15 May 2012

Taliban teen bomber kills 20 in Pakistan

A teenage suicide bomber has targeted police in a bustlingPakistantown square, killing at least 20 people and wounding dozens in the tribal area near the Afghan border, officials said.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it targeted the local chief and deputy of a tribal police force who were recruited by the government to help defeat an Islamist insurgency in the northwest.

Only a day earlier, documents released by theUnited Statesshowed that Osama bin Laden had been unhappy with the Pakistani Taliban for killing civilians and that al-Qaeda leaders wrote to its chief, Hakimullah Mehsud, urging him to mend his ways.

The bomber, who intelligence officials said was aged 14 to 16, detonated explosives strapped to his chest in Khar, the main town ofBajaurdistrict. Bajaur has been one of the toughest battlegrounds inPakistan’s fight against a northwestern Taliban insurgency.

It was the deadliest bombing inPakistansince March 2, when at least 22 people were killed by a suicide attack on a mosque in the tribal district of Khyber.

‘Twenty people, including five policemen, were killed and 46 others were wounded,’ said Islam Zeb, the administrative head of Bajaur tribal district.

The local tribal police chief and his deputy were among the dead.

This was the third bomb attack in two days in Bajaur, after twin blasts killed five people – including pro-government elders and security personnel – on May 3.

The violence highlights the insurgency inPakistanat a time whenIslamabadis under renewedUSpressure to crack down on militants based on its soil, such as the Haqqani network, blamed for a spectacular assault onKabullast month.

Clintonsays US willing to work withNorth Koreaif it reforms

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that theUnited Statesis willing to work withNorth Koreaif it changes its ways, and also said more pressure should be brought to bear onSudanandSyria.

Speaking inBeijingat the end of two days of high-level meetings,Clintonsought to underscore thatWashingtonandBeijingcould still work together on key international issues.

‘We see two nations that are now thoroughly and inescapably interdependent,’Clintonsaid in prepared remarks in the closed door meeting.

OnNorth Korea, where theUnited StateswantsChinato put more pressure on the isolated nation’s leadership to rein in its nuclear ambitions,ClintonsaidWashingtonwas still willing to work withPyongyangif it changes its ways.

‘If [the new leadership inPyongyang] focus on honouring their commitments and rejoining the international community, and on feeding and educating their citizens, theUnited Stateswill welcome them and work with them,’ she said.

Clinton also underscored that the US and China – both permanent members of the UN Security Council – could work together to put similar pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme and take strong action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ongoing crackdown against anti-government protests.

USofficials sayChinahas been more than willing to consider steps againstIran, which is preparing for a new round of talks with major powers on the nuclear issue, but claimBeijinghas not yet played a sufficient role in the international response toSyria’s crisis.

Pressure builds on Hollande over EU debt

Pressure is already building onFrance’s newly elected president Francois Hollande to stand by the country’s austerity vows, withGermany’s Angela Merkel sayingEuropeis counting on them to resolve the bloc’s debt crisis.

In a letter to him that was released by her office, Merkel noted that he was assuming power in the European Union’s second-largest economy ‘at a time full of challenges’.

‘It is up to us to take the necessary decisions for the European Union and the eurozone, to prepare our societies for the future and protect and advance prosperity in a sustainable way,’ she wrote.

But she also made clear she had no plans to renegotiate the fiscal pact setting tough budgetary rules for EU states that she spearheaded, despite Hollande’s call to rework it to do more to foster growth.

Japanhas joined those raising concerns about his plans, as Finance Minister Jun Azumi warned Hollande to keepFrance’s fiscal discipline in place.

‘We want [France] to do what has been decided so far,’ Azumi told a news conference, adding that ‘it is impossible [for European nations] to give up on fiscal-rebuilding efforts’.

And a German member of the European Central Bank’s board also warned France to honour its fiscal commitments, and to ‘respect the promise to reduce the public deficit next year below the three-percent (of GDP) mark’.

Hollande’s transition chief Pierre Moscovici said the Socialist leader would not give up on his plan for ‘a European project that is more favourable to growth’ and thatFrance’s partners would budge. ‘We will find a compromise,’ he said.

The uncertainty generated by Hollande’s election and the political turmoil in Greece, where election gains by hard-left and extreme-right parties stripped the ruling coalition of its majority, have riled the markets.

Queen’s speech omits bill to enshrine aid target in law

Aid groups have criticised theUK government for a ‘missed opportunity’ in failing to press ahead with a bill that would enshrine in law plans to spend 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) on development aid.

The omission from the Queen’s speech, which sets out the legislative timetable for the coming parliamentary session, was no great surprise, as Andrew Mitchell, the international development secretary, had been hinting in recent months that the bill would not feature because of a lack of parliamentary time, given the government’s focus on the economy.

In her speech, the Queen said the government would only ‘set out firm plans to spend 0.7% of [GNI] as official development assistance from 2013’. Spending 0.7% of GNI on aid is a long-standing UN goal, first mooted in 1970, and all three main UK parties have signed up to it. George Osborne, the chancellor, has allowed for the increase in his budget, from the present 0.54% but, without legislation, aid groups fear the percentage could decrease in future budgets.

Responding to the government’s decision, Kathleen Spencer Chapman, Oxfam senior policy adviser, said: ‘The Government deserves credit for sticking to its aid promises during bad times as well as good. But we are disappointed at the absence of a Bill to enshrine in lawBritain’s commitment to providing life-saving medicines, schooling and clean water for the poorest people on the planet.

‘There is no reason to delay a Bill which has all-party support, would protect life-saving aid from future politicking and would increase theUK’s standing on the world stage.’

Sri Lankan UN ambassador demoted

The Sri Lankan government has demoted its ambassador to the UN inGenevaafter the Human Rights Council adopted a motion critical of the country. Tamara Kunanayakam had been in the post just nine months and her removal meansSri Lankawill have had fourGenevaambassadors in the space of three years.

Ms Kunanayakam – one of the few Sri Lankan ambassadors who are Tamil – has been reappointed as the envoy toCuba. She will be removed from theGenevapost in July despite expressing strong wishes to stay in the job.

The move coincides with the emergence of an apparent rift in the foreign ministry, with one presidential adviser warning of ‘destructive elements’ at work. However, Ms Kunanaykam has been a staunch advocate of the government’s position, defending its human rights record, and there is the possibility that the divisions may be centred around personalities and factions rather than around ideology or doctrine.

In a letter to the foreign minister on 1 May – and in subsequent media interviews – Ms Kunanayakam said she had loyally carried out the instructions of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. She also said, rather ironically it transpires, that the president had ruled out reappointing her to a previous posting likeCubaas this ‘would be interpreted as a demotion’.

‘Removing one of the very few Tamils heading diplomatic missions abroad will allow questioning of the government’s commitment to reconciliation,’ she said. Furthermore it would ‘reinforce extremist elements on all sides’ and heighten perceptions of ethnic tensions. ‘We will fall into the hands of those who say there is a conflict between Sinhala and Tamil.’

In 2009 the Sri Lankan government defeated Tamil Tiger rebels fighting for a separate homeland in the country after 26 years of civil war.

Mr Amunugama, Sri Lanka’s Secretary of External Affairs, insisted that Ms Kunanaykam’s reappointment to her previous position was routine and had nothing to do with the Genevahuman rights vote. ‘It’s not a question of someone being happy or unhappy but having the best people for the right places,’ he said.

Abu Qatada loses deportation battle

Radical preacher Abu Qatada has lost his last major battle against deportation. The cleric has failed in his attempt to get European human rights judges inStrasbourgto rule on his threatened extradition toJordanand it is British Courts who will instead have the final say.

Home Secretary Theresa May welcomed the ruling – although the judges decided she got her dates wrong in dealing with the case, referring to the fact that she ordered his arrest last month a day too early. Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper said Ms May had got ‘very lucky’ with the judicial decision despite her ‘worrying incompetence and recklessness.’

The ruling means that the cleric must fight on in the British courts, although officials admit that it could still take many months before his deportation is expedited. Quatada claims that he will be tortured if he is sent back toJordanto face terror charges. The case has so far cost tax payers £3 million.

Ms May said she was sure she ‘would be able to put Qatada on a plane and get him out of Britainfor good’. But his lawyers accused the Home Secretary of seeking to sidestep the courts for ‘a contrived political spectacle’

US ambassador’s early exit from Pakistan fuels diplomatic speculation

America’s ambassador toPakistan, Cameron Munter, has announced he is stepping down early, raising speculation that the uneasy allies face a renewed period of diplomatic uncertainty.

Mr Munter told embassy staff on 7 May that he would be leaving in the summer, less than two years after taking up the job. During that time he has had to deal with the fallout from multiple crises, including finding a deal to free a CIA contractor arrested in Lahore after shooting dead two men and the diplomatic repercussions of the covert raid to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. Relations between the two countries plummeted in November whenUSaircraft strayed across the border fromAfghanistanand killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

However, officials denied speculation that he was the victim of terrible relations between Washington and Islamabad and colleagues in Islamabad said they were not surprised he had turned down an option to stay on for a third year after such a tumultuous time. An American official said Mr Munter was leaving for ‘personal reasons’, insisting he was not forced out after a series of rows. ‘Pakistandoes not get to choose our ambassador,’ he said.

The year ahead will be crucial, as American troops leaveAfghanistanahead of a 2014 deadline.Pakistanretains links to militant groups involved in peace talks and will be expected to step up border security ifAfghanistanis not to sink further into insecurity.

Hillary Clinton’s Asian trip puts pressure on Pakistan and Bangladesh

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has put pressure onPakistanto do more to stamp out terrorism on its home soil. She was standing next toIndia’s foreign minister when she spoke out on 8 May, as she wrapped up an eight-day Asian trip that also took her toChinaandBangladesh. While the comments will please the Indian government, they are likely to anger Pakistani leaders.

Clinton’s speech followed her previous day’s accusations thatIslamabadwas dragging its feet in the case of Hafiz Saeed, the Pakistan-based Islamist blamed for masterminding the attack by gunmen onMumbai,India’s financial capital, in 2008.Clintonhas authorized a $10 million reward for information leading to his capture.

‘We look to the government ofPakistanto do more,’Clintontold a joint news conference with Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna at the end of her tour. ‘It needs to make sure that its territory is not used as a launching pad for terrorist attacks anywhere, including inside of Pakistan, because the great unfortunate fact is that terrorists in Pakistan have killed more than 30,000 Pakistanis,’ she said.

Three days before her speech in India, she askedBangladesh to exploit its strategic geo-location and said that its position betweenIndia andChina, the two aggressively developing economies, gave it tremendous opportunity for development. ‘China is surely the most developed developing country (and)India also is rapidly progressing … you are strategically situated betweenChina andIndia,’ saidClinton during the second day of her two-day visit to Dhaka, theBangladesh capital.

She asked its political parties to stop warring and to resolve their differences through dialogue and expressed concern over alleged human rights abuses in the country, asking the government to conduct an independent investigation into the matter. However, she also praised the progress the country was making and said thatBangladeshhad handled the bilateral issues withIndiaand maritime issues withMyanmar‘smartly’. She suggested thatBangladeshshould explore the economic opportunities inMyanmar.

Calling for further cooperation between the US and Bangladesh, she said that the US would provide $300 million over the next four years to Bangladesh to help it deal with the effects of cyclones and floods caused by climate change.

Aung San Suu Kyi takes oath at Burmese parliament

Aung San Suu Kyi has entered the Burmese parliament to take the oath of office and her seat as an elected member, ushering in a historic new political era after years of oppressive military rule.

The woman who led a nearly 25 year struggle for democracy in Myanmar had originally refused to take an oath to ‘safeguard’ the constitution, because her National League for Democracy wants the document amended to reduce the military’s dominance within the government.

The NLD swept by elections on 1 April but its successful candidates initially refused to take their seats because of the oath dispute. The party’s failure to take their seats had annoyed some of Aung San Suu Kyi’s supporters, who were eager to see her finally take office. The NLD members later backed down but insisted they will push to amend the constitution.

The swearing-in ceremony took place on 30 April in the capital Naypyitaw, which was built by the former army junta. The 66-year-old opposition leader’s entry into the legislature cements a risky detente between the NLD and the government of President Thein Sein, which has spearheaded months of unexpected reforms since taking power last year, including the holding of the by elections.

The NLD has too few seats to wield any real power in the assembly, which is dominated by the military-backed ruling party and the army, and there are fears the presence of an opposition could simply legitimise the current regime. Changing the constitution require a 75% majority, making it all but impossible without military approval. But the new MPs are likely to bring a level of public debate to the legislative body that has never been seen as they prepare for the next general election in 2015.

Of the decision to take the oath, Aung San Suu Kyi said, ‘Politics is an issue of give and take. We are not giving up. We are just yielding to the aspirations of the people.’

New seminar for Democracy Forum

Following the success of its March 10 seminar at the London School of Economics, The Democracy Forum is due to host another event at King’s College,Londonon Friday June 22. The topic will be ‘The role of education in combating terrorism’, and the seminar will include speakers from a range of academic and NGO backgrounds.

Egyptholds first ever presidential candidate debate

Egypthas held its first ever debate between presidential candidates, as the two frontrunners for this month’s election traded political accusations on television.

Amr Mussa, a former foreign minister and Arab League chief, faced the moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh in the debate which was aired on two private Egyptian television channels, ONTV and Dream.

Overall, neither candidate landed a decisive blow against the other during the debate which covered the traditional topics of health, employment and education.

But in a reflection of the country’s new political dynamic since a popular uprising toppled veteran president Hosni Mubarak last year, it was Islamism, identity and affiliation to the former regime that dominated the debate.

The pair swapped some sharp exchanges with Mussa slamming his rival’s long time affiliation to the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, and Abul Fotouh accusing Mussa of belonging to an oppressive and corrupt regime under ousted president Hosni Mubarak.

With less than two weeks to go before the landmark poll, many Egyptians are still undecided about their votes, according to various polls.

Gilgit-Baltistan and Vietnam: a sense of solidarity

During their recent commemoration of the 18th Vietnam Human Rights Day, held in the US Senate, the Vietnamese community invited Senge Sering of the Institute for Gilgit-Baltistan Studies to talk about human rights issues in Gilgit-Baltistan.

Mr Sering opened his address to Members of Congress and delegates by expressing his solidarity with the Vietnamese community. He urged the Vietnamese government to release all political prisoners and let democracy flourish in the country.

‘The detained political activists of Vietnam remind me of my homeland Gilgit-Baltistan, where human rights activists face sedition charges and torture under Pakistani subjugation,’ said Mr Sering, citing the recent case of six political prisoners who had been brutally tortured for demanding the right of self-determination for Gilgit-Baltistan.

He also spoke ofPakistan’s denial of constitutional rights to the natives of Gilgit-Baltistan, who are gradually becoming a minority in their own land. Like the Tibetans and Uighurs, they are losing control over their resources to outsiders and their national identity is threatened by the influx of Pakistanis and Chinese.Pakistanpromotes economic marginalization by denying trade along the historical routes linking Gilgit-Baltistan withIndia,AfghanistanandTajikistan, said Mr Sering, and for many decades the region has remained the hub of militancy which receives direct support from the Pakistani secret service agencies. The militants have become a convenient tool for the regime to carry out ethnic cleansing and religious and racial demographic change in Gilgit-Baltistan.

Mr Sering highlighted howPakistanbenefits from maintaining a constant state of fear in Gilgit-Baltistan, promoting extremism and blackmailing the natives on a religious basis. Given thatPakistanlacks the constitutional grounds to rule the region legally, he said, the rulers rely on these age old containment tactics to maintain hegemony. Although Gilgit-Baltistan is a UN-declared disputed area and UN resolutions have askedPakistanto withdraw from the region, bothChinaandPakistanhave vested interests in violating these UN resolutions and continuing their occupation.

Mr Sering ended by urging Congress members to support the right of self-determination for the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, and theUSgovernment to stop military assistance toPakistan. He also requested the UN to station peacekeeping troops in Gilgit-Baltistan.