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17 December 2001

Buried under the rubble of the towers

The New Statesman Christmas - A strange year, with all kinds of news lost since September.

By Talia Barsam

South Africa President Thabo Mbeki suppressed damning medical reports that predicted up to seven million cumulative deaths from Aids by 2010, and used inaccurate World Health Organisation figures from 1995 to support his claim that Aids causes relatively few deaths in South Africa. Mbeki’s government made the report by the Medical Research Council public only after details had been leaked.

Nigeria Muslim militants in Jos called for the introduction of sharia law, provoking violent clashes with Christians, which resulted in more than 500 deaths in September. Sharia law has already been introduced in 12 states in the north, where most of the 50 million-strong Muslim minority live.

Nicaragua The US used propaganda and money to influence the November presidential elections in Nicaragua, to ensure the defeat of Daniel Ortega, leader of the left-wing Sandinista party. The US supported Enrique Bolanos, the Liberal Party leader, and secured the withdrawal of the third-party candidate to prevent a split in the anti-Ortega vote. It threatened that a win for the Sandinistas would prompt a re-evaluation of US policy on Nicaragua. In 1990, Ortega was ousted from power after the US refused to recognise his election and used illegal funds to support the Contra rebels to wage war, resulting in 50,000 deaths.

Bolivia The country came close to revolution as peasants, in increasingly violent skirmishes with soldiers, demanded the protection of the coca plant. One in four peasant farmers is now unemployed as a result of the US-sponsored coca-eradication plan, which costs the country $600m a year. Despite Bolivia’s destruction of 90 per cent of this year’s crop, cocaine consumption in Europe and the US remains at almost the same levels as in 1997.

Chechnya Human rights groups voiced concern over Russia’s continued abuse of human rights in Chechnya, as President Vladimir Putin compared the US war on terrorism to the actions of Russian federal forces in the rebel state. Since 11 September, campaigners have documented nine extrajudicial executions, nine “disappearances” and numerous cases of torture and arbitrary arrest, as well as violations of press freedoms.

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China The Chinese government persecuted the Uighurs, the Muslim minority in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, and sanctioned the use of violence against members of the Falun Gong sect, which led to at least 300 deaths by October 2001. In November, Sir Nigel Rodley resigned as UN special rapporteur on torture in China, frustrated at the government’s failure to curtail human rights abuses.

Australia In a report to parliament in November, Ron McLeod, the Commonwealth ombudsman, denounced conditions at detention camps across Australia. He claimed the country’s hard-line immigration policy gave “detainees . . . lesser rights than convicted criminals held in jails”.

Medical research Baxter International, the US medical equipment manufacturer, was forced to admit that a chemical used in testing its dialysis filters was probably to blame for 36 fatalities around the world. The admission came two months after the first deaths were reported in Spain. European distribution was suspended only after 23 kidney patients died over five days in Croatia. Investigators are now examining 90 suspicious deaths on four continents.

Vivisection The European Commission disclosed plans to test the toxicity of chemicals, requiring the deaths of 50 million monkeys, dogs, rodents, birds and fish. The programme, announced in October, is the largest animal-testing plan ever scheduled in Europe.

United States Gary Condit, a Democratic congressman, announced his intention to run for re-election. Condit admitted to police in July that he had had a “romantic relationship” with Chandra Ann Levy, the 24-year-old intern who disappeared last May. Four days before the terrorist attacks, amid fears that recent scandals had made him unelectable, Condit informed associates of his plans to retire from Congress. Two weeks later, he quietly began collecting signatures to secure support for re-election in the May 2002 ballot.

Al Gore would have won the presidency, had a full recount of the Florida ballot been undertaken, a survey commissioned by a US media consortium revealed on 12 November.

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe continued his land seizure campaign after the October meeting of Commonwealth leaders in Brisbane, which would have condemned his actions, was postponed until March. The confiscation of white-owned land by Mugabe and supporters of his ruling Zanu-PF party displaced more than 4,400 farmers and put a further 240,000 agricultural labourers out of work.

UK Trade union protests over government plans for the involvement of public-private partnerships in public services were postponed indefinitely when the TUC conference in Brighton ended prematurely on 11 September, as a mark of respect to the victims of the attacks.

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