Fifth World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue: Executive Director of the Geneva Centre refers to the pioneering role of the UAE in hosting in Abu Dhabi the historic visit of HH Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar His Eminence Ahmed Al-Tayib

By Geneva Centre
BAKU, Azerbaijan, May 3 2019 (IPS-Partners)

(Geneva Centre) – At the Fifth World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue held from 2-3 May 2019 in Baku, the Executive Director of the Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue Ambassador Idriss Jazairy paid tribute to the inspiring role of the United Arab Emirates in hosting the historic meeting of 4 February 2019 between HH Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar His Eminence Ahmad Al-Tayib and which led to the adoption of the Joint Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.

Ambassador Jazairy made this statement at the High-Level Ministerial Panel on “Mobilizing Intercultural Dialogue for Concrete Transformative Action” of 2 May, that was chaired by the Minister of Culture of the Republic of Azerbaijan Abulfas Garayev and attended by high-level government officials from more than 30 countries.

Ambassador Jazairy stated that the Joint Document on Human Fraternity gives concrete expression to the “ideal of restoring the aspiration for a world living in peace and harmony.” Ambassador remarked that the Joint Document on Human Fraternity expresses the same ambitious ideas contained in the World Conference Outcome Declaration on “Moving Towards Greater Spiritual Convergence Worldwide in Support of Equal Citizenship Rights.” The latter was adopted as an outcome to the 25 June 2018 World Conference on religions and equal citizenship rights that the Geneva Centre organized with the support of the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

During the 3 May panel debate on “Greater Spiritual Convergence for Equal Citizenship Rights” held as a breakout session during the Fifth World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue, a resolution was unanimously adopted by the participants endorsing the Joint Document on Human Fraternity and the World Conference Outcome Declaration.

The said resolution “welcomes the inspiring Joint Declaration of His Holiness Pope Francis and H.Em. Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayyib appealing to decision-makers and societies to reject the hijacking of religions to incite ‘hatred, violence, extremism and blind fanaticism’, to cherish the ‘values of tolerance and fraternity that are promoted and encouraged by religions’ as well as to promote the concept of ‘full citizenship’ and reject the discriminatory use of the term ‘minorities engendering feelings of isolation and inferiority.”

Fifth World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue: Societies must work together to build more tolerant, peaceful and coexisting societies through equal citizenship rights

By Geneva Centre
BAKU, AZERBAIJAN, May 3 2019 (IPS-Partners)

(Geneva Centre) – In times when religions have been considered as a source of hatred and division, harnessing its collective energy in the pursuit of equal citizenship rights is needed more than ever, concluded a group of eminent experts on inter-faith dialogue during a panel debate.

The conference entitled “Greater Spiritual Convergence for Equal Citizenship Rights” was organized on 3 May by the Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue as a breakout session of the Fifth World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue held from 2-3 May in Baku, Azerbaijan.

The conference was attended by high-level officials from different countries including the Minister of Culture of Algeria Meriem Merdaci.

In his opening remarks, the Executive Director of the Geneva Centre Ambassador Idriss Jazairy stated that the present meeting was held as a follow-up to the 25 June 2018 World Conference on religions and equal citizenship rights.

At this international meeting, it was agreed that it is high time that decision makers join hands to initiate a global effort to ensure that our equally shared humanity is reflected in equal citizenship rights not only in theory, but in practice,” highlighted Ambassador Jazairy.

As an outcome to the World Conference, the Geneva Centre’s Executive Director highlighted that more than 50 decision-makers worldwide adopted an Outcome Declaration entitled “Moving Towards Greater Spiritual Convergence Worldwide in Support of Equal Citizenship Rights.”

The said declaration, Ambassador Jazairy remarked, appeals to decision-makers to unite in a common endeavour for the preservation of dignity, to contribute to the realization of human rights and to promote the effective enjoyment of equal citizenship rights.

The Geneva Centre’s Executive Director stated that with the adoption of the Joint Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, on 4 February 2019 by HH Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar His Eminence Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayyib in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, a growing consensus has emerged on the importance of promoting equal citizenship rights as a vector to peace and stability.

Global decision-makers must therefore take the initiative to identify a global citizenship model that is compatible with diversity and respect of human rights of people irrespective of religious beliefs, denominations and/or value systems. He encouraged all to work together to build more tolerant, peaceful and coexisting societies, for our present and future generations,” Ambassador Jazairy said.

In his statement, the Deputy Chairman of the State Committee on Religious Associations of the Republic of Azerbaijan Gunduz Ismayilov stated that tolerance and respect for the other are integral components of the culture of Azerbaijan. It is not driven – he said – by the need to abide by legal norms as Azerbaijan has for centuries been a multicultural society and a feeling of mutual empathy towards the other.

The Executive Director of the Anna Lindh Euro-Mediterranean Foundation for Dialogue between Cultures Ambassador Nabil Al Sharif presented the endeavours of the Anna Lindh Foundation to promote peaceful co-existence within, and between, societies in Europe and in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. He referred in particular to a handbook entitled “Intercultural Trends and Social Change in the Euro-Mediterranean Region.”

The Chairman of the Institute for Policy, Advocacy and Governance Syed Munir Khasru argued that the world society is witnessing the rise of divisive narratives that reject tolerance and diversity. Although all religions converge in their endeavours to promote a more just, peaceful and inclusive society, the decline of multilateralism and the surge of violent extremism threaten diverse and multi-cultural societies. The recent terrorist attacks in New Zealand and in Sri Lanka are telling examples – he said – of this woeful trend and that injustice is spreading out.

The Coordinator of the UN Inter-Agency Task Force on Religion and Development and UNFPA Senior Advisor Azza Karam remarked that there is an increasing interest in ‘using’ religious leaders to promote freedom of religion and belief (FoRB) or religious liberty issues. “By and large, this emphasis on FoRB is promoted by a handful of western governments. In all cases, the emergence of FoRB as a key area of engagement, can often come at the expense of increasing multi-religious collaboration around many other features of human rights and sustainable development concerns,” Dr Karam emphasized.

Programme Executive for Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation at the World Council of Churches Reverend Peniel Rajkumar spoke about the role of faith actors to convert dialogue on equal citizenship rights into concrete action. He said that the challenge for religions today is to use the cornerstone of pluralism to build just and inclusive communities. However, this task is rendered all the more impossible in contexts where religion has been violently recruited as an ally of populist nationalisms and xenophobia. To overcoming this woeful trend, Reverend Rajkumar highlighted the importance of bridging the gap between spiritual will and collective political action. It is no secret – he said – that there are spiritual resources within different religious traditions that remind their followers both of the interrelatedness of the entire humanity and the need to ensure the wellbeing of the ‘other’.

To conclude the meeting, a resolution was adopted supporting the holding of the historical meeting on 4 February 2019 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates between HH Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar and endorsing the World Conference Outcome Declaration on “Moving Towards Greater Spiritual Convergence Worldwide in Support of Equal Citizenship Rights.”

Women, Peace and Security: Let’s Turn Words into Action

Dr. Denis Mukwege

By Dr. Denis Mukwege
BUKAVU, Democratic Republic of Congo, May 3 2019 – To be able to tackle a problem we must first recognize that it exists. When I first spoke at the United Nations Security Council in 2009, I was asked why the issue of sexual violence was even relevant to peace and security. At that time, it was not generally accepted that rape is in fact a weapon of war. Today, that statement is both widely accepted and central to the international community’s understanding of this crucial issue.

Last week, I spoke yet again at the Security Council in response to Germany’s call for a new resolution on women, peace and security. After extensive negotiations and compromise relating to sexual and reproductive health for victims of sexual violence in conflict, the resolution was passed.

Thirteen countries voted in favor. China and Russia abstained. This is now the ninth resolution in a series, which addresses sexual violence in conflict and the inclusion of women in building peace.

Although I would have greatly preferred to see inclusion of references to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and specific language on sexual and reproductive health, all of which was omitted to avoid a veto of the resolution, we should not lose sight that the adopted resolution is a significant step forward – it is a pivotal step in terms of combating rape as a weapon of war and sexual violence in conflict.

For the first time, survivors of sexual violence in conflict are at the center of this issue. The resolution stresses the need to support children born as a result of rape. Although focused primarily on the experiences of women, the resolution also highlights the need for specific measures for men and boys who are victimized by sexual violence in conflict.

Paramount to the needs of survivors, the resolution acknowledges the importance of reparations. For generations, states have failed to acknowledge and compensate the devastating harm done to survivors.

We intend to change this by coming together with Nadia’s Initiative and the Office of the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict to establish the International Fund for Survivors of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I have seen how important justice is to the healing process of survivors of rape in conflict. At Panzi Hospital, where I work with my staff to rehabilitate victims of sexual violence, we have developed a comprehensive model, which includes medical, psychological, socio-economic and legal assistance.

Following the adoption of this new resolution, I hope that we can replicate this approach on a much wider scale. For too long, the international community has promised action, while failing to provide access to quality holistic care to survivors.

It is time for serious action against perpetrators. To date, there have been little to no consequences for their crimes. Ending the culture of impunity is central to ensuring that the brutal mass rapes that have happened in the DRC, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere never happen again.

Sexual violence in conflict is devastating – physically and psychologically. Yet, we somehow continue to fail thousands and thousands who have been forced to endure this horror. There can be no lasting peace without justice. This Security Council resolution must now lead to meaningful action.

Executive Director of the Geneva Centre received by the Chairman of the Caucasus Muslims Board His Virtue Sheikh-ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazadeh

By Geneva Centre
BAKU, AZERBAIJAN, May 3 2019 (IPS-Partners)

(Geneva Centre) – The Head of the Religious Community in Azerbaijan His Virtue Shaikh-ul Islam Allahshukur Pashazadeh invited the Executive Director of the Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue Ambassador Idriss Jazairy to a private audience in his residence in Baku.

During the visit, His Virtue Pashazadeh expressed his appreciation to the endeavours of the Geneva Centre to promote mutual understanding and cooperative relations between people and societies through the holding of the 25 June 2018 World Conference on religions and equal citizenship rights that received strong support from the Secretary General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres.

His Virtue Pashazadeh and Ambassador Jazairy agreed that the Caucasus Muslims Board and the Geneva Centre are united by their vision to promote equal citizenship rights in multi-cultural and multi-religious societies worldwide.

In light of this discussion, the participants highlighted the need to capitalize on the momentum of the World Conference, the Joint Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together signed on 4 February 2019 by HH Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar Ahmad Al-Tayib in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, as well as the Fifth World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue held in Baku to examine inventive ways to carry the process forward to harness the collective energy of religions in the pursuit of equal citizenship rights.

His Virtue Pashazadeh invited the Executive Director of the Geneva Centre to co-organize the 19 June 2019 conference on “From the Inter-faith, inter-civilizational cooperation to human solidarity” to be organized together with the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue in Vienna, Austria.

Ambassador Jazairy accepted for the Geneva Centre to be a co-sponsor of this important initiative and agreed to present a statement in Vienna on this occasion

The meeting was concluded by an official dinner that was attended by high-level government officials including the Minister of Culture of the Republic of Azerbaijan Abulfas Garayev.

Executive Director of the Geneva Centre appeals to Ministers from 30 countries to endorse the Geneva Centre World Conference Outcome Declaration on “Moving Towards Greater Spiritual Convergence Worldwide in Support of Equal Citizenship Rights”

By Geneva Centre
BAKU, AZERBAIJAN, May 3 2019 (IPS-Partners)

The Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue attended the first day of the Fifth World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue held in Baku under the motto “Building dialogue into action against discrimination, inequality and violent conflict.”

The first day of the Forum was marked with an inspiring inaugural address delivered by the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan HE Ilham Aliyev in the presence of Eminent Dignitaries and high-level government officials.

Following the inaugural address of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, opening speeches were delivered by the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations representative Miguel Moratinos, the Assistant Director General for Social and Human Sciences of UNESCO Nada Al-Nashif, the Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation Yousef Al Othaimeen, Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe Gabriella Battaini and the Director General of ISESCO Abdulaziz Othman Alwaijri.

The delegation of the Geneva Centre likewise attended the High-Level Ministerial Panel on “Mobilizing Intercultural Dialogue for Concrete Transformative Action” that was chaired by the Minister of Culture of the Republic of Azerbaijan Abulfas Garayev.

The Executive Director of the Geneva Centre Ambassador Idriss Jazairy attended the Ministerial Panel and was the only NGO representative to be invited by the Organizing Committee of the Forum to deliver a statement to the Ministers from more than 30 countries.

In his speech, Ambassador Jazairy stated that the “regions of the world go through cycles of convergence propitious for peace and through cycles of divergence which beget international tension and violence.” In this connection, he highlighted that the rise of populism in the West and violent extremism in the Arab region constitute a threat to the long-term stability of diverse and multicultural societies.

Faiths are being misused to justify crime or hatred when their true interpretation revolves around worship of the Creator and love towards His Creatures,” Ambassador Jazairy underlined.

In light of this worrying context, the Geneva Centre’s Executive Director informed the participants that the Geneva Centre organized with the support of the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, on 25 June 2018 a World Conference on religions and equal citizenship rights, held under the Patronage of HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan, that adopted a Ten-Point Declaration entitled “Moving Towards Greater Spiritual Convergence Worldwide in Support of Equal Citizenship Rights.”

The said declaration, he highlighted, appeals to decision makers to unite in a common endeavour for the preservation of dignity, to contribute to the realization of human rights and to promote the effective enjoyment of equal citizenship rights.

The Declaration gives concrete expression to the ideal of restoring the aspiration for a world living in peace and harmony and to promote equal citizenship rights which is the antidote to a poisoning of minds and hearts,” Ambassador Jazairy emphasized.

The Geneva Centre’s Executive Director mentioned that the World Conference Outcome Declaration was endorsed by the European Centre for Peace and Development – UN University for Peace in a resolution adopted on 26 October 2018 in Belgrade.

He added that the Joint Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, signed on 4 February 2019 by His Holiness Pope Francis and the Great Imam of Al-Azhar His Eminence Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayyib expresses almost identically the fundamental values and messages of the Outcome Declaration..

In light of this growing consensus on the need to harness the collective energy of faiths in the pursuit of equal citizenship rights, the Geneva Centre’s Executive Director appealed to the Ministers present to “endorse the Outcome Declaration and to translate its principles into national policies fostering peaceful, just and inclusive societies.”

The Minister of Culture of the Republic of Azerbaijan thanked Ambassador Jazairy for his proposal and invited the Geneva Centre to further discuss this initiative in consultation with representatives from the Ministry of Culture during the conference.

Link to Ambassador Jazairy’s speech – UN WEB LIVE TV (2:31:48 – 2:40:22):»/watch/mobilizing-intercultural-dialogue-for-concrete-transformative-action-high-level-ministerial-panel-baku-2-3-may-2019/6032222052001/?term=&lan=original&page=1?term

Want Social Change? Give Communities More Agency

if issues around social justice had to be taken to scale, and if we wanted to create deeper impact,we needed to involve the communities affected.

Photo Courtesy: Jan Sahas.

By Ashif Shaikh
DEWAS, India, May 3 2019 – No external force can bring about real change in society. Only the community itself can.

There are 650 districts in India. However, most nonprofits work only in a few districts. Given how large our country is, there are only two types of people that can work towards creating change at scale – the communities that are facing the issues first hand, and the government.

The government has not been able to work on issues related to social justice in the last 60 years. Perhaps they think that this is not important enough, or there is no political will to do it. So, we at Jan Sahas, chose to involve the community.

We realised that if issues around social justice had to be taken to scale, and if we wanted to create deeper impact,we needed to involve the communities affected. If it didn’t become the community’s own initiative, or if they kept thinking that some civil society organisation or government agency would come and work on their issues, it would never be sustainable.

That’s why in 2001, we started a national campaign named Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan. Centred around the idea of dignity, this campaign was aimed at mobilising Dalit manual scavengers, all of whom were women. We wanted to empower them to move out of this work and enable them to scale up the programme on their own. We thought that working with manual scavengers would be a good entry point to work on ending exclusion.

Caste-based marginalised communities in our country have faced historical injustice — not just for the last five-six generations, but for the last 2,500 years

But caste-based marginalised communities in our country have faced historical injustice — not just for the last five-six generations, but for the last 2,500 years. Even if they earn money and stop doing caste-based work, the social stigma never goes away. Even if the person becomes a collector, or starts an enterprise, the discrimination continues.


We need three types of rehabilitation

If people have to come out of caste-based work, they need three types of rehabilitation:

1. Economic or livelihood rehabilitation

In the caste-based work of manual scavenging, the biggest issue is that the oppressor or employer provides them food, clothing and shelter. In rural India, they get two rotis every day, clothes twice a year — during Holi and Diwali, and the panchayat gives them a place to stay, So, in essence, their basic needs of roti-kapda-makaan are taken care of by the person or the institution that employs them. What this means though is that they are unable to negotiate with their employers.

If you are going to get paid in cash for work, you can negotiate. For instance, if the employer says ‘I will give you INR 20’, you can say, ‘No, I will charge INR 50’. But if your life itself is dependent on what they give you, then you can never negotiate.

Therefore, if we have to start changing the way caste is viewed and reinforced, we have to start with economic rehabilitation. If marginalised caste groups get work which pays them in cash, they can negotiate the terms for their wages, working conditions, dignity and relationships at the workplace.

However, this is only step one. The second, and more important one, is social rehabilitation.

2. Social rehabilitation

The government never thinks about this aspect. Under social rehabilitation, if someone gives up their (caste-based) work, they should be given work that factors in the social aspect as well.

For instance in 2013, we appealed to several state governments; we said that when you appoint ICDS workers and helpers — positions that do not require an educational background, offer INR 3,000-4,000 monthly salary and where the employee has to be a woman, give priority to the women from the manual scavenging community.These women could prepare the meals provided under the ICDS scheme, and all children regardless of their caste would eat that food.

This process was started in Uttar Pradesh but many powerful groups forced the state to rescind the order; today it is no longer compulsory. In Madhya Pradesh on the other hand, while there was some struggle to start with, it has now been firmly established in many districts.

The discrimination extends across several government schemes. In many villages, where the PMAY is being implemented, Dalit communities are given homes in a separate place. They call it a ‘colony’ and it is commonly understood to be land outside the village. However, all the resources such as electricity, water, anganwadis are available only inside the village.

If you want to stop caste-based practices, you cannot work with the excluded people alone. Other related stakeholders have to be held accountable. Like they say in the gender discourse — if you want to end sexual violence, you have to get the male members of the community involved.

3. Political rehabilitation

Being political is not about party politics. It is about the power of representation. If women from excluded communities want to be part of the local panchayat, they should have the space to do so. The problem is, that today, they don’t have this space.

For example, we started a campaign with rape survivors, that they should contest elections for the panchayat. As a result of this campaign, 104 women participated in panchayat elections. Almost 50 percent of them won. Many of them contested on unreserved seats. They fought and they won. The idea was for them to challenge the power structure.

In some places we had to work with their family members as well, in some with the society at large. When these excluded women gain power, then at some level, the discrimination stops.


We realised that if issues around social justice had to be taken to scale, and if we wanted to create deeper impact,we needed to involve the communities affected.

A Dalit woman stands outside a dry toilet located in an upper caste villager’s home in Mainpuri, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Credit: Shai Venkatraman/IPS


It takes years to break social barriers, even among the marginalised

Jan Sahas works with manual scavengers, rape survivors and young girls who have been forced into commercial sexual exploitation. One of the biggest challenges we face is that it is very difficult to make these communities come together. Getting ‘outsiders’ to change their social behaviour requires work at a different level. But even within these disadvantaged groups, people follow discrimination and untouchability practices.

For example, in Bhaurasa, a village in Madhya Pradesh, we had women who had managed to stop doing caste-based work.  There were 17 women from the Valmiki community, and 10 from the Hela community. Valmiki is a Dalit Hindu community, while Hela is a Muslim community. It took us three years to bring them together in one place for a meeting.

For two and a half years, we conducted meetings with adults in the community to convince them. Despite that we failed to change their beliefs. But when we started working with the young — using games and activities — it took almost no time.

One of the games we played was taking one child from the Valmiki community and the other from the Hela — one a Dalit and the other a non-Dalit. We told them that the Dalit child would become non-Dalit for a day, and vice versa.

We observed a big change in behaviour. The children soon realised that what one was doing with another human being was not based on any rationale. There is no rationale for caste discrimination, and that it didn’t make sense to follow this nonsensical practice.

The activities brought about a change in the children; they then started convincing their families and the families changed because of the children’s intervention.


At a rally in New Delhi, Dalit women burn baskets used to collect human waste as a sign of protest against the caste-based practice of ‘manual scavenging’. Credit: Shai Venkatraman/IPS


Communities can solve their own problems. All they need are platforms.

Most of us in civil society who work with marginalised communities feel that ‘we are going to give them something’, ‘deliver’ something. In reality though, no one really is in a position to deliver anything to the community. What do we really know about the communities? How can we assume leadership on their behalf when we don’t know enough?

Consider the Dignity March where 25,000 rape survivors travelled over 10,000 kms and spoke openly in public forums about being raped. Jan Sahas might have coordinated the march, but the idea was not ours.

We were conducting a meeting in a village. There were four rape survivors along with their family members. One of the women said that there had been a conviction in her case, while a second women said that she was still struggling with her case and was facing many problems. The families were fighting among themselves, and demanding answers from us, saying if  one woman’s case was solved, why wasn’t there a judgement yet in the second case?

One of the rape survivors told us: “You don’t explain what the problems are; let the woman who got the conviction explain to the others what steps need to be taken and how they can bring their own case to a closure”.

When she started explaining, the idea clicked in our minds; that instead of us doing this work — going to each village and talking to all the families about how to fight their cases — what if 1,000 rape survivors came together in one place and travelled all over the country and explained how to get a conviction to other survivors.


Nonprofits should only play the role of facilitators

We can’t be leaders of the manual scavengers, or rape survivors, or communities who are involved caste-based commercial sexual exploitation. They are their own leaders because they know what that pain has meant in how they live their lives. We cannot even imagine how much power or courage is required to change this situation.

No one else can do it — no Chief Minister or Prime Minister can work on it as effectively as a rape survivor can work on rape, or manual scavengers can work on their own issues. We need to understand this.

The role of the government or nonprofits is limited in this. We can help create appropriate forums for them; but it is they who will come up with the strategies. During the march, we observed this very clearly: people who’ve been facing oppression and discrimination, were ready to take up the struggle; they were ready to find solutions. What they needed was a platform to talk about their issues.

The current strategies which are made by the government or other institutions, rarely involve the affected communities. But no external force can bring about real change in society. Only the community itself can.


Translations from Hindi to English by Anupamaa Joshi.

Ashif Shaikh is an Indian social activist, known for his role in Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan, a campaign for the eradication of manual scavenging. He is also a co-founder of Jan Sahas, a human rights organisation. Since 2000, Jan Sahas has been working to end caste- and gender-based slavery and violence through the eradication of manual scavenging, caste-based sex work, forced labour, and trafficking. He has won several awards for this work, including the Sadbhavana Award and the Times of India Social Impact Award.

This story was originally published by India Development Review (IDR)

1m Rohingyas at severe health risk

Rohingya refugees. Reuters file photo

By Porimol Palma
May 3 2019 (IPS-Partners)

(The Daily Star) – Some one million Rohingyas face serious health risks due to acute air and water pollution in the crammed camps of Cox’s Bazar, says a new study that assessed environmental conditions in one of the world’s largest refugee settlements.

The use of firewood as the main fuel in the small tents with no ventilation facilities, high frequency of vehicular movement, proximity of drinking water points to latrines and absence of a proper waste management are the main factors posing danger to the refugees.

Diarrhoea, fever, jaundice, cough and skin, heart and respiratory diseases have become some of the very common health problems in the camps, said the study.

The study was conducted in June-December 2018 by the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) with support from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

Istiakh Ahmed, coordinator of the study, said extensively polluted air and water create serious health risks for the refugees. “It’s imperative to act swiftly to cut the risk factors,” he told The Daily Star last week.


Air quality analysis in the refugee camps showed the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) were higher both indoors and outdoors than Bangladesh standard.

Bangladesh standard for CO2 is 350 parts per million (ppm) but the study found it between 600 to 1,207ppm at the Rohingya camps.

The standard for NO2 is 0.057ppm but in Rohingya camps it was up to 0.1ppm. The level of volatile organic compounds (VOC) or organic chemicals in air was also very high, the report said.

High levels of carbon dioxide can displace oxygen and nitrogen, potentially causing acute and chronic health effects, the report said.

“Breathing in high amounts of carbon dioxide can also be life threatening. Prolonged exposure to carbon dioxide may cause changes in bone calcium and body metabolism,” said the report.

Excessive levels of these gases may cause some acute and chronic health effects such as suffocation, incapacitation and unconsciousness, headaches, vertigo and double vision, inability to concentrate, tinnitus and seizures, it added.

During the survey, 61 percent of the respondents were being treated for medical conditions like wheezing, tightness of chest, rapid breathing, eczema, high fever, skin irritation, shortness of breath and burning or irritated eyes.

Increased transportation and use of firewood and deforestation could be the potential factors for the rise in such gases, the report said.

The study found that 76 percent households in Rohingya camps typically cook at least thrice a day in the rooms with no ventilation facilities. Besides, some 2,000 hectares of forest was destroyed due to the Rohingya settlement and firewood collection.

Particulate matter, or solid and liquid particles suspended in air, in November last year was significantly higher than the Bangladesh standard.

Exposure to such inhalable particles can affect lungs and heart, and children and older adults may be at greater risk from exposure to those.

About volatile organic compounds, the report said higher concentrations of VOC may cause irritation of lungs as well as damage to the liver, kidney or central nervous system.


The ICCCAD analysis found all surface water samples and a significant (highest 62 percent) number of groundwater samples tested contain coliforms, a group of bacteria. One of its possible reasons could be the proximity of tube wells to latrines.

Additionally, manganese was detected in 48 percent tested samples at concentrations higher than the Bangladesh standard (0.1 mg/L), which may impede cognitive development in children.

Survey results showed that diseases and illnesses such as diarrhoea, coughing and skin diseases are major concerns in the camp area. Since 38 percent of the surveyed water supply lines are passing through the drainage system, chances of spread of diseases from waste are higher.

The report says only 17 percent respondents throw their waste in a public bin while others do it in the open space.

There is no proper drainage system in the camps — around 30 percent of them are mud-built, 37 percent open, and only 19 percent concrete drains. The disposed waste stays for a longer period of time, polluting the atmosphere.

This inadequate drainage facility results in foul odour and spreads mosquitoes and flies. While this study could not explore if there was any connection between unmanaged solid waste and camp health issues, 623 respondents showed concerns about poor waste management in their areas.

The ICCCAD recommended creating environmental awareness within the Rohingyas and local communities, engaging them in its protection, setting up a proper drainage system and sewage treatment facilities and ensuring solid waste management.

Alternative energy sources including quality cooking stoves for all refugees would greatly reduce indoor air pollution caused by firewood burning, it said.

Dr Azharul Islam Khan, head of hospitals at ICDDR,B, said he has no idea of air pollution in Rohingya camps but water and sanitation status is much better than the initial days of the influx in 2017.

“Also, massive cholera vaccine and health campaigns were undertaken. These measures helped prevent outbreak of diseases,” he told this correspondent.

The ICDDR,B official, however, expressed worries that shortage of funding may be an issue in terms of promoting health campaigns — something that the international community needs to look at.

This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh

20 Food Journalists to Celebrate on World Press Freedom Day

By Katherine Walla
May 3 2019 (IPS-Partners)

(Food Tank) – With the help of journalists who provide today’s news, the world learned more about famine in Yemen, South Sudan, and Nigeria; the impacts of floods and other natural disasters on Central American and U.S. farmers; and the harm caused by glyphosate. These stories journalists tell make it easier for all of us citizen eaters to learn about the impacts of the food system.

May 3, 2019 marks World Press Freedom Day, a day to recognize the principles of press freedom that support journalists—and the challenges they face daily to inform the world. Since last World Press Freedom Day, journalists have faced attacks on their independence from many fronts: censoring, backlash, and threats from governments, corporations, and more. On this day, the world also pays tribute to journalists who have lost their lives on assignment. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, since 2016, 156 journalists have been murdered or caught in crossfire pursuing assignments.

To honor the journalists that have advocated for better resources for farmers, improved food policies, healthier options for all people, and more, Food Tank is highlighting 20 journalists we appreciate for their contributions to a more well-informed world.

1. Nastasha Alli

Food writer Nastasha Alli writes to highlight Philippine foodways, culture, traditions, and history. On the Exploring Filipino Kitchens podcast, Alli invites guests to talk about Filipino food, from recipes to initiatives to improve the food system. In 2018, Alli received the Food Sustainability Media Award from the Thomson Reuters Foundation and the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition Foundation for exploring how breakfast in the Philippines may transform because of pressures on fish and fishing.

2. Uzmi Athar

Uzmi Athar is a reporter for the Press Trust of India covering social issues like displacement, foeticide, and child marriage. As a member of the foreign desk, Athar also contributes to global reporting on subjects including the U.S. presidential election, Brexit referendum, and The Paris Agreement. As part of Athar’s recent works, the journalist covers food-related topics ranging from India’s growing food waste crisis, farmer welfare, and international uses of Indian flavors.

3. Allison Aubrey

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for the National Public Radio (NPR) News, where her stories appear on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. As a contributor to the Public Broadcasting Service’s NewsHour, Aubrey won the 2016 James Beard Award for Best TV Segment for her series of stories investigating food waste and the link between pesticides and bee populations. Aubrey’s recent stories covered a coalition of state attorneys general suing the current administration for weakening federal nutrition standards for school meals and the true harm proposed by unhealthy diets.

4. Helena Bottemiller Evich

Helena Bottemiller Evich is a senior food and agriculture reporter for POLITICO Pro. Bottemiller Evich’s reporting covers topics across the political food system—from White House turkey pardoning to North Carolina hog farms—and received a 2018 James Beard Award for Food and Health Reporting. In recent coverage, Bottemiller Evich has reported on the impacts of Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Commissioner Scott Gottlieb resigning and the FDA’s coming limits on sodium in food.

5. Tim Carman

Reporting for The Washington Post, Tim Carman focuses on national food issues and Washington, D.C. area restaurants. Carman’s articles cover food trends nationwide and, recently, the rise of the plant-based burger in fast-food: and its likely impact on other food providers.

6. Serena Maria Daniels

Serena Maria Daniels is an award-winning Chicana journalist and founder and “chingona-in-chief” of Tostada Magazine—a digital media company founded on the premise that food journalism can unify communities and preserve culture. As a freelance journalist, Daniels’s stories cover various topics at the intersection of food, culture, and migration and have appeared in Forbes, NPR, Thrillist, Eater, and more. In recent articles, Daniels covers restaurant development in Detroit and trend developments in various eating traditions.

7. Gloria Dickie

Gloria Dickie is a freelance environmental reporter focusing on sustainable agriculture, biodiversity conservation, and environmental law and policy. Dickie’s reporting from around the world tackles topics like community forestry projects in the Yucatan jungle and climate change protests in Paris. In 2017, Dickie was a writer-in-residence in the Banff Centre’s Environmental Reportage program and a National Tropical Botanical Garden Environmental Journalism Fellow in Hawaii. In December 2017, Dickie received the inaugural Food Sustainability Media Award.

8. Vince Dixon

As a Senior Data Visualization Reporter for Eater, Vince Dixon writes and uses code, libraries, and visual storytelling tools like photos to tell stories about the food and restaurant industry. Dixon’s stories cover topics from the rise of viral foods to exclusionary practices used by restaurant chains. In 2016, Dixon’s “Thrill Ride” used photos and videos to portray the life of New York City’s food-delivery cyclists.

9. Samuel Fromartz

As a veteran journalist covering the intersection of the environment, food, and farming, Samuel Fromartz co-founded the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN). During Fromartz’s time as Editor-in-Chief of FERN, the organization has won over a dozen journalism awards including three James Beard Foundation Awards for food politics writing. Fromartz’s recent stories highlight a recent U.S. beef packing merger and U.S. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree’s (D-ME) plan to support farmers against climate change.

10. Heather Haddon

Reporter Heather Haddon covers food retail and policy for The Wall Street Journal. Haddon focuses on the business and financial edge of food and grocery—with topics ranging from supermarket trends to food corporations’ leadership and financial viability. In recent articles, Haddon reports on the impacts of online grocery services and the performance of food companies around the world.

11. Kim Harrisberg

Kim Harrisberg is a multimedia journalist with Health-e News Service in Johannesburg, South Africa. While Harrisberg’s stories explore health inequality, justice, and gender-based violence across the country, her 2018 documentary “Food Apartheid” examines the long-term social divides that malnutrition exacerbates after the end of apartheid. Harrisberg won the Vodacom Online Journalist of the Year Award, the Impact Africa Award in 2017, and the Food Sustainability Media Award for published multimedia in 2018.

12. Jonathan Kauffman

After cooking in Minnesota and San Francisco, Jonathan Kauffman left the culinary world to become a journalist. Kauffman focuses on the intersection of food and culture for the San Francisco Chronicle, covering topics like trends in global cuisines and the impact of technology on the food system. A recipient of awards from the James Beard Foundation, the International Association of Culinary Professionals, and the Association of Food Journalism, Kauffman covers plant-based burgers and farmers encountering wildfires in recent articles.

13. Musdalafa Lyaga

Musdalafa Lyaga is a Radio Assistant at the Biovision Africa Trust and an award-winning journalist. Lyaga’s works include documentary and feature videos, radio programs, composed research, and more. In recent work, Lyaga develops farmer-to-farmer training videos and exposes the hardships farmers across Kenya face, like food loss on the farm; Lyaga’s coverage of mango rot helped earn the BCFN and Thomson Reuters Foundation’s Food Sustainability Media Award in 2017.

14. Julia Moskin

Julia Moskin has reported for The New York Times since 2004 and won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for public service for reporting on workplace sexual harassment issues. Moskin reports the news changing the food system, writes profiles of innovative leaders, and spots culinary trends. Recently, Moskin uncovered how chefs, farmers, and entrepreneurs in Puerto Rico used food to recover from two hurricanes.

15. Ruth Oniang’o

Ruth Oniang’o is the founder and Executive Director of Rural Outreach Africa, a non-profit community development organization in Kenya, and founder and Editor-in-Chief of the African Journal of Food, Agriculture, Nutrition, and Development. The journal publishes research and investigative reporting from African scientists and writers that may advocate for poor and neglected smallholder farmers in Africa. Oniang’o covers topics like empowering farmers, avoiding food waste, and encouraging transitions to healthy diets.

16. Tom Philpott

As the food and agriculture correspondent for Mother Jones, Tom Philpott uncovers the politics, history, and science behind the food system. Philpott also hosts the podcast Bite alongside Mother Jones editors Kiera Butler and Maddie Oatman. In recent features and editorials, Philpott highlights ways to eat with the climate in mind and ways to better care for farmland.

17. Tejal Rao

Tejal Rao is a restaurant critic at The New York Times and a columnist for The New York Times Magazine. Rao not only won two James Beard Foundation Awards for restaurant criticism, but also received a Vilcek Prize for creative promise in culinary arts. In recent reporting, Rao exposed a day in the life of a Mister Softee Truck owner and discovered how Kit Kats became so popular in Japan.

18. Gregg Segal

Gregg Segal uses photography to explore culture—including the food that has long been characteristic of cultures, or the globalized food that demonstrates humanity’s altered relationship to food. Segal’s monograph Daily Bread photographs children among the food they eat over the course of a week to demonstrate how food habits change or remain unchanged. Segal’s photo essays appeared in publications like Time, The Independent, Le Monde, Fortune, and his photography has been recognized by Communication Arts, Investigative Reporters and Editors, The New York Press Club, and more.

19. Mayukh Sen

After working as a staff writer at Munchies and Food 52, and receiving a James Beard Award in Profile Writing for covering the disappearance of soul food sensation Princess Pamela, Mayukh Sen became a freelance journalist. Appearing in the New York Times and the New Yorker, Sen’s pieces hark on the power of women in food and culinary traditions, while reflecting upon his own identity as a queer Indian person.

20. Mari Uyehara

Mari Uyehara is a food and travel writer for Taste and previously a food editor for Time Out New York and Martha Stewart Living Radio. In 2019, Uyehara won a James Beard Award for her column “What We Talk About When We Talk About American Food” which explores the politics, stories, and inspirations behind American foods. In recent articles, Uyehara covers how Japanese-Americans helped launch the California tuna-canning industry and the life of Margaret Rukin, founder of Pepperidge Farm.

West Africa’s Fine Line Between Cultural Norms and Child Trafficking

Poverty plays a huge role in the trafficking of women and girls in West Africa. Credit: CC by 2.0/Linda De Volder

By Issa Sikiti da Silva
COTONOU, Benin, May 3 2019 – On a bus in Cotonou, Benin’s commercial capital, four Nigerian girls aged between 15 and 16 sit closely together as they are about to embark on the last part of their journey to Mali, where they are told that their new husbands, whom they never have met, await them.

They started off from their homes in Eastern Nigeria where their parents had reportedly agreed that they be “commissioned” to become the wives of Nigerian men living in Mali.

“Four compatriots asked me to bring them young wives because they want to get married. I’m sure they will be happy,” a human smuggler, who only identifies himself as Wiseman, tells IPS as the bus prepares to depart for Bamako, Mali’s capital. IPS is not allowed to speak to the young girls, who appear anxious.

When asked if the girls’ parents are aware they have to travel to Mali, Wiseman says: “I negotiated with them and gave them something as a down payment for their dowries, which will surely help them [the parents] start a small business or buy seeds for farming. These kids should count themselves lucky because they will work and perform wives’ duties, so their lives should improve big time.”

But nobody knows the real intentions of the men who ”commissioned” these girls. Or if they exist.

Pathfinders Justice Initiative, an international non-government organisation dedicated to the prevention of modern-day sex slavery, says Nigeria is a source, transit and destination country when it comes to human trafficking with Benin City, in Nigeria’s Edo State, being an internationally-recognised sex trafficking hub. 

Nigeria ranks 32 out of 167 countries with the highest number of slaves (1,38 million), according to the 2018 Global Slavery Index report. While Nigeria has the institutional framework and laws against trafficking, at least one million people are trafficked there every year, according to the country’s National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP).

NAPTIP, working in collaboration with Malian authorities, recently said that nearly 20,000 Nigerian girls were forced into prostitution in Mali. The girls were said to be working in hotels and nightclubs after being sold to prostitution rings by human traffickers.

Children the most vulnerable

In West Africa, children remain the most vulnerable to trafficking.

The latest Global Report On Trafficking In Persons by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) found that young boys and girls where among those most  trafficked in the region. 

At the end of April, Interpol announced that it rescued 216 trafficked victimincluding 157 childrenfrom Benin, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, and Togo. Interpol is part of a global task force formed to address human trafficking.

Some of the trafficking victims were working as sex workers in Benin and Nigeria, while others worked all day in markets and at various eating places. Some were as young as 11 and had been beaten, subject to abuse, and told they would never see their families again.

Forty-seven people were arrested.

“Many of the children are shipped actually into these markets to carry out forced labour. These are organised crime groups who are motivated by making money. They don’t care about the children forced into prostitution, working in terrible conditions, living on the streets, they are all after the money,” Interpol’s Director of Organised and Emerging Crime Paul Stanfield said in a video.

Benin, the transit stop for traffickers

Benin, a low-income country, has always been a transit route for west African migrants looking to irregularly make their way to Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, and finally to Europe.

The city of Cotonou appears to be a huge transit route through which women and girls trafficked to North and West Africa pass as they are transported to various countries of their destination. While Togo, Burkina Faso, Benin and Mali have laws against child trafficking, nothing covers trafficking in persons above the age of 18, according to the UNODC report. Niger has no laws against trafficking.

The Economic Community of West African States’ policy of free movement of goods and people seems to make this easier as corrupt immigration officers at border posts look away in exchange for a few euros. When IPS asks Wiseman about border controls, he brushes aside the issue, saying he knows “how to handle them”.  

When asked if he is responsible for the girls’ welfare, Wiseman replies: “I’m not a social worker, I’m a businessman and a helper. I help people to get good wives and lift the girls’ families out of poverty in exchange for money. The rest is history.”

When the incident about the Nigerian girls is described to Hassan Badarou, a community-based caregiver and religious leader from Benin, he says “they could be used as sex slaves by those men or sold to crime syndicates to serve as prostitutes in Mali or even as far as in North Africa.”

“It’s a pity parents allow their children to just leave the country in exchange for a few dollars. All of this wouldn’t have happened if they weren’t poor,” he says.

Poverty, culture and child labour

Poverty plays a huge role in the trafficking of women and girls in the region. But so too does culture.

In 2014, a female friend of Suzie’s family came to collect the then 12-year-old from her home in northern Benin.

“She promised to help me attend school after working at her home for one year, but she didn’t,” Suzie tells IPS in the local language, Fon, through a translator.

“Things started to go wrong when I started to remind her about that. She stopped paying me my salary and increased the workload and cut my meals down from two to one per day. And she started beating up me every time I protested,” the 16-year-old who lives in Cotonou tells IPS.

As time went by, the women’s male family members, who lived in the same house, started to make sexual advances towards Suzie. She refused the advances but eventually ran away because she could no longer bear the situation. 

No police please

When asked why she doesn’t report the incidents to the police, she says: “I can’t do that. The woman is like my aunt so I couldn’t do it as this would have brought a conflict between the women’s family and ours back home.”

Badarou, the religious leader, explains that he has mediated in cases like Suzie’s.

“If you see the way these women ill-treat these girls, it should make you cry. I have documented many cases of abuse and have tried to mediate between some of these women and the girls.”

But he’s never reported any of these cases, however abusive, to the police.

“The only thing you cannot do is to report these cases to the police. We are all brothers and sisters of this country and we believe in solving our problems in harmony and peace through dialogue. Besides, it’s not our culture to report everything to the police. I blame West African governments for allowing this thing to go on and on to the extent of becoming a cultural norm institutionalised deep in the fabric of society. It’s now hard to break it,” he says.

Badarou explains that the actions are cultural.

“In the face of this deeply-entrenched culture of ”helping each other” by ”handing over” your girls to someone well established who is living in the cities, even the United Nations and children’s organisations sometimes have no choice but to turn a blind eye. I’m not saying they are not doing anything about it, but you can’t break up someone’s culture, especially in a region such as this where grinding poverty rules,” he says.

Richard Dossou seems to agree. He tells IPS that his uncle’s friend, a father of 18 children, is looking for “Good Samaritans” from Benin to take in some of his girls as he is unable to provide for them. 

“I’m planning to travel to their village to negotiate with him with a view of taking even one, not as a wife, but as a maid. Then we will see how it will lead us. We help each other like this to fend off poverty and misery in this region,” Dossou says.

While Benin’s poverty hovers at about 40 percent, a report released in 2018  by the World Poverty Clock said in Nigeria a total of 86.9 million people are living in extreme poverty.

The fine line between cultural norms and child trafficking

Asked if this West African practice of “handing over” girls is a cultural norm of lifting families out of poverty, Jakub Sobik, communications manager for London-based Anti-Slavery International, tells IPS via email: “What you describe above are cases of child trafficking, when children are being recruited or harboured with a view of exploiting them.”

“Slavery doesn’t occur in a vacuum, it is underpinned by many factors, including poverty, discrimination, lack of access to education and decent job opportunities, the lack of rule of law, as well as practices that are culturally accepted in societies,” he explains.

He says that it is often the case that parents are “deceived about the conditions their children will be offered, and send them away in a genuine belief that they will get a better chance of education and life opportunities in surroundings of cities and perhaps better-off societal circles.” 

He adds that in some societies children working is culturally accepted, because it has been the norm for generations. “We have a lot to do to change that and offer children childhoods, education and opportunities in lives they deserve.”

As the bus continues on the final journey that is meant to lift the Nigerian girls out of ”poverty” to ‘’freedom”; back in Cotonou Suzie wonders the city’s dark streets hand in hand with a Zemidjan—a motorcycle taxi driver—who appears to be aged between 40 and 50 and whom she describes as her boyfriend.

—————————————–The Global Sustainability Network ( GSN ) is pursuing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal number 8 with a special emphasis on Goal 8.7 which ‘takes immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms’.

The origins of the GSN come from the endeavours of the Joint Declaration of Religious Leaders signed on 2 December 2014. Religious leaders of various faiths, gathered to work together “to defend the dignity and freedom of the human being against the extreme forms of the globalization of indifference, such us exploitation, forced labour, prostitution, human trafficking” and so forth.

LGBTQI Rights in the Balkans: A Perpetual Struggle

By Mawethu Nkosana
BUCHAREST, Romania, May 3 2019 – Romanian Adrian Coman and his American-born partner Clai Hamilton had two major reasons to celebrate when they tied the knot last June.

One of course, was their marriage. The other was the historic legal victory they scored when their case before Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) led to the recognition of same sex marriage for the purpose of freedom of movement in the European Union (EU).

The case, challenging current law, represented a significant victory for LGBTQI rights, in particular in Eastern Europe.

The couple had married in Belgium in 2010 and later decided to settle in Coman’s native Romania. But Hamilton was denied residency rights because the civil code does not recognise same-sex marriages. So, they took the matter to the Romanian courts, which referred it to the CJEU.

Romania currently ranks 35th out of the 49 countries assessed by the European region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA-Europe,), in terms of its equality laws and policies.

Romania compares fairly favourably – when it comes to protecting and promoting LGBTQI rights – to many other Balkan states. But there is an apparent disconnect between the Romanian government’s intentions and public opinion.

While the government adopted anti-discrimination legislation in 2000 and decriminalised consensual same-sex relationships the following year, it did an about-face in 2008 when it changed the civil code to ban same-sex marriage and civil partnerships. But 10 years later, referendum voters rejected an attempt to enforce this prohibition at the Constitutional level.

In this, Romania is not alone. Uncertainty over LGBTQI rights manifests in a variety of ways across the Balkan region, a massive swathe of territory stretching across Eastern Europe from Turkey in the south to Romania in the north.

This uncertainty is a breeding ground for further discrimination, the non-implementation of more liberal civil regimes and the official apathy toward the commission of crimes against members of the LGBTQI community.

For example, in 2015, Slovenia’s parliament passed a same-sex marriage bill with a vote of 51-28. But Slovenians disagreed: nine months later, they rejected the new law in a referendum, by a margin of 63% to 37%.

Across the Black Sea from Romania, an incident in Armenia demonstrated the challenges that still lie ahead for LGBTIQ rights in this general part of the world. This week, around 100 demonstrators gathered outside the national assembly in the capital, Yerevan, to protest a speech in parliament by a transgender activist. Lilit Martirosyan’s address at a hearing organised by the United Nations and the Armenian Human Rights Defender’s Office. While fuelled by party politics, the protests were clearly transphobic.

In some places a more liberal legal framework has been established but greater tolerance is not guaranteed. Croatia passed the Life Partnership Act in 2014, granting same-sex couples the same rights as their heterosexual counterparts – except for adoption, although a parent’s life partner can become a child’s partner-guardian.

This was despite an opinion poll the previous year, showing that almost 60% of Croats thought that marriage should be constitutionally defined as being between a man and a woman. This raises questions around the enforceability and public acceptance of the Life Partnership Act.

Greece presents a more extreme example of public opinion rising against political decisions. Despite its parliament approving civil unions for same-sex couples in a landslide 194-55 vote four years ago, when polls showed that only a third of citizens supported such a reform, public attitudes toward the LGBTQI community remained hardened.

In its 2019 review of LGBTI rights, ILGA-Europe reports the prevalence of homophobic and transphobic speech in Greece, in particular by clergy. It notes also the an International LBTQI youth and student organization ranks Greece as one of the least inclusive countries around LGBTQI issues in education.

The ILGA-Europe review also describes the shocking 2018 murder of LGBT+ and HIV activist Zak Kostopoulos, who was fatally beaten by an Athens jewellery shop owner, a second person and police officers.

Despite videos of the incident being made public, the media made later-discredited claims that he had been trying to rob the shop and had been under the influence of drugs.

The other side of the coin is where authorities, even when they are not backed by legislation, foment hatred and violence toward the LGBTQI community – as in Turkey, where homosexuality has been legal since 1858, although sexual orientation, gender identity and same-sex relationships are not recognised in civil rights laws.

In November 2017, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared the empowering LGBT people to be “against the values of our nation”. A week later, the governor’s office in the capital, Ankara, banned all LGBT cultural events in that city.

Deep-seated prejudice towards the LGBTQI community in the Balkans – in contrast to Western Europe, where studies and polls consistently show more liberal attitudes – have been further inflamed by the influx over several years of refugees from conflict zones in the Middle East.

LGBTQI refugees from countries like Iraq and Syria escape sexual orientation or gender discrimination and persecution in their homelands, only to face it once again in the Balkans.

Fearful, many do not report their sexual orientation or gender identity when applying for refugee status. This invariably leads to their applications being rejected and them being repatriated to their home countries.

If they stay, or move to another country, their illegal status means they are often forced to support themselves through high-risk occupations such as sex work. And because they enjoy no legal rights, they are at risk of official persecution and have no recourse should they be victimised by the general public.

The win for LGBTQI rights in the Coman-Hamilton judgment is without doubt important, and it stands proudly among other small victories in the Balkans region. But what positive changes there have been are incremental, and often negated by continued prejudice and a lack of will to implement reforms.

Until public and official attitudes undergo a paradigm shift in every one of the Balkan states – irrespective of whether or not their civil regimes are currently transforming – the region’s LGBTQI community will continue to be denied basic human rights and disproportionately suffer indignity, discrimination and violence.