15 March 2012

Pakistan’s PM says regional peace is high priority

News fromIslamabadindicates that Pakistan Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani wishes to improve relations between his country and its neighbours. He has said thatPakistanattaches high priority to promoting regional peace, security, prosperity and stability. 

The Prime Minister expressed these views in a meeting with outgoing Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir, who paid a farewell call on him at the PM’s House inIslamabad. Mr Gilani directed the outgoing Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir, who has been designated asPakistan’s High Commissioner toIndia, to pay special attention to improving relations and seeking resolution of outstanding issues, notablyJammu and Kashmir.

Mr Gilani mentioned that a just and equitable settlement of theJammu and Kashmirdispute was a priority which would open new avenues for mutually beneficial cooperation betweenPakistanandIndia. He also expressed confidence in the leadership of Indian Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh.

The outgoing Foreign Secretary thanked Prime Minister Gilani for his constant guidance, encouragement and support in discharge of his official responsibilities and Gilani in return expressed satisfaction over the work of the outgoing Foreign Secretary, especially regarding the successful implementation ofPakistan’s regional policies.

China steps up security as March anniversary approaches

Chinahas further tightened up security in Tibetan areas of the country ahead of sensitive anniversaries in the month of March, including the 17 March anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s 1959 flight into exile inIndia.

Earlier this month a Tibetan student in western China reportedly died after she set fire to herself in Maqu county of Gansu province, a mother-of-four burned herself to death in Aba in Sichuan province and an 18-year-old died after setting himself ablaze near a government office in Jia township, Aba. About 24 Tibetans have set themselves on fire in the last year, many inSichuanprovince. They say their religion and culture are being suppressed and demand that the Dalai Lama be allowed to return toChina.

Chinainsists it treats minority groups fairly and that it is investing heavily in the region to bring it into the modern era. Officials have recently sought to discredit Tibetans carrying out acts of self-immolation, calling them ‘outcasts, criminals and mentally ill people’ manipulated by the exiled Dalai Lama. But the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader has said he does not encourage the self-immolations.

Chinahas poured money into Tibetan-inhabited areas, seeking to win them over by boosting the economy. But it has also flooded the same areas with police, increased surveillance at monasteries and partially blocked the internet and mobile phones. Foreign journalists caught trying to reach the scene of much of the unrest – in the west ofSichuanprovince – have also been turned back or detained.

APP groups hold conference on ‘way forward’ over Gilgit-Baltistan

A conference titled ‘India Pakistan Peace Process: The Way Forward’ has recently taken place at The Houses of Parliament in London. The event was sponsored by MP Simon Danczuk and the Institute for Gilgit Baltistan Studies in collaboration with the International Pahari Literary Society and International Center for Peace and Democracy. The conference involved discussion and consideration of ways  of ensuring the rule of law, democracy, the elimination of terrorism and equal treatment of all ethnic, linguistic and religious groups in Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan to promote peace in the region.

Keynote speakers included Conservative MP Andrew Stephenson of the All Party Parliamentary Groups on Pakistan and Kashmir; Lord Qurban Hussain, Labour MPs Simon Danczuk (APP group for  Kashmir) and Yasmin Qureshi (Chairperson of the APP Group on International Justice) and Dr Nazir Gilani (Secretary General of Jammu & Kashmir Council of Human Rights).

Speakers covered a range of issues, from human rights violations, empowering local people, the role of militants in the area and shifting demographics in Gilgit-Baltistan.

Simon Danczuk stated that the issues of Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan are fundamental to the interests of British parliamentarians and called for creating peace, encouraging cooperation and finding solutions to bringIndiaandPakistancloser. Yasmeen Qureshi also called for peaceful solutions.

Andrew Stephenson urgedPakistanto eliminate terrorism to improve ties withIndia. He stated thatIndiahas a booming economy because of security, the rule of law and democracy; andPakistanshould followIndia’s footsteps.

Dr Gilani said that self-determination is the right of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan and asked bothIndiaandPakistanto grant the people ofKashmirand Gilgit-Baltistan a role in peace-building.

Prime Minister and Senator propose differing solutions to Syrian violence

Recent stances adopted by British and US politicians towards the escalating Syrian crisis reveal radically different solutions being proposed. While British Prime Minister David Cameron has reaffirmed Britain’s commitment to the people of Syria and says they are working to bring greater pressure to bear on President Bashir al-Assad to step down and end the violence, US Senator John McCain is urging US military intervention against the regime.

The PM continued to condemn the Syrian regime’s ongoing violence saying, ’The history ofHomsis being written in the blood of its citizens.’ He made three key pledges to help Syrian citizens: promising more humanitarian assistance; to hold those responsible for ‘slaughter’ to account; and to bring about the political transition that would put a stop to the killing.

Senator McCain said that theUSshould lead an international effort to protect key population centres inSyriathrough air strikes on President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. He is the first senior figure in US politics to call publicly for military intervention inSyria.

‘The time has come for a new policy,’ said Senator McCain. ‘Assad needs to know that he will not win.’

A UN Security Council resolution onSyriahas been blocked by Russian and Chinese opposition, but Mr McCain said theUSshould seek the active involvement of key Arab partners such asSaudi Arabiaand NATO allies such asTurkey. David Cameron has pledged thatBritainwould continue to secure a United Nations Security Council resolution demanding an end to the violence and immediate humanitarian access.

Fears over Pakistan’s proposed internet curbs

Pakistan is advertising for companies to install an internet filtering system that could block up to 50 million web addresses, alarming free speech activists who fear current censorship could become much more widespread.

Internet access for Pakistan’s some 20 million web users is less restricted than in many countries in Asia and the Arab world, though some pornographic sites and those seen as insulting to Islam are blocked. Others – related to separatist activities or army criticism – have also been, or continue to be, censored.

Few nations have so publicly revealed their plans to censor the web asPakistanis doing, however. Last month, the government took out newspaper and web advertisements asking for companies or institutions to develop the national filtering and blocking system.

‘They are already blocking a lot of internet content, and now they are going for a massive system that can only limit and control political discourse,’ said Shahzad Ahmad, the director of Bytes for All Pakistan, which campaigns for internet freedom.

The plan to censor the internet comes amid unease over a set of proposals by a media regulatory body aimed at bringing the country’s freewheeling television media under closer government control. With general elections later this year or earlier next, some critics have speculated the government might be trying to cut down on criticism.

The media proposals call for, amongst other things, television stations not to broadcast programmes ‘against the national interest’ or those that ‘undermine its integrity or solidarity as an independent and sovereign country’.

Pakistan’s Information Minister Firdous Ashiq Awan denied that the government was seeking to curb the media. ‘We want to see the media growing. We want to strengthen it,’ he said, emphasising that the government wouldn’t implement the proposals without the media’s consent.

Norway mass killer charged with terrorism

The Norwegian anti-Islam militant whose bomb and shooting massacre shocked the world last summer has been charged with terrorism and the premeditated murder of 77 people as officials prepare for a trial to start next month.

Prosecutors said they would initially seek a sentence of psychiatric care but might now demand 21 years in prison –Norway’s nominal maximum – if an initial diagnosis of psychosis is contradicted by a second opinion.

Anders Behring Breivik, 33, has admitted carrying out the July bomb attack that killed eight people at government headquarters inOsloand a gun massacre hours later that killed 69 people at a Labour Party summer camp.

His targets were ‘traitors’ with immigrant-friendly attitudes, he explained at a preliminary court hearing.

‘The defendant has committed highly serious crimes of a dimension we have no previous experience with in our society in modern times,’ prosecutor Svein Holden told reporters after unveiling the indictment.

He said the killings included ‘aggravating circumstances’ but did not amount to crimes against humanity under Norwegian law.

A crimes-against-humanity charge would have carried a maximum 30-year sentence, but Holden saidNorway’s law applies only to ‘widespread, systematic’ atrocities and not the acts of an individual.

While the maximum conventional prison sentence for terror and murder inNorwayis 21 years, courts are permitted after that to extend custody indefinitely if a violent, sane convict is considered likely to repeat his crimes.

France sceptical over ‘two-faced’ talks with Iran

Francehas voiced scepticism that a planned revival of talks between six world powers andIranwould succeed, sayingTehranstill did not seem sincerely willing to negotiate on the future of its contested nuclear programme.

The EU’s foreign policy chief, who represents theUnited States,Russia,China,France,BritainandGermanyin dealings withIran, said they had acceptedIran’s offer to return to talks after a standstill of a year that has seen a drift towards conflict in the oil-rich Gulf.

The talks could dampen what US President Barack Obama has called a rising drumbeat of war, alluding to talk of last-resort Israeli attacks on Iran that he and many others worry would kindle a wider Middle East war and hammer the global economy.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé, however, raised doubts about what the talks could achieve. ‘I am a little sceptical…I thinkIrancontinues to be two-faced,’ he toldFrance’s i-TELE television. ‘That’s why I think we have to continue to be extremely firm on sanctions [already imposed onIran], which in my view are the best way to prevent a military option that would have unforeseeable consequences,’ he said.

Iranian officials in Tehran were unavailable for comment, though Iran has pledged to float ‘new initiatives’ at the talks but has not committed itself explicitly to discussing ways of guaranteeing that its nuclear advances will be solely peaceful, as the West demands.

Thousands protest against tolls in South Africa

Tens of thousands of protesters have marched through South African cities in a protest by the powerful Cosatu labour body, the latest sign of tensions within the ANC-led government.

The protest’s official rallying cry is to demand that the government scrap plans for tolls on major roads aroundJohannesburgand rein in the practice of labour brokers who offer workers short-term contracts at lower pay.

But the marches were another show of discontent with the African National Congress-led government, which has ruled since Nelson Mandela became the first black president in 1994.

‘We have come here to fire the first warning shot. And in our chamber, there are still a lot of bullets,’ Cosatu chief Zwelinzima Vavi told a cheeringJohannesburgcrowd that police estimated at 45,000.

Vavi drew a line in the sand on tolling set to start at the end of next month, threatening to shut down the highways ofSouth Africa’s economic heartland.

‘If they say they will introduce this, we will take everybody we see here and even more and put them in the highways ofJohannesburg,’ he said. ‘We will make this system unworkable.’

The embattled leader of the ANC Youth League, Julius Malema, stood behind Vavi as he spoke – just a week after the party moved to expel him for provoking divisions within its ranks.

Amnesty calls on Saudi to free six held for planned demo

Saudi Arabia must ‘release immediately and unconditionally’ six Saudis held for nearly a year in connection with a protest that only one of them attended, Amnesty International has said.

The London-based rights group said five of the men were being held without trial in connection withSaudi Arabia’s ‘Day of Rage’ protest which was planned for March 11, 2011.

Khaled al-Johani was thought to be the sole protester on the day, while four other men were detained on the same day and a sixth man was arrested a week earlier, Amnesty said.

The planned protest – which was called by activists in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring, demanding political reforms in the ultra-conservative kingdom – ultimately did not take place due to the heavy deployment of security forces.

‘Holding people for a year merely for intending to protest is completely unconscionable. But that is what it seems the Saudi authorities have been doing in the name of security,’ said Philip Luther, Amnesty’s interim director for the Middle East andNorth Africa.

The rights group said it had detailed information indicating that at least one of the men was ‘tortured or otherwise ill-treated after being detained’, adding that only Johani had been put on trial so far.

The watchdog said security forces have arrested hundreds of people, particularly in the east of the country, where the Shiite minority are concentrated, for protesting or voicing their opposition to government policies.

New Indian High Commissioner takes office

Dr Jaimini Bhagwati has assumed office asIndia’s new High Commissioner to theUnited Kingdom. He was warmly welcomed at India House in a formal function in late February.

Dr Bhagwati is an economist and career diplomat from the Indian Foreign Service’s 1976 batch. He brings with him a wealth of experience, having served inter alia as the Indian Ambassador to the EU,Belgium andLuxembourg, in the Ministry of External Affairs in various senior positions, in the Ministry of Finance and also at the World Bank. He holds a Doctorate in Finance and a Masters degree in physics.

France calls on Basque separatists to disarm

Francehas said it wants Basque separatist group ETA to completely disarm and will continue to work with the Spanish government to endEurope’s last major guerrilla conflict.

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero declined to comment on a statement from ETA, which called for direct dialogue with the French government, sayingParishad not received a copy.

In a statement sent to French news agency AFP, ETA charged President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government with neglecting the right of Basques to decide their future.

‘The Basque people hope that the French government responds positively to end definitively the consequences of this conflict by beginning direct negotiations with ETA,’ the statement said.

It came five months after ETA said it was abandoning four decades of armed struggle and asked for talks with the Spanish and French governments.

‘After the ETA announcement on October 20, we are waiting likeSpainfor the terrorist organisation to announce the complete disarmament of its members,’ Valero told reporters.

ETA has not referred to disarmament in a string of statements issued in 2011 calling for talks. Successive Spanish governments have ruled out talks since ETA broke a previous ceasefire in 2006 and called on the group to disband.

However, recently elected Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government has said it is willing to look into relocating hundreds of its jailed members – one of ETA’s demands – on a case-by-case basis.

Hundreds of arrests and waning support have weakened the guerrilla group, whose fighters have killed more than 800 people in a campaign of bombings and shootings to carve out an independent Basque homeland in northernSpainand southeastFrance.

A newly formed leftist Basque party, which wants independence fromSpainby peaceful means, meanwhile won an astounding seven seats in November 20 parliamentary elections and surpassed moderate Basque nationalists PNV.