Interpress News Service

A Bit Bolshie

20 April 2017 - 10:43am

By Mahir Ali
Apr 20 2017 (Dawn, Pakistan)

To the uninitiated, the sight of a motley bunch of around three dozen odd foreigners — men, women and children — piling on to a train in Zurich might not have appeared extraordinary. But there was a crowd on the platform.

Mahir Ali

Some of them were well-wishers. Others felt the passengers headed to the German border were effectively criminals. Europe was in the throes of an unprecedentedly bitter war that had already cost millions of lives. And these passengers were mainly Russians whose passage through Germany was being facilitated by the authorities in Berlin.

Someone within the train waved a red banner from one of the windows as the train pulled out. The key passenger was a man little known outside strictly socialist circles in Europe.

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov had vociferously opposed the war ever since it broke out, accurately perceiving it as essentially an imperialist conflagration between powers competing for colonial conquest. He was bitterly disappointed when all too many components of the Second International, the main European repository of Marxism, responded to the conflict with retrograde patriotic zeal.

The man best known even then as Lenin was not only disinclined to make the same mistake, but saw the potential for “revolutionary defeatism” — in other words, exploiting military setbacks to spark a transformation of society.

News of the February Revolution in 1917 had struck Lenin as a thunderbolt. After the events of 1905, he hated the idea of being away from his homeland once more during a transformational upsurge. What’s more, the relatively liberal successor regime that had replaced the tsar was determined to persist with the war, in which Russia was allied with Britain and France against the Germans.

‘Land, peace and bread’ were what the Russians aspired to.

A former comrade called Alexander Helphand, once known to his radical associates as Parvus, had established himself as a wheeling-dealing capitalist in Germany, and by 1917 had been striving for a couple of years with the Berlin authorities to facilitate Lenin’s return home as a means of thwarting the Russian war effort.

Lenin did not want to have anything to do with Parvus anymore, but he was desperate to get to the Russian capital, Petrograd (previously, as now, known as St Petersburg, but named Leningrad after Ulyanov’s premature demise). He did not have too many qualms about supping with the devil to achieve his objective, not least because he was convinced, correctly, that Germany would anyhow lose the war — and, what’s more, that the kaiser would be overthrown by a proletarian revolution.

Although the kaiser was indeed unseated by an uprising following the armistice in November 1918, a socialist revolution was ultimately thwarted, with its leading lights, Rosa Luxemburg and Wilhelm Liebknecht, slain early in the following year. An alternative outcome in Germany may well indeed have transformed the future of Europe — and would almost certainly not have led to the re-run of the world war that transpired two decades hence.

Just before leaving Zurich, Lenin had declared at a meeting that the prospects of socialism in Russia were dim for the time being. After all, according to Marxist orthodoxy, bourgeois rule and capitalist development were an essential precondition to a dictatorship of the proletariat. But during the tedious journey that took him and his comrades through Ger¬many, Sweden and Finland, Lenin cha¬nged his mind.

His April Theses, published almost immediately upon his arrival in Petrograd 100 years ago last Sunday — to a surprisingly tumultuous welcome from representatives of soldiers and workers — argued that the circumstances were ripe for the bourgeois phase to be transcended. “All power to the soviets” (in which the Bolsheviks at that point constituted a tiny minority) was the key slogan, alongside “land, peace and bread” — everything that the bulk of Russians aspired to at that moment in history.

Many of his comrades among the intelligentsia, including most Bolsheviks, thought Lenin was deranged, or at least had spent too long in exile to be sufficiently familiar with the prevailing conditions. But if the Bolshevik leadership — not least Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev, two of Lenin’s closest allies abroad, as well as Josef Stalin, at the time a relative nonentity — disagreed, many among the party’s rank-and-file proletariat membership shared his impatience.

Whatever one may think in retrospect of the latter event, most historians agree that February would not have led to October but for Lenin’s presence at the coalface. It could be argued, although many would disagree, that he kept his head while others were losing theirs and blaming it on him. Sure, it’s broadly circumstances rather than individuals that make history. But there are times when someone has got to seize the moment — and, in anglophone parlance, be a bit more bolshie than everyone else.

mahir.dawn@gmail.com

This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan

Bannon Down, Pentagon Up, Neocons In?

20 April 2017 - 10:34am

Jared Kushner, senior advisor to President Donald J. Trump, speaks with Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (by Dominique A. Pineiro via Department of Defense)

By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Apr 20 2017 (IPS)

The apparent and surprisingly abrupt demise in Steve Bannon’s influence offers a major potential opening for neoconservatives, many of whom opposed Trump’s election precisely because of his association with Bannon and the “America Firsters,” to return to power after so many years of being relegated to the sidelines. Bannon’s decline suggest that he no longer wields the kind of veto power that prevented the nomination of Elliott Abrams as deputy secretary of state. Moreover, the administration’s ongoing failure to fill key posts at the undersecretary, assistant secretary, and deputy assistant secretary levels across the government’s foreign-policy apparatus provides a veritable cornucopia of opportunities for aspiring neocons who didn’t express their opposition to the Trump campaign too loudly.

Ninety days into the administration, the military brass—whose interests and general worldview are well represented by National Security Advisor Gen. H.R. McMaster and Pentagon chief Gen. James Mattis (ret.), not to mention the various military veterans led by National Security Council (NSC) chief of staff Gen. Kenneth Kellogg (ret.) who are taking positions on the NSC—appears to be very much in the driver’s seat on key foreign policy issues, especially regarding the Greater Middle East. Their influence is evident not only in the attention they’ve paid to mending ties with NATO and northeast Asian allies, but also in the more forceful actions in the Greater Middle East of the past two weeks. These latter demonstrations of force seem designed above all to reassure Washington’s traditional allies in the region, who had worried most loudly about both Obama’s non-interventionism and Trump’s “America First” rhetoric, that the U.S. is not shy about exerting its military muscle.

Nor could it be lost on many observers that Bannon’s expulsion from the NSC took place immediately after Jared Kushner returned from his surprise visit to Iraq hosted by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford—reportedly the culmination of a calculated strategy of seduction by the Pentagon. Kushner has emerged as the chief conduit to Trump (aside, perhaps, from Ivanka). The timing of Bannon’s fall from grace—and Kushner’s reported role in it—was particularly remarkable given that Kushner and Bannon were allied in opposing McMaster’s effort to fire Ezra Cohen-Watnick from the NSC just a week before Kushner flew to Baghdad.)

The Ascendance of the Military

The military’s emergence—at least, for now—has a number of implications, some favorable to neocons, others not so much.

On the favorable side of the ledger, there are clear areas of convergence between both the brass and the neocons (although it’s important to emphasize that neither is monolithic and that there are variations in opinion within both groups). Although both the military and the neocons give lip service to the importance of “soft power” in promoting U.S. interests abroad, they share the belief that, ultimately, hard power is the only coin of the realm that really counts.

The military tends to appreciate the importance of mobilizing multilateral and especially allied support for U.S. policies, especially the use of force. Many neocons, however, don’t accord such support so much importance. Indeed, some are openly contemptuous of multilateralism and international law in general, believing that they unduly constrain Washington’s freedom of action (to do good for the world).
With substantial experience in counter-insurgency (COIN) doctrine in Iraq and Afghanistan, both McMaster and Mattis appreciate the importance of politics in military strategy in principle. But they are ultimately military men and hence naturally inclined to look in the first instance to military tools to pound in any loose nails, whether in the form of failing states or failing regional security structures. (That hammer will likely look even more compelling as the Trump administration follows through on its budgetary proposals to deplete U.S. diplomatic and development capabilities.) Like neoconservatives, they also appreciate large military budgets, and although they certainly oppose, in principle, the idea that the U.S. should play globocop for fear of overextension, they have no problem with the notion of U.S. global military primacy and the necessity of maintaining hundreds of military bases around the world to uphold it.

Moreover, the military and neoconservatives share to some extent an enduring hostility toward certain states. The Pentagon is quite comfortable with an adversarial relationship with Russia, if only because it is familiar and ensures European adherence to NATO, which the United States will dominate for the foreseeable future. This applies in particular to McMaster, who spent the last couple of years planning for conflict with Russia. For similar reasons, the military is generally comfortable with a mostly hostile relationship toward Iran. Such a stance ensures close ties with Washington’s traditional allies/autocrats in the Gulf (whose insatiable demand for U.S. weaponry helps sustain the industrial base of the U.S. military as well as the compensation for retired flag officers who serve on the boards of the arms sellers). And, as Mattis has made clear on any number of occasions, he sees Iran as the greatest long-term threat to U.S. interests in the region and welcomes an opportunity to “push back” against what he has claimed are Tehran’s hegemonic ambitions there. All of this is clearly encouraging to neocons whose antipathy toward both the Islamic Republic and Russia is deeply ingrained and of long standing.

On the more negative side, however, the military as an institution naturally harbors a distrust of neoconservatives, a distrust established by the Iraq debacle in which the military still finds itself bogged down with no clear exit. “Regime change” and “nation-building”—much touted by neocons in the post-Cold War era—are dirty words among most of the brass, for whom such phrases have become synonymous with quagmire, over-extension, and, as much as they resist coming to terms with it, failure. Of course, many active-duty and retired senior military officers, of whom McMaster may well be one, consider the 2007-08 “Surge”—a plan heavily promoted by neoconservatives—to have been a great success (despite its manifest failure to achieve the strategic goal of political and sectarian reconciliation) that was undone by Obama’s “premature” withdrawal. But even the most ardent COINistas are aware that, absent a catastrophic attack on the U.S. mainland, the American public will have very limited patience for major new investments of blood and treasure in the Middle East, especially given the general perception that Russia and China pose increasing threats to more important U.S. interests and allies in Europe and East Asia, respectively, compared to five or six years ago.

The prevailing wisdom among the brass remains pretty much as former Defense Secretary Bob Gates enunciated it before his retirement in 2011: “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.” The military may indeed escalate its presence and loosen its rules of engagement in Mesopotamia, Afghanistan, and even Yemen in the coming months, but not so much as to attract sustained public attention and concern, despite the wishes of neocons like Bloomberg columnist Eli Lake, Gen. Jack Keane (ret.), or the Kagans. The desirability of a “light footprint” has become conventional wisdom at the Pentagon, while some neocons still believe that the U.S. occupation of post-World War II Germany and Japan should be the model for Iraq.

Besides Iraq’s legacy, the military has other reasons to resist neocon efforts to gain influence in the Trump administration. As successive flag officers, including one of their heroes, Gen. David Petraeus (ret.), have testified, the virtually unconditional U.S. embrace of Israel has long made their efforts to enlist Arab support for U.S. military initiatives in the region more difficult. Of course, like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, neocons argue that circumstances have changed over the last decade, that the reigning regional chaos and the fear of a rising Iran shared by both Israel and the Sunni-led Arab states have created a new strategic convergence that has made the Israeli-Palestinian conflict virtually irrelevant. According to this view, Washington’s perceived acquiescence in, if not support for, expanding Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and its quarantine of Gaza are no longer a big deal for Arab leaders.

But this perception runs up against the reality that the Pentagon and CENTCOM have always faced in the region. Even the most autocratic Arab leaders, including those who have intensified their covert intelligence and military cooperation with Israel in recent years, are worried about their own public opinion, and, that until Israel takes concrete steps toward the creation of a viable and contiguous Palestinian state pursuant to the solution outlined in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative (API), their cooperation will remain limited, as well as covert. In the meantime, the ever-present possibility of a new Palestinian uprising or another armed conflict in Gaza threatens both continuing cooperation as well as the U.S. position in the region to the extent that Washington is seen as backing Israel.

There are other differences. Despite the experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, neocons have long believed that states necessarily constitute the greatest threat to U.S. national security, while the military tends to take relatively more seriously threats posed by non-state actors, such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda or, for that matter, al-Shabaab or Boko Haram to which neocons pay almost no attention. Although some neocons are clearly Islamophobic and/or Arabophobic (in major part due to their Likudist worldview), the military, as shown most recently by McMaster’s opposition to the use of the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” sees that attitude as counter-productive. And although neocons and the military share a strong antipathy toward Iran, the latter, unlike the former, appears to recognize that both countries share some common interests. Mattis, in particular, sees the nuclear deal as imperfect but very much worth preserving. Most neocons want to kill it, if not by simply tearing it up, then indirectly, either through new congressional sanctions or other means designed to provoke Iran into renouncing it.

The military tends to appreciate the importance of mobilizing multilateral and especially allied support for U.S. policies, especially the use of force. Many neocons, however, don’t accord such support so much importance. Indeed, some are openly contemptuous of multilateralism and international law in general, believing that they unduly constrain Washington’s freedom of action (to do good for the world). Neocons see themselves above all as moral actors in a world of good and evil; the brass is more grounded in realism, albeit of a pretty hardline nature.

Thus, to the extent that the military’s worldview emerges as dominant under Donald Trump, neoconservatives may have a hard time gaining influence. However, on some issues, such as lobbying for a larger Pentagon budget, taking a more aggressive stance against Moscow, aligning the U.S. more closely with the Sunni-led Gulf states, and promoting a more confrontational stance vis-à-vis Iran in the Middle East, neocons may gain an entrée.

Other Avenues of Influence

Just as the Pentagon deliberately courted Kushner—who appears, like his father-in-law, to be something of an empty vessel on foreign policy issues despite the rapid expansion of his international responsibilities in the first 90 days—so others will. Indeed, Abrams himself appears to have gotten the message. In his interview last week with Politico, he unsurprisingly praises Trump’s cruise-missile strikes against Syria and Kushner’s modesty. (“I don’t view him at all as an empire builder.”) At the end of the article, the author notes,

As for his own future with Trump, Abrams teased that it may still be in front of him, depending on how things shape up with Bannon and Kushner, the latter of whom he kept going out of his way to praise. [ Emphasis added.]

Although the deputy secretary of state position now appears to be taken, Abrams was also careful to laud his erstwhile promoter, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Now reportedly coordinating increasingly with Mattis and McMaster, Tillerson seems to have gained significant ground with Trump himself in recent weeks. Neocons may yet find a home at State, although I think Tillerson’s initial promotion of Abrams as his deputy was due primarily to the latter’s experience and skills as a bureaucratic infighter rather than for his ideological predispositions. Meanwhile, UN Amb. Nikki Haley, who was promoted to the NSC’s Principals Committee on the same day that Bannon was expelled, appears to have become a neocon favorite for her Kirkpatrickesque denunciations of Russia, Syria, and the UN itself. That she initially supported neocon heartthrob Sen. Marco Rubio for president and has been aligned politically with Sen. Lindsey Graham, who stressed Haley’s commitment to Israel when she was nominated as ambassador, also offers hope to neocons looking for avenues of influence and infiltration.

Yet another avenue into the administration—indeed, perhaps the most effective—lies with none other than casino king Sheldon Adelson, the single biggest donor to the Trump campaign and inaugural festivities (as well as to Haley’s political action committee). As we noted in January, Kushner himself, along with Israeli Amb. Ron Dermer, had become a critical, pro-Likud conduit between Trump and Adelson beginning shortly after Trump’s rather controversial appearance before the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) at the beginning of the presidential campaign. Although Adelson has maintained a low profile since the inauguration, he clearly enjoys unusual access to both Kushner and Trump. Indeed, the fact that Sean Spicer reportedly apologized personally to Adelson, of all people, almost immediately after his “Holocaust center” fiasco last week serves as a helpful reminder that, as much as the various factions, institutions, and individuals jockey for power in the new administration, money—especially campaign cash—still talks in Washington. This is a reality that neoconservatives absorbed long ago.

This piece was originally published in Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy Lobelog.com

Marjia’s Suicide

20 April 2017 - 10:14am

Child marriage claims another life

By Editor, The Daily Star, Bangladesh
Apr 20 2017 (The Daily Star, Bangladesh)

In yet another tragic incident related to child marriage, a teenage girl from Akkelpur upazila of Joypurhat committed suicide by hanging herself from the ceiling in her living room. Fifteen-year-old Marjia Sultana killed herself finding no other way out of being married off by her family.

Marjia Sultana

While many of us cannot even imagine the anguish Marjia must have been feeling there are millions of girls in the country who can. According to UNICEF, 52 percent of girls in Bangladesh are married off before the age of 18 – one of the highest rates of child marriage globally.

Marjia’s suicide must be seen in the context of the dangerous extent to which child marriage has been normalised in our society today. Although the Bangladesh government aims to end child marriage by 2041 the new law that allows for child marriage to take place under “special circumstances” is completely contradictory to the government’s global commitment. Despite protests by activists and rights groups that the new law will encourage and legalise child marriage, the law was passed. The least that the government can do now is ensure that the special provision in the law is not misused.

Furthermore, the role of civil society today is more important than ever in the fight against child marriage. Awareness campaigns need to be vigorously carried out, especially in rural areas, and committees in schools should be created to disseminate information about legal help and lend support to students regarding child marriage.

This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh

A Woman in China

20 April 2017 - 10:03am

By Rafia Zakaria
Apr 20 2017 (Dawn, Pakistan)

Sometimes it takes a single person with courage to awaken a society. So it may be in the case of Ye Haiyan, a women’s rights activist in China who has sacrificed nearly everything to bring to attention the condition of sex workers in her country.

Rafia Zakaria

Ye Haiyan, born to poverty in a tiny village in rural China, began working as a sex worker just so she could highlight the abuse and suffering of the many thousands of such women in China. One of the cases she protested against involved a school principal using young female students enrolled in his school for this purpose. She wanted him to be arrested and punished. For raising her voice on this controversial issue, Ye Haiyan lost her home and was chased from city to city until she took refuge in her childhood village.

Ye Haiyan’s story is the subject of a documentary titled Hooligan Sparrow, produced by filmmaker Nanfu Wang. Wang followed Haiyan and her fellow activists as they protested outside the school and engaged in other peaceful demonstrations that highlight the plight of women in the sex trade in China. Wang herself had to contend again and again with people trying to take away the film footage. Often she could only record audio by hiding the mic inside her clothes. In several cases, even people posing as fellow activists tried to obtain access to the footage, saying that they would keep it safe and return it to Wang later, when the Chinese government or the bosses of the Chinese sex trade were not looking.

Like Haiyan herself, Wang did not fall for the false promises of people posturing as activists or the Chinese authorities. The result: this documentary is a rare and riveting look at an aspect of Chinese life and society that is otherwise unknown. Many (including myself) would assume that a strong state would also mean equal protections for women.

Animosity towards women can now be added to the list of things that the Pakistani and Chinese states appear to have in common.

It is well known that one of the cornerstones of the Cultural Revolution was to bring Chinese women into the workforce and free them of the traditional bondage imposed by gender inequality. Consequently, one assumes that women having options other than sex work would not have to engage in it in order to survive.

As the movie reveals, this is not the case; not only are young women trafficked and misused by men such as the school principal, they are later blackmailed by their male bosses who threaten to hand them over to the authorities if they do not comply. They remain stuck and abused by the men who pay for their services and by the men who enslave them in the profession. The Chinese state seems to care little or not at all about their welfare; the well-being of these women or even of the young girls who are forced into the profession appears to be a seemingly low priority for the Chinese state.

In Pakistan, as in the rest of the world, this face of China is rarely seen. The friendship between the countries has long been celebrated. Even before there were plans to build an economic corridor, schoolchildren like myself were taught to sing songs praising the brotherhood between the two countries. With China poised against India, the simple calculations of common enemies meant an adulation of the Chinese.

Chinese goods flood Pakistani markets and Pakistani newspapers and television anchors have routinely sung the praises of their always-present-in-times-of-need neighbour.

Animosity towards women can now be added to the list of things that Pakistan and China appear to have in common. Just like Pakistan, it seems that China too wants to use the veneer of respectability and pretend that abused women, particularly those forced to work in the sex trade, simply do not exist. This faulty morality impacts the women who are pushed and forced into the profession; it threatens them with arrest and punishment if they are found out. This dynamic forces the women to stay silent and invisible so that they are available to be abused by men. No one knows how they live and no one cares when they die. Both societies are completely comfortable with this.

For all of these reasons, Hooligan Sparrow, the brave chronicling of how one woman stands up to the silence and shame of society, is a film worth watching. It is harrowing to see how landlords throw everything that Haiyan owns on the street. It is inspiring to see how she refuses to be cowed, wanders from city to city with her daughter, and never once complains about the consequences of raising her voice.

In one moving scene, particularly pertinent to Pakistan, Haiyan talks of how the women in her village sacrifice everything for their families, their lives and futures hacked to pieces for slight improvements in those conditions. The fate of Pakistani women, of all classes, is much the same, their desires and wishes and dreams placed on the chopping block, by men for whom they are pawns in some other game.

Women’s activists in Pakistan, particularly those who raise their voices without the protection of wealth and family, can find in this story a different basis for Pakistan-Chinese solidarity. With so much effort being made in developing stronger linkages between Pakistan and China, perhaps this link could also be forged. Ye Haiyan and many of her fellow activists had to serve prison terms for their activism; the lawyer who defended her continues to remain in prison without trial. Their courage, one hopes, could forge a different sort of bond between Pakistan and China.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan

New Education Model Can “Achieve Much More,” Says Education Envoy

20 April 2017 - 9:01am

About 518,000 primary school students have been unable to go to school in the last decade as due to Taliban's campaign against secular education. Credit: IPS

By Tharanga Yakupitiyage
UNITED NATIONS, Apr 20 2017 (IPS)

UN’s education envoy has unveiled a new model that could provide every child with access to education by 2030.

Citing concerns about the neglect of children’s rights, the Special Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown urged for more and better finance to ensure every child is in school and learning.

“We’re concerned that millions of children are out of school—some because of child labor, some because of child marriage, some because of child trafficking, some because of sheer discrimination against girls,” Brown told IPS.

The former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom particularly noted that girls’ education is one of the most “important civil rights struggle in our generation.”

Globally, over 250 million children and young people in the world are out of school, and the number of primary-aged children not in school is increasing. For children who are in school, many are not actually learning.

According to the Education Commission, over 800 million young people, or half of the world’s youth, will leave school lacking the basic and necessary skills for the labour market if current trends continue. Many of them will be from low and middle-income countries where only one in 10 young people will be on track to acquire basic secondary level skills.

Meanwhile, international donor contributions to education has decreased from $10 per child in 2010 to $8 per child in low and lower-middle-income countries which is insufficient to pay for textbooks, teachers or school infrastructure. The figures are even lower for education aid in conflict zones where countries like Chad and South Sudan received just 2 percent of their emergency request.

In its report, the Education Commission notes that the costs of such a “learning crisis” includes poverty, inequality, and instability which could be “irreparable.”

“When young people have no access to quality education, not only we deprive them of a right, but we also deprive society of their meaningful contributions,” they said.

In order to provide access and increase quality of education in low and middle-income countries, Brown proposed an International Finance Facility to help close the global funding gap for education.

The facility could create $10 billion for education investments through guarantees from donor countries which are leveraged by development banks. Guarantees, which help protect investors from the risk of non-payment, enables development banks such as the World Bank to mobilize more resources and transform them into affordable financing packages for developing countries who often cannot afford loans.

“By using the money more effectively, we can achieve much more,” Brown told IPS, adding that the mechanism could guarantee universal education within a generation.

In order to access the facility’s resources and further increase education aid, developing countries will have to raise their education outcomes to the level of the top 25 percent best performing countries. The proposal also requires developing countries to increase their own investments in education to 5.8 percent of their national income.

The proposed funding mechanism is similar to that of the International Finance Facility for Immunization which successfully turned government pledges into funding that provided vaccinations to millions of people.

Brown also stressed the need to better protect children against human rights violations more generally, pointing to the examples of the 2014 abduction of 270 girls from school in northern Nigeria and the recent suspected chemical gas attack in Syria which left almost 20 children dead.

He announced the creation of an inquiry that will assess existing international laws and enforcement mechanisms, including the case for an International Children’s Court to protect children’s rights.

“We have these abuses and these exploitations that show something more has got to be done to protect the rights of children,” Brown told IPS.

The Education Commission, headed by Gordon Brown, comprises of political, business, and civil society leaders from around the world who have joined to advocate for increased funding for global education efforts.

Tensions in Cambodia Are Growing

20 April 2017 - 5:51am

By Erik Larsson
Phnom Penh, Apr 20 2017 (IPS/Arbetet Global)

Tensions in Cambodia are growing. The reigning party have been in power for decades, but as the upcoming elections in June come closer, support is gathering for the opposition. The response from the government has been to pass laws that seek to silence protests.

The corridor is stacked with boxed kits of demonstrator equipment. In each box there are sections for vests, for helmets and for glasses.

”For teargas”, Naly Pilarge explains.

She works for the Cambodian human rights organisation Licadho.

Political control in the country has tightened. In June local elections will be held, followed by parliamentary elections in 2018. The government has started to sense that its hold on power is threatened. For defenders of civil rights, Cambodia has practically turned into a one party state.

Every Monday, members of the opposition dress in black to show their discontent with the present regime. This led to the arrest of two women a few weeks ago. The commander of the army commented: ”We can’t permit a revolution of color in the country”.

Naly Pilarge shakes her head and leaves the room. Out in the corridor, she lights a cigarette. ”Things have gotten much worse”

A year ago, on the tenth of July, local politician Kem Ley was followed into a gas station in the capital city Phnom Penh by a man with a gun.

Three shots to the head ended his life. The murderer was apprehended but there were plenty of unanswered questions. Why did the police drive alongside the fleeing murderer for a long while, witnessed by bystanders and recorded on video. What did they say to each other for a prolonged period of time before the arrest was made?

Kim Ley led the grass root advocacy group Khmer for Khmer that aligned several of the country’s grass root movements, and had also started a political party which was quickly gaining support.

He often spoke out in criticism of the prime minister Hun Sen, and only briefly before the shooting, he had added comment to a report on widespread corruption. Although the 38 year old murderer claimed that a dispute over money led to the shots being fired, the opposition claim that it was a planned assassination, although the accomplices are as yet unknown.

In order to understand the present situation, the past must be considered.

The government party CPP (Cambodian Peoples Party) have been in power since the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1979 that removed Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge.

With messages from the leadership like: ”It’s better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake.’ the Khmer Rouge communist reign of terror decimated Cambodia by killing one fourth of the population.

The effects of that systematic torture and murder of those deemed unsuited for the Khemer Rouge society, is still visible in today’s politics.

From the tenth floor of Phnom Penh Tower, the Swedish embassy overlooks the heavily trafficated city streets that clog to a standstill several times every day. From there, Andreas Johnsson, among other tasks, can overlook the political situation in the country.

”There is turbulence right now”, he begins. ”Alot of people support the CPP as they see the party as a safeguard for stability and to make sure that what happened under the Khmer Rouge does not happen again”

Down below SUVs crowd the narrow streets as testiment to a booming economy.

Growth is around 7-8% annually. For some, times are very good. But only few can reap the gains. Of the 16 million inhabitants of Cambodia, as many as 12 million are surviving on just over 2 dollars per day.

The spread of mobile phones and increasing use of social media has spurred a willingness to discuss political issues. At the same time, the important textile industries have increased pressures as they demand improved wages and a higher standard of living.

This forms a growing demand for change, which isn’t easy to deal with for a leader who has been in power for more than thirty years.

The CPP realize that they must deal with the opposition in some way. The results of the last elections in 2013 shocked the party. Although they won, the support for the opposition had grown significantly.

Soon after that result, leader Hun Sen realized that some action must be taken. He brought forth several reforms and reached out to the leader of the opposition Sam Rainsy.

But the initiative quickly got bogged down without making any reforms and relationships quickly cooled. Rainsy was also accused of numerous crimes and charged with criminal defamation.

As the upcoming elections on local and national levels grow near, new laws have been introduced that curtail the opposition.

In February, a law was enacted that could lead to political parties being banned if they are repesented by criminals.

While that might sound like a sensible idea, the reality of it, and that was apparent to the opposition, was that opposition representatives had started to be charged with crimes.

Their claims that the charges were unfounded has been backed by Amnesty International.

Sam Rainsy
decided to leave Cambodia and lives in exile in France. One month ago he also resigned as leader of the opposition in order to stop any attempts to ban the party due to the new law.

Persecution has also been seen on the streets as several representatives have been struck down by unknown assailants.

Another legal challenge
has come with a new law that regulates union activity. Regulation dictates which unions are given the right to negotiate and for independent labor unions this makes organized efforts more difficult and they risk losing members.

Furthermore, the government has proposed a new law to regulate minimum wages.

According to the proposal, mimunim wage levels are set for the entire labor market, and not for individual industries, for example the textile industry.

These minimum levels are to be set by a tripartite committee representing unions, employers and the State. But when the levels are set, protests by the unions would be outlawed.

The proposal
goes even further, in banning research and reporting on minimum wages. These laws have made it difficult for opponents of the legislation to come together.

There are 3000 registered labor unions in Cambodia, a country that is considered to be one of the most corrupt in the world.

This story was originally published by Arbetet Global

“Imagine a World Where the Worst-Case Scenarios Have Been Realized”

19 April 2017 - 8:01pm

Picturesque Antigua and Barbuda says its “natural beauty” is what is being fought for in the war on climate change. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

By Desmond Brown
ST. JOHN’S, Antigua, Apr 20 2017 (IPS)

The tiny island-nation of Antigua and Barbuda has made an impassioned plea for support from the international community to deal with the devastating impacts of climate change.

Urging “further action”, Environment Minister Molwyn Joseph said the Paris Climate Agreement must become the cornerstone of advancing the socio-economic development of countries.“When I see long lines of vehicles trying to escape the storm by heading over state lines or crossing internarial boundaries, I always wonder what they would do if they lived here." --Foreign Minister Charles Fernandez

“One area of approach that we have undertaken in Antigua and Barbuda, that I believe would be beneficial amongst other Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and developing countries, is for those of us with more advanced institutions to seek to be of assistance to other countries,” Joseph told IPS.

“I would like to encourage other countries, which have strong institutions, to take up the challenge in not only seeing how to combat climate change locally and nationally but, where possible, taking regional and global approaches.”

The Paris Agreement, which entered into force in November last year, brings all nations into a common cause to undertake ambitious efforts to combat climate change and adapt to its effects, with enhanced support to assist developing countries to do so.

Its central aim is to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees C.

Earlier this month Antigua and Barbuda hosted the 16th meeting of countries participating in the Cartagena Dialogue for Progressive Action.

The Dialogue is an informal space “open to countries working towards an ambitious, comprehensive, and legally binding regime in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and committed, domestically, to becoming or remaining low carbon economies.”

It aims to “discuss openly and constructively the reasoning behind each others’ positions, exploring areas of convergence and potential areas of joint action.” It is one of the few groups within the UN climate negotiations that brings together negotiators from the global North and South.

Joseph told delegates that “as a nation, we have a lot to lose” and he urged them to ensure that the Paris Agreement serves the future of all nations and becomes the cornerstone of advancing economically, socially and otherwise.

“Imagine a world where white sandy beaches and coral reefs like the ones just off these shores become a rarity. Where glaciers and snow covered mountain tops might be limited to postcard memories. Where droughts, storms, famines and epidemics can become more intense and more common. Where the worst-case scenarios of climate change have been realised. And with this grave image of what is at stake for humanity in our minds, let us earnestly collaborate to ensure that such horrors never come to pass,” Joseph said.

His colleague, Charles Fernandez, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, said as a member of the SIDS, Antigua and Barbuda’s “natural beauty” is what is being fought for.

“Sometimes I watch how larger and richer countries react to the approach of a major hurricane,” he told IPS.

“When I see long lines of vehicles trying to escape the storm by heading over state lines or crossing internarial boundaries, I always wonder what they would do if they lived here. We small islanders have to be ready to bunker down and bear it; and when it’s over, dust off and pick up the pieces.

“It is for this reason, that for those of us who live on small islands, climate change is an existential threat to our survival and way of life. It is for this reason that so many of us have signed on and begun work on the implementation of the Paris Agreement. For this reason, that we place our faith in the international community to find aggressive solutions to climate change together,” Fernandez added.

The Cartagena Dialogue is one mechanism through which countries look beyond their self-identified commitments toward establishing an ambitious new and binding agreement on climate change.

Joseph said the establishing of such a regime will require the coming together of many and various minds on an impressive list of complex issues.

“From the promotion and access of appropriate technologies that will help nations pursue economic development while mitigating greenhouse gas production, to ensuring that other strategies such as public awareness, education, finance, sector specific targets and national limits — all deserve our keenest consideration toward achieving our goals,” he said.

“Here in Antigua and Barbuda, the government is in the process of developing regulations to further guide the implementation of the Paris Agreement. However, this will only be one in a series of vital steps needed to put Antigua and Barbuda on a progressive path to deal with climate change. We are aggressively pursuing accreditation to the various mechanisms and hope that our experiences both in the accreditation process and implementation will serve as examples and best practices for other SIDS and developing countries to further their own actions against climate change.”

Antigua and Barbuda is the first and currently the only country in the Eastern Caribbean to have achieved accreditation to the Adaptation Fund.

“We have decided as a member of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States to use this status not only for our own advancement but also toward the advancement of fellow members of the sub-region by allowing ourselves to serve as a regional implementing entity, improving their access to the financial mechanisms,” Joseph said.

Last September, Antigua and Barbuda joined more than two dozen countries to ratify the Paris Agreement on Global Climate Change.

The Paris Agreement was opened for signatures on April 22, 2016, and will remain open to Parties of the UNFCCC until April 21, 2017.

The Paris Agreement becomes international law based on a dual “trigger” – when 55 Parties have ratified the Agreement, and 55 percent of the goal of emissions are covered by the Parties.

While the Paris Agreement wasn’t expected to enter into force until 2020, countries including Antigua and Barbuda have been demonstrating leadership to address the global threat of climate change, and reduce emissions to meet the target of less than 1.5 degrees C increase in global average temperatures.

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Nikki Haley’s ‘Historic’ Debate on Human Rights Left a Small Impression

19 April 2017 - 1:11pm

Nikki Haley, the American ambassador to the UN, with Liu Jieyi, China’s ambassador, before the April 18 Security Council meeting focused solely on human rights. Credit: Rick Bajornas /UN Photo

By Dulcie Leimbach
UNITED NATIONS, Apr 19 2017 (IPS)

Nikki Haley, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, presided over what she was determined to sell as “an historic meeting exclusively on human rights” in the UN Security Council. But her brief speech in the April 18 meeting fell far short of introducing innovations to confront violations of human rights or prevent them in such places as Syria, Burundi and Myanmar.

“If this Council fails to take human rights violations and abuses seriously, they can escalate into real threats to international peace and security,” Haley began. “The Security Council cannot continue to be silent when we see widespread violations of human rights.

“Why would we tell ourselves that we will only deal with questions of peace and security, without addressing the factors that bring about the threats in the first place?”

The debate, ponderously titled “Maintenance of international peace and security: human rights and prevention of armed conflict,” gave an “opportunity to reflect on the way the Security Council directly addresses human rights issues in its work,” according to a concept note from the US mission to the UN.

The afternoon meeting among the Council’s 15 permanent and elected members turned political in no time. Ukraine referred to a “human-rights phobia” in the UN and blasted away at Russia’s annexation of Crimea; Uruguay said it was the responsibility of governments to protect its citizens’ human rights as well as people “in transit.” A low-level Russian diplomat rejected the whole notion of the Council concentrating on human rights in its forum.

Yet what shone through the two-hour meeting was not Haley’s remarks but the consistent messages of other Council members, who commended the UN Human Rights Council and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights as indispensable partners with the Security Council. France, for example, said it was very “attached” to the Human Rights Council. Britain was effusive.

“Two institutions of the United Nations are particularly vital to delivering this joined up approach to human rights,” said Matthew Rycroft, the British ambassador to the UN. “First, the High Commissioner for Human Rights and his Office provide invaluable support to UN peace operations.” Second, he added, is the Human Rights Council.

Rights experts had hinted that Haley’s session on human rights was an attempt to undermine the UN Human Rights Council, which is based in Geneva. She has pointed to the Council as “corrupt” and said she planned to visit it in June to whip it into shape.

António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, reinforced the primary role of the UN human-rights monitoring bodies. He said that “close cooperation between the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and all relevant United Nations bodies, including the Security Council, enhances general awareness of potential crisis situations, and our collective ability to address them.”

Guterres described the Security Council’s own “decisive action” on human rights, citing the establishment of the international criminal tribunals for Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere as well as the Council’s referral of atrocity cases to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

As a matter of course, human-rights abuses are raised often by Council members as an early warning — or “prevention” — method.

As if stuck on a sales pitch, the US emphasized in the weeks before the meeting that it was holding the first exclusive session in the Council on human rights. But that is debatable, say some rights experts, since the topic has been written specifically into 15 peacekeeping mission mandates, sanctions, investigations, resolutions, special-envoy responsibilities and other matters relevant to the Council.

Even Haley acknowledged these tools of the Council, admitting their relevance and value.

Haley’s office fudged how well the Council accepted the purpose of the debate, saying that “through negotiations the United States convinced all 15 Council members to agree to put the meeting on the POW” – program of work. But the meeting was technically positioned under the international peace and security umbrella and not listed as an agenda item, a threshold that some council members refused to cross.

The US concept note for the meeting posed five questions to Council members to consider when they came to the session, as if they were being asked to write a high-school essay. The first question read, “What types of measures should the Security Council take to respond to serious human rights violations and abuses?” (The US did not appear to answer that.)

Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, tweeted in the lead-up to the meeting, is the “human rights discussion serious?” He added: “Are particular countries named? Do they include allies?”

In the Council’s early decades, human rights rarely crept into its deliberations because of Article 2, paragraph 7 of the UN Charter, which said, “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state. . . . ”

Sensitive political realities kept the topic from going too deep when it did arise, according to “The Procedure of the UN Security Council,” a reference book by Loraine Sievers and Sam Daws. When a Council member wanted to raise a human-rights issue in a certain country — not unusual throughout the Cold War — ambassadors needed to show that the abuses could ripple outside the country.

Famously, the topic of Myanmar (Burma) was brought up in 2006 when the US representative and other Council members voiced concerns over the deteriorating situation in that country. They noted that Myanmar’s outflow of refugees and illegal drugs as well as contagious diseases could destabilize the region, the Sievers-Daws book said. But China objected to putting Myanmar on the Council’s agenda, denying its problems presented an international threat.

Nevertheless, the Council has not avoided taking on high-profile rights-abuse cases. The rise in abuses in Burundi last year prompted the Council to call on the government to cooperate with UN human-rights monitors — or else. And a UN commission of inquiry on North Korea declared the regime responsible for crimes against humanity, with the Council elevating the matter to its regular agenda.

In Burundi, the UN’s top human-rights official, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, said on April 18 that he was alarmed by what appeared to be a “widespread pattern” of rallies in Burundi in which members of a pro-government youth militia chant a call to “impregnate” or kill opponents. Burundi has been seized on and off by violence since its president, Pierre Nkurunziza, won a disputed third term in 2015.

(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)

Dispute Settlement Becomes Speculative Financial Asset

19 April 2017 - 10:46am

Investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) will thus strengthen perverse incentives for foreign investors at the expense of local businesses and the public interest. Credit: IPS

By Jomo Kwame Sundaram
KUALA LAMPUR, Apr 19 2017 (IPS)

Investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) provisions in bilateral investment treaties (BITs) and free trade agreements (FTAs) have effectively created a powerful and privileged system of protections for foreign investors that undermines national law and institutions.

ISDS allows foreign corporations to sue host governments for supposedly causing them losses due to policy or regulatory changes that reduce the expected profitability of their investments. Very significantly, ISDS provisions have been and can be invoked, even when rules are non-discriminatory, or profits come from causing public harm. ISDS will thus strengthen perverse incentives for foreign investors at the expense of local businesses and the public interest.

New opportunity for speculation
In recent years, ISDS provisions of investment treaties, free trade and other agreements have increasingly provided an investment opportunity to make money by speculating on lawsuits, winning huge awards and forcing foreign governments, and taxpayers, to pay. Financial speculators have increasingly purchased corporations deemed capable of profitably bringing winnable ISDS claims, sometimes using ‘shell companies’.

Some hedge funds and private equity firms even finance ISDS cases as third parties, with ISDS itself the raison d’etre for such investments. Such ‘third-party funding’ of ISDS claims has been expanding quickly as financing such claims has proven to be very lucrative.

Third-party financing reduces litigation costs to the corporations themselves, making it easier, and thus encouraging them to sue. Foreign corporations typically do not have to declare receiving third-party funding for an ISDS case. Not surprisingly then, the ISDS claims-financing industry is booming as different types of investors have been attracted by and drawn into financing lawsuits, treating ISDS claims as speculative assets.

The International Council for Commercial Arbitration estimates that at least three fifths of those considering ISDS claims have inquired about possible third-party financing before pursuing them. Financing firms provide clients with litigation packages from the outset, advising on what treaties to exploit and which law firms to hire, even recommending arbitrators.

While bondholders do not actually develop productive capacities or sell services in a host country, they too can resort to ISDS arbitration to maximize returns to their debt purchases. Thus, bond-holders who have lost value can use the ISDS back door to sue countries for compensation, thus encouraging a new speculative investment option for ‘vultures’. Hence, ISDS allows investors with little connection to the ‘aggrieved’ initial investment to benefit financially as well.

Ripe for the picking
ISDS advocates claim that case outcomes remain uncertain, with foreign corporations only winning about a quarter of the cases they initiate. But this proportion does not include settlements agreed to before arbitration proceedings are concluded when the foreign corporations secure huge gains. ISDS arbitration is very attractive, even tempting to foreign investors who would otherwise not pursue claims in national courts against host governments.

Recent ISDS arbitrations have seen much greater delegation of authority to arbitrators in interpreting and applying agreements, without any option to appeal or otherwise challenge the arbitrators’ decisions. There is no way to ensure that arbitration tribunals will interpret and apply treaty provisions in ways consistent with governments’ understandings of what treaty obligations imply.

Those investing in ISDS cases recognize that the most vulnerable governments for investors to sue are typically those already in some trouble. For example, when a country resorts to emergency economic measures to protect its citizens, investors can easily claim that these undermine earlier understandings of international agreements. Ensuing lawsuits typically hurt the country’s credit rating, raising capital costs and undermining its ability to attract investment.

Springing into Action to Fund Ambitious Goals

19 April 2017 - 10:25am

Credit: BIgstock

By Sanjay Wijesekera
UNITED NATIONS, Apr 19 2017 (IPS)

“I don’t have enough money to buy clean water, so I have to come and collect it from the river. I have young twins – a boy and a girl. I know the water is dirty – it often makes them sick but I have no other option.” Those are the words of a South Sudanese mother, Latif, who lives by the river Nile in Juba.

This week, finance ministers gathered at the IMF - World Bank Spring Meetings will discuss how to achieve the sustainable development goal of providing clean water and sanitation for all by 2030
Latif’s struggle for clean water is shared by billions of people around the world, in fact today almost two billion people will use a source of drinking water contaminated with faeces  due to a lack of funds or access. Without safe water, Latif’s children risk joining the 1,400 children under the age of five who die from diarrhoea daily.

It doesn’t have to be this way. More and better managed resources can help provide water and sanitation access for all.

This week, finance ministers gathered at the IMF – World Bank Spring Meetings will discuss how to achieve the sustainable development goal of providing clean water and sanitation for all by 2030. In addition to providing access and basic infrastructure, developing countries are now urged to ensure that this access is efficient, equitable, universal and safely managed.  But how will it be financed?

Ministers will look at the magnitude of the financial challenge, how to use existing resources more efficiently, and how to access additional resources, focusing in particular on domestic sources – a mammoth task when we know that the price tag for meeting these ambitious goals is about $114 billion per year (excluding operating and maintenance costs).

Charity Ncube, 30, of the rural town of Masvingo in southeastern Zimbabwe, carries her child and a 20-litre container of water. Credit: Sally Nyakanyanga/IPS

UNICEF and its partners are working towards equipping and supporting governments and others to achieve the sustainable development goals. We believe that reaching the most vulnerable and the most disadvantaged is more cost-effective and yields a higher return on investment.

And the evidence is backing us up. A 2013 study showed that improving sanitation for the poorest households actually brings greater, more immediate health benefits for all.

Echoing Anthony Lake, UNICEF Executive Director, ‘When we reach the most disadvantaged people we dramatically improve an entire society’s health, education, equality and economic prospects over the long term.’

Fighting Xenophobia & Inequality Together in the Age of Trump

19 April 2017 - 10:25am

Credit: UN photo

By Ben Phillips
NAIROBI, KENYA, Apr 19 2017 (IPS)

As the world marks 100 days of the Trump Presidency, we can see that we are now in a new era of crisis, that it goes well beyond one man and one country, and that only a profound and international response can get us out of the state we are in.

The crises of xenophobia and inequality embodied by the Age of Trump are profound and are worldwide. Refugees without safe haven; ethnic and religious minorities facing officially sanctioned discrimination; women facing an aggressive onslaught of misogyny.

Civil society leaders supporting marginalized people are seeing an upsurge of these injustices in every continent. We are witnessing a world in danger not just of a slow down in social progress but of a reverse in it.

For leaders of civil society, four things are clear.

First, this is a global challenge. The whirlwind first hundred days of the Trump administration in the US have both epitomized and exacerbated worrying global trends in which an increasingly economically divided world is becoming an increasingly angry and intolerant one.

Secondly, we must take sides against intolerance. We must unashamedly support the oppressed and commit ourselves to resisting forces of division – whether it be hate speech at refugees in Hungary, xenophobic attacks in South Africa, extrajudicial killings of activists in Latin America, discrimination against religious minorities in South Asia, or unconstitutional bans on migrants in the USA. We will work together with others to help foster societies built on respect for diversity, and open to refugees from war and persecution.

Thirdly, to tackle the forces of intolerance we must also confront the ever widening inequality that is driving societies apart. Progressive values are put under massive strain when economies cast millions aside. We know from history that 1929 economics can lead to 1933 politics, and that when people lose hope fascists ascend. Growth must benefit ordinary people, economies must be reoriented to create jobs, decent jobs, and not see wealth ever more concentrated in the hands of a view.

Fourthly, we must work together as one. There is an old saying, “the people united will never be defeated”. Sadly, that is not always true. But what is true is that the people divided will always be defeated. The challenge to foster societies of equality and solidarity can not be achieved by one organization or even one sector alone. That is why we have come together as many different leaders in NGOs, trade unions, and social movements in a joint call to #fightinequality, and to build power from below.

The stakes could not be higher. The forces of ever widening inequality, and of ever increasingly intolerance, are mobilizing. But so are the forces of solidarity and equality.

We are more united than ever to fight inequality and intolerance. Inspired by the great campaigns of old – anti-slavery, anti-colonialism, votes for women, anti-apartheid, drop the debt – and by the determined young people of today – in Fees Must Fall, Black Lives Matter, Gambia Has Decided – we will work to bend the long arc of the universe towards justice. The rapid rise in xenophobia and the rise in inequality which is helping to drive it need not be accepted, and can be defeated. When we stand together.

Yemen, World’s Largest Humanitarian Crisis

19 April 2017 - 1:10am

Yemen 2017 Humanitarian Needs Overview. Credit: Fragkiska Megaloudi / OCHA

By Baher Kamal
ROME, Apr 19 2017 (IPS)

With 18.8 million people –nearly 3 in 4 inhabitants– in need of humanitarian aid, including 10.3 million requiring immediate assistance, Yemen is now the largest single-nation humanitarian crisis in the world, the United Nations informs while warning that the two-year war is rapidly pushing the country towards “social, economic and institutional collapse.“

More worrying, the conflict in Yemen and its economic consequences are driving the largest food security emergency in the world, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has reported.

According to OCHA, over 17 million people are currently “food insecure,” of whom 6.8 million are “severely food insecure” and require immediate food assistance, and two million acutely malnourished children. The Yemeni population amounts to 27,4 million inhabitants.

“We can avert a humanitarian catastrophe, but need 2.1 billion dollars in funding to deliver crucial food, nutrition, health and other lifesaving assistance,” the UN estimates.

UN, Sweden, Switzerland

The world organisation plans to hold a high-level pledging meeting for the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Co-hosted by the governments of Switzerland and Sweden, the conference will take place at UN in Geneva on 25 April 2017.

Credit: OCHA


“The time is now to come together to prevent an “impending humanitarian catastrophe” in Yemen, the organisers warn.
OCHA has also reminded that even before the current conflict escalated in mid-March 2015, Yemen had faced “enormous levels” of humanitarian needs stemming from years of “poverty, under-development, environmental decline, intermittent conflict, and weak rule of law.”

Meantime, it has stressed the need to protect civilians. “The conduct of hostilities has been brutal. As of 31 December 2016, health facilities had reported nearly 48,000 casualties (including nearly 7,500 deaths) as a result of the conflict.” These figures significantly under-count the true extent of casualties given diminished reporting capacity of health facilities and people’s difficulties accessing healthcare.

Massive Violations of Human Rights

OCHA stressed the impact of this crisis in which “all parties appear to have committed violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law.”

On-going air strikes and fighting continue to inflict heavy casualties, damage public and private infrastructure, and impede delivery of humanitarian assistance, it explains, adding that parties to the conflict and their supporters have created a vast protection crisis in which millions of people face tremendous threats to their safety and well-being, and the most vulnerable struggle to survive.

According to the UN humanitarian body, since March 2015, more than 3 million people have been displaced within Yemen. Roughly 73 per cent are living with host families or in rented accommodation, and 20 per cent in collective centres or spontaneous settlements. A substantial numbers of returnees live in damaged houses, unable to afford repairs and face serious protection risks.

Economy, Destroyed

The Yemeni economy is being wilfully destroyed, OCHA informs. Preliminary results of the Disaster Needs Assessment estimated 19 billion dollars in infrastructure damage and other losses – equivalent to about half of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2013.

“Parties to the conflict have targeted key economic infrastructure. Mainly air strikes – but also shelling and other attacks – have damaged or destroyed ports, roads, bridges, factories and markets. They have also imposed restrictions that disrupt the flow of private sector goods and humanitarian aid, including food and medicine.”

For months, nearly all-basic commodities have been only sporadically available in most locations, and basic commodity prices in December 2016 were on average 22 per cent higher than before the crisis, reports OCHA.

At the same time, Yemen is experiencing a liquidity crisis in which people, traders and humanitarian partners struggle to transfer cash into and within the country. Lenders have become increasingly reluctant to supply credit to Yemeni traders seeking to import essential goods.

Basic Commodities, Scarcer, More Expensive

On this, it informs that at the end result is an economic environment in which basic commodities are becoming scarcer and more expensive just as people’s livelihoods opportunities and access to cash are receding or disappearing altogether.

And that humanitarian partners face growing pressure to compensate for the entire commercial sector, which is beyond both their capacity and appropriate role. Essential basic services and the institutions that provide them are collapsing due to conflict, displacement and economic decline.

“Yemeni authorities report that Central Bank foreign exchange reserves dropped from 4.7 billion dollars in late 2014 to less than 1 billion in September 2016, and the public budget deficit has grown by more than 50 per cent to 2.2 billion dollars.”

In addition, salaries for health facility staff, teachers and other public sector workers are paid erratically, often leaving 1.25 million state employees and their 6.9 million dependents – nearly 30 per cent of the population – without a regular income at a time of shortages and rising prices.

“As a result, social services provided by public institutions are collapsing while needs are surging.” In August 2016, the Ministry of Public Health and Population in Sana’a announced it could no longer cover operational costs for health services, and by October, only 45 per cent of health facilities in the country were fully functional.

Absenteeism among key staff – doctors, nutrition counsellors, teachers, etc. – is reportedly rising as employees seek alternatives to provide for their families, according to the UN. On top of pressure to compensate for a faltering commercial sector, humanitarian partners are increasingly fielding calls to fill gaps created by collapsing public institutions.

90% of Food, Imported – 8 Million Lost Livelihoods

According to OCHA, Yemen relies on imports for more than 90 per cent of its staple food and nearly all fuel and medicine.

Authorities in Sana’a and other areas also at times deny or delay clearances for humanitarian activities, including movement requests for assessments or aid delivery. Restrictions on workshops, humanitarian data collection and information sharing have also been intermittently introduced and rescinded.

These restrictions are at times resolved through dialogue, but the time lost represents an unacceptable burden for people who desperately need assistance. Positive developments since November 2016 indicate that these restrictions may substantially improve in the immediate coming period.

An estimated 8 million Yemenis have lost their livelihoods or are living in communities with minimal to no basic services, the UN informs, adding that about 2 million school-age children are out of school and damage, hosting IDPs, or occupation by armed groups.

Yemen is an Arab country situated in the Southern end of the Arabian Peninsula. It is the second-largest country in the peninsula, with nearly occupying 528,000 km2, and its coastline stretches for about 2,000 kms.

“The Ocean Is Not a Dumping Ground”

18 April 2017 - 8:02pm

President of Mauritius Ameenah Gurib-Fakim. Credit: Nasseem Ackbarally/IPS

By Nasseem Ackbarally
PORT-LOUIS, Mauritius, Apr 19 2017 (IPS)

An internationally renowned scientist, Ameenah Gurib-Fakim became Mauritius’s sixth president on June 5, 2015 – and one of the few Muslim women heads of state in the world.

Her nomination constituted a major event in the island’s quest for greater gender parity and women’s empowerment, giving a higher profile to women in the public and democratic sphere of Mauritius.

Gurib-Fakim started her career in 1987 as a lecturer at the Faculty of Agriculture, University of Mauritius. She was one of the leading figures in local academia with a reputation far beyond the Indian Ocean before she accepted the post of president.

She has also served in different capacities in numerous local, regional and international organizations. Gurib-Fakim has lectured extensively and authored or co-edited 26 books and numerous academic articles on biodiversity conservation and sustainable development.

In this exclusive interview with IPS, President Gurib-Fakim urged world leaders to save our oceans, noting that this critical ecosystem impacts millions of livelihoods, particularly for small island-states and coastal communities.

This June, the United Nations will convene a high-level Conference to Support the Implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development at U.N. Headquarters in New York.

Human activity has already left a huge footprint on the world’s oceans, Gurib-Fakim notes. “We have always assumed that the ocean is a dumping ground – which it is not.”

Excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: How would you rate the oceans in terms of importance in the context of sustainable development?

A: The ocean space occupies 70 percent of the world’s surface and it still remains unknown. There is no doubt that ocean space impacts livelihood, especially for islands and coastal communities. Several countries in the South-West Indian Ocean, for example, rely heavily on fishing to sustain livelihoods. In 2013, fish accounted for 17 percent of the world population’s intake of animal protein and 6.7 percent of all protein consumed. Coral-reef fish species also represent an important source of protein.

With more than 60 percent of the world’s economic output taking place near coastlines and in some African countries, the ocean economy contributes 25 percent of the revenues and over 30 percent of export revenues. It is becoming increasingly clear the enormous potential of our oceans.

Q: Do you think that the objectives of the World Ocean Summit can still reverse the decline in the health of our ocean for people, planet and prosperity?

A:  This Summit brings on board all the stakeholders involved with ocean issues. This summit is also a pledging conference as funding always remains a thorny issue and yet there is urgency in data collection on several areas of the ocean ecosystems. It provides the policymaker and the researcher a holistic picture of what the ocean stands for and will hopefully change the narrative on the need to reverse the decline of the health of our ocean space.

Climate change remains a big component as acidification of the waters as well as rise in temperatures will affect both the flora and fauna.

We must always be mindful to the fact that humans have had a huge footprint in the health of our oceans as we have always assumed that the ocean is dumping ground. It is NOT. There are within the ocean space, very fragile ecosystems that can be destroyed by small increases in acidity or temperatures.

Q: As an Ocean State, Mauritius does not seem to have given due consideration to the importance of our oceans in terms of an environmental asset. How would this Ocean Summit help to change our mindset?

A: Mauritius has a very small landmass, we have a very huge space of 2.2 million km and I think what the ocean summit helps us to do is to bring back to the fore these multiple challenges or opportunities that the ocean as an entity presents to the economy of Mauritius. As I said, one of the areas will be sustainable fishery, which can be flagged into the economy. Mauritius and in the South West Indian Ocean fisheries are threatened, with up to 30 percent of the fish stock over-exploited or depleted and 40 percent fully exploited. The poor management of this sector has amounted to an annual loss of about USD 225 million.

However, the ocean is not only fish, it is also sustainable tourism as well as renewable energy, including wave energy, amongst others.

Q:  The health of our oceans is critical for the survival of humanity. We have seen that despite all the international conferences and commitments, all the ecosystems of our planet are collapsing one after the other. How will this conference help to change things globally, but equally locally?

A:  For me, the ocean cannot and should not be taken as a dumping ground or a carbon sink. We should also take stock of effluents coming from the rivers as all the runoffs eventually end up in the sea.  Plastic pollution is also a very big issue because we know that a lot of damage is being done to wildlife because of un-recycled plastic. These conferences help us to see visually the impact of these polluting activities. They also bring live images, testimonies from people who have first-hand experiences. They help to change the mindset of people. They also try to bring people to think differently, sustainably.  We need to change the way people do business, the way people look at the ocean, we need to have a completely fresh look at these.

Q: Climate change is a major challenge for the survival of humanity, and we have seen that the United States of America has started to back-pedal on climate change agreements. How do you perceive this change of policy from a major carbon dioxide producer?

A:  To me, climate change is the biggest threat to humanity because it will impact not only on the ocean but also all the ecosystems on earth. It will impact the loss of many species; already 17,000 are threatened and when these species disappear, they reduce the resilience of our ecosystem. I always say biodiversity underpins life on earth and it also in the ocean as well. This balance in the oceans ecosystem is very very fragile.

So, any change, even half a degree increase in temperature of the water, is not sustained by the animals living out there and they will disappear and that is a thing that we do not want to envisage. Now, some countries want to backpedal on climate change agreements, it’s very unfortunate because many countries have fought very very hard to contain emissions. Large economies like India have started a global alliance on renewal energy, China has also made pledges, but it would be unfortunate that any country pulls out of this agreement because we are not talking about the short term but about the long term and for the larger good of humanity.

For those countries that feel that they still need fossil fuels to grow the economy, green technologies have shown that it is possible to sustain growth with same. It is proven and I don’t think people have to shy away from the fact that by disinvesting in fossil fuels their economy will still progress. Clean energy is the answer.

Q: What are your hopes and expectations for the ocean summit?

A: The hope is that those who made pledges deliver on them. We are not too far off the tipping point, but I think all is not lost. We need to act fast and deliver on results as well as on commitments. Our future depends on it.

Q: Nearly two years into your term as President of the Republic of Mauritius, how do you perceive the question of gender equality in Mauritius, and are things are improving?

A: Post-independence Mauritius had a very low per capita income of around 200 USD. Several decisions had been taken since then to ensure the well being of the people and one such decision was to make education free for all in 1976. Education is an enabler and ensures social mobility of people. At that moment in time, parents did not have to make choices of whether to educate their sons or daughters.

Over 40 years down the line we have seen the transformation that this decision has had. The percentage of women in many professional spheres has increased. The medical, judiciary, teaching professions have more than their fair share of women’s representation. We may be weak in terms of percentage at board levels or in politics but I think that it is work in progress. My message is very clear on this issue… any country that wants to make progress cannot afford to ignore 52 percent of its workforce and talents.

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Minister of Energy confirms UAE’s full commitment to oil production cuts

18 April 2017 - 3:36pm

By WAM
ABU DHABI, Apr 18 2017 (WAM)

Suhail bin Mohammed Faraj Faris Al Mazrouei, Minister of Energy, said the UAE sees a healthy level of demand for crude oil in the future from emerging economies in Africa and Asia, and that the UAE would remain commercially-minded in its strategic oil investments.

Al Mazrouei’s comments came during a session on the region’s oil policy moderated by Richard Mably, Global Commodities Editors at Reuters News and organised by global information provider Thomson Reuters on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of its presence in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

He said the UAE was satisfied by the high level of compliance with the current agreement by OPEC and non-OPEC countries to cut back oil production, and that this compliance would have a direct bearing on the general positive movement non-OPEC partners in the agreement.

In light of the current agreement to reduce oil production, Minister Al Mazrouei noted that the market is now correcting itself, and that a combination of healthy demand for oil with an expectation of crude stocks declining over a period of time would help maintain the market’s balance. The minister highlighted the high level of compliance of oil producers with the production cuts that were set by the agreement, including the UAE’s full compliance, and pointed out that a number of producers have cut production by allowing natural decline rates of oil wells to take their course. He said the UAE had reduced its oil production by over 200,000 barrels per day in March compared with October 2016, expecting that the 6 month production cut there would be averaging at least 140,000 barrels per day in line with the UAE’s compliance with the agreement.

“The world has changed, and now we are in an environment where we need to work together to achieve a single opinion that will benefit global markets,” he said during the panel. “We see an evolved relationship with oil consumer nations, many of whom have become investors and partners in upstream oil production.”

In response to a question on whether consumers can tolerate higher oil prices, he explained that the priority was for a stable oil market at the right price that serves market demand and incentivises the continuity of production, while balancing the depletion of oil reservoirs and the need to sustain investment in the upstream sector. The minister added that planned investments in the oil sector were relatively low, noting that the lag time needed for such substantial projects to come online means that there need to be incentives to attract future investments.

Minister Al Mazrouei reaffirmed the collaborative relationship between OPEC and non-OPEC producers to ensure achievement of fair prices for both consumers and producers. “The shift in oil market forces means that OPEC no longer needs to be immediately reactive to market changes,” Minister Al Mazrouei said.

“We favour a more contemplative and cooperative approach that achieves fair prices, stability, and sustainability for the sector.” He added, “Rather than concentrating on price, it is more important to concentrate on efficiencies in production that help reduce costs and improve margins for producers.”

Responding to a question on the upstream models of other oil producers and the planned IPO of Saudi Aramco, he said the UAE’s petroleum sector had its own unique circumstances, and that the government does not see a need to take ADNOC public. He pointed to other UAE companies like Mubadala Investment Co. (recently formed through the merger of Mubadala Development Co. and International Petroleum Investments Co. (IPIC), which invests in various downstream industries as well. The minister added that the UAE would continue to pursue its commercial interests in oil and gas investments, and that its planned increase in oil production capacity to 3.5 million barrels per day by 2018 was part of the UAE’s strategy to have a sufficient buffer that allows it flexibility in the market, thereby avoiding any shocks to oil markets.

Concluding the panel, Minister Al Mazrouei responded to a question on Asian companies looking to invest in UAE oil concessions, explaining that such recommendations and decisions are the purview of the Supreme Petroleum Council. He noted that it was understandable for oil consumer nations to be interested in investing in upstream oil production assets, but that all decisions would be made on a commercial basis in a manner that serves the interests of the UAE.

Multilateralism and the Chinese Dream

18 April 2017 - 12:44pm

A wind farm outside Tianjin. Credit: Mitch Moxley/IPS

By Nicholas Rosellini
BEIJING, Apr 18 2017 (IPS)

“Pursuing protectionism is like locking oneself in a dark room,” Chinese President Xi Jinping warned the assembled leaders at the World Economic Forum earlier this year. “While wind and rain may be kept outside, that dark room will also block light and air.”

All signs are that China has been heeding its own advice.

With the current geopolitical balance seeming to teeter on every tweet, China’s brand of multilateralism – which President Xi has described as “a win-win, opening-up strategy,” an engine of development for the world – is an alternative to the zero-sum calculus that has fed a wave of nationalism across developed countries.

At the United Nations, where Member States have pledged to ‘leave no one behind’ with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, China has been positioning itself as a champion for inclusive growth and peace. China’s engagement combines development assistance, soft loans and direct investment, reimagining possibilities in a transformed landscape in which leveraged financing, rather than grant-making, is fast becoming the new normal.

China has become the largest contributor of troops and second-largest contributor of funds to UN peacekeeping missions among the five permanent members of the Security Council, which also include France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Through its new UN Peace and Development Trust Fund, it has pledged USD 1 billion to support multilateral cooperation. China is also committing to increase its contributions to the UN development system by USD 100 million by the year 2020.

To much relief, (China) is holding fast to commitments it made during the international climate negotiations to achieve the historic Paris Agreement and its concrete follow-ups.

It is taking a lead on supporting implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), earmarking hundreds of millions to support global efforts to reduce poverty and improve education and health. And, to much relief, it is holding fast to commitments it made during the international climate negotiations to achieve the historic Paris Agreement and its concrete follow-ups.

Regionally and among emerging economies, China has been proactive in building a multipolar architecture of cooperation. Its presidency of the G20 has helped to build consensus around inclusive growth as a shared agenda.

Some 57 countries have signed on to the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, in which China has a 30 percent stake. The BRICS New Development Bank, with 20 percent Chinese contribution, is aiming to support sustainable development initiatives in emerging economies. Both are widely seen as an alternative to Western dominance of multilateral financial institutions and represent China’s leadership in creating new development financing mechanisms and reconfiguring the global governance architecture.

Examples like these are encouraging for proponents of inclusive growth and equity. Yet practice does not always match principle. China has become one of the major South-South development partners in the world, providing by end 2015 some US$63 billion worth of development assistance to 166 countries, both directly and through regional and international organisations. Under the framework of South-South cooperation, China observes principles of mutual benefit, no-strings attached, equality and non-interference in its engagement with other countries. In reality, however, support sometimes comes tied to national regulations and requirements that Chinese parts and labour be used. Opportunities to build capacity and sustainability sometimes are missed in the transfer of technology or equipment, or in the building of infrastructure.

China will need to perfect the balance of interests underpinning its multilateral approach. How does pursuit of the ‘Chinese dream’ – that of a prosperous country, strong and proud at home, powerful and influential abroad – square with the cultivation and preservation of global public goods like clean air and water? Are they mutually reinforcing? Is there a point at which one ends and the other begins?

Even those not charged with creating public goods must be responsible custodians of them. As China’s cities grapple with the effects of pollution caused by decades of neglect, the Chinese private sector has increasingly embraced sustainability as a pillar of good business at home and abroad.

Since Chinese companies are, as a bloc, the third largest investor in the world – their direct investments overseas reached USD 145.7 billion in 2015 – this is welcome news for global development. UN development practitioners are working with the Chinese private sector to promote inclusive practices in business operations, create partnerships that contribute to achieving the SDGs, and ensure that capital markets are aligned to the SDG agenda.

As it rises in prominence as a development partner, China has an opportunity to avoid the mistakes of well-intentioned initiatives of the past. It can be demand- rather than supply-driven, contributing solutions to challenges that the countries it engages with have themselves identified as priorities. And it can use its massive investment, through its blended offer, to support around the world new models of growth and cooperation that are anchored in the principles of inclusivity and sustainability it espouses.

For all its visibility and might, China is still very much a developing country. Yet its adoption of a complementary brand of multilateralism offers welcome grounds for hope in these times.

Demand for Lower Peacekeeping Dues to Pit US Against UN

18 April 2017 - 11:04am

A memorial service for a UN peacekeeper, Corp. Khalid El Hasnaoui of Morocco, April 20, 2016, in the Central African Republic. Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, above, leads the mission there. Credit: UN PHOTO

By Barbara Crossette
UNITED NATIONS, Apr 18 2017 (IPS)

The Trump administration, buoyed by a powerful anti-internationalist movement among conservative Republicans in the United States Congress, is headed for a new confrontation with the United Nations over who decides how much the US should pay for peacekeeping.

With a tentative US budget deadline of April 28 fast approaching, it is almost certain that American arrears will mount again, after the Obama administration closed the funding gap.

At the same time, a broad campaign against UN peacekeeping, reflecting current thinking in the US government, is also being waged in the Security Council by Ambassador Nikki Haley.

In her short time on the Council, she has never missed an opportunity to declare that the US will pay no more than 25 percent of the peacekeeping budget, down from about 28 percent. Haley, whose formal education is in accountancy, has also said that she will be looking hard at UN peacekeeping missions to cut costs, although this is still part of a learning curve for her.

Until recently, Haley seemed surprised to hear that troop-contributing countries were compensated by the UN for use of their soldiers.

The US position today is part of an historical cycle of standoffs that began in the 1980s and peaked during the administration of Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s. That is when an earlier wave of anti-internationalism, led most prominently by the late Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, exerted its influence.

As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Helms reveled in disparaging and insulting the UN, while forcing a politically weakened Clinton to make significant changes in US institutions working in international affairs, including the abolition of an independent Arms Control Agency.

At the time, the US contribution to the annual peacekeeping budget was assessed by the UN at about 31 percent, down from just under 40 percent assessed in the early years of the world body. In 1995, however, Congress passed a law putting a cap of 25 percent on payment of UN peacekeeping dues, and arrears in hundreds of millions of dollars began to accumulate.

By 1999, when the US was in danger of losing its vote in the UN General Assembly, the Helms-Biden agreement (Joseph Biden, a senator then, was the ranking Democrat on the committee) set up a timetable to start paying $926 million in arrears to the UN and other international organizations.

The UN-US calculations and gaps have seesawed ever since. In the early years of the George W. Bush administration, the US cap was raised several times by Congress as arrears were being reduced. In fact, when Barack Obama assumed the presidency in 2009, the US budget cap on payments was higher, at 27.1 percent, than the UN assessment of 25.9 percent.

At the end of the Obama years, the US payment ceiling was set at 28.57 percent, according to figures from the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations. The UN assessment stood a little lower, at 28.3 percent.

Payments to the UN are drawn from sections of the US State Department budget, which Trump has promised to slash by about 31 percent, a figure that Congress, which writes the budget, is likely to oppose — or temper. The UN’s peacekeeping budget for 2016-2017 was $7.2 billion to $7.89 billion, depending on whose figures are used.

A Republican-led Congress — especially the House of Representative — could argue that all the adjustments made over the years were one-off annual temporary measures that merely tinkered with the 1995 law capping US payments to peacekeeping at 25 percent. Along those lines, all that Congress would have to do is reaffirm the 1995 legislation to meet Trump’s 25 percent. The US would automatically fall back into default.

To describe the process by which the UN sets assessment and dues scales as Byzantine would be making it sound easy. It starts with the UN Charter, which mandated in Article 17 that all member nations contribute to budget expenses. There has been no dispute since 2000 over US dues to the UN’s regular operating budget, for which the US is assessed 22 percent, the highest payment of any nation. The American issue is with peacekeeping dues only.

In assessing peacekeeping rates, the central role is played by the 18-member UN General Assembly Committee on Contributions (separate from the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions, the ACABQ, which a previous Take a Look report on the US-UN budget crisis erroneously said was responsible).

Peacekeeping dues are calculated from the base of each nation’s regular budget assessments. A number of factors are then taken into account, including the strength of the national economy, measured in gross national income (GNI) and GNI per capita. Some poor countries receive a discount on their regular budget rate.

The biggest discounts go to least-developed countries (LDCs) , which get 90 percent knocked off their regular budget rate when peacekeeping dues are decided. Countries with high per capita income get no discount.

The permanent five members of the Security Council, or P5 — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — are a special case. Those nations, which can veto or alter proposed peacekeeping resolutions and other measures in the Council, are assessed at a premium rate.

This means that the sum of all discounts given to other countries are added pro rata to the regular budget rates of the P5 to determine what they will be charged for peacekeeping.

Peacekeeping rates and discounts may be recalculated and changed only every three years by the General Assembly, based on advice from the Committee on Contributions. The next major review takes place in 2018. Until then, annual “technical” reviews are held. The 2017 session for this year’s review is in June.

The US government will have to adhere to these timetables and work with the UN in New York throughout the coming months. But as the rules stand now, no major changes can be made on rates until the next three-year review.

The US will remain the world’s largest economy during this period, and there will not be much sympathy around the UN for the Trump administration as the dues argument burgeons. The US already pays less than it should because of previous budget deals.

Even before the Trump cuts kick in, only 1.4 percent of the US federal budget is devoted to foreign aid of all kinds. Within that total, American peacekeeping and regular budget dues to the UN combined account for a minuscule 0.2 percent of the US national budget.

(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)

Politicians Hijack Macedonia

18 April 2017 - 8:28am

Thousands of people gather daily in the center of Skopje, Macedonia to express their support for the president. Credit: Aleksandra Jolkina/IPS

By Frank Mulder
SKOPJE, Apr 18 2017 (IPS)

The political crisis in Macedonia is deepening. With the president and former coalition preventing the formation of a new government, the state threatens to disintegrate in a climate of corruption and nationalism.

The television is turned up loud in a hamburger shop in a suburb of Skopje called Šutka. The ethnic Albanian owner and his workers follow the parliamentary debate live. Their faces, however, are full of contempt. While the owner is preparing an impressively filled bread for less than a euro, he shakes his head despondently."Let's be open: the dispute with the EU about the name is partly the reason for all this mess." --Aleksander Kržalovski

“Those politicians are only getting more and more nationalistic,” one of his clients explains.

Outside we hear the call to prayer. The majority of the people here in Šutka are Muslim. A Roma woman with red-streaked hair is selling ten euro jeans from her market stall. A man with a fluffy salafi-like beard and prayer trousers sells knick-knacks ranging from facial masks and incense sticks to Albanian Korans from beneath a Zlatan Dab Pilsener umbrella.

Filibuster

It looks like nonsensical chatter, what happens on television, but it’s not. What we see is a so-called filibuster, which means politicians preventing any decision-making by just keeping on talking. The right-wing party VMRO-DPNME doesn’t want the social democrats to form a government because that would grant the Albanian minority too many rights.

This has had a disastrous effect on the small Balkan country, which a few years ago was still a promising economy. Since the collapse of Yugoslavia there haven’t been any serious tensions between the Macedonian orthodox majority (about one and a half million) and the Albanian Muslim minority (about half a million), except for limited clashes in 2001.

But corruption has grown since then, along with nationalist rhetoric. In this climate a kind of mini-Watergate scandal has broken out, starting two years ago. Leaked secret service documents showed that ruling VMRO politicians had tapped the phone conversations of 20,000 people, for dubious ends. The country burst out in revolt. Finally, last December, after protests and diplomatic pressure, new elections were held.

VMRO won most of the seats again. Yet, they didn’t manage to form a coalition. The quarrelling Albanian parties, brought together by Albania, decided to strike a coalition deal with the social democrats. To which President Gjorge Ivanov, member of the VMRO, responded with a veto, and the VMRO parliamentarians with a filibuster. Their motive is, they say, that the new coalition wants to accept Albanian as official language, and they will not allow this to happen.

‘Captured state’

“It went very well in Macedonia,” says Samuel Žbogar, ambassador on behalf of the European Union in Skopje. “But the last few years we’ve seen a serious backsliding. We call it a ‘captured state’. Independent institutions like the judiciary are used by politicians.”

The European Union itself is partly to be blamed for the misery. For years, Macedonia has been tempted to enact reforms with a carrot called EU Membership, but year after year Greece has demanded that the country change its name first, for fear of territorial claims on its own Macedonia province.

“People feel deeply hurt,” a source within the European representation in the country says. “They have long been a EU candidate member but are overtaken by other countries.” It is an invitation for countries like Russia to step into the void, although this consists more of vocal instead of financial support – so far.

Fake majority

Thousands of people, mostly grey-haired, gather daily in the center of Skopje to express their support for the president. “Ma-ke-donia! Ma-ke-donia!” they chant, waving red-yellow flags and whipped up by nationalist songs.

“We reject the fake majority of the social democrats and the Albanian parties,” says one young demonstrator, dressed in red and yellow and wearing a 130-year-old cap from anti-Ottoman rebels. He smells strongly of of alcohol but is sure about his case. “The Albanian parties are directed by Albania. We can’t let a neighboring country decide what happens here, can we? They want to create a Great Albania. They want the Macedonian country to disappear. We cannot let this happen.”

This is nonsense, says Nasser Selmani, an ethnic Albanian and president of the Association of Journalists in Macedonia. “I am a Macedonian, this is my country. I don’t belong to Albania, I belong here.” Yet others have more to lose if the state should collapse, he explains. “We have Albania with which we have good relations. But what do the ethnic Macedonians have? Do you think there is anyone who would acknowledge their identity? Greece and Bulgaria won’t.”

The breakdown of the state is not unthinkable. Because of the stalemate, the necessary decisions can’t be made anymore. In a few months, local elections are scheduled. If they don’t take place, the local authorities lose their legitimacy, too.

What also will end in June is the mandate of the Special Prosecutor researching the wiretapping scandal. This is the real reason that politicians have hijacked the country, insiders say. They want to escape prosecution by any means possible.

“They are using the fear of Albanians for their own interest,” says Selmani. “They are using more and more nationalist language. The orthodox church is also promoting this. The cathedral in Skopje is even the gathering place for the daily protests.”

Conservatives

In the big cathedral, however, beneath beautiful icons, all looks peaceful. Evening prayer is silently attended by not more than four people. Even among orthodox believers the Macedonian church, which has declared itself independent from the Serbian orthodoxy, is known as a very nationalistic branch. But demonstrators are not there.

A young orthodox priest in Skopje is willing to explain what he thinks about the current crisis, if only on the basis of anonymity. He serves tea with pieces of Turkish fruit. “We have a separation between church and state. We don’t call for demonstrations here and we don’t give any voting advice. That’s forbidden. But if you ask me personally, I’m against Albanian as an official language. I originally come from a region without Albanians. What if all public servants would be obliged to speak Albanian because it’s an official language? That would be impossible. Our only language is Macedonian.”

On the wall behind the black-robed priest there is a small Macedonian flag with an orange-black Saint George Ribbon, a Russian nationalist symbol. When I ask him what he hopes what will happen, he says, “I hope the crisis will soon be over. That we can live in peace with each other again, without politics being between the people.” The priest doesn’t seem radical, rather very conservative.

Alexander

Through the window of a restaurant in Skopje I look down at the paragon of nationalistic Balkan kitsch, made possible by millions of taxpayers’ money. Between the statues of the Macedonian hero Alexander the Great, to the left, and the Father of Alexander, to the right, we see nobody less than the mother of Alexander, in fourfold. Alexander in her belly, Alexander at her breast, Alexander on her lap, and Alexander around her neck. It’s all completely over the top. It’s the way the current leaders want to bring the people together, at least the ethnic Macedonians.

Inside the restaurant I have a conversation with Aleksander Kržalovski, leader of the Macedonian Centre for International Cooperation, which is the second largest NGO of the country and funder of many small NGOs. He is critical of the current nationalistic wave, he says.

“But it doesn’t make sense to demonize the more conservative population. Many left-wing organisations are very radical. They don’t want to work with fascists, they say. We, instead, believe in cooperation. It’s necessary to bridge the divide between different groups.

“To be honest, it’s unfair to blame right-wing politicians for everything,” Kržalovski continued. “The social democrats use very polarizing rhetoric as well. And many Albanians show no respect for the progress we’ve seen, the rights they have got. Many don’t want to wave the Macedonian flag or sing the national anthem. That raises suspicion. Some people have seen their house burnt down by ethnic Albanians three times, in 2001. And now they see them having a much higher birth rate. It’s understandable that people have fear.”

This doesn’t mean that we have to accept corruption, he says. “Impunity has to end now, that’s very important. But let’s not blame one party. And let’s be open: the dispute with the EU about the name is partly the reason for all this mess. We see that reflected in the diminishing support for the EU in the polls that we do. The EU clearly hasn’t done the job.”

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Typical Cuban Sweet – a Symbol of the Post-Hurricane Challenge to Agriculture

18 April 2017 - 3:01am

Vendor Raulises Ramírez is up early to sell the typical coconut cones which he made the previous day, alongside the La Farola highway into the eastern Cuban city of Baracoa. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Ivet González
BARACOA, Cuba, Apr 18 2017 (IPS)

Early in the day, when a gentle dew moistens the ground and vegetation in the mountains of eastern Cuba, street vendor Raulises Ramírez sets up his rustic stand next to the La Farola highway and displays his cone-shaped coconut sweets.

“These will maybe be the last ones… the cones will disappear, because the hurricane brought down all the coconut palms in Baracoa,” the 52-year-old private entrepreneur told IPS. He makes a living in Cuba’s oldest city selling this traditional sweet made of coconut, honey, fruits and spices, wrapped in the fibrous cone-shaped palm leaf.

“Look at all this!“ exclaimed Ramírez, pointing to the ground next to the highway littered with the trunks of coconut palm trees knocked down or bent by Hurricane Matthew, which hit Baracoa and other parts of eastern Cuba on Oct. 4-5, 2016.

He expects to continue making his sweets for a while longer thanks to his reserves. His main customers are Cubans who pay the equivalent of 25 cents of a dollar for each “cucurucho” or coconut cone, a typical sweet of this municipality, with an agricultural sector based on coconut and cacao, among other products.“We have to provide the local population with support to produce staple crops and provide new sources of income, until the commercial perennial crops begin to produce.” -- Theodor Friedrich

When his coconut reserves are finished, he will have to look for a different source of income than the one that has sustained his family for the last five years. “The tourists like to buy dried fruit,” he said, referring to the growing influx of foreign visitors in the area.

Ramírez’s situation is in some way similar to that of the entire agri-food sector in this municipality with a population of 81,700, which is facing a tough challenge: recovering their main long-cycle crops that were ravaged by the strongest hurricane ever registered in the province of Guantánamo, where Baracoa is located.

“We estimate the shortest possible time for coconut production to recover is four years, while cacao will take two and a half years. But reforestation will take many more years, between 15 and 20,” said Baracoa Mayor Luis Sánchez, referring to the fundamental components of local economic development: cacao, coconut, coffee and forestry products.

In the affected territories in Guantánamo, agriculture was among the hardest-hit sectors, with 70,574 hectares damaged. According to official reports, 27 per cent of the cacao, coconut and coffee plantations and 67 per cent of the forest heritage was lost.

The hurricane damaged 35,681 hectares of the main crops in this mountainous coastal municipality. Only four per cent of the vast plantations of coconut palm trees are still standing, which were used to obtain part of the seeds vital to the recovery effort.

A beach along the coast of Baracoa, where coconut trees were damaged by Hurricane Matthew – a serious problem in this city in eastern Cuba, since coconuts are one of the main local agricultural products. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

“In small areas on the outskirts of the city some coconut palm trees still remain on private farms and in people’s yards, which are the source of the coconuts vendors are using to make their cones, but the state-run factory is not producing any,” Rodríguez said, about the temporary disappearance of this symbol of Baracoa.

The factory, the only one that made coconut cones and distributed them in the provinces of Guantánamo, Santiago de Cuba and Holguín, is now producing tomatoes and fruit brought from other parts of the country. The cocoa industry is still active, even producing several by-products, thanks to reserves of cacao.

So far, only 3,576 hectares of forestry, coconut, coffee, cacao and fruit plantations have been recuperated, since the authorities are putting a priority on “the areas dedicated to short-cycle crops to quickly obtain food, such as vegetables and fruits for domestic consumption,” said the mayor in an exclusive interview with IPS.

“Baracoa, the cacao capital” reads an enormous poster at the entrance to this city founded 505 years ago by Spanish colonialists. Alongside coconut cone vendors like Ramírez, men and women sell big scoops of home-made dark chocolate along the La Farola highway.
Hurricane Matthew thwarted a project to create production chains based on coconut and cacao, with investments to foment cultivation of the crops and modernise the food industry in the municipality. The initiative hoped to tap into other potential sources of income, especially using coconuts.

The current production based on coconut and cacao does not cover domestic demand in this country of 11.2 million, nor demand from international tourists, who reached the record number of four million in 2016.

Baracoa Mayor Luis Sánchez Rodríguez shows IPS the impact on Cuba’s oldest city of Hurricane Matthew, and explains the measures adopted to reactivate production in the main agricultural. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

“Meanwhile, we have to provide the local population with support to produce staple crops and provide new sources of income, until the commercial perennial crops begin to produce,” advised Theodor Friedrich, representative of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Cuba.

He told IPS that to this end, FAO is supporting several initiatives for agricultural and food production recovery in the area affected by Matthew, through two projects financed by the United Nations’ Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) and FAO resources. In addition, it is awaiting the approval of a bigger third project financed by a donor.

“There is an urgent need to recover the most commercial crops, to avoid delaying this process,” said Friedrich, an agronomist who advocates the need of restoring them with resilience to future climate shocks.

“In part, these crops can be used to intersperse food crops and integrate new crops with their corresponding value chains,” he said.

In the case of the territories affected by the hurricane, and together with the local authorities, FAO promotes the proposal to plant drumstick or horseradish trees (moringa oleifera) among the perennial crops, a fast-growing, drought-resistant tree which provides a micronutrient-rich ingredient used to fortify food and animal feed, while also offering a natural fertiliser for the soil.

This initiative can strengthen small industries in the area involved in the manufacturing of fortified foods and in livestock production. “It will increase the production and availability of high value-added foods, while at the same time providing a financial income to farming families,” said the FAO representative.

The government of Baracoa also identifies another economic option for local residents.

“Tourism is the most feasible alternative, because the recovery of agriculture will take some time, even though there is a programme for agro-industrial development,” said Mayor Sánchez. “After Matthew, visits here by local and international tourists fell, but now we are experiencing a surge.”
In the area, government-run hotels and other lodgings offer at total of 275 rooms, and another 367 rooms are available in 283 private houses, where the number of rooms offered has climbed to cater to the current tourism boom.

Near Baracoa’s seafront, retiree Dolores Yamilé Selva’s hostel, which she has run since 1998, is full. She believes that there is still untapped tourism potential in the area. “The tourists that come to our town, mainly from Europe, is interested in our natural surroundings,” she told IPS.

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Disease Burden Growing as Vector Insects Adapt to Climate Change

17 April 2017 - 8:02pm

Dry drains will reduce the numbers of mosquitoes breeding, but now the Aedes aegypti mosquito is going underground to breed underground in available water and flying to feed. Credit: Zadie Neufville/IPS

By Zadie Neufville
KINGSTON, Jamaica, Apr 18 2017 (IPS)

There were surprised gasps when University of the West Indies (UWI) Professor John Agard told journalists at an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) meeting in late November 2016 that mosquitoes were not only living longer, but were “breeding in septic tanks underground”.

For many, it explained why months of fogging at the height of Zika and Chikungunya outbreaks had done little to reduce mosquito populations in their various countries. The revelation also made it clear that climate change would force scientists and environmental health professionals to spend more time studying new breeding cycles and finding new control techniques for vector insects.“Globally, we predict that over 2.17 billion people live in areas that are environmentally suitable for ZIKV transmission." --Dr. Moritz Kraemar

Jump to March 31, 2017 when the UWI and the government of Jamaica opened the new Mosquito Control and Research Unit at the Mona Campus in Kingston, to investigate new ways to manage and eradicate mosquitoes. Its existence is an acknowledgement that the region is looking for improved management and control strategies.

Agard was reporting on a study by the late Dave Chadee, a co-author on the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report and UWI professor. The study examined evolutionary changes in the life cycle of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which spreads the yellow and dengue fevers as well as the chikungunya and Zika viruses.

“We found out that in higher temperatures, the mosquito’s breeding cycle shortens. They go through more cycles during the season and they produce more offspring. The mosquitoes, however, are a little smaller,” Agard told journalists.

Even more worrisome were Chadee’s findings on the longevity of the “evolved” mosquitoes – 100 days instead of the 30 days they were previously thought to survive. The study also found that mosquitoes that survived longer than 90 days could produce eggs and offspring that were born transmitters, raising new concerns.

Alarming as these findings were, they were only the latest on the evolutionary strategies of vector insect populations in the Caribbean. A study published in February 2016 revealed that the triatomino (or vinchuca), the vector insects for Chagas disease, were breeding twice a year instead of only in the rainy season. And before that in 2011, Barbadian Environmental officers found mosquitoes breeding in junction boxes underground.

Sebastian Gourbiere, the researcher who led the Chagas study, pointed to the need for regional governments to re-examine their vector control methods if they are to effectively fight these diseases.

“The practical limitations that the dual threat poses outweigh the capabilities of local vector teams,” he said in response to questions about the control of Chagas disease.

Caribbean scientists and governments had already been warned. The IPCC’s AR 5 (2013) acknowledged the sensitivity of human health to shifts in weather patterns and other aspects of the changing climate.

“Until mid-century climate change will act mainly by exacerbating health problems that already exist. New conditions may emerge under climate change, and existing diseases may extend their range into areas that are presently unaffected,” the report said.

Gourbiere agrees with Agard and other regional researchers that there is need for solutions that are primarily focused on vector controls: eradication and effective controls of the Aedes aegypti could also eliminate the diseases they spread.

The failure of the newest vector control strategies also forced health professionals to revisit the old, but proven techniques developed with the guidance of researchers like Chadee, whose work on dengue and yellow fever, malaria and most recently the Zika virus had helped to guide the development of mosquito control, surveillance and control strategies in the Caribbean.

And while Zika brought with it several other serious complications like microcephaly, which affects babies born to women infected by the virus, and Guillain Barré Syndrome, the threats also exposed more serious concerns. The rapid spread of the viruses opened the eyes of regional governments to the challenges of emerging diseases and of epidemics like ebola and H1N1.

But it was the World Health Organisation (WHO) that raised concerns about the status and possible effects of the Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) – a group of communicable diseases including the Zika virus – which affect more than a billion people in 149 countries each year but for which there are no treatments.

NTDs include Dengue, Chic-V and Chagas Disease and until the last outbreak in 2014 that killed more than 6,000 people, Ebola was among them. In the previous 26 outbreaks between 1976 and 2013, only 1,716 people in sub-Saharan African nations were infected, WHO data showed.

Now the Caribbean is changing its approach to the study and control of vector insects. So while there are no widespread infections of Chagas disease, UWI is preparing to begin its own studies on the triatomino and the disease it transmits.

An addition to UWI’s Task Force formed just over a year ago to “aggressively eliminate” breeding sites for the Aedes aegypti mosquito, the Mosquito Unit is expected to build on Professor Chadee’s groundbreaking research.

“From dealing with the consequences of Chikungunya, Dengue and Zika on our population to managing the potentially harmful effects of newly discovered viruses, the benefits of establishing a unit like this will produce significant rewards in the protection of national and regional health,” UWI Mona Professor Archibald McDonald said at the launch.

Zika had been infecting thousands of people in Asia and Africa for decades before it made its devastating appearance in Brazil and other parts of Latin America and the Caribbean. Zika also made its way to the US and several European nations in 2016, before being confirmed in Thailand on Sept 30.

Not surprising, as in its 3rd AR, and most recently in the 5th AR the IPCC projected increases in threats to human health, particularly in lower income populations of mainly tropical and sub-tropical countries. Those findings are also supported by more recent independent studies including Mapping global environmental suitability for Zika virus, published by the University of Oxford (UK) in February 2016.

By combining climate data, mosquito prevalence and the socio-economic makeup of each region, researchers found the likelihood of the Zika virus gaining a foothold worldwide to be “extremely high”. The team led by Moritz Kraemer also concluded that Zika alone could infect more than a third of the world’s population.

The findings noted that shifts in the breeding patterns of the Aedes family of mosquitos allowed it to take advantage of newly ‘favourable conditions’ resulting from climate change. The environmentally suitable areas now stretch from the Caribbean to areas of South America; large portions of the United States to sizeable areas of sub-Saharan Africa; more than two million square miles of India “from its northwest regions through to Bangladesh and Myanmar”; the Indochina region, southeast China and Indonesia and includes roughly 250,000 square miles of Australia.

“Globally, we predict that over 2.17 billion people live in areas that are environmentally suitable for ZIKV transmission,” Dr. Kraemar said.

The Aedes aegypti mosquitoes’ efficiency at spreading diseases in urban areas and population densities are believed to be the main factors driving the rapid spread of the Zika virus. Other studies have found the Zika virus in 19 species of the Aedes family, with the Asian Tiger Mosquito (Aedes albopictus) – which has now spread its range to Europe –  likely another efficient vector.

Back in the Caribbean, Chadee’s findings on the adaptation of the Aedes aegypti mosquito from clean water breeders to breeding in available waters is expected to drive the development of regional strategies that are better suited to the evolving environment of a changing climate.

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Time Is of the Essence as Storm Clouds Gather over the Korean Peninsula

17 April 2017 - 2:15am

By Editor, The Manila Times, Philippines
Apr 17 2017 (Manila Times)

In his observations of life cycles under the heavens, King Solomon of ancient Israel noted 14 dichotomies from birth and death to war and peace. His point was to show the world that God has a plan for everyone and that each cycle is an opportunity to realize that without Him it is impossible to discover lasting solutions to the problems of life and living on earth.

Here is how Solomon, regarded by bible scholars as the wisest man who ever lived, described the cycles of life (Tyndale Life Application Study Bible, New International Version):

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heaven:

“a time to be born and a time to die,
“a time to plant and a time to uproot,
“a time to kill and a time to heal,
“a time to tear down and a time to build,
“a time to weep and a time to laugh,
“a time to mourn and a time to dance,
“a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
“a time embrace and a time to refrain,”
“a time to search and a time to give up,
“a time to keep and a time to throw away,
“a time to tear and a time to mend,
“a time to be silence and a time to speak,
“a time to love and a time to hate,
“a time for war and a time for peace.”

Judging by the latest US military actions, Washington seems to have set the tone for belligerent days ahead, reflecting the confrontational stance of President Donald J. Trump, the elected leader of the most powerful nation in the world in terms of its economy and military might.

China’s foreign affairs ministry has noted the tit for tat between Pyongyang and Washington, labelling it a gathering of storm clouds over the stand-off between North Korea and the US, warning of how volatile the situation is, a situation that may soon precipitate an armed conflict between a belligerent Trump and an equally truculent North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

With the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier group sailing towards the Korean Peninsula, China is scrambling to resolve the situation diplomatically, especially after Kim displayed his armaments in Pyongyang to mark the 105th anniversary of his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the founding President of North Korea on Saturday. Apparently, Beijing, the backer of Pyongyang, does not want war raging in its own backyard. Especially since Trump’s mettle in dealing with provocations from recalcitrant states has been tested in the last two weeks after Washington unleashed 59 Tomahawk missiles in Syria and dropped a 21,000-lb non-nuclear bomb over Afghanistan.

South Korea will definitely be involved. A staunch ally of the US, the South hosts some 28,500 American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines deployed in 15 military bases. Japan’s National Security Council is now brainstorming how to evacuate some 57,000 Japanese citizens in the South, and deal with a new wave of boat people from North Korea washing up along its western coast should war break out.

Around 63,000 Filipinos live and work in South Korea. The Philippine government must start formulating strategies on how to evacuate its citizens from Seoul and other cities, so that when the time comes it will not be a time to mourn but a time for celebration for a country that takes care of its people, whoever and wherever they are in the world. Time is of the essence.

This story was originally published by The Manila Times, Philippines

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