Latest Developments, September 25

In the latest news and analysis…

Subsidized bribery
The Age reports that Australian government officials appear to have been “deeply involved” in a $150 million shipbuilding deal allegedly secured through bribing of Filipino officials:

“In what shapes as a second big international corruption scandal for Australia following the Reserve Bank bribery affair, cables show Australian officials knew in 2005 that an order by the Philippines for search and rescue vessels from Tenix was made without the required budgetary approvals in Manila.
This knowledge should have prompted immediate probity concerns within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which had since the late 1990s been issuing written warnings about corruption in the Philippines specifically involving government contracts.
The Tenix deals in the Philippines, which are at the centre of a police bribery probe, are sensitive for the Australian government because they were underpinned by huge Australian taxpayer grants and loans.”

Justice delayed
A new joint report by Amnesty International and Greenpeace calls for a UK criminal investigation into Trafigura’s role in the 2006 dumping of toxic waste in Côte d’Ivoire’s biggest city, “resulting in over 100,000 people seeking medical assistance”:

“ ‘This is a story of corporate crime, human rights abuse and governments’ failure to protect people and the environment. It is a story that exposes how systems for enforcing international law have failed to keep up with companies that operate transnationally, and how one company has been able to take full advantage of legal uncertainties and jurisdictional loopholes, with devastating consequences,’ said Greenpeace International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo.”

Park oil
The Associated Press reports that the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo has granted permission to British company SOCO to explore for oil in North Kivu’s Virunga National Park:

“Minister of Hydrocarbons Crispin Atama Tabe told The Associated Press that national economic interests take precedence over environmental considerations in Virunga, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Minister of Environment and Tourism Bavo Nsamputu refused to comment on the news.
The permission to explore for oil in Virunga is in contrast to the environment minister’s decision in March 2011 to suspend oil exploration in Block 5 of the Albertine Graben area of Virunga park that is home to more than 200 gorillas.”

Scramble redux
In a PanAfrican Visions Q&A, former Pambazuka editor-in-chief Firoze Manji is pessimistic about the continent’s ability to cope with a second “Scramble for Africa”:

“But it would be a serious mistake to view the entry of the ‘emerging powers’ with those of the US, Europe and Japan. The latter are the dominant exploiters of African labour, extractors of natural resources, and decimation of the environment. China, for example, is certainly becoming as big as the US in terms of trade. But in terms of natural resource extraction and in terms of extraction of wealth through debt financing, they remain a very small player in comparison to the US, Europe and Japan. Remember, the domination of the multinational corporations, banks and international finance institutions is guaranteed not by the ‘emerging powers’ but principally by the US. There is a growing US military presence in Africa in the form of US AFRICOM. We have seen military intervention in Africa from the US and its NATO allies in Somalia, Côte d’Ivoire, Libya. There has been no equivalent military intervention and occupation by the emerging powers.”

Legalize it
Espolea’s Lisa Sánchez and the Transform Drug Policy Foundation’s Steve Rolles write that after decades of devastation caused by the American-led war on drugs, “the era of blanket global prohibitions on drugs is finally coming to an end”:

“It is vitally important to learn from the mistakes made with alcohol and tobacco regulation. That means avoiding over-commercialisation and, while allowing legal availability to adult consumers, putting in place a regulatory framework to minimise health and social harms, rather than maximise profits. What this means in practice has been explored in some detail in Transform’s Blueprint for Regulation which outlines potential controls over products (potency, price, information on packaging etc), vendors (licensing, vetting, training requirements), venues for sale and consumption (location, appearance, opening hours), and availability (age access controls, membership clubs). A responsible government is a far better entity to develop such a model than the free market.”

Drone terror
Reprieve’s Clive Stafford Smith compares CIA drones in Pakistan to German doodlebugs in WWII London in terms of the fear and trauma caused to civilians:

“I hope that this report reminds us all what the US – with British support – is doing to the people of Pakistan. Maybe then there will be less surprise at the hatred the drone war is engendering in the Islamic world – and a chance that we will reconsider what we are doing.”

Poverty barons
The World Development Movement’s Deborah Doane writes that problems with the UK government’s approach to reducing global poverty have more to do with ideology than excessive largesse toward British consultants:

“In one stark example, UK aid money is currently paying for consultants to advise the Bangladeshi government on the establishment of new special economic zones aimed at attracting private-sector investment. Existing zones give multinational companies tax holidays and subsidised land while placing severe restrictions on trade union activity to an extent where the average wage inside these Bangladeshi ‘export processing zones’ is around £30 a month. Here, the scandal goes well beyond the approximately £14m that we are paying the consultants. The heart of the issue is the fact that we are using aid to support a project that will do everything to benefit multinationals like Adidas, which made 671 million Euros in profit last year, and next to nothing for the supposed beneficiaries.”

Communication breakdown
Marginal Revolution reproduces a statement by New York University’s Paul Romer on why he and his “Transparency Commission,” appointed by presidential decree last year, are no longer associated with a proposed charter city or Region Especial de Desarrollo in Honduras:

“From recent newspaper reports, I learned that the Honduran agency responsible for public-private partnerships had signed an agreement about a RED with a private company. When I asked for information, I was told that I could not see this agreement.
The administration’s current position is that because the decree was never published, the Transparency Commission does not exist in the eyes of the law and the five named members have no legal basis for reviewing any agreements.”

Latest Developments, November 15

In the latest news and analysis…

Vulture funds
The Guardian reports there are growing calls for the UK to close a legal loophole that allows so-called vulture funds to use Jersey courts to collect money from poor countries.
“Vulture funds legally buy up worthless debt when countries are at war or suffering from a natural disaster and defaulting on their sovereign debt. Once the country has begun to stabilise, vulture funds cash in their cheap debt deeds, at massively inflated cost to the countries.
In the case before the Jersey court, to be decided next month, FG Hemisphere, run by vulture financier Peter Grossman, is trying to collect $100m from the DRC on a debt that appeared to start out at just $3.3m. The original debt was owed to the former Yugoslav government to build power lines.”

Gibraltar tax ruling
Agence France Presse reports Europe’s highest court has ruled against a tax reform proposed by the UK for its territory of Gibraltar, on the grounds that it would constitute state aid to offshore corporations.
“The system was ‘specifically designed’ so that companies with no real physical presence could avoid taxation because it would be based on the number of employees and the size of business premises occupied in Gibraltar, the court said.
The assessment to levy the tax ‘excludes from the outset any taxation of offshore companies, since they have no employees and also do not occupy business property,’ the court said.”

Growing inequality
Euromonitor has released a new report that suggests global inequality is on the rise – “high net worth individuals” increased their wealth by nearly 10 percent in 2010 – and is likely to continue growing in the years ahead.
“It is possible for governments to help narrow the gap between rich and poor by introducing various redistribution mechanisms, such as social welfare programs, minimum wage legislation, higher taxes for the rich and better educational opportunities for the poor,” according to Euromonitor’s Gina Westbrook. “However, many governments are trying to tackle their growing debt troubles, leaving very little financial room for investing in efforts to ease the plight of the poor.”

Toxic dumping trial
Netherlands-based oil and metals trader Trafigura is back in a Dutch court appealing a million-euro fine for illegally exporting toxic waste that was subsequently dumped in Cote d’Ivoire, while the prosecution is seeking a penalty twice that large, as well as the overturn of acquittals for the city of Amsterdam and the Amsterdam Port Services.
“On July 2, 2006, toxic residues on board the Probo Koala were prevented from being offloaded for treatment in Amsterdam’s port and redirected to Abidjan, where they were dumped on city waste tips.
Trafigura, which denies any link between the waste and subsequent deaths and has an independent experts’ report backing its stance, reached out of court settlements for 33 million euros and 152 million euros in Britain and Ivory Coast that exempted it from legal proceedings.
But a United Nations report published in September 2009, found ‘strong’ evidence blaming the waste for at least 15 deaths and several hospitalisations.
The dumping caused 17 deaths and thousands of cases of poisoning, Ivorian judges said.”

Resource extraction harm reduction
The UN News Centre reports on a new book on exploitation of natural resources in post-conflict settings, which includes advice for the international community whence most extractive industry companies originate.
“The publication stresses four areas where international support can be helpful which include providing help to post-conflict countries so they secure better contracts with companies extracting natural resources, increasing transparency in payments and decision-making, supporting the monitoring of companies extracting natural resources, and encouraging strategic planning using revenues to provide immediate gains to the population.”

Reviving cluster munitions
Human Rights Watch’s Steve Goose says the US is leading the fight against the elimination of cluster munitions in negotiations, currently underway in Geneva, to establish a new draft law that would permit the “continued use, production, trade, and stockpiling” of weapons 111 countries have already agreed to ban outright.
“The [Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons] proposal would also establish a terrible precedent in international humanitarian law, adopting for the first time an instrument with weaker standards after one with stronger standards has already been embraced by most nations. The trend has been for the law to grow progressively stronger, with ever greater protections for civilians.”

Free trade opposition
Al Jazeera’s Patty Culhane blogs about the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference in Hawaii, the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership and protesters not sold on the benefits of international free trade.
“The bottom line for these protesters is that they feel the expanding global economy means their culture is being replaced, their resources exploited and their natural wealth taken. It is true that tourism here means much of the money made goes back to the giant hotel chains. There are jobs, but is it better to be paid to clean up after tourists, or to work in a field? That isn’t really the question I’m learning. They don’t all necessarily want to go back to what they had, but they want a bigger share of what is here now.”

Arab Spring media spin
The University of Michigan’s Juan Cole contends the Western media’s coverage of the Arab Spring as a purely political protest was tactically motivated.
“If the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were merely about individualistic political rights – about the holding of elections and the guarantee of due process – then they could be depicted as largely irrelevant to politics in the US and Europe, where such norms already prevailed.
If, however, they centred on economic rights (as they certainly did), then clearly the discontents of North African youth when it came to plutocracy, corruption, the curbing of workers’ rights, and persistent unemployment deeply resembled those of their American counterparts.
The global protests of 2011 have been cast in the American media largely as an “Arab Spring” challenging local dictatorships – as though Spain, Chile and Israel do not exist. The constant speculation by pundits and television news anchors in the US about whether “Islam” would benefit from the Arab Spring functioned as an Orientalist way of marking events in North Africa as alien and vaguely menacing, but also as not germane to the day to day concerns of working Americans. The inhabitants of Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan clearly feel differently.”

Latest Developments, August 19

In the latest news and analysis…

The International Criminal Court’s prosecutor says he has received reports of crimes against humanity committed by the Syrian regime but for now has no jurisdiction to investigate them because Damascus does not recognize the court. He would require a “referral” from the UN Security Council in order to begin an investigation. But UN human rights chief Navi Pillay has said she does not expect that to happen. Like Syria, three of the five permanent members of the Security Council do not currently accept the court’s jurisdiction: Russia which signed the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court but has not yet ratified it, the US which signed but has subsequently “unsigned” it, and China which has yet to sign. In the nine years since the court came into being, it has undertaken six investigations, all of them in Africa.

Following yesterday’s call for Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad to step down, the EU has announced additional sanctions and is considering banning Syrian oil imports, a measure opposed by Human Rights Watch. In a letter to the Financial Times, HRW’s Lotte Leicht argues instead for the EU to freeze the assets of state banking, oil and gas companies until the “gross human rights abuses” stop: “We have deliberately avoided calling for wider energy sanctions because of the potential humanitarian impact on ordinary Syrians.”

Rick George, CEO of Canada’s Suncor which has a Syrian natural gas operation where production is “running normally,” said in a radio interview: “We’re actually not connected to the Assad regime in any way. We operate with a partner in Syria, the General Petroleum Corporation,” which is one of the state-owned companies blacklisted by US sanctions earlier this week. According to the CBC, Suncor “has said it is still able to produce natural gas in Syria under the current Canadian sanctions. It is reviewing U.S. sanctions.”

Meanwhile, Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin reports Syrian opposition representatives are meeting in Istanbul over the weekend to form the “Syrian National Council” which they will try to sell as “the official representative of the Syrian revolution.” The move “comes soon after the U.S. and European states have called for Assad’s ouster, and are mulling ways to increase pressure on the Syrian regime to make that a reality.” Rogin cites Chicago-based Syrian human rights lawyer M. Yaser Tabbara as saying the US, Turkey, “and other supportive governments, are being kept in the loop but are not directly involved in the project.”

Whatever Syria’s future may hold, it will not include participation in the 2014 FIFA World Cup after the national team was disqualified for fielding an ineligible player.

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters Iraq had “finally” agreed to extend the presence of US troops in a “noncombat” role beyond the end of the year: “My view is that they finally did say, ‘Yes.’ ” But the Iraqis see things differently: “We have not yet agreed on the issue of keeping training forces,” an advisor to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told Agence France Presse. “The negotiations are ongoing, and these negotiations have not been finalised.” A Pentagon spokesman subsequently said what Panetta had actually meant was “the Iraqis have said yes to discussions about the strategic relationship beyond 2011.”

Just Foreign Policy’s Robert Naiman argues that if the US government wants to reduce its debt, it should start by pulling all its troops out of Iraq by the end of the year “like we promised in the signed agreement between the two governments.” As for the evolving role of the US military in Iraq, Naiman says “these ‘trainers’ engage in combat: they kill Iraqis, and they get killed by Iraqis.” Earlier this month, US Representative Barbara Lee introduced the Iraq Troop Withdrawal Accountability Act which would “prohibit funding for any extension of the December 31, 2011 deadline to remove all U.S. troops and military contractors from Iraq.”

Thailand’s Department of Special Investigation is filing charges against US tobacco giant Philip Morris for allegedly evading $2.3 billion in taxes. Earlier this year, public prosecutors had decided not to proceed with charges. The country’s attorney general will now make the final decision. The company said in a statement it was “disappointed” by this latest development and pointed to a recent World Trade Organization ruling to support its position.

To mark the fifth anniversary of Trafigura’s dumping of toxic waste in Abidjan, Amnesty International is calling on Cote d’Ivoire’s government to distribute the compensation coughed up by the oil company: “Trafigura has paid US$260 million in a number of payouts but much of the money remains unaccounted for and thousands of victims have not received anything,” the human rights NGO said in a press release. The incident left 15 people dead and over 100,000 needing medical attention. Given these figures, Trafigura has paid an average of $2,600 per victim, though its payouts also include the cleanup costs.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has submitted to the General Assembly his annual report on the work of the United Nations, in which he claims regarding his first term at the organization’s helm: “We have confronted head-on the key global challenges of our generation: addressing climate change and global health; breaking the deadlock on disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation; and mobilizing action against terrorism.”

Gerald Caplan writes in the Globe and Mail that he thinks he knows the motives of prominent “Muslim-haters” but does not understand how they obtain the media coverage necessary to become prominent in the first place: “But what’s the interest of certain media in enabling these haters to spread their gospel, to fan the flames of intolerance? What audience are they after? What do they expect their audiences to make of all this sympathetic exposure to rabid anti-Muslim feelings? Why are they inciting ordinary people to hate other ordinary people? Why?”