Latest Developments, May 8

In the latest news and analysis…

Business as usual
Inter Press Service reports that UN experts have found that American corporations show “little appreciation” of human rights in their operations both at home and abroad:

“ ‘The U.S. government has committed to the [UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights], and established a number of key initiatives in this regard,’ the Working Group’s Michael Addo stated Wednesday, when he and [Puvan] Selvanathan unveiled their early observations here in Washington.
‘[But] it is now facing the challenge of putting them into practice, across all departments, ensuring that this is done in a coherent and effective way, and in a way that makes a real difference to people on the ground.’ ”

Mining diplomacy
The Toronto Star reports that the Canadian government is being accused of providing “active and unquestioning support” to a mining company linked to the murder of an activist in Mexico:

“The study, made available by [MiningWatch Canada] to the Star and La Presse, is based on 900 pages of documents obtained through Access to Information from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade about its dealings with Calgary-based Blackfire Exploration.

‘It’s not that we’re saying that the embassy doesn’t have a mandate to support Canadian economic interests,’ said Jennifer Moore, Latin America Program Coordinator for MiningWatch and a co-author of the report. ‘In part, that is what they are supposed to do.
‘But Canadian embassies around the world are supposed to ensure the protection of individual and collective human rights—and that is just as important to us as Canadians.’”

No change of heart
The Tax Justice Network argues reports that Swiss banks have agreed to increased openness are greatly exaggerated:

“And we know this from a short sentence in the [Reuters] story, citing Patrick Odier, head of the Swiss Bankers’ Association:
‘We should no longer categorically reject an automatic exchange of information,’ he said. ‘But it should be introduced globally.’
It’s that bit in bold that is the give-away. In other words, we won’t do anything until everyone else has. Which, snigger snigger, will never happen. This is the classic ‘level playing field argument’ that we at TJN have seen time and time again, as justification for inaction.”

Printed weapons
The BBC reports that a gun made with 3D printer technology has been fired in the US for the first time:

“The controversial group which created the firearm, Defense Distributed, plans to make the blueprints available online.
The group has spent a year trying to create the firearm, which was successfully tested on Saturday at a firing range south of Austin, Texas.
Anti-gun campaigners have criticised the project.
Europe’s law enforcement agency said it was monitoring developments.”

Imperial aid
The University of Amsterdam’s Antonio Carmona Báez argues that understanding Bolivia’s expulsion of the US Agency for International Development requires a “de-colonial reading of development”:

“USAID belongs to the host of organs that were initiated by US president Harry Truman’s post-war Point Four Programme. The agency responds directly to the US Secretary of State and is closely monitored by the Department of Defence. While much of the discourse around USAID action highlights the terms sustainable development, elimination of poverty and international cooperation, military intervention and imposed foreign policy has marked the history of US foreign aid since the Cold War in Bolivia and throughout the Global South generally. USAID Office of Military Affairs and its Civic-Military Programme have been responsible for the funding of counter-insurgency practices in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and continuing the ‘global war on terrorism’ introduced by George W. Bush and sustained by current president Barak Obama. Recently, the Associated Press has revealed the agency’s meddling in Bolivia’s internal political affairs by providing ‘building democracy grants’ to groups that oppose the Morales government.”

Rocky relations
The Washington Post reports that even those Mongolians who are seeing some benefits from a massive Rio Tinto copper and gold project have concerns about the Anglo-Australian mining giant’s activities in their country:

“Puntsag Tsagaan, the president’s chief of staff, says he doesn’t want to see his country turned into Minegolia. Mineral wealth should be exploited cautiously and benefit the people, he says: ‘It does not have to be unlocked in a generation.’

In addition to the complaint about a cost blowout, the government says the company should have paid taxes last year and needs greater financial transparency.
In his speech to parliament on Feb. 1, [President Tsakhia] Elbegdorj wasn’t just bluffing. A few days later, his government briefly froze Rio Tinto’s bank accounts.

[Aimtan] Ulam-Badrakh says that he is glad Oyu Tolgoi is being developed but that he also has reservations. ‘Foreigners cannot just dig up the land, take away our wealth and leave us with a big hole in the ground,’ he says. ‘It has to be beneficial for foreigners and the Mongolian people.’ ”

Misplaced priorities
Humanosphere reports that Médecins Sans Frontières believes the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s promotion of vaccines prioritizes drug industry profits over saving lives:

[MSF’s Kate] Elder said the problem is we don’t know how much money [pharmaceutical companies] are making since industry refuses to open its books. MSF, which is a member of the GAVI alliance, had asked drug industry partners to show the actual costs of drug development and production so the consortium can see that the profits are modest. Industry, and the GAVI leadership, Elder said, refused to incorporate this into the Global Vaccine Action Plan – an over-arching strategy led by a group convened by the Gates Foundation called the Decades of Vaccine Collaboration.
‘We’d like to see more of this information made public,’ said Elder, referring to both the price calculations as well as the development of global vaccine policy.”

Latest Developments, April 19

In the latest news and analysis…

Yemen drones
The Washington Post reports the CIA is seeking permission from the White House to launch drone strikes in Yemen against targets whose identity it does not know.
“Securing permission to use these ‘signature strikes’ would allow the agency to hit targets based solely on intelligence indicating patterns of suspicious behavior, such as imagery showing militants gathering at known al-Qaeda compounds or unloading explosives.
The practice has been a core element of the CIA’s drone program in Pakistan for several years.

‘How discriminating can they be?’ asked a senior U.S. official familiar with the proposal. Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen ‘is joined at the hip’ with a local insurgency whose main goal is to oust the country’s government, the official said. ‘I think there is the potential that we would be perceived as taking sides in a civil war.’ ”

Wrong place, wrong time
The Associated Press reports that the US has released two apparently innocent Chinese Uighur men from the Guantanamo Bay prison to El Salvador, making them the first detainees released or transferred in over a year.
“Their release brings the prisoner population at the U.S. base in Cuba to 169, including three more Uighurs who officials are eager to resettle in a third country.
Uighurs at Guantanamo posed a huge diplomatic headache for the U.S. government. Twenty-two of them were captured at the start of the Afghanistan war and shipped to the base in Cuba because officials suspected they had links to al-Qaeda. But it turned out they were not terrorists and had merely fled their homeland in search of opportunities and freedom abroad.

U.S. courts and officials blocked efforts to settle the men in the United States and the prisoners were left in limbo.”

Embassy protests
The Kuwait Times, meanwhile, reports that family members of two Kuwaiti nationals still held at Guantanamo Bay without charge have begun holding daily two-hour protests outside the American embassy in Bayan.
[Khalid Al-Odah, the father of one of the detainees] said the current president is even worse than the previous one. ‘In fact, during Bush’s regime most detainees were released, but now only a few were released and they were even sent to a third nation and not their home country. Obama only talks much, but he is not practically helpful,’ he charged.
‘Our lawyer there is still working on the case, but there is no result yet. The American government won’t allow a fair trial for them, and this is illegal and against human rights. We are also dealing and meeting with different NGOs and international organizations to help us in this injustice. We need support from the public, as the Kuwaiti government is not active,’ concluded Al-Odah.”

Financial accomplices
Inter Press Service reports that Swiss banks are increasingly under the microscope in Europe over their alleged role in tax evasion and money laundering.
“If ‘private banks (are) accomplices of tax evasion and money laundering they should be prosecuted by German justice, even if the banks have their headquarters abroad, and the crimes mentioned are also committed abroad,’ [German opposition leader Sigmar] Gabriel said.

The legal conflicts with Switzerland on tax evasion also highlight the futility of the decades-long international fight against tax evasion, mostly within the framework of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and its associated Financial Action Task Force (FATF).”

Dying languages
Al Jazeera reports that Australia has the world’s highest rate of  “language extinction,” with only about 10 percent of its indigenous languages still spoken regularly.
“The suppression of indigenous languages was an intrinsic part of the often violent methods employed by the British against the Aboriginals when conquering the continent. The resulting extreme marginalisation of the Aboriginal people can still be seen in modern Australia, where Aboriginals were neither allowed to vote in elections nor to settle freely until the 1960s. Even today, various government policies target Aboriginal communities but do not apply to other Australians.”

Intensifying protests
Manuela Picq, most recently a visiting professor and research fellow at Amherst College, writes that violence related to mining projects is not new in the Americas, but the “extent and intensification” of the protests are.
“The smaller and larger indigenous mobilisations taking place simultaneously across Latin America are inevitably local, in that they contest projects in their communities, but they cannot be trivialised as isolated or anecdotal incidents. These mobilisations are of international relevance because they have successfully mobilised thousands of peoples, indigenous and non-indigenous, over long periods of time and across territories, crafting political demands, and often forcing governments to reframe policies. Most importantly, indigenous mobilisation has been able to bring environmental politics to the streets, turning natural resources, water, and consultation into public political issues. The growing constellation of mobilisations across the region points towards deeper societal changes in the making.”

Ending Françafrique
Le Nouvel Observateur asks France’s 10 presidential candidates what measures are needed to put an end to Françafrique, the name given to the perceived neocolonial nature of the relationship between France and its former African colonies.
“Françafrique, that collection of influence networks and shady connections between African heads of state and French politicians dating back to the 60s, is the manifestation of the permanent hold of French imperialism over its former colonies. Françafrique is also and especially the pillage of wealth and exploitation of workers in Africa by Total, Bouygues, Bolloré and many others. We will only be able to put an end to it when we tackle the unbridled domination of the economy by these capitalist groups,” [wrote Workers’ Struggle (Lutte Ouvrière) candidate Nathalie Arthaud.] (Translated from the French.)

Defending renationalization
The Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Mark Weisbrot argues that Argentina’s unorthodox economic policies, highlighted most recently by a move to renationalize a Spanish-controlled oil company, do not deserve the bad press they get.
“It is interesting that Argentina has had such remarkable economic success over the past nine years while receiving very little foreign direct investment, and being mostly shunned by international financial markets. According to most of the business press, these are the two most important constituencies that any government should make sure to please. But the Argentinian government has had other priorities. Maybe that’s another reason why Argentina gets so much flak.”

Latest Developments, October 25

In the latest news and analysis…

Water grab
Corporate Accountability International argues a newly launched water-governance partnership between the World Bank and major corporations, such as Nestlé and Coca-Cola, amounts to an attempt at water grabbing.
“The Water Resources Group aims to “develop new normative approaches to water management,” paving the way for an expanded private sector role into best and common practices, worldwide. In order to be eligible for support from this new fund, all projects must “provide for at least one partner from the private sector,” not simply as a charitable funder, but “as part of its operations.” The group’s strategy is to insert the private sector into water management one country at a time, through a combination of industry-funded research and direct partnerships with government agencies.”

Puzzling growth
The Center for Global Development’s Charles Kenny looks at the 19 countries – nine of which are located in Sub-Saharan Africa – whose economies more than doubled in size over the last decade and concludes business-friendly regulations may not be as important as many believe.
“Whatever the secret, it doesn’t appear that it was simply a case of creating nirvana for private sector growth. The average 2010 ranking among the world’s 19 fastest-growing countries on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index, which measures the conduciveness of a country’s regulatory environment to starting a new firm, was 114 out of 183. Even among those nine countries that don’t owe their growth to extractive industries, five — including India and Ethiopia — had a ranking below 100. That result echoes the conclusions of economists Dani Rodrik, Ricardo Hausmann, and Lant Pritchett. They looked at 80 periods of “growth acceleration” where an economy increased its growth rate by 2 percent or more for at least seven years. Nearly all were unrelated to economic reforms including liberalization of trade and prices.”

Swiss secrecy
A Bloomberg editorial calls Switzerland’s history of banking secrecy “shameful” and dismisses recent tax agreements with the UK and Germany, which allow holders of Swiss bank accounts to remain anonymous.
“Unfortunately, Switzerland has cooperated only grudgingly in meeting international banking standards, agreeing to do so in 2009 under threat of sanctions and being named as a tax haven by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Even so, the country this month was ranked at the top of a financial secrecy index developed by the London-based Tax Justice Network.
Switzerland should do itself a favor and abandon the financial opacity that has made it the world’s No. 1 destination for offshore wealth. It has no place in a globalized world where money can be electronically whisked from one place to another, except as a cloak for financial wrongdoing.”

Where dirty money goes
The UN News Centre reports on a new study that suggests 70 percent of the proceeds of international organized crime – about $1.6 trillion – were laundered through the world’s financial system, whereas less than one percent was seized or frozen.
“The findings suggest that most cocaine-related profits are laundered in North America and in Europe. The main destination to process cocaine money from other subregions is probably the Caribbean.”

EU extractive industry rules
Tax Research UK’s Richard Murphy is “delighted” that the European Commission has proposed requirements that EU-based extractive and forestry industries disclose their payments to foreign governments on a country and project basis.
“Now we have to get it through the Parliament.
And then make it global.
And apply it to all sectors.”

Hold the applause
But Christian Aid argues the proposal would address corruption but not the tax avoidance that costs poor countries billions each year.
“This information will help people hold their governments to account about what they are doing with the money they are receiving from multinational companies – and that is important,” according to Christian Aid’s Joseph Stead.
“However, corporate accountability is equally important. Unless these proposals are expanded to cover firms in all industries and to require greater financial detail than the Commission is currently suggesting, then companies will be able to keep siphoning profits out of developing countries on a massive scale.”

Letter from Ban
The UN has released a letter sent by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to G-20 leaders ahead of next month’s summit, in which he reminds them of their responsibilities to the planet and its most vulnerable people.
“New sustainable development goals should build on the [Millennium Development Goals] and bring the needs of the planet and those of the poor into a single and mutually reinforcing framework.”

Nobel laureate
Politico reports that the Obama administration is facing opposition from both Democrats and Republicans over the decision to send US troops to central Africa – ostensibly to provide “information, advice and assistance to partner nation forces” in the fight against the Lord’s Resistance Army – just as missions in Iraq and Libya are winding down.
“What is the strategic interest of the United States in doing this? I mean, there are lots of unpleasant people in the world. There are lots of insurgencies and terrorist movements in the world. The United States obviously cannot try to dethrone every one of them,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on the deployment.

Latest Developments, October 14

In the latest news and analysis…

Responding to Occupy Wall Street
The University of Manitoba’s Hari Bapuji and the University of Massachusetts’s Suhaib Riaz examine the nature of the Occupy Wall Street protests and advise US business leaders on how best to respond.
“So if Occupy Wall Street is leaderless and unfocused, why isn’t it going away? The persistence of the ‘occupations’ is a signal that there is authentic, deep-seated unhappiness with the failings of the U.S. economic system. It’s an indicator that economic inequality is perceived as an important issue — one requiring business’s immediate attention.
The demonstrators are asserting that they are stakeholders in American business, and they’re correct — they are stakeholders, as consumers, as employees, and as citizens affected by the financial system in general. Businesses would do well to accept that fact and engage with the protesters, rather than trying to demonize or dismiss them.”

Constructive criticism
The Globe and Mail reports Mark Carney, the governor of Canada’s central bank and a potential chairman of the Financial Stability Board tasked with reforming international banking rules, has called the Occupy Wall Street and related protests “entirely constructive.”
“In a television interview, Mr. Carney acknowledged that the movement is an understandable product of the ‘increase in inequality’ – particularly in the United States – that started with globalization and was thrust into sharp relief by the worst downturn since the Great Depression, which hit the less well-educated and blue-collar segments of the population hardest.”

International media bias
The Institute for Security Studies’ Arthur Chatora accuses the international media of uneven and perhaps agenda-driven coverage of human rights abuses in the Libyan conflict.
“This biased media coverage raises questions about the credibility of media organisations and their agenda. Is it because the presence of widespread evidence of racially motivated human rights abuses committed by the TNC forces raises moral and ethical questions that challenge the validity of the notion of a “humanitarian war”? The responsibility assumed by NATO and the TNC forces to protect civilian lives from abuse by Gaddafi forces is also questionable, as it appears this mandate does not seem to extend to the protection of black Libyans and African immigrants.”

International legal bias
The International Institute for Environment and Development’s Lorenzo Cotula argues the current international legal regime encourages land grabs in Africa.
“National and international legal developments have strengthened the protection of companies against adverse action by the host government. But much less progress has been made to strengthen the rights of local people. As a result, the ‘shadow’ that the law casts on interactions between large companies and local villagers presents different shades of grey: those already benefiting from greater access to capital, expertise and influence also enjoy stronger rights.”

Tax agreement inequality reports that not everyone is convinced Switzerland’s new tax agreement with India – one of 70 negotiated by the European country since its government pledged to reduce its famous banking secrecy in 2009 – is much more than window dressing.
“‘As seen by the recent cases of Germany and the United Kingdom, a good [double tax agreement] is not enough. These powerful neighbours have already negotiated new agreements which provide easier access to tax information. The Indian government got the maximum it could as an emerging market but influential industrial countries can get more information,’ [according to Alliance Sud’s Mark Herkenrath].
The Alliance Sud specialist said it would be extremely difficult for India to get the tax information it needs via a DTA and the Indian government would have to request an additional agreement for a withholding tax and special information disclosure clauses.”

Intellectual property vs access to medicines
Daniele Dionisio, a member of the European Parliament Working Group on Innovation, Access to Medicines and Poverty-Related Diseases, voices concern about a new plan introduced by the US during last month’s Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.
“Taken together, the non-transparent dynamics bound up with TEAM [Trade Enhancing Access to Medicines] compound fear that this initiative would be something that backs big pharma rather than making headway on non-discriminatory access to medicines in developing countries. This is particularly worrying owing to the fact that TEAM will probably play as the basis for future agreements between the US and other developing and developed countries. This concern seemingly harmonizes with a swipe taken by the US rep on 14 September at the WTO trade policy review of India, maintaining that India’s IP trade policy is out of sync with international best practices.”

The business of corruption
ECONorthwest’s Ann Hollingshead uses some real-world examples to take on the US Chamber of Commerce’s contention that the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act is a threat to American business.
“Has an American company never lost a contract in the history of the FCPA because its officers were not allowed to bribe? No. But does the FCPA provide a systematic impediment to American business competitiveness abroad? No. When an American businessman refuses to pay a bribe, it doesn’t mean the official necessarily goes looking elsewhere. As in Mexico, often the FCPA allows for a shift in the business dynamics, changing the playing field for everyone involved. Moreover, as the Argentine case shows, many businesses welcome this assurance and can use it to their benefit.”

Race to the bottom
The Economist looks at the growing movement against tax havens and the relative ineffectiveness of regulations to this point in stopping the race to the bottom.
“One avenue for reform is to place a greater duty on companies to explain what profits they make where. That would help prevent the worst abuses of transfer pricing scams, in which tax havens play a handy role. The muddled Dodd-Frank reforms, passed by Congress in America and now being implemented by regulators, supposedly go some way towards this; so does legislation being drafted in the EU.”

Latest Developments, June 29

In today’s news…

Two World Bank economists argue the best way to reduce corruption and ensure Africa benefits from the current commodity boom is for governments to transfer portions of the resulting revenues directly to their citizens. Of course, government corruption is not the only obstacle to translating mineral wealth into societal benefits. After a three-year dispute, Canada’s First Quantum Minerals has just agreed to pay $224 million in tax arrears to Zambia. The Reuters piece says: “According to the World Bank, copper is responsible for 70 to 75 percent of export earnings but the mining industry as a whole only contributes about 10 percent of Zambia’s tax revenue.”

In the wake of last week’s guilty plea by  another Canadian company, Niko Resources, for bribing a Bangladeshi official, Transparency International finds itself in the unusual position of praising Canada…sort of. In the same breath, the organization points out that Canadian law defines prosecutable foreign bribery cases excessively narrowly and calls for the revival of proposed improvements that died in 2009 when the minority government ended the parliamentary session prematurely.

As the US and Switzerland struggle to come to an agreement on dealing with tax avoidance, the Tax Justice Network suggests some Swiss media and banks are too cozy to allow a meaningful public discussion on the impacts of tax evasion. Perhaps a quick trip to Vienna is in order.

As things stand, US sanctions on Sudanese oil exports will not apply to South Sudan when it officially declares independence on July 9. Unless South Sudanese oil exports, which account for 98 percent of the government’s budget, pass north through Sudan. Which is the only way the pipelines run.

Le Monde Diplomatique’s Serge Halimi argues the current debt crisis represents a threat to democracy as much as the economy and asks (in French) if there is an alternative to “shock therapy.” Another article in the same publication provides the example of Ecuador’s 2008 constitution which stipulates public debt must not impact national sovereignty, human rights or environmental protection; public debt can only be incurred to improve infrastructure or to invest in projects that will pay for themselves; public debt refinancing is only an option if the new terms are advantageous to Ecuador; and the nationalization of private debt is prohibited.

The World Bank tweets: “The time to act is now. The world’s poor will suffer first and most from #climatechange.,” while the UK House of Commons environmental audit committee slams the global lending institution’s energy policies, which may actually be making climate change worse.

Andrea Wechsler argues in Global Policy that “global governance arrangements must reach beyond the limited concept of intellectual property to knowledge as such and, thus, address global knowledge governance.” But a number of civil society organizations worry a new set of principles on Internet policymaking raises “cybersecurity and intellectual property rights to a level of importance that is comparable with internationally recognized individual human rights such as freedom of expression.”