The Commonwealth Update

An authoritative, nation-by-nation review of events across the Commonwealth, with an update now published six times a year in an issue of The Round Table.

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From 2008, the review is being written by Oren Gruenbaum, the Commonwealth Update editor, and currently Senior Sub-Editor at The Guardian in the UK

In 2007, the review was written by Judith Soal, a journalist who has worked extensively in South Africa and is currently deputy night editor at The Guardian in the UK.

Until 2007 the review was written by Derek Ingram, who was the Founding Editor of Gemini News Service until 1993, and is the author of a number of books about the Commonwealth and is active in the CJA, CPU, CHRI and the RCS, as well as a member of the Moot.

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Commonwealth Update - Issue 418

Oren Gruenbaum

ABSTRACT
Militant Islamists terrorised Nigeria, killing hundreds in indiscriminate attacks. The Bangladesh army said it had foiled a coup attempt, while in Pakistan the army seemed closer to launching a coup itself. New Zealand's leader won a second term, Jamaica and Guyana elected new ones, but rival prime ministers vied for power in Papua New Guinea. Fiji lifted martial law. South Africa saw a global deal to combat climate change agreed in Durban but the government was criticised for resurrecting apartheid-era controls over the media. A Malaysian judge threw out a sodomy case against the opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim that was widely seen as politically motivated, and the Federated Farmers of New Zealand called for sheep shearing to become an Olympic sport.

AFRICA

Nigeria
Hundreds of people died and thousands were displaced, with many fleeing to the south of the country, after the militant Islamist group Boko Haram intensified attacks on government buildings and churches. More than 170 people died in the northern city of Kano after a series of attacks on mosques and government offices, while in another incident on the same day, gunmen killed at least 11 people when they attacked a bank, a police station and a hotel in Tafawa Balewa. More than 100 people were killed in gun attacks and bombings of churches, largely in Boko Haram's north-east birthplace, with Christians being told to leave the north. Bombings of churches on Christmas Day killed at least 42 people, with smaller gun attacks, bombings and bank robberies in Kano, Yola, and Potiskum. Other targets include Abuja, the capital, Jos—where a Christian couple and their one-year-old baby were shot dead—Mubi, Gombe and Maiduguri. President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in Borno, Niger, Plateau and Yobe states. Heavy fighting with government forces in Damaturu displaced 90,000 people.

Christian leaders accused Muslims of issuing a "declaration of war" and Abubakar Shekau, leader of Boko Haram, appeared to confirm this, saying: "We are at war with Christians." Jonathan said the violence was worse than Nigeria's 1960s civil war because sympathisers of the sect were in the government and security agencies. He said: "During the civil war, we knew and we could even predict where the enemy was coming from ... But the challenge we have today is more complicated." Ayo Oritsejafor, head of the Christian Association of Nigeria, said Christians had become victims of "Islamic jihad". He said he did not want to encourage acts of revenge but "Christians should protect themselves ... in any way they can". Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Islamists, who was arrested last November, named a dead ambassador and a serving senator as sponsors of Boko Haram—both are members of Jonathan's ruling People's Democratic Party. Last year Boko Haram killed some 550 people. Meanwhile, at least 50 people were killed in clashes between the rival Ezza and Ezilo ethnic groups in a land dispute in the south-east Ebonyi state.

Protesters were killed in Lagos and Kano amid demonstrations over the removal of a fuel subsidy. A leader of the protests was Seun Kuti, son of the late Afrobeat founder and radical, Fela Kuti. Nigeria produces about 2.4m barrels of crude oil a day but nearly all its petrol is imported after decades of corruption, mismanagement and violence at refineries. Some analysts saw the unannounced removal of the fuel subsidy as an attempt to unite Nigerians in the face of looming sectarian conflict. Under pressure from the trade unions, Jonathan agreed to lower prices again but said the subsidies—which largely benefit wholesalers who smuggle the cheap fuel to neighbouring countries—would be phased out eventually.

Shell admitted an oil spill was likely to be the worst in the region for a decade after 40,000 barrels of crude leaked off the Niger delta. Satellite pictures obtained by independent monitors Skytruth suggested that the spill was 70km-long and spread over 923 sq km.

Politicians defied western pressure to drop homophobic legislation as a bill banning same-sex marriages was passed by the senate. The bill imposes a 14-year jail term for same-sex marriage and criminalises anyone who assists. It also makes same-sex public displays of affection an imprisonable offence and bans gay rights groups.

Chinua Achebe, author of seminal novels such as Things Fall Apart, refused the government's offer of a national honour—Commander of the Federal Republic—for the second time, saying corruption remained unaddressed. The writer first turned it down in 2004, lambasting those who "turn my homeland into a bankrupt and lawless fiefdom". Meanwhile, Zamfara state has asked government workers to present their contracts and qualifications in an effort to stamp out "ghost workers". Garba Gajam, Zamfara's attorney-general, cited the case of a month-old baby with a diploma and a job. Nigeria is estimated to have lost $380bn to corruption since independence from Britain in 1960.

Nigeria, with more than 93m subscriptions or 16% of the continent's total, has the highest number of mobile subscriptions in Africa. The continent has become the world's fastest-growing mobile-phone market, according to the GSM Association, an industry group of mobile-phone operators. The number of African subscribers has grown by 20% a year since 2007 and is expected to reach 735 million this year.

South Africa
Journalists wore black outside the headquarters of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) after MPs passed a controversial media secrecy bill that bans publication of any document that the government classifies, even if in the public interest. Anyone breaking the law faces 25 years in prison. The government claims the law is necessary for national security but human rights campaigners and journalists, who dubbed it "Black Tuesday" (a reference to Black Wednesday in 1977 when the apartheid regime banned newspapers and black-consciousness groups), say it will curb freedom of speech. The Nobel peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu called the legislation "insulting", noting that the law could be used against "whistle-blowing and investigative journalism". Lindiwe Mazibuko, leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, warned: "It will criminalise the freedom so many of our people fought for." Meanwhile, in an echo of apartheid-era censorship, the Mail & Guardian blacked out part of a story linking the presidential aide Mac Maharaj to a shady arms deal after legal threats from the ANC veteran. The newspaper's editor, Nic Dawes, said Maharaj needed to explain how he acquired a "hoard of offshore cash".

The ANC, Africa's first liberation movement, celebrated its centenary with a rally in Bloemfontein, where it was founded, attended by Jacob Zuma and Thabo Mbeki, who was unseated by Zuma. The party was accused of "airbrushing people out" of the history of the liberation struggle: Tutu attacked the ANC for neglecting the influence of church leaders, a supporter of Black Consciousness criticised the lack of recognition given to Steve Biko, and a historian of the Pan-Africanist Congress said: "Many people are not aware that the first political prisoners on Robben Island were PAC members."

A global agreement on climate change in which both developed and developing countries would be legally bound to cut carbon emissions was agreed in Durban, the Guardian reported. Two weeks of stalemated talks ended with a surprise breakthrough after South Africa's foreign minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, ordered ministers from China, India, the US, Britain, France, Sweden, the Gambia, Brazil and Poland to reach a deal in a 60-hour "huddle to save the planet".

A Human Rights Watch survey said: "Lesbians and transgender men live in constant fear of harassment as well as physical and sexual violence."

Basil D'Oliveira died, aged 80. Born a "Cape coloured", he became an England cricketer and precipitated the first sporting crisis for the apartheid state when an England tour to his native country in 1968 was blocked by the Vorster government, leading to South Africa's expulsion from international cricket.

The Gambia
Fatou Bensouda, a former Gambian justice minister, was appointed the new chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Bensouda, 50, served as The Hague-based court's deputy prosecutor since 2004.

President Yahya Jammeh told the BBC that he would rule for "one billion years" if God wished. He said critics accusing him of winning last month's elections through intimidation and fraud could "go to hell". The West African regional body Ecowas said the electorate had been "cowed by repression". "The preparations and political environment for the said election are adjudged by the commission not to be conducive for the conduct of free, fair and transparent polls," the 15-state West African bloc said. Jammeh, who took power in a coup in 1994, was re-elected for a fourth five-year term, with 72% of the vote, according to official figures. Opposition candidates Ousainou Darboe and Hamat Bah took 17% and 11% respectively. But Darboe called the results "bogus, fraudulent and preposterous" and urged the international community not to accept them. However, observers from the African Union (AU), Commonwealth and the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC) did monitor the poll and said while there had been problems during the campaign, the election was credible. Jammeh stopped campaigning before the election, claiming God had ordained that he would win.

The Commonwealth Journalists' Association quoted Jammeh as saying: "I don't have an opposition. What we have are people that hate the country, and I will not work with them."

Kenya
The authorities warned of a "heightened threat" of a terrorist attack by al-Shabaab Islamist militants on the capital, Nairobi, since Kenyan armed forces crossed the border into Somalia. The British government said attacks could be indiscriminate and target Kenyan institutions as well as places where expatriates and foreign travellers gather, such as hotels, shopping centres and beaches. Earlier, air strikes killed 15 civilians in an Islamist-controlled village near the border, witnesses told the BBC, but the Kenyan military claimed it had killed 17 militants in an al-Shabab camp. Earlier, three people died and 27 people were injured in grenade attacks in Garissa, and a Kenyan soldier was killed by a bomb in Mandera.

The World Bank, lowering growth estimates, warned: "High food and fuel prices, drought in the Horn of Africa, and the euro crisis have weakened Kenya's already fragile external position ... For 2012, the World Bank projects growth to recover slightly and reach 5%, if Kenya succeeds in managing the risks."

The Samburu ethnic group was engulfed by violence after two US wildlife charities, the Nature Conservancy and African Wildlife Foundation, paid $2m to the notorious former Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi for land used by the pastoralists for centuries, Survival International said. The land was then gifted to the state. Police violently evicted the tribe, burning villages, killing and stealing animals and assaulting men, women and children. Survival said an elder had been shot "in cold blood". About 2,000 Samburu families have remained, squatting beside the disputed territory.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR said a bomb went off in the Ifo camp in Dadaab. There were no casualties but a police vehicle was damaged. The explosion came a day after a blast in nearby Hagadera camp killed one police officer and injured two. An outbreak of cholera had peaked, UNHCR said, but worsening security and flooding had made it harder to bring in water. Dadaab is the world's largest refugee settlement, sheltering more than 460,000 Somalis.

A Kenyan court issued an arrest warrant for Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, who was indicted by the International Criminal Court over alleged war crimes in Darfur. Sudan retaliated by expelling the Kenyan ambassador. Kenya's government then said it would not arrest Bashir.

Zimbabwe (Left Commonwealth, 2003)
Thousands of illegal gold panners rushed to Kwekwe after word spread of newly discovered deposits, NewsDay reported. Armed police with dogs moved in and the suspected gold deposits were "claimed" by President Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF party, NewsDay said, in a repeat of scenes at the Marange diamond fields, where the ruling party and security forces have siphoned off tens of millions of dollars. Anjin Investments, a Chinese-led joint venture with Mugabe's government, said it was now the world's biggest diamond producer, with a stockpile of 3m carats. The company is funding a new military college in Zimbabwe. Meanwhile, Global Witness, one of the founders of the Kimberley Process—the international monitoring group set up to prevent "blood diamonds" being sold—said it was pulling out, branding it "an accomplice to diamond laundering".

China won the lion's share of new contracts in Zimbabwe worth $550m, mainly for construction, paid for with loans from Beijing and repayable through profits from Marange diamonds. The deals were revealed by Paddy Zhanda, MP and chairman of the parliamentary finance committee, who said: "Zimbabwe has a very high unemployment rate and a liquidity crisis and we implore the minister of finance, Tendai Biti, to stop this bleeding."

Andrew Moyse, of the Media Monitoring Project in Zimbabwe, which has highlighted media repression under Mugabe, was detained by police, joining fellow MMPZ activists Fadzai December, Molly Chimhanda, and Gilbert Mabusa.

Rwanda (Joined November 2009)
A French inquiry into how the plane of former president Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down in 1994—the trigger for the genocide and blamed on the forces of the current president, Paul Kagamé—suggested the missile may have been fired from the barracks of the presidential guard, not by Tutsi troops.

The UN-backed International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in the Tanzanian town of Arusha sentenced two leaders of the genocide in 1994 to life imprisonment. Matthieu Ngirumpatse was chairman of the National Revolutionary Movement for Development party and édouard Karemera was his deputy. The party's youth wing, the Interahamwe, carried out most of the atrocities. The ICTR also sentenced former Kivumu mayor Grégoire Ndahimana to 15 years in jail for planning the slaughter of 2,000 Tutsi refugees in 1994 and reduced a life sentence given to the defence ministry's then-chief of staff, Théoneste Bagosora, to 35 years in prison. Meanwhile, judges at the International Criminal Court in The Hague ordered the release of a Hutu rebel leader, Callixte Mbarushimana, because of lack of evidence.

Two people were killed in a grenade explosion in the capital, Kigali. Sixteen others were wounded by the blast. Security forces have blamed previous grenade attacks on the FDLR Hutu Rwandan rebels in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Rwandan editor of the Inyenyeri News, Charles Ingabire, who was living in exile in Uganda, was shot dead in a bar in Kampala. Ingabire had received several threats over critical reporting of Kagamé's government after leaving Rwanda in 2007 because of political persecution. After a recent attack, he required two weeks of hospital treatment.

Reporters Without Borders condemned the arrests of three journalists in a week in Kigali: Joseph Bideri, editor of New Times, which uncovered embezzlement in constructing the Rukarara hydro-electric dam; Jean-Gualbert Burasa, editor of the independent Rushyashya, had written about the desecration of former social affairs minister Christine Nyatanyi's grave, and René Anthère Rwanyange.

About 82 tonnes of smuggled minerals, including coltan, used in mobile phones, seized by Rwandan police were returned to the Democratic Republic of Congo in a sign of improved relations between the neighbours. Rwanda has for years been a major route for conflict minerals from DR Congo.

Sierra Leone
A free telephone helpline at the Aberdeen women's centre, a clinic in Freetown, has begun to offer advice to women suffering from fistula, IRIN reported. Vesico-vaginal fistula is a condition usually caused by days of obstructed labour that affects two million women a year worldwide and leaves them with chronic incontinence and often a stillborn baby.

Malawi
The justice minister, Ephraim Chiume, said the government would review a ban on homosexuality after the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, said it would use foreign aid (such as Malawi's $200m a year) to encourage countries to decriminalise homosexuality. Zodiak Broadcasting Station reported that other repressive laws under review include ones allowing ministers to ban newspapers, the president to fix election dates and police to search without a warrant. Last year, a gay couple were sentenced to 14 years in prison for sodomy after they held an engagement ceremony in Blantyre.

Some 30 street traders were arrested after clashes with police in the capital, Lilongwe. Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse hundreds of traders who stoned officers, attacked vehicles and looted shops, mainly belonging to Chinese and Indian traders, after their stalls were dismantled. The International Criminal Court referred Malawi to the UN security council for refusing to arrest Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir while he was on a visit in October. Three other African countries have already been referred to the council.

Cameroon
Three men were sentenced to five years' imprisonment for homosexual acts. Their lawyer told the BBC they had been arrested for looking feminine. The men were also each fined the maximum 200,000 CFA francs ($400). Amnesty International said it regarded the men as prisoners of conscience.

Swaziland
Swaziland failed to pay more than $10m in grants to AIDS orphans and $4m to elderly people because of the financial crisis, despite the vast wealth of its absolute monarch, King Mswati III. South Africa offered a $340m bailout for Swaziland if the king enacted political and economic reforms but Mswati refused the money. The government had to raise a $42m emergency loan to pay the wages of 35,000 public-sector workers, the Times of Swaziland reported. Meanwhile, Coca-Cola was accused of propping up Mswati through its concentrate factory in the kingdom. Activists estimate that the world's biggest drinks company contributes 40% of GDP. Lucky Lukhele, of the Swaziland Solidarity Network, said: "The king is looting and destroying the economy. So either they [Coca-Cola] support the people or they go into the dustbin of history along with the king."

Mozambique
Anadarko, a US energy company, doubled its estimate of natural gas reserves off Mozambique's coast to 850bn cubic metres, the Economist reported. It was described as one of the most important natural gas finds of the past decade, which could increase demand for a liquefied natural gas project and other energy infrastructure in the region. Italy's Eni recently discovered similar-sized gas reserves in the area.

Uganda
Kabakumba Masiko, minister of presidency and former information minister, was forced to resign after her radio station was accused of stealing equipment from the state-owned broadcaster, UBC. Police recovered the equipment from KBS's premises but Masiko denied theft, claiming Kings Broadcasting Services had an understanding to "temporarily use" UBC's transmitter and mast.

A man was sentenced to 30 years' imprisonment for the murder of the leading gay rights activist David Kato, which provoked a storm of criticism from western aid donors. The teacher and gay rights activist was leading a campaign against a bill that included the death penalty for homosexual acts when a local newspaper, Rolling Stone, listed names and addresses of gay and lesbian Ugandans with a headline "Hang them".

Shops in the capital, Kampala, closed in a protest at interest rates of up to 27%, raised by the central bank in 2011 as inflation hit more than 20%.

Tanzania
At least 20 people died and 5,000 people were displaced after floods hit Dar es Salaam. The Meteorological Agency said they were Tanzania's heaviest rains since independence in 1961.

Zambia
A committee was formed to draft a new constitution by June, meeting one of new President Michael Sata's campaign pledges. However, another promise, to impose a windfall tax on mines, had not been fulfilled, critics said.

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ASIA

Malaysia
A court acquitted Anwar Ibrahim, former deputy prime minister, of sodomy charges after the judge threw out the case for lack of evidence. Anwar was charged in 2008 in what was seen as another attempt by the government to discredit the main opposition leader ahead of elections expected this year. He faced 20 years in jail if convicted. The supreme court cleared Anwar of similar charges in a previous case. Meanwhile, restrictions were imposed on rallies (replacing a rule requiring a police permit for a demonstration with a ban on street protests), which human rights groups criticised as an attack on freedom of assembly but the ruling party claimed was to forestall attempts to topple the government by an "Arab Spring" popular insurrection.

Bangladesh
The army said it had foiled a coup attempt against the prime minister, Hasina Wajed, by a group of hardline Islamist officers. Bangladesh has a history of military governments and the army ran the country for 15 years until 1990. A revolt by border guards was put down in 2009. Days before the attempt, a former leader of the opposition Jamaat-e-Islami party was arrested. Ghulam Azam, 89, is alleged to have masterminded war crimes—including murder, rape, arson and looting—by pro-Pakistan militias during the 1971 liberation struggle, in which up to three million people died.

The government is repealing the 1898 Lepers Act, which mandates arrest and a fine if Bangladesh's estimated 40,000 lepers venture out of state-run institutions.

Pakistan
Political tensions rose after the supreme court summoned the prime minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, to appear on charges of contempt over his failure to ask Switzerland to re-open corruption cases against the president, Asif Ali Zardari. Gilani insists the president has immunity. Relations between the government and the military became more strained too with Gilani reportedly telling the British high commissioner that the army might be about to stage a coup. Gilani also sacked the defence minister. Meanwhile, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari—23-year-old son of Zardari and the late Benazir Bhutto—was being groomed for power as his father was treated for a stroke in Dubai. Zardari's absence from the country further fuelled rumours of a coup.

Pakistan's ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani, was forced to resign after the Financial Times quoted a Pakistani-American businessman alleging that the diplomat was behind a memo promising to purge the armed forces of senior officers sympathetic to the Pakistani Taliban and behind the sheltering of Osama Bin Laden in exchange for American help in staving off a military coup. Relations with the US were already strained after Pakistan's military command rejected the findings of a Pentagon investigation into an American air strike on the Afghan border in November that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. The army chief, Gen Ashfaq Kayani, ordered Pakistani forces to return fire if attacked again by Nato. The US report blamed "inadequate co-ordination" by American and Pakistani officers, but in a letter to the US Congress, Pakistan cited "suspicions in the rank and file of the Pakistan army that it was a premeditated attack". Nevertheless, the US resumed drone attacks in January, despite Pakistan blockading Nato supplies, closing a CIA drone airbase and boycotting an international conference on Afghanistan.

The Pak Institute for Peace Studies reported 1,966 terrorist attacks last year, killing 2,391 people, but this figure was still lower than the two previous years. A bomb near a Shia procession in Khanpur killed 18 and wounded 30; a bomb targeting a militia in the Khyber region opposed to the Pakistani Taliban exploded in a market, killing 25. The Taliban also said it killed 15 kidnapped paramilitaries in North Waziristan. Six soldiers died in another attack to avenge the killing of a Taliban commander by a US drone.

Pakistan was the most dangerous country for journalists last year, with seven killed, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Umar Cheema, a reporter with Islamabad's The News, won the CPJ's International Press Freedom Award. He was abducted in 2010 by men in police commando uniforms who stripped, beat and photographed him in humiliating positions. The CPJ said: "Cheema's unwillingness to stay silent about his abduction and the abuses he suffered has drawn wide attention to the nationwide issue of anti-press violence in Pakistan."

The Commonwealth Journalists' Association said the US granted asylum to Siraj Ahmed Malik, whose work as a journalist and activist in Balochistan, where he had exposed military abuses, made him likely to be "killed by the government" if he returned. The Washington Post called it "a highly unusual decision", given Pakistan's status as a strategic partner and major recipient of US aid.

Police in Karachi rescued 54 students from an Islamic seminary, or madrasa, where they had been kept in chains by clerics, tortured and barely fed.

India
The home minister, P Chidambaram, ordered officials on the isolated Andaman Islands to investigate the apparently long-standing practice of police forcing half-naked tribal women from the Jarawa aboriginal group to dance as tourists threw food. Video footage of the abuse, obtained by the Observer, was described as "disgusting" by the tribal affairs minister, V Kishore Chandra Deo.

The government was fiercely criticised by the media and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party after its anti-corruption law, the "Lokpal bill", stalled in the upper house of parliament. The bill, which would create an independent ombudsman with powers to investigate and prosecute officials, has been discussed for 40 years and is the focus of public protests that have rocked the government. Passed by MPs, it failed to go to a vote in the upper house after 13 hours of debate, in scenes described as a "midnight farce" by one newspaper. The billionaire Ravikant Ruia, a former Vodafone partner and chairman of the London blue-chip stock Essar Energy, was charged with "criminal conspiracy" and "cheating" as an investigation into alleged corruption in mobile telecoms widened. The case is not directly related to a corruption investigation into 2008's mobile licence auction, which cost India up to $39bn in lost revenue as licences were underpriced by officials paid multimillion-dollar bribes.

Talks to resolve the decades-old dispute with China over the shared border in the Himalayas were cancelled after Beijing took umbrage at Delhi's refusal to prevent Tibet's leader, the Dalai Lama, who lives in exile in India, speaking at the conference. Tensions have risen over China's assertion of sovereignty over the South China Sea, and its description of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh as "south Tibet". Beijing has in turn been alarmed at India's oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea, the increase in troops on the border near Tibet and both countries' struggle for influence over Nepal.

The government reversed a recent decision to open up India's sheltered retail industry to foreign supermarkets after politicians whipped up protests. Shoppers would have benefited from lower prices and investors welcomed the proposed reforms, the Economist reported, but middlemen, who would have suffered, objected.

Growth slowed to its lowest pace since mid-2009, far below government targets, but interest rates were raised as inflation picked up. The rupee fell to a record low against the dollar after depreciating rapidly over the previous quarter and foreign investment slumped.

The communications ministry asked Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Microsoft to screen user-generated content for blasphemous material before it went online. However, the Economist noted, the volume of content posted online by India's 100 million internet users made such regulation impossible.

Security officials in West Bengal claimed to have killed Molajula Koteswar Rao, a commander of the Maoist movement that has been waging guerrilla war against the government for decades.

Organisers of the Jaipur literary festival said the future of the event was in jeopardy after writers read excerpts from the banned novel The Satanic Verses in support of the author, Salman Rushdie, who pulled out of India's biggest literary festival after death threats from Muslim fundamentalists.

Hong Kong (Left Commonwealth, 1997)
UK officials announced a partnership with the Hong Kong Monetary Authority to develop London as a major centre for trading the Chinese currency, the renminbi, outside China and Hong Kong. Beijing is only gradually making the renminbi a fully traded currency. The foreign policy thinktank Chatham House has forecast that transactions settled in renminbi will reach $1 trillion by 2020.

Regulators fined a Hong Kong TV station $39,000 for a report suggesting that former Chinese president Jiang Zemin had died. The Hong Kong Broadcasting Authority said Asia Television had failed to ensure the accuracy of reports of his death in July.

Maldives
President Mohamed Nasheed reversed a ban on luxury spas after pressure from the tourism industry. Nasheed said he imposed the ban after the main opposition party in the largely Muslim nation claimed spas and massage parlours were fronts for prostitution.

Singapore
Lee Hsien Loong agreed to a 36% pay cut but remains the world's best-paid leader, with a salary of S$2.2m ($1.6m).

Sri Lanka
Gen Sarath Fonseka, the victorious military commander against the Tamil Tiger rebels, was sentenced to three years in prison for alleging that senior officials were guilty of war crimes against Tamils during the civil war. He is already serving a 30-month term for corruption, which is widely seen as punishment for challenging President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2009's elections.

The government said it would count the number of civilians killed in the last stages of the civil war, in an apparent effort to rebut allegations of war crimes. Meanwhile, an inquiry set up by Rajapaksa to investigate the civil war, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), ruled that the government had done its best to protect civilians. It concluded the military gave the "highest priority" to protecting civilians and said Tamil Tiger rebels had had "no respect for human life". The LLRC was widely dismissed by human rights groups, with Amnesty International calling it "flawed at every level". The report said there had been "considerable civilian casualties" and hospitals had been shelled, though it did not apportion responsibility. A UN-backed report last year, however, said there were credible allegations that "most civilian casualties in the final phases of the war were caused by government shelling".

The government blocked five news websites for allegedly defaming the head of state, ministers and officials: Lanka eNews, Sri Lanka Mirror (later reversed), Sri Lanka Guardian, paparacigossip9.com and Lanka Way News.

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EUROPE

United Kingdom
Alex Salmond, the first minister of Scotland, announced plans to hold a referendum on independence from the UK. David Cameron, the British prime minister, got into a dispute with Salmond over when it should be held and how the questions would be framed.

The conviction of two white men for the racist murder of a black teenager, Stephen Lawrence, in 1993 cleared up what the Economist called the "unsolved crime of a generation". Errors in the investigation and what a 1997 inquiry by a judge deemed the "institutional racism" of London police made the case a cause célèbre. It led to police practice and recruitment being revised and anti-discrimination laws strengthened. The case hung on microscopic evidence of blood, hairs and fibres, including the smallest bloodspot ever used in a trial.

Meanwhile, an inquiry into the police killing of a man that sparked the UK's worst riots in decades found there was no forensic evidence to show that the victim had been armed, as police claimed.

The Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development, a leading thinktank, predicted Britain was likely to slip back into recession—the much-feared "double-dip"—although the economy would grow marginally over 2012 as a whole. The Bank of England indicated that it would undertake more quantitative easing, as prospects for the economy worsened. Unemployment rose to 8.3%, the highest since 1996, but Britain's annual inflation rate dropped to 5%. George Osborne, chancellor of the exchequer, admitted that the government would not meet its target of eliminating the structural budget deficit and would have to make further austerity cuts after the next general election. A day later hundreds of thousands of public-sector workers went on strike, protesting against pension reforms. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Defence was found to have spent nearly $1bn from the equipment budget on outside consultants, flouting its own rules.

As the eurozone financial crisis continued, Cameron—under pressure from "Eurosceptic" members of his Conservative Party—vetoed a European Union treaty change seeking greater fiscal union and more control of national governments' budgets, widening a rift with Germany and France.

The Leveson public inquiry into newspapers brought testimony from film stars, celebrities and families of murder and kidnap victims who had all had their phones hacked by journalists. The Mail on Sunday and the Mirror, as well as the now-defunct Murdoch title The News of the World, were accused of intercepting voicemails, which they denied. James Murdoch stepped down from positions overseeing News Corporation's British newspapers: the Sun, Times and Sunday Times.

UK-Iranian relations worsened after a mob stormed the British embassy in Tehran to protest against tighter British economic sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme. All Iranian diplomats in Britain were expelled. Meanwhile, Mercosur, a South American trade bloc led by Brazil and Argentina, agreed to ban ships flying the flag of the Falkland Islands from its ports. Another regional alliance, the newly formed 33-country Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, supported Argentina's claim to the Falklands, or Malvinas.

The government gave the go-ahead for a $50bn high-speed railway between London and Birmingham. The HS2 line has been fiercely opposed for its route through beauty spots.

Cyprus
Cyprus announced a major gas find, which would help the struggling economy but may heighten tensions with Turkey, which opposes drilling until the island is reunified. Cyprus's President Dimitris Christofias said drilling had revealed about 200bn cubic metres of natural gas under the Mediterranean Sea. The find could make Cyprus self-sufficient in energy for decades.

Five people have been injured during a demonstration against the presence of British military bases in Cyprus. Stones were thrown and two people arrested during a protest by Greek Cypriots outside RAF Akrotiri.

Rauf Denktash, who headed the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus for more than 30 years, died aged 88. A staunch supporter of Turkish Cypriot independence, Denktash became president of the territory when Cyprus split in 1974 and retired in 2005.

President Demetris Christofias was blamed by an official investigator for negligence leading to a huge explosion that killed 13 people in July. Polys Polyviou told a news conference that Christofias bore a "serious, and very heavy personal responsibility" for the blast. He said the way the "time-bomb" of 100 containers of seized Iranian munitions was stored at a naval base in Mari was "completely irresponsible". Cyprus's defence and foreign ministers resigned over the affair. The explosion, when the decaying gunpowder blew up, was the island's worst peacetime military accident. The dead included the head of the Cypriot navy and six firefighters. The explosion also destroyed Cyprus's largest power station, leading to severe power cuts across the island that damaged the already weak economy. As the eurozone debt crisis enveloped more countries, Russia was reported to be bailing Cyprus out with a $3.4bn loan to help it deal with maturing debt obligations and its budget deficit.

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AMERICAS

Antigua and Barbuda
The Texas financier Allen Stanford pleaded not guilty to 14 counts of fraud in a Houston court. He is accused of operating a $7bn "Ponzi" scheme from Stanford International Bank, his offshore bank on Antigua. Stanford, who was once the second-largest employer on the island, was knighted by the Antiguan government in 2006. He is charged with fraud, conspiracy to launder money and obstruction of a federal investigation. Prosecutors allege that Stanford put money invested in his bank into pet-projects including Caribbean property, a Cowboys and Indians magazine and a pawnshop operator. He also lent himself more than $2bn and funded cricket tournaments.

Belize
A new British legal rights group launched a global campaign to decriminalise homosexuality in scores of countries—including 42 Commonwealth states, which largely inherited the discriminatory regulations from British colonial rule. The Human Dignity Trust is targeting Belize for its first test case, brought by the Belizean gay activist Caleb Orozco and the United Belize Advocacy Movement. Belize's evangelical, Anglican and Catholic churches united to oppose the application, claiming homosexuality could be "cured". The move reflects the higher priority given by the UK Foreign Office to gay and lesbian rights within the Commonwealth.

Canada
Barack Obama rejected the controversial bid to build the Keystone pipeline from Alberta's oil sands to refineries in Texas. However, TransCanada, the Canadian company seeking to build the 2,700-kilometre pipeline, will be allowed to re-apply for permission. Republicans accused the US president of blocking job creation. Obama blamed the decision on Republicans pushing the administration to an earlier deadline. Canada's prime minister, Stephen Harper, also lobbied for the pipeline, emphasising how many jobs would be created in both countries and saying the Obama administration's earlier delays were made for "very bad political reasons". Environmentalists praised the decision. Bill McKibben, a leader of the environmentalist opposition, said: "In the face of a naked threat from 'Big Oil' to exact 'huge political consequences' he's stood up strong."

Meanwhile, Canada was condemned at home and abroad for pulling out of the Kyoto climate-change treaty. China called the decision "preposterous", while Greenpeace said Canada was protecting polluters instead of people. Canada is the only country to reject it altogether. The Conservative government is reluctant to hurt the booming oil-sands sector, Canada's fastest-growing source of greenhouse gases. The environment minister, Peter Kent, said: "The Kyoto protocol does not cover the world's largest two emitters, the United States and China, and therefore cannot work."

Canada's controversial annual cull of seals to protect fish stocks should end, scientists said, as thinning Arctic ice was killing up to 80% of seal pups. Ice cover had fallen by 6% a decade since 1979, they said.

Muslim women were banned from wearing the full veil, or niqab, to cover their faces while taking citizenship oaths. Jason Kenney, immigration minister, called the ban a "matter of deep principle".

Guyana
Donald Ramotar, of the ruling People's Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C), narrowly won the presidential election but the party lost its parliamentary majority for the first time in 19 years. The opposition claimed the result had been manipulated but the electoral commission disagreed. Ramotar, PPP/C general secretary since 1997, had been an adviser to the outgoing president, Bharrat Jagdeo. The PPP/C is mostly supported by the Indian-Guyanese community, while its chief challenger, Partnership for National Unity, is backed mainly by African-Guyanese voters. An analyst, Christopher Ram, told Associated Press that the hung parliament was "the best thing to have happened to us as a nation as there are now checks to one race group dominating all the others."

Jamaica
Portia Simpson Miller's People's National Party won a landslide victory over Andrew Holness's Jamaica Labour Party. Holness had succeeded Bruce Golding as prime minister only 10 weeks before. The PNP took 42 of the 63 seats, giving her an unprecedented two-thirds majority in parliament—enough to change the constitution. In one of the world's most homophobic countries, Simpson Miller—who became Jamaica's first female prime minister in March 2006—bravely spoke out against Golding's ban on gays in the cabinet and said she would allow a parliamentary vote on a colonial law criminalising gay sex. She also promised to make the Caribbean court of justice the final appeal court in all criminal matters. In another move towards what she called repatriating Jamaica's sovereignty, a referendum will be held on creating a Jamaican presidency to replace the British monarch as head of state.

Trinidad and Tobago
The prime minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, said police thwarted a plot to assassinate her and her cabinet. A dozen people have been arrested, including soldiers and police. Persad-Bissessar blamed the alleged plot on "criminal elements" responding to a state of emergency she declared in August to counter drugs gangs and in which more than 7,000 people had been arrested. However, government critics were sceptical, suggesting the authorities might use the reported plot to justify extending the measure. "We have no evidence of this so-called assassination plot," Vincent Cabrera, head of the Banking, Insurance and General Workers Union, told AFP.

Armed police raided Caribbean Communications Network Television 6 in Port of Spain to seize a videotape containing controversial footage of a sexual assault on a mentally disabled 13-year-old girl. Dawn Thomas, chief executive of CCN's parent company, One Caribbean Media, said: "I am very concerned about this development since it has the potential to intimidate media staff, undermine public confidence and poses a threat to press freedom."

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PACIFIC

Australia
Julia Gillard, the prime minister, scored a political victory when MPs passed the Minerals Resource Rent Tax, which will imposes a 30% levy on mining companies' profits. The controversial bill helped bring down Gillard's predecessor, Kevin Rudd. However, a key independent MP withdrew his support for her minority government. Andrew Wilkie said he ended his 17-month-old agreement with the Labor Party government after Gillard broke a promise to introduce new controls on poker machines. His defection leaves Gillard with 75 of the House of Representatives' 150 seats.

The US president, Barack Obama, announced in Canberra that America would deploy 2,500 marines in Australia's Northern Territory to strengthen America's presence around the disputed South China Sea as part of "a larger and long-term role" in shaping the region, which will include providing humanitarian relief.

Plans were announced for the creation of the world's biggest marine park, in the Coral Sea off the Queensland coast.

The Labor Party reversed a longstanding policy by voting to endorse same-sex marriage. However, it is unlikely to be become law after Gillard allowed MPs a free vote on any legislation.

Federal police investigated claims by a former senator, Bill O'Chee, that he was offered favourable coverage by the Murdoch media empire, which owns 70% of Australia's newspapers, if he voted against digital TV laws in 1998. O'Chee reportedly told police that a Murdoch executive "told me we would have a 'special relationship', where I would have editorial support from News Corp's newspapers, not only with respect to the ... legislation but for 'any other issues' too."

Fiji (Fully Suspended, 2009)
The military regime lifted martial law, which had been in place since 2009, but new laws introduced by Commodore Voreqe "Frank" Bainimarama, have been criticised as more repressive than the emergency measures they replaced, according to Voice of America. Days before martial law was lifted, the Economist reported, several leading politicians were arrested for "urging political violence", rumoured to be linked to protests against a new mining development in Fiji's largest island, Viti Levu.

"There is nothing more I want than a Fiji with a truly democratic government," said Bainimarama, who seized power in a 2006 coup. "For the first time in our history, we are on the path to making this a reality." He promised in 2009 to hold elections by September 2014 and launch consultations on a new constitution in 2013.

However, Von Driu, of the Fiji Democracy and Freedom Movement, said the new decree would smother any effective opposition to the military authorities, such as trade unions, traditional chiefs and leaders of the Methodist church. "People who will talk in opposition with the current regime, they are being silenced," he said. The head of the Citizens Constitutional Forum in Fiji, Akuila Yabaki, said soldiers would have too much power. "They would now be able to arrest civilians and conduct the duties of a police officer and prison officers, if so directed by the commissioner of police, who is himself a highly placed military officer," he said.

The Commonwealth secretary-general, Kamalesh Sharma, called for "credible elections", saying they were "long overdue". He said the constitutional consultations needed to be "fully inclusive", aimed at "a genuine national consensus". There have been no elections since 2006 when Bainimarama ousted the prime minister, Laisenia Qarase, and Fiji remains suspended from the Commonwealth and subject to international sanctions.

Papua New Guinea
The country was gripped by a political crisis, with two prime ministers, two police chiefs and two governor-generals vying to assert their claims to legitimacy after the supreme court ruled that Peter O'Neill had not been legitimately installed as prime minister in August, IRIN reported. MPs voted O'Neill in after removing Somare, who had been receiving lengthy medical treatment in Singapore. However, Somare—who served as prime minister three times since PNG gained independence from Australia in 1975—claimed he was still prime minister on his return and was sworn in by the governor-general. Parliament rejected the supreme court's move, suspended the governor-general and reinstated O'Neill. By mid-January O'Neill claimed to have asserted his authority over the country, flying police loyal to him into the capital from elsewhere to secure government buildings. One of his first announcements was to make public healthcare free. Despite the constitutional crisis, the BBC said there had been no social unrest, with people in the capital, Port Moresby, going about their business as normal.

New Zealand
The centre-right National Party secured a coalition deal with two small parties, days after almost winning outright in the general election. The prime minister, John Key, began a second term of office after his party won 60 of 121 parliamentary seats and agreed a deal with the ACT party and the United Future party, which both have one seat. He also held talks with three Maori Party MPs. Phil Goff resigned after the opposition Labour Party won just 27% of the vote, losing nine seats. The Green Party had its best-ever parliamentary results, winning about 11% of the vote. Analysts said Key had been helped by the All Blacks' win in the rugby world cup and his handling of the Christchurch earthquakes last year and the Pike River mining tragedy in 2010.

Tokelau, three south Pacific islands administered by New Zealand, announced at the Durban climate change talks that it would be the world's first territory to switch entirely to renewable energy. Foua Toloa, Tokelau's ulu, or leader, said: "We will be among the first to go under water. Already we are suffering extreme weather, storm surges, droughts, coral-bleaching, inundation of land and groundwater salination."

The Rena, which created the country's worst environmental disaster when it ran aground off the North Island in October, began to break up and sink in stormy weather, spilling more oil and containers into the sea.

A series of strong earthquakes struck Christchurch, 10 months after a quake killed 182 people and destroyed much of the city centre. The initial 5.8-magnitude quake prompted the evacuation of public buildings and the airport.

New Zealand came top of 183 countries in Transparency International's annual index measuring perceptions of corruption. The index is based on expert assessments and data from 17 surveys from 13 independent institutions, covering issues such as access to information, bribery of officials and in public contracts, and enforcement of anti-corruption laws.

The Federated Farmers of New Zealand called for sheep shearing to become an Olympic sport, pointing to the "shear hard work" required. Shearing is recognised as a sport by New Zealand's Sport and Recreation Council. The men's world record holder sheared 749 lambs in eight hours.

Samoa
Friday, 30 December did not happen in Samoa and Tokelau last year as the tiny Pacific islands crossed over the international date line and jumped forward a day to align themselves with Australia and New Zealand, their main trading partners. The move reversed a switch the other way in 1892 when the Samoan king was persuaded to align the country with the US.

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GENERAL

Commonwealth News
Following the controversial Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Perth, the UK parliament's foreign affairs select committee established an inquiry into "The role and future of the Commonwealth".

Sir Zelman Cowen, former governor-general of Australia, academic and member of the Round Table's international advisory board, died in Melbourne on 13 December. He was given a state funeral, attended by Australia's prime minister, Julia Gillard.

The Commonwealth secretary-general, Kamalesh Sharma, welcomed the Sri Lankan government's release of the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. He said: "We welcome the assurance given on the transparent and rigorous application of the law of the land ... [and] trust that with the assurances given, the report will also serve to advance the cause of accountability."

A Commonwealth observer team said although November's elections in The Gambia were peaceful, more democratic reforms were needed to strengthen governance.

Commonwealth Publications - http://publications.thecommonwealth.org/

  • Commonwealth Good Governance 2011-12: Democracy, development and public administration, 224 pages, ISBN 978-0-9563060-7-4
  • Commonwealth Observer Group, Zambia General Elections, September 2011, 44 pages, ISBN 978-1-84929-075-3
  • Global, Issue 9, first quarter 2012, 100 pages, ISSN 2042-3985

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