All posts by iliven

E. Coli: The Aftermath

Photo credit: PlaxcoLab (CC BY-SA)

By Gabriella Vas

On June 12, 2011, yet another German died of kidney failure due to an E. Coli infection.

With this, the death toll of one of the world’s largest known E. Coli outbreaks rose to 36, while registered cases amount to 3325 in 13 EU states, according to the latest update published by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

Though the bacterium Escherichia Coli is generally a harmless inhabitant of the human and animal gut, its Shiga-toxin producing (STEC) strains can cause severe enteric and systemic disease in humans and lead to serious complications, such as kidney failure due to haemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS).

The disease spreads through contact with animals unaffected by the deadly strain, and through contaminated food or water. Person-to-person transmission, though also possible, has not been reported in this outbreak.

Even a small dose of the bacteria can set off the infection, with the first symptoms appearing after 3 to 8 days. Treatment consists mostly of rehydration; antibiotics may do more harm than good, triggering a further release of the toxin or a deterioration into HUS.

While similar infections usually affect children, the majority of patients in this outbreak are adults, predominantly women, a risk-assessment report by the ECDC revealed. Almost exclusively, cases are located in or have traveled to Northern Germany.

Farmers’ Clamors Successful

The outbreak was first reported by Germany on May 22 through the Early Warning and Response System (EWRS) of the EU. Initially, cucumbers and other raw vegetables from Spain were suspected of carrying the bacteria. German authorities warned against the consumption of these, and they were promptly removed from the market.

On June 1, tests conducted by Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) lifted the blame from the incriminated batch of produce, but by this time, Spanish agricultural exporters had already claimed a profit loss of 200 million euros weekly, and demanded compensation.

According to press releases by the European Commission, at the meeting of health care ministers on June 6, Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy John Dalli expressed regrets concerning the farmers’ damages, but pointed out that in such a case of emergency, quick updates to the public are just as important as verifying information.

The following day, at the EC meeting for agricultural ministers, Commissioner for Agriculture Dacian Ciolos proposed a 150 million euro compensation to the affected producers from the common EU budget, amounting to about 30% of their damages. As several member states pushed for 100% compensation, the Commissioner promised to propose an amendment in the regulations that would permit this increase.

Given the relative success of European farmers to claim compensation for their loss of profit, the question arises: what about the people who have suffered a much more serious damage, that of health, due to the same outbreak?

History Repeating?

Precedents include the serial blunders of the leading Norwegian meat producer Gilde, with repeated cases of contamination between December 2005 and May 2006, which led to over a dozen children falling ill, one of whom died. Though, after several recalls and tests exposing outrageous hygienic conditions, the guilt of Gilde was beyond doubt, it in turn accused retailers, and even the Norwegian Food Safety Authority faced charges of mishandling the situation. Eventually, though, Gilde offered a compensation of 20000 to 175000 NOK (2500 to 22300 euros) to 18 victims, reported.

In a different case of food contamination, earlier this year in Germany, up to 3000 tons of animal feed additive were found to contain traces of dioxin, a substance known to cause cancer in humans, according to BBC Online. Though authorities declared that the level of dioxin in the affected products did not pose a health risk, consumers were advised to “keep an eye out” for possibly tainted eggs and poultry.

Harles&Jentzsch, the company that had produced the contaminated feed, was to be fined or face up to three years in prison based on German law, though officials pressed for a tightening of the regulations to impose stricter penalties.

However, as a May update by the Meat Trade News Daily revealed, Harles&Jentzsch might eventually get away with a 20000 euro fine. That is a relatively mild punishment, considering that the food scandal H&J brought about cost thousands of animal lives and a dramatic loss of revenue for the entire German meat and eggs sector.

To cite another example, in January 2011, victims of an E. Coli outbreak in Britain were granted eligible for compensation upon successful negotiation by the solicitors Hodge, Jones and Allen. It appears that in the summer of 2009, all of them had visited a farm in Surrey which keeps tame goats, cows and other animals for petting.

Faced with evidence that a deadly strain of E. Coli had been detected in the animals’ pens, and that it remained open for two weeks after the first infections had been reported, the farm declined to dispute its liability. 93 people contracted the disease, including some children who suffered so serious kidney damage that they may need organ replacements in the future.

No One In Charge

“I am sorry we cannot answer your questions”, confessed Dr Stefan Etgeton, Head of Health and Nutrition at the Federation of German Consumer Organizations (VZBV). “This is not an issue we have been working on”, commented Ophélie Spanneut of the European Consumers’ Organization (BEUC) in Brussels.

“These questions are too specialized for me to answer”, reflected Márton Hajdú, spokesperson for the Hungarian Presidency of the European Commission. His colleague, Eszter Lantos added: “The issue of liability in case of such an outbreak is beyond the scope of the EC, which fulfills merely an overseeing role, and more likely to be discussed on member state level.”

Who, then, is in charge of liability and compensation issues in case of an international, food-borne disease outbreak in Europe? Like the gravy bowl at Thanksgiving, the question was passed around among food safety, health and consumer protection organizations, on a European level as well as in the most affected Germany and Denmark.

Eventually, a pattern began to emerge. The core principles of food safety and risk management are the same throughout Europe: observing the entire food chain, with regulations and inspections “from farm to fork”; traceability of all foodstuffs; and, most importantly, separating risk assessment from risk management.

To make sure that scientific research of such importance is not affected by political interests, risk assessment is the duty of independent institutions, which then advise policymakers in charge of risk management. Ideally, transparent risk communication takes place at various levels: within the research community, between government and industry, and, ultimately, towards the public. In order to minimise risk, precautionary measures may be taken even before it is fully assessed.

In the EU, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) plays the role of independent scientific advisor to the European Commission, the EP and the European Council, working closely with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), and the European office of the World Health Organization (WHO).

The German correspondent of the EFSA is the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), providing information to the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (BMELV), which is in charge of food safety legislation and risk management measures. If there was any knowledge that would point towards a solution, it was at the BfR, where tests were being conducted to identify the source of the current outbreak.

No One To Blame

In the meantime, on June 10, the official warning against cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce was cancelled, and suspicion turned to sprouts produced by a farm in Uelzen, south of Hamburg. Up to that day, no claims for compensation by E. Coli patients or families of victims had reached the governments of Germany or Denmark – quite understandably, given the obscurity surrounding the origin of the outbreak.

“In order to confirm our hypothesis, the same strain of bacteria needs to be found on more samples”, explained Jürgen Thier-Kundke, press official at the BfR. “Currently we have some 4-500 sprout samples waiting to be tested. But with the suspicious batch of sprouts soon to expire, it will be increasingly difficult to find further samples. Maybe some leftovers tucked away in somebody’s fridge…”

He added: “In three quarters of food-poisoning outbreaks, the source is never identified. Furthermore, in the present case, so far, no sign of human failure or negligence has been found anywhere in the food chain. It’s quite possible that no one is to blame. The BfR pointed out as early as a year ago that raw produce, by default, carries the risk of bacterial infection. Not just of E. Coli, but salmonella, listeria, what have you.”

The following day, tests conducted with the remaining samples at the BfR went on to prove that it was in fact the sprouts grown at the Uelzen farm that had triggered the outbreak. The BfR press release did not conclude that the producer was in any way responsible.

Battle Over Liability Could Drag On

“E. Coli compensation claims are possible when it can be established that the condition was caused by a failure to adequately prevent E.Coli from being passed on”, it reads on the website of Hodge, Jones and Allen, solicitors dealing with personal injury claims such as E. Coli.

Partner Melanie Williams, and specialist on the issue, elaborated: “If claims are made in connection with holiday travel to Germany, patients can sue the travel agency; if they are linked to the consumption of imported food, the retailer is to be held liable, both under the Consumer Protection Act. In the latter case, the claimant must provide a sample of the defective product as evidence. As for the consumers’ eventual responsibility to stay informed of latest updates or to refrain from eating the indicated vegetables raw, the Consumer Protection Act is not concerned with that – it cannot be expected of people to take such risks into account.”

She added: “The Consumer Protection Act applies only within the UK legislation, but since it reflects EU law, all member states are bound to have similar legislation. That is, although the international nature of this outbreak certainly complicates matters, patients are most likely expected to file compensation claims within their respective countries. Procedures may take up to several years, depending on various factors, such as the opponent’s willingness to cooperate, the course of the disease and the length of medical treatment, as well as the number of people claiming damages. Usually, larger groups take longer to sort out.”

Outlooks Hazy

Fair enough, the story of this devastating disease is far from over, in fact, it evolves from day to day. True, an outbreak of such magnitude, crossing several borders, is bound to entail some confusion. Still, it is difficult to understand why such a crucial issue as health liability has remained practically unheard of so far.

The overall reluctance of officials and experts to deal with the problem is puzzling. All the more so, given the prompt reaction of the European Commission to the claims of the agricultural producers, promising them compensation while also defending, and standing in for, the counter-accused German authorities.

To wrap it up: not only is bloody diarrhea one of the nastiest diseases to die of or to lose a loved one to. Chances are, it’ll prove to be just as nasty when (if ever) it comes to eking out a compensation.

[twitter style=”vertical” float=”left”] [fblike style=”standard” showfaces=”false” width=”450″ verb=”like” font=”arial”]

Europe Shifting Gears after Fukushima

Photo credit: Marcel Mettelsiefen / 350.og

By Simona Štrimaitytė

Few weeks after Fukushima’s accident two Swiss nuclear lobbyists have been injured after a parcel bomb explosion – it’s hard times for nuclear attorneys. In the wake of the nuclear disaster in Japan the ongoing renaissance of nuclear energy in Europe has come to a grinding halt. Switzerland has joined German policy to exit from nuclear energy; plans for new nuclear plans are on hold throughout Europe.

And this is happening at a time when Russia’s export-rich nuclear power sector started taking baby steps towards Europe since Chernobyl. Is Russia losing its chance to gain more energy influence over Europe? Is Europe ready to become more energy self-sufficient, when renewable energy takes the spotlight?

Once again, nuclear power has shown its ugly side. The world has lost appeal in it and this has been proved during the latest round of United Nations climate negotiations, attended by 183 countries in Bonn, Germany.

“Presently, nuclear power is not accepted as climate friendly technology and its development is not supported. Some countries say they will use nuclear power on a national level, some even ask to include nuclear power into the list of technologies which can be supported as climate friendly in the framework of UN climate convention. But so far those efforts did not succeed because many countries oppose nuclear here”, summarizes one of the participants of the UN talks, Vladimir Slivyak, co-chairman of the Moscow environmental organization Ecodefense.

Something similar happened 25 years ago in Europe. It got scared and became reluctant to use nuclear power after Chernobyl’s accident. But Russia didn’t abandon its industry and exported reactors to Iran, China and India. However, recently it has turned to the old continent to provide Europeans with nuclear reactors that should help fight global warming by keeping carbon emissions low.

The Russian state nuclear company Rosatom has already poured the first concrete for two reactors in the middle of Europe, Kaliningrad that belongs to Russia. Rosatom has begun the construction work in Turkey for at least two intended nuclear power plants that are located in a coastal and earthquake-prone area. Rosatom is also set to supply Belarus with a 2,400 MW power plant.

Russia’s intentions to develop nuclear energy in Europe are still possible, but getting complicated. The greatest ambition for Rosatom is to win the bid for two reactors in Temelin, Czech Republic, with the option for further three reactors against two major French and Japanese rivals. The bid is worth about 17 billion EUR and in case of success these would be the first Russian reactors built within the EU.

But the Czech case is exceptional in the EU context, because “the current right-wing government bears strong resentment against renewables and the public acceptance of nuclear in the Czech Republic is (with 49 percent “for”) third or fourth highest in the Europe,” comments Jan Rovensky, Greenpeace Climate and Energy campaigner in the Czech Republic.

Whereas in general, Fukushima’s effect will definitely overshadow Russia’s nuclear industry prospects in Europe. Vladimir Slivyak, the head of Russian environmental group Ecodefense, agrees: “I think Rosatom export plans will be very much affected by Fukushima. Even Rosatom said it is likely to happen. There is no way they can sell around 50 reactors to other countries in the next 10 years as they planned in the past. Right now, it is very hard to say how many they will sell actually, because it’s not clear yet what various developing countries will decide as a result of Fukushima. But what is more important, who will fund new reactors now. Money for nuclear renaissance is located in Western Europe, absolutely most of it. Even before 2011 it was hard to get private funds for new reactors. And after Fukushima, I guess it will be even harder. Because there will be very low financial support, new nuclear plants will not be many. But some will still appear”.

Not an alternative anymore?

On the other hand, in energy hungry Europe nuclear power is considered as an alternative to fossil energy, and as an alternative to lower its dependence on Russia that is the biggest oil, gas, uranium and coal provider to Europe.

So officially, nuclear power is still on the menu: “we have indications to assume that nuclear energy will be part of the overall European mix for the next years and decades”, says European Commission’s representative Nicole Bockstaller.

But current ongoing nuclear reassessment by European national governments might provide a different perspective. Vladimir Slivyak, co-chairman of Ecodefense, doesn’t think that Europe considers nuclear as an alternative: “Otherwise various countries would have new reactors under active construction by now. Germany is phasing-out nuclear power; many other countries are cancelling plans for new reactors. Spain is softly getting out of nuclear. UK government does not support new nuclear reactors with money from the state budget, which therefore means no new reactors will be built there. It’s true that there are talks in some countries (especially new countries of the EU), but from talks to active construction there is a very long way, and most of the countries will not even start this construction. In fact, only France and Finland have reactors under active construction, one in each. This will not be enough even to replace existing reactors when it will be finally stopped. The amount of nuclear energy produced in Europe will go down quite soon. And after Fukushima, nuclear renaissance will not happen in the near future.”

A cloudy prospect for nuclear energy brings a promising future for renewables. “The EU tries to decrease its dependency on Russia and also in order to be able to meet the EU’s growing energy demand the EU of course also pushed for renewables (20% until 2020), integrate solar energy from North Africa (Sahara solar desert project), wind energy from the North Sea (wind parks) into the central European electricity grid”, says Nicole Bockstaller, spokesperson for Energy in European Commission.

When push comes to shove

But still renewable energy market has to be “pushed”. Europe has gotten into a lazy comfort zone due to nuclear energy that has helped to hold the balance between high dependence on oil and gas imports and expensive renewables.  But Germany took Fukushima’s accident as an incentive to leave this zone and find its own and quick way towards renewables.

Germany’s decision is radical, but it’s the country that could actually come up with such an idea for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s not that much nuclear dependent: according to the World Nuclear Association, France, Slovakia and Belgium are the biggest nuclear dependent nations; whereas Germany is not even on the top 10 list.

Secondly, Germany is not that import energy dependent, compared to other European countries. Its dependence rate on energy imports situates the country in the middle between less and more dependent EU countries, according to Eurostat, 2010. It’s clear that to fill the gap between nuclear and renewable energy Germany will have to increase natural gas imports from Russia, but it’s a decade that we are talking about.

Thirdly, Germany already uses a large mix of energy sources: gas and oil, nuclear and solid fuels, plus renewable energy. Energy mix is a key policy objective set by the European Commission to promote sustainable, competitive and secure energy, a similar policy that was set up in Denmark in 1973 after First Oil Crisis.

Fourthly, Germany is already known for having an “aggressive” renewable energy policy that is mainly based on feed-in tariffs that are set up to pay a premium for energy generation by, for example solar panels. The tariffs have been so successful that the federal government had to cut down on them, because they caused many more installations and became difficult to afford.

Finally, nuclear phase out was already discussed in Berlin in 2010, but at the end the nuclear lobby won and the permit to operate was given to all nuclear power plants in Germany. However, Mother Nature made a mess in Japan and now Germany is rethinking its priorities. And while 2010 saw the renewable energy industry in Germany complaining about losing out to nuclear power, today they are chosen as the only option.

Taking into the long-lasting successful German renewable energy policy and current growth of the renewables sector – the country was ready for a nuclear phase out.  Nuclear power could be replaced by renewable energy in Germany within 3 to 4 years, estimates Andreas R. Kreamer, Director of Ecologic Institute, Berlin, an international environmental think tank.

“The date can be brought forward if load-based tariffs would provide incentives for demand flexibility and feed-in from dispatchable renewable power generators and combined heat and power plants,” he says. “If, in addition, electric car batteries provide grid-connected power storage, again, the conversion can be accelerated”.

From political to economic

According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance report, Germany’s feed-in tariff on clean energy subsidies were the most expensive costing taxpayers 6,7 billion EUR. A similar amount is spent on such tariffs however shared among European countries as whole. But big investments pay off by promising future perspective: according to a project financed by the German Federal Ministry of Research it is possible for Germany to achieve 100 percent of renewable power from domestic sources by 2050. Andreas R. Kreamer assesses that Germany could become totally renewable energy self-sufficient between 2030-2035 taking into consideration the demand-side measures and the large capacity of storage that is expected from electric vehicles.

The renewable energy industry is growing at a brisk pace in Germany; soon it could join Denmark, the only EU country that is energy self-efficient. But Nadine Lobnig, the manager of Statkraft, one of the biggest Europe’s renewable energy companies notes that renewable energy remains a highly political subject in Germany as well, because yet lots of investments are needed to build a stable net. The German Energy Agency forecasts that 12 GW more installed capacity have to be developed to have a stable net. Moreover, “as long as for example France is producing a lot with nukes there is the risk that Germany imports this cheaper power”. To conclude, it should not be a single country’s effort to bring renewable energy closer to crossover point in Europe – the point when the price of renewables becomes lower than, for example, building a new nuclear power plant.

But as renewables are not competitive yet in the energy market, in European as well, the goals of becoming more energy self-sufficient are harder to reach. “Germany is part of the internal market in electricity in the EU and the European Energy Community Treaty, and in consequence self-sufficiency is neither possible nor desirable. The overall objective should be for the EU and the member countries of the European Energy Community Treaty to phase out nuclear power”, suggests Andreas R. Kreamer, director of Ecologic Institute.

Recently Europe has expressed a common safety standard by agreeing in one voice to develop “stress tests” for nuclear power plants after the disaster in Japan. But yet Europe is lacking a common energy standard that could help it reach “clean” goals and gain more energy independence faster by developing its potential in the renewables market, whereas an absence of it slows the progress.

[twitter style=”vertical” float=”left”] [fblike style=”standard” showfaces=”false” verb=”like” font=”arial”]

The Mystery of Syrian Unrest

Demonstrations in Banyas, Syria, May 6th 2011. Photo credit: Syria-Frames-Of-Freedom (CC-BY)

By Elsy Melkonian

Also published on EMAJ Magazine

Syria has boasted a remarkable stability over the last 40 years. Unlike most Middle Eastern countries such as Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq, Syria knew no sectarian rivalries that struggle for power or discrimination policies against minorities or conflicts to set the stage for terrorist groups. People with different beliefs and belongings lived harmoniously maintaining peace and security for many years. However, skirmishes that started in Deraa, March 2011, moved across the country and changed the image upside down. Protesters weren’t pleased with their life in Syria anymore.

For the last three months, revolts have sparked on Fridays after the Muslim prayer at mosques. Inspired by the revolution in Tunisia and Egypt, protesters in Syria demand a greater democracy. While the capital and the main cities remained quiet to date, skirmishes and most violent events took place in villages and smaller towns. Dozens of civilians have fled to the neighboring countries while thousand sought refuge in Turkey.

In its coverage of the clashes, international media speaks of brutal acts committed by the Syrian regime against the civilians. On the other side, Syrian media talk of armed gangs and radical Muslim groups pouring money into the hands of the poor farmers in small town to win them to their side. Besides, terrorist groups (according to the narrative of the Syrian media) are aiming to divide Syria and weaken its spirit of solidarity.  In response to all this noise, Syrian government has pledged to answer the demands of the protesters. So where does Syria stand now?

New Reforms

The unrest that sparked in Deraa urged the Syrian administration to adapt serious reforms. Buthaina Shaaban, president’s advisor, announced that the government is keen on meeting the demands of its people. “We ensure that implementations of these reforms will start soon because the Syrian administration is eager to maintain peace on its territory,” said Shabaan in a press conference held on March 24 in Damascus. These include 20% salary raise for employees of the public sector, more funding for healthcare, increase job opportunities for youths,  democratize the ruling mono-party (Baath Party) system into multi-party system, issue a new media law that protects censorship-free practice of independent media, alongside many other considerations to restructure life in Syria.

Shaaban’s speech made Syrians happy. Everyone looked forward to see the fruitful results of her promises. “I’m impatiently waiting to receive the salary raise,” says M.T., a school teacher on condition of anonymity, “It would help the people to face high living expenses“.

In fact, reforms are not new to the Syrian society although to date they were only related to economy. When Bashar Al Assad became a president in 2001 he worked on moving the country from its older socialist style economy to a free market. In practice everything started in 2004 when private schools, banks and companies sprung up across the country.  The modest middle class emerged to run small and medium size businesses. Moreover, the government authorized foreign ownership to encourage investment, but investors were mainly Turks or Arabs from the gulf.

However, the recent reform promises are still questionable. Shaaban’s speech was given on the 24th of March. To date, not much change is visible. Minister Shaaban announced that a new media law will replace the current law soon.  Discussions are still ongoing with no consensus on a final version. The 20% raise of salaries wouldn’t empower the citizens to face the inflation storm.

In 2010, UNDP experts published The Third National MDGs Progress Report which gives the index for poverty line during the period of 1997-2007. The report aimed at gaining insights from the past to plan for the next ten years. People who live in extreme poverty fell from 14.24 percent to 11.4 percent in 2004. In 2007 this figure deteriorated to 12.7 which mean that 6.7 million people are considered to be poor out of 21 million of total population. Hence, reforms which started with Bashar AlAassad did not contribute much to the boost the economic climate.

President Assad has successfully created an image of himself within Syria as a reformer, but without delivering much,” says Christopher Phillips, Syria Specialist at the Economist’s Intelligence Unit in London. “Assad has talked of reforms while retaining political power and overseeing a growth in corruption. Even his economic reforms have served only to benefit a modest middle class, while poverty and unemployment have increased due to poor management, lack of planning and high levels of corruption,” Phillips continues.

Questioning Human Rights during unrest

When protests sparked in Syria to ask for greater democracy, much violence was involved. The government was accused of using gunfire and mass arrest against civilians in its attempt to end these riots. However, the Syrian government stressed, in its recent reform plan, that only peaceful demonstrations are allowed. This means that citizens should approach authorities in advance to obtain a letter of approval.

I participated in the demonstrations that support President Assad,” says Michael Bitar a Syrian citizen. “We marched the whole city with no problem with authorities, but those who use weapons against fellow civilians, of course, should be punished. They are harming humans and public property,” he argues. “To set an example, there were peaceful demonstrations in front of the residence of the French Council. The goal was to send Sarkozy a message regarding the sanctions he is trying to force on Syria. We were all safe,” Bitar says.

On the other side, Human Rights Organizations, such as Amnesty International and others ignored all peaceful demonstrations and reported only on riots and clashes between the government and the protesters. Syrian government’s use of violence to solve the trouble was strongly condemned and was described as “brutal”.

A report entitled “We’ve Never Seen Such Horror” by the New York-based Human Rights Watch was issued to sharply criticize violations of human rights in Syria during the unrest. The 54 page report contains interviews with the citizens of Deraa, the town where protests began. In this book, beatings, torture, and killings were described by witnesses of riots, yet with no specificities. The explanation to that, as it was mentioned in the report, was because the government decided to bar international reporters from accessing needed information.

Syria has an authoritarian closed regime,” says Mohdi Mouzzaffari, expert on Middle Eastern issues and professor at Aarhus University, “Barring the international media from accessing the country sends mixed messages. If Syrian government claims that armed groups are creating terror, they should allow international reporters in to verify their claim.”

The Syrian problem through the eyes of media

International media dedicated a fair share of its pages to cover Middle Eastern uprisings and Syria had a fair share too. Replacing reality footage with amateur videos found on You Tube and other social media, CNN, BCC, Reuters and other international mainstream outlets reported on the brutality of the regime against its people. Conversely, most Arabic Televisions, better defined as state propaganda to all ruling governments, reported on how Syrian police are killed by armed gangs and terrorists.

Surprisingly, Reuters’ correspondent to Syria Khaled YAacob Aweis was accused of filing false news against Syria and by leaning on stories told by ordinary people as ‘the news to be broadcasted’ without checking the accuracy of these stories. This led to withdrawal of Aweis’s accreditation in Damascus. Australian channel ABC confirmed that Reuters’ reports on Syria were false as pictures of civilians being beaten by armed force belong to neighboring countries and non-Syrian streets. As a result Syrian authorities barred all international correspondents from accessing the country.

Obviously Reuters was not the only one. Aljazeera, which has proven itself as an emblem for independent media in the Arab World, filed similar reports too. “I was enjoying a Friday lunch and a sunny afternoon with my family as we usually do in Aleppo,” says Hala, a young pharmacist from Aleppo, Syria’s second city. “Watching the television while having my lunch I suddenly saw breaking news on Aljazeera reporting on riots in Aleppo. That’s unbelievable! Aleppo has remained very quiet during the entire period of revolts.”

News on Syrian state TV refers to enemies who endeavor to weaken Syria’s solidarity and spark sectarian rivals. In his speech President Assad describes demonstrations that broken out in the Deraa, Hama, and other Syrian cities as chaos. “We are for supporting people’s demands, but we cannot support chaos”,” The chaos that presidents spoke of resulted in dozens of people killed every day.”

I’m sad for what’s happening in Syria,” says Osama Al Tessini a Syrian expatriate based in Germany. “I know there are false reports, but I’m sure that there is some truth in it since I’m in contact with my friends in Syria. This way I’m able to get see the clear picture, while the International viewer doesn’t have the chance to hear the natives. Out there is the international media.”

Cloudy future?

The future of the Syria under the current circumstances is hard to predict. The regime is still able to control the situation and the army is showing full support. “In Egypt the army sided with the public leaving Moubarak alone to face his destiny, “says Professor Mouzzaffari. “The Syrian army maintains loyalty to Bashar AlAssad, and that’s what is empowering the Syrian administration to stand on a solid ground. Speaking of the sanctions, I think that the Europeans states want to have a similar reaction to Syria as they reacted to Libya, but sanctions against the Syrian regime are unlikely for the time being.”

Those who survived the revolution experience, such as the Egyptians, think it is the only way leading to democracy and that it should be repeated in Syria. “Let Syrians choose their leader through fair and transparent elections,” says Hanan Solayman, an Egyptian activists and journalist. “The road to democracy is not immediate, but we’re living a transitional period.”

With similar uprisings in the Arab region, however, there were no filed reports on Reuters or Aljazeera. International media’s coverage is outraging the international public opinion through streaming violent videos. For the Syrian viewer, who is able to hear both sides, it is confusing to reach a right judgment. He is torn between the urgent need for serious reforms of the political and the socio-economic make up of his country, waiting for the leader who showed willingness to reform and mourning the killed and the wounded people every Friday.

[twitter style=”vertical” float=”left”] [fblike style=”standard” showfaces=”false” verb=”like” font=”arial”]

From Gritty Cities to Green Environments


Photo credit: Zoe Thomas

By Zoe Thomas

Between the 6th and 18th of December 2009, national leaders and representatives, met in Copenhagen to argue and shout over promises and treaties they would or would not make on climate change. On 15th of December 2009 also in Copenhagen, leaders from cities in those same nations met to discuss the practical measure they were making to reduce their CO2 emissions.

On brightly coloured cushioned chairs, representatives from eighty cities including, fifty-five mayors discussed ways in which they could tackle climate change. Unlike the horse-trading and bickering going on just down the road, the Climate Summit for Mayors allowed ten cities (Barcelona, Copenhagen, Jakarta, Johannesburg, London, Los Angeles, Mexico City, New York City, Sao Paulo and Toronto) to showcase the efforts they had been making to combat climate issues.

This meeting was not the first of its kind. In 2005 representatives from eighteen cities met in London to discuss how they could tackle climate change. The Large City Climate Leadership Group expanded to become the C40, which held its fourth summit in Sao Paulo, Brazil, at the beginning of June this year.

By many accounts this most recent summit was a great success. It saw the signing of an agreement between the C40 and the World Bank to assist mega-cities in expanding programs of mitigation, lessening their emissions and adaptation, changing to greener technologies. Some see this as a sign of just how powerful the organization and its member cities have become without national governments.

The cities of the world house nearly half the world’s population and produce over seventy percent of the world greenhouse gas emissions according to UN reports. It may not seem surprising then, that it is here that experts predict the battle against climate change could be won or lost.

“City authorities have a great deal of control over practical things,” said David Dodman of the International Institute for Environmental and Development (IIED). He explained that this control enabled them to implement meaningful and effective climate polices.

Across the world, cities are taking up issues of climate change on their own. In New York, Mumbai, Bangkok, and Seoul buildings are being retrofitted to be more energy efficient. In Johannesburg the first fuel-efficient bus rapid transit system in Africa, designed to make the city’s transport systems more user, cost and environmentally friendly, is being planned. Melbourne, Australia has made energy audits mandatory, and cold water from Lake Ontario is being used to cool Toronto buildings.

“Mayors have the power to take action locally — outside of the international and national dialogue — in a way that will have a positive, and more immediate impact globally,” explained Mike Marinello, an advisor to the C40, Large City Climate Summit.

With large populations closely packed, cities are at risk of being devastated by climate change related catastrophes. But, it is their control over these populations that make their policies so effective. Irrespective of the national policies, cities are taking measures against climate change both to protect against disasters and cut back on their own emissions.

White Light Green Energy

In 2009 with the help of the Clinton Climate Initiative the City of Los Angeles undertook the biggest switch over to light emitting diode (LED) street lighting of any major city. L.A. is in the process of changing 140,000 of the 209,000 streetlights it operates to LED. The project will take five years, but is expected to cut the city’s emissions by 40,500 tons.

LED lighting is seen not only as a greener option, but a cheaper and even safer one. Many LED street fixtures have warranties for up to 50,000 hours, which means cities would only need to change them about every eleven years. LED lights also give off a whiter glow and contain no mercury which give supports cause claim they are both environmentally safe and keep cities safer by providing better lit streets. L.A. estimates that it will save approximately $10 million per year after all the LED streetlights are installed.

On the other side of the world, The Climate Group, an international not-for-profit organization is working with cities in India to undertake similar, all be it smaller, projects. Aditi Dass, a program manager for cities and regions in India explained that several programs were underway in the country. Three hundred streetlight in both Calcutta and Thane, a northern suburb of Mumbai, will be replaced with LED fixtures.

“Electricity is a problem in India,” Dass explained. Many rural locations have no connection to electricity at all. It is in cities that the bulk of India’s electricity is used and where greener technology must be taken up.

To convince cities to switch to LED lighting took a bit of persuasion, Dass explained. The lights themselves are very expensive, but with the help of The Climate Group to secure grants, organize bids and monitor the LED lights, as well as the promise of future saving, cities were convinced.

“We coordinate the entire project,” said Dass, “Other technologies like CFL and wind are already available and cost effective. We as a group focus on new technologies that need a push.”

The push in India seems to be effective with Calcutta already considering the possibility to change 4,000 more of the 180,000 streetlight in the city to LED. “Streetlights are something cities cannot do without,” said Dass.

Not all LED projects go so smoothly. In June 2010, Philadelphia Councilman John Kenney proposed a resolution to change streetlights there to LED and was met with stark resistance. The city’s Streets Commissioner Clarena Tolson claimed the project would simply be too costly up front.

Bryan Collins, an outreach coordinator for PennFuture, a Pennsylvania based environmental group, explained that getting governments to take up climate change programs often meant proposing cost neutral or cost saving initiatives. In the Next Great City program that PennFuture help lay out for the city, all proposals were cost neutral if not cost reducing.

“Even if governments want to see certain projects implemented they don’t have money lying around,” said Collins.  “First we need evidence that a project does save money and this is where you get the project rolling.”

Underdeveloped but over effected

Lack of funding to prepare for climate change is a particular issue in less developed counties of the world. By 2030, fifty-seven percent of the population in these countries is predicted by the UN to be living in urban areas. These countries are also those most at risk from climate change related disasters such as rising sea levels, flooding, and more frequent and violent storms.

“No matter who has created greenhouse gases their effects are going to be disproportionately felt in developing countries,” said Dodman.

These disproportionate effects have the potential to be devastating to the already large and growing urban populations in developing countries. With international aid funding often going to national governments cities are left apply for grants, seek out NGO’s with a sub-national focus or go it alone. Dodman explained, that the threat was compounded by the fact that many of these cities also lacked proper infrastructure such as roads or drainage.

“But, it also leads to more effective way to address problems” he said. “Cities have to be entrepreneurs.” But, building with eye towards climate change is also in the best interest of cities, both in terms of disaster preparedness and long-term growth.

It is here where organizations like the C40, IIED, the Clinton Climate Initiative or The Climate Group, which focus specifically on cities or sub-national regions, make a difference. Their assistance in helping create targeted responses can show national governments how climate polices can be successfully implemented.

The participation in the C40 of cities such as Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Hanoi, Vietnam and Karachi, Pakistan, among others, all of which are in low-income countries, at high risk of climate change related problems, is a sure sign that these cities are not waiting for a crisis to strike. Their participations signals that regardless of national perception or international standing these cities are playing a role in the global fight to prevent climate change.

Practical Advantage

It is not just cities in the developing world that are taking up climate change as their own issue. Several cities in the US, a country known for its outspoken climate sceptics, have rolled out environmental plans aimed at making them greener and more efficient. In the 2007 Philadelphia mayoral race, PennFuture and other affiliated organizations made green policy an issue by challenging candidates to focus on quality of life issues such as energy prices and transportation. The campaign led to many of the policies rolled out in Mayor Nutter’s subsequent Green Works plan for the city.

“Its easier to push programs through at a city level,” explained Collins.

This is the heart of the issue. Regardless of national agendas or scientific fact and irrespective of what national politicians may want, cities simply are in a more advantageous position to make meaningful changes.

“Cities are on the frontline of global climate change,” explained Marinello. “The infrastructure, the citizens and Mayors deal with the impact on a daily basis, so as a result cities are determined to act today, and not wait for international or national solutions to arise.”

The success of the C40 and other such groups is not in their international power. Being the leaders of world’s major cities hasn’t stopped global warming or changed the policies of national governments. It is their ability to work locally and implement practical policies, as well as their willingness to share this knowledge with one another that has allowed so many of the worlds greatest cities and worst polluters to curb their emissions. The large finical and regional variation between cities means that suitable advise is available. Cities like New York and London, Sao Paulo and Mexico City, or Jakarta and Hanoi are likely to have guidance for each other.

“Cities have traditionally been ignored in policy making for climate change,” Dodman said, adding, “If climate change is treated as an environmental issues than it doesn’t really take into account urban issues.”

The C40 has now adopted standards for participation and new ways to measure and monitor greenhouse gas emissions. These policies may not be rolled into national agendas but their practical application may have national and global impact.

Indeed it is not just the ability of cities to make changes but also the more extreme threat that climate change puts them in that has made them more ready to act. With many major cities built along coastline the threat of rising sea levels becomes even more ominous and with growing populations could lead to greater devastation.

In his opening address at the C40 Summit New York’s mayor Michael Bloomberg told his fellow city leaders, “because of our shared experience leading the world’s great cities and because now more then ever we grasp the urgency of the challenges we face, no one can do more to produce good outcomes for the world than we, the mayors’ of the great cities can.”

These may just be words, but if practical measures continue to be taken in the world’s largest cities, regardless of national policy or international agreement, over half of the world’s populations, could in fact find themselves looking at a greener future.

[twitter style=”vertical” float=”left”] [fblike style=”standard” showfaces=”false” verb=”like” font=”arial”]

The Amazon’s Deathly and Vicious Cycle

Photo credit: Threat to Democracy (CC-BY)


By Juliana Guarany C. Santos

In the land of football, the size of a football field is a familiar measurement. Brazilians have a pretty good idea how long it takes to run from one goal to another or how hard to kick a ball to reach the other side. Maybe that is the reason that football fields are used to illustrate how much of the Amazon forest has been devastated throughout the years.

In 2010 the devastated area was equivalent to 3,500 football fields. Wood sellers cut into the virgin forest for illegal material with massive trucks and chains that pull out trees with their roots and everything. “In only one day, these trucks can devastate up to twelve football fields”, says Ricardo Cruz, sustainability consultant. That is way too far to kick a ball.

It is a profitable illegal business. With little inspection and some 80% of the original Amazon forest to go through, wood sellers seem to be unstoppable. The foreign market is always opened to receive the noblest material from the forest, even when sanctions are made for non-certified wood.

“Not much can be done if Europe buys certified wood, but China and the Middle East continues to purchase illegal material”, says Cruz. Wood sellers get expensive fines if anyone decides to speak up against their illegal activities. In the land of no laws, those who talk too loud face murder threads and assassination.

José Claudio Ribeiro da Silva, collector of Brazilian nuts, had his land covered by tall trees and virgin forest in the south of Pará, a state the size of Germany, Italy and France put altogether. He was an extrativist leader (land owners that extract products of the forest without devastating), responsible for closing 10 illegal wood seller business before his assassination in May 24th, along with his wife, Maria do Espírito Santo.

Their murder was followed by another one three days later in Rondônia state, of Adelino Ramos, leader of small farmers in the region. Two more days and another murder happens in Zé Claudio’s region, Eremilton Pereira dos Santos. On June 9th, the killings were still happening and Obede Loyla Souza was murdered after complaining and discussing with a group of illegal wood sellers.

President Dilma Rousseff said that the State would not rest until the responsible for the deaths was punished. The minister of Justice, José Eduardo Cardozo, traveled around the region with Human Rights minister Maria do Rosário and announced all measures being taken in relation to the deaths: the military police would be working in the regions, as well as the Federal Police, investigating Zé Claudio’s death.

The first cycle: Chico Mendes

The immediate actions follow a well known script made by the government since the death of activist Chico Mendes, in 1988. Mendes was the first case to reach international notoriety. He worked in the rubber trees extraction in Acre state and became an activist against farmers in the region that were destroying trees for agriculture. He was killed by a shooter in the name of farmer Darly Alves da Silva.

As soon as a crime reaches international repercussion, authorities from higher levels are called to pursue the criminals. A lot of propaganda is made when the shooters are arrested, but after that, life comes back to normal and nothing else is done to change the situation, until another crime is committed.

Antonio Canuto, secretary of the national coordination of CPT, complains about the superficiality of the measures. “If the government doesn’t touch the structure on what these crimes are being held, nothing will ever change. They are attacking the consequences, not the causes”.

When Lula took over, all small land owners celebrated the president that came from the people. Eight years later, the results are consistent, but the problem persists. “Lula improved life in the fields, made a few projects that helped the farmers, like bringing electricity to the lands or financing higher education, but those were just money crumbs close to what he did for high profile land owners.  Whoever was poor improved their lives with Bolsa Família [the Brazilian minimal income program that guarantees that every family has at least 90 Reais, or US$40, per month], but whoever had money has now a lot more. Lula never changed the rules of the game”, says Antonio Canuto.

The second cycle: Dorothy Stang

This cycle of punishments against forest criminals happened in 2005, after the death of Dorothy Stang, an American nun that dedicated her life to help small land owners in Pará. She was executed in her backyard with six shots in her back, abdomen and head. Her executors were judged not only in Brazil but also in the United States. They are facing prison time, but justice seems far from being done.

The Federal Police initiated an operation called Arch of Fire, investigating illegal wood extracts, but the operation was cancelled in 2010 due to lack of money resources.

The number of devastating area has been dropping since Dorothy Stang. It is 14% lower than in 2009 and 33% lower than in 2005, when the devastated area was close to 20,000 square kilometers, or 10,500 football fields.

These are great news indeed. Unfortunately, the number of murders in the forest did not follow the same logic. According to Commisão Pastoral da Terra (CPT), an institution that supports small farmers and extractivists, 192 people lost their lives trying to defend their lands and the forest from wood sellers and big land owners since 2005, Dorothy’s death. Last year, out of 38 people killed in the forest, 18 were in Pará.

Although devastation has been dropping along the years, the recent period has seen a rise of 27% on devastating land from August 2010 to April 2011, when compared to the same period a year before.

The reason for this rise is on the new Forest Code that was about to be voted in the Senate. “Wood sellers heard that the new code would give them amnesty over all devastated land, but what the code states is amnesty for all devastation until 2008, not now”, says consultant Ricardo Cruz. The rise was followed by a stronger inspection held by Ibama, the Brazilian regulatory institute, and more complaints made by small farmers and extrativists, resulting in the recent deaths.

The third cycle: José Claudio da Silva

The most recent cycle was put together to investigate Zé Claudio’s death. The operation Arch of Fire was reinstalled and federal forces were moved to the areas of conflict. It seems quite unfair to have the Federal Police investigating only one of the forest crimes instead of focusing on the whole issue. All other matters – 170 cases only in the state of Pará – are held in state departments. The problem here, says Canuto, is the negative presence of the state: “It has been said that there is a lack of action by the states on the land issue, but the problem is that the state is there, but on the money side, defending interests of high profile land owners and companies”.

The huge land of Pará state is considering to be dismantled in three different parts: Pará, Tapajós and Carajás. The Carajás state, if ever becomes a reality, would be the richest of the three. The region concentrates not only virgin forest for wood sellers or open camps being cut off by cattle owners. It is also the most profitable mineral fields owned by Companhia Vale do Rio Doce (CVRD), Brazilian’s most powerful mineral company. It would also be the most violent state of Brazil. Political forces in favor of Carajás state creation argue that a smaller territory would benefit the population, approximating them to the authorities, bringing sustainable development and infra structure. “When the population has more access to information and education, the so called ‘feudalism’ will vanish”, says technical advisor of the Democratic Workers Party (PDT) Tatiany Barata.

The ideal plan of transforming Carajás in an independent state has some serious risks when it comes to land speculation. “The main reason for creating Carajás is economic. It is a rich land, full of minerals that CVRD has their eyes on. Massive land owners will gain millions by selling their property to mineral companies. It would be like putting foxes to watch the chickens”, says Ricardo Cruz.

Can this cycle be broken?


Much has been said about the land reform in Brazil for over 60 years, but it was never done. Activists of the No-land Workers Movement (MST, in the Portuguese acronym) expected Lula to be the one to do it, but it could never be that simple. The Brazilian agribusiness was responsible for most of Lula’s success as president, keeping commodities like soy, cotton, wheat, corn and sugar on top priorities for exports, helping the country to grow from inside out.

Wood sellers are facing a melt down on their illegal activities as the devastating areas are being closely monitored by authorities. The cancer of this deal is corruption. “It is not an easy deal to cut off illegal wood, put inside an airplane and send it abroad without anyone seeing it. There’s a lot of people closing their eyes”, says Ricardo Cruz. The only way out of the cycle is to combat corruption.

The possibility of taking all forest crimes into the federal sphere sounds like a way of ending impunity in the region. Local instances have freed notable murders in the past and seem to be too close to the problem. “Usually, judges, policemen and farmers are all in the same social spheres, making a biased investigation”, says Ricardo Cruz.

Left wing deputies like Jandira Feghali, Manuela D’Ávila and Amauri Teixeira were the first voices in the Congress to defend federalization of the crimes, but Justice Minister José Eduardo Cardozo stated that only clear biased cases would have their the investigations federalized.

But it’s not enough to dismantle illegal schemes. Small farmers have to count on the State in order to sell what they produce. “A company or a rich land owner is able to build their own road to deliver their product to its final destination, but the small farmer needs the investment from the government. Without support, his production is not viable”, says Ricardo Cruz.

Technical advisor Tatiany Barata points out how the government needs organization: “We need that the Ministries of the Environment and the Agriculture sit together, talk and settle an integrated regionalized project”.

According to the numbers, the Amazon forest seems to be in the right track, but the people from the forest need more protection than ever, as they are the ones dealing with the consequences of stopping illegal activities. With the state support, small farmers won’t have to be afraid of fighting for the forest. The only hope is that the notable vicious cycle does not end – or begin – with more deaths.

[twitter style=”vertical” float=”left”] [fblike style=”standard” showfaces=”false” verb=”like” font=”arial”]

Domesticating Human Rights Prosecution

By Joyce Fernandez

On June 1, 2011, Andal Ampatuan Sr., the former governor and notorious warlord accused of masterminding the 2009 massacre of 57 people in the Southern Philippines province of Maguindanao, was finally arraigned in a Manila court, a year and a half after his arrest, and 10 months after he can legally delay entering a plea.

More consternating to those already wearied by the leaden pace of justice was the fact that the arraignment only happened because Ampatuan, patriarch of the clan that has controlled conflict-ridden Maguindanao for generations, volunteered to have his day in court, allegedly to distract the public from a supposed $4.5 million payout by his fellow accused son for a favorable judgement on his own case. Not surprising to many, Ampatuan Sr. pleaded “not guilty” to 57 counts of murder.

Powerful people in the Philippines are generally thought to play fast and loose with the rule of law, so wanton is the disregard for justice and lawful conduct, in fact, that impunity can assume a snarky, almost comical aspect: In May, another provincial governor convicted of killing his long-time confidant was caught on security camera ducking into a family-owned building in Manila’s posh business district while serving a 12-year term in the national prison. When rearrested, the ex-governor insisted he was not escaping, merely having an ‘intolerable” toothache checked. How was he able to just walk out of jail? “There are eight gates (at the prison), which cannot all be guarded,” he told media.

Impunity is such that public horror over capers and tragedies alike tends to subside once the media spectacle has played out, giving way to a deep cynicism that justice can ever be served or that the rich and mighty can even be touched. The brutality of the Maguindanao murders—in which the victims were found shovelled into a shallow pit, with the women’s bodies horribly mutilated—shocked the nation, but many thought it would have been another case of bitter, election-related violence in the far-flung badlands of Mindanao had 32 journalists not been among those killed.

The mass killing of journalists, the biggest ever in the world in one single event, drew international attention and put pressure on then President Gloria Arroyo to order the arrest of her political allies, the Ampatuans. And even with the intense media circus surrounding the case, the continued inversion of justice has gnawed at the likelihood of conviction—a key witness has been killed, others have withdrawn, legal processes have been twisted like so much silly string. “An arraignment made dependent on the willingness of the accused to enter a plea weakens and undermines the rule of law,” says Harry Roque, lawyer for the victims’ families. “This is truly a sad commentary on the state of our criminal justice system.”

A roadmap to end impunity

In February, the Philippines finally ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, signifying its commitment to uphold human rights and international criminal justice. Recent trends in criminal law, however, suggest that a country battling systemic impunity and corruption like the Philippines can demonstrate stronger commitment to the rule of law by availing of a UN-backed “hybrid” tribunal that embeds international initiatives within a domestic context, similar to the commission created for the crime-ridden state of Guatemala now being hailed as a “groundbreaking” new model for international criminal justice, the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG. Adopting a CICIG-like model can offer a roadmap for the Philippines to strengthen its legal system to end structural impunity and corruption under the impartiality of an international body.

Guatemala after its civil war became a no-man’s land of illegal security forces and clandestine criminal organizations, which had close ties to state institutions. The government was powerless to stop the murders, kidnappings, extortions and gang violence that increasingly threatened citizens. Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, famously summarized the country’s chaos: “Guatemala is a good place to commit a murder, because you will almost certainly get away with it.”

Escalating lawlessness prompted Guatemala to seek UN help. A 2003 proposal for a similar commission to investigate illegal security groups judged unconstitutional by a Guatemalan court was re-negotiated to limit prosecutorial powers to joining cases only as a private prosecutor and became the basis for CICIG.

Since its creation in September, 2007, CICIG has achieved “notable and unprecedented short-term successes,” according to a recent report by the conflict prevention think tank International Crisis Group, including the dismissal and prosecution of several senior officials, the removal of a compromised attorney-general and the selection of a respected successor, the adoption of guidelines for the appointment of Supreme Court justices, and the enactment of legal reforms.

Headed by a UN-appointed foreign commissioner and incorporating international staff, the commission’s independence, objectivity, and expertise have given it great credibility among the Guatemalan public, making crucial cracks in the wall of impunity. “Guatemala definitely is better (because of CICIG) in terms of those engaged in corruption knowing they are more at risk,” says Mark Schneider, senior vice-president and special adviser on Latin America of International Crisis Group.

A similar history

CICIG’s significant innovation, according to a 2010 report in the Journal of International Criminal Justice, is a “demonstration effect” that translates its “ultimate deference to the domestic judicial system” to an opportunity to train local personnel and transfer technical capacities and push for legal reform. It also has the potential to dismantle organized crime “by successfully investigating and assisting in the prosecution of a small number of emblematic cases.”

CICIG’s effectivity was highlighted in the bizarre case of Rodrigo Rosenberg, a lawyer who engineered his own assassination to frame President Alvaro Colom for the murder of a businessman and his daughter. The accusation nearly toppled Colom’s government, and it turned to CICIG to investigate, and ultimately, resolve the case, which also led to uncovering police groups for hire as assassins.

The parallels between Guatemala and the Philippines are striking, and should augur well for the adoption of a similar commission in a country where the homicide conviction rate is 10 percent (Guatemala’s is a staggering 2.06 percent), where police and military elements are said to be involved in crimes ranging from carnapping syndicates and narcotics trafficking, to goods smuggling and illegal gambling, and where politicians’ heavily-armed private militias roam unchallenged in the regions.

Both countries have similar historical experiences, a common colonizer (Spain), a small elite and a massive underclass, an agricultural economy and land reform struggles, endemic corruption and tax collection inefficiencies, and a lack of basic services. Both even share the same year, 1986, when democracy was restored.

The similarities are such that the eight high-profile cases CICIG took on to galvanize public attention can easily find corresponding cases in the Philippines that will resonate with the public—in Guatemala, cases against the daughter of a congressman for human trafficking and illegal adoption, against military generals for embezzlement, against a senior prosecutor for obstructing justice, and, most notably, the embezzlement charges against ex-President Alfonso Portillo, likely will connect with Filipinos who have been fed a daily diet of government scandal in the press: the P73.85 million tax evasion complaint against the congressman-son of ex-President Gloria Arroyo, the alleged rubout by the national police of members of a notorious crime syndicate, and the supposed “deliberate inaction” of the public prosecutor on cases against close political allies of ex-President Arroyo. The close comparisons indicate that if a hybrid commission can work in Guatemala, it can do so in the Philippines.

A workable prospect

“We should really follow the CICIG model,” insists Harry Roque. “I think it is very clear that the Philippine government is simply not equipped to handle cases such as the multiple murders in the Maguindanao massacre. Our rules are antiquated.”

UN Rapporteur Frank La Rue, the Guatemalan human rights lawyer who had been a consultant to CICIG, according to Roque, is coming to Manila in September to explore the creation of such a commission for the Philippines.

While CICIG is virtually unknown in the Philippines, there are indications that such a novel arrangement may have avid takers. Corruption may be structural, and the population, jaded, but, the international profile of such a commission may be attractive to the Aquino government.

Observes long-time journalist and foreign affairs expert Jose Franco: ”Given the Philippine democratic setup—having a multi-party system, strong civil society movements, a zealous student activism and a vibrant environment for political squabbles—I have no doubt that the country will be among the first to replicate the CICIG. The Philippines, being a founding member of the ASEAN and the UN, has shown its astuteness in interpreting the various regional agreements and international conventions.”

A Philippine commission, moreover, can learn key lessons from CICIG’s mistakes and refine the model. Despite its successes, CICIG has been criticized for arbitrary case selection and failing to lay the groundwork for the eventual dismantling of illegal security groups. The commission also failed to secure long-term funding commitment from its UN donors such that CICIG’s direction depended on ”virtually annual forages of funding,” according to ICG’s Schneider. ”But CICIG clearly is a demonstrably useful and novel effort to bring independent and competent strengths to the battle against impunity and corruption. It may have to be modified for different countries but the core competencies should be retained and replicated.”

The model’s local judicial legitimacy, moreover, should remove any objection President Aquino may have to a hybrid commission on grounds of violating sovereignty, argues Roque. The existing European Union-Philippines Justice Support Program (EPJUST), which monitors extra-legal killings and enforced disappearances in the country, is already a precursor, he points out. ”Only a commission like CICIG’s (which has powers to promote prosecution, not just to investigate) will be more proactive.”

The Philippines, in fact, had already come close to a CICIG-like intervention when it asked the US government to determine the innocence or guilt of a Filipino housekeeper convicted of double murder in Singapore, which had sparked an intense diplomatic row between the two neighboring countries. The US investigating team upheld the conviction, and the two countries decided to resume diplomatic relations.

Political will or won’t?

All indications point to the country capable of making a hybrid commission workable, and perhaps, with its past experience, even more successful than Guatemala’s. The only question remaining is the Philippines’ inclination to do so. As with most initiatives in the country, in the end, the determining factor again rests on the much-debated (or much-awaited) political resolve of President Aquino, who has made fighting corruption the avowed cornerstone of his administration (His campaign slogan, “No Corruption, No Poor.”) He will have to summon the courage to stand up to the corrupt politicians and military generals and their organized-crime associates who will likely oppose the commission. His main advantage in this respect: Unlike his predecessors, he is widely thought not to be personally corrupt.

In such wait-and-see climate, some are understandably not so optimistic, given an equally deepening culture of  apathy. Guatemala got CICIG as a desperate response to a “rising fear of a narco-criminal state that drove even conservative forces to accept an international law enforcement intervention of this nature,” according to Schneider. Such “critical circumstance,” it is argued, has yet to happen in the Philippines, and the alternative, the President’s volition, remains an exasperating, Hamlet-esque speculation. Says lawyer Ray Paolo Santiago of the Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism: “Although there are parallelisms between the Philippines and Guatemala, the main difference is the complete breakdown of the government system. The Philippines has not reached that level. I think we are actually far from that.

“What is needed is a strong political will by the Chief Executive. It is not a question of whether it can be done. It is a question of whether there is will for it to be done.”

[twitter style=”vertical” float=”left”] [fblike style=”standard” showfaces=”false” verb=”like” font=”arial”]

The New Londoners

Photo credit: Dobriyana Tropankeva

By Dobriyana Tropankeva

“New Londoners”  –  this is how the young generation of migrants is called in the British capital. Henry is one of them. He came to the UK at the age of 12 and claimed to be unaccompanied asylum seeking child. Every year around 3000 kids like him arrive in Great Britain to seek a better future. Instead they end up in the complicated refugee system, not knowing for years if they will be deported or not. The result  is that the promised land of dreams turns out to be roller-coaster nightmare.

The great expectations

Many children escape from the worst possible situations  –  war zones, genocides, famine, forced labor, female genital mutilation, extreme poverty. The majority of the unaccompanied adolescent children come from countries with recent armed conflicts or minorities’ persecution in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Eritrea, China, Somalia etc. [1].

Henry grew up in a tiny room with his 5-membered family in the suburbs of Kampala, the capital of Uganda. He couldn’t remember a day that he hasn’t been supposed to work, trying to sell just about everything possible from fruits to hand-made toys.  Henry changed 8 schools for 2 years. His parents didn’t have money, so when the time for the fee payment came, he just continued to the next school.  “In the end you learn a bit, but you don’t make any official exams. There was no future for me there.” shared Henry.

Many children have scarce knowledge about the world. Some of the younger children even don’t know where are they going until they land in the new state. “Everything that I knew about England was from snick up views in somebody else’s TV,” remembered Henry, “When you grew up like me and you hear about London, you think that everything is great in England. That was the image.”

Usually another adult or the trafficker chooses the country. The main destinations are the liberal western European countries, which are targeted because of their reputation as free democratic and safe countries.

Traveling beyond borders

Many children travel for miles by land to get to the UK. The lucky ones that can afford an airplane tickets get the faster way. Still this is usually the first big international journey for them.  They are two main ways for adolescent children to travel across borders. In the first
case they are accompanied by paid agents, who have a false version of the children passport.

Henry was 12, when he and his brother were travelled with a paid agent to the UK. This way has considerable risk for children to become victims of illegal trafficking. According to investigation conducted by the BBC in 2010,  “A total of 330 children aged between nine and 17 vanished between April 2008 and August 2009.” [2]

Social workers believe traffickers targeted many children for prostitution as asylum seeking children initially have no photographs, no real names and no documents. However, luckily for Henry and his brother they met their sister, who had previously immigrated to the UK.

“My sister  separated me and my brother.” remembers Henry; “She said that we couldn’t live together because if we make a mistake they will send all of us to our home country. I haven’t seen him for many years. Even now we are not close because of that separation.”

On arrival many unaccompanied children are distressed because they had to leave their family, siblings and friends. They usually show signs of grief, fear and disorientation, but the worst thing is the mistrust.

The other way for children to travel across borders is alone with false passport, which  states that they are 18 or older. Most of the children who arrive to the UK are between 16 and 17. In 2008, for example, only 9% of unaccompanied children seeking asylum were under 14, 24% were aged 14-15, and 47% were aged 16-17 and the ages of as many as 20% of the young people seeking asylum under the age of 18 were unknown [3].

Age disputed – The immigration bureaucracy roller coaster

The problem in this case is that once the young refugees claim unaccompanied asylum seeking children status they have to prove that they are really under 18.

The youngsters are regarded as suspects and “not genuine” until they prove the opposite [4]. However, there is no liable age assessment test discovered so far. The immigration officers from the UK Border Agency (UKBA) need to make age assessment upon their impressions upon personal and visible characteristics.

Unfortunately the physical appearance of many youngsters that come from problematic areas may appear older than their real age, because of the traumatic stresses and the premature life that they endured. The UKBA disputes nearly the half of the young refugees [5].

Conflict of interests with the age assessment

According to the Children Act 1989 the age disputed migrants need to be evaluated by the Local authority in the area where they are presented as an asylum seeker [6]. They are interview by social worker from the local authority.

However, there is significant conflict of interest, considering the fact the same council will have to take the burden of supporting financially the child. According to research from May 2007 managers are pressurising social workers to assess unaccompanied asylum-seeking children as older than they are to save money [7].

In a case that they are assessed over 16, they receive less financial support and if they are 18, they are not supported by the local authority budget anymore. Some specialists warn that with the recent budget cuts the pressure on social workers assessing children age will be even bigger and the financial burden of may lead the local authorities to financial crisis [8].

While children are waiting to be assessed they are treated as majors and can be locked up in detention centers. Although the British government has promised that by May 2011 the children detention will stop, currently they are 6 asylum-seeking minors held in short-term pre-departure centers [9].

Claiming asylum

Once the age assessment is determined, the child can claim asylum. According to the UN Convention a refugee is  “A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…” [10]

Most of the children have to go alone to the UKBA and fill in a form, called a Statement of Evidence, which explains why they need international protection and after that they are interviewed. For the children is traumatic to describe their past of persecution and war experiences. In cases like circumcision and rape is extremely shameful for the children to talk with other people.

“I went alone. I was really scared”, remembers Henry. “You must make sure that the story that you are saying, will make THEM believe. After one week living in the UK, I was certain – I did not want to go back. That was the one thing that I knew for sure.”

Discretional leave

94% of children who seek asylum alone in the UK are refused.  In 2010, of 2,700 decisions were made from unaccompanied asylum seeking children, 1,935 were given discretionary leave to remain. Discretional leave allows them to stay in the UK until they are 18, on the base that they can’t go back safe to their country.

However, the decision is just postponed. The uncertainty overshadows the children’s lives, because they don’t know what will happen with their future.

Foster care & Schools

Once the children are given decision they are accommodated with a foster parent.  “If you are lucky like me you don’t change your foster family and you start to build up your life again”, says Henry.

Many children however change several foster parents, which increase the instability in their lives. They speak a little or no English when they enter the country. This slows down not only their acceptance in the school system and the ability to learn the material, but also their relationship with the other pupils.

Henry said in this matter: “The main problem at school was my accent. Kids are really mean because they don’t really sit around and analyse the situation where have you been, where you come from – you are just different. You have to grow up fast. At 10 you will be thinking in a much in term of life skills and in terms of life you will be thinking as 18 years old.”

The traumatic situations that children migrants endured in their home countries make most of them to grow up prematurely. This is why they can’t find common interest with the other pupils of their age and often stay lonely. Some of them also face racial discrimination.

“I was probably the only African kid in the school.”, recalled Henry “I did not know what racism is then. Now I know that I experienced bulling. The only thing that used to get to me was when it was about my parents. As far as I am concerned from where I come you respect family.”

The 18 years’ Limbo

Some of them turn 18 without final decision. At this point they can’t stay anymore at their foster parents and they are not allowed to work. Henry’s case was one of those. He waited for 7 years for the final decision.“When you turn 18 you are not normal like other 18-years olds celebrating and partying. You start to worry. They can send you back. You can either go down or survive.”

Henry was an exceptional case. His foster mother let him stay, while he was waiting for final decision. However most of the children must leave their foster parents once they turn 18.

The right of education

Not having a final decision also damages the prospects of higher education for the refugee children. From February 2011, the holders of discretional leave are not entitled anymore to students’ loans and they have to pay the overseas fees. In numbers this doubles the price and the figures range between £8000 to £14000. As most of the asylum-seeking children came with nothing to the UK, this leaves them on the mercy of the few charitable foundations. However the scholarships are not sufficient to cover the deep financial abyss that was opened with the introduction of the overseas taxes.

Fortunately Henry came from other generation, when the state was more generous with the children in need. After he spoke with the principle in his college, he got a scholarship to study mechanics. At the age of 19 he got also his indefinitely leave, which meant that he was allowed to stay and work in the UK.

The path to a better practice

The first and foremost priority of the immigration services should be to make faster decision on the situation of unaccompanied asylum seeking children. The prolonging of the process and leaving them for years in the limbo of discretional leave damages their whole childhood inevitably. They are also two recent events that need to be paid attention. First of all the budget cuts will affect badly the refugee children – there should be funding proportional to the number of asylum seeking children in every local community.

Furthermore, the decision for overseas fees should be reverse for children with discretional leave, who grew up in the country and had made their entry A-level exam like every other pupil in the UK deserve equal rights to access to education. These are merely the requirements that can turn the young generation of new Londoners successful and equal part of the British society.

[twitter style=”vertical” float=”left”] [fblike style=”standard” showfaces=”false” verb=”like” font=”arial”]

[1] The Children’s Legal Centre: Separated and Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children
[2] BBC: Asylum-seeking children are going missing from care
[3] The Children’s Legal Centre: Separated and Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children
[4] The Children’s Society: Going it Alone: Children in the Asylum Process
[5] The Children’s Society: Going it Alone: Children in the Asylum Process
[6] The Children’s Legal Centre: Who is responsible for assessing the age of an asylum seeker?
[7] Inside Housing: Child asylum seekers will receive worse care, union warns

The Guardian: Minors Conflict
[8] Inside Housing: Child asylum seekers will receive worse care, union warns
[9] Our Kingdom: The UK continues to detain children, a year after the Coalition’s pledge to end it
Asylum-seeking children are going missing from care