31 May 2012

US-Pakistan tensions deepen at Nato summit

The rift between theUSandPakistanhas deepened as the 20 -21 May Nato summit inChicagobroke up without a deal onAfghanistansupply routes.

At a press conference to close the two-day summit, Barack Obama issued a pointed warning toPakistanthat it was in its wider interest to work with theUSto avoid being ‘consumed’ by extremists. The main point of friction isPakistan’s closure of Nato supply routes toAfghanistanin protest over drone attacks and aUSair strike in November that killed two dozen Pakistani troops, for which Zardari is demanding an apology.

Obama declined to meet Pakistan president Asif Ali Zardari for a face-to-face bilateral meeting because Pakistan is refusing to re-open its Afghanistan border to Nato, which means the US and others are having to resupply their military forces through the slower and more expensive routes from the north and Russia. The US president said he ‘did not want to paper over the cracks’ and that there has been tension between the US-led international force in Afghanistan and Pakistan over the last few months.

But ultimately, it was in theUSinterest to have a stable, democratic and prosperousPakistan, Obama said. There are fears in theUSthat thePakistangovernment is unstable and that the government could fall, to be replaced by hardliners.

Obama said, ‘We think thatPakistanhas to be part of the solution inAfghanistan. Neither country is going to have the kind of security, stability and prosperity that it needs unless they can resolve some of these outstanding issues.’

Nato has formally committed to its withdrawal of the 130,000-strong force from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, but a smaller force will remain to help ‘train, advise and assist’ the Afghan army, probably of around 15,000-20,000.

The risk for Obama in displaying his annoyance withPakistanat theChicagosummit is that Zardari could go away feeling humiliated and even less willing to play a positive role overAfghanistan.

US Senate gives green light to tougher sanctions on Iran

The US Senate has approved a bill to tighten sanctions against Iranahead of crucial talks on Iran’s nuclear programme. The decision aims to force Tehranto abandon its nuclear programme, which the USand its allies suspect Tehranis using to develop a nuclear weapon.

The new sanctions will targetIran’s Revolutionary Guard and investigate its role in the export of oil from the country. It will also make it mandatory for US-listed firms to disclose any Iran-related business to the authorities. The tougher sanctions onIran’s oil exports, one of its biggest sources of revenue, will increase the pressure onTehranconsiderably.

‘Today the US Senate put Iranian leaders on notice that they must halt all uranium enrichment activities or face another round of economic sanctions,’ Republican senator Mark Kirk, a co-author of the bill, said in a statement.

Last year,USPresident Barack Obama approved measures allowing theUSto act against companies and foreign institutions that dealt withIran’s central bank and earlier this year the European Union announced an oil embargo againstIran.

TheUShas also been putting pressure on countries in Asia such asChina,Japan,IndiaandSouth Korea, which are among the biggest importers of Iranian oil, to reduce their intake fromTehran.

Despite all the sanctionsIranhas insisted that its nuclear programme is meant for peaceful purposes. However, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has expressed concern thatIranhas failed to co-operate with its inspectors and has carried out activities ‘relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device’.

The latest sanctions come just days ahead of talks inBaghdad,Iraq, between six world powers andIran. The last series of full international talks withIranbroke down in early 2011.

But some analysts believe that imposing fresh sanctions just days ahead of these talks may prove counter-productive. ‘The biggest requirement now for getting an agreement is not to pile on still more sanctions, but instead to persuade the Iranians that if they make concessions the sanctions will be eased,’ said Paul Pillar, a security studies professor at Georgetown University.

Protestors in Mali coup attack President

Mali’s interim President, Dioncounda Traore, has been attacked and beaten unconscious following a coup by protestors. The attack came on 21 May, just a day after a deal was struck with coup leader Capt Amadou Sanogo for him to remain in office for a year.

Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra said he was ashamed of the actions of the protestors, appealing for calm and ordering the protests to stop. He said: ‘Given the situation that this country is in right now, vandalism and looting…is not going to help the reconstruction of the nation.’

The protesters were angry that Mr Traore’s mandate, which had been due to expire, was extended. They see him as a member of the political class that they blame forMali’s problems. The coup, and ensuing rebel seizure of northernMali, have led many thousands of people to flee their homes. Aid agencies say they are extremely concerned about the humanitarian situation inMali, which is also suffering from the regional drought.

A spokesman for regional bloc Ecowas, Sunny Ugoh, said he was shocked at the events that unfolded barely 24 hours after a delegation from Ecowas left, having managed to secure a deal with the military.  He also said that sanctions were now a real possibility.

The deal struck by Ecowas saw Capt Sanogo recognised as a former head of state with a salary and a mansion, along with a role during the transition. Capt Sanogo seized power in March and led the country for less than three weeks, before handing power to Mr Traore, the former speaker of parliament, in the face of intense international pressure.

As part of the deal, the government is supposed to focus on recovering the north from a mixture of Tuareg separatists and Islamist fighters. Some of the groups have links to al-Qaeda’s branch in the region, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Ecowas has said it is preparing to send 3,000 troops toMalito help the country reclaim itsnorthern territory, but no date has been set for the force to arrive.

Sri Lanka’s ex-army chief urges co-operation over war

Ex-army chief Sarath Fonseka has said that Sri Lanka must co-operate with any international investigation into alleged war crimes and accused some Sri Lankan leaders of ‘hiding their faces’ over the conduct of the war, as if they were guilty. There have been repeated calls for an international probe into the war. Mr Fonseka’s statement came just a day after a presidential pardon secured his release after serving two years in jail for alleged corruption and other offences in 2010, charges he has always denied.

Mr Fonseka, who led the army to its 2009 victory over Tamil rebels before his fall from grace, denied thousands of civilians had been killed.Sri Lanka’s army put an end to 26 years of brutal civil war when they defeated the separatist Tamil Tigers in May 2009.

Despite Fonseka’s denials, the final phase of that war has been a source of considerable controversy, with both sides accused of war crimes. Human rights groups estimate that up to 40,000 civilians were killed in the final months of the war. The government recently released its own estimate, concluding that about 9,000 people perished during the period. In March the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution urgingSri Lankato do more to address alleged abuses during the final phase of war with Tamil rebels.

In his first one-to-one interview since being freed on 21 May, Mr Fonseka said that the attitude of some Sri Lankan leaders gave the world the impression they were guilty of something and he agreed that the focus on human rights violations and reconciliation urged by the UN was important. Mr Fonseka said that he would ‘not be scared’ to answer questions about that period. He believed civilians were given weapons and put on the front line by rebels and as a result the army would not have been able to tell them apart. He also said he now wanted to be involved in politics to change what he calledSri Lanka’s ‘corrupt political culture’.

Sri Lankamarked the three-year anniversary of the end of the 26-year civil war during the weekend of 19 and 20 May, holding a large military parade in the capital,Colombo.

World leaders ‘put profit before our human rights’

World leaders are sitting back while protestors are being slaughtered inSyria, the latest report from Amnesty International says. It is time for a new international peacekeeping group to be established as the UN Security Council is ineffective, the human rights group said. With countries such asRussiaandChinabeing able to block sanctions through use of their veto, the UN appears ‘doomed to failure’, claimed the charity.

More than 4,300 people have reportedly been killed during protests inSyria, which is rapidly sliding into civil war. Amnesty has called forSyriato be referred to the International Criminal Court for investigation of crimes against humanity, after evidence emerged of protestors being detained, tortured and killed by government forces.

Amnesty International secretary general Salil Shetty said, ‘In the last year, it has all too often become  clear that opportunistic alliances and financial interests have trumped human rights as global powers jockey for influence in the Middle East and North Africa.’ She claimed that ‘The language of human rights is shelved when inconvenient or standing in the way of profit.’

Amnesty is calling for world leaders to back a strong global arms trade treaty designed to stop murderous regimes being able to buy weapons from other countries. The report also found at least 91 countries were restricting free speech, while residents of 101 countries were suffering torture or ill treatment.

Ms Shetty added: ‘Governments must show legitimate leadership and reject injustice by protecting the powerless and restraining the powerful.’

Jail for Pakistani doctor who helped CIA find Bin Laden

Pakistani authorities have sentenced a doctor accused of helping the CIA find Osama bin Laden to 33 years in jail on charges of treason. The move has drawn angry condemnation from US officials already at odds withIslamabad.

Shakil Afridi is the first person to be sentenced by Pakistani authorities in the bin Laden case. He was accused of running a fake vaccination campaign, in which he collected DNA samples, that is believed to have helped the American intelligence agency track down and kill the al Qaeda chieftain in a unilateral US special forces raid in Abbottabad in May last year.

Dr Shakil has been sentenced to 33 years imprisonment and a fine of 320,000 Pakistani rupees, according to a government official in the north-western city ofPeshawar, where the jail term will be served. The sentence was handed down under tribal laws, which unlike the national penal code do not carry the death penalty for treason.

Afridi’s prison term comes at a sensitive time and could complicate efforts to break a deadlock in talks over the re-opening of land routes throughPakistanto US-led NATO forces inAfghanistan.

Republican Senator John McCain and Democratic Senator Carl Levin said in a statement that the sentence was ‘shocking and outrageous’ and urged Islamabad to pardon and release the doctor immediately. ‘Dr Afridi’s continuing imprisonment and treatment as a criminal will only do further harm to US-Pakistani relations, including diminishing Congress’s willingness to provide financial assistance to Pakistan,’ they said.

Pakistan and Afghanistan dialogue seeks solutions

AfghanistanPresident Hamid Karzai said his government is talking toPakistanon a range of issues, including terrorism, in a more open and friendlier manner than ever before. He said, in keeping with this new environment, that ‘we hope we can find solutions’.

‘Pakistanis a neighbour of ours and we have begun a dialogue with them. And the dialogue is quite ahead now in seeking solutions to the problems that we have.’ He also said that he hoped the end result of all the effort on the part ofAfghanistan,Pakistanand theU.S.would be the removal of terrorists from the region and the consequences of terrorism.

Mr. Karzai termed his brief encounters with Presidents Barack Obama and Asif Ali Zardari on the sidelines of the NATO Summit inChicagoas ‘just a photo-opportunity and not a meeting’. When asked why a three way meeting was not held to discuss the most important issues forAfghanistan,Pakistanand the U.S, he said, ‘it wasn’t for us to decide on the three-way meeting. TheUSwas the host and perhaps they saw it fit for some other time.’

A White House official said, ‘The President (Obama) had the chance to briefly speak with President Zardari and President Karzai, underscoring their shared commitment to an Afghan-led reconciliation process to bring the war to a responsible end.’

Aung San Suu Kyi to leaveBurmafor first time in 24 years

The end of May will see Aung San Suu Kyi leaveBurmafor the first time in more than two decades on a visit toBangkok. The Nobel Peace Prize winner, who spent years under house arrest but is now a member of Burma’s parliament following a tranche of reforms, will visit the World Economic Forum in Thailand from May 30 to June 1.

The veteran activist also plans to travel to Europe in June, where she will accept in person her 1991 Nobel peace prize inOsloand address both houses of Parliament inLondon. Ms Suu Kyi will also speak at an International Labour Organisation conference inGeneva.

The 66-year-old opposition leader spent much of the last two decades locked up in her Yangon home by Burma’s former junta, but has now been issued with a passport and is able to travel abroad for the first time in 24 years. She had previously been unwilling to leave for fear the former British colony’s military rulers would not let her return.

Burma’s relations with the international community have improved dramatically since a nominally civilian government took over last year and Ms Suu Kyi won her first ever seat in parliament in by-elections in April.

Blind activist Chen Guangcheng fears reprisals against family

Chen Guangfu, the older brother of Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng, has fled the closely-guarded village where he lives for the capital,Beijing. Chen Guangfu is seeking legal help for his son, who faces charges after a clash with local officials, and wants to consult lawyers inBeijingover his son’s case.

Chen Guangcheng, who is now in theUS, has expressed concern that his relatives could face reprisals. The blind activist triggered a diplomatic crisis between theUSandChinawhen he fled house arrest to theUSembassy inBeijingin late April. He has now been allowed to travel to theUSwith his wife and children to study, but his relatives remain inChina. They live in Dongshigu village inShandongprovince, which has been under tight security.

Chen Guangfu’s son, Chen Kegui, has been charged with ‘intentional homicide’ after a clash with local officials who came to his house shortly after Chen Guangcheng disappeared. His relatives say he was defending himself.

Mr Chen’s wife, Ren Zongju, told of how officials came to her home and attacked her son, beating him until he was bleeding. Mr Chen also detailed how he himself was detained for days, interrogated and beaten after his brother’s escape.

According to a BBC correspondent, Cheng Guangcheng’s case highlights how Chinese authorities often seek to punish family members of dissidents. While his escape has been hailed as a victory by his supporters, Chen Guangcheng has said that it would be his family who continue to bear the consequences.

Indiastrike over petrol price increase

India’s main opposition parties have announced a nationwide strike on 31 May to protest against a sharp increase in petrol prices.

State-run oil firms raised petrol prices by more than 11% or 7.54 rupees (13 cents) a litre, the steepest single increase in a decade. In 2010, the government allowed state-run oil firms to fix the price of petrol but it continues to control the prices of diesel, kerosene and cooking gas to protect the poor and to keep a check on inflation.

The increase in fuel prices is likely to fuel inflation, but oil firms said they were forced to increase prices because the falling rupee had made imports costlier. The slide comes amid concerns that slowing growth and a high rate of inflation may hurtIndia’s economy.

A spokesman for the main opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said it was talking to other parties to garner support for the strike.

‘The government has washed its hands clean on price hike, but in reality, it happens only when the government wants it to happen. The government will also increase prices of diesel and cooking gas after the presidential elections get over,’ Sharad Yadav said.

BJP spokesman Prakash Javadekar said, ‘We condemn the price hike. We won’t allow it. A strong democratic agitation is on the cards.’

EU wants Greece to stay in Eurozone

EU leaders want Greece to remain in the eurozone but to ‘respect its commitments’, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said, speaking after a Brussels summit which exposed differences between France and Germany over measures to tackle the eurozone debt crisis. The EU is struggling to revive growth and theBrusselssummit came ahead of a crucial EU summit on 28-29 June.

The risk of a Greek exit from the euro looms large, ahead of another Greek election on 17 June. Contingency plans are being made in some EU capitals.Greecehas been in recession for five years, crippled by a debt mountain, high unemployment and labour unrest. There are fears that a Greek exit could trigger a run on the banks – not only there but in other eurozone countries.

Mr Van Rompuy saidGreecemust stick with ‘vital reforms’ while pledging thatBrusselswould mobilise EU structural funds and other investments to help the stricken Greek economy.Greece’s caretaker Prime Minister Panagiotis Pikrammenos said ‘almost every’ EU state had shown support for his country at the summit.

Opinion polls suggest that the leftist bloc Syriza, which came second in Greece’s 6 May election, is likely to win the June vote. It opposes the stringent conditions imposed on Greeceunder its massive EU-IMF bailout deal.

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.