Banking on human rights
by Jessica Evans
Human Rights Watch
The new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) got a credibility boost last month as a number of European countries, including France, Germany, and Switzerland, followed the UK’s lead in indicating that they would sign up as members. Australia and South Korea followed suit, as did other surprise bids including Taiwan. If accepted, they will join the bank’s chief proponent, China, and 29 other countries. According to Chinese media, the AIIB has received 45 applications to join and the final founding members will be confirmed on 15 April.
Increased investment in infrastructure in the countries that stand to benefit from this new international institution is essential for meeting social and economic needs, but only if it benefits communities, rather than harming them. Leaders of these nations need to carefully consider the potential cost of new infrastructure on communities that stand to be displaced, have their livelihoods drastically affected, or may not reap the benefits of such projects.
These governments should stand together and push from the outset for open and transparent processes and environmental and social rules that are the best in the business. They should not ignore the fact that China has a weak record on open and transparent processes or rights-respecting development more broadly.
Human Rights Watch has documented the effects of lead poisoning of childrenin villages heavily contaminated by lead smelters and battery factories in China’s Henan, Yunnan, Shaanxi and Hunan provinces. The government has committed extensive rights violations in the course of ‘rehousing’ over two million Tibetans, including hundreds of thousands of nomadic herders, under its plans to “build a new socialist countryside” in Tibetan areas.
China’s development practices have not been grounded in open and transparent processes. For instance, in contaminated provinces many parents have reported that the authorities withheld results of lead poisoning tests. Police and government officials have threatened, intimidated, and obstructed journalists attempting to report on pollution. And residents feared that raising the lead poisoning issue with local government officials could result in the loss of government help they were receiving, including food subsidies, health care, and in some cases, employment.
In Shaanxi province, villagers said that people had been detained when they protested outside the lead-processing factory that had begun operating again. Beyond its borders, Chinese investment has at times exacerbated conflicts, such as in Burma’s Kachin State.
Members and potential members of the AIIB should work together to ensure that these kinds of practices do not become the norm for the new bank. They should ensure that communities are involved in the development of projects that the bank is considering funding and that the bank invests only in projects that communities actually want and that will benefit the most marginalized people.
In addition to environmental standards, at a minimum the bank''s rules should prohibit investment in activities that would cause, contribute to, or exacerbate human rights violations.
It should require respect for human rights in all of its activities, and oblige staff to assess the impact of bank activities on human rights and avoid or mitigate adverse impacts.
The bank should prohibit discrimination and include policies on indigenous peoples, resettlement, and labour rights that meet international legal standards. This call for rights-respecting standards applies equally to all development finance institutions.
The AIIB should also create an independent accountability mechanism that accepts complaints and works to resolve them, assesses the bank''s compliance with its policies and international law, determines appropriate remedies for anyone harmed by the bank''s activities, and advises the bank on how it can improve compliance.
The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank has an opportunity to contribute to the urgent social and economic needs of people throughout the region, but only if member countries build a bank that ensures respect for rights. If they do not, the new bank could do more damage than good.
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GMOs to the Rescue?
by Madeline Ostrander
It’s rare to find someone neutral on the subject of genetically modified food—which is, depending on whom you ask, either a risky technology giving Monsanto greater market control, or the heroic invention of scientists who will save us from world hunger.
The last few weeks have brought a flurry of news about scientists and techies trying to save the imperiled orange—and our food supply more generally—through genetic engineering. A few days ago, The New York Times published an in-depth story about farmers and scientists battling anti-GMO public sentiment to rescue oranges from an epidemic bacterial disease. They were testing a new orange (with a gene taken from spinach) that would resist pathogens.
Earlier this month, an article in Slate suggested genetic engineering could move beyond the ills of corporate agriculture and become an open-source project, as hip and democratic as the operating system Linux. The magazine ran a second story from a vegetarian yoga instructor who had seen the light on GMOs. This author chose to debunk a series of arguments against genetic tinkering, most connected to ick-factors—e.g., queasiness over whether animal genes are inserted into plant DNA. The gist of both pieces was that GMOs and genetic property rights should be taken out of corporate control and put into the public domain and the hands of smart, principled scientists.
“When genetic engineering is used to decrease pesticide use, to add nutrients to crops in malnourished countries, and otherwise improve the quality of our food products, then it’s a valuable tool that can contribute to a safe and healthy food supply,” wrote the self-described hippie.
It is doubtless true that the world will need smart science and diverse genetic resources to respond to crises like climate change and disease. But to read these stories, one would think that the biggest objections to GMOs were concocted solely by sentimental greenies and organic food growers with outdated sensibilities. From the Times piece:
Some…scientists were still fuming about what they saw as the lost potential for social good hijacked both by the activists who opposed genetic engineering and the corporations that failed to convince consumers of its benefits. In many developing countries, concerns about safety and ownership of seeds led governments to delay or prohibit cultivation of needed crops: Zambia, for instance, declined shipments of G.M.O. corn even during a 2002 famine.
Truthfully, the science and the ethics have never been quite so cut and dried.
The Union of Concerned Scientists (or UCS, the nonprofit hatched out of MIT more than forty years ago) has, for years, raised a number of concerns about GMOs. Most stem from an idea called the “precautionary principle,” which could be summed up as “First, do no harm.” Or in this case, we should prove a new technology won’t create big, messy health problems before we unleash it on the public. (It was this idea that led Zambian scientists to recommend that their government reject GMO corn.)
UCS isn’t alarmist about GMOs: “There is a lot we don’t know…which is no reason for panic, but a good reason for caution.” The organization identifies a few possible concerns about genetic engineering.
Among these, GMOs may pose unknown health and ecological risks. Proponents of GMOs would say that there is no real evidence of health problems from crops like Bt corn, a variety engineered to produce a protein that’s toxic to insect pests. However, some scientists say that’s because there’s not enough evidence available. In a review paper published in the International Journal of Biological Sciences, six scientists contended that Monsanto’s tests of Bt corn safety were rife with experimental design flaws. Last year, Mother Jones published a defense of Bt corn, noting that it had reduced the need for insecticides. That’s promising and positive, but it doesn’t necessarily refute UCS’s critique: More regulatory caution should be applied to GMOs, and their safety should be verified not by biotech companies but by independent parties. (For excellent analyses of the testing process and of the plight of oranges, see Nathanael Johnson’s posts at Grist.)
Second, GMOs can cross-breed, sending engineered genes into wild populations and non-GMO crops. (This has occurred before. It is why a gene that was only deemed safe for animal feed corn turned up in a taco shell, why engineered genes can now be found in some of the world’s oldest varieties of corn in Mexico, and most likely why GM canola was found in the “middle of nowhere” in North Dakota, isolated from any farm fields.)
The escape of laboratory genes into the wild isn’t a concern for sentimental reasons, or because of ick-factors. It’s a worry in part because the genes of wild plants and heirloom varieties of crops are a storehouse—a library of millions of years of evolution and thousands of years of traditional plant breeding, irreplaceable raw material for any kind of new crop development. Not enough is known about whether GMOs will corrupt genetic material that we may later need or affect the ecology of wild or farmed ecosystems as a whole.
Agricultural scientists Miguel Altieri and Maria Alice Garcia put it in this way, in a review paper about biotech (published in 2005, but the concerns remain valid):
GM crops are truly biological novelties that would not exist via natural processes … One of the consequences of these processes may be a generalized contamination of natural flora by GM traits and a degradation and erosion of the commonly owned genetic resources today available for agricultural development. It is virtually impossible to quantify or predict the long-term impacts on agrobiodiversity and the processes they mediate resulting from widespread use of GM crops.
This isn’t to say that genetic engineering should never be part of a solution to global food problems. It is simply to say that those who are hesitant about GMO have a reasonable point—there is a lot we don’t know, both about risks of genetic engineering and the alternatives to it.
GM Crops: The Genetic Colonialists, by Kumi Naidoo. (Greenpeace International)
While we are producing enough food for everyone we are failing to distribute it equitably, advances in biotechnology to help us produce more are to be welcomed in a world with an increasingly destabilised climate and a growing population.
Sophisticated plant breeding techniques have brought us blight-resistant potatoes and crops enriched with nutrients; flood-tolerant scuba rice that can survive under water for a fortnight or more; and drought-tolerant maize that increases yields by up to 30%. These crops are being used successfully by thousands of farmers in Africa today.
However, none of these seeds were genetically engineered. They were produced using marker-assisted breeding, genome sequencing and traditional cross-breeding and grafting techniques, allied to a greater understanding of crop biology. And they work.
But we still urgently need reforms to land ownership and trade if all of us are to benefit. In my own country, under the 1913 Natives Land Act South Africa"s black majority was excluded from land ownership in favour of the white minority. The act destroyed traditional farming. A century later, the unequal distribution of land in South Africa is still a big political issue. It"s a pattern that is repeated throughout Africa, and is becoming a bigger problem as land grabbing by foreign enterprises spreads. I fear that GM crops corporations are using the "feed the world" argument as a Trojan horse for a new form of colonialism.
Claims by the agrochemical industry that the next generation of genetically engineered crops will save the planet and feed the world, but what it actually gives us is mostly empty promises, contamination scandals, corporate capture of our food and increasing use of agrochemicals. The poster crop of the agrochemical industry is still, after 15 years of development, "golden rice". Its developers say that it will be ready for cultivation in another two years.
Meanwhile supporters of GM trot out the simplistic line that people who are anti GM are responsible for children going blind. In practice, one of the solutions that is saving the lives of millions of children is adding vitamin A supplements to their diet twice a year. According to the World Health Organisation, this is one of the most successful health prevention programmes.
But, what would save our children in a sustainable future is not so much a technical fix, and only dealing with vitamin A, but a healthy balanced diet that gives them the vitamins they need from the food they eat. Is this too much to ask?
Governments should be supporting the ecological farming solutions offered by the United Nations International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD).
Governments around the world can move us towards a resilient and ecological agriculture by prioritising the resource needs and knowledge of the world"s small-scale ecological farmers. We must support ecological farming systems that can address climate change. And finally we have to recognise the interrelated principles of food sovereignty and the right to food.
* Kumi Naidoo is Executive Director of Greenpeace International
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