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Four human rights bloggers abducted in Pakistan

Four campaigners for human rights and religious freedom have gone missing in Pakistan.

The four men, Salman Haider, a well-known poet and academic, and bloggers Waqas Goraya, Aasim Saeed, and Ahmad Raza Naseer, went missing or were taken away from different cities between January 4 and January 7.

All four were critical of militant religious groups and Pakistan’s military establishment, and used the internet to share their views.

As Human Rights Watch says, „their near simultaneous disappearance and the government’s shutting down of their websites and blogs raises grave concerns of government involvement. While the Pakistani interior minister, Nisar Ali Khan, directed the police on January 7 to speed up efforts to locate Haider, whom the government says it is not holding, a broader effort is needed to uncover the whereabouts and well-being of all four men.“

The government’s refusal to provide information on the whereabouts of a person taken into custody amounts to an enforced disappearance, says Human Rights Watch, which is a serious violation of international human rights law.

„‚Disappearances‘ place individuals outside the protection of the law and make them more vulnerable to torture and other abuses.“

Pakistan has a long history of intimidating or gagging dissenting voices.

Pakistani and international human rights groups have reported on the intimidation, torture, enforced disappearances, and killings of activists and journalists.

Lisboetas priced out by tourism surge

Lisbon is the latest destination discovered by mass tourism. Although recent, the phenomena is already drastically changing the dynamics of the Portuguese capital, especially in the historic quarter.

In the past three years, residents have observed hotels, short stay apartments and souvenir shops taking over the city´s traditional neighbourhoods, such as Alfama, Baixa and Bairro Alto. Consequently, locals have been priced out by the hike in house prices, often forced to relocate in the less-desirable outskirts, a process typical in gentrification.

Some argue that the rise in tourism in Lisbon has led to economic recovery and job creation. Areas of historical heritage which for many years have been left abandoned are now being regenerated and rejuvenated, witnessing an influx of more affluent people reusing buildings for bars and restaurants, offices and living spaces.

Nevertheless such redevelopment shouldn´t come at the expense of existing residents. Complaints are now commonly heard over landlords evicting people in order to earn more lucratively from incoming tourists. Whilst, entire blocks of flats have been converted into flats for short-term renting, fuelled by the success of companies like Airbnb, finding houses for long-term renting in the centre has become almost an impossibility.

The phenomena is not new, which people from cities such as London, Venice, Amsterdam, Berlin or Barcelona know all so well. The Catalan capital, home to 2 million people, receives 7.5 million tourists each year. To prevent the city from becoming a “souvenir shop for tourists”, mayor Ada Colau, a former housing activist, has implemented measures that include the freezing of new licences for hotels and private apartments. In Berlin, new rent-control legislation is also trying to halt uncontrollably rising prices.

Now these same worries have landed in the Portuguese capital. It’s hoped that Lisbon city councillors can learn from other European cities so that they can manage regeneration in a sustainable way, avoiding an irreversible process of gentrification while maintaining Lisbon’s identity and culture.  

Anarchy in the UK

It’s not often you hear of a humanitarian crisis in the UK, but that’s precisely how the Red Cross is describing the country’s crisis with its National Health Service (NHS). For many around the world, the NHS stands as a model of state-funded healthcare, that provides whatever service a patient may need, without the requirement for additional costs.

However, the ideology which began with the coalition government in 2010, and continued under David Cameron’s ill-fated administration, and now Theresa May’s, can be described in one word: Austerity. 

Austerity is not in itself a terrible idea. It simply means trimming away at public services which are inefficiently run, to be replaced by better and more practical services. For example, the government eliminated funding for many quasi-autonomous-non-governmental-organizations under the terms of austerity: Things like the Audit Commission spending wildly on office furniture were curtailed. That’s probably a good thing. However, austerity as an ideology can be disastrous, as it eliminates the idea of the state as protector of citizens. Instead, austerity becomes, quite plainly, the political voice of business. 

The Conservative government of the UK has cut investment into the NHS, in particular, with regard to junior doctors. The government sees an opportunity to save on providing full-time contracts for its employees: Instead, junior doctors are being offered less lucrative, but equally demanding work contracts. These contracts, while providing little job security, also stretch the employee to work throughout the week with little rest. In short, these contracts are exploitative. 

With the perfect storm of an ageing population, an increased demand on the health service, austerity, and an exploited generation of doctors, patients, as well as junior doctors, become the victims. 

Al-Jazeera reports: Speaking to the BBC, Professor Keith Willett, director of acute care for NHS England, disputed the Red Cross description of the situation as a humanitarian crisis. 

„On the international scale of a humanitarian crisis, I do not think the NHS is at that point,“ he said. „Clearly, demand is at the highest level ever. But also our planning is probably more comprehensive than it has ever been.

With the country likely to face a prolonged period of economic and political uncertainty in the next few years, this perfect storm might just become your everyday kind of weather. 

Kept in the Stone Age

Before raiding to topple the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the then U.S. President George W. Bush reportedly threatened to bomb Pakistan „back to the stone age“ after the September 11 attacks if the country did not cooperate with America’s war on Afghanistan.

Back then, very few people in the world knew about a patch of land between Pakistan and Afghanistan called the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which was previously treated by the British colonial rulers in India as a buffer state.

Still, many news followers just know that militants associated with global terrorist organisations like Al-Qaeda and Daesh are hiding here, but not all are aware that the law with which the government of Pakistan has ruled millions of people here is no less cruel than that of the Stone Age.

For start, just note that unlike rest of the country, the Constitution of Pakistan does not apply here!

The law of the land here is the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) that categorically states that three basic rights namely the right to request a change to a conviction in any court, the right to legal representation and the right to present reasoned evidence are not applicable to the residents of FATA. It permits collective punishment of family or tribe members for crimes of individuals, and denies the locals many basic rights provided to the rest of Pakistanis elsewhere in the country.

Recently, the younger generation of Pashtuns from FATA have mobilized themselves to push the Islamabad government to repeal this law. The Fata Siyasi Ittehad; an alliance of Wazir, Afridi, Momand, Orakzai, Bajur and other tribes, and the Fata Student Organisation (FSO) are at the forefront of this campaign.

Young men and women from this part of the world have every right to live in a civilized environment. Justice, transparency and fair play on the part of the government in FATA, which has been deprived of many other basic rights and developments as well, will also help curtail the growth of extremist ideologies and deny

Rohingya villagers beaten by Myanmar police as thousands flee to Bangladesh

A video published by the Guardian shows four policemen in Myanmar beating Rohingya villagers.

Myanmar’s de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has said the four officers have been detained and the incident will be investigated.

According to the Guardian the government had organised a trip for ambassadors in Myanmar to visit the area after embassies requested access. Rohingya rights activists say residents were ordered not to complain.

After years of persecution against the Muslim minority in Buddhist Myanmar this is hardly an adequate response.

Perhaps the Nobel Peace Laureate is finally trying to face up to international pressure. Suu Kyi has long been considered a human rights icon herself, living under house arrest for 15 years after giving up life with her husband and children in the UK in order to not abandon her own people.

But last week more than a dozen fellow Nobel laureates publicly condemned her government’s current crackdown on ethnic Rohingya, warning of the possibility of committing ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

Thousands of Rohingya continue to flee to Bangladesh. During bloody clashes in 2012 more than 100,000 ended up in squalid camps. More than 50,000 others have fled since October last year.

In-tray overflowing for new UN leader

The first United Nations secretary-general described the role as “the hardest job in the world”. With ongoing conflicts from Syria to South Sudan, with refugee crisis and terrorism, rising inequality and human rights violations, Norwegian Trygve Lie’s description still rings true today.

The beginning of 2017 sees a new leader installed at the world’s largest intergovernmental organisation, replacing Ban Ki-moon. That man will be Antonio Guterres, former Portuguese Prime Minister, unanimously elected by the 15 members of the Security Council.

Having led the Portuguese government between 1995 and 2002, he is credited for introducing a guaranteed basic income for the most vulnerable in society, whilst he also strongly supported the independence of East Timor, a former colony, against Indonesian occupation.

Afterwards he became the head of the UN refugee agency (UNHRC), a role he served for a decade and which has led him to promise to prioritise human rights in his new job as UN secretary-general. 

He has, furthermore, stated his ambition in achieving gender equality.  One of his strong concerns, which is evident in his choice of three women forming his top team, one from each continent: South Korean Kyung-Wha Kang, Brazilian Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti and Nigerian Amina J. Mohammed.

“Wars have no winners, only losers.” declares Guterres, adding that overcoming “political disagreements must require solidarity”. Now, as head of the UN, his strong communication and negotiation skills will be crucial in making real progress. However, injecting fresh impetus into the organisation, heavily criticised for its lack of intervention and inability in solving world crises, won’t be an easy task.

Old Year's Resolutions

Hello folks, welcome to 2017, blood relative of 2016, and young, frantic and ambitious, it’s looking to make its mark on the world. 

This year however, things have to be different. Last year, people in industrialised nations succumbed to a cheap, flimsy narrative of the year being the worst ever. The main problem with this idea is that it snatches agency away from people, and turns them into victims of blind, ruthless fate. Well, I don’t know about you, but I had to spend hours reading Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles and all those other old boys back in school, so it’s been clear to me and many other people throughout the ages, that this was the case anyway. However, being defenceless against fate doesn’t mean that:

a) Life is pointless.

or

b) You can’t do anything. 

2016 was bad, for sure. It saw the rise of reactionary nationalism and the failure of left-leaning liberalism – however, to moan on and on about the relentlessness of the year, and to lament that this year will be no different is a form of passive defeatism that neither I nor you should indulge. 

In other words, 2017 doesn’t have to be like last year – you can do something about it. 

Here’s what I will be doing more of this year: 

  1. Engaging more in my local community: Politics begins at home, and taking more steps towards local political action can have small but meaningful impacts for the area.
  2. Recycling more, using less, eating less meat: Yup, the environment, look after that sucker.
  3. Challenging hate more: Listen up people, I’m not scared of hate, right-wing anything or the radicalisation of youth, whether Nazi or Islamist or whatever, and neither should you be. You have nothing to fear but fear itself – so stand up to hate with more love, more kindness, and more bravery.
  4. Talk about victims more: ISIS claimed responsibility for an attack in Istanbul which left dozens dead. But we’ve heard enough about ISIS and who they are and what they want. What about the people who suffered? An international, multicultural suffering, with victims from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Iraq, Tunisia, India, Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, Canada, Israel, Syria and Russia. See, when you just talk about the perpetrators, this becomes an East vs West thing – this is a World vs Hate thing. 
  5. Reflect more: 2016 was the year of the bubble, apparently. So I will spend more time thinking about what I actually believe and why, incorporating other views in as much as possible. 
  6. Pay more: Pay for journalism, pay for news, pay for information, donate to charity, aid and political parties – writing and talking doesn’t get you everywhere. 

These don’t seem like massive changes – for sure, a single person making them won’t change the world. But at least it shows that the 2016-narrative was a flimsy one which we can do away with. This is a new year, and we can renew our engagements and commitments with some fresh perspective. Now, get out there, be fearless and thrive. 

Pakistan’s blind quest for nuclear energy

vernment in Pakistan inaugurated the country’s fourth nuclear power plant Chashma III this month as the desperate quest for electricity in the energy-starved nation continues.

The government has plans for at least three more nuclear power plants namely Chashma IV nuclear power plant, which will be completed by 2017, and Karachi Nuclear Power Projects K-2 and K-3 that would add a total of 8,800 megawatts by 2030 as envisaged by the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (AEE). The power projects are joint collaboration between the Pakistan and China.

The push for nuclear energy at a time when rest of the world is striving for the renewable energy has naturally caused concerns. Civil society groups in Pakistan have been opposing the government’s ambitious plans for nuclear energy, particularly expansion of nuclear reactors along the coast in the country’s biggest Karachi city.

Critics argue the government is enticed to proceed with construction of two additional 1,100 MW nuclear power plants of untested design, which are China’s first export of reactors to another country, because of the $ 6.8 billion soft loan offered by Beijing.

No doubt the country’s electricity crisis is of acute nature, but nuclear energy can never be a viable option in the longer run. Considering the poor standards of safety in Pakistan, and the fact that fuel for the nuclear power plants would be imported all the way from China means lives of millions of people is at risk, particularly the poor fishermen living near these plants.

Pervez Hoodbhoy, a leading nuclear physicist in the country, has been among the leading campaigners against the nuclear plants. He has time and again argued that instead of chasing outmoded and dangerous 20th-century technology, it is time for Pakistan to follow the world into a cleaner, safer

21st century, but the Pakistani government remains reluctant.

This is ironic considering the fact that Pakistan can generate more than 500, 000 megawatts of electricity from solar, wind and hydropower, which is many times more than the country can consume.

UN Security Council fails South Sudan

The United Nations Security Council may have managed to push through a historic resolution on Israel/Palestine before the Christmas break, but they failed to approve a resolution that would have imposed an arms embargo on South Sudan and placed a travel ban and asset freeze on three senior South Sudanese leaders.

The measure failed to gain the nine votes needed to pass, with seven in favor and eight abstentions.

“South Sudanese civilians had a reasonable expectation that the Security Council would make good on its long-standing threat to impose an arms embargo and extend sanctions to some of the senior leaders who have been responsible for grave human rights abuses” said John Prendergast, founding director at the Enough Project. “I can only imagine their frustration with today’s vote.”

Amnesty International, Control Arms, Enough Project, Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, Humanity United, Human Rights Watch, and PAX issued the statement jointly.

African Union and UN investigators have documented war crimes, including killings and rape of civilians, and forced recruitment of children by the warring parties in South Sudan since the conflict began on December 15, 2013. In the last few months there has been an increase in incitement to violence, hate speech by senior leaders, and targeting of civilians, sometimes based on ethnicity, in parts of the country that were previously untouched by the civil war.

“The Security Council had an opportunity to show that it stands with the civilian victims of this conflict,” said Akshaya Kumar, deputy United Nations director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead, this failure gives the warring parties in South Sudan a green light to buy more weapons and materiel that will end up being used against civilians.”

The coalition is especially concerned that the Security Council was unable to come together and take action recommended by the UN’s senior leadership, including the secretary-general and his adviser on genocide prevention. “Once again, we are seeing civilians in dire need of protection being abandoned by the Security Council,” said Dr. Simon Adams, executive director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. “We hope this effort can be revived in January when we have a new Security Council, with five new members.”

The coalition noted that some Security Council members cited President Salva Kiir’s December 2016 announcement of an inclusive national dialogue as a reason for not supporting the resolution. However, given the very limited role that nongovernmental groups, faith leaders, and women had in the process leading up to the August 2015 peace agreement, and the severe restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly in South Sudan, these assurances need to be tested.