Inter Press Service » Religion News and Views from the Global South Sat, 28 Nov 2015 08:29:12 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Women’s Alliance Plans to Counter Violent Extremism Tue, 06 Oct 2015 20:19:22 +0000 Thalif Deen By Thalif Deen

When the Security Council recently hosted a meeting of world leaders to discuss the growing threats from violent extremism, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that any success in battling intolerance will be predicated on a “unified response.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Credit: Bomoon Lee/IPS

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Credit: Bomoon Lee/IPS

The most recent U.N. data, he told the summit meeting, shows a 70 per cent increase in foreign terrorist fighters from over 100 countries to regions in conflict. And they not only pose a direct threat to international security, he said, but also “mercilessly target women and girls”, and undermine universal values of peace, justice and human dignity.

Responding to the call for unity, a coalition of over 25 women’s groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) has formed a new alliance to counter violent extremism (CVE) and promote peace, rights and pluralism.

Sanam Naraghi Anderlini, co-founder and executive director of the Washington-based International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN) and a member of the coalition, told IPS: “I think the CVE initiative and summit did open space for a broader conversation about the root causes of extremism.”

By having regional summits and reaching out to young people and civil society and women, she said, they raised awareness about the many positive forces that exist.

There are new initiatives for youth engagement, getting cities to learn from each other, and focus on research. The women’s alliance is among them, she noted.

The Secretary-General, meanwhile, has announced plans to form an advisory panel of religious leaders to promote interfaith dialogue, and at the same time, present a comprehensive plan of action on preventing violent extremism, to the current session of the General Assembly later this year.

He singled out five key priorities: the need to engage all of society; the need to make a special effort to reach young people; to build truly accountable institutions; respect for international law and human rights; and the importance of not being ruled by fear – or provoked by those who strive to exploit it.

Ban said most of those recruited by violent extremists were young men, although women were also falling under the influence.

Many were frustrated with the few avenues available to them to pursue productive lives and find their place in society. “We must show them another way, a better way. That includes working to end poverty, inequality and lack of opportunity”.

The alliance includes the Philippines Centre for Islam and Democracy, Association of War-Affected Women, Iraqi Al-Firdaws Society, the Association for Women’s Rights in Development, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, the Carter Centre and Justice, Human Rights and Gender Civil Association.

The United States is working with its own coalition, which has grown to some 60 nations, including virtually all the Arab countries, plus three new countries: Nigeria, Tunisia and Malaysia.
Additionally, nearly two dozen nations are in some way contributing to the current military campaign against extremist groups, including Boko Haram, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Speaking at the summit, U.S. President Barack Obama said: “Our military and intelligence efforts are not going to succeed alone; they have to be matched by political and economic progress to address the conditions that ISIL has exploited in order to take root.”

ICAN’s Anderlini told IPS the alliance of women’s groups is still taking shape and “we welcome NGOs that uphold the same values and vision, and are active on the ground”.

“We definitely aim to have a strong political voice and presence in the policy arena for a number of reasons.”

First, there is no doubt that women are deliberate and central targets of such groups – and extremists understand the power and influence of women in society.

They are either trying to recruit them or killing those who speak out against them. They are also of course, using young women and girls as commodities.

“We have to have women at the center of decision making so that they are not doubly victimized or ignored by international actors as well,” she added.

Second, the alliance members are working at the frontlines of this struggle. Some are working directly with militias – others are doing broader community based prevention.

They have expertise and a lot to share about what works and what does not – and how to adapt and scale good practices.

Third, they have important perspectives on the root causes as well as the solutions needed from the international community.

“We can’t assume that small grants to local organizations will solve this huge problem. Those organizations can do a great deal but more importantly they can inform and guide what’s needed nationally and internationally in terms of economic, security policies.”

She said the bottom line is: “a lot of what has happened so far, is not working.”

“Our Syrian and Iraqi partners were warning about these issues in 2011 (and even earlier) – if we had heeded their warnings and followed their advice, things could be different now,” Anderlini declared.

Obama said it is necessary to address the political grievances that ISIL exploits.

“I’ve said this before – when human rights are denied and citizens have no opportunity to redress their grievances peacefully, it feeds terrorist propaganda that justifies violence.”

Likewise, when political opponents are treated like terrorists and thrown in jail, it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So the real path to lasting stability and progress is not less democracy; it is more democracy in terms of free speech, and freedom of religion, rule of law, strong civil societies, he said.

“All that has to play a part in countering violent extremism,” he added.

“And finally, we recognize that our best partners in protecting vulnerable people from succumbing to violent extremist ideologies are the communities themselves – families, friends, neighbors, clerics, faith leaders who love and care for these young.”

The Secretary-General said more than 5 billion, out of the world’s total population of 7 billion, identify themselves as members of religious communities.

And religious leaders and educators can play an important role in teaching their followers the correct meaning of mutual understanding and respecting the other’s faith.

“We expect our religious leaders to be brave and to teach their followers when they see something morally wrong. I ask you, too, to do more to amplify the voice of the moderate majority so we may drown out those who preach violence and hatred,” Ban added.

The writer can be contacted at

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Pope’s Outspoken Views Rattle U.S. Conservatives but Not U.N. Sat, 26 Sep 2015 20:49:57 +0000 Thalif Deen Credit: Li Muzi/POOL

Credit: Li Muzi/POOL

By Thalif Deen

Pope Francis’ outspoken views on some of the politically-charged hot button issues – including refugees, migration, human rights, climate change, Iran’s nuclear deal, U.S.-Cuban relations and the global arms trade – have touched a raw nerve in the United States.

And most of these crucial and sensitive issues are currently on the agenda of the United Nations where he was given a rousing welcome last week.

But several right wing conservatives say the Pope’s “infallibility” relates only to theology – not to world politics or the degradation of the environment.

At least two of the Republican candidates seeking nomination for the U.S. presidency, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, both described as practicing Catholics, begged to differ with the Pope.

“I just think the Pope was wrong,” said Christie referring to the role played by the Pope in the resumption of U.S.-Cuban diplomatic relations.

“And so the fact is, that his infallibility is on religious matters, not on political ones.”

Rubio said, “the pope, as an individual, an important figure in the world, also has political opinions. And those, of course, we are free to disagree with.”

Still, Eric LeCompte, Executive Director of Jubilee USA, an alliance of more than 75 U.S. organisations and 400 faith communities, told IPS Pope Francis has never made an “infallible” statement.

And it’s questionable whether or not Pope Benedict ever made one either.

“When infallible statements are made, they are done in a very specific way from St. Peter’s throne. Very few of these statements have ever been made in the entire history of the Catholic Church,” he explained.

The more important issue to understand is that all of Pope Francis’ statements are moral teaching for Catholics. When the Holy Father speaks on inequality, poverty, the environment, war and the economy, he is providing very clear moral guidance for us, said LeCompte, who also consults the Vatican and is a United Nations expert.

“His Holiness is applying specific Catholic and biblical teachings directly to the economic policies that impact millions of people. He’s calling for a global bankruptcy process to protect the vulnerable from financial crisis.”

He’s applying core Catholic teachings on poverty, compassion and mercy to the economic policies that cause poverty,” said LeCompte, in defence of the Pope’s public pronouncements.

The Holy Father also called for responsible lending and borrowing at the United Nations to address financial crisis.

He said: “It’s amazing to see Pope Francis talk about responsibility of creditors. He even referenced what was formally a sin in the Catholic Church: usury.”

After a historic address to a joint session of the United States Congress in Washington DC – and also speaking before hundreds of parishioners and lay people in New York – Pope Francis appeared Friday before the ultimate world stage: the United Nations.

Singling out two of the issues on the U.N. agenda, namely economic inequality and the global environment, the Pope told delegates the misuse and destruction of the environment are also accompanied by a relentless process of exclusion.

In effect, he said, a selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads both to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged – either because they are differently abled (handicapped), or because they lack adequate information and technical expertise or are incapable of decisive political action.

He said economic and social exclusion is a complete denial of human fraternity and a grave offense against human rights and the environment.

“The poorest are those who suffer most from such offenses, for three serious reasons: they are cast off by society, forced to live off what is discarded, and suffer unjustly from the abuse of the environment. They are part of today’s widespread and quietly growing culture of waste”.

“The dramatic reality this whole situation of exclusion and inequality, with its evident effects, has led me, in union with the entire Christian people and many others, to take stock of my grave responsibility in this regard and to speak out, together with all those who are seeking urgently-needed and effective solutions,” the Pope declared.

Going into political raptures over the Pope, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said: “You are at home not in palaces, but among the poor – not with the famous, but with the forgotten – not in official portraits, but in “selfies” with young people.”

Like the United Nations, he told the Pope, “you are driven by a passion to help others. Your views move millions. Your teachings bring action. Your example inspires us all.”

Meanwhile, most of the positive comments came from non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Ben Phillips, director of Policy, Research, Advocacy and Campaigns at ActionAid, told IPS: “ActionAid strongly welcomes the Pope’s moral leadership on economic inequality and climate change: he is speaking up for the many millions of people around the world living with the effects. What is urgent action now is action by political leaders.”

Andrew Steer, President and chief executive officer of the World Resources Institute, said Pope Francis brings a voice of unwavering moral clarity on the need to protect the Earth.

“Simply put, caring for our planet and for the neediest among us is a responsibility we all share.”

This week, said Steer, the Pope has made it clear that climate change is an urgent challenge and must be addressed without delay. The good news is that we now know that many actions that will slow climate change are consistent with those that will deliver economic benefits to society.

Barbara Frost, Chief Executive, of WaterAid, said the Pope has shone a light on the plight of the poorest and most vulnerable, who are most affected by climate change and by the tremendous inequalities that exist in our world today.

“He has done much to reaffirm access to safe, drinkable water and sanitation as basic and universal rights essential to health and dignity. And he has asked us all to care for everyone on our planet.”

In our 30-year history of working to provide water and sanitation, WaterAid has been an advocate for some of the world’s poorest people and we welcome the Pope’s calls for action.

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) welcomed Pope Francis’ call and said it believes that the moral and humanitarian arguments underpinning his speech should inspire governments to start negotiations of a treaty banning nuclear weapons.

“Nuclear weapons are immoral, unethical and unacceptable weapons”, said Beatrice Fihn, Executive Director of ICAN, “governments should respond to the call of the Pope and start negotiating a new legal instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons”.

Barbara Blaine of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, struck a critical note when she said the Pope “speaks of some alleged “great sacrifice” made by bishops because of the abuse and cover up crisis.

“What sacrifice? What bishop takes fewer vacations, drives a smaller car, does his own laundry or has been passed over for promotion because he’s shielding predators and endangering kids?,” she asked.

None, she added.

Blaine also said: “If you’re a woman, you can’t be a priest, if you’re married, you can’t be a priest, but if you’ve raped children, you can still be a priest.”

Sydney Silva, a former Catholic priest based in the United States, told IPS infallibility is not the issue here.

Papal Infallibility is only applied in very rare situations when pope specifically makes official statements ex Cathedra (from the seat = official pronouncements ) solely on matters of faith and morals pertaining to the Catholic doctrine of the church.

The Church in the last century has been quietly moving away from this type of pronouncements.

“What Francis and other recent popes have done and said is more like renowned moral and pastoral leaders to address burning world problems and issues. They do have a unique place on the world stage”.

He said none of the recent popes including Pope Paul VI even when writing about Humane Vitae (on birth control) stayed the traditional course. All recent popes have taken a very progressive stand on matters of poverty, financial inequality, exploitation and even human degradation, he declared.

The writer can be contacted at

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Opinion: The Pope, Partisanship and the Common Good Thu, 24 Sep 2015 22:44:10 +0000 Andrew Hanauer]]> Credit: The United States House of Representatives

Credit: The United States House of Representatives

By Andrew Hanauer and Eric LeCompte
WASHINGTON, Sep 24 2015 (IPS)

Pope Francis delivered two very strong messages in his speech to Congress Thursday morning: let’s work together and let’s protect the vulnerable.

Those are fairly non-controversial comments. Both messages received standing ovations from both sides of the aisle, the type of ovations Presidents rarely receive during a State of the Union address.

The Pope promoted bridge-building eloquently:

“There is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within.”

This is an important statement in a city gripped with partisan gridlock and amidst a Presidential campaign not known for its civility.

Meanwhile, Pope Francis lamented that so many people live in “cycles of poverty” and noted that “the fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts, especially in its causes.”

It’s tempting to divide those two messages – work together, help the needy – into separate items, two easy things to check off society’s to-do list. Be nice. Help others. But this Pope was saying so much more.

Francis’ message was that if we don’t work together, we can’t help the vulnerable. That each and every one of us must contribute to a world built on “hope and healing…peace and justice.” He said that “the challenges facing us today call for a renewal” of a spirit of cooperation. Getting along with each other isn’t just a nice thing to do, it’s our moral duty because the most vulnerable are counting on us.

Francis is clear about the challenges we face. Poverty and inequality are at the top of the list. Since he became Pope, Francis has skillfully and specifically connected religious teachings on poverty and compassion to the actual debt, tax and trade policies that shape our global economy.

He criticized tax avoidance to dignitaries from known tax havens. He called for a global bankruptcy process for countries in response to the Greek debt crisis. He criticized austerity by name, labeling it bad for the poor. In his speech to Congress, Pope Francis talked about “unjust structures.” He didn’t label them, but anyone who listens to Pope Francis speak on a regular basis knows what he’s talking about.

It’s no mistake he’s talked about “an economy” of inclusion or exclusion. He recognizes that whether or not the most vulnerable have enough money to feed their families is the direct result of economic policies formed in capitals around the globe. We all have a role in shaping that economy. And when we work together, we can shape it for the better.

Our organization, Jubilee USA, was founded by religious leaders and Pope John Paul II to shift those very economic policies. We’ve won USD130 billion in debt relief for the world’s poorest countries – money that reduced child mortality rates, built schools and clinics, waived health fees for rural Africans and more. We won this relief because Republicans and Democrats worked together.

From George W. Bush to Barack Obama, from Pat Robertson to Jesse Jackson, we forge broad consensus. It wasn’t inevitable. World Bank President Jim Kim recently noted that when the Jubilee movement began in the late 1990’s,‎ nobody thought it would succeed. But because we worked together across political divides – now Kim attributes the debt relief work of Jubilee as a primary reason for economic growth on the continent.

We’ve got more big challenges to overcome. More than one billion people live in extreme poverty. Debt crises are spreading, from Greece to Puerto Rico to El Salvador. The developing world loses nearly one trillion dollars each year to crime, corruption and tax evasion, money that could be building schools and hospitals in the world’s poorest countries. Pope Francis noted in his speech that these very structures not only cause poverty, they fuel conflict and instability.

Congress has plenty it can do to help, but will be most effective if they can achieve bipartisanship. Take, for example, the fact that the US is one of the easiest countries in the world in which to create an anonymous shell company to move dirty money around the world. Criminals use anonymous shell companies to scam Americans, steal from developing countries and even fund terrorism. Legislation in Congress could change that – and it will only advance with support from both parties.

When Pope Francis encourages all of us to work together, both Democrats and Republicans should take note. Pope Francis did not deliver a liberal or conservative message. He delivered a message about putting people first – and putting the most vulnerable at the very center – of our political, moral and spiritual lives.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS – Inter Press Service.

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Pope? Yes, Dalai Lama? No Mon, 21 Sep 2015 23:24:55 +0000 Thalif Deen By Thalif Deen

When the United States established diplomatic relations with the Holy See back in January 1984, a televangelist asked rather sarcastically: when will Mecca send its own ambassador to Washington DC?

“It’s an odd fact of history,” ruminates Time magazine, “that the world’s youngest empire, the U.S., established diplomatic relations with the oldest, the Holy See, only a little over 30 years ago under (President) Ronald Reagan” who was long described as an advocate of church-state separation.

Over the last 70 years of the U.N.’s existence, successive Popes, representing more than one billion Catholics, have had the privilege of addressing the 193-member General Assembly.

Pope Benedict XVI addressing the General Assembly and staff of the United Nations in separate events at UN Headquarters in 2008.

Pope Benedict XVI addressing the General Assembly and staff of the United Nations in separate events at UN Headquarters in 2008.

Pope John Paul II addressed the United Nations in 1979 and 1995 and Pope Benedict XVI spoke to delegates in 2008. And Pope Francis, who is due to address the U.N.’s highest policy-making body Friday, will be the fourth to speak before the United Nations.

But other religious leaders, including Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, have never been offered that privilege – except participation in high-level forums.

Since Islam is not an institutionalized religion, it does not have the equivalent of either a Pope or a Vatican — although there are more than 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, perhaps far exceeding Catholics.

The Holy See is not a full-fledged U.N. member state but only holds the status of a “non-member observer state” — like Palestine.

Asked if there were any other religious leaders who were known to have addressed the world body, U.N. deputy spokesperson Farhan Haq told IPS: “It’s possible, if a religious leader were a head of state.”

But still, he admitted, it was “hard to say.”

In July 1974, Archbishop Makarios, first president of the Republic of Cyprus, addressed the U.N. Security Council after his ouster following the invasion of Cyprus by Greece.

However, what has been unequivocally re-affirmed over the last few decades is that the Dalai Lama, the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhists, continues to be barred from the United Nations and virtually declared persona non grata — primarily for political reasons.

Tibet is currently under Chinese rule but there are dissident groups, which want to breakaway from China seeking independence.

But China, a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council has taken a tough stand against Tibetan dissidents – and specifically the Dalai Lama, although he would accept Tibet as a genuine autonomous region within the People’s Republic of China.

With various U.N. member states trying to keep dissidents and separatists out of the world body, the battle has occasionally shifted to the United Nations.

When the Dalai Lama was invited to address a religious meeting in the late 1990s, the Chinese got wind of it – and the ambassador personally registered his protest at the 38th floor of the Secretary-General ensuring the Dalai Lama would not address any gathering inside the U.N. building.

A similar episode took place earlier when the Dalai Lama was barred from participating or addressing the U.N. Human Rights conference in June 1993 in the Austrian capital of Vienna.

Joe Lauria, U.N. correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, told IPS: “I recall very well when the UN Correspondents Association (UNCA) in May 1993 invited Chinese dissident Shen Tong to come to the U.N., and U.N. security, on orders from (then Secretary-General Boutros) Boutros-Ghali blocked him at the visitor’s entrance, where I stood to greet him on behalf of UNCA”.

“I brought him into the building eventually and all the way to UNCA’s door where security guards wouldn’t let him go further. So we took him back to the street where we held the press conference in front of the gate. I remember it got lots of coverage with CNN Headline News running it all day.”

But Lauria said he does not recall the Dalai Lama being blocked from entering the U.N. premises.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, another longstanding U.N. correspondent told IPS about the arrival of a delegation of “ordinary” Tibetans for a meeting at the U.N. many moons ago.

“They were Canadian citizens and came in wearing Western clothes. Once in, they changed into traditional dress. The Chinese were furious but there were no grounds to kick out Canadians,” he said.

Another ex-journalist and former U.N. Bureau Chief told IPS the Dalai Lama has never been allowed to address the U.N. — courtesy of China.

“I discovered this years ago when there was a conference of world religious leaders.”

He had to “cancel” an appearance even at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on the Upper West side of New York city.

“When I asked cathedral officials why they were allowing the extraterritorial jurisdiction by the U.N., they said lamely that the Dalai Lama had other engagements and couldn’t make it. I always doubted that, but Buddhists don’t come out shouting.”

Javier El-Hage, chief legal officer at the Human Rights Foundation (HRF), told IPS HRF believes that, in order to truly be the voice of the voiceless, Pope Francis should use the privilege of speaking at the United Nations to speak on behalf of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people, whose voices are routinely silenced by the powerful Chinese dictatorship.

“Unfortunately, there is little hope that the highest representative of Catholicism will do this, given that last year he declined to meet with the Dalai Lama in Rome precisely in order not to upset China’s rulers. ”

Pope Francis should consider that, as with any other valuable asset, a religious leader’s huge moral capital can go to waste when he fails to use the opportunity to truly stand with the poor, the oppressed, the downtrodden, and instead chooses to take friendly pictures with and provide legitimacy to authoritarian leaders, he added.

The writer can be contacted at

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Costa Rica Finally Allows In Vitro Fertilisation after 15-Year Ban Tue, 15 Sep 2015 00:45:25 +0000 Diego Arguedas Ortiz A hearing in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to follow up on compliance with its ruling that Costa Rica’s ban on in vitro fertilisation violates a number of rights. Credit: Inter-American Court of Human Rights

A hearing in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to follow up on compliance with its ruling that Costa Rica’s ban on in vitro fertilisation violates a number of rights. Credit: Inter-American Court of Human Rights

By Diego Arguedas Ortiz
SAN JOSE, Sep 15 2015 (IPS)

After banning in vitro fertilisation for 15 years and failing to comply with an Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruling for nearly three years, Costa Rica will finally once again allow the procedure for couples and women on their own.

On Sept. 10, centre-left President Luis Guillermo Solís issued a decree ordering compliance with the Inter-American Court’s 2012 verdict against the ban fomented by conservative sectors. The president ordered that measures be taken to overcome judicial and legislative barriers erected against compliance with the Court judgment.

“This was discriminatory,” lawyer Hubert May, the representative of several of the 12 couples who brought the legal action against the ban before the Court, told IPS. “The ban only affected those who couldn’t afford to carry out the procedure abroad, or those who weren’t willing to mortgage their homes or take out loans to fulfill their longing (for a child of their own).”

In November 2012, the Court ruled that the ban on in vitro fertilisation (IVF) violated the rights to privacy, liberty, personal integrity and sexual health, the right to form a family, the right to be free from discrimination, and the right to have access to technological progress. It gave Costa Rica six months to legalise the procedure.

But opposition from conservative sectors blocked compliance and hurt Costa Rica’s image in terms of international law.

Solís’s decree regulates IVF and puts the public health system in charge of the procedure, thus ensuring access for lower-income couples.

May said the decree “solves the problem of discrimination” by paving the way for the social security institute, the CCSS, to provide IVF as part of its regular health services.

IVF is a reproductive technology in which an egg is removed from a woman and joined with a sperm cell from a man in a test tube (in vitro). The resulting embryo is implanted in the woman’s uterus.

In its 2012 ruling, the Court stated that Costa Rica was the only country in the world to expressly outlaw IVF, a measure that directly affected local women and couples. In Latin America the procedure was first used in 1984, in Argentina.

One of the women affected by the ban was Gretel Artavia Murillo, who with her then husband ran up debt in an attempt to have a baby in the late 1990s.

Her now ex-husband, Miguel Mejías, declared before the Court that he had mortgaged his home and spent all his savings for the couple to undergo in vitro fertilisation in Costa Rica, but before they were able to do so, the practice was declared illegal.

IVF was first regulated in Costa Rica in 1995, but was banned in March 2000 by the constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court.

Five of the seven magistrates on the constitutional chamber argued that the law violated the right to life, which began “at conception, when a person is already a person…a living being, with the right to be protected by the legal system.”

Artavia and Mejía, along with 11 other couples, brought the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2001, and a decade later it reached the Inter-American Court. The Commission and the Court are the Organisation of American States (OAS) autonomous human rights institutions.

On Sep. 10 Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís signed a decree making IVF legal after it was banned for 15 years. Credit: Casa Presidencial

On Sep. 10 Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís signed a decree making IVF legal after it was banned for 15 years. Credit: Casa Presidencial

A year later, the Court, which is based in the Costa Rican capital, San José, and whose rulings cannot be appealed and are theoretically binding, handed down its verdict.

“The constitutional chamber’s view was not shared by the Court, which considered that protection of life began with the implantation of a fertilised egg in the uterus,” said May.

May and other experts on the case said the position taken by Costa Rica’s highest court responded to the extremely conservative views of the leadership of the Catholic Church, and of other Christian faiths with growing influence in the country.

This Central American nation of 4.7 million people considers itself a standard-bearer of human rights in international forums. But the question of IVF tarnished that image when the conservative sectors took up opposition to it as a cause.

The debate in the legislature on a law to regulate IVF stalled for over two years, due to resistance by evangelical and conservative lawmakers.

In a Sep. 3 public hearing by the Court on compliance with the 2012 ruling, the executive branch said it planned to regulate the procedure by means of a decree, which civil society organisations saw as a reasonable solution to the stalemate over the new law.

“We know that in the legislature there is no way to forge ahead on key issues, such as practically anything to do with sexual and reproductive rights,” Larissa Arroyo, a lawyer who specialises in these rights, told IPS.

Arroyo pointed out that with regard to an issue like IVF, time is of the essence, given that a woman’s childbearing years are limited. She noted that “almost all of the victims lost their chance” to have children using the technique.

In the week between the public hearing and the signing of the presidential decree, the government consulted Costa Rica’s College of Physicians and the CCSS. While both backed the decree, the CCSS clarified that it preferred a law and warned that it would need additional funding, because each fertility treatment costs around 40,000 dollars.

The decree limits the number of fertilised eggs to be implanted to two.

In the same week, the legislative debate became further bogged down. While one group of legislators tried to expedite approval of the law to regulate IVF, another group continued to oppose the procedure as an attack on human life at its origin, likening it to the Jewish holocaust.

“The extermination camps of Nazi Germany are in the Costa Rica of today, the Costa Rica of the Solís administration,” evangelical legislator Gonzalo Ramírez, of the conservative Costa Rican Renewal Party, even said at one point.

Given that outlook and the impasse in the legislature, organisations like the Centre for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) celebrated the decree which offers “universal access” to IVF and “respect for the principle of equality.”

However, CEJIL programme director for Central America and Mexico Marcia Aguiluz recommended waiting until IVF is actually being implemented.

“The decree lives up to the requirements, but it is just a first step,” said Aguiluz, who is from Costa Rica. “Until the practice starts being carried out, we can’t say there has been compliance.”

Lawyers for the presidency said the decree is equipped to withstand legal challenges.

The 2012 ruling is the second handed down against Costa Rica in the history of the Court. The previous one was in 2004, when the Court found that the conviction of journalist Mauricio Herrera by a Costa Rican court on charges of defamation of a diplomat violated free speech, and ordered that the country enact new legislation on freedom of expression.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Faith Leaders Call for Debt Relief to Puerto Rico Mon, 31 Aug 2015 17:16:09 +0000 S. Chandra By S. Chandra
WASHINGTON, Aug 31 2015 (IPS)

Puerto Rico’s religious leaders have called for debt relief of the Caribbean U.S. territory in the face of the 72 billion dollar liability that represents 20,000 dollars of debt for every man, woman and child.

In a statement issued Aug. 31, the clergy called on the U.S. Federal Reserve to intervene if Congress fails to pass bankruptcy protection to the financially-strapped island.

“This debt crisis threatens to push more of our people into poverty and put people out of work,” said San Juan Archbishop Roberto González Nieves, leader of Puerto Rico’s mostly Catholic population.

“The religious community stands with vulnerable people and we call for the crisis to be resolved in a way that protects the poor and grows our economy,” he added.

At a press conference in San Juan, leaders of the major religious groups laid out six principles to resolve the crisis.

“Puerto Rico’s religious leaders are fighting for the lives of their people,” stated Eric LeCompte, executive director of the faith-based development coalition Jubilee USA Network.

Jubilee USA Network is an alliance of more than 75 U.S. organisations and 400 faith communities working with 50 Jubilee global partners. Jubilee’s mission is to build an economy that serves, protects and promotes the participation of the most vulnerable.

LeCompte visited Puerto Rico in mid-August to advise religious and political leaders on solutions to the crisis.  “We need to get Puerto Rico’s debt back to sustainable levels and ensure that the island has a path for economic growth,” he said

Some of the hedge funds, arguing for cuts in Puerto Rico’s economic growth, were or are currently involved in debt disputes in Greece, Argentina and Detroit, Michigan.

Two recent reports, one commissioned by a group of hedge funds which purchased the island’s distressed debt and the other authorised by Puerto Rico’s own government, suggest new austerity plans to pay off portions of the debt.

The reports note a range of “fiscal adjustments”, including reducing the minimum wage, education resources and healthcare costs. One of the principles promoted by the coalition of religious leaders is that any resolution to the financial crisis prevents further austerity plans.

The religious leaders raised concern over predatory hedge fund activity in their statement. Beyond the Catholic Church, other religious groups signing the statement include Methodists, Lutherans, Evangelicals, Pentecostals and the Disciples.

“As religious leaders, we see how desperate the situation is for Puerto Rico’s people,” said Reverend Heriberto Martínez Rivera, secretary-general of Puerto Rico’s Biblical Society and the leader of the religious coalition confronting the debt crisis.

“Too many of our people are already suffering from austerity policies and many brothers and sisters have left for the United States hungry for work and a better quality of life,” he added.

Beyond calling for debt relief and criticising austerity policies, the religious leaders’ statement asserts the need for greater Puerto Rican budget transparency and participation in future debt negotiations by people negatively affected by the crisis.

Edited by Phil Harris   

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Opinion: How Will Wall Street Greet the Pope? Thu, 27 Aug 2015 09:14:17 +0000 Hazel Henderson

Hazel Henderson, author of 'Mapping the Global Transition to the Solar Age' and other books, is President of Ethical Markets Media (USA and Brazil), Certified B Corporation

By Hazel Henderson
ST. AUGUSTINE, Florida, Aug 27 2015 (IPS)

Millions in the New York City area are excited about Pope Francis’ visit on Sep. 25 to address the U.N. General Assembly as worldwide consensus grows on the need to shift global investments from fossil fuels to clean, efficient, renewable energy in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) scheduled to replace the expiring Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). 

Private investments worldwide in the clean energy transition now total 6.22 trillion dollars while successful U.S. students’ divestment networks have forced over 30 college endowments to divest.  Over 200 institutions have divested worldwide, including the U.S. cities of Minneapolis and Seattle, Oxford in the United Kingdom and Dunedin in New Zealand.

Hazel Henderson

Hazel Henderson

The Episcopal Church and the Church of England, in a faith-based consortium, are calling on Pope Francis to urge divestment for all religious and civic groups.  Islamic Climate Change Symposium leaders cited the Quran earlier this month in calling 1.6 billion Muslims to act in phasing out fossil fuels by 2050.

Backlash from traditional Wall Streeters has joined some U.S. Catholic organisations with millions still invested in fossil energy, fracking and oil sands.  The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has guidelines against investing in abortion, contraception, pornography, tobacco and war but is silent on energy stocks.

Reuters reports that Catholic dioceses in Boston, Baltimore, Toledo and much of Minnesota in the United States have millions of dollars in oil and gas stocks, making up between 5-10 percent of their holdings.  It has been reported that Chicago’s Archbishop Blasé Cupich, appointed by Pope Francis, will re-examine over 100 million dollars in fossil fuel investments.

Wall Street is also re-examining its positions on fossil fuels.  A survey of asset managers in Institutional Investor, July 2015, found that 77 percent expected the carbon-divestiture movement to continue and gain momentum.  Yet, Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson has claimed that the models on climate change “aren’t that good” and has no plans to invest in renewable energy.

Recently, many large companies have been calling for and budgeting for carbon pricing – favoured by most economists.  Britain’s BG Group, BP, Italy’s ENI, Shell, Norway’s Statoil and France’s Total sent an open letter to world governments and the United Nations in June asking them to accelerate carbon pricing schemes.The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has guidelines against investing in abortion, contraception, pornography, tobacco and war but is silent on energy stocks

The ethical investing movement now accounts for one-sixth of all holdings on Wall Street and the U.N. Principles of Responsible Investing counts signatory institutions with 59 trillion dollars in assets under management.

Hybrid approaches include venture philanthropy and “impact” investing, while a recent CFA Institute survey found almost three quarters of investment professionals use environmental, social and governance information in their investment decisions.

Against this backdrop, Timothy Smith, pioneer founder of the Interfaith Council on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) and now Senior Vice-President of Walden Asset Management, says that the “visit of the Pope in the wake of his prophetic Encyclical on climate is a clarion call – to ramp up our efforts to combat climate change with concrete actions,” adding that “it’s not the Pope’s job to present a specific game plan for Americans.  That is our job.”

Through ICCR, religious investors have worked for two decades on these issues.  Firms like Walden, Ceres and others have joined up to combat climate change, promoting efficiency and renewable resources.  All this new activity within the climate debate provides the greatest challenge yet to business-as-usual capitalism.

Many financiers in the global casino still see themselves as “masters of the universe” because they control capital flows, most investments, pension funds, influence monetary policies, capture politicians and regulators, while funding friendly academics and think tanks.

The recent jitters of stock markets have again revealed their fragility and the increasing turbulence and volatility caused by computerized algorithms accounting for over half of all activity.  High-frequency trading (HFT), “flash crashes”, are continuing with little regulation.  Foundations are crumbling from these many new challenges as small investors flee. 

Crowdfunding, peer-to-peer lending, local and cryptocurrencies, credit unions and cooperative enterprises are flowering along with hybrid start-ups in the “shareconomy” – AirBnB, Uber, Lyft, Task Rabbit and the growth of farmers markets, swap sites for tools, clothes and second-hand exchanges.

Many reformers of capitalism try to change its culture, of short term gain and speculative trading.  The U.N. Inquiry into the Design of a Sustainable Financial System will release its report to the General Assembly on Sep. 25, with global research on current practices and potential reforms.

A promising new effort to mobilise U.S. public opinion is JUSTCapital, founded by luminaries Deepak Chopra, Arianna Huffington and hedge fund philanthropist Paul Tudor Jones.  CEO Martin Whittaker says: “We are addressing some of the core questions affecting capitalism and corporations in the 21st century.  We are applying policy, research and surveys to define ‘just business behaviour’ in the eye of the public, using this definition to evaluate and rank the performance of the largest publicly traded American companies.”

While such caring financiers are quietly exploring reforms, the biggest threat is the fragility of global market structures from automation, algorithms, HFT and artificial intelligence which financiers still believe they can control.

Yet these same computers can now run markets more efficiently than humans.  Matching and trading buy and sell orders in transparent computerised black boxes makes human traders redundant, as well as reducing insider trading, speculating, front-running, naked short-selling, fixing interest rates and today’s widespread greed and corruption.

Capitalism’s greatest challenge is its reliance on rollercoaster national money systems and currencies.  Central bankers and governments’ tools fail along with economic theories as social movements are now aware of money-printing and the politics of money creation and credit-allocation, revealed in all its favouritism and inequalities.

Edited by Phil Harris   

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS – Inter Press Service. 

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Winning Women a Greater Say in Somaliland’s Policy-Making Thu, 27 Aug 2015 07:45:41 +0000 Katie Riordan Women sport their national pride at the annual Somaliland Independence Day celebration on May 18 in Hargeisa. Advocates argue that a political quota would give women a greater say in their country's policy-making. Credit: Adrian Leversby/IPS

Women sport their national pride at the annual Somaliland Independence Day celebration on May 18 in Hargeisa. Advocates argue that a political quota would give women a greater say in their country's policy-making. Credit: Adrian Leversby/IPS

By Katie Riordan
HARGEISA, Aug 27 2015 (IPS)

Bar Seed is the only female member in Somaliland’s 82-person Parliament, but activists hope upcoming national elections may end her isolation.

Gender equality advocates in the self-declared nation are currently renewing a push for a quota for women in government that has been over a decade in the making.

“The public’s opinion is changing,” says Seed hopefully.

Somaliland, internationally recognised as a region of Somalia and not as an autonomous nation, nonetheless hosts its own elections and has its own president.  It is often hailed as a burgeoning democracy that circumvented Somalia’s fate as a failed state. But noticeably absent from the decision-making process – to the detriment of the country’s development, activists argue – are women. [Somaliland] is often hailed as a burgeoning democracy that circumvented Somalia’s fate as a failed state. But noticeably absent from the decision-making process are women

With only Seed in Parliament, no women in the House of Elders known as the Guurti, and two female ministers and two deputies, supporters argue that a political quota enshrined in law is necessary to correct this gender imbalance.

“Nobody is going to take a silver platter and present it to women. We aren’t being shy anymore, we are saying: you want my vote? Then earn it,” says Edna Adan, a former foreign minister in Somaliland and founder of the Edna Anan University Hospital, a facility dedicated to addressing gender issues such as female genital mutation (FGM).

Adan has witnessed the debate about women in government evolve over the years, playing out as a political game often filled with empty promises to appoint more women in positions of power.  A measure to enact a political quota has twice failed to pass Somaliland’s legislature, once shot down by Parliament and once stymied by the Guurti.

But Adan believes conditions have ripened for women to make a final push for a quota as they have become more organised and strategic in their lobbying efforts.

While some accuse advocates of “settling” for their current demand of a reserved 10 percent of seats – meaning women would only run against women for eight spots in Parliament – Adan counters that setting the bar higher at the moment is unrealistic.

In addition to pushing for this 10 percent clause in an election law that Parliament is slated to review and debate in the coming months, advocates are also lobbying political parties to have voluntary quotas for their list of parliamentary candidates for seats outside those exclusively reserved for women.

A disputed extension decision made in May that postponed Somaliland’s elections for president, parliament and local councils until at least the end of 2016 and as late as spring 2017 drew the ire of the international community and much of civil society including organisations backing a women’s political quota.  Critics say the extension calls into question Somaliland’s commitment to a democratic process.

But the extra time may prove to be a silver lining for quota lobbyists. It could give them leverage to force politicians to prove their adherence to building an inclusive government in order to appear favourable to their constituents and the international community by pushing for more women in government.

“Women have threatened the parties that if they don’t support us, then we will not support them,” says Seed, who is a member of the Waddani Party, one of Somaliland’s two current opposition parties.

However, she explains that parties often publicly support ideas and mechanisms that push for gender parity but have a poor track record of following through with them. In many ways they have not been obliged to because, historically, women have not voted for other women in meaningful numbers.

“So they know it’s a bit of any empty threat but some are frightened [they could lose female votes],” Seed adds.

Also standing in the way of women is Somaliland’s deeply entrenched tribal and clan system that overshadows politics. In order to win elections, individuals need the support of clan leaders who sway the vote of members of their tribe, explains Seed. But since men are viewed as the stronger candidate, women rarely received clan endorsement.

A woman’s position is also unique in that she often has claims to two clans, the one she is born into and the one that she marries into, though this rarely works to her advantage.

“If a woman goes on to become a minister, both clans would claim her, but if she asks for help, they both tell her to go to the other clan,” said Nura Jamal Hussein, a women’s advocate who is contemplating running for political office.

The Nagaad Network, a local NGO dedicated to the political, economic and social empowerment of women, has been the buttress of the push for a quota. Its current director, Nafisa Mohamed, says that convincing women – who, according to some estimates, are about 60 percent of the voting bloc – to vote for women will be crucial to defying the status quo.

Given the cultural and religious barriers that women contend with, that status quo will be incredibly difficult to change, she says. Mohamed counts small victories like a change in hard-line religious preaching that denounced women’s presence in politics. She says approaching spiritual leaders on an individual basis to garner their support has proved fruitful and that they are generally warming to the idea of women in government.

But the power of religion in shaping public opinion is still palpable.

Mohamed Ali has served in Parliament since it was last elected in 2005. He backs legislation for a quota for women in government.  But asked if a woman could be president, he says it would be contrary to the teachings of the Quran, a view shared by many that IPS talked to.

While he hesitantly admits that he may one day change his views, he says others would accuse him of “not knowing one’s religion” if he advocated a woman for president.

Critics have brushed the quota off as an import from the West and an unnecessary measure that is pushing for change that a country may not be ready to undertake. Some also question if it will genuinely result in its desired effect that political empowerment for women will trickle down to other aspects of life.

Amina Farah Arshe, an entrepreneur, believes that if there was greater focus on economic empowerment for women, more political representation would naturally follow.

“I hate quotas. I want women to vote for themselves without it,” she says.  “But the current situation will not allow for that so we still need it.”

Edited by Phil Harris   

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Islamic Declaration Turns Up Heat Ahead of Paris Climate Talks Wed, 19 Aug 2015 18:39:07 +0000 Kitty Stapp Mohammed Rashid Qabbani, the Grand Mufti of Lebanon, was one of the signers of the Islamic Declaration on Climate. Credit:

Mohammed Rashid Qabbani, the Grand Mufti of Lebanon, was one of the signers of the Islamic Declaration on Climate. Credit:

By Kitty Stapp
NEW YORK, Aug 19 2015 (IPS)

Following in the footsteps of Pope Francis, who has taken a vocal stance on climate change, Muslim leaders and scholars from 20 countries issued a joint declaration Tuesday underlining the severity of the problem and urging governments to commit to 100 percent renewable energy or a zero emissions strategy.

Notably, it calls on oil-rich, wealthy Muslim countries to lead the charge in phasing out fossil fuels “no later than the middle of the century.”

The call to action, which draws on Islamic teachings, was adopted at an International Islamic Climate Change Symposium in Istanbul.

“Our species, though selected to be a caretaker or steward (khalifah) on the earth, has been the cause of such corruption and devastation on it that we are in danger ending life as we know it on our planet,” the Islamic Declaration on Climate statement says.

“This current rate of climate change cannot be sustained, and the earth’s fine equilibrium (mīzān) may soon be lost…We call on all groups to join us in collaboration, co-operation and friendly competition in this endeavor and we welcome the significant contributions taken by other faiths, as we can all be winners in this race.”

The symposium’s goal was to reach “broad unity and ownership from the Islamic community around the Declaration.”

Welcoming the declaration, UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres said, “A clean energy, sustainable future for everyone ultimately rests on a fundamental shift in the understanding of how we value the environment and each other.

“Islam’s teachings, which emphasize the duty of humans as stewards of the Earth and the teacher’s role as an appointed guide to correct behavior, provide guidance to take the right action on climate change.”

Supporters of the Islamic Declaration included the grand muftis of Uganda and Lebanon and government representatives from Turkey and Morocco.

The UNFCCC notes that religious leaders of all faiths have been stepping up the pressure on governments to drastically cut carbon dioxide emissions and help poorer countries adapt to the challenges of climate change, with a key international climate treaty set to be negotiated in Paris this December.

In June, Pope Francis released a papal encyclical letter, in which he called on the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics to join the fight against climate change.

The Church of England’s General Synod recently urged world leaders to agree on a roadmap to a low carbon future, and is among a number of Christian groups promising to redirect their resources into clean energy.

Hindu leaders will release their own statement later this year, and the Buddhist community plans to step up engagement this year building on a Buddhist Declaration on climate change. Hundreds of rabbis released a Rabbinic Letter on the Climate Crisis.

The Dalai Lama has also frequently spoken of the need for action on climate change, linking it to the need for reforms to the global economic system.

Interfaith groups have been cooperating throughout the year. The Vatican convened a Religions for Peace conference in the Vatican in April, and initiatives such as our Our Voices network are building coalitions in the run-up to Paris.

Reacting to the Islamic Declaration, the World Wildlife Fund’s Global Climate and Energy Initiative Head of Low Carbon Frameworks, Tasneem Essop, said, “The message from the Islamic leaders and scholars boosts the moral aspects of the global climate debate and marks another significant display of climate leadership by faith-based groups.

“Climate change is no longer just a scientific issue; it is increasingly a moral and ethical one. It affects the lives, livelihoods and rights of everyone, especially the poor, marginalised and most vulnerable communities.”

Edited by Kanya D’ Almeida

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Opinion: The Writing on the Western Wall Wed, 19 Aug 2015 17:40:57 +0000 Joseph Chamie Western wall in Jerusalem at night. Credit: Wayne McLean/cc by 2.0

Western wall in Jerusalem at night. Credit: Wayne McLean/cc by 2.0

By Joseph Chamie

The writing on the Western Wall is evident to most Israelis: “דמוגרפיה היא גורל” or “demography is destiny”. Those unwilling to acknowledge the prophetic message are either deceiving themselves or simply ignoring it in order to avoid facing the implications of demography for Israel’s future.

In order to be both a Jewish and democratic state, Israel has adhered to a clear demographic principle:  maintain an overwhelming Jewish majority. During the first few decades following its establishment in 1948, the proportions Jewish among the several million Israelis remained at record highs of nearly 90 percent (Figure 1).In the immediate aftermath of the two-state solution’s formal demise, Israel will try to avoid facing demographic realities and maintain an untenable status quo.

Since then, even with the large-scale Jewish immigration from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, the Jewish proportion in Israel, while still a sizeable majority, has declined steadily. Today the proportion Jewish among the Israeli population of more than eight million is at an historic low of 75 percent.

Although the country’s Jewish majority will likely continue to decline slightly over the next 20 years, it is expected to remain over 70 percent according to official Israeli population projections. Those projections, however, assume that no significant numbers of non-Jews outside pre-1967 Israel are granted Israeli citizenship. If this assumption is relaxed, very different demographic futures emerge for Israel.

The Israeli population, for example, could be combined with the Palestinian populations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to form a single state with universal suffrage, in other words the one-state solution. While the expanded nation would continue to be democratic in principle, it would no longer be a Jewish state because the majority of the enlarged Israeli population would no longer be Jewish.

Source: Israel Central Bureaus of Statistics and United Nations Population Division

Source: Israel Central Bureaus of Statistics and United Nations Population Division

A more likely possibility perhaps would be for the Palestinians in the West Bank to be granted Israeli citizenship. At least during the first couple of decades of such a scenario, Jewish Israelis would retain their majority, being slightly above half of the total population.

However, after several decades, Jewish Israelis would likely turn out to be the minority due to higher rates of demographic growth among their non-Jewish compatriots. Here again, an expanded Israel enfranchising large numbers of non-Jews would continue to be a democracy but would eventually cease to be a predominantly Jewish state.

The current Israeli government does not envisage the establishment of a Palestinian state any time in the foreseeable future. Although some Israeli politicians have called for the creation of a separate Palestinian state in the occupied territories, key Israeli government officials and their pivotal supporters believe that it would be collective suicide for Israel to permit the establishment of a Palestinian state. They prefer to annex West Bank land, or Judea and Samaria using their terminology, which some contend is already the de facto case.

In addition, a majority of the Israeli public view reaching a peace agreement with a two-state solution as a pipedream and many are opposed to a two-state solution. Any support voiced by Israelis for a two-state solution invariably evaporates when the details of a possible peace agreement are spelled out, such as the sharing of Jerusalem, removing Israeli settlements or returning to some pre-1967 borders.

Also, more than 120 government-approved Israeli settlements and 100 unofficial ones have been established in the West Bank. The growing Israeli settler population in East Jerusalem and the West Bank is estimated at approximately 750,000. In the West Bank alone, the number of settlers has more than doubled since 1995 to about 400,000.

It appears highly unlikely that Israel will be able to withdraw its Jewish settlers from the occupied land as it did in 2005 when it withdrew with some difficulty about 9,000 Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip.

Despite the government’s opposition, public resistance and the ever-expanding demographic facts on the occupied ground, the two-state solution continues to be kept on life support largely through the sponsorship, funds and hopes of the international community, in particular the United States and its Western allies.

The ostensible reason for keeping this all-but-dead diplomatic path alive is to avoid confronting the inevitable alternatives to the failed attempts to establish a separate Palestinian state.

Soon, however, the two-state solution will be given its formal funeral, especially as peace talks have collapsed and the Israeli occupation is approaching its 50th anniversary. When this happens, the options remaining for the Israelis will be limited and difficult with the one-state solution with its eventual Palestinian majority loudly knocking at Israel’s front doorstep.

In the immediate aftermath of the two-state solution’s formal demise, Israel will try to avoid facing demographic realities and maintain an untenable status quo. The Israeli government will likely continue to enforce its costly and troubling occupation and control over millions of Palestinians, expand and increase Jewish settlements and consolidate its presence and authority throughout Jerusalem. However, those and related acts will in all likelihood only exacerbate an already vexing and volatile situation.

Attempts to preserve the status quo will lead to the numerous Jewish settlements becoming increasingly entrenched and entangled in the West Bank. The living conditions and disposition of the Palestinians in the occupied territories will worsen and their human rights concerns can be expected to rise to the top of the international community’s political agenda.

Israeli administrative decisions, Knesset bills and judicial pronouncements can neither dismiss nor repeal the laws of demography. No doubt some will choose to challenge the numbers and their significance, contending that under any foreseeable demographic circumstances Israel will remain a democratic and Jewish nation.

Inevitably, however, and likely sooner rather than later the Israeli government will be obliged to acknowledge the writing on the Western Wall and address demography’s decisive implications for the future of Israel.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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U.N. to Unleash “Power of Education” to Fight Intolerance, Racism Wed, 12 Aug 2015 13:41:34 +0000 Thalif Deen The Pakistani Taliban destroyed over 838 schools between 2009 and 2012. Credit: Kulsum Ebrahim/IPS

The Pakistani Taliban destroyed over 838 schools between 2009 and 2012. Credit: Kulsum Ebrahim/IPS

By Thalif Deen

The United Nations is planning to launch a global campaign against the spread of intolerance, extremism, racism and xenophobia — largely by harnessing the talents of the younger generation.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pointedly says education is the key. “If you want to understand the power of education, just look at how the extremists fight education.”“What they fear most are girls and young people with textbooks.” -- U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

They wanted to kill the Pakistani teenage activist, Malala Yousafzai and her friends because they were girls who wanted to go to school, he said.

Violent extremists kidnapped more than 200 girls in Chibook, Nigeria, and scores of students were murdered in Garissa, Kenya and in Peshawar, Pakistan.

“What they fear most are girls and young people with textbooks,” said Ban, who will soon announce “a comprehensive Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism,” along with the creation of an advisory panel of religious leaders to promote interfaith dialogue.

The proposed plan is expected to be presented to the 70th session of the General Assembly which begins the third week of September.

As part of the campaign against intolerance and extremism, the U.N.’s Department of Public Information (DPI) recently picked 10 projects from young people from around the world, in what was billed as a “Diversity Contest,” singling out creative approaches to help address a wide range of discrimination, prejudice and extremism.

The projects, selected from over 100 entries from 31 countries, include challenging homophobia in India and Mexico; resolving conflicts to access water to decrease ethnic conflict in Burundi; promoting interfaith harmony in Pakistan; encouraging greater acceptance of migrant populations in South Africa and promoting greater employment opportunities to Muslim women in Germany.

Lara-Zuzan Golesorkhi, a PhD student and instructor at the New School in New York who submitted one of the prize-winning projects, told IPS she seeks to address one of the most discussed political issues in contemporary Germany: integration of Muslim immigrants.

At the centre of these discussions, Golesorkhi said, lies the so-called ‘veil debate’, which was brought about by the Ludin case in 1998.

That year, Fereshta Ludin (the daughter of Afghan immigrants) was rejected from a teaching position in the state’s public school system on the alleged basis of “lack of personal aptitude” that made her “unsuitable and unable to perform the duties of a public servant in accordance with German Basic Law.”

The endless dispute between Ludin and the German judicial system led to the inauguration of institutionalised state-based unveiling policies for public school teachers across Germany.

These policies have been in effect in eight states and have just recently been called into question on the federal level with a court decision that demands respective states to revise the inherently discriminatory policies, said Golesorkhi.

The DPI says Golesorkhi will return to Germany to challenge the perceived discrimination against Muslim women.

She will ask potential employers to symbolically pledge to hire Muslim women. She will also produce a list of those employers so that women can feel safe and empowered to apply to those work places.

The end result is to help decrease discrimination and increase the employment of Muslim women in Germany.

The New York Times, quoting the Religious Studies Media and Information Service in Germany, reported last month that Muslims make up around 5.0 percent of the population of 81 million, compared with 49 million Christians.

The newspaper focused on the growing controversy related to the renovation of an abandoned church in the working class district of Horn in Hamburg – where the “derelict building was being converted into a mosque.”

“The church stood empty for 10 years, and no one cared,” Daniel Abdin, the director of the Islamic Centre Al Nour in Hamburg told the Times, “But when Muslims bought it, suddenly it became a topic of interest.”

Golesorkhi told IPS her ‘With or Without’ (WoW) non-profit organisation, in its most abstract form, is aimed at addressing the intersection of two crucial aspects in the German polity: immigration and religion.

Immigration and religion have played a significant role in the nation building process of Germany, specifically in terms of the country’s laws and diverse social composition, as well as the development of anti-Muslim sentiments (Islamophobia) and discriminatory acts against Muslims (particularly since 9/11).

She said the population of Muslims in Germany has increased from about 2.5 million in 1990 to 4.1 million in 2010 and is expected to grow to nearly 5.5 million Muslims in 2030.

The top three countries of origin for Muslim immigrants are Turkey, the former Yugoslavia, and Morocco.

This significant and continuously growing presence of Muslims has led to varied responses by state and society, she noted.

Though the large majority (72 percent) of those interviewed in a 2008 study claimed that “people from minority groups enrich cultural life of this country”, Muslims are the least desirable neighbours, as data from the same year shows.

Further, 23 percent of German interviewees, she said, associated Muslims with terror, while 16 percent viewed the hijab, the Muslim head scarf, as a threat to European culture.

In the latest study on anti-Muslim sentiments conducted by the Bertelsman Stiftung in late 2014, 57 percent of non-Muslim interviewees reported they perceive Islam as very threatening.

The study also disclosed that 24 percent of the interviewees would like to prohibit Muslim immigration to Germany and an overwhelming 61 percent said they think Islam does not belong to the ‘Western’ world.

Particularly alarming, in the very recent context of anti-Muslim sentiments, she noted, is the continuously growing PEGIDA (Patriotrische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes), which rejects the alleged “Islamisation” of Europe and demands an overhaul of immigration policy.

Golesorkhi’s project includes a ‘Job Ready’ seminar and workshop series to prepare Muslim women for the German job market; “I Pledge Campaign”, an online and offline campaign (Twitter and photo series) to encourage employers to symbolically pledge to hire Muslim women; and an online and offline campaign (Twitter and photo series) to raise public awareness of difficulties faced by Muslim women in the German employment sector.

While the pledge does not guarantee employment, it allows WoW to produce a database of employers that would hire Muslim women.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at

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Pope Francis Joins Battle Against Transgenic Crops Tue, 11 Aug 2015 06:51:30 +0000 Emilio Godoy There is no papal bull on transgenic crops in Laudato Si, the second encyclical of Pope Francis, “on the care of our common home” – planet earth. Credit: Norberto Miguel/IPS

There is no papal bull on transgenic crops in Laudato Si, the second encyclical of Pope Francis, “on the care of our common home” – planet earth. Credit: Norberto Miguel/IPS

By Emilio Godoy
MEXICO CITY, Aug 11 2015 (IPS)

A few centuries ago, the biotechnology industry would have been able to buy a papal bull to expiate its sins and grant it redemption. But in his encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Si”, Pope Francis condemns genetically modified organisms (GMOs) without leaving room for a pardon.

In his second encyclical since he became pope on Mar. 13, 2013 – but the first that is entirely his work – Jorge Mario Bergoglio criticises the social, economic and agricultural impacts of GMOs and calls for a broad scientific debate.

Laudato Si – “Praise be to you, my Lord” in medieval Italian – takes its title from Saint Francis of Assisi’s 13th-century Canticle of the Sun, one of whose verses is: “Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth, who feeds us and rules us, and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.”

It is the first encyclical in history dedicated to the environment and reflecting on “our common home” – planet earth.“In many places, following the introduction of these crops, productive land is concentrated in the hands of a few owners due to ‘the progressive disappearance of small producers, who, as a consequence of the loss of the exploited lands, are obliged to withdraw from direct production’.” – Laudato Si

The encyclical, which was published Jun. 18, acknowledges that “no conclusive proof exists that GM cereals may be harmful to human beings.” But it stresses that “there remain a number of significant difficulties which should not be underestimated.”

“In many places, following the introduction of these crops, productive land is concentrated in the hands of a few owners due to ‘the progressive disappearance of small producers, who, as a consequence of the loss of the exploited lands, are obliged to withdraw from direct production’,” it adds.

As a result, says the first Latin American pope, farmers are driven to become temporary labourers, many rural workers end up in urban slums, ecosystems are destroyed, and “oligopolies” expand in the production of cereals and inputs needed for their cultivation.

Francis calls for “A broad, responsible scientific and social debate…one capable of considering all the available information and of calling things by their name” because “It sometimes happens that complete information is not put on the table; a selection is made on the basis of particular interests, be they politico-economic or ideological.”

Such a debate on GMOs is missing, and the biotech industry has refused to open up its databases to verify whether or not transgenic crops are innocuous.

According to the encyclical, “Discussions are needed in which all those directly or indirectly affected (farmers, consumers, civil authorities, scientists, seed producers, people living near fumigated fields, and others) can make known their problems and concerns, and have access to adequate and reliable information in order to make decisions for the common good, present and future.”

Miguel Concha, a Catholic priest who heads the Fray Francisco de Vitoria Human Rights Centre in Mexico, said this country “is already a reference point in the fight for the right to a healthy environment, due to the determined efforts of social organisations. This encyclical reinforces our collective demand,” he told Tierramérica.

The priest said the encyclical warns of the social, economic, legal and ethical implications of transgenic crops, just as environmentalists in Mexico have done for years.

In a local market in Mexico, María Solís shows the different colours of native maize that she grows. Native crops are threatened by attempts to introduce large-scale commercial planting of GM maize in the country. Credit: Emilio Godoy/IPS

In a local market in Mexico, María Solís shows the different colours of native maize that she grows. Native crops are threatened by attempts to introduce large-scale commercial planting of GM maize in the country. Credit: Emilio Godoy/IPS

The document holds special importance for nations like Mexico, which have been the scene of intense battles over transgenic crops – in this country mainly maize, which has special cultural significance here, besides being the basis of the local diet.

That is also true for Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, which together with southern Mexico form Mesoamérica, the seat of the ancient Maya civilisation.

The pope is familiar with the impact of transgenic crops, because according to experts his home country, Argentina, is the Latin American nation where GMOs have done the most to alter traditional agriculture.

Soy – 98 percent of which is transgenic – is Argentina’s leading crop, covering 31 million hectares, up from just 4.8 million hectares in 1990, according to the soy industry association, ACSOJA.

The monoculture crop has displaced local producers, fuelled the concentration of land, and created “a vicious circle that is highly dangerous for the sustainability of our production systems,” Argentine agronomist Carlos Toledo told Tierramérica.

Just 10 countries account for nearly all production of GMOs: the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, India, China, Paraguay, South Africa, Pakistan and Uruguay, in that order. Most of the production goes to the animal feed industry, but Mexico wants GM maize to be used for human consumption.

In July 2013, 53 individuals and 20 civil society organisations mounted a collective legal challenge against applications to commercially plant transgenic maize, and in September of that year a federal judge granted a precautionary ban on such authorisations.

Since March 2014, organisations of beekeepers and indigenous communities have won two further provisional protection orders against commercial transgenic soybean crops in the southeastern states of Campeche and Yucatán.

On Apr. 30, 2014, eight scientists from six countries sent an open letter to Pope Francis about the negative environmental, economic, agricultural, cultural and social impacts of GM seeds, especially in Mexico.

In their letter, the experts stated: “…we believe that it would be of momentous importance and great value to all if Your Holiness were to express yourself critically on GM crops and in support of peasant farming. This support would go a long way toward saving peoples and the planet from the threat posed by the control of life wielded by companies that monopolise seeds, which are the key to the entire food web…”

Laudato Si indicates that the pope did listen to their plea.

“The encyclical is very encouraging, because it has expressed an ecological position,” Argelia Arriaga, a professor at the University Centre for Disaster Prevention of the Autonomous University of Puebla, told Tierramérica. “It touches sensitive fibers; the situation is terrible and merits papal intervention. This gives us moral support to continue the struggle.”

But legal action has failed to curb the biotech industry’s ambitions in Mexico.

In 2014, the National Service for Agri-Food Health, Safety and Quality (SENASICA) received four applications from the biotech industry and public research centres for experimental planting of maize on nearly 10 hectares of land.

In addition, there were 30 requests for pilot projects involving experimental and commercial planting of GM cotton on a total of 1.18 million hectares – as well as one application for beans, five for wheat, three for lemons and one for soy – all experimental.

SENASICA is also processing five biotech industry requests for planting more than 200,000 hectares of GM cotton and alfalfa for commercial and experimental purposes.

“This is an economic and development model that ignores food production,” said Concha, the priest who heads the Fray Francisco de Vitoria Human Rights Centre.

The participants in the collective lawsuit against GMOs, having successfully gotten federal courts to throw out 22 stays brought by the government and companies against the legal decision to temporarily suspend permits for planting, are now getting ready for a trial that will decide the future of transgenic crops in the country.

Arriaga noted that the focus of the encyclical goes beyond GM crops, and extends to other environmental struggles. “For people in local communities, the pope’s message is important, because it tells them they have to take care of nature and natural resources. It helps raise awareness,” the professor said.

This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Pakistan One of the World’s First Safe Havens for Refugees Tue, 04 Aug 2015 16:28:14 +0000 Thalif Deen A group of refugee women and their children await the arrival of Secretary-General Kofi Annan at the Shamshatoo camp in December 2001. The camp, at a frontier province in north-west Pakistan, served as temporary home to some 70,000 Afghan refugees fleeing fighting between the United Front and the Taliban. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

A group of refugee women and their children await the arrival of Secretary-General Kofi Annan at the Shamshatoo camp in December 2001. The camp, at a frontier province in north-west Pakistan, served as temporary home to some 70,000 Afghan refugees fleeing fighting between the United Front and the Taliban. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

By Thalif Deen

The United Nations has declared that 2015 is already “the deadliest year” for millions of migrants and asylum seekers fleeing war and persecution in their countries.

“Worldwide, one in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum,” says the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)."Even as the current challenges are unprecedented in scope and nature, they call for responses that are anchored in the values of compassion and empathy and living up to our collective humanitarian responsibility.” -- Ambassador Maleeha Lodhi

But one of the least publicised facts is that Pakistan was one of the world’s first countries to provide safe haven for millions of refugees fleeing a military conflict in a neighbouring country: Afghanistan.

According to UNHCR, Pakistan has been hosting over 1.5 million registered Afghan refugees — the largest protracted refugee population globally—since the 1980s Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Currently, Turkey ranks at number one, hosting more than 1.7 million registered refugees, mostly from war-devastated Syria, with Pakistan at number two and Jordan ranking third with over 800,000 refugees.

Developing countries now host over 86 percent of the world’s refugees, compared to 70 percent about 10 years ago.

Asked how her country coped with that crisis in the 1980s, Pakistan’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Ambassador Maleeha Lodhi told IPS Pakistan actually hosted well over 3.0 million refugees when the numbers fleeing conflict peaked in 1990.

A 2005 census confirmed that figure, of which 1.5 million are registered while the rest are undocumented.

“The United Nations and the international community have played an important role in support of Pakistan’s efforts to look after our Afghan brothers and sisters,” she said.

“But a great deal of this effort has been met from our own modest resources because we see this to be our humanitarian responsibility,” said Dr Lodhi, a former journalist with a doctorate from the London School of Economics and who has had a distinguished career as Pakistan’s High Commissioner to the UK and Ambassador to the United States.

“It is the people of Pakistan who have shown exemplary generosity and compassion in embracing the Afghan refugees and extending help and support to them, and that too for over three decades,” she added.

As the UNHCR report notes, she said, Pakistan remains the world’s second largest refugee-hosting country. “I would add that in terms of the protracted presence of refugees, it is still the world’s top refugee-hosting country.”

At a U.N. panel discussion on “the plight of refugees and migrants” last week, she said: “We never tried to turn any back, nor did we erect barriers or walls but embraced them as part of our humanitarian duty.”

As hundreds and thousands of refugees continue to flee to Europe, some of the European countries have tried either to limit the number or bar them completely.

Peter Sutherland, a U.N. special representative for international migration, is quoted as saying the attempt to bar migrants and refugees, mostly from Syria, Libya, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan and Afghanistan, is “a xenophobic response to the issue of free movement.”

The humanitarian crisis has spilled over into Europe, mostly Germany, with about 175,000 claims by asylum seekers, compared with 25,000 claims in the UK last year.

According to the United Nations, the 28-member European Union (EU) received 570,800 claims from asylum seekers in 2014, an increase of nearly 44 percent over 2013.

The crisis point, according to the New York Times, is one of Britain’s main traffic-clogged highways where migrants make their way through the Channel Tunnel from the French port city of Calais.

“The British are blaming the French, the French are blaming the British, and both are blaming the European Union for an incoherent policy toward the thousands of people, many of them fleeing political horrors at home, who are trying to find jobs and a better future for themselves and their families in Europe,” the Times said.

As his country vowed emergency steps to resolve the refugee crisis on the home front, Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann said last week shelter for refugees was a human right the country was legally and morally obligated to provide.

Austria, with a population of about 8.5 million, has received over 28,000 asylum claims in the first half of this year, slightly more than the total for 2014.

In 2014, up to 3,072 migrants are believed to have died in the Mediterranean, compared with an estimate of 700 in 2013, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

Globally, IOM estimates that at least 4,077 migrants died in 2014, and at least 40,000 since the year 2000.

“The true number of fatalities is likely to be higher, as many deaths occur in remote regions of the world and are never recorded. Some experts have suggested that for every dead body discovered, there are at least two others that are never recovered,” said IOM.

Asked about lessons learnt, Ambassador Lodhi told IPS “even as the current challenges are unprecedented in scope and nature, they call for responses that are anchored in the values of compassion and empathy and living up to our collective humanitarian responsibility.”

She said these challenges also require a spirit of generosity and to never turn away from the needs of those who are so tragically displaced by circumstances of war, poverty or persecution.

“This spirit should shape our policies, inform our strategies, as well as empower the institutions of global governance and create conditions that can address the drivers and underlying reasons for such displacements,” she added.

At the panel discussion, Ambassador Lodhi pointed out that more than half of the world’s refugees today are children, a number that has risen steadily, up from 41 per cent in 2009, and the highest figure in over a decade.

This only magnifies the scale of the tragedy at hand, she added.

The recent and ongoing surge of forced displacement has been accompanied by the tragic loss of lives. Thousands of men, women and children have drowned in the Mediterranean.

And in East Asia, she said, thousands of Rohingya Muslims have been reported dead or missing as they made their journeys of escape from persecution, confinement and waves of deadly violence directed at them.

“How has the international community responded to all of this?” she said. “By, frankly, not doing enough and not acting decisively in the face of this humanitarian emergency. The international community – to its shame – has ignored massive human suffering in the past. We are reminded of Rwanda and Srebrenica, among other crises.”

And the current crisis of refugees could mark a new flag of shame, she declared.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at

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Churches Seek to Amplify Echo of Hiroshima and Nagasaki Mon, 03 Aug 2015 18:56:27 +0000 Gustavo Capdevila The Atomic Bomb Dome serves as a memorial to the people who died in the Aug. 6, 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, Japan. The building was the only structure left standing near the bomb’s hypocentre. Credit: Courtesy of Barbara Dunlap-Berg, UMNS

The Atomic Bomb Dome serves as a memorial to the people who died in the Aug. 6, 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, Japan. The building was the only structure left standing near the bomb’s hypocentre. Credit: Courtesy of Barbara Dunlap-Berg, UMNS

By Gustavo Capdevila
GENEVA, Aug 3 2015 (IPS)

The accounts of survivors of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki will serve as inspiration for leaders of Christian churches grouped in the World Council of Churches (WCC), which advocates the elimination of nuclear weapons.

A delegation of members of churches from Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Pakistan, South Korea and the United States are making a pilgrimage to the two Japanese cities annihilated by atomic bombs dropped by the United States on Aug. 6 and 9, 1945.

“The generation of survivors of the atomic bombings are in their eighties, those that survived. And this generation is passing,” said Peter Prove, director of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs of the Geneva-based WCC, the largest and most international ecumenical body.

“But these are the real witnesses, those who could give testimony about the human impact of atomic weapons. And I think that we need to capture that moment and to amplify it,” he told IPS.

Bishop Mary-Ann Swenson of the United Methodist Church of the United States said “We will be in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to remember the horror of the atomic bomb.”

“As we gather in places devastated by the deadliest of weapons 70 years ago, we are aware that 40 governments still rely on nuclear weapons,” said Swenson, who is heading the pilgrimage.

“Nine states possess nuclear arsenals and 31 other states are willing to have the United States use nuclear weapons on their behalf,” she added.

Prove explained that the members of the delegation were carefully selected.

“The members of this delegation for this programmed visit are very strategically chosen. They come from countries that are nuclear powers, either historic ones from the War World Two period (1939-1945), like the USA, or more recent ones, like Pakistan, from outside the NPT (Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons) framework,” he said.

The rest of the delegations come from the group of 31 countries mentioned by Swenson: “…so-called ‘nuclear umbrella states’. States that are not nuclear armed themselves but who rely upon protection, if I can use that term, from other nuclear powers, in this case the U.S. especially,” Prove added.

The aim of the pilgrimage is for senior leaders of churches from the seven countries to experience the 70th anniversary of the bombings and to meet the Hibakushas, as the survivors are known.

On their return, “they will convey that message of human impact back to their own governments, back to their own communities, in the interest of trying to make the case for a legal ban on nuclear weapons,” Prove said.

The delegates will have to “point out that there is a legal gap, that all other major categories of weapons of mass destruction have a legal ban….which isn’t the case for nuclear weapons.”

“Churches are good networks for doing that, in their own communities and vis-à-vis their own governments in many countries,” said Prove.

The WCC delegation will meet with Hibakushas and with religious and social figures from Japan during the activities and ceremonies to mark the 70th anniversary, whose central events will be held Aug. 6 in Hiroshima and Aug. 9 in Nagasaki.

The U.S. atomic attack left around 66,000 dead and 69,000 injured in Hiroshima – a total of 135,000 victims. In Nagasaki there were 64,000 victims: 39,000 killed and 25,000 injured.

With respect to the second phase of the church mission to Japan – advocating a ban on nuclear weapons in the rest of the world – Prove said the WCC’s strength is primarily its network of member churches around the world, much more than the Secretariat in Geneva.

“We do represent one quarter of global Christianity, 500 million people in 120 countries. So the real activity will be the extent to which those church leaders and their churches follow up with their own governments,” he said.

“And that would vary from country to country. Obviously a Norwegian church leader potentially has much greater access to influence their government than let’s say, a Pakistani church leader might do relative to their government.

“The World Council of Churches is itself a product of the post War World II period. It’s precisely because of the shock of the atrocities of the destruction of War World II that the WCC really ultimately came into existence,” Prove said.

“So, it’s a reaction to the genocide, to the Holocaust, it’s a reaction to the atomic bombings, it’s a reaction to global war and conflict in general.”

“The WCC has had a long-term commitment to working with civil society partners for nuclear disarmament, for the elimination of nuclear weapons,” he said.

“The lack of success in that project is really a function of the dysfunctionality of the international architecture for those processes,” he maintained.

As an example, he pointed to the collapse of the NPT review conference – the main nuclear disarmament negotiations – held Apr. 27-May 22 at United Nations headquarters in New York.

“The mechanisms for controlling and eliminating nuclear weapons do not function because they are in the hands of those states with an interest in maintaining nuclear weapons,” said Prove.

The WCC supports the global majority of states – 113 – that have signed the humanitarian pledge calling for a legal ban on nuclear weapons.

“So we have achieved a majority of states in support of this ban and we want to encourage a negotiation process for a legal ban on nuclear weapons. And we are hoping that this majority of states will exert their majority in that process,” he added.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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U.N. Panel Spotlights Plight of Refugees Fri, 31 Jul 2015 22:03:15 +0000 Nora Happel Ramatou Wallet Madouya (r) and her sister Fatma (l) in Goudebo camp, Burkina Faso on Feb. 14, 2013. They are two of many Malians who fled the fighting in their country. Credit: Marc-André Boisvert/IPS

Ramatou Wallet Madouya (r) and her sister Fatma (l) in Goudebo camp, Burkina Faso on Feb. 14, 2013. They are two of many Malians who fled the fighting in their country. Credit: Marc-André Boisvert/IPS

By Nora Happel

“Let us remember that behind every story, every figure, every number, there is a person – a girl, a boy, a parent, a family,” Anne Christine Eriksson, Acting Director of the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said at a panel discussion at the U.N. on Thursday.

Amidst the rising numbers of people forced to flee their homes, the event, titled on “The Plight of Refugees and Migrants: Assessing Global Trends and Humanitarian Responses,” aimed at raising awareness of the current global refugee crisis and discussing the most important challenges linked to it as well as ideas on how to tackle it.

As emphasised throughout the discussion, worldwide displacement is at the highest level ever recorded due to new and ongoing conflicts, persecution and poverty. According to UNHCR’s recently released annual “Global Trends Report: World at War”, the number of people forcibly displaced reached a record high of 59.5 million by the end of 2014. This number was 51.2 million one year earlier and only 37.5 million a decade ago.

Apart from that, 2015 has also proven to be the deadliest year for migrants and asylum seekers. Over 900 migrants died in just a single incident in April 2015. One month later, thousands of fleeing Rohingya muslims were facing death from starvation in East Asia.

The international response to such crises has been inadequate, Maleeha Lodhi, Permanent Representative of Pakistan, said in her opening remarks.

“The international community to its shame has ignored massive human suffering in the past and the U.N. is not without blame in this regard. We are reminded of Rwanda and Srebrenica among other crises. And the current crisis of refugees could mark a new flag of shame.”

Speaking about challenges in addressing the global refugee crisis, participants and panelists highlighted in particular the strains on refugee-hosting countries in terms of infrastructure and education. Fears were also expressed that the mass movements would lead to spill-over effects and threaten the security of the whole region.

In this respect, lacking international solidarity in terms of burden-sharing was declared a major concern. Further problems expressed were donor fatigue and rising hostilities towards migrants on top of their human suffering.

Peter Wilson, Deputy Permanent Representative of the United Kingdom to the U.N., named three examples that might represent upcoming opportunities to resolve the crisis. First, Goal 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), building peaceful and inclusive societies, which can be used “to tackle the causes of these problems and not just the symptoms”, second, the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul which brings together both the humanitarian and the development community and third, new innovative concepts such as providing migrants with direct cash.

Other ideas expressed during the discussion involve cooperating with all stakeholders concerned, including host governments, authorities on regional, local and national levels, the U.N. system as well as development organisations and international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the donor community.

Moreover, reframing the refugee crisis as security issue might help to convince voters and parliamentarians to spend more money on solving the crisis as an investment in security and thus allow for additional funding.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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UAE Cracks Down on Religious Extremism Fri, 24 Jul 2015 14:26:08 +0000 Jane Grey By Jane Grey
NEW YORK, Jul 24 2015 (IPS)

The United Arab Emirates is cracking down on hate crimes with tough legislation that prescribes up to 10 years in prison or the death penalty if convicted of “takfirism” or Sunni Muslim extremism, according to the text of the decree distributed by the official WAM news agency.

The new law includes provisions to “safeguard people regardless of their origin, beliefs or race, against acts that promote religious hate and intolerance” and also “makes it illegal to discriminate against individuals or groups on the basis of religion, caste, doctrine, race, colour or ethnic origin.”

Islam is the majority religion in the UAE, with a division of approximately 85 percent Sunni and 15 percent Shi’a.

The nation’s Constitution already provides for freedom of religion in accordance with established customs, although Islam is the official religion.

The new legislation has received broad support from UAE academic and experts. The chairman of the board of directors of Emirates Human Rights Association (EHRA), Mohammad Salem Al Kaabi, said that the law allows the people of 200 nationalities in the country to “live in peaceful co-existence”.

“I think the existence of such laws is an urgent need for all countries, especially amid many messages of concern that incite racial hatred on social networking sites,” he told The National.

The Islamic European Council (IEC) also hailed the move and called on the governments of Islamic countries, members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and member states of the United Nations to follow suit in order to activate U.N. Resolution No. 65/224 on Combating Defamation of Religions.

In a statement, D.r Mohammed Al Bashari, Secretary-General of the IEC, said that under the rapid regional and international changes that threaten global peace, it has become necessary to pass a law criminalising the defamation of religions in all the Islamic countries.

The Anti-Discriminatory Law also prohibits any act that would be considered as insulting God, his prophets or apostles or holy books or houses of worship or graveyards.

Writing in The National, Dr Hasan Al Subaihi and Taryam Al Subaihi, journalists and political/social commentators, note that “Religious discrimination was – and still is – a worldwide problem. The Arab world has had its fair share of internal conflicts because of religion, and many of these fights go far beyond the struggle between Shias and Sunnis.”

To name just a few, they said, the Middle East has communities of Alawites, Berbers, Copts, Druze, Kurds, Jews, Yazidis, Assyrians, Shias and Sunnis.

“The new anti-discrimination law issued by President Sheikh Khalifa has put into writing what the people and leadership of the UAE have practised since before the birth of the nation and what is, in fact, not only part of the UAE culture but also the religion of Islam: tolerance.”

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Faith Leaders Issue Global “Call to Conscience” on Climate Fri, 24 Jul 2015 08:36:34 +0000 A. D. McKenzie Patricia Gualinga (right), a representative of the Serayaku community in the Amazonic part of Ecuador, told the Summit of Conscience for the Climate in Paris: “We’re here because we want the voices of indigenous people to be heard”. Credit: A.D. McKenzie/IPS

Patricia Gualinga (right), a representative of the Serayaku community in the Amazonic part of Ecuador, told the Summit of Conscience for the Climate in Paris: “We’re here because we want the voices of indigenous people to be heard”. Credit: A.D. McKenzie/IPS

By A. D. McKenzie
PARIS, Jul 24 2015 (IPS)

“We received a garden as our home, and we must not turn it into a wilderness for our children.”

These words by Cardinal Peter Turkson summed up the appeal launched by dozens of religious leaders and “moral” thinkers at the Summit of Conscience for the Climate, a one-day gathering in Paris earlier this week aimed at mobilising action ahead of the next United Nations climate change conference (COP 21) scheduled to take place in the French capital in just over four months.

“The single biggest obstacle to changing course [over climate change] is our minds and hearts” – Cardinal Peter Turkson, an adviser for Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change
“Our prayerful wish is that governments will be as committed at COP 21 as we are here,” said Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and one of the advisers for Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change, released in June.

With the theme of “Why Do I Care”, the Summit of Conscience drew participants from around the globe, representing the world’s major religions – Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism – and other faiths and movements.

Government representatives also joined activists from environmental groups, indigenous communities and the arts sector to call for an end to the world’s “throw-away consumerist culture” and the “disastrous indifference to the environment”, as Turkson put it.

“The single biggest obstacle to changing course is our minds and hearts,” he said, after pointing out that “climate change is being borne by those who have contributed least to it”.

The summit was used to highlight an international “Call to Conscience for the climate” and to launch a new organisation called ‘Green Faith in Action’, aimed at raising awareness about environmental and sustainable development issues among adherents of different religions.

Participants drew up a letter that will be delivered to the 195 state parties at COP 21, signed by summit speakers including Prince Albert II of Monaco; Sheikh Khaled Bentounès, Sufi Master of the Alawiya in Algeria; Rajwant Singh, director of an international network called Eco Sikh; and Nigel Savage, president of the Jewish environmental organisation Hazon.

Voicing the concerns of religious groups and faith leaders, the letter is equally a reflection of the challenges faced by indigenous communities, who made their voices heard in Paris, describing attacks on their territories and way of life by the petroleum industry, for example.

“We’re not some kind of folkloric tradition, we’re living beings,” said Valdelice Veron, spokesperson of the Guarani-Kaoiwa people of Brazil, who delivered her speech in traditional dress.

She and other indigenous delegates spoke of their culture also being decimated by the practice of mono-cropping, where large soybean plantations are causing ecological damage.

“We’re here because we want the voices of indigenous people to be heard,” Patricia Gualinga, a representative of the Serayaku community in the Amazonic part of Ecuador, told IPS.

“We share all the concerns about the climate and we too are being affected in many different ways,” she said.

Ségolène Royal, the French Minister for Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy who spoke near the end of the summit, said the participants’ appeal was “first and foremost, an appeal for action”.

“Climate change should be considered as an opportunity – for business, technology, [and other sectors],” Royal said. “We need to pave the way together.”

Three participants at the Summit of Conscience for the Climate stand  together for a photo. Credit: A.D. McKenzie/IPS

Three participants at the Summit of Conscience for the Climate stand together for a photo. Credit: A.D. McKenzie/IPS

For Samantha Smith, leader of the “Global Climate and Energy Initiative” at green group WWF, the Summit of Conscience reflected a “really big and unprecedented social mobilisation” of civil society, which she hopes will continue beyond COP 21.

“When I read the latest climate science report, it keeps me awake at night. But when I see the mobilisation and the strength of the conviction, I’m optimistic,” Smith said in an interview on the sidelines of the summit.

“Now is not the time to focus on where we disagree. Now is the time to work together,” she added.

But not everyone is invited to the same table – the alliances do not necessarily extend to companies in the fossil fuel industry, said Smith.

“When I say that we need to be united, it doesn’t mean that we need to be united with the fossil fuel industry,” Smith told IPS. “That is an industry which has contributed vastly to the problem and so far is not showing a very substantial contribution to the solution.”

The business sector, including oil producers, held their own conference in May, titled the Business & Climate Summit. At that event, which also took place in Paris, around 2,000 representatives of some of the world’s largest companies declared that they wanted “a global climate deal that achieves net zero emissions” and that they wished to see this achieved at COP 21.

Then at the beginning of July, hundreds of local authority representatives, civil society members and other “non-state actors” took part in the World Summit on Climate & Territories in Lyon, France.

There, participants pledged to take on the “challenge” of keeping global temperatures below a 2 degree Celsius increase “by aligning their daily local and regional actions with the decarbonisation of the world economy scenario”.

The scientific community also held their meeting on climate this month at the Paris headquarters of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

At most of these conferences, French president François Hollande has been a keynote speaker, reiterating his message that the stakes are high and that governments need to show commitment to reach a legally binding, global accord at COP 21, which will take place from Nov. 30 to Dec. 11.

“We need everyone’s commitment to reach this accord,” Hollande said at the Summit of Conscience. “We need the heads of state and government … local actors, businesses. But we also need the citizens of the world.”

Even as he delivered his speech, another conference on the climate was taking place – at the Vatican, with the mayors of about 60 cities meeting with Pope Francis to formulate a pledge on combating greenhouse gas emissions.

Mayors from around the world will meet again, in Paris during COP 21, through an initiative organised by the Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo, and by Michael Bloomberg, U.N. Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change and former mayor of New York. Billed as the Climate Summit for Local Leaders, this meeting will be held Dec. 4 and should bring together 1,000 mayors.

A question that some observers have been asking, however, is how does one cut through all the grandiose and repetitive speeches at these incessant “summits” and get to real, sustainable action?

Nicolas Hulot, the “Special Envoy of the French President for the Protection of the Planet” and the main organiser of the Summit of Conscience, said he has faced similar queries.

“I’ve been asked ‘what is this going to be useful for’,” he said. “But a light has emerged today, and I hope it will light us up.”

Hulot sought to encourage indigenous groups and others who had travelled from South America, Africa and other regions to Paris for the event, promising them continued support.

“Don’t you doubt the fact that we’re all involved, and we’ll never give in to despair,” he said. “We want to make sure that everybody hears your message because we heard it.”

Edited by Phil Harris

The writer can be followed on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

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Opinion: Iran Deal Has Far-Reaching Potential to Remake International Relations Mon, 20 Jul 2015 12:14:41 +0000 Arul Louis

Arul Louis, a New York-based journalist and international affairs analyst, is a senior fellow of the Society for Policy Studies. He can be contacted at

By Arul Louis
NEW YORK, Jul 20 2015 (IPS)

The Vienna agreement between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council acting in concert with Germany has the potential to remake international relations beyond the immediate goal of stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Courtesy of Arul Louis/ICFJ

Courtesy of Arul Louis/ICFJ

Its impact could be felt at various levels, from United States engagement in the Middle East to the interaction of the competitive global powers, and from the economics of natural resources to the dynamics of Iranian society and politics.

President Barack Obama has invested an inordinate amount of political capital on the deal, challenging many in the United States political arena and Washington’s key allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia in hopes that a breakthrough on Iran would be his presidency’s international legacy along with his Cuba opening.

Obama is gambling on the nation’s war-weariness after the Afghanistan and Iraq wars that took a total toll of 6,855 casualties and, according to a Harvard researcher, is costing the nation at least $4 trillion. He presented the nation with a stark choice: War or Peace.

“There really are only two alternatives here,” he said, “either the issue of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon is resolved diplomatically, through a negotiation, or it’s resolved through force, through war.”Even if Washington and Tehran don't recapture the closeness of the Pahlevi era, the U.S. will increase its options in the Middle East, a region posing a growing to the world threat from the Sunni-based Islamic State or ISIL.

Though the deal has been denounced by Republicans and some Democrats, and, earlier, the opponents had taken the unprecedented step of inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make their case before Congress, Obama expects to carry the day. Even if Congress votes against the agreement, Obama reckons the opposition will not be able to able to get the two-thirds majority to override his threatened veto.

Obama’s Iran legacy, if it works according to plan, will not have the impact of Richard Nixon’s opening to China, but it still could mark the end of 36 years of virulent hostilities. Even if Washington and Tehran don’t recapture the closeness of the Pahlevi era, the U.S. will increase its options in the Middle East, a region posing a growing to the world threat from the Sunni-based Islamic State or ISIL. Right now Washington is hamstrung by unsure Sunni allies in the region.

Already in Iraq, the U.S. and Iran have been working with different elements on parallel tracks against ISIL. Obama has been blamed for pulling out U.S. troops from Iraq, although it was largely in keeping with his predecessor George W. Bush’s timetable, and for failing to reach an agreement with Baghdad on stationing some troops beyond the pullout deadline. These have been mentioned as factors leading to the rise of ISIL.

Now, there is a chance for Obama to redeem himself through the cooperation of Iran, even if they will not go to the extent of a formal agreement.

In the other ISIL flashpoint to the west of Iraq, there seems to be implacable differences on Syria. Tehran stands firmly by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Washington considers the irreconcilable foe of peace in that civil war ravaged country. Bridging this gap even if by face-saving measures would be the true test of a diplomatic shift.

The Iran nuclear issue takes the inevitable colour of a Shia-Sunni conflict. In the first place, the unspoken impetus for Tehran’s nuclear ambitions was Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and the threat from its Sunni fundamentalists against Shias.

Now Pakistan’s stock will rise in Saudi Arabia and other Sunni nations as hedge, a Sunni-dominated nuclear power ranged against Iran, which they mistrust.

Add to this mix Israel, which has developed an unlikely alliance with Saudi Arabia. For Israel, the threat comes from fears of the millenarian trends among some Shia Muslims that could cancel out the insurance that Jerusalem, sacred to the Muslims, provides and Teheran’s venomous, ant-Semitic rhetoric.

But a more immediate issue for Israel is Tehran’s support for the Palestinian Hamas and the Lebanese Shia Hezbollah. The sanctions against Iran limited its potential financial and material backing for these organisations and the flow of funds after sanctions are lifted could boost Tehran’s adventurism, directly and through proxies, Israel fears.

On the global diplomatic front, the Iran deal is a break from the incessant U.N. Security Council squabbles that have hobbled it as issues like Ukraine, Syria, the South China Sea and assorted hotspots in Africa burn. Russia and China showed they could work intensively with the West. Moscow even earned plaudits from Obama for its role in facilitating the deal.

Russia and Iran share some common interests in places like Syria, Central Asia and the caucuses. An unbridled Tehran could more effectively cooperate with Moscow in these areas.

Economically, Russia, like other oil producers, may be hit by falling oil prices, but the diplomatic congruence and future arms sales could compensate.

For the European Union and China, the deal opens up business opportunities in a nation with tremendous economic potential along with lower oil prices.

Iran has the fourth largest known reserves of oil and its current production of 1.1 million barrels could soar to four million within a year. For most of the developing world, further reduction in oil prices will be a great help, even as it increases political and social pressures in some oil-producers.

The picture for India is mixed . It has been paying for Iranian oil imports in rupees while it has been exporting limited amounts of machinery and chemicals. The bilateral trade is in Iran’s favor and is estimated at about 14 billion dollars, with Indian imports at about 10 billion and exports at about 4 billion.

Now India may be able to buy more oil, but it will have to pay in rupees and its exports will have to compete with the rest of the world. With the prospects sanctions going away, India is already facing Tehran’s truculence in oil and gas and railway projects they had agreed on.

The Chabahar port project remains the strategic cornerstone of India’s ambitious engagement with Iran The port on the Gulf of Oman would give India access to Afghanistan and Central Asia bypassing Pakistan.

Chabahar is also a counterweight to Beijing’s Gawadhar project in Pakistan that would provide another sea outlet for China, Afghanistan and Central Asian countries.

On the nuclear nonproliferation front, the Iranian agreement chalks up a small victory after North Korean blatantly developed nuclear weapons. The world has been unable to confront Pyongyang diplomatically or militarily because of its mercurial nature leadership that borders on the insane.

For the Iranians themselves, the deal could ease up their lives and bringing back some normalcy. The bigger question is how it would play in the dynamics of Iranian politics. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei approved the deal, but he has since expressed mistrust of the West in keeping its end of the bargain. That may be rein euphoria and send a message to the moderates.

Would the deal lead to a lessening of the paranoia among the religious and nationalist elements in Iran and in turn strengthen the moderates and push the present day heirs of the ancient Persian civilisation towards a relatively liberal modernity? If that were to happen Iran would have truly emerged from the shadows of international isolation.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Fear Stalks Students in Northern Pakistan Wed, 15 Jul 2015 22:50:30 +0000 Ashfaq Yusufzai and Kanya DAlmeida A soldier stands amidst the rubble of the December 2014 attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, capital of Pakistan’s northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

A soldier stands amidst the rubble of the December 2014 attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, capital of Pakistan’s northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

By Ashfaq Yusufzai and Kanya D'Almeida
PESHAWAR, Pakistan/UNITED NATIONS, Jul 15 2015 (IPS)

It has been seven months since a group of gunmen raided the Army Public School in Pakistan’s northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, killing 145 people, including 132 students.

“Since he died, there has been complete silence in our home. Nobody wants to speak. Asfand used to crack jokes and spread laughter – now he has left us, there is nothing to say.” -- Shahana Khan, the mother of one of the victims of the Peshawar school shootings in 2014
For the most part, the tragedy has faded off international headlines, but for the families of the victims and survivors, the memory is as fresh as the day it happened.

Speaking to IPS in her home in Peshawar, KP’s capital city and the site of last year’s attack, Shahana Khan cannot stop weeping.

Her 15-year-old son Asfand, a tenth grader at the public school, was one of too many children killed by members of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) on Dec. 16, 2014.

“Since he died, there has been complete silence in our home,” she manages to say through her sadness. “Nobody wants to speak. Asfand used to crack jokes and spread laughter – now he has left us, there is nothing to say.”

The boy’s father, Ajun Khan, chimes in: “He kept our home happy. Without him, we will pass Eid al-Fitr [the religious holiday marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan] in tears.”

His 11-year-old sister and seven-year-old brother share similar sentiments. Like other kids who lived through the tragedy, they have aged beyond their years.

They recount stories of their brother’s jokes and antics, as though momentarily forgetting that he is no longer with them. But then the tears start rolling again.

“I will recite the Holy Quran on his grave, and pray for his blessings,” the little bow vows solemnly.

Neither the kids nor their parents mention the school where the shootings took place, although it re-opened just a month after the incident.

For months, many families were too afraid to return to the scene. Though the students have gradually begun trickling back into their classrooms, fear is everywhere.

This lingering trauma is just one more obstacle standing between the Pakistan government and its ambitious education goals for this South Asian country of 182 million people.

Images of their dead or wounded classmates live on in the memories of students from the Army Public School in Peshawar, Pakistan, even seven months after the massacre. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

Images of their dead or wounded classmates live on in the memories of students from the Army Public School in Peshawar, Pakistan, even seven months after the massacre. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

Schools under attack

Throughout the decade of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the U.N.’s landmark poverty-reduction plan launched in 2000, Pakistan has lagged behind most member states.

In March the ministry of federal education and professional training published education statistics for 2013-2014, which revealed that the government was unlikely to meet the target of achieving universal primary education by the end of 2015, despite many pledges and promises on paper.

Pakistan’s education sector is comprised of over 260,000 schools, both public and private, where 1.5 million teachers attend to an estimated 42.9 million students.

But according to the Pakistan Education for All 2015 Review Report, published together with the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), there are also 6.7 million out-of-school children in the country, one of the highest rates in the world.

And while 21.4 million primary-school-aged children are currently enrolled in public and private institutions, research suggests that only 66 percent will survive until the fifth grade, and a further 33.2 percent will drop out before completing the primary level.

Experts say that the dismal state of education in the restive northern provinces is largely to blame for these setbacks.

Women hold signs at a rally following the deadly attacks on a public school in the northern Pakistani city of Peshawar, which left 132 students dead. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

Women hold signs at a rally following the deadly attacks on a public school in the northern Pakistani city of Peshawar, which left 132 students dead. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

Umar Farooq, an education official for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), told IPS that about 200,000 boys and girls in his region are out of school, largely due to the Taliban’s systematic attack on modern, secular education.

In the past 12 years, the Taliban have destroyed 850 schools, including 500 schools dedicated exclusively to girls, he said.

“FATA has the lowest primary school enrollment rate in the whole country – only 35 percent,” he added.

Prior to the December 2014 public school shooting, a report published by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack listed Pakistan as one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a student or teacher, on par with states like Afghanistan, Colombia, Somalia, Sudan and Syria.

Between the review period starting in 2009 and ending in 2012, armed groups in Pakistan attacked some 838 schools, mostly by blowing up buildings.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reported that 30 students and 20 teachers were killed in those attacks, while 97 students and eight teachers were injured and 138 students and staff kidnapped.

Ishtiaqullah Khan, deputy director of the FATA directorate for education, told IPS that school enrollment and dropout rates have fluctuated according to ebbs and flows in the insurgency.

The period 2007-2013, for instance, when the Taliban was stepping up its activities in the region, saw the dropout rate touching 73 percent.

Citing government records, Khan said that some 550,000 kids in FATA have sat idle over the last decade. The numbers are no better in other provinces in the north.

Back in the summer of 2014, when a government military operation aimed at destroying armed groups drove nearly half a million people from their homes in the North Waziristan Agency, scores of children found their education interrupted as they languished in refugee camps in the city of Bannu, part of the KP province.

A rapid assessment report carried out by the United Nations in July 2014 revealed that 98.7 percent of displaced girls and 97.9 percent of the boys from North Waziristan were not receiving any kind of schooling in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs).

The U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) warned that an already weak primary school enrollment rate of just 37 percent in KP (31 percent for girls and 43 percent for boys) would worsen as a result of the massive displacement, since 80 percent of some 520,000 IDPs were occupying school buildings.

Director of education for KP, Ghulam Sarwar, told IPS the Taliban had destroyed 467 schools in the province in the last decade, and reduced the schooling system to dust in the Swat District where the 2012 shooting of Malala Yousafzai shocked the entire world.

Already traumatized from years of attacks on education, the lingering ghosts of the Dec. 16 tragedy have only added to the burden of students and parents alike.

Girls light candles in memory of those who lost their lives in late 2014, when armed gunmen invaded and opened fire on hundreds of students and teachers in northern Pakistan. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

Girls light candles in memory of those who lost their lives in late 2014, when armed gunmen invaded and opened fire on hundreds of students and teachers in northern Pakistan. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

Overcoming trauma

Khadim Hussain, head of the Peshawar-based Bacha Khan Education Trust, told IPS that the Taliban “thrive on illiteracy”, preying on ignorant sectors of the population to “toe their line”.

For this very reason, he stressed, education in Pakistan is more important now than ever before, as the most sustainable weapon with which to fight militancy.

In October 2014, the Pakistan office for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) announced that school supplies worth 14.4 million dollars, donated by the Saudi Fund for Development (SFD), had been handed over to KP’s education department.

The funds were aimed at improving facilities in over 1,000 schools across KP and FATA, serving 128,000 students.

It was a promising moment – shadowed barely two months later by the daylong siege and massacre at the Army Public School in Peshawar.

With the bloodshed still fresh in everyone’s minds, Hussain’s suggestions are easier said than done.

Fourteen-year-old Jihad Ahmed, who survived the attack, is still afraid to go back to school. A sixth grader named Raees Shah, who saw his best friends die in front of him, has similarly had a hard time concentrating on his studies.

While some want desperately to forgot and move on, others – like ninth-grader Amir Mian – keep the memories of that day burning bright. When the attack began, Mian’s older brother had managed to escape the school premises unscathed, but came back to fetch the younger boy. When he did, he took a bullet and died shortly after.

“We will never forgive his killer,” the teenager told IPS. “We hope that God Almighty will punish his killers on the Day of Judgment.”

Funeral processions for the deceased students and teachers of a terrorist attack in northern Pakistan drew huge crowds of mourners last December. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

Funeral processions for the deceased students and teachers of a terrorist attack in northern Pakistan drew huge crowds of mourners last December. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

In a bid to restore the public’s confidence in the education system, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in February signed onto the 15-point plan for a Pakistan Safe Schools Initiative launched by A World At School, a global campaign working to get all school-aged kids into a classroom.

The 15 ‘best practices’ outlined in the agreement include community-based interventions such as involving religious leaders in the promotion of education as a deterrent to terrorist attacks, and improving infrastructure and safety mechanisms like constructing and reinforcing boundary walls.

Currently, only 61 percent of government schools and 27 percent of primary schools in rural areas have boundary walls, while scores of others lack protective razor wire atop their fortifications.

The programme’s donors and supporters hope it serves as a first step towards healing, and, ideally, to a more educated and resilient Pakistan.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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“Why Hire a Lawyer When You Can Buy a Judge?” Wed, 08 Jul 2015 21:16:36 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida Women and children hold up signs at a rally against corruption in the northern Pakistani city of Peshawar. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

Women and children hold up signs at a rally against corruption in the northern Pakistani city of Peshawar. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

By Kanya D'Almeida

A woman is stopped at a checkpoint; she gives birth, and dies. Another is sold in a slave market. A boy is killed by a tank. A young man drowns at sea, trying to reach a haven safe from oppression and poverty.

These were just some of the examples that Rima Khalaf, executive secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), touched on during a panel discussion on the importance of the rule of law held at the U.N. headquarters on Jul. 7.

In each of scenarios laid out above, Khalaf said, had the person in question been of a different race, ethnic group, gender or religion, they might have been spared an untimely or violent death. In other words, they might have been under the protection of the law.

All too often, however, citizens are either unable or unaware of how to demand their legal rights – be it access to food, jobs or justice.

As the U.N. closes a 15-year chapter of poverty eradication efforts defined by the eight ambitious Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and moves towards a new, sustainable development agenda, legal experts came together Tuesday to discuss how the rule of law can help bolster the post-2015 blueprint for global change.

Organised by the International Development Law Organisation (IDLO), an intergovernmental body devoted to empowering citizens and enabling governments to establish robust legal systems worldwide, the two-part event series revolved around Goal 16 of the proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which aims to build inclusive societies by providing equal justice to all.

Promoting and strengthening the rule law in the realm of international development would seem, as IDLO Director-General Irene Khan pointed out, “a no-brainer”.

Fast Facts: 2015 Rule of Law Index

The 2015 Rule of Law Index, published annually by the World Justice Project (WJP) crunched data from 100,000 households and 2,400 expert surveys in 102 countries to present a portrait of how ordinary people around the world perceive and experience the rule of law in their everyday lives.

Countries are scored on a 0-1 scale based on eight factors:
- Constraints on government powers
- Absence of corruption
- Open government
- Fundamental rights
- Order and security
- Regulatory enforcement
- Civil justice and
- Criminal justice

Under these criteria, Denmark bagged the top spot on this year’s index with a score of 0.87, while countries like Afghanistan and Zimbabwe brought up the rear, scoring 0.35 and 0.37 respectively.

Other countries in the top 10 zone include Singapore, Finland and New Zealand, while states like Myanmar, Bangladesh and Uganda live closer to the bottom of the index.

Asian countries featured heavily at the mid-point of the index, with India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines occupying spots in the 50-60 range out of 102 surveyed states.

According to the WJP, “the Index is the world’s most comprehensive data set of its kind and the only to rely solely on primary data, measuring a nation’s adherence to the rule of law from the perspective of how ordinary people experience it.”
In reality, however, the SDGs mark the first time that the U.N. has explicitly written the rule of law into its development plans.

“There is a paradox here at the U.N. that bothers me deeply,” Khan said at a panel co-hosted by the IDLO and the Law School of the University of Pennsylvania (Penn Law) Tuesday. “You can almost think of it as parallel railway lines, with two trains hurtling down these tracks through the landscape of the U.N. since its inception.

“One is the train that is running the development agenda, and the other is the train running the human rights agenda. I only hope that the principle of the rule of law that has now been acknowledged as part of the development agenda will bring these two tracks together – and that the meeting won’t be a crash but a synergy.”

Since its inception in 1988, the IDLO has remained the only organisation dedicated entirely to promoting the rule of law, repeatedly pushing for effective and accountable legal systems around the world as the basis for eradicating poverty, fighting discrimination and ensuring access to basic services.

It also highlights the links between inequality and lawlessness, where good governance seeps through cracks in weak justice systems, eroding the public’s confidence in the very structures that are designed to ensure their well-being.

Recounting a conversation she had with a chief justice in one of the IDLO’s partner countries, Khan said, “I was told that in this particular country people often say, ‘Why hire a lawyer if you can buy a judge?’ It is these situations that the rule of law addresses.”

In short, she said, the rule of law regulates power, a crucial step in the realisation of the SDGs.

“Poverty is not a matter of income,” she stressed. “It is a matter of powerlessness.”

Consider the following example from Uganda, where three-quarters of the population are subsistence farmers and where land disputes can have a heavy impact on livelihood and food security.

For many years, inefficient and informal justice systems meant that farmers, and particularly women, had no recourse to resolutions over even the most minor discord.

With the introduction in 1995 of the Uganda Land Alliance (ULA) – established to provide legal empowerment to rural communities through Land Rights Information Centres – fair land laws and policies, as well as swift access to justice, has become the norm, rather than the exception.

In Ecuador, an IDLO training programme on access to fair trade markets and the basic legal aspects of forming and running micro-enterprises has given local communities in predominantly rural areas significant leverage in tapping into new revenue streams.

And in Rwanda, where women held just 43 percent of seats in the lower parliament in 2003, a new constitution and the creation of women’s councils over the past decade pushed women’s political representation to 64 percent in 2013, resulting in stronger laws on violence against women and gender-based crimes.

Any number of similar examples, from Afghanistan to Kyrgyzstan to Kenya, stand as testimony to the sheer scope and significance of the rule of law for the global development agenda.

But while legal frameworks are vital to securing rights and enshrining the basic tenets of development in constitutions worldwide, they cannot and do not exist in a vacuum.

“Laws alone are not enough,” Khalid Malik, former director of the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Human Development Report noted during the panel discussion. “Many countries have all manner of statutes and conventions, but behaviors have not altered. If institutions are not pro-poor, change will not happen.”

He stressed that part of the problem lies in “institutions often being captured by the elites”, or other powerful interests, making them less accessible to marginalised groups.

What is needed, he says, is an approach to the rule of law that is rooted in justice, and the empowerment of ordinary people.

“When you have a universal approach to education and health,” he stated, “You empower people enormously. Think of the Arab Spring – it happened mostly in countries that were doing well on health and education. Why? Because once you’re educated, you become far more aware of your rights, you start expecting more from institutions, and the relationship between the citizen and the state starts to change.”

It is precisely this change that lawmakers hope to see as the U.N. finalizes its new development plans for a more just and sustainable world.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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