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Curb ‘dangerous’ hate speech, Guinea candidates told before vote

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UN officials warn of ‘extremely dangerous’ situation, decry ‘increasingly pervasive and divisive appeals to ethnic affiliations’ before October 18 polls.

Less than two weeks before Guinea’s tense presidential election, the United Nations has expressed alarm at ethnically charged hate speech rising in the lead-up to the polls, warning the situation is “extremely dangerous” and may lead to violence.

In a joint statement on Wednesday, the UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet and Pramila Patten, the world body’s acting special adviser on the prevention of genocide, decried the “increasingly pervasive and divisive appeals to ethnic affiliations” before the October 18 vote.

They also urged the candidates to “refrain from using provocative language that may lead to violence, discrimination and other human rights violations”.

Guinea’s politics are mostly drawn along ethnic lines.

The country’s 82-year-old President Alpha Conde, who is seeking a controversial third term, is largely backed by Malinke people, while his main opponent, Cellou Dalein Diallo of the Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea (UFDG) party, is largely backed by Fulani people – although both insist that they are pluralist.

Bachelet and Patten pointed out that the candidates have made specific mention of the Malinke and Fulani ethnicities, and had suggested violence could follow the announcement of the results.

“Given the history of intercommunal violence in Guinea, I am deeply worried about such dangerous rhetoric by political leaders, which in some cases may amount to incitement to hostility, discrimination or violence,” Bachelet said.

“There are already serious indications of rising intolerance and confrontation, including among youth groups, and media outlets amplifying messages of hate,” she warned.

In their statement, Patten and Bachelet also demanded accountability for the reported use of excessive force by security forces during demonstrations over the past year.

Protests against Conde’s suspected ambition to stay in power that began in October 2019 have been severely repressed in the country of some 13 million people.

Last week, Amnesty International said in a report that at least 50 people were killed in the crackdown through July and criticised the government for failing to hold the security forces accountable.

Conde, a former opposition activist, became Guinea’s first democratically elected president in 2010 after decades of authoritarian rule in the former French colony. He won re-election five years later.

In March, he pushed a constitutional amendment that allowed him to stand again and potentially extend his rule, despite protests from the opposition.

In a speech on Saturday, Conde called on his supporters not to let themselves be provoked into violence and suggested that warnings of unrest amounted to opposition provocations.

“There will never be war in Guinea,” Conde told supporters in the capital Conakry, after explaining he thought the opposition planned to declare victory but seek refuge in an embassy, “thinking there will be a war”.

“You don’t take power with blood. You don’t take power by destroying vehicles. You don’t take power by provoking others,” the president said, urging voters not to use violence.

In an interview this week with French news outlets France 24 and RFI, Conde was asked whether he would accept the outcome of the vote.

“I am a democrat,” he replied.

“It’s extraordinary that I should be seen as an anti-democratic dictator,” Conde added. “I fought for 45 years, I was in the opposition.”

Conde also brushed aside accusations of fomenting ethnic divides.

“I have always said that the political fight is a competition, and that people should choose according to [the candidates’] platforms,” he said.

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One Good Thing: This animated miniseries perfectly captures the loneliness of autumn

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One Good Thing is Vox’s recommendations series. In each edition, we’ll tell you about something from the world of culture that we think you should check out.

I grew up on a hog farm in rural South Dakota. It wasn’t quite the middle of nowhere — it was situated along a major highway — but it was close. The sounds of semis barreling by in the middle of the night had a ghostly quality, passing us by between other lands.

The worst times were when my family would get home late from some function or another, and I would have to wander out into the dark, flashlight in hand, to make sure the pigs’ water containers were working properly. (Pigs, with their muddy noses, often clogged up the pipes with that mud, so the containers had to have the mud scraped out of them twice daily to keep them working their best.)

On fall evenings, with a chill settling in, the handful of trees between the hog lots and my house stood like roadmaps to some other world, lit up by the moon. I would conjure things that might live among the trees, ghosts or Sasquatch or other monsters that could haunt my farm and my childhood. But the trees didn’t hide monsters in their shadows. They just hid the house I grew up in.

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Few artworks have captured the feeling of those chilly autumn evenings in the dark so well as Over the Garden Wall, a 10-episode Cartoon Network miniseries from 2014 about two brothers lost in a foreboding wood, trying to stay one step ahead of a fearsome beast. (It’s now available on HBO Max and Hulu.) Widely acclaimed at the time of its release and the winner of two Emmy Awards, Over the Garden Wall has become a cult classic and an annual favorite for the many fans who watch it each and every October.

Since each episode is 11 minutes long, you can watch the whole series in under two hours, and there are few better times to watch it than right now — now, during this specific October. From jack-o’-lanterns to dying leaves trapped by the wind on a fence to a musical score full of wistful melancholy, Over the Garden Wall captures something intrinsic about the dying embers of fall before winter spreads its chill across the sky. (Here, I will note that the series is appropriate for older children but might be a little too much for younger ones. If your kid is into monsters and other creepy things, however, you might as well give it a shot.)

That autumnal feeling stems from creator Patrick McHale’s use of Americana that has slipped out of common usage. In particular, many of the series’ images are taken from vintage postcards from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which were exchanged by friends and family on occasions such as Halloween and Christmas. Thus, the series looks like a dream you maybe had once because it captures not images you’ve seen a million times before, but the much older images that inspired the more familiar ones. It’s like seeing the original after enjoying several generations of copies.

The series’ storytelling accomplishes the same. It has the feeling of a fairy tale or folktale, with numerous nods to stories you’ve maybe heard before. People are turned into animals or trees, Brothers Grimm-style, and the Beast, who is only seen in shadow, is a man with antlers sprouting from his head, similar to mythological figures like Herne the Hunter.

Becoming lost in the woods is a primeval story in almost all cultures but particularly in the United States, where the earliest European colonizers who landed on these shores saw enormous, deep, dark woods and were intimidated by their shadows. (Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous short story “Young Goodman Brown,” in which a young man enters the woods to perhaps meet Satan himself captures that creeping terror well.) There is something more unsettling about emptiness than a more overtly scary creature. While Over the Garden Wall only rarely offers actually scary creatures, its core story is unnerving in a way that will hang with you.

The story is mostly a string to hang beautifully designed vignettes upon. Brothers Wirt and Greg are lost in the woods and need to get home. Along the way, they meet a frog and a talking bluebird named Beatrice. In each episode, the two meet more people who live out there, in the woods (or as the series would have it, “in the Unknown”), and they have to be clever to avoid the various fairy tale traps awaiting them in the woods.

If you find yourself wondering along the way whether these woods aren’t a real place and if something tragic befell Wirt and Greg to send them into the Unknown, well, that’s a logical assumption. The series clears everything up in the end, tying up its surprisingly large number of storylines in a fashion that proves satisfying but not overly neat. The reasons behind the brothers’ travels are revealed, and the woods themselves give up their secrets.

I haven’t been back to the place I grew up in several years, and the hog lots where I used to scrape mud out of watering containers are long since gone, after my family got out of hog farming in the late 1990s. I do not know when I will return, and I like to think that now, walking along in the dark, I would not be so unsettled by the thought of what might lie lurking in the trees.

But old habits die hard. October returns each and every year, not as spooky as it was in my youth but still with an echo of an echo of what once scared me. Wirt and Greg might reach their final destination, but the Unknown is still out there, waiting to pull the unsuspecting into a great, cavernous mouth lined with trees.

Over the Garden Wall is streaming on Hulu and HBO Max. The first episode of the miniseries and the short film that inspired it, “Tome of the Unknown,” are available on YouTube.


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Who Measures the Height of Mount Everest and How?

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nepal, pandemic, everest, height, survey

Nepal was supposed to announce the new height of Everest on May 29, but the announcement has been pushed back amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of Jewel Samad/AFP.

Khim Lal Gautam and Rabin Karki from the Survey Department of Nepal, and Tshiring Jangbu Sherpa, their guide, reached the top of Mt. Everest on 22 May, 2019. The three person team was carrying over 40 kilograms of equipment, including a GNSS receiver and a snow depth ground penetrating radar. They had left Kathmandu on 11 April, and over a month into the trek, in the bitter cold, Gautam, the lead surveyor, had lost a toe to frostbite. The surveyors made it to 8000 meters on the mountain when, on 21 May, they were stuck in a “traffic jam” of climbers trying to make it to the summit. When they reached the top a day later, data from the GNSS receiver was collected for an hour and 16 minutes in minus 109 Fahrenheit, after which the  surveyors began their descent, concluding the most difficult phase of Nepal’s first official mission to measure the height of the tallest mountain in the world.

Mount Everest’s current accepted height, 8848 meters, is a figure that was obtained by the Survey of India in 1955. Since then, other Indian, American, European, and Chinese surveyors have remeasured the mountain, and produced figures ranging between 8844 meters and 8850 meters. Due to the cost and technical expertise required for the project, Nepal government had not launched its own measurement effort till 2017. 

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“The earthquake in 2015 caused changes in the positions of the mountains,” former deputy director general of the Survey Department, Niraj Manandhar told VICE News. “Remeasuring was extremely difficult, but had to be done in the aftermath of the earthquake.”

Dr. Christopher Pearson from the School of Surveying at the University of Otago, New Zealand, an advisor to Nepal’s Survey Department, told VICE News that there are three reasons why the remeasurement of the mountain was necessary. One, tectonic activities are such that the height of Mt. Everest is expected to increase between earthquakes and decrease in the aftermath of an earthquake, which means that there may have been a notable change after the shocks of 2015. Two, with improvements in satellite technology, the precision of measurements has gotten markedly better, meaning that new figures on the height of the mountain are likely to be extremely accurate. Three, the top of Everest is covered in ice, and the melting of ice also means that the height may have fluctuated.

In addition to the project’s scientific relevance, measuring Mount Everest has also been a matter of national pride for the Nepal government. The Survey Department has spent US $ 1.3 million on the endeavour, working alongside six international firms since 2017. 

 “We are using traditional methods as well as cutting edge modern techniques for the first time, it is a very important project for Nepal,” the current Deputy Director General of the Survey Department, Susheel Dongol, told VICE News.

The traditional and modern methods for measuring Mount Everest are the trigonometric method and the satellite method respectively. The trigonometric method, through which the height of the mountain was first determined in 1955, measures the angle from horizontal points away from the mountain in order to make calculations on the height. The satellite method requires surveyors to place a satellite device on top of a mountain, which determines the peak’s exact location in a given coordinate system, and a series of calculations from the data thus obtained determine height with a margin of error of a few centimeters.

According to Dr Pearson, a problem with the trigonometric method is that light rays bent by the atmosphere can make a mountain look bigger or smaller, while the challenge with the satellite method is that it measures an ellipsoidal height (the height above a smoothed geometric model of the earth)instead of the height over sea level. Both methods used concurrently, therefore, lead to the most accurate figure.

The Survey Department measured the position and angle of the summit from 12 observation points for trigonometric levelling. A gravimeter— an instrument which measures the force of gravity at any given location— was taken to 298 spots. The ground penetrating radar measured the thickness of the ice-cap at the top of the mountain. The massive data collection effort included over 80 staff members from the Survey Department and took place over two years between 2018-2019 with geodetic equipment contributed by various countries. Most of the analysis of the data was conducted in late 2019. 

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If it wasn’t for the pandemic, the new height of Everest may already have been made public, but COVID-19 and tensions with China have delayed the announcement of the height. The “ownership” of the mountain, which lies on the border between the two countries, has long been a point of contention,  and although the relationship between Nepal and China has been quickly advancing in recent years, state communication about matters relating to the mountain is a diplomatic tightrope. In October 2019, after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Kathmandu, a statement by the Nepali and Chinese government said that they would “jointly announce the height of Mount Sagarmatha/Zhumulangma” (Everest). A year after Gautam and Karki reached the top of the mountain, on May 28, members of the Chinese government’s survey team also reached the summit to collect data. Although the measurement efforts have been separate, the promise of a joint announcement means that Nepal’s “pride project” is no longer its own.

A senior member of the Survey Department who did not want to be named said that China’s involvement was a “blindside,” and there is “no clarity” about when the public announcement of the new height will take place.

This is not the first time that the height of Everest has been a source of tension between Nepal and China. In May 2005, when Chinese researchers concluded that the height of the peak was 3.7 meters less than the estimates made in 1955 (they excluded the height of the ice cap at the top of the mountain in their calculation), then Director General of the Survey Department, Raja Ram Chhatkuli had said, “Both are correct heights. No measurement is absolute. This is a problem of scientific research.”

 In 2010, the countries agreed to settle their differences, with the Chinese side accepting Nepal’s claim that the snow height of Mount Everest is 8,848 meters, and the Nepali side recognised the Chinese claim that the rock height of the mountain is 8,844.43 meters.

The joint announcement decision appears to have taken place without the Survey Department’s knowledge. In October 2019, the Survey Department told The Kathmandu Post that ten days after the public announcement, it had not received official communication from the Prime Minister’s Office regarding China’s involvement in the process, suggesting that those involved with the science of the measurement and those in charge of state messaging were not on the same page. 

A year after the announcement that the height of the mountain would be jointly announced by Nepal and China, the Survey Department has been circumspect on the timeline of the declaration. “It was a long and difficult process, and the reveal will come in due time,” Damodhar Dhakal, information officer of the Survey Department told VICE News. 

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Nagorno-Karabakh fighting continues as second truce fails to hold

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Clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan spill into fourth week, with dozens of civilians and hundreds of soldiers killed.

Azerbaijan and Armenia engaged in heavy fighting over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region on Monday, with both countries ignoring a renewed truce that was meant to come into effect at the weekend.

The truce was agreed on Saturday after a similar deal brokered by Russia a week earlier failed to halt the worst fighting in the South Caucasus since the 1990s.

In both instances, Armenia and Azerbaijan accused one another of breaking the truce within hours of agreed deadlines.

On Monday, ethnic Armenian officials in Nagorno-Karabakh said Azeri forces were shelling their positions in northern and southern areas of the line of contact that divides them.

They recorded another 19 casualties among their troops, pushing the military death toll to 729 since fighting with Azeri forces erupted on September 27; 36 ethnic Armenian civilians have died.

Azerbaijan does not disclose its military casualties, but on Saturday claimed 60 Azeri civilians had so far died.

The Azeri defence ministry said Armenian forces had shelled its positions in the Garanboy, Terter and Aghdam regions of Azerbaijan overnight and said the Agjebedin region was being shelled on Monday morning.

The reports could not immediately be verified.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev accused Armenian forces of violating the truce, and said in a Twitter post there were “dead and wounded due to these heinous actions”.

More than 1,000 people have been killed since fighting began on September 27, including hundreds of soldiers and dozens of civilians.

Nagorno-Karabakh is inside Azerbaijan but has been controlled by Armenia-backed troops for more than 25 years.

The failure to halt renewed fighting has raised fears of all-out war and humanitarian crisis, while the conflict puts fresh strain on ties between Turkey, which strongly backs Azerbaijan, and its Western allies in NATO.

While Turkey has called for a ceasefire, countries such as France and Germany have criticised Ankara for its fervent and vocal support of Baku in the fight.

Russia, which has a defence pact with Armenia and sells weapons to both rival countries, could also be at risk of being embroiled into a regional war.

The first truce brokered in Moscow earlier this month was aimed at letting the sides swap detainees and bodies of those killed in the clashes, but it had little effect on the fighting around the enclave.

The latest truce was announced after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov talked to his Armenian and Azeri counterparts by telephone and called on sides to observe the truce that he mediated a week ago.

Russia, France and the United States jointly chair a body called the Minsk Group, which has attempted to help resolve the conflict under the umbrella of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

UN chief Antonio Guterres on Sunday called on Armenia and Azerbaijan to “fully abide” by the new truce, his spokesman said.

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