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The Global Assault on Human Rights

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Young people take part in a pro-democracy demonstration in Myanmar. Credit: Unsplash/Pyae Sone Htun via United NationsOpinion by Ben Phillips (rome)Friday, December 17, 2021Inter Press Service

Meanwhile, more than 10 months since Myanmar’s military seized power, the country’s human rights situation is deepening on an unprecedented scale, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), warned December 10.

Human rights came under attack not only from coups, from Myanmar to Sudan, but also from strong men in democracies, from Brazil to the Philippines. The January 6th attack on the Capitol in the US exemplified the fragility of human rights worldwide.

2021 saw the conservative think tank Freedom House raise the alarm about what it calls one of the biggest worldwide declines in democracy “we’ve ever recorded”. But to protect human rights, it is vital to understand why they are under threat.

Crucially, it is not a coincidence that humanity has been simultaneously hit by a crushing of human rights and ever-increasing inequality; they are mutually causal. There is no winning strategy to be found in the approach followed by institutions like Freedom House which cleaves civil and political rights from economic and social rights, and has no answer to the inequality crisis.

Organisations rooted in civil society organising have set out powerfully the interconnectedness of the human rights crisis and the inequality crisis.

Civicus’s 2021 State of Civil Society report notes how “economic inequality has become ever more marked, precarious employment is being normalized big business is a key source of attacks on civic space and human rights violations.”

So too, Global Witness’s 2021 Last Line of Defence report notes that “unaccountable corporate power is the underlying force which has continued to perpetuate the killing of defenders.”

As human rights scholars Radhika Balakrishnan and James Heintz have noted, “when the political power of the elites expands as the income and wealth distribution becomes more polarized, this compromises the entire range of human rights.” Civicus terms the assault on human rights as one of “ultra-capitalism’s impacts”.

The World Inequality Report records how “in 2021, after three decades of trade and financial globalization, global inequalities are about as great today as they were at the peak of Western imperialism in the early 20th century.

The Covid pandemic exacerbated even more global inequalities. The top 1% took 38% of all additional wealth accumulated since the mid-1990s, with an acceleration since 2020.”

Societies that are more unequal are more violent. As collective institutions like trade unions are weakened, ordinary people become increasingly atomized. As social cohesiveness is pulled apart by inequality, tensions rise.

It is in such contexts that far right movements thrive, and whilst such movements claim to be anti-elite, they soon find common cause with plutocrats in directing anger away from those who have taken away the most and onto those who can be targetted for the difference in how they look, speak, pray or love.

Yet, as writer Michael Massing put it, “many members of the liberal establishment dismiss populism as a sort of exogenous disease to be cured by appeals to reason and facts rather than recognize it as a darkly symptomatic response to a system that has failed so spectacularly to meet the basic needs of so many.”

Human rights can only be protected in their fullness – civil, political, economic and social. As Lena Simet, Komala Ramachandra and Sarah Saadoun note in Human Rights Watch’s 2021 World Report: “A rights-based recovery means governments provide access to healthcare, protect labor rights, gender equality, and everyone’s access to housing, water and sanitation.

It means investing in public services and social protection, and strengthening progressive fiscal policies to fund programs so everyone can fulfill their right to a decent standard of living. It means investing in neglected communities and avoiding harmful fiscal austerity, like cutting social protection programs.”

Only determined organising connecting the inseparable struggles for human rights and a more equal society will be powerful enough to win.

Ben Phillips is the author of How to Fight Inequality and an advisor to the UN, governments and civil society organisations.


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© Inter Press Service (2021) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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When Will Countries Ever Learn How Well to Do Fuel Subsidy Reforms?

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View of downtown Nur-Sultan, the capital of Kazakhstan. Credit: World Bank/Shynar JetpissovaOpinion by Alan Gelb, Anit Mukherjee (washington dc)Friday, January 28, 2022Inter Press Service

Amid alarming reports of deadly violence in Kazakhstan, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Central Asia called for restraint and dialogue. 6 January 2022

Protestors are out on the streets, clashing violently with security forces called in to maintain law and order. They vent their frustration not only with rising fuel prices but also with living costs, lack of social services, crumbling infrastructure, corruption and political repression.

Faced with the prospect of a popular uprising, the government backtracks on reforms and re-institutes subsidies, postponing the hard decisions for a later date.

This is Kazakhstan in 2022. It is also Ecuador in 2019, Nigeria in 2012, Bolivia in 2010, Indonesia in 2005 and several other energy exporters which have tried to end, or at least reduce, fuel subsidies over the last two decades.

The list will grow significantly if we include importers who are more exposed to the vagaries of international energy prices. What is interesting is that the story plays out in almost exactly the same way, and the consequences of both action – and inaction – are very similar as well.

For resource rich countries like Kazakhstan, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nigeria, subsidized energy, especially from fossil fuels, is one of the few tangible ways by which citizens can feel that they have a claim to a national resource.

While the level of subsidies varies, at some $228 dollars per head or 2.6% of GDP in 2020, those of Kazakhstan are high but not the highest among exporters. In a situation where the government is generally perceived to be repressive, incompetent and corrupt, food and fuel subsidies keep a lid on deeper grievances. It is economically damaging but politically expedient, a delicate equilibrium that many countries have sought to manage over the last several decades – with little success.

Our research has shown that there is a better way to do energy subsidy reform. Providing direct cash transfers to compensate for the rise in energy prices can be a “win-win” solution. To put it simply, energy compensatory transfers (ECT) enable households, especially the poor and the vulnerable, to absorb the shock and reallocate resources as per their needs.

By removing the arbitrage between subsidized and market prices, ECTs can also reduce corruption, improve distribution and incentivize efficient use of energy. Countries like Iran, India, Jordan and the Dominican Republic have been relatively successful in this type of reform, and their experience holds lessons for other countries that choose to embark on this path.

Digital technology can help significantly to identify beneficiaries, provide them necessary guidance and information, and transfer payments directly to individuals and households. Three key enablers of ECTs are an identification system with universal coverage of the population, strong communications and wide access to financial accounts.

Multiple databases can be cross-checked to verify eligibility norms and grievance redressal systems can help reduce exclusion of genuine beneficiaries. As shown, for example, by India’s LPG subsidy reform, countries can progressively tighten the eligibility criteria over time to target the poorest sections of the population.

Finally, ECTs can provide the impetus for a more transparent and accountable system of subsidy management, helping improve public confidence and support to the government’s reform agenda over the long run.

So, why don’t more countries follow this approach? For one, most energy subsidy reforms are pushed forward in times of economic crisis. ECTs require political commitment, openness to engage in public dialogue, building consensus among stakeholders and powerful vested interests, setting up implementation systems and working across different government ministries, departments and agencies.

Direct compensation is also more transparent than the frequently opaque systems of price subsidization that favor the rich, with their higher energy consumption, even if justified by the need to protect the poor.

ECTs are not simple solutions and often require time to be put in place. On the surface, it may seem simpler to just raise energy prices overnight through an administrative order. But the payoffs are significant in terms of sustainability, economic outcomes, social cohesion and political stability.

The sooner countries can take a longer term approach, the better will they be able to manage the transition to a more sustainable system that supports those who need it most.

Kazakhstan is the first country in 2022 to see popular unrest due to fuel price hike. It almost certainly would not be the last.

Anit Mukherjee is a policy fellow at the Center for Global Development. Alan Gelb is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development.


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© Inter Press Service (2022) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service


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Griffiths to Security Council: ‘Your Responsibility Is Not Over’ to Syrian People

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© UNICEFChildren sit outside their family tent at the Alzhouriyeh makeshift camp in east rural Homs, Syria.Thursday, January 27, 2022UN News

“It is not over for the Syrian people,” said Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths, as he outlined the myriad challenges.  “And your responsibility is not over either.”  

As I’ve said before, we’re failing the Syrian people, young and old. Failure each year can’t be our strategy.

This year, we have to lighten the load on Syrian civilians.

I urge Member States to work with the UN and other key humanitarian agencies on a new approach.

My remarks:

— Martin Griffiths (@UNReliefChief)

January 27, 2022

Early recovery essential 

The humanitarian affairs chief said it was essential to scale up early recovery programmes – aimed at addressing needs that arise during the humanitarian phase of an emergency – which can offer a pathway to more self-sufficiency and restore basic services.  

Perhaps most immediately, he drew attention to the hundreds of children who this week, have been trapped in a terrifying prison siege in Al-Hasakah, in Syria’s northwest. 

He cited reports announced by Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), on 25 January, of fatalities among children besieged inside the Al-Hasakah’s Ghwayran military detention facility, and of children trapped as ISIL-affiliated inmates battled Kurdish-led Syrian Defence Forces (SDF), being forced to take part in the fighting. 

News reports indicate the siege is now over with the Kurds regaining control of the prison, but Mr. Griffiths told ambassadors that it was of “critical importance that all children are accounted for, evacuated to safety, and supported,” he insisted.   

Their predicament echoes that of the country, Mr. Griffiths stressed.  He described Syrian girls and boys shivering in tents in the snow, while others are stuck in displacement camps or detention facilities, and millions more – lucky enough to have housing – are still missing out on a healthy diet and reliable schooling. 

Failing the people 

We are failing the Syrian people, young and old,” he said.  “I urge you to work with the United Nations on new approaches.”  

The Under-Secretary General recalled that six civilians were killed on 20 January when missiles landed in Afrin city, while another airstrike in early January, severely damaged the main water station servicing Idlib city.   

Alongside security concerns, unusually bitter winter storms last week damaged thousands of tents in camps in the northwest, forcing those displaced to burn garbage to stay warm and risk asphyxiation, sheltering from sub-zero temperatures. 

Just not enough 

With the cost of a food basket reaching new highs in each of the last four months, and international aid declining, “the food aid we provide to millions of people each month is just not enough,” he warned. 

He called for ongoing support for the UN’s six-month plan for humanitarian operations, drawing attention to early recovery projects to support food production and the cross-line delivery of aid to Syria’s northwest.  Two such operations have been completed and a third is expected to take place soon, he added. 

‘From war to hell’ 

Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, agreed that conditions have grown “dramatically worse,” amid renewed armed conflict in Dara’a, Damascus and Eastern Ghouta. 

Mr. Egeland – who was formerly UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, from 2003 to 2006 – said the economic crisis, exacerbated by drought, is now so deep that families he had met during his recent visit described their journey as one “from war to hell”. 

He implored the Council to end this “suffocating paralysis”, requesting “help from you as members of the Security Council, and from you as influential powers with parties and actors in the region.  “The situation demands it.” 

Humanitarian diplomacy 

Specifically, Mr. Egeland called for help to end access restrictions on all sides of the conflict lines, stressing that humanitarian work is still too often held back by administrative, logistical, legal and physical barriers.  More effective humanitarian diplomacy is needed.  

For example, he said the Russian Federation can help on the Syrian Government side, where the Norwegian Refugee Council is still unable to provide legal aid to displaced people and returnees, while Turkey and the United States can help with de facto authorities in opposition-controlled areas.  

He also called for help in negotiating solutions to conflicts in Idlib and elsewhere, emphasizing that “we cannot allow a war to rage in what is, in reality, a gigantic string of displacement camps.” 

A call for solidarity 

Meanwhile, he said civilians must be able to seek protection and emphasized that “now is not the time to close borders.” 

It will also be essential to resume a deconfliction system, ensure cross-border and cross-line relief, secure access to water and agreement around waterways from the north, support the rehabilitation of civilian infrastructure, enable durable solutions for refugees and close the funding gap for humanitarian operations. 

“2021 was one of the worst years on record for civilians in Syria,” he said. “We urge donor countries not to turn their backs in 2022.”

© UN News (2022) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: UN News

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In Central Sahel, ‘needs Are Growing Faster Than Generosity’

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© UNOCHA/Michele CattaniA portrait of a Malian refugee in Tillaberi region, Niger.Thursday, January 27, 2022UN News

According to Martin Griffiths, nearly 15 million people in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, will need humanitarian assistance this year. That’s four million people more than a year before. 

The UN humanitarian affairs office (OCHA) led by Mr. Griffiths, and its partners, will need close to $2 billion for the humanitarian response in these three countries alone. 

In the Central Sahel, needs are growing faster than the support that is available.

Yet, the Sahel is also a region of enormous potential.

Working together, we can reverse the trend with more efforts focused on resilience, sustainable solutions and cooperation.

My full remarks:

— Martin Griffiths (@UNReliefChief)

January 27, 2022

It is a grim picture. Conflict, drought and food insecurity, gender-based violence – all growing more quickly than the support that is available”, the Emergency Relief Coordinator explained. 

The online meeting was a joint effort by the United Nations, the European Union, the German Federal Foreign Office and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Denmark. 

Fact-finding mission

Last week, Mr. Griffiths visited Nigeria and met people affected by the Lake Chad Basin crisis. 

“The stories they told me are emblematic of the struggles people across the central Sahel face: violence, repeated displacement, and difficulty finding sustainable livelihoods for themselves and their families”, he recalled, saying he hopes to visit Mali and Niger in the months ahead.

Together, conflict, climate change, political instability, lack of sustainable development opportunities, and poverty, are driving millions into increasingly desperate conditions. COVID-19 has only made the situation worse.

Violent attacks went up eight-fold in the central Sahel between 2015 and 2021. In the same period, the number of fatalities increased more than ten-fold.

Millions displaced

“The result is more than two million people displaced including half a million internally displaced last year alone”, the humanitarian chief said. 

In the meantime, insecurity and attacks continue to disrupt already weak basic social services.

More than 5,000 schools are closed or non-operational. Many health centres are not working. Displacement and increased insecurity have disrupted access to water, sanitation, and hygiene services. 

According to the last estimates, the number of people facing severe food insecurity has tripled in Mali and doubled in Niger compared to November 2020.

During the lean season, more than eight million are expected to be affected.

Obstacles to aid

While needs grow, the central Sahel remains “one of the most dangerous places in the world for aid workers”, said Mr. Griffiths, noting that one-third of all abductions of aid workers in the world in 2020, occurred in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso.

“Despite these difficulties, humanitarian organizations reached more than seven million people in the region in 2021 and raised $700 million”, he added. 

Unfortunately, the UN relief chief informed, this is not even halfway to meeting the needs of people in the Sahel.

To help bridge that funding gap, the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF)released $54.5 million in 2021 for Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. In the same year, OCHA established the first-ever regional pooled fund, last totalling nearly $33 million.

The humanitarian chief concluded on a positive note, noting that the Sahel is “a region of enormous potential” and that, working together, it’s possible to reverse the current trend. 

© UN News (2022) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: UN News

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