Monday, December 29, 2014

Recent Editorials

(Some of my recent editorials in The Gulf Today-posted for my records)

Global economy struggles

under weighty challenge

Latest figures depict a weighty challenge for humanity. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, more than 2.1 billion people globally - or nearly 30 per cent of the world's population - are now overweight or obese. The prediction is that almost half of the world's adult population will be overweight or obese by 2030.

Obesity is now blamed for around 5 per cent of all deaths worldwide and has a similar negative effect on the global economy to smoking and armed conflict. Obesity also now costs the global economy $2 trillion ($2.32 trillion) in healthcare and lost productivity - or 2.8 per cent of global GDP - $100 billion less than both smoking and armed conflict.

The World Health Organisation defines overweight and obesity as abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that may impair health. Body mass index (BMI) is a simple index of weight-for-height that is commonly used to classify overweight and obesity in adults. It is defined as a person's weight in kilogrammes divided by the square of his height in meters (kg/m2).

The cause of obesity and overweight is an energy imbalance between calories consumed and calories expended. Globally, there has been an increased intake of energy-dense foods that are high in fat and an increase in physical inactivity due to the increasingly sedentary nature of many forms of work, changing modes of transportation, and increasing urbanisation.

Incidentally, Britain is found to have three per cent of its GDP wiped off each year due to obesity, the biggest drag on the country's economy after smoking. The combined annual cost of obesity-linked healthcare and lost output in Britain has reached $85.64 billion.

Once considered a problem only in high-income countries, overweight and obesity are now said to be dramatically on the rise in low- and middle-income countries, particularly in urban settings.

It is not that all is lost. Experts insist that targeted action could bring 20 per cent of obese people back to normal weight within a decade. What is needed is a coordinated response from governments, retailers and food and drink manufacturers.

Recommendations include limiting the size of portions in packaged fast food, parental education and introducing healthy meals in schools and workplaces.

At the individual level, people can limit energy intake from total fats and sugars and increase consumption of fruit and vegetables, as well as legumes, whole grains and nuts.

After all, where there's a will, there's a way.

Defining moment in

Pak anti-terror fight

With the unveiling of a comprehensive 20-point plan of action, the fight against terrorism has reached an important moment in Pakistan.

As Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif declared on Wednesday, the Dec.16 Peshawar school massacre has drawn a line between coward terrorists and the Pakistani nation.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was absolutely right when he earlier stated, “no cause could justify such brutality.” The international community is bound to support the government of Pakistan in its fight against terror and extremism.

It may be recalled that there were 78 attacks against schools, teachers and schoolchildren reported to the United Nations in Pakistan last year, most of which were carried out by the Tehrik-i-Taliban and aligned local groups in Khyber Pakhtunkhw province, of which Peshawar is the capital.

Sharif has asserted that the days of terrorists are numbered and that all funding sources of terrorists will also be eliminated.

The action plan indicates sternness on the part of the authorities to take on the terrorists.

The key elements of the plan include: Setting up of military courts for two years to try terrorists; crackdown on militias in the country and continued execution of terrorists; Madrassas will not be allowed to operate without proper registration and banned outfits will not be allowed to operate under new names.

The plan also envisages strengthening and activation of National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA); countering hate speech and extremist material; choking financing for terrorists and terrorist organisations; taking effective steps against religious persecution; registration and regulation of religious seminaries and a ban on glorification of terrorism and terrorist organisations through print and electronic media.

That’s not all. The government plans tangible measures against abuse of Internet and social media for terrorism; zero tolerance for militancy in Punjab; taking the ongoing operation in Karachi to its logical conclusion and empowering the Balochistan government for political reconciliation with complete ownership by all stakeholders.

Malala Yousafzai had stated during her recent speech on receipt of her Nobel peace Prize in Oslo that she wished her generation would be “the last that sees empty class rooms, lost childhoods and wasted potentials.” She had mentioned that her home village does not yet have a secondary school for girls.

The Peshawar school massacre is largely seen as Pakistan's “9/11". The horrendous attack has not only shaken the nation of Pakistan, but also the entire world. The attack on defenseless children is too dastardly an act to be erased from memory that easily.

Waves of empathy
for tsunami victims

A decade after more than 220,000 people died in a tsunami, which was triggered by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake off the coast of Indonesia's Sumatra island, doubts linger about how ready countries on the Indian Ocean really are for another giant wave.
The quake opened a fault line deep beneath the ocean on Dec.26, 2004 triggering a wave as high as 17.4 metres that crashed ashore in more than a dozen countries, wiping some communities off the map in seconds.
Ten years on, the world remembers the victims with a heavy heart and the outpouring of compassion from countries and people across the globe does come as a balm for the survivors.
Measured in lives lost, this is termed as one of the ten worst earthquakes in recorded history, as well as the single worst tsunami in history. Indonesia was the worst affected area, with most death toll estimates at around 170,000.
According to United Nations experts, some of the worst-affected countries are now better prepared for such disasters and better positioned to respond. However, there is definitely room for improvement.
A recent Food and Agriculture Organisation-sponsored workshop with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations also stressed additional actions are needed to further increase resilience to disasters, largely due to the effects of rapid population increases and urbanisation, together with eroded natural resource bases and climate change.
The past decade has seen more than $400 million spent across 28 countries on an early-warning system comprising 101 sea-level gauges, 148 seismometers and nine buoys. While such preparations offer comfort, the effectiveness and maintenance of the system need serious attention.
The tsunami caused serious damage and deaths as far as the east coast of Africa, with the farthest recorded death due to the tsunami occurring at Rooi Els in South Africa, 8,000 km away from the epicentre. The livelihoods of some 1.4 million survivors were left in tatters as it destroyed entire food production systems on which the populations depended.
UN experts say with 200 million people in Asia and the Pacific affected each year by a broad range of natural disasters between 2003 and 2013, and with the cost of those disasters averaging $34 billion each year between 2001 and 2010, a change in approach is essential.
There is a dire need to continue to invest in preparedness and early warning systems. After all, prevention is anytime better than cure.

Journalists deserve

better protection

It is highly disturbing to note that over 60 journalists around the world were killed in 2014 while on the job or because of their work.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says that the past three years have proved the deadliest for journalists since it began keeping track more than two decades ago.

What is even more disgusting is the fact that attacks on professional journalists have grown more barbaric and kidnappings have soared.

Shockingly, almost half of the journalists killed this year died in the Middle East. Syria was the deadliest country for journalists for the third year in a row, with at least 17 killed there amid a civil war. Seventy-nine journalists have been killed in Syria since fighting started in 2011.

Syria was connected to two of the more horrifying killings of journalists this year, the beheadings by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria group of American freelancers James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

While the CPJ’s count of journalists killed in Syria this year is down from 29 last year, the increasing threats faced are causing local journalists to flee and international journalists to stay away, while the country itself has become “an information black hole.”

United Nations reports say that in the past 10 years, more than 600 journalists and media workers have been killed. The majority of them are not war correspondents.

Attacks on media professionals are often also perpetrated in non-conflict situations by organised crime groups, militia, security personnel, and even local police, making local journalists among the most vulnerable.

These attacks include murder, abductions, harassment, intimidation and the illegal arrest and detention.

What adds to the anguish is that abuses against media professionals remain uninvestigated and unpunished. This impunity, as UN officials point out, perpetuates the cycle of violence against journalists, media workers and citizen journalists. The resulting self-censorship deprives society of information and further impacts press freedom.

Professional journalists literally play with lives while on duty to share news and information that so many rely on. Journalists have the right to work free from any threat of violence. It is the duty of various governments to ensure the right to freedom of opinion and expression for all.

The killing of journalists directly impacts international efforts to promote peace, security, and sustainable development. Every single journalist should be protected while on duty, as they are involved in a noble task of disseminating information, which is crucial to any rational society.

Devastating year for

millions of children

There can be little doubt that 2014 has been a devastating year for millions of children caught up in violent conflicts around the world.

As the United Nations Children’s Fund declared recently, never in recent memory have so many children been subjected to such unspeakable brutality.

Human cruelty against our own children revealed its ugly face this week in Pakistan and Yemen. The cold-blooded gunning down of several children at a school in Peshawar by Taliban terrorists and the merciless killing of at least 15 school girls in a car bombing in Yemen added to the grim toll of child victims of violence in the closing weeks of the year.

UN statistics reveal a dismal scenario. As many as 15 million children are caught up in violent conflicts in the Central African Republic, Iraq, South Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and in the Occupied Palestinian territories – including those displaced in their own countries or living as refugees outside their homeland. And an estimated 230 million children live in countries and areas affected by armed conflicts.

In the Central African Republic, 2.3 million children are affected by the conflict, up to 10,000 children are believed to have been recruited by armed groups, and more than 430 children have been killed and maimed – three times as many as in 2013.

In Gaza, 54,000 children were left homeless as a result of the 50-day conflict during the summer that also saw 538 children killed, and more than 3,370 injured.

In Syria, with more than 7.3 million children affected by the conflict including 1.7 million child refugees, the United Nations verified at least 35 attacks on schools in the first nine months of the year, which killed 105 children and injured nearly 300 others.

In Iraq, where an estimated 2.7 million children are affected by conflict, at least 700 children are believed to have been maimed, killed or even executed this year.

There is no justification for such unspeakable savagery against children. Each life plucked away young is a future lost forever. Children have been killed while studying in the classroom and while sleeping in their beds; they have been orphaned, kidnapped, tortured, recruited, raped and even sold as slaves.
If at all there can be a plea that emerges from the hearts of all good human beings, it would be: “For God’s sake, please spare innocent children from bloodshed. They are like flowers, completely innocent, utterly lovable and absolutely precious.”

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas bond breaks all barriers

(My article in The Gulf Today)
SHARJAH: Enthusiastic expatriates in the UAE on Thursday joined the rest of the world in ushering in jubilant Christmas festivities with prayers, presents and joyful exchange of greetings.
Thousands thronged churches across the Emirates on Wednesday night to attend midnight masses.
Colourful decorations and shopping frenzy at malls had already set the mood ecstatic across the country during the past few days.
What added more glitter to the celebrations is the bond and spirit of camaraderie that transcended all divisions among various communities – a trait unique to the vibrant nation called the UAE, which hosts nationals from over 200 countries.
An Irish national in Dubai choked with emotion. “The excitement and build up to the big day has a magical feeling. I am happy to be celebrating here.”
Another solid example of the country’s spirit of unity was underscored by a perfumer from Europe, who informed this newspaper that more locals and Muslim expatriates wished him “Merry Christmas” than any others.
That’s not all. He was celebrating the festival with a Christmas lunch with his closest friend in the UAE, a Hindu.
“Where else in the world would one get it?” His question answers it all about the country’s strength of solidarity.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

UAE, UK relationship on the upswing

(My article in The Gulf Today)
ABU DHABI: Increased co-operation in various fields and Expo 2020 are likely to push the already vibrant UAE-UK ties to a much higher level, according to British Ambassador to the UAE, Philip Parham. 
Addressing a select group of journalists at the British embassy in Abu Dhabi on Monday as part of a “press huddle,” the envoy touched on different subjects ranging from bilateral relations, trade, Palestinian issue and terrorism, among others. 
He noted that the bilateral trade between the UAE and UK had crossed Dhs72 billion in 2013 itself, surpassing the set target of Dhs70 billion for 2015. 
“This means that we have to set a new target and we are in the process of analysing that,” he told The Gulf Today in reply to a specific question.
The ambassador also expressed optimism that the two countries will reach a deal on elimination of double taxation soon. 
With over 100,000 British citizens resident in the UAE and around 50,000 Emiratis visiting the UK each year, the two countries are known to share cordial relationship. 
There are approximately 170 flights each week between the UAE and the UK, operated by British Airways, Etihad Airways, and Emirates. Also, over one million British visitors travel to the UAE annually.
Philip Pharam said that a super priority fast-track visa service for Emiratis visiting the UK will also help boost investment and tourism between the two countries. “We are continuously also looking for ways to improve such services and value feedback.”
On the issue of Palestine, the ambassador said that his country favoured a sustainable peace process. “We are for a negotiated two-state solution.”
Asked about stand on terrorism, the envoy stated that Britain had initiated tough new measures and would never ever go soft on such a serious issue. 
“Tough new anti-terrorism legislation is being put in place. Among the steps will be counter-radicalisation measures and greater powers to stop people heading abroad to fight — including cancelling their passports.”
He indicated that the UAE and Britain were closely involved in helping displaced Syrians. 
To a specific question, the ambassador replied that the United Kingdom supports a peaceful settlement of the dispute between the United Arab Emirates and the Islamic Republic of Iran over the Abu Musa, Greater Tunb, and the Lesser Tunb islands, “by any means which are acceptable to both parties.”
Asked about cultural exchange activities between the UAE and UK, he said through the British Council, the UK supports many of the major UAE Arts festivals including Abu Dhabi Art, Art Dubai, the Sharjah March meeting and the Sharjah Biennial. “This enables the UK to showcase its Art and Creativity to UAE-based audiences.”
In 2015, as part of the “Gulf in the UK” programme, the British Council will be enabling UAE Artists to showcase their work at the Shubbak festival in London as well as the Brunei Gallery at the School of Oriental and African Studies.
In addition, in partnership with ADMAF (Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation), the British Council has launched the Cultural Excellence Fellowships, a programme aimed at developing the next generation of UAE cultural leaders and creative entrepreneurs, through mentorship from leading UAE and UK Artists.