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.”

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Latest Developments, March 12

In the latest news and analysis…

Off the hook
The UN News Centre reports that the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor is dropping charges against Francis Muthaura who was charged with crimes against humanity in the wake of Kenya’s 2007-08 post-election violence, but charges remain against president-elect Uhuru Kenyatta:

“[Fatou Bensouda] said that she had explained to the judge that several people who may have provided important evidence in the case have either died or are too afraid to testify for the Prosecution.
Ms. Bensouda also noted that the Prosecution lost the testimony of its key witness ‘after this witness recanted a crucial part of his evidence, and admitted to us that he had accepted bribes.’

‘Let me be absolutely clear on one point – this decision applies only to Mr. Muthaura. It does not apply to any other case,’ the Prosecutor said in her statement.
She added that, while aware of political developments in Kenya, ‘these have no influence, at all, on the decisions that I make as Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.’ ”

Shoot first
Reuters reports that the UN is contemplating sending “a 10,000-strong force” with an unusually aggressive mandate to Mali ahead of elections scheduled for July:

“A heavily armed rapid-reaction force, similar to the unit proposed for a U.N. mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, would be a departure from its typically more passive peacekeeper operations.
In practical terms, U.N. diplomats say, troops in the rapid-response force would have more freedom to open fire without being required to wait until they are attacked first, a limitation usually placed on U.N. peacekeepers around the world.”

Contentious referendum
The Buenos Aires Herald reports that Argentina’s government is dismissing a referendum in which inhabitants of the Falklands/Malvinas voted overwhelmingly to remain British subjects:

“ ‘It’s a referendum organized by the British and for the British with the only purpose of having them saying that the territory must be British. It was neither organized nor approved by the United Nations,’ [Argentina’s ambassador to London] Castro told FM Millenium.

‘Self-determination is a fundamental principle contemplated by the international law that’s not granted to any settlers of a certain territory, but only to the original natives that were or currently are being subjugated to a certain colonial power, and this is not the case of the Malvinas Islanders.’
‘The Islanders are not a colonized people, but inhabitants of a colonized territory.’ ”

Illegal deal?
The Economist Intelligence Unit reports that Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has signed an offshore oil deal with ExxonMobil that does not meet her country’s legal requirements:

“The deal will come under intense scrutiny given controversy over the contracts signed by the government in the extractive industries in recent years. The terms appear to be more beneficial to the state than other contracts in the oil sector, but still fall short of the country’s standard tax terms. The government will receive a US$50m signing bonus up-front, a 10% equity stake and royalties of 5-10% when production starts. According to Reuters, the country’s law requires a minimum royalty rate of 10% and a minimum equity stake of 20%.”

Double standard
Foreign Policy reports that the US State Department has accused Syrian rebels of “terrorism” for carrying out “attacks against folks who are not in the middle of a firefight”:

“One reporter pointed out that the United States routinely targets and kills members of various groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan who are not physically engaged in the fight at the time they are targeted. [State Department spokeswoman Victoria] Nuland declined to comment on the perceived double standard.

Nuland also declined to confirm or deny a report by the German magazine Der Spiegel that Americans are training Syrian anti-regime forces in Jordan.”

Cyberwarriors
The Washington Post asks under what circumstances the US will use its planned “military force to defend the nation against cyberattacks”:

“In fact, said Michael Schmitt, chairman of the International Law Department at the U.S. Naval War College, ‘the law of self-defense does not allow you to strike at a state merely because they have the capability to attack you.’

Georgetown University law professor Catherine Lotrionte said that if states start to take more aggressive measures at a lower threshold, the risk of escalation and ‘tit for tat’ goes up. ‘There needs to be international agreement on rules to prevent that escalation,’ she said, ‘or we’re looking at a really ugly world.’ ”

Bad role model
Tax Justice Network-Africa’s Alvin Mosioma and political scientist Hakima Abbas argue that Kenya should not be looking to the UK for help mapping out its financial future:

“Human rights, democracy and justice movements across the land have fought to keep political and economic elites in check. Yet, the reality is that greed surfaces whenever citizens rest. This was true with the recent send-off package that the outgoing parliament gave themselves despite the growing inequality of our society. This will be true if we allow our financial models to be based on the same systems that have stolen Africa’s wealth for centuries.

It is time we amplify African voices in the call for an end to the secrecy in the City of London and within the global financial system. We must call on our new public officers as they come into office in March to not allow Kenya’s future to be tied to the same rules of corruption and tax evasion.”

Mining ethics
Doug Olthuis of United Steelworkers and Ian Thomson of KAIROS argue the Canadian government has turned its back on the only useful component of its overseas corporate social responsibility strategy:

“Binding regulations are the only way to deal with the worst offenders in the industry. Providing access to Canadian courts for those who have been harmed in the most egregious cases is urgently needed, particularly for abuses committed in countries with no rule of law or weak judiciaries.
We were willing to engage in the [Centre for Excellence in Corporate Social Responsibility] even though we see CSR as an extremely limited concept. All too often, CSR amounts to little more than public relations to promote a better corporate image without substantive commitment to change on the part of companies. Reliance on CSR alone, in the absence of enforceable standards, represents a model of corporate ‘self-regulation’ that leaves communities and workers without legal recourse to defend their rights and advance their collective interests.”

Latest Developments, May 1

In the latest news and analysis…

Drone admission
The Washington Post reports the Obama administration has, for the first time, “formally acknowledged” its use of drones to conduct targeted killings abroad.
“[White House counterterrorism adviser John] Brennan’s speech was also noteworthy, however, for what he withheld. He did not disclose how many people have been killed, list all the locations where armed drones are being flown or mention the administration’s increasing reliance on ‘signature’ strikes, which allow the CIA to fire missiles even when it doesn’t know the identities of those who could be killed.

Brennan cited respect for the ‘sovereignty’ of other countries, even though a CIA drone strike in Pakistan on Sunday came just weeks after that country’s Parliament voted unanimously to demand that such operations end.
In a question-and-answer session, Brennan declined to discuss the use of signature strikes, which are based on intelligence showing suspicious behavior rather than confirmation of the location of someone on the CIA or military target list.”

May Day test
Reuters says that protests planned for May 1 will provide a “crucial test” of ongoing support for the Occupy movement in the United States.
“Dozens of actions are planned across the country, though there is some skepticism over how many people will turn out and whether it will spell Occupy’s resurgence. The event was first billed as a ‘General Strike,’ but organized labor declined to sign on to that call.

‘If you look closely at movements, they don’t follow a sort of straight trajectory upwards. They stumble, fall, have reverses – sometimes, they’re crushed,’ [former journalist Chris Hedges] said. But Hedges cautioned that writing off Occupy based on the success of May Day would be ‘short-sighted.’ ”

Swiss arrest
The Wall Street Journal reports on the latest legal troubles for Canadian engineering giant SNC-Lavalin, as a former executive has been arrested in Switzerland over his dealings in North Africa where he helped his ex-employers “win billions of dollars in projects” from Libya’s deposed Gadhafi regime.
“SNC is under investigation by Canada’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which executed a search warrant against the company on April 13, raiding its Montreal headquarters. The World Bank temporarily debarred a unit of the company as it investigates alleged corruption in a project it funded in Bangladesh. S&P lowered its outlook on the firm earlier this month, citing, among other things, the scandals engulfing the company.”

International justice
The Guardian’s George Monbiot argues that by punishing only “crimes committed by vassal states,” international law fails ordinary people everywhere.
“The bid for power, oil and spheres of influence that Bush and Blair launched in Mesopotamia, using the traditional camouflage of the civilising mission; the colonial war still being fought in Afghanistan, 199 years after the Great Game began; the global policing functions the great powers have arrogated to themselves; the one-sided justice dispensed by international law. All these suggest that imperialism never ended, but merely mutated into new forms. The virtual empire knows no boundaries. Until we begin to recognise and confront it, all of us, black and white, will remain its subjects.”

Media death
Arizona State University’s G. Pascal Zachary points to a recent photo of a dead African boy on the front page of the New York Times as the latest evidence of a double standard in the way American news media display death.
“The disturbing photo might seem appropriate — unless one considers that the children killed by, for instance, American drone attacks in Yemen or Pakistan, never receive similar photographic display. So even on the narrow grounds of newsworthiness, the contradictions are evident and ample: for mysterious ‘reasons,’ dead Africans can be displayed in lavish fashion — this photo of this dead boy was in color! — while death inflicted by Americans cannot be displayed. Neither are the deaths experienced by Americans in combat suitable for front page photographic treatment (or inside the paper either).

This sort of Western bias against Africans remains unconscious, embedded in a set of corrosive meta-narratives that deserve critical engagement with a goal of, someday, replacing them with tropes that do not demean and diminish Africans under the guise of promoting sympathy for them.”

Beyond 0.7%
The Overseas Development Institute’s Jonathan Glennie contends that the ongoing dispute over the Falklands/Malvinas is “a much bigger test of the UK’s commitment to development” than is its willingness to allot 0.7% of GDP to aid.
“The reason the Malvinas issue is felt so keenly across Latin America is that it is a reminder of Britain’s history of economic imperialism in the region. The role Britain played in extracting resources and wealth from Latin America over the past two centuries, with little benefit to the local population, is well known, even if it is the Spanish who are most associated with colonialism. As [Argentinian foreign minister Hector] Timerman puts it: ‘We have 21st-century challenges, and Argentina is still fighting against a 19th-century power.’ Of course, British people have next to no knowledge of this, just as they know little of their imperial history in general.”

Eating plants
The University of the Basque Country’s Michael Marder argues that new evidence suggesting plants communicate with each other and form memories raises questions that lead us to the “final frontiers of dietary ethics.”
“The ‘renewable’ aspects of perennial plants may be accepted by humans as a gift of vegetal being and integrated into their diets.
But it would be harder to justify the cultivation of peas and other annual plants, the entire being of which humans devote to externally imposed ends. In other words, ethically inspired decisions cannot postulate the abstract conceptual unity of all plants; they must, rather, take into account the singularity of each species.”

Export processing zones
The Guardian’s John Vidal writes that foreign corporations operating in Bangladesh’s Chittagong export development zone are treated “royally” while providing questionable social and economic returns.
“Bangladesh has a deep energy crisis, with demand massively outsripping supply, yet companies in the zone get cheap, reliable power, as well as generous 10-year tax holidays, freedom from red tape, duty-free imports, immunity from national laws, cheap labour and low rents. In Chittagong, companies pay just $2.20 monthly to rent a square metre of space, and I was told that the annual rent paid to the Bangladesh government by all the factories on the giant site was just $4m a year.

Their critics say [EDZs] favour the export market rather than the domestic market, exploit poor countries, and allow relaxed environmental and safety standards.”