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Write like someone's life depends on it

Ever December Amnesty International runs its Write for Rights letter-writing campaign.

Their millions of community members write letters and sign petitions in support of those wrongly imprisoned, to halt human rise abuses, to work to prevent climate change.

In the case of letter writing, they ask people to write two letters. „One is to the person in authority – it could be a king, president or head of police – who can help make change happen. And the other letter is to the person (or group of people) we are fighting for, so they know we will never forget them.“

On this year’s Christmas letter list: Edward Snowden, defenders of indigenous rights, graffiti protestors in Azerbaijan, among other human rights defenders.

The Amnesty campaign has a track record of success. This year four human rights defenders were freed following the Write for Rights campaign last year. They include a student leader in Myanmar, a torture victim in Mexico, and two youth activists in the DRC.

They list more successes, as well as this year’s letter subjects, on their website. This year each imprisoned subject has been illustrated by Ai Weiwei, the Chinese dissident artist who was previously imprisoned himself for opposing China’s regime.

Victories and setbacks in Poland

Human Rights campaigners and NGOs in Poland have been dealt a potentially damaging blow by the country’s conservative government. Last week, Prime Minister Beata Szydlo announced plans to create a new department, which will centralise state funding and therefore “bring order to the whole sphere of NGOs”.

Highly criticised by human rights activists since arriving to power in October 2015, the right-wing Law and Justice government has now started to apply pressure on NGOs that have recently achieved important victories.

In October, several Polish streets were packed with demonstrators protesting against a controversial proposal of an outright ban of abortion in Poland (a country that already has one of the most restrictive laws in Europe). Dressed in black, thousands of women participated in mass protests demanding more freedom and the right to decide about their own body.

After the vast demonstrations, the Law and Justice party —that is closely aligned to the Catholic Church— initially backed the proposal but ended up withdrawing its support for the law, which was later rejected by the Polish parliament.

This historic victory of Polish activism and social movements has revitalised feminism in Poland but, at the same time, has fuelled anger towards the ruling party which has responded with the new measures against NGOs. However, this may ultimately trigger a sharp rise in activism from an empowered Polish civil society.

What do we need to do to make 2017 a good year?

Last week, I wrote a little about the nature of end-of-year lists, and how simple they are to construct, even when they cover pretty devastating topics. 2016 has been in many respects a pivotal year for the socially-liberal West – yet, the socially-liberal West will probably be the last to feel the consequences of this year. Syrians and refugees from the war, as well as people living in the world’s hottest regions, will be the first.

Well, right now I want to ask what would actually go into making 2017 a good year. Rather than discuss Matteo Renzi’s defeat in the referendum, or ask what made Austria reject the far-right (they probably came to their senses after seeing Trump et al), 2017 in many ways looks like it will be even more challenging than 2016.

Here’s what I think are some of the most important things we can do to make 2017 a good year:

1) Stand up to bullshit: So much has been written about the Left’s detachment from reality and its need to reconnect with working people. Agreed. I think that’s something we need to do. But so does the Right. We need to stop playing the role of the idiot-victims of our own sense of superiority. I don’t see the Right saying ‚oh maybe we need to analyze our failures and shortcomings, our preconceptions and racial/ gender issues‘. We need to face our issues, for sure, but don’t make it all about ourselves. Stay as a part of the world.

2) Contribute to climate change movements: The world is changing, and the public will to limit climate change is threatened, as the American government looks set to revert to fossil fuel production. However, there is hope if we take action together, and support groups like 350.org and Greenpeace, as well as change our own behaviours to conserve energy. There’s basically never been a situation like this before – where the facts are laid bare in front of everyone, and the world’s most advanced power ignores them, as well as the people’s will. So change, contribute and work towards limiting this inevitability.

3) Don’t turn off: Don’t retreat into quietism. Stay loud, stay active. Its tempting just to think ‚forget this, I’m off on holiday‘ – but it’s necessary to stay alert and alive to the issues ahead.

4) Take care of one another: This is for all years, not just 2017, but I feel that it was all too easy in 2016 to wail on social media about how cruel and strange the world was, and not do anything in real-life to help others. Nah. Stop that.

5) Stop putting things in annual brackets: 2017 is just another year. What matters is how we make shifts in our attitudes and in our willingness to take problems on. Next year won’t be better than this one, unless we are willing to make it so, and to stop being passive recipients of news and culture – let’s make it!

On the mercy of others

A provincial assembly in Pakistan introduced one of a kind law against forceful religious conversions last week.

The bill recommended a five year punishment for perpetrators and facilitators of forceful religious conversions in the southern Sindh province that homes majority of Hindu minority in the country who has long been complaining of forceful conversions.

The bill dubbed as ‘The Sindh Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) Bill 2015” was lying on the speakers table for over a year before taken-up for debate and ultimate approval on the November 24.

Days after this landmark bill was passed by the legislators, leaders of the far-right religious parties not only denounced it publicly but called for the complete dismissal of the elected assembly for this ‘un-Islamic’ law. “The Sindh government is converting the province into ‘Kafiristan’ [land of the infidels] with such un-Islamic decisions,” Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, one of the top religious leaders in the country said.

In defiance of the rhetoric presented by the far-right, representatives of the Hindu community slammed those opposing the new law, and came with a counter narrative of their own. Ramesh Kumar, Patron-in-Chief of the Pakistan Hindu Council demanded the law against forced conversions to be introduced across the country.

No doubt, the issue at hand here has the lives of hundreds of thousands of citizens associated with it. But, the fact that even the existing laws of the land and the basic human rights of the citizens are not respected the fundamental forces are seizing opportunities to further infringe upon the lives of individuals with self-styled interpretation of the religion.

In this case, both the Muslim and Hindu leaders are sort of imposing their perceived versions of ‘right life style’ upon many young men and women who should rather have the liberty to choose for them whatever they feel suitable.

According to representatives of the Hindu community, more than 250 cases of conversion, mostly involving Hindu girls, had taken place in the province last year alone. Similarly, a number of incidents, no exact figures available, of conversions from Islam to other religious have also taken place. And there have been quite a few incidents when converts with consent from one religion to another have faced persecution of a grim nature. 

So, if the choices imposed upon the individuals by fundamental forces outweigh the basic rights of the individuals than things could get only worst for minorities as well the majority.  

Saudi prince says ban on women driving is '"unjust"

Billionaire Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal supports an end to the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia.

“Preventing a woman from driving a car is today an issue of rights similar to the one that forbade her from receiving an education or having an independent identity,” Alwaleed said in a statement. “They are all unjust acts by a traditional society, far more restrictive than what is lawfully allowed by the precepts of religion.”

But rather than sticking to the simple principle of equality, he also pointed to the economic benefits of allowing women to drive.

He reasoned that allowing women to drive themselves around would cut the cost of having to pay drivers, and increase productivity as husbands wouldn’t have to dip out of work to transport their wives.

“Having women drive has become an urgent social demand predicated upon current economic circumstances.“

Theses current circumstances were caused by a 50% drop in oil prices last year, cutting government spending and pushing up prices for everyday services in Saudi Arabia.

Earlier this year the kingdom of Saudi Arabia announced its Vision 2030 plan which included increased employment, including for women.

The rest of the royals are yet to be convinced that women should be able to drive in Saudi Arabia.

But maybe if the the economic benefits can be proven… As the saying goes, the future is female.

Fuel poverty - still a killer in Western Europe

You might not expect Western Europe to be crippled by fuel poverty in the 21st century, but it is. And year on year it remains an important cause of death among the most vulnerable in society.

Recently, outrage throughout Spain was sparked by the death of an 81-year old woman caused by fuel poverty. Rosa was living in Reus, Catalonia, when her electricity was cut off because of failed payment. As a result, she had been lighting her house with candles, which led to her death in a catastrophic fire. This tragic episode ignited demonstrations in Madrid and in other Spanish cities, raising awareness of the issue. “Fuel poverty kills. Nobody without electricity”, they chanted.

However, she is not the only victim of this kind of poverty in Europe. In Spain alone, 7000 deaths could be avoided each year if the population had access to appropriate fuel supplies, according to a report published by Environmental Sciences Association (ACA in its Spanish acronym). Besides from the threat of fires, illnesses aggravated by low temperatures such as pneumonia, circulatory system diseases or even mental health problems are associated with premature deaths.

The Mediterranean countries, hugely weakened by the financial crisis that began in 2007, suffer a greater impact of fuel poverty, affecting 17% of the population in Spain, 22% in Portugal and 26% in Greece. But the phenomenon extends across Europe, affecting around 125 million people, according to the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC).

It is no coincidence that these countries bear the highest prices set by energy companies, taking into account the average income of the population. Such firms have come under heavy criticism and were urged to stop cutting off basic supplies to vulnerable people. Their prices are especially shocking in the backdrop of excessive executive bonuses and large dividends paid out to stockholders.

The absolute best of 2016

I’ve seen my first end-of-year list: The best books of 2016. This is probably the most innocuous list of this kind – an array of products lined up for the Christmas shopping season (that’s a really weird phrase, by the way) for sure, but decent products at least. However, one of my colleagues tells me also one of the reasons journalists spend most of December listing the previous year, and most of January listing the forthcoming year, is because basically they’re busy – not just shills that’ve long since sold out to corporations long ago.

So in the spirit of that, here is my brief list of ways 2016 has actually been a transformational year for us all.

1. The collapse of Western certainty: For sure we’ve all heard too much about Trump and Brexit already, as well as the potential for France and Italy to similarly give in to a wave of populism – all in all, the Western world has gone from being certain, defined, publicly robust and socially liberal, to uncertain, reactionary and socially regressive. This isn’t to say these forces haven’t always been present in the Western world, it’s just that now, in 2016, these are some of the most concretely powerful forces there are.

2. Climate change is a sure-thing: Nothing new there then. But 2016 is the year that those with most power will have turned their backs on the responsibility to act. While smaller nations like Morocco and Bangladesh recently committed to meet their climate change targets, Trump has publicly committed to only having ‚an open mind‘ about what he has previously described as ‚bullshit‘. Climate change will always have gone ahead, but now, without American commitment to action on climate change, the environment will spin out of control, and we can look forward to a series of man-made catastrophes ahead.

3. Fundamentalism became the norm: This is the year that all kinds of raging emotions and irrationality became the political norm, with any kind of moderation and reasoned discussion dismissed as ‚career politics‘ or worse, ‚centrist nonsense‘. Populism has been on the rise for at least a decade, but it never was a global norm: Now, traditional right-wing parties and politicians (like Francois Fillon) look totally moderate by comparison.

4. Social media made its mark: A few years ago, people were celebrating the rise of people-power through social media – the Arab Spring came to represent a new political ideal, where people directly impacted the democracies in which they lived through increased connectivity. That may have been a cause worthy of celebration, but the Arab Spring was an anomaly that quickly subsided into reactionary politics. Instead we have seen the impact that social media truly has. By offering personalized (and often fake) news, people have become more divided, and more easily radicalized online. Well done Zuckerberg.

5. Lists have gotten out of control: OK so nothing happened to our desire to list and bullet-point every global going on this year, but it’s true – complexity is disappearing, and lists are partly to blame. I’m sorry I wrote this. Have a great rest of the month, and turn your laptop off, read a book and don’t waste any resources. We’ve got a bad year ahead of us.

Yet another blood-stained chapter

This week wrote yet another blood-stained chapter in the history of Afghanistan’s persecuted ethnic Shia-Haraza minority who has long been complaining of discrimination on the basis of their religious belief.

A suicide bomber, allegedly associated with the so-called Islamic State (IS), ripped through Hazara men praying inside a mosque in the heart of the Afghan capital Kabul on Monday November 21. The attack claimed 27 lives, including children, and left more than 30 wounded. This was the third targeted attack on this minority in Kabul city in less than a year!

Over 80 Hazara community members died when two suicide bombers detonated their explosives in the middle of a protests rally in July. This was followed by an armed assault on a mosque belonging to the Hazara community in downtown Kabul that claimed eight lives. Apart from these armed assaults, the Hazara community members are frequently abducted while travelling on the country’s deadly highways from one province to another.

Afghanistan has been witnessing large scale armed conflict for the past four decades now but sectarian strife was never as pronounced as it has become in the past two years. These appalling attacks have once again highlighted the bloody, expanding footprint of the militant Islamic State group in Afghanistan that has shaken the fabric of national unity in the war-torn nation.

The Hazara community represents around 10 percent of Afghanistan’s population yet it represents a relatively higher percentage of the country’s educated populace; particularly educated and professional girls and women. But, despite their services to the community, they remain an easy target due to their distinct facial features for fanatic organizations like the IS and Lashkar-i-Jhangavi.

It is worth noticing that most of the IS fighters hail from the Orakzai tribal agency across the Durand Line in Pakistan.

Unlike many of its neighbours, Afghanistan has surprisingly remained immune to the sectarian rift between the majority Sunni and minority Shia communities. This rift has devastated countries like Iraq, Syria and Pakistan but, if no measures are put in place to stop the persecution of this religious minority, the Afghans might well find themselves caught in yet another deadly circle that would shatter the society from within.

As Afghanistan passes through the so-called decade of transition (2014-2024) following the end of NATO’s 15-year old combat mission, the Kabul government needs to make sure it does not turn a blind eye to segment of the society that has long been persecuted. 

Trump brings big trouble to NASA

There are lots of speculations of the future policies by the new elected US president Donald Trump. But his candidates for the White House crew don’t give lots of hopes neither.

The ink on the Marrakesh’s climate summit resolution is not even dry yet, as Bob Walker, a senior Trump campaign adviser, hits the Nasa’s Earth science division with „good news“.  According to the Guardian Trump wants to eliminate all climate change research conducted by Nasa as part of a crackdown on “politicized science”.

“We see Nasa in an exploration role, in deep space research,” Walker told the Guardian. “Earth-centric science is better placed at other agencies where it is their prime mission.

Once again, Trump – who describes climate change as a “hoax” and has already vowed to “cancel” last year’s Paris climate agreement – gives a glimpse on how policy in Washington will change under his administration.

It does not need no rocket science nor even “politicized science” to understand that the United States are the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas polluter, after China. Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State University, said to the Guardian: “Without the support of Nasa, not only the US but the entire world would be taking a hard hit when it comes to understanding the behavior of our climate and the threats posed by human-caused climate change.”