Inter Press ServiceReligion – Inter Press Service http://www.ipsnews.net News and Views from the Global South Tue, 21 Aug 2018 02:08:00 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.8.7 Church and Conflict in South Sudanhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2018/07/church-conflict-south-sudan/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=church-conflict-south-sudan http://www.ipsnews.net/2018/07/church-conflict-south-sudan/#respond Tue, 03 Jul 2018 08:53:06 +0000 James Jeffrey http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=156517 Throughout fifty years of struggles, South Sudan’s different churches have remained one of the country’s few stable institutions, and in their workings toward peace, have displayed a level of inter-religious cooperation rarely seen in the world.  Priests and pastors from numerous denominations brought humanitarian relief to civilians during South Sudan’s long wars for independence — […]

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South Sudanese Christians celebrate Christmas mass at El Fasher church in North Darfur. South Sudan's different churches have remained one of the country's few stable institutions. Credit: UN Photo/Olivier Chassot

By James Jeffrey
JUBA, Jul 3 2018 (IPS)

Throughout fifty years of struggles, South Sudan’s different churches have remained one of the country’s few stable institutions, and in their workings toward peace, have displayed a level of inter-religious cooperation rarely seen in the world. 

Priests and pastors from numerous denominations brought humanitarian relief to civilians during South Sudan’s long wars for independence — often considered a fight for religious freedom for the mostly Christian south — from the hard-line Islamist government to the north in Khartoum, Sudan.

Amid destruction and failed politics, church leaders emerged as the only players left standing with any credibility and national recognition, enabling them to effectively lobby the international community to support the southern cause while also brokering peace between communities torn apart by war and ethnic strife.

However, they have been less able to influence politicians and generals in South Sudan’s latest civil war raging since 2013, which began just two years after gaining independence from Sudan. Last week, South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir and rebels, led by his former vice president Riek Machar, signed a peace agreement to bring about a ceasefire. But Reuters reported that fighting broke out again on Sunday, killing 18 civilians. “The blood of the tribe has become thicker than the blood of the Christ," Episcopal Bishop Enock Tombe.

“The new outbreak of war caught the Church unprepared,” says John Ashworth, referring to the five-year civil war. Ashworth has worked in South Sudan, including advising its churches, for more than 30 years. “While the Church played a major role in protecting people and mobilising humanitarian support, and in mediating local peace and reconciliation processes, it took quite a while to rebuild the capacity to implement national level initiatives.”

Although Islam has dominated the region for centuries, Christian roots in Sudan and South Sudan go back to the 5th century. Missionaries were active in the 1800s, mainly from the Anglican, Presbyterian, Catholic and Coptic churches.

Though there are conflicting reports about South Sudan’s exact religious composition, Christianity is the dominant religion, with a 2012 Pew Research Centre report estimating that around 60 percent are Christian, 33 percent followers of African traditional religions, six percent Muslim and the rest unaffiliated.

In the face of shared adversity, South Sudan’s Christian churches embraced an ecumenical approach to establish the South Sudan Council of Churches (SSCC), which spearheaded the churches’ joint efforts that proved heavily influential in the 2005 peace deal that ended Africa’s longest-running civil war.

The SSCC continued its involvement in the process that led to the January 2011 referendum on independence, in which an overwhelming majority of South Sudanese voted to secede and become Africa’s first new country since Eritrea split from Ethiopia in 1993. South Sudan formally gained independence from Sudan on Jul. 9, 2011.

But all those achievements began to unravel in 2013 when government troops began massacring ethnic Nuer in the capital, Juba. Afterwards, the national army, called the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), split along ethnic lines during a violent uprising, pitting ethnic Dinka loyal to Kiir against Nuer led by Macher.

Both sides committed atrocities, while the narrative of fighting for religious freedom was manipulated for political advantage. The SPLA has painted themselves as Christian liberators — atrocities notwithstanding — their propaganda referring to the churchgoing Kiir as the “Joshua” who took South Sudan to the promised land of independence.

“The blood of the tribe has become thicker than the blood of the Christ,” Episcopal Bishop Enock Tombe remarked in 2014.

But the church has been caught up in the divisive fallout too. 

“The current war has divided people along ethnic lines — the church is not immune to these divisions,” says Carol Berger, an anthropologist who specialises in South Sudan.

In a speech in April, South Sudan’s vice president James Wani Igga accused priests of promoting violence.

“While individual clergy may have their own political sympathies, and while pastors on the ground continue to empathise with their local flock, the churches as bodies have remained united in calling and for an end to the killing, a peaceful resolution through dialogue, peace and reconciliation — in some cases at great personal risk,” Ashworth says.

Some have accused the church of inaction during the latest civil war. Ashworth suggests that after the 2005 peace agreement the SSCC “took a breather to rebuild and repair,” with the 2013 outbreak of war catching them unprepared and less capable. Subsequently it has taken church leaders longer than expected to rebuild capacity, but now the SSCC is taking action to make up for lost ground.

It has begun by choosing a new Secretary General, says Philip Winter, a South Sudan specialist who has long been engaged in its peace processes. He notes how the SSCC was called upon by the warring parties negotiating in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, to help them get over their differences — something the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) failed to do as a mediator.

Following the talks in Ethiopia in June, both warring sides signed a peace agreement in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, a week later.

“The SSCC recognised that is was perhaps not as effective as the most recent conflict required,” Winter says. “So they are once more playing an important, if discreet, role.” 

The SSCC’s renewed impetus includes implementing a national Action Plan for Peace (APP), which recognises the need for a long-term peace process to resolve not only the current conflict but also the unresolved effects of previous conflicts which are contributing causes of the current conflict. The SSCC says the APP may continue for 10 or 20 years.

At this stage of the plan, the SSCC hopes to see a visit to the country by Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church. Earlier this year a delegation of Christian leaders from South Sudan met the Pope and urged him to visit.

“We gave the situation of the Church in South Sudan, that the people are hungry for peace, and they expect the Pope to visit them,” the Bishop Emeritus of Tori, Paride Taban, a member of the delegation, told media after meeting the Pope. “He [the Pope] encourages us not to fear. We are not alone, he is with us, and he will surely come.”

The bishop spoke at the Rome headquarters of Sant’Egidio, a peace and humanitarian group that is trying to help peace efforts in South Sudan. The group played a crucial role in the 2015 papal visit to another war-torn country, the Central African Republic, and was instrumental in the signing of the Mozambique peace accords in 1992. 

The Pope previously postponed a planned 2017 South Sudan trip with Justin Welby, the head of the Anglican Church. Most media assumed that decision was based on the country being too dangerous to visit. But Welby told media the visit was postponed to ensure it would have the maximum impact in helping to establish peace. However, with the current, tentative ceasefire, the pope may visit to consolidate peace.

“You’re playing a heavyweight card and you have to get the timing right,” he said. “You don’t waste a card like that on anything that is not going to work.”

Others, however, remain deeply sceptical of how the Pope could visit.

“I see no way that the Pope could visit South Sudan,” says Berger. “The capital of Juba is a sad and troubled place these days. People have left for their villages, or neighbouring countries. Shops and hotels have closed. The town is heavily militarised and there is hunger everywhere.”

Whether the Pope would have a lasting impact, if he comes, remains to be seen. But current events indicate why the SSCC think it worth his trying, as the world’s youngest state remains afflicted by war and famine, and mired in an almost constant state of humanitarian crisis.     

“More exhortations to the antagonists to stop fighting are largely a waste of breath,” Winter says.

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HE Amr Moussa: “It is our common responsibility to harness the collective energy of religions, creeds and value systems”http://www.ipsnews.net/2018/06/amr-moussa-common-responsibility-harness-collective-energy-religions-creeds-value-systems/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=amr-moussa-common-responsibility-harness-collective-energy-religions-creeds-value-systems http://www.ipsnews.net/2018/06/amr-moussa-common-responsibility-harness-collective-energy-religions-creeds-value-systems/#respond Thu, 28 Jun 2018 19:56:05 +0000 Geneva Centre http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=156455 On 25 June 2018, the Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue organized a World Conference on the theme of “Religions, Creeds and Value Systems: Joining Forces to Enhance Equal Citizenship Rights” at the United Nations Office at Geneva in collaboration with the International Catholic Migration Commission, the Arab Thought Forum, the World […]

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By Geneva Centre
GENEVA, Jun 28 2018 (Geneva Centre)

On 25 June 2018, the Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue organized a World Conference on the theme of “Religions, Creeds and Value Systems: Joining Forces to Enhance Equal Citizenship Rights” at the United Nations Office at Geneva in collaboration with the International Catholic Migration Commission, the Arab Thought Forum, the World Council of Churches, the World Council of Religious Leaders, Bridges to Common Ground and the European Centre for Peace and Development.

The World Conference – held under the patronage of His Royal Highness Prince El Hassan bin Talal of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan – was addressed by more than 35 world-renowned religious, political and lay leaders from the major regions of the world.

In his statement, HE Amr Moussa – former Foreign Minister of Egypt and former Secretary General of the Arab League – called for ‘dialogue with honesty’ between religions leaders and politicians so as to address today’s challenges related to the enjoyment of equal citizenship rights.

According to HE Moussa, political trends and negative connotations, related to the biases of different parties, impede efficient policy-making. Identifying solutions to enhance the effective enjoyment of equal citizenship rights should be based on the spirit of good faith, cooperation and interactive dialogue between various parties. He said:

The issue of crisis of religions is suffering from the currents and under-currents going in different ways, or at cross-purposes. Currents are clearly working together trying to find a way out of the crisis we have. Under-currents are perhaps encouraging or financing the negative activities that are producing the problem. The problem is not in the streets between simple people or between the Quran, the Bible and Torah or between any other philosophies: the problem is between the practitioners.

That’s why we need dialogue with honesty because the situation is really going from bad to worse: the lack of truth, honesty and not reaching the people at grassroots level.”

HE Moussa concluded his statement underlining that it is “our common responsibility to harness the collective energy of religions, creeds and value systems” to promote their authentic meanings and address the instrumentalisation of religions. “All human beings belong to one family,” he asserted.

—-ENDS—-


About the Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue

The Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue, an organization with special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council, is a think tank dedicated to the promotion of human rights through cross-cultural, religious and civilizational dialogue between the Global North and Global South, and through training of the upcoming generations of stakeholders in the Arab region. Its aim is to act as a platform for dialogue between a variety of stakeholders involved in the promotion and protection of human rights.

CONTACTS MEDIA:

Blerim Mustafa
Junior project and communications officer
Email: bmustafa@gchragd.org
Phone number: +41 (0) 22 748 27 95

Teodora Popa
Project officer
Email: tpopa@gchragd.org
Phone number: +41 (0) 22 748 27 86

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Wider Views for More Equal Societieshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2018/05/wider-views-equal-societies/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=wider-views-equal-societies http://www.ipsnews.net/2018/05/wider-views-equal-societies/#comments Wed, 02 May 2018 01:08:45 +0000 Oscar A. Garcia http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=155570 Inequalities are on the rise. Since 1980, 1% of the richest people have received double income than the 50% of the poorest. After several years of decline, hunger is also on the rise. The report on the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World estimates that the number of chronically undernourished people in […]

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By Oscar A. Garcia*
ROME, May 2 2018 (IPS)

Inequalities are on the rise. Since 1980, 1% of the richest people have received double income than the 50% of the poorest. After several years of decline, hunger is also on the rise. The report on the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World estimates that the number of chronically undernourished people in the world increased from 777 million in 2015 to 815 million in 2016. If we go deeper into the analysis we observe that three-quarters of the world’s extremely poor and food-insecure people live in rural areas.

Oscar A. Garcia

Poorest and excluded

Along the path to economic growth, millions of people are excluded. They are individuals who belong to groups that are discriminated against and excluded within their own societies. This discrimination may be on grounds of religion, ethnicity, gender and/or disability. Inequalities are multi-dimensional, multi-layered and cumulative; untangling such complexities is a challenge we must act on. Without understanding the root causes of inequalities, we cannot remove the inequalities themselves, along with the immense barriers they create and which prevent the world’s poorest – those at the “bottom of the pyramid” – from thriving. Without transforming the restrictions that reinforce the deep-seated causes of chronic poverty, substantial progress is unlikely.

Comprehensive analysis to enlighten the path

The discourse needs to shift its focus to the structural issues of inequality, whether economic, political or social. Why is it that tens of millions of people are without clean water? Why is it that poor women do not have access to land? Why is that millions are without food and adequate living conditions? The answers and the realities go far deeper than the issue of poverty alone, and we must arrive at the last corner of those realities and the spaces where people are discriminated against.

Countering inequalities requires robust evidence and more disaggregated data. It also requires going beyond traditional approaches. We need to improve our analytical frameworks, ask the right evaluation questions, talk to poor people and understand their needs, based on which a revitalized development agenda on inequality will emerge. High levels of inequalities can be brought down if we are able to create redistributive policies geared toward shared prosperity, social justice, and democracy for all people.

These and other issues will be discussed at the International Conference “Rural Inequalities: Evaluating approaches to overcome disparities“, organized by the Independent Office of Evaluation of IFAD, and held on 2-3 May in Rome.

*Oscar A. Garcia, is Director of the Independent Office of Evaluation of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, IFAD, a specialized agency of the United Nations.

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The Nowhere People: Rohingyas in Indiahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2018/04/nowhere-people-rohingyas-india/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=nowhere-people-rohingyas-india http://www.ipsnews.net/2018/04/nowhere-people-rohingyas-india/#respond Wed, 25 Apr 2018 00:04:26 +0000 Neeta Lal http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=155451 A devastating fire in a shanty at Kalindi Kunj, a New Delhi suburb, that gutted the homes of 226 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, including 100 women and 50 children, has trained a spotlight on India’s ad hoc policy on international migrants. Already persecuted in their country of origin, Rohingyas — the largest stateless population in […]

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Rohingya refugees in India face discrimination and threats of deportation back to Myanmar. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

Rohingya refugees in India face discrimination and threats of deportation back to Myanmar. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

By Neeta Lal
NEW DELHI, Apr 25 2018 (IPS)

A devastating fire in a shanty at Kalindi Kunj, a New Delhi suburb, that gutted the homes of 226 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, including 100 women and 50 children, has trained a spotlight on India’s ad hoc policy on international migrants.

Already persecuted in their country of origin, Rohingyas — the largest stateless population in the world at three million — have found shelter across vast swathes of Asia including in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), there are more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh alone, who now face the onset of the monsoon season in flimsy shelters."As a big regional player, the refugee crisis presents India with a unique opportunity to set an example and work out a long-term resolution to this humanitarian crisis." --Dr. Ranjan Biswas

Demographers note that the Rohingyas’ displacement, while on a particularly dramatic scale, is illustrative of a larger global trend. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the world is witnessing the highest level of displacement on record with 22.5 million refugees, over half of them under 18, languishing in different parts of the world in search of a normal life.

Often referred to as the boat people – because they journey in packed boats to escape their homeland — around 40,000 Rohingyas have trickled into India over the past three years to cities like New Delhi, Jaipur, Hyderabad and Jammu where their population is the largest. Some had settled in the Kalindi Kunj camp that was set up in 2012 by a non-profit on a 150-odd square metre plot that it owns.

The camp’s occupants worked as daily wage labourers or were employed with private companies. A few even ran kirana (grocery) kiosks near the camp. Most of these refugees had landed in Delhi after failed stints in Rohingya camps in Bangladesh or Jammu (a northern Indian city), where they were repeatedly targeted by radical Hindu groups.

Nurudddin, 56, who lost all his belongings and papers in the Kalindi Kunj fire, told IPS that he has been living like a vagabond since he fled Myanmar with his wife and four children in 2016. “We left Myanmar to go to Bangladesh but we faced a lot of hardships there too. I couldn’t get a job, there was no proper food or accommodation. We arrived in Delhi last year with a lot of hope but so far things haven’t been going too well here either,” said the frail man with a grey beard.

Following the Kalindi Kunj fire, and public complaints about the government’s neglect of Rohingya camps, the Supreme Court intervened. On April 9, the apex court asked the Centre to file a comprehensive status report in four weeks on the civic amenities at two Rohingya camps in Delhi and Haryana, following allegations that basic facilities like drinking water and toilets were missing from these settlements.

Senior Supreme Court lawyer, Prashant Bhushan, appearing for the Rohingyas told the court that the refugees were being subjected to discrimination with regard to basic amenities. However, this was refuted by Additional Solicitor General, Tushar Mehta who, appearing for the Centre said there was no discrimination against the Rohingyas. The court will again take up the matter on May 9.

A Rohingya campsite in New Delhi. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

A Rohingya campsite in New Delhi. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

The Rohingya issue entered mainstream public discourse last August when the ruling Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party government abruptly asked the country’s 29 states to identify illegal immigrants for deportation –  including, the guidance said, Rohingya Muslims who had fled Myanmar.

“As per available estimates there are around 40,000 Rohingyas living illegally in the country,” India’s junior home minister Kiren Rijiju then told Parliament: “The government has issued detailed instructions for deportation of illegal foreign nationals including Rohingyas.”

In its affidavit filed before the Supreme Court, the Centre claimed that Rohingya refugees posed a “serious national security threat” and that their deportation was in the “larger interest” of the country. It also asked the court to “decline its interference” in the matter.

The Centre’s decision to deport the Rohingyas attracted domestic as well as global opprobrium. “It is both unprecedented and impractical,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, told Scroll.in. “It is unprecedented because India has never been unwelcoming of refugees, let alone conducting such mass deportation,” she said. “And I would call it impractical because where would they [the Indian government] send these people? They have no passports and the Myanmar government is not going to accept them as legitimate citizens.”

Some critics also pointed out that the Rohingyas were being targeted by the ruling Hindu Bhartiya Janata Party government because they were Muslims, an allegation the Centre has refuted.

Parallels have also been drawn with refugees from other countries like Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan who have comfortably made India their home over the years. However, to keep a strict vigil against the Rohingyas’ influx, the Indian government has specially stationed 6,000 soldiers on the India-Bangladesh border.

Activists say that despite thousands of refugees and asylum seekers (204,600 in 2011 as per the Central government) already living in India, refugees’ rights are a grey area. An overarching feeling is that refugees pose a security threat and create demographic imbalances. A domestic legal framework to extend basic rights to refugees is also missing.

Since the government’s crackdown, Rohingya groups have been lobbying to thwart their deportation to their native land. In a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court of India titled Mohammed Salimullah vs Union of India (Writ Petition no. 793 of 2017), they have demanded that they be allowed to stay on in India.

However, the government has contented that the plea of the petitioner is untenable, on grounds that India is not a signatory to the UN Convention of 1951. The convention relates to the status of refugees, and the Protocol of 1967, under the principle of non-refoulement. This principle states that refugees will not be deported to a country where they face threat of persecution. The matter is now in the Supreme Court of India which is saddled with the onerous task of balancing national security with the human rights of the refugees.

However, as Shubha Goswami, a senior advocate with the High Court points out, while India may not have signed the refugee convention, it is still co-signatory to many other important international conventions like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes the principle of non-refoulement, and it is legally binding that India provide for the Rohingyas.

There’s growing public opinion as well that the government should embrace and empower these hapless people.

“Rather than resent their presence, India should accept the Rohingyas as it has other migrants,” elaborates Dr. Ranjan Biswas, ex-professor sociology, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. “As a big regional player, the refugee crisis presents India with a unique opportunity to set an example and work out a long-term resolution to this humanitarian crisis which will usher in peace and stability in the region.”

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Removing Hate from Sermonshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2018/03/removing-hate-sermons/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=removing-hate-sermons http://www.ipsnews.net/2018/03/removing-hate-sermons/#respond Wed, 28 Mar 2018 14:14:30 +0000 Rafia Zakaria http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=155085 It has been nearly 10 years since an angry mob raged through the streets of Gojra in the early morning hours of Aug 1, 2009. The trouble had begun the day before, Friday, when certain xenophobic clerics had incited Muslim villagers, citing rumours about the desecration of religious verses. On that grim day, around 10 […]

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By Rafia Zakaria
Mar 28 2018 (Dawn, Pakistan)

It has been nearly 10 years since an angry mob raged through the streets of Gojra in the early morning hours of Aug 1, 2009. The trouble had begun the day before, Friday, when certain xenophobic clerics had incited Muslim villagers, citing rumours about the desecration of religious verses. On that grim day, around 10 Christians were burned alive.

Rafia Zakaria

Rafia Zakaria

The television news footage showed houses on fire, burnt furniture scattered on the streets. Gunshots still rang out through the air; it appeared that people were shooting at each other from the rooftops.

Later on, when the dead and injured were counted, when the politicians woke up and began to offer their thoughts and prayers, the tragic toll, besides the number of dead and injured, would become apparent: a community devastated by the anger of a mob motivated by hate.

There have been other incidents of hate and of sectarian violence since Gojra. And like Gojra, some have begun on Friday afternoons, after a preacher harbouring extremist views has riled up the fervour and sensitivities of the crowd before him. There have been times when such angry mobs have killed; or, if they have not, they have demanded murder or defended murderers.

Those who use freedom to abridge and destroy the freedom of others must not be permitted to do so.

For a very long time, there has been no accountability, no real means of connecting the men who are accused of preaching hate to a congregation of faithfuls to the incensed mobs that then march out into the streets. It has been assumed that the men standing at the pulpit, delivering the sermons, can do no wrong, can say no wrong, are disconnected from the rising levels of animosity and hatred that is, tragically, on the increase in many parts of the country.

Until this March, it did seem that little would change when it came to sermons inciting hatred and delivered by a section of clerics. On March 2 this year, the government, specifically the interior ministry, announced that it was considering 44 subjects that would be considered permissible topics for Friday sermons. The plan would be disseminated among the 1003 mosques in the Islamabad area as a pilot project.

According to officials of the National Counter Terrorism Authority, or Nacta, which collaborated to create the project, the plan has been developed after looking at similar plans implemented in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In all of those countries, appropriate themes have been given to clerics who prepare their Friday sermons in accordance with the directives.

On March 25, the committee overseeing the plan announced that it would be implemented and that the government would, in fact, be issuing a list of permissible themes to be addressed at the Friday sermon.

While many clerics in Islamabad have expectedly opposed the plan, insisting that the religious institutions and mosques in the city are controlled by the Auqaf department and not the capital’s administration, the committee that has decided to implement the plan contains representatives from both the Auqaf department and the administration.

The monitoring of the sermons (to ensure that clerics are complying with the approved themes) will be carried out by the Auqaf department, the capital administration and the Special Branch of the Islamabad Police.

In the days and weeks to come there are likely to be many obstacles to this sort of directive.

Over the years, while many other facets of Pakistani life have been circumscribed — made subject to diktats and directives, just laws and sometimes unjust laws, the whims of military rulers, the eccentricities of democratic rulers — the clergy has faced none. Some clerics who purport to represent the majority of Pakistanis have taken it upon themselves to issue directives and incite extremism.

The involvement of Nacta illustrates this — in hundreds, possibly even thousands, of mosques, clerics urge support for extremist thought, even violence, whilst ignoring the reality that thousands of Pakistanis have died as a result of violent tactics.

For too long, hate-filled clerics have remained above the law, able to operate with impunity.

Freedom is a great thing, particularly in relation to faith. However, in this case, the freedom accorded to clerics has been used to abridge the freedom of so many Pakistanis to practise their own faith and in their own way. Those who use freedom to abridge and destroy the freedom of others must not be permitted to do so; they can only be seen as the enemies of freedom itself, and they must not be allowed to misuse their authority in religious matters.

This monitoring and theme-implementation project will, at its inception, only be operative in Islamabad. The Special Branch has the capacity to implement the plan and monitor it. Close monitoring is essential to ensure that mosque leaders see that this is not a symbolic move.

In terms of the programme’s implementation in the rest of the country, there will be a need to enhance the monitoring abilities of the police. In this age of closed-circuit television, however, actual people may not be necessary to identify those who are not complying with the interior ministry’s approved themes. The directive could simply require that all mosques submit a text of the Friday sermon in written form prior to delivery and a recording following it.

The regulation of Friday sermons and the development of a code of conduct that ensures that our religious institutions are not abused or made into hotbeds of inciting hatred is crucial to the welfare of Pakistan. A mosque is a place for prayer and reverence, and the monitoring and regulation of Friday sermons will ensure that it can continue to be sacred and respected.

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

This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan

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For the First Time, Buddhist Prelate in State Delegationhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2018/03/first-time-buddhist-prelate-state-delegation/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=first-time-buddhist-prelate-state-delegation http://www.ipsnews.net/2018/03/first-time-buddhist-prelate-state-delegation/#respond Sun, 25 Mar 2018 15:51:51 +0000 Sunday Times http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=155096 Sri Lanka’s foreign policy initiatives have gone one notch higher with the inclusion of a member of the Buddhist clergy in a delegation for top level talks between President Maithripala Sirisena and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. This is the first time in seven decades that a cleric has been included in an official delegation […]

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By From the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka
Mar 25 2018 (The Sunday Times - Sri Lanka)

Sri Lanka’s foreign policy initiatives have gone one notch higher with the inclusion of a member of the Buddhist clergy in a delegation for top level talks between President Maithripala Sirisena and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

This is the first time in seven decades that a cleric has been included in an official delegation by a head of state or head of government, said a Foreign Ministry official who did not wish to be named. He is Ven. Ulapane Sumangala Thera.

Ven. Sumangala Thera does not hold any official Government position but is an activist against corruption and drug abuse. He is the chief incumbent of the Dharmayathana Temple in Narahenpita. He also serves in the 30 member council of Buddhist intellectual leaders named by President Sirisena.

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

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The Expanding Phenomenon of Religious and Nationalist Extremismhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2018/03/expanding-phenomenon-religious-nationalist-extremism/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=expanding-phenomenon-religious-nationalist-extremism http://www.ipsnews.net/2018/03/expanding-phenomenon-religious-nationalist-extremism/#respond Thu, 15 Mar 2018 07:12:11 +0000 Brig Gen Shahedul http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=154845 The attack on Dr Zafar Iqbal on March 3, only proves that religiously motivated extremism of the violent type, whether manifested in individual or group actions, continues to find its practitioners in society. And we are at a loss to determine how best to combat them effectively. The scourge is not a new phenomenon, nor […]

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By Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan ndc, psc (Retd)
Mar 15 2018 (The Daily Star, Bangladesh)

The attack on Dr Zafar Iqbal on March 3, only proves that religiously motivated extremism of the violent type, whether manifested in individual or group actions, continues to find its practitioners in society. And we are at a loss to determine how best to combat them effectively. The scourge is not a new phenomenon, nor unique to our country, but it has gained in salience in recent times.

SOURCE: THE BRISTOL CABLE

It would be appropriate at this point to dwell briefly on the rise of religious/nationalist extremism in order to put the issue in a broader perspective of the region.

The current spate of this phenomenon is not the exclusive preserve of the Islamists. There are other hues of this exclusivist ideology. Some term it as rabid nationalism or nativism. What has been happening without our knowledge while we have been occupied with tackling Muslim extremists is the growth of extreme nationalist fervour of another kind on both sides of our borders. Even more worrisome is that, while in Bangladesh we can take comfort in the fact that the Islamic groups here have not been allowed to morph into a politically significant force, because of the secular psyche of the majority Bengalis, in both India and Myanmar—India in particular—the liberal and secular way of life is being gradually overtaken by another form of extremism where people in saffron are calling the shots. It cannot be lost on the discerning liberals that extremists in one country take comfort in the rise of their kind in neighbouring countries. That, they think, not only justifies but reinforces their existence. In Myanmar too the “Buddhist bin Ladens” have garnered enough strength to influence the ruling junta. Government sponsorship of these groups is very evident in the fact that when political dissent of any kind is prohibited in Myanmar, thousands of Buddhist monks openly flaunt their pathological dislike for a particular ethnic group boldly, proclaiming that any supporter of the Rohingya is their enemy. These demonstrations, when the Myanmar military is engaged in Rohingya pogrom, are significant.

But let us shift focus to our own country.

The attack on Dr Iqbal, apparently by a single individual, mimics the “lone wolf” syndrome. But in this particular case it is difficult to say with certainty if he was actually acting entirely on his own convictions. If that be so what motivated him to attempt to take another man’s life and declare him “anti-Muslim”? One wonders if he has read any of Dr Iqbal’s writings or heard his speeches seriously enough to make his conclusion. And even if the narratives did not agree with his views, can he really seek recourse to as extreme an action like killing a man? This is the fundamental question that confronts our society, and it must be tackled immediately. But, can whatever strategy that we might devise, if we are able to put together a cogent workable plan at all, really see an end to the phenomenon completely?

The question is prompted by the fact that combating violence, is not quite the same as fighting violence motivated by ideas rooted in misperceptions and distortions of truth, and projecting narratives from the scriptures totally out of context.

Ideological extremism has the uncanny capacity of self-perpetuation, fed by minds that are at best ill-educated. An uneducated or even half-educated mind is malleable particularly when religion, or misinterpretation of it, to be more exact, is used as the means to bend the mind. And that is more so in the case of individuals who may not belong to any particular extremist or jihadi organisation but is self-radicalised, motivated by what one comes across in the various media platforms and the activities of the violent radical organisations or individuals inside and outside his country. And in the age of the IT, propagation of thoughts, most often distorted to influence the minds of people like Faizur, has become so much simpler. No wonder the internet and the online platforms have added another new dimension to warfare to the already existing three. In addition to land, air and sea, the strategic planners have to factor in the online battle in their plans.

Some experts totally discount the notion of the “lone wolf”. They opine that anyone who is stimulated by any group to resort to violence in the society, makes him or her a part of the group, at least ideologically if not organically. But be what the nature of that link may, that individuals and groups use religion to infuse violence in the society for a political end is enough reason for us to address the issue seriously, particularly how we approach the issue of religion in the context of the phenomenon that we are seeking to neutralise.

The two issues we have to contend with in this regard is the distortion of religion by extremist groups to instigate others to perpetrate violence, and individuals who become the arbiter and the judge, jury and executioner, basing his verdict, as in this case where Dr Zafar Iqbal was declared anti-Muslim by his attacker, on his own interpretation of Islam due to his poor knowledge about the religion.

The question is how we position ourselves best to face this situation. This relates to religion, and one feels that there ought to be open discourse on such matters which should not be restricted to the confines of the mosques or places of worship, or the four walls of one’s home, but be a matter of discourse in other social forums also. We need more of open discussions on it, not less.

Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (Retd) is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.

This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh

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Panel Debate During the 37th Regular Session of the 2018 UN Human Rights Council: The Headscarf Represents a Source of Commonality Between Islam, Christianity and Judaismhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2018/02/panel-debate-37th-regular-session-2018-un-human-rights-council-headscarf-represents-source-commonality-islam-christianity-judaism/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=panel-debate-37th-regular-session-2018-un-human-rights-council-headscarf-represents-source-commonality-islam-christianity-judaism http://www.ipsnews.net/2018/02/panel-debate-37th-regular-session-2018-un-human-rights-council-headscarf-represents-source-commonality-islam-christianity-judaism/#respond Fri, 23 Feb 2018 20:39:58 +0000 Geneva Centre http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=154475 Renowned experts representing the Islamic, Christian and Jewish traditions concluded that the headscarf is a source of commonality between the three main Abrahamic religions: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. The joint call to action was made during a panel debate organized by the Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue (hereinafter “the Geneva Centre”) […]

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By Geneva Centre
GENEVA, Feb 23 2018 (Geneva Centre)

Renowned experts representing the Islamic, Christian and Jewish traditions concluded that the headscarf is a source of commonality between the three main Abrahamic religions: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. The joint call to action was made during a panel debate organized by the Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue (hereinafter “the Geneva Centre”) and the Permanent Mission of People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria to UN Geneva on 23 February 2018 – on the margins of the 37th regular session of the UN Human Rights Council (26 February to 23 March 2018 ) – at the United Nations Office in Geneva on the theme of “Veiling/Unveiling: The Headscarf in Christianity, Islam and Judaism.”

The objective of the panel debate was to deconstruct existing myths regarding the use of the headscarf and its politicization in modern societies. It likewise aimed to explore the role of the headscarf as a source of unity and communality between different cultures and religions worldwide.

The moderator of the panel debate – the Geneva Centre’s Executive Director Ambassador Idriss Jazairy – observed that the objective of the debate and of the exhibition is to address stereotypical views on the use of the veil and “reveal the headscarf as a connecting thread and an element of convergence in Christianity, Islam and Judaism. The headscarf represents commonality, rather than discord; it should connect and build bridges between cultures, rather than divide. It has played an important role in defining identities in all three Abrahamic religions.”

The Geneva Centre’s Executive Director added in his statement that the use of the so-called “veil” must not become the subject of politicization and deny women their personal freedom of choice regarding the use of the headscarf. He said that “denying women their right to wear or not to wear the headscarf” violates Article 18 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. “Imposing it on women or prohibiting it by law represent a violation of their basic rights. The only way to defend women’s rights and to promote the advancement of their status is to respect their right to choose,“ said the Geneva Centre’s Executive Director.

During Ambassador Jazairy’s presentation, a video was projected to the audience in which showed the act of the Australian Senator Pauline Hanson in August 2017 to request the Attorney-General George Brandis to ban the use of the Islamic burqa in Australia. In this regard, the Executive Director of the Geneva Centre stated that this “display of Islamophobia and cultural insensitiveness” was an “illustration of the ways in which the Islamic headscarf is being manipulated for political ends.” The reply of the Australian Attorney-General – he said – condemning the “mockery of religious garments in the Australian Parliament” as he objected was a “symbol of Statesmanship,” according to Ambassador Jazairy.

The Deputy Permanent Representative of the People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria Mr. Toufik Djouama said that a “degrading image about the Islamic headscarf” is being cultivated by numerous groups that believe in the “clash of civilizations.” The use of the veil – he said – is “a personal choice” taken by Muslim women. “Others see it as an attachment to their identity and cultural heritage. Others see it just as a traditional dress or a symbol of decency,” added the Deputy Permanent Representative in his statement.

In order to address prevailing stereotypes about the use of the headscarf, Mr. Djouama observed that promoting “dialogue, mutual understanding, respect of human rights and diversity” must remain key priorities for governments, civil society organizations and academia. The freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief in public – he concluded – as stipulated in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights must allow women to decide themselves whether to wear or not to wear the headscarf.

The use of the headscarf is a common tradition of humanity and a source of liberation for Muslim women

In her statement, Ms. Elisabeth Reichen-Amsler – the Director of the section “Church and society” within the Evangelical Reformed Church of the Neuchâtel Canton (EREN) – remarked that the use of the headscarf cannot be considered as solely belonging to Islam – as often presented in public discourse – as its roots can be traced back to ancient cultures in Mesopotamia, Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire and the birth of Christianity. “The obligation for married women to wear the headscarf was already mentioned in an ancient law written in 1120 B.C. by an Assyrian king,” said Ms. Reichen-Amsler.

In the letter of Paul of Tarsus to the Corinthians in Genesis 2:21 – she added – women were obliged to wear the headscarf. This obligation lasted for approximately 1900 years in Christianity. It was only during the 1960s that women were no longer obliged to wear the headscarf for religious purposes. This explains the different interpretations of Islam, Judaism and Christianity regarding the use of the headscarf.

She remarked as a Christian in her statement that “our multiculturalism can be a source of insecurity for some.” This can however trigger people’s interest in the Other – it was noted – but also in their own roots so as to compare differences and similarities between cultures and religions. Ms. Reichen-Amsler concluded that it is important to bridge gaps that exist between traditional and modern cultures and to “reflect on how we can respect each other while maintaining our individual freedom.”

Dr. Malika Hamidi – author of the book “Muslim feminism – why not?” – highlighted in her statement that feminist and secular movements in France had objected to the wearing of Islamic headscarves by Muslim women as it allegedly violated the right to their liberty and dignity. However, Dr. Hamidi remarked that numerous women in political and secular movements have recalled that there is “no contradiction between the headscarf and freedom” and “between the dignity and respectability of women.”

In this context, feminist movements in French-speaking Europe – she said – remain “shaken” by the fact that some Muslim women hold the view that the headscarf has “liberated them in their relationship with men and European societies.” “The fact that women are wearing headscarves, within the limits determined by Islam may allow them to gain more respect but represents a vector of social, political and cultural participation which is strongly questioned in the West,” she remarked.

Dr. Hamidi concluded her statement underlining that the headscarf is considered by a sizeable proportion of Muslim women as a condition for “feminist liberation” and as “a mode of existence and a way of being” which should allow Muslim women to have a voice in modern societies.

Dr. Valérie Rhein – an expert on theology holding a PhD in Judaism at the Institute of Jewish Studies, University of Bern – stated that the use of the headscarf is an ancient tradition of Judaism. It was a custom – she said – “for a Jewish bride to veil her face before the marriage ceremony” as this practice is mentioned in Genesis 24 of the Bible which describes the first encounter between Isaac and Rebekah.

She added that the Talmudic law – rooted in the concept of Zniut/Modesty – also required women to cover their hair after marriage as it symbolizes belonging to “observant Judaism” and of being married. It was also incumbent on men to wear a headgear (kippah) as it symbolises a “sign of respect” and a “relationship towards God.” She concluded her statement saying that the “more commandments a person has to fulfil, the better,” underlining that the use of the headscarf would be “considered a privilege.”

Addressing prejudice and intolerance must remain on the agenda of decision-makers

Following the intervention of the panellists, the moderator opened the floor to the audience. The counsellor for human rights of the Permanent Mission of Australia – Mr. Kevin Playford – welcomed the Centre’s comments on Australia and underlined that the “veil can often be misunderstood” as a symbol of religious expression. The act of the Australian Senator Pauline Hanson to wear a burqa in the Australian Parliament – he said – does not represent the true values of Australia. Her acts were meant to “marginalize the Muslim community” in Australia and were strongly condemned throughout the Australian society. “Australia is a country of rich multiculturalism and religious diversity and a tolerant and inclusive society,” stated Mr. Playford where one in four inhabitants were born overseas and one in two were either born abroad or had parents coming from overseas.

The Ambassador of the Permanent Delegation of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) H. E. Nassima Baghli asked the panellists to express their views on the restrictions on secularity in relation to the expression of people’s religious beliefs. Dr. Rhein said that different religious groups “must work together and fight for their rights” in order to address factors impeding their right to express their religious beliefs. Ms. Reichen-Amsler added in her statement that Switzerland is based on the ideal of inclusive secularity and not on secularism. “Everyone must be included because of their specificities” – she said – in order to allow members of society to live in peace.

H. E. Ambassador George Papadatos – the Head of European Public Law Organization’s delegation in Geneva – stated that the main triggering factors behind Islamophobia and the politicization of the use of the headscarf are ignorance and prejudice. Ignorance – he underlined – could be erased by disseminating information whereas prejudice requires a multifaceted approach to deal with its root-causes. In reaction to Ambassador Papadatos’ statement, Dr. Hamidi stated that access to education was hampered by not permitting girls to attend school while wearing a headscarf in some advanced countries. However, education had priority over concern of girl students to comply with tradition in terms of headwear.

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“No Time to Waste” in Ending FGMhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2018/02/no-time-waste-ending-fgm/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=no-time-waste-ending-fgm http://www.ipsnews.net/2018/02/no-time-waste-ending-fgm/#comments Wed, 07 Feb 2018 16:17:11 +0000 Will Higginbotham and Tharanga Yakupitiyage http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=154216 More than 200 million women around the world have experienced some kind of female genital mutilation (FGM) and more could be at risk, a UN agency said. Though the practice has declined in prevalence globally, alarming new figures from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) predict that any progress could be off-set as a further […]

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FGM is a taboo and complicated topic in Liberia and it is dangerous for women to speak out about it. Credit: Travis Lupick / IPS

By Will Higginbotham and Tharanga Yakupitiyage
UNITED NATIONS, Feb 7 2018 (IPS)

More than 200 million women around the world have experienced some kind of female genital mutilation (FGM) and more could be at risk, a UN agency said.

Though the practice has declined in prevalence globally, alarming new figures from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) predict that any progress could be off-set as a further 68 million girls face the risk of FGM by 2030.

The statistics from the UN were unveiled today as the world marks the 15th International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

“The new figures mean that this practice is threatening the life and wellbeing of more girls and women than initially estimated,” the Coordinator of the UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Program on FGM, Nafissatou Diop, told IPS.

“You and I and everybody and the girl next door can be affected,” she continued.

FGM – sometimes called female circumcision or being ‘cut’ — is often practiced for religious, personal, cultural, and coming of age purposes. According to the UN, most cases are inflicted upon girls from infancy to the age of 15.

The increase in ‘at risk of FGM’ cases is partly due to population growth in countries where FGM is common – namely in parts of northern and western Africa, the Middle East and pockets of Asia.

In Egypt alone, more than 90 parent of women have undergone the practice.

Both UNICEF and UNFPA denounce FGM, calling it a “violation of human rights’ and a “cruel practice” that inflicts emotional harm and preys on the most vulnerable in society.

“It is unconscionable that 68 million girls should be added to the 200 million women and girls in the world today who have already endured female genital mutilation,” they said.

Life-Changing Harm

FGM can cause lifelong trauma, including urinary and vaginal problems, increased risk of childbirth complications, and psychological issues such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and low self-esteem.

Liesl Gerntholtz, Executive Director of the Women’s Right Division at Human Rights Watch, told IPS that the predicted 68 million FGM cases was “unacceptable”.

“It’s a fundamental human rights violation that can ruin girls’ lives,” she said. “So often these girls don’t have a say – at infancy and childhood, how can you?

“There is no health benefit to women being cut, so you tend to see it in those societies that don’t have high levels of gender equality…This practice is rooted in gender inequality,” she added.

FGM = Gender Inequality

Gerntholtz highlighted that in order to tackle the practice, the international community needs to look at not just the specific act of FGM, but at the broader issue of entrenched gender inequality.

“As an international community, we can fight FGM not only by supporting FGM-specific initiatives, but also by looking holistically at the gender inequality in these regions, so investing in programs that support girl’s rights, girls’ education, community education on these things – that’s also key.”

UNFPA’s Executive Director Natalia Kanem echoed similar sentiments, saying that the world already knows what it needs to do to overcome FGM.

“We know what works, targeted investments that changing social norms, practices and lives,” Kanem said

“Where social norms are confronted villages by village…when there is access to health, education and legal services…where girls and women are protected and empowered to make their voices heard.”

Change has particularly come from the community level.

Fourteen-year-old Latifatou Compaoré became an advocate for ending the practice after learning of her mother’s experience with FGM.

“She told me that one of the girls who had been cut the same day as her had experienced serious problems and died following a haemorrhage that no one had taken care of,” Compaoré told UNFPA.

“When she became a mom, she made the commitment that if she had girls, she would never cut them. And she kept her word,” she continued.

In countries where UNICEF and UNFPA work, some 18,000 communities have publicly disavowed the practice and many African countries have moved to implement legislation outlawing it.

For instance, in 2016 after Kenya banned FGM, FGM rates fell from 32 percent to 21 percent.

Accelerated Action Needed

But legislation and verbal commitments are not enough, according to UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

“Without concerted, accelerated action, we could see a further 68 million girls could be subjected to this harmful practice,” he cautioned.

Diop similarly called for more efforts in allocating financial and human resources.

The goal of curbing FGM is highlighted in the globally adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Its inclusion was praised because it was seen as an acknowledgement of the far-reaching consequences that FGM has – consequences that go beyond the individual to include social and economic repercussions for entire communities.

“Sustainable development cannot be achieved without full respect for the human rights of women and girls,” Guterres said in a statement.

The Secretary-General called upon governments to enact and enforce laws that protect the rights of girls and women and prevent FGM.

He also announced a new UN global initiative called the Spotlight Initiative which aims to create strong partnerships to end all forms of violence against women and girls.

“With the dignity, health and well-being of millions of girls at stake, there is no time to waste,” he said. “Together, we can and must end this harmful practice.”

*Marked annually on 6 February, the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation aims to strengthen momentum towards ending the practice which is globally recognized as a violation of the human rights of girls and women as well as perpetuates deep-rooted inequality between the sexes.

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Religion: Between ‘Power’ and ‘Force’http://www.ipsnews.net/2018/01/religion-power-force/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=religion-power-force http://www.ipsnews.net/2018/01/religion-power-force/#comments Wed, 03 Jan 2018 07:53:29 +0000 Azza Karam http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=153716 Azza Karam, is Senior Advisor UNFPA; Coordinator, UN Interagency Task Force on Religion

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Azza Karam. Credit: UN photo

By Azza Karam
UNITED NATIONS, Jan 3 2018 (IPS)

In 1994, Dr. David R. Hawkins wrote a book positing the difference between power and force (Power vs. Force: The Hidden Determinants of Human Behavior – the latest revised version came out in 2014).

Basing his hypothesis on the science of kinetics, Dr. Hawkins made a case for how human consciousness – and the physical body – can tell the difference between power, which is positive, and force, which is not. An example of power over force is illustrated as Gandhi’s non-violent resistance to the force of British colonialism.

Power is slow, steady, and long lasting, whereas force is moving, fast, and tends to both create counter-force, and eventually exhaust itself. Dr. Hawkins’ argument, often labeled as ‘spiritual’, lays the groundwork for how faith, or belief, is a source of power, and, to coin a phrase, it’s all good.

Historically, from the first century’s Lucretius, to 16th Century Machiavelli, to 18th Century’s Voltaire and David Hume, through to modern day Richard Dawkins and others among the New Atheists, it has long been argued, in different ways, that religion —particularly as manifested through religious institutions — is, in Hawkins’ terms, more pertinent to the realm of ‘force’.

And yet, it is still largely towards these religious leaders, and religious institutions, that the international community (now increasingly shepherded by many governments) is looking, as a means to (re)solve a myriad of human development and humanitarian challenges.

These challenges include poverty, migration, environmental degradation, children’s rights, harmful social practices, ‘violent extremism’ (often narrowed down only to the religious variety), and even armed conflict. Religious leaders, and occasionally faith-based organizations, are posited as the panacea to all these, and more.

The notion of partnering with religious actors as one of the means to mobilise communities (socially, economically and even politically), to seek to (re)solve longstanding human development challenges, has evolved significantly inside the United Nations system over the last decade. But the intent of the outreach from largely secular institutions towards religious ones, has changed in the last couple of years.

The rationale for partnership, as argued by the diverse members of the United Nations Interagency Task Force on Partnership with Religious Actors for Sustainable Development (or the UN Task Force on Religion, for short) in 2009, was based on certain facts: that religious NGOs are part of the fabric of each civil society, and therefore bridging between the secular and religious civic space is key to strong advocacy and action for human rights (think the Civil Rights Movement in the USA); that religious institutions are the oldest and most long-standing mechanisms of social service provision (read development including health, education, sanitation, nutrition, etc.); and that some religious leaders are strong influencers (if not gatekeepers) of certain social norms – including especially some of the harmful social practices that hurt girls and women.

Thus, the UN Interagency Task Force developed guidelines for engagement with religious actors, based on a decade of learning, consultations and actual engagement among 17 diverse UN entities and almost 500 faith-based NGOs. These guidelines stipulate, among other aspects, engagement with those who are committed to all human rights. Thus, there is to be no room for cherry-picking, or so-called ‘strategic’ selectivity about which rights to honour, and which to conveniently turn a blind eye to.

When the specific religious actors who are committed to all human rights, are convened, even around one development or humanitarian issue, the ‘power’ in the convening space is palpable, and the discourse can – and does – move hearts and minds. This was evident as far back as 2005 when UNDP started convening Arab faith leaders around the spread of HIV.

Some of the very same religious leaders who held that HIV was a ‘just punishment for sexual promiscuity’, when confronted with the scientific realities of the spread of the disease, and its very human consequences on all ages and all social strata, signed on to a statement which remains one of the most ‘progressive’ (relatively speaking) in religious discourse of the time, and some went so far as to ask for forgiveness from those living with HIV among them.

The ‘power’ of religious actors who are systematically convened together for the human rights of all, at all times, was repeatedly witnessed over the course of several UN initiatives over the years, in different countries, and at the global level. Notably, UNFPA and UNICEF convened religious leaders with other human rights actors, to effect a social transformation as witnessed in a number of communities committed to stopping the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in several sub-Saharan African countries.

The latest event took place as 2017 wound to an end, in December, when the UN Office for the Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, after two years of convening religious actors – using the UN systems vetted partners and it’s Guidelines — as gatekeepers against hate speech, responded to a request from some of the religious leaders themselves, to come together from several South Asian countries (including Myanmar, Thailand, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka).

Sharing respective experiences of protecting religious minorities and standing in solidarity with the rights of all, across religions and national boundaries, created a sense of shared purpose, and above all, of possibility, hope – and yes, of power. Not a minor achievement in a time of a great deal of general confusion and sense of instability around, and with, religion.

Can the same be said of convening religious actors who are prepared to uphold a particular set of rights, even at the expense of ignoring other rights, ostensibly for the ‘greater good’? Or are we then, very possibly, inadvertently mobilising the ‘force’ of religion?

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Excerpt:

Azza Karam, is Senior Advisor UNFPA; Coordinator, UN Interagency Task Force on Religion

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Moralist Upsurge in Brazil Revives Censorship of the Artshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2018/01/moralist-upsurge-brazil-revives-censorship-arts/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=moralist-upsurge-brazil-revives-censorship-arts http://www.ipsnews.net/2018/01/moralist-upsurge-brazil-revives-censorship-arts/#comments Tue, 02 Jan 2018 15:34:35 +0000 Mario Osava http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=153706 It is not yet an official policy because censorship is not openly accepted by the current authorities, but de facto vetoes on artistic expressions are increasing due to moralistic pressures in Brazil. The offensive affects the artistic world in general, not just the shows or exhibitions that have been directly canceled in recent months. “This […]

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"Criança viada", by Bia Leite, attracted a wave of moralistic attacks on the grounds that it promotes pedophilia. But the author explains that it is a denouncement of violence against children, humiliated as "queers" (viada) if they do not behave as required by the dominant machista culture. Credit: Courtesy of QueerMuseu

"Criança viada", by Bia Leite, attracted a wave of moralistic attacks on the grounds that it promotes pedophilia. But the author explains that it is a denouncement of violence against children, humiliated as "queers" (viada) if they do not behave as required by the dominant machista culture. Credit: Courtesy of QueerMuseu

By Mario Osava
RIO DE JANEIRO, Jan 2 2018 (IPS)

It is not yet an official policy because censorship is not openly accepted by the current authorities, but de facto vetoes on artistic expressions are increasing due to moralistic pressures in Brazil.

The offensive affects the artistic world in general, not just the shows or exhibitions that have been directly canceled in recent months.

“This affects all our work, because it dissuades us from fear of reactions and the sponsors will now think ten thousand times before supporting a work of art,” said Nadia Bambirra, an actress, theater director and acting coach.

This exacerbates the problems facing the cultural sector, at a time that is already fraught with difficulties due to declining public funds and an economic crisis causing a decrease in spectators and audience as well as in private financial support, she told IPS."So, what lies ahead is devastating, rather than worrying," because "the world is facing a surge of conservatism, and Latin America is not immune to that phenomenon, as seen in Argentina and Brazil, which are confirming the return of winds that seemed to have faded in the past." -- Eric Nepomuceno

The wave of repression became dramatic since September, when the Santander Cultural Centre canceled the exhibition “QueerMuseu, Cartographies of Difference in Brazilian Art”, a month before it was to end, after accusations of promoting pedophilia and zoophilia and of blasphemy.

The exhibition, made up of 264 paintings, drawings, sculptures and other works by 85 Brazilian artists, was inaugurated on Aug.15 and was scheduled to close on Oct. 8 in Porto Alegre, capital of the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul.

A campaign on the social networks was driven mainly by the Free Brazil Movement (MBL), which takes radical positions against social rights, such as housing, even though they are enshrined in the constitution, while supporting extreme right candidates in politics.

The Santander Bank decided to cancel the show at its cultural centre because “it was considered offensive by some people and groups” who thought it was “disrespectful toward symbols and beliefs,” according to the bank’s “message to clients” to explain the measure.

Protests by artists, intellectuals and sexual diversity movements accused the Spanish bank of exercising censorship, by yielding to accusations against some works that have already been well-known for decades.

But the protests failed to prevent the exhibition from also being canceled in Rio de Janeiro, where it was set to open in October.

Mayor Marcelo Crivella, bishop of an evangelical Christian church, banned its exhibition at the Museum of Art, a municipal institution that partners with a private foundation, in response to the accusations aimed at the QueerMuseu in Porto Alegre.

“No more censorship!” protested filmmakers and actors at the Festival do Rio, an international film festival held Oct. 5-15. The mobilisation of artistic and cultural media failed to reverse the decision or, so far, to attain a new venue for the exhibition.

The work of art "Crossing Jesus Christ with the goddess Shiva", by Fernando Baril, aroused the ire of people who considered it blasphemous and disrespectful to religions, while the artist explained that it was a mixture of religious figures and objects that represent Western consumerism. Credit: Courtesy of QueerMuseu

The work of art “Crossing Jesus Christ with the goddess Shiva”, by Fernando Baril, aroused the ire of people who considered it blasphemous and disrespectful to religions, while the artist explained that it was a mixture of religious figures and objects that represent Western consumerism. Credit: Courtesy of QueerMuseu

The moralistic outbreak was fueled in the southern metropolis of São Paulo, where the Museum of Modern Art inaugurated its 35th Panorama of Brazilian Art with a performance by a naked artist.

A video showing a girl touching the hand and leg of a man who was lying down triggered a flood of protests, and allegations of pornography and pedophilia.

The Public Prosecutor’s Office is investigating whether there was a violation of Brazil’s Statute on Children and Adolescents by those who disseminated the video, exposing the girl and her mother who took her to the presentation allegedly inappropriate for children.

Actions of intolerance against freedom of artistic expression have proliferated in Brazil this year.

Dancer Maikon Kempinski was arrested for a few hours on Jul. 15 by the police in São Paulo for presenting a performance in which he removed his clothes. Two months later, a play was banned by the judicial authorities in Jundiaí, 60 kilometers from São Paulo, because Jesus Christ was played by a transsexual actress.

The theatre group was able to perform in nearby cities in the following days, drawing a large audience and intense applause, which shows that censorship is from isolated groups. But in late October the play was again banned in Salvador, capital of the northeastern state of Bahía.

The Rio de Janeiro city government, imbued with the evangelical bias of its mayor, continues to obstruct cultural activities, taking care not to fall into widespread, official bans.

“My boyfriend had his painting censored in the ‘short circuit’ visual arts exhibit on sexual diversity,” which could not be held on the scheduled dates in October, said Bruna Belém, a dancer and body arts researcher who is earning a Master’s Degree in Contemporary Art Studies.

The city government secretariat of culture prevented the exhibition in a municipal cultural centre, alleging

Besides, “eight works disappeared and were only returned two weeks later,” Belém told IPS, referring to suspicions of sabotage of the “October for Diversity” programme, which also included plays that were suspended.

"Scenes from the Interior II", painted 23 years ago by Adriana Varejão, one of Brazil’s most respected and award-winning artists, only now drew accusations of inciting zoophilia by critics who only divulged the part containing two people with a goat. The artist explained that she mixed different sexual practices associated withBrazil’s colonisation and slavery. Credit: Courtesy of QueerMuseu

“Scenes from the Interior II”, painted 23 years ago by Adriana Varejão, one of Brazil’s most respected and award-winning artists, only now drew accusations of inciting zoophilia by critics who only divulged the part containing two people with a goat. The artist explained that she mixed different sexual practices associated withBrazil’s colonisation and slavery. Credit: Courtesy of QueerMuseu

“The manipulative capacity” of the government, in this case the municipal government, “has been turned against freedom of expression,” lamented the dancer and activist. “The first ones attacked were the artists who work with their body, performances, photographic displays, theatre, dance,” she said.

To illustrate, she mentioned her dance instructor, who presented a performance that includes nudity in an event after the closure in the Rio de Janeiro Museum of Art. The audience was limited to their peers, excluding the outside spectators they had hoped to reach.

These subterfuges show that the current conservative authorities, especially in the municipalities of Brazil’s largest cities, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, do not dare to directly ban artistic expressions after three decades of re-democratisation of the country, affirming freedom of expression.

“There is resistance,” Belém said.

In light of the “moral patrol”, the tendency is to limit the arts to musical shows and innocuous works of art, abandoning uncomfortable avant-garde pieces of art, Bambirra fears. “But in the midst of that neo-Nazi wave, something surprising, transformative, can emerge in the search for new spaces,” she said hopefully to IPS.

With the current government, headed by Michel Temer as president since May 2016, “the conservative wave was consolidated and extended to all institutions, especially the National Congress and sectors of the Judicial branch,” according to Eric Nepomuceno, a writer and former Secretary of Exchange and Special Projects of the Ministry of Culture.

Temer belongs to the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement party, but is considered a conservative in religious, social and gender issues. The 77-year-old politician is surviving corruption scandals with just three percent popular support, according to the latest polls.

His government depends on the parliamentary support of right-wing parties and specific alliances, such as that of ruralists (landowners) and evangelists who demand conservative measures and laws, such as flexibilisation of labour and environmental regulations, as well as the fight against slave-like labour.

To the episodes of censorship and extremist movements such as the MBL is added “Temer’s government’s contempt for culture, a kind of revenge on the fact that almost all artists and intellectuals reject him,” Nepomuceno told IPS.

“So, what lies ahead is devastating, rather than worrying,” because “the world is facing a surge of conservatism, and Latin America is not immune to that phenomenon, as seen in Argentina and Brazil, which are confirming the return of winds that seemed to have faded in the past,” he concluded.

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Civil Society Activists Speak Out– Despite Threatshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/12/civil-society-activists-speak-despite-threats/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=civil-society-activists-speak-despite-threats http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/12/civil-society-activists-speak-despite-threats/#respond Fri, 15 Dec 2017 13:49:12 +0000 Pascal Laureyn http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=153575 They are young, smart and willing to take the rough road. Victor, Jubilanté and Khaled are independent fighters who speak out with a force that could possibly change the appearances of their countries, and beyond. These ‘sparks of hope’ were awarded with the Nelson Mandela-Graça Machel Innovation Awards for their contributions to civil society. Nigeria, […]

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Victor Ugo dedicates the award he won to all Nigerians coping with mental illness. Credit: Pascal Laureyn/IPS

By Pascal Laureyn
SUVA, Fiji, Dec 15 2017 (IPS)

They are young, smart and willing to take the rough road. Victor, Jubilanté and Khaled are independent fighters who speak out with a force that could possibly change the appearances of their countries, and beyond.

These ‘sparks of hope’ were awarded with the Nelson Mandela-Graça Machel Innovation Awards for their contributions to civil society. Nigeria, Guyana and Egypt already heard about them, the award will make their endeavors known internationally—and it’s high time to hear these inspiring voices.

Creating awareness for mental health in Nigeria. Motivating young creatives in Guyana to speak out using digital media. Defending human rights and freedom of speech in Egypt. These are some of the missions they have dedicated their lives to. Victor Ugo, Jubilanté Cutting and Khaled al-Balshy received the yearly award in Fiji last week.

The Nelson Mandela-Graça Machel Innovation Awards seeks to promote individuals and organizations for their excellence and bravery in creating social change. “They inspire compassion and empathy at a time of growing fear, xenophobia, and hate speech,” says Graça Machel, the former First Lady of South Africa.

During the International Civil Society Week (ICSW)— highlighting a conference organized by CIVICUS in Fiji’s capital Suva – the winners had the opportunity to capture a large audience eager to learn about their projects. The interest was overwhelming and often left them exhausted after the daily rounds of interviews and panel discussions. The fourth winner of the prestigious prize – the philanthropic Guerrila Foundation of Germany – was not present in Fiji.

Every year, CIVICUS – a civil society organizations alliance – brings the ICSW to another location to “promote and defend a more just and sustainable future.” Fiji hosted the 2017 event, highlighting the potential and problems of the Pacific.

Victor Ugo (Nigeria) – Best organization of civil society

Victor has the confident stride of a young man with proven achievements while walking from venue to venue at the conference in Suva. He shows no trace of the depression he once suffered from. He was diagnosed with the condition almost 4 years ago. And he was lucky, he got treatment. Most Nigerians who have psychiatric ailments never get help.

Victor Ugo patiently answers questions of interested journalists: “The award makes us more desirable.” Credit: Pascal Laureyn/IPS

“Mental healthcare is none existent in Nigeria,” explains Victor. “There is no knowledge. Not just illiterate people, but also university professors think that mental illnesses are caused by evil ghosts. Patients get punished for their disease.”

As a consequence of the stigma, mental health facilities are really poor. “There are only 200 psychiatrists in Nigeria, a country of 186 million people,” an exasperated Victor says. “And many of them go into banking because they can’t find a job.”

After his depression the young doctor founded the Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative (MANI). Two years later, it has become Nigeria’s largest mental health organization. MANI combats the stigma, creates awareness and promotes services for mental health. “Most people don’t know the symptoms and that it can be treated.”

Therefor MANI encourages conversation on social media. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube are platforms used for online campaigns on depression, bipolar disorders or bullying. “We explain how a depression feels like. We make people talk about it,” says Victor. Patients share their experience, family and friends can ask for help. “We try to find people who want to talk about it. We call them our ‘champions of mental health’.”

Media sometimes spread misconceptions about mental health or ignore it completely. “We correct the media so that it is understood that it’s about diseases,” the young man explains. “Suicide, for example. We teach the press how to report on suicides without encouraging it.”

MANI is also creating an online platform to link doctors to patients, like Uber does with drivers and passengers. When a patient asks for help, a therapist in the area is alerted. They can make an appointment after they agree on the price. The platform will be launched next year.

“Today, in villages, patients are still being flogged and chained because of traditional beliefs,” Victor sighs. The taboo needs to be broken. “The less stigma, the more people will ask for help. That will create a market that can encourage more students to become a psychiatrist,” says the hopeful award winner. He dedicates the award to all Nigerians coping with mental illness. “The award makes us more desirable. Everybody wants to join.”

Jubilanté Cutting (Guyana) – Youth Activist Award

At just 19, Jubilanté Cutting founded the Guyana Animation Network (GAN) to help empower young people with skills in digital media and animation. During the conference in Fiji, she was not only promoting the business model of GAN but also trying to inspire. When the stylishly dressed young woman engages in discussions on civil society, she easily impresses people with her enthusiasm and motivational calls to action.

Jubilanté Cutting: “We help children to think out of the box, to learn something about themselves and express themselves.” Credit: Credit: Pascal Laureyn/IPS

“I got the spark when I was 17, at a workshop on art, technology and animation in Trinidad and Tobago. There I met many talented people who were pushing out Caribbean style media products. It was an explosion of talent, it made my creative juices flowing. Although I noticed quickly that I’m not very talented as an animator. But I do have a talent for networking, I decided to focus on that and help to develop Guyana’s digital and creative industries,” Jubilanté concludes.

Two years later, the young law student created GAN. In its first year GAN has reached than 3,500 people through summer camps, events, talks in schools and social media. The main purpose is to change a way of thinking. “Art is still seen as a hobby, not as a professional career,” says Jubilanté who taps her fingernails on the table out of frustration.

“But digital creatives can have a profitable career. If we could attach a price on creativity, many people would already be millionaires. We have to embrace creativity as more than just fun and teach people how to monetize it.”

And no better way to learn new skills and creative mind sets than to start at a young age. “Children are an important target for us,” Jubilanté points out. “Our society is ignoring the young ones. I use every forum I get to emphasize this. Children are born in the digital age. We have to learn them to use that technology in a responsible way. That’s why our organization opens its doors to children, because we acknowledge how transformational they are,” says the young woman.

Jubilanté tells enthusiastically what happened at one of her workshops. When teaching software to create digital graphics, the children aged 6 and 7 were quicker than the older ones to grasp the complicated tool. “Children are unafraid to learn, that’s critical for creative development. But books only teach them things in a structured way. We help children to think out of the box, to motivate them to learn something about themselves and express themselves.”

It took Jubilanté and her team of co-workers and volunteers a year to get the attention of the government. “We need more infrastructure, training and equipment to break the barriers for development. The Nelson Mandela-Graça Machel Award won us the recognition of the government and it draws attention to Guyana and the whole Caribbean. Now people know that something is happening there with digital media.

At her 21, Jubilanté is already a force that drives things forward on sheer will power. GAN is only one year old, but she is thinking big. “I want to spread the Caribbean culture. Everyone already loves Bob Marley and Rhianna. I will make them love Caribbean animation and promote our own artists.”

Khaled al-Balshy (Egypt) – Individual Activist Award

Khaled al-Balshy is a prominent human rights defender and journalist fighting to protect free speech. In Egypt, that is no easy job. The government has increasingly cracked down on the press and has become one of the world’s biggest jailers of journalists. In a nation where media are under constant attack, Khaled is struggling to defend freedom of the press.

The journalist is gifted with the calmness necessary to face hardship. Khaled knows all too well how an Egyptian cell looks like. He has a suspended 1 year sentence for harboring journalists wanted for expressing critical views. His news website al-Bedaiah is blocked. He was accused for “insulting the police” on social media. The courts have 10 pending cases against him. These are just a few of the harassments he has grown accustomed to.

“The situation in Egypt is one of the worst in the world. More than 12 journalists have been murdered in the last three years. More than 20 are in prison, some without clear accusations. Many others are being stopped from writing and publishing,” Khaled explains for the umpteenth time. He gives many interviews at the conference in Fiji, always with the same energy and indignation.

Known to be an ardent defender of press freedom, Khaled leads numerous initiatives for the detained and disappeared journalists. “I write about their cases. I visit their families. We organize meetings and we create groups that helps lawyers with the legal process.” Sometimes that leads to success. “When a journalist is released, we are happy. But only for a few minutes. Sometimes they have spent years in prison without a clear accusation.”

“This absurd dictatorship is feels threatened, why else would they imprison us?” Khaled continues. “They are afraid of us. When we write, we make a change. If we just tell the truth all the time, that change will come. We did this with Mubarak, we can do it again with al-Sisi,” says Khaled. “The only way to protect freedom of expression is to exercise it and to denounce the violations against it.”

“When I knew I won the Nelson Mandela-Graça Machel Award, I was sad for 3 days. I’m getting an award, while people are spending years in prison. My son convinced me that this award is for everyone, for the people I’m fighting for. It’s a message to the imprisoned journalists that their voices can break through prison walls.” The Tunisian translator wipes tears off her face when she repeats his words in English. Her country had a successful uprising, the one in Egypt has failed.

But Khaled has hope. He will continue to fight. “I want to make that change for my son, he is making me do this.”


This article is part of a series about the activists and communities of the Pacific who are responding to the effects of climate change. Leaders from climate and social justice movements from around the world met in Suva, Fiji, December 4 through December 8 for International Civil Society Week..

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Shedding Diplomacy, Roberto Savio Speaks about Fear as a Tool to Gain Powerhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/12/shedding-diplomacy-roberto-savio-speaks-fear-tool-gain-power/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=shedding-diplomacy-roberto-savio-speaks-fear-tool-gain-power http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/12/shedding-diplomacy-roberto-savio-speaks-fear-tool-gain-power/#respond Thu, 14 Dec 2017 11:17:39 +0000 Roberto Savio http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=153533 This op-ed by Roberto Savio, IPS founder and President Emeritus is adapted from a statement he made as a panelist on Migration and Human Solidarity, A Challenge and an Opportunity for Europe and the MENA region held on 14 December at the Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue.

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This op-ed by Roberto Savio, IPS founder and President Emeritus is adapted from a statement he made as a panelist on Migration and Human Solidarity, A Challenge and an Opportunity for Europe and the MENA region held on 14 December at the Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue.

By Roberto Savio
ROME, Dec 14 2017 (IPS)

At the outset my thanks to Dr Hanif Hassan Ali Al Kassim, and Ambassador Idriss Jazairy who lead the Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue for organizing this panel discussion at a critical moment in history. The Centre, is one of the few actors for peace and cooperation between the Arab world and Europe. As a representative of global civil society, I think it will be more meaningful if I speak without the constraints of diplomacy, and I make frank and unfettered reflections.

Roberto Savio

Roberto Savio

The misuse of religion, of populism and xenophobia, is a sad reality, which is not clearly addressed any longer, but met with hypocrisy and not outright denunciation. Only now the British are realizing that they voted for Brexit, on the basis of a campaign of lies. But nobody has taken on publicly Johnson or Farage, the leaders of Brexit, after Great Britain accepted to pay, as one of the many costs of divorce, at least 45 billion Euro, instead of saving 20 billion Euro, as claimed by the ‘brexiters’. And there are only a few analysis on why political behaviour is more and more a sheer calculation, without any concern for truth or the good of the country.

President Trump could be a good case study on the relations between politics and populism. Just a few days ago the United States has declared that they are withdrawing from the UN Global Compact on Migration. This has nothing to do with the interest or the identity of United States, which has built itself as a country of immigrants. It has to do with the fact that this decision is popular with a part of American population, which is voting for President Trump, like the evangelicals. I have here to show the message they are circulating, after the declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. This is what it is said in the Bible. If we recreate the world described in the bible, Jesus will make his second coming to earth, and only the just will be rewarded. And therefore they think that Trump brings the world closer to the return of Christ, and therefore he acts for the good of their beliefs. Evangelicals are close to thirty million, and they strongly believe that when the second coming of Jesus will happen, he will recognize only them as the believers who are on the right path. Trump is not an evangelical, and he has shown little interest in religion. But, like each of his actions, he is coherent with his views during the campaign, which brought together all the dissatisfied people catapulting him into the White House. Everything he does, is not in the interest of the world or of the United States. He is just focused on keeping the support of his electors – those who do not come from big towns, academia, media and the Silicon Valley. They come mainly from impoverished and uninformed white electors, who feel left out from the benefits of globalization. They believe those benefits went to the elite, to the big towns and to the few winners, and believe that there is an international plot to humiliate the United States. So, climate change for them and Trump is a Chinese hoax ! During the first year, Trump can well have a shocking approval rating of 32%, the lowest in history for a President of United States. But 92% of his voters would re-elect him. And as only 50% of Americans vote, he can conveniently ignore general public opinion.

It is not the place here to go deeper into American political trends. But Trump is a perfect example to see why a large number of Europeans, or even countries like Poland, Hungary and Czech Republic, are ignoring the decisions of the European Union on migrants, and why populism, xenophobia and nationalism are on the rise everywhere.

Fear has become the tool to get to power.

Historians agree that two main engines of change in history, are greed and fear.

Well, we have been trained, since the collapse of communism, to look to greed as a positive value. Markets (no man or ideas), was the new paradigm. States were an obstacle to a free market. Globalization, it was famously said, would lift all boats, and benefit everybody. In fact, markets without rules was self-destructive, and not all boats were lifted, but only yachts, the bigger the better. The rich became richer, and the poor poorer. The process is so speedy, that ten years ago the richest 528 people had the same wealth of 2.3 billion people. This year, they have become 8, and this number is likely to shrink soon. All statistics are clear, and globalization based on free market is losing some of its shine.

But meanwhile we have lost many codes of communication. In the political debate there is no more reference to social justice, solidarity, participation, equity, the values in the modern constitutions, on which we built international relations. Now the codes are competition, success, profit and individual achievement. During my lectures at schools, I am dismayed to see a materialistic generation, who do not care to vote, to change the world. And the distance between citizens and political institutions is increasing every day. The only voices reminding us of justice and solidarity, and are voices from religious leaders: Pope Bergoglio, the Dalai Lama, Bishop Tutu, and the Grand Mufti Muhammad Hussein, just to name the most prominent. And with media who are now also based on market as the only criteria, those voices are becoming weaker.

After a generation of greed, we are now in a generation of fear. We should notice that, before the great economic crisis of 2009 (provoked by greed: banks have paid until now 280 billion dollars of penalties and fines), xenophobe and populist parties were always minorities (with exception of Le Pen in France). The crisis created fear and uncertainties, and then immigration started to rise, especially after the invasion of Libya in 2001 and Iraq in 2013.We are now in the seventh year of the Syrian drama, which displaced 45% of the population. Merkel is now paying a price for her acceptance of Syrian refugees, and it is interesting to note that two thirds of the votes to Alternative Fur Deutschland, the populist and xenophobe party, comes from former East Germany, that has few refugees but an income, which is nearly 25% lower. Fear, again, has been the engine for change of German history.

Europe was direct lyresponsible for these migrations. A famous cartoonist El Roto from El Pais, has made a cartoon showing bombs flying in the air, and migrant’s boats coming from the sea. “We send them bombs, and they send us migrants”. But there is no recognition of this. Those who escape from hunger and war are now depicted as invaders. Countries who until few years ago, like the Nordic ones, were considered synonymous with civic virtues, and who spent a considerable budget for international cooperation, are now erecting walls and barbed wire. Greed and fear have been so successfully exploited by the new nationalist, populist and xenophobe parties, that now they keep growing at every election, from Austria to the Netherlands, from Czech Republic to Great Britain (where they created Brexit ), and then Germany, and in a few months, Italy. The three horses of apocalypse, which in the thirties were the basis for the Second Wold War: nationalism, populism and xenophobia, are back with growing popular support, and politicians openly riding them.

But what is shocking is that we have now a new element of division: religion, which is widely used against immigrants and should instead unite us. Religion has always been used to get power and legitimacy. Common people never started the wars of religion in Europe but by princes and kings. A few years ago we did commemorate the expulsion first of the Jews, and then of the Moors, from Spain, where they lived in harmony and peace with the Christians, forming a civilization of the three cultures. And a few weeks ago, there was a great march in Warsaw, ignored by the media, with 40.000 people, many coming from all over Europe and the United States. They marched in the name of God, crying death to the Jews and Muslim.

But while Protestant, Catholic, Muslim and Jew religious leaders engage in a positive dialogue for peace and cooperation, a number of self-proclaimed defenders of the faith, are bringing fear, misery and death. And it should be clear that we have no clash of religions. It is a clash of those who use religion for power and legitimacy. And they ride an unrealistic historical dream. To return to a world, which is gone, where mines will reopen, the country will go back to its former glory: a world, that dreams not of a better future, but of a better past. Africa is going to double its population, with 80% of its population under 35 years; while in Europe it will be just 20%. There is no hope for Europe to be viable in a global economy and in a competitive world, without substantial immigration. Yet, to speak about that in the political debate, is now a kiss of death.

In conclusion, I must stress that we face a sad reality, which cannot be ignored any longer, even if it is not politically correct. Ideals have always been used to gain support, even from those who did not believe them. And historians teach us that in modern times humankind has fallen into three traps: In the name of God, to divide and not to dialogue; in the name of the nation, often to rally support and bring citizens to wars; and now, in name of the profit. I think it is time to make new alliances, and launch a great powerful campaign of awareness on the false prophets, with mobilizations of media, civil society and legitimate politicians, to educate citizens that immigration must be regulated, as it is a necessity, with which Europe must live.

We must establish policies, and even after Trumps leaves the global Compact, like he left the Paris Agreement on climate change, he will remain an isolated voice, while citizens will strive for a better world, with no fears, based on common values. We must take an unpopular but vital action for education and participation. It will be unpopular and difficult we know. But if we do not take this road, human beings, who are the only ‘animals’ who do not learn from past mistakes, will again go through blood, misery and destruction.

The post Shedding Diplomacy, Roberto Savio Speaks about Fear as a Tool to Gain Power appeared first on Inter Press Service.

Excerpt:

This op-ed by Roberto Savio, IPS founder and President Emeritus is adapted from a statement he made as a panelist on Migration and Human Solidarity, A Challenge and an Opportunity for Europe and the MENA region held on 14 December at the Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue.

The post Shedding Diplomacy, Roberto Savio Speaks about Fear as a Tool to Gain Power appeared first on Inter Press Service.

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A Responsibility to Prevent Genocidehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/12/responsibility-prevent-genocide/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=responsibility-prevent-genocide http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/12/responsibility-prevent-genocide/#respond Tue, 12 Dec 2017 07:43:12 +0000 Tharanga Yakupitiyage http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=153474 Almost 70 years since the Genocide Convention was adopted, the international community still faces a continued and growing risk of genocide. On the International Day of Commemoration and Dignity of the Victims of the Crime of Genocide, the UN launched an appeal for member states to ratify the 1948 convention by the end of 2018. […]

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Thousands of new Rohingya refugee arrivals cross the border near Anzuman Para village, Palong Khali, Bangladesh. Credit: UNHCR/Roger Arnold

By Tharanga Yakupitiyage
UNITED NATIONS, Dec 12 2017 (IPS)

Almost 70 years since the Genocide Convention was adopted, the international community still faces a continued and growing risk of genocide.

On the International Day of Commemoration and Dignity of the Victims of the Crime of Genocide, the UN launched an appeal for member states to ratify the 1948 convention by the end of 2018.

“Genocide does not happen by accident; it is deliberate, with warning signs and precursors,” said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

“Often it is the culmination of years of exclusion, denial of human rights and other wrongs. Since genocide can take place in times of war and in times of peace, we must be ever-vigilant,” he continued.

The Secretary-General’s Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng echoed similar sentiments, stating: “It is our inaction, our ineffectiveness in addressing the warning signs, that allows it to become a reality. A reality where people are dehumanized and persecuted for who they are, or who they represent. A reality of great suffering, cruelty, and of inhumane acts that have at the basis unacceptable motivations.”

The Convention defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group.” This includes not only killing members of the group, but also causing serious bodily or mental harm and imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.

Despite the comprehensive definition of genocide in the Convention, genocide has recurred multiple times, Guterres said.

“We are still reacting rather than preventing, and acting only when it is often too late. We must do more to respond early and keep violence from escalating,” he said.

One such case may be Myanmar.

After a year of investigation, the organization Fortify Rights and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum said that there is “mounting” evidence that points to a genocide against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar with Burmese Army soldiers, police, and civilians as the major perpetrators.

“The Rohingya have suffered attacks and systematic violations for decades, and the international community must not fail them now when their very existence in Myanmar is threatened,” said Cameron Hudson from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

“Without urgent action, there’s a high risk of more mass atrocities,” he continued.

More than half of Myanmar’s one million Rohingya have fled the country since violence reignited in August.

“They tried to kill us all,” 25-year-old Mohammed Rafiq from Maungdaw Township told researchers when recalling how soldiers gathered villagers and opened fire on them on 30 August. It has been the largest and fastest flow of destitute people across a border since the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said.

“There was nothing left. People were shot in the chest, stomach, legs, face, head, everywhere.”

Eyewitness testimony revealed that Rohingya civilians were burned alive, women and girls raped, and men and boys arrested en masse.

“These crimes thrive on impunity and inaction…condemnations aren’t enough,” said Chief Executive Officer of Fortify Rights Matthew Smith.

On the other side of the border, refugees find themselves living in overcrowded camps with limited access to food, water, and shelter. They are in need of treatment for not only their physical injuries, but also the mental and emotional scars from their traumatic experiences.

IOM spoke to some of the survivor who made the treacherous journey by boat to Bangladesh including 8-year-old Arafat. His entire family including his parents, two brothers, and a sister drowned when the fishing boat carrying them capsized in stormy weather.

“Where will I go now,” he cried, transfixed with shock.

The government’s strict restrictions on Rohingya’s daily lives also point to signs of genocide.

In 2013, authorities placed a two-child limit on Rohingya couples in two predominantly Muslim townships in Rakhine State.

Others have come forward to claim that the crisis in Myanmar may constitute genocide such as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein and the British parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.

“Considering Rohingyas’ self-identify as a distinct ethnic group with their own language and culture – and [that they] are also deemed by the perpetrators themselves as belonging to a different ethnic, national, racial or religious group – given all of this, can anyone rule out that elements of genocide may be present?” al-Hussein asked.

Though the UN Human Rights Council recently condemned the systematic and gross violations of human rights in Myanmar, the Security Council has failed to act on the crisis.

As the UN appeals for the remaining 45 member states to ratify the Genocide Convention, what about nations like Myanmar who are already party to the document?

The Convention requires all states to take action to prevent and punish genocide. Not only Myanmar, but the entire international community has failed to protect Rohingya civilians from mass atrocities.

“The world has reacted with horror to the images of their flight, and the stories of murder, rape and arson brought from their still smoldering villages in North Rakhine State. But this horror will have to be matched by action on the part of the international community, if we are to avert a humanitarian disaster on both sides of the border,” said IOM’s Director-General William Lacy Swing.

Perhaps the international community may need to consider additional mechanisms to address and prevent genocide, making sure ‘never again’ really means never again.

To date, a total of 149 member states have ratified the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide.

The post A Responsibility to Prevent Genocide appeared first on Inter Press Service.

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Despite Progress, Gay & Abortion Rights Face Threats in Latin Americahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/12/despite-progress-gay-abortion-rights-face-threats-latin-america/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=despite-progress-gay-abortion-rights-face-threats-latin-america http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/12/despite-progress-gay-abortion-rights-face-threats-latin-america/#respond Thu, 07 Dec 2017 23:20:33 +0000 Gillian Kane http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=153396 Gillian Kane is a senior policy advisor for Ipas, an international women's reproductive health and rights organisation.

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Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) pride march. Credit: OHCHR/Joseph Smida

By Gillian Kane
SUVA, Fiji, Dec 7 2017 (IPS)

Cancun, Mexico, of white sand beaches and spring break-style nightlife, was, this past June, the unusual backdrop for a regional gathering on human rights and democracy.

Tour buses accustomed to ferrying sandal-shod tourists to Mayan ruins, instead, transported well-heeled activists and government representatives from their hotels to the Centro de Convenciones.

Parked a few kilometers away, one bus, neon orange and passenger-less, stood out. The so-called “Freedom Bus” was emblazoned with massive letters; “Leave our children alone!” #dontmesswithourchildren.

It was, according to its organizers, designed to get the attention of delegates attending the General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS). They wanted attendees to know they were putting themselves on the line to resist all attempts by permissive governments to indoctrinate their children in the immoral principles of “gender ideology.” They were, they insisted, defending their religious and freedom of speech rights.

Never mind that there is no “gender ideology,” much less governments that are forcing children to learn inappropriate material. This bus is just one of many recent direct-action attempts by right-wing organizations to pedal a falsehood that governments, aided by well-endowed liberal foundations, are out to get your children.

The bus provides the arresting visual, but it’s what takes place inside the conference center that should raise our hackles. The concern for the wellbeing of children is a cover; what these organizations want to do is disable efforts to advance protections and rights for girls, women and LGBTI people.

The movement, which defines itself as in opposition to “gender ideology,” is a response to progress made in the last decade advancing human rights for vulnerable populations.

Meanwhile, the decade has also seen an increase in the organizing power and political influence of conservative evangelical churches, especially in Central America, Mexico, and Brazil.

Latin America is the locus for much of the progress on LGBTI and abortion rights, both at the country and regional level. Same-sex marriages are legal in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Uruguay.

And significant advances have been made to increase access to legal abortion in Argentina, Chile, Mexico City, Colombia, Bolivia and Uruguay. At the regional level, the OAS has been a champion for LGBTI rights as early as 2008, when it adopted its first resolution condemning violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

By 2011, the OAS had created a dedicated LGBTI Unit at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The progress did not go unchallenged.

Opponents of sexual and reproductive rights and LGBTI rights in Latin America responded to victories directly, through both legislation and litigation. They also responded in more insidious ways.

Last year, in Brazil, ministries promoting equal rights for women and black communities were downgraded when they were folded into the Ministry of Justice, effectively neutralizing the ability of its leadership to negotiate or move forward any progressive policies.

The deliberate dismantling of government infrastructures that protect human rights is not endemic to Brazil. Indeed, it is a dedicated strategy of anti-rights organizations who are working to both coopt and fragment these spaces.

The OAS experienced this most fiercely at its 2013 General Assembly in Guatemala. For the first time this forum, which is historically a leader in advancing human rights, witnessed a coordinated movement forcefully agitating against reproductive and LGBTI rights.

Not coincidentally, it was also the year the OAS approved a convention against all forms of intolerance, racism and racial discrimination, which included protections for LGBTI people.

The following year, at the 2014 General Assembly in Paraguay, these same groups weren’t just oppositional to proposed human rights resolutions. They attempted to create new policies they claimed were rights-based, but were in fact camouflage to take away rights.

A proposed “family policy” included protection of life from conception, a well-used strategy to prevent access to abortion. Each subsequent assembly has been marked not just by the higher profile and activism of anti-rights groups, but also by a decrease in civility.

By the time of the 2016 General Assembly in the Dominican Republic, their ire was directed at transwomen. They felt sufficiently empowered to harass and intimidate transwomen who attended the Assembly as they entered women’s restrooms. Still, it’s clearly not sufficient to menace people inside the halls of diplomacy, but one must take the show on the road.

Cancun was not the first stop for the “Freedom Bus,” which had already made the rounds in Latin America, the United States, and Europe. The organized opposition to human rights plays out differently in each country context, but shared patterns of work are evident.

After identifying an opportunity to dismantle human rights mechanisms they see as favorable to women and LGBTI communities (women’s ministries, the OAS, etc.) they abandon facts and misrepresent the truth to advance an agenda that creates moral panic, and ultimately, that will motivate civil society and policy makers to support their regressive agenda.

These strong-arm tactics are shrinking the shared space for public discourse, and this is cause for alarm. They may have succeeded in raising their profile at the OAS, and enlisting conservative governments to support their agenda.

But they have not yet succeeded in shutting down the voices of progressives committed to human rights. The OAS continues to provide human rights activists and progressive governments the infrastructure to advance, and this must be preserved at all costs.


This article is part of a series about the activists and communities of the Pacific who are responding to the effects of climate change. Leaders from climate and social justice movements from around the world are currently meeting in Suva, Fiji, through 8 December for International Civil Society Week.

The post Despite Progress, Gay & Abortion Rights Face Threats in Latin America appeared first on Inter Press Service.

Excerpt:

Gillian Kane is a senior policy advisor for Ipas, an international women's reproductive health and rights organisation.

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“Every Day Is a Nightmare”http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/11/every-day-nightmare/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=every-day-nightmare http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/11/every-day-nightmare/#respond Wed, 29 Nov 2017 00:07:50 +0000 Naimul Haq http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=153235 In this special series of reports, IPS journalists travel to the border region between Bangladesh and Myanmar to speak with Rohingya refugees, humanitarian workers and officials about the still-unfolding human rights and health crises facing this long-marginalized and persecuted community.

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A Rohingya woman and child at Kutupalong camp, about 35 km from Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh. Credit: Naimul Haq/IPS

A Rohingya woman and child at Kutupalong camp, about 35 km from Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh. Credit: Naimul Haq/IPS

By Naimul Haq
COX'S BAZAR, Bangladesh, Nov 29 2017 (IPS)

Parul Akhtar,* a Rohingya woman in her mid-twenties, may never wish to remember the homeland she and her children left about three weeks ago.

Too scared to speak out, Parul, the mother of two young children, rests inside the makeshift tent she now calls her home in Kutupalong in southeastern Bangladesh, which is hosting thousands of Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution in neighbouring Myanmar.“When I came back to consciousness, I found my brothers and husband missing. My children were also not spared.” --Nasima Aktar

But it is still fresh in her mind as she recalls the violence she and her family endured day after day when truckloads of army soldiers, along with local Buddhist men, came to violate women, loot valuables and burn homes while picking up young men in her village in Rajarbil in Maungdaw district in Myanmar.

“My body shivers when I recall those days,” says Parul, visibly upset by the horrifying memories.

Standing in front of her tent in Modhuchhara camp in the vast and so far the biggest Rohingya refugee camp in Kutupalong, about 35 kilometers from the nearest city of Cox’s Bazar, Parul, narrates the ordeal of escaping the atrocities.

“It was a nightmare trying to escape and dodge the embedded informers, army and of course, police,” Parul says.

“We fled in the darkness as our homes burnt in fierce flames. The entire village of Rajarbil turned into a ghost town,” Parul recounts, tears on her cheeks.

Parul was gang-raped weeks before she and her family arrived in Bangladesh, a south Asian country with a highly dense population even before the crisis.  She is one of about a million Rohingya refugees who fled their ancestral home in north Rakhine state, which is said to be one of the poorest states in Myanmar.

Laila Khatun*, another survivor of mass gang rapes by the junta soldiers and other security forces, describes how she, her husband and four children were beaten and tied up inside her thatched home in south Aung Dawng village in Maundaw district and threatened with being burnt alive.

“I begged the soldiers to show mercy to us,” says Laila, also in her early twenties. “I was dragged outside and stripped and then I don’t remember how many of the soldiers raped me in turns.”

Laila’s family was spared only because she showed no resistance to sexual acts which the Rohingya women call ‘Jhulum’ carried out in front of her family.

A fellow rape victim, Nasima Aktar* from Hassurata village in Mangdaw, says, “When I came back to consciousness, I found my brothers and husband missing. My children were also not spared.”

Rohingya women at Kutupalong camp. There are now over a million refugees in Bangladesh. Credit: Naimul Haq/IPS

Rohingya women at Kutupalong camp. There are now over a million refugees in Bangladesh. Credit: Naimul Haq/IPS

This IPS correspondent visited the local hospital in Cox’s Bazar. Many of those approached to speak were too frightened to talk to a reporter.

“Their sufferings are unbearable,” said one of the doctors who requested anonymity. “We have treated scores of children who were shot and women whose legs were also blown off. I have heard of such conditions in war zones but these are innocent, unarmed people. What crimes they could possibly have committed which exposes them to landmines and indiscriminate gunshots?”

The road to safe shelter across the border in Bangladesh is not easy. Thousands who flee their homes take the risk of following almost the same route through the rough, often muddy and hilly terrain of dense forest, while few others have attempted tried to sail across the rough sea of the Bay of Bengal.

Peyara Begum* narrates how she and her neighbours escaped to reach Kutupalong in Ukhiya, a small town south of the popular tourist city Cox’s Bazar.

“It was dark and we had to carry our children and bags of whatever we could pack to run for our lives,” Peyara says, adding, “We had no men with us, only seven of us [women]. We walked for 12 days across the slopes in complete silence to evade being detected by the security men who hunt for young men and women.”

The brutality towards the Rohingyas, a majority of whom are Muslims, was well-documented long before the world came to know about the Burmese junta regime’s “ethnic cleansing,” which has escalated since late August.

The regime’s top leaders are widely accused of ordering torture, enforced disappearance, beatings, arbitrary detentions, shootings and killings to spread fear among the Rohingyas and force them out.

Hashem Ali*, one of the many survivors, showed his wounded left hand, which was recently operated on in a hospital in Cox’s Bazar.

Ali, who arrived in the camp about a month ago, describes how he and three other young men escaped near death when the Nasaka (Myanmar border guards) opened fire on them.

“We were a group of eight. When we heard the gunshots from behind us deep in the dark forest, we split and ran. I was shot in my left arm in indiscriminate shooting but did not stop. After a chase of about 20 to 25 minutes, we were only four. One of my fellows had seen two of the four men accompanying us get shot and never saw them again,” Ali says.

A fellow survivor, Joshim from Shilkhali village in Maungdaw, says, “For the past four months none of the men, particularly young ones, could stay with their families.

“I have witnessed my own brother and many other men being dragged out of their homes, being beaten until they were loaded on the army trucks,” recalls Ali, who broke down crying on his knees.

“Every day is a nightmare,” says Mosammet Jahanara*, 33, from Rasidong village in Maungdaw. “Men, young women and even tewnaged girls would go into hiding whenever we heard the sound of motor vehicles approaching our village.”

“Machine guns were fired at the thatched homes,” Jahanara says. “We would duck our heads down and run for shelter. Some fell on the ground bleeding to death while others, too weak to escape, were picked up for torture.”

The camps scattered across the 30 km stretch of Nayapara to Kutupalongmay are a temporary safe shelter, but young women and girls are still at risk of being exploited.

Some 52 percent of the population is women, most of whom have had no education. Many are now single mothers.

Sarat Dash, Mission Head of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), told IPS, “Women are some of the worst affected by this crisis. Over half of the Rohingya refugees seeking safety in Cox’s Bazar are women and many of them have experienced physical and sexual assault.”

“For some women, settling in Cox’s Bazar does not equal safety. There have been cases of women and girls becoming the target of traffickers, hoping to prey off their vulnerability. IOM is working to prevent exploitation and trafficking. Connected to this is also the issue of forced and early marriage. Seen as a means of protection and economic empowerment, we are concerned that young girls are being married off to older men.”

Dr Sathyanarayanan Doraiswamy, Chief of Health, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Bangladesh, told IPS “Addressing the Rohingya issue is challenging. In a very short time, we’ve already set up 13 Women Friendly Spaces (WFS) which offer safe areas where women and girls have been able to access basic services such as counseling, referrals to medical and other services, information about other specialised services and humanitarian aid, and at times temporary shelters.”

He continued, “WFS workers and community watch groups support women and girls who have experienced, or are at risk of gender based violence, including sexual violence. We are working with community groups and partners to prevent gender-based violence, which often spikes within the context of humanitarian emergencies.”

The spokesperson of United Nations High Commission for Refugees or UNHCR in Cox’s Bazar, Mohammed Abu Asaker told IPS, “UNHCR and partner organizations identified many families headed by children and children who are alone or unaccompanied.”

He says, “We are working with other child protection actors towards having sustainable foster care arrangements within the communities. We believe that it’s very important for these children to stay with their communities and to stay with people from the same village (neighbors), or with their extended family members if they have them.”

The scale of the attention from the international community for the refugees is unprecedented and their activities in Cox’s Bazar is a testimony. Bangladesh now hosts over a million refugees, with more arriving every day through 39 border points, in addition to some 300,000 already registered refugees hosted since 1992.

Rezaul Karim Chowdhury, Executive Director of COAST Trust, a local NGO pioneering in crisis management also working with many international aid agencies, like Mercy Malaysia, told IPS, “The crisis is huge and the interventions like counseling for trauma are also a massive challenge. We noticed from our own assessment that almost every woman and young girl is suffering trauma from sexual exploitation or killing memories. Despite mitigating the basic needs, addressing such a massive traumatized population is certainly a big task.”

Life for the Rohingya population had always been miserable, with limited access to basic services like healthcare and safe water and few livelihood opportunities.

The Rohingya community has one of the lowest literacy rates in Myanmar. Muslims face restrictions on freedom of movement and access to education. Many Rakhine contest the claims of the Rohingya to a distinct ethnic heritage and historic links to Rakhine State, viewing the Rohingya as ‘Bengali’ (the language spoken in Bangladesh) with no cultural, religious or social ties to Myanmar.

They are not considered one of the country’s 135 official ethnic groups and have been denied citizenship in Myanmar since 1982, which has effectively rendered them stateless.

Since 2012, incidents of religious intolerance and incitement to hatred by extremist and ultra-nationalist Buddhist groups have increased across the country. The Rohingya and other Muslims are often portrayed as a “threat to race and religion”. Against this backdrop, tensions have occasionally erupted into violence.

The so-called “security operations” led to numerous reports of serious abuses by government security forces against Rohingya villagers, including summary killings, rape and other sexual violence, torture and ill-treatment, arbitrary arrests, and arson.

A recent UN report says these actions amount to possible crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.

The military insists this “clearance operation” was a justified counterinsurgency operation following an October 9, 2016 attack on security forces near the Bangladesh border, which resulted in the deaths of nine policemen.

Global leaders have called on Myanmar to respect the rule of law and end the atrocities on the innocent civilians.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto administrator, is facing mounting criticism for failing to protect the Rohingya.

*Names have been changed to protect the victims’ identities.

The series of reports from the border areas of Myanmar and Bangladesh are supported by UNESCO’s International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC)

The post “Every Day Is a Nightmare” appeared first on Inter Press Service.

Excerpt:

In this special series of reports, IPS journalists travel to the border region between Bangladesh and Myanmar to speak with Rohingya refugees, humanitarian workers and officials about the still-unfolding human rights and health crises facing this long-marginalized and persecuted community.

The post “Every Day Is a Nightmare” appeared first on Inter Press Service.

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Rejoicing in the Other and Celebrating Diversity Are Needed More than Ever to Address the Root-Causes of Intolerancehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/11/rejoicing-celebrating-diversity-needed-ever-address-root-causes-intolerance/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=rejoicing-celebrating-diversity-needed-ever-address-root-causes-intolerance http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/11/rejoicing-celebrating-diversity-needed-ever-address-root-causes-intolerance/#respond Thu, 16 Nov 2017 17:39:19 +0000 Hanif Hassan Al Qassim http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=153069 The Chairman of the Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue H. E. Dr. Hanif Hassan Ali Al Qassim deplored the rise of xenophobia, bigotry and marginalization – targeting refugees, migrants and internally displaced persons – that is taking effect in many regions of the world. In his statement issued in relation to […]

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By Dr. Hanif Hassan Ali Al Qassim
GENEVA, Nov 16 2017 (IPS)

The Chairman of the Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue H. E. Dr. Hanif Hassan Ali Al Qassim deplored the rise of xenophobia, bigotry and marginalization – targeting refugees, migrants and internally displaced persons – that is taking effect in many regions of the world.

Dr. Hanif Hassan Ali Al Qassim

In his statement issued in relation to the observation of the 2017 International Day for Tolerance, the Geneva Centre’s Chairman remarked that people in conflict zones or in areas affected by climate change are left with no other option than to flee their home societies owing to the rise of violent extremism and the adverse impact of armed conflict. Dr. Al Qassim said:

“Meanwhile, populist movements and right-wing parties seek to legitimize their political ideologies through hate rhetoric, bigotry and stereotyping of migrants, refugees and internally displaced persons.

“Exclusion and marginalization of displaced people – as witnessed in several countries – exacerbate xenophobia, bigotry and racism. Differences related to cultures and to religions are presented as obstacles and as being damaging to modern societies. This explains the rise of social exclusion which leaves the impression that cultural diversity is a threat, and not a source of richness,” stated the Chairman of the Geneva Centre.

Dr. Al Qassim called upon societies both in the Arab region and in the West to stand united in addressing simultaneously the rise of violent extremism and of populism. He also appealed to global decision-makers to step up their efforts to create a climate that is conducive to respecting the dignity of all communities and to the achievement of peace and stability in regions affected by conflict and violence.

“Changing people’s narratives and managing diversity is key to facilitating a successful integration process of displaced people in host societies and to overcome the worrying trend of a toxic discourse against the ‘Other’ that is gaining ground in many societies around the world.

“We need to intensify dialogue between and within societies, civilizations and cultures. We need to learn more about one another and to break down the walls of ignorance and prejudice that have insulated societies,”
highlighted Dr. Al. Qassim.

Against this background, he added the Geneva Centre is in the process of arranging a World Conference entitled “Religions, Creeds and/or Other Value Systems: Joining Forces to Enhance Equal Citizenship Rights.” This event – Dr. Al Qassim noted – will be convened at the United Nations Office in Geneva in June 2018 and will bring together leaders from the world’s main religions whether spiritual or lay.

“The ambition of this conference is to chart a more inclusive understanding and forward-looking discussion in addressing religious intolerance and in the pursuit of equal citizenship rights. This will obviate the need for diverse segments of a native population to fall back on sub-identities heretofore referred to as ‘minorities’.

“The World Conference will become an opportunity to harness the collective energy of religious and lay leaders to capitalize on the convergence between religious faiths, beliefs and value systems to respond with a unified voice to the sweeping rise of intolerance affecting the world.

“In moments where the fear of the stranger has become the norm in many societies, rejoicing in the Other and celebrating diversity are needed more than ever to address the root-causes of intolerance worldwide,” concluded Dr. Al Qassim.

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Aid Groups Sound Alarm on DRC Crisishttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/11/aid-groups-sound-alarm-drc-crisis/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=aid-groups-sound-alarm-drc-crisis http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/11/aid-groups-sound-alarm-drc-crisis/#respond Mon, 13 Nov 2017 09:25:23 +0000 Tharanga Yakupitiyage http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=152989 The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is on the brink of a humanitarian crisis and the international community must step in before it worsens, humanitarian agencies warn. The escalation of ethnic clashes in southeastern DRC in recent months has left millions displaced and on the verge of starvation. In the past year alone, the […]

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By Tharanga Yakupitiyage
UNITED NATIONS, Nov 13 2017 (IPS)

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is on the brink of a humanitarian crisis and the international community must step in before it worsens, humanitarian agencies warn.

The escalation of ethnic clashes in southeastern DRC in recent months has left millions displaced and on the verge of starvation.

In the past year alone, the conflict has displaced nearly 2 million, 850,000 of whom are children and some of whom have fled to the neighboring nations of Angola and Zambia. DRC already had the highest number of new displacements in the world in 2016.

Last month, the UN declared the DRC a level three humanitarian emergency—the highest possible classification on par with Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.

“The alarm bells are ringing loud and clear,” said Norwegian Refugee Council’s (NRC) DRC Country Director Ulrika Blom.

“The UN system-wide L3 response is only activated for the world’s most complex and challenging emergencies, when the entire aid system needs to scale up and respond to colossal needs.”

According to the World Food Programme (WFP), over 3 million people in the Kasai region are severely food-insecure, exacerbating hunger and malnutrition.

“As many as 250,000 children could starve in Kasai in the next few months unless enough nutritious food reaches them quickly,” said WFP Executive Director David Beasley after a four-day mission to the central African country.

NRC said that over 80 percent of people in displacement camps in Tanganyika province did not have access to clean drinking water, heightening the risk of cholera outbreaks.

Though WFP and NRC are both scaling up assistance, aid agencies are constrained by challenges in funds and access.

The UN’s humanitarian response appeal for DRC is only 33 percent funded, the lowest level of funding for the country in more than 10 years, while WFP has received only one percent of the 135 million dollars needed for the next eight months.

Multiple active militias, poor road networks, and the upcoming rainy season further impede humanitarian access.

Swift intervention is needed now to stop the conflict and address humanitarian needs in order to prevent “long-term chaos,” Beasley said.

Though some families have been able to return to their villages in Kasai, Beasley noted that many could not work on their fields for fear of being attacked again.

“I have met too many women and children whose lives have been reduced to a desperate struggle for survival…that’s heartbreaking, and it’s unacceptable,” he said.

Blom expressed hope that a level three emergency classification will bring in more funds, and highlighted the importance of having such resources be flexible.

For instance, North Kivu, which hosts the largest number of displaced people in the country, is not included within the UN’s emergency classification. Blom said that though North Kivu is not experiencing the same level of violence as seen in Kasai, the conflict’s unpredictable nature could change this.

“Resources coming into the country must be flexible so we can put them to use where needs and gaps arise. Lives depend on it,” she warned.

DRC’s long-standing conflict has left over 8 million people in need of assistance and protection. The most recent iteration of the crisis has partly been fueled by the refusal of President Joseph Kabila to step down after his mandate expired in December 2016

Beasley said he saw the horror in survivor’s eyes as they told stories of beheadings and sexual violence.

“The Kasai region, it was rather appalling in ways that are truly hard to explain, in ways you actually don’t want to explain.”

According to a mission report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), security forces and militias “actively fomented, fueled, and occasionally led, attacks on the basis of ethnicity.”

Witnesses told OCHR that two pregnant women’s foetus’ were removed and allegedly chopped into pieces, while another two women were accused of being witches and were beheaded.

Among the survivors was a woman who was raped with a rifle barrel four hours after giving birth. “I did not end up like the others because I lied on the ground pretend to be dead…and I hid my baby under my body,” she told OHCHR. Her newborn baby was reportedly shot twice in the head.

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‘Never Again’: Investing in Prevention and Early Actionhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/11/never-investing-prevention-early-action/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=never-investing-prevention-early-action http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/11/never-investing-prevention-early-action/#respond Thu, 02 Nov 2017 17:30:14 +0000 Tharanga Yakupitiyage http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=152858 After the Rwandan genocide, the United Nations promised ‘never again.’ But has the international community kept their word? From Mexico to Myanmar, conflicts and humanitarian crises have multiplied. Millions continue to be targeted for their religious, national, racial or ethnic backgrounds, and some are even forced to cross borders to escape violence committed simply because […]

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Adama Dieng (centre), the Secretary-General's Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, briefs journalists during his visit to the Central African Republic. At left is Vladimir Monteiro, Spokesperson for the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA). Credit: UN Photo/Herve Serefio

By Tharanga Yakupitiyage
UNITED NATIONS, Nov 2 2017 (IPS)

After the Rwandan genocide, the United Nations promised ‘never again.’ But has the international community kept their word?

From Mexico to Myanmar, conflicts and humanitarian crises have multiplied.

Millions continue to be targeted for their religious, national, racial or ethnic backgrounds, and some are even forced to cross borders to escape violence committed simply because of their identity.

IPS spoke to the UN Secretary-General’s Advisor for the Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng about these complex crises and efforts needed to avoid another Rwandan genocide.

Q: As Special Advisor, what crises today are most concerning and should be paid attention to or acted on?

A. The situations in the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar, South Sudan and Syria are some of the places that I have raised concern about recently, although there are many other countries that require attention, including Iraq.

In Syria, the atrocities that have been reported by the Commission of Inquiry have truly shocked the conscience of humanity, from the intensive bombardment of Aleppo last year to the alleged use of chemical weapons, as well as the continued besieging of thousands of civilians in flagrant violation of international law. Despite this, the Security Council has largely failed to take action to protect civilians and provide accountability for victims.

When I visited the Central African Republic earlier this month I was told of serious violations against the civilian population, particularly women and children, for allegedly belonging to certain ethnic or religious groups. Despite progress made towards peace, there are still worrying occurrences of manipulation and incitement to ethnic and religious hatred that needs to be addressed by the government, with the support of the international community, in order to sustain the country’s fragile peace.

Q: What steps can and must be taken in order to prevent genocide?

A. History has shown that genocide and other atrocity crimes take place on a large scale, and are not spontaneous or isolated events; they are processes, with histories, precursors and triggering factors which combined, enable their commission.

If you look at all of these conflicts, whether it is the Central African Republic or Myanmar or Iraq, there is one common denominator: exclusion. People feel that they are not included, so they resort to some form of violence for their rights to be recognized.

So we can link these crises to the lack of respect for human rights, of observance of the rule of law, and also a problem of governance. All of these elements therefore confirm the close link between development, peace, security, and human rights.

This is also one of the reasons why the Secretary-General made prevention a key aspect of his mandate. Unless you invest in prevention, you may not be able to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) or achieve the aspiration of sustaining peace.

There will be no development without peace, and no peace without development.

Unless we manage to make everybody included in whatever we are doing, we are set to fail at the national, local, and international levels.

Unless the member state invests in having strong judiciaries, a strong and courageous parliament, strong and outspoken civil society, it will be hard for those governments to achieve something that is really durable.

And it has to start of course at the local and national levels. If you make sure young people, including women, are included in all of these projects, you have a better chance to win your aspiration for development and peace.

Q: The motto “never again” continues to be used in reference to the Rwandan genocide. Has the international community become better at responding to or acting on atrocities around the world?

A. One of the principal roles of my mandate is to act as an early warning mechanism and a catalyst to mobilize action for the prevention of genocide and other atrocity crimes at the national and international level.

In line with these efforts my office has also developed a Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes that is used by the UN, member states and civil society alike to assess the risk of atrocity crimes and develop strategies to prevent these crimes.

We are today able to identify the risk factors which lead to the commission of these atrocity crimes. We are able to identify those early signs, which is much easier today than it was in the past with new technology spreads information faster.

What is required today more than ever is early action.

For example, I have been calling for the last three years or more the attention of the international community on the situation of the Rohingya Muslim population in Myanmar but without much success.

I identified the risk factors which were there, and I even went to the extent of writing an op-ed to draw the attention of the public at large.

The main problem is the political will to act at the earliest stage.

I think the Secretary General’s prioritization of prevention will hopefully play a key role in further enhancing the ability of the UN as well as the willingness of member states to act early to prevent situations from escalating to the point where there is a risk of atrocity crimes.

My wish is from now onward is for the international community through the Security Council which has the primary responsibility for the maintenance of peace and security to be more determined to address situations before they escalate further.

Preventing atrocities before they start continues to be the best way of ensuring that we live up to our commitment of “never again”.

Q: Is what’s happening in Myanmar a genocide, or could it become a genocide?

A. I think in Myanmar there were several warning signs of the violence we are now witnessing. I have repeatedly raised alarm of the risk of atrocities being committed against the Rohingya, and that is why I welcome readily the position of the Security Council to condemn the violence.

But more needs to be done to act on this condemnation.

What we are witnessing today needs to be thoroughly investigated. From the perspective of my mandate, there is no doubt that we are seeing elements which are very worrying—when you see a population being forcibly moved out of their location, their houses being burned, women being raped, people being murdered, and people having no choice than to cross the borders and when you see this was happening without condemnation from the Myanmar authorities.

When Aung San Suu Kyi took to the floor for the first time, her speech raised more questions than answers.

And that is why I do believe that if this situation is not addressed right now in a very energetic manner, the allegations being made that we are witnessing an ethnic cleansing will be confirmed.

It is time for the Myanmar authorities to first and foremost stop the violence and to allow thorough investigation of the alleged atrocities being committed right now.

Q: In Kenya, some have raised concerns that the persisting ethnic divisions in the country are reminiscent of what happened in Rwanda. What are your thoughts on the situation there, and should it be higher on the radar?

A. What is happening in Kenya is a situation of concern. Ahead of the elections, my office had been monitoring the situation. We identified areas where we see a potential of violence and we invested and gave support to the Kenyan National Committee for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, War Crimes, Crimes Against Humanity and All Forms of Discrimination. We supported their activities aimed to prevent the commission of atrocity crimes.

Because we all remember that in December 2007 and early 2008, there was a spread of violence following the elections and nearly 1300 people were killed. There was definitely at that time ethnicity at play, and this was even the case that was brought to the ICC.

If you take the 2013 elections, they went almost peacefully and my office as well as other international offices invested a lot in it. But I think we should give credit first and foremost to the people of Kenya who mobilized for peaceful elections in 2013.

Now for the 2017 elections, it is remarkable to see for the first time in history, one may agree or disagree, that the Supreme Court really took a decision and I am glad the decision has been respected by the candidates.

I wish that all actors were in this process and now we also have to make every effort to prevent further escalation of violence, to make sure that there is no hatred or hate speech particularly directed against one or another ethnic group.

During the 2013 election, I made a very strong call to all candidates that whoever will be elected should commit that he or she will fight against tribalism. For the current situation, I now call on all the Kenyan leaders to make every effort to send clear messages to their followers to not go into any form of violence, and particularly using ethnic violence should not be tolerated. The law should prevail.

This is the responsibility first and foremost of the Kenyan government but the entire world has an entire responsibility to contribute to preventing atrocity crimes.

Q: Should the International Criminal Court play a greater role or be given more authority to prosecute those involved such atrocities?

A. Without a doubt.

Where you have a weak judiciary and where you have lack of political will from the government to hold perpetrators of atrocity crimes accountable, then efforts have to be made to refer those cases to the ICC if that state concerned is not a state party to the ICC.

Now we have countries which are state parties like Kenya who took the case of the 2007 election violence themselves before The Hague. The case at the end was closed because of lack of evidence but you have to remember, these are very complex crimes.

And today in my view, we need definitely to use the ICC when states are failing to bring criminals before the courts. Impunity is not an option—we have to end impunity everywhere.

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Myanmar’s Democracy Feels Strain of Religious Fault Lineshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/10/myanmars-democracy-feels-strain-religious-fault-lines/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=myanmars-democracy-feels-strain-religious-fault-lines http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/10/myanmars-democracy-feels-strain-religious-fault-lines/#comments Wed, 25 Oct 2017 00:01:42 +0000 Pascal Laureyn http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=152694 I try to hold on tight as my driver navigates his motorbike over a bumpy and muddy track. His helmet is decorated with a swastika and an eagle, part of an ill-inspired fashion trend called Nazi chic. It’s symbolic for a country where hate and racism seen to have become normalized. For many years the […]

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Muslims in the Thingangyun community of Yangon. They say extremist Buddhist monks sometimes try to provoke them by shouting nationalist slogans in their neighborhood. Credit: Pascal Laureyn/IPS

Muslims in the Thingangyun community of Yangon. They say extremist Buddhist monks sometimes try to provoke them by shouting nationalist slogans in their neighborhood. Credit: Pascal Laureyn/IPS

By Pascal Laureyn
YANGON, Oct 25 2017 (IPS)

I try to hold on tight as my driver navigates his motorbike over a bumpy and muddy track. His helmet is decorated with a swastika and an eagle, part of an ill-inspired fashion trend called Nazi chic. It’s symbolic for a country where hate and racism seen to have become normalized.

For many years the Rohingya in Rakhine State have been suffering from state-sponsored discrimination and stigmatization. Today this hostility is spreading rapidly toward other Muslims in the country."We have the choice between a harmonious country and a failed state." --Tet Swei Win, director of the Centre for Youth and Social Harmony

We’re driving towards the outskirts of Dalla, a village on the Yangon River. I chose this place randomly, to sample the relations between Buddhists and Muslims. And it seems to go well.

“We don’t like what is happening in Rakhine. But here we have no problem with Muslims. There is mutual respect,” an elderly woman tells me. Most people I talk to confirm this.

A former soldier uses harsher language. “In Rakhine, Buddhists are being slaughtered. Muslims are burning down villages, cutting people’s throats and raping women. I don’t believe anymore that there is such a thing as a good Muslim.” His wife summarizes in her own fashion: “All Muslims must die.”

Because of disinformation, rumors and propaganda, these wrong ideas have penetrated all levels of society. Many people in Myanmar believe that all Rohingya are arsonists, rapists and murderers. As a result, they think that violence against them is acceptable. The fact that the Rohingya are not the instigators but the victims of an ethnic cleansing is being denied by many.

A former soldier in the Burmese village of Dalla who says he doesnʼt like Muslims because of what is happening in Rakhine State. Credit: Pascal Laureyn/IPS

A former soldier in the Burmese village of Dalla who says he doesnʼt like Muslims because of what is happening in Rakhine State. Credit: Pascal Laureyn/IPS

A worsening situation

The hatred towards the Rohingya is well known. But less documented is the spread of this hate towards other Muslims in Myanmar.

“Since the military coup in 1962, religion has been used to set up people against each other,” says U Aye Lwin, a Muslim and one the founders of the interreligious movement ‘Religions for Peace Myanmar’. I meet him in his mosque in Yangon. The building is well cared for but modest. Nothing would encourage visitors to suspect that it houses the tomb of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last emperor of India.

“The dictatorial regime did not have the support of the population,” U Aye Lwin tells me. “So the army manipulated the Burmese sentiments of identity and religion. They told the Buddhist majority that the Muslims are a threat to their religion and country. That’s how Islamophobia has set in.”

The democratization of Myanmar did not change this. Hopes that Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD would defend the minorities were soon dashed.

“When the NLD won the elections, it got even worse. Religion is now being used by the army to create instability. That’s how it clings to power,” the religious leader says.

The army wants to show it’s the only institution that can save Buddhist Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi is powerless, critics say, and her government has no control over the army. Moreover, she risks losing voters if she defends the Rohingya.

U Aye Lwin stands in Bahadur Shah Zafar Memorial Hall, which also functions as a mosque, in Yangon. U Aye Lwin is a Muslim and one the founders of the interreligious movement Religions for Peace Myanmar. Credit: Pascal Laureyn/IPS

U Aye Lwin stands in Bahadur Shah Zafar Memorial Hall, which also functions
as a mosque, in Yangon. U Aye Lwin is a Muslim and one the founders of the
interreligious movement Religions for Peace Myanmar. Credit: Pascal Laureyn/IPS

“Buddha is not Burmese”

Kyaw Min Yu is an expert on prisons. He spent eight years behind bars after the student revolt of 1988. After a new uprising in 2007 he served five more years in detention. He is Rohingya and Muslim.

I meet the president in the small headquarters of his Democracy and Human Rights Party in Yangon. He walks with great difficulty, a consequence of his long periods of incarceration. “I used to believe in Aung San Suu Kyi. I worked for her. I protested for her. I have spent time in jail for her. But now I have had enough of her,” he says.

“Aung San Suu Kyi has become biased. She is using a language that doesn’t suit her function as the unofficial leader of the country. She speaks only for the Buddhist Bamar, the largest ethnic group of Myanmar.”

At the NLD, nobody wanted to talk to me. But I did get Htin Lin Oo on the phone. He is the former spokesperson for the NLD. He is Buddhist and defends religious tolerance. In December 2014 he dared to criticize the monks that spread hate: “Buddha is not Burmese. Burmese extreme nationalists should therefore not adhere to Buddhism if they wish to defend their own race.”

This provocation was answered by the military regime with two years of forced labor for insulting Buddhism. The party canceled his membership, under pressure from the monks who felt insulted.

But Htin Lin Oo is still optimistic. “Problems between migrants and natives will always exist. It does not stop our democratic development. Other countries had the same problems. The US fought a civil war. They still have problems with extremists.

“Therefore, the international community should not put us under pressure. They should help us. They should stop complaining about problems with the Bengali in Rakhine,” Htin Lin Oo says.

Although he preaches peace, he does refer to Rohingya as Bengali, illegal immigrants.

A gift from heaven

The international community produces statements but does not intervene. The United Nations is still investigating the events in Rakhine and still hasn’t decided whether the Rohingya are victims of a genocide or not. But it is a textbook example of an ethnic cleansing, says Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), some 900,000 refugees are now being cared for by the Bangladesh government. Shelter is the most pressing priority, but many other critical needs must also be met, including protection, proper registration, food security, basic health services and water and basic sanitation facilities.

Speaking at an international pledging conference in Geneva this week, IOM Director General William Lacy Swing “[urged] international leaders to support the peaceful resolution of this decade long crisis in Myanmar and insist that the Myanmar authorities create conditions of safety, security and dignity in Rakhine state to one of the world’s most persecuted populations.”

On a local level, hundreds of activists are trying to avoid the contamination of violence from Rakhine State to the rest of the country. “All kinds of false rumors are being spread through social media. We are teaching people how to deal with one-sided information. It’s our way to prevent violence.”

Tet Swei Win is the director of the Centre for Youth and Social Harmony in Yangon. He takes me to Thingangyun, a predominantly Muslim district. Sometimes, extremist monks come to make mischief. “Those Buddhists come here with a hundred people to shout slogans. Then we have to react very quickly to prevent violence.”

When I step out of his little van in the contentious neighborhood, Tet Swei Win tells me not to mention to anyone that I am a journalist. That could create tensions. The peace is very fragile. He shows me the local school. According to the new manager it is full. “There is no place anymore for Muslim children. I try to fight this,” the activist tells me.

“Many people in Myanmar thought that democracy is something that falls from the sky. A gift from heaven. But they didn’t realize that democratization is a process. If you want democracy, you will have to work for it. The different religions will have to learn how to talk to each other. It could take decades before that problem is solved.”

Tet Swei Win thinks it could go either way. “We have the choice between a harmonious country and a failed state.”

The series of reports from the border areas of Myanmar and Bangladesh is supported by UNESCO’s International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC)

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