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The Human Consciousness Now...Our World in the Midst of Becoming...to What? Observe, contemplate Now.

By Alison Kentish
Pigeon Point in the north of Saint Lucia, one of 39 Small Island States which will be represented at the critical SIDS4 in Antigua. Credit: Alison Kentish/IPS
Pigeon Point in the north of Saint Lucia, one of 39 Small Island States which will be represented at the critical SIDS4 in Antigua. Credit: Alison Kentish/IPS

SAINT LUCIA, May 26 2024 (IPS) - Delegates from small island developing states (SIDS) worldwide are meeting in Antigua and Barbuda to strategize for the next decade.

The Conference of Small Island Developing States takes place every ten years. This year will mark the fourth meeting. Known as SIDS4, the May 27–30 conference’s theme, Charting the Course Toward Resilient Prosperity, holds immense significance for the future of the world’s 39 SIDS.

Despite their minimal contribution to climate change, SIDS are particularly vulnerable to its impacts. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change warns that, in the absence of mitigation and adaptation measures, these islands could become uninhabitable due to the impacts of climate change.

SIDS grapple with limited financial, technical, and institutional resources, hindering their ability to effectively mitigate and adapt to the negative effects of climate change. Leaders like Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados have consistently appealed to the global community for innovative financing mechanisms for SIDS and for special agreements such as temporary debt repayment suspensions immediately following a natural disaster.

SIDS4 will explore opportunities for collective action.

“The 39 small islands, home to approximately 65 million people, are stewards of the ocean and gatekeepers to some of our planet’s most important biodiversity. However, these countries are grappling with a series of overlapping crises that threaten their very existence,” UN High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries, and Small Island Developing States Rabab Fatima said on May 24 in a statement.

“The case for ensuring enhanced global support for these vulnerable island nations is clear. It means building a more sustainable economy, creating a more robust resilience against climate change, building a state-of-the-art early warning system for all, and safeguarding biodiversity. This is not just about generating revenue through industries for SIDS but also helping prevent additional costs that can result from climate change, soil erosion, pollution, floods, or natural disasters.”

The High Representative for SIDS, who is also the Special Advisor for SIDS4, emphasized the need for ‘collective strength, partnership and collaboration, to help SIDS overcome their challenges.

“Everyone has a role to play to ensure that the SIDS4 Conference is a great success and a truly transformative event,” she said.

In some ways, the SIDS Conference is the Conference of the Parties (COP) of small island developing states. Every country will be represented at the talks. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres will address the opening session. All major UN organizations will have a presence, along with the world’s largest development banks, non-governmental organizations, civil society organizations, youth, and gender advocates at the event. The conference calendar lists over 170 side events.

SIDS are located in the Caribbean, the Pacific, the Atlantic, the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. Apart from the 39 UN member states , they represent 18 associate states. The UNFCCC states that the international community has long acknowledged that SIDS represent a unique case that requires special attention and support to address their specific needs and concerns.

In 1989, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution recognizing the potential adverse effects of sea-level rise on islands and low-lying coastal areas. The 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development approved Agenda 21, a wide-ranging action plan for sustainable development that highlighted SIDS and urged the international community to consider their inherent vulnerabilities.

The May 27–20 SIDS4 marks a critical juncture for these countries to plan for the next decade. Through the Antigua and Barbuda Agenda for SIDS (ABAS), a new 10-year action plan, SIDS will attempt to shape global policies to boost resilience amid ongoing environmental, economic and social challenges.

IPS UN Bureau Report

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The International Conference on Small Island Developing States convenes every 10 years, with the upcoming SIDS4 event scheduled for Antigua and Barbuda. As the world’s 39 SIDS prepare to chart their survival in the face of climate change, IPS is on- the-ground coverage of the event.

May 22,2024 2:03 AM
Governments and international agencies must do more to end impunity for violence against healthcare, campaigners have urged, as a new report shows that attacks on healthcare during conflicts reached a new high last year. The report from the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition (SHCC), an umbrella organisation of health and human rights groups, documented 2,562 […]
May 21,2024 11:18 PM
It is ironic how Prime Minister Netanyahu, who vehemently opposed the establishment of a Palestinian state, made it all but irreversible because of his misguided policies and extreme ideological bent. The way he conducted the Gaza war has not only sealed the prospect of a Palestinian state but his political demise The recent recognition of […]
May 21,2024 10:41 PM
Small island developing states (SIDS) are scattered across the globe, dotting the Pacific Ocean, the Caribbean, the west and east coasts of Africa and the Indian Ocean. These low-lying highly indebted countries are on the frontlines of climate change and natural resource scarcity, already facing the extremes of sea level rise, unpredictable weather events, and […]
May 21,2024 11:42 AM
Regional experts called it Panama’s most important election since the 1989 US invasion that deposed de facto president General Manuel Noriega. Panamanians went to the polls amid high inflation and unemployment, with a stagnating economy. Endemic corruption was also high on their long list of concerns, along with access to water, education and a collapsing […]
May 20,2024 11:53 PM
The ICC Prosecutor’s applications for arrest warrants regarding the Situation in Palestine represent a milestone. But they are of little credit to Prosecutor Karim Khan. It’s abundantly clear that Khan has been sitting on this file for years, hoping it would simply disappear. Two matters forced his hand. First, his indictments of senior Russian officials […]
May 20,2024 11:04 PM
The International Criminal Court’s (ICC) decision to seek warrants on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has triggered a strong backlash both from the Biden administration and a group of pro-Israeli Senators in the US Congress. The names in the ICC arrest warrants also include Yahya Sinwar, Mohammed Diab Ibrahim […]
May 20,2024 6:41 AM
After a week-long discussion by delegates from 196 countries, the 26th meeting of the Subsidiary Body of Scientific, Technical, and Technological Advisors (SBSTTA) of UN Biodiversity has concluded with a set of recommendations on several issues, including living modified organisms (LMOs) and synthetic biology. All nations must consider the recommendations, discuss them, and possibly adopt […]
May 19,2024 11:18 PM

Politician and diplomat Erik Solheim argues that developed countries should bear responsibility for the environmental damage they cause. Talking about the Loss and Damage Fund, which is critical to bringing climate justice to communities in the developing world, he says it’s important that it become unbureaucratic and focus on climate adaptation.
May 19,2024 9:59 PM
This year has been called the ‘super election’ year, with 3.7 billion people potentially going to the polls. This historic political moment is also an opportunity to reflect on what these billions of voter experiences will look like. Who will vote, who can run for office and who might be excluded from the political process? […]
The Stream
Earth Rise
By IPS Correspondent
Children in Rafah city queue to receive a bowl of food for their families from charity organizations, in Rafah, Gaza on May 3 2024. Credit: UNICEF
Children in Rafah city queue to receive a bowl of food for their families from charity organizations, in Rafah, Gaza on May 3 2024. Credit: UNICEF

THE HAGUE, May 24 2024 (IPS) - The International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Israel to immediately halt its military offense in Rafah.

“In conformity with obligations under the Genocide Convention, Israel must immediately halt its military offensive and any other action in the Rafah Governorate which may inflict on the Palestinian group in Gaza conditions of life that could bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part,” the court said in it’s revised order, which was passed by 13 votes to 2.

South Africa approached the court on May 10, 2024 for a modification of provisional measures as prescribed by the court.

The court also ordered that Israel must take effective measures to ensure the unimpeded access to the Gaza Strip of any commission of inquiry, fact-finding mission, or other investigative body mandated by competent organs of the United Nations to investigate allegations of genocide.

Israel was also ordered to ensure that humanitarian aid should be “unhindered provision at scale by all concerned of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance,” and that Israel should maintain open land crossing points, in particular the Rafah crossing.

The full order can be read here.

IPS UN Bureau Report

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By Ed Holt
Camera crews wait outside the Slovak parliament building in Bratislava days after the attempted assassination of PM Robert Fico. Credit: Ed Holt/IPS
Camera crews wait outside the Slovak parliament building in Bratislava days after the attempted assassination of PM Robert Fico. Credit: Ed Holt/IPS

BRATISLAVA, May 24 2024 (IPS) - Fears for the safety of journalists in Slovakia are growing in the wake of an assassination attempt on the country’s prime minister, which some politicians are blaming in part on local independent media.

Relations between some media and members of the governing coalition, led by Prime Minister Robert Fico’s Smer party, have become increasingly tense since the government came to power in October last year.

And immediately after Fico was shot and seriously injured on May 15, as he greeted members of the public after a government meeting, senior members of coalition parties linked the attack to critical coverage of Fico and accused outlets of spreading hate against him.

The 71-year-old man who shot the prime minister is thought to have had a political motive for his attack.

Since then, there have been calls from some other politicians and heads of media organizations to stop trying to apportion blame for the attack on any group so as to defuse tensions in society.

But senior figures from governing coalition parties have continued to attack the media for what they see as their role in fomenting anger towards the government and provoking the tragedy.

Journalists in Slovakia, and press freedom watchdogs, worry this is increasing the risk reporters could also become targets of a violent attack.

“Journalists are in no way responsible for this, and blaming them is only fueling the fires and increasing the likelihood of another violent incident,” Oliver Money-Kyrle, Head of European Advocacy and Programmes at the International Press Institute (IPI), told IPS.

For many years, Fico and his Smer party, who have been in power for much of the last 18 years in Slovakia, have publicly attacked individual media, and specific journalists in some cases, for their critical reporting of the various governments he has led.

When Jan Kuciak, a reporter investigating alleged corruption by people close to Fico’s government, and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, were murdered in 2018, critics said Fico’s rhetoric towards journalists had contributed to creating an atmosphere in society in which those behind the killings believed they could act with impunity.

Fico was forced to step down as PM not long after the murders, following massive public protests against his government.

But since returning to power, he and other members of the ruling coalition have repeatedly attacked journalists they see as critical of the government and his party has refused to communicate with certain newspapers and broadcasters.

The government has also pushed through legislation that media freedom organizations and members of the European Commission have warned could severely restrict independent media and press freedom.

Some journalists at major news outlets have been regularly receiving death threats and facing horrific online harassment for years, but others have said they have become increasingly worried for their safety in recent months, and that those concerns have been exacerbated now in the wake of Fico’s shooting.

Many believe that years of aggressive, derogatory rhetoric against them has made them a target for hate among some parts of a society with widespread distrust of media—a recent survey showed only 37 percent of Slovaks trust the media.

Since the assassination attempt, some newsrooms have taken extra security measures and the government has said it will also be providing extra protection for groups which could be facing an elevated safety risk, including media.

While this has been welcomed by media rights organizations, they have said politicians must take the lead in reducing tensions in society and lessening immediate safety risks for journalists.

“The way to de-escalate the situation is that political hate speech against media must stop,” Pavol Szalai, head of the EU/Balkans desk at RSF at Reporters Without Borders (RSF), told IPS.

In the immediate hours after the shooting, some ministers appeared to be pushing to calm the situation.  At a press conference, Interior Minister Matus Sutaj Estok appealed “to the public, to journalists, and to all politicians to stop spreading hatred”.

Meanwhile, dozens of editors from print and broadcast media issued a joint statement publicly condemning the attack on the prime minister and calling for politicians and media to come together to calm tensions.

However, even days after the shooting, senior government figures continued to attack specific media or play down the seriousness  of comments made by colleagues just after the shooting, including  labelling media as “disgusting pigs”.

The Slovak government did not respond to questions on journalists’ safety from IPS.

But beyond putting journalists at increased risk, it is feared that the assassination attempt may also worsen what research has shown is significantly worsening media freedom in the country.

The government recently approved legislation – which is expected to be passed in parliament within weeks that will see the country’s public broadcaster, RTVS, completely overhauled and, critics say, effectively under control of the government.

Ominously, the leader of the governing coalition Slovak National Party (SNS), Andrej Danko, warned after Fico was shot that there would “be changes to the media” now.

And on May 19, speaking on the TA3 private news channel, he said he was planning to propose legislation that would set new regulations governing journalistic ethics, relations between journalists and politicians, and what politicians would be obliged to “put up with” from journalists.

Beata Balogova, Editor in Chief of the Sme daily newspaper, one of the news outlets in the country regularly criticized by government politicians, told international media that the government could now introduce “brutal measures against the media.”

Local journalists say any repressive measures would make an already difficult job even harder.

“I haven’t thought about how things could get more difficult for us to do our work in the future because it’s already very hard. It’s so difficult to gather news with political parties refusing to speak to us. [More restrictions] certainly wouldn’t make things easier,” Michaela Terenzani, an editor at Sme, told IPS.

She added, though, that it was difficult to predict what would happen in the coming days and weeks.

“At the moment, we are all just getting over the shock and trying to get on with our work as best we can. This is a major moment in Slovakia’s history and we will have to see what happens with relations between the media and politicians. Everyone is calling for calm, and I hope that is what we get,” she said.

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By Joyce Chimbi
Soka Gakkai International representative and member of the organizing committee for the Future Action Festival, Tadashi Nagai, stressed the importance of coalition and movement building and youth engagement to escalate progress towards attainment of the SDGs. Credit: Joyce Chimbi/IPS
Soka Gakkai International representative and member of the organizing committee for the Future Action Festival, Tadashi Nagai, stressed the importance of coalition and movement building and youth engagement to escalate progress towards attainment of the SDGs. Credit: Joyce Chimbi/IPS

NAIROBI, May 23 2024 (IPS) - The world has crossed the halfway point to the end of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) era amid multiple, unprecedented, and significantly destructive global shocks. Two of the most pressing global challenges are the climate crisis and the threat of nuclear armament. Of serious concern is a severe lack of youth engagement on issues of critical global importance.

Speaking to IPS during the 2024 UN Civil Society Conference, the outcome of which will inform high-level discussions when the UN hosts hundreds of world leaders, policymakers, experts, and advocates in September at the Summit of the Future in New York, Tadashi Nagai stressed the importance of coalition and movement building and youth engagement to escalate progress towards attainment of the SDGs. 

“In March 2024, the Future Action Festival took place in Tokyo, attended by approximately 66,000 people and over half a million viewers via live streaming. The event was a collaborative effort by youth and citizen groups to foster a deeper understanding and proactive stance among young people on nuclear disarmament and climate change solutions as two issues of global concern,” said Nagai, a representative of the Soka Gakkai International organization and the organizing committee of the Future Action Festival at the Nairobi conference.

The organizing committee comprised representatives from six organizations, including GeNuine, Greenpeace Japan, Japan Youth Council, Kakuwaka Hiroshima, Youth for TPNW, and Soka Gakkai International (SGI) Youth. Nagai said the high impact committee is reflective of a tangible, impactful coalition and movement building towards resolving issues of global, national, and local concern in the two major existential threats today—nuclear weapons and the climate crisis.

Nagai spoke of the inalienable link between youth engagement and the delivery of the promise of a peaceful world—a requisite for the attainment of the SDGs and other related global and national commitments. In the lead-up to the Future Action Festival, a youth awareness survey was conducted across Japan from November 2023 to February 2024, targeting individuals ranging from their 10s to their 40s. The survey focused on thematic areas such as society, climate change, nuclear weapons, youth and social systems, and the United Nations.

The survey results were illuminating, providing insights into how the youth perceive these issues and their possible role in resolving them. On the realization of a world free from nuclear weapons for instance, survey results showed that 82 percent of the respondents said nuclear weapons are not needed. Based on a sample size of 119,925 respondents, nuclear abolition is a widely shared vision among young people in Japan.

“We come with lessons from Japan on how civil society organizations represented at the Nairobi conference can build impactful, informative, and life-transforming coalitions and movements to address the most existential threats facing humanity today. This particular conference is unique, historic, and highly critical as it comes ahead of the UN Summit of the Future. The Future Action Festival was an opportunity to collect the voices of young people on issues of critical importance to the global community, in the same way that the outcome of the Nairobi conference will inform the UN Summit later on in September,” Nagai said.

Through the festival, the committee was determined to contribute to UN initiatives and endorse the newly-established UN Youth Office. Additionally, it aims to create momentum to strengthen international cooperation and solidarity toward a peaceful and sustainable future.

With this in mind, a joint declaration from the Future Action Festival was submitted to the UN to inform, influence, and shape high-level discussions at the Summit towards the production of three international frameworks: the Pact for the Future (available as a zero draft), the Global Digital Compact, and the Declaration on Future Generations. Nagai said that the Pact for the Future must be ambitious, inclusive, and innovative.

Under the theme, Summit of the Future: Multilateral Solutions for a Better Tomorrow, the summit aims to forge a new global consensus on what a collective future should look like and what can be done today to secure it. Enhancing cooperation on critical challenges and addressing gaps in global governance, reaffirming existing commitments, including to the SDGs, towards a reinvigorated multilateral system better placed to positively impact lives. The Summit of the Future will create conditions to help fast-track implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development be more readily attained.

Affirming the critical role of young people in sustainable development, the position of world leaders in the 2030 Agenda is that SDGs would only be attained if they were of the people, by the people, and for the people. The 2030 Agenda invites citizen engagement, especially from young people, to “channel their infinite capacities for activism into the creation of a better world,” Nagai said.

Hence the link between the civil society conference, the summit, and other events such as the Future Action Festival—all geared towards effectively addressing issues of global concern such as climate change, war, and worsening inequalities. Every proposal offered by the UN Secretary-General for consideration at the UN Summit of the Future will have demonstrable impacts on the achievement of the SDGs.

Ultimately, the Nairobi conference was a process of renewal of trust and solidarity at all levels—between peoples, countries, and generations. Making a case for a fundamental rethink of political, economic, and social systems so that they deliver more fairly and effectively for everyone.

At the closing of the conference, Mithika Mwenda, of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, emphasized the need for “boldness and honest conversations” to achieve the radical transformations needed to ensure sustainable development for all, poverty alleviation, and ultimately, an action-oriented Pact for the Future (one of the expected outcomes of the Summit).

Civil society groups and organizations also recommended a corresponding renewal of the multilateral system, with the Summit of the Future as a defining moment to agree on the most critical improvements necessary to deliver a future defined by equality, fairness, and shared prosperity.

Secretary-General António Guterres and Kenyan President William Ruto praised the efforts of civil society and underscored their “indispensable contributions.”

In his address, Guterres said time and again that he had witnessed the enormous impact of civil society in every corner of the world; easing suffering, pushing for peace and justice, standing for truth, and advancing gender equality and sustainable development, with many working at great personal risk.

Regarding current conflicts, including Gaza, Sudan, and ongoing crises in the Sahel, Great Lakes, and Horn of Africa regions, he said that the UN would give up on the “push for peace, justice, and human rights.

He recognized that civil society was crucial to addressing many issues in the world, including closing digital divides and revitalizing the collective approach to peace and security.

“We need to be informed by your frontline know-how; We need your can-do attitude to overcome obstacles and find innovative solutions,” said Guterres. “We need you to use your networks, knowledge, and contacts to implement solutions and to persuade governments to act.”

Note: This article is brought to you by IPS Noram in collaboration with INPS Japan and Soka Gakkai International in consultative status with ECOSOC.

By Sarah Strack
Forus General Assembly in Gaborone, Botswana. Credit: Forus

GABORONE, Botswana, May 23 2024 (IPS) - During the Forus network’s General Assembly which took place in Gaborone, Botswana, civil society organisations from across 65 countries highlighted the challenges facing them globally in an increasingly polarised and crisis-hit world.

Participants discussed strategic foresight, policy demands and capacity strengthening – scanning the horizon for emerging and chronic issues affecting civil society, activists, journalists and human rights defenders worldwide.

Solidarity and local power

Year after year, civil society organisations have witnessed growing violence particularly directed against those defending human rights and the environment, as well as leaders of indigenous groups.

“Democracy, civic space and fundamental freedoms are under attack in various countries across the globe. Socio-economic disparities and gender based violence are on the rise in most geographies. The world is again failing to achieve its commitments made under various developmental, environmental and financial frameworks. It’s time for global civil society and human rights actors to reflect jointly and strategise on our future course of action,” says Zia ur Rehman, Regional Coordinator of the Asia Development Alliance who joined the Forus network in Botswana for the General Assembly.

The event also pointed to other conflicts and challenges – from the “chronic” humanitarian crises to conflicts and the impacts of climate change and migration patterns. Civil society from all continents crafted a collective way forward, informed by local realities.

Forus General Assembly in Gaborone, Botswana. Credit: Forus

Local civil society from Botswana shared their journey in fighting gender-based violence.

“Gender-based violence is a national pandemic, a violation of grand magnitude of human rights. Civil society organisations in Botswana continue to do such a commendable job in trying to help the country to overcome this scourge. As BOCONGO, we remain committed to support and advance the work of our members in this regard,” says Kagiso Molatlhwa, BOCONGO Executive Director. A message echoed by Gender Links an organisation working across the Southern African region, who says, “ending gender-based violence starts with empowering women”.

A year that could set the tone for the future

In terms of civic engagement, this year has been called the ‘super election’ year, with billions of people voting while navigating “the geopolitical disinformation maze”. The potential repercussions of such a pivotal year pushed civil society to reflect on how to preserve fundamental freedoms and civic participation in turbulent times.

According to research, elections in many jurisdictions have been affected by violence and arbitrary arrests, targeting opposition candidates and political leaders, as well as civil society, human rights defenders, journalists, media workers and election observers. At the same time political misrepresentation and manipulation online is a known concern.

The Forus network emphasized the strength of collective action and care in achieving local and global goals. From mutual support and “regenerative activism” to the protection of democratic values, alternative models and innovative approaches to address democratic challenges, civil society is calling for renewed international solidarity and shared visions to protect one another.

“We are concerned about the closure of civic spaces that are becoming stronger every day, but the search for alliances allows us to strengthen and recognize the important work of civil society, promoting sustainable development to build a more just and equitable society,” says Francisco Garcia of the national civil society platform in Honduras, ASONOG.

After a major UN civil society conference wrapped up in Nairobi earlier this month in preparation for the “summit of the future” coming up this September, civil society globally calls for “bold and honest” conversations among governments and civil society to drive forward a shared vision for reinvigorated and inclusive multilateralism.

The power of the network

The Forus General Assembly was organised in partnership with the national civil society platform BOCONGO and the regional coalition Southern African Council of Non-Governmental Organisations (SAf-CNGO) with support from the European Union and the Agence Francaise de Developpement.

“Our gathering was a wonderful opportunity to reiterate our resolve to continue our struggles against inequalities to make this world a better place to live where everyone enjoys rightful spaces and choices of life,” says Zia ur Rehman, Regional Coordinator of the Asia Development Alliance.

“Your current life is a result of your thought life,” says Moses Isooba, Executive Director of the Uganda National NGO Forum, highlighting the importance of spending time together to “exude deep conceptual clarity” of where the Forus network wants to go.

ANONG, the national civil society platform in Uruguay, highlighted the importance of civil society meeting across countries, for exchange and community-building. Transforming actions are born from these spaces of construction and reflection which represent an impulse to continue our work for the defense of human rights”.

Monametsi Sokwe from the Southern African Council of Non-Governmental Organisations, concluded by highlighting the importance of continuing to innovate to address emerging challenges, fighting for sustainable development, and creating a resilient and inclusive society.

“Civil society organisations are essential throughout the world, providing humanitarian aid, supporting community resilience, fighting for human rights, justice, equity, democracy and peace. They fight for the creation and animation of spaces where we can all learn from each other, and even from our differences, to act for the collective well-being. Such spaces are precious, and dialogue is crucial to making progress. Together, we can overcome the challenges of our time, by opening to the rich diversity that the world has to offer, while respecting our values. This will help us to find new solutions to the aspirations of our peoples and to safeguard our planet,” said civil society leader Mavalow Christelle Kalhoule, Forus Chair and President of SPONG, the Burkina Faso NGO network.

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Sarah Strack is Forus Director

By Andrew Firmin
Credit: Robert Atanasovski/AFP via Getty Images

LONDON, May 23 2024 (IPS) - The old guard is back in North Macedonia, as the former ruling party – the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) – returns to parliamentary and presidential power.

Long the country’s dominant political force, the right-wing VMRO-DPMNE had been out of power since 2016. But this month, the political alliance it leads came first in the parliamentary election, taking 58 of 120 seats. In the presidential election runoff, its candidate triumphed with 61 per cent of the vote. In both cases the centre-left, pro-Europe Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), which had led the governing coalition and held the presidency, came a distant second. In parliament, its political alliance lost 28 of its 46 seats with only 14 per cent of the vote.

VMRO-DPMNE made its way back to office by harnessing widespread public frustration over the country’s attempt to join the European Union (EU), which has moved slowly, been dogged by controversy and forced the government to make numerous compromises. SDSM stood on a platform of rapid constitutional reform to accelerate progress, but VMRO-DPMNE, while claiming to support EU membership, opposes further changes. Its return signals a turn away from Europe, and a likely worsening of civil society conditions.

Rocky road towards the EU

North Macedonia has been an official candidate to join the EU since 2005. Negotiations are always lengthy, but North Macedonia’s road has been particularly bumpy. Before it could begin formal negotiations, it had to change the country’s name. Any existing EU member can block a non-member’s accession, and Greece stood in the way. The country shared its name with a region of Greece, which the Greek government saw as implying a territorial claim.

The hugely controversial issue brought extensive protests as name-change negotiations reached their conclusion in 2018. A referendum intended to approve the change failed when a boycott left turnout well below the level required; VMRO-DPMNE urged its supporters to reject the deal. The referendum was non-binding, and parliament went on to change the constitution regardless in January 2019.

Then Bulgaria intervened. The Bulgarian government insists its North Macedonian counterpart must do more to prevent the spread of anti-Bulgarian sentiments and protect the rights of the country’s Bulgarian minority. This heated issue, inflamed by much disinformation, helped force a political crisis in Bulgaria in 2022 when the government collapsed.

The two sides finally struck a deal to allow North Macedonia to begin EU negotiations in July 2022, but disputes still flare. In 2023 Bulgaria’s parliament warned it could halt the process again. North Macedonia’s outgoing government failed to win the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to change the constitution to recognise the Bulgarian minority.

Relations with Bulgaria played their part in the campaign. Some think the government has gone too far in compromising, and VMRO-DPMNE characterised the SDSM-led government’s actions as a surrender.

As a consequence of all the delays and compromises, public support for joining the EU has fallen.

A troubling return

VMRO-DPMNE led the government for a decade from 2006 to 2016, with Nikola Gruevski prime minister throughout. The party also held the presidency, a less powerful role, from 2009 to 2019.

Gruevski and his party fell from grace in 2016 amid allegations that he and many more of his party’s politicians were involved in a wiretapping scandal affecting over 20,000 people. Mass protests followed. VMRO-DPMNE still came first in the 2016 parliamentary election but couldn’t form a coalition, so power passed to an SDSM-led government. SDSM retained power in the 2020 election, and its candidate won the presidency in 2019.

Gruevski’s fall was swift. In 2018, he was sentenced to two years in prison for corruption, but he fled to Hungary, where the government of his authoritarian friend Viktor Orbán granted him political asylum. Further convictions followed, including a seven-year sentence for money laundering and illegal acquisition of property.

From exile, Gruevski has continued to criticise the government that replaced him. And while relations with VMRO-DPMNE’s current leader are hostile, ideologically VMRO-DPMNE still carries his fingerprints and the networks Gruevski developed among supportive media, the private sector and criminal groups remain. Under Gruevski, the party took a nationalist, pro-Russia and anti-west direction, promoting identity politics that hark back to the ancient Macedonian Empire.

For civil society, this makes the results concerning news. Conditions deteriorated during VMRO-DPMNE’s decade in power. The party’s identity politics fuelled a polarised environment. Nationalist groups physically attacked several journalists. Civil society leaders were among those subjected to illegal surveillance. Using the same tactics as Orbán, the government hurled abuse at civil society groups receiving funding from Open Society Foundations, accusing them of colluding with foreign governments. It subjected critical organisations to financial audits and raided their offices.

The election was held in an atmosphere of intense polarisation and proliferating disinformation, some originating in Russia, which doesn’t want any more countries joining the EU. There’s now a risk of a return to the politics of division, which would bring a resumption of attacks on civil society and independent media. VMRO-DPMNE has already made clear it’s looking for confrontation. New president Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova upset Greece by using North Macedonia’s old name during her inauguration ceremony.

The EU impasse wasn’t the only reason voters were unhappy. People haven’t seen any progress in combating corruption or improving economic conditions and public services. In country after country, there’s a broader pattern of electoral volatility as voters, unhappy with the performance of incumbents in difficult economic conditions, shop around for anything that looks different. Populist and nationalist parties – even long-established ones such as VMRO-DPMNE – are doing best at making an emotional connection with voters’ anger, offering deceptively simple answers and promising change.

For civil society, that means there’s now work to be done in depolarising the debate, building consensus and defending civic freedoms: a tall order, but a vital one, for which it’ll need a lot of support.

Andrew Firmin is CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.

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By Kohei Asao - TengTeng Xu - Xin Cindy Xu
Credit: IMF

WASHINGTON DC, May 23 2024 (IPS) - Women in Japan and Korea face especially tough challenges juggling career and family. Many young women witness their peers encountering promotion delays after marriage and childbirth, dealing with problems splitting housework responsibilities, and having difficulty finding adequate childcare.

The financial burden associated with raising children, including the costs of larger living spaces and ensuring a competitive education for their offspring, is an additional factor affecting couples’ decisions on whether to expand their families.

Consequently, later marriages and childbirth have become increasingly more common, contributing significantly to declining fertility in these two countries. At 0.72 and 1.26, respectively, the latest fertility rates in Korea and Japan are among the lowest in the world.

Meanwhile, large gaps between men and women still exist in employment and wages, particularly for leadership positions. Representation of women in senior management roles is less than 15 percent in both Japan and Korea, among the lowest in G20 countries.

What are some of the conditions in and outside the workplace that contribute to low fertility and large gender gaps for both countries?

Social norms in these two countries place a heavy burden on women. Women in Japan and Korea perform approximately five times more unpaid housework and caregiving than men, more than double the OECD average for gaps between men and women in unpaid work.

Fathers in these two economies take less paternity leave compared with those in peer economies, despite more generous benefits.

Furthermore, something known among economists as “labor market duality” disproportionately affects women. In both countries, this means that a large share of women workers hold temporary, part-time, or other types of “non-regular” positions with low wages and limited opportunities for skill development and career advancement.

Some women who left the labor force (departing jobs with regular hours and benefits) during the early years of their kids’ childhood could only return to “non-regular” positions. Seniority-based promotion systems further penalize mothers who return to work.

Finally, working arrangements in these countries are often not family-friendly. Long working hours, inflexible schedules, and limited use of telework in Japan and Korea make balancing career and childcare responsibilities extremely challenging for women.

The governments of Japan and Korea have acted to support women, including through enhanced childcare and maternity leave policies, but more efforts are needed from these governments, business communities, and society at large:

First, reducing “non-regular” employment conditions, encouraging merit-based promotions, and facilitating more job mobility can help support more employment and career growth opportunities for women.

A recent IMF analysis on Korea estimates that reducing severance payments for regular workers (which eases dismissals and facilitates labor reallocation for both men and women) by 30 percent alone can significantly increase labor force participation among women and productivity growth (by 0.9 and up to 0.5 percentage point, respectively).

The productivity gains could be further increased if complemented with measures to support career development and facilitate job mobility for women. The net impact on male workers is also positive due to a more effective allocation of labor.

Recent IMF research on Japan suggests that various distortions in Japan’s tax and social security system discourage second-income earners—a large portion of employed women in the country—from working more.

Second, further expanding childcare facilities and facilitating fathers’ contributions to home and childcare, including establishing stronger incentive mechanisms for paternity leave use, are crucial.

Japan’s fertility rate mostly stabilized after the country expanded childcare facilities over a decade ago, and recent IMF studies on Japan confirm that increasing such facilities further would have a positive impact both on fertility and women’s career advancement.

Third, facilitating a cultural shift in the workplace by expanding the use of telework and flexible working-time arrangements could support increased women labor participation, while also allowing men to share more responsibilities at home.

Rising female labor force participation has already contributed to the post-pandemic growth recovery in Japan and Korea, while significant gains would result from further closing the gender gap.

IMF analysis suggests that policies that reduce Korea’s gap between men and women in hours worked in to the OECD average by 2035 can boost the country’s per capita GDP by 18 percent compared with no change.

Another IMF study shows that bridging Japan’s large gap in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields can boost the country’s total factor productivity growth by 20 percent and social welfare by 4 percent.

In Japan and Korea, policies aimed at closing gender gaps and progressively shifting cultural norms will help increase the growth potential, despite demographic headwinds.

They also can help gradually reverse declining trends in fertility, allowing women in Japan and Korea to manage having a family while pursuing fulfilling careers, and, in turn, to contribute significantly to their economies and societies.

Kohei Asao, TengTeng Xu and Xin Cindy Xu are economists in the IMF’s Asia-Pacific Department. For more information, see recent selected issues papers on Structural Barriers to Wage Income Growth in Japan, Women in STEM Fields in Japan, Japan’s Fertility: More Children Please, and Why So Few Women in Leadership Positions in Japan?

IPS UN Bureau

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