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Gaza conflict costs agriculture and fisheries sector more than $100m

Wed, 2014-08-27 16:39

Christian Aid partner in Gaza, the Agricultural Development Association, estimates that the recent conflict has cost the agricultural and fisheries sectors more than US$100 million.

Christian Aid partner in Gaza, the Agricultural Development Association, estimates that the recent conflict has cost the agricultural and fisheries sectors more than US$100 million, resulting in more than 8,700 families losing their means of income.

The association have managed to survey 4,700 Gazan farmers and small holders over the last few weeks, 65 per cent of the farming population, with findings revealing that 3,670 acres of land used for fruit and vegetable production have been damaged or destroyed.

In addition to the devastated land, farmers have lost more than 316,579 livestock including cows, sheep and chickens, as well as the farms and barns in which they lived, and 1,161 beehives.

Meanwhile the fisheries industry has been completely wiped out with more than 4,000 fishermen unable to take to the sea.

With Gaza’s only power station destroyed at the end of July, refrigeration of the little that can now be produced is almost impossible. With such scarce supplies, prices are spiralling, meaning most people cannot now afford to buy fresh produce.

Figures released by the United Nations Refugee and Works Agency (UNRWA) at the beginning of June this year, before the current conflict began, reported that food insecurity levels in Gaza were already at 57 per cent, and 40 per cent of the population were unemployed. UNRWA had already predicted in December 2013 that one million Gazans would need food aid in 2014.

“We urgently need to help families to build back their livelihoods and earn money to feed their families,” said Madeleine McGivern, Programme Officer at Christian Aid.

“Due to the blockade imposed on Gaza by Israel, people can’t leave to earn a living elsewhere, they need their land and boats repaired as quickly as possible. A growing number of people were entirely dependent on food aid before this latest round of violence. Now that number will rise even higher.

“The Agricultural Development Association has been working with these communities for decades, supporting the agricultural and fisheries sectors, despite the severe limitations on the development of these sectors as a result of the Israeli imposed blockade. In a matter of weeks this conflict has once again fuelled the ‘de-development’ of the Gazan economy with huge destruction to these sectors and the lives of fishermen, farmers, and their families, which will take years to recover from.”


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Shaker Aamer 'beaten' in latest Guantanamo crackdown

Wed, 2014-08-27 16:22

British resident Shaker Aamer has reportedly been beaten at Guantánamo Bay, in evidence of a new crackdown on prisoners protesting their detention without charge.

British resident Shaker Aamer has reportedly been beaten at Guantánamo Bay, in evidence of a new crackdown on prisoners protesting their detention without charge.

In new letters received by the legal charity Reprieve, detainees reveal what one calls a new “standard procedure” of abuses at the prison. Emad Hassan, a Yemeni detained without charge since 2002, wrote that “an FCE [Forcible Cell Extraction] team has been brought in to beat the detainees […] On Sunday, Shaker ISN 239 was beaten when the medical people wanted to draw blood.” Mr Hassan adds that guards had beaten another detainee for nearly two hours.

‘Forcible Cell Extraction’ or ‘FCEing’ is the process by which a detainee is forced out of his cell by a group of armed guards, often before being taken to the force-feeding chair. Mr Aamer has previously described being beaten by the FCE team up to eight times a day.

Mr Aamer, who has been cleared for release by both the Bush and Obama administrations, has been held for long periods of solitary confinement since 2005 and is in extremely poor health. An independent medical examination conducted earlier this year diagnosed him with severe post-traumatic stress, and recommended urgent psychiatric treatment and “reintegration into his family.”

In June, former Foreign Secretary William Hague told Reprieve that UK officials were confident Mr Aamer had access to a "detainee welfare package” and that his health “remain[ed] stable.” In a letter sent this week, Reprieve director Clive Stafford Smith urged Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond to raise urgent questions with the US Government about these latest reports of mistreatment.

Cori Crider, Strategic Director at Reprieve and a lawyer for Mr Aamer, said: “Just weeks ago, the UK Government dismissed our concerns about Shaker Aamer’s wellbeing, relying on US assurances about a so-called Guantanamo ‘welfare package.’ Now we hear that Shaker, already a seriously ill man, has been beaten. Phillip Hammond should seek answers from the US without delay about why, instead of simply releasing Shaker, it prefers to detain and abuse him.”


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UN chief welcomes Egyptian-brokered ceasefire for Gaza

Wed, 2014-08-27 09:05

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has welcomed the announcement of an open-ended ceasefire for Gaza and expressed hopes for a political process towards a durable peace.

The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has welcomed yesterday’s (26 August) announcement of an open-ended ceasefire for Gaza, brokered under Egyptian auspices, and said he hopes this will lead to a political process aimed at achieving a durable peace.

“A brighter future for Gaza and for Israel depends on a sustainable ceasefire. It is up to the parties to live up to this responsibility,” said a statement issued by Mr. Ban’s spokesperson.

“After 50 days of profound human suffering and devastating physical destruction, any violations of the ceasefire would be utterly irresponsible,” the statement added.

Mr. Ban noted that any peace effort that does not tackle the root causes of the crisis will do little more than set the stage for the next cycle of violence, calling for, among other issues, an end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza and the addressing of Israel’s legitimate security concerns.

“The Secretary-General remains hopeful that the extended ceasefire will act as a prelude to a political process as the only way of achieving durable peace,” said the statement, which added that the two-State solution is the only viable option.

“The Secretary-General urgently calls on both parties to return to meaningful negotiations towards a final status agreement that addresses all core issues and ends the 47-year occupation.”

The UN estimates that the latest wave of violence, which began eight weeks ago, has killed 2,101 Palestinians and 67 Israelis, in addition to forcing 475,000 Palestinians to seek refuge at UN facilities inside Gaza.


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Botswana Bushmen to sue government over hunting ban

Tue, 2014-08-26 18:10

Africa’s last huntiing Bushmen have given formal notice of their intention to sue the Botswana government over its “unlawful and unconstitutional” attempts to starve them off their ancestral land.

Africa’s last hunting Bushmen have given formal notice of their intention to sue the Botswana government over its “unlawful and unconstitutional” attempts to starve them off their ancestral land in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.

The Bushmen rely on subsistence hunting to feed their families but face harassment, torture and arrest when found hunting for survival. Earlier this year, the Botswana government issued a nationwide ban on hunting without notifying the Kalahari Bushmen or offering any compensation.

This is the fourth time the Bushmen have been forced to resort to legal action against the government in their desperate wish to live in peace on their land. In a landmark victory in 2006, Botswana’s High Court ruled that the Bushmen have the right to live, and hunt, in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.

Despite the High Court ruling, not a single hunting license has been issued to the Bushmen living inside the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Ironically, wealthy trophy hunters are exempt from the ban and continue to legally hunt giraffes and zebras on private ranches.

Bushman Roy Sesana told the Botswana Sunday Standard, "President Ian Khama and his brother Tshekedi [Minister of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism] decided to ban hunting without consulting us. It was a calculated move to starve us out of CKGR [Central Kalahari Game Reserve]. They know that we are dependent on hunting and they decided to ban hunting in CKGR.”

President Ian Khama, who sits on the board of Conservation International, claims the move is to protect the diminishing wildlife numbers in Botswana.

But tribal peoples like the Bushmen are better at looking after their environment than anyone else, says Survival International, the global movement for tribal peoples’ rights. They are the best conservationists of their lands, and the Bushmen’s methods of subsistence hunting with spears, bows and arrows pose no threat to the wildlife of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.

Earlier this year, Bushman spokesperson Jumanda Gakelebone traveled to London to ask for Prince Charles’s support against the hunting ban.

The Prince of Wales has backed a new anti-poaching campaign by United for Wildlife, a coalition of conservation organisations including WWF, Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy, and supported by President Khama.

Many large conservation organisations fail to distinguish between illegal poachers and tribal peoples hunting for their livelihood – tribesmen are accused of 'poaching' because they hunt their food. And they face arrest and beatings, torture and death, while fee-paying big game hunters are encouraged.

The government continues to harass and persecute the Bushmen and last year even barred the Bushmen’s long-standing lawyer Gordon Bennett from entering the country to represent his clients. (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/18668) Bennett successfully led three cases for the Bushmen against the government.

Stephen Corry, Director of Survival International, said today (26 August), "Tribesmen the world over are being accused of 'poaching' because they hunt their food. They face arrest and beatings, torture and death, while fee-paying big game hunters are encouraged. It’s time we recognised that tribal peoples are the best conservationists. Until then, Survival International will continue to fight these abuses, and highlight the fact that tribal peoples’ lives and lands are being destroyed by the conservation industry, tourism and big business."


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Pay awards remain below inflation over 2014

Tue, 2014-08-26 11:12

According to analysis from the UK online HR resource XpertHR, annual pay rises are delivering a median 2.5 per cent increase.

According to analysis from the UK online HR resource XpertHR, annual pay rises are delivering a median 2.5 per cent increase. This figure matches the 2.5 per cent retail prices index (RPI) inflation figure for March 2014. Over 2013 as a whole, pay settlements were worth a median two per cent, while RPI stood at 2.7 per cent.

XpertHR studied 215 pay settlements effective in the three months to the end of March 2014.

RPI is the inflation measure most commonly used to gauge the value of pay increases. Consumer prices index (CPI) inflation (the Government's targeted measure) is used less often by employers – and rarely by employees as it excludes housing costs.

Over 2014 as a whole, XpertHR forecast pay settlements to be worth 2.5 per cent for private-sector employees, while many public sector employees will receive an average one per cent rise. Economists expect inflation over the yearto average 2.8 per cent. On the RPI measure, pay awards have been worth less than inflation since December 2009, and 2014 is set to lead to a record fifth year of wages falling in real terms.

XpertHR Pay and Benefits editor Sheila Attwood said: "We are yet to see a return to real terms wages growth. Pay settlement levels remain subdued - at just one per cent on average in the public sector, and 2.5 per cent in the private sector - and an early indication of pay awards concluding in April shows that this level of awards is likely to persist. Over 2014 as a whole pay settlements are likely to fall below RPI inflation."

Responding to the analysis, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “It is good to see some signs of better pay awards for some in the private sector, but public sector workers continue to suffer from cuts to their living standards – and millions are still excluded from economic recovery.

“The bigger economic problem remains. The UK has become an economy good at creating poorly paid, low-productivity, insecure jobs but this is no basis for a successful economy for the long term.”


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Flight restrictions hamper ability to battle Ebola, UN cautions

Tue, 2014-08-26 10:10

The UN has cautioned against flight restrictions into and out of Ebola-affected countries in West Africa, saying limitations prevent the transport of critically-needed health workers and supplies.

The United Nations yesterday (25 August) cautioned against flight restrictions into and out of Ebola-affected countries in West Africa, saying such limitations were preventing the transport of critically-needed health workers and supplies, as well as contributing to economic and diplomatic isolation of the region.

“The current limitations on flights into and out of these countries, and the restrictions placed on aircraft originating from these countries transiting through airports in neighbouring countries, though understandable, are not warranted,” said chief UN Spokesperson Stephane Dujarric at the daily briefing at UN headquarters.

“It is not an optimal measure for controlling the import of Ebola virus disease,” he said. “The measure does not reflect what is known about the way in which the virus passes between people.”

The most recently available official figures by the World Health Organisation dated August 20 show a total of 2,615 cases and 1,427 deaths reported in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria.

Meanwhile, authorities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) reported that 13 people have killed in an Ebola outbreak since July in a remote village in the area of Boende, Equateur Province, but said the strain of the virus was different from the one that has been ravaging West Africa. Ebola was first discovered in the DRC in 1976.

The Congolese authorities, the UN World Health Organisation (WHO) and non-governmental organisations are mobilising against the disease. The UN Mission in the DRC, known by the acronym MONUSCO, has created an Ebola taskforce and is tracking and screening all its staff travelling to and from the affected countries in West Africa.

The UN System Coordinator for Ebola, Dr. David Nabarro and his team visited the affected-region to support communities tackle the outbreak, are in Guinea today, after visiting Liberia and Sierra Leone.

WHO said today that an unprecedented high proportion of doctors, nurses, and other health care workers have been infected in the current Ebola outbreak, prompting the African Union to try to urgently recruit more health care workers from among its members.

More than 240 health care workers have developed the disease in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, and more than 120 have died, WHO said in its latest update.

Ebola has taken the lives of prominent doctors in Sierra Leone and Liberia, depriving these countries not only of experienced and dedicated medical care but also of inspiring national heroes.

Several factors help explain the high proportion of infected medical staff. These factors include shortages of personal protective equipment or its improper use, far too few medical staff for such a large outbreak, and the compassion that causes medical staff to work in isolation wards far beyond the number of hours recommended as safe.

WHO estimates that, in the three hardest-hit countries, only one to two doctors are available to treat 100,000 people, and these doctors are heavily concentrated in urban areas.

At the noon briefing yesterday, Dujarric said the trend of limitations on flights is having three major adverse effects on efforts to control the disease.” “Current flight limitations are hampering the movement of international experts involved in the control efforts. These flight restrictions hinder the capacities of aid organisations like Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) to deploy their personnel in support of the crisis response and mitigation,” he said.

“The ability of programmes involved in controlling the outbreak to transport essential equipment and materials to the region is also being severely hampered,” he said, adding that these limitations also contribute to the economic and diplomatic isolation of the affected countries and further compound the stigmatisation already experienced by their citizens.

He reminded the public, as has the WHO since the beginning of the outbreak that: “Ebola is not spread through air borne contact. In addition, transmission is unlikely to occur through water or food; a person infected with Ebola virus is not contagious until symptoms appear; Ebola is spread through direct contact with the blood or body fluids of a person who is sick with the virus.”


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Oman joins Landmine Ban Treaty

Mon, 2014-08-25 09:42

Oman joined the international treaty banning antipersonnel landmines on 20 August, says Human Rights Watch.

Oman joined the international treaty banning antipersonnel landmines on 20 August, Human Rights Watch said yesterday (24 August). It is the 8th Arab country and 162nd country worldwide to join. The move should encourage the remaining 11 countries in the Middle East and North Africa to join the Mine Ban Treaty and respect its provisions, says Human Rights Watch.

More than half of the countries in the Middle East and North Africa are affected by uncleared landmines and explosive remnants of war. New casualties caused by landmines and these explosive remnants were reported in 2012 – the most recent year for which complete information is available – in Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Palestine, Syria, and Yemen.

“Oman has finally recognised that the long-term threat landmines pose to civilians far outweighs any military utility these weapons might provide,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Oman’s decision to relinquish these weapons sends a strong signal to other governments across the region that now is the time to join the landmine ban.”

The 1997 Mine Ban Treaty bans the use, production, transfer, and stockpiling of antipersonnel landmines and requires clearance of mined areas within 10 years as well as assistance to landmine victims. Treaty members include eight countries from the Middle East and North Africa – Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Tunisia, and Yemen, all European Union countries, all NATO members except the US, all nations in sub-Saharan Africa, all countries in the Western Hemisphere except Cuba and the US, many Asia-Pacific countries, and several nations from the Commonwealth of Independent States.

In March, Oman's foreign affairs minister, Youssef bin Alawi bin Abdullah, informed the Mine Ban Treaty envoy, Princess Astrid of Belgium, of the government’s decision to join the Mine Ban Treaty. Oman officially deposited its instrument of accession to the treaty with the United Nations in New York on 20 August 2014. The Mine Ban Treaty will take effect for Oman after a mandatory six-month waiting period.

Government officials have indicated that Oman has never produced or exported antipersonnel landmines, but it is believed to have imported and used them in the past. Oman will need to declare any stockpiled mines in its annual transparency report required by the Mine Ban Treaty. Oman is believed to have a small residual problem with uncleared landmines and unexploded ordnance dating from a conflict with a separatist group from 1964 to 1975. The problem is believed to be mostly in the Dhofar region in the south, but the precise extent of contamination is unknown.

Several of the Middle Eastern and North African countries which have yet to join the Mine Ban Treaty remain staunchly opposed to it, including former landmine producer Egypt, landmine producer Iran, and landmine users Israel and Syria.

But other non-signatories from the region have expressed interest. In December 2012, Palestine declared its strong desire to accede to the Mine Ban Treaty as soon as possible. It is now eligible to join. After abstaining on every annual UN General Assembly resolution urging countries to join the Mine Ban Treaty since 1997, Libya changed its position in 2013 to vote for the resolution. Morocco has stated that it voluntarily adheres to the treaty’s provisions and regularly participates as an observer in key meetings of the Mine Ban Treaty along with other non-signatories from the region – Bahrain, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Overall compliance with the Mine Ban Treaty’s provisions has been excellent, Human Rights Watch said. Since the treaty came into force on March 1, 1999, more than 47 million stockpiled antipersonnel mines have been destroyed, 27 countries have completed mine clearance to become mine-free, and the annual number of casualties from landmines and explosive remnants of war has decreased dramatically. Mine Ban Treaty states parties from the region that declared stockpiled landmines completed destroying them within the treaty’s four-year deadline.

Challenges remain however. In November, Yemen admitted that a “violation” had occurred in 2011 during the popular uprising that led to the ouster of then-President Ali Abduallah Saleh. This followed reports by Human Rights Watch and others that the former government’s Republican Guard forces laid thousands of antipersonnel mines in 2011 at Bani Jarmooz, near Sana’a, resulting in civilian casualties. As of June 2014, risk education has been provided to some of the local residents, but no mine clearance has been undertaken.

In March, a Human Rights Watch researcher was denied a visa to enter Yemen to investigate the steps the government is taking to address the 2011 landmine use. Under the Mine Ban Treaty, Yemen is obligated to mark the mine-affected area, warn the population of the danger, clear the mines and assist the victims. None of these measures are believed to have been taken despite Yemen’s acknowledgment and commitment to conduct an investigation into the landmine use.

Algeria served as president of the Mine Ban Treaty until the treaty’s Third Review Conference held in Maputo, Mozambique in June 2014. Jordan’s Prince Mired Raad Al Hussein is the Mine Ban Treaty’s special envoy, with responsibility for promoting universalisation and implementation of its provisions.

* Human Rights Watch is a founding member of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which received the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize, together with its coordinator, Jody Williams, for its efforts to bring about the Mine Ban Treaty and for its contributions to a new international diplomacy based on humanitarian imperatives.


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UN confirms handover of US journalist Peter Theo Curtis

Mon, 2014-08-25 09:22

The UN has confirmed that an American freelance journalist, reportedly held captive for nearly two years by militants in Syria, was freed on 24 August and handed over to UN peacekeepers.

The United Nations has confirmed that an American freelance journalist, reportedly held captive for nearly two years by militants in Syria, was freed on Sunday in a handover to UN peacekeepers in the Golan Heights, who then released him to United States officials.

A note to correspondents issued by the UN Spokesperson's Office confirmed that the organisation had facilitated the handover of journalist Peter Theo Curtis.

“He was handed over to UN peacekeepers in Al Rafid village, Quneitra, the Golan Heights, at 6:40 p.m. (local time) on 24 August 2014. After receiving a medical check-up, Mr. Curtis was handed over to representatives of his Government,” the brief note concluded.

According to media reports, Mr. Curtis, a 45-year-old freelance journalist from Boston, was abducted near the Syria-Turkey border in October 2012. He was reportedly being held by the Al-Nusra Front, an Al-Qaida affiliate, which, along with Islamic State (IS) militants, were recently targeted by the UN Security Council, which adopted a wide-ranging resolution naming six individuals from the groups to its sanctions list.

In addition, just two days ago, the Council strongly condemned the “heinous and cowardly” murder of James Foley, also an American journalist, by IS militants and demanded the immediate, safe and unconditional release of all other hostages.

“This incident is a tragic reminder of the increasing dangers journalists face every day in Syria. It also once again demonstrates the brutality of [IS], which is responsible for thousands of abuses against the Syrian and Iraqi people,” the Council said in a statement to the press.


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Fresh call for UK to suspend arms to Israel as hostilities resume

Sat, 2014-08-23 19:41

As hostilities in Gaza and Israel resumed after the collapse of the ceasefire earlier this week, Amnesty International has renewed its call on the UK government to suspend all arms export licences for Israel.

With a resumption in hostilities in Gaza and Israel since the collapse of the ceasefire earlier this week, Amnesty International has renewed its call on the UK government to immediately suspend all arms export licences for Israel.

Last week the government announced the suspension of just 12 export licences for arms and other military equipment to Israel, and only if “significant hostilities” resumed after the ending of any ceasefire. This represented a significant weakening of the government’s own rules which stipulate that arms should not be supplied where there is a clear risk they might be used for serious violations of international law.

Since the UK government’s announcement on 12 August, Palestinian groups have fired rockets into Israel while the Israeli military has mounted numerous deadly attacks on Gaza. Yesterday the Israeli military said its aircraft had attacked more than 30 sites across Gaza.

For weeks, Amnesty has been calling for an immediate suspension of all UK arms transfers to Israel – as well as for pressure to be exerted on those supplying Palestinian groups in Gaza with munitions. Last year the UK sold £6.3 million of arms to Israel. In the past, UK-supplied equipment has been used by the Israeli military to commit human rights violations in Gaza.

According to United Nations estimates, over 2,000 Gazans have died in this summer’s hostilities – the majority civilians – including nearly 500 children, while hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced. Three civilians have been killed in Israel and dozens injured by rockets or shrapnel, and 64 Israeli soldiers have also been killed. Since the collapse of the ceasefire on 19 August, over 200 rockets have been reportedly fired at Israel while Israeli strikes on Gaza have reportedly killed more than 50 people, most of them civilians.

Amnesty International UK Arms Control Programme Director Oliver Sprague said: “Government ministers seem to have taken leave of their senses and their principles on this.

“Instead of coldly saying there needs to be ‘significant hostilities’ before they’ll even look at this again, ministers should stop re-writing their own rules and remember they’re supposed to be stopping arms going to places where there’s a clear risk they’ll be used to commit human rights violations.

“With hundreds of Gazan civilians already dead, what more evidence does the UK need?

“Israeli aircraft are once again attacking densely-occupied sites in Gaza and the death toll is once again mounting – what will it take for the UK to finally suspend all licences for arms exports to Israel?

“There should be an immediate suspension of all arms sales to Israel, and the UK should press strongly for a UN arms embargo against Israel, Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups.”


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Welfare reforms fail the Prime Minister’s new family test, says TUC

Fri, 2014-08-22 10:27

A new report from the TUC says the majority of social security cuts announced by the government will fall on working families, who will suffer twice the level of benefit losses as out of work families.

The majority of social security cuts announced by the government will fall on working families, who will suffer twice the level of benefit losses as out of work families, according to a new report published today (22 August) by the Trades Union Congress (TUC).

The TUC-commissioned analysis of those affected by cuts in social security support – undertaken by Howard Reed of Landman Economics – looks at all the welfare changes announced during this Parliament. It finds that annual cuts to key benefits will reach £30.5 billion by 2016/2017.

Ministers frequently talk about how their welfare reforms target workless households. But the TUC analysis finds that most of the cuts will fall on working families, with working parents and their children facing the biggest cuts of all.

Working families will suffer a loss of social security support worth £17.9 billion a year by 2016/17, twice the level (£6.2 billion a year) experienced by out of work families.

Working families with children stand to lose the most – £11.7 billion a year. With out of work families with children losing a further £2.3 billion a year, the total cost of welfare cuts to families with children will be £14.1 billion a year by 2016/17.

The TUC analysis shows that three-quarters of all welfare cuts to people of working age will be on working families, with almost half hitting working families with children.

The government’s welfare reforms have already failed the Prime Minister’s new ‘family test’ in spectacular fashion, says the TUC, with working parents and their children billions of pounds worse off as a result.

The analysis also shows that the Prime Minister’s pre-election pledge to protect pensioner benefits has been broken, with pensioner families suffering a loss of benefit support worth £6.4 billibn a year by 2016/17.

The government’s most-mentioned welfare policy is the benefits cap – a policy that targets around 65,000 mainly workless households and is projected to save £500 million a year, says the TUC. But the impact of the benefits cap is dwarfed by cuts in support to working families and pensioners about which the government has been largely silent.

The biggest single area of welfare cuts announced has been the £13.8 billion worth of annual cuts to tax credits – over ninety per cent of which will hit working families. Those in work will also bear over 90 per cent of the cuts in child benefit, losing £3.4 billion a year by 2016/17.

The next biggest single welfare cut (at over £4bn a year) is the reduction in the value of Pension Credit, which will be borne almost entirely by pensioner families.

Many of the reductions in social security support are down to the Chancellor’s stealth cut to benefits, announced in June 2010, where the measure used to increase benefits every year was changed from RPI to the lower CPI measure. The move, combined with an unprecedented drop in earnings growth, is likely to reduce the value of the state pension for pensioner families by £1 billion a year by 2016/17, according to the analysis, in spite of the government’s triple lock guarantee.

The government says its biggest welfare reform of all – Universal Credit (UC) – will make work pay. But the analysis shows that once UC is finally rolled out it will lead to a further £5 billion of annual cuts – almost half of which will fall on pensioner families.

Universal Credit will be particularly harsh on unemployed men and women in their mid-60s, warns the TUC. New UC claimants of this age will no longer get Pension Credit and instead will receive less generous support, as well as being subject to the government’s new sanctions regime.

The TUC wants to see the government come clean on the full impact of its welfare reforms and to admit that working families are bearing the brunt of the cuts. It also wants the Chancellor to reverse his stealth cut to benefits uprating, which is reducing the value of support on which millions of families rely.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Ministers like to say that their welfare reforms target workshy scroungers and will get them back to work. But the fact is that the bulk of the cuts hit low-paid families already in work, as well as pensioners who have no way to make up the money lost as a result of the Chancellor’s social security axe.

“With nearly half the total cost of welfare changes falling on working families with children, the Prime Minister has already failed his own new family test, announced just this week.

“The government has been steadily chipping away at the social security safety net we all pay into and expect will support us when we need help.

“While many people may think that the recovery means the end of the squeeze on their social security support, the worse cuts are still to come. Under Universal Credit, out of work men and women in their mid-60s will be deemed workshy scroungers – unable to claim Pension Credit and facing sanctions for not taking up work they’re ill-equipped to do.

“This new nastier social security system is a world away from the support people expect having paid their national insurance contributions.”


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Home Run

Fri, 2014-08-22 08:36
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Why Archbishop Oscar Romero should be held in our hearts

Fri, 2014-08-22 06:42

On 24 March 1980 in El Salvador, Archbishop Oscar Romero was celebrating Mass in the chapel of a cancer hospital. In his homily he spoke of the Eucharist as a sacrament of solidarity, justice and peace. Moments later, the Archbishop was shot through the heart. As Pope Francis calls for this courageous and inspiring man to be beatified, Bernadette Meaden highlights the significance of his life and death for Christian social witness, as it resonates across the years.

On 24 March 1980 in El Salvador, Archbishop Oscar Romero was celebrating Mass in the chapel of a cancer hospital. In his homily he spoke of the Eucharist, saying,

May this body immolated and this blood sacrificed for humans nourish us also, so that we may give our body and our blood to suffering and to pain - like Christ, not for self, but to bring about justice and peace for our people.

Moments later, the Archbishop was shot through the heart.

A nun who was there told the BBC: ‘When he finished his sermon he walked to the middle of the altar: at that moment the shot rang out. It sounded like a bomb explosion. Monsignor Romero held on to the cloth on the altar for a moment and pulled it off. Then he fell backwards and lay bleeding at the feet of Christ.’

The Archbishop’s last words as he lay dying were, ‘May God have mercy on the assassins.’

The son of a postman, born one of seven children in 1917, Oscar Romero received only a basic education, and was apprenticed to a carpenter at an early age. Then, around the age of thirteen, he felt called to be a priest, and entered the local seminary of San Jose de la Montana. Here he formed a close friendship with fellow seminarian Rutilio Grande, who was later to play a crucial role in Oscar’s life.

Oscar showed great promise, and was eventually sent to study in Rome, where he was ordained a priest. But the homeland he returned to was in turmoil.

For centuries in El Salvador, wealth and power had been concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority, whilst the rest of the population lived in abject poverty. Anyone who challenged this unjust state of affairs, be they peasant or human rights lawyer, ran the risk of becoming a victim of the government’s death squads. Eventually some groups took up arms to resist this oppression, and a civil war ensued. El Salvador, a country named after Christ the Saviour, was undergoing its own form of crucifixion.

Many priests took the side of the poor and the oppressed, and graffiti began appearing which read, ‘Be a Patriot – Kill a Priest’. For years Father Romero remained cautious, not getting involved in the struggle for social justice in the way so many of his fellow priests did. But in 1977, just weeks after he was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador, an event occurred which caused him to completely change his way of thinking. Father Rutilio Grande, his old friend from the seminary, was gunned down by the military, along with two parishioners, an elderly man and a 16 year old boy.

Archbishop Romero travelled to the rural parish to conduct his friend’s funeral, and spent the night listening to the peasants speak of their suffering, and how their communities were being terrorised.

Despite the danger, Archbishop Romero felt that if he was to be true to the Gospel, he could no longer remain silent. “When the church hears the cry of the oppressed,” he wrote, “it cannot but denounce the social structures that give rise to and perpetuate the misery from which the cry arises.”

The Archdiocese of San Salvador established a radio station, YSAX, which became the primary source of accurate information about what was happening in the country. Every Sunday Archbishop Romero broadcast a lengthy homily in which he spoke of current events in a Gospel context. He also publicly named every victim of abduction, torture or murder, ensuring that the truth could not be suppressed. During the three years that Romero was Archbishop, the radio station’s transmitter was bombed ten times.

The day before the Archbishop died, in the broadcast which perhaps sealed his fate, he appealed directly to the soldiers who were carrying out their brutal orders.

‘I would like to make a special appeal to the men of the army, and specifically to the ranks of the National Guard, the police and the military. Brothers, you come from our own people. You are killing your own brother peasants...No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law... In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you – in the name of God: stop the repression.’

Within twenty four hours he was dead.

A week later the Archbishop’s funeral was held in San Salvador’s cathedral, and priests and bishops from all over the world gathered to concelebrate his requiem Mass. Vast crowds of people had gathered, but as the Mass began a bomb exploded in the Cathedral square. As panic broke out, military snipers opened fire into the crowd from rooftops and balconies around the square. Journalists estimated that between 30 and 50 mourners were killed.

This was only the beginning of a decade of increasing government violence against the Church. Later that year four women’s bodies were found dumped by the side of a road. They were Maryknoll Sisters Maura Clark and Ita Ford, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, and Ursuline lay missionary Jean Donovan. They had been killed by members of the National Guard.

In 1989 six Jesuit priests were killed along with their housekeeper and her 16 year old daughter. Five of the priests were Spanish, and in May 2011 Spain issued an international arrest warrant for 20 former leaders of the El Salvadorean military, whom they believe were involved in ordering the killings.

Archbishop Romero had anticipated his own death as the inevitable consequence of standing alongside the victims of repression, but said, ‘If I’m killed, I will rise again in the Salvadorean people.’

This has proved to be very true, as Archbishop Romero’s face is a familiar sight in El Salvador today, on T-shirts and murals. In 2010, on the 30th anniversary of his death, tens of thousands of people paraded through the streets of San Salvador shouting ‘Viva Romero!’ The current President of El Salvador, Mauricio Funes, has formally apologised for the government’s role in his killing. There is an active campaign to have Archbishop Romero canonised.

Here in the UK, the Archbishop Romero Trust promotes awareness of the Archbishop’s life and work. Every year they organise prayer services, liturgies, and memorial lectures around the anniversary of his death. In order to continue his work they support groups working for social justice and human rights in Latin America.

Archbishop Romero is revered widely beyond the Catholic Church; the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams is a Patron of the Trust, and Romero’s statue stands above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey, as one of ten 20th century martyrs.

Many people are delighted to hear that Pope Francis has called for this courageous and inspiring man to be beatified, and so at last be properly recognised by his Church.

* More on the Romero Trust: http://www.romerotrust.org.uk/index.php?nuc=content&id=25


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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Falmouth's rejection of Trident echoes Scottish opposition

Thu, 2014-08-21 23:36

CND has welcomed political opponents uniting to reject Falmouth as an alternative to the Clyde nuclear warhead depot.

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) has welcomed political opponents uniting to reject Falmouth as an alternative to the Clyde nuclear warhead depot.

Truro and Falmouth’s Conservative MP Sarah Newton and her Labour challenger Hanna Toms have both rejected proposals to build a Trident nuclear warhead depot close to the town of Falmouth, in the event of an independent Scotland expelling the Trident submarines from the Clyde. The recently elected Green MEP for the South West, Molly Scott-Cato, also expressed her opposition.

This proposal was central to the recent Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) report which argued a 'yes' vote would result in Trident remaining in Scotland until 2028 - when the first of the proposed replacement submarines is expected to enter service - at which point the submarines would move from Faslane to Devonport, and the warheads from Coulport to Falmouth. (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/20734)

This clear expression of opposition across the political divide makes clear there is no future for Trident in Falmouth.

Kate Hudson, CND General Secretary, said: "The British public is opposed to Trident replacement, and it is therefore of no surprise that any local population asked to house the weapons will say no.

"The rejection of a Trident base in Falmouth – which even its proponents admit would displace local services, houses and amenities - echoes the strength of opposition there is to housing the weapons in Scotland."

She concluded: "The more the public are asked – on either side of the border – the more that becomes apparent. Regardless of the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum, Trident is an unwanted Cold War relic which should be scrapped now."


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Millions spent on needless remand in UK prisons, says Howard League

Thu, 2014-08-21 09:21

Figures published by the Howard League for Penal Reform reveal that courts wasted an estimated £230 million of taxpayers’ money last year by needlessly locking up people on remand.

Courts wasted an estimated £230 million of taxpayers’ money last year by needlessly locking up people on remand, figures obtained from the Ministry of Justice through Freedom of Information requests and published by the Howard League for Penal Reform reveal.

During 2013, more than 35,000 people who had been remanded in custody were either acquitted or given non-custodial sentences.

The money spent on keeping them in prison would have been enough to build 16 new secondary schools, pay 10,000 nurses for a year, or reverse the government’s cuts to the criminal legal aid budget.

Of the 36,044 men, women and children who were remanded into custody by magistrates, 25,413 (71 per cent) did not go on to receive a custodial sentence.

In the crown courts, 9,844 (27 per cent) of the 36,833 men, women and children remanded were either acquitted or given a non-custodial sentence. However, there was a significant gender difference, with 41 per cent of female defendants being acquitted or receiving a non-custodial sentence, compared to 26 per cent of male defendants.

The figures suggest that there is widespread overuse and misuse of remand across England and Wales – despite the recent introduction of new legislation designed in part to reduce the number of people locked up needlessly.

People on remand receive a very poor regime when in prison. Overall they spend more time locked in their cells, receive less help and support when inside, and are inadequately prepared for release. Remand prisoners are also at the greatest risk of self-harm and suicide.

Remand is currently the key driver of the rising prison population. Its misuse puts further pressure on the country’s overcrowded and under-resourced prison estate, where suicides and assaults have risen alarmingly after the number of officers was cut by 30 per cent in three years.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “Our prisons are squalid and our prisoners are idle, yet the courts are continuing to remand innocent people and people accused of petty crime at huge public expense.

“It is time to end this unjust system, which is costing the nation money that could be better spent.”

Over the 12 months ending June 2014 there have been approximately 11,594 people in prison on remand at any one time. As a prison place costs £37,000 per year on average, this means that almost £429 million per year is being spent on incarcerating remand prisoners alone.

The cost to the prison system of the 70 per cent of men and women who are remanded by magistrates but do not go on to receive a custodial sentence is an estimated £165 million per year (based on 25,413 people each remanded for nine weeks on average, with a prison place costing £37,000 per year).

The cost to the system of imprisoning those who are remanded by crown courts but do not go on to receive a custodial sentence is an estimated £65 million per year (based on 9,844 people remanded for nine weeks on average at a cost of £37,000 per year per prison place).

The true cost to the taxpayer is likely to be even higher after the ancillary costs of remanding people into custody are taken into account. These include prisoner transfer costs and court administration costs, as well as the provision of benefits and support to address the economic and social disadvantage caused by remand, such as family breakup, homelessness and unemployment.


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Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew speaks against violence in Iraq

Thu, 2014-08-21 09:07

The targeting of thousands of Christians and other religious minorities can never be justified in the name of any religious creed or conviction, said Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople.

The targeting of tens of thousands of Christians and other religious minorities can never be justified in the name of any religious creed or conviction, said Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople.

“We will not remain indifferent or silent before such irrational persecution, cultural intolerance and appalling loss of life, especially when it is caused by religious hatred and racial hostility.”

Reiterating commitment to dialogue and reconciliation by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, a founding member of the World Council of Churches (WCC), Patriarch Bartholomew called upon religious and political leaders in the region to “promote conversation to resolve dispute, and to support peaceful means to overcome conflict.”

He emphasised that the situation in Iraq is especially critical.

“We appeal to every responsible organisation and every person of good will – beyond any support through perpetual and persistent prayer – to assist with material and humanitarian resources so that these innocent victims may no longer endure hunger, suffering and death,” said the Ecumenical Patriarch.

He went on to express his hope and prayer that “the God of love – worshipped by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike – may prevail over the false idols of fanaticism and prejudice.”

* Read Patriarch Bartholomew's full statement here : http://www.patriarchate.org/documents/patriarchal-statement-iraq-2014


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Yemeni government pays over $1m compensation to civilian drone strike victims

Thu, 2014-08-21 08:57

The Yemeni government has paid compensation to civilian victims of a 2013 drone strike that hit a wedding convoy and which US Government sources have claimed killed only ‘militants.’

The Yemeni government has paid compensation to civilian victims of a 2013 drone strike that hit a wedding convoy and which US Government sources have claimed killed only ‘militants.’

The international human rights NGO Reprieve has obtained documents promising compensation for all 12 people killed and all 24 injured in the December 2013 strike. The Yemeni government has stated that it does not make compensation payments to those it believes were militants or the families of militants. Based on the documentation, Reprieve estimates that close to US$ 1.24 million has been promised.

Such compensation payments made by the Yemeni government – which in 2013 received $256 million in aid from the United States government – directly contradict claims by anonymous Obama administration sources that those killed were militants. They have also raised questions over whether the US is secretly funding compensation payments to civilian drone strike victims.

In July 2013 the Department of Defense acknowledged that they had documents relating to ‘solatia’ (compensation for US military wrongdoing) payments in Yemen but refused to release them under Freedom of Information Act requests, citing ‘national security’.

In April 2014, ABC News reported on Yemeni government plans to compensate victims of a drone strike on Easter weekend of this year, in which civilians were killed. When asked by ABC, the US government declined to comment on whether or not they were providing funds for compensation payments which the Yemeni government confirmed were being made.

Kat Craig, Legal Director of Reprieve, said: “These documents demolish the claims – made by anonymous US Government sources – that the victims of this drone attack were anything other than civilians. We now know that hundreds of thousands of dollars are having to be paid out to innocent victims of the US’ misguided, secretive drone programme. President Obama needs to come clean on where this money is coming from: either American taxpayers are footing the bill for his counterproductive policies, or it is falling on the shoulders of one of the world’s poorest governments.”


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The beheading of journalist James Foley is a war crime, says Amnesty

Wed, 2014-08-20 20:48

The execution-style killing of a US reporterby the Islamic State armed group constitutes a war crime, Amnesty International said today.

The execution-style killing by the Islamic State (IS) armed group of a US reporter who went missing in Syria constitutes a war crime and highlights the urgent need for all states with influence in the region to ensure other missing journalists are safely released, Amnesty International said today (20 August).

A video published online by the Islamic State (formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, ISIS) purports to show freelance reporter James Foley being beheaded, apparently in retaliation for US airstrikes against the IS in northern Iraq.

Said Boumedouha, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme, said: “This shocking video, if genuine, is devastating for the loved ones of James Foley and chilling for the family, friends and colleagues of those journalists who are still missing in Syria and northern Iraq, feared captured by IS militants.

“It is a war crime and both those who carried out the killing and those who ordered it must face justice.

“It is imperative that all warring countries and others with interests in the region use all diplomatic means possible to ensure that no more journalists – or others carrying out their legitimate work in the area – are killed for doing their job.

“The implication made in the video that journalists are being targeted in revenge for the US government’s involvement in Iraq is deeply alarming and increases fears that other hostages may be at heightened risk.

“Journalists, like all civilians, are bystanders in armed conflict and they must be protected from harm rather than singled out for brutal killings.”

In the video, titled ‘A Message to America’, a man identified as US journalist James Foley says he faces death due to the US government airstrikes on IS targets in Iraq.

A masked militant identifying himself as an IS member says the US has been “at the forefront of aggression towards the Islamic State", before apparently beheading Foley.

The militants also claim to be holding another US journalist, Steven Sotloff, and state that his life depends on US President Barack Obama’s next move.James Foley, 39, was abducted in Taftanaz in Idlib province, north-western Syria, on 22 November 2012. He had entered Syria many times in the months before his abduction to report on the conflict.

His reports were published in various outlets, including the US online news site Global Post and Agence France-Presse (AFP).

According to eyewitness accounts relayed to his family, James Foley was travelling in a car on his way to the Turkish border to leave Syria when he was stopped by unknown armed men in an unmarked car.

On 21 January 2013, AFP said it delivered a letter to Syria’s Information Minister, Omran al-Zohabi, seeking assistance in finding James Foley. AFP said that the Minister promised to do all that was possible but that “conditions are difficult” in the region where he went missing.

Foreign nationals, including journalists, staff of international organisations and religious figures, are among a wide range of individuals targeted by IS for abduction and arbitrary detention.

Amnesty is concerned for the safety of prominent Syrian human rights lawyer Abdullah al-Khalil, a long-term contact of the organisation, who is believed to be held by IS after apparently being abducted outside his office in the north-eastern city of al-Raqqa in May 2013.

IS forces have also targeted local people suspected of organising protests and opposition to their rule, including community activists and members of local councils set up to provide services to residents following the withdrawal of Syrian government forces.

People suspected of committing ordinary crimes, such as theft or murder, and others accused of committing religiously prohibited acts, such as zina (sex out of wedlock) and alcohol consumption, have likewise been targeted by the group.

The IS has committed gross human rights abuses amounting to war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity in Sinjar, Mosul and other areas in northwestern Iraq since its advance there in June, say Amnesty.


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