Interpress News Service

Did You Know that the Oceans Have It All?

13 April 2017 - 9:04am

UN Photo/Martine Perret

By Baher Kamal
ROME, Apr 13 2017 (IPS)

Perhaps you are not aware enough of the fact the oceans have it all! What is “all”? Well, oceans have from microscopic life to the largest animal that has ever lived on Earth, from the colourless to the shimmering, from the frozen to the boiling and from the sunlit to the mysterious dark of the deepest parts of the planet. Who says that?

It is the United Nations, which by the way reminds that oceans are an essential component of the Earth’s ecosystem –a source of biodiversity, food, and life. Just think that over 40 per cent of the world’s population lives within 100 kilometres of the coast.

Thus, a better management of the ocean resources is “crucial to ensuring global food security, says the UN leading organisation in the key field of food and agriculture.

No Oceans, No Life!

Simply “without them, life could not exist,” assures the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Although the list is almost endless, the specialised agency reminds of seven facts, just to start off with:

1. Fisheries and aquaculture currently employ directly 56 million people. And many more are employed in follow-up activities, such as handling, processing and distribution. Altogether, fishing and fish farming support the livelihoods and families of some 660 to 880 million people, that’s 12 per cent of the world’s population. “Without oceans, life could not exist”

2. Oceans host 80 per cent of the planet’s biodiversity, and are the largest ecosystem on Earth. Fish provide 20 per cent of animal protein to about 3 billion people. Only ten species provide about 30 per cent of marine capture fisheries and ten species provide about 50 per cent of aquaculture production.

3. Oceans provide vital renewable energy. Devices are being developed to generate electricity from waves and tides, as well as offshore wind farms.

4. Oceans regulate our climate. Did you know that the oceans absorb a quarter of all the carbon dioxide that humans put into the atmosphere? This makes them a ‘carbon sink’, but its ability to absorb even more carbon is limited.

Over 90 per cent of the additional heat caused by global warming is stored in the Oceans. Without this service, and the heating and cooling effects of ocean currents, world temperatures would be too unstable to support life.

5. Oceans affect our weather. As they are heated by the sun’s rays, water from its surface evaporates and then condenses to form clouds as part of the water cycle. This is how we get our rain and therefore our drinking water. It also contributes to wind, thunderstorms and hurricanes, and helps produce the monsoon rains that millions of people in South Asia rely on.

6. Scientists have discovered that many marine invertebrates produce antibiotic, anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory substances. Horseshoe crabs, seaweeds and marine bacteria have also been found to have useful medical properties.

7. Oceans influence our health and well-being. Water is known to calm and reduce anxiety in people and being near blue spaces, such as the ocean, is thought to have positive effects on our mental health.

Unfortunately, different human activities are putting our oceans under threat, FAO regrets, while adding some more facts, such as that overfishing is reducing fish populations, threatening the supply of nutritious food and changing marine food webs.

Healthy oceans have a central role to play in solving one of the biggest problems of the 21st century – how to feed 9 billion people by 2050. Credit: FAO

Overfishing or How to Deplete the Oceans

In fact, the FAO estimates that, globally, some 91-93 million tonnes of fish are captured each year, and seafood products are among the world’s most widely traded food commodities, with an export value of 142 billion dollars in 2016.

On top of that, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing is estimated to strip as much as 26 million additional tonnes of fish from the oceans annually, damaging marine ecosystems and sabotaging efforts to sustainably manage fisheries.

Also that around 80 per cent of the pollution in the oceans comes from land, and coastal zones are especially vulnerable to pollutants, FAO informs.

Let alone plastics, which are also particularly problematic with enormous floating rubbish patches forming in the oceans.

Add to the above, climate change and its related impacts, such as ocean acidification, are affecting the survival of some marine species.

And the fact that coastal development is destroying and degrading important coastal marine ecosystems such as coral reef, sea grass meadows and mangroves.

The issue is so essential–and urgent that world leaders, scientists, experts, and civil society organisations, are now getting ready to participate in The Ocean Conference, which will run from 5 to 9 June.

By absorbing much of the added heat trapped by atmospheric greenhouse gases, the oceans are delaying some of the impacts of climate change. Photo: WMO/Olga Khoroshunova

A World Ocean Festival

As a way to heat up for that major event, the UN on April 11 announced that an inaugural World Ocean Festival will kick off the week-long event, with activists and enthusiasts taking to the streets – and waterways – of New York City to raise their voices to reverse the declining health of our oceans.

Penny Abeywardena, the Commissioner of the (New York City) Mayor’s Office for International Affairs, joined Peter Thompson, President of the UN General Assembly, to announce the first-ever Festival which will be held on 4 June, the day before the opening of The Ocean Conference, which will run from 5 to 9 June.

Sweden has been a major supporter of acting to save the oceans, commented through its deputy prime minister and climate minister of Sweden, Isabella Lövin, that the Ocean Conference could be a “chance of a lifetime” to save the oceans under enormous stress.

Most likely reflecting the general feeling of most scientists, environmentalists and civil society organisations, Lövin said “We don’t need to invent or negotiate something new, we just need to have action to implement what we already agreed upon.”

The facts are there, so is the solution. Will world’s political leaders listen… and act?

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The Unbearable Cost of Drought in Africa

12 April 2017 - 9:51am

People living in the Melia IDP camp, Lake Chad, receiving WFP food. Most of the displaced come from the Lake Chad islands, that have been abandoned because of insecurity. Photo: WFP/Marco Frattini

By Baher Kamal
ROME, Apr 12 2017 (IPS)

Nearly 50 per cent of all emergency multilateral food assistance to Africa is due to natural disasters, with advancing droughts significantly threatening both livelihoods and economic growth, warns the African Union through its ground-breaking extreme weather insurance mechanism designed to help the continent’s countries resist and recover from the ravages of drought.

The mechanism, known as the African Risk Capacity (ARC) provides participating African states with quick-disbursing funds in the event of drought, and assists countries in developing drought response contingency plans to implement timely and effective responses.

“The result is significant economic and welfare benefits for participating countries and vulnerable households.”

As currently structured, ARC reports, the cost of responding to extreme weather events in Africa, particularly droughts, is borne largely by the international community.

To give an order of magnitude using World Food Programme (WFP) operations as a proxy for international aid flows, in 2012 WFP assisted 54.2 million people in Africa, spending US $2.7 billion –66 per cent of WFP’s global expenditure that year, it adds.

Droughts significantly threaten record Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth in sub-Saharan Africa, ARC warned, while explaining that 1-in-10 year drought event could have an estimated adverse impact of 4 per cent on the annual GDP of Malawi for example, with even larger impacts for 1-in-15 and 1-in-25 year events.

“Such decreased productivity detracts from economic growth, causes major budget dislocation, erodes development gains and resilience, and requires additional emergency aid from the international community in the future.” One dollar spent on early intervention through ARC saves 4.40 dollars spent after a crisis unfolds.

Devastating Effects for Households

The African Union’s extreme weather insurance mechanism also informs that at the household level, the consequences of drought can be devastating in countries with low resilience where large sectors of population rely on rain-fed agriculture for their livelihood.

A mother holds up an empty cooking pot as she crouches alongside her daughter inside their makeshift home at a settlement near the town of Ainabo, Somalia, Thursday 9 March 2017. Photo: UNICEF/Kate Holt

Experts from Oxford University and International Food Policy Research Institute conducted a cost-benefit analysis (CBA) to examine household coping actions when faced with a drought, and the likely long-term cost impacts of these actions, according to ARC.

The study estimated the economic benefits of early intervention and thus protecting a household’s economic growth potential –that is, intervening in time to prevent households’ negative coping actions such as reduced food consumption, livestock death, and distressed productive asset sales, which, in the absence of external assistance, have increasingly pronounced negative consequences.

“The CBA calculated that the economic benefit of aid reaching households within the critical three months after harvest could result in nearly 1,300 dollars per household assisted in terms of protected economic gains.”

A further analysis shows the potential benefit of ARC outweighs the 4.4 times compared to traditional emergency appeals for assistance, as a result of reduced response times and risk pooling.

Lake Chad Basin – Extreme Emergency

The ARC report about the impact of droughts in Africa came out shortly before the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) chief’s visit to some of the affected areas in North-Eastern Nigeria, where conflict has forced an estimated 2.5 million people to leave their homes and livelihoods.

The Sub-Saharan Lake Chad Basin, which is the main source of water in the region, between 1963 and 2013 lost 90 per cent of its water mass, with massive impact on the population, according to FAO.

Across the region, (encompassing parts of Nigeria, Cameroun, Chad and Niger), which is currently faced with one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world, some 7 million people risk severe hunger during the lean season and require immediate food and livelihood assistance.

“There are fifty thousand people on the brink of famine in the region, on a scale from 1 to 5, where 5 is famine, they are already at level 4”, FAO director general Graziano da Silva warned.
Following three years of drought, agriculture including livestock and fisheries can no longer be left unattended, he said.

Agriculture produces food and sustains 90 per cent of the local population. Many of the people in the area have already sold their possessions including seeds and tools and their animals have been killed by the armed groups.

“Pastoralists and fishers need to be supported as well for animal restocking. Otherwise if internally displaced persons don’t have their animals and their jobs back, they will remain in the refugee camps, “ the FAO DG emphasised.

Contribution to Long-term Resilience and Growth in Africa Low resilience households must grow by more than 3 per cent annually in real terms to withstand a 1-in-5 year drought.

For many countries in Africa, a small shock in terms of a rainfall deficit or elevated food prices can precipitate a call for a major humanitarian intervention and emergency response. The resilience in such countries is significantly low such that they struggle through most years, let alone during a drought.

For example, in a country such as Niger, where households currently display very low resilience, the ARC team has calculated that to event, the income of the most vulnerable households would have to grow by an annual average of 3.4 per cent over the next five years in real terms to build sufficient resilience in order to adequately cope without requiring external assistance.

In the meantime, insurance is not the ‘correct’ tool to deal with this chronic risk. In order to improve such countries’ resilience to natural disasters, thereby enabling sustained growth on the continent, two key elements are required: risk management and investment.

Drought, a complex and slowly encroaching natural hazard with significant and pervasive socio-economic and environmental impacts, is known to cause more deaths and displace more people than any other natural disaster, according to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

By 2050, the demand for water is expected to increase by 50 per cent, it reports, adding that as populations increase, especially in dryland areas, more and more people are becoming dependent on fresh water supplies in land that are becoming degraded.

“Water scarcity is one of the greatest challenges of the twenty-first century. The Global Risks report published by World Economic Forum ranks ‘water crisis’ as the top risk in the coming decade and it has a place in the Sustainable Development Goals where a specific goal has been dedicated to water.”

Drought and water scarcity are considered to be the most far-reaching of all natural disasters, causing short and long-term economic and ecological losses as well as significant secondary and tertiary impacts, UNCCD informs.

The African Risk Capacity was established as a Specialized Agency of the African Union to help Member States improve their capacities to better plan, prepare and respond to extreme weather events and natural disasters, therefore protecting the food security of their vulnerable populations.

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From Research to Entrepreneurship: Fishing Youth and Women out of Poverty

12 April 2017 - 7:17am

Section of the Zambezi River in Western Zambia. Credit: Friday Phiri

By Friday Phiri
MONGU, Zambia, Apr 12 2017 (IPS)

Ivy Nyambe Inonge, 35, is the treasurer of Mbeta Island Integrated Fish Farm in Senanga district. Her group won the first prize in Zambia under the Cultivate Africa’s Future (CultiAF)  Expanding Business Opportunities for African Youth in Agricultural Value Chains in Southern Africa. She is excited at the prospect of what 5,000 dollars can do for her group, and ultimately, the whole community of Mbeta Island.

“As women, we endure the most burden on behalf of the family,” she says. “That’s why we are excited at this opportunity availed to us, firstly through participatory research in fish processing methods, and now business grants.”

By research and business grants, Inonge refers to a symbiotic relationship between the CultiAF research project focusing on post-harvest processing of fish to reduce losses and its complimenting agribusiness component seeking to generate and test novel, creative and bold business models in the fish value chain.

The two projects are jointly funded by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC)  and the Australian Centre for International Agriculture Research (ACIAR) and implemented by the Department of Fisheries and the Africa Entrepreneurship Hub (AEH), respectively.

According to the group’s winning proposal, they want to turn the 60,000 fingering capacity Malengaula lagoon on the island into a fish pond, and integrate it with livestock and vegetable production. The idea is to have an uninterrupted source of income, which is not the case at the moment due to a number of reasons.

Apart from the annual ninety days statutory fish ban, dwindling fish stocks in the Zambezi River due to climatic changes such as drought and inappropriate fishing methods persist, requiring alternative approaches as described above. Inonge believes their decision to move into fish farming integrated with crops and livestock “is an opportunity to develop a reliable source of income and a platform to become our own bosses.”

The youth and women dichotomy

Africa is the youngest region in the world. Youth make up more than two thirds of Africa’s population, yet they are more likely than adults to be unemployed. The story of women is well documented with global statistics estimating that they are responsible for more than 50 percent of food production worldwide. In Africa, the figure is higher, at 80 percent, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

However, while agriculture is said to hold the greatest potential for global transformation to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a key constituency – youth and women – are conspicuously missing in the processes. This problem is particularly acute in developing countries like Zambia where they face limited access to financial resources hindering their potential for upward mobility, skills and experience to run successful businesses.

This contrast has brought about renewed interest in interconnected ways to meet not only the growing global food demands, but also poverty eradication. One innovative way recommended is agribusiness value chains to stimulate youth and women participation in agriculture and harness an increasingly educated and entrepreneurial workforce to drive growth and create jobs.

In terms of policy, African countries have it all covered. The Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) – an Africa-wide agriculture-led development plan – is one such robust blueprint with a strong component on youth and women’s participation.

According to Estherine Fotabong, Director of Programme Implementation and Coordination at the African Union’s technical Agency, NEPAD, CAADP remains an inclusive initiative providing the drive to address food and nutrition insecurity, as well as unemployment, particularly of youth and women, through access to markets and opportunities to expand agribusiness.

And the CultiAF Expanding Agribusiness value chains in Southern Africa, could be putting to reality this CAADP goal. “The main objective is to increase youth participation in the Agribusiness value chain through creative ideas,” explains Dr. Jonathan Tambatamba, Coordinator of the project. “The idea is to develop ways that will help youth get attracted into agriculture and stop seeing it as a profession for the retired.”

With a core team of international, national and local partners established to support emerging entrepreneurs, the process has advanced and now at entrepreneurship training and mentorship stage.

“For Zambia, we picked ten finalists from which five emerged as winners of the business grants of varying amounts,” Tambatamba told IPS. “For the first prize winners, they will receive 5,000 dollars for their project.”

Leadership commitment and Investment

Expert analysis points out that for developing economies to cut poverty and create meaningful jobs, particularly for youths and women, they require political will from leaders and colossal sums of investment in agriculture, which interestingly, is the basis of the CAADP compact. Tambatamba agrees with this assertion.

“We were impressed with a lot of ideas that came through,” he said, citing the winning proposal whose integrated approach in re-using water between fish farming and vegetable production fits well with this year’s theme of World Water Day—Why Waste Water? which focuses on reducing and reusing wastewater. Considering the extra importance of water for the fishing communities, Tambatamba believes serious investment is required to support such “brilliant ideas.”

Granted that cash capital is important in Agribusiness, entrepreneurship pundits argue for mindset change as a starting point. According to Mawila Fututu of Future Search, a Zambian Public Service Management Division (PSMD) entrepreneurship development project, “Even if you have the fish, the nets and the money; if your mindset is poor, you will still drift back into poverty.”

The onus therefore is on the people involved in the two projects to take advantage and maximize on the opportunity provided to diversify.

“I am excited to have been exposed to this project and my appeal to fellow women and youth is that we should rise and decide our own destiny,” says Lina Mahamba, one of the few people already engaged in aquaculture. The 31-year-old, who lives a stone’s throw away from the Zambezi river, adds that she was motivated to construct fish ponds to fill the market vacuum created during the annual statutory ban.

To sum it up, there is global consensus that the challenge is huge but not insurmountable if women and youth are carried along. In the words of former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon: The energy of youth can spark economies,” while African Development Bank’s Akinwumi Adesina believes thatwhen we solve the problem of women, we will address most of the problems facing us in terms of inclusive growth.”

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What is mine is not thine

12 April 2017 - 1:08am

After a decades-long struggle, women in Nepal were finally guaranteed equal inheritance laws in 2015 under the new Constitution.

By Rubana Huq and Vestal McIntyre
Apr 12 2017 (The Daily Star, Bangladesh)

A South Asian woman is often subjected to innumerable rituals. In Bangladesh, for the majority of the population, if a baby girl is born, the Azaan (call for prayer) is quietly whispered into her ears. In the case of a baby boy, the Azaan is loud as it is meant to announce his arrival with pride. During a girl’s Aqiqah (christening), a goat is sacrificed, but when it comes to a boy, the number of goats becomes two. In case of inheritance, while the wife inherits only an eighth of her husband’s property after death and the daughter gets only a fifth (as the daughter is assumed to inherit from her husband’s as well), no one really mentions that upon a wife’s demise, her husband too inherits one-fourth of her property. These are only a few instances of unjust inheritance laws that are prevalent in South Asian societies.

In reality, empowerment and equality have been in public and academic discourse for quite a long time. Somehow every South Asian woman has the same pain to digest and the same struggles to address. And in case women in the region ever come together to discuss these issues on a public forum for dialogue, at the first opportunity, they put their heads together and often ask the question, “How do we make it there?”

In Nepal, two weeks ago, at such an event featuring women leaders, policymakers and international researchers from groups such as Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD) at Harvard Kennedy School, there were many stories to listen to and ponder. Apart from the lack of employment opportunities for women, the issue of women owning little or no property struck a deep chord amongst many of us. What stood out was the realisation of South Asian women being handicapped by laws that stain the moral fabric of the society.

During the panel discussions, it appeared that Nepal had progressed quite a bit. While Nepal has the highest female labour participation in South Asia, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Maldives and Sri Lanka are following in Nepal’s footsteps. It was also clear that India, Pakistan and Afghanistan were the lowest in the ladder. What was disappointing was that India was the only South Asian country that has a downward trend of female labour participation. It was also pleasantly surprising to discover that in Nepal, almost 20 percent of women own land or homes and while 27 percent of urban Nepali women have fixed assets, almost 19 percent of rural women own the same.

This hasn’t been an easy road for Nepalese women however. Nepal too had to go through the decades-long struggle to achieve equal inheritance rights for women.

The first steps in Nepal were to convince those within the women’s movement that property rights were the right battle to wage (as opposed to focusing solely on equalising girl’s education) and to research the existing laws and their economic effects, in order to better argue for their reversal. At the turn of the millennium, Nepali law dictated that a woman had to be 35 years old and unmarried in order to inherit property. A research study by Sapana Pradhan Malla, a jurist before the Supreme Court of Nepal, found that exclusion from inheritance impacted overall development by limiting women’s broader economic opportunities. Since Nepal was still a Hindu state and not a secular one when the struggle had begun, activists like Malla had no option but to challenge the state, religion, and culture. Malla says, “It wasn’t easy.”

The strategy she and her movement used was public litigation – a class action lawsuit. Nepal’s high court ruled that the law was indeed and issued a directive to the government to change it. Malla and her team celebrated, believing change would come quickly, but it took seven years for the bill to enter Parliament – and even then, change was gradual. The first amendment in 2002 dictated that a daughter had equal right to inheritance as a son, but she had to return the property upon marriage. The second amendment in 2006 allowed her to keep her property upon marriage, and the third amendment nine years later removed discrimination based on marital status. Finally, equal inheritance rights were guaranteed in Nepal’s new Constitution in 2015. Today, Malla believes that the number of women owning lands and houses will “triple in the upcoming census.”

In Bangladesh, for Hindu women especially, property rights are meagre in comparison to male members and their religious counterparts. No single piece of legislation has been enacted to reform traditional laws in order to broaden the scope of Hindu women’s property rights. Bangladesh, a country with around three million female readymade garment workers, cannot subject women to bias, when the Constitution assures equal rights for both men and women. If women contribute a major portion to the production of food and still remain invisible as female farmers in the bigger picture of prevention of food insecurity, then there is no choice for the society but to correct the dent in its psyche. Above all, the plight of all women, irrespective of their caste, creed and religion, in Bangladesh must change. Most unfortunately, the practices continue because many within us resort to laws of convenience. This may be explained better with the next example.

A friend in Dhaka was recently complaining about a male family member – who was atheist – having turned to Shariah law when it had come to inheriting the property his father had left. He knew that it was his father’s wish that his daughters would have equal rights to inheritance. But in this case, the man fell back on a discriminatory law that he didn’t agree with but that benefitted him financially.

There are countries where only fathers can pass citizenship on to their children. There are places that allow disproportionate abortion of female fetuses. There are courts in some lands that arbitrarily deny women custody. There are women survivors of spousal rape. There are countries in South Asia where schools for girls are burnt down and closed forever.

Thus, it is perhaps not unreasonable to assume that even globally, religion and rituals are used as tools to suppress the rights of and discriminate against the better halves of the world.

Rubana Huq is the Managing Director of Mohammadi Group. Vestal McIntyre is Staff Writer at Evidence for Policy Design, Harvard Kennedy School.

This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh

What religion robs us of

12 April 2017 - 12:53am

By Rigoberto D. Tiglao
Apr 12 2017 (Manila Times)

This week, the only time when we think of things beyond, even as rituals of Christianity dominate our days, perhaps is a good time to critique, as modern man has to, what centuries or even just decades ago, we could not question at all religion.

Rigoberto D. Tiglao

Evolutionary scientists have pointed out that even without religion, homo sapiens through millions of years of its biological and cultural evolution had to develop—or perish—what clerics mystify as God-given values of charity (cooperation) and love. (See for example, Michael Shermer’s The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom.)

Indeed, there hasn’t been found yet a tribe or society built on the values of selfishness and cruelty. Of course, no such society will ever be found since the members of such a tribe or society would have over the centuries killed each other to extinction. In the long run, as archaeologists have argued quite rigorously, the selfish member of a tribe gets to be exposed as such and either exterminated or banished.

As sociologists using game theory have pointed out, the best game plan is to be sometimes selfish, sometimes selfless—which is after all how most rational people live their lives. Even the most selfish individual in his twilight years gets to be good.

Is it just a coincidence that nearly all religions that flourished in humanity’s history were not just state religions, but religions of empires — Christianity that of the Roman Empire since Emperor (“Saint”) Constantine, and its successor the European states; Islam that of the empires of the caliphates and sultanates up to the modern era’s Ottoman Empire. No wonder Zen Buddhism — whose teachings rulers can’t use to subjugate peoples — never got to be a widespread religion.

Is it coincidental that that kings and their nobles claimed and ruled as God’s representatives on earth which allowed them to live off the blood and sweat of the toiling tenants? Did Spain get to rule over us for three centuries through force of arms and its higher level of culture, or through religion that convinced the people that they were children of God, whom the friars and the Spanish conquistadores represented, and therefore must obey?

Book explains why charity and love for humanity aren’t necessarily because of Divine revelations.

Real problem
Humanity’s real problem has been the penchant of a tribe or a nation, because again of human evolutionary history, to exploit and even exterminate the other tribe or nation. The reasons for this run deep, perhaps ingrained in our DNA from the time millennia ago when resources were so scarce that a tribe’s survival required it to take the other’s hunting and foraging lands and get rid of the other. Or because it is etched in our collective mind that strangers bring disease to a tribe, which has not developed the immunities required.

Religions seem powerless to solve this problem, and may even have worsened it. Religions, which most tribes use as one of their distinguishing feature as against other tribes, have been used as justification for the cruelest wars in history.

How many times have we heard in YouTube videos that spine-tingling cry “Allahu Akbar!” while humans are beheaded, or even torched. But wasn’t it Christians and their Crusades in the Middle Ages who invented the notion of a Holy War, in order to expel the Muslims and recapture where Yeshua their founder walked the earth?

It is only religion, and nothing else, that can prod a young man to kill scores of infidels with the bomb that also blows him to smithereens, since he believes that there will be an afterlife for a mujahideen like him where he will enjoy 72 virgins.

The most basic appeal of religion is that it brainwashes one into believing that he is immortal, that he will be merely moving to a different kind of existence when he dies; for Filipinos perhaps, just like migrating to the US or Canada.

That’s certainly an attractive notion for one of the exploited class who has lived a life of misery and pain. Death will mean his moving to a better world.

That’s also great news if you’re with the exploiting class, that your huge donation to build your local church would get you the visa to enter that territory Christians call Heaven.

Recurring belief
It’s a recurring notion in most of the world religions: Muslims call it Jannah, the Hindus Swarga Loka, Romans the Elysian Fields, and the Vikings Valhalla, with its giant beer-drinking hall. But it is no longer a universal belief: ask a Japanese, Chinese, Korean, or a Scandinavian and he’ll reply a bit embarrassingly, “We hardly think of that.”

Still, the notion of a heavenly afterlife is so powerful that modern man is unable to shed it off, even if it goes against his rationality. There has been in fact a resurgence of the fantasy, with the plethora of best-selling books on “heaven” that have made millions of dollars for their clever authors in the US.

This is despite the fact there is nothing in the “heaven” they depict that hasn’t been in Christian depictions of it in art and fiction for centuries. A book written about a mujahideen’s encounter with 72 virgins in the afterlife, I bet, would probably be an instant hit. (The doctor who attended to best-selling “Proof of Heaven” author Dr. Eben Alexander when he claimed that he had died, reported in Esquire that he was in a medically induced coma, and was hallucinating.)

New scientific discoveries understood really only by professional physicists through abstract equations have been hijacked by creative writers to propound a theory that when one dies, he lives “alternate lives” – a la quantum physics’ “multiverses”– as a recent movie, The Discovery, dramatized.

What religion robs us of with its fiction that we are immortal is life itself, the enjoyment of the here and now.

Is it so terrible that in this vast cosmos, this unique creature, because of random events in immense stretches of time we cannot comprehend, has been given the opportunity, even if only for a limited time, to become aware of himself and of the universe, to enjoy life, love, family, friendship and achievements?

Why is that void in the future so fearsome when we really came from a void we don’t even remember?

“Be here now” is the mantra not just of mystics through the centuries, like Ramana Maharishi, Osho, and now Eckhart Tolle, but of a scientist like Sigmund Freud, who wrote:
“A flower that blossoms only for a single night does not seem to us on that account less lovely.”

Facebook: Rigoberto Tiglao
Twitter: @bobitiglao

This story was originally published by The Manila Times, Philippines

Can António Guterres Fend Off America’s War on the UN?

11 April 2017 - 6:27pm

António Guterres has traveled to Africa, Europe and the Middle East since becoming UN secretary-general in January 2017. He arrives at the Mogadishu airport in Somalia, above, on March 7, 2017. TOBIN JONES/UN PHOTO

By Dulcie Leimbach

When António Guterres was chosen by the United Nations Security Council in October to become the next leader of the UN, neither he nor anyone else could have predicted precisely who would be commanding the Oval Office of the White House in January 2017, just as Guterres’s term opened.

Now that Donald Trump has assumed the presidency of the United States, Guterres not only inherited a caseload of hellish problems to control with limited powers but he must also manage Trumpian plots to minimize if not gut the UN’s core work.

As a European ambassador summarized the situation for Guterres: “The terms of engagement have changed since he got the job. This is very different from anything we’ve ever seen before.”

While the wars in Yemen and Syria rage on and people die there with not one person sent to jail or prosecuted for war crimes; and as terrorism persists, famine looms in parts of the world and millions of refugees hang in limbo, Guterres surely knew his job would be ridiculously challenging.

To put it graphically, Guterres has inherited “a real pile of shit,” said Thomas G. Weiss, a New York scholar on the UN.

Raised a Catholic in Lisbon, Guterres wanted to become secretary-general to act as a savior. Having spent 10 years visiting refugee camps as head of that UN agency and given his Socialist tendencies to remember the poor and fix human injustices, Guterres might have innocently assumed he had the backing of the richest country in the world, America.

“His deep caring and pain were evident when he confessed that there was one question that always weighs heavy on his heart. ‘That is: how can we help the millions of people caught up in conflict, suffering massively in wars with no end in sight?’ ” said Kairat Umarov, the ambassador of Kazakhstan to the UN and an elected member of the Security Council.

But support from Trump, who tweeted revenge for what he perceived as the UN’s anti-Israel bias and clubby ways right before he moved into the White House, couldn’t be more unreliable than at any time in the last 10 years for the world body. This is not the first secretary-general to withstand serious blows by US administrations that were striving to win points from a broad swath of American voters, who are generally clueless about the UN.

“The other time it was like this was in the early days of [Ronald] Reagan — rocky,” recalled an American who held a top political affairs post at the UN. Moreover, with John Bolton, a US ambassador to the UN under the George W. Bush administration, the American noted, “things could have been hairy.” Yet everything, he concluded, worked out in the end for the UN.

In talking with ambassadors who represent their countries at the UN as well as policy specialists and academics, most people expressed instant empathy for Guterres as he copes in his first months in his new job, especially regarding his relationship with the US. People who commented on Guterres — mainly on background — want him to succeed.

Advice to Guterres came from many quarters. He should frame his interests and agenda “in a way where he convinces the Trump administration that he’s their ally, not their opponent,” said Melissa Labonte, a professor of political science at Fordham University in the Bronx who has written about the UN.

Trump’s fast moves to defund parts of the UN has made the normally confident Guterres “very troubled,” said a South American diplomat. Trump recently cut millions of dollars of contributions to the UN Population Fund, which provides lifesaving maternal-health care — and contraceptives — to the world’s poorest women.

Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, is busy hammering away at peacekeeping missions, regardless of what any mission may do — like fight Al Qaeda terrorists in the Sahel region of Africa — or whether she has ever visited these precarious sites. She skipped a UN Security Council trip to the Lake Chad basin in West Africa, what some media and political leaders are calling the world’s most neglected crisis. Instead, she tweeted that she was home, not feeling well and watching “Lone Survivor.”

Prompted by Haley, who has admitted she is still learning on the job, Guterres sent a memo to UN program leaders to “adjust” to US cuts. Reductions to other UN aid programs hover as the US sharpens its knife to its own development arm, USAID.

“All objectives — the SDGs, peace and security — will not be achieved in the short- to medium-term,” the South American diplomat said. Guterres, who has been traveling nearly nonstop around the Middle East, Africa and Europe, would prefer to stay in New York more often. But if you consider where he has traveled — to such places as Berlin, Brussels and oil-rich Middle East nations — it may indicate he is seeking money to fill a widening US hole.

Some diplomats noted with alarm that with the US retrenching financially and criticizing it in blanket ways — always a simple target — China is eager to step into the void. Japan, which is the second-largest donor to the UN general budget, after the US, and the third-largest to the peacekeeping budget (after US and China), said it was tracking such moves by its giant neighbor.

Yet a Japanese diplomat said in an interview that it was “premature” to declare whether his country would increase its financial donations to the UN peacekeeping budget and other operations.

“China is obviously more active on the international front,” the diplomat said. “We will see what China will do in the UN” and “observe what China is going to do on the ground.”

Guterres, who is 67 and goes by Tony, is married to Catarina Vaz Pinto, who has stayed in Lisbon as the deputy mayor for cultural affairs. Guterres did his homework when he arrived on the 38th floor of the UN secretariat: his roomy office offers stunning views of New York from his aerie above the East River, including densely packed Queens, a microcosm of UN nationalities. His goal was “conflict prevention,” a mantra he invoked as a candidate for secretary-general, and his rhetoric was rooted in practicality: he wanted to keep conflicts from happening rather than unwind them as they tore places and people apart.

He was also more than willing, he said repeatedly, to reform the UN bureaucracy to be more deliberate.

“We expect Mr. Guterres to continue to work on a number of important agendas”: peace and security, reform and development and ridding peacekeeping of sexual abuses, the Japanese diplomat noted.

Angela Wells, the communications officer for the Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs at Fordham University, has worked with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Africa. She said she appreciated Guterres’s focus on conflict prevention, but that he needs to give more attention to protecting humanitarian workers, who have been increasingly killed on the job.

“In South Sudan, where historically humanitarian workers could work free from any substantive insecurity, we’re not seeing that anymore,” Wells said. “They are continually under threat in places like Yemen and Syria. He needs to emphasize that there must be no immunity for these crimes. Once humanitarian workers lose access, the whole response can collapse.”

Nikki Haley, the American ambassador to the UN, in red, at the April 7 Security Council meeting reacting to the chemical-weapons attack in Syria. RICK BAJORNAS/UN PHOTO

The Trump administration’s proposed money cuts to parts of the UN — most of which must go through Congress — could provide an opportunity for Guterres to change the world body, like sharing control more evenly among the 193 member nations, a few people suggested.

“The UN at large and Secretary-General Guterres, in particular, should regard these cuts as an opportunity to welcome greater contributions from the many emerging political and economic powers to better reflect the new multipolar world order,” said Mona Ali Khalil, a legal adviser for Independent Diplomat, an international group that represents nonstate actors in peace negotiations.

Guterres, Khalil added, could also achieve more diversity and regional representation in what remains a permanent-five-centric “distribution of leadership positions over the substantive departments of the Secretariat.”

UN staff members cheered on Guterres when he arrived for his first day at the UN in New York on Jan. 3. His jaunty enthusiasm struck a new tone for the UN, downtrodden by the inability of the former secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, to halt the war in Syria — stuck by Russia and China on the Security Council and unsuccessful diplomacy by the US, Britain and France, the other permanent Council members.

Guterres ran into political flak immediately with the US as he chose a special envoy for the UN’s “support mission” in Libya. Salam Fayyad, a well-respected former prime minister of Palestine, may have gotten the imperative green light from Nikki Haley, but she was apparently overruled by the White House. This embarrassment for Guterres revealed how much he needed to clear his decisions deep within the US presidency. Such direct approval has not been necessary for previous secretaries-general.

As a counterweight, Guterres had also planned to pick Tzipi Livni, the Israeli politician, for another top envoy spot in the UN. That idea vanished amid the Fayyad flap.

Another first step for Guterres was to revive the dormant Cyprus peace talks on political reunification of the island, now divided into Greek and Turkish sections. Much fanfare was made as Espen Barth Eide, the UN envoy for Cyprus and a Norwegian, met with the two sides in the Cyprus standoff early in the year. After many photo opportunities and sessions, the talks have fallen off the map.

Some analysts and media accuse the Russians for interfering in the negotiations, as they try to maintain control of offshore gas development near the island and their offshore banking interests in Cyprus.

The first Trump immigration ban, announced on Jan. 27, symbolized Guterres’s inner conflicts as the new secretary-general: should he speak against the ban on seven Muslim-majority countries to the US or relegate that tricky role to other UN officials, like the low-key refugee chief, Filippo Grandi, an Italian? Guterres took days to remark publicly on the ban, which was blocked (as was the one trotted out in March), taking heat on Twitter and from the media at the UN for his days of silence.

Since then, Guterres has held only two meetings with journalists who cover the UN in New York; for a man who vouched he would be a transparent secretary-general, his distance has provoked anger from reporters. His “discreet diplomacy,” as his office calls it, has meant not automatically issuing statements about meetings with VIPS like the ex-mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, and some government leaders, such as Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada, who stopped by the UN last week.

Other crucial private discussions include half-dozen conversations with Haley, who said she found the UN “misguided.” (When asked by a reporter about what “worked” at the UN, Haley said “the diplomats” – who are not, of course, staff members of the UN.)

Haley is rumored to be forging a national name for herself through her ambassadorship to the UN, starting with unpopular tactics like decreasing the size of UN peacekeeping missions and closing others. Haley hammered the Congo operation first, despite violent politics in the country and the recent murder there of an American working for the UN, Michael Sharp. (Another UN colleague, Zaida Catalan, from Sweden, was also murdered, along with a Congolese translator.)

Haley’s approach to UN peacekeeping is not strictly about numbers, said an Italian diplomat; otherwise, “we would oppose that.” Instead, peacekeeping reform by Haley — and by Guterres — represents “an evolution” in fleshing out which missions need to be reviewed.

An accountant who ran South Carolina for nearly two terms as governor, Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, has endorsed Trump’s refugee bans, calling them necessary for keeping America safe. Her profile at the UN has spiked as she condemned the chemical weapons assault in Syria on April 4 and justified the retaliatory US missile strikes two days later. Yet her contradictions linger, as the week before those events she said that removing Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, was not a US priority. Her immediate boss, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, has also been contradictory on US foreign policy in Syria, but he has grown more consistent on his stance as he heads to Russia for a visit this week.

Haley came to the UN after turning down Trump’s offer of secretary of state, she confirmed, and as her second term as governor had one year left, with term limits stopping her from a third try in the near future. Her reputation in South Carolina was built on combining stern warnings with “Happy Monday” greetings. A big win for her was preventing a Boeing plant from unionizing in a state that never embraced collective bargaining by employees.

Haley’s blunt disdain for the Human Rights Council — “so corrupt” — echoes ancient sentiments from previous US administrations. Except, that is, for Obama’s, which determined that participating in the Council was smarter diplomacy than abandoning it. Haley’s foreign-policy contradictions extend to the Council’s membership: as Trump welcomed Egypt’s leader, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, to the White House, he and Haley didn’t mention that Egypt may be one of the big spoilers on the Council.

Inner sanctum: António Guterres and Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, on April 6 in the UN’s secretariat, New York. MARK GARTEN/UN PHOTO

“Ambassador Haley has said she is looking for ‘value’ in the Council, which she called ‘corrupt’ and filled with ‘bad actors’ — ignoring that it has, for example, established important investigations and reports on North Korea, Iran, Syria, Belarus, Mali and other countries,” said Felice Gaer, the director of the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights.

Meanwhile, Guterres, Gaer noted in an email, “hasn’t defended the Council when it should be defended, nor criticized it directly. (In Geneva he said it had to be balanced, and credible, but attached no country names to his remarks which seemed to be aimed at the Council’s treatment of Israel — but might have just as easily been soothing word for Iran or Syria.)

“He needs to focus more directly on fixing the Council’s obsession with Israel, including by conveying to states that they need to end the biased treatment and should treat Israel like other countries.”

Guterres is also lagging in his goal to inject fresh blood in his ranks. He kept Ban’s communications team in place and reappointed Western officials to the most influential jobs, like peacekeeping (France), political affairs (US) and disarmament (Japan) — all men. His vow to shape a more equal UN by gender and by region is flagging. His senior appointments by gender, however, are much more advanced than under the previous secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, according to the New York University Center on International Cooperation.

In addition, his deputy, Amina Mohammed, a Nigerian who was environment minister until March and the orchestrator of the UN’s 17 global development goals, made a splash when she arrived at the UN but has not been seen much since.

Guterres’s most powerful ally among UN member states is France. France wanted Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister, in the UN job from the get-go, reflecting the Socialist agenda of François Hollande, who leaves office as president of France this year, as well as other Western European governments. South Americans, like Brazil, a Portuguese-speaking nation, rallied close to him, too.

Most ambassadors interviewed for this article offered sympathetic assessments on Guterres: a Russian diplomat — as if mirroring his own plight — said Guterres was a “strong man” working under “huge pressures.” The American who worked in UN political affairs under Reagan and George W. Bush said that Guterres was “hitting the right notes” on peace and security issues while not getting “into arguments with the incoming administration” of the US.

After all, he added, “They [Trump administration] don’t know what they’re doing.”
Member states, explained an African ambassador on the Security Council, were banding together to optimize Guterres’s position with the US. “We are helping him by talking to America on how to improve this issue,” the diplomat said.

“If any man can deal with that government” — the US — “it’s António Guterres,” said Terje Rod-Larsen, a Norwegian who runs the International Peace Institute, a think tank located across the street from the UN.

A low bar for Guterres could be his most important advantage, said Thomas Weiss, the academic expert, given that Guterres followed Ban Ki-moon — a “disaster.”

“Never take a job after someone who has done a terrific job,” Weiss said. “You can’t possibly do it better. So, Guterres has the good fortune of following Ban Ki-moon rather than Kofi Annan.”

Kacie Candela contributed reporting to this article.

(Courtesy PassBlue, online independent coverage of the UN, a project of the Ralph Bunche Institute, City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center)

Fishing Village Fights Iron Mine in Northern Chile

11 April 2017 - 6:09pm

Punta de Choros, a picturesque cove in northern Chile, has become a major tourist draw, and the number of restaurants, lodgings and whale-watching boat tours has climbed. Credit: Orlando Milesi/IPS

By Orlando Milesi
LA HIGUERA, Chile, Apr 11 2017 (IPS)

In Punta de Choros, a hidden cove on Chile’s Pacific coast, some 900 fishers do not yet dare celebrate the decision by regional authorities to deny the Dominga port mining project a permit due to environmental reasons.

The fishers, from the northern region of Coquimbo, are afraid that the government will unblock the project, in which the Chilean company Andes Iron planned to invest 2.5 billion dollars for the extraction of iron ore, promising 9,800 jobs in the building phase and 1,400 in the production phase.

The project would affect several nature reserves, and the local fishers also question the effects from the traffic of cargo ships and from a desalination plant.“More than a political problem, what we have here is a problem with the environmental assessment. There were a series of irregularities and that means that the impacts on one of the world’s 36 top biodiversity hotspots cannot be assessed.” -- Liesbeth Van der Meer

And as they said in interviews with IPS, they also doubt that the cabinet of ministers will uphold the decision by the regional environmental authorities, who rejected the plan for the Dominga mine, controlled by the Délano family.

Andes Iron will file an appeal this month to the cabinet – which will reach the final decision – asserting the positive aspects of the project, which is to extract 12 million tons a year of iron concentrate and other 150,000 tons of copper concentrate.

The 10,000-hectare project would involve an open-pit mine with a useful life of 26.5 years, a plant and a tailing disposal facility. It would also require a port to export the minerals to China, Japan and other markets.

“It is an area rich in benthic resources (bottom dwellers) and in algae and microorganisms. We want the mining project to be redesigned. Development is needed, especially in a poor area like this, but it has to be well done,” geographer and park ranger Paulina Correa, head of the Humboldt Penguin National Reserve, told IPS.

“We have low-impact tourism here. Many people make a living from this and protect it. We want development that protects the environment,” said Correa, lamenting that the mining project has divided the community between those who make a living from fishing and tourism, and those who live in the foothills of the Andes mountains.

Punta Choros has an official permanent population of 238, but that figure is multiplied by ten during tourist season, with the influx of workers employed by a dozen restaurants and lodgings that cater to the tourists drawn by the spectacular beaches, whale watching and traditional seafood cuisine.

The project was initially approved by the Coquimbo regional environmental authority, which stated that the mine complied with “the applicable environmental regulations,” and that the company “had corrected any errors, omissions and inaccuracies.”

Oscar Rebolledo, deputy director of the Coquimbo environmental authority, said “the measures proposed (by the company) take responsibility for the effects and circumstances” that may result from the mining project.

Signs against the Dominga iron mine are seen all over Punta de Choros, where fishers point to the growing catches, nature reserves crucial to the planet’s biodiversity, and the presence of large marine mammals, to argue against the extractive project in this village in northern Chile. Credit: Orlando Milesi/IPS

But Coquimbo Governor Claudio Ibáñez disagreed, and on Mar. 9 cast the vote that broke the tie between six regional secretariats, rejecting the project.

“What the company proposes in terms of environmental reparations or redress is inadequate to properly ensure the right to live in an environment free of pollution, the protection of the environment, the conservation of nature and the preservation of the environmental heritage,” said Ibañez, explaining his decisive vote.

He said he was aware that Dominga represents “an important possibility for economic and social development,” but added that he is just as aware that “we are putting at risk one of the world’s most important nature reserves and the habitat of dozens of species.”

Local fisherman and diver Josué Ramos, a member of the Los Choros fishing association, began making a living harvesting surf clams (Mesodesma donacium) in 1996. He told IPS that in 2000 the clam became locally extinct, and two years later a restocking programme started to be implemented.World biodiversity hotspot
The area where the open-pit mining project is to be developed includes the Humboldt Penguin National Reserve, created in the year 1990 to protect this species (Spheniscus humboldti), which is listed as vulnerable. The reserve is home to 80 per cent of the species’ entire population.

The area is also home to other endangered species: the Peruvian diving petrel (Pelecanoides garnotii), a seabird that can dive 80 metres deep, and mammals such as the South American sea lion (Otaria flavescens) and the rare marine otter (Lontra felina). The reserve includes three islands where several species of threatened endemic flora grow, which are under protection due to the fragility of the ecosystem.

Also in the area is the Choros-Damas Island Marine Reserve, with 49 species of flowers, including the yellow añañuca (Rhodophiala bagnoldii). Near the Chañaral island, whale watchers in the summertime see bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) and blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus).

“Just 10,000 clams, of the 100,000 that were projected, were restocked. But 14 years later, the effort had produced results. Today there is an 18-km beach with a 10-km productive area, and the clams are expanding,” he said.

“The year 2015 was the first year they started harvesting while simultaneously studying and monitoring the biomass. We extracted 670 tons and from a management area controlled by local people 95 tons were harvested. In 2016, the number increased to 832 tons in the main area and my trade association extracted 156 tons,” said Ramos.

“With the awareness that has been generated, we have obtained better results in the management areas, the seabeds to which the state gave us exclusive access to use and protect. Along 30 km of coastline, there are six management areas, which represent 70 per cent of the production of benthic resources in the region,” he said.

Ramos is opposed to Dominga because “they overexploit, export and then the prices rule. To obtain a ton of iron ore, which currently fetches 52 dollars, they leave 100 tons of tailings with chemical compounds. We harvest a ton of clams for 1.5 million dollars, and we only lift the sand, we don’t change it in any way.”

The local fisherman has “no expectation” that the cabinet will uphold the local environmental authority’s rejection of Dominga and believes that “the cursed progress” is going to prevail.

“Two ministers that vote have already resigned,” he added, in reference to the recent resignations of the ministers of transport, Andrés Gomez Lobos, and the environment, Pablo Badenier.

On Mar. 30, representatives of Andes Iron met with a dozen shepherds in the Casa Dominga, in the municipality of La Higuera. Although the meeting was closed, IPS saw the minutes.

“We are going to fight with everything we have. There is injustice here and we are not going to give in,” a representative of the company told the shepherds, who are in favour of the mine, and who took turns reporting on their interviews with local radio stations to discuss the positive aspects of the project.

At the end of the meeting, Omar Alfaro, with the La Higuera association of shepherds, told IPS that thanks to a framework agreement, “the Dominga project would improve the productive sectors, and when the mine closed down, we would be left with greater development in activities like agriculture, shepherding and fishing.”

Alfaro took part in a community meeting where the framework agreement was signed, which commits the company to pay “a minimum of 1.3 billion and a maximum of 2.6 billion pesos (between two and four million dollars) a year for projects, once the mine starts producing,” he said.

The agreement includes “the genetic improvement of livestock and the possibility of reforesting and recovering the native forest, deteriorated by prolonged droughts,” he said.

About the water the mine will use, Alfaro said that “a hydrogeologist explained the situation to us” stating that Dominga “is going to re-inject water into the same river basin.”

“We are hopeful that our institutions will be respected. I believe the project is important for the country, and the cabinet has a huge opportunity to revert and organise the technical instruments that have been used by the environmental institutions,” Iván Garrido, general manager of the Dominga project, told the online newspaper Pulso.

He urged the cabinet “to assess the report” by the Coquimbo environmental authority, which was favourable to the company.

Liesbeth Van der Meer, executive director of the non-governmental organisation Océana Chile, believes that the project will be rejected in the end.

“More than a political problem, what we have here is a problem with the environmental assessment. There were a series of irregularities and that means that the impacts on one of the world’s 36 top biodiversity hotspots cannot be assessed,” she told IPS.

If Dominga is approved, it will amount to “a crime against our natural heritage,” she said.

Van der Meer said he hoped “that not all development in Chile will be extractivist,” and called for respect for fishers and tourist operators in Punta de Choros, where the number of visitors soared from 900 in 1998 to 50,000 in 2016.

Mining is crucial to the Chilean economy and attracts more than one-third of all foreign investment, in a country that is the leading world producer of copper and other minerals, such as rhenium, lithium and iodine, as well as an important producer of several other minerals.

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The Ebola Crisis: Lessons Learned for Developing Nations

11 April 2017 - 1:46pm

By an IPS Correspondent

The Group of 77 has pointed out that the Ebola crisis of 2014-2015 proved that “no country is immune from a disease outbreak, no matter where it emerges”

The Group has argued that the world is now a big village, where the borders between countries are crossed by millions every day for different reasons– a better life for some, a migration for others, all due to different factors, including climate change and the outbreak of fast-spreading diseases.

Speaking on behalf of the Group of 77, joined by China, Lourdes Pereira of the Ecuadorean Mission to the UN told the Fifth Committee that since the 2014 Ebola outbreak, it became quickly evident that one country alone, with limited capacities and resources, could not face singlehandedly a threat of that dimension spreading across the borders – particularly, if it was not contained with global efforts.

But it also became evident, she pointed out, that regional and international organizations in charge of health, in particular the World Health Organization (WHO), did not have the relevant mechanisms and resources in place for a rapid response to stem the tide of the crisis.

“Uncertainty, fear and a lack of capacity and preparedness contributed to an ineffective and delayed response.”

She expressed the Group’s appreciation for the establishment of the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER), the first-ever UN emergency health mission.

Despite serious challenges, the presence of UNMEER played a catalytic role in mobilizing the necessary financial and human resources to scale up the response to fight a disease which mostly affected West Africa.

The UN Mission contributed in bolstering national operational response capacity of the three Ebola affected countries, namely, Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone where more than 11,000 died.

The Group underlines that, the availability of immediate funds in an emergency intervention, flexible enough to meet identified critical gaps, is every important and helps build synergies of the global response.

To this end, the Group commended the Office of the Special Envoy on Ebola for its role in mobilizing extra-budgetary resources to the Ebola Multi-Partner Trust Fund, the international institutions, in particular WHO, OCHA, the bilateral and multilateral partners, the African Union and sub-regional organizations, the civil society, and many others for their fundamental contributions during the Ebola outbreak.

She said the reports under consideration by the Fifth Committee highlighted the numerous challenges encountered in the fight against the Ebola virus disease.

These challenges included, but not limited to the lack of coordination, initial confusion on responsibility sharing; trained and experienced personnel; inefficiencies in the use of new mechanisms which led to the loss of time; ineffective community engagement; proper logistic coordination; information on the financial performance of the Mission and on the liquidation and disposal of assets.

In order to avoid future problems in such crisis situations, the Group underlined the importance of building on existing institutional and coordination mechanisms, working with entities already on the ground such as the WHO and the United Nations Country team and the African Union, so as to reduce confusion, especially in the midst of health crises such as the recent Ebola outbreak.

Developing Nations Call for New Trust Fund on Forest Protection

11 April 2017 - 1:37pm

By an IPS Correspondent

The Group of 77 is calling for the creation of a new and dedicated Trust Fund for the implementation of the UN’s strategic plan on forests for the period 2017-2030.

The proposed Trust Fund is expected to be under the management of the Global Forest Financing Facilitation Network (GFFFN).

Speaking on behalf of the Group of 77, joined by China, Santiago Garcia, Director of the National Forestry Office in Ecuador told a Working Group meeting he believes that without such a Fund, the implementation of the Strategic Plan on Forests “is difficult for developing countries”.

“As we come together to this Working Group Meeting, let me stress that Forests are crucial for sustainable, inclusive and sustained economic growth of developing countries,” he said.

Forests are also central to sustained poverty reduction and is related to practically all aspects of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and crucial for access to water, rural development, agricultural productivity, conservation of biodiversity, energy, soil conservation, and flood control.

“They provide habitat for at least 80% of terrestrial biodiversity and are also a major carbon sink for regulating global climate,” he added.

The Group believes that the United Nations strategic plan on forests for the period 2017-2030 should be action-oriented, and strengthened to deliver a real impact on the ground, catalyze the implementation and facilitate the mobilization of increased and predictable financing to adequately carry out sustainable forest management at all levels.

And it should also restate the commitments regarding financing in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Garcia said.

He also reiterated that the adequate and timely implementation of the United Nations strategic plan on forests for the period 2017-2030 is fundamental for developing countries.

“In this regard we express our concern on approaches delivered in this venue regarding the important issue of financing which needs to recognize major gaps on financing issues.”

He said it is important to strengthen the UNFF Global Forest Financing Facilitation Network (GFFFN) and foster and capitalize existing, new and emerging financing opportunities.

These opportunities include capacity building– given constrained abilities by several developing countries to apply to or implement international cooperation for forest-related programs—and facilitating mechanisms for developing countries to access funds and disseminate best practices on Sustainable Forest Management while ensuring the full implementation of the Forest instrument and achieving the goals and targets comprised in this proposal.

The Group took note of the proposal by the Co-chairs to explore further available data on official development assistance (ODA). However the Group is committed to include a reference on increasing of funding from all sources, including an increase in ODA.

“We highlight the voluntarily nature of the Strategic Plan proposed and that the provision of means of implementation should also encompass technology transfer to developing countries on favorable terms and capacity building for developing countries.”

In this regard, he said “we also should avoid increasing the burden of reporting or creating overlaps in the process of communication through streamlined reporting on the implementation of the Forest Instrument, the Strategic Plan and voluntary planned contributions”.

“We should agree on a communication strategy that addresses those issues, especially by reassuring a transparent process on the issue of reports. The Group also believes that the term voluntary planned contributions could be replaced by “national voluntary contributions”.

The Group expressed its general agreement on the co-chair’s proposal for the six Global Forest Goals. The group also recognized certain overlapping among the targets.

“In this regard we believe that numerical targets should be based on clear forest-related definitions and baseline,” he declared.

World Must Act Now on Lake Chad Basin Crisis: FAO DG Graziano da Silva

11 April 2017 - 10:52am

Lake Chad Basin: a crisis rooted in hunger, poverty and lack of rural development. Credit: FAO

By Eva Donelli
ROME, Apr 11 2017 (IPS)

Food assistance is a priority and the only way to prevent the crisis from worsening in the Lake Chad Basin, is to support food production according to José Graziano da Silva, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

“We need to take action now and there is no doubt that hungry people need food, but an emergency approach doesn’t tackle the roots”, he said in a press conference following his three day visit to some of the affected areas in northeastern Nigeria, where conflict has forced an estimated 2.5 million people to leave their homes and livelihoods.

Lake Chad, which is the main source of water in the region, between 1963 and 2013 lost 90 percent of its water mass, with massive impact on the population.

Across the region, (encompassing parts of Nigeria, Cameroun, Chad and Niger), which is currently faced with one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world, some 7 million people risk severe hunger during the lean season and require immediate food and livelihood assistance.

“There are fifty thousand people on the brink of famine in the region, on a scale from 1 to 5, where 5 is famine, they are already at level 4”, Graziano da Silva warned.

The FAO chiefexplained that this conflict cannot be solved only with arms. This is a war against hunger and poverty and rural development must be promoted and resilience built. A combination of food assistance and food production support is the only way to avoid further escalation of the serious humanitarian crisis.

Following three years of drought, agriculture including livestock and fisheries can no longer be left unattended. Agriculture produces food and sustains 90 percent of the local population. Many of the people in the area have already sold their possessions including seeds and tools and their animals have been killed by the armed groups. “Pastoralists and fishers need to be supported as well for animal restocking. Otherwise if internally displaced persons don’t have their animals and their jobs back, they will remain in the refugee camps, “ the FAO DG emphasized. “The region is approaching a critical time in the agricultural calendar, with the main planting season beginning in May/June 2017 and we need the money now to plant”, he stressed. There is a huge shortfall in international assistance to meet the emergency needs. Of the USD 62 million requested under the 2017 Humanitarian Response Plan for Nigeria, FAO has so far received only about USD 10 million.

FAO Director-General meets Prime Minister of Chad, Albert Pahimi Padake. Credit: FAO

FAO has developed a Lake Chad Basin Response Strategy (2017-2019) to improve food security and nutrition and strengthen the resilience of vulnerable communities in the affected areas and more than 1.16 million people will receive assistance in the coming months across the region. Key activities will include the distribution of cereal seeds, animal feed and the provision of cash transfers and veterinary care.

In response to a question by IPS, Graziano Da Silva said he will soon be discussing with David Beasley, Executive Director of the World Food Programme about the crisis and work together with other organizations such as UNHCR, UNICEF and UNDP “to integrate their different mandates to tackle the crisis.

Graziano da Silva stated further that according to Kashim Shettima, Governor of Borno State, the current globally high levels of food insecurity reflect a sustained lack of investment in rural development over the last 30 years that has generated and exacerbated the conflicts, pushing millions of people into hunger. The FAO DG explained further that in addition to emergency assistance, there is a need to gradually move to higher investments, in particular for equipment and training of farmers in modern irrigation techniques. In reply to a question at the press conference , he noted, “the capital of Borno State is a secure city”. He pointed out that governors must ensure safe market environments.“Small markets are opening in the villages, even inside the camps, so giving them cash would stimulate the market”, he added. “What is crucial now for organizations on the ground is not to work independently but to have a good interaction with local governors, to face the challenge.”

In fact, Graziano da Silva concluded, “we are monitoring the crisis and we have a lot of detailed data; what we need is to raise awareness and inform donors on the dimension of the crisis”.

Economic Recovery Crucial to Sustainable Development

11 April 2017 - 10:08am

The World Economic Situation and Prospects (WESP) was the only such report to identify risks to the global economy before the 2008-2009 global financial crisis, while both the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) largely ignored them. Credit: IPS

By Anis Chowdhury and Jomo Kwame Sundaram
SYDNEY and KUALA LUMPUR, Apr 11 2017 (IPS)

More than eight years after the global financial crisis exploded in late 2008, economic growth remains generally tepid, while ostensible recovery measures appear to have exacerbated income and other inequalities. Yet, despite the G-20 group of the world’s largest economies raising the level, frequency and profile of its meetings, effective multilateral cooperation and coordination remains a distant dream.

Little reason to cheer
The United Nations’ recent World Economic Situation and Prospects (WESP) 2017 offers little cause for comfort:
• the world economy has not yet emerged from the protracted slow growth following the 2008 financial crisis;
• significant uncertainties and risks weigh heavily on its projected modest global recovery for 2017-2018;
• despite modest economic growth, global carbon emissions have not declined in the last two years;
• more alarmingly, new investment in renewable energy dropped sharply in the first half of 2016, as progress in emissions mitigation in recent years could easily be reversed;
• growth in the least developed countries (LDCs) will remain well below the sustainable development goals (SDGs) target in the near term; and
• below-target growth and tax revenue threaten critical public expenditure on healthcare, education, social protection, and climate change adaptation.

Unfortunately, the WESP does not attract as much media attention or fanfare as other similar global reports, such as the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) World Economic Outlook or the OECD’s Global Economic Outlook. Nevertheless, WESP was the only such report to identify risks to the global economy before the 2008-2009 global financial crisis, while both the IMF and OECD largely ignored them.

Even after US sub-prime housing debt problems became apparent and Lehman Brothers had collapsed, both remained optimistic, predicting a soft-landing in the US at worst, which they suggested would be off-set by robust growth in Europe. Both supported the turn to ‘fiscal consolidation’ as soon as ostensible ‘green shoots of recovery’ were spotted in 2019. Despite greater consideration of ostensibly Keynesian policy options since, seriously Keynesian macroeconomic analysis remains largely off-limits.

Global recovery?
WESP 2017 identifies policy paralysis and lack of policy coordination as among the main factors holding back global economic recovery. Over-reliance on unconventional monetary policy and fiscal consolidation in major economies, especially in Europe, are contributing not only to policy uncertainty, but also to growing inequality.

Protracted weak global demand – due to fiscal contraction, high household debt and growing inequality – has reduced incentives for firms to invest. Political and policy uncertainties, due to events such as ‘Brexit’, have also discouraged private investment. Thus, investment has slowed significantly in major developed and emerging economies. The extended period of weak investment is driving the slowdown in productivity growth.

Meanwhile, international trade expanded by just 1.2 per cent in 2016, the third-lowest rate in the past three decades. Slow world trade growth is both contributing to and symptomatic of the global economic slowdown.

What needs to be done?
Thus, WESP 2017 calls for a more balanced policy mix – moving beyond excessive reliance on monetary policy – to restore a healthy growth trajectory over the medium-term for the global economy as well as to tackle some social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development.

Government support for public goods, such as combating climate change, remains crucial, as private investors tend to evaluate risk and return over short-term horizons and under-invest in public priorities. Investment in research and development, education and infrastructure would promote sustainable development as well as social and environmental progress, while supporting productivity growth.

WESP 2017 also calls for greater international coordination to ensure complementarities among trade, investment, and other public policies, and to better align the multilateral trading system with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to ensure inclusive growth and decent work for all.

Global Green New Deal

Any recession or economic crisis also offers the opportunity to weed-out lagging activities or obsolete practices, and to restructure the economy to put it on a more sustainable path. Thus, to tackle the global financial crisis, in early 2009, the UN proposed a Global Green New Deal (GGND) comprising of public work programmes and social protection, including in developing countries. This bold proposal remains relevant as the global economy struggles to recover, and achievement of the SDGs is threatened.

Most critically, public works programmes should be launched, not only in developed countries, which can resort to deficit financing, but also in developing countries, where resources are more limited and policies are generally more hostage to the global financial system. Thus, GGND can not only accelerate economic recovery and job creation, but also address sustainable development challenges more generally. To be more effective, GGND should be part of a broader international counter-cyclical effort comprising three main elements:
1. Financial support for developing countries, provided through the multilateral system, to prevent their economic slowdown.
2. National government-led investment packages in developed and developing countries to revive and ‘green’ national economies.
3. International policy coordination to ensure that developed countries’ investment packages not only create jobs in developed countries, but also have strong developmental impacts in developing countries. These should involve collaborative initiatives among governments of developed and developing countries.

The window of opportunity to restructure the global economy towards a more sustainable path has been closing as governments procrastinate, adopt self-defeating fiscal consolidation policies, and give up economic management responsibility to the monetary authorities. ‘Quantitative easing’ has not only failed to ensure a robust recovery, but has also exacerbated the inequalities and disparities breeding ethno-chauvinist populism. Bold, internationally well-coordinated actions are needed now more than ever.

UAE represents a global model of humanitarian and development work: Abdullah bin Zayed

11 April 2017 - 9:19am

ABU DHABI, Apr 11 2017 (WAM)

H.H. Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation, has stressed that the UAE foreign aid represents a global model to follow in terms of humanitarian and development work.

This is not just for being one of the largest international donors compared to its gross national income (GNI) for the fourth consecutive year, and first place in 2016 international rankings for the third time, but also due to the UAE s strong belief in the necessity of enhancing the quality of life of vulnerable categories of people irrespective of ethnicity, identity, language or religion, and for contributing to the promotion of international peace and stability by eradicating all forms of poverty, he said.

For the fourth consecutive year, the UAE has maintained its position as one of the largest international donors in the field of official development assistance compared to its GNI, occupying first place globally in 2016 for the third time, after occupying the first place in 2013 and 2014.

The Development Assistance Committee, DAC, of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OCED, announced that according to preliminary data for countries that provided official development assistance during 2016, the UAE has been a top donor country in comparison with its GNI.

The UAE’s level of official development assistance during 2016 was about AED15.23 billion, representing 1.12 percent of GNI while more than 54 percent of this aid was offered in the form of grants.

In light of the UAE assistance during the previous years in terms of contributions to in International Sustainable Development, the year 2016 saw the continuation of support to the African continent, which received nearly 54 percent of the UAE s assistance worth AED8.95 billion.

Due to the humanitarian conditions experienced by some countries in the region, especially the Yemeni and the Syrian refugee crisis, the value of humanitarian aid increased by 0.87 percent to AED1.89 billion, compared to 2015.

Despite the increase in regional humanitarian aid, the UAE continues to support various international humanitarian issues, interact with events and crises, and allocate funding to solve them.

Reem bint Ibrahim Al Hashemi, Minister of State for International Co-operation, hailed the wise directives of President His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Vice President and Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, and His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, on supporting vulnerable peoples and countries, contributing to strengthening the UAE s international position in providing official development assistance, in comparison to its GNI, for the fourth consecutive year.

She added that this policy is the result of the humanitarian vision of the UAE founding father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, based on providing timely assistance to vulnerable countries and communities, and humanitarian responses to those affected by crises and conflicts.

OECD s Development Assistance Committee (DAC) announced today that, according to the preliminary data for countries that provided official development assistance (ODA) during 2016, the UAE is ranked first among the largest donors in comparison to its GNI.

The UAE is the only Arab country among the top 10 donor countries in the world, Norway occupied the second position with 1.11 percent, Luxembourg occupied third position with 1 percent, and Sweden occupied fourth position with 0.94 percent. European countries provided exceptional assistance in 2016 due to the exacerbation of the refugee crisis.

The DAC committee said that the data was preliminary and that there would be another announcement after the completion of the detailed ODA data from the member countries which is expected to be announced in December this year.

Women’s Health Policies Should Focus on NCDs

10 April 2017 - 8:02pm

Professor Robyn Norton, co-founder and Principal Director of the George Institute for Global Health. Credit: Neena Bhandari/IPS

By Neena Bhandari
SYDNEY, Apr 11 2017 (IPS)

Science and medicine were not subjects of dinnertime conversations in the Norton household in Christchurch, New Zealand, but Professor Robyn Norton grew up observing her parents’ commitment to equity and social justice in improving people’s lives. It left an indelible impression on her young mind.

Her high school years coincided with the women’s movement reaching its peak. She got drawn into thinking about addressing women’s health issues and moved to Sydney, Australia to enroll in a Master’s in Public Health.Norton feels its time the global health agenda expands from a predominant focus on women’s reproductive organs to include women’s whole bodies — and the NCDs, such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, chronic respiratory disease and diabetes.

“It was a light bulb moment for me. At that time, women’s reproductive rights and the high rates of maternal and infant mortality were paramount in global and women’s health agendas, which in the next 30 years would result in significant improvements in maternal health. Since then the burden of disease has changed. Today, the single highest cause of death for women in every single country is non-communicable diseases [NCDs] and injuries,” says Professor Norton, who is the co-founder and Principal Director of the George Institute for Global Health, a not-for-profit medical research institute that aims to increase the provision of safe, effective and affordable healthcare worldwide.

In 1999, she co-founded the Institute with Professor Stephen MacMahon for three main reasons. First, a recognition that the global burden of disease had changed, particularly in lower and middle-income countries where NCDs and injuries were emerging as a leading cause of death and disability. Secondly, the expertise to manage the emerging epidemic of NCDs and injuries was not available in these countries. Thirdly, most of the global collaborations between the high income and low income countries were still focused on maternal and child health and under nutrition.

“Global health policymakers needed to acknowledge and address these issues. Our expertise in NCDs and injuries, along with working in low and middle income countries, made it the right time to set up the Institute. The Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation study, which emphasised the growing importance of NCDs and injuries was release around the same time, providing a significant impetus for us to move forward,” says Norton, who is Professor of Global Health at the University of Oxford and Public Health at the University of Sydney.

The Institute founders chose to partner with the University of Sydney as they felt geographically Sydney would be a natural hub for collaborations, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. Soon the Institute began collaborative partnerships for research in India.

“We realised that if we were to make a difference in the world, we had to be in a country with a huge population. India also fitted our original idea because it was going through a transition with triple burden of disease and changing demographics. It was starting to see under nutrition co-existing with over nutrition; infectious diseases beginning to co-exist with the growing incidence of cardiovascular diseases and strokes,” explains Norton.

The model of an external organisation partnering with colleagues in India to particularly address NCDs and injuries was a relatively new one for India. The Institute’s biggest challenge was to raise the importance of NCDs and the need to address the burden of these diseases, which account for seven of the top 10 killers of women, and 18 million women around the world die from them each year.

Norton feels its time the global health agenda expands from a predominant focus on women’s reproductive organs to include women’s whole bodies — and the NCDs, such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, chronic respiratory disease and diabetes.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the George Institute in India. “We have laid the foundation in India for growing the institute with a larger critical mass and greater impact. We would like to produce research that impacts on policy and practice that ultimately leads to reduction in NCDs and injuries and greater access to healthcare for a larger proportion of the populace,” she adds.

Evidence shows that there is a lack of gender sensitive research, data and policy, which is impeding gender equity in health. The Institute has joined a global call for a gendered approach to the collection and utilisation of health data.

Says Norton, “As we deepen our understanding of how the human body works, we know that women and men respond differently to disease and to possible interventions. We are also beginning to understand that health systems respond differently to women and men such that both access to care and the quality of care differs. Yet, far too commonly, there is no delineation of gender in health data, and women are underrepresented in many scientific and clinical studies.”

To improve the health of women and girls in developing countries, Norton says, “We have to look at the leading causes of death and disability and then allocate resources into addressing those issues. We now know that seven out of 10 causes of death and disability for women in India are NCDs. It is critical to begin with making women understand the risk factors of NCDs and how best to prevent and manage those.”

She suggests restructuring the health services and utilising existing workforce by retraining them to integrate NCDs. “India has enormous resource in the cadre of Accredited Social Health Activists [ASHA], who have been focusing on improving the health of women during pregnancy. If we can look at ways of upskilling them then it is going to be incredibly important as part of the process of bringing more women into the health sector.”

The Institute has been researching innovative ways to provide greater access to high quality, low cost essential drugs in developing countries.

“The approach we are taking is three-fold. First, looking at ways to make generic drugs more widely available. Secondly, combining drugs, for example four pills into a single pill, to keep costs low and ensure greater adherence. Thirdly, training non-physician healthcare workers and equipping primary healthcare centres to provide quality care, so people have the confidence in their quality of care and realise that they don’t need to travel miles to a tertiary healthcare centre or pay lots of money to see a specialist for everyday illnesses,” she adds.

The other issue close to her heart has been road traffic injuries. She is the Chair Emeritus of the World Bank and the World Health Organisation supported Road Traffic Injuries Research Network, which is aimed at building research capacity and agendas to address the growing burden of road traffic injuries in low and middle income countries.

“It has been a tendency to think about road traffic injuries as an accident or an act of God rather than a health problem. We have to take the same scientific approach to injury as we have used, for example, to address heart disease. Injuries in many respects fall between the world of infectious diseases and NCDs. Ten percent of people die as a result of injuries worldwide and the burden of injuries mostly rests on adolescents and young pre-middle aged people,” says Norton.

She feels India needs to look at the data and causative factors, monitor it and then intervene, to address the causes of road traffic accidents.

“We know that speeding, drink driving, not wearing helmets, seatbelts and child restraints, are some of the key factors associated with road traffic injuries. If we focus on educating the public on those issues, along with introducing and enforcing legislation, it would make a huge difference in India. We need advocacy and leadership by governments, non-governmental organisations and academics, such as ourselves, to take these issues together,” she adds.

*Neena Bhandari is a Sydney-based journalist and president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Association (Australia and South Pacific).

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Malala Yousafzai Becomes UN’s Youngest Messenger of Peace

10 April 2017 - 4:51pm

Malala Yousafszai with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

By Tharanga Yakupitiyage

Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai has become the youngest UN Messenger of Peace with a special focus on girls’ education.

During a designation ceremony, UN Secretary-General António Guterres selected and honoured Yousafzai as the organisation’s Messenger of Peace. 

“You are the symbol of one of the most important causes of the world…and that is education for all,” said Guterres.

“Admiring your courageous defense of the rights of all people including women and girls to education and equality [and] honoring the fact that you have shown, even in the face of grave danger, the unwavering commitment to peace…it takes great pride and pleasure in proclaiming Malala Yousafzai a United Nations Messenger of Peace,” he continued. 

"I think people should look at me and all of the other 1.6 billion Muslims who are living in peace and believe in peace rather than looking at a few terrorists…they are not us,” -- Malala Yousafzai

Yousafzai, 19, became a symbol for the fight for girls’ education after being shot in Pakistan’s Swat valley in 2012 for opposing Taliban restrictions on female education. She has since become a global human rights leader, becoming the the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize laureate and co-founding the Malala Fund to raise awareness of the millions of girls without access to formal education. 

“I stood here on this stage almost three and a half years ago…and I told the world that education is a basic human right of every girl…I stand here again today and say the same thing: education is the right of every child and especially for girls, this right should not be neglected,” Yousafzai said upon accepting the role. 

Over 130 million girls are out of school today. Girls often lack access to education because they have to work, care for younger siblings, or are married early. Many also face violence, posing additional barriers for school attendance. 

Beyond issues of education, Yousafzai has also been an outspoken advocate on issues of conflict and refugees. 

On the escalation of violence in Syria, she stated: “To the children under siege in Aleppo, I pray that you will get out safely. I pray that you will grow up strong, go to school and see peace in your country some day. But prayers are not enough. We must act. The international community must do everything they can to end to this inhumane war.”

Most recently, Yousafzai condemned the U.S. executive order banning people from several Muslim-majority countries, writing that she is “heartbroken” and asking President Donald Trump to not turn his back on families fleeing violence and war. 

“I’m a Muslim and I’m proud to be a Muslim… I think people should look at me and all of the other 1.6 billion Muslims who are living in peace and believe in peace rather than looking at a few terrorists…they are not us,” she said during the designation ceremony.  

Both Yousafzai and Guterres noted the challenges that refugee families face in camps. 

Worldwide, approximately 50 percent of refugee children have access to primary education. The gap widens as children grow older with 22 percent having access to secondary education and less than 1 percent with access to universities. In Lebanon alone, only half of Syrian refugee children can go to school. 

“This shows how little the international community is doing to educate refugee children,” said Guterres. 

“It is our responsibility, especially in the richest countries, to express our solidarity to all those who unfortunately cannot provide to their children the education they have the right to receive,” he continude. 

The Malala Fund helps fund schools around the world, including education programs in the Za’atari and Azraq refugee camps in Jordan.

Messengers of Peace are distinguished individuals, carefully selected from various fields by the Secretary-General, to help raise awareness on the work of the UN. Others Messengers of Peace include U.S. actor Leonardo Di Caprio, Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho and U.S. singer Stevie Wonder.

Breast Milk is Exported to the US

10 April 2017 - 12:00pm

By Erik Larsson
Phnom Penh, Apr 10 2017 (IPS/Arbetet Global)

In a shed made of boards and tarps, one-year old Nune is in deep sleep as his mother Check Srey-Toy gently rocks his hammock. Then she tells me that she sells her breast milk to the US.

They have no front door. Privacy is a sheet of cloth drawn across an opening. A gas burner on the ground. A saucepan with leftover porridge.

“It’s been three months. Since I started”, Check Srey-Toy tells Arbetet Global. “It’s an easy job. All I need to do is lie there and the machine pumps it out”.

As the Cambodian capital city falls into darkness, some glimpses of light shine through the makeshift wall of plastic and wood out to the alley-ways among the ramshackle sheds of Stoeng Mean Chey, one of Phnom Penh’s poorest slums. Dark figures move along, shuffling past, following the stench filled pathways covered with ripped plastic bags and other litter.

This used to be a garbage dump. Then bulldozers covered the garbage and poisonous soil, creating a housing market for ramshackle sheds at ten dollars per month. For an extra 15 dollars, electricity is provided.

Check Srey-Toy and her husband used to make their daily income by picking plastics, aluminium cans and paper from the city streets. They assorted their rewards and sold it to a recycling centre. A few months ago a new opportunity arose as two women approached them.

Check Srey-Toy was selling her breast milk during three months. She was paid 5 dollar a day. Photo: Daniel Quinan

“They talked about breast feeding and that there were women who were unable to develop their own breast milk. They asked if we would be willing to sell ours”. Over twenty women from their area saw a possible boost to their income.

“I’ve been doing it for about three months. Almost every day”

Every morning at eight she is picked up by a man on a motorcycle who takes her to different private homes in Phnom Penh. She pumps the milk out twice a day, once in the morning, once in the afternoon, with a lunch break in-between.

She stresses: “It is completely voluntary”.

By four or five she returns home. “It’s like a job”.

Before being allowed to supply breast milk she had to go through a thorough medical examination. For ten straight days she was driven to the air-conditioned rooms of the Royal Phnom Penh Hospital, one of the best and most expensive hospitals in Cambodia.

A considerable contrast from the NGO-run Khmer-Russia Hospital where she had given birth to her son a year ago.

After getting medical approval from the doctors, she was permitted to sell her breast milk. Her remuneration depends on how much breast milk she can deliver.

“Usually I get about 5 dollars per day”. A good income for her, compared to previously.

“The company has told me that my breast milk goes to other children. I like to think about that. When the drink my milk I think that they are my children”.

The demand for breast milk has increased and is now a commodity on international markets. The US company Ambrosia Lab have donators in several different countries. They target US mothers who pay close to 25 dollars for a bag of just under 150 millilitres of milk.

Check Srey-Toy and her husband are collecting and sorting garbage to make ends meet. Photo: Daniel Quinan

But it isn’t only new Moms that are prepared to buy breast milk. Among body builders, drinking breast milk has become a health fad with the belief that muscle growth will increase. Another group of customers is those who have a sexual fetish for breast milk.

When Cambodian media started to report on the breast milk export to the US, there was a hefty reaction. Critics felt it was immoral and that poor Cambodian women were being exploited. Ambrosia Lab’s defended their breast milk export as a possibility for these women to increase their earnings. They furthermore claim that their business mission actually allows women to breast feed their own children for a longer period, thus being beneficial for the child’s health. This is an argument refuted by most experts on the area.

With growing
international attention, breast milk export from Cambodia was first temporarily stopped and then at the end of March, the Cambodian government adopted legislation that banned exports of breast milk.

The United Nations Children’s Fund UNICEF has along with other aid organizations welcomed the decision. They are of the opinion that poor women are exploited and children may risk malnutrition when being robbed of their mother’s breast milk.

A few days after the ban was put in place Arbetet Global spoke with Check Srey-Toy. She had stopped selling breast milk. She and her husband were once again out collecting and sorting garbage to make ends meet.

Translation: Ravi Dar

This story was originally published by Arbetet Global

Humanity and Social Justice, a Must for the Future of Work – Ryder

10 April 2017 - 10:43am

Credit: ILO

By Baher Kamal
ROME, Apr 10 2017 (IPS)

“The future of work must be inspired by considerations of humanity, of social justice and peace. If it is not, we are going to a dark place, we are going to a dangerous place,” said the head of the leading world body specialised on labour issues.

With a forecful call to make social dialogue between governments and the social partners a key instrument for building a world of work that leaves no one behind, Guy Ryder, director general of the International Labour Organization (ILO) summed up a landmark event on the future of work.

“We now need to transform our thinking into results, into concrete outcomes,” Ryder added at the conclusion of the two-day (April 6-7) Global Dialogue: The Future of Work We Want. “We need to address the concerns of that young person, wondering if there is a future of work for them.”

The event, which took place at ILO’s headquarters in Geneva, brought together leading economists, academics and representatives of governments and the social partners (employers’ and workers’ organisations) to discuss the profound changes sweeping the world of work. “The future of work must be inspired by considerations of humanity, of social justice and peace. If it is not, we are going to a dark place, we are going to a dangerous place,” ILO chief, Guy Ryder.

More than 700 participants attended the event in Geneva with several hundreds joining and participating via the Internet and social media.

“We Can’t Leave It All to the Market”

Among the participants was Lord Robert Skidelsky, from the University of Warwick in the UK, who as the keynote speaker at the event said that international solutions are needed to harmonise the process of adaptation to the future of work: “We can’t leave it all to the market. We can’t stop innovation but we can manage it.”

The Geneva meeting also featured a special session on how to shape the future of work for youth, with a particular focus on the transition from school to work, the organisation of the world of work and its regulation.

He reminded that the future of work was a global issue that merited a global response, but also one that requires “taking into consideration the diverse circumstances of our 187 member States” and the importance of sharing experiences among them.

The head of the ILO emphasised the need to promote innovation and development, at the same time as maintaining the Organization’s social objectives.

Work, Technologies, Climate Change, Migration…

The Global Dialogue was part of a broader ILO’s The Future of Work Centenary Initiative to investigate the future of work and better understand the drivers of unprecedented change, including technological innovation, the organisation of work and production, globalisation, climate change, migration and demography, among others.

The initiative is seeking to broadly canvas the views of key actors in the world of work on all of these issues, says ILO.

Guy Ryder, ILO Director General. Credit: ILO

More than 167 countries have taken part in the ILO initiative so far, with 107 of them participating in national and regional dialogues that have been or are being held all around the world.

Their conclusions will help inform a High Level Global Commission on the Future of Work, to be established by the ILO later this year. The report of the Commission will feed into discussions on a Centenary Declaration at the 2019 International Labour Conference.

Around the world, profound changes in the nature of work are underway, ILO said, adding that the on-going transformations in the world of labour are disrupting the connection between work, personal development and community participation.

The future of work gains special relevance now that it is estimated that over 600 million new jobs need to be created by 2030, just to keep pace with the growth of the global working age population. That’s around 40 million per year.

Meantime, there is a pressing need to improve conditions for the some 780 million women and men who are working but not earning enough to lift themselves and their families out of just 2 dollars a day poverty.

Major Issues

On these major issues, which mainly affects the present and future of the youth, and in particular, the most vulnerable groups such as women, migrants, rural communities, and indigenous peoples, the world leading specialised body, had, ahead of the meeting posed the following seven key questions:

Credit: ILO

How will societies manage these changes? Will they bring together or pull apart developed, emerging and developed economies?; Where will the jobs of tomorrow come from and what will they look like?; What are the challenges and opportunities young people are facing as they make the transition into the world of work?; What do they see as the path forward to achieve sustainable inclusive growth for future generations?

Also: what are the new forms of the employment relationship and whether and to what extent that relationship will continue to be the locus for many of the protections now afforded to workers? And: what initiatives to revitalise existing norms and institutions and/or create new forms of regulation that may help to meet present and future governance challenges?

Around the world, in economies at all stages of development, profound changes in the nature of work are underway, the UN specialised body explained, adding that numerous and diverse drivers account for these: demographic shifts, climate change, technological innovation, shifting contours of poverty and prosperity, growing inequality, economic stagnation and the changing character of production and employment.

A Worrisome Picture

“We are facing the twin challenge of repairing the damage caused by the global economic and social crisis and creating quality jobs for the tens of millions of new labour market entrants every year,” said Guy Ryder ahead of the meeting.

Economic growth continues to disappoint and underperform – both in terms of levels and the degree of inclusion, he explained, adding, “This paints a worrisome picture for the global economy and its ability to generate enough jobs. Let alone quality jobs.”

According to ILO chief, persistent high levels of vulnerable forms of employment combined with clear lack of progress in job quality – even in countries where aggregate figures are improving – are “alarming.”
In fact, ILO’s World Employment and Social Outlook – Trends 2017 shows that vulnerable forms of employment – i.e. contributing family workers and own account workers – are expected to stay above 42 per cent of total employment, accounting for 1.4 billion people worldwide in 2017.

Almost one in two workers in emerging countries are in vulnerable forms of employment, rising to more than four in five workers in developing countries, said Steven Tobin, ILO Senior Economist and lead author of the report.

As a result, the number of workers in vulnerable employment is projected to grow by 11 million per year, with Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa being the most affected.

Meanwhile, the global unemployment rate is expected to rise modestly from 5.7 to 5.8 per cent in 2017 representing an increase of 3.4 million in the number of jobless people, a new ILO report shows.

The number of unemployed persons globally in 2017 is forecast to stand at just over 201 million – with an additional rise of 2.7 million expected in 2018 – as the pace of labour force growth outstrips job creation.

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Microbes, New Weapon Against Agricultural Pests in Africa

10 April 2017 - 7:24am

A farmer shows a crop-eating fall armyworm taken from his field in Gwanda, Zimbabwe. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

By Busani Bafana
BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe, Apr 10 2017 (IPS)

Microscopic soil organisms could be an environmentally friendly way to control crop pests and diseases and even protect agriculture against the impacts of climate change, a leading researcher says.

Africa is battling an outbreak of trans-boundary pests and diseases like the invasive South America fall armyworm (FAW), tomato leaf miner and the TR4 which have cost the agriculture sector millions of dollars in crop damage.“Chemicals are a quick fix and short-term solution to insect pest control and also kill the predators of the pests." --Dr. Christian Thierfelder

“Research from our labs at Auburn University has shown a great potential in microbes for helping fight pests- and we have done some research on fall army worm that are pests in turf grass,” said Dr. Esther Ngumbi, a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at the Auburn University in Alabama, United States.

Ngumbi’s research has looked at how beneficial soil microbes help recruit natural enemies.

Microbes are tiny organisms like bacteria and fungi that interact with the soil and plants. Though not widely appreciated in much of Africa, Ngumbi said microbial formulations have been found to improve plant growth and protect crops from insects, drought and other climate-related extremes.

Researchers also say microbes can help preserve the environment threatened by growing reliance on chemical solutions in fighting crop and livestock trans-boundary pests and diseases. Pesticides pose a threat to food safety, human and ecological health, necessitating the promotion of non-chemical alternatives to handling pests.

Researchers at Auburn University have worked on beneficial soil bacteria/microbes, specifically plant growth-promoting rhizobacteria (PGPR). The soil dwelling bacteria that colonize plant roots have beneficial effects of increasing plant growth and enhancing the ability of plants to fight off herbivorous insect pests such as the beet armyworm-Spodoptera exigua and the fall armyworm Spodoptera frugiperda to which they have a direct toxic effect.

First reported in Sao Tome and Principe in January 2016, the crop-eating pest has affected thousands of hectares of crops in Namibia, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe to date. The pest which is difficult to control with one type of pesticide can cause extensive crop damage of up to 73 percent in the field. It also attacks non-cereal crops including potato, groundnut, spinach, tomato, cabbage, soybeans, cotton and tobacco.

In Brazil the fall armyworms have a cost of 600 million dollars a year to control.

Dr. Christian Thierfelder, Senior Cropping Systems Agronomist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Southern Africa Regional Office, says poor identification of the pest delayed response to the outbreak in November 2016 because the pest has never been encountered before in Southern Africa.

“Everyone was classifying it [FAW] as a stalk borer or the American bollworm but they were all wrong. This new pest has now been identified as the fall armyworm and people started extensively using pesticides – some of them not yet registered,” Thierfelder told IPS.

“Chemicals are a quick fix and short-term solution to insect pest control and also kill the predators of the pests. This affects the environment and also birds who feed on caterpillars making it important to focus more on alternative ways through biological solutions such as Integrated Pest Management, crop diversification and intercropping.”

The use of IPM has been recommended to deal with insect pests. Integrated pest management is an approach that seeks to minimize and rationalize the use of chemicals.

The approach promotes the use of safer alternatives to pesticides like biocontrol and cultural practices. These include resistant cultivars to control insect pests and diseases, crop rotation and diversification at the plot and landscape, monitoring of insect pests using pheromone traps and seed treatment with beneficial soil rhizobacteria to reduce soil and foliar diseases.

Thierfelder said during extensive field tours in southern Africa, he observed less damage in early planted maize fields under conservation agriculture, intercropped with pigeonpeas or cowpeas and with some trees nearby.

“Here the attack of the fall armyworm was minimal,” said Thierfelder. “This shows that nature can help us in biological pest control as predators can hide in those diversified landscapes and control the pest.”

FAO Sub-regional Coordinator for southern Africa, David Phiri, says the fall army worm has threatened food security in the region because it is new and exposed the need to investment in surveillance systems.

“We do not have ready-made control mechanisms for the fall armyworm and we worry that pesticides used indiscriminately might actually contribute to environmental damage and also contribute to pesticide resistance,” Phiri said.

He added that, “We need to take the issue of monitoring and surveillance very seriously. Historically FAO has been trying to inform and convince governments that they should try to monitor as a matter of course not just monitor when there is a threat because they might be pests and disease coming into the region.”

According to the 2017 FAO report “The future of food and agriculture: Trends and challenges,” public investment is required to catalyze and support private investment. Investment in R&D has to be associated with the development of infrastructure and services to prevent and control the spread of pests and diseases; including trans-boundary ones and mechanisms that help reduce risks.

Rob Vos, Director of FAO’s Social Policies and Rural Institutions Division and one of the authors of the report, told IPS that the threats posed by biological invasions and outbreaks of existing trans-boundary pests highlight the importance of investing in agricultural research to rapidly respond to threats.

“The nature of trans boundary pests requires management on an international scale with countries coordinating their efforts. FAW is a highly mobile pest. The threat it poses to maize production and food security in Africa is not confined to individual countries but affects the entire region,” Vos said.

“Successful management of recurrent and new threats such as FAW is likely to be best achieved through collaboration among governments and international and national organizations.”

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Challenges to Media Freedom in Sri Lanka; The ‘New’ Government’s Performance

9 April 2017 - 12:31pm

By Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena
Apr 9 2017 (The Sunday Times - Sri Lanka)

A common view held by many across the Commonwealth that Sri Lanka holds out a beacon of hope to the world in reversing the tide of authoritarianism underscores darker and more complex realities.

Journalists being briefed on the Right to Information Act

Even in those early days when elation prevailed after the surprise election defeat of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2015, many of us instinctively knew that this was just the beginning of a long, hard road towards reversing systemic Rule of Law failures, much of which had predated Rajapaksa rule (2005-end 2014).

Two years later, the formidable challenges before us are very clear. During the previous decade, the abuse of power had been unprecedented, even when assessed against the country’s turbulent post-independence history after British colonial fetters were shaken off in 1948. Ordinary law and order had deteriorated to abysmal depths. State, economic and military powers were concentrated in the office of the Executive President. Corruption on the part of a ruling family cabal was rampant and ugly. Shaky at its best, the scales of the State tilted dangerously towards raw, naked authoritarianism. Editors and journalists were assassinated, beaten up and threatened. A decades-long secessionist war fought by the LTTE in the Northern peninsula was brought to a bloody end in 2009 but even after, terror continued to stalk the land.

Yet the stage for this departure from the democratic path had been set quite a while ago. Prolonged ethnic conflict and more sporadic but equally violent clashes between the majority Sinhalese government and rebellious Sinhalese youth in the South had paved the way for emergency law to become the norm. Checks and balances once holding arbitrary executive discretion in check became weaker. Under the Kumaratunga Presidency, a Supreme Court headed by her handpicked Chief Justice in 1999 became politicised with severe adverse impact on a once revered institution. Attacks on critical journalists waxed and waned with criminal defamation law being used to stifle dissenters until a vigorous media-led campaign resulted in its repeal.

So to many, the excesses of the Rajapaksa Presidency was a natural – and logical – culmination of what had preceded. Regardless, a restive if not angry populace was ripe for change when, following a surprise announcement of a premature Presidential election, Rajapaksa’s onetime Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena deserted his party leader and contested the elections with the support of Ranil Wickremesinghe, leader of the (then) opposition United National Party (UNP) after months of covert planning. It was an explosive electoral challenge in the best traditions of excitable party politics, catching the imagination and hope of Sri Lankan citizens who voted for the imprudent challenger. But the 2015 reformist agenda of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition is now facing grave internal subversion by forces that were very much part of the earlier anti-democratic establishment.

Great expectations; the Government’s reform agenda
One major thrust of reform concerned the restoration of the Rule of Law including the independence of the judiciary, the enactment of a Right to Information law and a Contempt of Court Act, the broad-basing of state-owned media among a host of other pending media law reforms. The other equally imperative focus was on state accountability for war time abuses premised on a consensus resolution on Sri Lanka adopted at the United Nations Human Rights Council.

However, progress has been faltering. Indeed, in some respects, there is regression. For example, the Government promised to repeal or reform the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) under which journalists and activists had been routinely imprisoned. But now, a draft Counter-Terror Act (CTA), conceived in secret and running to more than fifty pages, has far more terrifying potential to restrict civil liberties than the PTA.

Where accountability is concerned, little of significance has happened apart from an Office of Missing Persons which remains yet inactivated. Similar dysfunction affects a Victim and Witness Protection Authority. In addition, hawkish elements within the Government are denying the right of immediate legal counsel to a suspect upon being arrested. Cases relating to the killings and beatings of journalists are yet pending.

Emblematic cases of gross human rights abuses against Tamil civilians under the previous regime suffer a similar fate. Absent sufficient pressure from civil society, the members of which have now been co-opted in great part into ad hoc task forces, punishing perpetrators through a radically reformed criminal justice system has been replaced by a spluttering Colombo-centered transitional justice process. This has been an early victim of the huge gap between what the Government promised and what it can actually deliver. Ambitious constitutional reform plans are similarly bedevilled. Corruption investigations into the near-bankrupting of the state coffers by the Rajapaksas have also stalled. Emboldened, the former President’s supporters have become increasingly more vociferous.

Encouraging use of RTI across the country
The one exception to this sad litany of non-performance is that on June 23, 2016, Parliament unanimously passed the Right to Information (RTI) Act. This was a result of persistent advocacy for over one and a half decades by editors, lawyers, media activists and civil society activists. A key pivot thereto was the 1998 Colombo Declaration on Media Freedom and Social Responsibility, which focused on RTI as a legislative imperative. Earlier, a Prime Ministerial committee had drafted the 2004 Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill which was approved by the Cabinet. However the premature dissolution of Parliament resulted in the 2004 Bill being discarded. Some unsuccessful revivals were attempted in later years, one such effort being notably by the present Speaker of Parliament Karu Jayasuriya then an opposition parliamentarian. But the Bill was re-activated as a template only in 2015 with the change of regime. Following sleepless days of hectic drafting and after public consultations, the revised version now named the Right to Information (RTI) Bill was approved by the Cabinet.

The Bill passed the test of legal challenge before the Supreme Court subject to certain modifications. To the surprise of those anticipating vigorous opposition on the floor of the House, it was passed with nary an opposing vote. As a member of both drafting committees in 2004 and 2015/2016, this was a rare day of rejoicing for me. Some months ago, a constitutional amendment had also enshrined the right of access to information. RTI was therefore backed by two supports; one, constitutional and the other statutory. That said, the fact that the constitutional restrictions (drafted differently to the statutory process) were somewhat broader in scope did give rise to unease. Nonetheless, there was much to be pleased about.

Since the Act and its Regulations with the Rules of the Commission on Fees and Appeals were operationalised on February 3, Sri Lanka has been ranked globally as having the third best RTI regime. No state agency is exempted from its reach unlike other information laws in the region. For the past two months, the use of RTI has been quite diverse and vigorous. This is a positive factor even though I cannot comment on specific cases.

Will RTI be an exception to a discouraging pattern of practically ineffectual good laws in Sri Lanka? Will it radically transform the culture of secrecy that holds the political and public service establishment in an iron grip? Answering these questions require prophetic ability. But unlike other laws which depend on dysfunctional state institutions, RTI can be directly used by citizens to provoke, needle and demand accountability from government and non-government entities. Early signs of its enthusiastic use are encouraging.

Ambitious reform plans of Sri Lanka’s coalition leadership have been slowly collapsing into disarray. True, citizens now live free from the threat of enforced disappearances and blatant misuse of power. Moreover, there is freedom of public debate which was once a luxury. Nonetheless, as has been repeatedly emphasised in my weekly column to the Sunday Times, Colombo, the coalition Government’s incessant refrain that ‘things are not bad as they once were’, is no answer. Setting the bar of comparison based on the previous regime is akin to no standard at all.

And freedom of expression is of limited use when structures of state power remain impervious. In addition, increased criticism appears to be having a bitter impact. The Government has vowed to bring in a regulatory framework for print, electronic and online media. While media professionalism has deteriorated badly, mostly due to journalists being bludgeoned literally and metaphorically in the past, government regulation is unquestionably not the solution to that problem. Cloaked in the deceptively misleading language of ‘independent regulation’ such innocuous experiments are often twisted to political advantage.

Some in the Government have asserted that RTI is a quid pro quo; in other words, as RTI has been ‘given’ to the media, it should ‘submit’ to the proposed regulatory scheme. This argument suffers from a fundamental misconception. RTI is not a privilege to be bestowed at the magnanimity of politicians. Rather it is a people’s right (not limited to the media). Any suggestion of a quid pro quo is unfortunate.

In 2015, democratic change-makers were ordinary citizens from far flung corners of the land who reacted with powerful anger against state-sponsored racism, chauvinism and corruption. But this critical constituency of reform is being eroded day by day. That is regrettable for Sri Lanka’s people, for the Government which once promised much and most profoundly, for those working for genuine systemic change.

(The writer serves as a Commissioner on Sri Lanka’s RTI Commission as the nominee of the organisations of editors and publishers. The views expressed are strictly in her personal capacity. This is an edited excerpt of a paper discussed at conference sessions on ‘The Commonwealth and Challenges to Media Freedom’ hosted by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICwS), April 4th 2017.)

This story was originally published by The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka

New Player in Poland’s Islamophobia Game

8 April 2017 - 10:55am

A Warsaw protest in solidarity with Ameer Alkhawlany. The banner reads 'Free Ameer'. Credit: TV Kryzys

By Claudia Ciobanu
WARSAW, Apr 8 2017 (IPS)

Ameer Alkhawlany moved to Poland in September 2014 to pursue a Master’s in biology at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland’s second largest city. Two years later, the Polish state awarded him a scholarship to complete a PhD in the same faculty.

Pawel Koteja, his professor at the institute, told Polish media that Alkhawlany was “very committed to his scientific research, to which he dedicated a lot of time and effort, and was determined to pursue an academic career.”Law and Justice, the party governing Poland since 2015, has a nationalistic and ultra-Catholic discourse, presenting itself as a defender of embattled Poles against its various 'enemies': the European Union, globalisation, Islam.

According to activists in contact with Alkhawlany, the student had an uneventful life in Poland until last summer, when he was allegedly approached by Poland’s secret services (ABW) with the offer to inform on Muslims residing in Poland. He would have to report back from mosques and actively seek out contact with specific people.

Alkhawlany refused. He said he was an atheist so he didn’t attend religious services and that some of the people he was asked to contact were from non-Arabic speaking countries so he might not have a common language with them.

In July, when the man was allegedly approached by ABW, Krakow was hosting the annual Catholic ‘World Youth Day’, attended by the Pope and an estimated three million people. Polish authorities were tightening security.

On October 3, the student was suddenly arrested in the center of Krakow by officials from the Polish Border Guard. He was given no reason for his apprehension. Hours later, during which time he was not allowed to contact a lawyer, a court sentenced Alkhawlany to 90 days of detention followed by deportation to Iraq.

In a letter written from detention by Alkhawlany and published in March by website Political Critique, the man said the court justified its ruling by the fact that the Polish secret services considered him a security threat. Despite the man’s questions, the judge did not offer any explanations as to why he was considered a threat.

“I have been living and studying in Poland since 2014. I have never broken the law ever,” Alkhawlany said to the court, according to his published letter. “I never crossed at the wrong light, never been in the bus without ticket! I did my master’s degree and I started my doctoral studies without any problem. I don’t want to leave Poland!”

At the time of his deportation, Alkhawlany had been detained for six months without break in the detention center for foreigners in Przemysl, in the southeast of Poland.

Polish authorities never explained publicly the reasons why the man was considered a security threat. However, anonymous sources quoted by Polish media claimed the secret services had information that Alkhawlany had been in touch with ‘radicals’ from abroad monitored by other countries’ services. 

“The provisions of Polish national law do not provide solutions for a foreigner to defend themselves when the decision of return has been issued on the basis of undisclosed circumstances,” commented Jacek Bialas, a lawyer with the Helsinski Foundation for Human Rights. “This raises doubts as to compatibility with the Polish Constitution, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights.”

“It’s as if a controller gave a citation to someone waiting at the bus stop, being sure the person would go on the bus without a ticket,” Alkhawlany commented in a February interview with Wirtualna Polska.

At the time of his arrest, Alkhawlany had just renewed his residence permit in Poland, which was valid until January this year. During his detention, he applied for asylum in Poland arguing that it was unsafe for him to return to Iraq, where the Iraqi military is battling ISIS in the north. He was denied asylum (the final decision following an appeal came April 4) because of confidential information provided by the security services which indicated he was a security threat.

Yet on April 5, after reviewing the same evidence provided by the secret services, the regional court in Przemysl ruled that Alkhawlany should be released from detention as he had been residing legally in Poland and there had been no solid reason for his arrest. The ministry in charge of the secret services retorted that the court ruling ‘did not undermine’ the evidence presented by ABW.

To the surprise of his lawyer and those engaged in a campaign to get him released, Alkhawlany was not released from detention but instead deported on the evening of April 5. Neither his lawyer nor his brother also residing in Poland were informed about the deportation decision.

Alkhawlany himself called from Iraq upon arrival to inform he had been transported to Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Speaking to Polish media April 6, Marek Ślik, the student’s lawyer, said “The deportation is illegal because I have not yet received any notification about his deportation. The procedure of appeal (after asylum was denied) was never completed as I never got a final notification.”

The Polish Border Guard did not respond to a request to justify the legality of the deportation.

An image from the official website of the Polish Border Guard. It says: ‘We defend Polish men and women. We do not agree to the influx of Muslim migrants.’ Credit: Police Border Guard

“The way the Polish secret services dealt with this case was absurd: they just picked a random person because he came from a specific country and expected him to inform on the moves of others,” said Marta Tycner from leftist party Razem, who was engaged in the campaign to free Alkhawlany.

“They think that any person coming from a Muslim country is a suspect of anti-state activity,” Tycner told IPS. “They were incompetent and now they are trying to cover it up by deporting him fast.”

Law and Justice, the party governing Poland since 2015, has a nationalistic and ultra-Catholic discourse, presenting itself as a defender of embattled Poles against its various ‘enemies': the European Union, globalisation, Islam. It has overblown fears of a potential terrorist attack by Islamists – although no incidents of this kind or actual threats of it were recorded in Poland – to strengthen its control over society.

Last year, Law and Justice adopted a new anti-terror law which gives authorities the power to fingerprint foreigners or listen to their phones and check their emails without any court order. It also imposed restrictions on the right to protest and online activity.

The right-wing and Catholic media, which are essential in harnessing popular support for the party, routinely associate Muslims with violence. The leader of Law and Justice, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, infamously declared last year that migrants carry ‘very dangerous diseases long absent from Europe’. Alongside Hungary, Poland has been staunchly opposed to hosting refugees under the European Union’s system of relocation quotas.

Poland is one of the world’s most homogeneous countries, with over 97 percent of the population declaring themselves ethnically Pole. Despite very low rates of migration to the country, the most recent ‘European Islamophobia Report‘ showed that over 70 percent of Poles want to see migration of Muslims to Europe restricted, the highest rate among all European countries surveyed. Negative attitudes to refugees increased significantly in the last years.

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No U.S. Refuge for Syrians Even After Military Strikes

7 April 2017 - 7:31pm

Nikki Haley, U.S. Permanent Representative to the UN holding up pictures of victims of the alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria which prompted the Trump administration to launch an airstrike against the Assad government. Credit: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

By Lyndal Rowlands

U.S. President Donald Trump Thursday night described the deepening Syrian refugee crisis as partial justification for the first direct U.S. airstrike against the Syrian government, even though the United States still bans all refugees from Syria.

Several rights groups responded Friday, calling on Trump to repeal the ban, which applies to migrants from Syria and 5 other countries in Africa and the Middle East.

“Trump was using very strong words last night to describe the cruelty and the horrors that children and civilians in general are enduring (in Syria),” Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, co-director of the US Program at Human Rights Watch told IPS.

“To try to keep refugees out of the United States is cruel,”McFarland Sánchez-Moreno added. “It’s contrary to the values that the U.S. has traditionally claimed to hold dear and inconsistent with some of the words that President Trump himself used last night.”

Speaking from Palm Beach, Florida on Thursday night Trump described how “even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered” in the alleged chemical weapons attack which took place earlier this week.

“Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behavior have all failed, and failed very dramatically.  As a result, the refugee crisis continues to deepen and the region continues to destabilize…” Trump continued.

“If we truly want to help protect the people of Syria, we must also be willing to offer the Syrians assistance as they flee attacks in search of safety," -- Noah Gottschalk, Oxfam America

However despite the airstrike marking a change in direction in Syria for the Trump Republican administration, there is no indication the administration is considering a similar shift in its policy towards Syrian refugees.

Reactions from the 15 member states of the UN Security Council to the airstrike on Friday were mixed, with some supporting the strikes even though the United States carried out the unilateral attack without the backing of the council. Others, including Bolivia, which called the meeting, strongly opposed the attack.

Lord Steward Wood of Anfield, Chair of the UN Association of the UK, a civil society organisation questioned the United States decision to take “unilateral action without broad international backing through the UN,”

He said that such action “without a clear strategy for safeguarding civilians, and through further military escalation risks further deepening and exacerbating an already protracted and horrific conflict, leaving civilians at greater, not lesser, risk of further atrocities.”

“In the meantime, if President Trump wishes to help the victims of Assad’s atrocities, he could pledge to play a leading role in resettling the survivors,” Wood added.

Meanwhile Noah Gottschalk, Oxfam America’s Senior Humanitarian Policy Advisor called for the United States to “change course” on Syrian refugees following the airstrikes.

Gottschalk said that the “innocent families” that Trump referred to “who were killed in Idlib are no different than the people who are attempting to seek refuge in the U.S.”

“Oxfam is urging the President to change course on his discriminatory ban that blocks Syrian civilians from finding refuge in the United States,” he said. “If we truly want to help protect the people of Syria, we must also be willing to offer the Syrians assistance as they flee attacks in search of safety.”

Although this is the first time that the United States has directly targeted Bashar Al-Assad’s government, airstrike monitoring project Airwars reports that there have been 7912 US-led coalition strikes targeting the so-called Islamic State since 2014. Airwars has also reported a spike in civilian casualties related to coalition air strikes in March 2017, rating 477 civilian casualties reports as ‘fair’.

However Airwars also reported that the U.S. strike on Shayrat Airfield in Homs in the early hours of Friday 7 April destroyed “up to 12 aircraft” describing this result as “significant” considering that “the primary cause of civilian deaths by (the) Syrian regime remains airstrikes.”

Earlier this week spokesmen for the UN Secretary-General Stéphane Dujarric said that the Secretary-General was “deeply disturbed by the reports of alleged use of chemical weapons in an airstrike in the Khan Shaykhun area of southern Idlib, Syria.”

“The Secretary-General expresses his heartfelt condolences to victims of the incident and their families.”

Guterres had not yet commented on the U.S. airstrike against the Syrian government as of Friday evening.

Almost five million people have fled Syria since the conflict began over six years ago. Many areas of Syria are besieged and inaccessible to humanitarian assistance as well as UN monitors. This makes it difficult for the UN to monitor attacks such as the alleged chemical weapons attack which took place this week. This is also why the UN no longer provides an official death toll for the conflict, however in April 2016, UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura said that it is likely more than 400,000 people had been killed.