A high school graduate in the United States identified as Verda Tetteh has donated her exceptional performance scholarship fund worth $40,000 (K32, 056, 800) to any student who may need it more.
Tetteh, who immigrated to the U.S. with her family from Ghana, delivered a powerful address on resilience at the beginning of the Massachusetts school’s graduation ceremony.
And just as she took her seat, the school’s principal announced her as one of the two beneficiaries of the scholarship.
While accepting the scholarship reward for her exceptional performance, Tetteh acknowledged how community college had greatly helped her mother, and she knew how far that money would go in funding an education there.
So she said at the ceremony that she wanted the administration to consider giving the scholarship to a community college student.
“I am so very grateful for this, but I also know that I am not the one who needs this the most,” Tetteh said.
“My principal actually you know, found me later that day and said, ‘I’m so very proud of you and that was a very selfless move.’
“My mom said she cheered and gave me a standing ovation so I think it was very positive feedback and response from across the board,”Tetteh told USA Today.
Her video went viral and was shared on various media platforms.
Tetteh has already gotten significant scholarships and financial aid to help her attend college, according to her family.
PARIS, Jun 10 2021 (IPS) – In the last 20 years, disasters affected over 4 billion people. At global level we witness on average one sweeping disaster a day, the majority of which are floods and storms. From the Covid-19 pandemic to climate change, calamities are taking new shapes and sizes, infiltrating every dimension of society. From the emotional to the political, how do we deal with disasters? How can we create a whole-of-society approach to disaster risk reduction?
“Today, we are all actors and victims of crises. How can we better understand and learn to cope with them? These practical tools allow us to discover the stakes, the exemplary actions and their effects, through simple definitions and concrete testimonies experienced by civil society,” says Karine Meaux, Emergency manager at Fondation de France.
“Building resilient communities in the face of natural and man-made hazards has never been more important. While disasters don’t discriminate, policies do. Together we can act and put pressure on decision-makers to promote a holistic approach to disaster prevention and reduction and truly people-centred policies,” says Sarah Strack, Director of Forus.
Civil society at the forefront of disaster management
From resilient communities in Nepal, to conflicts in Mali and peace processes in Colombia, the toolkit presents six approaches to disaster risk reduction gleaned from case studies compiled across the civil society ecosystem. The toolkit looks at various topics from capacity building, to local knowledge, resource mobilisation, partnerships with governments and long-term sustainable development and livelihood resilience, ensuring that communities ‘bounce forward’ after a disaster.
Credit: Bibbi Abruzzini
Specifically, the toolkit aims to clarify the crucial role frontline civil society organisations play in reducing the impacts of disasters in the midst of an expanding and intensifying global risk landscape. Bridging governments, communities and experts is the only way we can tackle the multiple ways disasters affect local and social processes such as education, migration, food security and peace. If civil society is not free to operate – or even exist – our collective capacity to deal with disasters and create long-term resilience is hampered.
“You have countries [in the region] in which civil society is not even allowed to exist. This reality changed a lot after the Arab Spring, with countries living in a terrible crisis, with military conflicts, where the role of civil society now is not only to struggle for their existence, but also to provide the population with basic needs and humanitarian interventions,” says Ziad Abdel Samad, Director of the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND).
Everyday disasters and inequalities
Robert Ninyesiga, from UNNGOF, the national civil society organisation platform in Uganda, argues that in most cases, “more effort has been put towards disaster response while neglecting the disaster prevention aspect”.
This therefore calls for continuous intentional awareness and capacity building as regards to disaster prevention and this can only be effectively achieved if sustainable partnerships between central governments, local governments, civil society organisations, media and citizens are strengthened.
Shock events, high-impact disasters, such as conflicts, earthquakes or tsunamis are just the tip of the iceberg. Underneath this layer there are an increasingly high number of “everyday disasters” affecting people around the globe. Localised, small scale, and slow onset disasters are often “invisible” – far from the spotlight. Those at low incomes are the most vulnerable and find themselves at the periphery of infrastructures, response systems and media attention.
For instance, in addition to being often exposed to intensive disasters such as floods and storms, residents in urban slums across Bangladesh are suffering much more than other communities since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Credit: Bibbi Abruzzini
“Most slum dwellers are daily wage earners, but they are not able to earn money. They are not able to maintain social distance, because in one room 4-5 members are living. Many people are using a shared bathroom. It’s very difficult to maintain hygiene. There is not enough space to sit or sleep at home while maintaining sufficient distance. Due to lack of money, many slum dwellers have only one or two meals a day. Violence and sexual harassment are increasing in the community due to cramped conditions. Children are not attending school,” explains the Participatory Development Action Programme (PDAP) which works in the slums of Dhaka .
These pressures add to regular “everyday” challenges of air pollution and garbage management, flooding, water-logged land, and poor quality water.
Local knowledge and Resilient Future
Civil society organisations often fill a tremendous gap and find themselves at the forefront of prevention and emergency efforts. The localisation of responses and partnerships are absolutely crucial to understand the needs of communities in pre and post-disaster scenarios.
In Honduras, civil society has created community-led interventions, to prioritise local plans of action across the country.
“Honduras, and Central America more in general, have been hit in the last 10 years by an intensification of disasters, most of them linked to climate change. Our role in helping communities to adapt to climate change and to deal with disasters, is in terms of capacity building, humanitarian assistance and advocacy by creating links between local, national, regional and global levels,” says Jose Ramon Avila from ASONOG, the national platform of civil society organisations in Honduras.
The intense and cascading nature of risks, such as seen in the cases of Covid-19 and climate change, represent a serious threat to the achievement of a sustainable and resilient future. Growing experience over the last three decades has revealed that disasters and development are closely linked. Ignoring the impact of disasters makes it more difficult to pursue sustainable development.
“Sustainable development can only be achieved when local risk is fully understood. Critical to understanding and assessing the complex threats and risks, challenges and opportunities faced by communities most at risk, is the need to partner with those people. This practical toolkit provides valuable insights and examples from GNDR members and others on how this can be achieved,” says Bijay Kumar, Executive Director, Global Network of Civil Society Organisations for Disaster Reduction (GNDR)
It has also been found that much of the negative impact on sustainable livelihoods comes not from large, ‘intensive’ disasters, but from many smaller, ‘everyday’ disasters. It has become crucial to address intensive and everyday disasters and to integrate our responses with overall work to pursue sustainable development.
We need to ask ourselves this question: can we build new bridges of solidarity between civil society, communities and governments? Can we prevent and anticipate disasters? Our future is not disaster-free; to build resilient communities it is crucial to nurture strong roots for our society to flourish.
Muhammadu Buhari, President of Nigeria, addresses the general debate of the UN General Assembly, 2019. Credit: UN Photo/Cia Pak
LAGOS, Nigeria, Jun 9 2021 (IPS) – Four years ago, Omoregie* and his friends were arrested without cause and taken into custody. When they got to the station, Omoregie watched as the police began to beat his friends. Afraid, he began to discreetly tweet about the attacks as they took place.
I and many other Twitter users could read his fears while he called for help through his tweets. Taking action as a lawyer, I was able to secure his release within a few hours with the help of other activists through the police unit responsible for citizen complaints.
I had been thinking of Omoregie this week when the government of Nigeria banned the use of Twitter in the country, making use of it a criminal offense. The ban followed the social media platform’s deletion of a tweet from President Muhammad Buhari in which he threatened violence against people in a region in the country’s South East where attacks had been made on public infrastructure.
While the banning of Twitter surprised many, the government’s action against social media platforms has long been threatened and is part of a long-term strategy to bend civil society and force Nigeria’s citizens into compliance with the government. Twitter has been a major source of activism and news in Nigeria
While the banning of Twitter surprised many, the government’s action against social media platforms has long been threatened and is part of a long-term strategy to bend civil society and force Nigeria’s citizens into compliance with the government. Twitter has been a major source of activism and news in Nigeria.
Nigerians spend almost four hours on social media daily and Twitter is the second largest social media platform after Facebook. Most public debates begin on Twitter and the platform often sets the tone for national news carried on traditional media. It has become the platform to hold government, institutions and powerful individuals accountable.
It has also long been a place for activism and to organize protests, including last year’s EndSARS protests, which led to the eradication of the Special Anti Robbery Squad. Ninety-nine people were killed during the EndSARS protest in Nigeria and Twitter helped to expose these abuses. This was most evident during an attack by police and the military on protesters at Lekki Bridge in Lagos.
Documentation of the attack, including a livestream by media personality DJ Switch forced senior military officers to intervene and later acknowledge the attack took place. Since livestreaming the attack, D.J Switch has been forced to seek asylum in Canada as a result of threats to her life.
This efficacy for activism has drawn government’s attention.
As a lawyer and an activist, I appeared before a Senate committee at the public hearing and gave statements about how we use social media to help fight human rights violations, consumer rights, and even to help find missing persons. After the public hearing, the bill was abandoned but, as we saw with last week’s Twitter ban, the Buhari administration did not give up on its ambitions to restrict social media.
They took their opportunity with last week’s shutdown. Nigeria’s judicial system has been effectively on strike for the past two months, so the Twitter ban was implemented without the oversight of the courts. In addition to banning Twitter, the government has demanded licensing of all social media platforms as well as services which stream news and entertainment via the Internet.
All of these restrictions aim to control freedom of expression; a right guaranteed under Nigeria’s Constitution as well as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights–both of which Nigeria has signed.
Since the ban against Twitter was announced, the government has wasted no time in implementing punishment for users. Immediately after the announcement, Nigeria’s Attorney General directed the arrest and prosecution of anyone using the Twitter app.
Practically, this will mean police will be empowered to search telephones for the app. Police searches of phones—and unhappiness with those searches—are not new to Nigerians and were one of the reasons for the EndSARS protests.
The draconian ban also begs the question, if Twitter, a global platform which helps to spotlight the government excesses can be shut down, what safety is there for Nigeria’s local media, journalists and citizens? With the Twitter ban Nigeria risks further sliding into dictatorship and there will be fewer ways to organize challenges to it.
Some will argue that Twitter is to blame for its banning because it overstepped in deleting a tweet from President Buhari that Twitter argues violates its policy. But even if we accept that Twitter was wrong to delete a tweet, the federal government’s reaction to ban a platform so important to public debate and activists is petty and an extreme overreach.
It is time for the world’s democracies to take concrete steps and forestall Nigeria human rights violations. Censorship of independent voices is often a means to shut down accountability and enable autocratic rule.
Allowing the Twitter ban by a few politicians without criticism would signal that the world endorses autocracy. The world’s silence and inaction are an endorsement of the Twitter ban, a shrinking of the ability of civil society to organize and a violation of the rights of 200 million Nigerians.
*Not his real name
Nelson Olanipekun is a human rights lawyer and advocate who uses technology and law to accelerate the pace of justice delivery. He is a 2021 Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow.
International organizations and sovereign governments have now interpreted the Green New Deal into frameworks and policies of their own; it’s clear that environmental policy led by youth has energized the discussion on global decarbonization and the social impacts of climate change.
However, the Green New Deal only mentioned the ocean once. We need to insert more Blue into the green transition.
Earth’s vast oceans are humanity’s single most important climate regulation tool. As governments coalesce around plans to quite literally save our species, we must recognize that there is no future without understanding the role the ocean has to play.
Beyond human life support, the ocean economy contributes to ecosystem services, jobs, and cultural services valued at USD 3-6 trillion, with fisheries and aquaculture alone contributing USD 100 billion per year and 250+ million jobs.
Our ocean, however, is overfished, polluted with plastic, and exploited for non-renewable resources like minerals and fossil fuels. This perpetuates a cycle of generational injustice and leaves youth to inherit an increasingly degraded environment with less and less time to restore it. Not only is this detrimental to progress at large, but our most vulnerable global communities, who contribute the least to global emissions, will feel the effects of our degraded environment the most severely.
Youth not only need to be proactive advocates for the SDGs, we need to hold the global community accountable to commitments they have made between nations and to youth as the greatest stakeholders in the future health of our environment.
Creating the “Global Blue New Deal”
In 2019, the Sustainable Ocean Alliance distributed surveys across its network to identify the key youth policy priorities for a healthy ocean and just future. We received 100+ responses from 38 countries in 5 languages.
Over the past year, SOA’s Youth Policy Advisory Council synthesized these into a youth-led, crowdsourced ocean policy framework: the Global Blue New Deal.
The first public draft of our Global Blue New Deal is being launched now, at the dawn of the UN’s Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, which aims to gather global ocean stakeholders behind a common framework to deliver “the ocean we need for the future we want.”
Youth want to contribute to the success of the Ocean Decade and call on the international community to recognize our policy suggestions as part of the solutions our planet needs.
The vision of the Global Blue New Deal is to “outline an ocean policy framework that integrates crowdsourced youth priorities that will be proposed to governments on international, national, and local scales for implementation.”
It is organized under four pillars, each containing specific ocean policy solutions.
Pillar 1 Carbon Neutrality: Transition to a Zero Carbon Future
1. End offshore drilling and invest in renewable ocean energy 2. Decarbonize the shipping industry 3. Reduce land-based marine pollution 4. Transition to a circular economy 5. Strengthen legislation and enforcement against ocean contamination
Pillar 2 Preserve Biodiversity: Apply Nature-based Solutions to Promote Healthy Ecosystems and Climate Resilience
1. Support the global movement to protect 30% of the world’s ocean by 2030 2. Enforce against non-compliance in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) 3. Establish a global moratorium against deep-sea mining 4. Transition from “gray” manmade infrastructure like culverts and seawalls to nature-based blue carbon infrastructure including the restoration of wetlands, mangroves and marshes
Pillar 3: Sustainable Seafood: Match Increasing Global Demand Sustainably
1. Encourage sustainable governance of capture fisheries 2. Enforce against illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing 3. Eliminate capacity-enhancing fisheries subsidies 4. Provide a sustainable path for aquaculture 5. Fund research and development of plant-based and cell-cultured seafood
Pillar 4: Stakeholder Engagement: Include Local Communities in Natural Ocean Resource Management
1. Ensure the sustainability of coastal ecotourism 2. Promote ocean research and innovation, with a goal of mapping 100% of the global seafloor by 2030. 3. Emphasize ocean literacy and capacity building 4. Build stakeholder participation in ocean governance
Each generation has inherited an increasingly degraded ocean environment with the poorest, most vulnerable communities feeling the impacts the most severely. This is our opportunity to rewrite the long history of compromising our ocean.
Mark Haver and Marina Porto are Chair and Co-Chair respectively of the Youth Policy Advisory Council of the Sustainable Ocean Alliance, the world’s largest youth-led network of ocean allies.
Nordic Talk moderator Katja Iversen shown here with Natasha Wang Mwansa, Emi Mahmoud, Dr Natalia Kanem and Flemming Møller Mortensen during a recent Nordic Talks webinar. Credit: Shuprova Tasneem
DHAKA and NEW YORK, Jun 4 2021 (IPS) – Every two minutes, a girl or woman dies from pregnancy or childbirth-related complications, including unsafe abortions. Every year, around 12 million girls are married while in their childhoods. An additional 10 million are now at risk of child marriage due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In this context, the most recent Nordic Talk—a high-level debate on bodily autonomy and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) as a cornerstone of gender equality, aptly titled “Let’s Talk About Sex” — could not have come at a better time.
Moderator Katja Iversen, Dane of the Year (2018) and former CEO of Women Deliver, kicked off the discussion by focusing on the close link between bodily autonomy, gender equality, economic growth, and a healthy planet.
In an exclusive interview with IPS, Iversen said it was clear that “bodily autonomy for girls and women—in all their rich diversity—is political, social, economic and health-related.”
Women needed to have power and agency over their “bodies, fertility, and future, living a life free of violence and coercion in both the private and public sphere. It ties into norms, structure, systems – and if we want equity and health for all, we need to address all of it.”
Emi Mahmoud, two-time World Champion Poet and Goodwill Ambassador for the UNHCR, set the tone for the Nordic Talk with her emotive poetry reflecting women’s experiences in patriarchal societies, asking: “What survivor hasn’t had her struggle made spectacle?”
The three other panellists agreed that the right to control their bodies was a fundamental aspect of women’s rights and that gender equality was an essential part of the sustainable development agenda.
As Dr Natalia Kanem, Executive Director of the UNFPA, explained that “(women’s) freedom over her own body means freedom of choice”, and that all the data points towards how investment in SRHR could be the first step to empowering women to “ultimately contribute to sustainable development.”
It was critical that SRHR was adequately resourced – but warned these would be in short supply because of the COVID pandemic recovery plans.
“Part of the financing challenge is what we abbreviate as political will. It actually does not cost a lot for the agenda for SRHR to be a reality by 2030. It would take $26 billion a year to end the unmet need for contraception and to stop mothers dying at birth, many of whom were too young to be pregnant, but resources are going to be a challenge now with Covid having affected the world economies.”
While Flemming Møller Mortensen, Danish Minister for International and Nordic Development and Nordic Cooperation, expressed optimism regarding resources for SRHR now that “the US is back on track” and the global gag rule had been revoked. He was worried about a growing conservatism and pushback against women’s rights, particularly in the pandemic’s wake.
Iversen told IPS the cuts in various countries could be devastating.
“UNFPA estimates that with the $180 million the UK wants to withdraw from the Supplies Partnership, UNFPA could have helped prevent around 250,000 maternal and child deaths, 14.6 million unintended pregnancies and 4.3 million unsafe abortions. We will need foundations and other donor countries to step up, and we will need national government step up and step in and ensure that their national budgets reflect and fill the SRHR needs.”
She expressed concern that women on COVID-19 decision-making bodies were unrepresented.
“Less than 25% of national COVID-19 decision-making bodies have women included. It is too easy to cut resources from people who are not at the decision-making tables,” she said. “We urgently need to get a lot more women into leadership, including of the COVID-19 response and recovery efforts. All evidence shows that when more women are included in decision-making, there is a more holistic approach and both societies and people fare better.”
This call for inclusivity, not just for women but for the youth, was strongly echoed by adolescent sexual and reproductive health rights expert Natasha Wang Mwansa.
“So many commitments have been made by so many countries, yet there is no meaningful progress or accountability, and young people are not involved when making these decisions,” Mwansa said. “Young people are here as partners, but we are also here to take charge. From making choices over our own bodies to choices on our national budgets, we are ready to be part of these decisions.”
To deal with challenges in providing access to SRHR, Kanem stressed the importance of gender-disaggregated data for planning. She added that despite the hurdles, she was hopeful about the future because “young people and women are not waiting to make the case and show solidarity and understanding when it comes to racism or issues of discrimination and equity that divide us.”
Iversen echoed this optimism in her IPS interview.
“It gives me hope that comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services are included in the roadmap for Universal Health Coverage, in the Global Action Plan for Healthy Lives and Well-being, and latest in the Generation Equality Forum blueprint,” she said.
“Civil society has played a key role in ensuring this with good arguments, data and a lot of tenacity. But words in the big global documents about Health For All is one thing; gender equality and women’s rights, if it has to matter, it has to manifest in concrete action.”
The conversation rounded off with recommendations and commitments from the panellists: Mwansa stressed more investments in youth-run organisations and more social accountability from decision-makers; Mortensen asked for governments to be held accountable and for youth voices to be heard; and Kanem reaffirmed the UNFPA’s goal to put family planning in the hands of women as a means of empowerment, to end preventable deaths in pregnant women and girls, and change fundamental attitudes to end gender-based violence.
In her final comments to IPS, Iversen also stressed the importance of SRHR as a means of empowerment.
“Study after study shows that it pays to invest in girls, women and SRHR – socially, economically and health-wise. But we cannot look at SRHR alone; we need a full gender lens to the COVID response and recovery and development in general,” she said.
“And if we want to see positive change, we have to put girls and women front and centre of coronavirus response and recovery efforts, just as we, in general, need to see many more women in political and economic leadership.”
The Nordic Council of Ministers supports the Nordic Talks, and “Let’s Talk about Sex” was organised in partnership with UNFPA, the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Generation Equality, the Danish Family Planning Association, and Mind your Business, as a lead up to the Paris Generation Equality Forum.
The implications of Colombo’s foreign policy shift under Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, from a time-honoured adherence to non-alignment to a clear affiliation with Beijing. Former minister Dr Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe said Colombo Port City (above) might turn out to be a ‘colony’ of China.
LONDON, Jun 4 2021 (IPS) – June 4, 2021 marks 30 years since the killings of an undisclosed number of Chinese protestors at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. For many years, the Chinese government and its ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), with characteristic understatement, called it the ‘June Fourth incident’.
It was the hardliners in the CCP who forced the ouster of its general secretary Hu Yaobang, a party moderate who had encouraged democratic reform, and eventually ordered the military crackdown on the protestors at Tiananmen – perhaps the blackest day in the history of post-revolutionary China.
Sri Lankans should recall the central role of the Chinese Communist Party in turning Tiananmen Square into a horrendous killing field that provoked an unprecedented outpouring of public grief and condemnation from neighbouring Hong Kong, in light of the apparent reverence that Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appears to pay to the CCP’s style of governance.
And he has done so more than once, even telling China’s Defence Minister Wei Fenghe, during his visit to Colombo in April, that he hoped to ‘learn from the governance experience’ of the CCP in poverty alleviation and rural revitalisation.
While the CCP’s role in poverty alleviation might be conceded, the same cannot be said of corruption elimination. It was growing corruption among those in the Chinese government and Communist Party that triggered the massive student protest, which demanded an end to the burgeoning graft and lack of accountability by officialdom, and collectively called for democratic reform in China’s politically regimented society.
Critics say Sri Lanka’s foreign policy of neutrality and its ‘India First’ declaration are mere geopolitical window dressing.
While President Rajapaksa, who has been invited to China, might pick up a thing or two about the success of the CCP in alleviating poverty, there is little he could learn about ridding society of other malaise prevalent in China – a pity, as such knowledge might help to eliminate Sri Lanka’s own political viruses that are causing serious concern, not only in Sri Lankan society but also in the region.
From the early years of Sri Lanka’s independence from British rule, Ceylon (as it was then known) had followed a policy of peaceful co-existence, articulated earlier by India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru as the five principles of ‘Panchaseela’, deriving from Buddhist Thought.
It was this Nehruvian Panchaseela that eventually formed the bedrock of the foreign policy of most newly independent states in Asia, Africa and Latin America, under the banner of non-alignment.
Under Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the world’s first woman prime minister, Ceylon was among founding members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) when 25 countries met in Belgrade at NAM’s first summit in 1961
It was a foreign policy that most Ceylon/Sri Lanka governments were wedded to, except perhaps the pro-western United National Party (UNP) government under President Junius Richard Jayewardene, who cynically told me there were only two non-aligned countries in the world: the USA and the USSR.
This was in 1979 and, ironically, he was then the Chairman of NAM having taken over the chairmanship from Sirimavo Bandaranaike who lost the 1977 general election having hosted the NAM summit in Colombo in 1976.
President Jayewardene was very much pro-American. Still, he went to Communist Cuba, an arch enemy of the US to pass on the baton to President Fidel Castro who was hosting the next NAM summit in Havana in 1979.
Then, with the advent of another Rajapaksa, Gotabaya, as president, Sri Lankan foreign policy was redefined. He said at his inauguration in November 2019 that it was now one of ‘neutrality’, dropping any reference to the long-standing policy of non-alignment.
Though never clearly defined, to Rajapaksa junior this meant staying aloof from Big Power conflicts. By that time, the Indian Ocean had perceptibly turned into a conflict zone as China’s push into this vital maritime international sea route led to counter responses from other major powers, namely the US, Japan, Australia and India.
Moreover, New Delhi saw the growing Chinese naval and economic presence in the region under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Maritime Silk Route as an intrusion into its sphere of influence, raising strategic security concerns.
So, there was a congruence of interest among other major powers and users of the Indian Ocean in challenging what was perceived as Beijing’s expansionism, that is, asserting its own presence in the region and the freedom of navigation for all.
Shortly after Narendra Modi became India’s prime minister in 2014, he made a dramatic shift in India’s own foreign policy, turning from a ‘Look East’ policy to an ‘Act East’ one. This implied a more conscious and determined involvement in South East Asia, particularly ASEAN.
If Modi enunciated a ‘Neighbourhood First’ doctrine, Gotabaya Rajapaksa claimed his to be ‘India First’, perhaps in an attempt to balance the elder Rajapaksa, Mahinda’s, pro-China predilections as president. It was during Mahinda’s nine years at the helm, from 2005, that bilateral relations were at their strongest, perhaps not without cause.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa, with brother Gotabaya as his defence secretary, was at war with the ruthless separatist Liberation Tigers of Eelam (LTTE), popularly known as the Tamil Tigers.
The only country at the time ready to help the Rajapaksas defeat the separatists, with substantial finance and arms aid, was China, which it did in May 2009.
Mahinda returned the favour by contracting China for some major infrastructure projects, including the new Hambantota port in the deep south some 15 nautical miles or so from vital international sea lanes. This port, which is now on a 99-year lease to China because Sri Lanka could not meet its loan repayments, has turned out to be a serious strategic concern to India and other major trading nations.
Last month another major Chinese project Colombo Port City (CPC), some 270 hectares of land reclaimed from the sea close to the capital’s principal port, came alive after the Supreme Court approved the Bill to set up the managing commission after the Court called for several changes to clauses that were inconsistent with the constitution.
The CPC, in which the Chinese development holds 43 per cent of the land (also for 99 years) is intended to be a huge investment and business centre for foreign investors. This made the US ambassador in Colombo, among others, reach for the panic button for fear that the CPC could be a source of money laundering and other ‘dirty’ money.
A former minister in the previous government and a member of the ruling party, Dr Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, even warned that the Port City might well turn out to be a ‘colony’ of China, given the exclusion of Sri Lankan entrepreneurs from investing there, even if they had foreign currency to do so.
Critics of the Rajapaksa government’s policies – including the militarisation of the civil administration and the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic that is still surging in the country – say that Sri Lanka’s foreign policy of neutrality and its ‘India First’ declaration are nothing more than geopolitical window dressing.
They claim it is unsupported by fact and is meant to cover the government’s strong pro-China commitments. They also point to a media release by the Chinese Embassy in Colombo, following Defence Minister Wei Fenghe’s April visit, in which President Rajapaksa is quoted as telling the visiting minister that Sri Lanka ‘has prioritised developing relations with China and firmly supports China’s positions on issues concerning its core issues’.
If, by jettisoning non-alignment and embracing ‘neutrality’, Sri Lanka means it is following an equidistant foreign policy, it has not shown so by its actions. China obviously knows best. In its statement on the defence minister’s visit, the Chinese embassy says: ‘China appreciates Sri Lanka’s independent and non-aligned foreign policy.’
Scant wonder many are puzzled by the nomenclature.
Source: Asian Affairs
Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who held senior roles in Hong Kong at The Standard and worked in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for foreign media including the New York Times and Le Monde. More recently he was Sri Lanka’s deputy high commissioner in London