February 23, 2013
Buddhists, Reconstructing Sacred Tibetan Murals, Wield Their Brushes in Nepal
By EDWARD WONG
LO MANTHANG, Nepal — Dozens of painters sat atop scaffolding that soared toward the roof of an ancient monastery. With a swipe of their brushes, colors appeared that gave life to the Buddha. Gold for the skin. Black for the eyes. Orange for the robes.
They worked by dim portable electric lights. Dusty statues of Tibetan Buddhist deities gazed on. From openings in the roof, a few shafts of sunlight fell through the 35 wooden pillars in the main chamber of the enormous Thubchen Monastery, the same edifice that had awed Michel Peissel, the explorer of Tibet, when he visited a half-century ago.
“In Nepal, no one knows how to do this, so we have to learn,” said Tashi Gurung, 34, a painter participating in what is one of the most ambitious Tibetan art projects in the Himalayas.
Financed by the American Himalayan Foundation, the project is aimed at restoring to a vibrant state the artwork of two of the three main monasteries and temples in Lo Manthang, the walled capital of the once-forbidden kingdom of Mustang. Bordering Tibet in the remote trans-Himalayan desert, Mustang is an important enclave of Tibetan Buddhist culture.
Tibetan leaders, including the Dalai Lama, say their culture is under assault in the vast Tibetan regions ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, which occupied central Tibet in 1951. That, along with the encroachment of modernity, means that the act of preserving or reviving Tibetan art is arguably more important than at any time since China’s devastating Cultural Revolution.
The project in Lo Manthang has stirred debate. Some scholars of Tibetan art assert that the painters in Lo Manthang are altering important historical murals and jeopardizing scholarship by painting new images atop sections of walls where the original images have been destroyed. Those involved in the project argue that residents want complete artwork in their houses of worship.
The project’s director is Luigi Fieni, 39, an Italian who first came to work here after graduating from an art conservation program in Rome. Mr. Fieni and other Westerners have trained local residents to work on the art, creating a 35-member team that includes 20 women and one monk (though there was initial reluctance from local men to tolerate the women’s participation).
There are three major religious buildings in Lo Manthang. Two of them are monasteries, and one is a temple traditionally used for ceremonies by the royal family. Their thick, red walls rise among alleyways that wind past whitewashed mud-brick homes. An 80-year-old king and his family reside in a palace in the town center. The town was founded in the 14th century, and the oldest religious buildings date to the 15th century.
Much of the Tibetan art here reflects a Newari influence, which comes from the Katmandu Valley. Centuries ago, Newari artisans were welcomed by some Tibetan rulers, especially those who followed the Sakya branch of Tibetan Buddhism, which is common throughout Mustang.
The art project began in 1999 with the cleaning of murals in Thubchen Monastery, after an initial round of architectural reconstruction. Then the painters moved on to Jampa Temple, where the dark main chamber has a towering statue of Maitreya, the future Buddha.
The walls on the first floor are adorned with remarkably detailed mandalas, a form of geometric art considered a representation of the cosmos. Here, Mr. Fieni decided to deviate from the initial approach taken at Thubchen. He wanted his team, rather than do purely restoration, to paint sections of the walls where an original mural had disappeared or been destroyed.
The painters would then try to recreate those pictures based on tradition and on what had been painted elsewhere in the chamber. Mr. Fieni also consulted with monks to ask what pictures they wanted on the walls. In 2010, the team returned to Thubchen to adopt the new approach and paint large sections.
“Call this painting, not restoration or conservation,” Mr. Fieni said. He added that this method helped restore the living nature of the artwork, as opposed to what he called the Western “colonialism” approach of preserving the old above all else.
“When we arrived, we started working following the Westerners’ theories of conservation,” Mr. Fieni said. “Then, while working and living within the community, I changed my point of view, and I decided to follow the needs of the culture I was working for. So I decided to start reconstructing the missing areas.”
Once taught how to paint, local residents decide how they want to decorate the monasteries, Mr. Fieni said.
“All the other conservation projects I’ve seen are Westerners doing the artwork, locals fetching clay,” he said. “This is the first one where we train the locals.”
There were challenges. Painters in higher castes initially did not want artists in lower castes sitting on the scaffolding above them. And there were religious beliefs to accommodate. At the buildings, an abbot used a mirror to absorb the spirits of the gods in the statues and murals before the painting began; after the project is completed, the abbot is expected to release the spirits from the mirror so they can return.
Mr. Fieni’s approach to restoring the temples and monasteries has been contested. Christian Luczanits, a senior curator at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, which displays Himalayan art, said he blanched at what he saw when he traveled to Mustang in 2010 and 2012. Mr. Luczanits said that sufficient scholarship had not been done into the original paintings. Now, because of the new painting, any scholar wanting to study the originals must look at photographs rather than rely on what is present in the temple, he said.
“The temple now after restoration cannot be understood anymore without the previous documentation,” Mr. Luczanits said in an interview.
Last year, he made his opinion known at a contentious meeting at the palace in Lo Manthang. Among those present were Mr. Fieni, an abbot, the prince of Mustang and representatives of the American Himalayan Foundation, which gives financial support to many development projects in Mustang. (The foundation’s president, Erica Stone, said the total being spent on the building renovations in Lo Manthang alone was $2.58 million. An additional $768,000 had been spent for restoring the town wall and constructing drainage.)
There was vigorous debate, and the royal family and the abbot both backed Mr. Fieni. The ceremonial prince, Jigme Singi Palbar Bista, said in an interview that the buildings “are renovated very well.”
Thoroughly painting Thubchen Monastery would take another three to four years, but the project’s budget will run out this year. Mr. Fieni estimated there was a total of about 3,660 square feet of wall space to paint.
He said he was thinking about moving on to restoration projects in India or Myanmar with some of the painters he had trained here. In 2006 and 2007, he took five of them to work with him at a Tibetan monastery in Sichuan Province, in western China, a project that was never completed because the Chinese authorities shut down access to the area after a Tibetan uprising in 2008.
Italy heads to polls amid fears of political stalemate
Democratic party battles Berlusconi's Freedom People for lion's share of vote as surveys show 5m voters remain unsure who to support
Lizzy Davies in Rome
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 24 February 2013 10.04 GMT
Italians go to the polls on Sunday and Monday in an unpredictable election that has pitted mainstream parties against a powerful anti-establishment force, and which observers fear could send the country into a period of political stalemate.
In a contest watched closely by the markets, the centre-left Democratic party (PD) led by Pier Luigi Bersani has been vying with the centre-right Freedom People party of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi for the lion's share of the vote.
The centre-left bloc was about six points ahead of the 76-year-old billionaire tycoon, who has renewed his alliance with the rightwing Northern League, in the last official poll two weeks ago.
Berlusconi's campaign, boosted by rounds of television and radio interviews, has seen him offer numerous eye-catching measures, such as a property tax refund worth €4bn.
But perhaps the biggest unknown factor in the results is how well the Five Star Movement (M5S), led by former comedian and blogger Beppe Grillo, performs at the ballot box. His campaign, which has filled piazzas throughout the country, most dramatically on Friday night in Rome, has emerged as a powerful draw for voters who are disillusioned and angry with the status quo.
A centrist bloc led by the outgoing technocrat prime minister, Mario Monti, has been languishing in fourth place in the polls. While for some time the scenario deemed most likely by observers has been a PD-led government in alliance with Monti, there is some doubt over whether the former European commissioner's grouping will get enough votes to make that a workable option.
The fractured nature of the political landscape and complexities of the electoral system has raised fears that recession-mired Italy, which has had a decade of near-economic stagnation and more than a year of punishing austerity, could end up with a deadlock in which no strong government is possible.
While it appears likely the PD will achieve a majority in the lower house, the fate of the upper house, or Senate, is less clear.
Voting will continue until 3pm local time on Monday, and results are expected that evening. Last week, a survey suggested up to 5 million of the 47 million-strong electorate were still undecided about who they should vote for. Voters in three regions, including the powerful and populous Lombardy, will also be choosing a regional government.
On Saturday, as bad weather affected much of the country, the interior minister urged Italians to exercise their right to vote. Berlusconi, despite a campaigning ban imposed in the day before polling, took the opportunity to defend himself against what he said were pernicious magistrates' lies.
"They spread the story in Europe that I was ridiculous, by launching this attack on me with 'bunga bunga' which was a sham based on nothing," he said. Italian magistrates, he added, were "more dangerous than the Sicilian mafia".
Italy awaits opening of general election polls amid uncertainty
Likelihood of weak government and rise of populist former comedian add to apprehension as Italian campaigning ceases
Matt Williams and agencies
guardian.co.uk, Saturday 23 February 2013 20.51 GMT
Political parties in Italy were forced to cease campaigning on Saturday, as the country prepared for a general election that is being closely watched across the eurozone amid fears of a damaging stalemate.
As candidates observed a mandatory 24-hour purdah ahead of polls opening, citizens were urged to vote. The polls are open on Sunday and Monday. A survey released in the run-up to the ballot suggested that the centre-left Democratic Party, led by Pier Luigi Bersani, held a five-point lead over a conservative coalition led by the former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. The outgoing premier, Mario Monti, heading a centrist coalition, is also running. But a lacklustre campaign has seen his chances fade in recent weeks.
Political analysts have suggested that the most likely outcome – which could ensure stability – is a governing alliance between Bersani and Monti. But Monti's faltering campaign has led to concern that he will not win enough senate seats to boost the centre-left bloc. A resulting weak government could lead to market fears over Italy's ability to implement measures to kick start its faltering economy.
Whoever takes power will face the arduous task of pulling Italy out of the longest recession it has faced in a generation. The election takes place amid deep public resentment at austerity measures brought in to curb national debt. Adding to the uncertainty has been the campaign of the comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo, an anti-establishment figure whose Five Star Movement is expected to poll strongly. Latest voter-intention surveys put him at around 16%, which would make his movement the third-largest electoral force.
As campaigning idrew to a close on Friday evening, Grillo stole the spotlight in Rome by attracting an estimated 500,000 people to hear his tirades against corrupt politicians and bankers. The success of the former comedian's "Tsunami Tour" has underlined the discontent felt by a large proportion of Italians regarding mainstream political parties.
"Grillo is saying the things that all ordinary Italians are thinking, he is giving us hope," said 41-year-old Luca Pennisi, a pastry chef at a café in Rome where several customers were still unsure who to vote for. "It's time to change the system, get rid of the old politicians and stop wasting public money," Pennisi said, adding that he had watched Grillo's final rally on the internet and would definitely vote for his grouping.
Others are less sure. A survey released on Tuesday found that 28% of Italians had yet to decide who to vote for, or were considering not voting at all. On Saturday, the Interior Ministry urged some 47 million eligible voters to vote, adding that it had made preparations for bad weather, including snow in some regions, to ensure that everyone could have the chance to cast their ballot.
"Elections are a fundamental moment for a democracy and we want all our citizens to experience them in the best way possible," interior minister Anna Maria Cancellieri said in a video posted on the ministry's website.
While Grillo's campaign ended on a high, others entered the mandatory 24-hour purdah on a quieter note. Berlusconi, who has promised tax refunds as a central plank of his platform, cancelled a planned appearance at a Naples rally, blaming an eye problem. Bersani rounded off at a theatre in Rome, while Monti held a similar event in Florence.
Despite fuelling anger among many Italians by introducing an austerity package while the country continues to struggle against rising unemployment, Monti – who replaced Berlusconi in November 2011 – is still supported by some who believe that the measures were necessary.
"My vote will go to Monti for a very simple reason, I think he is the only serious proposition," said one Rome resident, named Vito, who was on a stroll through the city on Saturday.
February 23, 2013
In Italy, Illusion Is the Only Reality
By TIM PARKS
IT takes a certain talent to live in happy denial, to slide toward the edge of a precipice and be perfectly relaxed about it. Of all the talents that Italians are renowned for, such nonchalance is perhaps their greatest. Their economy is in deep recession; more than one in three young adults are unemployed; they are unable to compete economically with their neighbors; yet they continue as if nothing were happening, or as if a small glitch in the dolce vita could be fixed with the wave of a wand.
In particular, whether in awe or horror, they continue to be enchanted by the pied piper Silvio Berlusconi, the former and perhaps future prime minister and fabulously wealthy media magnate. In the run-up to the elections that begin today, he has promised to abolish the stiff property tax that was introduced by the previous government and is largely responsible for bringing a little credibility back to the country’s finances (and that he voted for himself when it was introduced). Not only would he abolish it, but he would actually pay back what Italians paid on it last year.
The announcement, despite coming from a man who has repeatedly failed to turn even the most promising political and economic circumstances into anything resembling the collective good, earned Mr. Berlusconi a considerable leap in the polls.
I have lived in Italy for 32 years. One of the first things that struck me was the relation between action and consequence, which is different in the other countries I knew, Britain and the United States. Here someone is found to have abused their position of public office — given jobs to relatives, accepted bribes, spent public money on personal pleasures — but does not resign, does not think of resigning, attacks the moralists and sails on regardless.
Statistics show that tax evasion is endemic, and the more so the more one moves south, to the point that around Naples, dentists declare lower incomes than policemen. Needless to say, the fiscal shortfall has to be made up with government borrowing and higher taxes for those who do pay.
Meanwhile, though sports is glaringly corrupt, fans are as passionate as ever. As the owner of the big soccer club A. C. Milan, Mr. Berlusconi decided, at the beginning of his campaign, to buy the star striker Mario Balotelli. Again he was rewarded in the opinion polls.
The constant discrepancy between how one might expect things to pan out and how they actually do is nothing new. On a tour through Italy in 1869, Mark Twain wrote, “I can not understand how a bankrupt Government can have such palatial railroad depots.”
Things don’t change. Italy recently completed Europe’s fastest train service; one can travel the 360 miles from Milan to Rome nonstop in just 2 hours and 45 minutes. In a country with a huge debt, this wonderful engineering feat has cost an astonishing 150 billion euros (about $200 billion).
Nobody seems sure where the investment came from or how the project will be paid for. One thing is certain: much of the money that legally should have been allotted to local services must have found its way to the high-speed project; to accommodate the few going fast, hosts of working people grind to the office in dirty, overcrowded trains. But what matters is the gleaming image of progress that the service projects.
Benito Mussolini, perhaps the first great propagandist of the modern era, understood perfectly this aspect of Italian psychology. “It is faith which moves mountains because it gives the illusion that mountains move,” he said. “Illusion is perhaps the only reality in life.”
On Jan. 27, at a ceremony for the national Holocaust remembrance day, Mr. Berlusconi felt it was the right time to say that Mussolini had actually done many good things and was not such a bad guy. He was rewarded with another upward twitch in the opinion polls.
It is the constant impression of people outside Italy that Mr. Berlusconi is some kind of evil buffoon and that the vast majority of Italians repudiate him. They cannot understand how a man so constantly on trial for all kinds of corruption, a man with a huge conflict of interest (he owns three national TV channels and large chunks of the country’s publishing industry), remains at the center of power.
The answer, aside from the extraordinarily slow and complex judiciary and a distressing lack of truly independent journalism, is that Mr. Berlusconi’s political instincts mesh perfectly with the collective determination not to face the truth, which again combines with deep fear that a more serious leader might ask too much of them. One of the things he has promised is a pardon for tax evaders. Only in a country where tax evasion is endemic can one appeal to evaders at the expense of those who actually pay taxes.
The mirror image of Mr. Berlusconi might be the caretaker prime minister Mario Monti, an unelected professor of economics, who took over in late 2011, in the middle of the euro crisis. Foreign observers are convinced Mr. Monti did a great job and deserves re-election; this is naïve. As many Italians see it (and I agree), the professor merely bowed to pressure from Berlin, cut spending where there was least resistance and taxed everybody without regard to income. His election campaign, based on a rhetoric of dour seriousness, has been disappointing. As a colleague remarked, if one is to be fleeced by the government anyway, better the entertainer than the pedant.
One entertainer seeking to capitalize on the situation is Beppe Grillo, a rowdy ex-comedian-turned-political blogger whose Five Star Movement proposes to sweep away the corrupt political order and promises a utopia of salaries for the unemployed and a 30-hour workweek. Mr. Grillo’s style is so demagogical and his party so dependent on his inflammatory charisma that the 20 percent of the electorate supposedly planning to vote for him must surely have decided that it simply does not matter if the country is ungovernable after the elections.
Alternately, it may be that people feel that nothing can be done anyway, so great is the power exercised over Italy by the European Union; hence it is largely unimportant whom they vote for. Perhaps it is the effect of centuries of Catholic paternalism and reckless electoral promises, but nobody seems to envision a practical series of reforms to get from where we are now to where we might want to be; in its place there are prayers and fiscal fantasies.
Mussolini later corrected his comments on illusion. “It is impossible to ignore reality,” he said, “however sad.” One wonders, as this election approaches, how near Italy is to the moment when denial is no longer possible. I imagine Mr. Berlusconi re-elected and the stock market crashing, the country’s international credibility melting away so that he must be removed in a matter of days. But then perhaps Italy’s woes will be attributed to the perversities of international finance.
What is never countenanced is the notion that one has made very serious mistakes, or that one might really have to adjust to a reality where economic initiative has shifted decisively to the East, and investment capital with it. Almost every political program in Italy expresses a desire to return to the past, rather than understand the country’s place in a changed world.
Tim Parks is a novelist and translator and the author of the forthcoming book “Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails From Milan to Palermo.”
February 23, 2013
Ahead of Election in Cyprus, Gloom and Voter Apathy Tied to Financial Woes
By NICHOLAS KULISH
LIMASSOL, Cyprus — Evagoras Georgiou will go to the polling station at the Tsireio middle school in the St. John neighborhood here for Sunday’s presidential election. But he will leave his ballot blank, voting for neither of the two candidates in the runoff for Cyprus’s most powerful political office.
Both candidates have promised to abide by a deal with international lenders that promises to help the country service its debts but that will bring harsh austerity and recession with it.
Mr. Georgiou, 28, studied business management in Britain and returned almost a year ago to look for work. He has yet to find a job and says he believes that a deal with the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund — known collectively as the troika — will only make matters worse.
“They both have the same policies but find a way to make the public believe they disagree,” Mr. Georgiou said of the two candidates. “We see that any country with a troika agreement is ridden with debt and has high unemployment of youth.”
What many Cypriots find most frustrating is that their crisis, like those in Ireland and Iceland before them, was concentrated in the banks. There is no sovereign debt crisis and, before the banking collapse, their economy was relatively healthy. Why, they wonder, should they suffer for the misdeeds of a few bankers? Why cover losses that should be borne, at least in part, by private investors?
This small Mediterranean nation goes to the polls at a moment of rising uncertainty and apprehension. Nicos Anastasiades, the leader of the conservative party Democratic Rally, is expected to best Stavros Malas, who is backed by AKEL, the Communist party.
Mr. Anastasiades comes from the same conservative bloc in Europe, the European People’s Party, as Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. Ms. Merkel came here for a party conference in January and met with Mr. Anastasiades at that time.
But on the subject that preoccupies many Cypriots, the anticipated bailout, the difference between the two candidates may be slim. Mr. Malas has called for a softening of the harshest austerity measures but otherwise has promised to stay the course with the sort of budget-slashing measures advocated by Germany that have led to deep recessions in other European countries.
“Fundamentally, the average Cypriot and even the average politician realizes this model being imposed by Germany all over Europe is flawed,” said Bambos Papageorgiou, who is a member of the Cypriot Parliament’s finance committee from AKEL and who used to work in the London derivatives market. “But our situation is such that we can’t avoid negotiating.”
Cyprus has known its share of adversity. The island has been divided since the Turkish Army invaded the northern part of the island in 1974. United Nations peacekeepers still patrol the buffer zone, which runs through the center of the capital, Nicosia.
Graffiti written in black spray paint near one of the blue and white guard posts at the edge of the zone on the Greek side reads “Troika Go Home.”
Cyprus has been unable to raise money in international bond markets for a year and has been kept afloat only by a loan of $3.5 billion from the Russian government. That allowed it to put off the final reckoning, which is now coming due.
In absolute terms, the bailout of Cyprus under discussion is quite small compared with the cost of keeping Greece afloat, around $22 billion compared with roughly $327 billion. But German politicians have balked at what they see as a bailout for Russian oligarchs and money launderers, who they say keep their money in Cypriot banks.
Cyprus signed a memorandum of understanding with the troika in November, cutting salaries for government workers by up to 15 percent. Additionally, public pension payments were pared back by as much as 10 percent, and the value-added tax will rise. Both sides decided to wait until a new government was in place to complete the bailout.
In the meantime, Cyprus’s economy shrank by roughly 2.3 percent last year, according to preliminary estimates by the government statistics office, driving the unemployment rate up to 14.7 percent by the end of the year.
Though frustrated, European voters have tended to hold their noses and vote for pro-bailout candidates, as they did in Greece last year when Antonis Samaras eked out a victory over Alexis Tsipras’s radical-left Syriza. But political analysts wonder how long their patience will hold as austerity measures punish the most indebted countries and their pared-back spending pulls down even the Continent’s healthier economies.
And there is little hope for a rapid recovery. The European Commission said Friday that the economy of the euro zone would shrink 0.3 percent in 2013. The commission also forecast that Cyprus’s economy would shrink 3.5 percent this year and 1.3 percent in 2014.
Marios Mavrides, a member of Parliament with Democratic Rally and a professor of economics at the European University Cyprus, predicted that as the deep budget cuts mandated by the troika began to bite, recession would last all the way into 2015.
“We need to go through a deep recession. There’s no other way,” Mr. Mavrides said. “The banking system is virtually hanging from a single thread.”
The mood is especially pessimistic among young Cypriots. “I don’t see any future for the young generation,” said Marios Georgiou, 30, a sales representative in Nicosia, who said he was saving money to emigrate, possibly to Australia or Canada.
In the meantime, property developers have started placing their hopes on Asian investors. The highway between Limassol and the resort town of Paphos is lined with billboards advertising property in Chinese characters. Christos Charalambous said that his employer, Kleanthis Savva Developers, had several dozen clients from China.
“We hope that this year things will turn around. Last year was the worst that I can remember in the real estate business,” said Mr. Charalambous, who has worked in the industry for a decade. “If 2013 is worse than 2012, many businesses will default.”
There is hope on the horizon, in the form of substantial natural gas reserves discovered in the waters between Cyprus and Israel. Recalling the difficult period four decades ago after Turkey invaded, Andreas Christou, Limassol’s mayor, said he remained optimistic. “We shall find a way to survive,” he said.
Andreas Riris contributed reporting.
February 22, 2013
Victory, Then Defeat
By EMILY BRENNAN
France’s National Assembly saw the arrival of a longtime New Yorker to its floor just eight months ago. Now, it’s seeing her departure.
In June, for the first time, French citizens living abroad elected deputies to represent them in their country’s legislature, and French nationals in the United States and Canada chose Corinne Narassiguin, a 13-year resident of New York City. The campaigns were the subject of a feature in the Metropolitan section.
But the Constitutional Council of France decided this month to void the election’s results because Ms. Narassiguin and two other candidates, Antoine Treuille and Émile Servan-Schreiber, had violated French campaign-finance law by opening bank accounts in the United States for some campaign expenditures.
A new election will be held in the next three months, but Ms. Narassiguin and the other two candidates are barred from running for political office for one year.
“It’s very brutal,” Ms. Narassiguin said by phone from her soon-to-be-former parliamentary office. The finance rules were unclear at first, she said, and since the council found no evidence of fraud, she was surprised that it disqualified her from running again. “For me, there’s an element of not fully understanding why the decision was so harsh,” she added.
Victory was seen as a long shot for Ms. Narassiguin, a member of President François Hollande’s Socialist Party, when she began campaigning in 2011, in part because French foreign nationals in the United States tend to lean right in presidential elections.
But Ms. Narassiguin won handily in a runoff, defeating Frédéric Lefebvre, a former government minister under President Nicolas Sarkozy and the candidate of the conservative Union for a Popular Movement party.
In an interview with Agence France-Presse, Mr. Lefebvre said he intended to run in the coming election as his party’s candidate. Julien Balkany, a hedge fund manager who lives in New York and ran last year as an independent, said he was also after the Union for a Popular Movement’s nomination. The Socialist Party has not yet nominated a new candidate.
For Ms. Narassiguin, the immediate future is uncertain, but she plans to stay in Paris.
Though a newcomer to parliament, she gained visibility as a vocal advocate of a bill to legalize same-sex marriage in France, pushing for it to include French couples living abroad. The bill passed the National Assembly this month and is to go before the Senate on April 2.
“I may have some opportunity to work as an adviser to the government,” Ms. Narassiguin said. But she is no rush to make a decision. “I’m going to take time to think a little bit,” she said.
February 23, 2013
Swollen With Syrian Refugees, Lebanon Feels Its Stitching Fray
By ANNE BARNARD
QAA, Lebanon — Quietly but inexorably, a human tide has crept into Lebanon, Syria’s smallest and most vulnerable neighbor.
As Syrians fleeing civil war pour over the border, the village priest here, Elian Nasrallah, trudges through muddy fields to deliver blankets. His family runs a medical clinic for refugees. When Christian villagers fret about the flood of Sunni Muslims, he replies that welcoming them is “the real Christianity.”
But the priest and his parishioners cannot keep up. The United Nations counts more than 305,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon, but local officials and aid workers say the actual number is about 400,000, saturating this country of four million.
The Lebanese government — by design — has largely left them to fend for themselves. Deeply divided over Syria, haunted by memories of an explosive refugee crisis a generation ago, it has mostly ignored the problem, dumping it on overwhelmed communities like Qaa.
So far, Lebanon’s delicate balance has persevered, but there is a growing sense of emergency.
Sectarian tensions are rising. Fugitive Syrian rebels in border villages have clashed with Lebanese soldiers. The government’s anemic response has delayed international aid. Local volunteers are running out of cash and patience.
And the battle for Damascus, Syria’s capital, has barely begun. Should fighting overwhelm that religiously and politically mixed city of 2.5 million a half-hour drive from Lebanon, the Lebanese fear a cataclysm that could sweep away their tenuous calm.
“There is a limit to what the country can handle,” said Nadim Shubassi, mayor of Saidnayel, a Sunni town now packed with Syrians. “Maybe we have reached this limit now.”
Lebanon’s refugee crisis does not match the familiar image of vast, centralized tent camps and armies of foreign aid organizations. It is nowhere, and everywhere. Displaced Syrians seem to fill every nook and cranny: half-finished cinder block houses, stables, crowded apartments.
It is easy to miss them, until a second glance. Drying laundry peeks from construction sites. Bedsheets hang in shop windows, concealing stark living spaces. Daffodil sellers, shoeshine men, women and children begging in Beirut — all incant, “Min Suria.” From Syria.
At first, most refugees — mainly Sunnis, like most of the rebels fighting Syria’s government — headed for friendly Sunni areas. Now, those communities are swamped and resentful, and Syrians are spreading to places where they fit less comfortably, from Christian mountain villages to the Mediterranean city of Tyre in the southern Shiite Muslim heartland.
They are moving, with some trepidation, into Qaa, in the northern Bekaa Valley, the territory of the powerful Shiite militia Hezbollah, which is allied with Syria’s government and, to many refugees, just as fearsome.
As they flee increasingly sectarian killing, Syrians layer their fears onto those of a country deeply scarred by its own generation-long sectarian civil war. They are testing, yet also relying on, the fragile yet flexible balance that has endured here, punctured by occasional fighting, since Lebanon’s war ended 22 years ago.
In Baalbek, a Hezbollah stronghold where a poster of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, grins down on a busy street, refugees turn to Sawa, a community group that views helping them as embodying its nonsectarian mission. Still, they rattle Abbas Othman, a Sawa member.
“We are worried they will bring their civil war here,” he said.
One recent evening in Qaa, Mr. Nasrallah, the priest, stood outside a burlap shack that sheltering a Syrian family of 12. They clamored around him; they had eaten only potatoes that day. Cold crept in as a blue dusk fell. One man implored, “You are responsible for us!”
The priest threw up his hands.
“It’s wartime,” he said. “Is the government doing its job or not?”
Lebanese decision-makers wanted it this way, at first. A year ago, just 5,000 Syrians had fled here, and Hezbollah, Lebanon’s most powerful political party, denied any sense of crisis.
The government did not just stand aside, it often undermined aid. Donated supplies went undelivered. Small grants required signatures from the prime minster. During a fierce snowstorm, security forces blocked delivery of tents until a cabinet member intervened.
“Our government worried too much about politics,” said Emad Shoumari, mayor of a majority-Sunni town, Marj, that has embraced refugees. “This kept the refugees from getting the aid they needed.”
What really makes refugees politically radioactive is a painful national memory. Palestinians poured into Lebanon in 1948 and 1967, fleeing conflicts with Israel. Their arrival stoked sectarian divisions that helped ignite civil war. More than 400,000 Palestinians still live here, in camps with pockets of poverty and extremism where violence periodically erupts.
Bowing to fears of another destabilizing influx, the government ruled out camps for Syrians, provided limited help and gave international agencies little leeway. United Nations officials made the best of it, saying, perhaps wishfully, that at least refugees would be integrated into society. No one greeted Syrians at the border. Some joined relatives among 500,000 Syrian laborers already here. Others had no idea where to go, and followed word of mouth.
One of the warmest welcomes was in Saidnayel, the Sunni town in the central Bekaa, where the flag of the Syrian revolution flies openly. A year ago, it hosted 265 refugee families, their names recorded in a handwritten ledger.
“When they reach the borders, they ask for directions to Saidnayel,” the mayor, Mr. Shubassi, said proudly then. “Each Friday we protest against the Syrian regime.”
He squeezed one family into a bakery, others into a row of storage rooms. The Syrian Army was bombarding cities, and the mayor expected “an avalanche.”
Still, he was buoyant. Local charities and mosques competed to help. Mr. Shubassi resented Syria’s government, which occupied Lebanon in the civil war, and looked forward to its fall.
But as the influx accelerated, Lebanon’s government cut off minimal cooperation with the understaffed United Nations refugee agency, which struggled to track scattered Syrians. Families seeking United Nations aid must register, a backlogged process that can take a month.
In Saidnayel, the mayor’s ledger now lists 6,000 refugees, one for every five residents. Prices, rents and crime are up, wages down. Locals, poor themselves, are resentful. The family in the bakery has swollen from 10 to 40. They are incensed with the mayor’s staff, which, they said, suggested they share two blankets.
As Syria’s government hangs on, the mayor’s optimism has deflated. “We don’t know how long this will last,” he said recently. “We will have a political and social rift.”
Lebanon’s government can no longer deny the crisis. Last month, Hezbollah urged Lebanese to welcome refugees regardless of sect or politics. The government reversed course, at least on paper. It approved plans to manage the crisis with help from the United Nations, which now awaits funds and permission to build two transit camps, each housing 5,000 refugees, a drop in the bucket.
Syrians and their hosts live edgily together, especially in non-Sunni areas. In the Christian village of Jezzine, where snowcapped peaks watch over red-roofed stone houses, 1,600 Syrian refugees outnumber residents.
“We don’t know who they are,” said Jezzine’s representative in Parliament, Ziad Aswad, a Christian ally of Hezbollah. “They could be Al Qaeda.”
Town officials interrogate Syrians about their politics and impose a 5 p.m. curfew. Mr. Aswad even warns, dramatically, that refugees could somehow take over the country: “Goodbye, Lebanon!”
But Abu Haidar, a Syrian Sunni who worked in Jezzine before the uprising, said employers helped him bring his family. He pointed at a bed, a stove and his room’s only decoration, a picture of the Virgin Mary. “All this,” he said, “is from the people of Jezzine.”
In Tyre, the southern city where Roman ruins overlook the Mediterranean, Abdulfattah, 30, found safety from battles that ravaged his village in northern Syria. But he keeps his children inside his rented room. When he ventures out, he walks with watchful eyes and tense, hunched shoulders.
That is because this is pro-Assad territory. The streets flutter with yellow and green flags for Hezbollah. A short walk away, more than 25 of his relatives live in a two-room shack, awaiting United Nations aid.
Neighbors do not harass him, he said, nor do they offer help. Outside, Abdulfattah, who feared giving a last name, hides his views on the war. Indoors, he relaxed. “There is pain in every house,” he said. “There is a martyr in every house.”
He named his baby son for one of them, his brother, Rustom. “There are no new names,” Abdulfattah said, hugging and kissing the baby. “Those who are dying are being reborn.”
Dr. Darwish Shoughari, who runs the nonsectarian Amel clinic in Tyre, said southern Lebanon remained calm, thanks to residents’ memories of sheltering in Syrian homes during Hezbollah’s 2006 war with Israel, and to Hezbollah’s tight grip on security.
“Hezbollah knows when a chicken lays an egg,” he said.
“It’s tolerable now,” he added, with 30,000 refugees around a city of 135,000. “What happens when there are 100,000?”
Reporting was contributed by Hwaida Saad, Hania Mourtada, Ben Solomon and Lynsey Addario.
Rescuers fear India will drop new law banning child labour
New law could be watered down despite series of raids to rescue trafficked children from garment workshops
Gethin Chamberlain in Delhi
The Observer, Saturday 23 February 2013 22.58 GMT
A radical new law to ban child trafficking in India may be dropped by the country's parliament.
The Observer has learned that attempts have been made to water down the proposed move despite evidence showing the trafficking of hundreds of thousands of children in the country.
Activists say the children are used to manufacture goods which end up on western high streets and have urged consumers to demand changes in the law. Last week police in Delhi carried out raids to rescue 21 trafficked children from garment workshops in the Gonda Chowk colony.
Some of the children were found hidden in sacks. The youngest was seven. The children told their rescuers they had been working up to 16 hours a day for 20 rupees (24p) a week. The raids were the result of an investigation by the anti-child labour group Bachpan Bachao Andolan. A joint investigation between the Observer and BBA found goods being made for western brands in other backstreet workshops.
A BBA spokesman said the children were found to be employed in embroidery work in a condition of forced labour and slavery in 11 workshops tucked away among the narrow lanes of the colony. Police arrested seven suspected employers.
A total of 38 children were also rescued in other raids in Punjab and north-west Delhi.
The Indian cabinet last year backed a change in the law which would make the employment of under-14s punishable by three years in jail. The law currently bans the employment of under-14s only in hazardous occupations.
The decision to introduce the new Child and Adolescent Labour (Prohibition) Act was taken last August shortly after the Observer and the BBA exposed the scale of the problem by staging the first successful raid on a train carrying trafficked child labourers to Delhi. More than 40 children were rescued and 20 traffickers arrested.
The government also proposed to introduce the criminal law amendment bill to include a ban on child trafficking and trafficking for forced labour. The law change would provide for a sentence of between seven years and life imprisonment for those convicted.
But the Observer understands that there have been serious attempts to water down the legislation. Talks were continuing last week, with signs that a compromise might be reached, but any suggestion that the laws might be weakened has alarmed the anti-trafficking activists.
Bhuwan Rhibu, from the BBA, said: "It is very important for consumers in India and the west to speak up. People need to wise up and face the fact that many of the products they buy are made by child labour, by children abducted from their homes and whose lives have been violated."It is important now for consumers to take action and demand change, and for the authorities to then enforce the law."
According to Indian government figures, there are currently about five million children working in the country (down from nine million in 2005). But activists say that is a gross underestimate and that the true figure is closer to 50 million.
Many of those children are trafficked by criminal gangs. At least 100,000 children go missing from their homes in India every year – 274 each day – and only 10% are registered as officially missing.
The Indian government's own National Child Labour Project is reported to have rescued and rehabilitated 354,877 child labourers but mounted only 25,006 prosecutions over the last three years.
Other government records show that between 2008 and 2012 a total of 452,679 child labour and trafficking cases were reported. But the records also show that out of those 25,006 prosecutions, only 3,394 employers or traffickers were convicted.
At least the activists can take heart that they have some supporters in high places. Last month Minna Kabir, the wife of India's chief justice, wrote an open letter to the Hindustan Times newspaper in which she said: "Every society is responsible for the wellbeing and care of its children up to the age of 18 years, especially if they are marginalised, helpless and powerless to do anything for themselves."
Food giants still flouting code on promoting baby milk formula in developing countries
Research in Pakistan finds companies giving free gifts and misleading literature to mothers and health workers
The Observer, Sunday 24 February 2013
Several of the world's leading food companies are breaching an industry code limiting the promotion of breast milk substitutes to mothers with babies under six months old, according to a new report by a leading aid charity.
A survey for Save the Children found that care professionals in Pakistan were being targeted by breast milk substitute companies. The charity said it had also found evidence of "questionable marketing practices" in China.
Research firm Gallup interviewed 2,400 mothers and 1,200 health workers across Pakistan and found that a third of all available information relating to infant feeding was sponsored by commercial companies, in violation of the Interagency Group on Breastfeeding Monitoring code. The code was agreed in 1981 following widespread concern about the promotion of baby milk formula in the developing world.
Gallup reported: "Many items were giving misleading information and were promoting bottle-feeding in some ways. The findings suggest that the code is being violated in significant ways by companies in Pakistan, which try to influence mothers through interpersonal communication, advertisements and endorsement by health professionals."
Save The Children has amassed a powerful coalition of celebrities to back its breastfeeding campaign. Actress Isla Fisher, musician and model Myleene Klass and newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky have all helped publicise the report. Last week Victoria Beckham pledged support in a tweet to her 5.4 million Twitter followers.
Gallup found almost a fifth of health professionals in Pakistan had received a free gift from a breast milk substitute manufacturer. A further 10% reported being given free samples not just for the substitute but for follow-on formula milk, baby food and bottles and teats. Most of the gifts were stationery such as pens and prescription pads, sometimes branded, items which help health professionals reduce their own costs. There are also anecdotal claims that some midwives were given trips to Mecca, though it is not clear which firms are involved.
Two subsidiaries of Swiss giant Nestlé and French producer Danone, both named in the report, are the subject of an online petition calling on them to "stop any conduct that undermines breastfeeding". The petition has had almost 8,000 signatures. Save The Children said it would be raising the issue at the firms' annual meetings in the coming weeks.
Food companies see Asia as a major market for breast milk substitute, an industry already worth £16bn worldwide, and set to grow by 31% in the next three years. In east Asia and the Pacific, the number of breastfeeding mothers has fallen from 45% in 2006 to 29% in 2012. This is due in part, says Save the Children, to inappropriate marketing practices by some breast milk substitute companies.
The charity also blames the decline on traditional practices that eschew the use of breast milk, and a severe shortage of midwives and health workers in the developing world.
"Any marketing practices that break the international code could, we believe, undermine breastfeeding and therefore risk children's health," said Justin Forsyth, the chief executive of Save the Children. "We must act to ensure that these companies always stick to the code. In addition we are asking all manufacturers to change the prominence of the labelling on their products telling people that breastfeeding is the most effective way of protecting the health of their child. We would like to see this cover a third of the packaging."
The decline in breastfeeding is a major concern for aid agencies. They say that the use of breast milk substitutes brings heightened risks of contamination from unsterilised water. In a new report, Superfood for Babies, the charity claims that if babies receive colostrum, the mother's first milk, within an hour of birth, it kickstarts infants' immune systems, making them three times more likely to survive.
It also claims that, if the mother continues breastfeeding for six months, a child growing up in the developing world is up to 15 times less likely to die from killer diseases such as pneumonia and diarrhoea.
A spokesman for Danone said: "Infant formula is the only safe, legal alternative to breastfeeding and we believe an increase in the size of the warning label is counterproductive, in that it would send mixed messages to parents and potentially confuse them about which milks can be used safely for babies. Our products are safe and popular because they meet a real need for mums who choose to bottle feed. All of our infant formulas carry warning labels and meet strict legislative rules, and our customer communications reinforce the benefits of breastfeeding. Our priority is to standby mums and support them in their choices."
Nestlé said: "While we agree there is still work to be done to improve infant feeding practices and promote breastfeeding around the world, we believe Nestlé already has in place the main elements recommended in the report for improving breast milk substitute industry practices."
Activists launch campaign against ‘autonomous weapons’: Killer robots must be stopped
By Tracy McVeigh, The Observer
Sunday, February 24, 2013 0:25 EST
Autonomous weapons’, which could be ready within a decade, pose grave risk to international law, claim activists
A new global campaign to persuade nations to ban “killer robots” before they reach the production stage is to be launched in the UK by a group of academics, pressure groups and Nobel peace prize laureates.
Robot warfare and autonomous weapons, the next step from unmanned drones, are already being worked on by scientists and will be available within the decade, said Dr Noel Sharkey, a leading robotics and artificial intelligence expert and professor at Sheffield University. He believes that development of the weapons is taking place in an effectively unregulated environment, with little attention being paid to moral implications and international law.
The Stop the Killer Robots campaign will be launched in April at the House of Commons and includes many of the groups that successfully campaigned to have international action taken against cluster bombs and landmines. They hope to get a similar global treaty against autonomous weapons.
“These things are not science fiction; they are well into development,” said Sharkey. “The research wing of the Pentagon in the US is working on the X47B [unmanned plane] which has supersonic twists and turns with a G-force that no human being could manage, a craft which would take autonomous armed combat anywhere in the planet.
“In America they are already training more drone pilots than real aircraft pilots, looking for young men who are very good at computer games. They are looking at swarms of robots, with perhaps one person watching what they do.”
Sharkey insists he is not anti-war but deeply concerned about how quickly science is moving ahead of the presumptions underlying the Geneva convention and the international laws of war.
“There are a lot of people very excited about this technology, in the US, at BAE Systems, in China, Israel and Russia, very excited at what is set to become a multibillion-dollar industry. This is going to be big, big money. But actually there is no transparency, no legal process. The laws of war allow for rights of surrender, for prisoner of war rights, for a human face to take judgments on collateral damage. Humans are thinking, sentient beings. If a robot goes wrong, who is accountable? Certainly not the robot.”
He disputes the justification that deploying robot soldiers would potentially save lives of real soldiers. “Autonomous robotic weapons won’t get tired, they won’t seek revenge if their colleague is killed, but neither will my washing machine. No one on your side might get killed, but what effect will you be having on the other side, not just in lives but in attitudes and anger?
“The public is not being invited to have a view on the morals of all of this. We won’t hear about it until China has sold theirs to Iran. That’s why we are forming this campaign to look at a pre-emptive ban.
“The idea is that it’s a machine that will find a target, decide if it is the right target and then kill it. No human involvement. Article 36 in the Geneva Convention says that any new weapon has to take into account whether it can distinguish and discriminate between combatant and civilian, but the problem here is that an autonomous robot is not a weapon until you clip on the gun.”
At present, Sharkey says, there is no mechanism in a robot’s “mind” to distinguish between a child holding up a sweet and an adult pointing a gun. “We are struggling to get them to distinguish between a human being and a car. We have already seen utter incompetence in the use of drones, operators making a lot of mistakes and not being properly supervised.”
Last November the international campaign group Human Rights Watch produced a 50-page report, Losing Humanity: the Case Against Killer Robots, outlining concerns about fully autonomous weapons.
“Giving machines the power to decide who lives and dies on the battlefield would take technology too far,” said Steve Goose, arms division director at Human Rights Watch. “Human control of robotic warfare is essential to minimising civilian deaths and injuries.”
US political activist Jody Williams, who won a Nobel peace prize for her work at the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, is expected to join Sharkey at the launch at the House of Commons. Williams said she was confident that a pre-emptive ban on autonomous weapons could be achieved in the same way as the international embargo on anti-personnel landmines. “I know we can do the same thing with killer robots. I know we can stop them before they hit the battlefield,” said Williams, who chairs the Nobel Women’s Initiative.
“Killer robots loom over our future if we do not take action to ban them now,” she said. “The six Nobel peace laureates involved in the Nobel Women’s Initiative fully support the call for an international treaty to ban fully autonomous weaponised robots.”
© Guardian News and Media 2013
House Republicans strip LGBT, Native American protections from Violence Against Women Act
By David Ferguson
Saturday, February 23, 2013 16:14 EST
Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have answered the Senate’s proposal to renew the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) by presenting their own version of the bill, but with protections of LGBT Americans taken out and a loophole that could exempt Native Americans victims of domestic abuse.
According to Think Progress, the House bill could derail renewal of the VAWA, killing any momentum the Senate bill had gathered since its proposal on Feb. 12.
Huffington Post provided a link to the bill and section-by-section analysis, which found the bill lacking any mention of key protections included in the Senate version of the renewal.
The House bill removes “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” from “the list of underserved populations who face barriers to accessing victim services, thereby disqualifying LGBT victims from a related grant program,” wrote Huffington’s Jennifer Bendery. As a result, funds could potentially be witheld from LGBT-inclusive shelters and crisis centers.
States would have more discretion under the House version of the bill to determine what populations are being underserved, and are therefore more deserving of funding than others.
House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) said that protections included in the Senate bill for Native American victims of domestic violence are “unconstitutional.” Under the House bill, Native American tribal courts can prosecute non-Native American perpetrators of domestic abuse, but the maximum sentence those courts can impose is set at 1 year.
In his protest against the Native American protections included in the Senate bill, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) said that Native American juries are incapable of trying a white person fairly.
The House bill allows the accused to take their case to federal court if they feel their rights are being infringed upon. Think Progress reported, “Currently, Native American victims with non-native partners are caught in a limbo where tribal courts cannot touch perpetrators but federal law enforcement does not have jurisdiction.”
Kerry heads for Europe and Middle East for first trip as Secretary of State
By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, February 23, 2013 17:30 EST
America’s top diplomat John Kerry will begin on his first official trip as secretary of state on Sunday, a marathon get-acquainted tour of America’s closest allies in Europe and the Middle East.
Kerry will visit the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar from February 24 to March 6.
The first stop will be London, where Kerry will meet with senior British officials, State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Friday.
Kerry travels on to Berlin where, in addition to meeting Germans, he will encounter his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, for a tricky exchange at a time when Moscow and Washington are at loggerheads on many issues.
“Obviously, they know each other well from when Secretary Kerry was Senator Kerry, but it will be their first opportunity to sit down bilaterally as foreign ministers,” Nuland said.
Nuland added: “I would expect they’ll talk about all of the issues — bilateral, regional, global — but with a particular emphasis, I would expect, on Syria, Iran, DPRK (North Korea) and the bilateral issues of the day.”
The marathon trip underscores Washington’s new foreign policy imperative, which is subtly pivoting away from Asia and increasingly towards Europe.
Tyson Barker of the Bertelsmann Foundation thinktank said that, after a first term focused on relations with Pacific countries, President Barack Obama hopes “to consolidate and retro-fit some of our legacy relationships.”
He added that Obama has in Kerry someone who is “comfortable engaging with Europe, and someone with whom Europe is comfortable engaging.”
Kerry is a figure of standing in Washington.
He served for decades as a US senator, including a stint as the chairman of the chamber’s Foreign Relations Committee. He was also the Democratic party’s presidential nominee in 2004.
Among the issues high on his agenda during the marathon series of talks is a newly-announced effort to agree a mammoth free trade agreement between the United States and the European Union.
Obama announced the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership in his annual State of the Union address last month, and said the agreement would boost economic growth and jobs on both sides of the Atlantic.
Nuland added, on a personal note, that Kerry’s visit to Berlin “will also be an opportunity to reconnect with the city in which he lived as a child.”
The 69-year-old diplomat’s father, Richard Kerry, was a Foreign Service officer who was posted in Berlin, where John Kerry lived before being sent to a Swiss boarding school at the age of 11.
Kerry travels from Germany to Paris, where Nuland said he would meet senior French officials to discuss American assistance for France’s ongoing military operation against Islamist rebels in Mali.
On his next stop, in Rome, Kerry will concentrate on multilateral talks on the crisis in Syria, including with the leadership of the Syrian opposition coalition.
He then will then travel to Ankara for meetings with Turkish officials on a range of strategic issues, including Syria, counterterrorism cooperation and efforts to deepen US-Turkey bilateral cooperation.
His travels conclude in the Middle East.
In Egypt, Kerry will meet with political and business leaders and the secretary general of the Arab League, Nabil al-Arabi.
He will then go to Riyadh for meeting with Saudi leaders on “a broad range of shared concerns,” said Nuland.
Kerry then visits Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, and Doha, Qatar, key contacts for America as it confronts crises in Syria, Afghanistan, and the Middle East peace process.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Colombian president threatens to end peace talks with rebels
By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, February 23, 2013 18:00 EST
President Juan Manuel Santos, frustrated over a lack of progress in peace negotiations with leftist FARC rebels, threatened Saturday to abandon bilateral talks to end their nearly 50-year old conflict.
“As long as we make progress we’ll be satisfied, but if we do not make progress we’ll leave the negotiating table,” Santos said at a public event in the town of Santa Barbara, in the northwestern department of Antioquia.
Rebels with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Santos administration opened peace talks in Norway in October, and continued them in second-round talks that began in Cuba the following month.
The FARC declared a two-month unilateral ceasefire after the talks opened, but did not extend it after the government failed to reciprocate.
“The rules of the game are very clear,” Santos said Saturday.
“There is no ceasefire of any kind, neither military nor judicial, nor even verbal. These are the conditions that we set from the beginning.”
The two sides, which have been in conflict since 1964, are holding talks on the thorny issue of land reform, which tops a five-point peace process agenda.
Talks are being held on four additional points: the surrender of weapons by the rebels; turning the FARC into a political party; the illegal drug trade; and reparations for victims of the conflict.
The last attempt at a settlement collapsed in 2002 when rebels used a Switzerland-sized demilitarized zone set aside as an encouragement for peace to regroup and rearm.
FARC leader Timoleon Jimenez urged Santos in a letter posted on the rebel’s website on Friday to prevent the talks from “sinking in a swamp” as a result of the government’s “official actions.”
FARC negotiators also called on officials in Bogota to form a joint commission to interview peasants displaced by the conflict, to try to determine who is responsible for their plight.
The FARC accused Santos of leading a “mendacious media campaign” that blames the the rebels for pushing peasants off their land, in a bid to avoid talks on agrarian reform.
The five-decade-long conflict has dislodged some 3.7 million people in Colombia, one the highest number of internally displaced people in the world. Thousands of other Colombians have fled the country, especially to neighboring Panama.
The FARC, with some 8,000 fighters in arms, emerged in the 1960s in response to a yawning wealth gap between Colombian peasants and wealthy owners of huge haciendas, or estates.
Colombia’s unrest, which also involves a second leftist rebel group, the ELN, short for Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional or National Liberation Army.
The discussions also encompass Colombia’s right-wing paramilitaries, drug traffickers and the government forces attempting to impose order.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Ecuador’s president vows to push large-scale mining despite indigenous protest
By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, February 23, 2013 20:00 EST
Ecuador’s re-elected President Rafael Correa said Saturday he will push large-scale mining projects during his next four years in office, despite opposition from some indigenous groups.
“The Ecuadoran people have voted to responsibly take advantage of non-renewable resources,” said in a weekly address on his administration’s activities.
Correa, a socialist, said his goal was to use the country’s mining and oil wealth to eliminate poverty and said he was committed to “the Amazonian people and all the areas where there is mining or oil.”
A year ago, Correa’s government signed a contract with the Chinese company Ecuacorriente to mine copper in the Amazon basin province of Zamora-Chinchipe, in a major move to open the country to large-scale mining.
The country’s largest indigenous organization opposed the deal, however, and with the backing of opposition groups led a two-week-long protest march from the Amazon to Quito.
But Correa, who has been in power since 2007, won re-election last week in a landslide, with 56.77 percent of the vote, and he used his speech Saturday to criticize opponents of big mining.
“To hurt the government, they are hurting the country, the poor, that Amazonian region,” Correa said, adding that “we are not with the multinationals, we are with the poor.”
“We cannot be beggars sitting in front of a bag of gold,” he said.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Drones over there, total surveillance over here: The massive surveillance system built up over the last 10 years is the domestic companion of overseas drone killings.
Last Modified: 19 Feb 2013 11:05
There are at least 10,000 buildings across the US, with a massive concentration in Washington, DC, engaged in ongoing surveillance of all residing in the territory of the US [AP]
The big story buried in all the commentary about the US government's drone policy is that the old algorithm of the liberal state no longer works. Focusing on drones is almost a distraction, if it weren't for the number of men, women and children they have killed in only a few years. What we should focus on is the deeper condition that enables the drone policy, and so much more, and that is the sharp increase in unaccountable executive power, no matter what party is in power.
The 1960s and the 1970s saw the making of laws that called for the executive branch of government to be more responsive to basic principles of a division of power and accountability to citizens. Many of its owners were curtailed by the legislative. With Reagan, Clinton and especially Bush-Cheney, many of these laws were violated under the claim of a state of exception due to the "War on Terror".
What we are facing is a profound degradation of the liberal state. Drone killings and unlawful imprisonment are at one end of that spectrum of degradation, and the rise of the power, economic destructions and unaccountability of the financial sector are at the other end.
The massive surveillance apparatus built up over the last 10 years is the domestic companion of the overseas drone killings. It is one outcome of this deep decay of the liberal state. While much is not known about either, we know enough to recognise its potential for enormous abuse. What is known is that there are at least 10,000 buildings across the US, with a massive concentration in Washington, DC, engaged in ongoing surveillance of all of us residing in the territory of the US. Surveillance and counter-terrorism activities employ about one million professionals with top level secret clearance. One estimate has it that every day over two billion emails are tracked. And on and on along these lines.
The basic logic of such a surveillance system is that for our security as citizens we are all being surveilled, or potentially so. That is to say, the logic of the system is that we must all be considered suspect in a first step in order to ensure our safety. Who, then, have we the citizens become, or turned into? Are we the new colonials?
The source of this excess of executive power is a foundational distortion at the heart of the liberal state. The liberal state was never meant to bring equality of opportunity and full recognition of all members of the polity. Inequality was at its core since its beginning - between owners of the means of production and those who only had their labour to sell in the market. But even so, the so-called Keynesian period throughout much of the west engendered a prosperous working class and an expanding modest middle class. It was a partial democratising of the economy. In the 1980s, this began to disintegrate.
In the 2000s, just about all liberal democracies were in sharp decline, with growing inequality, weakened unions, impoverishment of the modest middle classes, and an enormous capture of the country's profits by the top layer of firms and households. This is all captured in a couple of numbers found in the US census: In 1979, the top 1 percent of earners in New York City received 12 percent of all the compensation to workers in the city, a reasonable level of inequality in a complex economy such as is NYC. (This share excludes non-compensation sources of wealth, such as capital gains, inheritance, etc.) In 2009, the top 1 percent received 44 percent - a level of inequality that cannot be good for the city's economy.
At its most extreme, this combination of massive surveillance and savage inequality may be signalling a new phase in the long history of liberal democracies, one where the executive branch gains power partly through its increasingly international activities. Over the last 20 years and more, this incipient internationalism has been deployed in support of developing a global economy and fighting the "War against Terrorism"; thus the big-bank bailout is not so much a "return of the strong nationalist state" as some would have it, but rather the use by the executive branch of national law and national taxpayers' money to rescue a global financial system.
This is a kind of internationalism. Pity it is being deployed for this. It is possible that these new international capabilities of the executive branch might be reoriented to more worthy aims - climate change, global hunger, global poverty and many others requiring new types of internationalisms.
Saskia Sassen is Robert S Lynd professor of sociology, and co-chairs the Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University. She is the author of Cities in a World Economy; Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages; A Sociology of Globalization (Contemporary Society Series) and others.
Click to watch the documentary: Inside Story Americas - Obama: Under surveillancehttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qGHo4hQ4x3A
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.
Syrian minister says regime is ready for peace talks with rebels
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, February 25, 2013 7:25 EST
The Syrian regime is ready to talk with all parties, including armed rebels, who want dialogue to end the conflict, Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem said on Monday at talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.
“We are ready for dialogue with all who want dialogue, including those who are carrying arms,” Muallem said at the Moscow talks with Lavrov, in an apparent reference to the rebels battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
“We still believe in a peaceful solution to the Syrian problem,” said Muallem, pointing to the creation of a government coalition that would negotiate with both the “external and internal opposition.”
Lavrov said alongside Muallem that there was no alternative to a political solution to the two-year conflict agreed through talks.
“There is no acceptable alternative to a political solution achieved through agreeing positions of the government and the opposition,” said Lavrov.
“We are for Syria to be independent, united, and for all Syrian citizens, regardless of their religion, to live freely in peace and democracy.
“The Syrian people should decide their fate without external intervention,” said Lavrov.
Lavrov added that the situation in Syria was “at the crossroads” but expressed optimism that a negotiated solution could be found.
“There are those who have embarked on a course of further bloodshed that risks the collapse of the state and society,” Lavrov said.
“But there are also sensible forces who are increasingly aware of the necessity to begin the talks as soon as possible to reach a political settlement.
“The number of supporters of such a realistic line is growing,” said Lavrov.
Lavrov had said last week there were positive signs from both sides of a new willingness to talk but called on the regime of Assad to turn oft-stated words about its readiness for dialogue into deeds.
The fighting — which according to the United Nations has claimed 70,000 lives since the conflict began in March 2011 — has further intensified in the last days as both sides press for the military advantage.
Russia has also been working on agreeing a trip to Moscow, possibly in early March, by the head of the Syrian opposition National Coalition Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib.
However the rebels have now pulled out of talks with foreign powers in protest at the international community’s inability to halt the bloodshed.
February 24, 2013
Syrian Opposition’s Complaints Shadow Kerry’s First Official Trip
By MICHAEL R. GORDON
LONDON — As John Kerry arrived at his first stop on his maiden trip as the United States secretary of state, American officials were struggling on Sunday to salvage an important meeting with the Syrian opposition.
Mr. Kerry and foreign ministers from Europe and the Middle East are scheduled to meet in Rome on Thursday with opponents of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, including Sheik Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, who leads the opposition. But they are threatening to boycott the conference to protest what they see as fainthearted international support.
To try to rescue the meeting, Robert S. Ford, the American ambassador to Syria and chief envoy to the opposition, was sent to Cairo on Sunday to implore opposition leaders to attend the session in Rome.
“The Syrian opposition leadership is under severe pressure now from its membership, from the Syrian people, to get more support from the international community,” said a senior administration official who was traveling on Mr. Kerry’s plane. “And in that context, there’s quite a bit of internal discussion about the value of going in international conferences.”
The issue upset the first day of a carefully choreographed trip that is intended to introduce Mr. Kerry as the chief American envoy and to give a lift to the diplomatic stalemate on Syria. Mr. Kerry, who took office this month, is traveling to Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar over 11 days.
Even before his trip was formally announced, Mr. Kerry raised expectations by saying he had new ideas on how to change Mr. Assad’s calculations that he could remain in power.
Mr. Kerry has not publicly explained the proposals, but they appear to include marshaling support from Russia, which has been providing arms and financial help to Mr. Assad. Toward that end, Mr. Kerry plans to meet in Berlin on Wednesday with Sergey V. Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister.
The meeting with the Syrian opposition is to be hosted by Italy. Last week, the European Union agreed to extend its embargo on weapons shipments to Syria for another three months, a move that precludes European arms shipments to the opposition.
But the European Union did agree to a British proposal that nonlethal assistance be expanded. As a result, body armor, night-vision goggles, armored vehicles and other equipment can be sent to armed opposition groups in Syria, an American official said.
So far, the Obama administration has not gone that far in its support. While the United States provides nonlethal assistance like computers and radios to the opposition, it has not been willing to provide nonlethal aid to armed factions within Syria, an approach that experts say has limited its influence with these groups.
State Department officials traveling with Mr. Kerry declined to discuss whether the United States would soon be prepared to take that step.
President Obama rebuffed a proposal last year from the State Department, the Pentagon and the C.I.A. that the United States arm and train a cadre of opposition fighters.
With the violence escalating, Aleppo under attack by Scud missiles and members of a quarrelsome Syrian opposition challenging the value of the Rome meeting — which was supposed to be a highlight of Mr. Kerry’s trip — the State Department issued a statement on Saturday evening that condemned the rocket attacks “in the strongest possible terms” and prodded the Syrian opposition to attend the session.
The statement continued, “We look forward to meeting soon with the leadership of the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, the Syrian Opposition Coalition, to discuss how the United States and other friends of the Syrian people can do more to help the Syrian people achieve the political transition that they demand and that they deserve.”
Morsi seeks meeting with opposition over Egyptian parliamentary elections
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, February 25, 2013 7:35 EST
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi on Monday called for a meeting with the country’s opposition to discuss upcoming legislative polls, amid calls for a boycott.
“I call on all the brothers in the different parties in all of Egypt to come… so we can sit and put in the place the guarantees for the transparency and fairness of the elections,” Morsi said in an interview on private satellite channel al-Mehwar.
The interview, which was due to be aired on Sunday evening, was transmitted hours later and ended at dawn, provoking much criticism on social networks.
Staggered parliamentary polls are set to start on April 22 over two months but opposition figures have slammed the timing of the vote while the country is gripped by political divisions and unrest.
Leading dissident Mohamed ElBaradei, coordinator of the opposition National Salvation Front (NSF), on Saturday called for a boycott.
“Called for parliamentary election boycott in 2010 to expose sham democracy. Today I repeat my call, will not be part of an act of deception,” he posted on his Twitter account.
The coalition organised massive protests against Morsi in November and December after he adopted now-repealed powers that shielded his decisions from judicial review.
Other NSF officials said the coalition, an alliance of mainly liberal and leftist parties, was yet to decide on its position.
Initially the election had been set to begin on April 27, with a new parliament to convene on July 6.
But the dates conflicted with pre-Easter and Easter holidays, prompting Morsi to announce new ones “in response to requests by Christian brothers,” a reference to the Coptic Church, his office said Saturday.
The Muslim Brotherhood — from which Morsi hails– and Islamist allies dominated the last parliamentary election in 2011 that resulted in an Islamist-majority house which a court annulled on a technicality before Morsi’s election last June.