Read, Debate: Engage.
Read, Debate: Engage.
map tooltip

Editors ́ Picks

Brexit deepens divisions in Northern Ireland

As the Brexit storm swirls across the British Isles, much focus has been paid to the growing demands for Scottish independence, but another region of the United Kingdom that voted to stay in the European Union, Northern Ireland, remains largely forgotten and may represent the hardest challenge for the withdrawal from the EU.

Last week’s snap election, held after the dissolving of the Northern Irish Assembly at Stormont, showed the historic divisions in the territory, that has been stained by decades of armed conflict, reinforced by the Brexit vote. After 20 years of relatively stability and peace, the threat of returning border controls between the two Irelands has sparked fears of increased sectarianism and outbreaks of violence.

While nationalist parties, who support the reunification of Ireland, experienced a surge in popularity in the election held the 2nd of March, the unionists lost their symbolic majority that they have enjoyed since the province was created. With the Democratic Unionist Party (28 seats) and Sinn Fein (27), Stormont is now as divided as ever, putting the power-sharing agreement is at risk. The two main parties do not see eye to eye on many issues, with the nationalist Sinn Fein warning that Irish unity has never left their agenda.

In a territory that vastly relies on EU aid, the brutal result for unionism can easily be linked to Northern Irish voters’ dissatisfaction with the UK’s leaving the EU. The open border with the Republic of Ireland inside the European Union was a key aspect of the successful peace process, when the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. Now, strong fears abound over the hardening of the border, which has reawakened the memories of the long decades of ‘Troubles’, which savagely tore Northern Irish society apart and took the lives of 3,500 people. Not only harming the countless businesses that operate across the border, a hard border presents a psychological blow to those who dream of a united Ireland and to the strongly and historically linked border communities.

The management of the border with the Republic of Ireland could become one of the main implications of Brexit. To ensure the peaceful coexistence of the Protestant (Unionist) and Catholic (Nationalist) communities in Northern Ireland and to prevent any flare-ups of conflicts, this issue must become a priority for Westminster.

Are London acid attacks a reflection of our time?

Walking down East London’s Bethnal Green Road this morning, I find it hard to think of much else than the acid attack that took place just around the corner on Monday evening. For the reward of petty theft, two men were attacked with acid and left with life altering injuries.

This was the latest in a surge of acid assaults suddenly placing the UK, and London especially, as one of the world’s highest in noxious-substance crime, with a 65% rise from 450 incidents in 2016.

There’s much to be said around this visceral trend in crime; much to be questioned at that too. The first that comes to mind is how injuries caused by corrosive substances are so swiftly flagged as “non life-threatening” when the physical disfiguration, as well as the psychological impact can hardly be argued as other than life-threatening. Quickly following is how to crack down on a weapon that essentially can be carried legally until it is used otherwise. And just behind on the list is a slightly more sociological and perhaps less answerable question; why the rise in this particularly violent, vicious crime and what can that tell of the ubiquitous hatred that surrounds us?

Acid attacks have unfortunately been around for much longer than they’ve made headway in the British press. Their prominence is often linked to domestic violence in more patriarchal societies, and it is very present in countries such as India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Uganda, with Pakistan most widely reported for its attacks.

Colombia however, where acid assaults are equally rife, recently succeeded in reducing its numbers by imposing a 12 to 50 year sentence for the crime. In the case of the UK, a connection could be drawn between the rise of this abominable crime and the lack of legislation holding acid attacks in the high ranking punishment it deserves. Instead, it is currently merely regarded as Grievous Bodily Harm (GBH) or Actual Bodily Harm (ABH), which are both, at worst, only carrying a maximum sentence of 5 years imprisonment.

In contrast to the often close social circle attackers seen in other countries, the nature of acid attacks in the UK differs from the largely misogynistic agenda it promotes elsewhere; Men have attacked other men and at random. In a society that cherishes individuality, these are attacks on precisely that, altering the victim’s identity indefinitely. “In a culture of choice, all choices are removed. The attacker is supreme” writes journalist Deborah Orr, and it’s the unimaginable absence of empathy enacted with this crime that makes it tragically fitting in our world today.

Photo: Diodoro, Ceartive Commons

Indigenous knowledge remains key panacea for modern threats

In Kenya’s Western region deemed to be the country’s food basket, locals have over the years relied on subtle signs from the environment that would be missed by ordinary eyes, to interpret some of the most important phenomena to their daily lives.

The croaking of frogs, the way birds chirp, the flowering and shedding of leaves of select trees or the mating patterns of certain animals have been key pointers to important occasions like imminent rains or drought which help the community plan beforehand. These practices have been passed across generations.

In Central African Republic residents have embraced certain trees for their medicinal value and have been hailed over the years as crucial in averting major disease outbreaks.

These phenomena reverberates across the continent and have always proven potent in tackling some of Africa’s biting problems including diseases, poverty and drought. But even as globalization threaten to relegate them to the annals of history, science has indeed found value in majority of them, if the investments by major players are anything to go by.

Global drug manufacturing companies have sunk billions in botanical gardens and research in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon as they seek to tap into the science behind these magic. The World Health Organization has given a clean bill of health to some of these indigenous plants, recognizing their immense contribution to global health. World Bank has on the other hand documented numerous cases of the role indigenous knowledge has played in development of mankind.

Even as westernization and modernity threatens to stymie the role of indigenous knowledge in today’s society, it is commendable to see researchers and scientists take time and invest resources in learning how traditional knowledge has furthered resilience and cushioned local populations from traditional and emerging threats.

Indeed civilization is as old as indigenous knowledge because it has borrowed heavily from some of these practices, key among them, the art of survival.

It is therefore imperative that as science advances, it is guided by the basics that define it, and indigenous knowledge has demonstrated over the years that it can handle even the pressing problems of the 21st century while furthering development. But even as science courts tradition it calls for protection of the rights of indigenous people over their traditional knowledge and giving them a place in modern scientific debate if we are to stay ahead of modern day threats.

Photo: UNESCO

Warsaw’s move towards authoritarianism threatening EU integrity

Last week Poland´s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) once again showed its determination in becoming an authoritarian and undemocratic government. The far right-wing party, commandeered by Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, passed a new law in both the Parliament and Senate that would place the country’s Supreme Court under government control. According to the new reform, ministers would have the power to select judges and members of the country’s highest court, undermining the independence of Polish justice and weakening confidence in the rule of law free from political intrusion.

The controversial bill sparked massive public unrest from thousands of people who attended nationwide demonstrations against the new reform. This Monday, President Andrzej Duda finally succumbed to the mounting pressure from the multiple popular protests, announcing he will veto the bill. It is the first time that Duda, former member of PiS, has openly disagreed with the party of the government, directed under the shadow of former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

Such legal changes could deeply compromise basic principles of freedom, justice and democracy. Unfortunately, this undemocratic direction set out by PiS is not entirely new. The nationalist party has, since arriving to power in October 2015, been launching a series of reforms that demonstrate its move towards authoritarianism. After journalists were denied entry to Parliament, public media and NGOs have been put under tight governmental control. Last year, after threatening to totally ban abortion in the country, the party ended up withdrawing its support of the law, due to pressure made by massive demonstrations.

The approval of such measures could have severe repercussions across Europe. Whilst Polish democracy remains in grave danger, the poor response from the European Union has greatly damaged its trustworthiness. Although the EU has opposed the new law, threatening Poland with exceptional sanctions, its reaction has been weak. Fortunately, popular pressure and social activism of a society fed up with its government´s actions, has managed yet again to make the difference.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do: save your water!

Roman aqueducts are among the most impressive monuments from the ancient world. Not only do their size, but their practicality and civic-oriented function move us. The same can’t be said for Rome’s modern equivalents, which are chronically leaky. Plus the rest of the infrastructure is decaying and decades-old. Add to that one of the driest seasons in the past sixty years, and you have it: Rome is facing a water shortage.

Romans are likely to have to ration water by the end of the week. This might not sound like such big news given so many modern cities and countries often impose ‘hosepipe bans’, reminding their citizens that excessive water use is not allowed. However, such bans only occur during seasons of extreme heat – when we have heatwaves, or a particularly dry summer, for example. During these times, the city would tap up its emergency water supply, if it had to, and revert to the main water supply once it started raining again and temperatures cooled.

However, Rome is different. Not only has it exhausted its main water supply, it’s been using its emergency water supply on and off for several years (having experienced a few years of high heat); furthermore, the infrastructure it uses to regulate and control water is actually losing water all throughout the circuit. Water is simply dumped into the soil to be absorbed or evaporated, blown across the land, and maybe fall as rain in the Swiss Alps.

The Guardian Reports “meteorologists noted on Sunday that Italy had experienced one of its driest springs in some 60 years and that some parts of the country had seen rainfall totals 80% below normal. Among the hardest-hit regions was Sardinia, which is seeking natural disaster status.”

Natural disaster status! In modern, 21st Century Europe. It is possible – believe it! Agriculture has been devastated across the region. In other regions, so has parmesan cheese production and prosciutto – meaning some of the country’s most famed exports are likely to suffer.

Romans have had to listen to a political and commercial back and forth between lawmakers and water companies, with no concrete solution, other than staggering supply being put forth. We’ll have to wait to see if further help from the outside world will be necessary. Until then, think of Rome as a kind of horrifying stand-in for those places in the world without regular water supply.

Check out wateraid here.

 

Afghanistan criminalizes ‘child play’

The Afghan government has finally included the malicious practice of ‘Bacha Baazi’ [sexual exploitation of children and young boys] as crime in its revised penal code.

‘Bacha Bazi’, literally „boy play“ is a slang term in Persian for a wide variety of activities involving sexual relations between older men and younger adolescent men, or boys that sometimes includes child sexual abuse. The victim of “Bacha Bazi” is called “bach bey rish” (boys without beard) while the abuser is called “bacha baz or kaata”.

Abdul Basir Anwar, the country’s Minister of Justice announced on Thursday that the sexual abuse of children is one of the main crimes included in the revised version of the penal code. This review is part of Kabul’s broader pledges at the international forums for reforms in its legal system. The minister said the penal code has been finalized following lengthy and extensive reviews at various levels. ‘Bacha Bazi’ was among some 50 offenses for which punishments were not specified that led to the culture of impunity and acceptance.

Widely popular among warlords and other influential individuals, the ancient practice of ‘Bacha Bazi’ continues to stain the face of modern-day Afghanistan that is lingering towards a more lawful and democratic way of life thanks to the enduring support from the international community. Weakening the Afghan society from within, the abuse of children and young boys has also penetrated into the country’s nascent security forces. The country’s Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) has long been raising concerns over the broader impacts of this social taboo.

With the fresh legislations, the Kabul government has taken a long-due step forward towards strengthening the judiciary, and broadening its scope to cover literally all aspects of life in a bid to end ambiguities and streamline legal system.

Sierra Leone Teenage Pregnancy Surges After Ebola

It’s been a year since the West African country of Sierra Leone declared itself free of the second outbreak of Ebola, affecting around 14,000 individuals, with a death toll of over 3,000. The country is now facing a ricochet effect – a spike in teenage pregnancies.

During the two years of the epidemic, the country’s medical resources, as well as international aid funding, were directly focused on the termination of the lethal virus. In conjunction, social services collapsed and schools closed for an entire year. What Sierra Leone experienced over this period is not only anxiety and death from the highly contagious virus, but also a halt to what essentially holds the country together in terms of education, sexual health and family planning services.

Sierra Leone has one of the world’s highest number of teenage pregnancies and maternal mortality rates; a third of girls between the age of 15-19 will become teenage mothers and less than half have access to medical care during birth. To allow a hint of perspective, that’s 18,000 teenage pregnancies in one year alone. Most of girls drop out of school, experience shaming in their communities, and receive virtually no support from the government. 

The United Nations Population Fund have been the primary providers of the country’s contraception (95%), while funding the majority of its family planning services long before the 2014 outbreak of Ebola. With poor sexual health education – focusing on women, who, more often than not, have very little power over contraceptive choice or consent – the UNFPA’s aid is also the country’s only means to tackle growing numbers of teen pregnancies.

As the country now recovers from both the Ebola virus and a fragile economy as a result of price drops in global commodities, global aid is crucial. However, and here Trump’s repercussions are felt again; last month the US president made a disastrous (yet, sadly, not at all surprising) decision to cut all US backing of international family planning programmes as well as cutting support of UNFPA’s work in countries including Sierra Leone. It seems that in places where the myth around contraceptives is still rife, the population’s trust in aid is essential; thus, reconstructing clinics and building networks between international support is where UNFPA is needed in order to get teenage girls back in school, pregnancy numbers down, and the basic human right of family planning services running once again.

Shedding off the climate refugee tag

At a recent climate convention for Africa, staggering statistics were released on a new phenomenon gaining pace but which is not getting the attention it deserves. The name climate refugees is increasingly dominating national, regional and international discourses as vagaries of weather become an everyday affair. Globally the number of people who have been forced by changing weather patterns to abandon their traditional ways of survival and move elsewhere in search of better days and lives is estimated at around 100 million according to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Nowhere is this effect more felt than in Africa where the bulk of the population, 80 per cent, rely on agriculture, the worst hit sector by climate change, for livelihoods. Scientists are already predicting catastrophic effects in years to come, which will take their toll on Africa’s most primed agricultural crops.

The latest science estimates the average production losses by 2050 for African maize at 22 per cent, sorghum 17 per cent, millet 17 per cent, groundnut 18 per cent and cassava 8 per cent.

With agriculture contributing up to 30 per cent of majority of African national income and employing more than 70 per cent of the population, the impact is bound to be widespread. Farmers who have counted on their farms for generations to feed them and generate income to educate their children, open other businesses and take care of their other needs like health have to grapple with this new phenomenon.

Unable to fight back, the rural people are now fleeing their farms for greener pastures in cities which are not so green.

According to an annual survey by Africa Litmus, out of all the total population coming to cities from the rural areas in Africa, 30 percent is fleeing as a result of failed agricultural practices caused by failed rains. The locus of poverty is gradually shifting from rural to urban areas and is manifested in growing food insecurity with majority of those coming to the cities finding themselves worse off economically than they were back in the rural homes.

The numbers will grow, the woes will multiply unless humanity get its acts together. It is no longer a matter of if but when. Yet in the melee of changing weather patterns and food insufficiency nations can rediscover themselves. Africa has always been billed as a resilient continent, with a highly creative workforce that has homegrown solutions to homegrown problems. Hardly a year goes by without its scientists receiving international accolades for discovering transformatory innovations. That is the spark that should call the continent to action. Noble activities like brainfed agriculture and high superior seed varieties are surebets to insulating Africa from any threat to food production. Africa owes it to the future generations to make the continent food secure.

Bonfires and parades fuelling tension in Northern Ireland

On July 12th Northern Ireland experienced once again traditional loyalist marches that celebrate the historic victory of Protestant King William of Orange over the Catholic King James II at the Battle of Boyne in 1690. Despite the battle occurring over 300 years ago, the date still represents an important milestone for Protestants residing in Northern Ireland, the descendents of English and Scottish settlers who support maintaining the territory in the United Kingdom.

This year, the parades took place in 18 locations around Northern Ireland, involving thousands of people and were considered the largest in a generation. Draped in Union Jacks, protestors once again displayed their passionate British patriotism that is really glimpsed in Britain itself. Typically, the parades are followed by scenes of violence and clashes between the Catholic and Protestant communities as the parades are provocatively routed through Catholic neighbourhoods and in recent years have led to rioting.

On the previous night of July 11th, large towering bonfires were lit in Protestant neighbourhoods. Provocatively, unionists burned flags of the Republic of Ireland, along with images of Sinn Fein electoral candidates, the party that supports political reunification of the island of Ireland. Highly controversial, an image of a black coffin with a photo of the historic Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness, recently deceased, was also attached to a bonfire in east Belfast. Such actions are hugely offensive towards Catholics, who consider them as hate crimes.

Although this year’s parades passed without major confrontations, the moment advises more prudence on the part of the unionist community. Although a majority of Northern Irish people (56%) voted to remain in the EU, the UK-wide vote for Brexit has now propelled the possibility of a hard border returning between the south and north of Ireland, potentially jeopardising the peace process. 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement, which brought an end to 30 years of conflict between the Protestant and Catholic communities, much progress has been made in the region’s peace process.

Nevertheless, much remains to be done in achieving harmonious coexistence between the two communities, which have become more and more polarised in recent years, as shown in the rise of radical parties in recent elections. As social divisions seem to be increasing, this kind of patriotic display and constant provocation do not help the normalisation of Northern Irish society.