Argentina joins China’s Belt and Road Initiative

May 11th, 2022


Argentine President Alberto Fernandez added another event to a highly politicized Winter Olympics when he met in Beijing last week with Chinese President Xi Jinping and agreed to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Argentina becomes the 20th of 33 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean to sign up for the Belt & Road, putting an official seal on what was already an extensive and growing economic relationship.

In addition to expanding trade and investment opportunities with China, joining the Belt & Road should make it easier for Argentina to obtain funding from the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the BRICS New Development Bank.

And this should reduce its dependence on the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a top priority for Fernandez.

Prior to the February 6 meeting in Beijing, Fernandez dropped by Moscow, where he told Russian President Vladimir Putin:“I am determined that Argentina has to stop being dependent on the Fund and the United States, and here I believe that Russia has an important place.”

Coming in the midst of the Ukraine crisis, this was the first of two diplomatic slaps in the face of the US government, which is boycotting the games in Beijing. Fernandez attended the opening ceremony.

The UK had a slap of its own when China took the opportunity to support Argentina’s position on the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas). That is another story, but it does underline the Global South versus Imperial North nature of the dispute.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Argentina and China. More recently, relations between the two countries have advanced considerably during and after the presidency of leftist Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who led Argentina from 2007 to 2015.

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Margaret Alva questions PM Modi’s silence on attack against minorities

May 11th, 2022


“Hindu bigots are openly urging Indians to murder Muslims. And the ruling party does nothing to stop them.” PHOTO/Lanka News Web
Prime Minister Narendra Modi along with RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat, UP Governor Anandiben Patel and others performs Bhoomi Pujan at ‘Shree Ram Janmabhoomi Mandir’, in Ayodhya, Wednesday, August 5, 2020. “In an unusual move that has left everyone bemused, Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose to play an  all-encompassing role during the bhoomi pujan in Ayodhya on August 5. He was not only the chief guest but also the master of ceremonies and the official yajmaan (patron of a religious ritual) during the ceremony.”  PHOTO: PTI/The Wire

Shri Narendra Modi
Prime Minister
Government of India
South Block, Raisina Hill
New Delhi-110 011.

Dear Prime Minister,

I write to you, the Leader of our great Democratic,Secular, Socialist Republic of India, governed by a Constitution which enshrines the fundamental rights and freedoms of Indian citizens, irrespective of caste, colour, race or creed, as a senior concerned citizen who has served my country for 50 years in various capacities.

You are a leader respected nationally and internationally. You travel around the world, calling on world leaders, including His Holiness the Pope, in Rome, proclaiming that India is a free democratic secular state. Your speeches and statements have been praised and extensively reported on, by the global media. Unfortunately, the reality on the ground here, presents a stark contrast to the image you project of India to the global community, especially in the context of minority rights and secularism.

Mr. Prime Minister, across India, highly organised and militant right wing extremist groups are terrorising, attacking and killing innocent citizens in the name of religion. I am appalled at the recent, widely reported statements, made by some religious leaders calling for genocide of non-Hindus, in order to create a Hindu Rashtra. What is even more shocking, is that there is no response or action either by your Central Government, or the State Government that’s controlled by the BJP, of which you are the undisputed leader, or the local administration, to crack down firmly on this virulent, toxic, hate speech, designed to create insecurity and fear amongst millions of minorities, who live here in the country.

From the early days of our freedom struggle, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians and indeed those from many other religious sects and denominations have fought shoulder to shoulder with our Hindu brothers and sisters, to win our freedom and defend our motherland. My parents-in-law the late Joachim and Violet Alva, were freedom fighters who went to jail and became the first couple in India’s Parliament, she also becoming Parliament’s first woman Presiding officer. There are today thousands of minorities serving the nation in all walks of life, in all parts of the country. Are we now to be treated as second class citizens?

Mr. Prime Minister, how can you close your eyes and remain silent when atrocities on India’s minorities are mounting? Your silence Mr. Prime Minister, is misread as tacit approval and encouragement to the ever increasing violence and intimidation India’s minorities are being subjected to. When will you speak up and put a stop to this madness and violence?

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Christians & caste

May 11th, 2022


File photo: Girls from Pakistani Christian community decorate their home for the upcoming Christmas holiday in Islamabad, PHOTO/AP Photo/B.K. Bangash

Christmas is hardly a big occasion in Pakistan. More than two million Pakistani Christians celebrate it guardedly, with few from the Muslim majority joining them. Government officials issue cut-and-paste statements and put up a Christmas tree or two in public places, and then return to the business of lending legitimacy to majoritarianism.

Indeed, Christians in this country usually make their way into the public consciousness when they are victims of lynch mobs or young girls from the community are forcibly converted and married off to Muslim men. So even if only in a symbolic fashion, let us acknowledge the humanity of the otherwise beleaguered Christian population and rejoice alongside them on the biggest day of their year.

Those who squirm at the thought of celebrating Christmas ought to introspect about why. Many Pakistani Muslims come into contact with Christians regularly, particularly in metropolitan centres. Those who are relatively affluent employ Christian women as cleaners inside their homes; while municipal authorities almost exclusively hire Christian men and women as ‘sweepers’ who clear gutters, roads and pretty much all public spaces of dirt on a daily basis.

Slightly further up the class ladder, Christians find work in hospitals as nurses and janitors — the ‘cleaning’ motif dominates here too. There are certainly Pakistani Christians involved in other occupations, but the point should be clear; they are hugely overrepresented in the ‘sweeper’ profession.

This has little to do with the Christian faith. It has to do with caste, one of the great unspoken facts of Pakistani society. One often hears the refrain that there is no such thing as caste in Pakistan because caste is associated with Hindu social structures and Muslims don’t ‘do’ caste. The rhetoric is completely out of touch with reality.

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“We’re approaching the most dangerous point in human history”

May 10th, 2022


VIDEO/The New Statesman/Youtube

It was as a ten-year-old that Noam Chomsky first confronted the perils of foreign aggression. “The first article that I wrote for the elementary school newspaper was on the fall of Barcelona [in 1939],” Chomsky recalled when we spoke recently via video call. It charted the advance of the “grim cloud of fascism” across the world. “I haven’t changed my opinion since, it’s just gotten worse,” he sardonically remarked. Due to the climate crisis and the threat of nuclear war, Chomsky told me, “we’re approaching the most dangerous point in human history… We are now facing the prospect of destruction of organised human life on Earth.”

At the age of 93, as perhaps the world’s most cited living scholar, Chomsky could be forgiven for retreating from the public sphere. But in an era of permanent crisis, he retains the moral fervour of a young radical – more preoccupied with the world’s mortality than his own. He is a walking advertisement for Dylan Thomas’s injunction – “Do not go gentle into that good night” – or for what Chomsky calls “the bicycle theory: if you keep going fast, you don’t fall off”.

The occasion for our conversation is the publication of Chronicles of Dissent, a collection of interviews between Chomsky and the radical journalist David Barsamian from 1984 to 1996. But the backdrop is the war in Ukraine – a subject about which Chomsky is unsurprisingly voluble.

“It’s monstrous for Ukraine,” he said. In common with many Jews, Chomsky has a family connection to the region: his father was born in present-day Ukraine and emigrated to the US in 1913 to avoid serving in the tsarist army; his mother was born in Belarus. Chomsky, who is often accused by critics of refusing to condemn any anti-Western government, unhesitatingly denounced Vladimir Putin’s “criminal aggression”.

But he added: “Why did he do it? There are two ways of looking at this question. One way, the fashionable way in the West, is to plumb the recesses of Putin’s twisted mind and try to determine what’s happening in his deep psyche.

“The other way would be to look at the facts: for example, that in September 2021 the United States came out with a strong policy statement, calling for enhanced military cooperation with Ukraine, further sending of advanced military weapons, all part of the enhancement programme of Ukraine joining Nato. You can take your choice, we don’t know which is right. What we do know is that Ukraine will be further devastated. And we may move on to terminal nuclear war if we do not pursue the opportunities that exist for a negotiated settlement.”
How does he respond to the argument that Putin’s greatest fear is not encirclement by Nato but the spread of liberal democracy in Ukraine and Russia’s “near abroad”?

“Putin is as concerned with democracy as we are. If it’s possible to break out of the propaganda bubble for a few minutes, the US has a long record of undermining and destroying democracy. Do I have to run through it? Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Chile in 1973, on and on… But we are supposed to now honour and admire Washington’s enormous commitment to sovereignty and democracy. What happened in history doesn’t matter. That’s for other people.

“What about Nato expansion? There was an explicit, unambiguous promise by [US secretary of state] James Baker and president George HW Bush to Gorbachev that if he agreed to allow a unified Germany to rejoin Nato, the US would ensure that there would be no move one inch to the east. There’s a good deal of lying going on about this now.”

Chomsky, who observed in 1990 that “if the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every postwar American president would have been hanged”, spoke witheringly of Joe Biden.

“It’s certainly right to have moral outrage about Putin’s actions in Ukraine,” he said of Biden’s recent declaration that the Russian president “cannot remain in power”. “But it would be even more progress to have moral outrage about other horrible atrocities… In Afghanistan, literally millions of people are facing imminent starvation. Why? There’s food in the markets. But people who have little money have to watch their children starve because they can’t go to the market to buy food. Why? Because the United States, with the backing of Britain, has kept Afghanistan’s funds in New York banks and will not release them.”

Chomsky’s contempt for the hypocrisies and contradictions of US foreign policy will be familiar to anyone who has read one of his many books and pamphlets (his first political work, American Power and the New Mandarins, published in 1969, foretold the US’s defeat in Vietnam). But he is now perhaps most animated when discussing Donald Trump’s possible return and the climate crisis.

“I’m old enough to remember the early 1930s. And memories come to mind,” he said in a haunting recollection. “I can remember listening to Hitler’s speeches on the radio. I didn’t understand the words, I was six years old. But I understood the mood. And it was frightening and terrifying. And when you watch one of Trump’s rallies that can’t fail to come to mind. That’s what we’re facing.”

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5,000 PhD scholars to meet Africa’s growing AI needs

May 10th, 2022


IMAGE/The African Exponent

If Africa wants to tap into the benefits of the digital economy to address the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), at least 5,000 PhD scholars in the areas of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning must be cultivated over the next five years, according to Professor Tom Ogada, executive director of the African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS).

AI enables the creation of tools that can help different sectors predict future challenges and create solutions through research, and the world is rallying behind the application of AI to find and improve solutions in sectors such as health, agriculture and climate action.

“Our institution has done a situational analysis to identify the skills that will be needed to grow the digital economy and we established that there is an existing skills gap in Africa at all levels, from secondary school, through university up to doctoral level,” Ogada said.

According to the findings of the technology and innovation think tank (ACTS), progress in AI research and development has been slowed, in part by limited funding opportunities for academics, as well as by a lack of adequate data resources and infrastructure at universities across the region.

An opportunity for PhD students

Through a new initiative, early-career academics and post-doctoral researchers across the continent can apply for grants to conduct their research.

The project, called The Artificial Intelligence for Development in Africa (AI4D) scholarship programme, is funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) and other partners.

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Why men are lonelier in America than elsewhere

May 10th, 2022


Are isolated men driving American women up the wall? A recent sketch on “Saturday Night Live”, which refers to studies concluding that males in America are increasingly friendless, suggests that they are. A young woman, frustrated by her boyfriend’s inability to open up to anyone else, takes him by the hand and leads him to a “man park” (like the dog version) where, after a shy start, he finds fellow males to make friends with. Some viewers disliked the likening of men to dogs, but the sketch, which went viral online, illustrates fresh concerns about an old worry: the loneliness of American men.

As people in rich countries work longer hours, marry later and spend more time with their children, not friends, research suggests loneliness is increasing. A study by the University of Pennsylvania found a direct link between social-media usage and loneliness. More time spent online means less time building friendships.

The problem may be particularly severe in America. A large international study by British academics found that people in individualistic countries (a measure on which America scores highest) reported greater loneliness. America also has one of the highest divorce rates; men may be more likely to lose mutual friends after a split. A strong work ethic and geographical mobility (meaning friendships are liable to be lost or weakened as people relocate) is likely to exacerbate the problem.

A survey published in 2021 by the Survey Centre on American Life, part of the American Enterprise Institute, a think-tank, found that friendship groups have shrunk in the past three decades. The decline has been particularly marked among men. In 1990, 55% of American men reported having at least six close friends; today only 27% do. The survey found that 15% of men have no close friendships at all, a fivefold increase since 1990

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US playing spoiler to China in Horn of Africa

May 9th, 2022


Ethiopian troops have been receiving weaponry support from China. PHOTO/Facebook

Chinese foreign ministers have traditionally marked the new year by visiting the African continent. Wang Yi’s 2022 African tour begins with Eritrea against the backdrop of the US strategy in the Horn of Africa to gain control of the strategically vital Red Sea that connects the Indian Ocean with the Suez Canal.

Eritrea and China are close friends. China was a supporter of the Eritrean liberation movement since the 1970s. Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, the veteran revolutionary who led the independence movement, received military training in China.

More recently, Eritrea was one of the 54 countries backing Beijing’s Hong Kong policy (against 39 voicing concern in a rival Western bloc) at the UN General Assembly in October 2020.

Last November, Eritrea signed a memorandum of understanding with China to join the Belt and Road Initiative. Neighboring Djibouti is already a major participant in the BRI. So is Sudan along the Red Sea coastline.

Central to regional cohesion in the Horn of Africa is the relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea. It has been a conflict-ridden, troubled relationship, but China, which also has close ties with Ethiopia, is well placed to mediate reconciliation.

One common view is that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed pulled off a stunning victory in the conflict with the US-backed Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) with the help of armed drones supplied by the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Iran.

But civil wars are won on the ground. And the politico-military axis between Ethiopia and Eritrea to take on the TPLF proved to be the decisive factor. China encouraged the rapprochement between Addis Ababa and Asmara.

In effect, the two leaderships understood that they have a congruence of interests in thwarting the TPLF, which is an American proxy to destabilize their countries and trigger regime changes.

Washington is mighty displeased that China’s influence in Djibouti is on the rise and resents that the Marxist Eritrean regime of Isaias Afwerki keeps the US at arm’s length.

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How special is science?

May 9th, 2022


“The scientific method originated with Aristotle‘s idea that knowledge came from careful observation, and was brought into modern form by Galileo‘s collection of empirical evidence.” IMAGE/Wikipedia

Science is special. Its central idea – collecting data about the real world, using it to formulate theories and hypotheses about how things work, and then testing them against observations or experiments in precise and quantified ways – has been shown again and again to be a remarkably powerful means of developing understanding that can be relied on and applied in useful ways.

The Covid-19 pandemic has supplied one of the starkest demonstrations of the value of this approach, not least in the development of vaccines that evidently work to protect us against the coronavirus.

While in practice this “scientific method” is messier and more ad hoc than is typically acknowledged, nonetheless it is a precious discovery in itself, and one that scientists are rightly keen to defend. When they hear accusations that scientific knowledge is shaped by social and political processes, that it is just one way of understanding the world, and that the process by which it is attained should be subject to constraints dictated by prevailing social mores, they may fear that the phenomenal benefits we have derived from science, and indeed the sheer intellectual value that inheres in it, are being threatened and undermined.

Such fears are, I believe, at the root of some recent commentaries deploring a perceived assault on science and rationality itself from demands that it adapt its practices and lexicon to current sociopolitical trends, in particular to calls for greater equality, social justice and respect for differences of race, sexuality and identity.

It is one thing to ask us as individuals to accommodate such things in our speech and actions – to recognize, for example, that our institutions are afflicted by deep-rooted prejudices and biases, and that such things are habitual in our personal behavior. But (the argument goes) science as an enterprise and methodology is special in this regard, too. Scientific ideas that have been shown to be reliable become no less so because their originators were products of their time, with all the prejudices that might entail. Science (it is asserted) is the paradigmatic meritocracy: it judges an individual’s contribution, and rewards it accordingly, purely on the basis of how well it helps us to understand the world, irrespective of gender, nationality, or skin color.

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Killings by blasphemy lynch mobs: Punjab most violent province

May 9th, 2022


A recent report published on instances of extrajudicial killings in blasphemy cases has found that most of the incidents — 73% — took place in Punjab.  Since 1947, at least 70 such murders have been reported in Punjab alone – averaging almost one per year.

According to the Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS) in Islamabad, since 1947 a total of 89 people accused of blasphemy have been extrajudicially killed before they were tried in court.

Although minority communities make up just 5 per cent of the population, they are accused in nearly one-third of all blasphemy cases. Out of the total 484 minority community members accused of blasphemy, over 50 per cent have been Christians (264), nearly 40 per cent were Ahmadi (188), the remaining were Hindus (21), Pervaizis (7), Ismailies (1), Sikh (1), and Budhists (2).

Bushra Taseer from Sindh was the first woman recorded to have been accused of blasphemy in the country, after a tailor alleged that she had given him cloth to stitch, which had a religious inscription on it in 1996. Since then, 115 women have been accused of blasphemy, 16 of which were extrajudicially murdered.

Of female victims of extrajudicial killings on blasphemy charges, about 70 per cent belong to these minority communities; the majority of the murdered have been Christian women.

The first person ever accused of blasphemy in Pakistan was an Ahmadi man, Major Mahmud, who was stabbed and stoned to death in Quetta on August 11, 1948.

In a report on the Punjab Disturbances of 1953, Justice Muhammad Munir wrote of the incident:

“The Muslim Railway Employees Association had organized a meeting which was held on the evening of 11th August 1948. Some maulvis addressed the gathering and, the subject of their speech was khatm-i-nubuwwat (the finality of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)). In these speeches, references were made to the Qadianis’ (Ahmadis’) kufr (disbelief) and the consequences thereof.

“While the meeting was still in progress, Major Mahmud passed by the place where the meeting was being held. His car accidentally stopped near the place of the meeting and an effort to re-start it failed. Just then a mob came towards the car and pulled Major Mahmud out of it. He attempted to flee but was chased and literally stoned and stabbed to death, his entire gut having come out.”

Between 1987 and 2021, blasphemy accusations have gone up a reported 1,3000 per cent. From 1948 to 1978, only 11 cases of blasphemy were recorded, of them three were extra-judicially killed. From 1987 to March 2021, the number of cases reported jumped to 1,428 including 81 instances where the accused were extrajudicially murdered.

The Friday Times for more

Weekend Edition

May 6th, 2022