Reclaiming Our Future

Armed Conflicts, Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Climate Action, Climate Change, COVID-19, Education, Headlines, Inequality, Labour, Poverty & SDGs, TerraViva United Nations


BANGKOK, Thailand, May 23 2022 (IPS) – The Asia-Pacific region is at a crossroads today – to further breakdown or breakthrough to a greener, better, safer future.

Since the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) was established in 1947, the region has made extraordinary progress, emerging as a pacesetter of global economic growth that has lifted millions out of poverty.

Yet, as ESCAP celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, we find ourselves facing our biggest shared test on the back of cascading and overlapping impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, raging conflicts and the climate crisis.

Few have escaped the effects of the pandemic, with 85 million people pushed back into extreme poverty, millions more losing their jobs or livelihoods, and a generation of children and young people missing precious time for education and training.

As the pandemic surges and ebbs across countries, the world continues to face the grim implications of failing to keep the temperature increase below 1.5°C – and of continuing to degrade the natural environment. Throughout 2021 and 2022, countries across Asia and the Pacific were again battered by a relentless sequence of natural disasters, with climate change increasing their frequency and intensity.

More recently, the rapidly evolving crisis in Ukraine will have wide-ranging socioeconomic impacts, with higher prices for fuel and food increasing food insecurity and hunger across the region.

Rapid economic growth in Asia and the Pacific has come at a heavy price, and the convergence of these three crises have exposed the fault lines in a very short time. Unfortunately, those hardest hit are those with the fewest resources to endure the hardship. This disproportionate pressure on the poor and most vulnerable is deepening and widening inequalities in both income and opportunities.

The situation is critical. Many communities are close to tipping points beyond which it will be impossible to recover. But it is not too late.

The region is dynamic and adaptable.

In this richer yet riskier world, we need more crisis-prepared policies to protect our most vulnerable populations and shift the Asia-Pacific region back on course to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals as the target year of 2030 comes closer — our analysis shows that we are already 35 years behind and will only attain the Goals in 2065.

To do so, we must protect people and the planet, exploit digital opportunities, trade and invest together, raise financial resources and manage our debt.

The first task for governments must be to defend the most vulnerable groups – by strengthening health and universal social protection systems. At the same time, governments, civil society and the private sector should be acting to conserve our precious planet and mitigate and adapt to climate change while defending people from the devastation of natural disasters.

For many measures, governments can exploit technological innovations. Human activities are steadily becoming “digital by default.” To turn the digital divide into a digital dividend, governments should encourage more robust and extensive digital infrastructure and improve access along with the necessary education and training to enhance knowledge-intensive internet use.

Much of the investment for services will rely on sustainable economic growth, fueled by equitable international trade and foreign direct investment (FDI). The region is now the largest source and recipient of global FDI flows, which is especially important in a pandemic recovery environment of fiscal tightness.

While trade links have evolved into a complex noodle bowl of bilateral and regional agreements, there is ample scope to further lower trade and investment transaction costs through simplified procedures, digitalization and climate-smart strategies. Such changes are proving to be profitable business strategies. For example, full digital facilitation could cut average trade costs by more than 13 per cent.

Governments can create sufficient fiscal space to allow for greater investment in sustainable development. Additional financial resources can be raised through progressive tax reforms, innovative financing instruments and more effective debt management. Instruments such as green bonds or sustainability bonds, and arranging debt swaps for development, could have the highest impacts on inclusivity and sustainability.

Significant efforts need to be made to anticipate what lies ahead. In everything we do, we must listen to and work with both young and old, fostering intergenerational solidarity. And women must be at the centre of crisis-prepared policy action.

This week the Commission is expected to agree on a common agenda for sustainable development in Asia and the Pacific, pinning the aspirations of the region on moving forward together by learning from and working with each other.

In the past seven-and-a-half decades, ESCAP has been a vital source of know-how and support for the governments and peoples of Asia and the Pacific. We remain ready to serve in the implementation of this common agenda.

To quote United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, “the choices we make, or fail to make today, will shape our future. We will not have this chance again.”

Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana is the United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific

IPS UN Bureau


A Clash of Alms

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


Sri Lankan Buddhist monks at the UN General Assembly session commemorating Vesak. Credit: Sri Lanka’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations

LONDON, Feb 3 2022 (IPS) – Driven by unprecedented hardship to pass round the begging bowl, Sri Lanka has become the centre of a tussle between Asia’s two superpowers.

There was a time in Asia’s predominantly Buddhist countries when saffron-robed monks walked from house to house in the mornings, standing outside in silence as lay people served up freshly cooked food into their ‘alms bowls’. The food was then taken to the temples, where it was shared among the monks.

That religious tradition has now largely given to other ways of serving alms to monks.

Today, governments and their aggrandising acolytes have converted this respected and virtuous tradition into one of begging richer nations to rescue them from economic deprivation, brought on largely by failed promises and disjointed and ill-conceived foreign and national policies.

This ‘begging bowl’ mentality in search of ‘alms’ is more likely to succeed if a nation is strategically-located in an area of big power contestation. Sri Lanka is just that, situated in the Indian Ocean and only a few nautical miles from the vital international sea lanes carrying goods from West to East and vice versa.

The country’s economy has been caught in a real bind. Buffeted by the Covid pandemic on the one hand and, on the other, ego-inflating economic and fiscal policies introduced by the new president Gotabaya Rajapaksa shortly before the country was pounded by the pandemic, Sri Lanka now has to beg or borrow to keep its head above water.

By December, Sri Lanka’s parlous foreign reserves situation had dropped to a perilous $1.2 billion – enough for three weeks of imports. The foreign debt obligation of $500 million that needed to be met last month was only the beginning. Another $1 billion is due in July. The total pay-off in 2022 will amount to some $7 billion.

Meanwhile the pandemic has virtually killed tourism, one of the country’s main foreign exchange earners, driving the hospitality industry into free-fall. If this was not bad enough, the Central Bank’s attempts to put a tight squeeze on incoming foreign currency led the country’s migrant labour remittances to drop drastically as overseas workers turned to the black market to earn real value for their money sent to families at home.

But nothing has had such widespread political repercussions as the government’s ill-advised policy of banning overnight chemical fertilisers last May, ahead of the country’s main agricultural season between October and April.

Its over-ambitious agenda of trying to turn Sri Lanka into the world’s first totally ‘green agriculture’ was laudable enough, but was botched when the sudden ban on chemical fertilisers and other agrochemicals – used by farmers for the last 50 years or so – left rice farming and other cultivations in disarray and farmers inevitably confused.

The government’s agenda of trying to turn Sri Lanka into the world’s first totally ‘green agriculture’ was botched.

While agricultural scientists and other experts warned of an impending food scarcity due to failed harvests and sparsely cultivated fields, the government ignored the warnings, sacking heads of the Agriculture Ministry and removing its qualified agricultural experts for spreading doom and gloom.

Against this backdrop of confused governance, probable food shortages due to poor harvests and slashing of imports and even essential medicines for lack of foreign currency, growing public unrest has seen even farmers take to the streets.

Consequently, a once-buoyant government confident of public popularity, especially among the Sinhala-Buddhist voters and the rural community, began to look beyond its faithful ally and ‘all weather’ friend China for ‘alms’ to pull it out of the morass.

China has already planted a large footprint in Sri Lanka, with massive infrastructure projects such as sea and airports in strategic areas, which allowed a monitoring of international sea lanes to make neighbouring India worry.

A major Chinese presence in Sri Lanka could endanger India’s security at a time when China continues to militarily pressurise India in the Himalayas.

From the early 1950s Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, and China had established close ties. Despite threats of sanctions by the US, Colombo sold natural rubber to China – then involved in the Korean War –in exchange for rice, marking the beginning of the long standing ‘Rubber-Rice Pact’.

As long as China’s immediate concern was the Pacific theatre, where the US and its allies remained dominant, and China faced territorial disputes in the South China sea and elsewhere, India was not overly concerned with China-Sri Lanka bilateral ties.

But as soon as China began to expand into the Indian Ocean, challenging what India considered its sphere of influence, New Delhi’s concerns multiplied considerably, as did its disquiet over China’s growing influence over Colombo.

The 70th anniversary of that Sino-Ceylon agreement, which cemented bilateral relations at a time when the People’s Republic of China was not even a member of the UN, was commemorated last month when China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Colombo in early January during an influence-building visit to Africa, the Maldives and Sri Lanka.

This is the third high level visit by a Chinese official in little over a year, beginning with former foreign minister and Politburo member Yang Jiechi in October 2020, and followed last April by Chinese Defence Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe, a visible signal to India and US-led ‘Quad’ countries the importance that China attaches to its relations with Sri Lanka.

But Sri Lanka’s struggle against dwindling reserves, the need for foreign investment and expansion of trade relations at a time of economic hardship has shown the Rajapaksa regime that reliance on China alone will not suffice.

A more balanced foreign policy and an equidistant relationship between Asia’s two superpowers cannot remain at the level of diplomatic rhetoric. It is an imperative, given Sri Lanka’s geographical location in close proximity to India and the historical, cultural and ethnic ties with it huge neighbour.

Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Beijing, Dr Palitha Kohona, said recently that Colombo should not depend on China forever – a valid piece of advice Colombo should seriously consider.

India also cannot ignore that, security-wise, Sri Lanka lies in India’s underbelly, whose vulnerability was exposed during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. So a major Chinese presence in Sri Lanka could endanger India’s own security at a time when China continues to militarily pressurise India in the Himalayas.

Last December Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa’s hurried visit to New Delhi, even as his maiden budget was still being debated in parliament, was indicative of Sri Lanka’s anxiety to seek India’s economic and financial assistance, without depending solely on Beijing.

That visit led to the two countries agreeing on ‘four pillars’ of cooperation in the short term, including emergency support of a $1 billion line of credit for importing food and medicines and a currency swap to bolster Colombo’s dwindling foreign reserves.

Other assistance included investment in an oil tank farm for oil storage in northeastern Trincomalee, close to the vital natural harbour that served the British well during the Second World War.

An Indian company, the Adani Group, has already won a stake in the Colombo port, where it will engage in developing the western terminal while the Chinese build the eastern wing.

Meanwhile, Colombo is having talks with China for a new loan besides the $500 million loan and a $1.5 billion currency swap.

While the two major Indian Ocean powers tussle for supremacy in this vital maritime region, Sri Lanka is beginning to understand that it sometimes pays to dip one’s oars in troubled waters.

Source: Asian Affairs, a current affairs magazine.

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


The Rise of Religious Extremism & Anti-Muslim Politics in Sri Lanka

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


Muslims at a mosque in Sri Lanka. Credit: Financial Times, Sri Lanka

BRUSSELS, Jan 25 2022 (IPS) – On 28 October, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed the militant Buddhist monk Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara to head a presidential task force on legal reforms, shocking many in Sri Lanka and beyond. Gnanasara is the public face of the country’s leading anti-Muslim campaign group, Bodu Bala Sena (Army of Buddhist Power, or BBS). He is widely accused of inciting inter-communal violence, including two deadly anti-Muslim pogroms in June 2014 and March 2018.

Convicted of contempt of court for a separate incident, Gnanasara was sentenced to six years in prison but received a presidential pardon from Rajapaksa’s predecessor, Maithripala Sirisena, in his final months in office. The act of clemency came after intensive lobbying by nationalist monks and an upsurge of anti-Muslim sentiment in the aftermath of the 2019 Easter bombings, a series of attacks on churches and tourist hotels carried out by a small group claiming allegiance to the Islamic State, or ISIS.

Observers across the Sri Lankan political spectrum, including some Buddhist nationalists, expressed dismay – at times, outrage – that the president could name someone whose disrespect for the law and hostility to non-Sinhala Buddhist minorities are a matter of public record to head a commission ostensibly designed to prevent “discrimination” and ensure “humanitarian values”. Critics have called the appointment “irrational” and even “incomprehensible”.

In fact, it is anything but. The Rajapaksa government is deeply unpopular, including among large sections of its core Sinhala Buddhist constituency, and desperate to divert public attention from its economic mismanagement.

There is thus a clear if deeply unfortunate logic for it to bring back to the fore the best-known proponent of a theme that was key to getting the president elected: fear of Muslims as a source of “religious extremism”.

While it was in one sense surprising to see the open affirmation of Rajapaksa’s active support for the controversial monk after many years of distancing himself from Gnanasara, tight links between Sri Lankan government officials and the Buddhist clergy are nothing new. The 1978 constitution gives Buddhism the “foremost place” in the country’s religious landscape and the state the duty to “protect” it.

There is nothing comforting in this history, however. The Sinhala Buddhist majoritarian nature of the Sri Lankan state – ie, the extent to which the state represents and enforces majority interests at the expense of the rights of other communities – has had disastrous effects on the country’s ethnic and religious minorities.

The state’s transition from being structurally discriminatory to openly hostile toward Tamils (who are Hindu or Christian) – a process fed by Sinhala politicians’ warnings about the threat the community allegedly posed – ultimately led to three decades of devastating civil war.

During that period, from 1983 to 2009, terrorist attacks by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam provided some objective grounds for Sinhalese fears, reinforcing the narrative that the majority community was under threat. Now, there is growing reason to fear that this pattern may be repeating itself in the Sri Lankan state’s interactions with its Muslim citizens.

Credit: Sunday Times, Sri Lanka

The Rise of Anti-Muslim Politics

In November 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s successful campaign for Sri Lanka’s presidency made much of the slogan “one country, one law”, which had gained popularity after the 2019 Easter bombings. Its ambiguity was useful: at one level, it could be interpreted as merely asking for uniform treatment of all citizens and resonated with voters angry at the impunity with which politicians and their powerful supporters are able to violate the law.

But its discriminatory implication was also obvious from the start, hinting at a need to “protect” the Buddhist nature of state and society by eliminating the separate rules and treatment that many Sinhalese believe Muslims use to gain economic and political advantages.

Many Sinhalese have for years held the view that Sri Lankan Muslims are more concerned with advancing their own interests than working for the larger national interest. Even during the civil war, when Muslims remained overwhelmingly loyal to the state and played a critical role in fighting the Tamil insurgency, one regularly heard complaints in Sinhalese (as well as Tamil) circles that they were exploiting the conflict for personal and collective economic benefit.

Because Muslim lawmakers held the balance of power in parliament between the two major Sinhala-dominated parties, they were commonly accused of using their “kingmaker” role to gain undue advantages for their co-religionists.

By the early 2000s, many Sinhalese had also begun to express discomfort at the increasing numbers of Muslims, especially women, wearing religious attire and the growing focus among Muslims on practices meant to demonstrate religious piety. Many interpreted this trend as Muslims deliberately distancing themselves from the majority.

With the arrival of BBS ultra-nationalists on the political scene in late 2012 – whose message was amplified by the smaller militant Sinhalese groups Sinhala Ravaya and Ravana Balakaya – the public portrayal of Sri Lankan Muslims rapidly took on more overtly hostile forms. (The decade earlier had seen organised Buddhist activism, at times violent, directed against the growing number of evangelical churches; pressure on Christian evangelicals continues today, though not on the scale of anti-Muslim campaigns.)

At the height of its influence, in 2013 and 2014, BBS dominated news coverage and helped set the political agenda through rallies, speeches and vigilante actions aimed at containing the threat Muslims’ alleged “extremism” posed to Sri Lanka’s Sinhala Buddhist character. The range of allegations promoted by BBS and like-minded organisations, often through online hate speech, was broad and shifting.

They claimed that population growth meant that Muslims would eventually overtake the Sinhalese majority; that Muslim-owned businesses were secretly distributing products to sterilise Sinhalese in order to keep their numbers down; and that the system of halal food labelling was encroaching on the religious rights of others and covertly funding Islamist militants.

More generally, conservative religious practices adopted by increasing numbers of Muslims in a quest for greater piety were read by ultra-nationalists as evidence of growing “extremism” that threatened other communities. These charges were based on either outright falsehoods or malicious misinterpretations of complex social and religious developments among Sri Lankan Muslims.

The anti-Muslim rhetoric helped set off inter-communal violence late in the presidency of Gotabaya’s brother Mahinda Rajapaksa (2005-2015). These years saw a series of attacks on Muslim-owned businesses (with many alleging that Sinhala business rivals were backing the attackers) and disruption of political meetings held by anyone daring to challenge the Buddhist militants, against the backdrop of mass rallies denouncing the alleged threat posed by Muslims’ “extremism”.

In a June 2014 speech in the town of Aluthgama, Gnanasara declared to a large crowd: “This country still has a Sinhala police. A Sinhala army. If a single Sinhalese is touched, that will be the end of them all [Muslims]”. Minutes later, hundreds of his supporters marched through a nearby Muslim neighbourhood, sparking two days of devastation that left three Muslims and one Tamil security guard dead. Sinhala rioters, many of them brought in from outside the area, targeted mosques and Muslim-owned shops and homes for arson and destruction. The police were widely accused of standing by or even assisting the rioters.

Despite government denials, many independent observers told Crisis Group at the time that the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration was actively supporting the BBS and other anti-Muslim campaigns. They suspected the government of executing an electoral strategy designed to consolidate the Sinhala vote behind the government, which projected itself as the defender of Sinhalese Buddhist identity. The appearance of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, then defence secretary, at a BBS event in March 2013, and his known connections with senior monks associated with the group, fuelled the speculation.

More tangible evidence of state backing lay in the fact that police gave BBS and like-minded groups permission to hold rallies at a time when government critics were not allowed to do so. Police took no apparent action, moreover, to prevent or investigate repeated vigilante raids on Muslim-owned shops or violent efforts to silence critics of militant Buddhist organisations.

Nor was anyone prosecuted for any of these crimes. Multiple sources told Crisis Group that Senior Deputy Inspector General of Police Anura Senanayake, who worked closely with Gotabaya at the time, led efforts to persuade victims not to press charges. Following Mahinda’s defeat in the January 2015 election, officials announced they had evidence of close ties between Buddhist militants and military intelligence units, confirming what Muslim community leaders had previously told Crisis Group.

With the 2015 election of President Maithripala Sirisena, representing a united opposition determined to end the Rajapaksas’ rule, the strategy of demonising Muslims for electoral ends seemed to have failed. Sirisena’s yahapaalanaya (good governance) coalition won in part through strong Muslim and Tamil backing based on its promises to end the BBS-led reign of terror.

But while the new administration stopped tacitly encouraging anti-Muslim violence and hate speech, it lacked the political courage – and possibly the necessary support within the police and intelligence agencies – to crack down on Buddhist militant groups.

After a brief lull in anti-Muslim activism, 2016 and 2017 saw a series of small attacks on Muslim businesses by unknown assailants, encouraged by sustained hate speech campaigns in traditional and social media, backed by effective local networks.

In February 2018, Buddhist militants in Ampara damaged a mosque and Muslim-owned shops as the police looked on, following social media rumours that a Muslim-owned restaurant had injected sterilising chemicals into Sinhala customers’ food. The following month, four days of anti-Muslim rioting shook the central hill district of Kandy, sparked by the death of a Sinhala man assaulted weeks earlier by four Muslim men.

Gnanasara visited the victim’s family and later joined other militant leaders to address a crowd of protesters just hours before the riots began. Videos later appeared to show local politicians from the Rajapaksa family’s party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, taking part in the mayhem. Two people were killed, many injured, hundreds of Muslim-owned houses and shops destroyed, and at least a dozen mosques damaged. The violence was severe enough for President Sirisena to declare a state of emergency, during which the army eventually brought things under control.

President Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and senior ministers all condemned the violence and promised tough action in response. But despite hundreds of arrests, including of several prominent Buddhist activists, no one was held accountable for these incidents, which included well-documented attacks on Muslims by security forces, with eyewitnesses telling Crisis Group of numerous cases of complicity between the police and Buddhist rioters.

In August 2018, courts eventually convicted Gnanasara of contempt of court and criminal intimidation of a prominent Sinhala human rights activist. Many hailed his six-year sentence as a landmark, though Gnanasara has faced no jail time for attacks on or other actions against Muslims, and most of the slow-moving criminal cases against him in lower courts have now been dropped.

The partial victory over impunity was, however, short-lived. In 2019, in the aftermath of the horrific Easter Sunday suicide attacks, the Sri Lankan state for the first time adopted policies that directly discriminated against the Muslim minority. With tensions running high, President Sirisena’s government used the post-bombing state of emergency to prohibit the niqab, or full face covering, invoking national security concerns (the ban was rescinded in August 2019 when the emergency was lifted).

It also enacted new rules for government employees that, in effect, barred the full-length abaya, worn by many Muslim women teachers, especially in the Eastern Province (these were later withdrawn after being challenged by Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commission). Anxious to salvage his sinking political fortunes as the November 2019 presidential election drew near, Sirisena then pardoned Gnanasara.

The nationalist monk immediately leapt into the political fray, joining his peers in protests demanding the resignation of Muslim ministers Rishad Bathiudeen and Azath Salley, accusing them – to date without convincing evidence – of involvement in the Easter attacks.

For many Sinhalese, especially Christians, as well as some Tamils, the Easter attacks seemed to confirm earlier warnings of a growing threat from “Islamic extremism”. Authorities responded to these fears in the attacks’ aftermath with what appeared to be the criminalisation of Muslims’ everyday practices.

Police arrested more than two thousand Muslims under emergency and terrorism laws, in all but a few cases with no evidence of links to the bombings or any threatening behaviour; they picked up many merely for having a Quran or other religious materials in Arabic script at home.

After the Easter bombings, the previously failed electoral strategy of shoring up Sinhala support through vilification of Muslims gained new traction. Gotabaya announced his candidacy just days after the attacks, promising to eradicate new forms of religiously motivated terrorism just as he had previously destroyed the Tamil Tigers when he was defence secretary.

At the polls, Gotabaya received overwhelming support from Sinhala voters, including many Catholics who had not previously backed him. The new president himself seemed to acknowledge the strategy’s success, declaring in his inaugural speech given in front of a Buddhist shrine: “I knew that I could win with only the votes of the Sinhala majority”.

Growing Tensions

Within months of taking office, Gotabaya deepened the state’s hostility toward Muslims on several fronts. His administration used COVID-19 lockdowns and ad hoc village-level quarantines to harass the community, which pro-government media outlets accused of spreading the virus. More damaging was the government’s decision on 1 April 2020 to ban burial of anyone even suspected of having died of the disease.

Announced the day after the first Muslim victim died, the decision was justified by a claim – quickly rejected by the World Health Organisation and Sri Lankan experts – that the virus could spread from interred remains through the groundwater. The policy, which stayed in place for nearly a year, had a profoundly cruel effect on Muslim families, who were forced to cremate their loved ones’ bodies against their religious convictions.

It was rescinded on 26 February, after a global advocacy campaign that sought to mobilise the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and member states of the UN Human Rights Council, which was due to assess Sri Lanka’s human rights record weeks later. Even after the ban was lifted, however, Sri Lanka has allowed burials in only one remote location, heavily guarded by the military – a limitation that continues to impose hardships on Muslims, as well as the smaller number of Christians and Hindus who choose to bury their dead.

On 12 March, the government also announced new regulations for “deradicalisation” of those “holding violent extremist religious ideology”. Issued under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, the rules allowed the defence ministry to detain anyone accused of causing “acts of violence or religious, racial or communal disharmony or feelings of ill will or hostility between different communities or racial or religious groups” for up to eighteen months, without any judicial process or oversight.

Human rights lawyers and Muslim leaders quickly filed suit in the Supreme Court, which in August put the measures on hold until it decides the case. Even if the court quashes the regulations, however, the government’s clear intention to establish a “deradicalisation” program leads some to believe it may enshrine similar powers in revisions to the counter-terrorism law it is presently preparing.

The regulations were issued without evidence that any significant number of Muslims in Sri Lanka posed a threat to security or would benefit from a program along the contemplated lines. They did, however, offer the government a face-saving way to release some of the hundreds of Muslims arrested after the Easter attacks who are still detained, in some cases without charge, by putting them into a “deradicalisation program”.

Holding large numbers of Muslims in special camps for another year or more, as the proposed deradicalisation program would do, however, would risk contributing to a collective sense of humiliation and anger that could itself push some toward “violent extremist religious ideology”. As Muslim activists regularly warn, the risk is particularly high as long as the government’s approach leaves no room for the possibility that Buddhists could promote their own forms of violent extremism.

Overlapping enquiries into the Easter bombings have, meanwhile, been politicised in ways that appear aimed at keeping alive fears of Muslims as a source of insecurity. As part of its broader attack on the independence of police and courts, Gotabaya’s government replaced the entire team looking into the bombings soon after coming to power, arrested the chief investigator, Shani Abeysekera, on what appear to be trumped-up charges, and demoted other officers. Another key investigator fled the country fearing arrest.

The administration has also refused to act on the key recommendations of a separate commission of enquiry – appointed by President Sirisena – into the bombings. These included, among others, prosecuting Sirisena, who is now a key government ally, and banning BBS, whose anti-Muslim incitement the commission found had contributed to the bombers’ turn to violence in a process of “reciprocal radicalisation”.

In what seems to be an attempt at maligning Muslim leaders, the Gotabaya administration also detained or charged a number of prominent Muslim personalities, seemingly without credible grounds. Ex-minister Bathiudeen faces terrorism and extremism charges – despite having been cleared of links to the Easter bombings by the presidential commission of enquiry.

On 2 December, a court released another Muslim lawmaker, Salley, after he had spent eight months in jail, citing lack of evidence. The prosecution of human rights lawyer and political activist Hejaaz Hizbullah for his supposed links to the Easter terrorist attacks also appears to be groundless, relying in part on coerced testimonies.

The government’s approach has angered Sri Lanka’s Catholic leadership, which has accused it, and the president himself, of covering up the “masterminds” behind the Easter bombings. Church leaders suggest that the government has been protecting Sirisena and refusing to follow up on evidence uncovered by the presidential commission that implies military intelligence officers had contact with some of the bombers before and on the day of the attack.

Backed by Pope Francis, Colombo’s archbishop Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith has called for an international investigation. Following an October online meeting that aired church criticisms, the police summoned one of the cardinal’s top advisers for three days of questioning.

A Dangerous Slogan

Stung by growing criticism of its handling of the Easter bombings investigation, and facing a grave economic crisis that has badly damaged its popular support, including among Sinhala Buddhists, the Rajapaksa government signalled with Gnanasara’s appointment that it is returning to the “one country, one law” agenda that helped get it elected.

Given the concept’s vagueness, however, and the deep contradiction between it and the explicit privileges that Buddhism enjoys under the constitution, no one is sure what Gnanasara’s task force will actually do. While it can, in principle, look into the practices of all religious and ethnic groups, few observers doubt that it will focus its attention on the Muslim minority.

It is expected to consider reforms to the madrasa education system – Muslim leaders have submitted proposals to the government – as well as government plans to regulate activities in mosques, monitor the import and translation of the Quran and other Arabic texts, ban the niqab and burqa, and outlaw cattle slaughter (an industry dominated by Muslims and often criticised by Buddhist activists).

Gnanasara’s task force also seems certain to weigh in on long-discussed changes to the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, a new version of which the cabinet approved in August. Over the past years, Muslims and others have bitterly debated possible reforms to the Act, with complicated overlap between human rights and feminist critiques of the legislation as patriarchal and oppressive and Buddhist nationalist criticisms of Muslims having their own marriage and family law.

Sri Lankan law enshrines distinct traditions of family law for Sinhalese in Kandy and Tamils in Jaffna, as well as for Muslims, but this Act has come in for particular criticism on account of allowing polygamy, setting no minimum age for marriage, requiring no explicit consent from the bride and establishing all-male courts to hear divorce cases.

But Gnanasara’s involvement in government efforts to alter it will likely weaken the leverage of Muslim feminist reformers pushing to strengthen women’s marriage and divorce rights and strengthen resistance to change from the all-male communal leadership, which has argued that feminist criticisms of the law, in effect, endorse Buddhist militant portrayals of Islam as a backward religion.

It remains to be seen, however, how far the government will allow or encourage Gnanasara to go. On the one hand, Buddhist nationalists appear to see “one country, one law” as a call for “a single law” that gives pre-eminence to Buddhist institutions while denying those of other religions official recognition.

Some top officials clearly see things the same way: it was particularly revealing that Gnanasara’s appointment was followed three weeks later by a series of large-scale Buddhist religious ceremonies in the sacred city of Anuradhapura, featuring the president, cabinet and top military brass alongside the Mahanayakes, Sri Lanka’s most powerful Buddhist clerics.

The two days of ceremonies were grand displays of the government’s project of more fully integrating state, military and Buddhist clergy on the basis of an overtly Sinhala nationalist political vision. On the other hand, in a December meeting, Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris assured ambassadors from Muslim countries that Sri Lanka would “continue to retain” “personal laws specific to Muslim, Kandyan and Tamil communities”.

Moreover, to date, Colombo has carefully calibrated its anti-Muslim policies so as to keep the backing of its hardline Buddhist nationalist supporters and win a degree of international support for helping “counter violent extremism”, while maintaining good relations with economic and political allies in the Muslim world.

The government may as yet have no precise agenda for the task force, but given Gnanasara’s charisma and theatrical skills, he is a potentially powerful, and dangerous, asset for reframing political debate, deepening divisions between Tamils and Muslims and possibly even provoking a new round of anti-Muslim unrest. He has been central in propagating Buddhist nationalist ideology over the last decade.

There is little that those outside of Sri Lanka, concerned about the rule of law, religious harmony and political stability, can do directly to address these dynamics. Foreign partners of the Sri Lankan state, can, however, be more careful about not inadvertently strengthening them.

Following the Easter bombings, a range of new programming by foreign donors has focused on counter-terrorism, preventing “violent extremism” and building “social cohesion”. In the words of one activist, though, “There is a lot of foreign funding to the government for ‘countering violent extremism’ but it only targets one faith. … No one dares tell the government to ‘rehabilitate’ Gnanasara or other extremist monks”.

Until such programming finds – or creates – the space to name and challenge the violent history, rhetoric and exclusionary political projects of all communities, it is more likely to perpetuate, rather than resist, the anti-Muslim ideology that today poses the greatest risk of destabilising violence in a country that has yet to recover from decades of brutal civil war.

The link to the original article: “One Country, One Law”: The Sri Lankan State’s Hostility toward Muslims Grows Deeper.

Alan Keenan is Senior Consultant, Sri Lanka, at the International Crisis Group in Brussels.

Source: International Crisis Group


Somalia on the Path to Recovery, but Real Challenges Remain

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A Somali woman goat-seller in Hargeisa livestock market. Photo: Credit: UNDP / Said Fadhaye

MOGADISHU, Somalia, Jan 18 2022 (IPS) – I arrived in Somalia in September 2019, two decades after having worked here previously. I knew that I was taking up a challenging assignment, but I was also looking forward to seeing Somalia’s progress.

Afflicted by decades of conflict, recurrent climatic shocks, disease outbreaks and poverty, Somalia was often called a ‘failed state.’ The narrative is now changing, and although fragile, Somalia is on a path to stability and the resilience of the Somali people is second to none.

That said, we are not under any illusion: significant challenges remain, and we must work even harder to preserve the gains made to date.

Somalia’s upward trajectory is evident in the construction boom, as one analyst noted — the sound of the hammer is replacing the sound of gunfire in Somalia’s capital.

The UN has been closely supporting the Somali people since the birth of the Republic in 1960. Currently, the UN’s various mandates are implemented through 26  Agencies, Funds and Programmes (both resident and non-resident), one political mission (UNSOM) and one logistical support mission (UNSOS). 

The UN’s commitment towards the Somali cause is articulated in detail in the UN Sustainable Development Cooperation Framework (UNSDCF 2021-2025), mirroring the priorities of Somalia’s Ninth National Development Plan (NDP-9).

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UN marshalled support to help the Somali government respond to the virus outbreak. We continue to support the Somali authorities in seeking to defeat this pandemic and encouraging people to get vaccinated.

Elections are also on-going in Somalia. The UN is supporting the process to ensure that elections are held in a peaceful and transparent manner, while at the same time advocating for 30 per cent women’s quota in the Somali legislature.

While these are encouraging signs of progress, we must not forget Somalia’s long-standing challenges. According to UN’s projections for next year, an estimated 7.7 million Somalis (nearly half of the country’s population) will require humanitarian assistance and protection.

Women and children continue to bear the brunt of Somalia’s complex humanitarian crises, especially among the internally displaced communities. In light of the current serious droughts, the Somali government declared a humanitarian state of emergency on 23 November.

Yet, neither the government nor the humanitarian community has adequate resources to respond. With a few days remaining in the year, the 2021 Humanitarian Response Plan which seeks US$1.09 billion remains only 70 per cent funded. Additional resources are urgently needed to prevent the dire humanitarian situation from becoming a catastrophe, so we continue to engage partners on this subject.

In this regard, I undertook missions to Europe in October and to the Gulf in September. Throughout my interactions with partners, I stressed the need for additional funding to address Somalia’s escalating humanitarian crisis and elaborated on how inaction not only risks a reversal of the gains but puts the lives of millions of Somalis in jeopardy.

Through my field visits in Somalia, I have also seen first-hand the grim realities of adverse climate conditions. Somalia is no doubt on the frontline of climate change. The recurrent droughts and floods are driving widespread displacement, rapid urbanization, hunger, malnutrition and poverty.

Climate change is also increasingly seen as the driver of conflict and a threat to the country’s security as the struggle over meagre resources deepens divisions. In addition, the loss of traditional livelihoods makes people vulnerable to recruitment by armed groups such as Al-Shabaab.

Somalia is currently experiencing a third consecutive season of below-average rainfall, with nearly 80 per cent of the country experiencing drought conditions, water shortages and livestock deaths. One in five Somalis does not have enough water to cover his/her basic needs.

On a positive note, as part of the efforts to mitigate the climate emergency, the government, with the support of the United Nations, has recently adopted an ambitious Nationally Determined Contribution to achieve global climate targets, in which Somalia committed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent by 2030.

Somalia’s crises are multifaceted, and they require comprehensive solutions from all stakeholders. It is our collective responsibility to support the efforts of the Somali people to cope with these crises and find lasting solutions that build resilience against future shocks. We must not fail the people we pledged to serve.

Adam Abdelmoula is Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General, Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia. He told a press conference in December that the UN and its partners have launched a nearly $1.5 billion Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP). Roughly 7.7 million people in the country will need assistance and protection in 2022, a 30 per cent rise in just one year.


On Nuclear Weapons, Actions Belie Reassuring Words

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Credit: Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament/Henry Kenyon

WASHINGTON DC, Jan 13 2022 (IPS) – On Jan. 3, the leaders of the five nuclear-armed members of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) issued a rare joint statement on preventing nuclear war in which they affirmed, for the first time, the 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev maxim that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

The U.S., Chinese, French, Russian, and UK effort was designed in part to create a positive atmosphere for the 10th NPT review conference, which has been delayed again by the pandemic. It also clearly aims to address global concerns about the rising danger of nuclear conflict among states and signals a potential for further cooperation to address this existential threat.

The question now is, do they have the will and the skill to translate their laudable intentions into action before it is too late?

U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price hailed the statement as “extraordinary.” A more sober reading shows that it falls woefully short of committing the five to the policies and actions necessary to prevent nuclear war.

In fact, the statement illustrates how their blind faith in deterrence theories, which hinge on a credible threat of using nuclear weapons, perpetuates conditions that could lead to nuclear catastrophe.

The statement asserts that “nuclear weapons—for as long as they continue to exist—should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression, and prevent war.” Yet, such broad language suggests they might use nuclear weapons to “defend” themselves against a wide range of threats, including non-nuclear threats.

Given the indiscriminate and horrific effects of nuclear weapons use, such policies are dangerous, immoral, and legally unjustifiable.

At the very least, if the leaders of these states are serious about averting nuclear war, they should formally adopt no-first-use policies or, as U.S. President Joe Biden promised in 2020, declare that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter or possibly respond to a nuclear attack.

Even this approach perpetuates circumstances that could lead to nuclear war by accident or miscalculation. The only way to ensure nuclear weapons are never used is “to do away with them entirely,” as President Ronald Reagan argued in 1984, and sooner rather than later.

But on disarmament, the statement only expressed a “desire to work with all states to create a security environment more conducive to progress on disarmament with the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons with undiminished security for all.” This vague, caveated promise rings hollow after years of stalled disarmament progress and an accelerating global nuclear arms race.

A year ago, Russia and the United States extended the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, but they have not begun negotiations on a follow-on agreement. Meanwhile, both spend billions of dollars annually to maintain and upgrade their nuclear forces, which far exceed any rational concept of what it takes to deter a nuclear attack.

China is on pace to double or triple the size of its land-based strategic missile force in the coming years. Worse still, despite past promises “to engage in the process leading to the total elimination of nuclear weapons,” Chinese leaders are rebuffing calls to engage in arms control talks with the United States and others. The United Kingdom, meanwhile, announced last year it would increase its deployed strategic warhead ceiling.

Fresh statements by the five NPT nuclear-armed states reaffirming their “intention” to fulfill their NPT disarmament obligations are hardly credible in the absence of time-bound commitments to specific disarmament actions.

At the same time, the five, led by France, have criticized the good faith efforts by the majority of NPT non-nuclear-weapon states-parties to advance the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Contrary to claims by the nuclear-armed states, the TPNW reinforces the NPT and the norm against possessing, testing, and using nuclear weapons.

Rather than engage TPNW leaders on their substantive concerns, U.S. officials are pressuring influential states, including Sweden, Germany, and Japan, not to attend the first meeting of TPNW states-parties as observers. Such bullying will only reinforce enthusiasm for the TPNW and undermine U.S. credibility on nuclear matters.

The leaders of the nuclear five, especially Biden, can and must do better. Before the NPT review conference later this year, Russia and the United States should commit to conclude by 2025 negotiations on further verifiable cuts in strategic and nonstrategic nuclear forces and on constraints on long-range missile defenses.

China, France, and the UK should agree to join nuclear arms control talks no later than 2025 and to freeze their stockpiles as Washington and Moscow negotiate deeper cuts in theirs.

Instead of belittling the TPNW, the five states need to get their own houses in order. Concrete action on disarmament is overdue. It will help create a more stable and peaceful international security environment and facilitate the transformative move from unsustainable and dangerous deterrence doctrines toward a world free of the fear of nuclear Armageddon.

Source: Arms Control Today

Daryl G. Kimball is Executive Director of the Arms Control Association, Washington DC.


Bringing Quality Education to Syria’s Most Vulnerable, Crisis-Impacted Children – Their Education Cannot Wait

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Education Cannot Wait. Future of Education is here

Kawthar, 13, takes notes while attending Grade 3 at a UNICEF-supported self-learning centre in Al-Hasakeh, northeast Syria. She says she always wanted to be like other children and grab her bag and go to school like other children. With Education Cannot Wait assisted schooling, this dream has become a reality. Credit: UNICEF/ Syria 2020/ Delil Souleiman

DOMINICA, Oct 21 2021 (IPS) – In war-torn Syria, the support of Education Cannot Wait (ECW) – the United Nations global fund for education in emergencies and protracted crises – is bringing positive, life-changing educational opportunities tailored to children like 11-year-old Ali.

Ali, who lives in Raqqa with his two siblings and parents, has to work to help support his family. He and his brother did not attend school. Ali heard about registration for ECW-supported educational activities near the industrial area in which he works. They are part of courses being offered in three centres in the city – alongside psychosocial support for children who have experienced war for most of their lives.

Ali initially registered his siblings in the ECW-supported programme but held out himself for fear of losing his job. The centre proposed a flexible learning schedule – one that would allow the brothers to work and attend classes. Programme officials had to convince his family and employers at the industrial centre that school is essential for children’s development. Now he is part of a class of 16 children from the area who attend classes from 7:30 am to 10:00 am. After class, they go to work.

Ali’s story is one of the many stories of vulnerable children and adolescents embroiled in Syria’s protracted conflict that ECW’s investments are helping bring back to school in partnership with education partners on the ground. ECW’s multi-year response in Syria was initiated in 2017 through an initial investment which was further expanded into a Multi-Year Resilience Programme which will continue until 2023 with a cumulative budget of US$45 million.

Yasmine Sherif, the Director of Education Cannot Wait, says too many children and adolescents in Syria have only seen the brutal reality of war, forced displacement, and the hardship of living in areas affected by armed conflict in their short lives.  Credit: Education Cannot Wait (ECW)

“Too many children and adolescents in Syria have only seen the brutal reality of war, forced displacement, and the hardship of living in areas affected by armed conflict in their short lives. For them, education is a beacon of hope. It is an opportunity to thrive and become positive changemakers to rebuild their communities and ensure a more peaceful and prosperous future for all,” said Yasmine Sherif, the Director of Education Cannot Wait. “Working together with our partners on the ground, ECW is dedicated to fulfilling the right to a quality education for the most vulnerable girls and boys in Syria.”

Save the Children has key actor status in the education sector in Syria and has been involved since the inception of ECW’s multi-year response, providing sector-specific technical expertise and guiding in the development of a programme framework that is responsive to the extensive education needs of children in Syria,” Sara Dabash, Awards Officer for the ECW programme in Syria, told IPS.

Children and adolescents already suffering from the impacts of a decade-long war are also bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly due to school closures and movement restrictions.

“The disruption of access to quality education for children has dramatically impacted learning and child well-being. In addition, lack of access to safe learning environments and continued isolation exposes children to higher risks of child labour, early marriage, and other negative coping mechanisms. The limited social interactions also compromise access to psychosocial support and other protection services,” Dabash said.

Emad, 9, who lives with a disability, shows his writing to his teacher to check if he is doing right in the class of Arabic subject in the ECW supported temporary learning space in Idleb, northwest Syria. Credit: UNICEF/ Syria 2020

According to Dabash, blended learning options have been introduced, using devices such as mobile phones for remote learning. This option has its downsides as many children have limited to no access to phones or internet connections.

Figures provided by Save the Children put almost 7 million people in need of humanitarian education assistance. Children make up 97 percent of that number. Dabash says, however, that in the “determined locations of implementation within the ECW Programme in northeast Syria, Save the Children, with the support of its partners, has identified around 15,000 children as the most vulnerable and in need of education assistance.”

Since 2017, ECW is also partnering with UNICEF to provide quality education services for the most vulnerable children in the country.

“With funding from ECW, UNICEF provides children across Syria with opportunities to continue their learning through a holistic package of activities tailored to the needs of the children. To support learning, the package of activities generally includes providing learning supplies and psychosocial support through recreational activities. Where classrooms do not exist or continue to be unsafe or overcrowded, we establish new classrooms and rehabilitate existing ones,” Karen Bryner, Education Specialist and ECW Programme Manager in Syria, told IPS.

Bryner says the partnership provides training, teaching supplies and stipend payments to teachers.

The goal is to get as many girls and boys as possible enrolled and attending school regularly. According to UNICEF, ‘children have experienced psychological distress due to violence and instability. Many have missed years of education, with over 2.4 million currently out of school.’

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged that goal with intermittent school closures. However, Bryner says when face-to-face instruction was not an option, the ECW-supported students transitioned to electronic and paper-based distance education.

“Various modalities were used over the last year, including WhatsApp groups by teachers to deliver daily instruction where connectivity allowed; blended learning with face-to-face instruction two days a week and home-based learning (worksheets and assignments) for the other days, conducting lessons in smaller groups closer to children’s homes, and home delivery of biweekly learning packs and retrieval of students’ work by teachers,” she told IPS.

Kawthar, 13, hangs out with her cousin Juhaina outside her house in Ghwairan neighbourhood, Al-Hasakeh. Since 2019, she has benefitted from the self-learning programme, helping her catch up on the education she had missed due to displacement, her disability, and the financial challenges her family had. Credit: UNICEF/ Syria 2020/ Delil Souleiman

The story of 13-year-old Kawthar is a testament to the positive impact of ECW’s support for the most marginalised children Displaced five times and suffering from growth-related issues due to stunting, she could not walk to school, and her family could not afford transportation. Two years ago, Kawthar, originally from Al-Hasakeh City, enrolled in the ECW-supported self-learning programme implemented by UNICEF– a course that gives out-of-school children the tools to catch up to their peers. She also receives transportation to classes.

“I always wanted to be like all other children; to grab my bag and head to school; to read, write and learn,” says Kawthar. “I wish for all children to be able to go to school. And I certainly hope that nobody gets displaced anymore and that we all remain safe.”

According to UNICEF, with ECW funding, since November 2020, the self-learning programme has been able to reach 2,600 out-of-school children in Al-Hasakeh. Despite this progress, challenges remain to fulfil the right to inclusive, quality education for every child in Syria.

UNICEF states that there has been a 20 percent increase in the number of children in need of humanitarian assistance, and agencies will need scaled-up support as they continue to bring hope to Syria’s children.