Latest Developments, April 18

In the latest news and analysis…

Radical revision
The New York Times editorial board calls the US Supreme Court’s decision in a case pitting Nigerian plaintiffs against oil giant Shell “a giant setback for human rights”:

“The court declared that a 1789 law called the Alien Tort Statute does not allow foreigners to sue in American courts to seek redress ‘for violations of the law of nations occurring outside the United States.’

But Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., writing for the majority, said that even where claims of atrocities ‘touch and concern the territory of the United States, they must do so with sufficient force’ to overcome a presumption that the statute does not apply to actions outside this country.
That presumption radically revises and undermines the way the statute has been applied for a generation. It has been limited by the types of human rights abuses it covers — but not by where they take place. The effect is to greatly narrow the statute’s reach.”

Silver lining
Reuters’s Alison Frankel writes, however, that human rights lawyers found some glimmers of hope in the Kiobel ruling:

“In the concurrence, [Justice Stephen] Breyer disputed the majority’s presumption against the extraterritoriality of the [Alien Tort Statute], though he agreed that the Nigerians’ case does not belong in U.S. courts. He laid out a different standard for ATS litigation: ‘I would find jurisdiction under this statute where (1) the alleged tort occurs on American soil, (2) the defendant is an American national, or (3) the defendant’s conduct substantially and adversely affects an important American national interest, and that includes a distinct interest in preventing the United States from becoming a safe harbor … for a torturer or other common enemy of mankind.’ ”

Senators heart guns
Former US Congresswoman and shooting victim Gabrielle Giffords excoriates the senators who have voted against increased gun control:

“We cannot allow the status quo — desperately protected by the gun lobby so that they can make more money by spreading fear and misinformation — to go on.

The senators who voted against background checks for online and gun-show sales, and those who voted against checks to screen out would-be gun buyers with mental illness, failed to do their job.
They looked at these most benign and practical of solutions, offered by moderates from each party, and then they looked over their shoulder at the powerful, shadowy gun lobby — and brought shame on themselves and our government itself by choosing to do nothing.”

Big debarment
The Globe and Mail reports that the World Bank has banned Canadian engineering firm SNC-Lavalin and 100 of its subsidiaries from bidding on World Bank contracts for the next 10 years:

“The World Bank’s announcement about SNC, which was made Wednesday, also expanded the list of countries where the embattled engineering company has been accused of corruption. The bank said it has uncovered evidence that SNC conspired to bribe public officials in Cambodia and that it has passed that information along to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who are already probing the company’s activities in Libya, Algeria and Bangladesh.
The 10-year prohibition was negotiated between the company and the bank and is the largest debarment that a company has agreed to as part of a settlement since the bank began sanctioning firms that seek to corrupt public officials.”

US torture
A new report by the Constitution Project alleges it is “indisputable” that the US practiced torture after the 9/11 attacks:

“The sweeping, 577-page report says that while brutality has occurred in every American war, there never before had been ‘the kind of considered and detailed discussions that occurred after 9/11 directly involving a president and his top advisers on the wisdom, propriety and legality of inflicting pain and torment on some detainees in our custody.’ ”

Bad guest
A group of NGOs is calling on Canadian mining company Infinito Gold to stop its “decade-long harassment” of Costa Rica’s people and government, harassment they say includes the new threat of a $1 billion lawsuit:

“The [Costa Rican] courts told the Canadian company it could not develop the Crucitas mine, and told Infinito to pack up and go.
Instead of leaving, the company ratcheted-up a campaign of intimidation, attempting to censor a University of Costa Rica course focussed on the mining project and launching defamation suits against two professors and three other Costa Ricans who have spoken out publicly about the potential impact that this mining activity could have on a fragile environment.”

A tale of two archipelagos
The Guardian reports that a controversial UK official is going from administering the Chagos Islands, all of whose inhabitants Britain deported decades ago, to governing the Falkland Islands, for whose inhabitants Britain went to war a few years later:

“A US embassy cable published in the Guardian in December 2010 quoted a senior Foreign Office official, Colin Roberts, telling the Americans that as a result of imposing the marine reserve, there would be no ‘human footprints’ or ‘Man Fridays’ on the islands.
He said the plan would ‘in effect, put paid to resettlement claims of the archipelago’s former residents’, according to the cable.
The case is the first resulting from the leak of classified US cables in which UK officials have been ordered to appear.
Roberts, commissioner of the [British Indian Ocean Territory] at the time of his meeting with US officials in May 2009, will take up a new post next year as governor of the Falkland Islands, the high court heard on Monday.”

Carbon bubble
Environmental author Duncan Clark asks if we “can we bring ourselves to prioritise a safe planet over cheap fuels, flights, power and goods”:

“Blithely ignoring the fact that there is already far more accessible fuel than can be safely burned, pension fund managers and other investors are allowing listed fossil fuel companies to spend the best part of $1tn a year (comparable to the US defence budget, or more than $100 for every person on the planet) to find and develop yet more reserves.
If and when we emerge from this insanity, the carbon bubble will burst and those investments will turn out to have been as toxic as sub-prime mortgages. Don’t take my word for it. HSBC analysts recently concluded that oil giants such as BP – beloved of UK pension funds – could have their value cut in half if the world decides to tackle climate change. Coal companies can expect an even rougher ride, and yet our financial regulators still allow them to float on stock markets without mentioning in their share prospectuses that their assets may soon need to be written off.”

Latest Developments, December 21

In the latest news and analysis…

Warpath
The Globe and Mail reports on concerns that foreign military intervention in Mali, which has just received unanimous backing from the UN Security Council, could have “unintended consequences”:

“The rebel takeover of the north has already forced nearly 500,000 people to flee their homes or become refugees in neighbouring countries, and a new confidential UN report has warned that another 400,000 people could be pushed out of their homes if there is military intervention in the north.
‘No clear plan exists to ensure that a military intervention would not exacerbate the already disastrous humanitarian situation,’ said Alexandra Gheciu, a University of Ottawa professor who specializes in international security.
Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, has warned that the military intervention would have a high humanitarian cost that has been largely ignored so far.”

No way back
Think Africa Press’s James Wan takes issue with a European court ruling that Chagos Islanders, who were evicted from their homeland by the British to make way for a military base, relinquished their right to return 30 years ago when a group of them accepted $6 million in compensation:

“Firstly, the argument does not hold for the several hundreds of islanders deported to the Seychelles rather than Mauritius where the compensation was paid. ‘We were completely excluded from compensation’, Bernadette Dugasse told Think Africa Press earlier this year. ‘Chagossians from Seychelles were not even given half a penny, not even a teaspoonful of land.’ The full ruling barely acknowledges this.
Secondly, the suggestion that the exiled Chagossians could have pursued the matter in the courts had they ‘preferred’ is dubious at best. According to Mark Lattimer, executive director of Minority Rights Group, ‘it is frankly ridiculous to expect that a people from the Indian Ocean, some of who were illiterate, and who have been thrown into abject poverty, to have the means and the wherewithal to pursue the British government in the English court’.
In fact, even the notion that Chagossians who did get compensation renounced their right to return rests on shaky ground. Putting aside the fact that the compensation was derisory, it is notable that the documents were in English, which most Chagossians did not speak, and that many were illiterate and had to sign with thumbprints. Although the UK government claims that lawyers were present to explain the documents, many islanders have long insisted they had no idea they were signing away their right to return, and that had they known they would never have accepted the compensation.”

First Nations rising
The Dominion’s Martin Lukacs writes that the Idle No More protests currently taking place in Canada have the potential to “reset aboriginal-state relations”:

“Billions have indeed been spent – not on fixing housing, building schools or ending the country’s two-tiered child aid services, but on a legal war against aboriginal communities. Every year, the government pours more than $100m into court battles to curtail aboriginal rights – and that figure alone went to defeating a single lawsuit launched by two Alberta First Nations trying to recover oil royalties essentially stolen by bureaucrats.

Parliament will soon debate a bill that would break up reserves – still, mostly, collectively held – into individual private property that can be purchased by non-native speculators. The undeclared agenda of government policy is the same as it was a century ago: a grab for resource-rich lands, and the assimilation of aboriginal nations.”

Death to capital punishment
Amnesty International reports on the latest UN General Assembly vote on the death penalty, in which 111 states voted for abolition:

“New votes in favour included Central African Republic, Chad, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, South Sudan and Tunisia. As a further positive sign, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia moved from opposition to abstention. Regrettably, Bahrain, Dominica and Oman changed their abstention to a vote against the resolution, while Maldives, Namibia and Sri Lanka went from a vote in favour to an abstention.”

Investment dangers
Paint Our World’s Priya Virmani is not convinced that the arrival in India of global supermarket chains will help the country’s farmers:

“Yet if the intervention of big supermarket chains lifts farmers, why do American and European farmers need to be heavily subsidised? Predatory pricing – the precedent set by the biggest supermarkets – threatens smaller retailers as monopolistic practices take place.

More [foreign direct investment] brings with it the promise of improving India’s growth figures. But these indicate the overall temperature of an economy and not the temperature of its disparate parts. When the temperature of India’s bottom of the pyramid, at around 800 million people, is at an opposite end of the spectrum to that of the other much more opulent India then growth in itself cannot be considered an indication of the health of the majority.”

Lump of coal
The Guardian reports that protesters dumped coal outside the London offices of GCM Resources over its plans to develop a massive open-pit mine in Bangladesh:

“An official complaint to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has been made by the World Development Movement and the International Accountability Project, saying the company would forcibly evict up to 130,000 people if the project went ahead. The complaint mentions a UN report from earlier this year warning that ‘access to safe drinking water for some 220,000 people is at stake’.
The company claims the mine will displace 40,000 people but create 17,000 jobs.”

Miner changes
Bloomberg reports that South Africa’s ruling African National Congress has decided against nationalizing mines, but is considering a number of other ways to increase the country’s benefits from mining:

“The party is considering a ‘resource rent’ tax or higher royalties to extract more revenue from the industry, said Enoch Godongwana, head of the ANC’s economic transformation committee.

The ANC agreed today to classify certain minerals as strategic, which the government wants to manage through measures including targeted export controls in order to ensure security of supply, Godongwana said. Iron ore, coal, copper, copper, zinc and nickel are amongst minerals being considered for classification, according to the ANC’s document.”

Death traps
EarthPeople’s Anna Clark argues that the US has outsourced much of the injustice it has eliminated from its own economic system:

“Due to the relentless pursuit of low-cost labour and the lack of accountability inherent in a global supply chain, companies will have to learn to work with labour rights groups to mandate and track compliance.
Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, for example, agreed to work with watchdog groups to introduce new fire safety standards at their supplier factories. Gap Inc, which operates the Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy, Piperlime and Athleta brands, instead decided to go it alone with its own corporate-controlled programme.
With limited oversight by worker organisations and no transparency, such measures are not good enough to protect vulnerable workers.”

Latest Developments, March 15

In the latest news and analysis…

BAE pays up
The Guardian reports UK-based defence company BAE Systems has “finally” paid for textbooks to Tanzanian schools as a settlement over bribes it allegedly paid 10 years ago.
“BAE was fined £500,000 in 2010 for concealing payments of $12.4m to Sailesh Vithlani, a marketing adviser in Tanzania, in connection with the radar deal. The company agreed with the [Serious Fraud Office] to make an ex-gratia payment equivalent to the size of the contract to the Tanzanian people. MPs on the international development committee last year strongly criticized BAE for dragging its feet over the payment. BAE wanted the payment to be described as a ‘charitable contribution’ to Tanzania in negotiations over the drafting of the memorandum of understanding.”

The problem with sanctions
The Atlantic’s Max Fisher argues the long list of products recently bought online by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad shows that Western sanctions against out-of-favour regimes punish the wrong people.
“International economic sanctions have been a popular tool of the West since the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Reagan, H.W. Bush, and Clinton administrations came to see them as a low-cost, low-risk alternative to military action. But a growing body of academic research has found that they are ineffective at pressuring governments to change their ways. ‘The probable effectiveness of economic sanctions is, generally, negative,’ Johan Galtung wrote in 1967, and he seems to have been right.”

E-waste
Agence France-Presse reports on a new study that suggests Africa will produce more e-waste than Europe within five years.
“ ‘There is population growth … and there is the penetration rate — there are increasing numbers of people with access to these devices,’ [the Basel Convention on hazardous waste’s Katharina] Kummer Peiry said.
‘You have to bear in mind that there are efforts undertaken at all levels to increase access — it’s part of development,’ she said, describing the growth of both the population and the penetration rate as ‘exponential.’

In Africa ‘in the last decade, the penetration rate of personal computers has increased by a factor of 10, while the number of mobile phone subscribers has increased by a factor of 100,’ the report said.”

Emptied islands
The University of Oxford’s Sarmila Bose writes about a new book on the Chagos Islands whose inhabitants “were unceremoniously removed from their homeland by a joint operation of the United Kingdom and the United States” four decades ago to make way for a military base.
The Island of Shame is a discomforting read, especially for British and American readers who will probably find themselves cringing at the well-documented account of the deceit and inhumanity, not only of their forbears in the past, but also of policymakers today. For many years, now the Chagossians have been fighting an uphill battle to obtain justice through the courts. Verdicts in the English courts had gone in favour of the Chagossians in 2000, 2006 and 2007 until the House of Lords overturned them all and ruled in favour of the British government. The Chagossians have now petitioned the European Court of Human Rights. Possibly as a pre-emptive action in case they win at the European Court, the last Labour government declared the Chagos Archipelago a ‘marine protection area’, which would restrict fishing and therefore human re-settlement. The Chagossians have had to take legal action against this ‘green’ initiative as well.”

Silicon Valley’s exceptionalism
Reuters Breakingviews’ Rob Cox takes on the myth that America’s high-tech business leaders operate according to higher moral standards than their counterparts in other industries.
“The original robber barons had decent intentions when they built railroads to connect America’s emerging cities and drilled oil wells that fueled the nation’s growth, but their empires still needed to be regulated, reined in, and in some cases broken up by vigilant watchdogs. Lofty words and ideals are fine for motivating employees and even for spurring sales, but they can also serve as cover for motives that clash with the broader interests of consumers and society. We need more than fancy promises in IPO prospectuses to ensure that the rise of the Silicon Valley engineer is good for the world.”

History’s limits
Oxfam’s Sally Baden suggests Ha-Joon Chang’s new book on agricultural policy focuses so much on lessons from the past that it neglects some fast-evolving new realities.
“We have moved from a situation of a lack of both public and private investment in agriculture to private funds actively seeking opportunities in developing country agriculture. But quite often this investment is driven by biofuels mandates, lack of other investment opportunities, the promise of increasing land values or by food-importing countries’ and companies’ concern with security of supplies of food and commodities, rather than the concerns of long-term agricultural development. Governments need to responsibly promote and regulate this investment with an eye to its consequences for small–scale farmers and national food security. European governments need to stop providing indirect incentives for landgrabbing and developing country governments need to provide adequate safeguards – for both people and the environment – from predatory or speculative investment.”

Drug money
Global Financial Integrity’s EJ Fagan argues that transnational drug syndicates’ huge financial resources do not “just magically disappear into the criminal underworld,” which means they end up in the global banking system.
“We can’t expect to curtail 100% of all money laundering by organized crime syndicates. However, we can do a much better job than we are currently doing. A report by [the United Nations Office of Drugs] finds that less than 1% (probably around .02%) of laundered money is seized and frozen. This is a laughably low number. It is too cheap and too easy for drug lords to move their drug money into Western banks. If we were to increase that number to, say, 5%, drug lords would be looking over their shoulders a lot more often. They would have more trouble operating large, complex organizations. Central American law enforcement would be much more able to beat them back.”