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Archive for September 22nd, 2012

Principles and pragmatism – Samalia

Posted by African Press International on September 22, 2012

Troubled Country facing new problems:

NAIROBI,  – The advance by African Union troops (AMISOM) on the insurgent-held Somali port city of Kismayobrings into focus a challenge often faced by humanitarian actors in conflict zones: how to help those in need without associating themselves too closely with warring parties, even those which enjoy international backing.On 19 September, AMISOM Deputy Force Commander Maj-Gen Simon Karanja “appealed to humanitarian agencies to come to the aid of the people fleeing [Kismayo] to areas liberated by AMISOM and Somali security forces,” according to an AMISOM statement.

“We stand ready to facilitate any efforts to ease the suffering of the population,” Karanja said.

Kismayo is the last major stronghold of the Al-Shabab insurgency.

Humanitarians keeping away

UN Security Council Resolution 1772 mandates AMISOM establish “the necessary security conditions for the provision of humanitarian assistance.”

AMISOM has a Humanitarian Affairs Unit which, according to the force’s website, works with UN agencies and NGOs “to establish coordination mechanisms and the sharing of information.” 

Many UN and NGO staff travel in conveys protected by AMISOM vehicles. AMISOM field hospitals, set up to treat its troops, have also served the civilian population.

But many aid workers remain leery of AMISOM and its humanitarian aspirations and have resisted rushing into areas where AMISOM and government forces have dislodged Al-Shabab. Such deployment by UN staff members is dependent on clearance from the UN’s Department of Safety and Security.

“The people who live in these regions have had no basic facilities, be it for health, education and water, but since [government and allied forces] have regained control….there have been few aid agencies covering the demand,” Mohamed Farah, a government spokesman, told Radio Ergo.

“We are calling again on the international community, international aid agencies and the United Nations to come to rescue these people,” he said.

Heads of state from the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development meeting in November 2011 issued a similar plea, to address the needs of “drought and famine-stricken communities in a more effective manner.” 

''If in the name of your principles people die because of your way of operating, maybe it’s better to leave and let other people do the job''

Blurring lines

While security considerations may partly explain the unmet demand, humanitarian principles also come into play, according to Tanja Schumer, Focal Point for the Somalia NGO Consortium.

Only if principles such as impartiality are “preserved at all times, and with the support of the local communities, are we able to work and deliver aid effectively. The blurring or perceived blurring of humanitarian and security objectives jeopardizes the delivery of vital assistance to the Somali people,” she told IRIN. 

“The perception that humanitarian actors are linked to political and/or military agendas, including support for AMISOM, or a stabilization agenda, directly endangers humanitarian staff and supplies, and in so doing further diminishes the capacity of aid agencies to assist a population in extreme need,” she said.

Asked about how civilians in Kismayo would be assisted in the event of Al-Shabab’s departure from the city, Russell Geekie, a spokesman for the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, also stressed the need for humanitarians to remain “strictly independent of political and security processes.”

“In line with humanitarian principles, contingency plans for Kismayo are based on civilians’ needs and would be implemented independently of any side’s military or political objectives. However, we do engage in regular dialogue with a wide range of actors to help reduce civilian casualties and suffering and to facilitate humanitarian access to those in need,” he said.

For one UN staffer, who worked in Somalia in the early 1990s with another organization, “what’s important is to keep your ethics – do no harm – but adapt your principles with the reality on the ground.”

“If in the name of your principles people die because of your way of operating, maybe it’s better to leave and let other people do the job,” he said.

But he added, “humanitarians risk being associated with foreign forces attacking Somalia. Al-Shabab can use this, making it harder for them to operate easily. It takes a long time to change such a perception.”

Speaking of his earlier experience in Somalia, which entailed dealing with clan-based warlords, he said, “The rationale was: do you want to save lives or not, and what is the price of that? It’s an old debate.”

A debate that is now “very fraught”, according to a UN official in Mogadishu. “Should people be denied assistance because they live in a war zone and are caught up in the politics of it?

“Interestingly, the people stoking it up with the most polarized positions are those based in Nairobi [where offices of many agencies dealing with Somalia are based]. Some people here, traditional humanitarians, say we need to think outside the box and grab opportunities when they arise, that you have to take risks, perhaps compromise one’s principles or else nothing gets done,” he said.

“Kismayo brings all the issues to a point, because it’s a city, because it’s the lifeblood for so many people…If the water and sanitation systems stop working… the rains are about to start soon… There are IDPs [internally displaced people] there… do you ignore them? 

“This brings up so many complex questions, which are not being addressed. There seems to be no debate, just positions coming up [during meetings]. At some point you need to sit down and say, ‘Fine, what do we do with these positions?’”



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Stepping up pressure on human rights

Posted by African Press International on September 22, 2012

Gambia President Yahya Jammeh

DAKAR, – Public, forceful international pressure on Gambian President Yahya Jammeh to halt ongoing executions of death row prisoners was successful – at least temporarily – leading activists to call for governments, multinationals and human rights groups to exert more sustained pressure on the government to clean up its human rights act.

“For far too long the international and regional community has been far too quiet [on Gambia] – we haven’t been able to test if pressure does indeed work,” said Sherman Nikolaus, an Amnesty International Gambia researcher, who noted that the about-turn shows the president does care about his reputation, internationally and regionally.

Nine Gambian inmates were killed by firing squad in August, causing international outrage with statements issued by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay; the European Union; Amnesty International; the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR); and governments across the region and internationally including neighbouring Senegal and Benin.

“The moratorium [on further killings]… shows the usefulness of international pressure,” noted Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

At first the government would not confirm executions had taken place, and then was unwilling to publicly admit to them, according to Amnesty International. To go from that to publicly admit them and issue a statement that no more would take place – albeit only under certain conditions – is a sign of progress, however small.

“In the past you could go for years without knowing if a death had even taken place so it’s been a positive response,” said Sherman-Nikolaus.

International standards violated

The government’s August actions violated international standards in relation to the death penalty: the prisoners were reportedly killed without prior warning, with no notification having been given to their families, and several of them had had no right to appeal in their sentencing.

Gambia has signed up to the 1984 Convention against torture and other cruel and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and the 1966 International Covenant on civil and political rights, both of which refer to the death penalty. It has also ratified most international human rights treaties, and is a signatory to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights.

The government and its National Intelligence Agency has allegedly been involved in unlawful detention, torture, unfair trials, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions for years, say human rights groups.

Many of those who have been involved in detention without trial, torture and disappearance, are journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which keeps human rights for journalists in Gambia on the international radar through lobbying with individual governments and the UN, has detailed the climate of fear in which journalists work in Gambia, leading to self-censorship and forcing most of the country’s top journalists out of the country into neighbouring states.

“The media is cowed. The context is hostile and repressive and has stunted independent media,” said the CPJ’s Africa advocate, Keita Mohamed. “Impunity is acute. That is Gambia’s biggest problem. Disappearances, murder, arson attacks on media houses, all take place, and no one is arrested or held to account.”

Soft diplomacy

It is rare for individual governments and multinational representatives to speak out so openly on Gambia, said one human rights activist – usually they prefer to take a soft diplomacy tack.

Regional bodies have engaged in individual cases. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) court, for instance, ruled against the government in two cases – those of journalist Chief Ebrima Manneh who was arrested and disappeared in 2006, and ex-editor-in-chief Musa Saidykhan, who was tortured in custody. In both cases the government has not complied with the rulings.

ACHPR, which is based in Gambia’s capital, Banjul, issued a communiqué stating the executions would violate the provisions of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. In 2009 it passed a resolution on the deteriorating human rights in Gambia, referring to the alleged murder, unlawful arrest and detention, harassment, intimidation, prosecutions and disappearances of journalists and human rights defenders deemed to be critical of the government.

Several US senators have been involved in the Chief Manneh case, while select UK members of parliament repeatedly raise the issue of human rights in Gambia through early day motions, but these efforts have had limited concrete impact, said Keita.

The Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which spearheads UN human rights efforts, closely monitors the situation in Gambia, but has no country office dedicated to this, “which makes it difficult to react to all incidents, which is why we haven’t been as outspoken as we might have been,” said Shamdasani.

While the independent press has been outspoken about abuses and disappearances, it does so within a climate of fear, and press houses are regularly shut down when the president does not like what is published.

Stronger action needed

More consistent, hard-hitting human rights advocacy is needed when it comes to human rights in Gambia, the president of West African network RADDHO, Alioune Tine, told IRIN. Human rights groups will be calling on the ACHPR Commission to move its seat from Banjul at a meeting of human rights groups in the Senegalese capital Dakar in November.

Amnesty International is calling for a review of all death penalty cases.

Donors have some room for maneouvre. In 2010, the European Union, then Gambia’s top donor, cancelled US$26 million in budget support due to human rights and governance concerns.

Advocacy groups should target the high-profile tourism sector, said Keita, which currently contributes some 15 percent of annual income, and is seen by the president as a pillar of economic growth.

The government has reacted to donor pressure by fostering relations with emerging donors such as Taiwan, which may lay less stress on human rights accountability, said an observer; while two large tour operators in Gambia told IRIN they had not seen a significant fall-off in client interest since August.

Gambia’s economy is expected to grow by 10 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Targeted financial sanctions and travel bans are another concrete tool, said Keita.

Despite his poor human rights record, President Jammeh remains popular among a significant proportion of the population. He came to power through a 1994 military coup, and was elected president in 1996. Jammeh won a sweeping majority in November 2011 elections, which African Union observers described as free of intimidation, though heavily skewed by a media bias in favour of the incumbent. ECOWAS however, said the conditions were not in place prior to the election for free and transparent polls, given an opposition and electorate that is “cowed by repression and intimidation”.



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Domestic workers in Syria await repatriation

Posted by African Press International on September 22, 2012

Domestic worker Sunarti is in contact with her family, but can’t leave

JAKARTA,  – Thousands of Indonesian domestic workers in crisis-hit Syria need help to get back home, activists say.

“We wrote to the government in June to bring the suffering of migrant workers in Syria to their attention,” Anis Hidaya, executive director of Migrant Care, a Jakarta-based NGO campaigning for migrant workers’ rights, told IRIN. “Today we demand the government protect its citizens and repatriate all those in danger.” 

In Indonesia, families of women and girls working in Syria continue to receive reports about the dire circumstances of their loved ones, including abandonment by employers. These women are particularly vulnerable to abuse in Syria, says Hidaya.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), there are more than 100,000 migrant workers in Syria, including some 15,000 who may be in need of evacuation assistance. Precise data is not available.

Prior to the crisis, the Indonesian Manpower and Transmigration Ministry estimated the number of Indonesians working in Syria at some 12,000. However, this figure is difficult to confirm as many migrant workers, mostly women, are undocumented, said the Indonesian embassy in Damascus. 

Syria witnessed a steady rise in the number of foreign domestic workers between 2001 and 2006, following the legalization of foreign nationals as domestic workers, said a 2012 report by the Consortium for Applied Research on International Migration (CARIM). 

In 2010, the Syrian authorities estimated the number of female domestic workers at 75,000-100,000, mainly from Indonesia, the Philippines, and Ethiopia.

In their offices and emergency call centres across Indonesia, Migrant Care employees help families call their daughters, sisters, and mothers to comfort them, learn about their situation, and talk about how to get them home. 

At a Migrant Care office in Jakarta last week, Hidaya received an urgent text message: “My daughter is in Aleppo in a house alone. Please – we cannot contact her for two weeks. We don’t know where she is.”

The NGO is getting more and more such messages, says Hidaya. 

“These women and girls are extremely vulnerable when they migrate for work in the first place,” she explained. “Now, living amid this violence and being ignored by their employers, they are defenseless and exposed to the horrors of the fighting.”

Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
Migrant workers on departure at Sukarno-Hatta International Airport in Jakarta

Exit permits

“Since the violence in Syria began, the government has directly helped 770 Indonesians leave,” said Tatang Razak, director of Indonesian citizen protection affairs at the Foreign Affairs Ministry. 

“The biggest issue we face in our evacuation operations is the unwillingness of the Syrian government to issue exit permits to workers without employer permission,” he explained, saying that the Indonesian government currently has custody of 348 Indonesians – mostly domestic workers – in safe houses in Damascus awaiting processing.

To date, IOM has provided evacuation assistance from Syria to 1,410 migrant workers from the Philippines, Sudan, Egypt, Yemen, Moldova, Ukraine, South Sudan, Belarus, and Indonesia. A flight chartered by IOM returned 263 Filipino workers to the Philippines on 11 September.

Of those assisted by IOM, only nine were from Indonesia, though the pace of returns may be improving: Linda Al-Kalash, director of Tamkeen, a legal aid and human rights organization in Jordan, said that just this week she saw 117 newly-arrived Indonesian migrant domestic workers at the embassy in Amman. “They were in Jordan for barely a day before they were repatriated by government charter flight to Jakarta.” 

To date, IOM has received requests for repatriation assistance from embassies of close to 5,000 third country nationals.

Some 700,000 documented Indonesian migrant workers go abroad to work every year, sending part of their earnings back to their families. According to the World Bank, registered remittances to Indonesia amounted to more than US$6 billion annually, the second-highest source of income after oil and gas.

The government estimates the total number of documented migrants abroad at 2.7 million, while the number of undocumented workers could be 2-4 times that amount.



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