Kazakhstan’s Transition: From a Nuclear Test Site to Leader in Disarmament

Armed Conflicts, Asia-Pacific, Conferences, Headlines, Health, Nuclear Energy – Nuclear Weapons, Peace, TerraViva United Nations


A Group photo of participants of the regional conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and nuclear-free-zone in Central Asia held on August 29, 2023. Credit: Jibek Joly TV Channel

ASTANA, Kazakhstan, Sep 7 2023 (IPS) – Exactly 32 years ago, on September 29, 1991, Kazakhstan, then part of the Soviet Union, made a historic decision that would alter its fate. On that day, Kazakhstan permanently closed the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site, defying the central government in Moscow. This marked the start of Kazakhstan’s transformation from a nuclear-armed state, possessing the fourth-largest nuclear arsenal at the time, to a non-nuclear-weapon state. Kazakhstan’s audacious move to eliminate its nuclear weapons was rooted in a profound commitment to global disarmament, setting an inspiring precedent.

Eighteen years later, in 2009, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution, led by Kazakhstan, designating August 29 as the International Day Against Nuclear Tests. This day serves as a solemn reminder of the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons and underscores the urgent imperative for disarmament.

In a world where the threat of nuclear weapons being used again remains a grim reality, a pivotal question looms: Can we genuinely aspire to a world free of nuclear arms? To delve deeper into this pressing concern and comprehend the menace posed by nuclear weapons testing and deployment, we interviewed Karipbek Kuyukov and participants of the “Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons and the Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone” regional conference. This conference, organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan in partnership with the Center for International Security and Policy (CISP), Soka Gakkai International (SGI), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), took place in Astana, Kazakhstan to commemorate this year’s International Day Against Nuclear Tests.

Karipbek Kuyukov is an armless painter from Kazakhstan, and global anti–nuclear weapon testing & nonproliferation activist. Credit: Jibek Joly TV Channel

One of the most poignant moments during the conference came from Dmitriy Vesselov, a third-generation survivor of nuclear testing. He provided a heartfelt testimony about the profound human toll exacted by nuclear testings on his family and the broader community. The nuclear tests conducted at the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site over four decades unleashed explosions 2,500 times more potent than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The repercussions of these tests have echoed through generations, inflicting severe health problems and untold suffering.

Kuyukov, a renowned Kazakh artist born without hands due to radiation exposure in his mother’s womb, has devoted his life to raising awareness about the horrors of nuclear testing. His powerful artwork, created using his lips or toes, depicts the survivors of nuclear tests and serves as a poignant tribute to those who perished. Kuyukov’s unwavering commitment reflects the indomitable human spirit in the face of unimaginable adversity.

Dmitriy Vesselov’s testimony shed light on the ongoing challenges faced by survivors. He candidly shared his struggles with health issues, including acromioclavicular dysostosis, a condition severely limiting his physical capabilities. Vesselov expressed his deep concern about the potential transmission of these health problems to future generations. Consequently, he has chosen not to have children. The conference underscored the imperative of averting the repetition of history by delving into the past tragedies inflicted by nuclear weapons testings.

Hirotsugu Terasaki, Director General of Peace and Global Issues of SGI, commenting on the event said “I believe that this regional conference is a new milestone, a starting point for representatives from five countries of Central Asia to discuss how we can advance the process toward a nuclear-weapon-free world, given the ever-increasing threat of nuclear weapons.”

Terasaki observed that the international community is actively deliberating Articles 6 and 7 of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), mandating state parties to provide support to victims and address environmental remediation. He accentuated Kazakhstan’s pivotal role as a co-chair of the working group central to these discussions.

Kazakhstan does provide special medical insurance and benefits to victims of nuclear tests. However, these benefits are predominantly extended to individuals officially certified as disabled or a family member of those who succumbed to radiation-related illnesses. Numerous victims, like Vesselov, who do not fall within these categories, remain ineligible for assistance.

Despite his daunting challenges, Mr. Vesselov maintains an unwavering sense of hope. He hopes that his testimony will serve as a stark reminder of the perils of nuclear weapons and awaken global consciousness regarding the dangers posed by even small tactical nuclear weapons and the specter of limited nuclear conflicts. Ultimately, his deepest aspiration, shared by all victims of nuclear weapons, is that the world will never bear witness to such a devastating tragedy again.

As Kazakhstan assumes its role as President-designate of the third Meeting of States Parties to the TPNW, it reaffirms its steadfast commitment to global peace and disarmament. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s resolute words resonate with the sentiment of a nation that has borne the scars of nuclear testing: “Such a tragedy should not happen again. Our country will unwaveringly uphold the principles of nuclear security.”

At the conference, member states of the Treaty of Semipalatinsk were encouraged to support Kazakhstan in this endeavor, and in its efforts to represent the Central Asian region’s contribution to nuclear disarmament, through attending the second Meeting of States Parties of the TPNW, at least as observers, which will take place at the United Nations Headquarters in New York between 27 November and 1 December this year, and by signing and ratifying the TPNW at the earliest opportunity.

In a world still grappling with the looming specter of nuclear devastation, Kazakhstan’s journey from a nuclear test site to a leading advocate for disarmament serves as a beacon of hope. Kazakhstan’s unwavering commitment to peace stands as a testament to the enduring legacy of a nation that once bore the weight of nuclear tests and now champions a safer, more secure world for all.

Katsuhiro Asagiri is President of INPS Japan and Kunsaya Kurmet-Rakhimova is a reporter of Jibek Joly(Silk Way) TV Channel.

IPS UN Bureau


The UN’s Own Relevance Is at Stake at This Year’s General Assembly

Armed Conflicts, Civil Society, Climate Change, Crime & Justice, Development & Aid, Featured, Global, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Inequality, Peace, Sustainable Development Goals, TerraViva United Nations


United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres addresses the 22nd session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at the General Assembly Hall of the United Nations headquarters in New York City on 17 April 17 2023. Credit: Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

NEW YORK, Sep 7 2023 (IPS) – This September, world leaders and public policy advocates from around the world will descend on New York for the UN General Assembly. Alongside conversations on peace and security, global development and climate change, progress – or the lack of it – on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is expected to take centre-stage. A major SDG Summit will be held on 18 and 19 September. The UN hopes that it will serve as a ‘rallying cry to recharge momentum for world leaders to come together to reflect on where we stand and resolve to do more’. But are the world’s leaders in a mood to uphold the UN’s purpose, and can the UN’s leadership rise to the occasion by resolutely addressing destructive behaviours?

Sadly, the world is facing an acute crisis of leadership. In far too many countries authoritarian leaders have seized power through a combination of populist political discourse, outright repression and military coups. Our findings on the CIVICUS Monitor – a participatory research platform that measures civic freedoms in every country – show that 85% of the world’s population live in places where serious attacks on basic fundamental freedoms to organise, speak out and protest are taking place. Respect for these freedoms is essential so that people and civil society organisations can have a say in inclusive decision making.

UN undermined

The UN Charter begins with the words, ‘We the Peoples’ and a resolve to save future generations from the scourge of war. Its ideals, such as respect for human rights and the dignity of every person, are being eroded by powerful states that have introduced slippery concepts such as ‘cultural relativism’ and ‘development with national characteristics’. The consensus to seek solutions to global challenges through the UN appears to be at breaking point. As we speak hostilities are raging in Ukraine, Sudan, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the Sahel region even as millions of people reel from the negative consequences of protracted conflicts and oppression in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Myanmar, Syria and Yemen, to name a few.

Article 1 of the UN Charter underscores the UN’s role in harmonising the actions of nations towards the attainment of common ends, including in relation to solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural or humanitarian character, and to promote respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all. But in a time of eye-watering inequality within and between countries, big economic decisions affecting people and the planet are not being made collectively at the UN but by the G20 group of the world’s biggest economies, whose leaders are meeting prior to the UN General Assembly to make economic decisions with ramifications for all countries.

Economic and development cooperation policies for a large chunk of the globe are also determined through the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Established in 1961, the OECD comprises 38 countries with a stated commitment to democratic values and market-based economics. Civil society has worked hard to get the OECD to take action on issues such as fair taxation, social protection and civic space.

More recently, the BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – grouping of countries that together account for 40 per cent of the world’s population and a quarter of the globe’s GDP are seeking to emerge as a counterweight to the OECD. However, concerns remain about the values that bind this alliance. At its recent summit in South Africa six new members were admitted, four of which – Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – are ruled by totalitarian governments with a history of repressing civil society voices. This comes on top of concerns that China and Russia are driving the BRICS agenda despite credible allegations that their governments have committed crimes against humanity.

The challenge before the UN’s leadership this September is to find ways to bring coherence and harmony to decisions being taken at the G20, OECD, BRICS and elsewhere to serve the best interests of excluded people around the globe. A focus on the SDGs by emphasising their universality and indivisibility can provide some hope.

SDGs off-track

The adoption of the SDGs in 2015 was a groundbreaking moment. The 17 ambitious SDGs and their 169 targets have been called the greatest ever human endeavour to create peaceful, just, equal and sustainable societies. The SDGs include promises to tackle inequality and corruption, promote women’s equality and empowerment, support inclusive and participatory governance, ensure sustainable consumption and production, usher in rule of law and catalyse effective partnerships for development.

But seven years on the SDGs are seriously off-track. The UN Secretary-General’s SDG progress report released this July laments that the promise to ‘leave no one behind’ is in peril. As many as 30 per cent of the targets are reported to have seen no progress or worse to have regressed below their 2015 baseline. The climate crisis, war in Ukraine, a weak global economy and the COVID-19 pandemic are cited as some of the reasons why progress is lacking.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is pushing for an SDG stimulus plan to scale up financing to the tune of US$500 billion. It remains to be seen how successful this would be given the self-interest being pursued by major powers that have the financial resources to contribute. Moreover, without civic participation and guarantees for enabled civil societies, there is a high probability that SDG stimulus funds could be misused by authoritarian governments to reinforce networks of patronage and to shore up repressive state apparatuses.

Also up for discussion at the UN General Assembly will be plans for a major Summit for the Future in 2024 to deliver the UN Secretary-General’s Our Common Agenda report, released in 2021. This proposes among other things the appointment of a UN Envoy for Future Generations, an upgrade of key UN institutions, digital cooperation across the board and boosting partnerships to drive access and inclusion at the UN. But with multilateralism stymied by hostility and divisions among big powers on the implementation of internationally agreed norms, achieving progress on this agenda implies a huge responsibility on the UN’s leadership to forge consensus while speaking truth to power and challenging damaging behaviours by states and their leaders.

The UN’s leadership have found its voice on the issue of climate change. Secretary-General Guterres has been remarkably candid about the negative impacts of the fossil fuel industry and its supporters. This July, he warned that ‘The era of global warming has ended; the era of global boiling has arrived’. Similar candour is required to call out the twin plagues of authoritarianism and populism which are causing immense suffering to people around the world while exacerbating conflict, inequality and climate change.

The formation of the UN as the conscience of the world in 1945 was an exercise in optimism and altruism. This September that spirit will be needed more than ever to start creating a better world for all, and to prove the UN’s value.

Mandeep S. Tiwana is chief officer for evidence and engagement + representative to the UN headquarters at CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance.


Debt & Crisis of Survival in Sri Lanka & the World

Armed Conflicts, Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, COVID-19, Economy & Trade, Featured, Headlines, IPS UN: Inside the Glasshouse, Sustainable Development Goals, TerraViva United Nations


Anti-government protest in Sri Lanka on April 13, 2022. Credit: Wikipedia

WASHINGTON DC, Aug 25 2023 (IPS) – Sri Lanka has been faced with an unprecedented political and economic crisis since the beginning of 2022.

The dominant narrative attributes the crisis to the confluence of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ukraine conflict, China’s ‘debt trap diplomacy’ and – most importantly – the corruption and mismanagement of the ruling Rajapaksa family.

Western mainstream media celebrated the so-called aragalaya (struggle, in Sinhala) protest movement that led to the ouster of the Rajapaksas and upholds the IMF bail-out as the only solution to the dire economic situation.

The aragalaya protests emerged from genuine economic grievances, but failed to develop an analysis beyond the ‘Gota, Go Home’ demand for Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign. Influenced by local and external interests with their own agendas, the protestors exhibited little-to-no awareness or critique of the global political economy and the financial system at the root of the country’s crisis.

In 2022, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) reported that 60 percent of low-income countries and 30 percent of emerging market economies are ‘in or near debt distress.’ While the details differ from country to country, the historical patterns of subordination that have given rise to global crises are the same.

The Sri Lankan crisis is an illustrative example of convergent global debt, food, fuel and energy crises facing much of the world. It is corporate media bias and narrative control that deflects from this analysis.

The island’s severe debt and economic crisis must be seen in a broader global context as the culmination of several centuries of colonial and neo-colonial developments, and the disastrous and inevitably self-destructive capitalist paradigm of endless growth and profit. Debt is not “a straightforward number but a social relation embedded in unequal power relations, discourses and moralities…and…institutionalized power.”.

Colonialism and Neocolonialism

The development of export agriculture and the import of food and other essentials under British colonialism turned Sri Lanka into a dependent ‘peripheral’ unit of the global capitalist economy.

Adopting ideologies of modernization and development and theories of comparative advantage, the capitalist imperative integrated self-sustaining indigenous, peasant, and regional economies into the growing global economy, through the appropriation of land, natural resources, and labor for export production.

Monocultural agriculture, mining, and other export-based production disturbed traditional patterns of crop rotation and small-scale subsistence production that were more harmonious with the regional ecosystems and cycles of nature.

Plantation development contributed to deforestation, loss of biodiversity and animal habitats. While a small local elite prospered through their collaboration with colonialism, most people became poor, indebted, and dependent on the vagaries of the global market for their sustenance.

Although colonized countries including Sri Lanka gained political independence following World War II, unequal exchange continued under neo-colonialism. Terms of trade disadvantaged the ‘Third World’ with their labor, resources and exports grossly undervalued and imports overvalued.

The dynamic is better understood as poorer countries being over-exploited rather than under-developed. Rising populations combined with corruption and inefficiency of local governments gave rise to endemic foreign exchange shortages and economic crises in Sri Lanka and many other countries.

The debt relief and aid given by the IMF, the World Bank and bilateral institutions from the Global North have been mere band-aids to keep the ex-colonial countries tethered to the global financial and economic structures. Post-independent Sri Lanka went to the IMF 16 times before the current 2023 bail-out which seeks to further perpetuate the county’s cycle of debt dependence.

The transfer of financial and resource wealth from poor countries in the global South to the rich countries in the North is not a new phenomenon. It has been an enduring feature throughout centuries of both classical and neo-colonialism. Between 1980 and 2017, developing countries paid out over $4.2 trillion solely in interest payments, dwarfing the financial aid they received from the developed countries during that period.

Currently, international financial institutions – notably the IMF and the World Bank – remain outside political and legal control without even ‘elementary accountability’. As critics from the Global South point out, “The overwhelming power of financial institutions makes a mockery of any serious effort for democratization and addressing the deteriorating socioeconomic living conditions of the people in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in the Global South.”

Financialization and Debt

Corporate and financial deregulation which accompanied the rise of neoliberalism starting in the 1970s has given rise to financialization, and the increasing importance of finance capital. As more and more aspects of social and planetary life are commoditized and subjected to digitalization and financial speculation, the real value of nature and human activity are further lost.

As a 2022 United Nations Report points out; food prices are soaring today not due to a problem with supply and demand but due to price speculation in highly financialized commodity markets.

A handful of the largest asset management companies, notably BlackRock (currently worth USD $ 10 trillion) control very large shares in companies operating in practically all the major sectors of the global economy: banking, technology, media, defense, energy, pharmaceuticals, food, agribusiness including seeds, and agrochemicals.

Financial liberalization advanced when interest rates dropped in the richer countries after the global 2008 financial crisis. Developing countries were encouraged to borrow from private international capital markets through International Sovereign Bonds (ISBs) which come with high interest rates and short maturation periods.

Although details are not available to the public, BlackRock is reportedly the biggest ISB creditor of Sri Lanka. Most of Sri Lanka’s foreign debt is ISBs, with over 80% of Sri Lanka’s debt owed to western creditors, and not – as projected in the mainstream narrative – to China.

IMF debt financing requires countries to meet its familiar structural adjustment conditions: privatization of state-owned enterprises (SOEs), cutbacks of social safety nets and labor rights, increased export production, decreased import substitution and alignment of local economic policy with US and other Western interests.

These are the same aims as classical colonialism, they are just better hidden in the more complex modern system and language of global finance, diplomacy and aid.

A vast array of policies exacting these aims are well under way in Sri Lanka, including the sale of state-owned energy, telecommunications and transportation enterprises to foreign owners, with grave implications for Sri Lanka’s economic independence, sovereignty, national security and the wellbeing of her people and the environment.

The IMF approach does not address long-term needs for bioregionalism, sustainable development, local autonomy and welfare. A small vulnerable country such as Sri Lanka cannot change the trajectory of global capitalist development on its own.

Regional and global solidarity and social movements are necessary to challenge the deranged global financial and economic system that is at the root of the current crisis.

Global South Resistance

Since the 1970s, major collaborative projects have been initiated by developing countries and the UNCTAD to develop a multilateral legal framework for sovereign debt restructuring. Yet they are futile in the face of the powerful opposition of creditors and the protection given to them by wealthy countries and their multilateral institutions, and the UN has failed to uphold commitment and implement a debt restructuring mechanism.

Sri Lanka was a global leader in efforts to create a New International Economic Order, the Non-Aligned Movement and the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace in the 1960s and 70s. In the early years of their political independence, countries throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America sought to forge their own paths of economic and political development, independent of both capitalism and communism and the Cold War.

These included African socialist projects such as Tanzania’s Ujamma, import substitution programs in Latin America and left-wing nationalism and decolonization efforts in Sri Lanka and many other countries.

Almost without exception, these nationalist efforts failed, not only due to internal corruption and mismanagement but also due to persistent external pressure and intervention. Massive efforts have been taken by the Global North to stop the Global South from moving out of the established world order.

A case in point is the nationalization of oil companies owned by western countries in Sri Lanka in 1961 and the backlash against the left-nationalist Sri Lankan government which dared to take such a bold move.

The western response included the 1962 Hickenlooper Amendment passed in the U.S. Senate stopping foreign aid to Sri Lanka and to “any country expropriating American property without compensation.” As a result, Sri Lanka lost its credit worthiness, the domestic economic situation worsened, and the left-nationalist government lost the 1965 elections (with some covert US election support).

Observing those developments, political economist Richard Stuart Olsen wrote: “…the coerciveness of economic sanctions against a dependent, vulnerable country resides in the fact that an economic downturn can be induced and intensified from the outside, with the resulting development of politically explosive ‘relative deprivation’…”

These observations resonate with Sri Lanka’s current repetition of the same vicious cycle: an externally dependent export-import economy; worsening terms of trade; foreign exchange shortage; policy mismanagement; external political pressure; debt crisis; shortages of food, fuel and other essentials; mass suffering; and political turmoil.

Geopolitical Rivalry

Sri Lanka’s present economic crisis – the worst since the country’s political independence from the British – must be seen in the context of the accelerating neocolonial geopolitical conflict between China and the USA in the Indian Ocean. Many other countries across the world are also caught in the neocolonial superpower competition to control their natural resources and strategic locations.

There is much speculation as to whether the debt default on April 12, 2022 and political destabilization in Sri Lanka were ‘staged’ or intentionally precipitated to further the US’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy, the Indo-Pacific Strategy and the Quadrilateral Alliance (USA, India, Australia and Japan) in its competition to confront China’s $1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative and counter China’s presence in Sri Lanka.

It is widely recognized in Sri Lanka that ‘The policy of neutrality is the best defence Sri Lanka has to deter global powers from attempting to get control of Sri Lanka because of its strategic location.’ Although President Gotabaya Rajapaksa claimed to pursue a ‘neutral’ foreign policy, the Rajapaksas were seen as closer to China than the west. After Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa were forced to resign, Ranil Wickramasinghe – a politician who was resoundingly rejected in the previous elections by the electorate but is a close ally of the west – was appointed as President in an undemocratic transition of power.

To what extent were Sri Lanka and her people victims of an externally manipulated ‘shock doctrine’ and a regime change operation, sold to the world as internal disintegration caused by local corruption and incapability?

While it is not possible to provide definitive answers to these issues, it is necessary to consider the available credible evidence and the geopolitics of debt and economic crises in Sri Lanka and the world at large.

Paradigm Shift

As the locus of global power shifts from the west and a multipolar world arises, new multilateral partnerships are emerging for development financing, such as the New Development Bank (NDB) – formerly referred to as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) Development Bank – as alternatives to the Bretton Woods and other western dominated institutions.

However, given controversial projects, such as China’s Port City and India’s Adani Company investments in Sri Lanka as well as their projects elsewhere, it is necessary to ask if the BRICS represent a genuine alternative to the prevailing political-economic model based on domination, profit and power?

Dominant political power in our era is about propaganda, control of narratives and exploiting ignorance and fear. In the face of worsening environmental and social collapse across the world, there is a practical need for a fundamental questioning of the values, assumptions and misrepresentations of the dominant neoliberal model and its manifestations in Sri Lanka and the world.

At the root of the crisis, we face is a disconnect between the exponential growth of the profit-driven economy and a lack of development in human consciousness, i.e., in morality, empathy, and wisdom.

Ultimately, dualism, domination and the unregulated market paradigm need to be questioned to find a balanced path of human development, based on interdependence, partnership and ecological consciousness. Such a path of development would uphold the ethical principles necessary for long-term survival: rational use of natural resources, appropriate use of technology, balanced consumption, equitable distribution of wealth, and livelihoods for all.

This article is derived from the author’s new book: Asoka Bandarage, CRISIS IN SRI LANKA AND THE WORLD: COLONIAL AND NEOLIBERAL ORIGINS: ECOLOGICAL AND COLLECTIVE ALTERNATIVES (Berlin: De Gruyter,2023) https://www.degruyter.com/document/isbn/9783111203454/html?lang=en]

IPS UN Bureau


Moving From Trauma to Healing: Practicing Self-Care in Refugee Camps

Aid, Armed Conflicts, Asia-Pacific, Children on the Frontline, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Editors’ Choice, Education, Featured, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees, Sustainable Development Goals, TerraViva United Nations

Migration & Refugees

A young child in Cox’s Bazar engages with her peers at one of BRAC’s Humanitarian Play Labs. CREDIT: BRAC

A young child in Cox’s Bazar engages with her peers at one of BRAC’s Humanitarian Play Labs. CREDIT: BRAC

NEW YORK, Aug 21 2023 (IPS) – A Rohingya woman tells a forum of peer counselors the story of her divorce. A survivor of domestic abuse, she has started a new life alone with her daughter. She has weathered a storm of neighbors telling her she was the problem. Now, she provides the support she didn’t have to other women like her.

Similar scenes occur across refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. Here, BRAC, an international NGO based in Bangladesh, has developed a program to train counselors who can provide mental health services to Rohingya refugees. This includes 200 community members who have begun to practice the psychosocial skills they’ve learned in their own lives.

A Growing Need for Support

Over 900,000 Rohingya have fled to Cox’s Bazar since massive-scale violence against Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine State began in 2017, the UN Refugee Agency reports. The prolonged exposure of the ethnic minority group to persecution and displacement has likely increased the refugees’ vulnerability to an array of mental health issues, a 2019 systematic review found. Their struggles include post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and gender-based violence.

Around the world, there is growing attention to the importance of socio-emotional learning as a skill to help people in areas of crisis cope with challenges. Educators are often tasked not only with providing traditional academic instruction but with building resilience in children. They are asked to create a sense of normalcy in environments that are anything but normal.

The teaching the children need is much more than about reading, writing, and math; but about giving young children a safe space to practice socio-emotional skills. CREDIT: BRAC

“It’s about not only teaching [kids] how to read and how to do mathematics … in these settings, kids and teachers themselves have the need for psychosocial support,” Ramya Vivekanandan, the senior education specialist at the Global Partnership for Education, said.

Teachers, caregivers, and frontline mental health providers are overburdened, Vivekanandan explains. They lack adequate pay, working conditions, and professional development. As they try to support the growing number of people in crisis, who will support them?

For some counselors in Cox’s Bazar, the answer is each other.

Community Care

Even when resources are available, stigmas around mental health can prevent support from being received. Taifur Islam, a Bangladeshi psychologist responsible for mental health training and supervision at BRAC, says people in the communities he works with are rarely taught to identify their feelings. When you are struggling to access basic needs, Islam explains, it is easy to forget that emotional well-being can improve productivity. If a person seeks help, they may be labeled ‘crazy.’

Training people to take care of their own communities can be a powerful way to overcome stigma in a culturally relevant way.

BRAC’s Humanitarian Play Labs were established in 2017 to give Rohingya children a safe space to practice socio-emotional skills through play. Erum Mariam, the executive director of the BRAC Institute of Educational Development, explains that each play lab is tailored to fit the community it serves. Rohingya children now rhyme, chant, and dance in 304 Humanitarian Play Labs across the camps in Cox’s Bazar.

“We discovered the Rohingya culture through the children. And the whole model is based on knowing the culture,” Mariam said.

‘Play leaders’ are recruited from the camps and trained in play pedagogy. Mariam watched Rohingya women who had never worked before embracing their new roles. As they covered the ceilings of their play spaces with rainbows of flowers – the kind of tapestry that would hang from their homes in Myanmar – Mariam realized that a new kind of social capital could be earned by nurturing joy. Traditional play didn’t just help uprooted children shape their sense of identity – it was also healing for the community.

If a play leader notices a child is withdrawn or restless, they can refer the child to a ‘para counselor’ who has been trained by BRAC’s psychologists to address the mental health needs of children and their family members. Almost half of the 469 para counselors in Cox’s Bazar are recruited from the Rohingya community, while the rest come from around Bangladesh. Most para counselors are women.

Many para counselors are uniquely positioned to empathize with the people they serve as they go door to door, building awareness. This is crucial because it creates a bottom-up system of care without prescribing what well-being should look like, Chris Henderson, a specialist on education in emergencies, says.

At the same time, by supporting others, mental health providers are learning to take care of themselves.

Learning by Doing

A play leader engages the children in the session. Humanitarian professionals encourage frontline teachers, caretakers, and counselors to actualize their own ideas for improvement. CREDIT: BRAC

A play leader engages the children in the session. Humanitarian professionals encourage frontline teachers, caregivers, and counselors to actualize their own ideas for improvement. CREDIT: BRAC

For months, Suchitra Rani watched violence against Rohingya people every time she turned on the news. When she was recruited by BRAC to become a para counselor in Cox’s Bazar, she saw an opportunity to make a difference. Alongside fellow trainees, Rani, a social worker originally from Magura, poured over new words she learned in the foreign Rohingya dialect and worked to find her place in the community.

Rani tested what she had learned about the value of psychosocial support and cultural sensitivity when she met a 15-year-old Rohingya girl too scared to tell her single mother she was pregnant. Terrified of bringing shame to the family, the girl had an abortion at home. As the young woman spiraled into depression, Rani felt herself slipping into her own fears of inadequacy.

It took time for Rani to convince the girl to open up to her mother. Talking through feelings of guilt slowly led to acceptance. As they worked to heal fractured family bonds, Rani began to feel surer of herself, too.

Now, the Rohingya community calls Rani a “sister of peace.” Rani says she has become confident in her ability to use the socio-emotional skills she’s learned to both help others and resolve problems in her personal life.

Throughout the program, para counselors have changed the way they communicate their feelings and felt empowered to create more empathetic environments.

Islam recounts a 26-year-old Rohingya refugee’s perilous journey to Cox’s Bazar: In Myanmar, the woman’s husband was killed in front of her. One of her two young children drowned during a river crossing as they fled the country. She arrived at the camp as a single mother without a support network. Only once she had the support of others willing to listen could she speak openly.

Islam remembers counselors telling the woman about the importance of self-care: “If you actually take care of yourself, then you can take care of your child also.”

Toward Empowerment 

According to Henderson, evidence shows that one of the best ways to support someone is to give them a role to help others. In places where there may be a stigma against prioritizing ‘self-care,’ people with their own post-crisis trauma are willing to learn well-being skills to help children.

A collection of teacher stories collected by the Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies reveals a similar pattern. Teachers in crisis areas around the world say the socio-emotional skills they learned to help students helped them reduce stress in their own lives, too.

Henderson suggests that the best way international agencies can promote trauma support is by holding up a mirror to the strength already shown by refugee communities like the Rohingya.

Instead of seeing what they lack, Henderson encourages humanitarian professionals to help give frontline teachers, caregivers, and counselors the agency to actualize their own ideas for improvement. Empowered community leaders empower the young people they work with, who, in turn, learn to empower each other. This creates “systems where everyone sees their position of leadership as supporting the next person’s leadership and resilience.”

At the end of her para counselor training, the Rohingya domestic abuse survivor said she wasn’t sure what she would do with the skills she’d learned for working through trauma, Islam remembers. But she did say she wished they were skills she had known before. According to Islam, she is now one of their best para counselors.

“The training is not only to serve the community; that training is something that can actually change your life,” Islam says. It’s why he became a psychologist.

IPS UN Bureau Report


Myanmar: Military Junta Gets a Free Pass

Cover photo by Reuters/Stringer via Gallo Images

By Andrew Firmin
LONDON, Jun 23 2023 (IPS)

The violence keeps coming in Myanmar, under military rule since February 2021. The junta stands accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, with evidence of systematic use of killings, rape, torture and other gross human rights violations in its attempt to suppress forces demanding a return to democracy.

Even humanitarian aid is restricted. Recently the junta refused to allow in aid organisations trying to provide food, water and medicines to people left in desperate need by a devastating cyclone. It’s far from the first time it’s blocked aid.

Crises like this demand an international response. But largely standing on the sidelines while this happens is the regional intergovernmental body, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Its recent summit, held in Indonesia in May, failed to produce any progress.

ASEAN’s inaction

ASEAN’s response to the coup was to issue a text, the Five-Point Consensus (5PC), in April 2021. This called for the immediate cessation of violence and constructive dialogue between all parties. ASEAN agreed to provide humanitarian help, appoint a special envoy and visit Myanmar to meet with all parties.

Civil society criticised this agreement because it recognised the role of the junta and failed to make any mention of the need to restore democracy. And the unmitigated violence and human rights violations are the clearest possible sign that the 5PC isn’t working – but ASEAN sticks to it. At its May summit, ASEAN states reiterated their support for the plan.

A major challenge is that most ASEAN states have no interest in democracy. All 10 have heavily restricted civic space. As well as Myanmar, civic space is closed in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

It wouldn’t suit such states to have a thriving democracy on their doorstep, which could only bring greater domestic and international pressure to follow suit. States that repress human rights at home typically carry the same approach into international organisations, working to limit their ability to uphold human rights commitments and scrutinise violations.

Continuing emphasis on the 5PC hasn’t masked divisions among ASEAN states. Some appear to think they can engage with the junta and at least persuade it to moderate its violence – although reality makes this increasingly untenable. But others, particularly Cambodia – a one-party state led by the same prime minister since 1998 – seem intent on legitimising the junta.

Variable pressure has come from ASEAN’s chair, which rotates annually and appoints the special envoy. Under the last two, Brunei Darussalam – a sultanate that last held an election in 1965 – and Cambodia, little happened. Brunei never visited the country after being refused permission to meet with democratic leaders, while Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen, visited Myanmar last year. The first post-coup visit to Myanmar by a head of government, this could only be construed as conferring legitimacy.

Indonesia, the current chair, hasn’t appointed a special envoy, instead setting up an office headed by the foreign minister. So far it appears to be taking a soft approach of quiet diplomacy rather than public action.

Thailand, currently led by a pro-military government, is also evidently happy to engage with the junta. While junta representatives remain banned from ASEAN summits, Thailand has broken ranks and invited ASEAN foreign ministers, including from Myanmar, to hold talks about reintegrating the junta’s leaders. A government that itself came to power through a coup but should now step aside after an election where it was thoroughly defeated looks to be attempting to bolster the legitimacy of military rule.

ASEAN states seem unable to move beyond the 5PC even as they undermine it. But the fact that they’re formally sticking with it enables the wider international community to stand back, on the basis of respecting regional leadership and the 5PC.

The UN Security Council finally adopted a resolution on Myanmar in December 2022. This called for an immediate end to the violence, the release of all political prisoners and unhindered humanitarian access. But its language didn’t go far enough in condemning systematic human rights violations and continued to emphasise the 5PC. It failed to impose sanctions such as an arms embargo or to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Civil society in Myanmar and the region is urging ASEAN to go further. Many have joined together to develop a five-point agenda that goes beyond the 5PC. It calls for a strategy to end military violence through sanctions, an arms embargo and a referral of Myanmar to the ICC. It demands ASEAN engages beyond the junta, and particularly with democratic forces including the National Unity Government – the democratic government in exile. It urges a strengthening of the special envoy role and a pivoting of humanitarian aid to local responders rather than the junta. ASEAN needs to take this on board.

A fork in the road

ASEAN’s current plan is a recipe for continuing military violence, increasingly legitimised by its neighbours’ acceptance. Ceremonial elections could offer further fuel for this.

The junta once promised to hold elections by August, but in February, on the coup’s second anniversary, it extended the state of emergency for another six months. If and when those elections finally happen, there’s no hope of them being free or fair. In March, the junta dissolved some 40 political parties, including the ousted ruling party, the National League for Democracy.

The only purpose of any eventual fake election will be to give the junta a legitimising veneer to present as a sign of progress – and some ASEAN states may be prepared to buy this. This shouldn’t be allowed. ASEAN needs to listen to the voices of civil society calling for it to get its act together – and stick together – in holding the junta to account. If it doesn’t, it will keep failing not only Myanmar’s people, but all in the region who reasonably expect that fundamental human rights should be respected and those who kill, rape and torture should face justice.

Andrew Firmin is CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.


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The Privilege of Making a Choice

By Yasmine Sherif
NEW YORK, May 8 2023 (IPS)

A civilian student named Saber was caught in the crossfire in Khartoum. He had two choices: either flee and lose everything; or die. But within a moment his option to choose was violently denied: he died.

As a result of the brutal internal armed conflict in Sudan right now, UNHCR projects that 860,000 people will flee across the borders as refugees and returnees into the Central African Republic, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea and South Sudan. About 50% will be children and adolescents below 18.

Will they arrive alive? They can’t choose. They can only hope.

Making it worse, none of the neighboring countries has the financial and structural capacity to manage such influx, and yet they too, have no choice.

Indeed, an enormous international response will be required to support the Refugee Response Plan developed by 134 partners, including UN agencies, national and international NGOs and civil society groups, and launched on 4 May 2023.

Fleeing children and adolescents will need immediate psycho-social support and mental health care to cope with the stress and trauma of the conflict and perilous escape. They will need school meals. They will need water and sanitation. They will need protection. In the deep despair of their young lives, they will need a sense of normalcy and hope for their future. They need it now and a rapid response to establishing education can meet these needs.

Or to paraphrase ECW’s new Global Champion, the world-renowned journalist, Folly Bah Thibault – who reaffirms the need for speed and quality: the humanitarian-development nexus in action – in her high-level interview in this month’s ECW Newsletter, “We need to deliver with humanitarian speed and development depth.”

The choice is ours.

ECW is now traveling to the region to support host-governments, UN and civil society colleagues who jointly produced the Refugee Response Plan and who are on the ground working day and night in difficult circumstances. ECW will provide support both through an initial First Emergency Response investment and through our global advocacy.

We all have a choice to act now. Our choice is not between losing everything or die. Our choice is between action or inaction. Between humanity and indifference.

Prior to the breakout of the internal armed conflict in Sudan, Samiya*, a 17-year-old refugee student, wrote in her recent Postcard From the Edge: “Education is our future dream. Education is one of the most important factors to progress in life. Through education, people can thrive in their lives; they can also develop their skills and improve their life quality.”

We can help make Samya’s dream come true at the hardest, darkest moment of her life. Samiya does not have that choice. Only, we have that choice. Let us recognize it for what it is: as a privilege or blessing of choosing responsibility and humanity.

Yasmine Sherif is Director of Education Cannot Wait.

IPS UN Bureau


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