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In general, our news is dominated by very short-term events, such as an explosion or a killing or an election, with little reporting of the underlying causes of such events and very little tracking of on-going problems. Therefore a lot of serious issues go unforgotten for long periods of time to so many of us.

I run a weblog called NightHawk [click here] and I have used this blog to run an occasional series of weekly looks at some of the parts of the world that I feel are unreported. I then decided to pull together all these brief reports on to pages of my web site, so that you can check out some of the news stories that you might have overlooked.

The theme of this section then is that we have a moral obligation not to look away, not to ignore, not to forget. Instead we need to read, to remember, and above all to act.

(1) Zimbabwe (24/4/06)

Let’s start with Zimbabwe [click here]. A year and a half ago, I was technically in the country when, during a stay on the Zambian side of Victoria Falls, we took a longish walk along an isolated road to the Victoria Falls Bridge. Here we had to go through a kind of customs check on the Zambian side in order to walk along the length of the bridge, theoretically passing into Zimbabwe at the central point of the bridge, but turning back before reaching Zimbabwe proper. There were a few young traders from Zimbabwe desparately trying to sell items to the very few tourists who ventured this far. It brought home a little the devastation which Mugabe has wreaked on his country.

Today the “Guardian” devotes a full page [click here] to the growing crisis in Zimbabwe where, according to the World Health Organisation, life expectancy is now 37 for men and 34 for women and where the number receiving food aid is 4.3M. Reporter Rory Carroll writes: "Zimbabwe has not quite collapsed. But it has hollowed. Behind a facade of normality, a crisis is gouging the economy and society, causing incalculable suffering in what was once one of Africa’s most developed countries. Agriculture and industry are in ruins, unemployment is pushing 80% and the official inflation rate of 913% is widely deemed a gross underestimate. The economy has shrunk by 50% in the past six years - the fastest contraction anywhere outside a war zone."

(2) Bhopal (25/4/06)

In November 1984, I became the National Health & Safety Officer for what was then called the National Communications Union (now the Communication Workers Union). In a matter of weeks, the world witnessed one of the worst industrial accidents in history when the pesticide plant at Bhopal in India leaked lethal methyl isocyanate gas. The incident killed more than 3,500 people. Since then, at least 15,000 others have died from cancer and other diseases and deformed children have been born to survivors.

The company concerned was Union Carbide - now a subsidiary of the Dow Chemical Company - and it has never been prosecuted and its managers have never been held to account. Meanwhile the site has still not been cleaned up and local water supplies are still contaminated by toxic waste from the derelict plant. You can read a recent British newspaper report on the situation [click here] and check out the web site of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal [click here].

(3) Chernobyl (26/4/06)

It is twenty years ago today that the Soviet nuclear reactor at Chernobyl exploded in the worst accident in the history of nuclear power. In this weekend’s “Observer”, there was a review by Juliette Jowit [click here] of the consequences that began by declaring starkly: "Early in the morning of Saturday, 26 April 1986, the world’s worst nuclear disaster at Chernobyl jettisoned 100 times as much radiation into the atmosphere as the atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the Second World War. Most fell on the now independent republics of Belarus, Ukraine, and in western Russia."

The article on Wikipedia [click here] notes that: "It is difficult to accurately tally the number of deaths caused by the events at Chernobyl, as most of the expected long-term fatalities, especially those from cancer, have not yet actually occurred, and will be difficult to attribute specifically to the accident. A 2005 United Nations report attributed 56 direct deaths; 47 accident workers and 9 children with thyroid cancer, and estimated that as many as 4,000 people may ultimately die from long term accident-related illnesses."

I once met a trade union official who was on the scene of the Chernobyl disaster to support his members. He is dead now.

(4) Sri Lanka (27/4/06)

Sri Lanka is one of the most beautiful places on earth; yet it is home to one of the bloodiest and longest-running civil wars on the globe - and most of the time most of the media never reports it. To its credit, Channel Four's "Unreported World" commenced its current season with a programme on the current state of the so-called truce.

The island has a long-established Tamil minority in the north and east. During the British occupation, they brought in Tamil labourers to work the coffee and tea plantations in the central highlands, making the island a major tea producer. However, the majority Buddhist Sinhalese community resented what they saw as favouritism towards the mainly-Hindu Tamils under British administration.

The growth of a more assertive Sinhala nationalism after independence fanned the flames of ethnic division until civil war erupted in the 1980s between Tamils pressing for self-rule and the government. Most of the fighting took place in the north, but the conflict also penetrated the heart of Sri Lankan society with Tamil Tiger rebels carrying out devastating suicide bombings in the capital Colombo in the 1990s.

The violence has killed more than 60,000 people, damaged the economy, and harmed tourism in one of South Asia's potentially prosperous societies. A ceasefire and a political agreement reached between the government and rebels in late 2002 raised hopes for a lasting settlement, but Norwegian-brokered peace talks have stalled and rising levels of violence have threatened the truce. Killings and atrocies continue, there are abductions and suicide bombers, and the war could break out again at any time.

A BBC report describes the current fragile situation [click here].

(5) Darfur (28/4/06)

The Darfur region [click here] of Sudan has been devastated by conflict between the government and rebel groups for three years now. Nobody knows how many people have died during the conflict in the region between Arab and non-Arab groups. However, it is at least 180,000 people. The UN says that more than 2 million of the estimated six million population have fled their homes

Meanwhile nearly 3 million in Darfur have become totally reliant on food aid after being driven off their land by the conflict. More than 6 million people across Sudan require some food aid - more than any other country in the world. The bill to feed them all comes to $746m.

Yet unbelievably the UN has just announced that it is cutting in half its daily rations in the region due to a severe funding shortfall [click here]. From May, the ration will be half the minimum amount required each day.

The actor George Clooney and his journalist father visited Darfur last week [click here]. The pair also visited neighbouring Chad where many Sudanese have fled. Clooney has urged the American public to attend rallies across the US this Sunday to pressure Khartoum to stop what Washington says is genocide against Darfur's black African population. Clooney aserts that "It's the first genocide of the 21st Century".

(6) Kenya (15/5/06)

The capital of Kenya [click here] Nairobi has almost 200 slums. More than 1.6 million of the city's estimated population of 3.5 million people live in these slums which are sometimes referred to as "informal settlements".

Kibera - just four miles from downtown - is Nairobi's largest slum and indeed the biggest in Africa. 700,000 people live in Kibera, a sprawling shanty town in the south of the capital. Lack of a functioning sanitation and drainage system is perhaps the greatest daily nightmare its residents must cope with. Due to lack of most basic services, the residents of Kibera each day must, among other problems, endure the sight of filthy narrow alleys, and sludge and human waste from shallow latrines flowing into nearby streams, a situation that gets worse during the rainy seasons.

The world seems unaware of it, but the contrast between the ostentatious wealth of a small political elite in Kenya and the grinding poverty of people in the shanty towns represents a situation of rising resentment and anger that could explode at any time.

(7) Belarus (16/5/06)

Belarus [click here] - a country of 10 million - became independent in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since 1994, it has been ruled with an increasingly iron fist by President Alexander Lukashenko.

Lukashenko, often referred to as Europe's last dictator, was declared to have won a third term as president at elections in March 2006 following a vote which Western observers said was fundamentally flawed. They reported widespread harassment of opposition supporters and overwhelming media bias. Official results indicated that Lukashenko had won over 80% of the vote.

The EU and USA condemned the election while Russian President Vladimir Putin sent congratulations. The EU also banned the president and a number of ministers and officials from entering member countries.

Opposition figures are subjected to harsh penalties for organising protests. In early 2005, Belarus was listed by the USA as Europe's only remaining outpost of tyranny.

(8) Burma (17/5/06)

Burma [click here] - officially known these days as Myanmar - is a nation of 50 million that is effectively closed to much of the world's media and simply doesn't figure in most people's thinking.

It is ruled by a military junta which suppresses almost all dissent and wields absolute power in the face of international condemnation and sanctions. The generals and the army stand accused of gross human rights abuses, including the forcible relocation of civilians and the widespread use of forced labour, which includes children.

Prominent pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, has had various restrictions placed on her activities since the late 1980s. In 1990, her party won a landslide victory in Burma's first multi-party elections for 30 years, but she has never been allowed to govern. More than 1,000 political prisoners are still detained.

Burma is not on the UN Security Council agenda and cannot be discussed in regular meetings or be the subject of resolutions. Yet it must not be forgotten.

(9) Western Sahara (18/5/06)

I first became interested in the situation of the Western Sahara [ click here] in 1993. At that time, I was the International Officer of the National Communication Union and the President of the union Donald MacDonald made a trip there and wrote a fascinating report [click here]. Subsequently I met in London trade union representatives of the Polisario Liberation Front who are struggling to gain independence for their country.

The Western Sahara was a colony of Spain until 1975 and is now claimed by Morocco. It is the last remaining colonial problem in Africa and most of the world knows nothing about it. Although the population of the region is tiny, the area involved is huge and the minerial wealth at stake (mainly phosphates) considerable.

The United Nations has repeatedly endeavoured to organise a referendum to determine the future of the territory but Morocco refuses to allow one to be held. So the deadlock of the last 30 years remains.

(10) Nepal (19/5/06)

A few weeks ago, Nepal [click here] - a country that I have visited [click here]- burst back into the media's headlines as pro-democracy forces organised massive demonstrations in favour of King Gyanendra restoring multi-party democracy, following his dismissal of the government and parliament in February 2005. But, since then, we've heard little.

Meanwhile Maoist rebels, intent on setting up a communist republic, have been waging a campaign against the constitutional monarchy in a conflict that has left more than 12,000 people dead since it started in 1996. The challenge now is to draw the Maoists into democratic politics by including them in the new government.

So what has happened since those demonstrations? You won't find out from the western media. But you can track developments on the web site of the "Himalayan Times" [ click here]. In fact, yesterday, in an historic move, the House of Representatives stripped the king of his powers and declared Nepal a secular state [click here]. About time too ..

(11) Kurdistan (5/6/06)

Let's look at Kurdistan [click here]. In fact, there is no such country and never has been although, following the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Kurds were promised an independent nation-state in the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres. Kurdistan today is the desired homeland of the Kurdish minorities of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria - a total of around 28 million Sunni Muslims.

The largest of these groups is that in Turkey where there are up to 15 million Kurds, comprising some 20% of the country's population of 73 million. For decades, a virtual civil war has taken place in south-eastern Turkey between the Turkish military and the main Kurdish armed group the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). In the past 20 years, around 40,000 have been killed in the conflict.

Technically the PKK have renounced the armed struggle but in practice they still launch attacks and the military responds forcefully. What gives this longstanding problem new potency is two things. First, Turkey wants to enter the European Union, but the EU will not agreed to entry until many conditions are fulfilled, including some sort of settlement of the Kurdish problem in Turkey. Second, the northern third of Iraq is now a semi-autonomous Kurdish mini-state that both threatens to secede from Iraq and harbours Kudish fighters from Turkey.

It is a situation that is hardly mentioned in the media but could explode at any time with major consequences not just for Turkey but for the whole so-called war on terror.

(12) Bolivia (6/6/06)

I once spent a week in Bolivia [click here]. The population is 9.1 million and two-thirds are of Indian origin, many of them among the poorest in all of Latin America.

In June 2005, President Carlos Mesa was forced to resign following mass protests demanding the nationalisation of the energy sector. Very recently, Bolivia [click here] has become part of the growing left-wing trend in Latin Amercian politics with the election as president of Evo Morales, the first indigenous leader to hold this position.

In May, President Morales delighted his supporters but sent shockwaves through the energy world when he signed a decree placing the energy industry under state control. Foreign energy firms were given six months within which to sell at least 51% of their holding to the state and negotiate new contracts or leave the country.

His policies in other areas too look set to provoke controversy. In particular, a promise to relax restrictions on growing coca, the raw material for cocaine, could make him a thorn in the side of the USA which has funded the fight against drugs in the country.

(13) Tibet (7/6/06)

Tibet [click here] is currently a province in China, but this status is hugely controversial.

The Government of Tibet in exile contends that Tibet was a distinct and independent nation before its conquest by the Yuan Dynasty 700 years ago, as well as between the fall of the Yuan Dynasty in 1368 and Tibet's incorporation into the Qing Dynasty in 1720, and again between the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912 and incorporation into the People's Republic of China in 1951.

In 1950, the People's Liberation Army entered Tibet, crushing the Tibetan army. During the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards inflicted a campaign of organised vandalism against the cultural sites of Tibet's Buddhist heritage. Of the several thousand monasteries in Tibet, over 6000 were destroyed, only a handful remained without major damage, and thousands of Buddhist monks and nuns were killed or imprisoned.

The Qingzang or Qinghai–Tibet railway is a railway is an astonishing feat of construction which connects Xining in China's Qinghai Province to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. More than 960 km, or over 80% of the railway, is built at an altitude of more than 4,000 metres, and over half of it is laid on permafrost. On the one hand, the railyway should stimulate economic development in Tibet; on the other hand, such easy access by troops will strengthen China's hold on the country.

(14) DR Congo (8/6/06)

There are two countries called Congo today: the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo [click here]. This note concerns the second, far larger, country - formerly known as Zaire - with some 60 million people. Ever since the country ceased to be a Belgian colony in 1960, it has seen a succcession of wars and upheavals which has led some to call the nation the centre of what could be termed Africa's world war.

Most recently, since 1994, the Congo has been rent by ethnic strife and civil war, touched off by a massive inflow of refugees fleeing the Rwandan genocide. The five-year conflict pitted government forces, supported by Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe, against rebels backed by Uganda and Rwanda. Three million died, mostly through starvation and disease.

Despite a peace deal and the formation of a transitional government in 2003, the threat of civil war remains. The Eastern regions in particular are still plagued by militia violence. Around 1,000 people are dying every day from war-related causes, including disease, hunger and violence. General elections are planned for later this year.

(15) Indonesia (9/6/06)

Spread across an archipelago of more than 18,000 islands between Asia and Australia, Indonesia [click here] has the world's largest Muslim population - some 225 million. Yet it usually only hits the international news when there is an earthquake or a tsunami and then it is quickly forgotten again.

Following 32 years of dictatorship under General Suharto, Indonesia made the transition to democracy. Power has been devolved away from the central government and the first direct presidential elections were held in 2004.

However, the country faces demands for independence in several provinces, where secessionists have been encouraged by East Timor's 1999 success in breaking away after a traumatic 25 years of occupation.

Also militant Islamic groups have flexed their muscles over the past few years. Some have been accused of having links with al-Qaeda including the group blamed for the Bali bombings of 2002 which killed 202 people.

(16) Cuba (26/6/06)

Cuba [click here] is a unique country: one of only a handful of communist countries left in the world, located just next to the home of global capitalism, the United States. Indeed bizarrely the USA owns Guantanamo Bay which is located on the island and used most recently as a high-security prison for alleged terrorists. Cuba has been subject to a 45 year old (illegal) economic blockage by the USA.

Cuba is the only country in Latin Amercia which does not receive assistance from international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Yet the UN recently announced that Cuba is the only country in Latin America that has no malnutrition.

The World Health Organisation reports that the Cuban doctor-patient ratio is 1:170, better than the US average of 1:188. Furthermore the WHO has commended Cuba for outstanding rates of infant mortality and life expectancy and levels of literacy.

On the other hand, Cuba is a dictatorship. There is not multi-party democracy, there is no independent trade union movement, there is not genuine freedom of speech or association. and there is not afree media. Amnesty International claims that there are 72 priosoners of conscience in Cuban jails, although the Cuban government argues that all the individuals concerned were tried and found guilty of being spies for America.

What is certain about Cuba is that its leader for the past 47 years - Fidel Castro who is 80 this year - cannot live for ever and, when he goes, things will not be the same. The survival of communist control seems unlikely.

(17) North Korea (27/6/06)

North Korea [click here] is one of the strangest and least known countries in the world. It is esentially a relic of the Cold War, owing its existence to the division of the peninsula by the great powers in 1948. It is one of the last communist states on the globe and represents a particuarly old-fashioned Stalinist style of communism very different from that of China or Vietnam.

The country was led by Kim Il Sung from 1948 until his death in 1994. Then, three years later, his son Kim Jong-il was named General Secretary of the Korean Workers' Party (KWP). There is a vast personality cult around Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il, and much of North Korea's literature, popular, music, theatre, and film glorify the two men. The KWP's ideology is called Juche (self-reliance), which is seen as closely related to Stalinism.

For its people, the government of North Korea has delivered an appalling standard of living, a broken down economy, and one of the worst human rights records in the world. For its neighbour South Korea, there is a wish to pursue a dialogue and to see a "changing regime" as opposed to the US policy of "regime change". For the USA, North Korea represents a member of the so-called "axis of evil", a rogue state that might possess a nuclear weapon and threatens to test a long-range missile.

(18) Waziristan (28/6/06)

I know - you've never heard of Waziristan [click here]. But, believe me, what's going on there is of global importance. Waziristan is the province of north-west Pakistan that borders Afghanistan and is home to almost one million Waziris. It is a battleground between the Pakistani army and a variety of tribal groups with stronger or weaker links to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Ahmed Rashid, author of the authoritative bestseller "Taliban", calls Waziristan "Al-Qaeda Central".

Almost every day, there are shootings and killings - but the world pays no attention. On the one hand, if Osama bin Ladin is ever found, it will probably be here. On the other hand, the events in this province of Pakistan could easily unseat the country's leadership or even lead to civil war.

(19) Nigeria (29/6/06)

Nigeria [click here] is the most populous country in Africa with 140 million citizens, yet we hardly ever hear about it the western media. Some 50% of the population is Muslim and 40% Christian with the remainder holding indigenous beliefs. There are some 250 ethnic groups, the most influential being Hausa and Fulani (29%), Yoruba (21%) and Igbo (18%).

It is a country riven with ethnic and religous divisions and tainted by povery and corruption. Police roadblcoks are ubiquitous with uniformed men demaning money for "chop" (food). More than a 100 million people live on less than a dollar a day. Life expectancy is a mere 47 years.

Ironically Nigeria is one of the world's largest oil producers, but the industry has produced unwanted side effects, such as ecological damage on a grand scale, while the trade in stolen oil has fuelled violence and corruption in the Niger delta.

After lurching from one military coup to another, Nigeria now has an elected leadership headed by President Olusegun Obasanjo. However, it faces the growing challenge of preventing Africa's most populous country from falling prey to separatist tendencies and breaking apart along ethnic and religious lines.

(20) East Timor (30/6/06)

East Timor [click here] is a former Portuguese colony which Indonesia occupied for 24 years - opposed by the freedom movement Fretilin - before the territory voted for independence in 1999 and achieved it in 2002. It only has a population of about a million and its citizens are amongst the poorest in the world.

The Indonesian military reacted to the decision to seek independence by orchestrating the deaths of 1,200 people. However, the rebuilding of East Timor has been one of the UN's biggest success stories. The peacekeeping UN Mission of Support in East Timor (Unmiset) wound up in May 2005.

Sadly this has not been the end of the violence. At the end of May 2006, international peacekeepers had to enter East Timor to prevent conflict between members of the military, dismissed soldiers and elements of the police force. In the gun battles between loyal troops and rebel soldiers in the capital, Dili, at least 21 people died and another 130,000 are thought to have fled their homes in fear. More than 2,200 foreign peacekeepers are now patrolling the city's streets in an attempt to keep order.

(21) Cyprus (31/7/06)

Let's look at Cyprus [click here]. On the one hand, this is a beautiful, sun-kissed island in the Mediterraean where 800,000 live and many British tourists go to enjoy cheap food and wine and obtain a good tan while taking in some ancient cultural arifacts. On the other hand, this is a European nation which has been physically and bitterly divided on ethnic grounds since a Turkish invasion of the northern third of the island in 1974.

Two years ago, it looked as if peace talks might at last resolve the division but then negotiations broke down. So the Greek and Turkish communities are still split with a "Green Line" - dividing the two parts from Morphou through the capital Nicosia to Famagusta - patrolled by United Nations troops. Some 30,000 Turkish troops remain stationed in the north.

Today the Cypriot President is Tassos Papadopoulos and the Turkish Cypriot leader is Mehmet Ali Talat. Talat campaigned strongly in favour of the UN reunification plan which was put to a referendum in 2004 when the Turkish Cypriot community gave it firm backing.

Cyprus is now a members state of the European Union, but there is no way that Turkey will ever be admitted to the EU until its occupation of northern Cyprus is resolved. The EU and UN need to revitalise negotiations on the future of Cyprus and end the international isolation of the north.

(22) Kuwait (1/8/06)

In 1990, Saddam Hussain's Iraq invaded the small, next-door country of Kuwait [click here] and precipated the first Gulf War. The US-led coaliition was clearly right to liberate Kuwait, but the country was far from the democratic ideal to which the Western powers aspired. The substantial immigrant community was exploited, there was no free trade union movement, and women were very much second-class citizens (although they fought in the domestic resistance).

However, Kuwait was the first Arab country in the Gulf to have an elected parliament and women at least have made some progress since the coalition invasion. A third of the workforce is female and women now hold some promiment positions in business, medicine, the media, the universities and the civil servcie. Unlike their sisters in Saudi Arabia, they are allowed to drive and dress codes are relatively flexible.

Although the independence constitution of 1961 formally granted them equality with men, it was only in 2005 that women finally won the right to vote. In the elections of late June 2006, there were 28 women among the 253 candidates for 50-seat National Assembly. None was elected.

The country consists of 25 constituencies making it easy to buy votes, but the efforts of the Emir Sheikh Sabah to reduce the number to five and make it harder to purchase votes failed. One has to be 30 even to vote, so young reformers are disenfranchised. Indeed, in a country of almost 3 million, only 340,000 are eligible to vote in elections. Members of the ruling family hold most of the key cabinet posts.

(23) Moldova (2/8/06)

Moldova [click here] is one of the many 'new' countries that emerged with the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Totally landlocked, it is located between Romania to the west and Ukraine to the east and has a population of almost 3.5 million. In fact, two-thirds of Moldovans are of Romanian descent, the languages are virtually identical, and the two countries share a common cultural heritage.

Moldova is one of the very poorest countries in Europe and has a large foreign debt and high unemployment. Tiny though the new nation is, it is bitterly divided.

The industrialised territory to the east of the River Dniester, generally known as Trans-Dniester or the Dniester region, was formally an autonomous area within Ukraine before 1940 when the Soviet Union combined it with Bessarabia to form the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic.

This area is mainly inhabited by Russian and Ukrainian speakers. As people there became increasingly alarmed at the prospect of closer ties with Romania in the tumultuous twilight years of the Soviet Union, Trans-Dniester unilaterally declared independence from Moldova in 1990.

The war claimed more than 1,500 lives, an uneasy peace now prevails, but the region of Trans-Dniester is not recognised internationally (although people there call the territory Pridnestrovskaia Moldavskaia Respublica [click here] and claim that it is nation).

(24) Mexico (3/8/06)

Mexico [click here] is a large country (population over 100 million) with the highest per capita income in Latin America. but it is overshadowed by the mighty United States with which it shares a 2,000-mile border. Although average incomes are relatively high for the region, there are massive inequalities in wealth: half the population is classed as poor and the richest 10% own 45% of the wealth.

The country is also scarred by violent crime. Mexico has one of the highest rates of kidnappings in the world. Turf wars between rival drug cartels are said to lie behind many gangland killings.

From 1929 for the next 71 years, Mexico was dominated by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in a deeply corrupt, single-party regime. In 2000, the party lost power to Vicente Fox of the conservative National Action Party (PAN) who proved to be relatively honest but weak.

Felipe Calderon, from the governing PAN, was declared the winner of a bitterly-fought presidential election in July 2006 with a lead of less than 1% over his left-wing rival, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

(25) Georgia (4/8/06)

As the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, independence was achieved by countries which had previously enjoyed it, including Georgia [click here] with a population of around 4.5 million.

The Georgian Eduard Shevardnadze, the USSR's minister for foreign affairs, was one of the main architects of the Perestroika reforms of the late 1980s. However, on returning to an independent Georgia, for 11 years he led an authoritarian regime until his government was deposed in November 2003 by a popular movement known as the Rose revolution.

Once a relatively affluent part of the USSR, with independence Georgia lost the cheap energy to which it had access in the Soviet period. The rupturing of trading ties caused the economy to nose-dive. However, the economy bounced back in 2005 with 8% growth.

Since independence, the people of Georgia have also endured periods of civil war and unrest as well as violence related to the independence aspirations of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Both regions have close ties with Moscow.

(26) Rwanda (21/8/06)

The 1994 genocide in Rwanda [click here] - when some 800.000 were murdered in just three bloody months - has been portrayed in films like "Hotel Rwanda" [for my review click here] and "Shooting Dogs" [for my review click here].

Today the country still faces desperate problems: two-thirds of the 8 million Rwandans live below the poverty line, half are illiterate, and AIDS claims many lives. Four in five Rwandans live in rural areas and 90% of the workforce is still involved in farming. The country is landlocked and it has few mineral resources or oil deposits.

Yet there is an ambitious plan, called Vision 2020 [click here], to transform the country into one based on information communications technology. Half of the primary schools have at least one computer and more than 300,000 people have mobiles.

(27) Luxembourg (22/8/06)

Of all the 45 countries that I've visited, Luxembourg [click here] is the smallest and the most boring. Yet this is a nation that was one of the six founder members of what we now call the European Union in 1957 and it gets to hold the Presidency of the EU as often as the UK. It is the world's only sovereign Grand Duchy and it even has its own language: Luxembourgish.

Luxembourg's prosperity was formerly based on steel manufacturing. With the decline of that industry, Luxembourg diversified and is now best known for its status as a tax haven and banking centre.

There are only half a million in the country and a third of the population is foreigners. Almost every taxi driver that I've met there is a Portuguese from the island of Madeira.

(28) Tonga (23/8/06)

Nations don't come much smaller than Tonga [click here} with a population of a mere 110,000. However, countries don't come much fatter with 92% of all over 30s overweight or obese and almost 20% of adults suffering from diabetes. As a result, the death rate from nutritional conditions is 10 times that of the UK.

Why is this? Tongans eat a vast amount of fat and adore suckling pig. Also they enjoy high carbohydrate foods such as the root vegetable taro, sweet potatoes and yam. Obviously the authorities are concerned and there is an obesity action plan called Project Ma'alahi.

A former British protectorate, Tonga became fully independent in 1970, though it was never formally colonised. An archipelago of more than 170 islands spread over an area of the South Pacific roughly the size of Japan, Tonga is sometimes called the Friendly Islands and it is the last Polynesian monarchy with King George Tupou V on the throne in the capital Nuku'alofa.

Under the current system, nobles and appointed members outnumber elected representatives in the Parliament and there have been protests demanding that the majority of Parliament be elected by popular vote.

(29) The Philippines (24/8/06)

The Philippine Islands [click here] - there are more than 7,000 of them - were a Spanish colony for more than 350 years and an American colony for almost 50 years. As a result, the Philippines today is one of the two predominantly Roman Catholic countries in Asia and is among the most Westernised.

The Philippines is the world’s twelfth most populous country with a population of over 85 million - growing fast. Roughly two-thirds reside on the island of Luzon. Manila, the capital, is the eleventh most populous metropolitan area in the world.

Since the country is so Catholic and there is significant influence from American Christian organisations, birth control and abortion are largely prohibited, especially in Manila which is declared a ‘pro life city’. The result is an exploding population, extreme poverty, and backstreet abortions.

(30) Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (25/8/06)

Let’s look at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation [click here]. I know - you’ve never heard of it, but it is an organisation of considerable geo-political importance. It was founded by China five years ago. As well as China, the members are Russia and the central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. Observer members are India, Pakistan, Mongolia and Iran. Japan is not there. The USA has been refused observer status.

In terms of total population, area and resources, the SCO is far bigger than the European Union or NATO. The total area occupied by the SCO member states is over 30 million square kilometres, or about three fifths the territory of Eurasia, with a population of 1.455 billion people, or about a quarter of the total population of the world. Also, significantly, member countries control almost a quarter of the world’s oil supplies.

The SCO is not yet a mutual defence pact, but it is heading that way. China’s president Hu Jintao states that the SCO represents “a new security concept”. The official puposes of the organisation conclude with the words “striving towards creation of a democratic, just, reasonable new international political and economic order”, but David Wall of Chatham House’s Asia programme calls the SCO “a club for autocrats and dictators”.

(31) Chechnya (11/9/06)

The world forgets about Chechnya [click here] until forced to remember by some horror such as the Beslan massacre. Historically, whenever the Russian state has faced challenge or suffered weakness, the Chechnians have asserted their claim for independence. During the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the government of the republic declared independence as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria.

However, their independence has not been recognized by any state. In the ensuing conflict, there has been terrible brutality by both the Chechnian rebels and by the Russian military.

A controversial referendum in March 2003 approved a new constitution, giving Chechnya more autonomy but stipulating that it remained firmly part of Russia. Parliamentary elections in November 2005 saw the pro-Kremlin United Russia party win over half the seats. but the separatist rebels dismissed the election as a charade.

(32) Uganda (12/9/06)

In the 1970s and 1980s, the African nation of Uganda [click here] was notorious for its human rights abuses, first during the military dictatorship of Idi Amin from 1971-79 and then after the return to power of Milton Obote, who had been ousted by Amin. During this time up to half a million people were killed in state-sponsored violence.

Since becoming president in 1986, Yoweri Museveni has introduced democratic reforms and has been credited with substantially improving human rights, notably by reducing abuses by the army and the police. However, ever since 1986, the northern part of Uganda has been savaged by a movement called the Lord's Resistance Army.

This group has abducted 25,000 boys and girls and forced then into military service against government forces. The rebels hack off the lips and ears of suspected government sympathisers. As a result of this chaos, more than 10,000 have been killed and nearly two million people are living in refugeee camps.

Meanwhile Uganda has the dubious honour of being one of the fastest growest countries in the world in population terms. There are 28M living there now but, since a typical Uganda woman gives birth to seven children, by 2025 the population will almost double to 56M ((close to that of Britain) and by 2050 it could be 130M making it the world's 12th most populous country (bigger than Russia or Japan).

(33) Colombia (13/9/06)

Think of Colombia [click here] and most people think of drug barons and Marxist insurgents. There are still plenty of both in the country - but it is slowly changing.

Although over 4,000 people are held hostage in the country, the hardline stance of President Alvaro Uribe against leftist rebels and the demobilisation of more than 30,000 rightwing paramilitary fighters have seen kidnappings drop 73% and murders fall 37% since Mr Uribe first took office in 2002. Locals are now trying to revive a tourist industry for the country.

Colombia is the fourth largest country in South America and one of the continent's most populous nations. While most of the countries in the region are going Left politically, Colombia is a conservative country that has just re-elected Uribe who is George Bush's closest ally in the region.

Despite an unprecedented economic boom in the past four years, half the population of 44 million lives in poverty.

(34) Somalia (14/9/06)

All that many people - especially Americans - recall about Somalia [ click here] is that US forces went in there in 1993 to attempt to restore order among the feuding warlords and suffered losses which soon drove them out and inspired the Hollywood movie "Black Hawk Down" [my review here].

Comprised of a former British protectorate and an Italian colony, Somalia was created in 1960 when the two territories merged. Since then, its development has been hindered by territorial claims on Somali-inhabited areas of Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti.

Somalia has been without an effective central government since President Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991 and years of fighting between rival warlords and an inability to deal with famine and disease have led to the deaths of up to one million people. The warlords still control much of the country and the UN-backed government led by President Abdullah Yusuf has to operate from the southern city of Baidoa rather than the capital Mogadishu.

(35) Xinjiang (15/9/06)

Most people have never heard of Xinjiang [click here], an autonomous region of China, but it is the nation's largest region and takes up about one sixth of its territory (some 1.7M square kilometres). The name literally means 'New Frontier' and it is situated in the north-west corner of China, north of Tibet. It is a sparsely populated region and its population of 20M places it 24th in the list of China's 33 administrative divisions.

Xinjiang is home to several Muslim Turkic groups including the Uyghurs and the Kazakhs. The percentage of ethnic Han Chinese in Xinjiang has grown from 6% in 1949 to an official tally of over 40% at present. This figure does not include military personnel or their families, or the many unregistered migrant workers. The Ulghurs remain the largest ethnic group (45%) and there is an Ulghur independence movement who want the region to become Uyghuristan.

(36) Estonia (9/10/06)

Travelling from north to south, Estonia [click here] is the first of the three Baltic states. Like the other two, it was absorbed into the Soviet Union in 1940, regained its independence with the collapse of the USSR in 1991, and became a member of the European Union in 2004.

Estonia has a population of only 1.3 million and its capital is Tallinn. A large number of the Russian-speaking industrial workers brought in decades ago have ended up without Estonian citizenship for which they are required to pass an Estonian-language test. About a tenth of the population has no citizenship of any kind.

Politically Estonia has had a troubled independence with eight administrations in 12 years. However, the country has enjoyed strong economic growth since joining the EU.

(37) Latvia (10/10/06)

Travelling from north to south, Latvia [ click here] is the second of the three Baltic states. Like the other two, it was absorbed into the Soviet Union in 1940, regained its independence with the collapse of the USSR in 1991, and became a member of the European Union in 2004.

Latvia has a population of only 2.3 million and its capital is Riga. About a quarter of the population is Russian-speaking and the rights of this section of society have been a bitter issue since independence. Government reforms introduced in 2004 to restrict the use of the Russian language in schools remain controversial.

Since independence, Latvia has had a series of unstable coalition governments with a total of 12 different administrations. Economic growth has been strong but high inflation remains a problem.

(38) Lithuania (11/10/06)

Travelling from north to south, Lithuania [click here] is the third of the three Baltic states. Like the other two, it was absorbed into the Soviet Union in 1940, regained its independence with the collapse of the USSR in 1991, and became a member of the European Union in 2004.

Lithuania has a population of 3.4 million and its capital is Vilnius. It does not have as serious a problem of ethnic Russians as its Baltic neighbours Estonia and Latvia.

Lithuania has had 14 governments in 15 years. However, the country has embraced market reform and, in the run up to and period following EU entry, it saw very strong economic growth. It applied to join the eurozone but was rejected because the inflation rate was too high.

(39) Algeria (12/10/06)

Civil war broke out in Algeria [click here] in 1992 after the army cancelled elections that Islamist parties were set to win. Up to 200,000 people died in an orgy of violence that pitched the army, and its secular supporters, against some 27,000 fundamentalists, with the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) as the leading organisation.

Today the main Islamist group is the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). This has vowed allegiance to al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, although it operates independently.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is leading a genuine, if controversial, attempt to bring about reconciliation. His amnesty laws have been backed by a referendum. However, the amnesty has angered the victims of Islamist atrocities, who claim perpetrators are being let off. The armed forces have also escaped being held to account for their part in the killing.

Although we never hear about it, there are still two or three terrorist attacks a week, targeting the police or army.

(40) Corsica (13/10/06)

The Mediterranean island of Corsica [click here] - 100 miles south of France - has had an active nationalist movement since Genoa governed it in the 14th century. It was ceded to France in 1768, the year before Napoleon Bonaparte was born in Ajaccio.

Today the island - half the size of Wales and with a population of 260,000 - is home to the last major terrorist movement waging a violent war for independence in western Europe. After the IRA announced an end to its armed struggle and the Basque separatist group Eta called a permanent ceasefire, Corsican separatists are the only significant grouping not to have renounced violence.

Militant separatists have been waging a low-level violent struggle since the 1970s, often targeting banks, police stations and government buildings. In 1998 France's top official on the island was assassinated.

A proposal by the French government to give Corsica limited, increased autonomy was narrowly defeated in a referendum in 2003. The FLNC Union of Combatants and the October 22 FLNC continue to mount violent attacks, but 2.3M tourists still visit the isalnd each year.

(41) The Maldives (6/11/06)

The Maldives [click here] - located in the Indian Ocean south of India - consists of some 1,200 islands, but only has a population of around 340,000, of whom 70,000 live in the capital Male. Many Maldivians live in poverty.

None of the islands is more than 1.8 metres (six feet) above sea level and they are therefore seriously affected by the threat of global warming and rising sea levels.

Aside from the island capital Male, outsiders are only permitted onto inhabited islands for brief visits, thereby limiting their impact on traditional Muslim communities. In fact, for most outsiders, the islands are home to sun-kissed resorts and no thought is given to the politics of the country.

But the same man has been in power for the past 28 years: President Maumoon Gayoom. Until 2005, political parties were banned and the country is now supposed to hold its first multi-party elections by the end of 2008.

Meanwhile the country's only radio and television station are both controlled by the government and there is only one independent newspaper (the "Minivan Daily" with a circuation of just 3,700). Opposition journalists are targeted and sometimes imprisoned.

(42) Nicaragua (7/11/06)

Nicaragua [click here] was ruled by the Somoza family with US backing between 1937 and the Sandinista revolution in 1979. By 1990, the Sandinistas were defeated in elections held as part of a peace agreement with the US-sponsored counter-revolutionaries known as the Contras.

Today Nicaragua is the second poorest country in Latin America. The average annual income is $750 (£398), around 75% of the population lives on less than $2 a day, unemployment is close to 50%, and income inequality is pronounced. Although nearly 80% of its foreign debts were cancelled, its internal debt is more than $6.5bn.

The country has faced devastating natural disasters and massive political corruption, but has made great strides to improve health and education standards. Disasters, such as Hurricane Mitch, and population growth have undercut economic gains: according to the EU, more people are living in poverty now than in 1993.

This has led to the astonishing idea [more information here] that Nicaragua should build a rival to the Panama Canal enabling huge container ships to pass between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. This mega-engineering project would cost some $20 billion and take 10 years to complete. Meanwhile Panama has voted in a referendum to widen its canal [more information here].

(43) Kazakhstan (8/11/06)

Sacha Baron Cohen's new film "Borat: Cultural Learnings Of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation Of Kazakhstan" may not give a totally accurate representation of the country, so what is the situation in Kazakhstan [click here]?

Kazakhstan's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is not a totalitarian dictator; he is only moderately repressive: banning and intimidating opposition parties and jailing the odd journalist. He has been in power since the country gained its independence in 1991 with the break-up of the Soviet Union and won elections in 1999 and 2005 which fell short of international standards according to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

The country's national drink is not horse urine; it is fermented horse milk that merely tastes like urine. And Jew-baiting is not, actually, a national sport. It's more of a hobby, as in the phrase 'You're as tight as a Jew' or the practice of making 'a Jewish phone call' (when you get the other party to call you back on your landline).

Kazakstan covers an expanse of Central Asia which is the same size as Western Europe making it the ninth largest country in the world. However, it only has a population of 15.3 million, 60% of whom are actually Kazak, with 20% Russian, and smaller proportions of other ethnic minorities. It has huge reserves of crude oill and gas which is enabling it to achieve substantial economic growth.

(44) Botswana (9/11/06)

The media never mention Botswana [click here] (known as Bechuanaland until 1966), but it is one of Africa's most stable countries, it has the continent's longest continuous multi-party democracy, it is relatively free of corruption, and it has a good human rights record.

The country is sparsely populated (the population is only 1.8M) because it is so dry (it is home to the Kalahari desert). It once had the world's highest rate of HIV-Aids infection, has now boasts one of Africa's most-advanced treatment programmes. Anti-retroviral drugs are readily available. However, the UN says more than one in three adults in Botswana are infected with HIV or have developed Aids.

Botswana is the world's largest producer of diamonds and the trade has transformed it into a middle-income nation. iHowever, it is trying to reduce its economic dependence on diamonds with developments like safari-based tourism.

I once spent a day in Botswana [click here].

(45) Uzbekistan (10/11/06)

Uzbekistan [click here] is surrounded by five other '-stans' - Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan (the word 'stan' means land) – and more strategically located between the giants of Russia and China. It is one of only two countries in the world that has the dubious honour of being doubly landlocked (that is, goods must pass through two other countries to reach a port) - the only other country which shares this trait is Liechtenstein.

In August 1991, Uzbekistan reluctantly declared independence from the Soviet Union. In subsequent ethnic tensions, two million Russians left the country for Russia. The current population of Uzbekistan is 26 million, making it the most populous Central Asian country. Most of these (around 70%) are actual Uzbeks and many of these are Muslims of the Sunni persuasion.

Islam Karimov has dominated the leadership since 1989 when he rose to be Communist Party leader in then Soviet Uzbekistan. The following year he became Uzbek president and continued in the post after independence. A referendum held in 1995 extended his term until 2000 when he won the presidential elections unopposed. A further referendum in 2002 extended the presidential term from five to seven years, so the next presidential elections are due in 2007.

There is no real internal opposition and the media is tightly controlled by the state. A UN report has described the use of torture as "systematic". It is estimated that there are several thousand political prisoners in the country – most of them Muslims. In Andijan in May 2005, hundreds of unarmed protesters were killed and injured.

I recently spent a week in Uzbekistan [click here].

(46) Haiti (27/11/06)

Haiti [click here] - once a French colony - occupies the western third of the island of Hispaniola. It has a population of 8.5M.

The country achieved notoriety during the brutal dictatorships of the voodoo physician, Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, and his son, Jean-Claude, or "Baby Doc". Hopes that the election in 1990 of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former priest, would herald a brighter future were dashed when he was overthrown by the military a short time later.

A bloody rebellion, and pressure from the US and France, forced Mr Aristide out of the country in 2004. Since then, an elected leadership has taken over from an interim government and a UN stabilisation force has been deployed, but Haiti is still plagued by violent confrontations between rival gangs and political groups and the UN has described the human rights situation as "catastrophic".

Meanwhile, Haiti's most serious underlying social problem remains: the huge wealth gap between the impoverished Creole-speaking black majority and the French-speaking mulattos, 1% of whom own nearly half the country's wealth. Furthermore, the infrastructure has all but collapsed and drug trafficking has corrupted the judicial system and the police.

(47) Dominican Republic (28/11/06)

The Dominican Republic [click here] - once a Spanish colony - occupies the eastern two-thirds of the island of Hispaniola. It has a population of 9M.

While the country remains one of the poorest countries in the Caribbean, there is a huge gap between the rich and the poor, with the richest being the white descendants of Spanish settlers, who own most of the land, and the poorest comprising people of African descent. The mixed race majority controls much of the commerce.

Mutual distrust has soured relations between the Dominican Republic and its troubled neighbour, Haiti. Up to one million Haitians live in the Dominican Republic, many of them illegally. The government has carried out mass deportations.

Once dependent on the export of sugar and other agricultural products, the country has become the most popular tourist destination in the Caribbean. Tourism, and the DR's free-trade zones, have become major employers and key sources of revenue.

(48) Ethiopia (28/11/06)

Ethiopia [click here] is Africa's oldest independent country. Apart from a five-year occupation by Mussolini's Italy, it has never been colonised.

Although largely free from the coups that have plagued other African countries, Ethiopia's turmoil has been no less devastating. Drought, famine, war and ill-conceived policies brought millions to the brink of starvation in the 1970s and 1980s, but things improved a little with the overthrow in 1991 of the self-proclaimed Marxist junta led by Mengistu Haile Mariam.

Nevertheless Ethiopia is still one of Africa's poorest states. Its people are almost two-thirds illiterate. The economy revolves around agriculture, which in turn relies on rainfall. The country is one of Africa's leading coffee producers.

The province of Eritrea was hived off in 1993 and a border dispute escalated into full-scale war in 1999. Border tensions persist and Ethiopia says it is technically at war with Somalia's Islamists.

(49) Equatorial Guinea (29/11/06)

The tiny state of Equatorial Guinea [click here] has five inhabited islands and a mainland portion of jungle. It is one of the smallest countries in Africa with only 520,000 citizens.

In 1979, nine years after independence from Spain, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema seized power, and has been absolute ruler ever since. In the past decade, the country has become Africa's third largest oil producer and, on paper, oil has made its citizens the second wealthiest on the planet.

In practice, much of the £370m revenue is grabbed by the president, while most people live on less than a dollar a day. A coup plot was staged in 2004, led by Simon Mann, a friend of Sir Mark Thatcher, the son of the former British prime minister.

President Obiang is suffering from terminal prostate cancer. He has made it known he favours his son as his successor, but Teodoro Nguema Obiang is as corrupt as his father as made clear in this article [click here].

(50) Mongolia (30/11/06)

Inner Mongolia is a province of China, but Mongolia [click here] proper spreads out across 1.5 million sq km of the Central Asian plateau, while its population of only 2.7M is much smaller than the Mongol population of China.

In 1990 Mongolia abandoned its 70-year-old Soviet-style one-party state and embraced political and economic reforms. Democracy and privatisation were enshrined in a new constitution, but the collapse of the economy after the withdrawal of Soviet support triggered widespread poverty and unemployment.

A third of the population lives in the capital Ulan Bator, while half the people herd livestock in the countryside. The centuries-old nomadic lifestyle is being eroded and may not survive the changing times. The country has some of Asia's richest deposits of minerals, although so far these remain largely unexploited.

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