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Trinidad and Tobago is failing children locked in Syrian camps – it must bring them home | Kenneth Mohammed




When is it acceptable for a government to lock its citizens out of their country, to leave them stranded overseas, trampling the constitutional and human rights of those who pay their salaries? During a pandemic perhaps?

When is it acceptable to disown nationals, especially children who are victims of misguided decisions made by their brainwashed parents? When their parents left to join Islamic State perhaps?

Do politicians own a country and have the right to make these decisions? Or do the people own their citizenship by right of birth, and through hard-earned taxes, pay to have elected politicians represent, govern and manage their country? Which government is so hard-hearted and stiff-necked as to ignore the suffering of an innocent child who faces risk of death?

The government of Trinidad and Tobago is guilty of the above. During the past decade, it has been presided over by a prime minister and numerous national security ministers repeatedly accused of incompetence as corruption and crime have escalated. Added to incompetence is apathy in the face of the harsh realities their citizens face daily.

In a democratic country once considered a bastion of freedom and wealth, the present government has not just been guilty of locking borders and leaving citizens to suffer abroad during the pandemic but also awarded senior health officials the country’s highest honours for doing so. This despite Trinidad and Tobago being ranked as having the fifth-most Covid-19 deaths per million of its population in the Americas and 23rd most deaths per million in the world.

The plight of Trinidad and Tobago nationals stranded in the UK by Covid-19 prompted MP Steve Baker to raise questions in the Westminster parliament in October 2020 and call on the Trinidad and Tobago government to do the right thing and“make sure their citizens get home”. That appeared to fall on deaf ears.

Now, once again, Trinidad and Tobago is in the global spotlight for its agonising impotence in making decisions that require empathy and a conscience: Human Rights Watch (HRW) has this month called on the government to repatriate its nationals from prison camps in north-east Syria.

Over 90 nationals from Trinidad and Tobago, including 56 children, are being detained in Syria on suspicion of having links to IS. Despite the US and neighbouring Barbados having repatriated their citizens, the Trinidad and Tobago government has taken little action, leaving their nationals in dire conditions, lacking access to healthcare, water, shelter, education and recreation. Families are forced to hide their children in their tents to protect them from sexual predators, abusive camp guards and IS recruiters. Children have died from treatable illnesses; some have drowned in sewage pits or died in tent fires.

The Trinidadians are among nearly 42,000 foreigners from about 60 countries rounded up – along with 23,000 Syrians – in 2018 or early 2019 by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. Trinidad and Tobago has had more people join IS per capita than any other western country: at least 130 between 2013 and 2016. Most went to Syria and Iraq as families, taking their children. The Trinidad and Tobago government has cited several reasons for not repatriating those who survive, including challenges in verifying nationality, and ascertaining whether those requesting repatriation have engaged in violence and whether children born in Syria are Trinidad and Tobago citizens.

However, aid groups and Syrian authorities have worked with many other countries to verify identities through DNA samples. If appropriate, countries can investigate and prosecute nationals once they are home.

Yet the authorities have taken little action, even after establishing the Nightingale Committee in 2018 to develop a policy for people returning from conflict areas. In 2020 draft legislation was said to be at an advanced stage but the government has failed to respond to repeated requests from UN officials and security experts to repatriate its citizens.

Leaving people in the locked camps, say the experts, carries greater risks – including escape and vulnerability to IS recruitment – than bringing them home. HRW has criticised the Trinidad and Tobago government for turning its back on its citizens, who in many cases are being held in degrading and inhumane conditions while having no opportunity to challenge the legality of their detention.

At least 36 countries have allowed more than 6,600 of their nationals to come home, including women and children. Few have brought back any men, but children have successfully reintegrated in their home countries. The US, which has taken 39 people back for rehabilitation, has helped several countries extract their nationals and publicly stated its willingness to assist others, including Trinidad and Tobago. Since October 2022, 10 countries have brought additional nationals home, including Australia, Barbados, France, the Netherlands and Russia.

One country, the UK, decided to strip one of its nationals of her citizenship, leaving her in stateless limbo. Revoking citizenship is an extreme measure, the repercussions of which remain ambiguous and prompt wider questions about the limits of a state’s powers over its citizens’ birthright.

Now in 2023, the Trinidad and Tobago government continues to drag its feet while children are dying. This does not seem to be a big concern for the ruling administration as they preside over a country with the highest crime rate and the highest perception of public sector and political corruption in the Caribbean islands, and continue to mismanage their resource wealth while facing a rising tide of public discontent.

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Boris Johnson says ‘partygate’ untruths were an honest mistake | International




Former U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson acknowledged Tuesday that he misled Parliament about rule-breaking government parties during the coronavirus pandemic — but insisted he never intentionally lied. Johnson said it never occurred to him that the gatherings — which variously included cake, wine, cheese and a “secret Santa” festive gift exchange — broke the restrictions his own government had imposed on the country.

Britain’s boisterous former leader is set to be grilled by lawmakers on Wednesday over whether he lied when he denied there had been parties in his Downing Street offices in violation of Covid-19 lockdown rules that barred socializing. If found to have lied deliberately, he could be suspended or even lose his seat in Parliament.

In a dossier of written evidence to the House of Commons Committee of Privileges, Johnson acknowledged that “my statements to Parliament that the Rules and Guidance had been followed at all times did not turn out to be correct.”

But he said his statements “were made in good faith and on the basis of what I honestly knew and believed at the time. I did not intentionally or recklessly mislead the House.”

The committee will quiz Johnson in person on Wednesday afternoon about “partygate,” the scandal over a string of gatherings in government offices in 2020 and 2021. Police eventually issued 126 fines over the late-night soirees, boozy parties and “wine time Fridays,” including one to Johnson, and the scandal helped hasten the end of his three years in office.

Revelations about the gatherings sparked anger among Britons who had followed rules imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus, unable to visit friends and family or even say goodbye to dying relatives in hospitals.

Becky Kummer, spokesperson for the group Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said Johnson’s claim to have acted in good faith was “sickening.”

“He isn’t fit for public office,” Kummer said.

When reports of the parties first emerged in late 2021, Johnson initially said that no rules had been broken. He later apologized and said there had been “misjudgments.”

But in the 52-page dossier he said he “honestly believed” the five events he attended, including a sendoff for a staffer and his own surprise birthday party, were “lawful work gatherings.”

“No cake was eaten, and no one even sang ‘Happy Birthday,’” he said of the June 19, 2020, celebration, for which he received a police fine. “The primary topic of conversation was the response to Covid-19.”

Johnson said suggestions that people in government considered themselves to be “in a guidance-free bubble where the requirements we imposed on the rest of the country did not apply” could not be further from the truth.

“Drinking wine or exchanging gifts at work and whilst working did not, in my view, turn an otherwise lawful workplace gathering into an unlawful one,” he said.

Johnson said he was assured by “trusted advisers” that no rules had been broken — assurances that turned out to be wrong. He said he was later “genuinely shocked” by the rule-breaking uncovered by police and by senior civil servant Sue Gray, who led an investigation into partygate.

Johnson and his supporters have also questioned the impartiality of Gray because she has now accepted a job as chief of staff to the leader of the opposition Labour Party.

If the committee finds Johnson in contempt, it could recommend punishments ranging from an oral apology to suspension or even expulsion from Parliament, or it could recommend no sanction at all. Any punishment would have to be approved by the House of Commons.

Johnson was forced to resign in July after a slew of scandals over money and ethics finally proved too much for Conservative colleagues, dozens of whom quit the government.

For Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Wednesday’s televised hearing will be an unwelcome reminder of the turmoil that engulfed the Conservative government under Johnson — just as the party’s poll ratings are starting to edge upward.

Sunak took office in October, replacing Liz Truss, who stepped down within weeks of becoming prime minister after her tax-cutting budget plans caused turmoil on financial markets.

Johnson, once considered a secret weapon with voters, is now a liability, said Robert Hayward, a polling expert and Conservative member of the House of Lords.

“He is a serious negative for most people,” Hayward said. “Boris’s polling is far worse than is the case for Rishi (Sunak).”

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Drought caused 43,000 ‘excess deaths’ in Somalia last year, half of them young children | Global development




A new report released by the Somalian government suggests that far more children died in the country last year due to the ongoing drought than previously realised.

The study estimates that there were 43,000 excess deaths in 2022 in Somalia due to the deepening drought compared with similar droughts in 2017 and 2018.

Half of the deaths are likely to have been children under five. Up to 34,000 further deaths have been forecast for the first six months of this year.

Released on Monday by Somalia’s federal health ministry together with Unicef and the World Health Organization, the report was compiled by researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Imperial College London, who looked at retrospective estimates of mortality across Somalia from January to December 2022.

Accurate statistics are difficult to compile from a population spread across remote areas, and with about three million people displaced from their homes. The highest death rates are thought to be in the regions of south-central Somalia, including Bay, Bakool and Banadir, that are the worst hit by drought.

Somalia’s health minister, Dr Ali Hadji Adam Abubakar, found cause for optimism that famine had so far been averted.

“We continue to be concerned about the level and scale of the public health impact of this deepening and protracted food crisis in Somalia,” he said.

“At the same time, we are optimistic that if we can sustain our ongoing and scaled-up health and nutrition actions, and humanitarian response to save lives and protect the health of our vulnerable, we can push back the risk of famine for ever.”

If this did not happen, he said, “the vulnerable and marginalised will pay the price of this crisis with their lives.”

“We therefore urge all our partners and donors to continue to support the health sector in building a resilient health system that works for everyone and not for the few,” said Abubakar.

For the first time, a prediction model was developed from the study. A forecast from January to June 2023 estimates that 135 people a day might also die due to the crisis, with total deaths projected at being between 18,100 and 34,200 during this period.

The estimates suggest the crisis in Somalia is far from over and is already more severe than the 2017-18 drought.

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Wafaa Saeed, Unicef’s representative in Somalia, said he was saddened by the grim picture of the drought’s impact on families, but added: “We know there could have been many more deaths had humanitarian assistance not been scaled up to reach affected communities.

“We must continue to save lives by preventing and treating malnutrition, providing safe and clean water, improving access to lifesaving health services, immunising children against deadly diseases such as measles, and providing critical protection services.”

There have now been six consecutive failed rainy seasons in the climate crisis-induced drought, which coincides with global food price rises, intensified insecurity in some regions, and the aftermath of the pandemic.

The study is the first in a planned series and was funded by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

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War crimes committed on all sides in Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict, U.S. says | International




The Biden administration announced Monday that it has determined all sides in the brutal conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. The move carries no immediate U.S. policy implications but lends weight to calls for such allegations to be prosecuted.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the determination less than a week after he returned from a visit to Ethiopia during which he met with Ethiopian government and Tigrayan officials as well as victims of the conflict, but said little about the U.S. view of prospects for accountability.

His determination covers members of the Ethiopian and Eritrean national armies as well as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and forces aligned with the Amhara region. Blinken said those responsible for atrocities must be held accountable.

He said after “careful review of the law and facts” he had determined that members of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, Eritrean Defense Forces, Tigray People’s Liberation Front forces and Amhara forces committed war crimes during the conflict in northern Ethiopia.

Members of the Ethiopian, Eritrean and Amhara forces also committed crimes against humanity, “including murder, rape and other forms of sexual violence, and persecution,” Blinken said. “Members of the Amhara forces also committed the crime against humanity of deportation or forcible transfer and committed ethnic cleansing in western Tigray.”

Blinken announced the determination as he rolled out the State Department’s annual global human rights reports, which cover 2022 and also called out Afghanistan, China, Cuba, Iran, Myanmar and Nicaragua for abuses.

“I condemn the unspeakable violence against civilians and destruction that occurred in northern Ethiopia,” he said. “Recognizing the atrocities committed by all parties is an essential step to achieving a sustainable peace.Those most responsible for atrocities, including those in positions of command, must be held accountable.”

The formal determination is more measured than his assertion early in the two-year conflict that “ethnic cleansing” was taking place in parts of Tigray.

Last year, a United Nations commission of inquiry said it had turned up evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity by Ethiopian government forces, Tigray forces and Eritrea’s military. But the commission also said Ethiopian forces had resorted to “starvation of civilians” as a tool of war and that Ethiopian and Eritrean forces were found to be responsible for “sexual slavery” — while Tigray forces were not.

The conflict, which ended with a peace deal in November, killed an estimated half-million civilians in Tigray alone, according to Ghent University researchers, a death toll echoed by U.S. officials.

Blinken called on all sides to respect the agreement and follow through on pledges “to implement an inclusive and comprehensive transitional justice process.”

He said Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban, which took power after the U.S. withdrawal from the country two years ago, “relentlessly discriminates against and represses women and girls” and has taken action that threatens humanitarian assistance to all Afghans.

On China, Blinken said Beijing continues abuses, including genocide and crimes against humanity, against Uyghur Muslims in it western Xinjiang area. It also continues the repression of Tibetans and pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, along with mainland Chinese citizens who have tried to exercise basic freedoms.

In Myanmar, also known as Burma, Blinken said human rights “have further eroded,” and in Nicaragua, he said “the authoritarian government continues to detain political prisoners and hold them in appalling prison conditions.”

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