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UN and partners get relief convoy into besieged town of Madaya

Tue, 2016-01-12 10:15

A humanitarian convoy has finally reached the besieged Syrian town of Madaya with life-saving health and food supplies from the United Nations and its partners for the 42,000 desperate residents after reports of people starving to death under encirclement by pro-Government forces.

A humanitarian convoy has finally reached the besieged Syrian town of Madaya with life-saving health and food supplies from the United Nations and its partners for the 42,000 desperate residents after reports of people starving to death under encirclement by pro-Government forces.

"Crowds of hungry kids around", Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representative Sajjad Malik sa via text message yesterday evening  (11 January) from the isolated town as the first four trucks of the 49-truck convoy unloaded in the dark to help relieve a situation that UN officials last week called “horrendous…ghastly,” noting that deliberate starvation of civilians amounts to war crimes.

"It's heartbreaking to see so many hungry people. It's cold and raining but there is excitement because we are here with some food and blankets," he added of the town, where the UN has received credible reports of people dying from starvation and being killed or injured while trying to leave the area, which last received UN humanitarian aid in October.

The UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Syria, Yacoub El Hillo, said  it had taken long and patient negotiations with many parties to facilitate the convoy.

At the same time, trucks  left Damascus for Kafraya and Foah, two towns under siege by opposition forces near the Turkish border in northwest Syria, where 20,000 people are also in desperate need, cut off from humanitarian and commercial access since October, as the war between the Government and a whole spectrum of rebel forces nears the start of its sixth year.

The inter-agency convoy to Madaya brought life-saving items, including health, nutrition and food supplies, blankets, shelter materials, and soap for the people. The non-government group Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has said 23 people starved to death in the town in December, six of them children.

Additional convoys to the same locations will take place over the coming days, carrying UNHCR aid including blankets, winter clothes, jerry cans, household items and diapers.

Partner agencies are providing food and medicine through the convoys organised by the UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

Mr Hillo noted that while there is much focus on Madaya, where the situation requires an immediate response, the UN and its humanitarian partners are equally concerned about the 4.5 million people living in besieged and hard-to-reach areas across Syria, including nearly 400,000 in 15 besieged locations without access to the aid that they desperately need.

In the past year, only 10 per cent of all requests to access these areas were approved and delivered.

“We continue to call on all parties to the conflict to facilitate sustained and unimpeded access to all people in besieged and hard-to-reach areas in Syria,” Mr Hillo emphasised.

On the political front, UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, who is preparing the ground for political talks beginning in Geneva on 25 January in an effort to end the fighting, concluded a new round of regional consultations on Sunday, meeting in Tehran with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his deputy.

He updated them on preparations for the talks, and as did when he visited Saudi Arabia last week, obtained assurances that current tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia would not affect the engagement of their government in supporting the Geneva talks.

On Saturday, Staffan de Mistura also had what was described as a useful meeting in Damascus with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem, and will now report back to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and seek his guidance ahead of the Geneva talks.

* United Nations http://www.un.org/en/index.html

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Guantánamo anniversary 'reminder of need for UK torture inquiry'

Tue, 2016-01-12 09:59

On the 14th anniversary (11 January) of the first detainees being taken to the now notorious US military detention centre at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, Amnesty International repeated its call for the camp’s closure.

On the 14th anniversary (11 January) of the first detainees being taken to the now notorious US military detention centre at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, Amnesty International repeated its call for the camp’s closure, saying that the allegations of mistreatment of British nationals and residents at Guantánamo should be investigated as part of a wider independent, judge-led inquiry into the UK’s involvement in torture.

Last week two Yemeni detainees - Mahmud Umar Muhammad bin Atef and Khalid Muhammad Salih al-Dhuby – and a Kuwaiti detainee, Fayez al-Kandari – were transferred out of Guantánamo, bringing the number of remaining detainees at the detention centre down to 104.

Forty-five of those still held – many for over a decade – have been cleared for transfer yet remain behind bars.

When US President Barack Obama came to power seven years ago (January 2009), he signed an executive order for Guantánamo’s closure within a year. Recently the Obama administration has hinted at a plan to close the camp by moving some detainees into the United States for continued indefinite detention.

Amnesty International USA’s Security and Human Rights Director Naureen Shah said: “President Obama’s proposal to relocate some detainees for indefinite detention in the US would merely change Guantánamo’s zip code. It would also set a dangerous precedent that could be exploited by future administrations. President Obama must end, not relocate, indefinite detention without charge.

“The population at Guantánamo can be substantially reduced by transferring the dozens of detainees who have already been approved for transfer. Detainees who cannot be transferred should be charged in federal court or released and investigations should be expanded into reports of torture and other human rights violations suffered by detainees.”

After his release from Guantánamo last October, the UK resident Shaker Aamer alleged that he had been tortured in secret US detention in Afghanistan in early 2002 prior to his rendition to Cuba. As well as US officials, Aamer believes that MI5 officers were present at interrogations during which his head was “repeatedly banged so hard against a wall that it bounced”. Aamer has also alleged that he has been tortured and otherwise ill-treated at Guantánamo. According to his lawyers, he was the subject of hundreds of violent “Forcible Cell Extractions” at the camp, where a team of guards in riot gear forcibly remove a detainee from their cell.

Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen said: “Shaker Aamer’s chilling allegation that he was tortured in the presence of British agents in Afghanistan should be fully investigated as part of an independent, judge-led inquiry into a whole set of allegations that UK officials were involved in kidnap, detention and torture overseas during the ‘war on terror’.

“Shockingly, Mr Aamer was held for the vast majority of the 14 full years of Guantánamo’s disgraceful existence. Getting to the bottom of what happened to him is part of understanding what has happened at this notorious place.”

* Read Amnesty’s campaign for a UK torture inquiry  here.

*  Read the briefing on the Obama government's failure to close down the detention centre here.

* Amnesty International https://www.amnesty.org.uk/

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UK police ‘training Saudi forces’ despite rise in executions

Mon, 2016-01-11 08:29

A Freedom of Information response from the UK College of Policing has revealed that British police have trained hundreds of Saudi officers in the last four years.

British police have trained hundreds of Saudi officers in the last four years, a BBC investigation has found.

A Freedom of Information response from the UK College of Policing has revealed that, since the body’s founding in 2012, some 270 officers have been brought from Saudi Arabia to the UK for 'specialist training', under a £2.7 million deal that also saw 26 British police officers deployed to Saudi Arabia to train police.

The news comes amid serious concerns over a rise in executions and other human rights abuses by Saudi forces, including the use of torture to extract ‘confessions.’ The human rights organisation Reprieve has established that in the past year, while the training was being provided, the number of people executed by the Saudi authorities rose sharply – from some 88 in 2014 to at least 158 last year. Over the  weekend 0f 2-3 January, the Saudi authorities staged a mass execution of 47 prisoners, at least four of whom were convicted for their involvement in political protests.

Reprieve’s research has also shown that the vast majority (72 per cent) of those currently on death row in Saudi Arabia were convicted of non-lethal crimes, such as political protests. Among those awaiting execution are three juveniles – Ali al-Nimr, Dawoud al-Marhoon and Abdullah al-Zaher – who were arrested at 2012 protests, and tortured into ‘confessions’ that were used to convict them in secretive trials.

Reprieve has previously raised concerns over the government’s Overseas Security and Justice Assistance policy, which does not require ministers to reveal the details of assistance to foreign security forces. Ministers are currently refusing to publish existing agreements between the Saudi government and the Home Office, and the Ministry of Justice. (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22567)

The College of Policing admitted that its training was part of a deal to provide services “in the MENA region”, and noted that it carries out a formal human rights risk assessment “for countries where Human Rights compliance is of concern.” However, it did not confirm whether such an assessment had been undertaken in this case, or whether it had been signed off by a minister.

Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has faced criticism over the UK’s close relationship with Saudi Arabia. Asked by the BBC’s Today programme for his view on Saturday’s executions, he claimed that the 47 executed were "convicted terrorists". In fact, they included at least four people who were arrested in the wake of political protests, and tried in highly secretive conditions.

Maya Foa, head of the death penalty team at Reprieve, said: “The Home Office has serious questions to answer over the relationship between British police and Saudi forces, who are responsible for serious human rights abuses such as torture. Given that the Saudis are executing record numbers of people – including political protestors who were tortured and convicted in secret courts, some when they were just teenagers – the government’s refusal to reveal details of its cooperation with the Saudis is totally unacceptable. The Home Secretary must explain urgently why she is risking UK complicity with these terrible abuses.”

* Reprieve http://www.reprieve.org.uk/

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WCC leaders express concern over situation on Korean peninsula

Mon, 2016-01-11 08:14

Following the recent nuclear test conducted by North Korea, the World Council of Churches (WCC) is calling on all parties involved in the current situation on the Korean peninsula to invest in initiatives to reduce tensions and  for peaceful co-existence on the Korean peninsula.

Following the recent nuclear test conducted by North Korea, the World Council of Churches (WCC) is calling on all parties involved in the current situation on the Korean peninsula – especially South Korea, North Korea, the USA, Japan and China – to “invest in initiatives to reduce tensions, to promote dialogue and to encourage negotiations for an end to the suspended state of war, and for peaceful co-existence on the Korean peninsula, rather than measures that increase the risk of catastrophic conflict“, according to WCC General Secretary, the  Rev Dr Olav Fykse Tveit.

“As a global fellowship of churches committed to a pilgrimage of justice and peace, we seek hope-inspiring alternatives to the deadly cycle of provocation and military confrontation,” he said.

For more than 30 years the World Council of Churches (WCC) has been engaged in opening doors for encounter and dialogue between North and South Koreans, and in promoting international ecumenical accompaniment of this relationship. The WCC’s 10th Assembly – held in Busan, Republic of Korea, in 2013 – affirmed that “It is our prayer that the vision and dream of all Koreans, their common aspiration for healing, reconciliation, peace and reunification may be fulfilled.” But, as described by Peter Prove, director of the WCC’s Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA), “more than 70 years after the division of the peninsula, Korean people continue to be separated by the most highly militarised confrontation in the world. The vision and dream of peace is threatened by any and all measures that heighten rather than reduce tensions in this dangerous situation.”

WCC General Secretary Tveit observed, “The WCC also has a long history of principled opposition to nuclear arms, and supports the recent ‘humanitarian initiative’ towards a global legal ban on such unconscionable weapons of mass destruction.”

In the context of the Korean peninsula, the threat of nuclear conflict jeopardises the lives and future not only of the people of the peninsula but of the wider region and the globe.

“Therefore”, Tveit emphasised, “the WCC condemns initiatives to scale up the destructive potential of nuclear weapons on or in the vicinity of the Korean peninsula”, noting that WCC governing bodies have repeatedly called for a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, for the complete, verifiable and irreversible elimination of all nuclear weapons in North East Asia, and for a global humanitarian ban on nuclear weapons.

“We note with dismay and great concern”, added CCIA director Prove, “that current or envisaged responses to the recent nuclear test by North Korea do not lead in the direction of de-escalation and dialogue. Such troubling responses include today’s resumption of loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts by South Korea, the possible strengthening of economic sanctions, and increased international military presence (including nuclear-armed forces) in the region.”

Tveit stressed that “provocation does not offer a path to peace. In this situation, dialogue is more important and more urgently required than ever. I invite all churches and all people of good will to pray with and for the people of both Koreas, and to redouble our efforts for peace and reconciliation on the Korean peninsula and throughout the world.”

* The World Council of Churches promotes Christian unity in faith, witness and service for a just and peaceful world. An ecumenical fellowship of churches founded in 1948, by the end of 2012 the WCC had 345 member churches representing more than 500 million Christians from Protestant, Orthodox, Anglican and other traditions in over 110 countries. The WCC works cooperatively with the Roman Catholic Church.

* World Council of Churches http://www.oikoumene.org/en

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Senior Anglicans urge repentance on treatment of gay Christians

Sun, 2016-01-10 21:02

Over 100 Senior Anglicans, including the Dean of St Paul’s, have signed an open letter to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York calling on the Church of England to repent of its ‘second class citizen’ treatment of Christians over issues of sexuality.

Over 100 Senior Anglicans, including the Dean of St Paul’s, have signed an open letter to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York calling on the Church of England to repent of its ‘second class citizen’ treatment of Christians over issues of sexuality.

The letter, signed by a range of senior church figures including Cathedral Deans, retired bishops and well-known lay figures (including leading parliamentary figures and university academics), has been sent to the Archbishops ahead of a pivotal meeting of worldwide Anglican Leaders which begins in Canterbury on Monday 11 January.

In the letter, the 105 signatories call on the Church to acknowledge its failure to care for LGBTI members of the Body of Christ around the world, and to repent of its acceptance and promotion of discrimination – especially its failure to challenge harmful beliefs about sexuality. It goes on to ask the Primates to act in Christ-like love "towards those who have been ignored and vilified for too long".

The signatories include eight retired bishops and a serving bishop, the Rt Rev Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham. Another prominent signatory is the Dean of St Paul’s, the Very Rev David Ison, who says that in all the debate, the personal cost has often been forgotten:

“I believe that it's imperative for us to remember that whilst we seek to engage honestly, lovingly and respectfully with our differences of context and scriptural interpretation, our discussions are actually about the lives of sisters and brothers who have often been rejected and victimised on the grounds of their sexuality. The Church should be the first place that they feel they can come to, to find love and acceptance rather than judgement.”

The signatories include both clergy and lay people. Prominent gay Christian, Vicky Beeching, who came out in 2014 and faced significant discrimination from Christians across the world, urges the Church to think of its younger members: "Social and religious attitudes are shifting among young people. Many cannot morally align themselves with a Church that perpetuates LGBT discrimination. If we want to ensure the future life of our Church this issue needs urgent attention and great pastoral sensitivity. To see the Church repent of damaging attitudes would help many young people feel a reconnection with it."

The letter, which goes on to assure the Archbishops of prayers for the Canterbury meeting, has been coordinated by Jayne Ozanne, a member of General Synod, who is keen to stress that support has come from a broad range of individuals across the church.
"The signatories come from across the full breadth of the Anglican traditions, and from right across the country. From the Dean of Truro to the Dean of Carlisle, and from the MP for Exeter to the Master of Trinity Hall at Cambridge University and the Dean of Christ Church at Oxford University. It is so encouraging to see so many senior Anglicans now standing alongside their LGBTI brothers and sisters, recognising their woeful treatment by the Church to date."

She added that the church had no excuse for its failure to care: "In 1998 the worldwide Anglican Church committed itself to minister pastorally and sensitively to all, irrespective of sexual orientation and to condemn irrational fear of homosexuals. Despite this commitment the plight of many LGBTI Christians around the world has got worse. The consequence is that we are now increasingly perceived as irredeemably 'anti-gay' by an increasing number of people who simply don’t understand why the church continues to discriminate, nor why it is allowed to do so. Until we repent of our treatment of our LGBTI brothers and sisters, attempts by those within the worldwide Church to conduct meaningful 'conversations' will risk appearing hollow and insincere”.

The letter and its signatories can be viewed here

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* 'Sexuality, Struggle & Saintliness: Same Sex Love & the Church' by Savitri Hensman was published by Ekklesia in December 2015 and is available from the following online publishers: The Book Depository AbeBooks,   and Waterstones Price £12.99

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TUC calls for disabiilty equality in new manifesto

Sat, 2016-01-09 18:03

With nearly half of disabled people not in work, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) has published its manifesto to promote equality for disabled people and challenge discrimination against them.

With nearly half of disabled people not in work, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) has published its manifesto to promote equality for disabled people and challenge discrimination against them.

The Labour Force Survey reveals that just 48 per cent of disabled people are currently in employment compared to 79 per cent of non-disabled people. This employment gap has persistently been more than 30 per cent since 2008. And for some disabled people it is particularly hard to get a job – just one in five (20 per cent) of those with learning difficulties, fewer than one in four (22 per cent) with mental illness or phobias, and only one in three (33 per cent) of those who suffer from depression or anxiety are in work.

The TUC’s manifesto finds that progress in reducing the employment gap between disabled and non-disabled people has ground to a halt. It also highlights reluctance from some employers to make ‘reasonable adjustments’, as well as the government’s failure to extend effective schemes such as Access to Work, as being part of the problem.

For some disabled people the barriers to getting work begin as soon as they leave the house, as public transport is ill-equipped to help physically disabled people get into work, says the TUC. In London just 25 per cent (67 out of 270) of underground stations are step-free.

The manifesto calls for a variety of actions to promote disability equality both in the workplace and in wider society, including:

·    - Proper interpretation of the reasonable adjustment duty

·     - More employment rights and decent pay and conditions for carers

·    - A British Sign Language Act

·    - Improving legal recognition of disability hate crime

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Far from being a friend of disabled workers, this government has shown its true colours by a series of measures that have hit them in the home, in the workplace and in education. Unions are working hard to win decent pay, opportunities to training and promotion at work for disabled people.

“Disabled people deserve a fair deal at work and the chance to participate and progress in all areas of life. We need to change the approach to disability and remove the barriers that prevent disabled people participating, rather than focus on what an individual cannot do.”

Ellen Clifford from Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) said: “DPAC welcomes the launch of the TUC disability equality manifesto. With the UK having now become the first state in the world to be investigated for grave and systematic violations of disabled people’s rights, it is definitely time to get disability equality firmly back on the political agenda.”

Director of the Alliance for Inclusive Education Tara Flood said: “An inclusive education is a prerequisite of a fair and equal society so it is good to see it at the heart of the TUC’s manifesto for disability equality.”

* Read the TUC's disability manifesto here

* TUC https://www.tuc.org.uk/

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Moving people off disability benefits is not the same as getting them into work

Sat, 2016-01-09 13:37
Moving people off disability benefits is not the same as getting them into work

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The BBC and political balance

Fri, 2016-01-08 17:04
The BBC and political balance

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Saudi leadership defends execution of protestors

Fri, 2016-01-08 09:45

Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince has used his first major interview since taking office to defend the country’s recent mass execution, claiming that human rights are ‘important’ to his government.

Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince has used his first major interview since taking office to defend the country’s recent mass execution, claiming that human rights are ‘important’ to his government.

Speaking to the Economist, Mohammed bin Salman – the son of King Salman, and the country’s Defence Minister – sought to justify the execution on Saturday of 47 prisoners, saying they were “sentenced in a court of law.” Those killed included Sheikh Nimr, a prominent critic of the government, and three young political protestors – all four of whom were sentenced to death, on charges that included shouting slogans and organising protests.

Prince Mohammed also claimed, incorrectly, that those executed had had fair trials, saying they “had the right to hire an attorney and they had attorneys present throughout each layer of the proceedings.” He went on to say that “the court doors were also open for any media people and journalists, and all the proceedings and the judicial texts were made public.”

In fact, the protestors’ trials in the secretive Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) took place in largely closed hearings, says the international human tights organisation Repreive. Lawyers barred from attending hearings and from meeting their clients to take proper instructions, while police investigations were kept secret. The court also relied heavily on ‘confessions’ extracted under torture, in breach of international and Saudi law.  Reprieve – which is assisting three juveniles who were sentenced to death in the SCC after attending protests – has repeatedly raised concerns about these trial conditions.

Prince Mohammed also said that Saudi Arabia would “always take criticism from our friends. If we are wrong, we need to hear that we are wrong.” He added that: “We have our values […] It is important to us to have our freedom of expression; it is important to us to have human rights.” He also claimed that “any regime that did not represent its people collapsed in the Arab Spring”– the period that saw widespread protests, and arrests of protestors, in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province.

Research by Reprieve in 2015 found that, of those facing execution in Saudi Arabia, the vast majority (72 per cent) were convicted of non-lethal offences such as political protest or drug-related crimes, while torture and forced ‘confessions’ were frequently reported. Reprieve has also established that the Saudi authorities executed at least 158 people in 2015 – a marked increase on the previous year.

Among those currently facing execution in Saudi Arabia are the three juveniles, Ali al-Nimr, Dawoud al-Marhoon and Abdullah al-Zaher, all of whom were sentenced to death in the SCC for attending protests, after being tortured into signing statements.

 Maya Foa, head of the death penalty team at Reprieve, said: “Mohammed bin Salman says he wants to hear when the Saudi government is wrong. Well, it’s safe to say that he is dead wrong on this occasion. Contrary to his claims, we know that Sheikh Nimr and three protestors killed on Saturday – as well as the three juveniles now awaiting execution – had catastrophically unfair trials, where the authorities relied on torture and forced ‘confessions’. The defence lawyers were excluded from attending hearings, or even meeting their clients. If the Saudi government wants to endear itself to the international community, it could start by halting its plans to execute juveniles and others who dare to express dissent.”

* Mohammed bin Salman's interview with the Economist is available in full here.

* Reprieve http://www.reprieve.org.uk/

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Christian Aid welcomes councils' action on company tax records

Fri, 2016-01-08 09:28

A growing number of UK councils are taking companies’ tax records into account when deciding how to award contracts worth tens of billions of pounds, in a trend welcomed by Christian Aid

A growing number of UK councils are taking companies’ tax records into account when deciding how to award contracts worth tens of billions of pounds, in a trend welcomed by Christian Aid.

In December, members of Oxford City Council voted unanimously to investigate whether and how the council can include rigorous questions about companies’ tax practices in council procurement procedures.

Detailed tax compliance questions have already been adopted by Belfast and Lisburn and Castlereagh city councils in Northern Ireland, as well as by the University of Oxford.

This month, Christian Aid launches its Sourced campaign to encourage other councils in England and Northern Ireland to follow suit.

Local authorities in England alone spend around £45 billion a year on buying goods and services from third parties.  
“We hope to see more and more councils deciding that when awarding contacts, they will take companies’ tax records into account and discriminate in favour of those which have been socially responsible,” said Helen Collinson, Senior Public Advocacy Adviser at Christian Aid.

“Councils spend tens of billions of pounds on goods and services. This is taxpayers’ money, so it is only right that councils choose to work with firms which pay their fair share of tax.”

The law already requires local authorities to ask potential suppliers whether they have been found guilty of tax evasion. Christian Aid wants local authorities to go further and also ask companies whether they have been found to have improperly avoided tax, in the UK or other countries.

Ms Collinson added: “Christian Aid is pleased to see a growing number of UK councils demanding that companies seeking contracts must reveal whether they have been in trouble about tax, anywhere in the world. We hope to see many more do so in 2016.

“That’s because companies’ tax decisions have a major impact on people’s lives, both in the UK and even more so in developing countries. When they use accounting tricks to pay less tax, there is less funding for public services at local and national level, including for schools and health services.”

Jean Fooks, councillor for Summertown Ward in Oxford, proposed the motion that was passed by the City Council. She said: “I am delighted that the motion was supported unanimously by the City Council. At a time when councils are struggling with ever deeper cuts to our budgets, it makes sense that we use our spending power to favour companies that pay their taxes. After all, it is companies’ and individuals’ tax payments that ultimately fund council budgets. I hope that councils across the UK will agree.”

* Regulations made in 2014 require central government departments to ask would-be bidders detailed questions about tax  but these are optional for local authorities. Christian Aid’s new Sourced campaign aims to persuade many more local authorities to choose to apply the 2014 regulations. The 2014 regulations say that companies seeking central government contracts worth £5 million or more must reveal whether they have been found guilty of tax evasion and whether their tax returns have been found to be `incorrect’ by tax authorities in the UK or other countries, including developing countries. Companies are banned from bidding for national government contracts if they have committed certain tax crimes and they can be banned for lesser wrongdoing, at the discretion of the body awarding the contract. Further regulations in 2015 require companies bidding for local council contracts to reveal if they have been found guilty of tax evasion - but not avoidance.

More about the Sourced campaign here

* Christian Aid http://www.christianaid.org.uk/index.aspx

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Ekklesia launches 'Sexuality, Struggle and Saintliness: Same Sex Love and the Church'.

Thu, 2016-01-07 16:56

On Tuesday 5th January, Ekklesia was delighted to launch its first book - 'Sexuality, Struggle and Saintliness: Same Sex Love and the Church' by our associate Savitri Hensman.

On Tuesday 5th January, Ekklesia was delighted to launch its first book - 'Sexuality, Struggle and Saintliness: Same Sex Love and the Church' by our associate Savitri Hensman.

The launch took place at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church where the Ekklesia office is based.  This felt entirely appropriate, as Bloomsbury has recently been registered to perform same sex marriages, and had the first ceremony booked for December 2015.

Ekklesia's Chief Operating Officer, Virginia Moffatt, welcomed the crowd reflecting how  timely Savitri's book is. How it demonstrates the changing thinking of Christians and theologians on the subject, experiences from people in churches, Biblical thinking and creative ways forward. 

Savi  read from three different chapters. The first was from 'Relationships reconsidered: the early-mid twentieth century'.  This covered the pioneering work of the theologian Pavel Florensky in 1914 and Christian novelist Radclyffe Hall in 1928, as well as highlighting the fact that 'the church' is primarily a movement or community of people, some of whom have played an important part in changing social attitudes to sexuality.  

Her second segment  came from 'Better understanding of international church conflicts over sexuality', and examined the colonial era, widespread criminalisation of 'sodomy' and internalisation of Victorian codes of sexual conduct throughout much of the world, though Christanity could also inspire struggles for justice and freedom.

The third was from 'Coping with difference and moving forward', mentioning that consensus would not be quickly achieved, the value of looking at how intimate relationships tie in with broader concerns and the joys and challenges of living with diversity.

There were many thoughtful questions from the appreciative audience and we all appreciated the intelligent and creative responses Savi gave to these.

 'Sexuality, Struggle and Saintliness: Same Sex Love and the Church'  has been produced  by print on demand. It is available from the following online publishers: The Book Depository AbeBooks,   and Waterstones Price £12.99. Ebooks are available Price £3.99 by contacting the office office@ekklesia.co.uk. We are currently developing a word version for those with visual impairments.

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UN condemns North Korea nuclear test

Thu, 2016-01-07 08:49

The United Nations thas deplored the underground nuclear test announced by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon calling it “deeply troubling” and the UN Security Council vowing to immediately begin considering the “significant measures” it had vowed to take in the event of another nuclear test by the country.

The United Nations at all levels thas deplored the underground nuclear test announced by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon calling it “deeply troubling” and the UN Security Council vowing to immediately begin considering the “significant measures” it had vowed to take in the event of another nuclear test by the country.

Calling the announced incident “a grave contravention of the international norm against nuclear testing,” Mr Ban, addressing reporters at UN Headquarters, added: “This act is profoundly destabilising for regional security and seriously undermines international non-proliferation efforts. I condemn it unequivocally.”

The UN chief went on to demand that the DPRK cease any further nuclear activities and meet its obligations for verifiable denuclearisation.

“We are monitoring and assessing developments in close coordination with the concerned international organisations – including the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO) – and interested parties”, concluded the Secretary-General.

The Vienna-based CTBTO, which will be officially established when the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty enters into force, oversees the International Monitoring System (IMS), which, when complete, consist of 337 facilities worldwide to monitor the planet for signs of nuclear explosions.

Immediately following urgent closed-door talks yesterday (6 January), members of the Security Council strongly condemned this test, which the deemed a clear violation of resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), and 2094 (2013), and of the non-proliferation regime.

In a statement to the press, the Council’s 15 members also recalled that they have previously expressed determination to take "further significant measures" in the event of another DPRK nuclear test, and in line with this commitment and the gravity of this violation, they said the Council will begin to work immediately on such measures in a new resolution.

Following the announcement today by the DPRK, the head of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said that if the nuclear test is confirmed, it is in clear violation of UN Security Council resolutions and is “deeply regrettable.”

“I strongly urge the DPRK to implement fully all relevant resolutions of the UN Security Council and the IAEA,” said Director General Yukiya Amano in a statement.

He added that the IAEA remains ready to contribute to the peaceful resolution of the DPRK nuclear issue “by resuming its nuclear verification activities in the DPRK once a political agreement is reached among countries concerned.”

Meanwhile, the CTBTO has said that its monitoring stations picked up “an unusual seismic event” in the DPRK on 6 January at 01:30:00 (UTC), and that its initial location estimate shows that the event took place in the area of the DPRK's nuclear test site. If confirmed this will be the fourth nuclear test carried out by the country since 2006. CTBTO experts are “analysing the event to establish more about its nature.”

“If confirmed as a nuclear test, this act constitutes a breach of the universally accepted norm against nuclear testing; a norm that has been respected by 183 countries since 1996,” said the Executive Secretary of the CBTO, Lassina Zerbo, in a statement.

“It is also a grave threat to international peace and security,” he continued. “I urge the DPRK to refrain from further nuclear testing and to join the 183 States Signatories who have signed the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.”

"It’s about time that we be more proactive rather than being reactive to what the North Koreans are doing," Mr. Zerbo underscored in an interview with UN Radio.

The President of the General Assembly said he was “dismayed and disappointed” by the news of an underground nuclear test by the DPRK. “Nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction threaten the existence of humankind and must be eliminated,” said Mogens Lykketoft.

“The Democratic People's Republic of Korea should abandon its nuclear weapon and missile programmes in a verifiable and irreversible manner, cease all related activities and comply with all its international obligations, including the UN Security Council and IAEA board of governors resolutions as well as other international disarmament and non-proliferation norms”, he added.

He further called on the country to pursue its objectives by “choosing dialogue over demonstrations of power that present a serious threat to global peace and security.”

* United Nations http://www.un.org/en/index.html

[Ekk/4]

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Poll shows majority approve electronic voting for strike ballots

Thu, 2016-01-07 08:30

The majority of the British people say that the use of electronic balloting to vote for industrial action is appropriate, according to a poll commissioned from YouGov and published by the TUC yesterday, ahead of the second reading of the Trade Union Bill in the House of Lords next week.

The majority of the British people say that the use of electronic balloting to vote for industrial action is appropriate, according to a poll commissioned from YouGov and published by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) yesterday (6 January) ahead of the second reading of the Trade Union Bill in the House of Lords next week.

More than one in two (53 per cent) people say voting for strike action electronically through a secure, dedicated website is appropriate, with only one in five (20 per cent) saying it is inappropriate for unions to be able to do this.

An almost identical split think that electronic balloting should be used when voting for political party leadership elections, with 53 per cent in favour and 22 per cent against.

However, while political parties can use online voting for their own elections, the government refuses to let unions ballot for industrial action in this way. Instead unions must send a postal ballot to every member at their home address, and members can only vote by completing their ballot and posting it back. This process is expensive, time-consuming and does little to boost participation, says the TUC.

The TUC believes allowing union members to use smart phones and computers to engage in voting would raise turnouts and give more workers a clear say.

Many organisations currently use secure online voting. Zac Goldsmith – the Conservative candidate for London Mayor – was selected in this manner, and blue chip companies use online voting to let shareholders vote in corporate ballots.

Not only do more than half of the British public (and 47 per cent of current Conservative voters) think that electronic voting is appropriate for industrial action ballots, more than one in four (29 per cent) actually think that it is already legal for unions to be using electronic balloting to vote for strikes.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “If the government really cared about raising democratic participation then it would allow unions to use the same modern voting methods the Conservative Party uses, and give working people the right to vote securely and secretly online, and in the workplace. What’s sauce for the goose is surely sauce for the gander.

“The Electoral Reform Society confirms that electronic voting is just as safe as postal balloting, and it is used by a number of employers and organisations. This includes political parties – as we have seen in the recent selection ballot for the Conservative candidate for Mayor of London.

“But let’s be clear, the government’s Trade Union Bill is not about improving industrial relations. Ministers simply want to undermine the basic right to strike and make it harder for working people to get fair treatment at work. The government should be engaging positively with workers and their representatives, not making their lives harder.”

* TUC https://www.tuc.org.uk/

[Ekk/4]

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Sex and Sensibility

Wed, 2016-01-06 17:12
Date February 23, 2016

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A failure of political journalism?

Wed, 2016-01-06 11:32
A failure of political journalism?

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UN reports over 8100 Civilian casualties in Yemen

Wed, 2016-01-06 09:53

Civilians are suffering a “terrible toll” in the fighting which is tearing Yemen apart, with casualties now topping 8,100, with nearly 2,800 fatalities, amid Saudi-led coalition airstrikes, shelling by Houthi groups and other clashes, the United Nations reported yesterday.

Civilians are suffering a “terrible toll” in the fighting which is tearing Yemen apart, with casualties now topping 8,100, with nearly 2,800 fatalities, amid Saudi-led coalition airstrikes, shelling by Houthi groups and other clashes, the United Nations reported yesterday (5 January).

“Airstrikes have continued into the New Year, with around 11 strikes taking place in the capital Sana’a on Sunday and Monday (3 and 4 January), and further airstrikes are reported to have been carried out in the early hours of this morning,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) spokesperson Rupert Colville told the regular news briefing in Geneva.

He put civilian casualties recorded between 26 March and 31 December, 2015 at 8,119 people, 2,795 fatalities and 5,324 wounded, noting that at least 62 civilians were reported killed by airstrikes attributed to coalition forces in December, more than twice the number of November.

“We have also received alarming information on the alleged use of cluster bombs by coalition forces in Hajjah Governorate”, he added, reporting that an OHCHR team found remnants of 29 cluster submunitions near banana plantations in Al-Odair village in Haradh District.

“According to witnesses, several other villages in the same area have also been affected. Our team also documented the use of cluster submunitions in several other districts, including Hairan and Bakel Al-Meer, and interviewed two patients who had reportedly been wounded, in separate incidents, after stepping on unexploded submunitions.”

During December, at least 11 civilians were allegedly killed by shelling attributed to members of the Popular Committees affiliated with the Houthis, a significant decrease compared to 32 reportedly killed by them in November, Mr Colville said.

The UN has been trying to broker an end to the fighting but these efforts have been stymied by violations of the ceasefire required to get the process under way. In December, UN Special Envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed adjourned peace talks until mid-January to allow for bi-lateral in-country and regional consultations to achieve a ceasefire.

Mr Colville voiced particular concern at the situation in the central city of Taiz, scene of virtually uninterrupted violent clashes for more than eight months, where strict control of all entry points by Houthi-affiliated Popular Committees has limited access to essential items, including food, and made conditions extremely difficult for the civilian population.

The health situation in Taiz governorate has also continued to deteriorate, with Al-Rawdha Hospital, one of the largest still operating, forced to turn patients away.

The prison system has been heavily impacted, he added, with over 40 prisoners reportedly killed and 10 others injured by airstrikes or indiscriminate shelling. More than 4,300 prisoners have reportedly escaped from facilities across the country, including those in Sa’ada, Al Dhale’e and Aden, after they were hit by airstrikes or breached in armed clashes.

Prisoners are increasingly vulnerable. Food, electricity, water and fuel shortages have been reported in many detention facilities as well as the spread of contagious diseases, such as scabies. Many detention facilities are also severely overcrowded.

As most courts are no longer functioning, there have been delays in the review of detainees’ cases and in some cases, in their release. Many detainees have been unable to receive visits from their lawyers and relatives.

* United Nations http://www.un.org/en/index.html

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Foreign Office minister refuses to condemn Saudi executions

Wed, 2016-01-06 09:39

A UK Government minister was repeatedly asked yesterday by Members of Parliament to condemn the execution of protesters last weekend in Saudi Arabia, and to publish secret agreements signed between the UK and Saudi governments, but refused to do either.

A UK Government minister was yesterday (5 January) repeatedly asked by Members of Parliament to condemn the execution of protesters last weekend in Saudi Arabia, and to publish secret agreements signed between the UK and Saudi governments, but refused to do either.

Foreign Office (FCO) minister Tobias Ellwood was taking questions from MPs on British relations with the Kingdom in the wake of last weekend’s mass execution of 47 people, including at least four sentenced to death over their involvement in protests calling for reform in 2012.

Hilary Benn, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, and Liberal Democrat  Leader Tim Farron both asked Mr Ellwood whether the Government would publish Memorandums of Understanding between the UK’s Home Office  and Ministry of Justice and their Saudi counterparts, concerning cooperation in their respective areas.  However, Mr Ellwood failed to answer to either of their questions.

While Mr Ellwood expressed “concern” over the executions, he also refused requests from several MPs – including Mr Farron and the Greens’ Caroline Lucas – to condemn them.

MPs – including the Conservatives’ Mike Wood and the SNP’s Margaret Ferrier – raised specific concerns over the cases of three juveniles sentenced to death as children over their involvement in protests: Ali al Nimr, Dawoud al Marhoon, and Abdullah al Zaher – who continue to be at risk of execution at any time.  Mr Ellwood responded that the UK had raised their cases with the Saudi authorities and did not expect them to be executed.

Maya Foa, Director of the death penalty team at the international human rights organisation Reprieve, said: “The UK Government’s continuing secrecy over its dealings with Saudi Arabia is unacceptable.  If the Home Office or Ministry of Justice are using public resources to support a state which is carrying out appalling human rights abuses, the British public deserves to know.  It is also disturbing that the Government is continuing to refuse to condemn the execution by the Saudi Government of protesters calling for political reform.  The Minister claims that ‘foghorn diplomacy’ doesn’t work, but given the bloodbath last weekend it is hard to see how the UK’s softly-softly approach is doing any good.”

* Reprieve http://www.reprieve.org.uk/

[Ekk/]

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One four Scots struggling with housing costs

Wed, 2016-01-06 09:25

New research has found that more than one in four adults in Scotland who are responsible for paying rent or a mortgage are worried about covering the cost of their housing in 2016.

New research has found that more than one in four adults in Scotland who are responsible for paying rent or a mortgage are worried about covering the cost of their housing in 2016.

The research, carried out online by YouGov for Shelter Scotland, found that 28 per cent of adults in Scotland who pay rent or a mortgage (more than 700,000 people) said they were worried about not being able to pay for their rent or mortgage at some point during 2016.

The 25-34 age group had the highest number of respondents – 36 per cen stated they were worried about paying rent or mortgage in the year ahead.

The number of calls made to Shelter Scotland's free national helpline rose to 21,284 in the last year (30 October 2014 – 1 November 2015), up from 19,906 the previous year – a seven per cent rise.

Ignoring money worries rather than seeking advice could lead to people's homes being put at risk. Shelter Scotland says advisors at the free national helpline are on-hand to help anyone who is worried about paying for their housing costs, is at risk of homelessness or struggling with bad housing.

Adam Lang, Head of Communications and Policy at Shelter Scotland, said: "It's a worrying sign of the times that so many people are starting the New Year worried about how they'll pay for their rent or mortgage in 2016.

"Every day we hear from people who are living on a knife edge, feeling overwhelmed by mounting rent or mortgage bills, as the increasing pressure of sky-high housing costs continues to take its toll.

"We understand it is all too easy to bury your head in the sand hoping the problem will go away. But if you're in this situation, it's so important to remember you're not alone and that help is at hand. Advice from Shelter Scotland is only a click or a phone call away – so get advice early to prevent things from spiralling out of control."

Separate research paints a bleak picture for many households across Scotland, revealing that:

- 31 per cent of people in Scotland who pay rent or a mortgage have already cut back on winter essentials (fuel and winter clothing) to afford their winter rent or mortgage payments. This equates to 640,000 people.

- Nine per cent of people in Scotland who pay rent or a mortgage are worried about meeting their rent or mortgage payments in January. This equates to 190,000 people.

- Five per cent have used savings meant for Christmas presents to pay their rent/ mortgage. This equates to 100,000 people.

- 10 per cent have cut back on buying food for Christmas to pay their rent/ mortgage. This equates to 218,000 people.

* Anyone facing housing problems in Scotland can visit online advice here  or call the free national helpline on 0808 800 4444.

* Shelter Scotland http://scotland.shelter.org.uk/

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UN chief warns Iran and Saudi Arabia on raising tensions

Tue, 2016-01-05 09:56

The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has phoned the Foreign Ministers of Saudi Arabia and Iran to urge both countries to avoid actions that could further exacerbate tensions after the recent Saudi executions, the attack on the Saudi embassy in Iran, and the rupture in diplomatic ties.

The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has phoned the Foreign Ministers of Saudi Arabia and Iran to urge both countries to avoid actions that could further exacerbate tensions after the recent Saudi executions, the attack on the Saudi embassy in Iran, and the rupture in diplomatic ties.

In his call to Saudi Foreign Minister Abel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir, Mr. Ban reiterated his views on capital punishment, which he strongly opposes, and his disappointment at the execution of Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, whose case he raised with the Saudi authorities several times.

He also reiterated that the attack on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, Iran’s capital, was deplorable, but added that the announcement of a break in Saudi diplomatic relations with Iran was deeply worrying. Regarding Yemen, he urged Saudi Arabia to renew its commitment to a ceasefire.

Speaking to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif yesterday, Mr. Ban recalled his earlier statement voicing dismay at Saturday’s execution of Sheikh al-Nimr and 46 other prisoners by Saudi Arabia, as well as his condemnation of the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran, and he urged the Minister to take the necessary measures to protect diplomatic facilities.

He urged both Ministers to avoid any actions that could further exacerbate the situation between two countries and in the region as a whole, stressing the importance of continued constructive engagement by them in the interest of the region and beyond.

In a statement by his spokesman on Saturday, Mr. Ban said Sheik al-Nimr and a number of the others executed “had been convicted following trials that raised serious concerns over the nature of the charges and the fairness of the process.”

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein yesterday emphasised the strict requirements for carrying out the death sentence in those countries that still permitted it, including only for the most serious crimes, with a fair trial, full transparency, and the exclusion of confessions obtained under torture, when application of the death penalty is “unconscionable.” (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22555)

“Generally, I remain very concerned over whether strict due process guarantees, including the right to an effective defence, were met in all cases,” he said, urging the Saudi Government to impose a moratorium on all executions and to work with the UN and other partners on alternative strategies to combat terrorism.

* United Nations http://www.un.org/en/index.html

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UK drops strategy on abolition of death penalty

Tue, 2016-01-05 09:42

Britain has begun the year by abandoning its strategy on the death penalty which had been in place since 2010, as executions in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan hit record numbers.

Britain has begun the year by abandoning its strategy on the death penalty which had been in place since 2010, as executions in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan hit record numbers.
 
Saudi Arabia carried out a mass execution of 47 people, including at least four protesters, on 2 January.  2015 saw the kingdom execute at least 157 people, according to estimates by international human rights organization Reprieve – believed to be the highest total for two decades. 
 
Meanwhile, Pakistan executed over 300 people since lifting a moratorium on the death penalty  in December 2014, and Iran executed nearly 1000 people in 2015.  At least 600 of those hanged in Iran last year were convicted of drugs offences, the highest total for 16 years.
 
The UK Government announced last year that it would not be renewing its Strategy on the Abolition of the Death Penalty in 2016.  The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) also said it would no longer use the term ‘countries of concern’ when assessing states’ human rights records.  China, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia – the world’s most prolific executioners – were all classified as ‘countries of concern’ in the FCO’s most recent ‘Human Rights and Democracy Report’ (2014).
 
Reprieve has also questioned why Saudi Arabia was absent from the list of priority countries in the now-defunct death penalty strategy, despite the inclusion of the other most prolific executioners – Iran, Iraq, China, Pakistan and the USA – as well as a number of other countries, such as Jordan and Morocco, which execute at a far lower rate. 
 
Maya Foa, Director of the death penalty team at international human rights organisation Reprieve said: “With Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan all executing at a horrific rate, now is not the time for the UK to be abandoning its strategy on the death penalty.  Taken alongside the decision to stop classifying serious human rights offenders such as Saudi Arabia as ‘countries of concern’, this raises suspicions that a desire to avoid embarrassing Britain’s ‘allies’ has taken precedence over standing up for basic British principles.  The Government’s softly-softly approach to Saudi Arabia does not seem to be working – it is time for a re-think.”

* Reprieve http://www.reprieve.org.uk/

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