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Wide Angle Blog
November 19th, 2008

Neeraj and her mother Devki from Wide Angle’s Back to School

“What’s so great about being educated,” asks Devki, a mother from Rajasthan, India whose daughter Neeraj appears in Wide Angle’s film Time For School. “Even if you study, these educated people have nothing to do….We educated our sons and what good has it done?”

While there was a time when Devki’s words rang true and India could ignore the needs of the poor, in today’s economy, India can’t afford to leave anyone behind. India’s growing infrastructure has spawned the need for economic advancement for its people, and now the government is working to help achieve that goal.

This month, after a three-year wait, the Indian Union Cabinet passed the long-pending Right to Education Bill, paving the way for free and compulsory education for children between the ages of 6 and 14. By declaring education a fundamental right, the bill makes providing free, compulsory education a legally enforceable duty of Indian states. This revolutionary piece of legislation aims to change education in India by setting minimum standards for both public and private schools. For example, the legislation sets a pupil-teacher ratio of 40:1.

Education is a long-term investment,” said Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission and the Indian government’s top policy czar. “We have neglected it, in my view quite criminally, for an enormously long period of time.”

Currently, India accounts for 20 percent of the world’s out-of-school children. Out of 200 million children aged 6-14 years, 59 million children are not attending school. Of this, 35 million are girls and 24 million boys.

While there are more Indian children in schools than ever before, the quality of public schools is low. Among children in fifth grade, 4 out of 10 could not read at the second grade level, and 7 out of 10 could not subtract. Government schools are almost exclusively for children from the poorest families. However this new bill includes a clause that requires all private schools to reserve 25 percent of their seats for poor children from the neighborhood.

Lata Vaidyanthan, a school principal, is skeptical. “Laws and bills don’t make children go to schools, Vaidyanthan says. “Initially there will be problems because while everyone must understand their social responsibility, what matters is whether the right children will have access to come to this program?”

The bill still faces one more hurdle; it has been cleared by the cabinet, but will now be introduced in Parliament. If it’s not passed before the end of the current election season, the next government will have to introduce it again from scratch.

November 18th, 2008

Yesterday an appeals court in northern France reinstated a marriage between two Muslims who split up on their wedding night back in July 2006. The husband had sought an annulment of the marriage after learning that his bride had lied about her virginity. A lower court had granted his wish back in April, but the appeals court of Douai has now overturned that verdict, ruling that virginity “is not an essential quality in that its absence has no repercussion on matrimonial life” and that lying about virginity is not enough to justify an annulment.  For more background on this controversial case, which has pitted French values of secularism against the traditions of its growing Muslim community, read this previous Wide Angle post.

There is widespread relief among French political circles about the new court decision, and women’s rights organizations are hailing it as a victory for the principle of equality between men and women. The couple’s lawyers had opposing reactions in the French press. The wife’s lawyer called the decision “exemplary and necessary…because it allows the law to establish its position on the annulment of marriage when it comes to non-virginity and chastity.”  But the husband’s lawyer declared “our individual liberties are gravely threatened” and expressed worry that the court is imposing “a forced marriage against the wishes of the spouses.”

The couple must now seek a formal divorce in order to separate.

WIDE ANGLE’s documentary Young, Muslim, and French explored the tensions between Islam and French secularism in the wake of a 2004 ban on wearing headscarves in public schools.

November 17th, 2008

Yesterday in Moscow, a judge ruled that the trial of three men accused of involvement with the 2006 murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya will be open to the public and the press — a move that surprised many. Prosecutors had requested that reporters not be allowed in the courtroom as some of the potential evidence is classified. But the lawyer for Politkovskaya’s family said that an open trial would make the verdict more credible.

Politkovskaya’s powerful reportage on issues such as the conflict in Chechnya and the siege of Beslan’s School No. 1 made her more than a few enemies. Under international scrutiny, then-president Vladimir Putin pledged that authorities would “do everything possible to complete the investigation” of Politkovskaya’s murder. But despite his promises, none of the current defendants are alleged to have actually pulled the trigger or ordered the hit. The Russian government claims the shooter has fled the country and two years of investigation have not uncovered his whereabouts. On trial instead are an ex-police investigator from Moscow’s anti-organized crime unit and two brothers of the suspected gunman, accused of tailing the reporter in her final weeks. None of the three have confessed or agreed to assist in the investigation. Nonetheless, in an interview with Novaya Gazeta — Politkovskaya’s former newspaper — the lead special investigator in her murder says that the case “is solved as we announce it to be solved and give names.”

A fourth defendant (and former member of the FSB, the successor to the KGB) is also being tried, not for involvement with the Politkovskaya murder, but because of his associations with the ex-police investigator. His inclusion in the group means that the trial will take place before a military tribunal rather than a civil court. One of the reasons that the judge’s decision to try the case in public is so surprising is that military trials normally take place behind closed doors as they are presumed to involve sensitive material.

Jury selection in the trial began today.

In 2004, Anna Politkovskaya appeared in Wide Angle’s The Russian Newspaper Murders, two years before she herself was murdered.

November 14th, 2008

Charlotte Mangin

Yesterday, on a gray rainy New York afternoon, Columbia University’s World Leaders Forum hosted the prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for his first public speech in the United States outside of the United Nations Security Council.

Security was tight, complete with metal detecting wands and bomb-sniffing dogs, as the 200-plus faculty and students filed into the packed venue. A motorcade of black SUVs with blaring sirens and flashing lights dropped off the guest of honor and some twenty other Turkish dignitaries.

The instant Prime Minister Erdogan appeared at the podium, flanked by secret police, a Kurdish activist student unfurled a handwritten banner reading “Turkey Out of Kurdistan” – and was promptly escorted out of the room by Columbia security. This small incident averted, Erdogan commenced his keynote address in Turkish, with a simultaneous interpreter translating into audience headsets.

In his opening remarks, Erdogan congratulated President-elect Barack Obama for his election victory, and expressed confidence in U.S.-Turkey solidarity under an Obama administration. “Leaders may change, governments may come and go, but relations between our countries will continue,” the Prime Minister affirmed.

He then turned to discussion of the global financial crisis – the reason for his present visit to America being this week’s G-20 meeting in Washington. Evoking the gravity of the present crisis with a stark image of global interdependency and the necessity for multilateral solutions, he said: “All countries are passengers on the same ship… If we sink, we will all go down together.”

Erdogan called upon the G-20 leaders to also turn their attentions to other “ticking timebombs” around the world that are at the top of Turkey’s foreign policy agenda: the unsettled border disputes between Turkey’s neighbors Russia and Georgia, and Armenia and Azerbaijan; achieving stability in Iraq, which the Prime Minister predicted could take “up to 10, 20, or even 30 years”; resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and preventing Iran from developing weapons of mass destruction. Although critical of Iran’s nuclear program, Erdogan also pointed to the hypocrisy of America’s policies: “Nuclear weapons are being harbored in many countries,” he said. “Taking a stand against one country and forcing them to disarm is not an honest approach…. It needs to be across the board. Let’s eradicate these weapons once and for all.”

The speech comes just days after Erdogan officially volunteered to serve as mediator between Iran and the United States, in the aftermath of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s letter to Barack Obama. As both a member of NATO and a Muslim country, Turkey sees itself as uniquely placed to act as a bridge between the West and the Middle East.

Elaborating on this theme, Erdogan expressed continued ambition to join the European Union, and dismay that Turkey has yet to be accepted as a member state: “We are doing our homework and are further along than many of the 27 member countries.” Turkey has been working toward E.U. membership for over four decades, but is the first Muslim nation under consideration. Ending on a more upbeat note, the Prime Minister rejoiced that Turkey has been accepted to serve as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council for 2009 and 2010 – the first time in the U.N.’s 47-year history.

Erdogan concluded poetically: “We want to make new friends rather than enemies, and be a pro-active agent of peace…. We want to be a country that harvests not hatred but rather harvests, and therefore reaps, love.”

As the motorcade pulled away, audience members were overwhelmingly heartened by Erdogan’s message of peace and harmony, and his vision of Turkey’s growing role on the international stage. But a few skeptics pointed to a bumpy road ahead given the country’s position as a secular yet pious society, caught between the West and Islam.

WIDE ANGLE’s Turkey’s Tigers reported on the tensions between Islam and Western-style capitalism in Turkish business circles.

November 12th, 2008

Lucy Kennedy

In late September this year The New York Times reported positive news from Eastern Congo, a volcanic region of great natural beauty, where ethnic violence has been commonplace for over a decade: tourists were trickling back to the area. But a little over a month later, the rebel leader Laurent Nkunda advanced on the city of Goma on the Congolese/Rwandan border, leading to a mass exodus of refugees from the city.

Nkunda, a renegade general of the Congolese Army, formed a brutal rebel group in Eastern Congo in the aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. His stated raison d‘etre was to protect the minority Congolese-Tutsi population. Many ethnic Hutus also fled from Rwanda into Eastern Congo and formed their own militias, thus exacerbating existing ethnic tensions along the border.

This week, in an interview with the BBC, Nkunda said that he would overthrow the Congolese government unless they agree to talks with him.

In early October this year the UN peacekeeping mission in the Congo, MONUC, asked the Security Council for an additional 3,000 troops to help resolve the escalating crisis in Eastern Congo. Alain Le Roy, the head of UN peacekeeping, said yesterday that it was unlikely the Security Council would come to a decision about more troops before the end of the month.

WIDE ANGLE spoke with Anthony W. Gambino author of a recent Council on Foreign Relations report, Congo: Securing Peace, Sustaining Progress, about the crisis in Congo.

WIDE ANGLE: In your report, you talk about the strategic interests for the United States in Eastern Congo. What are these interests?

GAMBINO: I’ll start with one that is not regularly talked about, but now that we’re moving into an Obama Administration I suspect it will be talked about more.

The issue I want to start with is Climate Change. Congo has the second most important forest in the world after the Amazon. There is a forest called the Congo Basin Forest that stretches from the Congo all the way across Western Africa to Gabon. It’s a huge forest but about half of it is in the Democratic Republic of Congo. That forest is relatively unspoiled so in terms of all the benefits that this amazing stretch of trees brings, in terms functioning as a carbon sink, in terms of biodiversity, etc. we still have that as a global resource. If we would loose that, the impact on not just the Congo, not just Africa, but on the world would be enormous. This resources really needs to be preserved.

Second, the broader war that broke out in 1998 in the Congo, ultimately involving armies from Angola to Zimbabwe, destabilized most of sub-Saharan Africa. I think it’s pretty clear that that is something the United States absolutely doesn’t want. When you have countries that we are friendly toward like Angola and Rwanda on opposite sides fighting in the Congo that’s bad for Africa but it’s also bad for the United States. So a return to that kind of fighting is so clearly not in our interests that working to prevent it is very, very important.

WIDE ANGLE: How do you think U.S. policy toward the Congo will change with the new administration?

GAMBINO: The Security Council for reasons I don’t comprehend has not acted on the Secretary General’s request for 3000 additional forces, and it is not clear to me what exactly is happening. But I am very worried that our own government is not supporting this. I’ve certainly seen no positive signs by our government saying they wanted to see this happen. And I’m worried that we’re actually opposing it in the Security Council. And, in my view, if that were the case that would be unconscionable. I dearly hope, and various statements that we have seen during the campaign suggest, that an Obama Administration would be much more forward leaning in giving the United Nations the authority and tools it needs.

WIDE ANGLE: What power does MONUC — the UN Peacekeeping Mission in the Congo — have?

GAMBINO: MONUC’s capabilities have changed in the Congo. Since it was introduced to patrol ceasefire lines it has seen its mandate expanded as circumstances have changed in the Congo so that its mandate today is to, within its capabilities, protect the civilian population, including using deadly force if necessary, and to try to maintain the peace.

However, there’s a huge problem in the way their rules of engagement are presently constructed. They are supposed to do all this in support of the Congolese Army. However if you’ve been following the news reports out of the Congo, it’s clear as can be that the Congolese army is part of the problem. Number one they can’t fight, and number two they’re abusive.

They murder, they rape, so how can any force restore peace in Eastern Congo if their real role is to be working in support of this murderous group of thugs? So MONUC is hamstrung for that reason.

The theory is fine, the Congo is a sovereign state. Sovereign states have their own own army. We introduce an international force. The international force should be there to support that army and help it accomplish what it needs to accomplish which is to guarantee the territorial integrity of the states. The theory is fine. The practice is impossible when you have probably the worst army in the world.

WIDE ANGLE: How much of the conflict is about the mineral wealth in the region?

GAMBINO: There is no question that the existence of minerals that are very valuable fuels this conflict. But it is a mistake to say that the conflict is only about that. Those ethnic tensions are not about control of minerals. These parts of eastern Congo are lawless. There is no effective projection of control of territory by any legitimate group. That means that you have right now dozens of groups running around, and all they really need to do is control some gold mining, some tin pan mining, some diamond mining — all that stuff is all over the place. And how do you mine this stuff? You mine it with your hands or a shovel, that’s all you need. If you can control that, you can make plenty of money, and all the money you need to buy Kalashnikovs, maybe a machine gun or two, and if you can get some rocket propelled grenades, so much the better.

The Congo is one of the poorest countries in the world, so if you’re a young man and you’re thinking about what your opportunities are, unfortunately, it could look to you that becoming brutal and exercising control over some of these mining areas, that can look like a pretty good deal to you. And so we see that all over these conflict areas in Eastern Congo.

WIDE ANGLE: Has there been a resurgence in the use of child soldiers?

GAMBINO: That’s a hugely important point, because the unfortunate fact about Central Africa is that our concept and the international concept about child soldiers that it is illegitimate to use young boys as fighters is completely not accepted. All sides all throughout this conflict regularly use boys as young as ten or eleven years old. Why? They’re the best fighters around. Most of Nkunda’s fighters are kids. Everybody is using them, including the Congolese Army. They just don’t accept our international view of the illegitimacy of using children under the age of 18 as combatants.

November 11th, 2008

Last Friday, police in the city of Enugu in south-eastern Nigeria raided a maternity hospital suspected to be a ‘baby farm.’ The authorities were tipped off by a pregnant teenage girl who managed to escape from the clinic, where she was being held hostage along with seven other pregnant women awaiting delivery. Several of their captors were arrested, but the suspected leaders of the child-trafficking ring remain at large.

This is the latest in dozens of investigations over the past few years that have revealed a network of Nigerian clinics and orphanages involved in breeding babies for sale. The most high-profile raid occurred in June of this year when 20 teenage girls were rescued from a hospital reported to be engaged in the illegal trafficking of infants. The doctor in charge, who is now facing trial, insists he was running a foster home to help unmarried pregnant girls give their babies up for adoption. But the women report they were lured to his clinic by offers to help them abort their unwanted pregnancies, then locked up until they gave birth. The young women were paid the equivalent of about $170 to give up their babies; the infants were in turn sold to childless couples for anywhere between $2,500 and $3,800 each.

An investigation by undercover Nigerian journalists shows that sale of babies is rampant in many Nigerian cities and run by well-organized criminal rings. In some cases, young women, driven by poverty, voluntarily lease out their wombs to produce babies for trafficking. In other cases, they are detained against their will and forced to sell their children at birth. The babies are not just sold to adoptive parents, but are also used for child labor, sexual abuse or prostitution, and possible sale of body parts for use in witchcraft rituals or for organ harvesting.

In 2003, the Nigerian government passed an anti-trafficking law which makes the buying or selling of babies illegal in Nigeria and carries a 14-year jail term.  Although the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons, or NAPTID, monitors trafficking cases, human trafficking remains the third largest crime in Nigeria after economic fraud and the drug trade.

A Nigerian blogger responded to news of the latest ‘baby farm’ raid by saying, “Good job to all those involved in bringing an end to this shameless business. I understand that times are hard, but to use human being as breeders, is beyond immoral.”

WIDE ANGLE’s Dying to Leave explored the worldwide boom in human trafficking.

November 7th, 2008

In the face of international criticism for its human rights record, including on behalf of President-elect Barack Obama, China announced on Tuesday that it will draft its first “national action plan” on issues such as torture and freedom of speech. Xinhua News Service, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party, reports the plan will be a blueprint for “expanding democracy, strengthening the rule of law, improving people’s livelihood, protecting rights of women, children and ethnic minorities, and boosting public awareness of human rights.” It is to be drafted by a panel of governmental, non-governmental, legal, and academic bodies.

Professor Zhao Zhengqun, one of the academics serving on the panel, says this move reflects a watershed moment in China’s attitudes towards human rights issues: “The safeguarding of human rights had long been regarded as a liability brought by international treaties, but the action plan indicates that the government is now committed to that cause.

But critics are dismissing the initiative as a public relations ploy, aimed at pre-empting further criticism of China’s human rights record when it faces a review by the United National Human Rights Council in Geneva next February. Jerome Cohen, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says, “Most international observers who follow human rights in China consider this mostly eyewash. It would be wonderful if the Chinese government would open up and discuss concrete cases. Human rights watchers want to talk about reality, not principle.”

China has come under intense scrutiny for a number of human rights abuses this past year, including a violent crackdown on protesters in Tibet in March and increased repression of petitioners and rights activists in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics in August. The Chinese government was especially embarrassed when human rights activist Hu Jia, sentenced to three and a half years of prison for speaking out publicly about AIDS and about environmental issues, won the European Union’s prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. June 2009 will mark the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, which could provoke additional pressure for the government to improve its human rights record.

The news of the action plan came on the same day that the advocacy group Human Rights in China reported on the disappearance by government officials of one of China’s first independent candidates in local elections.

Wide Angle’s
The People’s Court reported on the lengths to which Chinese people must go to obtain justice in the country’s present legal system.

November 5th, 2008

U.S. President-elect Barack Obama addressed not just the nation but the entire world in his victory speech in Chicago’s Grant Park last night:

Photo Credit: Cameron Hickey

“To all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of the world – our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand.”

The fate of the rest of the world is so tied to U.S. policy that throughout this election cycle, many people have joked that the whole world should be allowed to vote. Pollsters found that, if this had been allowed, the world would have voted overwhelmingly in favor of Obama.

Most Americans say that the economy was the most important issue in this election, with the war in Iraq coming a distant second. What issues were most important to Obama’s global fans, and detractors? Beyond the celebrations in Kenya and formal congratulations offered by presidents and prime ministers, how are people in the rest of the world reacting to Obama’s victory?
The Middle East

Obama’s opposition to the Iraq war has been central to his presidential campaign since day one. But Iraqi opinion is divided on his promise of a phased withdrawal of American troops. Some Iraqis say that the Obama victory represents a turn towards diplomacy and peace. But Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari fears that Obama “will not have the same enthusiasm and momentum for this situation” as President Bush has had.

Throughout this election cycle, the McCain campaign has ridiculed Obama for his stance on Iran, repeatedly calling Obama “naive” for agreeing to talk with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “without preconditions.” Many Iranians are looking forward to an American president that is open to diplomacy. But one blogger makes the point that with a new American president who has expressed his willingness to talk, the Iranian regime “can’t keep making America their enemy.” Much of the Iranian government’s power is derived from its enmity with the U.S.

American Jews were slow to embrace a relatively dovish candidate with the middle name “Hussein,” but in the end, even Gov. Sarah Palin’s profession of love for Israel wasn’t enough to sway this traditionally democratic voting block — 77 percent of American Jews cast their vote for Barack Obama. In Israel, some citizens are still skeptical, fearing that Obama, the son of a Muslim, may be overly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. But Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who herself has been referred to as “Israel’s Barack Obama” said she “expects the close strategic cooperation with the new administration” and called Obama’s election “a mark of merit for American democracy.”


U.S.-Russia relations are sure to be on a short list of foreign policy challenges the Obama administration will be facing — perhaps sooner than they might have anticipated. While many world leaders sent hearty congratulations to the president-elect, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev must have been thinking along different lines when he announced on Wednesday that Moscow would station new short-range Iskander missiles in the Kaliningrad region between Poland and Lithuania. The deployment is in retaliation for the missile defense shield the U.S. plans to complete in Poland and the Czech Republic by 2011. No doubt disturbing to regional leaders, the Iskander is capable of carrying a tactical nuclear warhead.

President-elect Obama spoke with Poland’s foreign minister earlier in the year and indicated that he would move forward with the anti-missile shield if he was assured the system was not targeting Russia. Both on his campaign web site and in a July/August 2007 essay for Foreign Affairs, Obama emphasized the need for engagement with Russian leaders “to update and scale back our dangerously outdated Cold War nuclear postures and de-emphasize the role of nuclear weapons.”

While Russia may be increasingly on Obama’s mind, the Russian people do not seem to be giving as much thought to him. According to a recently-released survey from the independent Levada Center, almost two-thirds of Russians didn’t care all that much about the U.S. presidential elections — 35 percent supported Obama, 14 percent were for McCain, 37 percent said they didn’t care who won, and 14 percent were undecided. Now that the election is over, “video postcards” from three Russians voice their hopes for a powerful president who will develop friendly relations with Moscow and not treat it just as a “consumer market.” Does this mean they don’t want our blue jeans anymore?


China, home to one-fifth of the world’s population and America’s largest trading partner, was surprisingly absent as a foreign policy concern during the presidential campaign. But President-elect Obama will inevitably face the challenges posed by its emergence as an economic and military powerhouse. Opinion polls indicated two-thirds of Chinese people favored Obama, whose basic policy position is that America should not demonize China, but rather engage it constructively on a wide range of political and economic issues, all the while pressing the Chinese government to respect human rights.

There is some concern in India regarding Obama’s view of the conflict between Pakistan and India over Kashmir. Obama stirred up mixed emotions in India when discussing his thoughts on Kashmir with MSNBC on November 3rd. Obama stated “We should probably try to facilitate a better understanding between Pakistan and India and try to resolve the Kashmir crisis so that they can stay focused not on India, but on the situation with those militants.” Some people in India are concerned that U.S. involvement in the conflict would alter the already tenuous relationship between India and Pakistan, and potentially encourage Kashmiri militants and separatists.

India is also wary that Obama’s strong views on non-proliferation will force India to accept the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which includes a moratorium on nuclear weapons testing. In a letter to Prime Minister Singh this September, Obama wrote “I am committed to the goal of a world without nuclear weapons, and will make this a central element of U.S. nuclear weapons policy.”

Rajendra K. Pachauri, the Indian chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has noted the importance of U.S. leadership on climate change policy, stating “The U.S. now has a unique opportunity to assume leadership in meeting the threat of climate change, and it would help greatly if the new President were to announce a coherent and forward looking policy soon after he takes office. There is every reason to believe that President Obama will actually do so. This should please people across the globe, because U.S. leadership is critical for mounting global efforts to meet this threat effectively.”

Latin America

Latin American heads of state, from Michelle Bachelet in Chile to Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva were quick to congratulate Obama on his election victory, excited about his plan to rebuild U.S. leadership in a region that has been relatively ignored by the Bush administration.

In Cuba, Fidel Castro published an editorial yesterday in the state-run newspaper Granma Internacional praising Obama as “without doubt more intelligent, cultured and calm than his Republican adversary,” but questioning his commitment to foreign affairs: “Concerns over the world’s pressing problems really do not occupy an important place in Obama’s mind.” Many Cuban citizens see a ray of hope for improved relations with the U.S. as Obama has promised to allow unlimited travel and remittances to the island by Cuban-Americans, and has expressed willingness to ease the five-decade embargo if Cuba takes significant steps toward democracy, beginning with the freeing all political prisoners.

As for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, he reacted to the Obama victory with an about-face: after kicking out the U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela in September, he now declares himself ready to launch a “constructive bilateral agenda” with America. Obama is likely to proceed with caution, however, having labeled Chavez a demagogue who governs with a “perilous mix of anti-American rhetoric, authoritarian government, and checkbook diplomacy.”

Neighboring Colombia seems less enthusiastic about an Obama presidency, fearing it will lose its status as America’s primary ally in the Western Hemisphere under President Bush. Obama is expected to continue supporting President Alvaro Uribe’s fight against the drug trade and the FARC guerrillas, but in an April 2008 speech said he would oppose a free trade agreement with Colombia. An editorial in the Colombian paper El Tiempo this morning predicts relations with Washington are “entering the freezer.”

In Mexico, where the election campaign had been followed closely due to the hot-button issue of immigration reform, last night’s election returns were overshadowed by a plane crash in downtown Mexico City that killed the nation’s interior minister, the point person in the government crackdown on drug cartels. Obama has pledged to work with Mexico on issues such as the drug wars, illegal immigration, and economic development, but an editorial in today’s El Universal expresses doubt that he will follow through with his promises: “Obama says little about relations with Mexico and little action can be expected in the short term, although it is important that our government be present to defend Mexican interests.”


Across Africa people are celebrating the election of Barack Obama. Kenya called a national holiday. Archbishop Desmond Tutu compared Obama’s victory to South Africa’s triumph over apartheid. The Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua said that Obama’s victory has “finally broken the greatest barrier of prejudice in human history.”

In a letter to Obama, Nelson Mandela wished him “strength and fortitude in the challenging days and years that lie ahead.” Mandela’s letter was a reminder of the immense expectations that the world has of Obama. “We trust that you will also make it the mission of your Presidency to combat the scourge of poverty and disease everywhere,” wrote Mandela.

In both the primary and general election campaigns there was virtually no discussion on Africa policy. But according to one of Obama’s foreign policy advisers, Witney W. Schneidman, a top priority for Obama will be to end the genocide in Darfur. Given the domestic issues and war in both Afghanistan and Iraq it remains to be seen how much time and resources his administration will have to end the conflict in Sudan.

It will be interesting to watch how the Obama administration will navigate China’s involvement in Africa. In a primary debate last December, Obama said that when he visited Africa he was told by a group of businessmen that “the presence of China is only exceeded by the absence of America in the entire African continent.” He also said that the US has to be “tougher negotiators with China” but asserted that, “they are not enemies, but they are competitors of ours.”

It’s impossible to predict what Obama’s administration will bring in terms of US policy toward Africa, but Archbishop Tutu’s prediction at the University of Michigan will very likely hold true, “It is going to be a new epoch,” he said.

November 3rd, 2008

The northeastern region of India, comprised of seven states that border Bangladesh, China, Bhutan and Burma, has experienced more than a decade of violence and more than 10,000 people have died in the region as a result. The region is home to religious insurgent groups, migrant workers from neighboring countries, separatist groups vying for independence and indigenous tribes. Last Thursday’s bombings in the northeastern state of Assam were vivid reminders of the volatile disagreements between these various groups.  The death toll following the 13 or more coordinated blasts reached 84 people today, with more than 400 people reportedly injured. An elusive terrorist group called the Islamic Security Force – Indian Mujahideen claimed responsibility for the attacks on Friday in an SMS message sent to News Live television which read: “We, ISF-IM, take the responsibility of yesterday blast. We warn all of Assam and India for situation like this in future. We thank all our holy members and partners. AAamin.”

The Indian Mujahideen has claimed responsibility for several attacks in other parts of India this year. The coordinated bombings in a popular tourist district in Jaipur on May 13, 2008 claimed more than 80 lives. In July, a coordinated series of 19 bombs were detonated in Gujarat’s capital, Ahmedabad, killing at least 45 people and injuring 160. Tensions between Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat have been high since 2002 when sectarian violence flared up and 2,000 Muslims were killed by Hindu mobs. Gujarat is home to a strongly anti-Muslim wing of India’s main opposition party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Although Islamic Security Force – Indian Mujahideen claimed responsibility for the Assam bombings, the police and special task forces continue to investigate, theorizing that several different terror groups worked together on the attacks. They have not yet ruled out a separatist group called the United Liberation Front of Assam, which carried out deadly bombings in Assam earlier this month. The publicity department for the the ULFA has denied the group’s involvement. Police are investigating two other active groups, Harkat-ul-Jihad-e-Islami (HuJI) and the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), which may have links to both ULFA and ISF-IM.

With 174 terrorist, insurgent and extremist groups operating in India, some of which have been banned by India’s government, it’s clear that the investigations into the latest attacks will take time.

WIDE ANGLE explored the issue of sectarian violence in India in Soul of India.

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