Afro-Colombian rights defender assassinated

The World Movement for Democracy joins the Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians (AFRODES) in condemning the assassination of human rights defender Miller Angulo Rivera.

According to the human rights organization Observatorio Pacifico y Territorio, Miller Angulo was shot by hired assassins on December 1, 2012 in the city of Tumaco in Nariño, Colombia. United Nations Radio reports that Miller Angulo received multiple threats from the Black Eagles paramilitary group and from the Anti-Restitution Group of Nariño.

Miller Angulo was a young leader who defended the rights of the Afro-Colombian population regarding forced displacement in Nariño province, according to his organization, AFRODES. He served as the Technical Secretary of the Municipal Board of Victims of Tumaco and was an active member of the Departmental Board of Victims of Nariño. Miller Angulo was just 33-years-old and leaves behind a wife and a young son and daughter.

AFRODES says that these threats and this assassination directed against its leaders and its regional organizations are part of a campaign to silence the voices speaking out in defense of human rights. Twelve leaders of AFRODES, including Miller Angulo, have been threatened by armed groups due to their work defending human, ethnic, and territorial rights.

The World Movement for Democracy called for a full investigation of Miller Angulo Rivera’s murder and for the Colombian government to guarantee protection for human rights.

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Magnitsky passes, Golos closes in mixed day for Russian rights

Democracy advocates and human rights groups today welcomed the US Senate’s vote to pass the Magnitsky Bill as a landmark in efforts to end impunity for perpetrators of human rights abuses.

The Senate also repealed a trade sanction imposed 38 years ago to force the Soviet Union to allow Jews and other religious minorities to emigrate, replacing it with a modern day punishment for human rights abuse that has enraged Russian officials,” The Washington Post reports:

The old law, one of the last vestiges of the Cold War, was called the Jackson-Vanik amendment, named after a U.S. senator and a representative. The new law, passed 92 to 4, grants Russia, and Moldova, permanent normal trade relations, but it is coupled with the Sergei Magnitsky (right) Rule of Law Accountability Act, which …. blacklists Russians connected to the death of Magnitsky in police custody, and to other gross human rights violations, prohibiting entrance to the United States and use of its banking system.

“Today we close a chapter in U.S. history,” said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, (D-Md.), one of the prime movers of the Magnitsky bill, said during the debate on Jackson-Vanik. “It served its purpose. Today we open a new chapter in U.S. leadership for human rights.”

The bill received robust bi-partisan support, passing by a vote of 92-4 in the Senate and 362-43 in the House, the culmination of a campaign to sanction Russian officials complicit in the killing of Magnitsky, a lawyer who revealed a $230 million case of fraud involving senior members of the security services, judiciary, and tax officials.

“The sanctions introduced in the bill add new arrows to our nation’s quiver of strategies to identify, isolate, and punish gross violators of human rights,” said Human Rights First’s Innokenty Grekov. “Senator Cardin and many others deserve recognition and praise for their leadership to adapt U.S. human rights policy toward Russia from the Cold War era to modern times. This bill should make clear to Russia that the United States is serious about the rampant problem of impunity for serious human rights violators.“

Human rights and civil society groups have been the target of a sustained and punitive Kremlin campaign designed to stifle dissent and close political space.

“Russia’s main independent voting watchdog has been forced to lay off nearly all its staff after the bulk of its funding dried up when the government ordered its main backer, the U.S. Agency for International Development, to cease operations in the country, the Wall Street Journal reports:

The poll-monitoring group, Golos—which means vote in Russian—played a key role in drawing attention to fraud allegations during parliamentary and presidential elections in the past year, which led to the largest protests the country had seen in nearly two decades. The group’s financing source had become a target of heavy criticism in state-run media following the elections.

The 12-year-old group’s leader, Liliya Shibanova [left], said it was currently impossible for Golos to continue, as its financing had almost entirely disappeared with USAID’s departure….. Shibanova said her group would continue looking for financing but was “categorically” against registering as a foreign agent.

“Our budget was based on cooperation with other organizations,” she said, noting that since 2009 Golos had received $2.8 million from the U.S. pro-democracy organization.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton today criticized Russia in remarks to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The Kremlin has tried to stifle or impede OSCE election-monitoring missions to Russia and former Soviet states.

“We have seen in Russia restrictions on civil society, including proposed legislation that would require many NGOs and journalists to register as foreign agents,” Clinton said.

The Kremlin expelled USAID in September, in a blow to the administration’s reset of US-Russian relations, claiming that the organization was interfering in domestic political affairs.

“The evaporation of foreign funding has left many Russian nongovernmental organizations hunting for financing and on the brink of closure,” the WSJ reports:

On Wednesday, one of Russia’s oldest human-rights organizations, the Moscow Helsinki Group, said it had received a one-million-ruble ($32,445) infusion of support from billionaire metals magnate Mikhail Prokhorov, which would allow the group to continue operating through May.

Golos and the Moscow Helsinki Group are supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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Tunisia’s exclusion bill aimed at Ennahda rivals?

Tunisia’s ruling Islamist party is proposing to exclude politicians associated with the former ruling party from the political process. The measure, says one analyst, “is being seen by some as a tactic to hinder an opposition front to Ennahda and ensure the Islamists’ dominance in the upcoming election.”

The Islamists are facing a challenge from newly resurgent secular parties and the powerful UGTT labor federation, Tunisia’s largest civil society group. The union has called a general strike, only the third to be made since the union emerged in the 1940s, to protest this week’s violent assault on a union demonstration by Ennahda supporters.

“We could be on the verge of, if not a collapse of the government, then a serious challenge to Ennahda’s leadership,” said William Lawrence, the North Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group.

A union leader told AFP the UGTT is calling for the dissolution of the League for the Protection of the Revolution, an organization “close to Ennahda that has developed a reputation for brutal violence,” which it holds responsible for Tuesday’s attack.

The League was accused of beating an opposition party official to death in October.

The headquarters of all national bodies should be “emptied of all tools of violence”, said Ennahda.  Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi condemned the violence, but appeared to endorse the League’s narrative by insisting that some leaders of UGTT wanted to overthrow the government.

In Tuesday’s attack, the Islamist assailants chanted, “UGTT, you are thieves, you want to destroy the country,” the BBC reports.

Ennahda’s fear of a more robust opposition in upcoming elections is the likely motive for its support of a proposed bill to exclude politicians once affiliated with the former ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally from political life for ten years, says Tunisian journalist Sana Ajmi.

“Whether or not a concern for the rise of former-regime sympathizers is founded, a bill based on political exclusion and score-settling does not bode well for Tunisia’s fragile political process,” Ajmi writes in Carnegie’s Sada journal of Arab reform.

“By pushing it forward, Ennahda is doing exactly what it claims to protect the revolution from: creating a one-party system and attempting to ensure an opposition vacuum—bringing the ruling party more in line with the RDC than it would perhaps like to admit.”

While analysts contend that Tunisia’s transition “cannot be based on exclusion,” the Islamists appear determined to undermine the emergence of Beji Caid Essebsi’s Nidaa Tunis party, Ajmia asserts:

The pragmatism of which Essebsi’s party boasts and its espousal of “modernist” values—coupled with Ennahda’s perceived failures to deal with pressing socio-economic issues—have all given Nidaa Tunis an edge and a chance to have a strong showing in the coming election. According to a recent poll conducted by the Tunisian poll office and 3C Etude, Ennahda and Nidaa Tunis rank fairly close in popularity. The party has also announced an initiative to merge with the ranks of other center-left parties….in anticipation of the 2013 parliamentary and presidential elections. Essebsi and his followers believe that the only way to counter Ennahda is through a united opposition front.

RTWT

The Islamist attack on the UGTT is symptomatic of a deeper conflict that recently came to a head in an interior province.

With the two at loggerheads, the threat of a nationwide general strike next week could plunge the economically struggling country back into chaos, endangering its government and its transition to democracy nearly two years after Tunisians ousted a dictator and kicked off the Arab Spring revolutions, AP reports:

In Siliana province, home to some 250,000 people, investment and employment dropped 40 and 60 percent respectively in 2012…. But Siliana’s local governor, a member of Ennahda, refused to meet with the unions to discuss the problem, leading to calls for a general strike.

The response was swift and harsh. Police attacked the demonstrators, while Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali described the entire affair as a plot by the opposition and remnants of the old regime, enraging the protesters further. The crowds grew to more than 10,000 people, many of whom engaged in running street battles with police before the army finally arrived. Five days and more than 300 injured later — police and protesters alike — the governor was suspended and the strike was called off.

“I expect that what happened in Siliana is going to happen in many other places in the future if this government doesn’t try to solve its problems,” said Messaoudi Romdhani, a member of the labor union that first called the strike on Nov. 27 in Siliana. “There is a total absence of communication between this government and civil society.”

Lawrence, the Crisis Group analyst, believes the crisis “is going to get worse before it gets better.”

Ennahda has not proven “economically very adept,” he said. “There has been some creation of public jobs, public works, and some improvements in governance, and some stipends and other social aid. But nothing on the scale of the problem nationwide.”

Lawrence said many of the protesters had probably voted for Ennahda but now consider it responsible for Siliana’s problems and the police actions.

“They want dignified jobs, and they want to be able to protest in a dignified way without getting shot in the eye with birdshot, which is why they were lining up with Molotov cocktails for the next round,” he said. For many, the police brutality was reminiscent of the days of Ben Ali.

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As Russia wavers, ‘cornered’ Assad regime ‘could fall soon’

External actors could play a decisive role in bringing Syria’s 20-month-old uprising to an end, says a prominent analyst, amid growing signs that the Assad regime is losing ground diplomatically and militarily.

The duration of the conflict “depends to an extent on what the external actors in this drama now do,” says David Gardner, a Beirut-based analyst:

“The regime is cornered,” judges one top Arab security official. Even officials in Russia, Syria’s most important international ally, have started murmuring that they see no way out for President Assad.

“But there is little sign of intermediate measures – between embracing the [new opposition] National Council [left] and threatening an assault on loyalist forces – that could hasten the implosion of a regime that is offering tantalising glimpses of decomposition,” Gardner suggests.

In a potential sign that Russia’s support of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may be softening, Moscow’s top diplomat will meet jointly Thursday with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the U.N. envoy for Syria, a senior State Department official said. Russia has been the main international defender of the Assad regime, a military and trade partner, and the chief obstacle to tougher U.N. action to pressure Assad to end a 20-month civil war.

“I think that the Russians at the moment are realizing that they are going to have to deal with a new Syria,” says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It’s going to be hard to deal with a new Syria when they are harboring, or possibly harboring the former president.”

Russia’s apparent equivocation is the latest sign that the endgame may be approaching, say observers.

“It is bloody and long,” a French official said. “But my feeling is there has been an acceleration of dynamics in the last few weeks, an erosion of the regime while the morale of the activists is higher and higher. I believe it is now possible the regime will fall soon. Whether that is weeks or months, I don’t know.”

The growth of extremist factions within the rebel ranks has increased the urgency of developing a political alternative to match opposition military gains, according to the French official and others, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing diplomatic talks.

“This is a real concern for the United States, for France and for the Syrians themselves,” the French official said. “The quicker the fall of the regime and the stronger the political alternative, the more you empower it .?.?. the more likely that Syrians themselves will be able to resist radicalization.”

The jihadist groups’ increasingly visible role has alienated potential opposition allies from within Syria’s minorities, say analysts.

“The Syrian opposition, in which Sunnis in general and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular dominate, has not done enough to convince the Alawites, and other minorities such as the Christians, the Druze and the Kurds, that their future is assured in a plural Syria without the Assads,” says the FT ‘s Gardner:

Part of the reason Syria’s minorities are fearful is that they see Islamist forces gaining influence in rebel ranks. While western powers hold back, Qatar is arming and financing the Muslim Brotherhood, while the Saudis are aiding more radical jihadist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, the spearhead behind several recent rebel gains.

The strength of radical takfiri groups linked to al-Qaida is “growing in intensity,” says Washington Institute analyst Tabler, who recently returned from the Syrian border region.

“And the reason why these groups became more prominent and why actually the opposition’s worried about it is that they received the weapons when Syrians were in their hour of need from Saudi Arabia and from other donors in the region,” says Tabler, author of the book In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria:

The problem is, is that the Assad regime was in systemic failure, so the regime’s weapons fell into the wrong people’s hands anyway. If we had intervened earlier, we would’ve had a hope of saving the state and securing those weapons. Frankly, in parts of Syria, we’re going to be dealing with people we’ve never dealt with before. …It’s going to be like Libya but with more people, more affects, more different kinds of problems than we’ve ever seen right smack in the middle of a very strategically important part of the world. So I don’t really see how the United States doesn’t get involved there.

But some opposition activists dismiss fears of radical jihadists groups exercising disproportionate influence at the expense of relatively moderate democratic factions.

“Many groups labeled by the administration as al Qaeda are actually not,” said Radwan Ziadeh, the executive director of the Washington-based Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “What is the reason the U.S. administration is considering it [Nusra] al Qaeda? All of our focus is on getting rid of the Assad mafia. We welcome anyone in the fight against Assad.”

Engaging Russia could be a vital factor in facilitating a transition, observers contend.

“You need everybody who is part of the problem to be dragged into the solution,” observes one European foreign minister. “Otherwise they’ll be spoilers.”

Thursday’s meeting comes ahead of a gathering of the Western-backed Friends of Syria group in Morocco next week, The Washington Post reports, at which the United States is expected to recognize a reorganized Syrian political opposition as the legitimate successor to Assad.

The US should recognize and support the newly-formed National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, says Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma:

The United States has spent the last 21 months insisting on unity in what turns out to be a very fragmented Syrian opposition. This group is as good as it is going to get. It is filled with elite Syrians, who are educated, relatively pro-American, not too anti-Israel and not too Islamist — many of whom have gone to jail for their beliefs. The problem is that events on the ground in Syria have largely overtaken this effort at statecraft. ….They tend to look at the coalition as a foreign concoction, selected by unknown hands, and representing only itself.

“The Syrians fighting in the militias come from a very different background than those placed at the head of the coalition… Salafism is the ideology of the day, taking root with growing speed,” says Landis, who writes Syria Comment, a daily newsletter on Syrian politics.

The National Coalition might be more legitimate than its predecessor, the Syrian National Council, “but its rank and file are dominated by the same tired figures,” says Ammar Abdulhamid, an exiled Syrian dissident living in Washington, D.C. “Worse, the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence on the group’s decisions is even more pronounced, as the Brotherhood has reportedly gained more power within the coalition, far in excess of its actual support on the ground.”

The question before us is .. how the U.S. can recognize what is essentially an Islamist opposition that refuses to provide any real guarantees on the future of the country, even as it lobbies for the provision of arms and international support.

There is more to acquiring recognition than providing a new facade. The U.S. should recognize the coalition only after it provides credible guarantees that it will match majority rule with minority rights, and address the concerns of the secular components of the opposition and the Syrian society at large.

“The leaders of the opposition must realize that, in order to successfully lead a nation through the difficult transition ahead, they will have to represent the concerns and aspirations of all Syrians, irrespective of where they fall now on the political spectrum,” argues Abdulhamid, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who writes the Syrian Revolution Digest blog.

But US support is too little, too late, says Syrian writer Rime Allaf.

“If the U.S. were counting on eventually playing a leading role at this late stage, it should have factored in Syrians’ current reactions,” she argues. “Whether by design or by mistake, the Obama administration has diminished any influence over Syrians it once had.”

By failing to intervene, the US is “betraying yet again what America claims to stand for,” said Anne-Marie Slaughter, the U.S. State Department’s former head of policy planning. She called for “decisive action to save tens of thousands of Syrian lives and possibly tip the balance of the conflict.”

But the administration’s reluctance to arm Syria’s opposition was informed by its experience in Libya, where Western arms found their way into the hands of extremist elements, The New York Times reveals:

The Qatari assistance to fighters viewed as hostile by the United States demonstrates the Obama administration’s continuing struggles in dealing with the Arab Spring uprisings, as it tries to support popular protest movements while avoiding  American military entanglements. Relying on surrogates allows the United States to keep its fingerprints off operations, but also means they may play out in ways that conflict with American interests. 

“To do this right, you have to have on-the-ground intelligence and you have to have experience,” said Vali Nasr, a former State Department adviser who is now dean of Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, part of Johns Hopkins University. “If you rely on a country that doesn’t have those things, you are really flying blind. When you have an intermediary, you are going to lose control.”

Washington’s recognition of the new coalition does not imply military assistance, but does entail “bolstering the political stature of the new coalition.,” writes Ed Husain,  a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations:

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