Thursday, April 28, 2005

Interpreting "The Interpreter"

Will Hollywood rescue the UN? Posted by Hello

Partly out of curiousity, and partly because I had nothing better to do, Leila & I went to watch The Interpreter on Sunday night. I have to say I liked it more than I expected. Since I work on UN Reform issues at work, I was interested to see how the United Nations would be portrayed & it was heartening to see Hollywood to do a great job - not only does the movie emphasize the importance of the UN in the world but it talks about the importance of the International Criminal Court! Nicole Kidman & Sean Penn do a brilliant job & I have to say that Penn has earned another fan - although I'm not as bad as Leila who is now stored on my cell phone as "Mrs Sean Penn"!

When I was in New York about 4 years ago, I had $5 left on my last day & that is exactly what the student fee was for a UN tour! It is a very impressive structure & the film is beautifully shot - I strongly recommend you to watch the movie. At a time, when the popularity of the UN is low amongst many Americans and Congressmembers, I hope the movie will help people realize why the UN was created in the first place after WWII...

From the Cape Times:

In the first-ever film shot at the United Nations, 17 people get killed in a bus bombing, another is slain in the house of peace itself and a white woman tries to kill a black dictator because she thinks the international justice system is not tough enough.

But UN officials believe Sydney Pollack's The Interpreter, with Oscar winners Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn, can do for the world body what deadpan diplomats cannot: spice it up, make it cool.

"We felt it was going to get a lot of people into the movie theatres to see things about the UN, who would not otherwise have paid much attention to this organisation," said UN spokesman Shashi Tharoor, who helped get secretary-general Kofi Annan to agree to the filming.

"The basic story of The Interpreter seems to me to showcase the values that this institution stands for," he said of the movie.

The UN had turned down Alfred Hitchcock's request to film in the delegates' lounge for the 1959 North by Northwest. Pollack, however, not only filmed the lounge, but the General Assembly, the Security Council, the carpeted corridors, the seedy back rooms and the garden

Yet, despite Kidman's character talking of the power of words over guns, guns are a large part of the fast-paced film.

Kidman plays an interpreter from a volatile fictional African country who overhears an assassination plot against her country's leader, who is about to address the General Assembly, and becomes a target herself. Penn plays a secret service agent suspicious of her claims.

There is a big bomb blast on a Brooklyn bus, slashed wrists in the Chelsea Hotel, and a killing on UN premises, not to mention ethnic cleansing and political oppression in a fictional African country.

And Kidman puts a gun to a tyrant's head shortly before the Security Council sends him to the International Criminal Court.

"I am enormously sympathetic to the UN," said Oscar-winning director Pollack. "But I know better than to try to spend $80 million to make a propaganda film. It's boring.

"Kidman's character speaks "Ku," a mock language based on Swahili and Shona, and works at the as a French-English interpreter.

"I had to make sure the text she was going to read was correct French," said chief UN interpreter Brigitte Andreassier-Pearl, who served as a consultant to Pollack.

Her scarf and watch are incorporated into Kidman's persona, and Andreassier-Pearl fielded many questions on where the interpreters eat and what they wear.

Dress, she told them, is casual. "It's not the corporate world. You don't come in jeans either." But she was more amused by the fake red-and-white UN pass Kidman wore because "it really looked like mine".

It was Andreassier-Pearl's tour of the back steps to find the "scariest place she knew" that provided the backdrop for a killing. And her tour of the staff lockers figures in another scene: "When they saw the row of lockers, they were just in awe."

And they were "very intrigued by our phone booths. They are quite antiquated", she said.

But she said she was puzzled that Kidman's character drove to work on a scooter.

"No one comes to work on a Vespa in New York," she said.


From Human Rights Watch:

The crimes at Abu Ghraib are part of a larger pattern of abuses against Muslim detainees around the world, Human Rights Watch said on the eve of the April 28 anniversary of the first pictures of U.S. soldiers brutalizing prisoners at the Iraqi jail.

Human Rights Watch released a summary (
below) of evidence of U.S. abuse of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, as well as of the programs of secret CIA detention, “extraordinary renditions,” and “reverse renditions.”

“Abu Ghraib was only the tip of the iceberg,” said Reed Brody, special counsel for Human Rights Watch. “It’s now clear that abuse of detainees has happened all over—from Afghanistan to Guantánamo Bay to a lot of third-country dungeons where the United States has sent prisoners. And probably quite a few other places we don’t even know about.”

Human Rights Watch called this week for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate the culpability of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and ex-CIA Director George Tenet, as well as Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, formerly the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the former commander of the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba in cases of crimes against detainees. It rejected last week’s report by the Army Inspector General which was said to absolve Gen. Sanchez of responsibility.

“General Sanchez gave the troops at Abu Ghraib the green light to use dogs to terrorize detainees, and they did, and we know what happened, said Brody. “And while mayhem went on under his nose for three months, Sanchez didn’t step in to halt it.”

Human Rights Watch also expressed concern that, despite all the damage that had been done by the detainee abuse scandal, the United States had not stopped the use of illegal coercive interrogation. In January 2005, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales claimed in a written response during his confirmation hearings that the prohibition on cruel, inhuman, or degrading (CID) treatment does not apply to U.S. personnel in the treatment of non-citizens abroad, indicating that no law would prohibit the CIA from engaging in CID treatment when it interrogates non-Americans outside the United States.

Human Rights Watch said that the U.S. government was still withholding key information about the treatment of detainees, including directives reportedly signed by President George W. Bush authorizing the CIA to establish secret detention facilities and to “render” suspects to countries where torture is used.

“If the United States is to wipe away the stain of Abu Ghraib, it needs to investigate those at the top who ordered or condoned abuse and come clean on what the president has authorized,” said Brody. “Washington must repudiate, once and for all, the mistreatment of detainees in the name of the war on terror.”

U.S. Abuse of Detainees around the World


Nine detainees are now known to have died in U.S. custody in Afghanistan—including four cases already determined by Army investigators to be murder or manslaughter. Former detainees have made scores of other claims of torture and other mistreatment. In a March 2004 report, Human Rights Watch documented cases of U.S. personnel arbitrarily detaining Afghan civilians, using excessive force during arrests of non-combatants, and mistreating detainees. Detainees held at military bases in 2002 and 2003 described to Human Rights Watch being beaten severely by both guards and interrogators, deprived of sleep for extended periods, and intentionally exposed to extreme cold, as well as other inhumane and degrading treatment. In December 2004, Human Rights Watch raised additional concerns about detainee deaths, including one alleged to have occurred as late as September 2004. In March 2005, The Washington Post uncovered another death in CIA custody, noting that the case was under investigation but that the CIA officer implicated had been promoted.

Guantánamo Bay, Cuba:

There is growing evidence that detainees at Guantánamo have suffered torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. Reports by FBI agents who witnessed detainee abuse—including chained detainees forced to sit in their own excrement—have recently emerged, adding to the statements of former detainees describing the use of painful stress positions, use of military dogs to threaten detainees, threats of torture and death, and prolonged exposure to extremes of heat, cold and noise. Ex-detainees also said they had been subjected to weeks and even months in solitary confinement—at times either suffocatingly hot or cold from excessive air conditioning—as punishment for failure to cooperate. Videotapes of riot squads subduing suspects reportedly show the guards punching some detainees, tying one to a gurney for questioning and forcing a dozen to strip from the waist down. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has told the U.S. government in confidential reports that its treatment of detainees has involved psychological and physical coercion that is “tantamount to torture.”


Harsh and coercive interrogation techniques such as subjecting detainees to painful stress positions and extended sleep deprivation have been routinely used in detention centers throughout Iraq. The Schlesinger panel appointed by Secretary Rumsfeld noted 55 substantiated cases of detainee abuse in Iraq, plus 20 instances of detainee deaths still under investigation. The earlier report of Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba found “numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses” constituting “systematic and illegal abuse of detainees” at Abu Ghraib. Another Pentagon report documented 44 allegations of such war crimes at Abu Ghraib. An ICRC report concluded that in military intelligence sections of Abu Ghraib, “methods of physical and psychological coercion used by the interrogators appeared to be part of the standard operating procedures by military intelligence personnel to obtain confessions and extract information.”

CIA “Disappearances” and Torture:

At least 11 al-Qaeda suspects, and most likely many more, have “disappeared” in U.S. custody. The Central Intelligence Agency is holding the detainees in undisclosed locations, with no notification to their families, no access to the International Committee of the Red Cross or oversight of any sort of their treatment, and in some cases, no acknowledgement that they are even being held, effectively placing them beyond the protection of the law. One detainee, Khalid Shaikh Muhammed, was reportedly subjected to “water boarding” in which a person is strapped down, forcibly pushed under water, and made to believe he might drown. It was also reported that U.S. officials initially withheld painkillers from Abu Zubayda, who was shot during his capture, as an interrogation device.

“Extraordinary Renditions”:

The CIA has transferred some 100 to 150 detainees to countries in the Middle East known to practice torture routinely. In one case, Maher Arar, a Canadian in transit in New York, was detained by U.S. authorities and sent to Syria. He was released without charge from Syrian custody ten months later and has described repeated torture, often with cables and electrical cords. In another case, a U.S. government-leased airplane transported two Egyptian suspects who were blindfolded, hooded, drugged, and diapered by hooded operatives, from Sweden to Egypt. There the two men were held incommunicado for five weeks and have given detailed accounts torture, including electric shocks. In a third case, Mamdouh Habib, an Australian in American custody, was transported from Pakistan to Afghanistan to Egypt to Guantánamo Bay. Now back home in Australia, Habib alleges that he was tortured in Egypt with beatings and electric shocks, and hung from the walls by hooks.

“Reverse Renditions”:

Detainees arrested by foreign authorities in non-combat and non-battlefield situations have been transferred to the United States without basic protections afforded to criminal suspects. `Abd al-Salam `Ali al-Hila, a Yemeni businessman captured in Egypt, for instance, was handed over to U.S. authorities and “disappeared” for more than a year and a half before being sent to Guantánamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. Six Algerians held in Bosnia were transferred to U.S. officials in January 2002 (despite a Bosnian high court order to release them) and were sent to Guantánamo.


Sunday, April 24, 2005

Happy Birthday!

Tomorrow, Shias celebrate the birthday of the Holy Prophet Mohamed (peace be upon him) 17th Rabi' al-Awwal, which marks the 3rd month in the Islamic calendar. Sunnis celebrate this auspicious holiday 5 days earlier on the 12th. It is celebrations like these that make me homesick because I will be by myself with no goodies instead of in the mosque all dressed up with my family & friends. Ah well, I celebrate in my heart...

From the World Federation of Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheris:

The 17th of Rabi' al-Awwal marks the entrance into this world of the final Prophet and Messenger of Allah, Muhammad ibne Abdullah (peace be upon him and his family). With his coming, the spiritual darkness that had plagued the entire world was lifted and the rays of true monotheism were able to once again shine.

Undoubtedly, this is one of the greatest events of celebration – the birth of the person referred to as the “Mercy to the Universe.” The man whose mission had a profound impact and even today is remembered throughout the Muslim world in a month of celebrations – that commemorates both the man and the message.

Born an orphan, al-Mustafa (peace be upon him and his family) lost his father a few months before coming into this world. The Prophet was raised by his mother and other close family members in the precincts of the first house of worship built for mankind, Mecca. Forced to give up his mother to the Almighty some years later, it was perhaps through the hand of providence such losses strengthened his character.

The Prophet’s life is full of examples for us. We just need to look at the various aspects of his life to better appreciate his contributions. Such articles can only scratch the surface; it is then up to each one of us to investigate further to learn the entire Sirah (life) of the leader of humanity.

His life before he was commanded to officially preach the message in the centre of pilgrimage was one of self-building and training. In fact, it can be seen that his first 40 years before revelation were spent by his Creator grooming and nurturing him to bear a heavy responsibility. Through his purity of character and moral authority, Prophet Muhammad came to be known amongst the general public as as-Sadiq (the Truthful) and al-Amin (the Trustworthy)!

However, when the words, “Read, in the name of your Lord who created …” came down upon him, the same people who knew the extent of the Prophet’s honesty began to reject his claims of prophethood! Nonetheless, just as he was commanded, he continued to persevere and propagate his message for thirteen years in his hometown of Mecca. All the while, the Prophet, his family and the small group of believers were being persecuted and even denied the basic necessities.

After enduring thirteen years of difficulty, permission finally came to migrate north to the city of Yathrib, now called Madinah, where people were anxiously awaiting his arrival and the end of their own spiritual and social difficulties. Welcomed into the city, Muhammad was not only the representative of Allah in the spiritual realm, his role expanded to a judge, governor, banker and other positions as the Muslims formed a true community in every sense of the word with the last Messenger of Allah at its helm.

On this auspicious day of the birth of the Prophet, we should seek to study the life of this great man and emulate his characteristics and ways of being.

Find out more about the life of the
Holy Prophet of Islam


Caterpillar shareholders fail to pass resolution

From The Jordan Times:

It's said that “home is where the heart is”. It's also been said that “money makes the world go round”. For Caterpillar shareholders, the latter truism has taken precedence as shareholders voted on April 13 against a resolution that would have directed the heavy equipment manufacturer to investigate the use of its bulldozers by the Israeli army to demolish Palestinian homes.

The resolution, which was voted down 97 per cent to three per cent, had been introduced by four Roman Catholic orders of nuns and the organisation Jewish Voice for Peace. Furthermore, groups from all over the world demonstrated to protest Caterpillar sales of home-crushing bulldozers to Israel. But none of that mattered as hopes were dashed that the shareholders would send a message that using Caterpillar equipment to abuse human rights is unacceptable.

Strangely, a visitor to Caterpillar's website is told: “Our goal is to be recognised as a profitable, innovative, well-managed industry leader with a strong focus on social responsibility and sustaining the environment.”

Among Caterpillar's accomplishments have been the preservation of rainforests. Sadly, its concern for saving rainforests does not translate into concern for the one million plus olive trees Israeli troops and settlers using Caterpillar equipment have uprooted during the current Intifada. This is in addition to the thousands of Palestinian houses demolished.

Despite US State Department criticism of such Israeli practices, not to mention compelling photographs and newspaper articles, Caterpillar spokesman Benjamin Cordani told this writer: “We do not and cannot base sales on a customer's intended use for our product. Caterpillar is a global company that provides products and services to companies and governments throughout the world. We follow the US government's direction on international sales and have a process in place to ensure we follow all laws and guidelines.”

That makes perfectly good business sense, of course, though it runs counter to the social responsibility on which Caterpillar prides itself: contributing to the “quality of life of all people” touched by Caterpillar. And it's true that there are no US laws pertaining to the export of earthmoving equipment.

Cordani went on to say: “Caterpillar checks the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and other governmental lists of individuals and organisations US companies are forbidden to do business with overseas.”

OFAC “enforces economic and trade sanctions based on US foreign policy and national security goals against targeted foreign countries, terrorists, international narcotics traffickers, and those engaged in activities related to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction”.

That conversation was in 2001. Cordani refuses to take my calls now, as do other Caterpillar spokespersons. That's too bad because Middle East peace is no less in our national interests today than it was in then.

So let's look at a few statistics during the last four years regarding contributions towards Middle East peace, according to the respected Miftah human rights organisation: 1,085,063 olive trees uprooted; 2,305,286 dunums of land confiscated (4 dunums = 1 acre); 73,505 dunums razed; 7,708 houses demolished.

Sadly, house demolitions have been used as a form of collective punishment and ethnic cleansing for many years. The pretext generally has been that the demolished houses were built without permits. Of course, despite its sensitivity to the needs of growing Jewish families and illegal settlements, the Israeli government virtually never grants building permits to Palestinians — which can cost as much as $30,000 and take five years to obtain.

Furthermore, while targeting Palestinian houses for destruction, Israel has authorised massive housing construction, tax incentives, roads and related infrastructure for illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

When the excuse of permits wasn't used, “punishment” was. But according to a recent internal Israeli army review, it was acknowledged that the controversial policy of demolishing the houses of Palestinian suicide bombers wasn't working and only inflamed hatred. The practice has since stopped.

Common sense should dictate that confiscating land and building settlements would also inflame hatred.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice criticised Israel in unusually sharp terms recently, by warning that Israel's plans to expand an Israeli West Bank settlement were “at odds with American policy” and could threaten progress towards peace with the Palestinians at a critical moment.

Since shareholders didn't care about how Caterpillar D9 bulldozers are systematically used by Israelis to cause Palestinian suffering, they should have at least thought of American Rachel Corrie. Rachel was killed when an Israeli ran over her with a Caterpillar bulldozer as she tried to prevent a house demolition.

Good business stems from wise decisions. And continuing to sell bulldozers to Israel doesn't seem to be a wise decision. Obviously, the shareholders felt otherwise.

The writer is JD in international law and a political and media analyst in Mason, Michigan. She contributed this article to The Jordan Times.


Where is Abu Mazen?

From Knight Ridder Newspapers:

Hopes dim as Palestinian president struggles to maintain control

By Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson
Knight Ridder Newspapers

RAMALLAH, West Bank - To many Palestinians, Mahmoud Abbas is an invisible president.
Some say they know their media-shy leader's in town only when his motorcade whizzes past en route to the presidential compound. His high-profile foreign trips have tapered off, as have his news conferences.

Young Palestinians, who'd hoped that Abbas' victory in the Jan. 9 presidential election would infuse new blood into his Fatah political faction, rarely talk about him these days. During a pre-election rally on Saturday at Al Quds Open University in Ramallah, students hung posters of his predecessor, the late Yasser Arafat, not of Abbas, whom Palestinians call Abu Mazen.

"He will never be a president like Arafat used to be," said Mohammed Abu Mishrif, 26, a senior majoring in management who heads the university's Fatah Youth League. "Abu Mazen is only walking in the shadow of Arafat."

A hundred days after he was sworn in as Arafat's successor, Abbas is facing challenges from within Fatah, from rival Palestinian factions and from an Israeli government that's been reluctant to make many concessions to him until he cracks down harder on militants.

Hopes that Abbas would lead Palestinians where Arafat either couldn't or wouldn't - to a final peace agreement between Israel and an independent Palestinian state - have diminished to hopes that he can maintain his grip on power.

That, in turn, will depend in part on whether Abbas can navigate among three conflicting powers. First come Palestinians who want a more energetic crackdown on the Palestinian Authority's persistent corruption, inefficiency and ineffectiveness. Then come militants who've begun to complain that Abbas isn't consulting with them. Finally, there's Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who says that Abbas has given extremists too much sway over the Palestinian Authority by trying to co-opt them instead of crushing them.

Most Palestinians interviewed for this story said that Abbas is weaker than when he was sworn in on Jan. 15, but they argued that it's Israel's fault, not his. Abbas has made efforts to broker a cease-fire and root out corruption in the Palestinian Authority, but they've gotten only token responses from Sharon, including the release of 500 Palestinian prisoners and the return of the West Bank cities of Jericho and Tulkarem to Palestinian control.

"We have no control to lose," said Ahmed Soboh, a Palestinian deputy information minister, when asked about concerns that Abbas' leadership is faltering. "The Israelis are present everywhere on the West Bank. Mr. Sharon is not facilitating the mission of the new Palestinian president."

Israel's construction of a West Bank security wall and expansion of some Jewish settlements there only reinforce the impression that Abbas is impotent against the Palestinians' longtime adversary, said Mamdouh Nofal, a former confidante of Abbas and a member of the Palestinian National Council, the Palestinian parliament.

Abbas' political rivals are taking advantage of the perceived cracks in his public support, Nofal said. Squabbles within Fatah are escalating, and Abbas' old guard opponents such as Prime Minister Ahmed Queria and Fatah chairman Farouk Kaddoumi are now openly confronting the 70-year-old president on issues ranging from legislative elections to government reforms.

The militant Islamic group Hamas has threatened to reconsider its cease-fire with Israel if legislative elections scheduled for July 17 are delayed, as Fatah legislators are proposing. Hamas' political wing has swept municipal elections in the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank in the past four months, and Hamas leaders are hoping for a similar showing in the parliamentary voting.

Abbas and his allies have come under real attack, as well. In late March, after gunmen fired on his Ramallah headquarters, Abbas fired the local police chief and accepted the resignations of a top security chief in the wake of that attack.

Abbas has an assertive side, however. His hard-won cease-fire, which key Palestinian militant factions agreed to on paper for the first time, is holding even though Israeli soldiers have killed a number of Palestinians, including a senior member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades in the northern West Bank and three Palestinian boys in the Gaza Strip.

Abbas has even persuaded some armed militants to sign pledges to halt violence in exchange for government jobs, an exchange that could fold more than 1,000 militants into the Palestinian Authority in the near future.

Abbas also is forcing into retirement thousands of Palestinian security officers, men he considers obstacles to reaching a peace agreement with Israel thorough dialogue rather than violence. Last week, he began the most sweeping reforms in the 11-year history of the Palestinian security forces, ordering the disparate and often feuding agencies to answer to three umbrella organizations, two of them under his Interior Minister Nasser Yousef's leadership.

President Bush has demanded such a consolidation, and if implemented, it would boost Abbas' image in the West.

On Tuesday, Abbas told Israeli journalists during a rare meeting that his government had collected weapons from all wanted men in Jericho and Tulkarem and would do so in every other city Israel returns to Palestinian control, state-run Israel Radio reported. His security forces have thwarted dozens of terror attacks of late, Abbas said, and seized weapons, explosive
devices, mortar shells and bomb belts.

"We took many steps, some transparent, and some unpublicized," the Israeli daily newspaper Ha'aretz quoted him as saying. But "Israel must give me time and help the Palestinian Authority. Why do you need to hold tens of thousands of prisoners? Why do you continue to place checkpoints and to make this difficult for the Palestinians? Why do you need to continue to chase wanted militants despite the agreement to stop doing so?"

Gershon Baskin, an Israeli analyst who co-directs a Palestinian-Israeli cooperation group, said Abbas shouldn't wait for Israel or America to be more forthcoming.

"He needs to be more decisive and not be worried about stepping on toes," said Baskin, adding that he sent a letter this week to Abbas telling him as much. "He should be looking inward to what he can do to strengthen the situation."

There haven't been any recent polls on Abbas' performance, giving the new leader a grace period of sorts, said Dr. Nabil Kukali, the head of the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion.

Kukali believes that many Palestinians are willing to give Abbas more time to fulfill his campaign promises.

Abbas' planned visit to see President Bush in Washington in the coming weeks could provide a badly needed boost, especially if the White House puts in writing its support for a halt to the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and revived negotiations to determine a future Palestinian state's borders, Baskin agreed.


Will the new Pope reach out to the Arab World?

From the NY Times:

New Papacy Stirs Some Concern in the Arab Middle East


AMMAN, Jordan, April 20 - The elevation of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the papacy as Pope Benedict XVI is stirring some uneasiness in the Arab Middle East, where many remember Pope John Paul II as a champion of some of their causes and fear that his successor will not be as sympathetic.

Pope Benedict's conservative religious teachings are not likely to have a striking impact on Arab daily life. In a region with 300 million Muslims, only about 15 million Arabs are Christians, and of those only a small fraction are Catholics or have ties to the Vatican. Rather, it is the pope's political leanings and his approach to Islam that are of greatest concern here.

"The church decided to close inward, and to focus on its European roots" in choosing Cardinal Ratzinger, said Hussein al-Shobokshi, a Saudi columnist for the pan-Arab daily Al Sharq al Awsat. "The neocons should be happy with this election. He is someone they can do business with."

Many Arabs felt they could do business with Pope John Paul II. During his 26-year reign, John Paul expressed sympathy for Palestinian suffering and opposed the American-led invasion of Iraq. He spoke against the West's materialism while speaking well of the poor, talk that still resonates in many Arab casbahs.

He engaged Muslims and called for interfaith dialogue, working to dispel talk of a clash of civilizations. Many here came to see him as a counterbalance to America, even though he had warm relations with the United States and Israel.

"The Arabs must appreciate what the pope did for them," said the Rev. Riad Hijazin, parish priest of the Latin Convent here in Madaba. "He fought for Arab rights more vigorously than many of the Arabs did."

"The Vatican's point of view is important," said Abdel Monem Said, director of Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "It has moral standing. The pope's opinion on Palestinian issues and Jerusalem is very important, so Arabs will be looking closely at the views the new pope expresses."

Some of the views he expressed as a cardinal have raised doubts, which he seemed to address in his first message, at Mass on Wednesday with a promise to "make every effort and dedicate myself to pursuing the promising dialogue that my predecessors began with various civilizations."

Last August he told Le Figaro that Turkey should not be admitted to the European Union, because "Europe is a cultural continent, not a geographical one."

"The roots that have formed it," he said, are those of Christianity.

Vatican officials said at the time that the church was neutral on the issue, and the cardinal said he had been expressing a personal view. As a cardinal, Pope Benedict also pointed to growing competition between Islam and Christianity for new adherents, especially in the developing world.

"The rebirth of Islam is due in part to the new material richness acquired by Muslim countries," he wrote in an essay, "but mainly to the knowledge that it is able to offer a valid spiritual foundation for the life of its people, a foundation that seems to have escaped from the hands of old Europe."

Mustafa Hamarneh, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at Jordan University, said, "This competition will continue, though it will be civil." But Mr. Shobokshi, the columnist, said he worried that focusing on the competition "may serve those trying to sell the idea of a clash of civilizations."

Some Arab political analysts expect the selection of Cardinal Ratzinger as pope to mean a return to previous patterns of relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Arab world.

"The late pope was an exception," said Muhammad al-Momany, a professor of political science at Yarmouk University in Jordan. "Compare Benedict to the late pope, and you can expect him to be further to the right. He may not be as outgoing or be pushing reconciliation as aggressively as the former pope, but I don't expect a radical turn in the church."

Ultimately, Cardinal Ratzinger's ascension will have the biggest impact on towns like Madaba, a onetime Christian stronghold south of Amman that has grown predominantly Muslim in recent decades. Today it is a microcosm of the complex dynamics facing the Arab world and its relations with Christianity.

"There are two cultures here: an increasingly conservative Muslim one and a more open Christian one," said Sami al-Nahas, a historian who has chronicled the changes in the city. "Increasingly those two aren't mixing."

Five years ago Pope John Paul II visited this biblical town, known for its mosaics and as the spot from which Moses is said to have sighted the Promised Land. In his wake, many residents say, the pope stretched bridges between this city's shrinking Christian community and its rapidly growing Muslim one. A Muslim-Christian dialogue continues, and local figures have worked to dispel the tensions between Christians and some extremist groups.

But much of the work has slowed in recent months, and Christian residents here now worry that they will be forgotten by the church at a critical moment.

"The pope put us under the spotlight, but the changes we needed have not happened," Mr. Nahas said. "He must pay much more attention to the East, because we are the ones most affected by the current political conditions."

Professor Momany sees that as an opportunity as much as a problem. "The Middle East is the best place to reach out to other faiths," he said. "It has the three main religions and is home to their civilizations, and it has tension. So the best place to build his bridges is here."

Katherine Zoepf contributed reporting from Damascus for this article, and Mona El Naggar from Cairo.


Earth Day's 35th year

From the Christian Science Monitor:

Hot stuff for a cool Earth

Earth Day, which the world observes Friday, is an increasingly high-tech affair. Here are several green gadgets to help conserve the planet's resources.

By Mark Clayton Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Two of Kelly Daley's pet peeves are global warming - and cellphones that always seem to run out of juice.

So as Americans celebrate Earth Day Friday, Ms. Daley plans to mark the occasion by wearing her sporty new "Juice Bag" - a large bag with a flexible solar panel sewn to the back. This way the multitasking accountant can charge her phone, laptop, and iPod as she walks to work. By using sun power, she keeps at least a pound of carbon dioxide from wafting into the atmosphere each year. "I'm my own power plant," she says.

Ever since the first Earth Day in 1970, a steady stream of inventions and gadgets have been popping up to help make the planet a little bit better. The old brick in the toilet, which saved a brick's worth of water with each flush, eventually gave way to today's low-flow models. Stand-alone solar panels have been integrated into systems that let consumers actually sell excess power back to their utilities.

Small wonder, then, that this year's Earth Day is a high-tech affair. From superefficient home appliances to recyclable razors, new ideas to save the planet are quickly coming on the market. Many of these are significantly more expensive than standard-issue stuff. The Juice Bag, for example, costs $199. It's sold by Reware, a division of venture marketing company, Reluminati, which is promoting renewable energy in Washington, D.C.

"Renewable energy has always been ahead of its time," says Henry Gentenaar, a managing partner at Reluminati. "But this is its time. We're seeing a confluence of events and technologies that are getting to point that they're right here. So individuals can really start to make a difference."

Prices, in some cases, are coming down to the point where wise choices - multiplied by millions - can have an impact. Compact fluorescent light bulbs in place of incandescent bulbs are just one example.

Efficient fridges

Other gadget gains are a bit less obvious. Take the lowly refrigerator. After the oil shocks of the 1970s, the federal government mandated higher efficiency standards for refrigerators that, alone, have made it unnecessary to build hundreds of power plants, energy experts say. Today's models use only about a third of the power consumed by models 30 years ago.

Last week, the government announced steps that may boost refrigerator efficiency another 30 percent beginning in 2011 - saving consumers $10 billion in electricity and cutting energy requirements by the equivalent of more than 230 power plants.

But consumers don't have to wait. Larry Schussler's company in Arcata, Calif., sells the Sun Frost RF-12, which uses just 171 kilowatt hours of power a year, 51 percent better than today's federal standard. There's a downside though. Sun Frost doesn't have an icemaker, holds only about 10 cubic feet of groceries, and costs about $2,400. "We're not making much of a dent in the overall market yet," Mr. Schussler concedes. "They sell 8 million fridges in the US and we're just tiny fraction - less than 1 percent of that. But we're leading the way."

The company ships the machines worldwide, especially to places that have no power grid. They're so efficient they can run using just a modest solar array. And Sun Frost expects them to last well over 20 years.

For those who don't want to sacrifice space or an icemaker, Frigidaire's FRT21FR7E has 20 cubic feet of space and is still 28 percent more efficient than federal standards, tops among comparably equipped refrigerators. Suggested price: $799.

Recyclable razors

You don't need fistfuls of cash to begin saving the planet, says Eric Hudson, president and founder of Recycline in Waltham, Mass. The company's "Preserve Razor Recyclable," which hit the market last fall, is an alternative to the 2 billion disposable razors the US Environmental Protection Agency estimates are thrown into landfills each year.

At least 65 percent of the handle of the Preserve razor is made out of Stoneyfield Farm yogurt cups. To recycle, the handle can be easily separated from the blade, which isn't yet recyclable. (Mr. Hudson insists they are working on it.) The handles can be pitched into a recycling bin or mailed back to Recycline in a company envelope.

"Using a recycled product saves natural resources," Hudson says. "It's something people are not always thinking about - the long line of energy and resources needed to turn natural gas and oil into plastics. So the more we can use recyclable products, the better."

Recycline's products are a tad pricier than their kin that end up in the landfill, Hudson says. A four-pack of Preserve toothbrushes costs $13 and a four-pack of Preserve razors is $7. You can buy them online at a discount. They also are available at Whole Foods, Wild Oats, and other natural-product retailers.

Hot water, no tank

Some green gadgeteers are all fired up about tankless hot-water heaters. Unlike conventional hot-water heaters, which typically keep 50 to 70 gallons of water hot all the time, the tankless version uses high-tech coils and computer-controlled gas jets to heat cold water on demand. Popular in Europe and Japan, the device has a tiny but growing piece of the US market.

"I think it was a little under $1,000, about the same as buying 70-gallon hot-water tank," says Charles Fleenor, a retired high-school teacher from Laguna Beach, Calif. (Today, the unit's suggested retail price is $1,400.)

The plumber who installed Mr. Fleenor's unit warned him that his hot-water flow would be limited, though it has not been, he adds. And the Japanese-made Takagi T-K2 has cut his bill for heating water in half - and puts far less CO2 into the atmosphere.

"Just the fact we're using so much less gas, multiply that by every household, if they all cut their hot-water bill in half, the gas company would probably have to go on welfare," Fleenor says.

Fuel-cell band

Perhaps the most extreme green gadget in this year's eclectic mix is the one that powers Ross McCurdy's electric guitar and amplifiers - and those of the rest of his musical group.

Mr. McCurdy, a high school science teacher at Ponaganset High School in North Scituate, R.I., has started "Protium." He bills it as the world's first hydrogen-powered rock 'n' roll band.

The group has played its eclectic rock/rhythm-and-blues mix at fuel-cell conferences across the country, local festivals, and school parties. For Earth Day this year, it will play at a festival at Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, R.I. The band will rely on about $25 of hydrogen gas, which flows from a big metal bottle into three fuel cells, to create some 3,000 watts, enough to power the band's equipment, including a big subwoofer dubbed the "portable earthquake." Cost for the fuel cells: about $6,500 each - though they were donated by Relion of Spokane, Wash., and Ballard Power Systems in Vancouver, British Columbia. Emissions: a cup of water.

"Combining fuel cells with rock 'n' roll has been a great mix because it really demonstrates what they're capable of," says McCurdy in a telephone interview. "Sure, sometimes you see a fuel-cell car driving along. But when you hit guitar chords of AC/DC and fill up a ballroom with that sound, well, you just know it's generating a lot of power - and helping the environment, too."

The contentious origins of Earth Day

People disagree on how many celebrations got started. But Earth Day supporters can't even decide when their day should be observed. Here's a look at how the event that popularized environmental issues got its start:

• In 1969, activist John McConnell persuaded San Francisco's mayor to observe Earth Day on March 21, 1970 - the day of the equinox. U Thant, the United Nations secretary-general, initiated Earth Day observances at the UN on the equinox the following year. This year, three mayors in the United States designated March 20 as International Earth Day.

• Also in 1969, Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D) of Wisconsin proposed a nationwide teach-in for April 22, 1970, that became Earth Day. The event, drawing 20 million people, was an immediate hit. Demonstrators dumped oil-coated ducks in front of the US Interior Department and dragged a net of dead fish down New York's Fifth Avenue. Now run by Earth Day Network, the event involves more than 12,000 groups in 174 countries.

• In 1972, Japan pushed through a resolution at the Stockholm Conference for a World Environment Day to be celebrated on June 5. It is still observed Friday.

Sources:; US EPA; United Nations Environment Programme


No more torture on Palestinians?

From Electronic Intifada:

Alan Dershowitz is a well-known lawyer and professor at Harvard Law School, a prolific author, and makes regular appearances in the media. When it comes to Israel, he is particularly outspoken and taken quite seriously within certain segments of the North American mainstream.

Whether he deserves to be taken seriously is another issue altogether. In a recent talk at York University in Toronto, Canada, Professor Dershowitz repeated many of the controversial claims of his recent book, The Case for Israel[1] but one claim struck me as — even by his standards — exceptionally far-reaching.

In the course of arguing that Israeli authorities no longer torture Palestinians, Dershowitz claimed he had a long conversation with the Israeli human rights organization, Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI), in which PCATI not only conceded that there was no longer any torture for them to investigate, but that they had decided not to change their name because it 'helped them attract media attention'.[2]

Although organizers of his lecture wore shirts arrogantly proclaiming, "Dersh knows more than you", I decided to check his claim.

First, I visited PCATI's website ( and immediately found its July 2003 report containing 48 affidavits testifying to the continued use of torture against Palestinians by Israeli authorities.

More than three years after Professor Dershowitz claims torture had stopped, PCATI reported:

"Each month, the ill-treatment reaching the level of torture as defined in international law is inflicted in dozens of cases, and possibly more. In other words - torture in Israel has once more become routine."[3]

And after Professor Dershowitz claims PCATI conceded torture had ended, PCATI was still reporting that

"Instances of torture, abuse, prisoners held incommunicado and excessive violence against [Palestinian] detainees continue to grow in both numbers and severity", while "interrogators and perpetrators of torture, their commanders and superiors enjoy impunity."[4]

These reports didn't exactly corroborate Professor Dershowitz's story so, next, I contacted PCATI to confirm his allegation.

"Dershowitz's claim that he had long conversations with PCATI and that we reported that there is no longer any torture in Israel," I was told by PCATI's Orah Maggen, "is totally false. We never met with him or spoke with him directly. I did meet him at the Knesset (Israel's parliament) when he spoke at the Law and Constitution Committee [but] I, and representatives of other human rights NGOs challenged most of what he said about torture, the role of human rights NGOs and other issues."

When I reported PCATI's denial to Professor Dershowitz, he replied: "During my conversation at the Knesset I asked the representative of the committee [Orah Maggen] why they kept their name, despite their acknowledgement that torture was no longer a significant issue? She responded - I remember clear as day - as follows: 'You have no idea how difficult it is to get attention to any human rights issues in this country. Maintaining our organizational name, with the word torture, is essential to getting needed attention.' I had an extensive argument with her about that tactic, focusing especially on the international implications and the misleading nature of the name outside of the country. I am certain she remembers the conversation because it was quite heated. It also took place in front of numerous witnesses."

When I emailed PCATI Dershowitz's "clear as day" recollection, Ms. Maggen replied that it is true that there was a heated exchange with others present, but "All other statements made by Professor Dershowitz are blatantly false and utterly preposterous. Neither I nor any other representative of PCATI acknowledged, claimed or in any way stated that torture is no longer a significant issue. On the contrary, it is our claim that the systematic and large-scale torture and ill treatment of Palestinian detainees and prisoners continues to this day."

She further stated that, "Neither I nor any other representative of PCATI ever stated that we kept our name to 'get attention' for any reason whatsoever. Considering the fact that torture is still widespread and that PCATI has its hands full struggling against the torture and ill treatment of Palestinian detainees (and others) by Israeli authorities, the claim regarding statements we supposedly made about our organization's name is totally absurd."

Finally, she concluded that Dershowitz's claim was "shocking in its audacity."

In fact, however, it is on par with Dershowitz's claim in The Case for Israel that the Israeli government has a "generally superb record on human rights," and that "Israel's record on human rights is among the best in the world".[5]

What's "clear as day" from this little episode is that Dershowitz's every word should be taken with a mountain of salt.

Regan Boychuk is a graduate student in political science at York University in Toronto, Canada and gets irritated when people get away with lies.

1. Alan Dershowitz, The Case for Israel, (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2003).
2. Alan Dershowitz, public lecture at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 14 March 2005.
3. Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, "Back to a routine of torture: Torture and ill-treatment of Palestinian detainees during arrest, detention, and interrogation", July 2003, p. 11, .4. Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, "Preventing torture: Legal advocacy, legislative activism & public outreach: A narrative report", [Draft] 2004, p. 1.
5. Dershowitz, The Case for Israel, pp. 204, 199. Despite Dershowitz's fervent attempts to prevent its publication, readers can soon find what promises to be a thorough debunking of The Case for Israel in Norman G. Finkelstein, Beyond Chutzpah: On the misuse of anti-Semitism and the abuse of history (Berkeley, CA: University of California, June 2005).

Related Links
Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI)


Thursday, April 21, 2005

Bang, bang! You're fed

From The Independent:

You're engrossed in a computer game, flying a helicopter mission at high speed, when the order comes through to drop your load and get back to base.

So what's in the chopper? Bombs? Napalm? No: your cargo is high-energy biscuits. There may be armed rebels a-plenty in Food Force, a new video-game release, but it's not your job to massacre them; instead, you have to negotiate with them to ensure that starving refugees get life-saving food supplies. Welcome to the world of ethical gaming.

Food Force is the brainchild of the UN World Food Programme (WFP). It's a free, downloadable game that teaches children aged eight to 13 about the logistical challenges of delivering food aid in a major humanitarian crisis. The game is set on a fictitious war-torn island, Sheylan, where thousands of people are in desperate need of aid. Players undertake one of six virtual missions that can involve anything from air-drops to rebuilding villages.

The man behind this novel approach to teaching children about humanitarianism is Neil Gallagher, the WFP's director of communications. "Communicating with children today means using the latest technology." Dressing up a lesson in international aid as a computer game seems a canny way to get both children and parents on board.

Gallagher says: "We believe Food Force will generate kids' interest and understanding about hunger, which kills more people than Aids, malaria and tuberculosis combined. So many parents complain about the blood and gratuitous violence kids are so often exposed to in video games.

This is a fun, action-packed alternative."

Although the UK games charts are dominated by war games aimed at over-18s, ethical gaming is getting a foothold. Another example is Pax Warrior, a computer simulation of the dilemmas faced by UN peacekeepers during the Rwandan genocide in 1994, which is being piloted as a teaching tool in classrooms in Scotland.

The idea is to use new media to develop students' decision-making skills and to teach them about the circumstances that led to 800,000 Rwandans being put to death in 100 days. Despite the efforts of the peacekeepers, very few Rwandans were saved, and that's reflected in the simulation. The children are given similar information to that available to the UN. Based on that, they have to make choices that will have consequences for the rest of the simulation.

Andreas Ua'Siaghail, Pax Warrior's designer, believes that teaching children through ethical gaming is highly effective. "Kids are using books less, and there are also different kinds of learners. Some learn visually, some learn through auditory stimulation and some from reading text. We are using all three methods."

The simulation was first trialled at James Gillespie's High School in Edinburgh earlier this year.

The headmaster, Alex Wallace, was impressed. "One of the priorities is that we teach students what it means to be a global citizen. They got a real opportunity to improve their social responsibility."

Similarly, a CD-Rom called President For a Day is an educational game that casts players as the president of a fictional African country, taking it from independence to the present day. Players receive advice and opinions from officials, but make key decisions themselves. It aims to teach children about the dilemmas facing the Third World: issues of social justice, equality, wealth and poverty, reconciliation and peace. President For a Day costs £12 but, as it's aimed at children of 12 or above, parents may be happy to stump up.

The games seem unlikely to become "must haves". Lofty though their ideals are, the average gamer is more used to unleashing war than preventing it.

It's not just teachers and charities who have realised that free, downloadable games are a great way to target people. The US Army spent $7m developing America's Army, a free internet game for the PC released last year. In its first six months, 1.5 million people downloaded the game, and a CD version is available at recruitment centres.

Games with ethical messages also don't tend to make the switch from the internet or PC to the mainstream games consoles such as PlayStation 2 or Xbox. In this week's UK game chart, the Top 10 include Doom 3, a violent adventure set on Mars and peopled with demonic enemies; Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30, an ultra-realistic war simulation; and The Punisher, where the vigilante hero assassinates criminals in bloodthirsty ways. The total software sales for the week ending 9 April was £23.4m, and it's this money that games developers and publishers are interested in.

Nick Grange, the head of public relations for Xbox, thinks ethical gaming has huge potential, but that it would mean publishers taking risks and spending money. "There's definitely room for more ethical games, but they need to be sophisticated and really enjoyable if gamers are going to buy them. If a game had an amazing plot and graphics, people would play it."

But until ethical gaming makes it on to a console, it will always be marginal. "No one's made a truly ethical game for a console, and ethical gaming is never going to get into the living room until it's on a console." Grange is also unconvinced by the didactic tone of some "edu-tainment" games.

However, it's not all bad news in console games. Although there aren't many titles out there about saving the rainforest or building schools in Africa, more mainstream games now give players the chance to make moral choices.

Whiplash, launched last year, is a console game from Eidos, the creators of Tomb Raider. Aimed at younger gamers, it's about helping animals to escape from and then to destroy an animal-testing lab.

The main selling point of Fable, a roleplay game released in September, is that for every choice the player makes, there is a direct consequence. If you kick a chicken, you begin building up an "evil" score. If you kill another character, people will shun you. But if you help people, you become a hero.

Be warned though: the games industry's idea of games based on ethical and moral choices can leave much to be desired. Next month, 7 Sins is set to hit the PC and PS2. It's a game where players have to behave as badly as possible in order to tick off every sin to ensure they win.

Unless "sloth" is something that parents want their children to explore further, it's probably better not to buy them this title.

Five places to look for ethical play

1) The United Nations' free game, developed by the World Food Programme (if you have trouble finding this site, visit and follow the links)

2) Free games are available from the children's section. All are based on saving or protecting animals

3) Free, simple Flash games are available on this site: subjects take in ecology, animals and science

4) Go to this link to order a copy of President For a Day.

5) The CBeebies section has games such as It's a Green Life, where children can assess how eco-friendly they are


Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Films & Politics

The DC International Film Festival is on, so on Sunday, my friend & I went to watch Black, a new Bollywood film that is about a girl (Rani Mukherjee) who is deaf, mute & blind & her journey through life with the help of her teacher (Amitabh Bachan). It is inspired from Helen Keller's story & I was curious to see how Bollywood would handle such a sensitive issue & was impressed that the Hindi film industry was venturing in tackling social & political issues rather than the usual love story. Well, I was in for a surprise - not only was the theatre packed with about 400 people (mainly South Asians) but the guest of honor was none other than the Big B! It was a truly amazing experience to see THE legend of Bollywood & the most popular actor in the world. He talked about how this has been his most favorite & difficult role as he & Rani spent about 7 months at a schol for the disabled in order to learn sign language. I also learned that he is the goodwill ambassador for UNICEF to help raise awareness about polio & persuade women from rural areas to get their children vaccinated & equal opportunities for girls in education. During the Q&A session, one girl asked him to sing & he called her beside him on the stage & said a few lines from a popular song (Kabhi Kabhi) to her - she almost fainted!! The director of the film festival was on a radio program today & said he had never seen anything like this & that Bachan's fame even beat Elvis Presley’s!

There is no doubt that we live in a very visual society & the saying "An image is more powerful than a thousand words" is truer than ever before. That is why I'm glad to see movies like Black to attempt to educate the public about an important issue. Another Bollywood movie that was praised a few months ago, even by the UN, was
Phir Milenge which talked about the myths & facts about HIV/AIDS.

As an activist, I have noticed how films are being used to raise awareness about political issues. For instance, an Indian film director recently released a film called
Final Solution which highlights the atrocities committed against Muslims in Gujrat three years ago. Last Wednesday, my organization co-launched a movie with another organization about female child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (former known as Zaire). The event was a great success as we had a panel discussion with the film director himself - the agony viewers saw on the faces of the child soldiers (some as young as 10) who had been abused & sexually exploited, will stay with them forever. There are countless movies on Palestine & Iraq which are extremely powerful too.

If you haven't seen the movie
Hotel Rwanda, I urge you all to see it. It is incomprehensible that 800,000 people were hacked to death in 100 days in 1994 as the world silently watched. The movie is about a hotel manager who gives refuge to about a 1000 people who would otherwise have been murdered. It is a powerful reminder how just one person CAN make a difference. It also portrays the devastating consequences of hatred. There is one scene where a UN official who is trying his best to help out breaks down the reality by saying something like: “The world doesn’t care because you are black. And you’re not even a nigger, you’re an African.” I have often wondered how people would have reacted if the Sudanese were not black or were in Europe – the silence on part of the Muslim World is disgusting too because the life of a Sudanese is no less worthy than that of a Palestinian or an Iraqi.

The hardest part about the movie is knowing that it is all true. Another heart wrenching part of the movie is when the hotel manager asks a journalist how is it possible that people will not come to their aid after seeing such horrific images, The journalist says that people will probably see it on their news during dinner & say something like “Oh that’s so sad!” & go right back to eating. Many people ask me "What can I do about Darfur/Sudan?" I have a simple answer: call your representative, write a letter to the editor, talk to your family & friends, raise awareness. A former Senator once said, "If every member of the House and Senate had received 100 letters from people back home saying we had to do something about Rwanda... I think the response would have been different."

Many of us live in a democracy & with the privileges that we enjoy, come responsibilities. If you have not contacted your representative yet, please do so - if you need help, please let me know.

Speaking of visual arts, on Saturday, a friend of mine invited me to an Islamic arts show featuring three Muslim artists: two female calligraphers & a male photographer who had many pictures from Turkey & his other travels. It was very well attended & it was nice to mingle with Muslims for a change. I enjoy hanging out with my non-Muslim friends/colleagues too but I don't participate in Happy Hour (huge part of the culture in DC), so I sometimes get homesick. One thing I have noticed is how such gatherings are great places for Sunnis & Shias to meet in a comfortable environment & get to know each other - I have made many Sunni friends in DC & it's been a great experience for me to learn more about their perspective & for them to learn more about Shiaism.

This is the 3rd time I've left home & every time I leave, I go through a period of questioning my identity. I wonder, "Who am I?" In politics, you automatically get labeled either as a "liberal" or "conservative" which I hate because I don't fit completely into either camp. I have to be so careful as a Muslim woman because I know people are observing & will make judgments about Muslims based on their experiences with me. Some of the people I work with have never worked with or befriended Muslims before - esp a woman in Hijab, so I'm constantly answering questions about Islam. Whenever, I attend events or meetings, I'm usually the only Muslim present which is sad because we definitely need more Muslims in the political field. Many times, I see white male politicians & it makes my blood boil that they make decisions that affect the rest of the world when they don't know anything about other religions, countries, cultures, problems, etc. Although I'm glad I am able to get rid of misconceptions, it gets really tiring - it's a constant battle between being a Muslim, Shia, activist, employee, woman, human being - sometimes I just want to be Fatema - myself, but find it impossible to do, except when I'm alone at home. All I can say is that being a Muslim woman in politics is TOUGH....


Monday, April 18, 2005

The UN responds to sexual abuse in the DRC

This is an on/off issue for the media vis-a-vis UN reform. Here's a briefing paper I worked on at work that offers a more substantive perspective:

Executive Summary
This paper will briefly explore the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the accusations against UN peacekeepers in the country of sexual abuse and what the response has been by the United Nations. It also includes recommendations made by a recent UN Report commissioned by Prince Zeid Ra'ad Zeid al-Hussein, who is the Permanent Representative of Jordan to the United Nations.

The conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is the deadliest documented conflict in African history. Over four years in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, three and a half million people lost their lives; more than in any conflict worldwide since World War II. All of the surrounding countries became involved in the war. Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia backed the DRC government, while Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi supported anti-government rebels and invaded the north and east of the DRC.In April 2003, the various factions signed a peace agreement and formed a Government of National Unity, composed of representatives from the DRC government and the rebel groups. At the same time, the UN Security Council created the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC). MONUC was established to implement the peace agreement and help disarm the warring factions and is the largest UN peacekeeping mission with about 16,000 troops.

Thousands of impoverished Congolese who have been displaced by the conflict live in camps that are situated next to MONUC bases for protection. They fear attacks by armed militias that operate in the area and are afraid to leave the camps to return to their villages and farms. Last year, allegations emerged that UN peacekeepers were sexually exploiting Congolese living in the nearby camps. MONUC personnel are accused of engaging in prostitution, rape, molestation, and pedophilia.

Unfortunately, many women and children in the camps find themselves living alone or in situations where their families cannot provide for them. Some of them resorted to “survival sex” with MONUC personnel. The peacekeepers sexually exploited Congolese girls as young as 11 years of age in exchange for small amounts of money and scraps of food. Local boys were used as “pimps” who arranged the sexual misconduct, also in return for food or money.

The United Nations Responds
The Secretary-General's October 2003 Bulletin on Special Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, the United Nations Code of Conduct for Blue Helmets, and MONUC's Code of Conduct are very clear: sex in exchange for money, employment, goods or services is strictly forbidden. Moreover, UN Personnel are prohibited from engaging in any sexual activity with anyone under the age of 18 years; being unaware of a child’s age is not a defense or an excuse.

The United Nations has emphasized training MONUC peacekeepers on the code of conduct before they are deployed but the Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Jane Holl Lute, said those changes have not kept pace with the massive growth in other peacekeeping missions. Jean-Marie Guehenno, UN Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations, agreed that the UN needs a stronger prevention program, enforcement ability and investigative capability. He pointed out that the current rules that exist are for normal circumstances and the situation in conflict zones is abnormal.

Secretary General Kofi Annan has repeatedly expressed his outrage at the abuses. In a six-page letter to the UN Security Council, he said, “I reiterate my stance - one which I know the members of the council share - that we cannot tolerate even one instance of a United Nations peacekeeper victimizing the most vulnerable ones.”

Following reports from Congolese women and media organizations on sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers, the U.N. has investigated 150 allegations of sexual exploitation. According to a UN report, the investigation team from the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) produced 20 case reports: perpetrators were positively identified in six, not identified in eleven, while accusations were not fully substantiated in two. The reports gave been submitted to respective Member States.

The most infamous case involves a senior French official, Didier Bourguet, who was accused of running an Internet pedophile ring. He is currently in jail in his home country facing charges. Another individual accused of abuse is no longer employed by the organization. In February, the Government of Morocco arrested six of its soldiers accused of sexual abuse in the DRC. MONUC has also established curfews and off-limits areas in Congo. Louise Frechette, the UN Deputy Secretary General, is presently touring other UN peacekeeping missions to assess the problem and highlight Secretary General Kofi Annan’s zero-tolerance policy on sexual abuse. The UN also recently set up a hotline to receive complaints against peacekeepers accused of abuse.

While the UN is working to educate peacekeepers about its zero-tolerance policy, strengthen its prevention programs, and investigate allegations, it faces legal limitations when it comes to prosecuting peacekeepers for sexual abuse. All peacekeepers that are contributed to UN missions are subject to agreements which prevent either the UN or the country where the peacekeeping mission is operating from trying them for criminal acts. Only the offender’s home country has the right to prosecute its troops. Therefore, the UN usually can only send the offenders home and turn over the results of the UN’s investigation to the offender’s home country. Currently, troop contributing countries are under no legal obligation to investigate or try offenders.

Recommendations by UN Report
Prince Zeid Ra'ad Zeid al-Hussein, the Permanent Representative of Jordan, had agreed to serve as the Secretary-General's Adviser on issues of sexual misconduct and set up a Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (SEA) task force. He has also been ensuring that concerns of the Troop Contributing Countries (TCCs) plays a role in the UN strategy to prevent sexual misconduct. You cannot understate the value of peacekeeping and what it can bring to a society, so for that reason I think we must restore it,” he said.

He commissioned a UN report that was released on March 24, 2005 that proposes:

  • The Secretary General should obtain formal assurances that troop contributing countries will persecute violators in return for immunity from the host state. They should update the Secretary General within 120 days on actions they take and continue communication until the case is settled. The report urges troop contributing countries to agree to hold courts-martial of their accused soldiers in countries where the alleged abuse occurred and to change national laws that prevent it.
  • UN civilian staff who violate rules should be fired and held financially accountable. The money collected should go into a trust fund for victims and children who are born to the peacekeepers.
  • The UN should deduct allowances from peacekeepers who violate rules with monies paid into a trust fund for victims, especially women who need child support.
  • A database should be created to record names of offenders to ensure they are never deployed on UN missions again. Moreover, the number of female peacekeepers should be increased.
  • The establishment of a team of professionals including DNA and fingerprinting technology experts to investigate sex crimes, especially those involving children.
  • UN personnel should be allowed frequent leaves and provided with recreational facilities such as free Internet and subsidized phone calls. The report also calls for expanding curfew and off-limit area policies, and replace static guard posts with mobile patrols.
  • Peacekeeping missions should introduce extensive training and outreach programs to the local community, enabling victims to file complaints.
  • The UN currently publishes the Ten Rules and We Are United Nations Peacekeepers on cards in the official languages of the United Nations. The report recommends that these cards with specific prohibition on sexual abuse should be distributed to contingent members in their own languages. In addition, when condoms are distributed to troops, it should be emphasized that it is a strategy to combat transmission of HIV/AIDS and not encourage prostitution.
  • UN managers and military commanders who implement policies against sexual abuse should be rewarded while those who do not should be removed from their posts.
  • The General Assembly should define acts of sexual exploitation as serious misconduct of Staff Regulations and emphasize that Member Sates will not tolerate such acts.


The Africa You Never See

I'm guilty as charged in the article - I know the African Student association at the University of Minnesota always tried hard to portray a different image of Africa. It's nice to see a sensitive portrayal of the continent.

From The Washington Post:

In the waiting area of a large office complex in Accra, Ghana, it's standing room only as citizens with bundles of cash line up to buy shares of a mutual fund that has yielded an average 60 percent annually for the past seven years. They're entrusting their hard-earned cash to a local company called Databank, which invests in stock markets in Ghana, Nigeria, Botswana and Kenya that consistently rank among the world's top growth markets.

Chances are you haven't read or heard anything about Databank in your daily newspaper or on the evening news, where the little coverage of Africa that's offered focuses almost exclusively on the negative -- the virulent spread of HIV/AIDS, genocide in Darfur and the chaos of Zimbabwe.

Yes, Africa is a land of wars, poverty and corruption. The situation in places like Darfur, Sudan, desperately cries out for more media attention and international action. But Africa is also a land of stock markets, high rises, Internet cafes and a growing middle class. This is the part of Africa that functions. And this Africa also needs media attention, if it's to have any chance of fully joining the global economy.

Africa's media image comes at a high cost, even, at the extreme, the cost of lives. Stories about hardship and tragedy aim to tug at our heartstrings, getting us to dig into our pockets or urge Congress to send more aid. But no country or region ever developed thanks to aid alone.

Investment, and the job and wealth creation it generates, is the only road to lasting development. That's how China, India and the Asian Tigers did it.

Yet while Africa, according to the U.S. government's Overseas Private Investment Corp., offers the highest return in the world on direct foreign investment, it attracts the least. Unless investors see the Africa that's worthy of investment, they won't put their money into it. And that lack of investment translates into job stagnation, continued poverty and limited access to education and health care.

Consider a few facts: The Ghana Stock Exchange regularly tops the list of the world's highest-performing stock markets. Botswana, with its A+ credit rating, boasts one of the highest per capita government savings rates in the world, topped only by Singapore and a handful of other fiscally prudent nations. Cell phones are making phenomenal profits on the continent. Brand-name companies like Coca-Cola, GM, Caterpillar and Citibank have invested in Africa for years and are quite bullish on the future.

The failure to show this side of Africa creates a one-dimensional caricature of a complex continent. Imagine if 9/11, the Oklahoma City bombing and school shootings were all that the rest of the world knew about America.

I recently produced a documentary on entrepreneurship and private enterprise in Africa. Throughout the year-long process, I came to realize how all of us in the media -- even those with a true love of the continent -- portray it in a way that's truly to its detriment.

The first cameraman I called to film the documentary laughed and said, "Business and Africa, aren't those contradictory terms?" The second got excited imagining heart-warming images of women's co-ops and market stalls brimming with rustic crafts. Several friends simply assumed I was doing a documentary on AIDS. After all, what else does one film in Africa?

The little-known fact is that businesses are thriving throughout Africa. With good governance and sound fiscal policies, countries like Botswana, Ghana, Uganda, Senegal and many more are bustling, their economies growing at surprisingly robust rates.

Private enterprise is not just limited to the well-behaved nations. You can't find a more war-ravaged land than Somalia, which has been without a central government for more than a decade. The big surprise? Private enterprise is flourishing. Mogadishu has the cheapest cell phone rates on the continent, mostly due to no government intervention. In the northern city of Hargeysa, the markets sell the latest satellite phone technology. The electricity works. When the state collapsed in 1991, the national airline went out of business. Today, there are five private carriers and price wars keep the cost of tickets down. This is not the Somalia you see in the media.

Obviously life there would be dramatically improved by good governance -- or even just some governance -- but it's also true that, through resilience and resourcefulness, Somalis have been able to create a functioning society.

Most African businesses suffer from an extreme lack of infrastructure, but the people I met were too determined to let this stop them. It just costs them more. Without reliable electricity, most businesses have to use generators. They have to dig bore-holes for a dependable water source. Telephone lines are notoriously out of service, but cell phones are filling the gap.

Throughout Africa, what I found was a private sector working hard to find African solutions to African problems. One example that will always stick in my mind is the CEO of Vodacom Congo, the largest cell phone company in that country. Alieu Conteh started his business while the civil war was still raging. With rebel troops closing in on the airport in Kinshasa, no foreign manufacturer would send in a cell phone tower, so Conteh got locals to collect scrap metal, which they welded together to build one. That tower still stands today.

As I interviewed successful entrepreneurs, I was continually astounded by their ingenuity, creativity and steadfastness. These people are the future of the continent. They are the ones we should be talking to about how to move Africa forward. Instead, the media concentrates on victims or government officials, and as anyone who has worked in Africa knows, government is more often a part of the problem than of the solution.

When the foreign media descend on the latest crisis, the person they look to interview is invariably the foreign savior, an aid worker from the United States or Europe. African saviors are everywhere, delivering aid on the ground. But they don't seem to be in our cultural belief system. It's not just the media, either. Look at the literature put out by almost any nongovernmental organization. The better ones show images of smiling African children -- smiling because they have been helped by the NGO. The worst promote the extended-belly, flies-on-the-face cliche of Africa, hoping that the pain of seeing those images will fill their coffers.

"We hawk poverty," one NGO worker admitted to me.

Last November, ABC's "Primetime Live" aired a special on Britain's Prince Harry and his work with AIDS children in Lesotho. The segment, titled "The Forgotten Kingdom: Prince Harry in Lesotho," painted the tiny nation as a desperate, desolate place. The program's message was clear: This helpless nation at last had a knight -- or prince -- in shining armor.

By the time the charity addresses came up at the end, you were ready to give, and that's good. Lesotho needs help with its AIDS problem. But would it really have hurt the story to add that this land-locked nation with few natural resources has jump-started its economy by aggressively courting foreign investment? The reality is that it's anything but a "forgotten kingdom," as a dramatic increase in exports has made it the top beneficiary of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a duty-free, quota-free U.S.-Africa trade agreement.

More than 50,000 people have gotten jobs through the country's initiatives. Couldn't the program have portrayed an African country that was in need of assistance, but was neither helpless nor a victim?

Still the simplistic portrayals come. A recent episode of the popular NBC drama "Medical Investigation" was about an anthrax scare in Philadelphia. The source of the deadly spores? Some illegal immigrants from Africa playing their drums in a local market, unknowingly infecting innocent passersby. Typical: If it's a deadly disease, the scriptwriters make it come from Africa.

Most of the time, Africa is simply not on the map. The continent's booming stock markets are almost never mentioned in newspaper financial pages. How often is an African country -- apart, perhaps, from South Africa or Egypt or Morocco -- featured in a newspaper travel section? Even the listing of worldwide weather includes only a few African cities.

The result of this portrait is an Africa we can't relate to. It seems so foreign to us, so different and incomprehensible. Since we can't relate to it, we ignore it.

There are lots of reasons for the media's neglect of Africa: bean counters in the newsroom and the high cost of international coverage, the belief that American viewers aren't interested in international stories, and the infotainment of news. There's also journalists' reluctance to pursue so-called "positive stories." We all know that such stories don't win awards or get front-page, above-the-fold placement. But what's happening in Africa doesn't need to be cast in any special light. The Ghana Stock Exchange was the fastest-growing exchange in the world in 2003. That's not a "positive" story, that's news, just like reports on the London Stock Exchange. I imagine a lot of consumers would have found it newsworthy to learn where they could have made a 144 percent return on their money.

My independent film was made possible by funding from the World Bank, for which I am extremely grateful. But the bank wouldn't have had to step in if the media had been doing their job -- showing all Africans in all facets of their lives. In a business that's supposed to cover man-bites-dog stories, the idea that Africa doesn't work is a dog-bites-man story. If the media are really looking for news, they'd look at the ways that Africa, despite all the odds, does work.

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Carol Pineau, a journalist with more than 10 years of experience reporting on Africa, is the producer and director of the film "Africa: Open for Business," which premiered last week at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.