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

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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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USA Downgraded as Civil Liberties Deteriorate Across the Americas

Active Citizens, Civil Society, Environment, Global, Headlines, Human Rights, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

Débora Leão is a Civic Space Researcher at CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance. She has a Master of Public Policy degree. Prior to joining CIVICUS, Débora worked on advocacy and research related to civic participation, urban development and climate justice.

 
Suraj K. Sazawal serves on the board to Defending Rights & Dissent and is co-author of ‘Civil Society Under Strain’, the first book to explore how the War on Terror impacted civil society and hurt humanitarian aid.

Protests in New York City against racism and police violence, following the death of George Floyd. Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

São Paulo/ Washington DC, Dec 15 2020 (IPS) – Few images better illustrate the recent decline in civil liberties in the United States than that of peaceful protesters near the White House being violently dispersed so Donald Trump could stage a photo-op.


Moments before the president emerged from his bunker on June 1 to hold a bible outside a boarded-up church, federal officers indiscriminately fired tear gas at people who had gathered in Lafayette Park to protest about the police killing of George Floyd. This was far from an isolated incident: nationwide protests against systemic racism and police brutality have been met with widespread police violence.

Since May, the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks fundamental freedoms across 196 countries, documented dozens of incidents where law enforcement officers, dressed in riot gear and armed with military grade-equipment, responded to Black Lives Matter protests with excessive force. These include officers driving vehicles at crowds of protesters and firing tear gas canisters and other projectiles at unarmed people, leaving at least 20 people partially blinded.

Throughout the year, journalists and health workers, clearly marked as such while covering the protests, have been harassed and assaulted. In one incident caught on live TV, a news reporter and camera operator from Louisville, Kentucky were shot by police with pepper balls while covering protests over the police killing of Breona Taylor.

This sustained repression of protests and an increased crackdown on fundamental freedoms led to the USA’s civic space rating being downgraded from ‘narrowed’ to ‘obstructed’ in our new report, People Power Under Attack 2020.

This disproportionate response by law enforcement officers to protesters goes beyond what is acceptable practice when policing protests, even during an emergency. Under international law, people have a right to assemble freely. Any restrictions to this right must be proportionate and necessary to address an emergency or reestablish public order.

The systematic use of excessive force and tactics such as kettling and mass arrests to enforce curfews raise troubling questions about the role of law enforcement agencies in responding to mass protests. The use of such tactics is contradictory to the alleged goal of maintaining public safety and health as they escalated tensions and prevented people from dispersing in a peaceful manner.

Even more concerning, they relocated protesters from open, outdoor spaces to police stations and other indoor facilities that often lack adequate space to allow for distancing, placing people at heightened risk for exposure to COVID-19.

Black Lives Matter Protest June 2020 Washington, DC. Credit: Geoff Livingston // creative commons

While recent brutality against protests for racial justice is concerning, the decline in basic freedoms in the USA began before this crackdown. The repression seen in 2020 was preceded by a wave of legislation limiting people’s rights to protest.

In recent years, several states enacted restrictive laws which, for example, criminalise protests near so-called critical infrastructure like oil pipelines, or limit demonstrations on school and university campuses. Increased penalties for trespassing and property damage are designed to intimidate and punish climate justice activists and organisations that speak out against fossil fuels.

In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, some of the ‘anti-protest’ bills introduced this year seem particularly cruel, for instance, by proposing to make people convicted of minor federal offences during protests ineligible for pandemic-related unemployment benefits.

Growing disregard for protest rights underscores wider intolerance for dissent. In parallel with restrictions on the freedom of peaceful assembly, the USA also saw an increase in attacks against the media, even before Black Lives Matter demonstrations erupted. Over the past three years, the CIVICUS Monitor has documented the frequent harassment of journalists by the authorities and civilians while covering political rallies or when conducting interviews.

Correspondents critical of the Trump administration or reporting on the humanitarian crisis in the USA/Mexico border region sometimes faced retaliation; documents obtained by ‘NBC 7 Investigates’ in 2019 showed the US government created a database of journalists who covered the migrant caravan and activists who were part of it, in some cases placing alerts on their passports.

In January 2020 a journalist was barred from accompanying Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in an official trip to Europe after Pompeo objected to the questions by another reporter from the same outlet.

The harsh treatment of people wanting to express themselves and the decline of civil liberties is part of a broader global decline in fundamental freedoms. Our new report shows less than four percent of the world’s population live in countries that respect the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.

Each country’s civic space is rated in one of five categories: ‘open, ‘narrowed, ‘obstructed,’ ‘restricted,’ or ‘closed’. The USA was one of 11 countries downgraded from its previous rating.

In the Americas, three other countries showed significant declines: Chile and Ecuador were downgraded to ‘obstructed’ and Costa Rica’s rating changed to ‘narrowed’. In the first two countries, as with the USA, rating changes reflected unnecessary and disproportionate crackdowns on mass protest movements.

Violations of protest rights were common across the region, with detention of protesters and excessive use of force among the top five violations of civic freedoms recorded this year. In addition, the Americas continue to be a dangerous place for those who dare to stand up for fundamental rights: across the world, 60 percent of human rights defenders killed in 2020 came from this region.

Stopping the erosion of fundamental freedoms requires a robust response. Governments must take steps to repeal legislation restricting the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression and make sure those who violate these freedoms are held accountable.

In the USA, the incoming Biden administration must actively work to reverse the narrowing of civic space. To rebuild trust between people and law enforcement, for instance, the Department of Justice should investigate misconduct and discriminatory practices at local police departments.

The authorities must engage with civil society and human rights defenders to create an environment where they are able to fulfil their vital roles and hold officials accountable.

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Intellectual Property Monopolies Block Vaccine Access

Civil Society, Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Featured, Global, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Humanitarian Emergencies, Poverty & SDGs, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

SYDNEY and KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 15 2020 (IPS) – Just before the World Health Assembly (WHA), an 18 May open letter by world leaders and experts urged governments to ensure that all COVID-19 vaccines, treatments and tests are patent-free, fairly distributed and available to all, free of charge.


Pious promises
Leaders of Italy, France, Germany, Norway and the European Commission called for the vaccine to be “produced by the world, for the whole world” as a “global public good of the 21st century”, while China’s President Xi promised a vaccine developed by China would be a “global public good”.

Anis Chowdhury

The United Nations Secretary-General also insisted on access to all when available. The WHA unanimously agreed that vaccines, treatments and tests are global public goods, but was vague on the implications.

As COVID vaccines have become available, nearly 70 poor countries are left out. Many more people will be infected and may die without vaccinations, warns the People’s Vaccine Alliance, advocating equitable and low-cost access.

As the rich and powerful secure access, poor countries will leave out most people as only one in ten can be vaccinated in 2021, making a mockery of the Sustainable Development Goals’ over-arching principle of ‘leaving no one behind’.

Waiving WTO rules
The authors of “Want Vaccines Fast? Suspend Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) argue that IPR are the main stumbling block. Meanwhile, South Africa and India have proposed that the World Trade Organization (WTO) temporarily waive its Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) rules limiting access to COVID-19 medicines, tools, equipment and vaccines.

The proposal – welcomed by the WHO Director-General and supported by nearly 100 governments and many civil society organisations around the world – goes beyond the Doha Declaration’s limited flexibilities for national emergencies and circumstances of extreme urgency.

Jomo Kwame Sundaram

But Brazil, one of the worst hit countries, opposes the proposal, together with the US, the EU, the UK, Switzerland, Norway, Canada, Australia and Japan, insisting the Doha Declaration is sufficient.

The empire fights back
The US insists that IP protection is best to ensure “swift delivery” while the EU claims there is “no indication that IPR issues have been a genuine barrier … to COVID-19-related medicines and technologies” as the UK dismisses the proposal as “an extreme measure to address an unproven problem”.

The Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations Director-General claims it “would jeopardize future medical innovation, making us more vulnerable to other diseases”, while The Wall Street Journal denounced it as “A Global Covid Vaccine Heist”, warning “their effort would harm everyone, including the poor”.

Citing AstraZeneca’s agreement with the Serum Institute of India (SII) and Brazilian companies, other opponents assert that voluntary mechanisms should suffice, insisting the public-private COVAX initiative ensures fair and equitable access.

But the US has refused to join COVAX, part of the WHO-blessed, donor-funded Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A), ostensibly committed to “equitable global access to innovative tools for COVID-19 for all”.

Intellectual property fraud
The Doha Declaration only covers patents, ignoring proprietary technology to safely manufacture vaccines. Meanwhile, there is not enough interest, let alone capacity among leading pharmaceutical companies to produce enough vaccines, safely and affordably, for everyone before 2024.

Despite the Doha Declaration, developing countries are still under great pressure from the EU and the US. The rules allowing ‘compulsory licensing’ are very restrictive, with countries required to separately negotiate contracts with companies for specific amounts, periods and purposes, deterring and thus often bypassing those with limited financial and legal capacities.

South Africa cited the examples of Regeneron and Eli Lilly, which have already committed most of their COVID-19 antibody cocktail drugs to the US. In India, Pfizer has legally blocked alternative pneumococcal vaccines from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). In South Korea, Pfizer has forced SK Bioscience to stop producing its pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV).

To be sure, patents are not necessary for innovation, with the Harvard Business Review showing IPR law actually stifling it. Meanwhile, The Economist has condemned patent trolling, which has reduced venture capital investment in start-ups and R&D spending, especially by small firms.

Public subsidies
Like most other life-saving drugs and vaccines, COVID-19 vaccines and treatment technologies owe much to public investment. Even the Trump administration provided US$10.5 billion to vaccine development companies.

Moderna’s vaccine emerged from a partnership with the National Institute of Health (NIH). Research at the NIH, Defence Department and federally funded university laboratories have been crucial for rapid US vaccine development.

Pfizer has received a US$455 million German government grant and nearly US$6 billion in US and EU purchase commitments. AstraZeneca received more than £84 million (US$111 million) from the UK government, and more than US$2 billion from the US and EU for research and via purchase orders.

But although public funding for most medicine and vaccine development is the norm, Big Pharma typically keeps the monopoly profits they enjoy from the IPR they retain.

Voluntary mechanisms inadequate
COVAX seeks to procure two billion vaccine doses, to be shared “equally” between rich and poor countries, but has only reserved 700,000 vaccine doses so far, while the poorest countries, with 1.7 billion people, cannot afford a single deal. Meanwhile, rich countries have secured six billion doses for themselves.

Thus, even if and when COVAX procures its targeted two billion vaccine doses, less than a billion will go to poor countries. If the vaccine requires two doses, as many – including Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance – assume, this will only be enough for less than half a billion people.

Meanwhile, ACT-A’s diagnostics work seeks to procure 500 million tests, only a small fraction of what is required. Even if fully financed, which is not the case, this is only a partial solution at best.

But with the massive funding shortfall, even these modest targets will not be reached. To date, only US$5 billion of the US$43 billion needed for poor countries in 2021 has been raised.

Profitable philanthropy
As of mid-October, while 18 generic pharmaceutical companies had signed up, not a single major drug company had joined WHO’s COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP) to encourage industry contributions of IP, technologies and data to scale up worldwide sharing and production of all such needs.

Meanwhile, a few companies have ‘voluntarily’ given up some IPR, if only temporarily. Moderna has promised to license its COVID-19 related patents to other vaccine manufacturers, and not enforce its own patents. But their pledge is limited, allowing it to enforce its patents “post pandemic”, as defined by Moderna.

Besides profiting from licensing in the longer term, Moderna’s pledge will enable it to grow the new mRNA market its business is based on, by establishing and promoting a transformational drug therapy platform, yielding gains for years to come.

AstraZeneca has announced that its vaccine, researched at Oxford University, will be available at cost in some locations, but only until July 2021. Meanwhile, Eli Lilly has agreed, with the Gates Foundation, to supply – without demanding royalties from low- and middle-income countries – its (still experimental) COVID-19 antibody treatment, but did not specify how many doses.

Indeed, as Proudhon warned almost two centuries ago, ‘property is theft’.

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Reduce Military Spending – the Much-Needed Response to Violence Against Women

Civil Society, Featured, Gender, Gender Violence, Global, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, IPS UN: Inside the Glasshouse, Poverty & SDGs, TerraViva United Nations, Women’s Health

Opinion

Maria Victoria (Mavic) Cabrera Balleza is Founder & Chief Executive Officer, Global Network of Women Peacebuilders

The United Nations is conducting a 16-day social media campaign from 25 November to 9 December for its 2020 Campaign: 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence. The 16 Days of Activism is a worldwide campaign calling for the elimination of all forms of gender-based violence (GBV). Credit: International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA)

NEW YORK, Dec 10 2020 (IPS) – The COVID-19 pandemic is NOT the biggest pandemic the world confronts at the moment, despite over 69 million cases and 1.5 million deaths worldwide.1 If it’s not COVID, what is it then? It is violence against women!


Globally, 243 million women and girls aged 15-49 have been subjected to sexual and/or physical violence perpetrated by an intimate partner in the past 12 months alone.2 The figure increases by 30 per cent if the violence experienced by women and girls in their lifetime is added.3

These numbers are likely underestimates, since many women do not report sexual and intimate partner violence due to stigma associated with it. The UN Women policy brief on COVID-19 and VAW points out that less than 40 per cent of the women who have experienced violence seek help.

Those who do, often turn to family and friends, and less than 10 per cent report to the police. This perpetuates a culture of impunity as perpetrators go unpunished.

The data clearly shows that violence against women and girls is a global emergency, which requires urgent action. It can take many forms, from human trafficking and sexual slavery, through rape and forced sexual acts, to bettering and sexual harassment—on the street, at workplace, school and online.

Harmful cultural practices – such as female genital mutilation and child, early and forced marriage are also forms of violence against women and girls. The list goes on.

Gender-based violence can happen to anyone, anytime, and anywhere. However, some women and girls are particularly vulnerable. Some of them are young girls and older women, women who identify as lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex, migrant, refugee and displaced women and girls, indigenous women and girls, women and girls from ethnic and religious minorities, women and girls with disabilities, and those living in situations of conflict and humanitarian crises.

The threat of violence faced by millions of women and men around the world has been compounded by the security, health, and economic crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many are trapped at home with their abusers, while women’s shelters and domestic violence hotlines are struggling to meet demands.

As the world grapples with COVID-19, it is also past time to take concrete action to address the shadow pandemic of violence against women and girls.

United Nations response

There is no shortage in UN campaigns, programs, task forces and initiatives that all aim to end violence against women and girls

Groups such as the Group of Friends for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and Girls and the Action Coalition for Gender-based violence bring together civil society, Member States, UN agencies, international organizations, and philanthropies provide space for sharing lessons learned, coordinating action and mobilizing resources to end violence against women and girls.

The Spotlight Initiative, a global, multi-year partnership between the European Union and the United Nations launched in 2019 has committed a record €500 million to end violence against women and girls.

Advocacy and communications campaigns such as the UNiTE by 2030 campaign managed by UN Women, call on governments, civil society, women’s organizations, young people, the private sector, the media, and the entire UN system to join forces in addressing the global pandemic of violence against women and girls.

There is also the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee), all of which have specific but related mandates that address violence against women and girls.

How effective is the UN response to violence against women and girls? The effectiveness of the UN response was put to a major test by the outbreak of COVID-19. The massive increase in the incidence of violence against women and girls is an indication that the response is ineffective—or at best—insufficient.

While one could argue that the weakness of individual Member States both in managing the pandemic and addressing violence against women and girls cannot be attributed to the UN, the shortcomings brought to light by the pandemic beg the question: how can the UN improve Member States’ compliance with and implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the International Labour Organisation’s Violence and Harassment Convention, and the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security and its supporting resolutions?

All of these are powerful international laws that call on the UN and Member States to take concrete actions on this issue. However, the pandemic has demonstrated that actions taken to date have barely scratched the surface of the complex and pervasive issue of violence against women and girls. An effective and sustainable response requires structural changes, and a re-evaluation of global priorities!

The UN Secretary-General’s call

The current global priorities are most clearly visible if we follow the money. USD $1.9 trillion! This is how much the world spent to run military institutions in 2019, the largest annual increase in military expenditure since 2010.4 Let that sink in!!!

Meanwhile, women’s shelters are underfunded, many women—including victims of sexual violence—do not have access to quality healthcare, including maternal and reproductive health, and many women’s rights organizations are struggling to stay afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic.

To end violence against women, Member States and donors need to put their money where their mouths are. It is not only the right and necessary choice—it is also a smart investment.

According to the World Bank, violence against women is estimated to cost countries up to 3.7% of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP)—more than double what most governments spend on education.5

UN Women estimates that cost to be approximately $1.5 trillion6 – almost at the level of the record-high military expenditures. Preventing violence against women and girls first and foremost saves lives—but it can also save money.

In his 2020 report on Women and Peace and Security, the Secretary-General drew attention to the stark difference between soaring rates of military spending and the strains in social protection systems including the unavailability of necessary health care that disproportionately impact women and girls. It also underlined how bilateral aid to women’s organizations in fragile or conflict-affected countries has stagnated at 0.2 per cent of total bilateral aid ($96 million on average per year).

The Secretary-General’s report marks the 20th anniversary of Resolution 1325, arguably the most important international law that address violence against women and girls in conflict situations. It presents five goals for the next decade.

It called on the international community to “Reverse the upward trajectory in global military spending with a view to encouraging greater investment in the social infrastructure and services that buttress human security.”

Moreover, the Secretary-General urged Member States to ratify the Arms Trade Treaty, control the availability of armaments; to promote the participation of women in all arms control and disarmament processes and forums; and to reduce excessive military expenditures.

The current context calls for renewed efforts to curb military spending, which has been a chief strategic objective of the women’s movement for peace, he further stressed.

Complementing his call for reduced military spending, the other goal presented by the Secretary-General is to galvanize the donor community for universal compliance with a minimum of 15 per cent of ODA to conflict-affected countries dedicated to advancing gender equality, and the remaining 85 per cent to integrate gender considerations, including multiplying by five the direct assistance to women’s organizations.

The reduction of military spending does not only represent the possibility of financial resources that could support women and girls who are victims of gender-based violence as well as predictable core funds to women’s rights organizations.

It is also an opportunity to generate stronger political commitment to disarmament and arms control and eliminate the threats posed by the estimated one billion small arms that are circulating globally. It can also lead to preventing the use of arms to commit or facilitate serious acts of violence against women and girls.

We, in the women, peace and security community as well as all actors working on gender equality, human rights, and the elimination of violence against women and girls must waste no time.

Let us all come together and seize the moment to present our evidence-based analysis, and policy recommendations in order to influence policy outcomes and decisions that divert weapons spending to fund civil society’s initiatives to end violence against women and girls, and COVID-19 response and recovery.

1 Worldometer, “COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic”, Updated 9 December 2020. Accessed from https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/#countries
2 UN Women, “COVID-19 and Ending Violence Against Women and Girls”, 2020. Available at: https://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2020/issue-brief-covid-19-and-ending-violence-against-women-and-girls-en.pdf?la=en&vs=5006
3 World Health Organization, “Global and Regional Estimates of Violence Against Women: Prevalence and Health Effects of Intimate Partner Violence and Non-Partner Sexual Violence”, 2013. Available at: https://apps.who.int/iris/handle/10665/85239
4 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, “Global military expenditure sees largest annual increase in a decade—says SIPRI—reaching $1917 billion in 2019”, 27 April 2020. Available at: https://www.sipri.org/media/press-release/2020/global-military-expenditure-sees-largest-annual-increase-decade-says-sipri-reaching-1917-billion
5 World Bank, “Gender-Based Violence (Violence Against Women and Girls)”, 25 September 2019. Available at: https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/socialsustainability/brief/violence-against-women-and-girls
6 UN-Women, “COVID-19 and ending violence against women and girls”, 2020. Available at: https://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2020/issue-brief-covid-19-and-ending-violence-against-women-and-girls-en.pdf?la=en&vs=5006.

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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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Millions of New Poor Are on the Way – Who Cares?

Civil Society, Economy & Trade, Environment, Global, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Humanitarian Emergencies, Labour, Migration & Refugees, Poverty & SDGs, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

Batara slum in a Dhaka suburb. Credit: Naimul Haq/IPS

ROME, Nov 26 2020 (IPS) – The recent meeting of the G20 – scheduled to take place in Riyadh but held virtually due to the Coronavirus pandemic – has been an eloquent example of how the world is drifting, in a crisis of leadership.


It was, in a sense, a showcase. Everybody had to accept the view that the host of the meeting, the ailing King Salman of Saudi Arabia, was accompanied on TV screens by his apparent heir, Prince Mohamed bin Salman, who is clearly the mastermind of the brutal assassination, dismembering and disappearance of the body of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Roberto Savio

Mohamed bin Salman got away with it, also because of the support of Donald Trump who, in his video intervention said, among other pearls, that nobody in US history had done as much as he had for the environment (like when he said that nobody since Abraham Lincoln had done as much as he had for black Americans). After that, Trump promptly left for his golf course, and ignored the debate.

Raison d’état, realpolitik, diplomatic constraints have always been part of history. The fact that the G20 was virtual, can partly hide a fact: that politicians now accept the most preposterous statements without blinking, because everything has become acceptable and legitimate. In Saudi Arabia, Prince bin Salman is highly popular and in the US, those who live in the parallel world of Trumpland follow blindly.

Biden will have a very difficult life. At least one-third of Americans believe that a massive fraud has deprived their idol of the presidency. He has a Supreme Court staffed by his nominee. And unless the Democrats win the two seats for the Senate in Georgia on January 5th, it will remain in the hands of Mitch McConnell, who will block every single Biden project that needs Senate approval.

Add to this a Trump permanent electoral campaign during the next four years, probably with his own TV channel, and it is difficult to predict that Biden’s vice-president, a woman and black, will repeat his feat in 2024.

There are plenty of solutions if there was only political will. For instance, Oxfam estimates that just an increase of 0.5% over ten years on the taxes paid by 1% of the richest (a negligible increase) would suffice to create 117 million jobs in strategic sectors like health, education, and assistance to the elderly

I apologise for this diversion. The real goal of this article is to show the stunning lack of responsibility of the leaders who met virtually, and besides making totally ritual declarations about the pandemic and climate change, when faced with the issue of the impact of Covid-19 on the poor of the world, simply decided to extend the moratorium on the interest of the external debt of the poorest countries for another year. This is a debt which, in many cases, has been amply repaid with the payment of cumulative interests.

Now, it is certainly difficult to believe that the leaders of France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the UK, India, China and Canada, and the President of the European Council, and the President of the European Union – leaving aside the United States – ignore the impacting data on the increase of poverty provided by all the international organisations.

The creation of the G7 and the G20 has been the most visible attempt of the great powers to displace substantial debates and decisions from the United Nations. It was certainly not due to lack of information that they ignored the appeal of the Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres, who implored action in his intervention against the unfolding drama of the poor of all over the world, which is nullifying all progress achieved in the last two decades.

The data that the G20 ignored all converge on two conclusions: the impact of the Covid-19 virus is stronger than expected, and it will bring about a global social imbalance that will have a lasting impact on several millions of people – in fact, about 300 million people.

This comes on top of an already dire situation. According to the World Bank, 720 million people will be living in extreme poverty (less than 1.90 dollars a day). Of those, 114 million are the direct result of Covid-19: that is 9.4% of the world’s population. According to the UN World Food Programme, more than 265 million are already starving, and many will die. And according to the International Labour Organization 200 million will lose their job.

Let us not forget that half of the world’s population – 3.2 billion people – live on less than 5.50 dollars a day. These are in the global South, as well as those in rich countries who are close to the conditions of the poor countries. The scale of this condition is much greater than we normally think. In the United States, according to the US Census Bureau, 11.1% of the population (49 million people) can be classified as poor; but Covid-19 will probably add another 8 million people.

A staggering 16.1 million children live in food precarity, while more than 47 million citizens depend on food banks. The National Center on Family Homelessness estimates that in 2013, 2.5 million US children experienced some form of homelessness. Finally, the US Health Affairs journal affirms that in 2016, the United States had the largest rate of children mortality in the 20 countries belonging to the OECD, while according to the US Census Bureau, life expectation has shrunk by three years.

In Europe thanks to a culture of welfare (absent in the US), things are going somewhat better. Eurostat estimates that in 2017, 11.8 million people lived in a household “at risk of poverty or social exclusion”. And Save the Children estimates that 28% of those under 18 are at risk of poverty and social exclusion.

We do not have estimates of the impact of Covid-19 in Europe, but the European Union estimates that poverty may increase by 47% if the pandemic lasts until next summer. This excludes the impact of the expected third wave in the winter of 2021. Caritas Italy estimates that at the end of the year there will be at least one million more poor children.

The leaders of the G20 cannot ignore that in April UNCTAD issued an alert: we need to find at least 2.5 billion dollars to attenuate the coming social crisis. They cannot ignore that the ILO has stated that in the poorest countries of the world, like Haiti, Ethiopia or Malawi, the average income of informal workers has fallen by 82%.

They cannot ignore the political consequences of this social crisis, and how Covid-19 is putting a brake on the world economy. But the poor, for many reasons, is not a priority in political choices. Suffice it to note that in the EU’s unprecedented and brilliant Recovery Plan for Europe there are no special provisions for the poor. They are part of the general population, and of those who have suffered because of Covid-19: people working in the tourism sector, in restaurants bar, in shops, and so on.

Yet, we have all the data to know that they suffer specific problems, problems that differ from those of who have lost their jobs. Structural poverty is a cage which does not let out those who are inside it. We have no space here to analyse why poverty needs a specific action. There are tons of studies on the subject, on the relations between poverty and education, poverty and democracy, poverty and social movements, and the list goes on.

What we want to stress is that there are plenty of solutions if there was only political will. For instance, Oxfam estimates that just an increase of 0.5% over ten years on the taxes paid by 1% of the richest (a negligible increase) would suffice to create 117 million jobs in strategic sectors like health, education, and assistance to the elderly.

Repatriating 10% of the capital hidden in fiscal paradises would obtain the same result. But we have been following Ronald Reagan’s mantra that the poor bring poverty and the rich bring wealth, so the rich should be left to create wealth. This may seem like a joke, but the OECD indicates that the average taxation on companies fell from 28% in 2000 to 20.6% in 2020.

This occurred despite the rise of the wealth of large companies, which has been accompanied by a notable decline of the middle class, not to speak of workers and the proliferation of precarious and informal jobs. According to the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies, between March 18 and June 4, the wealth of the richest Americans increased by 19.1% – a monumental 565 million dollars. Now, the richest Americans own 3.5 billion dollars.

Just 10% of that would be enough to bail out the 46.2 million fellow citizens who ask for unemployment subsidies. Another solution would be to reduce subsidies to the fossil industry, which the International Institute for Renewable Energy estimates at 3.1 trillion dollars – 19 times those for renewables – in spite of the imminent climatic tragedy.

The same imbalance is happening with the pandemic. It is clear that until vaccination becomes universal, Covid-19 is here to stay. It recognises no borders and global problems cannot have an assorted collection of local answers.

Yet, to date, pharmaceutical companies have received 13.1 billion dollars to develop a vaccine: a fantastic business, as they will now make more money on the market, with their costs already having been paid by governments. A central discussion would be whether markets should make profit on common goods like water, air and humans, but we have no space for this debate.

This aside, the situation today is that again according to Oxfam, the rich countries have 13.5%of the world population, Yet they have bought in advance 51% of the doses that pharmaceutical companies will produce – in 2021, 86.5 % of the world will have to make do with the remaining 49%. A consortium of public and private enterprises, COVAX, has been established to deal with the most fragile parts of the world population. Over 185 countries are involved, but it is still very far from gathering the necessary funds.

What is the lesson we can draw from this incomplete analysis? That we are far from having a political class able to face global issues. On the contrary, nationalism and xenophobia are on their way back. The attitude of nationalist leaders to Covid-19 has been similar to that for the threat of climate change: it is a left-wing idea from globalists. So, wearing a mask has become a political declaration.

Trump lost re-election in a great measure due to his attitude on the virus. We can only have a dim hope that this lesson will have some impact. When it comes to the poor, the terms social justice and solidarity are out of fashion, but we are creating imbalances and tensions that we will probably pay dearly for. The French Revolution was not done by a political party, but by an impoverished Third State, or the poor, who revolted against the nobility and the clergy. That is a lesson that the richest 1% would do well not to forget.

Publisher of OtherNews, Italian-Argentine Roberto Savio is an economist, journalist, communication expert, political commentator, activist for social and climate justice and advocate of an anti-neoliberal global governance. Director for international relations of the European Center for Peace and Development. Adviser to INPS-IDN and to the Global Cooperation Council. He is co-founder of Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency and its President Emeritus.

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