Latest Developments, June 21

In the latest news and analysis…

Business as usual
Forum for the Future’s Jonathon Porritt argues the fact that Unilever is part of the UK’s delegation to the Rio+20 conference while British Prime Minister David Cameron is not, is “a sign of our unsustainable times”:

“Twenty years on from the 1992 Earth Summit, it seems to be almost universally accepted that governments have less scope and less appetite for governing, and that much more influence (if not power) has flowed over to big business and capital markets.
That’s not necessarily seen as a good thing by most people in the NGO community. In their eyes, no amount of ‘corporate responsibility’ can possibly compensate for the damage done in the name of profit maximisation.”

Dodgy draft
Former Bolivian climate negotiator Nele Marien expresses disappointment at the draft text agreed to in the run-up to Rio+20:

“It is nothing new to state that we are living in a limited world with limited recourses, and that we are at the edge of surpassing some critical tipping points for Mother Earth. To keep on growing economically in this setting is just a logical impossibility. Nevertheless, the RIO+20 text never considers these aspects of the environmental problem – in fact doesn’t make any assessment of the critical situation of nature at all- but on the contrary mentions ‘sustained economic growth’ about 23 times, as an objective in itself, and as a solution to the multiple crisis that the world faces today.”

Uruguay to legalize it
Al Jazeera reports that Uruguay plans to legalize the production and sale of marijuana in an effort to fight crime:

“The government will also urge that marijuana sales be legalised worldwide, Huidobro said, adding the measure could discourage the use of so-called hard drugs.
Marijuana consumption is already legal in Uruguay.
‘We want to fight against two different things: one is drug consumption and the other is drug trafficking. We think the ban on certain drugs is creating more problems in society than the drug itself,’ [Defence Minister Eleuterio Fernandez Huidobro] told a news conference.”

The state of corporate accountability
The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre has released its first annual briefing on corporate legal accountability, in which it covers human rights lawsuits against companies around the world:

“A few countries, including UK, USA, France, Germany and Netherlands, have heard some lawsuits against companies for alleged abuses occurring in other countries. But even in these countries, such lawsuits are rare.

‘Home’ governments (where companies are headquartered) fail to make extraterritorial remedies available for multiple reasons. In part, they simply do not wish to constrain their companies in their operations abroad. There are rarely strong constituencies pushing them to hold their companies accountable. And these measures are often opposed by host states as an infringement on sovereignty.”

Mining violence
The Georgia Straight reports that activists are calling on a pair of Canadian mining companies to “publicly order an absolute halt to all violence” against their opponents in Mexico and Guatemala:

“One of these cases involved the shooting of Yolanda Oquely Veliz on June 13. The 33-year-old Veliz was shot by men on a motorcycle after she left a blockade near the entrance to Radius Gold’s mine in San José del Golfo, Guatemala. She survived the attack but remains in serious condition.
They also cited the shooting of Bertín Vásquez Ruiz and Guadalupe Vásquez Ruiz on June 16. The two opponents of Fortuna Silver’s operations in Mexico were wounded.”

Dead man washing
The Wall Street Journal reports on the ease with which international crime syndicates can launder money in the UK:

“According to a new report from non-profit Global Witness, a U.K.-registered company saw about $700 million flow through its account at a Kyrgyzstan bank despite the fact that its identified owner, a Russian from a remote area, had died three years before the company was registered. Moreover, records cited by Global Witness said he attended a company meeting in London after his death.”

Drone math
ProPublica looks into seemingly conflicting US estimates of the number of civilians killed by drones in Pakistan:

“It’s possible that all these claims are true. But if they are, it implies that the government believes there were zero or almost zero civilian deaths between the beginning of 2008 and August 2009, and then again zero deaths between August 2010 and July 2011. Those periods comprise a total of 182 strikes.”

Green grabbing
The ESRC STEPS Centre’s Melissa Leach argues there is a “dark side” to attempts at building a so-called green economy:

“Green grabbing builds on well-known histories of colonial and neo-colonial resource alienation in the name of the environment – whether for parks, forest reserves or to halt assumed destructive local practices. Yet it involves novel forms of valuation, commodification and markets for pieces and aspects of nature, and an extraordinary new range of actors and alliances. Pension funds and venture capitalists, commodity traders and consultants, GIS service providers and business entrepreneurs, ecotourism companies and the military, green activists and anxious consumers among others find once-unlikely common interests. ”

The right kind of investment
The Financial Times reports that foreign investment is not always a good thing, especially when it involves agricultural land, as was the case in Africa when global food prices soared in 2008:

“Experts say that, ultimately, many of the plans of 2008-09 failed to materialise as the food crisis abated and investors became more aware of the political risks and huge logistic difficulties. But as populations grow and consumption habits change, the trend of foreign investor interest in Africa’s soils is expected to continue.”

Multilateral blues
In the wake of the G20’s latest summit in Mexico and as the UN’s Rio+20 conference kicks off, Foreign Policy’s David Rothkopf discusses what the recent “depressing panoply of multilateral misfires” will mean for the future of global governance:

“What we are seeing today is the kind of failure of leadership likely to produce consequences so disturbing that ultimately they will help move us past the multilateral rhetoric of idealists to the urgency that comes of clear-eyed realism about what works, what doesn’t, and what we really need.  Multilateralism will ultimately flourish not because it is more equitable but because we cannot solve global problems without it. Today’s leaders — through their inaction and missteps — may inadvertently be doing more to ensure cooperation among their successors than they did when they actually seemed to care about such issues earlier in their careers.”

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Latest Developments, October 12

In the latest news and analysis…

Hunting W
Amnesty International is calling on Canada to arrest former US president George W. Bush when he visits the country next week.
“Canada is required by its international obligations to arrest and prosecute former President Bush given his responsibility for crimes under international law including torture,” according to AI’s Susan Lee.
“As the US authorities have, so far, failed to bring former President Bush to justice, the international community must step in.  A failure by Canada to take action during his visit would violate the UN Convention against Torture and demonstrate contempt for fundamental human rights.”

Enforcing neutrality
The Associated Press reports the Swiss government has proposed a new law that would impose a number of restrictions on private security companies based in the country, including preventing them from taking part in foreign conflicts.
“The bill was prompted by the decision of Aegis, one of the world’s biggest private security contractors, to set up a Swiss holding company in 2010. Such holding companies are explicitly included in the proposal, meaning Aegis would have to report its activities to Swiss authorities if the bill is passed.”

A prescription for helping Africa
The UN News Centre reports Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro believes that although aid is still important for Africa, the continent’s needs also include improved market access for its exports, affordable access to foreign technologies and “more policy space” for its countries to chart their own paths.
“‘However, what Africa needs most, is to be recognized as a new investment frontier – where the returns are among the highest in the world,’ she said, noting that the continent has some of the largest known reserves of mineral resources including diamonds and gold; growing oil potential as Ghana and Uganda join the list of exporters; and the largest amount of unexploited arable land, a strategic asset in a world where food crises are becoming recurrent.

The dangers of foreign capital
On the other hand, the UN Development Programme’s Selim Jahan argues that both rich and poor countries must do more to reduce the latter’s over-reliance on foreign capital in order to reduce their vulnerability to global economic shocks.
“For instance, countries can reduce their dependency on exports by recalibrating growth strategies away from a narrow range of exports and by boosting demand from domestic sources. The international community can help reduce the susceptibility of developing countries to volatile commodity prices with the development of new international commodity agreements or funds to compensate countries for the loss in income due to falling prices.”

A call for decency, if not fairness
ECONorthwest’s Ann Hollingshead resists the temptation to project her cause – global tax reform – onto the Occupy Wall Street protestors, arguing instead that they stand for something far more fundamental: decency.
“The Occupy Wall Street movement doesn’t have pithy slogans, quick sayings, or easy solutions because it isn’t about any one problem. It isn’t about offshore finance, or bailouts, or CEO pay, or tax evasion. All of these events are the symptoms of an underlying problem—the status quo. It is a status quo that allows 25% of the FTSE 100′s subsidiaries to lie in tax havens. The status quo that allows the same person to hold both positions of CEO and president of the board. That allows Warren Buffet to pay a lower tax rate than his secretary. And that allows the average American to earn 1/10,800th of the average Forbes 400 earner.”

A very low bar
The Overseas Development Institute’s Jonathan Glennie suggests, given “the west has systematically ruined Haiti’s chances of emerging from destitution,” it might be time for traditional donors to “humbly walk away” and see if other nations can do more good for a devastated country that is still in need of assistance.
“Not that there is any space for naivety about south-south solidarity. Big brothers such as Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela may well engage in the right kind of rhetoric, but there are internal pressures in these countries to act in their own interests rather than Haiti’s – especially on agricultural issues – just as the west has always done. After all, Brazil instigated Minustah in its attempt to look important enough for a permanent security council seat, although it quickly became a Washington-directed intervention. It is not, then, geography that matters, but politics and attitude.
Nevertheless, these countries have also suffered exploitation at various points in their history. They are therefore more likely to understand what is going on and less likely to engage in it. Will they do any better? They can hardly do any worse.”

Afghan minerals
Global Witness’s Eleanor Nichol calls for cautious planning regarding Afghanistan’s huge mineral wealth which has the potential to lift the country’s people out of poverty and end its dependence on foreign aid or could become “a fresh axis of conflict and instability.”
“This means embedding clear processes for the award of extractive concessions; requiring extractive companies to disclose revenue paid to the state on a project-by-project basis; setting up sound legal, regulatory and contractual frameworks that safeguard social, environmental and human rights; publishing beneficial ownership details of companies engaged in the sector; and ensuring Afghans are consulted on, and can monitor, mining activities.”

Paying taxes for selfish reasons
The European Network on Debt and Development’s Alex Marriage argues it is actually in the best interests of transnational companies to integrate tax policy into their approach to corporate social responsibility.
“Research has shown that direct investors in low income countries tend to value political stability, the rule of law and human capital more than effective tax rates when deciding whether to invest. Sufficient, predictable tax revenue is needed to foster all of these conditions. High public investment is something companies need but some are not prepared to pay for.”

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.”

Latest Developments, July 26

In the latest news and analysis…

A UN mission has observed food and fuel shortages and a “strained medical system” in Gadhafi-held parts of Libya. “Although the mission observed aspects of normalcy in Tripoli, members identified pockets of vulnerability where people need urgent humanitarian assistance,” humanitarian coordinator Laurence Hart said. Despite NATO’s military intervention, the amount of territory controlled by the Gadhafi regime has grown by about 20 percent over the last five months.

Twelve Democratic members of the US Senate have joined their Republican colleagues in opposing the proposed Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) on the basis of a perceived threat to the Second Amendment right to bear arms. “Ratification requires two-thirds of the Senate. So far 57 senators have said they would vote against the treaty, expected to be wrapped up next year,” according to a US News and World Report piece, which also quotes a Republican letter of opposition: “Our firearm freedoms are not negotiable.” The ATT, as currently being negotiated, would apply only to the international transfer of arms.

The UN Conference on Trade and Development has released its World Investment Report for 2011. The top story suggests a world moving towards greater equality, at least among states: “For the first time, developing and transition economies together attracted more than half of global FDI flows.” On the other hand, foreign direct investment is declining in some of the poorest regions, most notably in Africa which saw a nine percent drop in 2010. The report also addresses the current state of corporate social responsibility: “Voluntary CSR standards can complement government regulatory efforts; however, where they are promoted as a substitute for labour, social and environmental protection legislation, or where CSR standards are not based on national or international rules, then these voluntary standards can potentially undermine, substitute or distract from governmental regulatory efforts.”

Speaking in Hong Kong, US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton pushed for “true regional integration” in the Asia-Pacific as opposed to a “hodgepodge of inconsistent and partial bilateral agreements,” the pending US-South Korea trade deal notwithstanding. According to Stewart Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations, Clinton’s message was consistent with American policy since the end of WWII but: “What is novel in Clinton’s approach is her insistence that developing countries—which have often been granted special treatment—can no longer be exempted from binding rules.”

The UN’s special envoy for the Middle East has told the Security Council: “The Palestinian Authority is ready to assume the responsibilities of statehood at any point in the near future.” But the US, one of five permanent members with veto power, has said it will oppose any attempt by the Palestinians to obtain state recognition from the UN in September.

Following last week’s deadly anti-government protests in Malawi, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a US government agency, has put on hold a five-year $350 million deal signed with the East African country earlier this year. The US government agency says it will conduct a review before deciding how to proceed, but terminating the agreement is a possibility.

After trying for over a decade, the International Gay and Lesbian Association has gained the right to attend and speak at UN meetings. Support for the group’s consultative status came primarily from Europe and the Americas, as well as Japan, South Korea, India and Mongolia. Opposition came largely from African and Islamic countries, as well as Russia and China.

University of London economist Costas Lapavitsas looks at the lessons to be drawn from earlier debt crises in poor countries. He criticizes policies that protect lenders while pushing the burden of debt onto the public, suggesting a possible remedy whereby an “audit commission could examine public debt for its legality, legitimacy, odiousness and social sustainability, providing grounds for its cancellation.” He also calls for “international co-operation among borrowers” and says “engagement with multilateral organisations, principally the International Monetary Fund, is to be avoided.”

Foreign Policy columnist Charles “The Optimist” Kenny calls for the leaders of Somalia’s militant Islamist group, Al Shabab, to be charged by the International Criminal Court for “crimes against humanity by method of mass starvation.” But at least some of the blame should go to the “modern world system” that has undermined the centuries-old, sustainable pastoralism that is uniquely adapted to producing food in one of the harshest climates on earth, according to Helen de Jode who has edited a book on the topic.

Esther Dyson, CEO of EDventure Holdings, says there are two types of investors: “Venture capitalists want to fund the next Facebook, while philanthropists want to use Facebook to support good causes.” And although she does not expect or want the former to start behaving like the latter, she suggests “they could focus a little more on training new employees rather than poaching them from the competition at inflated salaries.”