Interpress News Service

An Untold Economic Success Story in Syria

18 May 2017 - 5:17pm

Hanan, UNRWA microfinance recipient, Jaramana camp, Damascus, Syria © 2017 UNRWA Photo by Wasim al Masri

By Pierre Pierre Krähenbühl
AMMAN, Jordan, May 18 2017 (IPS)

Hidden almost literally under the rubble of the civil war in Syria is an economic success story that is rarely told. Hanan Odah is a thirty-year-old Palestine refugee living in Jaramana refugee camp in Damascus. She supports her multiply displaced family of three from a thriving micro-enterprise venture. Her husband was killed in the conflict, but she refused to submit to despair and dependency on her parents.

Hanan founded a stationery and perfume business, which she runs from the family house that was badly damaged and which she rebuilt. Young, innovative and courageous, she is living proof that as large businesses have collapsed, small scale enterprises can survive and even thrive in the markets opening up at the grassroots.

As senior leaders and key business figures gather at the World Economic Forum in Jordan this week a thought should be spared for Hanan who lives the ideals they champion. Her work should resonate at their meeting which seeks to “stimulate entrepreneurship” and map out a path to an “inclusive economic transformation”.

Pierre Krähenbühl UNRWA CG. Credit: © UNRWA Photo

In July 2014, violence engulfed Hanan’s home and business. She fled in fear of her life and after two years of living hand to mouth with her family moved back into her house which had been damaged and completely looted. Hanan immediately set to work rebuilding and obtained her first loan from UNRWA in 2016. That added to Hanan’s working capital; she expanded her product base increasing income and is now looking to take her business to another level of expansion and brand recognition.

According to the Syrian Centre for Policy Research, de-industrialization has inflicted USD 254.7 billion in economic damage on Syria. In 2015 alone GDP loss was USD 163.3 billion. As a result of the economic collapse, more than 85 per cent of Syrians were living in poverty by the end of 2015, with more than 69 per cent of the population barely surviving in extreme poverty. Nearly three million jobs have been lost and unemployment is now over fifty per cent.

With recent donor funding, in particular USD 1 million from the European Union, we have expanded our micro finance outreach. Always searching for new openings, we have been actively mapping new locations of internally displaced people to reach the Palestine refugees we serve and to deliver loan products where market opportunities open up. Al Huseniya near Damascus is a good illustration.

The town’s inhabitants fled when armed groups seized it but in the second half of 2015 people began to return after insurgents were driven out. With the improved security situation and the return of Palestine refugees UNRWA dispatched two micro finance specialists to Al Huseniya.

Within a year, dozens of business plans were vetted, market risks were assessed and one hundred loans were issued, helping to secure a better standard of living for returning refugees; enabling them to generate income, repair and furnish their homes, lifting themselves and their families out of the poverty trap and away from aid dependency.

Across Syria, UNRWA’s Micro Finance Department disbursed a staggering 9,520 loans in 2016, worth nearly two million dollars. We can build on this track record and expand with the support of donors and partners.

I pay tribute to UNRWA staff who have achieved this against the odds. During the Syria conflict, the majority of UNRWA’s microfinance offices have been damaged. Moreover, the war has significantly affected our microfinance staff and their families. Prior to the conflict we had 130 staff in six offices across the country. The majority were from the now devastated Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, where our largest microfinance office had been situated.

Over half of our microfinance staff have fled the country and a third have been displaced. Against the odds, we seek to retain staff as circumstances allow and have reassigned personnel to new branches as opportunities have been found.

Our loans have also developed flexibly in response to the evolving conflict. There are currently five products that respond to the deepening emergency situations in Syria and help Palestine refugees re-build their houses and maintain stable incomes for themselves and extended families; no small achievement as war rages relentlessly in the country.

UNRWA’s micro finance work is a rare but significant example of hope in the country. As leaders at the World Economic Forum strive to shape innovative, flexible, and inclusive responses to the most traumatic conflict of our age, I hope they might find Hanan’s story revealing, instructive and perhaps even inspiring. She is an extraordinary young woman who in the face of untold adversity is bravely transforming her community from within, one business plan at a time, which is what the World Economic Forum, at its best, is striving to achieve.

At the UN Oceans Forum in June, Will the US Play a Bit Part?

18 May 2017 - 2:54pm

Oceans contribute substantially to US wealth, but it’s unclear how much the government will participate in the UN’s first oceans conference. Lucena, Philippines, above. JOE PENNEY

By Lori Silberman Brauner
UNITED NATIONS, May 18 2017 (IPS)

In just a few weeks, the United Nations is convening a world gathering to discuss the health of the world’s oceans and seas, with member states, government and nongovernmental organizations, corporations and members of the scientific community and academia signed up to take part.

Yet while representatives from America’s private sector and academic community — even the state of California — will be participating, so far it is not clear what role, if any, the United States government, the UN’s most important member, will take in the conference.

To be held June 5 to 9 at UN headquarters in New York City, the main objective of the conference is to support the implementation of sustainable development goal No. 14, which calls to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.”

The predecessor to the SDGs, as they are called, did not reference the ocean or seas in a single goal. The conference agenda is wide ranging, with panel discussions on financing the “blue economy” for small island developing nations to “women and girls in science for ocean.”

“If the cycle of decline that accumulated human activity has brought upon the ocean is not reversed, the implications for us all cannot be good,” said UN General Assembly President Peter Thomson in a newsletter from the conference’s co-chairs, Sweden and Fiji. (Thomson is Fijian.) “Anyone who cares about the health of the ocean can and should get involved.”

While the US has agreed to participate in the conference — showing up, at a minimum — a State Department press officer said that planning for the meeting, which is the first to focus on a single development goal, was “ongoing.” The office added that it had nothing else to offer at this time.

Another State Department official, who also asked not to be named, told PassBlue that the US was finalizing its delegation, including who would serve as the delegation’s head, and that “we intend to be actively engaged in the June Conference.”

Press officers at the US mission to the UN, which is still in a period of transition since Trump took office, did not respond to emails for comment.

Low-ranking US mission employees have been attending negotiations on the conference’s summary statement, or “call for action.” Moreover, the State Department maintains a Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs; its acting assistant secretary is Judith Garber.

While the conference will attract governments and other major representatives from across the world — as every nation has a connection to the ocean — a UN organizer said that the hope was that a powerful country or individual would initiate actions to get the world to pay closer attention to SDG 14 and the state of the oceans, which cover 75 percent of the planet.

That could mean the US, the person said. After all, Trump owns many resorts located on oceanfront property, deriving profit from such views, access and cooling effects. Mar-a-Lago, his private home and private golf club in Palm Beach, Fla., is minutes from the Atlantic.

“Oceans contributed more than 3 million jobs and $300 billion to the U.S. GDP,” Jacqueline Savitz, a senior vice president for U.S. Oceans and Global Fishing Watch at Oceana, an advocacy group, noted. “Much of that depends on ocean health, which in turn depends on international action. That’s why the U.S. simply can’t afford not to lead on ocean protection, so we hope to see a continuation of U.S. leadership at the UN Oceans Conference.”

The conference comes on the heels of the Arctic Council ministerial-level meeting held earlier this month in Fairbanks, Alaska, offering a window as to how the US may approach the UN event. The Council, comprised of eight Arctic nations that include the US, completed its two-year chairmanship at the gathering.

The ministers issued a final statement, the Fairbanks Declaration 2017, reaffirming the Council’s commitment to maintaining peace, stability and constructive cooperation, among other crucial aspects to the future of the Arctic Circle.

Climate change was on the Fairbanks agenda. “Noting with concern that the Arctic is warming at more than twice the rate of the global average,” the declaration also recognized “the entry into force of the Paris Agreement on climate change and its implementation, and reiterating the need for global action to reduce both long-lived greenhouse gases and short-lived climate pollutants.”

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attended the conference as chairman of the Council and signed the declaration, despite the Trump administration’s wavering over whether to remain a party to the Paris Agreement. (Garber of the Oceans bureau in the State Department also attended.)

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attended the meeting of the Arctic Council as chairman, May 11, 2017.

The Council meeting also follows an executive order issued by Trump directing a review of offshore oil and gas exploration in the Arctic, reversing Obama’s Arctic leasing ban. (A question by this reporter to Garber’s office about the order was directed to the White House.)

Negotiators on the Oceans Conference call for action are also wrestling with references to the Paris Agreement. The latest version of the document said it recognized “the particular importance of the Paris Agreement,” but discussions continue from May 22 to 25 at the UN, so that language could be dropped or changed.

Many environmental challenges hurt the ocean, as a background note for the conference said: “Marine pollution and litter, 80 percent of which come from land-based sources, compromise ocean health.”

A quarter of all carbon dioxide released through human activity is absorbed by the oceans and raises the seawaters’ acidity, and nearly one-third of all fish stocks are below sustainable levels, up from 10 percent in 1974. The note also stated that the deterioration of coastal and marine ecosystems and habitats has a more severe and immediate impact on vulnerable groups, such as small island developing states like Fiji.

The conference will feature plenary meetings, partnership “dialogues” in which less-developed nations will chair events with richer countries, and a commemoration of World Oceans Day on June 8.

In February, when negotiations began on the call for action and the partnership-dialogue themes, the US participated in both segments.

“The United States views the Conference as an opportunity to focus on tangible areas for cooperation, without developing a new or amended UN ocean agenda,” its official meeting statement read.

It added, more critically, “While we remain flexible on the content of the Call for Action at this time, we would not want to see inclusion in the document of the creation of new bodies or high-level positions, language that would pre-judge the outcomes of any ongoing negotiations, nor do we believe the Call for Action should call for additional, follow-on conferences for SDG 14 considering the overlap and synergies among the various SDGs.”

A key focus of the conference is the presenting of voluntary commitments by governments, companies and others pledging action on conservation. With 189 commitments so far, these pledges represent governments that include France, Spain, Nigeria, Indonesia, Belgium, Grenada, Fiji, Palau and Sweden.

California, with its long Pacific Ocean border, has seven commitments registered, such as a plan to preserve its coastal ecosystems and prepare for rising sea levels.

University involvements include Arizona State’s Biogeography, Conservation and Modeling Laboratory, which researches fishery policies; and Northeastern University, which has created a Coastal Sustainability Institute to respond to environmental threats facing marine habitats.

In the private sector, Envision Plastics, from North Carolina, has announced a goal of removing up to 10 million pounds of plastic that could pollute the oceans over the next two years. Dell has committed to processing plastics collected from beaches, waterways and coasts to incorporate in new packaging of its computers.

The following countries will be paired for the partnership dialogues, emphasizing the rich state-developed state theme: Australia-Kenya, Iceland-Peru, Canada-Senegal, Estonia-Grenada, Italy-Palau, Monaco-Mozambique and Norway-Indonesia.

The US, notably, is not among them.

An annual Our Oceans global conference — not focused on SDG 14 — has been held for the last three years at different locations; this year, it is to be hosted in Malta in October.

Our Oceans is meant to enlist specific steps by nations to protect and mitigate climate effects on the world’s vast waters. Last year, the forum convened in Washington, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, an ocean lover cultivated through a family-owned island off Massachusetts, called Naushon, and a house on Nantucket (recently sold for a move by Kerry and his wife, Teresa Heinz, to Martha’s Vineyard).

“We have to keep the momentum going so that we can come together and protect our ocean,” Kerry said at the conference. “Why? Because our ocean is absolutely essential for life itself — not just the food, but the oxygen and weather cycles of the planet all depend on the ocean.”

(Brought to IPS readers courtesy of PassBlue, online independent coverage of the UN, a project of the Ralph Bunche Institute, City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center)

Star Wars

18 May 2017 - 1:15pm

By F. S. Aijazuddin
May 18 2017 (Dawn, Pakistan)

On Sept 11, 2001, I was in Washington DC when the Pentagon was attacked, while in New York, the Twin Towers were destroyed. This May, I found myself again in Washington DC, watching the White House being demolished from within by its latest tenant, President Donald Trump.

F.S. Aijazuddin

It was a tragic sight, not only for millions of rational Americans but for billions of citizens of the Free World whose freedom post-war America pledged to defend and then neglected to protect.

In many ways, President Trump sees himself as an elected Captain Han Solo, determined to fight Star Wars in every galaxy. He is confident of his supreme authority and invincible prowess. Doesn’t he have the force of the presidency behind him?

Only someone with limitless confidence would have dared dismiss the head of the FBI, James Comey. Was it because Comey had made an unprecedented disclosure about Hillary Clinton’s emails? Now even her Republican adversaries concede it cost her the presidency. Was it because Comey had been ‘grandstanding’ before a congressional intelligence committee, out-trumping even Trump? Was it because Comey refused to pledge personal loyalty to him during a private dinner for two in the White House? Or was it because Comey tunnelled too close to the sensitive vein of Trump’s relationship with Russia and refused to call off his hounds?

Trump sees himself as an elected Han Solo.

Trump’s brazenness knows no bounds. He has ‘threatened’ Comey against leaking tapes of their conversations which both know exist. Trump has derided North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambitions, and then tweeted that he would be ‘honoured’ to meet him. And only Trump would, the day after firing the head of FBI (which for generations had scared Americans with the warning: ‘Reds are under your beds’), receive in the sanctum of his Oval Office the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his ‘spymaster’ Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

The US press corps bristled at being excluded from the meeting. They were apoplectic after the Russian news agency TASS which had been permitted entry released photographs of the three beaming ‘conspirators’. “They tricked us,” one White House centurion complained. “That’s the problem with the Russians — they lie.” President Putin could not have asked for more from his Manchurian candidate.

Russians, though, are not the only masters of this sleight of hand. Pakistanis will remember a similar coup in January 2015, when our DG ISPR instantly uploaded a picture taken in 10 Downing Street when COAS Gen Raheel Sharif met an unsuspecting Prime Minister David Cameron.

In today’s world, optics is king. No one knows this better than the media-savvy Donald Trump. “He who reigns within himself,” Milton wrote, “and rules passions, desires, and fears is more than a king.” Trump’s “passions, desires and fears” are citizens in his realm, the TV remote his sceptre, the mobile phone his Twitter orb.

If the denizens of Washington’s ‘swamp’ had their way, President Trump would be facing impeachment proceedings already. That is still a possibility. The ongoing investigation by the FBI — graded internally as ‘significant’ — into Trump’s subterranean dealings with the Russians (which his lawyers admit spread over a decade) may well become Trump’s Watergate. Though, like Nixon, Trump will not concede without a fight. He will battle to his last pawn. Trump has no intention of being told: ‘You are fired!’

Meanwhile, Trump could do worse than consult Nawaz Sharif on the art of survival. Nawaz Sharif, now into the home stretch of his third tenure as prime minister, has positioned himself so that his re-election in 2018 seems inevitable. By taking a team of senior ministers and all four chief ministers with him to China to laud President Xi Jinping’s One Belt, One Road initiative, he has assured himself of continuing Chinese support. His entertainment at Murree of Jindal (an emissary from his Indian counterpart Modi), could not have been done without a discreet nod from the army brass. Does this mean that the two men in Pakistan’s civil-military kayak have at last realised that they must paddle in the same direction?

It is a pity that neither Nawaz Sharif nor army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa was in New York to attend the Lahore Literary Festival, held at the Asia Society on May 6. There, on one concentrated Saturday, the LLF organisers compressed Pakistan’s culture, literary, musical and artistic talent into one glorious cornucopia, from which flowed mellifluous sessions on ‘Fake News’, on Lahore’s heritage, on ‘Populism and the Global Rise of Strongmen’, ‘Satire and Escapism in Fiction and Beyond’, and a memorable finale titled ‘Notes from a Raga’ featuring two US-based, musically obsessed cancer specialists.

That unforgettable day ended with a qawwali, proving that Pakistanis can not only sing in harmony but work in unison. The LLF NY revealed a glimpse, a tantalising vision of that grace and peace which diminishes Star Wars into petty squabbles.

The writer is an art historian.
www.fsaijazuddin.pk
Published in Dawn, May 18th, 2017

This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan

“Seeing Progress, Though Still Not Enough” on Tax Justice

18 May 2017 - 10:21am

Guillaume Long

By Tharanga Yakupitiyage
UNITED NATIONS, May 18 2017 (IPS/G77)

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

Ecuador, which has 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 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 towards tax justice.

Q: The President of the General Assembly said that SDG financing is going to take 6$ trillion annually and then $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 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 hidden away, literally being robbed from us in tax havens.

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

There are lots of statistics that we can throw around but there are have been estimates that public infrastructure that is needed right now in the developing world is roughly $1.5 trillion. This is 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.

It 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. That’s Oxfam’s number.

In the case of Ecuador, we are talking about $30 billion that we believe are held currently in secret accounts offshore. 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 only 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. Those things 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: Whistle blowing 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.

In fact, I would say that 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 also 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 haven’s interest, because it brings the spotlight onto their activities so, generally speaking, those kinds of public disclosures are a 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 kind of 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 what we’re talking about, that it is 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.

However, 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; the Intellectual Property Organization is a regulatory body for intellectual property at the highest level.

Those institutions exist because it is 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 also 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. And yet, we are fighting here for what? Not even for the outcome of what this body might decide, we are fighting for the creation of a body, we are fighting for the debate to exist, we are fighting for the rights of states to be a part of the debate, including tax havens, because if we do get an intergovernmental body, then any country can be a part of the intergovernmental body, including obviously tax havens.

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 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, that’s 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 among 134 nations of the G77 that it should be an intergovernmental body. And that’s something that we are trying to do, through our presidency, to 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, significantly 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, the issue 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. It’s just like how commercial dumping, just to use an example, is frowned upon and you can have regulations to stop that. You can have the same in taxation. 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 should be able to 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 opposition from countries that are not always considered to be tax havens in the kind of stereotypical manner. Countries like the United Kingdom, which 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 a U.S. territory. 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. And we have been critical of Panama because of its tax system and 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.

Agony of Mother Earth (I) The Unstoppable Destruction of Forests

18 May 2017 - 9:13am

The Selm Muir Forest of West Lothian, Scotland. Credit: UN Photo/Robert Clamp

By Baher Kamal
ROME, May 18 2017 (IPS)

The world’s forests are being degraded and lost at a staggering rate of 3.3 million hectares per year. While their steady destruction in many Asian countries continues apace, deforestation of the world’s largest tropical forest – the Amazon – increased 29 per cent from last year’s numbers. And some of the most precious ecosystems in Africa are threatened by oil, gas and mineral exploration and exploitation.

These are some of the facts that have been repeatedly heralded by the scientific community and the world’s most authoritative voices, who remind us that globally, 1.3 billion people are estimated to be “forest peoples”, who depend almost entirely on them for their livelihoods.

Asia

Patrick Durst, the senior Forestry officer at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, on May 15 added to this figure that 28 per cent of the total income of households living in or near forests come from forest and environmental income.

According to FAO’s Global Forest Resource Assessment in 2015, forests continue to be lost in many countries of the Asia-Pacific region, including Sri Lanka. Moreover, the degradation of forest quality further decreases the forests’ capacity to provide goods and services necessary for human survival. These losses will be more acutely felt as the demand for forest products steadily rises in the future.

While most countries in the Asia-Pacific region continue to struggle to respond to forest loss, some are taking positive action, says the assessment, adding that through reforestation programmes, China and Viet Nam are actually increasing the amount of forested land. And the government of Sri Lanka has announced plans to increase the country’s forest cover by as much as 35 per cent.

Latin America

Meanwhile, “the world’s ancient forests are in crisis–a staggering 80 per cent have already been destroyed or degraded and much of what remains is under threat from illegal and destructive logging.”

Believe it or not, these estimates are anything but new or even recent—they were advanced around 9 years ago by a major independent global campaigning organisation that acts to change attitudes and behaviour, to protect and conserve the environment and to promote peace.

In fact, Greenpeace had already on 30 January 2008 reported that illegal logging was having a devastating impact on the world’s forests.

Its effects include deforestation, the loss of biodiversity and fuelling climate change, the group noted, adding that this creates “social conflict with indigenous and local populations and leads to violence, crime and human rights abuses.”

According to Greenpeace, it is estimated that some 1.6 billion people worldwide depend on forests for their livelihood and 60 million indigenous peoples depend on forests for their subsistence.

Sustainably managed forests hold vast potential to play a decisive role in ending hunger, improving livelihoods and combating climate change. Credit: FAO/Simon Maina


Amazon Deforestation Now

Barely six months ago, the very same global campaigning organisation reported that Amazon deforestation had increased 29 per cent from the numbers released for last year, according to data released by the Brazilian government on 31 November 2016.

“Brazil is losing control over the destruction of its forests because of poor policy decisions and may now have difficulty reaching its climate agreement targets, “ Greenpeace said on Dec. 1, 2016.

Data from the Deforestation Monitoring Program for the Legal Amazon indicated that 7989 km² of forest in the Amazon was destroyed between August 2015 and July 2016, the conservationist organisation reported.

“This is the second consecutive year deforestation in the world’s largest tropical forest has increased, a direct result of the government’s lack of ambition in dealing with the challenge of curbing forest loss. It is the first time in 12 years there have been increases in deforestation two years in a row.”

Cristiane Mazzetti, Greenpeace Amazon Campaigner, warned that the increase in deforestation rates can be linked to signals from Brazil’s government that it will tolerate the destruction of the Amazon.

“In recent years, public environmental protection policies in Brazil have weakened. For example, very few protected areas and Indigenous Lands have been created, and a new Forest Code was approved in 2012 that gives amnesty to those who committed illegal deforestation.”

According to Greenpeace, deforestation is responsible for approximately 40 per cent of Brazil’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

“With forest loss on the rise again, the country could find it difficult to fulfil its commitments under the Paris Agreement, recently signed and ratified by Brazil… It is estimated that the deforestation of 7989km² has released the equivalent of 586 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere—the same amount as eight years of emissions from all of the cars in Brazil.”

The illegal harvesting of timber, expansion of agribusiness and the conversion of forests into pasture are a few of the major drivers of deforestation, Mazzetti explained, adding that building large infrastructure projects, like hydroelectric plants, also stimulates land grabbing and speculation, leading to even more deforestation.

Africa

For his part, Kofi Annan, former UN secretary general and current chair of the Africa Progress Panel (APP), recently warned against the destruction of forests, which provide clean air and water, and local communities with food, shelter and livelihoods.

“Each day more forests are cleared, driven by multiple activities, from agriculture to infrastructure development, to the growing demand for wood and forest products, often made worse by illegal logging,” he said.

In his keynote address at the ‘Forests for the Future – New Forests for Africa’ conference in Accra, Ghana on 16 March, Kofi Annan said, “some of the world’s most precious ecosystems, such as the Virunga National Park in the Congo Basin, are threatened by oil, gas and mineral exploration and exploitation”.

Forests offer incredible impetus to the fight against climate change. “Forest restoration and reforestation in Africa can contribute to the global effort to tackle climate change and accelerate progress in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals,” said Annan, adding that “forest restoration of 350 million hectares could generate 170 billion dollars per year in net benefits from watershed protection, improved crop yields and forest products”.

In its 2014 report, Grain, Fish, Money: Financing Africa’s Green and Blue Revolutions, the Africa Progress Panel argued that effective protection, management and mobilisation of Africa’s vast forest resources are needed to support transformative growth.

The Panel estimated that Africa lost 12.4 billion Euros (17 billion dollars) to illegal exports of timber in 2011.

Part II and last of this series on the Agony of Mother Earth focuses on forests depletion for fuel.

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Mapping and Responding to Climate-Induced Migration

18 May 2017 - 8:38am

Migrants arrive daily at New Delhi railway stations from across India fleeing floods and a debilitating drought. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

By Tharanga Yakupitiyage
UNITED NATIONS, May 18 2017 (IPS)

As the world focuses on conflict-related migration and displacement, with an unprecedented 60 million fleeing from war and persecution, others are pointing to a less discussed trigger of population movements: climate change.

As part of a panel series, UN University (UNU) brought together academics and researchers to discuss the importance of the links between climate change, migration, and displacement.

“This three-sided nexus…gives the possibility to not discuss climate change without referring to migration and human rights and vice versa—the ties are so strong, the interlinkages are very present in all the case studies we are researching,” UNU-Environment and Human Security’s (EHS) legal expert Cosmin Corendea told IPS.

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC), an average of 22.5 million people have been displaced each year by climate or weather-related disasters in the last seven years, equivalent to 62,000 people every day.

Climate change, which causes more frequent extreme weather events, is only expected to make such trends worse in the coming decades. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that between 25 million and 200 million people could be displaced by 2050 because of climate change.

Niger is one such country experiencing the effects of climate change from recurrent droughts to the slow disappearance of Lake Chad.

Tamir Afifi from the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) told participants that communities lost their livestock and thus their primary source of livelihoods as a result of the diminishing lake.

“They completely lost their identity,” he said, adding that migration became a strategy to cope with food insecurity and climate change.

“Since the environment stresses have become so strong… that when people move, they actually don’t come back or they don’t come back for a while. It is not associated anymore to the seasonal events as it used to be,” Afifi continued.

In the U.S., one Native American tribe is being forced off their home on Isle de Jean Charles off the coast of Louisiana due to rising sea levels, law professor Maxine Burkett told attendees. The island has lost 98 percent of its land since 1955.

Generally speaking, climate change alone does not trigger migration, but rather a combination of economic, educational, and cultural factors, panelists said.

The UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) found that 37 percent and 26 percent of people in Kiribati, Nauru, and Tuvalu cited economic and educational reasons for migration, respectively, while only 18 percent cited climate change.

Bishawjit Mallick from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) noted that in Bangladesh, it was those with less resources who moved after the devastating Cyclone Aila in 2009.

However, this complex multi-causal nature of migration may not be the case for much longer, said Burkett.

“Climate change is not a static phenomenon, it is a change…so what may seem today a deeply entangled, thorny, and multi-causal event may soon have an undeniable climate signal,” she told attendees.

Corendea stressed the need to create language around environmental migration which could help create the corresponding migration policies.

Though IOM has a working definition of an environmental migrant, there is still no internationally accepted definition.

As a result, language around climate change is still absent from the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration, an intergovernmental document comprehensively addressing international migration currently under negotiation.

Panelists also highlighted the need for bottom-up approaches to address the complex issue.

Afifi stressed that such problems cannot be solved without involving the communities themselves.

Mallick echoed similar comments, stating: “People in New York City will never understand the lives of people in Bangladesh.”

Correndea suggested a regional approach in which nations share resources and information, helping create a migration framework and a preemptive measure in the case of displacement or relocation.

“Individually you can’t do it, internationally is too slow—so you have to meet in the middle in order to move the process forward,” he told IPS.

“Before becoming a humanitarian affair, [regions] can create a preemptive measure in order to assist people in case an extreme climate event happens. And the science shows that this will happen,” Corendea concluded.

Defence of Right to Water Drives Call for Land Reform in Chile

17 May 2017 - 11:04pm

Small-scale farmers from Samo Alto, in northern Chile, are forced to share the scarce water of the Hurtado River with large agro-exporters, who benefit from a dam built downstream. In this country, water is a private good, granted in perpetuity to the concessionaires. Credit: Orlando Milesi/IPS

By Orlando Milesi
SANTIAGO, May 18 2017 (IPS)

Water at high prices, sold as a market good, and small farmers almost a species in extinction, replaced by seasonal workers, are the visible effects of the crisis in rural Chile, 50 years after a land reform which postulated that “the land is for those who work it.”

To tackle the crisis, environmental and social activists are proposing a new land reform to reclaim water as a public good, at a time when a persistent drought is affecting much of Chile, making it necessary to use tanker trucks to distribute water in some low-income neighbourhoods in cities around the country.

Last year the number of villages, small towns and neighbourhoods that were left without water and were supplied by tanker trucks also doubled in relation to 2015, said water department director Carlos Estévez.

“In Chile, water has become a capital good, left to the discretion of speculators and separated from the land, while international jurisprudence indicates that it should be available for the preservation of life and food production, and only after that, for other economic activities,” expert and activist Rodrigo Mundaca told IPS.“The green revolution is a model that does not preserve natural assets. Our export model is associated with monoculture and we need to promote a new development paradigm based on a harmonious relationship with nature.” -- Rodrigo Mundaca

Mundaca, the secretary-general of the Movement for the Defense of Access to Water, Land and the Protection of the Environment (Modatima), said that “a second land reform is key to recovering water,” after the one carried out in the 1970s.
“The green revolution is a model that does not preserve natural assets. Our export model is associated with monoculture and we need to promote a new development paradigm based on a harmonious relationship with nature,” he said.

This South American country is a major producer and exporter of food products, thanks to the production of major companies and consortiums that own the land and water.

The mining industry still accounts for half of Chile’s exports, which amounted to over 60 billion dollars in 2016. But this is also one of the 10 top countries in the world in food exports, ranking first for several products. The food industry represents a total of 20 billion dollars in exports.

Meanwhile, the current regulation of the right to water in Chile, after it was privatised in 1981 during the 1973-1990 military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, is threatening small-scale family farmers, who are fighting for at least partial restoration of public control.

The 1980 constitution states that water is a private good. The use of hydric resources, according to the laws of the market, is regulated by the Water Code, which gives the state the power to grant usage rights to companies free of charge and in perpetuity.

It also allows water usage rights to be bought, sold or leased without taking into consideration priorities of use. In Chile, there are 110,000 water-use rights contracts in force under the Water Code.

The government of socialist President Michelle Bachelet introduced a proposed amendment to the Code in Congress, although its final approval will take several months.

The amendment would make water usage rights temporary rather than perpetual. But it would only apply to future concessions, and would not be retroactive, which has drawn criticism from environmentalists and social activists in rural areas.

Fifty years after the land reform launched by the Christian Democrat government of Eduardo Frei (1964-1970) and expanded by socialist president Salvador Allende (1970-1973), support for a second land reform plan that would make water a social good once again is growing.

A group of young people who attended the release this month in Santiago of the study “The grandchildren of the land reform: employment, reality and dreams of rural youth in Chile,” by FAO consultant Sergio Faiguenbaum, who found that young people in rural areas in the country have three times as much formal schooling as their parents. Credit: INDAP

Between the cities of Petorca and Antofagasta, in arid northern Chile, 200 and 1,340 km from the country’s capital Santiago, respectively, the prices for a year’s water rights for a liter of water per second – the amount needed to irrigate one hectare of vineyard – range from 7,670 dollars to 76,700 dollars, said Mundaca, referring to cases that make the reform necessary.

The rest of Latin America

Luiz Beduschi, a Territorial Development Policies officer at the Santiago-based Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) regional office for Latin America and the Caribbean, told IPS that “historically, Latin America has been one of the regions with the highest levels of inequality in the distribution and use of natural resources.”

“This phenomenon has among its causes an increasing concentration in the value chains, the establishment and growth of companies that exploit resources at an industrial scale, backed by public policy approaches that foster an increase in the participation of these countries in export markets,” he said.

Beduschi stressed that “the expansion of investment in the region through sowing pools (speculative investment funds), annual leases or purchases of large extensions of land, among others, has contributed to a higher concentration of land than before the land reforms that were carried out in several countries in the region.”

“Conflicts over access to natural resources have been on the rise around the world and the situation is no different in this region,” said the FAO expert.

“The historical processes of agricultural reform, strongly promoted in different countries in the region, which in the case of Mexico was carried out 100 years ago, and 50 years ago in Chile, allow us today to once again discuss the widespread question of inequality, which arises from the global concentration of the ownership and use of natural resources, historically reflected in land ownership,” he said.

Impacts of the model to be reformed

Agronomist Jacques Chonchol, minister of agriculture during Allende’s government and a promoter of the land reform process, told IPS that the new reform made sense because the counter-reform carried out by the dictatorship “practically privatized water, an increasingly scarce resource.”

“We have very little arable land: less than ten per cent of Chile’s 757 million square kilometres, and part of that is being lost” to the phenomenon of the selling off of parcels of land in rural areas as second properties of city dwellers, he warned.

Chonchol also expressed the need for “a forestry policy that excludes agricultural lands. That was prohibited, but during the dictatorship, it began to happen again. Forestry plantations should be banned on farmland, and these companies should plant native trees, since pines and eucalyptus absorb a lot of water.”

He believes that the counter-reform “gave rise to a new capitalist agriculture, much more efficient from an economic point of view, although not always in social terms,” in a model that “perpetuates inequality”, which the democratic governments have maintained.

On the social level, historian José Bengoa told IPS that until the land reform, there were three kinds of farmers in Chile: “small landholders grouped in towns and villages; tenant farmers and their families, on the big estates; and ‘outsiders’ who wandered between the towns and estates.”

“That structure changed dramatically and today a great majority are non-permanent agricultural workers, who live in towns and cities near agricultural areas,” Bengoa said.

“There is a small sector of small-scale farmers, who could be called peasants, who are the majority in some regions and sectors, and then there is an increasing proportion of seasonal workers,” he said.

For Bengoa, “Chilean agriculture is nowadays, due to the land reform carried out 50 years ago, a highly capitalist and productive sector.”

“This activity, without any controls, leads to an unprecedented level of exploitation of human resources, workers and natural resources, such as water. In the next few years there will be serious problems, both in terms of the need for manpower and of the need for resources such as water and land, as well as environmental problems,” he predicted.

According to Bengoa, these problems cannot be easily solved, because “the agricultural sector will pressure the state to increase the flow of migrant workers, and for more infrastructure works, in particular in water reserves.”

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Developing Nations Call for Strengthening South-South Cooperation

17 May 2017 - 3:16pm

By an IPS Correspondent
UNITED NATIONS, May 17 2017 (IPS/G77)

The Group of 77 has reiterated the urgent need for strengthening South-South cooperation for the successful implementation of one of the UN’s key objectives targeted over the next 13 years: the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.

Speaking on behalf of the G77, joined by China, Ambassador Horacio Sevilla Borja of Ecuador, chair of the G77, welcomed the progress, and reaffirmed the importance, of further strengthening South-South cooperation projects and initiatives, especially in the current international economic environment.

“The Group reaffirms that South-South cooperation is a collective endeavor of developing countries, based on the principle of solidarity. However, the Group reiterates its position that South-South cooperation is a complement, rather than a substitute for North-South cooperation,” he noted.

Addressing a recent meeting of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the G77 chair said there is an urgent need to channel effective and sustainable support in accordance with specific needs and constraints of developing countries, particularly Least Developed Countries (LDCs), Land-Locked Developing Countries (LLDCs), and Small Island Developing States (SIDS), as well as countries and peoples living under colonial and foreign occupation, and countries in situation of conflict and post-conflict.

At the same time, he underlined the importance of “a robust, effective, transparent, and long term Global Partnership of public and private sectors to support the achievement of the 2030 Agenda.”

But this, he said, should take into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development, respecting national policies and priorities, through the delivery of the means of implementation, as contained in Sustainable Development Goal 17, as well as in each specific Sustainable Development Goal.

The ECOSOC debate was titled “Partnerships for Promoting Opportunities, Increased Prosperity and Sustainable Development For All.”

The G77 encourages the transfer of technologies to developing countries on favorable terms, as well as capacity-building and a rule-based and non-discriminatory multilateral trading system, for the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals, the G77 chair added.

“While we fully support United Nations multi-stakeholder partnerships, we also emphasize the importance of coordination in engaging potential partners between entities within the UN System, according to their respective mandates. ECOSOC as the main coordinating organ for partnerships has a significant role in this regard, and the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) could lead in undertaking a mapping exercise of UN partnership initiatives,” he declared.

He pointed out that UN multi-stakeholder partnerships must be based on transparency and accountability.

“It would be highly appreciated if information could be made available regarding the partners, their contributions and matching funds and projects for all partnerships with the UN, including at the country level. It would also be helpful if systematic reporting on such partnerships to the relevant Executive Boards could be strengthened.”

He said it was especially timely that ECOSOC discuss the issue of guidelines and principles for UN-associated partnerships, as it is important to debate on ways to enhance Member States’ oversight of partnerships involving the United Nations.

This will enable Member States to examine and adopt guidelines to improve transparency, coherence, impact, accountability and due diligence in partnerships between the United Nations and the private sector, philanthropic organizations, academia and other related stakeholders.

“In the light of the continued imbalance of funding structure for the UN development system, we highlight that partnerships between entities of the UN development system and other stakeholders should aim to prevent further imbalance between core and non-core resources, while giving priority to the former,” he noted

Finally, to enhance global partnership for development, “we reiterate the need for developed countries to fulfill their commitments regarding Official Development Assistance (ODA) to developing countries and to provide genuine debt relief to LDCs.”

The Group of 77 and China reassures its readiness to work with all stakeholders to encourage effective partnerships, including public, public-private and with civil society, to enhance synergies on our joint efforts for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the ambassador added.

G77 in Key Role Drafting Treaty on Marine Resources

17 May 2017 - 1:41pm

By an IPS Correspondent
UNITED NATIONS, May 17 2017 (IPS/G77)

The Group of 77 is taking an active role in the drafting of an international legally-binding instrument on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ).

The new treaty, when finalized, will come under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), according a General Assembly resolution adopted back in June 2015.

The third Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) meeting, which was held March 28 through 8 April, will be followed by a fourth session scheduled to take place from 29 August to 12 September.

Speaking on behalf of the Group of 77, joined by China, Ambassador Horacio Sevilla Borja of Ecuador and G77 chair, expressed confidence that by the end of the 4th session of the PrepCom, “we will be able to fulfill this mandate and to make substantive recommendations to the General Assembly on the elements of a draft text of an international legally binding instrument under the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea and before the end of the 72nd session.”

The General Assembly will then decide on the convening — and on the starting date—for an intergovernmental conference on the proposed treaty.

Ambassador Borja also requested the Chair of the PrepCom, Ambassador Carlos Duarte, to prepare a paper consolidating and streamlining what has been expressed on the floor and in the written submissions, to be circulated before the beginning of the 4th PrepCom in August.

“Given the progress made, we consider that a set of draft recommendations reflecting the substantive elements could be useful and valuable. It would help us to prepare for and lead us to engage into productive and constructive discussions for the next session and we would request that you prepare such a draft to be shared at the earliest possible date,” he added.

He also pointed out that the PrepCom has been mandated to report to the General Assembly on its progress before the end of this year.

Meanwhile, speaking on behalf of the G77, joined by China, a delegate from Ecuador, addressed some of the cross-cutting issues such as the scope, objectives, and guiding approaches and principles of the proposed new legally binding instrument on BBNJ– as well as the definitions of different terms that are of technical nature or need more clarification.

Addressing the third PrepCom meeting, he said the Group of 77 would like to reiterate that the new instrument should not undermine existing relevant legal instruments and frameworks and relevant global, regional and sectoral bodies as it is stated in the resolution 69/292.

This instrument should reflect sustainable use of resources in the Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (ABNJ) and consider mechanisms for its rehabilitation in order to achieve sustainability.

To this end, the Group of 77 believes there is merit in looking at structure of existing organizations and convention bodies such as the International Seabed Authority, the International Maritime Organization, the UNFCCC, etc., to consider lessons learned and best practices, while accomplishing universality, in an effort to determine the most effective mechanisms going forward.

At this juncture and without prejudice to the further consideration of the nomenclature of institutional bodies of the new instrument, institutional bodies could include 1) a secretariat; 2) a decision-making body such as Conference of Parties (COP); 3) a scientific and technical body with an advisory competence which can play a role in the establishment of ABMTs, including MPAs; 4) a clearinghouse mechanism to promote and facilitate technical and scientific cooperation, knowledge and data sharing as well as 5) a mechanism in charge of access and benefit sharing of MGRs, he noted.

Regarding the question of definitions, the Group is of the view that it can inspire from the existing instruments where some notions are defined in order to scope and give effect to the instrument.

“We believe that all the notions contained in the objective or main topics of the new instrument such as marine biological diversity, areas beyond national jurisdiction deserve to be defined. Furthermore, ‘marine genetic resources’ (MGRs), ‘utilization of marine genetic resources’ as well as their related technical notions should also be defined,” he declared.

Sexual Violence as a “Threat to Security and Durable Peace”

17 May 2017 - 9:16am

Mina Jaf, Founder and Executive Director of Women's Refugee Route.
Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

By Tharanga Yakupitiyage
UNITED NATIONS, May 17 2017 (IPS)

Sexual violence is increasingly used as a tactic of terrorism and thus must be addressed as a peace and security issue, officials said at a United Nations Security Council meeting.

UN officials, member states, and civil society representatives came together during a Security Council debate to discuss the pervasive issues, challenges, and solutions surrounding conflict-related sexual violence.

“Too many women live with a spectre of violence in their daily lives, in their households, and families. Armed conflict only serves to exacerbate these prevailing conditions,” said Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, adding that such sexual violence is a “heart-wrenching crime.”

Executive Director of Women’s Refugee Route Mina Jaf echoed similar sentiments to IPS, stating: “[Women] are much more vulnerable in conflict countries…and when you are more vulnerable, you face more violence.”

The secretary-general shed light on the issue in an annual report detailing numerous cases of sexual violence used for “strategic” purposes in 19 countries.

In Iraq, nearly 2,000 Yazidi women and girls remain enslaved in Islamic State (IS) territories and reports have emerged of the sale and trade of women as well as the use of women as human shields by IS during operations in Mosul, according to the report.

In Myanmar, over half of the women interviewed by the UN’s Human Rights Office (OHCHR) said they experienced some form of sexual violence which may have been employed systematically “to humiliate and terrorise their community.”

Displaced women and girls are at heightened risk, Mohammed and Jaf said, as approximately one in five refugees or displaced women experience some form of sexual violence.

The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) documented almost 600 incidents of conflict-related sexual violence in the country in 2016 alone, largely affecting displaced women and girls. The survivors included 57 girls, several of whom were below 10 years of age. Most of the cases occurred at Sudan People’s Liberation Army checkpoints near designated protection sites and reports indicate that sexual violence is being used to punish communities for their ethnic background or perceived support for opposition groups.

Acting Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict Adama Dieng reminded attendees that there is a face and name behind every number in the report.

He told the stories of Nasima who, in fear of being killed by her relatives after returning from IS captivity, attempted suicide, and Marie who contracted HIV because she was too ashamed to report her rape and receive preventive care.

Such shame and stigma are integral components of the use of sexual violence as a tactic of war, the report notes.

“Aggressors understand that this type of crime can turn victims into outcasts, thus unravelling the family and kinship ties that hold communities together,” the report states. For instance, children who are born of rape may face a life of marginalization and be susceptible to exploitation and recruitment, preventing long-term recovery.

“Stigma kills,” Dieng added.

Mohammed highlighted that holistic reintegration is “imperative.”

“It is not enough to bring back our girls—we must bring them back with dignity and respect to an environment of support, equality, and opportunity and ensure that they are provided…critical assistance that helps them reintegrate back into their homes and societies,” she stated, referencing the social media campaign #BringBackOurGirls which began after 270 Nigerian girls were kidnapped from their school in Chibok by Boko Haram.

Dieng noted the importance of redirecting the stigma of sexual violence from the victim to the perpetrator which is only possible by involving community leaders to shift harmful perceptions of gender and shame. He also pointed to the need to recognize survivors as legitimate victims of conflict and terrorism who are entitled to relief, reparation, and justice.

“When victims have a chance to tell their stories, to observe the sentencing of offenders, and to benefit from solidarity and support including material and symbolic reparations, it can counteract isolation and self-blame. It tells the community that what happened was not the victims’ fault,” Dieng stated.

Some countries have begun to address sexual violence through legislation including Colombia which established a framework providing sexual violence survivors with access to justice. However, just 2 per cent of the 634 documented cases of conflict-related sexual violence have resulted in convictions, a trend seen around the world.

Mohammed noted the positive developments in perceptions of sexual violence, stating, “Sexual violence in conflict is no longer seen as merely a women’s issue or a lesser evil in a false hierarchy of human rights violations. Instead, it is rightly viewed as a legitimate threat to security and durable peace that requires an operational security and justice response.”

She also acknowledged the UN’s own mishaps in responding to sexual abuse allegations by peacekeeping forces but vowed to tackle the challenge and make zero tolerance “a reality.”

In 2015, cases of sexual abuse by French peacekeeping troops in the Central African Republic sparked global outrage, while a Swedish investigative team found that the UN continues to neglect survivors.

Jaf told IPS that without accountability and justice, including in the case of peacekeepers, the issue of conflict-related sexual violence will not be resolved.

She added that humanitarian responders must be trained to cope with such sensitive issues, recounting the case of a woman who did not report a sexual assault due to her discomfort in speaking to a male translator, and gender equality must continue to be promoted.

“Sexual violence in conflict does not happen in a vacuum. This is the result of systematic failure by the international community to address the root causes of conflict, gender inequality and impunity,” Jaf stated.

Genetically Engineered Disappointments

16 May 2017 - 10:15am

While US agribusiness has long claimed that GMOs will “save the world”, there has been little compelling evidence to this effect after two decades. Credit: IPS

By Jomo Kwame Sundaram and Tan Zhai Gen
KUALA LUMPUR , May 16 2017 (IPS)

Advocates of genetically engineered (GE) crops have long claimed that genetic engineering is necessary to raise crop yields and reduce human exposure to agrochemicals. Genetic engineering promised two major improvements: improving yields affordably to feed the world, and making crops resistant to pests to reduce the use of commercial chemical herbicides and insecticides.

Genetic modification of crops through natural evolution or artificial crossbreeding has been happening for millennia, giving rise to more productive or resilient crop species. Thus, the term ‘genetic engineering’ more accurately refers to the artificial introduction of genetic material to produce new GE varieties.

Trans-Atlantic divide

A report by the United States National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine – picked up by the New York Times – found that US GE crop yield gains have slowed over the years, leaving no significant advantage in yield gains compared to non-GE plant varieties. Over two decades ago, Western Europe largely rejected GE crops while North America – the United States and then Canada – embraced them. More than twenty years later, US crop yield gains are not significantly higher than in Western Europe.

Since the adoption of GE crops, US use of herbicides has increased. In the US, decreasing use of some herbicides has involved large increases in the use of glyphosate, a key ingredient in herbicides used for GE crop cultivation. This is in contrast to France, which bans GE crop cultivation, where overall use of herbicides has been reduced due to EU efforts.

Glyphosate-resistant GE crops survive herbicide spraying while killing non-resistant weeds. However, rising weed resistance to glyphosate has led to the application of larger doses. For example, although land planted with GE soybeans has grown by less than a third over the last two decades, herbicide use has doubled. Herbicide use for maize production was declining before the introduction of GE crops, but has increased since 2002.

Glyphosate was assessed as carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) under the World Health Organization. Some glyphosate-based herbicides also contain other more toxic herbicides – such as 2,4-D, a key ingredient in Agent Orange, the infamous Vietnam War defoliant – to increase their efficacy against resistant weeds.

Diversity declining
GE crops, typically with traits which tend to result in monoculture, have been promoted as more productive than non-GE crops. As farmers adopt GE crop varieties, others varieties are abandoned, and access to such seeds are increasingly in the hands of giant transnational seed companies rather than government facilities.

But when farmers lose confidence in GE crops or wish to turn to non-GE varieties for other reasons, they are no longer able to simply revert to their old non-GE varieties or to crossbreed them. Instead, they now need to buy seeds from these very same monopolistic transnational seed companies.

Similarly, the impact on ecological diversity, important for maintaining fragile ecosystems, cannot be underestimated. Biodiversity reduction fundamentally transforms ecosystems. Rich, diverse traditional farmer knowledge – of the use of plants and other natural resources to maintain soil and plant health, and to conserve water and other natural resources – is also being ignored in favour of ‘hi-tech’, genetically-engineered, agro-chemical and other ‘industrial’ solutions, which invariably engender new problems. For example, pesticides are intended to be toxic only to pests, but not to others, but most are carcinogenic or otherwise dangerous to human health.

While GE crops offer some benefits, unclear productivity advantages and rising pest resistance are reducing the edge it once claimed over conventionally developed crops. GE crops seem to be harmless, but there is still much uncertainty over their longer-term effects, including increased pesticide resistance and reduced diversity. The scientific ethic advising precaution in the face of uncertainty seems to have been abandoned in favour of profitable expediency, ostensibly to increase productivity and reduce agro-chemical reliance, neither of which have been achieved.

Corporate power growing
As many of the same corporations or conglomerates sell both GE seeds as well as the agro-chemicals needed to increase yields, the potential for other types of innovation is inevitably diminished. Recent mergers and acquisitions have further consolidated oligopolies selling both seeds and agrochemicals, exemplified by the acquisition bid for Monsanto by Bayer. Not surprisingly then, companies have less incentive to develop new traits, or to invest heavily in tackling other problems when greater pest resistance increases sales of their pesticides and overall profits.

All this is often justified in terms of the urgent need to feed the hundreds of millions of hungry people in the world. However, although there already is enough food being produced to feed everyone in the world, the real problem is one of access, as most of the hungry do not have the means to buy or produce the food they need.

Therefore, while US agribusiness has long claimed that GMOs will “save the world”, there has been little compelling evidence to this effect after two decades. Proponents select evidence to support their exaggerated claims that GE varieties meet many needs in different parts of the world, although their actual track records are much more modest and chequered.

Much of the resistance against GE crops is due to the interests and methods of the agribusiness transnationals dominating food production, both directly and indirectly through their control and promotion of seeds, agrochemicals, etc.

Young People: You Didn’t Vote, And Now You Protest?

16 May 2017 - 7:33am

By Roberto Savio
ROME, May 16 2017 (IPS)

Immediately after the vote on Brexit, thousands of young people marched in the streets of England to show their disagreement over the choice to leave Europe. But polls indicated that had they voted en masse (only 37 percent voted), the result of the referendum would have been the opposite.

Roberto Savio

In the political system, it is now taken for granted that youth will largely abstain, and the agenda tends to ignore them more and more. This has created a vicious circle, setting up priorities which do not represent them. Yet, the analysis of the elections after the shattering economic and social crisis of 2008-9 is clear and statistically evident.

The European Parliament conducted research on the European elections of 2014 in the 28 member countries. While the youngest Europeans (18-24) are more positive about the European Union than the oldest (55+), far fewer of them turned out to vote. Turnout was higher among the oldest respondents.

Some 51 percent of the 55+ voted, while only 28 percent did in the 18-24 age group. This is relatively unchanged since the 2009 elections. And young people were more inclined to decide on the day of the elections, or a few days before (28 percent compared with the +55 group).

Already in 2014, 31 percent of the younger group said they never voted, against 19 percent of the 55+ age group. Yet, the younger the age, the more people had the feeling of being Europeans: 70 percent for the 18-24 year-olds, and 59 percent for the 55+ group.

It could be said, of course, that European elections are a special case. But a look at the past national elections in Europe confirms this trend. In the Austrian presidential elections of 2016, youth participation was at 43 percent. In 2010, it was 48 percent.

In the Dutch parliamentarian elections of 2017, the age group 18-24 vote was at 66 percent: it was 70 percent in 2012. In the Italian referendum of December 2016, the youth abstention was 38 percent, against 32 percent of the general population. And in the recent French presidential elections, the data are consistent: 78 percent abstention for the 25-34 age group; 65 percent for the 24-35; a solid 51 percent for the 35-49; and then 44 percent for the 50-64, with only 30 percent for those 65 and over.

In Israel, just 58 percent of under 35s, and just 41 percent of those under 25, voted in 2013, compared with 88 percent of over 55s. In Britain and Poland less than half of under 25s voted in the last general elections, compared with 88 percent of over 55s.

The growing youth abstention has significant implications. Let us take the last American elections that brought Donald Trump to the White House. The so-called Millennials, those of the age group 18-35, now make up 31 percent of the electorate. The Silent Generation (those 71+) are now 12 percent of the voting pool, and Generation X (36-51) makes up about 25 percent of the electorate.

Bernie Sanders’ run was based on 2 million votes from the 19-24 age group – voters who basically abandoned the elections after his loss in the primaries. Young people’s abstention rate, close to 67 percent, made the Millennials equivalent to the Silent Generation, and lost its demographic advantage. Millennials had a favourable view of Sanders at 54 percent, against 37 percent of Clinton. Just 17 percent of young people had a positive view of Trump.

Had only millennials voted, Clinton would have won the election in a landslide, with 473 electoral votes to Trump’s 32.

The first obvious observation is that if the traditional intergenerational rift disappears, we will have little change in politics, as older voters are usually more conservative. And the second obvious observation is that citizens’ participation will progressively shrink, as the young will age.

What is worrying is that we have too many polls on the reasons behind the political disenchantment of young people to think that the political system is unaware. On the contrary, many political analysts think that parties in power don’t mind abstentions in general terms. It shrinks the voters to those who feel connected, whose priorities are clear and simpler to satisfy, as the older generations feel more secure than the younger ones.

And the theme of young people is disappearing in the political debate, or is merely rhetorical. A good example is that the Italian government devoted in 2016 a whopping 20 billion dollars to save four banks, while it dedicated a total of 2 billion dollars to create jobs for young people, in a country which has close to 40 percent youth unemployment.

For youth, the message is clear: finance is more important than their future. So they do not vote, and they are less and less a factor in the political system.

Spending on education and research are the first victims (together with health) when austerity hits. The results are evident. In Australia (where 25 percent of the young people said that “it does not matter what kind of government we have”), those over 65 pay no tax on income under 24,508 dollars. Younger workers start paying taxes at 15,080 dollars.

In rich countries the world over, people over 65 have subsidies and special discounts, such as on the cinema and other activities. Not the young people…. But when somebody with a message for the young comes into the picture, participation changes. In Canada, just 37 percent of the 18-24s voted in the election of 2008, against 39 percent in 2011. But when Justin Trudeau campaigned on a message of hope in 2015, youth participation rose sharply to 57 percent.

What is a real cause of concern for democracy, as an institution based on the waning concept of popular participation, is that young people are not at all apolitical. In fact, they are very aware of priorities like climate change, gender equality, social justice, common goods, and other concepts, much more than the older generation. At least 10 percent of young people volunteer in social groups and civil society, against 3 percent of the older generations.

They feel much more connected to the causes of humanity, have fewer racial biases, believe more in international institutions, and are more interested in international affairs. A good example is Chile. In 2010 general abstention was 13.1 percent. In 2013 it went to 58 percent. Youth abstention was 71 percent. If young people would vote, they could change the results.

Simply, they have given up on political institutions as corrupt, inefficient, and disconnected from their lives. A report last year found that 72 percent of Americans born before the Second World War thought it was “essential” to live in a country that was governed democratically. Less than a third of those born in the 1980s agreed.

We must note that the decline of participation in elections is a worldwide phenomenon, not just among young people, but also the general population. The last elections at the writing of this article were in the Bahamas; only 50 percent of the population went to vote. In Slovenia abstention is now at 57.6 percent, in Mali 54.2 percent, in Serbia 53.7 percent, in Portugal 53.5 percent, in Lesotho 53.4 percent, in Lithuania 52.6 percent, in Colombia 52.1 percent, in Bulgaria 51.8 percent, in Switzerland 50.9 percent…and this in regions as different as Latin America, Europe, Africa and Asia…the crisis of political participation goes from the cradle of the parliamentarian system (Great Britain), 24 percent abstention, in 1964, to 34.2 in 2010 to Italy (7.1 percent in 2063, and in 2013 24.8 percent).

There is a general consensus among analysts that the damages of globalization and the discrediting of political parties are the major causes for the decline in participation. Yet the winners never take into account the reasons of the losers. The victory of Macron in the last French elections was well-received in Germany, but as soon as the new president started to speak about the need to strengthen Europe, for instance by creating a European finance minister, the immediate reaction was: Germany is not going to place one cent of its well-earned surplus with Europe to the service of other countries: those who spend their money on women and drinks and now expect solidarity form the North of Europe (the Dutch President of Eurofin, Jeroen Dijsselbloem).

How long it will it take to get the winners inside the European Union to understand that the political crisis is a global one, and must be addressed urgently? Voter turnout has been dropping precipitously in Germany, from over 82 percent in 1998 to only 70.8 percent in 2009. As at the last election, this year the number of non-voters is expected to surpass the number of voters in favor of the most successful party.

Manfred Güllner, the head of the Forsa polling institute, warns of a non-voter record. “There is reason to fear that fewer than 70 percent of eligible voters will go to the polls,” he says. If the non-voters were included on a conventional TV graphic, they would have the highest bar in the chart. They should actually be touted as the true winners of the election — if it weren’t for the fact that this also represents a defeat for democracy.

Climate Change Has Changed the Geography of Honduras’ Caribbean Coast

15 May 2017 - 7:07pm

The sea is encroaching fast in the coastal area of Balfate, along Honduras’ Caribbean Coast, where natural barriers are disappearing and the sea is advancing many metres inland. Credit: Courtesy of Hugo Galeano to IPS

By Thelma Mejía
BALFATE, Honduras, May 15 2017 (IPS)

In Balfate, a rural municipality that includes fishing villages and small farms along Honduras’ Caribbean coast, the effects of climate change are already felt on its famous scenery and beaches. The sea is relentlessly approaching the houses, while the ecosystem is deteriorating.

“What was it like before? There used to be a coconut palm plantation before the beach, and a forest with howler monkeys. Today there are no palm trees and the howler monkeys have left,” environmental activist Hugo Galeano, who has been working in the area for over three decades, told IPS.

“Where the beach is now, which used to be 200 metres inland, there used to be a thick palm tree plantation and a beautiful forest. Today the geography has changed, the sea has swallowed up much of the vegetation and is getting closer and closer to the houses. The effects of climate change are palpable,” he said.

Galeano coordinates the Global Environment Facility’s Small Grants Programme (SGP) in Honduras, and is one of the top experts on climate change in the country. He also promotes climate change mitigation and reforestation projects, as well as community integration with environmentally friendly practices, in low-income areas.

In the near future, this majestic tree will no longer be part of the scenery and a natural barrier protecting one of the beaches in Balfate, on Honduras’ Caribbean coast. Credit: Courtesy of Hugo Galeano to IPS

The municipality of Balfate, with an area of 332 square kilometres and a population of about 14,000, is one of the localities in the Caribbean department of Colón that makes up the coastal corridor where the impact of climate change has most altered the local residents’ way of life.

Other communities in vulnerable corridor are Río Coco, Lucinda, Río Esteban and Santa Fe. In these places, the sea, according to local residents, “is advancing and the trees are falling, because they can’t resist the force of the water, since the natural protective barriers have disappeared.”

This is how Julián Jiménez, a 58-year-old fisherman, described to IPS the situation in Río Coco. He said his community used to be 350 metres from the sea, but now “the houses are at the edge of the beach.”

Río Coco, a village in the municipality of Balfate is increasingly near the sea. Located in the central part of the Caribbean coast of this Central American country, it is a strategic hub for transportation by sea to islands and other remote areas.

To get to Balfate you have to travel along a partly unpaved road for nearly eight hours from Tegucigalpa, even though the distance is only around 300 km. To reach Río Coco takes another hour, through areas where the drug trafficking mafias have a lot of power.

Jiménez has no doubts that “what we are experiencing is due to climate change, global warming and the melting of glaciers, since it affects the sea, and that is what we tell the community. For the past decade we have been raising awareness, but there is still much to be done.”

The geography of Balfate, a land of famous landscapes in Honduras’ Caribbean region, has changed drastically from three decades ago, due to encroachment by the sea, according to local residents. Credit: Courtesy of Hugo Galeano to IPS

“We are also guilty, because instead of protecting we destroy. Today we have problems with water and even with the fish catches. With some kinds of fish, like the common snook, there are hardly any left, and we also are having trouble finding shrimp,” he said.

“It is hard for people to understand, but everything is connected. This is irreversible,” said Jiménez, who is the coordinator of the association of water administration boards in the coastal areas of Balfate and the neighbouring municipality of Santa Fe.

Not only Colón is facing problems along the coast, but also the four departments – of the country’s 18 – with coasts on the Caribbean, the country’s eastern border.

In the northern department of Cortés, the areas of Omoa, Barra del Motagua and Cuyamelito, which make up the basin of the Motagua River, near the border with Guatemala, are experiencing similar phenomena.

In these areas on the gulf of Honduras, fishers have also reported a substantial decline inT fish catches and yields, José Eduardo Peralta, from the Coastal Sea Project of the Ministry of Energy, Natural Resources, Environment and Mines, told IPS.

“The sea here has encroached more on the beach, and on productive land, than in other coastal areas. With regard to fishing, there are problems with the capture of lobster and jellyfish; the latter has not been caught for over a year and a half, save for one capture reported a month ago in the area of Mosquitia,“ in the Caribbean, he said in his office in Tegucigalpa.

This tree on one of the beaches in Balfate could fall in a matter of six months, due to the force of the waves which works against its roots, as part of the encroachment of the sea. Credit: Courtesy of Hugo Galeano to IPS

Peralta said the government is concerned about the effects of climate change, because they could reach dramatic levels in a few years.

The sea, he said, is rising and “swallowing up land, and we are also losing biodiversity due to the change in water temperatures and the acidification of the water.”

In line with Jiménez, Peralta said that “the sea currents are rapidly shifting, and the current should not shift overnight, the changes should take between 24 and 36 hours, but it’s not like that anymore. This is called climate change.”

Honduras is considered by international bodies as one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate impacts, as it is on the route of the hurricanes and due to the internal pressures that affect the wetlands, such as deforestation and large-scale African oil palm plantations, which have a direct effect on water scarcity.

Ecologist Galeano said official figures show that in wetland areas, there are approximately two hectares of African oil palms per one of mangroves. He said it was important to pay attention to this phenomenon, because the unchecked spread of the plantations will sooner or later have an impact on the local ecosystems.

On Mar. 9, Environment Minister José Antonio Galdames launched the Climate Agenda, which outlines a National Plan for Climate Change Adaptation for the country, whose implementation recently began to be mapped out.

Among the measures to be carried out under the plan, Galdames underscored a project of integral management of the Motagua River basin, which will include reforestation, management of agroforestry systems and diversification of livelihoods at the productive systems level.

Hurricane Mitch, which caused incalculable economic losses and left over 5,000 people dead and 8,000 missing in 1998, tragically revealed Honduras’ vulnerability. Two decades later, the climate impact is felt particularly in the Caribbean coastal area, which was already hit particularly hard by the catastrophe.

According to the United Nations, 66.5 percent of households in this country of 8.4 million people are poor.

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Kenya’s Drought: Response Must Be Sustainable, Not Piecemeal

15 May 2017 - 6:11am

Dabo Boru, 21, is a mother of three who trekked with her family to Badanrero from her home village of Ambato, 38 km away. They were forced to move here in order to save their cattle from dying of thirst and hunger due to drought. Credit: @unicefkenya

By Siddharth Chatterjee
NAIROBI, Kenya, May 15 2017 (IPS)

 

A malnutrition emergency

Food security in Kenya has deteriorated significantly since the end of 2016. UNICEF reports a significant increase in severe acute malnutrition. Nearly 110,000 children under-five need treatment, up from 75,300 in August 2016.

Waterholes and rivers have dried up, leading to widespread crop failure and livestock depletion. At the height of the drought, surface water in most counties had either dried up or its level dramatically reduced.

Consequently, within a year, the price of maize flour has risen by 31 per cent, milk by 12 and sugar by 21 per cent. These food price increases have driven inflation up from 9.04 per cent in February to 11.48 per cent in April. Many families are making do with just one meal in a day.

Conditions are dire in half of Kenya’s 47 counties. Livestock and milk production has declined, adversely affecting food consumption levels for communities, particularly women and children.

Malnutrition is widespread among children. In the hardest-hit counties of Turkana, Marsabit and Mandera, a third of children under 5 are acutely malnourished – double the emergency threshold. High malnutrition, when combined with an outbreak of cholera or measles, can lead to a surge in deaths among children and other vulnerable groups.

A child suffering from severe acute malnutrition receiving therapeutic milk at UNICEF-supported clinic in Loiyangalani, Marsabit County in Kenya. UNICEF in collaboration with partners is responding to the drought by providing urgently needed therapeutic feeding supplies. Credit: ©UNICEF Kenya/2017/Knowles-Coursin


Underfunded response

We must urgently respond to this malnutrition crisis through treatment and prevention. Blanket supplementary feeding for young children and pregnant and lactating women can avert a catastrophic spike in mortality in the months ahead.

The World Food Programme (WFP) and partners have developed a US$30 million plan to intervene with blanket supplementary feeding in nine northern hotspots, but only 10 per cent of the required funds have been committed.

By the time the Government had declared drought a national disaster, over 2.6 million Kenyans were in urgent need of food aid. This figure will increase unless an appeal for US$166 million to support the most vulnerable is met; less than a third of that amount is available so far.

Don’t be fooled by the news of floods in recent weeks, this has done nothing to alleviate drought-induced malnutrition among children. Flooding is an indicator of poor infiltration resulting from lack of vegetation and soil degradation. This means that much water is flowing off the soil and too little is seeping in. We will face drought again before the onset of the short rains later this year.

Government efforts

President Uhuru Kenyatta declared a national drought disaster in February 2017 and committed US$128 million towards the national drought response.

The Government of Kenya has allocated resources for food aid and monthly cash transfers through its Hunger Safety Net Programme.

Its Livestock Insurance Programme offers a lifeline to affected pastoralists, enabling them to purchase animal feed to keep their herd alive during drought. In addition, offtake programmes are helping farmers to sell of their herds and restock as necessary when conditions improve.

These are commendable efforts but the number of people accessing such support is not enough, and the needs are fast outpacing the response.

Sustainable, not piecemeal

Climate scientists predict that weather patterns will continue to change. This will bring about more frequent, intense and widespread droughts and flash floods.

The vast majority of smallholders in sub-Saharan Africa are dependent on rain-fed agriculture for their livelihoods and are subject to the vagaries of the weather.

We need long-term solutions to alleviate the adverse impacts of climate change and unpredictable weather patterns.

We must build the resilience of communities and invest in agriculture and rural infrastructure. This includes turning away from dependency on rain-fed agriculture towards large-scale water harvesting and innovative irrigation systems.

Due to traditional farming practices, crop yields on the continent have about one-tenth the average productivity of Western farms. Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region where per capita food production is sadly falling. Areas in Somalia and coastal Kenya affected by the current drought have registered crop failure of 70 to 100 percent.

In richer countries, drought-resistant crop varieties have been developed to cope with water scarcity and other climate-induced shocks, including varieties of maize, cowpea and sorghum. A major hindrance to their adoption in East Africa is the weak legislative framework for registration and the lack of appropriate technologies.

Soil moisture management is becoming an increasingly important aspect of crop production. In partnership with the EU, WFP, IFAD and the Government of Kenya, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has a developed programme to promote conservation agriculture, but this approach must be scaled up. UNDP has created capacities for food production in Turkana County, slowly building community resilience and food security through irrigation. This has the potential to reduce dependence on rain fed agriculture and create practical models for scaling up through the northern frontier development council in Marsabit, Mandera, Wajir, Lamu, Tana river, Garissa and Isiolo Counties.

With advances in mobile technology, smallholders now have better tools to forecast impending crises. The Kenyan Government should work closely with communities to build resilience and put in place mitigation measures before the onset of large-scale crises. County governments, created mainly to bring services closer to citizens, are particularly suited to mapping out priorities and matching them with viable solutions.

For example a county like Turkana has the potential of not only being the breadbasket of Kenya, but a source for fresh water for all of Kenya for the next 70 years.

Turkana women water their banana field from the nearby River Turkwel. Credit: UNDP Kenya


The international community can contribute to these efforts by\supporting and partnering with policymakers, researchers and local communities on the effective uses of forecasting and early warning early response mechanisms.

Piecemeal responses to climate-related emergencies can no longer suffice. We need sustainable solutions to effectively tackle drought and its devastating impacts on Kenya’s most vulnerable communities, particularly women and children.

World Lags on Clean Energy Goals

14 May 2017 - 7:51pm

At the current pace in 2030 there will still be one person in ten without electricity. Credit: Bigstock

By Stephen Leahy
VIENNA, May 14 2017 (IPS)

It may be the 21st century but more than three billion people still use fire for cooking and heating. Of those, one billion people have no access to electricity despite a global effort launched at the 2011 Vienna Energy Forum to bring electricity to everyone on the planet.

“We are not on track to meet our goal of universal access by 2030, which is also the Sustainable Development Goal for energy,” said Rachel Kyte, CEO for Sustainable Energy for All and Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General.“Indoor air pollution has a bigger health impact than HIV/AIDS and malaria combined.” --Vivien Foster

“We must all go further, faster—together,” Kyte told more than 1500 delegates and government ministers at the 2017 version of the biannual Vienna Energy Forum this week, organized by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).

Kyte reminded everyone that the 2015 Sustainable Development Goal for energy (SDG 7) was a unanimous promise to bring decarbonized, decentralized energy to everyone and that this would transform the world bringing “clean air, new jobs, warm schools, clean buses, pumped water and better yields of nutritious food”.

Moreover, to prevent catastrophic climate change the world committed to net zero CO2 emissions by 2050 under the 2015 Paris Agreement, she said. “Why are we not moving more quickly?”

At the current pace in 2030 there will still be one person in ten without electricity, according to the Global Tracking Framework 2017 report. Most of those people will be in Africa.

In Chad, Niger, South Sudan and Democratic Republic of the Congo only one person in ten currently has access and this is falling as populations increase, said Elisa Portale , an energy economist at the World Bank who presented the report’s findings.

Although renewable energy like solar and wind gets a great deal of press and attention, the world is failing to meet the SDG target of decarbonizing 36 percent the global energy system and will only get to 21 percent by 2030. Currently it is about 18 percent since renewables include hydropower and biomass. A few countries managed to increase their renewable share by 1 percent per year but some others like Canada and Brazil are actually going backwards, she said.

Decarbonizing electricity is going much faster than decarbonizing energy for heating and for transportation, which is seen to be more challenging.

Improvements in energy efficiency are also far behind. Investment in energy efficiency needs to increase by a factor of 3 to 6 from the current 250 billion dollars a year in order to reach the 2030 objective, the report concluded.

The biggest failure the Global Tracking Framework revealed was that the current number of people still using traditional, solid fuels to cook increased slightly since 2011 to 3.04 billion. Those fuels are responsible for deadly levels of indoor air pollution that shorten the lives of tens of millions and kill four million, mainly children, every year according to the World Health Organization.

This seems to be a low priority and by 2030 only 72 percent of the world will be using clean cooking fuels, said Portale. In other words, 2.5 billion people – mostly in the Asia-Pacific region and Africa – will still be burning wood, charcoal or dung to cook their foods.

Clean cooking is not a priority for most governments although Indonesia is doing quite well, said Vivien Foster, Global Lead for Energy Economics, Markets & Institutions, The World Bank. “Indoor air pollution has a bigger health impact than HIV/AIDS and malaria combined,” Foster told IPS.

One reason clean cooking is a low priority is that men are largely the decisions makers in governments and at the household level and they often are not involved in cooking. Environmental health issues generally get far less attention from governments she said. “Sadly, it’s often mobile phones before toilets,” Foster said.

However, the situation in India is dramatically different.

Green energy – decarbonized, decentralized energy — is no longer expensive or difficult. It is also the most suitable form of energy for developing nations because both access and benefits can come very quickly, said Piyush Goyal, India’s Minister of Energy.

Access to clean liquid propane gas (LPG) for cooking has increased 33 percent in the last three years, which is about 190 million homes. In the last year alone 20 million of the poorest of the poor received LPG for free, Goyal told IPS.

Although millions have no connection to electricity, Goyal said it was his personal belief this will no longer be the case by 2019, three years before India’s 2022 target.

“Prime Minister Modi is completely committed to universal access,” he said. “He grew up poor. He knows what it is like to not have electrical power.”

India is adding 160 gigawatt (GW) of wind and solar by 2022 and it may beat that target too as the cost of solar and wind are well below coal, the country’s main source of energy. The US currently has just over 100 (GW) in total. One GW can power 100 million LED lightbulbs used in homes.

On the energy efficiency front, India is also closing in on a target of replacing all of its lighting with LEDs, saving tens of millions in energy costs and reducing CO2 emissions by as much as 80 million tonnes annually.

“We are doing this even if no one else is. We have a big role to play in the fight against climate change,” Goyal said.

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Hungry Children Behind Bars

14 May 2017 - 10:06am

By Fr. Shay Cullen
May 14 2017 (Manila Times)

If you were in Metro Manila and went to visit a Bahay Pag-asa or “House of Hope” where children as young as seven are incarcerated along with youth up to 17 years of age, you will see that the majority of 12-year-olds look like 8-year-olds.

FR. SHAY CULLEN, SSC

This is because one in three Filipino children is malnourished and stunted. There are 3.4 million stunted Filipino children. Take the case of Jeremy. He was rescued from a Metro Manila jail and we thought he was eight years old but in fact he was about 12 years of age.

A study in 2015 discovered that 20 percent of children under 5 years old died due to poor health services and as many as 300,000 children under five years old were underweight. The Philippines ranks ninth among nations that have high stunted incidence. The rate of chronic malnutrition and stunting among Filipino children is 33.4 percent. Street children and those living in slums and in poor rural villages suffer the most.

If this continues, the Philippines will have a huge percentage of children that are stunted, malnourished and mentally challenged, unable to study and learn.

Children in jails suffer the most from hunger and neglect. Local governments manage the jails for children but officials think they are criminals. Children are hungrier than most — hungry for food, for freedom, for respect, dignity and recognition. They are human and need to be cared for. They need to be in school and not forced to sleep on a concrete floor, locked up all day and night and abused and bullied. They have no exercise, sunlight, stimulation, and entertainment, reading, games or anything to occupy them.

Imagine living in a small cell for months with 20 others, bored and going slowly insane. These children can be mentally and emotionally damaged. They were innocent going in but they will have a criminal mind coming out and will grow up angry at society. Without basic education, they have no chance for a better life, thus will likely end up as scavengers and beggars.

They need their parents but the parents do not always know that they are jailed. Many more children as young as nine years old will be locked up if the Philippine congress passes a bill that will reduce the minimum age of criminal liability to nine years old. That’s how the adult world of leaders see innocent children – as criminals at nine years old. In fact, many a criminal sits in congress dressed in fancy clothes and living a life of extreme luxury, corrupt and uncaring. Sixteen million people said they go hungry in this wealthy nation where they say 140 families rule the 103 million Filipinos.

When Sen. Risa Hontiveros from the Akbayan party-list was reading the column of this writer about children in jails, she was stopped by Senator Richard Gordon who did not want the senators to hear the truth about the condition of the children in jail. He silenced and blocked Hontiveros, violating her right to free speech. Senator Gordon was one of the respondents in the criminal case filed against President Rodrigo Duterte at the International Criminal Court for the killing of thousands of people in the government’s war on drugs. So many Catholics support the killings. Are they Christians, followers of Jesus of Nazareth? Some churches in Pampanga are hanging banners calling for a stop to the killings and opposing the death penalty.

The authorities love to blame innocent children for the crime of the adults. No evidence needed. The police are frequently involved in crimes themselves so they blame and arrest children. They claim they have solved the crime and get a promotion perhaps.

Every parish in the country and especially in Metro Manila ought to have a mission to their local Bahay Pag-asa or House of Hope. On the last day, we will be judged by the acts of charity we did in our lives. God will say “Enter the Kingdom, for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me (Matthew 25: 31-46).”

We need to find Jesus not only in churches but in action for justice and compassion. If not, our spirit dies forever. Let’s act to release the children from the jails of hopelessness and give them a new life.

shaycullen@gmail.com
www.preda.org


This story was originally published by The Manila Times, Philippines

Social Ripples of Rape

14 May 2017 - 9:50am

By Adnan R Amin
May 14 2017 (The Daily Star, Bangladesh)

When alleged rapist Shafat Ahmed and accomplice Shadman Sakif were arrested, and the former’s father brought under investigation, I had decided not to write about the rape incident that took place in a hotel in Banani. The actual rapes have, sadly, been described to some detail – and no one, but the culprits, needs to relive the barbarity of it. But what, perhaps, needs recording are the social ripples generated by the episode.

Source: hercampus. com

Of course, the first order of business is a backlash against the disproportionate favour bestowed upon the victims by society and media reports alike. “Why do you not act thus when it happens outside of Banani?” And it is a justified question. In fact, this is precisely what made me reluctant to write about this. Why relegate Hazrat Ali and Ayesha to the rail-tracks, but leap to clicktivism over this? But we know why: we are a classist and tribalist lot. And that isn’t the issue here. The issue is ‘rape’.

To accept that we are inherently flawed and biased is perhaps a first step in starting this long-overdue conversation about rape. That it had to start from this incident is, for now, an insignificant detail. However, the beginning of a nuanced discussion of rape is not in itself an insignificant detail.

From a purely analytical standpoint, the case has some important features. The victims overcame the paralysing fear of stigma and spoke out. Once they spoke out, they found public support. This will no doubt set a precedent and encourage others to come forward. Citizens have already shown their support for the young women. It is time for mass media to demonstrate how delicately they are able to handle these cases and thus encourage future victims to be candid in their quest for justice."Many of us have sighed with relief after two of the rapists/accomplices were arrested recently. With this, we also need to think about what has been achieved. Have we changed minds? And deep-rooted patriarchal views of women's appearance and mobility?

The aggrieved party also managed to find a powerful narrative that worked in their favour. The goal was not only to evoke sympathy, but also to trigger action. For example, the two victims were referred to as ‘students’ – a category that is traditionally associated with idealism and positivity. Narration of the lopsided power dynamics – both between the tormentors and the victims and their respective families – helped generate public empathy. And where law and order systems need to be pressurised into action by public opinion – these are important reminders for all.

Of course, law enforcement officers deserve credit for rounding up two of the suspects. I hope the other rapist – the now-disowned con artist and event-manager – does not disappear into the smog of misinformation and political clout (if it weren’t illegal and illiberal, I would’ve happily convened a lynch mob in this man’s honour). But the two arrests are important: especially considering that Banani police at first refused to take the plaintiffs’ case for several days. Perhaps more than the actual crimes, the thought of police kowtowing before influential quarters was what ignited a social media storm. Photos showing the alleged rapists posing for photograph(s) inside a police station further fuelled the rage.

While arresting suspects redeems the force to some extent, it is also important to hold an inquiry into if and why lodging of a case had been initially stalled. In that connection, it is also important to evaluate and improve how law enforcement officers interact with victims of violence against women. This is 2017: we cannot have troglodytes manning the posts where tortured and vulnerable women are encouraged to seek restitution.

Mainstream media responded better. First off, journalists deserve a pat on the back for (a) not naming the victims and (b) keeping the focus on the alleged rapists. Even with raids on terror dens and loss of fireman Matin, they have commendably stuck to the story. What they ought to be reprimanded, if not prosecuted for, is how they hounded victims and staked out their homes. Still, I admit that reporting was responsible; sensational details were kept out. What did seep in – the political-power overtones, methamphetamine addiction and pretty ex-wife – eventually composed important parts of the story.

It has been pointed out that the social outroar stemmed largely from a sense of institutional failure. While routinely ridiculed, social media chatter certainly buoyed this incident and forced mainstream media to follow-up the story. It was thus that the suspects’ fathers and their behind-the-scenes rescue efforts became known. And it was thus that their businesses were identified, and in a few cases, boycotted. Once Facebook users began unearthing and passing on to media inconvenient photos and connections, law enforcement activity seemed to gain momentum.

So, in a way, your Facebook post and your discussion actually helped arrest the alleged rapists. However, only so many cases can reach such a critical mass and exert pressure on authorities. In the end, there is no other recourse to investigating institutional failures.

What does need to be reiterated is a concern about the language in which all above parties discuss rape. In Bangla, we must stop describing rape as a ‘loss of honour’ or a ‘loss of virtue’. If anyone loses honour or virtue during a rape, it is undoubtedly the rapist. It is important to challenge the notion of ‘honour’ being located in a woman’s vagina. At the same time, we must not equate rape to just any form of violence. We must remember that usually rape is also about patriarchy, inter-gender power dynamics and fragile masculinity. It is about inflicting the sense of loss of honour and virtue. It is as much a psychological assault as it is a physical one.

Every account needs to repeat that: rape is not an act of sex; it is an act of violence. Therefore, conversations about it must not be romanticised, sexualised or depicted as an outcome of prevailing situations, relationships or conflicts. The idiocy of invoking revealing clothing, sexual signals, respectable hours and unsafe spaces must be forever shunned. We live in civilised society. We punish illegitimate violence. Fullstop.

Lastly, because sexual violence is so emotionally-charged, it is difficult to talk about it without the fear of being misunderstood: but girls need to be cautious. They shouldn’t have to be. But they need to be. Times have changed; men haven’t. Therefore, anything from skimming through ‘what-to-do-when’ articles to pepper sprays to basic self-defence training will help. These days there are personal safety apps for smartphones that can alert a relative, friend or police station at the tap of a finger. I hope all these things will become obsolete one day. Sadly, that day isn’t here yet.

After Jyoti Singh Pandey was raped in Delhi in 2012, a social tumult followed. Thousands upon thousands of citizens protested the language of victim-blaming and the central government’s failure to provide enough security for women. A judicial committee was set up to explore and take citizen suggestions about legal reforms that enabled speedy trials for rapists. Some 80,000 citizens were consulted before an amendment was passed to allow fast-tracking cases of violence against women.

Throughout this period, the victim was referred to only as ‘Nirbhaya’ or ‘the fearless one’.

Many of us have sighed with relief after two of the rapists/accomplices were arrested recently. With this, we also need to think about what has been achieved. Have we changed minds? And deep-rooted patriarchal views of women’s appearance and mobility? We can choose to term the arrests as marking the end to a sensational rape case. Or we can choose to see this as the beginning of a very important, candid and nuanced conversation about sexual violence.

The writer is a strategy and communications consultant.

This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh

Rights of Nature

14 May 2017 - 9:32am

By Asfand Yar Warraichr
May 14 2017 (Dawn, Pakistan)

Should a tree have the right to sue? This line of inquiry is met with an equal measure of incredulity and fascination. After all, to answer in the affirmative is to entertain the rather rib-tickling idea that a tree, much like a human being, is capable of being wronged and deserving of restitution. To answer in the negative is to reassert the status quo — that a tree is simply a tree, inanimate and insentient, incapable of any hurt, unqualified for any compensation.

Asfand Yar Warraich

In 1972, Christopher D. Stone, an American legal theorist, wrestled with this intriguing question. In an article titled, ‘Should Trees have Standing?’ Stone opined that natural objects, such as trees, ought to be accorded legal rights. The law, he argued, was already replete with examples of inorganic entities being treated as legal persons: corporations, trusts, joint ventures and partnerships, to name but a few, and therefore the same rights should be extended to nature, to allow it to defend itself against the intrusion of modern civilisation.

Recently, in a landmark judgement, the high court of Uttarakhand revived Stone’s philosophy and declared that all glaciers, rivers, lakes, forests, springs and meadows in India are “legal entities”, with all the corresponding rights of legal persons. Delivering the seminal verdict, Justice Sharma stated that “the rights of these legal entities shall be equivalent to the rights of human beings” and that any injury caused to them, shall be treated as an “injury caused to a human being”.

Can trees and rivers be accorded legal rights?

Remarkably, this is not the first time that nature has found itself personified by law. In 2008, Ecuador became the first nation in the world to grant constitutional rights to nature. Article 71 of its constitution stipulates that nature has “the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles”. Furthermore, it goes on to state that “every person, people, community or nationality” shall be able to demand the recognition of this right before public bodies.

Similarly, in the culmination of a 100-year campaign by the Whanganui Iwi, an indigenous community in New Zealand, parliament in New Zealand lately bestowed a similar status to the Whanganui River, making it the legal equivalent of a person, with members of the community being empowered to bring a legal action in its name, just as a parent is able to bring an action in the name of their child.

The aforementioned developments are revolutionary. They are a testament to a paradigmatic shift in environmental jurisprudence — a movement away from the rights of man ‘to’ nature, towards the rights ‘of’ nature against man.

To date, environmental law has been inherently human-centric, stuck to the idea that mankind is entitled to a clean, sustainable environment. Even the global movement for environmental conservation is in reality an act of self-preservation against what appears to be an imminent danger — the destruction of ‘our’ habitat. This is a radically different approach, built on the opposing premise that nature is equally entitled to exist free from the interference of mankind.

But polemics aside, what is the practicality of these developments? Are they merely symbolic or do they harbour any potential? While this novel approach may seem eccentric, it certainly warrants consideration.

For one, it opens up alternate avenues for environmental protection. It allows interested parties to seek redressal from the courts, even in the absence of a violation of any express environmental legislation, thereby reducing our dependency on inefficient state institutions that are often unwilling to enact or enforce protectionist principles due to corporate interests. Similarly, it allows courts to take cognisance of environmental harm and assess compensatory damages.

Moreover, there is a socio-cultural aspect. By personifying natural objects, this approach challenges the prevailing idea that nature is our property, ripe for appropriation as we see fit, and instead fosters an understanding of the world where every component of our ecosystem is imbued with a degree of consciousness, and therefore deserving of respect and protection. As our conception of nature changes, so does our relationship with it — from one of domination to one of reciprocity.

That said, the framework is not entirely flawless. A fundamental question remains unresolved: who shall sue on behalf of nature? If a governmental appointee is made custodian, we run the risk of being entrapped in the same cycle of incompetence and lethargy that plagues the current system. If, on the other hand, the general public is entitled to bring action, there is always the dangerous possibility of our courts being bombarded with frivolous litigation, thus overburdening an already fractured system.

Regardless, this rights-based approach offers a much-needed reorientation of our relationship with nature. And in a global system that is gluttonously devouring its precious natural resources, perhaps that is what we truly need — a fresh perspective.

The writer is a lawyer.
Published in Dawn, May 14th, 2017


This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan

Punishment for Human Rights Abusers Is Irrevocable Achievement for Argentine Society

12 May 2017 - 6:27pm

Hundreds of thousands of people poured into the Plaza de Mayo square in Buenos Aires on May 10 to protest a Supreme Court ruling that made it possible to reduce the prison sentences of dictatorship-era human rights abusers – a verdict neutralised by a new law passed by Congress on May 10. Credit: Daniel Gutman/IPS

By Daniel Gutman
BUENOS AIRES, May 12 2017 (IPS)

What at first was terrible news that outraged a large proportion of Argentine society, who see the conviction and imprisonment of dictatorship-era human rights violators as an irrevocable achievement for democracy, became a cause for celebration a week later.

An unexpected ruling handed down by the Supreme Court on May 3 initially opened the door to hundreds of members of the military and civilians in prison for crimes against humanity committed during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship to seek a reduction of their sentences, which would in some cases even allow them to immediately be released.

However, the wave of outrage that arose in human rights groups spread in the following days throughout society, leading to changes that came about at a dizzying pace that made it unlikely for the court ruling, which applied to one particular case, to be used as a precedent for other human rights abusers to obtain a reduction in their sentences.“I don’t recall in the history of Argentina any other time that Congress has reacted so quickly to a legal ruling. And I am convinced that the entire justice system is going to rebel against this Supreme Court ruling.” -- Andrés Gil

“It won’t go any farther than this. In the Argentine justice system, the Supreme Court’s decisions are not binding on lower courts. After the strong social repulsion and after all political sectors spoke out against the early release of human rights violators, this will end with Muiña,” Jorge Rizo, chairman of the Buenos Aires Bar Association, told IPS.

It was the case of Luis Muiña, a civilian in prison for his participation in kidnappings and torture in 1976, that sparked the massive protest demonstrations held over the past week.

In a divided ruling, the Supreme Court decided to apply the “two for one” law that compensates for time spent in pre-sentence custody, to reduce Muiña’s 13-year sentence to the nine years he has already served.

But exactly a week later, on May 10, Congress passed a law supported by all political sectors which established that the two-for-one law was not applicable in cases involving genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity.

A few hours later, hundreds of thousands of people filled the Plaza de Mayo square in Buenos Aires, reminiscent of the biggest rallies in the country’s history.

Many wore white headscarves, a symbol of the Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo human rights groups, who in April celebrated the 40th anniversary of their first march in the Plaza de Mayo square to demand that their “disappeared” sons and daughters be returned to them.

According to human rights organisations, 30,000 people were killed or “disappeared” by the regime.

A big banner on the stage read: “Never again! No freedom for human rights abusers”. The main speaker at the massive rally was Estela de Carlotto, the longtime head of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who have so far found 122 of their grandchildren, stolen by the dictatorship and raised under false identities.

“Just like with the Nazis, wherever they go we will go after them,” Carlotto chanted along with the crowd estimated by the organisers at 400,000 people.

“Fortunately, society has taken a firm stance,” said the activist, adding that the quick action by Congress “fills us with hope and gratitude.”

“Never again! No freedom for human rights abusers”, read a big banner in the massive rally where hundreds of thousands of Argentinians, wearing white headscarves representing the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo human rights group, demanded full punishment for dictatorship-era human right violators. Credit: Daniel Gutman/IPS

In the demonstration there was in the air a strong rejection of the government of conservative President Mauricio Macri, even though it did not play any role in the trial. Many protesters held signs linking the president to the Court’s decision, a connection also insinuated in Twitter by former president Cristina Fernández (2007-2015), who at the moment was traveling through Europe.

The government had a somewhat unclear response to the Supreme Court ruling. It initially left the response exclusively in the hands of Human Rights Secretary Claudio Avruj who, although responsible for this area, is not a high-ranking official. Perhaps over-cautiously, he urged people to be “respectful of the verdict.”

But as the negative repercussions grew, the government began to reject the ruling, through more important figures. And once Congress passed the law, Macri himself congratulated the lawmakers, and said he was opposed to “any tool that favours impunity, and especially when this tool is applied to crimes against humanity.”

The Supreme Court ruling was divided, three-to-two. The majority was made up of Elena Highton, Horacio Rosatti and Carlos Rosenkrantz – the latter two named to the Court last year on Macri’s recommendation.

The two-for-one law, which stated that every day spent in pre-sentence custody counted for two days after two years had been served, was designed to help Argentina address the large proportion of people in prison who have not yet been tried and sentenced. But the 1994 law was repealed in 2001 as it had failed to achieve its aim.

But the three Supreme Court justices argued that the most beneficial law for the accused must be applied in penal law, even in cases involving crimes against humanity.

“The sentence, technically, goes against international law,” said Gastón Chillier, executive director of the Social and Legal Studies Centre (CELS), a human rights organisation created during the dictatorship.

“The law which was passed promptly by Congress is a result of the cross-cutting nature of the reaction against the ruling. From now on, the justice system will have to be very autistic to ignore the rejection that the sentence generated,” Chillier told IPS.

One of the founders of CELS, lawyer Marcelo Parrilli, filed criminal charges accusing the three magistrates of prevarication, or knowingly handing down a decision contrary to the law.

Soon after, federal prosecutor Guillermo Marijuán considered that there were grounds to launch a judicial investigation. And the Front for Victory (FPV) political faction headed by former president Fernández sought to impeach Highton, Rosatti and Rosenkrantz.

But it did not all end there, since a well-known constitutionalist lawyer, Andrés Gil, asked the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to order Argentina to abstain from reducing the sentences of those convicted of human rights violations.

Gil told IPS: “I don’t recall in the history of Argentina any other time that Congress has reacted so quickly to a legal ruling. And I am convinced that the entire justice system is going to rebel against this Supreme Court ruling.”

“Those who signed that decision did not realise that the trial and punishment of those responsible for human rights abuses during the last dictatorship now form part of the heritage of the Argentine people,” he added.

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Unlocking the Diaspora Development Potential

12 May 2017 - 9:11am

By Elena L. Pasquini
ROME, May 12 2017 (degrees of latitude)

‘Diaspora is the biggest development community that exists in the world’, according to Pedro De Vasconcelos, manager of IFAD‘s Financial Facility for Remittances. However, its potential is still largely untapped.

In 2015, over 200 million migrants sent home about 450 billion dollars in remittances. An amount which is three times the official development assistance and exceeds foreign direct investments in most countries. Recent estimates by the World Bank suggest a decline of 2.4 percent in 2016, whilst a growth of 3.3 percent is expected in 2017.

De Vasconcelos strongly believes that the money migrants send back to their home countries can be leveraged to stimulate investments, boost development and pull people out of poverty.

How to exploit migration-related inflow of capital to spur growth and build prosperity? Reducing transaction costs is not enough to, according to De Vasconcelos. Migrants and their families need financial inclusion, which is access to basic financial services, such as payments, savings, including current accounts, credit and insurance. Senders and recipients of remittances need options to the cash-to-cash system.

Where cash is king

A World Bank and IFAD report indicates that ‘two billion or 38 per cent of working-age adults globally have no access to financial services delivered by regulated financial institutions, with 73 per cent of poor people unbanked’. However, millions of them receive remittances.

‘The reason they are not banked is because those who provide financial services think that these people are poor and have no money. That’s it’, De Vasconcelos told Degrees of Latitude in an exclusive interview.

That’s a ‘cliché’, he said. They get regularly what is equivalent to a monthly salary. ‘The majority of them want financial democracy, [but] they are living in a world where cash is king… They are equipped to some extent, with a little more of help, to be part of a financial democratic revolution’, he added. ‘Give them the options and see if cash remains king’.

When remittances received through regulated financial institutions, families plan for long-term investment goals, savings can be reinvested in the local community and they can “function as a buffer against instability at the macroeconomic level”, according to IFAD and World Bank. ‘Think of you’, without a banking account where to credit wages, without a credit card, no access to online banking services or without a credit history: ‘What do you do? You are going back to cash and hopefully you have it, but that’s it. How can you leverage anything? What you are having in your hands is what you have and what you will get’, De Vasconcelos said.

In the agricultural sector, for instance, financial institutions do not provide services or loans to farmers on the assumption that agriculture is a risky business without taking into consideration the remittances they receive. ‘Financial institutions just don’t see the opportunities that exist [with remittances]’, he said. ‘It is a sector of complete missed opportunity over missed opportunity … and it’s not just doing good, doing the right thing, it’s a win-win situation.’

De Vasconcelos has no doubt: ‘Financial inclusion is the biggest opportunity that exists.’

Learning, saving and investing

Financial inclusion requires the implementation of strategies to let offer and demand meet each other. Families need financial literacy to manage financial services, but financial institutions need to understand that banking senders and recipients of remittances is possible.

With the Financial Facility for Remittances established ten years ago, IFAD aims at testing mechanisms for accessing remittances in rural areas, but also promoting investment and entrepreneurship, as well as diaspora engagement in their countries of origin. ‘We are a laboratory’, De Vasconcelos said. ‘We saw dramatic changes’ testing new financial products with financial literacy programmes.

In Sri-Lanka, for instance, a project in collaboration with the Hatton National Bank helped senders and recipients gain access to financial services. The bank designed an account targeted for the migrants’ needs, linking savings to remittances and then providing housing or business loans. After the pilot, demand increased and Hatton Bank opened several branches offering remittance services.

In Italy, IFAD engaged Philippine diaspora with a training to learn how to budget, manage daily expenses, and increase savings. ‘That was a paradigm change … Now that [they] have saved, that know how to save, we showed that there are other options … Don’t give the money away, maybe you can invest.’ Many decided to actually invest in agricultural businesses in their communities.

Scaling up

IFAD’s projects are pilots designed to show what works and what doesn’t. Scaling up requires the involvement of multiple actors, from private sector to governments, and the mainstreaming of remittances into the programmes of many international organizations, according to De Vasconcelos. ‘Ministries of agricultures, [for instance]. It is imperative they understand that their target groups receive remittances. And the majority of them not even know or care. They think that it’s not their problem’, he said.

On 16 June, the International Day of Family Remittances will be celebrated at the United Nations headquarters, in the context of the fifth Global Forum on Remittances just one month before the High-Level Political Forum that will assess the advancement in the implementation of the first 10 Sustainable Development Goals. ‘…. If you want to achieve the SDGs, you have to look at this phenomenon that is affecting one out of ten people in planet.… One remittance affects five people on average’, De Vasconcelos stressed.

Maybe remittances are not the silver bullet, but while policymakers try to find solutions on ‘how to transform billion into trillions, and that’s what you need to achieve the goals’, migrants have sent trillions of dollars back home, according to De Vasconcelos. ‘Can you maximise that dollar when they send it? Can you try to make that dollar convert into two … by offering more options? You could do that. That’s the beautiful part of this story, it’s not a question of money for once. It’s a question of will, it’s [the] question of facilitating. The money is there, what you need is just the actors to make it happened’, he said.

‘Remittances are tricky’, De Vasconcelos noted. The risk of doing nothing, of remaining in a cash-to-cash system is to keep families dependent on what they receive from abroad.

This story was originally published by Degrees of Latitude

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