Belgium Considers Burqa Ban

By Kenneth F. Hunt
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

BRUSSELS, Belgium – This week one of Belgium’s two legislative bodies passed a bill that would ban burqas within the country.

The lower house of Belgium’s Parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, voted on Thursday April 29 to ban certain types of veils worn by Muslim women, most notably including burqas.  According to various media accounts, the vote was nearly unanimous (136 to 2) and enjoyed clear majorities from both major Belgian political parties.

Although the bill must still be passed by Belgium’s upper house, the Senate, Belgium is the closest of any European country to passing a ban on the Muslim headwear.  The Senate is expected to overwhelmingly approve the legislation in the coming weeks.  Media outlets predict the bill will be signed into law before the summer.

Other European lawmakers, most notably the French, have also considered a similar ban.  President Sarkozy has indicated France’s ban will come into effect before the fall.

Additionally, several countries, including the Netherlands, Denmark and Poland, have recently had elections that have included overwhelming victories for anti-Islamic parties and candidates.  No country in the European Union has yet, however, had such legislation signed into law.

Logistically, the Belgian legislation would ban any and all clothing or headwear that covers the face in part or in whole.

The penalty for women who wear the veil could range from 150 to 15,000 euros.  Any person who forces a women to wear a burqa can face up to a year in prison.  As in the case of France’s consideration of a burqa ban, criticism of the Belgian legislation has been swift and harsh.

Critics claim that on its face the ban would violates basic tenets of freedom of religion and expression.  They also allege that the law illegally targets only Muslims.

Amnesty International’s John Dalhuisen says that the law “violat[es] of a great many of Belgium’s international obligations”, including “the U.N. convention on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights.”

For more information, please see:

AL JAZEERA – Anger at Belgian face veil ban – 30 April 2010

EUR ACTIV NETWORK – Belgian lawmakers first in EU to outlaw burqa – 30 April 2010

EXPATICA – Content of the Belgian bill banning the burqa – 30 April 2010

VOICE OF AMERICA – Belgium’s Parliament Votes to Ban Veils – 29 April 2010

Hawaii Legislature Allows Same-Sex Civil Unions

By Stephen Kopko
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

HAWAII, United States- Yesterday, another state joined the ranks of those that recognize homosexual rights.  The Hawaii state legislature passed a bill that would allow for civil unions.  The legislation will go to the Governor for her approval or veto.

Hawaii has had a tradition in the homosexual rights debate.  In 1993, Hawaii became the first state to allow same-sex marriage after their Supreme Court found it was constitutional.  Nevertheless, the citizens of the state passed an amendment to their Constitution in 1998 that protected heterosexual marriage.  The amendment allowed the legislature to pass a law banning same-sex marriage.

Despite the constitutional amendment, House Bill 444 grants greater protections and rights to same-sex couples.  In essence, the legislation grants same-sex couples the same rights and benefits as heterosexual couples.  It also offers protections and benefits to unmarried heterosexual couples.

Previously, the legislation was approved by the Hawaii Senate by an eighteen to seven vote. Originally thought to be off the legislature’s agenda for this year’s session, House Majority Leader Bill Oshiro called the measure for debate yesterday afternoon.   Many supporters of same-sex unions believed the legislation to be dead.  In January State House leaders determined to indefinitely postpone action on the bill.  However, the legislation was passed in House by a thirty-one to twenty vote. Governor Linda Lindle has forty-five days to decide whether to sign the legislation into law or veto it.

Opponents of same-sex civil unions will pressure Governor Lindle to veto the legislation.  Writing to his congregation, Bishop Larry Silva stated; “We need you to mount a campaign to flood the governor’s office with requests to veto the bill.” Supporters of same-sex civil unions were surprised that the House voted for the legislation during this year’s session and were pleased with the outcome.

If the legislation is signed into law, Hawaii will join California, Nevada, New Jersey, Washington, and Oregon as the sixth state to recognize same-sex civil unions.  Massachusetts, Vermont, Washington D.C., Iowa, Connecticut, and New Hampshire allow same-sex marriage.

For more information, please see:

CNN-Hawaii lawmakers pass civil unions bill-30 April 2010

MSNBC-Hawaii lawmakers OK civil unions, send bill to gov-30 April 2010

Honolulu Advertiser-Hawaii Legislature Oks historic civil unions bill; governor now must decide-29 April 2010

China Lifts Ban on HIV-Infected Foreigners

By Hyo-Jin Paik
Impunity Watch Reporter, Asia

BEIJING, China – The twenty year old ban prohibiting foreign travelers with HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases, and leprosy from entering China has been lifted.

The Chinese government lifted the ban on Tuesday.  The revision comes just days before the opening of the Shanghai World Expo.

China’s State Council said that several provisions in the Border Quarantine Law and the Law on Control of the Entry and Exit of Aliens, which were implemented in the 1980s, are being revised because the ban was imposed two decades ago with “limited knowledge about HIV/AIDS and other diseases.”  However, the Chinese authorities have now come to a conclusion that such ban had either limited or very small influence in controlling the spread of HIV/AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases in China.

UN Secretary General Bank Ki-moon praised China and President Hu Jintao for lifting the ban saying, “Punitive policies and practices only hamper the global AIDS response.”

The United States also welcomed China’s move.  U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “I commend China’s decision to lift its ban . . . China’s step . . . is supposed by current medical knowledge of HIV transmission and risk.”

Clinton added that the long-standing policy of prohibiting people with HIV from entering the country will also help reduce the stigma and discrimination around this global epidemic.

Those inside China also believe that Chinese government’s lifting of the ban is a step towards progress.  Medical professor at Qingdao University and an advocate for rights of people living with HIV (PLWHIV), Zhang Beichuan, said, “Previously, China viewed HIV/AIDS as an imported disease related to corrupted lifestyle.  But now the government handles it with public health perspective.”

He Tiantian, a Chinese woman in her 30s living with HIV also said, “This revision shows us a silver lining, because we have advocating for the rights of PLWHIV . . . now we know we didn’t do it in vain.”

Nevertheless, He added that it will “take time to end discrimination, but the change in the government’s stance will help change the public’s attitude . . . .”

According to the Health Ministry, the estimated number of those living with HIV in China was approximately 740,000 as of October 2009 and almost 50,000 Chinese have lost their lives to HIV/AIDS since the disease was first reported in 1985.
For more information, please see:

China Daily – China lifts entry ban on HIV/AIDS foreigners – 29 April 2010

RTT News – China Lifts Ban Imposed on HIV-Infected Foreign Travelers – 27 April 2010

Zee News – China lifts ban on entry of HIV individuals; US welcomes – 30 April 2010

Thai Protest Continues in Hospital Raid

By M.E. Dodge
Impunity Watch Reporter, Asia

BANGKOK, Thailand – A major hospital evacuated patients and suspended operations, except emergency surgical procedures, after Red-Shirt, anti-government, protesters surged the hospital in search of security personnel they suspected were using the hospital as a lookout of their base.

  A “red shirt” anti-government protester is detained by Thai soldiers on a street near the residence of Thailand’s Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. Photograph courtesy of Time.

Hospital directors and administrators pleaded with the group not to enter, and after storming the building, and not finding police or military within, the group of protestors withdrew back to their nearby barricaded enclave.

Following the incident, Thailand’s Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, whom the protesters seek to overthrow, went on nationwide television to criticize Red Shirt actions, which he states are paralyzing areas of central Bangkok. In a press release, Vejjajiva stated, ”It’s not necessary for me to condemn (the hospital break-in) since Thai society and the world community have already done that,” and went on to say that the government would ”not allow any movements that pose threats to the public.”

In mid-April Thailand experienced a resurgence of turmoil as minority and majority interests clash. The ideological divergence created a standoff between street protesters, under the United Front for Democracy, against Dictatorship and the government of Abhisit Vejjajiva. The situation has left the country in a perpetual state of unrest. So far, there have been26 reported deaths and hundreds of people injured.

Security forces, in almost every recent instance of protestor violence and activity, have  been unable or unwilling to stop the Red Shirt forays, including that of the hospital breach. In commenting on the group’s actions, Weng Tojirakarn, a Red Shirt leader and medical doctor, issued a ”deep apology” for the raid staged by up to 100 protesters. He told reporters that is was, ”inappropriate, too much, and unreasonable.”

The nation also fears a backlash from another factious group, the Yellow Shirts, who, back in 2008, were responsible for closing Bangkok’s airports for one week. People in Thailand are worried they may also engage in the hostile unrest by further inflicting street violence.

Many believe that to bring these turbulent times to an end, ultimately, Thailand will have to find a way to have majority rule with the protection of minority rights. Some posit this may mean that the Prime Minister will need to make the country’s hierarchy less prohibitive of minority concerns.

 For more information, please see:

The GuardianCompromise is the only answer to the Thai crisis – 30 April 2010

The New York TimesThai Protesters Storm Hospital – 30 April 2010

Associated Press – Thai hospital evacuated after protesters storm it – 30 April 2010

PNG Faces Controversial Ombudsman Bill That May Induce Corruption

By Cindy Trinh
Impunity Watch Reporter, Oceania

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea – People of Papua New Guinea (PNG) have signed a petition calling on Parliament to reject the proposed Ombudsman Commission Amendment Bill. They fear that the Bill will allow senior politicians in PNG to be free of investigation. The Governor of PNG’s National Capital District has offered to organize a meeting to discuss the controversial bill.

The PNG government’s draft of the Bill is designed by politicians to allow the Ombudsman Commission funds to be cut. People in PNG fear that this bill will prevent the Ombudsman’s Office from investigating senior politicians.

Under the proposed legislation, the Ombudsman Commission would not longer be able to refer politicians to the Leadership Tribunal, or prevent MPs from using Electoral Development Funds for anything by earmarked projects in their electorates.

PNG’s Media Council president, Joe Kanekane, reported that he was given the petition opposing the Bill. Kanekane, who is also the co-chair of the Community Coalition Against Corruption, also reported that the petition was signed by more than 500 people in Aiyura Valley, including representatives from Southern Highlands, Hela, Western Highlands, Jiwaka, Chimbu, and Eastern Highlands.

The petition was an unexpected outcome of a 3-day media literacy workshop that was conducted by the Media Council from April 14-16 for the Highlands region, which was attended by 40 participants.

The workshop included a forum on the awareness of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and PNG’s performance, which then attracted more than 500 people.

Media Council’s executive director, Nimo Walter Kama, who launched the workshop, stated: “None of the forum participants had any idea of what the MDGs were. They did not even know the targets that were supposed to be achieved and were concerned that 10 years had already gone without any real achievements.”

Kama further stated: “But most forum respondents recognized that the MDG targets of ending hunger and poverty, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality and empowering women, reducing child deaths, improving maternal health, curbing HIV/AIDS, malaria and other preventable diseases, and ensuring environmental sustainability, would transform rural communities.”

Kama reported that during a question and answer session in the forum, a petition to Parliament was proposed to focus on key developmental issues. The petition focused on the concern that PNG, as a signatory to the MDGs, had downgraded their efforts to tackle on the developmental issues that PNG people face. There was a lot of enthusiasm to sign the petition.

In light of the strong advocacy for the petition, the Governor of PNG’s National Capital District, Powes Parkop, has offered to organize a meeting between NGOs and MP Moses Maladina to discuss the parliamentary bill.

Parkop reported that he wants to play the middle-man because he does not want to see a planned protest march against the bill to occur in Port Moresby. He fears of the potential destruction if protestors lose control.

However, Parkop’s fear of a march has already been in progress. A march is being planned by the Community Coalition Against Corruption. The NGO group is concerned over what they see as a move to weaken the Ombudsman’s powers.

Parkop responded by stating that while some of the proposed amendments should be changed, some provisions do have merit, and thus the bill should be scrutinized properly.

Students from the University of Papua New Guinea sign the petition calling on Parliament to reject the proposed amendment
Students from the University of Papua New Guinea sign the petition calling on Parliament to reject the proposed amendment

For more information, please see:
Radio New Zealand International – Governor of PNG capital offers to organize dialogue over controversial Ombudsman bill – 29 April 2010

Pacific Islands Media Association (Pima Nius) – Media Council receives petition opposing Ombudsman fund-cutting bill – 27 April 2010

Pacific.Scoop – Media Council receives petition opposing Ombudsman fund-cutting bill – 27 April 2010