Prison Conditions Worsen for Women
WASHINGTON, DC — The female inmate population in US prisons doubled in the 1990s, growing far faster than the male population, according to a study by the General Accounting Office (GAO). The GAO also found that most female inmates are mothers, jailed for nonviolent crimes, and incarcerated at great distances from their children. They’re also more likely than men to suffer from HIV infection and mental illness.
"In placing women in carbon copies of male institutions, the US and the states are not [providing] some important gender-specific health and other services," concludes Eleanor Holmes Norton, the Democratic delegate from the District of Columbia who commissioned the study. "As a result, prison systems have failed to respond effectively to rates of HIV infection and mental illness among female inmates that are greater than among males, and have actually reduced drug treatment — even though nonviolent drug crimes are the major cause for female incarceration."
In response, Norton will introduce three bills, one of them requiring states to submit a plan on how they intend to provide gender-specific health and other services as a condition for receiving federal funding for construction of prisons for female inmates. The second bill would require the Bureau of Prisons to use existing construction funds to establish two pilot community-based facilities in DC for nonviolent, short-term, or pregnant offenders. A third bill would allow sentencing alternatives in the federal system, such as allowing first-time nonviolent offenders to serve sentences at community-based facilities.
The nation’s female inmate population rose from 5.7 percent of the US prison population in 1990 to 6.5 percent by 1998, according to the study. The result is greater overcrowding in federal prisons for women than for men. In state prisons, female incarceration for violent crimes has decreased from 49 percent in 1979 to 28 percent in 1997. For property crimes, the rate dropped from 37 to 27 percent. Instead, women are being imprisoned for drug crimes, often committed to feed their habits, and for less serious property crimes than men.
Last June, Norton released her first GAO-commissioned study on women in prison. That one concluded that sexual misconduct by correctional staff against female prisoners continues throughout the US system.
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Democracy Takes a Back Seat
HELSINKI — When Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov was elected for another five years in January, the turnout was 95 percent and he received 92 percent of the vote. But the result was hardly a triumph for democracy. His sole opponent, who announced that even he voted for the incumbent, was only on the ballot to make the vote look democratic.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) boycotted the election and refused to send a monitoring team. "We don’t think there is viable competition in any way, shape, or form," said Hrair Baylan, who heads the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Helsinki.
In neighboring Turkmenistan, another former Soviet Republic, the president no longer faces a challenge every five years. In December, the People’s Council altered the constitution to appoint him president for life. A month earlier, a pledge by Tajikistan’s president to hold a genuine multi-party contest ended with his re-election in a controversial vote.
In short, hopes that the former communists governing Central Asian republics would introduce democracy along with a market economy are fading fast. Their governments have repeatedly ignored OSCE recommendations about voting systems and practices to ensure free and fair contests.
Since independence, the region’s leaders have stressed stability and downplayed multi-party democracy, seeing the latter as a luxury to be enjoyed only after stability and prosperity is achieved. Although some progress was made in the 1990s, the collapse of commodity prices and the Russian ruble in 1998 hit hard, deepening poverty and stoking discontent. The result across much of Central Asia is a ritual of elections without much substance.
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PORT LOUIS — Mauritius will soon be "wired" to mainland Africa, thanks to a $600 million undersea link that promises to end the days of crackly phone lines and usher in new economic opportunities. Due to be completed sometime in 2001, the South Africa-Far East undersea cable (SAFE) should end dependence on unreliable satellite and microwave links. Once connected with the West African Submarine Cable (WASC) running from South Africa to Portugal, this will mean high-speed, reliable telecommunications for many developing nations, including Angola, Benin, Cameroon, Gabon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and Senegal.
Except for the Ivory Coast, these countries have less than 1.5 phone lines per 100 people. Mauritius, which ranks well above other African nations as a tourist destination, already has 21.4 phone lines per 100. But signals have limited coverage and can be disrupted by bad weather.
Forty telecom firms are paying for more than 90 percent of the project. A US company will build the system, which will transmit information 1000 times faster than satellites and boost electronic commerce. According to Sailesh Sewpaul, Internet officer at the State Bank of Mauritius, the new cable system will facilitate access to e-mail and website development. "It will also make it easier and cheaper for social services to be provided across the continment through applications such as tele-medicine and distance education," he explained.
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UNCTAD Enters Trade Battle
BANGKOK — Using the collapse of world trade talks in Seattle to give his organization a new lease on life, Rubens Ricupero argues that the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) can provide "a more relaxed and congenial atmosphere for debate." Like the World Trade Organization (WTO), it discusses the role of investment and transnational corporations, the need for adequate competition, and the future of development and world trade. In fact, Ricupero called the group’s recent meeting in Bangkok "a world parliament on globalization."
Stll, these are big claims for a body that was fighting for its life when Ricupero became secretary-general four years ago. Set up in 1964 as the main UN agency promoting international trade and development, UNCTAD has preached against pushing developing countries into premature economic liberalization without mechanisms to avoid instability and speculative capital flows. Free trade advocates, especially the US, have been hostile, especially when UNCTAD called for careful control of transnationals and spoke up for the developing world.
When Ricupero took over, Washington questioned the need for such UN bodies. Cutting staff and programs, he softened UNCTAD’s critical voice, instead helping countries integrate into international trade. But even his diplomatic skills aren’t likely to reverse the emerging polarization between the haves and have-nots.
Western governments certainly haven’t given up on their unfinished Seattle agenda for the WTO. Meanwhile, developing nations are banding together on issues like development finance, debt relief, and reform of the international financial system. They also view the West’s insistence on including labor and environmental standards in negotiations as an attempt to restrict imports from poor countries.
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Sex Slavery Comes to Kosovo
PRISTINA — According to the London Times, young women kidnapped from Moldova, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, and other poor Eastern European countries are being forced by Albanian gangsters to prostitute themselves to foreign soldiers and businessmen in seedy nightclubs springing up around Kosovo. The International Organization of Migration (IOM) estimates that thousands of girls are now prisoners in the European sex trade.
In early February, Italian police rescued 12 women — some as young as 16 — from Nightclub International, near the headquarters of Russian forces outside Pristina. The women claimed they were smuggled from their homelands and sold several times to different owners. At the nightclub, they provided sexual favors to Russian and US troops for about $48.
International agencies trying to assist the women are overwhelmed. IOM staff members were threatened after the Italians confiscated the 12 girls; the Mafia-style gangs view the women as their "property." These sex merchants pay from $1597 to $2237 for each girl, retaining half the cash from every trick and another 10 percent for room and board. The hookers can supposedly buy back their freedom, but actually end up with little or no money after expenses.
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Black Threads in British Tapestry
LONDON — Blacks have been in Britain for nearly 1800 years. But you won’t read about it in any British textbooks. "British history is like a tapestry with all the black threads pulled out," says Middlesex University professor Lola Young, part of a project to establish the National Museum and Archives of Black History and Culture. "What this project tries to do is re-insert those threads into the tapestry so we get a more multi-layered sense of British history."
The project’s goal is a museum that demonstrates the impact of Blacks on the country’s past and present. At the moment, the focus is on conserving and cataloguing 20,000 documents and 5000 artifacts crammed into a former bank building in Brixton, a London area with a large Black community.
According to project coordinator Sam Walker, the failure to acknowledge positive Black contributions has created a bias in school curricula, and supported both racist notions and fallacious misrepresentations. The project aims to influence the school syllabus and college courses. "It’s controversial," admits Walker. "You’re sometimes challenging the mainstream."
The archives will be split into four sections: 1960 to the present, early 20th century, Atlantic slave trade, and Blacks in Europe from 208 to the 1890s. In 208 CE, Roman Emperor Septimus Severus stationed a garrison that included African recruits during his campaign against the Picts. But Blacks may have arrived in what is now London as early as 50 CE.
The museum will also establish links with related organizations in Africa, the Caribbean, and the US. "If we think of ourselves as part of a diaspora," says Young, "then this is about getting that whole picture."
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EU Pressured on Pollution Treaty
AMSTERDAM — The US is secretly urging the European Union (EU) to drop its current commitment to eliminate some of the world’s most toxic chemicals, according to a letter leaked from the US State Department. The debate centers on US attempts to block EU support for developing countries hoping to eliminate synthetic chemical by-products of industrial processes that are known human carcinogens.
At the March negotiations of the global persistent organic pollutants (POPs) treaty, the US wants the EU to do no more than reduce toxic emissions. "This letter exposes a cynical attempt by the US to bully other countries into allowing toxic emissions to continue," says Wytze van der Naald, a toxic campaigner for Greenpeace, which released the communiqué. "The US is fast becoming the major obstacle to international solutions."
Contrary to US assertions, many developing countries want to follow the EU commitments. They’re calling for elimination not only of pesticide POPs, but also pollutants such as dioxins, which are produced unintentionally as by-products. "The EU must refuse to be manipulated, and continue to forge ahead and phase out toxic pollution as they committed themselves to under European agreements," urges van der Naald.
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Timor Repression Leads to the Top
DILI — Secret military documents implicate Indonesia’s top generals in a campaign of repression intended to prevent East Timor from gaining independence. In one document, dated the same day Indonesia’s foreign minister signed a UN agreement guaranteeing an independence referendum, the army’s chief of staff told forces based in Dili to prepare "policing measures, repressive/coercive measures," and a plan for "evacuation" if the vote went for independence.
Workers at the East Timorese Hak Foundation found the letters after sneaking into the army’s abandoned regional headquarters in Dili, East Timor’s capital. In January, an independent inquiry reported that the army was guilty of human rights abuses in the territory. The new documents constitute the "missing link" connecting the military to repression and coercion. According to one Western diplomat, they show "a clear chain of command from close to the very top."
"What surprises me is the sheer quantity," the diplomat said. "We knew that the militia were getting military weapons, but we never knew it was this many." Instructions for forced "evacuation," if the East Timorese approved independence, were detailed in a police plan drawn up just before the August 31 referendum. Police were told that if the independence vote passed, they’d have to "evacuate" 50 percent of the autonomy supporters.
After the overwhelming pro-independence vote, local militias and the army forcibly moved 250,000 East Timorese out of the territory. A statement from the EU presidency said, "The international community, working through the United Nations, is responsible for ensuring these violations are investigated and those who perpetuated them judged."
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Pagan Presence Tests Tolerence
CAPETOWN — Neo-Pagans, Hindus, Native American and African Traditionalists, and Buddhists were among over 7000 participants at the most recent Parliament of the World’s Religions (PWR), held in South Africa last December. Notable participants included the Dalai Lama.
But multi-faith inclusion drew heavy criticism from fundamentalist Muslims and Christians, who called it "demonic." Specifically objecting to the presence of Pagans, the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town felt that the congress would be more effective if it was more exclusive.
The complaints continued even after the event was over. "The fear is that one gets a bunch of weirdoes using the Parliament of Religions to get publicity," asserted Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris. "I would prefer it to be more mainstream." He was particularly disturbed by an interaction with some pantheists who reputedly told him, on the night of the Full Moon, that they were going to dance around it.
Harris also called for the exclusion of Sangomas (traditional African healers). "He has still got apartheid," commented Philip Kubukeli, president of the Western Cape Traditional Healers and Herbalists Association. Chiding the rabbi, Council of African Traditional Religion Chairman Nokuzola Mndende said, "If South Africans are true to their liberation they must learn to be tolerant."