AFGHANISTAN: ‘The Doha Meeting Has Raised Concerns the UN Is Indirectly Legitimising the Taliban’

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Jul 10 2024 (IPS) –  
CIVICUS discusses the exclusion of women from international talks on Afghanistan currently being held in Qatar with Sima Samar, former chairperson of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC). The AIHRC is the Afghan national institution devoted to the promotion, protection and monitoring of human rights. Its status is now a matter of contention: on returning to power, the Taliban decreed its dissolution, but the AIHRC refuses to abide by the decision due to the illegitimate nature of the Taliban regime.


Sima Samar

The meeting between the Taliban, envoys from up to 25 countries and other stakeholders being hosted by the United Nations (UN) in Doha, Qatar, has sparked an international outcry because Afghan women haven’t been invited. This is the third such meeting but the first to include the Taliban, who aren’t internationally recognised as Afghanistan’s rulers. Rights activists have criticised the UN’s approach, saying it gives legitimacy to the Taliban and betrays its commitment to women’s rights. They are calling for gender apartheid to be recognised as an international crime and for sanctions to be imposed on those responsible.

What’s the purpose and relevance of the third Doha meeting on Afghanistan?

The third Doha meeting was convened following a UN Security Council resolution that mandated an independent assessment of the situation in Afghanistan, with the aim of facilitating Afghanistan’s reintegration into the international community and the UN. The appointed independent expert, a former Turkish diplomat, conducted a comprehensive assessment. While it acknowledged the Taliban’s human rights violations, particularly against women, it did not sufficiently address issues such as the persecution of minorities and the erosion of democratic processes.

The UN sees these meetings as part of a plan for a peaceful Afghanistan that respects human rights, particularly for women and girls, and is integrated into the global community. But the decision to exclude women from these critical discussions is deeply contradictory. By accepting the Taliban’s conditions for participation in the talks, the UN is undermining its commitment to promoting inclusivity and gender equality.

Why are rights groups criticising the meeting and what are their demands?

Rights groups have been highly critical of the UN’s approach to the meeting for a number of reasons. First, they have condemned the exclusion of women from the main discussions. This exclusion directly contradicted the UN’s commitment to gender mainstreaming and its resolutions advocating women’s participation in peace processes. Second, there was a significant lack of transparency about the agenda and proceedings of the meetings, particularly the separate women’s session that followed the main discussions. This opacity fuelled concerns about the effectiveness and sincerity of the engagement.

Critics say the meeting focused mainly on economic issues, ignoring important discussions on human rights and women’s rights. This has raised concerns the UN is indirectly legitimising the Taliban’s harsh policies. Rights groups want future meetings to be inclusive and transparent and ensure women’s voices are heard. They want the UN to stick to its rules and not agree to demands that violate human rights.

What’s the situation of Afghan women under the Taliban?

Since the Taliban came back to power, the situation for women in Afghanistan has deteriorated dramatically. Women have been almost completely removed from public life, allowed to work only in very limited fields such as health and primary education, and then only under strict conditions.

Afghanistan is the only country in the world that prohibits girls beyond 11 to 12 years old from receiving education. Even below that level, there are severe restrictions, including the imposition of the hijab on young girls and a curriculum increasingly focused on religious instruction, which threatens to radicalise the next generation.

Women working in any capacity face severe economic discrimination. Their salaries are capped at unsustainable levels, making it impossible for them to live independently. When female health workers went on strike over these unfair conditions, the Ministry of Public Health refused to engage in dialogue.

The Taliban’s systematic discrimination places women in an inferior position in all aspects of life, from education to employment, perpetuating a cycle of oppression and marginalisation. There is an obvious gap between the goals of the Doha meeting, which aim to achieve a peaceful Afghanistan with human rights for women and girls, and the harsh realities faced by Afghan women under Taliban rule.

What should the international community do to support Afghan women?

To support women’s rights in Afghanistan, the international community must take a firm stand against the Taliban’s policies.

First, the Taliban should not be recognised as a legitimate government until they comply with international human rights standards, including those relating to women’s rights. Second, existing sanctions against the Taliban should be strengthened to pressure them to comply with human rights norms. Third, the international community should hold the Taliban accountable for their crimes, including rights violations against women, through legal mechanisms and continuous advocacy.

The plight of Afghan women is not just a national issue, but a global one that affects the stability and peace of the entire region. Ignoring women’s suffering will only perpetuate conflict and undermine efforts to achieve sustainable peace and development. The international community has a moral obligation to ensure the protection of Afghan women’s rights and uphold the principles of justice and equality in any engagement with the Taliban.

What should be done to ensure women are included in future talks on Afghanistan?

To ensure the inclusion of women in future international talks, it is essential that their participation is mandated at every stage of the dialogue process. Women must be at the table for all discussions, as their exclusion fundamentally undermines the legitimacy and effectiveness of the talks.

The international community should strongly reject any conditions set by the Taliban that violate human rights principles, particularly those that exclude women. Transparency is also crucial. Agendas and outcomes of meetings should be openly shared to ensure inclusiveness and accountability.

Civic space in Afghanistan is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission through its website or Facebook page, and follow @AfghanistanIHRC and @DrSimasamar on Twitter.

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Panama’s Elections: Has Impunity Prevailed?

Civil Society, Climate Change, Crime & Justice, Economy & Trade, Education, Featured, Headlines, Labour, Latin America & the Caribbean, Migration & Refugees, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

Credit: Johan Ordoñez/AFP via Getty Images

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, May 21 2024 (IPS) – Regional experts called it Panama’s most important election since the 1989 US invasion that deposed de facto president General Manuel Noriega. Panamanians went to the polls amid high inflation and unemployment, with a stagnating economy. Endemic corruption was also high on their long list of concerns, along with access to water, education and a collapsing social security system.


The winner, conservative lawyer José Raúl Mulino, was a stand-in for former president Ricardo Martinelli, disqualified from running due to a money laundering conviction. Martinelli remains popular regardless and managed to transfer his popularity to his less charismatic substitute. For those who backed Mulino, nostalgia for the economic stability and growth that marked Martinelli’s pro-business administration seemed to outweigh his proven record of corruption.

On the face of it, the election results seemed to demonstrate the primacy of economic considerations in voters’ minds, with hopes for growth trumping corruption fatigue. But that’s not the whole story.

Free, fair and uncertain

On 5 May, Panamanians went to the polls to elect a president and vice-president, 71 National Assembly members, 20 Central American Parliament deputies and local representatives.

The elections were undoubtedly clean and transparent, with integrity guaranteed by the participation of civil society in the National Scrutiny Board. Results were announced quickly and all losing candidates accepted them. But the pre-voting context was far less straightforward. Until the very last minute the now president-elect wasn’t sure he’d be allowed to run.

Mulino served as security minister in Martinelli’s government between 2009 and 2014. Ten years later, largely unknown to the electorate, he entered the race as Martinelli’s running mate for Achieving Goals (Realizando Metas, RM), a party Martinelli founded in 2021.

In July 2023, Martinelli was convicted of money laundering and sentenced to 10 years in prison, making him ineligible to run. He appealed, but the Electoral Tribunal didn’t make a final decision on his disqualification until March. To avoid jail, he sought asylum in the Nicaraguan embassy in Panama City. Mulino took his place, but his presidential candidacy was also challenged. For two months, he became the centre of attention as the Electoral Tribunal and Supreme Court debated whether he could ran. The positive court ruling came on 3 May, just two days before voting. Mulino also received a lot of help from Martinelli, who campaigned for him online while holed up in the Nicaraguan embassy.

A fragmented vote

Eight candidates contested the presidency, a five-year position with no possibility of a second consecutive term. With no runoff, a fragmented vote was likely to produce a winner with far less than half the vote. Mulino’s winning total of 34.2 per cent wasn’t unusual: two previous presidents received similarly low shares, including the outgoing centre-left president, Laurentino Cortizo of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Democrático, PRD).

Mulino’s closest competitor, on 24.6 per cent, was Ricardo Lombana, a centre-right anti-corruption outsider. In third place was Martin Torrijos, another former president and Martinelli’s immediate predecessor, now distanced from his original party, the PRD, and running on the ticket of the Christian democratic People’s Party (Partido Popular, PP). Fourth was Rómulo Roux, of the centre-right Democratic Change (Cambio Democrático, CD), the party Martinelli founded and used as a vehicle for the presidency, but which he abandoned in 2020 amid leadership disputes.

The parties that once dominated the political landscape fared badly. The Panameñista Party didn’t even have a presidential candidate; instead, its leader joined Roux as his running mate. The PRD, which led three of the last six governments, fell below six per cent.

Independents on the rise

In 1998, Martinelli’s CD was the first to challenge the dominance of traditional parties. Later changes to the electoral law allowed independent candidates to stand. Their growing prominence reflects widespread dissatisfaction with traditional parties and the political class.

In the 5 May congressional elections, independent candidates won more seats than any political party – 20, up from just five. Mulino’s new RM party took 14 seats. The PRD lost a whopping 22, retaining only 13. The new composition of the National Assembly speaks of a thirst for renewal that doesn’t match the choice for corruption and impunity the presidential results might suggest.

Spotlight on the economy

For the three decades before the pandemic, the Panamanian economy grew by around six per cent a year, helped by income from the Panama Canal and construction and mining booms. But then challenges started piling up. The economy slowed down. Jobs disappeared. Inflation rose.

Activity in the Panama Canal has been severely affected by the impacts of climate change, with a drop in water levels. Drought has also reduced access to drinking water in some regions. Meanwhile an unprecedented rise in the numbers of migrants travelling through the Darién Gap, the treacherous stretch of jungle at the border with Colombia, has stretched the resources of the humanitarian assistance system.

Mulino campaigned on promises to improve the economy by attracting investment, developing infrastructure and creating jobs. He pledged to improve access to safe water and promised to ‘shut down’ the Darién Gap.

Mulino’s voters may have accepted the bargain he appeared to offer – prosperity in exchange for impunity – but many more people voted against him than for. He was able to win because the vote against was so fragmented. The number of independents who entered Congress is just one of many indicators of widespread dissatisfaction with politicians like him.

Mulino will have to deliver on his promises to attract investment and create jobs. He’ll need to reduce inequalities and deal with growing insecurity, the situation in the Darién Gap and a pensions system on the brink of insolvency. Last but not least, he’ll need to strengthen institutions and tackle corruption – which begs the question of what he’ll do about Martinelli.

The challenges are many and great, and Mulino won’t have anything close to a legislative majority. The National Assembly is so fragmented that a high-level deal with one or two parties won’t be enough. Mulino seemed to recognise this on election night when he called for national unity and said he was open to dialogue and consensus. This was a first step in the direction he should keep following.

Inés M. Pousadela is CIVICUS Senior Research Specialist, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.

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Unpaid Caregivers, a Symbol of Inequality in Chile

Civil Society, Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Editors’ Choice, Featured, Headlines, Human Rights, Labour, Latin America & the Caribbean, Regional Categories, Sustainable Development Goals, TerraViva United Nations, Women & Economy

Women & Economy

On International Women's Day on Mar. 8, thousands of Chilean women of all ages took to Santiago's central Alameda avenue to demonstrate peacefully for several hours and turn the Chilean capital into a stage for protest and demands for their rights. Some of them were women caregivers accompanied by dependent women. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi / IPS - In Chile, like elsewhere in Latin America, unpaid caregivers—mostly women—bear the responsibility of caring for individuals with disabilities, the elderly, and children, often leaving them without access to paid work or personal time

On International Women’s Day on Mar. 8, thousands of Chilean women of all ages took to Santiago’s central Alameda avenue to demonstrate peacefully for several hours and turn the Chilean capital into a stage for protest and demands for their rights. Some of them were women caregivers accompanied by dependent women. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi / IPS

SANTIAGO , Mar 20 2024 (IPS) – In Chile, as in the rest of Latin America, the task of caring for people with disabilities, the elderly and children falls to women who, as a result, do not have access to paid jobs or time for themselves.


Unpaid domestic and care work is crucial to the economies of the region, accounting for around 20 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

Measurements by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) found that in 16 Latin American countries, women spend between 22.1 and 42.8 hours per week on unpaid domestic and care work. Men only spend between 6.7 and 19.8 hours.

Ana Güezmes, director of ECLAC’s Division for Gender Affairs, told IPS that “in most countries women work longer total hours, but with a lower proportion of paid hours.”

“This work, which is fundamental for sustaining life and social well-being, is disproportionately assigned to women. This situation impacts women’s autonomy, economic opportunities, labor and political participation and their access to leisure activities and rest,” Güezmes said at ECLAC headquarters in Santiago.

The situation is far from changing as it is replicated in young women who devote up to 20 percent of their time to unpaid work.

Paloma Olivares, president for Santiago of the women's organization Yo Cuido, works in her office in the working-class municipality of Estación Central, in the northeast of the Chilean capital. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi / IPS

Paloma Olivares, president for Santiago of the women’s organization Yo Cuido, works in her office in the working-class municipality of Estación Central, in the northeast of the Chilean capital. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi / IPS

Women left on their own as caregivers

Paloma Olivares, 43, chairs the Yo Cuido Association in Santiago, Chile, which brings together 120 members, only two of them men.

“Women caregivers are denied the right to participate on equal terms in society because we are forced to choose between exercising our rights or doing caregiving work. And we cannot choose because it is a job we do for a loved one, for a family member.” — Paloma Olivares

“Women caregivers are denied the right to participate on equal terms in society because we are forced to choose between exercising our rights or doing caregiving work. And we cannot choose because it is a job we do for a loved one, for a family member,” she told IPS.

“We are left in a position of inequality, of absolute vulnerability because you have to devote your life to supporting someone else at the expense of your personal life,” she said.

Olivares stopped working to care for Pascale, her granddaughter, who was born with cerebral palsy and hydrocephalus.

Three days after her birth, a bacterium became lodged in her central nervous system. She was hospitalized for almost a year and became severely dependent.

At the time, she was given a seven percent chance of survival. Today she is eight years old, goes to school and lives an almost normal life thanks to the work of her caregivers.

She is now cared for by her mother Valentina, who had her at the age of 15. Paloma was able to return to paid work, but her daughter abandoned her studies to take care of Pascale.

“When you start being a caregiver, friendships end, because no one can keep up. Even the family drifts away. That’s why most caregiving families are single-parent, the woman is left alone to care because the man can’t keep up with the pace and the emotional and economic burden,” she said.

Olivares participated from Mar. 12 to 14 in a public hearing, digital and in person, on the right to care and its interrelation with other rights, in a collective request of several social organizations and the governments of Chile and other Latin American countries before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR Court), based in San Jose, Costa Rica,

In the request for an opinion from the IACHR Court, “we asked the Court to take a stance on the right to care and how the rights of women in particular have been violated because there are no public policies in this regard. We want the Court to pronounce itself on the right to care and how the States should address it so that this right is guaranteed and so the rights of caregivers are no longer violated,” she explained.

It is expected that the Court’s pronouncement on the matter will come out in April and could establish minimum parameters regarding women caregivers for Chile and other Latin American countries.

Critical situation for women caregivers

Millaray Sáez, 59, told IPS by telephone from the southern Chilean city of Concepción that her son Mario Ignacio, 33, “is no longer the autonomous person he was. Since 2012 he has become a baby.”

She chairs the AML Bío Bío Corporación, an association of women in the Bío Bío region created in 2017 to address the question of female empowerment and today dedicated to the issue of caregivers.

“I have been a caregiver for 30 years for my son who has refractory epilepsy. He became prostrate in 2012 as a result of medical negligence,” said the international trade engineer who has become an expert in public policies on care with a gender perspective.

Sáez said “the situation of women caregivers is very bad, very precarious. There is a single cause, which is the work of caregiving, but the consequences are multidimensional…. from physical deterioration to the lack of legislation to protect against forms of violence, and ranging from the family to what society or the State adds.”

She also pointed to the economic consequences of dependent care.

She cited cases in which caregivers spend over 150 dollars a month on diapers alone for a person who needs them. And she pointed out that the government provides an economic aid stipend of just 33 dollars a month.

Teresa Valdés, head of the Gender and Equity Observatory of the Catholic University of Chile, praises the new registry of caregivers promoted by the Chilean government, but underlines the importance of municipal experiences and initiatives that promote homes and care centers to facilitate the lives of women caregivers. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi / IPS

Teresa Valdés, head of the Gender and Equity Observatory of the Catholic University of Chile, praises the new registry of caregivers promoted by the Chilean government, but underlines the importance of municipal experiences and initiatives that promote homes and care centers to facilitate the lives of women caregivers. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi / IPS

The magnitude of the problem

It is a pending task to determine the number of women caregivers in Chile.

The government of leftist President Gabriel Boric created a system for caregivers to register and receive a credential that gives them access to public services.

“The credential is the gateway to the Chile Cuida System. With it we seek to make them visible in services and institutions and to reward them for their work by saving them waiting time in daily procedures,” the Minister of Women and Gender Equity, Antonia Orellana, explained to IPS.

So far, there are 85,817 people registered, of whom 74,650 are women, or 87 percent of the total, and 11,167 are men, according to data provided to IPS on Mar. 14 by the Undersecretariat of Social Services of the Ministry of Social Development and Family.

But Chile has 19.5 million inhabitants, and “17.6 percent of the adult population has some degree of disability and, therefore, requires the daily care and support of other people in the home,” the minister said.

That means 3.4 million Chileans depend on a caregiver.

According to Orellana, facing the care scenario projected by the aging of the population will require the collaboration of everyone to “create and sustain an economic and productive system that generates decent work and formal employment, leaving no one behind.”

Other urgent demands by women

Sociologist Teresa Valdés, head of the Gender and Equity Observatory, told IPS that there are many social problems facing Chilean women today, “especially those related to access to health care, social security, unequal pay and access to different goods and services.”

Valdés regretted that the term “women caregivers” is used to refer to the role that women play and the tasks that are culturally assigned to them as a priority.

“We are all caregivers, all women work double shifts. The time-use survey shows that we work an additional 41 hours per week of so-called unpaid reproductive care work,” she said.

According to Valdés, the main advance in this problem is to include it in the debate because these are policies that require a lot of resources and extensive development, since they have to do with the structure of the labor market.

“Part of the proposal should be how to ‘de-genderize’, how care becomes a task of shared responsibility and not only that women have more time to take on the care tasks,” she said.

“When we call women caregivers, we are referring to the group most affected by the conditions of sexual division of labor and family reproduction,” she added.

The expert proposes progressively identifying ways to support women caregivers in order to provide them with available time and take care of their mental health.

She praised the programs promoted by some municipalities to free up time for these women to enjoy leisure and self-care.

“We have to move towards a cultural conception that we are all dependent. Today I depend on you, tomorrow you depend on me. Care is a social task in which I take care of you today so that you can take care of me tomorrow. And that is something that has to start from the earliest childhood,” she argued.

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Trapped and Trafficked—Fishers Tell of Forced Labor Horror

Active Citizens, Africa, Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Economy & Trade, Editors’ Choice, Environment, Featured, Headlines, Human Rights, Human Trafficking, Humanitarian Emergencies, Labour, Migration & Refugees, TerraViva United Nations

Human Trafficking

Workers take a break after unloading fish from the Sor Somboon 19 fishing vessel. Initial screenings conducted by Greenpeace revealed that the crew of this Thai trawler met internationally accepted definitions of forced labour. Credit: Greenpeace

Workers take a break after unloading fish from the Sor Somboon 19 fishing vessel. Initial screenings conducted by Greenpeace revealed that the crew of this Thai trawler met internationally accepted definitions of forced labour. Credit: Greenpeace

BRATISLAVA, Jan 19 2024 (IPS) – “The thing is that when you come from an African country, they know that you’re basically trapped,” says Noel Adabblah.


“You have the wrong documents; you can’t go home because you’ve already borrowed money there to get here, and you won’t risk losing what work you have, no matter how bad, because of that. They know all the tricks.” 

The 36-year-old is speaking from Dublin, where he has managed to make a new life for himself after becoming a victim of what recent reports have shown to be widespread and growing forced labour in fishing fleets across the globe.

Adabblah, from Tema in Ghana, and three friends signed up with a recruitment agency back home to work as fishers on boats in the UK. They paid the equivalent of 1,200 EUR to be placed in jobs and were given letters of invitation and guarantees by their new employers, who said they would be met in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and who agreed to take care of all their documents and visas. Their employment contracts stated the men would be paid 1,000 GBP per month and employed for 12 months, with an option to reduce or extend that by three months upon mutual consent.

But when they arrived in January 2018, they were taken to Dublin and later split up. In the following months, they were taken to do various jobs at different ports in Ireland, sometimes late at night with no idea where they were going.

“We thought we were going there to sail and fish, but when we got there, we saw the boats were not ready; they were in poor condition, and we couldn’t fish, so the owner of the boats got us to do other jobs instead,” Adabblah tells IPS.

Cambodian fishermen from the fishing vessel Sor Somboon 19 recovers from beriberi at Ranong Hospital. The crew met internationally accepted definitions of victims of forced labour. Thai government investigations determined that the hospitalizations and deaths from the beriberi outbreak aboard Sor Somboon 19 were directly caused by a business model based on transshipment at sea. Credit: Greenpeace

A Cambodian fisher from the fishing vessel Sor Somboon 19 recovers from beriberi at Ranong Hospital. The crew met internationally accepted definitions of victims of forced labour. Credit: Greenpeace

“But after a few months, we said this is not what we came here to do. We had an argument over pay—he said he had no boats to fish with and wanted to lay us off, told us to go home. But we said no, that we had a 12-month contract we had signed for. He said he wouldn’t pay us, but could try to get us another job with someone else, but we said we couldn’t do that because the visas we had only applied to working for him. He told us if we didn’t like it, we could go home.”

It is at this point that many victims of forced labour often simply accept their fate and either go home or do whatever their employer wants. But Adabblah and his friends were determined to see the terms of their contract met, and they contacted the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF).

However, their problems deepened as they discovered they did not have the right documents for their work.

“We had no idea of the difference between Ireland and the UK. We thought the papers were OK. But when we went to the ITF, we realized they weren’t,” explains Adabblah.

At that point, the Irish police were obliged to open an investigation into the case.

Adabblah, who stayed in Ireland and has since managed to find work in the construction industry, says he heard nothing about the case until last year. “I heard that the police had said there was not enough evidence to pursue a conviction,” he says. Forced labour does not exist as an offense on the Irish statute books, so such cases are investigated under human trafficking legislation.

Regardless of the lack of a conviction in his case, he is clear that what he and his friends experienced was forced labour.

“They treated us badly. We worked 20-hour shifts some days. Once, when I was ill and couldn’t go on the boat, they said that if I couldn’t do the job, I could go home. They say stuff like that to threaten you,” he says.

Burmese fishermen in temporary shelter in Ambon port, Indonesia. Hundreds of trafficked workers are waiting to be sent back home, with many facing an uncertain future. The forced labour and trafficking survivors interviewed by Greenpeace Southeast Asia detailed beatings and food deprivation for anyone who tried to escape. The tuna fishermen on their vessels were forced to work 20-22 hour days for little to no pay, often deprived of basic necessities like showers.

Burmese fishers in temporary shelter in Ambon Port, Indonesia. Hundreds of trafficked workers are waiting to be sent back home, with many facing an uncertain future. The forced labour and trafficking survivors interviewed by Greenpeace Southeast Asia detailed beatings and food deprivation for anyone who tried to escape. The tuna fishermen on their vessels were forced to work 20–22 hours a day for little to no pay, often deprived of basic necessities like showers. Credit: Greenpeace

A commercial shrimp trawler is pursued by three Sea Lions near San Felipe. Shrimp trawlers, often entering into marine reserves illegally, pose a great threat to the marine environment at the northern end of the Gulf of California, due to the variety of marine wildlife, including Sea Lions that get caught in their bottom-trawling nets. The Greenpeace vessel 'MY Esperanza' is currently in Mexico to highlight the threats to the 'world's aquarium' from over-fishing, destructive tourism development, pollution and marine habitat loss.

A commercial shrimp trawler is pursued by three Sea Lions near San Felipe.
Shrimp trawlers, often entering into marine reserves illegally, pose a great threat to the marine environment at the northern end of the Gulf of California, due to the variety of marine wildlife, including Sea Lions, that get caught in their bottom-trawling nets. Credit: Greenpeace

Adabblah’s experience is far from unique among workers in the world’s fishing fleets. A recent report by the Financial Transparency Coalition, an international grouping of NGOs, said that more than 128,000 fishers were trapped in forced labour aboard fishing vessels in 2021. Its authors say there is a “human rights crisis” of forced labour aboard commercial fishing vessels, leading to horrific abuses and even deaths.

They point out that many of these victims of forced labour are from the global South, something that the people behind these crimes use to their advantage, experts say.

Michael O’Brien of the ITF’s Fisheries Section told IPS: “Those employing vulnerable migrants in forced labour scenarios rely upon the vulnerability of the victim, the potential lack of legal status of the victim in the country where they are working, and the victim’s reliance on an income that is unavailable to them in their country of origin.”

Mariama Thiam, an investigative journalist in Senegal who did research for the Financial Transparency Coalition report, said fishers often do not know what they are signing up for.

“Usually there is a standard contract that the fisher signs, and often they sign it without understanding it fully,” she told IPS.  “Most Senegalese fishermen have a low level of education. The contract is checked by the national fishing agency, which sees it, says it looks okay, approves it, and the fishers then go, but the fishers don’t understand what’s in it.”

Then, once they have started work, the men are so desperate to keep their jobs that they will put up with whatever conditions they have to.

“All the fishers I have spoken to say they have had no choice but to do the work because they cannot afford to lose their jobs—their families rely on them. Some of them were beaten or did not have any days off; captains systematically confiscate all their passports when they go on board—the captains say that if the fishermen have their passports, some will go on shore when they are in Europe and stay on there, migrating illegally,” she said.

“In the minds of Senegalese fishermen, their priority is salary. They can tolerate human rights abuses and forced labour if they get their salary,” Thiam added.

Adabblah agrees, adding though that this allows the criminals behind the forced labour to continue their abuses.

“The thing is that a lot of people are afraid to speak up because of where they are from, and they end up being too scared to say anything even if they are really badly treated. There are lots of people who are in the same situation as I was or experiencing much worse, but if no one speaks up, how can [criminals] be identified?” he says.

Experts on the issue say the owners of vessels where forced labour is alleged to have occurred hide behind complex corporate structures and that many governments take a lax approach to uncovering ultimate beneficial ownership information when vessels are registered or fishing licenses are applied for.

This means those behind the abuses are rarely identified, let alone punished.

“In Senegal, what happens is that the government doesn’t want to share information on owner control of boats. No one can get information on it, not journalists, not activists, sometimes not even people in other parts of government itself,” said Thiam.

Other problems include a lack of legislation to even deal with the problem. For instance, Thiam highlighted that fishers in Senegal work under a collective convention dating back to 1976 that does not mention forced labour.

O’Brien added: “In the Irish context, there has never been a prosecution for human trafficking for labour exploitation in fisheries or any other sector.

“There is a school of thought among progressive lawyers that we need a separate offense on the statute books of ‘labour exploitation’ to obtain convictions. In the case of fishers, some remedies can be obtained via the labour and maritime authorities, but these are lower-level offenses that do not have a dissuasive effect on the vessel owners.”

Victims also face difficulties seeking redress in their home countries.

Complaints to recruiting agencies in fishers’ home countries often come to nothing and can end up having serious consequences.

“The thing about the agency I dealt with at home and other agencies like it is that if you complain to them, they will just say that you are talking too much and you should come home and solve the situation there, and then when you get home, they just blacklist you and you won’t get any fishing work ever again; they will just recruit someone else,” says Adabblah.

Although Adabblah did not see the justice he had hoped for, he is aware his story has ended better than many other victims of forced labour. He, along with his three friends, have made new lives in Ireland, and he is hoping to soon begin the process of becoming a naturalised Irish citizen.

He urges anyone who finds themselves in the same situation to not stay quiet, and instead contact an organization like the ITF or something similar.

Doing so may not always bring victims a satisfactory resolution to their problems, but each publicized case may end up having a long-term positive effect on stopping others from being abused, said O’Brien.

“The ITF has significant resources but not enough to match the scale of the problem. The cases we take up like Noel’s are the tip of the iceberg. However, we use these cases, with the consent of the victims, to highlight the problem with governments and, in turn, campaign for changes in the law,” he said.

IPS UN Bureau Report

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Bangladesh: Election with a Foregone Conclusion

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Opinion

Credit: Munir Uz Zaman/AFP via Getty Images

LONDON, Jan 12 2024 (IPS) – Bangladesh just held an election. But it was far from an exercise in democracy.

Sheikh Hasina won her fourth consecutive term, and fifth overall, as prime minister in the general election held on 7 January. The result was never in doubt, with the main opposition party, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), boycotting the vote over the ruling Awami League’s refusal to let a caretaker government oversee the election. This practice, abolished by the Awami League government in 2011, was, the BNP asserted, the only way to ensure a free and fair vote.


The BNP’s boycott was far from the only issue. A blatant campaign of pre-election intimidation saw government critics, activists and protesters subjected to threats, violence and arrests.

At the government’s urging, court cases against opposition members were accelerated so they’d be locked away before the election, resulting in a reported 800-plus convictions between September and December 2023. It’s alleged that torture and ill-treatment were used against opposition activists to force confessions. There have been reports of deaths in police custody.

Police banned protests, and when a rare mass opposition protest went ahead on 28 October police used rubber bullets, teargas and stun grenades. Following the protest, thousands more opposition supporters were detained on fabricated charges. As well as violence from the notorious Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) – an elite unit notorious for excessive and lethal force – and other elements of the police force, opposition supporters faced attacks by Awami League supporters. Journalists have also been smeared, attacked and harassed, including when covering protests.

As a direct result of the ruling party’s pre-election crackdown, in December 2023 Bangladesh’s civic space rating was downgraded to closed by the CIVICUS Monitor, the collaborative research project that tracks the health of civic space in every country. This places Bangladesh among the world’s worst human rights offenders, including China, Iran and Russia.

Civil society’s concerns were echoed in November 2023 by UN human rights experts who expressed alarm at political violence, arrests, mass detention, judicial harassment, excessive force and internet restrictions.

All-out assault

Such is the severity of the closure of Bangladesh’s civic space that many of the strongest dissenting voices now come from those in exile. But even speaking out from outside Bangladesh doesn’t ensure safety. As a way of putting pressure on exiled activists, the authorities are harassing their families.

Activists aren’t safe even at the UN. A civil society discussion in the wings of the UN Human Rights Council in November was disrupted by government supporters, with Adilur Rahman Khan, a leader of the Bangladeshi human rights organisation Odhikar, subjected to verbal attacks.

Khan is currently on bail while appealing against a two-year jail sentence imposed on him and another Odhikar leader in retaliation for their work to document extrajudicial killings. Following the session in Geneva, Khan was further vilified in online news sites and accused of presenting false information.

Others are coming under attack. Hasina and her government have made much of their economic record, with Bangladesh now one of the world’s biggest garment producers. But that success is largely based on low wages. Like many countries, Bangladesh is currently experiencing high inflation, and garment workers’ recent efforts to improve their situation have been met with repression.

Workers protested in October and November 2023 after a government-appointed panel raised the minimum wage for garment sector workers to a far lower level than they’d demanded. Up to 25,000 people took part in protests, forcing at least 100 factories to close. They were met with police violence. At least two people were killed and many more were injured.

Seemingly no one is safe. Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, who founded the Grameen Bank that has enabled millions to access small loans, was recently convicted of labour law offences in a trial his supporters denounced as politically motivated. Yunus has long been a target for criticism and threats from the ruling party.

Democracy in name only

The quality of Bangladesh’s elections has dramatically declined since the Awami League returned to power in the last reasonably free and fair election in 2008. Each election since has been characterised by serious irregularities and pre-voting crackdowns as the incumbents have done everything they could to hold onto power.

But this time, while the Awami League victory was as huge as ever, turnout was down. It was almost half its 2018 level, at only 41.8 per cent, and even that figure may be inflated. The lack of participation reflected a widespread understanding that the Awami League’s victory was a foregone conclusion: many Awami League supporters didn’t feel they needed to vote, and many opposition backers had no one to vote for.

People knew that many supposedly independent candidates were in reality Awami League supporters running as a pseudo-opposition to offer some appearance of electoral competition. The party that came second is also allied with the ruling party. All electoral credibility and legitimacy are now strained past breaking point.

The government has faced predictably no pressure to abide by democratic rules from key allies such as China and India, although the once-supportive US government has shifted its position in recent years, imposing sanctions on some RAB leaders and threatening to withhold visas for Bangladeshis deemed to have undermined the electoral process.

If the economic situation deteriorates further, discontent is sure to grow, and with other spaces blocked, protests and their violent repression will surely follow. International partners must urge the Bangladeshi government to find a way to avoid this. More violence and intensifying authoritarianism can’t be the way forward. Instead Bangladesh should be urged to start the journey back towards democracy.

Andrew Firmin 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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Rich Nations, IMF Deepen World Stagnation

Civil Society, COVID-19, Economy & Trade, Environment, Financial Crisis, Global, Headlines, Labour, Poverty & SDGs, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, Dec 13 2023 (IPS) – With the US Fed raising interest rates, the world economy is slowing as debt distress spreads across the global South, increasing poverty worldwide to pre-pandemic levels, with the poorest countries faring worst.


Extreme poverty continues to be high and is now worse than before the pandemic in low-income countries (LICs) and among those affected by fragility, violence and conflict. The promise of eradicating poverty worldwide by 2030 has become unachievable.

Jomo Kwame Sundaram

The Bretton Woods institutions’ (BWIs) annual meetings in Marrakech in October were only the second-ever in Africa. But the rich nations-dominated BWIs failed yet again to rise to the challenges of our times, setting Africa and the global South even further back.

Instead of fostering cooperation to address the causes and effects of the contemporary catastrophe, neither the International Monetary Fund nor the World Bank governors could agree on joint communiques due to the greater politicisation of multilateral fora.

Indebtedness immobilises governments
Indebtedness and restrictive creditor rules prevent governments from spending more counter-cyclically to overcome the many contractionary tendencies of recent times, besides preventing them from addressing looming social and environmental crises.

The G20’s largest twenty economies have urged strengthening “multilateral coordination by official bilateral and private creditors … to address the deteriorating debt situation and facilitate coordinated debt treatment for debt-distressed countries”.

But its Common Framework to restructure debt has been roundly criticised by civil society, think tanks and even the World Bank on many grounds, including the paltry concessional credit relief offered to a few of the very poorest countries.

In contrast, the G24 caucus of developing countries at the BWIs has emphasised the need for “durable debt resolution measures while collaborating on resolving the structural issues leading to such vulnerabilities.”

But all those advocating purported solutions are not even trying to ensure fiscal space and public spending capacity for counter-cyclical efforts, let alone achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and national development objectives.

Surcharges
The IMF currently imposes additional charges on countries that do not quickly clear their debts to the Fund. Besides the usual fees and interest, borrowing countries paid over $4 billion in such surcharges in 2020-22, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Surcharges will cost debt-distressed countries about $7.9 billion over six years. The G24 has emphasised that surcharges are pro-cyclical and regressive, especially with monetary tightening.

Governments have undertaken contractionary policies and cut imports for lack of foreign exchange. This deepens the problems of heavily indebted poor countries who cannot but count on the Fund for relief and solutions.

At Marrakech, the governing International Monetary and Financial Committee decided to “consider a review of surcharge policies”. The G24 called for “a suspension of surcharges while the review – which we hope will lead to substantial permanent reduction or complete elimination – is being conducted.”

Rich nations have been divided over surcharges. With Ukraine now among the top surcharge payers, following civil society criticisms, the Biden administration’s refusal to review surcharges in 2022 was heavily criticised by the US Congress.

Deepening austerity
IMF fiscal austerity measures of the 1980s returned with a vengeance after the 2008 global financial crisis, and then again during the Covid-19 pandemic from 2020. Most Fund loans require cutting the public sector wage bill (PSWB), the budget line to pay employees.

Most wage earners in many LICs, including nurses, teachers and other social service workers, work for the state, directly or indirectly. Although much needed, these employees have been more likely to be targeted by such budget cuts.

PSWB cuts may involve hiring or wage freezes, or limiting, or even cutting wages. These inevitably undermine government capacities and services. Fiscal consolidation has also involved raising more indirect, consumption taxes, and tax exemptions, e.g., for essential goods such as food.

In 38 countries with over a billion people, loan conditionalities during 2020-22, the three years of the Covid-19 pandemic, meant regressive tax reforms and public spending cuts. PSWB and fuel or electricity subsidy cuts are also common demands worsening economic contractions.

Austerity bound to fail
But the IMF’s own research suggests such austerity policies are generally ineffective in reducing debt, their ostensible purpose. The April 2023 IMF World Economic Outlook acknowledged austerity programmes and fiscal consolidations “do not reduce debt ratios, on average”. Yet, its Fiscal Monitor still demands “fiscal tightening” of most developing countries.

The new IMF-World Bank debt sustainability framework sets the LICs’ external debt-to-GDP ratio limit at 30% or 40%. It insists debt-distressed economies must have lower ratios than ‘strong’ countries, effectively further penalising the weak and vulnerable.

Instead of enabling consistently counter-cyclical macroeconomic frameworks, the IMF’s current short-termist approach is mainly preoccupied with annual, or worse, quarterly balances, mimicking corporate reporting practices.

Such short-termism further limits fiscal space, effectively preventing or deterring public sector investments requiring longer-term macroeconomic frameworks to realise benefits. This discourages ‘patient’ medium- to long-term investments required for national economic planning and transformation, essential for sustainable development.

Restrictive debt and fiscal targets have meant even less public investment. This is typically required of borrowing countries as a credit conditionality. Annual IMF Article IV consultations cause other countries to also accept similar constraints to avoid Fund disapproval.

While a few better-off economies enjoy full employment, most countries face further economic contraction, not least due to interest rate hikes led by the US Fed and their many effects. Instead of being part of the problem, the IMF should be part of the solution.

IPS UN Bureau

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