Sunday, April 11, 2010

Of coups, struggling dependencies and national tragedies

Whether you support or suspect the Obama Administration, there is no doubt that America's relationship with the rest of the world is undergoing fundamental changes that veer drastically from the course set by previous ships of state. Our less bellicose view towards the deployment of nuclear weapons and its impact on our relationship with Russia along with our recent rethinking of rubber stamping the actions of our traditional allies Israel and the United Kingdom, has been at the forefront of international relations these last few weeks.

As the UK prepares for parliamentary elections, British and American conservative noses were thrust quite far out of joint by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's assertion that the United States is happy to play a role in moderating talks between England and Argentina concerning renewed disputes over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands. This is a sharp divergence from America's usual unflinching support of the United Kingdom's claim to the Falklands, a claim they believe, was settled permanently with their victory in the Falklands War. Though Argentina has never acknowledged Britain's claim to the Falkland Islands, which they still refer to as Islas Malvinas, relations have generally been normalized between the two nations. Tensions renewed, however, when England opted to grant oil drilling rights off the coast of the Falklands. In an effort to improve relations with South America, the U.S. has been seeking opportunities to moderate traditionally absolute viewpoints. The United Nations is yet to weight in on the point particularly as the overwhelmingly British residents of the Falklands have opted to not pursue independence from Britain but, rather, embrace their dependence. Most recently the U.N. Human Rights Council positively cited the prohibition status of corporal punishment in state schools of the Falkland Islands (though it is still apparently permitted in private schools.)It has been a number of years since Amnesty International has weighed in on the Falklands. Similarly, Human Rights Watch most recent mention of the islands was in conjunction to an overall condemnation of the UK's refusal to ban the usage of cluster bombs. Freedom House has not broached the subject of the dependency status of the Falkland Islands for years, despite the recent adoption of a new constitution, the first every officially available via election form. I should know. I made numerous requests to the Falkland Islands' government over the previous four years and never received a response. I was happily astounded when they published the new constitution. On April 2, the Falkland Islands government commemorated the 28th Anniversary of the war. While, on one hand, reaching out to Argentina to maintain a friendly and peaceful coexistence it is clear that they stake their claim to British identity. Perhaps realizing the need to look inwardly at the status of human rights on the islands, the Commonwealth Foundation conducted human rights capacity building seminars with members of media, government, community organizations and faith based groups on the same day as the 28th commemoration. As the Falklands lack formal human rights institutions, it appears that they are realizing the essential need of such efforts, as highlighted in the annual report of the Falkland Islands Association. As they attempt to grow from a mere colonial economic enterprise to a vital sovereign member of the United Kingdom, the Falklands seem to be growing aware of the need to look beyond their isolated South Atlantic rocky shores and plug into the broader world as a means of retaining their native born best and brightest. Regardless, it is also obvious that they, above all, will struggle to maintain an identity that is distinctly British first.

Since the 1993 break up of Yugoslavia, the Republic of Macedonia has been in a continuous identity struggle. Neighbor Greece officially refuses to acknowledge the name of the state which emerged from southern Yugoslavia citing that "Macedonia" is a traditionally Hellenic name. Despite it all, Macedonia is evolving into an effective parliamentary democracy with ever solidifying ties to the west including a bid of admission into the EU and NATO. The U.S. State Department gives Macedonia generally high marks though it cites concerns with police violence, prison conditions and conflicts with minority populations as areas needing significant progress. The United Nations Human Rights Council's Special Rapporteur drew additional attention to the state of religious tolerance in a report from a recent visit. Amnesty International focused on concerns of the right of political opposition to peacefully assemble in protest, while Human Rights Watch called on the Macedonian legislature to expand language in a current anti-discrimination bill to include protections for sexual orientation and gender identity. Freedom House cited a downward trend in its recent annual report due to governmental harassment and violence leveled against political opponents. In a recent address to the United Nations General Assembly President Ivanov cited the progress Macedonia has made in promoting democracy and improving the lives of all its citizens, conditions necessary in its quest to seek admission into EU and NATO though he cites the continuous resistance by Greece as out of step with agreements made 15 years ago to seek normalization and formal recognition. Likewise, the Ombudsman of Macedonia echoes the government's viewpoint of progress in reaching accords with the minority population while the Macedonian Human rights Movement strikes out at Albania for not allowing the privately funded teaching of the Macedonian language in Albanian schools along Macedonia's border. In an effort to carve out a distinct identity, Macedonia is in a long-term cultural and linguistic conflict with the its neighbors. Having recently agreed to borders with Kosovo, a fellow former member of the Yugoslavian Federation, Macedonia has a long way to go to achieve the type of long standing peace that will make it an attractive candidate and vital member of the EU and NATO communities. Continued progress internally, particularly setting an example of accommodation to its minority members, will go far in helping them make their case for admission into their desired continental and inter-continental communes.

Like Hong Kong, Macau is a Special Administrative Region of China which operates under the policy of "two systems, one nation." Formerly controlled by and still culturally linked to Portugal, Macau was ceded to China in 1979 but guaranteed 50 years of autonomy by China. Though its internal and economic polices are administered by local governance, its international relations are under the auspices of China. As such, the U.S. State Department issues its annual rights assessment as a subsection of the Chinese report. While considered a generally free society, Macau is criticized for the limitation to democratically change its government, trafficking in persons and corruption, side effects of an economy centered on gambling and tourism for such a vast percentage of its annual GDP. The UN Human Rights Council cited concern with respect to the usage of the term "public official" in defining levels of impunity in allegations of torture. Amnesty International most recently took issue with "national security" legislation which compromises the rights of Macau residents while Human Rights Watch criticized Chinese legislation that threatening s the blacklisting of journalists from Hong Kong and Macau. This issue was likewise echoed by rights organization "Status of Chinese People" which condemned the return to pre-Olympic levels of censorship of journalists. A Freedom House survey of Internet Freedom was published in the Macau Times which highlights the fact that China, with nearly 300 million users, also has the most sophisticated, multi-layer censorship and monitoring apparatus. Though the only candidate standing for office, the election of Fernando Chui to succeed Edmund Ho as Chief Executive was generally considered to be free and fair. In his inaugural address, Chui seemed to suggest that maintaining a sense of status quo was his overriding agenda. Because of the unique aspect of their economy, the Commission Against Corruption is the primary Ombudsman body which, naturally, views corruption as the principle concern to civil society and endorsed the steps cited by Chui during a recent conference. Generally speaking, the residents of Macau enjoy more freedom than their fellow Chinese citizens on the mainland. Over the next few decades it will be interesting to note which of the two systems inevitably asserts the greater influence over the other. Will China evolve into a more democratic society or will Macau inevitably succumb to the overwhelmingly oppressive government control of Beijing?. And, in the end, will we ever really notice?

Despite a peaceful return to democracy, the new president of ">Honduras finds himself in a quest to seek regional legitimacy for his post coup government. While the United States was generally supportive of the election of Pepe Lobo, the U.S. State Department annual report cites numerous criticisms of the actions of the police and leadership of the coup that deposed President Zelaya. Zelaya threatened to lead a popular uprising to have the constitution revised to allow him to run for a third term despite the ruling of the national Supreme Court against him doing so. His attempts to incite a populist referendum inspired a coup that deposed him in the middle of the night, dumping him on a Costa Rican runway in his pajamas. The most recent report of the United Nations Human Rights Council preceded the coup and was 10 years late in delivery and critical of the Honduran Criminal Codes limited definition and potential broad allowance for the application of torture. Amnesty International details a human rights plan following President Lobo's inauguration and Human Rights Watch specifically calls on the new government to investigate the murders of three journalists killed in post-inaugural violence. Freedom House's most recent report was issued prior to the coup and, ironically, speaks favorably of steps made by both the government and civil society to work together to eliminate corruption and impunity. President Lobo presented a "National Vision Plan" for the country which was 12 years in the making and shepherded through three prior presidential administration and only now possible with the shift of power from the president to the people. This presentation arrives on the heels of a report presented by the Honduran Ombudsman which calls on a "Continental" strategy to defend democracy and condemn the "brutal face" of dictatorship. By comparison, Comite de Familiares de Detenidos
Desaparecidos en Honduras
, a human rights organization which came into being during the days of the "Dirty Wars" condemned the violent assault by the government on International Women's Day protesters who had been in opposition throughout the coup and questions the legitimacy of the Lobo Administration. Honduras has a long and unfortunate history of oppression but has made positive strides throughout the years. These, however, have been in fits and starts. The brutal dictatorships of the past has created a political culture which tends to respond negatively to institutional opposition. If President Lobo hopes to achieve broader regional support for his administration, he needs to start by addressing the violent tendencies of his military and police force who tend to violently respond to criticism. It is these institutional impulses that make Honduras its own worst enemy.

On the topic of coups, Kyrgyzstan's capital of Bishkek was the scene of a violent overthrow this week which force President Bakiyev to flee the capital for the remote south, the base of his support. Ironically, Bakiyev came to power through a similar coup five years earlier which has been dubbed the Tulip Revolution. Bakiyev has yet to acknowledge the legitimacy of the coup however Roza Otunbayeva, a former foreign minister and a leader in the Tulip Revolution has been named the Interim President. Events are still unfolding and a more detailed report will follow in the ensuing days and weeks.

Though an absolute monarchy, Morocco is one of the most stable countries in the Middle East. This and the fact that it is a Constitutionally mandated Islamic state, leads the lists of criticisms in the current annual human rights report of the U.S. State Department. Forced disappearances, some 742 documented cases, was the current focus of the United Nations Human Rights Council's most recent report while Amnesty International focuses criticism on the recent conviction of 12 students whose trial was marred with allegations of torture. Human Rights Watch documents the case of a 72- year old retired colonel serving a 12 year conviction for sharing a "national secret" which, as it so turns out, was no secret at all after being shot down and held prisoner by a Western Sahara rebel group. while commending steps taken by the government to institute human rights, Freedom House criticizes the Kingdom's inability to tolerate criticisms for current abuses including violent crackdowns of public protests. Morocco's OSCE Ambassador recently highlighted the steps being made by the government to increase human rights and development highlighting advances in democratic development instituted by King Mohamed, points echoed by the nation's Ombudsman. The Moroccan Human Rights Association calls on a detained human rights activist to call off a life-threatening hunger strike while, at the same time, calling on the Moroccan government to release him the activist from prison. It is commendable that Morocco is taking steps in the right direction to institute human rights within the kingdom. At the same time, as an absolute, theocracy centered monarchy, it limits the ability of its people to decide for themselves the government they prefer.

Finally, Poland suffered an indescribable blow with the tragic loss of its president, Lech Kazcynski, his wife and 95 others in a plane crash. The flight contained a number of high ranking government officials en route to commemorate the World War II execution of 20,000 polish officers. While tragic, Poland's Constitution provided for immediate succession with the Speaker of the National Assembly, Bronislaw Komorowski, immediately sworn in as Interim President. Under the Polish Constitution, the speaker of the Assembly assumed the presidency upon the incapacitation of the president and must announce early elections within 14 days. The vote must be held within another 60 days. While a national tragedy the wise construction of the Polish constitution belayed this from becoming an issue of utter devastation and assuring democratic continuity. A more detailed report of Poland will be issued on Wednesday.

Also next week--- Australia, Ecuador, Singapore and Aruba.

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Sunday, April 04, 2010

Islands of tranquilty roil with political chaos

It wasn't until I undertook a global survey of countries that I came to realize how many could be classified as island nations. In fact 85, nearly 1/3 of all recognized national sovereignties could be classified as either archipelagic (The Marshall Islands, for example) or island centric (e.g., Greece) as the majority of its landmass or population is based on an island. Three of the previous five reports were of island nations. At one time, most island nations were in essence, islands unto themselves as both geography and limited communications made their processes much slower, deliberative and independent of the broader world beyond their watery border. But with the global saturation of media and instant communication even the most isolated locales found themselves able to not only access, but carve out niches in a highly globalized society.

Globalization and the world wide economic crisis delivered a devastating blow to the politics and economy of Iceland. Relatively isolated for nearly a 1,000 years except to commercial fisherman and extended families in Scandinavia, Iceland first came to the global stage as host nation for the 1986 Reagan-Gorbachev Summit in the capital city of Reykjavik. In an effort to expand beyond it traditional aquacultural income, Iceland has evolved into a banking center which became heavily overcapitalized in comparison to its annual Gross Domestic Product. Its failure to safeguard against national bank failures led to the resignation of Prime Minister Geir Harde and the election of Johanna Sigurdardottir, Iceland's first female Prime Minister and the world's only openly gay and same-sex married world leader. While an example of Iceland's progressive social nature, the U.S. State Department's annual Human Rights Report cites racial discrimination and violence against women as the primary rights concerns of the nation. The United Nations Committee on Torture cites concerns in Iceland's lack of clear definition with respect to torture as its biggest rights issue. While Amnesty International echoes concern for Iceland's refugee and immigration policies, Human Rights Watch hasn't issued a report on Iceland since 2001, and that was in conjunction with the Global Child Soldier and Land Mine Reports. Freedom House's annual survey gives Iceland its highest marks. Iceland acknowledges the scourge of periodic violence against women is a recent UN statement and the steps they are making to eliminate it from society. Unfortunately, both Iceland's Ombudsman and Human Rights Centre seem to take a low key, inactive role in society as few current reports have been published.

On the opposite end of the freedom and democracy scale is Turkmenistan. Much of its oppressive nature is was institutionalized during the ironclad rule of President Niyazov, a hold over from the Soviet days who retained absolute power over the nation for over 20 years. His sudden death in December 2006 left a power vacuum as the Turkmenistan constitution made no provision of succession for Turkmenbashi, the "Father of Turkmenistan", the title assumed by Niyazov who declared hiimself "President For Life." Its status as a world supplier of natural gas led to a rapid reorganization of executive authority being vested in a deputy minister, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, who has promised to institute democratic steps. Though detailed, the U.S. State Department Human Rights Report takes a soft approach in its criticism of Turkmenistan as it is expanding its support of developing the nation's natural gas sector. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Asma Jahangir, likewise highlighted the growth in religious tolerance in this post-Soviet, Muslim-dominant society. Amnesty International stresses the need of Turkmenistan to free environmental activists, one of many pressure groups which suffer oppression under Turkmenistan's omnipresent leadership while Human Rights Watch broached a more detailed list of rights abuses in questioning the wisdom of economic assistance from Europe. Freedom House continues to list Turkmenistan as one of the most oppressive regimes. The government, however, sees itself as positively expanding freedom, particularly, the press with the creation of a Democracy and Rights Journal. Likewise, the National Institution of Human Rights and Democracy, a quasi-governmental body, cites its efforts to institute UN recommendations to expand the rights of women. The Helsinki Foundation, however, gives a slighter dimmer view of rights progress in publishing an analysis by the British Commonwealth detailing the status of rights in Turkmenistan. It is commendable that Turkmenistan is attempting to expand rights in the nation. At the same time, while it is laudable that the United States, Europe and the United Nations are incentivizing the process through aid and trade expansion, those expansions in capital should be synced to demonstrable growth in liberty and democracy so that yet another nation does not benefit from a tyranny dividend.

With a little over 40,000 citizens Saint Kitts and Nevis heralds one of the most stable democracies in the Caribbean. Independent since 1983 it is a member of the Commonwealth and heavily dependent on tourism. It boasts one of the best human rights records in the region with the U.S. State Department reporting excessive force, poor prisons and violence against women as its biggest issues. It has been nearly a decade since Saint Kitts and Nevis has undergone review by the U.N. Human Rights Council which likewise cited issues pertaining to women, particularly their minimal political participation. Amnesty International cites their unique status as one of the few nations in the Americas that still carries out capital punishment, most recently in 2008. Human Rights Watch hasn't reviewed their status since 2004 when they noted their hosting a Caribbean Forum on homophobia and AIDS. Freedom Watch gives Saint Kitts and Nevis the highest marks for democracy as Prime Minster Douglas has recently began restructuring the government to strengthen anticorruption, antiterrorism, and antitrafficking
laws. These were among a number of sweeping changes instituted by Douglas, one receiving condemnation by the High Court which was critical of the government's efforts to reapportion and potentially gerrymander constituent districts. Another, the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry, is being challenged in court by the opposition party. Lacking a comprehensive human rights body, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative fills much of that breach, particularly regarding transparency and government accountability with a campaign for Caribbean nations to enact a "Know Your Rights Day". Perhaps it is easy to understand how small nations with stable societies feel little need to provide internal human rights oversight. Likewise, as international groups have to channel their limited dollars to provide analysis in less stable countries means that places like Saint Kitts and Nevis undergo less frequent scrutiny. However, as the repeal of capital punishment is the cornerstone of so many rights organizations, it seems that more frequent review would shine a brighter light more frequently on a place that is easily overlooked. And, perhaps, with more frequent review, more societal ills would be revealed.

With respect to stability, few nations in Africa enjoyed more so than Gabon. Located on the Atlantic Gold Coast,
Gabon was led by Omar Bongo for over 40 years, first as a single party then, later as a multi-party democracy. Though opposition parties have frequently declared the votes invalid, both Gabonese citizens and African leaders looked to Bongo for leadership who was viewed as a mediating force in Africa. Upon his death, son Ali Bongo ran as the leader of his father's party and won a highly disputed presidential contest. The U.S. State Department cites their poor human rights record which includes, ritual killing, torture, police and government corruption, violence against women and human trafficking as the primary concerns. It has been five years since Gabon has stood for review at the U.N. Human Rights Council which criticized the status of women's rights. Amnesty International has not reviewed Gabon individually for some time however they were a signatory of a multi-organization rebuke of Gabon's incarceration of human rights and environmental activists. More recently Human Rights Watch included Gabon's Bongo in a report of foreign dictators of poor nations who live in luxury in the U.S. while their people go without. Freedom House's annual report downgraded the status of Gabon primarily due to the nation's crackdown of NGO's and civil society leaders. During a recent visit by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, President Ali Bongo vowed to make the spread of democracy and crack down on corruption in Gabon signature reforms of his administration. While Gabon has an Ombudsman institution in place, virtually no cases have been reported in years. Most internal human rights criticism comes from the opposition party's human rights NGO "Bongo Doit Partir Gabon Nouveau" who view the recent election of Ali Bongo as the perpetuation of a one-party dictatorship. It is still too early to determine whether Ali Bongo will institute real reform in Gabon that does indeed make the political process more democratic and transparent just as it is premature to determine if Ali will have the same mediating impact as his father.

Few places on earth conjure a more idyllic image as does French Polynesia. Spanning some 2 million square miles of the South Pacific (equal in size to continental Europe) and comprised of 130 islands in six groups, French Polynesia is an overseas territory of France. Dependent upon both tourism and development dollars from the motherland, commercial and political life in French Polynesia centers around the Marquesas Island Chain anchored by the capital city of Papeete on Tahiti Island. As it is a territory of France, the U.S. State Department includes them in the annual review of France thus making it difficult to specifically ascertain specific rights abuses in French Polynesia. This is further reiterated in the most recent U.N. Human Rights Council report on the Rights of the Child. Even more poignant is how Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Freedom House follow suit by providing absolutely no oversight of this distant and vast part of our world containing nearly 300,000 people. It is this isolation that gave France the incentive to make French Polynesia a focal point of post World War II era nuclear weapons testing. As one of the five nuclear states France tested 200 weapons in French Polynesia from 1966 until 1996 leading to confrontation with both anti-nuke protesters and indigenous populations uprooted from the islands selected for testing and likewise poisoned from contact with fallout. Bitterness over nuclear testing and victim compensation have served to create political divisions roughly formed along the question of independence.The three primary coalitions have been dominated by three men, Gaston Flosse, Oscar Temaru and Gaston Tong Sang. Over the last few decades each have contested and repeatedly won the Presidency of French Polynesia, presently held by Tong Sang. France has long fought against providing compensation for victims of nuclear testing in French Polynesia. This is most often fought in the courts which tends to side with France. The ability of the three political coalitions to craft legislation that challenges France and the courts leads to the instability of the ever shifting coalitions. As highlighted by Philip Schyle, President of the Territorial Assembly, getting the French government to admit fault dominates the nation's human rights battle. The Human Rights Ombudsman of France tends to weigh in support of compensation for the victims in French Polynesia. On the local level, however the Human Rights League of French Polynesia is focusing on Women's Rights and the on-going issue of domestic abuse, an on-going theme in French Polynesian society recently put to prose.

While globalization may offer economic opportunity to even the most remote of place, with it should come a commitment to human rights oversight. We can not, on one hand, exploit the resources of distant nations and, on the other hand, fail to take responsibility for assuring the rights and democratic development of those people who are now providers and consumers. If we are to upset the tranquility that comes with cultural isolation we are equally responsible that chaos is not all that is left in globalization's wake.

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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Human rights and a passion for small places

Keeping track of the human rights and democratic status of 232 nations is, to say the least, a challenge. Having completed a third cycle or "tour" as I've come to think of them, I am ever mindful of the time I invest per week (about 15 hours) to keep these reports as current and timely as possible. Of course it is a healthy regurgitation of my daily news consumption as I spit out those relevant morsels of data that reflect the status of human rights and democracy in the world.

I took a few weeks off after the last "tour" to weigh my options and await publication of the 2009 U.S. State Department Human Rights Report, which is released in the first quarter of the following year. I often wonder if my passion for human rights and the advancement of democracy is enough of a reason to continue maintaining the 700+ page website and to keep up with the data as religiously as I do. I took that time to assess my next step and contemplated abandoning the project and focusing on editing my novel which has been on the back burner for this and, well, there are so many reasons that I'll have to make another posting specifically for that purpose. But as I rolled around my options, four seemingly random events took place which brought me right back here to doing what I am compelled to do.

The first came shortly after I completed the final report of the last cycle which was on the African nation of Niger. They had recently undergone a coup led by a lower level Army officer which had done little to capture the attention of even the Nigerien newspapers as no photo of him had ever been published. I found a video of a speech by coup members on YouTube, but the only identified member of the group was a spokesmen who read from a sheet on behalf of the group. I watched the video over and over and tried to figure out which of the 30 or so men may be the coup leader and no one obviously jumped out. After watching it a few dozen times I was about to pack it in when I caught the flash of a name tag on one of the officers. I played the segment over and over and finally convinced myself that those blurry letters indeed said Djibo so I vid-captured the image and published it, the first identified photo published of him as far as I can ascertain. His identity was confirmed a few weeks later when the BBC published an interview of him with accompanying photo. I had, indeed, found the right man and opted to keep my more candid photo; however, I did use their photo of the Prime Minister who, as it turns, was the spokesman who read the statement. Interestingly, my mother-in-law commented on that photo. She's a news junkie and keeps up with the posts, and she noted how quickly I had info on the coup members (just slightly behind Reuters, BBC and AFP but a full day ahead of domestic news sources). It was a proud moment.

The second was a note I got from someone who had seen one of my photos of Guinea and wanted to let me know that I had misidentified it. I corrected it, replacing it and added the appropriate citation on the Mali page and marveled that someone had been there and knew those houses on that road in a distant African nation. I was fascinated and impressed.

The third incentive was a conversation I had with the president of my Union Lodge. Being that our facility is way in the middle of nowhere with only a dozen members, it is a rare occasion when the Lodge President makes a foray into the swamp to see us. While we were talking, he made mention of the fact that we have so little participation with many of the committees our IAM supports, and he mentioned the Human Rights Committee and how he was the sole member from the region. My ears perked and I directed him to the website. I think he was somewhat impressed. I have to give serious consideration if I have the time and energy to commit to the effort but, it is my passion so, I'm considering it.

The most recent incentive was my daughter's school play. Elea just starred as A Baby Kangaroo in the Musical "Seussical Jr.", an ambitious effort staged by her Elementary School (1 1/2 hours, no intermission and four performances.) It's cute and it's hard to hate Dr. Seuss even in musical form but there was this song, Alone In The Universe, and, I must confess, the song really captured the importance of seemingly quixotic endeavors such as this.

It was for this reason that I launched back into project this week. While many may be aware of the major human rights issues which periodically filter into the news such as the conflicts surrounding immigration reform and Guantanamo, it is the small issues that fascinate me particularly from those tiny places on the map that most people have never heard of. Because we seldom hear or think of these places, we have no idea how greatly people struggle everyday just to have the most basic of rights. The few dozen people worldwide who may be involved in either directly liberating, repressing or reporting on these struggles both profit and lose because of their obscurity. For them, these victims of isolation, they are Alone in The Universe and invisible because they lack any voice. Mine may be small, but it is free, and perhaps in this forum I can amplify their pleas just a bit.

So, now I add a few more dimension to my reportage. Every weekday you can learn more about the Country of the Day and breaking events via Twitter or My Space (eventually Facebook will follow. It is, alas, inevitable.)

Every weekend I hope to recap that week's updates with a brief SUMMARY of most current events. You may wonder what difference the rights of a person in a far off, obscure nation means to you. Setting aside the obvious compassion component, it is important to realize that every thing, every where, is a result of American and western foreign policy. What Americans do, think and buy directly impacts people in distant places because every nation reacts to what we do. It is for this reason that our government selectively highlights its efforts on behalf of and to the detriment of rights. Our news media is too concerned with titillating you to actually inform you and our schools, both elementary and secondary, cynically believe that Americans are too dim-witted or distracted to want to learn anything beyond pop trivia and subjects that will contribute to a six figure income.

I don't believe that. More accurately, I can't believe that. I believe we are products of our influences and when properly steered and motivated, we can do great things no one thinks WE can do. I think the 2008 election is a perfect example.

So, without further adieu, here are this week's reports. Some are familiar detailing important nations conducting significant human rights efforts. Others are much less familiar, and, from them, I hope you have a chance to learn important things about these small places. Their efforts, in my view, are most intriguing.

We lead off with the first nation I ever reported on, North Korea. They are back in the news with concerns that they were somehow linked to the sinking of a South Korean Navy ship which went down in the maritime border waters, though at present no concrete evidence nor claim of responsibility has been issued. As has been the case since the first U.S. State Department Human Rights Report, North Korea was generally condemned for its denial of even the most fundamental human rights, a fact which North Korea annually dispute passionately. Few nations or rights bodies are sympathetic to the North Korean government as detailed by Amnesty International urging the United Nations not to let North Korea stave off transparent reportage through a "No Action Motion." Human Rights Watch stayed on that theme reminding the United Nations that North Korea is the only nation which has continually denied the Human Rights Special Rapporteur access to the nation. Freedom House continued to issue their lowest "freedom" score, highlighting the general disappointment shared by rights activists who had hoped that a first of its kind visit to Pyongyang by the New York Philharmonic would inspire that nation's leaders to begin opening the nation to more cultural exchange with the west and South Korea. In their defense, North Korea Foreign Minister Pak Kil Yon tried to argue that their sovereign rights trumped any effort by any body, including the United Nations, to use sanctions for human rights concerns as a fundamental attack on their sovereignty. As hostile as North Korea is towards international rights bodies, their absolute control over all elements of society eliminates any possibility of domestic human rights groups to operate within the country, thus domestic rights groups tend to be organization ran by North Korean defectors writing from South Korea and the west. Citizens Alliance for North Korean Human Rights issue a report on the state of education in North Korea culled from defector interviews and the crisis due to the controls of the state and the proliferation of the black market which trades in everything, including pulp wood meant for textbooks. Likewise NKNET, an award-wining human rights group based in Seoul, South Korea issued a report detailing the systematic destruction of houses and the forced eviction of hundreds of thousands of North Korea's poorest people to make way for the construction of an upscale housing community.

The State Department, not surprisingly, does not issue an annual assessment of the United States or its dependents. Instead, the U.S. Human Rights Network issues an annual "Shadow Report" to fill the breech. This year strongest criticism was leveled on the United States to embrace The Campaign for a New Domestic Human Rights Agenda, a program devised by a coalition of rights groups which calls on the Obama Administration to establish a form of accountability for forwarding human rights at home and abroad. The UN Human Rights Council leveled its own criticism on the U.S, and the changing face of American homelessness brought on by the recent financial crisis and its disproportional effect on the housing market. Amnesty International dovetailed its observations into the health care debate to highlight the shockingly dismal state of maternity and prenatal care in America while Human Rights Watch appealed to the United States to drop charges against a child soldier apprehended in Afghanistan when he was 15 and is presently being held at Guantanamo.In contrast to North Korea, Freedom House gave the highest marks for freedom to the United States. During his Nobel Prize acceptance lecture, President Obama waxed eloquently his aspirations for American human rights. Despite America's long promotion of human rights, it is one of the few western nations that lacks an official human rights institution or ombudsman. Rather the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights generally serves this purpose as detailed in a letter to the Department of Justice regarding voter intimidation in recent elections. The Center For Constitutional Rights which has been one of the most harsh critics of Guantanamo Prison, reports on the dismissal of a lawsuit by family members of two men who died in U.S. custody at Gitmo.

Benin is one of those small nations most people know little about. Occupying a narrow strip of West Africa's Gold Coast, Benin is one of the continent's most stable democracies under the leadership of a President Thomas Yayi Boni. Harsh prison conditions and a culture of legal impunity are among the harshest criticisms of the U.S. State Department while food insecurity and its effects on democratic development was the focal point of the UN Special Rapporteur's most recent Mission to Benin. Prison conditions and the death penalty were likewise criticized by Amnesty International while, in contrast it has been nearly seven years since Human Rights Watch and their chief concern was the pressure being exerted by the Bush Administration on aid dependent countries like Benin to not support the International Criminal Court who was then looking to pursue actions against the U.S. for its invasion of Iraq. Freedom House gives Benin a "Free" score of 2 but cites corruption as its chief concern and barrier to the highest marks. In a UN General Assembly Debate, Benin's Foreign Minister highlighted the nations effort to stamp out female genital mutilation and efforts to establish equal rights for women as a triumph of human rights achievement. Benin's Mediateur, the nation's ombudsman,made his first ever appearance before the present an annual report of rights and corruption while it has been nearly 5 years since Institut de Droits de l'Homme et de Promotion de la Democratie, Benin's human rights organization has made any formal report.

When it comes to small places, the South Pacific island nation of Niue is among the smallest. With only 1400 residents (the vast majority living in New Zealand) Niue is a member of the British Commonwealth and requires substantial aid from England due to its geographic isolation and small population. The U.S. State Department includes them in New Zealand's annual human rights report and does not have diplomatic representation on the island but positively acknowledges the participation of women in the political structure. While the United Nations does not specifically report on human rights conditions in Niue, it does cite New Zealand's support for the Niue Declaration on Climate Change. Small, isolated states, particularly those in remote reaches like the South Pacific quite often miss out from human rights protection assured through periodic review. This was pointed out by Amnesty International who noted that, because New Zealand has only a limited amount of control over the affairs of Niue, its people do not enjoy certain rights protection safeguarded in periodic review at the United Nations. In contrast Human Rights Watch cited the influence that even the smallest states like Niue can exert such as President Talagi's chairmanship of the Pacific Islands Forum and the pressure it can bring to bear on the Fiji junta. Because of Niue's special relationship with New Zealand, Freedom House does not issue an annual report nor, unfortunately did they receive mention in the New Zealand report. And yet, to its Pacific neighbors, Niue played a very important role in addressing climate change as detailed by President Talagi in his farewell address as Chair of the Pacific Islands Forum. A critical challenge to Niue is the absence of opportunity available to its citizens. As over 22,000 Niueans live in New Zealand versus the 1,500 who live on the island, the New Zealand Human Rights Commission made steps to protect the distinct language and culture of the island. This unique culture, very center on tribal traditions and families came into conflict with Indian immigrants who were lured to Niue with promises of jobs and land after paying a broker for the opportunity. Neither the jobs nor property manifested and the men were left in squalor according to International Organization for Migrants.

French Guiana is unique to South America as it is the only country that is still a possession of a European nation, as an overseas department of France. French Guiana suffers from chronic illegal immigration as clandestine gold prospectors from Brazil and Suriname pore over the border to mine illegally in lands belonging to indigenous people. Originally settled as a penal colony infamously chronicled in the tales of Devil's Island, poor prison conditions continue to be a hallmark of French Guiana as reported by the U.S. State Department. This brutal reality was also documented by the United Nations Committee against Torture. As with all Caribbean States, Amnesty International counted French Guiana among the nations surveyed with respect to the recent Summit of the Americas. Human Rights Watch has never issued any specific report on French Guiana. In fact, its most recent mention was in a 1992 report on Suriname detailing thousands of Maroons, former slaves, escaping political violence by deeply penetrating the interior of French Guiana. Such was also the case with Freedom House who did not even mention them in the annual report on France. Periodically, bids of independence are raised by segments of the population however, in a recent ballot initiative, 70% of French Guiana's citizens voted to remain part of France. With respect to prison conditions, the Mediateur of French Guiana has undertaken investigating and reporting on conditions with the goal of improvement. Indigenous issues are an on-going concern in French Guiana as France goes about balancing its relationship with native populations while forwarding the commercial goals of France. Mining, both legal and illicit, has made a dramatic impact on indigenous people both in violation of sovereign territories as well as environmental damage, most significantly, mercury poisoning from gold mining as detailed in a letter from indigenous rights organizations to French President Sarkozy.

Advancing human rights is an on-going endeavor. While issues may be local, they often times have global significance when merged into the stream of events and practices that put the interest of the people in confrontation with the goals of the state. Next week, we'll look at the endeavors of rights activists in Iceland, Turkmenistan, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Gabon and French Polynesia.

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Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Peace, love and... bombs?

So, I found myself in a conversation with an old friend the other day. She called because she was a bit concerned that I had gone off the grid these last few years. For anyone who knows me, that in itself isn't so unusual. I am an obsessive individual and prone to dwelling intensely on whatever is fascinating me at that moment.

What concerned her was the obvious change of life I had undergone since throwing in the towel on my radio career back in 2006. When I moved the family to Mexico for 9 months, many assumed I would eventually return to Wilmington to resume my profession. Rather, I relocated to the Outer Banks and briefly returned to radio while doing the things a man does to shop a very large work of historical fiction.

I've always been proud of my service in the Marine Corps even though that seems like a lifetime ago. Never would I have imagined, some 20 years later that there would be a civilian application for my very specialized training. My friend knew of my military past but also know how vocal I had been in my opposition to the invasion of Iraq. She wondered, as I had ventured down this new "Pax Gaea" path, how was I reconciling that with my very martial, warrior-centric career?

Truthfully, I find no contradiction whatsoever. I am still a devoted advocate for peace. My dedication to promoting human rights, civil liberties and, yes even religious freedom (though I am evangelically humanistic) goes without question. My politics are decidedly liberal and progressive and my economic theories are quasi-socialists while my social ideals are exceedingly libertarian. These aspects of me have not changed in the least. Even my opposition to the War in Iraq persists.

What has changed is really not so much a revision of my viewpoint as much as a revival. I am still a jealous advocate of peace and a bottomless well of love for mankind. Yet I fail to understand how disconnected most people are to the world they live in and disenchanted with the seeming obtuseness of the average American. My former industry continues to traffic in the spewing of poisonous right wing bile, euphemistically called talk radio. Apparently stoking the fear of 50 something white male Luddites is one of the few remaining profit centers to be found in radio. I wish I could mourn the speeding demise of my former media but broadcasting is a victim of its own stupidity and shortsightedness. A decade ago it had the opportunity to outright own the internet as the rising communication, music and entertainment platform but it refused to invest the necessary tens of millions that are today yielding hundreds of billions of dollars for much wiser entrepreneurs.

One truly disconcerting reality is the rebirth of the right-wing militia movement. It was fascinating how those camouflage clad pretend soldiers scurried like rats into hiding after Timothy McVeigh blew up the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. No one of these brave "patriots" muttered a word when the PATRIOT ACT passed during the Bush Administration. But, Gaea help us, a politically moderate, mixed raced, constitutional scholar become president and every white, right wing fanatic comes out of the woodwork. In the last year there has been a run on gun and ammunition purchases as the NRA and the right wing propagandists stoke undereducated, disenfranchised middle aged men and women into a lather of fear that the government is coming for their guns. And yet, not a single piece of legislation has been introduced by the left to limit gun purchases.

These small minded, fear driven people hate my president. I may not always agree with his very wishy-washy middle-of-the-road policy approaches. I may have moments when I sense that he is just another corporatist wolf in progressive sheep's attire. But, ultimately, he is my president and I am proud of him and what he says about the potential of my country. He is my commander-in-chief and I take pride in the fact that I'm helping train the men and women he commands and who protect and defend the constitution we were so quick to bargain away on September 12.

I will continue to speak out for human rights and fundamental freedoms that come, not from a piece of paper or an allusive cloud dwelling being, but by virtue of our evolutionary achievement. I will continue to diligently strive for peace but preach self-defense to both my fellow American and every man, woman and child who lives under the lash of despotism. I will hope that reasonable men can meet and sincerely entreat on behalf of not only their tribe and nation but for all of mankind as well.

But I'm skeptical and cynical enough to realize that, despite my Utopian aspirations, lesser men and women haunt the halls of power and the temples of commerce with only selfish desires. It is for this reason I encourage men and women of conscience to work for peace but train for conflict. If more liberals and progressives could be compelled to serve their nation, people of great mental capacity and education couple their mental capacity coupled with martial expertise, then, and only then could we grind the machine of war and conflict to a screeching halt.

So, that's what I've been doing with my time off the grid. What have you been doing?

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Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Writing blogs in an era of Twitter

As much as I may have maligned the whole notion of Twitter, I must confess there is something quite addictive and almost compulsive in boiling down your thoughts and opinions to 140 characters. This, they say, is how the new media generation communicates and blogging in the traditional sense holds no value or interest to them.

Of course, Twitter being a spin off of texting, it is only natural that the generations who have grown up with a cellphone as standard accessory would influence how we communicate. And for those of us who have had to struggle just to keep moderately apace of the ever changing world that is the "new media" we do, at times, find the inner Luddite in us toeing lines in the sand as to how much were going to chase each trend that comes along. I'm still putting my money on "My Space" making a come back so that I can joyously puff to all my kith and kindred who migrated to Facebook that theirs was a fool's errand (though, I'm not holding my breath.)

Suffice it to say that when a colleague invited me to join Twitter I initially scoffed but gave in as so many of the people I respect were "tweeting." And I've come to realize that Twitter does have it's advantages and attractiveness that makes it a worthwhile addition to the toolkit of even the most gray bearded of the new media user. As a headline generator.

Which is how I use it. For the most part I concentrate on posting my daily updates to the Pax Gaea Human Rights Report and tweeting the headine of the most current or relevant human rights article to promote the update. This in turn gets reposted on the Red Meat Liberal My Space page thus, hopefully, expanding the potential audience base through retweeting.

Of course, not far down the road, some other 14 years old tech geek will invent the next thing to obsolete Twitter (in fact, I'm sure the more savvy of you are already using the new form.) But, for now, Twitter, My Space and the periodic blog works just fine for me.

I'll broaden further when the need calls for it. In the interim, where's my eight track player jamming a Quadrophonic Wall of Sound?

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Monday, April 20, 2009

Kim Jong's World

Having just updated North Korea's Human Rights Report page, it strikes me how this nation seems perpetually stuck in neutral.

North Korea achieved an important concession last October when the U.S. State Department officially removed them from the List of State Sponsors of Terrorism. It was hoped that this would invigorate the stalemated six-party talks focused on North Korea's suspected attempts to enrich plutonium to weapons' grade. It looked as if North Korea was on the road to normalizing relations with the outside world, a process started in the 90's when the two Koreas had made diplomatic and commercial steps which gave many the impression that the peninsula was on its way to unification.

But North Korea, one of the world's last Cold War relics, remains perpetually paranoid and suspicious of the west, particularly the United States. Not that the fear is totally unfounded. While North and South Korea officially stopped fighting in 1953, a peace treaty has never been forged. Rather, the two nations have relied upon a cease-fire which effectively left the border militarized with about a million North Koreans, 500,000 South Koreans and 25,000 American soldiers still stationed near the border. It is amazing the, some 56 years later, the United States has as many soldiers prepared to do battle with North Korea as it has in Afghanistan right now. Add that to the fact that South Korea's new president is much more conservative and much less accommodating then the previous administration seemed only to harden North Korea's resolve to give the impression that they are still ready to resume the Cold War anytime.

Kim Jong-Il is often painted as a brutal dictator who starves his people while pursuing a nuclear arsenal. Famine claimed an estimated 2.5 and 3 million North Koreans between 1995 and 1998 and the threat of returning famine and crop loss due to flooding has plagued the nation these last few years. And South Korea's President Lee has taken a hard line stance, insisting that food aid from the South be directly linked to progress made in the nuclear disarmament of the North. Consider also that rumours have persisted that Kim Jong-Il had experienced a stroke last summer and even North Korean press has stated that Kim is "not in the best of health" suggests that the government is sending up trial baloons for the North Koreans to prepare for a life without Kim. As none of Kim's sons are natural successors as he was to his father Kim Sun-Il, evidenced by the fact that none stood for legislative elections last month, it could be that, like Cuba, the cult of personality is becoming yet another Cold War relic which will may not be sustainable for dictatorships of the future.

Which begs the question, who is really in charge of North Korea? Some reports suggest Chang Sung Taek, Kim-Jong-Il's brother-in-law and head of the secret police. If so, perhaps that can help explain why two American journalists have been detained for supposedly illegally crossing into North Korea to report on a growing refugee flight from North Korea to China. Add to that the official "strongly worded statement" from the UN Security Council for North Korea's rocket launch over Japan and it seems that any attempts to break out of isolation have thus far fallen victim to North Korea's fear of the outside world.

Kim may be ill but, his reemergence from isolation may show that, at least to the powers that be, the people of North Korea feel at ease living in Kim Jong's world, even if he makes the rest of the planet uncomfortable in what seems to be an endless replay of the 50's. Not the sock hops and bobby socks... the duck and cover part.

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Back to work

So, after almost two years of neglect, it's time to get back to the Human Rights World Post. I wish time allowed me to elaborate on the long lapse since the last post or my intent for the future. Suffice it to say, I hope to use this space to give frequent updates on the state of human rights on both a macro level, such as the Human Rights Summit now underway in Geneva or my most recent Pax Gaea Human Rights Report. I just completed my second year and second round of updates, With over 240 countries and polling nearly 500 sources from Human Rights organizations around the globe, Pax Gaea is one of a kind.

Human Rights means different things to different people. For me, they mean the fundamental expectations that the governed should always expect from their government. It is not only because it is the right way to treat people but is the best assurance the world has towards achieving real and lasting peace. Basic decency, the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" is not just a loft ideal espoused some 233 years ago by American revolutionaries, but the very least we should all expect from those who lead and lord over us.

If you haven't checked out Pax Gaea in awhile, please do. Ours is a magnificent world peopled by fascinating, amazing, inspiring and, sometimes, heart-breaking individuals. We are a species with amazing potential and, sadly, seldom aware of how far we've come and how far we have to go before we live up to our ultimate potential.


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Sunday, November 25, 2007


In truth, I really should have no complaints.

After six years of dominating radio in Wilmington and being incredibly conservative in my spending habits, I was able to sell my home for twice what I paid for it, pay off both of my cars, wipe out all of my debt and escape to Mexico for nine months to write an epic novel that will likely prove to be a publishing phenomenon once it hits the shelves (we shant trifle with the when.)

After a year of writing, reconnecting with my family and traveling all over Mexico and the the United States, racking up 30,000 miles on the road, I was able to finally relocate to the Outer Banks which has been an aspiration for nearly 14 years. The radio group that hired me is very expressive of their gratefulness to have me, my girls are all quite happy to be sharing a stage in community theatre and our house which is just four blocks from the beach provides me a nightly symphony of crashing waves ans swirling winds to lull this latter day pirate off to a restful sleep. I should be quite content.

So why am I not?

I think because one of the high water marks in my life occurred last Thanksgiving in Patzcuaro. Not only did I have my wife and daughters with me but my dear friend Julie had flown down to Mexico to share our adventure for a week. We were all refugees from the mudane tradition of the pointless American ritual of Thanksgiving which clashes with my Native American sensibilities. And yet, here among American expatriates, Katrina emigres, Canadian dual citizens and Mexican nationals we found such joy in an impromptu celebration of a uniquely American tradition that didn't contain a single pilgrim's hat or prayer as we supped on chickens, frijoles, tortillas and beans of countless variety to the strums of banda and xydeco from our impromptu combo.

So, as you can imagine, memories of that most non-traditional Thanksgiving have dominated my thoughts. But even more were the hundreds of photos we were able to finally download from our camera that documented our trip back to the states. It carried us north through Mexico's central mountains, across the Sonoran desert to the southern mountains of Texas and north through New Mexico and Colorado. Those photos were a reminder of what we were slowly leaving behind as we continued north through Wyoming and slowly arcing east into the Black Hills of South Dakota. This is sacred land as we took in both the tributes to American bravado as exemplified in Mount Rushmore and the symbol of Native American pride as represented in the resurgence of Tatanka... the American Buffalo. I spiritually reconnected with my nation among those shaggy tranquil beasts who barely acknowledged our mechanical intrusions as engine and camera motor swirled and whirled about them, capturing these magnificent moments of breathless anachronism from the convenience of my Land Rover cabin. These moments with the buffalo and elk were the last of the new and unfamiliar for, the next day we would begin our journey southeast to roads I have previously traveled, through hills that were well paved and well worn with the pedestrian pedantics of the casual traveler and soon, very soon,we would be slipping back into the mainstream, the complacent ho-hum nature of commonplace America.

It is a lovely gray day here on the Outer Banks. Traffic slips down the bypass as those who are already caught up in the "spirit of Christmas," i.e. the post Thanksgiving shopping frenzy, make their way through the gentle rain to take advantage of that consumer orgy somehow representative of the birth of an infant some two thousand years ago, or so the story goes. The girls are off at the Theatre of Dare doing their final run throughs of Peter Pan before performances kick off next weekend. Tomorrow, I'll preach the merits of an 8% increase over last year's Black Friday weekend numbers with the goal of coaxing out a few more retailers to lure plastic bearing barons into their stores to spend money they don't have to buy things not necessarily wanted or needed for people they don't particularly care for. I'll play my part in the vapid, empty consumerism we call Christmas, focused on the next four weeks towards those few days bequeathed to the working man because Jesus grants a day off.

And every now and again, as Fabiola speeds me down Croatan Highway, my mind's eye will take in the vistas I've absorbed through her windshield down other roads. The sunrises and sunsets I've been treated to will briefly manifest, the hum of my wheels coursing methodically over asphalt will serenade me as I whisper gratefully the opportunity I have had to travel so many wondrous roads, counting each day until once again we seek out those less familiar byways that take my breath away.

For though I treasure each day I spend here on the Outer Banks, in truth, my home will always be over the next magnificent horizon.

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