Latest Developments, February 13

In the latest news and analysis…

Drawdown
The New York Times reports that US President Barack Obama, in his annual State of the Union address, declared his intention to withdraw just over half of American troops from Afghanistan by the end of next year, at which point “our war in Afghanistan will be over”:

“Administration officials said last year that they would determine the size and composition of the American presence after 2014 before determining the withdrawal schedule. But on Tuesday, officials said that Mr. Obama had not yet made a decision on the post-2014 force, which is likely to number no more than 9,000 or so troops and then get progressively smaller.

There still appears to be a debate within the administration about the plans. Officials said there was a reluctance to go public with a final number of troops and a description of their missions while still in the early stage of negotiating a security agreement with the Afghans over retaining a military presence after 2014.”

Military fixation
Ouagadougou-based journalist Peter Dörrie argues that the West’s approach to perceived security threats in Africa’s Sahel could produce “the very outcomes Western powers fear”:

“The decision by EU countries and the US to become even more actively involved militarily will likely only worsen the situation. More military aid to countries in the region means even more weapons and resources to go around. More foreign military personnel means more potential targets, maybe providing the incentive for thus-far local terrorist groups to adopt a more global agenda, as with al-Shabaab in Somalia. And increased terrorist activity will sooner or later lead to calls for drones to be armed and the Sahara to become the latest theatre in the ‘shadow drone war’. All these dynamics will introduce new layers of violence.”

Kidnap collaborators
Reuters reports that an Italian court has sent the country’s former spy chief and his deputy to jail over their role in the “rendition” of an Egyptian cleric:

“An American former CIA station chief was earlier this month given a seven-year jail sentence after imam Abu Omar was snatched from a Milan street in 2003 and flown to Egypt for interrogation during the US “war on terror”.
Milan appeals court judges sentenced Niccolo Pollari, former head of the Sismi military intelligence agency, to 10 years and jailed his former deputy Marco Mancini for nine years.”

Taxing business
The Tax Justice Network calls a new corporate taxation report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development “a potential game-changer”:

“That is a tacit admission by the OECD that the network of international tax treaties, which are drawn up substantially under the guidance of OECD models, constitute an obstacle to progress. Does that last sentence open the door to the potential for a multilateral tax treaty among key states, overriding the current mess of bilateral treaties that collectively help cement the separate-entity principle? Time will tell.
The OECD has also in the past spoken repeatedly about the perils of ‘double taxation’ of corporations due to overlapping tax claims of different jurisdictions, but has been far less interested in talking about ‘double non-taxation’ – that is, where the corporation gets taxed nowhere. We are delighted to see several references to double non-taxation in this report.”

Seed control
The Center for Food Safety (CFS) and Save our Seeds have released a new report arguing current intellectual property rules have led to “a radical shift to consolidation and control of global seed supply”:

“Among the report’s discoveries are several alarming statistics:
• As of January 2013, Monsanto, alleging seed patent infringement, had filed 144 lawsuits involving 410 farmers and 56 small farm businesses in at least 27 different states.
• Today, three corporations control 53 percent of the global commercial seed market.
• Seed consolidation has led to market control resulting in dramatic increases in the price of seeds. From 1995-2011, the average cost to plant one acre of soybeans has risen 325 percent; for cotton prices spiked 516 percent and corn seed prices are up by 259 percent.”

Tax morality
ActionAid’s Chris Jordan blasts Associated British Foods for avoiding taxes that would provide the Zambian government with much needed revenue:

“The financial engineering performed by Associated British Food’s Zambian sugar operations follow an all-too familiar pattern of tax liability reduction. Pre-tax profits of $123m generated since 2007 have been whisked away through the tax havens of Ireland, Mauritius, the Netherlands and Jersey, depriving Zambia of some $17.7m. That’s enough to put 48,000 additional Zambian children in school a year.

On top of these fairly standard tax avoidance schemes, the company also won a court case against the Zambian government, enabling it to exploit a tax break originally designed to support domestic farmers. This saw its tax rate tumble from 35% to just 10%, costing a further $9.3m of revenue. We estimate Zambia has lost $27m in total – a huge sum for one of the poorest countries in the world.”

Literary drone therapy
Struggling to understand how “an elegant and literate man with a cosmopolitan sense of the world” such as Barack Obama came to embrace remote-control assassinations so completely, writer Teju Cole reworks the opening lines of seven famous books:

“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. Pity. A signature strike leveled the florist’s.
Call me Ishmael. I was a young man of military age. I was immolated at my wedding. My parents are inconsolable.
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead bearing a bowl of lather. A bomb whistled in. Blood on the walls. Fire from heaven.
I am an invisible man. My name is unknown. My loves are a mystery. But an unmanned aerial vehicle from a secret location has come for me.
Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was killed by a Predator drone.
Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His torso was found, not his head.
Mother died today. The program saves American lives.”

Necessary struggle
350 Massachusetts’s Wen Stephenson calls for the climate-justice movement to “embrace its radicalism” in the fight against global warming, a fight he compares to the 19th Century struggle to abolish slavery:

“What resonates, then, is not so much the analogy to slavery itself, or any literal comparison to abolitionist actions, but the role of the abolitionist movement, as a movement, in American and human history — and the necessity now of a movement that is every ounce its morally and politically transformative equivalent.”

Latest Developments, August 15

In the latest news and analysis…

GMO fail
The Food & Environment Reporting Network’s Tom Laskawy writes that a supposedly worm-resistant seed developed by agri-business giant Monsanto is “basically backfiring” in the drought-hit American Midwest:

“Historically, farmers managed corn rootworms through traditional crop rotations. These rootworms eat corn exclusively, so by alternating a corn crop with soy or another alternative, farmers would deprive the insects of food and the rootworm larvae would die off. This, by the way, is an age-old technique (originally part of the Native American Three Sisters agricultural tradition) that generates profits only for the farmer — not for seed companies.
Indeed, this abandonment of crop rotation was the other ‘innovation’ of Monsanto’s Bt corn — aside from releasing its own pesticide, that is. Farmers could now grow corn season after season in the same field. At the time, it seemed like an amazing development to farmers across the country — and remains so to starry-eyed, tech-loving politicians and industry representatives.”

Reining in private security
Inter Press Service reports on the latest international attempts to make so-called private military security contractors accountable for their actions:

“The [UN] draft Convention on PMSCs identifies a set of inherent state functions, including detention, interrogation and intelligence that private companies could not perform.
The fact that major clients of PMSCs – most notably the U.S. and the U.K. – have employed contractors for a number of these functions poses questions about whether these states would back regulation that curtails their ability to outsource the use of force.
‘It’s a pie in the sky,’ according to [the trade association International Security Operations Association’s Doug] Brooks.
Instead, he is rallying his troops around the International Code of Conduct, which brings together stakeholders from industry, government and civil society in an effort to create a gold standard for industry providers who voluntarily commit themselves to abiding by the Code.”

Fracking omissions
Bloomberg investigates the effectiveness of a “voluntary website that oil and gas companies helped design amid calls for mandatory disclosure”:

“Energy companies failed to list more than two out of every five fracked wells in eight U.S. states from April 11, 2011, when FracFocus began operating, through the end of last year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The gaps reveal shortcomings in the voluntary approach to transparency on the site, which has received funding from oil and gas trade groups and $1.5 million from the U.S. Department of Energy.”

Suggested fine
Bloomberg also reports that a Nigerian government agency wants oil giant Chevron to pay $3 billion over a deadly explosion that caused a 46-day fire earlier this year, just as a new spill has been spotted near an offshore Exxon facility:

“ ‘Having looked at the relevant literature and what happens in other countries, we recommended a fine of $3 billion for Chevron,’ National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency’s Director-General Peter Idabor said in an interview in Abuja, the capital, yesterday. For now, the planned penalty is only a suggestion and ‘still not conclusive’ as it requires the approval of lawmakers and President Goodluck Jonathan’s government, he said.

NOSDRA is also investigating a seven-week gas leak that started on March 20 at the Obite field operated by Total SA (FP)’s Nigerian unit to determine appropriate penalty, Idabor said. The agency had suggested to the government in July that Royal Dutch Shell Plc (RDSA) pay a $5 billion fine for an oil leak in December from its offshore Bonga field that caused the country’s worst spill in more than a decade. Shell said less than 40,000 barrels leaked.”

Banks on a diet
The Financial Times reports the number of European banks that are “either discontinuing investment funds linked to food commodities or ceasing to issue new ones” now stands at five:

“Food campaigners welcomed the steps, but said that banks needed to do far more. ‘Great news – but they are still keeping their investment vehicles on oil,’ said Christine Haigh of the World Development Movement, one of the most vociferous critics of speculation in commodities.
However, bankers said that the move was not an admission that speculation drives food commodity prices up but an attempt to protect their reputation amid fierce criticism.”

Redefining blood diamonds
IDEX Online reports that the Kimberley Process is considering new definitions of “conflict” to serve as a guideline for regulating the international diamond trade:

“The FAQ goes on to clarify that ‘Such a definition would not apply to individual or isolated cases. Neither would this apply to violence that is unrelated to diamonds.’
This clarification is apparently in response to concerns by countries worried that internal issues may be used as an excuse to exclude them from KP on political grounds. Among them are most large diamond countries – Russia, China, Israel and most African countries – all mine, trade or manufacture rough or polished diamonds.”

African drone war
Wired reports that it is now possible to “begin to define — however vaguely — the scope and scale” of America’s use of drones in Somalia:

“It took a surprise — and ultimately doomed — invasion of Somalia by regional power Ethiopia to open the door for a stronger U.S. presence in East Africa. American commandos followed along behind the Ethiopian tank columns as side-firing AC-130 gunships provided lethal top cover.
Where once the small U.S. force in East Africa had relied mostly on a single large base in Djibouti, just north of Somalia, in the wake of the Ethiopian blitz American bases sprouted across the region. The CIA and American security contractors set up shop alongside a U.N.-backed peacekeeping force at the shell-crated international airport in Mogadishu. American contractors quietly carved a secret airstrip out of a forest in Arba Minch, Ethiopia. Under the guise of tracking Somali pirates, the Pentagon negotiated permission to base people and planes on the Indian Ocean island nation of the Seychelles.
Soon all these bases would support drone aircraft being churned out at an accelerating rate by the U.S. aerospace industry.”

Feminism as counterterrorism
New York University’s Vasuki Nesiah writes that “security feminism” has become an increasingly integral, and not altogether unproblematic, part of US foreign policy over the last decade:

“Bringing a feminist agenda to foreign policy has been a fraught initiative. Indeed, those strands of feminism that have invested in the ‘securitizing’ project have done more to condemn feminism than redeem foreign policy. Foreign policy has been inextricably tied to the politics of counterterrorism and empire, so it is not surprising that such efforts towards convergence have been deeply troubled. The task of the moment is not formulating a common ‘feminist’ agenda. Rather we need to analyze the stakes of the national security paradigm and highlight divergences within feminisms.”

Latest Developments, June 6

In the latest news and analysis…

Asymmetric agreement
Inter Press Service reports that not everyone thinks Central America has done well for itself in the recently negotiated free trade agreement with the European Union:

“ ‘Central America obtained meagre access quotas for agricultural products such as sugar, textiles, beef and rice,’ whereas the EU ‘gained full opening of Central American markets for a wide range of key agricultural and industrial goods, such as dairy products, vehicles, medicines and machinery,’ [the Mesoamerican Initiative on Trade, Integration and Sustainable Development (CID)] says in a communiqué.
Moreover, on intellectual property, CID questions the major concessions granted to the EU in terms of protected geographical designations, patents and copyright: in the area of services, the bloc was granted complete access in the fields of finance, transport and energy, among others.
Meanwhile, ‘Central America has yielded ground in terms of workers’ rights and environmental protection compared with other treaties,’ since ‘the agreement with the EU does not provide for penalties for those who infringe these rights for the sake of commercial interests,’ says CID.”

Genetically modified lawsuit
Agence France-Presse reports on the suit brought by 5 million Brazilian farmers against US agribusiness giant Monsanto over crop royalties:

“ ‘Monsanto gets paid when it sell the seeds. The law gives producers the right to multiply the seeds they buy and nowhere in the world is there a requirement to pay (again). Producers are in effect paying a private tax on production,’ said lawyer Jane Berwanger.
In April, a judge in the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, Giovanni Conti, ruled in favor of the producers and ordered Monsanto to return royalties paid since 2004 or a minimum of $2 billion.
Monsanto appealed and a federal court is to rule on the case by 2014.
In the meantime, the US company said it was still being paid crop royalties.”

Democracy, Walmart-style
The Associated Press reports that despite allegations of bribery in Mexico and “unprecedented dissent against key executives,” all of Walmart’s board members were re-elected:

“With descendants of Walmart’s founder owning about 50 percent of Walmart’s shares, activist shareholders had little chance of voting out the board members. But the numbers, particularly when excluding the Walton family and other insiders, show a more staggering loss of confidence.

The vote came after a story by The New York Times published in April said the world’s largest retailer allegedly failed to notify law enforcement after finding evidence that officials authorized millions of dollars in bribes in Mexico to get speedier building permits and other favors. [CEO Mike] Duke was head of Walmart’s international business at the time of the probe in 2005, and [Lee] Scott was CEO. It’s not clear what board members like Walton knew.”

Drone warning
The Guardian reports that a former top CIA official has warned that America’s  indiscriminate drone policy is dangerous to the US as well as innocent bystanders:

“ ‘We have gone a long way down the road of creating a situation where we are creating more enemies than we are removing from the battlefield. We are already there with regards to Pakistan and Afghanistan,’ [Robert Grenier, who headed the CIA’s counter-terrorism center from 2004 to 2006] said.

‘I am very concerned about the creation of a larger terrorist safe haven in Yemen,’ Grenier said.”

War on Mexicans
SF Weekly’s Michael Lacey writes about the potential consequences of the US Supreme Court’s expected ruling in favour of Arizona’s controversial Senate Bill 1070, which “forces all police officers to ascertain immigration status whenever a cop interacts with a brown person”:

“Like the pre-Civil War era of free and slave states, America is about to divide along color lines.
Six states already have a version of Arizona’s bill and are awaiting the ruling for implementation. In all, 16 states filed amicus briefs urging the Supreme Court to support S.B. 1070.
Where once we depended upon the federal government to protect minorities from firehoses and segregated schoolhouses named Booker T. Washington or George Washington Carver, this month the Supreme Court is poised to tell us how far local cops can go to detain brown people.”

Transparent motives
Swiss National Councillor Isabelle Chevalley asks why Australian mining companies go to Africa when their continent still has large uranium reserves:

“The director of Australian mining company Paladin Energy answered, saying: ‘Australians and Canadians have become too aware of uranium mining’s problems. Now we have to go to Africa.’ At least the answer is clear.
Let’s open our eyes and demand transparency on the origin of the uranium we use in our power plants!” (Translated from the French.)

A little respect
Kwani? founding editor Binyavanga Wainaina takes issue with the West’s continued condescension towards Africa:

“If your spouse has arrived in Kenya and does not have a job, soon he or she will be fully networked and earning lots of pounds/euros/dollars, making sure the babies of Africa are safe, making sure the animals of Africa are kept safely away from Africans, making sure the African woman is kept well-shielded from the African man, making sure the genitals of Africa are swabbed, rubbered and raised into a place called awareness. Because you are a good person, who believes in multiculturalism, and that politicians are evil.”

CSR substance and spin
Oxfam’s Erinch Sahan writes on the difficulty of separating fact from fiction when virtually every large company claims to treat corporate social responsibility as a “core” concern:

“Frustrated that I can’t get beyond the online PR spin, I’ve taken to asking them questions like ‘when push-comes-to-shove, and it’s costly to be responsible, who wins the fight, your buying manager or your corporate responsibility team?’ The answer, unfortunately, is almost always ‘buying’.

The side of the business that is concerned with product quality is usually the first side to buy into the business case to act responsibly. This is because long-term supplier relationships are good for quality and usually good for development. But the performance of the buyers, who hold real sway in these companies, is measured on profit margin, so they need to get the lowest price and usually drive who the company does business with.”