Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Burma’s military forcibly recruits children as adults desert the army

The Burmese military is forcibly recruiting children to fill the gaps in the country’s armed forces as adult desertions climb and enlistments plummet according to a new report by Human Right Watch. According to the Independent, “Finding it increasingly hard to recruit adult soldiers, and trying to cope with high desertion rates and a constantly expanding demand for fighters, army recruiters pick on children at bus and train stations and force them to join up.”

The children are frequently sent into combat in Burma’s border areas where it is fighting ethnic liberation movements.

This from the BBC:
The Burmese army is forcibly recruiting children to cover gaps left by a lack of adult recruits, says a report by a US-based human rights organisation.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) says children as young as 10 are beaten or threatened with arrest to make them enlist.

Both the army and ethnic rebels have been accused of using children before.

But the timing of this report is particularly damaging for the military, which is already under pressure after a crackdown on anti-government protests.

The military insists it is opposed to the use of child soldiers, but HRW says the abuses were extensive and systemic.

It said it had published the report to try to urge the United Nations Security Council to tackle the issue.

The report, entitled "Sold to be Soldiers: The Recruitment and Use of Child Soldiers in Burma" says there are thousands of children in the Burmese military.

It claims that children are approached in public places by military recruiters and civilian brokers who have been promised cash rewards by the military.

The children are often beaten or threatened with arrest to force them to enlist, the report says.

It is claimed that recruiting officers routinely falsify enlistment documents to register children as being 18, the legal minimum age for recruitment.

***
Jo Becker, children's rights advocate for HRW, said Burma is "literally buying and selling children" to fill the ranks.

"The government's senior generals tolerate the blatant recruitment of children and fail to punish perpetrators," she said.

"In this environment, army recruiters traffic children at will."

Ms Becker said that the recent military crackdown had put off many of those potential recruits who were not already deterred by poor conditions and low pay.

"After deploying its soldiers against Buddhist monks and other peaceful demonstrators, the government may find it even harder to find willing volunteers," she said.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Condom Song

This is an entertaining and educational video in Telugu on Condom usage, to prevent from sexually transmitted infections and HIV, from Nrityanjali Academy, Secunderabad, Andhra Pradesh, India

Prostitution, including child prostitution, flourishes under Burmese dictatorship

Military rulers profit from the growing sex trade in Burma amid poverty and political misrule. The sex industry includes child prostitutes. The mismanagement of the economy by the military junta has left people seeking to support themselves and their families by any means available to them.

As if this were not tragic enough, the United Nations has estimated that one in three of Burma’s sex workers were infected with HIV in 2005. HIV infects approximately 360,000 Burmese making it the site of one of the most series epidemics in Southeast Asia. According to the UN, the Burmese ministry of health’s expenditure on HIV in 2005 was around $137,000 or about$0.38 per head.

This is from the Guardian:
This is a side of life the Burmese military junta might prefer you did not see: girls who appear to be 13 and 14 years old paraded in front of customers at a nightclub where a beauty contest thinly veils child prostitution. Tottering in stiletto heels and miniskirts, young teenage girls criss-crossed the dance-floor as part of a nightly "modelling" show at the Asia Entertainment City nightclub on a recent evening in Rangoon.

Some girls stared at the floor while others tugged self-consciously on short hemlines, stretching the flimsy material a few centimetres longer as they catwalked awkwardly to the accompaniment of blasting hip-hop music.

Watching these young entertainers of the "Cherry-Sexy Girls" model groups were a few male customers, and a far larger crowd of Burmese sex workers, mostly in their late teens and early 20s, who sat at low tables in the darkness of the club.

Escorting several girls to a nearby table of young men, a waiter said the show was not so much modelling as marketing. "All the models are available," the waiter said, adding that the youngest girls ask $100 (£48.50) to spend a night with a customer, while the older girls and young women in the audience could be bargained down for a lot less.

Prostitution, particularly involving children, is a serious crime in military-ruled Burma, but girls taken from the club would have no problem with the authorities, the waiter assured the company, but did not explain why not.

It would seem that prostitution is one of the few things the Burmese military, fresh from its recent crushing of pro-democracy demonstrations by Buddhist monks, is still willing to tolerate.

Information on the Burmese sex trade is extremely limited, as NGOs and other organisations can not conduct proper research within the country, said Patchareeboon Sakulpitakphon at the Bangkok offices of the international organisation Ecpat, whose acronym stands for End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes. As a result of the restrictions, what is known is limited to a "basic picture based on what victims have said, and information that leaks out," Ms Patchareeboon wrote in an email. But, she added, the information available indicates that "[child] sex tourism is emerging in Burma as well as the development of the sex industry".

Burma is already a big source country for people trafficked to the regional sex trade. "The junta's gross economic mismanagement, human rights abuses and its policy of using forced labour are the top causal factors for Burma's significant trafficking problem," the US state department noted in its 2007 trafficking report.

Disastrous economic policies pursued by the military have hobbled this resource-rich nation and hundreds of thousands have left the country to seek their fortunes elsewhere. With an estimated annual income of just $220 a head among Burma's 52 million people, fleeing the country to work elsewhere is all too common. For many, their effort to escape leads them into the hands of human traffickers and the sex trade in Thailand, China, Malaysia, Macau and elsewhere, according to the state department.

On a recent night in Rangoon, a boisterous group of sex workers trawled a hotel bar for customers. Lin Lin, 22, and Thin Thin, 24 - names commonly used by sex workers in Burma - said they did not normally work in hotel bars, but the 10pm curfew in the wake of the pro-democracy protests had shut down the late-night clubs and forced them to new venues to find customers.

With a mother, father and young brothers and sisters to support, Lin said that prostitution was not such a difficult choice. "Sometimes I can earn $40 from one customer," she explained, speaking in good English.

This was just her night job, she said, adding that she was in her second year at university, studying to become "an advocate of the law".

Thin Thin said she was a hairdresser during the day, but sleeping with men, particularly foreign tourists, paid far more than either could earn by legitimate work.

****
So what is shielding the trade in young girls that takes place behind the flimsy facade of "modelling" shows in Rangoon from the military regime's wrath?

The answer is as simple as it is obvious, Ms Patchareeboon said: money.

"I am sure that [the military] has officials making profit from the growing sex industry and trafficking of Burmese citizens abroad," she said. "Corruption and the institutionalisation of the sex industry is common."
You can read the entire article here.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Slavery conditions for Indian children making Gap garments

Children, as young as ten, are working in slave-like conditions in India producing garments for Gap. According to an investigation by Observer reporter, Dan McDougall, these children work 16-hour days for free. One ten-year-old boy said his family had sold him to the factory owner. He had worked four months without pay and would not be allowed to leave until the fee his family received had been recovered. Indian labor activists are demanding that the children found at this sweatshop be returned to their parents and compensated.

Gap is a popular American clothing brand with over 3100 stores around the world. It has faced accusations of contracting with sweatshops in developing countries in the past. At the same time it faces criticism for labor practices Gap has promoted its image as a corporate "good citizen." For example, Gap is participating in the Project Red campaign to raise funds to purchase and distribute medication to AIDS victims in Africa.

This is Dan McCougall’s report in the Observer:
Child workers, some as young as 10, have been found working in a textile factory in conditions close to slavery to produce clothes that appear destined for Gap Kids, one of the most successful arms of the high street giant.

Speaking to The Observer, the children described long hours of unwaged work, as well as threats and beatings.

Gap said it was unaware that clothing intended for the Christmas market had been improperly subcontracted to a sweatshop using child labour. It announced it had withdrawn the garments involved while it investigated breaches of the ethical code imposed by it three years ago.

The discovery of the children working in filthy conditions in the Shahpur Jat area of Delhi has renewed concerns about the outsourcing by large retail chains of their garment production to India, recognised by the United Nations as the world's capital for child labour.

According to one estimate, more than 20 per cent of India's economy is dependent on children, the equivalent of 55 million youngsters under 14.

The Observer discovered the children in a filthy sweatshop working on piles of beaded children's blouses marked with serial numbers that Gap admitted corresponded with its own inventory. The company has pledged to convene a meeting of its Indian suppliers as well as withdrawing tens of thousands of the embroidered girl's blouses from the market, before they reach the stores. The hand-stitched tops, which would have been sold for about £20, were destined for shelves in America and Europe in the next seven days in time to be sold to Christmas shoppers.

With endorsements from celebrities including Madonna, Lenny Kravitz and Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker, Gap has become one of the most successful and iconic brands in fashion. Last year the firm embarked on a huge poster and TV campaign surrounding Product Red, a charitable trust for Africa founded by the U2 lead singer Bono.

Despite its charitable activities, Gap has been criticised for outsourcing large contracts to the developing world. In 2004, when it launched its social audit, it admitted that forced labour, child labour, wages below the minimum wage, physical punishment and coercion were among abuses it had found at some factories producing garments for it. It added that it had terminated contracts with 136 suppliers as a consequence.

In the past year Gap has severed contracts with a further 23 suppliers for workplace abuses.

****
Professor Sheotaj Singh, co-founder of the DSV, or Dayanand Shilpa Vidyalaya, a Delhi-based rehabilitation centre and school for rescued child workers, said he believed that as long as cut-price embroidered goods were sold in stores across Britain, America, continental Europe and elsewhere in the West, there would be a problem with unscrupulous subcontractors using children.

'It is obvious what the attraction is here for Western conglomerates,' he told The Observer. 'The key thing India has to offer the global economy is some of the world's cheapest labour, and this is the saddest thing of all the horrors that arise from Delhi's 15,000 inadequately regulated garment factories, some of which are among the worst sweatshops ever to taint the human conscience.

'Consumers in the West should not only be demanding answers from retailers as to how goods are produced but looking deep within themselves at how they spend their money.'

Friday, October 26, 2007

Anti-Americanism as one of the chief fault lines of global politics

Has the lopsided distribution of power in the international system temped the United States to exercise its hegemonic power without restraint? Francis Fukuyama thinks so and argues that while the founding fathers, fearful of unchecked power, established the system of separation of power to limit the power of the executive the absence of such a system globally has gotten the United States into trouble. As a result, anti-Americanism has become one of the chief fault lines of international politics in the early 21st century. These concerns are, of course, not new. What Fukuyama describes are what Senator William Fulbright referred to as the “arrogance of power” roughly four decades ago.

Here are Fukuyama’s thoughts on what he believes to be a self-defeating hegemony:
When I wrote about the End of History almost 20 years ago, one thing that I did not anticipate was the degree to which American behaviour and misjudgments would make anti-Americanism one of the chief fault lines of global politics. And yet, particularly since the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, that is precisely what has happened, owing to four key mistakes made by the Bush administration.

First, the doctrine of "preemption", which was devised in response to the 2001 attacks, was inappropriately broadened to include Iraq and other so-called "rogue states" that threatened to develop weapons of mass destruction. To be sure, preemption is fully justified vis-a-vis stateless terrorists wielding such weapons. But it cannot be the core of a general non-proliferation policy, whereby the United States intervenes militarily everywhere to prevent the development of nuclear weapons.

***
The second important miscalculation concerned the likely global reaction to America's exercise of its hegemonic power. Many people within the Bush administration believed that even without approval by the UN security council or Nato, American power would be legitimised by its successful use. This had been the pattern for many US initiatives during the cold war, and in the Balkans during the 1990s; back then, it was known as "leadership" rather than "unilateralism".

But, by the time of the Iraq war, conditions had changed: the US had grown so powerful relative to the rest of the world that the lack of reciprocity became an intense source of irritation even to America's closest allies. The structural anti-Americanism arising from the global distribution of power was evident well before the Iraq war, in the opposition to American-led globalisation during the Clinton years. But it was exacerbated by the Bush administration's "in-your-face" disregard for a variety of international institutions as soon it came into office - a pattern that continued through the onset of the Iraq war.

America's third mistake was to overestimate how effective conventional military power would be in dealing with the weak states and networked transnational organisations that characterise international politics, at least in the broader Middle East. It is worth pondering why a country with more military power than any other in human history, and that spends as much on its military as virtually the rest of the world combined, cannot bring security to a small country of 24 million people after more than three years of occupation. At least part of the problem is that it is dealing with complex social forces that are not organised into centralised hierarchies that can enforce rules, and thus be deterred, coerced, or otherwise manipulated through conventional power.

****
Finally, the Bush administration's use of power has lacked not only a compelling strategy or doctrine, but also simple competence. In Iraq alone, the administration misestimated the threat of WMD, failed to plan adequately for the occupation, and then proved unable to adjust quickly when things went wrong. To this day, it has dropped the ball on very straightforward operational issues in Iraq, such as funding democracy promotion efforts.

Incompetence in implementation has strategic consequences. Many of the voices that called for, and then bungled, military intervention in Iraq are now calling for war with Iran. Why should the rest of the world think that conflict with a larger and more resolute enemy would be handled any more capably?

But the fundamental problem remains the lopsided distribution of power in the international system. Any country in the same position as the US, even a democracy, would be tempted to exercise its hegemonic power with less and less restraint. America's founding fathers were motivated by a similar belief that unchecked power, even when democratically legitimated, could be dangerous, which is why they created a constitutional system of internally separated powers to limit the executive.

Such a system does not exist on a global scale today, which may explain how America got into such trouble. A smoother international distribution of power, even in a global system that is less than fully democratic, would pose fewer temptations to abandon the prudent exercise of power.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The 'Lost Boys' Return Home

Three young men who fled the fighting in South Sudan as boys to grow up and be educated in three different US cities return home. In an emotional journey, they reunite with with loved ones, grieve over those who have died, and to offer the skills they acquired in America to help a struggling people.

Jen Marlowe's reporting in South Sudan, published in The Nation magazine, was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and The Nation Institute Investigative Fund. A film excerpt airs October 26 on PBS's Foreign Exchange with Fareed Zakaria.

It’s time to normalize relations with Cuba

Yesterday President Bush made clear in a speech that the United States will continue its confrontational policy of attempting to isolate Cuba despite the failure after almost half a century of that policy. The speech was largely geared for domestic consumption.

The President’s remarks come as the General Assembly of the United Nations once again considers an annual resolution calling on the United States to end the economic embargo imposed upon Cuba in 1961. The resolution symbolizes the isolation of U.S. policy among the world community.

Make no mistake about it – the Castro regime is a tyranny and is an abuser of human rights.

And the Cuban government did serve as a proxy for Soviet Union foreign policy but regardless of the pros and cons of American policy towards Cuba in the past, that policy makes no sense now. The Cold War is over. The Castro regime is no longer meddling in the affairs of other countries as it once was. (And, this observation is not to overlook U.S. meddling.) Diplomatic relations should be recognition of fact, not a statement of policy. Mr. Castro and his successors are in power for the time being. Whether Americans like that or not doesn’t change the reality. Diplomacy is nothing if it isn’t about talking to people with whom you disagree or dislike.

But normalization should go beyond exchange of diplomats. Normalization should include lifting trade and travel restrictions. The Cuban people have suffered under trade restrictions. It’s time to open up to Cuba. We don’t have to worry about propping up Castro – his rule is near its end regardless of what we do. It is in our interest economically and politically, as well as those of the Cuban people, to normalize relations with the largest nation in the Caribbean.

Mr. Bush did not start this policy; he inherited it from a long line of both Republican and Democratic administrations. However, he is now in a position to make the over-due correction. That would take boldness, courage and foresight. Somehow, I’m not optimistic.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Iraq: It’s time to start thinking about how we can mitigate the consequences of the unavoidable breakup

The failure of politics to resolve the internal conflicts in Iraq has allowed the country to fly off in three different directions dominated by Shia, Sunni and Kurd populations. In fact, that very failure is in part or wholly due to the internal splits in a country that did not exist before 1920. (Iraq is a creation of the British who, along with the French, carved up the Ottoman Empire following WWI.)

American policy out of Washington and American military might on the ground focus on denial of the polarization of ethnic and religious politics as well as the ethnic relocation (i.e., cleansing) that has been going on making the country far less integrated than it was just a few years ago.

A few weeks ago, the U.S. Senate voted 75-23 in favor of a resolution sponsored by Senators Joe Biden (D-Maryland) and Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) acknowledging the reality of these divisions and putting the Senate on record as favoring work towards a loose regional federation. Supporters went out of their way to make clear they were not talking about partition in large part because partition is almost always an acknowledgement of failure. However, the reality on the ground is not necessarily presenting the parties with good choices. Whether it is called loose federation or partition, a strict division of power is preferable to the bloodshed and instability an expanded civil war would bring in trying to hold an already weak central government in power. In fact, Iraq’s constitution already provides the seeds for the country’s devolution.

Former ambassador Peter Galbraith in today’s New York Times has these thoughts:
The Kurdish-dominated provinces in the north are recognized in the Constitution as an existing federal region, while other parts of Iraq can also opt to form their own regions. Iraq’s regions are allowed their own Parliament and president, and may establish their own army. (Kurdistan’s army, the peshmerga, is nearly as large as the national army and far more capable.) While the central government has exclusive control over the national army and foreign affairs, regional law is superior to national law on almost everything else. The central government cannot even impose a tax.

Iraq’s minimalist Constitution is a reflection of a country without a common identity. The Shiites believe their majority entitles them to rule, and a vast majority of them support religious parties that would define Iraq as a Shiite state. Iraq’s Sunni Arabs cannot accept their country being defined by a rival branch of Islam and ruled by parties they see as aligned with Iran. And the Kurdish vision of Iraq is of a country that does not include them.

The absence of a shared identity is a main reason the Bush administration has failed to construct workable national institutions in Iraq. American training can make Iraq’s Shiite-dominated security forces more effective, but it cannot make them into neutral guarantors of safety that the Sunnis can trust. The Kurds ban the national army and police from their territory.

In a reflection of Iraq’s deep divisions, the country’s Shiite prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, and the main Sunni parties denounced the Senate vote as a plot to partition Iraq, while Kurdish leaders, along with a leading Shiite party, embraced the resolution precisely because they hope it will lead to the partition.

Senator Biden, probably the best-informed member of Congress on Iraq, insists that loose federalism, not partition, is his goal. He makes an analogy to Bosnia, where the 1995 Dayton agreement has kept that country together by devolving most functions to ethnically defined entities. He has a point: Iraq’s Kurdish leaders are willing to remain part of Iraq for the time being because Kurdistan already has all attributes of a state except international recognition.

But over the long term, the former Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union are better analogies to Iraq than Bosnia. Democracy destroyed those states because, as in Iraq, there was never a shared national identity, and a substantial part of the population did not want to be part of the country.

So we should stop arguing over whether we want “partition” or “federalism” and start thinking about how we can mitigate the consequences of Iraq’s unavoidable breakup. Referendums will need to be held, as required by Iraq’s Constitution, to determine the final borders of the three regions. There has to be a deal on sharing oil money that satisfies Shiites and Kurds but also guarantees the Sunnis a revenue stream, at least until the untapped oil resources of Sunni areas are developed. And of course a formula must be found to share or divide Baghdad.

***
Those who still favor a centralized state like to insist that partition would further destabilize the country. But current events suggest otherwise. Iraq’s most stable and democratic region is Kurdistan. In Sunni-dominated Anbar Province, the Americans abandoned a military strategy that entailed working with the Shiite-dominated Iraqi Army and instead moved to set up a Sunni militia. The result has been gains against Al Qaeda and a substantial improvement in local security.

Let’s face it: partition is a better outcome than a Sunni-Shiite civil war. There is, in any event, little alternative to partition. Iraq cannot be reconstructed as a unitary state, and the sooner we face up to this reality, the better.

Monday, October 22, 2007

India’s girls – undervalued and killed

Traditional society in India sees female children as liabilities. Males carry on the family name and provide for parents in their old age whereas females can cost families expensive wedding dowries. In the past, infanticide was a common solution to dealing with unwanted female babies. With the advances of technology and the ability to determine gender prior to birth abortion has become more common despite being illegal on the basis of gender. The result has been a growing imbalance in sex ratios in the population with fewer women available for marriage to the growing number of males.

This is from the BBC:
Earlier this year in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, farmer Ram Kumar made a shocking discovery.

Sticking out of the earth was a tiny human hand.

Barely audible, were the cries of a newborn baby.

"There was a girl wrapped in a cloth and buried deep in the ground," said Ram Kumar.

"The baby should not have been alive but somehow it was."

The two-day old baby was rushed to a local hospital to recover from her ordeal. Her grandfather meanwhile confessed to the girl's attempted murder.

With seven daughters to provide for, he claimed he could not afford the burden and expense of having yet another girl in the household.

Doctors named the girl Bhoo Laxmi, the earth goddess. She is one of thousands of baby girls who every week are abandoned, aborted or killed, simply because of their gender.

Boys are still prized more than girls because they will carry on the family name and traditionally provide for parents in their old age.

"From an early age, girls are made to feel they are a burden," says Sandhya Reddy, who runs the Aarti Children's Home in the nearby town of Kadapa.

The majority of abandoned children in the home are girls.

"Parents worry about finding the money to pay the wedding dowries of daughters," she says.

Demanding dowry has been banned for 50 years in India but it is a tradition that lives on across all social classes.

So great is the burden that girls are seen to place on a family, that some believe it is better that they are never born.

In the past, infanticide was seen as one solution. Now with advances in medical technology, many parents are resorting to ultrasound scans to determine the gender of the baby.

If it is a girl, parents often pay for an abortion.

Sex selection tests and abortion on the basis of gender have been banned for 15 years in India. But the law has simply forced the trade underground.

UN figures state that 750,000 girls are aborted every year in India.

****
Sex ratios are now some of the lowest in the country, with official government figures showing that there are only 840 girls for every 1,000 boys.

Despite government efforts to end sex selection, it has meant there is now a marked shortage of brides.

Twenty-four-year-old Rameher had to travel nearly 3,000 kilometres (1,800 miles) to find his wife.

He could not get married in Haryana due to a shortage of women and his parents were obliged to make contact with families in poorer states like Jharkhand.

"I was afraid that God hadn't destined a wife for me and that I would be a bachelor all my life," says Rameher.

"Rameher is lucky," says his father Kehar Singh. "There are many men who cannot get brides even in this way because they have no money. They will die unmarried."
You can read the entire BBC piece here.

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Quail beware: stay out of my bedroom.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Two gay men sentenced to 7000 lashes in Saudi Arabia

A demonstration is scheduled today in London to protest the treatment of sexual minorities in Saudi Arabia. According to Peter Tatchell, one of speakers to be featured at the London rally, "The British and US governments support the despotic, corrupt Saudi regime. As well as flogging and executing gay people, the Saudi leaders are guilty of detention without trial, torture and the public beheading women who have sex outside of marriage. Migrant workers are de facto slaves. The media is heavily censored. Trade unions, political parties and non-Muslim religions are banned. The country is a theocratic police state," he said.

A focus of the protest is the sentence of 7000 lashes each to two gay men recently arrested in Saudi Arabia.

This report is from the Gay City News about the incident:
Two men in Saudi Arabia were sentenced to 7,000 lashes for sodomy two weeks ago, and their punishment has been carried out.

The case of the two men was first reported in the Western press on October 5 by Agence France-Presse, which based its dispatch on a report in the Saudi daily newspaper Al Okaz.

An independent translation of the Al Okaz report made by Hossein Alizadeh of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), and supplied to Gay City News, quoted the newspaper as saying, "The Corrections Office of the Bahha region carried out a court order to lash two young men on Thursday, October 2. Each of them received 7,000 lashes in multiple stages... A large group of police patrols were present at the scene of the punishment in Justice Square, which was also the site of the lashing of another Saudi citizen who received 470 lashes for drug dealing and resisting arrest. After the lashes were administered, the convicts were taken to jail to serve the rest of their jail time."

Alizadeh told Gay City News, "The Arabic text implies that the two men were accused of having sex with each other," a more specific characterization than AFP's, which said only that the two were accused of sodomy.

Alizadeh said that Al Okaz was the only Saudi newspaper to publish this story, adding, "The reason Saudi sources are tight-lipped about the incident is the religious belief that talking about immoral behavior - fahsha - is a tacit approval of it and a form of promoting immorality, so in most cases involving sexual offenses Saudis are reluctant to publish details of such stories."

***
Dr. Allen Keller, an M..D. who is director of the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture and associate professor at the NYU School of Medicine, when asked about the sentence of 7,000 lashes, said, "This barbaric punishment is clearly life-threatening."

Keller said that 7,000 lashes "could obliterate the skin, causing secondary infections - and depending where on the body the lashes fell, could well cause a breakdown of the muscles called rahbdomyalisis, resulting in renal failure."

Keller went on to say that such a massive number of lashes could also result in intercranial bleeding, broken bones, and permanent severe pain and difficulty in walking.

Moreover, he added, "The massive scarring from such a lashing would serve as a persistent reminder of what had been experienced, causing a permanent trauma."

A psychiatrist colleague of Keller's at the Bellevue/NYU Torture Survivors Program, Dr. Hawthorne Smith - the program's clinical co-director - told Gay City News that a punishment of 7,000 lashes was "designed to obliterate the humanity of the person."

"Such a punishment would cause its victim to call into question the utility of living," Smith said, adding that 7,000 lashes "would break down the mind-body-spirit continuum. It's like 'Apocalypse Now' - 'The horror, the horror.'

"Homosexuality is illegal in Saudi Arabia under Sharia law - which is the country's only legal code - and may be punished by death, usually by beheading.

Massive lashings are a not infrequent punishment for those accused of crimes related to homosexuality, or what the Saudi press, eschewing detail, often refers to as "shameful situations."

For example, after 110 men were arrested in a March, 2005 raid in Jeddah on what was described in Saudi publications as a "gay wedding," four of those arrested - two Saudis, one Yemeni, and a Jordanian - were each sentenced to 2,000 lashes and two years in jail.

A friend of one of those arrested in Jeddah denied that there was any "gay wedding" to Human Rights Watch, saying the gathering was a birthday party. Amnesty International said it believed the arrested men could well be prisoners of conscience, punished solely for their sexual orientation.

A month after the Jeddah arrests, the UK daily The Guardian reported, "Dozens of Saudi men caught dancing and 'behaving like women' at a party have been sentenced to a total of 14,200 lashes, after a trial held behind closed doors and without defense lawyers."

Saudi publications described the gathering as a "party of deviants," a pejorative euphemism for homosexuals.

An article about Saudi Arabia in the May 2007 issue of The Atlantic Monthly magazine by Nadya Labi, entitled "The Kingdom in the Closet," described widespread acts of homosexuality in the country and something of an underground homo culture. Labi ascribed same-sex conduct in large measure to the absence of opportunities for heterosexual sex due to the rigid segregation between men and women, in which dating or appearing in public together is forbidden.

Sexual segregation and the prohibitions against any form of homosexuality are enforced by the muttawwa'in, religious authorities employed by the government's Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.

Saudi Arabia is notorious for its adherence to Wahhabism, a puritanical strain of Islam.

The Atlantic article quoted one Saudi lesbian named Yasmin talking about life in that nation.

"'It's easier to be a lesbian than a heterosexual. There's an overwhelming number of people who turn to lesbianism,' Yasmin said, adding that the number of men in the kingdom who turn to gay sex is even greater. 'They're not really homosexual,' she said. 'They're like cell mates in prison.'"

Saudi same-sexers are sharply delineated by a "top-bottom" dichotomy, in which tops do not consider themselves homosexual.
In August 2006, the Saudi newspaper Al Watan reported that some 400 men were attending an underground event it characterized as a gay wedding in the town of Jizzan when it was raided, and 250 of them arrested. According to the newspaper, only 20 of the men arrested were eventually charged - but the outcome of their trial remains unknown.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Giving birth can be fatal for women in many countries of the world

Pregnancy is not a disease yet it can be a killer for too many women – particularly in third world countries lacking access to basic health care, effective contraception, and safe abortion. According to a report on the BBC, the number of women dying in childbirth varies dramatically worldwide from one in eight in Afghanistan and Sierra Leone to one in 47,000 in Ireland

The impact of these tragedies effect families and communities. If a mother is ill or dies, the baby is less likely to survive and her other children less likely to be healthy and educated

It is a problem that requires investment of resources by those willing to share their wealth with the most impoverished. As Nicholas Kristof puts it, “The world needs a war on maternal mortality, and the U.S. could lead that effort. Yet maternal care rarely gets the priority or attention it deserves. Partly that's because the victims tend to be faceless, illiterate village women who carry little weight in their own families, let alone on the national or world agenda”

This from the BBC:
Around half a million women die annually before, during or shortly after giving birth - and almost all of these deaths occur in developing countries.

Campaigners argue that these deaths are both preventable and have repercussions that echo far beyond the woman's immediate family and community.

"We know exactly what needs to be done to save women's lives," the chief of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Thoraya Obaid told the BBC News website.

And yet, since 1990, the level of maternal mortality has decreased by less than 1% per year, far from enough to reach an internationally agreed goal of a 75% reduction by 2015.

The leading killers during pregnancy or childbirth include massive blood loss, high blood pressure, an unsafe abortion, an untreated infection and obstructed labour - where the woman's body is too small for the baby to pass through the birth canal.

But the reasons why these issues have not been tackled are political, rather than medical.

"The first and most important reason is a social issue: the low status of women. Leaders do not see the lives and health of women as a political priority, they invest in other sectors," Mrs Obaid said.

Women most at risk are often the most marginalised and vulnerable, living in countries with undeveloped health systems or in conflict situations, she added.

Half of all maternal deaths - some 270,000 in 2005 - occur in sub-Saharan Africa, where one in two women lacks access to a trained midwife.

"The three basic interventions are: family planning to begin with, a qualified birth attendant present at the birth and access to obstetric care if there are complications during birth," she said.

****
Another obstacle to reducing levels of maternal mortality has, arguably, been the increasing influence of ideology and faith on health policy, particularly in the US.

Since 2002, the US has withheld funding from the UNFPA, accusing it of actively promoting abortion or sterilisation.

"The words 'sexual' and 'reproductive' are seen by one of our major donors - the US - as being a euphemism for backing abortion," Mrs Obaid said.

****
… according to a recent report by Population Action International, 18 of the 26 countries with the highest risk of maternal mortality also have highly restrictive abortion laws.

"Women's lives are saved when abortion is legal," Ms Coen said.

"And saving women's lives strengthens the family, makes societies healthier, economies grow faster and countries stronger. It's a win-win story."

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Crying Sun: The Impact of War in the Mountains of Chechnya

Chechnya is located in the southwestern section of Russia. Chechens have rebelled against Russian rule from time to time since the 16th century. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, there have been two Chechen wars that have resulted in the deaths of between 35,000 and 100,000 people plus the displacement of hundreds of thousands fleeing fighting. “Mop-up” operations continue to seek out rebels resulting in extrajudicial executions, torture and “enforced disappearances.” The displacement of the population continues in this ongoing conflict.

President Bush appoints anti-contraceptive activist to head family planning program

President Bush has appointed Susan Orr as the chief of family planning programs at the Department of Health and Human Services. In a 2000 Weekly Standard article Ms. Orr was critical of requiring health insurance plans to cover contraceptives. She wrote, “It’s not about choice. It’s not about health care. It’s about making everyone collaborators with the culture of death.”

According to the Washington Post:

Susan Orr, most recently an associate commissioner in the Administration for Children and Families, was appointed Monday to be acting deputy assistant secretary for population affairs. She will oversee $283 million in annual grants to provide low-income families and others with contraceptive services, counseling and preventive screenings.

In a 2001 article in The Washington Post, Orr applauded a Bush proposal to stop requiring all health insurance plans for federal employees to cover a broad range of birth control. "We're quite pleased, because fertility is not a disease," said Orr, then an official with the Family Research Council.

Critics panned the appointment last year of Eric Keroack, a physician who worked at a Christian pregnancy-counseling organization that opposed the use of birth control. He resigned in March.

"We have another appointment that just truly politicizes family planning," said Mary Jane Gallagher, president of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association. "The last time I looked, both Republicans and Democrats used contraception in America."

HHS spokesman Kevin Schweers said Orr's "breadth of programmatic and managerial experience makes her highly qualified to serve as acting director."

As Steve Benen points out this comes less than a week after the World Health Organization released one of the most comprehensive studies to date on reproductive health that concluded the only effective way to reduce unwanted pregnancies and abortions is to make contraception widely available.

“Blood” rubies fund the Burmese generals

The international trade in rubies is helping bankroll the military regime in Burma. According to the London Times, gemstones are Burma's third-biggest export after timber and natural gas. The Burmese junta forces workers to extract the precious stones under brutal conditions in its heavily guarded mines.

According to Der Spiegel:
Roughly 90 percent of the global supply of rubies comes from Burma. According to eyewitness accounts, mining bosses mix amphetamines into the workers' drinking water to boost productivity. Sometimes children also work in the muddy mines. "Alongside teak, gas and oil, gems are the fourth financial mainstay of the junta," says Ulrich Delius from the German-based Society for Threatened Peoples.

There are no exact figures for the junta's gem trade. Estimates of the amount of income generated by the business range as high as hundreds of millions of dollars per year. At the state-organized gem auction in Yangon, where only middling quality stones come under the hammer, the regime has taken in some $300 million so far in 2007.

Chinese, Thais and Indians are the main customers of the Burmese generals. These big buyers also control the trade with Europe and the US. They don't ask awkward questions.
According to Brian Leber, an American jeweller who campaigns against the trade in Burmese gems, "The military regime is receiving a great deal of benefit from the sale of rubies because not only do they control the licensing of all mining operations, but they also have a majority share in every mine in the country and run the auctions."

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A Duty To Protect: Justice for Child Soldiers in the D.R.C.

Over 20,000 children have been recruited to fight in the ongoing conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The film is from www.witness.org.

After five year, Iraq is in shambles

It has been five years this month since Congress authorized the Bush administration to use force in Iraq. The war was ill planned, undermanned and under-funded from the beginning. The incompetence of the American leaders and staff of the Coalition Provisional Authority squandered the initial victory over the Baathist regime. The White House, in denial of the deteriorating situation in Iraq, kept reassuring the American public success was around the corner. The “surge” of course, was an attempt to put the toothpaste back in the tube after the situation had become so bad that even President Bush could not deny the reality.

Twelve former Army captains who have all served tours of duty in Iraq report in the Washington Post on what the country looks like up close today:
What does Iraq look like on the ground? It's certainly far from being a modern, self-sustaining country. Many roads, bridges, schools and hospitals are in deplorable condition. Fewer people have access to drinking water or sewage systems than before the war. And Baghdad is averaging less than eight hours of electricity a day.

Iraq's institutional infrastructure, too, is sorely wanting. Even if the Iraqis wanted to work together and accept the national identity foisted upon them in 1920s, the ministries do not have enough trained administrators or technicians to coordinate themselves. At the local level, most communities are still controlled by the same autocratic sheiks that ruled under Saddam. There is no reliable postal system. No effective banking system. No registration system to monitor the population and its needs.

The inability to govern is exacerbated at all levels by widespread corruption. Transparency International ranks Iraq as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. And, indeed, many of us witnessed the exploitation of U.S. tax dollars by Iraqi officials and military officers. Sabotage and graft have had a particularly deleterious impact on Iraq's oil industry, which still fails to produce the revenue that Pentagon war planners hoped would pay for Iraq's reconstruction. Yet holding people accountable has proved difficult. The first commissioner of a panel charged with preventing and investigating corruption resigned last month, citing pressure from the government and threats on his life.

Against this backdrop, the U.S. military has been trying in vain to hold the country together. Even with "the surge," we simply do not have enough soldiers and marines to meet the professed goals of clearing areas from insurgent control, holding them securely and building sustainable institutions. Though temporary reinforcing operations in places like Fallujah, An Najaf, Tal Afar, and now Baghdad may brief well on PowerPoint presentations, in practice they just push insurgents to another spot on the map and often strengthen the insurgents' cause by harassing locals to a point of swayed allegiances. Millions of Iraqis correctly recognize these actions for what they are and vote with their feet -- moving within Iraq or leaving the country entirely…
You can read the entire article here.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Sen. Craig meets the Village People

Americans need to be honest with themselves before breaking out of the current mood of pessimism

Gary Younge on the growing pessimism of the American public:
America's self-image as the home of unrelenting progress - a nation of historic purpose and unrivalled opportunity where tomorrow will always be better than today - is the linchpin of its political and popular culture. Optimism, it seems, is a truly renewable national resource. It was used to build Bill Clinton's "bridge to the 21st century" in 1992, and powered the alarm clocks for Reagan's "new morning in America".

"The American, by nature, is optimistic," said John F Kennedy. "He is experimental, an inventor and a builder who builds best when called upon to build greatly." This optimism is the source for much of what makes the US simultaneously so revered and reviled, dynamic and deluded, around the world.

On one hand it articulates a hope, bordering on certainty, that a better world is not just feasible but already in the making. Released from the hogties of tradition and formality, such confidence is driven by possibility rather than the past. Winston Churchill once said he "preferred the past to the present and the present to the future". An American politician who wanted to get elected would say precisely the opposite. This optimism underpins the notions of class fluidity and personal reinvention at the core of the American dream. Where others might ask "Why?", it asks "Why not?". Such is the root of so much that is great about America's economy, culture and politics.

On the other hand this optimism has within it the notion that the US is the exclusive repository of these hopes and the sole means by which a better world can be made. Unfettered by history, consensus or empirical evidence, it is driven by myth rather than material circumstances. Even as class rigidity entrenches and personal reinvention slips, the dream remains. Like Stephen Colbert's spoof of George Bush, it has the capacity to "believe the same thing Wednesday that [it] believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday". It posits America as the world's future whether the world wants it or not. Such is the root of so much that is terrible about America's economy, politics and foreign policy.

This sense of optimism has been in retreat in almost every sense over the past few years. According to Rasmussen polls, just 21% of Americans believe the country is on the right track, a figure that has fallen by more than a half since the presidential election of 2004. Meanwhile only a third think the country's best days are yet to come, as opposed to 43% who believe they have come and gone - again a steep decline on three years ago. These are not one-offs. In the past 18 months almost every poll that has asked Americans about their country's direction has produced among the most pessimistic responses on record - a more extended period than anyone can remember since Watergate.

America, in short, is in a deep funk. Far from feeling hopeful, it appears fearful of the outside world and despondent about its own future. Not only do most believe tomorrow will be worse than today, they also feel that there is little that can be done about it.

****
…the American public have lost faith. The rot starts at the top. Almost as soon as they elected Bush in 2004 they seemed to regret it. Since Katrina, his favourability ratings have been stuck in the 30s and show no signs of moving - or at least not upwards. Bush's only comfort is that public approval of the Democratically controlled Congress is even worse, hovering just below where it was shortly before the 2006 elections. In other words, however Americans believe their country will return to the right track, they no longer trust politicians to get them there.

Little suggests that anything will change any time soon. After four years of being told they were winning a war they have been losing and are better off when they are not, Americans are more wary of political happy talk than they have been for a long time. But that doesn't mean they want to hear sad talk instead, even if it happens to be true. For the central problem is not that they were lied to - though that of course is a problem - but that they have constantly found some of these lies more palatable than the truth. Bush may have exploited the more problematic aspects of this optimism. But he did not create them. Enough of the American public had to be prepared to meet him halfway to make his agenda possible.

Herein lies the challenge for the presidential candidates in the coming year - how to respond to this pessimistic mood without reflecting or discussing its root causes: to lay out a plausible explanation of how Americans can get their groove back, without examining how they got in this rut in the first place.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Friday, October 12, 2007

Bound by Promises: Contemporary Slavery in Rural Brazil

This is a video about contemporary slavery practiced in rural Brazil.

Border deaths break record

The Sonoran Desert of the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona has been particularly deadly for immigrants. According to Coalicion de Derechos Humanos at least 237 men and women have died there in the past twelve months surpassing last year’s record of 205 deaths.

This is from Marc Cooper at the Huffington Post:
The number of bodies recovered on the Arizona-Mexico border over the past year has hit a new high, according to reports released Thursday by human rights activists and county coroners.

Over the past fiscal year ending October 1, at least 237 people died trying to cross into Arizona. While most were from Mexico and Central America, almost 40% of the victims remain unidentified.

This year's toll is up from the 205 statewide fatalities registered during the previous 12 month period. The data was released by the Tucson-based Coalicion de Derechos Humanos and is based on the death counts compiled by coroners in the counties bordering Mexico.

The majority of this year's deaths, 206, were recorded in Pima County -- directly south of Tucson in the south-central part of the state. The Bush administration, in escalating its border clamp down, has claimed that overall deaths along the border have dipped.

But the figures released today suggest that the human traffic across the southern border has not been stemmed so much as it has been re-directed and re-channeled through some of the more perilous and uninhabited stretches of the Sonoran desert. This year's death toll for Pima County is the highest on record.

"It has been estimated that the lives of more than 5,000 men, women and children have been lost on the U.S.- Mexico border since the mid-1990s," says a statement released today by the Coalicion which keeps a running count of the fatalities. The recovered body count for Arizona has surpassed 200 since the fiscal year 2002-2003, yet the loss of life has been shockingly described by Border Patrol officials as 'collateral damage,'" said the statement.

It was the Clinton administration which began a concerted effort to shut down traditional crossing routes early in its tenure. In the mid 1990's approximately fifty people a year died along the entire U.S.-Mexican border, Over the last decade, that figure has climbed ten-fold. The 237 deaths this past year in Arizona represent about a half of the total number who have died along the entire California to Texas run of the border.
This is happening at a time when the Bush administration is trying to find ways for U.S. farmers to bring in more foreign workers to harvest crops that may end up rotting in the fields as a result of the labor shortage triggered by the government’s crackdown on immigrants. As too few Americans seem to appreciate, the very immigrants crossing the southern border they are so fearful about are the very people making American lifestyles possible.

Attempts at closing the border forces immigrants from the south to attempt ever more dangerous entry into the United States over unfriendly terrain and it forces those who are here to never leave out of fear they will never be able to return. Migration is a natural phenomenon that is part of the human experience. A common sense immigration policy requires regulation but needs to make it easy enough for people to come here to work and return home without fear not being able to return. When policy makers make it hard to comply with the law we end up with the unsatisfactory situation we have today.

We should never forget we are a nation of immigrants.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Death of Burmese pro-democracy activist during detainment does not bode well for those still in custody

Win Shwe, a Burmese pro-democracy activist arrested on September 26th by the Burmese military rulers, died during questioning (or as President Bush would call it, “enhanced interrogation”) according to the Thailand based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).

This from the BBC:
Win Shwe was arrested on 26 September near Mandalay, as the government began its bloody crackdown on the protesters.

The National League for Democracy (NLD) member died during questioning, the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) said.

His death raises fresh concerns for the hundreds of people still in custody.

The 42-year-old activist died "as a result of torture during interrogation", the AAPP said. "His body was not sent to his family and the interrogators indicated that they had cremated it instead."

Sources close to Win Shwe confirmed to the BBC that officials had come to tell his family of his death and had not returned his body. He had a heart condition, they said.

The White House has demanded an investigation into his death.

"The United States strongly condemns the atrocities committed by the junta and calls for a full investigation into the death of Win Shwe during his detention in Burma," spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.

Thousands of people were arrested last month when the military used force to end days of anti-government protests in the main city, Rangoon, and other towns and cities around the country.

Ten people died and about 1,000 are still being held, the government says, but foreign diplomats and analysts fear both figures could be far higher.

The BBC's South East Asia correspondent, Jonathan Head, says the military operates a network of about 80 prisons and interrogation centres and some 60 labour camps.

Conditions in them are known to be atrocious, with torture routinely used on the prisoners, our correspondent says.

The government has faced strong international condemnation for its actions and has in recent days taken what could be conciliatory steps.

It has appointed a liaison officer to hold talks with the NLD's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest.

Burma's top General Than Shwe has also offered talks - but only if she agrees to drop what he called her "confrontational attitude".

Correspondents say many Burmese are sceptical of the regime's sincerity, and believe the offer of talks is just a delaying tactic until international pressure fades away.

At the United Nations, Security Council members the US, UK and France are pushing to agree a statement condemning the military crackdown and calling for prisoners to be released.

But the language of the statement has had to be watered down after objections from China, which is Burma's main trading partner.

Both China and Russia argue that the violence in Burma is an internal issue that does not threaten regional peace.
This comes at a time when Burma's regime is targeting the last remaining communications links to the outside world according to a story in the Guardian. Burmese bloggers and online journals brought images of the bloody crackdown on the recent pro-democracy protests to the international community.

It is time for a new U.S. Constitution

Professor Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, proposes the United States rewrite its constitution to make it a fairer and more responsive document to the needs of 21st Century Americans. In today’s L.A. Times he writes:
The Constitution remains brilliant in its overall design and sound with respect to the Bill of Rights and the separation of powers. But there are numerous archaic provisions that inhibit constructive change and adaptation. These constitutional bits affect the daily life of the republic and every citizen in it. A few examples:

* Restoring the war powers balance. The framers split authority concerning matters of war-making between the president (commander in chief) and Congress (declaring war). Does anyone seriously believe that they would have approved of the executive department waging years-long wars without the explicit approval of the legislature? Yet the advantages accruing to any president -- the unitary nature of the office, the swift action that only he can take in a hair-trigger world, his dominance of the televised public forum -- have created an emperor as much as a president. The constitutional balance of shared war-making must be restored.

The president should have the freedom to commit troops for up to six months, under procedures similar to that of the War Powers Resolution of 1973. But a new constitutional amendment should require that after six months -- and every six months thereafter -- both houses of Congress, by affirmative vote and without filibusters, would have to approve any extension. If one house votes no on extending, all combat troops must be withdrawn within a year.

This is an institutional reform, not a partisan attack on George W. Bush. Harry Truman on Korea and Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon on Vietnam were every bit as stubborn as Bush has been on Iraq. It is in the nature of the single-minded, victory-insistent presidential beast.

* Creating a more representative Senate. Stunningly, just 17% of the current American population elects a majority of the U.S. Senate. This is because even though California has about 70 times the population of Wyoming, both states get two U.S. senators. The larger states may have 83% of the nation's people, but they get nothing without the approval of the lightly populated states. In the beginning of the republic, the population differential between the large and small states -- and thus the unfairness -- was far less.…

* Transforming presidential elections. Americans don't have to be convinced that our presidential election system is broken. The nation needs a sensible system of rotating regional primaries so that it would no longer be subject to the selfish whims of a few states.

The electoral college also must be overhauled, with more populated states receiving additional electors so that a candidate who loses the popular vote can no longer become president. …

* Ending second-class citizenship. We promote the cultural myth that any mother's son or daughter can grow up to be president, but it isn't even literally true.

The founders were concerned about foreign intrigue in the early days of an unsettled republic, so they limited the presidency to those who were "natural born" citizens. But the melting pot that is now the United States includes an astonishing 14.4 million Americans who were not born on U.S. soil and are therefore ineligible for the presidency -- a number sure to grow substantially. Among them are 30,000 members of the U.S. armed forces who risk life and limb to defend those enjoying first-class citizenship.
Our Constitution is indeed problematic. It is undemocratic and deserves rewriting. Our elections are skewed towards voters in tiny states and away from the majority of voters across the country. Justices for the U.S. Supreme Court are appointed for life. Our government is one of the few Western democracies with an office of Vice President – an essentially do-nothing job for someone not independently elected. The will of the majority of the Senate can be blocked by a minority using arcane rules. The redrawing of Congressional districts virtually guarantees that representatives get to pick their voters rather than voters pick their representatives. The Constitution doesn’t even explicitly protect the right to vote. Our national governance may appear democratic on the surface but below the veneer is a Byzantine system that works against the popular will.

Despite all the talk of the balance of power between the three braches of government, the reality is the executive is head and shoulders above the other two branches in power and that power is growing. Wartime hysteria is used to expand and justify the abuse of powers by the executive branch. Unlike a parliamentary system where the executive is joined to the legislative branch and a vote of no confidence can bring down the government and force an election, the President can carry on policy more or less independent of the wishes of the legislative branch and cannot be removed from office other than the extraordinary act of impeachment. Currently, the President enjoys the support of only a third of the country yet essentially has tenure.

Everyone gets just one vote but we all know wealth can cancel out a lot of single votes. There is a point that disillusionment sinks in and participation drops off. If the system becomes so muddled and unresponsive to the public then is it still a democracy? There seems to be a sense in the country that choices in the market place are a substitute for political power but are Americans willing to fight and die because they have defined democracy down to a system that offers them a choice between shopping at Walmart versus Target? Let’s face it – most people don’t bother to vote because their vote makes little difference. The whole system is in need of repair.

What many of us really admire in our U.S. Constitution is the Bill of Rights. However, it is telling that they were amendments – i.e. afterthoughts. The bulk of the document contains many structural flaws that hamper us today. It is time for a new U.S. Constitution.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Homophobia and the elderly

The New York Times reports on the problems faced by the elderly gay and lesbian population:
Homophobia directed at the elderly has many faces.

Home health aides must be reminded not to wear gloves at inappropriate times, for example while opening the front door or making the bed, when there is no evidence of H.I.V. infection, said Joe Collura, a nurse at the largest home care agency in Greenwich Village.

A lesbian checking into a double room at a Chicago rehabilitation center was greeted by a roommate yelling, “Get the man out of here!” The lesbian patient, Renae Ogletree, summoned a friend to take her elsewhere.

Sometimes tragedy results. In one nursing home, an openly gay man, without family or friends, was recently moved off his floor to quiet the protests of other residents and their families. He was given a room among patients with severe disabilities or dementia. The home called upon Amber Hollibaugh, now a senior strategist at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the author of the first training curriculum for nursing homes. Ms. Hollibaugh assured the 79-year-old man that a more humane solution would be found, but he hanged himself, Ms. Hollibaugh said…

*****
The most common reaction, in a generation accustomed to being in the closet, is a retreat back to the invisibility that was necessary for most of their lives, when homosexuality was considered both a crime and a mental illness. A partner is identified as a brother. No pictures or gay-themed books are left around.

Elderly heterosexuals also suffer the indignities of old age, but not to the same extent, Dr. Lantz said. “There is something special about having to hide this part of your identity at a time when your entire identity is threatened,” she said. “That’s a faster pathway to depression, failure to thrive and even premature death.”

*****
California is the only state with a law saying the gay elderly have special needs, like other members of minority groups. A new law encourages training for employees and contractors who work with the elderly and permits state financing of projects like gay senior centers.

Federal law provides no antidiscrimination protections to gay people. Twenty states explicitly outlaw such discrimination in housing and public accommodations. But no civil rights claims have been made by gay residents of nursing homes, according to the Lambda Legal Defense Fund, which litigates and monitors such cases. Potential plaintiffs, the organization says, are too frail or frightened to bring action.
As newer (and more tolerant) generations age and our society becomes more accepting of all its members, hopefully this problem with disappear. However, until that day comes those responsible for the care of the elderly need to be attuned to this issue. No one should suffer the indignities of prejudice at any point in their lives but especially when they are experiencing the vulnerabilities that come in the autumn of life.

You can read the entire article here.

"Hello NSA"

Do you feel like no one is listening. Don't worry -- someone is listening at the highest levels of our government.

"Hello NSA" by Roy Zimmerman.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Nicaragua’s abortion ban results in deaths of women

With the backing of the Sandinista movement, the Nicaragua government criminalized abortion last November. The ban on abortion is without exception, even if a woman’s life is in mortal danger.

According to Human Rights Watch, “Nicaragua’s blanket ban on abortion, which criminalizes life-saving medical treatment, has had a devastating impact on women’s health and lives.” To date, at least 82 women have died as a result of pregnancy complications since the ban.

This from today’s Guardian:
For the Nicaraguan rich, a problematic pregnancy need not be a death sentence. You can fly to Miami or bribe a discreet private clinic in Managua. But in this wretchedly poor country most young women do not have money. Their choice is to go through with a pregnancy that may kill them, or attempt a DIY termination that may kill them.

As a result of the blanket ban enacted last November at least 82 women have died, according to advocacy groups. "This new law intentionally denies women access to health services essential to saving their lives, and is thus inconsistent with Nicaragua's obligations under international human rights law," says Human Rights Watch.

Nicaragua is famous for its misfortunes: the Somoza dictatorship, the civil war, the impoverishment, the natural disasters. Pro-choice groups say article 143 of the new penal code should be added to that list since it bucks the international trend towards greater abortion access and drags women back to the dark ages.

The anti-abortion camp, in contrast, is euphoric. The new law, it says, is a beacon in the fight to protect the unborn. It is time to celebrate. "Now it is all penalised. And Catholics agree that is should be this way," says Roberto González, 50, a Franciscan priest in Managua. "The population sees the church as behind the law - behind the pressure that succeeded in getting the government to change the law."

Abortion has long been illegal in Nicaragua but there had been exceptions for "therapeutic" reasons if three doctors agreed there was a risk to the woman's life. Those exceptions were no longer necessary, said the Nicaraguan Pro-Life Association, because medical advances obviated the need to terminate pregnancies. "The conditions that justified therapeutic abortion now have medical solutions," says a spokesman. Pope Benedict XVI welcomed the ban but added that women should not suffer or die as a result. "In this regard, it is essential to increase the assistance of the state and of society itself to women who have serious problems during pregnancy."

*****
No one knows how many other women have died, or are going to die, as a result of the law. The Pope seemed to acknowledge an increased risk to women's health but Nicaragua's government has made no formal study of the law's impact. Women's rights organisations say their 82 documented deaths are the tip of the iceberg. The Pan-American Health Organisation estimates one woman per day suffers from an ectopic pregnancy, and that every two days a woman suffers a miscarriage from a molar pregnancy. That adds up to hundreds of obstetric emergencies per year.

Human Rights Watch, in a recent report titled Over Their Dead Bodies, cited one woman who urgently needed medical help, but was left untreated at a public hospital for two days because the foetus was still alive and so a therapeutic abortion would be illegal. Eventually she expelled the foetus on her own. "By then she was already in septic shock and died five days later," said the doctor.

*****
It is a grim irony that this is happening under a Sandinista government - a movement whose ranks once included advocates for feminism and abortion rights. That was in the 1980s, when the Sandinistas were secular marxists, wore combat fatigues and fought a bloody civil war against US-backed Contra rebels. Things changed. The war ended and the Sandinista leader, Daniel Ortega, lost the presidency in a 1990 election. Church and state were supposedly separate but clerics wielded political clout, none more so than Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo. His hostility sank Ortega's attempted comebacks in 1996 and 2001 elections.

In the run-up to last November's election, the cardinal spearheaded a campaign for a blanket abortion ban. Ortega, desperate to regain power, mobilised the Sandinistas behind the cardinal's campaign and helped get the ban enacted just days before the poll. The former revolutionary, now reinvented as a devout Catholic, was rewarded with the presidency.
Twenty-six percent of the world’s population lives in 69 countries that outlaw abortion. Of those, all but three countries make exceptions when a woman’s health is in jeopardy. Of those three, Nicaragua outlaws abortion regardless of a woman’s ability to care for children, her age, her health, or even if she has been raped.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Petition for the Nobel Peace Prize to be awarded to the Burmese monks

Here is a petition to the Nobel Committee to award the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize to the Burmese monks resisting the military dictatorship in their country. Please consider signing it and publicizing. Here is the text of the petition:

To the Esteemed Norwegian Nobel Committee:

As the Norwegian Nobel Committee decides on the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize this coming week, we urge you to consider a decidedly late and unorthodox proposal: award the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize Burmese Buddhist monastic order (sangha). As I am sure you are aware, a decidedly lopsided war has broken out on the streets of Rangoon, but only one side, the military, is armed with guns, tear gas, and tanks. The other army consists of monks from the sangha, who have attempted to use their spiritual authority to protect civilian demonstrators and bear the brunt of the military government’s harsh crackdown. For this supreme act of peaceful courage, we would like to suggest that you award the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize to the Burmese sangha, the spiritual force behind Burma’s democracy movement.

The statutes establishing the Nobel Peace Prize entrust the Norwegian Nobel Committee to award it to “the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” However, since World War II, most of the world’s bloodshed has transpired as a result of fighting not between governments but between governments and their citizens. The current peacemakers are not merely diplomats who draw treaties at negotiating tables but also religious leaders, activists, and ordinary citizens who use their authority and influence to promote peaceful change in their countries. The Nobel Peace Prize has been crucial in elevating the moral authority of peacemakers struggling against apartheid in South Africa, segregation in America, Communism in Eastern Europe, and military rule in East Timor. It could now protect those monks risking their lives to protest Burma’s cruel military regime.

Over the past week, the world watched in humility and awe as hundreds of thousands of unarmed Buddhist monks and civilians marched peacefully throughout the country. However, as we have seen, rather than respond in a civilized manner, the military and its thugs have killed dozens of monks and arrested thousands. Descriptions of Burmese soldiers ransacking monasteries recall fifth century barbarian hordes pillaging villages, rather than the actions of a disciplined twenty-first century defense force. Rather than submit, the monks have used other tools in the arsenal of peace. Monks who have been arrested are now on hunger strikes, while those who are locked in their monasteries chant the metta sutta to ward off evil and spread love.

As tragic as these events are, these monks have not suffered in vain. They have successfully used their prominence in Burmese society to draw the world’s attention to Burma as never before. Concerned citizens from America to Indonesia to Costa Rica to Germany have added their voices to those of the Burmese people by protesting in front of Burmese and Chinese embassies. Perhaps more important, the bravery of the monks propelled Burma onto the international agenda. While we may not see immediate political change in Burma, the monks’ sacrifice has caused a spiritual change and altered the dynamics of international discussion of Burma at the highest level. While we do not seek to pressure the Committee into giving the prize to the monks, we do hope our letter has raised a unique opportunity for the Committee to recognize what is fast become the symbol of conscience of our times. We realize that taking such a step would be a dramatic departure from the strict nominating procedure. However, we feel that if the Burmese monks could risk their lives to break the junta’s draconian laws and prove the power of peace, then the Norwegian Nobel Committee could certainly make an exception to the Nobel statutes for such an extraordinary group of peacemakers. Indeed, the Burmese sangha would comfortably fit in with the most celebrated prior prize recipients, including Elie Wiesel, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Dali Lama, Martin Luther King, and, of course, Aung San Suu Kyi.

We look forward to your announcement on October 12,
2007.

You may sign it here.