Friday, October 13, 2006

Pacific Problems
West Papuans make risky visit

By Andrew MacLeod, Monday Magazine, October 5-12, 2006

Just below the level of his heart, human rights lawyer Yan Christian Warinussy wears a metal tie clip decorated with a flag. On the left is a white star on a narrow vertical band of red; the rest of the flag, the part that would flap in the breeze, is a field of 13 blue and white stripes. Known as the "morning star," the flag is a symbol for West Papua. Yet for over four decades now, it has been illegal under Indonesian law to fly it.
Wearing the flag is the kind of thing that could get Warinussy into a lot of trouble at home. "Systematically the law's been used to suppress the people of West Papua," he says, speaking through another member of the delegation, Denny Yomaki, a 35-year-old who once spent a year in Sooke on a Canada World Youth exchange. The third member of the delegation is Ketrina Yabansabra, a church minister.
"The people of Canada should know the law's supremacy does not exist in West Papua since West Papua became part of Indonesia," says Warinussy. "People who've shown their rejection of the Indonesian occupation of West Papua were being arrested, detained, made disappeared, tortured, killed or murdered."
The three West Papuans were in British Columbia for a meeting in Lake Cowichan that gathered supporters from 10 or so countries. During the 10-day visit, they gave public presentations at the University of Victoria and in downtown Victoria. They also met with members of local first nations, some of whom share similar issues but with key differences. "They're facing lawyers with ballpoints and papers," says Yomaki, who spent four months in jail after a 1989 protest. "We're facing militaries with guns and prisons."
Indonesia has controlled West Papua, which shares the island of New Guinea with the independent country of Papua New Guinea, since 1963. The best estimate of how many people have been killed is about 100,000, he says. That's out of a current population of 800,000-in other words, for every eight people living in West Papua today, one has been killed. And while the Indonesian government wouldn't be pleased with Warinussy proudly wearing the West Papuan flag, they'd likely be even more angry with the willingness he and the other two members of the delegation have to talk with journalists.
Travel to West Papua is severely restricted, says Yomaki, and visas for journalists can take half a year or longer to process. In mid-September, the Indonesian government deported an Australian television crew who entered on tourist visas. The Associated Press quotes Papua police chief Tommy Jacobus saying, "They admitted to being journalists who were intending to report on events here. It is best if we deport them."
Asked about the risk they are taking by talking to a journalist, Yomaki says, "We're always at risk." He's willing to talk, he says, but he doesn't want his photo in the paper. He does much of his work underground and doesn't want to be recognized.
Warinussy and Yabansabra, however, say they feel comfortable being photographed. "Even now when we go back we don't know if we're going to be arrested or made disappeared, but we don't get scared," says Yabansabra. "We're not scared because we've told our stories to you. It's better for us to tell our stories than to be silent."
Yabansabra was part of a group of 100 women from West Papua who visited Jakarta in 1997 to tell then president B.J. Habibie about what was going on in their region. "After we visited the president, we thought the violations in West Papua would be getting less and less," she says. Instead they doubled. "Indonesian military, they're not really afraid of violating West Papuans."
There are stories, she says, of women having their breasts cut off and their genitals mutilated; their have been women raped with bottles. "Today the same violation is happening, specifically in the highlands," she says. "Our babies, also, being taken away from some of our women and being thrown against trees or to the floors and killed."
A 2004 report by a group of lawyers at the Yale university law school stopped just short of accusing the Indonesian government of genocide. "Since Indonesia gained control of West Papua, the West Papuan people have suffered persistent and horrible abuses at the hands of the government," they write. "The Indonesian military and security forces have engaged in widespread violence and extrajudicial killings in West Papua. They have subjected Papuan men and women to acts of torture, disappearance, rape, and sexual violence, thus causing serious bodily and mental harm."
The definition of "genocide," however, rests on whether or not there was an intent to destroy the people. In this case it couldn't be said for certain, but it was a reasonable conclusion. Glenn Raynor, the executive director of the Pacific People's Partnership, was hosting the group in B.C. and accompanied them to the Monday office. Whether or not you call it a "genocide," says Raynor, the effect is the same. "It's a Melanesian country that's being transformed into an Asian country," he says. A Pacific island culture is being destroyed in the process.
And what is Canada's role? Yomaki says a lot of Indonesians come here, many on government grants, to study. Also, he says, he suspects the Canadian government contributes through the United Nations Development Program to what Indonesia is doing in West Papua. Much of that money, intended as aid for people in need, gets used by the military. "We want the Canadian government to know not all the money goes to the people who need the money."
A regional officer for Asia with the Rights and Democracy International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, Micheline Levesque, says the Canadian government doesn't acknowledge the problems in West Papua. Nor does the Canadian International Development Agency see it as a priority. "This is outrageous," she says. "Everyone turns a blind eye to what's happening in West Papua because they want to do business as usual."
She adds, "We need more international attention to force the Indonesian government to do something." M

Dosing Up
Deaths bring scrutiny to ADHD drugs

By Andrew MacLeod, Monday Magazine, March 9-15, 2006

In early February, an advisory panel to the Food and Drug Administration in the United States urged putting a black box warning—the strongest it can issue without removing a product from the market—on a class of drugs commonly given to children, to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. As many as 10 percent of 10-year-old American boys are diagnosed with ADHD and use the drugs, which are also commonly prescribed in Canada. Over 20,000 children in British Columbia take them—but the FDA warning got little press here. Even now, three weeks after the initial warning, Health Canada is still working towards putting out its own caution about the drugs.
“The bad news has been building for a while now on these drugs,” says Alan Cassels, a University of Victoria health policy researcher who co-wrote Selling Sickness: How the World’s Biggest Pharmaceutical Companies are Turning us All into Patients. A chapter of the book dealt with ADHD and the stimulants used to treat it. “Admittedly it’s a very difficult problem, especially if you’re a teacher trying to deal with classroom size . . . You can imagine there being pressure on parents from teachers because kids are pinging off the walls.”
The drugs used to treat ADHD include amphetamines like Adderall, as well as methylphenidates like Ritalin, Concerta, Methylin and Metadate. According to the FDA, 25 people taking the drugs died between 1999 and 2003. Nineteen of them were children. Another 54 people developed serious cardiovascular problems such as heart attacks, strokes and heart palpitations.
While the Americans consider issuing a stronger warning, the Canadian health ministry is preparing a warning of its own.
“We’re actually ahead of the FDA on this issue,” says Chris Williams, a spokesperson for Health Canada. The agency began looking at the drugs in July, 2005, he says. In August, a letter went out to health care professionals warning about Adderall, he says. The letter said the drug shouldn’t be used in patients with “structural cardiac abnormalities.”
As of this week, he adds, all the stimulants used to treat ADHD should come with a warning saying they are to be “used with caution” in patients who are involved in strenuous activities, use other stimulants or have a family history of sudden death or heart problems. It also recommends such patients have an EKG before they start taking one of the drugs.
Cassels questions the effectiveness of such warnings. “Whoever sees them? Is there any good evidence that physicians and patients are seeing these warnings?” And even when they do see them, he says, they are often so drily written that it’s not obvious why they are significant.
Maybe doctors read the letters and the warnings and then alter their prescription practices, he says, but adds, “I’m not convinced that happens.”
That’s why it’s important for the mainstream press to pay attention. “When they issue major warnings like this, this is news,” he says. “It would seem to me this would merit more than 138 words on [a newspaper’s page] D-11.”
When such warnings are ignored, he says, it does a disservice to the many people who take the drugs and who may not know that taking them increases their risk of dying. “Of course you’d think it’s not a big deal because if it was a big deal it would be on the front of all the papers.”
Without the full information, he adds, it’s impossible for people to make an informed choice. Anytime someone chooses whether or not to take a drug, they have to decide whether the benefits outweigh the risks. It’s one thing to take a highly toxic drug with serious side effects if you are facing a life threatening disease, he says. Most of us would put up with the ravages of chemotherapy to fight cancer if it means we’re going to live a little longer.
With ADHD, the choice is less clear. Some, he says, may find the condition very challenging and be willing to risk death to treat it. For others it may be less serious. He asks, “What about someone who’s just a little fidgety in class? Are you going to take that risk?”
A parent himself, Cassels says culture and lifestyle play a large part in the condition. While it may be that 10 percent of 10-year-old boys are diagnosed with ADHD in the United States, the number is about half that here, he says. And in Europe, ADHD is an extremely rare diagnosis. He attributes the difference not to variations in children, but to how they are viewed in each culture.
We live in a society where most children are driven to school, then sit all day in class. In their free time, many watch television, use computers or play video games. In general, says Cassels, kids don’t get enough physical activity. If they did, he says, it’s likely fewer parents would be taking a chance on drugs for ADHD.

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