Interpress News Service

Concerns Arise Over Freed Nigerian Abductees, Thousands Still Missing

10 May 2017 - 12:12pm

Gathering at the country's capital of Abuja, Nigerians call on the government to act quickly to find the 276 girls kidnapped from a Chibok school. Credit: IPS

By Tharanga Yakupitiyage
UNITED NATIONS, May 10 2017 (IPS)

Following the release of over 80 missing schoolgirls, human rights groups have expressed concerns about their rights and future.

After a series of negotiations, the Government of Nigeria recently struck a deal allowing for the release of 82 girls from Chibok in Nigeria’s Borno state in exchange for five Boko Haram leaders.

Though a positive development, the news was met with cautious optimism by international groups.

“The release of 82 of the kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls by the armed group Boko Haram is a big relief. However, it is vital now that they receive adequate physical and psychosocial counselling and support so that they can fully reintegrate in their communities,” said Amnesty International’s Nigeria Director Osai Ojigho.

In April 2014, 276 girls were abducted from their school in Chibok by Boko Haram, sparking international outrage and the #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign.

To date, 161 out of the 276 girls have been released or escaped.

Soon after the newest release, the West African nation’s government publicised the girls’ names to outlets including Twitter.

Human Rights Watch’s Senior Researcher on Nigeria Mausi Segun criticised the move, calling it a “dismal failure” to protect the girls’ privacy.

“We can’t imagine the kinds of abuses they might have been exposed to. We were hoping the focus would be on their reintegration and their return to their families or to any kind of normalcy… but releasing their names in the way that the government has done, I think they paid very little attention to the rights and the needs of the girls,” Segun told IPS.

While such information was divulged to the media, she added that the girls’ families were left in the dark as they did not have access to any information or list of names. “I think that it’s shameful,” she continued.

Segun also expressed concern over the legal status of the girls.

In a similar deal between the Nigerian Government and Boko Haram, 21 girls were released in October 2016. However, the girls have still not been allowed to return to their families and communities.

Though the government has claimed that it is providing education and services to the girls, “a jail is a jail,” Segun told IPS.

“They have no freedom to leave. They have a right to their liberty, and there is a legal obligation on the government to give reasons for holding them.… We are concerned that the same treatment awaits the recently released 82 girls as well,” she continued.

Ojigho expressed similar sentiments, urging the government to ensure the privacy of the released girls and that they are not kept in lengthy detention and security screening which may “add to their suffering and plight.”

Segun highlighted the need for families to have access to information and their own children. But it is not just these girls that deserve such access and attention, she said.

“Virtually everyone who has been affected by the conflict has a son, a daughter, a father, a mother missing whose fate they have no information about,” Segun told IPS.

Though it is uncertain how many have been kidnapped, Amnesty International has documented at least 41 cases of mass abductions by Boko Haram since the beginning of 2014. Many abductees are subject to abuses including rape, beatings, and forced suicide missions.

In a recent report by the UN Secretary General on Children and Armed Conflict in Nigeria, the UN verified the use of 90 children, mostly girls, for suicide bombings in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. They were also able to verify cases of sexual violence affecting 217 children between 2013 and 2016, but estimate that thousands of women and girls may be victims.

“Boko Haram has inflicted unspeakable horror upon the children of Nigeria’s north-east and neighbouring countries,“ said Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict Virginia Gamba.

Human Rights Watch also found insufficient government action towards solving such cases. In November 2014, over 500 children were abducted from the Borno town of Damasak. The human rights group found that residents have received no response from the government and that Nigerian authorities have neither publicly acknowledged the Damasak abductions nor disclosed efforts to recover the missing children.

“The government has failed to reach out to them, perhaps because they do not have high level media attention as the Chibok abduction has,” Segun said, stressing the need to widen the scope of negotiations to include the thousands missing beyond Chibok’s schoolgirls.

The UN announced that they are on standby to provide comprehensive support to the survivors, including emergency reproductive health care and psychosocial counseling. The UN’s Children Agency (UNICEF) also vowed to help the girls reunite with their families and continue their education in a safe environment.

Rape and Ordinary Men

10 May 2017 - 9:55am

By Rafia Zakaria
May 10 2017 (Dawn, Pakistan)

“You can’t clap with one hand,” one of the rapists in the notorious Delhi gang rape case had famously said after being convicted of rape and murder. This man, along with five others, had been found guilty of taking a young woman to the back of a Delhi bus one night in December 2012. The men raped the young woman inflicting injuries that were so terrible that the doctors, including those in Singapore, where she was sent for treatment, could not save her. A few weeks after the incident — after she had identified her assailants and given her statement — she succumbed to her injuries.

Rafia Zakaria

Last week, the Supreme Court of India upheld the death sentence handed out by a lower court to five of the men who had raped her. (One escaped the sentence as he was a juvenile at the time of the crime. He spent three years in a correctional facility.)

It was an unusual move, according to experts; lower courts in India routinely hand out death sentences but many if not most are overturned on appeal based on some technicality such as shoddy investigation by the law-enforcement authorities. So it was expected it would be the same in this case, some detail or procedural provision invoked to show ‘mercy’ to the men. The fact that this did not happen signifies that the highest court in India saw it necessary to uphold the worst possible punishment in a case so grotesque that it saw hundreds of protests across India and headlines around the world.

Unlike in India, little attention has been paid to the issue of rape in Pakistan.

Across the border in Pakistan, little attention has been paid to the issue. Unlike the Indian Supreme Court, the higher judiciary in Pakistan has seen it fit to sentence convicts to death, even those who are mentally ill. In many cases, defendants have been executed even when there are problems with investigations and prosecutions. It is rape, and not the death penalty, however, that is the issue here. While India has imposed the highest punishment on these gang rapists, Pakistan has yet to take similar action in rape cases.

One relevant example is the 2002 case of the gang rape of Mukhtaran Mai. Like the woman in the Delhi rape case, Mukhtaran saw her assailants and was able to identify them and chose to do so. It wasn’t enough. As happens with so many cases in Pakistan, the case was pushed around on appeal from one court to another, in the mess of parallel jurisdictions that is the Pakistani judicial system. Initially, six men — the alleged rapists and those who were part of the panchayat that ordered her rape —were found guilty. Justice, it seemed, would be served, to a woman who had undergone the most horrific ordeal possible.

It was not, however, the end of the story. In 2005, five of the six men, who had been found guilty and sentenced to death by an anti-terrorism court, were acquitted by the Lahore High Court and the sentence of the sixth was commuted to life imprisonment. In 2011, an appeal to the Supreme Court against the high court verdict was rejected.

In an interview she gave to the BBC when the decision was announced, Mukhtaran said that the police had not recorded her statements properly. She said that she had lost faith in all Pakistani courts.

Most Pakistani women, particularly those who have had some encounter with the justice system, would likely agree. Like the convicted Indian rapist who alleged that the woman he raped and killed had only herself to blame because she was out at nine o’clock at night, most men here are used to blaming women for the abuse and harassment they suffer at the hands of Pakistani men. If a man beats his wife, it’s because she ‘made’ him, by refusing to acquiesce fast enough, or with enough submission and servitude, to his demands.

If a male professor harasses a female student, it’s because she dressed or looked or smiled in a certain way and so ‘deserved’ the treatment. If a boss harasses an employee, well, you ‘can’t clap with one hand’; it’s her fault for being in his employ, for working outside the home, for being present in a place where he can prey on her.

A border may divide India and Pakistan but this logic of ‘you can’t clap with one hand’ unites its men.

In the initial days after the Delhi rape incident, several newspapers commented on the fact that the men were not particularly big or burly and looked rather ordinary. It is an important and thought-provoking comment because it draws attention to the rapist in every South Asian man, sitting dormant and eager to grab an opportunity. In Delhi, that opportunity came when six men jointly decided to prey on an innocent female for the crime of being out at nine in the evening.

For others, it may come in other places, in empty offices or darkened corridors or silent streets. In a society where men are so unquestionably dominant and women grow up internalising this hatred towards them, the woman is always believed to be at fault; the number of rape cases and the lack of punishment for rapists simply prove the point.

In all other instances, military might or athletic achievement, rhetoric or regional influence, Pakistan and India try to outdo each other. In this instance, however, there will be no attempt to do that. India may have imposed the worst punishment possible on five of the rapists, but Pakistan will continue to ensure that its rapists go free. All the ordinary men, the ones who believe that women are asking for it simply by existing in the ambit of their predatory and sinister intentions, need not worry; in Pakistan no one will stop them, no one will get in their way.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
rafia.zakaria@gmail.com
Published in Dawn, May 10th, 2017

This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan

Falling Between the Sun-Scorched Gaps: Drought Highlights Ethiopia’s IDP Dilemma

9 May 2017 - 8:01pm

Women and children at an IDP settlement 60km south of the town of Gode, reachable only along a dirt track through the desiccated landscape. Credit: James Jeffrey/IPS

By James Jeffrey
GODE, Ethiopia, May 10 2017 (IPS)

Displaced pastoralists gather around newly arrived drums of brown water as a water truck speeds off to make further deliveries to settlements that have sprung up along the main road running out of Gode, one of the major urban centers in Ethiopia’s Somali region.

Looking at the drums’ brackish-looking contents, a government official explains the sediment will soon settle and the water has been treated, making it safe to drink—despite appearances.“For those who have lost everything, all they can now do is go to a government assistance site for food and water.” --Charlie Mason, humanitarian director at Save the Children Ethiopia

A total of 58 internally displaced person (IDP) settlements in the region are currently receiving assistance in the form of water trucking and food supplies, according to the government.

But 222 sites containing nearly 400,000 displaced individuals were identified in a survey conducted by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) between Nov. and Dec. 2016.

The majority have been forced to move by one of the worst droughts in living memory gripping the Horn of Africa. In South Sudan famine has been declared, while in neighbouring Somalia and Yemen famine is a real possibility.

Despite being afflicted by the same climate and failing rains as neighbouring Somalia, the situation in Ethiopia’s Somali region isn’t as dire thanks to it remaining relatively secure and free of conflict.

But its drought is inexorably getting more serious.  IOM’s most recent IDP numbers represent a doubling of displaced individuals and sites from an earlier survey conducted between Sept. and Oct. 2016.

Hence humanitarian workers in the region are increasingly concerned about overstretch, coupled with lack of resources due to the world reeling from successive and protracted crises.

The blunt fallout from this is that currently not everyone can be helped—and whether you crossed an international border makes all the difference.

“When people cross borders, the world is more interested,” says Hamidu Jalleh, working for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Gode. “Especially if they are fleeing conflict, it is a far more captivating issue. But the issue of internally displaced persons doesn’t ignite the same attention.”

An old man squatting outside his shelter in an IDP settlement in the region around Gode. Credit: James Jeffrey/IPS

In January 2017 the Ethiopian government and humanitarian partners requested 948 million dollars to help 5.6 million drought-affected people, mainly in the southern and eastern parts of the country.

Belated seasonal rains arrived at the start of April in some parts of the Somali region, bringing some relief in terms of access to water and pasture. But that’s scant consolation for displaced pastoralists who don’t have animals left to graze and water.

“Having lost most of their livestock, they have also spent out the money they had in reserve to try to keep their last few animals alive,” says Charlie Mason, humanitarian director at Save the Children Ethiopia. “For those who have lost everything, all they can now do is go to a government assistance site for food and water.”

Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, crossing a border entitles refugees to international protection, whereas IDPs remain the responsibility of national governments, often falling through the gaps as a result.

In the early 1990s, however, human rights advocates began pushing the issue of IDPs to rectify this mismatch. Nowadays IDPs are much more on the international humanitarian agenda.

But IDPs remain a sensitive topic, certainly for national governments, their existence testifying to the likes of internal conflict and crises.

“It’s only in the last year-and-a-half we’ve been able to start talking about IDPs,” says the director of a humanitarian agency covering Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But the government is becoming more open about the reality—it knows it can’t ignore the issue.”

The Ethiopian government has far fewer qualms about discussing the estimated 800,000 refugees it hosts.

Ethiopia maintains an open-door policy to refugees in marked contrast to strategies of migrant reduction increasingly being adopted in the West.

Just outside Dolo Odo, a town at the Somali region’s southern extremity, a few kilometres away from where Ethiopia’s border intersects with Kenya and Somalia, are two enormous refugee camps each housing about 40,000 Somalis, lines of corrugated iron roofs glinting in the sun.

Life is far from easy. Refugees complain of headaches and itchy skin due to the pervading heat of 38 – 42 degrees Celsius, and of a recent reduction in their monthly allowance of cereals and grains from 16kg to 13.5kg.

But, at the same time, they are guaranteed that ration, along with water, health and education services—none of which are available to IDPs in a settlement on the outskirts of Dolo Odo.

“We don’t oppose support for refugees—they should be helped as they face bigger problems,” says 70-year-old Abiyu Alsow. “But we are frustrated as we aren’t getting anything from the government or NGOs.”

Abiyu spoke amid a cluster of women, children and a few old men beside makeshift domed shelters fashioned out of sticks and fabric. Husbands were away either trying to source money from relatives, looking for daily labour in the town, or making charcoal for family use and to sell.

“I’ve never seen a drought like this in all my life—during previous droughts some animals would die, but not all of them,” says 80-year-old Abikar Mohammed.

Displaced pastoralists helping a weak camel to its feet (it’s not strong enough to lift its own weight) using poles beneath its belly. Credit: James Jeffrey/IPS

As centres of government administration, commerce, and NGO activity, the likes of Gode and Dollo Ado and their residents appear to be weathering the drought relatively well.

But as soon as you leave city limits you begin to spot the animal carcasses littering the landscape, and recognise the smell of carrion in the air.

Livestock are the backbone of this region’s economy. Dryland specialists estimate that pastoralists in southern Ethiopia have lost in excess of 200 million dollars worth of cattle, sheep, goats, camels and equines. And the meat and milk from livestock are the life-support system of pastoralists.

“People were surviving from what they could forage to eat or sell but now there is nothing left,” says the anonymous director, who visited a settlement 70km east of Dolo Odo where 650 displaced pastoralist families weren’t receiving aid.

The problem with this drought is the pastoralists aren’t the only ones to have spent out their reserves.

Last year the Ethiopian government spent an unprecedented 700 million dollars while the international community made up the rest of the 1.8 billion dollars needed to assist more than 10 million people effected by an El Niño-induced drought.

“Last year’s response by the government was pretty remarkable,” says Edward Brown, World Vision’s Ethiopia national director. “We dodged a bullet. But now the funding gaps are larger on both sides. The UN’s ability is constrained as it looks for big donors—you’ve already got the U.S. talking of slashing foreign aid.”

Many within the humanitarian community praise Ethiopia’s handling of refugees. But concerns remain, especially when it comes to IDPs. It’s estimated there are more than 696,000 displaced individuals at 456 sites throughout Ethiopia, according to IOM.

“This country receives billions of dollars in aid, there is so much bi-lateral support but there is a huge disparity between aid to refugees and IDPs,” says the anonymous director. “How is that possible?”

Security in Ethiopia’s Somali region is one of the strictest in Ethiopia. As a result, the region is relatively safe and peaceful, despite insurgent threats along the border with Somalia.

But some rights organizations claim strict restrictions hamper international media and NGOs, making it difficult to accurately gauge the drought’s severity and resultant deaths, as well as constraining trade and movement, thereby exacerbating the crisis further.

Certainly, the majority of NGOs appear to exist in a state of perpetual anxiety about talking to media and being kicked out of the region.

While no one was willing to go on the record, some NGO workers talk of a disconnect between the federal government in the Ethiopian capital and the semi-autonomous regional government, and of the risks of people starving and mass casualties unless more resources are provided soon.

Already late, if as forecast the main spring rains prove sparse, livestock losses could easily double as rangeland resources—pasture and water—won’t regenerate to the required level to support livestock populations through to the short autumn rains.

Yet even if resources can be found to cover the current crisis, the increasingly pressing issue remains of how to build capacity and prepare for the future.

In the Somali region’s northern Siti zone, IDP camps from droughts in 2015 and 2016 are still full. It takes from 7 to 10 years for herders to rebuild flocks and herds where losses are more than 40 percent, according to research by the International Livestock Research Institute and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

“Humanitarian responses around the world are managing to get people through these massive crises to prevent loss of life,” Mason says. “But there’s not enough financial backing to get people back on their feet again.”

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World Bank fudges on inequality

9 May 2017 - 10:24am

Demonstrations against austerity measures in Athens. The World Bank's Doing Business Report 2017 finds that the greatest increase of inequality during 2008-2013 occurred in Greece. Credit : IPS

By Jomo Kwame Sundaram and Anis Chowdhury
KUALA LUMPUR and SYDNEY, May 9 2017 (IPS)

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – collectively drafted and then officially agreed to, at the highest level, by all Member States of the United Nations in September 2015 – involves specific targets to be achieved mainly by 2030. The Agenda seeks to “leave no-one behind” and claims roots in universal human rights. Thus, addressing inequalities and discrimination is central to the SDGs. Poverty and Shared Prosperity 2016: Taking on Inequality is the World Bank’s first annual report tracking progress towards the two key SDGs on poverty and inequality.

Annual reporting on poverty, inequality
This particular report evaluates progress towards reducing extreme poverty to 3% of the global population and sustaining per capita income growth of the bottom 40% of the population faster than the national average. According to the Bank, with global economic growth slowing, reduction of income inequality will be necessary to ending poverty and enhancing shared prosperity.

The report focuses on inequality, which was generally neglected until fairly recently by most international organizations other than the UN itself. It provides some useful analyses of inequality, including discussion of its causes. However, it does not explain its claim of a modest partial reversal of previously growing inequality in the years 2008-2013 which it examines.

However, the report’s policy recommendations are surprisingly limited, perhaps because it neither analyses nor proposes measures to address wealth inequality, which is much greater than and greatly influences income inequality. Although it recognizes that increasing minimum wages and formalizing employment can contribute to reducing income inequalities, it does not talk about the determinants of wages, working conditions and employment. It also has nothing to say about land reform – an important factor contributing to shared prosperity in East Asia, China, Vietnam, Japan, Korea and Taiwan.

Its discussion of fiscal consolidation’s impact on inequality is misleading, even claiming, “European Union (EU) countries have embarked on comprehensive fiscal consolidations based on clear equity considerations in response to the 2008–09 financial crisis”. This implies that fiscal consolidation yields long-run equity gains at the cost of short-run pains which can be cushioned by safety-net measures – a finding contrary to International Monetary Fund (IMF) research findings!

Instead of the more conventional inequality measures such as the Gini coefficient or the more innovative Atkinson index, the World Bank has promoted “boosting the bottom 40 percent”. Yet, in much of its discussion, the report abandons this indicator in favour of the Gini index. Nevertheless, the report dwells on its “shared prosperity premium”, defined as the difference between the increased income of the bottom 40% and the growth in mean income.

Meanwhile, the World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2017 implies labour market regulations adversely impact inequality, even though it admits that they can “reduce the risk of job loss and support equity and social cohesion”. Yet, the report promotes fixed term contracts with minimal benefits and severance pay requirements.

The Bank’s Doing Business Report 2017 also implies that lower business regulation results in lower inequality. It claims this on the basis of negative associations between Gini coefficients and scores for starting a business and resolving insolvency. However, curiously, it does not discuss the association between other Doing Business scores, e.g., paying tax or getting credit, etc., and the Gini index.

Recent progress?
About two-thirds of the 83 countries analysed had a shared prosperity premium during 2008-2013, a period characterized by asset price collapses and sharply increased youth unemployment in many OECD economies. This unrepresentative sample is uneven among regions, and surprisingly, even some large rich countries such as Japan, South Korea and Canada are missing.

Recognizing that the shared prosperity premium is generally low, the report concedes that “the goal of ending poverty by 2030 cannot be reached at current levels of economic growth” and that “reduction of inequality will be key to reaching the poverty goal”.

The global Gini index has declined since the 1990s due to rapidly rising incomes in China and India, while within-country inequality has generally increased. More optimistically, the Bank notes that Gini coefficients fell in five of seven world regions during 2008-2013 despite or perhaps because of much slower growth. The report notes that the “progress is all the more significant given that it has taken place in a period marked by the global financial crisis of 2008-09”. As others have noted, the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent Great Recession may have only temporarily reversed growing inequality.

Greek tragedy
After very impressive growth for a decade, the Greek economy went into recession in 2008-2009, together with other European countries. With severe austerity measures imposed by the EU and the IMF as bailout conditions, Greece fell into a full-blown depression with various adverse income and distributional impacts.

The report finds that the greatest increase of inequality during 2008-2013 occurred in Greece, where the mean household income of the bottom 40% shrunk by an average of 10% annually. Fortunately, as the Bank notes, some measures – such as lump sum transfers, introduced in 2014 for low-income families and the vulnerable, along with ‘emergency’ property taxes – “prevented additional surges in inequality”.

Brazil progress at risk

Brazil is the most significant of its five “best performers” in narrowing income inequality, with its Gini coefficient falling from 0.63 in 1989 to 0.51 in 2014. The report attributes four-fifths of the decline in inequality in 2003-2013 to “labor market dynamics” and social program expansion. Alarmingly, the new government has threatened to end regular minimum wage increases and to limit social program expenditure.

“Labor market dynamics” – deemed far more important by other analysts – include regular minimum wage increases, formalization of unprotected workers and strengthened collective bargaining rights. Social pensions and other social program benefits account for much more of the decline in inequality than the much touted Bolsa Familia.

The report makes recommendations on six “high-impact strategies”: early childhood development, universal health coverage, universal access to quality education, cash transfers to the poor, rural infrastructure and progressive taxation. While certainly not objectionable, the recommendations do not always draw on and could easily have been made without the preceding analysis.

African Migrants Bought and Sold Openly in ‘Slave Markets’ in Libya

9 May 2017 - 9:32am

A shot of the living conditions inside a detention centre in Libya. Credit: UN Migration Agency (IOM)

By Baher Kamal
ROME, May 9 2017 (IPS)

Hundreds of migrants along North African migration routes are being bought and sold openly in modern day ‘slave markets’ in Libya, survivors have told the United Nations migration agency, which warned that these reports “can be added to a long list of outrages” in the country. The International Criminal Court is now considering investigating.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) had already sounded the alarm after its staff in Niger and Libya documented over the past weekend shocking testimonies of trafficking victims from several African nations, including Nigeria, Ghana and the Gambia. They described ‘slave markets’ tormenting hundreds of young African men bound for Libya.

Operations Officers with IOM’s office in Niger reported on the rescue of a Senegalese migrant who this week was returning to his home after being held captive for months, IOM had on April 11 reported.

According to the young man’s testimony, the UN agency added, while trying to travel north through the Sahara, he arrived in Agadez, Niger, where he was told he would have to pay about 320 dollars to continue North, towards Libya.

A trafficker provided him with accommodation until the day of his departure, which was to be by pick-up truck, IOM said. But when his pick-up reached Sabha in south-western Libya, the driver insisted that he hadn’t been paid by the trafficker, and that he was transporting the migrants to a parking area where the young man witnessed a slave market taking place.

“Sub-Saharan migrants were being sold and bought by Libyans, with the support of Ghanaians and Nigerians who work for them,” IOM Niger staff reported.

A young South Sudanese refugee looks out of a truck before being transported to the Imvepi settlement at the Imvepi Reception Centre, Arua District, in northern Uganda. Credit: UNHCR/David Azia


A ‘Long List of Outrages’

“The latest reports of ‘slave markets’ for migrants can be added to a long list of outrages [in Libya],” said Mohammed Abdiker, IOM’s head of operation and emergencies. “The situation is dire. The more IOM engages inside Libya, the more we learn that it is a vale of tears for all too many migrants.”

Abdiker added that in recent months IOM staff in Libya had gained access to several detention centres, where they are trying to improve conditions.

“What we know is that migrants who fall into the hands of smugglers face systematic malnutrition, sexual abuse and even murder. Last year we learned 14 migrants died in a single month in one of those locations, just from disease and malnutrition. We are hearing about mass graves in the desert.”

So far this year, he said, the Libyan Coast Guard and others have found 171 bodies washed up on Mediterranean shores, from migrant voyages that foundered off shore. The Coast Guard has also rescued thousands more, he added.

Sold in Squares or Garages

“Migrants who go to Libya while trying to get to Europe have no idea of the torture archipelago that awaits them just over the border,” said Leonard Doyle, chief IOM spokesperson in Geneva. “There they become commodities to be bought, sold and discarded when they have no more value.”

Many describe being sold “in squares or garages” by locals in the South-Western Libyan town of Sabha, or by the drivers who trafficked them across the Sahara desert.

Risking their lives to reach Europe from North Africa, a boatload of people, some of them likely in need of international protection, are rescued in the Mediterranean Sea by the Italian Navy. Credit: UNHCR/A. D’Amato


“To get the message out across Africa about the dangers, we are recording the testimonies of migrants who have suffered and are spreading them across social media and on local FM radio. Tragically, the most credible messengers are migrants returning home with IOM help. Too often they are broken, brutalised and have been abused, often sexually. Their voices carry more weight than anyone else’s,” added Doyle.

So far, the number of Mediterranean migrant arrivals this year approaches 50,000, with 1,309 deaths, according to the UN migration agency.

IOM rose from the ashes of World War Two 65 years ago. In the battle-scarred continent of Europe, no government alone could help survivors who wanted no more than an opportunity to resume their lives in freedom and with dignity. The first incarnation of IOM was created to resettle refugees during this post-war period.

International Criminal Court May Investigate

In view of these reports, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) on 8 May told the United Nations Security Council that her office is considering launching an investigation into alleged migrant-related crimes in Libya, including human trafficking.

“My office continues to collect and analyse information relating to serious and widespread crimes allegedly committed against migrants attempting to transit through Libya,” said Fatou Bensouda during a Security Council meeting on the North African country’s situation.

“I’m similarly dismayed by credible accounts that Libya has become a marketplace for the trafficking of human beings,” she added, noting that her office “is carefully examining the feasibility” of opening an investigation into migrant-related crimes in Libya should the Court’s jurisdictional requirements be met.

‘Horrendous Abuses’ at the Hands of Smugglers

Meanwhile, one person out of every 35 trying to cross the inland sea between northern Africa and Italy in 2017 has died out in the deep waters of the Mediterranean, the United Nations refugee agency on 8 May reported, calling for “credible alternatives to these dangerous crossings for people in need of international protection.”

“Saving lives must be the top priority for all and, in light of the recent increase in arrivals, I urge further efforts to rescue people along this dangerous route,” said the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Filippo Grandi.

The Central Mediterranean – with smugglers trafficking people from the shores of Libya to Italy – has proven to be particularly deadly. Out on the open sea, approximately 1,150 people have either disappeared or lost their lives in 2017.

In response to the recent stories reported to UNHCR’s teams by survivors, Grandi said that he is “profoundly shocked by the violence used by some smugglers.”

As the “Central Mediterranean route continues to be particularly dangerous this year, also for 2016 the UN recorded more deaths at sea than ever before.

The main causes of shipwrecks, according to UNHCR, are the increasing numbers of passengers on board vessels used by traffickers, the worsening quality of vessels and the increasing use of rubber boats instead of wooden ones.

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Poverty Drives Wages Down

9 May 2017 - 7:42am

Credit: Sarom Em

By Erik Larsson
PHNOM PENH, May 9 2017 (IPS)

H&M has made promises to raise wage levels and increase worker influence in the garment factories of Cambodia.  The validity of these supposed ambitions is being criticized. ”What have they actually achieved? Nothing!”, says Sajsa Beslik, sustainibility banker at Swedish Nordea.

At night, mosquitos make their ways through the crack of air between the corrugated metal roof and the aged plaster of the cement wall, untroubled  by a long row of steel doors.

Seng Chhun Leng, 26, opens the padlock on her street level 15 square meter room. Several mattresses line the floor. She sleeps here together with her younger brother and his fiancée. She recently moved out of a room that cost just over 50 dollars per month.

”This was cheaper, just over 40 dollars, so I chose it instead”

She lives in the Toul Sangke area, part of Cambodia’s sprawling capital city Phnom Penh. It’s late afternoon. A few hours before dusk.

Seng Chhun Leng has just come home from the Roo Hsing Garment factory where she has sewn seams on 1150 short pants for delivery to the Swedish fashion retailer H&M. She knows her exact numbers of production as she is paid on a fixed piece rate.

One month of work brings in an income of around 170 dollars which includes bonuses. Rent and electricity cost around 50 dollars. Food comes to double of that. She also needs to help her parents.

Money is tight.

The factory is a ten minute walk from the little windowless room. The long low-rise factory building is surrounded by a fence.

A road runs along the fence, where street vendors call attention to their small stalls stocked with vegetables, fish and meat on display.

Inside the fence, 3700 textile workers make clothes. Mainly for H&M but also for other Western fashion retailers.

Seng Chhun Leng has worked here for two years. Just a week before Arbetet Global’s visit, her contract was once again extended.

Credit: Sarom Em

Her situation is precarious. Right now, she knows her paychecks will come. But at the end of June she will once again have to hold her breath in nervous worry.

This same process happens every third month, forcing her to think the same anxious thoughts. Will her contract be extended? Will she keep her job and income?

Her factory, like many others in the garment manufacturing sector, has seen workplace pressures increase. There has been media attention to the phenomena of mass fainting. Employees that spontaneously lose consciousness while at their machines.

The reason? Overtime labor, malnutrition and dehydration are offered as explanations as employees do not want to waste their precious working hours, not even to visit to toilets. At her factory there has been an improvement as a new ventilation system was installed one year ago.

But a workmate of Seng Chhun Leng, who joins us, reveals that workers still faint. ”It happens perhaps once or twice a month”

 ***

”I responded by sending 5 gigabytes of porn and other spam. If they terrorize me again, I’ll strike back”.

Arbetet Global visits Ken Loo at the office of the trade organization Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, Gmac.

Ken Loo is Secretary General and has sat himself at a gigantic conference table which looks like a battleship. The porn comment has its own background.

On the 3rd of January 2014 garment workers clashed with police and military as they demonstrated against harsh working conditions. Four people were killed and one person went ‘missing’.

Many were detained and beaten by the police. Unions and human rights organisations protested strongly. Mass emails followed, directed, among others, to Ken Loo who represents the employers. He struck back with porn.

”They are militant. And corrupt. There isn’t a single union activist who does not take bribes”. His perception of the unions is very negative.

Ken Loo, Gmac. Credit: Erik Larsson

It is true that corruption is widespread and Cambodia has it among the worst in the world. Transparency International rates the degree of corruption in different countries and ranks Cambodia as 156 out of 176.

The political system in particular is considered to be ”extremely corrupt” and bribes are commonplace even in courts and in judicial processes. Transparency International does not mention the unions much, but does focus on the private sector a lot, pointing to ubiquitous corruption there.

To do business in Cambodia, almost every business has to pay bribes.

Cambodia
Population: 16 million (2016)

Language: Khmer

Religion: Buddhism

Government: Constitutional monarchy with a multi-party system

Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in Asia. One third of the population lives on income below the national poverty level.

Source: CIA World FactbookOn hearing
questions about the protests against working conditions, he tries to turn the perspective and claims that compared to neighboring countries, the situation in Cambodia is better.

”We have the best conditions”

When he again is asked about the harsh working conditions, he gets agitated and stretches his hand out.

”I’ll give you one million dollars if you can prove that conditions are worse here than in other countries”.

He leans forward to shake hands.

”You will get one million dollars”, he repeats, ”but if you fail, you would have to pay 10000 dollars to me.”

He continues by saying that everyone wants more pay.

”If you go to the boss and demand a raise of 5000 dollars, he would tell you to go to hell. It is the market that sets prices and salaries. I am not saying that the workers do not have a tough job. They do! But if the wages go up, the industry will move to Bangladesh or some other country.

***

Seamstress Noy Saran has just gotten a divorce. There isn’t much that is set and steady right now. Her home. Her job. Her salary. Her life.

For the past six years she has worked at the Hong WA Factory in central Phnom Penh.

Arbetet Global comes to the offices of the garment workers union, the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Unions  C.CAWDU, to meet workers from the textile factories. Noy Saran sits down.

”Yesterday I was sewing childrens pants for H&M”

Unlike many others, she has permanent employment. Even so, she is still insecure.

”It’s because of the divorce, but also because the terms of my contract are renegotiated every six months and even though my employment is permanent, my salary can still be lowered”.

Noy Saran is an exception. The usual term of employment among most of the textile workers seems to be temporary contracts though, renewable every three months. Piecework wages and short term contracts.

Many of them feel forced to work even when sick so they do not risk their contract renewals.

”I’d like you to write in your newspaper that we want to get rid of them” says Thorn Veasna who works at the H&M subcontractor Roo Hising Garment and is now seated in the union office.

These contracts are what the workers want to discuss. Other workers present agree with him. Short term contracts make life difficult.

Minimum wages have been raised several times in recent years.

Economists that choose to look only at aggregate growth figures for the Cambodian economy should be pleased. The annual growth rate is at 7-8%. The frequent sightings of city jeeps on the streets of Phnom Penh are testament to that. Haven’t things improved?

”That hardly makes a difference” the workers retort. Several of them point to the way wage increases lead to rents going up. Making ends meet is hard.

City jeeps do not drive on all the streets of the city. They’re not seen in the slums. They don’t drive past the shanty town buildings made of boards and tarps where people try to find a living sorting through litter and picking lotus roots.

Cambodia is one of Asia’s poorest countries and poverty functions as a huge weight pushing wages down.

***

She smiles at the camera as she measures the width of the throat of a shop dummy. The photos in H&M’s latest report on sustainability display workers with relaxed and open expressions. All graphs and diagrams are pointing in the right direction. Things are going well.

Arbetet Global reads that H&M have a target of offering ”fair jobs” and forming inclusive workplaces open to diversity.

Furthermore next year, of all the garment producing subcontractors, half will have some form of worker representation in management. Half of all subcontractors will also have introduced a Living Wage policy.

The H&M corporation promote and try to spread a system for social dialogue that in the last year has taken a considerable step forward, from the previous 132 subcontractors worldwide to last year’s 290.

In Cambodia, the Swedish fashion giant is participating in a project for improved working conditions at factories. Swedish labor union IF Metall is also involved.

It is a project perfectly aligned with the Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven’s vision of “Global Deal”.

The Textile Industry
• About 800 000 people are employed in the Cambodian textile industry according to the employer’s organisation Gmac.

• Working hours for the Cambodian garment workers that supply H&M with fashion items is 48 hours per week, six days a week. Overtime is common. Total work hours must not go beyond 60 hours over a seven-day period.

• On average an employee at an H&M subcontractor earns 167 dollars per month. The legal minimum wage within the textile industry is 153 dollars, although an added bonus brings it up to 157 dollars.

• H&M has implemented a wage strategy that seeks to increase on site dialogue in work places. Today this is used in 290 factories and covers 380 000 employees. The target is to bring in another 96 factories during 2017.

Sources: H&M, GmacThis vision is
of a deal that would raise workers’ wages at the same time as engaged companies could gain advantages through stability and local economies could develop.

Stefan Löfven usually presents it as a Win-Win-Win situation. Everybody would gain from it. In a way, it is the export of the Swedish model on a global scale. Interest has increased and spread. Cambodia is one of the countries and H&M one of the corporations through which it is to be realized.

In 24 factories a workplace dialogue process has been introduced. In 12 factories, collective bargaining on wages has been agreed on.

Workers from several factories can witness of improved ventilation systems over the past year.

Toum Nai Leng works as stock manager at H&M’s subcontractor Zhong Yin. He used to be a farmer but made the switch three years ago.

“I make about as much as I did before but the factory work is not as strenuous as farming”.

 ***

He is hungry and about to have his lunch break but still lifts up a pile of papers and waves them in the air. Back at the trade union C.CAWDU, legal expert Vong Vuthy says ”I just received these”.

The pile of papers concern a H&M subcontractor JSD-Textile.

In May 2014 workers protested against the poor conditions. The company replied, not with dialogue, but with mass firings. 128 employees were fired. Eventually the union brought the matter to the H&M corporation, but there was no reaction.

It has been a drawn out process. Of those that protested the working conditions and lost their jobs, there are still 75 that demand to take the process further and are demanding their jobs back.

The process is supposed to restart after this news story has gone to press.

H&M though write in an email that they no longer have business relations with that subcontractor. According to H&M, the relationship ended just after the turn of the year when the factory changed ownership.

It is very hard to gain insight into H&M’s business in Cambodia. Despite numerous and repeated requests, H&M will not permit Arbetet Global to make visits on site.

That refusal even includes the H&M factories that are part of the aid project for improved working conditions funded by Swedish tax money through the Swedish aid agency SIDA.

H&M’s unwillingness to make visible the conditions of everyday work at their subcontractors is corroborated by several journalists.

The Swedish fashion giant describes great improvement in their reports, but it is very hard to find out what happens behind the factory walls.

***

The bang was heard throughout the entire plant as a steam generator exploded.

Witnesses could describe that the container filled with boiling water was hurled a good one hundred meters away before impacting into the cafeteria.

One worker was killed at the Zhen Tai Garment factory, a subcontractor in Phnom Penh to the jeans company Levis.

“The company blame a worker who has been arrested by the police” says Tola Mouen at the human rights organisation the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights, Central.

He has followed developments within the textile industry at close range, and has just got been on the phone after another call about the accident that has kept him busy during the last week.

The development of the textile industry is a key issue for Central as they want the Western garment retailers to put pressure to enact the so called Living Wage in Cambodia.

They seek to find an agreement where set terms can regulate monthly wages to not only cover the costs of rent, food and insurances, but also afford to start a family and to stay home when sick.

Although the Swedish corporation has for some time claimed to be ready to comply with such an agreement, Tola Mouen has grown tired of them just talking about it.

“H&M are very good at promoting themselves, but they are no better than any of the others”

In Sweden the work done by H&M is considered to be successful. The Swedish trade union  IF Metall has though as of yet not taken an official position to the project in Cambodia. There are several aspects of the fashion giant’s engagement to consider.

Erik Andersson, international secretary at IF Metall, is of the opinion that it is positive that both H&M and their Spanish competitor Inditex (who include the Zara retailer) have a global framework agreement.

He also compliments H&M on the skill they show in cooperating with SIDA and the UN agency International Labour Organisation.

“They are really on the ball. And that strengthens their brand”

But he also feels that H&M should be able to do a lot more in improving conditions for their employees.

“They should put in tougher regulation on transports. Today, employees can be transported on the back of trucks on muddy roads. Also, H&M should do more to raise wage levels and union representation”

Under the present conditions he questions whether it is appropriate to purchase garments.

“You have to ask yourself whether you should buy from a country like Cambodia at all”, and referring to the increasingly tense political situation in the country, adds “The unions that take critical positions towards the government get banned”.

More and more people are concerned that while SIDA,  H&M and IF Metall are attempting to increase social dialogue, the country itself is moving further and further toward a one party system.

Last year a law regulating trade and labor unions allowed several unions to be banned due to their criticism of the reigning government party, the Cambodian People’s Party, which has been in power since the downfall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979.

Tensions have been rising as there are indications that there is support for a shift of power in next year’s parliamentary elections. There are also upcoming local elections in June.

Recently a bill on minimum wages was put forth which could make union strikes illegal and which would even outlaw the gathering of wage statistics.

Such harsher measures used to curtail the influence of unions and human rights organisations will certainly lead to divisions.

Erik Andersson adds “If I was in H&M top management I would be more self-critical and modest”.

The fact that the unions are critical of the terms that the employers support is not unusual, but the unusual aspect is that banks and financial institutions have joined them in criticizing the poor working conditions and lack of transparency.

One example is Sasja Beslik, the manager of Sustainable Finance with the Swedish bank Nordea. Last year he was awarded Banker of the year in 2016 by the financial magazine Privata Affärer.

From his position with Nordea Wealth Management he has followed H&M for some time and has tried to find out what actual improvements they have made for the employees. He finds it hard to draw any conclusions.

“There is no transparency”. There isn’t a financial investor in the world who can validate the claims H&M make.

Sasja Beslik is of the opinion that the perception of H&M’s projects is idealized and there is an unfounded belief in their human rights projects.

“H&M tell me that they have improved working conditions in Cambodia. The only way for me to find out is to go there. Yet if I request to get into their factories, they first say ‘no’, and eventually I am offered to take a guided tour together with 40 other investors.

The claims from both the fashion giant and SIDA of increased dialogue and collective bargaining agreements that have been signed locally, are dismissed by Sasja Beslik as succesful PR for H&M.

“This really makes me very angry. What improvements have been achieved? Nothing has gotten better. It’s just bullshit!”

 
The Living Wage

The idea of the Living Wage has attracted more and more support from human rights organizations and trade unions. It is a salary that is high enough to cover an employee’s basic needs, such as food, accommodation, health care and clothes, within the limits of normal working hours.

Today the garment worker in Cambodia has a monthly wage of about 170 dollars, which is considered to be below the estimated 200 dollars per month of the Living Wage.

In Cambodia, the term has gained traction and global labour unions like IndustriAll hope that the Living Wage system can become a reality in Cambodia and then spread to other parts of Asia.

Source: Fair Action, IndustriAll

This story was originally published by Arbetet Global

Translation: Ravi Dar

Equal Rights in Education: The Case of Bahrain, Colombia, Sri Lanka

9 May 2017 - 4:40am

The experts panel aims at broadening the discussion on human rights and global citizenship education to encompass the promotion of equal and inclusive citizenship rights through education within national societies. Credit: Shafiqul Alam Kiron/IPS

By IPS World Desk
ROME/GENEVA, May 9 2017 (IPS)

The role of education in enhancing equality of citizenship rights and diversity within communities affected by inter-communal civil strife will be top on the agenda of a meeting in Geneva on May 12.

Experts with extensive knowledge in the field of education, particularly in post-conflict situations and reconciliation in community settings, will take part in this event, which will focus on three case studies – Bahrain, Colombia, and Sri Lanka –

"We need to further explore the transformative power of education in building societies based on the principles of peace, tolerance and social harmony." Idriss Jazairy, executive director of the Geneva Centre
The meeting is organised by the Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue (GCHRAGD) –known as the Geneva Centre– in cooperation with the UNESCO Liaison Office in Geneva, the International Bureau of Education – UNESCO, and the Permanent Mission of Bahrain to the United Nations Office in Geneva.

The panel discussion, entitled “Human rights: Enhancing equal citizenship rights in education”, is aimed at reviewing the role of education in strengthening equality of citizenship rights and diversity within communities affected by inter-communal civil strife.

The purpose of the panel debate will be to analyse the impact of training to promote equal citizenship as part of human rights in school curricula and teaching methodologies with the broader aim of promoting a culture of peace and developing healthy, inclusive and fair societies.

The experts panel aims at broadening the discussion on human rights and global citizenship education to encompass the promotion of equal and inclusive citizenship rights through education within national societies.

According to the panel organisers, enhancing equal and inclusive citizenship rights fits against the backdrop of education on human rights and global citizenship, echoing at the domestic level the same ideals of a more tolerant, cohesive, and peace-driven world.

On this, the executive director of the Geneva Centre, Idriss Jazairy, said that the “panel debate is a timely opportunity to discuss the role of education in promoting and in enhancing at the domestic level equal and inclusive citizenship rights.

Education has the potential of playing an important role in strengthening inter-ethnic and inter-religious cooperation in societies permeated by conflict and violence, Jazairy added. “We need to further explore the transformative power of education in building societies based on the principles of peace, tolerance and social harmony.”

The Geneva Centre is an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organisation dedicated to the advancement of human rights through consultation and training with youth, civil society and governments.

It acts as a think-thank dedicated to the promotion of human rights through cross-cultural, political, religious and civilisational dialogue, and through training of the upcoming generations of stakeholders in the Arab region.

The Centre conducts independent research and provides insights about human rights in the Arab region and to examining multiple viewpoints on human rights issues, with special focus on systematic rights weaknesses in the Middle East and North Africa region.

 

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When It Comes to Fracking, Argentina Dreams Big

8 May 2017 - 8:53pm

Two drilling rigs in the Loma Campana deposit, in Vaca Muerta, in the Neuquén Basin, in south-west Argentina. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

By Daniel Gutman
BUENOS AIRES, May 9 2017 (IPS)

Since a US Energy Information Administration (EIA) report announced in 2011 that Argentina had some of the world’s biggest shale oil and gas reserves, the dream of prosperity has been on the minds of many people in this South American nation where nearly a third of the population lives in poverty.

The question that hangs in the air is whether it is really possible for Argentina to become South America’s Saudi Arabia, or if it is just a fantasy.

Six years after the release of the report, although Argentina is still, like then, a net importer of oil and natural gas, the hope would appear to remain intact for centre-right President Mauricio Macri.

When Macri visited the United States on Apr. 25-27 he stopped over in Houston, Texas, described as the “Oil Capital of the World”. There, he urged the executives of the world’s top energy companies to make the huge investments that Argentina needs to exploit its reserves.“Today in Argentina there are more than 1,500 boreholes that are being exploited by the fracking method, not just in Vaca Muerta, but also in other deposits in the area. In the next years, this number is expected to multiply.” --
Diego de Rissio

“Argentina is among the countries with the greatest potential in the world. We want the best companies to come and partner with us,” Macri told oil executives at lunch in Houston on Apr. 26, before flying to Washington, where he met with his US counterpart Donald Trump at the White House.

“The delays in exploiting non-conventional fossil fuels in Argentina are inherent to the process, from a technical standpoint. The oil and gas industry operates in the long term,” said Martín Kaindl, head of the Argentine Oil and Gas Institute (IAPG), a think tank supported by oil companies in the country.

“We have to do things well for this opportunity to become a source of wealth for Argentina,” he told IPS.

So far, however, what seems to have grown more than the investments are the social movements opposed to hydraulic fracturing or fracking, in which rock is fractured by the high-pressure injection of ‘fracking fluid’ (primarily water, as well as sand and chemicals,) to release natural gas and oil from shale deposits..

This process has environmental and socioeconomic effects, according to experts quoted by environmentalists.

The greatest achievement so far by the opponents of fracking in Argentina came on Apr. 25, when the legislature of the central-eastern province of Entre Ríos banned fracking and other non-conventional methods.

It became the first province in the country to reach this decision, which was preceded by local laws in dozens of municipalities. Entre Ríos has no oil industry tradition, but it is included in the long-run exploration plans of Argentina’s state-controlled company YPF.

“Entre Ríos is a province that lives mainly off of agriculture and tourism, where there is a tradition of environmental activism”, sociologist Juan Pablo Olsson, who is part of the Argentina Free of Fracking movement, told IPS.

“We must not forget that a few years ago, there were up to 100,000 people protesting against the pulp mills on the international bridge,” he added, referring to the 2005-2010 conflict with Uruguay over the construction of two paper factories, due to the environmental impact on the Uruguay River, which separates the province of Entre Ríos from the neighbouring country.

Pear trees in blossom in a farm in Allen, a city in the province of Río Negro, located next to a shale gas deposit. Fruit producers and other traditional sectors of that province are concerned about the negative impacts of the oil and gas industry in Vaca Muerta. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

According to the latest EIA data, Argentina has recoverable shale reserves that amount to 802 trillion cubic feet of gas and 27 billion barrels of oil. It is only second to China in shale gas reserves, and in fourth position after the US, Russia and China, in shale oil.

Of these reserves, 38 per cent of the gas and 60 per cent of the oil are concentrated in the geological formation of Vaca Muerta, where commercial exploitation began in 2013, in the Loma Campana deposit, by YPF and US company Chevron in the province of Neuquén.

This 30,000-sq- km deposit is located in the area known as the Neuquén Basin (a sedimentary basin which has traditionally been the main oil-producing area in Argentina), spreading over four provinces (Neuquén, Río Negro, Mendoza and La Pampa) in the country’s southwest.

The extraordinary potential of Vaca Muerta is one of the few things in which the current president and his centre-left predecessor, Cristina Fernández (2007-2015) have agreed on, with neither having made any reference whatsoever to the environmental risks posed by fracking.

The former president did not hide her enthusiasm when talking about the deposit, which in 2013 she suggested renaming as “Vaca Viva” (living cow) , instead of “Vaca Muerta” (dead cow), since “we are now extracting oil from it.”

Macri, meanwhile, said that Vaca Muerta “is changing the country’s energy future,” since it has “abundant, cheap and exportable” resources.

This was in January, when he announced the signing of an agreement with oil industry trade unions which allows a reduction of up to 40 per cent of labour costs, to attract investments.

Later, the president decreed a minimum price for shale gas, higher than the market price, reinforcing the strategy launched by his predecessor of maintaining domestic fossil fuel prices at levels making it possible to tap into non-conventional deposits.

In addition, during his stay in Washington he announced a 35 per cent reduction in the import tariffs on used oil industry machinery, which will favour the arrival of equipment that fell into disuse in the U.S-Mexican Eagle Ford Formation, due to the fall in international prices.

The minister of Energy and Mining, Juan José Aranguren, who went to Houston with Macri, said that currently between six and eight billion dollars a year are invested in Vaca Muerta, but that the government’s goal is to reach 20 billion in 2019.

“Today in Argentina there are more than 1,500 boreholes that are being exploited by the fracking method, not just in Vaca Muerta, but also in other deposits in the area. In the next years, this number is expected to multiply,” Diego di Risio, a researcher from the Oil Observatory of the South, an organisation of professionals from different disciplines interested in the energy issue, told IPS.

“But we believe that the environmental and social impacts should be debated, since it is a fruit-producing agricultural region,” said di Risio. One of the localities engaged in the production of fruit near Vaca Muerta, where shale oil is being extracted, is Allen, in the province of Río Negro.

Juan Ponce, a fruit jam manufacturer in Allen, told IPS: “Oil production overrode fruit-producing farms. There were 35 fruit warehouses, and now there are only five left.”

He also told IPS by phone that “most people buy bottled water, because our water is not drinkable anymore, despite the fact that we have the longest river in the Patagonia region, the Rio Negro.”

“The best evidence of the pollution that is being generated by the oil and gas extraction is that the owners of surrounding farms are receiving subsidies from the companies, since they can no longer produce good quality fruit,” he added.

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Welcome News from ADB

8 May 2017 - 11:23am

By Editor, The Manila Times, Philippines
May 8 2017 (Manila Times)

If the Duterte government is looking for ways to buttress its economic program, it should be pleased with the new long-term strategy of the Asian Development Bank (ADB). At its 50th annual meeting in Yokohama on Saturday, ADB President Takehiko Nakao outlined the priorities of its “Strategy 2030,” which retains support for infrastructure development as a priority.

In his address at the opening session, Nakao said: “According to a recent special report by ADB, Asia will need $1.7 trillion per year in investments in power, transport, telecommunications, and water through 2030. This is more than the previous estimate, reflecting additional investments needed to support continued growth and address climate change.” Moreover, he brought up the need for quality infrastructure at another session in Yokohama.

That is welcome news throughout Asia, including the Philippines, where President Duterte has identified massive infrastructure build-up as a key agenda. The ADB announcement, although not surprising, bolsters the growing support within Asia for supporting infrastructure development, such as those from China. That news resonates in the Philippines, where the economy has been growing despite anemic public spending and where the supposed economic showcase of the previous administration – the PPP or public private partnerships – has been slow in taking off. Good thing the ADB will be of help there, too.

Another strategic priority, the ADB president said in his opening address, involves stepping up efforts to mobilize private resources for development. “This includes promoting greater and more effective use of public-private partnerships, or PPPs. This approach is not new. In the late 19th-century Japan, for example, many railways and electricity services were started through innovative private companies under concessions granted by the government.”

Also at the opening session of the ADB annual meeting, Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso said, “I would expect the bank to continue to promote infrastructure devleopment, and to further mobilize private sector financing, including through PPPs.” The deputy prime minister is also the chairman of the ADB’s board of governors.

Mind the middle-income trap
Our economic managers and policymakers should seize this opportunity and strive to shift the collective national attention to focus squarely on development. The Philippine economy has been praised as one of the fastest-growing in the world, but the country is in danger of falling into a middle-income trap if the Duterte development agenda stalls just like the previous government’s.
One might understand the complacency given that consumption accounts for some 70 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. But that is unlikely to be sustainable, not to mention vulnerable to external events.

Granted, there are many factors going for the Philippines. The economic policy directives seem to be headed in the right direction, but as mentioned earlier, the problem has been poor execution. And we cannot, and should not, rely on friends to do something about that.

Take the United States, for instance.William Grimes of Boston Univerity, said in another ADB forum in Yokohama that Mr. Donald Trump was more focused on narrow domestic issues rather than on larger international public goods – or as the US President said, “America first.” Grimes added that if another financial crisis were to strike, Asean + 3 must be prepared to go it alone.

In that same forum, which revisited the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez 3rd, said that Asean has learned its lesson, and that another crisis is unlikely. “The crisis was a misfortune, but from it, we drew strength.”

Speaking of infrastructure, the Philippines is in crisis. Look at the high cost of power, congested roads in many urban areas, and broken public transportation systems. But from that, the country must now draw its strength. The opposite side of crisis is opportunity. The Philippines is at the center of regional growth and development, and it has friends willing to support it. The time to act is now. Manila will host the next ADB annual meeting in 2018. It would be good to hear then about concrete action that the Philippines has taken.

This story was originally published by The Manila Times, Philippines

Global Climate Policy in an Uncertain State of Flux

8 May 2017 - 8:27am

What would happen if the US leaves the Paris agreement? It would be a big blow to global cooperation, especially since the US is the top emitter after China, and is also by far a bigger emitter per capita than China and most other countries. Credit: Bigstock.

By Martin Khor
PENANG, Malaysia, May 8 2017 (IPS)

Global climate change policy is in a state of flux, with all other countries waiting for the United States to decide whether to leave or remain in the Paris Agreement.

That treaty, adopted by 195 countries with great fanfare in December 2015 and  came into force in November 2016, symbolizes the efforts of governments to cooperate to avert disastrous global warming that threatens human survival.

On 29 April, the 100th day of Donald Trump’s presidency, thousands marched in Washington and other cities in the US and around the world to protest against the administration’s about-turn in climate policy.

Trump signed an executive order at the end of March unraveling former President Barrack Obama’s clean power plan, the centerpiece of his policy to reduce emissions causing global warming.  The plan would have closed hundreds of coal-fired power plants and replaced them with new wind and solar farms.

Further reflecting the policy changes, the Environmental Protection Agency last week removed climate change information from its website, saying it would be undergoing changes to better reflect the administration’s priorities.

Martin Khor

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is now meeting for two weeks in Bonn to discuss rules to follow up on the Paris Agreement. Uppermost in the minds of the thousands of delegates and NGOs will be the uncertainty caused by the new US position.

Trump is expected to soon announce if the US will exit the Paris Agreement.  The administration is split, with one camp (that includes EPA chief Scott Pruitt and Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon) wanting the US to quit while others (including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner) advocate that the US remains.

The big change in US climate policy comes at a very bad time. Last month, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for the first time reached 410 ppm (parts per million) in the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii.

The level was 280 ppm in 1958 and passed 400ppm in 2013.  We are inching closer to the 450 ppm danger level at which there is only a 50% chance of keeping global temperature rise to 2 degrees celsius.

The year 2016 is the hottest on record.  Many recent signs of climate change effects include sea level rise; changes in rainfall; more flooding, storms, and drought in different parts of the world; and the melting of glaciers.

The hard-fought Paris Agreement has many flaws, but it is an important achievement. One drawback is that the mitigation pledges made by countries fall far short of limiting warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees.  Instead they would bring about 2.7 to near 4 degree temperature rise, according to various estimates, and the effects would be catastrophic.

The agreement also does not contain concrete commitments or plans by developed countries to assist developing countries to tackle climate change.  There remains the old promise to jack up climate finance to $100 billion a year by 2020, but no road map on how to get there, nor even an agreed definition of what constitutes North-to-South climate financing.

There is also little left of the old commitment to transfer climate technology to developing countries.  And while there is interest to help developing countries to curb their emissions (which is known as mitigation), there is less appetite to help them cope with the effects of climate change (which is termed adaptation and loss and damage).

Despite these deficiencies, the Paris Agreement has positive aspects which make it an important treaty. Almost all countries made pledges to take concrete actions. While participation is thus widespread, differences in obligations as between developed and developing countries remain in the Paris agreement, in line with the Climate Convention.

The agreement mandates that developed countries make greater efforts than developing countries on mitigation, and they are also obliged to provide climate funds to developing countries.

Most important, the Paris agreement is a symbol and manifestation of international cooperation to tackle the climate crisis. Although the overall level of ambition is too low, the agreement has mechanisms to urge members to increase the ambition in both mitigation and in assistance to developing countries in future.

There might however be a situation of the worst of both worlds: The US announces it is quitting, thus already damaging global cooperation, then plays a spoiler’s game inside, since it will still be a member for four more years.
Without a Paris agreement, there would be no global framework or action plan for the coming decades. The world would be adrift even as the crisis worsens.

What would happen if the US leaves the Paris agreement?  It would be a big blow to global cooperation, especially since the US is the top emitter after China, and is also by far a bigger emitter per capita than China and most other countries.

There is also a fear of a contagion effect. Some other countries may follow the US and quit the agreement too.

In an opinion article, former UN Secretary General Ban Ki moon and Harvard University professor Robert Stavins have strongly argued that the US must stay inside the Paris agreement, for the sake of the world and for its own interests.

They also point out that even if Trump decides the pull the US out, this withdrawal will only take effect after four years, due to the rules of the agreement.

They add that if the US wants a quicker exit, it can quit the Climate Convention, under which the Paris agreement is established. This exit will take effect after a year. But if it leaves the Convention, the US would really become a “pariah” and thus it is unlikely to do so.

In any case, the US will still be a member of the Paris agreement during the rest of Trump’s present term.

It is unlikely to be a passive member, whether or not it gives notice to exit from Paris.  There is a growing consensus among Trump’s advisers that the US can’t stay in the Paris agreement unless it negotiates new terms, according to a report in Politico.

While it it is impossible to renegotiate the Paris deal, Trump’s officials are ‘discussing leveraging the uncertainty over the U.S. position to boost the White House’s policy priorities in future discussions,’ said the article.

If this happens, the effect may be really adverse.  Since the US will be in the Paris agreement for the next four years at least, it may use this period to weaken further the already low level of ambition of its own actions as well as those of other countries.

The US will also try to weaken or eliminate the commitments of developed countries to support the developing countries. Trump has already made clear there will be no more US contributions to the Green Climate Fund.

It will also dampen any discussions on how climate financing can be jacked up in the years ahead towards the promised $100 billion by 2020.

Some people have argued it may better if the US leaves the Paris agreement and that prevents it from discouraging all the others that remain from taking action.

There might however be a situation of the worst of both worlds: The US announces it is quitting, thus already damaging global cooperation, then plays a spoiler’s game inside, since it will still be a member for four more years.

It was thus heartening that US citizens are protesting against their government’s climate change policies.

It is also important for people and governments in the rest of the world to strengthen their resolve to fight climate change, rather than to relax now that the US leadership is refusing to do its part.

The best solution would be for the US to remain in the Paris agreement, and go along with other countries to meet and improve on their pledges and enable international cooperation to thrive.

That is not going to happen. So we may have to wait at least four years before another US administration rejoins the rest of the world to tackle climate change.  Let’s hope it will not be really too late by then to save the world.

 

Time to Find ‘Magic Formula’ to Stop Hatreds – Baku Forum

8 May 2017 - 1:59am

Night-time view of Baku, Azerbaijan. Credit: Ministry of Tourism and Culture, Azerbaijan

By Rahul Kumar
BAKU, Azerbaijan, May 8 2017 (IPS)

It is time to find that “magic formula” that will encourage people to stop conflicts, the rise of violent extremism and hatreds, and live together in peace, urged a United Nations senior official at the end of a UN-backed conference on intercultural dialogue in Baku, Azerbaijan.

In her closing remarks at end of the 4th World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue, the head of the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) Director-General Irina Bokova expressed hope and optimism that the world is “on the right path” towards building “inclusive and resilient” societies. “Act now to stamp out extremism and build peace in the minds of men and women” – UNESCO chief

More than 500 delegates, experts, academics, business and civil society leaders from 120 countries took part in this year’s Forum, held in Baku (5-6 May) under the theme ‘Advancing Intercultural Dialogue – New avenues for human security, peace and sustainable development‘, which was co-organised along with UNESCO and the UN Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC), among others.

Bokova also called on participants to act now to stamp out extremism and “build peace in the minds of men and women,” echoing the UNESCO’s own timeless message about the need to make the most of the opportunities to bolster peaceful coexistence provided by our globalised world of increasing interconnections and diversity.

“I think we all feel a certain sense of urgency, that we have to act […] the world is very fragile, and peace is very fragile.”

Irina Bokova

Bokova praised president Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan for his “longstanding leadership in promoting intercultural dialogue” as well as the tireless engagement of the First Lady, Mehriban Aliyeva, as UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Oral and Musical Traditions.

Azerbaijan has a long history on the ‘Silk Road’ ancient trade route, as a centre for exchange, scholarship and art. Baku’s Walled City is also inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Too Early to Cry Victory

A flurry of debates, panel discussions, exhibits and concerts held by renowned artists working to bring people of different walks of life closer together.

Preventing terrorism in cyberspace, educating girls to combat violent extremism, and changing people’s negative perception of migrants in cities were some of the topics broached at the Forum.

The agenda also included such topics as the role of faith, religions, human security, sport, education, art, sustainable development, preventing violent extremism, and business in building trust and cooperation among cultures and civilisations.

Reflecting on the outcome of the Baku Forum, Maher Nasser, Acting UN Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications, said it is too early to “cry victory” or dismiss the event as a failure because that can only be determined by what will follow.

“The discussions that I have seen bring back the importance of dialogue and using culture as a way to connect and to connect societies – sometimes within the same country. How culture bring us together as humans. We may see things differently, but there are also, sometimes, things that can bring us together. Culture and art are important elements of that,” he explained.

Nasser also highlighted the important connection between tourism and culture. “Tourism today is one the top employers around the world… Tourism depends on stability. No one wants to go to a region in conflict, unless you are war reporter. So tourism has a vested interested in promoting peace.”

Diversity, Dialogue, Mutual Understanding

Hosted by Azerbaijan, the Baku Forum was organised also with the participation of the UN World Tourism Organization, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Council of Europe, the Islamic Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization and the North-South Centre of the Council of Europe.

For his part, Nassir Abdulaziz Al Nassir, UN High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC), said that military actions and security measures cannot be the only response to the world’s challenges.

“The interconnected nature of today’s crises requires us to connect our own efforts for peace and security, sustainable development and human rights, not just in words, but in practice,” he said.

“The challenge now is to make corresponding changes to our culture, strategy, structures and operations. We must commit to achieve human security and sustainable development, in partnership with regional organizations, mobilizing the entire range of those with influence, from religious authorities to civil society and the business community, he added, adding that women and youth must also be brought to the table.

The Baku Process has become a successful platform to promote “peaceful and inclusive societies” around the world. Since its inception, Al-Nasser said, the Forum has encouraged and enabled people and communities worldwide to take concrete measures to support diversity, dialogue and mutual understanding amongst nations.

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Playing Pandu with the Press

7 May 2017 - 11:13am

By Neville de Silva
May 7 2017 (The Sunday Times - Sri Lanka)

Overawed by the May Day public display of support for their political opponents and even for their partners in government and perhaps exhausted by their own efforts to convince the people that promises made two years ago have not been forgotten, our ruling elite seem to have forgotten one important event.

The government will seek high standards in media through the establishment of an independent media commission says Deputy Minister Parliamentary Reforms and Mass Media Karunarathna Paranawithana

May 3rd was World Press Freedom Day which is commemorated in most parts of the world where even a semblance of freedom still exists and media practitioners can still get away with their limbs intact and their rights not entirely suppressed by despicable despots, officious bureaucrats and nepotistic appointees with little or no knowledge of the basic principles of good governance.

Usually presidents, prime ministers and ministers in charge of media would issue statements on World Press Freedom Day extolling their own virtues in safeguarding media freedom, how they have battled to preserve it or revive it after years of suppression and have stopped the physical and mental harassment of journalists.

But this year even those platitudinous words from political pulpits were absent. At the time of writing this column on Thursday night (London time) I checked the official websites of the president and prime minister who tend to move onto centre stage whenever there is a major national or international event that calls for a paragraph or two celebrating or commemorating it. After all, this government has often celebrated with words the great media victories it has won for us, extirpating the vicious maltreatment that went before.

Alas! I found none. There are, of course, the naïve and the ignorant which would discourage the media from delving too deep into their websites in case we discover their idiosyncrasies and lack of clarity. Despite such attempts at bureaucratic and diplomatic obfuscation we searched even the website of the Minister of Parliamentary Reforms and Mass Media, who, as the minister in charge should have recognised the importance of the world event and issued a statement on behalf of the country if the president and prime minister were too exhausted after participating in Labour Day activities though our May Day has little to do with workers, unlike when there was a strong left movement. Today workers serve one purpose — filling the sites of the rallies to which they are often transported at the expense of political parties.

Curiously enough even that usually loquacious secretary to the ministry seems to have taken a vow of silence which some might say is not a bad thing after all given some earlier encounters. Finally I managed to uncover a statement made by the Deputy Minister of Mass Media Karunarathna Paranawithana. However this record of government achievements in safeguarding journalists and their rights was not made in Sri Lanka but in the Indonesian capital Jakarta where a conference was held in connection with Press Freedom Day.

Some might even say that the government is trying to distance itself from its earlier commitment to media freedom by talking of its achievements in safeguarding that freedom by ‘selling’ these tales abroad instead of at home. Admittedly, it is more difficult to do so at home where the perennial platitudes are accepted with as much alacrity as the garbage that has been accumulating over the years at Meethotamulla.

“The government will seek high standards in media in Sri Lanka through the establishment of an independent media commission said Parliamentary Reforms and Mass Media Deputy Minister Karu Paranawithana addressing world press freedom day conference in Jakarta on May 3.
The Government is also committed to the cause of journalist safety and all efforts will be taken to end impunity, Mr. Paranawithana said addressing the panel on Journalists Safety and Tackling Impunity.

We are slowly but gradually moving towards ensuring full media freedom in Sri Lanka, he added,” reported the ministry website.

For the edification of those participants who are not fully acquainted with government media policy and related issues it would surely have been beneficial all round if the deputy minister had spelled out what this independent media commission is all about.

How does this commission work and how is the government going to seek to raise high standards in the media. Is this independent commission going to be truly independent or is it going to turn out to be another stalking horse that will stamp its hooves on criticism and dissent?

That is the crucial question here. Not what the government claims the commission is but what it will be in practice — another body to oversee the media under a more innocuous title.

“The government was successful in implementing RTI laws in Sri Lanka and the same inclusive procedures will be adopted in bringing in laws on media regulation,” the Deputy Minister reportedly said. Admittedly, the RTI law was a progressive measure and one should be thankful for seeing it through. But this rosy picture is already beginning to fade as it is being challenged.

Last Sunday, this newspaper carried two items — a news report by Namini Wijedasa and a column by the papers Legal Affairs commentator that exposed the surreptitious means by which the government has managed to smuggle into the Counter Terrorism Act (CTA) offences such as the one relating to “confidential information” by simply tampering with words in the earlier draft, intended it would seem to convince the European Union to approve GSP Plus status for Sri Lanka.

But, as Namini Wijedasa points out, this undermines the much-touted Right to Information Act. Wijedasa wrote: Confidential information has a broad definition under the CTA policy framework. It includes: “Any information not in the public domain, the dissemination of which is likely to have an adverse effect on national or public security.”

“Questions now arise on the position of the CTA against the Right to Information Act, also enacted by this Government, which denotes that public security is not a ground to restrict information. The RTI Act only permits information to be withheld on the grounds of “national security, defence of the State or territorial integrity”. This means that the proposed CTA now contradicts the RTI Act. It would also prevail over the RTI Act because the draft CTA states that once enacted it will have priority over past laws, she wrote.”

Legal Affairs columnist Kishali Pinto Jayawardene provides a more detailed analysis of how the government has tried to sneak in dangerous definitions of offences under the Counter Terrorism Act which it pretended to drop because of earlier objections.

Space does not permit me to quote at length Ms. Pinto Jayawardene’s column but it must be read in full to understand how the government is trying to hoodwink the country and the European Union by showing a more benign face when in fact it is subtracting from the progressive legislation it has already enacted.

This contagion of deception, lies and hostility to journalistic freedom and independence is now spreading beyond Sri Lanka’s shores where even diplomatic missions seem to believe that they should deny journalists access to information and contact, thus trampling on the right of the media to seek information under the RTI law.

Last month, the Institute of Commonwealth Studies held a two-day conference in London, co-sponsored by the Asian Affairs Magazine, on the theme “The Commonwealth and Challenges to Media Freedom”. A paper by Kishali Pinto Jayawardene was presented on the increasing concern in Sri Lanka, particularly regarding the faltering progress in enacting a Right to Information law and the impact of a recently proposed counter-terror law on freedom of expression.

As a founder-member of the Commonwealth one would expect Sri Lanka to be represented at diplomatic level, not only because it is a subject of concern to the Sri Lankan government which has expressed on numerous occasions its commitment to media freedom and the safety of journalists, but because of the presentation on Sri Lanka which was an embarrassing expose’.

This conference attracted many experts from diverse fields but all interested in media freedom. Much could have been learnt on the importance of the media’s role even in promoting trade, which today is a priority area for the government. For those who are unaware of the Commonwealth’s Latimer House Principles it would have been an opportunity to add to their storehouse of knowledge, which seems to have plenty of vacant space these days.

But then there must be a will to participate and a desire to learn how to deal with the media and how to use it as an important adjunct to the democratic process, not shun it because of ill-advice or ignorance, as the conference so patently conveyed.

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

Towards a Global Role for ACP?

7 May 2017 - 7:04am

Patrick I. Gomes, Secretary-General of the ACP Group, at the 105th Session of its Council of Ministers in Brussels. Credit: Goele Geeraert/IPS

By Goele Geeraert
BRUSSELS, May 7 2017 (IPS)

The African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP) met this week in Brussels for the 105th Session of its Council of Ministers to discuss the key question of how these 79 countries could play a more effective role for their own citizens and in the international arena.

The ACP-group was established by the 1975 Georgetown Agreement to co-ordinate cooperation between its members and the European Union. At that time, it consisted of 46 countries of the Caribbean and the Pacific that signed the first Lomé Convention on trade and aid with nine European Union member states.“The question of insecurity, peace and crime is also a fundamental question of poverty and development." --Patrick I. Gomes

Since then the ACP’s commercial and political clout has grown. Today it counts 79 states. All of them, save Cuba, have signed the Cotonou Agreement that replaced the succesive Lomé conventions and is better known as the ACP-EU Partnership Agreement.

Post-2020 relations

The current ACP-EU Cotonou Partnership Agreement ends in 2020.  In the lead-up to negotiations for a renewed partnership, future relations between the ACP and EU countries was one of the main points on the agenda of the Council. The current ACP-EU Partnership Agreement is based on three pillars: development cooperation, political cooperation, economic and trade cooperation.

Economic and trade cooperation has been a key component of the ACP-EU partnership. It took the form of Economic Partnership Agreements (EPA’s). They replaced the former non-reciprocal preferences the ACP countries enjoyed and had to meet the World Trade Organization (WTO) requirements. The majority of ACP countries are now implementing an EPA or have concluded EPA negotiations with the EU.

Ethiopia’s Minister of Finance and Economic Cooperation Abraham Tekeste said, “We have to be ready to fundamentally reform our cooperation with the EU after 2020 aiming at deepening our relationship in various, differentiated fronts rather than sticking to the traditional cooperation areas. We must ensure a more balanced partnership with Europe based on shared values and mutual respect.”

Therefore the Council of ministers approved its three priority areas to guide future programmes and activities of the Group post-2020: trade, investment, industrialisation and services; development cooperation, technology, science, innovation and research; political dialogue and advocacy.

The ACP representatives reaffirmed their commitment to enhance ACP-EU trade relations. At the same time, they asked the European Union to show flexibility in responding to concerns from ACP countries.

Comparative advantage

Another APC challenge of paramount importance will be to demonstrate its comparative advantage in partnerships with governments, the UN, multilateral organizations, civil society, the private sector, academia, and others.

According to Peter Thomson, President of the UN General Assembly, the ACP Group has an added value on the global scene. “It can play a significant role in multilateral agreements such as the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Climate Agreement.”

This has recently been shown by the joint announcement made by the EU and ACP during the COP21 negotiations, representing 28 plus 79 countries of the world. The partners called for a legally-binding, ambitious, inclusive and durable agreement with clear long term goals, as well as a five-yearly review mechanism and a transparency and accountability system tracking national commitment progress.

The statement became known as the “Ambition Coalition”, quickly growing to include major powers and emerging economies.

Intra-ACP cooperation

To play a significant global role, the ACP-group must also invest in stronger intra-ACP cooperation. There the group wants to play a complementary role to national and regional initiatives.

Patrick I. Gomes, Secretary-General of the ACP Group, said, “Looking at the question of security, peace and stability, we do not have an army to go for example after Boko Haram in Nigeria. But as ACP we can ask ourselves why that ideology of Boko Haram appeals to young people and what gives people purpose in life. And that is where the ACP culture programme comes in.

“The question of insecurity, peace and crime is also a fundamental question of poverty and development: how do we have comprehensive approaches to reducing and addressing poverty in all its forms and aspects? ACP makes a contribution in that direction by complementing what is at the national and the regional level. We have to look for examples of success at the national, we have to learn from each other’s experience and make a difference by our intra-ACP programmes.”

Sustainable financing

No organisation can develop without strong institutions and solid, sustainable financing sources. Therefore the Council asked its member states to invest in a sustainable self-financing capacity of the ACP. It made an appeal to consequently pay their membership contribution and launched the idea of an endowment trust fund.

According to Gomes, “Member countries are receiving millions in grant financing thanks to the ACP. Compared to that amount of money the membership contribution is very little. So we encourage everyone to contribute to keep us going.

“We also encourage voluntary contributions as a start for an endowment trust fund. There is so much wealth and money in our countries. Would our billionaires and corporations not be concerned to look to how they can support their own organisation? We see that as a very important area for our financial sustainability.”

At the end of the two-day meeting, the president of the council, Abraham Tekeste, said, “We have received by our Heads of State and Government clear marching orders to undertake the reforms needed to transform the ACP Group into an effective global player, fit for the 21st century, and responsive to the emerging priorities of our Member States.”

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In France, ‘Us and Them’ Amid Elections

6 May 2017 - 6:55am

A scene from the exhibition in Paris at the Musée de l’Homme: “How do we categorise others?” Credit: A.D. McKenzie/IPS

By A. D. McKenzie
PARIS, May 6 2017 (IPS)

Launched in the run-up to the French presidential elections, a daring exhibition in Paris is sparking dialogue about the origins and nature of racism, both in Europe and elsewhere.

Titled “Nous et les Autres: Des Préjugés aux Racisme” (Us and Them: From Prejudice to Racism), the exhibition’s aim is clear: to have visitors emerge with a changed perspective — especially in a climate of divisive politics that have created tensions ahead of the second and final round of the presidential elections on Sunday, May 7."It makes no scientific sense to attribute a moral value to differences among people.” --Evelyne Heyer

“We hope that visitors will leave different from how they entered,” says Bruno David, president of France’s National Museum of Natural History and of its anthropology branch the Musée de l’Homme, which is hosting the exhibition.

“That’s the objective. What we’re doing is in the tradition of the museum, a humanist tradition, asking questions of society,” he adds.

Many residents of France are in fact wondering how the country reached its current stage, with an extreme-right candidate again making it to the second round of French presidential elections.

Marine Le Pen, the former leader of the National Front party (she has temporarily stepped down from leading the party during the elections), won 21.5 percent of the votes in the first round, placing after independent candidate Emmanuel Macron (24 percent), and beating the candidates of the formerly mainstream conservative and socialist parties, François Fillon and Benoît Hamon.

Polls predict that Le Pen will lose in the second round — like her father Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002 – and that Macron will be president. But she is still expected to garner around 40 percent of the vote, with her anti-immigration and anti-globalisation platform.

Xenophobia and using cultural differences to promote hatred and discrimination have especially caused concern among institutions with a commitment to human rights and equality, as the museum says it is.

“The first network of the Resistance [during World War II] was born here,” David said in an interview at the museum, which opened in 1937 and is located in the landmark buildings of the Trocadéro area, overlooking the Eiffel Tower. (An infamous visitor to the site was Adolf Hitler in 1940.)

“The exhibition is in line with our principles. It is not militant, because we’re a museum and our approach is scientific, but it is fairly courageous, especially during this time,” David told IPS.

Using photos, film, sculptures and installations in an interactive manner, the exhibition highlights how “differences” have been used throughout history to “imprison individuals in readymade representations and to divide them into categories”.

It stresses that “as soon as these ‘differences’ are organized into a hierarchy and essentialized, racism is alive and thrives.”

The curators have organized the display into three parts, focusing on the processes of categorization, on the historical development of institutional racism and on the current political and intellectual environment.

“It is natural to categorize,” says Evelyne Heyer, co-curator of the exhibition and a professor of genetic anthropology. “But it’s the moral value that we give to differences that determine if we’re racist or not. It makes no scientific sense to attribute a moral value to differences among people.”

Heyer says that based on genetic study, humans have fewer differences among them than breeds of dogs, for example, and that the “categorisation of race is inappropriate to describe diversity”.

The exhibition attempts to give scientific answers to questions such as “if there are no races, why does human skin colour vary,” and it presents information tracing the origins of mankind to the African continent.

Apart from the scientific aspect, the curators have put much emphasis on the historical and international facets of “racialization”, focusing for instance on Nazi Germany and the “exaltation of racial purity”; the treatment of the indigenous Ainu people in Japan; the divisions between Tutsi and Hutu in Rwanda; and segregation in South Africa and the United States.

During the opening night, as people crowded in front of a screen showing footage of civil rights struggles in the United States, a Paris-based African American artist commented, “I remember that so well.”

When a French spectator responded, “But you don’t look that old”, the artist stated firmly: “I am. I was there,” and so a conversation began.

The curators are hoping that the exhibition will engender long-term dialogue across political divides, but in the end the conversation might only continue among the already converted, say some skeptics.

Still, for anyone wanting to learn more about the consequences of racism and discrimination, the exhibition presents a range of statistics.

It provides ample information, for instance, about the lack of access to employment for certain “groups” in France (job applicants with Muslim-sounding names often don’t receive responses to letters), as well as figures showing that the population most subjected to racism in the country are the Roma.

“Racism is difficult to measure, but many studies have been done on access to employment and on people’s views of those they consider different,” says historian and co-curator Carole Reynard-Paligot. “We want people to see these statistics and to ask questions.”

She said that she and her colleagues also wished to show the move from individuals’ racism to state racism, to examine how this developed and the part that colonization and slavery have played.

Throughout the exhibition, which runs until Jan. 8, 2018, the museum is organizing lectures, film screenings and other events. From May 10 to July 10, it is presenting works by photographers from French territories, Brazil, Africa and the United States in a show titled “Impressions Mémorielles”. This is to commemorate the French national day (May 10) of remembrance of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade.

Meanwhile, other museums are also taking steps to counter the anti-immigration mindset. The Paris-based Musée national de l’histoire de l’immigration (National Museum of the History of Immigration) has invited the population to visit its “Ciao Italia!” exhibition, either “before or after” they vote on Sunday.

This museum, which like the Musée de l’Homme has been controversial in the past because of its “colonialist” displays, says the Sunday free access will be an opportunity to learn about the story of Italian immigration to France from 1860 to 1960.

It will also be a chance to “discover … the numerous contributions of immigrants to French society”, the museum adds.

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Mega-Projects Have Magnified Corruption in Brazil

5 May 2017 - 10:44pm

Former Brazilian presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff take part in an Apr. 29 demonstration in defence of the shipbuilding industrial hub in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, one of the oil projects in Brazil on the verge of bankruptcy, due to the crisis plaguing the state-run oil company Petrobras due to the corruption scandal and the drop in oil prices. Credit: Stuckert/Lula Institute

By Mario Osava
RIO DE JANEIRO, May 6 2017 (IPS)

It cannot be categorically stated that corruption has increased in the country in recent years, because there is no objective information from earlier periods to compare with, according to Manoel Galdino, executive director of Transparency Brazil.

But recent revelations give the impression of a drastic increase in corruption, involving unprecedented amounts of money, nearly the entire political leadership of the country, and numerous state-run and private companies.

The Odebrecht conglomerate, led by Brazil’s biggest construction company, admitted to having paid 3.39 billion dollars in bribes to politicians between 2006 and 2014.

And that is only part of the scandal. More than 30 companies, including other large construction firms, are allegedly involved in the embezzlement of funds from the state oil company Petrobras, the initial focus of the “Lava Jato” (Carwash) investigation launched by the Public Prosecutor’s office, which has been exposing Brazil’s systemic corruption over the last three years.

The proliferation of mega-projects in the energy and transport sectors since 2005 coincides with the apparent rise in illegal dealings, with the collusion of politicians and business executives to maintain shared monopolies of power and excessive profits.

The 2006 discovery of huge oil deposits under a thick layer of salt in the Atlantic Ocean, known as the “pre-salt” reserves, sparked a surge of mega-projects, such as two big refineries and dozens of shipyards to produce drillships, oil platforms and other oil industry equipment.

Those projects came on top of petrochemical complexes that had already been projected.

In the following years, two big hydropower plants began being built on the Madeira River, and in 2011 the construction of another huge plant, Belo Monte, got underway on the Xingu River. This turned the Amazon region into a major supplier of energy for the rest of the country.

Three railroads, over 1,500-km-long each, ports all along the coast and others on the riverbanks were added to highways in the process of being paved or expanded to reduce the country’s deficit of transport infrastructure.

“Mega-projects always have a big potential for corruption. In Brazil we have always had a lot of corruption, which has now become more visible, thanks to the activity of oversight bodies and the media,” Roberto Livanu, president of the independent I Do Not Accept Corruption Institute, told IPS.

“But we cannot say that there is more corruption now than before, there is no way of measuring the magnitude, amounts and people involved,” said Livanu, who also works with the prosecution in the judicial proceedings.

Because of the very nature of the crime, “we only have subjective perceptions created by the visibility of the cases, which is now increased by the involvement of people in power, attracting much more interest from the press,” he said.

Besides, due to their complexity, mega-projects tend to fail – 65 per cent of them fail in at least one of four main aspects: cost, deadlines, objective and quality – says Edward Merrow, head of the U.S. consultancy Independent Project Analysis (IPA), in his book “Industrial MegaProjects”.

This complexity, he says, also contributes to corruption, at least in countries such as Brazil, with multiple opportunities for fraud presented by the thousands of contracts signed with suppliers of goods, services and financing, and regulatory and tax authorities.

On Apr. 24 the Senate passed a law penalising abuse of authority, with the aim of avoiding the need for further probes like “Lava Jato”, which is investigating one-third of the members of the Senate on corruption charges. Credit: Lula Marques/AGPT

“It is likely that with the greater circulation of money, in a growing economy, with major investments, corruption may have increased in Brazil, but it is not possible to confirm it,” said Galdino, from Transparency Brazil.

This is because we don’t know the proportion that corruption represented in the past with respect to GDP, because there was no research that made it possible to obtain the results available today, he explained.

“Supervisory bodies have made a lot of progress in the past 15 to 20 years and this is what led to the Lava Jato operation,” also underpinned by a mobilised civil society, Galdino said.

The Public Prosecutor’s Office was strengthened and its investigations began to be carried out together with specialised judicial bodies, the Federal Police, tax authorities and financial oversight bodies, since corruption flourishes along with money laundering, he said.

The plea bargains that encourage cooperation with the justice system in exchange for reduced sentences were a key instrument for the success of Lava Jato, with 155 such agreements reached with people under investigation.

The law allowing for plea bargains was passed in 2013, in response to popular protests that shook cities across Brazil in June that year, said Galdino, the head of Transparency Brazil, a non-governmental organisation whose aim is to improve institutions through monitoring and public debate.

“Until the 1990s the focus was on combatting administrative irregularities, but this approach did not lead to jail sentences for anyone,” he compared, citing as an example the case of lawmaker Paulo Maluf, a symbol of corruption ever since he was elected governor of the southern state of São Paulo (1979-1982), but who was convicted abroad, not in Brazil.

However, there are studies that show an increase in corruption when there is an abundance of public resources, as well as greater tolerance of those engaging in corruption during times of prosperity.

A ten per cent rise in transfers of resources from the central government to small municipalities increased by 16 per cent the serious cases of corruption in the city governments in questions, according to a study by Brazilian economist Fernanda Brollo, a professor at the British University of Warwick, together with four Italian colleagues.

The study was based on figures from 1,202 municipalities with a population of less than 5,940, during two periods of government between 2001 and 2008. The mayors who benefitted from the increased funds were re-elected in a greater proportion than the rest, despite the corruption.

“He steals but he gets things done” was the informal slogan of a former São Paulo politician, Adhemar de Barros, who governed that state during several periods between 1938 and 1966. In 1950 he was so popular that he was seen as a strong candidate to the presidency of Brazil, but he did not run.

Building large works, such as highways, hospitals and power plants has always been a source of popularity, as well as, according to popular suspicion, illicit wealth.

The proliferation of mega-projects during the governments of leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011), with dozens of works involving investments of over one billion dollars, in some cases over 10 billion dollars, with huge cost overruns, appears to confirm their direct relation with an increase in diverted resources.

Lava Jato initially investigated the oil business. But the corruption affected other projects in varied sectors, such as hydroelectric plants, the Angra-3 nuclear plant (under construction), railways and stadiums built or upgraded for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, according to that and other investigations carried out by the Public Prosecutor’s Office.

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Iron Grip of Persecution, Hunger and Discrimination

5 May 2017 - 11:39am

By Mohammad Badrul Ahsan
May 5 2017 (The Daily Star, Bangladesh)

Experts tell us that it should take another 150 to 170 years to close the gender pay gap around the world. Bad news for the mothers, sisters, wives and daughters! They have to wait that long for an equal footing with their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons. Especially so, when it comes to salaries and jobs. Living together for centuries, the two genders have been living centuries apart.

Source: thejerseytomatopress.com

The same thing is true between the rich and the poor. Microsoft founder Bill Gates gave us hope in his annual newsletter in 2014 that by 2035 there would be almost no poor country left in the world. But poverty being as old as mankind, its eradication might never soak up every last drop. When just eight men own the same wealth as half the world, poverty, you know, isn’t going in the blink of an eye.

Neither is it different between the strong and the weak. Conquests and subjugations go back to the dawn of mankind, but slavery originated about 11,000 years ago. Historians believe that mass slavery must have proliferated after the invention of agriculture because it required economic surpluses and high economic density to become viable. We’re hearing about the resurgence of slavery in this century amongst the refugee population, who are fleeing their countries to seek shelter elsewhere.

These are but three abiding examples of how history enters the equation of eternity as a function of time. Human beings started to exhibit evidence of behavioural modernity around 50,000 years ago. In so many years though, the flow of history has been negotiated between the surging tide and its indomitable undertow. In many instances, the change altered the constant. In many respects, the constant arrested the change.

Religious intolerance still simmers in many countries, resulting in frequent outbreaks of violence. Racial hatred is quietly seething under the surface of organised harmony. Sexual discrimination persists despite the most intimate relationships between men and women. Many loose ends are still dangling out there since the anatomically modern homo sapiens rose in Africa 200,000 years ago.

If you’ve ever dropped a stone into a well, you would know there’s a time lag between releasing the stone and hearing the splash. Everything in history has been going back and forth, one generation throwing the stone and another hearing the fall. In between, history has been punctuated by the eerie silence of truths held in abeyance. These are the times of insidious interregnums when the sublime turned into the ridiculous.

And that’s the underlying secret of human existence, talkative beings relentlessly mocking the terrible silence sitting inside them. Even the most outwardly popular person is inwardly lonely, emptiness swirling inside like howling gales. Driven by fear, uncertainty and hopelessness, every exhausted human soul feels like a deep tube well drawing water from exhausted aquifers.

Modern minds are even more miserable. Fickle and flimsy, their challenge is to stay focused on the fundamentals. The moral life for them is a trip to the museum, which houses the exhibits from a bygone era. It’s more like an excursion than an immersion. They believe to live, not live to believe. The physical is forever at odds with the spiritual.

That discrepancy creates hypocrisy mirrored in human character. Opportunism is hypocrisy exploited for convenience. Cowardice is hypocrisy used in self-defense. Greed is hypocrisy applied for self-gratification. Courage is hypocrisy leveraged for admiration.

These are the four walls that enclose the human condition. If populism is rising, religious tension is growing, racial hatred is spreading, and gender equality is lagging behind, it’s because that dismal condition runs in a loop. Marcus Aurelius, emperor of Rome from 161 to 180 AD, explained this ever-repeating loop in his famous saying that all things from eternity are like forms and come round in a circle.

The circular motion of history reinforces itself through a feedback loop. When human endeavours run their course, they trigger the feedback of hitting the wall, and it throws a monkey wrench in the works. Word eludes action. Crime evades punishment. Convenience takes over conviction. The Yeatsean Apocalypse sets in when things fall apart and the centre cannot hold.

Individuals, ideologies and institutions are the three levers of every civilisation, history mapping the terrains of their shifting coordinates. Power, wealth and gender haven’t changed much in the incessant flux of time. Persecution, hunger and discrimination still maintain their iron grip on the world.

Tears of the oppressed, cries of the hungry, and sighs of the deprived are markers that show the locations of human engagement in its purported evolution. Material acquisition and mindless ostentation are roadblocks, which divert the journey from time to time. And, when men and women can’t close their gap despite the fatal attraction between them, the fate of mankind must be a wild goose chase.

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

This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh

Can Education for All Work?

5 May 2017 - 11:29am

By Faisal Bari
May 5 2017 (Dawn, Pakistan)

Article 25-A in our Constitution makes education a basic right for all five- to 16-year-old children. For the last many years, governments have been trying to get all children in this age bracket into schools but have not been successful as yet. In fact, though the article talks about all five- to 16-year-old children, most of the focus of governments has been on getting primary education universalised — and we have not even been successful in that as yet.

Faisal Bari

Punjab claims that the ‘participation’ rate has gone up to 90 per cent at the primary level. But it is not clear as to what is meant by the ‘participation’ rate, how this is linked to gross and net enrolment rates and what this means in terms of primary-level completion rates. The claims about enrolments, from other provinces, are lower than those for Punjab, so the problem is bigger in other provinces.

It is often argued, in education policy circles, that getting all children into schools is the first priority and once that is done, we can worry about the quality of education and other related issues. And, broadly speaking, this is indeed the policy that the provincial and federal governments have been following. But, there are a number of problems with this perspective.

It’s hard to achieve universal education when we spent just 2pc of our GDP towards this goal.

The quality of education and our ability to get children into schools and, more importantly, to keep them there, are integrally linked. If children do not get a decent quality of education that can hold their interest and harness their ability to read/write, comprehend educational material, engage with the society they live in and provide options for career paths, it would be hard to keep them in schools. It would also be hard, in such circumstances, to try and convince parents and children for the latter to come to or stay in schools. Why should they? Why should a parent spend time and money to keep his or her offspring in school when the child is getting little or nothing out of it? Do we feel there is zero opportunity cost for children’s time?

Not only are we not able to cater to all children through schools (government estimates say some 22 million children from five to 16 years are out of school) we are not even able to impart quality education to the ones who go to school. How are we going to deal with the situation if, by a miracle, all children in this age bracket did end up in schools?

There is plenty of evidence that public-sector schools across the country, by and large, provide poor education. Most of the examinations conducted in the country, irrespective of their level, show poor results. The Punjab Examination Commission results for class 5 show that a significant proportion of students have not even gotten the hang of basic reading, writing, comprehension and mathematics.

Matriculation results show that a significant proportion of students fail the examination, even though it is a fairly simple one for that level, and that the pass percentage is only 33pc. A large proportion of those who pass are still unable to get admission into colleges. The same pattern can be seen at the intermediate level.

The case for education in the private sector is not very different. Barring the ‘elite’ private-education sector, which caters to less than 5pc of enrolled children in the country and charges tuition fees that only the middle- and upper-income groups can pay, most of the private education sector that is popularly known as the low-fee private sector also provides quality that is generally poor.

The examination results that we mentioned here show the poor performance of the low-fee private sector as well. A recent study that we conducted found that the returns of high-fee elite education package (better quality education, exposure to ‘O’ and ‘A’ Level examinations, and facility with English language) explain a lot of the differences in a) what sort of colleges students can enrol in, b) what sort of careers people can choose, and c) the salaries they get.

Given all this, should we still focus on enrolment first as a policy? Are we doing our children a favour by putting them in schools when we are not able to provide even a basic and functional level of educational quality through most of the schools that we have? Should we focus on bringing in reforms that target the quality of education as well?

Some might want to argue that we should be doing both ie getting every child in school and ensuring that they get a decent quality of education. This is a very sensible position to take and a lot of countries, both developed and developing, do focus on both issues simultaneously, but they spend a lot more resources, human and financial, on their education sectors. When the current government spends less than 2pc of GDP on education, how can we achieve universal education of even a minimum quality?

So, should we leave out-of-school children as they are and focus on quality-enhancing interventions only? This is the choice that society should be thinking about.

I might have my preferences on what policies should be adopted but in a democratic society decisions should be taken after an informed debate. The purpose of this article was to raise the issue of the choices before us. What we decide to do, as a society, is something that should be debated.

Whether we keep the focus on enrolment, move to focus on quality, or increase funds for the education sector substantially to be able to do both, should be a thought-out choice and not just a default position. Our collective choice will have significant consequences for our children and the future of this country.

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, May 5th, 2017

This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan

How to Counter Violent Extremism, Youth Radicalisation – Baku Forum

5 May 2017 - 10:54am

Baku Forum to promote sustainable development and human security through dialogue. Credit: UNESCO

By Rahul Kumar
BAKU, Azerbaijan, May 5 2017 (IPS)

The integration of migrants in cities, countering the rise of violent extremism, as well as youth radicalisation on the Internet have been some of the key issues discussed at a United Nations forum in Baku, Azerbaijan.

The Fourth World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue (May 5 – 6) hosted by Azerbaijan under the theme ‘Advancing Intercultural Dialogue – New avenues for human security,peace and sustainable development’ examined effective responses to challenges facing human security, including massive migration, violent extremism and conflicts.“Inclusive societies cannot exist without the full participation of youth” -- Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser (UNAOC)

The focus has primarily been put on the role of faith, religions, migration, human security, sport, education, art, sustainable development, violent extremism, business in building trust and cooperation among cultures and civilizations.

According to the UN Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC), the Forum provides a platform to discuss the way forward to build societies based on genuine respect for everyone’s rights including freedom of belief, equal opportunities, and good governance as well as an inclusive framework of tolerance and respect for diversity.

Organised in partnership with UNAOC, the Council of Europe, the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the North-South Center of the Council of Europe, and UNESCO, the Forum brought together heads of government and ministers, representatives of inter-governmental organisations, the private sector, policy-makers, cultural professionals, journalists and civil society activists.

‘The World Has Become a Very Complicated Place’

Nadia Al-Nashif, UNESCO Assistant Director General for Social and Human Sciences, said the Baku Forum has a “very strong vision and resonates deeply with UNESCO’s mandate to build peace in the minds of men and women.”

Night time view of Baku, Azerbaijan. Credit: Ministry of Tourism and Culture, Azerbaijan


“The world has become a very complicated place,” she noted. “We are looking at huge innovations in technology but at the same time, we are facing increased tensions, a result of the lack of general trust that stems from how much insecurity there is in the world.”

Al-Nashif said the UN intercultural dialogue is a platform for people to debate the notion of coexistence and what that means in regards to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that seeks to “promote norms for social justice, advocate for social inclusion, integration, acceptance, and not just tolerance but empathy.”

Ahead of the Forum, the network of the UNESCO Silk Road Online Platform met at the Baku Congress Centre to examine progress made in its 2016-2018 Action Plan.

The Youth Vision

As part of the preparations for the Baku Forum, about 150 youth representatives from around the world gathered at the UN Alliance of Civilizations’ 7th Global Forum (See: BAKU: youth chart vision of inclusive society at UN forum) in Baku, Azerbaijan, 25-27 April 2016.

Young people of all walks of life, from an Internet technology intern to a dentist, have been working to define future narratives to counter potentially compelling discourse of those who seek to divide society.

“People are disconnected because they don’t know each other’s experiences,” Rashida M. Namulondo, a storyteller and actress from Uganda, told communities, and platforms of action, told the UN News Centre during the pre-opening event of the UNAOC’s Global Forum, Baku April 2016.

Namulondo operates an online platform through which people can share each other’s experiences. “It is important that we tell our stories and listen to other people’s stories,” she said, emphasizing the power of storytelling to heal people’s hearts.

Lou Louis Koboji Loboka, a medical lab scientist in South Sudan, was also among the 150 participants at the youth event, titled ‘Living Together in Inclusive Societies: Narratives of Tomorrow.’

Having been displaced to a neighbouring country, he returned home to start a health-training venture. “A lot of youths are not educated, and therefore are messing up the country as I speak,” he said.

Ranim Asfahani, of Syria, said she chose to join the thematic group on youth and children because her organization engages with youth and children. Her one-word message is “peace.”

Shuhei Sakoguchi, a student at Soka University in Japan and a Buddhist, said he joined the thematic group on interfaith because every religion has good principles.

For Minh Anh Thu, of Viet Nam, said she was inspired by many peers who engage in innovative intercultural projects, and this youth event was an opportunity to think about community development and investment in youth in her country.

Inclusive Societies

Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser

Addressing the youth to the Global Forum, UNAOC High Representative Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser highlighted their ability to transform the world for the better.

“For the Alliance, inclusive societies cannot exist without the full participation of youth,” he said, stressing that UNAOC’s youth-focused activities and programming are built on the principle that young people are the primary agents of change – not just in the future – but in the present as well.

Al-Nasser, of Qatar, who held the presidency of the UN General Assembly for its 2011/2012 session and now heads up the UNAOC as the Secretary-General’s High Representative, said that the recent rise of violent extremism and terrorism worldwide only strengthened his work and mandate.

Growing Migratory Flows Threatening Peace, Security

Given this situation, UNAOC’s work must be more visible than ever, he stressed, noting that his priorities also include addressing issues related to the growing migratory flows that are threatening international peace and security, and the spread of negative narratives, such as hate speech on social media.

According to UNESCO, a boom in the world’s population (more than 7 billion in 2017), the power of technology, more salient human mobility, and the increased flow of goods and ideas across borders have brought cultures much closer together in the 21st century in ways unimaginable only a few decades ago.

“But as some doors have opened, others have closed in particular in the minds of women, men and children living with increased and more complex manifestations of diversity. This has strengthened prejudice, intolerance, racism, xenophobia, discrimination, radicalization and violent extremism.”

The Forum gives added impetus to the UN International Decade for the Rapprochement of Cultures (2013-2022), for which UNESCO is the lead agency within the UN.

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Mob Killing Sparks Fresh Outrage Over Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws

4 May 2017 - 8:01pm

A protest in Karachi over the lynching of Mashal Khan. Credit: Abida Ali/IPS

By Zofeen Ebrahim
KARACHI, May 5 2017 (IPS)

Aimal Khan, 27, an airman in Pakistan’s Air Force, warns the country will end up in the throes of mayhem if the state does not do something about the abuse of the blasphemy laws. “People will use it to settle personal scores,” he said.

He should know. His younger brother, Mashal Khan, 25, was brutally killed by a mob roused to a frenzy by allegations he had committed blasphemy. “They became the judge, the jury and the executioner,” Aimal said. "It's pretty obvious that religious passions are easily ignited because day in and day out all we hear about is religious sermonizing in one form or the other." --Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy

Studying at the Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan, in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (KPK), Khan was known for speaking out against corruption and injustices prevalent in society. On April 13, he was shot, stripped and not satisfied with that, the mob then beat up his corpse as shown in the graphic video footage.

The police investigation following his killing, however, found no evidence he had committed blasphemy. The government has since arrested 47 of the 49 accused.

Political activist and lawyer Jibran Nasir told IPS that the country’s blasphemy laws are not just used by the land mafia to evict people, but often for raising funds and recruiting members by rogue organisations. “The social media has become a more potent tool where one fake account with just one blasphemous tweet can kill someone,” he said alluding to the fake account created in the name of Mashal Khan to falsely establish he’d committed blasphemy.

According to opposition leader Syed Khursheed Shah, since 1990, 65 people have been killed on allegations of committing blasphemy and no one was executed for the crimes.

A month later, Aimal says the family continues to receive phone calls expressing condolences from all across Pakistan. Ordinary people to celebrities and even politicians have visited their home to offer comfort.

“After my brother’s murder, we thought humanity had fled from this country, but I tell you, it’s quite the opposite. We have been given unconditional support,” Aimal said, his voice filled with emotion, over the phone from his village Zaida in Swabi district, KPK.

He hopes his family’s loss can open the door to a meaningful debate on reviewing the infamous laws.

Muhammad Iqbal Khan (left), the father of Mashal Khan, who was murdered by a religious mob in Pakistan. The men offer prayers. Credit: Abdul Hameed Goraya/IPS

Aimal’s sentiments are echoed by Reema Omer of the International Commission of Jurists. “If Mashal’s most tragic killing could revive the debate and lead to blasphemy reform, that would be a fitting tribute to his bravery and courage,” she told IPS.

“The law should have been reviewed and reformed a long time ago. These incidents are latest but not the first,” pointed out Nasir. While exploitation of these laws can be corrected through procedural reforms, he said what was innately wrong was that they are in violation of Hanafi jurisprudence [followed in Pakistan] which gives no death penalty to non-Muslims for blasphemy but Pakistani law does.

Asia Bibi, a Christian, has been on death row for the last seven years. International Christian Concern  has termed his case one of the most “controversial” and best examples of the abuse of blasphemy laws.

While a complete scrapping of the law is unlikely, many see this as an opportunity to revive a debate. In 1986, to ‘Islamise’ the country, Pakistan’s then leader General Mohammad Zia ul Haq enacted these laws.

But anyone who has tried to even tried to open debate has either been censured or silenced.

In 2011, Salmaan Taseer, the then governor of Punjab, was assassinated for supporting Asia Bibi, accused of blasphemy. His murder followed on the heels of Shahbaz Bhatti’s, a minister who had talked of misuse of the laws.

Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazal) chief Maulana Fazalur Rehman, enjoying a huge following in the KPK, while condemning Khan’s lynching, said he was well aware that liberal forces would use this incident and call for amendment in the laws, but warned that no one would be allowed to touch it.

“For a few days when there was such an outcry it was felt the time for a critical review of the blasphemy laws had arrived,” said I.A. Rehman, noted rights activist, speaking to IPS. “The clerics were on the defensive.”

This euphoria was short-lived.

Rehman said the lawmakers belonging to religious parties disowned the resolution in the assembly which they had earlier backed.

In fact, soon after Mashal’s lynching, the legislative assembly of Pakistan-administered Pakistan passed two resolutions regarding the finality of Prophet Mohammad (Peace Be Upon Him) and respect of his family and companions.

A protest in Karachi over the lynching of Mashal Khan. Credit: Abida Ali/IPS

The resolution also stated that if Ahmadi’s (declared non-Muslims by the constitution of Pakistan) claim themselves to be Muslims, they should be charged with blasphemy.

He has little hope in Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who himself narrowly survived ouster and was saved by a supreme court verdict last month, after the opposition had taken him to court on charges of corruption.

“It [ruling Pakistan Muslim League — PML-N] will not take on the clerics at this stage,” Rehman said, lamenting: “The chance of doing something about blasphemy will again be missed.” But then he never had much hope attached to Sharif in the first place. “The PML-N is an accomplice to orthodoxy therefore there is no hope of a change for the better.”

However, there are others who say the laws have nothing to do with the recent episodes of lynching. The laws were not even invoked once.

Following the killing of Khan, in another part of Pakistan, a man was shot dead by his three sisters. He was accused of blasphemy in 2004 and the sisters in their confessional statement said they were incited by the imam of their neighbourhood mosque.

The same day a mob attacked a man after Friday prayers in northern Pakistan town of Chitral, and was saved in time by the mosque imam and the police officers who intervened and rescued him. The man was mentally ill and was on his way to Islamabad for treatment.

“It’s not the law, it’s the people, a people that have gone berserk,” said eminent educationist, Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, who teaches physics at universities in Islamabad and Lahore.

That is why he insists on teaching Occam’s Razor in his classes. “It’s a metaphor for parsimony of assumptions. Start with the obvious, if that doesn’t work then assume that something more complicated is involved,” he explained, adding: “In this [lynching] particular case, it’s pretty obvious that religious passions are easily ignited because day in and day out all we hear about is religious sermonizing in one form or the other.”

But Omer thinks otherwise. “Killings in the name of blasphemy and mob violence after blasphemy allegations cannot be separated from the law and its mandatory death punishment; the impunity – even patronage – enjoyed by perpetrators in the past; and the state’s use of blasphemy to clamp down on dissenting/critical voices,” she said.

Recalling the climate just before Khan’s killing, she said there was renewed movement by various state institutions condemning ‘blasphemers; calling blasphemy ‘an act of terrorism; and urging people to report blasphemy so strict action could be taken against them.

Nasir, too, believed that when the parliament associates the death penalty with a crime it “does trickle down into society, socially and politically”. He gave the example of the arrest of three people for desecrating a Hindu temple and tried under section 295A (of blasphemy laws) which does not carry death penalty but shows clearly that blasphemy against other religions does not create a “huge social or political uproar”.

In addition, Omer said, the existence of the blasphemy laws in their current form gives a certain “cloak of legality” to such calls. “Which is why we shouldn’t lose sight of the connection between the existence of the blasphemy laws and the kind of violence we saw in Mardan, in Chitral, and before that in Kot Radha Kishan and other cases,” she said.

A large number of people accused of blasphemy, or even convicted of blasphemy by trial courts for defiling the Holy Quran, suffer from mental illnesses, said Omer. “This too is a common thread in how blasphemy laws play out in practice,” she said.”This is a damning indictment of the prosecution and police, who allow these cases to continue despite the fact that the accused do not have the requisite capacity to commit a crime.”

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Refugee Journalists, the Challenge of Reporting from Exile

4 May 2017 - 1:16pm

Photo credits: Sara Furlanetto

By Elena L. Pasquini
May 4 2017 (IPS)

Abdulwahab Tahhan is a journalist and a refugee. From his exile in London, he documents the war that is devastating his homeland of Syria, monitoring airstrikes and assessing civilian casualties for the non-profit Airwars.

As for many journalists and netizens forced to leave their countries due to war, oppression, and persecution, continuing journalistic work has been a challenge for Tahhan. But now that’s his job: ‘Helping people understand the war better’, he told Degrees of Latitude.

Youngest of seven children, he grew up in Aleppo, studied English and literature, but not journalism, even if he would have liked. It was the concern of becoming used as a ‘propaganda tool’ that kept Tahhan away from professional reporting until the spring of 2011.

When the Syrian uprising erupted, he began translating content and videos about the demonstrations from Arabic to English for a secret Facebook group that spread updates beyond the Syrian borders, documenting arrests and detentions, and advising protesters how to keep themselves safe. ‘It wasn’t a professional platform; too dangerous to be identified as the journalist or the voice who was reporting about what was going on. Once you were identified, that’s it. You will be targeted; your family will be targeted …’, he said.

It was in Turkey, where Tahhan fled from Syria and obtained a visa to the United Kingdom, that his professional career in journalism begun, working as a fixer, interpreter, translator, writer and in the production of the award-winning documentary ‘The Suffering Grassers’. But getting a job in England was tough: ‘I had all the skills, I had the knowledge, the only thing that I lacked were the contacts’, he said. It was the Refugee Journalism Project, a collaboration between the London College of Communication and the Migrants Resource Centre, that provided Abdulwahab with what he needed to make his voice heard again.

It isn’t what you know, it’s who you know

‘In many countries, getting ahead in journalism still relies on having the right social capital, that is, being able to access jobs and opportunities by virtue of having an influential professional and personal network. The old adage still applies – it isn’t what you know, it’s who you know. So, if you are new to a country, don’t speak the same language, aren’t the same colour or religion, don’t have knowledge of the system, you simply don’t have the same social capital as the journalists who came through the European system. The project’s activities (mentoring, workshops and industry placements) attempt to address this’, Vivienne Francis, Project media consultant, explained.

The Project – which so far has worked with 36 journalists from a number of countries, including Syria, Sudan, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Cuba, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Yemen – was originally a London-focused initiative, but it has received applications from all across the UK, and ‘in greater numbers than we anticipated’, according to Francis. ‘We did not want to turn anyone away, as a number of these individuals – due to the UK government’s refugee dispersal scheme – were living in communities where they felt quite isolated. We had to find practical ways to support not just more participants, but also those who lived many miles away. One solution was to offer online mentoring and connecting them with networks of journalists closer to where they lived’, she said.

The value of a different perspective

Refugee journalists need support, but they bring to the newsrooms the invaluable knowledge of the countries they come from. ‘That’s one of the ways we could improve journalism’, Tahhan said. ‘If you want to write a story about Syria, you want a Syrian researcher, someone who understands Arabic, who understands the culture, who knows places and locations, that can tell you something about the country that maybe people here don’t know or are not aware of, that can double-check the authentication of specific reports’, he said.

It is not about teaching the local journalists how to do their job better; it is about providing them with sources, insights and different perspectives. He was intrigued, and alarmed, noticing how much attention European journalists put on bombings and terrorists killed, compared to ‘the victims of those bombings’, Tahhan said. ‘I would always focus on the humanitarian aspect; I would always focus on the civilian casualties from the war … I haven’t seen this very much on the news, to be honest. I haven’t seen a lot of reports from a civilian perspective’, he added.

But to unlock the potential of refugee journalists, many barriers have to be overcome and a holistic approach is needed: ‘The asylum process itself also takes a huge toll on individuals. Before they can think about re-establishing their professional careers, many have to deal with the emotional anguish of leaving home and loved ones, battling to get refugee status, permanent housing, and access to benefits’, Francis said. Giving refugees the basic tools for survival is not enough to enhance integration. The question is how to ‘maximize the value of the professions, work experience and qualifications they might already have. Their prior lives and experiences need to be seen as adding value to society’.

What is crucial, according to Tahhan, is to provide journalists with contacts and a ‘safe’ platform: ‘A safe environment is where you can start discussion ideas without being accused of being biased, discussing the ideas for the ideas themselves without attacking you personally …. [discussing] the ideas, [without] discussing the person, throwing accusation, stereotyping people, generalizing. Being safe [means] that you have been able to express whatever you want to express without being prosecuted’, he explained.

Refugees journalists must feel safe. ‘I know this is highly unlikely to happen in the Europe because of the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, but bear in mind we come from countries where we are oppressed and we can’t really report a lot of things against the governments, against the regimes’.


This story was originally published by Degrees of Latitude

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