Mikati holds meeting to save Lebanese education sector

Special Mikati holds meeting to save Lebanese education sector
Lebanese prime minister Najib Mikati. (AP/File)
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Updated 07 February 2022

Mikati holds meeting to save Lebanese education sector

Mikati holds meeting to save Lebanese education sector
  • Government pledges to up teacher pay amid strikes, but is hindered by spending limits
  • Education minister warns whole system is in danger of failing

BEIRUT: Politicians, ambassadors, academics and representatives of international organizations took part in a “consultative meeting to save the education sector in Lebanon” on Monday, held by the Ministry of Education, against the backdrop of an ongoing teacher strike.

The strike has contributed to paralyzing public schools for over four months, majorly disrupting the academic year

“We do not have a magic wand to address all educational issues at once,” Prime Minister Najib Mikati said as he opened the meeting. “We hope the educational staff would understand the government’s situation and the limited capabilities we have.

“We hope they can be patient, along with the students’ families, in light of the stifling economic crisis that coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We ask teachers to cooperate with us to overcome this difficult stage with minimal damage and not to throw demands at the government, students and families, as the state of the public treasury cannot handle any spending outside the most urgent issues.”

Education Minister Abbas Al-Halabi said that public school students “have barely attended 25 days of school this year, while students in the private sector are close to completing the curriculum.”

This, he said would lead to huge disparity in academic outcomes unless “we are able to compensate for the lost months in public schools and complete the curricula before we reach the point of no return.”

There are no accurate figures about the number of students in public schools for the year 2021-2022, but there were around 342,303 students in 2019-2020, with an increase in 2020-2021 of about 10,000 students, who switched from private schools due to an inability to pay fees amid the country’s soaring currency and economic crises.

According to a report by the Crisis Monitor at the American University of Beirut, 70 percent of Lebanese families depended on private schools, especially for elementary and middle school.

Before the crisis, the private education sector’s share was worth an estimated $1.3 billion.

There are 1,209 private schools in Lebanon employing about 51,215 teachers, while there are 1,235 public schools with about 40,796 teachers.

There are also 352 educational institutions which are semi-free private schools that receive support from the state, and employ 7,468 teachers.

Meanwhile, there are about 30,000 contract teachers in public and private schools.

The Contract Teachers Association is calling for raising the hourly wage from 20,000 Lebanese pounds ($13.22) to 70,000 Lebanese pounds and granting teachers a daily transportation allowance of 64,000 Lebanese pounds.

Hospital cards are also being sought for contract teachers because they are deprived of any health insurance.

Another proposal is that the academic year should be made up of 28 weeks and not 18 weeks as happened last year.

Last week, Al-Halabi said: “The circumstances that called for the teachers' strike no longer exist after the Cabinet approved a monthly social grant and raised transportation allowance.”

He said hourly wages for contract teachers had doubled, but a legislative decision was needed to improve the legal status of the teachers in terms of including them in the transportation allowance and the social grant. 

“This is the best the state treasury can do at the moment,” he explained.

During the consultative meeting, Al-Halabi warned that “public education is in danger, not just the academic year, which we strive with all our capabilities to save.”

The minister’s remarks came as contract teachers held a sit-in in downtown Beirut, and a delegation later met with the concerned authorities following the consultative meeting.

The teachers agreed to end their strike provided that a decree to increase their transportation allowance was approved.

The delay to launch the academic year in public schools also affected Syrian refugee students who receive their education in these schools after regular school hours.

According to the UNHCR, about 321,512 refugee students were registered in formal and non-formal education for the year 2020-2021.

Aid for vulnerable families, meanwhile, is dwindling, and on Monday Social Affairs Minister Hector Hajjar announced that his ministry will be able to “reach 75,000 eligible families within the program for the poorest families within a maximum of four months.”

Home visits to families registered on the social protection platform will start on Feb. 15, he added.

UN sounds alarm over leukaemia in Iraq linked to oil fields

UN sounds alarm over leukaemia in Iraq linked to oil fields
Updated 30 September 2022

UN sounds alarm over leukaemia in Iraq linked to oil fields

UN sounds alarm over leukaemia in Iraq linked to oil fields
  • ‘The people living near oil fields are victims of state-business collusion’: Special rapporteur
  • Leaked Health Ministry report blames air pollution for 20 percent rise in cancer in Basra

LONDON: The UN has warned that people living near oil fields, where gas is openly burned, face heightened risks of leukaemia, and that it has classified such areas as “modern sacrifice zones.”
Singling out sites in Iraq for gas flaring — a process of burning gas released by oil drilling that produces cancer-linked pollutants including CO2, methane and black soot — the UN said profits have been prioritized over human rights, noting Britain’s BP and Italy’s Eni as working these sites.
David Boyd, UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, told BBC Arabic: “The people living near oil fields are victims of state-business collusion.”
Despite Iraqi law prohibiting flaring within 6 miles of homes, a BBC investigation found areas, including on the outskirts of Basra, where gas was being burned less than 2 miles from people’s front doors, with authorities aware that this was the case.
A leaked Iraqi Health Ministry report seen by BBC Arabic blames air pollution for a 20 percent rise in cancer in Basra between 2015 and 2018.
As part of its investigation, the BBC undertook the first pollution-monitoring testing among the exposed communities, with results indicating high exposure to cancer-causing chemicals and the finding that Basra’s Rumaila oil fields flare more gas than any other site in the world.
The government-owned site, with BP as lead contractor, is near the town of North Rumaila, known by locals as the “cemetery” because of its high leukaemia levels.
Local environmental scientist Shukri Al-Hassan described cancer there as so rife it is “like the flu.”
Iraq’s prime minister issued a confidential order banning employees working at sites from speaking about the health damage resulting from pollution.
Oil Minister Ihsan Abdul Jabbar Ismail told the BBC that he had instructed all contracted companies operating in the oil fields to “uphold international standards.”
Responding to BBC requests for comment, Eni said it strongly rejects any accusations that its activities are endangering the health of Iraqis, while BP said it is “extremely concerned” and will conduct an “immediate review.”

Iran cleric calls for crackdown on protesters

Iran cleric calls for crackdown on protesters
Updated 30 September 2022

Iran cleric calls for crackdown on protesters

Iran cleric calls for crackdown on protesters
  • Cleric Mohammad Javad Hajj Ali Akbari: The Iranian people demand the harshest punishment for these barbaric rioters

DUBAI: An influential Iranian cleric called for tough action on Friday against protesters enraged by the death of a young woman in police custody who have called for the downfall of the country’s leaders.
“Our security is our distinctive privilege. The Iranian people demand the harshest punishment for these barbaric rioters,” said Mohammad Javad Hajj Ali Akbari, a leader of prayers that are held on Fridays in Tehran before a large gathering.
“The people want the death of Mahsa Amini to be cleared up... so that enemies cannot take advantage of this incident.”
Amini, a 22-year-old from the Iranian Kurdish town of Saqez, was arrested this month in Tehran for “unsuitable attire” by the morality police who enforce the Islamic Republic’s strict dress code for women.
Her death has caused the first big show of opposition on Iran’s streets since authorities crushed protests against a rise in gasoline prices in 2019. The demonstrations have quickly evolved into a popular revolt against the clerical establishment.
Amnesty International said on Friday the government crackdown on demonstrations has so far led to the death of at least 52 people, with hundreds injured.
Amnesty said in a statement it had obtained a copy of an official document that records that the General Headquarters of Armed Forces issued an order to commanders in all provinces to “severely confront” protesters described as “troublemakers and anti-revolutionaries”.
Despite the growing death toll and crackdown by authorities, videos posted on Twitter showed demonstrators calling for the fall of the clerical establishment.
Activist Twitter account 1500tasvir, which has more than 150,000 followers, posted videos which it said showed protests in cities including Ahvaz in the southwest, Mashhad in the northeast and Zahedan in the southeast, where people were said to be attacking a police station.
Reuters could not verify the footage.
Meanwhile, Iran rejected criticism of its missile and drone attack on Wednesday on the Iraqi Kurdistan region where Iranian armed dissident Kurdish groups are based. The United States called it “an unjustified violation of Iraqi sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
“Iran has repeatedly asked the Iraqi central government officials and regional authorities to prevent the activities of separatist and terrorist groups that are active against the Islamic Republic,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani told state media.

Think hard before working in Qatar: British engineer

Think hard before working in Qatar: British engineer
Updated 30 September 2022

Think hard before working in Qatar: British engineer

Think hard before working in Qatar: British engineer
  • Ranald Crook, 76, was trapped in the country for 8 years over a commercial dispute
  • His warning follows claims that another Briton was tortured, killed by secret police

LONDON: A British engineer trapped in Qatar for almost eight years over a commercial dispute has urged people to think hard before accepting large salaries to work there, after his own exhausting battle to leave followed the alleged torture and death of another Briton in 2019.

Ranald Crook, 76, was unable to fly home from Qatar because of a series of travel bans imposed on him at the request of former business associates, which left him tangled in legal actions in which every victory of his resulted in the initiating of a new case against him. 

Crook spoke to The Times after reading on Thursday about a former senior vice president of Qatar Airways who was found dead in a Doha hotel room on Christmas Day in 2019 following his arrest and alleged torture by secret police.

Marc Bennett was accused of keeping confidential information belonging to the airline after his resignation in October that year, and was held for three weeks in a state security detention center before being released without charge but banned from leaving the country.

Qatari authorities claimed his death was suicide, but a British coroner found “no evidence of suicidal intent.” The UK Foreign Office urged Qatar on Wednesday to look into the allegations thoroughly.

Not only did Bennett not leave a suicide note or email or text his family and wide circle of friends, but the night before his death he had a video call with his wife and children during which, The Times reported, he was “laughing and joking.”  

Bennett’s widow Nancy said: “There are so many questions. He left here with the whole world ahead of him.”

Crook, who finally returned to the UK at the end of 2021, said he was drained by his ordeal. He warned Britons to think hard before accepting large salaries to work in Qatar, noting that while still in the country, his wife would wake because he had been crying in his sleep.

He added: “If you go to work there, be very careful. Look very carefully at those you’ll be working with and their reputations.

“The accusations are made in five minutes, but it takes years to clear your name. I thought I had been cleared in November 2016, but another case began and another travel ban was slapped on.

“I wasn’t served with any court papers, I found out about the second action by chance in April 2017. There shouldn’t even have been a travel ban but this was Qatar, and these things happen.”

Both the detention of Crook and the circumstances surrounding Bennett’s death have raised further concerns in the build-up to the World Cup in November, and the decision to allow Qatar to host it.

HRW urges EU to condemn Israeli crimes against humanity

HRW urges EU to condemn Israeli crimes against humanity
Updated 30 September 2022

HRW urges EU to condemn Israeli crimes against humanity

HRW urges EU to condemn Israeli crimes against humanity
  • EU-Israel Association Council meeting taking place next week after 10-year hiatus
  • Human Rights Watch: European officials should stop ‘reciting empty platitudes’

LONDON: Human Rights Watch has urged the EU and its member states to use next week’s EU-Israel Association Council meeting to condemn Israeli crimes against humanity.

The meeting comes just weeks after Israeli authorities raided and ordered the closing of the offices of seven prominent Palestinian civil society organizations — some of which receive EU funding — despite objections from the bloc and its member states.

“Europeans should know they’ll be shaking hands with representatives of a government committing crimes against humanity and outlawed prominent civil society groups challenging these abuses,” said Omar Shakir, HRW’s Israel and Palestine director.

“Pretending it’s business as usual with Israel amid escalating repression sends the message that EU condemnation is worth little more than the paper it’s written on.”

Criticized by Palestinian, European and international NGOs, as well as 47 members of the European Parliament, next week’s meeting will mark the first in a decade after they were paused following Israel’s objections to the EU’s position on West Bank settlements.

HRW, however, has said the bloc’s position represents “empty platitudes” that fail to consider the human rights identified as essential within the Association Council.

Alon Liel, former director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, told the press earlier this year that as long as the Europeans did not take concrete action, “Israel doesn’t give a damn. It feels very confident this anti-human rights behavior will have no cost in the international arena.”

In May 2021, EU member states abstained or voted against the UN Human Rights Council’s establishment of an inquiry to investigate abuses and identify the root causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, despite consistent voting to support accountability mechanisms in other contexts.

“The decades-long European failure to take action in the face of grave human rights abuses has emboldened Israeli authorities to brazenly escalate their repression of Palestinians,” said Claudio Francavilla, EU advocate at HRW.

“Instead of reciting empty platitudes, European officials should use the Association Council to finally condemn Israel’s apartheid and persecution and make clear there will be meaningful consequences should the Israeli government not reverse course.” 

Arab envoys urge UK PM to rethink Jerusalem embassy move

Arab envoys urge UK PM to rethink Jerusalem embassy move
Updated 30 September 2022

Arab envoys urge UK PM to rethink Jerusalem embassy move

Arab envoys urge UK PM to rethink Jerusalem embassy move
  • Letter signed by all Arab states, including those that signed Abraham Accords with Israel
  • Liz Truss warned that embassy move could jeopardize free-trade agreement with GCC

LONDON: Arab ambassadors have urged Prime Minister Liz Truss to backtrack on “an illegal and ill-judged” plan to move the UK Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, warning that it could jeopardize a free-trade agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council, The Guardian reported on Friday.

The comments were made in a private letter sent before her trip to the UN last week. It was signed by all Arab states, including those that signed the 2020 Abraham Accords with Israel.

Palestinian Ambassador Husam Zomlot said: “Any embassy move would be a blatant violation of international law and the UK’s historic responsibilities.

“It undermines the two-state solution and inflames an already volatile situation in Jerusalem, the rest of the occupied territories, and among communities in the UK and worldwide. It would be disastrous.”

It is the understanding that some of the states most inclined to the accords are those particularly concerned, believing that the accords could be thrown into disrepute by the claim that they paved the way for the embassy move.

Given that the pending UK-GCC FTA is seen as central to Truss’s foreign policy for the region, any worries that this may be thrown into doubt could cause a backtrack.

Allies in Europe have also questioned the move, letting the UK know that they consider it unwise, while others have privately speculated that Truss’s decision is based as much on her desire to be perceived as a “disruptor” as it is anything to do with her close ties with Israel.

A former British diplomat told The Guardian: “She seems to think she should ape (former President) Donald Trump (who moved the US Embassy to Jerusalem in 2018). The difference is that the US is big enough to get its way in the Middle East. The UK is not.”

The former diplomat added: “If the UK shifted its embassy it would … damage British interests in the Arab world.”

Truss pledged to the Conservative Friends of Israel during her leadership campaign that she would open a review into the location of the UK Embassy, instituting the review last week during a meeting at the UN with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

Details of how the review is being conducted inside the Foreign Office have yet to be made public.