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July 29, 2009
China promises to execute fewer criminals

In an announcement that is well-timed with the conclusion of bilateral talks between the U.S. and China, Beijing declared that it would drastically cut the number of executions. But China accounted for the vast majority of worldwide executions in 2008, having executed far more criminals than the rest of the world combined.

Chinese soldiers in Tiananmen Square for National Day, October 1, 2008. Photo: Flickr user poeloq

Approximately 5,727 executions were carried out worldwide in 2008, down from 5,851 the year before. China carried out the death penalty over 5,000 times last year, according to a report by Italian human rights group Hands Off Cain. This figure is an estimate put together based on media and human rights group reports, since the actual total is a state secret. Amnesty International reported a much lower estimate of 1,718 executions.

According to Harry Wu, a human rights expert who spent 19 years in Chinese labor camps before coming to the United States:

The truth is, nobody really knows how many people are executed every year in China. We have classified documents that state that as many as 24,000 people were killed in an eleven month period between 1983 and 1984 during the government’s ‘strike hard’ campaign. But the number could be as high as 8,000 a year now.

Use of the death penalty in China has dropped dramatically since 2001, when China began readying for the Beijing Olympics.

State-run newspaper China Daily reported Wednesday on the pledge by Zhang Jun, vice president of the Supreme People’s Court, who said that China will continue to use the death penalty in serious cases where social stability was threatened:

As it is impossible for the country to abolish capital punishment under current realities and social security conditions, it is an important effort to strictly control the application of the penalty by judicial organs.

In 2008, the Chinese courts sentenced 159,020 people either to death, life imprisonment, or more than five years in prison.

Currently, China uses the death penalty for 60 different offenses, including tax evasion and drug trafficking.

Just days ago, in an unprecedented move, Sichuan province put to death a company executive who had killed four people while drunk driving.

The government is expected to announce soon how many citizens will be executed for their participation in the recent riots in the northwestern Xinjiang province.

Since 2006, many of China’s executions are carried out in 40 “mobile execution units,” vans manufactured by a Chonqing-based company in which lethal injection is locally administered. This saves the government from sending death penalty criminals to Beijing, which costs around $250. But about half of Chinese executions reportedly are still by firing squad.

Of the 45 other countries that still use the death penalty, Iran and Saudi Arabia had the highest per capita death penalty rates in 2008, with 346 and 102 executions, respectively. Also, Amnesty International reports that the Iranians and Saudis still use stoning and beheading, respectively, as means of capital punishment. Both nations continue to execute minors.

The United States executed 37 people last year, continuing a downward trend that began in 1999, when 98 people were put to death.

According to Amnesty International, Japan carried out 15 executions last year, the highest number since 1975.

– Ben Piven

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July 28, 2009
Russia plans to teach religion, ethics in schools

Russian Orthodoxy will be one of four religions incorporated into state school curriculum.

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev announced a pilot program that will introduce mandatory religious studies and secular ethics in Russian schools.

Students will choose between one of four religions — Russian Orthodoxy, Buddhism, Islam and Judaism — or courses in secular ethics. The program’s test phase will involve some 20 percent of Russia’s schools, with the stated goal of encouraging morals.

Since the collapse of the officially atheist Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church has been gaining influence, and religious education has sparked protest.

Worldfocus contributing blogger Bruce Chapman, writing at Russia Blog, describes the controversy in Russia and compares it to related issues in the U.S.

A new Kremlin plan to teach students religion or secular ethics is meant to combat the aimlessness of youth.

Perhaps it will — to some extent.

The approach is probably unique — teach what is again the dominant state religion (Russian Orthodoxy) as the one acceptable Christian faith, and also teach — according to student desires — Islam (the religion of a sizable minority, particularly in the South), Buddhism or Judaism, and give the students the alternative of a coarse in secular ethics. It will seem fair to many, maybe most, Russians. It is quite different, obviously, from the “scientific atheism” of Soviet days.

The program will get a lot of criticism, however. First, the most eager evangelists in Russia today are probably the various kinds of Christian pentecostals, and there is a sizable Roman Catholic population in certain ethnic centers. So the government apparently is starting a new struggle with these groups in schools, of all places.

Then arises the question of how smart it is to have Islam taught in state schools. Who is going to teach it? What is going to be taught? Might the government find itself trying to deal with hostile Friday mosque sermons because of the kind of Islam it promulgates in the schools? Where does that lead? How will populations in areas where Islam is a majority faith react to state school classes that offer instruction as well in other faiths?

Regardless, the new Russian model is so jarringly different from what is on offer in the United States that it may be worth careful monitoring by Americans. We no longer provide much at all in schools of the old, slightly Protestant civic religion of yore. The struggle in the U.S. is over whether to allow any expressions of faith in schools, whether in Commencement speeches by students or in after-school religious clubs.

Overall, America has benefited by a general separation of religious instruction and public education, as in other fields. A state religion gets lazy. It becomes synonymous in students’ minds with state politics, which cannot be good.

On the other hand, there is something to be said for students learning more about the religious heritage of their country. If the Russians are erring on one side of that objective, Americans may be erring on the other. If nothing else, comparisons of results should be interesting.

One place where the outcomes may be studied closely is….China.

To read more, see the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user wonderlane under a Creative Commons license.

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July 28, 2009
Warming Greenland moves towards independence

Greenlanders at a political rally in Copenhagen. Photo: Ben Piven

Multimedia reporter Ben Piven traveled to Denmark in 2005, where he photographed Greenlanders in the capital. That year, when record-high winter temperatures in Greenland exceeded 60 degrees Fahrenheit, Greenlandic political groups continued to lobby for their own state.

I read two weeks ago how midsummer’s day was the occasion for big celebrations in Greenland’s capital of Nuuk, a small town snuggled between fjords on the southwestern coast. Clad in sealskin boots and waving red and white Greenlandic flags, a procession of indigenous Inuit people reveled in their newfound autonomy. Greenland had just become an “equal partner” with Denmark, the former colonial power. And the Danish Prime Minister Rasmussen even proclaimed that Greenland could declare full independence whenever it wanted!

Greenland is a massive expanse towards the north pole that should have been called Iceland or Whiteland, since 81 percent of the world’s 840,000 sq.-mile island is covered with a giant, uninhabitable ice sheet. But Greenlanders will be sticking with the Inuit name, Kalaallit Nunaat, now that the landmass of fewer than 60,000 people is moving farther away from Denmark.

Irrespective of the political situation, glaciologists and environmentalists are very worried about Greenland’s main glacier, Sermersuaq. Containing about 10 percent of the world’s fresh water, it is melting at an alarming rate — having receded ten miles over the last decade. But scientists disagree on both the pace and the consequences of the melting, even as Manhattan-sized chunks break off from the island.

The population mostly lives along the south-eastern coast. Map: Creative Commons

Yet, some Greenlanders stand to benefit from climate change. In a BBC article from July 25, Prime Minister Kuupik Kleist was quoted as saying, “We understand that this is a global issue…but we see opportunities as well as challenges. I want a Greenland that is open to those opportunities.”

In the future, thawing glacial streams may provide ample amounts of hydropower. Yet, rising ocean levels and melting permafrost are flooding areas of settlement. At the same time, thawing glaciers have not been detrimental for many farmers.

More vegetables could supplement the traditionally fatty Greenlandic diet, which is rich in musk ox, reindeer, and scallops. At the same time, traditional dog-sledding is more difficult for hunters as the ice sheet disappears, and shrimpers lose out when the shrimp stocks move farther north in search of colder waters. The largest sector of the economy is the fishing industry — shrimp, seals and whales. These days, scientists are hoping to extract biogas from the Greenland shark, whose meat is actually toxic to humans.

Others are happy about the prospects of global warming facilitating a Greenlandic gold rush. The state-owned oil and mining firms, NUNAOIL and Nunaminerals, are hoping to cash in on potentially enormous underground deposits, which are now more accessible due to rising temperatures. So global warming is a mixed bag, promising greater economic independence as well as environmental hazards.

While politically a part of Europe since the 18th century, the increasingly autonomous Greenland is also reasserting its indigenous Greenlandic (Kalaallisut) language and culture. Similar Eskimo/Inuit communities of northern Canada and Alaska are also increasingly seeking more rights.

The flag of Greenland.

Just last month, Greenlanders elected Kuupik Kleist as prime minister. The head of the leftist Inuit Ataqatigiit (Community of the People) party wants full autonomy from Denmark. In the meantime, the Danish queen, Margrethe II, enjoys largely ceremonial authority over the island.

Since 1979, Greenland has enjoyed home rule. In 2008, Denmark transferred more responsibilities to the local government but maintained control over foreign policy, security, and finance. Recently, however, Danish media have lamented the possibility of being dragged into an Arctic arms race, as Canada, the U.S. and Russia also vie for resources.

Aside from global warming, the biggest problem for Greenland is how to wean itself off Danish support. Total annual grants are $633 million ($11,300 per Greenlander), which amounts to about half of Greenland’s GDP per capita. Greenland’s young government is hoping that nascent industries such as mining, energy and tourism will make up for the difference.

Socially, Greenland is plagued by high rates of domestic abuse, alcoholism, and suicide — especially for the 88 percent of the population who are Inuits or mixed Danish-Inuit. A small number of Greenlanders live in Denmark proper, and many of them are also plagued by alcoholism and dependence on the generous Danish welfare state.

In sum, ice-fishing and dog-sled races could start attracting more visitors in a tourist season conveniently extended by global warming. Bright red Air Greenland jets could be flying soon to an airport near you.

– Ben Piven

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July 27, 2009
Village holds legacy of “catastrophe” for Palestinian man

The Zakariyya mosque. Photo: Jen Marlowe

Jen Marlowe is a filmmaker, writer and human rights activist currently traveling throughout Israel and Palestine.

She describes exploring the destroyed village of Zakariyya with Sami Al Jundi, a Palestinian acquaintance whose mother fled the village during the 1948 war. A Jewish community now resides in the town, whose name was changed to Zekharya.

The mosque was surrounded with a chain link fence, with barbed wire on top and signs in Hebrew attached: “Zekharya Village. Dangerous building. Entrance is forbidden!”

Despite the signs, the fence did not completely encircle the mosque and Sami, our friend Marcy and I entered the grounds easily. We picked our way through the rubble, pushing aside the undergrowth blocking the door. The structure was crumbling; it had not been maintained for over sixty years. Sami stood in silence looking at the mosque, taking in the eroding interior along with the piles of trash and scrap metal on the floor. The mosque is among the few remains of the Palestinian village Zakariyya — Sami’s mother’s village.

Sami examines the remains of the mosque. Photo: Jen Marlowe

I’m writing a book with Sami, to be published by Nation Books next year. The book details his life experiences, shedding light both on the Palestinian narrative — sorely missing from the U.S. media — and Sami’s own unique outlook on life.

Sami and I interviewed his mother two years ago about her memories of Zakariyya, including her flight as a small girl in 1948, during what Israelis consider their war of independence and Palestinians consider the “Nakba” (the Catastrophe), marking the beginning of the dispossession that has been central to the Palestinian experience since then. Zakariyya is one of approximately 400 villages (numbers vary according to the source) that were destroyed in 1948. Like many of the others, there is now an Israeli town built on and around Zakariyya’s ruins. Its new name is a Hebrewized version of the original; Zakariyya became Zekharya.

Sami’s mother passed away four months after we interviewed her, before we could ask her follow-up questions. So we decided to venture to Zakariyya ourselves. Sami began getting nervous as we lingered in and around the mosque. “We may not be welcome here,” he said repeatedly. “Someone might shoot us.” There was no real danger of being shot. Sami was tapping into a deeper fear, connected to the violence his mother witnessed in 1948.

The Arabic name of the village is scratched out. Photo: Jen Marlowe.

The Zakariyya school is still standing near the village’s entrance. It was converted into a small convenience store. As we approached it on our way out, I asked Marcy to pull over so I could photograph it. I investigated the entrance’s road sign. The name of the village is written in Hebrew, English and Arabic. Or it was until recently; the Arabic was almost entirely scratched out.

“It wasn’t like that when I was here last time,” Marcy said.

Marcy was in Zakariyya a week ago. This vandalism was fresh.

Less than an hour later, we were sitting in Deheisheh Refugee Camp, talking with Sami’s uncle Mustafa, two years younger than Sami’s mother. We asked Mustafa to fill in the missing gaps of his sister’s story, and he was more than happy to oblige. Sami and I learned the details of how his grandfather died fighting the British in 1939 and the attacks that pushed out the residents of Zakariyya.

Zakariyya holds a prominent place in Mustafa’s house in Deheisheh and in his heart. A 1921 photograph of the old school (now convenience store) with students sitting cross legged outside is framed on a shelf. A map of Zakariyya is on the wall, with the former houses indicated and a code to decipher which areas were inhabited by which families.

An image of the old school.

Mustafa spoke not only about his memories of losing Zakariyya. He spoke about a more recent pain as well. His older sister, Sami’s mother, had been struck two times with brain tumors. The first was in 1977 when Sami was fifteen years old. She received a life-saving surgery. Mustafa came to the hospital in Jerusalem every day. He fed her daily, tenderly. She would eat only from his hands. The second tumor took root in her brain in 2007. But this time, Mustafa could not feed his sister as she lay on her death bed in Jerusalem. The Israeli military would not issue him a permit to visit her.

Mustafa and Sami sat in silence as I digested this information. The evening call to prayer sounded from a nearby mosque in the camp. It was time to wrap up the interview. I had one final question. “Did you realize in 1948 that you were leaving Zakariyya for good?”

Jen Marlowe and Sami outside of the mosque. Photo: Marcy Newman

Uncle Mustafa’s eyes glistened slightly, both from the memory of his beloved home and the fresh loss of his sister.

“Until now I don’t accept that I left for good. As long as I am alive, I have hope that I will someday return.”

Those who were forced to leave their homes will always be filled with longing to return to them. Acknowledgment and empathy are natural responses. But Mustafa’s yearning seems to be met with something other than empathy by the current residents of Zakariyya. With fear, perhaps? Dismissal? Contempt? Whatever it is, it permits the ancient mosque of the historic village to dilapidate to the point of ruin. It permits the Arabic word “Zakariyya” to be scratched out on the entrance’s sign. As if by scratching out the name, somehow the existence of Zakariyya and its people will themselves be erased.

Mustafa’s very presence, however, is a form of resistance to this deletion. Sami’s uncle sits surrounded by memories and remembrances of his home, waiting in quiet dignity for his longing and his claim to be acknowledged rather than erased.

– Jen Marlowe

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

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July 27, 2009
Curvaceous cartoon heroine banned in India for racy exploits

Multimedia reporter Ben Piven spent nine months living and researching in Mumbai, India. He describes the country’s response to a government ban on a cartoon porn star and its cultural attitudes towards sex.

Indian netizens are mourning the passing of an Internet comic heroine, weeks after the country’s Ministry of Telecommunications banned this contemporary take on Kama Sutra for violating public decency.

Savita Bhabhi was a curvaceous and promiscuous young woman, whose sexual adventures won over 60 million online erotica fans per month — in India and abroad.

The intro to Savita Bhabhi’s first episode, “Bra Salesman.”

Having gained a following of over 200,000 Internet viewers per day and 30,000 e-mail subscribers, Savita Bhabhi’s tendency to shed her sari represented a dramatic departure from traditional norms of Indian sexuality. Though a mere animated online character, Savita Bhabhi’s viewers faithfully watched her pornographic cartoon sequences — published in 10 Indian languages and in English — for its racy content and explorations of infidelity.

Indian left-leaning newsweekly magazine Tehelka praised the comic for its ability to “poke fun at the coy Indian attitude towards sexuality.” An editorial titled Bhabhi Anticlimax derided the government’s decision:

A PROMISCUOUS BHABHI is the latest threat to the sovereignty of our nation — that’s what our government would have us believe. Not the real life ones (we’ll pretend those don’t exist) but a wanton cartoon caricature so raunchy, she might be too real for the IT ministry’s comfort. They had to ban her.

“Bhabhi” is the Hindi term for “sister-in-law” but more closely connotes the American slang term “MILF” in this context. The cartoon, which has 12 episodes that ran in less than a year, is an escape from the sexual repression of Indian middle-class life. The last episode, “College Girl Savvil,” was released on July 1.

The assertive and well-endowed seductress — whose response to the global recession was a menage-a-trois with her female co-worker and boss — clashed with India’s anti-pornography laws. The creator of the Savita Bhabhi series initially went by the names “Deshmukh” and “Indian Porn Empire.” But 38-year-old British-Indian businessman Puneet Agarwal emerged as the creator of the trailblazing cartoon, which combines Hindu religious mythology with modern sexual sensibilities.

In response to the Indian government’s June 3 order for India Internet service providers to block the site, Agarwal’s Save Savita campaign attracted the attention of millions. Indian dailies have been running headlines pleading the public to file Right to Information complaints that would reverse the unpopular ban on Savita Bhabhi.

But since last week, when Agarwal capitulated due to personal reasons, the Indian blogosphere has been awash in RIP notices and eulogies for the toon porn star with a ravenous appetite for misadventures with milk men, old lovers and cricket stars.

During my nine months of research in Mumbai, I did not see much libertine expression of sexuality — despite living in a relatively liberal and upscale area of India’s most cosmopolitan city. But in speaking with some of my Mumbai friends recently, I realized that Savita Bhabhi threatens Indian sensibility.

Her sexual escapades have brought about a lot of curiousity among readers who get a kick out of reading Savita in action,” said Pritesh Jethwani, a stockbroker in Mumbai who confirmed that the block prevents him from viewing Savita’s online exploits. “I think the cartoon is trashy. But from a democratic point of view, I oppose the ban.”

With women’s liberation activists also unhappy about the government ban, conservative forces in India revel in the triumph of traditional values. No longer will Indian sexual hypocrisies be exposed to Internet voyeurs in such a public forum — unless Savita’s programmers create proxy sites that allow Indian viewers to dodge the ban.

– Ben Piven

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July 24, 2009
Turkishness is not always delightful

Amid reports that Turkey may soon unveil reforms intended to quell tensions with the country’s Kurdish minority, Turkey is moving ahead with its bid for European Union membership.

Conflict in Turkey’s Kurdish southeast has claimed 40,000 lives.

Selma Şevkli is a freelance reporter currently based in Bodrum, Turkey. She describes how the country has struggled to define its “Türküm,” which translates as Turkishness.

In 2005, Turkish lawmakers made it a crime to insult Turkey or Turkishness. Until last year, criticizing Turkishness was even punishable with up to three years in prison. Even as Turkey moves forward in the process of acceding to the European Union, it has moved further into its nationalistic bubble.

Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code — criminalizing insults against “Turkish identity” — was used famously to incriminate writer Orhan Pamuk for accusing the Turkish government of complicity in murdering 30,000 Kurds and one million Armenians. The law has since been used to indict publishers, journalists and novelists. Our freedom of speech is hampred by our undying nationalistic political culture.

Turkish flags at a 2006 demonstration in Istanbul.

What is Turkishness? Is it a sort of nationality? A form of ethnicity? Or the name of one specific citizenship? As almost one-third of Turkey’s population consists of Kurds who are legally referred to as Turkish, the question has become increasingly significant.

As I was researching secular Turkish nationalism for my graduate thesis, my first question to the people I interviewed was “What is Turkishness?” The answers varied widely, but for many people, it was a race or ethnicity. My second question asked whether Turkishness should include other ethnic groups in Turkey — Kurds, Armenians, Greeks and many other smaller groups. After all, who qualifies as a Turk?

Turkish nationalism has been integral to the official discourse in Turkey since the beginning of the Turkish Republic in 1923. But for most of Turkey’s history, we have largely pretended that all our citizens are ethnically Turkish. The various ethnic and religious minorities have generally been ignored, forced to emigrate or assimilate. The issue of Turkish nationalism only became visible when the Turkish state was compelled to assess its ignorance and change its policies toward minorities — in soliciting an invitation to join the EU.

For many years, there was a total ban on Kurdish language and culture, as well as political pressure and economic restrictions in the Kurdish-populated region of the country. But things are changing now. Turkish state TV established a channel that broadcasts in Kurdish, which is a major departure from the language ban. Significant violence is ongoing, though less intense than ten years ago. It seems that policies dealing with cultural rights are making a difference.

Kurds are finally moving one step forward in Turkey, even though it is largely symbolic. Other minorities are not mentioned as much as the Kurds in the media, since their numbers are not as significant and they do not assert their rights as aggressively.

The Turkish state is suffering from its enduring ignorance towards other ethnic groups and an inability to adapt itself to the contemporary world. Although political reforms and new cultural policies seem to indicate a gradual shift, there needs to be a sea change in order to implement reforms more effectively and sincerely. For one thing, minorities should be mentioned in history class as essential parts of Turkey — instead of cited as national enemies. Patient and devoted, Turkey’s minorities have chosen to be a part of this country, and so it is time to recognize their rightful place in our society.

– Selma Şevkli

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

For more Worldfocus coverage of Turkey, visit our extended coverage page: Turkey between East and West.

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July 23, 2009
Ethnic Nubians live on the margins in Kenya

About 100,000 Nubians live in Kenya. Brought by British colonialists to the area as soldiers from different parts of Sudan, the Nubian community in Kenya now has a shared ethnic identity. While the group retains no ties to Sudan, Kenya has historically refused to recognize this ethnic minority.

Nairobi’s largest slum, Kibera, is largely populated by Nubians. Photo: Flickr user MothersFightingForOthers

Nubians in Kenya are one of the groups that Worldfocus is exploring on our extended coverage project Stateless to Statehood.

Adam Hussein Adam, project coordinator of the Open Society Initiative for East Africa, writes how his community’s plight is largely unknown outside of Kenya.

Kenyan Nubians have been defined as stateless people because their identity is questioned. They are without doubt one of the country’s most invisible and under-represented communities – economically, socially, politically and culturally. This is because they have been silent victims of discrimination, exclusion and violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms for as long as they have been in Kenya…

My great-grandfather worked in the service of the British in Somalia around the First World War and later resettled in Meru, a small town on the slopes of Mt. Kenya. His father before him worked for the Turko-Egyptian army in the Sudan. I, like my parents, was born in western Kenya.

Although I am well-educated, I have experienced serious difficulties in interacting with government officials. Between 1992 and 2000, I applied unsuccessfully for a passport five times, losing jobs in the process. One manager once asked me why I did not have a recognisable ethnic identity and that this was why I could not be promoted. Apart from studying to university level, which is an exception rather than the rule, mine may as well be the story of most Nubians. It is a story characterized by the need to survive through challenges that are never explained to you. It is a story characterised by limited interactions with state officials who always remind you it is your privilege to be served by them. It is a story characterised by assuming false identities in order to belong…

Before I encountered these challenges in my own life and found out that many of my Nubian colleagues gave up hope of productive careers because of delayed or denied identity cards, I had accused most of them of being lazy. Today I understand that Kenyan Nubians, whether citizens or not, do not belong.

The Kenyan government uses both ethnicity and territory to establish belonging. Since both Nubian ethnicity and their territory of occupancy are contested by the government, most Nubians live as de facto stateless persons without adequate protection under national and international law, irrespective of the fact that they should be considered Kenyan citizens under the Constitution. In Kenya nothing defines your citizenship more than your ethnicity. Nubians face institutionalised discrimination in issuance of documents. They are subjected to a vetting process of ethnic determination in order to acquire an identity card or passports.

Kenya today does not have official figures of Nubians and does not include them in census reports. There is no official recognition of the community; the Kenyan government had classified the community as ‘other Kenyans’ or just ‘others’ and has only recently started a process of recording Nubians as a named clan of other Kenyans.

Above all, Nubians live in temporary structures throughout Kenya and often on contested lands. Most Nubians’ settlements do not have title deeds and are only occupied on a Temporary Occupational Licence (TOL), leaving the present generation of Nubians as mere squatters.

Stateless individuals and communities like the Nubians are assumed to be hopeless and helpless victims, dependent upon the goodwill of others. Under the assumption that citizenship is the only vehicle for having a civic and political voice and that therefore stateless people lack any political identity, stateless people become less than fully human and are reduced to mere targets of humanitarian assistance. All energies are thus focused on how to acquire citizenship for stateless people as fast and as easily as possible.

What are the Nubians’ issues?

Obstacles to citizenship are also faced by other minority groups in Kenya such as Kenyan Somalis and Coastal Arabs although the Nubians have experienced some progress. The real progress in Nubian experience is in their adaptation and mastery of living in Kenya without belonging…

In 2003 the then Chairperson of the Kenyan Nubians’ Council, the late Yunis Ali, encouraged a procession of Nubians marching to Kenya’s High Court thus:

“My people! For a century, we have sought a compassionate hearing from all authorities in Kenya but we got none. Today, we march to the Kenyan High Court for justice – if not to get it, then as testimony that we stood up for our rights.”

In the end, the challenge of standing up to statelessness – or any human rights abuse – is that as a victim you see it through the emotional lenses of feelings and experience; others will then judge you as subjective. When you stand apart and subject the issue to objective criteria, legal definitions limit one’s expression; most of the legal terms are not expressive enough for local realities. For Kenyan Nubians the lack of a link to the state, lack of integration and lack of social acceptance have been part of our existence. We are neither Sudanese nor accepted as Kenyans.

As a statelessness advocate, I believe that legal links are important for anyone belonging in contemporary society; however, without addressing the social acceptability of any community of a people, groups like the Nubians will continue to live from one crisis to another.

The original article was published in Forced Migration Review, 2009. No. 32.

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July 23, 2009
In Pakistan, all politics — and change — may be local

Local politics — a source of debate in Pakistan.

In 2001, Pakistan introduced a system under which local organizers — “nazims” — would be chosen by elected village representatives and receive government money to develop their districts.

But with no new elections planned after their terms expire, nazims — whose role is roughly equivalent to that of mayors in the U.S. — will soon be replaced by appointed government administrators. This has led some in Pakistan to worry that power will become too centralized.

Worldfocus contributing blogger Bilal Qureshi describes the controversy over Pakistan’s system of local politics.

There is a new controversy brewing in Pakistan about the local governments. Musharraf government had introduced a system under which local body elections were held and Nazims (a Nazim is like a mayor) were directly elected. However, the problem is that Nazims had very little authority to begin with and now that the current government, both at federal and provincial (a province is like a state) level decided to appoint administrators to replace the current Nazims, it seems that the remnants of Musharraf regime are not happy about it.

The Nazims wanted to remain in control and it was their desire to have the elections under their supervision so that they could influence the outcome. Naturally, this was not acceptable to the government.  Therefore,  the governments in center and in the provinces thought it would be wise to have administrators administer the up coming local body elections. To me, and to a large majority of Pakistanis, it makes complete sense, but hey, this is Pakistan we are talking about. Here, nothing is without controversy.

Amusingly, if the Nazims and their backers decided to take legal action, and more importantly if this issue ended up in the Supreme Court of Pakistan, government is going to win because there is hardly any sympathy for Musharraf or his supporters or the set up that Musharraf left behind him.

There is no question that Pakistan needs a very strong and comprehensive local body system because the overall infrastructure in the country is, well, dilapidated, if one has to be honest about it. And, only dedicated people with power, authority and funds can honestly asses the needs across the country and based on their assessment conceive programs that are not going to build a very strong and permanent set up that would directly benefit Pakistanis, but also create jobs that would help local communities and stabilize the country. At this point, I want to make sure that I am clear about one thing — only neutral, honest, and dedicated people will be able to effectively change and improve anything. Furthermore, these people, who should be directly elected, should be free of political pressure, outside meddling and, they should also be held accountable for their actions, or inaction.

Believe me, one of the surest ways to bring positive [change] to Pakistan is through local politics and this is a great opportunity for Pakistan to recover from decades of neglect. If the country can manage to have honest people develop and where necessary repair the infrastructure, bring communities together for common good, have people understand that strengthening communal relationships to overcome poverty, lawlessness, disease, and so on, it can be assumed, quite accurately that Pakistan can become what all of us want it to be — a free, democratic, and prosperous country in the region.

To read more, see the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user opendemocracy under a Creative Commons license.

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July 21, 2009
Ghana’s capital city blossoms with shops, cell phones

Modern buildings such as this nightclub and restaurant have emerged out of the old Accra.

Accra, the capital city of Ghana, was host to U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent trip to Africa, during which he pushed developing countries to strive to build prosperity and progress.

Although Accra continues to have problems with its sewage system, among other things, it is modernizing at a relatively quick rate. Ghana as a whole maintains an 11 percent unemployment rate and a 28 1/2 percent poverty rate, both comparatively lower than many of the country’s neighbors.

Ethan Zuckerman of the blog My heart’s in Accra visited Accra and compares the city now to the city he saw during a trip more than a decade earlier.

Visiting Accra feels like time travelling. […]

I feel as if I could recreate the past by layering a thin film on top of the current reality – a scrim that covers that new four-story shopping plaza with the disused concrete and rebar hulk that stood there a decade before. Add some burning plastic and we’d be able to take me back to a past I remember, if I squint a little bit. It’s the same place, just gentrified, in a particularly Ghanaian fashion. My friend Amos met me for lunch at Asanka Local, a deservedly popular chop bar that’s new since my last visit, and mentioned that he was looking for a house in the area to use as an office. He figured he’d need to spend at least 100,000 cedis, or about $67,000. Makes me wish I’d bought the apartment building I used to live in.

When I visited the Accra Mall on Sunday, there was no amount of squinting that could have convinced me that I was in a country I knew and understood. Ten minutes past the airport, the mall features two supermarkets, a cinema, several high-end boutiques and an excellent bookshop. It’s beautiful, as nice as its counterparts in Nairobi and Cape Town, and it’s got a steady buzz of people, tourist, Filipino overseas workers, Lebanese traders and lots of middle-class Ghanaians.

The bookshop left me babbling. In 1993, the only bookstores we had in Accra were the university shop in Legon, which featured required reading texts, Akan-English dictionaries, and the occasional heavily used Mario Puzo novel, for $5.

[…] And then there’s the grocery store. When I first came to Accra, I asked the bartender at the hotel where I was staying where I should shop for food. “All the obruni go to Danquah Circle. You can get anything you imagine there.” I walked around for a couple of hours, visiting the handful of western-style food shops and discovering that my imagination now needed to be limited to canned corned beef, canned mackerel, dried beans and pasta. Add in the amazing fruits and vegetables on sale on almost every corner, and we had a perfectly servicable diet, but one light on the comfort food that everyone needs now and again. My family and friends ended up feeling like they were supplying a prisoner, sending me letters that included packets of dried orange cheese mix so I could buy pasta, oil and a little milk and make macaroni and cheese. A letter from Rachel included sheets of nori, which led to a sushi party, using soy sauce bought from one of the Chinese restaurants in town. I almost got into a fistfight with a housemate about his incursions into my most prized posession – a jar of Skippy peanut butter.

And now there’s a supermarket, and it has cheese. A whole cold case full of it. Apples aren’t luxury items sold for a dollar a piece by roadside hawkers – you can buy them by the kilo. I looked like a madman, walking through Shoprite with my camera, snapping photos of remarkable, miraculous sights – chickens, already gutted and plucked, frozen and in bags! – that looked completely ordinary to everyone around me.

I don’t know that one could come to Accra and pretend that it’s 1994 anymore. If the mobile phones don’t give it away – with phonecard sellers, repair shops and charging stations on every corner – the architecture does. […]

My friends who support the NDC – the party that regained control in the most recent election – tell me that NDC won because people felt like eight years of NPP government had resulted in a lot of developments that looked like Citizen Kofi and not much improvement of schools or infrastructure. I’m not sure that’s entirely fair – driving throughout the city, I saw roads I knew to be almost impassible that are now paved and smooth. I ask about whether a particular neighborhood is still plagued by traffic jams and learn that a two-lane road has been replaced with a six-lane carriageway with two flyovers.

Is this just benefitting the comparatively wealthy who are lucky enough to live in the capital city? No idea – I was there for 51 hours, and I didn’t get outside Greater Accra. And I know it’s a mistake to characterize the direction of a country based on half a dozen long walks and conversations with a dozen old friends. But I felt like I was catching glimpses of a future Accra, the stylish capital of a middle-income nation.

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The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user ethanz under a Creative Commons license.

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July 20, 2009
Chants, boos and colored ribbons at Friday prayers in Iran

Last Friday, thousands of protesters gathered outside Tehran University.

In Iran, tens of thousands of anti-government protesters took to the streets of Tehran once again last Friday. They called on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to resign and were met by police and militiamen who fired tear gas.

At Friday prayers, one of the country’s top religious leaders — Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, himself a former president — voiced new doubts about the results of the recent presidential election, which returned Ahmadinejad to power. He said those doubts “are now consuming us.”

Watch the interview: Protesters return to Iran’s streets following Friday prayers

Worldfocus contributing blogger Juan Cole shares comments from an associate who witnessed last Friday’s prayers.

The past couple of days everyone I met debated back and forth whether to attend Friday Prayers today or not. Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president and one of the “founding fathers” of the Islamic Republic, was to give the sermon this week. This was the first time he would speak out since the elections.

Around 11:00am I left the house with my companions and we headed to Valiasr Street. The streets were packed, both with pedestrians and cars. We hailed down a taxi and asked the driver to get us as close to Enghelab (Revolution Square) as she could. Every road she took was blocked off by the police. We finally made it to the intersection of Hafez and Taleqani and decided to walk the rest of the way to the University of Tehran. All along Enghelab Street special forces lined the streets as people calmly walked towards the university. As we approached the main gates of the university, Ansari’s voice (who was giving the first talk of the Friday Prayers) was heard throughout the area from the loudspeakers positioned in Enghelab (there were also loudspeakers lining the east, west, and north of the campus virtually all the way towards Valiasr Square). It was impossible to get to the main gates of the university as the crowd was already too large and the Basij and special forces directed people into side streets. We turned into Qods Street. By this time it was already 12:30 and the crowd kept growing.

Everytime Ansari mentioned the Supreme Leader, the crowd booed. Everytime he referred to the opposition as traitors, chants of “liar, liar” started. When he mentioned that everyone should listen to the advice and dictates of the Supreme Leader, chants of “Death to the dictator” were loudly shouted. When he derailed America and Britian for muddling in Iran’s affairs, the crowd erupted in chants of “Down with Russia” (because Russia immediately recognized the re-election of Ahmadinejad and congratulated him). As he spoke of the recent killings of Muslims in China, the crowd chided him and the system for its hyprocrisy. Though there was a visible show of force by the Basij and supporters of Ahmadinejad, almost all the women were decked in green ribbons or scarfs, and many men had on green shirts or hats. The women had all gathered on one side of Qods and wouldn’t let the crowd remain silent during Ansari’s speech. Many had climbed onto large trash bins or light posts and led the entire streets in chants–all were decked in green and in the face of the Basij, people put their arms in the air, with the peace/victory sign.

The crowd was composed of people of all ages and backgrounds. Women brought their children with them, many of whom they had dressed from head to toe in green. A few middle-aged women entered the street carrying a framed photo with a black ribbon of Sohrab Aarabi, the 19 year-old boy who was killed during the demonstrations last month and who’s body was only released earlier this week. Women gathered around and started chanting: “My martyred brother, I will reclaim your vote” (baradar-e shahidam, rayet ra pas migiram). Shouts of Allah-u Akbar were routinely started and as Ansari finished his speech, the crowd erupted in “Ya Hossein, Mir Hossein.”

Shortly after Rafsanjani began his sermon and the crowd grew into a silence. The first part of his sermon was dedicated to the leadership of the Prophet, while the second and third parts were directed to the post-election situation in Iran. As he started his second part, he called for the release of all those imprisoned during this past month (the crowd erupted into appaulse); he spoke of how the people had broke the back of the Shah’s regime and that one should never forget the power of the people (chants of “Allah-u Akbar” rang loud from all streets surrounding the university); he talked of the need to keep the “Republic” part of the Islamic Republic in place by respecting people’s vote; he berated Seda-va-Sima (the state media) for its coverage (elated, everyone again broke out in applause). In short, he spoke out against the election results and the subsequent crack-down of the past month, indirectly criticising Khameini. As he wound down his speech and made his recommendations (essentially, to regain the confidence of the people), people shouted their support for him.

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The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user .faramarz under a Creative Commons license.

For more, view our Voices of Iran extended coverage page and listen to our online radio show on Baha’i faith and modern Iran.

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