Saturday, January 14, 2017

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Denial of ‘one China’ brings fear to Taiwan

Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Nigerian counterpart met the press together on Wednesday, during which Wang spoke highly of Nigeria's moves several days earlier to revoke the consular privileges enjoyed by a Taiwan representative office and order it to move out of the Nigerian capital to uphold the one-China policy.

Nigeria's action is only one episode of events that Taiwan pro-independence forces are going to witness. Tsai Ing-wen thought she would bring a surprise to independence advocates by refusing to recognize the 1992 Consensus and talking to Donald Trump over the phone, but these moves are going to create shocks instead.

As the most populous country in Africa, Nigeria is a vital power in global political and economic affairs, and its latest move sets an example for others. It is hoped that other countries will follow suit and squeeze the international space of Taiwan's independence advocates.

Taiwan's pro-independence forces are depressed about the decision of Nigeria and trying to win some sympathy through playing the victim.

The Chinese foreign minster always starts a New Year by visiting Africa. Chinese diplomacy is based on relations with developing countries, among which Africa is at the core. China is willing and capable of making new contributions to the peace and development of Africa through deepening cooperation. Currently, China and Africa are together exploring new concepts of bringing bilateral cooperation to a new height. African countries understand the importance for their development and support China's position on national unity.

Reunification of China is desired by all Chinese, which is an unalienable part of world peace. China is contributing about 30 percent of global economic growth under the win-win concept, therefore the reunification of China is a prerequisite of stability of the world.

Taiwan's pro-independence forces are like gamblers, and such trend is beyond their imagination. They bet on the US for their fate, thinking as long as they follow the US closely, like flirting a bit with Trump, they would gain some more space in the world. They are totally wrong.

For every bit of empty promise that the Taiwan's pro-independence forces get from the US, we will make them pay the price; for every bit of "good news" they get, they will feel multiple fear. The Chinese mainland is wise and strong enough to turn the "lifeline" of pro-independence forces into a rope to strangle them.

Nigeria will not be the last country to put pressure on Taiwan. Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party will live in fear as long as they don't recognize the 1992 Consensus and the one-China principle.

One China policy "nonnegotiable," China tells US

China on Saturday told the United States that one China policy is the political foundation of bilateral ties and "is nonnegotiable." 

Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang made the remarks in response to US President-elect Donald Trump's statement that the one China policy on Taiwan is up for negotiation and that he is not fully committed to it. 

"Everything is under negotiation including one China," Trump was quoted as saying in a Friday interview with the Wall Street Journal. 

It must be pointed out that there is but one China in the world, and that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China, Lu said in a statement issued on Saturday evening. 

The government of the People's Republic of China is the only legitimate government representing China, "which is an internationally recognized fact and no one can change it," said Lu. 

"We urge the relevant party in the United States to realize the high sensitivity of the Taiwan issue and abide by commitments made by previous US governments to the one China policy and the principles of the three joint communiques," he said. 

Lu urged the US side to properly deal with the Taiwan issue so as to avoid undermining the healthy and steady development of bilateral ties and cooperation in major areas.

Russian Defense Ministry surprised by lack of assistance to Aleppo civilians from UN

Main assistance to people in Aleppo comes from the Russian center for reconciliation of the warring parties, from the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.
Russia’s Defense Ministry is surprised by a lack of assistance to civilians in Aleppo from international organization, though the city has been liberated from militants for a month already, spokesman of the Russian Defense Ministry Major General Igor Konashenkov said on Saturday.

"Surprisingly, after the period of super-close attention to Aleppo from international organizations, involved in humanitarian demining, a month later there are no initiatives to offer assistance to the people in that city," he said. "Is the UN authority on demining and the Geneva international center for humanitarian demining aware of the fact working in Aleppo since mid-December does not risk lives, and all roads to the city are absolutely free and safe? They do know, for sure."

This is also well known to UNISEF representatives and to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which are the UN key bodies for assistance to children and adults, who suffer from military actions, he added.

And still, the general continued, as yet main assistance to people in Aleppo comes from the Russian center for reconciliation of the warring parties, from the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. The civilians receive regularly medical supplies, food, water, hygienic goods and warm clothes. They also receive medical assistance.

On this background, bewilderment arises with the abruptly "dropped" topic of assistance to Aleppo civilians from international humanitarian organizations and the central Western media, which for a month now already - as if following an order - continue keeping silence.
"It gives the impression that many international organizations, which earlier as if were ‘breaking through’ with humanitarian assistance to seized Aleppo, now that the city is recaptured have all of a sudden lost any interest to it along with the desire to offer assistance," the defense ministry’s spokesman said.


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UK helped train Saudi unit accused of whitewashing Yemen war crimes

Jamie Merrill

The British military has provided training to a Saudi war crimes investigations unit headed by a Bahraini judge accused of sentencing peaceful protesters to lengthy jail terms, where they were often tortured.
Campaigners say the training, which was detailed in Foreign Office documents released on Monday, make the British government complicit in both whitewashing abuses in Bahrain and the failure to properly investigate potential war crimes committed by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
The appointment last year of Colonel Mansour al-Mansour, a military lawyer, as a legal adviser to the Saudi-led Joint Incident Assessments Team (JIAT) was heavily criticised by human rights groups at the time, who said the military judge was complicit in torture in the wake of pro-democracy protests in 2011. 
Colonel Mansour was the presiding judge of the National Security Court, which oversaw the lengthy detention of more than 300 protesters in what amounted to military trials. 
Many of the protesters went on to claim they were tortured while in custody. The court also oversaw the trial of the so-called “Bahrain 13”, a group of leading human rights defenders and politicians who were arrested from March to May 2011 and subjected to torture while in custody.
Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, said: “It is farcical that the judge who condemned torture victims to life imprisonment in Bahrain is now in charge of investigating the murder of civilians in Yemen.”
“With Mansour, the UK has trained a serial violator of human rights to investigate violations of humanitarian law. Mansour's role in JIAT speaks to its absence of credibility as a body, and is an insult to his Bahraini victims and to the civilians of Yemen. The UK must end its support of white-washing mechanisms in the Gulf.”
The Foreign Office confirmed that the UK had "supported the development of the Coalition JIAT and through the Ministry of Defence has delivered two training sessions in Saudi Arabia on the process of investigating alleged violations of Humanitarian Law (IHL)".
"The UK has not been directly involved in investigations undertaken by the JIAT; has not provided any specific operational advice to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for operations in Yemen; and has not provided training on political authorisation of military operations.
"However, the UK has provided support, advice and training in order to assist in the establishment of a process to undertake investigations into alleged civilian casualty incidents."

Inadequate investigations

According to the UN at least 10,000 civilians have been killed during the conflict in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has admitted to the use of banned British-made cluster bombs.
The Saudi-led coalition set up the JIAT in February in the wake of international pressure over civilian deaths, including the bombing of Doctors Without Borders facilities in the country.
The British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, has used the JIAT report to reject calls to end British weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, saying there was no "clear breach" of international humanitarian law in the conflict.
However, the team was attacked as “inadequate” by human right groups, which insist an independent inquiry is needed to settle mounting controversy and provide accountability for possible war crimes. 
This call was reinforced after the bombing of a funeral hall in October 2016 that killed 140 people.
The JIAT released a report in the wake of that strike which admitted responsibility, but blamed “wrong information” from allies of the internationally recognised Yemeni government for the strike.
Saudi Arabia has repeatedly insisted its bombing campaign in Yemen is being waged “in accordance with international humanitarian law” and that it is “a legitimate war of self defence”.
Details of the training were released following a Freedom of Information Act request, which also detailed how British officials attended a JIAT media conference in August led by Mansour.
At the event Mansour largely absolved the Saudi-led coalition of responsibility for civilian deaths.
The FCO response also said the British military has not been directly involved in investigations undertaken by the JIAT and that it has not provided any specific operational advice to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for operations in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia steps up ruthless crackdown against human rights activists

Saudi Arabia’s authorities have begun the year with an intensified crackdown against human rights activists dealing another heavy blow to the last vestiges of the country’s embattled civil society, said Amnesty International.
A string of activists have been detained or appeared in court in recent weeks in connection with their peaceful human rights work signalling that the authorities plan to continue with their ruthless crackdown on peaceful dissent. Among those affected is an activist who faced charges for providing information to Amnesty International.
“The latest string of arrests has sparked fears that 2017 will be yet another dark year for human rights in Saudi Arabia, as the authorities continue with their attempts to crush any semblance of a human rights movement in the country,” said Lynn Maalouf, Deputy Director for Research at Amnesty International’s Beirut Regional office. 

“Human rights activists in Saudi Arabia are an endangered species. One by one they are vanishing – prosecuted, jailed, intimidated into silence or forced into exile - highlighting the authorities’ zero tolerance approach to freedom of expression.”
Human rights activists in Saudi Arabia are an endangered species. One by one they are vanishing – prosecuted, jailed, intimidated into silence or forced into exile
Lynn Maalouf, Deputy Director for Research at Amnesty International's Beirut Regional office

Today Abdulaziz al-Shubaily, a human rights defender and a founding member of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), a now disbanded independent human rights organization, appeared before the Specialized Criminal Court which deals with counterterrorism cases. He was sentenced again to eight years in prison in connection with his human rights work. He had faced a number of different charges including “communicating with foreign organizations” and providing information to Amnesty International for use in two of its reports. Every other member of ACPRA has been prosecuted or jailed.
On 8 January, Essam Koshak, a human rights defender,was summoned for interrogation by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in Mecca around 5pm local time. He immediately went to al-Mansour police station but was detained and never made it back home.  Amnesty International has learned that Essam Koshak was not allowed to appoint a lawyer and is being questioned about his Twitter account, which he mainly used to tweet about human rights issues in Saudi Arabia.
Just a few days earlier on 5 January Ahmed al-Mushaikhass, a founding member of the Adala Centre for Human Rights, an independent human rights organization which was not permitted to register in Saudi Arabia, received a phone call from the CID asking him to report to al-Qatif police station for questioning.  On 8 January he was transferred to al-Dammam police station where he remains in custody. He has been under interrogation by the Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution (BIP) since then. Ahmed al-Mushaikhass is a human rights defender known for his work including helping families and relatives of those detained in the Eastern Province to raise their cases with the authorities. His brother, Yussuf al-Mushaikhass, was sentenced to death in January 2016 after taking part in protests in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province and is at risk of being executed at any time. 
On 18 December Issa al-Nukheifi, a human rights activist and a member of ACPRA, was called for interrogation at the BIP in Mecca. He was questioned among other things about his tweets in support of Saudi Arabian human rights activists and other detainees. He is currently held in Mecca General Prison. He was previously jailed in connection with his human rights work in 2013 and served a three year prison term before being released in April 2016. After his release he continued to expose human rights violations in Saudi Arabia and was a thorn in the side of the authorities.

Anyone who dares to speak out in defence of human rights in Saudi Arabia today is at risk
“Saudi Arabia’s relentless persecution of human rights defenders is a blatant campaign aimed at deterring them from speaking about the human rights situation in the country and working on behalf of victims of violations. Human rights activists who have been detained solely on account of their human rights work should be immediately and unconditionally released,” said Lynn Maalouf.
“Anyone who dares to speak out in defence of human rights in Saudi Arabia today is at risk. With no end in sight to this clampdown, it is more important than ever for Saudi Arabia’s international allies to speak out against this rampant repression.”

Video Report - Hungry for peace: Inside Yemeni village dying from starvation (Disturbing footage)

'No food, no medicine, no money’: Yemeni town faces mass death by starvation

Nearly 19 million Yemenis are in need of humanitarian aid, according to the UN, but the worst of the civilian impact of the two-year civil war in the country has fallen on the coastal fishing area around the Red Sea coastal district of Tuhayat.
As RT’s Arabic-language crew visited the area, they witnessed scenes of chaos – as locals scrambled to gain food – and quiet desperation, with many residents swollen with hunger, waiting for outside help, or resigned to their fate.
Salem is an eight-year-old boy, though like many in similar areas around the world, he looks small enough to be mistaken for a toddler.
“We have no energy left, and I have no money with which to treat my child,” says his mother, admitting that the boy is severely malnourished, just one of more than 1.5 million children suffering from the same fate in the country, according to the United Nations.
Fishing used to be the prime source of subsistence for villagers here, prior to the break out of the full-scale civil war between the insurgent Shia Houthis, and the incumbent Sunni government in early 2015.
The area remains under control of the Houthis, but the Saudi-led international coalition, which is supporting the Sunnis, who constitute just under half of the population, has blockaded the coastal areas.
The Saudis have repeatedly fired on fishing boats operated by the locals, saying that some have been used on weapons runs to supply the rebels, even if keeping them moored on land means that innocent civilians will die.
Abdallah and Taga are two brothers, who have become so weak – their skeletons are clearly visible underneath the skin – that they have suffered bone damage, and can now only crawl.
“It is very difficult for us, as we are invalids, and we have no money. Sometimes we get a little, and then we can get tea and bread – people help us, but not very often, and not very much,” says Abdallah.
Over 7,000 people have been killed in the conflict, according to international observers – a large minority of them civilians, who died in airstrikes – and more than 3 million have been displaced.
“The situation is only going to get worse, because there is no functioning government. Social welfare has not been paid for two years,” Baraa Shiban, an activist for the nonprofit Reprieve, told RT.
Shiban believes that the Houthis have to hand back power to the previous Sunni government, and in turn the Sunni international coalition must ease its stranglehold on the region, while any other means of help is temporary.
“Humanitarian aid has been delivered to some of these areas, but just depending on it is not a viable solution. We need a comprehensive solution.”
But Jamal Wakeem, professor of history and international relations at the Lebanese University in Beirut, says that the Saudis are purposefully worsening the humanitarian crisis to achieve their political aims.
“This is a conscious strategy of the Saudis, they have been trying to exert economic pressure,” he told RT from Beirut, saying that it equates to "genocide."
While the Sunnis have more material resources, the Houthi rebels still hold most of the land, and enjoy considerable manpower, so the conflict remains finely balanced. For ordinary Yemenis, regardless of creed, this likely means more instability, hunger and fear.

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How Barack Obama Transformed The Nation’s Courts

Jennifer Bendery

Republicans cannot wait to begin dismantling President Barack Obama’s accomplishments, but there’s one thing they can’t undo, even with full control of Congress and the White House: his judicial legacy.
Obama will leave office with 329 of his judicial nominees confirmed to lifetime posts on federal courts. That includes two U.S. Supreme Court justices and four judges on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, the two most powerful courts in the nation. Because of Obama, Democratic appointees now have a 7-4 advantage on the D.C. panel, and those judges will play a major role in deciding cases during the Trump administration related to environmental regulations, health care, national security, consumer protections and challenges to executive orders.
Obama also tilted the partisan makeup of circuit courts. Nine of the country’s 13 appeals courts now have majority Democratic appointees, compared with just one when he took office in 2009.
There is a caveat to his judicial success, however: When Republicans regained the Senate majority two years ago, they ground judicial confirmations to a halt. That has left 86 district court vacancies and 17 circuit court vacancies for President-elect Donald Trump to fill. That’s a huge number of court seats to fall victim to partisan politics. For some context: Obama inherited 59 district and circuit court vacancies when he became president. Trump is inheriting 103.
GOP senators, led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, devoted the last two years to slow-walking or outright blocking Obama’s court picks, with the goal of holding the seats open for a future GOP president, who is now Trump, to fill. They dragged out scheduling Judiciary Committee hearings. If a nominee did get a hearing, he or she would typically wait weeks before getting a committee vote ― which was often unanimous, despite the delays. For nominees who made it to the Senate floor, they often waited months for a confirmation vote, if they got one at all.
In the end, Republicans confirmed 22 of Obama’s judicial picks during his last two years. By contrast, when George W. Bush was president and Democrats controlled the Senate, they confirmed 68 of his judicial nominees in that period.
“The pernicious dynamics that pervade the Supreme Court and appellate processes have now even infected the district process, creating a judicial vacancy crisis,” said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond and an expert on federal judicial selection.
There were 25 district and circuit court nominees ready to be confirmed when the Senate adjourned its congressional session this month and gaveled in a new session. Nearly all had strong bipartisan support, and McConnell could have confirmed them in minutes by scheduling votes for them. Instead, he let their nominations expire. Trump will now have a say in who replaces them.
The Senate’s inaction has hurt the nation’s courts. Judges have struggled with burnout, and people’s cases can get backlogged for years. There’s been a spike in judicial emergencies, which is when a court is so overburdened it can barely function. Still, the biggest losers are everyday people seeking justice in court, whether it’s someone suing for being discriminated against at work or a small-business owner taking on a big corporation for violating antitrust laws.
“While the GOP leaders of the Senate are congratulating themselves for putting politics ahead of the Constitution, they should realize that on their watch judicial emergencies multiplied across the U.S. and many more Americans were denied access to justice,” said Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, a progressive advocacy group focused on the judiciary.
President Barack Obama appointed two U.S. Supreme Court justices, including Sonia Sotomayor, and four D.C. Circuit Court judges. Those appointments alone will shape major legal decisions for decades.
The GOP’s biggest coup, still, was preventing Obama from filling a Supreme Court seat after Justice Antonin Scalia died in February. An hour after Scalia’s death, McConnell announced that he wouldn’t let Obama fill the seat. He argued that, because Obama had only a year left in office, the next president should get to fill it. Other GOP senators echoed his logic. It was an unprecedented level of obstruction directed at a sitting president, but it worked: Nearly a year later, the Supreme Court seat sits empty for an incoming Republican president to fill, which is precisely what McConnell was hoping for.
As shrewd as McConnell’s politics have been, though, he can’t erase the imprint Obama has made on the federal bench. It even looks different now. For the first time, the majority of appeals court judges are women and minorities. Seven states have their first female circuit court judge, and five have their first African-American federal judge. Obama put more Latino, Asian-American and LGBT judges on federal courts than any previous president. The nation got its first Native American female federal judge on his watch.
“Obama has shattered all records for appointing diverse judges in terms of ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation,” said Tobias. “Forty-two percent of his appointees are women. He also appointed more Asian-Americans in his tenure than all other presidents combined and 10 times as many LGBT judges as any other president.”
His judges are already changing the legal terrain. Last February, an Obama appointee on a federal appeals court in Georgia swayed a vote to reject challenges to the Affordable Care Act that would have allowed religious organizations to opt out of health care coverage. In February 2015, U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves, an Obama appointee who became the second African-American federal judge in Mississippi, gave a powerful speech to three young white men before sentencing them for beating and killing a black man while yelling, “White power!” A federal appeals court in Virginia ruled in April 2016 that a transgender high school student who was born female could sue his school board for discrimination after the school barred him from using the boys’ bathroom.
And in December 2013, an Obama appointee on a Utah district court became the first federal judge to strike down a state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
Obama administration officials are proud of their legacy. “President Obama’s judges have broken barriers across the nation, reshaping the federal judiciary to look more like America by vastly expanding the gender, racial, sexual orientation and experiential diversity of the men and women who enforce our laws and deliver justice,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz.
Obama’s total number of judicial appointments is on par with past presidents. He got 329 judges in eight years, compared to Bush’s 327 judges and Bill Clinton’s 373 judges. But the key difference for Obama is that he’s leaving office with far more vacancies than his predecessors.
In addition to having more court seats to fill and his party controlling the Senate, Trump has another advantage to confirming judges. Democrats unilaterally changed Senate rules in 2013 to make it easier to confirm judges after the GOP routinely blocked Obama’s nominees. Republicans can now use that rule to their advantage.

A young ex-president, Obama poised for a busy retirement

By Josh Lederman 

For Barack Obama, there’s a presidential library to build, hundreds of millions of dollars to raise, causes to champion and a book to write. And don’t forget that long-promised vacation with his wife.
Looming retirement is looking like anything but for the 44th president. Obama’s next chapter starts Friday when he becomes an ex-president. He’ll be freer to speak his mind, set his own schedule and make some money.
Already, Obama is looking ahead to the book he wants to write, and has had talks with Hollywood agent Ari Emanuel about arrangements that could include speaking gigs.
At 55, Obama will be a relatively young ex-president, with plenty of time for a second act. He’s ruled out running another campaign for political office — so has his wife — but he has pledged to stay an active in the national conversation.
With President-elect Donald Trump headed to the White House, Democrats are eager for Obama to play the role of shadow-president, offering direction to those Americans who feel they lost their political compass the day Trump was elected.
Obama has said he has plenty of ideas for how his party can revive itself, but after eight years as president, his role will be to offer guidance, not to micromanage.
“I think it’s appropriate for me to give advice, because I need some sleep,” Obama told NPR last month. “And I’ve promised Michelle a nice vacation. My girls are getting old enough now where I’m clinging to those very last moments before they are out of the house.”
Obama is expected to keep a low profile for the first few months after Trump’s swearing-in.
Following some relaxation time with his wife and daughters in an unnamed location, the family will return to Washington, where they’ve rented a mansion in the upscale Kalorama neighborhood.
Obama has repeatedly praised George. W. Bush for giving him room to operate without having the ex-president publicly second-guess him at every turn. Still, Obama has reserved the right to speak out against Trump if he pursues policies the president finds particularly odious, such as a ban on Muslim immigration or mass deportation of children brought to the U.S. illegally.
“The party is in bad state and there are no clear, obvious voices for Democrats yet,” said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. “If there’s anyone who could stand up to a President Trump, it’s going to be former President Obama.”
Obama may re-emerge in a more public way around the time he releases his book — probably sometime next year — and goes on a promotional tour. Obama’s chief White House speechwriter, Cody Keenan, is expected to stay with his boss to help him craft the sequel to Obama’s two previous best-sellers.
Though Obama has yet to fully settle his plans, four individuals familiar with Obama’s thinking said over the last year that he’s discussed post-presidency arrangements with Emanuel, a leading talent executive. One of Emanuel’s brothers is Obama’s former chief of staff, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
It’s unclear whether Obama will sign with Ari Emanuel. But the discussions suggest Obama has been looking to Hollywood for inspiration about ways to engage creatively and on multiple fronts, such as digital media and television. Emanuel didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Whatever direction he goes, Obama will not be pressed financially. Obama can expect to fetch an advance of more than $20 million for his book, said Keith Urbahn, a literary agent at Javelin DC who’s handled best-sellers for top political figures.
“Half of the country still looks at him as their leader,” Urbahn said. “From a publishing perspective, he will probably end up with the highest advance of any ex-president in history.” It won’t be long until Obama and his wife start raising money for the Barack Obama Foundation, which is developing his presidential library and center in Chicago. The price tag is expected to approach half a billion dollars.
The Obamas will have to hire personnel in the coming months as they engage more heavily in designing the center. While it will be several years before the library is up and running, the foundation has left open the possibility it might start some programming sooner. Former White House aide Amy Brundage, a spokeswoman for the foundation, said it would use 2017 to “build upon the work that has begun” to create a center that inspires people to take on big challenges. Obama also plans to stay involved in his My Brother’s Keeper initiative, recently renamed the “Task Force on Improving the Lives of Boys and Young Men of Color and Underserved Youth.” He is also teaming up with former Attorney General Eric Holder on the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a new initiative to improve Democrats’ hand when political districts are redrawn in 2020.
The hub of Obama’s activity will be his personal office, to be housed in the World Wildlife Fund headquarters not far from his rented home. For the first six months, he’ll also have a government-funded office overseeing his transition to ex-president.

Farewell to Barack Obama: A humane, intelligent and (mostly) effective leader

It’s a cliché that definitive judgments of a presidency take time to develop. Presidents praised in their own era — think of John F. Kennedy — are often subject to revisionist reappraisals by later historians, and the process also works in reverse.
Yet as Barack Obama prepares to vacate the White House we can say this much with confidence: The 44th president was a conscientious and intelligent leader who espoused humane values, inspired millions of Americans and successfully fulfilled some of his most significant promises. They include skillfully managing a recovery from a recession he inherited; protecting the rights of racial minorities and gay, lesbian and transgender Americans; combating international terrorism without engaging in religious stereotyping; providing health insurance to tens of millions of Americans who had previously gone without; and promulgating a Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon pollution from power plants.
Obama’s dignity and gravitas seem, of course, only more appealing as the Trump presidency approaches. His administration joined with other nations in forging an agreement with Iran that blocked its path — at least for a 10-year period — to developing a nuclear weapon; it endorsed the Paris Agreement on climate change; and it ended an anachronistic and counterproductive Cold War policy of refusing to deal with Cuba.
Obama’s White House was free of the corruption that tarnished the administrations of some of his predecessors. And Obama throughout his tenure displayed dignity, even in the face of vicious and sometimes racist attacks that no other president has had to endure.
There were also disappointments, at home and abroad, including his failure to persuade Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform or to close the infamous detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. Ultimately, despite coming to office as the anti-George W. Bush, Obama was unable to extricate the United States militarily from the Middle East and Afghanistan.
On election night in 2008, Obama told a jubilant crowd in Chicago that “on this date, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.” The 47-year-old first-term senator, the first African American to be elected president, encouraged his supporters — and the country — to “resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long.” In the flush of his improbable victory, such a magical transformation briefly seemed possible.

Of course, partisanship and pettiness persisted, and frustrated many of Obama’s legislative initiatives, not to mention a nomination to the Supreme Court that the Republican Senate shamefully refused even to consider. The sad truth is that Obama’s election didn’t usher in a post-partisan America any more than it did a post-racial one. He leaves behind a divided and acrimonious nation.
Republicans argued that the president has only himself to blame for the partisan chasm that prevented much of his domestic agenda from being enacted. More generally, they accused him of high-handedness and a propensity to short-circuit the legislative process with executive actions such as his temporary legalization of some immigrants in the country illegally and his aggressive use of recess appointments, for which he was reprimanded by the Supreme Court. But Obama’s “pen and phone” unilateralism was mostly a response to Republican obstructionism.
On foreign policy, Obama campaigned on a platform of ending the wars that had cost thousands of Americans lives in the aftermath of 9/11, including the ill-considered invasion of Iraq. In his acceptance speech at the 2008 Democratic convention, he promised to “end this war in Iraq responsibly and finish the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.” U.S. troops did completely withdraw from Iraq at the end of 2011. But the rise of Islamic State persuaded Obama to order air strikes in that country and to deploy 5,200 U.S. troops in "train, advise and assist" roles. In Afghanistan, Obama’s advisers warned him that complete withdrawal of U.S. troops would undermine the weak central government in its battle with the Taliban; some 8,400 U.S. troops will remain after Obama leaves office.

But if Obama has been too interventionist for some of his supporters, he hasn’t been interventionist enough for some of his critics – particularly when it comes to Syria. He has been criticized — including by some members of his own State Department — for not taking military action against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad in an attempt to end that country’s civil war.
The Syrian civil war has been a humanitarian disaster, yet we understand Obama’s concern that a U.S. effort to topple Assad — directly or in alliance with supposedly moderate Syrian rebels — would have dangerous consequences, including the possibility of involving the U.S. in another major war in the Middle East. Overall, Obama’s use of U.S. military force has been prudent and pragmatic; we would recommend his careful approach to his successor, who inherits a dangerous and increasingly disordered world.
And speaking of that successor, Obama’s dignity and gravitas seem, of course, only more appealing as the Trump presidency approaches. The incoming president, who fired up his political career by cynically questioning Obama’s citizenship, has betrayed a reckless, petulant, bullying demeanor that threatens his ability to do the job. Trump may not embrace many of Obama’s policies; but he would serve himself and the country well by studying the way his predecessor conducted himself.

President Obama's Weekly Address: The Honor of Serving You as President

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Pakistani Senate group to debate how to prevent misuse of blasphemy laws

 By Mehreen Zahra-Malik

A Pakistani Senate committee is set to debate how to prevent the country's blasphemy laws being applied unfairly, despite opposition from religious conservatives who support legislation that carries a mandatory death penalty for insulting Islam.

Senator Farhatullah Babar told Reuters that the Senate Committee on Human Rights, of which he is a member, will start discussions on blasphemy laws as early as next week, based on recommendations from a 24-year-old report.

He said it would be the first time in decades that any parliamentary body had considered a formal proposal to stop the abuse of the blasphemy laws.

According to Babar, the committee would consider a proposal making it binding to investigate complaints before registering a case, to ensure "genuine blasphemy" had been committed and the law was not being used to settle scores, as critics say it is.

He also said the committee would debate whether life imprisonment was an adequate punishment, instead of the mandatory death penalty.

Many conservatives in Pakistan consider even criticising the laws as blasphemy, and in 2011 a Pakistani governor, Salman Taseer, was assassinated by his bodyguard after calling for reform of the laws.

His killer Mumtaz Qadri was hailed as a hero by religious hardliners, and tens of thousands of supporters attended his funeral after he was executed last year.

If the committee makes any recommendations, it would be only the first step in a long process to bring about change in how the laws are enforced.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's office declined to comment on the Senate committee's moves.

His party's support would be needed for any measures to move forward, and while legislation protecting women's rights has been passed and Sharif has reached out to minorities, it is unclear if he would risk a backlash over blasphemy. [nL5N1F12H0]


Hundreds of Pakistanis are on death row for blasphemy convictions, and at least 65 people, including lawyers, defendants and judges, have been murdered over blasphemy allegations since 1990, according to figures from the Center for Research and Security Studies based in the capital Islamabad.

Pakistan's religious and political elites almost universally steer clear of speaking against blasphemy laws, but a small group of lawmakers has been looking for ways to reduce abuses.

Babar said the Human Rights Committee hit a "gold mine" when he discovered a 24-year-old Senate report that called for a more specific definition of blasphemy and said further debate was needed on whether expunging "imprisonment of life" from an earlier law had been correct.

"So we convinced other senators that here we have a chance, we have a starting point, we have this report in hand. Let's debate it and see how we can prevent abuse of this law," Babar said.

However, powerful religious conservatives who have millions of followers strongly support the laws.

Tahir Ashrafi, head of the influential Pakistan Ulema Council of Muslim clerics, said it would oppose any change.

"Make new laws to punish those who abuse blasphemy laws," Ashrafi told Reuters. "But no one can even think about changing this law."


Last week, Pakistani police arrested 150 hardline activists rallying in support of the blasphemy laws on the anniversary of the assassination of Taseer, the Punjab governor shot dead by his bodyguard for calling for reform.

Police have also resisted a demand by hardliners to register a blasphemy case against Shaan Taseer, the slain governor's son, over a Christmas message calling for prayers for those charged under the "inhumane" legislation.

"This government has shown a firmer stance than the government when my father was martyred," Shaan Taseer said.

But public opinion remains a major obstacle to reform. On the outskirts of Islamabad, thousands still visit the shrine of Mumtaz Qadri, executed last February for Taseer's murder.

The large shrine, with a glass roof and shiny marble floors, was built over his grave days after the burial.

Taxi driver Waheed Gul says he has come to the shrine every day since it was built:

"What better way to spend my days than to pray every day at the grave of someone who sent a blasphemer to hell?"

Pakistan - The disappearance of progressive activists has instilled fear in liberal circles

By Aik Hei
As if surveillance and privacy violations today weren’t getting terrifying enough, we have entered another cycle of attacks on the liberal community and human rights activists with the start of 2017, in the form of ‘disappearances’ of as many as nine vocal human rights activists.
Four activists have been confirmed missing in the past one week. Aasim Saeed and Ahmad Waqass Goraya disappeared on January 4, followed by Salman Haider on the 6th, and Ahmad Raza Naseer on the 7th. Samar Abbas also disappeared on January 11. Both Saeed and Goraya have been very vocal about their leftist and secular views, and their campaigning for Baloch rights. Salman Haider, a gender studies professor and vocal human rights activist, is known for his poetry and activism against religious fanaticism and violence, including the plight of people and activists from marginalised communities. Samar Abbas is an outspoken human rights activist and the President of the Civil Progressive Alliance Pakistan. The few things common among all five activists, it seems, are their progressive and secular opinions, their views on Balochistan, and criticism of the state. Despite a flurry in the Parliament regarding the disappearances, the Interior Minister’s direction regarding recovering Salman Haider was considered highly insufficient and unsatisfactory, and resulted in a walkout by all of opposition.
With the disappearance of these activists, several liberal and secular Facebook pages and Twitter profiles have also disappeared. Pages like Bhensa, Roshni and Bol Platoon were taken down, their Twitter presence erased, in the same timeframe as the disappearances. With the disappearances of these pages, new ones with the exact same names and sometimes same display pictures sprung up, sometimes posting either celebratory content on the deletion of these pages and disappearance of activists.
Following the disappearances, protests were organized by human rights organisations, friends and students of Salman Haider outside the Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore press clubs on Tuesday. This incident of disappearances has also garnered global coverage and BBC has reported hundreds of protests across the country. The Guardian has also reported how the disappearances have suddenly sparked fear of a possible, brutal crackdown on leftist and secular activists all over Pakistan. Today, the protestors themselves are being outed on ‘ultra-nationalist’ pages like Comics by Naazgul Baloch, immediately endangering their lives by relating them to the disappeared Facebook pages.
Right after the disappearances, pages like Pakistan Defence have caused further outrage by making blasphemy charges against the activists. Pakistan has an ugly history with draconian blasphemy laws and mob-lynching incidents, and these allegations have therefore been met with immense outrage by human rights organisations and activists. The post was deleted by the page following backlash. Human rights activist Jibran Nasir has asked for the arrests of admins of the page Pakistan Defence for inciting violence against the missing activists without any due proof of blasphemy against them.
The irony of Salman Haider’s poems and the injustice of missing persons is not lost, and his poetry is doing rounds on the social media once again. The incident has, however, instilled fear of safety in the liberal, leftist and human rights activism communities. In times when we are already campaigning for free and safe digital spaces for everyone, this fear for safety online will turn into self-censorship and cause a decline in the already demure critical voices we have over the internet. Digital spaces, like social media, provide a means for insemination of information, protests and awareness campaigns over the internet. We have gradually moved from sole sit-ins to social media movements for human rights causes.
However, this change has negative implications as well, since censorship has progressed from the relatively innocent Yahan syaasi guftogu mana hai (Political discourse is forbidden here) signs in public spaces, to actual draconian surveillance and policing of our digital spaces. Airing a view online can have as serious consequences as shouting them out in a public square. Despite efforts to protect digital spaces and keep them safe, we are seeing newer, more disturbing ways of censorship and ‘quietening’ people, since it combines digital discourse with old age methods of simply, and unconstitutionally, wiping people from the map without explanation or trial. In the presence of digital laws in Pakistan and the newfound PECA, we can only hope fair trials are provided to alleged miscreants to prove their crimes. This will not only help maintain digital spaces as safe, secure places for all kinds of debate and discussion, it will also raise public morale and provide them with an illusion of protection.