Wednesday, February 28, 2018

An open letter to President Erdoğan from 38 Nobel laureates // Nobel Laureates Tell Myanmar’s Civil Leader: ‘Wake Up Or Face Prosecution’

Dear President Erdoğan,
We wish to draw your attention to the damage being done to the Republic of Turkey, to its reputation and the dignity and well-being of its citizens, through what leading authorities on freedom of expression deem to be the unlawful detention and wrongful conviction of writers and thinkers.

In a Memorandum on the Freedom of Expression in Turkey (2017), Nils Muižnieks, then Council of Europe commissioner for Human Rights, warned: “The space for democratic debate in Turkey has shrunk alarmingly following increased judicial harassment of large strata of society, including journalists, members of parliament, academics and ordinary citizens, and government action which has reduced pluralism and led to self-censorship. This deterioration came about in a very difficult context, but neither the attempted coup, nor other terrorist threats faced by Turkey, can justify measures that infringe media freedom and disavow the rule of law to such an extent.

“The authorities should urgently change course by overhauling criminal legislation and practice, redevelop judicial independence and reaffirm their commitment to protect free speech.”

There is no clearer example of the commissioner’s concern that the detention in September 2016 of Ahmet Altan, a bestselling novelist and columnist; Mehmet Altan, his brother, professor of economics and essayist; and Nazlı Ilıcak, a prominent journalist – all as part of a wave of arrests following the failed July 2016 coup. These writers were charged with attempting to overthrow the constitutional order through violence or force. The prosecutors originally wanted to charge them with giving “subliminal messages” to coup supporters while appearing on a television panel show. The ensuing tide of public ridicule made them change that accusation to using rhetoric “evocative of a coup”. Indeed, Turkey’s official Anatolia News Agency called the case “The Coup Evocation Trial”… read more:

Nobel Laureates Tell Myanmar’s Civil Leader: ‘Wake Up Or Face Prosecution’
Three Nobel Peace Prize winners sent a stark message to fellow laureate Aung San Suu Kyi on Wednesday: Bring an immediate end to the massacre of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, or face prosecution. Iran’s Shirin Ebadi, Yemen’s Tawakkol Karman and Northern Ireland’s Mairead Maguire are on a week-long humanitarian trip to Bangladesh, which now hosts some 700,000 Rohingya refugees. They say they’re planning to “take Myanmar’s government to the International Court of Justice.”

Security forces in Buddhist-majority Myanmar have waged a gruesome crackdown against the minority group over the past six months, causing mass displacement. Human rights groups have documented widespread, state-sanctioned violence against Rohingyas in western Myanmar, including rape, torture, shootings, arson and other forms of abuse and crimes against humanity.

Human rights activists have accused Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s civil leader and a former political prisoner and activist during the country’s decades-long military dictatorship, of turning a blind eye to the crisis, increasingly described as a genocide. She has neglected to condemn the atrocities committed against Rohingyas, and has even rejected critical reports as “misinformation.” 

As Myanmar’s government has tightened restrictions on desperately needed aid supplies and services in Rakhine state, Suu Kyi’s inaction has drawn rebukes from world leaders and sparked protests around the globe. Some activists have discussed revoking the Nobel Peace Prize she won in 1991 for “her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.”.. read more:

Photos From The 2018 Sony World Photography Awards

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Book review: How the horse helped shape our world — at great expense to itself

A Cultural History By Ulrich Raulff

Reviewed by  Melissa Holbrook Pierson

Melissa Holbrook Pierson is the author of “Dark Horses and Black Beauties,” among other books.
One animal was so decisive in shaping human history that the eminent historian Reinhart Koselleck proposed it as the sole organizing principle in a schema outlining the world’s three great epochs. These three ages, he believed, should be called pre-horse, horse and post-horse. The middle era lasted some 6,000 years. Transition to the post-horse period dates to the mid-20th century. In “Farewell to the Horse,” Ulrich Raulff has composed nothing less than a requiem Mass for this long-suffering, noble creature — a complex and lyrical argument that places the horse in a central role in the creation of the modern world. In his excavations of the 150-year period that makes up this long farewell, the author discovered something marvelous: “Horses had more meanings than bones.”

Radical change took shape when humans began to borrow - or rather, take by force - the horse’s speed and power. Raulff notes that the horse was a significant force in shaping history in large measure because a much smaller creature - man - harnessed and exploited its powerful capabilities. By asserting dominion over the horse - and thereby distant lands and peoples - humans galloped into the politics of conquest. Today horses are merely “the ghosts of modernity,” Raulff writes. But in the 19th century they “enjoyed a colossal literary and iconographic career.” Raulff takes us through the stupendous cultural shift from agraian life to urbanized industrialization to the actual and symbolic roles of the horse in war and science and art. He shows that beyond pulling carriages, carts and artillery caissons, horses propelled science into a new age as a crucial subject in the study of anatomy, geneology and locomotion. With its contributions to increased production, improved transport and communication, and border crossings, the horse was “an outstanding agent of modernization.” In his searching examination of the horse’s symbolic significance, Raulff illustrates how the animal represented notions of victory, sovereignty, wealth, death and nobility.

But under the yoke of humans, horses have suffered. The poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller summed up the plight of Parisian horses in a line of an unfinished play he left behind after his death in 1805: “Paris is paradise for women, purgatory for men, hell for horses.” Horses fared no better in war. While 600,000 men lost their lives in the Civil War, some 1.5 million horses and mules also perished. Fighting the cavalry meant aiming a death shot at its largest target. In World War I, as Raulff writes, “by the final climax of the fighting on the Western Front in August 1918, the life expectancy of an artillery horse on the front was ten days.”

Peacetime was not very kind to horses, either. At the turn of the 20th century some 130,000 horses were at work on any given day in New York City, and 20 of them died daily. Raulff appropriately draws on a man whose name is synonymous with cruelty in an early anecdote. In January 1766, the police investigated an incident in Paris at the edge of the Place des Victoires involving a cab driver, his horse and an elegant aristocrat. The aristocrat had become enraged when the cab blocked his carriage, and in response, he had beaten the horse with his sword and stabbed it in the abdomen. “The signature on the ensuing legal document was that of an irascible character,” Raulff writes, “the Marquis de Sade.”

Today the horse is a creature from a lost pastoral myth. We commune with its spirit through literature and art, in the works of Flaubert, Tolstoy, Hardy, Kafka, Rosa Bonheur, George Stubbs and Edgar Degas. Raulff has given us an eloquent epitaph for the horse’s long relevance to our world.

The Critical Zone of Science and Politics: Steve Paulson interviews Bruno Latour

BRUNO LATOUR HAS NEVER been easy to pin down. He straddles disciplines, from sociology to philosophy, and for the last four decades has been a formidable intellectual presence around the world. Now, in what would seem to be his third - or is it fourth? - incarnation, Latour is marshaling his critical firepower to warn us about the environmental and political consequences of climate change. His new book, Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime (published in France in 2015 and just released in English translation), digs deeply into debates about nature, culture, and the Anthropocene. Latour first made his name nearly 40 years ago by chastising scientists for their hubris and naïveté. He helped launch the discipline of science and technology studies (STS), arguing that the social dimensions of how scientists work can’t be separated from the truth claims they make. As a result, Latour was accused of undermining the credibility of science. His critics lumped him into the same camp as postmodern relativists — a label he denies. Still, he wonders if his earlier efforts to question the authority of scientists led unwittingly to climate change skepticism. As he pondered in a 2003 article, “Was I wrong to participate in the invention of the field known as science studies? […] Why does it burn my tongue to say that global warming is a fact whether you like it or not?”
Latour then waded into cultural debates about modernity. Declaring (in the title of a celebrated 1991 volume) “we have never been modern,” he claimed that it was wrong to believe that human culture had ever really separated from the nonhuman world. More recently, Latour has plunged into the fight against climate change and the larger intellectual project of the Anthropocene. And he’s done this by embracing the Gaia theory advanced in the 1970s by maverick British scientist James Lovelock. In 2013, Latour gave the Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh, which he turned into Facing GaiaAt times, harkening back to his days as a PhD student in theology, Latour invokes the language of religion to warn about an impending “apocalypse.” What’s not commonly known about Latour is that he is a practicing Catholic who reads the Bible devotedly — not exactly the image of a man famous for questioning universal truths. 

Now 70, Latour recently retired from his job running the Sciences Po Medialab in Paris, but he shows no signs of slowing down. In addition to his ongoing scientific investigations, he has written plays and is collaborating on various projects that bring together science and art. In one ongoing project, he’s considering whether the life of Lovelock could be fodder for a play in the same way that Brecht once wrote about Galileo.

I met Latour in October 2017 in Chicago, where he was teaching a workshop and giving a series of lectures. Our interview ranged widely over his life and interests. We talked about environmental politics in the age of Trump, his abiding fascination with religion, and his experience growing up in a family of renowned wine growers. After decades of academic jousting with the scientific community, Latour has emerged as something of an éminence grise. Now scientists are asking him to help make their case for the validity of climate change research. The irony is hard to miss.

STEVE PAULSON: Facing Gaia has positioned you prominently among scholars and intellectuals speaking out about climate change. Has this issue been a longtime concern of yours?

BRUNO LATOUR: I’ve been interested in the politics of nature for 30 years. I’m not a naturalist. I don’t follow bugs and spiders and animals. I’m not like many other people who got into this cause because of their interest in nature. My interest is in the way science works. I’ve read Lovelock very carefully for many years, and when debates about the Anthropocene became common in intellectual circles, I was surprised that Lovelock and [Lynn] Margulis’s argument was not being discussed by philosophers and even not very much by ecologists.

I think a lot of scientists wonder if the Gaia theory is real science or some kind of pseudoscience.
They hesitate when they are coming from biology, but not when they come from earth systems science. Lovelock has been very instrumental in the development of this discipline. It’s the people who are interested in biology and ethology who are most suspicious of Lovelock because he arrived during the dawning of the New Age movement. That was to his detriment, but in fact the theory is extremely important and interesting.

Many people who aren’t scientists have adopted Lovelock’s idea of Gaia as a way of thinking that the Earth is alive.
Yes, but that’s a big misunderstanding precisely because for Lovelock the Earth is not itself an organism. That would not be so interesting scientifically but would be terrible politically. It would resurrect all sorts of natural theology arguments and ideas about the cosmic universe. My interpretation of Gaia, which is based on a close reading of Lovelock and also a lot of interactions with scientists, is about the chemistry of the Earth’s surface being modified or transformed by the activity of lifeforms. It’s like a termite mound. The termite mound is dead, but it’s only there because of the activity of the termites. And so with the gases in the atmosphere. It’s like a biofilm. It’s just the skin of the Earth. That’s why it’s so interesting.

My aim is to contribute to a precise definition of Gaia as a political entity. Of course, this is a very difficult thing to do. What sort of entity are we dealing with? Does it impose sovereignty on nation-states? And then there is a very interesting connection between Gaia and the Anthropocene, which is one small moment in the history of Gaia but is of course very important for us as a species.

Is the Anthropocene a useful concept? Does it help us understand this historic period in a way we hadn’t really before?
Unlike many of my colleagues in the humanities and social sciences, I think the Anthropocene is very useful. It’s basically an alternative to the idea of modernity... read more:!

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BRUNO LATOUR - The Enlightenment Without the Critique: A Word on Michel Serres' Philosophy

Hiroshima (is) the only date in history that he takes as a real turning-point; the earth has been shaking ever since. His rupture with epistemology... comes from this realization: all these eminent gentlemen are deaf to the noise made by the atomic bomb; they go on as if physics was business as usual; as if the emergence of thanatocrat - his word for the black triad made by scientists politicians and industrialists- had not reshuffled for ever the relations between society and the sciences… The mob in a state of crisis cannot agree on anything but on a victim, a scapegoat, a sacrifice. Beneath any boundary is buried a sacrificial victim..

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Sharia law in operation: Indonesian couple flogged in public // Kate Lamb: Indonesia still fighting ghosts of communism

Two Indonesian Christians were publicly flogged in conservative Aceh province Tuesday for playing a children’s entertainment game seen as violating Islamic law. Hundreds of onlookers ridiculed and took pictures of the pair were who were among five people – including a couple whipped two dozen times each for showing affection in public – who were lashed with a rattan stick. Aceh is the only province in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country that imposes sharia law and people can be flogged for a range of offences – from gambling, to drinking alcohol to having gay sex or relations outside of marriage.

On Tuesday, Dahlan Silitonga, 61, and Tjia Nyuk Hwa, 45, were flogged six and seven times respectively after being arrested for playing a long-standing game at a children’s entertainment complex that lets users exchange coins for prizes or vouchers, including cash. The pair were accused of gambling while another man Ridwan MR got 19 lashes for being involved in the game. “This is to create a deterrent effect, in order for people not to repeat violations of Islamic sharia law,” Banda Aceh’s mayor Aminullah Usman said. “We purposely do it in front of the public ... so it won’t happen again.” About 300 spectators, including some two dozen tourists from neighbouring Malaysia, jeered the gambling-accused trio as they were whipped on a makeshift stage outside a mosque.  “You are old, show remorse,” the crowd screamed. Non-Muslim Tjia Nyuk Hwa tried to hide her face in a specially provided white cloak with head-covering hijab.

The two Christians are among just a handful of non-Muslims to be punished under Aceh’s strict religious law since it was adopted in 2001 as part of a deal with the central government to end a long-running insurgency. In January, an Indonesian Christian was flogged for selling alcohol in the province at the tip of Sumatra island, which made headlines recently after local police publicly humiliated a group of transgender women. About 98% of Aceh’s five million residents are Muslims subject to religious law. Non-Muslims who have committed an offence that violates both national and religious laws can choose to be prosecuted under either system. Christians and other non-Muslims sometimes choose a flogging to avoid a lengthy court process and jail term.

Indonesia still fighting ghosts of communism
The epic 1984 propaganda film, which depicts communists as violent savages, is being played in villages, mosques and to the military. During the Suharto era it was mandatory viewing – aired on state television every 30 September until his downfall in 1998. As part of this latest offensive the military has also issued an internal memo to its troops to restrict screenings of Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2014 documentary film The Look of Silence. That film depicts a rather different version of events – one that explores the violence of the Indonesian state.

According to historians, in 1965-1966 Islamic youth and paramilitary groups with military backing massacred between 500,000 and one million suspected communists across the country.

More than half a century later that bloody purge remains deeply sensitive. No one has ever been held to account. It is why the military is attempting to limit Oppenheimer’s film, and why the ghosts of communism continue to be dredged up even though the ideology has been outlawed here since 1966.
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Zoe Williams: Brexit has created chaos in Britain – nobody voted for this // Aeron Davis: Is the British establishment finally finished?

The slash-and-burn gaiety of the coalition government has evolved into something more Kafkaesque: a system that doesn’t work for anybody, on any terms, which is more costly but also more painful, and in which all reasonable objection is met with the blank inaction of a frozen polity.

The sense that a Conservative government might be callous is not an unfamiliar one: the contention that actual deaths have resulted from discernible policies is one that only slick-looking men on magazine-format current affairs programmes put any gusto into denying. Yet there is a creeping suspicion that the government has completely ground to a halt. Crises don’t erupt, because there is nobody to deal with them. New policies can’t be announced, because there is nobody to make them. 

The regular business of the state, to maintain its institutions, react to challenge, find solutions, learn from mistakes and - at its very simplest - make sure its citizens survive, has been suspended.  Brexit has been consuming all its oxygen since the referendum was announced. It is astonishing that such an amorphous, deadlocked project could have so much impact: but it has suffocated the government’s ability to respond to anything else. The crisis in the prison service is perhaps the starkest example. No modern state would undertake to lock people up if it couldn’t assure sanitary conditions and basic safety. Yet violence in prisons, both attacks and self-harm, is at its highest levels since records began. Liverpool prison, the inspection of which last year yielded medieval tales of rats and cockroaches, this month saw its third suicide since September. An urgent notification from the prisons inspectorate found that conditions in Nottingham jail had declined to the point where prisoners were in danger of death… read more:

Aeron Davis:  Is the British establishment finally finished?
After the vote for Brexit, David Cameron and George Osborne were suddenly cast adrift, while the Bank of England and captains of industry found themselves wondering who to support. The Conservative party – their political party, the only one they had ever supported – was following a course of action they thought would wreck the economy. Sterling and the FTSE 100 index plummeted. Shareholders began revolting and bankers relocating.

A year later, the establishment seemed to be recovering once again. And then came the snap June 2017 election. The Conservatives, with all their resources and an initial 20-point poll lead, lost their majority. Theresa May was outperformed by a badly dressed, pacifist republican with no money, no media support and a shadow cabinet that could fit in a phone box. The Tory party was left negotiating a Brexit deal with a dead duck leader, a hung parliament, and no idea of what outcomes the establishment wanted.

All of which suggests that it might be time to question whether the British establishment still functions as it once did. Yes, some members of the elite have become very rich. They are still united in their fear and loathing of leftwing ideas and ordinary people. They are still highly skilled when it comes to pursuing their self-interest. Their decisions still have powerful consequences that are widely felt. But they seem to be less able to exert control or predict what those consequences will be.. 

Monday, February 26, 2018

ANNA NEMTSOVA - Is Russia Ruining the World’s Oldest and Deepest Lake?

For centuries, ancient Baikal has inspired art and religion among all ethnic groups living peacefully around Baikal—Shamanists and Buddhists here tie up colorful ribbons to trees in gratitude, with wishes whispered; Orthodox believers build churches on the lake’s banks. Some residents pray to the planet’s holy jewel, to preservation of their Siberian sea.

Others do not care whether the lake will stay clean for thousands of years, and have taken to dumping sewage into it. The road to Listvianka ended suddenly at a cliff, outside a red brick, multi-story hotel called Gold, of dubious reputation. Last February, locals watched a disgusting scene: yellow liquid was running right out onto Baikal’s ice from a hose that stretched from the hotel. This time, it was dirty laundry water. “Washing powder that contains phosphate is very dangerous for the lake’s species,” Marina Rikhvanova, a senior ecologist from Irkutsk told The Daily Beast. “The pollution causes overwhelming growth of Spirogyra algae, which pushes out Baikal’s endemic sponge, the key cleaner of Baikal’s water, and destroys invertebrate organisms, the main food for Baikal’s fish.”

Today Lake Baikal, like a huge mirror, reflects Russia’s core challenges of indifference to human rights, disregard for a threatened environment, and the power of corruption and authoritarian pressure on independent voices that are crucial for increasing public awareness.

Five years ago, the Russian Justice Ministry listed 29 environmental groups as “foreign agents” for working on foreign grants and being a threat to Russia’s security. Conservationists, previously working on increasing public environmental awareness, became tied up with solving legal issues, struggling to prove that they were no harm to Russia’s security. As a result of the new law’s pressure, 14 green groups labeled as “foreign agents” have stopped their activity, Human Rights Watch reported last year... read more:

Tom Phillips - 'Dictator for life': Xi Jinping's power grab condemned as step towards tyranny // China bans the letter N from the internet as Xi Jinping extends grip on power

The news broke at three minutes to four on a chilly winter’s afternoon in a two-sentence bulletin.
“The Communist party of China central committee proposed to remove the expression that the president and vice-president of the People’s Republic of China‘shall serve no more than two consecutive terms’ from the country’s constitution,” Xinhua, China’s official news wire, reported. “The proposal was made public Sunday.”  It was a typically dreary communique from the party-controlled propaganda agency. But to those who have spent their lives battling to decrypt the enigma that is elite Chinese politics, the text’s historic significance was unmissable.

“A bombshell,” said Susan Shirk, one of the United States’ foremost China specialists.  “I wasn’t anticipating such an open declaration of the new regime … I thought maybe he would stop short of this.” “He” is China’s 64-year-old leader, Xi Jinping, a man who, after Sunday’s sensational and unexpected announcement, appears poised to lead the world’s second largest economy and one of its largest military forces well into next decade and quite possibly beyond.  “It means that for a long time into the future, China will continue to move forwards according to Xi’s thoughts, his route, his guiding principles and his absolute leadership,” said Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor from Beijing’s Renmin University.

Olga Ingurazova - How Social Conservatism Fueled Russia’s HIV Epidemic

In January 2016, Russia registered its millionth HIV-positive person, a 26-year-old woman. Actual numbers are likely much higher, according to health experts. Across much of the world, including the United States, the rate of HIV is declining, thanks to strategic programs like clean needle exchanges, increased awareness and better access to anti-retroviral therapy. In the U.S., for example, the annual number of overall HIV diagnoses decreased by 5 percent between 2011 and 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

But that’s not the case in Russia: Here, the rate of HIV infections is rising faster than in sub-Saharan Africa, host to the world’s largest HIV epidemic, where an international effort has slashed the rate of new HIV infections. Vadim Pokrovsky, head of Moscow’s Federal AIDS Center, has called Russia’s HIV epidemic a “national catastrophe,” using language rarely uttered by government officials, let alone the loathed, politically charged “e” word: epidemic. 

Russia’s growing HIV crisis is seemingly no match for the Orthodox Church, which preaches faith and family values as the cure-all for the virus. A burgeoning alliance between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the church in recent years has fueled an environment where sexual education in schools is forbidden, clean needle programs are shunned as sinful and attacks on women’s and gay rights are state-sanctioned.

“In Russia, the church and the state go together,” said Ivanova, the HIV-positive activist, shaking her head. “They talk about how sexual education will only worsen the [HIV] problem. It’s a wave — you really feel it.”.. read more:

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Almost four environmental defenders a week killed in 2017

The slaughter of people defending their land or environment continued unabated in 2017, with new research showing almost four people a week were killed worldwide in struggles against mines, plantations, poachers and infrastructure projects. The toll of 197 in 2017 – which has risen fourfold since it was first compiled in 2002 – underscores the violence on the frontiers of a global economy driven by expansion and consumption.

“The situation remains critical. Until communities are genuinely included in decisions around the use of their land and natural resources, those who speak out will continue to face harassment, imprisonment and the threat of murder,” said Ben Leather, senior campaigner for Global Witness. But there was a glimmer of hope that after four consecutive increases, the number of deaths has flattened off, amid growing global awareness of the crisis and a renewed push for multinational companies to take more responsibility and for governments to tackle impunity. 

Most of the killings occurred in remote forest areas of developing countries, particularly in Latin America where the abundance of resources is often in inverse proportion to the authority of the law or environmental regulation. Extractive industries were one of the deadliest drivers of violence, according to the figures, which were shared exclusively with the Guardian in an ongoing collaboration with Global Witness to name every victim.

Mining conflicts accounted for 36 killings, several of them linked to booming global demand for construction materials.  In India, three members of the Yadav family: Niranjan, Uday and Vimlesh, were murdered last May as they tried to prevent the extraction of sand from a riverbank by their village of Jatpura. In Turkey, a retired couple, Ali and Aysin Büyüknohutçu, were gunned down in their home after they won a legal battle to close a marble quarry that supplied blocks for upscale hotels and municipal monuments.

The hunger for minerals was also blamed for turning the Andes into a “war zone” with high-profile conflicts between indigenous groups and the owners of Las Bambas copper mine in Peru and El Cerrejón coal mine in Colombia. Agribusiness was the biggest driver of violence as supermarket demand for soy, palm oil, sugarcane and beef provided a financial incentive for plantations and ranches to push deeper into indigenous territory and other communal land... read more:

GRAŻYNA BARANOWSKA - The right to truth denied

Appeals to the European Court of Human Rights to enforce the ‘right to truth’ in connection with the Franco regime and the Katyń massacre have been refused on procedural grounds. A long history of delayed justice has become a permanent case of justice denied, argues human rights lawyer Grażyna Baranowska.

In recent decades, the jurisprudence of international human rights tribunals has aimed at crystallising the ‘right to the truth’. This concept was developed in the context of enforced disappearances in South American countries but has also been invoked in dealing with the past in Europe, for instance in the case of accounting for the crimes of the Franco regime. Similarly, attempts were made to apply this concept in the context of the Katyń massacre. History knows many cases of enforced disappearances, for example, the practices of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. However, this phenomenon was named only in the 1960s, when the regimes in South American countries carried it out on a wide scale. The original Spanish term desapariciones forzadas was translated into English as ‘enforced disappearances’ and denotes the human rights violation of the imprisonment of a person by state officials or groups acting in collaboration with the state, while information regarding the fate of this person is purposefully kept secret.

Enforced disappearances not only violate the human rights of the missing persons but also of their family members. The latter, uncertain about the fate of their relatives, spend decades searching for their loved ones, often involving subsequent generations in these activities as well. The efforts by the families of the disappeared to discover the truth about these disappearances were the impulse for developing the concept of the ‘right to the truth’. According to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances, which entered into force in 2010, the right to the truth applies to all who suffered as a result of the enforced disappearance (thus, also to the disappeared persons’ family) and relates to the fate of the missing person, the circumstances of their disappearance, and the results of the conducted investigation. In this context, the ‘right to the truth’ denotes the obligation of the state to provide information about the circumstances of such serious human rights violations, not limited to present day but also encompassing events in the (distant) past. While reliance on the right to the truth is increasingly more frequent, uncertainties remain as to the scope of this term and the possibilities of enforcing it.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Khaled Ahmed - The Unpious Pir The jousting and collusion of prayer and power in Pakistan

Pakistan says it is an ideological state but when heavily bearded, rotten-toothed, medieval-looking Pir Hameeduddin Sialvi comes out of his lair in Sial Sharif, Sargodha, Punjab, it looks like a mental asylum broken loose. That is what this 90-something-old man unleashed when he came out in January 2018 and said he and his disciples will bring down the government of Pakistan Muslim League (PMLN) unless it immolates a couple of its leaders who offended the Holy Prophet PBUH by their statements. Then, on February 7, in a shameful anti-climax, it was revealed that the great Pir had been offered bribe to stage his pious campaign.

All hell broke loose when a legislation proposed by the ruling PMLN omitted the world “solemnly” in the draft of an oath declaring the Holy Prophet to be the final prophet. Monotheisms have clashed among themselves when the older faith denies the prophethood of the new faith. When Christ appeared, the Jews cursed the Christians; when Muhammad PBUH appeared, the Jews and the Christians both cried fake and settled for vendetta that continues. Pakistan has apostatised the Ahmadi community after it thought a prophet had come in their midst. Pir Sialvi wanted to punish the PMLN government for getting soft on the apostates.

Sialvi has clout with the PMLN because many of the sitting MNA (Member of National Assembly) and MPAs (Members of Provincial Assembly) are his disciples. And Sial Sharif of Sargodha is very much a Muslim League political base. In the last week of January, after a number of street protests in the cities of his divine diocese, he became exhausted and had to be helped out of his protest.
Pakistan has fallen afoul of the Lovers of the Prophet who look funny but who can gather large rural crowds marching into cities hating the luxury of sinful living. Last year, the Barelvi Beast came out as Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (“Here I am O Holy Prophet!”) and paraded an abusive scoundrel, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, as the millennial defender of the Prophet PBUH who would bring the government down, which he didn’t, but got to cause a rift between the all-powerful army and the elected government crippled by the Supreme Court for not being sadiq (truthful) and ameen (honest) like the Prophet PBUH under Article 62 of the Constitution.

There are far too many rich religious leaders with nothing to do who hate democracy as an alien system forced on the people to take them away from Islam. They fatten on the shrines that stud Pakistan’s countryside and were once the benign repository of singing-and-dancing fakirs embedded in South Asia’s culture of peaceful coexistence. Imagine if the custodian of the shrine of Nizamuddin Auliya were to gather his disciples and march on New Delhi threatening universal annihilation.

The peaceful saints in Pakistan have been radicalised to street protests after seeing how the cross-border mujahideen of the Deobandi brand have been lionised. While the unseated Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif wilted under Barelvi attacks, his semi-literate son-in-law, an ex-army officer, joined his tormentors to highlight the insult the Sharif government had offered to the Holy Prophet PBUH.
Pir Hameeduddin Sialvi alias Shaikh-ul-Islam, looking tired after several weeks of street challenge, finally called off his campaign of forcibly enforcing the sharia — which is already supposed to be embedded in the Constitution — and punishing the insulters of the Prophet PBUH. He caved to Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif in Sargodha in the last week of January after Sharif “agreed to form a committee to look into his demands (sic)”.

The proximity to power was seductive. The chief minister will make many concessions to Sialvi to perk up his authority in Sargodha. When his “chits” (requests for concession) become effective, the power of his prayer likewise becomes more effective. They will net more devotees with cases stuck with the Punjab bureaucracy in Lahore. More and more Muslim Leaguers will go to the shrine and bend the knee to get promoted in the attention of Shahbaz Sharif, who will allow some of his power to devolve to Sial Sharif. Everyone wins except Pakistan.

More articles by Khaled Ahmed

Alok Prasanna Kumar - Three-judge Supreme Court flip-flop shows top court's credibility again under threat; CJI Misra must accept onus

CJI Dipak Misra's conduct as Chief Justice of India, whether his assertion of power as "Master of the Rolls" or fearfulness shown in the face of Government interference, has been far more damaging to the institution than any other threat the SC has faced in its history. ​

It seems like a headline from The Onion - three-judge bench of the Supreme Court holds that three-judge bench judgment overruling of three-judge bench judgment stands overruled. But that is precisely what happened (in some ways) when the Supreme Court passed its order on 21 February in State of Haryana versus GD Goenka Tourism Corporation Limited. How did this come to pass?

It starts with one of the worst drafted pieces of legislation on the books - the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Relief and Rehabilitation Act, 2013. It is a law replete with the most basic of drafting errors which not only fail to guarantee a modicum of rights to those whose lands have been acquired by the government, but make it easier to subvert such rights and cause more litigation. One of the most contentious provisions (in terms of the number of cases which have arisen under it) is Section 24 of the law which ostensibly tries to put an end to land acquisition proceedings under the Land Acquisition Act, 1894 which have lingered for too long. 

Specifically those land acquisition proceedings which begun prior to 2008 and where the compensation has not been paid, are deemed to have come to an end when the new law came into force. The question is: what do they mean by “compensation has not been paid”? The crux of most land acquisition disputes is the compensation, with the government offering a pittance and the landowners seeking more. The amount offered is often refused as the matter is taken up in litigation.

Jonathan Jones - So Neanderthals made abstract art? This astounding discovery humbles every human

The Neanderthal hand is the first evidence ever found of another species showing cultural self-consciousness. It’s not so very far from a hand print to a self-portrait to a diary to a novel. This discovery dethrones the modern human mind. 

If you go to the painted caves of Spain and France, crawl through narrow passages and keep your balance on slippery rock floors, you reach the hidden places where ice age hunters made their marks tens of thousands of years ago. Nothing seems more startling than the way they placed hands against the cold rock and blew red ochre out of their mouths to leave fiery images. Of what though?
Leaving a mark … a colour-enhanced hand stencil from La Pasiega in northern Spain, now dated back 66,700 years.
Leaving a mark … a colour-enhanced hand stencil from La Pasiega in northern 
Spain, now dated back 66,700 years. Photograph: Reuters

Up to now we called it the human presence. “The print of the hand says, ‘This is my mark. This is man’,” declared the scientist Jacob Bronowski when he visited caves in northern Spain in his classic TV series The Ascent of Man. Simon Schama visits those same caves in the BBC’s new epic series Civilisations and raves about those same handprints. For what could communicate the curiosity, self-assertion, intelligence, and above all self-consciousness of our unique species Homo sapiens, more clearly that this desire to literally leave our mark?

Except it is not unique to Homo sapiens at all. The potentially epoch-making announcement in the journal Science this week of a new dating for art in some of Spain’s painted caves includes the astounding discovery that a stencilled hand in Maltravieso cave is at least 66,700 years old – a date reached by testing the calcite deposits that have encrusted it over the millennia.

That is long before modern humans are known to have reached Europe on their migration out of Africa. It is also more than 25,000 years before the first paintings made by Homo sapiens in Europe were created at Chauvet in France. The Maltravieso hand is not human, at least not Homo sapiens. It has to be that of a Neanderthal, the early species that hunted the big beasts of ice age Europe before our lot came along, only to mysteriously vanish about 40,000 years ago, soon after our arrival…
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Thursday, February 22, 2018

Jonathan Freedland - The slaughter in Syria should outrage us. Yet still we just shrug

Almost anything is more interesting than the massacre of civilians in Syria. Just look at today’s front pages. The Guardian leads on the slaughter of unarmed residents in the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta, but for the rest it’s a mix of continuing scandals in international aid charities, the tax record of a newly appointed financial regulator, and Brendan off Strictly having an unauthorised waltz with Camilla.

Against all that, the bloodbath in eastern Ghouta is deemed too dull to compete. Sure, the government of Bashar al-Assad may have pounded the rebel-held area so hard that it killed 194 people in 40 hours, many of them children. It may have targeted seven hospitals in two days, repeatedly hitting medical workers as they sought to rescue the injured and dying. And yes, this may signal the escalation of a siege that has denied supplies to a population of 390,000 for months, squeezing them between bombardment and starvation. All that may be meticulously documented by the UN. But who, if we’re honest, gives a damn?

The Guardian has Syria on the front page today, but there’s no moral high ground here for any of us. This bloodletting has gone on for seven years now, and for most of that time most of us – politicians, media, public – have looked the other way. I look back at some of the things that have exercised me while this murder has continued day after day – at Donald Trump’s tweets, say, or the twists and turns of Brexit – and I know I’m part of this global shrug in the face of atrocity.

We should not kid ourselves. This silence of ours is complicity. The absence of noisy outrage has been a signal to Assad: keep on doing what you’re doing – no one’s going to stop you. If I were him, an occasional uptick in condemnation – with an enlightened Scandinavian denouncing me on the radio, or Unicef issuing a blank statement because “we no longer have the words to describe children’s suffering” – would be just fine. Because I would know that this brief flurry of concern would pass, and I would soon be allowed to return to the killing, just so long as I kept the daily numbers at a level everyone could safely ignore.

I would have learned that lesson in April last year, when I crossed the line by using chemical weapons against the civilians of Idlib province, gassing children, and the only consequence was a limited US cruise missile strike on a Syrian airfield. So long as I wasn’t too blatant, and kept the murder within agreed limits, I would be left alone.What explains this global indifference?  
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More posts on Syria

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Danny Sjursen - Trump’s National Defense Strategy: Something for Everyone (in the Military-Industrial Complex)

Think of it as the chicken-or-the-egg question for the ages: Do very real threats to the United States inadvertently benefit the military-industrial complex or does the national security state, by its very nature, conjure up inflated threats to feed that defense machine? Back in 2008, some of us placed our faith, naively enough, in the hands of mainstream Democrats -- specifically, those of a young senator named Barack Obama.  He would reverse the war policies of George W. Bush, deescalate the unbridled Global War on Terror, and right the ship of state. How’d that turn out? 

In retrospect, though couched in a far more sophisticated and peaceable rhetoric than Bush’s, his moves would prove largely cosmetic when it came to this country’s forever wars: a significant reduction in the use of conventional ground troops, but more drones, more commandos, and yet more acts of ill-advised regime change.  Don’t get me wrong: as a veteran of two of Washington’s wars, I was glad when “no-drama” Obama decreased the number of boots on the ground in the Middle East.  It’s now obvious, however, that he left the basic infrastructure of eternal war firmly in place
Enter The Donald. For all his half-baked tweets, insults, and boasts, as well as his refusal to read anything of substance on issues of war and peace, some of candidate Trump’s foreign policy ideas seemed far saner than those of just about any other politician around or the previous two presidents.  I mean, the Iraq War was dumb, and maybe it wasn’t the craziest idea for America’s allies to start thinking about defending themselves, and maybe Washington ought to put some time and diplomatic effort into avoiding a possibly catastrophic clash or set of clashes with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. 
Unfortunately, the White House version of all this proved oh-so-familiar.  President Trump’s decision, for instance, to double down on a losing bet in Afghanistan in spite of his “instincts” (and on similar bets in Somalia, Syria, and elsewhere) and his recently published National Defense Strategy (NDS) leave little doubt that he’s surrendered to Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, the mainstream interventionists in his administration.
In truth, no one should be surprised.  A hyper-interventionist, highly militarized foreign policy has defined Washington since at least the days of President Harry Truman -- the first in a long line of hawks to take the White House.  In this context, an ever-expanding national security state has always put special effort into meeting the imagined needs (or rather desires) of its various component parts.  

The result: bloated budgets for which exaggerated threats, if not actual war, remain a necessity. 
Without the threat of communism in the previous century and terrorism (as well as once again ascendant great powers) in this one, such bloated budgets would be hard to explain.  And then, how would the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines get all the weaponized toys they desired?  How would Congressional representatives in a post-industrial economy get all those attractive “defense” jobs for their districts and how would the weapons makers get the government cash they crave?.. read more:

Thomas L. Friedman: Whatever Trump Is Hiding Is Hurting All of Us Now

NB: This is both serious and ironical - given the number of times since 1945 that the USA has intervened to manipulate democratic processes in other countries, not least the interventions in Vietnam from the late 1950's onward; and the US backed bloody coup by Chilean General Pinochet in 1973. It seems now the boot is on the other foot. DS

Our democracy is in serious danger. President Trump is either totally compromised by the Russians or is a towering fool, or both, but either way he has shown himself unwilling or unable to defend America against a Russian campaign to divide and undermine our democracy.

That is, either Trump’s real estate empire has taken large amounts of money from shady oligarchs linked to the Kremlin - so much that they literally own him; or rumors are true that he engaged in sexual misbehavior while he was in Moscow running the Miss Universe contest, which Russian intelligence has on tape and he doesn’t want released; or Trump actually believes Russian President Vladimir Putin when he says he is innocent of intervening in our elections - over the explicit findings of Trump’s own C.I.A., N.S.A. and F.B.I. chiefs.

In sum, Trump is either hiding something so threatening to himself, or he’s criminally incompetent to be commander in chief. It is impossible yet to say which explanation for his behavior is true, but it seems highly likely that one of these scenarios explains Trump’s refusal to respond to Russia’s direct attack on our system - a quiescence that is simply unprecedented for any U.S. president in history. Russia is not our friend. It has acted in a hostile manner. And Trump keeps ignoring it all.

Up to now, Trump has been flouting the norms of the presidency. Now Trump’s behavior amounts to a refusal to carry out his oath of office - to protect and defend the Constitution. Here’s an imperfect but close analogy: It’s as if George W. Bush had said after 9/11: “No big deal. I am going golfing over the weekend in Florida and blogging about how it’s all the Democrats’ fault - no need to hold a National Security Council meeting.”

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

One million visits

Dear Readers
A short while ago, this blog passed another milestone, with a million hits. We reached the half-million mark in 56 months from October 2011 to June 2016. The next half million took 20 months. Here is what I posted then: A milestone for this blog - half a million hits 

I'd say much the same now; thank you for your interest, and here's to keeping all our minds alert and critical. As you know, this is a non-commercial blog, and my only 'return' is the satisfaction of knowing that its readers find it of some value.

Before anything else I will stress again the massive cover up of the suicide note left by an ex-Chief Minister of an Indian state (in 2016), that contains clues to the crisis of faith in the Indian judiciary. Read the note here; and my comments on this matter here and here

And here (along with some other material) is my advice for American schoolchildren, faced with gunfire in their classrooms and double-speak from their political leaders.

I won't go into as much detail as I did in 2016, but here are some noteworthy posts:

The 7 top posts on Gandhi attracted over 28, 000 hits:
The music of humanity - (1664 hits)
The search for new time - Ahimsa in an age of permanent war

I request friends of Indian democracy to read and circulate these posts:

Some of my recent articles / talks
Lecture at the Champaran satyagraha commemoration in Patna, April 2017
Three essays commemorating 50 years of Naxalbari
Video of a lecture on Mahatma Gandhi's work for communal harmony in 1946-48
Essay in EPW commemorating 100 years of the Bolshevik revolution

Poems, essays, books:

A Hunger Artist (1922) 

Jimena Canales' study of Henri Bergson’s debate about time with Albert Einstein
The Almond Trees, by Albert Camus - the most-read 'philosophy' post has reached 3700 hits
A tribute to Liu Xaiobo, dissident intellectual and fighter for human rights and democracy; murdered by the Government of the Peoples Republic of China

And here are some labels / search results: 

My thanks and regards to all readers