Latest Developments, August 11

In the latest news and analysis…

British Prime Minister David Cameron has said he would consider limiting social networking services such as Twitter and Blackberry Messenger in situations like the recent riots, a measure, as Reuters puts it, “widely condemned as repressive when used by other countries.” The Globe and Mail’s Ivor Tossell conveys a similar sentiment: “Cracking down on citizens’ communications in times of crisis would put Mr. Cameron in the company of a large and unsavoury bunch of autocrats.” Earlier this year, the UN’s top expert on freedom of expression, Frank La Rue called for “as little restriction as possible to the flow of information via the Internet” but warned: “Governments are using increasingly sophisticated technologies to block content, and to monitor and identify activists and critics.”

In other technology news, the US military test launched its Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2). The unmanned manoeuvrable aircraft, built to travel at 20 times the speed of sound, is part of the Pentagon’s Prompt Global Strike efforts that have involved “working for nearly a decade on an audacious plan to strike anywhere on the planet in less than an hour.” But for the second time this year, the device lost contact with ground stations and disappeared into the Pacific, a result described by the program manager as “vexing.”

Piracy is reportedly starting to become an issue off the west coast of Africa: “Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has over the last eight months escalated from low-level armed robberies to hijackings, cargo thefts and large-scale robberies,” the Associated Press reports, citing Denmark’s Risk Intelligence. Over on the continent’s east side, piracy is old news but the Guardian’s Mark Tran reports it has become another factor complicating aid delivery to those affected by the Horn of Africa’s food shortage. To recap then, the list of problems cited since a state of famine was declared in parts of Somalia include lack of money (less than half of what the UN says it needs), lack of organization, uncooperative rebels, a government/AU offensive against said rebels, high food prices, draconian US anti-terrorism laws and a weak dollar. US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced an additional $17 million in emergency funding, of which $12 million will go to Somalia. Also heading from the US to Somalia is Richard “Colonel Sanders” Rouget, whom Wired describes as a “mercenary with a criminal record and possible ties to several African coups and at least one murder.” In the name of counterinsurgency, “America has endorsed, however indirectly, a man who for years has allegedly fought against stability, justice and self-governance in Africa,” according to Wired’s David Axe.

Fifteen years after Pfizer drug trials during the course of which 11 Nigerian children died, the first compensation cheques have been issued, with the families of four of the deceased each receiving $175,000. A Wikileaks document revealed Pfizer tried to dig up dirt on the attorney general in order to make him drop the case before finally agreeing in 2009 to a $75 million settlement.

The US Supreme Court may examine the question of corporate liability for overseas human rights abuses later this year in light of recent contradictory interpretations of the Alien Tort Statute by federal appeals court judges. Human rights lawyers say the majority of the rulings support their position, but US Chamber of Commerce lawyers argue international law “establishes liability for states and individuals, and not for corporations.”

Oxfam’s Emily Greenspan writes about the new social and environmental policies of the International Finance Corporation, which is “the private sector lending arm of the World Bank Group.” The new rules include a “precedent-setting requirement” that corporations looking to work on indigenous lands obtain “free prior and informed consent” from local communites, and an obligation for oil, gas and mining companies to disclose their contracts with host governments. It does not appear, however, that companies have to reveal their profits, as called for by Christian Aid’s Joseph Stead in order to discourage corporate tax avoidance as well as government corruption. Nevertheless, Greenspan hopes the new requirements “will set in motion a ripple effect among other international financial institutions, export credit agencies, companies, and governments, helping to reduce social conflict and increase transparency around large-scale development projects globally.”

Over the last week or so, there have been a number of articles describing last year’s passage of the Dodd-Frank Act – a piece of American legislation that includes a requirement for companies to prove the minerals they use have not exacerbated conflict in their country of origin – as a disaster  for the Democratic Republic of Congo, the very place it was ostensibly meant to help. A Businessweek article talks of a 90 percent drop in legal mineral exports over the last year and a David Aronson op-ed in the New York Times says: “Rarely do local miners, high-level traders, mining companies and civil society leaders agree on an issue. But in eastern Congo, they were unanimous in condemning Dodd-Frank.” But the Institute of Human Rights and Business’s Salil Tripathi calls these arguments “simplistic and wrong.” He says those who pushed for the kinds of measures contained in Dodd-Frank realized there would be some adverse short-term economic impacts but they see ending a protracted conflict as the ultimate goal: “Restrictions on conflict minerals alone won’t end unrest in the DRC. But not having any restrictions on products known to fuel conflict, ostensibly to preserve livelihoods for the country’s people, won’t make matters better, either.”

Given the current economic crises on both sides of the North Atlantic, UC Berkeley economist Barry Eichengreen asks: “Isn’t this a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to move away from a world where the US Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank hold the supply of international liquidity in thrall?” He proposes “a global-GDP-linked bond, the returns on which would vary with global growth rates.”


Latest Developments, August 3

In the latest news and analysis…

The UN has declared three additional famine zones in Somalia – including the refugee camps in the capital Mogadishu – on top of the two areas already considered as such since last month. The famine is expected to spread throughout southern Somalia and persist until December.

The Guardian’s Mark Tran goes through the factors hampering the delivery of emergency food aid in Somalia: lack of funds, hostile Islamist rebels, US anti-terror legislation and corruption. And ABC informs us we can add another item to the list: the Mogadishu offensive launched by African Union and government troops against Al Shabab.

There is also increasing concern about the Ogaden, a predominantly Somali part of southeastern Ethiopia where not even the International Committee for the Red Cross is allowed to set foot. According to the Royal African Society’s Richard Dowden, “ it has been fenced off and closed to outsiders for years because Ethiopia fears it might be infiltrated by anti-Ethiopian insurgents. Atrocities by Ethiopian troops are reported but cannot be verified. If the rest of the region is suffering, the closed Ogaden may be hiding an even larger disaster.” The area is not completely closed off, however, as Canada’s Africa Oil Corp. has just released an update on its exploration activities in East Africa, including the Ogaden where: “Preparations for drilling, including purchase of materials, execution of drilling related contracts, civil works, and environmental permits have commenced.” The Canadians are not alone, as Reuters reports “a surge in requests for exploration rights” in the Ogaden’s 18 oil and gas exploration blocks, which Ethiopia believes “may contain gas reserves of 4.7 trillion cubic feet of gas and major oil deposits” which could be ready for  production in six years.

A Colombian mining union leader has been shot dead by paramilitaries, according to the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Unions, which says his own union “had reported threats to its leaders that were believed to be tied to the contested takeover of Frontino by [Canadian mining companies] Modora[sic] and Gran Colombia, and the sacking of all miners.” And Ghana’s Chronicle reports a dispute between inhabitants of the town of Yayaso and Canadian Newmont Mining. The latter claims it is serious about social responsibility and spent nine months working out a compensation package for Yayaso’s inhabitants to relocate. But a number of the villagers refuse to leave and allege that the company has already destroyed several farms and plans to dump mine waste in revered burial sites. There are currently no Canadian laws in place requiring the investigation of domestic companies for alleged wrongdoing overseas. A bill that would have threatened to withdraw public support –  but not to impose fines or prison sentences – for Canadian companies found guilty of such offences was defeated by parliament last fall.

Royal Dutch Shell has agreed to pay compensation that could exceed $400 million for two oil spills in Nigeria, after a class action suit by a group of inhabitants of the Niger Delta. And victims’ families have won the right to sue Chiquita in the US for complicity in torture and killings of employees by Colombian paramilitary groups.

Jewelry giant Tiffany & Co.’s CEO Michael Kowalski writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: “There are places in our nation, belonging to all Americans, that are too special to mine, too special to develop for oil and gas and too special to forever sacrifice for short-term gain.”  It is for that reason, he says, that his company opposes the mining of California’s Bodie Hills as well as the legislation that “would eliminate protections and allow development on more than 43 million acres of America’s most fragile and important lands.” But as the New York Times reported last month, Tiffany & Co. has tried to have gold exempted from US legislation requiring companies to disclose their use of conflict minerals.

Kenneth Epps of disarmament advocacy group Project Ploughshares accuses Canada of having “reversed its previous low-key but constructive role at the United Nations [Arms Trade Treaty] preparatory meetings to become a potential treaty spoiler,” in particular by pushing for exemptions to sporting and hunting firearms. “To work,” Epps argues, “the ATT must adopt high universal standards that would require many states to improve their arms transfer controls to meet these higher standards. A lowest common denominator approach to the ATT, by locking in low global standards, would actually make matters worse.”

And Al Jazeera English tweets: “Now that #Mubarak is on trial, do his foreign supporters owe #Egypt an apology?”

Latest Developments, July 13

In today’s news and analysis…

South Sudan looks set to join the UN, as the Security Council has recommended the world’s newest country for membership. According to the UN charter, the primary requirement is to be a “peace-loving” state.

Human Rights Watch has released a new report on abuses committed by Libya’s rebel troops. “Whatever happens, they couldn’t be any worse than Col. Gadhafi,” Canadian foreign minister John Baird said while officially recognizing Libya’s National Transitional Council last month. Only time will tell.

The EU is trying to fix its own fish stocks. But what about Africa’s?

Insurance broker Marsh has launched a policy to cover corporate corruption investigations under US and UK anti-bribery laws.

The New York Times explores the tortuous route to US legislation regarding conflict minerals, as companies hold their breath in anticipation of tangible rules from the Securities and Exchange Commission. Tiffany & Company, the self-proclaimed “world’s premier jeweler,” reportedly thinks gold should not be subject to the legislation and mandatory disclosure on use of conflict minerals “would violate the First Amendment.”

Jonathan Glennie believes we should recognize the limits of corporate social responsibility and move toward global regulation. “The point is to change incentives, and voluntary measures don’t do that,” he writes in the Guardian. “Only legal sanction or consumer action is strong enough, and consumer action is too erratic to rely upon.”

There is more to cracking down on tax havens than simply recovering revenue, according to Richard Murphy who argues the fight is necessary for the functioning of modern capitalism. “Tax havens are important with regard to tax. But their pernicious impact is much more significant than that. Their use to create opacity, to undermine the effectiveness of regulation and to ensure that owners are unaccountable corrodes all faith in the market itself.”

When it comes to recent food crises, price volatility is not the main problem, according to a new Foreign Affairs article. High prices are the real danger. “Food price levels are at historic highs, but food price volatility, although high these past few years, is not out of line with historical experience and is generally lower than it was in the 1970s.” The authors argue that high prices hurt consumers, while high volatility hurts producers, and that there is a positive correlation between high prices and political unrest but a negative one between volatility and unrest. As a result, they believe world leaders should focus on lowering trade barriers, increasing yields and reducing waste rather than imposing export controls and giving subsidies.

Of course, not everyone agrees. Nick Cullather argues food prices are actually too low and leading to the ruin of farmers and the agricultural sector more generally. “The global economy includes the global countryside, and the return of prosperity will have to begin there,” he writes. Vandana Shiva, for her part, sees high-tech solutions as part of the problem. She decries the hunger and desperation among India’s food producers and attributes their difficulties to “the capital and chemical-intensive, high external input systems of food production introduced as the Green Revolution.”

A Wellcome Trust blog post asks if global health inequalities represent the biggest bioethical challenge of our time. The author provides a summary of a recent conference on the subject, during which a number of global health programs were deemed “highly unsuitable for developing countries, focussing on the introduction of new technologies or disease-specific programmes, rather than on strengthening local efforts to secure effective, high-quality, inclusive health systems.”

A new study out of the Netherlands suggests there is little truth to the common perception that immigrants take advantage of the welfare state in rich countries. Instead, they tend to return to their country of origin if they lose their job.