Friday, February 27, 2009

Dinner for octogenarians

Dinner last night for the four LibDem peers who got to 80 in the last year, a terrific occasion with lots of friends and colleagues, and our Leader in the Lords, Tom McNally, as an urbane and witty master of ceremonies. The other ancients are Bill Ridgers, Dick Taverne and Geoff Tordoff. We're only a little on the wrong side of the average age of the Lords, now 69, and as I always say, 'old' is ten years older than me.

With Celia Thomas

Talking to Shirley Williams, with Veronica Linklater

With Geoff Tordoff

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Moanoghar, February 22, 2009

Moanoghar was founded in 1974 in Rangapani, Rangmati Hill Tracts by a group of socially engaged Buddhist monks and laypersons, to provide shelter and education to children in distress and misery, victims from the construction of the Kaptai hydro-electric dam in 1960s and the liberation war in 1971. It continues to provide shelter, foods, clothes, general and vocational education and primary health care to about 600 indigenous poor, orphan and destitute children of CHT. Its message of tolerance, compassion and mutual understanding reflects the traditions and heritage of the CHT and its indigenous people.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Bangladesh visit last week

Chittagong Hill Tracts International Commission
Bangladesh Secretariat: 10/11, Iqbal Road, Mohammadpur, Dhaka 1207

Embargoed until: 12pm, 22 February 2009

February 16-22, 2009

The CHT Commission, re-constituted in 2008, has today concluded its second mission in Bangladesh. This mission has focused on engaging the Government to include concrete and time-bound actions for the full implementation of the CHT Accord of 1997 in its work programme, and to address ongoing human rights concerns in the CHT.
Accordingly the Mission held high-level meetings with the Prime Minister and concerned Ministers, the Attorney General, the Army Chief and the National Human Rights Commission. It also met Members of Parliament, political party and civil society representatives and interviewed victims of human rights violations among the Hill peoples.
The Commission is putting forward preliminary recommendations to the Government for immediate consideration, focused upon enhancing the powers of the civil administration in the CHT, protecting human rights and ensuring access to justice in the CHT, activating the Land Commission and addressing the issue of voluntary relocation of settlers from the CHT. More detailed reports and recommendations will be issued as the Commission continues with its work.
On 31 May and 1 June, 2008, at a meeting of experts in Copenhagen, Denmark, it was decided to re-establish the Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission (CHTC) in view of the situation in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh with the following mandate:
"To promote respect for human rights, democracy and restoration of civil and judicial rights in the CHT in Bangladesh, including examination of the implementation of the CHT Accord of 1997. The CHT Commission will build on the work by the first CHT Commission (1990-2001)."
The Commission was then re-constituted with twelve members from Bangladesh and abroad, and is co-chaired by Lord Eric Avebury (United Kingdom), Ms. Sultana Kamal (Bangladesh) and Dr. Ida Nicolaisen (Denmark).
The re-constituted Commission held its first visit to Bangladesh from 6–14 August, 2008, with the aim of becoming familiar with the situation in the CHT, holding initial meetings with concerned parties and seeking their input into possible actions to be taken and recommendations to be made by the Commission. It also directly receivedcomplaints on land and human rights violations in the CHT.
The Commission carried out its second visit from 16-22 February, 2009, following the holding of parliamentary elections in December 2008, and a pledge made by the new Government, led by the Awami League, to fully implement the CHT Accord.[1] The objective of this mission was first and foremost to inform the newly elected government about the Commission’s concerns and urge it to take concrete and time-bound measures for the full implementation of the Accord, and to address ongoing human rights violations in the CHT on an urgent basis.
Commission members attended meetings with the Prime Minister and newly appointed Ministers (Foreign Affairs, Law Justice and Parliamentary Affairs, Food and Disaster Management, Local Government and Rural Development, Industries, CHT Affairs), the Chief of Army Staff, the Attorney General, the National Human Rights Commission, representatives of political parties, UN Agencies, and civil society members including journalists, lawyers and academics. They also conducted field visits to Khagrachari and Rangamati distiicts interviewing and holding discussions with both Paharis and Bengalis, including victims of human rights violations and forcible land grabbing. [For the full list, see Annex 1.]
Enhancing powers of the civil administration
The CHT Commission agrees with the Government that the problems of the CHT are primarily political in nature and therefore demand political rather than military solutions.
Functions now undertaken, exceptionally, by the miliary, which are normally performed by civilian agencies such as development projects and any other activities not requiring specific military skills, should be transferred to the civil administration and to institutions set up by the Peace Accord.
The Commission is concerned about the scope and ambit of Operation Uttoron, currently ongoing in the CHT, not being publicly available or known. The executive order authorising this Operation reportedly confers on the military rights to intervene in civil matters beyond their proper jurisdiction. We therefore cal on the Government to publicise the text of the order for public scrutiny and review the executive order judiociously in the public interest.
While some reduction in the military forces stationed in the CHT occured immediately after the signing of the Accord, the Commission would like to see the phased withdrawal of troops as mentioned in the Accord to be completed within a declared timeframe, as soon as is logistically feasible.
The Commission notes the Government's call to end impunity and assert due process and recommends that in the same spirit the issue of impunity for human rights violations in the CHT should be addressed by holding investigations into these incidents, and where sufficient evidence exists, bringing those responsible to trial.
Human Rights and Access to Justice
Considering the prevalence of violence against women in the CHT, as in the rest of the country, the Commission recommends that priority be given to activating the Nari o Shishu Nirjaton Domon (Suppression of Violence against Women and Children) Tribunals in every district of the CHT. There also need to be steps taken to activate government legal services in the region, and to develop an effective public information and education program so that victims and witnesses of human rights and crimes, in particular violence against women, areable to access legal remedies.
In view of the announcement that the Government will review vexatious cases, the Commission would urge that such review is conducted by an impartial and accountable body, and further that effective redress and reparations are made available to the affected persons.
Participation in Decision Making and Elections
In order to promote participation of indigenous peoples in decision making,measures need to be taken so that institutions such as HDCs effectively represent them. Measures therefore need to be takento ensure that HDC elections are held as soon as possible.Once the process described in the above paragraph on land has been completed, elections to the Hill District Councils should be held immediately. In the meanwhile, the representative character of the Hill District Councils couldbe improved by co-opting members of the smaller ethnic minorities in the area.
Compatibility of Legislation and Accord
The Government should review the compatibility of existing laws and procedures with the Accord
The Land Commission
There is a backlog of land related problems in the CHT such as the failure to record titles to land allotted to indigenous peoples, implement the provisions for resettlement and rehabilitation of repatriated Pahari refugees, cancel illegally occupied lands and unnecessary land acquistions involving forcible eviction of the Hill peoples. The Land Commission was proposed by the Peace Accord to resolve these disputes and its functioning is a critical precondition for the implementation of other aspects of the peace treaty such as the survey and updating of land records and proper compilation of the Hill District Councils' voter lists, all of which would contribute to the attainment of peace and stability in the region.
The Government of Bangladesh should activate the Land Disputes Resolution Commission and provide it with the necessary means to resolve land disputes with effectiveness and justice, as stipulated in the 1997 Accord.
It should also commission an immmediate pilot study by independent consultants, in one Upazila of each of the three Hill Districts, to determine the nature and extent of disputed titles, and the resources of logistics and manpower needed for the full-scale operation.

Voluntary Relocation of Bengali Settlers to the Plains
During the field visit of the CHT Commission, many Bengali settlers expressed their desire to leave their miserable living conditions and return to the plains districts, particularly if given conducive assistance by the government. The voluntary withdrawal of a section of the settlers would simultaneously reduce population pressure in the CHT and release the occupied lands of the Hill peoples, contributing critically to the peace and stability of the region.
The Commission therefore urges the government to undertake a viable process of voluntary relocation of Bengali settlers from the CHT to the plains, which protects their dignity and facilitates their proper rehabilitation, making use of a judicious blend of incentives and disincentives. The extent to which settlers would be receptive to such an approach should be pilot tested, as part of the pilot survey in three Upazilas mentioned above.
The settlers willing to undertake voluntary relocation should be provided with free rations for three years at their new location, with additional support in terms of cash grants, employment and training opportunities and transportation. This offer of assistance should be initially made available for a limited period such as one year, with the possibility of further extension. In parallel, the unduly prolonged provision of free rations to Bengali settlers in the CHT should be phased out with due notice, within a year or two. No new facilities and material incentives should be provided to Bengali settlers or new migrants in the CHT by the Government and all such existing arrangements should be discontinued for those not taking up the offer of voluntary relocation and deciding to stay on in the CHT. Restitution of illegally occupied lands of the Hill peoples by Land Commission would provide immense encouragement to the process of voluntary relocation, while releasing resources for their resettlement activities.
The post of Minister for the CHT should be upgraded to full Miniserial status.
The Government of Bangladesh is urged to withdraw its reservations against internationally agreed treaties and conventions for public welfare including ICCPR, ICESCR, CERD, CEDAW, CAT and CRC.

Annex 1:
CHT Commission's Second Visit: 16-22 February 2009
• Sheikh Hasina Wazed, Prime Minister
• Dr. Dipu Moni, Minister, Ministry of Foreign Affairs
• Dr. Abdur Razzaque, Minister, Ministry of Food and Disaster Management
• Mr. Rezaul Karim Hira, Minister, Ministry of Land
• Mr. Dipankar Talukdar, State Minister, Ministry of Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs
• Barrister Shafiq Ahmed, Minister, Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs
• Mr. Syed Ashraful Islam, Minister, Ministry of LGRD
• Mr. Dilip Barua , Minister, Ministry of Industry
• General Moyeen U. Ahmed, Chief of the Bangladesh Army
• Mr. Mahbubey Alam, Attorney General
• National Human Rights Commission
• Members of Parliament
• Political parties
o Bangladesh Nationalist Party
o Parbotto Chottogram Jono Shonghoti Shomiti (PCJSS)
o United Peoples' Democratic Front(UPDF)
o Workers' Party
• Journalists
• Civil Society
• Donor Agencies
• European Commission

[1] The Delegation of the Commission on the Second Mission, comprised Lord Eric Avebury and Ms. Sultana Kamal (Co-Chairs); Dr. Shapan Adnan, Ms Sara Hossain and Professor Hideaki Uemura (Members); Dr. Meghna Guhathakurta (Advisor); Ms Yuko Shiba (Ressource Person); Ms. Christina Nilsson, Coordinator, Ms. Shirin Lira, and Ms. Midori Matsuda (Secretariat).

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Thursday evening

Monday - Vicky Corpuz from the Philippines to lunch, discussion on indigenous peoples. Chaired and spoke at meeting to commemorate the martyrdom of Maqbool Butt in Kashmir. Meeting on Borders Bill strategy.

Tuesday Question on the DRC

Wednesday Ursula to lunch. Veey slow service, so we couldn't even finish our main course before I had to leave for the wekly Party meeting at 14.00. Fielded Questions on Sudan and Zimbabwe, then spoke onsecond reading of Borders Bill, which finished at 21.30.
Thursday, fielded Question on Sri Lanka. Matthew Laclair, the 18-year old New Yorker who reported a teacher at his school for preaching creationism in lessons supposed to be about US history, came to dinner. He was a star guest at the National Secular Society last week.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Secularist of the Year

Snowman in the Park

Big freeze

The worst snowfall for 18 years at the start of the week, many parts of the country seized up, and even London without buses, some roads blocked.

Monday, I asked a question about the risks of alcohol to pregnant women. There is a great deal of public information about the harmful effects of smoking, but relatively little on alcohol, even in hospitals and GPs' surgeries.

Tuesday, I got in a supplementary about President Obama's offer of help to Pakistan in combatting extremism, asking whether we had made any similar offer and if we were coordinating with the Americans.

Wednesday, I asked a supplementary to Lindsay Northover's question on Zimbabwe:

Lord Avebury: My Lords, it was depressing that the Minister had to explain yet again to the participants at the AU meeting the actual meaning of sanctions. Did the participants understand that Mugabe himself is the main cause of the bankruptcy and universal starvation of the people of Zimbabwe? In any AU fallback plan that may become necessary as a result of the failure of the SADC initiative, will the first priority be to remove Mr Mugabe from office?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, when you are trying to make the current plan work, you do not want to undermine it by immediately discussing hypothetical alternatives should it fail. Again, our emphasis should be on making this work. The AU summiteers called for sanctions to be lifted because they believe that they interfere with humanitarian support to Zimbabwe. As the noble Lord observes, I explained to them again that the sanctions are targeted only at individuals and the corporate entities that are controlled by those individuals; they are not aimed against the people of Zimbabwe. Indeed, Britain is the second most generous humanitarian donor to that country, and I suspect that we will be putting in even more resources for humanitarian assistance by routes that we can control, due to the growing crisis.

Thursday, I had an endoscopy at King's first thing, a procedure I had intended to have photographed, but Lindsay's camera battery unfortunately needed recharging. You lie on your side, a hollow tube is stuck down your throat, and a device is poked through the tube to look at the oesophagus, stomach and duodenum, and to snip buts off for biopsies. Some people have anaesthetic for the procedure, but this means yo have to stay at the hospital for hours afterwards. I cycled to the hospital and back, in time to get to Parliament by 11.00, though not to speak for once!

In the late afternoon I was back at King's for a kidney and prostate scan. Although I had drunk a litre of water before the procedure s instructed, it hadn't reached my bladder, so the radiologist only got pictures of the kidneys, which he said were fine.

Today, Saturday, we attended the National Secular Society event at which Evan Harris MP and me were made joint Secularists of the Year for the work on abolition of blasphemy last year. The award was presented by Richard Dawkins, whose brilliant TV filf on Darwin is now available on DVD. The entertainment was a dramatic reconstruction of the famous debate bewteen Huxley and Bishop 'Soapy Sam' Wilberforce in which the Bishop asked Huxley whether it was through his grandmother or his grandfather that he was descended from the apes. There are several versions of the riposte, but the one recorded by Hooker, who was oresent, was that he would rather have an ape as a grandparent than a man highle endowed by nature and possessed of great means and influence, and yet employs these faculties and that influence for the purpose of introducing ridicule into a scientific discussion. Hooker and my grandfather Sir John Lubbock spoke later in the debate 'with great force', according to Huxley. In the reconstruction, the part of Soapy Sam was played by Terry Sanderson, President of the NSS,and he was impressively unctuous!

In my speech of thanks to the NSS I said they might think it incongruous that the London Borough of Bromley was celebrating the bicentenary of Darwin's birth with a service in the parish church of Downe, where the vicar had anathematised the Origin. My grandfather, who was Darwin's next door neighbour and staunch disciple, stopped attending church in Downe, though he still went to church in Farborough, the next door village, and when Darwin died Sir John was instrumental in getting him a state burial in Westminster Abbey.