UNFPA Calls for Protection & Justice for Women & Girls in Tigray

Armed Conflicts, Civil Society, Editors’ Choice, Featured, Gender, Global, Global Governance, Headlines, IPS UN: Inside the Glasshouse, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

The writer is UNFPA Regional Director for East and Southern Africa.

In retelling their stories, women in Tigray describe their attackers as “armed men”. Credit: UNFPA

UNITED NATIONS, Jul 26 2021 (IPS) – The 2018 Nobel Laureate, Dr. Denis Mukwege, a gynaecologist celebrated for his work with survivors of sexual assault in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Panzi Hospital once said: “Rape is a strategy of war – it is meant to destroy women and communities physically and mentally”.


Sadly, this destruction has become a daily reality for women and girls in the Tigray region in Ethiopia.
In recent weeks, women have come forward with the most devastating stories of sexual violation and physical abuse. Selam, 22, who found shelter in a safe house, is one of the survivors.

She recalls “running from place to place without food or shelter” and “constantly living in fear” after being displaced from her home and repeatedly facing harrowing incidents of sexual violence.

Persistent fighting, forced displacement, and dire living conditions over the past eight months in Tigray and the neighbouring regions of Afar and Amhara in northern Ethiopia, have created one of Africa’s most pressing humanitarian crises.

More than 5.2 million people in Tigray alone require humanitarian assistance; among them are 118,000 pregnant women and 1.3 million women of reproductive age. Amid the crisis, gross violations and abuses against civilians, including sexual violence, continue to be reported.

The health and well-being of women and adolescent girls are further threatened by food insecurity that is expected to worsen. The destruction and looting of health facilities – around a third are partially functioning, and a mere one per cent are offering clinical management of rape services – further complicates the situation amidst the threat of COVID-19.

Julitta Onabanjo

Selam’s experience is just one of the stories captured by health officials and UN agencies, but these testimonies likely represent only a fraction of the real prevalence.
Even under normal circumstances, given the high levels of stigma, among other factors, gender-based violence is largely unreported in Ethiopia. Only 24 per cent of survivors ever seek assistance, according to the 2016 Ethiopia Demographic Health Survey.

Devastating impact

Rape and other forms of sexual abuse have a devastating impact on women’s physical and mental well-being, rights and choices, and affect their ability to care for their children, support their families and contribute to their societies.

A social worker at the UNFPA-supported safe house where Selam now resides described the women as arriving “traumatized and depressed due to prolonged suffering, distress and horrendous violence”.

Even when women have not experienced sexual violence, the fear of rape or insecurity prevents them from accessing food distributing centres, critical health-care services for themselves or their children, and adolescent girls may stay away from school.

In the long-run, hiding from potential attacks contributes to malnutrition, poor health outcomes, and a lack of educational attainment among women and girls.

UN Member States have recognized the disproportionate and unique impact of armed conflict on women and girls. The UN Security Council-adopted Resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security, calls on all parties in hostilities to take special measures to “protect women and girls from gender-based violence, particularly rape and other forms of sexual abuse, in situations of armed conflict”.

The African Union also committed to “Silencing the Guns” by “ending all wars, civil conflicts, gender-based violence, violent conflicts and preventing genocide on the continent by 2020”.

Women’s bodies must not be the object of war or the collateral in conflict. Rather women must be the central subject and partner in peacebuilding.

In retelling their stories, women in Tigray describe their attackers as “armed men”. These serious violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law must be swiftly investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice.

Call to end hostilities

We urge the government of Ethiopia and the international community to step up efforts to end hostilities and all forms of violence in the country, including gender-based violence, to ensure the health and safety of women and girls.

As part of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) system-wide scale up for the Tigray region activated in April 2021, UNFPA is expanding and accelerating support in its areas of responsibility — protection, prevention and response to sexual and gender-based violence (GBV) and delivering quality sexual and Reproductive health and rights (SRHR).

Safe houses

Women-friendly spaces, safe houses and one-stop centres in the conflict-affected regions have been set up to provide clinical management of rape and psychosocial counselling. These spaces connect women to a wide range of sexual and reproductive health services and legal services.

What transforms a rape victim into a rape survivor is justice. UNFPA is working with partners to ensure effective referral and prosecution systems are available.

We are working with the Ministry of Women, Children and Youth of Ethiopia to enable the capacity-building of armed personnel and the constitution of a Gender-Based Violence Task Force, in collaboration with the Ethiopian Police University and the Federal Police Commission.

UNFPA is also providing medical supplies, helping to restore health system services, and cumulatively, has distributed hundreds of Emergency Reproductive Health kits and thousands of Dignity Kits.

Additionally, to prevent COVID-19 infections among key staff providing SRH and GBV services and information in government and partner-run health facilities and one-stop centres, nearly 11,000 Personal Protective Equipment items have been distributed since November 2020.

Funds needed urgently

Providing adequate levels of these kinds of life-saving services requires urgent funding. We are calling on all that can help, including government and development partners, to assist us in addressing the immediate needs of women and girls and help us avert the medium to long-term repercussions of sexual violence. The immediate funding requirements for the next six months is $15 million.

The women and girls of Tigray have told us their stories, and we continue to hear them out. Our actions to deal with their trauma and rebuild their lives must be our urgent response.

For women to participate equally in society, they need to make decisions about their bodies freely and without fear. Rape and other forms of gender-based violence destroy the ability of women and girls to make choices and fulfil their sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Even in times of conflict, we must continue to defend and protect the rights of women and girls and devote the necessary attention and resources to prevent sexual violence and decisively ensure justice.

Source: Africa Renewal, United Nations

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Conceptual Advances for United Nations 2.0

Civil Society, Development & Aid, Gender, Global, Headlines, Human Rights, IPS UN: Inside the Glasshouse, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

The writer is a Research Analyst at Stimson Center

WASHINGTON DC, Jul 20 2021 (IPS) – The forthcoming UN Secretary-General’s “Our Common Agenda” report, to be released before this year’s UN General Assembly High-Level Week, is expected to offer ambitious recommendations to accelerate the realization of the UN75 Declaration as the world comes to grips with the COVID-19 pandemic.


Promote Peace & Prevent Conflicts. Credit: United Nations

While the report’s ideas are still undisclosed, three notions are likely to represent conceptual building blocks: a “new social contract,” a “new global deal,” and “networked and inclusive multilateralism” have each permeated current high-level discussions at the United Nations, especially in speeches of UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

While these three concepts are not mentioned explicitly in the UN75 Declaration, they are implicit in the framing of the declaration’s twelve commitments. Building on perspectives from past and present scholars, world leaders, policymakers, and practitioners, these powerful notions are each unpacked in Stimson Center’s recent report, “Beyond UN75: A Roadmap for Inclusive, Networked, and Effective Global Governance.”

Critics, including the United Nations, argue that the present state of the social contract is outdated and incapable of meeting the needs and challenges of the twenty-first century. The UN Secretary-General himself emphasized that a new social contract is “an opportunity to build back a more equal and sustainable world” from COVID-19.

A new, modernized social contract could, indeed, help advance a more just post-COVID-19 recovery and economic policies that consider the realization of human rights as an end in itself—rather than as one more channel to achieve high economic growth levels under outdated metrics.

It could include a global political commitment to securing social protection floors and universal access to educational systems, among other initiatives that seek to respond to the major economic, technological, and societal shifts now underway.

Similarly, an equitable, resilient, and sustainable social contract should rebuild people’s trust in governance institutions. Trust is a prerequisite that offers legitimacy to those governing, and it permits the existence of a contract in the first place.

With the “new social contract” being the vision and long-term goal for weaving a new normative fiber binding states and peoples together, the world also needs a more operational “new global deal.”

The UN Secretary-General suggested that a new global deal would entail a redistribution of power, wealth, and opportunities, and global political and economic systems that deliver critical global public goods: public health, climate action, sustainable development, and peace.

This echoes long-standing discussions about representativeness in the current system of global governance, considering, for example, the distribution of special drawing rights at the International Monetary Fund, which gives the United States a blocking minority share, or the setup of the Security Council with its five permanent, veto-wielding powers and ten non-permanent members.

Resource redistribution and redirection also need to be seen in light of calls for a “green recovery” from the COVID-19 pandemic and of the need to recalibrate the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.

Advancing a new social contract and new global deal further require a more networked and inclusive multilateralism. This would entail a paradigm shift from the state-centric international world order to one where myriad actors, beyond nation-states (especially traditional major powers), can collaboratively share and implement solutions to complex problems.

Delivering the future we want will not come from “polarized member states or politicized UN secretariats.” It will result from collaborations between international civil servants, Member States, and progressive networks of non-state actors—including scholars, academics, media, businesses, philanthropies, and other stakeholders.

In this spirit, the United Nations and other intergovernmental organizations must update their rules of engagement with non-state actors, to facilitate networked and inclusive multilateralism. There is no dearth of institutional innovation ideas that can help build inclusive multilateralism.

For instance, the Call for Inclusive Global Governance, released in April 2021 and endorsed by over 150 civil society organizations worldwide, provides three recommendations for promoting greater inclusion and participation of civil society at the UN: first, the creation of a formal instrument—a World Citizens’ Initiative—to enable individual citizens to influence the UN’s work; second, a UN Parliamentary Assembly to allow for the inclusion of elected representatives in agenda-setting and decision-making at the UN; and third, the appointment of a UN Civil Society Envoy to support greater civil society engagement at the UN.

Networked and inclusive multilateralism, going beyond classic intergovernmentalism, provides a platform and framework to carry out a new global deal (operational plan) in the service of establishing a new social contract (vision).

What is needed now is enlightened leadership, combined with a well-designed strategy for reform for channeling these ideas in support of a more interlinked and participatory global governance system.

Guided by these three powerful concepts, the Secretary-General’s “Our Common Agenda” can generate political momentum for a potential 2023 World Summit on Inclusive Global Governance for truly innovating the United Nations system to keep pace with present and future challenges and opportunities.

The 75th anniversary of the United Nations was believed to be a moment for laying the foundations for a new kind of multilateralism. Although adoption of the UN75 Declaration represents an important milestone, its vision is yet to be matched by a commensurate global plan for action.

Bouncing back now from the COVID-19 presents an opportunity to also rebuild a global system that can help all nations and peoples effectively overcome current global inequalities, injustices, and insecurity. It is incumbent on all of us to make 2021 a turning point for multilateralism.

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UN Ready for Breakaway Nations but the Pace Remains Slow

Africa, Armed Conflicts, Civil Society, Editors’ Choice, Featured, Global, Global Geopolitics, Headlines, Human Rights, IPS UN: Inside the Glasshouse, TerraViva United Nations

Armed Conflicts

South Sudan’s independence from the rest of Sudan was the result of a January 2011 referendum held under the terms of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended the decades-long civil war between the North and the South.

South Sudan’s national flag (centre) flies at UN Headquarters following its admission as the 193rd Member State. Credit: UN/E. Schneider

South Sudan’s national flag (centre) flies at UN Headquarters following its admission as the 193rd Member State. Credit: UN/E. Schneider

UNITED NATIONS, Jul 5 2021 (IPS) – When the United Nations renovated its building at a cost of over $2.1 billion, as part of a seven-year refurbishing project back in 2014, the seating in the cavernous General Assembly hall was increased from 193 to 204—primarily in anticipation of at least 11 new member states joining the world body sooner or later.


But the pace of new member states joining the UN, primarily from half a dozen breakaway regions dominated by separatist movements, has remained slow.

East Timor, described as the first new sovereign state of the 21st century, broke away from Indonesia and joined the UN in May 2002.

The UN played a significant role in supporting the democratic process in the country, now known as Timor-Leste. The UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) was deployed from 1992 to 2002 to administer the territory, exercise legislative and executive authority during the transition and support capacity-building for self-government.

Meanwhile, the Republic of South Sudan (population: 11.3 million), which seceded from Sudan, was the last of the 193 UN member states, joining the world body in July 2011.

But at least one potential member state— Kosovo– has been knocking at the door trying to seek admission rather unsuccessfully primarily because of opposition from one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC).

The UN’s relatively new member states, beginning in the 1960s, included Singapore (1965), Bangladesh (1971) and six republics, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia, resulting from the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Still, if political fantasies become realities, a lineup of new U.N. member states may include potential breakaway regions, including Kurdistan, Western Sahara, Chechnya, Abkhazia, Catalonia, Scotland and Palestine—not forgetting Tibet and Taiwan whose membership will be shot down by China, a veto-wielding permanent member of the UNSC.

But currently the most likely candidate is Tigray which is moving towards an independent state after nearly eight months of fighting against Ethiopian military forces, described as one of Africa’s most powerful, this time backed by Eritrea.

If it does happen, Ethiopia would have generated two breakaway states: first Eritrea which became independent of Ethiopia in 1993, and now Tigray, with a population of 7.1 million.

The Tigray Independence Party (TIP) has long campaigned for secession from Ethiopia which it described as an “empire”.

Debretsion Gebremichael, the leader of Tigray, was quoted by the New York Times as saying, “even if the conflict ends soon, Tigray’s future, as part of Ethiopia, is in doubt”.

In the Times report on July 4, Gebremichael said “The trust has broken completely. If they don’t want us, why should we stay?”. Still, he added, nothing has been decided because “It depends on the politics at the centre”.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US Ambassador to the UN, told reporters on July 2 the Security Council has held six closed-door meetings “and the situation in Tigray has not improved.”

She said the open meeting last week was the first opportunity to show that African lives matter as much as other lives around the world.

“But an open meeting is not enough,” she said, pointing out that “what we need to see is action on the ground.”

“We need to see a ceasefire that is permanent; that all of the parties agree to. We need to see the Eritrean troops return to their own border. We need to see unfettered access for humanitarian workers. “We need to see accountability for the atrocities that have been committed.”

“And at this moment I just want to express, again, our sympathy for the many losses of lives, including for MSF (Doctors Without Borders) staff who were killed recently,” she declared.

Meanwhile, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) says the Tigray People’s Liberation Front is in control of most of the Tigray region, including major towns.

William Davison, ICG’s Senior Analyst, said the Front has achieved these gains “mainly through mass popular support and by capturing arms and supplies from adversaries.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said last week he is deeply concerned with the present situation in Tigray.

“It is essential to have a real ceasefire paving the way for a dialogue able to bring a political solution to Tigray.” He said the presence of foreign troops is an aggravating factor of confrontation.

“At the same time, full humanitarian access, unrestricted humanitarian access must be guaranteed to the whole territory. The destruction of civilian infrastructure is totally unacceptable,” he declared. 

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Towards an Equal Future in Parliaments

Civil Society, Editors’ Choice, Featured, Gender, Global, Global Governance, Headlines, IPS UN: Inside the Glasshouse, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

Women’s Political Network, Credit: UNDP Montenegro

The Women’s Political Network was established in Montenegro in November 2017 to promote equal political and economic rights and to combat gender-based-violence. The initiative was funded by the Delegation of the European Union to Montenegro and implemented by UNDP in partnership with the Ministry of Human and Minority Rights.

Meanwhile the UN will be commemorating International Day of Parliamentarism on June 30.

NEW YORK, Jun 28 2021 (IPS) – In elections last October in Georgia, women’s share of seats in parliament went up by nearly seven percent, following the enforcement of a 25 percent quota for women candidates.


In North Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia, which apply a 40 percent legislated gender quota, women exceeded 30 percent in parliament. And in Kosovo*, women won more seats in parliament during the 2021 February election than in any previous year, gaining a 40 percent share.

But, as heartening as these results are, they are rare stars for women in the political firmament.

Women worldwide hold just over a quarter of all seats in parliaments and all positions of speakers in 2020, with 53 countries having at least one woman speaker.

At this rate it will take 50 years for parliaments to reach gender parity. Other estimates lead to gloomier forecasts – such as 145.5 years to reach gender parity in legislative and executive branches of the government.

If recent electoral trends are any indication, parliaments in most countries covered by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) will not reach gender parity by 2030.

Among countries that are likely to reach gender parity, more than half have adopted gender quotas. One of the most widely applied tools to accelerate progress on women’s political representation, legislated quotas allow more women to get elected and have a shot at changing gender social norms.

A 2017 survey conducted among top and middle management of parliamentary political parties in Georgia – complemented with the reports and personal experiences of female politicians and activists – highlighted the obstacles faced by Georgian women striving for a political career. Credit: Daro Sulakauri/UNDP Georgia

Numbers matter. Part of the solution to increasing women’s political participation lies in the ability to track progress and comparing data across countries. For example, legislated quotas – despite being a somewhat contested phenomenon – were applied last year in 81 states globally, including 25 countries and territories represented on UNDP’s recently updated Equalfuture platform.

Launched in 2020 to mark the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action, this online portal showcases progress in women’s participation in national parliaments in 57 countries and territories in the Europe and Central Asia region over the past 26 years.

Equalfuture now features updated data on women’s presence in electoral politics.

It shows that, despite progress, women in the ECA region have just over a fourth of seats in national legislatures. In only six countries in the region are women speakers of parliament – Azerbaijan elected a woman speaker for the first time in 2020 – while there are women speakers in just 20 of the 57 countries in the UNECE region.

To argue that there have never been so many opportunities open to women as there are today is to ignore the powerful hold of gender bias in society. Nearly half of the population in Europe and Central Asia (ECA) believe men make better political leaders than women. The bias ranges from more than 60 percent in Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan supporting this view to less than 30 percent in Croatia and Montenegro.

This could be one of many reasons why young women in 2020 made less than one percent of all parliamentarians worldwide.

Gender bias is just one in a constellation of factors in the slow crawl in women’s political representation.

Violence against women in politics is a formidable obstacle to women’s entry to the political sphere. This increasingly recognized phenomenon is alarmingly pervasive: in 45 UNECE countries, most women parliamentarians have suffered psychological violence or been the target of online sexist attacks on social media during their mandate. Almost half received death threats or threats of rape and beating, and a quarter suffered sexual violence.

Women aspiring to politics are also subject to vicious forms of cyberviolence not foreseen in the Beijing Platform for Action which called on parliaments to have no less than 30 percent of women in their ranks. Abusive online comments aimed at women politicians are inversely proportional to the number of women in political office. During the parliamentary elections campaign in Georgia in 2020, 40 percent of the abusive comments on Facebook targeted women candidates, who comprised only 22 percent of the monitored profiles. Most comments called on them to stay home and give up their political ambition.

Given the many gender fault lines laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is little surprise that women make up only 24 percent of the COVID-19 task force members worldwide. With its profound impacts on women’s paid and unpaid work, the pandemic has set back decades of hard-won gains in gender equality.

More women than men lost their jobs while their care burdens intensified during the pandemic. With fewer resources and less time to spend on the activities outside the household, fewer women are likely to engage in politics.

However, without women’s input, countries risk making poor decisions at a pivotal moment of recovery from crisis.

On the upcoming International Day of Parliamentarism (June 30), let us celebrate not only parliamentarians but gender-equal parliaments as a cornerstone of a well-functioning democracy. And let us redouble our efforts to dismantle the barriers and dislodge the biases that hold women back from an equal future in political decision-making.

Mirjana Spoljaric Egger is Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations, Assistant Administrator of UNDP, and Director of the UNDP Regional Bureau for Europe and the CIS. She was appointed to this position by the UN Secretary-General in August 2018 and assumed duties in October 2018. She oversees UNDP operations in 18 countries and territories of Europe and Central Asia: https://www.eurasia.undp.org/content/rbec/en/home/about-us/about-the-region.html

Learn more about the progress of women’s participation in politics in 57 countries and territories over the past 26 years through UNDP Eurasia’s online platform Equalfuture.

* References to Kosovo shall be understood to be in the context of Security Council resolution 1244 (1999)

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From Non-aligned to One Aligned

Civil Society, Development & Aid, Global, Global Geopolitics, Global Governance, Headlines, IPS UN: Inside the Glasshouse, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

The implications of Colombo’s foreign policy shift under Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, from a time-honoured adherence to non-alignment to a clear affiliation with Beijing. Former minister Dr Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe said Colombo Port City (above) might turn out to be a ‘colony’ of China.

LONDON, Jun 4 2021 (IPS) – June 4, 2021 marks 30 years since the killings of an undisclosed number of Chinese protestors at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. For many years, the Chinese government and its ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), with characteristic understatement, called it the ‘June Fourth incident’.


It was the hardliners in the CCP who forced the ouster of its general secretary Hu Yaobang, a party moderate who had encouraged democratic reform, and eventually ordered the military crackdown on the protestors at Tiananmen – perhaps the blackest day in the history of post-revolutionary China.

Sri Lankans should recall the central role of the Chinese Communist Party in turning Tiananmen Square into a horrendous killing field that provoked an unprecedented outpouring of public grief and condemnation from neighbouring Hong Kong, in light of the apparent reverence that Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appears to pay to the CCP’s style of governance.

And he has done so more than once, even telling China’s Defence Minister Wei Fenghe, during his visit to Colombo in April, that he hoped to ‘learn from the governance experience’ of the CCP in poverty alleviation and rural revitalisation.

While the CCP’s role in poverty alleviation might be conceded, the same cannot be said of corruption elimination. It was growing corruption among those in the Chinese government and Communist Party that triggered the massive student protest, which demanded an end to the burgeoning graft and lack of accountability by officialdom, and collectively called for democratic reform in China’s politically regimented society.

Critics say Sri Lanka’s foreign policy of neutrality and its ‘India First’ declaration are mere geopolitical window dressing.

While President Rajapaksa, who has been invited to China, might pick up a thing or two about the success of the CCP in alleviating poverty, there is little he could learn about ridding society of other malaise prevalent in China – a pity, as such knowledge might help to eliminate Sri Lanka’s own political viruses that are causing serious concern, not only in Sri Lankan society but also in the region.

From the early years of Sri Lanka’s independence from British rule, Ceylon (as it was then known) had followed a policy of peaceful co-existence, articulated earlier by India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru as the five principles of ‘Panchaseela’, deriving from Buddhist Thought.

It was this Nehruvian Panchaseela that eventually formed the bedrock of the foreign policy of most newly independent states in Asia, Africa and Latin America, under the banner of non-alignment.

Under Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the world’s first woman prime minister, Ceylon was among founding members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) when 25 countries met in Belgrade at NAM’s first summit in 1961

It was a foreign policy that most Ceylon/Sri Lanka governments were wedded to, except perhaps the pro-western United National Party (UNP) government under President Junius Richard Jayewardene, who cynically told me there were only two non-aligned countries in the world: the USA and the USSR.  

This was in 1979 and, ironically, he was then the Chairman of NAM having taken over the chairmanship from Sirimavo Bandaranaike who lost the 1977 general election having hosted the NAM summit in Colombo in 1976.

President Jayewardene was very much pro-American. Still, he went to Communist Cuba, an arch enemy of the US to pass on the baton to President Fidel Castro who was hosting the next NAM summit in Havana in 1979.

Then, with the advent of another Rajapaksa, Gotabaya, as president, Sri Lankan foreign policy was redefined. He said at his inauguration in November 2019 that it was now one of ‘neutrality’, dropping any reference to the long-standing policy of non-alignment.

Though never clearly defined, to Rajapaksa junior this meant staying aloof from Big Power conflicts. By that time, the Indian Ocean had perceptibly turned into a conflict zone as China’s push into this vital maritime international sea route led to counter responses from other major powers, namely the US, Japan, Australia and India.

Moreover, New Delhi saw the growing Chinese naval and economic presence in the region under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Maritime Silk Route as an intrusion into its sphere of influence, raising strategic security concerns.

So, there was a congruence of interest among other major powers and users of the Indian Ocean in challenging what was perceived as Beijing’s expansionism, that is, asserting its own presence in the region and the freedom of navigation for all.

Shortly after Narendra Modi became India’s prime minister in 2014, he made a dramatic shift in India’s own foreign policy, turning from a ‘Look East’ policy to an ‘Act East’ one. This implied a more conscious and determined involvement in South East Asia, particularly ASEAN.

If Modi enunciated a ‘Neighbourhood First’ doctrine, Gotabaya Rajapaksa claimed his to be ‘India First’, perhaps in an attempt to balance the elder Rajapaksa, Mahinda’s, pro-China predilections as president. It was during Mahinda’s nine years at the helm, from 2005, that bilateral relations were at their strongest, perhaps not without cause.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, with brother Gotabaya as his defence secretary, was at war with the ruthless separatist Liberation Tigers of Eelam (LTTE), popularly known as the Tamil Tigers.

The only country at the time ready to help the Rajapaksas defeat the separatists, with substantial finance and arms aid, was China, which it did in May 2009.

Mahinda returned the favour by contracting China for some major infrastructure projects, including the new Hambantota port in the deep south some 15 nautical miles or so from vital international sea lanes. This port, which is now on a 99-year lease to China because Sri Lanka could not meet its loan repayments, has turned out to be a serious strategic concern to India and other major trading nations.

Last month another major Chinese project Colombo Port City (CPC), some 270 hectares of land reclaimed from the sea close to the capital’s principal port, came alive after the Supreme Court approved the Bill to set up the managing commission after the Court called for several changes to clauses that were inconsistent with the constitution.

The CPC, in which the Chinese development holds 43 per cent of the land (also for 99 years) is intended to be a huge investment and business centre for foreign investors. This made the US ambassador in Colombo, among others, reach for the panic button for fear that the CPC could be a source of money laundering and other ‘dirty’ money.

A former minister in the previous government and a member of the ruling party, Dr Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, even warned that the Port City might well turn out to be a ‘colony’ of China, given the exclusion of Sri Lankan entrepreneurs from investing there, even if they had foreign currency to do so.

Critics of the Rajapaksa government’s policies – including the militarisation of the civil administration and the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic that is still surging in the country – say that Sri Lanka’s foreign policy of neutrality and its ‘India First’ declaration are nothing more than geopolitical window dressing.

They claim it is unsupported by fact and is meant to cover the government’s strong pro-China commitments. They also point to a media release by the Chinese Embassy in Colombo, following Defence Minister Wei Fenghe’s April visit, in which President Rajapaksa is quoted as telling the visiting minister that Sri Lanka ‘has prioritised developing relations with China and firmly supports China’s positions on issues concerning its core issues’.

If, by jettisoning non-alignment and embracing ‘neutrality’, Sri Lanka means it is following an equidistant foreign policy, it has not shown so by its actions. China obviously knows best. In its statement on the defence minister’s visit, the Chinese embassy says: ‘China appreciates Sri Lanka’s independent and non-aligned foreign policy.’

Scant wonder many are puzzled by the nomenclature.

Source: Asian Affairs

Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who held senior roles in Hong Kong at The Standard and worked in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for foreign media including the New York Times and Le Monde. More recently he was Sri Lanka’s deputy high commissioner in London

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Studying Marine Life’s Brief Break from Human Noise

Biodiversity, Civil Society, Economy & Trade, Editors’ Choice, Environment, Featured, Global, Global Governance, Green Economy, Headlines, IPS UN: Inside the Glasshouse, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

Hydrophone launch. Credit: The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO)

NEW YORK, Apr 15 2021 (IPS) – Travel and economic slowdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic have combined to brake shipping, seafloor exploration, and many other human activities in the ocean, creating a unique moment to begin a time-series study of the impacts of sound on marine life.


Our community of scientists has identified more than 200 non-military ocean hydrophones worldwide and hopes to make the most of the unprecedented opportunity to pool their recorded data into the 2020 quiet ocean assessment and to help monitor the ocean soundscape long into the future.

Our aim is a network of 500 hydrophones capturing the signals of whales and other marine life while assessing the racket levels of human activity. Combined with other sea life monitoring methods such as animal tagging, the work will help reveal the extent to which noise in “the Anthropocene seas” impacts ocean species, which depend on sound and natural sonar to mate, navigate and feed across the ocean.

Sound travels far in the ocean and a hydrophone can pick up low frequency signals from hundreds, even thousands of kilometres away.

Assessing the risks of underwater sound for marine life requires understanding what sound levels cause harmful effects and where in the ocean vulnerable animals may be exposed to sound exceeding these levels.

In 2011, experts began developing the International Quiet Ocean Experiment (IQOE), launched in 2015 with the International Quiet Ocean Experiment Science Plan. Among our goals: to create a time series of measurements of ambient sound in many ocean locations to reveal variability and changes in intensity and other properties of sound at a range of frequencies.

The plan also included designating 2022 “the Year of the Quiet Ocean.” Due to COVID-19, however, the oceans are unlikely to be as quiet as they were in April, 2020 for many decades to come.

COVID-19 reduced sound levels more than we dreamed possible. IQOE, therefore, is focusing project resources to encourage study of changes in sound levels and effects on organisms that occurred in 2020, based on observations from hundreds of hydrophones worldwide in 2019-2021.

Of the 231 non-military hydrophones identified to February 2021, the highest concentrations are found along the North American coasts — Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic — Hawaii, Europe, and Antarctica, with some scattered through the Asia-Pacific region.

Several have agreed to their geographic coordinates and other metadata being shown on the IQOE website (https://www.iqoe.org/systems).

Sparse, sporadic deployment of hydrophones and obstacles to integrating measurements have narrowly limited what we confidently know.

We are therefore creating a global data repository with contributors using standardized methods, tools and depths to measure and document ocean soundscapes and effects on the distribution and behavior of vocalizing animals.

New software, MANTA (at https://bit.ly/3cVNUox), developed by researchers across the USA and led by the University of New Hampshire, will help standardize ocean sound recording data from collaborators, facilitating its comparability, pooling and visualization.

As well, an Open Portal to Underwater Sound (OPUS), is being tested at Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany to promote the use of acoustic data collected worldwide, providing easy access to MANTA-processed data. The aggregated data will permit soundscape maps of entire oceans.

Meanwhile, scientists over the past decade have developed powerful methods to estimate the distribution and abundance of vocalizing animals using passive acoustic monitoring.

The fledgling hydrophone network contributes to the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS), a network of observing assets monitoring currents, temperature, sea level, chemical pollution, litter, and other concerns worldwide.

Precious chance

Seldom has there been such a chance to collect quiet ocean data in the Anthropocene Seas. COVID-19 drastically decreased shipping, tourism and recreation, fishing and aquaculture, naval and coast guard exercises, offshore construction, port and channel dredging, and energy exploration and extraction. The concurrent price war that caused oil prices to dive to zero further quieted maritime energy activities.

The last comparable opportunity followed the terrorist attacks on the United States in September 2001, which disrupted not just air travel; they also led to a shipping slowdown and ocean noise reduction, prompting biologists to study stress hormone levels in endangered North Atlantic right whales in the Bay of Fundy.

With their 2001 data, research revealed higher September stress hormone levels over the next four years as the whales prepared to migrate to warmer southern waters where they calve, suggesting that the industrialized ocean causes chronic stress of animals.

We are on the way to timely, reliable, easily understood maps of ocean soundscapes, including the exceptional period of April 2020 when the COVID virus gave marine animals a brief break from human clatter.

Let’s learn from the COVID pause to help achieve safer operations for shipping industries, offshore energy operators, navies, and other users of the ocean.

Additional information about MANTA is available at https://bitbucket.org/CLO-BRP/manta-wiki/wiki/Home, and about the IQOE at https://bit.ly/3sDTkd

We invite parties in a position to help to join us in this global effort to assess the variability and trends of ocean sound and the effects of sound on marine life.

*Jesse Ausubel is the IQOE project originator and Director of the Program for the Human Environment at The Rockefeller University, New York City; Edward R. Urban Jr of the Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research is the IQOE Project Manager

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