Inter Press Service » TerraViva United Nations Turning the World Downside Up Fri, 27 Feb 2015 19:05:21 +0000 en-US hourly 1 WHO Releases New Syringe Safety Policy to Prevent Disease Thu, 26 Feb 2015 23:55:27 +0000 Josh Butler By Josh Butler

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has released a new policy on safe practices around syringe use, saying 90 percent of injections worldwide are unnecessary.

The WHO has recommended the use of ‘smart syringes,’ to reduce the number of infections from used syringes.

“The surest way to protect against unsafe injections is to use devices for injections that have been engineered so they cannot be reused and don’t lead to accidental needle stick injuries among health workers,” the organisation said in a report released Monday.

Syringes that disable if attempted to be used twice, and models where a cover slides over the needle after injection, have been put forward by the WHO as ways to reduce diseases caused by used syringes.

The WHO has urged all countries to begin use of the new ‘smart syringes’ by 2020.

“Syringes without safety features cost US$ 0.03 to 0.04 when procured by a UN agency for a developing country. The new “smart” syringes cost at least twice that much,” the report claims.

“WHO is calling on donors to support the transition to these devices, anticipating that prices will decline over time as demand increases.

A 2014 WHO report stated that in 2010, unsafe injections saw 34,000 people infected with HIV, 1.7million infected with Hepatitis B and 315,000 with Hepatitis C.

A lack of funds, equipment or both are often behind the reusing of needles in poorer parts of the world.

“Adoption of safety-engineered syringes is absolutely critical to protecting people worldwide from becoming infected with HIV, hepatitis and other diseases. This should be an urgent priority for all countries,” says Dr Gottfried Hirnschall, Director of the WHO’s HIV/AIDS Department.

The report also said accidental infection rates could be even further lowered through the elimination of unnecessary injections. The WHO claims up to 90 percent of the 16 billion injections administered around the world each year could be avoided altogether, or replaced with an oral pill.

“WHO urges reduction in the number of unnecessary injections as an urgent and critical strategy for reducing transmission of viral infections,” the report said.

Much progress has been made in the campaign for syringe safety. In terms of infections from unsafe injections, the WHO reports a 91 percent reduction in Hepatitis C infections; an 87 percent reduction in HIV infections; and an 83 percent reduction in Hepatitis B infections. Reuse of injection equipment dropped 86 percent in the same period.

The WHO has urged donors and development partners to only fund the purchase of “safety engineered” syringes, as well as further equipment to encourage needles to only be used once, and for manufacturers to ramp up production of safer syringes.

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Study Shows Shift in Level of Social Hostility Involving Religion Thu, 26 Feb 2015 22:56:07 +0000 Valentina Ieri By Valentina Ieri

Social hostilities involving religion have declined worldwide, according to a new report released on Wednesday by the Washington-based Pew Research Center.

The latest data show that after reaching a six-year peak in 2012, the state of religious tolerance improved in 2013 in most of the 198 countries analysed in the report.

The share of countries with high or very high level of religious hostilities dropped from 33 per cent in 2012 to 27 per cent in 2013. However, a quarter of the world’s countries are still struggling with high levels of hostilities and government restrictions.

Acts of religious hostility range from vandalism, such as the ruining of religious buildings and the desecration of sacred texts, to violent assaults resulting in injuries and deaths.

The U.S. think tank’s study was measured on the basis of two indices, the Social Hostilities Index (SHI) and the Government Restriction Index (GRI). The first includes hostile actions from individuals, organisations or groups in society, like mobs or sectarian violence. The second keeps track of laws and policies that restrict religious beliefs and practices.

Following this distinction, while the share of countries with high or very high levels of social hostilities involving religion fell six per cent between 2012 and 2013, the share of countries with a high or very high level of political restrictions on religion only fell two per cent.

The share of countries with government restriction was 27 per cent in 2013 compared to 29 per cent in 2012. Most of those countries have discriminatory policies towards, and place outright bans on, certain faiths.

Overall, whether resulting from social hostilities or government actions, figures show a high or very high level of religious repression in 39 per cent of countries in 2013. Among the world’s 25 most populous countries, the ones with the greatest limitations were Myanmar, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan and Russia. China had the highest level for GRI and India for SHI.

In recent years, religious harassment of Jews increased, reaching a seven-year high in 2013. In that year, Jews were plagued either by government or social groups in 77 countries. In Europe, Jews were harassed by social groups in 34 countries.

The analysis was conducted in order to observe the extent to which governments and societies around the world impact religious beliefs and practices. It is the sixth in a series of Pew studies on religious hostilities, which are part of the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures project looking at religious change and its effect on societies around the world.

Edited by Roger Hamilton-Martin

Follow Valentina Ieri on Twitter @Valeieri

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All-Out War in Libya Predicted without Further Peace Talks Thu, 26 Feb 2015 21:28:46 +0000 Josh Butler By Josh Butler

Libya is teetering on the edge of all-out war, with a brutal stalemate and misery for civilians predicted unless a recent minor diplomatic breakthrough can be built upon.

The International Crisis Group (ICG), a non-governmental organisation working to prevent and resolve conflict, warned Thursday of a “dramatic turning point” in the “deteriorating internal conflict,” with a descent into social radicalism predicted.

“The most likely medium-term prospect is not one side’s triumph, but that rival local warlords and radical groups will proliferate, what remains of state institutions will collapse… and hardship for ordinary Libyans will increase exponentially,” the ICG said in a report, ‘Libya: Getting Gevena Right.’

“Radical groups… will find fertile ground, while regional involvement – evidenced by retaliatory Egyptian airstrikes – will increase.”

The ICG called on parties to the conflict to continue negotiations commenced in Geneva in January, which ended with no resolution but a commitment to extend talks.

Claudia Gazzini, ICG’s Libya Senior Analyst, said any full-scale war would likely descend into stalemate.

“Libya is split between two sides claiming increasingly threadbare legitimacy, flirting with jihadi radicals and pursuing politics through militia war backed by foreign powers,” she said.

“[The] Tobruk and Tripoli authorities are equally matched, and cannot defeat each other. To save the country they must negotiate a national unity government.”

On Feb. 20, a spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon said “a political solution to the current crisis must be found quickly to restore peace and stability in the country and confront terrorism.”

The conflict in Libya – between the elected government of Libya, based in Tobruk, and forces aligned to its opposition party, based in Tripoli – has been ongoing since May 2014. ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant) forces entered the conflict in October, taking control of areas in eastern Libya.

Reliable numbers of casualties have not been released. A U.N. Support Mission In Libya (UNSMIL) report in December 2014 stated only that “hundreds” had been killed in preceding months, including 450 people in Benghazi and 100 people in western Libya.

The website, which claims to assemble death tolls from media reports, states 2,825 people were killed in Libya in 2014, and 380 have been killed in 2015.

UNSMIL said in December at least 215,000 people have been displaced due to the conflict.

In January, representatives of the fighting factions met in Geneva for two rounds of talks. ICG said it was the first time since September 2014 such negotiations had taken place, with talks focusing on what form a Libyan unity government would take.

The ICG urged the U.N. to push for further talks, as well as to ask “regional actors who contribute to the conflict by providing arms or other military or political support – notably Chad, Egypt, Qatar, Sudan, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates… to press their Libyan allies to negotiate in good faith in pursuit of a political settlement.”

Jean Marie Guehenno, president of ICG, said organising further negotiations was essential in staving off deterioration in the conflict.

“January’s UN achievement in bringing the Libyan sides together for national unity talks in Geneva offers a glimmer of hope. This breakthrough should encourage the UN Security Council to unite,” he said.

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Despite U.N. Treaties, War Against Drugs a Losing Battle Thu, 26 Feb 2015 21:10:23 +0000 Thalif Deen Less than eight per cent of drug users worldwide have access to a clean syringe programme. Credit: Fahim Siddiqi/IPS

Less than eight per cent of drug users worldwide have access to a clean syringe programme. Credit: Fahim Siddiqi/IPS

By Thalif Deen

As the call for the decriminalisation of drugs steadily picks up steam worldwide, a new study by a British charity concludes there has been no significant reduction in the global use of illicit drugs since the creation of three key U.N. anti-drug conventions, the first of which came into force over half a century ago.

“Illicit drugs are now purer, cheaper, and more widely used than ever,” says the report, titled Casualties of War: How the War on Drugs is Harming the World’s Poorest, released Thursday by the London-based Health Poverty Action."This approach hasn’t reduced drug use or managed to control the illicit drug trade. Instead, it keeps drugs profitable and cartels powerful." -- Catherine Martin of Health Poverty Action

The study also cites an opinion poll that shows more than eight in 10 Britons believe the war on drugs cannot be won. And over half favour legalising or decriminalising at least some illicit drugs.

The international treaties to curb drug trafficking include the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances and the 1988 United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.

But over the last few decades, several countries have either decriminalised drugs, either fully or partially, or adopted liberal drug laws, including the use of marijuana for medical reasons.

These countries include the Netherlands, Portugal, Czech Republic, Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Ecuador, Honduras and Mexico, among others.

According to the report, the governments of Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala seek open, evidence-based discussion on U.N. drugs policy reform.

And “both the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNAIDS not only share this view, but have called for the decriminalisation of drugs use.”

Asked if the United Nations was doing enough in the battle against drugs, Catherine Martin, policy officer at Health Poverty Action, told IPS, “The problem is that the U.N. is doing too much of the wrong things, and not enough of the right things.”

She pointed out that an estimated 100 billion dollars worldwide is poured into drug law enforcement every year, driven by U.N. conventions on drug control.

“However, this approach hasn’t reduced drug use or managed to control the illicit drug trade. Instead, it keeps drugs profitable and cartels powerful (fuelling corruption); spurs violent conflict and human rights violations; and disproportionately punishes small-scale drug producers and people who use drugs,” she added.

The report says UK development organisations have largely remained silent, while calls for drugs reform come from Southern counterparts, British tycoon Sir Richard Branson, current and former presidents, Nobel prizewinning economists and ex-U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan.

The charity urges the UK development sector to demand pro-poor moves as nations prepare for the U.N. general assembly’s special session on drugs next year.

Many non-governmental organisations (NGOs), including British groups, have no lead contact or set process for participating in the session, says the report.

The report claims many small-scale farmers grow and trade drugs in developing countries as their only income source.

And punitive drug policies penalise farmers who do not have access to the land, sufficient resources and infrastructure that they would need to make a sustainable living from other crops.

Alternative crops or development programmes often fail farmers, because they are led by security concerns and ignore poor communities’ needs, the report notes.

The charity argues the militarisation of the war on drugs has triggered and been used to justify murder, mass imprisonment and systematic human rights violations.

The report stresses that criminalising drugs does not reduce use, but spreads disease, deters people from seeking medical treatment and leads to policies that exclude millions of people from vital pain relief.

Less than eight per cent of drug users have access to a clean needle programme, or opioid substitution therapy, and under four per cent of those living with HIV have access to HIV treatment.

In West Africa, people with conditions linked to cancer and AIDS face severe restrictions in access to pain relief drugs, amid feared diversion to illicit markets, according to the study.

Low and middle-income countries have 90 per cent of AIDS patients around the globe and half of the world’s people with cancer, but use only six per cent of morphine given for pain management.

Health Poverty Action states the war on drugs criminalises the poor, and women are worst hit, through disproportionate imprisonment and the loss of livelihoods.

Drug crop eradication devastates the environment and forces producers underground, often to areas with fragile ecosystems.

Asked what the U.N.’s focus should be, Martin told IPS the world body should focus on evidence-based, pro-poor policies that treat illicit drugs as a health issue, not a security matter.

These policies must protect human rights and end the harm that current policies do to the poor and marginalised, she said.

“Drug policy reform should support and fund harm reduction measures, and ensure access to essential medicines for the five billion people worldwide who live in countries where overly strict drug laws limit access to crucial pain medications,” Martin said.

Meanwhile, the report says that drug policy, like climate change or gender, is a cross-cutting issue that affects most aspects of development work: poverty, human rights, health, democracy, the environment.

And current drug policies undermine economic growth and make development work less effective, the report adds.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at

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Mobile Technology a Lever for Women’s Empowerment Thu, 26 Feb 2015 13:39:49 +0000 A. D. McKenzie For Cherie Blair (left), founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women and wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, “empowering women and girls to access education isn’t an option, isn’t a nice thing to do, it’s an imperative”. Credit: A.D. McKenzie/IPS

For Cherie Blair (left), founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women and wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, “empowering women and girls to access education isn’t an option, isn’t a nice thing to do, it’s an imperative”. Credit: A.D. McKenzie/IPS

By A. D. McKenzie
PARIS, Feb 26 2015 (IPS)

Providing women with greater access to mobile technology could increase literacy, advance development and open up much-needed educational and employment opportunities, according to experts at the fourth United Nations’ Mobile Learning Week conference here.

“Mobile technology can offer learning where there are no books, no classrooms, even no teachers. This is especially important for women and girls who drop out of school and need second chances,” said Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women.

The agency, which focuses on gender equality and the empowerment of women, joined forces with its “sister” organisation, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to host the Feb. 23-27 conference this year.“Mobile technology can offer learning where there are no books, no classrooms, even no teachers. This is especially important for women and girls who drop out of school and need second chances” – Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women

The aim, UNESCO said, was to give participants a venue “to learn about and discuss technology programmes, initiatives and content that are alleviating gender deficits in education.”

Participants from more than 70 countries shared so-called best practices and presented a range of initiatives to address the issue, including reducing the costs of access to mobile services in some developing countries, and providing training and free laptops to women teachers in countries such as Israel.

“There is still a persistent gender gap in access to mobile technology,” said keynote speaker Cherie Blair, founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women and wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

In an interview on the side-lines of the conference, she told IPS that “anything that encourages the education of girls is important” and that it was “particularly significant” that UNESCO and UN Women had joined forces to work together in this area to achieve results.

“We need to encourage women to use technology and we also need to involve men to provide support,” Blair said. She cited research showing that a woman in a low- or middle-income country is 21 percent less likely than a man to own a mobile phone. In Africa, the figure is 23 percent less likely, and in the Middle East and South Asia 24 percent and 37 percent respectively.

“The reasons women cite for not owning a mobile phone include the costs of handsets and data plans, lack of need and fear of not being able to master the technology,” Blair said.

Yet, according to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), mobile phones are the “most pervasive and rapidly adopted technology in history”, with six billion of the world’s seven billion people now having access.

If there existed gender parity in this access, women could benefit from the technology in a number of ways, including getting information about healthcare and other services, experts said.

They could also potentially follow massive open online courses (MOOCS) such as those offered by an increasing number of universities and other institutions, despite on-going controversy about their benefits. Currently, the majority of students enrolled in MOOCs are men, and often from wealthy backgrounds, surveys suggest.

Whether women live in low-income or rich countries, learning how to use technology could have future benefits especially regarding employment, said Mark West, a UNESCO project officer.

“Ninety percent of jobs in the future are going to require ICT skills,” he told IPS in an interview. “So any idea that it’s not socially or culturally acceptable for women to use technology is extremely dangerous.”

He said the fact that 25 percent fewer women than men currently access the Internet “was alarming” and that changes needed to occur early in education so that girls were not left out of future jobs.

“We don’t often realise how gendered our perceptions of technology are,” he added. “Women are taught from a young age to not like technology, taught that maths and science are not for them, and this is a big problem.”

At university level, only about 20 percent of female students are pursuing careers in computer science, and in the technology sector, only six percent of CEOs are women, according to the ITU.

“We should do more to get women in STEM fields,” said Doreen Bogdan, ITU’s Chief of Strategic Planning and Membership Department, referring to the academic disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Some participants highlighted current programmes to keep girls interested in science, such as camps run by the California-based semiconductor company Qualcomm, which brings sixth-grade female students together to learn coding and tech skills, and does follow-up work with them as they continue their education.

“All of the tech companies are fighting for the same talent pool and there are not enough females in that talent pool because not enough girls are studying it,” said Angela Baker, a senior manager at Qualcomm.

“There’s a ton of research that shows that when you have more women in the industry, companies tend to do better … so we have a vested interest in building that pipeline of girls and women,” she told IPS.

Apart from the STEM fields, girls have made great strides in education over the past 30 years, but there is “still a long way to go,” said experts, who cited U.N. figures showing that globally there are seven girls to every 10 boys in school.

Both UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova and Cherie Blair described education as a “human rights imperative” as well as a development and security imperative.

They stressed that the goal of achieving gender equality in education will continue for the post-2015 development agenda, and that technology has an important role to play.

“Empowering women and girls to access education isn’t an option, isn’t a nice thing to do, it’s an imperative,” Blair said.

Edited by Phil Harris    

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Indigenous Storytelling in the Limelight Thu, 26 Feb 2015 09:33:21 +0000 Francesca Dziadek María Mercedes Coroy, first-time lead actress in ‘Ixcanul Volcano’, winner of the Alfred Bauer Prize at the 2015 Berlinale. The film, directed by Guatemalan Jayro Buscamante, emerged from a community-media storytelling project involving local women in discussion groups and script writing workshops in Kaqchikel, one of the 12 regional Mayan languages. Credit: © La Casa de Producción

María Mercedes Coroy, first-time lead actress in ‘Ixcanul Volcano’, winner of the Alfred Bauer Prize at the 2015 Berlinale. The film, directed by Guatemalan Jayro Buscamante, emerged from a community-media storytelling project involving local women in discussion groups and script writing workshops in Kaqchikel, one of the 12 regional Mayan languages. Credit: © La Casa de Producción

By Francesca Dziadek
BERLIN, Feb 26 2015 (IPS)

In recent years, the Berlin International Film Festival, known as the Berlinale, has established a European hub for indigenous voices across a number of platforms, including its NATIVe – A Journey into Indigenous Cinema series and Storytelling-Slams in which indigenous storytelling artists share their stories before opening the floor to contributions from the audience.

This year’s Berlinale, with a focus on Latin America, dabbed a rainbow of native flair to Berlin’s greyest month, with a chorus of voices and perspectives from indigenous people, including Guarani, Hicholes, Xavante, Wichi, Kuikuro, Mapuche, Tzotzil and Quechua.

And it was an indigenous story from Guatemala – ‘Ixcanul Volcano’ by Jayro Buscamante (37), set among the Maya community in the Pacaya volcano region – which took home the Berlinale’s Alfred Bauer Prize this year for a film that “opens new perspectives on cinematic art”."I wanted to reveal the state of impotence, the real situation faced by indigenous women who have no power, told from their own perspective, in their own language” – Jayro Buscamante, director of ‘Ixcanul Volcano’

Ixcanul Volcano is the story of Maria, a 17-year-old Mayan girl from a coffee-farming community in the volcano’s foothills, who is torn between an arranged marriage to the local foreman and her attraction to a young local man, Pepe, who seduces her with his dreams of a different life, beyond the volcano, up north.

Following a botched-up elopement attempt, Maria finds herself bearing the consequences of an unwanted teenage pregnancy. The young girl and her mother, played by Maria Telon, a Mayan community theatre actress-activist, are soon engulfed in a precipice of dramatic circumstances.

Based on true events, Ixcanul Volcano emerged from a community-media storytelling project where Buscamante involved local women in discussion groups and script writing workshops in Kaqchikel, one of the 12 regional Mayan languages. Inevitably, the story came to reflect the glaring nexus among human rights abuses, poverty and powerlessness.

“I wanted to reveal the state of impotence, the real situation faced by indigenous women who have no power, told from their own perspective, in their own language,” explained Buscamante, who learnt Kaqchikel growing up among the Maya.

It was his mother, a community health worker, who first told him about the scourge surrounding child-trafficking practices, one of the darkest chapters of Guatemala’s long civil war (1960-1996), involving public health employees and state authorities.

The United Nations has reported a staggering 400 cases of abductions of Mayan children and minors per year, a human rights scandal carried out with impunity.

“There is an insidious social-legal framework which can chain and cheat the poorest of the poor even while pretending to help them out. This leads to a state of impotence and submission, sometimes the only response left available,” explained Buscamante.

Yet, in Berlin, Maria Telon and the hauntingly beautiful, first-time lead, María Mercedes Coroy,  spoke of their gratitude for “liking our story” and for being heard and appreciated, something which, Telon said, is not always the case for indigenous women and communities.

The horrors and human rights crimes perpetrated by the massacre of the Mayan population, which accounted for 85 percent of the victims of the Guatemalan civil war, are outlined in a report by Guatemala’s Historical Clarification Commission’s report titled Memory of Silence”, drafted by three rapporteurs, including German jurist Christian Tomuschat, professor of public international law at Berlin’s Humboldt University.

Memory was the thread linking native perspectives on water, the crucial element sustaining life on the planet and the subject of The Pearl Button (El boton de nazar), Chilean film director Patricio Guzman’s documentary, which took home a Berlinale Silver Bear Prize for Best Script.

Countries which deny their past remain stuck in collective amnesia and Guzman, for whom “a country without documentary cinema is like a family without a family album,” applies this conviction to Chile’s denial of its colonial history and the extermination of its native inhabitants.

The documentary’s title refers to the legend of Jemmy Button, a Yagan teenager who was sold off to a British naval captain in 1830 for the price of a pearl button.

It pays tribute to three of the all but extinguished Yacatan original inhabitants, the “water nomads” of the Patagonian estuary, and to the native wisdom of those who navigated these waters which sustained human existence for centuries.

Interviewed by Guzman, who endured 15 days of detention in Pinochet’s infamous torture stadium in 1973 and is internationally acclaimed for the documentary trilogy ‘The Battle of Chile’ (1975-1978), Gabriela Paterito recalled a 600-mile voyage aged 12 with her mother to collect fresh water.

Asked to translate Spanish words into her own native Kawesquar, Paterito recalls many words including “water”, “sun” and “button” and, pushed to find the equivalent for “police”, she nods replying: “No, we don’t need that.” And as far as God is concerned, her response comes as a resolute: “No, there is no God.”

The fate of Gabriela’s people was sealed in Chile’s colonial past. Five distinct ethnic groups tied to the water environment of the archipelagos were exterminated by Catholic missionaries and conquistadores.

The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) recognises that “indigenous knowledge is the local knowledge that is unique to a culture or society” and that knowledge of the natural world cannot be confined to science because it represents the accumulated knowledge which has sustained human societies in their interaction with the natural world across the ages.

Another protagonist in The Pearl Button explains how the government denies him the use of his handmade canoe,  and consequently access to his own traditional livelihood, ostensibly for  his own protection – a disturbing disconnect in a country which exterminated its native maritime inhabitants and was never able to make use of the  potential of its 2,670 miles of coastline.

“Ixcanul is a significant step for a native, Latin American film. With 80 percent of our screens spewing out U.S. blockbusters it leaves a small niche for alternatives from Europe and a tiny one for Latin American films, Leo Cordero of Mexico’s Mantarraya Distribucion told IPS. “Paradoxically, it is only if the film is well received in Europe and around the world that we can take a chance on it.”

Strongly committed to the Guatemalan peace process and the emancipation of the Maya people, Ixcanul Volcano comes at a time when indigenous media are flourishing with a new understanding of the native retelling of history and film-making as a “common good”.

Bolivia and Ecuador have acknowledged the world view of indigenous people based on a sacred conception of the Law of Rights of mother Earth – the concept of Pachamama, which prioritises the collective good over individual gain.

At the Berlinale’s NATIVe Storytelling-Slam, indigenous perspectives were centre stage.  David Alberto Hernandez Palmar, a Venezuelan video artist and producer of the documentary Owners of Water about an indigenous campaign to protect an Amazonian river, insisted that the Kueka stone, which originated in Venezuela’s Gran Sabana nature reserve in the Pemom Indian lands, should be returned from Berlin’s central park, the Tiergarten. “Mother Earth is sad,” he said.

Whether or not Berlin will become involved in a case of restitution of indigenous property is unsure but, increasingly, indigenous arts, media and communications are building bridges.

“The medium of film can provide a crucial path towards understanding because you have to open up to the perspectives of others,” said Buscamante, who stressed his interest in the relationships among different cultures and ethnic groups.

Edited by Phil Harris    

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Natural Disasters Cost Asia-Pacific 60 Billion Dollars, 6,000 Lives in 2014 Thu, 26 Feb 2015 00:21:35 +0000 Josh Butler By Josh Butler

Natural disasters in Asian and Pacific nations cost almost 60 billion dollars and killed 6,000 people in 2014.

There were 119 ‘disaster events’ recorded in the Asia-Pacific last year, including cyclones, storms, floods, landslides and earthquakes.

The most damaging single event was a river basin flood in India in September that killed 1,281 people and caused 16 billion dollars in damages, according to a report from the U.N.’s Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).

‘Disasters in Asia and the Pacific: 2014 Year in Review’ said the 6,050 people killed in Asia-Pacific natural disasters was well down on the 18,744 recorded in the region in 2013.

Almost 80 million people were affected by Asia-Pacific natural disasters last year, and a total of 59.6 billion dollars in economic loss was wreaked on the region.

Tropical Cyclone Hudhud caused 11 billion dollars in damage in India in October; the Ludian earthquake in China killed 617 and left six billion dollars in damage behind in August; landslides in Nepal killed 229; while 75 deaths and 5.2 billion dollars in damage resulted from Japanese tropical cyclones Lingling and Kajiki.

Floods, however, were the most damaging natural events, causing 3,559 deaths and 26.8 billion dollars in damage.

ESCAP warns that the Asia-Pacific was “found largely unprepared in its response to cross-border floods and landslides,” and urged countries to implement better response strategies in future.

“Such disasters, which may very well be on the rise because of climate change, require improved regional information exchanges and the joint coordination of operations for effective early warning and evacuations,” ESCAP said in a statement.

“[ESCAP] calls for strengthened regional cooperation to address cross-border disasters.”

The report makes several recommendations of more efficient early warning systems to give time for communities to prepare for, or flee from, impending natural disasters.

“One important lesson from 2014 is that end-to-end early warning systems save lives,” said Shamika Sirimanne, ESCAP Director of Information and Communications Technology and Disaster Risk Reduction.

“The successful preparation [for disasters] lies not only in the ability to predict the movement and intensity of storms, but also the capacity to engage and mobilize vulnerable communities in disaster preparedness.”

The Asia-Pacific endured 119 of the world’s natural disasters in 2014, more than half of the 226 recorded worldwide.

While figures are a decrease from 2013, where 155 natural disasters caused US$63billion and affected 85 billion people, ESCAP urged nations to craft better strategies to respond to such events.

The report made particular note of drought in the region. While drought in the Asia-Pacific killed only 180 people in 2014, and caused 18 million dollars in damage, it affected 31.5 million people – more than any other disaster type – and the report says this figure may even be underestimated.

ESCAP warned many Asia-Pacific nations do not have the information-gathering capacity to mitigate such drought events, leading to an inability to find extra water sources.

The report has called on nations to pay attention to “slow-onset disasters” like drought, noting that an ESCAP programme for monitoring drought conditions is currently being trialled in six countries.

The U.N. World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction will be held in Sendai, Japan from Mar. 14 to 18.

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Human Rights in Asia and the Pacific: A “Regressive” Trend, Says Amnesty International Wed, 25 Feb 2015 23:03:11 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida Protestors armed with bamboo sticks faced police in riot gear in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, on May 4, 2013. Credit: Kajul Hazra/IPS

Protestors armed with bamboo sticks faced police in riot gear in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, on May 4, 2013. Credit: Kajul Hazra/IPS

By Kanya D'Almeida

The cradle of some of the world’s most ancient civilizations, home to four out of the planet’s six billion people, and a battleground for the earth’s remaining resources, Asia and the Pacific are poised to play a defining role in international affairs in the coming decade.

But what does the future look like for those working behind the scenes in these rising economies, fighting to safeguard basic rights and ensure an equitable distribution of wealth and power in a region where 70 percent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day?

In its flagship annual report, the State of the World’s Human Rights, released Wednesday, Amnesty International (AI) slams the overall trend in the region as being “regressive”, pinpointing among other issues a poor track record on media freedom, rising violence against ethnic and religious minorities, and state repression of activists and civil society organisations.

The presence of armed groups and continuing conflict in countries like Pakistan, particularly in its northern tribal belt known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), as well as in Myanmar and Thailand, constitute a major obstacle to millions of people trying to live normal lives.

Much of the region’s sprawling population is constantly on the move, with the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) counting 3.5 million refugees, 1.9 million internally displaced people (IDPs), and 1.4 million stateless people, mostly hailing from Afghanistan and Myanmar.

UNHCR has documented a host of challenges facing these homeless, sometimes stateless, people in the Asia-Pacific region including sexual violence towards vulnerable women and girls and a lack of access to formal job markets pushing thousands into informal, bonded or other exploitative forms of labor.

Intolerance towards religious minorities remains a thorny issue in several countries in Asia; Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have allowed for the continued prosecution of Shi’a Muslims, Ahmadis and Christians, while hard-line Buddhist nationalist groups in both Myanmar and Sri Lanka have operated with impunity, leading to attacks – sometimes deadly – on Muslim communities.

Meanwhile, ethnic Tibetans in China have encountered an iron fist in their efforts to practice their rights to freedom of assembly, speech, and political association. Since 2009, about 130 people have set themselves aflame in protest of the Chinese government’s authoritarian rule in the plateau.

A dark forecast for women and girls

Despite all the conventions ratified and millions of demonstrators in the streets, violence against women and girls continues unchecked across Asia and the Pacific, says the AI report.

In the Pacific island of Papua New Guinea, home to seven million people, an estimated 75 percent of women and girls experience some form of gender-based or domestic violence, largely due to the age-old practice of persecuting women in the predominantly rural country for practicing ‘sorcery’.

In the first six months of 2014, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission had recorded 4,154 cases of violence against women, according to the AI report, while India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reported an average of 24,923 rapes per year.

A 2013 U.N. Women study involving 10,000 men throughout Asia and the Pacific found that nearly half of all respondents admitted to using physical or sexual abuse against a partner.

According to the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), two out of every five girls in South Asia could wind up as child brides, with the highest prevalence in Bangladesh (66 percent), tailed closely by India (47 percent), Nepal (41 percent) and Afghanistan (39 percent).

“In East Asia and the Pacific,” the organisation said, “the prevalence of child marriage is 18 percent, with 9.2 million women aged 20-24 married as children in 2010.”

Holding the State accountable

Amnesty’s report presents a cross-section of government responses to activism, including in China – where rights defender Cao Shunli passed away in a hospital early last year after being refused proper medical treatment – and in North Korea, where “there appeared to be no independent civil society organisations, newspapers or political parties [and] North Koreans were liable to be searched by the authorities and could be punished for reading, watching or listening to foreign media materials.”

Imposition of martial law in Thailand saw the detention of several activists and the banning of gatherings of more than five people, while the re-introduction of “colonial-era sedition legislation” in Malaysia allowed the government to crack down on dissidents, AI says.

Citizens of both Myanmar and Sri Lanka faced a virtually zero-tolerance policy when it came to organised protest, with rights defenders and activists of all stripes detained, threatened, attacked or jailed.

Throughout the region media outlets had a bad year in 2014, with over 200 journalists jailed and at least a dozen murdered according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Amnesty’s report also found torture and other forms of ill treatment to be a continuing reality in the region, naming and shaming such countries as China, North Korea, the Philippines and Sri Lanka for their poor track record.

An earlier Amnesty International report, ‘Torture in 2014: 30 years of broken promises’, found that 23 Asia-Pacific states were still practicing torture, three decades after the U.N. adopted its 1984 Convention Against Torture.

The report found evidence of torture and ill treatment ranging “from North Korea’s brutal labour camps, to Australia’s offshore processing centres for asylum seekers or Japan’s death rows – where prisoners are kept in isolation, sometimes for decades.”

In Pakistan the army, state intelligence agencies and the police all stand accused of resorting to torture, while prisoners detained by both the policy and military in Thailand allege they have experienced torture and other forms of ill treatment while in custody.

In that same vein, governments’ continued reliance on the death penalty across Asia and the Pacific demonstrates a grave violation of rights at the most basic level.

Amnesty International reported that 500 people were at risk of execution in Pakistan, while China, Japan and Vietnam also carried on with the use of capital punishment.

Perhaps the only positive trend was a rise in youth activism across the region, which is home to 640 million people between the ages of 10 and 24, according to the United Nations. The future of the region now lies with these young people, who will have to carve out the spaces in which to build a more tolerant, less violent society.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Opinion: Water and the World We Want Wed, 25 Feb 2015 19:42:58 +0000 Corinne Schuster-Wallace and Robert Sandford Little girls in Timor-Leste cross a rice field after heavy rains carrying water in plastic containers. Credit: UN Photo/Martine Perret

Little girls in Timor-Leste cross a rice field after heavy rains carrying water in plastic containers. Credit: UN Photo/Martine Perret

By Corinne Schuster-Wallace and Robert Sandford
HAMILTON, Canada, Feb 25 2015 (IPS)

We have entered a watershed year, a moment critical for humanity.

As we reflect on the successes and failures of the Millennium Development Goals, we look toward the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals to redress imbalances perpetuated through unsustainable economic growth and to help achieve key universally-shared ambitions, including stable political systems, greater wealth and better health for all.Threat of a global water crisis is often mischaracterised as a lack of water to meet humanity’s diverse needs. It is actually a crisis of not enough water where we want it, when we want it, of sufficient quality to meet needs.

More than any other resource, freshwater underpins sustainable development. Not only is it necessary for life and human well-being, it’s a key element of all human industry.

And a U.N. report launched Feb. 24, “Water in the World We Want,” outlines what must be done within the world’s water system.

Effective management and universal provisioning of drinking water and sanitation coupled with good hygiene are the most critical elements of sustainability and development, preventing disease and death and facilitating education and economic productivity.

While 2 billion people have gained access to improved drinking water since 2000, it is estimated that just as many do not have access to potable quality water, let alone 24-7 service in their homes, schools and health facilities. Furthermore, 2.5 billion people without adequate access and 1 billion with no toilet at all.

If we don’t regain momentum in water sector improvements, population growth, economic instability, Earth system impacts and climate disruption may make it impossible to ever achieve a meaningful level of sustainability.

If this occurs we could face stalling or even reversal of development, meaning more people, not fewer, in poverty, and greater sub-national insecurity over water issues with the potential to create tension and conflict and destabilize countries.

Threat of a global water crisis is often mischaracterised as a lack of water to meet humanity’s diverse needs. It is actually a crisis of not enough water where we want it, when we want it, of sufficient quality to meet needs.

Moreover, changes in atmospheric composition and consequent changes in our climate have altered the envelope of certainty within which we have historically anticipated weather, producing deeper and more persistent droughts and more damaging floods. These changing water circumstances will cascade through the environment, every sector of every economy, and social and political systems around the world.

So what in the world do we do?

To achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, every country must commit funding, institutional resources and tools to the cause — including major realignment of national economic priorities where needed.

New mechanisms are required for transferring and sharing not only money but knowledge, data, technology and “soft” solutions proven in different contexts. Engagement of the private sector is critical in this transfer of technologies and know-how.

National governments must prioritize water, wastewater, and sanitation management, supported by a dedicated and independent arm’s length water agency.

The balance between environment, human security, and economic viability need to be articulated in a manner which holds all nations accountable for helping one another achieve the highest global standard for sustainable development, does not tolerate compromise, yet provides flexibility on the mechanisms by which to achieve those outcomes.

If we want to live in a sustainable world we have to provide clean and reliable sources of water to the billions of people who do not enjoy this basic right today and provide sanitation services to the more than two and a half billion people on Earth who lack even basic toilets.

Agriculture and energy sectors must be held accountable for water use and other system efficiencies while maintaining or increasing productivity. Companies that rely on, or have an interest in, water have a key role to play in financing and implementing sound water, sanitation and wastewater management strategies. Such companies must step up to the plate or risk significant losses. This is no longer simply corporate social responsibility but sound economic investment.

To ensure financial resources for implementation, new and emerging opportunities must be explored in parallel with more efficient expenditures, taking maximum advantage of economies of both scope and scale and accounting for trickle through benefits to many other sectors.

Additional funds can be freed up through phased redirection of the 1.9 trillion dollars currently granted as subsidies to petroleum, coal and gas industries. Corruption, a criminal act in its own right, siphons up to 30 percent of water sector investments which could be viewed as a crime against humanity within the context of sustainable development.

We can still have the sustainable future we want. But only if the world finds renewed determination and resumes the pace needed to reach our water-related development goals.

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. 

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Better to Die at Sea, than Languish in Poverty Wed, 25 Feb 2015 17:31:46 +0000 Amantha Perera For most Sri Lankans seeking asylum in Australia, there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, just a sad return journey home. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

For most Sri Lankans seeking asylum in Australia, there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, just a sad return journey home. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Amantha Perera
COLOMBO, Feb 25 2015 (IPS)

Weerasinghearachilage Ruwan Rangana had it all planned out last year in September: the big break that would change his life and those of his extended family had finally arrived.

The Sri Lankan youth in his early twenties was not too worried that the arrangement meant he had to make a clandestine journey in the middle of the night to a beach, board a two-decade-old trawler with dozens of others and be ready to spend up to three weeks on the high seas in a vessel designed to carry loads of fish.

“Besides trade and security, a large driver of the Australian government’s foreign policy is its single-minded focus on ensuring that all asylum seekers or refugees are processed at offshore facilities." -- Human Rights Watch
He and his fellow commuters prayed that the boat would not crack in two before it reached Australian waters, where they all expected to find a pot of gold at the end of the proverbial rainbow.

Rangana told IPS that most of the roughly three-dozen people on board were leaving in search of better economic prospects, though members of the minority Tamil community are known to take the same journey to escape political persecution.

The boat ride was the relatively easy part. After reaching Australia, Rangana would have to seek asylum, land a job and secure an income, before beginning the process of bringing his family there to join him.

“At least, that was the plan,” said the young man who was a contract employee of the state-owned Ceylon Transport Board in the remote village of Angunakolapelessa in Sri Lanka’s southern Hambantota District earning a monthly salary of 12,000 rupees (about 90 dollars) when he took the boat ride.

Half of the plan – the life-threatening part – worked. The other part – the life-changing one – did not.

Despite a leaking hull, the vessel did reach Australian waters, but was apprehended by the Australian Navy, newly emboldened by a policy to turn back boatloads of asylum seekers after fast-tracked processing at sea, sometimes reportedly involving no more than a single phone call with a border official.

By mid-September Rangana was back in Sri Lanka, at the southern port city of Galle where he and dozens of others who were handed over to Sri Lankan authorities were facing court action.

Thankfully he did not have to spend days inside a police cell or weeks in prison. He was bailed out on 5,000 rupees (about 45 dollars), a stiff sum for his family who barely make 40,000 rupees (about 300 dollars) a month.

Now he sits at home with no job and no savings – having sunk about 200,000 rupees (1,500 dollars) into his spot on the rickety fishing boat – and makes ends meet by doing odd jobs.

“Life is hard, but maybe I can get to Australia some day. I did get to the territorial waters; does that mean I have some kind of legal right to seek citizenship there?” he asks, oblivious to the tough policies of the Australian administration towards immigrants like himself.

Clamping down on ‘illegal’ entry

Since Australia launched Operation Sovereign Borders in September 2013 following the election of Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, at least 15 boats have been turned back at sea, including the one on which Rangana was traveling, to Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

Last year only one boat reached Australia, according to the government.

The programme has resulted in a significant drop in the number of illegal maritime arrivals in Australia. Compared to the one boat that reached Australia in 2014, the 2012-2013 period saw 25,173 persons reaching the country safely.

In the 10 months prior to the controversial military programme, 281 unauthorized boats arrived with a total of 19,578 people on board, according to the Australian Department of Immigration.

Just this past week, Australian authorities interviewed four Sri Lankans at sea, and sent them back to the island. Officials claim that the new screening process saves lives and assures that Australian asylum policies are not abused.

“The Coalition government’s policies and resolve are stopping illegal boat arrivals and are restoring integrity to Australia’s borders and immigration programme. Anyone attempting to enter Australia illegally by sea will never be resettled in this country,” Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s office said in a statement this week.

As of end-January, there were 2,298 persons in immigration detention facilities in Australia, of whom 8.1 percent were Sri Lankans.

The policy has been criticised by activists as well as rights groups, including by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“UNHCR’s position is that they (asylum seekers) must be swiftly and individually screened, in a process which they understand and in which they are able to explain their needs. Such screening is best carried out on land, given safety concerns and other limitations of doing so at sea,” the agency said in a statement earlier this month.

According to the international watchdog Human Rights Watch, “Besides trade and security, a large driver of the Australian government’s foreign policy is its single-minded focus on ensuring that all asylum seekers or refugees are processed at offshore facilities.

“The government has muted its criticism of authoritarian governments in Sri Lanka and Cambodia in recent years, apparently in hopes of winning the support of such governments for its refugee policies,” the rights group added in a statement released last month.

The end of Sri Lanka’s 26-year-long civil conflict and the election of a new, possibly more democratic government in January this year add to Canberra’s justification for turning away those who seek shelter within its borders.

In reality, the risk for asylum seekers is still high. Newly appointed Minister of Justice Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe told IPS that the government was yet to discuss any changes to accepting returnees. “They will face legal action; change in such a policy is not a priority right now,” he added.

Lawyers working with asylum seekers say their clients are unlikely to face extended jail terms, but could be slapped with fines of up to 100,000 rupees (750 dollars), still a lot of money for poor families.

Even if the legal process is swift, and those impounded are able to post bail, their reasons for wanting to leave remain the same.

Take the case of Kanan*, a young man from the war-torn northern town of Kilinochchi. He took a boat in August 2013 after paying a 750-dollar fee, agreeing to pay the remaining 6,750 dollars once he reached Australia.

He never even made it halfway. Six days into the journey, the boat broke down and was towed ashore by the Sri Lankan Navy.

He was fleeing poverty – his home district boasts unemployment rates over twice the national figure of four percent – and possible political persecution, not an unusual occurrence among the Tamil community both during and after Sri Lanka’s civil war.

He knows that very few have gotten to the Australian mainland and that even those whose cases have been deemed legitimate could end up in the Pacific islands of Nauru or Papua New Guinea.

But Kanan still hopes to give his ‘boat dream’ another try. “There is no hope here; even risking death [to reach Australia] is worth it,” says the unemployed youth.

*Name changed on request

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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UN at 70: Mega-Cities, Mortality and Migration Wed, 25 Feb 2015 16:43:38 +0000 Joseph Chamie The world's population reached 7 billion on Oct. 31, 2011. Pictured near an entrance to UN Headquarters is a banner for a global campaign by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) to build awareness of the opportunities and challenges posed by this milestone. Credit: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

The world's population reached 7 billion on Oct. 31, 2011. Pictured near an entrance to UN Headquarters is a banner for a global campaign by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) to build awareness of the opportunities and challenges posed by this milestone. Credit: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

By Joseph Chamie

As the international community marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, one question worthy of some reflection is: Is world population better or worse off demographically since the establishment of the U.N.?

Some contend that the demography of today’s world population is markedly better than it was seven decades ago. Others argue that humanity is definitely worse off demographically and still others – often sceptics and cynics – feel it is neither better nor worse, but just different.This extraordinary demographic growth continues to pose serious challenges for humanity, including food production, pollution, global warming, water shortages, environmental degradation, crowding, reduced biodiversity and socio-economic development.

To consider the merits of those various perspectives and distinguish between personal opinions and measurable facts, it is useful and appropriate to dispassionately examine some fundamental demographic changes that have occurred to world population since the middle of the 20th century.

Perhaps the most visible demographic change is the increased size of world population, which now at 7.3 billion is five billion larger than at the time of the U.N.’s founding.

While world population has more than tripled in size, considerable variation has taken place across regions. Some populations, such as those in sub-Saharan Africa and Western Asia, have increased 500 percent or more over the past seven decades.

In contrast, other populations, such as those in Europe, increased by 40 percent or less over that time span.

The growth of world population, around 1.8 percent per year at mid 20th century, peaked at 2.1 percent in the late 1960s. The current annual rate of global population growth is 1.1 percent, the lowest since the U.N.’s founding.

In terms of absolute numbers, world population was adding approximately 47 million per year in 1950. The annual increase nearly doubled to a peak of 91 million in the late 1980s and then began declining to its current level of 81 million.

An important consequence of the differential rates of demographic growth globally has been the shift in the geographic distribution of world population. Whereas 70 years ago about one-third of world population resided in more developed regions, today that proportion is about half that level or 17 percent.

Also noteworthy are the regional demographic shifts that have occurred. For example, while Europe and Africa at mid 20th century accounted for 22 percent and 8 percent of world population, respectively, their current proportions are 10 percent for Europe and 16 percent for Africa.

Perhaps the most welcomed demographic change in world population that has taken place is the decline in mortality levels, including infant, child and maternal death rates.

During the past 70 years, the global infant mortality rate fell from approximately 140 to 40 infant deaths per 1,000 live births. The improvements in mortality across all age groups have resulted in an average life expectancy at birth for the world of 70 years, a gain of some 25 years since 1950.

Another remarkable transformation in world population over the past seven decades is the decline in fertility.

As a result of men and women gaining unprecedented control over the number, spacing and timing of their children, global fertility has decreased significantly from an average of about 5 births per woman at mid-20th century to 2.5 births per woman today.

Due to the declines in fertility as well as mortality, the age structure of world population has aged markedly. Over the past seven decades, the median age of world population has increased by six years, i.e., from 24 to 30 years.

In addition, the elderly proportion aged 80 years or older has tripled during this time period, increasing from about 0.5 to 1.6 percent.

The sex composition of world population has been relatively balanced and stable over the recent past, with a global sex ratio of around 100 -102 males for every 100 females.

Although slightly more boys are born than girls, many countries, especially the more developed, have more females than males due to lower female mortality rates.

Notable exceptions to that general pattern are China and India, whose population sex ratios are approximately 107 males per 100 females due in part to sex-selective abortion of female fetuses.

Whereas the sex ratio at birth of most countries is around 105 males per 100 females, it is 117 in China and 111 in India, markedly higher than their ratios in the past.

Increased urbanisation is another significant demographic transformation in world population. A literal revolution in urban living has occurred across the planet during the past seven decades.

Whereas a minority of world population, 30 percent, lived in urban areas in 1950, today the majority of the world, 54 percent, consists of urban dwellers. The migration to urban places took place across all regions, with many historically rural, less developed countries, such as China, Indonesia, Iran and Turkey, rapidly transformed to predominantly urban societies.

Another striking demographic change in world population is the emergence of mega-cities — agglomerations of 10 million or more inhabitants. In 1950, there was a single city in this category: New York, with 12.3 million inhabitants.

Today there are 28 mega-cities, with Tokyo being the largest at 38 million inhabitants, followed by Delhi with 25 million, Shanghai with 23 million and Mexico City, Mumbai and San Paulo each with approximately 21 million.

In addition to internal movements within nations, international migration across countries and regions has also increased markedly over the past decades. A half-century ago 77 million or nearly 3 percent of world population were immigrants, meaning they live in a place different from their place of birth. That figure has tripled to 232 million, representing slightly more than 3 percent of world population.

While most of the international migration is lawful, increasing numbers of men, women and children are choosing due to circumstance and desire to immigrate outside legal channels.

And while precise figures of migrants unlawfully resident are difficult to establish, the total number worldwide is estimated at least 50 million.

The numbers of refugees have also increased substantially during the recent past. At mid-20th century, an estimated one million people remained uprooted following the world war.

In the early 1990s the number of refugees peaked at around 18 million. Latest estimates put the global number of refugees at 16.7 million and growing.

Also, the total number of people forced to flee their homes due to conflict, which includes refugees, asylum seekers and internal displaced persons, has reached 51.2 million, the first time it has exceeded 50 million since the World War II.

From the above discussion, most would probably agree that while some aspects of world population are clearly better today than 70 years ago, others are not necessarily better and still others are decidedly worse.

Lower mortality rates and people living longer lives are certainly welcomed improvements. Men and women having the ability to decide more easily and freely the number, spacing and timing of births has also been an advance.

The logical consequence of lower mortality and fertility is population aging, a remarkable achievement that will, however, require major societal adjustments.

The scale of refugees and internally displaced person is plainly worse than a half century ago. The growing numbers and difficult circumstances of those fleeing their homes are unlikely to improve in the near future given the increasing political upheaval, ongoing civil conflicts and deteriorating economic conditions in many parts of the world.

Finally, the unprecedented growth of world population – the most rapid in human history –added about 5 billion more people since the mid 20th century.

This extraordinary demographic growth continues to pose serious challenges for humanity, including food production, pollution, global warming, water shortages, environmental degradation, crowding, reduced biodiversity and socio-economic development.

The recent declines in world population growth provide some indication of future demographic stabilisation or peaking, perhaps as early as the close of the 21st century.

At that time, would population is expected to be about 10 billion, 2.5 billion more than today or four times as many people as were living on the planet when the United Nations was founded.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Big Trouble in the Air in India Wed, 25 Feb 2015 01:46:00 +0000 Neeta Lal Vehicle ownership in India is projected to hit 400 million by 2040 from the current 170 million, which could prompt a five-fold increase in poisonous gases emitted by cars and trucks. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

Vehicle ownership in India is projected to hit 400 million by 2040 from the current 170 million, which could prompt a five-fold increase in poisonous gases emitted by cars and trucks. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

By Neeta Lal
NEW DELHI, Feb 25 2015 (IPS)

Like many others of her age, 15-year-old Aastha Sharma, a Class 10 student at a private school in India’s capital, New Delhi, loves being outdoors, going for walks with her friends and enjoying an occasional ice-cream. But the young girl can’t indulge in any of these activities.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a lung disorder likely caused by Delhi’s heavily polluted air, has severely cramped the girl’s lifestyle, confining her mostly to her home.

An estimated 1.5 million people die annually in India due to indoor and outdoor air pollution.
For the past three years, Sharma’s life has been a whirligig of doctors’ prescriptions, missed social outings and a restricted diet that does not include most of her favourite foods. Along with books and a lunchbox, she also packs a nebulizer in her satchel daily to ward off the wheezing attacks that she has now come to dread.

“I’m sick of the endless do’s and don’ts I have to follow. When will I be able to lead a free life?” the teen wonders.

Many other youngsters in Delhi are asking the very same question as they grapple with the effects of rampant air pollution in this city of 18 million, believed to be world’s most polluted.

Particulate matter: a deadly matter

Greenpeace India, an environmental NGO, recently released findings of its air quality monitoring survey highlighting how poor the air was inside five prominent schools in the capital.

“Air pollution levels inside Delhi’s schools are alarmingly high and children are consistently breathing bad air. The new government needs to acknowledge the severity of air pollution in the city,” said Aishwarya Madineni, a campaigner with Greenpeace.

Another study conducted in 2014, which monitored 11,628 school-going children from 36 schools in Delhi in different seasons, found that every third child in the city had reduced lung function because of particulate pollution.

In a report submitted last year to the Supreme Court, the country’s Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority urged the apex court to order all schools in Delhi to shut down on days when air pollution levels posed a threat to public health.

Studies by the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) point out that when children are exposed to particulate matter – a complex mixture of acids (nitrates and sulfates), organic chemicals, metals, and soil or dust particles – of 2.5 micrometers, it can trigger a raft of deadly respiratory illnesses.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified particulate matter pollution as carcinogenic to humans in 2013 and designated it as a “leading environmental cause of cancer deaths.”

“Apart from mucous membranes and nasal cavities, air pollution also severely irritates eyes and skin. Exposure to high levels of pollution can lead to serious health [issues] in the long run,” warns Dr. Abha Sood, a senior consultant oncologist at the New Delhi-based Max Hospital.

Mothers’ exposure to pollution for prolonged periods, adds the specialist, can lead to malformation of organs in newborns.

“[Particulate Matter] of less than 10 micrometers in diameter (PM 10) is particularly insidious as it gets lodged deep inside the lungs and penetrates the bloodstream, heightening a person’s vulnerability to cancer and heart disease,” she explains.

A national crisis

India’s high levels of air pollution, ranked by the WHO as being among the worst in the world, are adversely impacting the life spans of its citizens, reducing most Indian lives by over three years, says a study by economists from the Universities of Chicago, Harvard and Yale.

Over half of India’s population – roughly 660 million people – live in areas where fine particulate matter pollution is above India’s standards for what is considered safe, said the study.

If India reverses this trend to meet its air standards, this demographic would gain about 3.2 years in their expected life spans, according to the study. In other words, cleaner air would save 2.1 billion life-years, it said.

Furthermore, India has the distinction of recording the world’s highest death rate from chronic respiratory diseases, and more deaths from asthma than any other nation, according to the WHO. The health organisation also claims that India is home to 13 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities.

An estimated 1.5 million people die annually in India due to indoor and outdoor air pollution, which also contributes to both chronic and acute heart disease, the leading cause of death in the country.

In a report submitted to the Supreme Court in December 2014, the country’s Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority called for increasing the tax on diesel cars, and banning all private vehicles on high air pollution days.

The report also advised that cars older than 15 years be taken off the city’s roads and air purifiers installed at crowded markets; it also called for a crackdown on the burning of trash.

However, the implementation of these measures has been patchy at best, say health activists. Worse, vehicle ownership in India is projected to hit 400 million by 2040 from the current 170 million, says a joint study by the Energy and Resources Institute at the University of California, San Diego, and the California Air Resources Board.

This could result in a health crisis – a three-fold increase in PM 2.5 levels and a five-fold increase in poisonous, highly reactive gases emitted by cars and trucks, the study predicted.

The economic cost of pollution is already proving to be a heavy burden for Asia’s third largest economy. A 2013 World Bank Report highlighted how pollution and other environmental challenges costs India 80 billion dollars a year, nearly six percent of its gross domestic product (GDP).

About 23 percent of child mortality and 2.5 percent of all adult deaths in the country can be attributed to environmental degradation, the study further stated.

Coal-based power: adding fuel to the fire

Air pollution is now the fifth-leading cause of death in India. Between 2000 and 2010, the annual number of premature deaths linked to air pollution across India shot up six-fold to 620,000, according to the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), an advocacy group in New Delhi.

Another CSE study out this week has sounded alarm bells over air pollution, particularly from coal-based power plants. The two-year comprehensive environmental audit, conducted on 47 thermal power plants owned by the Centre, state governments and private players, has found that Indian thermal power plants were among the most inefficient in the world, on an average operating at 60 to 70 percent of their installed capacity.

The coal-based power plants were also found to have carbon dioxide emissions that were 14 percent higher than similar plants in China. Also, 76 percent of the plants were unable to meet the targets for ulitisation of ‘fly ash‘, imposed by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF).

With the government showing little interest in formulating a cohesive action plan – involving all stakeholders – for tackling the many-headed hydra of air pollution, it looks like Sharma and her nebulizer will be inseparable for a while.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Syria’s “Barrel Bombs” Cause Human Devastation, Says Rights Group Tue, 24 Feb 2015 22:18:26 +0000 Thalif Deen A girl cries near a damaged car at a site hit by what activists said were barrel bombs dropped by government forces in Aleppo's Dahret Awwad neighbourhood Jan. 29, 2014. Credit: Freedom House/cc by 2.0

A girl cries near a damaged car at a site hit by what activists said were barrel bombs dropped by government forces in Aleppo's Dahret Awwad neighbourhood Jan. 29, 2014. Credit: Freedom House/cc by 2.0

By Thalif Deen

The warring parties in the brutal four-year-old military conflict in Syria, which has claimed the lives of over 200,000 civilians and triggered “the greatest refugee crisis in modern times,” continue to break every single pledge held out to the United Nations.

Despite Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s plea for a political rather than military solution to the country’s ongoing civil war, both the Syrian government and the multiple rebel forces continue to escalate the conflict with aerial attacks and artillery shelling, hindering the delivery of humanitarian aid.“Amid talk of a possible temporary cessation of strikes on Aleppo, the question is whether Russia and China will finally allow the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions to stop barrel bombs.” -- Nadim Houry

But the worst of it, says Human Rights Watch (HRW) in report released Tuesday, is the use of locally improvised deadly “barrel bombs.”

By examining satellite imagery, HRW said, it has identified at least 450 distinct major damage sites in 10 towns and villages held by rebel groups in Daraa and over 1,000 in Aleppo between February last year and January this year.

“These impact sites have damage signatures strongly consistent with the detonation of large, air-dropped munitions, including improvised barrel and conventional bombs dropped by helicopters. Damages that possibly result from the use of rockets, missiles, or fuel-air bombs are also likely in a number of instances,” the group said.

According to HRW, barrel bombs are unguided high explosive weapons that are cheaply made, locally produced, and typically constructed from large oil drums, gas cylinders, and water tanks, filled with high explosives and scrap metal to enhance fragmentation, and then dropped from helicopters usually flying at high altitude.

Asked if the explosives in the barrel bombs originate either from Russia or China, two strong political and military allies of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the United Nations Director of HRW Philippe Bolopion told IPS: “We are not in a position to say where the high explosive is coming from but barrel bombs are pretty primitive and made from commonly found materials.”

With the 15-member Security Council deadlocked over Syria, there is little or no hope that Russia and China, two members with veto powers, will ever relent or penalise the Assad regime despite several resolutions.

“We certainly hope they will stand by their own resolution and impose consequences on the regime for thumbing its nose at the Security Council,” Bolopion said.

Asked if protests by HRW and other human rights organisations will be an exercise in futility, he said: “Sadly, when thousands of civilians are being slaughtered, we have to continue to place the Security Council, and Russia and China in particular, in front of their responsibilities, no matter how futile it may sound.”

Nadim Houry, HRW’s deputy Middle East and North Africa director, said: “For a year, the Security Council has done nothing to stop Bashar al-Assad’s murderous air bombing campaign on rebel-held areas, which has terrorized, killed, and displaced civilians.

“Amid talk of a possible temporary cessation of strikes on Aleppo, the question is whether Russia and China will finally allow the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions to stop barrel bombs,” Houry said.

The Security Council is expected to meet Thursday for its next round of reporting on resolution 2139 of Feb. 22, 2014, which demanded that all parties to the conflict in Syria end the indiscriminate use of barrel bombs and other weapons in populated areas.

In a statement released Tuesday, HRW said non-state armed groups have also conducted indiscriminate attacks, including with car bombs and explosive weapons in government held areas.

The Security Council should impose an arms embargo on the government as well as rebel groups implicated in widespread or systematic indiscriminate attacks, HRW said.

The government attacks have led to the death and injury of thousands of civilians in rebel-held territory, according to HRW researchers.

The Violations Documentation Center (VDC), a local monitoring group, has documented 609 civilian deaths, including 203 children and 117 women, in Daraa from aerial attacks between Feb. 22, 2014, and Feb. 19, 2015.

During the same period they have documented 2,576 civilian deaths in Aleppo governorate from aerial attacks, including 636 children and 317 women.

While deaths from aerial attacks are not exclusively from barrel bombs, residents from rebel-held territory in Daraa and Aleppo told HRW that barrel bombs account for a majority of air strikes.

Last week, Ban appealed to all parties to de-escalate the conflict in order to provide a reprieve for the long-suffering civilians of Syria. An immediate de-escalation is a much needed step towards a political solution to the conflict, he added

U.N. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura told the Security Council last week that the Syrian government has committed to suspend all aerial attacks and artillery shelling over the entire city of Aleppo for a period of six weeks.

This is in order to allow the United Nations to implement a pilot project of unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid starting with one district in Aleppo and building incrementally to others.

Ban said Security Council resolution 2139 called for an end to the indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas in Syria, including shelling and aerial bombardment, and expects the Syrian government to follow through on its commitment.

The secretary-general also appealed to all armed opposition groups in Aleppo to suspend their shelling of the city.

He pointed out that the last four years of war have led to the deaths of over 200,000 civilians, the greatest refugee crisis of modern times and created an environment in which extremist groups and terrorist organisations such as ISIL/Daesh flourish.

The secretary-general recalled Security Council resolutions 2170 and 2178 and stressed that there is no military solution to this conflict.

“This is a political conflict. Ending the killing, reversing the increasing fragmentation of Syria requires a political process, based on the full implementation of the Geneva Communique of 2012, that addresses the deep roots of the conflict and meets the aspirations of all Syrians,” he added.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at

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Analysis: Collaboration Key for a Clean India Tue, 24 Feb 2015 19:07:32 +0000 Neeraj Jain Sanitation infrastructure in India’s sprawling slums remains a massive challenge. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

Sanitation infrastructure in India’s sprawling slums remains a massive challenge. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

By Neeraj Jain
NEW DELHI, Feb 24 2015 (IPS)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call to action for a 100 percent Open Defecation Free (ODF) India by 2019 was announced as part of the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) or Clean India Campaign last year.

With 60 percent of all those practising open defecation globally residing in India, this task is particularly crucial, yet also challenging.We need to think how we are going to engage and influence the behaviour of such a massive audience. It probably requires the most ambitious behaviour change campaign ever attempted in the history of any nation.

Inadequate waste management leads to the contamination of water sources, contributing to diarrhoeal diseases that claim the lives of 186,000 children every single year.

With nowhere safe to go to the toilet, women and girls are often put in a vulnerable position as they seek somewhere private to relieve themselves.

A lack of adequate sanitation also has a substantial impact on economic development, with money repeatedly being lost due to workers being sick or taking time off to care for sick family members, not to mention the cost of medical treatment.

So is the 2019 target actually achievable?

It may sound like a tall order but we won’t know until we try. We need to look at the ways to make it work – implement this seemingly ambitious plan in an effective manner to make the target achievable. Not just admit defeat before we start.

The recent pace of the activities under the SBM suggests that India would become clean by 2070. To achieve the target around 50,000 toilets need to be built every day, without compromising on quality.

So it’s high time that we stop focussing on the problems and start discussing possible solutions.

With this in mind, WaterAid India organised an India WASH Summit in New Delhi last week. It was the first of its kind and was aimed at devising solutions to India’s sanitation crisis and shaping future collaboration to achieve Swachh Bharat’s ambitious target of a toilet for every household by Oct. 2, 2019. 

This landmark event, organised in partnership with the Ministry of Drinking Water & Sanitation and Ministry of Urban Development, brought together the government, the private sector and civil society groups working to make clean India a reality.

The summit concluded with the creation of a concrete set of recommendations to be shared with the government of India to help in the effective implementation of the SBM across a number of themes including behaviour, equity and inclusion, gender, water security, institutional transformation, technology, research, and convergence of nutrition, health and education.

Collaboration emerged as a key theme at the summit, both within the sector as well as with organisations focussing on nutrition, health and education. Participants at the summit stressed the importance of capacity building and the need for effective monitoring.

It was agreed that sanitation should be acknowledged as a basic human right. To ensure success in getting sanitation for all, programmes need to be equitable and inclusive and should include behaviour change at its core.

Previous initiatives have taught us that just building toilets is not enough. To stimulate demand for toilets, hygiene education and collective initiatives are key.

We need to think how we are going to engage and influence the behaviour of such a massive audience. It probably requires the most ambitious behaviour change campaign ever attempted in the history of any nation.

The overall budget of the programme (rural as well as urban) as estimated by the government is almost Rs. 3 lakh crores (50 billion dollars).

I believe that answers to all hurdles identified above do exist but the entire WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) sector need to come together to find the most suitable answers as well as the most effective ways to implement it, in record time.

WaterAid has been working in the WASH sector in India since 1986 and is committed to supporting the government of India in realising the ambitious but much needed goal of making India open defecation free by Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary in October 2019.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Tackling Corruption at its Root in Papua New Guinea Tue, 24 Feb 2015 15:50:04 +0000 Catherine Wilson Transparency International (PNG) organises an annual Walk Against Corruption in Papua New Guinea's capital, Port Moresby. Credit: Kanya D’Almeida/IPS

Transparency International (PNG) organises an annual Walk Against Corruption in Papua New Guinea's capital, Port Moresby. Credit: Kanya D’Almeida/IPS

By Catherine Wilson
SYDNEY, Feb 24 2015 (IPS)

Corruption, the single largest obstacle to socioeconomic development worldwide, has had a grave impact on the southwest Pacific Island nation of Papua New Guinea. While mineral resource wealth drove high gross domestic product (GDP) growth of eight percent in 2012, the country is today ranked 157th out of 187 countries in terms of human development.

Key anti-corruption fighters in the country say that money laundering must be tackled to increase deterrence and ensure that stolen public funds earmarked for vital hospitals and schools do not pay for luxury assets abroad.

A patronage system of governance and a culture of secrecy have led to the misappropriation of an estimated half of Papua New Guinea's development budget of 7.6 billion kina (about 2.8 billion dollars) between 2009 and 2011 -- Investigation Task-Force Sweep (ITFS)
“Our police officers, school teachers and health workers live and work in very squalid circumstances,” Lawrence Stephens, chairman of Transparency International (PNG), in the capital, Port Moresby, told IPS.

“So when we see the government awarding a contract for pharmaceutical and medical supplies to a company not qualified to tender, a company quoting a price 40 percent higher than the closest qualified tender and costing the equivalent of 160 new homes for nurses each year of the three-year contract, we blame corrupt individuals for destroying development.”

Papua New Guinea has been given a corruption score of 25/100, where 100 indicates clean governance, in comparison to the world average of 43/100, by Transparency International.

The country’s dedicated anti-corruption team, Investigation Task-Force Sweep (ITFS), launched by the government in 2011, has described the country as a ‘mobocracy’, where a patronage system of governance and a culture of secrecy have led to the misappropriation of an estimated half of the development budget of 7.6 billion kina (about 2.8 billion dollars) from 2009 to 2011.

Large-scale theft of public funds, including foreign aid, is alleged to have occurred across government departments responsible for national planning, health, petroleum and energy, finance and justice.

A 2006 Public Accounts Committee Inquiry into the Lands Department alone concluded that it had conducted itself illegally over many years and given priority to the interests of private enterprise and speculators over the interests and lawful rights of the State. The department’s shortfall in revenue was 5.9 million kina (2.2 million dollars) in 2001 and 4.9 million kina (1.8 million dollars) in 2003.

State capture, where powerful private sector interests exert undue influence over state leaders, officials and procurement processes, has had devastating repercussions for national development. Approval of ‘white elephant projects’ has channelled windfalls to criminal syndicates, Sam Koim, the ITFS Chairman, reported in the Griffith Law Journal.

Koim told IPS that, of 302 cases of corruption entailing revenue of up to 5.3 billion kina (1.9 billion dollars) under investigation, 91 had been prosecuted. Twenty-eight senior public servants have been suspended or removed from office, while two Members of Parliament and two senior public servants have been convicted and jailed.

To date, 8.3 million kina (3.1 million dollars) in proceeds of crime have been recovered, but including all outstanding cases this figure could potentially rise to 500 million kina (187 million dollars). Investigation into corporate tax evasion has led to the restitution of 22.6 million kina (8.4 million dollars).

Globally it is estimated that corruption drains the developing world of up to one trillion dollars every year and what is lost is in the magnitude of 10 times the official development assistance budget, claims the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

This has impacted increasing inequality in countries such as PNG, where 40 percent of the population of seven million live below the poverty line, maternal mortality is 711 per 100,000 live births, literacy is just 63 percent and only 19 percent of people have access to sanitation.

It is a vicious cycle, as Koim also believes that the state becomes an alternative source of personal prosperity when there are few legitimate avenues available for people to economically improve their lives.

Banks crucial to fighting corruption

The majority of stolen funds have been transferred through banks to offshore investments. Australia receives about 200 million Australia dollars (155 million dollars) of illicit gains from the Melanesian island state every year, claims the Australian Federal Police.

Several PNG politicians have purchased luxury homes with a total estimated value of 11.5 million Australian dollars (8.9 million dollars) in the northern Australian city of Cairns.

“Without banks and financial institutions, it is impossible to commit economic crimes, such as fraud and money laundering,” states the Investigation Task-Force Sweep (ITFS).

In a report last year on the government’s payment of fraudulent legal fees, ITFS identified numerous control gaps, such as lack of written contracts, oversight of procurement and payment clearance processes and the failure of banks to prevent evidently suspicious transactions.

“The duty imposed on banks to avoid engaging in money laundering should not be limited to ticking the boxes or submitting periodic transaction reports, but also taking proactive steps including rejecting transactions and closing bank accounts,” the report recommended. Sixty-five percent of PNG’s financial sector assets are held by commercial banks, including foreign bank subsidiaries.

There are also gaps between national legislation and banking sector regulations. For instance, money laundering is a criminal offence under the Proceeds of Crime Act (2005), but there is no obligation on banks to check inexplicably large or unorthodox patterns of transactions.

Action is also required by recipient nations, experts say. Professor Jason Sharman of the Centre for Governance and Public Policy at Queensland’s Griffith University told IPS that there was a need for improved government “supervisory responsibility to make sure that Australian banks are not accepting suspect funds from PNG Politically Exposed Persons (PEPs).”

“One of the main weaknesses is in the Australian real estate sector with very little scrutiny of foreign money coming in, especially when, as is often the case, this money is routed via lawyers’ or real estate agents’ trust accounts,” he added.

But progress by the anti-corruption team has accelerated broader action. “A number of PNG-based banks have closed accounts of high risk customers and refused suspicious transactions”, while some international corresponding banks “have refused transactions they view to have originated from illicit sources,” ITFS reports.

Reducing and preventing corruption is a long-term battle, which includes addressing the cultural divide between an introduced western government system and centuries of traditional governance based on a leader’s ability to acquire and distribute resources to his own kin. But if corruption is driven largely by the lure of a quick route to untold personal wealth, then a critical measure now is eliminating safe havens for the plunder.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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At the Margins of a Hot War, Somalis Are ‘Hanging on by a Thread’ Tue, 24 Feb 2015 11:14:14 +0000 Lisa Vives Credit: Oxfam/Petterik Weggers

Credit: Oxfam/Petterik Weggers

By Lisa Vives
NEW YORK, Feb 24 2015 (IPS)

After twin suicide bombings at a popular Mogadishu hotel last week that killed 25 and wounded 40, news reporters were seen swarming through the city, spotlighting the victims, the assassins, the motives and the official response.

This left actor Barkhad Abdi, who played opposite Tom Hanks in the movie Captain Phillip and was making his first visit to Somalia since age seven, unlikely to have the usual paparazzi following his every move.Ordinary Somalis have been facing life without a lifeline since the shutdown of money transfers that have been key in rebuilding Somali lives.

Yet Abdi, a Goodwill Ambassador for Adeso, a Kenya-based development charity, was there to bring attention to the plight of ordinary Somalis, facing life without a lifeline since the shutdown of money transfers that have been key in rebuilding Somali lives.

The money – over a quarter of a billion dollars from the U.S. alone – comes from families in the diaspora, the charity Oxfam America reports.

“The small amounts of money that members of the Somali diaspora send their loved ones comprise Somalia’s most important source of revenue,” wrote OxfamAmerica on its website. “Remittances to Somalia represent between 25 and 45 percent of its economy and are greater than humanitarian aid, development aid, and foreign direct investment combined.

“Remittances empower women and help give young men alternatives to fighting in armed groups. The money is the country’s lifeline.”

Because Somalia lacks a formal banking system, small companies were established, run by money transfer operators who could safely and legally deliver money to relatives and friends in Somalia. These companies used bank accounts to wire the money but most of those banks have shut down including the California-based Merchants Bank just last month.

According to the banks, around one percent of money transfer firms could not be properly investigated and pass due diligence checks by the federal currency control office. Yet this decision ignored the 99 percent of money transfer businesses which have been operating in this sector for decades.

Most money wired to Somalia originates in the U.S.

The move by Merchants Bank to pull the plug on the money transfer network could force law-abiding U.S.-based Somalis to choose between three options, according to Professor Laura Hammond of the UK School of Oriental and African Studies.

“They can stop sending money to their relatives living in the Horn of Africa. They can try to find alternative legal channels, but as a result are likely to be charged much higher transfer rates, reducing the amount of money their relatives receive. Or they can use unregulated and illegal ways to send money.”

Opinion writer George Monbiot put it more strongly. The U.S. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which triggered the bank closings, is, he charged: “The world’s most powerful terrorist recruiting sergeant… Its decision to cause a humanitarian catastrophe in one of the poorest, most troubled places on Earth could resonate around the world for decades.

“During the 2011 famine in Somalia, British Somalis saved hundreds of thousands of lives by remitting money … reaching family members before aid agencies could mobilise,” he wrote in The Guardian newspaper.

“Government aid agencies then used the same informal banking system – the hawala – to send money to 1.5 million people, saving hundreds of thousands more. Today, roughly 3 million of Somalia’s 7 million people are short of food. Shut off the funds and the results are likely to be terrible.

“Money transfers from abroad also pay for schooling, housing, business start-ups and all the means by which a country can lift itself out of dependency and chaos,” he continued. “Yes, banking has its uses, as well as its abuses. Compare this pointless destruction with the US government’s continued licensing of HSBC.”

Alternative, if more expensive, means of sending money legally, for instance through Western Union, are possible for some but not for people sending money to smaller towns and rural areas in Somalia and other parts of the Horn, where Western Union and smaller companies that still send remittances do not have a presence.

Instead, according to Oxfam, a large proportion of the 200 million dollars sent from the U.S. to Somalia each year will be forced underground. People will send money the way they did before Somali money transfer companies were formed: in cash, stashed in bags and pockets, or in other ways that will be impossible to track.

Meanwhile, as Abdi made a tour of his country of birth to see the impact of the diaspora dollars, he came in for a shock.

“Based on what you hear on the news, I expected to see a shattered country,” Abdi recalled from his visit. “But what I saw instead was a place full of resilience, entrepreneurship and hope.”

Accompanied by his sponsor, the Nairobi-based Adeso service agency, he said he met with young men who were learning how to become electricians to take part of the rebuilding of their country, and with women who were using newly acquired skills to come together and open successful businesses.

“When I was in Somalia I didn’t just see conflict, drought, and hunger,” Abdi said. “I saw people building a better future for themselves. And part of the reason why they’ve been able to do so is because of the remittances they receive from overseas. Let’s not threaten that lifeline and risk reversing all the gains that are being made.”

Hawala is one of Africa’s great success stories, wrote Monbiot. “But it can’t work unless banks in donor nations are permitted to transfer funds to Somalia.”

The report, “Hanging on by a Thread,” by Oxfam, Adeso and the Global Center on Cooperative Security, can be found on the Oxfam website.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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South African Miners In Near Death Fire As Investors Eye Profits Tue, 24 Feb 2015 06:49:08 +0000 Lisa Vives By Lisa Vives
NEW YORK, Feb 24 2015 (IPS)

An early morning fire swept through the Kusasalethu gold mine, southwest of Johannesburg, trapping close to 500 workers on a Sunday shift.

The miners were more than 7,500 feet underground when the incident was reported. Three underground fires were reported in October last year and at least one two-week mine closure.

Prayers were said and all the men were pulled to safety after efforts taking 11 hours.

South Africa’s gold mines are the deepest in the world and were ranked as among the most dangerous during the apartheid era. The industry recorded over 100 deaths per year before 2013, according to the mines ministry.

Ironically, the near-disaster coincided with two major mining summits – called Indabas – though a huge difference separated the two. At one summit – called the Alternative Indaba – were actual miners, or those from mining-affected communities. At the other indaba, called Investing in African Mining, where tickets cost skyward of 23,000 rand (1,900 U.S. dollars), were corporate executives, government delegations and investors from over 2,300 international companies

The two mining indabas take place in Cape Town every February and are about 5 kms apart, but their stark differences suggest they could be taking place at opposite ends of the world,” observed Ann Crotty in Business Day Live, a South African publication.

Rebecca Davis of the Daily Maverick newspaper, who attended the alternative indaba, described the mood. “People were angry,” she wrote. “They were so angry, in fact, that the first address of the first day could not be completed without activists demanding the microphone, determined to have their say.“

At the summit opening, a march was organized with signs reading: “Please leave my land, I am using it for agriculture (I am a widow)”. “Stop polluting our water.” “Africa is not for sale!” “Our mineral resources, our future!” “It’s not development when the environment is being destroyed.” “No to tax dodging!”

Some 300 delegates signed in for the alternative indaba with representatives from 37 countries – making it the largest such gathering yet. Complaints ranged from poisoned air and water, the lack of jobs for locals, and the growing poverty since the mining companies arrived.

“They talk of monetary wealth, we talk of real wealth,” a community member was heard to say.

Social action groups confirmed some of the worst abuses of the mining companies. “We know of no case where a community is benefiting from mining,” said John Capel, head of the Bench Marks Foundation.

Southern African Resource Watch’s Georges Bokundu summed it up: “Mining copper, gold [and so on] has brought no development to DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo). Only more conflict.”

Lawyer Gilbert Makore of the Zimbabwean Environmental Law Association, said: “Most communities have never seen an environmental impact assessment report”. Even if they are granted access to such a report, the language is often highly technical, and often in English only.“

Indaba attendees also challenged the well-worn narrative about so-called illegal miners or “zama-zama.” Apparently, “legitimate” mining activity can only be undertaken by European and North American mining corporations, they said. “It’s like when Europeans kill endangered animals they call it hunting, but when Africans do it they call it poaching,” added an audience member.

Meanwhile, Joseph Mathunjwa, head of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, said they will also call for a safety audit of Harmony Gold, owner of Kusasalethu, as the fire is not the first of its kind at the company’s operations.

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Troop-Contributing Nations Feel Disempowered In Peacekeeping Operations Tue, 24 Feb 2015 06:44:57 +0000 Josh Butler By Josh Butler

Nations contributing troops to U.N. peacekeeping missions often feel disempowerment and a lack of influence over mission strategies, according to a new European report.

The ‘Future Peace Operations Landscape’ report, launched at U.N. headquarters in New York last week, found that troop contributing countries, or TCCs, feel they are treated with less respect and have less purview over mission planning than financial contributing countries, or FCCs.

Dr Jair van der Lijn, Head of Peace Operations and Conflict Management at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), said it was important the relationship between FCCs and TCCs be carefully managed.

“TCCs feel they have better ideas of what is realistic and what’s not, and the FCCs have lost touch with operational reality,” Van der Lijn said. “The relationship must be addressed, or it will lead to less solidarity in the peace operations system.”

The report – a project between SIPRI, German institute Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and Finland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs – was compiled from interviews with diplomats, military personnel and peacekeeping experts.

Van der Lijn said it was critical TCCs be better included in operational strategy and planning.

“They feel entitled to have influence over practicalities, as they are the ones putting their lives at risk,” he said, citing many TCCs feeling a “broad lack of respect” from FCCs.

“The solution is to increase the role of TCCs in decision making, and more respect for TCCs, particularly those from Africa, by acknowledging their efforts and increasing training and equipment.”

Edmond Mulet, Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, also spoke of the need to “rebalance” the relationship between contributors to peacekeeping missions.

“Partnerships are essential as we look to the future of U.N. peacekeeping,” Mulet said.

“We need to acknowledge each organisation has different strengths and standards. About 80% of U.N. peacekeepers are deployed in Africa, so our partnerships with the African Union and African sub-regional groups are absolutely fundamental.”

Van der Lijn said MINUSMA, the U.N. mission in Mali, was currently the most dangerous operations to deploy peacekeepers to. Mulet also reinforced the need for more effective mission plans.

“We need to align aims with means, and manage expectations. The secretariat needs to be clear in what it can achieve,” he said. “The Security Council should grant realistic mandates, and ensure the sequencing of deployments is right.”

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Ugandan Peace Activist Tipped For Famed Peace Prize Tue, 24 Feb 2015 06:33:45 +0000 Lisa Vives By Lisa Vives
NEW YORK, Feb 24 2015 (IPS)

From a camp for displaced people amidst war, Victor Ochen was never far from the strife that afflicted Uganda over a decade ago. The Lord’s Resistance Army abducted his elder brother and cousin. Their whereabouts are still unknown.

Since then, Ochen has turned his personal pain into an initiative that aims to rehabilitate victims of war by providing psycho-social support and lifesaving healthcare.

As the head of the African Youth Initiative Network (Ayinet), he joins Edward Snowden, Pope Francis and Mussie Zerai, an Italian priest of Eritrean origin – all nominees for the prestigious Nobel Prize.

The American Friends Services Committee (AFSC) wrote: “Mr Ochen has shown commitment and effectiveness in his efforts to address the needs of victims. By working for transitional justice, he has been able to promote human rights through non-violent means.”

Ochen is a graduate of the Archbishop Desmond Tutu Leadership Fellowship Programme and his nomination thrilled the prelate.

“Mr Ochen is part of a special group of African leaders who have graduated from the programme and I wish him well as a potential recipient of this auspicious honor,” Archbishop Tutu said.

Most recently, Ayinet stepped into the debate over the role of the International Criminal Court (ICC) which has been gathering information on atrocities committed by the Lord’s Resistance Army since being invited into the country in January 2004.

Ayinet rebuked the court for now closing its northern Ugandan operations to reopen in Nairobi, Kenya.

“Local Partners regard the decision as nothing less than a withdrawal of Outreach,” Ayinet wrote in a position paper. The move “dangerously downplays the seriousness of the conflict in northern Uganda and its horrific aftermath… It will decrease pressure on relevant actors to pursue Uganda’s cases with urgency, domestically and internationally.”

The ICC was further criticised for ignoring the actions of the government of Uganda which “not only failed to protect its citizens but compounded their misery by forcing much of the rural population into so-called “protected villages,” wrote Lucy Hovil, senior researcher of the International Refugee Rights Initiative.

“The ICC inadvertently promoted the government’s narrative of the conflict,” she wrote. “It appears to have become complicit in enabling President (Yoweri) Museveni to maintain power for almost three decades.”

Meanwhile, activist Ochen will know in October if he has bagged the celebrated prize, which consists of a Nobel Medal and Diploma and $1.2 million in cash.

“My work in supporting victims and survivors of war, advocating for human rights, engaging in peace and reconciliation, is out of inspiration,” said Ochen, “and I hope this recognition will shift the attention from the perpetrators to the victims and survivors of wars not only in Africa, but worldwide.”

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Can Nepal’s TRC Finally Bring Closure to its War Survivors? Tue, 24 Feb 2015 02:36:27 +0000 Renu Kshetry Suman Adhikari, son of Muktinath Adhikari, a school principal who was killed by Maoist rebels during Nepal’s People’s War, says his family is still waiting for justice to be served. Credit: Renu Kshetry/IPS

Suman Adhikari, son of Muktinath Adhikari, a school principal who was killed by Maoist rebels during Nepal’s People’s War, says his family is still waiting for justice to be served. Credit: Renu Kshetry/IPS

By Renu Kshetry
KATHMANDU, Feb 24 2015 (IPS)

The picture of Muktinath Adhikari, principal of Pandini Sanskrit Secondary School in the Lamjung district of west Nepal who was killed during the country’s decade-long civil conflict, became an iconic portrayal of the brutality of the bloody ‘People’s War’.

The then Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), which waged a 10-year-long armed struggle, killed Adhikari in 2002 after he refused to ‘donate’ 25 percent of his salary to the cause and attend functions organised by the rebels.

"The consultation, ownership, and participation of conflict victims are a must for the successful completion of the transition to justice." -- Suman Adhikari, son of Muktinath Adhikari, a school principal who was killed by Maoist rebels during Nepal’s People’s War
“Our life changed drastically for the worse after my father was killed; the memory of him being killed with his hands tied behind his back still haunts us,” recalls Suman Adhikari, the slain teacher’s son. “We want justice to move on with our life.”

Eight years after the war ended, Nepal’s newly formed Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the Commission to Investigate Enforced Disappearances (CIED) will now take up the case of the Adhikari family, and thousands of others like them who are still waiting for closure.

Originally agreed upon during the signing of the 12-point understanding between the then CPN (M) and the Seven Party Alliance – which includes the current ruling Nepali Congress (NC) and Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) – and reaffirmed during the signing of the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), these commissions have been a long time coming.

According to records kept by the Informal Sector Services Centre (INSEC), a non-governmental organisation, 13,236 people were killed during the Maoist insurgency, while the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has recorded more than 1,350 cases of disappearances that are yet to be accounted for.

Both the TRC and CIED have been given the mandate to probe serious violations of human rights during the armed conflict, investigate the status of those missing and create an atmosphere for reconciliation in Nepali society.

Many hope that a robust reconciliation process will also give the country an economic boost, including improving the lives of the 25 percent of its 27-million strong population that lives below the poverty line.

However, rights activists have criticised the TRC Act for falling short of international standards, while several prominent groups fear that unaddressed criticisms could derail the process altogether.

Amnesty for war crimes?

International rights groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists have joined local activists in voicing grave concern that the TRC Act fails to uphold Nepal’s commitments under international law – namely, the possibility of granting amnesty for war crimes.

Statements released by the watchdog groups echo fears voiced by locals that flaws in the Act could leave thousands out of the reconciliation process.

Others are disgruntled about the lack of consultation prior to appointing members of the TRC.

Mohana Ansari, spokesperson of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), is unhappy that the TRC recommendation committee did not pay heed to the names suggested by the NHRC. “The culture of impunity should not be encouraged at any cost,” she stressed.

Others fear that a flawed TRC Act could lead to “forced reconciliation”, with survivors compelled to go along with a process that does not represent their best interests.

Surya Kiran Gurung, the newly appointed Chairperson of the TRC, is also sceptical about the Commission’s mandate.

“There is a need for amendments to the TRC Act because it is not clear what will happen to those cases that have been filed and investigated in court,” Gurung told IPS. “Parallel jurisdiction can create problems later on.”

However, he was confident that the TRC would recommend amendments to its Act in order to ensure consensus and consent of victims in the reconciliation process. He was similarly aware of the need to bridge the river of mistrust between survivors of the conflict and the commission.

“We will to reach out to them even if they are not willing to come forward,” he said.

Despite Gurung’s optimism, 53-year-old Kalyan Budhathoki of the Ramechap district in central Nepal is not as hopeful.

He, along with his 35-member extended family, fled their village in 2000 when rebels threatened to kill them and seized property after he refused to pay a “donation” of one million Nepali rupees.

“Why are these culprits roaming freely and why has no action been taken against those selling our cattle and seizing our property?” asked Budhathoki, a supporter of the ruling Nepali Congress (NC) who now works as a daily wage labourer in Kathmandu. “We are yet to feel the presence of law and order in the country.”

Thousands of futures at stake

The Ministry of Peace and Reconstruction formed a task force in 2006 to collect data on the dead, displaced, disabled, and those who suffered property damage during the war.

Available records indicate that of the 79,571 internally displaced persons (IDPs), only about 25,000 had received relief funds from the government and returned to their homes by October 2013.

According to the Relief and Rehabilitation Unit of the Ministry, a total of 14,201 families who lost their kin have received relief, while families of 1,528 missing people have availed themselves of government aid amounting to 100,000 rupees (about 1,000 dollars) each.

“Local leaders who are not conflict victims have been receiving compensation and relief packages by submitting fake documents and exercising political influence,” alleged Budhathoki. “In this situation, how could we believe that the TRC, with its members picked by the political parties, will not be biased?”

Rights activists too believe that political parties have reached an understanding on the controversial provision of granting blanket amnesty, even for those allegedly involved in serious rights violations.

Some politicians have offered the view that penalizing perpetrators will hinder the peace and reconciliation effort.

However, TRC Chairperson Gurung is confident that the Commission’s work will not be affected by political interference. “We will strictly abide by the TRC mandate of finding the truth and investigating the war-era issues,” he said.

He stressed that there would be public hearings that are expected to bring all manner of atrocities to light, after which the country can begin to move ahead with the reconciliation process.

Those like Suman Adhikari, however, believe the process will not go far without the active participation of those affected. “The consultation, ownership, and participation of conflict victims are a must for the successful completion of the transition to justice,” he told IPS.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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