Latest Developments, July 24

In the latest news and analysis…

Supply chain ruling
Reuters reports that a US judge has upheld a rule requiring companies to disclose the use of “conflict minerals” from the Democratic Republic of Congo or surrounding countries:

“The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, and the National Association of Manufacturers had challenged the conflict minerals rule, saying it was too costly and violated companies’ First Amendment free speech rights.
But in his order issued late Tuesday afternoon, [Judge Robert Wilkins of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia] rejected both of those arguments.

The ruling by Wilkins in the [Securities and Exchange Commission’s] favor comes just a few weeks after the agency lost another legal battle over a companion humanitarian Dodd-Frank rule that the Chamber and others had also challenged.
In early July, a different federal district judge tossed out the SEC’s ‘extractive resources’ rule requiring oil, gas and mining companies to disclose payments to foreign governments.”

Press pardon
McClatchy reports that the White House is “concerned and disappointed” over the release from prison of a Yemeni journalist incarcerated after reporting on US drone strikes:

“As a condition of his release, [Abdulelah Haider] Shaye will be prohibited from leaving Sanaa for two years. Nevertheless, many Yemeni journalists and local press freedom organizations responded to the news with jubilance, hailing Hadi’s actions and celebrating Shaye’s freedom.
Shaye’s release ‘is a victory for common values of media freedom, justice and human rights,’ said a statement from the Freedom Foundation, a Sanaa-based press freedom organization headed by Yemeni journalist Khaled al Hammadi. ‘Especially since President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi ordered the release of Shaye despite all the American pressures on him to keep him in prison.’ ”

Historical responsibility
Amnesty International is calling an Indian court summons of US-based Dow Chemical “an important step” toward corporate accountability over the Bhopal disaster that killed an estimated 22,000 people three decades ago:

“The company has been ordered to explain why its wholly owned subsidiary, Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), has repeatedly ignored court summons in the ongoing criminal case concerning the 1984 Bhopal disaster, where UCC is accused of ‘culpable homicide not amounting to murder’.

‘Dow’s attempt to distance itself from its wholly owned subsidiary UCC has always ignored the reality of the relationship between the two companies. Today’s court summons has confirmed that Dow itself must ensure that UCC faces up to its responsibilities,’ said [Amnesty International’s Audrey] Gaughran.”

Green light
The Washington Post reports that the CIA has received congressional approval to begin arming Syrian rebels despite “very strong concerns” about the plan:

“Both the House and Senate [intelligence committees] voted on the administration’s plan last week, officials said.
The agreement allows money already in the CIA’s budget to be reprogrammed for the Syria operation, a covert action that President Obama approved early last month. The infrastructure for the program, which also includes training, logistics and intelligence assistance — most of it based in Jordan — is already in place and the arms would begin to flow within the next several weeks.”

Compliance optional
The author of the Economist’s Democracy in America blog writes that the US government has rarely respected a decades-old prohibition on US aid to “coup regimes”:

“The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, the act that initially rationalised foreign-aid policy under a single budget authority, provides that ‘none of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available pursuant to this Act shall be obligated or expended to finance directly any assistance to any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by a military coup or decree.’
So, how many times have elected heads of governments receiving American aid been overthrown in coups since 1961, and in how many cases did America cut off that aid? As far as I can tell, the answers are: lots, and once or twice.”

Food conquest
The Guardian reports on concerns that the US is trying to force genetically modified food on Africa without proper public consultation:

“Food Sovereignty Ghana and other domestic organisations accuse the US and other foreign donors of promoting GM foods to west African countries, and tying aid to implementation.
According to a leaked cable, the US government was heavily involved in drafting Ghana’s 2011 Biosafety Act, which provided a framework for the introduction of GM foods. The US aid department

[Food Sovereignty Ghana’s Duke] Tagoe said: ‘Farmers in Ghana have had their own way of keeping seeds year after year. If these policies are allowed to manifest, Ghanaian farmers will have to change money into foreign [currency] in order to purchase seeds from overseas firms. The economic impact on the lives of the farmers will be disastrous. The origin of food is seed. Whoever controls the seed controls the entire food chain. These seeds are not owned by any African entity, they are owned by American companies.’ ”

Congo forests
Global Witness takes issue with a new report that suggests “controlled timber management” has slowed deforestation rates in the Congo basin:

“There is little evidence to back up such claims, while the study ignores threats from the expansion of illegal logging operations, large-scale agricultural investments and palm oil plantations.
‘This is a shortsighted and misleading study. The world’s second largest rainforest is losing 2000 square km – an area 34 times the size of Manhattan – every year. This is totally unsustainable, and it’s set to get worse. When the Democratic Republic of Congo‘s freeze on new logging is lifted and the forest has been parcelled up for different commercial uses, we’ll see much more deforestation. The idea that things are moving in the right direction is ludicrous,’ said Alexandra Pardal of Global Witness.”

Mutual learning
TRANSCEND Peace University’s Johan Galtung lists his prescriptions for attaining “peace with our futures”:

“Fight inequality, boycott companies with CEOs making more than five to 10 times what the workers earn, switch to cooperatives, transfer accounts to savings banks, introduce a sales tax of five percent for financial transactions to finance a living wage and to put a brake on insane speculation, increase the quantity and quality of mediation and nonviolence all over, fight for democracy with transparency, dialogue, petitions, referenda, pick the best from worldviews, both-and, not either-or.
Islam offers togetherness and sharing needed in the West, the West offers diversity and freedom needed in Islam; go for mutual learning.”

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Latest Developments, January 29

In the latest news and analysis…

Sahel drones
The Wall Street Journal reports that the US and Niger have signed a military agreement paving the way for what could be the first of several new American drone bases in the region:

“The U.S. and France are moving to create an intelligence hub in Niger that could include a base, near Mali’s border, for American drones that could monitor al Qaeda-linked militants in Mali’s vast desert north, U.S. officials said.

The signing of the so-called status-of-forces agreement with Niger was a necessary precursor for American military operations there, officials said.

Other countries in the region are also seen by U.S. officials as possible hosts for drone bases.

Current and former officials said the Central Intelligence Agency or the U.S. military may be able to reach a deal in which Algeria provides a drone base in exchange for equipment and training.”

Invisible war
Al Jazeera reports that both journalists and humanitarian workers trying to gain access to the conflict zones in Mali are distraught that they have neither freedom of movement nor access to even the most basic information:

“French officials have organised no press conferences in Bamako. Their press contingent in Bamako consists of a one-man band, whose main function is to refer media queries to Paris.
The Malian army has likewise restricted media access, barring journalists and human rights organisations from areas safely in its hands such as Konna and Sevare for some days. The lack of freedom of movement has also drawn criticism from aid groups, who say people are being blocked from fleeing the conflict.
On top of the roadblocks, communications have been cut wherever operations are underway, making it impossible to independently verify what is taking place.

There are no official death tolls either for civilians or soldiers. No-one interviewed by Al Jazeera could say where prisoners of war were being held or how they were being treated.”

Closer closure
The New York Times reports that the US State Department is reassigning and not replacing the official tasked with closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay:

“The announcement that no senior official in President Obama’s second term will succeed [Daniel] Fried in working primarily on diplomatic issues pertaining to repatriating or resettling detainees appeared to signal that the administration does not currently see the closing of the prison as a realistic priority, despite repeated statements that it still intends to do so.

Mr. Fried’s special envoy post was created in 2009, shortly after Mr. Obama took office and promised to close the prison in his first year. A career diplomat, Mr. Fried traveled the world negotiating the repatriation of some 31 low-level detainees and persuading third-party countries to resettle about 40 who were cleared for release but could not be sent home because of fears of abuse.
But the outward flow of detainees slowed almost to a halt as Congress imposed restrictions on further transfers, leaving Mr. Fried with less to do.”

134 countries
The Center for American Progress’s John Norris argues that the US may be providing “military aid” to too many countries:

“In 2012 the United States delivered bilateral security assistance to 134 countries — meaning that every country on Earth had about a 75 percent chance of receiving U.S. military aid. Once you weed out places like North Korea and Vatican City, you are pretty much assured of receiving military aid no matter how large or small your country, no matter how democratic or despotic your regime, no matter how lofty or minimal your GDP.

Equally troubling, military and economic assistance are treated as quite different creatures. For economic assistance, the United States has increasingly insisted that aid recipients at least demonstrate some marginal commitment to democracy and open markets. Not so on the military side, where concerns about corruption, the rule of law, and human rights are treated as something we are too polite to ask about.”

Right to move
The Raw Story reports that former New Jersey judge turned Fox News analyst Andrew Napolitano believes the US government should not have the right to restrict immigration:

“ ‘This is the natural law, a natural right,’ he added. ‘Rights come from your humanity. It doesn’t matter where your mother was when you were born.’ ”

Worked to death
The Mail and Guardian reports on the state of health of South Africa’s hundreds of thousands of current and former mine workers:

“The department of labour puts the number of former miners in Southern Africa who live with pneumoconiosis, which includes lung diseases such as asbestosis and silicosis, at nearly 500 000.

Health department figures show that the mining sector is responsible for 9 out of every ten cases of reported occupational lung diseases, and the gold mining industry has the fastest-growing TB epidemic in the world.”

Labour pains
The Financial Times reports that American tech giant Apple has found a range of workers’ rights violations, including child labour, in its supply chain:

“The California-based company, which has stepped up its auditing efforts in the past year under chief executive Tim Cook, said it had uncovered 106 ‘active cases’ of children being employed by its suppliers over the course of 2012, and 70 people who had been underage and either left or passed the age of 16 by the time of its audit.
None of those individuals is still employed by the suppliers, after Apple worked with its partners to help them spot fake identification documents or falsified records.

Overall it found that just under a quarter of its suppliers failed to comply with its labour and human rights standards, with other breaches including 11 facilities using bonded labour.”

Licence to drill
The School for International Training’s Christian Parenti argues that pressuring institutions to “divest their portfolios of fossil fuel investments” is not the best way to alter the oil industry’s behaviour:

“Some divesters say they can revoke corporations’ ‘social license to operate,’ a problematic term that emanates from the ‘corporate social responsibility’ scene and basically means ‘corporate reputation.’
Big Carbon has already lost its ‘social license’ and with no apparent effect on its real operations. Every year Gallup asks Americans how they feel about 25 leading industries. Every year oil shows up dead last as the most disliked industry in America. Last year it had a 61 percent disapproval rating.
What we need to revoke is Big Carbon’s actual, legal license to operate. Government grants that right. And the moral crisis generated by protest must crystallize as state action.”

Latest Developments, January 17

In the latest news and analysis…

War behind closed doors
Reporters Without Borders is calling for journalists, both local and foreign, to be granted access to the conflict zone in Mali:

“Forced to comply with military directives that are keeping them far from the areas of operation by preventing them from going beyond the city of Ségou, the international and local media have been calling it a ‘war behind closed doors.’
The French and Malian authorities are preventing journalists from getting within 100 km of the areas where fighting is taking place. It is particularly difficult of find out what is happening in the embattled city of Gao, where phone networks have been down since the start of the week, preventing any contact with local residents, journalists or anyone else.”

Perfect record
The Associated Press reports that the International Criminal Court has launched a formal investigation into war crimes in Mali, thereby maintaining the Hague-based court’s apparently exclusive focus on Africa:

“The Mali probe is the Hague-based court’s eighth investigation — all of them in Africa.
The 10-year-old court also has opened investigations in Libya, Sudan, Ivory Coast, Uganda, Congo, Central African Republic and Kenya.
Suspects indicted so far include Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo and Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. The court also indicted former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, but closed the case when he was killed by rebels who toppled his four-decade regime.”

We the oil & gas companies
The Hill reports that a trio of US senators is contending that a lawsuit by business groups threatens the ability of Congress to make energy policy:

“Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and ex-Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), in a court filing Thursday, defend [Securities and Exchange Commission] rules that will force oil, gas and mining companies to disclose payments to foreign governments.
Their brief in the case notes that oil and business groups have challenged not only the specifics of the rule, but Congress’s power, in the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul law, to force the disclosure.”

Rules of the game
In an interview with the Guardian, outgoing Oxfam head Barbara Stocking says she believes the “humanitarian spirit” has changed fundamentally since she got into the development business:

“And I think we’ve shifted in understanding that it’s not just the poor places that need to be changed, but our habits. But it’s hard to get across the message that it’s us lot, who are actually using all the global goods, who need to change. Not poor people.

I think we recognise more that poverty is about power and politics more generally – and that while charity or aid may be necessary, actually the rules of the game have to be changed if anything’s going to happen.”

Cloak of respectability
The World Development Movement’s Miriam Ross makes the case for companies that behave badly overseas to be de-listed from the London Stock Exchange:

“Richard Lambert, former director general of [the Confederation of British Industry], wrote in the Financial Times: ‘It never occurred to those of us who helped launch the FTSE 100 index 27 years ago that one day it would be providing a cloak of respectability and lots of passive investors for companies that challenge the canons of corporate governance such as Vedanta…Perhaps it is time for those responsible for the index to rethink its purpose.’
In November, John McDonnell MP made the case in parliament for Vedanta and other ethically contentious mining companies to be strongly regulated by the FCA, including possibly de-listed ‘because of their behaviour in the developing world.’

A listing on the London Stock Exchange gives companies like Vedanta access to vast financial resources, as well as a cloak of legitimacy, however thin. As long as the City of London is home to mining companies that pursue profit at the expense of the lives of people in the countries in which they operate, it will hold part of the responsibility for the crimes they commit.”

Haven for fraud
The Guardian reports on the UK’s support for fraud-facilitating offshore secrecy in places like the British Virgin Islands:

“The BVI’s system of offshore secrecy is underwritten by the UK government, which ultimately controls the behaviour of the Caribbean islands. It is popular among property firms in the City of London, which are allowed by the British government’s Department for Business, Innovation & Skills to conceal the identities of owners on the UK’s public Land Registry, by putting premises in the name of such BVI vehicles.
More than 1m BVI companies have now been incorporated since the launch of their offshore system in the 1980s, according to the latest figures, and it is the world’s biggest provider of offshore entities.”

Democracy in crisis
The Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities’ Slavoj Žižek argues a recent Slovenian court decision is “a symptom of a global tendency towards the limitation of democracy”:

“The idea is that, in a complex economic situation like today’s, the majority of the people are not qualified to decide – they are unaware of the catastrophic consequences that would ensue if their demands were to be met.

What is new today is that, with the financial crisis that began in 2008, this same distrust of democracy – once constrained to the third world or post-communist developing countries – is gaining ground in the developed west itself: what was a decade or two ago patronising advice to others now concerns ourselves.”

Latest Developments, July 24

In the latest news and analysis…

Bad news on inequality
The Tax Justice Network has released a pair of reports on the extent and the impacts of the global offshore banking system, which together argue that the “at least $21 trillion hidden in secret tax havens” mean economic inequality is actually much worse than generally thought:

“At its simplest, our argument is that if an asset is hidden in an offshore bank account, or an offshore trust or company, and the ultimate owner or beneficiary of the income or capital cannot be identified, then this asset and the income it produces will not be counted in the inequality statistics. Almost all these hidden assets are owned by the world’s wealthiest individuals. So it follows that the inequality statistics, particularly at the top end of the scale, underestimate the scale of the problem.”

AND

“For our focus subgroup of 139 mostly low-middle income countries, traditional data shows aggregate external debts of $4.1tn at the end of 2010. But take their foreign reserves and unrecorded offshore private wealth into account, and the picture reverses: they had aggregate net debts of minus US$10.1-13.1tn. In other words, these countries are big net creditors, not debtors. Unfortunately, their assets are held by a few wealthy individuals, while their debts are shouldered by their ordinary people through their governments.”

Strings attached
The International Monetary Fund has announced it has approved a $156 million loan for Malawi, as a result of new president Joyce Banda’s policies, even though they may be exacerbating the country’s growing food crisis:

“Following the Board’s discussion of Malawi, Naoyuki Shinohara, Deputy Managing Director and Acting Chair, issued the following statement:
‘Malawi’s new administration moved swiftly to devalue the kwacha, adopt a flexible exchange rate regime and liberalize current account transactions to address the country’s chronic balance of payment problems and improve the outlook for poverty reduction and growth.’

‘Tight control over non-priority spending will be needed to ensure that expenditures are aligned with the government’s priorities, including scaled up spending on social protection programs to mitigate the impact of adjustment measures on the poor.’ ”

Regulatory capture
The New York Times discusses a new book by Neil Barofsky, “the man whose job it was to police the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program”:

“ ‘There has to be wide-scale acknowledgment that regulatory capture exists, dominates our system and needs to be eradicated,’ Mr. Barofsky said in the interview.

‘We need to re-educate our regulators that it’s O.K. to be adversarial, that it’s not going to hurt your career advancement to be more skeptical and more challenging,’ he said. ‘It’s implicit in so much of the regulatory structure that if you don’t make too many waves there will be a job for you elsewhere. So we have to limit those job opportunities and develop a more professional path for regulators as a career. That way, they won’t always have that siren call of Wall Street.’
Mr. Barofsky’s assessment of his former regulatory brethren is crucial for taxpayers to understand, because Congress’s financial reform act — the Dodd-Frank legislation — left so much of the heavy lifting to the weak-kneed.”

Expanding footprint
MENAFN reports that Barrick Gold subsidiary African Barrick Gold is growing its operations beyond Tanzania, where controversies involving the company’s mines have included alleged toxic spills and fatal shootings, into Kenya with newly acquired exploration assets:

“Aviva’s Kenyan assets are located in the southwest corner of Kenya, about 300 kilometers northwest of Nairobi, near the border of Uganda and on the shores of Lake Victoria, it said.
‘This acquisition represents the first step in expanding our footprint outside of Tanzania and building our future growth pipeline,’ said Chief Executive Greg Hawkins. ‘The acquisition is an attractive entry into an under explored and highly prospective land package in a country bordering our existing operations.’ ”

Democratic calculus
Responding to a Human Rights Watch report condemning the current state of human rights in Venezuela, the Overseas Development Institute’s Jonathan Glennie counters that in some instances, freedom of the press “can actually mitigate against progress for the majority poor”:

“Take the Murdoch empire, multiply it by about a thousand and you are somewhere close to how powerful the rightwing media is in Latin America. In [the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Mark] Weisbrot’s words the ‘unelected owners [of major media outlets] and their allies use their control of information to advance the interests of the wealth and power that used to rule the country’.
It is proven beyond doubt that the rightwing media was an active and key player in the 2002 coup that briefly removed [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chávez from power (see the brilliant documentary The revolution will not be televised). In such a context, reducing the rightwing media’s room for manoeuvre may be a crucial element in any plan to radically transform a country. (In the run-up to elections in October, Chavez has accused Venezuela’s privately owned media companies of bias towards the opposition and of ignoring his government’s achievements.) Where single-issue civil rights organisations see media crackdowns, what may be happening is an elected and popular government trying to implement the will of the people in the face of powerful business interests prepared to undermine democracy if need be.”

Fatal laws
Reuters reports that Mexican President Felipe Calderon has called America’s gun laws “mistaken” and is urging the US government to change them: 

“In comments posted on his Twitter account on Saturday, Calderon offered his condolences to the United States after a gunman went on the rampage with an assault rifle at a midnight premier of the new Batman film in Aurora, Colorado.
But Mexico’s president, who has repeatedly called on Washington to tighten gun controls to stop weapons flowing from the United States into the hands of Mexican drug cartels, said U.S. weapons policy needed a rethink after the killings.”

Fostering homophobia
The Guardian reports that US-based thinktank Political Research Associates is accusing American evangelical groups of attempting a “cultural colonisation” of Africa by opening offices across the continent to promote attacks on abortion and homosexuality.

“Entitled Colonising African Values: How the US Christian Right is Transforming Sexual Politics in Africa, the study analysed data from seven African countries and employed researchers for several months in Kenya, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
It identified three organisations it believes are aggressively targeting the continent: [televangelist Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice], the Catholic group Human Life International and Family Watch International, led by the Mormon activist Sharon Slater.
Each of these ‘frame their agendas as authentically African, in an effort to brand human rights advocacy as a new colonialism bent on destroying cultural traditions and values’, the report says.”