Inter Press Service » Human Rights http://www.ipsnews.net Turning the World Downside Up Fri, 03 Jul 2015 21:48:45 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.1.5 Child Labour: A Hidden Atrocity of the Syrian Crisishttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/07/child-labour-a-hidden-atrocity-of-the-syrian-crisis/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=child-labour-a-hidden-atrocity-of-the-syrian-crisis http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/07/child-labour-a-hidden-atrocity-of-the-syrian-crisis/#comments Fri, 03 Jul 2015 21:19:16 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141417 Aboudi, 12, spends his evenings selling flowers outside Beirut's bars. His parents are stuck in his war-torn hometown Aleppo in Syria. Credit: Sam Tarling/IPS

Aboudi, 12, spends his evenings selling flowers outside Beirut's bars. His parents are stuck in his war-torn hometown Aleppo in Syria. Credit: Sam Tarling/IPS

By Kanya D'Almeida
UNITED NATIONS, Jul 3 2015 (IPS)

In a conflict that has claimed over 220,000 lives and injured a further 840,000 people as of January 2015, it is sometimes hard to see beyond the death toll.

What started as a confrontation between pro-democracy activists and the entrenched dictatorship of President Bashar al-Assad in 2011, Syria’s civil war is today one of the world’s most bitter conflicts, involving over four separate armed groups and touching numerous other countries in the region.

“I feel responsible for my family. I feel like I’m still a child and would love to go back to school, but my only option is to work hard to put food on the table for my family." -- Ahmed, a 12-year-old Syrian refugee in Jordan
With millions on the brink of starvation and displaced Syrians now representing the largest refugee population in the world, after Palestinians, scores of lesser-known war-related atrocities are jostling for space in the headlines.

On Jul. 2, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and Save the Children released a joint report highlighting one of the hidden impacts of the Syrian crisis – a rise in child labour throughout the region.

In a press release issued in Jordan’s capital, Amman, Thursday, the agencies warned, “Syria’s children are paying a heavy price for the world’s failure to put an end to the conflict.

“The report shows that inside Syria, children are now contributing to the family income in more than three quarters of surveyed households, In Jordan, close to half of all Syrian refugee children are now the joint or sole family breadwinners in surveyed households, while in some parts of Lebanon, children as young as six years old are reportedly working.”

“The most vulnerable of all working children are those involved in armed conflict, sexual exploitation and illicit activities including organised begging and child trafficking,” the release stated.

Before the outbreak of war four years ago, Syria was considered a middle-income country, providing its people a decent standard of living and boasting a literacy rate of 90 percent, according to UNICEF data.

By the middle of 2015, however, four in five Syrians were living below the poverty line and 7.6 million were classified as internally displaced persons (IDPs).

With whole cities and towns emptied of residents, businesses and industries have collapsed, sending unemployment rates soaring from 14.9 percent in 2011 to 57.7 percent today.

The U.N. Refugee Agency estimates that about 3.3 million people have fled the country altogether and now live in camps or makeshift shelters in neighbouring states. Women and children comprise over half the refugee population.

The vast majority of those who remain inside Syria – over 64.7 percent – are classified as living in “extreme poverty”, unable to meet the most basic food or sanitary needs.

Thus, experts say, it comes as no surprise that children are becoming breadwinners, taking to the streets and selling their labour in a range of industries to help keep their families alive.

As 12-year-old Ahmed, a Syrian refugee in Jordan, pointed out in interviews with UNICEF, “I feel responsible for my family. I feel like I’m still a child and would love to go back to school, but my only option is to work hard to put food on the table for my family.”

Entitled ‘Small Hands, Heavy Burden: How the Syrian Conflict is Driving More Children into the Workforce’, the report notes that an estimated 2.7 million Syrian children are currently out of school.

With few education opportunities and dwindling humanitarian rations, these children now either comprise, or are at risk of joining the ranks of, a veritable army of child workers.

“In Jordan, for example a majority of working children in host communities work six or seven days a week; one-third work more than eight hours a day,” the report noted. “Their daily income is between four and seven dollars.”

Quite aside from representing an irreversible interruption to their education, cognitive development, and – almost certainly – limiting their chances of securing better jobs later in life – the child labour epidemic is harming young people’s bodies.

Save the Children estimates that “Around 75 percent of working children in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan reported health problems; almost 40 percent reported an injury, illness or poor health; and 35.8 percent of children working in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley are unable to read or write.”

In this climate of conflict, with the specter of hunger haunting countless families, every industry is considered fair game.

In the Bekaa Valley, for instance, landowners who used to pay a daily wage of 10 dollars to migrant agricultural workers now pay kids four dollars a day, often for performing the same tasks alongside their adult counterparts.

In urban centers, garages, workshops and construction sites are “popular” employers, with 10-year-old Syrian boys hired on a full-time basis to do carpentry, metal work or motor repairs in cities across Lebanon.

Street work represents one of the most dangerous occupations for children, with a recent survey of two major Lebanese cities identifying over 1,500 child street-workers, of whom 73 percent were Syrian refugees.

These kids earn an average of 11 dollars a day, either begging or hawking, while illicit activities like prostitution could earn a small child up to 36 dollars in a single working day.

UNICEF says child labour “represents one of the key challenges to the fulfillment of the ‘No Lost Generation’ initiative”, launched in 2013 with the aim of putting child rights and children’s education at the centre of the humanitarian response to the Syrian crisis.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Funding For Desperate Palestinian Refugees Under Threathttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/07/funding-for-desperate-palestinian-refugees-under-threat/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=funding-for-desperate-palestinian-refugees-under-threat http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/07/funding-for-desperate-palestinian-refugees-under-threat/#comments Fri, 03 Jul 2015 00:05:49 +0000 Mel Frykberg http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141397 UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness, who says that unless someone steps in to alleviate the financial crisis facing the U.N. agency, “ it is innocent refugees who will again suffer”.  Credit: Mel Frykberg/IPS

UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness, who says that unless someone steps in to alleviate the financial crisis facing the U.N. agency, “ it is innocent refugees who will again suffer”. Credit: Mel Frykberg/IPS

By Mel Frykberg
JERUSALEM, Jul 3 2015 (IPS)

The U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) faces a severe financial crisis which could see core services to desperate Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank halted unless donors step in before the end of September.

“Currently we have a deficit of 101 million dollars and, as things stand now, UNRWA will struggle to function after September because we don’t have enough money to fund even our core activities for the last few months of the year,” UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness told IPS in an exclusive interview.

“However, following a number of stringent austerity measures already in place, we should be able to continue with life-saving, emergency services to the end of the year,” he added.“As things stand now, UNRWA will struggle to function after September because we don’t have enough money to fund even our core activities for the last few months of the year” – UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness

Due to the financial crisis, the contracts for 35 percent of the 137 internationals employed by UNRWA will end by Sep. 30 without further extension or renewal. The U.N. organisation has taken these steps to reduce costs while trying not to reduce basic services to Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank.

“UNRWA is facing financial crises on all fronts. Broadly speaking we have two sources of funding,” Gunness told IPS. “We have our general fund which funds our core services such as education, health relief and social services. Then we have our emergency funds which are for Gaza and the West Bank because there is a blockade and an occupation respectively.

“We’re also dealing with more than 400,000 displaced people in Syria, the 45,000 refugees who’ve fled to Lebanon and the 15,000 who’ve escaped over the border into Jordan.”

Following Israel’s devastating military campaign against Gaza in July and August last year, UNRWA launched a reconstruction initiative, worth 720 million dollars, at the international reconstruction conference in Cairo in October last year.

Part of the money was for rental subsidies for those Gazans whose homes were so damaged that they were uninhabitable and needed a roof over their heads, and part of it was for reconstruction.

“In February this year, we had to suspend that programme because there was a 585 million dollar shortfall. Due to the deficit not one single home in Gaza has been rebuilt, so there is a real crisis in regard to reconstruction,” said Gunness.

Last year in Syria, UNRWA launched an appeal for 417 million dollars but only 52 percent of this money was received. The shortfall forced the organisation to reduce its six cash distribution programmes from six to three.

Cash distributions have become one of UNRWA’s major emergency response programmes in Syria due to so many U.N. installations being bombed and destroyed as a result of the civil war raging there, thereby crippling its normal means of helping refugees.

With the money received for Syria, UNRWA was only able to distribute an average of 50 cents per refugee per day.

“Imagine trying to survive on 50 cents daily. It is almost impossible and although our donors have been very generous, they have not been generous enough,” said Gunness.

In Lebanon, Palestinian refugees from Syria rely on UNRWA for various things, including rental subsidies so that they can have a roof over their heads.

“We had been giving out a 100 dollar monthly rental allowance. This gets you very little in Lebanon, which is an expensive country,” Gunness told IPS.

“When I was last in Lebanon I visited a Palestinian refugee family in the poverty-stricken Shatila camp in Beirut. They were paying 200 dollars a month to live in a room 20 feet by 20 feet [6 metres by 6 metres] with a tiny bathroom and kitchen.

“Their rental subsidy was cut at the end of June and I suspect that family is now living on the street. This is the reality of the crash crisis for just one family of refugees from Syria who have been made homeless.

“And this is only one story that relates to the emergency funding UNRWA receives,” Gunness added.

“In relation to the general side of our funding, what we’ve seen over the years is a gradual increase in the structural deficit of our general fund which has led to the current deficit of 101 million dollars.”

UNRWA’s monthly running costs are 35 million dollars. This includes the salaries of 30, 000 staff members, 22,000 of whom are teachers, as well as the distribution of basic necessities for refugees such as food.

“So, unless someone steps in to alleviate the crisis, even tougher decisions may need to be made in the next few weeks and it is innocent refugees who will again suffer,” said Gunness.

Edited by Phil Harris    

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Syrian Refugees Face Hunger Amidst Humanitarian Funding Crisishttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/07/syrian-refugees-face-hunger-amidst-humanitarian-funding-crisis/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=syrian-refugees-face-hunger-amidst-humanitarian-funding-crisis http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/07/syrian-refugees-face-hunger-amidst-humanitarian-funding-crisis/#comments Thu, 02 Jul 2015 19:33:21 +0000 Zhai Yun Tan http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141398 Syrian children outside their temporary home, in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. Credit: DFID – UK Department for International Development/CC-BY-2.0

Syrian children outside their temporary home, in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. Credit: DFID – UK Department for International Development/CC-BY-2.0

By Zhai Yun Tan
WASHINGTON, Jul 2 2015 (IPS)

The United Nations’ food aid organisation, the World Food Programme (WFP), said on Jul. 1 that up to 440,000 refugees from war-torn Syria might have to go hungry if no additional funds are received by August.

WFP, the world’s largest humanitarian agency dedicated to fighting hunger, provides food every month to nearly six million people in need in Syria and the surrounding region.

“Every time we take one step forward, we fall ten steps back. I have given up the hope that we will ever live normally again. I know the world has forgotten us; we’re too much of a burden." -- Fatmeh, a Syrian refugee who fled to Lebanon three years ago
Though the agency received 5.38 billion dollars in 2014, the continuing emergencies in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere mean that needs now far outpace available funding.

From assisting an estimated 2.5 million refugees last year, limited funding has forced the organisation to scale back its operations, with the result that just 1.6 million refugees are currently receiving rations.

A United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report published in March 2015 revealed that an estimated 3.33 million refugees have fled Syria since 2014, making Syrians the second largest refugee population in the world, after the Palestinians.

The cuts come at a time when Syrian refugees are spending their fourth year away from home, unable to celebrate the annual Ramadan festival, one of the most important religious occasions celebrated by Muslims worldwide.

The upcoming winter may leave up to 1.7 million people without fuel, shelter, insulation and blankets.

WFP is fully funded by voluntary contributions from governments, companies and private individuals. The organisation reports that its regional programme in the Middle East is currently 81 percent underfunded and requires 139 million dollars to help Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey and Iraq through September 2015.

“Just when we thought things couldn’t get worse, we are forced yet again to make yet more cuts,” WFP Regional Director for the Middle East Muhannad Hadi said in a press release Wednesday. “Refugees were already struggling to cope with what little we could provide.”

The humanitarian funding crisis began in 2013, when the number of Syrian refugees receiving food assistance from WFP dropped by 30 percent.

Food parcels were downsized in October 2014, following a WFP announcement in September that they have no funding available in December 2014 for programmes in Syria.

Ertharin Cousin, executive director of WFP, appealed to the United Nations Security Council and member nations in April 2015 for more funding.

“When we announced the reductions in Jordan our hotlines were overwhelmed. Thousands of appeal calls come in each day. Calls from families that have exhausted their resources and feel abandoned […] by us all,” she said. “One woman told us, ‘I cannot stay […] if I cannot feed my children.'”

A fundraising campaign in December 2014 raised enough funds for WFP to carry on its programmes through December, but in January 2015, WFP cut the amount of money in electronic food cards provided to refugees from 27 dollars to 19 dollars.

Starting this month, the value fell to just 13.5 dollars.

This is not the first time WFP has faced a funding crisis. In 2009, aid operations in Guatemala, Bangladesh and Kenya faced reductions in supply of food rations due to a lack of funding. In 2011, a similar situation occurred in Zimbabwe.

When faced with funding shortfalls, WFP suspends programmes and only provides aid to the most vulnerable groups – pregnant women, children and the elderly.

International efforts to relieve suffering caused by the Syrian crisis culminated in the Jun. 25 Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (3RP) that called for 5.5 billion dollars to fund the needs of host governments, United Nations agencies and NGO aid operations in the area.

According to the Financial Tracking Service (FTS) of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), only 25 percent of the appeal has been met.

“This massive crisis requires far more solidarity and responsibility-sharing from the international community than what we have seen so far,” said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres in a Jun. 25 WFP press release.

“But instead, we are so dangerously low on funding that we risk not being able to meet even the most basic survival needs of millions of people over the coming six months.”

The United States has contributed over 609 million dollars to the effort, representing 26.4 percent of the total pledged. The United Kingdom follows behind with a contribution of over 344 million dollars.

A WFP interview with Syrian refugees in Lebanon captures the refugees’ desperation:

“Every time we take one step forward, we fall ten steps back. I have given up the hope that we will ever live normally again,” said Fatmeh, a refugee who fled to Lebanon three years ago, in the WFP interview.

“I know the world has forgotten us; we’re too much of a burden. They’ve given up on us too.”

The crisis in Syria began in 2011 after security forces killed several pro-democracy protestors. Unrest followed with demands for President Bashar al-Assad’s resignation, to which he responded with violence.

The situation worsened with the rise of the armed group calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in northern and eastern Syria. The country became a battleground between four forces – Assad’s pro-governmental forces, Kurdish fighters, ISIS, and rebel fighters eager to overturn Assad’s regime.

In the midst of the violence, Syrians are faced with a crumbling economy. The UNDP report revealed that four out of every five Syrians lived in poverty in 2014, and almost two-thirds of the population was unable to secure basic food and non-food items necessary for survival.

The death toll in Syria reached 210,000 by the end of 2014, with 840,000 people wounded.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Poor Bear the Brunt of Corruption in India’s Food Distribution Systemhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/07/poor-bear-the-brunt-of-corruption-in-indias-food-distribution-system/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=poor-bear-the-brunt-of-corruption-in-indias-food-distribution-system http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/07/poor-bear-the-brunt-of-corruption-in-indias-food-distribution-system/#comments Wed, 01 Jul 2015 22:21:41 +0000 Neeta Lal http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141383 With a network of 60,000 ration shops, India’s public food distribution system is mired in corruption and inefficiency, leaving millions starving while tonnes of grain rot in storage. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

With a network of 60,000 ration shops, India’s public food distribution system is mired in corruption and inefficiency, leaving millions starving while tonnes of grain rot in storage. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

By Neeta Lal
NEW DELHI, Jul 1 2015 (IPS)

Chottey Lal, 43, a daily wage labourer at a construction site in NOIDA, a township in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, is a beleaguered man. After a gruelling 12-hour daily shift at the dusty location, he and his wife Subha make barely enough to feed a family of seven.

Nor is the couple ever able to procure the subsidized rations they are legally entitled to, under a government law, from their local fair price shop.

"I usually disappear at meal times from home, as it’s heart-wrenching to see so many people parcel out so little food among themselves. I now beg for food, though I live with my sons." -- Savirti, a 50-year-old woman who is cut off from India's public food distribution system
“Whenever we go to the outlet, we’re shooed away by the grocer saying stocks have run out. We end up buying expensive food from the market, which isn’t enough to feed the entire family. Everybody knows the shopkeeper is profiteering from selling grain on the black market. But what can we, the poor, do? We’ve complained at the local police station also, but no action has been taken against the vendor,” Lal told IPS.

Savirti, 50, and Kamla, 39, have a worse tale to share.

Both women, who are widows and live with their married sons, are dependent on their families for food and a roof over their heads. However, they have been reduced to beggary as the family income is meagre and the grain rations they receive from the fair price shops are barely enough to feed half the family.

“I usually disappear at meal times from home, as it’s heart-wrenching to see so many people parcel out so little food among themselves. I now beg for food, though I live with my sons,” Savitri told IPS.

Kamla similarly feels she “eats better outside the home than inside” due to strangers’ kindness.

Engulfed in corruption, leakages and inefficiency, India’s public food distribution system (PDS) – a network of about 60,000 fair price shops around this country of 1.2 billion people – is depriving millions of poor people of the food grain they are entitled to under the National Food Security Act (NFSA).

Essential commodities like rice, wheat, sugar, and kerosene are supposed to be supplied to the public through this network at a fraction of the market rates.

The NFSA aims to sustain two-thirds of the country’s population by providing 35 kg of subsidised food grains per person per month at one to three rupees (0.01 to 0.04 dollars) per kilo.

However, only 11 states and Union Territories (UTs) have so far implemented the law, which was passed by Parliament in September 2013. The rest of the 25 states or UTs have not implemented it yet.

To make matters worse, national surveys have highlighted how millions of tonnes of grain are siphoned off from the distribution system by unscrupulous merchants.

They sell this loot in the open market at high profits, or export it in collusion with corrupt officials from the state-run Food Corporation of India. Much of the food from the PDS is also diverted to neighbouring countries like Nepal, Burma, Bangladesh and Singapore.

A government study done in Uttar Pradesh found that numerous, competing agencies, poor coordination and low administrative accountability have combined to cripple the delivery mechanism.

The Justice D. P. Wadhwa Committee, which was tasked by the Supreme Court of India with monitoring its orders in a public interest litigation case on the right to food in 2006, recently came out with a damning indictment of the PDS.

Investigating irregularities in the chain’s distribution, the committee revealed that 80 percent of the corruption in distribution happens even before supplies reach the ration shops.

Worse, nearly 60 percent of the food that is channeled through the public distribution system is either wasted or siphoned off in transit. “What reaches the poor beneficiaries is often not even fit for consumption,” explains food expert Devinder Sharma who helms the New Delhi-based collective, Forum for Biotechnology & Food Security.

Malnourished kids run around outside a ration shop in India. The lettering on the side of the building is part of an advertisement by a multinational telecom company, peddling cheap phones in the country that hosts the world’s largest population of hungry people. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

Malnourished kids run around outside a ration shop in India. The lettering on the side of the building is part of an advertisement by a multinational telecom company, peddling cheap phones in the country that hosts the world’s largest population of hungry people. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

This rampant and systemic abuse in the delivery chain augurs ill for a country like India, home to 194.6 million undernourished people, the highest in the world, according to the recent annual report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations.

The report states that the numbers translate as over 15 percent of the country’s population, exceeding China in both absolute numbers and the proportion of malnourished people in the country.

“Higher economic growth has not been fully translated into higher food consumption, let alone better diets overall, suggesting that the poor and hungry may have failed to benefit much from overall growth,” says the 2015 State of Food Insecurity in the World about India.

Close to 1.3 million children die every year in India because of malnutrition, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). The prevalence of underweight children in India is among the highest in the world, and is nearly double that of sub-Saharan Africa, with dire consequences for mobility, mortality, productivity and economic growth, states the WHO.

In a bid to tackle the problem of chronic hunger, the Shanta Kumar Committee, tasked with a review of the PDS in India, submitted a report to Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier this year, recommending a gradual phasing out of the PDS and a move to cash transfers.

The proposed cash transfer, according to the committee, will whittle down poor beneficiaries’ reliance on PDS ration shops. Some experts have buttressed this idea with the argument that dismantling the food procurement system, by providing coupons or food entitlements in the form of cash to the beneficiaries and allowing them to buy their own quota from the market, is a far more foolproof system.

The belief is that if the people are given the subsidy directly, both the government and the consumers will benefit.

Each year India’s granaries burst with bumper harvests of wheat and rice, but the grain is either pilfered by middlemen or allowed to rot in the rain while millions starve.

The government also incurs a huge expenditure on the food grains it supplies through the system. The leakage of food grains supplied to the PDS is as high as 48 percent, say surveys, and the buffer stocks it maintains are often far above the requirement, leading to huge costs on maintenance.

Ironically, the PDS is one of the largest programmes in India aimed at social welfare of the poor. Renowned economist Jean Drèze has argued that the impact on poverty reduction can be considerable if the PDS works efficiently.

Currently, close to 23 percent of India’s people live on less than 1.25 dollars a day – an arbitrary line that the Asian Development recently found to be an inadequate measure of poverty, suggesting that a line of 1.51 dollars would better reflect the sum required to keep a person at a minimum standard of existence.

Regardless of how extreme poverty is measured, it is clear that millions in this country are at, or very close, to, the point of starvation every single day.

Experts like Dr. Ravi Khetrapal, an agricultural scientist formerly with the Ministry of Food and Civil Supplies, believe the PDS to be an essential component of Indian society because the prevailing market prices for essential commodities are beyond the reach of the downtrodden.

“If the poor don’t access this network, they will starve to death,” he told IPS. “The network can play a more meaningful role if it is streamlined to ensure micro-level success and availability of food grains for all poor households.”

India has an impressive list of programmes to fight hunger, and the budget allocation for these is increased every year, and yet the poor go hungry. In fact, according to U.N. data, the number of impoverished people in the country is increasing with every passing year.

The answer does not lie in dismantling the PDS system, but reforming the world’s largest food delivery system to cleanse it of corruption, and make it more effective.

“This is certainly possible, but given the extent of political meddling – from the allotment of ration shops to transportation of grains – it has never been attempted in earnest. We need to build a system that ensures food for all at all times. This is what constitutes inclusive growth. A hungry population is a great economic loss,” Sharma told IPS.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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U.N. Remains Divided Over Domestic and State Terrorismhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/07/u-n-remains-divided-over-domestic-and-state-terrorism/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-n-remains-divided-over-domestic-and-state-terrorism http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/07/u-n-remains-divided-over-domestic-and-state-terrorism/#comments Wed, 01 Jul 2015 20:01:15 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141380 Students and faculty at Penn State university join together in a 'March for Peace, Nonviolence and Justice' on June 19 in remembrance of victims of hate crimes nationwide, including the lives lost in the tragic church shootings in Charleston, SC. Credit: Penn State/cc by 3.0

Students and faculty at Penn State university join together in a 'March for Peace, Nonviolence and Justice' on June 19 in remembrance of victims of hate crimes nationwide, including the lives lost in the tragic church shootings in Charleston, SC. Credit: Penn State/cc by 3.0

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Jul 1 2015 (IPS)

When nine African-American worshippers were gunned down by a white supremacist inside a historic church in Charleston, South Carolina last month, there was a sharp division of opinion in the United States whether that murderous act of killing innocent civilians constituted a “hate crime” or an “act of terrorism.”

Or both?

Just after the shooting, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Justice Department said the crime was “undoubtedly designed to strike fear and terror into this community, and the department is looking at this crime from all angles, including as a hate crime and as an act of domestic terrorism”.“Terrorists” and “freedom fighters” are occasionally interchangeable – depending on who is doing the talking.

But Nihad Awad, executive director of the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), was quoted as saying: “We have been conditioned to accept that if the violence is committed by a Muslim, then it is terrorism.

“If the same violence is committed by a white supremacist or apartheid sympathiser and is not a Muslim, we start to look for excuses — he might be insane, maybe he was pushed too hard,” he said.

The ultimate definition of terrorism has continued to defy governments, rights groups, the media and even the United Nations.

The United States and Israel continue to label “Hamas” a terrorist organisation but much of the mainstream media calls it “a militant organisation.”

Last year, the European Court of Justice upheld an appeal by Hamas, pointing out that its designation as a “terrorist” group by the European Union (EU) was “based not on acts examined and confirmed in decisions of competent authorities but on factual imputations derived from the press and the Internet.”

Since 2000, a U.N. Ad Hoc Committee on Measures to Eliminate International Terrorism has failed to adopt the last of its conventions against terrorism: the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT) sponsored by India.

In an interview with Time magazine last May, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said: “We should not look at terrorism from the name plates – which group they belong to, what their geographical location is, and who the victims are.”

These individual groups or names will keep changing, he said. “Today you are looking at Taliban or ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria): tomorrow you might be looking at another name.”

Modi said the United Nations should pass the CCIT. “At least, it will clearly establish whom you view as a terrorist and whom you don’t,” he said.

But the U.N. Ad Hoc Committee remains deadlocked, mostly over definitions because “terrorists” and “freedom fighters” are occasionally interchangeable – depending on who is doing the talking.

Ambassador Rohan Perera, chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee and Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, told IPS the work of his committee has resulted in the adoption of three counter terrorism conventions, namely, the International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings, the International Convention for the Suppression of Financing of Terrorism and the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism.

The committee, he said, has been mandated by the General Assembly “to provide comprehensive legal framework to fill possible gaps in the existing sectoral Conventions on Terrorism.”

While the negotiations had reached an advanced stage by the fall of 2001 and there was a strong possibility of the convention being adopted that year, in the immediate aftermath of the events of 9/11, the requisite political will to reach a consensus failed to materialize, he added.

The draft CCIT, like the precedent sectoral conventions contains an ‘operational’ criminal law definition of acts of terrorism.

The CCIT has taken on added importance due to the widespread death and destruction caused by groups dubbed “terrorist organisations,” including the Islamic State of the Levant (ISIL), Al-Shabaab, Al-Nusra, Al-Qaida and Boko Haram.

“We can no longer stand by and watch as this phenomenon spreads,” says U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman.

“With their message of hate, violent extremists directly assault the legitimacy of the U.N. Charter and values of peace, justice and human dignity on which that document and international relations are based,” said Feltman, who also chairs the U.N. Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force and is the executive director of the U.N. Counter-Terrorism Centre.

He said there are almost 50,000 Twitter accounts supporting ISIL, with an average of 1,000 followers each.

Ambassador Perera told IPS the key outstanding issue is how the CCIT was to address certain concerns expressed by different groups of states, namely; the question of acts committed in the course of struggle for national liberation against foreign occupation; the question of acts of military forces of States in peacetime; and the question of state terrorism

According to Arab diplomats, Israel has to be singled out for what they call “state terrorism.”

But the use of that term is strongly opposed by Israel’s supporters, including the United States and most Western nations.

Asked about state terrorism, U.N. deputy spokesperson Farhan Haq told reporters last February; “.. the definition of terrorism and what comprises a terrorist group or terrorist entity remains in the hands of member states and the treaty language they are working on.”

“They have to decide,” he declared.

Meanwhile, the approach adopted by the Bureau of the Ad Hoc Committee was to address some of the concerns by excluding applicable legal regimes from the scope of the Convention, rather than seeking to exclude specific acts.

Accordingly, a compromise proposal made by the coordinator to serve as a basis for negotiation, clarified that the activities of armed forces, which are governed by International Humanitarian Law, are not governed by the present convention and that the CCIT is without prejudice to the rules of International Law applicable in armed conflict.

This provides a ‘carve out’ for acts committed in national liberation struggles by pointing to the applicable law.

“It is further provided that in the case of activities undertaken by the military forces of States, as they are governed by other rules of International Law, such acts are not governed by the convention,” said Perera.

This approach recognises the fact that the CCIT, once adopted, will not operate in a vacuum, but alongside other legal regimes.

“And it would be a matter for the domestic courts of Member States to determine which regime applies in a given situation,” he added.

Perera also said since the CCIT is a law enforcement instrument dealing with individual criminal responsibility, issues of concern raised by certain States relating to state terrorism are sought to be addressed in an accompanying resolution to be adopted along with CCIT, which recalls the obligations of States under International Law, as set out in international legal instruments and judgments of the International Court of Justice.

This approach, he said, is in keeping with the general practice of the United Nations General Assembly in adopting Conventions.

While all proposals that have been presented remain on the table, since 2002 delegations have shown willingness to engage in the negotiations on the basis of the compromise proposal made by the Bureau, without prejudice to their respective positions.

During the Sixteenth Session of the Ad Hoc Committee in April 2013, the Committee was able to present a consolidated text of the draft convention, leaving open the outstanding scope, Article 3. The consolidated text reflects the work accomplished on the CCIT so far.

“It is very much hoped that in the 70th anniversary of the United Nations, the Member States will demonstrate the necessary political will to overcome the hurdles that have held up the reaching of a consensus on the CCIT,” Perera declared.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

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Perfecting Detection of the Bombhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/perfecting-detection-of-the-bomb/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=perfecting-detection-of-the-bomb http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/perfecting-detection-of-the-bomb/#comments Tue, 30 Jun 2015 23:55:07 +0000 Ramesh Jaura http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141371 CTBTO Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo introducing the panel discussion on 'Citizen Networks: The Promise of Technological Innovation' at SnT2015 in Vienna, June 2015. Photo credit: CTBTO

CTBTO Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo introducing the panel discussion on 'Citizen Networks: The Promise of Technological Innovation' at SnT2015 in Vienna, June 2015. Photo credit: CTBTO

By Ramesh Jaura
VIENNA, Jun 30 2015 (IPS)

An international conference has highlighted advances made in detecting nuclear explosions,tracking storms or clouds of volcanic ash, locating epicentres of earthquakes, monitoring the drift of huge icebergs, observing the movements of marine mammals, and detecting plane crashes.

The five-day ‘Science and Technology 2015 Conference’ (SnT2015), which ended Jun. 26, was the fifth in a series of multi-disciplinary conferences organised by the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), which has been based in the Austrian capital since 1997.

The conference was attended by more than 1100 scientists and other experts, policy makers and representatives of national agencies, independent academic research institutions and civil society organisations from around the world.“With a strong verification regime and its cutting edge technology, there is no excuse for further delaying the [Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty] CTBT’s entry into force” – UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

SnT2015 drew attention to an important finding of CTBTO sensors: the meteor that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013 was the largest to hit Earth in at least a century.

Participants also heard that the Air Algérie flight between Burkina Faso and Algeria which crashed in Mali in July 2014 was detected by the CTBTO’s monitoring station in Cote d’Ivoire, 960 kilometres from the impact of the aircraft.

The importance of SnT2015 lies in the fact that CTBTO is tasked with campaigning for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), which outlaws nuclear explosions by everyone, everywhere: on the Earth’s surface, in the atmosphere, underwater and underground. It also aims to develop reliable tools to make sure that no nuclear explosion goes undetected.

These include seismic, hydro-acoustic, infrasound (frequencies too low to be heard by the human ear), and radionuclide sensors. Scientists and other experts demonstrated and explained in presentations and posters how the four state-of-the-art technologies work in practice.

170 seismic stations monitor shockwaves in the Earth, the vast majority of which are caused by earthquakes. But man-made explosions such as mine explosions or the announced North Korean nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013 have also been detected.

CTBTO’s 11 hydro-acoustic stations “listen” for sound waves in the oceans. Sound waves from explosions can travel extremely far underwater. Sixty infrasound stations on the Earth’s surface can detect ultra-low frequency sound waves that are emitted by large explosions.

CTBTO’s 80 radionuclide stations measure the atmosphere for radioactive particles; 40 of them also pick up noble gas, the “smoking gun” from an underground nuclear test. Only these measurements can give a clear indication as to whether an explosion detected by the other methods was actually nuclear or not. Sixteen laboratories support radionuclide stations.

When complete, CTBTO’s International Monitoring System (IMS) will consist of 337 facilities spanning the globe to monitor the planet for signs of nuclear explosions. Nearly 90 percent of the facilities are already up and running.

An important theme of the conference was performance optimisation which, according to W. Randy Bell, Director of CTBTO’s International Data Centre (IDC), “will have growing relevance as we sustain and recapitalise the IMS and IDC in the year ahead.”

In the past 20 years, the international community has invested more than one billion dollars in the global monitoring system whose data can be used by CTBTO member states – and not only for test ban verification purposes. All stations are connected through satellite links to the IDC in Vienna.

“Our stations do not necessarily have to be in the same country as the event, but in fact can detect events from far outside from where they are located. For example, the last DPRK (North Korean) nuclear test was picked up as far as Peru,” CTBTO’s Public Information Officer Thomas Mützelburg told IPS.

“Our 183 member states have access to both the raw data and the analysis results. Through their national data centres, they study both and arrive at their own conclusion as to the possible nature of events detected,” he said. Scientists from Papua New Guinea and Argentina said they found the data “extremely useful”.

Stressing the importance of data sharing, CTBTO Executive Secretary, Lassina Zerbo, said in an interview with Nature: “If you make your data available, you connect with the outside scientific community and you keep abreast of developments in science and technology. Not only does it make the CTBTO more visible, it also pushes us to think outside the box. If you see that data can serve another purpose, that helps you to step back a little bit, look at the broader picture and see how you can improve your detection.”

Photo credit: CTBTO

Photo credit: CTBTO

In opening remarks to the conference, Zerbo said: “You will have heard me say again and again that I am passionate about this organisation. Today I am not only passionate but very happy to see all of you who share this passion: a passion for science in the service of peace. It gives me hope for the future of our children that the best and brightest scientists of our time congregate to perfect the detection of the bomb instead of working to perfect the bomb itself.”

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon set the tone in a message to the conference when he said: “With a strong verification regime and its cutting edge technology, there is no excuse for further delaying the CTBT’s entry into force.”

South African Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, pointed out that her country “is a committed and consistent supporter” of CTBTO. She added: “South Africa has been at the forefront of nuclear non-proliferation in Africa for over twenty years. We gave up our nuclear arsenal and signed the Pelindaba Treaty in 1996, which establishes Africa as a nuclear weapons-free zone, a zone that only came into force in July 2009.

Beside the presentations by scientists, discussion panels addressed topics of current special interest in the CTBT monitoring community. One alluded to the role of science in on-site inspections (OSIs), which are provided for under the Treaty after it enters into force.

This discussion benefited from the experience of the 2014 Integrated Field Exercise (IFE14) in Jordan. “IFE14 was the largest and most comprehensive such exercise so far conducted in the build-up of CTBTO’s OSI capabilities,” said IDC director Bell.

Participants also had an opportunity to listen to a discussion on the opportunities that new and emerging technologies can play in overcoming the challenges of nuclear security. Members of the Technology for Global Security (Tech4GS) group joined former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry in a panel discussion on ‘Citizen Networks: the Promise of Technological Innovation’.

“We are verging on another nuclear arms race,” said Perry. “I do not think that it is irreversible. This is the time to stop and reflect, debate the issue and see if there’s some third choice, some alternative, between doing nothing and having a new arms race.”

A feature of the conference was the CTBT Academic Forum focused on ‘Strengthening the CTBT through Academic Engagement’, at which Bob Frye, prestigious Emmy award-winning producer and director of documentaries and network news programme, pleaded for the need to inspire “the next generation of critical thinkers” to help usher in a world free of nuclear tests and atomic weapons of mass destruction.

The forum also provided an overview of impressive CTBT online educational resources and experiences with teaching the CTBT from the perspective of teachers and professors in Austria, Canada, China, Costa Rica, Pakistan and Russia.

With a view to bridging science and policy, the forum discussed ‘technical education for policymakers and policy education for scientists’ with the participation of eminent experts, including Rebecca Johnson, executive director of the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy; Nikolai Sokov of the James Martin Center for Non-proliferation Studies; Ference Dalnoki-Veress of the Middlebury Institute for International Studies; Edward Ifft of the Center for Security Studies, Georgetown; and Matt Yedlin of the Faculty of Science at the University of British Columbia.

There was general agreement on the need to integrate technical issues of CTBT into training for diplomats and other policymakers, and increasing awareness of CTBT and broader nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament policy issues within the scientific community.

Yet another panel – comprising Jean du Preez, chief of CTBTO’s external relations, protocol and international cooperation, Piece Corden of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Thomas Blake of the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, and Jenifer Mackby of the Federation of American Scientists – looked ahead with a view to forging new and better links with and beyond academia, effectively engaging with the civil society, the youth and the media.

“Progress comes in increments,” said one panellist, “but not by itself.”

[With inputs from Valentina Gasbarri]

Edited by Phil Harris    

The writer can be contacted at headquarters@ips.org

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Toilets with Piped Music for Rich, Open Defecation on Rail Tracks for Poorhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/toilets-with-piped-music-for-rich-open-defecation-on-rail-tracks-for-poor/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=toilets-with-piped-music-for-rich-open-defecation-on-rail-tracks-for-poor http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/toilets-with-piped-music-for-rich-open-defecation-on-rail-tracks-for-poor/#comments Tue, 30 Jun 2015 21:34:08 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141368 Children investigate their community's newly improved toilets, one of UNOCI's “quick impact projects” (QIPS) which supported the rehabilitation of schools and toilets in Abidjan. Credit: UN Photo/Patricia Esteve

Children investigate their community's newly improved toilets, one of UNOCI's “quick impact projects” (QIPS) which supported the rehabilitation of schools and toilets in Abidjan. Credit: UN Photo/Patricia Esteve

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 30 2015 (IPS)

As most developing nations fall short of meeting their goals on sanitation, the world’s poorest countries have been lagging far behind, according to a new U.N. report released here.

The Joint Monitoring Programme report, ‘Progress on Sanitation and Drinking Water: 2015 Update and MDG Assessment’, authored by the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF and the World Health Organisation (WHO), says one in three people, or 2.4 billion worldwide, are still without sanitation facilities – including 946 million people who defecate in the open.“We cannot have another situation where we appear to be succeeding because the situation of the comparatively wealthy has improved, even as millions of people are still falling ill from dirty water or from environments that are contaminated with faeces." -- Tim Brewer of WaterAid

“What the data really show is the need to focus on inequalities as the only way to achieve sustainable progress,” said Sanjay Wijesekera, head of UNICEF’s global water, sanitation and hygiene programmes.

“The global model so far has been that the wealthiest move ahead first, and only when they have access do the poorest start catching up. If we are to reach universal access to sanitation by 2030, we need to ensure the poorest start making progress right away,” he said.

Pointing out the existing inequities, the report says progress on sanitation has been hampered by inadequate investments in behaviour change campaigns, lack of affordable products for the poor, and social norms which accept or even encourage open defecation.

Although some 2.1 billion people have gained access to improved sanitation since 1990, the world has missed the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target by nearly 700 million people.

Today, only 68 per cent of the world’s population uses an improved sanitation facility – 9 percentage points below the MDG target of 77 per cent.

Still, the world has made “spectacular progress” in water, Jeffrey O’Malley, Director, Data, at UNICEF’s Research and Policy Division, told reporters Tuesday.

In 2015, 91 percent of the global population used an improved drinking water source, up from 76 percent in 1990, while 6.6 billion people have access to improved drinking water.

The total without access globally is now 663 million, almost a 100 million fewer than last year’s estimate, and the first time the number has fallen below 700 million.

As the MDGs expire this year, the goal on water has been met overall, but with wide gaps remaining, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The goal on sanitation, however, has failed dramatically. At present rates of progress it would take 300 years for everyone in Sub-Saharan Africa to get access to a sanitary toilet, said the report.

Tim Brewer, Policy Analyst on Monitoring and Accountability at the London-based WaterAid, told IPS the MDG goal on water was met largely because of those who were easiest to reach.

“The poorest are often still being left behind. What we need to do in the new U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), now under negotiation, is to make sure that progress for the poorest is made the headline figure.”

“We cannot have another situation where we appear to be succeeding because the situation of the comparatively wealthy has improved, even as millions of people are still falling ill from dirty water or from environments that are contaminated with faeces,” he noted.

Brewer said monitoring is key: “We need to measure basic access for the poor, as well as measuring other indicators such as whether water is safe and affordable, and whether wastewater is safely treated.”

“This is the only way to make sure we reach everyone, everywhere by 2030 and hold governments accountable to their promises,” he argued.

In countries like Japan and South Korea, according to published reports, sanitation is far beyond a basic necessity: it has the trappings of luxury with piped in music, automatic flushing, and in some cases, scenic window views — even while millions in developing nations defecate openly in nearby rural jungles or on rail tracks (with their bowel movements apparently being coordinated with train schedules, according to a New York Times report.)

The practice of open defecation is also linked to a higher risk of stunting – or chronic malnutrition – which affects 161 million children worldwide, leaving them with irreversible physical and cognitive damage.

“To benefit human health it is vital to further accelerate progress on sanitation, particularly in rural and underserved areas,” says Dr Maria Neira, Director of the WHO Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health.

Asked if it would be realistic for sanitation goals to be rolled into the proposed SDGs with a target date of 2030, UNICEF’s Wijesekera told IPS that an even more ambitious sanitation target is suggested for the new SDG agenda – to eliminate open defecation and achieve universal access to sanitation.

“I think the goal of achieving universal access to sanitation by 2030 is possible, but only if we start focusing on the poorest and most vulnerable right now (rather than waiting for the wealthiest to gain access first, as has historically been the case).”

He said: “We can also learn from the successes of the past 25 years, and especially the last 15. A number of countries have made rapid gains during the MDG era.’

For example, he pointed out, Ethiopia has reduced open defecation rates by 64 percentage points and Thailand has closed the gap in access between the richest and the poorest.

This shows what is possible when countries recognise the importance of tackling inequalities in access to Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH), thus unlocking wider benefits in health, nutrition, education and economic productivity, he noted.

Asked how the sanitation problem can be resolved, Wijesekera told IPS: “Sanitation is not rocket science; most developed countries take it for granted.”

“But our experience on the ground in developing countries shows that it is not just a question of governments investing money and technology. It is also about changing ordinary people’s attitudes and behaviours, and this takes time,” he said.

Sanitation can best be addressed by countries establishing and investing in people and systems at a local level to change people’s behaviours, and to get the private sector engaged in providing affordable and good quality products and services for the poor.

This, he said, needs to be led by countries themselves, and donors, international organisations and the private sector all have a role in providing financing and expertise.

He also said there is a growing awareness of the importance of sanitation as a foundation for human and economic development.

World leaders – from the U.N. Secretary-General, to the President of the World Bank, to the Prime Minister of India – are all talking about it.

“We need to translate this high level political support into action in order for all people to have access to what is theirs as a human right: clean drinking water and adequate sanitation,” said Wijesekera.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

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Cuba: Blazing a Trail in the Fight Against HIV/AIDShttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/cuba-blazing-a-trail-in-the-fight-against-hivaids/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=cuba-blazing-a-trail-in-the-fight-against-hivaids http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/cuba-blazing-a-trail-in-the-fight-against-hivaids/#comments Tue, 30 Jun 2015 20:13:17 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141366 Providing pregnant mothers with antiretroviral medicines can reduce the risk of HIV transmission from 45 percent to just one percent, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Credit: Jeffrey Moyo/IPS

Providing pregnant mothers with antiretroviral medicines can reduce the risk of HIV transmission from 45 percent to just one percent, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Credit: Jeffrey Moyo/IPS

By Kanya D'Almeida
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 30 2015 (IPS)

In 2013, an estimated 240,000 children were born with HIV. This was an improvement from 2009, when 400,000 babies tested positive for the infection, but still a far cry from the global target of reducing total child infections to 40,000 by 2015.

Bucking the global trend, one small island nation has made gigantic strides towards the 2015 goal. That country is Cuba, and in 2013 it recorded just two babies born with HIV.

Today, Cuba has become the first country in the world to receive validation from the World Health Organisation (WHO) that it has eliminated mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis.

Executive Director of UNAIDS Michel Sidibé said in a press release today, “This is a celebration for Cuba and a celebration for children and families everywhere. It shows that ending the AIDS epidemic is possible and we expect Cuba to be the first of many countries coming forward to seek validation that they have ended their epidemics among children.”

Every single year, over 1.4 million women living with HIV become pregnant. Without proper treatment, they run a 15-45 percent chance of transmitting the virus to their kids – during pregnancy, labour, delivery or breastfeeding.

But if both mother and child receive proper antiretroviral treatment, the risk of transmission falls to just one percent.

Since 2010, the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), which serves as the Regional Office for the Americas of the WHO, has been working with its partners in Cuba and other states in the region to roll out a comprehensive programme to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of both HIV and syphilis.

This process has involved improving early access to prenatal care, testing for pregnant women and their partners, caesarean deliveries and substitution of breastfeeding.

Such services were undertaken and provided within the larger framework of equitable access and universal healthcare, in which maternal and child health is integrated with programmes to combat sexually transmitted diseases.

“Cuba’s success demonstrates that universal access and universal health coverage are feasible and indeed are the key to success, even against challenges as daunting as HIV,” PAHO Director Carissa F. Etienne said in a statement on Jun. 30.

“Cuba’s achievement today provides inspiration for other countries to advance towards elimination of mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis,” she added.

WHO and its partners first published comprehensive guidelines on the processes and criteria for validation of eliminating mother-to-child transmissions in 2014.

Because treatment and prevention can never be 100 percent effective, ‘elimination’ is defined as “a reduction of transmission to such a low level that it no longer constitutes a public health problem”, according to PAHO.

In March of 2015, a group of international experts visited Cuba to assess its progress towards the elimination target, and spent five days visiting health clinics, labs and government institutions interviewing a range of experts and other stakeholders.

Comprised of experts from 10 countries including Argentina, Japan and Zambia, the mission considered a number of indicators – all of which must be met for at least one year – including confirming that new child infections as a result of mother-to-child transmissions are less than 50 cases per 100,000 live births.

Other indicators, which must be met for at least two years in order to receive validation, include ascertaining that more than 95 percent of HIV-positive women know their status, receive at least one ante-natal visit, and receive antiretroviral drugs.

“Eliminating transmission of a virus is one of the greatest public health achievements possible,” WHO Director-General Margaret Chan announced on Jun. 30.

“This is a major victory in our long fight against HIV and sexually transmitted infections, and an important step towards having an AIDS-free generation,” she added.

According to the World AIDS Day 2014 Report, there were 35 million people living with HIV/AIDS in 2013. Since the start of the epidemic in the 1980s, 39 million people have died of AIDS-related illnesses and close to 78 million have become infected with HIV.

Thanks to sustained local and global efforts to fight the epidemic, the death toll has fallen significantly in the past decade, from 2.4 million deaths in 2005 to 1.5 million in 2013, representing a 35-percent decline.

New infections have also declined by an estimated 38 percent since 2001, from 3.4 million to 2.1 million in 2013.

Among children, new infections have fallen from an estimated 580,000 in 2001 to 240,000 in 2013. If more countries emulate Cuba’s example, the international community will be closer to its 2015 goals, and the ultimate goal of eliminating AIDS altogether.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Bangladeshi Migrants Risk High Seas and Smugglers to Escape Povertyhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/bangladeshi-migrants-risk-high-seas-and-smugglers-to-escape-poverty/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=bangladeshi-migrants-risk-high-seas-and-smugglers-to-escape-poverty http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/bangladeshi-migrants-risk-high-seas-and-smugglers-to-escape-poverty/#comments Tue, 30 Jun 2015 06:21:55 +0000 Naimul Haq http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141360 These men, aspiring migrants who were abandoned by traffickers on the open ocean, were recently rescued by the Border Guard Bangladesh  (BGB) and reunited with their families in Teknaf, located in the southern coastal district of Cox’s Bazar. Credit: Abdur Rahman/IPS

These men, aspiring migrants who were abandoned by traffickers on the open ocean, were recently rescued by the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) and reunited with their families in Teknaf, located in the southern coastal district of Cox’s Bazar. Credit: Abdur Rahman/IPS

By Naimul Haq
TEKNAF, Bangladesh, Jun 30 2015 (IPS)

Though he is only 16 years old, Mohammad Yasin has been through hell and back. He recently survived a hazardous journey by sea, crammed into the cargo-hold of a rudimentary boat along with 115 others.

For 45 days they bobbed about on the Indian Ocean somewhere between their native Bangladesh and their destination, Malaysia, with scarcely any food, no water and little hope of making it to shore alive.

Midway through the ordeal, Yasin watched one of his fellow travelers die of starvation, a fate that very nearly claimed him as well.

The young man, who hails from a poor cobbler’s family in Teknaf, located on the southernmost tip of Bangladesh’s coastal district of Cox’s Bazaar, broke down in tears as he narrated the tale, putting a human face to the story of a major exodus of migrants and political refugees in Southeast Asia that has rights groups as well as the United Nations up in arms.

45 days of torture

“Horror unfolded as we sailed. Supplies were scarce and food and water was rationed every three days. Many of us vomited as the boat negotiated the mighty waves." -- ” Mohammad Ripon, a Bangladeshi migrant who survived a torturous maritime journey
Yasin tells IPS it all began when a group of men from the neighbouring Bandarban district promised to take him, and five others from Teknaf village, to Malaysia in search of work.

With an 80-dollar monthly salary and a family of four to look after, including a sick father, Yasin believed Malaysia to be a ‘dream destination’ where he would earn enough to provide for his loved ones.

“The men told us we would not have to pay anything now, but that they would later ‘deduct’ 2,600 dollars from each of us once we got jobs in Malaysia,” recounted the frail youth.

“On a sunny morning around the last week of April we were taken along with a larger group of men and women to the deserted island of Shah Porir Dwip, where we boarded a large wooden boat later that same evening.”

A little while into the journey on the Bay of Bengal, at the Chaungthar port located in the city of Pathein in southern Myanmar, a group of Rohingya Muslims joined the party.

This ethnic minority has long faced religious persecution in Myanmar and now contributes hugely to the movement of human beings around this region.

Together with the 10 organisers of the voyage, who turned out to be traffickers, the group numbered close to 130 people. Just how they would reach their destination, or when, none of the passengers knew. Their lives were entirely in the hands of the boat’s crew.

“Horror unfolded as we sailed,” recalled Mohammad Ripon, who also joined the journey at the behest of traffickers from the central Bangladeshi district of Narayanganj.

“Supplies were scarce and food and water was rationed every three days. Many of us vomited as the boat negotiated the mighty waves,” he told IPS.

During the day the crew opened the hatch of the cargo vessel to let in the blistering sun. At night it was kept shut, leaving the passengers to freeze. No one could sleep; the shrieks and cries of sick and frightened passengers kept the entire company awake all night long.

From time to time, the boat stalled on the choppy waters, “probably to change crews”, the passengers told IPS.

But no one knew for sure, and none dared ask for risk of being physically abused or thrown overboard. By this time, their captors had already beaten a number of the passengers for asking too many questions.

After nearly a month and a half of this torture, the Bangladesh Coast Guard steered the boat in to Saint Martin’s island, off the coast of Cox’s Bazar – very close to where the hopeful immigrants had begun their journey.

It was not until the malnourished passengers emerged, with sunken eyes and protruding ribs, that they realised the crew had long since abandoned the ship.

Traffickers exploiting poverty

Though their dreams were dashed, this group is one of the lucky ones; they escaped with their lives, their possessions and their money.

For too many others, these illicit journeys result in being robbed, pitched overboard or even buried in mass graves by networks of smugglers and traffickers who are making a killing by exploiting economically desperate and politically marginalised communities in Southeast Asia.

According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, an estimated 88,000 people –mostly poor Bangladeshis and internally displaced Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar – attempted to cross the borders into Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia in a 15-month period.

This includes 63,000 people between January and December of 2014 and an additional 25,000 in the first quarter of this year.

Of these, an estimated 300 people died at sea in the first quarter of 2015. Since October 2014, 620 people have lost their lives during hazardous, unplanned maritime journeys on the Bay of Bengal.

To make matters worse, the discovery of trafficking rings has prompted governments in the region – particularly Thai and Malaysian authorities – to crack down on irregular arrivals, refusing to allow ships to dock and sometimes going so far as to tow boatloads of people back out to sea despite the presence of desperate and starving people on-board.

From humble aspirations to hazardous journeys

Aspiring migrants from Bangladesh are fleeing poverty and unemployment in this country of close to 157 million people, 31 percent of whom live below the poverty line.

Data from the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) suggests that the unemployment rate is 4.53 percent, putting the number of out-of-work people here at close to 6.7 million.

Mohammad Hasan, 34, is one of many who dreamed of a more prosperous life in a different country.

A tall, dark welder from Boliadangi, a village in the northwestern Thakurgaon district, he told IPS, “I sold my ancestral land to travel to Malaysia where I hoped to get a welding job in a construction company, because my earnings were not enough to support my six-member family.”

At the time, he was earning less than 100 dollars a month. Feeding seven people on 1,200 Bangladeshi taka (about 15 dollars) a day is no easy task. Desperate, he put his life in the hands of traffickers and set out for the Malaysian coast.

Earlier this year, abandoned by those who had promised them safe passage, he and close to 100 other men were discovered drifting off the coast of Thailand. Fortunately, all of them survived, but the money they paid for the journey was lost.

Forty-one-year-old Kawser Ali from Gangachara, a village in the northern Rangpur District, had a similar tale. He says he made a break for foreign shores because his earnings as a farmer simply weren’t enough to put enough food on the table to keep his eight-member family, including his in-laws, alive.

Millions of people here share his woes: between 60 and 70 percent of Bangladesh’s population relies on agriculture for a livelihood, and the vast majority of them struggle to make ends meet.

Thus it should come as no surprise that Kawser was recently found deep within a forest in Thailand where he and some 50 others had been led by traffickers and abandoned to their own fate.

He told IPS that most of his companions along the journey were marginal farmers, like himself. “We have no fixed income, and can never earn enough to improve our economic condition. I would like to see my son go to a better school, or take my wife to market on a motorbike.”

It is these humble aspirations – together with tales from friends and neighbours who have made the transition successfully – that have led scores of people Kawser to the coast, to board unsafe vessels and put themselves at the mercy of the sea and smugglers in exchange for a chance to make a better life.

Aninda Dutta, a programme associate for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Bangladesh, told IPS, “In Bangladesh, there is a strong link between migration and smuggling, in which a journey that starts through economic motivations may end up as a trafficking case because of the circumstances.”

These ‘circumstances’ include extortionate fees paid to so-called agents, essentially rings of smugglers and human traffickers; beatings and other forms of intimidation and abuse – including sexual abuse – during the journey; theft of all their possessions while at sea; or abandonment, penniless, in various locations – primarily Thailand or Malaysia – where they are subject to the ire of immigration authorities.

In a bid to nip the epidemic in the bud, the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) recently set up more checkpoints to increase vigilance, and proposed that the government tighten regulations regarding the registering of boats.

But until the government tackles the underlying problem of abject poverty, it is unlikely that they will see an end to the exodus any time soon.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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U.N. Chief Seeks Equity in Paris Climate Change Pacthttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/u-n-chief-seeks-equity-in-climate-change-agreement-in-paris/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-n-chief-seeks-equity-in-climate-change-agreement-in-paris http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/u-n-chief-seeks-equity-in-climate-change-agreement-in-paris/#comments Mon, 29 Jun 2015 21:41:43 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141357 The Secretary-General (second from right), accompanied by Manuel Pulgar-Vidal (left), Minister of the Environment of Peru, Laurent Fabius (second from left), Minister for Foreign Affairs of France and Sam Kutesa (right), President of the sixty-ninth session of the General Assembly, at a press encounter on the General Assembly’s high-level meeting on climate change. Credit: UN Photo

The Secretary-General (second from right), accompanied by Manuel Pulgar-Vidal (left), Minister of the Environment of Peru, Laurent Fabius (second from left), Minister for Foreign Affairs of France and Sam Kutesa (right), President of the sixty-ninth session of the General Assembly, at a press encounter on the General Assembly’s high-level meeting on climate change. Credit: UN Photo

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 29 2015 (IPS)

When the 193-member General Assembly hosted a high level meeting on climate change Monday, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that any proposed agreement at an upcoming international conference in Paris in December must uphold the principle of equity.

The meeting, officially known as the Conference of the Parties on Climate Change (COP 21), should approve a universally-binding agreement that will support the adaptation needs of developing nations and, more importantly, “demonstrate solidarity with the poorest and most vulnerable countries through a focused package of assistance,” Ban told delegates.“There can no longer be an expectation that global action or decisions will trickle down to create local results." -- Roger-Mark De Souza

The secretary-general is seeking a staggering 100 billion dollars per year by 2020 to support developing nations and in curbing greenhouse gas emissions and strengthening their resilience.

Some of the most threatened are low-lying islands in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific that are in danger of being wiped off the face of the earth due to rising sea-levels caused by climate change.

“Climate change impacts are accelerating,” Ban told a Global Forum last week.

“Weather-related disasters are more frequent and more intense. Everyone is affected – but not all equally,” he said, emphasising the inequities of the impact of climate change.

Sam Kutesa, President of the 69th session of the U.N. General Assembly, who convened the high-level meeting, said recurring disasters are affecting different regions as a result of changing climate patterns, such as the recent cyclone that devastated Vanuatu, that “are a matter of deep concern for us all”.

He said many Small Island Developing States (SIDS), such as Kiribati, are facing an existential threat due to rising sea levels, while other countries are grappling with devastating droughts that have left precious lands uninhabitable and unproductive.

“We are also increasingly witnessing other severe weather patterns as a result of climate change, including droughts, floods and landslides.

“In my own country Uganda,” he pointed out, “the impact of climate change is affecting the livelihoods of the rural population who are dependent on agriculture.”

Striking a positive note, Ban said since 2009, the number of national climate laws and policies has nearly doubled, with three quarters of the world’s annual emissions now covered by national targets.

“The world’s three biggest economies – China, the European Union (EU) and the United States – have placed their bets on low-carbon, climate-resilient growth,” he added.

Roger-Mark De Souza, Director of Population, Environmental Security and Resilience at the Washington-based Wilson Center, told IPS: “I am pleased to see the discussion of resilience at the high level discussion on climate change at the U.N. today.”

Resilience has the potential to be a transformative strategy to address climate fragility risks by allowing vulnerable countries and societies to anticipate, adapt to and emerge strong from climate shocks and stresses.

Three key interventions at the international level, and in the context of the climate change discussions leading up to Paris and afterwards, will unlock this transformative potential, he said.

First, predictive analytics that provide a unified, shared and accessible risk assessment methodology and rigorous resilience measurement indicators that inform practical actions and operational effectiveness at the regional, national and local levels.

Second, risk reduction, early recovery approaches and long-term adaptive planning must be integrated across climate change, development and humanitarian dashboards, response mechanisms and strategies.

Third, strengthening partnerships across these levels is vital – across key sectors including new technologies and innovative financing such as sovereign risk pools and weather based index insurance, and focusing on best practices and opportunities to take innovations to scale.

“There can no longer be an expectation that global action or decisions will trickle down to create local results, and this must be deliberately fostered and supported through foresight analysis, by engaging across the private sector, and through linking mitigation and adaptation policies and programmes,” De Souza told IPS.

Asked about the serious environmental consequences of the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, Ban told reporters Monday political instability is caused by the lack of good governance and social injustice.

But if you look at the other aspects, he argued, abject poverty and also environmental degradation really affect political and social instability because they affect job opportunities and the economic situation.

Therefore, “it is important that the benefits of what we will achieve through a climate change agreement will have to help mostly the 48 Least Developed Countries (described as “the poorest of the world’s poor”) – and countries in conflict,” he added.

Robert Redford, a Hollywood icon and a relentless environmental advocate, made an emotional plea before delegates, speaking as “a father, grandfather, and also a concerned citizen – one of billions around the world who are urging you to take action now on climate change.”

He said: “I am an actor by trade, but an activist by nature, someone who has always believed that we must find the balance between what we develop for our survival, and what we preserve for our survival.”

“Your mission is as simple as it is daunting,” he told the General Assembly: “Save the world before it’s too late.”

Arguing that climate change is real – and the result of human activity – Redford said: “We see the effects all around us–from drought and famine in Africa, and heat waves in South Asia, to wildfires across North America, devastating hurricanes and crippling floods here in New York.”

A heat wave in India and Pakistan has already claimed more than 2,300 lives, making it one of the deadliest in history.

“So, everywhere we look, moderate weather is going extinct,” Redford said.

All the years of the 21st century so far have ranked among the warmest on record. And as temperatures rise, so do global instability, poverty, and conflict, he warned.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

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Black Women in the Americas Launch Decade of Strugglehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/black-women-in-the-americas-launch-decade-of-struggle/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=black-women-in-the-americas-launch-decade-of-struggle http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/black-women-in-the-americas-launch-decade-of-struggle/#comments Mon, 29 Jun 2015 21:03:04 +0000 Jose Adan Silva http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141353 Delegates to the first Summit of Women Leaders of African Descent of the Americas taking part in one of the working groups organised during the three-day gathering held Jun. 26-28 in Managua, Nicaragua. Credit: José Adán Silva/IPS

Delegates to the first Summit of Women Leaders of African Descent of the Americas taking part in one of the working groups organised during the three-day gathering held Jun. 26-28 in Managua, Nicaragua. Credit: José Adán Silva/IPS

By José Adán Silva
MANAGUA, Jun 29 2015 (IPS)

They say they are tired of waiting for justice after centuries of neglect and contempt due to the color of their skin. Black women leaders from 22 countries of the Americas have decided to create a political platform that set a 10-year target for empowering women of African descent and overcoming discrimination.

“We’re going to fight with all of our strength to break the chains of racism and racially-motivated violence,” Shary García from Colombia told IPS at the end of the first Summit of Women Leaders of African Descent of the Americas, which drew 270 delegates to Managua Jun. 26-28.

García said the three days of debates in the Nicaraguan capital gave rise to the Political Declaration of Managua, whose 17 demands and central themes are aimed at eradicating discrimination based on a combination of racial and gender reasons in the Americas.

“It wasn’t easy to sum up in 17 ideas the complaints and demands of 270 women and their families, who have experienced discrimination, violence and the denial of their rights all their lives. But each and every one of us who came here knows that this is how the beginning of the end of discrimination starts.”

Altagracia Balcácer from the Dominican Republic told IPS that the 17 main themes are cross-cut by concepts like fighting racism, demanding a decent life and anti-poverty policies, demanding the right to make decisions about the future, and freedom of choice regarding sexual and reproductive rights.

“The demands include halting violence towards black women, giving the population of African descent visibility in the national statistics and census, protecting black children and adolescents, and offering opportunities to youngsters in this population group,” she said.

Other concerns, she said, are “protecting the environment, expanding access to natural and economic resources, and guaranteeing food security and sovereignty.”

In addition, the delegates called for “protection and decent treatment of immigrants, salvaging and acknowledging our cultural heritage, respect from the media, the non-stigmatisation of black people, expanding access to justice and guaranteeing safety for women and their communities.”

The Jun. 26 opening of the first Summit of Women Leaders of African Descent of the Americas Américas, when ended two days later in Managua with a declaration outlining the next decade of struggle for their rights. Credit: Courtesy of RMAAD

The Jun. 26 opening of the first Summit of Women Leaders of African Descent of the Americas Américas, when ended two days later in Managua with a declaration outlining the next decade of struggle for their rights. Credit: Courtesy of RMAAD

Dorotea Wilson, general coordinator of the Network of Afro-Latin American, Afro-Caribbean and Diaspora Women (RMAAD), told IPS that the document does not demand the recognition of rights, but the enforcement of all treaties, laws and international conventions referring to black women that have been signed since the 2001 World Conference against Racism held in Durban, South Africa.

The Political Declaration of Managua “is not an expression of good intentions; it is an official document demanding the implementation of public policies in all countries of the Americas…to start once and for all to recognise and give their rightful place to the black populations on the continent,” said Wilson, from Nicaragua.

“With this platform, our aim is to move towards compliance with all of our rights in the context of the U.N. International Decade for People of African Descent,” added the head of the Managua-based RMAAD, which is active in 24 countries.

In January the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 2015-2024 as the International Decade for People of African Descent, to promote respect for their rights and freedoms and greater knowledge of and respect for their diverse heritage and cultures.

According to the U.N., some 200 million people in the Americas identify themselves as being of African descent.

Wilson explained that over the next decade, black women in Latin America will document, with clear, reliable indicators, the real situation of people of African descent. They also hope to see poverty levels drop.

“We say ‘reliable’ because we don’t exist in the existing statistics, we’re invisible,” said Wilson. “Another of the summit’s achievements is that in each country in the Americas we will set up an observatory to follow up on the demands set forth here.”

To that end, they have technical and institutional support from U.N. agencies, European donor countries, non-governmental organisations, and defenders of human rights and gender rights.

They will also try to get their list of demands accepted by the Organisation of American States (OAS).

Dorotea Wilson of Nicaragua, the head of the Network of Afro-Latin American, Afro-Caribbean and Diaspora Women, during a working session in the summit held in Managua. Credit: Courtesy of RMAAD

Dorotea Wilson of Nicaragua, the head of the Network of Afro-Latin American, Afro-Caribbean and Diaspora Women, during a working session in the summit held in Managua. Credit: Courtesy of RMAAD

The idea, said Wilson, is to press countries to design public policies targeting women and people of African descent, and to create follow-up mechanisms to make it possible to gauge the progress made by the time the next summit is held five years from now.

The head of RMAAD said the women who took part in the summit made it clear that there is a perception that police brutality and violence in general against black people are on the rise, especially in the United States and Brazil, two of the countries that were represented in the summit.

“Hate crimes in the United States make the international headlines,” Wilson said. “But because the population of African descent is invisible in Latin America, racially-motivated killings in the region do not come to public attention.”

As a panelist in the forum on human rights, Nilza Iriaci said that “in my country, Brazil, hate crimes happen every day, but there is no sense of scandal.” Brazil is the Latin American country with the largest black population.

A 2010 study by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), “Afrodescendant Population of Latin America”, which was updated two years later, found that despite the creation of new legal frameworks and institutions to protect the rights of people of African descent in the region, most of the black population lived in poverty and suffered from discrimination.

Vicenta Camusso, a representative of black women in Uruguay, said things had not changed since the study was carried out. “It’s the same as always – our rights and the poverty we suffer have not improved one bit,” she told IPS.

She said that although every country in the region has legal frameworks protecting the rights of women and blacks, no specific budget funds are allotted.

“Partly because of this, most black women continue to live in inferior living conditions compared to women of other races, and young black people experience the same exclusion and violence as the older generations did,” she said.

“Since Durban, little to nothing has changed for women of African descent in the Americas,” 7she complained. “More than 80 percent of black people in the region live in a state of poverty and social inequality, with few opportunities for improvement, because of ethnic-racial reasons.”

Camusso pointed out that the 2001 global conference emerged from official efforts by the international community to design actions aimed at fighting racism, racial discrimination, ethnic conflicts, and associated violence.

In the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, the international community, U.N. agencies, development aid institutions, private organisations and society in general pledged “to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.”

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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U.S. Urged to Ramp up Aid for Agent Orange Clean-Up Efforts in Vietnamhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/u-s-urged-to-ramp-up-aid-for-agent-orange-clean-up-efforts-in-vietnam/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-urged-to-ramp-up-aid-for-agent-orange-clean-up-efforts-in-vietnam http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/u-s-urged-to-ramp-up-aid-for-agent-orange-clean-up-efforts-in-vietnam/#comments Mon, 29 Jun 2015 17:54:42 +0000 Zhai Yun Tan http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141347 An estimated 4.5 million Vietnamese people were potentially exposed to Agent Orange during the decade 1961-1972. Credit: naturalbornstupid/CC-BY-SA-2.0

An estimated 4.5 million Vietnamese people were potentially exposed to Agent Orange during the decade 1961-1972. Credit: naturalbornstupid/CC-BY-SA-2.0

By Zhai Yun Tan
WASHINGTON, Jun 29 2015 (IPS)

A key senator and a D.C.-based think tank are calling for Washington to step up its aid in cleaning up toxic herbicides sprayed by the United States in Vietnam during the war that ended 40 years ago.

Speaking last week at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a major think tank here, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, who has long led the efforts in the U.S. Congress to compensate Vietnamese war victims, called on Washington to do more, arguing that it will further bolster renewed ties between the two countries.

“We can meet the target of cleaning up the dioxin and Agent Orange between now and the year 2020, but the target is very difficult to get to. We need more assistance.” -- Vietnamese Ambassador to the United States Pham Quang Vinh
Leahy’s remarks were echoed by Charles Bailey, former director of Aspen Institute’s Agent Orange in Vietnam Program – a multi-year initiative to deal with health and environmental impacts of the estimated 19 million gallons of herbicides that were sprayed over 4.5 million acres of land in Vietnam from 1961 to 1970.

Vietnamese Ambassador to the United States Pham Quang Vinh expressed similar sentiments at the event.

Hanoi’s ambassador said his government has been spending 45 million dollars every year to deal with the many problems created by Agent Orange and other herbicides used by U.S. military forces during the war.

“We can meet the target of cleaning up the dioxin and Agent Orange between now and the year 2020, but the target is very difficult to get,” he said. “We need more assistance.”

An estimated 4.5 million Vietnamese people were potentially exposed to Agent Orange. The Vietnam Red Cross estimates that three million Vietnamese people were affected, including 150,000 children born with birth defects.

Those who bore the brunt of the chemical spraying suffered cancer, liver damage, severe skin and nervous disorders and heart disease. The children and even grandchildren of people exposed to Agent Orange have been born with deformities, defects, disabilities and diseases.

Huge expanses of forest and jungle, including the natural habitats of several species, were devastated. Many of these species are still threatened with extinction.

In some areas, rivers were poisoned and underground water sources contaminated. Erosion and desertification as a result of the herbicide sprays made barren fields out of once-fertile farmlands.

The United States currently funds aid operations in Vietnam through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). According to Bailey, 136 million dollars have been appropriated to date. But some observers of the programme say still more should be done.

Merle Ratner from the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign said that too little of the aid has gone to the people. Most of it is given to international NGOs, who are then contracted to do the work, she said.

“We are suggesting that the aid go directly to NGOs in Vietnam because who knows the people better than their own organisations?” Ratner told IPS.

“People should be involved in their own solutions to the situation.”

The renewed attention comes at a time when the U.S. and Vietnam have moved closer together, particularly in light of the two nations’ growing concerns over China’s recent assertiveness in the South China Sea, parts of which are claimed by Vietnam, as well as the Philippines, Taiwan, and Malaysia.

“I want to turn Agent Orange from being a symbol of antagonism into an area where the U.S and Vietnamese governments can work together,” Leahy said. “At a time when China is actively seeking to extend its sphere of influence and United States has begun its own re-balance towards Asia, these Vietnam legacy programs have taken on greater significance.”

The general secretary of Vietnam’s Communist Party, Nguyen Phy Trong, is scheduled to visit the United States this year, the first such trip by the nation’s ruling party chief.

The warming relationship has helped Leahy further his cause. Leahy met with much resistance in the early 2000s when Washington was clearly reluctant to take responsibility for the destruction wrought by its forces during the war in which an estimated two million Vietnamese and some 55,000 U.S. troops were killed.

Vietnam, on the other hand, put the issue on the backburner as it focused on gaining preferential trade status (Permanent Normal Trade Relations) for exports to the huge U.S. market.

While Washington and Hanoi established full diplomatic relations in 1995, it wasn’t until 2002 that the two governments held a joint conference on the impact of Agent Orange and other herbicides on Vietnam and its people.

In Dec. 2014, President Barack Obama signed into law the Fiscal Year 2015 Appropriations Act that specifically makes available funds for the remediation of dioxin contaminated areas in Vietnam.

Much of those funds have been earmarked for a clean-up project at the former giant U.S. military base at Da Nang, which is 824 km from the capital, Hanoi. The project is expected to be completed in 2016.

The U.S. military sprayed Agent Orange and other herbicides over many parts of rural Vietnam, destroying millions of hectares of forests in an attempt to deny the Viet Cong insurgents and their North Vietnamese allies cover and food.

Two-thirds of the herbicide contains dioxin. According to the National Institute for Environmental Health Science, dioxin is a compound found to cause cancer and diabetes, as well as a host of other diseases.

A scientific report in 1969 also concluded that the herbicide can cause birth defects in laboratory animals, thus leading U.S. forces to halt the use of Agent Orange in 1970.

A 1994 Institute of Medicine study records that there was a growing number of Vietnam veterans who have fathered handicapped children. Many still dispute the link between Agent Orange and birth defects—Vietnam veterans in the United States still cannot claim benefits for birth defects in their children.

While welcoming Washington’s new aid programme, some activists who have long called for the U.S. to help Vietnam address the problems left behind by Agent Orange insist that U.S. should both do more and provide more direct assistance to Vietnamese groups on the ground who believe that the United States’ funds could be better distributed.

Susan Hammond, executive director of the War Legacies Project, said she hopes to see more of the money go to rural Vietnam.

“U.S. funding, at this point, is pretty much limited to the Da Nang area,” Hammond said. “In rural areas, families are pretty much left on their own.”

Tim Rieser, Leahy’s chief staffer with the Senate subcommittee that deals with foreign aid, recalled that it was initially very difficult to obtain any funding from the government.

“The State Department and Pentagon were very resistant to the idea of any kind of action by the U.S. that might be interpreted as reparations or compensation,” he said.

“It took over a year to reach an agreement with them that what we were talking about was not either of those things, but it was of trying to work with the Vietnamese government to address the problems that we obviously have responsibility for.”

Rieser said he is currently urging the Pentagon to help fund the cleanup of the Bien Hoa airbase, 1,702 km from the capital. He said the area could well contain even higher levels of dioxin than Da Nang. And he urged Obama to include additional money in his proposed 2016 budget.

“Ideally, if the president would include money in the budget, it would make our lives much easier,” he said. “But at the very least when there are opportunities – like when the president goes to Vietnam or the general secretary comes here – to reaffirm the commitment of both countries to continue working on this issue. [That] is almost as important as providing the funds.”

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Afghanistan: No Place for Childrenhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/afghanistan-no-place-for-children/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=afghanistan-no-place-for-children http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/afghanistan-no-place-for-children/#comments Mon, 29 Jun 2015 03:56:46 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141344 Aid from the UK is supporting a network of orthopaedic centres across Afghanistan to assist those affected by mobility disabilities, including hundreds of mine victims. Credit: DFID – UK Department for International Development/CC-BY-2.0

Aid from the UK is supporting a network of orthopaedic centres across Afghanistan to assist those affected by mobility disabilities, including hundreds of mine victims. Credit: DFID – UK Department for International Development/CC-BY-2.0

By Kanya D'Almeida
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 29 2015 (IPS)

No one will deny that when a child – any child – is killed, it is a tragedy. Imagine, then, the extent of the tragedy in Afghanistan where, in just four years, 2,302 children have lost their lives as a result of ongoing fighting in this country of 30 million people.

According to his latest report on children and armed conflict in Afghanistan, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon states that more kids were killed or maimed in 2014 than in any previous year under review.

During the reporting period from Sep. 1, 2010, to Dec. 31, 2014, an additional 5,047 young people were badly injured, leaving many crippled for life.

Ground engagements were reportedly the number one cause of child casualties, leaving 331 children dead and 920 injured in 2014; these figures represent a doubling of the number from the previous year.

Armed groups’ use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in populated areas resulted in 664 casualties, while suicide attacks took the lives of 214 children – an increase in 80 percent compared to 2013.

The report also stated that “explosive remnants of war killed or maimed 328 children”, while international military airstrikes left 38 kids either dead or injured – including eight from drone strikes alone.

The biggest culprits appear to have been the Taliban and the Hizb-e-Islami, followed closely by the Afghan National Securities Forces, who were responsible for 126 killings and 270 injuries.

Five kids were killed and 52 injured in cross-border shelling from Pakistan. The U.N. was unable to verify the cause of death in 163 cases, and chalks up a further 505 injuries to “crossfire”, without being able to attribute responsibility to any particular group.

“These tragically high casualty numbers show that children are bearing the brunt of the conflict, and unfortunately this trend continues with the deterioration of the security environment into 2015,” Leila Zerrougui, the Secretary-General’s special representative for children and armed conflict said in a press release last week.

Various actors, primarily the Taliban and similar armed groups, forcibly recruited an estimated 68 children into their ranks. In an even more troubling trend, kids continue to carry out suicide attacks for the Taliban and perform a range of dangerous or potentially life threatening tasks like planting IEDs or acting as spies.

Detention and torture of children is also a major cause of concern for rights activists, with the ministry of justice reporting 258 boys held in juvenile detention centres on charges relating to national security, including “association with armed groups”.

Between February 2013 and December 2014, the U.N. interviewed 105 child detainees, 44 of who claimed they had experienced ill-treatment or torture.

Another aspect of the conflict that directly impacts children here is the systematic and sustained attack on schools throughout the country.

U.N. researchers verified 163 incidents, including the placement of explosive devices within school premises, attacks on schools used as polling stations, threats against protected personnel or teachers, and the targeting of girls’ education by way of intimidation, propaganda, or physical attacks.

The U.N. believes that 469 Afghan schools are closed as a result of the shaky security situation, with an estimated 30,000 to 35,000 Taliban fighters reportedly active in most provinces around the country.

Children are also at risk of sexual assault – in the review period, eight boys and six girls were victims of sexual violence, with four of the verified cases traced back to the national police and one to a “pro-government militia commander.”

Furthermore, “Twenty-four boys and two girls were abducted in 17 separate incidents, resulting in the killing of at least four boys by the Taliban, the rape of two girls by the local police, and the rape of a boy by a pro-Government militia,” according to the U.N.

As a new government attempts to gain control over the situation, U.N. experts are hopeful that the deadly tide can be reversed.

“I look forward to working with the Government of Afghanistan even more intensively in the months ahead as we move towards fully implementing the country’s Action Plan for ending recruitment and use of children,” Zerrougui said at the report’s launch this past Thursday.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Rome March Celebrates Pope’s Call for Urgent Climate Actionhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/rome-march-celebrate-popes-call-for-urgent-climate-action/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=rome-march-celebrate-popes-call-for-urgent-climate-action http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/rome-march-celebrate-popes-call-for-urgent-climate-action/#comments Sun, 28 Jun 2015 13:06:28 +0000 Sean Buchanan http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141337 March by people of faith, civil society groups and communities impacted by climate change in Rome on Jun. 28 to express gratitude to Pope Francis for the release of his Laudato Si encyclical on the environment. Photo credit: Hoda Baraka/350.org

March by people of faith, civil society groups and communities impacted by climate change in Rome on Jun. 28 to express gratitude to Pope Francis for the release of his Laudato Si encyclical on the environment. Photo credit: Hoda Baraka/350.org

By Sean Buchanan
ROME, Jun 28 2015 (IPS)

People of faith, civil society groups, and communities affected by climate change marched together in Rome Sunday Jun. 28 to express gratitude to Pope Francis for the release of his Laudato Si encyclical on the environment, and call for bolder climate action by world leaders.

Under the banner of ‘One Earth One Family’, the march brought together Catholics and other Christians, followers of non-Christian faiths, environmentalists and people of goodwill. The march ended in St. Peter’s Square in time for the Pope’s weekly Angelus and blessing.“The truth of the matter is that all of humanity needs to stand united in addressing the crisis of our times. Climate change is an issue for everyone with a moral conscience” – Arianne Kassman, climate activist from Papua New Guinea

The celebratory march was animated by a musical band, a climate choir and colourful public artwork designed by artists from Italy and other countries, whose work played a major role in the People’s Climate March in New York City in September last year.

“As we stand at this critical juncture in addressing the climate crisis, we are particularly grateful to the Pope for releasing this encyclical as an awakening for the world to understand how climate change impacts people across all regions,” said Arianne Kassman, a climate activist from Papua New Guinea who took part in march to speak about the reality of climate change in the Pacific.

“The truth of the matter is that all of humanity needs to stand united in addressing the crisis of our times. Climate change is an issue for everyone with a moral conscience,” she added.

Among the messages relayed to the Pope during the march was a request to make fossil fuel divestment part of his moral message in the urgent need to address the climate crisis.

“The fossil fuel divestment campaign is hinged on the same moral premise communicated by Pope Francis in his encyclical,” said Father Edwin Gariguez, Executive Secretary of Caritas Philippines.

“The campaign serves to highlight the immorality of investing in the source of the climate injustice we currently experience. This is why we hope that moving forward and building on this powerful message, Pope Francis can make fossil fuel divestment a part of his moral argument for urgent climate action.”

A petition urging Pope Francis to rid the Vatican of investments in fossil fuels has already gathered tens of thousands of signatures.

Over recent months, dozens of religious institutions have divested from coal, oil and gas companies or endorsed the effort, including the World Council of Churches, representing half a billion Christians in 150 countries.

In May 2015, the Church of England announced it had sold 12 million pounds in thermal coal and tar sands and just this week the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) announced that it will exclude fossil fuel companies from its investments and call on its member churches with 72 million members to do likewise.

More than 220 institutions have commitments to divest from fossil fuels, with faith institutions making up the biggest segment.

As world leaders prepare to meet in Paris later this year for U.N. climate talks, the growing divestment movement will continue to fuel the ethical and economic revolution needed to prevent catastrophic climate change and growing inequality, a key message from Pope Francis’ encyclical.

“The clear path required to address the climate crisis is one that breaks humanity free from the current stranglehold of fossil fuels on our lives and the planet,” said Hoda Baraka, Global Communications Manager for 350.org, one of the organisers of the march.

“This encyclical reinforces the tectonic shift that is happening – we simply cannot continue to treat the Earth as a tool for exploitation.”

Edited by Phil Harris    

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Ghosts Of War Give Way to Development in Sri Lankahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/ghosts-of-war-give-way-to-development-in-sri-lanka/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=ghosts-of-war-give-way-to-development-in-sri-lanka http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/ghosts-of-war-give-way-to-development-in-sri-lanka/#comments Fri, 26 Jun 2015 19:13:18 +0000 Amantha Perera http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141323 http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/ghosts-of-war-give-way-to-development-in-sri-lanka/feed/ 26 German Development Cooperation Piggybacks Onto Africa’s E-Boomhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/german-development-cooperation-piggybacks-onto-africas-e-boom/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=german-development-cooperation-piggybacks-onto-africas-e-boom http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/german-development-cooperation-piggybacks-onto-africas-e-boom/#comments Fri, 26 Jun 2015 15:56:06 +0000 Francesca Dziadek http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141320 During re:publica 2015, Juliet Wanyiri (centre), illustrates a practical workshop organised by Foondi*, of which she is founder and CEO. Credit: re:publica/Jan Zappner

During re:publica 2015, Juliet Wanyiri (centre), illustrates a practical workshop organised by Foondi*, of which she is founder and CEO. Credit: re:publica/Jan Zappner

By Francesca Dziadek
BERLIN, Jun 26 2015 (IPS)

In a major paradigm shift, the German government is now placing its bets on digitalisation for its development cooperation policy with Africa, under what it calls a Strategic Partnership for a ’Digital Africa’.

According to the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), “through a new strategic partnership in the field of information and communication technology (ICT), German development cooperation will be joining forces with the private sector to support the development and sustainable management of Digital Africa’s potential.”

“Digitalisation offers a vast potential for making headway on Africa’s sustainable development,” said Dr Friedrich Kitschelt, a State Secretary in BMZ, noting however that this “benefits all sides, including German and European enterprises.”

Broad consensus about the overlap between public and private interests in attaining sustainable development goals was apparent at two high-profile events earlier this year – the annual re:publica conference on internet and society, and BMZ’s ‘Africa: Continent of Opportunities – Bridging the Digital Divide’ conference, both held in Berlin."Governments will put up walls, but young people will always find ways of circumventing barriers – the key issue is how to bring services locally and work together in democratic internet governance, promoting civil society engagement and private sector partnerships” – Muhammad Radwan of icecairo

In Berlin for re:publica 2015 in May, Mugethi Gitau, a young Kenyan tech manager from Nairobi’s iHub, an incubator for “technology, innovation and community”, delivered a sharp presentation titled ‘10 Things Europe Can Learn From Africa’.  “We are pushing ahead with creative digital solutions,” said Gitau, delivering sharp know-how and hard facts.

The Kenyan start-up iHub is a member of the m:lab East Africa consortium, the region’s centre for mobile entrepreneurship, which was established through a seed grant from the World Bank’s InfoDev programme for “creating sustainable businesses in the knowledge economy”.

In turn, m:lab East Africa is part of the Global Information Gathering (GIG) initiative, which was founded in Berlin in 2003 as a partnership of BMZ, the German Federal Enterprise for International Cooperation (GIZ), the Centre for International Peace Operations (ZIF) and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

The m:lab East Africa consortium has spawned 10 tech businesses which have gone regional, and boasts a portfolio of 150 start-ups, including Kopo Kopo, an add on to the M-Pesa money transfer application which has scaled into Africa, the PesaPal application for mobile credits, the Eneza ‘one laptop per child’ project, and locally relevant rural applications such as iCow and M-Farm which help farmers keep track of their yields and cut out the middleman to reach buyers directly.

“We are by nature a people who love to give, crowdsourcing is in our genes, our local villages have a tradition of coming together to help each other out, so it’s no wonder we have taken to sharing and social media like naturals,” Gitau told IPS, mentioning the popular chamas or “merry-go-rounds” whereby people bank with each other, avoiding banking interest costs.

Referring to the exponential tide of 700 million mobile phone users in Africa, which has already surpassed Europe, Thomas Silberhorn, a State Secretary in BMZ, told a re:publica meeting on e-information and freedom of information projects in developing countries: “This is a time of huge potential, like all historical transformations.”

The pace and range of innovative mobile solutions from Africa has been formidable. The creative use of SMS has enabled a range of services which enable urban and, significantly, rural populations to access anything from banking to health services, job listings and microcredits, not to mention mobilising “shit storms” against public authority inefficiencies.

However, the formidable pace of digital penetration has raised concerns about the “digital divide” – the widening socio-economic inequalities between those who have access to technology and those who have not.

Increasingly a North-South consensus is growing concerning three core aspects of digital economic development – the regulation of broadband internet as a public utility; the sustainable potential of mobile technology and low price smart devices to bring effective solutions to a whole gamut of local needs; and the need for good infrastructure as a precondition for environmental protection and as the leverage people need to lift themselves out of poverty.

New models of development cooperation, technology transfer and e-participation governance are emerging in response to the impact of digitalisation on all sectors of society and service provision in areas as disparate as they are increasingly connected including health, food and agriculture – access to education, communication, media, information and data and democratic participation.

“Tackling the digital divide is crucial,” said Philibert Nsengimana, Rwandan Minister of Youth and ICT, addressing BMZ’s ‘Africa: Continent of Opportunities – Bridging the Digital Divide’ conference. “It encompasses a package of vision, implementation and much needed coordination among stakeholders.”

Rwanda, which now boasts a number of e-participation projects such as Sobanukirwa, the country’s first freedom of information project, is committed to universally accessible broadband and is rising to the forefront of Africa’s power-sharing technical revolution. 

The most active proponents of the e-revolution argue that digitalisation also offers the possibility to place governments under scrutiny and have leaders judged from the vantage point of e-participation, open data, freedom of expression and information – all elements of the power-sharing models that have seen the light  in the internet age.

“Governments will put up walls, but young people will always find ways of circumventing barriers – the key issue is how to bring services locally and work together in democratic internet governance, promoting civil society engagement and private sector partnerships,” said Muhammad Radwan of icecairo.

The icecairo initiative is part of the international icehubs network, which started with iceaddis in Ethiopia and icebauhaus in Germany.

The icehubs network (where ‘ice’ stands for Innovation-Collaboration-Enterprise) is an emerging open network of ‘hubs’, or community-driven technology innovation spaces, that promote the invention and development of home-grown, affordable technological products and services for meeting local challenges.

The network is enabled by GIZ, a company specialising in international development, which is owned by the German government and mainly operates on behalf of BMZ, which is now intent on using a “digital agenda” to guide German development cooperation with Africa.

“Let us take digitalisation seriously,” said Kitschelt. “Let us use the potential of ICT for development, address the digital and educational divide and build on that resourcefulness in our partnerships by advocating for digital rights and engaging in dialogue with the tech community, software developers, social entrepreneurs, makers, hackers, bloggers, programmers and internet activists worldwide.”

Kitschelt’s words certainly found their echo among African e-revolutionaries whose rallying cry has moved forward significantly from “fight the power“ to “share the power”.

However, while this may be well be what the future looks like, there were also those at the re:publica meeting on e-information and freedom of information who wondered about priorities when Silberhorn of BMZ told participants: “”The fact that in many development countries we are witnessing better access to mobile phones than toilets is a clear catalyser for changing development priorities.”

Edited by Phil Harris   

*  Foondi is an African design and training start-up that focuses on creating access to open source, low-cost appropriate technology-related sources to leverage local technologies for bottom-up innovation. It provides a platform for problem setting, designing and prototyping entrepreneurial-based ventures. Its larger vision is to nurture a group of young innovators in Africa working on building solutions that target emerging markets and under-served communities in Africa.

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Charleston Church Shooting Sparks Debate on Race in South Africahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/charleston-church-shooting-sparks-debate-on-race-in-south-africa/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=charleston-church-shooting-sparks-debate-on-race-in-south-africa http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/charleston-church-shooting-sparks-debate-on-race-in-south-africa/#comments Fri, 26 Jun 2015 15:01:51 +0000 Lisa Vives http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141318 By Lisa Vives
NEW YORK, Jun 26 2015 (IPS)

South Africa’s old guard of separatist whites who supported the racist policy of apartheid have been reading with interest about Dylann Roof, accused assassin in the deaths of nine churchgoers at the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

The right-wing Front National party was quoted to say that the photo of shooting suspect Roof, wearing a jacket bearing apartheid-era South African and Rhodesian flags, was photoshopped.

“…The liberal media in South Africa and a host of liberal social media platforms have been spitting acid about the young man who shot and killed a number of African Americans in a church in Charleston in the south of America”, they wrote in a Facebook post.

“Front National South Africa started questioning the picture … and suddenly, in the blink of an eye, the Facebook profile ‘disappeared’, but not before we got hold of the original “un-photoshopped” picture. The REAL badge is rather reminiscent of the logo of the American Democratic Party of Barack Obama!”

Another view was expressed by South African writer Eusebius McKaiser who pleaded for understanding of a wayward young man.

“Dylann Roof isn’t a terrorist,” insisted McKaiser. “He isn’t a racist. He isn’t a monster. He isn’t a murderer. And he certainly isn’t singularly responsible for having allegedly killed nine people.

‘Roof is the product of a world that created him… We created the racist society into which poor Roof was born. It is our collective racism and hatred that are the building blocks of the Roof tragedy.

“Perhaps the saddest part of the whole tragedy is that Roof’s empathy for other people shone so brightly for an hour in that church,” the black South African lamented. “For a whole hour, he was in communion with people different from him. He reportedly tells us that he almost didn’t shoot any of them because they were so nice to him. I confess, I was moved to tears.

“What that shows is that it would be cruel for us to lock up Roof and scapegoat him for society’s ills.”

An opposing view appeared in the Mail & Guardian by Terri Barnes, history professor now at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, who compared the controversy over the statue of Cecil Rhodes, founder of the policy of enforced racial segregation, at the University of Cape Town with the Confederate flag.

Barnes wrote: “After a great deal of pressure from many quarters and a lot of good, hard debate, the statue has since come down. (Still), the odious Confederate flag and versions thereof officially fly in seven US states: South Carolina, Mississippi, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida.

“Cape Town University had the wisdom to remove a symbol of racist oppression, elitism, and callous barbarism from its campus. Will Americans have the wisdom to tackle their own outdated symbols of a horrible past?”

“It is heartbreaking,” the long-time resident of South Africa continued, “even in the midst of a killing season the likes of which America has perhaps never before witnessed — that the stench of the old South Africa and of racist Rhodesia still have the power to inspire someone like Roof.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Billions Pledged for Nepal Reconstruction – But Still No Debt Reliefhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/billions-pledged-for-nepal-reconstruction-but-still-no-debt-relief/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=billions-pledged-for-nepal-reconstruction-but-still-no-debt-relief http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/billions-pledged-for-nepal-reconstruction-but-still-no-debt-relief/#comments Fri, 26 Jun 2015 03:08:06 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141317 By Kanya D'Almeida
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 26 2015 (IPS)

A major donor conference in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, came to a close on Jun. 25 with foreign governments and aid agencies pledging three billion dollars in post-reconstruction funds to the struggling South Asian nation.

An estimated 8,600 people perished in the massive quake on Apr. 25 this year, and some 500,000 homes were destroyed, leaving one of the world’s least developed countries (LDCs) to launch a wobbly emergency relief effort in the face of massive displacement and suffering.

Two months after the disaster, scores of people are still in need of humanitarian aid, shelter and medical supplies.

Speaking at the conference Thursday, Nepal Prime Minister Sushil Koirala assured donors that their funds would be used in an effective and transparent manner.

Rights groups have urged the government to focus on long-term rebuilding efforts rather than sinking all available monies into emergency relief.

In a statement released ahead of the conference, Bimal Gadal, humanitarian programme manager for Oxfam in Nepal, warned of the impacts of unplanned reconstruction and stated, “The Nepalese people know their needs better than anyone and their voices must be heard when donors meet in Kathmandu. They have been through an ordeal, and now it is time to start rebuilding lives.”

“This conference is a golden opportunity to get people back on their feet and better prepared for the future,” he said.

“This can only happen if the government of Nepal is supported to create new jobs, build improved basic services like hospitals and clinics, and to ensure all new buildings are earthquake-resilient.”

Despite a huge thrust from civil society organisations, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has announced that the country does not qualify for debt relief under its Catastrophe Containment and Relief (CCR) Trust, which recently awarded 100 million dollars in debt relief to Ebola-affected countries in West Africa.

The Jubilee USA Network, an alliance of over 75 U.S.-based organisations and 400 faith communities worldwide, has been pushing for major development banks, including the IMF, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to ease debt payments from Nepal, one of the world’s 38 low-income countries eligible for relief from the IMF’s new fund.

According to Jubliee USA, “Nepal owes 3.8 billion dollars in debt to foreign lenders, including 54 million dollars to the IMF and approximately three billion dollars to the World Bank and Asian Development Bank.

“According to the most recent World Bank numbers,” said Jubilee USA in a statement, “Nepal paid 217 million dollars in debt in 2013, approximately 600,000 dollars in average daily debt payments, or more than 35 million dollars since the earthquake.”

Considering that the earthquake and its aftershocks caused damages amounting to about 10 billion dollars – about one-third of the country’s total economy – experts have expressed dismay that the country’s creditors have not agreed on a debt-relief settlement.

“This is troubling news,” said Eric LeCompte, a United Nations debt expert and executive director of Jubilee USA Network. “Given the devastation in Nepal, it’s hard to believe that the criteria was not met.”

“This fund was created for situations just like this and debt relief in Nepal could make a significant difference,” said LeCompte.‎ “Beyond the IMF, the World Bank and Asian Development Bank who hold about three billion dollars of Nepal’s debt have unfortunately not announced any debt relief plans yet.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Helping People with Disabilities Become Agents of Changehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/helping-people-with-disabilities-become-agents-of-change/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=helping-people-with-disabilities-become-agents-of-change http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/helping-people-with-disabilities-become-agents-of-change/#comments Thu, 25 Jun 2015 23:14:04 +0000 Nora Happel http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141310 Disability and poverty are interrelated, due to discrimination and lower education and employment levels. Credit: Bigstock

Disability and poverty are interrelated, due to discrimination and lower education and employment levels. Credit: Bigstock

By Nora Happel
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 25 2015 (IPS)

Participation, political and economic empowerment, inclusion, accessible technology and infrastructure as well as indicators for meaningful implementation are among the key issues persons with disabilities want to see reflected in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

In light of the ongoing negotiations on the post-2015 development framework, people with disabilities are calling upon governments to put an end to exclusion and discrimination by making persons with disabilities and their rights more visible in the SDGs.“We can no longer afford the cost of exclusion." -- Catalina Devandas Aguilar, Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Rachel Kachaje, Deputy Chairperson for Development and Under-Represented Groups at Disabled People’s International (DPI) in Lilongwe, Malawi and former Malawian Minister of Disability and Elderly Affairs, told IPS: “I would want to see the SDGs turning persons with disabilities into productive citizens in their respective countries.

“It pains me most of the time seeing persons with disabilities struggling to be recognised in society,” she said.

Rachel Kachaje knows what she is talking about. Struck by polio at the age of three, she lost the use of her legs. As her family could not afford a wheelchair, mobility challenges significantly complicated her primary and secondary school education. When she had finished school and was unable to attend university, finding a job proved very difficult at a time when companies refused to hire persons with physical impairments.

Yet, in the end, due to her hard-working spirit and encouraging family environment, Kachaje managed to overcome these challenges and steadily moved up the career ladder, culminating in her appointment as Malawian minister of disability.

The personal story of Rachel Kachaje illustrates how existing physical, societal, educational and professional barriers often prevent persons with disabilities from attaining their real potential and fully participating in society, while positive empowerment and encouragement can have important enabling effects.

Empowerment of persons with disabilities is indeed one of the core demands the activist enunciates. Speaking to IPS, Kachaje emphasised the importance of facilitating access to education as a “master key that unlocks all doors to life” and providing livelihood to allow for agricultural activity and food security. Apart from that, she said, health care services, social activities and greater involvement in politics are steps that will help persons with disabilities who are struggling to become fully productive citizens.

“I would want persons with disabilities in general and more in particular women with disabilities and their representative organisations to participate and be fully involved and consulted in government processes. […] This should not be just on paper only. I would want governments to walk the talk.”

As pointed out by the activist, considerable progress has taken place in Malawi in terms of inclusive education and economic as well as political empowerment.

“Schools are being made accessible, special needs teachers are being trained. There are still a lot of challenges but still something is being done and political will is there to make education inclusive,” she said.

“People with disabilities also get social cash transfer as part of economically empowering persons with disabilities. Some persons with disabilities have been appointed into decision making bodies.”

Two weeks ago, measures to overcome exclusion and mainstream the rights of persons with disabilities across the sustainable development agenda were discussed at the Eighth Session of the Conference of the States Parties (COSP8) to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

The focus of this year’s conference was on poverty reduction, equality and development. As underscored by many speakers, disability and poverty are interrelated, which is due mainly to discrimination and lower education and employment levels.

A few days ahead of the conference, the zero draft of the outcome document for the U.N. Summit to adopt the post-2015 development agenda was released. In this context, many participants deplored that persons with disabilities were not specifically referred to in the first SDG, aimed at ending poverty in all its forms everywhere.

According to Venkatesh Balakrishna, honorary president of the Community-Based Rehabilitation Global Network, “being invisible from the goal means being invisible from the benefits”. He called upon governments to explicitly mention persons with disabilities in the first SDG and add specific targets and indicators.

“Give hope to millions of people. Please use your pen for justice,” he urged.

Yet, compared to the Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s), persons with disabilities have gained visibility in the zero draft document.

Priscille Geiser, Head of Technical Unit ‘Support to Civil Society’ at Handicap International, told IPS: “We do welcome the Zero Draft in which the inclusion and recognition of the rights of persons with disabilities throughout the entire document is groundbreaking compared to the Millennium Development Goals, and we welcome the fact that references to persons with disabilities have been strengthened throughout the declaration.”

On the other hand, she said, there were still shortcomings in terms of accessible technology and concrete indicators to measure implementation. Also, more emphasis need to be put on active participation and involvement of persons with disabilities.

“It is critical that commitments are made so that the SDGs are implemented and reviewed through meaningful participation. Overall, the active role of people to be agents of change, rather than simply as beneficiaries, is highly underestimated in this new agenda.”

Throughout the conference, participants stressed the fact that inclusion should not be seen as charity, but as an investment in society that will generate economic benefits and improve life for everybody.

“We can no longer afford the cost of exclusion,” said Catalina Devandas Aguilar, Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, with an eye on the lost economic potential due to the exclusion of children with disabilities from school and ongoing labour market discrimination.

Speaking about future challenges, she emphasised the need to translate the provisions under the convention into legal action on the ground, provide persons with disabilities with accessible services, including accessible infrastructure and better social protection, collect data, set concrete targets and indicators and support the creation of institutions. According to her, the ultimate goal is the full participation of persons with disabilities in community life.

These points were repeatedly raised by almost all participants, demonstrating remarkable consent on the steps that need to be taken. This gives cause for hope that further concerted procedures will increase the visibility of people with disabilities in the post-2015 development framework and steadily make the implementation of the CRPD a reality.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Journalists Pay the Price in Egypt’s Crackdown on Dissenthttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/journalists-pay-the-price-in-egypts-crackdown-on-dissent/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=journalists-pay-the-price-in-egypts-crackdown-on-dissent http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/journalists-pay-the-price-in-egypts-crackdown-on-dissent/#comments Thu, 25 Jun 2015 18:25:00 +0000 Kitty Stapp http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141308 U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets then Egyptian Minister of Defence General Abdul Fatah Khalil al-Sisi in Cairo, Egypt, on November 3, 2013. Credit: U.S. Department of State

By Kitty Stapp
NEW YORK, Jun 25 2015 (IPS)

The Egyptian government is holding a record number of journalists in jail, a press freedom group said Thursday, despite promises to improve media freedoms in the country.

A prison census conducted by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) at the start of this month found that Egyptian authorities were currently detaining at least 18 journalists in connection with their work. This is the highest number since CPJ began recording data on imprisoned journalists in 1990."The al-Sisi government is acting as though to restore stability Egypt needs a dose of repression the likes of which it hasn't seen for decades, but its treatment is killing the patient." -- Joe Stork of HRW

The group says that the government led by President Abdelfattah el-Sisi, who won nearly uncontested elections in May 2014, has used the pretext of national security to crack down on human rights, including press freedom.

The United States remains the country’s largest benefactor. Although the Barack Obama administration sent a critical report on Egypt to Congress last month, it still recommended that Washington continue sending 1.3 billion dollars in mostly military aid.

Asked whether the U.S. should use this aid as leverage to demand reforms, Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s programme coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, told IPS, “We would like international policy makers and institutions to insist on respect for press freedom and the complete end to ongoing censorship as conditions for bilateral and multilateral support.

“They also should speak out against ongoing press violations in both public statements and private communications with the Egyptian government.”

In an ominous sign that authorities are increasingly focusing on the internet to quash dissent, more than half of the jailed journalists worked online.

Six of the journalists in CPJ’s census were sentenced to life in prison in a mass trial of 51 defendants.

Several others are being held in pretrial detention, and have not had a date set for a court hearing. One of those is Mahmoud Abou-Zeid, who was arrested in August 2013 while taking photographs of the violent dispersal of a sit-in in support of deposed president Mohamed Morsi, in which hundreds of Islamists were killed. He has been in pre-trial detention since then and has not been formally charged.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), a primary weapon in the crackdown is the “terrorist entities” decree issued on Nov. 26. It defines “terrorist” in extraordinarily broad terms: in addition to language about violence and threats of violence, the law covers any offence that in the view of authorities “harms national unity” or the environment or natural resources, or impedes work of public officials or application of the constitution or laws.

A “terrorist” is anyone who supports such an entity – support that can include “providing information.”

Foreign reporters have also been targeted. A year ago, on June 23, 2014, an Egyptian court convicted three Al Jazeera journalists and 15 others for their alleged association with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

While the White House complained at the time that the verdict “flouts the most basic standards of media freedom and represents a blow to democratic progress in Egypt,” it did not cut off aid.

The three Al-Jazeera journalists, all of whom had previously worked for mainstream international news media, were Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy, Australian Peter Greste, and Egyptian Baher Mohamed.

They were detained after a raid on their studio in the Marriott Hotel in Cairo and charged with membership in the Muslim Brotherhood and fabricating video footage to “give the appearance Egypt is in a civil war.” The three were initially sentenced to seven years in a maximum-security prison, with an additional three years for Mohamed for possessing a spent shell he kept as a souvenir.

Other defendants, mostly students, were accused of aiding the reporters in allegedly fabricating the footage. While two were acquitted, most were sentenced to seven years in prison; those tried in absentia were sentenced to 10 years.

Fahmy, Greste and Mohamed are finally out of prison, though Fahmy and Mohamed still face a new trial on the same charges of supporting the “terrorist” Muslim Brotherhood.

“The trial was a complete sham,” according to Philip Luther, director of the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.

In a scathing report issued on March 6, HRW marked al-Sisi’s first year in power by noting that arbitrary and politically motivated arrests have soared since al-Sisi, then defence minister, seized power in July 2013 from Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed al-Morsi.

“The al-Sisi government is acting as though to restore stability Egypt needs a dose of repression the likes of which it hasn’t seen for decades, but its treatment is killing the patient,” wrote Joe Stork, HRW’s deputy Middle East and North Africa director.

According to CPJ, the president is soon expected to sign into law a draft cybercrime bill, framed as anti-terrorism legislation, which allows law enforcement agencies to block websites and pursue heavy prison sentences against Internet users for vaguely defined crimes such as “harming social peace” and “threatening national unity.”

“The potential implications for bloggers and journalists are dire,” the group says.

The bill has been endorsed by the cabinet, and is awaiting el-Sisi’s approval to come into law.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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