Latest Developments, August 17

In the latest news and analysis…

The Guardian reports on new research regarding the death of former UN secretary general Dag Hammarskjöld in 1961, which suggests his “plane was shot down over Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) 50 years ago, and the murder covered up by the British colonial authorities.” Among the new pieces of evidence are telegrams from the days before Hammarskjöld’s death “which illustrate US and British anger at an abortive UN military operation that the secretary-general ordered on behalf of the Congolese government against a rebellion backed by western mining companies and mercenaries in the mineral-rich Katanga region” and interviews with eyewitnesses describing a second plane firing on the ill-fated UN one. “Suddenly we saw another aircraft approach the bigger aircraft at greater speed and release fire which appeared as a bright light,” one man recounted and another said: “There were some who witnessed the crash and they were taken away and imprisoned.”

Some of the biggest British banks – the Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds TSB, Barclays and HSBC – are investing hundreds of millions in companies that produce cluster bombs, despite the UK’s obligation under an international treaty banning the devices. According to the Convention on Cluster Munitions which came into effect in the UK last year, ratifying countries must not assist or encourage the production of such weapons. But the Independent’s Jerome Taylor writes that a loophole allows for investment in companies such as Alliant Techsystems and Lockheed Martin as long as the financial backing does not go directly towards manufacturing the bombs: “None of these investments is illegal. But they will lead to further concerns about the moral behaviour of the banking industry at a time of public anger over its role in the credit crisis and bankers’ bonuses.” Only Belgium, Ireland, Luxemburg and New Zealand have implemented legislation forbidding direct or indirect financing of cluster munitions.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has announced plans to nationalize the country’s gold industry in order to retain control over the increasingly valuable resource. “We have close to 12 or 13 billion of dollars in gold reserves,” according to Chavez. “We can’t allow it to continue to be taken away.” In a less radical move, the Tanzanian government is trying to increase its share of mining profits by collecting four-percent royalties on exports, up from the current three.

Chatham House has just released a European Parliament-commissioned report entitled “The Effects of Oil Companies’ Activities on the Environment, Health and Development in sub-Saharan Africa.” The study concentrates on the region’s top two producers, Nigeria and Angola, and rattles off a list of the industry’s negative environment and social impacts.“While oil companies are implementing certain measures to address these impacts, corporate social responsibility activities largely remain piecemeal and short-term, community engagement is inadequate and requirements for accountability and transparency are either insufficient or not enforced.” Moreover, over the last decade in Nigeria, “the way that oil corporations chose to engage with local communities through development projects caused inter-community conflicts in the Delta between communities participating in such projects and those that did not.”

The Canadian government is threatening legal action against Michaela Keyserlingk, the widow of a man who died of asbestos-related cancer, because she is using the ruling Conservative Party of Canada’s logo in an online campaign against her country’s “hypocrisy in exporting chrysotile asbestos to the developing world, while guarding against its use at home.” The offending, logo-appropriating banner ad, designed by her son, reads: “Canada is the only western country that still exports deadly asbestos!’’ Keyserlingk says she will take the ad down if she can meet with a senior member of the government to discuss the asbestos export policy. In June, Canada sided with Vietnam, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to prevent chrysotile asbestos from being added to the UN’s Rotterdam Convention’s list of hazardous materials, a measure that would have required exporting countries to warn buyers of potential health risks.

The Canada-Colombia bilateral free trade agreement which came into effect this week “is a global precedent and will be closely watched,” according to the Canadian Council for International Co-operation Gauri Sreenivasan. What makes the treaty unique is the provision that both parties must produce annual parliamentary reports on the human rights impacts of the deal in both countries. But Sreenivasan worries the absence to this point of specific details on how the governments will live up to their duties may justify fears the reports, the first of which are due in May 2012, will be “mere public relations exercises.”  Nevertheless, she concludes: “The opportunity is there to ensure the reports can be a tool for greater accountability, highlighting that states have obligations not just to international trade rules, but to international human rights law.”

University of Virginia historian and former US Department of State staffer Philip Zelikow argues “the domestic-foreign dichotomy is anachronistic” and “foreign policies should focus on how to harmonise “domestic” policies.” He says the failure of the Copenhagen climate talks is an example of how “a traditionally conceived foreign policy negotiation founders on the inability to reconcile domestic policies.” Zelikow has little patience for high-profile summits that give pride of place to heads of state and foreign ministry officials, envisioning instead “a model of distributed foreign policymaking, in which many ministries and non-governmental organisations will move into the foreground of diplomacy.”

The Overseas Development  Institute’s Jonathan Glennie argues the “widespread public revulsion” caused by a video in which a bloodied Malaysian student was mugged during the London riots suggests “the British want to see decency and ethics at the core of national policy and community strategy.” This observation leads him to ask: “Why not, then, on the international stage? Should we not be equally ashamed when our government or companies act unethically in foreign countries? Or do our ethics stop at the border?” He has concerns about promoting international cooperation using national self-interest arguments, such as increased trade or greater security, because “appealing to self-interest entrenches the traditional position that national interests should generally predominate over ethical conduct.” Instead, he calls for ethics-based arguments supported by tangible evidence in order to “make the case that a country should never act unethically, any more than a person should.”

As for why people do evil things, the University of Exeter’s Alex Haslam writes in the Guardian that the classic Milgram experiments which took place 50 years ago this month remain important not so much for highlighting the “banality of evil” but for raising the question of “why participants identify with the authority rather than with the victim, and hence are willing to follow him down the destructive path he sketches out.” Haslam believes ordinary people commit organized, terrible acts “not because they were blindly obeying orders but because they were working creatively towards the goals of a leadership with which they identified.” In other words, atrocities “involve not just passive obedience but also dynamic followership.”

In yet another round of the “aid vs. foreign direct investment” debate, Christian Aid’s Dereje Alemayehu writes: “Can we realistically rely on foreign investors to deliver development? The amount they steal through aggressive tax evasion is at least fourfold what comes in as aid. I can’t see how ending aid would make them change their behaviour. I have nothing against Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), but let us make a distinction between scavengers and investors. And in Africa, we have more of the former.”

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