Inter Press Service » Civilisations Find Alliances Turning the World Downside Up Thu, 29 Jan 2015 17:21:29 +0000 en-US hourly 1 OPINION: Islamic Reformation, the Antidote to Terrorism Wed, 14 Jan 2015 15:02:55 +0000 Emile Nakhleh

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.”

By Emile Nakhleh
WASHINGTON, Jan 14 2015 (IPS)

The horrific terrorist attack on the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo has once again raised the question about violence and Islam. Why is it, some ask, that so much terrorism has been committed in the name of Islam, and why do violent jihadists seek justification of their actions in their religion?

Regardless of whether or not Said and Cherif Kouachi, the two brothers who attacked Charlie Hebdo, were pious or engaged in un-Islamic behavior in their personal lives, the fact remains they used Islamic idioms, such as “Allahu Akbar” or “God is Great,” to celebrate their bloody violence. Other Islamic terrorists have invoked similar idioms during previous terrorist operations.“Modern Pharaohs” and dynastic potentates continue to practice their repressive policies across the Middle East, totally oblivious to the pain and suffering of their people and the hopelessness of their youth.

Although many Muslim leaders and theologians worldwide have denounced the assault on the Paris-based magazine, many Muslim autocrats continue to exploit Islam for selfish reasons. For example, during the same week of the attacks in France, Saudi Arabia convicted one of its citizen bloggers and sentenced him to a lengthy jail term, a huge fine, and one thousand floggings. His “crime:” calling for liberal reforms of the Saudi regime.

Since Sep. 11, 2001, scholars of Islam have explored the factors that drive Islamic radicalism and the reasons why radical activists have “hijacked” or “stolen” mainstream Islam. Based on public opinion polls and expert analysis, most observers assess that two key factors have contributed to radicalisation and terrorism: a regime’s domestic and foreign policy, and the conservative, intolerant Salafi-Wahhabi Islamic ideology coming mostly out of Saudi Arabia.

For the past decade and half, reasoned analysis has suggested that Arab Islamic states, Muslim scholars, and Western countries could take specific steps in order to neutralise these factors. This analysis concedes, however, that the desired results would require time, resources, courage, and above all, vision and commitment.

What drives domestic terrorism?

In the domestic policy arena, economic, political, and social issues have framed the radical narrative and empowered extremist activists. These include: dictatorship, repression, corruption, unemployment, inadequate education, poverty, scarcity of clean water, food, and electricity, and poor sanitary conditions.

High unemployment, which ranges from 25-50 percent among the 15-29 cohort in most Arab and Muslim countries, has created a poor, alienated, angry, and inadequately educated youthful generation that does not identify with the state.  Many turn to violence and terrorism and end up serving as foot soldier “jihadists” in terrorist organisations, including the Islamic State, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and others.

Autocratic regimes in several Arab and Islamic countries have ignored these conditions and the ensuing grievances for years while maintaining their hold on power. “Modern Pharaohs” and dynastic potentates continue to practice their repressive policies across the Middle East, totally oblivious to the pain and suffering of their people and the hopelessness of their youth.

In the foreign policy arena, public opinion polls in Arab and Muslim countries have shown that specific American policies toward Arabs and Muslims have created a serious rift between the United States and the Islamic world.

These include a perceived U.S. war on Islam, the continued detention of Muslims at Guantanamo Bay, unwavering support for the continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, on-going violations of Muslims’ human rights in the name of the war on terrorism, and the coddling of Arab Muslim dictators.

Islamic radicals have propagated the claim, which has resonated with many Muslims, that their rulers, or the “near enemy,” are propped up, financed, and armed by the United States and other Western powers or the “far enemy.” Therefore, “jihad” becomes a “duty” against both of these “enemies.”

Although many mainstream Muslims saw some validity in the radicals’ argument that domestic and foreign policy often underpin and justify jihad, they attribute much of the violence and terrorism to radical, intolerant ideological interpretations of Sunni Islam, mostly found in the teachings of the Hanbali school of jurisprudence adhered to by Saudi state and religious establishment.

Some contemporary Islamic thinkers have accordingly argued that Islam must undergo a process of reformation. The basic premise of such reformation is to transport Islam from 7th Century Arabia, where the Koran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, to a globalised 21st century world that transcends Arabia and the traditional “abode of Islam.”

Calls for Islamic Reformation

Reformist Islamic thinkers—including Syrian Muhammad Shahrur, Iranians Abdul Karim Soroush and Mohsen Kadivar, Swiss-Egyptian Tariq Ramadan, Egyptian-American Khaled Abu El Fadl, Sudanese-American Abdullahi Ahmad An-Naim, Egyptian Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, and Malaysians Anwar Ibrahim and Farish Noor—have advocated taking a new look at Islam.

Although their work is based on different religious and cultural narratives, these thinkers generally agree on four key fundamental points:

1. Islam was revealed at a specific time in a specific place and in a response to specific conditions and situations. For example, certain chapters or suras were revealed to Muhammad in Medina while he was fighting several battles and struggling to create his umma-based “Islamic State.”

2. If Islam desires to be accepted as a global religion with universal principles, Muslim theologians should adapt Islam to the modern world where millions of Muslims live as minorities in non-Muslim countries—from India and China to the Americas and Europe. The communal theological concept of the umma that was central to Muhammad’s Islamic State in Medina is no longer valid in a complex, multicultural and multi-religious world.

3. If the millions of Muslims living outside the “heartland” of Islam aspire to become productive citizens in their adopted countries, they would need to view their religion as a personal connection between them and their God, not a communal body of belief that dictates their social interaction with non-Muslims or with their status as a minority. If they want to live in peace with fellow citizens in secular Western countries, they must abide by the principles of tolerance of the “other,” compromise, and peaceful co-existence with other religions.

4. Radical and intolerant Islamic ideology does not represent the mainstream body of Muslim theology. Whereas radicals and terrorists, from Osama Bin Ladin to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi have often quoted the war-like Medina Koranic suras, Islamic reformation should focus on the suras revealed to Muhammad in Mecca, which advocate universalist principles akin to those of Christianity and Judaism. These suras also recognise Moses and Jesus as prophets and messengers of God.

Reformist thinkers also agree that Muslim theologians and scholars all over the world should preach to radicals in particular that Islam does not condone terrorism and should not be invoked to justify violence. Although in recent years would-be terrorists invariably sought a religious justification or a fatwa from a religious cleric to justify their terrorist operation, a “reformed” Islam would ban the issuance of such fatwas.

Failed reformation attempts

Regimes have yet to address the domestic policies that have fueled radicalism and terrorism.

In terms of the Salafi-Wahhabi ideology, Saudi Arabia continues to teach the Hanbali driven doctrine in its schools and export it to other countries. It’s not therefore surprising that the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) bases its government and social “philosophy” on the Saudi religious ideology. According to media reports, some Saudi textbooks are currently being taught in schools in Iraqi and Syrian territory controlled by IS.

Semi Ghesmi, a Salafist student and elected head of the National Students Union in Tunisia, supports what he calls the "jihad" in Syria. Credit: Giuliana Sgrena/IPS

Semi Ghesmi, a Salafist student and elected head of the National Students Union in Tunisia, supports what he calls the “jihad” in Syria. Credit: Giuliana Sgrena/IPS

Calls for reformation have not taken root in the Sunni Muslim world because once the four schools jurisprudence—Hanbali, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanafi—were accepted in the 10th century as representing the complete doctrine of Sunni Islam, the door of reasoning or ijtihad was closed shut. Muslim theologians and leaders would not allow any new doctrinal thinking and would readily brand any such thought or thinkers as seditious.

An important reason why the calls for reformation have fallen on deaf ears is because in the past two decades, many of the reformist thinkers have lived outside the Muslim heartland, taught in Western universities, and wrote in foreign languages. Their academic arguments were rarely translated into Arabic and other “Islamic” languages.

Even if some of the articles advocating reformation were translated, the average Muslim in Muslim countries with a high school or college education barely understood or comprehended the reformists’ theological arguments renouncing violence and terrorism.

How to defeat Islamic terrorism

If Arab Islamic rulers are sincere in their fight against terrorism, they need to implement drastically different economic, political, and social policies. They must reform their educational systems, fund massive entrepreneurial projects that aim at job creation, institute transitions to democracy, and empower their people to become creative citizens.

Dictatorship, autocracy, and family rule without popular support or legitimacy will not survive for long in the 21st century. Arab and Muslim youth are connected to the outside world and wired into massive global networks of social media. Many of them believe that their regimes are anachronistic and ossified. To gain their rights and freedoms, these youth, men and women have come to believe their political systems must be replaced and their 7th century religion must be reformed.

Until this happens, terrorism in the name of Islam, whether in Paris or Baghdad, will remain a menace for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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OPINION: Understanding Education for Global Citizenship Tue, 30 Dec 2014 18:40:16 +0000 Kartikeya V. Sarabhai

Kartikeya V.Sarabhai is the founder and director of the Centre for Environment Education headquartered in Ahmedabad, with 40 offices across India.

By Kartikeya V. Sarabhai
AHMEDABAD, India, Dec 30 2014 (IPS)

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) brings together concerns about the environment, economic development and social aspects. Since 1972, when the first U.N. Conference on the Human Environment was held in Stockholm, Sweden, there has been increasing awareness of the intricate link between conserving the environment and human development.

Photo courtesy of Purvivyas/cc by 3.0

Photo courtesy of Purvivyas/cc by 3.0

The fact that our lifestyles and the way we have developed have a major impact on the environment was known earlier. Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, in 1962, had been an eye-opener, especially in the United States where it was published.

But the 1976 U.N. Conference on the Human Habitat was perhaps the beginning of the realisation that development and environment had to be dealt with together. By the time of the first Rio conference in 1992, the deterioration of the environment was recognised as a global issue.

The conventions on biodiversity and climate change both were formulated at this conference. It was increasingly clear that no longer could countries solve their problems at the national level. With greater awareness especially on climate change one realised that what happens in one part of the planet has an impact on another.

Notwithstanding what President George W. Bush declared at Rio – that “The American way of life is not up for negotiations” – the world came to realise that ultimately these issues had to do with people’s lifestyles. The development paradigm that had emerged was carbon intensive and extremely wasteful.It is not laws alone that can change people’s behaviour but people themselves behaving with a sense of responsibility.

The global footprint measure was developed in 1990 by Canadian ecologist William Rees and Swiss-born regional planner Mathis Wackernagal at the University of British Columbia. It was a good way of knowing just how an individual’s action impacted the planet. Since the 1970s the total human footprint has exceeded the capacity of the planet.

While the global debate then and to a large extend even today seems based on the idea that making changes in policy and introducing new technologies can somehow shrink this footprint to sustainable levels, this assumption is widely questioned.

At the core of the change that is required is the transformation that happens in the way people relate to the planet and how we produce, consume and waste resources. It is not laws alone that can change people’s behaviour but people themselves behaving with a sense of responsibility. This sense of responsibility is at the heart of the concept of citizenship.

Global Citizenship therefore almost naturally emerges from an understanding of environment and sustainable development. ESD therefore becomes the foundation for Global Citizenship Education (GCE).

A Global Citizen is not someone who can be passive, but needs to contribute. ESD, unlike most formal education programmes, has the necessary action component built into it. ESD though shortened to three letters actually stands for four words. The missing word in the abbreviation is “for”, a word as important as the other three.

It is not Sustainable Development Education, which would indicate it is about teaching people about sustainable development (SD). What “for” does is, it puts an action goal at the end of the education process. It is not just to increase public awareness and knowledge about SD but in fact to act to achieve it.

The Global Education First Initiative (GEFI) of the U.N. secretary-general speaks of Global Citizenship as one of the three key concepts that the world needs to strive for in education today. GCE involves widening horizons and seeing problems from different points of view. Multi-stakeholder discussions are an important part of a GCE Programme. While we may strive for this, it is not always easy to understand and experience different points of view.

The Centre for Environment Education (CEE) in Ahmedabad, India, along with CEE Australia has launched the Global Citizenship for Sustainability (GCS) Programme which involves connecting children in schools in different countries around a nature-based theme.

For instance, Project 1600 connects eight schools on the coast of Gujarat in Western India with similar number of schools on the coast of Queensland in Australia. Through projects concerning the marine environment, children living in very different societies at different levels of development compare notes. The exchange forces students to think out of the box and understand issues from a very different perspective, from a different part of the globe.

Internships where students spend time in countries and environments that are very different from their own are also a very effective tool for GCE. Increasing global connectivity has also opened up possibilities for GCE that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.

The work on ESD done during the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development led by UNESCO and partnered with a number of organisations across the globe has set the foundation towards GCE. Tools to measure GCE are still under development, as is the concept itself. The Brookings Institute through its Global Citizenship Working Group of the Learning Metrics Task Force 2.0 Program has made a beginning in these tools.

The continuous feedback and strengthening of the programme should lead to specific insights on GCE much as the last decade of work in ESD has taught the global community the finer points of creating a sense of responsibility to the planet while the same time engaging in a development process.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Citizens of the World, Unite! Sat, 29 Nov 2014 01:25:55 +0000 Roger Hamilton-Martin Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury chaired the Forum on Nov. 18, 2014 in New York at the Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka to the United Nations. Credit: Roger Hamilton-Martin/IPS

Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury chaired the Forum on Nov. 18, 2014 in New York at the Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka to the United Nations. Credit: Roger Hamilton-Martin/IPS

By Roger Hamilton-Martin

As politics, economies, conflicts and cultures become increasingly intertwined, will individual identities also begin to transcend national boundaries?

The elusive nature of “global citizenship” was noted by Sri Lanka’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Dr. Palitha Kohona, at an IPS Forum on Global Citizenship last week at the Sri Lankan Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York."We should come out of our narrow boundaries, not only of ourselves but of our communities." -- Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury

“The concept of global citizenship has challenged the minds of humans for a very long time although its exact definition has never really crystallised,” Kohona said.

The idea was famously put forth by Tony Blair during a speech in Chicago in 1999. “We are all internationalists now, whether we like it or not. We cannot refuse to participate in global markets if we want to prosper. We cannot ignore new political ideas in other countries if we want to innovate,” Blair said.

Ambassador Kohona said that even after the collapse of the empires spawned by the Westphalian system, the growth of powerful individual states has not encouraged the development of a genuinely global system.

Kohona stressed the importance of the United Nations as an institution in which to hold up the principle of global citizenship.

“The establishment of the United Nations has created the forum for humanity to make an effort to address common issues together from a global perspective. It is the most effective forum available to all nation states. The United Nations and its agencies have been successful in generating sympathy for the usefulness of approaching many of today’s challenges together.”

The Forum was chaired by Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury, former representative for Bangladesh and the prime mover of the 1999 General Assembly resolution that adopted the U.N. Declaration and the Programme of Action (PoA) on the Culture of Peace.

“When we speak of global citizenship, certain thoughts come to mind,” he said. “The first thing to understand is spirituality. What are our values, what are our commitments as human beings? The second is the belief in the oneness of humanity. We should come out of our narrow boundaries, not only of ourselves but of our communities.”

Despite challenges, many of the panellists agreed that the promotion of global citizenship is advancing against the headwinds of the purported clash of civilisations, declining resources, and cultural cynicism.

IPS Chair Ambassador Walther Lichem noted that, “Almost to the day 200 years after the initiation of multilateral diplomacy at the Congress of Vienna, we become aware that multilateral diplomacy is increasingly giving way to global governance.”

Lichem noted that global citizenship needs to be seen in the context of a system that espouses norms such as the “responsibility to protect,” a principle that puts the international community above the nation state when it comes to protecting its own citizens.

“Global citizenship is to be understood as a citizenship with human rights as a way of life,” Lichem said.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has identified global citizenship as the third priority area in his Global Education First initiative, seeing it as important that students don’t simply learn how to pass exams and get jobs in their own countries, but are instilled with an understanding of the importance of respect and responsibility across cultures, countries and regions.

“Global citizenship is a fight against limbo,” said Erol Avdovic, vice president of the United Nations Correspondents Association. “It is the fight against misconception and against ignoring – or even worse, manipulating – simple facts.”

The United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, an entity that explores the roots of polarisation between societies and cultures was in attendance at the Forum, with spokesperson for the High Representative Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, Nihal Saad noting that education for global citizenship “has the power to shape a sustainable future and better world.

“Educational policies should promote peace, mutual respect and environmental care. It does not suffice for education to produce individuals who can read, write and count. Education should and must bring shared values to life.”

Saad’s sentiments were shared by Monte Joffee, Soka Gakkai International’s USA representative, who said, “Our curriculum needs to include more topics of a global nature so our students can develop empathetic resonance with ‘the other’.

“This does not reach to the core of today’s educational crisis. Speaking only of American education, I must say that the inequalities of educational funding, the levels of despair and hopelessness in too many of our communities… are numbing realities and ‘add-ons’ to the curriculum about global citizenship are not the solution.”

Joffee related the story of Anand Kumar, an Indian mathematician who is well known for his “Super 30” programme in Patna, Bihar. It prepares economically disadvantaged students for the entrance examination for the renowned Indian Institutes of Technology (ITT) engineering schools, with great success.

His programme selects 30 talented candidates from disadvantaged, tutors them, and provides study materials and lodging for a year.

Joffee noted that this story provides a great model for Global Citizenship Education. “Educators must say, ‘I will start right here, with the student right in front of me.'”

Ramu Damodaran from United Nations Department of Public Information Outreach Division also spoke of the importance of academics being given more opportunities to have a voice at the United Nations.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Laying the Foundations of a World Citizens Movement Wed, 26 Nov 2014 00:25:17 +0000 Anthony George In a spirit of inquiry and engagement, participants at the “Toward a World Citizens Movement: Learning from the Grassroots” conference spent much of their time interacting with each other. Credit: Courtesy of DEEEP

In a spirit of inquiry and engagement, participants at the “Toward a World Citizens Movement: Learning from the Grassroots” conference spent much of their time interacting with each other. Credit: Courtesy of DEEEP

By Anthony George

Has organised civil society, bound up in internal bureaucracy, in slow, tired processes and donor accountability, become simply another layer of a global system that perpetuates injustice and inequality?

How can civil society organizations (CSOs) build a broad movement that draws in, represents and mobilises the citizenry, and how can they effect fundamental, systemic transformation, rather than trading in incremental change?

This kind of introspective reflection was at the heart of a process of engagement among CSOs from around the world that gathered in Johannesburg from Nov. 19 to 21 for the “Toward a World Citizens Movement: Learning from the Grassroots” conference.

Organised byDEEEP, a project within the European civil society umbrella organisation CONCORD which builds capacity among CSOs and carries out advocacy around global citizenship and global citizenship education, the conference brought together 200 participants.“It is important that people understand the inter-linkages at the global level; that they understand that they are part of the system and can act, based on their rights, to influence the system in order to bring about change and make life better – so it’s no longer someone else deciding things on behalf of the citizens” – Rilli Lappalainen, Secretary-General of the Finnish NGDO Platform

Key partners were CIVICUS (the World Alliance for Citizen Participation, which is one of the largest and most diverse global civil society networks) and GCAP (Global Call to Action Against Poverty).

The three-day gathering was part of a larger series of conferences and activities that were arranged to coincide during the 2014 International Civil Society Week organised by CIVICUS, which closed Nov. 24.

Global citizenship is a concept that is gaining currency within the United Nations system, to the delight of people like Rilli Lappalainen, Secretary-General of the Finnish NGDO Platform and a key advocate for global citizenship education.

At the heart of this concept is people’s empowerment, explains Lappalainen. “It is important that people understand the inter-linkages at the global level; that they understand that they are part of the system and can act, based on their rights, to influence the system in order to bring about change and make life better – so it’s no longer someone else deciding things on behalf of the citizens.”

The process of introspection around building an effective civil society movement that can lead to such change began a year ago at the first Global Conference, also held in Johannesburg.

The discourse there highlighted the need for new ways of thinking and working – for the humility to linger in the uncomfortable spaces of not knowing, for processes of mutual learning, sharing and questioning.

This new spirit of inquiry and engagement, very much evident in the creative, interactive format of this year’s conference, is encapsulated in an aphorism introduced by thought-leader Bayo Akomolafe from Nigeria: “The time is very urgent – let us slow down”.

Akomolafe’s keynote address explored the need for a shift in process: “We are realising our theories of change need to change,” he said. “We must slow down today because running faster in a dark maze will not help us find our way out.”

“We must slow down today,” he continued, “because if we have to travel far, we must find comfort in each other – in all the glorious ambiguity that being in community brings … We must slow down because that is the only way we will see … the contours of new possibilities urgently seeking to open to us.”

A key opportunity for mutual learning and questioning was provided on the second day by a panel on ‘Challenging World Views’.

Prof Rob O’Donoghue from the Environmental Learning Research Centre at South Africa’s Rhodes University explored the philosophy of ubuntu, Brazilian activist and community organiser Eduardo Rombauer spoke about the principles of horizontal organising, and Hiro Sakurai, representative of the Buddhist network Soka Gakkai International (SGI) to the United Nations in New York, discussed the network’s core philosophy of soka, or value creation.

A female activist from Bhutan who was to join the panel was unable to do so because of difficulties in acquiring a visa – a situation that highlighted a troubling observation made by Danny Sriskandarajah, head of CIVICUS, about the ways in which the space for CSOs to work is being shrunk around the world.

The absence of women on the panel was noted as problematic. How is it possible to effectively question a global system that is so deeply patriarchal without the voices of women, asked a male participant. This prompted the spontaneous inclusion of a female member of the audience.

In the spirit of embracing not-knowing, the panellists were asked to pose the questions they think we should be asking. How do we understand and access our power? How do we foster people’s engagement and break out of our own particular interests to engage in more systems-based thinking? How can multiple worldviews meet and share a moral compass?

Ubuntu philosophy, explained O’Donoghue, can be defined by the statement: “A person is a person through other people.”

The implications of this perspective for the issues at hand are that answers to the problems affecting people on the margins cannot be pre-defined from the outside, but must be worked out through solidarity and through a process of struggle. You cannot come with answers; you can only come into the company of others and share the problems, so that solutions begin to emerge from the margins.

The core perspective of soka philosophy is that each person has the innate ability to create value – to create a positive change – in whatever circumstances they find themselves. Millions of people, Sakurai pointed out, are proving the validity of this idea in their own contexts. This is the essence of the Soka movement.

His point was echoed the following evening in the address of Graca Machel, wife of the late Nelson Mandela, at a CIVICUS reception, in which she spoke of the profound challenges confronting civil society as poverty and inequality deepen and global leaders seem increasingly dismissive of the voices of the people.

Then, toward the end of her speech, she softly recalled “my friend Madiba” (Mandela’s clan name) in the final years of his life, and his consistent message at that time that things are now in our hands.

What he showed us by his example, she said, is that each person has immense resources of good within them. Our task is to draw these out each day and exercise them in the world, wherever we are and in whatever ways we can.

Those listening to Machel saw Mandela’s message as a sign of encouragement in their efforts to create the World Citizens Movement of tomorrow.

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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Ebola and ISIS: A Learning Exchange Between U.N. and Faith-based Organisations Thu, 13 Nov 2014 14:31:05 +0000 Azza Karam Scene from an Ebola treatment facility run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Guéckédou, Guinea. Credit: UN Photo/Ari Gaitanis

Scene from an Ebola treatment facility run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Guéckédou, Guinea. Credit: UN Photo/Ari Gaitanis

By Azza Karam
NEW YORK, Nov 13 2014 (IPS)

The simultaneity presented by the outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus on one hand and militant barbarism ostensibly in the name of Islam on the other present the international development community – particularly the United Nations and international NGOs – with challenges, as well as opportunities.

At first sight, the two are unrelated phenomena. One appears to be largely focused on the collapse of health services in three countries, and to a lesser extent, on economic and political ramifications thereof.ISIS claims religion in its very name, ethos and gruesome actions. Can the international humanitarian and development worlds afford to continue to ignore religious dynamics – precisely because of the extent to which their actions challenge human rights-based actions?

The other, i.e., ISIS/ISIL/IS, appears to be a complex basket of geopolitical conflagrations involving a violently militant political Islam, weak governance dynamics, botched uprisings, transnational youth disaffection, arms proliferation — all to name but a few.

So what is the connection and why is this relevant to international development and humanitarian engagement?

In a Strategic Learning Exchange organised by several United Nations bodies, and attended by U.N. development and humanitarian staff, and their counterparts from a number of international faith-based development NGOs, which took place in Turin, Italy last week, the confluence of these challenges was tackled head-on.

The U.N. and faith-based NGO staff present work both in their headquarter organisations as well as on the ground in countries in Africa, Asia, and the Arab region.

In both sets of cases, there are realties of overstretched service providers seeking to respond, in real time, to rising death tolls, collapsing state-run services, and the actual inability to deliver basic necessities to communities struggling to stay alive because of diverse, but nevertheless man-made, barriers.

Some of these are run by those carrying arms and demarcating territories as off limits while those within them are imprisoned, tortured, killed, terrorized, and starved. Other barriers are made of communities hiding their ill and their dead, distrusting and fearing those seeking to help, and anguished over the loss not just of loved ones, but also of care-takers, sources of income, and means of protection.

But there are other barriers which the last few weeks and months have revealed as well, some of which present long-term challenges to institutional and organisational cultures, as well as to the entire ethos of international humanitarianism and development as we know it today.

The response to the Ebola virus, first and foremost, focused on the medical aspects – which was/is urgent and unquestionable.

But it took months before international aid workers realised one of many tipping points in the equation of death and disease transmission: that burial methods were key, and that even though there are manuals which seek to regulate those methods so as to ensure medical safety, there was relatively less attention paid to the combined matter of values, dignity and local cultural practices in such crisis contexts.

Burying the dead in a community touches the very belief systems which give value and meaning to life. How those infected with Ebola were buried had to be tackled in a way that bridged the very legitimate medical health concerns, but also enabled the family and community members to go on living – with some shred of meaningfulness to their already traumatised selves – while not getting infected.

When this particular dilemma was noted, faith leaders have been hastily assembled to advise on burial methods which bridge dignity with safety in these particular circumstances. But the broader and more long-term roles of ‘sensitising’ and bridging the medical-cultural gap between international aid workers, local medical personnel and over-wrought communities have yet to be worked out.

And the opportunity to address this medical-cultural gap (which is not new to development or humanitarian work) extends beyond burials of the dead and medical care for the living, to providing psycho-social support, and ensuring economic livelihoods. In these areas, too, faith-based NGOs have roles to play.

The militancy of ISIS and the repercussions of the war currently being waged both with and against them presents a similar set of cultural challenges to national and international actors.

This cultural feature was reiterated with cases from the same Arab region involving Hizbullah, Hamas, and now ISIS. How to navigate practical roadblocks controlled by parties you are not supposed to be talking to as a matter of principle, and who question the very legitimacy of your mandate, as a matter of practice – precisely because it does not ‘do religion’ and is part of a ‘Western secular agenda’?

Yes, there are manuals and protocols and procedures governing the provision of services and rules of engagement – in compliance with international human rights obligations. Yet, some hard questions are now glaring: should any form of ‘dialogue’ or outreach be possible between those who speak human rights law, and those who wish to speak only of “God’s laws”?

Are there lessons to be learned from prior engagement with (now relatively more mainstream) Hizbullah and Hamas, which may have resulted in a different trajectory for the engagement with ISIS today, perhaps?

Boko Haram’s actions in Nigeria and al-Qaeda’s presence (and elimination of Bin Laden) in Afghanistan have highlighted a link between religious dogma and critical health implications. Unlike with Ebola however, a possible role for faith leaders – and other faith-based humanitarian and development actors – has not been solicited. At least, not openly so.

And yet, could these roles shed some light on the particular ability of some religious actors to maneuver within humanitarian emergencies in these specific circumstances?

Could a clearer appreciation of the potential value-added of faith-based interventions – which have to be distinguished from those of ISIS, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, etc. – increase understanding of and dealing with a world view that is costing lives, now and in the future?

ISIS claims religion in its very name, ethos and gruesome actions. Can the international humanitarian and development worlds afford to continue to ignore religious dynamics – precisely because of the extent to which their actions challenge human rights-based actions?

And if the international community makes a choice to deal with any religious overtones – and is not capacitated in its current frameworks to do so – whose assistance will be needed to call upon, in which fora and with what means?

There are answers to some of these questions already percolating in several policy-making corridors, inherent in the experience of many cadres working with faith-based/ faith-inspired development NGOs, and academics who have devoted decades of research.

What was clear from the discussions in Turin, and other roundtables on religion and development, is that these questions have to be posed, because the answers belie multiple opportunities.

All opinions expressed belong to the author, and are not representative or descriptive of the positions of any organisation, Member State, Board, staff member or territorial entity.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Q&A: Emerging Powers Have a Key Role in Peace and Security Mon, 10 Nov 2014 00:45:46 +0000 Roger Hamilton-Martin Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

By Roger Hamilton-Martin

Ambassador Nassir Abdulaziz al-Nasser currently heads the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations. Between 2011-2012 he was president of the General Assembly, setting the agenda for debate in the assembly during the Arab Spring.

His new book, “A year at the helm of the General Assembly” has just been published by NYU Press.You don’t want to enlarge the Security Council for the sake of representation only. No, (you must enlarge) for the commitment, the contribution.

IPS correspondent Roger Hamilton-Martin interviewed the ambassador on issues central to the book– mediation and U.N. reform. Excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: How can we reform the General Assembly to ensure that practical steps are taken to improve implementation of resolutions by member states?

A: I look at the problem from (the perspective of) the mandate of the president of the General Assembly. One year. How can you achieve good results in one year? I was lucky because I was elected in February 2011 and I was still the ambassador of Qatar to the U.N., so it gave me enough time to prepare and organise.

I was ready from June, you know. June 2011. I took over in September. For someone who doesn’t know the system very well, he doesn’t know many people in the U.N… by the time he takes over, half of the year is gone. By the time he wants to discuss and reach agreement or create consensus, the other half is gone.

We need at least two years for the president. At least, if not more. One of the former PGAs tried to, with many countries, to try to come up with an agreement and a draft resolution to amend the charter. They faced great difficulties.

Q: On the Security Council, some say that certain countries are less relevant to global security currently than they were – Britain and France, for example. Should these countries stay as permanent members?

A: It is not up to me to say, “This country is better than that country.” This is a negotiation that must be had amongst the P5. We are looking at this to increase the permanent members not to decrease the current (P5) – they will be there.

We need more, you see many emerging powers around the world and they can also contribute to peace and security. You don’t need them for prestige; you need them for their involvement, for their support, for their role in the regions.

That’s where I am talking about how to reform, not to change the structure. We need a very effective council. How to achieve that? You have to look at what was the problem in the last 60, 70 years and how you can change based on that. I served there, I represented Qatar. If you don’t have consensus, and solidarity on issues, it’s a big problem.

The agreement among the 15 is very important. First among the P5, and then among the 15. So you don’t want to enlarge the council for the sake of representation only. No, (you must enlarge) for the commitment, the contribution.

Q: Is there a reluctance to amend the charter?

A: The P5 will not allow it. The United Nations always been accused by many people, NGOs, governments, but they don’t know, it’s not the fault of the U.N.

The U.N. is a state-driven – if there is consensus, there is agreement, and there is achievement. If there is no achievement, there is nothing. I want here to add a commend to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon – he in his two terms did a lot, but still needs the support of member states.

If there is support you will see a different U.N.  I’m sure in the constitutions of many countries from time to time there is an amendment to deal with issues that weren’t there 100 or 200 years ago. It’s very essential and very important.

Q: In the history of the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA), there have only been three female presidents. What could be done to heighten participation?

A: We would love to see UNGA female presidents. Women who have assumed senior positions at the U.N. in general as under secretary-generals or assistant secretary generals have done remarkable jobs. I am sure they will do great as presidents of the General Assembly as well.

We need to encourage member states who nominate their candidates for this top position to support women candidates.  I am all for women leadership and gender balance.

Q: With the current situation in Iraq and Syria, what role does mediation have to play when it comes to ISIS? Is there a place for sitting down at the table with a militant organisation?

A: Today we always accuse governments that they are not doing enough. But politics and political decisions are not enough.  There is a responsibility on the religious leaders, there is responsibility on civil society, there is a responsibility on academia and university, there is responsibility even on the private sector.

So I think we should work together – religious leaders today can get involved in what’s going on with ISIS. You know young people – lack of education, negative environment, they an easy target for those people (ISIS).

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Democracy is “Radical” in Northern Syria Tue, 28 Oct 2014 19:27:38 +0000 Karlos Zurutuza Garbage collection is among the many duties of the Democratic Self-Management in force in the three mainly Kurdish enclaves of northern Syria. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

Garbage collection is among the many duties of the Democratic Self-Management in force in the three mainly Kurdish enclaves of northern Syria. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

By Karlos Zurutuza
AMUDA, Syria, Oct 28 2014 (IPS)

There was never anything particularly remarkable about this northern town of 25,000. However, today it has become the lab for one the most pioneering political experiments ever conducted in the entire Middle East region.

Located 700 kilometres northeast of Damascus, Amuda hosts the headquarters of the so-called “Democratic Self-Management of Jazeera Canton”. Along with Afrin and the besieged Kobani, Jazeera is one of the three enclaves under Kurdish rule, although such a statement is not entirely accurate.

At the entrance of the government building, vice-president Elizabeth Gawrie greets IPS with a shlomo, “peace” in her native Syriac language.

“We decided to move here in January this year for security reasons because [Bashar Hafez al] Assad is still present in Qamishli – the provincial capital, 25 km east of Amuda,” notes the former mathematics teacher before tea is served.The so-called "third way" attracted sectors among the other local communities such as Arabs and Syriacs, a collaboration that would eventually materialise into a Social Contract, a kind of ‘constitution’ that applies to the three enclaves in question – Jazeera, Afrin and Kobani

After the outbreak of civil war in Syria in March 2011, the Kurds in the north of the country opted for a neutrality that has forced them into clashes with both government and opposition forces.

This so-called “third way” attracted sectors among the other local communities such as Arabs and Syriacs, a collaboration that would eventually materialise into a Social Contract, a kind of ‘constitution’ that applies to the three enclaves in question – Jazeera, Afrin and Kobani

“Each canton has its own government with its own president, two vice-presidents and several ministries: Economy, Women, Trade, Human Rights … up to a total of 22,” explains Gawrie. Among the ministers in Jazeera, she adds, there are four Arabs, three Christians and a Chechen; Syria has hosted a significant Caucasian community since the late 19th century.

“We have lived together for centuries and there is no reason why this should be changed,” claims the canton´s vice-president, ensuring that the Democratic Self-Management is “a model of peaceful coexistence that would also work for the whole of Syria.”

While there was no religious persecution under the Assads – both father and son – those who defended a national identity other than the Arab identity, as in the case of the Syriacs and the Kurds, were harshly repressed. Gawrie says that many members of her coalition – the Syriac Union Party – have either disappeared or are still in prison.

Neither did Arab dissidents feel much more comfortable under the Assads. Hussein Taza Al Azam, an Arab from Qamishli, is the canton´s co-vice-president alongside Gawrie. From the meeting room where the 25 government officials conduct their meetings, he summarises the hardship political dissidents like him have faced in Syria over the last five decades.

“Since the arrival of the Baath Party to power in 1963, Syria has been a one-party state. There was no freedom of speech, human rights were systematically violated … It was a country fully under the control of the secret services,” explains Azam, who completed his doctorate in economics in Romania after spending several years in prison for his political dissent.

Wounds from the recent past have yet to heal but, for the time being, Article 3 of the Social Contract describes Jazeera as “ethnically and religiously diverse” while three official languages are recognised in the canton: ​​Kurdish, Arabic and Syriac. “All communities have the right to teach and be taught in their native language,” according to Article 9.

But it is not just language rights that Azam is proud of. “The three regions under democratic self-management are an integral part of Syria,” he says, “but also a model for a decentralised system of government.”

The members of government in Jazeera are either independent or belong to eleven political parties. Since local communities took over the three enclaves in July 2012, local opposition sectors backed by Masoud Barzani, president of the neighbouring Kurdistan Region of Iraq, have accused the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – the leading party among Syrian Kurds – of playing a dominant role.

PYD co-president Salih Muslim bluntly denies such claims. “From the PYD we advocate for direct self-determination, also called ‘radical democracy’,” he says.

“Basically we aim to decentralise power so that the people are able to take and execute their own decisions. It is a more sophisticated version of the concept of democracy, and that is in full harmony with many several social movements across Europe,” the political leader told IPS.

Spanish journalist and Middle East expert Manuel Martorell describes the concept of democratic self-management as an “innovative experiment in the region” which reconciles a high degree of self-government with the existence of the states.

“It may not be the concept of independence as we understand it, but the crux of the matter here is that they´re actually governing themselves,” Martorell told IPS.

Akram Hesso, president of Jazeera canton, is one the independent members in the local government. So far, the on-going war has posed a major hurdle for the holding of elections so Hesso feels compelled to explain how he gained his seat eight months ago.

“We had several meetings until a committee of 98 members representing the different communities was set up. They were responsible for electing the 25 of us that make up the government today,” this lawyer in his late thirties told IPS.

On Oct. 15, the parliament in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region approved a motion calling on the Federal Kurdistan Government to recognise and improve links with the administrations in Afrin, Kobani and Jazeera.

And while Hesso labels the move as a “major step forward”, he does not forget what is allowing the Democratic Self-Management to take root.

“Not far away there is an open front where our people are dying to protect us,” notes the senior official, referring to Kobani, but also to the other open fronts in Jazeera and Afrin.

However, he adds, “it´s not just about defending territory; it´s also about sticking to an idea of living together.”

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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OPINION: Put People Power Back at Centre of Citizen Action Tue, 07 Oct 2014 09:09:16 +0000 Danny Sriskandarajah

This column by Danny Sriskandarajah, Secretary-General of CIVICUS, the global alliance for citizen participation, explains the background to the open letter circulating among civil society activists that criticises the movement’s “co-option” by the very systems that it once set out to transform and calls for putting “people power” back at the centre of civil society and citizen action.

By Danny Sriskandarajah

A few weeks ago, I co-signed perhaps the most important open letter of my career. It was an open provocation to my fellow activists and colleagues, to the members of our organisation, and to all those who, like me, earn their living in the civil society sector.

Danny Sriskandarajah

Danny Sriskandarajah

CIVICUS, the organisation I lead, exists to strengthen civil society and citizen action throughout the world. Yet, I signed my name to an open letter that is critical of civil society; that says that our work has begun to reinforce the social, economic and political systems that we once set out to transform; that we have become too institutionalised, too professionalised, co-opted into systems and networks in which we are being outwitted and out-manoeuvred.

This issue of civil society “co-option” matters so much because we are losing the war – the war against poverty, climate change and social injustice. Many courageous, inspirational people and organisations are fighting the good fight. But too many of us – myself included – have become detached from the people and movements that drive real social and political change.“Our work has begun to reinforce the social, economic and political systems that we once set out to transform; we have become too institutionalised, too professionalised, co-opted into systems and networks in which we are being outwitted and out-manoeuvred”

The corporatisation of civil society has tamed our ambition; too often it has made us agents rather than agitators of the system.

Our intention in publishing this letter was not to berate, but to spark a debate; to challenge all of us to engage in re-configuring, re-imagining and re-energising civil society. A first and small step was to host a Twitter conversation, calling for responses to the ideas expressed in our letter. And it would seem that many civil society activists around the world share our concerns.

As a result we will be devoting as much time as possible during the International Civil Society Week that will take place this November in Johannesburg to discussing the issues raised in the letter. We are expecting more than 500 activists from all over the world to come together to discuss, analyse, challenge, learn and share experiences to tackle the obstacles we all face worldwide.

The week will take the theme ‘Citizen Action, People Power’, and feature more than 40 events – covering topics from good grant-making to new ways of promoting people-powered accountability – that are being organised by our members and partners from around the world.

The week will culminate in the CIVICUS World Assembly and close with the Nelson Mandela-Graça Machel Innovation Awards ceremony.

I still believe passionately in the power of civil society to change the world. Only we can formulate a new set of global organising principles, a new paradigm and an alternative model to the current narrative.

But, in order to do so, we will need to put the voice and actions of people back at the heart of our work. The global partnership that will make up the International Civil Society Week will be bound by this common aim – centred on the voices and actions of the people.

I am very excited about having so many brilliant minds in one creative space – to help us connect the forces that nurture positive social change, to share the tools that enhance citizen action, and to celebrate inspiring examples of people power.

Our primary accountability must be, not to donors, but to all those struggling for social justice. We must fight corporatism in our own ranks, re-connect with the power of informal and grassroots networks, tap into the wisdom of diverse activists, and re-balance our resources. This should not entail abandoning the organisations we have created; but evolving them to be truly accountable to those we seek to serve.

My hope is that the dialogue we have begun will help to re-connect us to an understanding of civil society as a deeply human construct, as a facilitator of empowering social relationships. In this, it will be crucial to reflect on the role of our own organisations. For only solutions that are at once pragmatic and radical will be sufficient to meet the challenges we face. (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)

(Edited by Phil Harris)

CIVICUS welcomes comments on the open letter here.

Register for International Civil Society Week here.

Danny Sriskandarajah can be followed on Twitter at

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SDGs Make Room for Education for Global Citizenship Fri, 29 Aug 2014 16:39:02 +0000 Joel Jaeger Soka Gakkai International (SGI) sponsors a workshop on education for global citizenship in the post-2015 development agenda. Credit: Hiro Sakurai / SGI

Soka Gakkai International (SGI) sponsors a workshop on education for global citizenship in the post-2015 development agenda. Credit: Hiro Sakurai / SGI

By Joel Jaeger

Civil society leaders and U.N. development experts gathered on Wednesday to discuss the role of education for global citizenship in the post-2015 development agenda.

The workshop, sponsored by Soka Gakkai International (SGI), was part of the U.N.’s 65th Annual Department of Public Information/Non-Governmental Organization (DPI/NGO) Conference.“We are part of a bigger humanity.” -- Ambassador Anwarul Chowdhury

Education “is linked to all areas of sustainable development and is vital in achieving all Sustainable Development Goals and targets,” Hiro Sakurai, SGI’s U.N. liaison office director, told IPS.

“Education for global citizenship deserves particular attention and emphasis in this regard as it helps link issues and disciplines, brings together all stakeholders, and fosters shared vision and objectives,” he said.

Ambassador Anwarul Chowdhury, former under-secretary general and high representative of the U.N., gave the event’s keynote address. He expressed his excitement at the increased prominence of global citizenship in development circles.

According to Ambassador Chowdhury, global citizenship requires “self-transformation” and can be a “pathway to a culture of peace.”

Progress requires a “determination to treat each one of us as a global citizen,” he said. “We are part of a bigger humanity.”

Saphira Ramesfar of the Baha’i International Community also spoke to the transformative nature of global citizenship.

“It is not enough for education to provide individuals who can read, write and count,” she said. “Education must be transformative and bring shared values to life, cultivating an active care for the world itself and for those with whom we share it. Education needs to fully assume its role in building just, unified and inclusive societies.”

In the past, attempts to build global citizenship have focused on the young, but Ambassador Chowdhury argued for a more expansive understanding of the concept.

“I believe that education for global citizenship is for all of us, irrespective of our age, irrespective of whether we are going through a formal education process or not,” Chowdhury said.

Anjali Rangaswami of the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs explained how NGOs have actively participated in the crafting of the proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Past years have set “a very high standard for civil society engagement,” according to Rangaswami.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), set to expire in 2015, included a target of universal primary education. The SDGs, if adopted in their current draft form, would aim for universal secondary education as well.

Under target four, the SDGs specifically mention education for global citizenship, an issue left unaddressed by the MDGs.

The U.N’s Global Education First Initiative (GEFI), which lists “fostering global citizenship” as one of its three main priorities, was influential in this new development.

According to Min Jeong Kim, head of GEFI’s secretariat team, the initiative was launched by the secretary-general in 2012 because “at that point education had sort of stagnated after rapid growth following adoption of [the] MDGs.”

After the panel speakers concluded, participants in the workshop broke into small groups to share their own perspectives on education for global citizenship.

The event was also co-sponsored by the Baha’i International Community, Global Movement for a Culture of Peace, Human Rights Education Associates, Sustainable Development Education Caucus and Values Caucus, bringing a wide variety of expertise to the table.

The SDGs are an opportunity for a whole new outlook on education.

Education should be focused on developing meaningful lives, rather than focused on making a living, Ambassador Chowdhury told IPS.

So far the paradigm has been “if you get a good job, then your education is worth it, and if you do not get a good job, then your education is worthless,” he said. “That has to change.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at

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The Silent Power of Boycotts and Blockades Tue, 08 Jul 2014 17:18:21 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida Nonviolent rally in front of the US Embassy in Chile, asking for the withdrawal of US troops from occupied territories. Credit: Rafael Edwards/Ressenza via Flickr/ CC 2.0

Nonviolent rally in front of the US Embassy in Chile, asking for the withdrawal of US troops from occupied territories. Credit: Rafael Edwards/Ressenza via Flickr/ CC 2.0

By Kanya D'Almeida
CAPE TOWN, Jul 8 2014 (IPS)

Peruse a few reports on global military expenditure and you will not be able to shake the image of the planet as one massive army camp, patrolled by heavily weaponised guards in a plethora of uniforms.

Last year, the world spent about 1.76 trillion dollars on military activity according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). The year before, arms sales among SIPRI’s ‘Top 100’ companies touched 410 billion dollars. It is estimated that 1,000 people die from gun violence every single day.

The newly founded Pan African Network on Nonviolence and Peacebuilding is the first regional initiative of its kind dedicated to connecting African grassroots organisers around nonviolent resistance.
But scattered amongst the barracks of this planetary war zone are scores of white flags, wielded daily by the many millions of people engaged in nonviolent resistance to the forces that threaten their existence.

Nearly 120 of these peace activists are currently assembled in Cape Town’s City Hall, for the quadrennial meeting of the 93-year-old War Resister’s International (WRI), a global network of activists from far-flung regions fighting on every imaginable front, from anti-trafficking in Australia to peace and reconciliation in Rwanda.

Returning to the very pulpit from where he led the historic 1989 March for Peace, Archbishop Desmond Tutu addressed the forum’s participants Saturday night by invoking memories of the long and bloody struggle against apartheid.

“Take our thanks back to your countries,” he told the audience, “even the poorest of which stood ready to receive South African exiles and refugees.” Drawing on the conference’s theme ‘Small Actions – Big Movements: the continuum of nonviolence’, he urged greater collaboration between disparate movements, in order to find strength in unity.

“The U.S. Command in Africa (AFRICOM) has now expanded to approximately 2,000 troops on the continent, covering 38 countries,” WRI Conference Coordinator Matt Meyer told IPS.

“With almost no money but a lot of passion and an understanding of the need for unity in the face of militarism, violence, and a re-colonisation of the land, we brought together people from every continent and 33 African countries to say: ‘We will continue to resist. We will build a beautiful new tomorrow.’”

Running from Jul. 4-8, the gathering offers a bird’s eye view of the life-affirming campaigns that often get pushed off front pages in favour of headlines proclaiming death and war.

While not often on the news, the efficacy of the peace movement is being documented elsewhere. Analysing a century’s worth of data, the World Peace Foundation found that between 1900 and 2006, nonviolent movements had a 53-percent success rate, compared to a 22-percent success rate for violent movements.

Other tangible successes include the long list of victories recently secured by the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, according to Omar Barghouti, a founding committee member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI).

With three basic demands (ending the occupation as defined by the 1967 borders; ending Israel’s system of legal discrimination against Palestinians; and enforcing the right of return for Palestinian refugees), the civil society initiative calls for the same global solidarity that erupted during the fight against apartheid in South Africa, and urges companies to withdraw their investments from firms that directly profit from the occupation of Palestine.

In the last three years alone, many major pension funds in Europe have divested from Israeli banks, including the 200-billion-dollar financial giant PGGM, the second-largest pension manager in the Netherlands.

Gender and Militarism

With women and children disproportionately impacted by conflict and militarisation, the Women Peacemaker’s Program (WPP) played a major role in the conference, releasing its annual May 24 report here just days before the WRI gathering.

Organising their work under the larger umbrella of what WPP Program Officer Sophie Schellens called “gender sensitive active nonviolence”, the organisation is comprised of a network of some 50 partners based on every continent.

“This is a politically sensitive topic, since we are analysing militarism and the military from a gender perspective,” Schellens told IPS.

“For instance, an indigenous Manipur-based woman activist in our network, Sumshot Khular, connects the links between militarism, development and politics, and the specific effects of this alliance on women.”

An article by Khular in WPP’s report, ‘Gender and Militarism: Analyzing the Links to Strategize for Peace,’ notes that South Asia is home to more than 160 million indigenous people, yet few governments formally recognise their rights, leaving many at the mercy of developers carrying out coal and uranium mining, and oil and gas exploration.

“The aggressive development models associated with intensive militarisation have been ravaging not only our land and resources, but also our people – especially women and girls,” Khular writes.

According to Schellens, these affected women are now coming together in large numbers to “defy these militarised structures.”
In addition, the 810-billion-dollar sovereign wealth fund of Norway decided this year to pull investments from Israeli firms operating in the West Bank; the Luxembourg Pension Fund followed suit, citing ethical concerns over the building of settlements on occupied Palestinian land.

In addition, said Barghouti, “Bill Gates, the richest man in the world, recently divested from the British-Danish-owned G4S, one of the largest private security companies in the world; the United Methodist Church – one of the richest in the U.S. – pulled its 18-billion-dollar fund out of companies operating on occupied Palestinian land; and the Presbyterian church has divested from companies like Caterpillar, HP and Motorola Solutions because of their involvement in the occupation.”

With its 15-billion-dollar defense budget, the Israeli government is not taking this lightly, and has identified the BDS movement as a strategic, rather than societal, threat.

“Israel recently shifted overall responsibility for fighting BDS from the ministry of foreign affairs to the ministry of strategic affairs,” Barghouti said Monday, “the same ministry that deals with the Iranian threat, and Israel’s relationship with the U.S.”

Elsewhere, too, authoritarian regimes are recognising the legitimate power of nonviolent resistance. A South Sudanese activist, wishing to be identified only as Karbash A M, told IPS that the Sudanese government in Khartoum has issued a blanket ban on NGOs conducting nonviolence trainings among refugee communities.

But in the face of a political crisis that has claimed tens of thousands of lives since South Sudan declared independence in 2011, Marmoun said, a handful of organisations continue to train hundreds of community leaders and youth activists in the tactics of nonviolence, even as a wave of arms and ammunition threatens to drown the country.

Documenting over 14 case studies of peaceful resistance, the second edition of WRI’s Handbook for Nonviolent Campaigns, released here Sunday, offers a tip-of-the-iceberg analysis of the proliferation of nonviolent movements around the world, from protests against the Indonesian military in West Papua, to the diaspora solidarity movement for Eritrea.

Recognising a continuum between the moral commitment to nonviolence adopted by Gandhi, the strategic decision to exercise nonviolence in Eastern Europe in the 1980s, and a “willingness to use nonviolent methods […] but no commitment to avoid low-level physical violence,” the Handbook offers practical advice to activists and organisers from Colombia to South Korea and beyond.

Another major development here this week was the founding of the Pan African Network on Nonviolence and Peacebuilding, the first regional initiative of its kind dedicated to connecting African grassroots organisers around nonviolent resistance.

“I am delighted we have been able to give birth to this network here in Cape Town,” Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, executive director of the South Africa-based organisation Embrace Dignity – which fights to end sex trafficking and the commercial exploitation of women – told IPS.

“At the last count, 33 African countries are represented in the network, with a 16-member steering committee, each from a different country.

“We are also making an effort to ensure representation from island states like Mauritius and the Canary Islands,” she stated, adding that the network will play a crucial role in elevating the voices of civil society on issues of governance, development and corruption.

Experts here say such a network could be hugely important in combating the U.S.’ increased military presence in Africa, such as plans to construct a 220-million-dollar Special Operations compound at the base of the U.S.’ Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti.

The actions may be small, but their impacts are felt at the highest level.

“We can now call ourselves the ‘three percent people’,” Anand Mazgaonkar, a representative of the National Alliance of Peoples’ Movements (NAPM) in Gujarat, India, said at a plenary session Monday, “because a recent intelligence report in India has named all of us involved in movements as collectively responsible for a three percent damage to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).”

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When Faith Meets Disaster Management Wed, 25 Jun 2014 14:09:15 +0000 Kalinga Seneviratne An old woman stands in front of her house, which was destroyed by flash floods in Sri Lanka. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

An old woman stands in front of her house, which was destroyed by flash floods in Sri Lanka. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Kalinga Seneviratne
BANGKOK, Jun 25 2014 (IPS)

A consortium of faith-based organisations (FBOs) made a declaration at a side event Wednesday at the 6th Asian Ministerial Conference On Disaster Risk Reduction (AMCDRR), to let the United Nations know that they stand ready to commit themselves to building resilient communities across Asia in the aftermath of natural disasters.

Hosted this year by the Thai government, the conference is an annual collaboration with the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), with the aim of bringing regional stakeholders together to discuss the specific challenges facing Asia in an era of rapid climate change.

“I have seen the aftermath of disasters, where religious leaders and volunteers from Hindu temples, Islamic organisations and Sikh temples work together like born brothers." -- Dr. Anil Kumar Gupta, head of the division of policy planning at the National Institute of Disaster Management in India
A report prepared for the Bangkok conference by UNISDR points out that in the past three years Asia has encountered a wide range of disasters, from cyclones in the Philippines and major flooding in China, India and Thailand, to severe earthquakes in Pakistan and Japan.

In 2011 alone, global economic losses from extreme weather events touched 366 billion dollars, of which 80 percent were recorded in the Asia-Pacific region.

While the region accounts for 39 percent of the planet’s land area and hosts 60 percent of the world’s population, it only holds 29 percent of global wealth, posing major challenges for governments in terms of disaster preparedness and emergency response.

FBOs believe they can fill this gap by giving people hope during times of suffering.

“It’s not about the goods we bring or the big houses we build,” argued Jessica Dator Bercilla, a Filipina from Christian Aid, adding that the most important contribution religious organisations can make is to convince people they are not alone on the long road towards rebuilding their lives after a disaster.

The FBO consortium that drafted the statement – including Caritas Asia, Soka Gakkai International (SGI) and the ACT Alliance – held a pre-conference consultative meeting here on Jun. 22nd during which some 50 participants from various faiths discussed the many hurdles FBOs must clear in order to deliver disaster relief and assist affected populations.

The final FBO Statement on Disaster Risk Reduction drew attention to faith organisations’ unique ability to work closely with local communities to facilitate resilience and peace building.

Overcoming Hidden Agendas

One challenge to including FBOs in national DRR frameworks is the prevailing fear that religious organisations will use their position as providers of aid and development services to push their own religious agendas.

In the aftermath of the 2004 Asian tsunami, for instance, Buddhist communities in Sri Lanka and Thailand, as well as Muslim communities in Indonesia, complained that FBOs tried to impose their beliefs on the survivors.

When IPS raised this question during the pre-conference consultation, it triggered much debate among the participants.

Many feel the fear is unfounded, as FBOs are driven by the desire to give value to human life, rather than a desire to convert non-believers or followers of different faiths.

“If beliefs hinder development we must challenge those values,” asserted a participant from Myanmar who gave his name only as Munir.

Vincentia Widyasan Karina from Caritas Indonesia agreed, adding that in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, Caritas worked among Muslim communities to rebuild the northern Indonesian region of Aceh, and “supported the Islamic community’s need to have prayer centres.”

Organisations like SGI go one step further by following methods like the Lotus Sutra for the realisation of happiness in all beings simultaneously.

“This principle expounds that Buddha’s nature is inherent in every individual, and this helps lead many other people towards happiness and enlightenment,” argued Asai, adding that in countries where Buddhists are a minority they work with other stakeholders. “If we form a network it is easier to work,” he added.
Given that an estimated one in eight people in the world identify with some form of organised religion, and that faith-based organisations comprise the largest service delivery network in the world, FBOs stand out as natural partners in the field of disaster risk reduction (DRR).

A declaration enshrined in the statement also urged the United Nations to recognise FBOs as a unique stakeholder in the Post-2015 Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (HFA2) to be presented to the 3rd U.N. World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) in 2015.

It also wants national and local governments to include FBOs when they organise regular consultations on DRR with relevant stakeholders, as FBOs are the ones who often sustain development programmes in the absence of international NGOs.

For example, since 2012 Caritas Indonesia has been working with a coastal community that has lost 200 metres of its coastal land in the past 22 years, in the Fata Hamlet of Indonesia’s East Nusa Tenggar Province, to build community resilience to rising seawaters.

The agency helped community members form the Fata Environment Lover Group, which now uses natural building methods to allow seawater to pass through bamboo structures before reaching the coast, so that wave heights are reduced and mangroves are protected.

Collectively, the three partners to the declaration cover a lot of ground in the region.

Caritas Asia is one of seven regional offices that comprise Caritas International, a Catholic relief agency that operates in 200 countries. SGI is a Japanese lay Buddhist movement with a network of organisations in 192 countries, while ACT is a coalition of Christian churches and affiliated organistaions working in over 140 countries.

All three are renowned for their contributions to the field of development and disaster relief. Caritas International, for instance, annually allocates over a million euros (1.3 million dollars) to humanitarian coordination, capacity building and HIV/AIDS programmes around the world.

“We would like to be one of the main players in the introduction of the DRR policy,” Takeshi Komino, head of emergencies for the ACT Alliance in the Asia-Pacific region, told IPS. “We are saying we are ready to engage.”

“What our joint statement points out is that our commitment is based on faith and that is strong. We can be engaged in relief and recovery activity for a long time,” added Nobuyuki Asai, programme coordinator of peace affairs for SGI.

Experts say Asia is an excellent testing ground for the efficacy of faith-based organisations in contributing to disaster risk reduction.

According to a survey by the independent Pew Research Centre, the Asia-Pacific region is home to 99 percent of the world’s Buddhists, 99 percent of the world’s Hindus and 62 percent of the world’s Muslims.

The region has also seen a steady increase in the number of Catholics, from 14 million a century ago to 131 million in 2013.

Forming links between these communities is easier said than done, with religious and communal conflicts plaguing the region, including a wave of Buddhist extremism in countries like Sri Lanka and Myanmar, a strong anti-Christian movement across Pakistan and attacks on religious minorities in China and India.

Some experts, however, say that the threat of natural catastrophe draws communities together.

According to Dr. Anil Kumar Gupta, head of the division of policy planning at the National Institute of Disaster Management in India, “When there is a disaster people forget their differences.

“I have seen the aftermath of disasters, where religious leaders and volunteers from Hindu temples, Islamic organisations and Sikh temples work together like born brothers,” he told IPS, citing such cooperation during major floods recently in the northern Indian states of Uttarakhand and Kashmir.

Loy Rego, a Myanmar-based disaster relief consultant, told IPS that the statement released today represents a very important landmark in disaster risk reduction.

“FBOs need to be more visible as an organised constituency in the roll-out of future frameworks,” he stated.

Rego believes that the biggest contribution FBOs could make to disaster risk management is to promote peaceful living among different communities.

“Respecting other religions need not be done in a secular way,” he said. “It only happens when they work with other FBOs in an inter-faith setting.”


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Days After African Leaders Vow to Defeat Boko Haram, Bombings and Terror Continue Tue, 20 May 2014 22:55:49 +0000 Ini Ekott Boko Haram's latest bomb attack in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, on Apr. 14, 2014, claimed 75 lives. Courtesy: Mohammed Lere

Boko Haram's latest bomb attack in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, on Apr. 14, 2014, claimed 75 lives. Courtesy: Mohammed Lere

By Ini Ekott
ABUJA, May 20 2014 (IPS)

Multiple car bombs killed dozens Tuesday in the central Nigerian city of Jos, Plateau state, days after a security summit in France where African leaders committed to a “war” on Nigeria’s Islamist rebels, Boko Haram.

Both the attack and the recent security summit have done little to address the resentment against Nigerian authorities over their initial indifference to the abduction of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok in northeast Borno state on Apr. 14.

Casualty figures of the Jos bombing are not clear yet, but an emergency official told IPS that the toll is “very massive”. Some say as many as 200 people were killed because the attack occurred in a market. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack but it is suspected to be the work of Boko Haram.

The local population holds little expectation of an immediate triumph over Boko Haram, as many feel the Paris talks offered little hope in finding the abducted schoolgirls.

“The bitter truth is their life-threatening situation is handled as an irritation by those that should care,” Oby Ezekwesili, a former education minister and leader of a daily sit-in in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, tweeted on Monday. “Bitter as it is to swallow, truth is those who should find them still denigrate the agony of their parents.”

After 35 days of searching, there is still no clue about the whereabouts of the schoolgirls despite surveillance and intelligence assistance from the United States, United Kingdom, France and Israel.

But pressure is growing on the government as at least four people were killed on Sunday, May 18, in a another suspected Boko Haram bomb blast in Nigeria’s northwest Kano state. Kano state has been a relatively peaceful area and was last attacked by Boko Haram in 2012.

The blast, at a busy bar in a predominately Christian area, raised fears the insurgents may be moving from their stronghold in Borno state, which lies nearly 600 kms east of Kano state.


Nigerians gathered at Unity Fountain, in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, on Apr. 30, 2014. They called on the country’s government to act quickly to find the 276 schoolgirls who were kidnapped from Chibok secondary school in northeast Borno state on Apr. 14 by Islamist extremist group Boko Haram. Credit: Mohammed Lere/IPS

Nigerians gathered at Unity Fountain, in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, on Apr. 30, 2014. They called on the country’s government to act quickly to find the 276 schoolgirls who were kidnapped from Chibok secondary school in northeast Borno state on Apr. 14 by Islamist extremist group Boko Haram. Credit: Mohammed Lere/IPS

Here in Nigeria activists plan to march on Thursday to President Goodluck Jonathan’s office to present a “charter of demands”. Amongst other things, they will demand more engagement of the authorities with the families of the abducted girls, and greater security in Boko Haram’s strongholds.

Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is forbidden”, has frequently attacked schools, symbols of the state, churches and markets in their campaign to create an Islamic state.

Jonathan has been widely criticised for his handling of the crisis.

Nigeria itself has been blamed for not taking the campaign against Boko Haram seriously enough until the abduction of the Chibok girls.

“The government and military establishment would have to honestly own up that defence and security allocations have not been utilised for the purpose of building an army capable of tackling the Boko Haram menace,” Benson Eluma of the Institute of African Studies at Nigeria’s University of Ibadan told IPS.

The summit in Paris was the first public effort outside of Africa to rally nations against Boko Haram, which is now regarded as a threat to West and Central Africa.

The presidents of Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, Chad and Benin, promised to share intelligence on Boko Haram, monitor their common borders, and coordinate action against the group. A common intelligence platform is to be stationed in Chad in the joint action against Boko Haram.

Nigeria currently maintains a multinational military task force around the Lake Chad Basin area, near Borno state. Troops are drawn from all Nigeria’s neighbouring countries, with the exception of Cameroon.

One of Nigeria’s main challenges remains this country’s barely cordial relationship with Cameroon, which is based on decades of territorial friction. Cameroon, is seen by the Nigerian government, as a strategic hideout for insurgents fleeing raids here.

While Nigeria has an agreement with Niger — and is working on one with Chad — to allow Nigerian troops cross into neighbouring countries in pursuit of insurgents, there has been no such understanding with Cameroon.

Despite the perceived limitations, the Paris summit is expected to be a game changer in the fight against Boko Haram.

“We have shown our commitment for a regional approach. Without West African countries coming together we will not be able to crush these terrorists,” Jonathan said.

For the first time since the insurgency began five years ago, he released the official figure of the death toll. According to Jonathan, some 12,000 people have died in the crisis — more than double the 5,000 initially believed to have been killed.

The summit, convened by French President François Hollande, has also generated concerns about Africa’s inability to solve its problems.

The continental body, the African Union, has been largely silent about the crisis of Boko Haram and the missing girls. However, the Economic Community of West African States, the West African regional body, has stated its resolve to jointly fight the terrorist group.

Regardless of where assistance comes from, any decision against Boko Haram for a lasting solution cannot be entirely through brute military force, says Eluma.

“Abubakar Shekau [Boko Haram’s leader] and Boko Haram epitomise everything that is wrong with our society, including our hatred of difference, our discrimination against girls and women, the abominable state of education in the country, the porosity of our borders, the complicity of agents of the state in undermining both the state and the people, the political and social instrumentalisation of violence in Nigeria … which leaves us vulnerable to whatever ill wind that blows from distant places.”

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OP-ED: Toward a Final-Phase Deal with Iran Tue, 04 Mar 2014 11:32:01 +0000 Daryl G. Kimball By Daryl G. Kimball
WASHINGTON, Mar 4 2014 (IPS)

Last month, negotiators from the United States, its P5+1 partners (China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom), and Iran agreed to a framework for talks on a “comprehensive solution that would ensure Iran’s nuclear programme will be exclusively peaceful.”

The road ahead will be difficult. Many differences must be bridged, and hard-liners in Washington, Tehran, and Jerusalem will throw up obstacles along the way. An effective, multiyear deal can only be achieved if each side is ready to compromise and pursue realistic solutions that meet the other sides’ core requirements.A deal that would require Iran to dismantle major facilities would be politically unsustainable in Iran.

A successful agreement will verifiably roll back Iran’s overall enrichment capacity, block the plutonium path to the bomb, put in place even tougher international inspections, resolve outstanding questions about the purpose of Iran’s programme, and lead to the removal of nuclear-related sanctions. But first, negotiators must resolve several tough issues in the next few months.

Uranium enrichment. The two sides have agreed to negotiate “practical” limits on the scope of Iran’s enrichment activities in order to reduce Tehran’s ability to build nuclear weapons.

Today, Iran has a very limited need for enriched uranium fuel for energy production. Iran has one research reactor, for which it has an ample supply of fuel, and a power reactor that uses fuel to be supplied by Russia for the next 10 years or more.

Tehran says it has plans for up to 16 more reactors, which would require a sizable enrichment capacity, but these plans are many years away from reality.

Consequently, the P5+1 can and should seek a significant reduction in Iran’s current enrichment capacity – from 10,000 operating, first-generation centrifuges at two sites to approximately half that number or less for a period of at least 10 years.

Even with 4,000 or fewer first-generation centrifuges at one site, Iran would have more than sufficient capacity for its foreseeable needs. Along with a cap on the enrichment of uranium to no more than five percent, a reduction in the number of centrifuges would increase the time necessary to produce enough highly enriched uranium for one bomb to six months or more.

Enhanced inspection rights would ensure that any such activity would be readily detected within days.

If Iran tried to build a nuclear arsenal, it would take considerably more than a year to amass enough material for additional weapons, assemble a nuclear device, and develop an effective means of delivery.

So far, Iran has insisted that it wants to be able to develop new, more efficient centrifuges. Consequently, the two sides will likely set limits on the overall capacity of Iran’s enrichment programme rather than the total number of centrifuges.

The P5+1 wants Iran to close its underground enrichment facility at Fordow, which is less vulnerable to air attacks, while Iran opposes dismantling its facilities. The two sides might compromise by agreeing that Iran will effectively halt any significant enrichment at Fordow and convert it to a “research-only” facility.

The Arak reactor. The P5+1 has argued that Iran should abandon its unfinished 40-megawatt heavy-water reactor near Arak, which is well suited for the production of plutonium. One compromise would be to convert Arak into a more proliferation-resistant light-water reactor or, as Iranian officials have suggested, make design and operational changes to reduce its plutonium potential.

These changes could include reducing the power level at least to five megawatts and using uranium fuel enriched to 3.5 percent. Iran is not known to have a reprocessing plant, which would be needed to extract plutonium from spent fuel, but Iran could be required to send Arak’s spent fuel to a third country to further reduce the proliferation risk.

Tougher international inspections. If Iran were to pursue nuclear weapons development, it most likely would try to do so in secret at undisclosed facilities. Consequently, Iran must allow international inspectors access to all sites, including undeclared sites, under the terms of the additional protocol to its existing safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Once approved by the Iranian parliament, the protocol would be permanent. Further monitoring measures of Iran’s nuclear industry could help detect and deter any secret weapons programme.

Concerns about potential weapons experiments. Iran also will need to accelerate its cooperation with the IAEA to allow the agency to determine with confidence that Tehran is no longer engaged in research with potentially military dimensions. Given that the investigation will continue for some time, the agreement between Iran and the P5+1 should specify that Iran shall not conduct any experiments with nuclear weapons applications.

These step-for-step actions will require a new U.N. Security Council resolution to replace earlier resolutions on Iran’s nuclear programme; positive, prompt follow-up actions by the EU states; and approval by Congress of revised legislation that unwinds nuclear-related sanctions.

It is important that Congress, which has an important role in implementing any final phase deal, supports the P5+1 effort on the basis of a clear understanding and realistic expectation for what the negotiations can deliver.

Unfortunately, some members of Congress say they hope “negotiations succeed in preventing Iran from ever developing a nuclear weapons capability.” Others say they are “hopeful a permanent diplomatic agreement will require the dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear weapons-related infrastructure ….”

According to the U.S. intelligence community Iran has had, at least since 2007, the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it were to choose to do so. That capacity can be reduced but not entirely eliminated, even Iran were required to dismantle its uranium enrichment machines and facilities — and a deal that would require Iran to dismantle major facilities would be politically unsustainable in Iran.

Negotiating a realistic final phase agreement with Iran will be difficult, but a sustainable arrangement is achievable. It is the best and perhaps only alternative to an unconstrained Iranian nuclear programme, the risk of war over the issue, and potentially a nuclear-armed Iran.

Daryl Kimball is executive director of the independent, non-partisan Arms Control Association in Washington, D.C. He has been engaged in research and policy work on nuclear nonproliferation and arms control matters since 1989. This essay is based on an earlier version published in Arms Control Today.

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If a Two-State Solution Fails, What Next? Tue, 04 Mar 2014 00:38:02 +0000 Mitchell Plitnick Gaza women demonstrate to demand release of their loved ones in prison in Israel. Credit: Mohammed Omer/IPS

Gaza women demonstrate to demand release of their loved ones in prison in Israel. Credit: Mohammed Omer/IPS

By Mitchell Plitnick
WASHINGTON, Mar 4 2014 (IPS)

The failure of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians could lead to a significant shift in public opinion in the United States regarding Israel’s future, according to a new poll released Monday.

When asked about two options in the event the two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict was no longer on the table, 65 percent of U.S. citizens said they preferred a democratic state where Jews and Arabs are equal, against only 24 percent who supported “the continuation of Israel’s Jewish majority even if it means that Palestinians will not have citizenship and full rights.”"We always assume that pro-Israel means people will accept immoral situations if they have to and that’s not true.” -- Shibley Telhami

The Barack Obama administration has repeatedly warned both parties that the window of opportunity for a two-state solution to their conflict is closing.

This is widely understood to be driving the frenetic efforts by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to cobble together a framework for further talks which he hopes would culminate in a permanent status agreement by the end of 2014. But should these efforts fail, the United States has no alternative to the current two-state formula.

The poll, commissioned by pollster Dr. Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland, indicates that, as Telhami said, “if the two-state solution fails, the conversation among the American public might shift to that of a one-state solution as the next-best thing.”

In that context, United States citizens hold the value of one person, one vote very strongly. Telhami told IPS that this value was held even among those polled who felt the United States should be favouring Israel over the Palestinians in negotiations.

“We asked if you want the U.S. to lean toward Israel, towards the Palestinians or to stay neutral. As usual, two-thirds want the United States to be neutral and among the rest, most want it to lean toward Israel. So we asked that segment what they would do if the two-state solution was no longer an option. And we still got 52 percent of that segment who would support one state with equal citizenship.

“We always assume that pro-Israel means people will accept immoral situations if they have to and that’s not true,” Telhami continued. “A lot of people try to reconcile their support for the cause with their moral view of the world and that view is antithetical with occupation or inequality for many of these people.

“So for them, two states is a way out, where they can say ‘I’m not paying too much attention to occupation now because it will be going away.’ But if the two-state solution goes away then the status quo looks permanent and I think people, even the segment that primarily cares about Israel, will have an issue with that.”

The possibility of the two-state solution finally collapsing seems stronger with each passing day. Despite some positive statements from Kerry and Obama, the sentiments that have been expressed by both Israeli and Palestinian leadership have, almost from the beginning, been pessimistic and accusatory, with each side seeming to jockey for position to avoid blame for what they have portrayed as the inevitable failure of the U.S.-brokered efforts.

On Monday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told the leader of the left-wing Israeli Meretz party that there is strong opposition within the Palestinian Authority to continuing talks beyond the agreed upon deadline of Apr. 29.

Abbas has repeatedly stated that ongoing Israeli settlement construction makes negotiations very difficult for Palestinians and sends the message that while the Palestinian leadership talks with Israel, the Israelis are simply taking the West Bank through settlement expansion.

Bolstering Abbas’ case, the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics released a report on Monday which stated that starts on new settlement building in the occupied West Bank increased by 123.7 percent in 2013.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who arrived in Washington on Monday for a meeting with President Obama and the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), accused the Palestinians of not doing enough to advance peace talks and called on them to recognise Israel as a Jewish state.

Netanyahu vowed to stand firm against pressures on him to make compromises on what he referred to as “our crucial interests. “

Given these stances, it seems there is little hope for Kerry’s dogged efforts. Obama warned of the consequences of failure in an interview published Sunday with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg when he said “if you see no peace deal and continued aggressive settlement construction…If Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited.”

Indeed, this poll shows that even within the United States, fallout will be a factor.

“Americans still have a generally favourable view of Israel and think it ought to live in peace and security,” Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and co-author of “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy”, told IPS.

“But much of that support is fairly soft, and most Americans do not support backing Israel no matter what it does. This latest poll confirms that basic view, and suggests that Israel cannot count on deep U.S. support if peace talks fail and its control over the West Bank and/or Gaza becomes permanent.”

But Leon Hadar, lecturer in Israel Studies at the University of Maryland and senior analyst with Wikistrat, disagrees and believes this poll does little but satisfy the “wishful thinking of some.”

“My guess is that most Americans would support the establishment of a democratic and liberal system here, there and everywhere, including in Saudi Arabia, Congo, and certainly China,” Hadar told IPS.

“But the main problem is that there is no constituency in the U.S. or for that matter among the Israelis and the Palestinians advancing such a formula. That’s very different from the South Africa story when you had powerful constituencies in this country, including Congress, pushing for that.”

Telhami disagrees. “It may not have a direct impact on foreign policy. I don’t expect even 80 percent support for a single, democratic state will mean the White House and State Department will suddenly support it. But it results in a lot of civil society pressure.

“U.S. foreign policy is based on a lot of considerations, and domestically it is more responsive to groups that are better organised and today that means groups that are supportive of Israeli government positions. But I think the discourse itself will alter the priorities and put a lot of strain on the relationship.

“This will mean pushing the government to act on this issue. We see it now, with academic boycotts and boycotting of settlement products. Those things can happen at a level that changes the dynamic of policymaking.”

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Global Citizenship Key to World Peace Mon, 24 Feb 2014 13:54:45 +0000 Minh Le By Minh Le

Nobel Laureate Betty Williams started her speech to a peace forum at the U.N. headquarters Thursday with perhaps the last thing the audience would expect her to say.

From left: H.E. Mr. Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, High Representative for the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations; Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury, Former Under-Secretary-General and High Representative; and Ms. Betty Williams, 1976 Nobel Peace Laureate. Credit: Minh Le/IPS

From left: H.E. Mr. Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, High Representative for the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations; Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury, Former Under-Secretary-General and High Representative; and Ms. Betty Williams, 1976 Nobel Peace Laureate. Credit: Minh Le/IPS

She urged them to stop glorifying working for peace.

“We could sit all day here and glorify it, but it’s not a thing that should be glorified,” she said. “It’s a thing that should be done in reality, every single day of our lives.”

Williams, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976 for promoting a peaceful society, believes that each person, as a global citizen, has a role to play in bringing peace to the world.

“We can’t say ‘I don’t have to do it. Let them do it.’ Every child that dies in our world from conditions of malnutrition, from disease, from war, we are all guilty. As a human family, we are all guilty,” she said.

Her sentiment for global solidarity and responsibility was echoed by many others at the forum, where diplomats, educators and peace activists gathered to discuss the topic of “Global Citizenship and the Future of the U.N.”

The Feb. 20 event, sponsored by the U.N. Alliance of Civilisations and organised by Soka Gakkai International (SGI), Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency and the Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research, also saw the launch of “A Forum for Peace: Daisaku Ikeda’s Proposals to the U.N.”

The book is a collection of 30 years of annual peace proposals by Buddhist thinker Ikeda, whose recommendations for global change and for the U.N. are seen as words of wisdom by Williams and other speakers at the forum.

“This is the book that really needs to be read by all of us,” said Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury, former under-secretary-general and high representative.

“No human being in the world history has written so consistently and so substantively about the work of the U.N.,” he said, adding that many of Ikeda’s proposals, including the empowerment of women and young people in creating peace, have been reflected in the way the global body operates.

Ikeda’s concept of the “Culture of Peace,” Chowdhury said, is essential to make the world a secure place for future generations, by promoting peace through dialogue and nonviolence.

Global citizenship

In his remarks sent to the forum, Ikeda said he has “repeatedly stressed the importance of fostering an awareness of our role and responsibility as global citizens,” which he considers the spiritual basis for countries to resolve conflicts and the source of hope for the future of the U.N.

He then called for a brand new programme of education specifically for global citizenship to be promoted by the U.N.

Education, Ikeda said, needs to deepen understanding of challenges facing humankind and promote a shared pledge among all people “not to seek one’s happiness and prosperity at the expense of others.”

In 2012, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched “Education First,” an initiative aiming to get every child into school, increase education quality and foster global citizenship.

According to the U.N., it is not enough to only produce students who can read, write and count, but they also need to learn how to “think and act for the dignity of fellow human beings.” The problem with the current education system is that the values of peace, human rights, respect, cultural diversity and justice are not often embedded and emphasised in the ethos of schools.

William Gaudelli, associate professor of social studies and education at Teachers College, said in order to have a new generation of global citizens, first it is necessary to have teachers who are more open to and more thoughtful about the world.

The concept of global citizenship, he said, is not a novelty and in fact can be traced back to the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes, who described himself as “a citizen of the world”.

Gaudelli said while it may seem a “crazy” idea now to ask people who live in “neatly divided countries” to think of themselves as global citizens, the world really needs to come together to solve ongoing problems.

“There are so many challenges, from infectious diseases, small arms trading, human trafficking, global warming, animal extinction and the list grows,” he said, calling for all members of the global society to truly listen to and learn from others, rather than waiting for “an opening to talk.”

Role of the U.N.

Olivier Urbain, who edited the book, said he was impressed by Ikeda’s firm belief in the power of ordinary people and his trust in the potential of solidarity.

He also noted that Ikeda’s promotion for a world without war does not stop with abolishing actual nuclear warheads, but it also deals with the mentality behind the fact that the world still have these weapons.

“It’s not possible to build one’s happiness on the misery of another human being. The same thing with countries: it is not possible to build true lasting national security on the misery and terror of other countries that are so terrified by the weapon,” he said.

Despite conflicts and threats around the world, Urbain said there was “a tremendous sense of hope” when he read the book.

“As long as we have the space for personal creativity and solidarity, there is nothing that human beings cannot overcome,” he said.

Urbain said the U.N., therefore, needs to create channels and mechanisms for people’s voices to be heard and, in so doing, let itself be empowered by the people.

Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, High Representative for the U.N. Alliance of Civilizations, said the peaceful and prosperous co-existence of peoples and nations is the cornerstone of the U.N. mission.

“We are bound together as the international community in the belief that despite different cultures, languages and religions, there are fundamental shared values and principles that underpin our humanity,” he said.

“We are bound together as the U.N. family because we recognise that it is through the celebration of our diversity, as well as through the promotion of tolerance and dispelling fears of the “other”, that we will build a more peaceful world,” he told the forum.

Even though it was clear that many speakers were believers in the U.N., they did not shy away from the fact that the global organisation is not perfect. That is why reforms and recommendations proposed by thinkers like Ikeda are important, they said.

“The U.N. is all that we have in our world to try and make it better,” said Williams. “I know that in certain areas it could do with a lot of improvements but give me one organisation in the world that is being run smoothly?”

“What could we do if we didn’t have this organisation? How much worse would it be?” she asked.

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An Iran in Flux Marks 35th Anniversary of Revolution Tue, 11 Feb 2014 19:47:17 +0000 Jasmin Ramsey A mass demonstration in Tehran around the time of the 1979 Revolution. Credit: GNU license

A mass demonstration in Tehran around the time of the 1979 Revolution. Credit: GNU license

By Jasmin Ramsey
WASHINGTON, Feb 11 2014 (IPS)

Thirty-five years ago today, millions of Iranians embraced a religious leader promising freedom from a corrupt monarchy and national independence. Now many want a better standard of living and improved civil rights.

“Living standards are 50 percent higher today than they were before the revolution, but so are expectations, which is why the average person believes they had a better time before the revolution,” said Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, an economist who regularly visits Iran."Living standards are 50 percent higher today than they were before the revolution, but so are expectations." -- Djavad Salehi-Isfahani

After years of sanctions targeting Iran’s Central Bank and integral oil revenue, and government mismanagement of funds, the country is financially devastated, with a depleted budget and unemployment above 14 percent (25 percent for youth).

“Early on, revolutionaries focused their attention on the provision of health, education, and infrastructure [electricity, clean water, and roads] for underprivileged areas,”  the Virginia Tech professor told IPS.

“These developments have helped move large sections of the poor into the middle class and a modern life style,” he said.

Today, citizens from that expanding middle class and across Iranian society — now more educated than ever — desire better social and civil freedoms in addition to improved work opportunities.

“The Iranian president [Hassan Rouhani] has released a citizen bill of rights and one positive thing he did is put this out there and ask for comments, but it really falls short on women’s rights and the rights of minorities,” said Sussan Tahmasebi, an Iranian women’s rights activist and the co-founder of the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN), an NGO dedicated to women’s rights.

Anatomy of a Revolution

Demonstrations against the U.S.-backed Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi erupted in October 1977. By the end of the following year, strikes and protests had paralysed the country for months. The shah fled into exile on Jan. 16, 1979 and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was invited back to Iran, where he was greeted by several million supporters.

On Feb. 11, guerrillas and rebel troops overwhelmed troops loyal to the Shah in armed street fighting, and Khomeini ascended to official power.

Iranians voted by national referendum to become an Islamic Republic on Apr. 1, 1979, and to approve a new theocratic-republican constitution, whereby Khomeini became Supreme Leader of the country, in December 1979.

Tahmasebi, who lived and worked in Iran from 1999-2010, also decried the continued imprisonment of student activists and reformist leaders, as well as Iran’s high rate of executions, which have increased in recent months.

“Iranians want to live in an environment that’s safe, where the law is there to protect them rather than punish them,” she told IPS.

Still, Tahmasebi acknowledges that the Rouhani government’s top agenda items are resolving the nuclear issue and improving Iran’s economy.

“Once he has made serious progress at the international level, he will have more clout to push for more controversial issues at home,” she said.

Iran’s ruling elite has meanwhile experienced a major overhaul since the June 2013 presidential election of Rouhani, a centrist cleric promising “hope,” “prudence” and “moderation.”

While Rouhani’s election would have been unlikely without the backing of reformist and centrist leaders, he must now maintain their support while also dealing with hardliners eager to regain their upper hand in politics.

Iran is currently implementing the first-phase “Joint Plan of Action”, a deal achieved with world powers known as the P5+1 in Geneva on Nov. 24, 2013. Talks for a comprehensive solution to the nuclear issue are set to begin in Vienna on Feb. 18.

Meanwhile, some of Iran’s most stalwart revolutionaries have raised the volume on their criticism of the Rouhani government’s handling of the nuclear issue.

Members of the Revolutionary Guard, a powerful paramilitary unit, and several parliamentarians claim that Rouhani has given much more than Iran has received in negotiations.

On Tuesday, anniversary commemoration rallies attended by millions in Tehran, according to state media, featured banners and posters responding to a Barack Obama administration mantra on Iran: “all options are on the table,” a reference to military force.

“We are eager for all options on the table,” read some of the placards.

Marchers also reportedly shouted an Iranian revolutionary mantra, “Death to America,” while others added, “Death to [Wendy] Sherman,” the U.S.’s lead negotiator and under secretary of state for political affairs.

But despite domestic criticism, the Rouhani administration enjoys the support of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who has repeatedly urged unity and faith in the government.

“Considering the fact that it is only a few months [since] the administration has taken charge of the country, we should give executive officials time so that, by Allah’s favour, they can move things forward in a firm and powerful way,” said the Grand Ayatollah in a Feb. 9 speech to air force commanders posted on his website.

“We should not allow the enemies’ agents inside the country to take advantage of weak points and to create disorder,” he added.

Since last week, Iranian news outlets have been featuring stories on Iran’s military, showcasing comments by commanders stressing Iran’s preparedness to respond to military threats, and military weapons tests, such as the test-firing of domestically made missiles on Monday.

In a speech celebrating the revolution on Tuesday morning to a rally at Tehran’s Freedom Square, Rouhani declared, “Today, if any side plans to launch aggression against Iran, it should know that the Iranian nation will stand against aggressors with its full might and make them sorry,” according to the Iranian Student News Agency.

The president also emphasised Iran’s willingness to engage in “fair” and “constructive” talks on the nuclear issue.

“Our negotiations with the P5+1 have all been based on Iranians’ peace-seeking nature,” he said.

“We wanted to convey the Leader’s Fatwa [a religious decree against the creation of nuclear weapons] to the whole world during the negotiations and help them understand the Iranophobia project is a big lie,” stated Rouhani.

“While negotiating with the world powers, we want to say sanctions against Iranians are cruel and inhuman,” he added.

In Washington on Monday, a former hostage from Iran’s seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, John Limbert, noted at the Wilson Center that some Iranian participants in that divisive event, “now older and wiser”, joined reformist administrations in Iran.

Limbert, a historian who speaks fluent Persian, added that the recent opening of the embassy to the public “may be symbolic of larger changes in the Islamic Republic’s relations with the rest of the world, especially with the U.S.”

“Both sides, after 34 years, have made a very startling discovery, that diplomacy — long-neglected tools of listening, of seeking small areas of agreement, of careful choice of words — can actually accomplish more than shouting insults, making threats and the wonderful self-satisfaction of always being right,” he said.

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Poll Shows Diminishing Support for Two-State Solution Sat, 01 Feb 2014 12:46:52 +0000 Mitchell Plitnick Um Abed plants an olive tree in support of Palestinian farmers. Credit: Eva Bartlett/IPS

Um Abed plants an olive tree in support of Palestinian farmers. Credit: Eva Bartlett/IPS

By Mitchell Plitnick
WASHINGTON, Feb 1 2014 (IPS)

Twenty years of the Oslo peace process between Israelis and Palestinians have made a solution more difficult to attain, rather than easier. That was the conclusion of a poll of Israelis and Palestinians released on Friday.

The poll, conducted by Zogby Research Services, showed that barely one-third of Israelis (34 percent) and Palestinians (36 percent) still believe that a two-state solution is feasible. And, while the two-state solution remains the most popular option among both peoples, that support is much stronger among Israelis (74 percent) than among Palestinians (47 percent)."With all the cynicism and scepticism that has built up on both sides, we are seeing this wave of opposition to anything that is seen as ‘normalisation'." -- Lara Friedman

Lead pollster and President of both Zogby Research Services and the Arab American Institute, Jim Zogby, sees these results as very troubling and as boding ill for the potential for U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to salvage the two-state solution. For Zogby, it comes back to the basic inequality between Israelis and Palestinians and that the process is not framed to accommodate this reality.

“The way the two-state solution has been framed in the dominant narrative, it is defined by Israeli needs, not Palestinian needs,” Zogby told IPS. “If I had added details to the question of a two-state solution such as the 1967 borders [as the basis for territorial negotiations] and a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, Israelis would have been less supportive.

“Israelis always poll in favour of negotiations, but are less favourable regarding specific outcomes,” Zogby continued. “Palestinians support outcomes more but support negotiations less because they don’t trust the process. But when you’re in the dominant position, as Israel is, your attitudes are framed by the fact that you’re in control.”

The poll was released just as rumours swirled around Kerry’s efforts, which are expected to produce a framework proposal that Kerry will present to the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships in the next few weeks. While few observers have expressed much hope about the potential for success, Kerry has pressed both sides to work to agree to use his plan as a framework for ongoing talks, despite the reservations they are sure to have.

Whether either or both sides will agree to that remains unclear, however.

Khaled Elgindy, a fellow at the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy, believes the Zogby poll supports Kerry’s view, widely shared, that if current efforts fail, the two-state solution is in serious jeopardy.

“The poll is consistent with my sense that a Palestinian consensus in the West Bank and Gaza Strip around a two-state solution is beginning to collapse,” Elgindy said in Washington, at the presentation of the poll. “On the Israeli side, [this is reflected by] the views of young Israelis being much more antipathetic to a negotiated settlement. Both of those trends do not bode well for a negotiated TS agreement.

“The framework agreement that is being discussed is so vague as not be an agreement. If we are this far into the process and the two-state solution really hangs in the balance, it’s not a time to be vague. I think it’s clear that if we cannot say [there will be] a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, if we cannot draw a map instead of talking about percentages of land, if we cannot define these issues, then it’s more of the same because these issues don’t get easier, they get harder.”

The poll showed that, in contrast to Palestinians whose views are generally similar across the generations, younger Israelis have harder line positions than older ones. This is one reason why so many like Elgindy believe that the opportunity for a two-state solution is almost at an end. Zogby believes there are several reasons for this split between younger and older Israelis.

“The disproportionately large number of children born to Orthodox and settler families in part accounts for the shift,” Zogby told IPS. “Israel is the only country where we poll that younger people’s attitudes are less progressive than older. The birth rate among the different groupings in part accounts for that.

“The other thing is that the dominant narrative in Israel is that they might reflect back and say I was hopeful, that’s not the way the press and dominant media tells the story so it may not be the way that it is viewed. Palestinians may look back and see it in a more positive light. Even though events may not have moved in a more positive direction, the narrative may have been that it was more hopeful. Neither side sees it positively, but there is a difference in how they reflect on it. The youth gap in Israel reflects this because they pick up on how the story is told because they haven’t experienced it directly.”

Lara Friedman, the director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now, agrees. “It isn’t surprising that you have on the Israeli side a growing demographic bump in folks who are ideologically opposed to this,” Friedman said in response to the poll.

“The generation of Israelis who came to the Palestinians in the era of the peace process were much better equipped. We’ve lost those connections in the generation since Oslo. The generation that came to Oslo knew Palestinians. Israelis shopped in Ramallah, there was no separation barrier, and people knew each other. It’s very different today. With all the cynicism and scepticism that has built up on both sides, we are seeing this wave of opposition to anything that is seen as ‘normalisation.’”

Both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have stated that they would put any agreement to a referendum among their respective peoples. When asked if they held out hope, only 11 percent of Palestinians and 39 percent of Israelis said they did.

But, when asked if they would support an agreement if their respective leaders endorsed it, 55 percent of Israelis and 49 percent of Palestinians said they would do so, while only 19 percent of Israelis and 28 percent of Palestinians said they would not.

Those results seem to imply that Friedman was correct when she said, “I believe that when there is a deal and people are presented with the possibility of ending this…I think opinions shift very quickly.”

But Kerry’s proposed framework would only map out future discussions. Palestinians have been insistent that they have had enough of endless discussions with no change on the ground aside from the ever-expanding Israeli settlements.

That is why Friedman, an ardent supporter of the two-state solution, also says that “…many of us believe that we need to get to a deal and do it. Leaving more time, constructive ambiguity and ‘confidence-building’ was the death of confidence [between the two sides]. Confidence can be built after the divorce — that is the lesson of the last 20 years.”

But it doesn’t seem that getting to a deal quickly is Kerry’s intent in the short term. And it certainly seems like time has just about run out.

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Rouhani Reaches Out at Davos Thu, 30 Jan 2014 19:27:59 +0000 Djavad Salehi-Isfahani By Djavad Salehi-Isfahani
WASHINGTON, Jan 30 2014 (IPS)

Last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, President Hassan Rouhani tried to persuade world business leaders to invest in Iran, especially in its hydrocarbon and automobile sectors. 

Hassan Rouhani. Credit: Mojtaba Salimi/CC-BY-SA-3.0

Hassan Rouhani. Credit: Mojtaba Salimi/CC-BY-SA-3.0

His appeal is not likely to set off a gold rush; investors will wait to see if the nuclear agreement with the P5+1 is successfully concluded sometime this summer.

But broadening his call for engagement with the rest of the world beyond the nuclear deal indicates that his initiative is more than a charm offensive; it represents deeper social and economic change in Iran.

The implicit assumption behind the “charm offensive” discourse is that the Iranian leadership is only engaging in talks because it needs to gain some respite from sanctions to buy time to reach nuclear weapon capability.

But luring foreign investors into Iran does not fit well with that strategy because any gains would only become apparent after the nuclear deal is concluded and would be reversed as soon as the deal falls apart and sanctions are once again implemented.

From Rouhani’s perspective, an open invitation to foreign investors risks expanding the ranks of his domestic foes beyond the growing opposition to the nuclear deal. Why add Islamists and leftists opposed to the penetration of Western culture and capital unless he really believes he can turn Iran into a hospitable place for outside investment?

Mark Landler of the New York Times played down Rouhani’s appeal by noting its “eerie echo” to a similar pitch by former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami in 2004, which was followed by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s ascendance a year later and a decade of hostility.

Suggesting that Rouhani’s Davos promises might end similarly ignores several important differences between the two presidents and between the Iran of 2014 and that of 2004. Ignoring the obvious — in 2004 Khatami was on his way out while Rouhani is just starting his first term — there are at least two other distinctions.

Philosophically, Khatami and Rouhani share a moderate view of coexistence with the West, but when it comes to economic integration, they read from very different scripts.

Iran’s economy in 2014 bears little resemblance to that of a decade earlier. In 2004, thanks to a massive oil boom, Iran was bursting with economic optimism and feeling prosperous without foreign investment. Since the 1970s, except during the reconstruction period after the war with Iraq, Iran has not sought or depended on foreign investment for its economic growth. 

Higher oil prices nearly tripled the oil revenues in Khatami’s last budget in 2004 compared to his first in 1998. Unemployment had been declining steadily, from 14.3 percent in 2000 to 10.3 percent in 2004, and inflation seemed low by today’s standards — averaging 14 percent per year instead of 35 percent in the last two years.

Today, after several years of harsh sanctions, Iran’s economy is in deep trouble and the government is broke. While inflation is coming down, unemployment is still above 14 percent (above 25 percent for youth). The 4.2 billion dollars that the U.S. is releasing as part of the interim Geneva agreement adds only five percent to this year’s budget. It will not go very far in bringing public investment even close to its historical record of more than 15 percent of the GDP.

Public investment for the Iranian year starting this March is only 15 billion dollars, which is four percent of the GDP. It is not even enough to pay for the repair of — much less build new — public infrastructure or assist the private sector. The government actually owes private contractors about 20 billion dollars for work they have already performed on various public projects.

The private sector is also in a serious bind. In addition to unpaid government bills, the depressed economy has cut demand for its products, leaving many employers short of cash to even pay their workers. The auto industry, which was a focus of Rouhani’s appeal at Davos, is producing at less than half its capacity. The interim agreement restores the auto industry’s access to critical imports, but additional capital is what they need to create new jobs.

While financial necessity may be Rouhani’s reason for inviting foreign businesses to Iran, he also has reasons to be optimistic about the outcome of their engagement. First, he knows that more than three decades of revolutionary rhetoric and eight years of failed populist economic policies under President Ahmadinejad have tired out the general population and caused a major shift in the attitudes of Iran’s intellectual and technocratic classes.

There is now a wider consensus in favour of private enterprise and engagement with the global economy than during the time of the Shah. This is why Rouhani has the most pro-business economic team in Iran’s history.

Second, in the last 10 years, Iran’s workforce has become younger, better educated, and less expensive — all attractive features for foreign capital. The loss of value in Iran’s currency last year has brought labour costs in Iran below that of China. Were it not for their lower productivity, Iranian industrial workers would be able to outcompete East Asian workers. Foreign investment along with its superior technology and management is what Iran needs to raise its workers’ productivity.

The fate of global engagement for the Islamic Republic is not solely determined by these economic calculations. Many in the highest position of political power in Iran view rapprochement with the United States, which Rouhani considers a condition for meaningful global engagement, with deep suspicion.

They fear that hostility toward the Islamic Republic runs deeper than the nuclear issue. They point to new sanctions legislation before the U.S. Senate that requires Iran to make concessions unrelated to the nuclear dispute. A New York Times editorial did much to justify their fears by recommending that “Iran’s full reintegration into the international system” should depend on its “ending the hostility toward Israel.”

For Rouhani, after Davos, the path to global engagement remains uphill.

*Djavad Salehi-Isfahani conducts research on the economics of the Middle East and is currently a professor of economics at Virginia Tech. He is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and is also serving as the Dubai Initiative fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

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OP-ED: The Arab World Has Changed, So Should Washington Fri, 24 Jan 2014 15:57:40 +0000 Emile Nakhleh At Cairo's Tahrir Square. Credit: Mohammed Omer/IPS

At Cairo's Tahrir Square. Credit: Mohammed Omer/IPS

By Emile Nakhleh
WASHINGTON, Jan 24 2014 (IPS)

As the Egyptian revolution against Hosni Mubarak celebrates its third anniversary, the military junta under General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is resurrecting dictatorship under the veneer of “constitutional” legitimacy and on the pretense of fighting “terrorism.”

Syria is still ablaze. Yemen has yet to sever the tentacles of the Saleh regime, and Libya remains in the chaotic throes of tribal fissures and militia violence. Tunisia is the only “Arab Spring” country that is transitioning to democracy wisely and pragmatically.Although dictators fell, most of the old regimes remained intact. The re-emergence of the Mubarak-era dictatorship under General Sisi is the most vivid example.

The uprisings in the past three years have rattled Arab dictators and forced Washington to reassess its relations with the region. Arab autocrats have fought the uprisings and resisted all efforts to redesign the decades-old social contract with their people. Four fell.

Those who are still in power continue to inflict destruction on their countries and repress their citizens.

Yet, some policymakers, talking heads, and academics in Washington and other Western capitals are myopically advocating reconciling with existing regimes, including the Syrian tyrant. Self-proclaimed regional experts are advising these policymakers that Gulf monarchies, for example, are stable and secure and should be embraced.

Likewise, some of these experts are calling on Washington to engage the Egyptian military junta because, they argue, Egypt is the centrepiece of U.S. policy and interests in the region. They maintain these interests should trump American values, which were trumpeted by President Barack Obama in his initial support of the anti-Mubarak revolt.

This “expert” advice reflects a shortsighted, shallow knowledge of the region and is devoid of any strategic analysis of future relations between Arab peoples and their rulers. If followed, it would harm long-term U.S. interests in the region.

Let us remember that three years ago, many of these experts missed the Arab Spring all together, as was pointed out in the 2011 Stimson Institute’s Seismic Shift report.

Many academics and journalists paid scant attention to endemic grievances in Arab societies and focused instead on the “deep state” narrative, which they bought from the regimes hook, line, and sinker.

A few distinguished U.S. journalists, such as the late Anthony Shadid of the New York Times, were aware of what was boiling below the surface in places like Egypt despite the glossy mask of stability that Mubarak and his fellow autocrats presented to the outside world.

It is unfortunately understandable that some policymakers and academics are leaning toward accepting this narrative now because they are becoming disgusted with the bloody tumult across the region and the rise of radicalism and terrorism.

Some academics similarly are trumpeting the “stability” narrative, especially in the Gulf. These “access academics” — who forego serious analysis of regimes’ repressive policies in order to be allowed into those countries and meet with officials — are repeating the same analysis they offered before the revolutions of 2011.

In the Gulf monarchies, as the British academic Christopher Davidson of Durham University has pointed out in his book “After the Sheiks,” the absence of legitimacy, continued repression, and sectarianism will hasten the collapse of these tribal regimes.

Professor Davidson maintains some academics, retired generals and sitting and former diplomats are peddling the “stability” fiction for potential access and economic gain.

Promising business deals, lucrative post-retirement jobs, country visits, and Gulf investment in European and American university buildings are even influencing the type of research, analysis, and academic conferences that are being conducted on the present and future of Gulf monarchies.

Fortunately, some scholars such as Toby Matthiesen of Cambridge University are seriously assessing the long-term destructive nature of bloody sectarianism across the region, which for the most part is being pushed by regimes.

Several factors are driving this pernicious phenomenon. First, although dictators fell, most of the old regimes remained intact. The re-emergence of the Mubarak-era dictatorship under General Sisi is the most vivid example.

The military junta’s harsh sentencing of Ahmad Maher, Ahmad Duma, and Muhammad Adel — key activists in the January 2011 revolution — and the espionage charges against two of Egypt’s most prominent intellectuals, Emad Shahin and Amr Hamzawy, signal that the deep security state is alive and well in Egypt.

The military’s harsh crackdown against all opposition–secular and Islamist–belies its claim that Egypt is on the road to democracy.

The recent branding of the Muslim Brotherhood as a “terrorist” organisation moves Egypt away from political reconciliation, the new “constitution” notwithstanding. In fact, the recently ratified document enshrines the power of the military as an institution impervious to any form of accountability.

The politically motivated capital crime charges against the deposed President Mohamed Morsi and other Muslim Brotherhood leaders underpin the vengeful anti-democratic policies of General Sisi.

Despite flagrant human rights violations and sham trials, the Obama administration is tragically maintaining its military aid to the Egyptian military.

Furthermore, the U.S. State Department has withdrawn the name of Robert Ford as ambassador designate to Egypt from consideration in response to objections from the Egyptian military, according to media reports.

Second, the authoritarian regimes that are still in power are employing comprehensive hard and soft power tools, violently and viciously, in order to keep their rule. Bashar al-Assad has rendered his country a wasteland, killing over 130,000 Syrians and forcing millions to become refugees in an attempt to defeat the opposition.

Much like Egypt’s Sisi, he is feverishly trying to convince Washington and other Western capitals that he is the most effective force against terrorism and (Saudi) Wahhabi extremism. His foreign minister has repeatedly stated that if Western leaders hope to keep Salafi jihadists from overrunning Syria, Assad is their man.

It would be tragic if Washington falls for this ruse. It was Assad who worked closely with radical Salafis first in Iraq and then in Syria. He had hoped Salafis would discredit the moderate, secular opposition — a self-fulfilling prophecy he is happy to see come to pass.

Third, as these regimes fail to defeat their popular revolts and reject meaningful dialogue with the opposition, radical elements and Salafi jihadists begin to fill the power vacuum in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. The ensuing stalemate is already producing more turbulence, anemic economies, debilitating uncertainty, and diminishing personal security.

No winner will emerge in the foreseeable future, which hopefully would force Washington to make hard choices. Simply put, these choices involve drawing a morally palatable balance between values and interests. If Washington hopes to be on the right side of history, interests should never be allowed to trump values of good governance, certainly not in the wake of the Arab uprisings of 2011.

Emile Nakhleh is a former Senior Intelligence Service Officer, a Research Professor at the University of New Mexico, and author of “A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World.”

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Thorny Path Toward Syrian Peace Process Sat, 18 Jan 2014 06:06:42 +0000 Gustavo Capdevila The Syrian independence flag flies over a large gathering of protesters in Idlib. Credit: Freedom House/cc by 2.0

The Syrian independence flag flies over a large gathering of protesters in Idlib. Credit: Freedom House/cc by 2.0

By Gustavo Capdevila
GENEVA, Jan 18 2014 (IPS)

The future of the complex armed conflict in Syria, which involves religious and ethnic factors as well as pressures from neighbouring countries and the strategic interests of global powers, will begin to take shape next week at a conference known as “Geneva 2.”

On Jan. 24 it will become apparent whether the warring parties in Syria will accept a negotiated solution to the three-year conflict that has already ended the lives of over 100,000 people and displaced 2.3 million from their homes, while some 9.3 million people are in extreme need of humanitarian aid.“Geneva 2 will not end the war. It can’t.” -- David Harland, the executive director of HD Centre

Representatives of the government of President Bashar al-Assad and delegations from the rebel forces that have been fighting against it since March 2011 are due to meet on that date in the Swiss city of Geneva.

So far, neither side has given a clear indication of its willingness to participate in the talks, in what are apparently delaying tactics aimed at strengthening their bargaining positions.

Prospects for the negotiations appeared to shift in recent weeks as infighting broke out among opposition forces.

A source who is well-informed about the internal situation in Syria told IPS that some opposition groups want freedom in order to combat other forces that are also opposed to Assad.

At the moment, “the more moderate groups are succeeding in military operations against the more radical Al Qaeda groups,” which are completely opposed to a ceasefire, the source said.

The Geneva 2 conference, organised by the United Nations, will open formally on Wednesday Jan. 22 in Montreux, on the northeastern shore of Lake Geneva, at the opposite end of the lake from Geneva itself.

The Montreux meeting will be attended by governments from 30 countries and delegates from international organisations, as well as U.N. representatives headed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Participants are likely to deliver exhortations for peace and to be largely critical of the Assad regime.

In the last few weeks the United States and Russia have intensified efforts to guide the negotiations towards two primary goals at this first stage: achieving a ceasefire and opening up corridors for aid to reach those most in need.

David Harland, the executive director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD Centre), a prívate organisation based in Geneva, said the best solution for the difficult humanitarian situation is to deliver aid with the cooperation of the government and all parties.

“At the moment it’s not happening,” he said. “A lot of convoys have been blocked.”

Most convoys have been blocked because they have not received approval from the Damascus government, or because of fighting, or by criminal gangs or extremists, Harland said.

“It’s now very hard to carry out humanitarian operations in areas controlled by the opposition,” he said.

In the run-up to the conference, it is Harland’s view that a ceasefire may be very possible in areas where the opposition forces are surrounded, as in the Houla region and the city of Homs, in the western province of the same name.

A ceasefire will also be possible in areas where the government is holding out in enclaves within territory controlled by the opposition, as in Dar’a and Dayr az Zawr, in the northeast, and Idlib, in the north, he said.

While maintaining a low public profile, the HD Centre successfully offers mediation services and specialises in armed conflicts. In Syria, Harland, a former diplomat from New Zealand, has held meetings with Assad and with leaders of the armed opposition.

On the basis of these, Harland believes that “Geneva 2 will not end the war. It can’t,” he underlined.

The Geneva process has assumed that the U.S. and Russia have enough common ground on Syria to move things forward.

So far, over a period when over 100,000 people have died, this has not been the case, he said.

The problem is that the Geneva process has not found a way to give much voice to Syrians active in the opposition on the ground. “This will have to change if the peace process is to gain traction,” Harland said.

Geneva 2 will be a success “if it opens the door to a new type of peace process,” he said.

A successful peace process would have to be informed by the Syrian people themselves, but implemented with help from the outside.

“It would have to be a minuet: consultations with the Syrians on the ground, and then decisions taken by the U.N. Security Council on the basis of those decisions,” he said.

With respect to inviting Iran to attend the Montreux meeting, a move which Moscow backs but Washington opposes, Harland said Iran’s participation “could be very useful.”

“I think that we need a mechanism where all of the players who are shaping the reality inside Syria are present at the discussions and are held accountable,” he said.

In Harland’s view, the Syrian conflict resembles the 1992-1995 Bosnian War which resulted from the dismemberment of the former Yugoslavia.

Both Bosnia and Syria exhibited internal political issues and internal ethnic religious issues, he said.

Then there is a second circle of regional players which are supporting one ethnic religious community or another.

And finally, a third circle of global powers, mainly the U.S. and Russia, but not excluding China.

In this scenario, he said, the particular difficulty facing Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, who is coordinating the negotiations in his capacity as United Nations and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria, “is that some alignment of all three circles is necessary before there can be any serious prospect for peace.”

That is, there must be some basic accord among the Syrian parties, some basic accord among the regional parties and some basic accord among the U.S. and Russia and the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.

Harland acknowledged that the pacification of Bosnia came about after intense bombing of Serbian targets by North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) air squadrons.

“In the case of Syria, I think it’s extremely unlikely that there would be a decisive external intervention,” he said.

For one thing, there is a difference of scale: Bosnia is a country of four million people that is very close to Europe and the West, both geographically and in term of interests.  Syria has six times that population, and is rather further away, Harland said.

Another difference is that the relative power of the United States in 2013 is “less than it was in 1995, when the U.S. intervened militarily in Bosnia,” Harland concluded.

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