Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Sri Lanka war crimes

A United Nations investigation has concluded that Sri Lankan government forces killed tens of thousands of civilians in the final stages of the country’s civil war in 2009. Its report also says that the Tamil Tiger rebels used civilians as human shields, and that both sides were guilty of atrocities.

The Sri Lankan government had refused to allow the investigating team into the country, and tried to get the report suppressed. It has now rejected its findings.

The report says that government forces deliberately shelled hospitals, UN centres and Red Cross ships in the last rebel-held enclave in the north of the country. It urges Sri Lanka to begin a fair investigation into acts that could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said that he cannot investigate the allegations himself unless the Sri Lankan government agrees, or member states make the request, but the pressure group Human Rights Watch disputes this.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Space disasters

On this day……44 years ago, Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov died in the world’s first fatal space accident. A new kind of spacecraft was being used and it ran into a number of problems, culminating in the parachute failing to open properly on re-entry so that the capsule crashed into the ground.

The world’s deadliest space accidents both involved the American Space Shuttle. Challenger was destroyed 73 seconds after lift-off at Cape Canaveral on January 28, 1986. A faulty seal allowed hot gasses to escape causing the craft to break up in mid air, killing all seven people on board. Fragments are still occasionally washed ashore in Florida.

Seventeen years later, on February 1, 2003, Columbia was lost on re-entry at the end of a two-week mission. A piece of insulation foam had broken away during launch and damaged the shuttle’s left wing. It broke up over Texas, and all seven crew members were killed, including the first Israeli in space.

Monday, 18 April 2011

American tornadoes

Over the last few days, more than 60 tornadoes have ripped through North Carolina in the USA, killing 21 people. Another 24 people died in the states of Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and Virginia. There were also flash floods and hailstones the size of grapefruit.

It was the highest number of tornadoes recorded in the US since 1984 when 42 people were killed. The Governor of North Carolina said that homes had been demolished as though they were made of paper.

The worst twister in US history was the Great Tri-State Tornado of March 18, 1925 which devastated Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana, killing more than 700 people. The highest number of deaths were in Illinois – 613 – the biggest number in a single state in US history.

The town worst hit was Murphysboro, where 234 people were killed – the worst toll for a single town in US history. For more details see A Disastrous History of the World.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Meat is suicide?

We are used to the idea that many diseases pass to us from other creatures – such as swine flu and bird flu in recent years, while, of course, the deadliest epidemic in history, bubonic plague, came from the flea of the black rat.

Now there is a new one to worry about – Congo fever, which has afflicted Africa and the Middle East for a long time, but has now started killing people in Gujarat in north-western India. It is caused by a virus transmitted by ticks that feed on a variety of wild and domestic animals and birds, and the death rate of those infected is about one in three.

It is reckoned that about three quarters of all new diseases pass to humans from animals, and the growing prosperity of countries such as India could make things worse. As people get richer they tend to eat more meat, and that means that those who once had just a few chickens in their backyards are now keeping animals, sometimes in quite large numbers.

The International Livestock Research Institute reckons that the world has 450 million smallholders, and as towns grow bigger, more animals and meat are transported, helping infections to spread further and faster.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Bangladesh - war crimes trials stall

The war that brought independence for Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) ended in 1971. Estimates of the number of lives lost range up to 3 million – many murdered in cold blood by the West Pakistan army - and perhaps 10 million people fled their homes.

Over the last few months, there have been attempts to call to account some of those responsible for atrocities during the conflict. The authorities are not going after the West Pakistan army, but alleged local collaborators who helped them.

Dozens of suspects are banned from leaving the country, and the war crimes tribunal has issued arrest warrants against five party leaders, including two former ministers, though they are not charged with war crimes, and unfortunately, the whole process has become mired in inter-party political rivalries.

The general belief is that if the opposition wins the next general election, due in 2013, it will scrap the war crimes trials, and they are the favourites. No democratic government in Bangladesh’s short history has ever won a second term.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Japanese stoicism

There have been a number of comments about the stoicism and quiet determination shown by the Japanese people in the wake of last month’s devastating earthquake and tsunami. Just four days after the quake, for example, in spite of power cuts, transport disruption, fears of aftershocks and nuclear radiation, people patiently queued to make sure they handed in their tax returns on time.

This is not a new phenomenon. After the earthquake of 1923 that killed perhaps 150,000 people in Tokyo and Yokohama, and left nearly two million homeless, the Times of London reported: ‘There is no panic and marvelous patience is shown by all classes.’

All day and night, wrote the correspondent, there was an endless procession of people ‘carrying portable goods and their salved belongings, or using trunks and carts....a whole family pushing them along, often with the grandparents riding on the top of the pile…. the weak were carried on the backs of the strong.....they exhibited patience beyond praise. Many jested; some even began to rebuild their homes before the ashes of the old homes were cold.’ Within days, businesses and shops were starting up again in the stricken areas.

For the full story, see A Disastrous History of the World.