Whither defence details?

IT really doesn’t say much for the democratic credentials of the current government when its defence minister indicates that military spending would not be a subject of parliamentary debate in the current budget session. In economic terms at least, this means that the military retains its status as a sacrosanct institution that is above accountability when it comes to explaining defence costs. Few question the billion-rupee figure in annual budgets that is supposed to cover undisclosed overheads. With no one to demand an explanation for such secrecy, it is no wonder that military finances are not without severe irregularities as occasionally comes to light.

Such a situation makes it even more incumbent on legislators to carefully scrutinise the defence outlay — for much of the money that goes to finance the military and its questionable ambitions could easily have been spent on the people’s welfare. With the combined per capita spending ($23) on education and health considerably less than the per capita spending ($34) on defence, it is clear where our priorities lie. At a time of double-digit inflation that is causing millions to fall deeper into the poverty trap, to make defence a major concern (as the steady rise in annual budgetary allocations shows) is criminal. True, although the India threat has abated, the Taliban and Baloch insurgents are proving more than a handful for the military which, like the common man, also has to contend with pressures such as rising oil prices. But this can hardly be a justification for greater military spending — unless the defence establishment shows the need for a certain amount of funds by giving a comprehensive list of its requirements and detailing what it has spent previous resources on. That is a fair demand, especially when the vast external military aid is factored in.

Unfortunately, so entrenched is the notion of impregnable defence (despite having nuclear weapons) that the welfare of the people has ceased to matter. What use is it to protect the people from ‘external enemies’ but allow hunger and disease to wipe them out? There is no government reflection on how limiting military expenditure could reduce the budget deficit, or allow more funds to be released into the socio-economic sector, making the pinch of projected subsidy removal more bearable. And little thought is given to serious, long-term political solutions to external threats which would automatically reduce the role of the military and hence the high cost of maintaining it. Sadly, in a situation where a military institution like the army is a business empire unto itself, it is unlikely that curtailment on spending would be countenanced by the men in uniform. This makes it all the more necessary for our legislators to raise a strong and unified voice for civilian supremacy over all institutions, especially the military.

Danish embassy blast

A BLAST that rocked the Danish embassy in Islamabad killing a number of Pakistani nationals and injuring several others is to be strongly condemned. Coming after a pause of two months, the bombing was a grim reminder of how vulnerable we still are to violence inflicted by militants who have no qualms about killing innocent people to further what they perceive to be a noble cause. It is widely believed that this act was designed to register a protest against the publication of some blasphemous cartoons in a Danish paper, though in the absence of any claim having been made by the killers we will have to wait before drawing a final conclusion. If this assumption is correct, one does wonder how such heinous acts advance the cause of Islam. One also wonders why some in western societies should wish to test the limits of freedom of expression on an issue that hardly furthers the cause of inter-faith conciliation and dialogue in a world that is becoming more prone to violence and terrorism with each passing day.

Monday’s bomb blast underlines two key issues. First, the reaction of some people to events that are perceived as an attack on our religious sentiments is not quite rational. Even earlier, terrible riots have rocked Pakistani cities when large crowds protested against the publication of blasphemous cartoons. The destruction caused hurt to our own people. On this occasion, it could go further and jeopardise the government’s strategy of negotiating with the militants in Fata in quest of a peaceful end to religious militancy. The blast could be interpreted as a message to the PPP-led government that the militants will accept peace only on their own terms, and if they are not heeded they will continue to kill fellow Pakistanis. What is most unfortunate is that religious parties fail to condemn such senseless violence which encourages the terrorists. The other matter of concern is that the elected government still has some way to go to make our cities safer not just for Pakistanis but also for foreigners. That the blast occurred in an area that is considered to be relatively safe — though not as much as the diplomatic enclave — is quite disturbing. It is reassuring that the government has promised to beef up security for diplomatic missions and strengthen safety measures for the protection of their staff.

Strange logic

NO one should condone a murder, let alone justify it. A murder condoned and justified is a licence to kill without the fear of societal condemnation and judicial retribution. Yet, the Punjab police have been doing just that. By making a spurious distinction between crimes against property and crimes against person, they have been explaining their failure to check the rise in the number of murders under their jurisdiction by arguing that the societal, psychological, social and economic factors behind them are too complex for the law enforcers to fix. To some extent this is true. A law and order approach on its own cannot resolve all the problems our society faces. Yet, this is dangerous logic. It’s like saying that some murders might be justified because of what could have caused them.

Also, the police cannot absolve themselves of the responsibility to protect people’s lives by hiding behind the ruse that they should not be expected to tackle all that is wrong with society. If they cannot always prevent a murder — though that is possible in many cases — they can at least show alacrity in arresting the culprits and investigating murder cases properly so that their perpetrators don’t get the benefit of doubt in the courts. These are after all the basic duties of the police. Their failure to discharge them is increasing the frequency and the ferocity of crimes against person besides provoking public anger and frustration. Two recent incidents in Lahore have highlighted how. Last Thursday, angry protesters blocked The Mall for hours after a triple murder in the city’s Gujjarpura area. Two days later, four children and two women were killed in a nearby locality. In both cases, the police cite reasons they claim they could do little about.

But they need to realise that their failure to prevent crimes against person is spawning an alarmingly high number of proclaimed offenders across Punjab. These offenders are mostly murderers who are never arrested but are subsequently found to be involved in all types of crimes, including those against property. Police failure to check crimes against person is thus giving an upward push to crimes against property. Justifications and explanations certainly don’t add up to an effective deterrence against them.

OTHER VOICES - European Press

Pay attention at the back!

The Slovak Spectator

CAN you name the capital cities of the countries neighbouring Burkina Faso, then list the members of the first and second Roman triumvirates, followed by the date of Gaius Julius Caesar’s death?... Education Minister Ján Mikolaj has heralded his new law as a way to bring the school’s curriculum closer to real life.

Yet there is much scepticism about whether Mikolaj, his team, or his new law are up to the Herculean task of modifying the education system….

[A] 2007 survey by the Programme for International Student Assessment … which measured the skills of 15-year-olds, clearly showed that the Slovak education system is in urgent need of reform…. The survey tested more than 400,000 students in 57 countries…. Slovakia placed 34th in science, 35th in reading and 30th in maths…. Various — and frequently contradictory — political statements about making the school curriculum more patriotic, attempts to make religion obligatory in schools, confusing declarations about tuition fees, and a habit of blaming previous ministers for the state of education in Slovakia have made the education community understandably cautious.

None of the post-communist education reformers has had much success in closing the gap between the school curriculum and the rapidly changing needs of life in general, or the labour market in particular.

When it came to dishing out ministries after the 2006 election, education went to the Slovak National Party. Since its leader, Ján Slota, is well known for his critical attitude towards Hungarians … some feared that the SNS agenda would affect the direction of reform.

Educators have already warned that the reform is just a nice cover to hide the lack of substantial changes. …[J]ust applying a little make-up to the sector in order to update its appearance will hardly change the way pupils are taught and might in fact do more harm than good.

These reforms are occurring at a time when the social status of teachers has declined considerably worldwide.

Also, international organisations have been warning [against] the trend [of] hiring unqualified teachers, blaming the low salaries on offer as part of the problem.

The problem is certainly more pressing than most of us realises. Slovakia is caught in the paradoxical situation of having an unemployment rate among the highest in the European Union, but at the same time suffering from a lack of qualified labour. Cosmetic changes are unlikely to help. — (June 2)

Plight of children fleeing war

By Helena Smith


THE day Ali Reza stopped being a child his father told him to walk. The 12-year-old Afghan remembers it well because it was on that day that he left his country and was forced to become a man.

“I had no choice. The road to happiness was several thousand miles long. I had to be strong,” he said. “In Afghanistan we crossed fields. In Iran mountains and streams. In Turkey the great big plain, and in Greece the sea.”

When his feet ached, as they did much of the time, Reza heard his father, who loathed what the Taliban were doing to his country, imploring him to go on. And when mad scrambles to dodge Turkish border patrols left his legs swollen and bruised he thought of the tantalising world that lay ahead, so rich and Taliban-free. “We walked and walked and sometimes we went by horse and truck. There were some older men who looked after me, people my father paid.”

Joining the wave of unaccompanied, Europe-bound minors fleeing persecution, poverty and war, Ali recalls his great trek from east to west from the comfort of his new home, a reception centre in the northern Greek city of Volos. As one of its 23 wards, he is lucky. Until February, when the centre opened on the premises of a school for autistic children, Reza, like so many others, was forced to endure the appalling conditions of a shantytown camp on the outskirts of Patras in western Greece.

“When he first arrived he didn’t want to eat and if ever we asked him about his family, and especially his mother, he’d burst into tears,” said Anna Zaharianou, a social worker with the Red Cross, which runs the refuge. “A lot of the younger ones suffer from anxiety and depression. It takes them a long time to open up.”

The centre is part of Greece’s answer to a phenomenon that has clearly caught authorities off-guard: children willing to take extraordinary risks to escape civil war and developing-world hardship.

Although the constant flow makes numbers difficult to assess, charities believe that as many as 2,000 school-age youngsters — from Asia, Africa and the Middle East — have this year alone turned up on far-flung Aegean islands, their first stop on an odyssey that they hope will lead them to Britain and other parts of northern Europe.

Watched over by smuggler gangs, most arrive disoriented and dispossessed. Those picked up attempting to cross in rickety craft from Turkey to Greece are often found wearing nothing more than underpants. “I’d say the majority are from Afghanistan and 85 per cent unaccompanied,” said Nikos Komblas, a Patras-based lawyer who tries to teach the children their basic rights, including the right to apply for political asylum. “They make the journey without their parents, or even an older brother. I’ve never once seen a girl, only boys, many of whom we believe are escaping the country to avoid being drafted by either the Taliban or government forces. They arrive with no papers and often owing thousands of dollars to traffickers.”

“This is not just a Greek problem, it is a European one, but the bottom line is it is also about power,” said Thalia Dragona, a social psychologist and MP with the main opposition Pasok party. “These kids don’t have a voice. If they could vote it might be different, but they have nothing and so nobody is making this a priority issue. A solution absolutely has to be found to accommodate them.”

Last week Afghan children ferried from the Turkish coast to the island of Leros were staging hunger strikes to protest against the primitive conditions of the overcrowded detention centre that greeted them. The action, which prompted the Greek government to dispatch its deputy health minister to the island, followed dismay over heavy handed treatment of the minors by police and port authorities.

Children have been arrested and imprisoned, sometimes for up to three months. Frequently they are forced to share cells with adult criminals in what human rights groups have called a flagrant violation of international law.

Such was the fate of Raymond Masamba, whose ordeal began at the age of six when, cowering under a bed, he witnessed his entire family, including four brothers and sisters, being shot dead by opposition forces in the Congolese town of Brazzaville.

“In February this year I arrived at Athens airport from Congo after a friend of my parents put me on a plane,” said the 16-year-old. “I had no idea where I was going or what would happen at the other end. I just remember being in tears on the flight and then being arrested when the Greeks discovered I had no documents. They took me to the cells on the top floor of the security police headquarters in Athens. I have never been in prison before and there was nobody to talk to, to explain my situation.”

Released two months later, he stopped the first black man he saw in the street, who escorted him to the Red Cross, which dispatched him to the childcare centre in Volos.

“Even though they are minors who by law should be protected they are treated as if they are adult immigrants,” said Eleni Dimitriou, a lawyer who works with the refugees in Volos. “It’s inexcusable that children who have experienced such hazardous journeys are being held in custody and not asked whether they want asylum. Under EU law refugees have to request asylum in their first country of entry.”

Greece’s asylum policies and poor acceptance rates are nowhere more evident than among the malodorous shacks and muddy alleyways of the shantytown camp in Patras. Here, over open fires, young Afghan migrants dream of heading deeper into Europe.

“In Greece you never get asylum and conditions are very, very bad,” said Muhammed Muradi, 14, who left Afghanistan’s Helmand province after his school was attacked by the Taliban. “It’s a matter of life and death that we work to pay smugglers. To do that we have to be legal, we need papers. I’ve tried to go to Italy on seven occasions and each time have been caught [hiding] in the trucks by the police. It won’t stop me trying again.”

—The Guardian, London

Updated Jun 04, 2008 12:00am

More From This Section

Sectarian violence

HOW many have died in sectarian violence in Pakistan since 2008? More than 2,000 was the answer Minister of State ...

Gilgit-Baltistan alienation

THE ongoing popular protests that have roiled Gilgit-Baltistan over the past 10 days are reflective of the growing...

Fatah-Hamas unity

ISRAEL has overreacted to Palestinian unity moves. On Wednesday, shortly after Fatah and Hamas announced plans to...

ISI and media infighting

IN the bizarre, whiplash-inducing fallout of the Hamid Mir shooting, an alarming new twist has occurred: the ...

MQM in government again

THE MQM’s decision to join the Sindh government is not altogether surprising. The love-hate relationship that it...

Comments (0) (Closed)