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Leave No One Behind: The Right to Development

5 December 2016 - 11:23am

Children pick through garbage in the FATA region of Pakistan. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

By Rose Delaney
ROME, Dec 5 2016 (IPS)

As Human Rights Day approaches Dec. 10, it offers a moment to pause and look back at the roots of the global development process as a platform for stepping forward. On this day 30 years ago, the international community made a commitment to eliminate all obstacles to equality and inclusivity.

Dec. 4, 1986 marks the date the United Nations General Assembly officially adopted the Declaration on the Right to Development, a landmark text which describes development as an “inalienable human right”.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights encourages all stakeholders to “approach the 30th anniversary of the Declaration with a sense of urgency.”

“The 30th anniversary of the Declaration on the Right to Development must remind us that marginalized people – including migrants, indigenous peoples, and other minorities, as well as persons with disabilities – have a right to development, and that the true purpose of any economic endeavor is to improve the well-being of people.”

The groundbreaking 1986 declaration called for the establishment of inclusive global societies wherein the elimination of all forms of discrimination would be implemented to ensure sustainability. Developing countries in the Global South perceived to be “lagging behind” would be restored through the “international cooperation” advocated by the text.

The declaration stressed the importance of active and meaningful participation in the development process, even by those traditionally silenced and stigmatized by society. The marginalized poor were encouraged to speak out in the name of their rights. The emphasis on inclusivity highlighted the importance of non-discrimination and equal opportunity in the development process.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development includes, in its consensus, the right to development. The main objectives of the 1986 declaration are also reflected in both SDG16 for the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies in addition to SDG17 which calls for the strengthening of global partnerships.

Undoubtedly, as we approach the 30th anniversary of the 1986 declaration, there are several significant achievements to reflect on, most notably the reduction of more than half of the population of people living in extreme poverty and in conditions of undernourishment in developing regions. In addition, the adoption of the declaration also resulted in improved access to clean drinking water and a much-needed increase in official development assistance.

However, despite significant progress, poverty and inequality persist. According to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, world wealth remains unevenly distributed. Over 700 million people still live on the equivalent of less than two dollars per day. The limited access to healthcare, higher education and employment suffered by vulnerable segments of society runs the risk of pushing 100 million more into poverty by 2030, according to the World Bank.

Increased inequality and injustice in the developing world indicate the shortcomings of the 1986 declaration. An ongoing debate circles around its ineffectiveness, with many arguing that there is a lack of clear, coherent guidelines and thus far, it cannot be recognized as a legally binding instrument.

Differing interpretations of the declaration have also resulted in the absence of clear-cut solutions to critical development problems. While the United Nations Development Programme claims that any action, in order to be developmental, must be human rights-based, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action in addition to the UN 2030 agenda state that the right to development calls not only for enforcing action at the domestic level, but also for enabling action at the international level.

Both states and individuals share an equal responsibility to contribute to the creation and maintenance of a peaceful and inclusive global society.

Although the 1986 declaration was at first celebrated and welcomed by the international community, in recent years it has received less support from developing countries.  Rising inequality, limited economic opportunity and lack of access to basic services have led to lost faith in its true effectiveness.

Recently, a promising step forward was made for the development agenda, especially to tackle the past “ineffectiveness” of the right to development, when the Human Rights Council Resolution 33/L.29 was adopted at the council’s 33rd session this September.

The resolution stressed the need to need to operationalize the Right to Development as a priority and called for the elaboration of a legally binding international instrument on the Right to Development in addition to the formation of a Special Rapporteur mandate devoted to the issue.

The council’s resolution – although welcomed by countries in the Global South – was met with extreme reluctance by developed countries, whose delegates claimed the resolution unnecessarily duplicated the work of other mechanisms already put in place.

On Dec. 5, The Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and the Permanent Mission of the Government of Azerbaijan hosted a panel discussion on the rising debates surrounding the right to development in 2016. The core objective was to of emphasize the importance of granting a voice to the voiceless and most importantly, and the necessity of global solidarity as a means of eradicating underdevelopment.

The approach undertaken by the Geneva Centre and the government of Azerbaijan places civil society at the heart of the development process, as defined 30 years ago, in the 1986 declaration. The power of interconnected global communities knows no bounds, especially to build bridges between the developed and developing world, and ultimately, eliminate persistent North-South divides.

Ambassador Idriss Jazairy, Executive Director and moderator of the panel discussion, emphasized the importance of global solidarity in age of ongoing violence, corruption, economic crises, and most notably, mass displacement, the world over.

In his opening remarks, Ambsaddor Jazairy discussed the revitalization of a peaceful international community and called for the inclusion of the 1986 Declaration  in the International Bill of Human Rights.

“Development is a human and a peoples’ right. The individual is entitled to have the means to thrive professionally, and peoples have the right to break the chains of subordination to an unjust global order,” he said.

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Transgender Health

5 December 2016 - 11:14am

By Fawad Ali Shah
Dec 5 2016 (Dawn, Pakistan)

Two cases this year — that of a transgender person dying in a Peshawar hospital as healthcare providers deliberated over which ward to put her in; and of another who, after being diagnosed as HIV positive, was forced to live near a garbage dump until she died — highlight the insensitivity that prevails towards this marginalised community.

Exact numbers for Pakistan’s transgender population are not known. Media estimates range between 80,000 to 500,000, but this figures lack credibility given that the last national census was conducted in 1998 and did not account for a third gender.

While many civil society organisations have recently organised seminars and protests for the security of transgenders, they ignored the most important thing this community needs: access to healthcare.

Healthcare is a universal right, but across the world — particularly in Pakistan — transgender persons face barriers in accessing it. Nor am I referring exclusively to hormone and transition-related care; many face tremendous barriers when trying to access the healthcare system for common illnesses and injuries. In recent conversations with members of this community, they revealed that they often don’t access hospital services to avoid ridicule and discrimination.

The transgender community in Pakistan is underserved. They can’t access the education system; they can’t have regular jobs like those who identify themselves as either male or female. Their livelihoods often depend on dancing at weddings or as sex workers in the absence of other opportunities. Once they are over 45, many turn to begging. Due to the nature of their occupation, they are at high risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases. The government, unfortunately, has ignored their plight.

The government has ignored the plight of this community.

The barriers to accessing healthcare are multilayered. Discrimination from medical staff is the biggest hurdle. The recent case in Peshawar should have been a catalyst for improving transgenders’ healthcare access, but few took that incident seriously. The transgender person was shot eight times. She lay on a stretcher. However, instead of arranging for emergency treatment, the hospital staff passed derogatory remarks and allegedly even propositioned sex to her and her friends. She eventually died.

While the case received media attention, even that did not galvanise the healthcare sector into making the necessary changes for the transgender community. There are thousands of others like her.

Then we witnessed another side to the problem. Diagnosed HIV positive, a transgender person was evicted from her residence by her colleagues and friends. Her plight threw light on another type of barrier: lack of knowledge within the community. HIV/AIDS is a taboo issue, and while no one wants to be infected certain professions increase the risks of contracting it.

Even though the entire community is vulnerable to this, they deserted a friend who contracted it. It shows the lack of knowledge and empathy towards peers. Had they known that HIV is not contagious like the flu, and that their support could have helped increase her lifespan, they might have opted to help. Had they known that there are specialised HIV treatment centres, they might have saved her life by getting her the healthcare she needed.

It will take decades to change societal attitudes towards transgender people. However, the government must take some short-term steps to ensure that they can access healthcare with confidence.

This requires a two-pronged strategy. The first step is administrative. The government needs to create ‘safe zones’ in hospitals for transgender people, places they can easily access without feeling discriminated against. The government should provide them free healthcare, and initiate out¬¬reach programmes for free HIV and hepatitis testing. It must also pass laws to punish those who ridicule them or discri¬minate against them.

The second step should involving giving information and raising awareness about transgender persons, both outside and within the community. Doctors and nurses must undergo courses to sensitise them to transgender rights to ensure that they are well equipped to treat transgender patients while respecting their gender identity.

Hospitals should provide introductory short courses about the anatomy and unique medical needs of transgender people. The government and NGOs should collaborate on community-based projects for raising awareness on safe sex and sexually transmitted diseases, and transgender persons should be provided resources to help them access healthcare in case they note any symptoms of HIV.

The most important steps towards improving access to healthcare for the transgender community lies in the acknowledgment of its members as a third gender in the yet to be conducted census. The inclusion of transgenders in the survey will enable policymakers to better assess the healthcare needs of this marginalised community.

The writer is a PhD scholar specialising in health communications.
fawad.jmc@gmail.com
Twitter: @mianfawadshah
Published in Dawn December 4th, 2016

This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan

Rethinking trade policy and protectionism in the Trump era

5 December 2016 - 10:58am

Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Martin Khor
PENANG, Dec 5 2016 (IPS)

What kind of trade policy will the United States have under President Donald Trump? This is a hot issue, as Trump has made unorthodox pronouncements on trade issues during and after the election campaign. If he acts on even some of the positions he took, it will create a sea change in trade policy in the US and possibly the world.

Trump has recently emphasised that he will take the US out of the Trans Pacific Partnership  Agreement (TPPA) on his first day of office, and renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

He called them a disaster for the US.   He was probably referring to the claim that many of manufacturing jobs lost in the US in recent years were due to free trade agreements (FTAs) and the overseas relocation of US companies.  He is also probably blaming trade agreements for the US’ huge trade deficits.

Most economists however have a different view.  They attribute US job losses mainly to technological change.

There are legitimate fears that Trump’s “Put America First” slogan, when applied to trade, will lead to an increase in trade protectionism.

Trump has threatened to raise tariffs on products from China and Mexico by as much as 45%.   Trump in his campaign accused China of being a “currency manipulator”.    If a country is so labelled by the Treasury Department it could be grounds under US law to slap extra tariffs on its products.

President Obama came under pressure from many Congress members and economists to do just that, but he smartly resisted as he realised it would trigger a very nasty trade war with China.

Martin Khor. Credit: Nic Paget-Clarke

It is possible Trump will also climb down from this populist stance once he is President.  For a start, China’s currency is not under-valued and currently its government is trying to prevent (not encourage) its currency from further sliding.

Secondly, taking trade action against China on currency grounds would be against the rules of WTO, and China should be able to successfully take a WTO case against the US for any such action.

Finally, China has warned it will retaliate if the US were to take protectionist actions.  An article in the Beijing-based Global Times spelled out how the  country would cancel its orders of Boeing aircraft, restrict US auto and I-phone sales in China and halt US soybean and maize imports, while a number of US industries would be impaired.

But if an across-the-board tariff hike is out of the question, the Trump administration is likely to consider taking more trade-remedy action on a range of products from China and other countries by claiming they are being dumped or unfairly subsidised.

There are loopholes in the WTO rules on trade remedies which have made these a favourite protectionist tool.  A country can slap on high tariffs against an imported good from another country by claiming its price is artificially low because it has been “dumped” (exported at a price lower than the domestic price) or unfairly subsidised by the state.

But if the exporting country complains and a WTO panel rules that the actions were wrongly taken, there is no penalty imposed against the offending country which is only asked to lift the tariff.  Meanwhile the aggrieved country has lost many years of export earnings.  Moreover, the same actions can again be taken against the same country, thus perpetuating the protection.

We may see a rise in such trade-remedy actions under President Trump, especially if he is counselled against taking the more blatant route of imposing an all-out tariff wall.

But we can also expect tit-for-tat counter-action of the same type by the affected countries, in a global spiral of protectionism.  That will be in nobody’s interest.

The new Trump presidency is also expected to usher in a major change in how the US (and eventually many other countries) will perceive free trade agreements.   Trump’s objection to the TTPA and NAFTA seems to be based on the issue of goods trade, that the template of these agreements seems to favour the exports of the partner countries at the expense of the US.

Trump said he would instead “negotiate fair bilateral deals that bring jobs and industry back.”  This appears to be neo-mercantilist and against the free-trade principle, but it is this kind of “America-first” populism that helped propel him to power.

If the new US policy moves in this direction, what is to prevent other countries from doing likewise?   “Free trade” or “fair trade” will be interpreted by each country in ways that favour it, and many of the present rules will have to be set aside.

However the FTAs are much more than trade, and they became unpopular with the public in the US and elsewhere not only because of the threat of cheap imports taking over the market of local producers, but also because of the non-trade issues that are embedded in most recent FTAs, including FTAs between developed countries, and those between developed and developing countries.

If the new US policy moves in this direction, what is to prevent other countries from doing likewise? “Free trade” or “fair trade” will be interpreted by each country in ways that favour it, and many of the present rules will have to be set aside.


One of these issues include investment rules aimed at liberalising foreign investment and financial flows, with an especially controversial section that gives rights to foreign investors to take cases and make claims against the host government in an international tribunal.

Another issue is the strengthening of intellectual property rules that favour multinational companies at the expense of local consumers.  A most unpopular effect is a tremendous rise in the cost of some patented medicines through the additional curbing of competition from cheaper generic drugs.

Other issues include the opening up government procurement to foreign firms on a national-treatment basis, thus reducing the share of local businesses in this huge sector;  the liberalisation of the services sectors, which for some countries may affect the cost of basic services that are normally performed by the public sector;  and, in the most recent FTAs, the establishment of new rules overseeing the policies and behaviour of state-owned enterprises.

The structure of this kind of North-South FTAs is mainly unfavourable to developing countries in general.  While a developing country can get some benefits on the trade component through better market access to the developed country, the non-trade issues are usually against their interests as the developed countries are far stronger and have the upper hand in the areas of investment, intellectual property, services and procurement.

However, civil society groups in the developed countries also find the non-trade issues against the public interest.  For example, the investor-state dispute system undermines the ability of these countries to set their own environmental or health policies, and the tighter intellectual property rules impede access to medicines and knowledge in these advanced countries as well.

Through the recent FTAs, sensitive areas and issues that were previously under the purview of the national government are now subjected to new and intrusive rules that cramp the space that countries (whether in the South or North) normally have to set their own policies.

Both the trade and non-trade issues have made the “trade agreements” highly controversial.  Civil society groups in developing countries have been expressing their concerns that the public interest and national sovereignty are being undermined.

At the same time, the public in developed countries, including in the US, Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, have become disillusioned and even outraged by the effects of the FTAs their governments signed or proposed.

The anti-FTA movement became so strong in the US that it helped boost the unexpectedly good showing by Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries, pressurised Hillary Clinton to pledge her  opposition to the TPP, and enabled Trump to ride on and add to the “anti-trade” emotions in his  campaign.

The heightened focus on trade policy during and after the US elections is a good time to review what works and what does not work for the public interest in trade agreements.

It is becoming clear that trade agreements have become overloaded with many issues that do not  belong to an agreement originally designed for trade in goods.

For example, there is a history and logic to the “non-discrimination” and “national treatment” principles established for trade in goods among countries, and even then there is a debate on the conditions under which the  application of these principles bring about mutual benefits  in trade.

The same principles and template are often inappropriate when applied to non-trade issues for which they were not designed.  Creating rules based on these principles and including them in trade agreements can lead to imbalances and unequal outcomes among the partners, and even adverse consequences for all the partners.

However in recent years the scope of trade agreements has grown to include more and more issues, to which the original trade principles have been applied, leading to more and more contention and unpopularity.

The overloaded agenda in FTAs gives trade a bad name, with people being confused between trade, trade policy and trade agreements.  Many people who are disgruntled with trade agreements also become unhappy with trade per se, and the benefits that trade can bring get mixed up with and overwhelmed by the contentious non-trade issues, and trade ends up being condemned as well.

It is important, at this moment of an imminent Trump presidency, to clarify the difference between trade and trade agreements, and to review the whole issue of trade policy.

A good outcome would be to design new agreements that are mutually beneficial in the trade aspect to all partners, whilst removing the controversial non-trade issues from the agenda.   And this could be part of a broader pro-development trade agenda.

But this is not likely to be the new agreements being envisaged by the Trump team. The danger is that these may be even worse than the existing ones.

We risk entering a new era where the US, and maybe some other developed countries as well,  are tempted to promote extreme trade protectionism, whilst retaining or expanding the unpopular non-trade issues in the trade agenda because it is in the interest of their corporations.

We might end up with a new type of “America first” agreements, in which a Trump administration  ensures that the US can curb imports whilst championing its exports, thus reducing the trade benefits to its  partners;  while at  the same time strengthening the rules in non-trade issues like intellectual property and liberalising financial services that favour US corporations but are against the partners’ interests.

That would be the worst of both worlds, at least for developing countries.

It is thus crucial for policy makers and thinkers in developing countries  to rethink what kind of trade is good for their economies, what kind of trade policy would correspond to that positive trade performance, and what kind of trade agreements would be good to have and which types should be avoided.

It is also time to rethink the role of the World Trade Organisation and reaffirm the priority of developing a balanced and pro-development multilateral trading system.  If (and that is a big if) the WTO could evolve into such an ideal system, there would be no need or less need for bilateral trade agreements.

 

A Deterrent to Regional Development

5 December 2016 - 10:56am

By Fahmida Khatun
Dec 5 2016 (The Daily Star, Bangladesh)

Following the end of almost fifty years of military rule in Myanmar and the release of the Nobel Laureate leader Aung San Suu Kyi in 2011, the world had looked at the country with much enthusiasm. The quasi-civilian new government brought some hope for the country to return to democracy as well as economic progress. Even with rich natural resources including land, forests, minerals, oil and gas, the country remained poor and could achieve a per capita income of only USD 1,197 in 2011. So once freed from the military regime, with a view to modernise its economy, Myanmar embraced economic openness and initiated reforms in areas such as currency exchange rates, taxation, foreign investment laws and anti-corruption. Several countries, including those which isolated the nation through economic sanctions such as the US and the European Union, saw opportunities to rebuild economic ties with Myanmar. Political leaders from the US, Europe, Japan, Australia, China, India, Thailand, Bangladesh and many other countries flew in, investors rushed and businessmen flocked into the country to explore its untapped resources. International endorsements revived the country’s confidence and growth prospects. Its GDP grew by more than 7 percent in the last couple of years.

The victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in the election of November 2015 was considered to be another step towards re-establishment of the democratic process in the country. Unfortunately, this has not changed the political ideology of the country when it comes to dealing with the Rohingya minority. Suu Kyi’s upper hand in Myanmar’s politics has not changed the old image of a nation violent against the Rohingya population. In recent times, the unspeakable atrocities against the Rohingya population in the Rakhine state by the security forces of Myanmar have reinforced this image. Shockingly, while the world watches with horror as Myanmar’s army shoot innocent people, burn their houses and abuse women and children, Suu Kyi, the icon of democracy and human rights remains a quiet spectator of this brutality.

The Muslim Rohingya population has long been marginalsied. They are the poorest community of Myanmar, with little or no health, education and other basic facilities. They are a stateless ethnic minority, as they are not even recognised officially. They are denied citizenship, even though they were born and have been living in Myanmar for generations. Tellingly, some Buddhist monks, who are generally perceived to be non-violent and do not support killing, also take part in this abuse of the Rohingyas. Had such a crime been committed by a majority Muslim community, they would have been immediately branded ‘terrorists’ or human rights abusers, and taken to task by the international community. The cruelty of Buddhist monks only reiterates that extremism has nothing to do with religion. It can take root in anyone with an extreme sense of nationalism and intolerance.

Bangladesh has a 193-kilometres long border with Myanmar. Being its next door neighbour, Bangladesh bears the brunt of Myanmar’s brutality against Rohingyas. Thousands of Rohingyas have already entered Bangladesh. Several thousand others are waiting to cross to this side. From a humanitarian point of view, we cannot close our border. But Bangladesh itself is a poor and populous country with limited capacity. It requires both financial and managerial capacity to deal with the pressure of such large inflows of Rohingya refugees. Repatriation of these refugees will require political and economic efforts. There are security issues as well.

From 1978-79 and 1992-94, Bangladesh had to deal with a similar situation. And the flow of Rohingyas into Bangladesh and their illegal residence here has continued. Desperation has led them to disguise their identity. Several Burmese are working in Saudi Arabia as Bangladeshi labourers, and thus Bangladesh runs the risk of being liable for any unwanted acts of those migrants.

Myanmar should not take Bangladesh’s magnanimity for granted, and continue to push Rohingyas here. If Myanmar wants to prosper and be part of regional and sub-regional initiatives, it has to change its perspective and make place for all its ethnic groups and treat them equally.

Bangladesh is also connected with Myanmar through various sub-regional cooperation initiatives. These include the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) launched in 1997, and the Bangladesh, China, India, and Myanmar (BCIM) Economic Corridor initiative launched in 1999. Both these initiatives have high potential for economic advancement in the region through greater market access for goods and services, investment in infrastructure development, energy cooperation and higher connectivity. The BIMSTEC region has a GDP of about USD 2.7 trillion and a population size of around 3.1 billion. The BCIM sub-region, with a population of about 2.8 billion, has potential for intra-regional trade equivalent to USD 125 billion.

Till now, none of these initiatives have taken off in a meaningful way due to lack of political commitment. With political relationships getting worse due to violence against Rohingyas, there is little hope of an improved situation. After all, regional economic cooperation cannot take place in a void. Peace and security are preconditions for regional success. Two giant Asian economies, India and China, have active interest in both Bangladesh and Myanmar. It is time for them to play their role to uphold the spirit of humanity. For decades, Myanmar has either ignored or refused to sign various international treaties that protect human rights, such as the United Nations Convention against Torture, and thus, it has found a convenient excuse to get away with such humanitarian crimes. It is also therefore time for the international community to take actions to stop such barbarism against innocent Rohingyas.

The writer is Research Director at the Centre for Policy Dialogue.

This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh

Trump Needs Lessons in Geopolitics : Musharraf

5 December 2016 - 4:28am

By David White
LONDON, Dec 5 2016 (IPS)

US President-elect Donald Trump has shown he has much to learn about South Asia,
Pakistan’s former President Pervez Musharraf said in an interview with IPS. But he counted on Trump having an open mind.

Pervez Musharraf

Musharraf was commenting on statements made by Trump in a radio talk show during his presidential campaign in September, when he described India as being “the check to Pakistan”.

“I think that these statements do cause worry,” Musharraf said. However, he thought that Trump had a “fresh” and “uninitiated” mind on the subject..

“He maybe lacks full understanding of international issues and regional geostrategic issues here, confronting us,” Musharraf said. “But he has an open mind, he can learn, he can be told, he can be briefed.”Musharraf said America’s “War on Terror”, declared in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, had been “to an extent successful” in military terms. But he added: “Wherever military victory takes place it has to be converted into a political victory, and I personally feel that is where the United States fails.”

He added a warning that pro-India US policy might force Pakistan to rely more heavily on its already extensive ties with China. “I think Donald Trump must understand you are no longer in a unipolar world, so countries will have choice to shift towards other poles. So don’t do that,” he urged, making clear that by “other poles” he was referring to China and Russia.

Failure to move towards a détente between Pakistan and India was another factor that might force Pakistan more into China’s zone of influence, Musharraf said. But he added: “It is not in Pakistan’s interest to be in the orbit of any one force.”

He emphasised Pakistan’s deep linkages with the US and other western countries and its reliance on them as export markets. “We can’t switch trade to China, and that would be a very foolish policy and strategy,” he said. However, China’s support and economic presence put Pakistan in a difficult situation of needing to balance its relations.

“Pakistan has a relationship with China. The United States should not mind it,” Musharraf said.

Commenting on other remarks made by Trump during his campaign – suggesting that it might be better if Japan, South Korea and possibly Saudi Arabia had their own nuclear weapons – Musharraf rejected the idea of Pakistan supplying the Saudis with a nuclear capability.

“We won’t do that. Once bitten, many times shy, I think. We were proliferators once. I think we’ve learnt. And this is not a mere trade of industrial goods,” Musharraf said. “I think this is too serious a matter. We can’t do that.”

Musharraf said America’s “War on Terror”, declared in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, had been “to an extent successful” in military terms. But he added: “Wherever military victory takes place it has to be converted into a political victory, and I personally feel that is where the United States fails.”

The United Nations Volunteer: From Global To Local

5 December 2016 - 4:04am

George Gachie, Kenya National UN Volunteer shares a moment with school children in Kibera slums, the community where he is leading a Participatory Slum Upgrading Project for UN-Habitat. Photo Credit; UNDP Kenya

By Siddharth Chatterjee
NAIROBI, Kenya, Dec 5 2016 (IPS)

Today 05 December is International Volunteer Day, and every year we recognize the invaluable contributions of volunteers to peace and development.

Consider this. George Gachie has been serving as a national United Nations Volunteer (UNV) with UN-Habitat for over three years. He grew up in the Kibera Slums – a challenging environment, where young people have very few opportunities and early pregnancy, school dropout, organized gangs, crime, diseases and drug abuse are common. In order to make it out of this situation one had to be smart. But as George himself put it during a recent UNV Blue-Room Talks event in Nairobi, ‘I am happy because it is volunteerism that got me out of the situation’.

In an acknowledgement of the expected role of the youth in delivering on the Sustainable Development Goals, volunteerism has now been recognized as a key driver in the development space. For Kenya, this is particularly apt given the large number of youth graduating every year but who find only limited employment opportunities.

Volunteerism is offering not only a chance to contribute to social development and a sense of self-worth, it also provides them with priceless lessons that sets them up for entering the job market and setting a foundation for their career.

The United Nations Volunteer programme has for many years delivered social services across a range of sectors. Today, the UNV Kenya programme remains one of largest UNV operations in the world, with 148 national and 47 International serving UN Volunteers. Kenya also contributes the largest number of UN Volunteers serving abroad, a testimony to the country’s commitment to humanitarian action and development.

Studies show that engaging in volunteerism from a young age helps people take their first steps towards long-term involvement in development. It is thus a perfect avenue to address the oft-repeated lament by corporate employers that the education system does not prepare students for the job market.

In that sense, volunteering is not just a way to get more numbers to ‘get the job done’, but a transformative opportunity for people from all walks of life, and a two-way exchange between the volunteer and the people they work with. By creating a sense of cohesion, reciprocity and solidarity within society, volunteering builds social capital, because it converts individual action into collective response directed towards a social end.

Volunteering also makes a significant economic contribution globally. It’s generally estimated that volunteers contribute an average of $400 billion to the global economy annually.

UNDP’s Administrator Ms Helen Clark has spoken about “ the tremendous impact UN Volunteers are making within the UN system. In implementing the SDGs, UNDP will continue to see volunteers as catalysts for change who amplify citizens’ voices and facilitate participation so that development can be truly people-centred”.

The impact of a volunteerism programme must be felt at the local level by building the capacity of people, including the marginalized, and should make the governance process more participatory and inclusive.

UNV has a strong track record of getting development results. In Kenya, UNV supported a neighborhood volunteer scheme to help ensure peaceful elections in 2013.

UN volunteers, including data analysts, planners, legal assistants and communication experts are deployed in 35 out of the 47 counties in the country, bringing critical capacity to the devolution process in Kenya.

In addition, 25 national and international UN Volunteers are engaged to support the humanitarian challenges on refugees in the country and well over 50 volunteers support operations of the United Nations Environment Program at its headquarters in Nairobi.

Having seen the contribution of volunteers, we can confidently vouch for community-based volunteering structures in all counties, to not only provide gainful occupation for Kenya’s youth, but to give them greater voice and participation in decision-making.

On the occasion of this year’s International Volunteer Day, the UN is committed to working with the Kenyan Government to integrate the concepts of volunteerism into development programming.

This can be done through various modalities, including facilitating volunteer schemes that target the contributions or integration of particular groups. Another area that holds great potential in advancing the course of volunteerism includes documentation of the various dimensions of volunteer involvement including its impacts on marginalized groups.

Volunteerism can be a powerful wind in our sails as we seek to achieve the SDGs and advance human development in Kenya.

G77 Reiterates Call for IMF Reforms & Equitable Voting Power

4 December 2016 - 4:56pm

By an IPS Correspondent
UNITED NATIONS, Dec 4 2016 (IPS/G77)

The Group of 77 joined by China have reiterated their call for the full implementation of the 2010 International Monetary Fund (IMF) Quota and Governance Reforms.

Speaking on behalf of the Group of 77, the Thai delegate told the UN’s Economic and Financial Committee that a new quota formula was needed that further shifted quota shares to dynamic emerging market and developing countries while protecting the quota share of the poorest countries.

The delegate said it was also important to achieve equitable voting power between developing and transition countries and developed nations– while protecting the smallest poor countries.

Unlike the UN General Assembly, where each country has one vote, decision making at the IMF was designed to reflect the relative positions of its member countries in the global economy, according to the IMF.

The Group of 77 has called for a reform of the existing system.

Meanwhile, surveying the state of the world economy, the Thai delegate said the world continued to face challenges which undermine the implementation of the UN’s 2030 development agenda.

These challenges include weakness in global recovery, sharp decline of commodity exports, financial market volatility, high unemployment rates and rising private and public debt burdens.

The Thai delegate also pointed out that financing for development (FfD) was an integral part in supporting and complementing the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.

To that end, she said, North-South cooperation was still the main channel of financing for development. It was important for providers of Official Development Assistance (ODA) to meet their commitments.

She stressed the need to continue to broaden and strengthen the voice and participation of developing countries in international economic decision-making and norm-setting.

Debt had a severe impact, especially on the heavily indebted poor countries. Long-term debt sustainability through coordinated policies with respect to fostering debt financing, debt relief, debt restructuring and sound debt management were most relevant, she declared.

G77 Introduces 13 Draft Resolutions on the UN’s Development Agenda

4 December 2016 - 4:44pm

By an IPS Correspondent
UNITED NATIONS, Dec 4 2016 (IPS/G77)

The Group of 77 introduced 13 draft resolutions at the current sessions of the UN’s Economic and Financial Committee.

The resolutions, introduced by the Thai delegate, covered a wide range of socio-economic issues on the UN agenda, including the protection of global climate for present and future generations of mankind and ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.

Additionally, the Group introduced a resolution on the “Implementation of Agenda 21, the Programme for the Further Implementation of Agenda 21 and the outcomes of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development”, and sought to recognize and account for the ongoing commitments and mandates being implemented towards the achievement of sustainable development as a concept.

The purpose of the resolution was not meant to detract from the primacy of the 2030 Agenda, but instead to focus on the complementary work being done, the Thai delegate said.

Other resolutions included: “Disaster Risk Reduction” which sought to ensure the implementation of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 and “Effective global response to address the impacts of the El Niño phenomenon” noting that the 2015-2016 phenomenon was the third strongest on record and affected more than 60 million people, particularly in developing countries.

The resolution put great emphasis on the common interest of nations to transcend the humanitarian assistance approach towards a multidisciplinary and articulated development-based response.

Also tabled was a resolution on “Implementing of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in Those Countries Experiencing Serious Drought and/or Desertification, Particularly in Africa”, which emphasized the commitment to combating desertification in the 2030 Agenda and a resolution on “Convention on Biological Diversity” (A/C.2/71/L.7) reflecting the relevant recommendations in the Secretary-General’s report.

Additionally, the Group introduced a resolution on the “Report of the United Nations Environment Assembly of the United Nations Environment Programme” described as a biennial resolution borrowed largely from the last one adopted in 2014.

Other resolutions include the following: “Oil Slick on Lebanese Shores,” a roll-over from last year’s resolution which reflected the conclusions of the Secretary-General’s report on the matter, plus “Combating sand and dust storms” emphasizing the role of the UN system in advancing international cooperation to combat sand and dust storms, and inviting all relevant bodies, agencies, funds and programmes of the United Nations system, including the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), UN Development Programme (UNDP), UN Convention to Combat Desertification, the World Meteorological Organization and all other related organizations to integrate measures to that effect.

The Group also tabled two other resolutions: “Towards the sustainable development of the Caribbean Sea for present and future generations.” This was a biannual resolution that called on the international community to continue to support that important regional initiative, including through the provision of finance, technological support and capacity-building, and a “Follow up to and implementation of the SIDS [small island developing State] Accelerated Modalities of Action (SAMOA) Pathway and the Mauritius Strategy for the Further Implementation of the Programme of Action for the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States” took stock of the progress made on the implementation of commitments made in the Samoa Pathway, and called for a mid-term review.

The other draft resolutions included: “Harmony with Nature,” which welcomed the Agreement with Bolivia and the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs to contribute to the earmarked activity related to Harmony with Nature; requested the President of the General Assembly to hold an interactive dialogue to discuss the recommendations of the expert’s summary report; and invited States to consider, as appropriate, the findings and recommendations of the reports of the Secretary-General on Harmony with Nature and the experts’ summary report.

Pakistan and India Unlikely to Move to All-out War: Musharraf

3 December 2016 - 6:53am

By David White
LONDON, Dec 3 2016 (IPS)

High levels of both conventional and nuclear deterrence are likely to prevent the recent surge in clashes between India and Pakistan from escalating into all-out war, according to Pakistan’s former president and army chief Pervez Musharraf.

Pervez Musharraf

In an exclusive interview with IPS in London, Musharraf predicted that low-intensity conflict would continue in disputed border areas. But he did not share the belief of many Pakistanis that hostilities could slide into full-scale war between the two nuclear-armed countries.

“Any military commander knows the force levels being maintained by either side,” he said. “I don’t think war is a possibility because the lethality and accuracy of weapons has increased so much.”

Although Pakistan has reserved the right to make a nuclear first strike, he said it had sufficient controls to ensure that its nuclear weapons, including new short-range tactical missiles, were not used accidentally or stolen by terrorist groups. “They are in good hands, in secure hands.” he said.

“Thank God, the level of conventional deterrence that we have in terms of weapons and manpower is enough to deter conventional war. So therefore I’m reasonably sure that in case of a war it is the conventional side which will be played and we will not go on to the unconventional.”

The 73-yeasr-old Musharraf made his comments during a wide-ranging discussion at his London home, in which he set out plans for a return to front-line politics in Pakistan. He said he might have reacted “more strongly” in recent clashes than the Pakistani authorities had done.Although Pakistan has reserved the right to make a nuclear first strike, he said it had sufficient controls to ensure that its nuclear weapons, including new short-range tactical missiles, were not used accidentally or stolen by terrorist groups. “They are in good hands, in secure hands.” he said.

The two countries had previously made progress on territorial disputes including in Kashmir. But India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi , who won power in 2014, was “on a collision course” with Pakistan that precluded a peaceful resolution, he said.

Musharraf also issued a strong warning about the threat to Pakistan coming from sectarian conflicts in the Middle East, saying it would be “extremely dangerous” for Pakistan to get dragged into the war in Yemen alongside its long-standing Saudi allies.

Pakistan was initially named by Saudi Arabia as part of a 34-nation coalition but held back from participating in the Saudi-led campaign supporting Yemen’s exiled government against Houthi Shia rebels.

Pakistan, with Iran as its neighbour, should not be taking sides, he warned. “We cannot do something which arouses internal conflict within Pakistan.”

The vexed question of terrorist “safe havens”, which Pakistan has been accused of providing near the border with Afghanistan, had to be addressed by both sides, Musharraf insisted. “Why is it Pakistan’s responsibility to control movement across the border?” he asked, arguing that terrorists were also being harboured in Afghanistan.

He had warm words, however, for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, describing him as “definitely a good person”. This was despite the fact that efforts to build closer ties by training Afghan cadets in Pakistan had fizzled out.

His relationship with Ghani’s predecessor Hamid Karzai was more difficult. “I just didn’t like him,” Musharraf said, “because I think he was not a straight dealer.”

This is the second of three articles based on Musharraf’s interview with IPS.

Civil Society On Aleppo: UN General Assembly Must Act 

2 December 2016 - 5:40pm
Hundreds of civil society organisations from around the world have united to call on UN member states to step in and demand an end to unlawful attacks in Aleppo. A global coalition of 223 organisations from over 45 countries including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Physicians for Human Rights have expressed deep concern over the […]

Managing Diversity

2 December 2016 - 10:59am

By Faisal Bari
Dec 2 2016 (Dawn, Pakistan)

One hundred and seventy-odd children, four teachers, and two old and dingy rooms. We visited a government boy’s primary school in a village just outside Sargodha. The two rooms had been built quite some time back and were not really fit for classes. Most of the classes were held in the open with children sitting on the ground. The weather was pleasant at the time, but what must children go through in the summer or the height of winter?

Faisal Bari

Most children clearly came from very poor households: many did not have uniforms, proper clothing or even shoes. I could not spot a single overweight kid among the150-odd children that I could see — you would expect some in any sample of children. In fact, most of the kids were very thin, some looked emaciated and many appeared to have an unhealthy hair and skin tone. Some were clearly malnourished and stunted. Quite a few must have come to school without having had their breakfast.

But there was a silver lining. Even in these trying circumstances the four teachers were doing their best to educate these children. The system could help them more and the results could get even better.

Any group of children would have a certain diversity of abilities among them: some would be quick learners, others would take longer, some would be more coordinated than others, some would have a better memory, some would be good at physical activities, and so on. Teachers have to be not only aware of this, they have to make sure all children learn despite the diversity and, more importantly, they have to ensure that the diversity works to the advantage of the class they teach.

The coping mechanisms teachers offer in class cannot level the playing field for all students.

The diversity in children is not confined to ability differentials only. Household and community circumstances and differences also add to the diversity that children bring to classes and schools. Wealth and income level, level of parental education, gender of the child and occupation of the parents make a difference in shaping and determining what a child brings to class. A class in a rural area is likely to be quite different, in at least the background knowledge and preoccupations of children, than one in an urban area.

Household characteristics impact child ability issues at a deeper level too. If a child was not provided enough nutrition in the early years of her life, her mental or physical development might have been hampered by that deprivation. If a child is coming hungry to school, she is not likely to learn a lot in class. And our national level surveys are pointing out alarmingly high numbers for child malnutrition, even stunting.

Teachers have a responsibility to ensure all children in their class learn, and learn to the best of every child’s potential. But the job gets a lot harder if children are coming hungry to classes and/or are coming from more marginalised backgrounds.

One of our ongoing research projects is looking at the various forms of marginalisation that children encounter. Poverty, gender, geographic location and child health (including disability) are important in this regard. We are also looking at ways in which children, their families and teachers can cope with these challenges.

We find that teachers are not only aware of these challenges and issues of diversity, they, despite the constrained circumstances they work in, have some coping mechanisms for dealing with these issues. Teachers, on average, know the students who need extra help with their school work: in some schools we found that teachers had identified ‘slow learners’ in every class so that they could be singled out for extra attention. Giving extra time and/or attention to students who need help is the most common coping strategy. In some cases we found teachers experimenting with peer group mechanisms to ensure help for children with more challenges: classmates helping classmates through in-class interaction.

But, all these practices are happening at an individual teacher or school level. Student diversity is, as of now, not acknowledged as a concern by the education department and/or teacher-training department. Student diversity is a fact and we also know that given the economic and social circumstances of most Pakistanis, a large number of our children, especially in public schools, will come from marginalised backgrounds. We need to purposefully and explicitly train our teachers to deal with the needs of marginalised children.

Furthermore, teachers can only do so much to manage some issues of marginalisation. The coping mechanisms they offer in class or in school cannot level the playing field for all, nor can they address all concerns stemming from marginalisation issues.

Teachers cannot provide food to hungry children, and they cannot give uniforms and school supplies to children out of their pockets. Teachers cannot undo what malnutrition and deprivation in early childhood might have done to some of our children. For this, the government needs to step in with options like school-feeding programmes, cash-transfer programmes for poor families, nutrition programmes for young women of childbearing age, and early childhood programmes. If these are not offered, teacher efforts at ensuring that all children can learn, and explore their potential, will always be stymied.

Do we want all of our children to learn? Do we want education to level the playing field for all, give opportunities to all and allow each child to develop to his/her full potential? If so, a ‘same size fits all’ approach to managing classes and education will not do.

Children come from diverse backgrounds and bring a diversity of abilities to classes. This is especially the case for children coming from marginalised backgrounds. They need a lot more support and attention. Given the large number of children coming from such backgrounds, especially in government schools, the imperative to focus on both in-school and out-of-school interventions cannot be overemphasised.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.
Published in Dawn, December 2nd, 2016

This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan

Unleashing Africa’s Full Potential

2 December 2016 - 10:22am

Amb. Amina Mohamed is the Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs and a Kenya’s candidate for the position of Chairperson of the African Union Commission.

By Ambassador Amina Mohamed
NAIROBI, Kenya, Dec 2 2016 (IPS)

Africa is the cradle of mankind and home to the youngest population in the world. We have a historic opportunity to realize the full potential of our continent in sharing the prosperity we have earned, in enhancing economic growth and in promoting and entrenching democratic ideals.

Amb. Amina Mohamed

The African Union Commission (AUC) must provide leadership. I strongly believe we can drive an agenda that realizes a common vision of integration, cooperation, collaboration and committed leadership. These ideals of widely shared prosperity are aptly captured as envisaged in the African Union’s blueprint: Agenda 2063 – The Africa We Want.

This blueprint has a clear roadmap for implementation. One of the critical areas is by achieving synergy of member States through collaboration among the eight regional economic groupings and AU’s strategic partners.

Africa’s markets must communicate with each other to harness trade and investment. The infrastructure deficit stands as an impediment towards this objective. We must secure seamless connectivity through people-to-people interactions; ICT and knowledge transfer throughout the Continent. Hard infrastructure development should also be reinforced by more intra-Africa rail, road, air and water linkages.-

Mwalimu Julius Nyerere once said: “Together, we the people of Africa will be incomparably stronger internationally than we are now with our multiplicity of unviable states. It is no longer tenable to keep talking of our great potential. It is time to make the African Continent; felt, heard and respected on the global scene. For this to happen, Africa must take greater responsibility of financing its development and programmes. Such has been the agreement by our Finance and Planning Ministers since March 2015. Domestic resource mobilization is the assured strategic complement to foreign investment and official development assistance. Focused leadership at the AUC will guarantee that this decision is fully implemented.

In order to increase the financial resources available internally, industrialization and diversification remain pertinent. More specifically, we need to harness our blue economy and fast-track the mining industry.

Africa has to build the capacity of our youthful population. In 2015, African Youth aged 15 – 24 years accounted for 19 percent of the global youth population and projected to increase by 42 percent by 2030. This is a demographic dividend to Africa’s prosperity. Women must also be fully enabled to play an inclusive role in all spheres of Africa’s development. Tapping into African talent will be the hallmark of my tenure if I am honoured by member states and elected. The collective success to Agenda 2063 lies in creating an indomitable human force to resolve Africa’s challenges.

Every African citizen deserves a life of dignity free from harm, in order to promote social justice and the realization of their potential. I am optimistic that together we can continue to create a Continent that not only embodies our pride and dignity, but also the hub for peace and stability.

Africa must also make its cultural diversity a cause for celebration. Cultural exchange across the continent through education, travel and symposia. This will renew our Pan-African ideals especially among younger Africans.

Our continent has made significant strides in expanding access to education and better health care. In order to shelter our population from extreme want, we ought to explore skills diversification and universal health coverage.

Investing in value-addition through agro-processing will increase Africa’s global market share and attain collective food security and comparative advantage.

Going forward, we must remain in partnership with the rest of the world. Global challenges such as climate change will only be resolved through cooperation. However, Africa remains most vulnerable from effects of global warming. As such, we need to; take serious mitigation and adaptation measures, utilize indigenous knowledge to generate local shared solutions and build resilient communities in addition to our continued demands for climate justice.

Thus, united by the vision of an independent Africa working for better lives of all her people, it is now time for the AUC to foster the realization of Africa’s full potential through transformative leadership harnessed by the AUC Secretariat.

Fidel Castro: The Revolutionary Outlived His Revolution

2 December 2016 - 9:43am

By Mohammad Badrul Ahsan
Dec 2 2016 (The Daily Star, Bangladesh)

A tyrant to some and a liberator to others, Fidel Castro of Cuba died on November 25, a decade shy of a century. While his own countrymen stay divided on his legacy on two sides of the Straits of Florida, the revolutionary icon was a towering figure for the rest of the world. The cigar chomping, fatigues-clad, bearded man, who famously survived more than 600 assassination attempts, was the last stalwart defending communism to his last breath.

Che and Fidel. Photo: AFP

Eight years before Castro took power in 1959, French philosopher Albert Camus had differentiated a revolutionary from a rebel. He said that while the former kills men and principles in the process, the latter only kills men. When Fidel Castro ousted Fulgencio Batista from power, more than 5,000 lives were lost. And that bloodshed was justified to eliminate greed, corruption, despotism, and American hegemony. Critics complain that Castro’s principles were long dead after which he only killed men.

The man, whom the Cubans endearingly called Fidel or Elcomandante, remained an island of ideology unto himself in an island nation ensconced in a continent submerged in antithesis. He never openly renounced Communism, even though it kept his country almost frozen in time. He never changed his mind, even though his own life and his country were constantly targeted by imperialist plots, hatched not too far from the Cuba’s coast.

Fidel Castro’s Cuba survived like a fading picture in a shining frame. Any picture of Havana befuddles imagination. The stricken faces of its inhabitants against the background of shabby roads, houses and dinosaur cars conjure the image of a country that stands still in a time warp.

The frame around Cuba for more than a half-century was the charisma of Fidel Castro. The man and his country remained synonymous, and if one sifts through the archives, one will find that most of the news about Cuba has been news about Castro. It was Castro threatening the United States and the United States threatening Castro that made countless news headlines. It was Castro visiting foreign leaders and foreign leaders visiting Castro that appeared in most of those pictures.

Like Yaseer Arafat and Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro’s popularity was rooted in his appeal that transcended other considerations. The world seldom bothered to ask if he was right or wrong in the way he ruled Cuba. Teeming millions, who admired him across the world, were clueless how his own people suffered under his regime. Nobody questioned how it was justice to hand over power to his own brother!

The abiding mystery is how none of those diminished his aura that inspired many in the world. He remained a father figure for many politicians, athletes and writers, particularly in Latin America and Africa. Poor in quality assurance of the revolution in his own country, he marketed that product like an adept salesman. In the words of his friend Ernesto Che Guevara, he was the man who had made revolutions sexy.

It was Camus who also wrote that a rebel always rebels for freedom, whereas a revolutionary can suspend freedom in order to demand justice. One of the criticisms levelled against Fidel Castro is that he had turned into an autocrat himself, who killed his enemies, threw them in jail, and asked those who condemned his regime to leave the country. If every revolution devours its children, it also devours its ideas. It’s a matter of debate how much Castro adhered to the ideas that catapulted him to the world stage.

Poverty and unemployment persisted in Castro’s Cuba, but his health and education initiatives earned praise worldwide. Gun crime is virtually nonexistent and murder rates are below those of most Latin American countries. If Cuba under Castro didn’t make great strides towards improving the economic indicators, its social indicators didn’t slide much either.

Nobel Prize winning Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote on the eve of Castro’s 80th birthday that Castro’s attitude would seem to obey a private logic: he didn’t even admit his failure, and didn’t have a minute’s peace until he succeeded in inverting the terms and converting it into victory. Sadly, Castro made a cryptic confession in the end. He had once said that he would not shave his beard until Cuba had a good government. Pogonotrophic to the last day, he must have subliminally affirmed that in his subconscious mind he had accepted defeat.

Cuba will change now that the wizard and his spell are gone. Friends and enemies will debate over Fidel Castro’s legacy long after his ashes mix into the soil. But he will be remembered by the downtrodden, the oppressed and the deprived whenever they look for an icon to invoke courage. Because he was the last relic of a bygone era, when it was still honourable to fight against injustice and exploitation.

The writer is the Editor of the weekly First News and an opinion writer for The Daily Star.
Email: badrul151@yahoo.com

This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh

UN “Profoundly Sorry” for Haiti Cholera Outbreak

1 December 2016 - 7:53pm

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addresses the General Assembly during a briefing on the United Nations’ New Approach to Cholera in Haiti. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

By Tharanga Yakupitiyage
UNITED NATIONS, Dec 2 2016 (IPS)

For the first time, the United Nations issued a formal apology for their role in the cholera outbreak in Haiti and announced new steps to alleviate the ongoing health crisis.

Speaking to the members of the UN General Assembly, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon made an emotional statement, expressing his deep regret for the suffering and loss of life that resulted from the cholera epidemic.

“On behalf of the United Nations, I want to say very clearly: we apologise to the Haitian people. We simply did not do enough with regard to the cholera outbreak and its spread in Haiti. We are profoundly sorry for our role,” said Secretary General Ban Ki-moon Thursday.

Ban first delivered the apology, which was broadcast live on television in Haiti, in Creole, before switching to French and English.

The cholera outbreak, which occurred soon after the earthquake in 2010, killed nearly 10,000 and has to date infected close to 800,000, roughly one in twelve, Haitians.

We simply did not do enough with regard to the cholera outbreak and its spread in Haiti. We are profoundly sorry for our role,” Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Numerous reports including one by the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention pinpointed the appearance of the first cholera cases to the arrival of UN peacekeepers from Nepal.

Just one month before leaving office, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon noted that the cholera outbreak has created a “blemish” on the reputation of both UN peacekeeping and the organisation as a whole.

The UN first admitted its role in the cholera crisis in August when, during a briefing, spokesman Farhan Haq said that the that international organisation became “convinced that it needs to do much more regarding its own involvement in the initial outbreak.”

Desir Jean-Clair from Boucan Care, a cholera survivor whose mother died from cholera described the apology as a “victory.”

“We sent thousands of letters and were in the street to get this victory for them to say today that they were responsible,” he told The Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti. “They said that and we thank them. But it can’t end here. Because today there is still cholera in the whole country.”

While U.S. Senator Edward Markey, who had called for the apology, stated that it was “overdue” and is an “important first step for justice” for Haitians.

“The people of Haiti have long deserved more than just acknowledgment for the pain and sacrifice they have suffered in great part due to UN negligence,” said the top Democrat on the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health Policy.

Though it does represent a shift after over six years of denial of involvement or responsibility on the part of the UN, the apology stops short of explicitly acknowledging the responsibility of the UN in introducing cholera into Haiti.

“We now recognise that we had a role in this, but to go to the extent of taking full responsibility for all is a step that would not be possible for us to take,” said Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson during a briefing.

He noted the major reason for the limitation is to ensure the continuation of peacekeeping and humanitarian operations.

“We have to continue to do this work, There might be tragic mistakes in the future also, but we have to keep that long-term perspective,” he said.

The apology also comes after a U.S. appeals court upheld the UN’s immunity in August from a lawsuit filed on behalf of thousands of Haitian cholera victims.

Eliasson noted that the court decision helped protect key UN peacekeeping and humanitarian operations. It was therefore a “triggering” point for the apology and roadmap, he added.

“That is the reason we can now move forward to take this position of accepting moral responsibility and go to the extent that we express an apology…that is a way for us to send a message of support,” Eliasson stated.

However, words can only go so far, both Eliasson and Ban Ki-moon said.

“For the sake of the Haitian people, but also for the sake of the United Nations itself, we have a moral responsibility to act, and we have a collective responsibility to deliver,” Ban said.

In a report, the Secretary-General lays out a new two-track approach in order to reduce and end cholera transmission and long-term development of the country’s water, sanitation and health sectors respectively. Though work on track one is already underway, including the deployment of rapid response teams and vaccination programs, track two still is yet to be determined as consultations are ongoing.

Ban proposed a community approach for track two, working directly with the most affected Haitians. Though individual reparations could still be an element, Ban noted the difficulties to carry out such a program including the identification of deceased individuals and ensuring the provision of a meaningful fixed amount per cholera death.

The organisation has requested a total of $400 million over two years for the program, and has set up a voluntary funding system for both tracks. So far, an estimated $150 million has been received.

In order for the UN to achieve its ambitious program, it requires UN member states to make voluntary contributions.

“UN action requires member state action. Without your political will and financial support, we have only good intentions and words,” Ban said.

“With their history of suffering and hardships, the people of Haiti deserve this tangible expression of our solidarity,” he concluded.

ISDS Corporate Rule of Law

1 December 2016 - 11:35am

Foreign corporations have used Investor-state dispute settlement to change sovereign laws and undermine national regulations.

By Jomo Kwame Sundaram
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, Dec 1 2016 (IPS)

Investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) provisions in ostensible free trade agreements (FTAs) and bilateral investment treaties (BITs) have effectively created a powerful, privileged system of protections for foreign investors that undermine national law and institutions. ISDS allows foreign corporations to sue governments for causing them losses due to legal or regulatory changes.

A law unto themselves
ISDS cases are decided by extrajudicial tribunals composed of three corporate lawyers. Although ISDS has existed for decades, its scope and impact has grown sharply in the last decade. As ISDS has been written into over 3,000 BITs and numerous FTAs, the opportunities for ISDS claims are huge and growing.

Originally justified as necessary to protect foreign corporate investments abroad from nationalization or expropriation by governments controlling national judiciaries, foreign corporations have used ISDS to change sovereign laws and undermine national regulations. As there is no cap on the amount of awards, claims – and awards – can be huge.

The system is secret and dominated by unaccountable corporate lawyers. As international arbitration is typically not transparent, pursuing such claims can avoid the public scrutiny associated with mounting legal challenges in courts. Lack of transparency means that lawyers acting as arbitrators or advocates in one case can be unnamed investors in other cases, as nobody would ever know.

ISDS proponents claim that the outcomes of cases are uncertain, and corporations only win about a quarter of the cases they pursue. But this does not include settlements agreed to before the conclusion of arbitration proceedings from which corporations often secure handsome benefits of some kind or other. ISDS arbitration is certainly far more attractive to foreign investors who would otherwise shy away from pursuing claims in other national courts, particularly against host governments.

Recent ISDS decisions have involved significantly greater delegation of authority to arbitrators in interpreting and applying the agreements concerned, without any meaningful review or opportunity to appeal the arbitrators’ decisions. There is no guarantee that tribunals will interpret treaty provisions in ways consistent with governments’ understandings of what treaty obligations mean.

Foreign corporations rule
ISDS also allows foreign investors to challenge the actions of officials at any level of government – local, state, and federal – as well as conduct by any branch – executive, legislative and judicial. A measure entirely consistent with domestic law is no defence against liability. ISDS thus empowers private arbitrators to decide on cases that are essentially matters of domestic constitutional and administrative law, but are presented as treaty claims.

With ISDS, foreign investors will be able to ask a panel of appointed international arbitrators to determine ‘proper’ administrative, legislative and judicial conduct while bypassing national judicial institutions. Since many legal decisions involve matters of interpretation, non-national judges deciding on ‘national’ issues will make a great deal of difference. It greatly helps foreign investors to be able to bring their claims against a government before international arbitrators, and not domestic courts.

Further, there is no provision for meaningful appeal; a tribunal’s decision will probably stand even if it gets the law or facts wrong. ISDS decision makers are not required to be independent and impartial with the high ethical standards expected of most judges. If a domestic court makes a decision inconsistent with legislative intent, the legislature can correct it by passing new legislation, but it has no power to override an ISDS decision.

Procedural rules and remedies are significantly different, depending on whether an investor claim is through ISDS or domestic courts, with significant consequences for a government’s exposure to claims and liability. Also, similar sounding legal texts may be interpreted very differently in different contexts; thus, the law is not the same in effect, even it may look similar.

The threat of supranational adjudication has many, often complex legal and policy implications. ISDS will inadvertently dilute constitutional protections, weaken the judiciary, and displace national legal systems with a system of private arbitration devoid of key checks and balances found in most national judicial systems. Investors seem to have persuaded many politicians to support their ISDS promotion efforts. In short, ISDS is an extreme, discriminatory and unnecessary form of supranational adjudication that undermines national law and institutions.

Alternatives
While public and private insurance and other forms of foreign investment protection are already available to protect legitimate investor rights and interests, it is doubtful whether ISDS is even needed for the situations it was originally designed for. Already, India, Indonesia and Ecuador have advised their treaty partners that they are considering ending their BITs because of ISDS.

To reduce abuses, investors could be required to first prove discrimination in national courts before being allowed to proceed to ISDS arbitration. Alternatively, national courts could exercise judicial review over ISDS awards. Also, arbitrators could be required to be independent of the ISDS process, with set salaries, security of tenure and no financial ties to litigants while investor status for ISDS claims could be defined more strictly.

Fidel Castro, a Larger-than-Life Leader in Tumultuous Times

1 December 2016 - 10:51am

The urn holding the ashes of Fidel Castro is seen covered by a Cuban flag on a military jeep on Nov. 30, at the start of an 800-km funeral procession that will reach a cemetery in Santiago de Cuba on Dec. 4. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Mario Osava
RIO DE JANEIRO, Dec 1 2016 (IPS)

Among the many leaders who left their mark on history in the 20th century, Fidel Castro – who died Nov. 25 at the age of 90 – stood out for propelling Cuba into a global role that was unexpectedly prominent for a small country, in an era when arms were frequently taken up to settle national and international disputes.

The Cold War imposed certain political choices as well as the consequences in terms of hostilities. By choosing Communism as its path in 1961, two years after the triumph of the revolution, Cuba became a pawn that infiltrated the enemy chessboard, facing the risks posed by such a vulnerable and threatening position.

In Latin America, the “Western, Christian” side mainly degenerated into military dictatorships, nearly all of them anti-Communist and with direct links to the United States, with a few exceptions like the progressive government of General Juan Velasco Alvarado in Peru (1968-1975).

On the other side, guerrilla movements supported or stimulated by Cuba, like the 1966-1967 incursion led by Argentine-Cuban revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Bolivia, mushroomed. The military defeat of these movements was a general, but not absolute, rule.

For example, there was the Sandinista triumph in Nicaragua in 1979, and in Colombia the half-decade conflict raged until this year, when a peace deal was finally signed by the government and the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) rebels.

The armed conflicts were not limited to the countries of Latin America. The Vietnam war shook the world in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Communist victory over U.S. forces prevented another country from being split in two, like Korea or Germany.

In Africa, the decolonisation of some countries cost rivers of blood. Algeria, for example, won its independence from France in 1962 after a war that left a death toll of 1.5 million, according to the Algerians, or just over one-third of that number, according to the French.

Against this backdrop, Castro led an incredible set of accomplishments that earned Cuba a projection and influence far out of proportion to the size of a country of fewer than 10 million people up to 1980 and 11.2 million today.

He fomented and trained guerrilla movements that challenged governments and armed forces in several countries of Latin America. Many felt Cuba offered an alternative, more authentic, brand of Communism that contrasted with the Soviet Union’s, which was seen as bureaucratic, based on repression, even of other peoples, and by then bereft of revolutionary zeal.

The defence of social equality, the top priority put on children, advances in education and health, and solidarity with oppressed peoples or nations hit by tragedies around the world are attractive components of Cuba’s style of Communism, despite its dictatorial nature.

Hundreds of thousands of Cubans took part in the mammoth rally held Nov. 29 to pay homage to the late Fidel Castro in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución, attended by leaders from every continent. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños

It was not democracy – a value not highly respected decades ago, not even by the propagandists of freedom in the Western world, who also disseminated, or were linked to, dictatorships.

Cuban troops and doctors spread in large numbers throughout Africa and Latin America, in campaigns providing support and assistance, on some occasions playing a central role.

The action abroad that had the greatest impact was in Angola, where Cuba’s military aid was decisive in the country’s successful bid for independence, by cutting off the advance of South African troops that almost reached Luanda in the attempt to prevent the birth of the new nation, which occurred on Nov. 11, 1975.

For decades, Cuban troops were in Angola training the military and strengthening national defence, along with the Cuban doctors and teachers who helped care for and teach a new generation of Angolans.

The operation in Angola showed that Cuba was more than a mere pawn of the former Soviet Union. On May 27, 1977 there was an attempted coup d’etat by a faction of the governing Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), led by Nito Alves.

Loyal to then President Agostinho Neto, the Cubans helped block the coup. They retook the main radio station in Luanda, which had been occupied by rebels, and returned it to government control. It was a Cuban voice fheard over the radio announcing the success of the operation.

The Soviets were on the side of the coup plotters, according to Angola’s leaders of the time. Diplomats from Moscow were expelled from the country, as were members of the Communist Party of Portugal.

A worse fate was suffered by the followers of Nito Alves accused of participating in the uprising: thousands of them were shot and killed. The number of victims has never been confirmed.

More recently, tens of thousands of Cuban doctors have spread a humane image of Cuba throughout Latin America, after they did so in many African countries. Thousands of them have worked in Venezuela since late president Hugo Chavez first took power in 1999. In Brazil, more than 11,000 Cuban doctors have been providing healthcare in poor and remote areas since 2013.

The Cuban revolution and its achievements are inextricably intertwined with the figure of Fidel Castro, whose leadership was so dominating that he probably would not have needed the rules of his political regime to constantly assert his power and authority over all activities in Cuba.

“Why hold elections?” many Cubans used to argue, in response to the frequent criticism of how long the Castro administration remained in power, without submitting itself to a real vote.

The impression is that his leadership was excessive, that it went far beyond the limits of the Caribbean island nation. His capacity for action was reflected in working meetings held in the wee hours of the morning, as well as in his meetings with visiting leaders.

His hours-long speeches were also delivered abroad, when he visited countries governed by friends, such as Chile in 1971 – governed at the time by socialist President Salvador Allende (1970-1973) – and Angola in 1977, under President Agostinho Neto.

“They don’t have a Fidel,” said Cubans in Angola, to criticise and explain errors committed by the government there, lamenting the lack of such an infallible leader as theirs, in a country whose development they were trying to support.

A product and subject of an era marked by the Cold War, Castro seemed destined to cause controversy, as a historic figure praised by some and condemned as a despot by others. But his political legacy will wane if Communism does not find a way to reconcile with democracy.

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No Fair Deal for Women

1 December 2016 - 10:19am

By I.A. Rehman
Dec 1 2016 (Dawn, Pakistan)

This year, Pakistan’s women activists are observing 16 days of activism against gender violence (Nov 25 to Dec 10) with greater fervour than previously. At the same time, no sooner is a law to curb forced conversions adopted in Sindh than the orthodoxy is out in battledress to kill it. The fight for women’s rights in this country is going to get even more bitter.

I.A. Rehman

Our women suffer every possible form of deprivation, insult and injury. Over the years, they have also won a few concessions in the form of somewhat favourable laws and policies. They have scored these successes largely through their own struggles. They have certainly received some support from governments, though more in the form of rhetoric than benevolent measures. And they have been helped by a tiny percentage of men who can risk being taunted by big, burly clerics as wives’ ‘slaves’, or worse, as the West’s ‘stooges’.

Each year, the women of Pakistan march a step forward and are pushed more than two steps back by the formidable knights of orthodoxy, patriarchy and pseudo-religious militancy. Thus, on balance, year by year the condition of women becomes bleaker and bleaker. Why is this so? But let us first pay some attention to the women’s dirge.

There is no systematic monitoring of the impact of women-friendly legislation.

At most of the meetings held in connection with 16 days of activism, the audiences were reminded of Pakistan’s being the third most dangerous country for women in the world, where 90pc of women experience some form of violence, and where the daily violence chart shows six women abducted, another six murdered, four molested and three driven to suicide.

Some other indicators of women’s plight include the Gender Gap Index 2015 that found Pakistan second from the bottom among 145 countries; the maternal mortality rate that shows Pakistan has slipped from 147th to 149th position in global ranking; and other disturbing figures showing that 55pc of girls do not go to school and 35pc are married before they turn 16.

While no form of women’s oppression can be condoned, violence is the worst affliction they are subjected to. And we use the term violence in the broad sense it has been defined by WHO ie “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation”.

That violence against women is on the increase cannot be denied. The causes are known: the state’s growing reliance on physical force to settle any matters; brutalisation of society especially as a result of indiscriminate hangings; legalised and illegal torture/ detention cells; social customs that discriminate against the poor; the spread of evil customs of vani and swara, from peripheral districts to metropolitan centres; and poor implementation of women protection laws. The state has displayed neither the will nor the capacity to tackle these issues.

While there is some hue and cry when a Qandeel Baloch is murdered by a family member, few attempts are made to deal with less visible violence that women like her undergo.

Sindh has been criticised for raising the marriage age for girls to 18 years and extraordinary efforts are being made to block similar laws in other provinces. The laws made to curb violence against women run into two big obstacles. Firstly, they could be denounced by the Council of Islamic Ideology; its edicts against the Sindh child marriage law or the protection of women acts of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are glaring instances. Secondly, they may not produce the desired result for want of serious effort in implementing them. The Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act is very much in force, but even magistrates are not aware of this fact.

Moreover, there is no systematic monitoring of the impact of women-friendly legislation. Have the authorities assessed the effectiveness or otherwise of the law to protect women against social evils?

Above all, violence against women, or any form of discrimination against them, cannot be curbed by only punishing the criminals directly responsible for such acts. The evil of women’s persecution cannot be fought without adopting a two-pronged strategy for their uplift.

Firstly, all those who preach hatred against women, from any pulpit or any platform, must be treated as criminals. Secondly, women must be offered the fullest possible opportunity for economic independence and advancement. This can be done, for instance, by eliminating unpaid women’s labour in agriculture, and by opening up to women jobs in sectors where they are still unwelcome.

A fair deal for Pakistan’s women would require political will and a multidimensional drive to ensure more attention towards them in the Vision 2025 projects than is visible at the moment and meaningful interpretation of the Sustainable Development Goals; these two programmes will offer measures for women’s progress or lack of it that no government can ignore.

Tailpiece: Sixteen months have passed since Zeenat Shahzadi, a young human rights activist, who dreamed higher than her family’s means permitted, was picked up from a bus stand near her home in Lahore. Her crime: she represented an Indian woman whose young son had ‘disappeared’ in Pakistan while trying to rescue an internet friend in distress. That man was traced and is now in prison for trying to be a good Samaritan. He is alive and his mother can hope to see him. But hope is deserting Zeenat Shahzadi’s mother; she is not sure if her daughter is alive.

The Commission of Inquiry into Enforced Disappearances looked at her file again in Lahore last Thursday. It only looked at the file. It had no word of cheer for Zeenat’s mother. The investigators’ faces — and perhaps their hearts too — were as impassive as ever. The inspector general of police was told to appoint a new investigation team!

What more horrible example of violence against women could be offered during these 16 days of activism?

Published in Dawn December 1st, 2016

This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan

Ending AIDS Needs Both Prevention and a Cure

1 December 2016 - 10:13am

A poster about stigma in a HIV testing lab in Uganda. Credit: Lyndal Rowlands / IPS.

By Lyndal Rowlands
UNITED NATIONS, Dec 1 2016 (IPS)

Eighteen million people, just slightly under half of the people living with HIV and AIDS globally, are now taking life-saving medication, but global efforts to end the disease still largely depend on prevention.

While efforts to expand antiretroviral treatment have been relatively successfully, prevention efforts have been more mixed.

With the help of treatment, mother to baby transmission has dropped significantly. Transmission between adults aged 30 and over has also dropped.

However, transmission rates among adolescents have risen, causing concern, particularly about the high number of new cases among young women between the ages of 15 to 24.

According to UNAIDS, a new report published last week, “shows that the ages between 15 and 24 years are an incredibly dangerous time for young women.”

The report included data from six studies in Southern Africa, which showed that “southern Africa girls aged between 15 and 19 years accounted for 90% of all new HIV infections among 10 to 19-year-olds.”

“Young women are facing a triple threat,” said UNAIDS Executive Director, Michel Sidibé. “They are at high risk of HIV infection, have low rates of HIV testing, and have poor adherence to treatment. The world is failing young women and we urgently need to do more.”

The report also noted the countries that have increased their domestic funding for HIV prevention, “including Namibia, which has committed to investing 30% of its HIV budget in preventing HIV among adults and children.”

“Of course we all hope that this is a bi-partisan consensus but the fact that we, the U.S. government, continue to pay directly for service delivery in some countries is a huge risk,” -- Amanda Glassman

Ensuring the continued and renewed domestic and international funding for both treatment and prevention was the subject of discussion at the Center for Global Development in Washington D.C. on Monday.

The event, held ahead of World AIDS Day on 1 December, focused on a U.S. government initiative aimed at involving government finance departments, as well as health departments, in the HIV response.

Currently over 55 percent of the HIV response in low and middle-income countries comes from the governments of low and middle income countries.

However a significant amount of international support, roughly one third overall funding, comes from the U.S. government, which has made tackling HIV and AIDS a priority through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

However while U.S. funding for the HIV and AIDS response is considered bipartisan HIV and AIDS support, like any U.S. government program may change under Presidency of Donald Trump.

IPS spoke to Amanda Glassman, Vice President for Programs and Director of Global Health Policy at the Center for Global Development after the event:

“Of course we all hope that this is a bi-partisan consensus but the fact that we, the U.S. government, continue to pay directly for service delivery in some countries is a huge risk,” she said. “On the one hand I think maybe it makes it harder to cut, but on the other hand if it does get cut it’s a disaster.”

Of the 18 million people currently on antiretroviral treatment globally, “4.5 million are receiving direct support,” from the U.S. while an additional 3.2 million are receiving indirect support through partner countries.

While there remains broad consensus over treatment, prevention efforts are considered more politically contentious.

Previous Republican administrations have supported abstinence programs, which studies have shown to be ineffective at preventing HIV transmission.

Glassman noted that while there is more political consensus over treatment programs “you need prevention really to finish this.”

However she noted one positive example from incoming Vice-President Mike Pence’s home state of Indiana.

“(Pence) actually eliminated (needle exchange) programs and then saw HIV / AIDS go up and so he reversed his position, so I think that sounds good, he listens to evidence and action,” said Glassman.

However Pence’s record on women’s reproductive rights and his reported comments that in 2002 that condoms are too “modern” and “liberal”, may not bode well for overall prevention efforts, especially considering that addressing higher transmission rates among adolescent girls also requires addressing gender inequality and sexual violence.

Reducing the high rates of transmission among adolescent girls will not be easy. It involves increasing girls economic independence as well as helping them to stay in school longer.

“It’s a discussion of investment in secondary school … so the discussion is bigger than health,” said U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, Deborah Birx at the event.

This is one of the reasons why involving government finance departments is important.

However finding additional funds for both education and health in the “hardest hit countries” will not be easy, said Glassman.

“(These countries) are coming in with growth projections that are much lower, they have pretty low tax yields meaning that the amount that they get from their tax base is pretty low.”

Don’t Rob Our Girls of Their Childhood

1 December 2016 - 9:10am

By Reaz Ahmad
Dec 1 2016 (The Daily Star, Bangladesh)

We were indeed better off when the first draft was charted out back in September 2014. At that point in time, the government had expressed intent to keep a two-year leeway for girls getting married off early. In subsequent months, the government kept saying that it would finalise a law prohibiting the marriage of girls under 18. And it would just keep a provision in the law that would allow a 16-year-old girl to get married with her parents’ consent’ or a court’s consent obtained on “justified grounds”.

PHOTO: STAR

People decried such a move and justifiably so. Because one cannot support a law that permits a 16-year-old-child getting married off under any circumstances.

But two years down the line we are even worse off. The precious childhood of our girls is now at the mercy of a soon-to-be-passed law that keeps the option open to marry off girls who could be even younger than 16 in case of so-called “special circumstances.”

Last Thursday, the government endorsed a draft law for preventing child marriage, fixing the minimum age of marriage of girls at 18 years, but a provision for special circumstances, under which girls below the age (and it could be 16, 15, 14 or even younger) could be married off, was retained.

Briefing newsmen after the Cabinet’s approval to the Child Marriage Restraint Act-2016, the Cabinet Secretary said that as per Section 19 of the proposed law, child marriage would not be considered an offence if it was done in the interest of the underage girl. This has to be done in line with the directives of a court, with the consent of the parents, and following due procedure, he said. “There will be no crime committed in such a special case,” he said. (November 25, 2016, The Daily Star). He even gave an example where child marriage would not be considered a crime: The marriage of an underage pregnant girl with the consent of the court and parents would not be an offence.

Such explanations and excuses to make a breach in the main intent of the law, which seeks to prevent child marriage, are not only counterproductive but are also incredibly insensitive and unfortunate to say the least.

We have to first understand what exactly do we mean when we say ‘in the interest of the underage girl.’

The best interest of an underage girl (and for that matter for any underage child) must be unhindered enjoyment of their childhood. Bangladesh, being a signatory to the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), a legally-binding international agreement on child rights, can’t simply rob our girls of their childhood under any pretext.

The Convention clearly defined childhood as a separate space from adulthood and recognised that what is appropriate for an adult may not be suitable for a child. Childhood is the time for children to be in school and at play, to grow strong and confident with the love and encouragement of their family and an extended community of caring adults. It is a precious time in which children should live free from fear, safe from violence and protected from abuse and exploitation.

Is it a government’s function to keep legal leeway permitting a girl to be married off to her rapist? Nowadays, many rape victims demand justice; they try to break free from the shackles of stigma, thereby preventing the culture of non-reporting and secrecy that used to benefit the perpetrators in the past. The scene is very different from the days of yore where even the mention of the word ‘rape’ was unthinkable.

It is for the government to ensure the safety of our young, adolescent girls and boys. The government cannot simply shirk its responsibility by keeping a provision open. And by simply marrying off a girl because she is pregnant won’t solve the problem, rather it will intensify the crisis. If there is such a provision in the law, there will be many who will try to take advantage of it or exploit it in some form or the other.

However unfortunate it sounds, it’s true that Bangladesh is one of the countries where the prevalence of child marriage is still very high. But there is some good news as well; Bangladesh is slowly but steadily improving its record on child marriage. The government needs to take note of it and set the course accordingly, so that we can soon eliminate child marriage once and for all.

A comparison of the 2014 Bangladesh Demographic and Health Survey (BDHS) results with findings from prior surveys confirms that the median age at first marriage for women in Bangladesh continues to increase. The median age at marriage among women aged 20-49 has increased by almost two years; from 14.4 years in 1993-94 to 16.1 years in 2014.

Between 2000 and 2011, the proportion of girls who were married before 18 had hardly changed. However, between 2011 and 2014, this proportion declined from 65 percent to 59 percent, the largest change ever observed between two BDHS surveys.

And a November 20, 2016 research released by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) gave further heartening indication that child marriage has indeed dropped from over 60 percent to little over 40 percent over the last two decades.

In a world where as many as 700 million women were married off before they could reach adulthood, we’ll only contribute to that statistic by keeping such loopholes in a law which is supposed to protect the childhood of our girls. In a country where teen pregnancies make up 60 percent of pregnancies, we also need to understand that now is the time to break free from a cycle of undernutrition stemmed from child marriage induced premature pregnancies and subsequent low birth weight.

Let’s end child marriage now without resorting to any counterintuitive provision; we should do this at least for the best interest of the future generations.

The writer is Assignment Editor, The Daily Star.

This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh

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