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US Federal Court Strikes Down Georgia’s Anti-BDS Law Used to Bar Journo Abby Martin From 2020 Event

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The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement was started by Palestinian activists in 2005 to build international pressure compelling Israel to abide by its human rights obligations under international law, comparing the plight of Palestinians under Israeli rule to Black Africans under South African apartheid.

On Friday, a Georgia federal court struck down a state law banning state contracts with persons or groups engaged in a boycott of Israel. It’s the fourth such ruling by a US federal court in recent years, even as state laws attempting to ban support for the BDS movement continue to proliferate.

The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF), a First Amendment legal defense group, announced on Monday victory in their February 2020 case with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) against a Georgia law on behalf of independent journalist Abby Martin.

​The suit stems from an International Critical Media Literacy Conference originally scheduled to take place February 28-29, 2020, at the Savannah campus of Georgia Southern University, at which Martin was to have been the keynote speaker. She is the creator of the “Empire Files” documentary series and director of the 2019 film “Gaza Fights for Freedom,” which documents Israeli violence against Palestinian protesters during the 2018 Great March of Return.

However, in her contract, Martin was required by a 2016 Georgia state law to forswear boycotting the state of Israel for the duration of the agreement. An energetic proponent of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement aimed at putting global economic pressure on Israel to change its policies toward Palestinians under its rule, Martin told Radio Sputnik at the time that being asked to sign the agreement was “a complete violation of my right to have my personal convictions” and of “my right to engage in peaceful political protest.”

Martin refused to sign the contract and the event was eventually cancelled. In February 2020, she sued a group of six officials from the University System of Georgia and Georgia Southern University, charging that her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights had been violated.

Court Finds BDS is Protected Speech

According to the court filing viewed by Sputnik, US District Judge Mark Cohen found that Martin’s boycott of Israel is protected speech under the First Amendment and unconstitutionally compels speech by mandating she swear an oath. 

“The certification that one is not engaged in a boycott of Israel is no different that requiring a person to espouse certain political beliefs or to engage in certain political associations,” Cohen wrote, comparing the issue to a questionnaire about whether an applicant had ever been a member of a communist party.

The ruling also called into question – but did not answer – whether “Georgia’s interest in furthering foreign policy goals regarding relations with Israel is a substantial state interest” that could be protected by such a law.

Supporters of the ‘BDS’, Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement protest for lifting the Gaza blockade and to boycott the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest, outside the venue where the contest final will take place, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, May 18, 2019.

“I am thrilled at the judge’s decision to strike down this law that so clearly violates the free speech rights of myself and so many others in Georgia,” Martin told Sputnik in a Monday statement.

“My First Amendment [right] was restricted on behalf of a foreign government, which flies in the face of the principles of freedom and democracy. The government of Israel has pushed state legislatures to enact these laws only because they know that sympathy and support for the population they brutalize, occupy, ethnically cleanse and subject to apartheid, is finally growing in popular consciousness – they want to hold back the tide of justice by preemptively restricting the right of American citizens to peacefully take a stand against their crimes,” Martin said.

“As the world watches Israeli aggression continue in Jerusalem, the West Bank and against the population it besieges in Gaza, it has never been more urgent to advance the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against the Israeli regime. The striking of this law is a necessary and timely opening to build this urgent task.”

When asked if she now plans to hold the event or to hold another event in Georgia more explicitly focused on Israel, Martin told Sputnik: “I do not have plans as of yet to reschedule.”

Widespread BDS Bans Now At Risk

Friday’s ruling joins three other federal court rulings from recent years that also found boycotts of Israel to be protected speech.

As of May 2021, 35 of 50 US states have passed bills or executive orders intended to interfere with boycotts of Israel. While some are aimed at contracts with BDS proponents, as Georgia’s law is, others target businesses that refuse to do business in Israel, including those that specifically refuse to do business in Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Israel’s occupation of which the United Nations has deemed illegal under international law.

The most recent, signed into law last month by West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, a Republican, claims the Appalachian state “has an economic and a humanitarian obligation to denounce and reject the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement against Israel, and to prevent the state or any of its instrumentalities from contracting with companies that engage in the movement.”

While proponents of such bans claim they are fighting anti-Semitism by defending a state ostensibly founded to protect the Jewish people from another genocide, supporters of BDS say their efforts are directed at the policies of the Israeli state and not against the Jewish people as a whole, and they compare BDS to the international boycott movement against South African apartheid that eventually forced the end of white Boer rule over Black Africans in that country in 1994 and the creation of a multi-ethnic democracy.

In May of last year, the British Supreme Court also ruled in favor of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, striking down government regulations preventing Local Government Pension Schemes from divesting from companies that profit from Israel’s alleged human rights violations in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.



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Omicron: The new wave of coronavirus infections in Europe: What’s the situation and how is it being felt in Spain? | Society

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The new coronavirus wave appears to be dividing European countries into two leagues: those that, in spite of the uptick in infections, are keeping their hospitals under control, and those that aren’t. The data suggest that the places with more than 75 to 80% of their total populations are vaccinated are better resisting this new rise in cases. Others, meanwhile, with just 10 percentage points fewer in terms of immunizations, have had to resort to drastic measures given the imminent collapse of their healthcare centers. That said, the numbers from some countries, such as Belgium – which has vaccination rates similar to those of Spain – and the strength of the new wave (with the reach of the newly detected variant, omicron, still to be determined), suggest that caution is needed given the rise in hospitalizations in certain Spanish regions. In Aragón and Navarre, for example, the number of hospitalizations due to Covid-19 has doubled in the last month.

Infections on the continent have started rising at different times and at different speeds. In the Baltic countries, Bulgaria and Romania, cases seem to have peaked and are falling according to the dynamic that has been seen at other times during the pandemic. In Slovakia, Slovenia, Austria and the Netherlands, new positives have risen to levels that have not been seen in the last two years. Germany has also registered a record in infections and the volume of Covid patients has once again affected the normal running of healthcare centers. In Spain, Italy and Denmark, cases have risen later and for now, are doing so at a lower velocity.

In recent months, the number of hospitalizations has been an even more important indicator, given that the vaccines are preventing serious illness and infections alone do not reflect the genuine magnitude of the wave. This figure is worrying in some countries. In Bulgaria, for example, the situation is critical: 100 of every 100,000 inhabitants are hospitalized due to Covid-19 – practically double the figure in the worst moment of the pandemic in Spain after last Christmas. In Slovakia and Slovenia, which are headed toward a peak in terms of cases, hospitalizations have been growing for weeks and are currently at 45 per 100,000 inhabitants. These numbers are close to those of the worst moment in that country too, seen during last winter.

Also showing worrying trends are Slovakia (55 hospitalizations per 100,000 inhabitants), Czech Republic (49) and Poland (44). In the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy, Portugal and Spain, hospitalizations are also growing, although apparently at a slower speed. In none of these countries has the incidence of hospitalizations exceeded 10 per 100,000 inhabitants so far.

In this scenario, what role are the vaccines playing? Poland and Denmark represent a good example. The incidence of new infections is similar, but Polish hospitals are seeing six times more Covid-19 patients than those in Denmark. It is likely that the extraordinary capacity of Denmark to detect nearly all of the cases that there are (the country has a positivity rate of 2.4% compared to 24% in Poland) is having an influence, but the difference in vaccine coverage in these countries is also a factor: in Denmark, 76% of the population has received two doses; in Poland, the figure is barely 50%.

This pattern is clear in other countries: the higher the vaccination rate, the lower the incidence in hospitals. This can be seen in the following graph: countries such as Slovakia, Slovenia and Hungary, with roughly 50% of the population vaccinated, have a higher number of hospitalizations than countries with greater coverage such as the Netherlands and Belgium, which have already inoculated more than 70% of inhabitants.

It should be noted that these countries with fewer vaccinated residents have suffered larger waves of infections (as indicated by the size of the point on the graph), and this has caused a higher number of hospitalizations. But it is also true that in countries with similar numbers of cases, hospitals have suffered more where there is a lower vaccination coverage, something that can be observed when France and Denmark are compared.

Enric Álvarez, a researcher at the Computational Biology and Complex Systems group in Barcelona, explains that “in countries with 75% or more of the population vaccinated it appears that incidence rates close to 1,000 cases per 100,000 inhabitants over 14 days are not being reached, something that is occurring in countries with 10 points fewer, such as Austria, Slovakia and Slovenia. On the opposite side is Denmark, which is [the country that Spain] is likely to most resemble.”

For now, it is clear that the countries with more people vaccinated have emptier hospitals, given that people are experiencing less-serious cases of Covid-19. As epidemiologist Óscar Zurriaga explains, “it might not appear to be a huge difference, but going from 65% to 80% vaccinated is millions of people, a huge amount of citizens. What’s more, they are not always distributed by age in a homogenous way like in Spain – this allows for the circulation to not be focused in particular age groups.”

Spain – below on the right in the graph above – is a good example of this relationship. But there are exceptions, such as Belgium, which with 75% of the population vaccinated has the same number of hospitalizations per 100,000 inhabitants as Austria. That’s to say, if the incidence doubles, there is inevitably a rise in the number of patients in hospitals.

The vaccine alone is not enough to explain these differences. Firstly, because its effectiveness is reduced with time. “There are a number of different scenarios for the fall in effectiveness,” explains Álvarez. “If the vaccines continue with a descending trajectory when it comes to slowing transmission, it is clear that the situation in terms of infections and hospitalizations can rise once more.”

Seasonal behavior is also important: places where the cold weather arrives first, such as in central Europe, are seeing people spending more time indoors, and it is easier for infections to happen there. And finally, as Ortiz points out, “the relaxation of measures, which has taken place much faster in other countries, has had a massive influence in some infection curves.”

The gradual relaxation of these restrictions in Spain no doubt has also had an influence on the fact that its situation is far from those of other European countries. What’s more, the high vaccination coverage could be avoiding a new wave of hospitalizations.

Even so, the situation is one of tense calm and in recent weeks the data has gotten worse in the majority of Spain’s regions, which are in charge of their coronavirus restrictions, healthcare systems and vaccination programs. In Aragón and Navarre, hospitalizations have doubled in the last four weeks. In Catalonia, in the last week the incidence data has worsened among those aged between 60 and 80, something that has caused a significant increase in hospital occupation.

“The fact that there are regions that are rising is the proof of something that we already knew: the vaccine is not enough to eliminate transmission,” Zurriaga explains. “That is why it is not convenient to rely on the third dose for everything: if it stopped transmission, it would be a key factor, but this is not the case. Three concepts continue to be key: ventilation, masks and vaccines.”

Even taking these rises in the indicators into account, the situation is far from what it was a year ago. Catalonia, for example, has an incidence of cases that is comparable to that of October 2020, more than 220 cases per 100,000 inhabitants over the last 14 days. At that time, with rising infection rates, the region was reporting more than 1,500 Covid-19 patients. Now that figure is practically half, at 720. The Basque Country had 520 patients at the time, with a curve that is similar to the one it has now, but currently has just 224 coronavirus patients, which is less than half.



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‘Taste this, it’s salty’: how rising seas are ruining the Gambia’s rice farmers | Global development

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In the sweltering heat of the late-morning west African sun, Aminata Jamba slashes at golden rice stalks with a sickle. “The rice is lovely,” she says, music playing in the background as her son, Sampa, silently harvests the grain. But even if the quality is high, the quantity is not.

While once Jamba could have expected to harvest enough rice to last the whole year, this year she reckons it will last three to four months. After that, she will have to look elsewhere for a way to feed her family and make enough money to live.

“Things are different now,” explains Manding Kassamah, a fellow farmer and mother of nine, fresh in from the rice fields, empty water can in hand. “The rains used to come in plenty. People would work and have a good harvest. Now, we work hard but we don’t get as much rice as we used to.”

Manding Kassamah, a rice farmer in Kerewan
Manding Kassamah, a rice farmer in Kerewan, says the soil began to get saltier about 25 years ago but the process has accelerated in the past decade. Photograph: Sylvain Cherkaoui/Guardian

Traditionally, rice farming in the Gambia has been mostly done by women, while their male counterparts look after the groundnuts. But for years now the female farmers have watched as the land around them becomes increasingly difficult to manage.

Here in Kerewan, on the north bank of the Gambia River, they are battling the climate crisis on two fronts. Rising sea levels are pushing saltwater further and further along the river, which snakes its way across the length of the low-lying country, and prolonged dry spells mean less freshwater to flush out the salinity. The result is that the water in the fields that used to produce rice is now too salty, and the much of the land – more than 30 hectares (74 acres) – has had to be abandoned. For women such as Jamba and Kassamah, that is a disaster.

A farmer,on an expanse of salt
Almamo Fatty, a farmer, shows the layer of salt where there used to be a rice field. Photograph: Sylvain Cherkaoui/The Guardian

“These women are pushed out and they don’t have many other livelihoods to turn to like men,” says Muhammed Ceesay, 27, from the youth-led organisation Activista. “It pushes them into poverty. They are very vulnerable.”

The women here are relatively lucky, as they do have an alternative source of food and income in the form of a vegetable garden. They can grow aubergines, tomatoes, peppers and onions, and know that, even if they have dwindling rice supplies, they will have something to sell or eat. “It’s our tomorrow,” says Binta Fatty. “It helps us in so many areas because it helps us stay healthy and to be able to buy small things for our children. That’s why we focus on the garden after the rice fields.”

This backup is essential. Last year’s rice harvest only lasted Fatty about six months before she had to do what in Kerewan would once have been unthinkable: buy imported rice.

In the past 10 years, this has become the norm across the Gambia. “In this community there was a time when, if they saw you buy rice from the shop, they would know there was hunger in your house. Now, it’s the order of the day,” says Almamo Fatty, 63, no close relation of Binta, although the two joke that they are brother and sister.

“I don’t think you will see anyone in this community [now] who will say: I can farm enough rice to feed my family for longer than six months,” he says.

Binta Fatty, rice farmer
Binta Fatty’s rice harvest last year only lasted her for six months, whereas it once would have lasted for the year. Photograph: Sylvain Cherkaoui/The Guardian

His own is no exception. His son, Kemo Fatty, a climate activist who was part of the Gambian delegation to the Cop26 climate summit, has seen how his mother has become gradually less self-sufficient. “She has to depend on my pay cheque to actually buy rice that comes from China, and this has been happening for the past couple of years now,” he says. “Imagine, from having our own rice that we grew and ate all year round to having no rice at all.”

The Gambian government knows more needs to be done to protect its farmers from the impact of the climate crisis: agriculture is the most important sector of the economy, accounting for about a quarter of GDP and employing about 75% of the labour force.

But, from low technological capacity to poor energy supplies, the challenges for farmers are daunting. Almost all food in the country comes from rain-fed fields, making farmers particularly vulnerable to changes in precipitation.

And female farmers – who are expected to shoulder the burden of caring for their families as well as earning their keep, risk domestic violence as poverty bites, and are often unable to access the contraception they need to control how many children they want – are arguably the most vulnerable of all.

The Gambian climate activist Fatou Jeng, who was also in Glasgow for Cop26, says that although they make up about 70% of the country’s agricultural workforce, women and girls “face inadequate access to basic natural resources needed for farming”.

Writing for the International Rescue Committee website, she adds: “There is a great injustice at the heart of all of this. All too often, these under-represented groups, such as women living in fragile states, understand most about what is at stake and, therefore, the solutions needed to tackle climate change. Yet women in particular have been systematically excluded from the decision-making table.”

In short, if women like Jamba, Kassamah and Fatty are left out of the climate crisis solution, the solution may never be found.

Salt held up on the tip of a machete
Almamo Fatty shows the salt encrusting what used to be prime agricultural land near Kerewan. Photograph: Sylvain Cherkaoui/The Guardian

Standing on the boggy banks of a tributary of the Gambia River, Almamo Fatty gestures to the ground, the clay sparkling in the sunshine. “This stuff you see shining? That is salt,” he says, shaving off a thin layer with a machete. “If you taste this, it is salty.” And it is.

“Twenty years ago, if you grew rice here it would grow like this,” he says, gesturing to his shoulder. One field would have produced 20 bags of rice. Now, there are plans for a dyke to stop the saltwater, but he knows life will never go back to the way it was before the climate crisis arrived. “This land here, it was all rice fields,” he says. “Now it’s all abandoned.”

Additional reporting by Omar Wally



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G7 to hold emergency talks on Omicron variant

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G7 health ministers will hold an emergency meeting on Monday about the new Omicron Covid-19 variant spreading across the world and forcing border closures, as experts race to determine the level of threat posed by the new strain, The Guardian writes. The meeting was called by G7 chair Britain, which is among a steadily growing number of countries that have detected cases of the heavily mutated new strain.

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