Thursday, 25 June 2009

"Do, Re, Mi" in Antwerp Central Station, Belgium

I usually write about serious issues, which is not surprising since my blog is about social issues and human rights. But once in a while, I like to plunge into something light, joyful and inspirational. So here is a video from my native Belgium. It was made in the Antwerp Central (Train) Station on the 23rd of March 2009. Makes me smile every time I watch it.

At 8am, with no warning to the passengers passing through the station, a recording of Julie Andrews singing 'Do, Re, Mi' begins to play on the public address system. As the bemused passengers watch in amazement, some 200 dancers begin to appear from the crowd and the station doors. They created this cheery stunt with just two rehearsals.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Two urgent appeals for Iran

Amnesty International has issued today an urgent appeal to show the Iranian authorities that the world is still watching:

After the disputed election results of 12 June, hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets of Tehran and other cities to protest. But in Iran, expressing your opinions can be dangerous - dozens were arrested and by the end of last week Amnesty had recorded at least 10 deaths. On Friday, the situation was further inflamed when, rather than appealing for the security forces to exercise restraint, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared that further protest would not be tolerated - effectively condoning the violent actions of the security forces.
This did not deter more demonstrations on Saturday - defiant and courageous people are continuing to exercise their right to peacefully assemble and express their dissent. As we have seen, they are doing so despite great personal risk.
Amnesty has issued an Urgent Action appeal in support for the people of Iran and the right to peaceful protest and freedom of expression - please show theym that the world is still watching and e-mail the Iranian Ambassador in the UK

The second appeal is from exiled Iranian writers to the writers of the world:
People's outcry for freedom is a reaction to 30 years of suppression of their freedom of speech and the repression of their human rights. Their cry calls on all freedom-loving people, democratic institutions and governments to unite in condemning the latest anti-democratic actions of the Iranian regime.

We, the Iranian writers, who have witnessed numerous acts of injustice by the Islamic Republic aimed at suppressing the most basic human rights of our people, and who subsequently live in exile or migration while standing together with the honorable Iranian people (especially the intelligent youth who are voicing, in the most peaceful manner, their demands for freedom, social justice and democracy in Iran) appeal to you, the writers and scholars of the world, to help them by demanding an immediate end to the Islamic Republic's widespread suppression of the Iranian people
Kader Abdola, Reza Aghnami, Reza Alamezadeh, Reza Baraheni, Roshanak Bigonah, VazrikSahakian, Mehdi Estedadi Shad, Ali Asghar Hajsedjavadi, Hassan Hesam, Ahmmad KarimiHakkak, Mansour Khaksar, Nasim Khaksar, Mansour Koushan, Abbas Maroufi, FereshteMolavi, Bagher Momeni, Ali Negahban, Partou Noriala, Majid Naficy, Shahrnoush Parsipour, Koshiar Parsi, Mehrangiz Rasapour, Monir Ravanipour, Akbar Sardozami, Faraj Sarkohi, AsadSeif, Behrouz Sheida, Mohssen Yalfani, Ali Zarin, Naser Zeraati.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Press Freedom Victory

A big victory for Suzanne Breen and journalists' rights to do our job free from fear or coercion.

Last week, I've posted an entry asking to sign a petition in support of Northern Ireland journalist Suzanne Breen, who was facing imprisonment for refusing to surrender confidential sources and information relating to an article on the real IRA.

Yesterday, Judge Thomas Burgess in a Belfast Court refused an application, which would have forced the Northern Editor of the Sunday Tribune to hand over notes, computer equipment and other material obtained in the course of her work as a journalist. The court order was requested by the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

The National Union of Journalist hailed the judge's decision "a landmark victory for journalism and civil liberties." NUJ president, James Doherty, praised the courage of Breen and her editor, Noirin Hegarty, in standing up to the police. "At last week's hearing, Suzanne and Noirin proudly stood by the NUJ code of conduct and this ruling is justification of their stand," he said.

Amnesty International also welcomed the judge's decision, but issued a note of caution.

“This case had serious implications for the freedom of the press in the UK and Ireland," said Amnesty International Northern Ireland Programme Director Patrick Corrigan.

"Freedom of the press is an essential element of the right to freedom of expression, recognised under international law, and in general includes the principle that journalists must be able to protect their sources.

“We welcome today’s decision but remain concerned at this attempt by the PSNI to use secret evidence and anti-terrorism legislation against a journalist."

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Now or never in Iran - support Avaaz' s exit poll of Iranian voters

As millions of Iranians are taking to the streets in outrage at evidence that Thursday’s election was rigged, the international civic organization Avaaz is asking people to support a rigorous exit poll to urgently establish the truth about the vote:

Avaaz is urgently organising a rigorous “exit poll” of Iranian voters and a media effort to publicise it, working with an international polling firm to do a telephone survey of Iranian citizens to ask how they voted. We urgently need 10,000 Avaaz members to pitch in a small amount each to raise $119,000 in the next 24 hours and give Iranians a powerful new way to be heard -- follow this link to view video from the streets of Tehran and support this exit poll to find out the truth.

Public polling in Iran is heavily restricted, and no-one else is mobilizing fast enough to fund an international exit poll. It's urgent that we pitch in. A telephone poll won't be 100% accurate, but the difference between opposition and government claims is massive -- a rigorous poll can show which claim is remotely near the truth.

Unlike Western organizations, Avaaz's global network has a strong membership in Iran and across the Middle East. Backed by a respected polling firm, our effort will be harder to dismiss by Iranian conservatives. We'll send the poll results to the media and help our members in Iran to rapidly and virally spread the news despite the regime's blackout.

This election matters to us all. Iran is a major regional power, and the international community is seeking diplomatic engagement that holds a key to peace in the Middle East. But hawks and extremists on all sides want war instead: a conservative coup in Iran could destroy all our hopes.

The conservative Guardian Council, headed by a key Ahmadinejad ally, is reviewing the vote over the next 9 days -- our poll can be ready before they give their verdict, to counter any further rigging and the violent purge that could follow.

In the next 72 hours, the Iranian people will try once again to be heard. Let’s help make sure their voices are not silenced -- follow this link to see their courage and donate now to help fund the exit poll

Iran's uprising - a view from an Iranian human rights activist in exile

As hundreds of thousands of people are taking the streets in Tehran for the fifth straight day of anti-government demonstrations, I’ve asked Babak Emad, one of the founders of the Association of Iranian Political Prisoners in exile (AIPP) for his views on the uprising (see below). AIPP has members in 11 countries including Sweden, Australia, England, Germany and the USA.

I’ve met Babak in London a few years ago, while researching a piece on a mass massacre of political prisoners in Iran in the summer of 1988. Babak was just 17 when he was first arrested and tortured under the Shah’s rule. Like millions of Iranians, he took part in the 1979 revolution, which overthrew the Shah. They fought for a democratic government, which respected human rights, but their hopes were dashed when Khomeini’s supporters began to impose their strict and punitive vision of an Islamic republic. In 1981, Babak was imprisoned and tortured again, along with thousands of other Iranians, whose opinions were deemed suspect by the new religious regime. He remained in prison for five years and was so severely beaten that one side of his body is permanently damaged.

Here is Babak’s analysis of the uprising (I’ve slightly edited it as English is not Babak’s first nor second language):

The uprising in Iran is the consequence of 30 years of oppressive regime. The people of Iran, the young in particular who made up 70% of the population, are fed up with the regime and the current situation. The Iranian Islamic regime have known for a very long time that the people would soon or later challenge the system. For this reason, they have established the most oppressive system in Iranian history.

In Iran, people are deprived of all their rights. They have no right to organise themselves outside the framework of the regime. There are not free parties nor unions in Iran. Small gatherings and protests are suppressed harshly. So in order to try to change things, people have no choice but to go through the regime, using the available tools which only exist within the regime. By supporting a part of the regime, they have split the regime in two main factions: the reformists and the hardliners. By supporting the reformists, who have promised to bring some small changes, they have split the regime further, making the two parts stand against each other. What we have seen in the last few days, is the logical result of the people’s struggle for change. The people have been able to use the election headquarters of Mousavi to organise themselves and their demonstrations. Indeed, both the people and Mousavi and his fellow reformists have mutual interests in backing each other. The people want changes and Mousavi and the reformists want more power within the regime.

What the outcome will be is not really clear right now, but one thing is sure: Mousavi and his fellow reformists will support the people as long as the protests remain within the regime’s fractional conflict.

People want change and want it soon: this is the main message of the uprising. The situation cannot continue as it has been for the past 30 years. If there are no democratic changes in Iran – and I do not believe it will happen within the existing system - the people will come back again and again, even if they are silenced this time. And they will fight not just for democratic changes, but for a social revolution.

People, the young in particular, are using the rigged election to express their anger against the whole system. There is no doubt that the regime will use any means - if necessary killing thousands of people - to prevent any outcome that would jeopardize the whole system.

The important thing is that the Iranian people now know they have power if they unite and organise.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Peace X Peace

When you multiply the power of women by the power of the Internet, you get Peace X Peace, a woman-led, Internet-based global network.

Peace X Peace (pronounce Peace by Peace) is a grassroots community of women who share cross-cultural solutions to achieve peace in their families, communities and in the world.

“Many problems, like domestic violence, are universal. It doesn’t matter whether you are a woman in Africa or the US. Various cultures have tools they can share with other cultures,” says Peace X Peace founder and board chair Patricia Smith Melton.

Smith Melton, a Washington DC poet, playwright, filmmaker and photographer, launched the non-profit organization in 2002, when she gathered experts in peace and women’s rights from around the world to discern a women’s response to 9/11. The charity soon launched a website and an online news service and began connecting women outside the US, across geographic and cultural divides, through the Internet. The organization has grown rapidly and there are now thousands of Peace X Peace members in more than 100 countries.

The free Peace X Peace membership allows women from across the world to post breaking news on issues related to gender justice, domestic violence, poverty, the environment, health, education, job and quality of life, as well as personal success stories and photos of their creative solutions to these issues. Women can also request a match with a like-minded woman or women in a particular region and form a Circle.

Women connect to women in their Circle for friendship, mutual support and dialogue. They talk about their lives, families, the work they do and the places where they live. “Strangers become friends, friends become family and peace grows,” Smith Melton says.

Some circles have a common interest or mission. For example, nurses from Europe might discuss nursing and health care practices with nurses in Africa. Business mentors from California might work with women in India to help them lift their small business off the ground. Recently a group of grandmothers from Harlem connected with grandmothers in Kenya to talk about indigenous wisdom, the environment and childrearing. Still others share models for opening shelters for abused women and girls and networking to end trafficking.

“We each have something critical to offer to another woman who needs to hear our story and benefit from our experience and wisdom,” says Linda Higdon, former Peace X Peace chief strategy officer. “For women living on the edge, the ability to connect and pool effective approaches to peace can be as life-sustaining as a bag of rice.”

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

West Africa's Lost Generation

This is a story I am researching at the moment and trying to get a commission for. Hope someone will be interested.

How can children, who have killed and tortured, who have been savagely beaten and raped, have seen and endured extreme pain and violence, be normal children again?

In West Africa, a whole generation of children are struggling to cope with the impact of civil war, ethnic cleansing, child trafficking and the AIDS pandemic – and many are pushed to the brink of suicide.

“You are rebuilding the schools and the roads and the bridges, but you are not rebuilding us, and we have suffered too much,” said a young woman in Liberia who have seen her father and brother being killed and is now selling sex to pay for food and school fees.

The international children’s organisation, Plan, together Family Health International, conducted the first-ever investigation into the psychological impact of war and trauma on children. The newly released study “Silent Suffering” is based on more than 1,000 in-depth interviews with children in Liberia, Togo, Sierra Leone, Cameroon and Burkina Faso.

The findings are harrowing. Sixty percent of former child soldiers interviewed in Liberia said they had witnessed another child being punished to death and 84 percent had found themselves “surrounded by, lying underneath or stepping on” dead bodies.

Not surprisingly, the children showed extremely high levels of post-traumatic stress syndrome and mental illness, but an alarming number are also suicidal. In Sierra Leone, 70 percent of girls and 80 per cent of boys without parental support were suicidal – and 30 per cent have already attempted to kill themselves.

Researchers were so shocked by “the level of despair” and distressing stories they uncovered, that Plan and FHI set up mobile units to give emergency counselling and treatment to the children most at risk, using traditional healing ceremonies, fairy tales sessions, family mediation and medical and social assistance.

Most youngsters said it was the first time they were able to discuss the atrocities they had witnessed or committed.

Plan has offered to take me to Liberia, where I would like to look at the impact of war on former child soldiers, visiting a few youngsters in their communities, see how they are coping and what their hopes for the future are. I’ll speak with family members to see how they can learn to love and care for these children again instead of seeing them as monsters. I’ll attend some healing/fairy tale/mediation sessions and see how they can help the children rebuild their lives. I also would like to look at the impact president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf -the first African woman head of state - is having on their lives and her efforts to improve their situation.

Anyone interested in this story?

Here is a Plan's video about the Silent Suffering study

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Petition for Northern Ireland journalist facing jail

Northern Ireland journalist Suzanne Breen could face imprisonment for standing up for a basic principle of journalism. The Northern Ireland editor of the Dublin-based Sunday Tribune is facing the prospect of a court order to surrender confidential source information relating to articles about the Real IRA.

If an order is granted, she faces the prospect of six months to five years in jail. She told a recent London meeting of the National Union of Journalists (UK), she won’t reveal her sources on two grounds: “The first is selfish. My life would be in danger from the Real IRA. I would have a sledgehammer through the door. The alternative is to be hidden in a witness protection scheme. The second reason is that people who speak to journalists confidentially deserve protection. If I breach their confidence just once no one would trust me again - including the officers who talk to me on the quiet.”

Counter-terrorism legislation is being used to allow the police to make their application in private, meaning even Suzanne's own legal team has been excluded from most of the proceedings so far.

The NUJ has taken on her cause and asks fellow journalists and everyone else to support their campaign by taking action below:

Sign our petition
The Police Service of Northern Ireland, which is pushing for Suzanne Breen to reveal her source material, falls under the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Shaun Woodward MP. We need you to send him a message by signing our petition.

Sign our petition.

Please also send the link on to colleagues or circulate a hard copy around your newsroom.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Saving Gabon's rainforest

I did a piece for the Guardian a few weeks ago on an amazing guy in Gabon who is putting his life at risk trying to save the rainforest there against a massive government-led mining project. The project is right in the middle of the Ivindo National Park, deep in some of the most impenetrable rainforests on earth. It is a mythical and magical place for the Bantu groups and pygmy who live there and the site of the Kangou Falls, the most beautiful waterfalls in Africa. The Bantus and pygmy believe their villages originated in the waterfalls’ frothy pools and that sorcerers gather there to discuss problems of the villages. The mining project, which includes a dam on the Kangou Falls, would flood villages, pollute the water and have a catastrophic impact on the forest and its inhabitants. It will also have implications for Gabon's wider conservation efforts. The Gabonese forests are part of the Congo Basin Rainforest, the second largest rainforest in the world after the Amazon - both vital assets in the fight against global climate change.

Ona, 45, has been an activist since he developed polio as a child, campaigning for disabled rights and the environment. He is clever, funny and fearless, and with a coalition of environmental NGOs in Gabon managed to expose the government’s shady deals behind the mining project and halt it. Since then “a sword of Damocles hangs above our heads,” he said. His office has been broken in, he has been refused permission to leave the country many times, he and his family have been evicted and he has been jailed.

This father of three who uses a wheelchair is not intimidated. “If they want to get me, they’ll get me. It’s too late to be afraid. We are in this fight. The stakes are too high. We have to protect our forests. It is our duty.” For the full story, read my article in the Guardian.

He won the Goldman Environmental Prize, a sort of Nobel Prize for environmental activism, in April. I hope the international exposure will keep him safe.

I’d love to visit the Ivindo park and write an in-depth feature on his work. Any takers?