International Women’s Day, 2021#MarchWithUs: 5 Activists on Dismantling “Gender Lies”

Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Economy & Trade, Education, Gender, Gender Violence, Global, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Humanitarian Emergencies, Inequity, Labour, Poverty & SDGs, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

The following opinion piece is part of series to mark the upcoming International Women’s Day, March 8.

Protest for women’s rights in Kathmandu, Nepal. Credit: Sanjog Manandhar

PARIS, Mar 5 2021 (IPS) – Today, despite centuries of activism and mobilisations, women and non-binary people continue to remain disadvantaged in almost every sphere – from “public life” to the “shadow pandemic” of gender-based violence.


In light of COVID-19, some struggles have been considered in theory, but most continue to be ignored in practice. How can we dismantle the “gender lies” perpetuating in the 21st century? How do we start taking into account the diverse experiences of women, without excluding black and indigenous voices on the basis of power and privilege?

Afghanistan, Nepal, Bolivia, Mexico and Uganda: five activists tell us how they transform the ways their communities think and act around gender.

Afghanistan: rap music to save child brides

Sonita Alizadeh, is a survivor of two attempts at forced marriage, and now a rapper and activist fighting for the liberation of women against forced marriage. Born in Herat, Afghanistan, under the Taliban regime, she grew up in Iran, as a refugee with her family. At 10 years old, she narrowly escaped a forced marriage. Her family again tried to sell her when she was sixteen, she escaped. Afghanistan has the 20th highest number of women married before the age of 18 in the world, with 28% of Afghan girls married off as minors, according to Girls Not Brides.

My mother was a child bride, and she did not meet her husband until their wedding day. By marrying me off at a young age, she was simply repeating the cycle. This tradition makes me want to raise awareness of this harmful issue with the help of millions of others around the world through my music,” says Sonita in an interview with Forus.

Witnessing her friends swiftly disappearing as they were forced to marry, Sonita wrote the song “Daughters for Sale”, which kick-started her work as a human rights activists and rapper.

Music touches people in a way words cannot – it is deeper and more emotional. People listen to music and young people pay attention to the lyrics. Music can be a powerful way to hear important messages. That is why I always rap about things that need to change in the world, or ideas that young people need to hear, to dream big.”

Today, Sonita uses her tracks and success to give young girls self-confidence. She sings to tell: “Hold this hope in your heads and your hearts. Hold this hope for the future. Never give up.”

Nepal: Fighting “period poverty”.

As 2020 drew to a close, protesters across South Asia took to the streets and to social media, calling on their governments to end the perpetuating cycle of widespread sexual violence against women and children.

In Nepal, hundreds of activists returned to the streets after a 17-year-old girl was raped and strangled to death. Some protesters wore black over their eyes to symbolize public authorities closing their eyes to sexual violence. Activists say that although the country’s constitution guarantees equal rights to women, there is a clear disjunction between theory and practice.

“How do we make sure that there is no gap between law and social progress?” asks Jesselina Rana, a human rights lawyer, co-founder with engineer Shubhangi Rana of Pad2Go, a social enterprise focusing on menstrual health and the taboos surrounding it.

It is estimated that around 83 percent of menstruating individuals face some form of restriction or exclusion during their menstrual cycle in Nepal.

“From a very young age, menstruating individuals are made to believe that their menstrual cycle makes them impure, and it can only be talked about behind closed doors,” Jesselina explains.

With Pad2Go, Jesselina distributed over 80 sanitary napkin vending machines across Nepal. She collaborates with pad manufacturers, to provide pads at less than market rate in order to ensure affordability. She also organises discussions with both men and women to normalise conversations around menstruations.

“Nepal being a patriarchal society, men engagement is crucial to overcome social issues faced by women. Socially we need to get men into those spaces of conversation, at a young age, to make sure that everyone is part of the discussion to end the toxic cycle of gender discrimination.”

Protest in Mexico. Credit: Melanie Isahmar Torres Melo

Bolivia, Mexico: “Ni Una Menos”

Cradled in the “machismo culture”, Bolivia has one of the highest domestic violence rates against women in South America. The annual average of 110 femicides in the past 7 years persists, despite a 2013 law establishing measures to prevent and prosecute gender-based violence.

During the Covid-19 crisis, the economic consequences of the pandemic disproportionately affected Bolivian women. Government restrictions reduced access to food, aid programs did not adequately address the needs of communities, increasing their vulnerability and insecurity.

During the lockdown the slogan “Stay at Home” was widely promoted across Bolivia, yet for many women and girls victims of violence, that actually meant a very dangerous “Cállate en casa” (shut up at home), explains Iris Baptista from Red Unitas, a platform funded in 1976 that reunites 22 NGOs in Bolivia.

“Red Unitas created the campaign “SIN VIOLENCIA ES MEJOR” (Better Without Violence), to raise awareness of the fact that women are doing most of the work during the pandemic, to fulfil their role as mothers, wives and workers, yet they continue to face violence at home,” Iris explains.

But, violence against women and femicides are not just common in Bolivia—they are prevalent throughout the region. Global data is difficult to gather due to differences in reporting standards, however, the 2016 report, “A Gendered Analysis of Violent Deaths” founds that fourteen of the twenty-five countries with the highest femicide rates are Latin American.

Defined as “a pandemic within the pandemic”, gender-based violence has spiked since COVID-19 broke out. Writer Lynn Marie Stephen believes that laws and initiatives to protect women, “fail to indict the broader systems that perpetuate these problems, like social, racial, and economic inequalities, family relationships and social mores”.

“It’s not that there was less violence against women in the past, it’s just that it wasn’t made as visible as it is today,” says Melanie Isahmar Torres Melo, a photojournalist covering women issues in Puebla, Mexico.

Every day, 10 women are killed in Mexico. The number of femicides has increased by 137% in the past five years and reached its highest monthly rates in 2020. Despite this number, only 5% of all crimes committed in Mexico are punished. This dichotomy between numbers is often the result of a “single crime” vision, rather than a sociological phenomenon, linked to the idea of patriarchy and sexism.

“Most perpetuators are never caught; this has triggered ‘social anger’ around the issue of feminicides in Mexico. There is no respect for victims, they are blamed for being killed. New movements are rising led by different collectives and civil society organisations. People are taking to the streets and shouting “Ni Una Menos” no woman should be killed,” says Mela.

Uganda – creating an enabling environment for civil society

I was arrested and shamed for leaked nudes”, model and activist Judith Heard explains. When nude pictures of her were published without her consent in 2018, she was widely criticized and was arrested under the Anti-Pornography Act. Her situation is far from unique, a survey conducted in 2016 found that 50% of Ugandan women aged between 15 and 49 has experienced violence by an intimate partner. As a result, in February 2019, Heard launched Day One Global, an advocacy organisation that seeks to curb sexual harassment and rape.

From Marion Kirabo who led a women’s protest against rising tuition fees, to Rosebell Kagumire, editor of the African Feminism digital platform opening “discussion and dialogue on feminist issues throughout the continent”, activists and “gender advocates” in Uganda, are creating innovative forms of “transnational feminism” both online and offline.

Yet, a recent report by Forus International, shows that only 1% of gender equality funding is going to women’s organizations worldwide, and that promoters of gender equality need increased protection. Even more worryingly, attacks on women organisations and civil society more generally, have been reinforced by the current COVID-19 crisis.

Overall, organizations that engage in monitoring the state’s conduct and advocate for human rights, anti-corruption, accountability, and democratic governance are experiencing growing obstacles. One of the most recent examples is the Uganda Communications Commission Guidelines for everyone posting content online, including bloggers and online news platforms, which aims to control people’s freedom of speech.

“While the Ugandan government welcomes the social services many civil society organizations provide, at the same time it feels threatened by the possibility of political mobilization and empowerment of the population that come with self-organized practices; needless to say, such threats to the government’s grip on power yield conflicts between the state and civil society actors,” according to the Uganda National NGO Forum, an umbrella organization with more than 650 member NGOs across the country.

#MarchWithUs

Despite the considerable progress, more than half of the world’s girls and women—as many as 2.1 billion people—live in countries that are not on track to reach key gender equality-related targets by 2030.

However, a new survey from Focus 2030 and Women Deliver, covering 17 countries on six continents—reveals that citizens are eager for sustained and strengthened political and financial investments to accelerate progress towards gender equality. In particular, the global public supports the need for women to play a role in all aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic response, with 82% of survey respondents on average saying they believe women should be involved in the response at all levels.

To build a recovery plan and a roadmap for the future, a gender lens must be applied. With the digital campaign #MarchWithUs, Forus is taking a full month to reflect on the voices of women and non-binary activists who are on the frontline of social change. It is time to act to turn “gender lies” into gender promises.

The authors are members of Forus Communication team.

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International Women’s Day, 2021The World Not Only Needs Women Leaders – It Needs Feminist Leaders

Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Economy & Trade, Education, Featured, Gender, Gender Violence, Global, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Humanitarian Emergencies, Inequity, Labour, TerraViva United Nations, Women & Economy, Women in Politics

Opinion

The following opinion piece is part of series to mark the upcoming International Women’s Day, March 8.

Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO

PARIS and REYKJAVIK, Mar 5 2021 (IPS) – International Women’s Day pays tribute to the achievements of women worldwide and reminds us what still needs to be done for full gender equality. In 2021, we are taking stock of the many ways in which COVID-19 has disproportionately affected women and girls around the world.


The pandemic has created a new landscape. Although women have played a key role in responding to the crisis, gender inequalities have widened across the board. In education, 767 million women and girls were impacted by school closures. Eleven million may never return to class, joining the 132 million already out of school before the crisis struck. From the economic perspective, the recession is pushing 47 million more women and girls into poverty, destroying their economic independence and making them more vulnerable to gender-based discrimination and violence.

As we look at this landscape, we have to ask ourselves: if gender equality is our goal, what kind of leadership will the world need moving forward?

It is not enough to just count the number of women in the highest positions of power. No single person at the top of the pyramid can repair the damage being done to the progress that has been made in gender equality since the world adopted the Beijing Declaration on women’s rights 25 years ago.

What we need are leaders for gender equality – and we need them everywhere in our societal structures. Leaders of all ages, all gender identities and from all backgrounds. These leaders are not just agents of change, but designers of change. They lead through their example and engagement. They expose injustices and unequal opportunities. They know that gender inequalities stem from discrimination and exclusion and that it is only by lifting these barriers that real change can happen. This is feminist leadership.

Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Prime Minister of Iceland

Feminist leaders tackle power structures. They name and deconstruct all forms of exclusion and marginalization. They empathize with the vulnerable and voiceless, and champion their causes. They open new doors and take risks, courageously blowing the whistle on hidden injustice, and unmasking structural barriers perpetuating inequalities. They are all around us. Be it the activist defending an indigenous community, the schoolgirl mobilizing her generation to save the climate, or the poet raising her voice to promote social justice.

Feminist leaders have the courage to create, report, educate, experiment. Think about Azata Soro, actress, film director and producer who broke her silence on sexual harassment and violence in the African film industry. Think about Maria Ressa, risking jail for her brave investigative journalism. Think about Yande Banda, a tireless advocate for girls’ education in Zambia and beyond. Think about Katalin Karikó, who overcame the many challenges faced by women in science and was instrumental in developing the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine. As stories like these become known, they challenge people’s intimate convictions of what is achievable and by whom. These women are, in all their diversity, feminist leaders.

However, feminist leadership is not the prerogative of women alone. Gender equality isn’t just a women’s fight, it’s a fight for social justice. Men also need to be involved in the construction of a fairer society. Many of them are showing the way. The Congolese gynecologist, Dr Denis Mukwege, won a Nobel Peace Prize for his advocacy to stop rape from being used as a ‘strategy of war’. And there are many others like him, all over the world.

On this International Women’s Day, we stand committed to building future generations of feminist leaders through education. We support women who dare to create and do what is necessary to prevent them from censorship and attacks. We call on the international community to ensure the safety of women journalists who address gender inequalities through their reporting. We also stand side by side with men who dare to care and reject toxic masculinities and behaviours and open up spaces for women to influence decision-making or participate in scientific discovery and innovation.

Let us support these feminist leaders, from all walks of life. Let us take action so that women can affirm their leadership and be powerful role models for generations to come. Because gender equality not only serves to advance the cause of women – a fairer society benefits us all.

Audrey Azoulay is Director-General of UNESCO and Katrín Jakobsdóttir is Prime Minister of Iceland.

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Is This The End of Myanmar’s Quasi-Democracy?

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Democracy, Featured, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees, TerraViva United Nations

NEW DELHI, India, Feb 22 2021 (IPS) – On February 1st, 2021 the military of Myanmar overthrew the country’s democratic government in a coup d’etat followed by arresting more than 40 government officials including Aung San Suu Kyi. The military declared a year-long state of emergency under the rule of it’s Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Troops took over the streets, a night-time curfew has been put into force. Tens of thousands of protestors have taken to the streets across Myanmar, in what is seen as the biggest street protests in more than a decade. The anti-coup demonstrators are undeterred by police attacks and increasing violence from the security forces.


Yasmin Ullah

According to this list, the military has arrested multiple members of civil society, including activists, writers, musicians, filmmakers. Monitoring group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners said “more than 384 people have been detained, in a wave of mostly night-time arrests”.

The first known casualty of the coup, Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing died on February 9 when a police officer opened fire with live ammunition, hitting her in the head while she was protesting in Naypyidaw. Two more protestors were killed in the city of Mandalay, marking Myanmmar’s bloodiest day since the military seized power. Myanmar’s minority community fears renewed violence after the military coup.

United Nations Secretary General António Guterres condemned the use of deadly violence in Myanmar, “The use of lethal force, intimidation & harassment against peaceful demonstrators is unacceptable. Everyone has a right to peaceful assembly. I call on all parties to respect election results and return to civilian rule,” António Guterres said.

The military in Myanmar alleges that the recent landslide election win by Aung San Suu Kyi was marred by fraud. Following the coup, the military has already announced replacements for a number of ministers.

Witnesses in Mandalay reported seeing soldiers from the 33rd Light Infantry Division, which led the deadly campaign against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state in 2017. The United Nations Special Rapporteur, Tom Andrews said, “The 33rd Light Infantry Division was reportedly involved in the lethal attacks in Mandalay today – the same division responsible for mass atrocity crimes against the Rohingya in 2017. A dangerous escalation by the junta in what appears to be a war against the people of Myanmar.”

“The very idea of Aung San Suu Kyi taking the trip to Hague at the end of 2019 to defend the actions of the military spoke volume about who she is as a person, and where she stands in her understanding of how democratic transition in Myanmar should progress,” says Yasmin Ullah, a Rohingya Social Justice Activist to IPS News.

“We have had three coups so far since 1962, and that memory still lives very deeply with a lot of Myanmar citizens. The pain and hurt that comes with it still reminds them of the glory that the country could never actually achieve.

“We have lived under a military regime for decades, without unifying, without taking to the streets, and making it known to the world that we reject this unconstitutional ceasing of power. The citizens are out on the streets because they will not have another chance at this, people are done with the fact that they will have to live under a culture of impunity where the military is untouched,” says Yasmin.

Following the coup in Myanmar, Washington has imposed sanctions on the military, urging other U.N members to follow suit. The UK too announced asset freezes and travel bans on three generals in Myanmar and is also going to be putting in place new measures to prevent UK aid. Singapore warned that there will be “serious adverse consequences” for Myanmar if the situation there continues to escalate. The European Union’s foreign affairs chief Joseph Borrell urged the military and “all security forces in Myanmar to immediately stop violence against civilians.”

Rights group Human Rights Watch in its report, Myanmar, Sanctions, and Human Rights said, “it supports the use of certain types of sanctions – including targeted sanctions and travel bans, and restrictions on military, trade, financial, economic, and other relations – as a means to condemn situations involving grave widespread human rights abuses or humanitarian law violations, to assert pressure to end those abuses, to hold those responsible to account, and as a means to deter other parties from becoming complicit in abuses.”

“We are calling on the United Nations Security Council to impose a global arms embargo. Separately, the UN General Assembly can also endorse individual governments or regional organizations imposing unilateral sanctions on Myanmar’s military, something the General Assembly has done in the past (e.g., during South Africa during apartheid.), the report stated.

International rights defenders have expressed concerns over grave human rights violations in Myanmar following the Feb. 1 military coup. “What we are witnessing in Myanmar didn’t just suddenly happen. You cannot leave the perpetrators of grave crimes under international law on the loose and then act surprised when they trample human rights again,” said Amnesty International’s Deputy Director of Advocacy Sherine Tadros.

“It was already ingrained in us Rohingyas to be intimidated, to fear the military, to fear authority, because that has always been the tactics used on us. The same kind of tactics we see now – the psychological warfare, night raids, shooting of people, arbitrary arrest, restrictions of movements – all of the things that the protestors are dealing with right now have been used on every single ethinic community and the Rohingyas,” says Yasmin.

It’s been thirty-three years since the uprising in 1988 in Myanmar against the military dictatorship, also known as the 8-8-88 Movement. The armed forces continued to rule until 2011, when a new government began a return to civilian rule. The military’s current threat to revoke the constitution only revealed the fact that it is willing to overturn any political – democratic system when its interests are threatened.

“Without a real change and reform within Myanmar to the very foundation to rip off the military power because they have infested different parts of the country that makes Myanmar what it is, without doing that there is no democracy that could take place,” says Yasmin.

The author is a journalist and filmmaker based out of New Delhi. She hosts a weekly online show called The Sania Farooqui Show where Muslim women from around the world are invited to share their views.

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Sri Lanka’s Deteriorating Human Rights Situation Raises Multiple Alarms

Armed Conflicts, Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Featured, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Humanitarian Emergencies, Religion, TerraViva United Nations

Shreen Saroor

NEW DELHI, India, Feb 1 2021 (IPS) – A decade has passed since the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war between the government and the LTTE, where at least 100,000 people were killed in the over three-decade long conflict. Families of victims of enforced disappearances continue to seek justice, the government is yet to end impunity and put accountability for crimes under international law and human rights violation and abuses in its transitional justice process.


In a recent United Nations Human Rights Office of The High Commissioner report, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet stressed that the failure to deal with the past continues to have devastating effects on tens of thousands of families in Sri Lanka, who are still waiting for justice, reparations – and the truth about the fate of their loved ones. The report warns that the failure of Sri Lanka to address past violations has significantly “ heightened the risk of human rights violations being repeated.”

“Sri Lanka’s current trajectory sets the scene for the recurrence of the policies and practices that gave rise to grave human rights violations.” The report also flags the pattern of intensified surveillance and harassment of civil society organizations, human rights defenders and victims, and a shrinking space for independent media.

“I see the OHCHR report as something that will give more oxygen to continue our many struggles, especially for truth and justice,” says Sri Lanka based human rights activist Shreen Saroor to IPS News. The report has articulated the lack of access to justice and the need for accountability very well. It is robust on militarisation and deep securitisation of Sri Lanka and calls for rigorous vetting and demilitarization with a warning of grave consequences if failed, says Shreen.

“Michelle Bachelet’s criticism on surveillance on CSOs and shrinking space for dissent and the abuses of Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act are alarming. However in order to prevent another round of conflict, the report should emphasize more on the ongoing attacks against countries’ religious minorities,” says Shreen.

Earlier in december 2020, Muslims in Sri Lanka were outraged over the forced cremation of a 20-day-old COVID-19 victim against the family’s wishes. Sri Lanka has been flagged for ignoring the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guidelines which permits both burial and cremations.

In a country where minorities are marginalized and discriminated against, Muslims who fall victim to COVID-19 are unjustly prevented from being laid to rest in accordance with their religious beliefs and are forcibly cremated, said Amnesty International in a statement. Sri Lanka is one of the few countries in the world which has made cremations mandatory for people who have died or are suspected of having died from COVID-19. The rights group urged the Sri Lankan Government to not forget that “ it has a duty to ensure all people in Sri Lanka are treated equitably. COVID-19 does not discriminate on grounds of ethnic, political or religious differences, and nor should the Government of Sri Lanka.”

“Many of us who have witnessed continuous minority rights violations over three decades in Sri Lanka, it is important for OHCHR to take on the issue of growing Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism and the extreme nationalism that has been mentioned in the OHCHR report.

“It is time for OHCHR to come up with an early prevention strategy, so that another bloody war or religious violence in this country is prevented,” says Shreen.

Human Rights Watch in its recently released 93-page report, Open Wounds and Mounting Dangers: Blocking Accountability for Grave Abuses in Sri Lanka, examines the efforts by the government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to thwart justice in seven prominent human rights cases.

“The Sri Lankan government’s assault on justice increases the risk of human rights abuses today and in the future,” said John Fisher, Geneva Director at Human Rights Watch. “The UN Human Rights Council should adopt a resolution at its upcoming session that demonstrates to the Rajapaksa administration that the world won’t ignore its abuses and offers hope of justice to victims’ families, the report stated.

In 2018, just before and during the ongoing session of the UNHRC, Sri Lankan authorities made several announcements to signify their commitments to pledges made in the October 2015 resolution on justice and accountability for abuses during Sri Lanka’s civil war.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksha months into his tenure in November 2019, made several changes including replacing the 19th Amendment of the Sri Lankan Constitution, which was enacted to limit excessive executive power and facilitate independent institutions including the judiciary with the 20th Amendment, which consolidated power in the executive and nullified the independent commissions mainly Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commissions and Office of the Missing Persons. “Rajapaksa appointed people implicated in war crimes and other serious violations to senior administration positions,” said Shreen.

In February 2020 Sri Lanka withdrew itself from the 2019 UN resolution on post-war accountability and reconciliation, which is scheduled to be taken up in the upcoming session.

Sri Lanka’s main Tamil political parties are now urging for an international probe, and in a joint letter addressed to members of the UN Human Rights Council said, “It is now time for Member States to acknowledge that there is no scope for a domestic process that can genuinely deal with accountability in Sri Lanka.”

According to this report, Sri Lanka is in discussion with India and other countries for support to counter the Core Group’s move which could lead to targeted sanctions, asset freezes and travel bans against alleged perpetrators of grave human rights violations and abuses in the March session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The author is a journalist and filmmaker based out of New Delhi. She hosts a weekly online show called The Sania Farooqui Show where Muslim women from around the world are invited to share their views.

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Mining giant Rio Tinto Face Environmental, Human Rights Complaint in Papua New Guinea

Active Citizens, Asia-Pacific, Crime & Justice, Development & Aid, Environment, Featured, Food & Agriculture, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Natural Resources, Regional Categories, TerraViva United Nations, Water & Sanitation

Contamination of rivers and streams by mine waste in the vicinity of the Panguna copper mine in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea. Credit: Catherine Wilson

CANBERRA, Australia, Jan 4 2021 (IPS) – Local communities in the vicinity of the abandoned Panguna copper mine, have taken decisive action to hold the global mining multinational, Rio Tinto, accountable for alleged environmental and human rights violations during the mine’s operations between 1972 and 1989.


The mine operated in the mountains of central Bougainville in Papua New Guinea until 1989.

The complaint by 156 residents was lodged with the Australian Government in September by Australia’s Human Rights Law Centre and subsequently accepted in November, paving the way for a non-judicial mediation process.

“We and the communities we are working with have now entered into a formal conciliation process with Rio Tinto facilitated by the Australian OECD National Contact Point and talks with the company will begin very shortly,” Keren Adams, Legal Director at the Human Rights Law Centre in Melbourne told IPS.

Rio Tinto was the majority owner of the Panguna mine through its operating company, Bougainville Copper Ltd, with a 53.8 percent stake. However, 17 years after it began production in 1972, anger among indigenous landowners about contaminated rivers and streams, the devastation of customary land and inequity in distributing the extractive venture’s profits and benefits triggered an armed rebellion in 1989. After the mine’s power supply was destroyed by sabotage, Rio Tinto fled Bougainville Island and the site became derelict during the decade long civil war which followed.

The mine area, which is still controlled by the tribal Mekamui Government of Unity, comprising former rebel leaders, hasn’t been decommissioned and the environmental legacy of its former operations never addressed.

Now, according to the complaint, “copper pollution from the mine pit and tailings continues to flow into local rivers … The Jaba-Kawerong river valley downstream of the mine resembles a moonscape with vast mounds of grey tailings waste and rock stretching almost 40 km downstream to the coast. Levees constructed at the time of the mine’s operation are now collapsing, threatening nearby villages.”

Gutted mine machinery and infrastructure are scattered across the site of the Panguna mine in the mountains of Central Bougainville, an autonomous region in Papua New Guinea. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

There are further claims that contamination of waterways and land is causing long-term health problems amongst the indigenous population, such as skin diseases, diarrhoea, respiratory illnesses, and pregnancy complications.

Helen Hakena, Director of the Leitana Nehan Women’s Development Agency in Bougainville’s main town of Buka, fully supports the action taken by her fellow islanders.

“It is long overdue. It is going to be very important because it was the big issue which caused the Bougainville conflict. It will lay to rest the grievances which caused so much suffering for our people,” Hakena told IPS.

The Bougainville civil war, triggered by the uprising at the mine, led to a death toll of 15,000-20,000 people.

The people of Bougainville believe that Rio Tinto has breached the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises by failing both to take action to mitigate foreseeable environmental, health and safety-related impacts at the mine and respect the human rights of the communities affected by its extractive activities. The Human Rights Law Centre claims that “the mine pollution continues to infringe nearly all the economic, social and cultural rights of these indigenous communities, including their rights to food, water, health, housing and an adequate standard of living.”

“While we do not wholly accept the claims in the complaint, we are aware of deteriorating mining infrastructure at the site and surrounding areas and acknowledge that there are environmental and human rights considerations,” Rio Tinto responded in a public statement.

“Accepting the AusNCP’s ‘good offices’ shows that we take this complaint seriously and remain ready to enter into discussions with the communities that have filed the complaint, along with other relevant communities around the Panguna mine site, and other relevant parties, such as Bougainville Copper Ltd, the Autonomous Bougainville Government and PNG Government,” the statement continued.

In 2016, Rio Tinto divested its interest in Bougainville Copper Ltd, the operating company, and its shares were acquired by the PNG and Bougainville governments. Simultaneously, the corporate giant announced that it rejected corporate responsibility for any environmental impacts or damage.

Panguna mine’s copper and gold await political settlement before extraction can resume. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

Mineral exploration in Bougainville in the 1960s, followed by the construction of the Panguna open-cut copper mine, occurred when the island region was under Australian administration. It would subsequently become a massive source of internal revenue Papua New Guinea, which was granted Independence in 1975. During its lifetime, the Panguna mine generated about US$2 billion in revenue and accounted for 44 percent of the nation’s exports.

The mining agreement negotiated between the Australian Government and Conzinc Rio Tinto Australia in the 1960s didn’t include any significant environmental regulations or liability of the company for rehabilitation of areas affected by mining.

There has been no definitive environmental assessment of the Panguna site since it was forced to shut down. However, about 300,000 tonnes of ore and water were excavated at the mine every day. In 1989, an independent report by Applied Geology Associates in New Zealand noted that significant amounts of copper and other heavy metals were leaching from the mine and waste rock dumps and flowing into the Kawerong River. Today, the water in some rivers and streams in the mine area is a luminescent blue, a sign of copper contamination.

Bougainville residents’ action comes at the end of a challenging year for Rio Tinto. It is still reeling from revelations earlier this year that its operations destroyed historically significant Aboriginal sacred sites, estimated to be 46,000 years old, in the vicinity of its iron ore mine in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. The company’s CEO, Jean-Sebastien Jacques, has subsequently resigned.

Nevertheless, Adams is optimistic about the corporate giant’s willingness to engage with Bougainville and PNG stakeholders.

“In the first instance, we hope that this non-judicial process will help to facilitate discussions to explore whether Rio Tinto will make these commitments to address the impacts of its operations. If not, then the communities will be asking the Australian OECD National Contact Point to investigate the complaint and make findings about whether Rio Tinto has breached its human rights and environmental obligations,” the Human Rights Law Centre’s Legal Director said. A full investigation, if required, could take up to a year.

Ultimately, the islanders are seeking specific outcomes. These include Rio Tinto’s serious engagement with them to identify solutions to the urgent environmental and human rights issues; funding for an independent environmental and human rights impact assessment of the mine; and contributions to a substantial independently managed fund to enable long term rehabilitation programs.

Otherwise, Australia’s Human Rights Law Centre predicts that “given the limited resources of the PNG and Bougainville governments, it is almost inevitable that if no action is taken by Rio Tinto, the environmental damage currently being caused by the tailings waste will continue and worsen.”

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Escazú: Historic Step Towards Protecting Human Rights Defenders in Latin America and the Caribbean

Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Environment, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

The Escazú Agreement is innovative, for one thing because it is the first binding instrument of its kind in the world to include provisions on environmental defenders. The agreement recognizes the importance of such people’s work and obliges states to ensure their protection by establishing guidelines on appropriate and effective measures that can be taken to ensure they are able to work in safety.

The Escazú Agreement is the first binding instrument of its kind in the world to include provisions on environmental defenders. Credit: David Paniagua / Amnesty International.

MEXICO, Dec 9 2020 (IPS) – The global health crisis that has marked 2020 did not put an end to another pandemic that has been plaguing Latin America and the Caribbean: murders and attacks against environmental defenders.


While COVID-19 may have eclipsed the momentum built up by young activists globally around the climate emergency in 2019, their efforts – together with those of organizations and coalitions from all over the region – have resulted in a positive outcome in this most difficult of years: more than 11 countries have now ratified the Escazú Agreement, meaning it will finally enter into force. Another 21 countries in the region have yet to join, however.

UN representatives have emphasized that the pandemic should be seen as a wake-up call to reconsider our relationship with the environment rather than as an excuse to bring progress towards protecting our planet to a halt. This is why the Escazú Agreement is more important now than ever.

In March 2018, governments from Latin America and the Caribbean agreed the region’s first binding treaty to protect the rights of individuals and groups in relation to accessing information, participation and justice in environmental matters.

Graciela Martínez. Credit: Credit: Courtesy of the author.

Costa Rica and Chile were at the forefront of these negotiations in the run up to its adoption. Costa Rica, however, is still in the process of ratifying the text, which is tabled before its Legislative Assembly, and Chile has yet to sign it. This latter’s failure to do so is all the more surprising and contradictory since it has, in the past, been a leading international force in environmental protection, even chairing the COP25.

The Escazú Agreement is innovative, for one thing because it is the first binding instrument of its kind in the world to include provisions on environmental defenders. The agreement recognizes the importance of such people’s work and obliges states to ensure their protection by establishing guidelines on appropriate and effective measures that can be taken to ensure they are able to work in safety.

These provisions are in response to the hostile climate faced by environmental defenders in Latin America and the Caribbean. Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras are some of the most dangerous countries in the world in which to defend land, territory and environment, according to the latest report by the international organization Global Witness.

It is no coincidence that virtually none of these countries have yet ratified the Escazú Agreement (the Mexican Senate approved its ratification just one month ago). Furthermore, according to this same report, Honduras – which suffers the highest per capita number of murders of environmental defenders – has not even signed it.

Two other major countries that have yet to ratify it and where Amnesty International has documented attacks against people defending the land and the environment in recent years are Peru and Paraguay.

There are a number of cases that can be used to illustrate this context, some of them better known than others, but all of which we have been working on in recent years.

The indigenous Lenca defender Berta Cáceres was murdered in Honduras in 2016 as a result of her opposition to the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam project. She was coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH).

Then there is the indigenous Rarámuri defender Julián Carrillo, murdered two years ago in the Sierra Tarahumara, in northern Mexico, after expressing his opposition to a mining concession in his community’s territory because of its social and environmental impacts. Both families are continuing to seek justice.

There are others who are still alive but either in prison or displaced from their homes. In Guatemala, Bernardo Caal Xol, indigenous leader of the Q’eqchi’ Maya people and prisoner of conscience, has been unfairly incarcerated for more than two years now for defending the rights of the communities of Santa María Cahabón, which have been affected by the construction of the OXEC hydroelectric plant on the Oxec and Cahabón rivers.

Danelly Estupiñán, defender of the rights of Afro-descendent communities in Colombia, was forced to leave her home after receiving threats and harassment.

Almost all of these people had been granted some form of protective measures in their respective countries but these have not managed to address the structural causes of the violence they face. It is also no coincidence that all these individuals come from the different cultural backgrounds that make up Latin America and the Caribbean’s diversity.

It is precisely this diversity that the Escazú Agreement recognizes and, although it does not explicitly refer to the right to free, prior and informed consultation as recognized in International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 169, the two instruments are clearly complementary.

This point is really important because behind many of these socio-environmental conflicts lies a lack of information and inclusion in the decision-making process on the part of those affected and a lack of effective mechanisms for accessing justice.

This is most evident in the case of indigenous and tribal peoples, whose exclusion is historical. The right to access information on environmental matters, key to the Escazú Agreement, is part of the informed consent of indigenous and tribal peoples, as is effective participation through legitimate representation and the incorporation and facilitation of traditional decision-making methods.

Of the 33 countries in the region, 24 have already signed the Escazú Agreement and 12 have ratified it. Argentina and Mexico still have to deposit the instrument with the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) to make it official. Once one of them does so, the agreement will enter into force 90 days later.

Countries that have not yet ratified it can still continue the process. The period for depositing signatures closed on 26 September but the nine countries that have not yet signed can now adhere to the agreement.

There is still a long way to go before we even consider what implementing the Escazú Agreement will mean for each country. But today, on the 22nd anniversary of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, when the International Day of Human Rights Defenders is commemorated, Latin America and the Caribbean can celebrate the fact that the region has this year taken an historic step and, unless there are any last minute surprises, will soon finally have an instrument in response to at least one of the region’s pandemics.

Graciela Martinez is Amnesty International’s campaigner for human rights defenders in the Americas

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