Latest Developments, June 1

In the latest news and analysis…

The in-crowd
Stockholm University’s Ian Richardson suggests that this weekend’s Bilderberg conference – an annual meeting of the “transnational power elite” – is not an inherently bad thing in a world divided into competing nation states:

“In the absence of a global regulatory framework, organizations like Bilderberg have helped to blur the edges of an otherwise brittle system of international relations that has consistently failed to transcend its protectionist tendencies. Without them, it’s entirely conceivable that we’d have descended into many more international stand-offs and conflicts than we have.

Transnational elite policy networks such as Bilderberg are an integral, and to some extent critical, part of the existing system of global governance. The practical problem is not so much that they exist, although we could talk about this ad infinitum, it is instead related to what they are doing and why they are doing it. It is here that our elites have been found most wanting. Their self-serving acceptance and peddling of dominant market logics, their fundamental lack of criticality and a lack of meaningful progress in the area of global social and political development is threatening the very peace and prosperity we look to them to provide.”

Chevron suit
Reuters reports that Ecuadorean plaintiffs have filed a lawsuit in Canada in the hopes of enforcing an $18 billion ruling against oil giant Chevron for pollution in the Amazon:

“Since U.S.-based Chevron no longer has assets in Ecuador, the plaintiffs are trying to get the ruling enforced outside the OPEC-member country.
The new lawsuit, filed in the Superior Court of Justice in Ontario, targets Chevron and various subsidiaries that together hold significant assets in Canada, the plaintiffs’ legal team said in a statement.
‘While Chevron might think it can ignore court orders in Ecuador, it will be impossible to ignore a court order in Canada where a court may seize the company’s assets if necessary to secure payment,’ said Pablo Fajardo, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs.”

One billion dollar misunderstanding
Global Witness says European oil giants Shell and ENI have provided explanations that are “no longer sufficient” regarding a controversial oil deal in Nigeria:

“In a press release dated 20th May, Global Witness exposed how Nigerian subsidiaries of Shell and ENI had agreed to pay the Nigerian Government US$1,092,040,000 to acquire offshore oil block OPL 245. It was also revealed that the Nigerian government agreed, in the same month, to pay precisely the same amount to Malabu Oil and Gas, a company widely reported as controlled by Abacha-era oil minister, Dan Etete, who was convicted in France in 2007 of money-laundering. The revelations came to light as a result of the publication of New York court documents.
Both Shell and ENI deny paying any money to Malabu Oil and Gas in respect of the licence and suggest that their agreements were only with the Nigerian Government.  However, a recent statement from Nigeria’s Attorney General appears to contradict this.”

Legal bill
The Center for Global Development’s Justin Sandefur and Yale law student Alaina Varvaloucas ask if the $250 million price tag for the trial of former Liberian president Charles Taylor is justifiable, given that the annual budget for the entire justice sector of Sierra Leone – the country where the crimes he was convicted of aiding and abetting actually took place – is $13 million:

“Certainly nobody, least of all Sierra Leoneans who lived through a brutal civil war, wants Taylor roaming free.
And beyond keeping Taylor off the streets or deterring future war criminals, one of the main goals of international criminal tribunals is to serve as an example to the world of how much process is due a defendant, regardless of the crimes he is accused of committing. But the realistic counterfactual to the hundreds of millions spent on Taylor’s trial was not an unjust trial. It was a swifter trial, likely arriving to the same conclusion, but with a less expensive venue and not-so-high-priced defense attorneys—not to mention fewer conjugal visits for Taylor, no fancy Dutch food or internet access, and no rabbinical visits to indulge his new interest in Judaism.”

Haitian gold rush
The Guardian reports on Haiti’s apparently imminent mining boom and the concerns over who will benefit once exploration turns to production:

“ ‘It’s usually a couple of big white guys, with a couple of Haitians,’ explains Arnolt Jean, 49, who lives in one of the few concrete homes in the hillside community [of Lakwèv]. ‘They don’t even ask you who owns what land. They come, they take big chunks of earth, put them in their knapsacks and leave. We Haitians all just watch, because we can’t do anything about it.’

More than a third of Haiti’s north – at least 1,500 sq km – is under licence to US and Canadian companies. Eurasian Minerals has acquired 53 licences and collected more than 44,000 samples. The junior explorer firm recently teamed up with the world’s No 2 gold producer, US-based Newmont Mining.”

The 1 Percent’s problem
Columbia University’s Joseph Stiglitz argues that America’s wealthiest people should be concerned about income inequality, if only for selfish reasons:

“The rich do not exist in a vacuum. They need a functioning society around them to sustain their position. Widely unequal societies do not function efficiently and their economies are neither stable nor sustainable. The evidence from history and from around the modern world is unequivocal: there comes a point when inequality spirals into economic dysfunction for the whole society, and when it does, even the rich pay a steep price.”

World No Tobacco Day
Al Jazeera reports on the range of tactics – “including ramping up litigation, co-opting officials, and funding front groups” – allegedly used by tobacco companies to get around anti-smoking legislation and keep their sales up:

“ While smoking in the developed world has been steadily dropping, it is burgeoning in the developing one. The tobacco corporations have been accused of targeting poorer regions such as Africa. It is predicted that more than 80 per cent of tobacco-related deaths will occur in low and middle-income countries by 2030. ”

Austerity fever
Princeton University’s Paul Krugman argues that “ulterior motives” lie behind the current taste for austerity measures among politicians on both sides of the (North) Atlantic:

“In fairness to Britain’s conservatives, they aren’t quite as crude as their American counterparts. They don’t rail against the evils of deficits in one breath, then demand huge tax cuts for the wealthy in the next (although the Cameron government has, in fact, significantly cut the top tax rate).”

Latest Developments, May 4

In the latest news and analysis…

80 years
Agence France-Presse reports that the chief prosecutor in the Charles Taylor trial is recommending the former Liberian president, who was found guilty by the Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague last week, be sentenced to 80 years in prison.
“The prosecutor said the term would be fair given Taylor’s role in arming and aiding rebels who killed and mutilated thousands in neighbouring Sierra Leone during the 1991-2001 civil war, one of the most brutal conflicts in modern history.

Taylor, Liberia’s president from 1997 to 2003, had dismissed the charges as ‘lies’ and claimed to be the victim of a plot by ‘powerful countries.’ ”

Playing for time
Intellectual Property Watch reports that Switzerland is pushing for the World Health Organization to delay this month’s planned negotiations on a mechanism for funding research and development into diseases that predominantly impact poor people.
“The proposal calls for ‘informal, in-depth consultations with Member States on the appropriateness and feasibility of the recommendations contained in the report, in particular concerning a globally binding instrument on research and development, together with the funding implications of such an instrument.’

The recommendation to proceed to negotiations for a binding instrument on R&D came from an in-depth two-year process under the Consultative Expert Working Group on research and development.”

Rational migration
The UN News Centre reports on the launch of a new study into the impacts of European immigration and border policies on the human rights of migrants.
“The year-long study, which will begin with a three-day trip to Brussels, will examine the EU directives as well as national policies in place with respect to visa regimes and border control, and will assess interception practices on land and sea, detention conditions, returns, and readmission.

‘Although migration to and from the European region is not a new phenomenon, since the 1990s the region has witnessed a sharp increase in migration movements,” [UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, François Crépeau] said, calling for the international community “to embrace a new, balanced discourse on migration based on equal rights, non-discrimination and dignity, as well as on reality.’ ”

Extinction woes
Mother Jones reports that a new meta-analysis of recent scientific research suggests that high levels of species extinction are as dangerous as global warming for humans.
“Studies in the past 20 years have demonstrated that more biologically diverse ecosystems are more productive. So there’s growing concern that the very high rates of modern extinctions from habitat loss, overharvesting, pollution, biological invasions, human overpopulation, and other human-caused environmental changes will diminish nature’s ability to provide goods and services important to all life (ours too)… like food, clean water, and a stable climate. ”

Saving independent journalism
On World Press Freedom Day, the Columbia Journalism Review reproduces part of a recent Rebecca MacKinnon talk, in which the Internet freedom activist identifies iPhone apps, social media privacy policies and intellectual property legislation as serious threats to independent journalism and democracy.
“The problem with apps is that they give the companies that run the platforms that deliver content to their devices an opportunity to censor and discriminate against certain content—not only when governments require it, but also for business reasons, or for no clear reason.

News and media companies that do care about the future of journalism and democracy must not turn a blind eye to Apple’s arbitrary censorship. The point is not that they should avoid Apple apps and their relationships with Apple. The point is that since the law and the constitution are apparently useless against private censorship and discrimination, the only way to get Apple to operate in a democracy-compatible manner is if Apple’s customers, business partners, and investors insist on it.”

Colonial borders
Washington State University’s Peter Chilson writes that the current troubles in Mali are traceable, in part, to the arbitrary borders France imposed on its former West African colonies.
“Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time on Koulouba, working in the archive on the palace grounds, which houses Mali’s oldest colonial documents, papers the French failed to destroy or take with them at independence in 1960. In those archives, and others across the region, I figured out that the French left behind no paperwork to legally justify the borders that frame the eight countries of French West Africa, all former colonies, with Mali at the center. There is no evidence that any official, French or African, actually walked the political lines to clearly lay them out at independence. This is a big part of what brings us to this mess, a Mali that has no clear government leadership and whose very shape is now stamped with a question mark.”

A questionable choice
The Overseas Development Institute’s Jonathan Glennie argues that British Prime Minister David Cameron, as the leader of a rich country, is “not very” qualified to take the lead on establishing successors to the Millennium Development Goals.
“To date there is no evidence of any understanding on his part of the problems facing developing countries.
His only credential, and the reason he got the job, is that his government has demonstrated a commitment to aid increases, which are wrongly seen as a proxy for commitment to poverty reduction. Those calling for ever more aid should congratulate themselves that one outcome of their efforts is the leader of a rightwing Conservative-led government which is implementing structural adjustment at home being given a starring role in deciding the future of development for the next 15 years.”

Transnational justice
Al Jazeera asks if justice is really served when transnational corporations reach out-of-court settlements over alleged rights abuses committed abroad.
“Unlikely to get any redress in Peru, the victims sued Monterrico in the UK, with the help of British law firm Leigh Day and Co, alleging that the company had been complicit in the affair.
But though their prospects looked good, the case was settled by Monterrico last year just before it came to trial. It meant the victims did get some compensation – but the wider problems they were fighting to reveal were never aired in open court.
The case is an interesting example of a growing trend. Multinational companies are increasingly likely to respond to legal challenges in this way. The settlement costs can be high but usually they are far less than they would be after a negative verdict. And more importantly it gives the companies – and their lawyers – control of the public debate.”

Latest Developments, April 26

In the latest news and analysis…

International justice
Following the guilty verdict delivered against former Liberian President Charles Taylor by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, Oxford University’s Christine Cheng discusses some of the problems with international justice as currently practiced.
“Courts build their legitimacy partly based on the cases that they choose to hear. By focusing predominantly on Africans, there is a real worry that the ICC will be perceived by non-Western countries as providing a cloak of legitimacy for the US and other Western nations to achieve their political aims— despite the fact that the ICC’s chief prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo has explicitly stated that the ICC is not a court ‘just for the Third World.’
What the international community needs to guard against is allowing the ICC to become a tool that Western liberal democracies can impose on developing country leaders who have fallen out of political favour. For the ICC to remain viable, neither can it be perceived as the backdoor by which Western powers target their political enemies.”

Quake aid
The Center for Global Development’s Vijaya Ramachandran and Julie Walz look into where US funds intended for quake relief in Haiti ended up going.
“The U.S. Department of Defense, which took responsibility for security in Haiti in the aftermath of the quake, was the largest recipient. The remainder of the funds went to large international NGOs, private contractors, and other agencies of the U.S. government such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Health and Human Services (HHS). As we have blogged previously, less than one percent went to the Government of Haiti to rebuild public institutions. And Haitian-led NGOs have barely received any money at all.

Contracts to Haitian firms remain few and far between. Following a request from Haiti Relief and Reconstruction Watch, USAID released data on its procurement from local contractors in Haiti. Local contracts add up to $9.45 million, which is only 0.02 percent of total contracts awarded by USAID. Over 75 percent of USAID funds went to private contractors inside the Beltway (located in Washington DC, Maryland, or Virginia).”

Bioeconomy
Inter Press Service reports that critics of the new US National Bioeconomy Blueprint say it emphasizes economic interests at the expense of social and environmental ones.
“ ‘The bio-economy approach offers politicians in industrialized countries an opportunity to be seen to be doing something about meeting ill-defined “renewable energy targets”, while maximizing opportunities for economic growth and securing a constant supply of energy,’ [the Global Forest Coalition’s “Bio-economy Versus Biodiversity” report] warns. “There is precious little concern about the environment, or about impacts in other countries, apart from the usual platitudes about providing jobs.’ ”

Maid in India
A new Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations/India Committee of the Netherlands report details rights abuses at Indian textile plants that supply Western clothing companies.
“For real change, scale is needed. Corporate and other initiatives, certification bodies and business associations should push their members to commit to real action, or discipline them. The voluntary character of compliance activities should urgently become more binding. Freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively are key rights that enable workers to defend their rights. Both manufacturers and buyers should actively ensure these rights are respected.”

Laws of war
Lawyer Chase Madar argues a Wikileaks-obtained video showing US helicopters killing a number of unarmed Iraqis – an act that may well have been legal – is “an indictment of the laws of war as we know them.”
“Let’s be clear: What killed the civilians walking the streets of Baghdad that day in 2007 was not ‘war crimes’ but war. And that holds for so many thousands of other Afghan and Iraqi civilians killed by drone strikes, air strikes, night raids, convoys, and nervous checkpoint guards as well.
Who, after all, writes the laws of war? Just as the regulations that govern the pharmaceutical and airline industries are often gamed by large corporations with their phalanxes of lobbyists, the laws of war are also vulnerable to ‘regulatory capture’ by the great powers under their supposed rule. Keep in mind, for instance, that the Pentagon employs 10,000 lawyers and that its junior partner in foreign policy making, the State Department, has a few hundred more. Should we be surprised if in-house lawyers can sort out ‘legal’ ways not to let those laws of war get in the way of the global ambitions of a superpower?”

Good aid, bad aid
The Overseas Development Institute’s Jonathan Glennie asks if some donors are better than others.
“The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, certainly seems to think so, urging poor countries at an aid conference in Busan, South Korea, to ‘be wary of donors who are more interested in extracting your resources than in building your capacity’. It is hard to imagine a more absurd statement from a US official, given the country’s leading role in previous scrambles for Africa – not to mention its weak record (with other donors) of ‘building capacity’ over more than 50 years of aid-giving. From the cold war to aid conditionality supporting its own interests, to the pouring of money into the Horn of Africa after the 9/11 attacks, the US pretty much wrote the book on how to use aid to ensure strategic interests. Clinton should remember John Kennedy’s assertion in 1962: ‘Aid is a method by which the United States maintains a position of influence and control around the world … I put it right at the top of the essential programmes in protecting the security of the free world.’ ”

Population bomb
In an interview with the Guardian, Stanford University’s Paul Ehrlich argues that both the numbers and behaviour of people pose a threat to the future of humanity.
“[Human population and consumption] multiply together. You have to be deal with them together. We have too much consumption among the rich and too little among the poor. That implies that terrible thing that we are going to have to do which is to somehow redistribute access to resources away the rich to the poor. But in the US we have been doing the opposite. The Republican party is wildly in favour of more redistribution, of taking money from the poor and giving it to the rich.”