31 October 2013


Engagement is key in Indo-Pak relations

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said in reply to a letter I once wrote him that ‘I look forward to a time when Pakistan and India will be able to shed the debilitating baggage of the past and focus more on the future, when opportunities, rather than challenges, define the relationship between two proud and sovereign nations’.

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Pakistan PM urges Obama to end drone strikes

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has urged US President Barack Obama to end drone strikes in Pakistan, touching on a sore subject just as relations between the two countries improve after years of suspicion over Afghanistan and the US counter-terrorism fight.

Relations were badly strained following the 2011 Navy SEAL raid that killed al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden deep inside Pakistan where he was in hiding. But they appear to be on the mend as the United States prepares to pull forces out of Afghanistan in 2014.

The United States has quietly restarted security assistance to Pakistan after freezing aid during the period of soured relations, when Washington frequently voiced complaints about the ties of the Pakistani intelligence service to militant groups active in Afghanistan. Much of US security aid to Pakistan is intended to bolster the ability of its military to counter militants in semi-autonomous tribal areas.

Sharif was elected prime minister in June in a historic election that marked Pakistan’s first civilian transfer of power after the completion of a full term by a democratically elected government. He is the first Pakistani leader to visit the White House in five years. ‘To see a peaceful transition of one democratically elected government to another was an enormous milestone for Pakistan,’ Obama said.

The US use of armed drones to attack suspected militants in Pakistan has long been controversial, although the number of incidents has dropped in recent months. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have accused the United States of breaking international law by killing civilians in missile and drone strikes intended for militants in Pakistan and Yemen.

Kashmir: Pakistan firing injures eight civilians

Pakistani troops have fired guns and mortar shells at border posts in Indian-administered Kashmir, wounding eight civilians.

Two children were among those wounded, a Border Security Force official said. Reports say hundreds of villagers have fled their homes in border areas in recent days due to repeated firing from Pakistan.

In recent months, India and Pakistan have accused each other of unprovoked firing along the disputed border. India says there have been nearly 200 violations of the decade-long ceasefire agreement since the beginning of this year. Pakistan said the ceasefire violations were ‘a matter of great concern’, but they had no information or comment about the latest incident.

On the morning of 23 October, India said a paramilitary soldier was killed and many others injured in firing overnight. Earlier in the month, the Indian army said it had fought gun battles with ‘30 to 40 Pakistan-backed militants’ who had tried to infiltrate into India, though Pakistan dismissed as ‘baseless’ reports of infiltration from its soil.

The increased volatility along the border comes 10 years after the two countries agreed a ceasefire along the Line of Control (LoC), the de facto border that divides Kashmir between them. In September, the prime ministers of the two countries met in New York and agreed to maintain peace on the border, but correspondents say their pledge seems to have made little difference on the ground.

India and China in accord over border defence

India and China have signed an agreement on border defence co-operation after a stand-off between their armies in disputed territory earlier this year. The deal aims to improve communication between the two armies.

The agreement was signed during Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Beijing. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said it would help maintain border ‘peace, tranquillity and stability’. The two countries disagree over the demarcation of several Himalayan border areas and fought a brief war in 1962. Tensions still flare up from time to time, but both sides are keen to ensure that the spat does not derail a general warming in relations.

‘Both Prime Minister Singh and I agree that there are far more common interests than differences between China and India,’ Mr Li told a joint press conference with Mr Singh. The Indian PM said: ‘Premier Li and I have agreed that peace and tranquillity on our borders must remain the foundation for growth of the India-China relationship.’

The two countries signed nine agreements in total, including a deal to strengthen co-operation on trans-border rivers and transport. China is already one of India’s top trading partners and the Asian neighbours are the world’s two most populous countries.

Pakistan bans extremist groups over insurgent activities in China

The Pakistani government has decided to ban three international extremist organisations allegedly involved in insurgent activities in the Chinese province of Xinjiang, it’s been reported.

Sources in the Ministry of Interior Affairs have said that Chinese authorities and security agencies believed the three organisations were involved in extremist and insurgent activities in the Muslim-majority province of Xinjiang.

The banned outfits include the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Islamic Jihad Union (IJU). These bodies have been the subject of much concern in discussions between the Chinese and Pakistani civilian and military authorities. The outfits include 10 females who reportedly trained other women for suicide-bombing. The government has enhanced security of Chinese diplomats in the country against possible attacks by the militants.

Ministry sources also stated that Pakistan had been in contact with the Turkish and Uzbek governments over ETIM and IMU, and had learned that over half of the people constituting these bodies were individuals highly wanted by local authorities.

Pakistan is reported to have caught and arrested various members of these groups in operations against militants in North Waziristan and other tribal areas. At least 50-60 organisations already exist on Pakistan’s list of banned outfits.

Democracy Forum seminar considers impact of US-Taliban talks

The Democracy Forum has just hosted another successful seminar on the theme: ‘Can US talks with the Taliban yield positive results?’ The seminar, held at The School of Oriental and African studies (SOAS) on 21 October, was attended by an audience of around 50, comprised of representatives from various think tanks, the Afghan Embassy and Afghan Residents’ Association, Thames Valley Police, PhD students, and journalists, including a writer for the Guardian.

Peter Luff MP introduced the event and Cynthia Weber, Professor of International Relations at Sussex University, acted as Chair. Following a brief overview of the day’s topic, Professor Weber introduced the speakers: Dr Yahia Baiza, Research Associate at the Institute of Ismaili Studies; Dr Sara Silvestri, Senior Lecturer at the Department of International Relations, City University; Frank Ledwidge, a barrister, Guardian journalist and former military officer; and finally Matt Waldman, Research Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University and Associate Fellow, Chatham House.

Dr Yahia Baiza started off with ‘Afghanistan after 2014: an educational perspective’, while Dr Silvestri provided a political analysis of the situation: ‘Engaging with Islamist groups and the problem of jihadism’. Frank Ledwidge provided the British military perspective: ‘And for what..? Ten years of military failure’, followed by the final presentation from Matt Waldman: ‘US talks with the Taliban: results and alternatives’. From these varying viewpoints the panel considered whether US-Taliban talks were possible and desirable and if so, when they would be likely to take place, with what aims in mind, and the likely outcomes. It was an informative and lively seminar, which drew much debate from the audience during question and answer sessions, and an acknowledgement of the important role of the Democracy Forum in stimulating such debate.

Spying row threatens US-EU relations

Germany and France have demanded talks with the US by the end of the year to restore trust between the countries in the wake of the spying row.

Revelations that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone was tapped by America has threatened to derail a multibillion-pound free trade deal between the US and European Union, after German officials demanded it be shelved. The row came after it emerged that the US monitored the phones of 35 world leaders, according to a National Security Agency (NSA) document leaked by US whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Speaking from the EU summit in Brussels, Ms Merkel, who had referred to the allegations of US spying as ‘unacceptable’, said they wanted to ‘create a framework’ with America on surveillance. US President Barack Obama promised her – via a phone call – that US intelligence services are ‘not monitoring and will not monitor’ her communications. However, Washington did not explicitly deny that her phoned had been tapped in the past.

Mr Snowden’s confidential memo shows the NSA obtained 35 unnamed world leaders’ phone numbers from one senior official in another government department, who passed on contacts for some 200 people. The revelations have heightened tensions between the US and key European allies, whose leaders, speaking at the 28-nation summit meeting, echoed Ms Merkel’s words. France’s President Francois Hollande said: ‘What is at stake is preserving our relations with the United States…. trust has to be restored and reinforced.’ When asked by journalists if the US had ever spied on British PM David Cameron in the past, a spokesman for the National Security Council, Caitlin Hayden, replied: ‘No.’

Britain and the US – along with Canada, Australia and New Zealand – are members of the so-called ‘Five Eyes’ group, who share signals intelligence and are supposed not to spy on each other.

Kenya: ICC rules that Ruto must attend trial

Kenyan Vice President William Ruto must attend his crimes against humanity trial before the International Criminal Court and can only be excused under ‘exceptional circumstances’, the ICC has ruled, with its appeals chamber reversing an earlier ruling excusing Ruto from most of his trial before the Hague court.

Ruto had said that he wanted his trial to be suspended or for him to be excused so that he could deal with the fallout from last month’s militant attack on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall which left at least 67 people dead. The ICC put Ruto’s trial on hold for a week after the attack so that he could return to Kenya and deal with the security situation.

Ruto went on trial in September, the highest-ranking serving official to do so before the ICC, on charges of masterminding some of the 2007-8 post-election violence in Kenya that left over 1,000 people dead and several hundred thousand displaced. Victims of the violence had opposed the ruling excusing Ruto from most of his trial.

Ruto and Kenyan radio boss Joshua arap Sang stand accused of stoking the worst violence in the east African country since independence in 1963. Both Ruto and his one-time foe and now political partner, President Uhuru Kenyatta, who also goes on trial on November 12 on similar charges, have pledged their cooperation with the court and are maintaining their innocence.

Kenyatta, who was elected president in March, has long argued that his trial would hamper his running of the country.

China media regulator speaks out over reporter’s arrest

China’s media regulator has vowed to protect ‘lawful reporting rights’, state media said, in a rare official intervention over press freedom after a journalist was detained by police.

Chen Yongzhou, with the New Express tabloid, was held on 18 October on ‘suspicion of damaging business reputation’ after he wrote a series of articles on ‘financial problems’ at Zoomlion, a partly state-owned construction machinery manufacturer. In his published reports Chen accused Zoomlion, which is about 20 per cent owned by the state, of providing fraudulent accounting figures and of a suspicious management buyout that caused ‘losses to state assets’.

After Chen’s detention The New Express ran a full-page editorial on its front page to call for Chen’s release, a rare example of media defying authorities that drew an outpouring of sympathy and support online and among its press peers.

China’s General Administration of Press and Publication, Radio, Film and Television (GAPPRFT) said it was ‘highly concerned’ by Chen’s detention, the China Press and Publishing Journal (which is run by the agency) reported. GAPPRFT is a key part of Beijing’s mechanisms to control the media, and issues the credentials all Chinese journalists need to be able to work. An unidentified official was quoted as saying that ‘the GAPPRFT firmly supports the media to carry out normal reporting activities and firmly protects the justified and lawful reporting rights of journalists’ but he also added that it opposed any ‘abuse of reporting rights’.

Chinese authorities have launched a broad crackdown on ‘online rumours’, with a recent rule saying that Internet users could face three years in prison for writing defamatory messages that are then re-posted 500 times.

Paris-based press rights group Reporters Without Borders hailed the New Express move as ‘courageous’ and joined its call for Chen to be freed. ‘The government must stop harassing journalists and netizens and must end its ‘anti-rumour’ campaign, which is a pretext for stifling dissent,’ it said in a statement.

Female activists set to defy Saudi government over driving ban

Saudi Arabia has warned that it will take measures against activists who go ahead with a planned weekend campaign to defy a ban on women drivers in the conservative Muslim kingdom.

The women organising the campaign have been posting online footage of themselves driving in Saudi cities, and have called on Saudi women with foreign driving licences to get behind the wheel on Saturday 26 October. The campaigners hope to take advantage of the ambiguous nature of the kingdom’s ban on women driving, which is not explicitly enshrined in either the kingdom’s Islamic sharia law or its traffic code.

 The country’s interior ministry issued a statement saying it would crack down against anyone who attempts to ‘disturb public peace’ by congregating or marching ‘under the pretext of an alleged day of female driving’.

‘October 26 is a day on which women in Saudi Arabia will say they are serious about driving and that this matter must be resolved,’ activist Manal al-Sharif, one of the organisers of the campaign told AFP news agency about the weekend protest.

Rights watchdog Amnesty International has urged the Saudi authorities to respect the right of women to drive. ‘It is astonishing that in the 21st century the Saudi Arabian authorities continue to deny women the right to legally drive a car,’ Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme, said.

Saudi women, forced to cover from head to toe, need permission from a male guardian to travel, work and marry.

Iran angry over ‘unfair’ UN report on human rights record

Iran has angrily rejected as ‘unfair’ and politically-motivated a UN report which said the Islamic republic’s human rights record showed no sign of improvement. Foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said in a statement that Iran will not allow ‘such prejudiced reports to become the judging standard of its human rights situation’.

In a report on 23 September, special human rights monitor for Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, condemned the high number of executions in the country this year as well as tough restrictions on freedom of speech, especially online. ‘The human rights situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran continues to warrant serious concern,’ Shaheed said in the report.

Tehran has so far refused to let Shaheed visit the country since being appointed in 2011, and has responded to only a handful of official requests for information. Shaheed instead has relied on contacting campaigners and victims inside Iran, as well as exiles and human rights groups, to write his reports on the country.

His report came almost three months after President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, took office in Iran with a declared mandate to improve social and cultural freedoms at home. Iran last month released dozens of political prisoners, including prominent rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh. But many more remain behind bars or under house arrest, including figures rounded up in the aftermath of massive street protests sparked by a disputed presidential election in 2009.

Afkham said that Iran did not recognise the rapporteur, considering ‘the appointment of a special human rights rapporteur an insult to the great Iranian nation’ and also criticised Shaheed for what she called ‘sources from terrorist and violent groups’, saying they deprived the report of ‘legitimacy and legality’.

Egypt’s military backs army chief for president

Anxious over months of turmoil in Egypt, military officers are pushing popular army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to run for president, after the 2011 popular uprising against former president Hosni Mubarak had inspired hopes for democratic change in a country long dominated by generals.

Sisi ousted Egypt’s first freely-elected president, Mohammed Morsi, the man who appointed him, in July after mass protests against the Islamist leader’s rule. Since then Egypt, whose political transition has repeatedly stumbled, has been rocked by near-daily protests, bombings and clashes in which hundreds have died in the worst civil violence in the nation’s modern history.

Senior military officers have over the past three months told Sisi of their fears about the political upheaval in a series of meetings, army sources said. ‘We told him that we need to maintain stability. He is needed for Egypt and the people love him and want him. Besides, who else can run but him? There is no one else as popular as him,’ said one army officer, who asked not to be named.

However, a military man back in power would alarm international human rights groups and Western allies such as the United States, and raise the prospect of more violence by Sisi’s foes. Since the military takeover, human rights groups have accused security forces of widespread abuses. Hundreds of Islamists have been killed in protests and clashes and thousands jailed, including Morsi and other Brotherhood leaders. But the measures have failed to end unrest, and attacks by Islamist militants in the Sinai Peninsula near Israel have risen sharply since Morsi’s downfall. The turmoil has hammered tourism and investment in the most populous Arab state.

Salma Ali, a media relations officer in London for Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, said, ‘In accordance with international law, we view any process undertaken after the coup as illegitimate and unrepresentative of the Egyptian people.’