U.N. Helpless as Saudi Flogging Flouts Torture Convention

Raif Badawi.

Raif Badawi.

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Jan 15 2015 (IPS)

Flogging a dead horse, as the old idiom goes, is far removed from flogging a live Saudi blogger.

But the latest cruel punishment meted out by the rigidly conservative and authoritarian regime in Saudi Arabia has triggered widespread condemnation.“His flogging and 10-year sentence are testament to the extreme lengths to which the Saudi Arabian authorities will go in order to crush dissent.” — Sevag Kechichian of Amnesty International

The strongest criticism came Thursday from the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, a former permanent representative of Jordan to the United Nations, who said: “Flogging is, in my view, at the very least, a form of cruel and inhuman punishment.

“Such punishment,” he said, “is prohibited under international human rights law, in particular the Convention against Torture, which Saudi Arabia has ratified.”

The Saudi decision makes a mockery of the international convention, as do other violations, including torture of terrorist suspects by U.S. intelligence agencies.

But the United Nations remains helpless and is unable to hold these countries accountable for violations or punish them for infractions because member states reign supreme in the world body – except when penalised by the Security Council.

The Saudi punishment was meted out to Raif Badawi, who was publicly flogged 50 times last Friday and is reportedly due to be flogged every Friday, the holy Sabbath for Muslims, until his sentence of 1,000 lashes has been fully carried out.

Sevag Kechichian, Amnesty International’s (AI) Saudi Arabia researcher on the case, told IPS, “Raif Badawi is a prisoner of conscience, and he was simply trying to uphold his right to freedom of expression and he is being punished for it in a horrifying manner.

“His flogging and 10-year sentence are testament to the extreme lengths to which the Saudi Arabian authorities will go in order to crush dissent.”

Instead of announcing a second round of brutal floggings, the Saudi Arabian authorities must heed the international outcry over his case and order his immediate and unconditional release, he added.

Amnesty also noted that Saudi Arabia had condemned last week’s attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris as ‘cowardly’.

“The next day, they flogged Raif Badawi for exercising his right to free expression. We need to expose this hypocrisy. We need to embarrass them into action, now.”

Adam Coogle, Middle East Researcher at Human Rights Watch, told IPS the statement by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) correctly labels the flogging punishment as torture and calls on Saudi Arabia to abolish the practice.

“We welcome OHCHR’s press statement but call on him [Zeid] and the United Nations to continue to monitor and publicly criticise Saudi Arabia when they impose harsh and draconian punishments on peaceful activists and dissidents,” he added.

In what was described as an “unusual diplomatic rebuke,” the United States last week lashed out at Saudi Arabia, one of its closest allies in the Middle East, and urged the government to rescind its sentencing and review the case.

The United States strongly opposes laws, including apostasy laws, that restrict the exercise of freedom of expression and religion, and urges all countries to uphold these rights in practice, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki, told reporters.

Javier El-Hage, general counsel of the Human Rights Foundation (HRF), told IPS the government of Saudi Arabia is making a mockery of that country’s obligations under the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

He said “the U.N. Committee against Torture should call on Saudi Arabia’s government to immediately cease flogging Mr. Badawi, as that type of punishment constitutes a clear violation of Saudi Arabia’s obligations under the Convention against Torture.”

According to Article 20 of this Convention, he said, the U.N. Committee Against Torture has the power to carry out “ex officio investigations if it receives reliable information that appears to contain well-founded indications that torture is being systematically practiced in the territory of a State Party.”

While they don’t have the coercive power to force Saudi Arabia to stop the flogging, as is the case with most international law obligations, the committee can certainly report on the topic, condemn Saudi Arabia and issue recommendations, he noted.

In a statement released Thursday, Zeid appealed to the King of Saudi Arabia to exercise his power to halt the public flogging by pardoning Badawi, and also to urgently review this type of extraordinarily harsh penalty.

Badawi, an online blogger and activist, was convicted for exercising his right to freedom of opinion and expression on a website he founded called Free Saudi Liberals. He was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment, 1,000 lashes and a fine of one million riyals (266,000 dollars).

Badawi’s case was just one of a succession of prosecutions of civil society activists, said the statement.

On Monday, an appeals court upheld the conviction of Badawi’s lawyer and brother-in-law Waleed Abu Al-Khair on charges that include offending the judiciary and founding an unlicensed organisation. Al-Khair’s sentence was extended from 10 to 15 years on appeal.

The U.N. Committee against Torture has repeatedly voiced concerns about states’ use of flogging and have called for its abolition.

Saudi Arabia’s report on its implementation of the Convention is up for review by the Committee against Torture next year.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

In the Shadow of Glacial Lakes, Pakistan’s Mountain Communities Look to Climate Adaptation

A boy grazes his cattle on farmland close to the site of a landslide in northern Pakistan’s Bagrot valley. Credit: Saleem Shaikh/IPS

A boy grazes his cattle on farmland close to the site of a landslide in northern Pakistan’s Bagrot valley. Credit: Saleem Shaikh/IPS

By Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio
BINDO GOL, Pakistan, Jan 15 2015 (IPS)

Khaliq-ul-Zaman, a farmer from the remote Bindo Gol valley in northern Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, has long lived under the shadow of disaster.

With plenty of fertile land and fresh water, this scenic mountain valley would be an ideal dwelling place – if not for the constant threat of the surrounding glacial lakes bursting their ridges and gushing down the hillside, leaving a trail of destruction behind.

“We can safely say that over 16,000 have been displaced due to [glacial lake outburst floods], and remain so even after several months.” — Khalil Ahmed, national programme manager of a climate mitigation project in northern Pakistan
There was a time when families like Zaman’s lived in these distant valleys undisturbed, but hotter temperatures and heavier rains, which experts say are the result of global warming, have turned areas like Bindo Gol into a soup of natural hazards.

Landslides, floods and soil erosion have become increasingly frequent, disrupting channels that carry fresh water from upstream springs into farmlands, and depriving communities of their only source of fresh water.

“Things were becoming very difficult for my family,” Zaman told IPS. “I began to think that farming was no longer viable, and was considering abandoning it and migrating to nearby Chitral [a town about 60 km away] in search of labour.”

He was not alone in his desperation. Azam Mir, an elderly wheat farmer from the Drongagh village in Bindo Gol, recalled a devastating landslide in 2008 that wiped out two of the most ancient water channels in the area, forcing scores of farmers to abandon agriculture and relocate to nearby villages.

“Those who could not migrate out of the village suffered from water-borne diseases and hunger,” he told IPS.

Now, thanks to a public-private sector climate adaptation partnership aimed at reducing the risk of disasters like glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs), residents of the northern valleys are gradually regaining their livelihoods and their hopes for a future in the mountains.

Bursting at the seams

According to the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD), there were some 2,400 potentially hazardous glacial lakes in the country’s remotest mountain valleys in 2010, a number that has now increased to over 3,000.

Chitral district alone is home to 549 glaciers, of which 132 have been declared ‘dangerous’.

Climatologists say that rising temperatures are threatening the delicate ecosystem here, and unless mitigation measures are taken immediately, the lives and livelihoods of millions will continue to be at risk.

One of the most successful initiatives underway is a four-year, 7.6-million-dollar project backed by the U.N. Adaptation Fund, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the government of Pakistan.

Signed into existence in 2010, its main focus, according to Field Manager Hamid Ahmed Mir, has been protection of lives, livelihoods, existing water channels and the construction of flood control infrastructure including check dams, erosion control structures and gabion walls.

Labourers construct flood-control gabion walls - structures constructed by filling large galvanized steel baskets with rock – in northern Pakistan’s remote Bindo Gol valley. Credit: Saleem Shaikh/IPS

Labourers construct flood-control gabion walls – structures constructed by filling large galvanized steel baskets with rock – in northern Pakistan’s remote Bindo Gol valley. Credit: Saleem Shaikh/IPS

The project has brought tremendous improvements to people here, helping to reduce damage to streams and allowing the sustained flow of water for drinking, sanitation and irrigation purposes in over 12 villages.

“We plan to extend such infrastructure in another 10 villages of the valley, where hundreds of households will benefit from the initiative,” Mir told IPS.

Further afield, in the Bagrot valley of Gilgit, a district in Gilgit-Baltistan province that borders KP, NGOs are rolling out similar programmes.

Zahid Hussain, field officer for the climate adaptation project in Bagrot, told IPS that 16,000 of the valley’s residents are vulnerable to GLOF and flash floods, while existing sanitation and irrigation infrastructure has suffered severe damage over the last years due to inclement weather.

Located some 800 km from Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, Bagrot is comprised of 10 scattered villages, whose population depends for almost all its needs on streams that bubble forth from the Karakoram Mountains, a sub-range of the Hindu Kush Himalayas and the world’s most heavily glaciated area outside of the Polar Regions.

Residents like Sajid Ali, also a farmer, are pinning all their hopes on infrastructure development that will preserve this vital resource, and protect his community against the onslaught of floods.

An even bigger concern, he told IPS, is the spread of water-borne diseases as floods and landslides leave behind large silt deposits upstream.

Preparing for the worst

Just as risk reduction structures are key to preventing humanitarian crises, so too is building community resilience and awareness among the local population, experts say.

So far, some two million people in the Bindo Gol and Bagrot valleys have benefitted from community mitigation schemes, not only from improved access to clean water, but also from monitoring stations, site maps and communications systems capable of alerting residents to a coming catastrophe.

Khalil Ahmed, national programme manager for the project, told IPS that early warning systems are now in place to inform communities well in advance of outbursts or flooding, giving families plenty of time to evacuate to safer grounds.

While little official data exists on the precise number of people affected by glacial lake outbursts, Ahmed says, “We can safely say that over 16,000 have been displaced, and remain so even after several months.”

Over the past 17 months alone, Pakistan has experienced seven glacial lake outbursts that not only displaced people, but also wiped out standing crops and ruined irrigation and water networks all throughout the north, according to Ghulam Rasul, a senior climatologist with the PMD in Islamabad.

The situation is only set to worsen, as temperatures rise in the mountainous areas of northern Pakistan and scientists predict more extreme weather in the coming decades, prompting an urgent need for greater preparedness at all levels of society.

Several community-based adaptation initiatives including the construction of over 15 ‘safe havens’ – temporary shelter areas – in the Bindo Gol and Bagrot valleys have already inspired confidence among the local population, while widespread vegetation plantation on the mountain slopes act as a further buffer against landslides and erosion.

Scientists and activists say that replicating similar schemes across the northern regions will prevent unnecessary loss of life and save the government millions of dollars in damages.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida