Sri Lanka steps up repression ahead of UN meeting: Amnesty International

Updated 11 March 2014
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Sri Lanka steps up repression ahead of UN meeting: Amnesty International

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka has instilled a "climate of fear" as it intensifies its repression of critics in the build-up to Colombo's expected censure by the UN's Human Rights Council, Amnesty International said.
In a new report, the London-based advocacy group documented the cases of several human rights defenders who had been targeted for harassment and surveillance by the Sri Lankan regime, including death threats.
"The pattern of harassment, surveillance and attacks against those opposing the Sri Lankan authorities is deeply disturbing and shows no sign of letting up," said Polly Truscott, Amnesty deputy director for the Asia-Pacific region.
"Repression usually intensifies whenever Sri Lanka's human rights situation is in focus internationally, something we are already seeing ahead of the UN Human Rights Council next month."
In its 16-page report, Amnesty detailed the intimidation against the prominent rights activist Nimalka Fernando, including a state radio broadcast that called for her "elimination".
It added that Colombo had deported several foreign visitors for allegedly participating in human rights-related meetings.
The US has said it will move a third censure motion in as many years against Sri Lanka at next month's UNHRC meeting.
The UN rights chief Navi Pillay has already asked member states to order an international investigation into allegations that Sri Lankan forces killed up to 40,000 civilians in the final stages of their battle with Tamil separatist rebels in May 2009.
Sri Lanka has denounced Pillay for her "unwarranted interference" and denied its troops were responsible for any civilian deaths during the bloody finale to an ethnic war that lasted 37 years.
Amnesty said it continued to receive credible reports of activists facing surveillance and harassment.
"The climate of fear is very real in Sri Lanka. Many people are too afraid to speak out. But Sri Lanka also has some very brave activists, who continue to be vocal despite facing retaliation," Truscott said.
"Some even dare to attend international meetings that could actually lead to an improved human rights situation. The UN should make every effort to ensure that they are protected."

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UNHRC seat: Reforming and learning from within

UNHRC seat: Reforming and learning from within

Giving Saudi Arabia a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) was a stroke of genius by the world body to allow Saudis to participate in helping shape the future on how governments treat their citizens.
Saudis are well aware of the undue criticism our country endured last month over human rights. But the criticism alone is not enough to deny Saudi Arabia a seat at the council. As US President Barack Obama pointed out a few years ago, developing countries must “work from within to reform it.”
The United Nations is worthy of the contempt displayed by the Arab and Muslim communities for its weak-kneed handling of the Syrian crisis, it’s inability to stem the tide of violence against Christians in Egypt and Palestinians by Israelis, and its unforgivable silence on the plight of oppressed Muslims in Myanmar. Just as Saudi Arabia was right to reject a seat at the UN Security Council because of the flagrant disregard by the United States and Russia to deal with Syria, it was right to accept the UNHRC seat because it can be more effective.
The Security Council with its five permanent members — the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom and China — wielding veto power in effect paralyzes the council from any meaningful contributions toward peace in the Middle East. There could be no role for Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom has a better chance of becoming a meaningful contributor on a global scale by learning how to deal with human rights violations on the council in which no country has veto power.
It is not unexpected that human rights groups oppose Saudi Arabia’s appointment, but it is shortsighted.
Europe is witnessing an alarming rise in right-wing xenophobic political parties with an anti-immigrant agenda in the name of cultural unity. France banned the hijab from its public school system in 2004 and the niqab from public places in 2010. Muslims account for 7 percent of the population. Yet France’s bans on religious and cultural clothing marginalizes, not unifies, French Muslims as they go deeper underground to avoid harassment from authorities.
In French-speaking Quebec, Canada, a proposed charter would ban government employees from wearing hijabs, Sikh turbans, large crucifixes and other religious symbols in the workplace. However, in an obvious insult to the minority non-Christian citizens of Quebec, the proposed law would allow the crucifix adorning Quebec’s National Assembly wall to remain.
The rise of the anti-immigrant National Front in France, the British National Party and English Defense League in the United Kingdom and the surging popularity of the anti-Muslim Dutch politician Geert Wilders demonstrate the need to bring more levelheaded voices to government.
Saudi Arabia’s presence on the Human Rights Council will not “warp the basic definition of human rights” as some critics alleged. How can it when it is only one of 47 members? But our country can help Western members of the council understand and define what blasphemy is and how a balance between free speech and sensitivity to other religions and cultures can be achieved. It can also help counter the alarmist nature of anti-immigrant groups.
A casual look at YouTube videos of Saudis beating their workers is evidence enough that we have a long road to hoe. Yet the United States, the United Kingdom and France among other Western nations can no longer claim the high road in our post-Iraq invasion world. And the selective nature of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to condemn some countries but not others pretty much puts all members of the UN Human Rights Council on equal footing.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view

Beyond Sri Lankan provincial elections

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Beyond Sri Lankan provincial elections

As a large majority of the sizable 715,000 eligible voters from Sri Lanka’s troubled north went into makeshift polling booths to cast their preferences for electing a 38 member provincial council on September 21, India’s influence was written all over.
From a five member election observer team led by former election commission chief N. Gopalaswami to transparent ballot boxes imported especially from India for use in polls, New Delhi seems to have invested heavily on this democratic process which is expected to usher a renewed hope for genuine reconciliation. With a 72 million Tamil population of its own who shares the grief of their Sri Lankan brethren and the imminent threat of China making inroads into Sri Lanka through strategic investment, India does have a vested interest in setting things straight in the island nation.
Moreover, it is the India-Sri Lanka accord of 1987 — inked by President J.R. Jayawardene and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi — that forms the basis for creating a council system to devolve power to provincial levels. India, having provided moral and logistical support to the ethnic Tamil movement in Sri Lanka, which later turned violent, somehow believed that the model of decentralized local self-governance could bring that elusive peace in this war-ravaged nation. Hence, New Delhi put subtle pressure on President Jayawardene to delegate effective power to Tamil dominated northern province and at the same time seek a referendum to ascertain whether the citizens of the east prefer to merge with the north. Despite stiff resistance from the then National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali, Jayawardene went ahead with his plan to issue presidential proclamation for enabling the merger of northern and eastern provinces into one administrative unit in 1988.
However, this formula flopped after the bete noires, Sinhalas and Tamils, joined hand to defeat what they believed to be Indian imperialism in South Asia. For the foot soldiers of the Indian security establishment who were in the thick of things in northern Sri Lanka, trying to restore some semblance of order, those were nightmarish moments. Having bore the brunt of a violent backlash from both sides of the divide, most of them would indeed like to erase those turbulent days from memory permanently. Now that India is once again exerting her influence to broker a just deal, the back-channel interlocutors must not loose sight of the fact that a majority of the Sinhala people would link this attempt to New Delhi’s virtually non-existent territorial ambition. Let us not forget that years of rigid political discourse based on competitive nationalism — encouraged by both the Sinhala and Tamil political class — has vitiated the political atmosphere to such an extent that it has become extremely difficult for Rajapaksa to convince the Sinhala people that Sri Lanka’s well being lies in abandoning the dogmatic resistance to any sort of power sharing arrangement with the minorities. The skeptical majority is yet to recognize the hard reality that at the end of the day the Tamils, Muslims and Christians are also citizens of the same land and have equal rights to participate in nation rebuilding. Since, New Delhi’s excessive interference in Sri Lankan affairs over the years is one among the many reasons — apart from racial ostracism promoted by the Sri Lankan state historically — for the entrenchment of this deep rooted trust deficit in Sri Lankan society, it is incumbent on India to perform a perfect balancing act.
By this way, not only the Sinhalas can be assured that their giant northern neighbor harbors no ill will or aggressive designs against their motherland but also encourage the Rajapaksa regime to move beyond the optimistic first step of holding a long overdue provincial election, even if it is under duress.
Rajapaksa claims that, “this is the first free election in thirty years afforded to northern people to express themselves in a vote.” But with allegations of army intimidation coming to the fore, fixing the issue at the earliest is a political imperative for him. Otherwise the northern most part of the island nation, already the most militarized zone in the region, will gradually turn into another Kashmir-like fortress. Also, the state machinery would do well to resist the temptation of projecting high turnout in elections as sign of diminishing disenchantment. Let there be no doubt whatsoever that a long distance still needs to be traversed before the Sri Lankan government can genuinely win the hearts and minds of its minority populace.
Yes, there has been violation of election law, systematic misuse of state resources, assault on voters and bullying of candidates belonging to the Tamil parties in the run up to and during election. But such aberrations, visible even in the most vibrant of democracies like India, should be no reason for despondency. This election, with all its significance, was scrutinized minutely at the international level and the victorious Tamil National Alliance’s chief ministerial candidate C.V. Vigneswaran’s call for mutual cooperation and trust building will set the ball rolling for future negotiations. Besides, given the importance of Tamil vote share in Indian general elections slated for 2014 and the reality of Dravidian-Tamil politics revolving around the hopes and aspirations of Sri Lankan Tamils, the ruling elites in New Delhi would inevitably be tempted to cajole Rajapaksa into delegating land and police power to the newly elected provincial council instead of seeking ways to dilute the 13th constitutional amendment. But the world eagerly await the day when Sri Lanka will achieve real integration with all the ethnic groups living side by side harmoniously, right from north to south.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view

World Polio Day: What needs to be done to rid the world of the disease forever

Polio mainly affects children under five. One in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis, most commonly in the legs. (AFP)
Updated 4 min 32 sec ago
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World Polio Day: What needs to be done to rid the world of the disease forever

  • While it’s on the verge of being eradicated thanks to support from the Middle East, experts warn that more still needs to be done
  • In Saudi Arabia, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative is working with groups to tackle misunderstandings about the vaccine in the Islamic world

DUBAI: Polio is on the verge of being completely eradicated thanks to “tremendous support” from the Middle East, but experts warn that unless the global community steps up to rid the world completely of the debilitating disease within a decade, 200,000 new cases of the disease could be diagnosed every single year.

As World Polio Day is marked across the globe on Wednesday, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) said while the disease is at the lowest ever levels – being 99 per cent on the way to being a polio-free world – unless more resources are mobilized to immunize children, save lives and protect communities, the disease could come "roaring back across the world.” 

“Eradicating a disease is an all-or-nothing game… 99 percent is not good enough, you either eradicate or you do not,” said Oliver Rosenbauer, spokesperson for the GPEI. "And the danger is that because it is such a highly infectious disease, polio will always come back until the day that we eradicate it completely."

Rosenbauer told Arab News there are fewer polio cases reported from fewer areas than ever before and only three countries remain endemic: Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Even within these countries, polio is more restricted than ever. This compares to 125 endemic countries and 350,000 annual cases 30 years ago.

However, warned Rosenbauer, its presence in recent cases in war-torn Syria and Papua New Guinea “underscores the risk” should the global community network fail to work together to relegate the disease – also known as wild poliovirus – to the history books.

Last year more than a dozen children in eastern Syria were paralyzed in an outbreak of polio, punctuating the health perils to a population devastated by war. It is the second outbreak of the disease to strike Syria since the war began in May 2011, and reflected the inability of health workers to immunize all children caught in conflict zones where sanitation is poor and access is difficult.

Just last month, a young boy died from polio in Papua New Guinea in the first fatal case since an outbreak of the disease in June. The country was declared polio-free in 2000, but the rate of vaccinations has been dropping in recent years and an outbreak was confirmed earlier this year.

"These outbreaks underscore the risk that if we do not eradicate polio now, estimates are that within 10 years, the disease will come roaring back across the world, and we will again see 200,000 new cases every single year, all over the world,” warned Rosenbauer. “Conflict and war tend to lead to a deteriorated health infrastructure, reduced vaccination rates, reduced sanitation infrastructure, hampered access etc, and this leaves children in such areas much more vulnerable to diseases such as polio.

"But the good news is that we know what needs to be done to achieve success, so it is within our hands to achieve a polio-free world. We need to fill the remaining immunity gaps in the remaining endemic countries, by vaccinating the last remaining unreached and unvaccinated children. And there are area-specific reasons why children might be missed, ranging from lack of infrastructure, to large-scale population movements, to inaccessibility, to resistance.”

World Polio Day was established by Rotary International to commemorate the birth of Jonas Salk, who led the first team to develop a vaccine against poliomyelitis. Use of this inactivated poliovirus vaccine and subsequent widespread use of the oral poliovirus, developed by Albert Sabin, led to the establishment of the GPEI in 1988. It is led by national governments with five partners: the World Health Organization; Rotary International; the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; UNICEF; and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. They have, to-date, contributed about $3 billion toward eradicating the disease, and the number of cases have since been reduced by 99.9 percent.

At the World Health Assembly in 2012, 194 member states declared that the eradication of polio is a “programmatic emergency for global public health.” Rosenbauer said the Middle East has been an effective ally in eradicating the disease, with countries across the Gulf pledging both time and resources to international efforts to vaccinate children, including those living in the most remote and poorest places on the planet. 

In 2011, Gates lauded Saudi Arabia after the Kingdom committed $30 million (SAR102.6 million) to eradication efforts, and earlier this year said he was also “extremely thankful for the generosity of the UAE,” which has pledged similar sums. At the 2013 Global Vaccine Summit in Abu Dhabi, international donors pledged $4 billion to fund GPEI’s new six-year plan to eradicate polio and eliminate the disease.

"We have tremendous support from governments, communities, parents, rotarians, health workers, traditional and religious leaders, all working towards a polio-free world,” said Rosenbauer. "This support ranges from ensuring the financial, technical and personnel resources are available, to improving infrastructure, sensitizing communities, to strengthening political support, to supporting the logistics of vaccination campaigns and disease surveillance.”

Thanks to this support, polio is beaten back to the lowest ever levels across the region. In Pakistan, 20 years ago polio paralyzed 35,000 children across the entire country every year. This year, four cases have been reported from a handful of districts. Saudi Arabia has been polio-free since 1995, while the UAE has been polio-free since 1992.

In Saudi Arabia, an Islamic group is woking with the GPEI to help in the fight against polio, by educating the Arab world and tackling misconceptions about taking the life-saving vaccination against the crippling disease. 

Dr Abdulqahir Qamar is director of the fatwa department at the Jeddah-based International Islamic Fiqh Academy. Together with other prominent Islamic organizations – Al-Azhar Al-Sharif, Cairo’s 1,000-year-old institution, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Islamic Development Bank (both based in Jeddah) – it works to support polio eradication internationally, but with a specific focus on Islamic countries.

The Pakistani, who has lived and worked in Saudi Arabia for 48 years, told Arab News the group works to tackle of "the misunderstanding of our Qur’an and religion and its teachings” across countries, especially due to misunderstandings about the polio vaccine. 

“There were misunderstandings in fatwas in Islamic countries which led to some people refusing to take polio vaccine as they considered it haram,” he said. “This is very hard for us and we needed to find a way to reach all the people – to all the cities, to all the districts, to all the people in poor and remote places and show evidence about the real rules of Islam in this situation.”

The Islamic Advisory Group was set up in 2013 to support polio eradication efforts by addressing religious-based refusals on the ground in countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, two of the only countries that remain endemic.

“We worked with imams and worked to build a network of people who one-by-one helped change the minds of these people,” said Dr Qamar. 

"We staged conferences in Pakistan and Somalia among others, to educate people. We worked to change the mindset of people and showed them evidence so they understood the reality. We showed them evidence from the Qur’an.

"The real fatwa is that they must take the vaccine. People must protect their children. Now, the numbers of affected people and children are far, far less. But more work needs to be done.”

The GPEI has an annual budget of about US$1 billion (SAR3.75billlion) to fight polio in endemic countries, continue to immunize in about 45 countries that it considers to be at particularly high risk of re-infection and conduct global disease surveillance. Yet Rosenbauer said a polio-free world will reap savings upwards of US$50 billion over the next 20 years.

“Over and beyond the humanitarian benefits, there are significant economic benefits associated with polio eradication,” he said. "To succeed, we need the ongoing support of the international development community, including countries of the GCC, to ensure the necessary financial resources are made available to eradicate this disease.

"We know what it takes to eradicate polio, and it is up to us. If we fail, it is because we did not mobilize sufficient political will either to finance it or to fully implement the strategies, but it will not be because we did not have the technical tools to achieve success. And we will then only be able to blame ourselves for the consequences of our failure.”

Rosenbauer pointed to the case of smallpox: so far the only human disease to have been eradicated globally. Smallpox killed more than 500 million people worldwide in the 20th century alone – more than the death toll caused by all the wars that were fought throughout human history – but in 1977, in Somalia, Ali Maalin was the last person on earth to be infected by the disease. 

“There is nothing more sustainable and equitable than the eradication of a disease. And that is what we are trying to achieve with polio…so it is important that all countries also contribute equally towards this goal.”

Five years ago, Gates predicted polio would be eradicated by 2020. But, according to his foundation, despite significant efforts, "since 2008, more than 20 countries have experienced polio outbreaks, some of them multiple times. Efforts to reach unvaccinated children are often hampered by security risks and geographic and cultural barriers. Furthermore, vaccination campaigns cost approximately US$1 billion per year, a price that is not sustainable over the long term."

Swiss-born Edy Bucher, a polio survivor and advocate for polio eradication, explained why it is so critical to eradicate the disease.

 "It was the summer of 1952, and I was seven years old, spending it on my uncle’s farm outside of Lucerne,” he recalled. "For two to three days, I suddenly developed severe headaches, nausea and fever. Soon after, I was no longer able to move parts of my arms and legs.”

Doctors soon confirmed it was polio. "I missed the vaccine by three years,” he told Arab News. "Had I been born three years later, the vaccine would have been available and I would have benefited from it.”

Bucher was quarantined for several weeks, and the only contact he had with his parents was through a small window in the door to his hospital room. His paralysis then became worse and he struggled to breathe or swallow. 

“I was one step away from the iron lung (a mechanical respirator which enables a person to breathe). Thankfully, the paralysis began to alleviate itself slightly, but it remains with me to this day.”

While Bucher has undergone several life-saving surgeries, he says “disability is in the mind, not in the body,” and he has gone on to travel, marry, have two sons and start his own business.

Now working with Rotary International, he said: "We know that polio can be eradicated, and we are closer than ever before. We need the ongoing commitment of the international development community to make sure we have the necessary financial resources to eradicate polio once and for all."