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As violence in the Congo escalates, thousands are effectively being held hostage | Vava Tampa

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In a bare and violent patch of land in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 75,000 people are living in what one UN field officer described as “hellish conditions”. Food and water are scarce. Even the flimsiest shelters are in short supply and sanitation is nonexistent. Girls have been raped by militiamen while attempting to find food in fields around the site. Ibrahim Cisse of Unicef says people here are effectively being held hostage.

Rhoe – a remote camp of internally displaced people (IDP) approximately 45km northeast of Bunia, the capital of DRC’s Ituri province – is “a tragedy waiting to happen”, according to those who have visited.

Ituri province is home to what is possibly Africa’s largest unexplored gold reserve, and in diplomatic circles has been called “the bloodiest corner of DRC”. But even by Ituri standards Rhoe camp is grim, and the significance of the UN’s appeal for urgent support here should not be underestimated. For many in Rhoe it will be not the first or even second time they have become refugees in their own land.

The three DRC warlords convicted at the international criminal court (ICC) for their part in the ongoing violence – Thomas Lubanga, Germain Katanga and Bosco Ntaganda, the subjects, respectively, of the ICC’s first ever conviction, in March 2012, first case in which crimes of sexual violence including rape and sexual slavery were charged (although he was acquitted) and the longest sentence ever issued – began their killing careers here.

In 2003, the EU deployed its first autonomous military intervention in Ituri. It was an attempt to shield a population not being protected by government or international peacekeepers.

Now Ituri is burning again. A militia group known as the Cooperative for the Development of Congo, or Codeco, which distinguishes itself by its copious use of machetes and flamethrowers against civilians, is terrorising the population.

According to UN briefings seen by the Guardian, the situation started to deteriorate on 12 November when Codeco began ramping up attacks on villages and within camps, placing pressure on already struggling relief operations.

In one attack, in Tsuya, 1,296 houses were destroyed by Codeco militia. No one knows how many died. At around the same time, Codeco men armed with ageing AK-47s attacked the villages of Buki, Ngazba, Kpaluba, Tata and Litsinga; opening fire at random and torching houses. In Reta, in the furrows of Djugu territory, not far from the Drodro camp, a two-month-old baby girl was killed during a Codeco attack. Unicef says militiamen also destroyed three hospitals and two schools in the area, and have made any kind of humanitarian assistance impossible.

Those who survived the assaults fled to camps at Tché and Drodro. On 21 November, Tché was attacked; 950 shelters were destroyed. Codeco also attacked Drodro, killing at least 35 and destroying 14 of the 18 housing blocks that sheltered IDPs. Over the last eight weeks militiamen have attacked at least four IDP camps in Ituri.

These accounts shed light not only on the violence unfolding in Ituri but also reveal that at least 35,000 children, almost half of Rhoe’s population, are at risk of death through starvation or disease.

What will happen to people without any food, including the 19 breastfeeding women who gave birth in the camp in December?

Built to shelter 6,000 households, Rhoe was already a humanitarian tinderbox, hopelessly over capacity. Aid agencies can reach the camp only by helicopter.

In December, Unicef counted over 14,000 households in the camp, making up a total of 75,000 people; there is one toilet for every 1,300 people and sewage flows openly.

Three cases of measles have been identified. People are dying of respiratory illnesses, diarrhoea and malaria. There is no equipment to hold funerals. There is also only one clinic, run by Doctors Without Borders, with an adjacent twometre sq delivery room for women in labour.

These conditions are alongside impunity-fuelled violence, starvation and displacement that has festered since 1996, leaving the government unable to keep its citizens safe, secure or fed. More than 27 million are facing starvation. Approximately 5.5 million people, including 3.2 million children and 1.2 million women, have now been displaced from their homes because of violence.

In May 2021 DRC’s president, Felix Tshisekedi, declared a state of emergency in Ituri and neighbouring North Kivu. Yet Tshisekedi has appointed Floribert Ndjabu as his evoy for the region, a man who served 15 years in preventive detention on suspicion of the murders of nine UN peacekeepers in 2005. Last August, he employed another former rebel leader, Tommy Tambwe, three months before Tambwe’s militia gang M23 allegedly attacked Bukavu.

Tshisekedi has promoted many figures the UN has labeled “red generals,” some of whom are under UN and EU sanctions for human rights violations, including Gen Gabriel Amisi, Gen Muhindo Akili Mundos, Fall Sikabwe Asinda, Thierry Ilunga Kibambi and Egide Ngoy. How can you protect civilians from violence if the very men who caused it are in power?

Unicef says it needs $356m (£260m) to hold back hunger and disease in Ituri, including Ebola, measles, meningitis and cholera. But there has been no indication from London, Washington or Brussels that any programme will be funded.

Everyone of course understands that money will only address the symptoms and not the fundamental problem. It is largely a question of political will: whether or not to send-in UN lawyers – not troops – to end the impunity still fuelling the ongoing violence, starvation and displacement.

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Lawyers threaten action over new EU gas and nuclear rules

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Environmental lawyers are threatening to take legal action against the European Commission if gas is included in the new EU guidelines for sustainable energy investment.

The draft proposal, controversially released late on 31 December, would see certain investments in gas and nuclear included in the so-called EU taxonomy, under the category of “transitional economic activities”.

But a legal analysis carried out by ClientEarth found that such a move would clash with several EU laws — the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, the EU Climate Law and the Taxonomy Regulation itself — and international commitments under the 2015 Paris Agreement.

“Failing to take these legal obligations into account puts the commission at serious risk of legal challenge,” environmental lawyer Marta Toporek from ClientEarth warned on Friday (21 January).

The London-based NGO said that they are exploring all legal avenues, including an internal review request.

Under the Aarhus regulation, NGOs have the right to ask EU institutions to assess their own decisions — with a right to appeal before the Court of Justice of the European Union.

The commission must respond to such requests within 22 weeks.

“While it is a lengthy process, it is an important right for environmental NGOs, and in very limited cases individuals, to ensure that EU institutions and bodies comply with EU laws that are meant to protect the environment and human health,” ClientEarth told EUobserver.

The draft taxonomy has triggered discontent not only among environmentalists but also among some EU member states, MEPs and some financial institutions.

Spain, Austria, Denmark and Luxembourg united to reject the draft proposal, ahead of an informal meeting with EU environment ministers taking place on Friday (21 January) and Saturday — where EU countries can tell the commission what they think about including gas and nuclear into the EU taxonomy.

“This draft sends the wrong message to financial markets and seriously risks being rejected by investors. It jeopardises the purpose of the taxonomy to create a common language,” the group of four countries said in a statement earlier this week.

They argue that natural gas and nuclear power do not meet the legal and scientific requirements to be qualified as sustainable activities.

Vienna previously said it would sue the EU executive if it goes with its plans to include gas and nuclear in the EU taxonomy.

And the Dutch parliament said this week that it will not accept the inclusion of gas, because “‘green’ should really be green”, as Dutch Green MP Suzanne Kröger put it.

No impact assessment, no public consultation

Similarly, centre-right MEP Sirpa Pietikäinen and Green MEP Bas Eickhout, who lead the European Parliament’s work on this file, have said that the draft proposal fails to live up to the co-legislators expectations.

They see the selection criteria used for gas power plants, co-generation and district hearing as being in breach of the “principle of technological neutrality”.

Scientists from the EU Commission expert group concluded that for gas power plants a threshold of 100g CO2e/kWh of electricity should be applied to be compatible with a 1.5°C pathway under the Paris Agreement.

But under the draft proposal, instead, gas power plants would be taxonomy-compliant if their emissions are lower than 270g CO2e/kWh of electricity.

“We see no legal ground for the commission to create an exemption to this principle of technological neutrality,” the two MEPs said in a letter, regretting the lack of an impact assessment.

Earlier this week, MEPs Irene Tinagli and Pascal Canfin, chairs of the parliament committees for economy and environment, also deplored the lack of public consultation “in the light of the controversial nature of the subject”.

Meanwhile, civil society organisations and academia have warned the commission that the EU taxonomy, as it stands, would damage Europe’s reputation and ambitions to climate leadership.

Last year was marked by “a string of intense political rows, backroom deals and manoeuvring over how to bypass scientific evidence and classify fossil gas and nuclear energy as sustainable,” said Tsvetelina Kuzmanova from NGO E3G.

Experts had until Friday to provide feedback on the EU taxonomy. The EU executive will now analyse their contributions and it is expected to formally adopt the proposal before the end of the month.

A majority of EU countries, or the European Parliament, could still object and revoke the decision, after four months of scrutiny.

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Taliban launch raids on homes of Afghan women’s rights activists | Women’s rights and gender equality

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Taliban gunmen have raided the homes of women’s rights activists in Kabul, beating and arresting female campaigners in a string of actions apparently triggered by recent demonstrations.

Tamana Zaryabi Paryani and Parawana Ibrahimkhel, who participated in a series of protests held in Kabul over the last few months, were seized on Wednesday night by armed men claiming to be from the Taliban intelligence department.

Shortly before Paryani and her sisters were detained, footage was posted on social media showing her screaming for help, saying the Taliban were banging on her door.

“Help, please, the Taliban have come to our home … Only my sisters are home,” she says in the clip.

Associated Press footage from the scene on Thursday showed the apartment’s dented metal front door sitting slightly ajar. A witness said the armed men went up to Paryani’s third-floor apartment and began banging on the front door ordering her to open it.

The spokesman for the Taliban-appointed police in Kabul, Gen Mobin Khan, tweeted that Paryani’s social video post was a manufactured drama. A spokesman for the Taliban intelligence, Khalid Hamraz, would neither confirm nor deny the arrest.

He tweeted that “insulting the religious and national values of the Afghan people is not tolerated any more”, a reference to Sunday’s rally during which the protesters appeared to burn a white burqa, the head-to-toe garment that only leaves a mesh opening for the eyes.

Hamraz accused rights activists of maligning Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers and their security forces to gain asylum in the west.

Similar raids were reported across homes of female protesters in Kabul. In another case, an Afghan protester whose name has been concealed to protect her, said she was physically assaulted and injured. She told the Guardian that the Taliban visited her house and “attacked” and “severely beat” her. Her whereabouts are now unknown.

“The Taliban had been patrolling near our homes since [Wednesday] afternoon. I talked to Tamana in the evening and then around 9pm I saw the video of her asking for help. We tried calling her from our burner phones, but her phone was switched off,” said Wahida Amiri, 33-year-old librarian and a fellow demonstrator, who is also on the run. “When we realised that they were raiding our homes one by one, the rest of us decided to go into hiding,” she added.

Since sweeping to power in mid-August, the Taliban have imposed widespread restrictions, many of them against women. They have been banned from many jobs outside the health and education field, their access to education has been restricted beyond sixth grade and they have been ordered to wear the hijab. The Taliban have, however, stopped short of imposing the burqa, which was compulsory when they ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s.

At Sunday’s demonstration, women carried placards demanding equal rights and shouted: “Justice!” They said they could be forced to wear the hijab. Organisers of the demonstration said Paryani attended the protest, which was dispersed after the Taliban fired pepper spray at the crowd.

Paryani belongs to a rights group called Seekers of Justice, which has organised several demonstrations in Kabul, including Sunday’s. Members have not spoken publicly of Paryani’s arrest but have been sharing the video of her.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch said that since taking over, the Taliban “have rolled back the rights of women and girls, including blocking access to education and employment for many”.

“Women’s rights activists have staged a series of protests; the Taliban have responded by banning unauthorized protests,” HRW said in a statement after Sunday’s protest.

The Taliban have increasingly targeted Afghanistan’s rights groups, and local and international journalists covering demonstrations have often been detained and sometimes beaten.

“It is obvious the Taliban are intensifying their attacks on the civic space, and more specifically on women who are pioneers of the civic space,” said Shaharzad Akbar, chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

“For over a month, we have seen the Taliban stifling dissent and intensifying their attacks on protesters across Afghanistan,” added Akbar. “Earlier we heard reports of protesters in Mazar being detained. There were also allegation of them being tortured, assaulted and harassed while in detention.”

Heather Barr, associate director of the women’s division at Human Rights Watch, said the Taliban’s reaction was a sign of fear. “It might seem hard to understand why the Taliban would have such a violent reaction to 25 women standing on the sidewalk, protesting peacefully. But their fears make sense when you see how powerful and brave these women are, to be stepping out again and again even in the face of escalating violence by the Taliban,” she said.

She urged the international community to step up in support of Afghan women. “The Taliban seem to be struggling on how to respond to this, and seem to have decided now that increased brutality is the answer, and that is a very frightening moment. The international community has to stand by these women.”

Associated Press contributed reporting

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Macron promises strong EU borders

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Obligatory detentions, more security screening, and faster deportations – these are the French EU presidency’s migration priorities, in a right-wing home affairs agenda.

Immigration did not take centre stage in French president Emmanuel Macron’s speech in the EU Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday (19 January).

But what he did say emphasised keeping people out.

“We must protect our external borders, including by developing a rapid-intervention [military] force … to build partnerships with countries of origin and transit, to fight against [human-]smuggling networks, and make our return policy effective,” he told MEPs.

He voiced empathy for people “in great misery … and insecurity”, some of whom had walked from Africa or Asia to Europe, he said.

But Macron’s empathy had its limits. “It’s a horrendous humanitarian situation, but that’s reality,” he said.

And his speech was matched by his priorities on immigration for the next six months.

EU states should agree “common rules” on border “screening”, including “an obligation to ‘keep at the disposal of the authorities’ persons apprehended at the external borders, by increasing detention capacities,” France said in a memo to fellow EU states on 17 January.

Screening should include “health and safety checks” and fingerprinting, the memo said.

“The asylum procedure … would only be provided for in the later stages” of the security process, France noted.

And EU states should step up deportations, by concluding “more readmission agreements with priority third countries” and creating a new “EU Return Coordinator”, France added.

These were the “core” measures France believed EU states could agree on by July, following months of consultations.

France also discussed how EU states could show “solidarity” with front-line countries, such as Greece and Italy, without taking in asylum seekers.

They could pay each other off or send border guards instead, France proposed.

But there was as little in the French memo on protecting migrants’ lives or welfare as there was in Macron’s speech.

The EU should offer “dignified reception and better integration of people in need”, the memo said, in its only words on the issue.

Misery

Record numbers of people drowned last year trying to cross the Mediterranean, while others froze to death in the forests of Belarus and Poland.

At the same time, EU countries carried out thousands of illegal “pushbacks”.

Some built new walls and razor-wire fences, while conditions at many Greek migrant camps remained dismal.

But for all the human “misery” involved, EU migration has become a political weapon ahead of French elections in April, where Macron is running against three right-wing contenders, among others.

“We cannot have a sieve-like Europe,” the centre-right candidate, Valérie Pécresse, said while on a visit to Greece last week.

And one far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen’s party spoke out in Strasbourg.

“Your Europe [the EU] is 60 years old, but our Europe is 3,000 old,” one of Le Pen’s MEPs, Jordan Bardella, told Macron.

“Will Europe still be Europe if refugees are everywhere? Will it still be Europe if people swear allegiance to sultans in Turkey and Morocco?,” Bardella said.

Meanwhile, Macron’s migration agenda comes alongside other EU presidency projects on counterterrorism, antisemitism, and hate speech.

And some of these would also appeal to right-wing voters.

EU countries needed to tackle “the extremely sensitive nature of the notion of blasphemy, which rallies and mobilises all streams of the radical Islamist scene”, such as the lone knife-man who beheaded a French schoolteacher in 2020, France warned in a recent EU memo on terrorism.

It proposed a hawkish definition of antisemitism that was being used to demonise Israel’s opponents.

And for all the French concern on dialling down hatred, Macron’s vision of a secular Europe contained nothing on tackling Islamophobia.

Politics

For his part, French Green MEP Yannick Jadot took the French leader to task in heated, eyeball-to-eyeball comments in the Strasbourg chamber.

Jadot highlighted the death of a young Kurdish migrant in the English Channel.

“All that she wanted was to live and to love, Mr President … Why do you pull down the tents [in Calais migrant camps] every day?”, Jadot said.

But Jadot is also running in April and his intervention was just more French election fever for some MEPs, such as the Spanish leader of the socialist group, Iratxe García Pérez, who asked the Frenchman to cool his tone.

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