Latest Developments, October 17

In the latest news and analysis…

Supreme moment for Alien Tort
The Associated Press reports the US Supreme Court has agreed to use a suit brought by Nigerian plaintiffs against Royal Dutch Shell to decide if corporations can be held liable in the US for alleged human rights violations committed abroad.
“The justices said they will review a federal appeals court ruling in favor of Shell. The case centers on the 222-year-old Alien Tort Statute that has been increasingly used in recent years to sue corporations for alleged abuses abroad.
Other cases pending in U.S. courts seek to hold accountable Chiquita Brands International for its relationship with paramilitary groups in Colombia; Exxon and Chevron for abuses in Indonesia and Nigeria, respectively, and several companies for their role in apartheid in South Africa.”

Drone growth
TomDispatch’s Nick Turse refers to military documents, press reports and “other open source information” to estimate the US is currently using at least 60 bases around the world for its drone operations, but he anticipates that number will increase as America’s reliance on unmanned aircraft grows.
“Earlier this year, an analysis by TomDispatch determined that there are more than 1,000 U.S. military bases scattered across the globe — a shadowy base-world providing plenty of existing sites that can, and no doubt will, host drones.  But facilities selected for a pre-drone world may not always prove optimal locations for America’s current and future undeclared wars and assassination campaigns.  So further expansion in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia is a likelihood.”

LRA love
Premiere Networks talk show host Rush Limbaugh slammed US President Barack Obama’s decision to send American troops to Uganda to fight the Lord’s Resistance Army, accusing him of wanting to “to wipe out Christians in Sudan” until additional information gave him pause.
“Is that right? The Lord’s Resistance Army is being accused of really bad stuff? Child kidnapping, torture, murder, that kind of stuff? Well, we just found out about this today. We’re gonna do, of course, our due diligence research on it. But nevertheless we got a hundred troops being sent over there to fight these guys — and they claim to be Christians.”

Thinktank transparency
Guardian columnist George Monbiot argues that thinktanks “are the means by which corporations and the ultra-rich influence public life without having to reveal their hand” and calls on them to disclose their sources of funding.
“The public sector is now so transparent that we have a right to read the private emails of climate scientists working for a state-sponsored university. The private sector is so opaque that we have no idea on whose behalf the people who appear every day on the BBC, using arguments that look suspiciously like corporate propaganda, are speaking.”

G20 inaction
Responding to the communiqué released at the end of last week’s meeting of G20 finance ministers in Paris, Global Financial Integrity has expressed disappointment at the apparent absence of any comprehensive vision for increasing the transparency and accountability of the world’s financial system.
“The Finance Minister’s communiqué fails to mention country-by-country reporting, automatic exchange of tax information, disclosure of beneficial ownership, or strengthening anti-money-laundering laws,” according to GFI director Raymond Baker. “These measures are key to creating global economic development, and financial stability. What we have here are piecemeal fixes to a systemic problem.”

Money on the mind
Author Dan Hind argues that people need to understand fundamental concepts, such as what money is, in order to have the “reasonable conversation” the established order fears more than riots.
“The problems we face are complicated, it’s true, but they are not as complicated as some would like to make out. We will begin to see how to solve them when we have a clear understanding of the fundamentals of social organisation, including the origins and nature of money.
It is an understanding that those who are currently powerful would rather we didn’t have. After all, as another great American ironist, Walter Karp, put it, “usurped power is only secure as long as it remains unregarded”. For too long, the banks have shaped the laws of economic exchange in private. Even in the midst of a debt crisis their privilege has so far evaded our understanding. It is time that it became the object of our steady and patient attention.”

Locals vs multinationals
Al Jazeera is airing a film entitled How to Stop a Multinational which focuses on the efforts of three activists who have successfully taken on a Canadian mining company in the Argentinian Andes and are now turning their attention to a Chinese one.
“Historically, this region’s never had enough water, so when a mining company comes to use 1,000 litres of water per second, we risk becoming a ghost town, disappearing, because it doesn’t make sense to stay in a town without water, and I don’t want to leave,” according to activist Gabriela Romano.
“I was born here, I love this land, and I will defend it.”

Legalize or die
The Globe and Mail’s Neil Reynolds argues for the legalization of cannabis, opiates, cocaine and “most other drugs” in order to stem the illegal trade’s growing violence in the Americas (15,000 deaths last year in Mexico alone), though he concedes that no country can go it alone.
“Assuming some international consensus for repeal, though, Canada has a number of retail models to contemplate. Assuming a government monopoly, it could regulate the drug trade through government-owned outlets (“beer and liquor stores”). Assuming a regulated industry, it could exploit existing pharmaceutical emporiums (“drugstores”). Assuming a more free-market approach, it could use corner-store outlets (“smoke shops”). All these establishments sell lots of government-regulated drugs already – most of them, when you think about it, for medical purposes of one kind or another.”

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, September 20

In the latest news and analysis…

Drones in paradise
The Wall Street Journal reports the US military will begin launching armed drones from the Seychelles as it steps up its campaign against perceived terror threats in East Africa.
“The U.S. has used the Seychelles base for flying surveillance drones, and for the first time will fly armed MQ-9 Reapers from the Indian Ocean site, supplementing strikes from a U.S. drone base in Djibouti.”

Radical corporate transparency
A new Publish What You Pay report on 10 major extractive industry companies details the extent to which they rely on subsidiaries in “secrecy jurisdictions” – 2,083 such subsidiaries between the corporations examined – to maximize profits and, according to PWYP, deprive poor countries of massive amounts of income.
“This is why, in order to combat this veil of secrecy, PWYP Norway believes every company should publish their full revenues, costs, profits, tax and the amount of natural resources it has used, written off and acquired in any given year in every country it operates. This is known as country-by-country reporting (CBCR).”

Resource extraction and indigenous rights
The UN’s top expert on the rights of indigenous peoples, James Anaya, has released the results of an extensive questionnaire-based study that suggests natural resource extraction and other major construction projects are having adverse effects on indigenous communities around the world.
“The vast majority of indigenous peoples’ responses, many of which stemmed from the direct experience of specific projects affecting their territories and communities, rather emphasized a common perception of disenfranchisement, ignorance of their rights and concerns on the part of States and businesses enterprises, and constant life insecurity in the face of encroaching extractive activities,” according to Anaya.

Taking the long view
Mongolian President Tsakhia Elbegdorj spoke to Reuters about a law that bans mining in his country’s river and forest areas.
“Half of the territory is covered by exploration licenses. I think that’s enough,” he said.
“We have to save our wealth (for) our next generation.”

Massive Chevron payout looming?
A US appeals court has overruled a lower court’s decision that prevented Ecuadoran plaintiffs from collecting billions in damages (awarded by an Ecuadoran judge) from oil giant Chevron over pollution in the Amazon rain forest.
“In February, a judge in Ecuador ruled that Chevron should pay to clean up contamination in the oil fields where Texaco, bought by Chevron in 2001, once worked. But the company persuaded a U.S. judge to block enforcement, arguing that the verdict was the result of fraud. Chevron even filed a criminal conspiracy case against the Ecuadorans.”

Fraud refund
The Institute for Accountability in Southern Africa’s Paul Hoffman draws attention to a legal precedent he thinks should be relevant to the inquest called last week by South African President Jacob Zuma into a 1999 arms deal that is alleged to have involved bribes from a number of foreign companies.
“These findings, still good law, on the effect of bribes on contracts are the key to obtaining the refund of purchase prices paid to arms dealers who allegedly bribed their way into contention in the arms deals. A R70bn [US$ 9 billion] bonanza for taxpayers is surely a worthwhile endeavour.”

Abetting repression
The BBC reports UK-based Gamma International is denying that it supplied software to the ousted Egyptian regime so that it could monitor online voice calls and emails.
“The files from the Egyptian secret police’s Electronic Penetration Division described Gamma’s product as “the only security system in the world” capable of bugging Skype phone conversations on the internet.
They detail a five-month trial by the Egyptian secret police which found the product had ‘proved to be an efficient electronic system for penetrating secure systems [which] accesses email boxes of Hotmail, Yahoo and Gmail networks’.”

With friends like these…
Development consultant Ian Smillie says Western governments and the humanitarian organizations that serve as “fig leaves covering up the inattention” of the international community will have to start behaving very differently in Somalia if they want to help provide long-term solutions to the conflict-racked, famine-stricken country.
“None of the humanitarians, [the Canadian International Development Agency] included, has anything to say about the roller-coaster involvement of the West in Somalia, alternately arming, then aiding, then invading, then abandoning the country – then supporting an Ethiopian invasion that led to the rise of the extremist al-Shabaab militia and their brutal but entirely logical expulsion of Western aid workers.”

Intellectual property vs. cancer treatment
The Guardian’s Sarah Boseley writes that the UN conference on non-communicable diseases has focused almost exclusively on prevention rather than treatment, an outcome the US and EU lobbied hard to achieve.
“The pharmaceutical industry and its supporters in the EU and US where research and manufacturing takes place are very keen that nobody should get the idea that a declaration which allowed poor countries to bypass patents and obtain cheap copies of normally expensive Aids drugs should in any way be mentioned in the context of NCDs. That might open the doors to developing nations using the legislation to obtain new cancer and heart drugs – which make huge profits for the companies in the rich world.”

Patents around the world
The UN News Centre reports new figures showing the number of international trademark and patent application rose in 2010, though global distribution remains highly uneven.
“The top 10 patent offices accounted for approximately 87 per cent of all [trademark] applications in 2009, with the United States, Japan and China filing about 60 per cent of the total.”

Latest Developments, August 2

In the latest news and analysis…

American senators Carl Levin and Chuck Grassley have brought forth legislation that aims to greatly reduce international financial secrecy and wrongdoing by requiring anyone setting up a company in the US to divulge the name of the beneficial owner. “Until this law is passed, foreign corrupt politicians, terrorists and drug traffickers can continue legally to hide their identities and their dubious assets behind the secrecy provided by American companies,” according to Global Witness’s Stefanie Ostfeld who hailed the bill’s introduction. As did Global Financial Integrity’s Heather Lowe who said, as things stand, it is “far too easy to gain access to financial services in the U.S. through anonymous U.S. corporations, while it is far too difficult for law enforcement groups to figure out who is really behind those corporations.

Plaintiffs in Papua New Guinea have obtained a temporary injunction “preventing a mine from dumping millions of tonnes of waste into the sea.” The news came less than a week after a national court judge had ruled the Chinese-Australian copper project’s proposed method of waste disposal “amounts to an abuse and depletion of Papua New Guinea’s natural resources and environment” but refused to impose a permanent ban. PNG’s Supreme Court will examine the case later this month.

A new Food and Agriculture Organization report suggests that, contrary to popular belief, growing demand for grain in China and India has little to do with increasing food prices.  In fact, the FAO says cereal imports to the two Asian giants actually declined between 2000 and 2007 and points to the rise of biofuels as the main driver of growth in demand. And a new report by the New Economics Foundation suggests EU fisherman have discarded more than 2 million tonnes of cod over the last half-century.

Somalia’s Islamist Al Shabab “has destroyed whatever legitimacy it had, by obstructing humanitarian organizations from entering the country to provide relief from the severe famine,” according to a Globe and Mail editorial. Meanwhile, the US has decided to ease up on some obstruction of its own by loosening restrictions on aid to Somalia that threatened to prosecute any organization deemed to have provided any financial or material support to Al Shabab. Food aid aside, the rebel group which controls much of Somalia, including the famine-stricken south, has reportedly gotten its hands on a large number of American-made weapons.

Arguing “we live in an era when political boundaries, not the lives of nomadic pastoralists, are sacrosanct,” Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs takes on the role of arbitrary colonial-era borders in the Horn of Africa’s food crisis. He points to the fact that many Somali people live in Kenya and Ethiopia as a prime reason for the ongoing instability of the border regions. Sachs also discusses “the overlap of dryland climates and conflict zones” and argues “the region urgently requires a development strategy, not a military approach.” Moreover, he says the “US and Europe are not only failing to respond to the African drought; they have probably contributed to it through their greenhouse-gas emissions.”

Former NATO secretary general Javier Solana and the University of the Basque Country’s Daniel Innerarity declare an end to foreign affairs, saying that globalized threats and opportunities give today’s world an “epidemic character” that renders national policies inadequate: “Truly effective global governance is the strategic horizon that humanity must pursue today with all its energy.” Failure, they claim will mean “the “end of history” – not as the placid apotheosis of liberal democracy’s global victory, but as the worst collective failure we can imagine.”

A Bloomberg editorial argues Brazil, India and South Africa “don’t seem to demonstrate the awareness that international leadership comes with responsibilities as well as privileges.” Exhibit A, according to the authors, is the three countries’ disappointing troop contribution to UN peacekeeping: only India is a “major contributor,” they say, and even it ranks behind its much smaller neighbours, Pakistan and Bangladesh. But according to June statistics on military and police contributions to UN peacekeeping, India  ranks third overall, behind only Pakistan and Bangladesh. Brazil and South Africa rank 13th and 14th, respectively. The UK is 46th and the US is 64th, with approximately a twentieth of Brazil’s or South Africa’s contributions. As for the editorialists’ notion that a greater contribution from India, Brazil and South Africa could “possibly free European troops for more difficult missions, such as Afghanistan,” there are currently only three European countries (Italy, France and Spain) ranked among the top 35 contributors with over 500 troops or police serving as blue helmets.

A Voice of America editorial celebrates the UN refugee convention’s 60th anniversary, saying the agreement remains essential today given the millions “who have been uprooted from their homes and forced to live in difficult and in many cases unacceptable conditions.” The US leads the way both in terms of permanently resettling refugees (71,400 in 2010) and creating them in the first place (4.7 million from Afghanistan and Iraq).

Reuters’s Rachelle Younglai and Ana da Costa point out the “overwhelming irony” that credit agencies, such as Standard & Poors and Moody’s, “are the same firms that many blame as prime instigators of the 2007-2008 credit crisis for freely giving out top ratings to ultimately worthless structured mortgage products” and yet, they now “sit in judgment of the countries that had to ruin their public balance sheets to prevent financial collapse by saving the banks shattered by those bad instruments once blessed by the agencies.”