Latest Developments, May 16

In the latest news and analysis…

State of the planet
Agence France-Presse summarizes the World Wildlife Federation’s new Living Planet Report, which says high-income countries have five times the ecological footprint of their poorer counterparts.
“The survey, compiled every two years, reported an average 30 percent decrease in biodiversity since 1970, rising to 60 percent in the hardest-hit tropical regions.

The decline has been most rapid in lower income countries, ‘demonstrating how the poorest and most vulnerable nations are subsidising the lifestyles of wealthier countries,’ said WWF.”

Libyan deaths
Human Rights Watch has released a new report about the 72 civilian deaths it says were caused by NATO strikes in Libya last year.
“The number of civilian deaths from NATO air strikes in Libya was low given the extent of the bombing and duration of the campaign, Human Rights Watch said. Nevertheless, the absence of a clear military target at seven of the eight sites Human Rights Watch visited raises concerns of possible laws-of-war violations that should be investigated.

NATO asserts that it cannot conduct post-operation investigations into civilian casualties in Libya because it has no mandate to operate on the ground. But NATO has not requested permission from Libya’s transitional government to look into the incidents of civilian deaths and should promptly do so, Human Rights Watch said.
‘The overall care NATO took in the campaign is undermined by its refusal to examine the dozens of civilian deaths,’ [HRW’s Fred] Abrahams said.”

Corporate power
The Guardian reports on a legal dispute between a UK hedge fund and an Indian state-controlled coal company, which has some observers asking if the “terms of trade and investment are skewed” in a way that harms poor countries and poor people.
“ ‘What this case really illustrates is how far global trade and investment rules have gone in increasing the power and influence of companies,’ said Ruth Bergan, co-ordinator for the Trade Justice Movement. ‘Under bilateral investment treaties, companies have been given the right to sue states, not in national courts, whether in host or home countries, but in international arbitration centres, based at the International Chamber of Commerce, the World Bank, and a handful of other often highly secretive centres.’ ”

Terror double-standard
The Atlantic’s John Hudson suggests US ambivalence toward assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists is evidence of America’s “flexible definition” of terrorism.
“The Obama administration is moving to delist an Iranian dissident group from the State Department terrorism list, which, as recently as January, reportedly detonated a magnetic bomb under the car of an Iranian scientist. Perhaps unintentionally, the message the move would send appears to be: This activity is OK as long as it’s against Iran.”

Rio+20 deadlock
Inter Press Service reports that two weeks of preparatory talks for next month’s Rio+20 summit have “failed to reach consensus on a global plan of action.”
“ ‘Let us be frank,’ the [UN Conference on Sustainable Development] secretary general Sha Zukang said, ‘the negotiating text is a far cry from the focused political document called for by the general assembly.’ Zukang said the objective should be to arrive in Rio ‘with at least 90% of the text ready, and only the most difficult 10% left to be negotiated there at the highest political levels’.
However, a statement released by a coalition of international NGOs warned that Rio+20 ‘looks set to add almost nothing to global efforts to deliver sustainable development’. ‘Too many governments are using or allowing the talks to undermine established human rights and agreed principles such as equity, precaution and polluter pays,’ it said.”

Western gender problems
UC Santa Barbara’s Hilal Elver argues that a recent Foreign Policy issue on the plight of women around the world failed to acknowledge that gender equality does not exist in Western countries either.
“Anthropologists use the term ‘native informants’ to identify the witness of insiders. Giving a platform to Muslim women writers critical of Islam has also become a very popular tactic in Europe. These commentators claim to speak from bitter experience about how Islam is bad for women. This makes the European public feel comfortable when they adopt public policies against Islamic practices.

FP only pointed to the United States as a good example, how Secretary of State Hillary Clinton works on women’s issues while shaping US foreign policy. I am sure she has many things to say about the United States, if FP would ask, about the relevance of her gender to her unsuccessful presidential campaign. But, this is not what readers seem to care about. It would have been much more impressive and acceptable if such critical issues were presented not only for selected adversary countries and cultures, and if there was not exhibited such bias and partisanship.”

Show trial
The University of Ottawa’s Peter Showler writes about the lack of “sincerity” during a parliamentary investigation into the Canadian government’s proposed changes to national refugee laws.
“[The proceedings] became more show trial than law making. The witnesses called by the Conservatives repeated their versions of the government storyline: Canada is inundated with bogus refugees; we need fast decisions to get rid of the fraudulent claimants; they come here for welfare, not protection; putting smuggled passengers in prison for a year is the only way to stop the smugglers who are evil. The Conservative members rarely asked real questions of their witnesses. They repeated the government litanies about Canada’s generosity and burdens on the Canadian taxpayer followed by ‘would you agree?’

There is an awful, disembodied sensation in watching a show trial. It is the sensation of observing a slow-motion accident through a plate-glass window. Something horrible and inevitable is happening and there is nothing you can do to stop it. You realize the outcome has been decided already. The proceedings became a theatre piece where everyone played their part.”

Latest Developments, May 10

In the latest news and analysis…

Symbolic shift
The New York Times reports that US President Barack Obama has said he thinks same-sex marriage should be legal.
“While Mr. Obama’s announcement was significant from a symbolic standpoint, more important as a practical matter were Mr. Obama’s decision not to enforce the marriage act and his successful push in 2010 to repeal the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ law that prohibited openly gay men and lesbians from serving in the military. For that reason, gay rights groups had been largely enthusiastic about his re-election campaign while being pragmatically resigned to his not publicly supporting same-sex marriage before the election.
Mr. Obama’s announcement has little substantive impact — as an aide said, ‘It’s not like we’re trying to pass legislation.’ ”

Development triumvirate
The Guardian reports that the UN has appointed British Prime Minister David Cameron, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to lead efforts on coming up with post-2015 successors to the Millennium Development Goals.
“The three leaders will represent the world’s rich, middle- and low-income countries.

The Overseas Development Institute’s Claire] Melamed said the panel can be expected to restate the existing agenda, considering the failure to reach many of the targets, and discuss growth and employment, areas on which it will be relatively easy to reach agreement.
‘It will be trickier on more social and political issues such as governance and accountability,” she said. “When you reach down into talking about the how rather than how much, I imagine that will be more difficult.’ ”

New bedfellows
The Financial Times reports on the apparent shift “from confrontation to collaboration” in the relationship between NGOs and big business.
“Ironically, the new-found harmony between NGOs and business reflects a less happy reality: that the scale of problems we face – such as food security, water preservation and child labour – are simply too large for any one group or international forum to tackle. ‘The global middle class will grow from 2bn to 5bn in 20 years and lead to huge change in agriculture,’ explains Andy Wales, senior vice-president, sustainable development at SABMiller. ‘There is no way any sector on its own can do that.’
However, Mr Wales and his peers are equally clear that resolving these problems is dictated by self-interest rather than pure altruism.

NGOs are useful bodies to have on board when it comes to a second catalyst: securing raw material supplies – as illustrated by the farmers working with NGOs and SABMiller.”

Illegal bill
Embassy Magazine reports that a UN official has said that certain aspects of the Canadian government’s proposed new refugee policy would be at odds with international law.
“Chief among the parts of the bill worrying to [UNHCR’s Furio] De Angelis was one that lets the government detain an asylum seeker from an ‘irregular arrival,’ such as the boatload of 492 Tamils that arrived on British Columbia’s shores two years ago, for up to a year without review.
That is ‘at variance,’ he said in an interview after his testimony, with part of the UN convention that states that countries, such as Canada, that play by its rules shouldn’t penalize refugees who might enter illegally or restrict their movements unless necessary.
‘UNHCR strongly recommends that the government refrain from introducing a mandatory detention regime for irregular arrivals in relation to refugees and asylum seekers, and that alternatives to detention be explored,” said Mr. De Angelis during his testimony.’ ”

Playing with food
The “casino” that is food speculation must be shut down, acording to Frederick Kaufman, a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine.
“Commodity markets stand at the base of the $600tn global derivatives business, a generally unregulated miasma of over-the-counter swaps, index fund madness, and Wall Street roulette that ignited the mortgage meltdown, toppled AIG and Lehman Brothers, spurred the global currency crisis, and produced the present sorry state of the global economy, whereby a few chosen hedge fund managers haul in billions of dollars while 1 billion human beings find themselves unable to scrape together enough to eat.

All of which leads to the inevitable conclusion that the only way to stop speculation in food commodities is neither high-level debate nor regulation – how quaint and New Dealish – but criminalisation. Indeed, US senator Maria Cantwell and US congressman Ed Markey are now crafting a bill to make gambling on the world’s food supply illegal.”

Inequality numbers
Oxfam’s Duncan Green reviews (and quotes at length) a paper on inequality by the University of Cambridge’s Gabriel Palma, which contains findings Green considers “extremely important.”
“What [the graph] shows is that the real driver of inequality variations within countries is the richest 10% (and probably only the richest fraction of them). Even the next richest 10% basically gets the same chunk of national income across all countries. Palma puts this down to ‘one of the key characteristics of neo-liberal economic reforms: its ‘winner-takes-all’ proclivity.’ ”

Banned ingredients
Simon Fraser University’s Paul Meyer argues for fundamental changes to the international negotiation process at the heart of nuclear disarmament efforts.
“Not since a couple of weeks in the summer of 1998 has the Conference on Disarmament been able to undertake official work on a fissile material ban. Fourteen years of idleness on this, as all the while certain states continue to add to their stockpiles of fissile material and the nuclear weapons fashioned from them.
It doesn’t take a deep student of diplomatic affairs to discern the link between the consensus-based conference’s inability to agree on a programme of work including a fissile material ban, and the fact that amongst its member states it counts those still actively producing this essential nuclear weapon material.
To be repeating this formula in the face of almost fifteen years of inaction would seem to represent the triumph of hope over experience—or to put it more bluntly, of convenience over commitment.”

Tax cuts
Harvard’s Steven Strauss looks into the “article of faith among conservatives” that lower taxes create wealth for everyone.
“Actually the post World War II American economy provides a nice empirical test of this hypothesis — the maximum marginal income tax rate gradually declined from about 90% to about 35%. Shouldn’t this decline have lead to an explosion of economic growth as our wealth creators were unleashed? Sorry, Sarah Palin… it didn’t.
During the ultra high tax 1950s (top marginal income tax rate of 90%), the United States had some of its best real economic growth (over 4%/year). And, for the decade where we had our lowest marginal income tax rates — we had our worst real economic growth (about 1.5%/year).”