passblue Covering the United Nations Tue, 28 Jul 2015 13:00:00 +0000 en-US hourly 1 A Small Himalayan Kingdom Remembers Its Lost Independence Wed, 22 Jul 2015 20:18:44 +0000 ]]> Lachung, a Tibetan village in North Sikkim, has become a tourist destination, a phenomenon that the Indian government has encouraged throughout the Sikkim kingdom. JAY RADHAKRISHNAN

Lachung, a Tibetan-style village in North Sikkim, has become a tourist destination, a phenomenon that the Indian government encourages throughout the former Sikkim kingdom, to tamp down any nationalism fervor. JAY RADHAKRISHNAN

In the seven decades that have passed since the founding of the United Nations, more than 80 former colonies and territories have become independent, a record worth celebrating. In that same period, however, there have been reverses and losses. No story is perhaps as tragic as what happened 40 years ago to the second-last Himalayan Buddhist kingdom, Sikkim.

Only China, not surprisingly given Indian-Chinese tensions in the Himalayan region, tried to bring a charge of colonialism against India to the UN but was rebuffed at every turn.

In 1975, India capped years of political manipulation and destabilization by intelligence operatives with a brutal military intervention to end Sikkim’s independence and make it an Indian state. Now, four decades later, in a new book — “Sikkim: Requiem for a Himalayan Kingdom” — the Scottish author Andrew Duff retells the Sikkimese story, placing it in its Cold War context. It was a time when a paranoid Indian government under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, newly aligned with the former Soviet Union in a treaty of friendship, saw threats from the West and China everywhere.

Among those imagined threats were two tragic figures: the last king of Sikkim, the Chogyal, Thondup Namgyal, and his American wife, Hope Cooke, who became the focus of Prime Minister Gandhi’s obsession with what she saw as American, specifically Central Intelligence Agency, infiltration. Ironically, the United States did nothing to help the Sikkimese preserve their independence as the situation became more dire and the American government appeared to give tacit backing to India’s version of the takeover.

Cooke, fearing for her life and her childrens’ amid the chaos, fled to New York, where she still lives, immersed in her papers and her memories. With encouragement from her husband, she had thrown herself into the culture and spirit of Sikkim and made numerous efforts to preserve the kingdom’s identity, but that only made matters worse in Gandhi’s suspicious mind. The Chogyal died of cancer in 1982 in a New York hospital, having lost his political fight and something of his will to live.

“His battle was one-sided and against all odds,” wrote B. S. Das, an Indian political officer sent to preside over the end of Sikkimese independence, who never lost his respect for the doomed king. “That did not deter him, as it was a question of his faith in the righteousness of the cause,” Das wrote in a later memoir, “The Sikkim Saga.”

Assessing the loss of Sikkim, Duff said of the last king: “Thondup’s greatest misfortune, of course, had been to find himself dealing with Indira Gandhi, one of India’s most ruthless strategic thinkers, at a time when her concerns about her country’s security were at their height.”

Choygal and his wife

The last king of Sikkim, the Choygal, and his wife, Hope Cooke, an American.

Duff’s book, an enthralling retelling of the Sikkim tragedy, is full of new information drawn from recently released US documents, papers from the period in the British Foreign Office — and, in a remarkably lucky break, the discovery of revealing letters written home by two Scottish women who were headmistresses, successively, of the leading girls’ school in Gangtok, the Sikkimese capital, and knew the royal family.

“I now had first-hand, contemporaneous accounts of the years from 1959 to 1975, during which Thondup and his queen, Hope Cooke, had tried to reinvigorate the Kingdom of Sikkim,” Duff wrote. The human touch of the letters deeply enriches his book, which also benefited from interviews with people in Sikkim, India and the West.

Duff was inspired to start his personal quest to learn about Sikkim from old photograph albums and diary notes of his late grandfather, who had worked in Calcutta in the 1930s and trekked into the Himalayas to discover the little kingdom for himself.

Duff’s book complements and updates the classic first-person history of the fall of Sikkim written by the Calcutta journalist, Sunanda K. Datta-Ray, who became close to the Chogyal as he watched the kingdom disintegrate into violence provoked by hired Indian mobs playing on, or provoking, ethnic divisions between Nepali and Bhutia Sikkimese. (The maneuver has been seared in the collective memory of Bhutan, the last independent Himalayan Buddhist kingdom, now a constitutional monarchy, also with ethnic divisions and fears of India.)

Datta-Ray’s book, “Smash and Grab: Annexation of Sikkim,” first published in 1984 and republished in 2014 as the 40th anniversary of the fall of the kingdom approached, was never officially banned in India, but the author faced charges of defamation and the book was removed from shops. Critics of what they called official Indian disruption and deceit not only in Sikkim but also elsewhere in the region praised the book for its honesty and reliable reporting.

In a recent email interview, Datta-Ray said that he thought that he would never return to Sikkim after the funeral of the last king. But he relented and went back last year at the invitation of the University of Sikkim to deliver an annual academic address.

“I spoke of India’s neighborhood diplomacy, citing Sikkim as an instance of how not to conduct it,” he said. “I dropped in at Gangtok’s main bookshop and found they had just received a large case of the new edition of ‘Smash and Grab.’ ”

Like others who have returned to the lost kingdom over the years, he noted how the Indian central government has been pouring development money into the economy, while allowing the Sikkimese to open the only casinos in India — to keep resurgence of nationalism in check.

“The Sikkimese are prosperous as never before.” Datta-Ray wrote in an email. “They get the highest per capita funding from New Delhi. This has always been the central government’s strategy to win over states that are difficult. Money is a great solvent for political grievances.”

Mount Kanchenjunga, viewed from Darjeeling. The mountain

Mount Kanchenjunga, viewed from Darjeeling. The mountain is Sikkim’s most prominent landmark and a sacred peak. ROSAN SUBBA

Datta-Ray found “little evident nostalgia” for the monarchy in Sikkim last year, but he sensed a noticeable intensifying of a shared Sikkimese culture, which Hope Cooke had once found pervasive during her early years in the kingdom.

“Paradoxically, Indian statehood has brought the majority Nepalese and minority Bhutia-Lepchas closer and created a stronger sense of Sikkimese identity,” he said. He noted that both Nepali and Bhutia people, backed by the state’s Hindu Nepali chief minister, Pawan Kumar Chamling, revere the 17th Karmapa Lama, Ogyen Thinley Dorjee, who escaped from Tibet in 1999 and who, being tutored by the Dalai Lama, is widely respected in Sikkim and among Buddhists in the West.

“Delhi refuses to recognize him,” Datta-Ray said, “fearing he might be a Chinese plant.”

For Datta-Ray, “The most powerful impression today’s Sikkim conveys is one of action, profitable action. Tourism is booming. So are small scale industries. Many of these were planned by the Chogyal but India wouldn’t allow them then. Now India can’t say no. New hotels and guests houses are popping up on the surrounding hills; new shops, bars and restaurants line the pavements. With such a busy present, there’s little time for the past.”

In a recent article in the Business Standard newspaper in India, Datta-Ray suggested that there was no evidential explanation as to why the annexation of Sikkim was a priority for Indira Gandhi. (India already had troops on the border with Tibet and thus China, and the border mountain passes were controlled by the Indian army.) And why, he asked, was the Indian public so easily persuaded to believe the government’s case for overthrowing a monarchy that could do it no real harm to India.

“I am guessing,” Datta-Ray wrote. “What I do know is that India’s media played a disgraceful part. Our newspapers repeated every official lie as gospel truth. And they did so knowingly because they were dazzled by the prospect of expanding borders. Spreading democracy turned territorial acquisitiveness into a moral obligation.

“Will someone in authority please explain why Sikkim had to be acquired and what we have gained by the acquisition?”


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As the World’s Older Population Increases, Can Cities Handle the Influx? Mon, 27 Jul 2015 08:40:03 +0000
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New York Harbor. JOHN PENNEY

A rare moment of solitude in New York Harbor. The city has made strides in offering more amenities to older people, recognizing the economic benefits of doing so.  JOHN PENNEY

A trio of megatrends that could radically change the makeup of cities around the world is about to converge.

“You have two very powerful trends,” says John Wilmoth, director of the United Nations Population Division. “There’s aging of population and there’s an urbanization that’s taking place. It’s not only movement to cities, but it’s the growth to cities relative to the rural areas. From 1950 to 2050, it’s a change from one-third urban and two-thirds rural. A hundred years later it has flipped.”

The facts are clear: More than half the world’s population lives in cities, the aging population — those 60 and over — will be increasingly dominated by women and Europe and North America will soon have the highest population of older people globally. Some countries, like Germany, may be better prepared for the influx of aging citizens than others.

The United States, falling in the cohort of rich countries with an increasing aging population, is not gearing up on a large scale for this arrival at the federal level, despite a gradually aging baby boomer population. Instead, cities themselves are taking the initiatives, like New York and Portland, Ore., in carrying out new policies.

Moreover, ballooning aging populations are mainly affecting cities in developed countries in the near future. Developing countries will have to contend with large aging populations eventually, as longevity increases and fertility rates remain high in places like sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. At the very least, current bare-bones public services in the developing world will need to be enhanced.

The UN estimates that the number of people age 60 and over will double in 10 years, from 600 million now to 1.2 billion by 2025, and to 2 billion by 2050. From 2000 to 2050, the proportion of the world’s population over 60 years old will double to 22 percent.

By 2050, 66 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas, up from 54 percent in 2014, UN data shows. The highest growth will occur in China, India and Nigeria, according to the 2014 revision of the World Urbanization Prospects by the UN Population Division, reinforcing the need for developing countries to begin addressing infrastructure and provision of social services soon.

Large cities will not be the only metropolises affected. Wilmoth says that urban growth includes small and medium-size cities with populations from 250,000 to 500,000. This expansion has resulted in a “shift in the private and public sector to create systems to provide for the needs of older people,” he adds, noting the long-term care industry.

Aging and urbanization is in many respects an evergreen issue. Nearly two decades ago, in 1998, UN-Habitat, a program that promotes optimum urban development, held a conference titled “Aging and Urbanization: Challenges and Opportunities,” ahead of the 1999 UN International Year for Older Persons.

But as the world inches further into the 21st century, the trends are becoming more pronounced, demanding fuller attention and faster solutions. Cities need to be prepared for the requirements of an older population, which involves a lengthy checklist ranging from transportation to health care. In 2016, UN-Habitat will hold a conference looking at these issues through urbanization and sustainability themes.

Despite the continuing fears, are cities even beginning to prepare for the intersecting trends? Take, for example, the US and its fast-aging baby boomers. The US is not in the top 10 aging nations, as reported by PassBlue, because of its young immigrant population, but it falls into the top 20 countries, where the growing number of aging people is perceived to be a major concern by its own citizens, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey.

In the US, the population of people 60 years old and over will leap to 112 million in 2050, nearly double from 56.9 million in 2010, says the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Community Living.

Women Predominating in the US

In 2050, the number of women age 60 and over in the US is projected to be 54.2 percent, compared with 45.8 percent for men, as women generally outlive men.

In the US, a woman’s life expectancy is 81 years old, compared with 76 for men. Women are expected to be in better physical shape than men, says a report, “Older Americans 2012: Key Indicators of Well Being,” published by the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics, an entity established in 1986 by the National Institute on Aging, the National Center for Health Statistics and the Census Bureau to connect government agencies focused on relevant data.

Women in the US have become more financially independent, which means that they have more say on how they want to spend their time as they grow older, says William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution.

Yet many older women will be struggling financially, says Lisa Warth, coordinator of the World Health Organization’s Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities and Communities. “Women often outlive their husbands and face their oldest age as widows,” she says. “Women often have a lower income in old age than men and are more likely than men to be affected by poverty. Living alone, they are at a higher risk of social isolation and loneliness.”

Warth adds that “Tackling women’s needs in old age starts with ensuring that women have equal opportunities in education and employment and that the unpaid care they provide in the family is recognized in pension systems to improve their financial situation in old age. Access to quality health, care and social services is important as well as the opportunity to continue to contribute in a meaningful way and to engage with others.”

Wilmoth of the UN Population Division agrees that it is important to focus on antidiscrimination rules against women, who may not have access to pension and full-time work, including women who never married.

At the grassroots level, initiatives to generate discussion on these issues have been underway for years. In 2007, for example, Marianne Kilkenny started Women for Living in Community, which encourages sharing housing among single women as they get older.

“Wellbeing is more than healthcare; it’s emotional care, and that kind of care comes from being surrounded by people we know, love and trust, not just by nurses and planned activities,” Kilkenny, who lives in Asheville, N.C., writes on her website.

These and other gender-specific aging problems will need concerted focus in cities, where the majority of the aging female population is settling.

Ha'penny Bridge

Dublin’s Ha’penny Bridge: the combination of old infrastructure and high population density is taxing many cities in Europe. JOHN PENNEY

A Matter of Avoidance?

Yet cities generally have far to go in confronting the needs of aging populations, Warth of Global Network says. Some key necessities include creating barrier-free and accessible urban environments, combating ageism by raising retirement age or abolishing compulsory retirement and promoting volunteering through such organizations as AARP’s Experience Corps, where people 50 years old and above work with children on literacy.

The World Health Organization, for one, has been paying attention to the trends converging on cities: a report in 2007, “Global Age-Friendly Cities: A Guide,” detailing information culled by focus groups who met in 33 cities in developed and developing countries to discuss an array of topics, including housing and infrastructure.

The list of services and improvements that the groups compiled included more outdoor seating areas, green spaces, buildings with more escalators and elevators and nonslip pavements. The groups also suggested some “Do Nots”: like eliminating cross-walk lights timed for “Olympic runners.”

Some participating cities have responded to the wish list. Germany has built multigeneration houses (Mehrgenerationenhauser) in more than 450 cities and communities nationwide. The houses act as hubs for all generations, with services from child care to elder care as well as offering opportunities for older people to volunteer, say, as storytellers to children.

In Geneva, restaurants provide subsidized lunches for older people and volunteers help those with limited mobility to join a group meal to have company.

The World Health Organization recently introduced a website,, with information on other helpful initiatives, like Akita, Japan’s bus-coin project, in which people age 68 and over ride buses free or are provided free alternative transportation. The website includes online tools and guides for cities and communities. (Japan has the world’s largest population over age 60.)

New York, Portland and Other US Spots

How are American cities prepping for the converging trends? The country has the wealthiest population based on gross domestic product, but interviews with aging experts and demographers reveal that many cities have been slow in making their environments more amenable.

New York City is one major exception: it has been making headway on being more responsive to older people’s needs, recognizing the economic value of attracting this population to its neighborhoods.

Lisbon rail

Lisbon’s rail line: many cities need to upgrade their transportation services.

Bethany Brown, the policy director of HelpAge USA, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit group focused on the livelihood and rights of senior citizens, points out that certain cities on WHO’s list of age-friendly ‘partner cities’ have added traffic islands and increased the number of seconds to traverse crosswalks. (New York became the first member of a separate list: WHO’s Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities and Communities in 2010, but it did not participate in the focus groups project.)

In 2009, under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as many as 59 initiatives to make New York more comfortable emerged from a review by his office and the New York City Council. These included safer streets and cultural guides for older people.

On the other side of the US, in Portland, Ore., which participated in the WHO focus group project, carried out an action plan in 2013, including engendering “respect and social inclusion.” (The number of people 65 and older in Portland is forecasted to jump to 882 million in 2030 from 533 million in 2010.)

Other Portland initiatives have featured certifications to businesses catering to older people and  promoting less ageist language, like dropping “senior citizens” and “the elderly,” for “older adults” and “elders.”

While Portland was the only American city participating in the WHO project, other organizations like AARP have created age-friendly certifications. AARP’s Network of Age-Friendly Communities is run under WHO and involves committing to a five-year program based on “8 Domains of Livability” — like social and civic participation, employment, communication and information and community support and health services.

Making the list of AARP certified cities are Denver, San Francisco and Washington as well as smaller cities like Des Moines, Ithaca, N.Y., and Lexington, Ky.

Quality of life is critical as cities undergo makeovers, rehabilitating decades-old infrastructure and improving other public services to prevent, say, flooding as climate change problems ensue. The Rockefeller Foundation’s City Resilience Framework report says that a resilient city “values ecosystem services and has in place robust environmental policies to protect ecosystems in situ.”

The foundation and the global consulting firm Arup introduced a 100 Resilient Cities project in 2013, identifying what makes cities thrive.

Rankings that examine what cities are doing specifically on aging are surfacing more. The Milken Institute’s biannual ranking of best cities for successful aging factors in 84 data indicators. The index included rankings for 352 US metropolitan areas. Important indicators look at community engagement, for example.

In 2014, the top large metropolitan area was Madison, Wis., and the small metropolitan city was Iowa City.

Smarter cities that cater to an aging population can generate a domino effect, strengthening their economy and attracting more tourists. This phenomenon could become a worldwide trend, experts proclaim, especially in the Asia Pacific region, where the majority of aging populations are located in Japan and in South Korea.

Struggling Countries

While industrialized countries grapple with policies on urbanization and making cities more adaptable, developing countries — which are also experiencing rapid urbanization — face a greater challenge in providing such basics necessities as water and sanitation. A 2015 report from the Save the Children Foundation, “The Urban Disadvantage,” highlighted the large disparities between the rich and the poor in cities in developing countries, especially related to children.

Ethiopia provides a snapshot of a poor nation, often stricken with drought and other natural calamities, that has a relatively small but growing population of people 60 years old and older. In this case, it’s about 5 percent of the total population, as life expectancy is now 64 years old, reflecting a steady rise over decades.

The country, however, is hardly prepared for an influx of older people moving to its capital and main city, Addis Ababa. A survey noted in a 2011 report by the United Nations Population Fund found that most of the older people already living in the city did not have enough to eat, suffered chronic health problems and lacked proper plumbing and any family support.

The Importance of Suburbs 

William Frey of Brookings points out that while most policymaking may be zeroing in on how cities must prepare to manage fast-increasing aging populations, it is important not to neglect areas just outside cities. Suburbs traditionally attract young families, but some couples stay after their children are grown.


More public seating areas are needed for older people in cities.

“I focus on the suburbs because I think that’s an area most likely to feel the change as they aren’t suited to older people,” Frey says. “In a lot of suburbs, you are dependent on your car; all issues that will affect the suburbs are more significant than downtowns because the infrastructure [in suburbs] has really been geared to younger people.”

Aging experts like Lori Simon-Rusinowitz, a professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health, says that the movement to make cities more conducive to an older population should start in communities. “The age-friendly communities can be urban, they can be suburban,” Simon-Rusinowitz says.

She noted, for example, Maryland’s Communities for a Lifetime Act, a “comprehensive, strategic state plan” to address challenges for aging, like employment.

A separate initiative, she notes, is the “villages” — community-run, volunteer-led organizations making neighborhoods more useful, peppered throughout the US. Capitol Hill Village in Silver Spring, Md., for example, offers programs like cooking clubs. Beacon Hill Village in Boston is another “village” shaped by members.

Yet Bethany Brown of HelpAge USA contends that big cities offer the most perks for an older population.

“There’s easier access to services like health services, or even things we take for granted, like easier access to employment and easier access to stores and to public transportation,” she says. Moreover, cities can often combat social isolation.

Raising Comfort Levels

Government, city planners, architects and designers have ample room to create better environments for older people.

Nithin Umapathi, an economist at the World Bank, says that one important aspect for cities is to make them more affordable for older residents. Big cities like New York can be expensive for many folks, especially those living on fixed incomes.

Moreover, a rich marketplace beckons in design and aesthetics. A Japanese designer, Emi Kiyota, founded Ibasho, a charity whose motto is “Creating Socially Integrated and Sustainable Communities That Value Their Elders.” Kiyota, an environmental gerontologist, works closely with communities worldwide in designing homes or senior citizen centers in the pre-design, or brainstorming phase.

The buildings she helps to develop are inspired by certain realities: It is no longer a given, for example, that taking care of aging parents will be a generational or a family affair, in Japan or elsewhere. One such project involved Ibasho collaborating with Hokkaido University in Japan and a team of architects and local consultants to renovate a “locally significant building,” Ibasho’s website says, in Sri Lanka. The building was donated by a retired professor and turned into homes for elderly people who have no immediate family members; it also offers a community center for all villagers to congregate in.

Another project, La Maison du Père, was set up as a community for retired priests in a village in Ivory Coast that has enabled them to interact with the local residents through teaching in a variety of ways.

Aging experts, demographers and designers emphasize that modernizing cities and communities for a rising older population benefits society overall.

As Brown of HelpAge put it, “The way I would like it to be framed is, how can they [cities] be sure that they are serving all of their citizens?”


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French Military Covered Up Sex Abuses by Its Soldiers in Central Africa, a French Journal Says Tue, 14 Jul 2015 14:37:13 +0000
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French soldiers

French soldiers at the checkpoint of their base in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, in November 2013, weeks before the country’s conflict broke out.

Alleged rapes by French soldiers of boys in the Central African Republic from December 2013 to June 2014 were actually known by French officers in Bangui, the capital, as the sexual abuses occurred, says a new investigative report published by Mediapart, a well-respected independent French journal in Paris.

The article, written in French and published on Bastille Day, July 14, 2015, confirms other information that came to light in digital media in April 2015: that the rapes were committed by French soldiers near the Mpoko airport in Bangui, as documented in confidential reports written by at least one UN human-rights specialist in Bangui in spring 2014.

But the Mediapart article goes further, saying that European soldiers who were part of the overall peacekeeping contingent (not a UN operation) sent to stabilize the Central African Republic in December 2013 also raped girls during the six-month period and that French commanders in Bangui covered up the crimes going on under their watch.

One reason for the cover-up by the French military, the article says, is that it would open Pandora’s box to reveal other nefarious activities by French soldiers, including diamond smuggling, drug use and fraternizing with prostitutes.

The French government apparently learned of the UN reports of sex abuse by French soldiers around July 2014, when the documents were leaked to the French ambassador in Geneva, yet Mediapart and other publications suggest the French government knew much earlier.

The denunciations of sex abuse of the boys, the article reports, went up the chain of command to the UN office in Bangui in charge of monitoring human rights, which dealt with the claims at the end of April 2014, after a local nongovernment organization assisting street children notified the UN of the abuses. In May and June 2014, a human-rights and justice expert from the UN mission in Central African Republic, called Minusca, interviewed six boys, age 9 to 13 years old, with Unicef experts present. (The human-rights expert reported to the UN’s high commissioner for human rights in Geneva.)

The boys lived in the displaced persons camp set up at the Mpoko airport, temporary home to 100,000 refugees fleeing fighting between two warring militias, the anti-Balaka and the Seleka, which sent the country into a frenzy almost overnight in early December 2013.

The boys’ testimonies in the UN report are precise and concordant. As reported earlier, the boys, some orphans or living with their families, bartered for food from soldiers operating checkpoints at the entry to the French base, adjacent to the airport. (A log was kept by the military of who ran the checkpoints.)

The soldiers would take the boys to a tent nearby and demand fellatio. The soldiers sometimes made the boys watch a porn video on their cellphone to show them what they wanted them to do; at least one boy was sodomized. One reference in the UN report says that a soldier told a boy to “lick his bangala” (local term for penis). Every episode of sex abuse ends the same: the boys receive military rations and a bit of money and are told to stay quiet.

In the UN report, the victims describe a dozen aggressors by physical details, by nickname — Batman, Nico — or by function, like sniper on the airport roof. The Mediapart article quotes a French nongovernment organization director who worked in Bangui that the boys also helped get prostitutes for the soldiers, and multiple girls between 12 and 15 years old were raped by “European soldiers.”

The French nongovernment organization director also told Mediapart that when the head of a French troop unit in Bangui became aware of a soldier’s sex abuse of boys, he punched him in the face and the soldier had to be repatriated for medical care. The fisticuff most likely occurred in February or in March 2014, the article says.

Other sources quoted in the article, one associated with an international institution operating in Bangui and the other who worked for the UN human-rights office in Geneva, told Mediapart that the French command in Bangui was aware of the sex abuses well before July 2014.

The article describes hellish conditions for the French and other soldiers operating in Bangui, where the anti-Balaka and the Seleka militias started committing massacres in December 2013, resulting in the international community quickly dispatching a peacekeeping operation run by the French military to contain the violence. The operation, called Sangaris, after a native red butterfly, was haphazard at best and suffered low morale. The contingent had been thrown together quickly, resulting in poor logistics, preparation and purpose.

When the militias started fighting in December 2013, the Mpoko refugee camp grew rapidly, past its humanitarian capacity. Violence, murders and trafficking there were rampant.

The accusations of raping boys in the Central African Republic from December 2013 to June 2014 are not new: they were reported by media worldwide after first surfacing in The Guardian, which had obtained leaked documents from AIDS-Free World, a American-based nonprofit group that acts as a UN watchdog.

The story of the rapes roiled not only the French government but also the UN, whose experts in Bangui that had written the reports submitted them to their higher-ups in Geneva by July 2014. The reports were soon leaked by a UN human-rights official, Anders Kompass, to a French ambassador in Geneva. No prosecutions have been reported for the sex abuse crimes so far.

[This article was updated.]

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Special Envoys: Viceroys of the UN Tue, 21 Jul 2015 19:20:46 +0000
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Sigrid Kaag

Sigrid Kaag of the Netherlands is a UN special envoy for Lebanon, the only female representative in a UN political mission.  UN PHOTO

SYDNEY, Australia — As with most innovations at the United Nations, the genesis of the concept of the special representative, or special envoy, of the secretary-general can be traced back to Dag Hammarskjold, the UN secretary-general. Special envoys were dispatched earlier than the Hammarskjold era; they included Folke Bernadotte, a Swede, and his successor, Ralph Bunche, an American. Hammarskjold, however, refined the special envoy role and used it in a more deliberate, specific manner.

After the Cold War, these SRSGs, as they are called, were sent to the four corners of the world to oversee UN presences. In a highly decentralized system, the role, which requires being head of a UN missions in the field, affords considerable power and responsibility. In effect, each representative becomes the UN’s in-country viceroy. (SRSGs hold portfolios in other areas, such as children and armed conflict, but this essay is focused on country-specific envoys, doubling as heads of mission.)

Yet even viceroys need proper training and background, and the UN’s record on successful envoys has been haphazard at best. Isn’t it time for reform?

The special envoy position is considered one of the most impossible jobs in the world for various reasons. The envoys must endure criticism, as they are regularly pilloried and labeled a puppet of a country’s opposing side in any given situation. They must make critical decisions in crises. And they are confronted by an almost never-ending string of challenges they know they cannot solve for lack of resources and money.

Some envoys are more suited to the office than others. If you talk with most UN staff members, their frustrations with certain envoys rise to the surface. They talk of unproductive, incompetent and even vindictive behaviors.

Many high-level officials in the UN’s Department of Political Affairs and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations in New York, who must work, albeit remotely, with the envoys, also speak about their often-antagonistic relationships with certain mission leaders. Some envoys are said to view senior leaders at headquarters more as sparring partners than as counterparts or even equals.

“The SRSG will see the secretary-general, but only if God is unavailable,” the refrain goes.

Peter Nadin, the author.

Peter Nadin, the author.

One way to improve relationships between the envoys in the field and headquarters would be to institute a more credible and meritocratic process of selecting these specialists, rather than sustaining the current ad hoc and often politically influenced processes of such senior mission leadership appointments.

The recent recommendations from the high-level independent panel on peace operations has advised, for example, that the secretary-general “ensure that selection and appointment of senior leadership is reinforced through consistent application of a defined, merit-based selection process.”

But what constitutes a defined, merit-based selection process?

One way to establish a robust meritocratic process in the UN in choosing highly qualified people to envoy posts — rather than relying on influence and other pressures from member states — is to identify the competencies that separate the greater candidate from a lesser effective one.

Just because a candidate might be a former government minister or an ambassador does not mean he or she has the UN literacy required to manage a field mission. This underlines the importance of building a midlevel pool of talent, and using such a pool to recruit internally. Plenty of capable future leaders are slaving away in the field and at headquarters that if nurtured would make better leaders than a former politician or a diplomat, say, parachuted in from afar.

A cursory survey of the current cadre of country-specific peace operations’ heads of mission shows that only 33 percent are women; 55 percent have previously served as senior mission leaders; approximately 40 percent are from Western Europe; 61 percent have pursued careers, primarily, in government and diplomacy; 33 percent have pursued careers exclusively at the UN; and around 30 percent of SRSGs have had no UN exposure (that is, worked previously for the UN in some capacity).

A total of 18 SRSGs are working from both the Department of Political Affairs and the Department for Peacekeeping Operations. Sigrid Kaag of the Netherlands is the only female representative for the UN in a political mission, working as special coordinator for Lebanon; five of the 10 SRSGs in peacekeeping missions are women.

Training and preparation is another area of potential reform. “On Being a Special Representative of the Secretary General,” produced by the UN Institute for Training and Research for internal use, is an excellent source for envoys on what they are likely to encounter when they deploy to their mission. The guide should be mandatory reading. A highly instructive five-day residential Senior Leadership Program is mandatory for all newly appointed senior field leaders but can be done any time in the first six months of deployment.

To avoid a lack of preparation among envoys, the recent recommendations by the peace operations panel also included establishing “an obligatory professional induction programme for new mission leaders, complemented by a follow-on mentoring programme.”

This is a sound idea. When the pressures of the job and the feelings of isolation threaten to overwhelm an envoy in a remote outpost, a mentor becomes a useful confidant.

The appointment of strong envoys is vital, especially as the UN prepares to select the next secretary-general by the end of 2016. Envoys lead a team of senior managers, who typically include deputies, a police commissioner and a force commander, depending on the setting, all of whom should have excellent qualifications themselves.

Leadership is always important in the drive to reform peace operations, but even the best leaders cannot paper over structural defects or a flawed mandate.

[This article has been updated.]

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This Palestinian Policewoman Has Zero Tolerance for Domestic Violence Thu, 16 Jul 2015 11:16:21 +0000
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RAMALLAH — As the head of the Palestinian Civil Police Family and Juvenile Protection Unit, Lieut. Col. Wafa Muammar is the highest-ranking female officer in the Palestinian police force and a role model for women trying to find their own space in what has been considered a man’s profession here.


Lieut. Col. Wafa Muammar runs the Palestinian Civil Police Family and Juvenile Protection Unit.

Among the first generation of women to join the Palestinian civil police after its establishment less than 20 years ago, Colonel Muammar, who is in her 40s, faced immense pressure to give up her dream to join the police. Palestine has one of the lowest rates of female participation in the labor force globally — just 17 percent — but Muammar, a wife and mother of four, built a successful career, leading the way for other women to become police officers. She has shown what women can achieve even amid intense conflict.

As civilian casualties mounted during an uprising that lasted about five years, from 2000 to 2005, determination became Muammar’s weapon as she persevered to complete her education. She earned her master’s degree while she was expecting her second child, walking through hilly roads and dangerous terrain to get to college until a week before giving birth. She began her training course immediately, refusing to let the challenges of living in a conflict zone deter her.

The turmoil amplified her concern to keep women and children safe from violence, especially in domestic disputes. Her job today allows her to ensure protection for many women and girls, and she instills this mission in her staff of police. In an interview with Women’s Feature Service, Muammar spoke about how her spirit has enabled her to change not only her life but also the lives of others.

Q: What have been the most important factors helping you get to be in the Palestinian police force?

A: First and foremost, my family! As a mother of four, I would not be where I am today without my husband’s support. I also come from a very supportive [extended] family that has always felt pride in all my achievements. [A few other] women who had entered the police service around the same time as I did might have had to fight with their families. That was not the case for me.

Q: How has being a woman affected your road to the police force today?

A: Society still believes in traditional jobs for women, like teaching, while the police service is perceived as a community of males, who represent power and strength, where a woman will have to give up some of her femininity to be able to fit in. When I started going out on the streets in uniform, it brought remarks, comments and even accusations. At work, the men tended to look down on us. They kept us in the office, doing clerical work. They did not believe in our capacities to take action and responsibility. The police service is a sample of the larger society, its traditions and its understandings. We have proved that we are able to be successful in all walks of life, this profession included. Women are now being offered senior positions in the police.

Q: What has been your greatest contribution to Palestinian society and your community?

A: I am extremely proud to be at the head of the Family and Juvenile Protection Unit and that there is, in fact, such a unit in the police force. This [unit] has really contributed to changing the perception of the police in society. The statistics speak for themselves. We went from 55 domestic violence cases reported in 2012 to 3,660 in 2013 [as reported by the Palestinian Civil Police]. Police are the reflection of society. Our society looks positively at a woman who endures her husband’s atrocities. If she speaks publicly about it she becomes an outcast. Many women avoided going to the police because lodging a complaint with the police could bring on a big loss — she could lose her children, her family and the respect of the people in society. With the [protection unit] we are changing perceptions and making combating violence against women a national cause.

Q: What can the younger generation of Palestinian women learn from your experience?

A: Palestinian society was and is still ruled by certain traditions and norms that are rather patriarchal. Whatever path a woman decides to take, she will have to exert double the effort as compared to men. Palestinian women have always had to prove themselves. That is why we as women must show solidarity with each other and help each other to achieve what we pursue, be it access to justice or realizing our aim of building state institutions.

Things are changing and Palestinian society is more open. Many women had the courage to accept jobs with a lot of responsibilities. But you cannot take a position of utmost responsibility and decision-making, achieving your wishes and dreams, without sacrifices. I accepted it while at the same time being a wife and a mother. However, having successful women in high-level positions encourages more women to take the same path. I encourage other women to enter the police service, as it is really important for the community. It remains the monopoly of men, but women have to be here and serve the women of the society, ensuring that they receive good service and access to justice.

This interview first appeared in UN Women’s  Empowering Women-Empowering Humanity campaign in the lead-up to Beijing+20 commemorations in September 2015.

(© Women’s Feature Service)


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The Surprising Confessions of a Peacemaker Sat, 18 Jul 2015 19:45:36 +0000
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Jean-Marie Guéhenno

Jean-Marie Guéhenno, second right, on a 48-hour tour of the peacekeeping mission in Haiti in 2008. He ran the UN’s peacekeeping operations from 2000 to 2008. LOGAN ABASSI

When war breaks out, you would think the easy answer would be to send in a United Nations peacekeeping mission, right? In fact, it is fairly rare and extraordinarily challenging to pull such a mission together. Even then, the mission can end up a flop, making little or no difference as the years crawl by.

But trying to stop war is a moral imperative, even if the path to peace is unclear and the prospects appear grim, Jean-Marie Guéhenno, the UN peacekeeping chief from 2000 to 2008, writes in his sobering new book, “The Fog of Peace.”

Guéhenno has played a central role in efforts to end conflict in a dazzling array of trouble spots, ranging from Iraq and Darfur to Afghanistan, Kosovo, Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. After all those years in the hot seat, he writes that he decided on a memoir rather than on a how-to-book because the choices he faced in his work were in just about every case unique.

While he would have loved “a reliable compass to navigate through the fog of peace,” it was not only hard to find lessons from the past but he also became haunted by “all the uncertainties, the flaws, the false hopes, the wrong assumptions, the unnecessary fears, the fog of real action.”

So, he decided, intent was perhaps even more important than tactics. “I found that peacekeeping, far from being a cynical enterprise aimed at preserving peace at any price, can be successful only if it is understood as a highly moral enterprise,” he writes. “And I found that an enterprise becomes moral not because it is a fight against evil, but because it has to consider conflicting goods, and lesser evils, and make choices.”

After leaving the top UN peacekeeping job in 2008, Guéhenno worked at the Brookings Institution as a senior fellow and then directed the Columbia University Center for International Conflict Resolution. In 2012, he signed on as a deputy to former Secretary-General Kofi Annan during his unsuccessful effort to halt the Syrian civil war, an initiative begun jointly by the UN and the Arab League. Since August 2014, Guéhenno has served as the president and chief executive officer of the International Crisis Group, the Brussels-based nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing and resolving deadly conflicts.

Because he wanted to “avoid the misleading clarity of hindsight,” Guéhenno relied on personal notebooks he meticulously compiled along the way rather than on reconstructed memories. So the book gives readers a seat at the table, complete with overwhelming detail, at least some of it juicy, as world leaders scrambled to devise an international response to the many crises that fell into his lap at the UN.

Guéhenno’s perspective is enhanced by his unusual career path. Before becoming an international civil servant, he was not a UN lifer but a sitting judge on the Cour des Comptes, the highest financial court in his native France. Before that, he served in several senior posts with the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

I reported on Guéhenno during his UN years as a correspondent for the Reuters news agency and found him soft-spoken and reserved but always engaged and thoughtful. It turns out that I had little sense of the extreme complexity of his job and the number of crises he was juggling at any given moment. Nor did I fully appreciate the supersize cast of prickly personalities populating his world, including the delusional heads of state, the self-righteous warring parties, the dedicated but unrealistic do-gooders, the numerous peripheral parties hoping to gain something from the suffering of others and the major Security Council powers passionately setting ambitious goals but not doing much to achieve them.

To most of the UN’s 193 countries, peacekeeping is a bargain, as most of the tab is picked up by the wealthiest nations. For every UN member, peacekeeping dues are far cheaper than unilateral initiatives, no matter how modest. While the United States pays the most dues of any country, a whopping 28.38 percent of the total peacekeeping budget, which is about $8.5 billion this year, that is small in comparison to the more than $600 billion in annual US defense spending.

UN peacekeeping is also a good deal for those who contribute soldiers and police officers, who gain valuable experience while being paid and equipped by the UN. By making peacekeeping a collective duty, individual countries also get the moral responsibility off their own backs.

The biggest beneficiaries are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the US. With their veto power, they can shield their own close allies and pet conflicts from UN interference while playing an outsize role in choosing who gets UN help and how. They typically do all of this while placing nary a boot on the ground, although they often contribute aircraft, heavy weapons and lots of humanitarian aid, albeit disproportionately among them.


A Nigerian peacekeeper convalesces from an ambush on his patrol in Darfur in 2012. Four other Nigerians were killed. ALBERT GONZALEZ FARRAN

So as a civil war flared in Darfur in Western Sudan in 2004, Guéhenno writes, the US publicly accused the Sudanese government of genocide but showed far less interest in doing much about it, even as an African Union peacekeeping mission proved unable to end the fighting. Misinterpreting strong words as a sign that Washington wanted badly to send in a huge UN force while actually wanting no part of it, Sudan’s government stalled international intervention for years.

Guéhenno by then would have been pleased with a modest UN role in Darfur. But the Security Council asked the International Criminal Court to look for Sudanese war crimes, stiffening Khartoum’s resistance. When the court indicted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, Khartoum put up more barriers to the outsiders.

Ironically, even as Bashir was busy blocking what he saw as Washington’s strong intent, President George W. Bush barely mentioned Sudan to Kofi Annan in a 2006 White House meeting, while John Bolton, the US ambassador to the UN, “seemed more interested in posturing than helping the people of Darfur,” Guéhenno notes. “I was sure that the inflated rhetoric of intervention was creating new obstacles to the more limited operation that was the only realistic court of action.”

At the same time, Darfur rebel leaders, even less plugged in to the behind-the-scenes machinations, believed the opposite — that a massive UN invasion to stop the conflict was imminent. “In the absence of a serious peace process, the displaced Darfurians saw us as an ally in their battle against Khartoum, and the government as an invasion force. But we were not going to go to war with the government of Sudan,” Guéhenno observed wryly.

Today, after more than a decade of international engagement, Darfur remains a mess and Bashir remains Sudan’s president. More than seven years have passed since the belated deployment of a hybrid African Union-UN mission in Darfur, which now numbers more than 20,000 troops, police, military observers and civilian personnel. The mission is one of 16 current peacekeeping operations, several of them dating back decades.

So while various commissions propose major reforms over the years, the overall peacekeeping function remains pretty much ad hoc, and Guéhenno tells us that this will not change in our ad hoc world.

“The word community is actually a misnomer when applied to that motley group formed by 193 very diverse nations,” he says. “When one looks at some of the biggest investments of the international community in the last 10 years — Afghanistan and Congo, for example — one cannot but be distressed by its fickleness. Grand plans were elaborated and immense hopes were generated among the people we had suddenly decided to help. But hope was often dashed, and we then faced resentment if not outright hostility, while on the home front, ambition has been replaced by a pressing desire to pack up and leave.”

“International civil servants,” he concludes, “have to be aware of the fragile base on which their actions are based.”


“The Fog of Peace: A Memoir of International Peacekeeping in the 21st Century,” by Jean-Marie Guéhenno; 978-0-8157-2630-2


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Gender Balance Improves in Latest Major Staff Appointments at UN Mon, 13 Jul 2015 13:51:31 +0000
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New high-level appointments made by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reflect more influence by Denmark in the world body, including the recent election of a Dane, Mogens Lykketoft, as the next president of the General Assembly, starting in September for one year.

Two other Danes are taking prestigious posts: Michael Moller will lead the UN office at Geneva and Lise Kingo will run the UN Global Compact in New York. Another Dane, Michael Lollesgaard, is the new force commander of the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali. (Unlike Moller, Kingo and Lollesgaard, Lykketoft’s salary is determined and paid for by Denmark.)

Kelly T. Clements

Kelly T. Clements of the United States, the new deputy of the UN agency for refugees.

Of the 10 appointments made by Ban in the last two months, four went to women, representing a better gender balance than all previous appointments made this year so far, as reported by PassBlue, which showed a dismal male-to-female ratio of 9 to 1 in an earlier round of high-level postings. Geographically, most of the new candidates come from Europe or the US; only one person is from Asia and three are from Africa.

Two of the four women named to high-profile jobs will deputize two large UN agencies: the high commissioner for refugees and Unicef.

An American, Kelly T. Clements, is the new deputy of the refugee agency in Geneva, which operates with an annual budget of $7 billion and is facing enormous pressure to manage the huge influx of refugees flowing from poor or conflict-ridden nations to more stable regions, primarily Europe. The US has contributed by a wide stretch — $993 million this year — the most money to the agency so far, followed by Japan with $167 million; Kuwait, $122 million; and the European Union, $120 million.

By contrast, the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council, besides the US, have donated much less this year: Britain, $54 million; France, $22 million; Russia, $2 million; and no donations listed from China.

At Unicef, a Senegalese, Fatoumata Ndiaye, is now second in command. The agency operated on a budget of about $5 billion in 2014.

Here is a summary of the 10 appointments:

Michael Moller of Denmark is now director-general of the UN office at Geneva, having served as the acting head since November 2013. Previously, he was executive director of the Kofi Annan Foundation from 2008 to 2011. He began his career with the UN in 1979, working with the high commissioner for refugees; from 1997 to 2001, he headed the office of the under secretary-general for political affairs at the UN headquarters in New York. Born in 1952, Moller finished a master’s course in international relations at Johns Hopkins University and has a bachelor’s degree in international relations from the University of Sussex in England.

• The new executive director of the UN Global Compact is Lise Kingo of Denmark, succeeding Georg Kell of Germany, who retired after more than 25 years with the UN. Kell led Global Compact, a voluntary membership organization that promotes corporate sustainability, since it began in 2000. It has more than 12,000 participants from 160 countries.

Lise Kingo

Lise Kingo of Denmark will run Global Compact.

Kingo, who is in her 50s and takes over on Sept. 1, was recently an executive at Novo Nordisk, a global health care company based in Denmark, where she worked from 2002 to 2014 and her compensation in 2013 was reported to be the equivalent of $1.4 million. Her annual salary at Global Compact, a D-2 level position, starts at about $142,000. Kingo is also the chairwoman of the Danish Council for Corporate Social Responsibility. She holds a B.A. degree in religions and ancient Greek culture from the University of Aarhus in Denmark; a bachelor of commerce degree in market economics from the Copenhagen Business School and a master of science degree in responsibility and business practice from the University of Bath in England.

Simona-Mirela Miculescu of Romania is the new representative and director of the UN Office in Belgrade (Unob), replacing Peter Due of Denmark, who has moved to UN headquarters. Miculescu will oversee the office’s work supporting the UN mission in Kosovo (Unmik) and other matters. Miculescu was most recently the ambassador of Romania. Born in 1959, she has a B.A. degree in French and English literature and a Ph.D. in literature from the Babes-Bolyai University in Romania.

Kelly T. Clements, 49, has been named deputy high commissioner of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), succeeding another American, T. Alexander Aleinikoff. Her post as an assistant secretary-general pays an annual baseline salary of $172,000. Clements was previously a US deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration. She has a master’s degree in urban affairs and public policy and a bachelor’s degree in international studies, both from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Fatoumata Ndiaye is the new deputy executive director of the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef), an assistant secretary-general post, with an annual baseline salary of $172,000. She was most recently the director of the agency’s Office of Internal Audit and Investigations. Ndiaye has also worked in the private sector, including as a manager for Coopers and Lybrand (now PWC) in Senegal. She has an M.B.A. from l’École Supérieure de Gestion des Entreprises (Graduate School of Business and Management) in Senegal and a postgraduate degree in auditing from Paris Dauphine University in France.


Eugene Owusu of Ghana, deputy of the UN mission in South Sudan.

Eugene Owusu of Ghana is now deputy special envoy for the UN mission in South Sudan (Unmiss), where he also leads the UN Development Program. He succeeds Toby Lanzer of Britain, who will become the regional humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel region. Lanzer was expelled from South Sudan by the government with no explanation, though he had been slated to leave anyway. (The mission’s bases are housing more than 150,000 people displaced by the war in its country.) Owusu has been the UN chief representative for the UN Development Program in Ethiopia since 2010. He has a doctorate in agricultural economics from Pennsylvania State University.

Peter de Clercq of the Netherlands has been named the deputy special envoy for the UN mission in Somalia (Unsom), where he will also be the top representative for the UN Development Program. De Clercq replaces Philippe Lazzarini of Switzerland, who has joined the UN office of the Special Coordinator for Lebanon (Unscol). De Clercq’s most recent assignment was deputy special envoy for the UN mission in Haiti (Minustah), which is winding down its presence in the country. Born in 1959, he has a master’s degree in development sociology from the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands and is a graduate of the Netherlands Institute for International Affairs, or Clingendael, in The Hague.

Major General Didier L’Hôte of France has been promoted to force commander of the UN mission in Ivory Coast (Unoci), where he was deputy force commander. He replaces Major General Hafiz Masroor Ahmed of Pakistan. L’Hôte was deputy commander of the land task force in France from 2012 to 2014 and earlier a commander in Afghanistan. Born in 1960, he has a master’s degree in management and defense studies, and in international relations from the Defense Academy of the United Kingdom and the French War College, respectively.

• The new executive director of the UN Institute for Training and Research (Unitar), based in Geneva, is Nikhil Seth of India. He succeeds Sally Fegan-Wyles of Ireland. Seth was most recently the director of the Division for Sustainable Development, Department of Economic and Social Affairs (Desa). Seth has a master’s degree in economics from Delhi University.

Tegegnework Gettu of Ethiopia is the coordinator for multilingualism in the Secretariat, besides being an under secretary-general for General Assembly and Conference Management. Previously, the multilingualism coordinator role was held by Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal, the head of public information until he left the UN in 2014 to return to a government post in Austria. (Cristina Gallach of Spain succeeded Launsky-Tieffenthal in February 2015.)

Udo Janz, the director of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees office in New York, a post he held since 2010, is retiring and moving to Vienna. A German, he joined the refugee agency in 1979, during the Indo-Chinese refugee crisis in Southeast Asia. He worked for the agency in Indonesia, Thailand, Hong Kong and Cambodia, among other stations.


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Tunisian Women Feel Their Rights Eroding Thu, 09 Jul 2015 12:16:13 +0000
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A market in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, where women say their rights are eroding. JOHANNA HIGGS

A marketplace in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, where women say their rights have been undermined under the post-Arab Spring regimes. JOHANNA HIGGS

TUNIS — Tunisia has possessed the rare reputation of being progressive in gender equality in the Middle East-North African region. Yet with the rise of an Islamist political party in Tunisia after its relatively placid revolution in 2011, the question is, how have women fared in the post-Arab spring landscape?

In Tunis, the cosmopolitan capital, the streets along the Mediterranean Sea are lined with lovely French colonial buildings. Young people sit drinking in bars, as women dressed in traditional veils mingle with others wearing sleeveless short dresses and their hair uncovered. While some women here consider themselves Muslim, they also feel that they are far from “extremist” — their word — and enjoy socializing together with male and female friends.

Much has changed since the 2011 revolution, as many women attest. After a poor fruit seller set himself on fire in December 2010 protesting living conditions, followed by large demonstrations over unemployment, inflation, corruption and lack of political freedom, the longtime president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, was ousted.

The Tunisian economy was certainly part of the thread that pulled the revolution along: misallocation of resources and high unemployment had led to discontent among Tunisians, a World Bank report confirmed.

In researching the general status of Tunisian women in the post-Arab spring, two local women, Myriam Bel Hadi Aissa and Hadhemi Mohamed, both professionals, helped me interview women from all parts of Tunisian society on how the revolution has affected them. (The interviews were done before recent jihadist attacks in Tunisia occurred.)

They said that since the revolt, violence against women has increased, or at least became more visible. Economic stress and political instability has made people more violent, they said. Women who had for years enjoyed relative freedoms were now being confined to traditional roles by the Islamists, as coalesced in the ruling Ennahda Party, which was replaced in December 2014 by a secular party led by Beji Caid Essebsi. Some women said they were feeling pressured to wear the veil.

For many Tunisian women, who had in the past achieved their rights without much strife, the two years under the Islamist regime had opened their eyes to what they could have lost in personal freedoms.

After independence from France in 1956, the first government of Tunisia introduced major changes in family law to support women’s rights under the Code of Personal Status — a move to push the country away from tribalism and toward loyalty to the new nation-state. The abolition of polygamy, the seeming demise of male privilege to end a marriage at will, the ability for a woman to file for divorce and to have custodial rights over her children were all part of the new code. The hijab, or head scarf, was banned in state offices and universities.

Promotion of women’s rights continued to be central under Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali’s long rule, who embraced those rights as part of the country’s steps toward modernity. Yet those rights often proved elusive when tested and were privileged more by elites than other citizens.

Since the 2011 revolution, under the Islamist regime ushered in right after Ben Ali’s departure, women’s rights were more deeply tested if not threatened, Mohamed said. People were discussing ways, for example, to return to polygamy legally.

Yet in Tunisia’s new constitution, Article 46 says that “the state commits to protect women’s established rights and works to strengthen and develop those rights” and declares there must be “equality of opportunities between women and men to have access to all levels of responsibility and in all domains.”

The constitution also gives women the right to be president, and a constitutional requirement to work toward gender equality has made Tunisia a rare bird in the Middle East and North Africa, says a 2014 Human Rights Watch report. Doors have been opening to women’s political participation, but women have also been fighting to hang on to their rights, Mohamed said, and not necessarily trying to gain more. They are also trying to cope with the rise in violence against them.

A Euro-Mediterranean Rights Network, which supports partnerships among nonprofit groups in the European-Mediterranean region, reported in a 2014 study that there had been an unprecedented rise of violence against women in Tunisia, including sexual violence.

The National Office of Family and Population in Tunisia confirmed such instances in a 2012 study, which found that about 50 percent of Tunisian women suffered some form of violence. The study showed that from a sample of 3,000 women, 31 percent had been victims of physical violence, 28 percent suffered sexual violence and 7 percent were subjected to economic violence, when one intimate partner has control over the other’s access to financial resources, reinforcing dependency.

Two female medical students, Gabes Syrine Missaoui and Rawdha B. Othman, both said in interviews that they have experienced an increase in sexual harassment since the revolution and noted harassment from police and even young boys. Monica Marks, a Ph.D. student at Oxford University who is researching the Ennahda party, has argued that threats to women’s rights were more likely stemming from embedded social norms and weak institutions than from Islamic ideology.

As Othman said: “We want our respect back. Women need to feel entitled to their rights and have their place in society.”

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Set Ablaze by Husbands or In-Laws, These Women Struggle to Survive Tue, 07 Jul 2015 16:14:54 +0000
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The fear of stigma prevents many women from talking about violence that is inflicted on them by a husband, in-laws or other family members. A group, above, meets to talk about their experiences. PUSHPA ACHANTA/WFS

BENGALURU — “The stove exploded in the kitchen,” they say. “Scalding hot water fell on me by accident while I was making tea,” or “I didn’t realize that my clothes caught fire while I was cooking.” These are some of the common explanations from women admitted to the burns ward of Victoria Hospital in the high-tech capital of the Indian State of Karnataka. Sadly, these statements almost always act as a cover-up for the truth, which is both horrific and heartbreaking.

Zarina Khatoon was set on fire by her husband, although the 38-year-old mother of two told everyone that the stove had burst at home. It was several weeks before she could muster the courage to narrate the real story and register a formal complaint. “Once a woman dares to complain against her family there are consequences. One stands to lose everything — respect, family support, and even one’s own children,” she said.

Shocking as it may sound, in India — regardless of region, class, community or age — married women are being burned alive on the flimsiest pretexts, from being thought unattractive or cooking unappetizing meals to bringing insufficient dowry into the marriage, expressing opinions freely, talking to a neighbour or giving birth to daughters: anything and everything can infuriate and incite the husband or the in-laws.

Bride burning, as this occurrence is called, accounts for the death of nearly one woman every hour in India — more than 8,000 women a year, says the National Crime Records Bureau, which reported that 8,233 women, many of them new brides, were killed in dowry-related deaths in 2012; in 2013, statistics indicate that 8,083 died this way. Unfortunately, because this crime takes place inside the home, it limits the scope of intervention by authorities, as it is a considered a personal problem.

It was the fear of stigma and social ostracism that prevented Asha from talking about what had actually happened the night her husband decided to get rid of her by setting her on fire. Sathya, an activist with Vimochana, a women’s rights organization in Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore) that has been assisting distressed girls and women and advocating for their rights for decades, said: “For Asha, who is now in her forties, it has been a long and difficult struggle to find her feet again. It was 10 years back that her husband set her on fire right in front of their daughter. Over the years, Asha has found the strength to forge on for the sake of the young girl.”

Asha struggled to survive for weeks. She has never regained her voice. Today, she communicates through her daughter, Jyoti. “The sprightly adolescent, who is currently pursuing her pre-university studies, often becomes the voice of her mother,” Sathya said. “She was very small when the episode occurred and watched her mother fighting for life.

“As Asha recovered with the help of extensive treatment and counseling, she gradually gained the courage and confidence to share her story through her daughter,” Sathya added. She has observed many women like Asha pull themselves together despite the odds. “She has remained alive for her girl and has managed to secure a job that has helped her become independent even though it may be insufficient to make ends meet.”

How will I sustain myself and my children? Who will pay for my treatment? Will anyone give a disfigured person a job? These are questions that often hold back the Ashas and Zarinas from standing up for themselves. “In a society like ours, which is obsessed with beauty and physical appearance, what chance do women like me have to gain respectable employment?” Zarina asks.

She is not wrong. Burn survivors have low self-esteem when they enter the job market, and most prospective employers are not comfortable with either their appearance or their circumstances, making it doubly difficult for them to find suitable work. For those who do secure a reasonable job, their long-term medical treatment gets in the way. Often they must take short or extended breaks, which employers may not allow.

A combination of justice and adequate rehabilitation can enable a survivor to regain control of her life and destiny. But neither avenue is easy to obtain, especially if the woman happens to be from a lower caste, a tribal or a minority community. Yashoda, founder of the Karnataka Dalit Mahila Vedike, a forum assisting survivors of caste and gender violence, has championed the cause of Dalit (formerly known as untouchable) women for years.

She recalls an incident where concerted action successfully sent a perpetrator to jail. “In 2009, when a Dalit woman had spurned the sexual advances of a man from the dominant [higher] caste, he retaliated by attacking her violently and setting her on fire,” Yashoda says. “After committing the crime, the man simply vanished. A few concerned passersby helped her and she was able to hold on for four days before she died, but the police had been able to take her statement about what happened.”

Yashoda’s survivors’ forum collaborated with other human-rights groups to investigate the incident and complaints were registered at the local police station, followed by large-scale protests. Not only was the man arrested — the case is still in court — but the state government also compensated the family of the victim and promised that the education of her minor children would be supported by the state.

Such a rally to ensure justice does not happen regularly. Donna Fernandes, a co-founder of Vimochana, which has advocated for a separate ward for female burns survivors in Victoria Hospital, said that much more needs to be done. She said it was “absolutely essential” that laws passed to deal with domestic violence, including the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005, must deal with women who have been set on fire by their husbands or in-laws. Such women must by law receive financial and other support for medical care, including physiological and psychological counseling, especially if they have sustained grievous burns.

It is the never-say-die attitude of survivors that really keeps them going. Sylvia, 33, a vegetable vendor in Bengaluru, has been to hell and back. “But I refuse to dwell in the past,” she said. “Life has been anything but simple ever since my husband doused me in kerosene and set me on fire. I take each day as a new challenge. Though I am educated, I did not get a job anywhere. So I am selling vegetables to earn a few hundred rupees a day to support my sons, who are studying in a government school. We live with my mother, a daily wager, who contributes to household expenses as well.”

Women like Sylvia give Fernandes the strength to keep up the fight. “Each day, from Bengaluru alone, we get four to five cases of women being burnt using kerosene,” she said. “Does that mean we ban the sale of kerosene? No. What we all have to work towards is changing mind-sets and traditions that turn seemingly normal people into monsters.”

© Women’s Feature Service

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