Analysis of foreign affairs and policy that emphasizes global cooperation and grassroots participation.
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
May: Banani, Dhaka, Bangladesh
“Mariah” is a small woman with an unexpectedly intense stare. All of us in the hotel conference room crane our necks to see her as she rises to address the table of advocates and NGO representatives gathered for a meeting on safe migration.
She declares her story: she has just returned from Jordan, where she had been working as a domestic worker. To get there, she had sold her land—she needed every penny she could scrounge.
When she arrived in Jordan, Mariah soon discovered that she would be forced to work in “five different houses, for five different wives.” She slept only three hours a night and was beaten when she finally worked up the courage to ask for her salary. Eventually her desperate husband was able to reach a local NGO and start the process for her rescue.
While Mariah is free, she has nothing to show for her work, and the NGO interpreter next to me pointedly notes she is lucky that her husband accepted her back, implying sexual abuse at the hands of the employer family.
I am here as part of a delegation of labor rights advocates organized through the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center to exchange ideas around human trafficking, migration and union organizing in Bangladesh. In the evolving global economy, migrants facing virtual indentured servitude abroad—and coming home to debt and social isolation—feels like the new normal.
Next to Mariah at the table is “Akhtar,” who trembles as he tells the group that his wife has been missing for five months. Tears fill his eyes as he shares his futile efforts to go through the recruiting agency that sent her overseas. He spreads out papers: contracts, identity documents and correspondence, creased and discolored—like he has been carrying them around in the hopes of meeting someone who can intervene.
I watch from the other side of the room as he points and explains each paper to the two government officials who had spoken earlier—the same government officials whose pitiless advice following Mariah’s story had been, “People should know the name of the agency they are giving money to, and memorize the phone number of the embassy.” I feel a flicker of hope as they study the documents while we watch, but it’s hard to tell what the outcome here will be. Several days after this meeting I learned that the Bangladeshi embassies in countries where migrant Bangladeshis work are not able to properly respond to workers in crisis.
In Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated countries on the planet, more than 157 million people live on about 57,000 square miles of land. That’s a population greater than Russia’s living in a country smaller than the state of Illinois. We heard over and over again that Bangladesh’s prime economic resource is its abundance of people—and indeed, alongside agriculture and garment manufacturing, “labor exporting” is a pillar of the economy. In 2013, more than $13 billion was sent home from Bangladeshi migrants working overseas.
The national government officials we met with seemed at once detached from the suffering of migrant workers yet proud of the quality of their “exports.” On the local level, where officials and NGOs seem to work collaboratively to educate Bangladeshis about safe migration, we saw a more complicated picture. Labor migration is a rare viable option to support a family in a poor country like Bangladesh, but these small local partnerships are not reaching enough of the population. Because of these gaps, potential migrants might still take risks in desperation, like working with dalals (middlemen) who cheat them with few consequences.
But the dalals are not the only problem. The Bangladeshi government has yet to effectively regulate even the “registered” recruiting agencies, which charge enormous and erratic fees. And even as they are quick to point to unscrupulous middlemen as rogue actors, these agencies often contract dalals to find them potential migrants. Bangladeshi recruiters told us that they have to bid for the contracts from the receiving countries, which hold all of the bargaining power, and the costs are passed on to the migrant. Migrants sell property and borrow huge sums in order to pay the fees to migrate—only to have no guarantee that they will actually be paid fairly, if at all, when they arrive.
Advocates in Bangladesh are pushing for lower, fixed fees based on destination country, but acknowledge that the best outcome for migrant workers would be a “zero fee” system implemented on a global level.
In the Unites States, where migrant and domestic workers are excluded from many of the federal protections extended to other workers, labor rights activists are also pushing for such a system.
May: Mirpur, Dhaka, Bangladesh
At the Technical Training Center (TTC) in Mirpur, one of forty-two centers in the country that teach more than thirty trades, we tiptoe into ongoing classes for domestic workers. In Bangladesh, outgoing domestic workers are required to have twenty-one days of training before they depart. Most of that time is spent learning practical skills like using household appliances. Through an innovative partnership with the Bangladeshi Migrant Women Workers Association (BOMSA)—a group founded by returned female migrants—domestic workers also get three days of “know your rights” training.
The first room we enter is hot, the lights are off and two ceiling fans whir above us, working diligently to cool the room. Twenty-five women sit in neat rows on mats on the floor. Two desks are situated at the front of the room, though they are not being used by the two teachers—organizers from BOMSA, who are pacing energetically as they question the students about what they’ve learned so far. “Where are you going?” they ask the students for our benefit. Ten are going to Dubai, six to Lebanon, five to Jordan and two each to Qatar and Oman.
The teachers review some tips for self-preservation, encouraging the women to surreptitiously carry a phone number for BOMSA and to record their passport numbers. Some women will hide the numbers on an Arabic prayer card, while others will sew them into the hem of their clothing. It’s hard to fathom that this level of concealment would be necessary for someone going on a government-sponsored work visa, but one returning worker told me that it’s not uncommon for employers in the Gulf to require the newly arrived domestic worker to immediately shower, and then search and confiscate all her documents while she bathes.
Finding creative ways to hide these lifelines is just one part of the “technical training” offered by the TTCs. Other advice included opening two bank accounts (one for yourself and one that your family at home can access) and learning some “shaming” words and gestures in Arabic to thwart aggressive husbands who may try to cross boundaries. Our interpreter and Solidarity Center staffer, Liya, works hard to keep up with the energetic, almost shouting, teachers who lead the students in repetitions of these phrases.
Moving into the next room, a much bigger crowd of women have already taken their seats on the mats. The room is a rainbow of brightly colored cotton and silk set against a spartan model kitchen and living room. Our BOMSA teacher squeezes past the crowd, gets to the podium and asks the students to recite the rights of migrants. They hold one finger up: “I have the right to a job.” They hold a second finger up: “I have the right to be paid.” A third finger, “I have the right to be free from harassment.” Fourth: “I have the right to contact my family.” All five fingers go up: “I have the right to safely return to my family.”
At this point, I expected their fingers to form into a fist, a sign of power. But instead, they wiggled their fingers and used the imagery of a star. A star: an acknowledgment that these women are driving the economy, that they’re stars and heroes for taking this risk of migration in order to help themselves, their families, and their country.
Paradoxically, I learned later that the reason the Dhaka TTC was so crowded compared to other regional centers was because many women wanted to take their training secretly, or at least privately, in a city far from their villages because they were ashamed of being migrant domestic workers. As important as they are to the economy, not just in Bangladesh but globally too, domestic workers still face marginalization and a lack of respect for their contributions.
Back in the BOMSA office for a lunch break of rice and vegetables, I immediately spot a poster proclaiming: “DOMESTIC WORKERS ARE WORKERS!” and urging support for International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 189.
The convention, passed in 2011 and since ratified by fourteen countries and counting, was historic: it was the first convention to specifically address the widespread labor exploitation of domestic workers—including migrants as well as natives. Domestic workers, including members of an AFL-CIO delegation from the United States, were present and active in the discussions, reports and voting that led up to Convention 189′s passage. In the time leading up to the convention, domestic worker organizing groups from across the globe formed into the International Domestic Workers Federation. The IDWF has the potential to restore power and pride in domestic work and to amplify community organizing as a tool in places like Bangladesh.
While Bangladesh has not signed on to Convention 189, there is an IDWF-affiliated national domestic workers association working to push for ratification. And the Solidarity Center, BOMSA and other local organizations are working overtime to educate potential migrants about safe migration and labor rights. Our delegation observed everything from courtyard meetings of fifteen people to an event in an open-air market with more than 100 people. The groups are filling a critical information and services gap, yet they are struggling to keep their doors open.
While our group was there, we met with workers from many sectors—garment manufacturing, construction, domestic work, technology—who all shared similar challenges related to poverty, fraud, debt, discrimination and abuse—whether at the hands of the factory owner, the dalal, the recruitment agency or the household employer.
September: Washington, DC
It has been four months since I returned to DC from Bangladesh, but I can see the faces of the women I met just as clearly as ever.
As a social worker turned organizer on the issues facing domestic workers here in the United States, I’ve noticed that my work hasn’t changed as much as I thought it would. Cultivating identity, power and self-determination are steps not only to healing, but also to justice in the workplace.
The incredible, growing union movement in the Bangladeshi garment sector that sprung up after the horrific tragedy at Rana Plaza is one example of what can be achieved when anger and devastation are channeled into organizing. That movement is being led by an army of young women organizers. There is so much potential to create change, but a labyrinthine global system of recruiters, subcontractors and employers is complicating the pathway to decent work.
Beyond organizing and services on the ground in Bangladesh, government action is sorely needed. The United States has a supportive role to play here: from including stronger labor rights as a condition of trade and development assistance to supporting the government of Bangladesh as it negotiates agreements with destination countries to level the playing field for Bangladeshi workers, who remain among the most vulnerable in Asia.
On the global level, a commitment to banning recruitment fees charged to workers and guaranteed inclusion of all workers, including migrants, in fundamental labor rights protection is a starting point to make a dent in this kind of exploitation.
The United States can set an example by expanding federal-level protections for domestic workers who were cut out of the New Deal, and by finally passing legislation that would ensure transparency and monitoring of foreign labor recruiters who bring workers to the United States. As in Bangladesh, domestic workers on temporary visas in the United States face exceptional risk. They include women working for diplomats and international officials at the UN and World Bank, but also young people who come on J-1 visas as au pairs to provide essential domestic work to American families yet are virtually invisible in the eyes of the US government.
There’s an inkling of change on the way, but making it real will require a global culture shift beyond legislation. Last year’s Senate immigration bill included strong provisions on transparency and monitoring for workers on temporary visas. But the au pair recruitment and placement agencies are aggressively lobbying lawmakers to remove au pairs from the protections should a new bill be introduced this year. As other sectors of organized domestic work gain bills of rights and wage increases through worker organizing, we’ve witnessed pressure to keep this invisible sector of domestic work underpaid, isolated and poorly regulated so it can remain a source of cheap childcare and, increasingly, eldercare.
From Bangladesh to Qatar to the United States, legislation protecting migrant domestic workers is sorely needed. But with the lack of legislative action, education and organizing within migrant domestic worker communities—and the public—appears to be the best hope to put the brakes on this downward spiral.
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
Six months into West Africa’s Ebola crisis, the international community is finally heading calls for substantial intervention in the region.
On September 16, President Obama announced a multimillion-dollar US response to the spreading contagion. The crisis, which began this past March, has killed over 2,600 people, an alarming figure that experts say will rise quickly if the disease is not contained. Obama’s announcement comes on the heels of growing international impatience with what critics have called the US government’s “infuriatingly” slow response to the outbreak.
Assistance efforts have already stoked controversy, with a noticeable privilege of care being afforded to foreign healthcare workers over Africans.
After two infected American missionaries were administered Zmapp, a life-saving experimental drug, controversy exploded when reports emerged that Doctors Without Borders had previously decided not to administer it to the Sierra Leonean doctor Sheik Umar Khan, who succumbed to Ebola after helping to lead the country’s fight against the disease. The World Health Organization similarly refused to evacuate the prominent Sierra Leonean doctor Olivet Buck, who later died of Ebola as well. The Pentagon provoked its own controversy when it announced plans to deploy a $22 million, twenty-five-bed US military field hospital—reportedly for foreign health workers only.
One particular component of the latest assistance package promises to be controversial as well: namely, the deployment of 3,000 US troops to Liberia, where the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) will establish a joint command operations base to serve as a logistics and training center for medical responders.
According to Think Progress, this number represents “nearly two-thirds of AFRICOM’s 4,800 assigned personnel,” who will coordinate with civilian organizations to distribute supplies and construct up to seventeen treatment centers. It’s unclear whether any US healthcare personnel will actually treat patients, but according to the White House, “the U.S. Government will help recruit and organize medical personnel to staff” the centers and “establish a site to train up to 500 health care providers per week.” The latter begs the question of practicality, and where these would-be health workers will be recruited from.
According to the Obama administration, the package was requested directly by Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. (Notably, Liberia was the only African nation to offer to host AFRICOM’s headquarters in 2008, an offer AFRICOM declined and decided to set up in Germany instead.) But in a country still recovering from decades of civil war, this move was not welcomed by all. “Every Liberian I speak with is having acute anxiety attacks,” said Liberian writer Stephanie C. Horton. “We knew this was coming but the sense of mounting doom is emotional devastation.”
Few would oppose a robust US response to the Ebola crisis, but the militarized nature of the White House plan comes in the context of a broader US-led militarization of the region. The soldiers in Liberia, after all, will not be the only American troops on the African continent. In the six years of AFRICOM’s existence, the US military has steadily and quietly been building its presence on the continent through drone bases and partnerships with local militaries. This is what’s known as the “new normal”: drone strikes, partnerships to train and equip African troops (including those with troubled human rights records), reconnaissance missions and multinational training operations.
To build PR for its military exercises, AFRICOM relies on soft-power tactics: vibrant social media pages, academic symposia and humanitarian programming. But such militarized humanitarianism—such as building schools and hospitals and responding to disease outbreaks—also plays a more strategic purpose: it allows military personnel to train in new environments, gather local experience and tactical data, and build diplomatic relations with host countries and communities.
TomDispatch’s Nick Turse, one of the foremost reporters on the militarization of Africa, noted that a recent report from the US Defense Department “found failures in planning, executing, tracking, and documenting such projects,” raising big questions about their efficacy.
Perhaps more importantly, experts have warned that the provision of humanitarian assistance by uniformed soldiers could have dangerous, destabilizing effects, especially in countries with long histories of civil conflict, such as Liberia and Sierra Leone. At the outset of the crisis, for example, efforts by Liberian troops to forcefully quarantine the residents of West Point, a community in the capital of Monrovia, led to deadly clashes. Some public health advocates worry that the presence of armed troops could provoke similar incidents.
The US operation in Liberia warrants many questions. Will military contractors be used in the construction of facilities and execution of programs? Will the US-built treatment centers be temporary or permanent? Will the treatment centers double as research labs? What is the timeline for exiting the country? And perhaps most significantly for the long term, will the Liberian operations base serve as a staging ground for non-Ebola-related military operations?
The use of the US military in this operation should raise red flags for the American public as well. After all, if the military truly is the governmental institution best equipped to handle this outbreak, it speaks worlds about the neglect of civilian programs at home as well as abroad.
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This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
For miners, investors and artisans, few things are more precious than gold. But for human life itself, nothing is more precious than water.
Just ask the people of El Salvador.
Nearly thirty years ago, the Wisconsin-based Commerce Group Corp. purchased a gold mine near the San Sebastian River in El Salvador and contaminated the water. Now, according to Lita Trejo, a native Salvadoran and school worker in Washington, DC, the once clear river is orange. The people who drink from the arsenic-polluted river, she says, are suffering from kidney failure and other diseases.
On September 15, Trejo and more than 200 protesters—including Salvadoran immigrants, Catholic priests, trade unionists and environmentalists—gathered in front of the World Bank to support El Salvador’s right to keep its largest river from suffering the same fate as the San Sebastian River. The event was co-sponsored by a raft of organizations, including the Institute for Policy Studies, Oxfam America, the AFL-CIO, the Teamsters, Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club and the Council of Canadians, among others. Over the past few weeks, similar protests have taken place in El Salvador, Canada and Australia.
Mining for gold is not as neat and clean as the harmless panning many Americans learned about as kids. Speakers pointed out that gold-mining firms use the toxic chemical cyanide to separate gold from the surrounding rock, which then leaches into the water and the soil. And they use large quantities of water in the mining process—a major problem for El Salvador in particular, which has been described as “the most water-stressed country in Central America.” Confronted by a massive anti-mining movement in the country, three successive Salvadoran administrations have refused to approve new gold-mining operations.
That’s where the story should end. But it’s far from over.
An Australian-Canadian mining company, OceanaGold, is suing the Salvadoran government for refusing to grant it a gold-mining permit to its subsidiary, Pacific Rim. Manuel Pérez-Rocha, a researcher at the Institute for Policy Studies, explained the situation: “OceanaGold is demanding more than $300 million from El Salvador. They are saying, ‘If you do not let us operate in your country the way we want, you must pay us for the profits that you prevented us from making.’”
That sounds absurd, but it’s true: The company is claiming that under the Central American Free Trade Agreement, it has the right to sue the Salvadoran government for passing a law that threatens its bottom line.
El Salvador is now defending its decision to prevent OceanaGold/Pacific Rim from operating the El Dorado mine near the Lempa River before the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes, a little-known World Bank–based tribunal.
As several protesters pointed out, El Salvador’s decision is grounded in its need to protect its limited water supply. More than 90 percent of the surface water supply in El Salvador is already contaminated, and more than 50 percent of the country’s 6.3 million people depend on the Lempa River watershed for their water.
Francisco Ramirez, a Salvadoran who grew up in Cabañas, the department where the El Dorado mine would operate, spoke from experience about this reality. “If you look at the contaminated rivers in El Salvador, there are no fish left in the water. Not even toads, which are usually resistant to certain levels of contamination, can survive. We do not want that contamination to spread,” Ramirez proclaimed.
Ana Machado, a Salvadoran member of the immigrant rights group Casa de Maryland, another co-sponsor of the event, added: “The Lempa River is the main drinking source and an important source of livelihood for a majority of people in my country, including my family. They fish there. They clean their clothes there. If the company contaminates the river, Salvadoran life as we know it will end.”
Another Salvadorian immigrant and organizer with Casa de Virginia, Lindolfo Carballo, linked this lawsuit to larger struggles over sovereignty and immigrant rights. “This country created institutions to legally rob its Southern neighbor,” he said, referring to the “free-trade” provisions that permit corporations to sue governments over public safety regulations they don’t like. “And after they rob us of our natural resources, after they contaminate our water and land, they tell us that we are undocumented, that we are ‘illegals’ and that we have no right to be in this country. They have no right to throw us out of the United States if they are robbing us of the resources we need to survive in our own country,” he alleged.
John Cavanagh, director of the Institute for Policy Studies, explained the goal of the protest: “We are saying to OceanaGold: ‘Drop the suit. Go home.’ To the World Bank, we say: ‘Evict this unjust tribunal. It deepens poverty and stomps on democracy and basic rights.’” Cavanagh pledged to continue pressing the company to back down, promising that protesters would return to the World Bank in larger numbers when the tribunal makes its ruling in 2015.
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This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
Once again, Washington claims Bolivia has not met its obligations under international narcotics agreements. For the seventh year in a row, the US president has notified Congress that the Andean country “failed demonstrably” in its counter-narcotics efforts over the past twelve months. Blacklisting Bolivia means Washington will withhold aid to one of South America’s poorest countries.
The story has hardly made the news in the United States, and that is worrisome. While many countries in the hemisphere call for drug policy reform and are willing to entertain new strategies in that vein, it remains business as usual in the United States.
The UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), meanwhile, seems to think that Bolivia is doing a great job, lauding the government’s efforts to tackle coca production and cocaine processing for the past three years. The Organization of American States (OAS) is also heaping praise on Bolivia, calling its innovative new approach to coca control an example of a “best practice” in drug policy.
According to the UNODC, Bolivia decreased the amount of land dedicated to coca plants by about 26 percent from 2010 to 2013. Approximately 56,800 acres are currently under production.
Bolivia has achieved demonstrable successes despite—and perhaps because of—a complete lack of support from the United States: the US Drug Enforcement Administration left in 2009 and all US aid for drug-control efforts ended in 2013. Bearing in mind that US drug policy in the Andes has always emphasized “supply side” reduction like coca crop eradication, the decision is of course a political one. It reflects the US frustration that Bolivia isn’t bending to Washington’s will. Interestingly, most Bolivian-made cocaine ends up in Europe and Brazil—not the United States.
At the same time, Peru and Colombia, both US favorites given their willingness to fall in line with US drug policy mandates, were not included in the list of failures. To be sure, those countries have recently decreased coca crop acreage as well, in some years by a lot more than Bolivia has. Still, they had respectively about 66,200 and 61,700 acres more coca under cultivation than Bolivia in 2013, according to the UNODC’s June 2014 findings. Peru currently produces the most cocaine of any country in the world.
Bolivians have been consuming the coca plant for over 4,000 years as tea, food and medicine, and for religious and cultural practices. Coca, the cheapest input in the cocaine commodity chain, cannot be considered equivalent to cocaine, since more than twenty chemicals are needed to convert the harmless leaf into the powdery party drug and its less glamorous cousin, crack. Still, coca is listed as a Schedule 1 narcotic under the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (the defining piece of international drug-control legislation).
When Evo Morales became president of Bolivia he worked to modify the Convention, and in 2013 eventually wrested from the UN the right to allow limited coca production and traditional consumption within Bolivia’s borders. In the process, all Latin American countries except Mexico (which supported the US-led objection) supported Morales’s mission.
The Bolivian Model
The basics of Bolivia’s approach to reining in coca cultivation are fairly simple. Licensed growers can legally cultivate a limited amount of coca (1,600 square meters) to ensure some basic income, and they police their neighbors to ensure that fellow growers stay within the legal limits. Government forces step in to eradicate coca onluy when a grower or coca grower’s union refuses to cooperate.
This grassroots control is possible because of the strength of agricultural unions in Bolivia’s coca-growing regions and because of growers’ solidarity with President Morales, himself a coca grower.
Another incentive is that reducing supply drives up coca leaf prices, which means that producers can earn more money for their families. As one longtime grower and coca union leader from the Chapare growing region put it, “It’s less work and I make more money.” This income stability, combined with targeted aid from the Bolivian government, means that many coca growers are able to make a living wage and diversify their livelihood strategies—investing in shops, other legal crops and education.
It also helps that the violence and intimidation at the hands of the previously US-backed Bolivian military has come to an end. People remember what is was like, and many still suffer from injuries sustained during different eradication campaigns. One coca grower, for example, had her jaw broken so badly by a soldier as she marched for the right to grow coca that she cannot be fitted for dentures to replace her missing teeth. She emphasized that life is so much better now because it’s less stressful. People do not want to see a return to forced eradication campaigns.
No one is pretending that Bolivia’s coca control approach means the end of cocaine production. Some portion of coca leaf production—by some estimates, about 22,200-plus acres’ worth—is still ending up in clandestine, rudimentary labs where it is processed into cocaine paste.
Furthermore, because it is squeezed between Peru, a major cocaine exporter, and Brazil, a growing importer, Bolivia has found it increasingly difficult to control cocaine flows. As a result, despite increased narcotics seizures by Bolivian security forces under Morales’s government, drug trade activities within Bolivia’s borders by some accounts have actually increased over the past few years.
Nevertheless, and for better or worse, the country’s new method of coca control yields results and undeniably satisfies the US supply-side approach, yet Washington maintains its hardline stance against the county. In the present geopolitical context, when even US drug-war allies Colombia and Mexico are calling for new approaches to controlling narcotics, the US rejection of the Bolivian model further undermines Washington’s waning legitimacy in the hemisphere.
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This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
I’m going to guess you’ve heard of the People’s Climate March by now. It’s been all over Facebook, the blogosphere, buses and subway cars—it’s even shown up on network news, which has been something of a black hole for climate activism.
But in case you’re just getting back from vacation (or a cave), here’s the deal: on Sunday, September 21, tens of thousands of people are expected to flood the streets of New York City to call on global leaders to take action on climate change.
What’s been somewhat forgotten in the truly herculean effort to make this the biggest climate mobilization ever is what global leaders are doing in town in the first place.
The truth is, they’ve been called to New York by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to meet in an unofficial capacity, because formal negotiations for a global treaty to stabilize the climate aren’t going so well.
In fact, little more than a year out from the December 2015 deadline for signing a deal, countries can’t even agree on a fundamental approach to curbing heat-trapping greenhouse emissions.
One option is a binding treaty that mandates a clear target for reducing overall emissions and assigns each country a fair share of the work. The second option is a nonbinding “pledge and review” process by which each nation records what pollution cuts it thinks it can make. According to this plan, we’d add up those pledges, hope they’re enough to avoid climate chaos, and come back in a few years to see how governments have done.
The United States is the primary proponent of the latter option, for the record.
But emissions cuts are not the only hang-up.
If there’s frighteningly little political will to take common-sense action in the face of devastating ecological disruption—i.e., to stop burning fossil fuels and put clean renewable energy in place as fast as possible—there is even less appetite to pay for it.
At the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009, industrialized countries promised to create a Green Climate Fund to channel money to poorer countries to support their shift to clean energy and climate-resilient development. Since the global North made much of its wealth polluting the planet, it seemed only fair that it would pick up part of the tab to help the South grapple with the result.
But five years later, the fund lies conspicuously empty.
Rich countries say that in order to muster political support for climate finance, they need to see developing countries going out of their way to earn it. Poor countries wonder how they’re supposed to act first when many of them are on the front lines of climate chaos largely caused by pollution from rich countries.
Making Space for Polluters
These debates are nothing new. They’re repeated every year at the UN climate convention.
What’s different about the upcoming New York climate summit is its unofficial nature, which is meant to provide a “neutral” space where heads of state can have a more productive conversation. But by holding the summit outside of official negotiations, the Secretary General has set a table where corporations and banks are on equal footing with governments. Literally.
The one-day climate summit will feature a high-level private-sector luncheon where businesses will share actions they are taking “to demonstrate leadership on climate change and measures that governments can take to enable the private sector to develop long-term climate change solutions.”
The guest list includes global oil and gas company Royal Dutch Shell, international coal financier Barclays Bank and South Africa’s power utility Eskom, which is currently building one of the world’s largest coal-fired power plants with funding from the World Bank. They’ll be joined by more than 130 other companies and banks.
That means our leaders aren’t just dithering at the edges while the planet burns—they’re actively inviting the very companies that are causing this crisis to help fix it.
The Bottom Line
“So what?” you might wonder. “Don’t companies have a role to play?”
Of course they do. But there’s no solution to climate change that doesn’t threaten the bottom line of companies that currently profit from dirty energy. That doesn’t mean that their interests never line up with what’s good for the climate. But when they don’t, it’s tough luck for people and the planet.
Unfortunately, governments have been abetting this “tough luck” for years. Look no further than the Green Climate Fund.
At the behest of governments—mainly from developed countries, where most multinational corporations are headquartered—the private sector has played a central role in the institution from the beginning. There is a special facility specifically to support the private sector, a private-sector advisory group that makes policy recommendations on all aspects of the fund and two private-sector observers who comment on the proceedings of the fund’s board.
Ironically enough, one of these observer seats is filled by Bank of America, whose shareholders have pushed back against its financing of the coal industry.
Unsurprisingly, corporate influence is threatening the very purpose of the fund. The rules governing investment and what institutions can receive funding are being written with the express purpose of making the Green Climate Fund as attractive as possible to financial investors.
In a board discussion about whether to exclude oil, coal and gas projects from receiving money from the green fund, for example, one private-sector observer argued that “ruling out technologies” would tie the hands of governments trying to address climate change.
But wasn’t financing a transition away from these “technologies” the point of the fund to begin with?
At this point the small group of social movements and nonprofit organizations trying to keep corporate influence in check at the fund is severely outflanked.
So while turning out in big numbers in the Big Apple is critical, it will take more than marching to compel governments to stop supporting the fossil-fuel industry and start regulating and reducing climate pollution.
Imagine the collective power we could bring to bear if the 1,400-plus organizations endorsing the climate march—representing the labor movement, people of faith, youth, immigrant rights activists and, of course, environmentalists—pulled out all the stops and poured their resources into an uncompromising, coordinated “no more dirty energy” campaign: one that forced governments to cut taxpayer subsidies to the fossil-fuel industry, put our bodies in the way of fossil-fuel extraction and transport, and moved money quickly to community-centered renewable technologies that already exist.
In the meantime, we can and should keep flexing our political muscle. One way is to “flood Wall Street,” as activists staying on in New York are planning to do after the climate march.
Kicking corporations and big banks—and their government enablers—out of the Green Climate Fund is another.
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This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
Over the past year and a half, Bosnia-Herzegovina has experienced social upheaval that outstrips any other political turmoil since the end of the 1992–95 war. Along with these events, recurrent flooding has taken place that is worse than any previous incident in the country’s 120 years of recorded weather history. The combination of these events, in a year of national elections, brings the dysfunctional condition of Bosnian society into high contrast.
In June 2013, thousands of protesters took to the streets in Bosnia’s capital city, Sarajevo, to protest an absurd legislative snarl that, for several months, prevented newborn babies from being registered and receiving identification numbers. This essentially rendered the newborns as non-citizens, without the rights to healthcare and passports that were, in some cases, urgently needed. At least one infant died as a result of the inability to travel to a neighboring country for treatment. Although the proximate cause of the demonstrations was the government’s apparent indifference to the rights of its youngest citizens, the unrest was meanwhile directed at the larger problems of pervasive corruption and the careerism of governmental officials.
Demonstrations spread to Mostar and several other cities in the Croat- and Muslim-controlled Federation, and there was some show of support from activists in the Serb-controlled Republika Srpska. The protests were larger than any others since the war—Bosnia’s parliament building was surrounded and blocked for a couple of days.
After several weeks the protests subsided and people went back home. But the action resonated throughout the country, where historically it has been difficult for people of different ethnicities to cooperate with each other, not only because of geographical separation in the ethnically divided postwar state, but also because of political divisions and the memory of the four-year-long war.
Then, in February of this year, far greater protests took place that more directly addressed the economic ills of a society with a clumsy government that boasts more ministers than the far more populous Japan; where those in power earn more than the average European politician; and where unemployment is pushing 40 percent. The demonstrations, growing out of protests by workers laid off from privatized companies in the Tuzla area, spread to every city in the Federation and gained support in the Republika Srpska as well.
One of the results of the February-March uprising, in which governmental buildings and party offices were torched in several cities, was the formation of grassroots citizen assemblies known as plenums. These informal bodies, intensively active for a couple of months, communicated among each other throughout the country and developed a set of demands confronting the politicians‘ corruption and cronyism.
Although grassroots activism is cyclical in Bosnia, in each new phase it grows, spreads and becomes more sophisticated. International commentators habitually ignore such activism as an element in the possible resolution of Bosnia’s systemic ills. But that is a mistake—and the events of spring 2014 have shown that ordinary Bosnians are, albeit episodically, a force that cannot be ignored.
Quickly following the spring rebellion, epic flooding struck Bosnia in May. Starting in the middle of the month, in a matter of three days the skies dumped three months’ worth of rain.
The results were cataclysmic. Nearly 100,000 residents of the northern and eastern parts of the country, from Prijedor to Bijeljina and down to Zvornik, were temporarily displaced. Thousands of houses were completely destroyed, and bridges were dislodged—as were landmines left over from the war. Farm plantings were sloughed away along with the top layer of land as, hard on the heels of the flood, several thousand landslides wreaked further damage in the mountainous sections of the country.
The human and economic toll was staggering. While the death toll did not exceed several dozen, thousands of people were displaced on a long-term basis—many of them for the second time since the 1990s. Thousands of livestock were killed in the flash floods and landslides, creating an urgent public health hazard. Schools were rendered useless, and some local administrative offices and libraries were washed away.
One local resident reported, “The material damage caused by the floods is far worse than after the war”—even though the war itself had resulted in half a million destroyed housing units.
The destruction caused by natural disaster was quite possibly greater than that caused by armies in some parts of the country, and it is probable that recovery from the economic setback affecting all of Bosnia-Herzegovina will take many years. Mines were flooded and rendered useless, and many factories severely damaged as well, putting hundreds out of work.
The Uses of Adversity
On the positive side, ordinary people mobilized in many parts of the country and volunteered to help with emergency assistance. Students and activists from Sarajevo donned boots and work gloves, and bused to afflicted areas to help dig out. A recreational rafting outfit from Bihać took its equipment to Doboj to help pluck stranded flood victims off roofs and balconies.
Ethnic boundaries often melted away. Some of the worst flooding took place in the Republika Srpska, and Muslim volunteers paid no attention to the inter-entity borderline as they traveled to help out whoever needed help. Solidarity thus developed quickly among the flood victims and volunteers from various parts of the country, with Serbs, Croats and Muslims often working together.
On the personal and community level, assistance was forthcoming immediately. Here and there, the plenums that had been formed a few months before played a significant role in coordinating assistance. Likewise, emigrant communities abroad raised funds and sent hundreds of truckloads of aid into Bosnia.
One volunteer reported, “Today I was in Prijedor. People, the closer you are to misfortune, you encounter better and better people; they speak with you as if they have known you for years. Before you say anything, they ask how things are with you, are you alright. People in trouble have that wonderful characteristic…to smile sincerely. These people have lost everything that they have, and still they have a smile that heals. In Prijedor everyone is helping each other, regardless of what their name is. While we were loading food in Doboj, two vans arrived from Sarajevo; in Šamac I saw an aid truck from Gradačac.”
Doboj and Sarajevo—as well as Šamac and Gradačac—are towns that lie on opposite sides of the inter-entity borders, but people were eager to help those in need regardless. In response to the assistance, there were public expressions of thanks to those of another ethnicity, without whom, as one flood victim expressed, “we would have died of thirst and hunger.” News articles bore headlines such as “Catastrophic floods bring down Bosnia ethnic barriers” and “Faith Restored in Humanity in the Mud of Doboj.”
In the official realm, help was not as efficient, leaving politicians the target of widespread criticism. The state and entity governments were slow to react to the disaster. When they did, officials competed for publicity—with politicians vying to be seen as “on the spot” and concerned. Too often, they were only concerned about their own ethnic constituency. Indeed, in the Republika Srpska, local officials tended only to help Serb communities, leaving communities of returned Muslims to fend for themselves or depend on help from the Federation.
Sadly, floods struck again in August for a brief period. With the rainy season around the corner, it is certain that there will be more calamity. Public officials have thus had renewed opportunities to show their concern and efficiency, but the government remains sluggish in allocating the millions of euros it has received in international donations.
Flooding has altered the course of rivers in some places, but emergency management agencies have not gotten around to repairing levees and taking other measures to prevent future damage. Hundreds of schools, which should have opened at the beginning of September, remain closed, and there are still hundreds of displaced people in collective centers without early prospects for return.
Public trust in government has for years hovered around the bottom of the scale, but it is even lower now, as ordinary people voice suspicions about embezzlement of donations. In some areas, villagers whose roads have been cut off by landslides have blocked nearby highways, demanding assistance.
All this is taking place in a period leading up to the four-year national elections that will be held in mid-October. With over 7,000 candidates and two dozen parties vying for seats in parliaments at several levels and for the three-part presidency, the challengers are alternately promising to help the flood victims and accusing their incumbent rivals of failure to help. Those incumbents have shown that they are more interested in expending resources to ensure their electoral victory than to improve public safety.
But prospective voters have less faith than ever that elections can lead to relief, as new faces in the electoral lists are all but non-existent. Political contests and natural disasters both seem to be events that ordinary people have to suffer through.
Elections come and go, and so do floods, and the survivors are left on their own to cope as well as they can. It is to be hoped that in the course of increasing protests, citizens of all ethnicities will continue to unite and build pressure for real change.
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This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
Since FIFA picked Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup, the tiny and über-rich Gulf emirate has increasingly come under scrutiny for its failure to protect the human rights of its huge foreign workforce.
Qatar’s 1.8 million foreign workers—who vastly outnumber the country’s 300,000 native citizens—are frequently deprived of wages, trapped into permanent debt, exposed to hazardous working conditions and denied the right to unionize. Approximately 1,000 foreign workers have died in Qatar since 2012, according to Qatar’s government. Independent human rights organizations claim that the figure is even higher.
Amid growing international calls to pull the Cup from Qatar, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani has promised new reforms aimed at safeguarding workers’ rights. It remains to be seen whether he is serious.
The large-scale use of foreign labor is widespread throughout the monarchies of the Persian Gulf, where traditional royal elites, businesses and private individuals have accrued high levels of wealth despite the region’s small domestic workforce. Bolstered by its natural gas exports, Qatar, for example, has the highest gross domestic product per capita of any country in the world. Through energy exports and financial services, the five other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—have also cultivated substantial financial reserves.
This wealth has enabled Gulf countries to invest heavily in massive new infrastructure works, but the region lacks a sufficient indigenous workforce to staff these projects. Additionally, many Gulf states provide robust social benefits for their native citizens, which decreases the incentive for natives to work in hazardous fields like construction.
Consequently, demand for migrant workers is substantial. The Gulf’s construction boom has been fueled by a massive influx of workers, primarily from Asia, who also take jobs in domestic work and other low-wage fields. These foreign laborers are driven to the Gulf by poor economic prospects in their home countries and the perception that a steady income can be earned easily in the Gulf. But many arrive to find a waking nightmare.
A key plank in the Gulf’s foreign labor apparatus is called the kafala, or “sponsorship,” system.
The system entails middlemen who travel to Southeast Asia and sell the right to work in the Gulf to prospective migrants. Once in debt to the middlemen, who “sponsor” the workers’ right to travel to the Gulf, the laborers are expected to pay off their debt to the sponsor by working long hours—often in the construction industry, where workers labor away in temperatures that can rise above 50 degrees Celsius, or 122 degrees Fahrenheit.
The physical toll on these workers is brutal. Between 2010 and 2012 alone, an estimated 700 Indian workers died in Qatar, and Nepali authorities say that hundreds of their own nationals have perished there as well. According to estimates by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), without reforms to the region’s labor laws and proper enforcement, some 4,000 workers could die on construction projects related to the 2022 World Cup alone. The ITUC reports that workers are often denied access to water and shade, and that the shelter reserved for them is unsanitary and dehumanizing.
Yet because permission from their sponsor is required to seek a new employer, foreign laborers are often trapped in their jobs. This ensures that their paltry wages are used to pay off the debt incurred by their travel. Without citizenship or any political rights, and unable to exit the country—their passports are frequently seized by authorities upon arrival—these foreign workers are trapped in what can only be described as virtual slavery or indentured servitude.
Foreign women employed as domestic workers for the GCC’s wealthy residents are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Secluded in private homes and typically denied the right to leave, they’re often trapped with employers who withhold pay and subject them to appalling episodes of physical assault and sexual violence.
And there is not much they can do about it, as this April 2014 report from Amnesty International makes clear:
Women [in Qatar] who have been physically or sexually abused face major obstacles to getting justice. None of the women researchers spoke to had seen their attackers prosecuted or convicted. In one horrific case, a domestic worker broke both her legs and fractured her spine when she fell from a window as she tried to escape a rape attack by her employer. Her attacker then proceeded to sexually assault her as she lay on the ground, injured and unable to move. Only afterwards did he call an ambulance.
When researchers interviewed her six months after the attack, she was still using a wheelchair. Despite her appalling injuries, the Public Prosecutor dismissed the case due to “lack of evidence” and she returned to the Philippines last year. Her employer has never been held accountable.
While there have been some reforms for domestic workers put on the table by GCC leaders, the language has largely been vague and thus far inconsequential.
A Regional Phenomenon
Recognizable patterns recur throughout the GCC.
In Saudi Arabia, the GCC’s economic powerhouse, human rights organizations have documented widespread labor rights abuses that include long working hours, wage theft and violence against domestic workers.
A particularly egregious case was the beheading of Rizana Nafeek, a 24-year-old Sri Lankan woman working as a maid in Dawadmi, in January 2013. She was charged with strangling the 4-month-old baby of her employer to death. Evidence against Nafeek was limited to a “confession” that she signed following her arrest, which Nafeek said was coerced and undertaken without the assistance of a translator. Complicating matters, Nafeek’s family said she had lied about her age on her passport application, meaning that in 2005—the year of the alleged offense—she was only 17, and thus a minor under standards set by international law. She was tried without legal representation and subsequently executed over the fervent protests of the Sri Lankan government.
The United Arab Emirates, where guest workers outnumber citizens nearly 8 to 1, has been taken to task for deporting workers who strike, housing workers in poor conditions and stealing the passports of employees. Like FIFA’s embarrassment over the World Cup in Qatar, Western artistic, academic and cultural institutions that have established operations in the UAE have been repeatedly embarrassed by the emirate’s treatment of its workers.
New York University, for example, has faced a public relations nightmare over the construction of a satellite campus in Abu Dhabi. Although the university’s officials issued a “statement of labor values” after deciding to build the campus in 2009, the New York Times reported in May that workers on the NYU campus, who were employed by the BK Gulf Corporation, were paid as little as $272 per month, which doesn’t go far in a country famous for its opulence. The paper reported that up to fifteen workers were forced to share rooms scarcely bigger than 200 square feet. Eventually, the workers launched a strike which, on its second day, was met by a violent police crackdown. Hundreds were subsequently deported.
Similar problems have been reported in oil-rich Kuwait, where 2 million expatriate workers live next to 1.8 million natives, as well as Bahrain, where guest workers face the additional challenge of navigating political tensions since the failed uprising of 2011, when Shiite-led protests against Bahrain’s ruling monarchy were quashed by troops from Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries.
Prospects for Reform
In response to widespread criticism over its World Cup preparations, Qatar’s government has promised several reforms for guest workers, including changes in the kafala system that would enable foreign workers to exit the country or change jobs with less difficulty.
However, the ITUC and others are highly skeptical about what, if anything, the reforms will achieve. An ITUC spokesperson stated that foreign workers in Qatar still have “no freedom of association, no minimum wage, and no effective labor compliance system. None of the laws seem to apply to domestic workers.” Moreover, migrant workers will still require exit visas to leave the country, giving the state the authority to decide if and when the workers can return to their countries of origin. That means that nearly 1.8 of Qatar’s 2.1 million residents are trapped there, with virtually no legal protection, at the state’s discretion.
Unfortunately, while such staggering figures highlight an imperative for reform, many human rights observers are pessimistic. The Qatari economy has become massively dependent on foreign workers, especially for construction. Without these workers, the Qatari “miracle” of breakneck urbanization, sky-high average incomes and rapid modernization would have been impossible. As the number of migrant workers grows, the cost of providing them with even basic labor protections will only rise, further increasing the economic costs of real reform.
But if Gulf leaders prove indifferent to pressure from global civil society, economic factors might move them to act. As the GCC makes an economic pivot toward Asia, demands from source countries could force them to improve conditions for migrant laborers.
For example, earlier this year, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia inked an agreement to grant Indonesian workers in the kingdom greater rights, including the right to keep their passports, communicate with family members, get paid on a monthly basis and have time off. This agreement followed Indonesia’s August 2011 ban on sending migrant workers to Saudi Arabia, where reports of horrific abuses of Indonesian workers had circulated for years. While Human Rights Watch assessed that these new regulations amounted only to “slow moves in the right direction,” the pressure from Jakarta underscored the leverage that Asian governments can wield over the GCC states that rely on their migrant laborers.
But change won’t come easily. Only a few months ago, GCC states unanimously refused to endorse a protocol by the International Labor Organization for the improvement of labor standards.
The plight of foreign laborers in the Gulf underscores a dark underside to the modern, glossy exterior the GCC states like to showcase to the world. In the absence of a powerful labor movement in the Gulf, the GCC’s millions of suffering foreign laborers will have to hope that their home countries can protect them abroad, even if they couldn’t provide jobs at home.
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This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
Yehun and Miriam have little hope for the future.
“We didn’t do anything and they destroyed our house,” Miriam told me. “We are appealing to the mayor, but there have been no answers. The government does not know where we live now, so it is not possible for them to compensate us even if they wanted.”
Like the other residents of Legetafo—a small, rural town about twenty kilometers from Addis Ababa—Yehun and Miriam are subsistence farmers. Or rather, they were, before government bulldozers demolished their home and the authorities confiscated their land. The government demolished fifteen houses in Legetafo in July.
The farmers in the community stood in the streets, attempting to prevent the demolitions, but the protests were met with swift and harsh government repression. Many other Oromo families on the outskirts of Ethiopia’s bustling capital are now wondering whether their communities could be next.
These homes were demolished in order to implement what’s being called Ethiopia’s “Integrated Master Plan.” The IMP has been heralded by its advocates as a bold modernization plan for the “Capital of Africa.”
The plan intends to integrate Addis Ababa with the surrounding towns in Oromia, one of the largest states in Ethiopia and home to the Oromo ethnic group—which, with about a third of the country’s population, is its largest single ethnic community. While the plan’s proponents consider the territorial expansion of the capital to be another example of what US Secretary of State John Kerry has called the country’s “terrific efforts” toward development, others argue that the plan favors a narrow group of ethnic elites while repressing the citizens of Oromia.
“At least two people were shot and injured,” according to Miriam, a 28-year-old Legetafo farmer whose home was demolished that day. “The situation is very upsetting. We asked to get our property before the demolition, but they refused. Some people were shot. Many were beaten and arrested. My husband was beaten repeatedly with a stick by the police while in jail.”
Yehun, a 20-year-old farmer from the town, said the community was given no warning about the demolitions. “I didn’t even have time to change my clothes,” he said sheepishly. Yehun and his family walked twenty kilometers barefoot to Sendafa, where his extended family could take them in.
The Price of Resistance
Opponents of the plan have been met with fierce repression.
“The Integrated Master Plan is a threat to Oromia as a nation and as a people,” Fasil stated, leaning forward in a scuffed hotel armchair. Reading from notes scribbled on a sheet of loose-leaf notebook paper, the hardened student activist continued: “The plan would take away territory from Oromia,” depriving the region of tax revenue and political representation, “and is a cultural threat to the Oromo people living there.”
A small scar above his eye, deafness in one ear and a lingering gastrointestinal disease picked up in prison testify to Fasil’s commitment to the cause. His injuries come courtesy of the police brutality he encountered during the four-year prison sentence he served after he was arrested for protesting for Oromo rights in high school and, more recently, against the IMP at Addis Ababa University.
Fasil is just one of the estimated thousands of students who were detained during university protests against the IMP. Though Fasil was beaten, electrocuted and harassed while he was imprisoned last May, he considers himself lucky. “We know that sixty-two students were killed and 125 are still missing,” he confided in a low voice.
The students ground their protests in Ethiopia’s federal Constitution. “We are merely asking that the government abide by the Constitution,” Fasil explained, arguing that the plan violates at least eight constitutional provisions. In particular, the students claim that the plan violates Article 49(5), which protects “the special interest of the State of Oromia in Addis Ababa” and gives the district the right to resist federal incursions into “administrative matters.”
Moreover, the plan presents a tangible threat to the people living in Oromia. Fasil and other student protesters claimed that the IMP “would allow the city to expand to a size that would completely cut off West Oromia from East Oromia.” When the plan is fully implemented, an estimated 2 million farmers will be displaced. “These farmers will have no other opportunities,” Fasil told me. “We have seen this before when the city grew. When they lose their land, the farmers will become day laborers or beggars.”
Winners and Losers
The controversy highlights the disruptive and often violent processes that can accompany economic growth. “What is development, after all?” Fasil asked me.
Ethiopia’s growth statistics are some of the most impressive in the region. Backed by aid from the US government, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the country’s ruling coalition, is committed to modernizing agricultural production and upgrading the country’s economy. Yet there is a lack of consensus about which processes should be considered developmental.
Oromo activists allege that their community has borne a disproportionate share of the costs of development. Advocates like Fasil argue that the “development” programs of the EPRDF are simply a means of marginalizing the Oromo people to consolidate political power within the ruling coalition.
“Ethiopia has a federalism based on identity and language,” explained an Ethiopian political science professor who works on human rights. Nine distinct regions are divided along ethnic lines and are theoretically granted significant autonomy from the central government under the 1994 Constitution. In practice, however, the regions are highly dependent on the central government for revenue transfers and food security, development and health programs. Since the inception of Ethiopia’s ethno-regional federalism, the Oromo have been resistant to incorporation in the broader Ethiopian state and suspicious of the intentions of the Tigray ethnic group, which dominates the EPRDF.
As the 2015 elections approach, the Integrated Master Plan may provide a significant source of political mobilization. “The IMP is part of a broader conflict in Ethiopia over identity, power and political freedoms,” said the professor, who requested anonymity.
Standing in Gullele Botanic Park in May, Secretary of State Kerry was effusive about the partnership between the United States and Ethiopia, praising the Ethiopian government’s “terrific support in efforts not just with our development challenges and the challenges of Ethiopia itself, but also…the challenges of leadership on the continent and beyond.”
Kerry’s rhetoric is matched by a significant amount of US financial support. In 2013, Washington allocated more than $619 million in foreign assistance to Ethiopia, making it one of the largest recipients of US aid on the continent. According to USAID, Ethiopia is “the linchpin to stability in the Horn of Africa and the Global War on Terrorism.”
Kerry asserted that “the United States could be a vital catalyst in this continent’s continued transformation.” Yet if “transformation” entails land seizures, home demolitions and political repression, then it’s worth questioning just what kind of development American taxpayers are subsidizing.
The American people must wrestle with the implications of “development assistance” programs and the thin line between modernization and marginalization in countries like Ethiopia. Though the US government has occasionally expressed concern about the oppressive tendencies of the Ethiopian regime, few demands for reform have accompanied aid.
For the EPRDF, the process of expanding Addis Ababa is integral to the modernization of Ethiopia and the opportunities inherent to development. For the Oromo people, the Integrated Master Plan is a political and cultural threat. For the residents of Legetafo, the demolition of their homes demonstrates the uncertainty of life in a rapidly changing country.
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This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
Take a look at the World section of nearly any mainstream news outlet and the main story will be Iraq, Syria, Ukraine or Gaza—all of which are suffering acutely from their respective conflicts. Yet even together they hardly enjoy a monopoly on gruesome civil wars or protracted refugee crises.
At a time of so many global calamities, it’s easy for smaller countries in which the United States lacks a vested interest to fall by the wayside. And that’s exactly what’s happened in the Central African Republic (CAR).
For the past two years, sectarian Christian and Muslim militias in CAR have been waging war against each other’s communities with horrific violence. Over 2,600 Central Africans have died, and nearly 1 million of the country’s 4.5 million residents have been displaced, creating an urgent humanitarian crisis.
Yet although the country is teetering on the edge of complete chaos, the outside world is paying very little attention.
Coup and Counter-Coup
An aptly named country in the heart of the African continent, CAR has a history shared by countries throughout Africa and the broader post-colonial world: colonization followed by independence and subsequent political turmoil.
Since gaining its independence from France in 1960, the small country has seen at least five coup d’états and numerous protracted civil conflicts, many of which have exploited the country’s ethnic, religious and regional divisions.
The latest unrest dates back at least to 2003. That year, former CAR army chief of staff François Bozizéseized the presidency from Ange-Félix Patassé, who had been CAR’s first democratically elected leader but whose rule had been marked by civil strife and upheld by foreign troops.
A civil war, known as the Central African Republic Bush War, broke out the following year when rebel groups attempted to overthrow Bozizé. The war raged for four years before a shaky truce was reached. However, violence resurged in December 2012, when rebel groups accused the government of not abiding by the peace agreements that were signed at the end of the Bush War.
By March 2013, the mostly Muslim Seleka faction had ousted Bozizé and installed Michel Djotodia as president, making him the majority-Christian country’s first Muslim leader. Yet this apparent political victory did little to stem the unrest the Seleka were sowing throughout the countryside. By June 2013, rampaging Seleka fighters had deliberately killed scores of civilians and destroyed 1,000 homes in Bangui and other provinces.
In an effort to distance himself from their violent crimes, Djotodia attempted to disband the Seleka militias last September, but many of them refused to disarm. The Seleka burned villages, looted homes and murdered civilians as swaths of the country descended into lawlessness.
The brutality of Seleka gave rise to the mostly Christian militias known as the anti-balaka. The new militias, whose name means “anti-machete,” proceeded to carry out their own violent reprisal attacks on Muslim villages, introducing a dangerous sectarian element to a conflict where civilians were targeted with increasing frequency.
Last December, the fighting dramatically escalated, with anti-balaka forces launching coordinated attacks on Seleka fighters in the capital city of Bangui. They also deliberately targeted Muslim civilians, including women and children. In retaliation, Seleka fighters murdered more Christian civilians. Amid the increasing sectarian violence around the capital and international pressure calling for him to step down, Djotodia resigned the following month.
The United Nations drafted a resolution authorizing France to send troops to the beleaguered nation last December. In April, as the crisis showed no signs of de-escalation, the Security Council voted unanimously to send 12,000 peacekeeping troops set to arrive in September, in addition to the 2,000 French soldiers.
Political developments inside CAR have so far done little to stem the violence. A tentative late July ceasefirefell apart after only a couple of days. In August, CAR elected its first Muslim prime minister, Mahamat Kamoun, but the Seleka fighters have rejected him and are refusing to join the unity government. Clashes continue while the fate of the people remains in the balance.
Women and Children First in Suffering
The human toll of the conflict has been considerable. A UN report from January found rampant violations of human rights, including extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, mutilations and targeting of civilians based on religion.
Much of this abuse has been directed at innocent women and children. Last December, for example, UNICEF reported the gruesome beheadings of two children and the mutilation of another.
Meanwhile, children fleeing the violence have fallen prey to disease and malnutrition while trekking across jungles to the relative safety of their neighbors’ lands. Many children are unable to return to school, while those lucky enough to attend have been crammed into overcrowded classrooms.
For women, the biggest fear remains sexual violence. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) opened up two women’s centers in early 2014 and interviewed 125 women and girls—the youngest being only 7 years old—who had come to the group for help. Of those 125, a startling 84 percent had been raped.
The prospects for rape survivors getting assistance remain grim. The combination of limited resources and a culture that typically remains silent in the face of sexual violence means that many women will never receive help.
Although both sides of this sectarian conflict have perpetrated horrific violence on militants and civilians, the anti-balaka fighters are currently the main perpetrators, according to Human Rights Watch. Alongside vicious attacks against civilians, anti-balaka fighters have pillagedand burned mosques in what Amnesty International has described as a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” in the western part of the country.
Some 300,000 Muslims have fled CAR altogether, while others remain in hiding, hoping that French and or African peacekeepers will be able to provide them with protection.
But it’s a fraught existence, even for those who find help. Earlier this year, neighboring Chad sent special forces to evacuate scores of Muslims from Bangui. Christians cheered as a convoy of trucks, sent to the airport and to mosques to pick up Muslim evacuees, left the city, headed towards Chad. When a Muslim man fell off the truck, he was attacked by a mob that cut off his hands and genitals.
A Wave of Refugees
The fighting is creating a displacement crisis that could grow to rival Syria’s if left unchecked.
As of July 2014, there were 528,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the Central African Republic—that’s 12 percent of the population—and 60 percent of the figure are children.
The European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) estimates that there are nearly seventy makeshift refugee camps in Bangui alone—including the M’Poko Airport, where nearly 100,000 people have gathered for safety. As security issues abound, the UN’s World Food Program has struggled to deliver food to M’Poko.
But outside of Bangui, information on the location and condition of IDP camps is extremely limited. Very few government officials or international observers are even present in the provinces outside the capital, making information difficult to gather.
Another 398,000 people have taken refuge in Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other neighboring countries, which are hardly paragons of stability or human rights themselves. (A Haitian saying—“running from the rain but falling in the river”—comes to mind.)
Meanwhile, CAR is facing a dire humanitarian situation. According to USAID, as many as 2.5 million people need immediate assistance, and 1.7 million people face acute food insecurity.
The World Is Not Watching
The international community hasn’t done nearly enough to alleviate the suffering in CAR. In 2013, CAR was the fifth most underfunded UN appeal and appeared in ECHO’s “Forgotten Crisis Assessment” in both 2012 and 2013.
In January of this year, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) released the Central African Republic Strategic Response Plan, requesting $551 million for emergency assistance. But according to OCHA’s financial tracking service, only about $366 million has been pledged by donors. Organizations that provide vital services, like the World Food Program, are still reporting substantial funding shortfalls.
Not only has the international community failed CAR, the media’s scant coverage of the crisis means that the average Westerner is wholly unaware of what’s happening in the country. Unlike for Gaza, there have been no marches or protests in support of humanitarian aid for the civilians in the Central African Republic.
“Unfortunately, there does not exist much political will to address human rights crises in Africa, even those on the grand scale and magnitude of what’s been occurring in CAR,” explains human rights activist and Africa expert Jeffrey Smith. “A case in point is the recently concluded US-Africa Leaders Summit, which did not address the underpinning issues of human rights or good governance in a meaningful or genuine way.”
Crises like the situation in Central African Republic “do not merely erupt spontaneously or overnight,” adds Smith. “They are quite often the result of long-term and routine human rights abuses that are left unaddressed.”
President Obama’s foray into Iraq has been billed as a humanitarian intervention. If the United States actually intervened in countries for purely humanitarian reasons, there would be millions of dollars in aid money and assistance for the country in the heart of Africa that is on the brink of collapse.
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
Using schools for shelter was a natural. When the Islamic State drove waves of people from the Sinjar area of Iraq in early August, most of them members of the Yazidi minority group, they fled first to the mountains and then to the relative safety of Iraqi Kurdistan. They camped out in whatever unoccupied structures they could find.
Now more than 600 schools are filled with desperate families struggling to come to terms with the trauma of the mass killings, abductions and sexual violence by the Islamic State that decimated their communities. They sleep in classrooms, hallways and the courtyards of facilities intended for children’s education.
The impact is double-edged. With no prospect for them to return home soon, these people need better shelter and care for the long term, including education for the tens of thousands of children among them. Yet the children of accommodating host communities also need access to their schools.
The school year under the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is due to start on September 10. But hundreds of schools will not be able to open that day.
According to the KRG Education Ministry, 653 schools in the Dohuk governorate, which has borne the brunt of the crisis, are being used to shelter displaced Yazidis and others, with schools playing a similar role in the cities of Sulaimaniya and Erbil. Across Iraq, around 2,000 schools are being used to shelter the displaced, the United Nations says.
The northwestern Dohuk governorate, with its 1.3 million residents, has absorbed 520,000 displaced people, according to then UN. That’s in addition to 220,000 refugees from the conflict in neighboring Syria already in KRG areas. Around the country, 1.8 million people are internally displaced.
The governor of Dohuk, Farhad Atrushi, said 130,000 people were living in Dohuk schools. “If I didn’t open the doors, they would be on roads and in open areas,” he said.
The immediate answer to the crisis gripping Dohuk schools is to build camps, and that is happening. But it will take months before the fourteen planned camps in KRG areas are up and running, and they will serve only half of the displaced. More funds are urgently needed to expedite and expand the work.
The United States and other countries can help the Yazidis and other Iraqis by increasing financial support for desperately needed humanitarian aid.
Compounding the problem is an ongoing budget dispute between the KRG and Iraq’s central government, which has blocked funding for displaced people in the Kurdish region and kept teachers there from getting regularly paid for months. Children should not be held hostage to the political crisis gripping Iraq.
The dispute includes differences in curriculum between the Iraqi central government and the Kurdish-run region. To promote education and reduce tension, the Baghdad authorities and the KRG should rapidly find ways to deliver textbooks and administer exams.
The logistical and political hurdles are daunting. But the children here, both residents and the displaced, need all the help they can get to turn the shelters back to schools.
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