Latest Developments, September 24

In the latest news and analysis…

Françafrique lives
Le Figaro reports that France’s involvement in the looming international fight for northern Mali may go beyond the “logistical support” discussed by the country’s defence minister:

“About 100 members of the French special forces have already been deployed to the region. They should receive reinforcements shortly, most notably from Navy commandos. French assistance also includes naval patrol aircraft, which gather intelligence, and a surveillance system based in Niger. The plan, from Paris’s perspective, would be to assemble an action force of several hundred troops to reconquer northern Mali, which has been occupied for several months by armed Islamist groups.” [Translated from the French.]

Liberalizing Egypt
Jubilee Debt Campaign’s Nick Dearden argues that Western media portrayals of Egypt “through the prism of political rights versus Islam” ignore the potential impacts of policies being pushed by organizations such as the International Monetary Fund:

“The IMF says it has changed its ways since working with [former Egyptian president Hosni] Mubarak to restructure the Egyptian economy in the 1990s, and won’t ask for many conditions this time around.
However, many people remain sceptical about the IMF’s agenda – privatisation, indirect taxation, removal of subsidies (many of which are corrupt, but some of which do genuinely support the poor) and an economy based around exports. As one government insider said last week: ‘In Egypt, we call privatisation what it is – stealing.’ A propaganda campaign aims to convince Egyptians that ‘there is no alternative’.

‘The question is not whether to take a loan, but who will run this country for the next five years,’ Amr Adly from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights told an anti-privatisation conference in Cairo. He’s right because the IMF’s plan is to extend and promote new loans to Egypt so that it can continue to pay (rather than question) Mubarak’s debts, and use this influence to impose a whole host of liberalisation policies.”

Oil spills
The Observer reports that Shell’s efforts to clean up a pair of oil spills in Nigeria’s Niger delta are described as “totally amateurish” in a new assessment:

“Shell, which made £19.1bn profit last year, accepted responsiblity and pledged to fully restore the damage done by spills from its rusting pipelines near the Ogoni village of Bodo in 2008.
But an assessment has found only small pilot schemes were started and the most contaminated areas around Bodo and the Gokana district of Ogoniland remain untouched. The impoverished Ogoni fishing and farming communities say they still cannot return to work and have received no compensation. They have accused Shell of applying different standards to clean-ups in Nigeria compared with the rest of the world.”

Carbon controls
Reuters reports that the US Senate has voted unanimously for a bill meant to ensure the country’s airlines will not have to pay for the carbon they emit on European flights:

“The bill increases pressure on the U.N. International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to devise a global alternative to the EU law.
Connie Hedegaard, the European Climate Commissioner, said on Saturday that while the bill encourages the United States to work within the U.N. organization for a global deal on aviation emissions, she is skeptical that Washington will accept such a deal.
‘It’s not enough to say you want it, you have to work hard to get it done,’ she told Reuters on Saturday. ‘That means that the U.S. needs to change its approach in ICAO and show willingness to actually seal a meaningful global deal that will facilitate action.’ ”

Exclusive growth
The Globe and Mail reports on the uneven benefits of a Swiss-owned sugar plantation for nearby communities in Sierra Leone:

“The 700 villagers [in Lungi Acre] have been boxed in by the Swiss project, their huts surrounded by the vast plantation. Rice and cassava fields were bulldozed, and people were left with so little water and farmland that they say they must buy imported rice in the markets. Just outside the village, a water reservoir is fenced off with razor wire, and guards patrol to chase villagers away from the sugar cane.
‘Addax [Bioenergy] is making the situation much worse,’ says Abdullah Serry, an elder. ‘There’s no water for the little land we have left. We were dependent on those lands for all these years. We depended on them for survival. Now, we rely on Addax for everything.’ ”

Bank transparency
The Tax Justice Network argues it would be “a disaster” for Italy, Belgium and Greece to sign so-called Rubik tax deals with Switzerland:

“These deals are the centrepieces of a plot by Swiss bankers to sabotage progress on a major global initiative on financial transparency, the EU Savings Tax Directive which is in the process of being strengthened.  As we noted earlier, the [Swiss Bankers’ Association] said the initiative was designed as an ‘independent counter-concept’ to prevent the global emergence of the gold standard of transparency, automatic information exchange”

America’s forgotten war
Agence France-Presse reports that despite the ongoing violence of the conflict, America’s war in Afghanistan is virtually absent from the US presidential campaign:

“ ‘To the extent that we are waging this war without a public debate, I think that is a mistake,’ said Stephen Biddle, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.
‘I understand that the economy will be a dominant issue (but) we are killing others, and suffering casualties ourselves and spending billions of dollars.’

Polls reveal that by two-to-one margins, Americans don’t think the Afghan conflict is worth fighting.
But there are no peace marches on the White House from a weary public content to ignore the war, so there is little direct pressure on politicians.”

Show me your papers
A Washington Post editorial describes as “obnoxious” an immigration law that came into force in Arizona last week and predicts its impacts will be similar to those of controversial Alabama legislation implemented about a year ago:

“There, according to a recent report by the National Immigration Law Center, an immigrant advocacy group, law enforcement officers have created an ‘environment of racial profiling’ that has encouraged private citizens to discriminate and abuse people they regard as foreign. The report, based on thousands of calls to a hotline, recounted instances of Hispanics, including legal residents, who were repeatedly stopped by police on flimsy pretexts and, in some cases, subjected to prolonged roadside detentions.”

Latest Developments, January 23

In the latest news and analysis…

Spring cleaning
Human Rights Watch has released the latest edition of its “annual review of human rights practices around the globe” which this year has a special focus on the Arab Spring.
“The United States and some European allies could make an enormous contribution to ending torture in the Arab world by coming clean about their own records of complicity in torture as part of their fight against terrorism. Western governments should punish those responsible for ordering or facilitating torture and end the use of diplomatic assurances as a fig leaf to justify sending suspects to countries where they risk torture.”

Deadly mining protest
The Oaxaca Study Action Group reports that two people were shot, one of them fatally, in the course of a protest against a Canadian-owned mine in southern Mexico.
“San José del Progreso, located 50 km south of Oaxaca City, has been a flash point for violence since an alliance of local environmentalists and farmers occupied the gold and silver mine in early 2009. Despite widespread resistance and an ongoing conflict that already claimed the lives of two people in summer 2010, Fortuna Silver began commercial operation of the mine last September. As the installations are located in an arid valley, smooth operation is heavily dependent on water access to process the ore. The contamination of the scarce resource is among the main concerns of the mining opponents, many of whom grow vegetables for a living and rely on clean water for irrigation.”

Rubik on life support
The Tax Justice Network gleefully reports that Switzerland’s Rubik plan to preserve its famous banking secrecy is on the verge of collapsing as EU objections to Swiss tax deals with Britain and Germany intensify.
“TJN’s position is unambiguous: these deals are weak, immoral, and even silly – and they undermine international attempts to tackle tax evasion. Both Germany and Britain should swallow their pride, withdraw from the deals, and put their diplomatic effort into pushing through the EU’s enhanced Savings Tax Directive – suitably extended to Switzerland.”

Maximum wage
The Guardian’s George Monbiot calls for a nationwide UK maximum wage to rein in corporate executive pay, which he describes as “a form of institutionalised theft, arranged by a kleptocratic class for the benefit of its members.”
“I’m not talking about ratios or relative earnings. Various bodies have proposed that there should be a fixed ratio of the top earnings within a company to either the median or lowest salaries. But as a report on this issue by the New Economics Foundation shows, the first measurement quickly becomes complex and opaque, the second creates an incentive to contract out the lowest paid work. I’m talking about an absolute maximum, applied nationwide.”

Drones and America
The Brookings Institution’s Peter Singer looks at the impact that America’s increasing reliance on drone strikes is having on its own democracy, quite apart from any death and destruction caused in distant countries.
“We must now accept that technologies that remove humans from the battlefield, from unmanned systems like the Predator to cyberweapons like the Stuxnet computer worm, are becoming the new normal in war.
And like it or not, the new standard we’ve established for them is that presidents need to seek approval only for operations that send people into harm’s way — not for those that involve waging war by other means.
Without any actual political debate, we have set an enormous precedent, blurring the civilian and military roles in war and circumventing the Constitution’s mandate for authorizing it.”

Drones and Pakistan
News Pakistan reports on Pakistani cricketer turned politician Imran Khan’s take on the impact US drone strikes are having on the ground in his country.
“Imran Khan, the chief of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), has urged the United States to stop drone strikes in Pakistan, claiming that they were killing many innocent people.
He observed that each bomb that killed terrorists also killed many people who might be related to the terrorists but were not involved in militancy.
In his view this collateral damage creates more Jihadis than it kills, he said this while interviewing with CNN.”

Proceed with caution
New York University’s Alex Evans and David Steven argue that despite growing enthusiasm for Sustainable Development Goals ahead of the Rio+20 summit, there is a lack of clarity regarding their contours and timeframe.
“The question of which countries would be covered by SDGs is a minefield. With any set of SDGs likely to be universal rather than applicable only to developing countries, major political challenges would arise. The MDGs demanded relatively little of OECD governments: all that was asked of them was aid, and relatively small amounts of it at that. A more comprehensive set of post-2015 Goals, on the other hand, would need to look ‘beyond aid’ – entailing changes to domestic policies in sensitive areas like migration, trade, intellectual property, or energy policy. The vexed issue of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ would certainly arise along the way – perhaps bedevilling post-2015 discussions as it already has the Doha round and the UNFCCC climate process (though an optimist might argue that a universal approach could help debate to move past the rigid and outdated typology of ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries).”

Migrant myths
The Observer’s Barbara Ellen writes that new statistics undermine traditional narratives about immigrants and “benefits tourism.”
“This could be a chance to start a new kind of immigration debate, one that doesn’t centre on: ‘What are they taking from us?’ Rather, it might ask: ‘What are they giving us?’ Even: ‘Do we expect too much, too soon, of migrants? Should we break the habit of a lifetime and get off their backs?’
For too long, there’s been a bizarre cultural climate of putting migrants under unfair pressure to perform instantly. It’s as if they’re expected to be supermen and women, breezily starting multinational companies the moment they arrive… in a foreign country, sometimes homeless, and with a new language to master.”

Latest Developments, November 24

In the latest news and analysis…

Water grab
The International Institute for Environment and Development has released a new report warning that the African “land grab” phenomenon also involves water rights, with implications extending far beyond the land being sold.
“‘Companies that acquire land for irrigated farming will want secure water rights, but long-term contractual commitments can jeopardise water access for local farmers,’ says co-author Lorenzo Cotula. ‘This affects not only the people who have customarily used the land that is being leased, but also distant downstream users who can be hundreds of kilometres away and even across an international border.’
The Gibe III dam in Ethiopia will enable irrigation on 150,000 [hectares] of land the Ethiopian government has allocated to investors, but studies suggest this project would lower the level of Kenya’s Lake Turkana – on which half a million Kenyans depend — by eight metres by 2024.”

Intellectual property and health
Intellectual Property Watch reports on a high-level World Trade Organization meeting on how best to balance the demands of trade, intellectual property and public health.
“There were variations in views of the issues of the health, trade and IP officials that echo differences typical across national governments. [World Health Organization head Margaret] Chan was more outspoken about putting health matters ahead of commercial interests, using especially strong language against the tobacco industry, which is lobbying intensively in trade arenas like the WTO to stop national governments from taking actions against tobacco packaging aimed at discouraging smoking. Chan also said that an “elephant in the room” is policy incoherence within governments, where different agencies are working in different directions, and then they expect the international organisations to solve their internal issues.”

Intellectual property and poverty
United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development Jomo Kwame Sundaram argues stronger intellectual property rules have “ominous implications” for the world’s poor.
“Affordable and equitable access to existing and new technologies is crucial for human progress and sustainable development in many areas, including food security and climate-change mitigation and adaptation.
The same is true of affordable access to essential medicines, on which progress has been modest. By 2009, such medicines were available in just 42% of poor countries’ public facilities and 64% of private-sector facilities. Meanwhile, median prices in the public sector were 2.7 times the international reference prices and 6.1 times higher in the private sector!”

The price of secrecy
Le Monde reports on Switzerland’s growing success at getting cash-strapped countries to sign agreements that preserve bank secrecy despite G20 pledges to tackle tax havens.
“A number of countries in financial difficulty are in fact negotiating similar deals [to those recently signed by Germany and the UK] with Bern or are preparing to do so, such as Italy and Greece, according to several sources. But the Rubik accords are highly problematic, says a chorus of officials and NGOs. For starters, according to a source that is well acquainted with the file, ‘the text is a way for Switzerland to snuff out European efforts to obtain automatic exchange of financial information, which it absolutely does not want.’ ‘Morally, these deals are tough to swallow because they maintain the anonymity of account holders,’ adds the French government’s point man on the fight against tax havens, François d’Aubert.” [Translated from the French.]

Phoned-in CSR reports
The Guardian reports on a study that suggests companies are not taking environmental reporting seriously.
“The examination of more than 4,000 corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports and company surveys by a team at Leeds University found ‘irrelevant data, unsubstantiated claims, gaps in data and inaccurate figures’ – a finding that will cast serious doubt over the burgeoning sector.
Among the most colourful mistakes and omissions made by some of the world’s biggest corporations were a company whose carbon footprint was four times that for the whole world, and a carmaker and power group which both, entirely legally, managed to excise a huge coal plant from their pollution record.”

Chevron’s rights suspended
Reuters reports Brazil has suspended Chevron’s drilling rights following an offshore spill earlier this month.
“Chevron initially attributed the ‘sheen’ on the sea surface to naturally occurring seepage from the seabed. The company is being investigated by the Federal Police, which noted discrepancies between Chevron’s account of the spill and the government’s.
The Frade leak, while small, is likely to provide more ammunition for the growing worldwide opposition to offshore drilling in the wake of the estimated 4-million-barrel BP Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.”

Nuclear weapons-free zones
Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor emeritus Noam Chomsky argues that despite President Obama’s “rhetorical commitment” to nuclear non-proliferation, America’s actions “are in direct contradiction” to this posture.
“Parenthetically, we may add that US insistence on maintaining nuclear facilities in Diego Garcia undermines the [nuclear weapons-free zone] established by the African Union, just as Washington continues to block a Pacific NWFZ by excluding its Pacific dependencies.”

Linking transparency and procurement
Tax Justice Network guest blogger Matti Ylönen writes about a proposal in Helsinki to link corporate transparency and public procurement, an idea he hopes will spread beyond northern Europe.
“While discussions on binding Country-by-Country reporting standards are steadily gaining momentum in international fora, the city board of Helsinki has decided that it’s time to open another track. After returning the initiative earlier for further preparation, the board is now ready for Helsinki to start the background work on how the City of Helsinki could positively favour companies that report their key financial information openly and on country-by-country basis in public procurement.”

Republic of Lakotah
Al Jazeera asks if Native Americans could have their own country within US borders.
“In 2007, the Lakotah Freedom Delegation – a group of Native Americans led by activist Russell Means – declared sovereignty from the United States and proposed the founding of a new country known as the Republic of Lakotah.
The proposed nation would be based on territory demarcated by an 1851 land agreement made between the U.S. government and Lakotah tribal leaders. The Republic of Lakotah would cover a 200,000-square-kilometre space that is currently claimed by the states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Montana and Wyoming.
The U.S. government does not recognise Lakotah or its representatives, stating that its leaders were not democratically-elected and that members are still subject to U.S. law. Lakotah would be a federation of semi-autonomous tribal groups, and governance would be based on an interpretation of a pre-European indigenous political format.”

Latest Developments, August 18


In the latest news and analysis…

As the violent crackdown on Syrian protestors continues, Western leaders have called for the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, to step down and are threatening more sanctions. “We call on him to face the reality of the complete rejection of his regime by the Syrian people and to step aside in the best interests of Syria and the unity of its people,” said a joint statement by the leaders of France, Germany and the UK. “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside,” US President Barack Obama said. And while there were no threats of international military action, a new UN report says the Syrian regime may have committed crimes against humanity and calls for an investigation by the International Criminal Court.

Peru’s new left-leaning government has suspended its US-funded coca eradication program while it rethinks its drug fighting strategy. Though saying the move is meant only to be a “pause,” the country’s anti-drug czar also suggested 12 years of eradication efforts had done little to reduce cocaine production in the Andean nation that could soon become the world’s top exporter of the drug. And in Mexico, there are growing questions about the human and economic toll of the country’s war on drugs. But in a move designed to crack down on planes smuggling drugs through Central America, the Honduran government is proposing a no-fly zone over an area representing more than a quarter of the country’s total territory.

Apparently not swayed by a recent Economist article suggesting “shale gas should make the world a cleaner, safer place,” South Africa’s government has extended by six months its moratorium on drilling for the controversial energy source. The country’s mining minister imposed the ban earlier this year and commissioned a study on the impacts of fracking but still has some lingering questions. Anglo American and Shell are among the companies eager to extract South Africa’s shale gas but they have encountered opposition from farmers concerned about water contamination risks.

The UK government is vowing to resist any “Robin Hood” tax on financial transactions, following noises from France and Germany that they intend to introduce such a measure to generate revenue and discourage market speculation. “Any financial transaction tax would have to apply globally — otherwise the transactions covered would simply relocate to countries not applying the tax,” according to a British Treasury official.

“No clear evidence exists that microfinance programmes have positive impacts,” according to a new study by the UK’s Department for International Development, citing a lack of “rigorous quantitative evidence” on the subject. The study’s lead researcher has urged “a more holistic approach to financial services for the poor, which would put more focus on savings, remittances and financial literacy rather than on the obsessive interest in microcredit of the last few years.” Another, as-yet unpublished DFID study on microfinance in Africa is said to reach similar conclusions but, according to the Guardian, the department has already locked in funding to expand African microfinance programs.

Christian Aid has blasted the anticipated UK tax deal with Switzerland, saying it will undermine efforts to tackle international tax dodging, which the NGO estimates costs poor countries $160 annually, “far more” than the amount of aid they receive. “Poor countries lack the political and economic clout to do such deals with Switzerland – but they too lose billions as a result of money being illegally hidden in tax havens,” according to a Christian Aid press release. “And just like the UK, they need that money to fund vital public services such as schools, hospitals and justice systems.”  The statement calls on G20 countries to put a stop to “the tax haven secrecy exemplified by Switzerland” by forging “a new system of automatic information exchange between Governments – including those of poor countries – to help them to detect when citizens hide wealth offshore.”

Like Christian Aid, the French government does not like Switzerland’s so-called Rubik plan – which Germany has accepted and the UK looks set to do the same – that allows Swiss banks to retain their secrecy while falling into line with European tax rules. “We understand the choices made by Germany and Great Britain who, not so long ago, held similar positions to our own,” a French finance ministry source told Le Monde. “It’s only human to want the money right away.” But the source said transparency remains the French priority. Meanwhile, a number of African governments are reportedly looking to set up their own tax havens in order to “modernise the African financial sector.”

Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs paints a picture of the world economy in which the super-rich have used the “global tax competition” argument to secure tax cuts from their home governments and tax havens have multiplied despite feeble protests from politicians: “In the end the poor are doubly hit, first by global market forces, then by the ability of the rich to park money at low taxes in hideaways around the world.” One of the essential steps he believes governments must take in order to end the current economic crisis is the balancing of budgets “in no small part through tax increases on high personal incomes and international corporate profits that are shielded by loopholes and overseas tax havens.”

Hexayurt Project director Vinay Gupta writes “we must acknowledge that the field of human rights has become a gridlock of rights, entitlements, preferences and theology. Rights directly conflict with each-other, as in the right to property directly conflicting with the right to assured access to water. Without a global jurisdiction, no government can enforce any kind of coherent rights doctrine, particularly in the face of borderless problems like terrorism or environmental crisis.”

University of South Carolina geographer Edward Carr argues development (as well as humanitarian) workers need to think more about their own work’s environmental impact: “While an intervention appropriate to a community’s current needs may result in improvements to human well-being in the short term, the changes brought on by that intervention may be maladaptive in ten or twenty years and end up costing the community much more than it gained initially.”