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March 29, 2010
U.S.-Pakistan strategic dialogue promotes mutual goals

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks with Pakistani Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi. Photo: U.S. Department of State on Flickr

Ambassador S. Azmat Hassan is a former Ambassador of Pakistan to Malaysia, Syria and Morocco and Deputy Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the United Nations. He is currently a Visiting Professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

Pakistan’s Foreign Minister has just concluded a series of meetings in Washington with his American counterparts. Hillary Clinton dubbed these talks a “strategic dialogue” with a country with which the U.S. has had a decades-long up and down relationship.

As is often the case between a superpower and a much weaker country, the relationship brightens up when the former needs the latter in some capacity. It reverts to the doldrums when that requirement subsides.

Pakistan was a faithful Cold War ally reaping considerable U.S. assistance. The first shock to Pakistan came in the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war, when the U.S. remained neutral. It did not come to the aid of its ally against Soviet-leaning India.

That betrayal lingers today in Pakistani circles.

Pakistan’s value to the U.S. increased manifold when the Soviets foolishly invaded Afghanistan. Pakistan allowed itself to become the principal conduit of U.S. military and financial assistance to the Afghan Resistance.

After the defeat and departure of the Soviets from Afghanistan, the U.S. pulled up stakes. Pakistan was left alone to deal with the horrible mess in the region after 10 years of bloody conflict. Relations stood frozen once again. That was the second betrayal of Pakistan by its ally.

After 9/11 occurred, Pakistan once again sided with George Bush’s “war on terror”. For its frontline role, it gained U.S. assistance in the first decade of the 21st century, estimated at $15 billion. Most of it went to replenishing military hardware. Much less went to economic development.

Pakistan has paid a huge price in the effort to defeat violent extremism, which had permeated across its porous border from Afghanistan since the advent of al-Qaeda and the civil war in Afghanistan.

Admittedly, during the Musharraf era, some of the Pakistani leader’s actions were ambivalent. Pakistan found it difficult to abandon some of its homegrown militant outfits. This ambivalence earned it the ire and mistrust of the U.S.

On the other hand, the Pakistani leadership feels that the U.S. is a fairweather friend. Their fear is that after the U.S. forces exit Afghanistan, the U.S. will abandon its “major non-NATO ally” once again.

While the Foreign Minister was the ostensible leader of the large Pakistani contingent, all eyes were on General Ashfaq Kayani, the taciturn Army Chief.

Some observers have opined that following the Pakistan Army’s successes subduing the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) in the Tribal Areas, Kayani is calling the shots in Pakistan.

The civilian government in Pakistan has not been able to effectively tackle the alarming deterioration in Pakistan’s socioeconomic indicators. Inflation is running at 15% per annum. Electricity and water shortages have compounded the hardships of the people.

The Pakistani Taliban have retaliated through a spate of suicide attacks. The toll of civilians killed in the past few years through these attacks stands at around 10,000, while around 3,000 soldiers have died while conducting counterinsurgency operations against the TTP.

Those are heartrending figures. Regardless, the Pakistanis came to Washington with a long wish list.

They requested enhanced financial aid, access to the U.S. market for Pakistani textiles, acceptance of Pakistan’s status as a nuclear power just like that accorded by the U.S. to India, and disbursement of held-up funds under the Coalition Support Fund and the Kerry-Lugar-Berman legislation. This list is indicative but not exhaustive.

Pakistan also pleaded strongly for the recognition by the U.S. of the former’s legitimate security interests in Afghanistan and for help in resolving the intractable Kashmir dispute with India.
The U.S. has pledged Pakistan its durable engagement and assistance, long after it has left Afghanistan.

The U.S. in turn wants Pakistan to extend its counterinsurgency operations into North Waziristan. It wants Pakistan to continue vigorously pursuing and apprehending Taliban and al-Qaeda elements hiding in Pakistan.

It is encouraging that such an in-depth dialogue took place. Both sides have laid out their wish lists and concerns.

Let’s hope that this renewed engagement helps both the US and Pakistan to achieve their mutual objectives. Above all, the relationship should not be allowed to founder, as in the past, on the shoals of indifference, inertia and mutual incomprehension.

– S. Azmat Hassan

March 29, 2010
Air pollution worsens from world’s biggest emitter nation

A 2002 dust storm in Beijing. Photo: Flickr user NotLiz

Hsin-Yin Lee, a former associate producer at Worldfocus, is a news editor at the “China Times” in Taipei.

For a long while, I’ve known what it can cause — the retreat of glaciers, the extinction of animals, and the spread of diseases. But it was not until recently that I became fully aware how close the consequences of climate change are to my life.

This past winter I suffered from eye irritation. The situation got so bad that sometimes I had to ask for a day off. The doctors said because of abnormal weather patterns and increasing air pollution, my eyes became sensitive to the environment.

“I am afraid you’ll have to live with it — a disease of civilization,” they told me, adding that there is no cure.

However, the number of people with my symptoms surged by 20-30 percent since mid-March, since we had the worst-ever dust storms from mainland China. According to the Environment Protection Administration in Taiwan, concentrations of particulates have hit their highest level in 25 years, which made the air pollution index rise to 500 — the maximum possible.

Reports say that China’s desertification, overgrazing, population growth and poor resource management have exacerbated the problem of annual dust storms. As the storms pass over China’s industrial zones and pick up toxins, they become even more deadly each year.

This time, more than 270 million people in 16 provinces have been affected, according to Chinese state media.

Since the dust storms can blow across east Asia, China’s neighbors bear the brunt of the problem. In fact, South Korea and Japan have already blamed several deaths on the storms. The victims were mostly elderly people and those with respiratory problems.

Wondering whether I should postpone my trip to Japan for hanami, I was stunned to learn more upsetting news: there is no official forecast of when the cherry blossoms will open this year.

Japan’s Meteorological Agency decided to end its 55-year-old forecast, or “sakura frontline,” because they are no longer able to predict the timing of the blossoms due to climate change.

Many Japanese have lost faith in the sakura frontline. In recent years, people have complained that even though the flowers followed the schedule, their hanami trip often ended up with either unopened buds or fading flowers.

This series of incidents has made me rethink how much our planet has changed in such a short time. I used to think that the consequences of environmental damage were far from my life — and that as long as I hid myself in the developed world, the effects of climate change would never find me.

But I was wrong. I have now learned that our collective destiny is linked — and if we still want fresh air to breathe and beautiful flowers to watch, then it will be everyone’s responsibility to preserve our environment.

– Hsin-Yin Lee

March 23, 2010
Suicide attacks remain potent tool for Pakistani Taliban

A Pakistani soldier at the highest point in the Swat Valley. Photo: AlJazeeraEnglish

Ambassador S. Azmat Hassan is a former Ambassador of Pakistan to Malaysia, Syria and Morocco and Deputy Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the United Nations. He is currently a Visiting Professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

The recent suicide bombings in the heart of Pakistan’s cultural capital of Lahore demonstrate the continuing ability of the Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP) to spread death, destruction and fear amongst soldiers and civilians alike.

While the TTP has lost ground to the army in Swat and South Waziristan, the latest retaliatory attacks show that it is far from being a spent force.

One of its leaders had recently boasted that the TTP possesses a cadre of 3000 suicide bombers. Whether this is an exaggeration or not, state authorities had better take serious notice.

Suicide bombing was invented by the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka in 1980’s. Like a virus it spread to the Middle East. The tactic of suicide bombing was further refined during the needless wars engaged in by the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their predecessor in Afghanistan, the former Soviet Union, had also tasted the sting of this tactic.

The number of countries which have fallen victim to suicide bombing is on the increase. This is because suicide bombing is a horribly effective tactic in the armory of extremism.

If a person has been indoctrinated to kill others at the cost of his own life for a cause he believes in, there is not much any law enforcement authority can do to ward off the ensuing damage.

Pakistan has been the foremost victim of suicide bombings in the past three years. First, the Soviets and then the United States ignited the flames of war in Afghanistan. It was inevitable that their repercussions would be felt in Pakistan. What Cambodia faced because of the Vietnam War is being replicated in Pakistan because of the conflict in Afghanistan.

Pakistan is both a recipient and an abettor of terror. The Afghan Taliban demonstrated that suicide attacks made the Karzai regime and its Western backers look weak and impotent. Like-minded groups bent on creating independent fiefdoms in Pakistan’s tribal areas have copied these tactics.

Pakistan’s shadowy security agencies have also utilized these indoctrinated persons to pursue their agenda in disputed Kashmir.

The Mumbai attack was allegedly masterminded by elements of one of these banned groups. If the chickens have come home to roost in Pakistan, then the blame has to be shared by those in authority in Pakistan who mollycoddled them in the past couple of decades.

It has been a classic instance of blowback. The Talibanization of certain areas of Pakistan — particularly in southern Punjab — has been the baneful result.

There is no immediate riposte to suicide attacks. The vast majority of the Pakistani public, across the board, is against such attacks. Surprisingly however, civil society has yet to mobilize visibly in a sustained fashion against this menace. Here civil society seems to be behind the curve.

Violent extremism respects neither frontiers nor religious scruples. Its main purpose is to gain power by spreading fear and chaos through indiscriminate violence. Innocent civilians bear the brunt of the losses.

Pakistani civil society will have to visibly rally around the government’s counterterrorism efforts. Political, financial and moral space has to be denied to such anti-state elements. The government also has to acknowledge its past mistakes and commit to not playing both sides.

Hopefully the resilient people of Pakistan will unite to rid themselves of this modern day scourge.

They can take comfort from the fate of European anarchists who terrorized Europe in the 19th and earlier 20th centuries — but were eventually eliminated.

– S. Azmat Hassan

March 18, 2010
Growing Indian influence in Afghanistan alarms Pakistan

The India-Pakistan border at Wagah. Photo: Dharmesh on Flickr

Ambassador S. Azmat Hassan is a former Ambassador of Pakistan to Malaysia, Syria and Morocco and Deputy Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the United Nations. He is currently a Visiting Professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

U.S. policymakers probably rue the day when the Bush Administration decided to broaden its intervention in Afghanistan. Eight and a half years after evicting the Taliban and installing the ineffectual Hamid Karzai as President, the U.S. finds itself bogged down in Afghanistan.

The Karzai government has failed to provide its war-weary countrymen a reasonable measure of peace or security. Suicide bombs kill foreigners and Afghans alike with disturbing frequency in the bigger cities, while guerrilla attacks by a resilient Taliban insurgency continues to take a toll of U.S. and NATO troops.

Corruption and drug-running is rampant. To remain in power, Karzai has had to consort with a number of unsavory warlords who are masters in their fiefdoms. Karzai’s brother, the overlord at Kandahar, has the reputation of being both a CIA agent and the province’s biggest drug dealer.

In the witches’ brew that is Afghanistan today, India and Pakistan are both jockeying for influence. The poor Afghans are caught in the middle of this zero-sum game.

India, seizing on Afghanistan’s travails, has pumped in over a billion dollars toward improving Afghanistan’s economic and social infrastructure. On the face of it, this magnanimity should be considered a praiseworthy gesture.

But the Pakistani ruling circles and especially its Armed Forces are alarmed at India’s burgeoning influence in Afghanistan. India’s economic largesse coupled with the opening of its consulates in Afghan provinces close to Pakistan’s border, have rung alarm bells in Islamabad.

Pakistan’s fears of Indian encirclement both from its eastern and now increasingly its western borders, would prevent regional cooperation in pacifying Afghanistan.

General McChrystal has alerted his superiors in Washington that Karzai’s pro-India orientation — plus India’s forward posture in Afghanistan by alienating Pakistan, a crucial ally — would adversely affect U.S. interests in Afghanistan.

It is not known whether McChrystal’s advice has been heeded by the Obama administration. However, a recent statement by General Petraeus suggests that he understands and perhaps supports Pakistan’s quest for gaining strategic depth in a friendly Afghanistan.

While the war in Afghanistan drags on, U.S.-Pakistani relations are currently facing a downward trajectory. The U.S. is unhappy that Pakistan is not going all out against some Afghan Taliban factions based in Pakistan who are battling U.S. and NATO troops.

The Pakistanis are unhappy about U.S. foot dragging on meeting its financial commitments to the Pakistani Army, which has made a significant contribution in the “war on terror” against the Taliban.

This level of mistrust between the two allies is troubling. A continuous dialogue at the political and military level is the only antidote to prevent a further erosion of this crucial alliance.

Hopefully, in his forthcoming visit to Washington, astute Pakistani Army Chief General Kayani will help clear the air. Both the U.S. and Pakistan need each other to get over the hump in Afghanistan. Pakistan needs U.S. assistance to appreciably increase its economic and social development indicators.

Without Pakistan’s support and cooperation, it is difficult to envisage the U.S. achieving its objectives in Afghanistan. This in turn might affect the exit strategy of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

The U.S. needs to become much more proactive in nudging Pakistan and India to resolve their disputes — the principal one, from Pakistan’s perspective, being Kashmir.

India does not want to engage Pakistan in a composite dialogue till Pakistan curbs terrorist attacks from its territory — like the Mumbai killings — by non-state actors. India thinks that some elements in Pakistan’s government encourage such attacks, to destabilize India. Better India-Pakistan relations could possibly help dampen their rivalry in Afghanistan.

The truth of the matter is that both India and Pakistan have been victims of violent extremism. Both are facing multiple insurgencies within their borders. Instead of playing the blame game, both should be prodded to work together in curbing this common menace.

The United States should pay much more attention to removing mutual mistrust between the two nuclear-armed neighbors. Being a neutral bystander issuing anodyne statements is not good enough in the current scenario.

A coordinated regional approach between Pakistan, India and the Karzai regime with active U.S. encouragement could possibly ameliorate the situation in Afghanistan. Then the U.S. can depart with a semblance of dignity and honor.

– S. Azmat Hassan

March 11, 2010
Skater takes heat for not thanking China first

Zhou Yang. Photo: CCTV

Hsin-Yin Lee, a former associate producer at Worldfocus, is a news editor at the “China Times” in Taipei.

China’s 18-year-old Olympic champion has recently learned something — it’s OK to thank your parents for your success, but always remember to first thank your country.

Zhou Yang, who won a gold medal in the women’s 1,500 meters short-track speed skating during the Vancouver Winter Olympic, has come under fire — and been complimented — for mentioning her parents but failing to thank the country after the award ceremony.

When asked “What does this prize mean to you?” by the Chinese media, Zhou said, “The gold medal might bring a lot of changes. I will be more confident, and Dad and Mom’s life will be improved.”

Sports officials, however, have found Zhou’s candid words lacking. During a group discussion of the annual meeting of China’s legislature last Sunday, Yu Zaiqing, deputy director of the National Sports Bureau, expressed doubt about Zhou’s patriotism.

“It’s fine to thank your mom and dad, but you should still thank your country first and foremost,” he said. Yu also said the authorities should enhance the “moral education” for China’s athletes.

“While the Western way of expression is very good, there were things in (Zhou’s) heart that the kid didn’t fully express,” Yu said. “Don’t just talk about your parents.”

To fix her previous remarks, Zhou said in another interview on Monday that she is of course grateful for her country. “I thank the country for making us good enough to compete in the Olympic. I thank our supporters, thank my coach, thank the staff, and thank my parents.”

Chinese netizens have weighed in on the controversy.  “Zhou should say ‘I thank my country — I thank my country because it allows me to thank my parents after thanking it,'” wrote one commentator,

China’s athlete training programs have long been criticized as both inhumane and ineffective. Zhou’s story reminds me of the Australian Open earlier this year, when two Chinese players, Zheng Jie and Li Na, marched to the women’s semifinals. It was the first time the world’s most populous nation had advanced so far in a Grand Slam.

While the head of the Women’s Tennis Association lauded this as an example of  Chinese tennis coming of age, critics said a more flexible national athlete training system, in place since 2008,  played a key factor. Zheng and Li were among the four top tennis players in China who were granted unprecedented freedom in managing their careers. In other words, they are free to select their own schedules, coaches and teams. With less obligation to China’s national athletic development system, they are also able to pocket more prize money and give less to the Chinese Tennis Association — which surely raises the motivation to compete.

An article in Tennis magazine may have summed up many people’s feelings. Since the reform, it noted,  “(China’s tennis players) are no longer just Chinese players; they are professional tennis players from China.”

Should the current athletic system in China be further modified so that people like Zhou Yang can be both a happy player and a happy person? I think so. After all, sport is all about humanity, and only when a person’s mind is set free can he or she pursue greater physical strength.

– Hsin-Yin Lee

March 3, 2010
Living in fear: a lesbian in Zimbabwe shares her story

Gay Pride Flag. Photo: Flickr user Stefan

Worldfocus partner World Pulse is a media enterprise covering global issues through the eyes of women. This post, written by Zimbabwean blogger Gertrude Pswarayi, is excerpted from their Action Blogging Campaign around LGBT Rights.

This story was written by a lesbian (name witheld for protection) living in Zimbabwe during a digital storytelling workshop. I have not edited the story because i wanted you, the reader to hear what she has to say. Here is her story:

My fears started when I was getting to know myself. My family and people around me said I acted like a boy. Although I was afraid I did what came naturally to me.

At school it was worse, I was afraid again because when the girls in my class were busy with the boys, I had feelings for some of the girls in my school. My fear grew, I could not control it since all the ladies around me were getting boyfriends and even my sisters were getting into troubles at home because of boys.

At that time I was not completely sure what was happening to me and why I was not interested in men, I was confused.

That made my fears grow stronger. I was afraid of what my family and friends would think or say if I told them what I was feeling. At that time I feared what the future would hold for me because I was told that I was a lady and that I have to get married to a man and have children and so on. Yet I knew that was not the life I wanted for myself.

Although my friends, my true friends are aware of my sexuality, I am still afraid that my family will find out one day and reject me. The fear is always there as I listen to comments made about homosexuality at home and in public places.

I listen hoping that no one will notice how silent I am or see the raw fear in my eyes.

Not being able to open up to my family about who I am, what I am, and the kind of feelings I carry inside me pushed me to join a group. It was in this group where I was able to share my story with other people. My fears disappeared as I got more answers for the question of my identity. I met people who seemed to hold a mirror in front of me, showing me who I was and letting me know that it was ok to be … who I am.

March 2, 2010
Mobilizing technology to help Chilean earthquake victims

The Ushahidi-Chile project map on March 2.

The Ushahidi crisis mapping site, which recently collated information from Haitian earthquake victims, has set up a sister site to aggregate similar data from Chile, a country recovering from a devastating 8.8-magnitude quake.

Ushahidi-Chile collects, filters and then maps information submitted by citizens via email, text message and Twitter feeds. This Ushahidi project is coordinated by students at Columbia University‘s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) and its goal is to guide the relief effort and identify immediate needs.

“The idea behind the site is to provide as much information as possible to organizations in the field and to people in Chile,” said Anahi Ayala Iacucci, co-director of the SIPA team for Ushahidi-Chile. “We put available information onto a map that anyone can access.”

An advantage of the site, she says, is that it combines individual nuggets of information in one place and can help establish an overview of the situation on the ground.

Messages currently on the site include information on medical emergencies, trapped survivors and structural damage. For example, from Santa Cruz: “No Electricity, Buildings Down in Santa Cruz”. Another message from Santiago reads “Plz Help: im stuck under a building with my child”. According to Ayala Iacucci, information on missing people is passed on to Google’s Missing Person Finder site.

“Our major source of information is from Twitter feeds, the web and from monitoring local media,” said Ayala Iacucci, adding that there is still reasonable access to the internet in Chile. In Haiti, by contrast, most information that Ushahidi received was by text message. Around 50 student volunteers at SIPA – many of them from Latin America – translate the collected information and then input the data onto the interactive map.

The project will continue at SIPA until the operation is handed over to Chilean volunteers. “In this sense it is a full circle,” said Ayala Iacucci. “We receive information from the field, and put it back into field.”

Ushahidi means “testimony” in Swahili and was initially founded in early 2008 to monitor and map post-election violence in Kenya.

To send Ushahidi information about the aftermath of Chile’s earthquake: International text message +44 7624802524/e-mail #chile or #terremotochile. Information can also be submitted via the web.

– James Matthews

Listen to an audio interview with freelance journalist Annie Murphy in Concepción.

February 24, 2010
Canadian Inuit realize self-government

Inuit are the indigenous inhabitants of an Arctic region that crosses Canada, Alaska, Russia and Greenland. In April 2009, Inuit came together from across the Arctic Circle and issued a declaration establishing their rights to self-determination.

In a leap forward for indigenous self-rule, in 1999 the Canadian government created an Inuit majority territory, Nunavut, meaning “our land” in the Inuit language. Covering 1.9 million square kilometers and home to 29,000 residents, most of them Indigenous, its decentralized government allows Inuit to take control of their own affairs.

Worldfocus spoke with Stephen Hendrie, the Director of Communications at Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Canada’s national Inuit organization based in Ottawa, about the issue.

Worldfocus: What has been the impact of the creation of the territory of Nunavut?

Hendrie: The creation of the Nunavut territory — the biggest jurisdiction in the Americas with an aboriginal majority — remains an inspiration.

The territory garnered international headlines when it changed the map of Canada on April 1, 1999 for the first time since 1949. People always look to the Nunavut territory as the place where most Inuit live in Canada. In fact less than 50% of Inuit live in Nunavut. The three other Inuit regions in Canada– Inuvialuit, Nunavik, and Nunatsiavut– have either established a regional government (Nunatsiavut), are on the verge of doing so (Nunavik), or continue to work on a form of one (Inuvialuit).

The 53 Inuit communities located in “Inuit Nunangat” (the region Inuit in Canada describe as the Inuit homeland located in the Inuvialuit Region of the NorthWest Territories, Nunavut, Nunavik in Northern Quebec and Nunatsiavut in Labrador) enjoy unique forms of power-sharing within Canada through the provisions of comprehensive land claim agreements (modern ‘treaties’). These agreements, which define power-sharing arrangements governing public administration and the ownership, use and management of natural resources, have Constitutional protection.

When you look at the picture overall, Inuit have achieved extraordinary advances within the Canadian political landscape, and that has been done in a peaceful manner over the course of the past 35-40 years.

The push for further advances continues, with key issues being economic development, overcoming a legacy of problems in relation to the core social services of health, education and housing, and the preservation of the Inuit language.

Worldfocus: How much is the traditional Inuit way of life changing in response to modern pressures?

Hendrie: What if this question were turned around? What if “Westerners” were surprised to learn that the Inuit perspective to this question is that the “Western” way of life is being adapted by Inuit in the service of preserving the traditional Inuit way of life? Inuit didn’t stop hunting when ski-doos were introduced. Inuit simply hunted more efficiently. Inuit don’t see an Internet dominated by English as merely a threat. Inuit are using the Internet to preserve language and culture. See for an example of the internet in use as a tool for the preservation of Inuit language and culture.

Worldfocus: How would you compare the condition of Inuit in Canada with those in Alaska?

Hendrie: Inuit in Canada and Alaska face many similar challenges, such as the need to ensure adequate Inuit control over major non-renewable resource development projects, the need to overcome gaps in basic living conditions, the challenge of preserving language and culture, and combating the efforts by internationally organized animal rights extremists to undermine the livelihoods of hunting peoples everywhere.

Inuit in Canada and Alaska do live in larger societies with different Constitutions and political traditions, and these differences color Inuit realities and priorities in the two countries. For example, Canadian Inuit have access to universal public health insurance and a history of much greater access to public housing; Alaskan Inuit have demonstrated the high level of entrepreneurial initiative characteristic of American society in general.

– Jamie Macfarlane

February 15, 2010
Australia’s new Aboriginal policy falls short of expectations

An Aboriginal Australian dancer. Photo: PaddyNapper on Flickr

Worldfocus intern Jamie Macfarlane writes about the Australian government’s attempts to make amends for historical injustice to Aboriginal people.

“We apologize for the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians…”

In February 2008, newly elected Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a historic move in offering a full and unreserved apology for Australia’s historic treatment of Aborigines.

But many Western countries have a deep unease about such apologies. Rudd’s predecessor, Prime Minister John Howard, would only describe his “regret,” and in the United States, no president has ever come close to publicly addressing the totality crimes inflicted on Native Americans.

Apologies are hard to give when the historical narrative of a nation’s ascendancy entirely sidesteps what happened to its indigenous inhabitants.

When Rudd spoke two years ago outside the halls of parliament, a crowd of Aborigines listened — many in tears — displaying what it meant to be recognized.

At the time, skeptics argued that Rudd — who refused to make any financial reparations — had made a meaningless apology. Australian prime ministers, like presidents of the United States, have long been promising that their government would finally reverse ill treatment of the indigenous population.

However, time and time again, these new dawns have quickly faded.

Prime Minister Rudd returned to parliament last week to report on the “next chapter in the history of this great country.” The prime minister reported that progress was slow because “generations of indigenous disadvantage cannot be turned around overnight.”

Rudd’s new chapter rests upon a $4.8 billion Close the Gap program, targeting Aboriginal disadvantages from high infant mortality to poor education levels.

By almost every socioeconomic indicator, Aboriginal poverty is reminiscent of sub-Saharan Africa. The life expectancy of indigenous people in Australia is 17 years lower than the rest of the population; the rate of infant mortality is twice as high; and, an ethnic group that makes up 2% of the population accounts for 24% of the incarcerated.

“Lady, I pay rent to the government for sleeping on a mattress in the desert. I have no home, I don’t have a voice, no one is listening to me or my family,” said a 90 year old Aboriginal elder to Irene Khan, Secretary General of Amnesty International.

Rudd’s assessment of his Aboriginal policies two years on largely ignored the second great Indigenous issue: native sovereignty.

Unlike in America, where a library of treaties sets out the parameters of tribal sovereignty, Australia has historically made little pretense at recognizing Aboriginal land rights. Australia had legally been a terra nullis, and thus, the first property rights belonged to the settlers.

It was not until 1992 that the Supreme Court finally overruled the concept of terra nullis, leaving in its wake a persistent ambiguity over when Aboriginals can claim back land.

This is the fundamental problem for indigenous sovereignty the world over. Nations like Australia and the United States were built upon the seizure of indigenous land based upon a legality that cannot be justified in the modern day. Today, with any new chapter for indigenous people invariably involving the return of their lands, how can modern nations redress past injustice — whilst protecting the property interests of the dominant group?

There is also little consensus on the issue of whether to follow the American Indian model of communal land ownership or to allow Aboriginals to assume private land rights. The former keeps indigenous community lands together, whilst the latter gives Aborigines that cornerstone of Western society: individual property rights.

Another big problem with Prime Minister Rudd’s understanding of indigenous sovereignty is an ongoing Intervention in the Northern Territory, where Aborigines make up 32.5% of the population. Rudd has continued his predecessor’s policy of suspending indigenous rights of self-government in the Northern Territory with the help of a police and military presence.

Aborigine communities are banned from having alcohol; the federal government dictates where natives can spend their welfare payments; and parents are heavily punished if their children fail to attend school.

This controversial policy was precipitated by a shocking report concerning widespread child abuse among indigenous communities in 2007.

Indigenous politicians are outraged, but Rudd faces a dilemma that displays the fundamental paradox of his position. The government feels that it must interfere to deal with desperate problems in indigenous communities, whilst needing to respect Aboriginal sovereignty.

Many argue that this is the problem with the entire “Close the Gap” program, as Rudd tries to deliver change from Canberra — as opposed to empowering native communities.

The issue with Rudd’s apology is that it is far from clear how Australia can make amends. The daunting task of closing the gap is met with an equally challenging question of how to give Aboriginal governments control of their own lands.

– Jamie Macfarlane

February 9, 2010
Reaction to Siddiqui verdict reflects Pakistani mistrust

Aafia Siddiqui.

Worldfocus contributing blogger Sana Saleem writes about the Pakistani reaction to the trial of Aafia Siddiqui, the Pakistani neuroscientist convicted of trying to kill American soldiers while in custody in Afghanistan.

Of all the stories about alleged Al Qaeda members, perhaps none has been more peculiar than that of Aafia Siddiqui. Due to its peculiar nature, I would like to go back to where it all began.

Here’s a summary of incidents as they were reported in chronological order, for better understanding:

The US-educated Pakistani neuroscientist first appeared on the news radar in March 2003. According to her family, Aafia left her home on March 30 with her three children in a Metro-Cab to catch a flight to Rawalpindi. She then disappeared, and her family alleges that she was kidnapped by Pakistani agencies and subsequently handed over to American agencies.

Despite the Siddiqui family’s accusations, the FBI continued to deny reports of Aafia’s abduction. Meanwhile, a story in Newsweek described Aafia as “reportedly arrested.” By this time, Aafia had been linked with Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.

Aafia’s family continued to demand attention to her disappearance, For instance, a letter from her uncle published in Dawn in March 2004 provides a chronology of Aafia’s disappearance. Another letter, published in May 2004, states that Aafia’s mother and sister have been put under house arrest and are not being allowed to contact anyone – the arrest was seen as retaliation for the previous letter.

In May 2004, the Interior Minister confirmed speculations regarding Aafia by confirming that she was arrested from Karachi and handed over to the US authorities for allegedly being involved in terrorist activities.

Meanwhile, more information was gathered about these alleged terrorist activities. Reports surfaced that Aafia and her husband purchased night-vision goggles and body armour from an online military store; that she opened a post office box for Majid Khan, a Pakistani who was held at Guantanamo on suspicion that he planned attacks on American gas stations; and, most importantly, that she traveled to Monrovia to buy diamonds which were then used to fund Al Qaeda operations.

The authorities were unable to provide evidence for these allegations, which is why Aafia has not faced terror charges.

For the next two years, Aafia’s case remained shrouded in mystery until her name appeared in Amnesty International’s list of disappeared suspects in the war on terror. More reports poured in suggesting she was detained in a secret U.S. prison.

However, it wasn’t until August 2008 that Aafia’s case was brought to the forefront. A crackdown on the media by General Pervez Musharraf’s government caused journalists to take up Aafia’s case as part of a campaign exposing the general’s heinous crimes.

During a press conference organized by the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf, British journalist Yvonne Ridley claimed that an anonymous woman sometimes referred to as “Prisoner 650” being tortured at Bagram Airbase may have been Aafia.

Ridley claimed that she was told that a female prisoner had been held for years and, after sexual abuse and confinement, had deteriorated physically and mentally. Ridley’s speculation that the woman could be Aafia stirred the issue in the media.

That day marked the beginning of the campaign vowing to bring justice to Aafia. She was portrayed as ‘Pakistan’s daughter’ who had been sold to the U.S. for money. As the issue of the missing people of Pakistan reached a turning point, Aafia came to symbolise the atrocities linked to the U.S.-led the war on terror, and her case exposed the collaboration between Pakistani and U.S. authorities.

Aafia also attracted international attention as the first woman to be sought by the FBI in connection with its pursuit of al-Qaeda. Last week, she was found guilty on charges of the attempted murder of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.

Aafia’s conviction has provoked many emotional responses that show little regard for the judicial process.

“The jury couldn’t handle the truth because that would have meant that the defendant really had been kidnapped, abused, tortured and held in dark, secret prisons by the US before being shot and put on a rendition flight to New York,” remarked journalist Ridley when I asked her opinion on the verdict.

“It would have meant that her three children – two of them US citizens – would also have been kidnapped, abused and tortured by the US. They couldn’t handle the truth; it is as simple as that.”

Arif Rafiq, president of Vizier Consulting, LLC, also raises some valid points regarding the verdict:

Before us, it seems, are two competing narratives. But I would not rule out other alternatives. The actual details, of Siddiqui’s arrest — whether it occurred five years ago or two weeks ago — is unclear. The initial claims made against her years ago are cause for concern. But it is puzzling as to why, if they were true, there was no legal followup. Even now, those claims go unmentioned in the present legal action against her. Siddiqui is not being treated as an enemy combatant; rather, she’s being prosecuted in conventional U.S. courts, albeit in a more closed anti-terrorism context. And so Siddiqui’s arrest provides not answers, but more questions.

Indeed, the majority in Pakistan echo the same sentiment of dismay and anger. Aafia’s case highlights the underlying mistrust amongst the Pakistani people for the United States, as many have openly criticised the judgement, and termed it biased.

Some claim they never expected a different verdict because U.S. courts can’t be trusted to uphold the truth. Such statements are far more worrying then the verdict itself. The growing rift between the masses in Pakistan and U.S. authorities is distressful.

If anything, Aafia’s case should turn the nation’s attention towards Pakistan’s ‘missing persons’ issue. Aafia’s trial has not been able to yield satisfactory answers about where she was, who picked her up and why, or even who she really is. If anything, her outbursts in court make her appear delusional, depressive and possibly psychotic.

The only outcome of Aafia’s verdict has been a surge of even more questions. But her misery has given a face to hundreds of Pakistan’s disappeared victims awaiting justice.

– Sana Saleem

Watch Al Jazeera English’s David Chater report on Siddiqui’s “lost years.”

Perspectives highlights the best of the blogosphere by cross-posting columns culled from a network of contributors. We cut through the noise of tens of millions of bloggers worldwide and bring you commentary from experts and voices on the ground.

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