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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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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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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Not in Our Name, Never in Our Name: A Conversation with Muslim Faith Leaders Echoing the Wisdom of a Pontiff

Civil Society, Featured, Global, Headlines, Human Rights, Humanitarian Emergencies, Inequity, Religion, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

Azza Karam serves as the Secretary-General of Religions for Peace (#Religions4Peace – www.rfp.org) and is a Professor of Religion and Development at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres meets religious leaders April 2020 at Gurdwara Kartapur Sahib in Punjab province in Pakistan. Religious leaders of all faiths are being urged by the Secretary-General to join forces and work for peace around the world and focus on the common battle to defeat COVID-19. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

NEW YORK, Oct 26 2020 (IPS) As the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed Al-Tayeb said on October 20: “As a Muslim and being the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, I declare before Almighty God that I disassociate myself, the rulings of the religion of Islam, and the teachings of the Prophet of Mercy, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), from such heinous terrorist act and from whoever would embrace such deviant, false thought.


At the same time, I reiterate that insulting religions and abusing sacred religious symbols under the slogan of the freedom of expression, are forms of intellectual terrorism and a blatant call for hatred. Such a terrorist and his likes do not represent the true religion of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Likewise, the terrorist of New Zealand, who killed the Muslims while praying in the mosque, does not represent the religion of Jesus, peace be upon him. Indeed, all religions prohibit the killing of innocent lives”

The above words of the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Al-Sharif — Sunni Islam’s intellectual headquarters, long standing knowledge base and one of its political epicenters — were shared at an ongoing conference hosted by the St Egidio Community, entitled “No One is Saved Alone Peace and Fraternity”.

In turn, these words were read out at this meeting, by Judge Mohammed Abdel Salam, the first Muslim to ever present a Papal Encyclical (in October 2020), and the first Muslim ever to be decorated as Commander with a star medal (Commenda con Placca dell’ordine Piano), by the Pope, for his great role and efforts in promoting interreligious dialogue and the relationships between Al-Azhar and the Catholic Church (in March 2019).

Judge Mohammed Abdel Salam is the Secretary General of the Higher Committee of Human Fraternity, and represents the Grand Imam on the World Council (governing board) of Religions for Peace, a 50 year-old multi-religious organization representing all the world’s religious institutions and faith communities – in effect, a “UN of religions”.

And yet these words seem to have to be repeated again and again. Many Muslims live in fear that each and every day’s news potentially bears yet another heinous act of violence whose mad perpetrator(s) claim(s) is done for or inspired by “Islam”.

Many Muslims still hear two comments again and again from within the western hemisphere: “where is the condemnation?”, and even more insidiously, an assertion that “there must be something in the religion that makes these repeated acts of violence …possible”.

Some western government-sanctioned narratives go so far as to describe “Islamic extremism”, further compounding a sense of victimisation by many Muslims, and adding to the ‘spin’ that the religion itself is capable of extremism.

No religion is itself intrinsically capable of anything. People live religion. In his latest Encyclical “Fratelli Tutti”( in Chapter 8 “religion and fraternity”), the Pontiff focuses on “Religions at the service of fraternity in our world” and emphasizes that terrorism is not due to religion but to erroneous interpretations of religious texts, as well as “policies linked to hunger, poverty, injustice, oppression” (paragraphs 282-283).

The Encyclical maintains that a journey of peace among religions is possible and that it is therefore necessary to guarantee religious freedom, a fundamental human right for all believers (paragraph 279).

Muslims – leaders, laypeople, communities, and multiple institutions – have condemned, continue to condemn and will always condemn violence in the name of their faith.

Imam Sayyed Razawi, the Secretary General of the Scottish Ahl al-Bayt Society, and a Trustee of Religions for Peace, notes that “since Islam does not teach harming others, a question that arises is what was the motivation of an individual who had a claim to being Muslim, to violate the parameters of the laws of his faith and country in committing such an act?

There is no doubt Muslims, be they in France or across the world, hurt, when their Prophet is seemingly insulted. However, it does not justify breaking the very principles laid down in Islam to prevent such acts”.

Both Judge Abdel Salam and Imam Razawi, are of similar age. The former, living in the Arab world, the latter, living in the West. Both are Muslim leaders, and both are well versed in Islamic Jurisprudence, and learned about Islamic traditions. Both continue to iterate, in multiple speeches, conferences and contexts, that what inspires them, is to serve humanity.

Imam Sayed Razawi continues to note that serving humanity leads us down a pathway which has various labels, though amounting to roughly the same thing: interfaith, inter religious dialogue, and/or multi faith collaboration. The ultimate aim and purpose have always been, and remains, how best to live harmoniously with others.

For both these Muslim leaders, and millions of other Muslims, the inspiration to maintain that such atrocities are not in our name, comes from the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). A man who even before prophecy was working with peoples of various faiths and backgrounds. A merchant, whose employer was a woman – later to become his wife when she proposed to him- and who believed passionately in being truthful and trustworthy.

“So much so” Razawi maintains, “that Jews, Christians, and pagans alike would entrust him with that which they held valuable to themselves, with the belief it would be safe. As a Prophet, Muhammad developed a city where Muslims lived side by side with Jews, Christians, Sabians and pagans. These lessons lead to the formation of a civilisation on the very same principles: coexistence and peace.”

Both the Imam and the Judge speak of their hurt when evil acts such as what has been witnessed in Paris take place. Both maintain, again, alongside countless others, that “it is important to repeat and continue to repeat that these are not the teachings of Islam, nor its Prophet or the interpretations of core Islamic principles”.

These atrocities are against what they believe, what they live, and what they preach, which is: peaceful coexistence, reconciliation and obeying the laws of the land one lives in, not to mention the need to uphold virtues such as compassion, love and forgiveness.

Both maintain that acts of violence are not reflective of a religion whose leaders have categorically emphasised the need for “loving thy neighbour”, because, as Imam Razawi states “either a person is your brother in faith, or your equal in your humanity.”

So why would an act be committed which is contrary to the very faith the actor confesses to be?

This is the question secular policy-makers may not ask. Or perhaps they do ask behind closed doors in rooms bursting with indifference to religion and religious sentiments.

Or yet again, maybe this is a question asked by religious ‘technocrats’ (those working on religion in secular spaces) and/or secular bureaucrats keen on instrumentalizing religious sentiments for ‘national security’ concerns.

But this is the question that every faith leader asks – and asks repeatedly. The answers lie, again, in what the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together”, calls for, which the Catholic Pontiff also concludes his Encyclical with: “we were made for love” (Paragraph 88), and love builds bridges.

But how can we build bridges with love? Religions for Peace has been doing this work through 96 national and regional Inter-Religious Councils, with representatives of all faith traditions, for five decades.

In 2019, 250 religious leaders committed to building these bridges with and through service to the Sustainable Development Goals Agenda.

When Covid-19 hit, Religions for Peace set up a Multi-Religious Humanitarian Fund dedicated to supporting faith communities work to serve all, together. The religious leaders understood that there is no point to working to realise the SDGs, without a mechanism to collate and coordinate their efforts, geared towards serving social cohesion (in a world gone awry), within our new normal: humanitarian crisis.

Confronting Covid is an opportunity to work together across religious and institutional differences to build bridges of love. The humanitarian call is being heeded today like never before, by the first responders in crisis situations – i.e. religious institutions and NGOs. But few of these religious NGOs are actually collaborating, meaning jointly investing their resources, to serve together.

We can keep on having meetings to speak to building back better, and the uniqueness of faith (or business or civil society actors), and still face countless acts of violence (attributed to religion) from those whose sense of marginalization is intensifying.

We can choose to continue to serve our own organizational and territorial visibility and interests, while hundreds of thousands continue to die, and millions suffer, from a shared ecosystem of planetary degradation.

Or we can serve the multi-religious call – the multi-religious imperative – and actually pool our financial, human and spiritual resources together – to build bridges with love. The choice is ours.

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Religion & the Pandemic: A Call Beyond the Here & Now

Civil Society, Featured, Global, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Humanitarian Emergencies, Inequity, Religion, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

Prof. Azza Karam is Secretary General, Religions for Peace International

Religions for Peace Interreligious Council of Albania distributing Covid relief supplies from the Multi-religious Humanitarian Fund. Credit: Erzen Carja

NEW YORK, Aug 4 2020 (IPS) – — I have never been interested in religion or spirituality before, but I found myself tuning in to all sorts of on-line religion and spirituality related forums “in search of something.”


These are the words of a 30-something single young, middle class man (born into a Protestant-Catholic family background) in a European country.

The latter is known more for turning several churches into museums or shopping centers, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. When people are afraid, lonely and alone – they tend to seek “something” beyond science.

A quarter of Americans say their faith has become stronger because of the pandemic, according to a Pew survey conducted during April 20-26, 2020, of 10,139 U.S. adults.

But this is to be contrasted with the experiences of those from an older generation (60+) in the southern hemisphere, like my own 85-year old Muslim father, who lives to pray. For him, the mosque has, over the last decade since my mother’s death, become both his spiritual hub and social club.

His cohort is differing ages of retirees, who, in spite of very different political perspectives in a Middle Eastern country reflecting the now normal of intense polarization, treasure their prayerful community spaces. This middle class (an endangered species to be sure) of retirees, share a sense of deep faith informing their social and political convictions.

For many of them, the lockdown was experienced primarily s an inability to go to the mosque, and thus as almost physically painful. None of them countenanced the idea of on-line prayers, that doesn’t make any sense, they maintained. Their sense of depression was almost palpable throughout the lockdown period, as was their joy at the reopening of some mosques.

The coronavirus presents barriers to caring for the sick and to performing certain death and burial rites which are core religious practices, and especially needed in a pandemic that has already claimed nearly hundreds of thousands of lives.

In Sri Lanka for example, public health measures for safe burial practices have already challenged traditional rites, wherein authorities mandated cremations for Covid-19-linked deaths, despite the fact that cremation is supposed to be forbidden in Islam.

Covid-19 also complicates Jewish and Muslim burial practices of washing and cloaking bodies before burial, given concerns about transmission. Innovative religious responses seeking to reconcile public health policies with traditional burial practices have been taking place.

In Israel, for example, bodies are wrapped in plastic before burial, and before that, ritual washing is completed while wearing full protective gear. Some Islamic scholars are providing exegesis and guidance on how the ritual of washing the body prior to burials, could be conducted safely whilst following Islamic principles.

Religions for Peace Interreligious Council of Albania distributing Covid relief supplies from the Multi-religious Humanitarian Fund. Credit: Erzen Carja

This echoes what occurred during the Ebola crisis in West Africa. In fact, while COVID-19 differs from HIV/AIDS, Malaria, Tuberculosis, and Ebola, there are nevertheless some important similarities.

In cases of dealing with diseases where transmission affects large numbers of people, and vaccines and medication remain relatively hard to find and/or provide to all affected, beyond the health inequities which are underscored during such times, there are critical lapses by national and international authorities in acknowledging and supporting the role of religious leaders.

In fact, during previous outbreaks of HIV/AIDS (around the world), and of Ebola in Central and West Africa, the strengths of religious communities were rarely incorporated into public policy – until national and international secular authorities lose the plot.

In Religions for Peace (the only multi religious organization representing all religious institutions and communities around the world with 90 national and 6 regional Inter-Religious Councils/IRCs), a founding mantra is that caring for the most vulnerable is deeply embedded in all faith traditions.

As a result, religious institutions, communities, and faith-inspired/based NGOs (or FBOs as they are often referred to), have historically served as the original providers of essential social services. In fact, FBOs are the first responders in most humanitarian emergencies. Their work includes providing spiritual sustenance for sure, but also hunger relief, heath care, and shelter.

This is not only a feature of the developing world. Samaritan’s Purse set up a health center at the height of the pandemic in Central Park – an icon of New York city. Caritas, at one point, was feeding 5,000 people a day, in Geneva, Switzerland.

For 50 years, Religions for Peace worked to equip its IRCs (through the respective religious institutions and services) to seek peace through advocating for human rights (including the rights of Indigenous Peoples, as well as women, religious minorities, the disabled, elderly, and youth), mediating conflicts, providing emergency humanitarian relief, and contributing to sustainable development efforts (including health, nutrition, sanitation, education and environmental sustainability).

The defining feature of Religions for Peace IRCs is multi-religious collaboration. The main principles of this collaboration are representativity and subsidiarity. In the case of the former, each IRC earns Religions for Peace affiliation by ensuring its governance represents each and all of the nations religious institutions, and communities. In return, each IRC is guaranteed its independence to determine its national/regional priorities, and its modus operandi.

Half a century of collaboration with several United Nations entities at different moments in time, provides a comparative context to enable an assessment of how the UN works with some religious actors.

At the very least, this historical time-line of partnership efforts on peace and security, sustainable development and human rights, provides a learning context. It is with that in mind that we can say that UN efforts in seeking partnerships with faith-based NGOs in facing the Covid-19 implications, are noticeably on the increase relative to pre-Covid dynamics.

Entities like UNHCR, UNICEF, UNAIDS, WHO, and even non-operational entities like the Secretary-General’s own office, as well as UN Office of Genocide Prevention and Responsibility to Protect, have, respectively, issued statements specifically calling on religious leaders and actors to uphold their unique influences (noted above), sought religious input on and in Covid Guidance documents, and (are) hosting multiple consultations to strengthen myriad joint responses.

Working with multiple stakeholders, Religions for Peace research is revealing that while some religious charities are struggling to find resources to continue their services for communities, other FBOs are able to raise more resources for pandemic relief, than anticipated.

This is particularly the case for Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist organisations in countries in Asia, but also Muslim and Christian charities in Africa and the Middle East.

Almost 90% of Religions for Peace IRCs reported a 100% increase in engagement (asks) of their advocacy and messaging efforts from/by national governments, particularly as of May and June 2020 – as compared to this time last year.

This is evidenced through national campaigns during religious occasions and holidays, as well as local awareness raising efforts by religious leaders in particular, as opposed to faith-based NGOs.

Out of the Covid response efforts tracked by 25 Religions for Peace IRCs in 4 regions, thanks to the Multi-Religious Humanitarian Fund administered by RfP, multi-religious efforts are, on average, much harder to encourage than efforts administered by Ecumenical or single religion organisations.

A rough estimate shows that out of the nearly 100 humanitarian assistance projects being tracked by RfP in 40 countries in parts of Africa and Asia, only 1 percent involve multi-religious efforts. Several IRCs have also reported finding it harder to even advocate for multi religious collaboration to provide pandemic assistance (food and medicine packages) in conflict impacted countries (i.e. more than it normally is to seek to mediate some of the conflicts and/or work with governments in mediation efforts).

While it is now almost a cliche to call for more partnerships with religious, or faith-based actors, this is simply not good enough. FBOs, like many NGOs fully immersed in relief efforts, are finding several (good) excuses not to work together.

Faced with a global pandemic, even the FBOs – ostensibly inspired by religious calls for serving all, including the most vulnerable – are less keen on collaborating across their multiple differences (institutional, theological, structural, financial and political), as they continue to serve millions.

Is it enough to serve all who need regardless of religious affiliation (the current bar against which religious NGOs are often measured by the UN and other international entities), or should a pandemic inspire more, and better collaboration among multi-religious partners?

One can but wonder what the relative lack of religious NGO collaboration may foretell for social coexistence after the pandemic, not to mention what this lack of collaboration spells for the legitimacy of the so-called prophetic voice many of them speak of.

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Reflections on the Charter of the United Nations on its 75th Anniversary

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Opinion

Mona Juul is the seventy-fifth President of the Economic and Social Council and Permanent Representative of Norway to the United Nations.

Inga Rhonda King (left), Permanent Representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines to the United Nations and seventy-fourth President of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), hands over the gavel to Mona Juul, Permanent Representative of Norway to the United Nations and newly-elected seventy-fifth President of ECOSOC, at the opening meeting of the 2020 session of ECOSOC. New York, 25 July 2019. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

NEW YORK, Jul 29 2020 (IPS) – This year we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Charter of the United Nations, written and signed during a period of great global change. Today, the world is again shifting beneath our feet. Yet, the Charter remains a firm foundation for our joint efforts.


These uncertain times of global disruption shine a light on the interdependences of our world. The COVID-19 pandemic, and the inequality it has exposed, are a global challenge that we must solve through global solutions. These solutions call for more, not less, cooperation across national borders.

Global cooperation is the enduring promise of the Charter of the United Nations. I am honoured to preside over the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), one of the principal organs of the United Nations, at its 75th anniversary.

In January 1946, 18 members gathered for the inaugural meeting of ECOSOC under the leadership of its first President, Sir Ramaswami Mudaliar of India. ECOSOC was vested with a powerful mandate, to promote better living for all ¬¬by fostering international cooperation on economic, social and cultural issues.

The Charter recognizes the value of social and economic development as prerequisites for stability and well-being. In a 1956 speech, Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld said that “while the Security Council exists primarily for settling conflicts […] the Economic and Social Council exists primarily to eliminate the causes of conflicts.”

For me, this is a reminder that sustainable peace and prosperity rely on global solidarity and cooperation.

Today, this unity of purpose to reach those furthest behind first is also the spirit of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 2030 Agenda is our shared road map to transform the world as we recover better, protect our planet and leave no one behind. With ECOSOC serving as the unifying platform for integration, action, follow-up and review of the SDGs, our promise to eradicate poverty, achieve equality and stop climate change must drive our actions.

ECOSOC has the unique convening power to make this happen. It brings together valuable constituencies such as youth and the private sector to enhance our work and discussions. ECOSOC also remains the gateway for civil society engagement with the United Nations. Civil society has been central to progress on international economic, social and environmental cooperation, from the small but critical number of organizations present in San Francisco when the Charter was signed in 1945, to the 5,000-plus non-governmental organizations with ECOSOC consultative status today.

Wilhelm Munthe Morgenstierne, Ambassador to the United States, member of the delegation from Norway, signing the Charter of the United Nations at the Veterans’ War Memorial Building in San Francisco, United States, on 26 June 1945. Credit: UN Photo/McLain

The Charter also outlines that ECOSOC should promote universal respect and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion. While much has shifted in our world, this mandate remains just as important today as in 1945. After all, human rights are a part of the foundation of the United Nations, quite literally. When Trygve Lie, the first Secretary-General and fellow Norwegian, laid the cornerstone of United Nations Headquarters at Turtle Bay in October 1949, it contained, together with the Charter, a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Human rights have always been a part of the work of ECOSOC. The former United Nations Commission on Human Rights was one of the first functional commissions created within ECOSOC and was charged with drafting the Universal Declaration. Today, ECOSOC remains committed to playing its part to promote all rights: civil and political, as well as economic, social and cultural rights.

In stark contrast to the 18 men who formed the first meeting of ECOSOC in 1946, I am proud to be the third consecutive female president of ECOSOC and one of five female presidents in its 75-year history. Although slow, this is progress, especially compared to 1945, when out of the 850 international delegates that convened in San Francisco to establish the Charter of the United Nations, only eight were women, and only four of them were signatories to the Charter. Today, the Secretary-General has achieved gender parity in all senior United Nations positions, and the Commission on the Status of Women is perhaps the highest profile part of the work of ECOSOC. The Commission’s annual session is instrumental in promoting women’s rights, documenting the reality of women’s lives throughout the world and shaping global standards on gender equality and the empowerment of women.

ECOSOC must work to place gender equality at the heart of all our work. Women’s rights and gender equality are imperative to a just world. In all my endeavours, I strive to promote and advance these rights with a vision of a more prosperous, peaceful and fair world, for the benefit of women and girls—and men and boys alike.

Before the current crisis, more people around the world were living better lives compared to just a decade ago. More people have access to better health care, decent work and education than ever before. Nevertheless, inequality, climate change and the lasting negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are threatening to undo these gains. While we have technological and financial resources at our disposal, unprecedented changes will be needed to align resources with our sustainable development objectives. The United Nations must remain at the forefront of our collective efforts guided by our commitment to the Charter.

The true test of our success will be whether persons, communities and countries experience improvement in their lives and societies. The United Nations must be of value to people. To our family. To our neighbours. To our friends. Unless we achieve this, our credibility is at stake.

As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Charter of the United Nations, let us remind ourselves of the promise it embodies, to help the world become a more prosperous, just, equitable and peaceful place.

To me, the opening words of the Charter, “WE THE PEOPLES OF THE UNITED NATIONS”, are a humble and empowering reminder of our capability to overcome current and future challenges. Even in troubling times, there remains great hope in the power of working together. That is the founding spirit of the United Nations—and in this 75th anniversary year, as we face grave and global challenges, it is the spirit we must summon today.

This article was first published by the UN Chronicle on 26 June 2020.

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