Inter Press Service » Featured http://www.ipsnews.net Journalism and Communication for Global Change Sat, 02 Aug 2014 01:18:50 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.1 Indigenous Leaders in Costa Rica Tell Ban Ki-moon Their Problems http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/indigenous-leaders-in-costa-rica-tell-ban-ki-moon-their-problems/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=indigenous-leaders-in-costa-rica-tell-ban-ki-moon-their-problems http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/indigenous-leaders-in-costa-rica-tell-ban-ki-moon-their-problems/#comments Sat, 02 Aug 2014 01:13:04 +0000 Diego Arguedas Ortiz http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135883 A Costa Rican indigenous family runs to take shelter in the community of Cedror in the indigenous territory of Salitre on Jul. 6, afraid of being attacked by landowners who occupied their land after setting fire to their homes and belongings the day before. Credit: David Bolaños/IPS

A Costa Rican indigenous family runs to take shelter in the community of Cedror in the indigenous territory of Salitre on Jul. 6, afraid of being attacked by landowners who occupied their land after setting fire to their homes and belongings the day before. Credit: David Bolaños/IPS

By Diego Arguedas Ortiz
SAN JOSE, Aug 2 2014 (IPS)

Indigenous people in Costa Rica, hemmed in by violent attacks from farmers and ranchers who invade their land and burn down their homes, have found a new ally: United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who met with 36 native leaders during a recent visit to this country.

The leaders, representing eight indigenous groups, described the violence faced by native people in Costa Rica, and the many struggles they face, even in simply getting identity cards.

But they underlined that their most pressing concern is the occupation of indigenous areas by “the white man”, which has led to an escalation of attacks from landowners, who invade their ancestral territory and try to drive them off the land, despite a law that guarantees their right to collective ownership of their territory.

The latest violent episode occurred in the community of Cedror, in the Salitre indigenous territory in the southeast of the country.

The Bribri people in Salitre had begun a process of recovering territory occupied by landowners or “finqueros”, who responded by burning down their modest homes and blocking access to their territory.

The violence, which continued from Jul. 5 to 8, prompted a visit to Cedror by the deputy minister of political affairs, Ana Gabriel Zúñiga, sent by President Luis Guillermo Solís, along with representatives of the Defensoría de los Habitantes – ombudsperson’s office – and the Ministry of Justice and Peace.“We don’t want to be beggars of the state. If they approve our law, we could develop ourselves according to our vision that we must protect the forests and water.” -- José Carlos Morales

A mob of around 80 thugs converged on the community on Jul. 5, armed with rocks and guns, chased the local indigenous people out of their homes, and then burned down the huts, with all of the families’ belongings inside.

Ligia Bejarano, one of the indigenous leaders who informed the U.N. secretary-general of the situation, told him that in 2010 native people were thrown out of the legislature when they went to lobby for approval of a new law on indigenous affairs.

According to Bejarano, Ban was very receptive and told them he was aware of the latest attack on native people in this Central American country, where members of indigenous groups represent 2.6 percent of the population of 4.5 million.

The secretary-general paid an official visit to Costa Rica on Jul. 30, and spent an additional four days in the country on vacation.

“I stress that dialogue is a very powerful tool and that we must continue to foment it, as long as there is grassroots community participation,” Magaly Lázaro, a member of the Brunca indigenous community who also participated in the meeting with Ban, told IPS.

“This is a group of marginalised populations who have long been discriminated against by societies,” Ban said shortly after the meeting, referring to indigenous people during a conference held in the San José-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

“I do take away the empty feeling that it was very short, for such an important meeting – five minutes weren’t enough for me to say what I feel; you can’t sum up so many things because the problem is bigger than what was discussed,” another of the three female participants, Justa Romero, told IPS.

The indigenous territory with the worst problems is Térraba, 150 km southeast of San José. Around 85 percent of the community’s land has been occupied by non-indigenous outsiders, according to the 2012 State of the Nation report drawn up by the National Provosts Council.

This is happening despite the fact that Costa Rica’s Indigenous Law, in force since 1977, declared native territories inalienable, indivisible, non-transferable and exclusive to the indigenous communities living there.

In other words, even if outsiders buy land in indigenous territories, the purchase and land title are invalid.

The native leaders told IPS that in the meeting with Ban they asked him to help them get the authorities to accelerate the adoption of measures to ensure respect for their rights and support for their autonomous development.

“Now we want to see how many non-indigenous people are in our territory,” Romero, a Bribri native who belongs to the Commission of Indigenous Women of Talamanca Association (ACOMUITA) in the country’s southern Caribbean region, told IPS. “But it’s not just a question of saying ‘we found this or that’ – I mean we should go and remove them and demonstrate that the land truly belongs to indigenous people.”

According to the 2011 national census, the roughly 100,000 members of the Brunca, Ngäbe, Bribri, Cabécar, Maleku, Chorotega, Térraba and Teribe communities live in 24 indigenous territories scattered around the country. Altogether, these areas cover 350,000 hectares of land – around seven percent of the national territory.

After visiting Salitre, Deputy Minister Zúñiga said the administration of Solis, who took office as president in May, recognises indigenous people’s right to their land and will support them in recovering their territory.

“We have started to carry out an analysis of all aspects related to the demarcation of Salitre and we are taking the first steps to see who [non-indigenous people] have farms in the territory and who has the right to be indemnified,” Geiner Blanco, a member of the Maleku indigenous community and a presidential adviser on native affairs, told IPS.

A bill aimed at overcoming the gaps and problems in the country’s institutions with respect to indigenous affairs has been stalled in the legislature for 19 years.

The proposed reforms include the governance of native territories by indigenous councils; the removal of all non-native people from the territories; and education for indigenous children designed in line with the native world vision and culture.

“We don’t want to be beggars of the state,” Brunca indigenous leader José Carlos Morales told IPS. “If they approve our law, we could develop ourselves according to our vision that we must protect the forests and water.

“But they don’t want to pass it. They want us to keep being beggars,” said Morales, who helped draft the 1977 Indigenous Law and worked for five years in the United Nations Human Rights Council’s indigenous rights body.

Lázaro, a 29-year-old member of the Brunca community, told IPS that she would be happy just to stop being plagued by the fear she started to feel in August last year, when she was visiting Salitre and preparing a meal with the women and children while the men went out to patrol the borders of the territory.

“We were about to eat when a bunch of people came up with sticks and clubs and surrounded us in a question of just a few seconds,” she said. “It was a mob of finqueros and white people; I had heard of that kind of violence, but I hadn’t experienced it, and the fear has stayed with me.”

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In Pakistan, Militants Wear Aid Workers’ Clothing http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/in-pakistan-militants-wear-aid-workers-clothing/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=in-pakistan-militants-wear-aid-workers-clothing http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/in-pakistan-militants-wear-aid-workers-clothing/#comments Fri, 01 Aug 2014 18:40:42 +0000 Ashfaq Yusufzai http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135878 Fearing the presence of militants, personnel from law enforcement agencies keep a strict watch on camps set up by relief groups in the Bannu district of Pakistan’s northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IP

Fearing the presence of militants, personnel from law enforcement agencies keep a strict watch on camps set up by relief groups in the Bannu district of Pakistan’s northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IP

By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Aug 1 2014 (IPS)

Muhammad Tufail, a 22-year-old resident of Mardan, one of 26 districts that comprise Pakistan’s northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, has recently become a volunteer aid worker.

Moved by the plight of nearly a million refugees fleeing a military offensive in the North Waziristan Agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which began on Jun. 15, Tufail now spends his days distributing food rations and medical supplies to beleaguered residents of huge camps for the displaced.

Tufail tells IPS that he and other volunteers see to the needs of some 10,000 families on a daily basis. “We cannot leave our people in distress,” the young man says with conviction.

“We have been keeping a strict eye on the relief camps organised by some jihadist outfits. We want to make sure they are not used for the recruitment of civilians for terrorist activities.” -- Akram Khan, a police inspector in Bannu
His passion is admirable, but the organisation he works for is dubious at best. Known simply as the Al-Rehmat Trust (ART), this charity group is widely considered a front for the outlawed Kashmir-based Jaish-e Mohammed (‘the army of Mohammed’ or JeM).

Banned in Pakistan since 2002, JeM is today a designated terrorist organisation, and stands accused of orchestrating the 2001 Indian Parliament attack.

Though the group itself has been lying low since 2003, its huge membership reveals itself during times of national crisis as efficient and well-endowed providers of relief.

“We were the first to start rescue efforts when a massive earthquake hit northern Pakistan in 2005,” Tufail tells IPS proudly. “Our volunteers rescued people from the debris and saved their lives.”

“I have devoted my own life to serve the people from this platform because ART serves people selflessly,” he says confidently.

It is this very gumption – expressed by scores of impressionable young people who serve these front groups – that have officials and law enforcement personnel extremely concerned about the influence of terrorist organisations during times of trouble.

“We have been keeping a strict eye on the relief camps organised by some jihadist outfits,” Akram Khan, a police inspector in Bannu, home to the majority of the IDPs, tells IPS. “We want to make sure they are not used for the recruitment of civilians for terrorist activities.”

Still, he is concerned that the sprawling camps, filled to beyond their capacity with desperate, vulnerable and traumatised civilians, provides a perfect recruiting ground for terrorists dressed as aid workers.

“The displaced are in need of monetary and social assistance”, which jihadist elements are more than willing to provide, he says.

“The nation is already experiencing hard times due to soaring terrorism – we can’t afford to allow militant groups to grow at the cost of displaced people,” he adds.

Yet this is exactly what appears to be happening, political analyst Dr. Khadim Hussain, chairman of the Baacha Khan Trust Education Foundation, tells IPS.

Besides JeM’s charity wing ART, the Jamat ud-Dawa (JuD), a missionary-style front group for the feared Lashkar-e-Taiba (‘army of the good’ or LeT) has also been active in relief efforts, rushing to the aid of those displaced by natural or man-made disasters, and winning the hearts of many who see the government’s emergency response as inadequate, he says.

The Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation (FIF), also believed to be a front group for the LeT, has been providing medicines and foodstuffs to thousands of families who don’t know where their next meal will come from.

“We were the first to reach Bannu and start relief work because we couldn’t bear to see our Muslim bretherin in crisis,” Muhammad Shafiq, a volunteer with ART, tells IPS.

Shaukat Ali Mahsud, a displaced man with a family of seven to care for, says he is “thankful to both the organisations for their sincerity and devotion”.

“These people are helping us. They are not terrorists, they are just very good Muslims,” he tells IPS, adding that he personally knows dozens of families who have received life-saving support from volunteers with one of the many groups believed to be charity wings for terrorist outfits.

“We will never forget their help in these trying times,” he asserts.

Government turns a blind eye

Several major players in the world of geopolitics – including India, the United States and the United Kingdom – have designated groups like JeM and LeT as “deadly terrorist organisations” and accused them of waging proxy wars in Indian-occupied Kashmir.

Due to heavy international pressure, both groups have been keeping a relatively low profile, but the massive humanitarian crisis caused by the government’s efforts to wipe out the Taliban from their mountainous stronghold on the Afghan border has brought JeM and LeT back into the limelight, Muhammad Shoaib, an analyst at the University of Peshawar, tells IPS.

“These outfits, with the help of the state, have carefully maintained their welfare wings to prove that they are more than just militant formations,” he states.

The allegation that major terrorist groups enjoy government support is not new, and takes on added weight during times of national crisis.

For instance, numerous secular NGOs eager to commence relief operations among the displaced have been unable to secure the required ‘No Objection Certificate’ (NOC), a document issued by the government as proof that a particular programme or activity is authorised by the state.

Jawadullah Shah, who heads the Rural Health Foundation, hasn’t been able to secure an NOC despite submitting an application to the government on Jun. 18. He says the delay is preventing his organisation from carrying out aid work.

On the other hand, he tells IPS, ART has been actively working with the affected populations without any hindrance.

“The government, as well as army officers, are extremely cooperative; it has been smooth sailing,” according to ART volunteer Shafiq.

Meanwhile, the JuD, which stands accused of orchestrating the 2013 attack on the Indian consulate in Jalalabad, western Afghanistan, is also extremely active in the aftermath of disasters, despite being branded a terrorist operation by the United Nations Security Council in 2008.

The Pakistan government says there is no evidence linking the group with terrorist activity.

“We are running hospitals, schools and colleges for the poor people in Pakistan,” Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, founder of the JuD who has been accused by the Indian government of plotting the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, tells IPS.

“Helping displaced people is our foremost duty. We sent relief goods worth over five million dollars to flood-hit areas of Pakistan 2010 and we have so far sent supplies worth two million dollars to Bannu,” he adds.

The FIF, believed to be closely aligned with the LeT and the JuD, is also playing a major role.

“We have deployed 500 volunteers to Bannu. We dispatch 10 trucks with relief goods almost every day,” FIF’s chairman Hafiz Abdur Rauf tells IPS.

Though the displaced are grateful for the assistance, experts and officials are determined to stamp out what they see as militant groups infiltrating vulnerable populations and recruiting foot soldiers from their midst.

Hussain, of the Baacha Khan Trust Education Foundation, does not mince his words when describing the systematic recruitment operation: “As we have witnessed during disasters like the earthquake in 2005, the military operation in Swat in 2009 and the floods in 2010, these groups use charity work to win the hearts and minds of Pakistani people by creating ‘soft corners’ of moral and economic assistance.”

Instead of allowing the radicalisation of displaced people, the government should be de-radicalising the militants to achieve lasting peace, he tells IPS.

The very simple and effective strategy pursued by militant groups must not be allowed to continue unchecked, he adds.

“The war against militants currently being waged in the northern province will be meaningless if other militant entities are allowed to grow with impunity at the same time,” Hussain concludes.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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India Stands Firm on Protecting Food Security of South at WTO http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/india-stands-firm-on-protecting-food-security-of-south-at-wto/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=india-stands-firm-on-protecting-food-security-of-south-at-wto http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/india-stands-firm-on-protecting-food-security-of-south-at-wto/#comments Fri, 01 Aug 2014 18:32:00 +0000 Ravi Kanth Devarakonda http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135879 By Ravi Kanth Devarakonda
GENEVA, Aug 1 2014 (IPS)

The failure of the two major players in global trade negotiations to bridge their differences has put paid to the adoption of the protocol of amendment for implementation of the contested Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) for the time being. 

India and the United States failed Thursday at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to reach agreement on construction of a legally binding decision on a “permanent peace clause” that would further strengthen what was decided for public distribution programmes for food security in developing countries at the ninth ministerial meeting in Bali, Indonesia, last year.New Delhi made its choice clear to Azevedo: either members [of the WTO] agree to a permanent solution for food security or postpone adoption of the TFA protocol until there are credible outcomes on all issues, by the end of the year.

The Bali decision on food security was one of the nine non-binding best endeavour outcomes agreed by trade ministers on agriculture and development.

For industrialised and leading economic tigers in the developing world, the TFA – which would harmonise customs procedures in the developing world on a par with the industrialised countries – is a major mechanism for market access into the developing and poorest countries.

WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo, who had put all his energies over the last seven months into ensuring the timely adoption of the TFA protocol by July 31 as set out in the Bali ministerial declaration, was clearly upset with the failure to adopt the protocol.

“The fact we do not have a conclusion means that we are entering a new phase in our work – a phase which strikes me as being full of uncertainties,” Azevedo told the delegates at the concluding session of the General Council, which is the highest WTO decision-taking body between ministerial meetings.

The Bail ministerial declaration was adopted at the WTO’s ninth ministerial meeting in December last year. It resulted in a binding multilateral agreement on trade facilitation along with non-binding outcomes on nine other decisions raised by developing and poorest countries, including an interim solution on public distribution programmes for food security.

The developing and poorest countries remained unhappy with the Bali package even though their trade ministers endorsed the deal. The countries of the South resented what they saw as the “foster parent treatment” accorded to their concerns in agriculture and development.

While work on clearing the way for the speedy implementation of the TFA has preceded at brisk pace at the WTO over the last seven months, other issues were somewhat neglected. Several African and South American countries, as well as India, remained unhappy with the lack of progress in issues concerning agriculture and development, particularly in public distribution programmes for food security.

Last week, India fired the first salvo at the WTO by declaring that unless there are “credible” outcomes in the development dossier of the Bali package, including a permanent solution for food security, it would not join the consensus to adopt the TFA. Bolivia, Venezuela and Cuba shared India’s concerns.

Despite concerted political lobbying by leading U.S. administration officials and envoys from Western countries in New Delhi to change its stand, the Indian government informed the WTO director-general Wednesday that it wanted a substantive outcome on food security, without which it would oppose the TFA protocol.

Without bringing India and the United States into a face-to-face dialogue at the WTO, Azevedo held talks with the representatives from the world’s two largest democracies in a one-on-one format.

According to sources familiar with the WTO’s closed-door consultations, Azevedo informed India that its demand for a substantive outcome on food security would not be acceptable to members because they would not approve “re-writing” the Bali ministerial declaration.

New Delhi made its choice clear to Azevedo: either members agree to a permanent solution for food security or postpone adoption of the TFA protocol until there are credible outcomes on all issues, by the end of the year.

“India’s position remains the same,” New Delhi trade minister Nirmala Sitharaman told reporters after a meeting with the U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker Thursday.

Given the importance of TFA for U.S. business interests, Washington yielded some ground by agreeing to a compromise, but the two sides were stuck on legal aspects, particularly on how this should be adopted at the General Council.

The result Thursday was that the differences between the two led to an adjournment of the General Council without the TFA protocol.

“We have not been able to find a solution that would allow us to bridge that gap,” the WTO director-general told members.  “We tried everything we could … but it has not proved possible,” Azevedo said.

“We are absolutely sad and disappointed that a very small handful of countries were unwilling to keep their commitments from the December conference in Bali and we agree with the director-general that the failure has put this institution on very uncertain ground,” U.S. deputy trade representative Ambassador Michael Punke told reporters.

Brazil’s trade envoy Marcos Galvao suggested that it would be possible to reinvigorate the talks despite the failure Thursday. “When we come back in September, we can come forward with the Bali package and the whole work programme,” Galvao told IPS.

In New Delhi, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said “our feeling is obviously that the agreement that was reached in Bali is an agreement that importantly can provide for food security for India.”

“We do not dismiss the concerns India has about large numbers of poor people who require some sort of food assurance and subsistence level, but we believe there’s a way to provide for that that keeps faith with the WTO Bali agreement,” Kerry maintained.

Credible and permanent rules for food security are vital for developing countries to continue with their public distribution programmes to address livelihood security.

“The programme enables governments in the developing countries to put more money in the hands of the poor farmers by buying their crops at stable and higher price, and use those government purchases to feed the hungry – many of those same farm families – with free or subsidised food distributions,” said Timothy A. Wise, an academic with the Global Development and Environment Institute at the U.S. Tufts University.

Several developing and poorest countries – Zambia, Ghana, Malawi, Senegal, Kenya, Nigeria, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Botswana, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Jordan, India, and Saudi Arabia – are currently implementing food security programmes for different food articles.

The Bali package involves nine issues in addition to the TFA and they need to be addressed “on an equal footing,” Nelson Ndirangu, Kenya’s senior trade official told IPS. “I’m sympathetic to India’s stand and I agree that all issues, including a permanent solution for food security, must be addressed along with the TFA,” said Ndirangu.

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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Nicaragua Pins Hopes for Progress on Grand Canal http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/nicaragua-pins-hopes-for-progress-on-grand-canal/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=nicaragua-pins-hopes-for-progress-on-grand-canal http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/nicaragua-pins-hopes-for-progress-on-grand-canal/#comments Fri, 01 Aug 2014 16:25:10 +0000 Jose Adan Silva http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135875 Three farmers study the route for the interoceanic canal on a map of Nicaragua, which the Chinese firm HKND Group presented in the southern city of Rivas during a meeting with people who will be affected by the mega-project. Credit: José Adán Silva/IPS

Three farmers study the route for the interoceanic canal on a map of Nicaragua, which the Chinese firm HKND Group presented in the southern city of Rivas during a meeting with people who will be affected by the mega-project. Credit: José Adán Silva/IPS

By José Adán Silva
MANAGUA, Aug 1 2014 (IPS)

Víctor Sánchez doesn’t want gold or the comfortable future income he was promised.

He just wants to live the life he has always lived on his farm along the Banks of the Las Lajas river – but the river is slated to become part of the route followed by the Nicaragua Interoceanic Grand Canal.

Sánchez, a 59-year-old small-scale farmer from the southwestern department or state of Rivas, told IPS that he isn’t familiar with the details of the mega-project that the government touts as the ticket for this country to lose its dubious status as the second-poorest in the Western Hemisphere, after Haiti.

He is worried that he will be removed from the land where he has always lived with his extended family, and that he won’t receive compensation for his property.

That’s what he told representatives of the HKND Group at a Jul. 15 meeting in the International University of Agriculture and Livestock in Rivas. HKND is the Hong Kong-based Chinese company that was granted the concession to build the canal.

The Chinese technicians, with the support of interpreters and Nicaraguan officials, provided details of the ambitious project to a local audience in the city of Rivas, the departmental capital, 110 km south of Managua.

The canal will connect the Pacific and Atlantic oceans by means of a 278 km waterway, which includes a 105 km stretch across Lake Cocibolca.

The numbers involved are impressive: the canal will cost 50 billion dollars to build and will be up to 520 metres wide, with a monimum depth of 27.6 metres and a maximum of 30 metres. An estimated 5,100 vessels a year will make the 30-hour crossing through the canal.

Pang Kwok Wai, assistant director of HKND’s department of construction management, explained that the work is set to begin in December in the municipality of Brito, in Rivas, on the Pacific coast.

The department will be split in half by the canal and part of the local population will be relocated.

The project will create a city of 140,000 people on the Pacific side of the country. A 29 sq km duty-free zone will also be established in Rivas, along with four tourist complexes, an international airport with warehouse capacity for thousands of tons of cargo, a deepwater port, giant bridges and other “sub-projects” in the terminology used by HKND.

In June 2013, the government of leftwing President Daniel Ortega granted the concession for HKND Group to build and run the canal for 50 years, extendable by another 50 years.

The government argues that the canal will definitively transform the economy of this Central American nation, where 42.5 percent of the population of 6.1 million lives in poverty and 70 percent of jobs are in the informal economy.

Telémaco Talavera, the president of the National Council of Universities and a member of the Special Commission for the Grand Canal, told IPS that to carry out the work, large industrial companies will be created that will require local labour power: 50,000 direct jobs during the construction phase and 200,000 permanent jobs after 2019, when the canal is to be completed.

HKND also announces the construction of new cement, steel, dynamite, asphalt, fuel and energy plants.

The Nicaraguan government estimates that as a result of the construction work, GDP growth will accelerate from the current four-five percent to 10.8 percent in 2014 and 15 percent in 2015.

The government projects that GDP will climb from 11.2 billion dollars to 24.7 billion dollars in 2018.

HKND Group, led by the mysterious Chinese businessman Wang Jing, has given the world the impression that the project is a sure thing, from its news releases.

But doubts about the company, and especially about the fund created to finance the canal, are far from being cleared up.

The company says it hired the China Railway Construction Corporation to carry out the technical feasibility studies, the U.S. McKinsey & Company for the information analysis and the UK-based Environmental Resources Management consultancy for the social and environmental impact assessments.

HKND technical experts have repeated in public and private meetings in Nicaragua and China that the company invited businesspeople from China, Russia, the UK, the United States, Germany, Belgium and Australia to support the project.

Hopes for the future…and doubts

The canal has raised hopes among thousands of Nicaraguans for a more prosperous future, according to two national surveys.

One of the pollsters, MyR Consultores, found in a July poll that 31.3 percent of respondents thought the canal would bring benefits to a smaller or greater extent.

Another survey, by the Americas Barometer of the Latin American Public Opinion Project at Vanderbilt University in the U.S., presented in Managua this month as well, found that 72.8 percent of those interviewed stressed the generation of jobs by the canal as a potential benefit.

But 43.4 percent of respondents were worried about the environmental effects that the project could have.

That fear is shared by dozens of environmentalists and non-governmental organisations, like the Nicaraguan Foundation for Sustainable Development, which under the leadership of biologist Jaime Incer, environmental adviser to the president of Nicaragua, is opposed to the construction work with the argument that it will irreversibly affect Lake Cocibolca.

The lake is the biggest in Latin America: 8,624 sq km of freshwater. According to the organisation’s estimates, the construction of the canal would affect 400,000 hectares of jungle and wetlands.

Incer told IPS that Nicaragua gave HKND authority over the lake and surrounding areas, which include more than 16 watersheds and 15 protected areas representing 25 percent of the country’s rainforest.

HKND Group has not yet completed its environmental impact studies. Nevertheless, it has already decided on the route to be followed by the canal, as well as the construction of a 400 sq km artificial lake and 41 giant deposits along the route to store the earth that is removed.

Another aspect criticised by opponents is the lack of transparency surrounding the project’s financing. Detractors have not received any response to their questions about who is financing the project and how they operate.

The company and its executives in Nicaragua, as well as the Nicaraguans in charge of the project, have avoided revealing the identity of their sources of financing.

“The fund is guaranteed, but it is confidential; these matters are business secrets, especially because of the companies that trade on the stock market,” said HKND’s Pang.

Talavera, with the Special Commission for the Grand Canal, told IPS that the important thing at this time is to explain to the population the reach of the mega-project and to guarantee that it brings benefits for the country. “The details about the financing will be provided when the time is right, if the financing partners decide on that,” he said.

The country’s refusal to reveal information about the partners and the origin of the funds has given rise to speculation. For example, opposition lawmaker Eliseo Núñez has insinuated that the Chinese government is behind the project – a suspicion that Wang Jing has consistently denied.

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How Farming is Making Côte d’Ivoire’s Prisoners ‘Feel Like Being Human Again’ http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/how-farming-in-making-cote-divoires-prisoners-feel-like-being-human-again/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=how-farming-in-making-cote-divoires-prisoners-feel-like-being-human-again http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/how-farming-in-making-cote-divoires-prisoners-feel-like-being-human-again/#comments Fri, 01 Aug 2014 10:11:39 +0000 Marc-Andre Boisvert http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135863 Prisoners at Saliakro Prison Farm in Côte d’Ivoire. Prisoners, who were selected on account that they are non-violent and condemned for short and medium term sentences, have a relative freedom to move within the gated farm. Credit: Marc-André Boisvert/IPS

Prisoners at Saliakro Prison Farm in Côte d’Ivoire. Prisoners, who were selected on account that they are non-violent and condemned for short and medium term sentences, have a relative freedom to move within the gated farm. Credit: Marc-André Boisvert/IPS

By Marc-Andre Boisvert
SALIAKRO/ABDIJAN, Côte d’Ivoire, Aug 1 2014 (IPS)

François Kouamé, prisoner Number 67, proudly shows off a sow and her four piglets. Dressed in his rubber boots, he passes by two new tractors as he happily makes his way to a field where pretty soon cassava and corn plants will start growing. “Look at those sprouts. It is a lot of work!”

Being imprisoned in one of the world’s most impoverished country’s is far from an easy ride. But Ivorian authorities are searching for alternatives to the overcrowded prisons and malnourished prisoners here. And they just may have found the answer — in a farm.

The Saliakro Prison Farm, where Kouamé is currently serving out the remainder of his one-year prison sentence, is the first of its kind in Côte d’Ivoire. He was one of the first detainees to be sent here in December 2013.

The 21 buildings on the farm, built on a former summer camp, are to provide accommodation for 150 prisoners who have been sentenced for less than three years for non-violent crimes. Here they will learn new skills in farming.“Our objective is truly to make prison time an opportunity for a sustainable change in life.” -- Bernard Aurenche, country representative of Prisoners Without Borders

For Kouamé, being on a farm is a relief compared to the six months he spent in Soubré State Prison for cutting trees in a neighbouring cocoa plantation.

“We were sleeping four persons in a space that could contain only one person. And we were granted only a bowl of rice per day,” says the young man.

Now he eats three meals a day, and stays in a clean room with 16 other prisoners. Each man has his own bunk bed, a closet and plenty of space to move about in.

Mamadou Doumbia, 32, is serving a two-year sentence for stealing computers. The quiet and articulate man is relieved to be on the farm. He spent 11 months in Agboville prison, in Agnéby Region close to Abidjan, the country’s economic capital.

He reveals a dark portrait of life in Agboville prison. Rape, malnutrition and pests are some of the many things he says he witnessed.

“I feel like being human again,” he tells IPS.

Though life on the farm is no vacation. Inmates must wake up at 5:30 am and be ready for work no later than 7am. They work till 3pm, only taking a short break for lunch. Evenings are their own to do with as they will, but they have to be in their dormitories by 9pm.

Through the Saliakro project, Ivorian authorities and backers hope to improve inmate conditions, reduce costs and help reintegration.

Overpopulation and malnutrition

Côte d’Ivoire has relatively modern prison facilities compared to the rest of West Africa, where most countries have not invested in new prisons since the 1970s. In neighbouring Ghana, the Jamestown Colonial fort only ceased to be used as a penitential facility in 2008.

In Guinea-Bissau, the country had to wait for the United Nations to build a prison in order to stop cramming prisoners into what is now a beautiful colonial house, renamed Casa dos Direitos or the House of Human rights. Mali, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia all have overcrowded prisons dating back to the 1960s.

Still, Ivorian prisons were planned for another era. In the Abidjan Detention and Correction Centre, known by its French acronym MACA, overpopulation is an understatement. The building, conceived in the 1980s for 1,500 prisoners now has a population of over 5,000.

“Hygiene is very difficult. There are frequent water disruptions,” Jean a prisoner at MACA, who prefers to remain anonymous as prisoners are not allowed to speak to journalists, tells IPS over the phone.

And now, even if the government and international donors start to reopen detention centres in the north, closed by a decade of de facto separation with the south, congestion in state prisons remain dire.

The prison in Man, a town in west Côte d’Ivoire, holds several perpetrators of the 2010-2011 post-electoral crisis that resulted in over 3,000 deaths.

While it has been renovated in the last year, newer does not mean less crowded. It was built to hold only 300 inmates but it currently holds twice as many. Didier, who is awaiting trial in Man Prison, says the basic meals of rice have left him hungry. “We don’t [get to] eat three meals. Most of the time we eat only once,” he tells IPS over the phone.

In May, five prisoners from Man died and several others were hospitalised. Dr. Viviane Lawson Kiniffo, the prison’s doctor, told Ivorian media that promiscuity, malnutrition and hygiene were big issues.

Self-sufficiency and reintegration

Back in Saliakro, Justice Minister Gnenema Coulibaly inaugurates Côte d’Ivoire’s first prison farm in front a selected group of VIPs. “More farm prisons will soon be open,” he says.

Coulibaly has several reasons to be satisfied. Aside from improving inmate’s living conditions, once fully functional, Saliakro Prison Farm will relieve prison budgets by several hundred dollars as, besides feeding its own prisoners, it will produce enough to make a profit from selling produce on local markets.

But the 450 hectares of are not only there to deliver a relief to state budget.

“It is more than about feeding themselves. It is also about getting those prisoners back to a normal life. It is about learning new skills and being able to reintegrate and participate fully in society,” Saliakro’s superintendent, Pinguissie Ouattara, tells IPS. “This is about bringing an alternative to crime, and decreasing the crime rate.”

Saliakro is not on any map: this town does not exist. But it is the contraction of Kro, which means “village” in the local Baoule language and “Salia”, the first name of former superintendent Salia Ouattara who died in 2007.

“Our objective is truly to make prison time an opportunity for a sustainable change in life,” Bernard Aurenche, country representative of Prisoners Without Borders, a French NGO, tells IPS.

He explains that the 150 prisoners are backed by trained agronomists. Participants in the project will deepen their agricultural knowledge and will be paid 300 CFA (about 70 cents) per day for work.

“This will allow them to collect money to grow their own crops once they leave. It is also about reinsertion into real life. And getting confidence.”

One of the tractors that Prisoners Without Borders has bought for the Saliakro Farm project in Côte d’Ivoire. Learning to use modern machinery was an important step in the programme. Credit: Marc-André Boisvert/IPS

One of the tractors that Prisoners Without Borders has bought for the Saliakro Farm project in Côte d’Ivoire. Learning to use modern machinery was an important step in the programme. Credit: Marc-André Boisvert/IPS

Kouamé is more realistic. He was a farmer before, but tells IPS that he has learned much from the agronomists here. “I have learnt here many things that will make my farm more profitable, notably by diversifying production.”

But the road is still bumpy. Funding, which has been provided by the European Union, now needs to be secured for a longer term. And still, a better selection process of prisoners needs to be found as, so far, selection of participants was not based on any clear criteria.

But prison superintendent Ouattara, who also manages the Dimbokro Prison a few kilometres from Saliakro, is positive.

“It is the beginning. We will need to adjust. But we strongly believe that there will be a positive outcome for those men. Much more than leaving them by themselves doing nothing.”

Edited by: Nalisha Adams

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Politics Complicates Education in Lebanon’s Refugee Camps http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/politics-complicates-education-in-lebanons-refugee-camps/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=politics-complicates-education-in-lebanons-refugee-camps http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/politics-complicates-education-in-lebanons-refugee-camps/#comments Fri, 01 Aug 2014 09:20:38 +0000 Shelly Kittleson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135870 Syrian refugee schoolchildren being taught in the Shatila Palestinian refugee camp. Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS

Syrian refugee schoolchildren being taught in the Shatila Palestinian refugee camp. Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS

By Shelly Kittleson
BEIRUT, Aug 1 2014 (IPS)

The Shatila Palestinian camp has no library, nor does adjacent Sabra or Ain El-Hilweh in the south. And, after recent statements by Lebanon’s foreign minister, some fear that the thousands of Syrian refugee children within them will soon have even slimmer chances of learning to read and write.

The United Nations stated earlier last month that Syrian refugees would total over one-third of Lebanon’s population by the end of 2014, and that at least 300,000 refugee children were not enrolled in school.

In early July, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said that no assistance should be given to Syrian refugees as “all this aid – be it food, shelter or health care – encourages Syrian refugees to stay in Lebanon, while what we want is to encourage their speedy exit.”“The overcrowded breezeblock camps are filled with school-age children from across the [Lebanese-Syrian] border, suffering from psychosocial disorders, nutritional problems and limited possibilities for enrolling in Lebanese educational institutes

During his time as energy minister in the previous government, Bassil had said that Syrians should be seen as a “threat to the safety, economy and identity of the country.”

Tangled electrical wires droop dangerously low and posters of Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad are prominent alongside those of Palestinian ‘resistance’ leaders and ‘martyrs’ in the Lebanese capital’s camps, where refugees are said to have initially been welcomed.

Lebanon’s security forces do not enter the 12 officially registered Palestinian camps in the country despite withdrawal from a 1969 agreement granting the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) control over them.

Several Syrians told IPS they feel more comfortable there than they would in areas controlled by Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside the Syrian regime and whose political wing is part of the government.

With 10,000-20,000 having arrived since the conflict began, refugees from Syria now outnumber the original inhabitants of Beirut’s Shatila camp, set up in 1949 to shelter stateless Palestinians.

The overcrowded breezeblock camps are filled with school-age children from across the border, suffering from psychosocial disorders, nutritional problems and limited possibilities for enrolling in Lebanese educational institutes.

There than the capacity of the public school system capacity, the most obvious hurdle for refugee children, says Fadi Hallisso, co-founder and general manager of the Syrian-run NGO Basmeh & Zeitooneh which works in the camp, is that Syrian public schools teach in Arabic while their Lebanese counterparts use either French or English.

Destitute or missing parents leading to the need to work or beg to survive, transport costs and war-induced trauma are other factors at play, and the problem is compounded by nutritional deficiencies.

A UNICEF study found earlier this year that severe acute malnutrition had doubled in certain parts of the country between 2012 and 2013. It noted that almost 2,000 children under the age of five were at risk of dying if they did not receive immediate treatment, while even milder states of malnutrition stunt children’s physical and mental growth.

Basmeh & Zeitooneh has set up a school in Shatila for about 300 students using the Lebanese curriculum taught by Syrians and Palestinians, who are paid between 400 and 700 dollars a month, according to Hallisso, “which no Lebanese teacher would be willing to work for.”

The facilities have been newly renovated and are in a building with a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) clinic and dispensary on the second floor.

The organisation is trying to get funding for a small library where the children can come, read, consult reference works, use computers and find a space open to them with generator-powered electricity.

Maria Minkara, who works with Hallisso, told IPS that it would be open to both Palestinian and Syrian schoolchildren and that not a single library exists in the entire area housing tens of thousands of inhabitants.

Many of the children, she noted, live in dark, unhealthy environments, cut off from the power grid with no physical space in which to study. A walk through the crowded camps makes this obvious.

The Joint Christian Committee for Social Service in Lebanon, another organisation working with refugees, recently succeeded in obtaining permission for about 120 Syrian refugee children from its school in the Ain El-Hilweh camp near Sidon to return to Damascus for their 9th grade and Baccalaureate exams, Executive Director Sylvia Haddad told IPS. Over 83 percent of them passed, she said.

Haddad admitted that several students’ families had refused to allow their children to go back to Syria out of fear of the regime, but said that “’they are regretting that decision very much now.”

Stressing that all politics and religion were kept out of the instruction of refugee children, Haddad said that questions on the curriculum being used by the group were referred to Abu Hassan, a Palestinian inhabitant of the camp who in the manner of militia fighters in the region uses an alias preceded by ‘Abu’ (‘father of’).

Abu Hassan said he had fought in the Palestinian ‘resistance’ in the past but declined to say with which faction, and denied that any pro-regime rhetoric was contained in the textbooks.

Abu Hassan was allowed to accompany the students to Damascus and back, but recent changes in Lebanese law make it harder for Palestinians fleeing Syria to enter Lebanon. Amnesty International published a report last month denouncing the restrictions, which require ‘pre-authorisation’ from the government or a residency permit.

Regulations regarding Syrian refugees also changed at the beginning of June, limiting entry to those coming from areas near the Lebanese border where fighting is under way and stipulating that refugees who cross back into Syria forfeit the right to return.

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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Time Running Out for Refugees Seeking Asylum in Italy http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/time-running-out-for-refugees-seeking-asylum-in-italy/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=time-running-out-for-refugees-seeking-asylum-in-italy http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/time-running-out-for-refugees-seeking-asylum-in-italy/#comments Fri, 01 Aug 2014 07:54:38 +0000 Silvia Giannelli http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135865 Group of asylum seekers in Casoli, near Bagni di Lucca, Italy. Credit: Silvia Giannelli/IPS

Group of asylum seekers in Casoli, near Bagni di Lucca, Italy. Credit: Silvia Giannelli/IPS

By Silvia Giannelli
LUCCA, Italy, Aug 1 2014 (IPS)

His journey started four years ago in Conakry, Guinea. Now that Mamoudou* has finally reached Italy, he hopes this will be his final stop.

When he first left his home, his plan was to stay in Libya, but after the 2011 crisis, when Gaddafi’s government was overthrown, life in the country became very hard for migrants. “I was jailed 28 times, and tortured,” he told IPS, “so I decided to come to Italy, because it’s a democracy and I hope I will have a peaceful and secure life here.”

Together with 13 other asylum seekers from Mali, Pakistan and Bangladesh, Mamoudou is now living in a tiny village in the Tuscan mountains, where the ‘Partecipazione e Sviluppo’ association is taking care of his application.“While trying to look at tackling the root causes [of migration] in economic disparity may be a laudable objective, it is not going to make a difference any time soon […] Without an effective rescue response people are going to drown, and they have drowned, and more will drown” – Benjamin Ward, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch

They all arrived between April and June from Libya, where they had migrated to escape conflicts and hunger and it is now painful for them to recall how their voyage took. “

In order to smuggle me to the Libyan coast, they put me in the boot of a car,” says Mamoudou. “I don’t know how many hours I spent there and what day I left Libya, but my registration documents say I arrived in Sicily on April 11. “

He paid the equivalent of 1,000 dollars to human traffickers to share a boat with 80 people and no skipper. “They told us where the North was and that we should have taken turns steering. When the Italian Navy found us, we had no idea where we were and the boat was already sinking.”

Since the tragedy off the Italian island of Lampedusa, which left more than 350 migrants dead in October last year, the Italian authorities have started a rescue operation called ‘Mare Nostrum’ (Our Sea). Mamoudou is one of the more than 80,000 migrants that have been saved since the operation started, winning appreciation from human rights NGOs and European Union authorities.

“Mare Nostrum is extremely important because it has saved many lives,” Benjamin Ward, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch, told IPS. “We think it is something that needs to continue and we are among other groups calling for the European Union to respond positively to Italy’s call for European support for the operations”.

Given the high costs of the operations – about 9.3 million euro a month, according to Italian Navy – the Italian Minister of the Interior, Angelino Alfano, who is also leader of the New Centre Right (NCD) party, has stressed on several occasions the need for Frontex, the European Union border management agency, to take over Mare Nostrum.

“Mare Nostrum was set up as an emergency operation. It can’t last forever,” the minister told G6 interior ministers in Barcelona in June. ”Europe must replace Italy in this effort, and Italy will continue to make its contribution,” he added.

“Europe must come up with a clear strategy to regulate the flow of migrants. The Mediterranean that unites us is a European sea. It does not just belong to Italy, Spain, or any of the other countries that look onto this extraordinary body of water,” said the minister.

Yet, the answer of the European Commission leaves little room for negotiation. “Mare Nostrum is a very broad and expensive operation and Frontex is a small agency, it cannot take over Mare Nostrum,” Michele Cercone, spokesperson for EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström, explained to IPS. “Of course Frontex can and will contribute and can do a lot, but we don’t have the means to totally substitute it.”

Despite the widespread approval that the Italian rescue operation enjoys, Italian right-wing party Northern League has been calling for its termination since its early stages. “The only real outcome of Mare Nostrum is the favour we make to the traffickers, who can now leave tens of thousands of people at risk of dying, because they know the Navy will come and rescue them,” Massimiliano Fedriga, party leader in the Chamber of Deputies, told IPS.

“The only real solution is to have EU observatories in the North African countries to verify who has the right to receive asylum, which must be a European asylum and not the asylum of a single country. The others, the illegal migrants, who are the majority, should not come and must not come to our country,” he concluded.

Yet, in April Alfano had already said that “immigration is deeply changing profile […] there are increasingly more asylum seekers than economic migrants.”

Riccardo Noury, communications director of Amnesty International Italy, confirmed. “The migrants who arrive, when they manage to survive, at the European border, which is often the Italian and the Greek border, are mostly people who would have the right to asylum or other types of international protection,” he told IPS.

Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch seem to be mostly concerned by Europe resistance to changing its approach towards migration.

“Obviously there are other aspects like border enforcement, like taking action against dangerous smuggling, which are important and need to continue, but we do think that saving lives should be the top priority,” said Ward.

“While trying to look at tackling the root causes in economic disparity may be a laudable objective, it is not going to make a difference any time soon […] Without an effective rescue response people are going to drown, and they have drowned, and more will drown. That in our view is something that has to be engaged. The European Union can’t simply say that it’s Italy’s mess to fix,” he added.

According to Noury, there are several reasons why Italy’s requests have not been heard.

“In the past years, Italy has lost the chance to show credible policies while asking for Europe’s support. We have been the country of push-backs, the country that threatened to release fake residence permits during the 2011 crisis to allow migrants to cross the Italian Northern border… we haven’t been a reliable partner when it came to reform the EU’s migration policies,”  the Amnesty International spokesperson commented.

“But we now have another opportunity, with the EU presidency [which Italy assumed for a six-month period at the beginning of July], to assume a leadership role.”

If Italy fails to obtain strategic and financial support from the European Union, it will be soon forced to scale down or discontinue its rescue operations. One year after the Lampedusa tragedy, exactly same conditions might be in place, and the consequences could be deadly once again.

(Edited by Phil Harris)

 * Name changed to protect his identity.

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Laws that Kill Protesters in Mexico http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/laws-that-kill-protesters-in-mexico/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=laws-that-kill-protesters-in-mexico http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/laws-that-kill-protesters-in-mexico/#comments Thu, 31 Jul 2014 22:34:02 +0000 Daniela Pastrana http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135859 Students from the high school attended by José Luis Alberto Tehuatlie, during the boy’s Jul. 22 funeral in the town of San Bernardino Chalchihuapan, in the Mexican state of Puebla. Credit: Daniela Pastrana /IPS

Students from the high school attended by José Luis Alberto Tehuatlie, during the boy’s Jul. 22 funeral in the town of San Bernardino Chalchihuapan, in the Mexican state of Puebla. Credit: Daniela Pastrana /IPS

By Daniela Pastrana
SAN BERNARDINO CHALCHIHUAPAN, Mexico , Jul 31 2014 (IPS)

People in this town in the central Mexican state of Puebla found out the hard way that protesting can be deadly.

A new law passed in Puebla makes it possible for police to use firearms or deadly force to break up demonstrations.

Local inhabitants felt the impact of the measure during a harsh crackdown on a protest against another law that they say undermines their autonomy.

A dead 13-year-old boy, another who lost three fingers, a third with a broken jaw and teeth knocked out, a driver who lost an eye, and 37 others injured by beatings and tear gas were the price this Nahua indigenous town of 3,900 people paid for blocking a road to demand the repeal of a state law that transferred responsibility over civil registries from local community authorities to the municipalities.

“It’s not fair that they attack the people like this just because we are asking that our community life, our authorities, be respected,” Vianey Varela, a first year high school student, told IPS.

On Jul. 9, when local residents blocked the Puebla-Atlixco highway some 150 km from Mexico City, the state police first used the powers given to them by the Law to Protect Human Rights and Regulate the Legitimate Use of Force by the police, which the state legislature passed in May.

The “Ley Bala” or Bullet Law, as it was dubbed by journalists, allows Puebla state police to use firearms as well as “non-lethal weapons” to break up “violent” protests and during emergencies and natural disasters.

The roadblock was mounted to protest another state law approved in May, which took away from the local authorities the function of civil registry judges or clerks and put it in the hands of the municipal governments.Since May, in at least 190 villages and towns in the state, no one has been born, no one has died, and no one has been married – at least officially, because there are no records.

As a result, since May, in at least 190 villages and towns in the state, no one has been born, no one has died, and no one has been married – at least officially, because there are no records.

Javier Montes told IPS that he became “presidente auxiliar”- a post just under mayor – of San Bernardino Chalchihuapan in May, but added that “I still haven’t signed a thing. The archives are in our care, but we don’t have stamps or the necessary papers. And in the municipal presidency [mayor’s office] they don’t know what to do, so in the meantime nothing is being registered.”

“We sent letters to all the authorities,” said Montes, who has received anonymous threats for speaking out. “They never responded. When the ink and paper ran out, and our fingers were worn out from so much typing, we went out to protest and this is what happened.”

The town is in the municipality of Ocoyucan and the local inhabitants belong to the Nahua indigenous community. According to the latest estimates by the government’s National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples, the native population of Puebla is one million people – one quarter of the state’s total population.

In Mexico’s municipalities there is a “presidente” or mayor, and “presidentes auxiliares”, who are the highest level authorities in the communities, many of which are remote and located far from the seat of the municipal government.

The presidentes auxiliares name the police chief and run the town. And up to May they were also the civil registry judges or clerks..

They are directly elected by local voters without participation by the political parties, and they tend to be highly respected local leaders who are close to the people.

In the Jul. 9 police crackdown, 13-year-old José Luis Alberto Tehuatlie was hit by a rubber bullet in the head and died after 10 days in coma.

The Puebla state government initially denied that rubber bullets had been used. But the public outrage over the boy’s death forced Governor Rafael Moreno to announce that he would repeal the law.

Puebla is not the only place in Mexico where there have been attempts to regulate public protests. In the last year, the legislatures of five states have discussed similar bills.

The first was, paradoxically, the Federal District, in Mexico City, which has been governed by the leftwing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) since 1997.

In the capital street protests are a daily occurrence, but since the very day that Enrique Peña Nieto was sworn in as president, on Dec. 1, 2012, demonstrations and marches have frequently turned violent.

A Federal District bill on public demonstrations, introduced in December 2013 by lawmakers from the rightwing opposition National Action Party, failed to prosper.

In April, the southeastern state of Quintana Roo, ruled by the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), became the first part of Mexico to regulate protests.

A state law, the “Ley de Ordenamiento Cívico”, known as the “anti-protest law,” is a toned-down version of another initiative that would have required demonstrators to apply for a permit to protest at least 48 hours ahead of time.

But the law maintains the ban on roadblocks and allows the police “to take pertinent measures” against demonstrators.

Other initiatives to regulate and allow the “legitimate use of force” have been adopted in the states of San Luis Potosí and Chiapas.

Global rights groups like Article 19 and Amnesty International have spoken out strongly against these laws aimed at regulating demonstrations, pointing to a worrisome tendency towards the criminalisation of social protests in Mexico since 2012.

But the governmental National Human Rights Commission has failed to make use of its legal powers to promote legal action challenging the anti-protest initiatives as unconstitutional.

On the contrary, in October 2013 it recommended that the Senate amend article 9 of the constitution referring to the freedom to hold public demonstrations and to the use of public force.

The Jul. 9 protest was not the first time rubber bullets have been used in Puebla.

Just hours before Tehuatlie’s death was confirmed, the Puebla state secretary of public security, Facundo Rosas, showed a document from the secretariat of national defence which indicated that the government had not purchased rubber bullets under the current administration.

However, in December 2011 the state human rights commission rebuked the Puebla police chief for the use of rubber bullets to evict local residents of the community of Ciénega Larga, when 70-year-old Artemia León was injured, as reported by the Eje Central online news site.

It became clear in conversations that IPS held with people in San Bernardino Chalchihuapan that they are very angry. Hundreds of people attended the boy’s funeral, on Jul. 22, where many of them called for the governor’s resignation.

“Why doesn’t he try the rubber bullets on his own kids,” said one man after the funeral, which was attended by some 40 “presidentes auxiliares” from other communities.

So far no one has been held accountable for the boy’s death.

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Human Rights Low on U.S-Africa Policy Summit http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/human-rights-low-on-u-s-africa-policy-summit/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=human-rights-low-on-u-s-africa-policy-summit http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/human-rights-low-on-u-s-africa-policy-summit/#comments Thu, 31 Jul 2014 15:38:37 +0000 Julia Hotz http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135855 LGBT activists, human rights observers and police officers wait outside a courtroom in Uganda's constitutional court on Jun 25, 2012. Four activists had brought a case against Minister of State for Ethics and Integrity Simon Lokodo. Credit: Will Boase/IPS

LGBT activists, human rights observers and police officers wait outside a courtroom in Uganda's constitutional court on Jun 25, 2012. Four activists had brought a case against Minister of State for Ethics and Integrity Simon Lokodo. Credit: Will Boase/IPS

By Julia Hotz
WASHINGTON, Jul 31 2014 (IPS)

As the White House prepares to host more than 40 African heads of state for the upcoming U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, civil society actors from the U.S., Africa and the international community are urging the Barack Obama administration to use the summit as an opportunity to more thoroughly address some of Africa’s most pressing human rights violations.

“While President Obama has unveiled specific initiatives to strengthen U.S. development work on the continent and connect it to core national security objectives, he has not done the same for human rights and the rule of law,” Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch,  said in the group’s 2014 Human Rights in Africa report.“Evangelical extremists from the U.S. have contributed to making society more dangerous than it ever was before." -- Richard Lusimbo

Although the policy agenda for next week’s summit has received praise for its proactive stance on energy, security and economic development, human rights advocates from both Africa and the U.S. are specifically condemning the agenda’s lack of concern over two critical humanitarian issues: freedom of expression and rights for the LGBT community.

“On the two issues we’re discussing today, the administration should be more straightforward, open and critical about these issues occurring in many countries in Africa,” Santiago A. Canton, director of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights, an advocacy group here, told IPS.

Canton spoke Wednesday about these issues alongside fellow human rights advocates, as well as African journalists and LGBT activists, who collectively agreed that the current state of both press freedom and LGBT equality across Africa is “unacceptable.”

“Right that leads to other rights”

Citing terrorism laws, access to funding, and discrimination against independent media  as some of Africa’s  main obstacles to free expression, Wednesday’s panel spoke first and foremost about the need for press freedom to be recognised as not only a human right, but also as a key factor in development.

“This is a right that leads to other rights,” Frank La Rue, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, said Wednesday.

Within his plea for governments to take a more active stance on freedom of expression and provide for more internet access, La Rue stated that 90 percent of young men in rural Africa already know how to use the internet, while 90 percent of rural women, who tend to be forbidden from the cyber cafes where such knowledge circulates, do not.

“If not everyone is convinced that freedom of expression and access to technologies are important development goals, then we cannot talk about things like education and access to health, especially women’s health…we need to first allow access to information,” he said.

In addition to urging that such freedoms be integrated into the next set of Sustainable Development Goals, La Rue has requested that the U.N. hire more legal and communications personnel to defend freedom of expression, adding that the understaffed office receives up to 25 cases per day.

Yet for Wael Abbas, a prominent Egyptian journalist, blogger and human rights activist, the blame rests primarily on the U.S. government alone.

“Egypt is the biggest country that receives U.S. aid – some in military, some in development – but if Egypt is  a dictatorship, and there is no regulation of how this money is being spent, than the U.S. is just bribing a corrupt regime and dumping huge amounts of money into the ocean,” Abbas told IPS.

Explaining how the Egyptian state is “waging a war against [independent journalists] and trying to destroy [their] credibility and presence,” Abbas argues that independent journalists like himself, who show “what is really going on in Egypt,” need assistance and attention paid to the fact that most media outlets are owned by corrupt businessmen.

Arthur Gwagwa, a Zimbabwean human rights defender and freedom of expression advocate, agrees that the U.S. should take more initiative in protecting freedom of expression and ensuring governmental compliance in Africa, informing IPS of a set of policy recommendations to address at next week’s summit.

A fundamental, not special, human right

Related to this call for a greater focus on freedom of expression in the press is the need for a more active U.S. role in protecting Africans’ freedom of sexual expression and identity.

“This is a time that we have to think about how we’re addressing sexual minorities’ rights overseas,” Kerry Kennedy, president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, said in Wednesday’s discussion.

Citing Africa’s passage of an anti-gay law and the recent comment by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni that “gays are disgusting,” Kennedy expressed disappointment that there has been “no real pushback” from the U.S. on LGBT rights in Africa. She said a concerted U.S. effort “could have helped a lot,” and that there are now many LGBT individuals in Africa who are afraid to attend HIV clinics for treatment.

Tom Malinowski, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labour, considers such discrimination to be ironic on a continent that is diverse as Africa.

He spoke of the challenges posed by authoritarian leaders, both in Africa and around the world, who have called LGBT equality part of a “Western sexual agenda,” and believes it is extremely important for not only governments, but also artists, celebrities and business leaders, to challenge such a characterisation.

“This is a fundamental human right, not a special human right…everyone has the right to not be persecuted for who we are as human beings,” Malinowski said.

Lip service?

In addition to Kennedy’s suggestion that the U.S. pass legislation to create a special envoy for LGBT rights, Malinowski is calling on his government to provide “direct assistance” to people, such as doctors and lawyers, who serve on “the front line of the struggle,” and to continue to put LGBT equality “front and centre” in its diplomatic engagements.

Yet HRW’s Sarah Margon warns that the U.S. has sent “mixed signals” on this issue, and suggests that that the U.S. government is “simply paying lip service to human rights.”

Indeed, Richard Lusimbo, representative of Sexual Minorities Uganda, has similarly urged the U.S. to speak out more strongly, calling on Washington to “hold homophobic people responsible” for the subsequent discrimination in Africa.

“Evangelical extremists from the U.S. have contributed to making society more dangerous than it ever was before…and because we have no opportunities to go to radio and TV to show our side of the story, it makes things very difficult,” he noted.

Edited by: Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at hotzj@union.edu

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Cash Transfers Drive Human Development in Brazil http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/cash-transfers-drive-human-development-in-brazil/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=cash-transfers-drive-human-development-in-brazil http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/cash-transfers-drive-human-development-in-brazil/#comments Thu, 31 Jul 2014 13:49:41 +0000 Fabiola Ortiz http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135850 The Morro de Vidigal favela in Río de Janeiro. Credit: Agência Brasil/EBC

The Morro de Vidigal favela in Río de Janeiro. Credit: Agência Brasil/EBC

By Fabiola Ortiz
RIO DE JANEIRO, Jul 31 2014 (IPS)

Every day, Celina Maria de Souza rises before dawn, and after taking four of her children to the nearby school she climbs down the 180 steps that separate her home on a steep hill from the flat part of this Brazilian city, to go to her job as a domestic. In the evening she makes the long trek back up.

For 25 years, Souza has lived at the top of the Morro Vidigal favela or shantytown, located in the middle of one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in Rio de Janeiro.

In this favela, home to some 10,000 people, the houses, many built by the families themselves, are squashed between the sea and a mountain.

Originally from Ubaitaba, a town in the northeast state of Bahia1,000 km north of Rio de Janeiro, Souza, 44, left her family when she was just 17 to follow her dream of a better life in the big city.

She was part of the decades-long massive wave of people fleeing drought in the impoverished Northeast to make a living in the more industrialised south.

“I’m tired of living in the favela,” she complained to IPS. “I dream of one day having a house with a room for each of my kids. I tell them to be responsible and to study so they won’t suffer later. I wish I could go back to school, but it’s hard for me to find the time.”

Souza, a mother of six children between the ages of 12 and 23 – the oldest two have moved out – has a monthly income of around 450 dollars a month.“This money helps me a lot. They criticise it, saying it’s charity, but I don’t see it like that. You have to work too. With the Bolsa money, I buy school supplies, food, and clothes and shoes for my children. It doesn’t cover everything, but it’s a huge help.” - Celina Maria de Souza

Nearly half of that comes from Bolsa Familia, a cash transfer programme created by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2010) when he first became president and continued by his successor Dilma Rousseff.

In 2013 Bolsa Familia reached its 10th anniversary as the leading social programme in this country of 200 million people.

It benefits 13.8 million families, equivalent to 50 million individuals – precisely the number of people who have been pulled out of extreme poverty over the last decade.

But 21.1 million Brazilians are still extremely poor, according to the latest official figures, from 2012.

The International Social Security Association (ISSA), based in Switzerland, granted a prize to Bolsa Familia in October for its contribution to the fight against poverty and support for the rights of the most vulnerable.

According to ISSA, it is the world’s largest cash transfer scheme, with a cost of just 0.5 percent of Brazil’s GDP. The programme’s 2013 budget was 10.7 billion dollars, and it is currently part of the Brasil Sem Miséria (Brazil Without Poverty) umbrella programme.

“I had heard of it and they told me it was a subsidy that the government gave kids who were enrolled in school and vaccinated regularly. We were really doing badly, we didn’t even have enough to eat,” Souza said.

For over a decade, her children have benefited from Bolsa Familia. The family initially received a total of just 40 dollars, but the amount has steadily increased. Souza, who has been married twice, has raised her children alone since breaking up with her second husband.

“This money helps me a lot,” she said. “They criticise it, saying it’s charity, but I don’t see it like that. You have to work too. With the Bolsa money, I buy school supplies, food, and clothes and shoes for my children. It doesn’t cover everything, but it’s a huge help.”

Souza hasn’t forgotten the days when she went hungry, or the occasional nights when she had no roof over her head – both she and her two older children, when she separated from her first husband. “I told my children: eat, because just seeing you get some food nourishes me,” she said. Now she and the four children still at home live in a crowded two-room house.

The residents of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, many of which are built on steep hillsides, climb up and down long stairways every day like this one in the Pavão-Pavãozinho favela. Credit: Fabíola Ortiz/IPS

The residents of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, many of which are built on steep hillsides, climb up and down long stairways every day like this one in the Pavão-Pavãozinho favela. Credit: Fabíola Ortiz/IPS

Souza, who had very little formal schooling, works mainly in the informal sector, although when she first came to the city she found a job in a women’s accessories factory. She is constantly battling poverty, and hopes that her children will have better opportunities.

She is one of the innumerable examples of Brazilians who are trying to improve the lives of their families, while this country attempts to revert years of neglect and a historical lag in human development.

Thanks to this effort, South America’s giant has moved up on the Human Development Index (HDI).

In the latest HDI report, released by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Jul. 24, Brazil ranked 79 among the 187 countries covered.

But in Latin America, Brazil is behind Chile (41), Cuba (44), Argentina (49), Uruguay (50), Panama (65), Venezuela (67), Costa Rica (68) and Mexico (71).

Andréa Bolzon, coordinator of the Atlas of Human Development in Brazil, told IPS that the country has made significant progress in the last 20 years.

The Atlas draws up Brazil’s contribution to the Human Development Report, which includes the HDI. The theme of this year’s report was Sustaining Human Progress: Reducing Vulnerabilities and Building Resilience.

Underlying the improvement, she said, “are policies that were implemented, like the increase in the minimum salary, affirmative action measures to reduce racial inequality, the boost to employment and Bolsa Familia itself.”

The HDI, created in 1980, is a measure derived from life expectancy, education levels and incomes. In 2013, life expectancy in Brazil averaged 73.9 years, schooling averaged 7.2 years, and gross national income per capita was 14,275 dollars.

Between 1980 and 2013, Brazil’s HDI value increased 36.4 percent. In 1980 life expectancy was 62.7 years, schooling averaged 2.6 years and GNI per capita was 9,154 dollars.

“Brazil is one of the countries whose human development has improved the most over the past 30 years,” said UNDP representative in Brazil Jorge Chediek during the presentation of the data in Brasilia.

But inequality is still a huge problem in Brazil, Bolzon said. “We have to invest in universal quality public systems, especially in health and education, because they have effects on other indicators.”

The increase in the years of schooling among families is precisely one visible change, she said.

“We see it from generation to generation in the same family,” she said. “People who studied very little have children who have more years of schooling; there is a big difference in terms of education.”

Souza and her family fit that pattern: she has a fifth grade education, while her 12-year-old daughter is in sixth grade today.

“I studied very little; I had to drop out when I was 12 to work, because I had to help my parents put food on the table,” said Souza. “I want my kids to have much more than I had – a good education and good jobs.”

Isis, her youngest daughter, knows all about the difficulties her mother has faced and the sacrifices she makes in order for them to have a better life. “I love going to school, and I love math. When I come home, I help my mom and I tidy up the house. My mom tells us to study a lot to have a better futrue. I know what her life has been like, and I do that,” she told IPS with a smile.

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Cameroon’s Muslim Clerics Turn to Education to Shun Boko Haram http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/cameroons-muslim-clerics-turn-to-education-to-shun-boko-haram/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=cameroons-muslim-clerics-turn-to-education-to-shun-boko-haram http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/cameroons-muslim-clerics-turn-to-education-to-shun-boko-haram/#comments Thu, 31 Jul 2014 08:34:44 +0000 Ngala Killian Chimtom http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135844 Sheik Oumarou Malam Djibring, a member of Cameroon’s Council of Imams, called on the country’s Muslims to be vigilant against the extremist group Boko Haram and to report any strange and suspicious-looking individuals. Credit: Ngala Killian Chimtom/IPS

Sheik Oumarou Malam Djibring, a member of Cameroon’s Council of Imams, called on the country’s Muslims to be vigilant against the extremist group Boko Haram and to report any strange and suspicious-looking individuals. Credit: Ngala Killian Chimtom/IPS

By Ngala Killian Chimtom
YAOUNDE, Jul 31 2014 (IPS)

Motari Hamissou used to get along well with his pupils at the government primary school in Sabga, an area in Bamenda, the capital of Cameroon’s North West Region.

In the past, Hamissou also lived in peace with his neighbours. No one was bothered by his long, thick beard or the veil his wife, Aisha Hamissou, wore, or the religion they followed.

According to the 2010 general population census, Muslims constitute 24 percent of this Central African nation’s 21 million people, most of whom live in Cameroon’s Far North, North and Adamawa Regions; all on the border with Nigeria. Cameroon’s north western boarder runs along the length of Nigeria’s eastern boarder, stretching all the way to Nigeria’s predominantly Muslim north — a stronghold of the Nigerian extremist group, Boko Haram.

But the intermittent attacks and abductions perpetrated by Boko Haram in Cameroon’s North West Region has destroyed the peace and accord that Hamissou enjoyed with his pupils and neighbours.

The most recent attack by the group was on Jul. 27 when the wife of Cameroon’s Vice Prime Minister Amadou Ali was kidnapped in the northern town of Kolofata. The group is said to have increased its attacks from Nigeria into neighbouring Cameroon. Since the group first took up arms five years ago for a Muslim state in Nigeria, more than, some 12,000 people in that West African nation have died in the crisis, according to figures from Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.

Now Hamissou’s own pupils call him “Boko Haram” in reference to the group. The name, Boko Haram, means “Western education is a sin” in the local Nigerian dialect, Hausa.

“They see our beards or the veils our wives [wear] and immediately link us to the sect,” Hamissou tells IPS.

“I am a teacher. I teach Western education. How can I teach Western education and at the same time say that it is forbidden? That’s incomprehensible,” he adds.

Arlette Dainadi, a 12-year-old schoolgirl who attends the same primary school that Hamissou teaches at, tells IPS some of her peers have gone as far as taking off her veil and shouting: “Boko Haram! Boko Haram!”

Aisha Hamissou tells IPS that even adults have taken to name-calling.

“I can’t move and interact freely with other people without being called names. People call me Boko Haram,” she explains, almost bursting into tears.

In a concerted effort to distance themselves from the extremist group, Muslim groups and leaders in Cameroon, including the Association of Muslim Students and the Cameroon Council of Imams, have been organising workshops, seminars and public demonstrations to sensitise the general public about their stance against the extremist sect.

Sheik Oumarou Malam Djibring, a member of Cameroon’s Council of Imams, tells IPS that Boko Haram’s campaign against Western education, as well as the atrocities it exacts on innocent people, has nothing to do with Islam.

“Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance. Departing from these precepts is actually against Islam,” he says.

Members of the Cameroon Council of Imams and Muslim leaders have embraced “Boko Halal”,”an Hausa idiomatic expression which means education is allowed or permitted as contained in the Quran.

Islamic teacher and religious leader Sheik Abu Oumar Bin Ali tells IPS that Muslim scholars have been major drivers of education.

“Abu Ja’far Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi was a leading Muslim scholar who founded the branch of mathematics known as algebra… So it’s stupid for anyone to link Muslim with a hatred for Western education,” he says.

But Ahmadou Moustapha, a traditional Muslim ruler in Cameroon’s Far North Region, tells IPS that Boko Haram has definitely been recruiting young Muslims in the region.

“They come here and forcefully whisk away our young people,” Moustapha explains.

“I believe they go and intoxicate them with their hate beliefs.”

According to Professor Souaibou Issa, from the University of Ngaoundere in Cameroon’s Adamawa Region, the group is even more dangerous because “you never know what their linkages are, you don’t know what exactly their focus is, and you don’t know who the actors are. There is widespread suspicion, and the states are fighting invisible enemies.”

Mallam Djibring called on the country’s Muslims to be vigilant and report any strange and suspicious-looking individuals.

Editing by: Nalisha Adams

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World Bank Board Declines to Revise Controversial Draft Policies http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/world-bank-board-declines-to-revise-controversial-draft-policies/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=world-bank-board-declines-to-revise-controversial-draft-policies http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/world-bank-board-declines-to-revise-controversial-draft-policies/#comments Thu, 31 Jul 2014 01:11:09 +0000 Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135842 By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Jul 31 2014 (IPS)

A key committee of the World Bank’s governing board Wednesday spurned appeals to revise a  draft policy statement that, according to nearly 100 civil-society groups, risks rolling back several decades of reforms designed to protect indigenous populations, the poor and sensitive ecosystems.

While the Committee on Development Effectiveness did not formally endorse the draft, it approved the document for further consultation with governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and other stakeholders over the coming months in what will constitute a second round a two-year review of the Bank’s social and environmental policies.“The proposed ‘opt-out’ for protections for indigenous peoples, in particular, would undermine existing international human rights law." -- Joji Carino

At issue is a draft safeguard framework that was designed to update and strengthen policies that have been put in place over the past 25 years to ensure that Bank-supported projects in developing countries would protect vulnerable populations, human rights, and the environment to the greatest possible extent.

“The policies we have in place now have served us well, but the issues our clients face have changed over the last 20 years,” said Kyle Peters, the Bank’s vice president for operations policy and country services.

He stressed that the draft provisions would also broaden the Bank’s safeguard policies to include promoting social inclusion, anti-discrimination, and labour rights, and addressing climate change.

But, according to a number of civil-society groups, the draft, which was leaked over the weekend, not only fails to tighten key safeguards, in some cases, it weakens them substantially.

“The World Bank has repeatedly committed to producing a new safeguard framework that results in no-dilution of the existing safeguards and which reflects prevailing international standards,” according to a statement sent to the Bank’s executive directors Monday by Bank on Human Rights (BHR), a coalition of two dozen human-rights, anti-poverty, and environmental groups that sponsored the letter.

“Instead, the draft safeguard framework represents a profound dilution of the existing safeguards and an undercutting of international human rights standards and best practice,” the coalition, which includes Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the NGO Forum of the Asia Development Bank, among other groups, said.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of that dilution is a provision that would permit borrowing governments to “opt out” of the Indigenous Peoples Standard that was developed by the Bank to ensure that Bank-funded projects protected essential land and natural-resource rights of affected indigenous communities.

“We have engaged with social and environmental safeguard development with the World Bank for over 20 years and have never seen a proposal with potential for such widespread negative impacts for indigenous peoples around the world,” said Joji Carino, director of the Forest Peoples Programme.

“The proposed ‘opt-out’ for protections for indigenous peoples, in particular, would undermine existing international human rights law and the significant advances seen in respect for indigenous peoples rights in national laws,” she added.

But Mark King, the Bank’s chief environmental and social standards officer, insisted that the draft’s provisions represented a “strengthening of existing policy” that, among other provisions, introduces “Free, Prior and Informed Consent of Indigenous Peoples” in all Bank-supported projects.

“In exceptional circumstances when there are risks of exacerbating ethnic tension or civil strife or where the identification of Indigenous Peoples is inconsistent with the constitution of the country, in consultation with people affected by a particular project, we are proposing an alternative approach to the protection of Indigenous Peoples,” he said, adding that any such exception would have to be approved by the Bank’s board.

The Bank, which disburses as much as 50 billion dollars a year in grants and loans, remains a key source of project funding for developing countries despite the rise of other major sources over the past 20 years, notably private capital and, more recently, China and other emerging economies, which have generally imposed substantially fewer conditions on their lending.

Faced with this competition, the Bank has been determining how to make itself more attractive to borrowers by, for example, streamlining operations and reducing waste and duplication. But some critics worry that it may also be willing to exercise greater flexibility in applying its social and environmental standards – a charge that Bank officials publicly reject, despite the disclosure of recent internal emails reflecting precisely that concern.

Under prodding by NGOs and some Western governments in the 1980’s and 1990’s, the Bank had established itself as a leader in setting progressive social and environmental policies.

More recently, however, “it has fallen behind the regional development banks and many other international development institutions in terms of safeguarding human rights and the environment,” according to Gretchen Gordon, BHR’s co-ordinator.

“The Bank has an opportunity to regain its position as a leader in the development arena, but unfortunately this draft backtracks on the last decade of progress,” she told IPS. “We hope that the [next round of] consultations will be robust and accessible to the people and communities who are most affected, and that at the end of the day, the Bank and its member states adopt a strong safeguard framework that respects human rights.”

While welcoming the Bank’s new interest in issues such as discrimination and labour rights, the BHR statement criticised what it called the framework’s movement from “one based on compliance with set processes and standards, to one of vague and open-ended guidance…”

According to the statement, the draft threatens long-standing protections for people who may be displaced from their homes by Bank-backed mega-projects and may permit borrower governments and even private “intermediary” banks to use their own standards for assessing, compensating and resettling affected communities “without clear criteria on when and how this would be acceptable.”

In addition, according to BHR, the draft fails to incorporate any serious protections to prevent Bank funds from supporting land grabs that have displaced indigenous communities, small farmers, fishing communities and pastoralists in some of the world’s poorest countries to make way for major agro-industrial projects.

“We had hoped that the new safeguards would include strong requirements to prevent governments like Ethiopia from abusing its people with Bank funds,” said Obang Metho, executive director of the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia, a group that has brought international attention to Bank-backed land grabs in his home country. “But we are shocked to see the Bank instead opening the flood-gates for more abuses.”

The draft was based on a five-month-long consultation involving more than 2,000 people in more than 40 countries and a review of other multilateral development banks’ environmental and social standards, according to the Bank.

In a teleconference with reporters, King denied that the Bank was lowering its existing standards. In addition to broadening existing standards, he said, the Bank will “use as much as possible the borrower country’s own existing systems to deliver social and environmental outcomes that are consistent with our values.”

He and Peters also stressed that more attention will be paid to assessing and addressing the risks of social and environmental damage during project implementation, as opposed to the more “up-front approach” the Bank has taken in the past.

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.com.

Editing by: Kitty Stapp

The writer can be reached at ipsnoram@ips.org

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China’s ‘Left-Behind Girls’ Learn Self-Protection http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/chinas-left-behind-girls-learn-self-protection/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=chinas-left-behind-girls-learn-self-protection http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/chinas-left-behind-girls-learn-self-protection/#comments Wed, 30 Jul 2014 22:15:58 +0000 IPS Correspondents http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135833 By IPS Correspondents
UNITED NATIONS, Jul 30 2014 (IPS)

A normally quiet second-grade student, Yuan Yuan* suffers from a mild mental disorder that impacts her ability to learn and communicate. Her father, also mentally disabled, left her several years ago to find work in the city and his family hasn’t heard from him since. Unable to support the family, her mother also left and never returned.

Yuan Yuan’s paternal grandparents have been caring for her since. But they are not always there.

“I am scared of that man… he laughed at me and touched me. I don’t like him,” eight-year-old Yuan Yuan admitted during a visit from Zhang Xinyu, a programme officer with the Beijing Cultural Development Centre for Rural Women (BCDC), after a local Women’s Federation referred her complaint that a 70-year-old neighbour had sexually assaulted her.

In Yuan Yuan’s case, BCDC paid for her medical treatment and worked together with the local Women’s Federation to ensure they could respond and prevent any further attempts of the neighbour to access the child.

Yuan Yuan is among more than 2,500 girls being helped by a programme funded by the United Nations Trust Fund to End Violence against Women, which is managed by UN Women on behalf of the U.N. system

The programme has brought together teachers, guardians, local police officers and health-care providers to protect China’s “left-behind girls”.

China’s rapid economic growth, driven by manufacturing industries on the eastern side of the country, combined with high unemployment and low wages in the central and western regions have driven China’s incredible internal migration of an estimated two million people moving from the rural countryside to its industrial cities.

“To protect ourselves and learn how to say NO to strangers is very important,” says Xiao Mei, a student in the 7th grade.
In many cases, parents are compelled to migrate to the cities without their children because of the hukou (household registration) system, which stipulates that children access public schooling only in their home town or village.

According to a 2012 report by the All-China Women’s Federation, the number of left-behind children totals over 61 million, with the number of girls totaling over 28 million.

Close to 33 per cent of all left-behind children are raised by their grandparents, while 10.7 per cent are raised by other villagers or relatives, and at least 3.4 per cent are forced to fend for themselves.

In addition to funds, the UN Trust Fund, UN Women provides technical assistance to BCDC on reducing the risk of sexual violence against rural children, with a particular focus on girls whose parents have migrated to the cities. The programme seeks to increase girls’ sexual knowledge and self-protection; ensure that both guardians and the community are willing and able to provide the guidance needed to reduce their vulnerability to sexual abuse; and to alter the social environment that promotes sexual violence and empower women and girls.

“To protect ourselves and learn how to say NO to strangers is very important,” says Xiao Mei, a student in the 7th grade. She says she was very proud that she could share a training manual and her learned self-protection skills with her siblings. “My older sister said to me that she was very shy and never had this information in the past.”

By the end of 2013, 500 local teachers, 5,000 students and 2,200 guardians had participated in training programmes on awareness and prevention of child sexual abuse and 210 ‘backbones’ – women and men leaders active in the community – had participated in trainings on the dangers of child sexual abuse.

The programme implemented by BCDC has set up six resource centres (three community-based and three in schools) to protect children and prevent sexual violence.

In villages, they establish managerial groups and in schools, teachers organise activities around the themes of left-behind girls’ safety, such as reading activities, lectures and performances to raise awareness of prevention of child sexual abuse.

Furthermore, with the funding from the UN Trust Fund, technical support from UN Women and national experts, a series of handbooks on girls’ safety education, covering everything from knowledge about sex and sexual abuse to gender-based violence, were produced and disseminated.

Shen Xiaoyan, a primary school teacher in Suizhou, a city in central China, recalls a remark by a colleague when she was preparing a presentation for a student sexual safety training in 2013: “These things [sexual education materials] appear so normal to me [now]. Why did I feel embarrassed about them only a few years ago?”

The programme has changed attitudes and removed barriers of silence, with several stakeholders reporting cases of sexual abuse.

“After training and project activities, local residents and government officials have become willing to seek out all possible resources to help victims of child sexual abuse,” said the BCDC’s Xinyu.

“In the past, this kind of information was considered secret, deterring victims and family from revealing it to other people.”

In a testament to the growing attention to the plight of left-behind children and the sexual abuse against left-behind girls, proposals influenced by the programme were submitted in 2012 by the Women’s Federation to the People’s Congress and the People’s Political Consultative Conference in Suizhou.

In 2013, the Educational Department in Suizhou issued a policy document requiring the strengthening of safety education for students in all primary and middle schools.

(END)

*Name changed to protect her identity.

Beijing20Logoen png

This article is published under an agreement with UN Women. For more information, check out the In Focus editorial package on The Girl Child on the new Beijing+20 campaign website.

 

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Bill to Fight Discrimination Against HIV-Positive Venezuelans http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/bill-to-fight-discrimination-against-hiv-positive-venezuelans/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=bill-to-fight-discrimination-against-hiv-positive-venezuelans http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/bill-to-fight-discrimination-against-hiv-positive-venezuelans/#comments Wed, 30 Jul 2014 21:39:43 +0000 Humberto Marquez http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135832 “Preventing It Is in Your Hands…World AIDS Day” – image from one of the government campaigns to prevent AIDS in Venezuela. Credit: Venezolana de Televisión

“Preventing It Is in Your Hands…World AIDS Day” – image from one of the government campaigns to prevent AIDS in Venezuela. Credit: Venezolana de Televisión

By Humberto Márquez
CARACAS, Jul 30 2014 (IPS)

Venezuela is gearing up to pass a new law to combat discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS, in a country where the epidemic claims nearly 4,000 lives and infects 11,000 mainly young people every year, including increasing numbers of women.

In the first debate in the single-chamber legislature, where the bill was introduced by ombudswoman Gabriela Ramírez, it received unanimous backing from both the governing majority and the opposition – not a common occurrence in this severely polarised country.

When she presented the “law for the promotion and protection of the right to equality for people with HIV or AIDS and their family members” on Jul. 8, Ramírez said it “gives parliament an opportunity to promote equality and reduce the vulnerability of a segment of the population that has suffered discrimination.”

“HIV-related stigma and discrimination are the main barrier in the fight against this epidemic all around the world,” Alejandra Corao, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) official in Venezuela, told IPS.

“The most important thing is that 30 years after the arrival of the epidemic here, the state recognises that discrimination is a serious problem,” Alberto Nieves, director of the non-governmental organisation Citizen Action Against AIDS (ACCSI), told IPS.“The most important thing is that 30 years after the arrival of the epidemic here, the state recognises that discrimination is a serious problem.” -- Alberto Nieves

Ombudswoman Ramírez pointed out that between 1982 and 2013 there were 31,512 officially documented cases of HIV/AIDS in this country. But Nieves believes the current number of cases is as high as the highest UNAIDS estímate – 160,000 cases.

The bill guarantees HIV-positive people equal conditions in terms of the right to work and hold public office, to education, healthcare, culture and sports, the benefits of social programmes, bank loans, confidentiality about their health status and respect for their prívate lives.

It also states that having AIDS cannot be grounds for the suspension of paternity rights, while establishing that families are responsable for caring for and protecting people living with HIV.

The law guarantees equality for young people, because 40 percent of new cases are in the 15-24 age group. It also does so in the case of women, for whom it orders that special care be provided during pregnancy, birth and the postpartum period, as well as for people with disabilities and prisoners.

The bill establishes penalties, disciplinary measures and fines for those found guilty of discrimination.

The idea is to prevent a repeat of situations such as one faced by a schoolteacher in a city in western Venezuela, who remains anonymous at her request. She was fired after a campaign against her was mounted by parents who discovered that she had gone to the AIDS unit in a hospital to undergo exams.

However, the miliary and the police are exempt from the protective provisions against discrimination.

“We do not agree with that exception,” Estevan Colina, an activist with the Venezuelan Network of Positive People, told IPS. “No one should be excluded and we hope for progress on that point when parliament’s Social Development Commission studies it and it goes to the plenary for the second debate,” which will be article by article.

Nieves is confident that the second reading will overturn the military-police exception. But more important, said the head of ACCSI, “is the positive aspect of the law, starting with the unanimous acceptance of a human rights issue by political groups that are so much at loggerheads in Venezuela’s polarised society.”

The law, which NGOs and activists expect to pass this year, will give a boost to anti-AIDS campaigns. The support will be similar in importance to that given by a July 1998 Supreme Court ruling that ordered public health institutions to provide free antiretrovial treatment to all people living with HIV.

In this country of 30 million a total of 43,000 people currently receive free antiretrovirals, equivalent to 73 percent of those requiring treatment, Corao said. The global average is 37 percent and the Latin American average 45 percent, UNAIDS reports.

Venezuela’s public expenditure on HIV/AIDS amounts to 100 million dollar a year, approximately half of which is spent on medication. But NGOs complain that the government effort is undermined by red tape and organisational problems.

“In some regions trained personnel is sometimes lacking to run the HIV/AIDS programme; coordination and transportation between the capital and the regions is deficient; and the pharmaceutical industry declines to take part in public tenders,” Nieves said.

Shortages of antiretrovirals trigger periodic protests by patients, in a country where “scarcity of medicine can range from 35 to 50 percent,” infectious disease specialist Julio Castro, with the local NGO Doctors for Health, told IPS.

Prevention and educational campaigns must also be stepped up, to judge by the rise in new cases: 4,553 in 2004 compared to 11,181 in 2012, according to the Health Ministry. Among women there were 1,408 new cases in 2004 and 2,236 in 2012.

“There is a feminisation of the epidemic, a phenomenon that is not exclusive to Venezuela, because in 2003 one in five HIV-positive people were women, compared to one in three in 2007,” Corao said.

“Women who are increasingly affected are not only sex workers but homemakers, employees and workers, professionals and students. And one of the main problems associated with this is domestic violence,” the UNAIDS representative added.

Another area where the disease is expanding is among adolescents and young people, the age group between 15 and 24 years, “because throughout Latin America there is a perception that the risk has gone down, and kids who did not live through the boom of the epidemic in the 1980s behave as if it were a problem of the past that has already been overcome,” the expert remarked.

In 2013 1.5 million people died of AIDS-related causes worldwide – 35 percent less than the 2.4 million of 2005. But in a report published Jul. 16, UNAIDS stated that of the 35 million people living with HIV around the world, an estimated 19 million are unaware of their HIV-positive status.

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Is Europe’s Breadbasket Up for Grabs? http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/is-europes-breadbasket-up-for-grabs/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=is-europes-breadbasket-up-for-grabs http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/is-europes-breadbasket-up-for-grabs/#comments Wed, 30 Jul 2014 21:29:03 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135828 Ukraine is the world’s third-largest exporter of cotton and the fifth-largest exporter of wheat. Credit: Bigstock

Ukraine is the world’s third-largest exporter of cotton and the fifth-largest exporter of wheat. Credit: Bigstock

By Kanya D'Almeida
NEW YORK, Jul 30 2014 (IPS)

Amidst an exodus of some 100,000 people from the conflict-torn eastern Ukraine, ongoing fighting in the urban strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk between Ukrainian soldiers and separatist rebels, and talk of more sanctions against Russia, it is hard to focus on the more subtle changes taking place in this eastern European nation.

But while global attention has been channeled towards the political crisis, sweeping economic reforms are being ushered in under the leadership of the newly elected president Petro Poroshenko, who recently brokered deals with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund that have rights groups on edge.“These reforms sound good on paper, but when you look more closely you see they are actually designed to benefit large multinational corporations over workers and small-scale farmers." -- Frédéric Mousseau

Even before Poroshenko assumed office on Jun. 7, international financial institutions (IFIs) were rushing emergency missions into the country, with IMF European Department Director Reza Moghadam declaring on a Mar. 7 visit, “I am positively impressed with authorities’ determination, sense of responsibility and commitment to an agenda of economic reform.”

After years of dangling a 17-billion-dollar loan – withheld in part due to ousted President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to implement a highly contested pension reform bill that would have raised the retirement age by 10 years, and his insistence on curbing gas price hikes – the IMF has now released its purse strings.

The World Bank followed suit, announcing a 3.5-billion-dollar aid package on May 22 that the Bank’s president, Jim Yong Kim, said was conditional upon the government “removing restrictions that hinder competition and […] limiting the role of state control in economic activities.”

While these reforms include calls for greater transparency to spur economic growth, experts are concerned that Ukraine’s rapid pivot to Western neoliberal policies could spell disaster, particularly in the immense agricultural sector that is widely considered the ‘breadbasket of Europe.’

A quiet land-grab

Ukraine is the world’s third-largest exporter of cotton and the fifth-largest exporter of wheat. Agriculture accounts for about 10 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), with vast fields of fertile soil yielding bumper harvests of grain and cereals each year.

According to a 2013 forecast by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Ukraine is poised to become the world’s second biggest grain exporter in the world (after the U.S.), shipping over 30 million tonnes of grain out of the country last year.

The World Bank estimates that farmers and agricultural workers made up 17 percent of the country’s labour force as of 2012. And according to the Centre for Eastern Studies, agricultural exports soared in the last decade, from 4.3 billion dollars in 2005 to 17.9 billion dollars in 2012.

Lush soil and a rich agrarian culture do not immediately add up to nationwide dividends. Potential investors have cited“red tape” and “corruption” as hindrances to development, as well as a communist legacy that forbids the sale of land.

But the past decade has seen an abrupt change in Ukraine’s agricultural sector, with foreign investors and agri-business hugely expanding ownership and influence in the country.

According to a report released Monday by the U.S.-based Oakland Institute, over 1.6 million hectares of land have been signed over to multinational companies since 2002, including “over 405,000 hectares to a company listed in Luxembourg, 444,800 hectares to Cyprus-registered investors, 120,000 hectares to a French corporation, and 250,000 hectares to a Russian company.”

A deal brokered between China and Yanukovych prior to the political crisis – now disputed under the present regime – granted Beijing control over some three million hectares of prime farmland in the east, an area about the size of Belgium that totals five percent of Ukraine’s arable land.

This changing climate has been a boon for investors and corporations, with Michael Cox, research director at the investment bank Piper Jaffray, referring to Ukraine as one of the “most promising growth markets for farm-equipment giant Deere, as well as seed producers Monsanto and DuPont.”

Such statements have raised a red flag among researchers and trade watchdogs.

OI Executive Director Anuradha Mital told IPS, “IFIs are imposing Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) in Ukraine, which we know – from the experience of the Third World – will undoubtedly lead to severe austerity measures for the people and increase poverty among the Ukrainians.”

“Ukraine is also one of the 10 pilot countries in the World Bank’s new Benchmarking the Business of Agriculture (BBA) project,” Mittal told IPS, referring to a brand new initiative, still in the development stage, which is connected to the Bank’s controversial Doing Business rankings.

This index has been criticised by numerous groups including the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) – comprised of over 176 million members hailing from 161 countries – for favouring low taxes for transnational corporations and lowering labour standards in developing countries as a means of attracting foreign investment.

The Bank itself says the BBA will largely serve as a tool for improving agricultural output.

“The world needs to feed nine billion people by 2050,” a World Bank spokesperson told IPS.

“For small-scale farmers to be more productive and far more competitive, they need access to land, finance, improved seed, fertiliser, water, electricity, transport and markets.

“By identifying and monitoring policies and regulations that limit access of smaller producers to these critical components of success, BBA is being designed as a tool to foster an enabling environment that boosts local and regional agribusinesses,” she concluded.

David Sedik, senior policy officer at the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) regional office for Europe and Central Asia, believes such an initiative is sorely needed in Ukraine, where “the primary beneficiaries of subsidies granted by the agricultural VAT system are… large agri-holding companies, the overwhelming majority of which are Ukrainian.”

“The list of needed reforms is quite long, and could start with building a more transparent land market,” he told IPS. “A first step in this direction could be the lifting of the moratorium on land sales.”

“The BBA project seems to support the construction of a transparent and inclusive system of agricultural regulation, something Ukraine lacks,” Sedik added.

But the OI report’s co-author Frédéric Mousseau says initiatives like the BBA and others exist primarily to pry open Ukraine’s doors, hitherto sealed by its socialist traditions, to foreign capital.

“These reforms sound good on paper, but when you look more closely you see they are actually designed to benefit large multinational corporations over workers and small-scale farmers,” Mousseau told IPS.

“Ranking systems like the BBA push for contract farming, which entails farmers working for corporations, instead of as subsistence producers. We are denouncing this rhetoric, and its attendant struggle between different foreign interests over Ukraine’s resources.”

Research into the impacts of the Bank’s ‘Doing Business’ rankings in eight countries – including Mali, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka and the Philippines – has yielded similar results: sharp increases in foreign investments and land-grabbing in a bid to appear more ‘business friendly’.

Further, Mousseau said, arrangements such as the Association Agreement between the European Union and Ukraine offer glimpses into an agricultural future steered by corporate interests.

“Until now, Ukraine had banned the use of GMOs in the agriculture sector,” Mousseau stated. “So when we anaylsed the EU Association Agreement we were surprised by article 404, which states very clearly that both parties agree to expand the use of biotechnologies.”

Such clauses, experts say, could strengthen existing initiatives such as Monsanto’s Ukraine-based ‘Grain-basket of the Future’ project (which offers 25,000-dollar loans to rural farmers) and Cargill’s 200-million-dollar stake in UkrLandFarming, the eighth largest land cultivator in the world.

These developments give weight to the title of OI’s report, ‘Walking on the West Side’, a reference to the role of Western interests in Ukraine’s unfolding political crisis.

“It is necessary to see this in context of the U.S.– Russia struggle over Ukraine,” Joel Kovel, U.S. scholar and author of over 20 books on international politics, told IPS.

“Geostrategic politics and neoliberal economics fit together within the overall plan …in which global finance capital under American control and neoconservative leadership imposes austerity, seeks dominion over the easternmost portion of Europe, and continues the policy of encircling Russia,” he stated.

Editing by: Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at kanyaldalmeida@gmail.com

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Israel Lobby Galvanises Support for Gaza War http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/israel-lobby-galvanises-support-for-gaza-war/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=israel-lobby-galvanises-support-for-gaza-war http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/israel-lobby-galvanises-support-for-gaza-war/#comments Wed, 30 Jul 2014 18:06:52 +0000 Mitchell Plitnick http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135825 National Security Adviser Susan Rice was interrupted by a protester who shouted “End the siege on Gaza." Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

National Security Adviser Susan Rice was interrupted by a protester who shouted “End the siege on Gaza." Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

By Mitchell Plitnick
WASHINGTON, Jul 30 2014 (IPS)

Pro-Israel activists assembled a huge crowd and a long list of congressional leaders and diplomats to declare their unconditional support for Israel’s military operations in the Gaza Strip on Monday, largely downplaying  tensions between Jerusalem and Washington.

Key congressional figures from both the Republican and Democratic Parties echoed similar views: that Israel was exercising its inherent right of self-defence, that the entire blame for the hostilities lies with Hamas, and reminding the audience, in a thinly veiled message to U.S. President Barack Obama, that Hamas is backed by Iran.Many of the speakers brought up Iranian sponsorship of Hamas, despite the fact that the relationship between them splintered after Hamas declared its support for the rebels in Syria.

Obama was represented at the event here, dubbed the National Leadership Assembly for Israel, by his national security adviser, Susan Rice.

Her address was interrupted by a protester, Tighe Berry, who shouted “End the siege on Gaza,” and held up a sign with the same words. Berry was joined by a handful of protesters outside the building from the pro-peace activist group, Code Pink.

After the protester was removed by force, Rice delivered the White House view that a ceasefire was of the utmost urgency in Gaza and Israel.

“The United States supports an immediate and unconditional humanitarian ceasefire,” Rice said. “That humanitarian ceasefire should lead to a permanent cessation of hostilities based on the agreement of November 2012.”

That statement was distinct from the Israeli stance and that of almost all of the speakers at this event. Although Israel accepted an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire several weeks ago along similar lines, it is now insisting on first eliminating any tunnels in Gaza which lead into Israel and taking steps to disarm Hamas before halting its operations.

Robert Sugarman, the chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, which spearheaded this gathering, set the tone with his opening remarks to the overflow crowd.

“We must continue to support the decisions of the government [of Israel], whatever our personal views may be,” Sugarman said. “And we must continue to urge our government to support [the decisions of the Israeli government] as well.”

While most of the speakers did not state any direct opposition to the Obama administration’s policy, virtually all of them stressed the view that Hamas must be disarmed and that the Netanyahu government must have unqualified U.S. support.

John Boehner, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and one of President Obama’s leading political opponents, came closest to squarely criticising the president, by tying the crisis in Gaza to Iran.

“We will continue to push this administration to address root cause of conflict in the Middle East,” Boehner said. “What we’re seeing in Gaza is a direct result of Iran sponsored terrorism in the region. This is part of Iran’s long history of providing weapons to Gaza-based terror organizations, which must come to an end. Israel’s enemies are our enemies. As long as I’m Speaker, this will be our cause.”

Many of the speakers brought up Iranian sponsorship of Hamas, despite the fact that the relationship between them splintered after Hamas declared its support for the rebels in Syria, fighting against Iran’s key ally in the region, Bashar al-Assad.

Nonetheless, for many of the speakers, the connection provided a bridge to connect the fighting in Gaza to Congress’ scepticism about diplomacy with Iran over the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme.

But ongoing tensions between the Obama administration and the government of Israel inevitably made their way into the room.

Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Ron Dermer tried to balance a conciliatory tone with Israel’s determination to continue its operations in Gaza despite calls from the United States and most of the international community for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire.

“Israel has uncovered dozens of tunnels whose sole purpose is to facilitate attacks on Israeli civilians. Israel will continue to destroy these tunnels and I’m sure the Obama administration understands this,” Dermer said.

“Everyone understands that leaving these tunnels is like seizing 10,000 missiles and handing them back to Hamas. That is not going to happen. We will not stop until that job is done. Israel believes that a sustainable solution is one where Gaza is demilitarized, rockets are removed, and the tunnels destroyed so Hamas cannot rearm in another year or two. We appreciate that all U.S. leaders have supported us.”

But Dermer also delivered a message of moderate conciliation in the wake of very harsh criticism in Israel of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry after the alleged text of a ceasefire proposal from Kerry was leaked to the Israeli media.

“I am speaking now for my prime minister,” Dermer said. “The criticism of Secretary Kerry for his good faith efforts to advance a ceasefire is unwarranted. We look forward to working with the United States to advance goal of a ceasefire that is durable.”

Rice also addressed the criticism of Kerry. “We’ve been dismayed by some press reports in Israel mischaracterising [Secretary Kerry’s] efforts. We know these misleading reports have raised concerns here at home as well.

“The reality is that John Kerry, on behalf of the United States, has been working with Israel every step of the way to support our shared interests. Both in public and private, we have strongly supported Israel’s right to defend itself. We will continue to do so and continue to set the record straight when anyone distorts facts.”

Rice’s defence of Kerry did not seem to ruffle many feathers in the audience. But the next day, a new controversy arose in Israel when several Israeli radio stations reported on a leaked transcript of a phone call between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama. Israel’s Channel 1 reported that Obama “behaved in a rude, condescending and hostile manner” toward Netanyahu in the call.

Both the White House and the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office flatly denied the reports.

“[It is] shocking and disappointing [that] someone would sink to misrepresenting a private conversation between the President of the United States and the Prime Minister in fabrications to the Israeli press,” said an official statement from the Prime Minister’s Twitter account.

Identical language was employed by the United States National Security Council over their own Twitter account. “The…report is totally false,” added White House Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes.

Editing by: Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at plitnickm@gmail.com

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Oil Alliance Between China and Costa Rica Comes to Life Again http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/oil-alliance-between-china-and-costa-rica-comes-to-life-again/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=oil-alliance-between-china-and-costa-rica-comes-to-life-again http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/oil-alliance-between-china-and-costa-rica-comes-to-life-again/#comments Wed, 30 Jul 2014 02:22:47 +0000 Diego Arguedas Ortiz http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135822 The presidents of China, Xi Jinping, and Costa Rica, Luis Guillermo Solís, both at their microphones during a Jul. 17 meeting in Brasilia. Credit: Presidencia de Costa Rica

The presidents of China, Xi Jinping, and Costa Rica, Luis Guillermo Solís, both at their microphones during a Jul. 17 meeting in Brasilia. Credit: Presidencia de Costa Rica

By Diego Arguedas Ortiz
SAN JOSE, Jul 30 2014 (IPS)

China’s plan to become Costa Rica’s main energy ally through the joint reconstruction of an oil refinery has been revived after the presidents of the two countries agreed to review the conditions of the project during a meeting in the Brazilian capital.

The two countries initially signed a framework accord in 2008, including Chinese participation in oil projects, especially the upgrade and expansion of the Moín refinery on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, with an investment of 1.5 billion dollars.

But criticism from public institutions, political leaders and social organisations brought the initiative to a halt.

The Costa Rican president’s office stated in a communiqué that Beijing had accepted its request to renegotiate the project, with the aim of “resolving inconsistencies in the contract,” in which each country has invested 50 million dollars so far.

Costa Rican Foreign Minister Manuel González said in a Jul. 22 press conference that “we have no deadline” for that review, which all of the involved institutions will take part in.

President Luis Guillermo Solís participated in the news briefing, although he did not specifically refer to the refinery.

Under the microscope

A year ago, the comptroller general’s office ordered Soresco, the joint venture, not to use the 1.8 million dollar feasibility study due to a conflict of interest, because it was conducted by a subsidiary of the Chinese partner CNPCI.

The study saddled Recope with costs from Soresco, such as land, fuel tanks, environmental damages and the expansion of the oil pier.

The comptroller general’s office ruled that the 16.28 profit margin established could be too high. A second consultancy, the U.S.-based Honeywell, also questioned that figure.

While the agreement creating Soresco stated that each partner would pay its own workers involved in the project, Recope paid half of the wages of the Chinese employees, as well as bonuses and incentives. Recope is seeking to be repaid 12 million dollars.

Solís held a bilateral working meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Jul 17 in Brasilia, during a summit of presidents of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) with Xi, after the sixth summit of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) grouping.

The upgrade of the Moín refinery, which belongs to the state oil refinery Refinadora Costarricense de Petróleo (Recope), would increase its processing capacity from 18,000 to 60,000 barrels a day of crude. The company controls Costa Rica’s oil imports, and since 2011 it has had to purchase only refined products, because the plant was shut down.

The joint refinery project, or “Chinese refinery” as it is referred to locally, was criticised by politicians and a large part of organised civil society from the start.

“We have always defended the construction of a refinery, whether it was with China, Russia or France,” said Patrick Johnson, a leader of the oil workers’ union, the Sindicato de Trabajadores Petroleros Químicos y Afines.”We want the confusion to be cleared up…and if the project is beneficial, then it should go ahead because the country needs a refinery,” he told IPS.

In June 2013, the office of the comptroller general brought the initiative to a halt arguing that there were serious problems with a key feasibility study. Since then, the project has been on hold.

The renegotiations should overcome the first real hurdle that China has run into in Costa Rica. In 2007, this country became the first in Central America to establish diplomatic relations with China, in a part of the world that continues to have ties with Taiwan – incompatible with relations with China.

“Having an embassy here makes it easier to deal with matters with Central America,” Patricia Rodríguez, an expert on China who was an official in Costa Rica’s embassy in Beijing from 2008 to 2010, told IPS.

China is now Costa Rica’s second-biggest trading partner after the United States. This country’s sales to the Asian giant climbed from 91 million dollars in 2000 to 1.5 billion in 2011, when a free trade treaty signed in 2010 went into effect.

In strategic terms, the joint refinery between Recope and the state-run China National Petroleum Corporation International (CNPCI) is China’s star project in the country, and the joint venture Sociedad Reconstructora Chino Costarricense (Soresco) was set up in 2009 to carry it out.

The investment is to amount to 1.5 billion dollars, of which Soresco would receive 900 million in loans from the China Development Bank. The rest will come from the partners. The construction and remodeling of the plant will absorb 1.2 billion dollars of that total.

The work was to begin early this year and was to last 42 months. The comptroller general’s office’s decision to put it on hold was due, among other things, to the fact that the feasibility study was carried out by a subsidiary of CNPCI, which it said subverted the evaluation.

The resolution had the effect of “completely paralysing the refinery upgrade process by leaving it without the technical studies necessary for it to continue,” explained Recope in a lawsuit brought against the comptroller general’s office in response to the measure.

Despite the ruling by the comptroller general’s office, the administration of conservative President Laura Chinchilla (2010-May 2014) continued to defend the refinery modernisation project. But the centre-left Solís promised during the election campaign to renegotiate the agreement, because he considered several aspects of the contract negative for the country.

The request to renegotiate the contract had the support of political sectors and in particular of lawmaker Ottón Solís, an economist and university professor who was one of the first to speak out against certain facets of the agreement.

“We have enormous bargaining power here because China is desperate to open up negotiations with Costa Rica and this country has prestige,” Deputy Solís, of the governing Citizen Action Party, told IPS.

“If we insinuate that it’s impossible to negotiate with China because they take advantage of you with unfair contracts, the whole world will be put on the alert and other countries won’t want to negotiate with them,” and that gives Costa Rica bargaining power, he said.

One of the promises made was that the upgrade of the refinery will bring down fuel costs for consumers, who currently pay 41 percent extra in taxes and profit margins for service stations and Recope’s operating costs.

Petrol currently costs 1.48 dollars a litre in Costa Rica, which makes it the most expensive gasoline in Central America. Official figures from 2012 indicate that oil consumption in the country stood at 53,000 barrels per day.

“Fuel is a fundamental element for price stability because there are public services that depend on its price, like public transportation and electricity, and the same is true in the case of the productive apparatus,” the president of Costa Rica’s consumers association, Erick Ulate, told IPS.

During the meeting with President Solís, Xi also agreed to expand the timeframe for carrying out studies for the project of widening the road connecting San José with the Caribbean port of Limón, where 90 percent of the country’s exports are shipped out. The expansion of the road will be financed with a 395 million dollar loan from Beijing.

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Ticking Diplomatic Clock a Cover for Israeli Assaults on Gaza http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/ticking-diplomatic-clock-a-cover-for-israeli-assaults-on-gaza/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=ticking-diplomatic-clock-a-cover-for-israeli-assaults-on-gaza http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/ticking-diplomatic-clock-a-cover-for-israeli-assaults-on-gaza/#comments Tue, 29 Jul 2014 23:19:32 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135819 Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks to journalists on the hostilities in Gaza Jul. 28, reiterating his call for an immediate, unconditional humanitarian ceasefire in the conflict. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks to journalists on the hostilities in Gaza Jul. 28, reiterating his call for an immediate, unconditional humanitarian ceasefire in the conflict. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Jul 29 2014 (IPS)

As the death toll in Gaza keeps climbing – and charges of alleged war crimes against Israel keep mounting – the most powerful political body at the United Nations remains ineffective, impotent and in a state of near paralysis.

Perhaps by choice.

The 15-member U.N. Security Council (UNSC), the only body representing the international community armed with legally-binding powers, has failed to adopt a single resolution on the three-week- old conflict in Gaza which continues to result in the merciless killings of Palestinians and widespread destruction of homes and schools.U.S. military, financial, and veto power at the Security Council controls what can be done, even in such extreme moments of carnage.

After an unusual midnight meeting, ostensibly meant to display a false sense of urgency, the UNSC agreed Monday to release a so-called presidential statement, dismissed by some diplomats here as a morbid joke.

“Nobody, least of all the warring parties, takes these UNSC statements seriously,” said an Asian diplomat.

A mildly worded draft resolution, co-sponsored by Jordan and the Arab states, has been in circulation for weeks now, but failed to garner enough support to reach the negotiating table.

Mouin Rabbani, co-editor of Jadaliyya, an e-zine produced by the Arab Studies Institute, told IPS that from the outset of the latest assault on the Gaza Strip, Israeli leaders have been clear that their ability to sustain their attacks is dependent on international support.

“It’s what they call ‘the ticking of the diplomatic clock’, meaning the slaughter can continue with impunity only so long as the West remains prepared to extend it political cover,” he said.

The refusal of the UNSC to send a clear message to Israel that the slaughter must stop and there will be consequences if it doesn’t, therefore in practice extends the grace period allotted to Israel to continue its massive bombardments of the Gaza Strip, said Rabbani, who is also a contributing editor to the Washington-based Middle East Report.

This, of course, primarily reflects the support of permanent members U.S., UK and France – but also other members – for Israel’s actions, he said.

All three Western nations in the UNSC have predictably remained supportive of Israel and would not approve any resolutions either accusing Israel of war crimes, imposing a no-fly zone over Gaza or calling for an international commission of inquiry into civilian killings.

Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, has warned that Israel’s continued military assault on Gaza may amount to war crimes, while criticising Hamas for “indiscriminate attacks”.

“There seems to be a strong possibility that international law has been violated, in a manner that could amount to war crimes,” Pillay said last week.

The 47-member Human Rights Council last week voted for an international inquiry into alleged war crimes in the Gaza conflict. But Israel has refused to cooperate in implementing the resolution which was opposed by a single country: the United States.

Abba A. Solomon, author of ‘The Speech, and Its Context: Jacob Blaustein’s Speech: The Meaning of Palestine Partition to American Jews’, told IPS, “The United States will not act against Israel in the Security Council because of the well-established leverage of the pro-Israel lobby, both in the U.S. Congress and Senate.”

He said the administration of President Barack Obama is working in a situation in which the U.S. House and Senate passed unanimous resolutions of full support for Israeli military action against Gaza earlier in July.

Since the 1940s, he pointed out, American Jewish organisations have cultivated relationships with elected officials, in the process of seeking and giving political and financial support.

“These organisations have accepted that advocacy for Israeli positions is part of their duties,” Solomon said.

In times of crisis, these relationships are golden for the Israeli government, he added.

In this case, customary U.S. deferral to Israel obstructs what would be humanitarian action, a UNSC resolution to protect a besieged civilian population, said Solomon.

Historically, he noted, U.S. assent to U.N. condemnations of offensive Israeli military actions has been argued against because it would “embolden” whatever Arab opponent Israel is contesting with.

In cases where condemnation is unavoidable, “pairing” with condemnation of Arab actions is insisted upon, said Solomon,
who has done years of archival research on the ways that American Zionism has gained and maintained so much power since the 1940s.

Rabbani told IPS at a time when Israeli leaders are explicitly stating their objective is to inflict such massive damage upon the Gaza Strip that the population will turn against Hamas – and killing civilian non-combatants by the bucketful in what can only be characterised as a pre-meditated and deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure – these states prioritise Israel’s purported right to self-defence above all else.

“To speak of an Israeli right to self-defence under such circumstances, when over 1,000 Palestinian civilian non-combatants have been killed in what can only be characterised as a pre-meditated and deliberate act of mass murder, and when the vast majority of Israeli casualties have been uniformed combatants, is well beyond obscene,” he said.

“It constitutes active support, and therefore direct complicity, in Israeli war crimes – even without taking into consideration the manifold other direct and indirect ways such states are supporting Israel.”

These include massive military, economic and political support, giving settlement products preferential access to their markets, and permitting their citizens to commit war crimes in Israeli uniform, he added.

Rabbani said the role of the UNSC is to preserve and protect international peace and security, and it has once again failed miserably in this task.

And it has done so once again on the question of Palestine, a conflict for whose creation and resolution the U.N. bears a unique responsibility, he added.

“Indeed, this demonstrates once more the incapacity of the UNSC to serve as a meaningful guardian of international peace and security in its current form,” Rabbani said.

Solomon told IPS the U.S. administration has the imperative to avoid accusations in the Senate and House that it has “betrayed” the “most important strategic ally in the Mideast” – Israel.

He said direct Israeli connections with U.S. political figures across the party divide require care in any State Department response to Israeli bombardments of Gaza civilians.

And Republican and Democratic aspiring politicians are taken on Israeli “fact-finding” tours.

He pointed out Palestinian advocacy organisations have not established anything like this degree of ongoing cooperation in the U.S. political scene.

U.S. military, financial, and veto power at the Security Council controls what can be done, even in such extreme moments of carnage.

U.S. cooperation with a binding U.N. attempt to rein in Israeli military action would mean a challenge to a long-established system of beneficial relationships in the American political scene, Solomon declared.

Editing by: Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

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Under Water: The EPA’s Struggle to Combat Pollution http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/under-water-the-epas-struggle-to-combat-pollution/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=under-water-the-epas-struggle-to-combat-pollution http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/under-water-the-epas-struggle-to-combat-pollution/#comments Tue, 29 Jul 2014 20:36:11 +0000 Naveena Sadasivam ProPublica http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135816 Water and sediment sampling operations during Enbridge Spill Response on Morrow Lake near Battle Creek, Michigan from Mudpuppy II, EPA's news research vessel. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Second Class Lauren Jorgensen

Water and sediment sampling operations during Enbridge Spill Response on Morrow Lake near Battle Creek, Michigan from Mudpuppy II, EPA's news research vessel. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Second Class Lauren Jorgensen

By Naveena Sadasivam, ProPublica
NEW YORK, Jul 29 2014 (IPS)

For years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been frustrated in its efforts to pursue hundreds of cases of water pollution — repeatedly tied up in legal fights about exactly what bodies of water it has the authority to monitor and protect.

Efforts in Congress to clarify the EPA’s powers have been defeated. And two Supreme Court decisions have done little to decide the question.In recent years the EPA has allowed hundreds of cases of water pollution to go unpunished because it currently lacks the confidence that it can prevail in court.

Most recently, in April, the EPA itself declared what waters were subject to its oversight — developing a joint rule with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that sought to end the debate and empower the EPA to press hundreds of enforcements actions against alleged polluters across the country.

The new rule, for instance, explicitly defines several terms — tributary, floodplain and wetland — and makes clear that those waters are subject to its authority.

But the EPA’s effort has been met with immense opposition from farmers who say the agency is overreaching. An expansive online campaign organised and financed by the American Farm Bureau Federation has asserted that the new rule will give the EPA jurisdiction over farmers’ irrigation ditches, watering ponds and even puddles of rain.

The American Farm Bureau Federation’s president, Bob Stallman, said the proposed rule was the “the biggest federal land grab — in terms of power over land use — that we’ve seen to date.”

In an effort to address the concerns of farmers, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy in recent weeks has been touring states in the Midwest.

“There are issues we need to discuss and clarify to get this rule right,” she said. “We have important work to do. All the silly contentions being brought up — that we intend to regulate dry ground or stock ponds or mud puddles after a rain — all that does is get in the way of our being able to have those serious discussions.”

The Clean Water Act of 1972 authorised the EPA to protect the “waters of the United States” from dangerous and or illegal pollution. But that term has been the subject of controversy and dispute virtually from the time the act was signed into law.

Regulators and industry representatives are generally in agreement that the law applies to some of the nation’s larger rivers. At issue, however, are the streams that flow intermittently and the wetlands adjacent to these streams that dry up during the summer.

Legal fights over those streams and wetlands, current and former EPA officials say, have cost the agency time, money and effectiveness in the face of real environmental threats. Indeed, in recent years the EPA has allowed hundreds of cases of water pollution to go unpunished because it currently lacks the confidence that it can prevail in court.

Granta Nakayama, who served as the assistant administrator for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance at the EPA until 2009, found that between July 2006 and March 2008 the agency had decided not to pursue formal enforcement in 304 cases because of jurisdictional uncertainty.

In 2008, in an internal memo, Nakayama wrote that the uncertainty “results in delays in enforcement and increases the resources needed to bring enforcement cases.”

And so in 2007, when an oil company discharged thousands of gallons of crude oil into Edwards Creek in Titus County, Texas, the EPA did not issue a fine, pursue legal action or even require clean up.

Similarly, after a farming operation dumped manure into tributaries that fed Lake Blackshear in Georgia, the EPA did not seek to hold the polluting company responsible — despite the fact that tests showed unsafe levels of bacteria and viruses in the lake, which was regularly used for waterskiing and other recreation.

“The proposed rule will improve the process for making jurisdictional determinations for the Clean Water Act by minimizing delays and costs, and will improve the predictability and consistency of the permit and enforcement process for landowners,” an EPA spokesperson said.

The EPA expects that improving efficiency in jurisdictional determinations will also save the businesses that they regulate time and money.

“Protecting water is important to the long-term health of the economy,” the EPA spokesperson said. “Streams and wetlands are economic drivers because of their role in fishing, hunting, agriculture, recreation, energy, and manufacturing.”

Two Supreme Court decisions in the last 15 years have been the cause of much of the uncertainty.

In a 5-4 ruling in 2001, the Court held that the Army Corps of Engineers could not require permits for waters based on their use as a habitat by migratory birds. The Court ruling also included language that seemed to assert that only wetlands with a “significant nexus” to traditional navigable waterways would be protected under the Clean Water Act.

The Court did not make clear the meaning of the term “significant nexus.”

And in 2006, the Court, asked to determine whether a wetland needed to be adjacent to a traditional navigable waterway in order to be protected, wound up split, and reached no majority decision.

By the EPA’s own estimates, two million stream miles outside of Alaska are regarded as “intermittent,” and 20 percent of roughly 110 million acres of wetlands are considered “isolated.” As a result of the inability of the government to clarify the EPA’s jurisdiction over the last 15 years, these water bodies are currently unprotected.

“At some level this is a very frustrating debate to be having because water is all connected at some level,” said Jon Devine, a senior attorney in the water program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “What the Supreme Court’s decisions do is throw into significant doubt what is protected.”

As a result, in cases where a polluted waterway isn’t clearly under the EPA’s jurisdiction, the agency has sometimes spent thousands of dollars to model water flow and conduct studies to show that it is hydrologically connected to larger water bodies that are protected.

“It just causes an incredible waste of resources and rewards those who don’t really worry about compliance and punishes those who do,” said Nakayama, now an environmental lawyer at Kirkland & Ellis in Washington.

In past years, federal legislators have tried to introduce bills that address the ambiguity in the Clean Water Act’s language, but none have passed both the House and Senate.

In 2011, when Congress was considering a bill that made many of the changes that EPA’s current rule would, the American Farm Bureau Federation, as part of the Waters Advocacy Coalition, used a similar media strategy to kill the bill. The Coalition was made up of different industry groups that would be affected by the bill including mining associations and homebuilders.

The New York Times reported than an unnamed member of the Coalition said, “The game plan is to emphasise the scary possibilities. If you can get Glenn Beck to say that government storm troopers are going to invade your property, farmers in the Midwest will light up their congressmen’s switchboards.”

This time around, the pushback by farmers and others — called the “Ditch the Rule” campaign — has mainly taken place online. The Farm Bureau organisation has created a separate website for the campaign and created shareable videos and infographics.

The organisation has also been effective in recruiting state farming associations to join the campaign. It has resulted in a blitz of social media posts and a steady stream of local coverage often favouring the farmers’ point of view.

“The campaign has energised our grassroots to participate,” said Don Parrish, senior director of regulatory relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation. Although the campaign does not have a large amount of money flowing into it, Parrish said it has really “struck a chord.”

Lisa Garcia, a former administrator of environmental justice at the EPA, said the effort by the federation is chiefly one of misinformation.

“The rule is not adding or expanding the scope of waters historically protected,” said Garcia, who is currently at Earthjustice, an environmental non-profit organization. She said the opposition she has seen fits “this pattern of just completely fighting against any new regulation.”

Parrish disagrees. He said that the tensions that are playing out are because “the EPA is trying to create regulations that do an end run around the Supreme Court and Congress.”

“[The EPA is] really reaching into areas that Congress clearly didn’t want the EPA to regulate. They did not intend to put EPA in the land use business,” he said.

This story originally appeared on ProPublica.

Editing by: Kitty Stapp

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OPINION: How to End the Gaza War http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/opinion-how-to-end-the-gaza-war/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-how-to-end-the-gaza-war http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/opinion-how-to-end-the-gaza-war/#comments Tue, 29 Jul 2014 18:24:27 +0000 Emile Nakhleh http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135812 A Palestinian family on the street in Beit Lahia in north Gaza after Israel's 2012 bombardment of the besieged coastal enclave. Credit: Mohammed Omer/IPS

A Palestinian family on the street in Beit Lahia in north Gaza after Israel's 2012 bombardment of the besieged coastal enclave. Credit: Mohammed Omer/IPS

By Emile Nakhleh
WASHINGTON, Jul 29 2014 (IPS)

As the killing and destruction rages on in Gaza, and as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Hamas leadership exchange recriminations and threats, key regional and world players must accept a central truism: No peace can be achieved between Israel and the Palestinians without including Hamas. The quicker they internalise this fact, the faster the cycle of violence can be broken.

The Gaza wars have failed to liquidate Hamas; on the contrary, Hamas has emerged stronger and better equipped despite the pummeling it frequently receives from Israel.The current Israeli war on Gaza plus the two previous ones in 2008-9 and 2012 have not really been about the perceived existential threat Hamas poses to Israel. These conflicts have been rooted in the failure of the so-called peace process.

At the same time, Israel’s assault on Gaza reflects Tel Aviv’s concern about the region as a whole, not just about Hamas. Such concerns are driven by the rise of Islamic radicalism in Gaza and across the region, the growing influence of right-wing radical Jewish groups and political movements in Israel, the brutal civil war in Syria, the collapsing state structures in Libya and Yemen, a failing state in Iraq, the marginalisation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership in Ramallah, and the fragile political systems in Lebanon and Jordan.

Israeli worries also stem from a resurgent Iran, a potential nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers, and the perceived diminishing influence of the United States across the region. Unable to influence these “seismic shifts” in the region, Israel has resisted any long-term workable accommodation with the Palestinians as well as ending its occupation of Arab lands.

The Obama administration and other governments must work to end the 47-year-old occupation of the West bank and the blockade of Gaza. The Gaza Strip is considered the world’s largest open-air prison, blockaded on three sides by Israel and on one side by Egypt. This economic and political encirclement must be broken if the economic and social conditions of Gazan residents are to improve.

Poverty, unemployment, poor health and hygiene, and a lack of power and clean water have generated anger and hopelessness, which have often resulted in the frequent firing of rockets toward Israel. While mostly ineffective, these rockets have terrorised Israeli residents in the southern part of the country. This too must stop.

The bloody confrontations between West Bank Palestinians and the Israeli forces in Jerusalem at the Kalandia crossing, and between Arabs in Israel and Israeli police demonstrate that the Gaza war has spread to other parts of Palestine. This bodes ill for Israel and neighbouring countries.

Israel’s glee at the Egyptian government and media’s enmity toward Hamas is ephemeral and transitory. The Sisi autocratic regime would be unable to withstand its people and other Arabs’ anger at what they view as Israeli aggression against the Palestinians.

Having followed this conflict, including the rise of Hamas, for decades, both in academia and in government, and having briefed senior officials on these issues for years, I argue that long-lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians will remain elusive unless regional and global leaders begin to re-examine their decades-old assumptions about the conflict.

Such a step would be severely criticized by partisans from, and on behalf of, both sides, including many in the U.S. Congress. Therefore, courage, perseverance, and new thinking are needed to empower stakeholders to push the process forward.

Hamas and Israel

Destroying Gaza, killing thousands of innocent civilians, blowing up Hamas tunnels, and liquidating its leaders will not eradicate Hamas or silence its drive against the Israeli blockade. Hamas draws strength not from its religious ideology but from its resistance to the encirclement, which has strangled and impoverished most of the 1.6 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

The current Israeli war on Gaza plus the two previous ones in 2008-9 and 2012 have not really been about the perceived existential threat Hamas poses to Israel. These conflicts have been rooted in the failure of the so-called peace process.

The asymmetry between Israel’s military might and Hamas’ weaponry, which includes homemade and home-upgraded rockets, cannot possibly allow Hamas to pose a credible mortal threat to Israel.

The terrorising of civilians along the Gaza-Israel border is abhorrent and must not be tolerated, but it is also not an existential threat to Israel, nor does it justify Israel’s massive bombardment of residential neighbourhoods, hospitals, and schools in Gaza City and across the strip. Israel could easily destroy the tunnels on both sides of the border without destroying thousands of homes and reducing Gaza to rubble.

The Israeli assault could also be seen as a response to the recent reconciliation between the PA administration in Ramallah and Hamas in Gaza and the formation of a Palestinian national unity government of technocrats. The support the U.S. and EU showed for the new Palestinian government concerned Netanyahu deeply, and he proceeded to torpedo it. Netanyahu’s Gaza war belies his claim that he was genuinely looking for a so-called Palestinian “partner.”

Precursor to Hamas’ Tunnels

The Bush administration and the Israeli government supported holding elections in Gaza in January 2006, which Hamas won fairly and convincingly. Both Washington and Tel Aviv were stunned by the results and proceeded to delegitimise the election results and torpedo the new Hamas administration.

Gazans voted for Hamas not because of its religious ideology but because of its community service and resistance to the Israeli blockade. The legendary corruption of the PA administration in Ramallah also underpinned the vote for Hamas.

The morning after the election, a few senior members of the Bush administration advocated giving Hamas a chance to engage Israel on practical issues, including travel permits, the power grid, water, and commerce. If Hamas failed to do so within a couple of months, these officials argued, the United States and Israel would pull the rug from under Hamas.

That argument, which according to media reports at the time, was favoured by President Bush, lasted for one day. The counter argument favouring an immediate isolation of Hamas, which was strongly advocated by neoconservatives in the United States and in Israel, carried the day.

The Gaza wars in 2008-9, 2012, and now are arguably a direct result of the refusal of Israel and the United States to accept the 2006 election results and engage Hamas. Had engagement occurred, the living standards of Gazans would have improved markedly; there would have been no need for a “tunnel economy” or a “tunnel military.”

Unfortunately, Israeli politicians today seem to be viewing Hamas and the continued occupation and encirclement through the same narrow prism of 2006.

The Way Forward

In a recent article I argued the two-state solution was dead and called for new thinking. The same applies to the current conflict.

After 47 years of occupation, nine years of blockading Gaza, two intifadas, and three wars, Israel, the Palestinians, and the United States must accept the fact that war, terrorism, and occupation cannot solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

With the death of the two-state option, the peaceful coexistence of Israelis and Palestinians between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River can only be achieved through a new paradigm grounded in justice, human dignity, equality, and tolerance.

Including Hamas in talks for an enduring end to the conflict could be done through a joint Palestinian delegation comprised of the PA, Hamas, and other factions. For this approach to succeed, however, it must include an end to the blockade of Gaza.

Once the two peoples living together embark on this path, they will reject the logic of occupation and terrorism and focus on building a more hopeful future.

For its part, the United States should jettison all futile attempts to push for a so-called peace process. Rather, we should begin serious efforts to help the two peoples operationalise the new paradigm.

Emile Nakhleh is a Research Professor at the University of New Mexico, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of “A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World.”

Editing by: Kitty Stapp

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