Afghanistan Female Delegation Negotiates Face-to-Face with Taliban in Historic Oslo Meeting

OSLO, Norway - Earlier this week, it was widely reported that the first all-female delegation of Afghan women led by Parliamentarians Shukria Barakzai and Fawzia Koofi, met with Taliban representatives in Oslo, Norway to discuss women's rights, with a particular focus on the need for reform in how women are treated within Taliban controlled areas of Afghanistan. The desired outcome of these negotiations was the protection of the gains women’s rights activists had achieved.

"Afghan women defended their rights with courage," Barakzai said. Their demands at this initial meeting were about "safeguarding the democratic values achieved in the last decade."

Given the historically hardline position that the Taliban has exerted over women in Afghanistan in terms of their rights to self-determination, education, and freedom of expression; these talks were a momentous milestone in a road that is still fraught with peril and has many miles to be travelled toward achieving any future power-sharing agreement.

These groundbreaking talks happened in the midst of a country trying to reassert its identity after decades of external and internal military and religious turmoil. An environment which help to foment a level of religious conservatism which promulgated the harshest and most appalling acts of human rights abuses. With the encroachment of ISIS and its extremist’s tactics, most of which make the Taliban seem rational by contrast; ideas and dogma previously held sacrosanct are being reevaluated.

It is within this context of the Arab proverb “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” that new alliances are emerging as Kabul and the Taliban begin to explore a peaceful end to the ongoing conflict. These current talks can be seen as an extension of negotiations hosted by Qatar a month earlier between militants and an unofficial Afghan delegation. Although, Afghan women have been members of parliament for a number of years, these progressive talks provided them with a seat at the table whereupon negotiations affecting all of the citizens of Afghanistan were being discussed.

It was reported that about a dozen women attended the negotiations, although most chose to hide their identities for fear of reprisal. Last year Barakzai was targeted by militants and narrowly escaped a suicide bomb attack with minor injuries. Despite this, she continues to push for women’s rights and praised the relative ease of these talks in part due to the election of President Ashraf Ghani, a prominent supporter of employment and education rights for all Afghan citizens, regardless of gender.

It's too early to tell how much of an impact the unofficial meetings will have, but ideally these historic negotiations will be a turning point in Taliban/women relations and will pave the way for many more similar exchanges.

Contributing Journalist: @SJJakubowski
Facebook: Sarah Joanne Jakubowski

AMAZING: Mountain Rabbit Surfs an Avalanche to Safety (Video)

Not our usual fare, but then our blog is about perseverance and survival. This mountain snow hare, also known as a rabbit, was startled by a skier who was being photographed as part of a promotion video being shot by Helipro, a New Zealand owned company specializing in helicopter transportation to exotic and remote locations favored by extreme sports enthusiast. The snow white hare suddenly appears from the right of the video, crosses behind the passing skier, and hurtles into the raging avalanche. Nothing more can be written since seeing is believing......

Editor-in-Chief: @AyannaNahmias
LinkedIn: Ayanna Nahmias

Lighting a Continent the World Views as Dark

solar power, photo by louise falcon

solar power, photo by louise falcon

“And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven give light upon the earth: and it was so.” ~ Genesis 1:15 KJV

Location: USA Conquest Space Station Time: Unknown Year: 2050

Mae finishes the day’s responsibilities at the worktable. Opened books and magazines lie around her makeshift office. One magazine, The Economist, sits open on the article, “The Dark Continent,” with a satellite photograph of Africa at night. She glances at the magazine and remembers the last holiday spent with her family in California. They were watching the news in the living room. The quirky news anchor provides an update on Akon’s Solar Academy. She remembers the scene because her father cracks a joke:

“They can shine a million lights on that continent and those people will still be Black as coal.”

Her family interjects with laughter while her father changes the channel to Storage Wars.

Mae smiles at the memory, wishing that she spend time with her family on the next holiday. However, the current mission forces her to work in the space station until all assignments are completed. Thus, to occupy her time, she leisurely reads and rereads old magazines and books until she can repeat every story verbatim.

When the space station team gathers for Sunday dinners, she entertains them by retelling the stories with funky hand gestures and silly voices. She looks at The Economist again, except this time; she stares at the satellite picture. Something about the image sparks her interest. Several years ago she watched that news special, but she wonders if the continent looks any different. Alvin, a space station team member, works with satellite imaging so perhaps he possesses recent pictures of the mysterious continent.

With nothing else to do for the rest of the day, she travels to Alvin’s workstation to ask for the images.

“Hey Alvin”

“Hello Mae. How can I help you?”

“Have you done any recent satellite imaging on Africa?”

“Yes I have. I actually just completed a project for the Solar Academy.”

“Really? What progress have they made?”

“Well-“

“Hey Alvin! Can you come here for a sec?”

“Yes sir! I am coming now,” responds Alvin, and then he turns back to Mae, “I am uploading the images as well as the information about the company including history, progress, and goals. Please take your time.”

Alvin leaves to help their colleague then Mae sits in his seat to examine the documents. She instantly notices that the satellite image of Africa differs from the image in the magazine. Hundreds and hundreds of white dots spread across the continent, indicating the lights. Mae clicks through the documents then pauses on an article with pictures of people. The article describes the family life within the communities near the Solar Academy. When she studies the accompanying pictures, to her surprise, she sees neither the stereotypical faces of joy nor sadness found in her magazines. She rather sees normal people posing for a picture like her family on a regular sunny day. She sees their homes in the background with children toys and cars and lawns. They look different, but normal. Until that point, Mae never knew anything about Africa. Her knowledge about the continent remained in the dark, yet the lights on the satellite images show her that the continent was never in the dark. Instead, she was.

Poet & Literary Critic: @Chrycka_Harper

Top EU Diplomat Expelled on Orders from Gambia President Jammeh

president yahya jammeh on vote campaign, photo courtesy flickr source afp seyllou

BANJUL, Gambia - After being expelled under orders that left Brussels “astonished,” the European Union (EU) representative to Gambia left the country within the 72-hour deadline by boarding a Brussels Airlines flight back to the EU headquarters.

Agnès Guillaud, the European Union's chargée d’affaires in Banjul, received her expulsion orders on Friday, 5 June 2015 and was asked to leave Gambia within a strict 72-hour deadline.

The Gambia’s president, Yahyah Jammeh, expelled the European Union’s top diplomat to his country without "much explanation" an EU spokeswoman said. In response, the EU summoned the Gambian ambassador on Saturday for clarification of the expulsion.

A clear explanation has yet to be released publicly, but what is certain is that the expulsion comes at a time of tension between the EU and the Gambia on issues of international human rights.

Last December the EU blocked over $12 million in aid to the Gambia, citing its “poor human rights record” as justification for the withdrawal. With the expulsion Guillaud, on top of the recent report released by the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) stating that LGBT people must receive civil rights protections equal to those of any other citizen, to the suppression of free speech, and the unjustified execution of prisoners; Jammeh's government has become for all intents and purposes a dictatorship.

EU officials found the expulsion completely unjustified. "There appears to be no justification for the decision by the Gambian authorities. We are astonished by this announcement which came with no explanations," an EU spokeswoman said.

This expulsion comes in a wave of many anti-western political moves led by Jammeh who in 2013 withdrew his country from the British Commonwealth, with officials saying that the institution represented nothing more than “prolonged colonialism.”

The President has also received international criticism for his claim that he has a herbal remedy that can cure AIDS and his 2012 statements in which he vowed to execute dozens of prisoners in his jails during an “anti-crime” crackdown. In addition to President Jammeh's human rights abuses in terms of due process, he has openly expressed anti-homosexuality rhetoric which is an increasing phenomenon amongst many African leaders.

On 16 May 2015, the White House released a statement by U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice, in which she stated that the U.S. stands in solidarity the LGBT community and specifically accused President Jammeh of "unconscionable comments.....which underscore why we must continue to seek a world in which no one lives in fear of violence or persecution because of who they are or whom they love. We condemn his comments, and note these threats come amid an alarming deterioration of the broader human rights situation in The Gambia. We are deeply concerned about credible reports of torture, suspicious disappearances – including of two American citizens - and arbitrary detention at the government's hands." (Source: The White House)

In response to these accusations, Jammeh's office issued the following statement, “The National Security Advisor should instead address racism, abuses and impunity in America where lately innocent and unarmed African-Americans, for example, are being regularly shot by white police officers with impunity rather than prescribe human rights to Gambians who have a long history of civilization.” 

There is no proof that the expulsion had anything to do with Jammeh's hard-line positions dedicated to his so called "preservation of social norms", or the fact that Gambia has increasingly come under fire because of its gross human rights abuses, but it remains to be seen if the government will retract the order for the expulsion of Guillaud, or continue to forge a path that will further encourage sanctions and a decrease in international aid.

Contributing Editor: @AustinBryan
LinkedIn: Austin Drake Bryan

Death Toll Rises to 431 in Yangtze Ferry Disaster

china ferry, by jason pearce

YANGTZE RIVER, China - Almost a year after the Korea Sewol ferry incident, another fatal ship accident occurred in Asia — this time in China on the Yangtze River. The vessel was carrying over 400 passengers and capsized last Sunday with the death toll now reaching 431 people — leaving 11 bodies left to be found.

Unlike the Korean ferry incident, in which most passengers were high school students, the majority on board the ship in China were aged over 60-years old and traveling as tourists from Nanjing to Chongqing. The ship served as a retirement cruise for those aboard.

The cause of the sunken vessel is still being investigated, but it is reported that there were thunder storms and a tornado above the ship before if capsized.

The remains of the battered boat were lifted out of the water on Friday. A team of rescuers went through the remains in search of any more survivors and bodies. In the excavation process the rescuers discovered smeared mud hand-prints on the walls of the sunken vessel. Photographs have been released of the hand-prints and the remains of the ship showing the passenger’s horrifying struggle for life as the ferry sank.

The rescuers also increased the search area 1000km for possible survivors and bodies to be found that may have floated or swam away.

Because the ship flipped over and sank in remarkable time, out of all the people on board only 14 people were rescued. It made it harder for rescuers to find bodies because the ship was completely over turned. However, almost all of the bodies that were found were discovered still trapped inside of the ferry itself.

According to a Chinese cultural tradition, seven days is a fundamental time to grieve over the dead. As families receive more news concerning the incident, they come together and mourn with sadness deep in their hearts. Families of passengers continue to gather near the Yangtze River to mourn and to put their hearts at ease by lighting candles and crying out the names of their loved ones.

Contributing Journalist: @VictoriaCopeland

Qatar: Conciliators, Regional Superpower, or Simply Another Wealthy Arab Nation?

sheikh tamim bin hamad al-thani amir of qatar e-u. high representative for foreign and security policy and Vice president of the european commission catherine ashton in doha, qatar

sheikh tamim bin hamad al-thani amir of qatar e-u. high representative for foreign and security policy and Vice president of the european commission catherine ashton in doha, qatar

DOHA, Qatar - An internationally renowned nation which was once known only for its pearl-fishing has become a major global player. Pumping out nearly 2.3 millions of barrels of natural gas a day which gets shipped around the globe as LNG, it is in the top 25 producers of oil and gas. (Source: Forbes) 

Unfortunately, it is also currently at the center of the FIFA scandal that is reverberating around the world, yet this is not the topic of discussion here.

In the 1940s the nascent country’s oil and gas industry was developed by Western nations as they continued to implement colonization strategies that included primary control of natural resources. This all changed in the 1990s when Qatar exercised greater control of the profits from its oil and gas industry thus transforming it into one of richest countries in the Emirates.

The government recognizes that shifting from a major global supplier of oil and gas will be a long and somewhat protracted process. But, the proactive open-market policies being instituted by the government is helping Qatar to become both a major financial hub in additional to a luxury tourist destination. At the start of 2015, Qatar’s economy was ranked a score of 70.8 according to the data tracked, which means that it is the 32nd most investor friendly economies in the world. With this type of recognition comes the ability to not only exert influence, but also encourages criticism as in the case of allegations of impropriety with the award to host the 2022 World Cup soccer games to Qatar.

Owing to economic diversification, investors from different parts of the world have taken a keen interest in doing business with the country as well as establishing corporate headquarters. The ramping up of foreign investments in infrastructure, finance and banking, products and services, etc. being delivered by these foreign corporations prognosticates some excellent job opportunities in Qatar, and is one of the main reasons that it was chosen as a host country for the games.

Qatar is often regarded as a study in contradictions and is known to be significantly more liberal than many of its neighbors. Apart from Saudi Arabia, the state of Qatar is the only Middle Eastern nation to adopt Wahhabism as its official state religion. The religious demographics in Qatar seem to support both the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and the militant Hamas movement, and the internecine conflict between the two is quite complex and sometimes terrifying. At the moment the ‘tug of war’ raging inside the Muslim world consists of two sides. The Salafi jihadis―or hardcore Wahhabis, who are financed and supported by Saudi Arabia versus the Muslim Brotherhood who are supported by Qatar on the other.

For years Qatar has been supporting and propagating the Muslim Brotherhood's agenda in different parts of the Middle East and North Africa through its Al Jazeera television network. Though this may seem partisan at first glance, history reveals a more nuanced story, one in which Qatar has maintained a very diplomatic approach towards an increasingly global religious dilemma. Qatar's ability to act as arbiter and play the role of conciliator was demonstrated in its role in achieving the 2008 ceasefire in Lebanon according to the online news site Asharq Al-Awsat.

Unfortunately, the world’s eyes are trained upon Syria and the tragedies that are occurring within its borders, and though Qataris are working behind the political scene to help support Syrians to establish a post-Bashar Hafez al-Assad governance, these efforts toward stabilization are not obviously visible. As with much that occurs in negotiations, what is seen in the public eye is rarely what occurs behind the scenes, and in this context Qatar always positions itself to ensure that its interests are preserved. One of the main motives and interest in facilitating peace in Syria is the hope that a more moderate form of Islam will prevail in a new Syria, and if successful, may help to garner a bigger seat at the table of powerful Arab nations.

The initiatives taken thus far reflect Qatar’s desire to continue in its role as conciliator in the global economic and religious amphitheater. Qatar hopes that by making greater strides with this goal through an open job market, flexibility in accepting the customs of foreigners within limits of decorum, and negotiating for an air of tolerance, balance, and acceptance will ultimately serve to change external perceptions. From the highest levels of government to the ordinary Qataris, there exists a desire to be counted amongst the most developed and advanced countries in the world, and thus the nation hopes to break the stigma of mistrust and judgment that plagues almost every Muslim nation today.

Middle East Correspondent:  @Vinita Tiwari

Buhari's First Challenge: Military Mass Killings

nigerian soldiers riding in lorry, photo courtesy of dammex1

nigerian soldiers riding in lorry, photo courtesy of dammex1

NIGERIA - Amongst the feeling of hope and a fresh start in the air from President Muhammadu Buhari's inauguration, Nigeria was slammed this week with a report from Amnesty International that claims the Nigerian military is tied to over 8,000 deaths in the country.

The research for the report has been conducted since 2009, in alignment with the rise of the Boko Haram insurgency. While the rise in violence by the military was driven by Boko Haram, the report finds that the majority of those 8,000 deaths have nothing to do with Boko Haram members.

This process was started through widespread rounding up of boys and young men, over 20,000 of them, based on often unreliable informants and poor intelligence. The report states that one could be arrested based on the word of a single unidentified informant. Upon arrest, the thousands of prisoners were placed in detention centers where they were commonly cramped into overcrowded cells in abysmal condition.

Many died from starvation, dehydration, suffocation and preventable diseases, as the prisoners were kept from adequate water, food and basic hygiene and sanitation. In one case, a detention center survivor told Amnesty, they were denied water for two days and 300 inmates died. In these dire situations, they were often forced to drink urine.

Those who were able to survive these terrifying living standards were still at risk of the brutal treatment by the military commanders, which included extrajudicial killings, torture, electrocution, and a myriad of other horrifying tactics. On March 14, 2014, after a Boko Haram attack on the Giwa barracks (and detention center), the military killed at least 640 men and boys who were imprisoned there. Satellite analysis has confirmed the presence of multiple mass graves in the area shortly after this date.

More worrisome is that this system of detainment and mass murder was widely known through all levels of the Nigerian military, including senior officials, Chief of Army staff and Chief of Defense Staff who regularly received reports of military activity in these regions of war-torn Northern Nigeria.

As stated in Amnesty's report, "A high ranking military officer...further said: '...people were not strong enough to stand...They keep them to die. They are deliberately starved. The effect is devastating. You have massive deaths. I believe close to 5,000 [in total] have died like that. It increased after the state of emergency.'" This behavior indicates that the Nigerian military's strategy to fight Boko Haram included murdering thousands of boys and young men without giving them fair trials or even the slightest confirmation that they were tied to the terrorist organization. Through this tactic, they managed to make the Boko Haram insurgency more detrimental to their country and its citizens.

Since the report has surfaced, the Nigerian military has rejected the findings as "concocted and biased," and even called Amnesty International an "irritant" in a Premium Times' article. Regardless of their response, the international community is up in arms over the findings and it is increasingly evident that new President Muhammadu Buhari must address these atrocities as soon as possible. If he wants to keep his promises of tackling human rights violations, it is imperative that he holds those who are guilty accountable and pave a new, morally upright pathway forward. The future of the country depends on it.

The entire report can be found here. 

Africa Correspondent: @JessamyNichols
LinkedIn: Jessamy Nichols