old public face of the 18-month-old Occupy Central protest movement, has been a law professor at the University of Hong Kong since the early 1990s. Although his critics paint him as a radical, Tai has mastered a calm, scholarly affect; last April, the South China Morning Post described him as “one of those cuddly professors found on every campus who would talk to anyone interested in their research”. He has reportedly received death threats for his activism. “I used to be just a university academic living in my comfort zone, spending my spare time sending my children to school and going home for dinner,” he told the newspaper in May. “Now my daughter and two sons volunteer for the movement. My wife is Occupy’s campaign manager.”

Chan, a 55-year-old former sociology professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong, has repeatedly expressed willingness to be fired, even arrested, for his activism. Before he founded Occupy Central with Tai, he spent years studying China’s civil society; through much of the 1990s, he studied Hong Kong’s democratic development at Yale.

Chan joined Tai in seeking universal suffrage for Hong Kong a decade ago. Yet Chan got progressively frustrated as Beijing continued to reject the possibility of democrats running in chief executive elections. “I have advocated dialogue with the central government for many years, but now I will take part in the civil disobedience movement,” he said last spring. “If [Benny and I] face a trial in court, we won’t dispute that we broke the law and we will make a political statement in the courtroom to spell out our vision.”
Reverend Chu Yiu-ming

Chu Yiu-ming, a silver-haired, 70-year-old Baptist minister, spent decades spearheading pro-democratic initiatives in Hong Kong before he became an Occupy Central leader last year. After the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, he led a covert operation to rescue Chinese activists from persecution by helping them find safe houses in Hong Kong and apply for asylum abroad. Chu recalled the moment he heard the news of the bloodshed in an interview with Bloomberg in May. “The tears came down,” he said. “I made a prayer: God, what can we do?”

 on: Oct 01, 2014, 06:39 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad

Pakistan struggling to cope with surge in polio cases

Once on track for polio eradication, Pakistan now faces a setback as a result of inaccessibility, violence and misinformation

IRIN, part of the Guardian development network, Wednesday 1 October 2014 12.40 BST

Pakistan is heading for one of its worst years for polio in recent times. According to figures from the global polio eradication initiative (GPEI), 166 cases of polio have been verified this year, compared with 28 at the same time last year.

This puts the country at significant risk of crossing the 199-mark officially recorded in 2000, or the 198 seen in 2011. It is a major setback for a country that as recently as 2005 saw only 28 cases in total, with everything seemingly on track for polio eradication. Last year there were 93 cases in the country, according to the GPEI.

The worst-affected areas, according to the state minister for the national health service, Saira Afzal Tarar, are the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (KP), where militants often prevent vaccination.

“Pakistan presents one of the most complex polio eradication environments in the world,” said Ban Khalid al-Dhayi, spokesman for the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef). “In the areas that remain with poliovirus, there is inaccessibility, violence, misconceptions and misinformation that circulates every day, along with intricate tribal and cultural norms and systems.”

“Massive daily population movements” were also described as a major problem by Unicef.

Dhayi said the recent movement of more than 1 million internally displaced people (IDPs) following the military operation in North Waziristan Agency had raised fears of the virus spreading to areas that had not previously seen infections. More than 400,000 children were vaccinated at transit points as they moved out of the conflict zone in Fata and settled in host communities in KP, Punjab and Sindh. IDPs who settled in parts of Punjab due to floods could also increase risks.

While KP health officials based at the provincial polio control room (PPCR) in Peshawar agree that the IDP influx poses a polio risk, they disagree, according to media reports, that refusals (those refusing to be vaccinated) are declining, and blame UN communications authorities for this.

According to PPCR data, the number of refusals increased from 4,200 during the polio vaccination drive carried out between 6-8 June, to 12,043 during the vaccination campaign run from 23-25 June. Unicef, however, says they have separately seen a sharp fall in the rate of refusals, and claim successes for social mobilisation and awareness raising.

IDPs themselves appear keen to receive the drops: “I was desperate for my three young children to get them, and queued up with many others when vaccinators got here,” said Aziz Dawar, who fled North Waziristan in mid-June. His three children, aged between two and eight, had previously received no vaccinations.

Weak prevention systems

On 1 June, Pakistan enforced a World Health Organisation recommendation – seen as draconian by some – that anyone travelling overseas from Pakistan had to produce certification to show they had received polio drops, to prevent exporting the virus.

Before this move, the emergency coordinator for polio eradication in Pakistan, Elias Durry, explained, Pakistan had “informally been labelled” as an “exporter of polio” when strains of the virus originating from the country were found in China, Syria, Egypt, Israel and Palestine. “There needs to be no more import-export of polio virus for at least six months,” Durry said.

While officially polio teams are set up at airports to administer vaccination drops, in reality implementation has been reportedly patchy, with travellers saying they had been able to travel without receiving the drops.

“It’s all just on paper. No one really bothers with drops or certificates in reality,” said an official from Lahore airport, who asked not to be named. Shortages of vaccines have also held back campaigns.

Responding to this, Saira Afzal Tarar said: “A loan from the Islamic Development Bank that I had been campaigning for has now been obtained, so we should be able to deliver drops more efficiently.” The minister said the precise loan details, including the amount, were still being finalised.
Wrong approach?

“Our approach is not right,” said Anita Zaidi, head of paediatrics at Karachi’s Aga Khan hospital. She said the lone focus on polio had had a negative effect, and that the vaccine should be given alongside others.

At ground level, the message is still struggling to be heard.

“Why don’t we do something to stop our children from being crippled by this terrible disease?” asked Azra Bibi in Bannu. Her cousin’s infant son caught polio five years ago and can now barely walk. “We keep hearing of more and more cases.” She said she had to battle her parents-in-law to get her two daughters vaccinated.

“They said the drops would make them sterile, but I spoke to doctors and also schoolteachers who are educated, and I know this is a lie,” said Azra Bibi, who now visits an IDP camp to encourage mothers to vaccinate against polio. “I want to keep our children safe,” she said.

 on: Oct 01, 2014, 06:37 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
For Obama and Indian Leader, a Friendly Stroll if Not a Full Embrace

SEPT. 30, 2014

WASHINGTON — In a get-to-know-you visit fraught with awkward undertones, President Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India sought to repair a strained relationship between their nations on Tuesday, emerging with expressions of good will but little in the way of concrete deals.

At an Oval Office meeting and during a stroll around the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, Mr. Obama and Mr. Modi emphasized what they had in common as democratic leaders who overcame personal obstacles, campaigned as outsiders and embraced technology as a vital tool in politics and governing.

But their talks yielded no resolutions to thorny disputes over taxes, trade and civilian nuclear energy cooperation that have divided the United States and India in recent years. And there was little sign that human rights — a particularly sensitive topic for Mr. Modi, who has been accused of being complicit in deadly anti-Muslim riots — was a major item on the agenda.

“Human rights and the importance of inclusive governance were part of the discussions between the president and the prime minister today,” Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary told reporters. But a statement issued jointly by the United States and India after the talks made no mention of the issue.

The White House has grappled with the perceptions of a visit meant to spotlight the president’s high hopes for working with Mr. Modi while not lavishing the full measure of White House pageantry on a leader who until recently was barred from entering the United States because of the allegations of human rights abuses more than a decade ago.

Still, in a striking gesture that Mr. Modi later said gave their relationship a “new dimension,” the president left the White House on Tuesday to give the prime minister a personal tour of the King Memorial, recalling Mr. Obama’s own visit in 2010 to the onetime home in Mumbai of Mohandas K. Gandhi, the Indian champion of democracy and nonviolence who was a model for the American civil rights leader.

At a luncheon at the State Department not long after, Mr. Modi was effusive in thanking Mr. Obama “from the core of my heart” for leading him around the memorial. “He took out a lot of time,” Mr. Modi said. “We were together yesterday and today for quite some time, and today in fact he took me around, and with such ease and such humility.”

Mr. Modi had been denied a visa to visit the United States because of accusations that he failed to stop religious violence in Gujarat in 2002, when he was chief minister there, which took the lives of more than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims. On Thursday, while Mr. Modi was in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, the human rights group American Justice Center filed a lawsuit in federal court in Manhattan against him on behalf of two survivors of the rioting, seeking a judgment that his conduct was tantamount to genocide.

American officials have declined to comment on the case, except to say that sitting heads of government enjoy immunity from lawsuits in American courts. But human rights activists had pressed the Obama administration to get the president to raise the issue with Mr. Modi while he was in Washington.

If he did, it was in private.

“The purpose of these meetings was to improve U.S.-India relations, so we weren’t expecting Obama to give him the cold shoulder, but we were hoping there would be a little bit of measure in the red-carpet treatment, so we were surprised by the Martin Luther King side visit,” said John Sifton, the Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. “Delivering a message about human rights is always awkward.”

It was hardly the only tricky element of Mr. Modi’s visit. Their get-together began on Monday night with a small dinner in the White House Blue Room that was a protocol nightmare: Mr. Modi was in the middle of a nine-day fast to observe the Hindu festival of Navratri, but insisted his hosts go ahead and eat. Mr. Modi sat in front of an empty plate and had warm water for dinner while Mr. Obama and the two leaders’ entourages ate avocados and goat cheese, crisped halibut and basmati rice, a pumpkin crème brûlée and a California chardonnay.

The 20-person dinner was a stark contrast to the lavish affair Mr. Obama threw for Mr. Modi’s predecessor, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in November 2009, when more than 300 guests dined on arugula salad, curried prawns and pumpkin pie tart at an event whose bill came to more than $570,000.

This two-day meeting did produce some agreements, including the renewal of a 10-year defense cooperation framework, a pact to cooperate on maritime security and several clean-energy initiatives. And as Mr. Obama intensifies the American campaign against the Sunni militant group known as the Islamic State, the two agreed to improve their counterterrorism cooperation and intelligence sharing.

“We discussed the issues of trade, issues of making sure that maritime rules are observed, and we discussed how we can continue to work together on a whole host of issues from space exploration, scientific endeavor, to dealing with humanitarian crises like Ebola in West Africa,” Mr. Obama said after a two-hour meeting with Mr. Modi in the Oval Office.

Mr. Modi, for his part, said he wanted to resolve disputes that had stalled the implementation of the American-India civilian nuclear agreement and stymied progress on trade. He said the two leaders had a “candid discussion” on trade.

“We already have the foundation of a strong partnership,” Mr. Modi said. “We now have to revive the momentum and ensure that we get the best out of it for our people and for the world.”

 on: Oct 01, 2014, 06:34 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
09/30/2014 06:04 PM

The Road to Bamiyan: A Public Works Debacle that Defines Afghanistan

By Jochen-Martin Gutsch

It was to be a symbol of reconstructed Afghanistan: a paved highway from Kabul to the beautiful valley of Bamiyan. Construction has long been underway, but the project may never be completed -- a victim of the realities in present-day Afghanistan.

Three times a week, weather permitting, an old Antonov operated by the East Horizon Airlines struggles into the air above Kabul. With a little luck, the aircraft lands 30 minutes later on the dirt runway in the provincial capital Bamiyan. The Russian-made plane is slightly rusty on the outside, well-worn inside and, at 50 years old, is not allowed to fly fully loaded. Otherwise, it is unable to clear the Hindu Kush range, which almost surrounds Kabul like a gigantic wall.

Those who chose not to fly to Bamiyan can drive there. North of Kabul begins a road leading through the Ghorband district, a region that became infamous in 2012 after a video showing a mob stoning a young woman went viral. In many places, the road is in terrible shape, full of deep potholes and unpaved. Recent years have seen several Taliban assaults along the arterial, in addition to attacks by thieves and kidnappers.

The third route to Bamiyan is a road that begins in Maidan Shahr, a town located 30 kilometers (19 miles) southwest of Kabul. The new project, paid for with money from the West, is still under construction. But one day, the plan foresees cars zooming across a smooth asphalt surface at 100 kilometers per hour (60 miles per hour) or more, past traders and daytrip destinations. Once the road is completed, the entire trip from Kabul to Bamiyan by car would take a mere three hours.

The street doesn't have an opulent name and, if it is ever finished, will be a mere 136 kilometers long -- just a small strip of asphalt in the enormous country of Afghanistan. It leads through Wardak Province, a sparsely settled, dusty region, before crossing the Koh-i-Baba Mountains over 3,700 meter (12,140 foot) Hajigak Pass. From there, the two-lane road descends into Bamiyan Valley, one of the poorest regions in poverty-stricken Afghanistan. For all its modesty, however, the project tells the tale of Afghanistan's recent history: its hopes, its hardships, its madness and its failures. From its shoulders, one has a view of the last few years and the immense attempt to rebuild the country.

In December, after 13 years, the international intervention in Afghanistan -- once comprised of 40 countries and as many as 140,000 troops -- is coming to an end. For a time, fully 26 United Nations organizations were operating in the country with foreign governments and private agencies pumping in billions of dollars. And millions were earmarked for the road to Bamiyan.

'Too Dangerous'

Maidan Shahr, where it begins, is little more than a dirty collection of houses, but it is strategically important. The highway south to Kandahar, which connects Kabul with the south, gets its start here too.

Mohammed Fahimi, a representative in the Wardak provincial council, also lives in the village. He is happy to talk, but advises this reporter against coming to his hometown. "It's too dangerous at the moment," he says on the phone. So we meet in Kabul, where Fahimi explains that the road still isn't finished, despite several years of work. "Only the first section has been completed, 50 to 60 kilometers," he says. After that, the asphalt comes to an end and the road turns to dirt.

Fahimi also advises against driving on the road. "Even I wouldn't use it if it weren't absolutely unavoidable, like now during the campaign," he says. "And then only with plenty of security: Thirty police officers, two pick-ups with mounted machine guns and two armored vehicles."

It was in 2002 that the Italian Foreign Ministry asked the new Afghan government how it could assist the country. The wounds of Sept. 11, 2001 were still fresh, American troops had marched into Kabul and the entire world wanted to help, eager to build schools, dig wells, erect hospitals, lay out women's gardens and establish democracy. Every project was seen as a weapon in the fight against international terrorism. Germany, too, was being defended in the Hindu Kush, politicians said at the time.

The Afghan government told the Italians they wanted a road, a connection between Kabul and Bamiyan -- between the capital and the isolated hinterlands. It was also to be a symbol of reconciliation. The Hazara live in Bamiyan Province, a people who suffered a great deal under Taliban rule. The Italians agreed.

At the time, only about 100 kilometers of the roads in Afghanistan were paved. But the new road was more than just a modest effort to extend that network and it wasn't just leading to an unknown Afghan village with a difficult-to-pronounce name. Bamiyan was known throughout the world for being a site of Islamist excess. It was there that the Taliban in 2001 blew up the "unislamic" Buddhas of Bamiyan, at 53 and 35 meters high, the tallest Buddha statues in the world. They were also some 1,500 years old, and their destruction became symbolic of the Taliban's barbarism. The new road would connect the site to Kabul.

Death Road

Work began in August 2006 after the project was kicked off with a large ceremony attended by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Western diplomats and Habiba Sarabi, who was governor of the Bamiyan Province at the time. Even today, she is still emotional when talking about that day. "It was one of the most special moments in my life," she says.

Eight years later, in 2014, Mohammed Fahimi opens a worn out notebook and says: "It goes like this, for example. A car is stopped. The people have to get out. They are blindfolded and then lined up at the edge of the road. Then the Kalashnikovs do their work. The corpses are left by the roadside. That's what happened in ...," Fahimi looks into his notebook, "... the spring of 2012."

In recent years, Fahimi has sought to document every incident on the road in his notebook, insofar as he hears about them. The journal is incomplete, but it gives one an impression of the situation. Twenty to 30 dead in four years, Fahimi says, killed by mines, homemade explosives or targeted gunfire. Not to mention the hold-ups and ransom kidnappings.

"Sometimes, the police are only 100 meters away, but they don't do anything out of fear," Fahimi says. "The Taliban disappear from the road again and vanish into their areas, the villages." The road has even received a nickname among Afghans and in the press: Death Road.

"In the beginning, everything went well," says Ahmad Najafi, the 55-year-old who has been head of the project since 2005. He is sitting in the Public Works Ministry in Kabul, an old Russian concrete-block building with dark hallways, dirty carpeting and several broken windows. Sometimes, foil is taped over the holes, but sometimes it isn't, allowing the wind to whistle through the building as through a haunted castle.

The ministry has had a difficult time lately. In April, the deputy minister was abducted on his way to work. Then complaints began flooding in because many roads in the country were disintegrating under rainfall like Saltine crackers. Ahmad Najafi, in his third-floor office, doesn't look particularly happy either. He has been working in the ministry for 32 years and has seen the Russians, the mujahedeen, the Taliban and the Westerners come and go. The revolving door of power is the only thing that people in Afghanistan can really depend on.

A Restful Province

"We didn't run into any problems during the surveying phase. Everything was just fine. The construction firm for the first section was China Railway," Najafi explains, adding that their offer was the cheapest. And they brought everything with them: construction machinery and workers as well, a total of 300 people. "We established a construction camp and everything was ready. But the attacks soon began. Machinery was stolen or burned. One engineer was even killed by a mine." Finally, the Chinese financial supervisor was taken hostage for three months. "Because of the Taliban attacks, we had to keep discontinuing construction, sometimes for months at a time."

Eventually, they drove to the villages to speak with the elders, often a necessary step to solve problems in Afghanistan. Wardak is a restful province populated by Pashtuns, and a place where the state has little power. But village residents are well connected with the Taliban. "In the end, we paid the people in the villages to protect our construction project," Najafi says.

He says that forcing the payment of protection money is a tried-and-true business model. First, the Taliban spreads fear and terror before village elders then send their people to promise security. The protection money is then shared out. In other words, a portion of the €100 million the Italian state made available for the road flows directly into Taliban pockets.

When asked how long it took to build the first section of the road, Najafi answers, "Five years. For 54 kilometers."

After that, the Chinese no longer wanted to help with the rebuilding of Afghanistan. They didn't even make an offer for the second section of the road.

"They left as fast as they could. They even left their construction machinery behind," Najafi says. He steps up to the big map hanging in his office. The second section of the road leads through the towering Koh-i-Baba Mountains across Hajigak Pass. It is rugged territory.

To speed up the project, two companies are working together on the second section, with kilometer 54 to 74 being built by the Afghan firm Gholghola. It belongs to Mohammed Nabi Khalili, a brother of the Afghan vice president. Khalili describes the situation in his region as follows: "Quiet. Two people have thus far been shot at, machinery destroyed and the construction camp was attacked with rockets." Khalili himself has avoided the road since a remotely detonated IED ripped apart his car not far from Maidan Shahr. Somehow, he managed to survive.

Starting from the Beginning
The Afghan company Omran is responsible for kilometer 74 to 98 with the Iranian firm Abad Rahan Pars building kilometer 98 to 136, the longest segment. It is also the safest, deep in peaceful Bamiyan.

Hassan Norusi, a lonely man from Isfahan, is head of construction for the final segment. In the construction camp, he has the Afghan chef cook Iranian dishes in an attempt to combat his homesickness. Every day, Norusi hopes that he will soon be able to leave Afghanistan. "There is nothing here, not even electricity," he says. Furthermore, Norusi says, the road is of extremely poor quality. The way it is being built, he says, means that it won't last much beyond three or four years at the most.

The new road is of poor quality? Ahmad Najafi, sitting behind his ministry desk in Kabul, thinks for a moment. "That is the concern, yes."

Such worries have to do with the asphalt. The road was built with a layer of asphalt that is six centimeters (2.4 inches) thick, consistent with the Italian blueprints. "But we have extreme winters here with snowfall and extreme heat in the summer," he explains. Then there are the trucks, completely overloaded, that drive on the roads. And we have bomb attacks and mines." Really, a 10 centimeter layer is necessary, Najafi says, or even 11.

The construction companies say the same. The road, as currently built, would work well as a connector to Turin or Florence. The first 54 kilometers, finished in 2011, are already in need of repairs, Najafi says. Which means that the end of the highway isn't even finished yet and they already have to start again from the beginning. It is difficult to comprehend: So much effort, so much money, so many people who risked their lives. And the road top is too thin.

Originally, the plans called for tunnels to be built as well, due to the up to eight meters of snow that accumulates during the winter on Hajigak Pass. But the budget is tight and the Italians don't want to throw more money at the project, so the tunnels have been struck from the blueprint, meaning the road will likely have to be closed in the wintertime. "We have neither machinery nor money for snow removal," Najafi says.

An Eternal Optimist

The road can be clearly seen from above, visible to those who board the old, rickety Antonov for the flight to Bamiyan as it winds its way through the mountains. But the route must be breathtakingly beautiful. "From a tourism perspective, it is the most beautiful drive in Afghanistan, a real experience," says Mohammed Reza Ibrahim.

Ibrahim, the 32-year-old director of the Bamiyan Tourism Association, is an incurable optimist. The road has already become part of his great vision, that of making "tourism into the most important economic sector in Bamiyan." He also has a plan.

He leads the way through the empty courtyard of a hostel. It is an odd place, perhaps because it is so peaceful. "Come along," he says before heading down a flight of stairs into a small basement. Ibrahim opens the door and switches on the light. "Here," he says, pointing proudly to a few shelves.

Sitting on the shelves are perhaps 40 pairs of downhill skis of all sizes, ski boots and three snowboards. The equipment is used, donated from New Zealand, Austria and Switzerland, and is now sitting in what is likely the only such ski storage basement in all of Afghanistan, a country full of dramatic mountains with no skiers. For now.

Mohammed Ibrahim would like to change that. "We have the best conditions for ski tourism," he says, stroking one of the snowboards. "We have high mountains. We have snow. We have long winters. And in 2015, we will hopefully be getting three snowmobiles."

Only the tourists and the skiers are missing. "Last year, we unfortunately only had about 800 registered visitors to Bamiyan," Ibrahim says, and almost all of them were Afghans. A few Westerners from NGOs also made the trip from Kabul, hoping for a few days of relaxation. Ibrahim knows that for people from outside of Afghanistan, his country is akin to the heart of darkness.

But he prefers to concentrate on the potential. Bamiyan Valley is a green jewel in a dusty, dangerous country. In the 1970s, before all of the wars, over 100,000 tourists visited Bamiyan every year.

Paragliding in the Hindu Kush?

Ibrahim would like to turn the clock back to those rosier times. "First, we are concentrating on domestic tourism," he says. Later, he hopes that international guests will begin coming again as well. "We can offer everything here: trekking in the mountains, rafting in the rivers, even paragliding. We have attractions to offer, like the lakes in Band-e-Amir, Afghanistan's first national park."

It is nice to meet someone in Afghanistan who hasn't yet been driven to despair by the current state of the country. Ibrahim's optimism is almost American in its indestructability. Listening to him, visitors from the West feel like traitors, because the West has long since lost all hope for Ibrahim's country and has but a single goal: getting out.

"You see, I am an optimist," Ibrahim says. "How else can you survive in Afghanistan?"

He sees the new road as a gateway to the world. And vastly superior to the rickety Antonov. Still, he adds, it would be nice to know when that gateway might open, or if it ever will.

Not even Vittorio Roscio knows for sure. Originally, the road was scheduled to open in August of 2015. Roscio, a 59-year-old from Italy, looks exhausted sitting in a plain room in the Italian government compound in Kabul. It is from here that he oversees construction as a kind of Western watchdog. His job is to keep an eye on Italy's money.

"Six centimeters of asphalt are definitely enough," Roscio says. "Of course, a bit more might have been nice, as would a tunnel in the mountains. But unfortunately we have to stay within the budget." And the budget is €100 million. Roscio knows that he can save himself the trouble of asking Rome for a few million more -- for a road project in Afghanistan with an uncertain outcome. Afghanistan's importance has waned for the West over the years, becoming an almost forgotten problem child that is slowly disappearing into the haze of history. After 13 years, everyone is tired, disillusioned and annoyed.

Roscio, who has been in the country for seven years, says that he likes Afghanistan. He complains that people from the West think too simply and don't see the pitfalls that can befall a project like the one he is leading. The cemeteries, for example. "Afghans bury their dead everywhere. Sometimes there is a small mound, but many graves are virtually unrecognizable as such. And suddenly, the villagers come up and say: 'You can't build a road here. People are buried here.'" In such situations, they have two possibilities, Roscio explains. They can change the route, which is very expensive, or they can rebury the dead, which is extremely delicate. "Go to a Pashtun family and say: 'Salam aleikum. We would like to exhume your dead father. Would you be opposed?'"

In a Convertible to Bamiyan

Roscio hasn't visited the construction site for ages because it is too dangerous. Instead, he reads the reports here, behind the walls of the Italian government's campus in Kabul. Over the years, the walls became thicker and thicker, the barbed wire higher and the security protocols stricter. In 2007, Rocio could still walk relatively freely through the streets of Kabul. Now, though, he climbs into a bullet-proof Toyota SUV even for the 30 meters to the Italian Embassy.

Like all international workers in Kabul, Roscio lives in the equivalent of a high security cage and is rarely allowed to go out. As such, his influence over the road to Bamiyan has fallen markedly over the years.

"It is unfortunately extremely difficult to understand Afghanistan from the perspective of Kabul," Roscio says tiredly. "And it is completely impossible to understand Afghanistan from Europe or America. No chance." He gets into one of the bullet-proof Toyotas and is driven to the Italian Embassy. The wall opens briefly to let him out and closes again immediately.

In the Embassy, Italian Ambassador Luciano Pezzotti is waiting. He also has something to say about the road, but somehow he just forgot what it was exactly. Pezzotti is a stylish man who was previously posted in the Consulate General in Jerusalem. A grand piano is in the ground floor of the residence and the walls are decorated with a framed photo of Pezzotti with Pope Benedict XVI and another of him in the Ferrari Formula One camp. Pezzotti likes fast cars, a possible explanation for the sentence he utters after the obligatory statements on Afghan elections and progress on women's rights. "I bet that in 10 years, you will be able to drive a convertible from Kabul to Bamiyan without trouble," he says. "On the new road."

It is a nice bet. But Mohammed Ibrahim, the optimistic tourism director from Bamiyan, prefers looking for alternatives. "We want to establish direct international flights," he says, after emerging from the basement full of skis. "From Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan. The motto could be: 'Come directly to Bamiyan! The safest place in Afghanistan!'"

Then, people could just fly right over the cursed road. Over the Taliban, the IEDs, the poverty and the madness. Over the entire traumatized country, which, after 13 years of international engagement, once again finds itself back at the beginning.

 on: Oct 01, 2014, 06:33 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad

Iranian president attacks Cameron a week after historic meeting

Hassan Rouhani criticises British PM for saying Tehran is ‘part of problem’ in Middle East during UN speech

Saeed Kamali Dehghan   
The Guardian, Tuesday 30 September 2014 15.13 BST   

Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, has criticised the British prime minister, David Cameron, a week after a landmark meeting between the two leaders on the sidelines of the UN general assembly.

Rouhani said it was unacceptable and wrong for Cameron to say, within hours of them meeting in New York, that Tehran was “part of the problem” in the Middle East. In his closing speech at the general assembly last Thursday, the UK prime minister said Tehran’s support for what he said were terrorist organisations had to change, although he added that Iran could help the west in its fight against Islamic State (Isis).

That meeting marked a milestone in Tehran and London’s relations, which have been strained since the 1979 Islamic revolution, but Cameron’s comments upset Tehran hardliners and embarrassed Rouhani at home.

“Iran should also be given the chance to show it can be part of the solution, not part of the problem,” Cameron said during his speech, according to a transcript published on the government’s website. “We have severe disagreements. Iran’s support for terrorist organisations, its nuclear programme, its treatment of its people. All these need to change.”

Rouhani, who was speaking to reporters after arriving in Tehran from a conference in the Russian city of Astrakhan, said the request for the meeting was made by the British prime minister. “He had asked for a meeting and we had agreed and that was how we met,” he said late on Monday.

“He made comments later at his [UN] speech which were wrong and unacceptable,” Rouhani told Iranian reporters, according to Iran’s state television. Rouhani said having different opinions over political issues was normal.

He added: “We live in the 21st century. If someone wants to go back and think in the ways of the 19th century, that’s their own loss.”

Cameron went on in his speech to say that Tehran could help the west with the Isis threat. “Iran’s leaders could help in defeating the threat from Isil [Isis]. They could help secure a more stable, inclusive Iraq, and a more stable and inclusive Syria. And if they are prepared to do this, then we should welcome their engagement.”

Cameron’s speech at the UN prompted an immediate reaction from Iran’s foreign ministry last week but Monday’s remarks were the first by Rouhani.

Following Cameron’s speech, the Iranian foreign minister’s spokeswoman, Marzieh Afkham, said many of the dilemmas in the Middle East today were the result of the policies adopted by Britain in the past.

“The speech by the British prime minister at the UN general assembly shows the perpetuation of the egocentric attitude of a government which has a history of [causing] trouble in our region,” she said on Thursday, according to Iran’s English-language television Press TV.

Given the significance of the talks, Rouhani had to weigh up every step he took as he met the British prime minister. And choice of words has huge repercussions in Tehran. Iranian hardliners are deeply sceptical of British politics and have long accused London of interfering in Tehran’s internal affairs.

In the Iranian hardliners’ view, Cameron’s comments indicated that Rouhani was wrong to meet him in New York.

“It’s not surprising to be tricked by the old fox,” the hardline news agency SNN said, referring to Britain by an old nickname used by some Iranian hardliners.

“Cameron didn’t even wait for the ice of London-Tehran ties to thaw,” SNN said.

The conservative Vatan-e-Emrooz newspaper said Cameron had insulted Iran and published a front-page depicting a picture of the meeting with the headline: “The fox kicks.”

 on: Oct 01, 2014, 06:31 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Kurds in Iraq’s North Make Gains Against Islamic State

SEPT. 30, 2014

BAGHDAD — Kurdish fighters opened offensives against Islamic State militants in several parts of northern Iraq on Tuesday, seizing control of a border crossing with Syria that has been a major conduit for the insurgents, officials said.

In a predawn push, pesh merga forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government fought their way into the Rabia district, near the Syrian border, seizing control of two villages by late morning and, by day’s end, the border crossing, Kurdish officials said.

The Islamic State, also known as ISIS, had controlled Rabia since early June, when jihadist fighters swept across the border from Syria and quickly overwhelmed Iraqi security forces throughout the region, including in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.

The militants, who have declared an Islamic caliphate stretching across eastern Syria and western Iraq, have used a highway between Rabia and Mosul, 70 miles away, to transport fighters, weapons, armored vehicles and supplies freely between the two countries.

“The militants showed fierce resistance, but pesh merga forced them to retreat to the center of the district,” said Helgurd Hikmet Mela Ali, a spokesman for the Kurdish force.

Fighting between pesh merga and the Islamic State also erupted in Zumar, about 40 miles northwest of Mosul, near the reservoir of the Mosul Dam, officials said. Zumar has been the site of periodic clashes since early August, when militants captured the area.

American warplanes conducted seven airstrikes against the Islamic State in northwest Iraq, destroying one armored vehicle, two transport vehicles and four armed vehicles, the American military said in a statement. Two other American airstrikes destroyed an Islamic State fighting position and an armed vehicle near the Mosul Dam, the military said. It was unclear whether those bombardments occurred in conjunction with the fighting in Rabia and Zumar.

For the first time, British forces joined the airstrike campaign, with two Tornado attack jets striking militant positions in support of Kurdish forces, the British Defense Ministry announced. The planes blew up one of the group’s heavy weapon positions and an armed pickup truck, the ministry said.

Iraqi and Kurdish officials also reported heavy fighting south of Kirkuk in Daquq, a district located on the main highway connecting the oil-rich area around Kirkuk with Baghdad. Islamic State fighters seized control of the area in June, commandeering the Kirkuk-Baghdad road along with two other major north-south highways and effectively halting ground transportation between central and northern Iraq.

With the support of international airstrikes, Iraqi and Kurdish forces pushed into Daquq district Tuesday morning, Iraqi officials said. On Tuesday afternoon, the officials reported that the coalition of forces had taken control of the villages of Sa’ad, Khaled and Wadah, about 20 miles south of Kirkuk, and the district of Tazah, between Kirkuk and Daquq.

But late Tuesday, Brig. Gen. Hussein Mansour, a division commander for the pesh merga, reported that a counterattack by the insurgents had forced government troops to retreat from the three villages, allowing the Iraqi Air Force to conduct airstrikes on the militants’ positions.

Iraqi officials also reported that Sunni tribal fighters allied with Iraqi government forces were fighting Islamic State militants in the Rashad district on the highway connecting Kirkuk with Tikrit.

Any lasting success against the militants would be a significant boost for the Iraqi government, which has struggled to roll back the Islamic State’s gains around the country and, in places, has continued to cede ground.

But should the coalition of Iraqi forces prevail, it remains unclear which unit would assume responsibility for holding Daquq and Zumar. Both districts fall within the so-called disputed territories claimed by both the government of Kurdistan and the central government of Iraq.

The Kurdistan government exploited the power vacuum caused by the Islamic State’s routing of Iraqi Army units in June to progressively seize control of the disputed territories.

In addition to Daquq and Zumar, which is also in the disputed territories, the pesh merga have been trying to drive Islamic State militants out of Jalawla and Sinjar.

“The plan is to get our lands back, set the border, get our bunkers strong and then wait for orders,” Mr. Ali, the pesh merga spokesman, said in a recent interview.

Mr. Ali also said that after suffering several humiliating setbacks soon after the Islamic State’s push into northern Iraq, the Kurdish forces were experiencing a rebound in morale.

“If you compare the pesh merga today and a month ago, you can tell there’s higher morale, better readiness, and we’ve been able to take back some locations,” he said.

But the gains have come at a cost, he said: Fighting since June has killed about 200 pesh merga soldiers and wounded about 1,000.

In Baghdad on Tuesday, 26 people were killed and 85 wounded in a series of attacks that included three roadside bombs, three car bombs and two mortar shells, an Interior Ministry official said. Three mortar shells landed in the northern suburbs of Baghdad, killing six and wounding 14, the official added.

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