BBC: UN Rejects Claims of “cowardice” by Human Rights Watch

The UN has defended its Secretary General Ban Ki-moon over accusations that he has failed to speak out over human rights issues. Mr Ban has been singled out for harsh criticism by Human Rights Watch in its annual report. The group said he had been “notably reluctant to put pressure on abusive governments”.

Mr Ban’s office denied this, saying he used both quiet diplomacy and public pressure to promote human rights. But HRW says it wants its annual report to draw attention to “the failure of the expected champions of human rights” to defend those rights and stand up to abusive governments.

While there is “nothing inherently wrong with dialogue and cooperation to promote human rights”, the group says, there was a danger that it could become “a charade designed more to appease critics of complacency than to secure change”. Whether out of calculation or cowardice, many [UN Security] Council members promote dialogue and cooperation as a universal prescription without regard to whether a government has the political will to curtail its abusive behavior.”

The BBC’s Barbara Plett at the UN says Mr Ban’s style has been more discreet than that of his predecessor Kofi Annan. He has often often opted to work behind the scenes to pressure governments on human rights issues. But HRW says Mr Ban’s “disinclination to speak out about serious human rights violators means he is often choosing to fight with one hand tied behind his back”. It says that while Mr Ban has made strong comments on human rights when visiting, for example, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, he has failed to do so with Chinese officials.


HRW also says Mr Ban appeared to have “placed undue faith in his professed ability to convince by private persuasion”, citing his discussions with leaders including Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, Burma’s military leader Than Shwe and Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Mr Ban’s spokesman Farhan Haq defended the secretary general’s record, saying he did speak publicly about human rights when he visited some of those countries named by HRW. “In each case he makes a strategic decision on the most effective to way to secure respect for HR [human rights] and accountability,” said Mr Haq. “The record shows he has achieved results through both quiet diplomacy and public pressure.”

Mr Haq cited the freeing of a jailed gay couple in Malawi as one example where quiet diplomacy had proved successful. The EU also comes under fire in the report – HRW says it has “become particularly infatuated with the idea of dialogue and cooperation” and criticises foreign policy chief Baroness Ashton, “for repeatedly expressing a preference for ‘quiet diplomacy’ regardless of the circumstances”.

Meanwhile US President Barack Obama is accused of lacking his “famed eloquence” when defending human rights in bilateral contexts with China, India and Indonesia, and of failing to ensure other areas of US government “convey strong human rights messages consistently”.


Foreign Policy: What Wikileaks Told Us About the Worlds Most Dangerous Nations


What we know: After a few years off the front pages, 2011 will be a pivotal year for Sudan. As part of a 2005 peace agreement brokered by the United States to end the country’s decades-long north-south civil war, Southern Sudan will vote in January on a referendum deciding whether to secede or remain part of Sudan. Most observers believe that the south will vote overwhelmingly for independence from Khartoum. An equal number of analysts, however, warn that the northern government won’t let its southern half (particularly the lucrative oil deposits along the regional border) go without a fight.

What we learn: In advance of the referendum, both north and south Sudan have long been rumored to be undertaking an intensive military build-up. A series of cables document the extent of those arrangements in the south, whose regional government in Juba has been importing arms from Ukraine via the government in Kenya.

The transit route first came to light in September 2008, when a weapons shipment was seized by pirates off the coast of Somalia. The tanks aboard were said to be going to Kenya, but documentation suggested they may actually have been headed for “GOSS” (the Government of Southern Sudan). The suspicions were never substantiated and the cargo was delivered to Mombasa, Kenya. But an Oct. 8, 2008, cable confirms that the “33 Ukrainian T-72 tanks and other ammunition and equipment” aboard the seized vessel were indeed headed for Juba:

“Since last year, Kenya’s Ministry of Defense has indeed played a major role in assisting the Government of South Sudan receive arms shipments from the Government of Ukraine. When the shipments are off-loaded at the port of Mombasa, they are transported via rail to Uganda and then onward to Southern Sudan (ref C). Military officials have expressed discomfort with this arrangement, however, and have made it clear to us that the orders come “from the top.” (i.e., President Kibaki)”


What we know: In May 2008, Zimbabwean strongman Robert Mugabe lost a democratic election for the presidency but refused to leave office, throwing the country into chaos. An emergency mediator, then-South African President Thabo Mbeki stepped in to broker a power-sharing agreement between Mugabe and the poll’s winner, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. After tortuous discussions, the new government was finally formed in February 2009. Under its purview, the country stabilized and the economy finally halted its freefall into negative growth rates. Yet while Zimbabwe may be marginally better off than it was a few years ago, the governing alliance has been fraught from day one. Prime Minister Tsvangirai has pulled out of the government numerous times in protest of his exclusion from key decisions, and to this day, Mugabe remains the ultimate powerbroker.

The curveball: Robert Mugabe continues to manipulate the Kimberly Process, a mechanism intended to help certify that diamonds are “conflict free.” A series of leaked State Department cables recall the smuggling routes and the players involved in Zimbabwe’s diamond trade. Another ominously predicts government takeovers of the mines and mining communities, which would displace up to 25,000 Zimbabweans.



 What we know: Pakistan has been called the most dangerous country in the world: It’s likely home to Osama bin Laden, its northern tribal areas serve as a refuge for Taliban and al Qaeda fighters fleeing U.S. operations in Afghanistan, its military and intelligence services have a history of usurping policy and civilian rule (not to mention collaborating with Islamist extremists as proxies in a cold war with neighboring India), the government is corrupt and weak, the economy is moribund, and Islamabad has nuclear weapons. Still, Pakistan is a valuable U.S. ally, and Washington has been trying its hardest to convince the military to buck up in the fight against extremists in Afghanistan since the first days of the U.S. invasion.

What we learn: Pakistan boasts the only cable released so far in which the term “failed state” is mentioned outright. Luckily for Islamabad, it’s a rebuttal of that idea. In a February 2009 backgrounder cable written for former Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke, the embassy writes, “This is not a failed state. Pakistan has solid albeit weak institutions, a robust if often irresponsible media, established although under-equipped police forces, an increasingly strong civil society, and a population with a proven resiliency to withstand everything from earthquakes to kleptocracy.” Of course, the caveat shortly follows:

Although we do not believe Pakistan is a failed state, we nonetheless recognize that the challenges it confronts are dire. The government is losing more and more territory every day to foreign and domestic militant groups; deteriorating law and order in turn is undermining economic recovery. The bureaucracy is settling into third-world mediocrity, as demonstrated by some corruption and a limited capacity to implement or articulate policy.

Elsewhere in the cables, it is clear (and has been well-reported) that Pakistan continues to be an inscrutable ally, as frustrating as it is vital. Yet there is good news  as well. In one of the more recent cables, dated Feb. 10, 2010, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates remarks to French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner about “the dramatic changes that had taken place [in Pakistan] over the past year. It was astonishing that President Zardari had remained in power and that the Pakistanis had conducted such effective COIN operations.” Gates continues, “one can never be an optimist about Pakistan, but that the changes had been striking.” Kouchner is noted having concurred that the changes were “‘nothing short of a miracle.'”

The curveball: Prior to the Mumbai terrorist attacks of 2008, China took Pakistan’s suggestion to hold up U.N. Security Council sanctions against Jamaat-ud-Dawah, an alias for the Islamist militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET) that later carried out the attacks, according to an August 2009 cable. LET continues to operate freely on Pakistani territory, the cable reports, despite Indian and international demands that they be shut down. A Dec. 30, 2009, cable noted these ties specifically: “Some officials from the Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) continue to maintain ties with a wide array of extremist organizations, in particular the Taliban, LeT and other extremist organizations. These extremist organizations continue to find refuge in Pakistan and exploit Pakistan’s extensive network of charities, NGOs, and madrassas.”



What we know: In late 2009, Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua vanished to Saudi Arabia, where he was said to be receiving medical treatment for a long-suffering heart condition. In the interim months, as it became less clear what the president’s condition actually was — or if he would recover — the Nigerian government grappled with the question of who would run the country in his absence.

What we learn: It wasn’t just Nigerians who wondered who was in charge during Yar’Adua’s long convalescence. According to leaked State Department cables, the U.S. ambassador held a meeting with Jonathan on Feb. 24, 2010, when he was still acting president of Nigeria (and Yar’Adua was still alive.) In the discussion, Jonathan admitted that “everyone is confused” about who was running the country. He blamed the uncertainty on a small cadre close to the ailing president, led by Yar’Adua’s wife, Turai, who was restricting access to the president. Jonathan described how he would attempt to manage regional tensions if succession was necessary and the ambassador urged him to “be his own man,” to which Jonathan replied: “I was not chosen to be Vice President because I had good political experience,” he said. “I did not. There were a lot more qualified people around to be Vice President, but that does not mean I am not my own man.”

The curveball: In a series of cables regarding the country’s proposed oil-industry reform law, Shell oil tells U.S. diplomats that it has eyes in the Nigerian government: “Shell had seconded people to all the relevant ministries and that Shell consequently had access to everything that was being done in those ministries.” A separate cable discussing Nigeria’s instability and its importance to the United States — both as the most populous country in Africa and a major U.S. oil supplier — warns that “Nigeria has the possibility of becoming the next Pakistan within 25 years.” Needless to say, that’s not intended as a compliment.



What we learn: The U.S. embassy is working forcefully to push forward the reform agenda, an August 2010 cable notes. The strategy is one of slow and steady progress, mixing engagement with the Kenyan government with outreach to Kenyan citizens. As the ambassador’s cable notes, “While the culture of impunity and the grip of the old guard political elite on the levers of state power and resources remain largely intact, hairline fractures are developing in their edifice which — if we continue to work them intensively — will develop into broader fractures and open up the potential for a peaceful process of implementation of fundamental reforms.”

But while the cable lays out the basis of a reform agenda, it is not entirely optimistic that institutional and personal hurdles can be surmounted. First, it mentions a redacted individual who “blocks progress on high-level investigations and has ties directly to State House.” Another example involves alleged Kenyan government ties “with the ‘kwe kwe’ death squad responsible for extrajudicial killings.”

Calling out corruption within the Kenyan government isn’t likely to make Washington’s job any easier. But Nairobi has experience with WikiLeaks blowing the lid on big scandals. The self-described whistleblower released a secret report in 2007 detailing the blockbuster corruption within the government of former president Daniel Arap Moi.

The curveball: China is moving into Kenya, building roads and drilling oil, but a cable also notes that “90% of the ivory smugglers detained at JKIA [Jomo Kenyatta International Airport] are Chinese nationals.” China is also “providing weapons to the GOK [government of Kenya] in support of its Somalia policies and increasing their involvement with the Kenyan National Security and Intelligence Service (NSIS) by providing telecommunications and computer equipment.” There is no elaboration on which Somalia policy in particular China is fond of, but Kenya serves as the hub for the anti-piracy campaign in the Gulf of Aden and is one of the only countries that has offered to prosecute captured pirates in court.


NY Times: North and South Korea Exchange Fire

SEOUL, South Korea — North and South Korea exchanged artillery fire on Tuesday after dozens of shells fired from the North struck a South Korean island near the countries’ disputed maritime border, South Korean military officials said. Two South Korean soldiers were killed, 15 were wounded and three civilians were injured, said Kiyheon Kwon, an official at the Defense Ministry.

The South Korean military went to “crisis status,” and fighter planes were put on alert but did not take off. South Korean artillery units returned fire after the North’s shells struck South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island at 2:34 p.m., said Mr. Kwon, adding that the North also fired numerous rounds into the Yellow Sea. Television footage showed large plumes of black smoke spiraling from the island, and news reports said dozens of houses were on fire.

The official North Korean news agency said in a brief statement Tuesday night that the South had started the fight when it “recklessly fired into our sea area.” The South Korean deputy minister of defense, Lee Yong-geul, acknowledged that artillery units had been firing test shots on Tuesday afternoon close to the North Korean coast, from a battery on the South Korean island of Paeknyeongdo. But he denied Pyongyang’s charge that the shots had crossed the sea border. While skirmishes between the two countries have not been uncommon in recent years, the clash appeared to have been the most serious in decades and came amid heightened tensions over the North’s nuclear program. An American nuclear scientist who recently visited the North said he had been shown a secret and modern enrichment facility.

A spokesman for President Lee Myung-bak said Mr. Lee gathered his security-related ministers and senior aides at a crisis meeting in the underground situation room at the Blue House, the presidential office and residence.  “We will not in any way tolerate this,” Mr. Lee’s chief spokesman, Hong Sang-pyo, said after the meeting. “Any further provocation will get an immediate and strong response and the South Korean military will strongly retaliate if there is anything further.”

The United States condemned the attack and called on North Korea to “halt its belligerent action,” the White House said in a statement. The attack on the island came as 70,000 South Korean troops were beginning an annual nationwide military drill called Safeguarding the Nation. The exercise has been sharply criticized by Pyongyang as “simulating an invasion of the North” and “a means to provoke a war.” The drill includes some United States forces, but a defense official said no American military personnel were on the island when it was hit.

The shelling also followed revelations of two new nuclear facilities in the North — a light water reactor under construction and a modern plant for enriching uranium that Pyongyang says is operational.

In March, a South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan, was sunk in the area and 46 sailors died. The incident badly frayed inter-Korean relations and Seoul blamed the sinking on a North Korean torpedo attack. The North has denied any role in incident. In August, North Korea fired 110 artillery rounds near Yeonpyeong and another South Korean island, the Office of Joint Chiefs of Staff in Seoul said at the time. Three weeks ago, the South Korean Navy fired warning shots at a North Korean fishing boat after the vessel strayed across the Northern Limit Line. The North Korean boat then reportedly retreated.

The shelling came just days after an American nuclear scientist who visited North Korea earlier this month said he had been shown a vast new facility built secretly and rapidly to enrich uranium. The scientist, Siegfried S. Hecker, a Stanford professor who previously directed the Los Alamos National Laboratory, said in an interview that he had been “stunned” by the sophistication of the new plant, where he saw “hundreds and hundreds” of centrifuges that had just been installed in a recently gutted building and operated from what he called “an ultra-modern control room.” The North Koreans claimed 2,000 centrifuges were already installed and running, he said.

The development confronted the Obama administration with the prospect that North Korea country is preparing to expand its nuclear arsenal or build a far more powerful type of atomic bomb.

Read on at-

Sovereign of Week: Ai Weiwei, Chinese Artist/ Revolutionary

One of China’s best-known artists, Ai Weiwei, says he has been under house arrest at his home in Beijing. He says the authorities want to prevent him holding a party to mark the forced demolition of his new Shanghai studio.

Mr Ai was initially invited to build the space, but it has now been declared illegal and will shortly be demolished. The artist helped create Beijing’s Olympic Bird’s Nest stadium and his latest installation of sunflower seeds is showing at London’s Tate Modern.

Born in 1957 in Beijing, the artist has played a key role in contemporary Chinese art over the last two decades, and has been highly vocal about human rights issues in the country.

Mr Ai had planned to hold a party at his $1.1m (£670,000) Shanghai studio on Sunday prior to its demolition. But on Friday, he said that men he suspected were plain-clothes police officers told him he would not be allowed to travel to Shanghai. A van without numberplates with more than 10 men inside was blocking the exit from his home at an artists’ colony in Beijing, he added.

“I’m under house arrest to prevent me from going to Shanghai. You can never really argue with this government,” Mr Ai told the Associated Press by telephone.  According to messages on his Twitter feed, Mr Ai has been told he will be under house arrest until midnight on Sunday. “Please accept my deepest apologies,” he tweeted to his guests in Shanghai.

He said that some people still planned to travel to his studio. He had planned to serve river crabs at the event. It is thought that the choice of crabs was a political statement as the Chinese name for river crab sounds like “harmonise”, a euphemism often used by the Chinese authorities for censorship.

Shanghai had imposed a six-month moratorium on large-scale building and demolition projects during the World Expo, in a bid to improve air quality, but reports say these have resumed since the exhibition ended. “Ai’s studio did not go through the application procedures, therefore, it is an illegal building,” Chen Jie, director of the urban construction department in Malu township, where the studio is located, is quoted as telling the Global Times.

Mr Ai’s latest work is currently on display in London’s Tate Modern gallery: a giant installation made up of millions of tiny replica sunflower seeds. Sunflower seeds are a popular Chinese street snack but also hold another meaning for the artist.

During the Cultural Revolution, propaganda images showed Chairman Mao as the sun and the mass of people as sunflowers turning towards him. “The seed is a household object but at the same time it is a revolutionary symbol,” Mr Ai has said of his work.

 Turbine Hall: Ai Weiwei