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April 6, 2009
Obama avoids “genocide” label in Turkey

A memorial in Armenia.

Visiting Turkey on Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama encouraged dialogue with Armenia, acknowledging the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks between 1915-1917 but stopping short of calling them “genocide.”

During the 2008 campaign, Obama had used the term “genocide” on his Web site, writing “The Armenian genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence.”

Turkey and Armenia are participating in negotiations aimed at restoring full diplomatic ties.

Onnik Krikorian is a freelance photojournalist and writer from the United Kingdom based in Yerevan, Armenia. He writes at the “Frontline Club” about Obama’s goals in Turkey and the Armenia question.

Obama Talks Turkey

History has the unfortunate habit of repeating itself as Armenians know only too well. This is especially true when it comes to U.S. presidential elections. Without fail, candidates running for the White House promise to recognize the WWI massacre and deportation of as many as 1.5 million Armenians living in the then Ottoman Empire as genocide only to have them  renege on such campaign promises when in office.

This time round, however, the large and influential Diaspora lobby in Washington had hoped things would be different with Barack Obama in power, and not least because of the inclusion of activists such as Samantha Power in his transition team. The arrival today of the U.S. president in Turkey, on the other hand, does not bode well. Of course, Armenians shouldn’t be surprised. There are other far more pressing matters for Obama to concern himself with.

To begin with, sending out the right message from secular Turkey to the Islamic world is vital in order to repair the damage caused by his predecessor, George W. Bush. Moreover, the U.S. continues to need Turkey’s help in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since the August war between Georgia and Russia, Turkey’s potential role as a counterbalance to Moscow’s influence in the South Caucasus has also become apparent.

When it comes to Armenia, the issue becomes especially complicated. While many in the Diaspora seek recognition of the genocide if only to punish Turkey as well as validate demands for territorial reparations, Armenia instead desparately wants the border with its historic foe opened. Closed during the height of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, Armenian forces occupied 14 percent of Azerbaijan, Turkey’s main ally in the region.

Effectively blockaded by both, most of Armenia’s trade presently transits via Georgia and the August war with Russia effectively cut off its main access to the outside world. There are also hopes that normalizing relations between Armenia and Turkey will benefit regional stability and contribute to finding a peaceful solution to long-running Armenian-Azeri conflict. More significantly, perhaps, a historical commission to examine the genocide will also be established.

That the massacre and deportation of most of the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian population constitutes genocide is hardly disputed, and not least because the events of 1915-17 were used as a case study by Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin when he coined the term in 1943. Nevertheless, the precise number of those who perished is still unknown, as are some aspects of the actual events themselves, with some believing that comprehensive study is still necessary.

Of course, it is not impossible that Obama will refer to the killings as genocide, but most independent observers consider that to be unlikely. This is especially true given the arrival tomorrow of Armenia’s foreign minister in Istanbul to coincide with Obama’s visit. Many suspect that the two events and their timing are more than coincidental, especially as April is also the month when Armenians worldwide remember the tragic events of 1915-17.

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 Rita Willaert under a Creative Commons license.

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

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April 3, 2009
Indian nationalism begins to challenge caste destiny

Dhobi Ghat in Mumbai’s Mahalaxmi neighborhood, where most of the workers belong to the Dhobi (washermen) caste. Photo: Ben Piven

Multimedia reporter Ben Piven spent nine months researching and documenting for Caste in the City [PDF] on a Fulbright grant. He recalls his field research and the questions surrounding caste and Indian nationalism in the slums of Mumbai. Ben is currently completing his master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University.

Watch Worldfocus’ signature videos on Dalits in India.

The peppery aroma of snack carts permeated the humid air. Workmen gathered under a corrugated tin overhang to sip on mango lassis and sweet lime juice.

At the end of a long day of interviews in the scorching April sun, I was finishing up my fieldwork inside a predominantly Dalit slum called Ramabai Colony in eastern Mumbai. A passerby stopped to ask why I was conducting research on the relevance of caste in contemporary Mumbai.

“What is your caste?” he asked me in Hindi.

“We don’t have caste in America,” I responded abruptly. “America is different from India.”

I then paused for a few seconds, quickly becoming pensive. After 15 grueling interviews, I was not keen on explaining the nuances of American social stratification in my choppy Hindi.

On other days when I was in more edifying moods, I explained class distinctions in the U.S. and how the religion of my birth did not differentiate along caste lines. When folks demanded to know, I sometimes joked that I was a Hindu of the Hebrew caste.

To many ordinary Indian people, caste is a universal. Humans in every country must belong to a caste, they suppose. How could any society function otherwise? Some sanitation workers even believe that their filthy profession is predestined.

Across India’s biggest city, thousands of leather workers, washermen and rag pickers ply the same trade as their ancestors. But many of their children have become bureaucrats, factory workers and merchants. Dalits are members of the lowest rung of traditional Hindu society, and they are increasingly asserting their political and economic rights.

To be sure, the enigma of caste is not entirely unique to India. Yet its omnipresence on the subcontinent makes it as quintessentially Indian as curry, Gandhi, and the head wiggle.

Even so, some Indians place national unity far above caste. In front of the Bombay Stock Exchange – arguably the most important symbol of India’s 21st century prosperity – I interviewed a bank watchman named Yogesh Kumar Singh. A young migrant from poor, rural Uttar Pradesh in north India, he simply could not identify his own caste.

In a proud defense of his caste ignorance, he declared, “All castes are the same. We’re all basically just Indian.”

Singh turned toward the crowd of people who were observing the interview and said triumphantly, “The caste divide doesn’t matter because we’re all brothers.”

– Ben Piven

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April 3, 2009
Serbia looks back on Kosovo, NATO a decade later

A reminder of the NATO bombings in 1999.

Recently, air raid sirens marked the 10th anniversary of NATO bombing in Serbia —  strikes that were largely aimed at Serbia’s military but resulted in some civilian deaths.

NATO bombed Serbia in 1999 in response to Slobodan Milosevic’s crackdown on ethnic Albanians living in Kosovo. About 10,000 people died in the Kosovo war. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

“The attack on our country was illegal, contrary to international law, without a decision by the United Nations,” said Prime Minister Mirko Cvetkovic on the anniversary.

Nenad Pejic is associate director of broadcasting for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. He writes about the lasting repercussions of the war.

Serbia’s Decade Of Denial

One spring day about 20 years ago, I entered the building of Serbian State Television in Belgrade to file a report for Sarajevo television. As I prepared to file my daily report, someone stopped me and said an order had come “from above” that my reports had to be approved prior to transmission. The day before, a documentary I’d done on the situation in Kosovo had aired and apparently the people “above” didn’t like it.

Ten years ago today, NATO launched air strikes against Serbia. The 78-day war ended with the Serbian Army’s withdrawal from Kosovo. Various sources say that between 1,200 and 2,500 people were killed. NATO suffered no casualties and did not use ground forces.

But now, a decade later, who can claim victory?

NATO forced the Serbian withdrawal and some 800,000 ethnic Albanians who had fled the region were able to return. The bloc prevented the crisis from pouring over into neighboring countries. Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia on February 17, 2008, and to date 54 countries have recognized the new state.

Serbia could claim victory, too, of a sort. Strongman Slobodan Milosevic was finally defeated. Democratic elections were held, and Serbia today is moving toward EU integration. Voters have handed the nationalist parties that organized violent protests against Kosovo’s independence last year a series of defeats.

But, so far at least, this isn’t one of those happily-ever-after stories.

NATO’s action against Serbia created a precedent that the alliance is still trying to grapple with as part of its large post-Cold War identity crisis.

Kosovo’s independence still hasn’t been recognized by two-thirds of the countries in the world and, according to Serbian sources, about 200,000 ethnic Serbs have left the region. (Prishtina denies this.) The central government in Prishtina is still struggling to assert control over the entire territory of the country.

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 Curious Expeditions under a Creative Commons license.

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April 2, 2009
Obama, Russia’s Medvedev agree to cut nuclear arsenals

Barack Obama met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

On Wednesday in London, U.S. President Barack Obama met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to discuss nuclear disarmament.

At the end of the get-together, the two sides issued a statement saying “the era when our countries viewed each other as enemies is long over.” They also agreed to reduce nuclear arsenals and to meet again in Moscow this summer.

Steve LeVine covers foreign affairs for BusinessWeek and is a former correspondent with The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. He writes at “The Oil and the Glory” to discuss the broader implications of “resetting” relations with Russia.

Reset: Russia, yes; Iran, Kinda

Rose Gottemoeller, assistant secretary of state for verification, compliance and implementation, will be the chief U.S. negotiator for nuclear arms reductions with Russia. The goal is to sign a completed deal by Dec. 15, when Start I expires.

That’s not a surprise — Gottemoeller negotiated one of Washington’s single most-important successes in the post-Soviet era, which was the removal during the Clinton administration of 4,000 nuclear warheads from Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus.

It’s also not a surprise that presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev today made the re-negotiation of Start I the core of a reset of U.S.-Russia relations. Arms reduction, highly favored in Russia, “is the most productive vehicle to start with,” Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University, told me by phone. “It doesn’t mean we will be finished by December, but the statement provides which systems will be included” in the talks.

Yet in a post-mortem with reporters, two senior U.S. officials seemed downright giddy after today’s meeting between Obama and Medvedev in London, where the Group of 20 summit will be held tomorrow. One reason was that the two leaders were even able to agree on a final agenda going forward; and second was a stronger agreement on how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program.

All of this has an economic component — energy. Geopolitics in the region are highly inter-connected: Better relations with Russia can help fertilize the ground toward a thaw of U.S. relations with Iran, which could then significantly improve global natural gas supplies, particularly to Europe, which is highly dependent on — who else? — Russia. It’s all fairly circular.

Read more about U.S. relations with Iran at the original post.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user World Economic Forum under a Creative Commons license.

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April 1, 2009
Is G-20 the right institution to handle economic crisis?

Protesters in London erected a banner in advance of the G-20 meeting in the city.

President Barack Obama arrived in London on Tuesday in advance of Thursday’s G-20 gathering. There, the leaders of the world’s most powerful countries hope to devise a plan to end the most serious global economic downturn since the Great Depression.

On Wednesday, the president met with the British prime minister and offered assurances that the differences among world leaders attending the summit meeting have been exaggerated.

“I am absolutely confident that this meeting will reflect enormous consensus about the need to work in concert to deal with these problems,” he said. “I think that the separation between the various parties involved has been vastly overstated.”

Daniele Archibugi is director of the Italian National Research Council and professor of innovation, governance and public policy at Birkbeck College, University of London. He writes at OpenDemocracy to argue that members states’ interests are too divergent, and that the G-20 is not a representative international body.

The G20 ought to be increased to 6 Billion

The G20 is important in the eyes of the world. Its pronouncements could decide whether you can get a job, refinance a mortgage, get a loan if you are a small company and, in the poorer parts of the world, even put your kids to bed with a full stomach.

Is the G20 really the right institution to address so many hopes and fears? From the standpoint of legitimacy, not at all. It has no employees, no headquarters and not even a statute. Indeed the international relations handbooks cannot tell us how to handle it, as it is situated half way between an international organization and the more formalized practices of traditional diplomatic channels.

In spite of the name, it does not even have 20 member states: it has only 19, boosted by the addition of a European Union representative. The member governments are by no means featherweights; as they themselves often remind us, they represent 85 per cent of world production, 80 per cent of world trade and two thirds of the world population.

However, these are merely quantitative values and have little to do with legitimacy. For Bangladesh it is not enough to have a population six times greater than that of Saudi Arabia to become part of the group. The only representative from the continent of Africa is South Africa. The G20 is lacking in logic also as far as income is concerned: Spain, Iran, Taiwan, the Netherlands and Poland have a gross domestic product exceeding that of Saudi Arabia, Argentina and South Africa but have not been invited. Also other countries of crucial importance for world financial architecture, such as Switzerland with its banking system and the Arab Emirates with its Sovereign Wealth Fund assets, are absent.

How does that one third of the world population whose state representatives have not even been invited to the Summit feel about it? A good 173 countries in the world have been left out and can only wait and see what is decided in London. We are talking about one third of the world population which has all the problems of the other two thirds and often many more, but in this case have no voice.

However, it is still better than the G8, it might be objected, which groups the governments of only 14 per cent of the world population, all of which located in the North of the world. It might be argued that to enlarge the meeting and turn it into a G192, a kind of UN General Assembly on a school outing, would make it more representative but also inconclusive as there would be no possibility of taking effective decisions. The crisis that has hit the financial markets calls for strong messages to be transmitted, which can only come from those governments that have enough resources to guarantee them. But the countries that have fat wallets do not seem to be interested in sending these messages, perhaps because they have not been given a mandate to act on behalf of all countries.

Initially dreamed up to act as a clearing house to the G8 by providing a platform also for the countries of the South, it has become entangled in inter-governmental logic and represents interests that are too divergent to allow a consensus to be reached.

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 thehutch under a Creative Commons license.

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March 31, 2009
Terrorism puts a damper on South Asian cricket sport

Cricket is wildly popular in India, Pakistan and other South Asian countries, where there are 24-hour cricket channels and games in the street.

But security threats have put a damper on the sport in recent months, starting with the terrorist attack on Mumbai, which led some to doubt the safety of holding cricket matches in India. Recently, organizers of the Indian Premier League — a massive tournament scheduled to begin on April 10 — announced that the competition would be moved from India to South Africa due to security concerns.

Tensions mounted further when terrorists ambushed a bus carrying the Sri Lankan cricket team in Pakistan in early March. Six police officers and a driver died.

Martin Sieff is a defense industry editor for United Press International. He writes at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to explore the fate of the sport and argue that cricket is much more than a game.

The Game Of Civilization

Cricket is popular across South Asia and Africa.

The Taliban may be gaining strength in Afghanistan, but the national cricket team still departed last week to play in the Cricket World Cup. Islamist terrorists in Pakistan tried to massacre the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team on March 3. The team all survived, although several were injured, but five policemen died protecting them.

Cricket has become a target of terrorists across South and Central Asia, and not just Islamist ones either. In 1992, a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber blew himself up in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, outside a hotel where the visiting New Zealand cricket team was staying. India and Pakistan, which together account for almost one fifth of the world’s population, have been bitter enemies for more than 60 years, and now both are armed with nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles to carry them. But their 1.2 billion people agree on one thing: Their passion for cricket.

Cricket in India is a $2 billion a year business, “Time” magazine reported last week. The Indian Premier League had its first season last year, and it was a huge success. The new season will start on April 10.The best players in the world from countries as diverse as New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, and the West Indies will all be playing. The crowds may well be even bigger than last year.

A cricket game.

For cricket is one of the most profound, successful, benign, and popular legacies of the British Empire that ruled up to a quarter of the globe until only half a century or so ago. Wherever the British went, they took cricket with them, and everywhere they left it has flourished.

Americans are passionate about basketball and the National Football League. Europeans and the countries of South America feel that way about soccer. But all across Africa and South Asia, as well as the old dominions of the British Empire like South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, cricket is the game of summer and boyhood, the annual rite of innocence and joy, the magic key into the Garden of Eden.

It’s much more than that. If a Nobel Peace prize could be awarded to a game, cricket should win the first one.

To read more, see the original post.

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

Photos courtesy of Flickr user daarkfire under a Creative Commons license.

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March 30, 2009
Indonesian red-light district alive with debate over elections

Election season in Indonesia.

Campaigning is heating up as Indonesia approaches parliamentary elections on April 9, when more than 11,000 candidates will vie for fewer than 700 seats.

On Monday, more than 100,000 people attended a mass rally for the Islam-based Prosperous Justice Party (PKS).

Jeremy Gross is the The Asia Foundation’s elections program manager in Indonesia and writes at the “In Asia” blog about how election season is shaping up in Dolly, a district of Indonesia known for prostitution, describing a vigorous debate between women in an overcrowded café.

The Unexpected Face of Indonesian Politics

Deep in Dolly, the red-light district of Surabaya, East Java, four women were sitting patiently. Onstage next to them were two dancers in tight, low-cut spandex costumes, swinging to the beat of dangdut music, while an old crooner with bouffant hair provided the vocals.

As the women waited, light from flashing Bintang beer signs shone upon their clean, pressed clothes. Ignoring the heat of the day, more and more punters poured into this dubious café, its black walls broken only by intermittent advertisements for Guinness beer. Within a short while, over 100 people were in the café, sitting on wobbly school-style chairs or standing wherever they could find a space, waiting with anticipation and excitement.

Suddenly, it was time for the four women sitting up front to take the stage. One woman loudly addressed the standing-room-only crowd that had gathered: “Friends and candidates who I love, my name is Reni Astuti and I am the candidate for PKS, the Prosperous Justice Party.” She was joined by candidates from the Democrat Party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), and the Golkar Party.

Anyone who thinks Indonesian politics is boring should think again. Political parties that believe mass rallies with pop stars are actually winning them votes should think again. And political pundits who believe voters are as cynical about politics as they are would also be wise to think again.

While meetings and debates like the one in Dolly were held in many different types of venues all across Indonesia, they all shared a similar kind of enthusiasm that comes from people hearing candidates speak straight to them in small groups. In Maros and Gowa, Malang and Banda Aceh, candidates had to talk about the things the voters asked about in each and every gathering. These were definitely not meetings where politicians could get away with nicely-worded platitudes or generalities.

The meetings were organized by local civil society organizations with the goal of giving Indonesia’s voters a real opportunity to hear candidates speak to the issues they wanted to hear about. The events were nothing the political parties could stage-manage, nor were they laden with the formalities or protocols the General Elections Commission (KPU) normally insists upon.

Back in the red-light district, our first candidate was saying, “In Surabaya, my vision will be to fight for our needs so that social justice is achieved for the people, especially for women. Data shows that there are 33,000 poor in Surabaya. More often, the most disadvantaged of those are women.”

Redatini from Golkar followed, “My mission is to ensure pro-women budgeting. When kids are prosperous, then mothers will be prosperous.” Maybe it was meant to be the other way around. For Ivy from the Democrat Party, “My vision and mission is gender equality in economy, politics, and culture.”

Then it was time for questions from the floor. A person in the audience called out, “In a red-light district, there is a lot of violence against women and children, so they need more attention and to be better protected, especially when so many are infected by HIV. I think the red-light district should be legalized as long as there is no trafficking. Do you agree to legalize this area?” Other questions followed about trafficking, child protection, flooding, polygamy, reproductive healthcare, and care for the elderly. […]

Such enthusiasm to hear candidates respond to questions that concern people in their everyday lives remains high; there was certainly little sign of political apathy in this café. But at the same time, throughout Indonesia, legislators continue to be detained, arrested, and sentenced for corruption. Perhaps one needs to distinguish between political apathy, disappointment, and disenchantment in what they see happening in national and local legislatures around the country.

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 gclenaghan under a Creative Commons license.

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March 25, 2009
China blocks YouTube and calls violent Tibet video a fake

China blocked the video-sharing network YouTube and the government denounced footage from a Tibetan exile group appearing to show security forces beating Tibetans in Lhasa last year.

Officials called the footage “lies,” adding that the government is not afraid of the Internet.

Watch the video in question below (warning: violence):

Worldfocus associate producer Hsin-Yin Lee translated comments from popular Chinese Web portal, “Sohu,” in which anonymous Chinese Internet users react to the YouTube block:

Commenter 1: I hope that YouTube could be back to normal very soon. It’s an important access for me to know different cultures. It helps me a lot on my job by downloading educational materials.

Commenter 2: Let’s get those trashy Western Web sites out of China! We have more than 10 popular video sharing Web sites and it will keep growing!

Commenter 3: Is the government really not afraid of the Internet? If not, why doesn’t it allow different voices to speak online? Monitoring is necessary, but over-monitoring will impair the freedom of speech.

Global Voices Advocacy suggests methods to get around the blockade.

Stan Schroeder of “Mashable” questions the effectiveness of such bans:

Normally, the video would probably be noticed by a handful of people interested in the matter; this way, everyone has seen it (or heard of it). one has to wonder how effective these bans are, since tools like Twitter make it incredibly easy for people to spread the news about incidents like this one. Proving that a video is fake would probably be a much better tactic than banning a site viewed by millions of people every day, and then claiming you’re not afraid of the Internet; it just doesn’t hold water.

A blogger at “Marketing Shift” writes that beyond free speech issues, the continued bans may end up hurting prospects for China’s smartphone market:

China’s receiving widespread criticism for its oppresion of free speech, but we should also consider the implications for tech corporations and developers.

Imagine yourself as the CEO of a Tech company who wants to tap into China’s expanding 3G market , but why bother wasting your [research and development] on a nation that may block user access to you for any reason, at any time? In my opinion, China’s erratic behavior could overshadow the potential market of 700 million new mobile users.

Read  more about Internet censorship around the globe: Blog censorship silences free speech around the world.

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

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March 25, 2009
Bashir defies arrest warrant and disputes Darfur’s death toll

Flags meant to represent the dead of Darfur, though the death toll is disputed and controversial.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir visited Egypt on Wednesday, his second trip abroad since the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of war crimes in Darfur. He had visited Eritrea on Monday, seen as an act of defiance against the warrant.

Following the warrant, the Sudanese government expelled 16 aid organizations from the country, endangering millions of people displaced in Darfur.

Though the U.N. says that at least 300,000 have died in the conflict in Darfur, al-Bashir’s Sudanese government claims that only 10,000 people died. Other figures suggest the death toll is over 400,000. As Guy Gabriel, an adviser to Arab Media Watch, writes in the “Making Sense of Darfur” blog, the death toll numbers have been politicized and steeped in controversy.

The Politics of Numbers

For Darfur watchers, the death toll is as much a political statement as an expression of fact. For those with just a passing interest in the region, ascertaining the number who have died involves making judgements on the credibility of estimates, given that these can vary by hundreds of thousands, depending on the source.

Bitter battles were fought over the number killed in Iraq and Lebanon 2006, with no resolution on the former, and recurrent objections on the latter. The battle for the death toll during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza is just swinging into action, with protracted disputes over accuracy expected. This does not bode well for accurate information from Darfur, an area over 1,200 times the size of the Gaza Strip and with far greater access concerns.

The estimates for the number of people who have died in the Darfur conflict range from 10,000 to 500,000 (occasionally more), with many other figures in between. A lot of the academic inquiry and methodology on the subject is discussed elsewhere on this blog.

While ballpark figures are accepted and extensively used (by humanitarian actors, advocates, policy-makers and the media), the range between these figures is more than enough to create doubt. From this doubt stems the politicised environment of death tolls.

Given the size of Darfur and the persisting difficulties in conducting methodologically sound fieldwork, it is a near-impossible task to produce a responsive, accurate death toll from mortality data, however it may be collected. Figures rely on sample interviews, assumptions, limited contextual information, and ultimately, extrapolation – meaning that those with a political interest in contesting these figures have ammunition with which to object.

It is a bold writer that opts for a lower figure – the closer the estimate is to that of the Sudanese government (10,000), the more that writer will be cast as an ‘apologist’. In truth, it is very rare to see anyone apart from the Sudanese government quote lower than 200,000.

Sam Dealey, then-Africa correspondent for Time magazine, wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times (12 August 2007) about the subject of Darfur death tolls, suggesting that the upper range numbers are likely to be excessive. He wrote of “mortality one-upmanship” between advocacy groups, and concluded that “ultimately, the inflated claims fuel a death race in which aid and action are based not on facts but on which advocacy group yells the loudest.”

This sparked a furious response, not least from Eric Reeves, activist and upper-range-figure advocate, who produced a 1,800-word rebuttal the next day denouncing Dealey as “a disgrace to journalism, and to the New York Times opinion pages.”

At times, then, the question of the death toll forces its way into the media, but does not sit comfortably or consistently there, as the inconsistent figures reveal a logical uncertainty when the media aims to present fact.

An advert placed by Save Darfur and the Aegis Trust in a British newspaper in summer 2007 stated: “After three years, 400,000 innocent men, women and children have been killed.” On 8 August 2007, the British Advertising Standards Authority upheld a complaint by ESPAC (the European-Sudanese Public Affairs Committee) that this figure was opinion, not fact. Shortly thereafter, James Smith of the Aegis Trust lamented that the wording had not read “up to 400,000” (although this in reality would bring us no closer to a concrete figure).

The media, mindful of the imperative of fact, opts for a figure it can back up. The upper figure from a range provided by an institutional source usually suffices; currently, the most common figure is the UN’s estimate of 300,000. An article that mentions the figure given by the Sudanese government is very rare.

One footnote to add about the UN’s estimate of 300,000 is that it was subject to an arbitrary upgrade (from the 2006 figure of 200,000 to 300,000, an increase resulting from deaths attributable to disease and malnutrition) around spring 2008. Various media outlets reported the UN’s John Holmes comments at the time: “I am not saying I am sure… It is not a very scientifically-based figure,” but instead is “a reasonable extrapolation from the previous figures from studies done elsewhere.” This figure remains untouched and widely reported since then.

The use of these figures in the media is inconsistent; both individual journalists and newspapers themselves vary in the numbers they use. For example, a journalist for Britain’s Times newspaper used both 200,000 and 300,000 in articles published in February and March 2009 respectively, having previously used 300,000 for most of the previous year’s reporting. The same discrepancy can be seen in the Guardian, which predominantly quotes the 200,000 figure, but sometimes publishes 300,000.

When the application for the indictment of Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir was submitted to the International Criminal Court, a new figure of 35,000 was released into the public consciousness. This was the number of violent deaths for which Al-Bashir was alleged to be responsible, and comprises documented attacks dating from soon after the Al-Fasher airport attack in April 2003 to attacks in the Jebel Moon area in February 2008. It is worth noting that the actual arrest warrant for Al-Bashir does not give any number for deaths in Darfur, perhaps for fear that the attendant politicisation could cloud an issue of justice.

[…] Given the simplification (Arabs vs Africans) used to portray Darfur in many sections of the media, it is worth noting that who and how those included in the overall figure died remains largely unknown and unconsidered: Arab, non-Arab, Sudanese government, civilian, be it in government, rebel, or inter-tribal attacks.

Away from the sporadic interest of the media, another serious issue in this politicised environment is that it can detract from important decisions that should be kept free from politics.

Statistics such as the number of dead must be credible in order to help political and public health decision-makers plan effectively for the short- and long-term strategies relating to the conflict, a process complicated by the need for political evaluation.
This goes equally for humanitarian aid groups who must manage a relationship with the host country. Humanitarian aid has become more politicised, critically so now in Darfur, as the aid group expulsions demonstrate.

Does use of upper-end death tolls encourage the Sudanese government to harden their stance regarding admitting and facilitating the function of aid organisations in Darfur? This is a hard question to answer substantively, but instinct would agree.

Moreover, would the humanitarian situation in Darfur have been eased by the universal quoting of a low-end figure? Would the Sudanese government have been more inclined to let aid agencies stay?

In a way this is a moot point now that the indictment of Al-Bashir has taken place. Those actors who hope to influence the death toll – and the displaced and those in need of humanitarian aid – now have a much more complicated opportunity to do so.

One final observation is that the figure of internally (and externally) displaced is often relegated to second place: the death toll is often quoted without the IDP figure, but never vice versa. Given that the largest humanitarian operation in the world is in Darfur, this demonstrates a perverse over-emphasis on the dead at the expense of the living.

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 thatsparklychick under a Creative Commons license.

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March 24, 2009
Hungary’s premier resigns without clear successor

Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany has announced his intention to resign.

Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany officially announced his resignation to the parliament on Monday, leaving no clear successor in one of Europe’s worst-hit economies.

On Saturday, he had indicated his willingness to resign at a meeting of his Socialist party, saying “I hear that I am the obstacle to the cooperation required for changes, for a stable governing majority and the responsible behavior of the opposition.”

John Horvath is a citizen journalist for OhMyNews. He explores the political motivations behind Gyurcsany’s decision to resign and Hungary’s future.

Hungary descends further into chaos

In a bold political move, Hungary’s Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany announced his intention to resign at a congress of the ruling Socialist Party on Saturday. While this may have come as a surprise to some, for others this announcement was something to be expected sooner or later. Over 90 percent of Hungarians feel that the country is heading in the wrong direction and the prime minister’s popularity rating is at an all-time low of 18 percent.

The prime minister’s offer to resign, however, comes with strings attached. His offer only stands if parliament can agree within the next two weeks on a person to take his place. Already this looks highly unlikely. The country’s largest opposition party, the Young Democrats (FIDESZ), is refusing to nominate anyone and is calling for early elections instead. Accordingly, replacing the person of the prime minister will not do much as the ability to enact policy still lies in the way power is distributed within parliament. Only with new elections and a redistribution of power does FIDESZ see a solution to the present crisis.

Meanwhile, as the former junior coalition partner, the so-called “liberals” or Free Democrats (SZDSZ), has taken up the challenge and is presently looking for someone to replace Gyurcsany, the conservative Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) has already put forward its own divisive candidate, Lajos Bokros. Bokros was the finance minister during the Socialist government of Gyula Horn (1994-8) and was renowned for introducing a set of austerity measures commonly referred to as the “Bokros Package.” Recently his nomination as the MDF’s leading candidate for the upcoming European Union elections led to a major upheaval within the party, culminating in some members leaving the party and the MDF losing its faction status in parliament. This means that members of the party can now only sit as independents and are restricted in what they can do or take part in.

Although Bokros is so far the first concrete name to surface as a possible successor to Gyurcsany, the likelihood of this happening is remote. Many still have ill feelings regarding the Bokros Package some 15 years ago. Hence, while from an economist’s view Bokros would seem to be a fair choice, from a political standpoint he is unpalatable.

It’s quite clear that the prime minister’s offer to resign is nothing more than a calculated ploy to help bolster his popularity ratings within his own party. Knowing that the various parties can’t agree among themselves, Gyurcsany can claim to have ceded to opposition demands to step down. In turn, the inability of parliament to come up with a replacement then vindicates his position that the problem is not with him but with the opposition, for when given the opportunity to act it fails to do so. In the end, Gyurcsany is made to look like an honest statesman who is willing to do what is best for the country.

This ploy is also intended on helping to reconstruct the shattered coalition between the Socialists and the liberals, bringing them closer together. […] Without a doubt, the political theater going on in parliament will only add to the economic chaos and social angst in Hungary. To observers on the outside, the political system in Hungary seems to be falling apart. For many within the country, the battles being raged are simply the clash of personalities of two leading politicians: Ferenc Gyurcsany on the left, and Victor Orban of the FIDESZ on the right. Neither side appears willing to leave the stage until it has seen the other utterly vanquished. As a result, the country appears to be adrift with no one capable of taking control of the situation.

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