No. 177, June 6-12, 2002

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Australian Aborigines still fighting for land rights


Aborigines camped near “Tent Embassy” in Canberra, Australia, July 2001.Photo courtesy of Sydney Indymedia

By Peter O’connor

Canberra, Australia, June 1— On Mon., Australian aboriginies marked the 10-year anniversary of a High Court ruling that acknowledged their right to ancestral lands. Aboriginal leader Geoff Clark delivered a speech in honor of Eddie Mabo, the native fisherman who took his fight for property rights to the highest court in the land and won.

On Tuesday, a two-day conference entitled “Unfinished Business” began. The conference was intended to examine the conflicts, losses, and successes that have resulted from the ruling.

Numbering 400,000 among 19 million Australians, Aborigines are the poorest, sickest and most frequently jailed members of society.

Not even recognized as citizens until 1967, thousands still live in squalor on the fringes of towns, in remote deserts, and in inner city slums.

When the High Court ruled that Mabo and his Meriam tribe had property rights over the island off Australia’s northeast coast they had inhabited for countless generations, it overturned a 200-year-old legal fiction known as terra nullius — which said Australia was unoccupied before Europeans arrived.

“There was complete euphoria,” said Sen. Aden Ridgeway, deputy leader of the centrist Democrats Party and only the second Aborigine to hold a seat in federal Parliament.

“Indigenous people had arrived on the political landscape with a legal power that allowed them to sit at the table and negotiate material outcomes as equals,” he said.

The Mabo judgment did not give Aborigines ownership of ancestral lands, but rights of use for traditional practices such as hunting, fishing and visiting sacred sites. But the High Court also said native title could be “extinguished” by legislation, settlement and development.

Industry leaders said the decision would scare off investment in mining, agriculture and tourism. Ranchers feared for their long-term government leases to run cattle and sheep over 40 percent of Australia, and urged Canberra to overrule native title.

The year after the Mabo decision, the Labor government passed the Native Title Act that sought to reassure farmers and miners their leaseholds were safe, but gave the Aborigines rights to negotiate over land use in national parks and around tourism and mining projects.

That meant a share in profits, though not the power to veto development. But ranchers remained unhappy and when Prime Minister John Howard’s conservative government came to power in 1996 it agreed to water down native title rights.

The legislation and subsequent court decisions rubbed out native title in most of southern Australia, where most Aborigines live.

According to the Native Title Tribunal, which rules on claims, only 30 have been successful, ranging from tiny islands to the 21,726 square miles of land held by the Spinifex people in the desert of Western Australia state. Another 589 claims await a decision.

The tribunal has also registered almost 600 agreements it has helped to broker between Aborigines and groups such as mining companies and local governments.

However, Rick Farley, a key negotiator in the 1993 Native Title Act, believes the Mabo decision and native title laws have failed Aborigines.

Now a consultant who brokers native title agreements for Aborigines, Farley says the changes help some tribes in mineral-rich areas of the Outback, but does nothing to address the plight of most Aborigines.

“People are still dying, health statistics are worse than ever, incarceration rates are worse than ever,” Farley said. “Alcohol, drugs, domestic violence, sexual abuse, the whole cultural fabric of indigenous Australia is still taking enormous blows.”

Source: Associated Press

China jails two activists ahead of Tienanmen anniversary

May 31— Two labor activists and members of the outlawed China Democracy Party have been convicted of subversion and jailed for up to 11 years for organizing workers’ protests in southwest China, court officials and a Hong Kong rights group said.

Hu Mingjun and Wang Sen were sentenced Thursday by the Dazhou city intermediate court in Sichuan province.

“Yes this is true, they were convicted of subversion on Thursday,” an official at the Dazhou prosecutors office said Friday.

The sentencing came only days before China marks the 13th anniversary of the violent crushing on June 4, 1989 of six weeks of pro-democracy protests in Tienanmen Square, the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy said.

In the closed door proceedings, Hu, 30, was sentenced to 11 years and Wang to 10 years for their part in a December 2000 protest by the workers of the Dazhou Iron and Steel Factory, the center said.

The workers were demanding a year of unpaid wages, it said.

They also sought the right to set up independent labor unions and demanded Beijing create a better social security net and end rampant government corruption.

Hu and Wang were arrested in May and April 2001 respectively. Their trial was unannounced and family members were only notified by lawyers of the verdict after the proceedings, the center said.

Both were members of the China Democracy Party (CDP) set up in 1998 in a bid to challenge the Communist Party’s monopoly on power. The party used China’s signing of a UN covenant on economic, cultural and civil rights to openly establish the party.

The covenant calls for full guarantees for the right to freely express political views and to freely associate with others.

Source: Agence France Presse

Indian land conflict hits Brazil

By Michael Astor

Antonio Joao, Brazil, June 2— The remaining members of the Kaiowa tribe are gradually asphyxiating, as western civilization encroaches on their ancestral lands and traditional way of life. Repulsed by ranchers and police, the Indians are turning to alcohol and suicide.

Since 1986, 348 Kaiowa and Guarani Indians have committed suicide — 42 last year alone — in Mato Grosso do Sul, a frontier state nearly the size of California on Brazil’s western border with Paraguay and Bolivia.

“Today, there’s no way out for the Kaiowa, for the Guarani, for any Indian,” says Mario Turibio da Silva, whose cousin, Ramao, committed suicide. “Life has lost its meaning. Before we had total liberty. Today, we have court injunctions, beatings and tear gas.”

For Ramao da Silva, the end came on Mar. 5, as federal police were preparing to evict him and 300 other Kaiowa Indians from an area they invaded three years earlier to pressure the government into declaring it an Indian reservation.

A last-minute court injunction had postponed the eviction for 90 days, long enough for the Indians to harvest their meager crops. But it was too late for da Silva, the latest victim in a clash of two cultures and conflicting laws intended to protect both.

“On the one hand, the Constitution guarantees indigenous peoples the rights to their ancestral land,” explains Nereu Shneider, a lawyer working with the Kaiowa. “On the other, it protects private property.”

Ranchers and Indians, caught in the middle, legitimately claim the land belongs to them. While the friction is more evident in fast-developing areas like Mato Grosso do Sul, it is quickly spreading as western civilization reaches into the vast Amazon rain forest, home to most of Brazil’s 500,000 Indians.

“What is happening in Mato Grosso do Sul today is what the Amazon will become tomorrow,” Shneider warns.

In March 2000, Federal Indian Bureau anthropologists identified two sacred Indian cemeteries and marked the boundaries of 24,200 acres around the invaded area as Kaiowa land, the first step in the long bureaucratic process of creating a reservation. But meanwhile, much of the proposed Cerro Marangatu Indian reservation occupies Pio Silva’s 3,344-acre Fronteira ranch. Under Brazilian law, Silva is entitled to government compensation for “improvements” to the land — such as houses, fences and bridges — but not for the land itself.

That didn’t suit the 86-year-old rancher. So last December, he obtained a court order to evict the “trespassers.”

“I paid taxes on the land all those years and now they don’t even want to pay me for it. That’s not right,” says Silva (no relation of Ramao da Silva).

Silva claims his family had good relations with the Indians until outsiders started “manipulating” them and making trouble.

Under Brazil’s 1988 Constitution, all Indian lands were supposed to be demarcated within five years. To pressure the government into action, Indians have begun “retakings,” as they call their invasions of traditional lands. Eleven of the 15 Kaiowa-Guarani reservations established since 1988 were the result of retakings, which in general are tolerated although they are illegal.

Until the 1940s, the Kaiowa and the related Guarani tribe roamed freely over about a quarter of Mato Grosso. Today, the state has been divided in two and most of the forest cut down for pasture and grain fields. The 60,000 Indians in the two tribes are confined to small, hard-to-farm lots comprising less than one percent of the state’s total area.

Source: Associated Press

Campesinos in Paraguay block roads in protest


Campesinos block roads to demand the repeal
of a privatization law.

June 4— As of June 2, thousands of campesinos had been blocking roads in the Paraguayan countryside and protesting in front of the Congress in the capital, Asunción, for two weeks to demand the repeal of a privatization law the Paraguayan government is trying to implement under pressure from the International Monetary Fund. On May 28, university students and workers joined campesinos in marches and demonstrations in Asunción as the Senate debated a proposal to overturn the privatization law.

By calling the open-ended national mobilization, the National Front in Defense of Public Property hopes to block the sale of state entities, reverse a new added-value tax on agricultural produce and defeat a proposed “antiterrorist” law. On May 28, in an extraordinary session as protesters thronged outside, the Chamber of Deputies refused to consider the proposed “antiterrorism” law, instead sending it back to committee.

On May 30, the Senate declined to vote on the proposal to repeal the privatization law. The Senate’s refusal to repeal the law gave the government new hope for its efforts to complete the sale of the Paraguayan Communications Company (COPACO), the state telephone company. COPACO was originally supposed to be sold on March 7; President Luis González Macchi has postponed the sale four times, finally scheduling it for June 14. Finance Minister James Spalding and Central Bank President Raúl Vera say the IMF has conditioned a $60 million loan set for July on the sale of COPACO. Some legislators say the $400 million minimum bidding price is too low, since COPACO is worth $600 million. The COPACO privatization has also been plagued by allegations of corruption; former state reform minister Juan Ernesto Villamayor has been formally charged with skimming money from the deal.

On June 1, Eduardo Ojeda, president of the National Workers Federation (CNT), said soldiers backed by military helicopters had taken up positions against 1,000 campesinos carrying out intermittent roadblocks in the area of San Pedro, in central Paraguay. Campesino leader Pablo Ojeda said riot police burned farms and arrested 20 campesinos—including children—in a rural area of Itapúa Province, in the southeast. Nearby, in the southern municipality of San Patricio, Misiones Province, police confirmed that more than 100 campesinos were under arrest as of May 31.

At a June 1 press conference at the protest camp in front of Congress, Marcial Gómez, adjunct secretary general of the National Campesino Federation (FNC), warned that any effort by the government to repress the campesinos will be like “throwing fuel on the fire” and will result in a social explosion. Campesinos, teachers and other unionized workers warn they will continue the national mobilization against privatization and will soon begin an open-ended general strike; the strike date is due to be set at a June 3 meeting.

Source: Weekly News Update on the Americas

Prisoners, families take over facility

June 4— Some 700 prisoners at the García Moreno prison in Quito, Ecuador, seized control of the facility during visiting hours May 26 to protest the elimination of sentence reduction provisions. Some 300 family members who were at the prison when the protest began—including nearly 100 children—remained there in support of the protest.

The prisoners were angered by the elimination of the “two for one” provision, which rewarded good behavior by eliminating one year of a sentence for every year served, effectively cutting sentences in half. As part of a set of reforms to the sentencing code passed last September, Congress changed the measure to reduce sentences by 180 days for every five years of a sentence—a “10 for one” benefit the prisoners say will increase violence by providing no incentive for good behavior to those with shorter sentences. In April, the attorney general’s office (PGE) issued a document interpreting the new law to apply retroactively to all prisoners, including those who were sentenced, charged or arrested before it was passed.

On May 28, police tried to enter the prison, claiming the prisoners were holding relatives hostage and refusing to let any of them leave. The prisoners responded by threatening to blow up tanks of butane gas if police got in. Police then fired tear gas; chaos ensued, and Red Cross paramedics had to evacuate a mother, her one-month-old baby, a pregnant woman and a six-month-old child who were badly affected by tear gas. Tensions subsided after police and prisoners agreed to avoid violence. The next day negotiators failed to win an agreement, and prison director Itania Villareal threatened to cut off food supplies.

On May 30, the prisoners announced they were ending the protest after the PGE withdrew its interpretation of the law’s retroactivity. The PGE has asked Congress to issue regulations clarifying the law’s application. By the time the resolution was reached, more than 30 prisons around the country had joined the protest.

Source: Weekly News Update on the Americas

Amnesty points to new pattern of abuses, post 9-11

By Sanjay Suri

London, England, May 28 (IPS)— The Amnesty International annual report for 2001 shows a marked deterioration in the rights of non-nationals in several countries following the events of Sept. 11.

“The year 2001 witnessed a direct challenge to long-accepted human rights standards by the very governments that campaigned for their establishment,” the annual report says. Some of the strongest moves denying rights to non-nationals came in the United States and in Britain, the report says.

“A number of governments jumped on the ‘anti-terrorism’ bandwagon and seized the moment to step up repression, undermine human rights protection and stifle political dissent,” the report says.

According to the report, the new measures included “indefinite detention without trial, special courts based on secret evidence, or cultural and religious restrictions -- sometimes creating shadow criminal justice systems,” the report says.

“Human rights and national security are not incompatible,” Amnesty secretary-general Irene Khan told media representatives at the launch of the report in London Tuesday. “The human rights system was not created by human rights organizations, but by governments,” she said. “By creating this they showed the compatibility of the two aims.”

Within Europe, she said “the United Kingdom is the only state that derogated from the European Commission of Human Rights to introduce legislation to allow detention without charge.” Khan called it “a pretty severe measure to take, one that is unparalleled.”

Amnesty International “acknowledges that in an emergency some measures can be taken to suspend some rights,” Irene Khan said. “But some, like the right to life, are so fundamental that they override all other concerns.”

Angela Wright, Amnesty researcher for the US said that the pattern of abuses had changed significantly within the US from earlier years. “Our concerns earlier were mostly over matters of custody and prisoners, most of them concerning US nationals,” she said. After Sept. 11 people who looked like Muslims, Arabs and South Asians had been attacked, and the government had brought new legislation directed at non-nationals.

The Attorney-General now has the right to order indefinite detention of an alien on the mere suspicion that he or she could be a threat to national security, she said. The new provisions “have been used very widely over the past few months,” she said.

Whipped up by politicians more concerned with popularity than with respecting international human rights obligations, a racist backlash has generated a climate of suspicion and mistrust, exaggerated by the way in which foreigners are being portrayed as a source of “terrorism,” the report says.

“The world has undoubtedly changed radically since September 11,” the report says. “Yet many things remain the same: a disregard for human life and human dignity, as well as for economic, cultural and social rights; an escalation of old and festering situations such as the Middle East, Afghanistan and Colombia.”

Covering violations in 152 countries, the report documents extra-judicial executions in 47 countries, judicial executions in 27 countries, “disappearances” in 35 countries, cases of torture and ill-treatment in 11 countries and prisoners of conscience in at least 56 countries. But Amnesty says the true figures are likely to be much higher.

The report states that “in Israel and the Occupied Territories, unlawful killings, both by the Israel defense forces and by Palestinian armed groups, torture of detainees and unfair trials continued unabated.”

In Afghanistan religious and ethnic minorities were targeted in mass killings and executions and amputations were carried out while the Taliban were in power. But “an unknown number of civilians were killed or had their homes or property destroyed during the US-led bombing campaign which started in October,” the report says. “The US and its allies may have breached the rules of war.”

The report points to “chilling” statistics in Colombia: more than 300 people “disappeared,” more than 4,000 civilians were killed outside combat, the majority by army-backed paramilitaries, and more than 1,700 were kidnapped, mostly by guerrilla groups.

The Amnesty report records widespread violations of human rights by “armed groups.” Khan said “Amnesty does not like the word ‘terrorism’ because there is no internationally agreed definition, and one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.” The word “terrorist”, she said, has “a certain political connotation behind it.”

The report for 2001 came with a short update on events from January to April 2002. It says the Indian authorities failed to protect people from communal violence “which led to the deaths of hundreds of people and displacement of thousands.” In Zimbabwe the human rights situation deteriorated markedly in the run-up to the March 2002 presidential poll, the report says.

Khan declared “the climate is now a lot less hospitable for human rights activists than it was before.” Governments now cite security as their primary concern. But support for Amnesty has grown from civil society, and the organization has the “authority of the people,” she said.

But it was not all bad news. Amnesty points to some positive developments last year on the human rights front. In Pakistan all juvenile death sentences were ordered commuted to life imprisonment following a meeting between Irene Khan and General Pervaiz Musharraf. The decision saved the lives of about 100 child offenders.

Prisoners of conscience, Juma Duni Haji and Machano Khamis Ali, were freed in Tanzania. Jigme Sangpo -- Tibet’s longest serving prisoner of conscience -- was freed after serving most of the last 40 years behind bars. He is now 76. Prisoners of conscience were released in Angola, Burundi, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cuba, Honduras, Uruguay and several other countries.

Italy salutes Mussolini’s troops

By Rory Carroll

Rome, Italy, June 3— Italy honored Benito Mussolini’s troops yesterday with a military parade of vehicles and uniforms from the second world war battle at El Alamein, prompting concern that the Axis forces were being rehabilitated through historical revisionism.

The head of state and government ministers were among thousands of spectators who cheered the parade in Rome.

A unit of soldiers from the modern army depicted their predecessors who fought the British at the second world war battle in Egypt, during a procession of more than 7,000 soldiers ironically to mark the anniversary of the 1946 referendum that made Italy a republic.

Three historical themes were chosen: the 19th century war of unification led by Giuseppe Garibaldi, the resistance of Italian soldiers against Germans in Greece in the latter part of the war, and El Alamein.

“It is the third choice which is worrying. Commemorating the Italian dead there, on the national day, is highly ambiguous,” James Walston, a British historian at the American University of Rome, wrote in the English-language Italy Daily.

Thousands of Italians were killed when General Montgomery’s 8th army routed the Axis forces from Egypt in October 1942, a turning point of the war in north Africa which hastened the defeat of fascism in Europe.

Walston was concerned that the June 2 parade would embolden a growing trend to honor the sacrifice of Mussolini’s forces. Four months ago Mirko Tremaglia, a cabinet minister who fought in Italy for the fascist dictator, laid wreaths at El Alamein and said “the wrong side won.”

The head of state, President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, a military officer who joined the partisans and fought the Germans, billed yesterday’s ceremony as a day for Italians to rediscover pride and unity. Honoring Italian valor and sacrifice has been a leitmotif of his presidency.

Paying tribute to Mussolini’s troops aroused no controversy in the mainstream Italian media. The Italian army has won plaudits in recent years for emergency relief work and peacekeeping in the Balkans and Afghanistan.

The prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, said the spectacle of military bands, vehicles and fighter jets made him proud to be Italian.

The approaching 60th anniversary of El Alamein has prompted renewed interest in the battle. A new film will depict the Italians as brave but doomed.The director, Enzo Monteleone, said he wanted to pay tribute to young men caught up in war, not rewrite history or gloss over fascism.

Source: Guardian (UK)

WORLD BRIEFS

Bush to Brazil: “Do you have Blacks, too?”
Condoleeza Rice, US National Security Advisor, helped President Bush out of a truly embarassing situation on May 20. During a conversation with the president of Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Bush posed the question, “Do you have Blacks, too?”

Rice, noticing how taken aback the Brazilian president was, said to Bush, “Mr. President, Brazil probably has more Blacks than the US. Some say its the country with the most Blacks outside Africa.”

Later, Cardoso said Bush was definitely still in his “learning phase” regarding Latin America. (Der Spiegel)

Mexican students take hostages
Mexican college students took 20 lawmakers hostage to demand more scholarships for aspiring teachers. The hostages were released, unharmed, after 15 hours.

About 300 students from several teachers’ colleges occupied the legislature in the southern state of Morelos on May 30 and 31.

The students freed the lawmakers only when they agreed to lobby on their behalf. The students also had detained two Mexican army soldiers who were sent to conduct surveillance on the demonstrators.

Over the last two weeks, hundreds of students from 15 colleges have joined in demonstrations at the Emiliano Zapata teachers college in Amalcingo, near the city of Cuernavaca, demanding the additional scholarships.

On May 31 protesters in Amalcingo barricaded streets and the doors to the college, in anticipation of the arrival of police.

A small faction of students, along with about 10 radical, machete-wielding farmers from the town of Atenco, have blocked roads, stolen government vehicles and set patrol cars on fire.

At the Zapata campus students have stockpiled over 40 government vehicles.

The students are calling for 30 more scholarships for Morelos residents to attend teaching colleges, raising the total to 180. (AP)

Lesotho: 500,000 people starving
Nearly half a million people urgently require emergency food aid in Lesotho, according to a joint assessment by the World Food Program (WFP) and the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).

The FAO and WFP warned that “agriculture in Lesotho faces a catastrophic future.” Crop production was declining and “could cease altogether over large tracts of the country” should urgent steps not be taken to reverse soil erosion. It is estimated that just between nine and 13% of the country is arable land. (IRIN)

 

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