Thursday, June 30, 2011

UN report outlines steps to prevent electoral violence in Asia

A new U.N. report warns that Asian nations are at risk of electoral violence, driven by real and perceived fraud and corruption, and stresses the need for strong oversight and other measures to strengthen election credibility.

In ‘Understanding Electoral Violence in Asia,’ the UN Development Programme (UNDP) studies electoral processes in Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Philippines and Thailand, drawing lessons and making recommendations to reduce the risk of electoral violence. The mere suspicion or allegation of fraud is often enough in democracies where there is a lack of confidence in authorities for people to react violently, says the study.
According to the report, in a number of cases political parties and political party supporters were the main instigators of physical violence, citing several types of groups and organizations that play key roles in either preventing or perpetuating electoral violence.
The design of political systems, the mandate and powers of electoral laws and election monitoring, as well as the role of civic education, media and civil society in informing voters can all help to reduce or prevent the likelihood of election-related violence, it adds.
The report points out that the state itself can also contribute to election disorder. In instances where security forces are seen to be partisan or corrupt, there is a higher chance that they will be purveyors of violence rather than protectors of peace.
The media, when controlled by special interests, can also have a destructive role in promoting narrow interests, inflammatory political rhetoric and retarding democratic processes, it says.
The report recommends measures to strengthen election credibility, which it says is key to preventing electoral violence. These include strong oversight and enforcement powers for election commissions, wide-ranging dispute resolution mechanisms and systems to track party political spending, as well as ensuring perpetrators of electoral violence are brought to justice.

Afghan army violates borderline

Afghan National Army has violated the Pakistan-Afghanistan borderline again on Thursday by firing three mortar shells at the Pakistani border, Geo News reported.

According to sources, the mortar shells fired by the Afghan army fell 900 meters inside South Waziristan in the area of Angoradda.

Earlier on Wednesday, the Afghan army fired nine mortar shells and violated the borderline. However, no casualties were reported from the incident, sources added.

Pakistan has protested against the indiscriminate violation of border limits from the Afghan army.

Weight loss surgery may cure obese diabetics: study

Most obese people with diabetes will be cured of it by weight loss surgery, with gastric bypass surgery allowing more than 80 percent of patients to come off their diabetes medication, according to a study.

The report in Archives of Surgery concerned a review of earlier studies led by Rick Meijer, at the Institute for Cardiovascular Research at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, who said the findings exceeded what was possible with more conventional diabetes treatments.

"In standard practice, only a very minor group of individuals with an iron will can lose enough weight to be cured from type 2 diabetes mellitus," Meijer said in an email to Reuters Health, referring to the most common type of diabetes.

Meijer and his colleagues pooled data from nine studies of diabetics who underwent either a gastric bypass -- which makes the stomach smaller and allows food to bypass part of the small intestine -- or gastric band surgery, in which the capacity of the stomach is reduced by using an adjustable band.

Eight of the studies included between 23 and 177 patients, while the last one traced 82,000 people. Each followed patients for at least a year.

After gastric bypass, 83 percent of patients could stop taking their diabetes medications, some within days of the surgery. After gastric banding, 62 percent could stop.

"Surgery ought to be considered front line therapy for diabetes among obese people," said Jon Gould, who heads the weight loss surgery program at the University of Wisconsin and was not involved in the study.

Meijer said about 90 percent of cases of diabetes are due to excessive weight, though not all diabetics would be eligible for the weight loss surgery.

It's also unclear how long surgery's impact on diabetes can last. One study included in the review found that 10 years after surgery, just one third of people whose diabetes had abated still had good control of their blood sugar.

Surgery of course has the potential for complications that wouldn't occur with drugs.

One study followed patients up to a month after surgery found that 7 percent experienced some problems, mainly minor wound infections. But massive bleeding, kidney failure and other serious complications occurred in more than 2 percent of patients.

Other side effects include nausea and some food intolerance, with some patients also gaining weight back over time.

Gould said the initial cost of the surgery, compared to the extended costs of diabetes care and other health effects of being obese, can be recouped after 18 months to two years.

"It would be a huge upfront cost, but looking at this from the bigger picture, I think if we can cure instead of manage the complications, we will save money in the long run," he told Reuters Health.

What's behind the rioting in Greece?

Greek politicians have voted to bring in an unpopular package of austerity measures designed to rein in debt levels that threaten to destabilize the country's economy.

What are they voting for?

A harsh program of cuts proposed by Socialist Prime Minister George Papandreou's government to meet requirements demanded in exchange for international rescue loans.

The aim is to cut $20 billion in public spending while raising a further $20 billion through taxes and privatization. This means increased VAT, higher levies on householders and companies and sharp hikes in fuel, alcohol and tobacco prices.

Spending cuts will see heavy public sector job losses, school closures and restrictions on welfare benefits. There will also be sell offs of state assets and ventures including the postal service and key ports.

Why is it needed?

Without the measures Greece's debt would continue to climb and there is a strong chance it will default on repayments. This would have severe ramifications on the country's economy and threaten its participation in the 17-nation eurozone.
International investors would desert, leaving the country in economic freefall. Greece is already receiving international money to help stave off a financial meltdown, but unless it agrees to impose the austerity package, it may be denied the next scheduled payment of a $156 billion bailout agreed last year.

Further bailouts could also be unforthcoming.

Why are people rioting?

Times are tough for the Greek people and anger and frustration at their predicament continues to boil over into civil unrest.

The country's parlous financial state has been widely blamed on years of mismanagement by politicians and businessmen and ordinary members are upset and being made to foot the bill through job cuts and tax hikes.

Greeks have already agreed to earlier austerity measures in 2010 which prompted street violence.

Greece's leading unions have been organizing strikes and the latest protests, which degenerated into rioting in central Athens on Tuesday. Further demonstrations on Wednesday quickly turned to sporadic violence.

Is there an alternative to the austerity package?

Other than face certain default and the financial chaos that would entail, Greece has little alternative if it wants to continue receiving international financial assistance.

Olli Rehn, a European Union commission leading the bloc's bailout discussions has warned that Greece has "no Plan B." If parliament fails to approve the austerity measures, it is possible they will be redrafted and put to a new vote, but this will further dent economic confidence in Greece.

The big question also facing Greece and its international backers is how to prevent further default down the line.

There are proposals to push back some debt payments to ease pressure -- but these will again be dependent on Greece's willingness to get its own finances in order.

What happens next?

Wednesday's vote covers the initial part of the austerity package to raise taxes and cut public spending. Now the measures have passed, parliament will vote on Thursday to change the law to allow them to be implemented.

Once the law is in place, Greece will receive its next bailout payment and European officials will begin discussing details of a second rescue deal.

With Greece facing many more tough decisions on the long road to recovery, there is a strong possibility of more protests and potentially more rioting.

Why does Greece matter?

The International Monetary Fund is pouring cash into Greece just so it can pay its debts. So are eurozone partners, much to the fury of people in countries such as Germany and France who question why their taxes should be used to pay for the profligacy of others.

However, there's good reason why the international financial community is rallying to Greece's aid. If Greece defaults, this could undermine confidence in other weak eurozone countries like Ireland and Portugal, pushing them into the same predicament.

The burden of similar bailouts could undermine the euro and threaten its future. A Greek default would also hurt major global financial institutions exposed to the country's debt, setting in motion a new worldwide banking crisis.

What if you're planning a trip to Greece?

One of Greece's economic saving graces is its tourism industry, which has continued to bring in billions of dollars annually even as the economy falters. But given the unrest and industrial action, there are concerns that the country is no longer a safe destination.

The U.S. State Department and British Foreign Office advise that most Greek vacations are trouble free, but warn citizens to avoid demonstrations in major urban centers and to be aware of strikes affecting flights, ferries and fuel availability.

The austerity measures are actually having some benefits for travellers, as the government strives to protect its tourism industry. Airport and ferry duties have been reduced, as has VAT on tourist accommodation.

British unions begin mass strike action

The British coalition government faces the most serious challenge ever by the unions as hundreds of thousands of teachers, civil servants and others move to protest their pensions, job cuts and pay freezes.
The 24-hour walkout means schools and colleges will be closed or running with the minimum staff as teachers and lecturers take action while all public sector departments where civil servants work including Job Centres and tax and benefit offices will be affected.
The action features members of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), the National Union of Teachers (NUT), the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) and the University and College Union (UCU) who are especially angry over government's pensions reform saying the new arrangements will deliver “20%-50% less than the current pension scheme for a full career in public service”.They are also outraged by the prospects of paying more into their annual pension contributions while getting smaller payments after retirement.This comes as the massive march in London which is planned to be followed by a rally in Westminster has led to the Police to cancel all its personnel leaves to be able to tackle the situation.
The mass action is especially important as the government is pushing with a costly campaign in Libya, yet at home it is trying to persuade people that the cuts to their lives is meant to provide them a better future rather than funding more wars.
That point was echoed by the national convener of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey German.
“The same people who tell us that the country 'can't afford' to pay pensions or provide public services have now entered into their third major war in 10 years - with no end in sight,” she said.

Saudi Arabia faces a revolution ― women driving

By Dale McFeatters
The world over a driver's license and access to a car are considered an important, even vital, personal freedom. It would not be surprising if some American teenagers believed it was enshrined somewhere in the Constitution.

All the world over, that is, except Saudi Arabia, the only nation that bans women from driving.

But change is coming, if slowly. Last Friday women were urged to drive when doing their routine errands and many did, often with their husbands beside them.

The last demonstration was 20 years ago and the 47 women who participated were labeled infidel whores, had their passports confiscated and if they worked for the government were fired by royal decree.

This time when the police acted, and many of them did not, the women were given tickets for driving without a license or escorted home and admonished not to drive again. However, many well-to-do women were technically driving legally because they had valid foreign licenses.

But this is the era of social media and videos of the women driving made it to YouTube and various Facebook pages. In fact, there is a special Saudi Facebook page, Women2Drive, and a website,

The organizer of the demonstration, Manal al-Sharif, was jailed last month for nine days as a cautionary warning but nine days is a relative inconvenience compared to what the earlier batch of women drivers went through.

There is no Saudi law against women driving but the government will not issue a woman a driver's license. Women do drive, usually pickup trucks, out in the country and in the desert.

But Saudi Arabia's harsh Wahabi version of Islam allows women virtually not rights, certainly not to drive. Women need the permission of their husband or male guardian to travel, study, hold a job, see the doctor, visit a government office or simply go outside. These religious strictures, like the dress code that calls for women to be completely covered, are enforced by religious police with nightsticks.

King Abdullah, a reformer but a very cautious one, believes women will one day drive in his country but he is ailing and his successor might not be so open-minded.

The driving ban is a growing source of international embarrassment to the kingdom but the factor ultimately driving the change is likely to be economic.

Women make up 60 percent of the country's college graduates and they are an increasingly important to a skilled workforce. It does the economy no good if they can't get to work in a timely fashion. And the 800,000 to 1 million foreign workers imported to chauffeur them around drain $4 billion a year out of the economy in remittances.

But perhaps the biggest restraint on women driving is fear of the unknown, what it would do to the kingdom's carefully calibrated social order. One protesting women driver told The New York Times "even a small fight would be revolutionary for Saudi Arabia." That's exactly what the religious leaders and their conservative allies are afraid of.

Siege in Kabul

Kabul was the latest scene of mayhem on Tuesday night when eight insurgents — three suicide bombers and the rest armed gunmen — stormed the Intercontinental Hotel, laying siege to the premises and the guests inside. The brazen attack and its counter-operation by NATO forces lasted some five hours, leaving 19 people dead including the eight militants. The ordeal ended only when NATO helicopters fired rockets at the Taliban insurgents positioned on the roof of the hotel. This was a well-orchestrated attack and has, no doubt, placed the US drawdown plan in a whole new light.

The Intercontinental Hotel has been largely abandoned by foreigners and important guests in favour of the better guarded Serena Hotel. That is why it is surprising that on the day this attack happened, a meeting of provincial governors was slated to take place in the hotel and another was to be conducted the next day (Wednesday) on the topic of the transition process. There is no doubt that the timing of the attack was related to this high level meeting that, surprisingly, was not held at the Serena. This extremely complex and defiant attack proves what keen analysts have been saying all along: we can talk about withdrawal of US troops but what are they actually leaving behind? No doubt, a country wracked by civil war and terrorism.

The dialogue being initiated between the US and the insurgents who are willing to ‘negotiate’ and ‘rehabilitate’ seems flimsy. There is no way all the insurgent Taliban are on board for these talks. It is now being speculated that the Taliban faction that is willing to talk to the US is Mullah Omar’s as he has distanced himself from al Qaeda. However, the Haqqani network is still a close ally of al Qaeda. No surprise then that the Haqqani group has claimed responsibility for this attack — following the same pattern of its terror attacks aimed at targets in Kabul. This is devastating for the US withdrawal plan. With a vehement strain of the Taliban attacking the US and showing their defiance at any mention of negotiation, the transition process will find it difficult to make headway. The attack on the Intercontinental Hotel is just the latest spoiler in the run up to the potential peace process that is embryonically underway. Hope seems bleak in front of the looming spectre of civil war.

Saudi Religious Police Detained 5 Women for Driving, Group Reports

The religious police in Saudi Arabia arrested five women on Tuesday for driving in defiance of a ban on women getting behind the wheel in the conservative kingdom, according to activists and local media reports.

Saudi Women for Driving, an informal coalition of leading Saudi women’s rights activists, bloggers and academics, said in a statement that the women were arrested in Jidda, Saudi Arabia’s second-largest city.

“If Saudi police think arresting women drivers is going to stop what has already become the largest women’s rights movement in Saudi history, they are sorely mistaken,” the coalition said in a statement released by, a Web site where members can create and promote online petitions for social change. “On the contrary, these arrests will encourage more women to get behind the wheel in direct defiance of this ridiculous abuse of our most basic human rights.”

The coalition said that the religious police arrested four of the women when they were driving in the Dorat al Arous neighborhood in Jidda, a port city along the Red Sea. The four, ages 21 and 22 and riding in one car, were taken to a police station, where they signed a pledge not to drive again, the group’s report said. A fifth woman was arrested later Tuesday night while driving in the neighborhood of Suleimaniyah.

Eman Al Nafjan, a Saudi blogger and a member in the coalition, said that all the women have been released. “This will not scare us,” she said.

Sabq, a Saudi news Web site, reported one of the women was arrested after residents told the police about an unveiled woman driving a car. The Web site said that the woman was driving with her brother and that they were both taken into custody.

On June 17, a group of Saudi women launched a nationwide right-to-drive campaign, in which 42 women took to the road. They said their campaign was inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, where street protests toppled the authoritarian governments of Hosni Mubarak and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton of the United States and female leaders in Europe announced support for the right-to-drive campaign.

The campaign came a month after Manal Al-Sharif, a Saudi mother, was arrested for driving her car in late May.

The arrests Tuesday were the first to be reported in the oil-rich kingdom since the campaign began.

Saudi Arabian law does not forbid women from driving, but a religious fatwa dictates that Saudi women must be driven by male drivers or male family members.

Women in the kingdom live under many restrictions. They must also have written permission from a male guardian — a father, son, husband or brother — to leave the country, work or undergo a medical operation.

Lake Saiful Maluk, Lalazar continue to dazzle sightseers

An excursion tour to the lush green Kaghan valley remains incomplete without taking the adventurous jeep ride to Lake Saiful Maluk

and Lalazar meadows if one is short of time to roam around Shogran, Sari Paya, Lalusar and Babusar Top.

The 50 to 60 minutes jeep journey to Lake Saiful Maluk, situated at an altitude of 10,500 feet above sea level and at a distance of 10 kilometres from Naran town, is as much enjoyable as the exotic boat ride at the crystalline waters of the lake, which is tributary of the Kunhar River.

Pony ride is another option available for reaching the lake besides walking the entire way that takes about three hours. A fleet of about 50 jeeps ply the Naran-Lake Saiful Maluk route and a jeep could be rented for Rs1,800 to Rs2,000 for the two-way travel. Though tourist season in Kaghan valley begins in mid-May and closes in mid-October, the ideal summer climate is June to September.

“The three months (June to August) is peak season for us as snowfall normally starts in late October,” stated one of the three jeep drivers taking a group of Peshawar-based journalists to Lake Saiful Maluk.

However, the travel to the picturesque Lalazar pastureland, situated 21 kilometres onward from Naran, is not as much exhausting as it is on the just 15 to 20 minutes drive from Batakundi on the main Naran-Babusar road.

A rest house of the Forest Department and two small hotels are available to provide food and drinks to the visitors besides a limited accommodation facility.

“The forest rest house was constructed in the 50s but unfortunately the road leading to the area has yet to gain attention of the authorities. The residents repair the road on self-help basis or through donation from tourists. Since the land here is jointly owned [shamilat], landlords are not allowing proper road construction,” complained Imtiaz Hussain, the owner of a small hotel. He held the elected public representatives responsible for keeping the area backward. Lalazar can attract a large number of tourists that would lead to economic prosperity of the local population if the road were blacktopped, he added.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Minister for Industries Syed Ahmad Hussain Shah, who was elected from the Kaghan valley constituency, along with Minister for Sports and Tourism Syed Aqil Shah, announced the establishment of the Kaghan Development Authority (KDA) and installation of state-of-the-art chairlift from Naran to the Saiful Maluk Lake.

The announcement was made at the concluding ceremony of the three-day Kaghan festival organised by the Tourism Corporation Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The ministers revealed the provincial government decision to establish KDA and execute more than Rs2 billion rupees chairlift project during the current fiscal year. They promised taking concrete steps for promoting tourism in the area.

During the opening ceremony, Aqil Shah also announced holding of Kaghan festival on regular basis and said that from now on it would be part of the tourism calendar like the Shandoor polo festival.

Kabul much safer than it was: Obama

US President Barack Obama insisted on Wednesday that Kabul is "much safer than it was" but said he expected attacks like the one on the Intercontinental Hotel to continue for "some time".

Nine heavily armed Taliban militants, some in suicide vests, stormed the hotel late on Tuesday, sparking a ferocious battle with Afghan commandos and a Nato helicopter gunship that left at least 21 dead, including the attackers.

The brazen attack, which left the landmark hotel on a hill overlooking the capital ablaze for hours, was seen as a direct rebuttal from the Taliban to Obama's claims of progress as he seeks to wind up the 10-year-old war.

It came only days after Obama announced the "beginning of the end" of the conflict in Afghanistan and tried to reassure American voters ahead of his 2012 re-election campaign that the "tide of war is receding".

In his first public comments on the Intercontinental attack, Obama insisted that the Afghan forces who are responsible for security in Kabul are doing "a reasonably good job" and their capacity is increasing.

"Keep in mind the drawdown hasn't begun. So we understood that Afghanistan is a dangerous place, that the Taliban is still active, and that there are still going to be events like this on occasion," he said.

Haqqani network leader suspected in Kabul hotel attack killed

A top Haqqani network leader suspected of providing support for Tuesday's deadly attack at a Kabul hotel was killed in an airstrike in southeast Afghanistan, the International Security Assistance Force said Thursday.

Ismail Jan, who is the deputy to the senior Haqqani commander, and several fighters were killed in a precision airstrike Wednesday in Paktiya province.

Jan was an insurgent leader in the Khost-Gardez Pass area, along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the international coalition said.

Afghan government officials blamed the al Qaeda-linked militant group for the siege on the Kabul Hotel Inter-Continental that left 12 victims and all nine attackers dead.

The level of violence in the country was signficantly higher in the past three months than it was in the same period last year, the United Nations said Thursday.

There were 17 suicide attacks in April 2011, more than in any single month last year, the world body said.

Kandahar suffered the most, with most of the incidents in the quarter taking place in the city or nearby.Nearly 3,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded, 80% of them as a result of "anti-government elements."

The attackers who struck the Hotel Inter-Contintental were with the Haqqani network, said the Afghan interior ministry.

The group of terrorists loyal to the warlord Siraq Haqqani is based in Pakistan.

They entered the hotel late Tuesday night by avoiding the main entrance and attacking a smaller one on the other side of the hotel that was guarded by two Afghan police, said Falak Merzahi, a spokesman for the interior ministry.

The attackers killed the two officers and stormed the hotel, Merzahi said.

Six of the attackers ended up detonating their explosives; three were shot and killed on the roof of the hotel, Afghan officials said.

Although a NATO helicopter carrying International Security Assistance Force snipers flew to the scene and fired at the attackers, Merzahi said it was Afghan army soldiers who ultimately killed the three gunmen on the roof.

ISAF said its forces stopped firing on the roof when Afghan soldiers arrived.

The 12 others killed are two police officers, nine Afghans and one foreigner, Merzahi said.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai said the attack will not interrupt the planned handover of power from international forces to Afghan troops.

President Barack Obama has said U.S. troops will start withdrawing from Afghanistan in July, and that a military handover should be completed in 2014.