Interpress News Service

Indonesia’s Trial and Verdict by Omission

12 May 2017 - 8:42am

The author is a manager and instructor at Dr. Soetomo Press Institute , Jakarta since 1991.

By Warief Djajanto Basorie
JAKARTA, May 12 2017 (IPS)

Remove one word in the narrative. You hit your target with a two-year jail sentence.

Governor of Jakarta Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, widely know as Ahok, was the target. After a six-month trial, the North Jakarta District Court on May 9 sentenced him to two years in jail with immediate imprisonment for defamation of religion. It was a double blow within a month.

On April 19 Ahok lost his bid for reelection as governor of this metropolis of 10 million people to former education minister Anies Baswedan.

Ahok’s change in fortune occurred on Sept 27 2016. Surveys up to then showed Ahok was a shoe-in to win reelection. He had garnered one-million-plus signatures of support from eligible voters in Indonesia’s capital, collected by a non-party volunteers group. His popularity was on a high for his clean government stance and success in delivering services. And the Jakarta race is centrally crucial.

The importance of the Jakarta governorship is that it’s a proven path to the presidency. The proof is in President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo who was previously Jakarta’s governor 2012-2014. As Jokowi did not complete his five- year governorship, Ahok as his deputy, succeeded Jokowi as governor.

On that clear Tuesday morning, Sept 27, Governor Ahok travelled to Pramuka Island in the Thousand islands group off the coast of North Jakarta. The trip was to celebrate a karapu fish harvest but the event turned to be a pre-campaign delivery.

Indonesia is a Muslim-majority nation of 250 million people. Ahok is of Chinese descent and a Christian, a double minority. Apparently Ahok did not perceive the consequences when he cited a verse in the Qur’an, Islam’s holy book, in light of the coming gubernatorial campaign.

“You know, perhaps in the back of your mind, you feel you can’t vote for me. Because you were fooled to use Al Maidah (verse) 51 …,” Ahok remarked off-the-cuff of opposing politicians who might use Islam’s holy scripture against him.

Al Maida (The Table Spread) , the fifth surah (chapter) in the Qur’an, has 120 ayat or verses. The verse in question is verse 51.

In essence Al Maida verse 51 calls on the faithful not to accept a non-Muslim as their leader.

On Oct 6 a Jakarta academic reviewed Ahok’s statement in video and concluded Ahok has committed blasphemy. Communication studies scholar Buni Yani uploaded a clip of the video and its transcript on his Facebook account. It stirred a storm.

“All of you (Muslim voters) were fooled by Al Maidah (verse) 51 …”. This is the quote in Buni Yani’s transcript.

The difference with the original quote is that Buni Yani’s transcript does not have the word “use” (pakai in Indonesian). At a talk show on TV One Oct 11, the academic confessed he erred in transcribing the remarks the Jakarta governor made.

Buni admitted he excluded the word “use” because he asserted he did not wear a headset to listen to the statement of Governor Basuki. But the damage has been done.

Buni’s 31-second video clip with provocative commentary can be described as a “post-truth” message where the narrative appeals to emotion disconnected from facts. The talking point continues eventhough the message is found to be misleading.

Oxford Dictionaries on Nov 15 has declared “post-truth” as its 2016 international word of the year, reflecting what it called a “highly-charged” political 12 months.

Buni Yani’s belated admission of verbal exclusion in his posted video could not repair the damage and restrain what was to come. Nor the public apology Ahok made in gatherings and on television over his misconceived Sept 27 remarks.

The omission of a single word was one element that drove a sea of white-clad mostly men on Nov 4 to flood the multi-lane streets off Jakarta’s Monas Square. The Square in Central Jakarta separates Freedom Palace, the president’s residence to its north, and City Hall, the governor’s office to its south.

Led by the Islam Defenders Front (FPI) and other hardline groups, the mass rally demanded Ahok’s arrest and criminal prosecution for defaming Islam.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo read out a midnight statement slamming the street violence and damage before the palace gates that ensued that night. He stated “political actors” were behind the mayhem that caused one death.

On Nov 16 the chief for criminal investigation of the National Police, three-star Police Commissioner General Ari Dono Sukmanto, declared Ahok a suspect in an alleged act of blasphemy. This followed intense investigation culminating in a 10-hour case screening that heard testimony Nov 15.

On Dec 2 another huge rally took place. Like the one before, it was held on a Friday to create a great mass after noon public prayers at the capital’s mosques.

On Dec 13 Ahok went to his first of 22 hearings of his blasphemy trial.

On May 9 2017 Dwiarso Budi Santiarto, chief of the five-judge panel, read out the court’s verdict. Ahok is found guilty of violating Article 156a of the Criminal Code on defaming a religion. The sentence is two years with immediate imprisonment.

The bench’s decision goes beyond the prosecutors’ demand for a year in jail with a 2-year probation. Ahok appealed.

The convicted governor was quickly bundled to the Cipinang Prison in East Jakarta. Later in the evening Ahok was transferred to the police mobile brigade compound in Depok, south of Jakarta, “for safety,” the Cipinang warden said.

Th court’s verdict triggered an outcry of grief among Ahok supporters. They gathered in front of the courthouse, the prison, City Hall and on Wednesday night May 10, they held a candle-lit vigil at Proclamation Park, central Jakarta, where Indonesia’s first president Soekarno declared Indonesia’s independence Aug 17 1945. Similar vigils assembled in Manado and Waingapu, Christian majority centers in Eastern Indonesia.

“#Save Ahok” and “#Free Ahok” were the twitter hash tags. Many of the supporters at City Hall were red-clad women. Some in red and white, the national colors. Men wore the plaited colored shirts of Ahok’s campaign.

Ahok opponents approved the verdict. In front of the court venue, wearing white garb, they cried out in triumph and knelt on the ground in gratitude.

President Jokowi called for all to respect the legal process.

“I request all parties to respect the legal process, the verdict that was read out, and also to respect the steps taken by Mr Basuki Tjahaja Purnama,” Jokowi stated.

Defence lawyer I Wayan Sudarta didn’t mince words. He told The Jakarta Post the verdict was politically driven and unacceptable.

Ahok lost votes because of the trial. The rumor mill was rife of moves to mess with the president.

Further to Jokowi’s midnight statement Nov 4 on the activity of “political actors”, Coordinating Minister for Politcal, Legal and Security Affairs Wiranto announced May 8, the day before the Ahok verdict, that the government seeks to ban by legal means the Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, an organization that calls for an Islamic caliphate.

HTI’s disbandment is justified as its existence is against the Constitution and Indonesia’s state ideology, Pancasila (The Five Tenets), State Intelligence Chief Budi Gunawan stated.

Indeed, the legal process and the political dynamics in Indonesia comes under scrutiny. The big raucous demonstrations outside the court house and the mass rallies demanding Ahok’s conviction contrasting against the pro-Ahok vigils raise the spectre of social unrest, if not disunity.

Interfaith leaders in Indonesia’s have repeatedly called for tolerance to safeguard the sanctity of the national credo, Bhinekka Tunggal Ika, unity in diversity.

This is a testing time for Indonesia where minorities in religion like the Ahmadis and Syiahs face discrimination as well as LGBTs. Papua in the Eastern end of Indonesia is another issue where a movement seeks separation.

As Indonesian citizens, they want equal rights under the Constitution to express their case. Article 28E(3) of the Constitution states: “Every person shall have the right to the freedom of association and expression of opinion.”

All sections in the nation have a stake to make Indonesia a truly peaceful, just and inclusive society, to paraphrase the theme of World Press Freedom Day 2017 that Jakarta hosted early May.

To ward off any communal conflict that could arise from the Ahok case, one voice of moderation comes from a Muslim cleric in Depok, 20 km south of Jakarta. On the Sunday before the Ahok verdict, in a post-morning prayer sermon, he stated that those who bring up Al Maideh verse 51 must also acknowledge the message in verse 8 of the same chapter.

“Let not the enmity and hatred of others make you avoid justice.” The cleric explained Muslims must treat people of other faiths with justice.

The statements and views expressed in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of IPS.

New surgery, first time in UAE restores hearing to teen

12 May 2017 - 2:47am

By WAM
DUBAI, May 12 2017 (WAM)

Surgeons at Dubai Hospital have succeeded in implanting a bone conduction hearing aid for the first time in the UAE, enabling a 17-year-old Emirati born with a thinner-than-average skull and hearing loss in the right ear to fully regain her hearing, according to the hospital doctors.

The procedure usually requires the patient to have a skull thickness of at least 8 millimetres. The young patient’s skull was only 1.5 millimetres.

The new procedure gives hope to patients who wish to regain their hearing ability and lead a normal life. This is why Dubai Hospital was keen to use this technology and adapt it to those with thin skull thickness, said Dr Jamal Kassouma, ENT Consultant at Dubai Hospital, adding that the patient, who was not named, was discharged the next day, because she won’t be needing any rehabilitation following the surgery.

The bone conduction implant uses the body’s natural ability to transfer sound. “While a lot of the sound we hear travels to our ears through the air (air conduction), we actually hear a great deal through vibrations in the bone, he explained.

“The young patient who suffered from hearing loss in her right ear has a skull thickness of 1.5 millimetres, which made it impossible to implant a regular bone bridge, which requires that the skull thickness is at least 8 millimetres,” he said.

In less than an hour, the team of doctors attached a titanium plate to the skull so that an external device could pick up sounds and transfer them to the plate, attached by a magnet to transfer the vibrations from the right to the left ear, Dr. Kassouma added.

After careful studying of the CT scan, the doctors found a limited area with three millimetres in thickness. “We fixed the implantation in that area using a titanium screw.”

Dubai Hospital has so far succeeded in conducting seven bone conduction hearing aid procedures on individuals whose skull was thicker than eight millimetres.

WAM/Mahmoud

Using Agriculture and Agribusiness to Bring About Industrialisation in Africa

12 May 2017 - 2:24am

Rice fields in Northern Ghana. Credit: Isaiah Esipisu/IPS

By Akinwumi Adesina
ABIDJAN, Côte d'Ivoire, May 12 2017 (IPS)

No region of the world has ever moved to industrialised economy status without a transformation of the agricultural sector. Agriculture, which contributes 16.2% of the GDP of Africa, and gives some form of employment to over 60% of the population, holds the key to accelerated growth, diversification and job creation for African economies.

But the performance of the sector has historically been low. Cereal yields are significantly below the global average. Modern farm inputs, including improved seeds, mechanisation and irrigation, are severely limited.

In the past, agriculture was seen as the domain of the humanitarian development sector, as a way to manage poverty. It was not seen as a business sector for wealth creation. Yet Africa has huge potential in agriculture – and with it huge investment potential. Some 65% of all the uncultivated arable land left in the world lies in Africa. When Africa manages to feed itself, as – within a generation – it will, it will also be able to to feed the 9 billion people who will inhabit the planet in 2050.

However, Africa is wasting vast amounts of money and resources by underrating its agriculture sector. For example, it spends $35 billion in foreign currency annually importing food, a figure that is set to rise to over $100 billion per year by 2030.

Akinwumi Adesina

In so doing, Africa is choking its own economic future. It is importing the food that it should be growing itself. It is exporting, often to developed countries, the jobs it needs to keep and nurture. It also has to pay inflated prices resulting from global commodity supply fluctuations.

The food and agribusiness sector is projected to grow from $330 billion today to $1 trillion by 2030, and remember that there will also be 2 billion people looking for food and clothing. African enterprises and investors need to convert this opportunity and unlock this potential for Africa and Africans.

Africa must start by treating agriculture as a business. It must learn fast from experiences elsewhere, for example in south east Asia, where agriculture has been the foundation for fast-paced economic growth, built on a strong food processing and agro-industrial manufacturing base.

This is the transformation formula: agriculture allied with industry, manufacturing and processing capability equals strong and sustainable economic development, which creates wealth throughout the economy.

Africa must not miss opportunities for such linkages whenever and wherever they occur. We must reduce food system losses all along the food chain, from the farm, storage, transport, processing and retail marketing.

To drive agro-industrialization, we must be able to finance the sector. Doing so will help unlock the potential of agriculture as a business on the continent. Under its Feed Africa strategy, the African Development Bank will invest $24 billion in agriculture and agribusiness over the next ten years. This is a 400% increase in financing, from the current levels of $600 million per year.

A key component will be providing $700 million to a flagship program known as “Technologies for African Agricultural Transformation” for the scaling up of agricultural technologies to reach millions of farmers in Africa in the next ten years.

This is the transformation formula: agriculture allied with industry, manufacturing and processing capability equals strong and sustainable economic development, which creates wealth throughout the economy.
Finance and farming have not always been easy partners in Africa. Another pillar of the Bank’s strategy is to accelerate commercial financing for agriculture. Despite its importance, the agriculture sector receives less than 3% of the overall industry financing provided by the banking sector.

Risk sharing instruments may resolve this, by sharing the risk of lending by commercial banks to the agriculture sector. Development finance institutions and multilateral development banks should be setting up national risk-sharing facilities in every African country to leverage agricultural finance. And the African Development Bank is setting the pace based on a very successful risk sharing scheme that I promoted while Agriculture Minister in Nigeria.

Rural infrastructure development is critical for the transformation of the agriculture sector, including electricity, water, roads and rail to transport finished agricultural and processed foods.

The lack of this infrastructure drives up the cost of doing business and has discouraged food manufacturing companies from getting established in rural areas. Governments should provide fiscal and infrastructure incentives for food manufacturing companies to move into rural areas, closer to zones of production than consumption.

This can be achieved by developing agro-industrial zones and staple crop processing zones in rural areas. These zones, supported with consolidated infrastructure, including roads, water, electricity and perhaps suitable accommodation, will drive down the cost of doing business for private food and agribusiness firms.

They will create new markets for farmers, boosting economic opportunities in rural areas, stimulating jobs and attracting higher domestic and foreign investments into the rural areas. This will drive down the cost of doing business, as well as significantly reduce the high level of African post-harvest losses. As agricultural income rises, neglected rural areas will become zones of economic prosperity.

Our goal is simple: to support massive agro-industrial development all across Africa. When that happens, Africa will have taken its rightful place as a global powerhouse in food production. It could well also be feeding the world. At this point the economic transformation that we are all working for will be complete.

Dr Akinwumi Adesina is President of the African Development Bank. The 2017 AfDB Annual Meetings in Ahmedabad, India, 22-26 May, will focus on ‘Transforming agriculture for wealth creation in Africa’.

Poor Rural Communities in Mexico Receive a Boost to Support Themselves

11 May 2017 - 6:12pm

Jilder Morales tends to a young avocado plant on her plot of land within the ejido, where 55 farmers got together in 2014 to farm and improve their diet and incomes, in the poor farming town of Santa Ana Coatepec in southern Mexico. Credit: Emilio Godoy/IPS

By Emilio Godoy
HUAQUECHULA, Mexico, May 11 2017 (IPS)

Jilder Morales, a small farmer in Mexico, looks proudly at the young avocado trees that are already over one metre high on her ejido – or communal – land, which already have small green fruit.

“These were little-used lands. Now the people see that they can be worked. We seek a balance between a nutritional diet and an income, producing healthy food that brings in a profit,” said Morales, who told IPS that she starts her day as soon as the sun comes out, checking on her avocado trees, trimming her plants, applying fertiliser and making organic compost.

She is a member of the “Santa Ana for Production” association in the town of Santa Ana Coatepec, in the municipality of Huaquechula, in the southeastern state of Puebla, some 170 km south of Mexico City.

On August 2015, these small-scale producers planted avocado trees on 44 hectares of land in the ejido of El Tejonal, where 265 hectares belong to 215 ejido members. Of these, 55 are currently members of the association, which is close to achieving gender equality, with 29 men and 26 women, who play an especially important role.“It is a strategy to articulate other programmes, whose coordinated actions will generate greater impacts. PESA offers productive opportunities seeking to increase food production, while respecting natural resources, and improving the diet and health of the local population.” -- Fernando Soto

Each member was initially given 32 plants on the ejido, which is public land allocated for collective use – a widespread traditional system in rural Mexico.

The initiative is part of Mexico´s Strategic Programme for Food Security (PESA).

This programme, created globally by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in 1994, was adopted by the Mexican government in 2002, and has been implemented since 2011 by the Agriculture Ministry together with the U.N. agency.

The aim is improving agricultural production and the diet and income of poor rural families and communities, such as Santa Ana Coatepec, in order to strengthen food security and help them gradually overcome poverty.

The association raises poultry to sell its meat and eggs, in addition to planting avocadoes, maize, sorghum and different vegetables. They also raise tilapia, a fish used widely in aquaculture in Mexico and other Latin American countries.

Santa Ana for Production was founded in 2014, together with the Community Foundation, one of the 25 rural development agencies (ADR) in Puebla implementing the PESA, which only supports groups of small-scale farmers and not individuals.

Last year, the Agriculture Ministry hired 305 ADRs in the 32 states (plus the capital district) into which Mexico is divided, to carry out the programme in selected low-income rural areas.

“Women who participate have the personal satisfaction that we ourselves are producing, that we are the workers,“ said Morales, a single woman with no children.

The group has been trained in fish farming techniques, agroecological practices, and nutrition, to produce their own food and to know what to eat. The first production goal is self-sufficiency, and the surplus production is sold or traded with local residents.

Santa Ana Coatepec, population 1,147, was chosen by FAO and the Mexican government to participate in PESA, due to the high poverty rate.

The Ministry of Social Development and the National Council of Assessment of Social Development Policies reported in 2015 that 80 per cent of the population in Huaquechula, population 26,514, lived in poverty, while 30 per cent lived in conditions of extreme poverty.

María Aparicio (front) feeds the tilapia in the tank that her association built thanks to the support and training by PESA, an association of small-scale producers in Santa Ana Coatepec, in the southern Mexican state of Puebla. Credit: Emilio Godoy/IPS

The state of Puebla has the fourth largest number of ADRs, after Guerrero, Oaxaca and Chiapas – the poorest states in Mexico.

María Aparicio, a married mother of three, knew nothing about fish farming, but became an expert thanks to the project, which has financed the association’s initiatives with a total of 263,000 dollars.

“We are creating knowledge for the region (of Puebla), for people to know how to raise tilapia,“ she told IPS.

First, the association installed a tank four metres deep, with a capacity of 4,500 cubic metres of water, obtained from the El Amate spring, 1.6 km from the town.

They laid a pipeline from the spring to the tanks, using the water also to irrigate the avocado trees, and maize and sorghum crops. The works took three months. The members pay 0.26 dollars per hour of water use.

The association raises Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus), from the southeastern state of Veracruz, and so far have produced 1.6 tons of fish. Tilapia grows to 350 grams in five months, when it is big enough to be sold.

The fish farmers sell the fish at about four dollars per kilogram, with a production cost of about 1.8 dollars for each fish.

In June 2016, they installed three more tanks that are one metre deep and have a volume of 28 cubic metres, to raise “Rocky Mountain White” tilapia, a light-colored hybrid breed, investing 105 dollars. But in March they produced only 90 kilograms, much less than expected.

“We’re going to raise grey tilapia now. Our goal is to farm some 5,000 fish“ during each production cycle, said Aparicio, who returned to live in her town after working as an undocumented immigrant in the United States.

The group created a savings fund, fed by the profits of their different undertakings, to finance and expand their projects.

For Fernando Soto, FAO representative in Mexico, PESA generates “positive results“ of different types.

“It is a strategy to articulate other programmes, whose coordinated actions will generate greater impacts. PESA offers productive opportunities seeking to increase food production, while respecting natural resources, and improving the diet and health of the local population,” he told IPS in Mexico City.

These days, with the arrival of the first rains, the farmers have begun to prepare the land to plant maize and sorghum.

Watching their avocado trees and tilapia grow, the members of the association have new hopes for their future. “We will have food security, and we will generate employment,” said Morales.

“I see this and I cannot believe it. Soon all this will be full of plants and then we will harvest,” said Aparicio, looking at the avocado plantation with a hopeful expression.

PESA still has a long way ahead. An internal FAO report carried out in January stressed the importance of studying the factors that affect the survival and performance of the ADRs that support farmers at a local level, not only with quantitative measurements, but also with qualitative studies.

This study found that 270 ADRs do not register community promoters, 120 lack administrative staff, and 65 report no members.

“A higher chance of survival for the agencies and better prospects of stability in the employees’ jobs would have positive effects on the programme´s impact,” the document says.

Soto suggested promoting programmes to increase productivity in the southern and southeastern regions, strengthen the well-being and capacities of local people, contribute to preserving environmental assets, expand coverage under urban development systems, and strengthen productive infrastructure and regional connecting services.

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Why Honesty Is Best Policy: It Feels Better

11 May 2017 - 12:55pm

By Yen Makabenta
May 11 2017 (Manila Times)

A new university research study has added a twist to the saying, “honesty is the best policy,” which has been immortalized by the Holy Bible, William Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin and countless mothers.

Yen Makabenta

The twist, according to the London Telegraph, is that “honesty feels better.”

In an article early this month (“The secret of honesty revealed: it feels better,” by Henry Bodkin, Telegraph, May 1, 2017), the paper reports that a new study in University College, London, sheds new light on the motherhood virtue, and could offer hope for our perennially failed efforts to stop corruption and enhance honesty in our public service.

The main finding and conclusion is that most people are honest, because honesty feels better. It is the corrupt and the deceivers who are tortured by guilt and doubt, and who in the end must pay for their transgressions.

While many in public service are tempted to steal, lie and bend the rules, the average person will not do the same. They are impelled by their scruples or conscience to act honestly.

I shall quote the article in its entirety here because I would like my readers and government policymakers to judge for themselves. I will discuss its relevance to current issues in our public life and public service in the discussion that immediately follows.

London Telegraph article

“It is a mystery that has perplexed psychologists and philosophers since the dawn of humanity: why are most people honest?…

“Researchers at University College London discovered that at a physical level the brain finds decency far more satisfying than deception.

“The trial revealed that, despite accumulating a large amount of money, most participants derived no deep-seated satisfaction if the success was gained at the expense of others.

“Ill-gotten gains evoke weaker responses, which may explain why most people would rather not profit from harming others

“Published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, the study indicates that, at least at a psychological level, the old adage that ‘crime doesn’t pay’ is right.

“ ‘When we make decisions, a network of brain regions calculates how valuable our options are,’ said Dr. Molly Crockett, who led the research.

“ ‘Ill-gotten gains evoke weaker responses in this network, which may explain why most people would rather not profit from harming others.’

“ ‘Our results suggest the money just isn’t as appealing’.

“The research team scanned volunteers’ brains as they decided whether to anonymously inflict pain on themselves or strangers in exchange for money.

“The experiment involved 28 couples of participants who were paired off and given the ability to give each other small electric shocks.

“They were given the option of selecting sums of money that were related to a shock either for themselves or their partner.

“The researchers noticed that, as they made their decisions, a region of the brain called the striatum, key to the understanding of value, was activated.

“MRI imaging found that this brain network was far more active when the participants gained money while inflicting pain on themselves than on another, suggesting they found it instinctively more valuable.

“ ‘Our findings suggest the brain internalizes the moral judgments of others, simulating how much others might blame us for potential wrongdoing, even when we know our actions are anonymous,’ said Dr. Crockett.

“The scans also revealed that an area of the brain involved in making moral judgments, the lateral prefrontal cortex, was most active in trials where inflicting pain yielded minimal profit.

“In an allied study, participants were asked to make moral judgements about decisions to harm others for profit.

“It showed that when people refused to profit from harming others, this region was communicating with the striatum.

“The researchers believe this shows that normal societal moral rules are visible in the form of neurological signaling, and that these disrupt the value we might otherwise place on ill-gotten gains.

“They insisted that the electric shocks administered to participants were carefully matched to each recipient’s pain threshold to be ‘mildly but tolerably painful’.”

Bong, Jinggoy, PDAF looters will agree
The study is nothing revolutionary. Buddha’s teaching thousands of years ago said that doing good steers the human person towards the right path and enlightenment.

If we ask the senators (Senators Bong Revilla and Jinggoy Estrada) and the legislators who are now facing graft charges before the Sandiganbayan, they will probably agree that honesty would have made them feel better. Now, as they stew in their misery, they surely rue the day they ever thought of stealing their PDAF allocations or the day they met Janet Lim Napoles.

Straight path artists
The dishonest officials who still have to face the music are notably former President Benigno S. Aquino 3rd and former budget secretary Butch Abad who, not content with routinary graft opportunities, even invented the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) to raise their loot to billions of pesos in public funds.

And they had the bright idea of calling it all the straight path (tuwid na daan).

Compared to these Filipino originals, Richard Nixon who declared, “I am not a crook,” was a baby.

Unchanging rules and principles
It‘s individuals who are too clever for their own good who run afoul of ethical politics and government.

The old rules have not changed. Public officials are still obligated to render honest judgment, to work hard and efficiently, and to maximize the benefits of government to all citizens.

The basic principles are in truth unchanging:
1. Public officials must no lie, cheat, or steal in any official capacity. They must obey the law.
2. Public officials must avoid all conflicts of interest created by business, friendship or family relationship.
3. Public officials owe a fiduciary (trustee’s) duty to taxpayers and all citizens to ensure that public funds are used honestly.
4. Public officials should perform their duties based solely on the public interest and the public good, rather than on what is in their best personal interest.

Ethics in government is really no different from ethics in personal life.

Hence, people who do not lie, cheat or steal in business or personal life generally have no problem handling ethical questions in government.

But then power corrupts and tempts. And those with little character are too weak to resist.

yenmakabenta@yahoo.com

This story was originally published by The Manila Times, Philippines

Who Defends the Rape Survivor?

11 May 2017 - 10:13am

By Moyukh Mahtab
May 11 2017 (The Daily Star, Bangladesh)

We live in a country where women who are survivors of sexual violence not only have to go against the traditional grain of society but the justice and law enforcement systems as well. Our antiquated laws, medical procedures to prove rape, the cruel character shaming and the general social impunity granted to men makes one wonder how brave a woman has to be to even demand justice.

It’s been almost a week since newspapers started reporting on the rape at gun point of two university students in a hotel in Banani. We know five men have been accused, that the women have been threatened against going to the police, and that when they did go to the police, their characters were questioned and it took 48 hours to register the case. We know that among the accused is a son of the owner of a leading jewellery brand, who despite being home for days after the case filed, was not interrogated let alone arrested by the police. We know that keeping to the norm in this country, his father defended his actions. By the time the police did raid his home on May 9, a full three days after the case was registered, the accused and his passport were missing.

Yet, social media is full of people defending the rape of these two women as “divine justice” for their supposed transgressions: they should not have gone out to a “party”, they should not have been friends with men, and they should have fit the narrow ideals of what the role of women is in a society. I do not know what to say to these people, for despite the reality they witness, they are blind to the concept of consent. But for those, who feel compelled to point out that for now, we should put the word “alleged” before the word rapist, or question why the women waited more than a month before going to the police, please remember the society we live in.

Let us start with why the women waited a month before going to the police. According to their testimonies, aides to the accused filmed them while they were being raped. They were threatened that the clips would be released on the internet if they did, and also told that because of the power and money of the accused, the police would not be able to do anything to them. These women knew the consequences of going public: that they would be shamed, their characters put to the stand and that there would be enormous pressure on them and their families. The officer in charge in Banani police station BM Forman Ali, who is now on a five-day-leave, had initially asked if the women were “nortoki” or dancers from the hotel. Why else would women be at a party there? (Samakal, 10 May, 2017)

Questioning of the women’s character is part of the criminal proceedings of rape cases. As Ishita Dutta in her paper in the book Of the Nation Born: The Bangladesh Papers, points out this “Good Girl-Bad Girl Dichotomy” shifts the question of ascertaining the guilt of the accused to “whether the survivor was chaste enough to have made a true accusation.” She writes how under Section 155(4) of the Evidence Act 1872, “the victims testimony may be discredited by showing that she was of ‘generally immoral character’.”"We need policy and law reforms. We need cells at police stations and medical facilities where they will be heard and not further abused. We need institutional changes in the way the police act towards the survivors. Till then, the least we can do is not question if these women are speaking the truth.

What is heartbreaking is that despite the courage it took for these women to finally seek justice, as the head of forensic medicine at DMC who headed the board that examined the women says, it would be difficult to find evidence of rape if the incidents took place over a month ago. But, even if they had gone the next day, what are the chances that justice would be facilitated? It took two examinations before it was officially established that Shohagi Jahan Tonu was indeed raped before she was murdered. The legal definition and medical tests proscribed by our law also means that any delay, even due to unavailability of medical facilities, would essentially make it harder to collect forensic evidence. The laws which lay out the procedure of collection of evidence date back to the colonial period, and as such barbaric procedures such as “the two finger test” to determine if rape had occurred are still used. The two finger test rests on the presence or absence of the hymen – a procedure which is not only medically anachronistic, but also seems to assume only a woman who has never had any sexual relation before can be raped.

Dutta points out how while globally the legal definition of rape has evolved to the establishment of consent, in Bangladeshi law, rape is defined as “forced penetration.” That is, even if a person is sexually assaulted, say at gun point, but there was no physical force used on her, it would technically not be considered as rape. The question of consent, that is whether the the woman was in agreement with the sexual act is absent from our laws and our society.

We need a change and our laws need to define rape in terms of consent. For example, the Department of Justice of Canada, defines consent as “the voluntary agreement of the complainant to engage in the sexual activity in question. Conduct short of a voluntary agreement … does not constitute consent”. It then sets out the situations which would entail lack of consent such as cases “where the accused induces the complainant … abusing a position of trust, power or authority”. That is, rape would be defined not in terms of whether the woman was physically forced into the act but by whether she voluntarily consented to that act.

If these were not enough barriers, in court, the women are again subjected to similar attacks on her character. Since the legal definition of rape rests on the purity of character of the woman, her life is dissected in a patriarchal, unfriendly environment. The initial reluctance and questioning of character when filing cases, as was claimed by the women who were raped in Banani, point to an institutional structure which is far from being gender sensitive. It does not give women a safe space where they can seek refuge and justice, but from the filing of the case to the court proceeding, puts them through the trauma of having to prove that they are not immoral people who somehow “asked for it”.

Then comes the “pressure”; from society and from the perpetrators. And if the perpetrators are powerful men, we even see instances where the police officer questions the women if they are filing a case to claim money from the accused. The accused might even go missing just before the police put up a show of action and end up in a different district, where they will not be found.

When women, under these constraints, still appeal to our courts of law to seek justice, it is cruel to start our discussion with questioning whether she is lying or not. We as a society cannot get over the idea that women supposedly have the upper hand or some ulterior motive when reporting sexual violence.

That is not to say that we can bypass the legal requirement of proof when it comes to rape or any other crime. That we are sometimes bound to take a stand speaks of failures of our justice system. We need policy and law reforms. We need cells at police stations and medical facilities where they will be heard and not further abused. We need institutional changes in the way the police act towards the survivors. Till then, the least we can do is not question if these women are speaking the truth.

The writer is a member of the editorial department, The Daily Star.

This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh

Who Are the Best ‘Eaters’ and How to Use Eggplants as a Toothbrush

11 May 2017 - 9:09am

Tempura, sashimi, pickles, ris og misosuppe (Tempura, sashimi, pickles, rice and miso soup). Credit: cyclonebill from Copenhagen, Denmark. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

By Baher Kamal
ROME, May 11 2017 (IPS)

The news is this: Japan is a global model for healthy diets and it currently has the lowest rate of obesity among developed countries–below four per cent. This is on the one hand. On the other, African eggplant gorongo is often used as toothbrush.

None of this is based on any personal, empirical experience—it all comes from the United Nations thought its leading food specialised agency.

See what the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says.

Japan has a very unique food culture that can greatly contribute to improvements in global nutrition, FAO director-general José Graziano da Silva on May 10 assured during his visit to the country, which has a healthy and “unique” food culture, one that includes many vegetables, fruits and fish.

To explain this better, he cited Washoku, a comprehensive set of skills, knowledge and traditions relating to the preparation and consumption of food, which has been designated as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO.

Washoku is based on a “respect for nature” and is composed of fresh, seasonally available, low-fat ingredients, which together represent a well-balanced diet.

Graziano da Silva noted that Japan has a wealth of knowledge and experience to share with other countries– an interaction the organisation he leads is keen to promote as an activity related to the United Nations Decade on Nutrition.

Graziano da Silva with a group of women who are participating in a vegetable-growing project in Borno State, north-eastern Nigeria. Credit: FAO


This Decade aims to address poor dietary habits, which have been closely linked to non-communicable diseases, including heart attacks strokes, cancers and diabetes– a leading cause of premature death, not only in high-income countries, but also increasingly in many parts of the developing world.

“These diets are typically not only unhealthy, but environmentally unsustainable.”

In this context, Japan exemplifies how effective public policies and legislation can promote adequate nutrition, especially through laws aimed at educating children and controlling adults’ weight, according to the FAO chief.

Such measures, are in line with commitments made by world leaders at the 2014 Second International Conference on Nutrition and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, to establish national policies aimed at eradicating malnutrition and transforming food systems to make nutritious diets available to all.

He praised Japan for supporting developing countries through the UN agency in the areas of food production and consumption as well as with regards to the agricultural sectors, including forestry, fisheries, livestock, land and water.

For example, in Afghanistan, Japan has contributed more than 100 million dollars to the organisation’s agricultural interventions, especially with efforts to rehabilitate the country’s irrigation infrastructure.

In Myanmar, funds from the Japanese government have helped deliver emergency and livelihood-rebuilding assistance – including high-quality seeds and fertilizers – to rural households affected by flooding and conflicts.

A Journalist and a Chef, Goodwill Ambassadors

The UN specialised agency chief announced the appointment of Hiroko Kuniya and Katsuhiro Nakamura as the first-ever FAO National Goodwill Ambassadors for Japan.

Kuniya became well known as a television news-anchor for the NHK Japan network, including on the acclaimed “Today’s Close-Up” programme, covering poverty, hunger and other social issues. More recently, she has worked as a journalist covering topics related to the Sustainable Development Goals.

Nakamura initially became famous as the first Japanese chef to receive a One-Star Restaurant recognition by Michelin in 1979 in Paris. He later returned to Japan and in 2008 was named head chef during the G8 Summit in Toyako, Hokkaido.

What about the Eggplant-Toothbrush Story?

Now that you know who are the best “eaters” on Earth—the Japanese, you will certainly like to also learn about why and how eggplants can be used as toothbrush. Here you are:

To start with, African eggplant lives up to its name: as it grows it bears white, oval-shaped fruits that look just like eggs before they ripen and turn green.

African eggplant “gorongo”. Credit: FAO


It is one of the vegetables grown by farmers displaced by Boko Haram violence in northern Nigeria who are participating in an FAO project to kick-start local food production. Here, this traditional vegetable is known as gorongo and it is an important social ingredient as well as a nutritious one.

The raw fruit of the gorongo is often chewed by women to clean their teeth. The fruit is also eaten as part of marriage and naming ceremonies.

What happened is that just few days before going to Japan, Graziano da Silva visited an FAO-supported dry season vegetable production site.

There, he met a group of women working together in a field growing gorongo among other crops. The women are survivors of Boko Haram attacks on their villages, and are the sole providers for their families.

One of the women explained that using the gorongo to clean her teeth was a way to restore a sense of dignity and to bring healthy smiles to her and her friends.

Gorongo is a useful plant for small-scale farmers because it bears fruit continuously and can produce an abundant yield even from a small plot.

Women have been able to grow a surplus of vegetables that they can sell to earn cash to cover their needs beyond food such as health care and education for their children.

The African Eggplant

The African eggplant originates from Central Africa, and has spread to other countries, particularly in West Africa, the UN specialised body informs.

The fruit can be eaten raw, boiled, steamed, pickled, or in stews and the leaves are often used in soups. To make a stew, the eggplant is boiled then mashed, then added to a pan with oil, onion, cooked beans and chilli flakes.

Apart from oral hygiene, the plant is used in traditional medicine to treat throat infections by heating and then chewing the leaves. The juice of boiled roots is used to treat hookworm, while the crushed leaves are said to be useful for gastric complaints.

Now you know who eats better and what to do if run out of toothpaste.

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Gender Equality Can Save Women’s Lives in Disasters – We must not miss the opportunity to set this right

11 May 2017 - 6:06am
Later this month, the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) will take place in Mexico. This meeting provides an important opportunity to reboot global progress on embedding gender equality in disaster risk management and redress deadly exclusion. Even though the quality of disaggregated data needs to be improved, research shows that women and girls […]

Concerns Arise Over Freed Nigerian Abductees, Thousands Still Missing

10 May 2017 - 12:12pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rape and Ordinary Men

10 May 2017 - 9:55am

By Rafia Zakaria
May 10 2017 (Dawn, Pakistan)

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

Rafia Zakaria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan

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

9 May 2017 - 8:01pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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World Bank fudges on inequality

9 May 2017 - 10:24am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brazil progress at risk

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

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

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

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

9 May 2017 - 9:32am

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

By Baher Kamal
ROME, May 9 2017 (IPS)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A ‘Long List of Outrages’

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

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

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

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

Sold in Squares or Garages

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

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

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


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

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

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

International Criminal Court May Investigate

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

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

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

‘Horrendous Abuses’ at the Hands of Smugglers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Poverty Drives Wages Down

9 May 2017 - 7:42am

Credit: Sarom Em

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Money is tight.

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

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

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

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

Credit: Sarom Em

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

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

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

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

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

 ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Loo, Gmac. Credit: Erik Larsson

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

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

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

Cambodia
Population: 16 million (2016)

Language: Khmer

Religion: Buddhism

Government: Constitutional monarchy with a multi-party system

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

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

”We have the best conditions”

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

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

He leans forward to shake hands.

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

He continues by saying that everyone wants more pay.

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minimum wages have been raised several times in recent years.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
The Living Wage

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

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

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

Source: Fair Action, IndustriAll

This story was originally published by Arbetet Global

Translation: Ravi Dar

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

9 May 2017 - 4:40am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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When It Comes to Fracking, Argentina Dreams Big

8 May 2017 - 8:53pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Welcome News from ADB

8 May 2017 - 11:23am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This story was originally published by The Manila Times, Philippines

Global Climate Policy in an Uncertain State of Flux

8 May 2017 - 8:27am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martin Khor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

8 May 2017 - 1:59am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Irina Bokova

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

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

Too Early to Cry Victory

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diversity, Dialogue, Mutual Understanding

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

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

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

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

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

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Playing Pandu with the Press

7 May 2017 - 11:13am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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