It’s not clear where Trump’s ‘Space Force’ fits within international agreement on peaceful use of space


Melissa de Zwart, University of Adelaide

Overnight US President Donald Trump announced the establishment of a “Space Force” as a separate force of the US military.

Trump has indicated the reasoning behind the Space Force stems from national security concerns arising from the potential for renewed activities in space by China and Russia. Trump had previously referred to space as the “new warfighting domain.”

It’s not yet clear where this move sits in light of prohibitions laid out in the Outer Space Treaty, the document that has guided the the exploration and use of outer space by members of the United Nations since 1967.




Read more:
We’re drafting a legal guide to war in space. Hopefully we’ll never need to use it


In his recent announcement, Trump said:

When it comes to defending America, it is not enough to merely have an American presence in space. We must have American dominance in space. So important.

Trump announces “Space Force”, a sixth branch of the armed forces in that country.

It’s been coming

Departments in the US military currently include the Air Force, the Army, the Navy, the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard.

The announcement of a Space Force is part of Trump’s increased interest in the space domain, having in 2017 revived the National Space Council, under the leadership of Mike Pence.

Trump had previously flagged the idea of a US Space Force with statements in March and May.

However, with this most recent announcement Trump officially directed the US Department of Defense and the Pentagon to establish the Space Force.

Much more will be needed to actually make this happen. The President cannot simply declare the existence of a new branch of the US armed forces – it would also require, at minimum, an Act of Congress and quite possibly something more. Each branch of the US military has its own unique origins and would require the restructure of the Air Force and other oversight mechanisms in the Pentagon.

Further, there is also the question regarding what such a force could do. Trump’s speech flagged some sort of peacekeeping role.

Rich guys like rockets

Whilst much of the reportage of Trump’s speech has focused on the military aspects of his announcement, Trump reminded the audience that the Space Force was not the only space activity planned by his administration. Rather there was a strong emphasis on commercial space industries, observing that “rich guys seem to like rockets”.

US laws relating to commercial space are to be updated to encourage commercial space industries, directing government and the private sector to work cooperatively. Trump said:

I am instructing my administration to embrace the budding commercial space industry. We are modernizing out-of-date space regulations. They’re way out of date. They haven’t been changed in many, many years. And today we’re taking one more step to unleash the power of American ingenuity. In a few moments, I will sign a new directive to federal departments and agencies. They will work together with American industry to implement a state-of-the-art framework for space traffic management.




Read more:
A sports car and a glitter ball are now in space – what does that say about us as humans?


Trump also celebrated the potential for benefit to US workers, along with a lot of rhetoric about conquering the unknown. He said “we are Americans and the future belongs totally to us”, we will be “leading humanity beyond the Earth” and “into the forbidden skies”.

Noting the interest of private entrepreneurs establishing long term settlements on Mars, Trump observed that whoever made it to Mars first was fine as long as it was a US citizen.

The Outer Space Treaty

Trump’s proposals – as with any other new outer space settlements – must operate within prohibitions laid out in the Outer Space Treaty. Established in 1967, this document is the framework multilateral treaty that establishes the principal rules regulating the exploration and use of outer space.

Article II of the Outer Space Treaty indicates that “Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”

That said, US law has been drafted to enable access to, including mining of, space resources, without any claim of sovereignty being made.

With respect to a Space Force, Article IV of the Outer Space Treaty expresses a principle of use of space for “peaceful purposes”. Members of the Outer Space Treaty are forbidden from placing nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction in orbit around the Earth, on celestial bodies or stationed in outer space. Military bases, installations and fortifications, weapons testing and conduct of military manouevers on celestial bodies are also forbidden.

Of course, none of this has prevented military personnel being involved in space activities and exploration since the dawn of the space age. Both the early US astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts have been members of their respective countries armed forces. Nor has it prevented the transit of weapons of mass destruction through space. GPS is a development of the US Department of Defense and many satellites, including Australia’s own Optus C1 satellite is a dual use (military and civilian) satellite.




Read more:
As the world embraces space, the 50 year old Outer Space Treaty needs adaptation


All eyes on space

The question of the legality of the extent of military uses of outer space and what role may be performed by Trump’s Space Force is still open.

Generally, the practice of the space faring states to date indicates that the prohibitions contained in Article IV of the Outer Space Treaty have been interpreted as “peaceful”, but as referring to non-aggressive rather than non-military uses of space.




Read more:
With China’s space station about to crash land, who’s responsible if you get hit by space junk?


Of course, militaries worldwide are already very reliant upon space in terms of communication, position, navigation and timing, surveillance and reconnaissance. Militaries regularly hold exercises such as a Day without Space, which prepares users for the possible destruction of or serious interference with GPS, internet and satellites communications, upon which all modern militaries are heavily reliant.

Space assets such as satellites are quite fragile and valuable and hence issues will inevitably arise regarding capacity to protect space assets.

The ConversationTrump’s Space Force may still be a highly speculative announcement but it is true that we live in an era where militaries and civilians worldwide are becoming far more reliant and invested in the space domain.

Melissa de Zwart, Professor, Adelaide Law School, University of Adelaide

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Australia expels two Russian spies as part of international push against Russia



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Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said the Russians had to leave within a week “for actions inconsistent with their status”.
AAP/Joel Carrett

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The Australian government is expelling two Russian spies as part of a broad international retaliatory action against the nerve agent attack on the former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Britain earlier this month.

The diplomats have been “identified as undeclared intelligence officers”, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said in a statement on Tuesday morning. “Undeclared intelligence agents” are spies.

More than 20 Western countries, including the US, EU countries and Canada, are expelling more than 100 Russians, in a dramatic escalation of the push against Russia. British Prime Minister Theresa May told the UK parliament this was “the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in history”.

Turnbull and Bishop said the Russians had to leave within a week “for actions inconsistent with their status”.

“This decision reflects the shocking nature of the attack – the first offensive use of chemical weapons in Europe since World War II, involving a highly lethal substance in a populated area, endangering countless other members of the community,” they said in a statement.

“It takes into account advice from the UK government that the substance used on 4 March was a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia. Such an attack cannot be tolerated by any sovereign nation.

“We strongly support the call on Russia to disclose the full extent of its chemical weapons program in accordance with international law.

“This attack is part of a pattern of reckless and deliberate conduct by the Russian state that constitutes a growing threat to international security, global non-proliferation rules against the use of chemical weapons, the rights of other sovereign nations and the international rules-based order that underpins them,” the statement said.

Turnbull briefed Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, who immediately backed the action.

“I have spoken to the security agencies. I am very supportive of this measure,” Shorten told reporters.

“These are undeclared agents and so therefore it is inappropriate that they be in Australia.”

Asked whether he believed it was beyond doubt that the Russians were involved in the nerve agent attack, Shorten said “our security agencies have that view and therefore I think this is a proportionate action today”.

Sergei and Yulia Skripal remain in a critical condition.

Update:

The Russian embassy issued a statement saying: “It is astonishing how easily the allies of Great Britain follow it blindly contrary to the norms of civilised bilateral dialogue and international relations, and against the common sense. The modern world is not in a stage when it is possible to dictate anything to anybody, regardless of the nostalgia for past grandeur in certain capitals.”

The statement said that “neither the Russian side, attempt on which citizens’ life was made, nor other states possess impartial exhaustive information about the ‘Skripal case’”.

“Such flagrant and primitive campaigns as the ‘Skripal case’ that are crudely orchestrated by London, could only trigger further erosion of international relations architecture on which peace and security in the whole world during the post-war period were rested.”

Further update

The ConversationRussia’s ambassador in Canberra Grigory Logvinov dodged the question of whether the Russians expelled are spies. “No ambassador would give you an answer, and actually ask your authorities how they could judge who is a special agent or not. Within my embassy, there are only career diplomats,” he told the ABC.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Trump-Turnbull call: trading people like pawns undermines the goals of international co-operation



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AAP/Eoin Blackwell

Amy Maguire, University of Newcastle and Jason von Meding, University of Newcastle

What is the point of international co-operation in matters of shared concern? According to the UN Charter, its founding member nations were determined to achieve overarching societal progress based on human rights.

Excerpt from the UN Charter.

The international legal system of the UN era continues to attempt, with mixed success, to promote these goals.

Within intricately connected global systems that produce ever-more complex problems, a framework for international co-operation is essential. The international legal system, however imperfect, must be maintained as a bulwark against the wholesale pursuit of domestic political interests.

Yet our belief in the efficacy of this system is challenged when the stark reality of international power relations is laid bare. It seems the more insight we have into what happens behind the scenes, the harder it becomes to convince the sceptical that international law has either legal or normative power.

On Friday, The Washington Post published a leaked transcript of a now-infamous phone call between the then newly elected US president, Donald Trump, and Australia’s prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull.

The shocking conversation reveals that the deal for the US to accept some of those asylum seekers currently detained offshore – a key feature of the Australian government’s effort to close its offshore detention centre on Manus Island – imposes no obligation on the US beyond “going through the process”. According to Turnbull:

… the agreement … does not require you to take 2,000 people. It does not require you to take any.

Trump made it abundantly clear that he did not see either the US national interest or his personal popularity being served by upholding the agreement:

… boy that will make us look awfully bad. Here I am calling for a ban where I am not letting anybody in and we take 2,000 people. Really it looks like 2,000 people that Australia does not want and I do not blame you by the way, but the United States has become like a dumping ground.


Further reading: Five quotes from the Turnbull-Trump call show the folly of Australia’s refugee policy


Trading lives in a ‘refugee swap’

The deal between Australia and the US remains mired in confusion almost a year on. Australia committed to resettling some Central American refugees currently in Costa Rica, as part of a US-led program.

Soon after, Turnbull announced an agreement with the Obama administration that would see the US resettle perhaps 1,250 refugees currently detained on Manus Island and Nauru.

The transcript confirms that Trump was resistant to inheriting what he described as a “rotten deal”:

I hate taking these people. I guarantee you they are bad. That is why they are in prison right now.

Turnbull sought to reassure Trump he could sell the agreement to the US public as consistent with his campaign promise to tighten immigration controls.

Turnbull emphasised his and Trump’s shared identity as businessmen and represented the “deal” as a business transaction that ought to be upheld, at least formally:

Please, if we can agree to stick to the deal, you have complete discretion in terms of a security assessment. The numbers are not 2,000 but 1,250 to start. Basically, we are taking people from the previous administration that they were very keen on getting out of the United States. We will take more. We will take anyone that you want us to take. The only people that we do not take are people who come by boat. So we would rather take a not very attractive guy that help you out then to take a Noble [sic] Peace Prize winner that comes by boat. That is the point.

Despite Trump’s reluctance, US immigration officials have conducted some screening interviews with refugees on Manus Island. However, these were suspended mid-run and the officials withdrew to the US, once it was announced that the US’ annual humanitarian refugee quota had already been fulfilled.

Those detained have been told that interviews will resume and that resettlement in the US is still on the table. However, whether the Trump administration ever had any serious intention to be party to a resettlement solution is now in doubt, as is Turnbull’s commitment to anything more than a domestic political win.

On Manus Island, the leaked transcripts arrived amid heightened tensions. Protests have been ongoing since Tuesday, when water and power services were withdrawn in the largest compound. Local police, detention centre guards and reportedly the Australian Federal Police are attempting to remove those deemed “prisoners” by Trump – something that Turnbull, perhaps tellingly, did not dispute.

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This latest insight into the international game of trading unwanted human beings compounds the frustration and sense of injustice that those trapped in Australia’s offshore detention system are experiencing.

Proof that Australia fails to see the humanity of refugees

Turnbull’s position appears to be that the people detained on Manus Island and Nauru are “good” and deserving of protection somewhere, but that his domestic political environment demands they must be treated like criminals.

In the call, Turnbull repeatedly refers to the people imprisoned on Manus Island and Nauru as “economic refugees”. This pernicious framing is consistent with government messaging about “boat people” and “queue jumpers”.

In reality, no refugees are accepted on economic grounds under Australia’s rules. It is disingenuous of Turnbull to make such an inference about those detained in offshore detention, considering that almost 90% of those on Manus Island have been assessed as bona-fide refugees by both Australia and the UNHCR.

Turnbull’s indifference to human suffering is chilling, surprising even Trump:

We should do that too. You are worse than I am.

When two of the most powerful men in the world conspire to inflict further harm on some of the world’s most vulnerable to satisfy domestic agendas, we truly need to question whether the goals of the international community as constituted in the UN are being upheld by our elected officials.

Dehumanising refugees and treating them as the problem avoids any serious consideration of why people are displaced. This is where the international community should be working together.

The ConversationAdopting a punitive approach to those seeking protection not only goes against international law, but it is an insult to those that uphold Australia and the US as leading beacons for human rights and freedom.

Amy Maguire, Senior Lecturer in International Law and Human Rights, University of Newcastle and Jason von Meding, Senior Lecturer in Disaster Risk Reduction, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Counter-terrorism measures permanently reduce international trade: new study


Chris Doucouliagos, Deakin University and Cong S. Pham, Deakin University

Enhanced counter-terrorism measures help to protect lives, but unfortunately also reduce trade, our study shows. The costs of increased security measures are also not shared equally. While some costs are passed onto consumers, exporters and importers often bear the higher costs.

Since 2000, there have been more than 72,000 terrorist acts causing nearly 170,000 deaths. In our study we analysed the impact of terrorism on trade in over 160 countries from 1976 to 2014.

The effects of terrorism in one country spill over across national borders to reduce the trade of other nations. On average, each terrorist incident reduces trade by about US$6.4 million for each trading partner. The effect is also long lived; a terrorist attack can reduce trade over the next five years.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/wbkCp/3/

How security measures change trade

One way counter-terrorism reduces trade is through time delays. Some security and counter-terrorism measures cause longer delays at airports, ports and borders and thereby increase the time it takes to trade.

Food products are particularly vulnerable to shipping delays and the disruption of supply chains that arise from tighter border controls. Trading delays can be very costly. One study shows trade is reduced by more than 1% for each additional day it’s delayed.

Counter-terrorism measures also increase charges and transport costs. Transport costs in particular are critical for trade.

Terrorism has led to higher security surcharges at ports and airports and higher insurance premiums. Requirements for businesses to report suspicious transactions cause delays, also increasing trading costs.

After the September 11 attacks in the US, many nations applied stricter counter-terrorism measures to combat money laundering and the financing of terrorism. These measures add to the cost of importing and exporting.

Some of the individual cost components may be relatively small. For example, anti-money-laundering compliance costs in Australia are pretty insignificant. Nonetheless, all these delays and charges add up.

As the OECD points out, doing nothing about terrorism is not an option. Preventive security measures are indispensable to secure trade, infrastructure and lives.

However, some counter-terrorism measures are effectively non-tariff barriers that do more to protect specific industries than to protect people. That is, some security measures have a similar effect to tariffs, in that they divert trade from lower cost overseas producers, to higher cost domestic producers.

And some measures are ineffective. For example, a key objective of counter-terrorism policies to control money-laundering is to choke off external funding for terrorists. However, some terrorist groups, most notably insurgents in Iraq and ISIS, are largely self-financed.

Our results also show that terrorism has a greater adverse effect on trade in sub-Saharan Africa in particular. This region is particularly vulnerable to terrorism due to governance problems such as corruption. Ironically, this region is especially in need of the benefits of trade to improve governance and institutions.

Our study also shows terrorism reduces trade by diverting government attention from trade liberalisation and reform. Promoting trade is an even more difficult task in an era of accelerated terrorism.

Trade itself can help counter terrorism

Trade spillover effects created by terrorism highlight the importance of co-ordinating counter-terrorism measures between countries. However, this also requires greater co-ordination between policies.

Trade can play an important role in curtailing terrorism by bringing nations closer and fuelling economic prosperity and development. Combined with other economic policies and strategies, greater co-ordination between security and trade policies can increase safeguards while lowering trade barriers. It can also offset the higher trade costs that result from extra security measures.

The ConversationBy reducing trade, counter-terrorism policies inadvertently drive a wedge between nations and make nations poorer. Making countries poorer in turn makes it harder to combat terrorism.

Chris Doucouliagos, Professor of Economics, Department of Economics, Deakin Business School and Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University and Cong S. Pham, Senior Lecturer in Economics, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Cricket: Brett Lee Retires from International Cricket


  1. Australian Brett Lee quits international cricket saying ‘It just felt like it time to go’

Pastor, Church Official Shot Dead in Nigeria


Muslim militants of Boko Haram blamed for killings in Borno state.

JOS, Nigeria, June 10 (CDN) — Muslim extremists from the Boko Haram sect on Tuesday (June 7) shot and killed a Church of Christ in Nigeria (COCIN) pastor and his church secretary in Maiduguri, in northeastern Nigeria’s Borno state.

The Rev. David Usman, 45, and church secretary Hamman Andrew were the latest casualties in an upsurge of Islamic militancy that has engulfed northern Nigeria this year, resulting in the destruction of church buildings and the killing and maiming of Christians.

The Rev. Titus Dama Pona, pastor with the Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA) in Maiduguri, told Compass that Pastor Usman was shot and killed by the members of the Boko Haram near an area of Maiduguri called the Railway Quarters, where the slain pastor’s church is located.

Pona said Christians in Maiduguri have become full of dread over the violence of Boko Haram, which seeks to impose sharia (Islamic law) on northern Nigeria.

“Christians have become the targets of these Muslim militants – we no longer feel free moving around the city, and most churches no longer carry out worship service for fear of becoming targets of these unprovoked attacks,” Pona said.

Officials at COCIN’s national headquarters in Jos, Plateau state, confirmed the killing of Pastor Usman. The Rev. Logan Gongchi of a COCIN congregation in Kerang, Jos, told Compass that area Christians were shocked at the news.

Gongchi said he attended Gindiri Theological College with Pastor Usman beginning in August 2003, and that both of them were ordained into pastoral ministry on Nov. 27, 2009.

“We knew him to be very gentle, an introvert, who was always silent in the class and only spoke while answering questions from our teachers,” Gongchi said. “He had a simple lifestyle and was easygoing with other students. He was very accommodating and ready at all times to withstand life’s pressures – this is in addition to being very jovial.”

Gongchi described Usman as “a pastor to the core because of his humility. I remember he once told me that he was not used to working with peasant farmers’ working tools, like the hoe. But with time he adapted to the reality of working with these tools on the farm in the school.”

Pastor Usman was excellent at counseling Christians and others while they were at the COCIN theological college, Gongchi said, adding that the pastor greatly encouraged him when he was suffering a long illness from 2005 to 2007.

“His encouraging words kept my faith alive, and the Lord saw me overcoming my ill health,” he said. “So when I heard the news about his murder, I cried.”

 

Motives

The late pastor had once complained about the activities of Boko Haram, saying that unless the Nigerian government faced up to the challenge of its attacks, the extremist group would consume the lives of innocent persons, according to Gongchi.

“Pastor Usman once commented on the activities of the Boko Haram, which he said has undermined the church not only in Maiduguri, but in Borno state,” Gongchi said. “At the time, he urged us to pray for them, as they did not know how the problem will end.”

Gongchi advised the Nigerian government to find a lasting solution to Boko Haram’s violence, which has also claimed the lives of moderate Muslim leaders and police.

The Railway Quarters area in Maiduguri housed the seat of Boko Haram until 2009, when Nigerian security agencies and the military demolished its headquarters and captured and killed the sect’s leader, Mohammed Yusuf, and some of his followers.

The killing of Pastor Usman marked the second attack on his church premises by the Muslim militants. The first attack came on July 29, 2009, when Boko Haram militants burned the church building and killed some members of his congregation.

On Monday (June 6), the militants had bombed the St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, along with other areas in Maiduguri, killing three people. In all, 14 people were killed in three explosions at the church and police stations, and authorities have arrested 14 people.

The Boko Haram name is interpreted figuratively as “against Western education,” but some say it can also refer to the forbidding of the Judeo-Christian faith. They say the word “Boko” is a corruption in Hausa language for the English word “Book,” referring to the Islamic scripture’s description of Jews and Christians as “people of the Book,” while “Haram” is a Hausa word derived from Arabic meaning, “forbidding.”

Boko Haram leaders have openly declared that they want to establish an Islamic theocratic state in Nigeria, and they reject democratic institutions, which they associate with Christianity. Their bombings and suspected involvement in April’s post-election violence in Nigeria were aimed at stifling democracy, which they see as a system of government built on the foundation of Christian scripture.

Christians as well as Muslims suffered many casualties after supporters of Muslim presidential candidate Muhammudu Buhari lost the April 16 federal election to Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian. Primarily Muslim rioters claimed vote fraud, although international observers praised the polls as the fairest since 1999.

Nigeria’s population of more than 158.2 million is almost evenly divided between Christians, who make up 51.3 percent of the population and live mainly in the south, and Muslims, who account for 45 percent of the population and live mainly in the north. The percentages may be less, however, as those practicing indigenous religions may be as high as 10 percent of the total population, according to Operation World.

Report From Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org/

 

Religious Conversion Worst Form of ‘Intolerance,’ Bhutan PM Says


Propagation of religion is allowable – but not seeking conversions, top politician says.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, April 13 (CDN) — In the Kingdom of Bhutan, where Christianity is still awaiting legal recognition, Christians have the right to proclaim their faith but must not use coercion or claim religious superiority to seek conversions, the country’s prime minister told Compass in an exclusive interview.

“I view conversions very negatively, because conversion is the worst form of intolerance,” Jigmi Yoser Thinley said in his office in the capital of the predominantly Buddhist nation.

Christian leaders in Bhutan have told Compass that they enjoy certain freedoms to practice their faith in private homes, but, because of a prohibition against church buildings and other restrictions, they were not sure if proclamation of their faith – included in international human rights codes – was allowed in Bhutan.

Prime Minister Thinley, who as head of the ruling party is the most influential political chief in the country, said propagation of one’s faith is allowed, but he made it clear that he views attempts to convert others with extreme suspicion.

“The first premise [of seeking conversion] is that you believe that your religion is the right religion, and the religion of the convertee is wrong – what he believes in is wrong, what he practices is wrong, that your religion is superior and that you have this responsibility to promote your way of life, your way of thinking, your way of worship,” Thinley said. “It’s the worst form of intolerance. And it divides families and societies.”

Bhutan’s constitution does not restrict the right to convert or proselytize, but some Non-Governmental Organizations have said the government effectively limits this right by restricting construction of non-Buddhist worship buildings and celebration of some non-Buddhist festivals, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report.

It adds that Bhutan’s National Security Act (NSA) further limits proclamation of one’s faith by prohibiting “words either spoken or written, or by other means whatsoever, that promote or attempt to promote, on grounds of religion, race, language, caste, or community, or on any other ground whatsoever, feelings of enmity or hatred between different religious, racial, or language groups or castes and communities.” Violation of the NSA is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment, though whether
any cases have been prosecuted is unknown, according to the State Department report.

Bhutan’s first democratic prime minister after about a century of absolute monarchy, Thinley completed three years in office last Thursday (April 7). While he affirmed that it is allowable for Christians to proclaim their faith – a practice commanded by Christ, with followers agreeing that it is the Holy Spirit, not man, that “converts” people – Thinley made his suspicions about Christians’ motives manifest.

“Any kind of proselytization that involves economic and material incentives [is wrong],” he said. “Many people are being converted on hospital beds in their weakest and most vulnerable moments. And these people are whispering in their ears that ‘there is no hope for you. The only way that you can survive is if you accept this particular religion.’ That is wrong.”

Thinley’s suspicions include the belief that Christians offer material incentives to convert.

“Going to the poor and saying, ‘Look, your religion doesn’t provide for this life, our religion provides for this life as well as the future,’ is wrong. And that is the basis for proselytization.”

Christian pastors in Thimphu told Compass that the perception that Bhutan’s Christians use money to convert the poor was flawed.

The pastors, requesting anonymity, said they prayed for healing of the sick because they felt they were not allowed to preach tenets of Christianity directly. Many of those who experience healing – almost all who are prayed for, they claimed – do read the Bible and then believe in Jesus’ teachings.

Asked if a person can convert if she or he believed in Christianity, the prime minister replied, “[There is] freedom of choice, yes.”

In his interview with Compass, Thinley felt compelled to defend Buddhism against assertions that citizens worship idols.

“To say that, ‘Your religion is wrong, worshiping idols is wrong,’ who worships idols?” he said. “We don’t worship idols. Those are just representations and manifestations that help you to focus.”

Leader of the royalist Druk Phuensum Tshogpa party, Thinley is regarded as a sincere politician who is trusted by Bhutan’s small Christian minority. He became the prime minister in April 2008 following the first democratic election after Bhutan’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, abdicated power in 2006 to pave the way toward democracy.

Until Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy in 2008, the practice of Christianity was believed to be banned in the country. The constitution now grants the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion to all citizens. It also states that the king is the protector of all religions.

Thus far, the Religious Organisations Act of 2007 has recognized only Buddhist and Hindu organizations. As a result, no church building or Christian bookstore has been allowed in the country, nor can Christians engage in social work. Christianity in Bhutan remains confined to the homes of local believers, where they meet for collective worship on Sundays.

Asked if a Christian federation should be registered by the government to allow Christians to function with legal recognition, Thinley said, “Yes, definitely.”

The country’s agency regulating religious organizations under the 2007 act, locally known as the Chhoedey Lhentshog, is expected to make a decision on whether it could register a Christian federation representing all Christians. The authority is looking into provisions in the law to see if there is a scope for a non-Buddhist and non-Hindu organization to be registered. (See http://www.compassdirect.com, “Official Recognition Eludes Christian Groups in Bhutan,” Feb. 1.)

On whether the Religious Organisations Act could be amended if it is determined that it does not allow legal recognition of a Christian federation, the prime minister said, “If the majority view and support prevails in the country, the law will change.”

Thinley added that he was partially raised as a Christian.

“I am part Christian, too,” he said. “I read the Bible, occasionally of course. I come from a traditional [Christian] school and attended church every day except for Saturdays for nine years.”

A tiny nation in the Himalayas between India and China, Bhutan has a population of 708,484 people, of which roughly 75 percent are Buddhist, according to Operation World. Christians are estimated to be between 6,000 to nearly 15,000 (the latter figure would put Christians at more than 2 percent of the population), mostly from the south. Hindus, mainly ethnic Nepalese, constitute around 22 percent of the population and have a majority in the south.

 

Religious ‘Competition’

Bhutan’s opposition leader, Lyonpo Tshering Togbay, was equally disapproving of religious conversion.

“I am for propagation of spiritual values or anything that allows people to be good human beings,” he told Compass. “[But] we cannot have competition among religions in Bhutan.”

He said, however, that Christians must be given rights equal to those of Hindus and Buddhists.

“Our constitution guarantees the right to freedom of practice – full stop, no conditions,” he said. “But now, as a small nation state, there are some realities. Christianity is a lot more evangelistic than Hinduism or Buddhism.”

Togbay said there are Christians who are tolerant and compassionate of other peoples, cultures and religions, but “there are Christians also who go through life on war footing to save every soul. That’s their calling, and it’s good for them, except that in Bhutan we do not have the numbers to accommodate such zeal.”

Being a small nation between India and China, Bhutan’s perceived geopolitical vulnerability leads authorities to seek to pre-empt any religious, social or political unrest. With no economic or military might, Bhutan seeks to assert and celebrate its sovereignty through its distinctive culture, which is based on Buddhism, authorities say.

Togbay voiced his concern on perceived threats to Bhutan’s Buddhist culture.

“I studied in a Christian school, and I have lived in the West, and I have been approached by the Jehovah’s Witness – in a subway, in an elevator, in a restaurant in the U.S. and Switzerland. I am not saying they are bad. But I would be a fool if I was not concerned about that in Bhutan,” he said. “There are other things I am personally concerned about. Religions in Bhutan must live in harmony. Too often I have come across people who seek a convert, pointing to statues of our deities and saying
that idol worship is evil worship. That is not good for the security of our country, the harmony of our country and the pursuit of happiness.”

The premise of the Chhoedey Lhentshog, the agency regulating religious organizations, he said, “is that all the different schools of Buddhism and all the different religions see eye to eye with mutual respect and mutual understanding. If that objective is not met, it does not make sense to be part of that.”

It remains unclear what the legal rights of Christians are, as there is no interaction between the Christians and the government. Christian sources in Bhutan said they were open to dialogue with the government in order to remove “misunderstandings” and “distrust.”

“Thankfully, our political leadership is sincere and trustworthy,” said one Christian leader.

Asserting that Christians enjoy the right to worship in Bhutan, Prime Minister Thinley said authorities have not interfered with any worship services.

“There are more Christian activities taking place on a daily basis than Hindu and Buddhist activities,” he added.

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org