Interpress News Service

Community Seed Banks: Securing Diversity for Climate Change Adaptation

23 May 2017 - 12:13pm

By Elena L. Pasquini
ROME, May 23 2017 (IPS)

For thousands of years, farmers have used genetic diversity to cope with weather variability and changing climate conditions. They have stored, planted, selected and improved seeds to continue producing food in a dynamic environment.

Community seed banks are mostly informal collections of seeds maintained by local communities and managed with their traditional knowledge, whose primary function is to conserve seeds for local use. They can play a major role in climate change adaptation, according to a recent article published by Bioversity International’s researchers Ronnie Vernooy, Bhuwon Sthapit, Gloria Otieno, Pitambar Shrestha and Arnab Gupta.

Based on various countries’ experiences, the article argues that, ‘community seed banks can enhance the resilience of farmers’ by securing ‘access to, and availability of, diverse, locally adapted crops and varieties’.

According to Ronnie Vernooy, genetic resources policy specialist at Bioversity International, ‘mostly because of climate change, there’s a stronger interest in establishing and supporting community seed banks’. However, many of them ‘are still quite fragile, organizationally and in terms of technical management’, he added.

Bioversity International, which is working in several countries on informal seed systems, has designed a project for community seedbanks Platform and is currently looking for donors interested in its implementation. The Platform aims at reinforcing farmers’ seed systems by supporting existing community seed banks as well as national or regional community seedbank networks around the world, scaling out their activities and contributing to their sustainability. It should have four key functions, covering documentation and analysis to practical experiences, capacity building, research agenda coordination and digitalization andmanagement of data.

But why do community seed banks matter?

Tools for adaptation

Seeds are stored in diverse types of collections, ranging from international and national genebanks, or ex situ collections where seeds remain often for years or decades, to small seed banks managed locally by farmers. ‘In the ex-situ collections … seeds are like frozen in time … That means there’s no chance [for them] to adapt in the field to changing conditions’, Ronnie Vernooy, explained to Degrees of Latitude.

In community banks, seeds usually remain for shorter terms, ‘ sometimes for one year’, Vernooy specified, to be then distributed to farmers: ‘Those plants are in the field and in the real conditions, so they are adapting themselves to changing circumstances. Then farmers usually select the best seeds of any given crop in the field. Part of those seeds goes back to the community seed banks and the next year the cycle continues’. Moreover, genebanks focus more on the major food crops, while community banks tend to conserve all the diversity farmers have on field, including minor crops, neglected varieties, medicinal plants, wild relatives and even trees.

Community banks not only conserve genetic diversity, they ‘have the potential … to become seed producers and it’s happening … but it requires support’, Vernooy said. Compared to the formal seed sector – which includes research institutions, genebanks, governmental bodies and private companies – the informal seed bank offers several advantages to small farmers, according to Vernooy. It provides not only ‘broader [genetic] diversity’, but seeds that are better adapted to farming systems that ‘tend to be diverse, [located] in marginal, very dry or mountainous areas, etc.’, he explained. ‘[Seeds from the formal sector] tend to require high level of inputs – fertilizers, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides … – and the price is often high’.

However, ‘it’s not a black and white system’, he stressed. The formal sector can help building farmers’ capacities. In fact, ‘in many countries we are trying to breach the gap between the formal and the informal systems with activities like participatory plant breeding, but also with the community seed banks … We try to bring the national genebanks work together with the community seed banks’, he said. In an ‘ideal world community seed banks could be part of what’s called a national conservation system. Right now, governments channel money into national genebanks … Our argument is why not also put a small amount of money into each of the community seed banks that exists or into the new ones that can be established?’, Vernooy said.

An enabling legal environment
Strengthening community seed banks requires not only technical and financial support but also an enabling policy and legal environment. In many countries, apart from a few like Bhutan, Nepal, Uganda, South Africa, Brazil, “there is no or little recognition of and support for community seed banks …, [and] farmers are not allowed to sell farm-saved seed. In others, legislation to protect farmers’ genetic resources is lacking’, Vernooy’s article reports.

Laws and regulations that can conflict ‘on what community seed banks are trying to do, [for instance] the intellectual property rights policies …’ are also often in place, Vernooy explained. Community seed banks are ‘like collective enterprises’ managed cooperatively: ‘Laws that prohibit or restrain these collective uses are in contradiction to what community seeds banks do’, Vernooy explained.

From an international perspective, the Convention of Biological Diversity and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture have been ‘quite supporting’, according to Vernooy. A study out of the Norwegian Development Fund, suggests that community seed banks can also contribute to the implementation of farmers’ rights to save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seeds. Those rights are recognized by ITPGRFA, which is legally-binding for 143 countries. The Treaty demands contracting parties not only to promote or support ‘farmers and local communities’ efforts to manage and conserve on-farm their plant genetic resources for food and agriculture’ but also ‘in situ conservation of wild crop relatives and wild plants for food production’.

‘ITPGRFA has the farmers’ rights and in principle the text is very much in support of community seed banks, but then it goes back to the national governments to implement those international agreements. So, we are back to the same situation’, Vernooy said.

However, the direction seems clear: ‘There’s quite a strong international movement of people working on these issues and the international treaty itself is quite interested in advancing on this’, he said.

Photo credits: Bioversity International – Bioversity International/C.Fadda – Seeds for Needs, Ethiopia

This story was originally published by Degrees of Latitude

“Horrific” Increase in Worldwide Displacement

23 May 2017 - 11:04am

Saidi Olivier, a displaced farmer in North Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) with his family in an IDP camp. Credit: IDMC

By Tharanga Yakupitiyage
UNITED NATIONS, May 23 2017 (IPS)

Over 30 million people were newly internally displaced in 2016 by conflict and disasters, according to a new report.

In examining trends around the world for its annual Global Report on Internal Displacement, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) found “horrific” and high levels of new displacement.

“Since we started this conversation, hundreds of families have been or are in the process of being displaced today,” said Secretary-General of NRC and former Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Jan Egeland during a press briefing.

In 125 countries, a total of 31.1 million new displacements were recorded, representing an increase of over 3 million from 2015 and translating to one person displaced every second.

“When a family is pushed out of their home, often for years, it is a sign that something is horrifically wrong in a nation, in a locality, and also in international relations,” Egeland added.

Of the total, nearly 7 million were newly displaced by conflict alone in 2016. To everyone’s surprise, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) surpassed Syria and Iraq in having the most new internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world.

“Our eyes and our focus were very much on the Middle East,” IDMC’s Director Alexandra Bilak told IPS.

“Sub-Saharan Africa has been consistently affected by internal displacement over the years, but we just weren’t expecting that spike in the DRC and we certainly weren’t expecting higher numbers there than in Syria,” she continued.

DRC has been marred by insecurity since the 1990s when the Rwandan genocide and an influx of refugees plunged the country into the deadliest conflict in African history, killing almost 5 million civilians.

Though the country declared peace in 2003, there has been a resurgence in violence between armed groups which has led to more than 900,000 new displacements over the course of 2016.

Egeland recalled his experience working in the DRC as Under-Secretary-General between 2003 and 2006, stating, “We were supposed to end that [conflict] a decade ago.”

He noted that DRC saw dwindling humanitarian resources over the years and fading attention.

“It fell off the top of the agenda and that was dangerous—that was a major mistake,” Egeland continued.

Bilak told IPS that the displacement figures found for the DRC in the report are “clearly an underestimate” as over 1 million have been newly displaced in the Central African country since the beginning of 2017.

The organizations also found that disasters displaced three times more people than conflict, documenting over 24 million new displacements in 118 countries.

Over 68 percent of all new disaster-related displacement took place in East Asia and the Pacific, including China and the Philippines, which saw the highest numbers of displacements due to heavy floods and typhoons. The effects of climate change on the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events will only further increase such displacement, the report noted.

And it is vulnerable small island states that will and continue to suffer disproportionately, Bilak said.

Haiti, which is still reeling from the impacts of the 2010 earthquake and most recently Hurricane Matthew, is among the top countries with the largest per capita disaster displacements. The Caribbean nation not only faces a high risk of disasters, but also a low capacity to respond and cope.

“This is another sad demonstration of the recurrent shocks to the system that these types of events represent and how difficult it is for certain countries to recover from them,” Bilak stated.

However, despite the fact that IDPs outnumber all refugees by two to one, much of the world’s attention and concern has been focused on refugees and migrants rather than the issue of internal displacement. For instance, more money was spent resettling refugees in donor countries than on the crises in countries of origin that forced people to flee in the first place.

“By only looking at refugees and migrants, you are essentially only really looking at the endpoint of a crisis—you are looking at the tip of the iceberg,” Bilak told IPS.

“It’s incredibly short-sighted and unstrategic to focus all political and financial attention on the symptoms of the problem rather than on the causes,” she continued.

Egeland echoed similar sentiments, stating that though there are high numbers of refugees in the world today, it is a “total myth” that people are “overflooding” Europe.

There are some links between IDPs and refugees as unresolved internal displacement can sometimes lead to cross-border movements. Countries that often have high numbers of IDPs also tend to produce many of the world’s refugees such as South Sudan and Syria.

However, it is necessary to look at the full migration and displacement picture and to acknowledge that internal displacement is an integral part of that picture, Bilak said.

Understanding patterns of displacement and movements allow for efficient and effective work on prevention, preparedness, and response efforts.

Both Bilak and Egeland called on renewed and redirected political and financial investments in this often overshadowed issue.

“The report is a tool for policymakers to help them prioritize where they should allocate their resources, both political resources and their financial resources,” Bilak told IPS.

This includes an increase in development assistance in order to reduce existing vulnerabilities and future risk, helping mitigate the long-term impacts of internal displacement and preventing cyclical crises from continuing in the future.

“Until the structural drivers of poverty, inequality, and underdevelopment are addressed, conflict and human rights violations will continue to cause displacement and impede solutions,” the report concludes.

Truth or Delusion?

23 May 2017 - 3:11am

Toddler in fright (looks just as if, but it is by chance; photo with symbolic impact). Credit: ηeonZERO. public domain.

By Robert J. Burrowes
DAYLESFORD, Australia, May 23 2017 (IPS)

One inevitable outcome of the phenomenal violence we all suffer as children is that most of us live in a state of delusion throughout our lives.

This makes it extraordinarily difficult for accurate information, including vital information about the endangered state of our world and how to respond appropriately, to penetrate the typical human mind.

‘Phenomenal violence?’ you might ask. ‘All of us?’ you wonder. Yes, although, tragically, most of this violence goes unrecognised because it is not usually identified as such.

Robert J. Burrowes

For most people, it is a straightforward task to identify the ‘visible’ violence that they have suffered and, perhaps, still suffer.

However, virtually no-one is able to identify the profoundly more damaging impact of the ‘invisible’ and ‘utterly invisible’ violence that is inflicted on us mercilessly from the day we are born.

So what is this ‘invisible’ and ‘utterly invisible’ violence?.

‘Invisible’ violence is the ‘little things’ that adults do to children every day, partly because they are just ‘too busy’. For example, when adults do not allow time to listen to, and value, a child’s thoughts and feelings, the child learns to not listen to themSelf thus destroying their internal communication system.

When adults do not let a child say what they want (or ignore them when they do), the child develops communication and behavioural dysfunctionalities as they keep trying to meet their own needs (which, as a basic survival strategy, they are genetically programmed to do).

When adults blame, condemn, insult, mock, embarrass, shame, humiliate, taunt, goad, guilt-trip, deceive, lie to, bribe, blackmail, moralize with and/or judge a child, they both undermine their sense of Self-worth and teach them to blame, condemn, insult, mock, embarrass, shame, humiliate, taunt, goad, guilt-trip, deceive, lie, bribe, blackmail, moralize and/or judge.

The fundamental outcome of being bombarded throughout their childhood by this ‘invisible’ violence is that the child is utterly overwhelmed by feelings of fear, pain, anger and sadness (among many others).

However, parents, teachers, religious figures and other adults also actively interfere with the expression of these feelings and the behavioural responses that are naturally generated by them and it is this ‘utterly invisible’ violence that explains why the dysfunctional behavioural outcomes actually occur.

For example, by ignoring a child when they express their feelings, by comforting, reassuring or distracting a child when they express their feelings, by laughing at or ridiculing their feelings, by terrorizing a child into not expressing their feelings (e.g. by screaming at them when they cry or get angry), and/or by violently controlling a behaviour that is generated by their feelings (e.g. by hitting them, restraining them or locking them into a room), the child has no choice but to unconsciously suppress their awareness of these feelings.

However, once a child has been terrorized into suppressing their awareness of their feelings (rather than being allowed to have their feelings and to act on them) the child has also unconsciously suppressed their awareness of the reality that caused these feelings. In brief, this means that the child now lives in a state of delusion.

And because this state was caused by terrorizing the child, the child is unable to perceive the series of delusions in which they now live.

Moreover, unless the child (or, later, adult) consciously feels their fear and terror, it will be extraordinarily difficult for them to perceive anything beyond the delusions that they acquired during childhood.

This is simply because the various elements of the child’s delusional state (the ‘values’, beliefs, attitudes, prejudices, biases) were the ones approved by the key adults – parents, teachers, religious figures – in the child’s life.

Needless to say, living in a delusional state has many outcomes that are disastrous for the individual, for society and for nature because the individual will now behave on the basis of their delusions rather than in response to an accurate assessment of all available information through appropriate sensory, emotional, intellectual and conscientious scrutiny. For a full explanation of this process, see ‘Why Violence?‘ and ‘Fearless Psychology and Fearful Psychology: Principles and Practice‘.

In essence then, the typical human being lives in a delusional state and this state is held in place by enormous, but unconscious, terror: the unfelt and hence unreleased childhood terror of being endlessly threatened and punished (for not complying with parental or other adult ‘authority’ throughout childhood).

And if you have ever tried to persuade someone, by argument of an intellectual nature, that a belief they hold is inaccurate and wondered why you couldn’t get anywhere, it is because you have run into their unconscious terror. And sheer terror beats the best argument in the world ‘hands down’.

So when you listen to people like Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, or ponder those politicians and military generals who conduct endless wars, or watch those people on the street protesting against Muslims and refugees, or watch police beating up another indigenous or black person, or hear someone else deny the climate science, remember that you are witness to a person or people living in a terrified and delusional state that prevents them from perceiving and responding intelligently to reality.

And that, in the case of political and corporate leaders, they only have the support to do what they do because a great many other delusional individuals (including voters and employees) enable them.

Equally importantly, however, it is also necessary to recognise that a delusional state afflicts many of those we like to regard as ‘on our side’. It is just that their delusions work differently, perhaps, for example, by making them believe that only token ‘make it up as you go along’ responses (rather than comprehensive strategies) are necessary if we are to work our way out of the multifaceted crisis in which human society now finds itself.

This is why many ‘leaders’ of liberation struggles as well as activist movements concerned with ending war(s) and the climate catastrophe, for example, are so unable to articulate appropriately visionary and functional strategies. But the problem afflicts many other ‘progressive’ social movements as well, which limp along making only occasional or marginal impact, if they have any impact at all.

So what are we to do? Well, the most important thing you can do is to never consciously participate in a delusion, whether your own or that of anyone else. I say ‘consciously’ of course because unless you identify the delusion, you will not be able to avoid participating in it.

And there are probably few humans in history who have avoided all of the delusions their culture threw at them. If they did, they were probably outcast or killed. Christ, Gandhi and King are reasonably good examples of people in this latter category.

But, historically speaking, many activists have been killed for refusing to participate in elite-promoted delusions. And many others have been marginalised, one way or another, depending on the culture.

The value of not participating in a delusion, whether someone’s personal delusion or a widespread social one, arises from the impact you have on those around you: some of these people will have the courage to reflect on your behaviour and reconsider their own.

If you believe you are relatively free of delusion and are committed to taking serious steps to tackle one or more aspects of our multifaceted global crisis, then you are welcome to consider making ‘My Promise to Children‘, and to consider participating in ‘The Flame Tree Project to Save Life on Earth‘, signing the online pledge of ‘The People’s Charter to Create a Nonviolent World‘ and/or considering using the strategic framework on one or the other of these two websites for your campaign or liberation struggle: Nonviolent Campaign Strategy and Nonviolent Defense/Liberation Strategy.

Living the truth on a daily basis is a tough road. And it will never come without cost. But living in the comfort of delusion, rather than taking action, is the path of cowards.

World to Cut Emissions With or Without Trump

22 May 2017 - 6:45pm

Officials say future climate action will require farsightedness, political courage, intelligent regulations and getting corporations on board. Credit: Bigstock

By Zofeen Ebrahim
BERLIN, May 22 2017 (IPS)

In a last-ditch effort, Germany and China are trying to influence the United States not to walk away from the Paris climate change accord it signed along with 194 nations.

In December 2015, nearly every country committed to take action to reduce planet-warming emissions."The US may try to renegotiate the terms of the agreement. Other countries have to be very clear that they are defending the integrity of the accord and would not accept reduced US commitments." --Lutz Weischer

“We are trying to influence the US through different channels and people, at the foreign ministry level to the EPA and even the Chancellor [Angela Merkel] has repeatedly called up President [Donald] Trump to remain in this landmark agreement,” said German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks at the two-day 8th Petersberg Climate Dialogue being held in Berlin.

Terming the Paris Agreement a “hard-won milestone”, the Chinese special envoy Xie Zhenhua said his country was “true to word and resolute in deed”. Like his German counterpart, he too reiterated that all signatories should “stick to it” and “not retreat”. China is resolute in its commitment, he said and added the need for transparency to “build mutual trust and confidence” was also paramount.

At the same time, both countries gave a positive signal of what they were doing to reduce carbon emissions, with Hendricks emphasizing on the need to work on the “ecological technologies of the future” in the sectors of transport, infrastructure development and grids. They talked about the advances made in the renewable energy sector, the dire need for phasing out coal and the baby steps made towards electric cars.

Hendricks said future climate action would require farsightedness, political courage, intelligent regulations and getting corporations on board. “We do not have a blueprint as yet” but countries are ready to ride the wave of enthusiasm although with some reservations but all for “prosperity in the long term”.

She also said it was prudent to mainstream climate action in all economic, fiscal even health policies. “The ball is in the court of national governments,” she said adding: “Actions should speak louder than words.”

But despite so much commitment, the air of uncertainty continues to loom heavy over all climate talks as President Trump mulls over his “big decision”.

Dr Ralph Bodle, a senior fellow and coordinator of Ecologic, a Berlin based think tank on environment, was recently in Bonn helping ministers and diplomats from nearly 200 countries to hammer out a “rule book” to say who should do what, by when, how and with what financial support, thereby putting the Paris Climate Agreement into practice.

He, too, conceded that there was concern over Trump’s decision during the 11-day intersessional climate talks. Bodle believed the Paris Accord “will live or fail with political will”.

It is expected the US president will announce a final decision after his return from Taormina, in Sicily, where he will attend the 43rd G7 Summit and where he will be pressured by other countries to give in.

In March, Trump had threatened to pull out of the accord and roll back the widely- supported climate policies of former president Barack Obama, whose administration set a target of a 26-28 percent reduction in emissions by 2025, based in 2005 levels. He had declared an end to the “war on coal”, signed an executive order that removed several restrictions on fossil fuel production and removed barriers to the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines.

Before leaving office, Obama had transferred one billion dollars to the U.N.’s Green Climate Fund and pledged billions more to the fund through the Paris deal, which has not been taken well by Trump.

He has said the US was “paying disproportionately” and that they “got taken to the cleaners financially”. It is unclear whether Trump will honour those financial commitments.

In addition, he has gathered around him climate deniers. Take Scott Pruitt, the environment chief, for instance, who has gone on record saying global warming is not caused by emissions from fossil fuels.

Not everyone is sure whether it’s better to have Trump in or out.

“If Trump poses conditions for the US staying in the Paris Agreement, depending on the conditions, they could cause damage to the accord,” said Lutz Weischer from Germanwatch. He suspects the “US may try to renegotiate the terms of the agreement. Other countries have to be very clear that they are defending the integrity of the accord and would not accept reduced US commitments.”

There are others who also say that the withdrawal may have implications for the US-China relationship. President Xi Jinping has publicly hinted at his desire for the US to remain in it despite a tweet by Trump saying climate change was a Chinese conspiracy.

During the campaign, he claimed on Twitter that the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.

According to Weischer, there are three important gaps that China is looking at — climate diplomacy, emissions and financing.”It knows it cannot fill the void all by itself and without the US on its side.” But if things take a turn for the worse, China will forge alliances with the EU and Canada. As for the financing gap, Weischer said “even that loss can be assuaged if all other countries stick to their commitments, at least for the next four years.”

But even if the US decides to pull out there are other countries who have reaffirmed their commitment which could, in fact be, a “reaction to the US”, said Weischer, who heads international climate policy at Germanwatch. He said it was more important to keep that momentum with actions being taken on the ground.

Even within the US, there are several states and even big corporations who want the US to have the seat at the table. “And even within the White House there are various camps on the issue,” he noted.

The next Conference of Parties to the climate framework (COP23), to be held this November, will be organized by Fiji, but hosted by Bonn.

Related Articles

The ‘Public’ in Public Health

22 May 2017 - 6:08pm

By Vani S. Kulkarni
PHILADELPHIA, May 22 2017 (IPS)

 

The discourse must move beyond a top-down approach to listen to the people and formulate best insurance practices

Much ink has been spilled in documenting the inadequacy of budgetary allocations for public health insurance, specifically for the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY), the world’s largest publicly-funded health insurance (PFHI) scheme. Though the 2017-18 budget allocation has marginally increased from last year’s revised estimates, it has declined relative to last year’s budgeted amount by about ₹500 crore. However, higher budgetary allocation can only constitute a small part of the solution to the scheme’s mixed, if not lacklustre, performance.

Vani S. Kulkarni

Under the scheme, a Below Poverty Line (BPL) family of five is entitled to more than 700 treatments and procedures at government-set prices, for an annual enrolment fee of ₹30. However, even nine years after its implementation, it has failed to cover a large number of targeted families — almost three-fifths of them. Their exclusion has been due to factors like the prevalent discrimination against disadvantaged groups; a lack of mandate on insurance companies to achieve higher enrolment rates; and an absence of oversight by government agencies.

Increase in hospitalisation
True, there has been a substantial increase in hospitalisation rates. However, it is unclear if it has enabled people to access the genuinely needed, and hitherto unaffordable, inpatient care. Often, doctors and hospitals have colluded in performing unnecessary surgical procedures on patients to claim insurance money. For instance, hospitals have claimed reimbursements worth millions of rupees for conducting hysterectomies on thousands of unsuspecting, poor women. Indeed, in the absence of regulations and standards, perverse incentives are created for empanelled hospitals to conduct surgeries. It is thus not surprising that there is no robust evidence of an improvement in health outcomes.

Evidence on the financial protection front is conflicting as well. One study revealed that poorer households in districts exposed to the RSBY and other PFHIs recorded an increase in out-of-pocket (OOP) expenditures for hospital care, and a corresponding rise in incidence of catastrophic expenditure. There is near-consensus that the RSBY has resulted in higher OOP expenditures. Though it is a cashless scheme, many users are exploited by unscrupulous hospital staff.

So, what is the solution? There is a need to bring the ‘public’ back into the discourse on public health to highlight its present culture. The conversation needs to move beyond a top-down approach specifying budget allocation and administrative and technical efficiency. It needs to involve listening to the real public to deliberate on various health practices and policies.

My ethnographic study of the RSBY in Kalaburagi and Mysuru districts between 2014 and 2016 brought to light that a top-down approach on allocation and coverage was important but, by itself, did not translate to expected outcomes. What mattered more was the existing culture of health insurance — how it was perceived, practised and experienced in the everyday, local worlds of the enrolled households. Though they valued aspects like the money available and the number of illnesses covered, they were more deeply affected by how other actors — doctors, local officials, neighbours and even relatives — related to health insurance.

Card not accepted
The disillusionment of Savitri, one of the beneficiaries, after obtaining the plastic card said it all: “If public officials only give us the card without telling us how to use it, the card is just plastic material. Sometimes information is also not correct, making us feel that the card is of no real value if we do not know how to use it.” Further, many hospitals refused to acknowledge the card’s value. Shivakumar’s observation summed it well: “We went to the hospital with the card. Not only could it not be used but also the doctors did not even acknowledge us as patients… We just brought the card home and tossed it to the shelf.” Many bemoaned the absence of public debate on health issues and the RSBY card. Deva’s pithy response was illustrative: “If it is not talked about and debated, we can only think that there is no big value that we should pay attention to.”

Households clearly separated the economic value from social ones. A section saw health insurance as a bad omen, one that announced arrival of illness. Ramesh Kumar, among those in his neighbourhood who refused to enrol, explained: “This card is not a solution for illness, it is a cause of it. You see, when you people knock on our doors to give us the card, it feels like an illness is knocking on our doors. The farther away we are from the card, the further we are from health problems.”

Overall, while the discourse on a greater allocation to RSBY and enhancement of cost-effectiveness are important, a shift of emphasis is needed, bringing the ‘public’ back into the sphere of public health.

The oped first appeared in The Hindu.

Abdullah bin Zayed hails Arab leaders’ resolve to combat extremism and terrorism

22 May 2017 - 5:16pm

By WAM
RIYADH, May 22 2017 (WAM)

H.H. Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, has praised the interest shown by the Arab leaders in combating extremism, welcoming the efforts being exerted by European countries.

H.H. Sheikh Abdullah made the remarks while participating in a forum entitled “Building New Digital Alliances Against Extremism.” It was organised by The Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Philanthropic Foundation “MiSK”.

The event included six sessions, which focussed on the process of diagnosing reality of extremist ideology on social networking sites, and exploitation young people by terrorists for recruitment purposes.

During the session attended by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir, Sheikh Abdullah, said, “Terrorism has no religion or nationality, as evidenced by the fact that some extremists emerged from European countries.” He explained that 60 percent of those who have so far joined the Daesh terrorist organisation came from Europe, after being converted into Islam, but with a weak orientation.”

He stressed that despite the great efforts of governments, “there is still more room to combat extremism amid the escalation of terrorism after the stage of Osama bin Laden, despite the billions spent on the war against terrorism in the post-9/11.”

The Saudi foreign minister stressed the need for counterterrorism strategy for three main elements: confronting terrorists on the ground, draining the sources of financing terrorism and countering extremist ideology, which is the most difficult stage of confrontation.

Al-Jubeir noted that the companies responsible for social networking accounts are beginning to sense and realise the danger of those extremist groups that exploit their websites to implement terrorist agenda. As a result, they have started to cooperate more with governments in providing information on the identity of instigating persons, he added.

The participants in the forum praised the launch of the Global Centre for Combating Extremist Ideology and confirmed the support for the project and its message.

Ecuador Focuses on New UN Tax Body to Fight Illicit Financial Flows

22 May 2017 - 3:29pm

By Tharanga Yakupitiyage
UNITED NATIONS, May 22 2017 (IPS)

The time is now to work together to fight illicit financial flows, according to Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Guillaume Long.

Guillaume Long

Ecuador, having long advocated for tax justice, has shed light on the issue at the United Nations. As Chairman of the Group of 77, Long highlighted the need to end the financial secrecy of tax havens that often harm developing countries and to create an intergovernmental body to help regulate taxation and financial flows.

In an interview with IPS, Long explains the issues, challenges, and goals in achieving tax justice.

Q: The President of the General Assembly said that SDG financing is going to take 6$ trillion annually and $30 trillion through 2030. Do you think much-needed finances will be made available if the current rate of illicit financial flows is curbed?

A: I think it’s huge what you can get from curbing illicit flows and basically from tax dodging or tax evasion. In the case of Ecuador, we calculated that an approximate amount of $30 billion is held in tax havens. Just so you get a general idea of what that means, Ecuador’s gross domestic product (GDP) is roughly around $100 billion so $30 billion means almost 1/3rd of our GDP. Most countries struggle to grow, but here you’ve got 30 percent of GDP literally being robbed from us in tax havens.

That means less investment, less dynamism in the economy, less creation of jobs and also less taxes—it’s those taxes that are used for public policies to reduce poverty, reduce inequality, and create much needed infrastructure.

There are have been estimates that public infrastructure that is needed right now in the developing world is roughly $1.5 trillion. This includes hospitals, schools—the kind of infrastructure that the developing world needs to reduce huge rates of inequality, poverty, and some of the things we are trying to amend through, for example, the SDGs. And that’s only probably about 15% of illegal assets held abroad in tax havens and various offshore accounts.

[Curbing illicit financial flows] could revolutionize and dramatically transform the story and history of development. And it would certainly be one of the best sources of financing for development which is the big thing. Now that we have come to an agreement on the 2030 Goals and what it is that we want to do, the next question is how do we do this? And we have to do this with resources. Some resources are available to us, but many others aren’t and this is basically through tax dodging.

This is also fundamentally a practice that is carried out by elites and therefore it also means that you get greater rates of inequality. In a continent or a region like Latin America—if you do a per capita average then it is the middle class but we know that averages hide huge disparities and Latin America is actually the most unequal region in the world and a lot of that has to do with elites not being a willing part of the social contract. And a major aspect of the social contract is taxation and not participating in tax dodging.

Q: How much does the developing world, particularly Africa, Asia, and Latin America, lose to illicit financial flows?

A: There are huge numbers that are being reported. Oxfam talks of $7.6 trillion in tax dodging—I’m not even talking about illicit financial flows, not even talking about offshore accounts, I’m talking about $7.6 trillion in tax dodging.

This is why Ecuador has taken this issue so seriously. We’ve been talking about tax havens and tax avoidance for years, particularly in this government in the last ten years with the Presidency of Rafael Correa. But after the Panama Papers scandal last year, President Correa really launched this as his priority and as a major crusade. He even launched what he called an “Ethical Pact” which included a referendum in Ecuador to ban civil servants and elected officials from holding assets in tax havens. If you are found to hold assets in tax havens, you can be removed from office automatically.

I really think Ecuador is one of the countries, if not the country in the world, that’s done the most. This referendum, which was successful in terms of its results, is an example to the world. And I think Ecuador has been the most proactive country in the year that’s transpired since the revelations of the Panama Papers in taking concrete and bold steps.

Another major thing that we have been doing on the international front is from our presidency of the G77 which we currently chair. We have pushed for the creation of an intergovernmental body on tax justice. We had a workshop this morning which was co-chaired by Ecuador, India, and South Africa with huge participation exactly on this issue.

There is an opportunity—now that the issue is back at the forefront of the media, it means that we have to maximize that opportunity to try and create mechanisms, particularly inside the United Nations, that fight tax dodging. [This issue] we can deal with if we have the right tools and institutions to fight that.

Q: What are your thoughts on public disclosures on tax havens like the Panama Papers? Is that something that is needed more in order to increase transparency and action on tax havens?

A: Whistleblowing plays an important role. When information is public and people find out about these things, if their politicians have been hiding money and fog them—most politicians have a very patriotic discourse saying they’re going to create jobs and economic activity and bring foreign investment. But surely there is a paradox and a contradiction if you are saying ‘vote for me because I’ll bring loads of foreign investment into the country’ and then on the other hand you’ve got all your personal assets hidden away somewhere without paying taxes. I think when those contradictions and lies, and I would use the world ‘robbery’ especially if you are dodging taxes, are exposed then that’s a good thing. It creates greater consciousness.

I think this is a time of great opportunity because since the Panama Papers scandal, a lot of countries that could be considered to be tax havens are starting to take measures because they are under increasing pressure by people and by countries like Ecuador and other countries to do something about it. The fact that we are having this debate today and the fact that I am talking to you is not necessarily in the tax havens’ interest because it brings the spotlight onto their activities so generally speaking, those kinds of public disclosures are very important part of creating a general awareness that this must stop.

There are a lot of double standards too. On the one hand, developing countries are under pressure for all sorts of things. They’ve got to grow, they’ve got to be good economically, they’ve got to guarantee human rights—all of these things which we absolutely abide by and are very committed to—but surely there is a contradiction with having to do that and then on the other hand, all of these countries that are kind of sermonizing the rest of the world from their civilizational pedestal are reaping the benefits of all the crony and corrupt elites of the developing countries depositing their money in these bank accounts without paying taxes.

So there’s a hypocrisy there that has to be exposed. And if these public disclosures can help to do that, then so be it.

Q: Has there been any progress since the Economic and Social Council’s (ECOSOC) adoption of the ‘UN Code of Conduct on Cooperation in Combating International Tax Evasion’?

A: That was a very important step. It was the first piece of important legislation and regulatory result that came out of the Committee of Experts in a long time. So we are seeing progress, though still not enough, but still progress. And that has to do with [it being] back on the agenda.

Now there is a new step, which I think is very important, that the Secretary-General from June onwards is going to be naming the members of the Committee of Experts. So that’s also a positive development because it obviously raises the stakes and gives it more political clout.

Ecuador’s position is that we celebrate that the Committee of Experts was created with largely the fruit of debate that goes back to Monterrey in 2002. But now we think that the Committee of Experts is insufficient and that we need something else. We need something with more clout, with more accountability, with more relation with the United Nations system itself and the governmental nature of this organization.

You have it in other spheres—if you look at trade, the World Trade Organization is a regulatory body at the highest level for trade while the Intellectual Property Organization is a regulatory body for intellectual property at the highest level.

Those institutions exist because it is in the interest of big capital that they should exist. Big capital is in favor of free trade and if a country stands in the way of free trade, then you get reprimanded. But it’s not necessarily in the interest of big capital to have the equivalent in the field of taxation. This is an important concept that we should bear in mind. A lot of the institutions of global governance that we have inherited respond to specific interests and not always to the interests of the most powerless in society. They respond to the interests of the most powerful in society.

And why should trade be more important than taxation? Probably in terms of redistribution, taxation is more important than trade. Although, nobody is saying that trade isn’t important for the overall accumulation of wealth of different countries, but in terms of redistribution and in terms of capacity of the state to work towards the 2030 Agenda, then surely [taxation] plays a huge role.

It is great that we are getting closer but it is frustrating that we are still talking about a fight in order to create an institution that will then dedicate itself to fighting for a greater outcome which is tax justice. We are not even fighting for tax justice, we are fighting for the right to have the corresponding institutions just like you have them in the fields of trade and intellectual property and others.

Q: Are you proposing for a new UN tax body or are you hoping to transform the Committee of Experts into an intergovernmental body that you have proposed?

A: We are looking to transform the Committee of Experts but we are very open to different kinds of formats. We are trying to create consensus and if you are trying to create consensus—I mean, we preside over the G77 which is 134 nations so creating consensus between 134 nations is already a tall order—but at the end of the day, we are actually trying to create consensus between 193 nations of the United Nations and that includes tax havens, countries that have been a little pro-status quo particularly in the OECD, and a lot of countries that are not in the G77.

So we are open to all sorts of different outcomes. We just want to raise the hierarchy, the political clout, the visibility, the strength of the body. There are a number of initiatives. Some people have talked about keeping it within the ECOSOC while others want to elevate it to the General Assembly—there’s a huge debate within the G77 about it. But there is consensus between 134 nations of the G77 that it should be an intergovernmental body. And that’s something that we are trying to, through our presidency, express the will of the nations that are members of our group.

Q: How feasible is the proposal for an intergovernmental body for approval by the General Assembly?

A: I think multilateralism is a slow process always. I think we are getting closer. And I think that the big conference on financing for development in the next few weeks should make significant progress. I think we will find that there is much more consensus than there was in Addis Ababa in 2015.

Most countries from the Global South have these discussions about tax justice and the right to development. But a number of countries from the G20 or OECD or more industrialized countries have also started to be flexible in their position. We are seeing changes. In the workshop we had today, which would have been unthinkable a few years ago, we had loads of tax havens present. Not just tax havens that are blacklisted in the Global South by the Global North but tax havens from Europe and from other parts of the world. And they were there because they want to listen in on the debate which shows that at least they are concerned or interested and some of them actually spoke out and said they are making changes and showing a greater commitment.

There is another major thing which is the securitization of the issue. For some countries, issues of terrorism is a big thing. Where do terrorists hide their money? Well, increasingly in constituencies that enjoy banking secrecy and those tend to be tax havens. If we can all at least agree on the outcome which is greater accountability and greater regulations on that matter, even if it is for different reasons, it’s about consensus building and that’s what multilateralism is about.

Q: So would this proposed UN tax body help bring such international cooperation in tackling illicit financial flows?

A: That’s exactly right. It’s not just about naming and shaming tax havens. If suddenly you have two neighboring countries in a European setting, even if they are developed countries, and they start this kind of taxation war by lowering their taxes in order to try to suck capital and investment out of each other in this kind of race to the bottom, then a [UN tax] body like that should be able to intervene and make at least the right recommendations. Whether those recommendations become compulsory then that’s another debate, but it should be a body like you have in other fields that has the capacity to make clear recommendations.

Q: Have you faced or expect to face opposition for this proposal, especially from the Global North?

A: For sure. The G77 has been facing—basically with the same position I am presenting to you is not a new position, the position has been going on for decades and there has been clear language on behalf of the G77.

It is interesting because within the G77, you actually have tax havens as well. But even those tax havens have accepted that an intergovernmental body, which doesn’t exclude them, is quite a good measure if you want to have a serious debate and discussion between member States on this issue. This has been the position of the G77 which has been resisted for decades. There has been loads of opposition. We saw it in Addis Ababa, particularly members of the G7 or the G20 and lots of opposition from the OECD countries and oppositions from countries that are not always considered to be tax havens in the kind of stereotypical manner.

Countries like the United Kingdom has been opposed to this very much, not only because of its own policies but also because of what is euphemistically called non-autonomous territories. The five biggest tax havens in relative terms of the offshore assets per GDP index are non-autonomous territories and four of the five are British while one is the U.S. They are not sovereign nations and they are not members of the United Nations. That’s an important issue and it’s not surprising that there is opposition when we are trying to move away from this.

The Panama Papers singled out Panama and actually Panama is making quite significant efforts to move away from that image. We are very happy to see them move away from such practices but actually, Panama is not necessarily in the top five in terms of the GDP index. The very people who even write up the black lists are not free of tax malpractice themselves.

Macron Likely to Diffuse Tensions as Independence Vote Looms in New Caledonia

22 May 2017 - 9:06am

Emmanuel Macron speaking at LeWeb 2014. After New Caledonia’s second polling, Macron secured a slight majority of 52.57 percent against Le Pen’s 47.43 percent. Credit: Official LeWeb Photos/ CC BY 2.0

By Catherine Wilson
CANBERRA, Australia, May 22 2017 (IPS)

The political future of New Caledonia, a French South Pacific Island territory of 273,000 people, is a profound question mark as a referendum on independence rapidly approaches next year. Equally, how the newly elected French Government, led by Emmanuel Macron, will perform as arbiter of the challenging process in the months ahead is a relative unknown.

Independence aspirations have risen in New Caledonia since the 1980s when violent unrest signalled growing agitation for political change by the indigenous Kanak peoples who comprise about 40 percent of the population. The territory was reinstated on the United Nations Decolonization List in 1986.Less than 1 percent of France’s population lives in the Pacific territories, but the state’s reluctance to severe ties with its overseas territories is due to ideological and strategic factors.

Michael Forrest, Foreign Affairs Secretary for FLNKS (Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front), proclaimed in a November interview with the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) that Kanaks “want to be free and integrated into the political, social and economic environment of the Pacific.”

“It will be a very complex issue to deal with, but I think that Macron will respect the result of the referendum, whatever it is,” Paul Soyez, Adjunct Professor at France’s Paris IV-Sorbonne University and researcher on international relations at the University of Melbourne, Australia, told IPS.

Thirty-nine-year-old Macron, a former investment banker and Economic Minister in the previous socialist government led by François Hollande, won the second round of voting in presidential elections on May 7 against Marine Le Pen, former leader of the National Front. He galvanised popular support for his centrist independent movement, En Marche! (On the Move!), with a strident call for national revival through economic reform and growth, social unity and strengthening of the European Union.

“Macron will maintain the French state’s conciliatory approach to the referendum, like left-wing politicians have done since 1988. His aim will be to secure a calm referendum for the sake of New Caledonia, and for his own sake. I think that his methods can help to avoid violent tensions in New Caledonia next year,” Soyez predicts.

Yet the territory’s political future was not a key campaign issue as a pressing domestic agenda, including high unemployment and concerns about terrorism and immigration, drove candidates’ rhetoric.

And none of the presidential candidates ventured to New Caledonia during campaigning, where voter abstention of 51 percent was very high. But, after the territory’s second polling, Macron secured a slight majority of 52.57 percent against Le Pen’s 47.43 percent. In Wallis and Futuna and French Polynesia, 80 percent and 58 percent of voters respectively chose Macron, giving him an overall lead across the French Pacific.

French politicians across the ideological spectrum, including socialist Francois Hollande, centre-right Republican François Fillon, and far-right Marine Le Pen, have stated publicly that, while respecting the referendum process, they prefer that New Caledonia remains part of France.

Less than 1 percent of France’s population lives in the Pacific territories, but the state’s reluctance to severe ties with its overseas territories is due to ideological and strategic factors, according to Soyez.

“Firstly, France constitutes an ‘indivisible’ republic. Therefore, as long as the majority of the population want to remain French, France has the duty to maintain its sovereignty. This is extremely important in the French psyche,” he explained.

As well, “French overseas territories enable France to project its military force all around the world, which is very important when France is leading several operations. France’s presence in the South Pacific provides Paris with the second largest Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the world, many natural resources and influence in its regional institutions.”

Macron also shared his hope for the status quo in an interview with Noumea’s media in May, while advocating that the causes of local grievances be tackled, such as unemployment of 14.9 percent. But Soyez believes that “Macron, like a majority of French citizens, believes that a solution can be found between the status quo and independence, if the local communities want to find a way to compromise.”

While the new President has a long list of domestic issues to progress, disputes over the referendum electoral roll demand resolution as well.

“One of the major challenges for us is to include what we estimate to be between 20,000-25,000 local indigenous Kanak people who are not on the referendum electoral list. This list is the responsibility of the French Government,” Forrest emphasised to local media.

An estimated 84,000 Kanaks and 71,000 non-indigenous citizens are entitled to vote in the referendum.

New Caledonia’s first referendum on Independence was held in 1987, but a major Kanak boycott resulted in a pro-France outcome. Further negotiations with France led to a second referendum being provided for in the 1998 Noumea Accord, which also pledged to address indigenous disparity and the partial devolution of powers.

Two decades later the Kanak population still struggles with hardship and low development outcomes. New Caledonia has a high GDP per capita in the region of 39,391 dollars. But research reveals that the employment gap has changed little since the end of the 1990s. In 2009, the unemployment rate for Kanaks was still high at 26 percent, compared to 7 percent for non-Kanaks.

Anger by indigenous youths during clashes with police near Noumea in recent months is a sign that inequality remains a burning issue.

Yet an opinion poll conducted by New Caledonian television in April points to a loyalist lead with 54 percent of eligible referendum voters opposed to independence, about 25 percent in favour and 21 percent undecided. Concerns about a French ‘exit’ include a possible decline in the economy and living standards. The French government currently injects about 1.1 billion dollars into the island territory every year to fund education and development, social security and the public service.

Another crucial hurdle for the pro-independence lobby is that, after decades of debate about self-determination, there remains a lack of consensus about a vision of nationhood which satisfies people on all sides of the political divide.

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Norwegian Trade Union Boycott Israel

22 May 2017 - 7:23am

Israel's separation barrier as seen from Al Ram. Credit: Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/IPS

By Linda Flood
STOCKHOLM, May 22 2017 (IPS)

The Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) has voted in favour of a boycott against Israel, which is expected to affect cultural, economical and academic ties. Condemnation has come from Isreali politicians, diplomats and unions.

By a vote of 197 for and 117 against, the LO congress passed the motion even though the representative General Council has not been in support of such a step.

According to Norwegian media organisation NRK, the newly elected president of LO, Hans-Christian Gabrielson, had warned delegates that a boycott could have negative consequences for Palestinian workers and trade unions.

Hans-Christian Gabrielsen. Photo: LO Norge

Histadrut, Israel’s largest federation of trade unions, reacted with great disappointment.

In correspondence with Arbetet Global, the Director of international relations,  Avital Shapira-Shabirow, expressed:

”It would have been better for the organization to concentrate on promoting positive agendas between the parties rather than to adopt this miserable resolution, which is in utter contradiction to the cooperation of the Histadrut and PGFTU”.

She continues:

”Once again this emphasizes the unbalanced and discriminatory policy of LO-Norway towards the Histadrut and its workers.”

LO has also encouraged the Norwegian government to recognize a Palestinian state within the borderlines of 1967.

”Precisely at this time when there is another attempt to renew the negotiations between the parties, it would have been appropriate to show more responsibility and avoid adopting a unilateral resolution that does not contribute at all to promoting a possible solution to the conflict”, Avital Shapira-Shabirow writes to Arbetet Global. 

”Norwegian government strongly opposes Norwegian Labour Union’s decision” stated Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs on Twitter, adding:  ”We need more cooperation and dialogue, not boycott”

LO’s close political ally, the social democratic Norwegian Labour Party (Arbeiderpartiet) were also critical to the result of the vote. Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre told news agency NTB:

”I am against the boycott. I do not believe it will move us closer to a political solution for Israelis and Palestinians, with the establishment of a Palestinian state and a strengthening of human rights”

The Israel embassy in Oslo condemned the decision. Ambassador Raphael Schutz wrote in an e-mail to news agency AFP:

”This immoral resolution reflects deeply rooted attitudes of bias, discrimination and double standard towards the Jewish state”

Swedish LO though have no plans to follow suit. ILO expert Oscar Ernerot explains their position:

”In Sweden we actively support a two state solution and that Israel will cease to occupy Palestine.  That is why we collaborate with the Isreali labour union Histadrut”

The Norwegian LO has 900 000 members which is about one-fourth of the national workforce.

Linda Flood

This story was originally published by Arbetet Global

Reflections on 2017 World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development

22 May 2017 - 1:38am

Dr. Hanif Hassan Ali Al Qassim, is Chairman of the Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue (“The Geneva Centre”)

By Dr. Hanif Hassan Al Qassim
GENEVA, May 22 2017 (IPS)

More than 7 billion people live on this planet spread among 7 continents, 194 states of the United Nations (UN) and numerous other non-self-governing territories. The world is made up of a mosaic of people belonging to different cultural and religious backgrounds. Our planet has been a cultural melting pot since time immemorial.

Dr. Hanif Hassan Al Qassim

According to the UN, the world population is expected to rise to 8.5 billion by 2030, 9.7 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion people in 2100. The projected rise of the global population will further reinforce the world’s cultural wealth and the opportunities for dynamic interchange between cultures and civilizations.

The 2017 World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development is an important opportunity to advance the goals of the 2005 UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. This landmark Convention aims to “protect and promote the diversity of cultural expressions” and to further enhance cultural diversity around the world.

The 2001 UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity likewise reminds us of the importance of moving “from cultural diversity to cultural pluralism” through social inclusion and cultural empowerment enabling social cohesion to flourish. Harmonious relationships between peoples start with cultural interaction and cultural empathy.

While we place great importance in preserving the diversity of cultures as a common heritage of mankind, we fear that the world is on the brink of entering into a phase of fragmentation and irreconcilable division.

The inflow of migrants to Europe has been used as an excuse to justify the rise of right-wing populism. Migrants are often scapegoated for the failures of societies although their contributions to the economic and social development of societies and to cultural diversity are well documented. Differences related to cultures and to religions are presented as obstacles and as being damaging to modern societies. This has given rise to discrimination, marginalization, bigotry and social exclusion leaving the impression that cultural diversity is a threat, and not a source of richness.

While the flow of migrants and refugees to rich Western countries constitutes a very small one-digit percentage of the population, they are increasingly resented. Yet it has been difficult to increase development assistance resources from rich economies to help stabilize people on the move who are present in countries neighbouring their country of origin. The latter, while much poorer, have welcomed a much higher, double-digit, percentage of migrants and refugees in relation to their own population.

With a view to proposing an alternative solution to enhance cultural diversity and to reversing this trend, I co-chaired a panel debate that was held on 15 March 2017 at the United Nations Office in Geneva (UNOG) on the theme of “Islam and Christianity, the Great Convergence: Working Jointly Towards Equal Citizenship Rights.”

During the deliberations, one of the panellists made a salient remark that captured the essence of the debate. It was emphasized that we should never fear “the stranger, in his or her difference, because he or she will be a source of richness.”

Echoing this view, I believe that in modern societies, progress can be ascribed to the celebration of cultural diversity and to the acceptance of the stranger. The driving force behind the success of the United States of America (USA) was the country’s openness towards migrants aspiring to live the American Dream. It allowed building a prosperous society that leveraged the talent of different people regardless of religious or cultural differences.

Embracing cultural diversity, open-mindedness and tolerance enabled the US to become a symbol of success and prosperity.

Taking inspiration from this example, I would like to emphasize that we need to cultivate a climate where cultural diversity is considered a synonym for progress and development. Exclusion and marginalization of people owing to cultural differences do not belong in an open, tolerant and prosperous society.

Hence the need to intensify dialogue between and within societies, civilizations and cultures. We need to learn more about each other, to build mutual bonds and to break down the walls of ignorance that have insulated societies.

The term “the beauty of the world lies in the diversity of its people” captures the essence of the 2017 World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development. Let difference beget not division but an urge to celebrate diversity and pluralism.

A Grisly Tale of Children Falling Easy Prey to Ruthless Smugglers

22 May 2017 - 1:20am

In the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, three children look out of the window of a train, which was boarded by refugees primarily from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, at a reception centre for refugees and migrants, in Gevgelija. Credit: UNICEF/Ashley Gilbertson VII

By Baher Kamal
ROME, May 22 2017 (IPS)

Don’t read this story if you are a parent or have children relatives. It is the bloodcurdling story of over 300,000 unaccompanied refugee and migrant children who are just a small part of millions of children that are innocent, easy prey for smugglers and human traffickers worldwide.

Among a raft of alarming statistics, a new UN report has just found that children account for around 28 per cent of trafficking victims globally. And that Sub-Saharan Africa and Central America and the Caribbean have the highest share of children among detected trafficking victims, at the rates of 64 and 62 per cent, respectively. “I’m a child, not a criminal, not a threat, not an outcast” – UNICEF

The new report, issued by the UN Children Fund (UNICEF), also informs that the number of children travelling alone has increased five–fold since 2010, warning that many young refugees and migrants are taking highly dangerous routes, often at the mercy of traffickers, to reach their destinations.

At least 300,000 unaccompanied and separated children were recorded in some 80 countries in the combined years of 2015 and 2016, up from 66,000 in 2010 and 2011, according to the report A Child is a Child: Protecting children on the move from violence, abuse and exploitation, which was released on May 18, and presents a global snapshot of refugee and migrant children, the motivations behind their journeys and the risks they face along the way.

“One child moving alone is one too many, and yet today, there are a staggering number of children doing just that – we as adults are failing to protect them,” commented UNICEF deputy executive director Justin Forsyth. “Ruthless smugglers and traffickers are exploiting their vulnerability for personal gain, helping children to cross borders, only to sell them into slavery and forced prostitution. It is unconscionable that we are not adequately defending children from these predators.”

A migrant gestures from behind the bars of a cell at a detention centre in Libya, Tuesday 31 January. Credit: UNICEF/Romenzi


First and foremost, children need protection, the UN agency reminded, while highlighting the importance of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, through which State Parties commit to respect and ensure the rights of “each child within their jurisdiction, without discrimination of any kind.”

One of World’s Deadliest Routes for Children

Few weeks earlier, a senior UNICEF official called the routes from sub-Saharan Africa into Libya and across the sea to Europe one of the “world’s deadliest and most dangerous for children and women,” as the UN agency informed that nearly half of the women and children interviewed after making the voyage were raped.

On this, its report A Deadly Journey for Children: The Central Mediterranean Migrant Route, warned that “refugee and migrant children and women are routinely suffering sexual violence, exploitation, abuse and detention along the Central Mediterranean migration route from North Africa to Italy,”

At the time of the report, which was issued end of February, 256,000 migrants were recorded in Libya, including about 54,000 included women and children. “This is a low count with actual numbers at least three times higher.”

The UN agency believes that at least 181,000 people –including more than 25,800 unaccompanied children –used smugglers in 2016 to try to reach Italy. “At the most dangerous portion– from southern Libya to Sicily – one in every 40 people is killed.”

Raped, Exploited, Left in Debt

Here, Afshan Khan, UNICEF Regional Director and Special Coordinator for the Refugee and Migrant Crisis in Europe, said that the Central Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe is among the world’s deadliest and most dangerous migrant routes for children and women. “The route is mostly controlled by smugglers, traffickers and other people seeking to prey upon desperate children and women who are simply seeking refuge or a better life.”

An abandoned farmhouse with a mattress used by prostitutes in Palermo. “I missed ever being a child,” says [NAME CHANGED] Mary, who was helped by a lawyer after she was trafficked to Italy, aged 17. Credit: © UNICEF/UN062791/Gilbertson VII Photo


“Nearly half the women and children interviewed had experienced sexual abuse during migration – often multiple times and in multiple locations,” with “widespread and systematic” sexual violence at crossings and checkpoints.

“In addition, about three-quarters of all the children interviewed said that they had “experienced violence, harassment or aggression at the hands of adults” including beatings, verbal and emotional abuse.”

In Western Libya, women were often held in detention centres were they reported “harsh conditions, such as poor nutrition and sanitation, significant overcrowding and a lack of access to health care and legal assistance,” the UN Children Fund informed.

What the Most Powerful Should – and Can Do

Included in the report is a six-point agenda calling for “safe and legal pathways and safeguards to protect migrating children.” UNICEF urged the European Union to adopt this agenda ahead of the Summit of the G7 (the group of the 7 most powerful countries) in Taormina, Italy, on 26-27 May.

The six-point agenda stresses the need to protect child refugees and migrants, particularly unaccompanied children, from exploitation and violence; to end the detention of children seeking refugee status or migrating by introducing a range of practical alternatives, and to keep families together as the best way to protect children and give children legal status.

It recommends, as well, to keep all refugee and migrant children learning and give them access to health and other quality services; to press for action on the underlying causes of large scale movements of refugees and migrants; and to promote measures to combat xenophobia, discrimination and marginalization in countries of transit and destination.

Such commitments would obviously be easy to take and implement by the G7 governments. The point is: will the political leaders of the world’s richest countries consider, seriously, this inhuman tragedy?

Are they aware that the number of children left alone has been soaring? UNICEF –which they created to assist millions of European refugee children, victims of their Wold War II– has just reported that 92 per cent of children who arrived to Italy by sea in 2016 were unaccompanied, up from 75 per cent in 2015.

Do these mandatories know that 75 per cent of children who arrived in Italy—the very same country hosting their Summit—have reported experiences such as being held against their will or being forced to work without pay?

Let alone the case of hundreds of children who are abducted to sell their organs, to be recruited by terrorist organisations as child soldiers, or are exploited in harsh “modern” slavery work.

Will these political leaders mostly talk big finance and big business–including the 20 May US-Saudi Arabia weapons deal amounting to 110 billion dollars? Who knows…they might also have some spare time to read US president Donald Trump’s latest tweets.

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Somewhere along the Way, Something Went Terribly Wrong

21 May 2017 - 4:07pm

By Aamer Mostaque Ahmed
May 21 2017 (The Daily Star, Bangladesh)

Misogyny is not a new phenomenon in our country. It is an age-old trait that has somehow become a part of our national psyche. I knew that though; I have known that for a long time now. But what I failed to recognise was the extent of it. I never for once realised how deeply enrooted this trait had become in our country; it is the dark side of our culture.

Illustration: Alberto Ruggieri

Can a culture possibly have a dark side? The short answer is, yes. Deeply ingrained social behaviours and norms, born out of hatred, malice and arrogance, can lead to the creation of a darker side of culture. And unfortunately, or rather tragically, misogyny has become such a part.

“She is a woman and thus she should be subjugated.” “She is a woman. Why would she need a promotion?” “She is a woman. So, how can she be this successful?” “How can ‘SHE’ achieve such glory?” And lastly, “She was raped? She must have done something wrong. She must have done something to deserve this!”

These utterances, mentioned above (because most the people in our country utter these lines in their minds) have taken the lead among all opinions. Rational thoughts and legitimate claims have taken a back seat. Rights, equality and even social justice are fading into the background.

The realisation about the deeply entrenched misogyny hit me hard very recently as I got embroiled in arguments regarding rape victims. I was astonished to find many people pointing the finger at the victims rather than the rapists. In most of those arguments, I was the sole voice, one against many, arguing for something for which there should not have been any argument in the first place. I felt cornered. I felt alone. I felt enraged. Don’t they understand what a heinous crime rape is? Don’t they realise that rape in our society means condemning the victim to a living death?

This country of ours was born through the sacrifices of many. Hundreds of thousands of women suffered at the hand of the invading army. They raped the women. They maimed them. They killed them. Some of those stories are so horrifying that it defies reality. With such horrible experiences, we as a nation should have had a united front against such an atrocious crime. Yet somehow that is sadly not the case. People here still try to find faults with the rape victim and not with the actual culprit. A sick standard has been developed over the years for women in our country, and the majority of the people in this country still measure women with that same sick standard. It is being used to measure the “character flaws” of the rape victims even today in order to shift the blame on them. One would have thought that things should have improved with the current reach of education in our society, yet it feels like things have got worse somehow.

What went wrong then? Does it mean that our families are failing to instil good values and a sense of ethics in the minds of the next generation? That does not seem to be the case – most of the people I have argued against have a good sense of ethics and good values instilled in them and many of them practice those values and norms in their lives. But it is this one thing where they cross the limit and enter the chasm of despicable thinking, and they do not even realise what thoughts they are putting forward. That women have rights (to mobility or professional success for example) and deserve respect never had a place in our brand of “values and ethics” in the first place. Our edition of “values and norms” has encouraged misogyny through its complete aloofness to these ideas. The prevalent norm was always about the subjugation of women. Sadly, the trend never changed and has led to the birth of a sordid and convoluted thought process which fails to make a distinction between a rape victim and the rapist. Misogyny has always gone unchecked in our country and now it has grown into a monstrous predicament.

There are also those who find pleasure in subjugating a woman. They find pleasure in disrespecting a woman. Those are vile creatures and many of their stooges have found voice through the spread of information technology. Many of those, whose dirty thoughts once prowled in their own minds only, are now finding comrades whose thoughts are equally vile. They are becoming a united front and the presence of misogyny in society is providing fuel to their agendas.

Something somewhere went terribly wrong along the way in our society and we have started to pay a high price for that. We cannot ensure that women in this country and this society will enjoy safety, security, equality and equal opportunity. There are very few people who believe in those ideas, and unfortunately, it is people with the opposite views that rule.

But, what went wrong can always be amended. A new beginning can always be initiated. Now the question is, are we ready to bring about changes? Are we ready to welcome a new dawn?

The writer works in a Financial Institution and has co-authored the Elza Octavella comics series.

This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh

Sri Lanka and New Economic World Order

21 May 2017 - 3:54pm

By the Sunday Times editorial team
May 21 2017 (The Sunday Times - Sri Lanka)

China hosting a mega event this week not only announced that it has arrived on the world scene as a major economic power-house, but telegraphed its vision for the next 30 years and more. With the US now on reverse gear advocating nationalism and protectionism, China has become the new face of internationalism. How the roles have reversed.

In an article on Page 8 (ST 2), a Sri Lankan-born UN diplomat lucidly explains China’s ambitious US$ 124 billion plans aimed at linking Asia with Europe and Africa, by road, rail and sea. The ‘One Road; One Belt’ initiative was attended by leaders of 29 countries, including Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister, 1,500 delegates from 130 nations, NGOs, the IMF, World Bank and the UN Secretary General.

To calm any unease that this was the Chinese dragon romping through the world stage, China’s President said; “We will not interfere in other countries’ internal affairs. We will not export our system of society and development model, and even more, will not impose our views on others”.

India was not impressed. For one, the road link cuts across disputed Kashmir. India boycotted the forum while the US and several European nations sent low-level representation, clearly smarting that they are being slowly, but surely upstaged by China.

The world is witnessing the re-emergence of two former Communist giants of the past — Russia and China which split on dialectic Marxism only to re-emerge as economic superpowers through free market policies they once derided as “Capitalist pigs”.

For the new Chinese initiative to be altruistic, is too good to be true. Those dealing with the Chinese negotiators on the Port City project and the Hambantota harbour know only too well how they drive a hard bargain and exploit the weaknesses of corrupt local politicians in developing countries when doing business.

Parallel to the ‘One Road; One Belt’ initiative, China has invested US$ 100 billion in an Investment Bank and the BRICS Development Bank to break the monopoly of the West-dominated IMF and World Bank and their grip over countries like Sri Lanka.

With the anticipated inflow of funds not forthcoming from the West despite a new Government more amenable to it here in Sri Lanka, it is becoming clearer that this country’s economic future rests on the broad shoulders of India and China. By accident or design, the previous Government recognised this fact, but played its cards wrong.

This Government will need to learn from past mistakes and look to the future as this ‘New Economic World Order’ unfolds.

Plantation workers are Sri Lankan citizens of recent origin
Indian scribes accompanying their Prime Minister last week to Sri Lanka were only half-joking when they said that their leader of over a billion people at home also loves to meet their diaspora overseas when he travels. This might have been after he got a rock-star reception in the United States.

And so, the story goes, that his office must have contacted the High Commission in Colombo and asked it to organise a similar event here; except that that there’s no real Indian diaspora in this country. The next best thing was to arrange a mass meeting in the central highlands where a sizeable crowd could be mustered of those categorised as “Tamils of recent Indian origin”.

No wonder, the Indian PM told the cheering crowd at Norwood estate in Dickoya last week; “We rejoice at the success of the Indian origin diaspora as they leave a mark across the world, near and far”.

The ancestors of these plantation workers were brought to this island from southern India as indentured labour by the British planters because the Kandyan peasantry whose lands were plundered under a Waste Lands Ordinance refused to work for the colonisers. It was an age when Africans were taken as slave labour to the cotton fields of America, but they have no allegiance any more to their country of origin.

The plantation workers here are now fully-fledged Sri Lankan citizens with voting rights. Their long struggle for citizenship has its roots in the Citizenship Act of 1948 which made them “stateless”, but that Act was modelled on the Indian Citizens Act which debarred Nepalis from citizenship in India.

If their line-rooms had portraits of Mahatma Gandhi it is understandable. And the Indian tri-colour displayed at Dickoya would have prompted the visiting dignitary to say; “India beats in your heart”, but it also raised concerns whether India was stirring the pot for a permanent fifth column here.

In an era of dual-citizenship, and a foreign citizen signing local currency notes, having allegiance to two countries may — or may not — be an issue as it was before. Parliaments still insist on allegiance to one country, but even Ambassadors are now allowed to represent a country while also being a citizen of another.

Minister Mano Ganesan, a frontline leader of the plantation workers sidelining the traditional ‘hereditary mafia’ that led them for decades, put things in perspective while addressing the crowd, “Our loyalty to our Motherland Sri Lanka is not a divided loyalty — we are only a bridge between the two countries”.

They were classed as ‘Tamils of recent Indian origin’ to distinguish them from the North and East Tamils whose ancestry dates further back to India, and who, in fact, looked all along at the plantation workers as people of a lesser god. To the eternal credit of the plantation Tamils, they had no truck with the North/East separatist movement of recent times.

It is, therefore, the bounden duty of the Government to embrace these Tamils not as those of recent Indian origin, but of recent Sri Lankan citizenship. They are the ‘natural increase’ of those people who opted to remain in Sri Lanka under the Sirima-Shastri Repatriation Pact. Young people in the plantations do not want to be ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’ anymore and prefer city jobs with technical skills or in supermarkets and foot massage centres. Labour is going to be an issue in the plantations unless the industry ventures into some form of mechanisation. Importing indented labour once again, as is feared with new Economic agreements repeating colonial history, is not an option.

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

Ph Needs to Build, Build, Build – Not Burn – Bridges

21 May 2017 - 1:49am

By Editor, The Manila Times, Philippines
May 21 2017 (Manila Times)

Like it or not, the Philippines needs to have more friends in the global community, real friends who will offer real support in times of trouble, like a threat of war from China. And building bridges to other countries, instead of burning well-established foreign relationships, resonates well with the “Build, Build, Build” program of Dutertenomics.

Duterte has made it clear that he is not a war-time President and has no intentions of going to war with China, which makes building bridges and cementing ties with other countries the right path to pursue.

Strengthening ties with other world leaders, as the President has done with Indonesia’s Joko Widodo, and making friends with the legitimate global economic powers is a wiser thing to do than to burn bridges with America, the United Nations and the European Union.

China must stop its bullying tactics and show the world its actions speak louder than words by not threatening its smaller neighbors in the region with armed confrontation, considering that the supposed objective of its recently launched One Belt, One Road initiative is peace and prosperity for the global community. Yet it is threatening the Philippines—its avowed friend—with a military response if Manila starts digging for oil within the country’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone in the West Philippine Sea.

The situation highlights the need for President Duterte to be building bridges and creating avenues to the global community by maximizing his six-year term to strengthen foreign relations. By taking this path, the President is also paving the way for the country to grow in its role in the global market. Another plus factor in this approach is the support of other nations that could rally the global community against any threat of war.

This year is a window of opportunity for the Philippines to do just that as host and chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) of the 2017 annual meetings as the regional bloc grows in economic scale and influence. Singapore will take over the rotating chairmanship of Asean next year, and Australia is hosting a special Asean-Australia summit in Sydney in March 2018.

Maybe it’s time other Asean member states—Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam—started rethinking their position regarding overlapping claims in the South China Sea, with the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in mind. It seems a wise and proper thing to do to have the dispute settled in court.

In July 2014, China opposed a Philippine attempt at offshore exploration in the Reed Bank, which forms part of the continental shelf of Palawan, as invalid and illegal, claiming the area was part of Chinese jurisdiction. The Philippines ignored the opposition as the area, also called Recto Bank, was 85 miles offshore and fell within the 200-mile exclusive economic zone. The Department of Energy also extended the service contract of Forum Energy and Philex Petroleum Corp. to continue drilling in the Reed Bank until August 2016.

The government eventually stopped the drilling activity in February 2015. In July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in favor of the Philippines, giving the country sovereign rights to its 200-mile exclusive economic zone and invalidating China’s claim to most of the South China Sea.

When threats of war are raised by one nation against another, other nations usually make public statements of support for one or the other, or that they are against any armed conflict as happened when the US threatened to bring war to the Korean Peninsula. China and Japan made their respective declarations of support. Asean, with the Philippines at the helm, even issued an official statement calling for peace.

Keeping old friends and making new ones would serve the Philippines well, making the path to building bridges to other nations not only the right way but also an important, significant and urgent thing to pursue.

This story was originally published by The Manila Times, Philippines

Kashmir: Hard Choices Only

20 May 2017 - 3:48pm

By Pervez Hoodbhoy
May 20 2017 (Dawn, Pakistan)

I recently received an extraordinary email from a troubled young Kashmiri in Srinagar. Days before the Indian authorities turned off the internet, Saif (not his real name) had watched on YouTube the 45-minute video documentary Crossing the Lines — Kashmir, Pakistan, India that I had helped make in 2004 and mostly agreed with its non-partisan narrative. A nationalist boy turned stone thrower, Saif is outraged by the brutality of Indian occupation. He is fortunate, he says. His 14-year-old second cousin lost his left eye to pellets.

Pervez Hoodbhoy

Read: What pellet guns have done to protesters in Kashmir

Saif continues to fight India but is worried. Protesters of his father’s generation were largely nationalist, but today’s are a mixed bunch. IS and Pakistani flags are often unfurled after Friday prayers, azadi demonstrations resound with calls for an Islamic state in Kashmir, and Nasim Hijazi’s cartoon history of Muslim rule in India Aur Talwar Toot Gayee is serialised by local Urdu papers. Significantly, Burhan Wani was laid in the grave by a crowd of thousands, wrapped in a Pakistani flag, and celebrated as a martyr rather than Kashmiri freedom fighter.

Why this change? The present government — Narendra Modi’s — surely stands guilty. By reducing space for democratic discourse, it promotes radicalisation. Unlike Vajpayee’s accommodative politics, India offers little beyond the iron fist and draconian laws such as AFSPA. The BJP-PDP alliance — shaky to start with — is almost over as each blames the other for the two per cent voter turnout in last month’s by-elections. Hindutva’s religiosity is displacing Nehru’s secularism all across India, and Indian democracy is yielding to Hindu majoritarian rule.

Kashmiri nationalists must realise the grave dangers of giving more space to religious extremists.

But blaming Modi is half an explanation, perhaps even less. In Palestine, after decades of struggle against Israeli occupation, the secular PLO lost out to the religious radicalism of Hamas. In Arab countries, young Muslims dream of fighting infidels and dying as martyrs. In Pakistan, the celebrated army operations Raddul

Fasaad and Zarb-i-Azb target armed militants fighting for a Sharia state. Last week, the Higher Education Commission showed its concern by convening a meeting of 60 university vice chancellors in Islamabad on rising extremism in Pakistani campuses.

Extremism has further complicated an already complicated Kashmir situation. What now? For long, Kashmiris, Pakistanis, and Indians have wagged fingers at the other for the 100,000 lives lost over three decades. Where lies the future? Does any solution exist?

Read: Diary of a Kashmir curfew

A short retreat into mathematics: some equations indeed have solutions even if they need much effort. But other equations can logically be shown to have no solution – nothing will ever work for them. There is still a third type: that where solutions are possible but only under very specific conditions.

Kashmir is not of the first category. Everything has been tried. Delhi and Islamabad have created clients among the Valley’s leaders and political parties, and subversion is a widely used instrument. But they too have turned out to be useless. Elections and inducements have also failed to produce a decisive outcome, as have three Pakistan-India wars. A fourth war would likely be nuclear.

All parties stand guilty. India, under various Congress governments, had once projected itself as a secularist democracy distinct from an Islamic, military-dominated Pakistan. It appeared for that reason to be preferable, but in practice its unconscionable manipulation of Kashmiri politics led to the 1989 popular uprising, sparking an insurgency lasting into the early 2000s. When it ended 90,000 civilians, militants, police, and soldiers had been killed. Remembered by Kashmiri Muslims for his role in the 1990 Gawkadal bridge massacre, Governor Jagmohan received the Padma Vibhushan last year.

Pakistan tried to translate India’s losses into its gains but failed. It soon hijacked the indigenous uprising but the excesses committed by Pakistan-based mujahideen eclipsed those of Indian security forces. The massacres of Kashmiri Pandits, targeting of civilians accused of collaborating with India, destruction of cinema houses and liquor shops, forcing of women into the veil, and revival of Shia-Sunni disputes, severely undermined the legitimacy of the Kashmiri freedom movement.

Pakistan’s ‘bleed India with a thousand cuts’ policy is in a shambles today and jihad is an ugly word in the world’s political lexicon. Say what you will about ‘Dawn Leaks’, but Pakistani diplomats who represent Pakistan’s position in the world’s capitals know the world doesn’t care about Kashmir. How else to explain Prime Minister Modi receiving Saudi Arabia’s highest civilian award from King Salman bin Abdul Aziz?

If Kashmir is ever to have a solution — ie belong to the third type of math problem — then all three contenders will need to rethink their present positions.

Thoughtful Indians must understand that cooling Kashmir lies in India’s hands, not Pakistan’s. By formally acknowledging Kashmir as a problem that needs a political solution, using humane methods of crowd control, and releasing political prisoners from Kashmiri jails, India could move sensibly towards a lessening of internal tensions. Surely, if India considers Kashmiris to be its citizens then it must treat them as such, not as traitors deserving bullets. Else it should hand Kashmir over to Kashmiris — or Pakistan.

Thoughtful Pakistanis must realise that their country’s Kashmir-first policy has brought nothing but misery all around. Using proxies has proven disastrous. A partial realisation has led to detaining of LeT and JeM leaders, but Pakistan’s army must crack down upon all Kashmir-oriented militant groups that still have a presence on Pakistani soil. Such groups are a menace to Pakistan’s society and armed forces, apart from taking legitimacy away from those fighting Indian rule.

Thoughtful Kashmiri nationalists — like Saif — must recognise the grave dangers of giving more space to religious extremists. Their struggle should be for some form of pluralistic entity – whether independent or under nominal Indian or Pakistani control. That entity must assure personal and religious freedoms. An ISIS type state with its cruel practices makes mockery of the very idea of azadi and would pave the way for Kashmir’s descent into hell.

Such rethinking would clear the road to peace through negotiations which, though narrowed, still remains open. Every conflict in history, no matter how bitter, has ultimately been resolved. In Kashmir’s case whether this happens peacefully, or after some apocalypse, cannot be predicted.

The author teaches mathematics and physics in Lahore and Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, May 20th, 2017

This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan

Unique Sandbar Coastal Ecosystem in Cuba Calls for Climate Solutions

19 May 2017 - 7:03pm

Local residents of La Playa rest under the shade of a bush on a polluted sandbar or “tibaracón” at the mouth of the Macaguaní River, near the city of Baracoa in eastern Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Ivet González
BARACOA, Cuba, May 19 2017 (IPS)

A battered bridge connects the centre of Baracoa, Cuba´s oldest city, with a singular dark-sand sandbar, known as Tibaracón, that forms on one of the banks of the Macaguaní River where it flows into the Caribbean Sea in northeastern Cuba.

Just 13 wooden houses with lightweight roofs shield the few families that still live on one of the six coastal sandbars exclusive to Baracoa, a mountainous coastal municipality with striking nature reserves, whose First City, as it is locally known, was founded 505 years ago by Spanish colonialists.

These long and narrow sandbars between the river mouths and the sea have a name from the language of the Araucan people, the native people who once populated Cuba. The sandbars are the result of a combination of various rare natural conditions: short, steep rivers, narrow coastal plains, heavy seasonal rainfall and the coral reef crest near the coast.

Local experts are calling for special treatment for these sandbars exclusive to islands in the Caribbean, in the current coastal regulation, which is gaining momentum with Tarea Vida (Life Task), Cuba´s first plan to tackle climate change, approved on April 27 by the Council of Ministers.

Baracoa, with a population of 81,700, is among the municipalities prioritised by the new programme due to its elevation. Authorities point out that the plan, with its 11 specific tasks, has a more far-reaching scope than previous policies focused on climate change, and includes gradually increasing investments up to 2100.
“I was born here. I moved away when I got married, and returned seven years ago after I got divorced,” dentist María Teresa Martín, a local resident who belongs to the Popular Council of La Playa, a peri-urban settlement that includes the Macaguaní tibaracón or sandbar, told IPS.

The sandbar is the smallest in Baracoa, the rainiest municipality in Cuba, while the largest – three km in length – is at the mouth of the Duaba River.

“It’s not easy to live here,” said Martín. “The tide goes out and all day long you smell this stench, because the neighbours throw all their garbage and rubble into the river and the sea, onto the sand,” she lamented, while pointing out at the rubbish that covers the dunes and is caught in the roots of coconut palm trees and on stranded fishing boats.

A man fishes on the beach next to the mouth of the Macaguaní River in the Caribbean Sea, on the outskirts of the city of Baracoa in eastern Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

The Macaguaní River runs down from the mountains and across the city, along Baracoa bay, which it flows into. It stinks and is clogged up from the trash and human waste dumped into it, one of the causes of the accelerated shrinking of the tibaracón.

“We even used to have a street, and there were many more houses,” said Martín.The Greater Caribbean launches a project

The 25 members of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS) approved on Mar. 8 in Havana a regional project to curb erosion on the sandy coastlines, promote alternatives to control the phenomenon, and drive sustainable tourism.

The initiative, set forth by Cuba during the first ACS Cooperation Conference, in which governments of the bloc participated along with donor agencies and countries, including the Netherlands and South Korea, was incorporated into the ACS´ 2016-2018 Action Plan, which will extend until 2020.

The project, currently in the dissemination phase to raise funds, already has a commitment from the Netherlands to contribute one billion dollars, while South Korea has initially offered three million dollars.

The initiative will at first focus on 10 island countries, althoug others plan to join in, since the problem of erosion of sandy coastlines affects local economies that depend on tourism and fishing.

“We have lost other communication routes with the city. We have to evacuate whenever there is a cyclone or tsunami warning,” said the local resident, who is waiting to be resettled to a safer place in the city.

Local fisherman Abel Estévez, who lives across from Martín, would also like to move inland, but he is worried that he will be offered a house too far from the city. “I live near the sea and live off it. If they send us far from here, how am I going to support my daughter? How will my wife get to her job at the hospital?” he remarked.

Such as is happening with La Playa, the
Coastal regulations establish that municipal authorities must relocate to safer places 21 communities – including La Playa – along the municipality’s 82.5 km of coastline, of which 13.9 are sandy.

“We have exclusive and very vulnerable natural resources, such as the tibaracones,” explained Ricardo Suárez, municipal representative of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment. “They are a sandy strip between the river and the sea, which makes them fragile ecosystems at risk of being damaged by the river and the sea.”

The disappearance of the tibaracones would change the “coastal dynamics”, explained the geographer. “Where today there is sand, tomorrow there could be a bay, and that brings greater exposure to penetration by the sea, which puts urban areas at risk and salinises the soil and inland waters,” he told IPS.

He said that these sandbars are affected by poor management and human activities, such as sand extraction, pollution and indiscriminate logging, in addition to climate change and the resulting elevation of the sea level. He also pointed out natural causes such as geological changes in the area.

In his opinion, the actions to protect the sandbars are band-aid measures, since they are destined to disappear. He said this can be slowed down unless natural disasters occur, like Hurricane Matthew, which hit the city on Oct. 4-5, 2016.

Suárez is the author of a study that shows the gradual shrinking of the tibaracones located in Baracoa, which serve as “natural barriers protecting the city”. He also showed how the population has been migrating from the sandbars, due to their vulnerability.

A man fishes on the beach next to the mouth of the Macaguaní River in the Caribbean Sea, on the outskirts of the city of Baracoa in eastern Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

In the shrinking community where Martín and Estévez live, between the mouth of the Macaguaní River and the sea, there were 122 houses in 1958. And on the Miel River tibaracón, at the eastern end of the city, there were 45 houses in 1978, while today there are only a few shops and businesses.

The unique Miel River delta used to be 70 metres wide in the middle of the last century, while today the narrowest portion is just 30 metres wide. In Macaguaní, meanwhile, the shrinking has been more abrupt, from 80 metres back then, to just six metres in one segment, the study found.

The expert recommends differentiated treatment for these ecosystems, which are not specifically contemplated under Decree Law 212 for the Management of Coastal Areas, in force since 2000, which is the main legal foundation for the current land-use regulation which requires the removal of buildings that are harmful to the coasts.

Suárez said the removal of structures on sandy soil surrounded by water must be followed with preventive measures to preserve the sand, such as reforestation with native species.

In the study, he notes that the government’s Marine Studies Agency, a subsidiary of the Geocuba company in the neighbouring province of Santiago de Cuba, proposes the construction of a seawall and embankment to protect the Miel River delta. And he emphasised the importance of carrying out similar research in the case of Macaguaní.

Cuba´s Institute of Physical Planning (IPF) inspected the 5,746 km of coastline in the Cuban archipelago, and found 5,167 illegalities committed by individuals, and another 1,482 by legal entities. The institute reported that up to February 2015, 489 of the infractions committed by legal entities had been eradicated.

When the authorities approved the Life Task plan, the IPF assured the official media that the main progress in coastal management has been achieved so far on the 414 Cuban beaches at 36 major tourist areas. Tourism is Cuba´s second-biggest source of foreign exchange, after the export of medical services.

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Bizarre Excuse to Not Stop Child Marriages

19 May 2017 - 1:29pm

By Editor, The Daily Star, Bangladesh
May 19 2017 (The Daily Star, Bangladesh)

Child marriage – despite the caveat in the new amendment of the law – remains illegal in the country. Last Friday, as eight under-age girls were about to be married off in Dinajpur, locals informed the local administration. But no action was taken by the UNO. In Narayanganj, an underage girl was married off on Sunday, but despite locals protesting, the upazila administration refused to intervene. A report by this paper yesterday cited more similar cases.

We know that the Act makes it mandatory for local administration to take action to stop child marriage. Section 4 of the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 2017 states that it is the duty of the UNO and other local government officials to prevent child marriages. Yet, with the most bizarre farce of an excuse, officials are now saying that they cannot take any action despite being informed of them, because the court has declared mobile courts illegal.

It is clear that either the UNOs are using this as an excuse to not act, lamenting the loss of judicial powers that mobile courts gave them, or they are simply ignorant of the difference between administrative and judicial functions. Stopping the marriage in question is an administrative function. Sentences and punishment are the domain of the judiciary.

There is no logic to their claim: preventing a crime from taking place using the power vested in their office by the law does not require judicial power. We cannot but wonder if these local government officials are allowing child marriages knowingly as leverage to demand reinstatement of mobile courts. We must urge that top level administration not only clarify the situation but also investigate why these officials refused to comply with the law and prevent the child marriages.

Enhancing Equal Citizenship Rights in Education

19 May 2017 - 12:08pm

By Geneva Centre
GENEVA, May 19 2017 (Geneva Centre)

International experts on education and democratic citizenship rights emphasized that education is a key driver in building inclusive and peaceful societies and in enhancing equal citizenship rights especially in countries affected by inter-communal strife.

These observations were made during a panel debate held earlier this week at the United Nations Office in Geneva (UNOG) on the theme of “Human rights: Enhancing equal citizenship rights in education.” This meeting was co-arranged by the Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue (“The Geneva Centre”), a think-thank on human rights, the UNESCO Liaison Office in Geneva, the International Bureau of Education (IBE) – UNESCO and the Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of Bahrain to the United Nations Office in Geneva.

The goal of the panel debate was to assess the impact of education in rebuilding societies affected by inter-communal violence in the broader context of human rights.

It also aimed at exploring the role of education in promoting democratic citizenship. Bahrain, Sri Lanka and Colombia – countries previously affected by inter-communal stress or conflict – were resorted to as case studies. The panel discussion was guided by the achievements of Finland in promoting equal citizenship rights through education.

The Minister of Education of the Kingdom of Bahrain H. E. Dr. Majid bin Ali Al-Nuaimi presented a video message explaining Bahrain’s vision of using education as a catalyst for promoting peace, tolerance and dialogue within the Bahraini society.

Interventions that were made by the panel members during the event (19 videos).

Agony of Mother Earth (II) World’s Forests Depleted for Fuel

19 May 2017 - 7:13am

Forests play a critical role for many countries in their ability to mitigate climate change. Credit: FAO/Rudolf Hahn

By Baher Kamal
ROME, May 19 2017 (IPS)

Humankind is the biggest ever predator of natural resources. Just take the case of forests, the real lungs of Mother Earth, and learn that every 60 seconds humans cut down 15 hectares of trees primarily for food or energy production. And that as much as 45,000 hectares of rainforest are cleared for every million kilos of beef exported from South America.

Should these figures not be enough, Monique Barbut, the executive-secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), also drew world’s attention to the fact that “when we take away the forest it is not just the trees that go… The entire ecosystem begins to fall apart… with dire consequences for us all…”

Barbut, who provided these and other figures on the occasion of this year’s International Day of Forests –marked under the theme “Forestry and Energy”— also reminded that deforestation and forest degradation are responsible for over 17 per cent of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

UNCCD’s chief is far from the only expert to sound the alarm–the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned that up to seven per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans come from the production and use of fuel-wood and charcoal.

This happens largely due to unsustainable forest management and inefficient charcoal manufacture and fuel-wood combustion, according to The Charcoal Transition report published on the Day (March 21).

Right – but the other relevant fact is that for more than two billion people worldwide, wood fuel means a cooked meal, boiled water for safe drinking, and a warm dwelling, as this specialised body’s director-general José Graziano da Silva timely recalled.

Forest loss contributes to 1/6 of annual greenhouse gas emissions. Credit: FAO/Joan Manuel Baliellas

Poor People in Rural Areas

This is especially important for poor people in rural areas of developing countries, where wood is often the only energy source available.

Regions with the greatest incidence of poverty, most notably in Sub-Saharan Africa and low income households in Asia, are also the most dependent on fuel-wood: “Nearly 90 per cent of all fuel wood and charcoal use takes place in developing countries, where forests are often the only energy source available to the rural poor,” said Manoel Sobral Filho, Director of the UN Forum on Forests Secretariat.

However, much of the current production of wood fuel is “unsustainable,” contributing significantly to the degradation of forests and soils and the emission of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, said Graziano da Silva. “In many regions the conversion to charcoal is often done using rudimentary and polluting methods.”

He urged countries to reverse these negative trends in wood energy production and use. “We need, for instance, to adopt improved technologies for energy conversion.” Currently the organisation he leads while is participating in several programmes to deliver fuel-efficient stoves, especially for poor people in Latin America and Africa.

In conflict and famine-struck South Sudan, the organisation and partners have already distributed more than 30,000 improved stoves.

For his part, Fiji’s president, Jioji Konousi Konrote, stressed, “We need to turn our attention to scaling up the transfer of renewable energy technologies, particularly for forest biomass, in order to ensure that developing countries are making use of these technologies and keep pace with growing energy demands in a sustainable manner.”

The government of Fiji is poised to assume the presidency of the next Conference of Parties of the UN Climate Agreement scheduled to take place in in Bonn, Germany, in November.

1 in 3 People Wood-Fuel Dependent

The challenge is huge knowing that more than 2.4 billion people –about one-third of the world’s population– still rely on the traditional use of wood-fuel for cooking, and many small enterprises use fuel-wood and charcoal as the main energy carriers for various purposes such as baking, tea processing and brickmaking.

Of all the wood used as fuel worldwide, about 17 per cent is converted to charcoal, according to The Charcoal Transition report. The point is when charcoal is produced using inefficient technologies and unsustainable resources, the emission of greenhouse gases can be as high as 9 kg carbon dioxide equivalent per 1 kg charcoal produced.

The report highlights that in the absence of realistic and renewable alternatives to charcoal in the near future, in particular, in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and South America, greening the charcoal value chain and applying sustainable forest management practices are essential for mitigating climate change while maintaining the access of households to renewable energy.

Changing the way wood is sourced and charcoal is made offers a high potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it says, adding that a shift from traditional ovens or stoves to highly efficient modern kilns could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent. At the end-use level, a transition from traditional stoves to improved state-of-the-art stoves could reduce emissions by around 60 per cent.

“Wood based energy accounts for 27 per cent of the total primary energy supply in Africa, 13 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean and 5 per cent in Asia and Oceania,” according to FAO estimates.

Forests continue to be under threat from unsustainable use, environmental degradation, rapid urbanisation, population growth, and the impacts of climate change. Between 2010 and 2015, global forest area saw a net decrease of 3.3 million hectares per year.

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Africa and India – Sharing the Development Journey

19 May 2017 - 2:40am

Djibouti Port. Credit: James Jeffrey/IPS

By Akinwumi Adesina
ABIDJAN, Côte d'Ivoire, May 19 2017 (IPS)

Africa, like India, is a continent of rich and compelling diversity. Both continents share a similar landscape, a shared colonial history, and similar economic and demographic challenges. This helps both India and Africa work especially well with each other.

This cooperation is both a mutual privilege and priority. At the end of the 2015 India-Africa Forum Summit, Indian Prime Minister Modi announced very substantial credits and grant assistance which benefitted our relationship. In addition to an India-Africa Development Fund, an India-Africa Health Fund and 50,000 scholarships for African students in India were established.

India’s bilateral trade with Africa has risen five-fold in the last decade, from $11.9 billion in 2005-6 to $56.7 billion in 2015-16. It is expected to reach $100 billion by 2018. This is attributed largely to initiatives by India’s private sector, and here again we are on the same wave length. We understand and appreciate that the private sector will be the critical element in Africa’s transformation.

African countries are targeted by Indian investors due to their high-growth markets and mineral rich reserves. India is the fifth largest country investing in Africa, with investments over the past 20 years amounting to $54 billion, 19.2% of all its total Foreign Direct Investment.

Akinwumi Adesina

At the same time a transformed Africa is taking shape. Despite a tough global economic environment, African countries continue to be resilient. Their economies, on average, grew by 2.2% in 2016, and are expected to rise to 3.4% this year. But the average does not tell the true picture. Indeed, 14 African countries grew by over 5% in 2016 and 18 countries grew between 3-5%. That’s a remarkable performance in a period when the global environment has been impeded by recession.

By 2050, Africa will have roughly the same population as China and India combined today, with high consumer demand from a growing middle class and nearly a billion ambitious and hard-working young people. The cities will be booming, as the populations (and economic expectations) rise exponentially around the continent.

This is the busy and bustling future that Africa and India must shape together in a strategic partnership. And nowhere is this partnership more needed than on the issue of infrastructure.

At the top of the list is power and electricity. Some 645 million Africans do not have access to electricity. It’s why the African Development Bank launched the New Deal on Energy for Africa in 2016. Our goal is to help achieve universal access to electricity within ten years. We will invest $12 billion in the energy sector over the next five years and leverage $45-50 billion from the private sector. We plan to connect 130 million people to the grid system, 75 million people through off grid systems and provide 150 million people with access to clean cooking energy.

India’s bilateral trade with Africa has risen five-fold in the last decade, from $11.9 billion in 2005-6 to $56.7 billion in 2015-16. It is expected to reach $100 billion by 2018.
The African Development Bank is also in the vanguard of renewable energy development and the remarkable “off-grid revolution” in Africa. We host the Africa Renewable Energy Initiative, jointly developed with the African Union, which has already attracted $10 billion in investment commitments from G7 countries.

Universal access requires large financial investments. By some estimates, Africa needs $43-$55 billion per year until the 2030s, compared to current energy investments of about $8-$9.2 billion.

We must close this gap. And to do so, the mobilization of domestic resources will play a major role. Pension funds in Africa will reach $1.3 trillion by 2025. Already tax revenues have exceeded $500 billion per year. Sovereign wealth funds in Africa stand at $164 billion.

To attract significant investment by institutional investors, infrastructure should become an asset class. The African Development Bank has launched Africa50, a new infrastructure entity, now capitalized by African countries at over $865 million, to help accelerate infrastructure project development and project finance. Also, later this year, the African Development Bank will be launching the ‘Africa Investment Forum’ to leverage African and global pension and sovereign wealth funds into investments in Africa.

Moreover, the African business environment keeps improving, with easier regulations and more conducive government policies to attract the global investors. In 2015, Africa alone accounted for more than 30% of the business regulatory reforms in the world.

The fact is, we have already started to transform Africa. This is the territory of the High 5s: Light up and Power Africa; Feed Africa; Industrialize Africa; Integrate Africa; and Improve the Quality of life of Africans.

We can forge winning partnerships investing in power generation, energy, agro-aligned industrialisation and food processing. In doing so we can work on the synergies that exist between infrastructure, regional integration, the regulation of enterprises, employment, health and innovation.

In each of these areas I see the prospect for cooperation and collaboration with Indian partners. For example, we are partnering with the EXIM Bank of India and others to establish the Kukuza, a company based in Mauritius, to help develop and support public-private partnership (PPP) infrastructure project development and finance.

India is already one of the top bidders for Bank projects. This is a reflection of its immense expertise in a diverse range of areas from engineering to education; from ICT to railway development; skills development to regional integration; and from manufacturing to industrialisation.

It is our pleasure to partner with such an inveterate and committed investor in Africa. And may this investment be lucrative and justified, and may our mutual interest and cooperation continue for many years to come.

Dr Akinwumi Adesina is President of the African Development Bank. The 2017 AfDB Annual Meetings will be held in Ahmedabad, India, 22-26 May.

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