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News Briefing and Comment


Charity increases aid distribution to Syrians fleeing fighting in Idleb

Sat, 20 Jan 2018 08:38:07 +0000

CARE International has started to increase aid distribution to Syrian civilians who have been displaced by ongoing fighting in the Northern governorate of Idleb, where living conditions are deteriorating daily as temperatures plummet. The charity aims to reach 25,000 people with emergency help.

CARE International has started to increase aid distribution to Syrian civilians who have been displaced by ongoing fighting in the Northern governorate of Idleb, where living conditions are deteriorating daily as temperatures plummet. The charity aims to reach 25,000 people with emergency help.

More than 100,000 civilians, most of whom have been repeatedly displaced by conflict, have fled Southern Idleb and Northern Hama, and headed towards safer areas since the beginning of January. These numbers are expected to increase and even double as fighting and airstrikes continue. CARE was already distributing aid to civilians in Idleb, through local partners.

"Conditions have worsened dramatically since the beginning of January. Families who were forced to flee their homes – sometimes with nothing but their clothes on their back – are living in temporary shelters and open spaces in freezing conditions with no access to clean water, food, or heating. We are deeply concerned that the health and sanitary situation will soon reach a critical point", said Wouter Schaap, CARE’s Syria country director.

"We have already started scaling up our humanitarian response with our partners in the area. Registration of civilians and distribution of aid are underway, and we aim to reach 25,000 people once the distribution is completed", added Wouter.

One of the most acute needs is decent shelter, as families are living out in the open, some of them for example, sleeping in the trucks that they used to flee and onto which they had packed a few personal belongings, like mattresses or stoves. CARE will be distributing blankets and mattresses, ready to eat food rations, nappies and other hygiene materials, as well as cash to allow civilians to access markets and buy what they need.

"We fled our house at 3 am. Now, I’m sitting in my car, without anything, no tent nor shelter. It’s a big tragedy. I had invested all I have in my house and now it’s gone", a middle-aged man told a CARE partner, while helping two women put up a tent in an informal camp. Nearby, a woman handwashes pieces of clothes in a bucket placed on the red muddy soil, while another burns pieces of wood to cook soup on a small stove. All around the camp, children play in puddles, while laundry hangs  out to dry in between tents.

CARE has called on all parties to the conflict to stop targeting civilians, and allow humanitarian aid to reach them urgently.

*CARE International has been providing aid in Syria since 2014, and has reached more than 2.7 million people so far. Their work is focused on food security, livelihoods, shelter, water and sanitation, and psychosocial support for people in crisis.

NAO report reveals dire financial position of NHS, says Nuffield Trust

Sat, 20 Jan 2018 08:25:59 +0000

The Nuffield Trust says the National Audit Office's report shows that the NHS is in desperate need of more money. Additional funding, aimed to help the NHS get on a financially sustainable footing, has instead been spent on coping with existing pressures, according to the National Audit Office’s (NAO) report, published on 19 January 2018. The NHS received an additional £1.8 billion Sustainability and Transformation Fund in 2016-17 to give it breathing space to set itself up to survive on significantly less funding growth from 2017-18 onwards. It was also intended to give it stability to improve performance and transform services, to achieve a sustainable health system. The Fund has helped the NHS improve its financial position from a £1,848 million deficit in 2015-16 to a £111 million surplus in 2016-17. Within the overall position, the combined trust deficit reduced to £791 million in 2016-17 from £2,447 million in 2015-16. There has also been an improved underspend of £154 million across clinical commissioning groups, yet 62 groups reported a cumulative deficit in 2016-17, up from 32 in 2015-16. Despite its overall financial position improving, the NHS is struggling to manage increased activity and demand within its budget and has not met NHS access targets. Furthermore, measures it took to rebalance its finances have restricted money available for longer-term transformation, which is essential for the NHS to meet demand, drive efficiencies and improve the service. For example, the Department transferred £1.2 billion of its £5.8 billion budget for capital projects to fund the day-to-day activities of NHS bodies. On top of this funding, many trusts are receiving large levels of in-year cash injections, most of which are loans from the Department, which have worsened rather than improved their financial performance. Extra cash support increased from £2.4 billion in 2015-16 to £3.1 billion in 2016-17. Clinical commissioning groups and trusts are increasingly reliant on one-off measures to deliver savings, rather than recurrent savings that are realised each year. Between 2014-15 and 2016-17 the percentage of savings that were non-recurrent increased from 14 per cent to 17 per cent for commissioners, and from 14 per cent to 22 per cent for trusts. This poses a significant risk to the financial sustainability of the NHS in the future. Progress has been made in setting up 44 new partnership arrangements across health and local government, which are laying the foundations for a more strategic approach to meeting the demand for health services within the resources available. In reality, partnerships’ effectiveness varies and their tight financial positions make it difficult for them to shift focus from short-term day-to-day pressures to delivering transformation of services. The NAO has made a number of recommendations to the Department, NHS England and NHS Improvement, which includes moving further and faster towards aligning nationwide incentives, regulation and processes, as well as reassessing how best to allocate the sustainability and transformation funding. Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said, "The NHS has received extra funding, but this has mostly been used to cope with current pressures and has not provided the stable platform intended from which to transform services. Repeated short-term funding-boosts could turn into the new normal, when the public purse may be better served by a long-term funding settlement that provides a stable platform for sustained improvements". Commenting on the NAO’s report, Nuffield Trust Senior Policy Analyst Sally Gainsbury said, “As this report makes clear, the NHS is in a dire financial position. For several years hospital trusts have been grappling with the twin pressures of rising prices and significant cuts to the amount of money they receive per patient. This has meant they are relying increasingly on one-off savings and[...]

Refugee Council responds to Sandhurst Treaty

Sat, 20 Jan 2018 08:22:54 +0000

Theresa May and the French President Emmanuel Macron have committed to speeding up the process by which refugees in France are able join family in safety here in Britain.

Theresa May and the French President, Emmanuel Macron, have committed to speeding up the process by which refugees in France are able join family in safety here in Britain. This will see waiting times decrease from six months to one month for adults and down to 25 days for children.

The Sandhurst Treaty, signed on Thursday 18 January 2018, also announced the British government’s investment of an extra £44.5 million into British border controls based in France.

Dr Lisa Doyle, Director of Advocacy at the Refugee Council, said, “We warmly welcome the commitment made by the British and French governments to speed up the process by which people desperately wanting to reach their relatives are able to do so. Unaccompanied children and adults have been waiting in limbo and often terrible conditions for far too long, even though they were entitled to join their relatives in the UK.

“It is vital that any measures taken by Governments to protect their borders, including those that form a part of this Treaty, do not prevent refugees being able to seek protection or reach loved ones in the UK through safe routes. Changing rules around Refugee Family Reunion is a prime example of where improvements can be made and we urge the government to widen the definition of family members who are eligible to reunite under these rules so that more people are not forced to risk their lives in order to reach safety.”

* Refugee Council


Microwaves 'could be as bad for the environment as millions of cars'

Sat, 20 Jan 2018 07:51:13 +0000

Microwave usage across the EU alone emits as much carbon dioxide as nearly seven million cars, according to a new study by the University of Manchester. Microwave usage across the EU alone emits as much carbon dioxide as nearly seven million cars according to a new study by the University of Manchester. Researchers at the University have carried out the first ever comprehensive study of the environmental impacts of microwaves, considering their whole life cycle, from ‘cradle to grave’. The study found: Microwaves emit 7.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year in the EU. This is equivalent to the annual emissions of 6.8 million cars. Microwaves across the EU consume an estimated 9.4 terawatts per hour (TWh) of electricity every year. This is equivalent to the annual electricity generated by three large gas power plants. Efforts to reduce consumption should focus on improving consumer awareness and behaviour to use appliances more efficiently Microwaves account for the largest percentage of sales of all type of ovens in the European Union (EU), with numbers set to reach nearly 135 million by 2020. Despite this, the scale of their impacts on the environment was not known until now. The study used life cycle assessment (LCA) to estimate the impacts of microwaves, taking into account their manufacture, use and end-of-life waste management. Altogether, the research team investigated 12 different environmental factors, including climate change, depletion of natural resources and ecological toxicity. They found, for example, that the microwaves used across the EU emit 7.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. This is equivalent to the annual emission of 6.8 million cars. The research shows that the main environmental ‘hotspots’ are materials used to manufacture the microwaves, the manufacturing process and end-of-life waste management. For example, the manufacturing process alone contributes more than 20 per cent to depletion of natural resources and to climate change. However, it is electricity consumption by microwaves that has the biggest impact on the environment, taking into account its whole life cycle, from production of fuels to generation of electricity. In total, microwaves across the EU consume an estimated 9.4 terawatts per hour (TWh) of electricity every year. This is equivalent to the annual electricity generation by three large gas power plants. The study found that, on average, an individual microwave uses 573 kilowatt hour (kWh) of electricity over its lifetime of eight years. That is equivalent to the electricity consumed by a 7 watt LED light bulb, left on continuously for almost nine years. This is despite the fact that microwaves spend more than 90 per cent of their lifetime being idle, in the stand-by mode. The study’s authors suggest that efforts to reduce consumption should focus on improving consumer awareness and behaviour to use appliances more efficiently. For example, electricity consumption by microwaves can be reduced by adjusting the time of cooking to the type of food. Waste is another major problem. Due to their relative low cost and ease of manufacture, consumers are throwing more electrical and electronic (EE) equipment away than ever before, including microwaves. In 2005, across the EU, 184,000 tonnes of EE waste was generated from discarded microwaves. By 2025 this is estimated to rise to 195,000 tonnes, or 16 million individual units being sent for disposal. Dr Alejandro Gallego-Schmid, from the School of Chemical Engineering & Analytical Science, explains: "Rapid technological developments and falling prices are driving the purchase of electrical and electronic appliances in Europe. "‘Consumers now tend to buy new appliances before the existing ones reach the end of their useful life as electronic goods have become fashionable and ‘status’ items. "As a resul[...]

Amnesty USA statement on a year of resistance to Trump's anti-human rights agenda

Sat, 20 Jan 2018 07:36:52 +0000

Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA, has issued a statement in anticipation of the anniversary of the inauguration of President Trump on 20 January 2017.

In anticipation of the anniversary of the inauguration of President Trump on 20 Jaunuary 2017, Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA, issued the following statement:

“While the policies of the Trump administration presented daunting challenges over the past year, we also saw the rise of a fierce and determined movement of people across the country and around the world standing up to defend human rights. Starting with the throngs of people braving the January cold to fill the streets on the very first day of his presidency and continuing throughout the year, we have taken heart in the galvanizing spirit of resistance that has swept the world.

“We have marched alongside both seasoned activists standing up for women’s rights and we have welcomed those who have never actively protested before in denouncing Trump’s discriminatory Muslim ban.

“We have placed welcome mats for refugees at the foot of Trump Tower, and filled London’s Grosvenor Square with 100 somber Statues of Liberty standing in silent protest at the US embassy.

“From Sydney to Madrid, human rights defenders have made it known that the politics of hate and fear have no place in the world we wish to build for ourselves and our children. As dismayed as we are to see that President Trump has no intentions of abandoning his hateful rhetoric and dangerous policies, we are just as energized to meet his challenges head on.

“Whatever the next year brings, we take heart in knowing that there is a strong global community of activists from all corners of the world who will rise up wherever human rights are threatened.”

* Amnesty International USA


Blow for Afghans as Norwegian parliament rejects asylum proposal

Fri, 19 Jan 2018 08:47:22 +0000

The Norwegian parliament has rejected a proposal to place a temporary halt on returning asylum seekers to Afghanistan. The Norwegian parliament’s decision to reject a proposal to place a temporary halt on returning people to Afghanistan demonstrates a disturbing disregard for the lives of people fleeing war and persecution, Amnesty International said. The parliament also rejected a proposal which would have made it more difficult to send asylum seekers back to the countries they fled from. This proposal would have brought Norwegian law closer in line with international standards. Afghanistan remains extremely dangerous, with civilian casualties reaching record highs in 2017. Less than a month ago, at least 40 people were killed by a bomb in Kabul, in an attack that appeared to deliberately target students. Charmain Mohamed, Head of Refugee and Migrant Rights at Amnesty, said, “This is awful news for Afghans in Norway, and a sad indication that politicians in one of the wealthiest countries in the world have lost their compassion. “Life in Afghanistan is fraught with dangers including bombing, kidnapping, and persecution. It is cruel and immoral to send people there. “Not only is it deeply irresponsible to force people back to danger, it is illegal. With these proposals, Norway had a chance to prove itself as a leader in upholding human rights – it has now thrown away that chance and jeopardised the futures of hundreds of Afghans.” Among the Afghans affected by today’s decision is Taibeh Abbasi, an 18-year-old living in the city of Trondheim whose case ignited huge student protests. Taibeh was born in Iran and has never visited Afghanistan, where she is terrified of going. Last year she told demonstrators, “In Kabul there is no future for me and my brothers. We will be exposed to discrimination and physically feel what it is like to be an exposed minority. I as a girl am particularly exposed. My dreams of an education and a career will be broken.” More than 100,000 people worldwide have signed Amnesty’s petition calling on the Norwegian government to stop returning people to Afghanistan until the country is stable enough to ensure their safety and dignity. Charmain Mohamed said, “Afghans like Taibeh and her family deserve to live in safety and dignity. We are calling on Norwegian MPs to reconsider their position and to make sure that no Afghans are forced back to danger." The proposal concerning a halt of forcible returns of people to Afghanistan was put forward by the Socialist Left Party, the Green Party and the Red Party, while the proposal on the reasonableness criteria was put forward by the Socialist Left Party. On 9 January 2017, the Norwegian Parliamentary Standing Committee on Local Government and Public Administration recommended that they be rejected, and on 18 January parliament voted in line with this recommendation. Norway appears to deport more Afghans than almost any other European country – not just in proportion to its population, but in sheer total numbers. According to the Afghan authorities, 32 per cent (97 out of 304 people) of forcible returns from Europe in the first four months of 2017 came from Norway. A 2017 Amnesty International report detailed cases of Afghans who have been returned from European countries – including Norway – to be killed, injured in bomb attacks, or living in constant fear of persecution. Read the report Afghanistan: Forced back to danger: Asylum-seekers returned from Europe to Afghanistan  here * Amnesty International [Ekk/6] [...]

One in ten new homes was a former office, says LGA

Fri, 19 Jan 2018 08:33:28 +0000

New analysis reveals nearly one in 10 new homes during the last two years was converted from an office and included no affordable housing or supporting investment in infrastructure such as roads, schools and health services.

New analysis by the Local Government Association (LGA )reveals nearly one in 10 new homes during the last two years was converted from an office and included no affordable housing or supporting investment in infrastructure such as roads, schools and health services.

The LGA says permitted development rights rules, allowing offices to be converted into housing without planning permission, are “detrimental” to local communities and should be scrapped. It warns they have led to the potential loss of more than 7,500 desperately-needed affordable homes.

Since 2015, a total of 30,575 housing units in England have been converted from offices to flats without having to go through the planning system.

While this amounts to approximately eight per cent of new homes nationally, in some parts of the country it is responsible for around two thirds of all new housing.

Office to residential conversions under permitted development rules accounted for 73 per cent of new homes in Stevenage, 64 per cent in Three Rivers, and 61 per cent in Sutton during 2016/17.

In Nottingham, Basildon, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Hounslow and Harlow the number was more than half.

Permitted development allows developers to bypass the oversight of councils and local residents that is provided by the planning system, which ensures homes are built to high standards with the requisite infrastructure in place. This includes a proportion of affordable housing.

The LGA estimates that permitted development, which unlike new developments has no requirement to include affordable housing, has led to the potential loss of 7,644 affordable homes over the last two years.

Councils are also warning that office space could dry up as a result, leaving businesses and start-ups without any premises in which to base themselves.

Cllr Martin Tett, the LGA’s Housing spokesman, said, “Councils want to see more affordable homes built quickly and the conversion of offices into residential flats is one way to deliver much-needed homes.

“However, it is vital that councils and local communities have a voice in the planning process. At present, permitted development rules allow developers to bypass local influence and convert offices to flats, and to do so without providing affordable housing and local services and infrastructure such as roads and schools.

“Permitted development is detrimental to the ability of local communities to shape the area they live in.

“Planning is not a barrier to house-building, and councils are approving nine in 10 planning applications. But it is essential that councils, which are answerable to their residents, have an oversight of local developments to ensure they are good quality and help build prosperous places. The resulting loss of office space can risk hampering local plans to grow economies and attract new businesses and jobs to high streets and town centres.”

* Local Government Association


Teaching unions call for urgent review of teachers' and school leaders’ pay

Fri, 19 Jan 2018 08:17:52 +0000

Teaching unions have submitted a joint statement to the School Teachers’ Review Body calling for a significant pay increase for teachers and school leaders. Teaching unions representing the majority of education staff in England and Wales have submitted a joint statement calling for a significant pay increase for teachers and school leaders, and setting out their views on the most pressing issues facing the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB). "ASCL, NAHT, NEU, UCAC and Voice believe that the STRB needs to set a benchmark for teacher and school leaders’ pay which will make teaching competitive with other graduate professions and aid both recruitment and retention. "The evidence from our organisations of a growing crisis in recruiting and retaining teachers and school leaders means that the STRB must take this opportunity to fully exercise its functions as the independent pay review body for the profession. We believe that this must lead the STRB to recommend a significant increase in pay for all teachers and school leaders, irrespective of their career stage, setting or geographical location. "We believe it is a matter of ‘justice and fairness’ that all teachers and school leaders should receive an annual cost of living increase to prevent them from being worse off year-on-year. The current policy of differentiated pay awards is not working and is demoralising the profession. "We are calling for a significant pay increase for all teachers and school leaders to begin to address the decline in teachers’ real pay over the last seven years. "It is also vital that any pay increases arising from the recommendations of the STRB are fully funded by the government. School budgets are at breaking point. Without additional funding, paying staff fairly whilst fully funding the curriculum will be impossible." Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said, “After seven years of government-imposed austerity, teachers need and deserve a decent pay rise, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it is essential in tackling the ongoing recruitment and retention crisis. And the government must fund any pay award rather than expecting schools to foot the bill from budgets which have already been cut to the bone.” Paul Whiteman, General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, (NAHT) said, “Teaching is a demanding and important profession and teachers’ pay should reflect this. At the moment, it doesn’t. The recruitment crisis continues unabated and the teacher supply pipeline is leaking at both ends. At present the government is failing to recruit enough new teachers, and doing nowhere near enough whilst too many experienced teachers leave prematurely. A pay rise for school staff is long overdue.” Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said, “Children’s education is at risk – insufficient recruitment and retention of high quality teachers is a very real problem. To begin to address this, it is essential that teacher workload is reduced and that the government now commits to reducing a restorative pay rise, starting with a significant real terms increase in 2018, which is fully funded. Ministers are right when they say an education system is only as good as its teachers and leaders. The public is demanding government values these hardworking professionals who can make such a positive impact on young people’s futures.” Elaine Edwards, General Secretary of UCAC, said, “For years teachers have not been properly valued or remunerated for their crucial contribution to the education and social development of our children and young people which has led to serious recruitment and retention problems in Wales and[...]

Kenyan tribesman killed 'in the name of conservation'

Fri, 19 Jan 2018 08:04:02 +0000

A man from the Sengwer tribe has been killed by guards working for the Kenya Forestry Service. Another man was wounded. The attack follows several recent violent operations to evict Sengwer tribespeople from their land.

A man from the Sengwer tribe has been killed by guards working for the Kenya Forestry Service. Another man was wounded. The attack follows several recent violent operations to evict Sengwer tribespeople from their land.

Dozens of armed security officers burned people’s homes, food stores, and possessions, and killed livestock, to force them out of the Embobut Forest where they have lived for generations. The attacks started at the end of December.

Milka Chepkorir, a Sengwer woman, says that the destruction of their homes in the attacks results in: “a loss of family ties as family members are scattered and scared, and sexual abuse and harassment and psychological torture is associated with the horrible acts of evictions.”

Despite the threats and violence, many Sengwer have vowed to resist. One woman declared: “We are going nowhere, even if the government decides to kill us here.”

The EU is funding a conservation project in the region, which aims to protect water sources in the hills but has now condemned the killing and announced it is suspending its support for the project.

The Sengwer are calling on the government to uphold their right to live on their ancestral land, and to consult with them urgently on how best to work with them to conserve their forests. Eviction of the Sengwer started under British colonial rule.

In 2014 the KFS and police evicted thousands of Sengwer from their forest homes, forcing many to live in caves or temporary structures.

Following more harassment in 2016, David Yator Kiptum, Executive Director of the Sengwer Indigenous Peoples Programme said: “Evicting members of the Sengwer community from our ancestral home is not a solution to conservation. Neither is it a solution to climate change.”? 

The Sengwer number about 33,000 people, of which about 13,500 live in the Embobut Forest. Here they hunt, gather honey, plant crops and rear small numbers of livestock. Like many tribal peoples they have a deep knowledge of the ecology of their forests, which they have maintained for generations.

The evictions are in violation of international law, and are destroying the people who know best how to conserve the forest, says Survival International, the global movement for the rights of tribal people.

* Read UN concerns over the attacks and evictions here

* Survival International


Household spending outpaced income growth last year

Fri, 19 Jan 2018 07:54:13 +0000

Household spending increased more rapidly than income growth in the last financial year, leading to lower savings and higher levels of household debt.

Household spending increased more rapidly than income growth in the last financial year (2016-17), with the biggest rises taking place among lower income households, the Resolution Foundation said in response to the latest ONS Family Spending figures.

The ONS figures show that households increased their spending by four per cent in 2016-17, helped by low inflation and rising employment. Household incomes grew by 2.3 per cent over the same period, 

Lower income households (in the bottom half of the income distribution) increased their spending by seven per cent, far more than the one per cent increase across the richest half of households.

The Foundation notes that this data covers the year from April 2016 to March 2017. More recent, but less detailed, data has shown that consumer spending has slowed as household incomes have been squeezed.

Stephen Clarke, Policy Analyst at the Resolution Foundation, said, “Today’s figures confirm that families largely shrugged off any immediate post-EU referendum jitters and went spending. This extra spending outpaced the extra level of income available to households, who turned instead to their savings and credit cards.

“More recently, rising prices and squeezed incomes have put the brakes on Britain’s big spending households.”

* Resolution Foundation


Government to miss own deadline on revealing true owners of UK property

Fri, 19 Jan 2018 07:50:35 +0000

The government has delayed introducing a public register which would reveal the true owners of overseas companies buying UK property.

Speaking on behalf of the Government, Lord Ahmad announced in the House of Lords on 17 January 2018 that the UK will not put forward primary legislation on introducing a public register, revealing the true owners of overseas companies buying UK property, until at least Summer 2019. This means the Government will miss its original deadline of this year.

Lord Ahmad announced:

  • Draft legislation to be tabled by this summer
  • Primary legislation during the second session (by summer 2019)
  • Aim to have the register operational by 2021

Transparency International UK is disappointed that the Government is further delaying the introduction of a vital tool in cracking down on laundering of corrupt money through the UK property market, particularly as it has cross party support.

Rachel Davies Teka, Head of Advocacy at Transparency International UK, said, “Although I welcome a clear timetable being laid out, I am disappointed by the significant delay to primary legislation given the fact that the policy has cross party support, and has already undergone two consultations. The longer we have to wait for this register, the longer corrupt individuals will be able to use the UK property market to hide their wealth.”

* Transparency International UK


Home Office rejects claim of humanist asylum seeker unable to identify Plato or Aristotle

Fri, 19 Jan 2018 07:44:53 +0000

The Home Office has rejected a claim for asylum on the grounds that the claimant, a Pakistani humanist, when asked to name ancient Greek philosophers who were humanists, did not name Plato and Aristotle. The Home Office has rejected a claim for asylum on the grounds that the claimant, when asked to name ancient Greek philosophers who were humanists, did not name Plato and Aristotle. The claimant, Hamza bin Walayat, an ex-Muslim ‘apostate’ and member of Humanists UK, would, as a humanist, face ostracism, violence and persecution if returned to his native Pakistan. During an interview as part of his assessment process, the Home Office summary of which has been seen by Humanists UK and the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), he was subjected to an extraordinary line of questioning including on the semantics of whether humanism can be a considered a religion and tested on his knowledge of classical philosophy. Hamza bin Walayat has received death threats from members of his family and community in Pakistan, because of his humanist beliefs and for his rejection of Islam, a crime that carries the death penalty in that country. He has a long-term British partner, and has made the UK his home since arriving in 2011. Humanists UK and IHEU, who both offered evidence in support of this claim, have criticised the Home Office’s handling of this case, which shows a profound and dangerous lack of understanding about humanism and non-religious beliefs, and the persecution faced by those who hold them. They say that questions pursued in the interview with Hamza reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of equality and human rights protections by the Home Office with regards to non-religious people. When asked his religion, he said he is a humanist and that humanists are non-religious, only to then be chastised for stating "your religion as Humanist despite knowing that this is not a religion." Semantics aside, it has been long established in the Equality Act 2010 that references by authorities to religion must be read as including references to those with non-religious beliefs. The law protects non-religious people from discrimination experienced because of their beliefs, just as it protects religious people. Humanism is a philosophical belief system which encompasses a wide range of beliefs about the importance of life and ethical standards, without being focused on belief in an external deity. The fact that humanists do not subscribe to a set of beliefs that includes a deity does not mean humanism is not treated in the same way as religions for the purpose of preventing persecution. Along this line of reasoning, the Home Office further mistakenly claimed that the "1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees is not one that engages the United Kingdom’s obligations under the Convention, as it is not based in the fear of persecution in Pakistan [and presumably everywhere else] because of race, religion…" The lack of understanding around the meaning of ‘religion’ in this context, crucially that it applies equally to those who face persecution because they do not hold religious beliefs, is dangerous. If it were not inaccurate, it would leave non-religious people without adequate legal protection. There are currently 13 countries, including Pakistan, where being a humanist is considered as apostasy and is punishable by death. In a further nine countries, humanists may  face the same penalty for committing blasphemy. Specifically in Pakistan, there have been forced disappearances, abuse, arrests, and several atheist websites and social media accounts fhave been forced offline after a Government[...]

Government measures deepen crisis for campaigning

Fri, 19 Jan 2018 07:27:55 +0000

A survey has found that government measures such as the Lobbying Act have had a chilling effect on campaigning by charities and voluntary organisations.

Measures introduced by the Government, such as the Lobbying Act, are continuing to take a heavy toll on voluntary, charity and social enterprise (VCSE) campaigning, according to this years’ Sheila McKechnie Foundation (SMK) Campaigner Survey.
Overall, 90 per cent of respondents believe campaigning by the VCSE sector is under threat and 49 per cent say things have got worse since last year. 87 per cent of respondents believe that government measures are threatening the legitimacy of campaigning, and 55 per cent cite negative media coverage of the VCSE sector. Sixty-one per cent also say conditions of funding discourage campaigning.
It is clear that these threats are knocking confidence in the sector: 63 per cent say that greater caution amongst senior managers and trustees also threatens the legitimacy of campaigning – a 10 per cent increase on last year. However, only 13 per cent say they are campaigning less, raising a question about the actual impact of recent changes. Urgent research is required to determine whether organisations are being more risk-averse in the campaigning they do, in order to conform to new requirements, or whether the changes are having more impact on confidence than actual activity.
These figures confirm a chilling effect, caused by a combination of government restrictions, negative media coverage and increased caution, affecting the sector’s ability and willingness to speak out. Worryingly, this reluctance comes as 92 per cent of respondents predict that more campaigning will be needed in the next 12 months.
The Sheila McKechnie Foundation is deeply concerned by the findings. Sue Tibballs, SMK’s CEO says, “Campaigning plays a crucial role in a healthy democracy – it tracks the impact of government policies, amplifies the voices of people affected, and engages the public in debates on social change.
“The evidence suggests that unclear lobbying legislation and unhelpful rhetoric have knocked charities’ confidence to speak out. Sadly, it’s all too easy to confuse party political activity – which everyone understands is illegal – with proper participation in political debate.
“The Government has a duty to clarify that it recognises charities’ legitimate role in our political process. Government, charities and the media all want to improve public trust, and none of us will do so if we dismiss the value of the others.”

* Sheila McKechnie Foundation


Austerity, welfare reform, and deaths

Thu, 18 Jan 2018 14:21:02 +0000

Austerity, welfare reform, and deaths

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US funding cuts for UN Palestine refugee agency puts vital programmes at risk

Thu, 18 Jan 2018 08:02:33 +0000

The decision by the United States to withhold more than half its annual funding commitment to the United Nations relief agency providing aid for Palestine refugees threatens “one of the most successful and innovative human development endeavours in the Middle-East.” The decision by the United States to withhold more than half its annual funding commitment to the United Nations relief agency providing aid for Palestine refugees threatens “one of the most successful and innovative human development endeavours in the Middle-East,” the head of the body said on 17 January 2017, warning that the rights and dignity of an entire community are at stake. In a statement, Pierre Krähenbühl, the Commissioner-General of UNRWA, said that US government announced a contribution of $60 million for the UN agency, down from $350 million total contribution by the country in 2017. The reduction has endangered the agency’s programmes across the region, he added. "At stake is the access of 525,000 boys and girls in 700 UNRWA schools, and their future. At stake is the dignity and human security of millions of Palestine refugees [and] access of refugees to primary health care, including pre-natal care and other life-saving services.” He further noted that the reduced contribution “also impacts regional security at a time when the Middle East faces multiple risks and threats, notably that of further radicalisation.” The Commissioner-General called on the agency’s partners, including host countries and donors, to continue to support UNRWA and in creating new funding alliances and initiatives to ensure the continued effectiveness of its programmes. He also noted that a global fundraising campaign will be launched in the days to come to seek commitment for UNRWA initiatives, including its schools and clinics throughout 2018 and beyond. Also in the statement, Mr. Krähenbühl assured Palestine refugees in all of the agency’s fields of operations that UNRWA would continue to work with “absolute determination” to ensure that its services continue. “UNRWA stands for hope, for respect of rights and for dignity. When things are difficult, our determination grows. When the way seems lost, we invest all our energy in search of new paths, keeping our eyes on the horizon and looking for different solutions” he said. Speaking to the press at UN Headquarters in New York, prior to the announcement by the US of reduction in its funding to UNRWA, Secretary-General António Guterres underlined the importance of the UN agency’s support programmes, not only for the well-being of the refugees but also its importance as a factor of stability, something which he noted is the “opinion shared by most international observers, including some Israeli ones.” “So, if UNRWA will not be in a position to provide the vital services and the emergency forms of support that it has been providing, this will create a very, very serious problem. And we’ll do everything we can to avoid the situation to occur”, said Mr. Guterres. * Read the Commisisoner-General's statement here * United Nations [Ekk/4] [...]