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Editors ́ Picks

Tolerance (not racism) fights extremism

Opportunist far right parties hurried, once again, to link the recent terrorist attack on Westminster, which killed four people, with immigration. The message is not new: we heard it after the attacks in Paris, Nice, Brussels and Berlin. „We must control our borders,“ said Marine Le Pen, while former UKIP leader Nigel Farage claimed that Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim policy was correct.

Manipulation is commonplace amongst populist politicians, who try to capitalise on atrocities and people’s fear in order to gain votes. Mixing immigration and religion with terrorism, the far right, imposing a discourse of „us and them“ has tried to foster a distorted view of immigration and the Muslim community, blindly ignoring that Muslims themselves are the main victims of extremists, in countries such as Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan.

Fortunately, the citizen response following the London attack showed that tolerance is overwhelmingly present in the UK. Numerous rallies took place all over Britain condemning the terrorist attack, including one symbolic act featuring Muslim women on Westminster Bridge showing their solidarity. Moreover, London, the most multicultural capital city in Europe, is a great example of progression, integration and diversity. The Muslim mayor of the city, Sadiq Khan said precisely that the terrorists target cities like London because its citizens „respect, embrace and celebrate one another“. This is the only way to tackle extremism: demonstrating tolerance and respect. However, on the other hand, racist and islamophobic right-wing propaganda only contributes to exacerbate it.


The forgotten Portugal is burning

Portugal has been burning every summer in recent decades. Year after year, the catastrophe returns, blazing thousands of acres of forest across the country. Although violent, fires in recent years have rarely caused fatalities. However, the tragedy of the enormous fire in central Portugal this weekend has gained unprecedented proportions: the death toll stands at 64 with 157 wounded.

Given the scale of forest fires in the country, the warnings that such a calamity could result in human victims of this magnitude were there, but successive governments chose to ignore it. According to a study of the University of Vila Real, between 2000 and 2013 more than 50% of the fires registered in Europe took place in Portugal. Last year it happened again: more than half of the area burned on the European continent was in Portugal.

Last week’s tragedy, like most other fires, occurred in the isolated and abandoned Portuguese interior. The severe fire and its ability to spread rapidly was, therefore, to a large extent the result of the abandonment of rural areas and the depopulation of the interior as well as a lack of maintenance of the forest environment.

Climate change and the unprecedented extreme temperatures that have plagued the country have been used to justify the catastrophe. Excessive heat and prolonged periods of drought certainly contribute to outbreaks of forest fires, but can not be the only explanations.

If Portugal has a climate similar to other countries in southern Europe, why do fires there have a more devastating impact? There are several factors behind this. On one hand, Portugal has the largest area of planted ​​eucalyptus in Europe. Despite its relative small size, the Atlantic country competes in terms of eucalyptus area with countries of much larger size such as Brazil, China and Australia. In total, about 26% of Portuguese forest area is eucalyptus, a non-autochthonous and highly inflammable tree, susceptible to forest fires. At the same time, the powerful paper industry, responsible for planting eucalyptus trees, benefits from public policies that protect their business and boosts theirs profits rather than protecting the country’s environment and sustainability.

At the same time, there are numerous failures regarding fire prevention and combat. The lack of strict regulation from central and local government in the implementation and organisation of forests is compounded by the reduction in resources devoted to this matter arising from the budget cuts of recent years of austerity.

It is urgent, therefore, to adjust public policies for forest management in Portugal, opting for a sustainable model and placing emphasis on prevention methods. Otherwise such disastrous catastrophes are likely to increase in frequency.

Refugee crisis ‘test of our own common humanity’

By the end of 2016, a record 65.6 million people had been uprooted by what they have known as home as a result of conflicts, persecution, hunger and climate change, a new report by the United Nations Higher Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR shows.

The report comes as the world marks the International day of refugees being celebrated today. Put into context the numbers portend that last year alone, about 10.3 million people fled their homes including those who crossed international borders. The refugee agency quantifies this showing that this represents one person becoming displaced every three seconds, “less than the time it takes to read this sentence,” it said.

African countries are no stranger to the refugee and internally displaced persons puzzle catalyzed by politically instigated violence, incessant drought and xenophobia with numbers standing at over 12.4 million by 2015.

From Nigerians fleeing the Boko Haram wrath, Ethiopians running from drought to those perishing in the unforgiving waters of Mediterranean Sea as they seek greener pastures abroad, the continent has recorded the highest number of displacements now more than ever. Already South Sudan has been classified Africa’s largest refugee crisis, having seen the displacement of 3.7 million people from their homes, about a third of its population, since the civil war in 2013 broke.

And as the world marks this year’s day of the refugees, interesting insights have shaped this debate world over with claims of hypocrisy and double standards featuring. While well to do countries have been accused of frustrating the international obligations to treatment of displaced people and turning their back on the suffering, the poorer countries who themselves are exposed to conditions that would force them to free their home countries have embraced open door policy towards refugees. Kenya for example is home to the largest refugee camp in the world housing more than 300,000 majority of them Somalis who fled from a country that has become synonymous with lawlessness, terrorism, famine and diseases.

Uganda, Kenya’s neighbour, has been christened the best place for refugees to live because beyond opening its gates to them, it gives them a sense of entitlement which includes owning land and starting life afresh. In fact Uganda received the largest number of new refugees last year, more than half a million people according to latest data by the Norwegian Refugee Council.

The council’s Secretary General Jan Egeland aptly captured the current refugee status. “The system protecting refugees will collapse if we do not step up our support to countries like Uganda. The richest and most stable countries from Europe to the US do their uttermost to keep refugees away. At the same time, they are not adequately funding reception of refugees in poor host countries,” 

As resources become increasingly scarce, organized criminal groups crop up and effects of climate change continue to be felt, the number of refugees will no doubt rise. It is time to walk the talk. Members of the United Nations General assembly last year each committed to provide better educational opportunities for refugee children while embracing and improving the working conditions of those displaced. That should form a starting point as each demonstrate their level of

commitment. A refugee problem belongs to the entire world and has to be solved by the world together. In the words of former US president Barack Obama,” the refugee crisis is a test of our common humanity. We must recognize that refugees are a symptom of larger failures—be it war, ethnic tensions, or persecution.”

To be poor in London means your life is at risk

Everyone knows London is basically a candyland for non-resident property investors – people who buy up swathes of bricks and mortar and then leave them lying empty, waiting to sell for maximum profit, or fill them with tenants for unbelievable rents. No, really unbelievable – it’s not uncommon to hear of tiny one-room (bedroom/ bathroom/ kitchen in one) rooms being rented out for 2,000 British Pounds Sterling per month. It’s not a city in which to be poor – however glamorous and fun it may be – a harsh reality people have to face when they live there. And poverty, inevitably, jostles with prosperity for space and the right to live in the city. 

This was made tragically material last week, when Grenfell Tower, a tower block in one of the richest boroughs in London (and therefore the world), was one of the poorest tower blocks in London – here’s a thing you probably need to know about the UK, tower blocks (as opposed to say, glitzy apartment blocks) were built in the 60s and 70s as affordable social housing. The twoer block was recently renovated, but to minimise costs, the authorities responsible opted for cheap cladding – the residents complained that the cladding was flammable, but to no avail. A fire broke out, and as I write, 79 people died because, and this should not be forgotten, they were poor, and because they were poor, no one took their concerns seriously. 

This is what happens when there is too much money in a society and not enough solidarity. This is what austerity leads to. There were reports of parents, desperate to get their children to safety as the flames engulfed the building from the inside and out, throwing their children out of windows (a heart-wrenching thought) – and the neighbourhood outside stood outside and watched, unable to help. 

Victims of the fire and its aftermath have called on the government to help – but the response has been sluggish. Theresa May and co. did not visit victims (for fear the fire would be too closely associated with her government’s austerity policies). The victims have not been given emergency housing. They have not been given substantial help that they need. 

So that’s it – to be poor in London means your life is at risk. So you can either join the rat race and earn until you die, or face a much worse fate. What has the UK become? 

EU aid policy conditioned to control migration

The recently announced European Consensus on Development is an EU measure that aims to achieve the United Nations‘ sustainable development targets, in a commitment to the 2030 Agenda. However, many NGOs and MEPs from across the political spectrum fear that much of this aid will be, once more, simply used to control migration flows.

Rather than focusing on pressing concerns such as malnutrition, poverty and human rights violations, this new framework for development directs European aid money, largely to the area of border control. The aim is to control and reduce migration from Africa, avoiding the tragedy of the perilous Mediterranean crossings. In these times of anti-immigration sentiment and heightened security concerns this strategy is a further step taken in accepting the Europe’s right-wing nationalist mentality of ‘closed doors’ towards migrants.

Therefore, the concern is that although the EU (still the world’s largest development aid donor) claim their goals are eradicating poverty, fighting hunger and preserving natural resources, their funds will be used to train troops for border control.

Created just over a year ago, the European Emergency Trust Fund for Africa has also been criticised for channelling money that should be used to fight poverty, purchase medicines and study books for other purposes.  Instead the EU has been used these funds to purchase military equipment, train police, and set up migrant detention centres and systems to facilitate repatriation and expulsions in African countries.

At least the podium was strong and stable

Probably the most bizarre aspect of our perennially televised political environment, is the fact that often politicians have to talk about events. Not promises – any idiot can go in front of a camera and promise something. It’s super easy. Talking about events – recent events – is however a different matter. This is when they have to talk about the present or recent past, and basically, make it work for them. They have to encapsulate the event in a political narrative for their advantage – and while this might seem like an easy thing to do, sometimes, it’s like watching someone in a burning house tell you everything’s absolutely 100% fine. 

Theresa May did this during her election campaign when she made an enormous u-turn on a manifesto promise, and then told journalists ‚Nothing has changed‘. But more astonishingly, after an election which cost her part the majority in government, and left the dominant narratives of the past 12 months in tatters, Theresa May stood in front of a camera, and told the world she was ready to lead the UK through tough negotiations with „certainty“. 

It was like something out of a bizarre satire – Black Mirror maybe – where reality has become melded entirely with the ridiculous fictions of a tabloid narrative. 

The problem is not only that the UK has now delayed its own exit from the EU (thereby causing uncertainty on the continent), but also, it seems that now for liberal Western democracies, talking in unreal terms like Trump is now very mainstream. This might be what people have been calling „hypernormalisation“ – but I actually think this is a positive problem. I think this because May’s conflict with reality actually shows how would-be tyrants like her and Trump can be brought down – by letting them run away with their imaginations to a disbelieving audience. 

Whether such a strategy would ever work for the likes of Erdogan or Duterte, I highly doubt. But for once, it seems like the 24-hour media has actually produced a positive outcome. 

Women are powerful

In the face of ragging violence, oppression and social barriers, a group of young Afghan women and girls have made possible the launch of the country’s one and only ‘Zan Tv’ or ‘Women TV’ for women and by women.

Stationed in the heart of the capital’s ‘Shahr-e-Nau’ neighborhood, this digital-satellite channel is one of a kind in the conservative Muslim count reeling from the brutal extremist insurgency for more than a decade now. The digital TV with up to 16 hours of programing aims to highlight not only the issues faced by Afghan women, but portray their success stories and encourage them to strive for their rights.

Founded by a local male entrepreneur Hamid Samar, ‘Zan TV’ has up to 54 women and girls working in different fields such as production, editorial, presentation and direction while some 16 male members of the team provide their services in the technical side. The ultimate aim is to train and equip the women and girls to be able to run it on their own. Last week, the Zan TV completed its three -month off-air test transmissions, and went on-air on Saturday June 3, 2017. Only months into the industry, the Zan TV has already achieved up to 80, 000 followers on Facebook alone.

Mehria Afzali, a young and promising female journalist determined to make a mark in the industry told the fairplanet: “Afghan women are strong, we want to tell to the world that women are not only for producing children and taking care of home, but we can work alongside men for positive change in the society in all fields”.

Afghanistan remains a rough and tough place for women. In its World Report 2017, the Human Rights Watch has portrayed a grim picture of women’s rights in Afghanistan. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission reported that in the first eight months of 2016, it documented 2,621 cases of domestic violence, about the same as 2015, although the number is likely much higher due to under-reporting.

Glut of small arms greatest threat to peace in Africa

When Dr. Admore Kambudzi, the acting director of the African Union Peace and Security Department stood to give his opening statement at the recently concluded 8th meeting of the AU-Regions steering committee on Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) and Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR), majority of the delegates already knew half of the content of his speech. For besides painting a propitious picture of major gains in arresting the proliferation of small arms, there has been a general feeling across the continent that the crisis has reached epidemic proportions with deaths associated with arms in the wrong hands being a common occurrence.

The much hyped disarmament exercises have proven counterproductive either because of being poorly coordinated or the blatant double speak from powers that be, who only pay lip service to these disarmaments.

Indeed the illicit arms trade is a lucrative business across Africa, with certain scholars arguing that the coup de tats and armed conflicts are fueled by the arms dealers who want to remain in business.

In fact, according to a report released by Oxfam International this year dubbed ‘The human cost of uncontrolled arms in Africa’ the proliferation of small arms has been identified as the major catalyst of prolonged conflicts, inter communal strife and even proxy wars. The report further notes that though data on fatalities caused by conflict is scarce and inconsistent, the numbers stand in millions. It for example cites the period between 1983 and 2005 in Rwanda, Congo and Sudan where between 4.3 million and 8.4 million lives were lost as a result of armed conflict.

While the continent has taken an active role in taming this menace, through for example adoption of the Central African Convention for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons, their Ammunition and all Parts and Components that can be used for their Manufacture, Repair and Assembly also known as Kinshasa Convention which entered into force in March this year and giving fresh and renewed impetus and a concerted effort in fighting illegal arms, this is merely scratching the surface. These arms are still readily available and even selling for a song. One report on proliferation of arms in Africa noted that a Soviet- designed AK- 47 assault rifle goes for as little as $6 or can be exchange for a sack of grain or a chicken.

Then there are the former soldiers and militants and the issue of amnesty extended to them, a model most of governments seem keen on pursuing. While such move is deemed potent in the peace buildings efforts, this strategy should be holistic in tracking the root cause of this proliferation. In the words of the UN Small arms in Africa: Counting the cost of gun violence report, „interventions to curb the demand for small arms should focus on the alleviation of poverty and structural inequality, thereby helping to reduce some of the factors prompting people to keep or acquire weapons.“

Standing up to climate change denial at the White House

Despite Trump’s promise on the campaign trail, it is still shocking that he has carried this one out. The USA, historically the largest contributor to climate change, dealt a blow to the global community last week by abandoning the Paris Climate Agreement.

Succumbing to the power of oil companies and other polluting industries, billionaire President Donald Trump did little to hide the move´s motives, admitting that the agreement simply posed a threat to the country’s economy. The withdrawal was received with euphoria on Wall Street.

Signed in 2015 and backed by 195 countries, the Paris agreement was already criticised for being weak, overdue and insufficient by the scientific community, who furthermore deemed its objective of keeping temperature rises below 1.5º by 2100 as unachievable. Thus, by tearing up an agreement already considered ambitious, Trump has given a huge setback to the fight against climate change.

Therefore, it is more important than ever that the unanimous criticism by European Union leaders, as well as their Chinese counterparts, of Trump’s decision is not just rhetoric. However, many of those who spoke out against Trump continue to support environmental malpractices such as fracking, coalmining, deforestation, oil drilling and exploration or intensive farming. Therefore, those who criticised the US president must be held to account in implementing policies that effectively combat rising global temperatures and climate change, the devastating consequences of which are already suffered by millions of people across the globe.

Despite climate change denial emanating from the White House, those who prioritise the importance of the environmental future must come together, be they in Europe, China or even the United States. Additionally, citizen activism is vital in pressurising senior politicians to put their words into action.