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Archive for October 24th, 2013

“The situation in Rakhine is quite fragile and critical”

Posted by African Press International on October 24, 2013

Tomás Ojea Quintana

BUENOS AIRES,  – Myanmar’s government has signed individual ceasefire agreements with 14 main non-state armed groups since 2011, and is pressing ahead with plans for a national ceasefire agreement, originally scheduled for the end of October, but now delayed. The most recent round of negotiations with northern Myanmar’s Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) brought further hope of nationwide reconciliation.

But the government faces ongoing tension in western Rakhine State between ethnic Rakhines (primarily Buddhist) and Rohingyas (mostly Muslims), continued fighting in Kachin State which in the past year has left more than 83,000 people displaced in 42 camps, and allegations of human rights abuses against the country’s ethnic minorities.

Following his most recent mission to Myanmar in August 2013, IRIN met Tomás Ojea Quintana , the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, in his home city of Buenos Aires, to discuss the prospects for a nationwide ceasefire; segregation in Rakhine State, and allegations of army or police brutality against Rohingyas, as well as the implications of the transition to democracy for the country’s ethnic minorities.

IRIN: Given the history of broken ceasefires between non-state armed groups and the Myanmar government, what assurance is there of lasting peace with the latest round of peace talks?

Quintana: Now what is totally different is that it is a civilian government in transition to a democracy. As a human rights rapporteur, I would not say that it is a democracy yet. Democracy will take a long time. But it is a civilian government that is progressively gaining respect, particularly from Western countries.

This respect has given the civilian government some kind of [room for] manoeuvre to have this discussion with the ethnic armed groups [to disarm], which is of course very important [for the peace process].

The ethnic groups, all of them, have reservations about where this might go in terms of lasting peace, in terms of receiving the benefits from development, and in terms of their participation in the exploitation of natural resources.

They have reservations in terms of the political structure of the country, which currently does not [allow] ethnic groups the participation they would like to have [in governing themselves], and regarding their [own political autonomy].

Nonetheless the government has signed [peace deals] with most of the NSA [non-state actor] groups. There is only one group, the Kachin, the KIA [Kachin Independence Army], which is still holding conversations. They have recently signed an agreement… which is not exactly a ceasefire… but it goes in that direction.

And now, after my last mission [in August 2013]… I talked to the president and [his] advisers who are in charge of the peace process and they are planning to hold a national ceasefire agreement by October 2013.

IRIN: How would a national ceasefire differ from individual ceasefires?

Quintana: It will be a very important message to the international community that all [of] Myanmar is united towards the very important objective of peace. A lot of pressure is being put on the KIA [to sign].

The problem… is how these ceasefires will be implemented on the ground and how they will reflect the interests of all the villagers living in remote areas. We don’t see a comprehensive plan to implement these decisions. For example, one of the issues is what will happen to the [Burmese] refugees in Thailand? If you were a refugee would you want to go back?

There is no transparency, no plans [for implementation]. Nobody knows about the problem of the landmines, the problems with the land. There is a lot of land confiscation. It is a really serious problem how to move from a ceasefire – from stopping the bullets from flying – to something different, to build a united country. That is still very difficult and will take a long time.

IRIN: What are the barriers in Kachin State, the only place where the government has not reached an agreement with rebels?

Quintana: It is not clear. The KIA allegations are that the military is not actually following the decisions of the civilian president and there is still a militarization in the area, which they won’t accept. The Kachin community in particular has a strong stance on the possibility for [it] to run [its] own businesses in Kachin State [instead of competing with the military for business and income].

The government, though, is not opening up any spaces for these kinds of issues to be included in the dialogue so far. That is why it has been quite difficult to reach an agreement.

IRIN: How representative are non-state armed groups of people in their communities?

Quintana: That’s a difficult question because there is not a formal democracy and no formal electoral process, so how do you say to what extent they are representative.

What I have seen…is that ordinary people in villages really don’t understand and don’t believe that ceasefires and peace processes will bring concrete benefits to them. That is a problem. The leaders of ethnic groups need to have better connections with their own people.

“Ordinary people in villages really don’t understand and don’t believe that ceasefires and peace processes will bring concrete benefits to them. That is a problem”

And the same with the refugees. When you talk to the refugees about returning and the information they have in respect to what is going on in Myanmar, they don’t know. They don’t trust. They still fear a lot. It seems that the ethnic leaders need more work in this respect.

At the same time, the people and the ethnic army leaders have faced oppression from the military regime for decades and that is very, very tough to lead, and to recover from that, and to try to [be] more organized with your communities is not easy.

IRIN: What can be done to engage communities more in peace talks?

Quintana: The government and the ethnic leaders are doing a lot… to settle the problems at the top, at the highest levels. But they need to involve the communities in a more widespread and comprehensive plan of action. You don’t see the communities being involved. And that has been the practice in Myanmar for decades. I mean that is how the military operated… giving instructions and expecting instructions to be implemented – period – without consulting. It’s part of a historical problem in Myanmar. It is still there.

IRIN: And what about the Rakhine commission established by the Myanmar government? What are your thoughts on its recommendations on ways to prevent violence?

Quintana: They [the commission] never addressed what happened – the human rights abuses. This is a clear shortcoming and it is one of my concerns. And I am calling for the [UN Human Rights Council] to continue to address this. The allegations of what happened are very serious. Widespread human rights abuses, torture of hundreds of prisoners in Buthidaung [a prison in Rakhine State holding an estimated 1,000 Rohingyas], a place I have visited, and the government has not done anything about that. The situation in Rakhine is quite fragile and critical.

“The situation in Rakhine is quite fragile and critical”

IRIN: What is the potential of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to help mitigate what is now a regional crisis?

Quintana: ASEAN countries don’t want to get involved. Based on the non-interference provision of ASEAN charter, they do not want to interfere. There is no potential [for ASEAN] as a regional mechanism [to pressure the Myanmar government to resolve the conflict]. I tried many times to address ASEAN, to let them know they have an important role to play… It is becoming a regional, not a national problem.

IRIN: Is the government putting any foundation in place to allow Rohingyas to return to their homes in northern Rakhine State?

Quintana: No… The original places of the Rohingyas are being used for some other purposes by the government.

IRIN: How can the humanitarian community support shelter for the displaced?

Quintana: There is a dilemma because the [displaced] people still need access to humanitarian aid. So if you do not provide that because you say you do not agree with [the government’s] policies of making settlements permanent, then you are not delivering the aid. So you have a problem there. And the humanitarian agencies or donors try not to get involved in the political arena of a country.

IRIN: What are the risks of long-term segregation of Buddhists and Rohingyas, where government- monitored encampment have cut displaced Rohingyas from their land and livelihoods?

Quintana: It’s going to be a disaster because many of the areas that you can look into in respect to the Rohingyas, how Rohingyas are treated, you always see obstacles, limitations, and intentions to not help them at all.

IRIN: What role can civil society play in reconciliation?

Quintana: I hope they are included as participants in the implementation of the [ceasefire] agreement. That is the role they need to play but that is the role that their own leaders need to address with them [ethnic communities]. The[se communities’] leaders need to say that they want their own people to be involved.

My job as a rapporteur is to say, ‘You are an ethnic general of armed forces. I understand… you have been fighting for years against your army. But now you need to play some other role and let your people participate.’ It will take time…

[During my] last mission my convoy was attacked by Buddhist mobs [where I was addressing the issue of communal violence]. And the police stood by so it was kind of planned somehow… It was more than tense. I was frightened. But I am still holding the mandate [as Myanmar’s special rapporteur on human rights].

dm/pt/cb  source http://www.irinnews.org

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Markets in smaller countries could be under threat: Need to reopen talks on subsidies at WTO

Posted by African Press International on October 24, 2013

Markets in smaller countries could be under threat

JOHANNESBURG,  – The combined effects of the global economic slowdown and increasing climatic shocks are threatening food security in developing countries, prompting many to re-open World Trade Organization (WTO) discussions on limits to support for farmers.

A group of developing countries – known as G33 – is asking to exceed their agreed domestic support limits when they buy, stock and supply cereals and other food to boost food security among the poor; they want these changes to be exempt from any legal challenge.

Essentially, these countries want the freedom to buy grains at set prices from producers and to use that grain to build stockpiles for distribution. The WTO rules do not prescribe limits on the amount of food that can be bought at market prices for food stocks, and it does not limit the amount of food that can be provided as domestic food aid at subsidized prices. The WTO only disciplines buying cereals at administered prices.

The proposal will be discussed at the WTO Ministerial Conference in Bali, Indonesia, in December.

Developed countries and some developing countries are concerned that the G33 proposal – which is backed by India, China and Indonesia – could affect food security in neighbouring countries. They fear these measures could lead to surpluses in stocks, which the G33 members might dump in the global market, disrupting global prices.

Ashok Gulati, chairman of India’s Commission for Agriculture Cost and Prices (CACP), reckons India wants more leeway to provide support for its farmers and consumers because the government is launching a massive subsidized food scheme through a public distribution system that will reach two-thirds of its population – nearly 800 million people. He told IRIN that a situation where India would be in a position to dump excess stocks could arise “once in 10 years.” He added, “the larger distortion will be domestic,” referring to disruptions to local markets.

A representative from one of the G33 countries at the WTO, who did not want to be named, said not all the members of the group were supportive of the proposal. “India is already the largest exporter of rice in the world… Small exporters will lose their competitiveness because of Indian subsidies… Rice prices are already going down, and with further subsidies it can lead to a price crash,” the representative said.

The delegate estimated that support for rice production in India – both in the form of agricultural inputs and procurement – ran into billions of dollars. Even more support could “ruin” agriculture sustainability and “create food insecurity instead of food security” in the region.

“Although agricultural markets have evolved dramatically since 2007, global trade rules have not”

Gulati has publicly come out against the government’s plan to stockpile staple grains because of the effect it would have on prices in the local markets, according to interviews with the Indian daily theEconomic Times and news agency DNA.

He maintains that dispensing subsidized food will not address malnutrition, a significant problem in India, where almost half the population of children are malnourished. Gulati believes this problem can only be addressed by comprehensively tackling the various dimensions of food insecurity, such as by increasing access to clean water and improving the status of women.

But a new paper, produced jointly by the Geneva-based International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), takes a sympathetic view of positions on both sides, and uses the proposal to flag the need to reform global agricultural trade rules. The paper contends there has been minimal reform to agricultural trade rules since the Uruguay Round of multilateral negotiations that led to the formation of the WTO two decades ago.

“The G33 proposal can more broadly be seen as symptomatic of the challenges many countries face in designing policies to achieve food security goals in the new price environment,” the paper notes.

“Although agricultural markets have evolved dramatically since 2007, global trade rules have not,” it adds.

To subsidize or not

Agricultural subsidies have been a contentious issue for years. The WTO has placed ceilings on how much the US and the European Union (EU) can spend on agricultural subsidies that distort trade, but these are still rather high, food rights groups say.

A drought in the US in 2012 and fluctuating food prices have led policy-makers there and in the EU to rethink protection and support for their farmers, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) pointed out.

The US’s agriculture policy is governed by the Farm Bill, which is updated every four years, but the 2008 legislation was extended to September 2013, when the two parties – the Democrats and the Republicans – were unable to come to an agreement on subsidized food for the country’s poor. The new proposed bill recommends an expanded insurance programme with new crop insurance subsidies, which would see farmers receive money when income from certain crops falls below a targeted level. It also sets higher target prices for crops that trigger payments when revenues fall for several consecutive years. The bill is likely to come up for negotiations in the coming weeks.

The EU has largely done away with export subsidies that support the disposal of surplus production abroad, but the EU Common Agriculture Policy still ensures high levels of direct support to farmers and protects EU markets. The EU has substantially reformed farm support over the years to reduce its impacts on trade and production, but some still question whether the support provided continues to give European producers an advantage over competitors elsewhere.

On the other hand, the economic slowdown and its impact on local currencies have forced developing countries like Zambia to remove subsidiesfor farmers and millers because the expenditure is perceived as draining the country’s limited resources.

More imbalances?

If richer nations are strengthening support to their farmers while the poorer countries cut back, could global imbalances grow?

Jamie Morrison, a senior economist with FAO and a co-author of the ICTSD/FAO paper, says that, generally, when considering support to farmers in times of disasters, countries should take into account the kind of support they have to fall back on. In rich countries, farmers have access to insurance and other safety nets, which might not be the case in developing countries.

He says rich countries use public funding to “underwrite potential losses [for farmers] which private sector insurance institutions may be less willing to cover. This type of support is considered to be less distortive of markets and trade.”

But developing countries tend to intervene directly in the market to stabilize prices for their producers while providing their consumers “with some level of protection against high food prices”, Morrison said. This generally leads to buying grains at prices above the market value and managing cross-border trade. This support not only drains the country’s coffers but “is considered to be distortive of markets and trade.”

Often these subsidies, whether in the form of cheaper agricultural inputs or higher prices for produce, do not get to the intended poorest farmers, and they are often driven by political opportunism – appeasing the majority of the people in developing countries who depend on agriculture for income and food.

“…for many countries, direct support for farmers ‘may be essential in facilitating agricultural transformation’ and the ‘only practical option available given weaknesses’ in other public institutions that could have supported production”

CACP’s Gulati, who formerly headed IFPRI’s Asia office, said, “Subsidies on fertilizer, power and irrigation are not targeted. Subsidies have risen much faster than public investments in agriculture [in India]. The marginal return on subsidies is less than one-fourth of that from investments. Yet subsidies multiply due to higher political returns. So India wants more leverage on subsidies.”

Yet Morrison adds that, for many countries, direct support for farmers “may be essential in facilitating agricultural transformation” and the “only practical option available given weaknesses” in other public institutions that could have supported production. “Greater use of a system more reliant on market-based instruments may make a more efficient use of resources, but may be impractical at the current time”.

Jonathan Hepburn, agriculture programme manager with ICTSD says, “WTO rules need to take into account the reality that countries are in different situations, and that some have fewer resources at their disposal to achieve public policy objectives. “

Negotiating

In the recent past, negotiating groups at the WTO have sought preferential treatment. The least developed countries (LDCs), for instance, are negotiating to enjoy some flexibility in their implementation of import tariffs on agricultural products. However, even the LDCs face limits on the amounts and kinds of subsidies they provide – although many lack the resources to provide the amount of farm support that would be capped by WTO rules, points out ICTSD’s Hepburn.

Part of the problem in creating new rules on trade, Hepburn said, has “been striking a balance between the rights and responsibilities of different groups of countries – especially as the global economic landscape has evolved dramatically over the last decade or so.”

In December, according to the WTO, countries might decide on a “temporary “waiver” (a formal legal exemption allowing some member states to exceed their limits), a non-binding political statement by the conference’s chairperson or some option in between. Flexibility along these lines has sometimes been called a “peace clause” or “due restraint”, because members would avoid bringing legal disputes against developing countries in these circumstances.”

jk/rz

 

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