26 November 2007

More Walls of Shame

Here are the last two episodes of the series "Walls of Shame" done by Al Jazeera English, this time covering the walls in the West Bank and Belfast.

Two more stories of walls promoting the perpetuation of isolation and division, walls reflecting prejudice and mistrust, walls denying understanding and reconciliation...

Episode Three - West Bank

"There is nothing new about so-called 'protective' walls - most ancient cities had them. The ones we see today around Jerusalem date from the 16th century. But the 21st century walls not only look different - they serve a different purpose.

Welcome to the most divisive and controversial wall in the world today. The 700km wall, costing $2m a kilometre has been criticised by the International Court of Justice, yet Israel claims it is vital for its security and the warding-off of suicide bombers.

This episode of the Walls of Shame series will look at the plight of Palestinian farmers whose land became inaccessible because of the wall, and the real intention of those who first drew its outlines. And their highest priority was not the security of Israel."

Part 1:

Part 2:

Episode Four - Belfast

"The modern history of Northern Ireland has been dominated by one thing, 'The Troubles' - a violent, bitter conflict, both political and religious, between those claiming to represent the predominantly Catholic nationalists and those claiming to represent the mainly Protestant unionists.

But what Northern Ireland has now is not so much 'peace' as 'an absence of conflict' after the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. Far from disappearing, the walls have grown. Instead of reconciliation, there is partition – an ill-tempered stalemate of separate identities and separated lives.

Broadly speaking, the nationalists – also called 'Republicans' - want Northern Ireland to be unified with the Republic of Ireland while the unionists want it to remain part of the United Kingdom, along with England, Wales and Scotland.

This episode of the Walls of Shame series looks at life on both sides of the barriers between the warring communities."

Part 1:

Part 2:

Walls of Shame - Episode Three, Al Jazeera English
Walls of Shame - Episode Four, Al Jazeera English

22 November 2007

Rape victim jailed and punished by Saudi court

Saudi Arabia is a country where gross human rights violations occur. Issues like prisoners of conscience and political prisoners, abolishment of freedom of expression and association, women's rights violations, abuses of migrant workers (by state authorities and by private employers), torture and ill-treatment, corporal punishments, body mutilations and the death penalty are common abuses.

In October 2006, a 19 year old woman met a male friend in his car, after which they were attacked by a gang of seven men who allegedly raped them both several times. As the victims reported the occurrence to the police, they were both sentenced to 90 lashes of the whip, for "illegal mingling".

Strictly following the Islamic Sharia law, Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where a woman cannot leave the house without written permission from her closest male relative. Among many other things they are also not allowed to drive, and have been banned from voting...

The 19 year-old woman, revolted with the situation spoke out in public about her case in an attempt to seek justice. As a response, last week, in November 14, the same court decided to increase her sentence to 6 months in prison and 200 lashes of the whip because of “her attempt to aggravate and influence the judiciary through the media”. The court also harassed her lawyer, banning him from the case and confiscating his professional license.

Human Rights Watch called on King Abdullah to immediately void the verdict and drop all charges against the rape victim and to order the court to end its harassment of her lawyer.

“A courageous young woman faces lashing and prison for speaking out about her efforts to find justice,” said Farida Deif, researcher in the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch. “This verdict not only sends victims of sexual violence the message that they should not press charges, but in effect offers protection and impunity to the perpetrators.”

Despite all of these facts, Saudi Arabia remains a key ally of the US and Britain's biggest trading partner in the Middle East.

In fact, a recent a lucrative new defence contract between Saudi Arabia and the UK made clear that it was business as usual between the two countries. In the end of October King Abdullah paid a state visit to Britain, having been a guest of the Queen at Buckingham Palace and having had a ceremonial welcome on Horse Guards Parade...

Rape victim punished for speaking out, Human Rights Watch
Saudi court punishes rape victim, Al Jazeera English
Report 2007: Saudi Arabia, Amnesty International
Saudi Human Rights Center

19 November 2007

Planet Ocean: Photo stories from the 'Defending our Oceans' voyage

This photobook, a joint publication by New Internationalist and Greenpeace, gathers incredible photographs taken on a 477-day voyage around the globe, which constituted the single largest expedition that Greenpeace has ever undertaken.

Three quarters of the planet is ocean and 80 per cent of all life lives here. They give us so much, yet we know relatively little about them. Planet Ocean is a window onto this secret world. Despite the vastness of the oceans we now know that they are in crisis, struggling to absorb the impact of our destructive ways. This is the story of our oceans - their extraordinary beauty and diversity of life - and the equally astounding ways in which they are exploited.

Greenpeace's "Defending our Oceans" campaign exposes the threats to the marine ecosystems, confronts the villains and promotes solutions such as a global network of ocean parks called marine reserves.

The main threats identified include:
  • Industrial fishing
  • Bycatch
  • Unfair fisheries
  • Fish farming
  • Global warming
  • Pollution
As for the book, and according to Greenpeace, it seems like it is selling out and there is already a second print on the line. I am sure it is worth every page...

Planet Ocean photobook, New Internationalist
Planet Ocean, New Internationalist
State of the world's Oceans, New Internationalist
Defending our Oceans campaign, Greenpeace
Defending our Oceans expedition, Greenpeace
Greenpeace Esperanza's photos, Flickr

14 November 2007

Walls of Shame

The television station Al Jazeera has recently broadcasted the first two episodes of a series called "Walls of Shame", which is worth watching...

"It matters little what they are called – whether walls, barriers or fences - the intention is the same: to redefine human relations into 'us' and 'them'. This series is about division, and about the barriers that men erect, in calculation or desperation, to separate themselves from others, or others from them. When diplomacy and conciliation fail, this is the alternative, and not since medieval times have walls been so in demand around the world. Tens of new walls, barriers and fences are currently being built, while old ones are being renovated. And there are many types: barriers between countries, walls around cities and fences that zig-zag through neighbourhoods.

This series will look at four examples of new and extended walls around the world. It will examine the lives of those who are living next to them and how their lives are impacted. It will also reveal the intention of the walls' designers and builders, and explore the novel and artistic ways walls are used to chronicle the past and imagine the future.

The Walls of Shame series takes its name from John F. Kennedy's reference to the Berlin Wall in his state of the union address in 1963. It will examine four new walls: The one on the American-Mexican border, the West Bank wall, the Spanish fence around Ceuta, and the walls inside the city of Belfast in Northern Ireland."

Episode One - US/Mexico

"A border of more than 3,000 kilometres separates the US from Mexico - but it is defined not only by physical barriers made of concrete and steel but by an immigration policy which is failing to address the issues behind illegal migration.

Despite the US spending billions of dollars on border enforcement, the lure of work sees illegal migrants enter the country at a rate of 850,000 a year.

A series of walls along the Mexican border were designed to stem this flow but based on current estimates it has failed.

Instead, the walls have re-routed human traffic into remote desert areas where people risk their lives in deadly conditions attempting to enter the US."

Part 1:

Part 2:

Episode Two - Morrocco/Spain

"The city of Ceuta is the southernmost outpost of fortress Europe. Yet it is on mainland Africa – opposite the Straights of Gibraltar. It is one of the last vestiges of Spanish rule in northern Morocco.

Madrid insists it will never relinquish control and has cordoned it off – prompting comparison with other walls of shame.

Now, though, there are growing demands for a more constructive approach to the problem of illegal immigration. One man has already started a grass-roots initiative that proved much more successful than walls and fences.

But within the town of Ceuta is another divide – a social division that is religious and economic - between the wealthy Christian Spaniards and their poorer Muslim compatriots of Moroccan descent."

Part 1:

Part 2:

Walls of Shame - Episode One, Al Jazeera English
Walls of Shame - Episode Two, Al Jazeera English

07 November 2007

Human Rights abuses shadow Olympic Games

When in 2001 the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2008 Olympic Games to Beijing, it did so as the Beijing bidding committee pledged that the hosting of the Games “will help the development of human rights” and most notably, “there will be no restrictions on media reporting and movement of journalists up to and including the Olympic Games”.

Nevertheless, the Chinese government has shown little substantive progress in addressing long-standing human rights concerns.

China has a well-documented history of serious human rights abuses, including widespread torture, censorship of the media and internet, controls on religious freedom, and repression of ethnic minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang. China continues to lead the world in executions. The government classifies the number of people executed as a state secret, but it is believed that China executes many more people than the rest of the world combined each year.

But the staging of the Olympics is exacerbating problems of forced evictions, migrant labour rights abuses, and the use of house arrests to silence political opponents. The government is continuing its crackdown on lawyers, human rights defenders and activists who dedicate themselves to rule of law and the exposure of rights abuses. Fear of citizen activism has led to government obstruction of local activists and grassroots organizations working to stem China’s HIV/AIDS epidemic. Fears of harm to China’s national image have even led Chinese officials to stop prominent activists from leaving the country.

In 2006, an international coalition of human rights organizations has issued a joint statement, saying the International Olympic Committee has failed to protect Olympic ideals and calling on national Olympic committees, athletes and sponsors to take action. Citing continuing human rights violations and political propaganda abuse of the Games by the Chinese authoritarian government, they say boycott is one of possible options of protest.

Being tomorrow China's official Journalists’ Day, the International Olympic Committee was urged by Human Rights Watch to end "its silence on the Chinese government’s ongoing violations of its pledge on media freedoms, a commitment it made to the IOC to win its bid to host the 2008 Olympics Games in Beijing".

This organisation has identified the following major areas for human right reform in the Olympic run-up:
  • Forced evictions and school closures
  • Labour rights abuses
  • Repression of ethnic minorities
  • Controls on religious freedom
  • The death penalty and executions
  • HIV/AIDS rights advocacy obstruction
  • Use of house arrest system
  • Ties with rights violators
Somehow it seems more likely that little will change, and that the IOC will close its eyes at these abuses, which undermine the "preservation of human dignity" that lies at the heart of the Olympic Charter...

Beijing 2008 - China's Olympian Human Rights challenges, Human Rights Watch
The Olympics countdown - failing to keep Human Rights promises, Amnesty Int.
Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008, Olympic Watch

01 November 2007

Biofuels, the misleading solution

With the approach of the oil peak, an increasing demand for energy and fuel and pressures to tackle climate change, biofuels were seen as the ultimate solution for the future.

In fact, in 2005 the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) presented a paper on a meeting of its Committee of Agriculture, where it advocated biofuels to help the diversification of agricultural and forestry activities and improve food security, while contributing to sustainable development. Also, biofuels are often claimed to be a renewable energy source which is carbon-neutral, because (when they are burnt) they release only the CO2 that was already in the atmosphere.

These arguments seem convincing enough for the rapid development of this technology, which also benefits from political (and economic) support of high-developed countries which are struggling to comply with quotas on carbon emissions as defined in the Kyoto protocol. As a result of this, in recent years there has been a massive increase on the production and use of this "green" energy source.

As such, in 2003 the European Union approved a directive on biofuels, where it stipulates that national measures must be taken by countries across the EU aiming at replacing 5,75% of all transport fossil fuels (petrol and diesel) with biofuels by 2010.

But the criticisms are many, and biofuels might actually be bringing more damage than benefit for both the environment and the people...

As it seems, these fuels are not carbon-neutral after all, as there are considerable CO2 emissions from the refinery and distillery process needed to produce biodiesel or bioethanol, from its transport, farm machinery use and fertiliser production, etc. Also, these fuels have been shown to generate bigger amounts of nitrous oxide (N2O), which are potent and long lasting greenhouse gases.

Also, biofuels is leading to a greater increase on agricultural intensification - already a major cause for biodiversity loss in the Global North - and deforestation of considerable areas of tropical forests (particularly in the Global South), with an unaccountable impact on its carbon sink function and the biodiversity that depends on it.

In response to the British government's Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO), which brings the UK into line with the European biofuels directive, some of Britain's biggest green groups (including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, RSPB and WWF) are warning that "the government risks implementing an ill-thought out policy which lacks the appropriate safeguards, meaning that the government could be creating more problems than it solves".

Specifically, they criticise the lack of any regulations concerning these. This way, and in order to support the RTFO, they demand:
  • Ensure that biofuels meet strict externally audited, widely accepted and mandatory sustainability and greenhouse gas balance standards, including at least a 50 per cent saving on greenhouse gases compared to fossil fuels, taking a whole life-cycle approach
  • Take account of the greenhouse gases caused by land-use change and forest clearance to grow biofuels so that where high carbon land-uses are lost, no saving is claimed.

Also, in August 2007 Jean Ziegler, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food presented a report to the General Assembly on "The impact of biofuels on the right to food, protection gap for people fleeing from hunger". In this report he alerts:
  • There are serious risks of creating a battle between food and fuel that will leave the poor and hungry in developing countries at the mercy of rapidly rising prices for food, land and water.
  • If agro-industrial methods are pursued to turn food into fuel, then there are risks that unemployment and violations of the right to food may result, unless specific measures are put in place to ensure that biofuels contribute to the development of small-scale peasant and family farming.
The report ends with a series of conclusions and recommendations for governments on the realization of the right to food, which include:
  • States should establish a five-year moratorium on all initiatives to develop biofuels through converting food into fuel. This should provide time for an assessment of the potential impact on the right to food, as well as on other social, environmental and human rights, and should ensure that biofuels do not produce hunger.
  • States should ensure that biofuels are produced from non-food plants, agricultural wastes and crop residues, rather than food crops, in order to avert massive rises in the prices of food, water and land and the diversion of these resources away from food production. This will require immediate massive investment in “second generation” technologies for producing biofuels.
  • States should adopt appropriate measures to ensure that biofuel production is based on family agriculture, rather than agro-industrial methods, in order to avert creating hunger and instead create employment and rural development that does not bypass the poor.
  • The right to food is a human right. Leaving people to suffer from hunger, famine and starvation is a violation of human rights.
Finally, when presenting this report to the public and the media, in New York, the Rapporteur also stated that "It is a crime against humanity to convert agricultural productive soil into soil which produces food stuff that will be burned into biofuel."

So, there seems to be a lot of misleading "truths" about biofuels, some of them undoubtedly nourished by big economic lobbies which are already making much profit of this "green" technology...

Bioenergy, key to the fight against hunger, FAO Newsroom
Biofuels, Greenpeace
Biofuels - a big green con?, Friends of the Earth
Biofuels: Renewable energy or environmentl disaster in the making?, BiofuelWatch
Biofuels could add to greenhouse gas emissions
UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food