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The Gambia’s Democratic Space ‘Constricted, Restricted and Shrinking’ Ahead of 2016 Polls 

Thu, 08/28/2014 - 05:25

Opposition supporters at a rally in the Gambia. Activists and local politicians say that ahead of the 2016 presidential elections there has been little tolerance for the opposition. Credit: Saikou Jammeh/IPS

By Saikou Jammeh
BANJUL, Aug 28 2014 (IPS)

With the approach of the Gambia’s 2016 presidential elections, which will see President Yahya Jammeh seek re-election for a fifth, five-year tenure, more than a dozen opposition activists have been arrested, detained and prosecuted in the past eight months.

The leader of the opposition United Democratic Party (UDP), Ousainou Darboe, told IPS, “the democratic space, instead of being expanded is constricted, restricted and shrinking.”

Just in the past eight months, 15 of Darboe’s party members have appeared before a court of law. Twelve members of the party’s youth wing were arrested in February for “an unlawful gathering” but where later acquitted by the court in March.

“The security forces have been scuttling our efforts by arresting my party supporters and I believe this is done with the full encouragement of the ruling party,” Darboe said.

Ebrima Solo Sandeng, the secretary general of youth wing of the UDP, was also acquitted in March on a charge of giving false information when obtaining a permit from the police to hold a social gathering for his party in Tujerang village, which lies some 40 km from Banjul. According to the state, Sandeng held a political rally instead of a social gathering.  Before his acquittal, Sanneh was originally sentenced in December 2013 to five years in jail after initially being found guilty of sedition.

Lasana Jobarteh, an audio visual expert attending the event, was not as lucky.  Jobarteh, 59, was charged with broadcasting without a license for providing live coverage of the UDP’s political gathering for online Gambian radio stations via skype. In July Jobarteh was found guilty and issued with a fine of 50,000 dalasis (about 1,200 dollars).

“I shocked by the judgment,” Darboe said of Jobarteh’s conviction.

“I don’t want to say more because we’ve filed an appeal. But I just have to repeat that I am thoroughly shocked. You don’t have to have any legal mind to know it’s not right. This is common sense.”

The case of Bai Mass Kah, from the opposition People’s Democratic Organisation for Independence and Socialism (PDOIS) party, is the most recent one.“My party will never boycott the elections. The atmosphere is not a good one but it will not make us abandon our responsibilities. We have to take on the ruling party.” -- Hamat Bah, leader of the opposition National Reconciliation Party

On Sept. 9 Kah will appear before a court in Banjul, the country’s capital, to face judgement on a charge of sedition. Sedition has a broad definition in the Gambia – it means saying anything that tarnishes the image of the country, the government or the president. Kah’s crime was telling a ruling party supporter not to paste a photo of Jammeh on his car.

If convicted, he could be sentenced to two years imprisonment or face a fine of between 50,000 dalasis (about 1,200 dollars) and 250,000 dalasis (about 6,300 dollars), or both.

“The election is not an event but a process and the stage we’re in is very crucial,” political analyst Bakary Touray told IPS.

“If this stage [the pre-election period] is ignored, an unfair election could be declared fair by even international election observers [who are only present to witness the elections themselves and not the run-up process] as we have seen it happen in many elections across Africa.”

However, Touray says the current oppressive political environment is not unfamiliar.

“What we have seen in recent months — the arrest and prosecution — is a tactic by the ruling regime to weaken the opposition. Technically, the election has begun.”

Hamat Bah, leader of the opposition National Reconciliation Party (NRP), told IPS that the current “political landscape is bad.”

“People are being arrested and detained beyond the 72-hour limit and the president is making utterances that violate the constitution. This is not a good situation for the country.”

Besides facing arrest and prosecution, the opposition claimed that they are being denied permits by the police to hold political rallies, which they are required to apply for according to the Public Order Act.

“We wanted to tour the country, meet the people and discuss with them our political agenda. Unfortunately, the Inspector General of Police has for the second time in May refused us a permit,” Bah said.

Bah said the reasons for refusing the permit “were not genuine.”

“In a letter dated Mar. 11, he [the Inspector General of Police] said there were programmes scheduled ahead of our programme, but he did not specify. In our second attempt, he said in a letter dated May 22, they were preoccupied with a women’s advancement forum, which was taking in Banjul, not in Upper River Region where we requested to go to for our rally. Absolutely, they [the reasons for refusal] were baseless.”

Darboe said that after the 2011 presidential elections, which Jammeh won in a landslide, there had been an unequivocal promise from the Independent Electoral Commission to ensure electoral reforms. However, the opposition overwhelmingly boycotted the parliamentary and local government elections in 2012 and 2013, respectively, after their demands for electoral reforms were unmet.

According to Darboe, if the playing field for multi-party elections is not levelled, his party may not participate in the upcoming presidential elections.

“We might as well call it quits. There’ll be no use in contesting an election that will not be fair. You don’t just want to go through the motions of electioneering when in fact [it is a] farce and mock election.”

Bah, the leader of NRP, however, holds a different view. When the opposition boycotted the parliamentary election, he contested. Even though his party managed to win only one seat in the parliamentary elections, and none in the local government election, Bah is undeterred.

“My party will never boycott the elections,” he said. “The atmosphere is not a good one but it will not make us abandon our responsibilities. We have to take on the ruling party.”

Despite their apparent division, the opposition believe that political reforms are needed in Gambia.

“We need a comprehensive electoral reform and the institution that has the moral courage to ensure that the electoral laws as reformed will be implemented,” Darboe said.

“You can reform electoral laws but if you have a rogue institution [implementing them], the usefulness of reform will be questionable. And we need men of integrity to be in charge.”

Edited by: Nalisha Adams

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India: A Race to the Bottom with Antibiotic Overuse

Thu, 08/28/2014 - 02:35

With the average Indian taking some 11 antibiotic pills a year, the country consumed about 12.9 billion units in 2010. Credit: Bigstock

By Ranjita Biswas
KOLKATA, India, Aug 28 2014 (IPS)

In 2011, the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned: “Combat Drug Resistance – No Action Today, No Cure Tomorrow.” The slogan was coined in honour of World Health Day, urging governments to ensure responsible use of antibiotics in order to prevent drug-resistant viruses and bacteria, or ‘super bugs’.

The warning is even more salient in 2014, particularly in India, a country of 1.2 billion people that recently earned the dubious distinction of being the worst country in terms of antibiotic overuse in the world.

With the average Indian taking some 11 antibiotic pills a year, the country consumed about 12.9 billion units in 2010, up from eight billion units in 2001.

"It’s a delicate, personal, ethical, medical issue. We can’t live without antibiotics. What is needed is prudent use." -- Ashok J. Tamhankar, national coordinator for the Indian Initiative for Management of Antibiotic Resistance (IIMAR)
An analysis of national pharmaceutical sales data published in ‘The Lancet Infectious Diseases’ last month found that Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa accounted for 76 percent of the increase in antibiotic use around the world.

Western countries are now waking up to the alarming impact of over-consumption of antibiotics, which results in drug resistance. In Europe alone, drug-resistant strains of bacteria are responsible for 25,000 deaths a year.

In July, British Prime Minister David Cameron warned that the world could be “cast back into the dark ages of medicine” due to deadly bacteria eventually developing resistance to drugs through mutation, and as a result of “market failure” to develop new classes of antibiotics over the last 25 years.

In developing countries like India, changing lifestyles are contributing to the casual and careless use of drugs.

Ramanan Laxminarayan, research scholar and lecturer at Princeton University, told IPS the reason behind the proliferation of antibiotics in this country is “a combination of increasing income and affordability, easy access without a prescription, willingness of physicians to prescribe antibiotics freely, and a high background of infections that should ideally be contained by better sanitation and vaccination.”

People forget, he said, that “antibiotics do have side effects and […] they are less likely to work for you when you really need them.”

According to the Lancet’s report, the largest absolute increases in consumption between 2000 and 2010 were observed for cephalosporins, broad-spectrum penicillins and fluoroquinolones.

The authors cautioned, “Many broad-spectrum antibiotic drugs (cephalosporins, fluoroquinolones, and carbapenems) are sold over the counter without [the] presence of a documented clinical need.”

Moreover, added Kolkata-based physician Surajit Ghosh of the Indian Public Health Association, some patients choose to refill their own prescriptions without consulting a proper physician, in a bid to reduce the burden of doctor’s fees.

For a country like India with limited healthcare facilities and a doctor-patient ratio of one doctor to every 1,700 people, as well as 29 percent of the population languishing below the poverty line, the emergence of super bugs could be disastrous, experts say.

“With our high background rate of infections, we rely on antibiotics more than developed countries do,” stated Laxminarayan.

“Therefore, the impact of super bugs is likely to be much greater for many in our country who cannot afford the newer, more powerful antibiotics. Think of it as the price of fuel or kerosene going up. The rich will manage wherever they are, but the poor will be hit hard.”

He predicts that the most common diseases to be affected by antibiotic overuse will likely be “hospital infections, particularly those causing sepsis, pneumonia and urinary tract infection.”

Wary of this possible development, many are shifting to alternative medicines, via the Indian Systems of Medicine and Homoeopathy (ISM&H), which includes Ayurveda, siddha, unani, homoeopathy and therapies such as yoga and naturopathy.

Currently, there are over 680,000 registered ISM&H practitioners in the country, most of who work in the private sector.

Swati Biswas* tells IPS, “My husband was ailing for sometime and an operation was advised. But he contracted an infection in the nursing home and his operation was postponed.

“He never recovered after coming home and expired after two months. I spent thousands of rupees on medication for him to no avail. Now I go to a doctor of homeopathy for my problems. I’ve had enough of Western doctors and hospitals,” she added.

Meanwhile, a network known as the Indian Initiative for Management of Antibiotic Resistance (IIMAR) has been formed to promote awareness on this issue.

Asked about the need for such an organisation, Ashok J. Tamhankar, IIMAR’s national coordinator, told IPS, “In a scientific meeting in Bangalore in 2008 many of the participants realised that antibiotic resistance is increasing in India. This is happening because there’s no awareness about it among the stakeholders.

“The ignorance and callousness are at every level of the society – from care providers like doctors, to pharmacists, lawmakers, manufacturers and [even] the consumers. So a platform was created to spread awareness through a blog.”

The initial group had only a handful of people, but now, he claims, it has more than 1,000 active members and many more passive ones from different walks of life.

“Only passing laws is not a solution,” Tamhankar stated.

“It’s the people who have to solve their problems with the help of the law. This is particularly important in the case of antibiotics. It’s a delicate, personal, ethical, medical issue. We can’t live without antibiotics. What is needed is prudent use,” he added.

People also hint at an unholy alliance between pharmaceutical companies and doctors that results in over-prescription of antibiotics for ailments that could easily be treated without them.

Back in 2012, IIMAR reported that the Medical Council of India (MCI) had received 702 complaints of such over-prescription in 2011-12, of which 343 were referred to state medical councils.

“In 2010-11, MCI received 824 such complaints, following which it cancelled the registration of 10 doctors and warned four others,” IIMAR reported.

“Chemist and [drug] associations are not interested in curbing their volume of business and the [pharmaceutical] industry is also silent for the sake of their profit,” says Ghosh.

According to the consulting firm Deloitte, pharmaceutical sales in India stood at 22.6 billion dollars in 2012, with a predicted rise to 23.6 billion in 2013. Sales are expected to touch 27 billion by 2016.

Ghosh feels there should be “antibiotic protocols for all hospital, clinics and dispensaries and this should be displayed in each healthcare-providing agency [and] institution. There should be statutory warnings on each pack of antibiotics, highlighting the hazards of misuse.”

“Time has come to raise [our] voices against the irrational use of antibiotics,” he concluded.

*Not her real name

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Brazil to Monitor Improvement of Water Quality in Latin America

Wed, 08/27/2014 - 17:25

A technician from the State Environmental Institute of Rio de Janeiro monitors water quality in the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon in this Brazilian city. Credit: Agência Brasil/EBC

By Fabiola Ortiz
RIO DE JANEIRO, Aug 27 2014 (IPS)

Problems in access to quality drinking water, supply shortages and inadequate sanitation are challenges facing development and the fight against poverty in Latin America. A new regional centre based in Brazil will monitor water to improve its management.

One example of water management problems in the region is the biggest city in Latin America and the fourth biggest in the world: the southern Brazilian megalopolis of São Paulo, which is experiencing its worst water crisis in history due to a prolonged drought that has left it without its usual water supplies – a phenomenon that experts link to climate change.

To prevent such problems, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Brazil’s national water agency (ANA) signed a memorandum of understanding, making the institution the hub for water quality monitoring in Latin America and the Caribbean.“Access to good quality water is one of the key issues for eliminating poverty and is also one of the main problems faced by developing countries. This has serious consequences for the health of the population and the environment.“ -- Marcelo Pires

ANA will also promote regional cooperation to strengthen monitoring and oversight.

“Brazil will be a hub for the region and will act as a coordinator for training programmes carried out together with other countries,” Marcelo Pires, an expert on water resources in the strategic management of ANA, told Tierramérica.

“Monitoring, sample collection methods and data analysis are very useful for decision-makers” when it comes to water management, he said.

The regional hub will also play a strong role in the establishment of national centres in each country.

“We don’t yet have a precise assessment of the situation, but we know there are advanced monitoring centres in Argentina, Chile and Colombia,” Pires said.

ANA will also be the nexus with UNEP to disseminate information on the quality of water resources, according to the parameters set by the U.N. Global Environment Monitoring System (GEMS) Water Programme.

That programme has created a global network of more than 4,000 research stations with data collected in some 100 countries.

Since 2010, Brazil’s water agency has been implementing a national water quality programme in the country’s 26 states and federal district, inspired by GEMS.

Pires said access to clean water, as well as the provision of sanitation to the entire population, is a basic condition for the country’s development.

The northern Brazilian city of Santarém, on the banks of the Tapajós river, a tributary of the Amazon river, dumps a large part of its waste in the area around the port. The lack of sanitation means the river is highly polluted. Credit: Fabíola Ortiz/IPS

“Access to good quality water is one of the key issues for eliminating poverty and is also one of the main problems faced by developing countries. This has serious consequences for the health of the population and the environment,” the expert said.

UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said the inefficient management of water resources and international cooperation among countries of the developing South were “fundamental steps” for the sustainable use of water.

“Guaranteeing infrastructure for water and sanitation is a basic condition for economic development. This challenge is made even more complex as a result of the impacts of climate change. All of this reinforces the need to adapt to the global reality,” Steiner said, announcing the agreement with ANA.

The memorandum of understanding between the two institutions was made known this month, although it was signed in July during a visit by Steiner to Brazil. It will initially be in effect until late 2018, when it could be extended.

A study carried out by ANA found that over 3,000 towns and cities are in danger of experiencing water shortages in Brazil starting next year. That is equivalent to 55 percent of the country’s municipalities.

Water shortages are a frequent aspect of life in Latin America, as is unequal distribution of water. In addition, the quality of both water and sanitation is precarious.

“Our outlook is not very different from that of our neighbours,” Pires said.

To illustrate, he noted that only 46 percent of the sewage from Brazilian households is collected, and of that portion only one-third is treated, according to the latest survey on basic sanitation.

“Brazil has a sanitation deficit. People coexist on a day-to-day level with polluted rivers. That is reflected in public health and even in the treatment of water to supply households,” Pires said.

Climate change, another variable

Climate change-related impacts also make greater integration in terms of water management necessary among the countries of Latin America, because it means episodes of drought are more frequent and more pronounced, which results in lower water levels in reservoirs.

In Latin America, 94 percent of the population has access to clean water – the highest proportion in the developing South – according to a May report by the World Health Organisation (WHO). But 20 percent of Latin Americans lack basic sanitation services.

There is also a high level of inequality in access to clean water and sanitation, between rural and urban areas.

The World Bank, for its part, notes that climate change generates a context of uncertainty and risks for water management, because it will increase water variability and lead to more intense floods and droughts.

The consequence will be situations like the one in greater São Paulo, where one-third of the population of 21 million now face water shortages, while incentives are provided to people who manage to cut water consumption by 20 percent.

Different São Paulo neighbourhoods have been rationing water supplies to residents since February.

Alceu Bittencourt, president of the Brazilian Association of Sanitary and Environmental Engineering in São Paulo, told Tierramérica that this is the worst water crisis in the history of the city and is evidence of climate variability.

He added that most cities and towns in Latin America have not put in place a response to these changes in the climate.

“It will take two or three years to get back to normal. This exceptional situation indicates that climate change is changing the rainfall patterns,” he commented, referring to the worst drought in southern Brazil in 50 years.

Since Jul. 12, the water that has reached the taps of at least nine million residents of São Paulo comes from the “dead volume” of the Cantareira system of dams, built in the 1970s, which collects the water from three rivers. The dead volume is a reserve located below the level of the sluices, and is only used in emergencies.

According to official projections, the reserve will be exhausted in October if the drought does not end, which would further aggravate the crisis that is already affecting every category of water consumer, Bittencourt explained.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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

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Climate Policy Goes Hand-in-Hand with Water Policy

Wed, 08/27/2014 - 17:16

Guyana beverage manufacturer Banks DIH Limited treats all waste water, making it safe for disposal into the environment. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

By Desmond Brown
PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad, Aug 27 2014 (IPS)

Concerned that climate change could lead to an intensification of the global hydrological cycle, Caribbean stakeholders are working to ensure it is included in the region’s plans for Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM).

The basis of IWRM is that the many different uses of finite water resources are interdependent. High irrigation demands and polluted drainage flows from agriculture mean less freshwater for drinking or industrial use.

Contaminated municipal and industrial wastewater pollutes rivers and threatens ecosystems. If water has to be left in a river to protect fisheries and ecosystems, less can be diverted to grow crops."This is a very big deal for us because under predicted climate change scenarios we’re looking at things like drier dry seasons [and] more intense hurricanes." -- Natalie Boodram of WACDEP

Meanwhile, around the world, variability in climate conditions, coupled with new socioeconomic and environmental developments, have already started having major impacts.

The Global Water Partnership-Caribbean (GWP-C), which recently brought international and regional stakeholders together for a conference in Trinidad, is aimed at better understanding the climate system and the hydrological cycle and how they are changing; boosting awareness of the impacts of climate change on society, as well as the risk and uncertainty in the context of water and climate change and especially variability; and examining adaptation options in relation to water and climate change.

“Basically we’re looking to integrate aspects of climate change and climate variability and adaptation into the Caribbean water sector,” Natalie Boodram, programme manager of the Water, Climate and Development Programme (WACDEP), told IPS.

“And this is a very big deal for us because under predicted climate change scenarios we’re looking at things like drier dry seasons, more intense hurricanes, when we do get rain we are going to get more intense rain events, flooding.

“All of that presents a substantial challenge for managing our water resources. So under the GWP-C WACDEP, we’re doing a number of things to help the region adapt to this,” she added.

Current variability and long-term climate change impacts are most severe in a large part of the developing world, and particularly affect the poorest.

Through its workshops, GWP-C provides an opportunity for partners and stakeholders to assess the stage of the IWRM process that various countries have reached and work together to operationalise IWRM in their respective countries.

Integrated Water Resources Management is a process which promotes the coordinated development and management of water, land and related resources in order to maximise economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems.

IWRM helps to protect the world’s environment, foster economic growth and sustainable agricultural development, promote democratic participation in governance, and improve human health.

GWP-C regional co-ordinator, Wayne Joseph, said the regional body is committed to institutionalising and operationalising IWRM in the region.

“Our major programme is the WACDEP Programme, Water and Climate Development Programme, and presently we are doing work in four Caribbean Countries – Jamaica, Antigua, Guyana and St. Lucia,” he told IPS.

“We’re gender-sensitive. We ensure that the youth are incorporated in what we do and so we provide a platform, a neutral platform, so that issues can be discussed that pertain to water and good water resources management.”

The Caribbean Youth Environment Network (CYEN) is a non-profit, civil society body that focuses its resources on empowering Caribbean young people and their communities to develop programmes and actions to address socioeconomic and environmental issues.

Rianna Gonzales, the national coordinator of the Trinidad and Tobago Chapter, has welcomed the initiative of the GWP-C as being very timely and helpful, adding that the region’s youth have a very important role to play in the process.

“I think it’s definitely beneficial for young people to be part of such a strategic group of people in terms of getting access to resources and experts…so that we will be better able to communicate on water related issues,” she told IPS.

The CYEN programme aims at addressing issues such as poverty alleviation and youth employment, health and HIV/AIDS, climatic change and global warming, impact of natural disasters/hazards, improvement in potable water, conservation and waste management and other natural resource management issues.

The GWP-C said the Caribbean region has been exposed to IWRM and it is its goal to work together with its partners and stakeholders at all levels to implement IWRM in the Caribbean.

“A very significant activity for the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States has been to prepare a Water Sector Model Policy and Model Water Act which proposes to remedy the key water resources management issues through new institutional arrangements and mechanisms that include water and waste water master planning, private sector and community partnership and investment mechanisms,” GWP-C chair Judy Daniel told IPS.

IWRM has not been fully integrated in the policy, legal and planning frameworks in the Caribbean although several territories have developed/drafted IWRM Policies, Roadmaps and Action plans. Some of these countries include: Antigua and Barbuda; Barbados; Dominica; Grenada; Guyana, Jamaica; The Bahamas; Trinidad and Tobago; and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at destinydlb@gmail.com

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Civil Society Condemns Immunity for Sitting African Leaders Accused of Serious Crimes

Wed, 08/27/2014 - 16:37

Some of the Kenyans who were forcefully evicted from their homes in Rift Valley during the 2007/2008 post-election violence. They are pictured in a dated photo in a camp in Kiambu Central Kenya. Credit: Miriam Gathigah/IPS

By Miriam Gathigah
NAIROBI, Aug 27 2014 (IPS)

Mary Wacu lived in the Rift Valley region for 10 years prior to the 2007/08 post-election violence that rocked Kenya after a disputed general election.

“My husband was shot with a poisoned arrow, and my children hacked to death. Everything was burnt to ashes, I barely escaped with my life,” she tells IPS.

According to human rights organisations, the violence in this East African nation left an estimated 1,500 people dead and resulted in the rape of 3,000 women and the displacement of 300,000 people.

From her shanty in the sprawling Kibera slums, in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, Wacu follows the proceedings of the cases for crimes against humanity levelled against President Uhuru Kenyatta, his deputy William Ruto and journalist Joshua Sang at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Netherlands.

But here in Kenya, like many who bore the brunt of the unprecedented violence, justice remains beyond Wacu’s reach. It is a scenario that is all too familiar in Africa’s conflict-prone countries like Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Against this backdrop, civil society organisations (CSOs) in Africa as well as international ones working on the continent, have opposed the recently-adopted Protocol on Amendments to the Protocol on the Statute of the African Court of Justice and Human Rights by the African Union (AU) member heads of states in June.

The protocol extends criminal jurisdiction to the African Court, and offers immunity to serving heads of states and all senior government officials during their term of office for serious crimes. The African Court was established by African countries to ensure protection of human and peoples’ rights on the continent.

A source from Malawi attending the just-concluded meeting to promote ratification of AU treaties, which was held in Nairobi by the AU Office of the Legal Counsel on the 25 and 26 of August, explains to IPS that the amendments include an immunity provision for heads of states or governments and certain senior state officials for serious crimes against humanity.

The contentious article 46A categorically states that no charges shall be commenced or continued against any serving AU head of state or government, or anybody acting or entitled to act in such capacity.

“Lifting immunity for sitting officials for serious crimes committed is an assurance to African leaders that they are above the law,” the source says.

AU officials at the meeting, however, refused to comment to IPS on the protocol.

Malawi has taken the lead in mobilising other CSOs across Africa to tell their governments that the immunity provision is a blatant disrespect for human rights.

The source says that with a number of African leaders already under the radar of the ICC, “an immunity provision is offering African leaders the licence to abuse their people. It will further entrench dictatorship since many leaders will be afraid of being indicted when their term ends.”

The civil society community says that the African Court was moving in the right direction, until now.

Edigah Kavulavu, of the Kenyan Section of the International Commission of Jurists, tells IPS that the adopted protocol is the first legal instrument to extend a regional court’s authority to criminal jurisdiction “regional courts often deal with human rights issues, which are matters of a civil nature.”

He says that the African Court can now try cases of a criminal nature, including genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

He points out that the main bone of contention with the protocol is the immunity provision. Article 46A, Kavulavu says, is in breach of the principles that govern human rights.

“Through ICC and other regional courts such as the Special Court for Sierra Leone, these courts complement each other so that they can bridge the impunity gap,” he explains.

James Gondi of the Kenyans For Peace With Truth and Justice, a coalition of over 30 Kenyan and East African legal, human rights, and governance organisations, tells IPS that international criminal law and international justice demand that “those bearing greatest responsibility are often head of states, heads of military and high level elites who plan, finance and coordinate criminal acts [be held to account]. The amendment is meant to serve the interests of these three categories of people.”

The human rights lawyer further says that immunity negates the principles of transparency and accountability, respect for the rule of law and for humanity.

He says that the immunity provision is a display that African leaders are immune to the criminal justice system.

Gondi says that the objective of the criminal justice of which the African Court now has mandate is and should be to “deter future atrocities and to end impunity.”

The lawyer says that the regime of law has developed such that immunity for heads of state is lifted in many national and international laws where crimes committed are so heinous that the law cannot turn a blind eye.

African countries with national laws that rule out immunity for sitting officials for serious crimes include Benin, Kenya, Burkina Faso the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Africa.

Gondi says that while the general principle of the law is that “we cannot give immunity for crimes against humanity because they are so grave. The law is an issue of politics and politics are defined by impunity and political will.”

Moving forward, Gondi says that there must be a concerted international and regional effort to end impunity and the political will to drive these efforts, “citizens must also demand for accountability from their leaders.”

The Malawi source urged CSOs to lobby, protest and campaign to have their governments reject the adoption and continue with sustained campaigns.

Edited by: Nalisha Adams

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OPINION: Building a Sustainable Future: The Compact Between Business and Society

Wed, 08/27/2014 - 07:29

By Georg Kell
UNITED NATIONS, Aug 27 2014 (IPS)

Can we envision a day when a critical mass of companies is investing in a better world? Where business is delivering value for the long-term – not just financially, but also socially, environmentally and ethically? Over a decade ago, it was hard to imagine, but we can now say with confidence that a global movement is underway.

By the late 1990s, the need for action was unmistakable. In many ways, it appeared the rest of the world did not figure into the growth and opportunity associated with massive increases in international investment and trade. It was this fragile state of the union between business and society that led the U.N. secretary-general to propose that business and the United Nations jointly initiate a “global compact of shared values and principles, to give a human face to the global market.”This year, business will have an enormous opportunity to “make good” on its commitment to society as governments and the United Nations work to define a set of global sustainable development goals by 2015.

From 40 companies that came together at our launch in 2000, the UN Global Compact has grown to 8,000 business signatories from 140 countries – representing approximately 50 million employees, nearly every industry sector and size, and hailing equally from developed and developing countries.

Each participant has committed to respect and support human rights, ensure decent workplace conditions, safeguard and restore the environment, and enact good corporate governance – and then is reporting publicly on progress. An additional 4,000 civil society signatories play important roles, including holding companies accountable for their commitments and partnering with business on common causes.

We now have 100 country networks that are convening like-minded companies and facilitating action on the ground, embedding universal principles and responsible business practices. Networks serve an essential role in rooting global norms, issue platforms and campaigns within a national context, and provide an important base to jump-start local action and awareness.

It is clear that companies around the world are increasingly putting sustainability on their agendas. The reality is that environmental, social and governance challenges affect the bottom-line. Market disturbances, social unrest and ecological devastation have real impacts on business vis-à-vis supply chains, capital flows and employee productivity.

We also live in a world of hyper-transparency, with people now more empowered than ever to hold governments and the private sector accountable for their actions. There has been a fundamental shift as companies come to realise that it is no longer enough to mitigate risk, but that they are expected to contribute positively to the communities in which they operate.

Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

More persuasive than the risks are the opportunities that come with going global. As economic growth has migrated East and South, more companies are moving from being resource takers, to market builders.

Now, when faced with complex issues – extreme poverty, lack of education, gender inequality, environmental degradation – responsible companies see themselves as equal stakeholders for the long run, knowing that they cannot thrive in societies that fail. This has encouraged business to collaborate and co-invest in solutions that produce shared value for business and society.

There is also a growing interdependency between business and society. Business is expected to do more in areas that used to be the exclusive domain of the public sector – from health and education, to community investment and environmental stewardship. In fact, five out of six CEOs believe that business should play a leading role in addressing global priority issues. This is extremely encouraging.

While we have seen a great deal of progress, there is much work to be done. Companies everywhere are called on to do more of what is sustainable and put an end to what is not. We need corporate sustainability to be in the DNA of business culture and operations. The priority is to reach those who have yet to act, and especially those actively opposing change.

To reach full scale, economic incentive structures must be realigned so that sustainability is valued. Governments must create enabling environments for business and incentivise responsible practices. Financial markets must move beyond the short-term, where long-term returns become the overarching criteria for investment decisions. We need clear signals that good environmental, social and governance performance by business is supported and profitable.

This year, business will have an enormous opportunity to “make good” on its commitment to society as governments and the United Nations work to define a set of global sustainable development goals by 2015. This post-2015 agenda has the power to spur action by all key actors, with the private sector having a huge role.

These goals and targets could result in a framework for businesses to measure their own sustainability progress and help them establish corporate goals aligned with global priorities. This opportunity is significant to create value for business as well as the public good.

What will the future look like? The pieces are in place to achieve a new era of sustainability. The good news is that enlightened companies – which comprise major portions of the global marketplace – have shown that they are willing to be part of the solution and are moving ahead. Decisions by business leaders to pursue sustainability can make all of the difference. We can move from incremental to transformative impact, showing that responsible business is a force for good.

Georg Kell is executive director of the United Nations Global Compact, the world’s largest voluntary corporate sustainability initiative.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

Amid Crisis, Puerto Rico’s Retirees Face Uncertain Future

Wed, 08/27/2014 - 07:02

Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the U.S. Its relationship with the United States has been denounced as colonial by both the independence and pro-statehood movements. Credit: Arturo de la Barrera/cc by 2.0

By Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero
SAN JUAN, Aug 27 2014 (IPS)

A feeling of insecurity has overtaken broad sectors of Puerto Rican society as the economy worsens, public sector debt spirals out of control, and the island’s creditworthiness is put in doubt.

To tackle this economic crisis, the administration of governor Alejandro Garcia-Padilla has adopted a number of measures that have been extremely unpopular with civil society and labour unions."Capital is on the offensive all over the world. But in Puerto Rico it's worse because it is a colony of the United States." -- Retired telephone company worker Guillermo De La Paz

Retirees have been particularly affected. In 2013, the government passed Law 160, which drastically changed the retirement system of public employees. It puts an end to the previous retirement system, established by Law 447 of 1951, under which every public sector worker was entitled to a full pension after 30 years of service, regardless of age.

But Law 160 changes that. The size of monthly pension payments is no longer guaranteed, and employees must work more years in order to get full benefits.

“The retirement system has been compromised,” said labour attorney Cesar Rosado-Ramos in a position paper for the Working People’s Party (PPT).

“It is unheard of, abusive and unjust that people with 30 years of service now have to keep working for four, five, 10 or even 15 additional years in order to receive a full pension. This means the working class will have to spend a lifetime working and if you survive you get a miserable retirement plan.”

The PPT was formed in 2009 by current and former members of the Movement Toward Socialism and the Socialist Front. Its first electoral participation was in the 2012 general elections but it did not get enough votes to elect any candidate.

Public school teachers were spared from Law 160. They sued and last April the PR Supreme Court ruled key parts of the law unconstitutional because they violated teachers’ contracts. Thus the teachers’ retirement was saved, but the court ruling upheld other parts of the law that reduce their Christmas bonuses, summer pay and medical benefits.

“The retirement age of public employees has been raised and their [retirement] benefits have been reduced to poverty level,” economist Martha Quiñones told IPS.

Ramón Marrero, an emergency doctor who works in the city of Cayey, was forced to continue working just when he was due for retirement. He was going to retire after 18 years of work, but with the new law he has to stay on for three more years to get a full pension.

“One has life projects for when retirement comes. When all of a sudden the date for retirement is postponed, all of these projects and plans are turned upside down,” said Marrero, who commutes to work from the nearby town of Cidra.

Quiñones, who teaches at the University of Puerto Rico, pointed out that private sector workers and pensioners are also in for a raw deal. “Many of those private pensions are tied to Puerto Rico government bonds, which have recently been downgraded by Moody’s and Standard and Poor. When the value of these bonds is affected, pensions are reduced.”

Many public sector retirees are politically active, not only defending their benefits and pension plans from the ever present threat of privatisation, but also protesting the government’s neoliberal austerity policies, which affect all of society.

“The local ruling class seeks to reverse the gains and livelihoods of workers to what they used to be in a bygone era,” said labour activist Jose Rivera-Rivera, president of the retirees chapter of the UTIER labour union.

“In order for the neoliberal system to establish its superiority it must erase the last two centuries of labor struggle and solidarity. It’s the new stage of capitalism, they want us to start from zero.”

“Capital is on the offensive all over the world. But in Puerto Rico it’s worse because it is a colony of the United States,” retired telephone company worker Guillermo De La Paz told IPS. “Here the exploiters can experiment in ways they cannot do in a sovereign country.”

Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the U.S. Its relationship with the United States has been denounced as colonial by both the independence and pro-statehood movements.

The Puerto Rico Telephone Company was public until it was privatised by then governor Pedro Rosselló in 1998. Privatisation opponents paralysed the island in a two-day general strike in July of that year, but to no avail.

“For the rich there is no crisis,” said De La Paz. “I mean, we’ve got [billionaire] Henry Paulson urging rich people to come here to avoid taxes.”

Rivera-Rivera believes that in order to get Puerto Rico out of its economic crisis and protect retirement benefits, the government could start by taxing the rich.

“Our government is supposedly in crisis because it cannot pay its debt, but the previous administration [Governor Luis Fortuño, 2009-2012] practically eliminated the fiscal responsibility of major corporations and rich people in its 2009 tax reform. It wasn’t justified, they were already enjoying major tax breaks.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Nepal Landslide Leaves Women and Children Vulnerable

Tue, 08/26/2014 - 21:50

Relief workers and aid agencies are worried about the security, protection and psychological health of women and children in post-disaster settings. Credit: Naresh Newar/IPS

By Naresh Newar
DABI, Nepal, Aug 27 2014 (IPS)

Living in a makeshift tarpaulin shelter, which barely protects her family from the torrential rainfall or scorching heat of this remote village in southern Nepal, 36-year-old Kamala Pari is under immense stress, worrying about her financial security and children’s safety.

The family’s only house and tiny plot of farmland were completely destroyed by the massive landslide on Jul. 2 that struck the village of Dabi, part of the Dhusun Village Development Committee (VDC) of Sindhupalchok district, nearly 100 km south of the capital Kathmandu.

Dhusun was one of the four VDCs including Mankha, Tekanpur and Ramche severely affected by the disaster, which killed 156 and displaced 478 persons, according to the ministry of home affairs.

This was Nepal’s worst landslide in terms of human fatalities, according to the Nepal Red Cross Society, the country’s largest disaster relief NGO.

“My students are too scared to return to their classrooms. They really need a lot of counseling." -- Krishna Bhakta Nepal, principal of Jalpa High School
Though the government is still assessing long-term damages from that fateful day, officials here tell IPS the worst victims are likely to be women and children from these impoverished rural areas, whose houses and farms are erected on land that is highly vulnerable to natural catastrophes.

Left homeless and further impoverished, Pari is worried about the toll this will take on her children, who are now living with the reality of having lost their home and many of their friends.

“We’re not just living in fear of another disaster but have to worry about our future as there is nothing left for us to survive on,” Pari told IPS, adding that their monthly income fell from 100 dollars to 50 dollars after the landslide.

Her 50 neighbours, living in tarpaulin tents in a makeshift camp on top of a hill in this remote village, are also preparing for hard times ahead.

“We lost everything and now we run this shop to survive,” 15-year-old Elina Shrestha, a displaced teenager, told IPS, gesturing at the small grocery shop that she and her friends have cobbled together.

Their customers include tourists from Kathmandu and nearby towns who are flocking to destroyed villages to see with their own eyes the landslide-scarred hills and the lake created by the overflow of water from the nearby Sunkoshi river.

Protecting the vulnerable

Relief workers and protection specialists from government and aid agencies told IPS they are worried about the security, protection and psychological health of women and children.

An estimated 50 children were killed in the landslide, according to the ministry of women, children and social welfare.

“In any disaster, children and women seem to be more impacted than others,” Sunita Kayastha, chief of the emergency unit of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) told IPS, adding that they are most vulnerable to abuse and violence.

Women and children are 14 times more likely than men to die in a disaster, according to a report by Plan International, which found adolescent girls to be particularly vulnerable to sexual violence in the aftermath of a natural hazard.

Senior psychosocial experts recently visited the affected areas and specifically reported that children and women were under immense psychological stress.

“The children need a lot of counseling [and] healing them is our top priority right now,” Women Development Officer Anju Dhungana, point-person for affected women and children in the Sindhupalchok district, told IPS.

Dhungana is concerned about the gap in professional psychosocial counseling at the local level and has requested help from government and international aid agencies based in Kathmandu.

Schools are gradually being resumed, with the help of aid agencies who are identifying safe locations for the children whose classrooms have been destroyed.

One school was totally destroyed, killing 33 children, and the remaining 142 children are now studying in temporary learning centres built by Save the Children and the District Education Office, officials told IPS.

A further 1,952 children who attend schools built close to the river are also at risk, experts say.

Trauma is quite widespread, the sight of the hollowed-out mountainside and large dam created close to the river still causing panic among children and their parents, as well as their teachers.

“I lost 28 of my students and now I have [the] job of healing hundreds of their school friends,” Balaram Timilsina, principal of Bansagu School in Mankha VDC, told IPS.

“My students are too scared to return to their classrooms. They really need a lot of counseling,” added Krishna Bhakta Nepal, principal of Jalpa High School of Khadichaur, a small town near Mankha.

International agencies Save the Children, UNICEF and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) are helping the government’s efforts to restore normal life in the villages, but it has been challenging.

“We need to help children get back to school by ensuring a safe environment for them,” Sudarshan Shrestha, communications director of Save the Children, told IPS.

The international NGO has been setting up temporary learning centres for hundreds of students who lost their schools.

High risk for adolescent girls

Shrestha’s concern is not just for the children but also the young women who are often vulnerable in post-disaster situations to sexual violence and trafficking.

“The risk of sexual exploitation and trafficking is always high among the families impoverished by disaster, and during such situations, girls are often hoaxed and tricked by traffickers,” explained Shrestha.

Sindhupalchok, one of Nepal’s most impoverished districts, is notorious for being a source of young girls who are trafficked to Kathmandu and Indian cities, according to NGOs; a recent report by Child Reach International identified the district as a major trafficking centre.

“Whenever disaster strikes, the protection of adolescent girls should be highly prioritised and our role is to make sure this crucial issue is included in the disaster response,” UNFPA’s country representative Guilia Vallese told IPS, explaining that protection agencies need to be highly vigilant.

Government officials said that although there have been no cases of sexual or domestic violence and trafficking, they remain concerned.

“There are also a lot of young girls displaced [and living] with their relatives and after our assessment, we found that they need more protection,” explained officer Dhungana.

She said that many of them live in the camps or in school buildings in villages that are remote, with little or no government presence.

The government has formed a committee on protection measures and will be assessing the situation of vulnerability soon to ensure that children and women are living in a secure environment.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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World Bank Urged to Rethink Reforms to Business-Friendliness Report

Tue, 08/26/2014 - 17:20

Workers arrive early in the morning at the One World Apparel factory in Port-au-Prince to assemble garments for export from Haiti. Credit: Ansel Herz/IPS

By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Aug 26 2014 (IPS)

Civil society groups from several continents are stepping up a campaign urging the World Bank to strengthen a series of changes currently being made to a major annual report on countries’ business-friendliness.

The World Bank is in the final stages of a years-long update to its Doing Business report, one of the Washington-based development institution’s most influential analyses yet one that has also become increasingly controversial. Critics now say the first round of changes, slated to go into effect in October, don’t go far enough."It’s a public relations exercise but with reasonably solid metrics behind it, and it’s the joining of these two things that makes Doing Business valuable in the policy world.” -- Scott Morris of the Center for Global Development

On Monday, a coalition of 18 development groups, watchdog organisations and trade unions called on the World Bank Group to take “urgent action” to implement “significant changes” to the Doing Business reforms. In particular, they are asking the bank to adhere more closely to detailed recommendations made last year by a bank-commissioned external review panel chaired by Trevor Manuel, a former planning and finance minister for South Africa.

“It looks like the flaws found by the Independent Panel chaired by Trevor Manuel will be ignored and its recommendations are nowhere close to being implemented,” Aldo Caliari, director of the Rethinking Bretton Woods Project at the Center of Concern, a Catholic think tank here, told IPS. “This is in spite of a wide chorus of civil society organisations and shareholders that supported them.”

While the World Bank’s mission is to fight global poverty, Caliari and others dispute whether the Doing Business report’s metrics are pertinent to poor communities. Others say they can be outright detrimental.

Both civil society investigations and the Manuel commission have suggested “how little relevance the areas and indicators have to the reforms that matter to small and medium companies in developing countries,” Caliari says. “They seem far more oriented to support operations of large transnationals in those countries.”

Such concerns stem from the outsized influence that the Doing Business report has built up, particularly in the developing world, since it was introduced in 2003. Reportedly, the report is used by some 85 percent of global policymakers.

The core of the report remains a simple aggregated ranking of countries, known as the Ease of Doing Business index. While based on a complex series of business-friendliness metrics, the high profile of the index results has inevitably led governments to compete among one another to raise their country’s ranking and, hopefully, strengthen foreign investment.

Yet a direct effect of this competition, critics say, is governments being pushed to adhere to a uniform set of policy recommendations. These include lowering taxes and wages and weakening overall industry regulation, thus potentially endangering the poor.

“[T]he report’s role is to inform policy, not to outline a normative position, which the rankings do,” the 18 groups wrote to World Bank Group President Jim Kim at the end of July. “Doing Business needs to become better aligned with moves towards greater country-owned and led development and an appreciation of the importance of a country’s circumstances, stage of development and political choices.”

In its report last June, the Manuel commission likewise urged the bank to drop the ranking system entirely, noting that this constituted “the most important decision the Bank faces with regard to the Doing Business report.”

Maintained but reformed

In response, the bank is reforming the methodology behind its ranking calculations. In part, this includes broadening its analysis to use data from two cities in most countries, rather than just one.

More broadly, the new calculations will constitute an effort simultaneously to continue to offer a relative score for each country but also to decrease the importance of the specific ranking.

“This approach will provide users with additional information by showing the relative distances between economies in the ranking tables,” an announcement on the changes stated in April. (The bank was unable to provide additional comment by this story’s deadline.)

“By highlighting where economies’ scores are close, the new approach will reduce the importance of difference in rankings,” the announcement continues. “And by revealing where distances between scores are relatively greater, it will give credit to governments that are reforming but not yet seeing changes in rankings.”

Some development scholars have pushed against the Manuel commission’s recommendations on the index, defending the need for the bank to maintain its aggregate rankings in some form.

“The Doing Business report isn’t a research exercise – it’s a policymaking tool. Because of the rankings it has a unique value, particularly for those countries that have a long way to go on economic reform,” Scott Morris, a senior associate at the Center for Global Development, a think tank here, told IPS after the Manuel commission’s report was published.

“Internally, it gives government officials something simple and targeted to latch onto, much more than a 500-page report would do. It’s a public relations exercise but with reasonably solid metrics behind it, and it’s the joining of these two things that makes Doing Business valuable in the policy world.”

Decent jobs created?

Yet others warn that the rankings themselves continue to be problematic, even in their new form.

The reforms are “not satisfactory, as the rankings will continue to influence the policy agenda of many developing countries despite their methodological flaws,” Tiago Stichelmans, a policy and networking analyst at the European Network on Debt and Development, told IPS in an e-mail.

“The problem of the rankings is the fact that they are based on regulatory measures in a single city (which is due to become two cities) for every country and are therefore irrelevant to many communities. The rankings also have a bias in favour of deregulatory measures that have limited impact on development.”

Of course, many would support the idea of tracking country-by-country policies aimed at encouraging industry to help bolster development metrics. But Stichelmans says this would require major changes, including a move away from the report’s current focus on reforms to the business environment.

“A shift from promoting low tax rates and labour deregulation to taxes paid, decent jobs created and [small and medium enterprises] supported would be a step in the right direction,” he says.

Ideas from NGOs have included indicators on corruption and human rights due diligence, Stichelmans continues, “but this must be accompanied by a drastic overhaul.”

For now, some of the newly announced changes are expected to be incorporated into the Doing Business report for 2015, slated to be released in late October. Other reforms, including some yet to be announced, will be introduced in future reports.

Edited by: Kitty Stapp

The writer can be reached at cbiron@ips.org

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Threat of Hydropower Dams Still Looms in Chile’s Patagonia

Tue, 08/26/2014 - 17:09

The Aysén region in Chile’s southern Patagonia wilderness has some of the largest freshwater reserves on the planet thanks to its swift-running rivers, innumerable lakes, and lagoons like the one in this picture, located 20 km from Coyhaique, the regional capital. Credit: Marianela Jarroud/IPS

By Marianela Jarroud
COYHAIQUE, Chile , Aug 26 2014 (IPS)

After its victory in a nearly decade-long struggle against HidroAysén, a project that would have built five large hydroelectric dams on wilderness rivers, Chile’s Patagonia region is gearing up for a new battle: blocking a quiet attempt to build a dam on the Cuervo River.

The dam would be constructed in an unpopulated area near Yulton lake, in Aysén, Chile’s water-rich region in the south. The aim is to ease the energy shortage that has plagued this country for decades and has prompted an accelerated effort to diversify the energy mix and boost the electricity supply.

However, the Cuervo River project is “much less viable than HidroAysén, because of environmental and technical reasons and risks,” Peter Hartmann, coordinator of the Aysén Life Reserve citizen coalition, told Tierramérica, expressing the view widely shared by environmentalists in the region.

The big concern of opponents to the new hydroelectric initiative is that it could be approved as a sort of bargaining chip, after the government of socialist President Michelle Bachelet cancelled HidroAysén on Jun. 10.

Endorsement of the Cuervo River dam will also be favoured by an Aug. 21 court ruling that gave the project a boost.

The Cuervo Hydroelectric Plant Project is being developed by Energía Austral, a joint venture of the Swiss firm Glencore and Australia’s Origin Energy. It would be built at the headwaters of the Cuervo River, some 45 km from the city of Puerto Aysén, the second-largest city in the region after Coyhaique, the capital.

It would generate a total of approximately 640 MW, with the potential to reduce the annual emissions of the Sistema Interconectado Central de Chile (SIC) – the central power grid – by around 1.5 million tons of carbon dioxide.

Energía Austral is studying the possibility of a submarine power cable or an aerial submarine power line.

In 2007, the regional commission on the environment rejected an initial environmental impact study presented by the company.

Two years later, Energía Austral introduced a new environmental impact study, for the construction of a hydropower complex that would include two more dams: a 360-MW plant on the Blanco River and a 54-MW plant on Lake Cóndor, to be built after the Cuervo River plant.

“Cuervo appeared when HidroAysén was at its zenith, and the Cuervo River dam was a second priority for the Patagonia Without Dams campaign,” said Hartmann, who is also the regional director of the National Committee for the Defence of Flora and Fauna (CODEFF).

“In the beginning there was diligent monitoring of the project, from the legal sphere, but we ran out of funds and the entire focus shifted to HidroAysén as the top priority, and not Cuervo,” he added.

According to the experts, the Cuervo River plant would pose more than just an environmental risk, because it would be built on the Liquiñe-Ofqui geological fault zone, an area of active volcanoes.

For example, a minor eruption of the Hudson volcano in October 2011 prompted a red alert and mass evacuation of the surrounding areas. Mount Hudson is located “right behind the area where the Blanco River plant would be built,” Hartmann said.

“Energía Austral is doing everything possible not to mention the Hudson volcano, because it knows what it’s getting involved in,” he added.

In response to such concerns, the company has insisted that the plant “will be safe with regard to natural phenomena like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.” It adds that “the presence of geological fault lines is not exclusive to the Cuervo River.”

It also argues that in Chile and around the world many plants have been built on geological fault lines or near volcanoes, and have operated normally even after a seismic event.

The national authorities approved the construction of the Cuervo dam in 2013. But shortly afterwards the Supreme Court accepted a plea presented by environmental and citizen organisations to protect the area where it is to be built, and ordered a thorough study of the risks posed by construction of the plant.

However, on Aug. 21 the Court ratified, in a unanimous ruling, the environmental permits that the authorities had granted for construction of the dam. The verdict paves the way for final approval by the government, which would balance out its rejection of HidroAysén.

“The state is not neutral with respect to energy production; we are interested in seeing projects go forward that would help us overcome our infrastructure deficit,” Energy Minister Máximo Pacheco said in June.

And in July he stated that “Chile cannot feel comfortable while hydroelectricity makes up such a small share of our energy mix, given that it is a clean source of energy that is abundant in our country.”

Chile has an installed capacity of approximately 17,000 MW, 74 percent in the SIC central grid, 25 percent in the northern grid – the Sistema Interconectado Norte Grande – and less than one percent in the medium-sized grids of the Aysén and Magallanes regions in the south.

According to the Energy Ministry, demand for electricity in Chile will climb to 100,000 MW by 2020. An additional 8,000 MW of installed capacity will be needed to meet that demand.
Chile imports 60 percent of the primary energy that it consumes. Hydropower makes up 40 percent of the energy mix, which is dependent on highly polluting fossil fuels that drive thermal power stations for the rest.

Currently, 62 percent of the new energy plants under construction are thermal power stations. And 92 percent of those will be coal-fired.

Regional Energy Secretary Juan Antonio Bijit told Tierramérica that independently of Aysén’s enormous hydropower potential, “if we analyse the energy mix, it is highly dependent on thermal power, so the most logical thing would appear to be to increase supply in the area of hydroelectricity.”

He said the Aysén region “currently produces around 40 MW of energy, which only covers domestic consumption.”

But, he said, “we have significant potential” in terms of hydroelectricity as well as wind and solar power.

“The region’s capacity for electricity generation is quite strong,” he said. “However, we have to study how we will generate power, and for what uses.”

Bijit said the region’s contribution of energy to the rest of the country “should be analysed together with the community.”

“We can’t do things behind closed doors; we have to talk to the people,” he said. “That was done in a workshop prior to the decision reached on HidroAysén and now we are doing it with the Energía Austral project and others,” he said.

“The idea is that the people should be participants in what is being done or should be done in the field of energy,” he added.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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

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OPINION: Towards a Global Governance Information Clearing House

Tue, 08/26/2014 - 13:26

This is the third in a series of special articles to commemorate the 50th anniversary of IPS, which was set up in 1964, the same year as the Group of 77 (G77) and UNCTAD.

By Ramesh Jaura
BERLIN/ROME, Aug 26 2014 (IPS)

Inter Press Service News Agency has braved severe political assaults and financial tempests since 1964, when Roberto Savio and Pablo Piacentini laid its foundation as a unique and challenging information and communication system.

Fifty years on, IPS continues to provide in-depth news and analysis from journalists around the world – primarily from the countries of the South – which is distinct from what the mainstream media offer. Underreported and unreported news constitutes the core of IPS coverage. Opinion articles by experts from think tanks and independent institutions enhance the spectrum and quality offered by IPS.

IPS coverage of the United Nations and its social and economic agenda is widely recognised as outstanding in the global media landscape. Credit: cc by 2.0

As the social media transforms the communication environment, IPS is determined to consolidate its unique niche and is tailoring its offer to adapt to the changes under way, while remaining true to its original vocation: make a concerted effort to right the systematic imbalance in the flow of information between the South and the North, give a voice to the South and promote South-South understanding and communication. In short, nothing less than turning the world downside up.

The fiftieth anniversary coincides with IPS decision to strengthen coverage not only from the U.N. in New York, but also from Vienna – bridging the U.N. there with the headquarters – as well as from Geneva and Nairobi, the only country in Africa hosting a major U.N. agency, the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP).

Turning 50 is also associated with a new phase in IPS life, marked not only by challenges emerging from rapid advance of communication and information technologies, but also by globalisation and the world financial crisis.

The latter is causing deeper social inequalities, and greater imbalances in international relations. These developments have therefore become thematic priorities in IPS coverage.

The consequences of “turbo-capitalism”, which allows finance capital to prevail over every aspect of social and personal life, and has disenfranchised a large number of people in countries around the world constituting the global South, are an important point of focus.

IPS has proven experience in reporting on the issues affecting millions of marginalised human beings – giving a voice to the voiceless – and informing about the deep transitional process which most of the countries of the South and some in the North are undergoing.

This latter day form of capitalism has not only resulted in dismissal of workers and catapulted their families into the throes of misery, but also devastated the environment and aggravated the impact of climate change, which is also playing havoc with traditional communities.

IPS also informs about the critical importance of the culture of peace and points to the perils of all forms of militarism. A Memorandum of Understanding between IPS and the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) provides an important framework for seminars aimed at raising the awareness of the media in covering cross-cultural conflicts.

Nuclear weapons that are known to have caused mass destruction in Hiroshima and Nagasaki 69 years ago, represent one of the worst forms of militarism. IPS provides news and analysis as well as opinions on continuing efforts worldwide to ban the bomb. This thematic emphasis has educed positive reactions from individual readers, experts and institutions dealing with nuclear abolition and disarmament.

As globalisation permeates even the remotest corners of the planet, IPS informs about the need of education for global citizenship and sustainable development, highlighting international efforts such as the United Nations Global Education First Initiative. IPS reports on initiatives aimed at ensuring that education for global citizenship is reflected in intergovernmental policy-making processes such as the Sustainable Development Goals and Post-2015 Development Agenda.

IPS reports accentuate the importance of multilateralism within the oft-neglected framework of genuine global governance. It is not surprising therefore that IPS coverage of the United Nations and its social and economic agenda is widely recognised as outstanding in the global media landscape.

This is particularly important because the news agency has come to a fork in the road represented by the financial crunch, which is apparently one of the toughest IPS has ever faced. However, thanks to the unstinting commitment of ‘IPS-ians’, the organisation is showing the necessary resilience to brave the challenge and refute those who see it heading down a blind alley.

At the same time, IPS is positioning itself distinctly as a communication and information channel supporting global governance in all its aspects, privileging the voices and the concerns of the poorest and creating a climate of understanding, accountability and participation around development and promoting a new international information order between the South and the North.

IPS has the necessary infrastructure and human resources required for facilitating the organisational architecture of an information clearing house focused on ‘global governance’. Whether it is the culture of peace, citizen empowerment, human rights, gender equality, education and learning, development or environment, all these contribute to societal development, which in turn leads towards global governance.

In order to harness the full potential of communication and information tools, adequate financial support is indispensable. Projects that conform to the mission of IPS – making the voiceless heard by the international community, from local to global level – are one way of securing funds.

But since projects alone do not ensure the sustainability of an organisation, IPS is exploring new sources of funding: encouraging sponsorships through individual readers and institutions, enlightened governments and intergovernmental bodies as well as civil society organisations and corporations observing the UN Global Compact’s 10 principles in the areas of human rights, labour, the environment and anti-corruption, which enjoy universal consensus.

Ramesh Jaura is IPS Director General and Editorial Coordinator since April 2014.

Edited by Phil Harris

The writer can be contacted at headquarters@ips.org

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How Midwives on Sierra Leone’s Almost Untouched Turtle Islands are Improving Women’s Health

Tue, 08/26/2014 - 11:02

The eight islands that comprise Turtle Islands, Sierra Leone, are remote and practically untouched by modern civilisation. Credit: Joan Erakit/IPS

By Joan Erakit
MATTRU JONG, Sierra Leone, Aug 26 2014 (IPS)

Emmanuel is a male midwife.

At the age of 26, he lives and works on one of eight islands off the southwest peninsular of Sierra Leone, an hour by speedboat from Mattru Jong, the capital of Bonthe District.

On a particularly hot Wednesday morning, IPS joins Marie Stopes, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Health to go and visit a population on one of the Turtle Islands that is practically untouched by modern civilisation.

Marie Stopes is a British-based non-profit that provides family planning and reproductive health services to over 30 countries around the world. They work as a back-up support system to the government, filling in the gaps in hard-to-reach areas that the government is still working to resource.

On the mainland of Mattru Jong there is a small market, situated on the river Jong which flows into the Atlantic ocean, and crowded with various kiosks boasting fish, vegetables and live chickens tied at their feet in straw baskets.

To reach the islands, one has to travel by boat. But all the islands don’t have landing docks and the boats sometimes stop in knee-deep water. Passengers — and midwives visiting the islands to provide reproductive health and family planning services — have to hoist their belongings and supplies above water, to make their way to the villages.

“Their [midwives] challenge is that they don’t have a boat. If you want to do this effectively, you need a good boat,” Safiatu Foday, a regional family planning coordinator for UNFPA in Sierra Leone, explained to IPS.

For island communities that have very little access to the mainland, basic health information is difficult to come by, therefore the risks — especially those pertaining to pregnancy, become inevitable.

With a population of over six million, where women of childbearing age are between the ages of 15 and 49, this West African country has refocused its health initiatives, working tirelessly to strengthen the capacity and training of skilled midwives — an exceptional tool in reducing maternal and infant mortality.

It Takes a Village

The village is inhabited by about a few hundred people — most of them large families, many of whom have just started utilising the peripheral health unit (PHU) that is onsite.

Emmanuel, one of the first men to undertake the position of midwife in this area, is the person “in-charge,” facilitating prenatal visits, deliveries, antenatal care, attending to illnesses and referring patients to a hospital when needed.  

“There are people who since their birth, have never left the island,” Fadoy said.

Some of the women say they have delivered 13 or 14 children prior to the work of Marie Stopes in their village.

Others recount having no time to “rest” or take care of their other children while being pregnant almost every year.

There are common reasons as to why women become pregnant so consistently.

One woman shares that there is a fear of being “abandoned” by one’s husband. The women say if they do not engage in sexual intercourse during the marriage, their husbands will look elsewhere. Therefore women feel they have no choice but to keep getting pregnant.

There is also the question of approval; many women must obtain permission from their husbands to start using contraceptives.

“We used to get pregnant all the time and our husbands would abandon us, so we had to fight for ourselves to survive. Since Marie Stopes came to the island and we now have access to contraceptives, we are able to take care of ourselves,” Yeanga, 33 tells IPS, adding, “It has created an impact in my life, one, because I now know about spacing births.”

Yeanga is the mother of five children with the oldest aged 25, and the youngest only three years old.

Before going on family planning, Yeanga admits to having difficulties with her husband, which were only heightened when he found out that contraceptives would help her not to get pregnant.

“Even when I wanted to join family planning, my husband was not agreeing, but I talked to him about it and we finally agreed to allow me to start family planning.”

In order to fully meet the demand of women who are in search of family planning and reproductive health services, the government has come up with an interesting strategy: recruit and train traditional birth attendants (TBA’s) to provide quality health care services in the villages.

Because they are from the village, they are both respected and valued, thus their insight, advice and knowledge are taken very seriously.

“Before midwives came to the island, there were just TBA’s doing deliveries in this area – and there were a lot of problems with these births,” Isatu Jalloh, 28, a nurse working in the village, told IPS.

Without skilled birth attendants, many of the women on the island suffered complications like preeclampsia, fistula and even death.

Though Sierra Leone has one of the highest maternal and infant mortality rates, 140 infant deaths per 1,000 live births, and 857 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, Jalloh believes that the maternal death rate on the island has reduced due to the advocacy of midwives who travel to the island to promote family planning and reproductive health.

The ability to choose when to have children has allowed women on the island to pursue small economic ventures. They are able to produce an income to not only take care of themselves, but also their children.

The Future is Bright?

As the last few hundred days of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) come to a close, Sierra Leone stands at an interesting cross section: that of incremental success and challenges to come.

Demand for reproductive health and family planning services is high, the commodities are being supplied through partnerships with UNFPA and Marie Stopes, midwives are being dispatched to different districts, yet obstacles remain.

Most trained midwives deployed to health centres far from their homes don’t want to stay in those areas due to harsh working conditions and unfamiliarity with their surroundings.

And with the outbreak of Ebola, most midwives have been immediately evacuated, leaving patients, many of them pregnant women, without proper care.

Sierra Leone faces an opportunity to scale-up its reproductive health and family planning services by continuing its ability for form essential partnerships, most effectively illustrated in the one with civil society and advocacy group, Health Coalition for All.

“Our focus is on health and health-related issues. The key areas are advocacy and monitory, we work to ensure that services are available, accessible, affordable and that they reach the beneficiary,” Al Hassane B. Kamara, a programme manager for the coalition, shared with IPS.

Based in Makeni, in Northern Province, the Health Coalition for All has played an essential role in ensuring that women have access to healthcare, especially during pregnancy.

By addressing the issues such as lack of trained staff, delivery of commodities and most importantly, the high user fees during clinic visits, the coalition takes a proactive stand to ensure that women do not end up in unqualified hands.

“They pay very high fees to see a qualified doctor, especially for cesarean operations.  As a result they have no options but to work with the TBA or a “quack doctor.”

With programmes such as the Free Health Care Initiative (FHCI) that allows pregnant mothers, lactating mothers and children under the age of five to access services for free, Sierra Leone continues to put its focus on reproductive health.

 Edited by: Nalisha Adams

The writer can be contacted through Twitter on: @Erakit

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OPINION: Boosting Resilience in the Caribbean Countries

Tue, 08/26/2014 - 06:42

By Jessica Faieta
UNITED NATIONS, Aug 26 2014 (IPS)

Having lived and worked for more than a decade in four Caribbean countries, I have witnessed firsthand how Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are extremely vulnerable to challenges ranging from debt and unemployment to climate change and sea level rise.

Such aspects make their paths towards sustainable development probably more complex than non-SIDS countries. That was my experience, working closely with governments, civil society organisations and the people of Belize, Cuba, Guyana and Haiti – where I led the U.N. Development Programme’s (UNDP) reconstruction efforts after the devastating January 2010 earthquake.In addition to saving lives, for every dollar spent in disaster preparedness and mitigation, seven dollars will be saved when a disaster strikes.

That’s why the upcoming UN Conference on Small Island Developing States (SIDS), taking place in Samoa, Sep. 1-4 is so important. It will provide an opportunity to increase international cooperation and knowledge sharing between and within regions. And it takes place at a key moment, ahead of the Climate Change Summit at the UN General Assembly, to be held on Sep. 23.

Climate change—and all natural hazards, in fact—hit Small Island Developing States hard, even though these countries haven’t historically contributed to the problem. Extreme exposure to disasters such as flooding, hurricanes, droughts, landslides and earthquakes place these countries at a particularly vulnerable position.

In the Caribbean, two key sectors, agriculture and tourism, which are crucial for these countries’ economies, are especially exposed. Agriculture provides 20 percent of total employment in the Caribbean. In some countries, like Haiti and Grenada, half of the total jobs depends on agriculture. Moreover, travel and tourism accounted for 14 percent of Caribbean countries’ Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2013 – the highest for any region in the world.

According to Jamaica’s Ministry of Water, Land, Environment and Climate Change, during the period 2000-2010 the country was impacted by 10 extreme weather events which have led the country to lose around two percent of its GDP per year. Moreover, sea levels have risen 0.9 mm per year, according to official figures. This causes Jamaicans, who live largely on the coast, not only to lose their beaches, but it also increases salinity in fresh waters and farming soil.

Courtesy of UNDP

Also, when I visited Jamaica in July, the country was facing one of the worst droughts in its history. This had already led to a significant fall in agricultural production, higher food imports, increased food prices and a larger number of bush fires – which in turn destroy farms and forested areas.

Clearly, if countries do not reduce their vulnerabilities and strengthen their resilience – not only to natural disasters but also to financial crises – we won’t be able to guarantee, let alone expand, progress in the social, economic and environmental realms.

Preparedness is essential—and international cooperation plays a key role. UNDP is working closely with governments and societies in the Caribbean to integrate climate change considerations in planning and policy. This means investing in climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction and preparedness, particularly in the most vulnerable communities and sectors.

In Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago, where I also met recently with key authorities, UNDP is working with the government to enhance climate change preparedness on three fronts: agriculture, natural disasters and promoting the use of renewable energy resources, which is critical to reduce the dependency on imported fossil fuels.

Knowledge-sharing between and within regions is also vital. UNDP has been working with governments in the Caribbean to share a successful practice that began in Cuba in 2005. The initiative, the Risk Reduction Management Centres, supports local governments’ pivotal role in the civil defence system.

In addition, experts from different agencies collaborate to map disaster-prone areas, analyse risk and help decision-making at the municipal level. Importantly, each Centre is also linked up with vulnerable communities through early warning teams, which serve as the Centre’s “tentacles”, to increase awareness and safeguard people and economic resources.

This model has been adapted and is being rolled out in the British Virgin Islands, Dominican Republic, Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago.

In Jamaica, for example, in hazard-prone St Catherine’s Parish on the outskirts of Kingston, a team has been implementing the country’s first such Centre, mapping vulnerable areas and training community leaders to play a central role in the disaster preparation and risk reduction system.

In Old Harbor Bay, a fishing community of 7,000 inhabitants, UNDP, together with the government of Jamaica, has provided emergency equipment and training for better preparation and evacuation when hurricanes or other disasters strike.

Boosting preparedness and increasing resilience is an investment. In addition to saving lives, for every dollar spent in disaster preparedness and mitigation, seven dollars will be saved when a disaster strikes.

However, it is also crucial to address vulnerability matters beyond climate change or natural disasters. Small Island Developing States—in the Caribbean and other regions— are often isolated from world trade and global finance. The international community needs to recognise and support this vulnerable group of countries, as they pave the way to more sustainable development.

Jessica Faieta is United Nations Assistant Secretary-General and UN Development Programme (UNDP) Director for Latin America and the Caribbean www.latinamerica.undp.org @jessicafaieta @undplac

Edited by: Kitty Stapp

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Building Public Trust is a Key Factor in Fighting West Africa’s Worst Ebola Outbreak

Tue, 08/26/2014 - 05:40

Two health care workers clean their feet in a bucket of water containing bleach after they leave an Ebola isolation facility during an Ebola simulation at Biankouman Hospital in Côte d’Ivoire. Credit: Marc-André Boisvert/IPS

By Marc-Andre Boisvert
KANDOPLEU/ABIDJAN, Côte d’Ivoire, Aug 26 2014 (IPS)

The nurse carefully packs the body into a plastic bag and then leaves the isolation tent, rinsing his feet in a bucket of water that contains bleach. Then he carefully takes off his safety glasses, gloves and mask and burns them in a jerry can.

Behind a cordon, hundreds of people are watching, including Ivorian Health Minister Raymonde Goudou Coffie and several local media.

They face no risks even if the deadly virus kills up to 90 percent of the infected persons: there is no Ebola outbreak in Côte d’Ivoire. And the corpse is a mannequin. This is an Ebola simulation at the district hospital in Biankouma. Prevention of Ebola
In Africa, during Ebola outbreaks, educational public health messages for risk reduction should focus on several factors:


  • Reducing the risk of wildlife-to-human transmission from contact with infected fruit bats or monkeys/apes and the consumption of their raw meat.
  • Animals should be handled with gloves and other appropriate protective clothing. Animal products (blood and meat) should be thoroughly cooked before consumption.
  • Reducing the risk of human-to-human transmission in the community arising from direct or close contact with infected patients, particularly with their bodily fluids.
  • Close physical contact with Ebola patients should be avoided.
  • Gloves and appropriate personal protective equipment should be worn when taking care of ill patients at home.
  • Regular hand washing is required after visiting patients in hospital, as well as after taking care of patients at home.
  • Communities affected by Ebola should inform the population about the nature of the disease and about outbreak containment measures, including burial of the dead. People who have died from Ebola should be promptly and safely buried.

Source: World Health Organisation

“We want to test our medical teams. And see what we can do to improve our reaction,” explains the health minister, a pharmacist by training who does not hesitate to provide her in-sights.

Schoolteacher Edinie Veh Gale is in the crowd watching the exercise. “It is not translated in Yacuba, the local language. So people around do not understand. But it is good though. At least, it piqued people’s curiosity and they will search for information,” she tells IPS in French.

While the attention on the epidemic that has now been declared “out-of-control” is focused on the West African countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Nigeria, unaffected countries in the region, like Côte d’Ivoire, are struggling to understand what to do keep the disease away.

While strict epidemiological-control measures have been applied, including closing borders and banning people travelling into  Côte d’Ivoire from countries where the disease is prevalent, the current outbreak has highlighted huge gaps in prevention methods.

Especially since some citizens refuse to submit to restrictive measures.

Until now, the previous Ebola outbreaks were contained in villages in Central Africa where distance and isolation were important factors in stopping the disease.

But the current wave that resulted in over 1,135 deaths — making it the worst Ebola outbreak ever — has spread to several urban centres. In the cities restrictive measures have been met with reduced success.

Susan Shepler, an associate professor at American University and a specialist in education and conflict, is back from six weeks of research in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Despite several measures adopted by authorities, she noticed that while there have been some developments in the population’s awareness, most people in those countries have a deep mistrust for government assistance.

“It is not simply a mistrust of the state. It is a mistrust of the system. People don’t see the boundaries of the state,“ Shepler tells IPS. She explains that citizens believe politicians enter government to enrich themselves, and they therefore do not think that the state could help them.

She says that trust has yet to be built as many people, especially those who reside in opposition strongholds, see Ebola as a government plot or a religious curse.

In Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, government services and trained medical workers are barely available in regions infected by Ebola.

So when heavily-equipped medical teams, often backed by foreign experts, go to affected areas, it has been difficult for those local communities to instantly trust them.

“Western media tends to present the crisis with a focus on frontline work and chaotic scenes. But what is missing, [that needs to be] understood, is everyday life. There is a rationale for citizens’ actions,” says Shepler.

Building trust beforehand

It is difficult to discern what are good practices to fight Ebola.

Côte d’Ivoire may not have any cases, but it is uncertain if this is because the country took the right approach to the disease or if it was simply a matter of luck.

But what is clear is that Côte d’Ivoire fears being the next site of the outbreak.

Around the country, the government has multiplied preventative measures.

Last March, it banned bush meat. And since then the government has adopted several measures to contain the epidemic, including implementing screening for the disease at borders and banning direct flights to affected areas.

Now, the government has recommended that people stop hugging and shaking hands, insisting that they comply with strict hygiene rules.

The government has made also several efforts to build the trust of its people by getting local authorities and medical staff that are know to local communities involved in education campaigns.

And citizen’s initiatives are also multiplying.

In a bank in Abidjan’s commercial district, a security guard gives a shot of hand sanitiser to any client using the banking machine. “It’s for your own health,” he says.

In front of the same bank, street hawkers who help drivers park their cars refuse to shake hands.

Social media has exploded with various initiatives, notably the #MousserpourEbola (#FoamingAgainstEbola) challenge, which is used to raise money and public awareness about Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Launched by a young blogger, Edith Brou, videos of Ivorians throwing a bucket of soap water on themselves have became viral. When one is nominated for the challenge, you are required to throw a bucket of soap water on yourself and distribute three bottles of hand sanitiser. They you don’t agree to the soap shower, then you have to distribute nine bottles of hand sanitiser.

“Ivorians play down everything through humour. In spite of the funny aspect of it, the message is forwarded and listened to. There are many actions like mine. We cannot only stand by. We are responsible for our lives,” she tells IPS.

In the village of Pekanhouebli, in the west of the country and close the the Liberian border, there is no electricity and no internet access. But in this village that strongly supports the opposition, a citizen’s committee has been created to mobilise the community against Ebola.

“We did not believe that Ebola was true. We thought it was a white man’s disease from cities when authorities came to us,”senior resident Serge Tian tells IPS. “But when we heard it on the radio, we realised it was true. And we started listening to the nurse who would visit the village.”

Tian does not shake hands with IPS as we leave — it’s because he now understands a bit more about how the disease is spread. And he knows why he should comply to these restrictive measures.

Edited by: Nalisha Adams

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These Children Just Want to Go Back to School

Mon, 08/25/2014 - 22:42

About 518,000 primary school students have sat idle over the last decade as a result of the Taliban's campaign against secular education. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR, Pakistan , Aug 26 2014 (IPS)

Between government efforts to wipe out insurgents from Pakistan’s northern, mountainous regions, and the Taliban’s own campaign to exercise power over the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the real victims of this conflict are often invisible.

Walking among the rubble of their old homes, or sitting outside makeshift shelters in refugee camps, thousands of children here are growing up without an education, as schools are either bombed by militants or turned into temporary housing for the displaced.

Schools have been under attack since 2001, when members of the Taliban fleeing the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan took refuge across the border in neighbouring Pakistan and began to impose their own law over the residents of these northern regions, including issuing a ban on secular schooling on the grounds that it was “un-Islamic”.

“We don’t want to see these children without an education. They have suffered a great deal at the hands of the Taliban and cannot afford to remain [out of] school any longer." -- Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information Minister Mushtaq Ghani
To make matters worse, a military offensive against the Taliban launched on Jun. 18 has forced close to a million civilians to flee their homes in North Waziristan Agency, one of seven districts that comprise FATA, thus disrupting the schooling of thousands of students.

Officials here say the situation is very grave, and must be urgently addressed by the proper authorities.

Over the last decade, the Taliban have damaged some 750 schools in FATA, 422 of them dedicated exclusively to girls, depriving about 50 percent of children in the region of an education, says Ishtiaqullah Khan, deputy director of the FATA directorate for education.

“We will rebuild them once the military action is complete and the Taliban are defeated,” the official tells IPS, though when this will happen remains an unanswered question.

Even prior to the latest wave of displacement, FATA recorded one of the lowest primary school enrolment rates in the country, with just 33 percent of school-aged children in classrooms.

Girls on the whole fared worse than their male counterparts, with a female enrollment rate of just 25 percent, compared to 42 percent for boys.

The period 2007-2013 saw a wave of dropouts, touching 73 percent in 2013, as the Taliban stepped up its activities in the region and families fled in terror to safer areas.

All told, some 518,000 primary school students have sat idle over the last decade, Khan said, citing government records.

In the Bannu district of the neighbouring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, where most of the displaced from North Waziristan have taken refuge in sprawling IDP camps, the situation is no better.

While the local government struggles to provide basics like food, medicine and shelter, education has fallen on the backburner, and scores of children are losing hope of ever going back to school.

Ahmed Ali, a 49-year-old IDP, had hoped that his daughters, aged five, six and seven years, would be enrolled in temporary schools in the camp in Bannu, but was shattered when he discovered that this was not to be.

“I have no way of ensuring their education,” he lamented to IPS.

A rapid assessment report by the United Nations says that 98.7 percent of displaced girls and 97.9 percent of the boys are not receiving any kind of education in the camps.

This is not only exacerbating the woes of the refugees – who are also suffering from a lack of food, dehydration in 42-degree-Celsius heat, diseases caused by inadequate sanitation, and trauma – but it also threatens to upset the school system for locals in the Bannu district, officials say.

An existing primary school enrollment rate of just 37 percent (31 percent for girls and 43 percent for boys) is likely to worsen, since 80 percent of some 520,000 IDPs are occupying school buildings.

Though schools are currently closed for the summer holiday, the new term is set to begin on Sep. 1. But 45-year-old Hamidullah Wazir, a father of three whose entire family is being housed in a classroom, says few displaced are ready to vacate the premises because they have “no alternatives”.

He recognises that their refusal to leave could adversely affect education for local boys and girls in Bannu, but “until the government provides us proper shelter, we cannot move out of here,” he tells IPS.

Statistics from the department of education indicate there are 1,430 schools in Bannu, of which 48 percent are girls’ schools and 1,159 are primary schools.

Over 80 percent of these institutions are currently occupied by displaced people, of which some 22,178 (43 percent of occupants) are children.

In addition to the IDPs who have flocked here since mid-June, KP is also home to 2.1 million refugees who fled in fear of the Taliban over the last decade.

These families, too, have been struggling for years to educate their children.

“One whole generation has [missed out] on an education due to the Taliban,” Osama Ghazi, a father of four, tells IPS. A shopkeeper by trade, he says that wealthier families moved to KP years ago in search of better opportunities for their families, but not everyone found them.

“We have been asking the government to make arrangements for the education of our children but the request is yet to fell on receptive ears,” Malik Amanullah Khan, a representative of the displaced people, tells IPS.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information Minister Mushtaq Ghani says the government is in the process of finding alternatives for displaced children.

“We don’t want to see these children without an education. They have suffered a great deal at the hands of the Taliban and cannot afford to remain [out of] school any longer,” he told IPS, adding that the government, in collaboration with U.N. agencies, aims to provide educational facilities in Bannu free of cost.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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The Time for Burning Coal Has Passed

Mon, 08/25/2014 - 20:38

Anti-coal human chain crossing the Niesse river which separates Poland and Germany, August 2014. Credit: Courtesy of Greenpeace Poland

By Claudia Ciobanu and Silvia Giannelli
GRABICE, Poland / PROSCHIM, Germany, Aug 26 2014 (IPS)

“People have gathered here to tell their politicians that the way in which we used energy and our environment in the 19th and 20th centuries is now over,” says Radek Gawlik, one of Poland’s most experienced environmental activists. “The time for burning coal has passed and the sooner we understand this, the better it is for us.”

Gawlik was one of over 7,500 people who joined an 8-kilometre-long human chain at the weekend linking the German village of Kerkwitz with the Polish village of Grabice to oppose plans to expand lignite mining on both sides of the German-Polish border.“It's high time to plan the coal phase-out now and show the people in the region a future beyond the inevitable end of dirty fossil fuels" – Anike Peters, Greenpeace Germany

They were inhabitants of local villages whose houses would be destroyed if the plans go ahead, activists from Poland and Germany, and even visitors from other countries who wanted to lend a hand to the anti-coal cause. The human chain – which was organised by Greenpeace and other European environmental NGOs – passed through the Niesse river which marks the border between the two countries, and included people of all ages, from young children to local elders who brought along folding chairs.

At least 6,000 people in the German part of Lusatia region and another 3,000 across the border in south-western Poland stand to be relocated if the expansion plans in the two areas go ahead.

In Germany, it is Swedish state energy giant Vattenfall that plans to expand two of its lignite mines in the German states of Brandenburg and Saxony; state authorities have already approved the company’s plans. In Poland, state energy company PGE (Polska Grupa Energetyczna) plans an open-cast lignite mine from which it would extract almost two million tonnes of coal per year (more than from the German side).

On the German side

Germany has for a long time been perceived as an example in terms of its energy policy, not in the least because of its famous Energiewende, a strategy to decarbonise Germany’s economy by reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95 percent, reaching a 60 percent renewables share in the energy sector, and increasing energy efficiency by 50 percent, all by 2050.

Today, one-quarter of energy in Germany is produced from renewable sources, and the same for electricity, as a result of policies included in the Energiewende strategy.

Expanding coal mining as would happen in the Lusatia region contradicts Germany’s targets, argue environmentalists. “The expansion of lignite mines and the goals of the Energiewende to decarbonise Germany until 2050 do not fit together at all,” says Gregor Kessler from Greenpeace Germany.  “There have to be severe cuts in coal-burning if Germany wants to reach its own 2020 climate goal (reducing CO2 emissions by 40 percent).

“Yet the government so far is afraid of taking the logical next step and announce a coal-phase-out plan,” Kessler continues. “So far both the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats keep repeating that coal will still be needed for years and years to provide energy security. However even today a lot of the coal-generated energy is exported abroad as more and more energy comes from renewables.”

Proschim, a town of around 360 people, is one of the villages threatened by Vattenfall’s planned expansion. Already surrounded by lignite mines, this little community has one feature that makes its possible destruction even more controversial: nowadays it produces more electricity from renewable energy than its citizens use for themselves.

Wind farm in Proschim, Lusatia, Germany. Credit: Silvia Giannelli/IPS

But Vattenfall’s project to extend two existing open cast mines, namely Nochten and Welzow-Süd, would destroy Proschim along with its solar and wind farm and its biogas plant.

“It is such a paradox, we have so much renewable energy from wind, solar and biogas in Proschim. And this is the town they want to bulldoze,” says former Proschim mayor Erhard Lehmann.

The village is nevertheless split on the issue, with half of its citizens welcoming Vattenfall’s expansion project, including Volker Glaubitz, the deputy mayor of Proschim, and his wife Ingrid, who came from Haidemühl, a neighbouring village that was evacuated to make room for the Welzow-Süd open-cast mine. The place is now known as the “ghost-town”, due to the abandoned buildings that Vattenfall was not allowed to tear down because of property-related controversies.

Abandoned buildings in Haidemühl, Lusatia, Germany. Credit: Silvia Giannelli/IPS

Lignite undoubtedly played a major role in Lusatia’s economic development, creating jobs not only in the many open-cast mines spread over the territory, but also through the satellite activities connected to coal processing. Lehmann himself was employed as a mechanic and electrician for the excavators used in the mines. Ingrid Glaubitz was a machinist at ‘Schwarze Pumpe’, one of Vattenfall’s power plants and her son also works for Vattenfall.

“There must be renewable energy in the future, but right now it is too expensive and we need lignite as a bridge technology,” Volker Glaubitz told IPS. “The mines bring many jobs to the region: without the coal, Lusatia would be dead already.”

Johannes Kapelle, a 78-year-old farmer of Sorb origin and at the forefront of the battle against Proschim’s destruction, sees coal in a completely different way: “Coal is already vanishing, it something that belongs to the past.”

His house, right in front of the Glaubitz’s, is covered in solar panels, and from his garden he proudly shows the wind park that provides Proschim with an estimated annual production of 5 GWh.

Johannes Kapelle in his courtyard, with roof covered in solar panels, Proschim, Lusatia, Germany. Credit: Silvia Giannelli/IPS

According to Kapelle, lignite extraction has been threatening the Sorb culture, which is spiritually connected to the land, since the beginning of industrialisation over a hundred years ago. “When a Sorb has a house without a garden, and without farmland, without forests and lakes, then he’s not a true Sorb anymore, because he has no holy land.”

On the Polish side

Poland is Europe’s black sheep when it comes to climate, with 90 percent of electricity in Poland currently produced from coal and the country’s national energy strategy envisaging a core role for coal for decades to come. The Polish government led by Prime Minister Donald Tusk has over the past years tried to block progress by the European Union in adopting more ambitious climate targets.

For Polish authorities, the over 100,000 jobs in coal mining in the country today are an argument to keep the sector going. Additionally, says the government, coal constitutes a local reserve that can ensure the country’s “energy security” (a hot topic in Europe, especially since the Ukrainian-Russian crisis).

Coal opponents, on the other hand, note that the development of renewables and energy efficiency creates jobs too (according to the United Nations, investments in improved energy efficiency in buildings alone could create up to 3.5 million jobs in the European Union and the United States). Environmentalists further argue that coal is not as cheap as its proponents claim: according to the Warsaw Institute for Economic Studies, in some years, subsidies for coal mining in Poland have reached as much as 2 percent of GDP.

“In Poland, the coal lobby is very strong,” says Gawlik. “I also have the impression that our politicians have not yet fully understood that renewables and energy efficiency have already become real alternatives and do not come with some mythically high costs.”

The future of coal in Europe

In Europe as a whole, coal has seen a minor resurgence over the past 2-3 years, despite the European Union having the stated goal to decarbonise by 2050 (out of all fossil fuels, lignite produces the most CO2 per unit of energy produced).

Access to cheap coal exports from the United States, relatively high gas prices, plus a low carbon price on the EU’s internal emissions trading market (caused in turn by a decrease in industrial output following the economic crisis) led to a temporary hike in coal usage. Yet experts are certain that coal in Europe is dying a slow death.

“In the longer term the prospects for coal-fired power generation are negative,” according to a July report by the Economist Intelligence Unit. “Air-quality regulations (in the European Union) will force plant closures, and renewable energy will continue to surge, while in general European energy demand will be weak. The recent mini-boom in coal-burning will prove an aberration.”

“Additional coal mines would not only be catastrophic for people, nature and climate – it would also be highly tragic, as beyond 2030, when existing coal mines will be exhausted, renewable energies will have made coal redundant,” says Anike Peters, climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace Germany.

“It’s high time to plan the coal phase-out now and show the people in the region a future beyond the inevitable end of dirty fossil fuels.”

* Anja Krieger and Elena Roda contributed to this report in Germany

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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U.N. Conference Set to Bypass Climate Change Refugees

Mon, 08/25/2014 - 17:56

A boy walks his bicycle down a flooded street in Georgetown, Guyana. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Aug 25 2014 (IPS)

An international conference on small island developing states (SIDS), scheduled to take place in Samoa next week, will bypass a politically sensitive issue: a proposal to create a new category of “environmental refugees” fleeing tiny island nations threatened by rising seas.

“It’s not on the final declaration called the outcome document,” a SIDS diplomat told IPS."It's clear that governments have an obligation to reduce the risk of climate-related disasters, and displaced individuals and communities should be provided legal protection in their countries and abroad." -- Kristin Casper of Greenpeace

The rich countries that neighbour small island states are not in favour of a flood of refugees inundating them, he added.

Such a proposal also involves an amendment to the 1951 U.N. Convention on the Status of Refugees, making it even more divisive.

The outcome document, already agreed upon at a U.N. Preparatory Committee meeting last month, will be adopted at the Sep. 1-4 meeting in the Samoan capital of Apia.

Sara Shaw, climate justice and energy coordinator at Friends of the Earth International (FoEI), told IPS, “We believe that climate refugees have a legitimate claim for asylum and should be recognised under the U.N. refugee convention and offered international protection.”

Unfortunately, she said, the very developed nations responsible for the vast majority of the climate-changing gases present in the atmosphere today are those refusing to extend the refugee convention to include climate refugees.

“Worse still, they are trying to weaken existing international protection for refugees,” Shaw added.

The world’s first-ever “climate change refugee” claimant, a national of Kiribati, lost his asylum appeal in a New Zealand courtroom last May on the ground that international refugee law does not recognise global warming and rising sea levels as a valid basis for asylum status.

Ioane Teitiota, a 37-year-old native of the Pacific island nation, claimed his island home was sinking – and that he was seeking greener and safer pastures overseas.

But the New Zealand court ruled that the 1951 international convention on refugees, which never foresaw the phenomenon of climate change, permits refugee status only if one “has a well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.”

The U.N.’s electronic newsletter, U.N. Daily News, quoted Francois Crepeau, the special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, as saying, “We don’t have, in international law, or any kind of mechanisms to allow people to enter a State against the will of the State, unless they are refugees.”

And even then, he said, they don’t technically have the right to enter, but cannot be punished for entering.

Addressing the General Assembly last September, the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda Winston Baldwin Spencer told delegates, “It is a recognised fact – but it is worth repeating – that small island states contribute the least to the causes of climate change, yet we suffer the most from its effects.”

He said small island states have expressed their “profound disappointment” at the lack of tangible action at U.N. climate change talks.

Developed countries, he said, should shoulder their moral, ethical and historical responsibilities for emitting high levels of anthropogenic greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

“It is those actions which have put the planet in jeopardy and compromised the well-being of present and future generations,” he said.

Kristin Casper, legal counsel for campaigns and actions at Greenpeace International, told IPS, “It’s a scandal that low-lying coastal and small island developing states stand to lose their territory by the end of this century due to sea level rise.”

She said climate-driven migration will increase, “therefore we salute all efforts by Pacific Small Island Developing States, other governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to call for urgent action to allow the world to fairly deal with climate-forced migration.

“It’s clear that governments have an obligation to reduce the risk of climate-related disasters, and displaced individuals and communities should be provided legal protection in their countries and abroad,” Casper said.

The Samoa conference is officially titled the Third International Conference on SIDS, the last two conferences being held in Barbados in 1994 and Mauritius in 2005.

The 52 SIDS include Antigua and Barbuda, Cuba, Fiji, Grenada, Bahamas, Suriname, Timor-Leste, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

Addressing reporters last week, the Secretary-General of the Samoa conference Wu Hongbo told reporters he expects over 700 participants, including world political leaders, 21 heads of U.N agencies and over 100 NGOs.

The outcome document, he said, has several recommendations for action on how to move forward. But these goals, he stressed, cannot be achieved by governments alone.

“All of us are affected by climate change,” he said, pointing out that there was a broad agreement among member states on the challenges ahead.

FoEI’s Shaw told IPS millions of people around the world are internally displaced or forced to seek refuge in other countries because of hunger or conflict. Many of these crises are being directly exacerbated by climate change as resources such as fresh water become scarcer and conflicts arise.

“The impacts of climate change, which include increased sea-level rise, droughts, and more frequent extreme weather events, will lead to a growing number of climate refugees around the world,” she warned.

Friends of the Earth would welcome climate refugees being recognised under the U.N. refugee convention and offered international protection, she said.

“However we remain doubtful that these refugees would ever receive a warm welcome from the rich countries whose climate polluting actions forced them from their homes.”

The reality is that the overwhelming majority of climate refugees like those escaping conflict or persecution will end up in other poor countries, whilst rich countries build ever greater walls and fences to keep out those seeking a safer life for their families,
Shaw said.

According to the United Nations, SIDS are located among the most vulnerable regions in the world in terms of the intensity and frequency of natural and environmental disasters and their increasing impact.

SIDS face disproportionately high economic, social and environmental consequences when disasters occur.

These vulnerabilities accentuate other issues facing developing countries in general.

These include challenges around trade liberalisation and globalisation, food security, energy dependence and access; freshwater resources; land degradation, waste management, and biodiversity.

Edited by: Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

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Breakthroughs and Hurdles in Colombia’s Peace Talks

Mon, 08/25/2014 - 16:50

The first delegation of victims of Colombia’s armed conflict offer a press conference after their talks with the government and FARC negotiators on Aug. 16 in Havana, Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Constanza Vieira
BOGOTA, Aug 25 2014 (IPS)

Three major advances were made over the last week in the peace talks that have been moving forward in Cuba for nearly two years between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas, while the decades-old civil war rages on.

On Saturday Aug. 16, a group of relatives of victims of both sides met face-to-face in the Cuban capital. It was the first time in the world that victims have sat down at the same table with representatives of their victimisers in negotiations to put an end to a civil war.

And on Thursday Aug. 21 an academic commission was set up to study the roots of the conflict and the factors that have stood in the way of bringing it to an end.

That day, the unthinkable happened.

High-level army, air force, navy and police officers flew to Cuba, under the command of General Javier Alberto Flórez, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In the 24-hour technical mission they met with their archenemies, the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which emerged in 1964) to discuss “how to implement a definitive bilateral ceasefire, and how the FARC would disband and lay down their arms,” said President Juan Manuel Santos.

Santos described the participation of active officers in the talks, as part of a subcommission installed on Friday Aug. 22, as “a historic step forward.”

Twelve victims, of the 60 who will travel to Havana in five groups, met for nearly seven hours on Aug. 16 with the FARC and government negotiators, who included two retired generals, one of whom was Jorge Enrique Mora Rangel, an army officer accused of human rights abuses.At one extreme, former rightwing President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) proposes the creation of a higher court to review the sentences handed down against members of the security forces from 1980 to 2026, and to release them while the sentences are revised. At the other extreme, the FARC do not recognise Colombia’s legal system as having the authority to try the guerrillas, once a peace agreement is reached.

The group of 12 was made up of six relatives of victims of crimes of state and of the far-right paramilitaries (which partially demobilised in the last decade), four victims of the FARC, and two victims of two or three different armed actors.

It was “a unique experiment that has not been seen anywhere else,” according to Fabrizio Hochschild, representative of the United Nations in Colombia.

In previous forums in Colombia, thousands of family members of victims have expressed their main demands: the truth about what happened to their loved ones, improvements in the mechanisms for reparations, guarantees that what happened will not be repeated, and justice.

The negotiators gave the task of selecting the groups of victims’ relatives to the U.N., Colombia’s National University, and the Catholic bishops’ conference. They were chosen from an official universe of 6.7 million victims and survivors, including 5.7 million victims of forced displacement, most of whom are small-scale farmers.

In the Colombian conflict, the last civil war in Latin America, the dead number at least 420,000 since 1946, including more than 220,000 since 1958, according to commissions for the historic memory set up in 1962 and 2012.

The creation of a Historical Commission on the Conflict and Victims (CHCV), at the behest of the negotiating table, was announced Thursday Aug. 21.

The commission consists of six academics and one rapporteur named by each side, for a total of 14 historians, sociologists, anthropologists, economist and political scientists.

The CHCV will analyse the origins of the armed conflict, the aspects that have stood in the way of a solution, and the question of who is responsible for its impacts on the population.

The rapporteurs will produce a joint report, by late December, although they will not “attribute individual responsibilities” and the report “must not be written with the aim of achieving specific legal effects,” the negotiating table stipulated.

This is not a truth commission, which should emerge once a peace agreement is signed. But it is a firm step in that direction.

Meanwhile, the aspect that appears to be foremost in the mind of public opinion in Colombia is neither the question of truth nor how to guarantee that the atrocities won’t happen again; it is the question of justice.

At one extreme, former rightwing President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) proposes the creation of a higher court to review the sentences handed down against members of the security forces from 1980 to 2026, and to release them while the sentences are revised.

At the other extreme, the FARC do not recognise Colombia’s legal system as having the authority to try the guerrillas, once a peace agreement is reached.

That position is based on a certain logic: if the guerrilla group is part of the negotiations, along with the state, and both have committed crimes, the state “cannot be both judge and jury,” the FARC negotiator, a commander whose nom de guerre is Pablo Catatumbo, told IPS in Havana.

At the same time, the families of victims of forced disappearance do not accept impunity.

The victims’ families asked the negotiators on both sides not to get up from the table until an agreement is reached.

But the fragility of the peace talks, held under the principle of “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” is evident.

There are still 28 pending aspects in the three points that have been agreed, of the six points on the agenda for the talks. It will be difficult to reach a consensus on these unresolved aspects, which are marked in red: 14 sub-points in the area of agriculture, 10 in political participation and four in the area of illegal drugs.

The CHVC is to make recommendations for reaching agreement on these sub-points.
Besides its interest in the question of justice, the public wants the FARC to demobilise and lay down their arms.

General Mora Rangel said in June “they must demobilise and hand over their weapons…they have to do so to join society and Colombia’s democratic system.”

But according to peace analyst Carlos Velandia, there will be no demobilisation, no laying down of arms, and no reinsertion.

There will be no photo ops of a “mass demobilisation”, like the ceremonies held in the mid-2000s showing the paramilitaries handing in their weapons, he said. Instead armed structures will be transformed into political structures, although the mechanism has not been worked out yet, he added.

And unlike in the case of the paramilitaries, “there won’t be thousands of insurgents stretching out their hands for ‘Papá State’ to help them,” he said.

Despite the obstacles, “the problem doesn’t lie over there, where both sides are taking a proactive stance,” a Catholic priest who is well-informed on what is going on in the talks in Havana told IPS.

The problem lies in Colombia, he said, where Uribe – now an extreme-right senator and a leader of the opposition in the legislature – had an enormous influence on public opinion during his two terms as president.

Uribe is “working on” businesspersons, bankers, large-scale merchants, and some journalists, to win them over in his fierce campaign against the peace talks, the priest said.

“Santos isn’t a leader, he’s a follower. If the country turns against him, he’ll abandon the peace process,” he maintained.

If there is strong public support for an eventual peace deal, the powerful oligarchy’s pressure on Santos could convince him to block a referendum on the peace agreement.
But if Uribe and victimisers who do not want to be more openly identified by the victims manage to foment rejection of the peace talks among voters, they would not object to a referendum on an eventual peace accord.

A precedent for this was set in Guatemala, where turnout for a referendum on a peace deal that put an end to 36 years of civil war – 1960-1996 – was extremely low, and among the few voters who did show up, a majority rejected the peace agreement.

In Colombia’s peace talks in Havana, the mechanism of a popular referendum is the sixth point on the agenda, which is still pending, and Santos has not referred to it in public.

To block these maneuvers, “there have to be more and more decisions aimed at recognising the legitimacy of the talks, including acts of truth and forgiveness. That will make it more likely, although not more sure, that the peace process will move forward successfully,” because “the more people who can forgive, the closer we are to seeing peace win out,” the priest said.

Different sectors of society agree on the need for “a new social pact” to approve the accords and work out the pending aspects marked in red. For the FARC and many others, on the left or the far right, these pacts should be reached through a constituent assembly that would rewrite the constitution. But Santos would appear to be leaning towards a referendum instead.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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OPINION: This Flower Is Right Here

Mon, 08/25/2014 - 08:10

This is the second in a series of special articles to commemorate the 50th anniversary of IPS, which was set up in 1964, the same year as the Group of 77 (G77) and UNCTAD.

By Ernest Corea
WASHINGTON, Aug 25 2014 (IPS)

Where have all the flowers gone? Yes, of course, those are the opening words of a beautiful song made famous by such illustrious singers as Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Vera Lynn and the Kingston Trio, among others. It was a great number made greater by the different styles in which singers of different musical temperaments belted it out.

But what has that got to do with a news and feature service – Inter Press Service — which has survived in a relentlessly competitive field and become internationally known as the voice of the underdog?IPS not only reflects (in its coverage) the realities of the “other.” It is actually part of the other.

The flowers in the song whose first few verses were written by Pete Seeger have gone to their graveyards. Similarly, non-traditional news services, news magazines, features services, and other innovative and non-traditional purveyors of information and opinion have sprouted like seasonal flora only to disappear – presumably on their way to that great big information graveyard in the skies.

Numerous efforts have been made by information entrepreneurs, journalists, publishers, and others to create a lasting and relevant instrument of communication different from those already well established, but most have failed. Some have frayed, withered and died faster than one can say Rabindranath Tagore.

That is an exaggeration, of course. (It’s early in the morning as I write, when exaggerations come faster than ideas.) In more prosaic terms, many such efforts, launched with great enthusiasm and hope, have faltered and flopped.

A few have survived, demonstrating that given the right circumstances and resources, alternative forms of dissemination can survive and flourish. Prominent among them is Inter Press Service, much better known by its shortened form, IPS.

The story goes that several years ago a messenger in a South Asian capital entered the office of a newspaper publisher to announce that “a gentleman from IPS is waiting to see you.” The publisher, already overloaded with tasks, each of them potentially a crisis, growled in reply: “Why would I want to meet somebody from the Indian Postal Service. Those buggers can’t even deliver a letter to the address clearly written on the front of an envelope.”

Doggedly the messenger, pejoratively known as a “peon,” the imported term bestowed on messengers by sahibs representing His/Her (unemployed) Britannic Majesty, says: “Not postman. Pressman.”

Irritated by now to a point dangerously close to incipient apoplexy, the publisher looks as if he is going to burst like an over-inflated balloon when the peon announces:. “Sir, he is from Inter Press Service.”

Calm is restored. The danger of an apoplectic outburst passes on like a potential monsoonal shower that turns out to be not even a drizzle. The publisher composes himself and wears his welcoming look. The peon is instructed to let the visitor in and also order up some tea for him.

The representative of Inter Press Service (now internationally known and recognised as IPS) comes in and is welcomed in a businesslike fashion, but with obvious warmth. And well he should be, for IPS was and continues to be like a breath of fresh air entering a room whose windows have rarely been opened.

For many years, representatives of developing country media (this writer among them) complained bitterly at regional and international conferences that circumstances compelled them to publish or broadcast news and views about their own countries, towns and villages, and people – people, for goodness sake – written by strangers in far-off lands, many of whom had never visited the countries they were writing about.

They had no hesitation in writing, broadcasting or publishing advice on how such countries should be organised and governed.

Several efforts were made to correct this imbalance but nobody seemed able to design the appropriate model. Gemini news service? Gone. Lankapuvath? Reduced to the level of a government gazette. Depth News? Up there with the dodo. Pan Asia News? Difficult to locate even through the internet. Then,  IPS came along.

The founders of IPS dealt with reality, as IPS does even today, not with slogans. Politicians and political journalists could play around all they wanted with  a “new international information order” or whatever their pet formulation might be.

IPS would, instead, attempt to service media outlets, print and electronic, with material written by journalists mainly from the South writing about the South from the South. Authenticity, thus, is a key IPS strength.

Even in its U.N. Bureau which is not country specific but, in effect, covers the world,  the rich flavour of internationalism is seamlessly combined with national concerns of small and powerless countries. whose interests are insouciantly ignored by the  maharajahs of international news dissemination.

IPS is different. It is authentic, as already pointed out. It is also down-to-earth and makes a strenuous effort to cover events, processes and trends emanating from developing countries and intertwined with the interests of those countries – and their peoples.

Contemporary history has demonstrated that failure to identify those interests and meet them leads to societal disequilibrium, dysfunctional politics, and disjointed economic development.

Thus, IPS not only reflects (in its coverage) the realities of the “other.” It is actually part of the other, bringing to the attention of audiences, readerships, and so on, activities – or lack of opportunities for activities – that go to the very heart of human development.

IPS is capable of functioning as both a catalyst and monitor of development. Other efforts to create and nurture such an institution have failed, mainly because they lacked high professional standards as well as funding.

The standards side has now been well established and IPS is not merely “recognised” but has won prestigious awards for the style, content, and relevance of its coverage. Often, it covers the stories that should be covered but are ignored by media maharajahs.

This effort has continued for 50 years. Can IPS continue to survive and thrive? It could and should – but only if it has the resources required.  Even the most exquisite bloom cannot survive unless it receives the tender loving care it deserves.

IPS is too critically important a media institution to be allowed to languish for want of resources. Moolah should not trump media relevance.

Ernest Corea is a former editor of the Ceylon Daily News, and more recently, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the United States.

The first article in this series can be read here.

Edited by: Kitty Stapp

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New York’s Homeless Pushed Deeper into the Shadows

Mon, 08/25/2014 - 07:48

Men line up to receive food distributed by Coalition for the Homeless volunteers at 35th St, FDR Drive, in New York City. Credit: Zafirah Mohamed Zein/IPS

By Zafirah Mohamed Zein
NEW YORK, Aug 25 2014 (IPS)

Joe sits on newspapers spread on the sidewalk by the entrance to midtown’s Grand Central Station. His head rests in his hands, only looking up when coins from passersby clink into his paper cup.

“A shelter is like a prison without guards,” he says, when asked why he was out on the street. “I’m done with them.”“A few things happened after the war. The government just forgot about me. Not only just me but a lot of others too." -- Don, a Vietnam veteran

The 36-year-old says “people who just got out of jail” steal from others in the bathroom and violence is rampant, as shelter staff members turn a blind eye. Throughout the conversation, Joe holds tight to his backpack, making sure it stays close.

While accurate figures for New York’s unsheltered homeless are hard to come by, the thousands sleeping on the streets are in addition to the 53,615 people – a record-breaking figure not seen since the Great Depression – who enrolled in the city’s shelter system in January this year. Yankee Stadium would not be able to seat all of them.

The Callahan v. Carey consent decree of 1981 established the right to shelter in New York and put into place certain minimum standards for shelters. However, many are still plagued by overcrowding, deplorable sanitary conditions and poor infrastructure.

“While there is that right to shelter, many individuals, maybe because of bad experiences, choose not to go there and prefer to be on the streets,” said Gabriela Sandoval, a policy analyst at Coalition for the Homeless.

“Some shelters do feel very much like prison and many just don’t feel like going to that environment,” she told IPS.

Most shelters have sets of rules that include a smoking and alcohol ban, as well as a 10 p.m. curfew. Punitive policies such as sanctions, which were put in place by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, can be used against those who engage in certain behaviours or if they repeatedly fail to meet with a case manager.

“There is a lot of stress in your life if you’re homeless. You have no place of your own and you are not at your 100 percent full capacity level,” said Sandoval. “Sometimes staff members in shelters don’t see it that way. They have a different perception of the problem and tend to believe that the homeless want to be homeless.”

Even for those who have secured a place in the shelter system, a way out of poverty is difficult and chronic homelessness haunts the lives of those in New York’s underclass.

Melvin gets free food from the Coalition for the Homeless on Bowery and wants the world to know the good work they do to help men like him every day. Credit: Zafirah Mohamed Zein/IPS

Sandoval attributes the rise in homelessness to the lack of affordable housing and the high unemployment rate in the aftermath of the economic recession. Some families with one or two working parents still find themselves unable to afford rent in what is known as one of the greatest cities in the world.

Outside the Bryant Park subway stop, a man and his pregnant wife are slumped behind a cardboard sign similar to Joe’s, with urgent pleas – “need money, need food, need clothes.” The couple said they were staying in the city’s shelter system and had a roof over their heads every night, but had little for anything else.

Homelessness grew under the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, when permanent housing assistance for homeless families was terminated and they had to rely on short-term “band-aid” policies.

The city’s current mayor, Bill de Blasio, has committed to the creation of 30,000 supportive units over the next 10 years. New York has also recently undertaken a plan to move families out of shelters and into their own apartments with two new rent subsidy programmes. Altogether, the administration’s plan will cost almost 140 million dollars.

For individuals on the street with mental or emotional problems, Mary, a volunteer with the Coalition’s Food Van Program, said, “Lots of times they’re mentally incompetent to even make their way to the services available. If they get in such a bad way, they get picked up, taken to the hospital and treated but they’re sent out as quickly as they can back out on the streets.”

Sandoval acknowledges a common problem regarding the assessment of homeless individuals, especially those with mental health issues. “It’s really hard to tell if someone has a mental health problem unless there is a psychological evaluation done.”

Due to the lack of resources, such evaluations are rarely carried out.

“A few things happened after the war. The government just forgot about me. Not only just me but a lot of others too, you’ll be surprised by how many stand in this line,” said Don, a Vietnam War veteran in line for the Coalition food van parked under the FDR Drive on Manhattan’s east side.

“We’re not all bums who do drugs and drink or whatever. A lot of people here got educations and everything.”

Joe agrees. He says he stays away from drugs and alcohol. The coins he collects go toward daily trips on the subway, or a night’s sleep on someone’s couch. He can make up to 80 dollars on a good day, and even more on Christmas.

He does his own laundry, he said, lifting his bright white shirt off his chest. He claims to be saving for the future and says he does not sit on the street when he can help it. Speaking with a confidence and tough hope born out of experience, Joe appears to have a system going.

Estranged from his mother upon his father’s death when he was 16, Joe had to work from a young age to support himself, mostly construction work. A fall down a flight of stairs led to medical problems, and he ended up on the streets. He does not keep in touch with his siblings, one of which is “in a bad state” and the other in prison.

“I’ve been in worse places in my life before, believe it or not. I’m just waiting for this disability to come through, so I can get a proper place. I’m halfway there, halfway there,” he said.

Homeless individuals like Joe and Don are the men of New York City’s margins, navigating their way through shelters and streets, increasingly less trusting of a city that has abandoned them in the shadows.

“I don’t think enough services are available for the homeless community,” said Jeffrey Collete, co-founder of New York City Homeless Advocates. “There is a lot not being done and it’s sad because this city is so rich, with such rich tourists.”

Caleb, another volunteer with the Coalition, says the issue of homelessness has never been a political priority.

“When it becomes a sanitary issue, then it becomes an issue. It’s a simple matter of them not having anything to do with elections. No politician ever won an election because he helped homeless people.”

Edited by: Kitty Stapp

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