Global Notebook 8/00

Indigenous Promised a Stronger Voice 

NEW YORK — In less than a year, a new UN Forum on Indigenous Issues will begin providing a platform for the world’s indigenous peoples to air grievances on both old and pressing problems. Representing over 300 million people in more than 70 countries, the Forum will have 16 members, all appointed by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

According to the UN Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Populations, the Forum will enable such groups to "convey their positions on a broader spectrum of issues than is presently possible under the auspices of the Human Rights Commission." The issues to be addressed include human rights, social and sustainable development, health, the environment, education, culture, children, and gender. Currently, no UN body deals with indigenous issues in a comprehensive way.

"Many changes, environmental and otherwise, in Inuit territories on the Canadian Arctic reflect decisions made thousands of kilometers away," notes Violet Ford, a representative from Labrador who attended an April Human Rights Commission session on the Forum. Governments must be held accountable for harmful paternalism and manipulation, she charges. Hopefully, the Forum can help indigenous groups to pursue common goals and limit the power of commercial interests.

In recent years, globalization, structural adjustment, and trade liberalization have created new problems, including appropriation of indigenous resources and a decline of small-scale farming. Private corporations expropriate indigenous knowledge and public research through intellectual property rights, turning natural resources such as seeds and water into private property. Development often occurs without local consent, consultation, or benefit.

Third World Network’s Chee Yoke Ling argues that governments and business should honor farmers and traditional knowledge by backing programs that involve indigenous communities from beginning to end.
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Peace Begins with a Glass of Water

AMMAN — Despite continuing negotiations, a growing water crisis in the Middle East could threaten the peace process and plunge the region into renewed conflict. Some underground supplies are already tapped out, and an increasing number of people, especially in Palestinian areas, have little access to clean, safe water.

One major scheme that could help involves building a pipeline from Turkey. But that $38 billion project, suggested by Jordan, depends on regional support, which could be affected by peace talks between Israel, Syria, and the Palestinians.

According to Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who heads Green Cross International, the regional consensus is that "unless we solve the problem of freshwater resources in the next 10 to 15 years, we could see a conflict that could be worse than all the conflicts we have seen in this region."

Both Israel and Palestinians leaders list guaranteed supplies of water among their key conditions for a permanent settlement. "The question of Palestinian water rights has to get resolved," argues Aaron Wolfe, a Middle East water expert. "The situation in Gaza is critical."

So far, Israel and Jordan have managed to tap water-bearing rock strata, boost irrigation efficiency, and harness technology. But shortages are expected to worsen, and some aquifers are beyond repair. As pressure builds for closer cooperation, Israeli advisor Jean Frydman points out, "there is no national solution – there is a Middle East solution." Palestinian expert Ayman Rabi agrees, predicting that "peace will start from a glass of water that someone can save in one country to satisfy the thirst of someone else in a neighboring country."
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Alliance Targets Olympic Injustice 

SYDNEY — When the 2000 Olympics opens on September 15, at least 50,000 police and security officers, along with US and Israeli intelligence forces, will be on hand to maintain order. According to critics, the effect will be to turn Sydney into an "Olympic Police State."

In response, the Anti-Olympic Alliance, including students and progressive groups such as Rentwatchers, the Indigenous Student Network, and Justice Action, will stage an opening day demonstration in support of indigenous rights and social justice. According to the Alliance, the Olympics will result in the forced relocation of the Redfern Koori Community. Indigenous Australians are the most socially and economically disadvantaged group. Indigenous adults die 20 years younger than other Australians, and the mortality rate for indigenous children is three times that of non-indigenous children.

The group also objects to funding priorities. The government has spent over $2 billion on the Olympics, while cutting funds for hospitals, education, child care, and social welfare. Sydney has 30,000 homeless and a nine-year waiting list for public housing.

The Alliance hopes to highlight a variety of social justice issues, including violations of civil liberties and the right to protest. For more information, send email to
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Nuke Lab Fire Sparks Radiation Cover Up

LOS ALAMOS — Right after 30 percent of the land at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) burned in May during New Mexico’s largest fire, the Department of Energy (DOE) classified all information about airborne particulate. Although the fire swept areas contaminated with PCBs, dioxins, and radioactive isotopes, DOE steadfastly denied that the poisons had spread through the air.

"The fire torched three canyons on the tip of LANL where liberal supplies of radioactive waste were dumped during the Manhattan Project," admits Lee McAtee, deputy division director of safety and health at the lab. The lab has disposed of hazardous wastes at 24 on-site dumps, 16 of which pose moderate to high risks of long-term groundwater contamination. Technical Area 16, known as Acid Canyon, is clearly dangerous, due to dumping during the 1940s and 50s. Soil erosion in contaminated areas is another major concern. If radioactive soil erodes, the Rio Grande may become the dumping ground.

After the fire, residents reported radiation levels two to 10 times high than normal. DOE’s response? Increased levels are normal when vegetation burns. But a Russian nuclear and atmospheric scientist who analyzed the data on LANL’s Internet site says that elevated radiation counts can’t be dismissed as naturally occurring effects of the fire.
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Radiation Sponges

TOKYO — As unemployment grows in Japan, the nuclear industry is creating new jobs for nuclear "sponges." Among them are hundreds of homeless people hired as janitors at the country’s nuclear reactors, reports Earth Island Journal. Lured by high wages, about 5000 part-time workers have signed on.

Supervision is minimal. For example, employees complain that they’ve been told to keep working even after their radiation detectors start beeping. Some travel from reactor to reactor, piling up more exposure. No compensation is provided for those who become ill, yet many are afraid to complain because the recruiters are linked to criminal mobs.

As in the US, no cumulative tab is kept for radiation doses received from one reactor job to the next. That’s why such workers are called "sponges."
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Social Rights Top French EU Agenda 

BRUSSELS — As France began its six-month presidency of the European Union (EU) in July, French President Jacques Chirac predicted a significant shift in direction, outlining plans to promote social rights and balance the British-backed drive toward deregulation and economic reform. Chirac said he’s "attached to the European social model, based on social dialogue" and the role of the state as "protector of social cohesion."

Addressing the European Parliament, Chirac also signaled a battle with Britain over the EU’s new charter of fundamental rights. British Prime Minister Tony Blair wants the charter to avoid the social sphere and include only a non-binding compilation of existing rights.

Although most officials downplay France’s ability to force change, Chirac promised an "ambitious" social agenda, including a program to create jobs and improve working conditions. Recently, he also called for a "pioneer group" of states to champion European integration. "The aim is not to perpetuate divisions between Europeans," he said. "It is to bring greater flexibility into the workings of the enlarged Union, allowing those who so wish to move faster down our common path."

European Parliament president Nicole Fontaine senses a "great malaise" in Britain over Europe in the face of a relentless Euro-skeptic press. "England is still an island," she told Le Figaro newspaper. "Most political and economic leaders would like to make progress on Europe, especially on the euro, but they have to deal with a public opinion that is increasingly negative and ‘beaten up’ by the media."
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Hail to the Favorite Sons 

DAMASCUS — For years, Syria’s government has been a family business for the Assad clan. And although "national stability" was the public rationale, preservation of privilege was clearly a factor when Hafez al Assad began grooming his son, Bashar, to take over. Violating the principles of his political party before he died with an embrace of hereditary power, Assad also humiliated the senior ministers who were bypassed.

Unfortunately, conversion to the merits of monarchy isn’t confined to Syria. In Iraq, Uday Hussein is already eyeing the top job, while other Arab presidents prepare their sons for power. The list includes:

  • Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Salih, whose son Ahmed is an army colonel and member of parliament
  • Muammar Gaddafi, whose elder son Seif ed-Din is a businessman with strong links to the Libyan oil industry
  • Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who never appointed a vice-president after coming to power in 1981. His younger son Kamal was recently appointed to the secretariat of the ruling National Democratic Party.

Of the 21 Arab states, eight are formally hereditary systems – Saudi Arabia, Oman, Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. If Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Egypt join Syria, more than half the Arab countries will be ruled by dynasties.

Palestinians even have jokes about the situation. "No matter how unattractive our leader may be," one goes, "at least he has no son to inflict upon us." But if the US presidential election this year goes Republican, the darkest jokes may be yet to come.
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Charity Tries to Disarm Tubman 

BALTIMORE — Concerned about sending the wrong message, an influential black charity group recently rejected a mural of Harriet Tubman intended to decorate its downtown Baltimore building. Planned to stand 25 feet tall, the mural would have shown the Underground Railroad leader carrying a musket.

Clayworks, a local nonprofit, chose artist Mike Alewitz to portray Tubman in five works as part of a Mid-Atlantic Arts Council project on social justice themes. The musket stirred an outcry about historical truth vs. contemporary reality. Some suggested that showing Tubman with a musket as she symbolically leads slaves to freedom condoned gun violence. The image was called inappropriate in a city with at least 300 homicides a year.

Tubman did carry a gun for protection. Yet, according to Donna Stanley, director of Associated Black Charities, a musket "is not historically correct. She carried a pistol, not a rifle. It’s his (Alewitz) vision, but it’s our wall." Urged to substitute a staff for the musket, Alewitz refused, saying, "I will not disarm Harriet Tubman. There was nothing safe about her."

Tubman made 11 trips from Maryland to Canada from 1852 to 1857, leading about 300 to freedom. According to historians, she once confronted a panicked passenger who wanted to turn back. Afraid he would talk if captured, Tubman pointed a gun at his head and reportedly said, "Dead folks tell no tales." The passenger changed his mind.