Modern Tools, Age-old Wisdom: on India-Sri Lanka Relations

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Featured, Global, Global Governance, Headlines, IPS UN: Inside the Glasshouse, Peace, TerraViva United Nations


Prasad Kariyawasam was Sri Lanka’s one-time Foreign Secretary and High Commissioner to India

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Credit: V.V. Krishnan, the Hindu

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, Jul 31 2020 (IPS) – The unique India-Sri Lanka relationship, de jure, is between equals as sovereign nations. But it’s asymmetric in terms of geographic size, population, military and economic power, on the one hand, and social indicators and geographical location, on the other. It is steeped in myth and legend, and influenced by religious, cultural and social affinities.

This is an opportune time for Sri Lanka and India to nourish the roots of the relationship using modern toolkits, but leveraging age-old wisdom and experience.

Historical ties

History reveals that the advent of Buddhism to Sri Lanka during the time of Emperor Ashoka was the result of cross-border discourse. For many centuries in the first millennia, the ancient capital city of Anuradhapura housed an international community which included traders from India, China, Rome, Arabia and Persia.

Later, Buddhist monks from Sri Lanka travelled to India, China, Cambodia and Java leaving behind inscriptions. Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka, to this day, contain shrines for Hindu deities. The colonial expansion of European maritime nations reshaped the Sri Lankan economy. Labour from south India was brought to Sri Lanka to work in plantations.

The Indian freedom struggle had its influence on Sri Lanka as well. There was cross-border support for the revival of culture, tradition, local languages, spiritual practices and philosophies, and education. Both countries transformed into modern nations with constitutional and institutionalised governance under colonial rule.

Most aspects of today’s globalisation existed in a different form in the pre-colonial era with free exchange of ideas, trade and intellectual discourse. However, process engineering by colonial powers for identification and categorisation of people was a factor in the emergence of separatist ideologies based on ethnicity, language and religion.

This mindset is now ingrained and accentuated in politics. Episodic instances of communal hostility are referenced often to suit tactical political gain. Around the world today, and not just in South Asia, policies and thinking are becoming communally exclusive, localised and inward-looking.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit the world against this backdrop, allowing some leaders an opportunity to double down on insular thinking, ostensibly for providing local communities with better economic and social prospects, and security.

Meanwhile, governance models favoured by nations keep vacillating between fundamental freedoms-based democratic systems and quasi democratic, socialist authoritarian systems.

In this regard, the people of Sri Lanka and India have been served well by long years of uninterrupted democratic governance. This has provided long-term stability for both countries and must not be vitiated.

Sri Lanka’s strategic location makes it apparent that not only economic fortunes but the security of both countries are inextricably linked. Therefore, it is heartening that India and Sri Lanka constantly strive for excellence in neighbourly relations, recognising that a calamity in one country can adversely impact the other.

Though robust partnerships with other countries must be sought in line with the non-alliance foreign policies of both countries, such efforts must be bounded by an atmosphere needed for peace, prosperity and stability.

Among others, freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific together with a rules-based international order and peaceful settlement of disputes are of common interest. While avoiding advocacy of zero-sum solutions on crucial issues, both countries must seek to harmonise strategic and other interests in line with common values and socioeconomic compulsions.

Addressing issues and imbalances

The socioeconomic development of Sri Lanka has remained linked to India. But there are many options available to address issues of imbalance and asymmetries. For instance, Sri Lanka can encourage Indian entrepreneurs to make Colombo another business hub for them, as logistical capacities and facilities for rest and recreation keep improving in Sri Lanka.

Integrating the two economies but with special and differential treatment for Sri Lanka due to economic asymmetries can be fast-tracked for this purpose. There is immense potential to accentuate or create complementariness, using locational and human resource potential, for harnessing benefits in the modern value chains.

Robust partnerships across the economic and social spectrum can promote people-to-people bonhomie. And engagement of legislatures is essential for promoting multiparty support.

With many countries receding into cocoons due to the pandemic, this is an opportunity for both countries to focus on the renewal and revitalisation of partnerships.

This article was originally published in the Hindu, the English-language daily owned by The Hindu Group and headquartered in Chennai, Tamil Nadu


Checkmate! China’s Coronavirus Connection

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Featured, Global, Headlines, Health, TerraViva United Nations


Dr Simi Mehta is the CEO and Editorial Director of Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi. She can be reached at

Handover ceremony at UN compound in Beijing for donation of critical medical supplies to the Chinese government. Credit: UNDP China

NEW DELHI, May 20 2020 (IPS) – Coronavirus outbreaks in China and later across the globe have been unprecedented in both its scale and impacts. In the era of changing world order, this pandemic has drawn the global attention towards the threats posed by the non-traditional security challenges.

All military prowess and records of economic progress have been rendered impotent vis-à-vis the coronavirus disease. With a total of around 5 million cases worldwide (and only about 83,000 in China), the wheels of power display of major powers like the US, China, Russia, Spain, France, Germany, Italy have come to a grinding halt.

The objectives of national health policy, health security of the countries, including the concept of collective health security of the World Health Organization (WHO), and the United Nations have raised questions on their seriousness, claimed efficacy and efficiency.

Regarding the origins of the virus, there have been different narratives. This article analyses the discourse claiming that research and development programmes for medicine, vaccines, and treatment for health risks and planning and investment for intensive research on bioweapons by major powers led to the creation of the dangerous strand of contagion called the novel coronavirus.

Allegations on China

There is no denying that the place where it all originated was in Wuhan, China. Thousands of people began to suffer with a respiratory illness that could not be cured. The WHO has described coronavirus as part of the family of viruses, which ranges from the common cold to Middle East Respiratory Syndromes (MERS) and SARS.

It has the capability to transmit between animals and humans. Very soon, a school of thought contrary to the claims of the Chinese government that it was in the wet market selling exotic and wild animals- including bats, that was the cause of this pandemic, began to emerge.

However, counter-claims posit that The Wuhan Institute of Virology National Biosafety Laboratory in the vicinity of the wet market had deliberately created this virus. What raises arguments in favour of the counter-claims include: China did not raise an alarm globally about the existence, leave aside spread of the virus until major outbreaks were reported from late January 2020 onwards.

Various conspiracy theories have been circulating that this virus was made to escape the laboratory as bio-weapons either by accident or design. Some reports have also claimed that this virus was originally stolen by Chinese agents from Canadian laboratory in July 2019, which has level 4 of biosafety- dealing with the most dangerous pathogens for which there are few available vaccines or treatments, similar to that possessed by the Wuhan laboratory.

Further, it has rejected international fact-finding mission into its country. Newspapers like the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and the Washington Post have suffered collateral damage and some of their employees have been asked to wind up their operations in the country.

Even academic research papers on coronavirus has borne the brunt by the gag-order of the Chinese authorities to intervene in the independence of the scientific process. Those research articles focusing on the COVID-19 have to now undergo extra vetting before they are submitted for publication.

As a result, the initial global empathy for the Chinese suffering from the wrath of this virus steadily turned into suspicion and panic. This culminated into pent up anger seeking reparations from China for being culpable for the origin and spread of COVID-19.

Unfazed by Chinese criticism, US President Donald Trump eloquently named the coronavirus as the Chinese virus. He has also accused the WHO of siding with China in hiding the facts and suspended its contribution to the multi-lateral body and said that the WHO “should be ashamed of themselves because they are like the public-relations agency for China.”.

Calls for an international investigation to know the ‘truth’ behind the origin and spread of the virus have become intense. With its one-party authoritarian system, China was initially on the defensive and flagrantly refused all such calls; which, in effect added to the case in point that there is ‘something’ that it wanted to hide from the rest of the world.

However, with growing international pressures and the most recent draft resolution led by Australia and the EU and supported by 122 countries at the World Health Assembly of WHO, China finally relented and agreed to the call for a “comprehensive review” of COVID-19 pandemic in an “objective and impartial manner”.

It is even pointing to the proactive help it is providing to several countries, in terms of sending protective gears, face masks, gloves, etc. However, complaints have been raised as several of these have malfunctioned and/or were defective.


In 1919 George A. Soper1 wrote that the deadly Spanish Flu pandemic that swept around the earth was without any precedents, and that there had been no such catastrophe ‘so sudden, so devastating and so universal’. He remarked that, “The most astonishing thing about the pandemic was the complete mystery which surrounded it. Nobody seemed to know what the disease was, where it came from or how to stop it. Anxious minds are inquiring today whether another wave of it will come again”.

With close to 3 million positive cases and around 0.2 million deaths worldwide, the coronavirus has compelled people to draw parallels with the history of lethal viruses like the 1918 Spanish flu.

This great human tragedy created by COVID-19 is compounded because of the absence of a definitive cure and/or a vaccine. Experts opine that it would be possible only by the first quarter of 2021. The prevailing obscurity in China with respect to the causes of origin and global spread of the virus has led to conspiracy theories to emanate from various parts of the international community. Demands have begun to be made to hold China accountable for the health crisis and that it should pay the countries of the world for their health and economic hardships.

Trump has indicated that the US has begun its investigations to claim ‘substantial’ damages from China as the ‘whole situation could have been stopped at the source’. The champion of having China included in the world system- Henry Kissinger warned that COVID-19 was a danger to the liberal international order.

Even a veteran Cabinet Minister of Government of India, Nitin Gadkari stated in an interview to a private news channel that the coronavirus is ‘not a natural virus, rather it emerged from a lab’.

This, perhaps explains India’s cautious next steps of charging its northern neighbour China as the country responsible for the manufacture of the virus that has brought incredible and unprecedented mayhem in the lives, livelihoods and economies around the world.

Therefore, it would be in the best interests of China to ensure transparency and allow international investigations into the disease, as it is totally unbecoming of permanent member of the UN Security Council wielding veto powers.

The worldwide panic created by the prevailing health insecurity would redefine the meaning, definition and practical implications for programmes and policy of all countries of the world. Putting it into perspective, the global health management body- the WHO needs to be reformed, and so should the UN Security Council.

It remains to be seen how the world navigates through the crisis and whether comprehensive public health would figure in their national security agendas in the post-COVID-19 world order. Nonetheless, it is time that the multilateral agencies take suo moto cognizance of the havoc created by China and act as per the norms of international law for ensuring collective security.

1 Major George A. Soper was Sanitation Engineer with Department of Health, USA. His area of specialty included study of typhoid fever epidemics. He was also the managing director of American Cancer Society from 1923 to 1928.


The Role of Civil Society in Times of Crisis

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Featured, Headlines, Health, Poverty & SDGs, TerraViva United Nations


What is the role of civil society in this massive national exercise to ensure that every citizen of the country has food to eat, quality health services, and livelihood opportunities? I believe there is plenty we can do

This is an opportunity for civil society to highlight the plight of migrant labourers that existed even before the pandemic.. Picture courtesy: Anand Sinha

RAJASMAND, RAJASTHAN, India, May 8 2020 (IPS) – The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has shown us something that most of us haven’t seen in our lifetimes: Large numbers of people unable to have two meals a day. 

The tragedy is that the government has enough and more foodgrains to feed people during this time; the real issue is of distribution—both in terms of broken supply chains, as well as the insistence of the government to limit distribution to beneficiaries under the National Food Security Act (NFSA), ie, priority ration card holders. This approach is flawed because the NFSA has many exclusions, with some of the poorest of the poor, nomadic or Adivasi communities, and the urban poor being left out. Moreover, ration cards are of no use to migrant workers stuck outside their home state.

How much attention we pay to the millions who have been worst affected by COVID-19 and the lockdown will determine whether or not we come out of this crisis

There are similar issues of exclusion in other services as well, such as livelihoods and healthcare. This is where civil society must step in—to put pressure on the government to universalise these services.

We, at the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) and through many networks, have been petitioning the government to distribute foodgrains to everyone, and we need to apply this kind of pressure at a larger scale. We’ve seen this work in the past, in the case of programmes such as NFSA (that focuses on food security) and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA)—both these were a result of consultative processes between the government and civil society. In fact, these rights-based legislations are providing us with the framework for public service delivery during this crisis, and they need to be effectively enhanced.

Therefore, if the government does not listen, we have to make them listen. I believe the people of this country know how to engage with the government—even when we disagree with our leaders, or they don’t listen to us. We live in a constitutional democracy, and the mantle therefore lies with citizens and civil society organisations to put pressure on the government, and to recreate society on the principles of equality, respect, and solidarity. In the short term, this means that we need to build a national movement to ensure that everyone gets access to food, livelihood, and healthcare.

But how can we do this, given the urgency of the situation and the restrictions that have come with it? What is our role in this massive national exercise to ensure that every citizen of the country has food to eat, quality health services, and livelihood opportunities? I believe there is plenty we can do.

Build a network of civil society

Civil society will have to build a network that cuts across the country. We will need to map the different organisations and groups providing relief in every district, block, and down to every village. We can do this because we have volunteers and workers—from field staff of nonprofits to government school teachers—all over the country, and we know whom we can contact for any information or assistance at any place.

The strength of civil society lies in knowing and being the small, decentralised units that have taken responsibility for their entire area—identifying the number of people in the area, the relief needed, the gaps in government relief, the challenges on the ground, and so on. By bringing them together and forming a network, we can enable these units to call upon each other for assistance, such as procuring material or rebuilding supply chains. Most importantly, the network can have a voice at the national-level that says everyone is entitled to benefits, even if they are not ration card holders or active workers under NREGA.

Stand in solidarity with those delivering essential services

COVID-19 is a high-risk disease, and we need to be very careful; but we cannot simply lock ourselves in our homes, because then those who are most vulnerable will not survive. Essential services absolutely have to continue. We have to build systems and mechanisms for safe delivery of services, and public servants have to be motivated, and given economic and moral support. Even though this has to be primarily done by the government, civil society organisations have a huge role to play as well.

For instance, we need to stand in solidarity with those who are currently delivering these services—frontline health workers, sanitation workers, people running ration shops and kirana stores, those making home deliveries of goods, and so on. We have to understand their problems and put pressure on the government to support them. The Delhi government recently announced insurance of INR 1 crore for frontline workers. That is the kind of security we should demand for every individual delivering services in this period. We have to build a movement around them.

These essential jobs could also be the answer to protecting the livelihoods of the poor during this time, by creating a fallback public works programme, unprecedented in scale. Civil society can demonstrate this model to the government. We need to chart the vital services required today, such as delivering rations and caregiving, and show to the government how people can be employed in these roles. This will not only help communities affected by the pandemic, but the mechanism of doing so might help others in turn.

Continue social movements in innovative ways

We might not be able to organise rallies or protests during the lockdown, but social movements must not stop finding ways to mobilise public opinion. When the lockdown first happened, we filed a case in the Supreme Court to say that all active workers under NREGA should be given wages for all 21 days. The case is being heard via video conferencing. So, we have to explore all options that help put pressure on the government.

We can engage with the state, send press notes, exchange information within our networks of civil society organisations, and document what’s happening on the ground. This way, we can raise issues at the state- and national-level. There are restrictions everywhere, but we cannot stop. We have to be innovative.

Civil society leaders and activists must also continue writing for newspapers and alternative media to highlight the situation of the most vulnerable, and do it in a more organised way, by taking the unheard voices and disseminating them using our networks. These must not just be confined to stories of suffering, but include positive stories and creative practices as well—of people working together despite socio-economic differences. Civil society can also help advocate that best practices in one state be replicated in others.

This is an opportunity for civil society to highlight the plight of migrant labourers that existed even before the pandemic—their work and living conditions, the insecurity of work, and the fact that they have no real social support from the state. We’ve heard people say that they didn’t realise that the migrant workforce is the backbone of our economy. Therefore, in addition to looking after their welfare and security, we must recognise their contribution, and build respect for them and their work—not as a favour, but as a means to empower them.

Many civil society organisations have been working with domestic workers, industrial workers, mine workers, street vendors, or other informal sector workers, but we haven’t managed to get them together and build them into the potent, powerful force that they could be. Perhaps now is the time for us to do that.

This is also an opportunity for civil society to counter the communal narrative that took over the country a few weeks ago. By taking the lead in organising multifaith relief efforts and highlighting positive stories of unity across religious lines, we have to show that the only way to overcome this crisis is by working together. We need to demonstrate compassion and care at this time, and shift the focus of politics to those values.

Work with the government

The role of civil society does not stop at putting pressure on the government. There are many areas that the government is unable to reach; we have to reach there. We have to use our transparency and accountability mechanisms to monitor the government’s work and make sure state resources are well-used. We also need to proactively find the gaps, and help fill those gaps.

The government structure is working well in some areas and not working in others. In some of those places, the government is itself asking for our help. Given the enormity of the intervention required, the government cannot do it on its own, and civil society cannot replace the vast role of the government in facing this crisis. While civil society organisations can take responsibility for one area and fully ensure the well-being of the people there, we must also work with local governments, help people access relief measures down to every rural and urban ward, and fill the gaps in the government’s response. Panchayats and local self-governments also have a very big role to play in this effort.

Apart from this, each one of us needs to think hard of the ways in which we can contribute. As individuals, we can immediately start looking at those around us—in our villages and our localities. Some of us can provide economic resources to plug the government’s gaps; others can take up the job of distribution. Individuals can also devote their time and join campaigns. There needs to be a concerted campaign for instance, to use the excessive foodgrain stocks to universalise the PDS, at least for the next few months. We also need to support the demand for an enhanced employment guarantee programme for rural and urban areas. We don’t realise how powerful the middle-class, English-speaking elite in India is; if they raise their voice enough, we will see improved situations around us.

And lastly, let us not forget democracy at this time—the right to speak, the right to challenge, the right to argue—because today, the only thing millions of poor people have is a voice. We need to amplify that voice to ensure that the most vulnerable get the most support, and those who are affluent only get something if it helps the most vulnerable. How much attention we pay to the millions who have been worst affected by COVID-19 and the lockdown will determine whether or not we come out of this crisis.

The article is based on Nikhil’s online discussion with the team members of Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiatives, Azim Premji University, and Azim Premji Foundation.

Nikhil Dey was one of the founding members of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS).

This story was originally published by India Development Review (IDR)


Kerala Covid-19 Response Model for Emulation

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Featured, Global, Headlines, Health, Humanitarian Emergencies, TerraViva United Nations


SYDNEY and KUALA LUMPUR, Apr 9 2020 (IPS) – Within weeks, the Covid-19 epidemic was classified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as an epidemic of international significance, triggering a pre-agreed WHO response. By the end of the first week of April, more than 1.3 million people had been confirmed as infected, with over 65,000 deaths across the world.

Anis Chowdhury

Many governments of developing, especially poor countries are unsure what to do, fearing the likely economic consequences of the ‘lockdowns’ increasingly adopted by Western economies. Indeed, lockdowns may shut down businesses relying on daily turnover and eliminate incomes for daily rated workers.

Meanwhile, most East Asian and some other governments have acted early to trace, test, isolate and treat the infected without lockdowns. Yet, most measures recommended have been criticized as beyond the means of the most vulnerable societies and populations.

Early action crucial
Early measures have required ‘physical distancing’ and other precautionary measures — at work, at home and in the community, at relatively low cost. People also need to be prepared to live differently for a long time to come as part of a ‘new normal’, at least until everyone can be effectively vaccinated.

‘All of government’ approaches are urgently needed everywhere to provide effective leadership to ‘whole of society’ efforts to contain the spread of viral infections. While this is no conventional war, only whole of society mobilization efforts can help mitigate major economic disruption and damage.

This should not only involve public health and police authorities, typically those empowered by draconian lockdowns. But repressive measures are unlikely to secure needed public support for effective enforcement and implementation, and adoption of needed behavioural and cultural changes.

Health authorities must provide publics with much better understanding of the threats faced and the rationale for policy responses to secure compliance. Public appreciation of the challenges involved is crucial for policy compliance and effective implementation.

Physical distancing, social solidarity
Kerala state in southwestern India, with a population of 35 million, has become “a model state in the fight against Covid-19”. Its Left Front-led government was among the first to introduce precautionary state-wide measures against the novel coronavirus threat.

Through appropriate and effective early actions, it has successfully slowed the spread of infection in the state, largely by promoting physical distancing and mainly sanitary precautionary, measures, and providing better protection for health staff well before the hugely disruptive and draconian lockdown imposed in India in late March.

Jomo Kwame Sundaram

The Kerala state government invited religious leaders, local bodies and civil society organizations to participate in policy design and implementation, considering its specific socio-economic conditions, including urban slum environments.

It has communicated effectively in different languages to educate all, including migrants, and to prevent stigmatization of those infected, even opposing the term ‘social distancing’, which has caste connotations, with ‘physical distancing and social solidarity’.

Returning migrants
Despite Kerala’s long-standing achievements in education, health and science, highly educated Keralans tend to migrate to work out of state, if not abroad, seeking more lucrative employment. The state was still recovering from the devastating floods and nipah virus epidemic of 2018 when tens of thousands began returning after losing jobs in the Middle East.

Kerala is also the destination for a large number of Indian internal migrants. With the nationwide lockdown, non-residents, equivalent to almost 5% of Kerala’s population, have returned, causing a surge of new infections.

Such unusually high movements of people have made the state more vulnerable. Despite some controversy, the state appears to have handled the migrant issue very well, especially compared to other state governments and the central government.

There has also been a close connection between Kerala and Wuhan, a popular educational hub offering affordable quality medical and other courses; the first three positive Covid-19 cases detected in India involved returned university students in Wuhan.

The state health department promptly went into action, setting up a coordination centre on 26 January. Recognizing there was no time to be lost, the Kerala state government set up mechanisms to identify, test, isolate and treat those infected, quickly earning an excellent reputation.

Less disruptive, less costly, more effective
Some key features of Kerala’s response, undertaken by a government with very limited fiscal resources, are hence instructive.

*All-of-government approach: involving a range of relevant state government ministries and agencies to design measures to improve consistency, coordination and communication, and to avoid confusion.

*Whole-of-society approach: wide community consultations, including experts, to find the most locally appropriate modes of limiting infections, along with means to monitor and enforce them.

*Social mobilization: communities were provided essential epidemiological information to understand the threat and related issues, ensure compliance with prescribed precautionary measures, and avoid panic.

*No one left behind: adequate supply of essential commodities, particularly food and medicines, has been ensured, especially to protect the most vulnerable sections of society.

To make things worse, Kerala has been discriminated against by the central government’s disaster relief fund on specious grounds. The largely agricultural state has modest fiscal resources of its own as state governments in India have limited fiscal rights and resources.

Credible leadership
The Kerala government has set up 18 committees and holds daily evening meetings to evaluate the situation, issuing media updates about those quarantined, tested and hospitalized .

At these meetings, the state Health Minister and Chief Minister calmly explain what is going on, including what the government is doing. They thus provide credible leadership on the difficult issues involved, securing strong public participation for its mass campaign of containment.

Kerala’s approach has proven less disruptive, less costly and more effective than most others. After recording its first COVID-19 case on January 30, its infection and death rates have been kept relatively low despite much more tracing and testing.


Why Empowering National Human Rights Institutions Helps on the Quest for Healthy Earth?

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Climate Change, Development & Aid, Education, Environment, Featured, Global, Headlines, Human Rights, Population

Claudia Ituarte-Lima, Stockholm University, Sweden and University of British Columbia, Canada

Claudia Ituarte-Lima is researcher on international environmental law at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, and affiliated senior researcher at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law. She is currently a visiting researcher at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, University of British Columbia. She holds a PhD from the University College London and a MPhil from the University of Cambridge.

On March 2020, over 330 students, women champions, government officials, NGO members and community members from around Kampot and Kep gathered in an effort to plant 3,000 mangroves and conserve Cambodia’s coastline. The local activity took place as part of a larger mangrove planting and marine exhibition under Action Aid’s 100,000 Mangroves campaign, supported by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) under the project ‘Strengthening Climate Information and Early Warning Systems in Cambodia’. The campaign aims to plan 100,000 mangroves in eight community fisheries by May 2020, and raise awareness of the importance of marine ecosystems. Credit: ManuthButh/UNDP Cambodia

VANCOUVER, British Columbia, Canada, Mar 24 2020 (IPS) – We are living in a critical time. As we face existential environmental challenges from climate crises to the mass extinction of species, it is difficult sometimes to see solutions and new ideas. This is why we all need to celebrate and give visibility to creative and courageous efforts of people and organizations striving towards a healthy planet for all.

I write today about the key role played by National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) in the Global South in our collective fight against climate change. The time has come to empower NHRIs.

Their unique position mandated by law yet independent from the government can make an urgent needed bridge between legal and policy advances, and ground-up efforts such as youth and women movements, thereby contributing to the enjoyment of the right to a healthy environment.

I have recently had the chance of learning real-world success stories by brave NHRIs working in some of the most challenging contexts. While being a member of the facilitators’ team of a series of webinars* for technical staff and decision-makers working in NHRIs and prior face-to-face interaction with them, it became crystal clear that strengthening the skills and capacities of NHRIs can contribute positive outcomes for both human rights and the environment.

In Mongolia, for instance, the NHRI with the support of civil society organizations and environmental researchers has recently developed a draft law for safeguarding the rights of environmental defenders.

The NHRIs have also intervened in a variety of sectoral issues from pesticides and agriculture in Costa Rica, to mining in South Africa and the connections between coal mining and transportation in Mongolia. The Morocco NHRI has prompted other African NHRIs and civil society organizations to actively participate in international climate negotiations.

Business and human rights was a key issue raised by our NHRIs colleagues.

Nazia, 38, proudly shows off her home-grown tomatoes in Nadirabad village, Pakistan. She participated in kitchen gardening training offered under the joint UNDP-EU Refugee Affected and Host Areas (RAHA) Programme in Pakistan. Credit: UNDP Pakistan

The significant legal, institutional and financial obstacles that national duty bearers face to investigate transnational corporations and their responsibilities concerning their impacts to a safe climate has not proved insurmountable for NHRIs.

The Philippine’s NHRI has a mandate to promote human rights which, creatively interpreted, allowed it to investigate the climate change and human rights nexus beyond its national borders.

The systemic nature of climate change justified a national inquiry rather than a field visit. Because climate change is an existential issue not only to Filipino people but globally, the Philippines national inquiry on climate change turned into an inquiry with strong global dimensions.

It included public hearings in the Philippines, New York and London, virtual hearings and expert advice from the former UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and environment, academics from different parts of the world and the Asia-Pacific regional network of NHRIs.

A major comparative advantage presented by the NHRIs is their unique position in working hand in hand with right holders in addressing environmental – human rights gaps facing the most vulnerable populations.

Costa Rica NHRI has found, for instance, that women, girls, men and boys and elder living in coastal areas become especially vulnerable to climate change because their access to clean drinking water and fish become scarce.

The South African NHRI together with food sovereignty civil society organizations has developed a draft climate charter, to be presented to the parliament, with a more holistic approach to the current climate policy.

In recent years, the awareness of the linkages between human rights and climate change has greatly increased. The legal recognition of the right to a healthy environment in more than 150 countries, together with judicial decisions, and academic studies on the safe climate dimension of this right has grown rapidly. NHRIs can be instrumental in translating them into results and action, including under difficult circumstances.

Their role in advising duty bearers, working together with right-holders helps to understand and act upon systemic environmental challenges. Their synergies with environmental human rights defenders can also contribute to more effective investigation and advocacy, not least in the context of informal and unregulated business activities where it is especially difficult to collect data and hold businesses accountable.

Time has come for the international community to do more to support NHRIs in the Global South, a key player often overlooked in climate and biodiversity talks, debates and funding. Due to the intrinsic connections between human rights and environment, the NHRIs need to be further supported to perform their innovative roles in safeguarding life-support systems at various jurisdictional scales, including advocating for the global recognition of the right to a healthy environment by the United Nations.

* The series was organized by the Global Alliance for National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI), UNDP, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency and UN Environment. A final report with key messages from the webinar series is available on the UNDP website.


India’s Citizenship Law Triggered by Rising Right-Wing Ideology

Active Citizens, Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Democracy, Editors’ Choice, Education, Featured, Fostering Global Citizenship, Global, Global Governance, Headlines, Human Rights, Inequity, IPS UN: Inside the Glasshouse, Population

Credit: Foreign Policy

UNITED NATIONS, Jan 6 2020 (IPS) – “Fire bullets at the traitors of the country,” chanted mobs of Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, supporters wrapped in Indian flags in Delhi last week.

It’s been less than a month since protests emerged against the BJP’s Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), a new law to redefine and restrict who is considered an Indian citizen. In a violent crackdown, 27 peaceful protesters have been killed and police have detained 1500 others. BJP vigilante mobs continue to threaten and beat people protesting this controversial bill.

The CAA became law on December 11th, 2019 to provide a path to citizenship for minorities that fled from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan prior to 2014, but its most controversial point is that it specifically excludes Muslims. Critics call it discriminatory and say it threatens the secular nature of India’s constitution by trying to establish a Hindu religious state, or a “Hindu Rashtra,” akin to other religious states like Saudi Arabia or Israel’s attempt for a Jewish nation state.

In addition to the CAA, the Indian government is also planning to implement a National Register of Citizens, also known as the NRC, across the whole nation by 2021. The most recent NRC was implemented by the Indian government in the state of Assam in 2015 forcing Indians to provide documented proof of their citizenship to be considered Indian citizens. The result was the disenfranchisement of 1.9 million mostly Muslim residents who now risk being sent to illegal detention camps as they do not have what the government considers sufficient documentation or “legacy documents” which must date back to the 1970s. People fear that its extension to the rest of the country will not only affect Muslims who are not safeguarded by the CAA, but also the poorest, unlettered parts of society.

According to Indian historian and executive-director of the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research, Vijay Prashad, the BJP has couched the CAA as a progressive refugee policy which is redundant given that India is already a signatory of the Global Compact for Migration as well as other international treaties on migration and refugees.

“Why not bring these treaties to be ratified by India, why bother to create your own bizarre thing if there’s already an international framework to say that we accept refugees and migration?” he asked rhetorically. “Well it’s because they’ve used the question of migration not for migration itself but to define what is an Indian citizen, which is a very chilling thing because now they are making the claim that Muslims are not citizens in India,” Prashad told IPS News.

Prashad says this is a core part of the BJP’s right-wing ideology. India’s home minister Amit Shah even referred to undocumented Muslim migrants coming from Bangladesh to India as “termites” and “infiltrators” and threatened to throw them into the Bay of Bengal.

India is currently the world’s largest democracy which historically has not used religion as a prerequisite for citizenship. According to Ramya Reddy, human rights lawyer from Georgetown University Law Center, the CAA puts India’s democracy at risk by violating Articles 14 and 21 of the Indian constitution, which deal with equality and liberty.


Daily protests have been met with extreme violence by the police who have fired stun grenades, smoke bombs, tear gas, and even used live ammunition to shoot and kill protestors. Police have attempted to stop protests by imposing Section 144 of the Penal Code, a draconian law from the British Raj historically used to crush freedom fighters by prohibiting the assembly of more than 4 people. The section of this law, however, is being applied selectively.

“When the radical Hindutva supporters gather, this is not considered an unlawful gathering according to the police because they’re pro-government. The police even escort them,” said Aatir Arshad a Bachelor’s student from Jamia Millia University who’s been involved in recent protests.

Jamia Millia Islamia University, a public college in New Delhi with a majority-Muslim student body, became the center of the protest movement in Delhi after police stormed the university campus, dragged out several students, beat them up and arrested them, including those who were not participating in the demonstrations.

“They rushed into the library, where students were not even protesting, they were just studying for their exams and the police beat them up,” Arshad told IPS News. “That moment was apocalyptic for Jamia Milia Islamia. They also harassed students and then claimed they did nothing.”

Arshad adds that police also entered the mosque on the university campus, beat up the Imam, as well as the guards of the university. Protests are still going on because of the events from that day.

Ahla Khan, an alumnus from Jamia Millia and resident of the Jamia Nagar area, explained to IPS News how on the first day of protests her and her sister were just walking to Jamia University when they got caught in the middle of a confrontation between police and protesters. They ran to the sidewalk and watched as police hit students with batons.

“I was watching a guy standing there, just looking at his phone doing nothing. The police ask him ‘where are you going’ and he doesn’t say anything. And just like that the police start beating him up,” says Khan.

She explains how the protesters have been highly organized and peaceful in Delhi. Many have volunteered to distribute tea in the biting cold weather, organized assemblies and facilitated plays and book readings. Chants and slogans have called for repealing the CAA as well as for Azaadi, or freedom. Police have been more restrained than in Uttar Pradesh (UP) where police violence has been lethal. The Chief Minister of UP called a meeting in late December threatening to seize property of those involved in protests “to compensate damage to public property.”

“In UP police and RSS goons have been barging into people’s houses, hitting them, beating people up, thrashing their entire houses, looting them, TVs and fridges broken,” said Khan.

The government has also made several attempts to prevent media outlets from covering police violence and has blocked the internet is several parts of India where there are massive protests. Internet shutdowns have become commonplace, with the shutdown in Kashmir being the longest ever in a democracy.

International Response

While many protesters are still languishing in jail, the United Nations has voiced concern over the CAA with Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ spokesperson, Stephane Dujarric, calling for “restraint and urg[ing] full respect for the rights of freedom of opinion and expression and peaceful assembly.” UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet’s spokesperson stated that the law “would appear to undermine the commitment to equality before the law enshrined in India’s Constitution.”

Despite this, Reddy says that this doesn’t have any enforcement as domestic law always takes precedence over international law. Even though the UN has criticized the CAA, “[changes have] to happen domestically or with pressure,” she said. And right now, no other major international powers like the UK, the US, and Canada have come out against this because they’re strong allies [of India],” Reddy told IPS News.

In fact, on a recent visit to Washington, D.C. India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar cancelled a meeting with the House Foreign Affairs Committee after the other members of Congress refused to exclude Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a critic of the CAA, NRC, and India’s actions in Kashmir.

South Asian students in the United States are expressing their dismay with the Indian government by launching a campaign demanding their House of Representatives “express their disapproval through targeted sanctions against Modi government officials until both laws are repealed.” So far, the letter has been signed by the Yale South Asian Society, Harvard College U.S.-India Initiative, Columbia University South Asian Organization, University of Pennsylvania South Asia Society Board, Cornell University South Asian Law Students Association, Brown University South Asian Students Association and Dartmouth University Muslim Students Association Al-Nur, and many other student groups.

Democratic Deficit

Implementing a nationwide National Register of Citizens will cause massive economic disruption, according to a recent report by the Wire. The article states that the NRC in the state of Assam alone, which makes up just 3% of the population, “took almost a decade, required the involvement of over 50,000 government employees and cost more than Rs. 1,200 crore,” or just over 168 million US dollars. While the Indian development dream is flailing with its ranking in hunger slipping annually and unemployment rising, the implications of implementing these exclusionary laws go beyond the marginalization of Muslims to also draining resources from some of the world’s poorest residents.

“This is not about a policy you can really implement,” said Prashad. “You can’t actually, practically expatriate 200 million Muslims.” Prashad also pointed out in his recent article that India’s Muslims form the eighth-largest country in the world.

The point, he adds, is that “this is a marker saying we are redefining citizenship and emboldening the hard-right and mobs on the street to make it clear to Muslims that they are not welcome here and that India is a Hindu country,” Prashad told IPS.

Despite the hard attempt by the government quell any resistance to the CAA, protests have been occurring daily with Muslims, Dalits, Buddhists, Christians, Sikhs, farmers, lawyers, workers, writers, and journalists joining together to prevent what could leave millions stateless in “the largest disenfranchisement in human history.”

When asking Aatir Ashad, who’s been protesting daily, about his experience he tells IPS News that whenever there’s a call for a protest, the police just close all of the metro stations so that no one can reach the protest site.

“Great democratic country we’re living in,” he says sarcastically, distressingly, as he prepares for another day of joining the protests.