Latest Developments, April 4

In the latest news and analysis…

Massive leak
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists reports on the findings of its investigation into offshore financial secrecy, which involved combing through 2.5 million leaked documents:

“The leaked files provide facts and figures — cash transfers, incorporation dates, links between companies and individuals — that illustrate how offshore financial secrecy has spread aggressively around the globe, allowing the wealthy and the well-connected to dodge taxes and fueling corruption and economic woes in rich and poor nations alike.
The records detail the offshore holdings of people and companies in more than 170 countries and territories.
The hoard of documents represents the biggest stockpile of inside information about the offshore system ever obtained by a media organization.”

Vested interests
The New York Times reports that a “potent alliance of agribusiness, shipping and charitable groups” is opposing possible changes to US food aid:

“The administration is proposing that the government buy food in developing countries instead of shipping food from American farmers overseas, a process that typically takes months. The proposed change to the international food aid program is expected to save millions in shipping costs and get food more quickly to areas that need it.
The administration is also reportedly considering ending the controversial practice of food aid ‘monetization,’ a process by which Washington gives American-grown grains to international charities. The groups then sell the products on the market in poor countries and use the money to finance their antipoverty programs.
Critics of the practice say it hurts local farmers by competing with sales of their crops.”

Commodified culture
The New York Times also reports that efforts by the Hopi tribe of Arizona to stop an auction of sacred objects in Paris illustrate “a paradox in the way artifacts are repatriated around the world”:

“When a nation like Italy or Cambodia claims ownership of an object in the United States, it typically invokes international accords that require American officials to take up the cases.

The United States does not have similar accords that it could cite in support of the Hopi claim on the Paris auction items. Several experts and activists said the United States had never viewed its own cultural patrimony as a priority because the country is relatively young, has long embraced the concept of free trade and has not historically focused on the cultural heritage issues of American Indians.”

Peace enforcement
The Century Foundation’s Jeffrey Laurenti argues that the UN Security Council’s decision to add a combat force to the peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo “could profoundly alter the world’s international security landscape”:

“The unanimous U.N. vote masked some very real concerns that the organization will lose its global moral authority if it becomes associated with fighting wars rather than halting them. Guatemala’s Gert Rosenthal voiced the worry that the United Nations could forfeit its unique role as ‘honest broker’ between adversaries — especially when domestic armed factions are challenging a government.
Yet this is a risk he and the rest of the council were willing to take, given the 15-year deadly record of armed spoilers in eastern Congo. France’s ambassador Gérard Araud celebrated their expected neutralization as ‘a step toward peace enforcement.’ ”

Seed money
The Guardian’s John Vidal writes that the “legendary power” of the US farm biotech industry just got even more spectacular with the signing of the so-called Monsanto Protection Act:

“A revolving door allows corporate chiefs to switch to top posts in the Food and Drug Administration and other agencies; US embassies around the world push GM technology onto dissenting countries; government subsidies back corporate research; federal regulators do largely as the industry wants; the companies pay millions of dollars a year to lobby politicians; conservative thinktanks combat any political opposition; the courts enforce corporate patents on seeds; and the consumer is denied labels or information.

According to an array of food and consumer groups, organic farmers, civil liberty and trade unions and others, [the new legislation] hijacks the constitution, sets a legal precedent and puts Monsanto and other biotech companies above the federal courts. It means, they say, that not even the US government can now stop the sale, planting, harvest or distribution of any GM seed, even if it is linked to illness or environmental problems.”

Cockroach effect
The Economist explains why Colombia’s reduced cocaine production is not necessarily cause for celebration:

“History suggests that Peru’s dramatic reining in of coca production in the 1990s helped push the business into Colombia. Now that Colombia is cutting down, the industry seems to be moving back into Peru, where production of coca has increased by some 40% since 2000. The trafficking business, meanwhile, has been taken on by Mexican ‘cartels’, with appalling results in Mexico. Drug-policy geeks call this the ‘balloon effect’: pushing down on drug production in one region causes it to bulge somewhere else. Latin Americans have a better phrase: the efecto cucaracha, or cockroach effect. You can chase the pests out of one corner of your house, but they have an irritating habit of popping up somewhere else.”

No smoking
Oxfam’s Duncan Green calls for a global campaign against tobacco which kills 6 million people worldwide each year, more than any other cause of death:

“Latin America’s new curbs on smoking face resistance from the industry. Philip Morris International, an American tobacco company, has filed a claim against Uruguay at the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes, an arm of the World Bank, claiming that the country’s anti-smoking measures violate a bilateral investment treaty.

A major tobacco company, Philip Morris, is trying to block the Uruguayan Government’s attempts to limit the devastation. According to a briefing by [the International Institute for Sustainable Development], the company brought the case in 2010 and ‘is challenging three provisions of Uruguay’s tobacco regulations: (1) a ‘single presentation’ requirement that prohibits marketing more than one tobacco product under each brand, (2) a requirement that tobacco packages include “pictograms” with graphic images of the health consequences of smoking (such as cancerous lungs), and (3) a mandate that health warnings cover 80% of the front and back of cigarette packages.’ Philip Morris’ own version of events confirms this.
The ICSID says that the suit is ongoing, with a tribunal meeting in Paris last February.”

Latest Developments, March 13

In the latest news and analysis…

Non-European pontiff
Reuters reports that the Argentine cardinal who has become Francis I, the first ever Latin American pope, faces “sharp questions” about the role he played decades ago in his country’s Dirty War:

“ ‘History condemns him. It shows him to be opposed to all innovation in the Church and above all, during the dictatorship, it shows he was very cozy with the military,’ Fortunato Mallimacci, the former dean of social sciences at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, once said.
His actions during this period strained his relations with many brother Jesuits around the world, who tend to be more politically liberal.
Those who defend [Jorge] Bergoglio say there is no proof behind these claims and, on the contrary, they say the priest helped many dissidents escape during the military junta’s rule.”

Investor bias
Reuters also reports that Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa has proposed a bill to “annul” his country’s investment protection treaty with the US:

“Correa, who won a sweeping re-election victory in mid-February, said over the weekend that the OPEC-member country could go bankrupt because arbitration tribunals always rule that Ecuador should pay damages to foreign investors when there is a dispute.
‘These (investment) treaties favor foreign investors over human beings. Anyone can take us to an arbitration tribunal without first going to a national court,’ he said on Saturday.

Ecuador has signed 23 investment protection treaties, which has allowed foreign companies to file 39 arbitration requests at the World Bank’s International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), state-run media said on Monday.”

Shareholder battle
The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Chevron is moving to block activist shareholders that want the US oil giant to settle a multibillion-dollar lawsuit over alleged environmental destruction in Ecuador:

“ ‘I’ve never had a case of a company playing such hardball tactics against its own shareholders this way,’ said Simon Billenness with Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.

‘The feeling among institutional shareholders is we really have to draw a line in the sand here, because we can’t have companies using these tactics against shareholders in the future,’ he said.”

Changing tactics
The BBC reports that Guatemala is looking for bold new ways to deal with drug trafficking beyond what the country’s interior minister calls a “failed” military campaign:

“This idea, being put forward by Guatemala to decriminalise and regulate the international trade in drugs such as heroin and cocaine, is unequivocally condemned by Britain and other Western governments.

Guatemala is not yet clear on how decriminalisation would work. The idea of legal containers of cocaine being loaded onto ships in port might be far-fetched, but with the drugs trade undermining fragile states such as Afghanistan and Burma, its initiative for change is gaining support.”

Getting worse
Al Jazeera reports on the state of the Guantanamo Bay prison more than four years after US President Barack Obama promised to shut down the controversial facility on his first day in office:

“ ‘I think we need to understand what we mean when we talk about closure, we don’t mean transfer or prosecute which is what many of the critics of Guantanamo would like to see happen. When the US government talks about closing Guantanamo, they talk about moving some set of detainees to some other place where they continue to be detained without charge,’ [according to Georgetown University’s Jennifer Daskal].”

Unintended consequences
Makerere University’s Mahmood Mamdani calls the International Criminal Court “the single factor with the most influence” in Kenya’s recent presidential election:

“Whereas the 2010 referendum had a de-ethnicising effect on Kenyan politics, the involvement of the ICC had the opposite effect, re-ethnicising Kenyan politics, with more and more ethnicities organising politically and centrally. The result is that the country has re-divided into two large ethnic coalitions.

The ICC process has polarised politics in Kenya because the electoral process did not unfold on a level playing field. Led by individuals who stand charged before the ICC, one side in the electoral contest is, and so it can not contemplate defeat. The simple fact is that, if defeated, they would lose all.
Everyone knows that the worst thing to do in a contest is to leave your opponent without an escape route. If you do that, you turn the contest into a life-and-death struggle. You transform adversaries into enemies.”

Reporting differently
Cornell University’s Mukoma Wa Ngugi writes that “Western journalists have been left behind by an Africa moving forward”:

“For western journalism to be taken seriously by Africans and Westerners alike, it needs Africans to vouch for stories rather than satirizing them. I am not saying that journalism needs the subject to agree with the content, but the search for journalistic truth takes place within a broad societal consensus. That is, while one may disagree with particular reportage and the facts, the spirit of the essay should not be in question. But Africans are saying that the journalists are not representing the complex truth of the continent; that Western journalists are not only misrepresenting the truth, but are in spirit working against the continent. The good news is there have been enough people questioning the coverage of Africa over the years that Western journalists have had no choice but to do some soul searching. The bad news is that the answers are variations of the problem.”

Radical shift
The Overseas Development Institute’s Jonathan Glennie argues that the language of development has changed drastically in the last few years:

“Three words: universality, sustainability and equality – like a non-violent French revolution, all are now unshakeably central to the post-2015 agreement. The absurd conceptualisation of countries as either developed or developing; the ruinous failure to integrate the environment into development; the self-serving attempt to relegate the distribution of wealth to an afterthought – all now consigned to the dustbin.
Where the [Millennium Development Goals] narrative implied we were marching boldly towards the ‘end of development’, to paraphrase Francis Fukuyama’s declaration, such a philosophy will be roundly rebuffed by the new [Sustainable Development Goals] narrative, which calls for profound action in countries that were once self-described as ‘developed’ as much as in much poorer countries.”