OPINION: The Future of Wetlands, the Future of Waterbirds – an Intercontinental Connection

The Balearic shearwater is considered critically endangered with extinction by the IUCN. Credit: Joao Corvina

The Balearic shearwater is considered critically endangered with extinction by the IUCN. Credit: Joao Corvina

By Jacques Trouvilliez
BONN, Jan 31 2015 (IPS)

The first global treaty dealing with biodiversity was the Ramsar Convention – predating the Rio processes by 20 years.

Ramsar aims to conserve wetlands, the usefulness of which has been undervalued – even the eminent French naturalist of the 18th century, the Comte de Buffon, advocated their destruction – and which have suffered large losses in recent decades.Wetlands are vital for birds – and especially waterbirds – but it is also the case that the birds are vital to the wetlands, playing a major role in maintaining nature’s balance.

Far from being wastelands, wetlands provide invaluable services, replenishing aquifers that supply drinking water and filtering out harmful pollutants. By maintaining a healthy environment, wetlands help ensure human well-being.

While the Ramsar Convention has had to deal with a broader spectrum of wetland issues over the years, it should be remembered that its full title includes “especially as waterfowl habitat”, and in AEWA, Ramsar has a strong ally with a clear focus on waterbird conservation in the African-Eurasian Flyway.

The areas designated as Ramsar Sites form an important part of the network of breeding, feeding and stopover grounds that are indispensable to the survival of the 255 bird populations of listed under AEWA.

Ramsar Sites are vital “hubs” in the network of habitats that constitute the African-Eurasian flyway along which millions of birds migrate in the course of the annual cycle. They include habitats as diverse as the Wadden Sea in Europe and the Banc d’Arguin in Mauritania, both also designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites and important staging posts for birds migrating between Arctic breeding grounds and wintering sites deep in Africa.

Despite being often far apart geographically and different morphologically, these sites are inextricably linked by the birds that frequent them.

The definition of “wetland” extends to fish ponds, rice paddies, saltpans and some shallow marine waters, so Ramsar has sites of significance to other species covered by the Convention of Migratory Species, under which AEWA was concluded.

Examples are the Franciscana dolphin (the only dolphin species to inhabit wetlands) found in the estuary of the River Plate and along the coast of South America; and the European eel – a recent addition to the CMS listings – which spends most of its life in rivers but spawns and then dies in the Sargasso Sea.

But it is waterbirds that have the strongest links to wetlands and the future of many species is in doubt as a result of the continuing reduction in area of these most productive of habitats. Of great concern is the fate of the mudflats of the Yellow Sea which are under increasing pressure from human developments because tied to them is the fate of a number of threatened shorebirds.

Lake Natron in the United Republic of Tanzania is the only regular breeding site of over two million Lesser flamingoes. Applications have been made to exploit the area’s deposits of soda ash leading to fears that irrevocable damage would be done to the site resulting in the species’ extinction.

The habitats of Andean flamingoes – the Puna and Andean Flamingoes – are facing similar problems as illegal mining activities have eroded the nesting sites and contaminated the water, exacerbating other threats such as egg collection.

Fragile wetland ecosystems also fall victim to man-made accidents – the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico and the Sandoz chemical works fire in Basel, Switzerland in 1986 being just two examples of countless incidents, both leading to the death of thousands of birds and fish.

Wetlands are vital for birds – and especially waterbirds – but it is also the case that the birds are vital to the wetlands, playing a major role in maintaining nature’s balance.

Government representatives will gather in Paris later this year in the latest effort to seek agreement on the steps necessary to arrest the causes of climate change. Wildlife is already feeling the effects and one of the best ways to ensure that animals can adapt is to ensure that there are enough robust sites providing the habitat and food sources at the right time and in the right place.

The theme chosen by the Ramsar Convention for this year’s campaign is Wetlands for Our Future and there is a particular emphasis being placed on the role of young people. While wetlands are of course vital for humans, they are no less important for the survival of wildlife and to a great extent also depend on the birds that live in them.

It is the role of AEWA to provide a forum where the countries of Europe, West Asia and Africa can work together to maintain the network of sites making up the African-Eurasian flyway.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

Ecological Latrines Catch on in Rural Cuba

Pastor Demas Rodríguez shows a dry composting toilet in the town of Babiney, in the eastern Cuban province of Granma. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Pastor Demas Rodríguez shows a dry composting toilet in the town of Babiney, in the eastern Cuban province of Granma. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Ivet González
BABINEY, Cuba , Jan 31 2015 (IPS)

Most people in Cuba without toilets use the traditional outhouse. But an innovative, ecological alternative is catching on in remote rural communities.

So far 85 dry latrines have been installed in eastern Cuba – the poorest part of the country – thanks to the support of the non-governmental ecumenical Bartolomé G. Lavastida Christian Centre for Service and Training (CCSC-Lavastida) based in Santiago de Cuba, 847 km from Havana, which carries out development projects in this region.

“Over 70 percent of these toilets are in San Agustín, a town in the province of Santiago de Cuba. The rest are in Boniato and the municipality of Santiago de Cuba, in that same province; and in Caney, Babiney and Bayamo, in the province of Granma,” CCSC’s head of social projects, César Parra, told IPS.

Dry composting latrines separate urine from feces. The latter is used to produce fertiliser. They prevent the proliferation of disease-spreading vectors and the contamination of nearby sources of water, unlike the classic pit latrines that abound in the Cuban countryside.

“In eastern Cuba, we replicated the pioneering work of the Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foundation for Nature and Man (FANJ),” said Parra, a veterinarian, during an exchange on permaculture among farmers in the region, held in the town of Babiney, in the province of Granma.“For us it’s been a really good thing because it doesn’t pollute, it saves a lot of water, and it provides us with natural fertiliser.” – Local farmer Marislennys Hernández

Five years ago, FANJ introduced dry latrines in Cuba as part of permaculture, a system that combines green-friendly human settlements and sustainable farms. It was involved in the construction of another 30 ecotoilets distributed in the provinces of Sancti Spíritus, Camagüey, Matanzas, Cienfuegos and the outskirts of Havana.

“At first people were sceptical, but they have seen the major advantages of these latrines such as the fact that they don’t contaminate the wells near their houses,” said Parra. “Water quality has improved, according to studies carried out in the places where the latrines have been installed.”

The latrines have been so widely accepted that “CCSC-Lavastida doesn’t have the construction capacity, resources or staff to respond to all of the requests for dry toilets” through its projects, which provide the construction material and specialised labour power.

The organisation is now putting a priority on rural families without sanitation, who live near rivers and wells. And in the cities, it benefits families who have backyard gardens.

Of Cuba’s 11.2 million people, over 94 percent had improved sanitation services in 2012. The sewage system served 35.8 percent of the population, and 58.5 percent used septic tanks and latrines. But latrines contaminate nearby water sources with feces and urine, especially if they are poorly built or maintained.

According to the latest statistics provided by the National Water Resources Institute, 79.9 percent of the 2.5 million people living in rural areas have septic tanks or latrines, while 16.8 percent have no toilets at all.

Worldwide, 2.5 billion people lack access to improved sanitation and over one billion still practice open defecation, according to the United Nations.

In eastern Cuba’s Sierra Maestra, the country’s biggest mountain chain, much of the local population lives in remote rural areas.

And drought plagues the eastern provinces of Las Tunas, Granma, Holguín, Santiago de Cuba and Guantánamo, the least developed part of the country.

“Dry toilets don’t waste water,” said Demas Rodríguez, the pastor of the Baptist church in Babiney, who has been here for a decade. “They’re a new experience for us, so the church has the responsibility to teach the community how to use them, and to explain their benefits.”

After using the urine-separating dry composting toilet, the users sprinkle ash, sawdust or lime down the feces hole. The urine is collected in a different compartment, also to be used as fertiliser.

“By separating liquids and solids, we keep the smell down,” said Rodríguez while showing IPS the first composting latrine built in Babiney, in the home of the Figueredo-Cruz family.

“Another dry toilet has almost been completed, and four more local families are getting the materials together to make their own,” said Leonardo R. Espinoza, a builder from Babiney who has been installing dry composting latrines and biogas plants for the beneficiaries of CCSC-Lavastida’s projects.

“In terms of materials, building the dry latrines is expensive because you need at least one cubic metre of sand, 160 concrete blocks or 800 bricks, six sacks of cement and 14 metres of steel,” he said.

Based on the lowest prices for construction materials in Cuba, it costs at least 80 dollars to build a dry toilet – and more than that, if the toilet is tiled, to improve hygiene and appearance.

Using cement blocks and reinforced concrete, Espinoza built a 60-cm high feces collection compartment, which does not drain into the ground. “The total size is estimated based on the number of users of the toilet,” he said.

Dry composting latrines have a special toilet bowl with an internal division that separates urine from feces.

Cuba does not produce the toilet bowls. CCSC-Lavastida has imported them from Mexico. But now it has obtained a mould to make cheaper, sturdier bowls using concrete. If the user can afford it, the toilets can be covered with ceramic tiles.

“In houses with foundations elevated above ground, the dry toilet can be installed inside, to facilitate access by the elderly or the disabled,” said Espinoza. “But in general they are built outside the house, and you climb up four steps to use the toilet.”

Other designs include a shower next to the toilet.

Marislennys Hernández, a 32-year-old farmer, had never heard of dry toilets until she joined the permaculture movement. She and her husband Leonel Sánchez work a 32-hectare ecological farm, La Cristina, in the rural area of El Castillito in the province of Santiago de Cuba.

“For us it’s been a really good thing because it doesn’t pollute, it saves a lot of water, and it provides us with natural fertiliser,” she told IPS.

“Three years ago we managed to build [the ecological toilet] in our house,” she said. “They should be promoted more among the rural population.”

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

Flashflood Forecast System Launched in Bangladesh

By From IFAD
UNITED NATIONS, Jan 30 2015 (IPS)

A flash flood forecast system launched in Dhaka last week is expected to help about three million farmers in Bangladesh.

The new project is designed to reduce the impact of climate change on rural women and men living in haor wetland communities.

The National Start-up Workshop for the Climate Adaptation and Livelihood Protection Project (CALIP) was attended by representatives of the Bangladesh Government, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the Local Government Engineering Department (LGED) and international climate change experts.

More than 240,000 people are expected to benefit directly in the five haor districts of Netrakona, Habiganj, Brahmanbaria, Kishoreganj and Sunamganj, while approximately three million farmers will also benefit from agro-meteorological and flashflood forecast systems which will help them pro-actively plan and manage their crops, according a press release.

CALIP is a 15 million dollar supplementary project ‎of the Haor Infrastructure and Livelihood Improvement Project (HILIP). The addition of funds from IFAD’s Adaptation for Smallholder Agriculture Programme (ASAP), brings the total cost of HILIP to 113 million dollars.

“CALIP introduces a number of climate change adaption measures for broadening livelihood opportunities,” said Monzur Hossain, Senior Secretary of the Local Government Division. “ It will test different village protection systems and will also support the development of a weather and flashflood forecasting system and institute a process for building pro-poor adaptation pathways, in partnership with leading national expert researchers and practitioners.”

The Dhaka workshop was jointly organized by LGED and IFAD, a United Nations Agency that invests in rural development.

“IFAD recognizes that smallholders in the haors require unique support for adaptation to new climatic challenges, and it is therefore programming innovative interventions that focus on building climate resilience at the household and community levels in the five haor districts. CALIP will thus promote approaches to help smallholders take a proactive stance towards dealing with flash floods, soil erosion, wave impacts and other climactic challenges, in order to avoid hard choices,” said Nicolas Syed.

Since 1978, IFAD has invested a total of 673.9 million dollars in 30 projects in Bangladesh benefitting nearly 10 million households.

People’s Tribunal Hopes Verdict on Mining Abuses Gains Traction

Children exposed to mining industry pollution in Peru. The debate on mining is raging throughout Latin America. Credit: Milagros Salazar/IPS

Children exposed to mining industry pollution in Peru. The debate on mining is raging throughout Latin America. Credit: Milagros Salazar/IPS

By Leila Lemghalef
UNITED NATIONS, Jan 30 2015 (IPS)

A recent case study on Canadian mining abuses in Latin America has woven one more thread of justice in the tapestry of international law.

The Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal (PPT) has found five Canadian mining companies and the Canadian government responsible for human rights violations in Latin America, including labour rights violations, environmental destruction, the denial of indigenous self-determination rights, criminalisation of dissent and targeted assassinations.”The battle for international justice is absolutely the same as the battle for internal democracy.” — Judge Gianni Tognoni

Gianni Tognoni was one of eight judges in the decision, and has been secretary general of the PPT since its inception in 1979.

In an interview with IPS, he spoke about how the PPT’s claims have previously become part of the international debate.

“And in the experience of the Tribunal, that has been happening in different ways,” he said.

Out of many examples, he cited the case of child slave labour in the apparel industry, which was denounced by the tribunal, and which was “taken up in order to strengthen the controls and the monitoring by NGOs of the conditions that were there”.

The big panorama, he said, shows that “whatever could be done is being done… in order to integrate the tribunal with other forces… in order to formulate in juridically solid terms the claims”.

International processes are rarely rapid, he said, articulating that the judgement on the former Yugoslavia would “appear to be more a kind of judgement on the memory, the same is true for Rwanda”.

He contrasted that to the immediate effectiveness of economic treaties, and also brought up the well-known clash between human rights and transnational corporations, and the latter’s attitude of impunity.

“It’s not possible to have a global society which is progressively responding only to the economic criteria and the economic indicator,” he summed up.

Formally, Canada is expected to uphold the same rights abroad as at home, in accordance with the Maastricht Principle under which public powers are supposed to monitor non-state actors.

“But they simply fail to do that,” Tognoni said.

The 86-page ruling reports that 75 per cent of mining companies worldwide are based in Canada, and that Canadian companies with estimated investments of over 50 billion dollars in Latin America’s mining sector represent 50-70 per cent of mining activities in that region.

“And the verdict in Canada is clearly showing Canada outside is favouring the violation of fundamental human rights,” Tognoni said.

The PPT on the session on Canadian mining delivered the guilty verdict in Montreal on Dec. 10, 2014 – Human Rights Day – in an ongoing investigation until 2016.

So far, it has made recommendations to the Canadian government, the mining companies in question, as well as international agencies and bodies including 22 divisions of the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Access to justice is a long-term effort

The PPT’s efforts are long-term ones.

“It is clear that it is important to organize the movement of opposition in order to give a strong also juridical support to the political and social arguments so that it would be clear that the battle for international justice is absolutely the same as the battle for internal democracy. Because the two things are more and more linked.  There are no more countries which are independent from the international scene,” Tognoni said.

PPT sessions “serve to add to that body of work to demonstrate that there is a crying need for instruments that will provide access to justice”, co-organiser of the PPT session on Canadian Mining in Latin America, Daniel Cayley-Daoust, told IPS.

“The Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal is not an enforcement kind of initiative, where it does not having legal standing in a concrete way,” he said, explaining that it serves to support for affected communities and to document abuses committed, “in the sense of broadening that debate… to increase the pressure and to add that as kind of further proof to what the abuses are, that are permitted.”

A priority of the PPT is to add “more voice and credibility to something that has been largely ignored by the people who kind of have the power to make the changes”, said Cayley-Daoust.

In 2011, the U.N. Human Rights Council established a Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises.

Cayley-Daoust expressed concern that the U.N. has come under corporate influence over the last three to four decades, specifically because of its closer relations with corporations.

Rolando Gómez, spokesperson for the U.N. Human Rights Council, told IPS corporations are not immunised.

“There’s not one human rights issue within any setting – a corporation, a city, a country, a community – that would escape the attention of the council,” he said.

“We have seen positive trends of corporations, large and small, taking those issues to heart,” he said.

As for the challenge of political effects – “I think what we’ve been seeing is states are recognising more and more that we have to depoliticise the discussions,” he told IPS.

He emphasised that “the Human Rights Council is not merely about the resolutions adopted, but it’s about the follow-up, the action, it’s about the fact that there’s a setting here in Geneva where issues which often don’t get heard are heard.”

“The extent to which NGOs are active here is unique,” he told IPS, mentioning the participation of human rights victims and civil society, in delivering statements, sitting in on negotiations, and informing discussion going on in the formal setting.

As for whether talk translates into action… that depends on the issue as well as the willingness of states and decision-makers on the ground, said Gómez.

“Justice takes a long time,” he said.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

Humanitarian System Suffers Serious Gaps on Migrants in Crisis

By Alexandra Zevallos-Ortiz
UNITED NATIONS, Jan 30 2015 (IPS)

Speaking at a panel discussion on migrants in crisis situations, Ambassador Michele Sison, Deputy Permanent Representative of the United States to the United Nations, emphasised the increasing need to assist migrants affected by dire humanitarian and life-threatening situations.

“It is not right that hundreds of thousands of migrants are effectively left to themselves in this kind of chaotic or dangerous situation,” Sison said.

The panel discussion, held last week at the U.N. Headquarters, was co-organised by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the Permanent Mission of the Philippines and the United States Mission.

This event was part of the New York Migration Series consisting of three briefings and three trainings, organised by IOM to raise awareness of migration amongst Permanent Missions, representatives of United Nations agencies, civil society and other stakeholders at the U.N. Headquarters.

Ambassador Irene Susan Barreiro Natividad, Deputy Permanent Representative of the Philippines to the United Nations introduced the “Migrants in Countries in Crises Initiative (MICIC)”, led by the United States and the Philippines.

The initiative, which was created in the context of the Libyan crisis, aims at developing guidelines for the protection of migrants in crisis situations; to support countries of origin, transit and destination in assisting migrants returning from crises situations; and to address long-term consequences.

Kyung-wha Kang, Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator at the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said international organisations and the U.N. had to realise that the humanitarian system suffers of serious gaps in assessing and addressing the needs of migrants caught in crisis situations.

“In the Central Africa Republic migrants are stranded. This confirms that we need to think more creatively to ensure that migrants are not overlooked in our humanitarian response,” Kang said.

Other vulnerabilities singled out include language barriers; lack of knowledge about services and rights; reservations to access services due to the fear of deportation; and lack of documentation.

Gender inequality especially with reference to mobility can place women and girls in particular danger of becoming victims of sexual and gender based violence, Kang said.

Mohammed Abdiker, IOM Director of Operations and Emergencies underscored the specific vulnerability of migrants who are often caught in crises, and underlined the importance of assessing and addressing migrants’ specific vulnerabilities.

Regarding the involvement of the private sector, Abdiker cited a failure of the private sector in the Libya crisis in which companies did not provide any support.

Andrea Bellardinelli, Chief of the Italian Programmes at the Emergency non-governmental organisation (NGO) presented the NGO’s goal to provide free health care to vulnerable persons such as migrants, seasonal workers, homeless persons and unaccompanied minors.

Providing good health care services to migrants is not only a fundamental right but also prevents additional health care costs on the national system, according to Bellardinelli.

Secretary of the Commission on Filipinos Overseas (CFO) Imelda M. Nicolas presented Philippines’ best practices and lessons learned in protecting the country’s nationals caught in crisis situations.

Philippines protection policy was developed during the Gulf War 1990/1991 and is based upon emergency preparedness, monitoring systems of political and environmental situations as well as the locations of citizens abroad, early warning systems, bi-lateral agreements with host states, as well as an active involvement of migrant communities.

Fighting Hunger from the Pitch

By Ngala Killian Chimtom
YAOUNDE, Jan 30 2015 (IPS)

A video ad is being screened before every match at the Africa Cup of Nations currently under way in Equatorial Guinea. Part of African Football Against Hunger, a joint initiative by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Confederation of African Football (CAF), it shows a player dribbling a football, taking a shot and scoring – the winning kick is a metaphor for ending hunger in Africa by 2025.

“Football, like no other game, brings people together, within nations and across country lines. It’s exactly this type of coming together we need to reach the goal of zero hunger in Africa,” FAO Director of Communications Mario Lubetkin told IPS in an online interview.

As part of the African Football Against Hunger campaign, a video ad is being featured at matches throughout the 2015 African Cup of Nations tournament in Equatorial Guinea. Credit: FAO

As part of the African Football Against Hunger campaign, a video ad is being featured at matches throughout the 2015 African Cup of Nations tournament in Equatorial Guinea. Credit: FAO

“Our aim is to harness the popularity of football to raise awareness of the ongoing fight against hunger on the continent, and to rally support for home-grown initiatives that harness Africa’s economic successes to fund projects that help communities in areas struggling with food insecurity and build resilient livelihoods,” he explained.

Last year, African governments came together and undertook to wipe out chronic hunger among their peoples by 2025, in line with the United Nations’ Zero Hunger campaign.

Hunger in Africa is pervasive.  In 2014, some 227 million people across the continent suffered from hunger. According to FAO’s 2014 ‘State of Food Insecurity in the World’ report, one in four people across sub-Saharan Africa are undernourished.“Football, like no other game, brings people together, within nations and across country lines. It’s exactly this type of coming together we need to reach the goal of zero hunger in Africa” – Mario Lubetkin, FAO Director of Communications

And despite its vast fertile lands and a youth bulge, Africa continuous to spend over 40 billion dollars every year on food imports, according to Tumusiime Rhoda Peace, Commissioner for Rural Economy and Agriculture for the African Union Commission (AUC).

“The fact that the continent’s population is growing means that while Africa has made progress in hunger eradication over the last decade, the total number of hungry people on the continent has risen. This brings additional urgency to fund home-grown solutions that allow families and communities to strengthen food security and build resilient livelihoods,” Lubetkin told IPS.

Placing a more direct link between football and the fight against hunger, he said adequate nutrition is essential to both cognitive and physical development and to achieving one’s goals – none of the players in the cup would be able to perform at the level they do without adequate nutrition.

“The human potential that is lost by persistent hunger is still immense. It is in the interest of everybody to join forces to make hunger history. Fighting hunger is a team sport – we need everybody to get involved,” he explained.

It is estimated that over 650 million people worldwide will be watching the African Cup of Nations, which this year sees teams from Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, D.R. Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Senegal, South Africa, Tunisia and Zambia competing for the trophy from Jan. 17 to Feb. 8.

The initiators of the African Football Against Hunger campaign hope that with the enormous number of people exposed to the campaign, more citizens will become engaged in the struggle against hunger.

“History shows that when citizens are engaged governments are encouraged to allocate funding to hunger eradication,” Lubetkin said. “Citizen engagement also often leads communities to come together to find innovative solutions for shared problems.”

He went on to explain that football events are also being used to spread the message about the work of the Africa Solidarity Trust Fund for Food Security, which was set up by African leaders in 2013, and to encourage countries to become involved in the Fund as donors, project partners and sources of local knowledge.

“The on-the-ground work is done through the Fund, through projects that increase youth employment, improve resource management, make livelihoods more resilient and eradicate hunger by building sustainable food production.”

So far the Fund has leveraged 40 million dollars from African countries to empower communities in 30 countries by building job opportunities for young people, help them use their available resources better and bounce back quicker in situations of crisis.

FAO and the Fund are complementing the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAAADP), a continent-wide initiative to boost agricultural productivity in Africa. Launched by governments 10 years ago, CAADP has been instrumental in bringing agriculture back to the discussion table as a priority sector, according to Komla Bissi, Senior CAADP Advisor at the AUC.

“Our governments are recommitting resources, and it’s time to bring the private sector on board,” he told IPS. He said 43 of Africa’s 54 countries have so far committed to the process; 40 have signed the CAADP compact and 30 of them have developed agriculture sector investment plans.

“The job of eradicating hunger and making food production sustainable is a long-haul game and these ongoing projects – along with future ones – are the seeds of progress in the fight against hunger,” Lubetkin concluded.

Edited by Phil Harris    

Glimmer of Hope for Assange

Julian Assange in one of his rare public appearances in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he has been in hiding since June 2012. Credit: Creative Commons

Julian Assange in one of his rare public appearances in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he has been in hiding since June 2012. Credit: Creative Commons

By Gustavo Capdevila
GENEVA, Jan 30 2015 (IPS)

There is a window of hope, thanks to a U.N. human rights body, for a solution to the diplomatic asylum of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, holed up in the embassy of Ecuador in London for the past two and a half years.

Authorities in Sweden, which is seeking the Australian journalist’s extradition to face allegations of sexual assault, admitted there is a possibility that measures could be taken to jumpstart the stalled legal proceedings against Assange.

The head of Assange’s legal defence team, former Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón, told IPS that in relation to this case “we have expressed satisfaction that the Swedish state“ has accepted the proposals of several countries.

The prominent Spanish lawyer and international jurist was referring to proposals set forth by Argentina, Cuba, Ecuador, Slovakia and Uruguay.

The final report by the U.N. Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR), adopted Thursday Jan. 28 in Geneva, Switzerland, contains indications that a possible understanding among the different countries concerned might be on the horizon.

The UPR is a mechanism of the Geneva-based Human Rights Council to examine the human rights performance of all U.N. member states.

The situation of Assange, a journalist, computer programmer and activist born in Australia in 1971, was introduced in Sweden’s UPR by Ecuador, the country that granted him diplomatic asylum in its embassy in London, and by several European and Latin American nations.

The head of the Swedish delegation to the UPR, Annika Söder, state secretary for political affairs at Sweden’s foreign ministry, told IPS that “This is a very complex matter in which the government can only do a few things.”

Söder said that in Sweden, Assange is “suspected of crimes, rape, sexual molestation in accordance with Swedish law. And that’s why the prosecutor in Sweden wants to conduct the primary investigation.

“We are aware of Mr. Assange’s being in the embassy of Ecuador and we hope that there will be ways to deal with the legal process in one way or the other. But it is up to the legal authorities to respond,” she said.

Assange’s legal defence team complains that Sweden’s public prosecutor’s office is delaying the legal proceedings and refuses to question him by telephone, email, video link or in writing.

Garzón noted that parallel to the lack of action by the Swedish prosecutor’s office, there is a secret U.S. legal process against Assange and other members of Wikileaks, the organisation he created in 2006.

“The origin of the U.S. legal proceedings against Assange was the mass publication by Wikileaks of documents, in many cases sensitive ones, which affected the United States,” said Garzón.

Wikileaks’ publication of hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables and other classified U.S. documents revealed practices by Washington that put it in an awkward position with other governments.

Assange sought refuge in the embassy after exhausting options in British courts to avoid extradition to Sweden to face questioning related to allegations of rape and sexual molestation, of which he says he is innocent. He has not been charged with a crime in Sweden and is worried that if he is extradited to that country he will be sent to the United States, where he is under investigation for releasing secret government documents.

If the legal process in Sweden begins to move forward, there would be a possibility for him to be able to leave the Ecuadorean embassy, where he took refuge on Jun. 19, 2012, and give up the diplomatic asylum he was granted by the government of Rafael Correa on Aug. 16, 2012.

In the UPR report, Sweden promised to examine recommendations made by other countries and to provide a response before the next U.N. Human Rights Council session, which starts Jun. 15.

Garzón has urged the Swedish government to specify a timeframe for the legal action against Assange, as the delegation from Ecuador recommended in the UPR.

“The Human Rights Committee, another specialised U.N. body, stipulates that precise timeframes must be established for putting a detained person at the disposal of a judge,” he pointed out.

Söder told IPS that Sweden’s legal system does not set any deadline for the prosecutor to complete the pretrial examination phase, as reflected in the Assange case.

Garzón is also asking Sweden to introduce, as soon as possible, “measures to ensure that the legal proceedings are carried out in accordance with standards that guarantee the rights of individuals, concretely the right to effective judicial recourse and legal proceedings without undue delays.”

He also called for the adoption of administrative and judicial measures to make investigations before the courts more effective. With respect to this, he mentioned “the practice of measures of inquiry abroad, in line with international cooperation mechanisms.”

In addition, the international jurist demanded measures to ensure that people deprived of their freedom are provided with legal guarantees in accordance with international standards.

The Swedish delegation agreed to study a recommendation by Argentina to “take concrete measures to ensure that guarantees of non-extradition will be given to any person under the control of the Swedish authorities while they are considered refugees by a third country,” in this case Ecuador.

These should include legislative measures, if necessary.

This is important because Assange is facing the threat that the Swedish or British authorities could accept an extradition request from the United States for charges of espionage, which carry heavy penalties.

In his comments to IPS, Garzón said he was “disappointed” that the Swedish state has not accepted one of Ecuador’s recommendations.

He was referring to the request that Sweden streamline international cooperation mechanisms on the part of the judiciary and the prosecutor’s office in order to ensure the right to effective legal remedy, specifically in cases where the person is protected by the decision to grant asylum or refuge.

It was stressed in the UPR that the right to asylum or refuge is considered a fundamental right, and must be respected and taken into account, making it compatible with the right to legal defence.

The director-general of legal affairs in Sweden’s foreign ministry, Anders Rönquist, argued that there is no international convention on diplomatic asylum.

The only one referring to that issue is the inter-American convention, he said, adding that the International Court of Justice in The Hague does not require recognition of diplomatic asylum.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

Dying in Childbirth Still a National Trend in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe struggles to contain maternity deaths. Here in this southern African nation, the number of women dying in childbirth continues to rise. Credit: Jeffrey Moyo/ IPS

Zimbabwe struggles to contain maternity deaths. Here in this southern African nation, the number of women dying in childbirth continues to rise. Credit: Jeffrey Moyo/ IPS

By Jeffrey Moyo
HARARE, Jan 30 2015 (IPS)

For 47-year-old Albert Mangwendere from Mutoko, a district 143 kilometres east of Harare, the Zimbabwean capital, transporting his three pregnant wives using a wheelbarrow to a local clinic has become routine, with his wives delivering babies one after the other.

But these routines have not always been a source of joy for Mangwendere.

“Over the past twenty years, I have been ferrying my pregnant wives to a local clinic using a wheelbarrow because I have no (full size) scotch cart and we have lost 12 babies in total while traveling to the clinic,” Mangwendere told IPS.

Mangwendere’s case typifies the deepening maternity crisis in this Southern African nation.An estimated 3,000 women die every year in Zimbabwe during childbirth and at least 1.23 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) is lost annually due to maternal complications – United Nations issue paper on ‘Maternal Mortality in Zimbabwe’, 2013

An estimated 3,000 women die every year in Zimbabwe during childbirth and at least 1.23 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) is lost annually due to maternal complications, according to Maternal Mortality in Zimbabwe, a United Nations issue paper released in 2013.

In fact, the United Nations found that maternal mortality worsened by 28 percent between 1990 and 2010. The major causes were bacterial infection, uterine rupture (scar from a previous caesarean section tearing during an attempt at birth), renal and cardiac failure, as well as hyperemesis gravidarum (condition characterised by severe nausea, vomiting and weight loss during pregnancy).

This year, the government has allocated 301 million dollars to the health sector for a country of 13.5 million, according to the local NewsDay publication, which concluded: “This is to say that the government intends to spend on average just over 22 dollars on an individual this year. Compare this with 650 dollars for South Africa, 90 dollars for Botswana, 390 dollars for Botswana and 200 dollars for Angola.”

On top of a barely adequate public transportation system, user fees for delivering pregnant women that are charged in healthcare centres are also at fault, say civil society activists.

“In 2012, the government crafted and adopted a policy that saw user fees for maternity services being scrapped,” Catherine Mukwapati, director of the Youth Dialogue Action Network, a grassroots organisation, told IPS.

“But despite this policy, some facilities still charge indirect service fees, which is scaring away many pregnant women from hospitals and clinics, leaving them in the hands of less skilled midwives.”

Zimbabwe’s local authority clinics say they have resisted scrapping maternity fees despite the official directive, claiming that they are not reimbursed as promised by the government.

28-year-old Chipo Shumba pictured here holds her only child after she lost six others while giving birth over the past few years, a crisis health experts in Zimbabwe say is on the rise. Credit: Jeffrey Moyo/IPS

28-year-old Chipo Shumba pictured here holds her only child after she lost six others while giving birth over the past few years, a crisis health experts in Zimbabwe say is on the rise. Credit: Jeffrey Moyo/IPS

“Council clinics have no choice but to charge the council-subsidised 25 dollars for maternity since they haven’t received money from government,” Harare city director of health services, Stanley Mungofa, told IPS.

The actual cost of providing maternity services in council clinics has been pegged at 152 dollars, Mungofa said. At public hospitals like Parirenyatwa in Harare, the cost of a normal delivery is 150 dollars while a caesarean section costs as much as 450 dollars.

In a bid to lower the high maternity fees of public hospitals and council clinics, a group of donors pledged 435 million dollars for the nation’s health system for the period 2011-2015. The fund – the so-called Health Transition Fund – was led by the health ministry and managed by the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Importantly, the Health Transition Fund is helping to retain skilled workers by raising low wages. Underpaid doctors make up a large part of the country’s “brain drain” and there are now just 1.6 doctors for every 10,000 people.

Maternal fees may not apply in Zimbabwe’s countryside, where many like Mangwendere and his wives live, but other obstacles present an equally insurmountable barrier to obtaining care. Clinics and referral hospitals are often far away from people needing help, a major cause of maternity deaths there.

Finally, the tentacles of systemic corruption have reached into the health care systems. According to Transparency International, one local hospital was found to be charging mothers-to-be five dollars every time they screamed while giving birth.

A staggering 62 percent of Zimbabweans reported having paid a bribe in the previous year, the group stated in its 2013 report on global corruption.

Zimbabwe’s health sector was one of the best in sub-Saharan Africa in the 1980s, but it nearly collapsed when an economic crisis caused hyper-inflation of more than 230 million percent in 2008. Over the following years, chronic under-investment made a bad situation worse.

The increase in maternal mortality is being witnessed despite the U.N. Millennium Development Goal (MDG) for maternal health, under which countries should reduce the maternal mortality ratio by three-quarters between 1990 and 2015.

A 2012 status report on the MDGs asserted that Zimbabwe was unlikely to meet its mandate of reducing the maternal mortality ratio to 174 per 100,000 live births.

In research conducted in 2013 to address causes of maternal death, Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Health and Child Care blamed excessive bleeding after childbirth and unsafe abortion as the major causes of death, although no information was provided to back the claim.

“Statistics on maternal deaths often leave out sad realities of these similar deaths in unreachable remote areas where pregnant women and infants die daily without these cases being recorded anywhere,” said Helen Watungwa, a midwife at a council clinic in Gweru, the capital of the Midlands province, 222 kilometres outside the capital.

“But in any case, with the limited resources we have as nurses, we are doing all we can to save lives both of delivering mothers and infants,” Watungwa told IPS.

“It is truly a miracle that we continue to survive a series of pregnancies while battling to give birth often on the way to the clinic, bleeding heavily without any skilled persons to attend to us, with only our husband tottering with each one of us to the village healthcare centre using a wheelbarrow,” 28-year-old Mavis Handa, one of Mangwendere’s wives, told IPS.

Edited by Lisa Vives/Phil Harris    

Dumped, Abandoned, Abused: Women in India’s Mental Health Institutions

Women in India’s mental health institutions often face systematic abuse that includes detention, neglect and violence. Credit: Shazia Yousuf/IPS

Women in India’s mental health institutions often face systematic abuse that includes detention, neglect and violence. Credit: Shazia Yousuf/IPS

By Shai Venkatraman
MUMBAI, Jan 30 2015 (IPS)

Following the birth of her third child, Delhi-based entrepreneur Smita* found herself feeling “disconnected and depressed”, often for days at a stretch. “Much later I was told it was severe post-partum depression but at the time it wasn’t properly diagnosed,” she told IPS.

“My marriage was in trouble and after my symptoms showed no signs of going away, my husband was keen on a divorce, which I was resisting.”

“The nurses were unkind and cruel. I remember one time when my entire body was hurting the nurse jabbed me with an injection without even checking what the problem was.” — Smita, a former resident of an Indian mental health institution
After a therapy session, Smita was diagnosed as bi-polar, a mental disorder characterised by periods of elevated highs and lows. “No one suggested seeking a second opinion and my parents and husband stuck to that label.”

One day after she suffered a particularly severe panic attack, Smita found 10 policemen outside her door. “I was taken to a prominent mental hospital in Delhi where doctors sedated me without examination. When I surfaced after a week I found that my wallet and phone had been taken away.”

All pleas to speak to her husband and parents went unheeded.

It was the beginning of a nightmare that lasted nearly two months, much of it spent in solitary confinement. “The nurses were unkind and cruel. I remember one time when my entire body was hurting the nurse jabbed me with an injection without even checking what the problem was.”

On one occasion, when she stopped eating in protest after she was refused a phone call, she was dragged around the ward. “There were women there who told me they had been abused and molested by the staff.”

Not all the women languishing in these institutions even qualified as having mental health problems; some had simply been put there because they were having affairs, or were embroiled in property disputes with their families.

Days after she was discharged her husband filed for a divorce on the grounds that Smita was mentally unstable.

“I realised then that my husband was building up his case so he would get custody of the kids.”

Isolated and afraid, Smita did not find the strength or support to fight back. Her husband won full custody and left India with the children soon after. “My doctor says I am fine and I am not on any medication but I still carry the stigma. I have no access to my kids and I no longer trust my parents,” she told IPS.

Smita’s story points to the extent of violence women face inside mental health institutions in India. The scale was highlighted in a recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, ‘Treated Worse than Animals’, which said women often face systematic abuse that includes detention, neglect and violence.

Ratnaboli Ray, who has been active in the field of mental health rights in the state of West Bengal for nearly 20 years, says on average one in three women are admitted into such institutions for no reason at all. Ray is the founder of Anjali, a group that is active in three mental institutions in the state.

“Under the law all you need is a psychiatrist who is willing to certify someone as mentally ill for the person to be institutionalised,” Ray told IPS. “Many families use this as a ploy to deprive women of money, property or family life. Once they are inside those walls they become citizen-less, they lose their rights.“

Ray points to the story of Neeti who was in her early 20s when she was admitted because she said she heard voices. “When we met her she was close to 40 and fully recovered, but her family did not want her back because there were property interests involved.”

With the help of the NGO Anjali, Neeti fought for and won access to her share of family property and was able to leave the institution.

Those on the inside endure conditions that are inhumane.

“There is hardly any air or light. Unlike the male patients who are allowed some mobility within the premises, women are herded together like cattle,” says Ray. In many hospitals women are not given underclothes or sanitary pads.

Sexual abuse is rampant. “Because it is away from public space and there is an assumed lack of legitimacy in what they say, such complaints are nullified as they are ‘mad’,” adds Ray.

Unwanted pregnancies and forced abortions impact their mental or physical health. They languish for years, uncared for and unattended.

“One can’t help but notice the stark contrast between the male and female wards,” points out Vaishnavi Jaikumar, founder of The Banyan, an NGO that offers support services to the mentally ill in Chennai, capital of the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

“You will find wives and mothers coming to visit male patients with food and fresh sets of clothes, while the women’s wards are empty.” Experts also say discharge rates are much lower when it comes to women.

The indifference towards patients is evident not just in institutions, but also at the policy level, with mental health occupying a low rung on the ladder of India’s public health system.

According to a WHO report the government spends just 0.06 percent of its health budget on mental health. Health ministry figures claim that six to seven percent of Indians suffer from psychosocial disabilities, but there is just one psychiatrist for every 343,000 people.

That ratio falls even further for psychologists, with just one trained professional for every million people in India.

Furthermore, the country has just 43 state-run mental hospitals, representing a massive deficit for a population of 1.2 billion people. With the District Mental Health Programme (DMHP) present in just 123 of India’s 650 districts, according to HRW, the forecast for those living with mental conditions is bleak.

“Behind that lack of priority is the story of how policymakers themselves stigmatise,” contends Ray. “The government itself thinks [the cause] is not worthy enough to invest money in. Unless mental health is mainstreamed with the public health system it will remain in a ghetto.”

Depression is twice as common in woman as compared to men and experts say that factors like poverty, gender discrimination and sexual violence make women far more vulnerable to mental health issues and subsequent ill-treatment in poorly run institutions.

Gopikumar of The Banyan advocates for creative solutions that are scientific and humane like Housing First in Canada, which reaches out to both the homeless and mentally ill. The Banyan is presently experimenting with community-based care models funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Canadian government.

“Our model looks at housing and inclusivity as a tool for community integration,” says Gopikumar. “The poorest in the world are people with disabilities and most of them are women. They are victims of poverty on account of both caste and gender discrimination and its time we open our eyes to the problem.”

*Name changed upon request

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida