Inter Press Service http://www.ipsnews.net Journalism and Communication for Global Change Thu, 24 Apr 2014 23:55:49 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8.3 U.S. Public Feeling More Multilateral Than Isolationist http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/u-s-public-feeling-multilateral-isolationist/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-public-feeling-multilateral-isolationist http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/u-s-public-feeling-multilateral-isolationist/#comments Thu, 24 Apr 2014 23:54:57 +0000 Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133892 Amidst a roiling and mostly partisan debate over Washington’s global role, a survey released here Thursday suggests that President Barack Obama’s preference for relative restraint and multilateral – over unilateral – action very much reflects the mood of the voting public. The survey, which was conducted by prominent pollsters for both major political parties, confirmed […]

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By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Apr 24 2014 (IPS)

Amidst a roiling and mostly partisan debate over Washington’s global role, a survey released here Thursday suggests that President Barack Obama’s preference for relative restraint and multilateral – over unilateral – action very much reflects the mood of the voting public.

The survey, which was conducted by prominent pollsters for both major political parties, confirmed a decade-long trend in favour of reducing active U.S. involvement in global affairs and focusing more on domestic issues.“It’s not that ‘leadership’ is seen as a negative term, but what people object to is putting the U.S. out front while others are hanging back.” -- Steven Kull

At the same time, however, it found strong support for working cooperatively with other countries to address international issues, including and especially through the United Nations about which, remarkably, twice as many respondents (59 percent) said they felt favourably than they felt about the U.S. Congress (29 percent).

Indeed, a whopping 86 percent of the 800 voters contacted randomly by the poll said that it was either “very” (61 percent) or “somewhat” (25 percent) important “for the United States to maintain an active role within the United Nations.”

“This not about apathy to foreign policy or assistance – to the contrary, the poll shows voters feel a strong, vested interest in global affairs,” said Peter Yeo, executive director of the Better World Campaign, which commissioned the survey.

The survey, which was conducted in mid-April as the crisis over Crimea and Ukraine dominated the news, comes amidst strong criticism of Obama by neo-conservatives and other hawks over what they allege is his passivity in reacting to Russian aggression, as well as China’s assertion of territorial claims in the East and South China seas and advances by government forces against western- and Gulf Arab-backed rebels in Syria, among other presumed setbacks.

In their view, Obama’s restraint, or what they increasingly call “retreat”, has fed “isolationist” tendencies that have grown steadily stronger as a result of the continuing effects of the 2008 financial crisis and the failure to achieve “victories” – attributed largely to Obama’s lack of political will – in Bush-initiated wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the administration has angrily rejected these charges, noting, for example, that it has upheld all of Washington’s treaty commitments; that it is deeply engaged in rallying regional and international opposition to moves by Russia and China; and that it is Republican hawks who, for example, have slashed foreign aid, attacked the U.N. and other multilateral forums, and promoted unilateral military measures that proved ineffective, if not counter-productive, especially during the Bush years.

The hawks have tried to conflate “military restraint with isolationism, but that’s really a ploy to tar people who have a more critical stance because of the experience of the past 13 years,” Carl Conetta, director the Project for Defense Alternatives (PDA), told IPS.

Indeed, recent polls have shown a clear public desire to reduce Washington’s international commitments. Most famously perhaps, a major Pew survey published last December found that 52 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that the U.S. “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.”

It was the first time in the nearly 50-year history of the question that a majority agreed with its proposition.

But, according to Conetta and other analysts, that result has much more to do with Washington’s unilateral military adventures – and the disappointments that resulted from those in Iraq and Afghanistan – than other forms of international engagement support for which has been remarkably steady for many years.

“All the polls show that there’s reduced enthusiasm for international engagement, but they also show that that doesn’t apply to all forms of engagement,” Conetta said. “We see that people are quite supportive of cooperative engagement.”

Steven Kull, director of the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), agreed. “Overall, this poll and others show that during a period of economic downturn, there’s a strengthening of a feeling that we need to deal with problems at home. But that doesn’t mean that people want to disengage from the world, but rather that there’s a stronger interest in collaborative approaches where the United States isn’t out front so much.

“As we can see from this (Better World) poll, support for multilateral forms of engagement are just as strong as ever,” he told IPS.

Indeed, asked to choose up to two out of ten different international policy approaches the U.S. should pursue, the single most popular choice (40 percent) was “America working with global partners around the world and letting our partners take more of the lead.”

And while the second-most popular choice (34 percent) was “letting other countries solve their own problems without American involvement,” it was virtually tied with “international cooperation” (33 percent).

Significantly, the least popular choices were “America going it alone in resolving international issues” (2 percent) and “Isolationism” (4 percent), and “America taking the lead in preventing and resolving deadly conflict around the world” (12 percent).

“All of these answers show a cooperative orientation on the part of the public,” noted Kull. “It’s not that ‘leadership’ is seen as a negative term, but what people object to is putting the U.S. out front while others are hanging back.”

As to the U.N. itself, while respondents were split on the actual effectiveness of the world body, 85 percent said it should be made “more effective”; only 13 percent disagreed.

More than 70 percent agreed with the statements that “working through [the U.N.] improves America’s image around the world” and that the “U.S. needs needs the U.N. now more than ever because we cannot bear all the burden and cannot afford to pay to go it alone around the world.”

Two-thirds of respondents – including majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and independents – said Washington should pay its peacekeeping dues to the U.N. on time and in full, while 31 percent opposed payment.

Due to Congressional cuts to requests by the administration, Washington currently owes the U.N. peacekeeping account for 2014 more than 350 million dollars.

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.com.

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Post-Rana Plaza, Global Investors Pushing for Systemic Change http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/post-rana-plaza-global-investors-pushing-systemic-change/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=post-rana-plaza-global-investors-pushing-systemic-change http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/post-rana-plaza-global-investors-pushing-systemic-change/#comments Thu, 24 Apr 2014 23:05:00 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133888 A coalition of 134 institutional investors are calling for global corporations to institute new transparency policies throughout their supply chains and to step up assistance to survivors and families still suffering a year after a major fire led to the collapse of a garments factory in Bangladesh, despite repeated warnings from workers. The investors hail […]

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Hasina, one of the 2,438 Rana Plaza workers that came out alive, by the remains of the factory on Sep. 25, 2013. Credit: Robert Stefanicki/IPS

Hasina, one of the 2,438 Rana Plaza workers that came out alive, by the remains of the factory on Sep. 25, 2013. Credit: Robert Stefanicki/IPS

By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Apr 24 2014 (IPS)

A coalition of 134 institutional investors are calling for global corporations to institute new transparency policies throughout their supply chains and to step up assistance to survivors and families still suffering a year after a major fire led to the collapse of a garments factory in Bangladesh, despite repeated warnings from workers.

The investors hail from a dozen countries and collectively manage more than four trillion dollars in assets. They are also pledging to strengthen their own pressure on international brands, urging them to facilitate a permanent strengthening of the voice of subcontracted garments workers in Bangladesh and beyond.“Big institutions are looking at this as a bellwether for where supply chain responsibility issues are going – looking at the risk to companies but also at the risk to workers.” -- David Schilling

Apparel brands and retailers need to “use the full measure of their influence to respect and protect the human rights of workers throughout their global supply chains, and to provide remedies when those rights have been violated,” the investors stated in an open letter released Thursday, the one-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory fire that killed more than 1,130 people.

“[W]e hope lessons learned from Rana Plaza and the new multi-stakeholder model in practice in Bangladesh will inform supply chain practices globally.”

The collapse, which took place on the outskirts of Dhaka, was one of the worst industrial disasters in modern history. Yet the new letter and related activity are highlighting the potentially potent influence that responsible investors can exert in pushing global brands to adopt policies that could influence labour standards and transparency approaches across the globe.

“Investors have a responsibility to be active owners of the companies that they hold in their portfolios,” David Schilling, senior programme director at the Interfaith Centre on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), a U.S. coalition that organised Thursday’s letter.

“It’s important for our members and other institutional investors to make sure that we’re using our responsibility to respect human rights as institutions, to encourage not just palliative but systemic changes.”

The Rana Plaza collapse, alongside a string of previous disasters in the country’s garments sector, has focused a unique global spotlight on Bangladesh over the past year. Schilling and others say the result is a nascent model that could have ramifications for worker safety and rights far beyond Bangladeshi borders.

“There aren’t many other places in the world where labour and companies are working to really solve some of these systemic problems, and the approach being used there is being looked at as an emerging model for supply chain accountability elsewhere,” Schilling says.

“Big institutions are looking at this as a bellwether for where supply chain responsibility issues are going – looking at the risk to companies but also at the risk to workers.”

Twenty-five-year-old Razia, pictured here in the hospital on May 4, 2013, survived the collapse, but was permanently maimed. Credit: Naimul Haq/IPS

Twenty-five-year-old Razia, pictured here in the hospital on May 4, 2013, survived the collapse, but was permanently maimed. Credit: Naimul Haq/IPS

Corporate ‘landmark’

Bangladesh’s garments sector is among the largest in the world, and constitutes a critical part of the country’s economy and development. Over the past decade, it has attracted many of the most well-known apparel manufacturers, drawn to a particularly low-cost sourcing option.

Given the visibility of these brands, following the Rana Plaza collapse these multinational companies came under intense pressure to collectively institute stricter safety and labour guidelines in their subcontracted factories.

What emerged were two separate initiatives. The first was a fire and safety standards accord that received wide backing in particular from European manufacturers, currently covering around 160 companies and inspecting some 1,600 factories in Bangladesh.

The accord has also received significant support from labour advocates, in particular for being legally binding and for prominently incorporating collaboration by labour unions and civil society. The accord has now begun releasing its first reports, and the government has already closed down 10 factories on those recommendations.

Yet several prominent U.S. and Canadian manufacturers expressed concern over the accord, particularly regarding how legal disputes would be resolved. Around two-dozen North American companies subsequently created a voluntary alliance, responsible for oversight of nearly 700 factories.

Despite their differences, these two initiatives have since started to work towards harmonising their work, facilitated by the United Nations. Yet concerns have arisen over whether the Bangladeshi government has the political will necessary to force through important changes, particularly around institutionalising workers’ voice and further raising the minimum wage.

“Rana Plaza has been a landmark event in the history of corporate responsibility, particularly in the garment sector but also beyond,” Bennett Freeman, senior vice-president for sustainability research and policy at Calvert Investments, a responsible asset management company, told IPS.

“What it tells us is two things: one, that corporate responsibility on its own is insufficient without government responsibility. And two: the factory monitoring and inspection system that has been used for over two decades has really come under fundamental challenge.

Calvert is a founding member of the Interfaith Centre on Corporate Responsibility, and Freeman was one of the signatories of the new letter from institutional investors. He says that additional transparency of supply chains is of critical importance.

In the months after the Rana Plaza disaster, Freeman and his researchers began to look into how many companies disclose the countries where they source their products. He says the results were “astonishingly” low.

So, in July Calvert began to urge companies to engage in greater disclosure. Those that refused have faced shareholder resolutions on the issue.

“Tragic events like Rana Plaza, which may have potential reputational and legal damage, are prompting investors to take an even closer look at where countries are sourcing,” Michael Lombardo, Freeman’s colleague and a senior sustainability analyst at Calvert, told IPS. “Companies must take steps to be more transparent regarding country-level sourcing disclosure.”

Industry-wide responsibility

A “commitment to transparency at all stages” constitutes a key recommendation in the new ICCR letter. Other such forward-looking structural changes include full remediation once factories are inspected and the creation of new health and safety committees including both workers and management.

Yet the investors and others are also highlighting the still-urgent need for assistance for victims and families of those who were killed in the Rana Plaza collapse.

A 40-million-dollar trust fund for survivors and families has been set up under the auspices of the United Nations, and initial payments went to families earlier this week. Yet as of Wednesday just a third of this money had actually been pledged, according to the International Labour Organisation.

“Donating to the trust fund is not a question of who was in Rana Plaza at what time,” ICCR’s Schilling says.

“This is an equal responsibility for the whole industry. If you are an apparel company who has worked in Bangladesh, the fact is that you have benefited from this system.”

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Chilean Tax Reform Shifts Toward Income Redistribution http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/chilean-tax-reform-shifts-toward-income-redistribution/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=chilean-tax-reform-shifts-toward-income-redistribution http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/chilean-tax-reform-shifts-toward-income-redistribution/#comments Thu, 24 Apr 2014 22:20:41 +0000 Marianela Jarroud http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133886 Chilean President Michelle Bachelet’s proposed tax reform is seen as the cornerstone of her ambitious social programme and a sign of a new shift in fiscal policy towards redistribution of income. But it has critics on the right, who say it goes too far, and on the left, who say it leaves legal loopholes and […]

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One of the aims of the tax reform is to finance an overhaul of Chile’s education system, the chief demand of mass street demonstrations. Credit: Claudio Esparza/IPS

One of the aims of the tax reform is to finance an overhaul of Chile’s education system, the chief demand of mass street demonstrations. Credit: Claudio Esparza/IPS

By Marianela Jarroud
SANTIAGO, Apr 24 2014 (IPS)

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet’s proposed tax reform is seen as the cornerstone of her ambitious social programme and a sign of a new shift in fiscal policy towards redistribution of income.

But it has critics on the right, who say it goes too far, and on the left, who say it leaves legal loopholes and regressive taxes intact.

The bill, expected to pass easily through Congress, where the governing centre-left coalition has a majority, would boost tax revenue by 8.2 billion dollars a year.

The new revenue will go towards financing an overhaul of the education system, to guarantee universal tuition-free public education at all levels, improvements to healthcare and other social coverage, and paying off the deficit inherited from the previous administration.

That total is equivalent to three percentage points of GDP in this country of 17 million, where the economy grew 4.1 percent in 2013, down from an average of 5.8 percent over the previous three years. Taxes account for 80 percent of state revenue in Chile.

Socialist President Bachelet, who was sworn in on Mar. 11 for her second term – she previously governed from 2006 to 2010 – says the reform will enable Chile to become a “cohesive, democratic and just society,” because it will help the country “to move forward in equality, improving income distribution” under the premise that those who earn more, pay more.

For economist Gonzalo Durán of the Fundación Sol, a labour think tank, “this is the first time in 30 years that the tax system’s philosophy is undergoing a change in Chile; in the past, the implicit view was that taxes were stolen by the state from those who had the most.”

Durán told IPS that the reform “explicitly proposes that the role of taxes is to redistribute income”.

Under the reform, 2.5 percentage points of GDP will come from modifications of the tax structure, especially as a result of the elimination of the Fondo de Utilidades Tributarias (FUT), a corporate tax break created in 1984 by the dictatorship of late General Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990).

The remaining half a percentage point will come from measures against tax evasion, estimated at 46 percent in income tax alone. The reform will also eliminate different legal loopholes used to reduce payment of taxes.

The FUT is a widely criticised loophole that enables companies to defer income tax payments on profits that are reinvested, with the stated aim of promoting corporate savings and reinvestment.

But “the mechanism is a major source of tax evasion,” Durán said.

In the last 30 years, nearly 270 billion dollars in potential taxes were lost to the state coffers as a result of the FUT, he said.

The FUT will be eliminated in 2018, when businesspersons and shareholders start to pay taxes on all earnings, whether or not they are withdrawn.

“The tax base will be changed from profits withdrawn to profits earned,” Durán said.

The bill is an essential part of Bachelet’s government programme, which she unveiled on Mar. 31. It includes more than 30 changes to the current tax system. Among the most significant is the gradual increase in the corporate tax rate from 20 to 25 percent.

But it also has significant gaps, the economist said.

For example, it won’t do away with another mechanism, the “integrated tax”, which basically means the tax paid by companies is discounted from what the owners would have to pay when they earn profits.

Nor will the bill modify the taxes paid by mining companies, which will continue to pay the current royalties, based on earnings rather than sales.

Furthermore, the bill does not introduce changes in the value added tax (VAT) – the biggest source of tax revenue in Chile, accounting for 48.6 percent of fiscal revenue, followed by income tax, which represents 39.5 percent.

The tax on consumption taxes everyone at the same rate and gives commercial activity the same treatment as basic services and rights like education and healthcare.

The reform has its critics – mainly from the right.

The loudest opposition has come from the extreme-right Independent Democratic Union opposition party, whose offensive has included a fear-mongering pamphlet with warnings about the bill’s supposed negative effects on the middle class.

The Instituto Libertad (Freedom Institute), with ties to the right-wing National Renewal Party, launched a campaign against the tax reform, criticising, among other things, the increase in VAT on alcohol, soft drinks, and new homes.

María Teresa Arellano, a 37-year-old secretary, believes the reform will hurt her. “My only pleasure is drinking a cup of wine on the weekend, and now I’ll have to pay more for that,” she told IPS.

But Ana María Pineida, 57, said the reform is focused on a higher good: “I know my grandson will have free education thanks to the changes.”

For years, students have been holding street protests demanding tuition-free higher education, which is available in most of Latin America but not in Chile.

Independent lawmaker Giorgio Jackson, one of the members of Congress representing students, argued that people need to understand the essence of the reform, which in his view “is designed to correct longstanding problems.”

“The aim is to overcome the barrier of a state with little capacity to raise the funds needed to offer guaranteed, high-quality social coverage,” he told IPS.

Durán said the changes will benefit Chileans by providing tuition-free quality education, since two of the three percentage points of GDP that should be brought in will go exclusively towards that goal.

After that, progress can be made towards better distribution of income, he said.

Two out of three households in Chile live on less than 1,200 dollars a month, and half of all workers earn less than 500 dollars a month, while the 4,500 richest families in the country have average monthly incomes of over 40,000 dollars.

A study co-authored by Michel Jorratt, an adviser to Bachelet on tax issues, says the wealthiest one percent of the population has 15 to 33 percent of all income, but pays tax rates of only nine to 17 percent.

The benefits of tuition-free education will be seen in the long-term, but “taking 8.2 billion dollars from the richest people in the country, for the state, is an important contribution towards redistribution,” Durán said.

Political scientist Francisca Quiroga said the fears being spread by the right are unfounded. “This is not a radical overhaul of the tax system, it’s not revolutionary. It will be applied gradually,” she told IPS.

Latin America has regressive tax systems, “and several international institutions have stated that one of the challenges facing the region is to introduce tax reforms” to make the systems more fair, she said.

“This is a reform that Chile needs, and that continues to maintain beneficial conditions for business, such as the integrated system,” she said.

To head off criticism, Bachelet has sent her ministers around the country to explain the reform and outline its social benefits.

The bill, introduced on Apr. 1, is expected to be approved in mid-2014.

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Violence in South Sudan at a Savage Turning Point http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/violence-south-sudan-savage-turning-point/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=violence-south-sudan-savage-turning-point http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/violence-south-sudan-savage-turning-point/#comments Thu, 24 Apr 2014 21:31:13 +0000 Samuel Oakford http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133883 After a week that saw a massacre inside a U.N. base and wide-scale ethnic-based slaughter in an oil-producing region, the international community is grappling with what, if any, options remain to save lives in South Sudan. In a closed door meeting Wednesday, the Security Council was shown video from Bentiu, where between last Tuesday and […]

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A mother and children walk amongst flooded shelters at the Tomping IDP camp. Credit: UN Photo/Isaac Billy

A mother and children walk amongst flooded shelters at the Tomping IDP camp. Credit: UN Photo/Isaac Billy

By Samuel Oakford
UNITED NATIONS, Apr 24 2014 (IPS)

After a week that saw a massacre inside a U.N. base and wide-scale ethnic-based slaughter in an oil-producing region, the international community is grappling with what, if any, options remain to save lives in South Sudan.

In a closed door meeting Wednesday, the Security Council was shown video from Bentiu, where between last Tuesday and Wednesday, rebels executed hundreds of civilians in a mosque and the town’s hospital.“You have a situation where civilians are taken out of a mosque and killed and people are calling on the radio for the rape of women of certain ethnicity." -- Philippe Bolopion

In a terrible harkening to the Rwandan genocide, the U.N. reports that after capturing the town, rebels commandeered a local radio station and broadcast messages urging supporters to take revenge on Dinkas and Darfuris by raping women from those communities.

In a statement, the members of the Security Council “expressed horror and anger at the mass violence in Bentiu” and condemned the Friday attack on a U.N. camp in Bor, where at least 48 of the 5,000 mostly-Nuer residents it was sheltering were killed by a heavily armed mob that opened fire after breaking into the compound.

“The members of the Security Council strongly reiterated their demand for an immediate end to all human rights violations and abuses and violations of international humanitarian law, and expressed their readiness to consider appropriate measures against those responsible,” the statement added.

The “measures” will likely entail targeted sanctions against officials linked to atrocities like those in Bentiu and Bor.  On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch publicly called on the Council to “impose sanctions on individuals in both government and opposition who are responsible for grave abuses.”

Earlier this month, U.S. President Barack Obama opened the door to travel bans and the freezing of assets of military and political leaders in South Sudan, but administration officials have yet to name individuals.

In many cases, the threat of U.S. action is enough to scare commanders, but U.N. sanctions would go farther in South Sudan, says Philippe Bolopion, U.N. director at Human Rights Watch.

“U.S. sanctions are a welcome development but a lot of the leaders involved in the current violence have bank accounts in neighbouring countries – U.S. sanctions alone would not be enough,” said Bolopion. “U.N. sanctions send a powerful message to the people on the ground that they will have to pay a price for their crimes.”

Violence in the world’s youngest country broke out in December, when gunfire erupted in capital, Juba, between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and breakaway factions of the SPLA that claim allegiance to former vice-president Riek Machar, himself sacked by Kiir during a putsch in July.

Kiir is an ethnic Dinka, Machar a Nuer, and the conflict, though it revolves in essence around unresolved questions of power, oil money and politics, has split the country along ethnic lines.

In December, the Security Council authorised 5,500 additional peacekeepers to assist the U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), but bureaucratic wrangling, disputes among member states and an overstretched Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) have seen fewer than 700 arrive by April.

Should all 12,500 mandated “blue-helmets” deploy in short order, it is unclear if they’d be capable of doing much outside of bases where they’ve sheltered tens of thousands since December. But even this capability is called into question by the attack in Bor.

“This is not what the mission was designed for, this is not what the compounds were designed for,” Stephane Dujarric, spokesperson for the U.N. Secretary General, told reporters.

Regional solution

The Security Council expressed support for the African Union’s Commission of Inquiry in South Sudan, though that effort has been slow to begin. This month, the commission announced it would meet with regional leaders to discuss the conflict, including Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir and Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, both under indictment by the International Criminal Court.

The commission will also meet with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, whose troops have been fighting alongside South Sudanese government forces – even as Ugandan representatives, as part of the regional bloc IGAD, attempt to broker peace at increasingly futile negotiations in Addis Ababa.

On Jan. 23, those talks saw the signing of a cessation of hostilities agreement, only for it to be broken within hours. Between periods of convalescence, both sides have fought continuously since.

“We see that neither party is ready to, in any way, cease the hostilities,” Herve Ladsous, U.N. peacekeeping chief, told reporters after the Council session.

“The agreement on that, which was signed exactly to this day three months ago, has never been implemented. They do not give indication that they want to sincerely participate in the peace talks,” said Ladsous.

At the U.N., there was a sense that the executions and wanton murders in Bentiu had jarred delegates accustomed to a slow-burning but nonetheless deadly civil war, one that could always be addressed tomorrow, or the next week.

The Council quickly asked that the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights send human rights officers to Bentiu and launch an investigation there.

“You have a situation where civilians are taken out of a mosque and killed and people are calling on the radio for the rape of women of certain ethnicity… we have reached a turning point in the crisis where all bets are off,” Bolopion told IPS.

Despite signs of life at the Security Council, the solution in South Sudan likely will have to come from regional leaders, who until now have expressed neither neutrality nor a willingness to apply real pressure on Kiir and Machar.

IGAD has announced its intentions to replace Ugandan soldiers with a regional force, but that plan too has been slow in materialising and wouldn’t necessarily allay concerns over impartiality.

“These sanctions could help but they are not going to solve the problem,” said one high-ranking human rights official who spoke to IPS on the condition of anonymity. “I think the big players at the U.N. realise that it’s key for the regional powers to be more active and do the right thing.”

“IGAD is key and the neighbours are key, if they don’t solve it politically, it will get much worse,” the source added.

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OP-ED: Russia’s Changing Islamic Insurgency http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/op-ed-russias-changing-islamic-insurgency/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=op-ed-russias-changing-islamic-insurgency http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/op-ed-russias-changing-islamic-insurgency/#comments Thu, 24 Apr 2014 18:22:19 +0000 Peter J. Marzalik http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133880 With the Kremlin’s attention fixated on Ukraine, the Caucasus Emirate, a terrorist group fighting to establish an independent Islamic state in the North Caucasus, threatens to undermine Russian domestic security in new ways. The death of the emirate’s veteran leader, Doku Umarov, sparked an internal power struggle last fall that resulted in a significant shift […]

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By Peter J. Marzalik
MOSCOW, Apr 24 2014 (EurasiaNet)

With the Kremlin’s attention fixated on Ukraine, the Caucasus Emirate, a terrorist group fighting to establish an independent Islamic state in the North Caucasus, threatens to undermine Russian domestic security in new ways.

The death of the emirate’s veteran leader, Doku Umarov, sparked an internal power struggle last fall that resulted in a significant shift in the group’s organisational structure and strategy.There is no shortage of new recruits for the Caucasus Emirate, due to the Russian government’s general disregard for basic rights.

Although not initially well-received by certain influential cells in the organisation, Umarov’s successor is now consolidating his authority and seems poised to abandon outdated ideology and broaden the movement’s scope of operational capabilities. Most significantly, the Chechen influence over the organisation appears to have diminished.

The major question at this point is how rapidly can Russian security officials adapt to the Caucasus Emirate’s changes? A Kremlin that is distracted by events in Ukraine could easily lose ground in its efforts to contain the morphing insurgency in the North Caucasus.

On Mar. 18, Kavkaz Centre, the primary news portal of the Caucasus Emirate, officially announced the “martyrdom” of the movement’s seasoned chief, Doku Umarov. Widely recognised as a major military figure in the First and Second Chechen Wars, he rose to prominence in 2007, assuming command of the insurgency and proclaiming himself first emir of a newly formed Caucasus Emirate.

Initially driven by national separatist aspirations, the group shifted toward the global jihadi movement and became an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Umarov was closely linked to a spate of terrorist attacks in Russia over the past several years including the 2011 Moscow airport bombing, the 2010 suicide bombings on the city’s metro, and the 2009 bombing of a train from Moscow to St. Petersburg; each killed dozens of people and injured hundreds more. His last propaganda video called on Islamic militants to target the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Although instrumental in publicising the Caucasus Emirate’s mission and in motivating its members, Umarov played a reduced role in recent years in operational planning. His departure from the scene, then, will not be a source of much disruption for the terrorist organisation, some experts suggest.

“The damage done to [the Caucasus Emirate] by the death of the leader is tangible, but will not be lasting,” Simon Saradzhyan, a research fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs, wrote in an analysis published in March by the Moscow Times.

The circumstances surrounding Umarov’s death remain shrouded in mystery: speculation abounds, ranging from sickness to drone strike to even a coup.

A lengthy delay in the confirmation of his death suggests his loss triggered an internal power struggle, likely among Dagestani and Kabardino-Balkarian jamaats (units) vying to claim the top spot from the long-in-charge Chechen leadership. After months of tense deliberation, a six-man council of provincial emirs selected Avar theologian Aliaskhab Kebekov, aka Ali Abu-Muhammad.

Umarov’s successor lacks the military pedigree of past commanders, but notably possesses theological training to push the Caucasus Emirate in a different strategic and operational direction. Based out of Dagestan, Kebekov is a former qadi (supreme religious authority) and the first non-Chechen to lead the North Caucasus insurgency. He ordered the killing of Sufi Sheikh Said-Afandi Chirkeisky by a female suicide bomber in 2012, according to Russian security officials.

In a January audio clip, Kebekov condemned the “nationalism” and “nationalist spirit” of the Chechens in the ranks of the Caucasus Emirate. Such rhetoric aims to further distance the group from the original Chechen nationalist movement of the 1990s and reinforce its global jihadi orientation and battle for an autonomous Sunni Islamic State in Russia governed by a strict interpretation of Sharia law.

In a continuing push away from Chechnya, he will likely strengthen operations in Dagestan, possibly pursuing a less aggressive form of jihad. Despite some opposition, the latest pledges of allegiance indicate some jamaats, including certain influential Chechens who manage key funding channels and media outlets for the Caucasus Emirate, are now accepting of Kebekov’s ascendancy to leadership.

The choice of Kebekov as successor also indicates that the Caucasus Emirate may extend its mission beyond the North Caucasus region. Recent operations provide sound evidence of this possible shift outward. Since 2011, hundreds of militants from Russia have ventured abroad to fight alongside the Al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front in the Syrian civil war.

The organisation also sought to undertake operations in the Volga-Ural region of Russia. In 2012, the Mujahedeen of Tatarstan, an extremist group with strong ties to the Caucasus Emirate, perpetrated a series of terrorist attacks against Muslim religious leaders in the Russian city of Kazan.

More recently, suicide bombers from Dagestan killed dozens of people in separate strikes on a bus and a train station in Volgograd.

For now, Russian leaders seem intent on continuing a heavy-handed approach to counterinsurgency operations. On Mar. 19, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev convened a government meeting in Chechnya to discuss ways to disrupt militant financing channels, as well as the threat of terrorist attacks outside of the North Caucasus. Meeting participants reportedly did not mull the implications of the emirate’s leadership shift.

Russian security forces have succeeded in killing key extremist leaders and hundreds of militants in the North Caucasus over the last few years, dealing serious blows to the organisation. Even so, there is no shortage of new recruits for the Caucasus Emirate, due to the Russian government’s general disregard for basic rights, including religious freedom, socio-economic disparity and large-scale corruption.

Some observers suggest that under the present circumstances, the security threat posed by the Caucasus Emirate stands to rise.

“The growing importance of the organisation inside the Caucasus Emirate decisional structure represents an increased risk for terrorist attacks against touristic sites and transportation networks inside Russia,” wrote Jean-Francois Ratelle, a postdoctoral fellow at George Washington University, in a recent commentary.

Editor’s note:  Peter J. Marzalik is an independent analyst of Islamic affairs in the Russian Federation. This story originally appeared on EurasiaNet.org.

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Zimbabwe’s Struggle to Formalise the Informal http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/zimbabwes-struggle-formalise-informal/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=zimbabwes-struggle-formalise-informal http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/zimbabwes-struggle-formalise-informal/#comments Thu, 24 Apr 2014 14:17:08 +0000 Tatenda Dewa http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133869 Zimbabwe’s extensive informal sector could help boost government revenue if regularised, but this won’t happen unless the government creates incentives for the informal sector to register, economists say. “Formalisation of the informal sector would significantly improve revenue inflows through taxation on employees’ salaries, import duty, property fees and other forms of taxes on the sector. […]

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An informal, used tyre shop at a residence in Harare's Hatfield suburb. Zimbabwe has 2.8 million micro, small and medium businesses — 85 percent of which are unregistered. Credit: Tatenda Dewa/IPS

An informal, used tyre shop at a residence in Harare's Hatfield suburb. Zimbabwe has 2.8 million micro, small and medium businesses — 85 percent of which are unregistered. Credit: Tatenda Dewa/IPS

By Tatenda Dewa
HARARE, Apr 24 2014 (IPS)

Zimbabwe’s extensive informal sector could help boost government revenue if regularised, but this won’t happen unless the government creates incentives for the informal sector to register, economists say.

“Formalisation of the informal sector would significantly improve revenue inflows through taxation on employees’ salaries, import duty, property fees and other forms of taxes on the sector. However, there is need to create incentives for the informal sector to register,” Eric Bloch, a Bulawayo-based economist, told IPS. Many businesses would be reluctant to pay taxes because of concerns that “taxes collected will not be used in the national interest”.

A 2013 FinScope survey, which is now being used by government officials as reference, indicates that 2.8 million micro, small and medium businesses — 85 percent of which are unregistered — have created 5.7 million informal jobs. These businesses generate an estimated turnover of 7.4 billion dollars, according to the survey.

Finance and Economic Development Minister Patrick Chinamasa has already cast a light on the growth of the informal sector and its significance to the economy in this southern African nation.

Responding to questions in parliament in February, Chinamasa said: “Our economy is now informal…That is the reality of our economy and it is a reality we must recognise and take measures on how to tap into this sector.”

Godfrey Kanyenze, an economist and director of the Labour and Economic Development Research Institute of Zimbabwe, a think tank of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, explained that the government was failing to fund public programmes because the treasury struggled to mobilise money from existing industry and labour.

“There is no way the government can maximise on revenue collection in the informal sector if it is not regularised. Government must come up with a working strategy to ensure that the informal sector is formalised and taxed to improve revenue collection, which is currently in a sorry state,” he told IPS.

He said the government was also losing out because the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (ZIMRA) was struggling to tax registered small to medium enterprises.

The formal sector has been negatively affected for more than a decade by the withdrawal of investment, low investor confidence, rampant power outages and a struggling economy that was marked by hyperinflation and acute shortages.

Kanyenze said that to ensure effective monitoring, the government must organise the informal sector into clusters based on the services or products they supplied or produced. He said the government should also offer business development and training services to the sector and devise mechanisms to protect and promote them.

Economist John Robertson told IPS that formalisation of unregistered enterprises would bring a host of other advantages.

“Besides improving revenue collection and encouraging better public sector performance, formalisation of the informal sector would hopefully ensure better working conditions for the millions said to be employed there. They would enjoy benefits associated with the formal sector such as medical aid schemes, pension, better work safety and the ability to negotiate salaries,” he said.

Tapson Mandiziva, who works as an assistant carpenter at an unregistered furniture-making firm in Glenview, a low income suburb in Harare, does not enjoy such benefits.

“I don’t have an employment contract and my boss pays me as and when he likes. Sometimes he makes huge profits from the sale of wardrobes and the kitchen furniture that we manufacture but uses the money to buy cars and personal items and does not pay us. When he does, the money is too little and he has dismissed workers on flimsy grounds,” Mandiziva, 31, told IPS.

In the three years he has worked for the furniture firm, the highest salary he has received is 200 dollars a month. But Mandiziva says he can go for as long as four months without receiving a wage and does not receive backdated payments.

The police and municipal authorities periodically raid backyard industries like the one Mandiziva works for. They have been accused of confiscating products or extorting bribes from companies operating without licences. There are also allegations that they sell the seized goods at office auctions where the officers or local authority officials are the only buyers.

Innocent Makwiramiti, an economist and former chief executive officer of the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce, told IPS that the illegal raids could be avoided if the informal sector was regularised.

“The police officers, municipal and ZIMRA officials are collecting thousands of dollars in bribes from the informal traders and, in some cases,  are forcing traders to surrender part of their earnings as a protection fee against the raids.

“Part of this money could be going to the treasury had the informal sector been registered and compelled to observe company and taxation regulations,” he said.

However, formalisation and taxation of the informal sector will not be easy, according to experts.

“The biggest constraint is reluctance by small businesses to register. They tend to suspect that formalisation would open them to too much scrutiny that would affect their income generation. Since most of them are run by individuals and families that view adhering to labour laws as a burden, they would rather remain as they are,” said Bloch.

The February edition of the Public Administration and Development Journal shows that there are numerous hurdles the government faces in its attempts to harness taxes from the informal sector and registered SMEs. This includes the manpower and administrative constraints of ZIMRA.

According to the report, many businesses would be reluctant to pay taxes because of concerns that “taxes collected will not be used in the national interest”.

Many are also disgruntled over poor service delivery and the fact that some politically-connected businesspeople were being let off the hook for failing to pay tax.

Augustine Tawanda, the secretary general of the Zimbabwe Crossborder Traders Association, which comprises informal entrepreneurs whose businesses involve sourcing for resale or selling goods in neighbouring countries, told IPS: “There is plenty of money circulating in the informal sector and it is possible to innovate a win-win situation with the government.”

However, his organisation is opposed to registration of informal businesses, preferring that the government just includes them in its data base only for purposes of taxation rather than formalisation.

“The main problem is that the government is only concerned about taxing us, rather than making us grow as businesses. It does not have clear policies for formalisation and has not shown how it is going to incentivise informal traders,” he said.

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Storm in a Rice Bowl http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/storm-rice-bowl/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=storm-rice-bowl http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/storm-rice-bowl/#comments Thu, 24 Apr 2014 05:49:41 +0000 Ahn Mi Young http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133854 Rice, a staple of the South Korean diet, is stirring up a bowlful of worry for Seoul. Under a promise to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the government has to make a tough choice on rice imports by June this year. It can either allow foreign suppliers to sell rice in its market – that […]

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Korean rice farmers protesting in Seoul against any new imports under an agreement with the World Trade Organisation. Credit: Ahn Mi Young/IPS.

Korean rice farmers protesting in Seoul against any new imports under an agreement with the World Trade Organisation. Credit: Ahn Mi Young/IPS.

By Ahn Mi Young
SEOUL, Apr 24 2014 (IPS)

Rice, a staple of the South Korean diet, is stirring up a bowlful of worry for Seoul. Under a promise to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the government has to make a tough choice on rice imports by June this year.

It can either allow foreign suppliers to sell rice in its market – that is, open up its rice sector to the world – or it can continue to import a fixed quota of rice annually from countries like the U.S., China and Thailand.To open up its rice market or to stick to an import quota – the decision will not be easy for Seoul.

While opening up the rice market would bring competition for local varieties of the grain – and in turn invite the wrath of Korean farmers – the second option would mean allowing a huge quantity of foreign rice despite little domestic demand for it.

The government’s dilemma comes at a time when rice consumption is falling in the country. South Koreans no longer have the “peasant diet” – a full rice bowl, a bean fermented soup and the spicy vegetable dish kimchi. They often dine out and opt for other menus. Often, women on a diet cut down their rice intake.

An average South Korean who used to eat 130 kg of rice a year in 1982 and 112.9 kg in 1992 ate only 67.2 kg rice in 2013, according to agriculture ministry data.

Despite such a trend, the government has to take a decision soon.

In 1993, when the Korean government tried to open up the rice sector, tens of thousands of angry farmers gathered across the nation to protest. “Opening up the rice market is like giving away the country’s food sovereignty”, their slogan said.

The government then promised farmers it would not liberalise the rice sector.

WTO instead allowed South Korea a concession in the form of minimum market access (MMA) norms. This system meant Seoul would have to permit a specified quantity of rice to be imported under an annual quota.

Thus, in 1994, South Korea began to import four percent of its annual rice consumption. In 2004, this agreement was extended for another 10 years, with the condition that the annual quota of imported rice be increased by 20,000 tonnes each year.

As a result, rice import under the quota jumped from about 225,000 tonnes in 2005 to 408,000 tonnes in 2014. The current quantity imported under the quota amounts to about 10 percent of the country’s total rice production, which was 4.23 million tonnes last year.

The major sources of its rice imports are China, the U.S. and Thailand, and it also buys from India, Vietnam and Cambodia.

But few South Koreans buy foreign rice, because of their strong preference for the “delicious” homegrown variety. Most of the imported quota rice is sold to food, liquor or confectionery companies but these too increasingly use more of Korean rice because of consumer preferences.

Seoul’s agreement with the WTO on the current import quota expires at the end of 2014. It must decide by June so that it can notify the WTO of its decision by September. Seoul has said the WTO is unlikely to allow any further delay in opening the rice market.

A senior official at the agriculture ministry told IPS: “If we open up, we will try to impose a 300 or 500 percent tariff on imported rice. Then the price gap between imported and domestic rice would be big enough to keep our farmers unaffected.”

Such a proposal from Seoul would have to be ratified by the WTO. “The key issue would be how high the tariff on imported foreign rice can be,” agriculture minister Lee Dong-Pil said at a press meeting in March.

Currently domestic rice sells for 162 dollars per gamani (80 kg). If South Korea imports the cereal at 60,000-70,000 won (56-65 dollars) per gamani and imposes 400 percent tariff, imported rice will cost about 280 dollars per gamani.

“Then even fewer companies would buy imported rice,” said a senior agriculture ministry official on condition of anonymity. “This may explain why major rice exporters like China or the U.S. may secretly want Seoul to maintain the current import quota system.”

The government also believes that settling for an import quota yet again – and thereby buying greater quantities of foreign rice – will not help the country. “Another delay will not benefit South Korea,” minister Lee said, referring to a growing stock of imported rice.

Talk of opening up the rice market has already spurred farmer protests.

Hundreds of them gathered in Seoul on Mar. 13 to oppose free import of foreign rice. “As we plant rice saplings in our fields, we also sow the seeds of worry in our heart,”, said a placard at the demonstration. “We will never accept an opening up of the rice market” read another.

There are 1.15 million farmers in the country and 494,352 of them are engaged in rice cultivation, according to 2012 data from the Korean Statistical Information Service.

Last month about 10,000 farmers gathered near a Seoul building where trade officials from South Korea and China were meeting for a bilateral free trade deal that would allow these two countries to increase trade between them by reducing or removing tariff on imports.

“Once a free trade deal is made between Beijing and Seoul, how can Seoul impose 300 percent tariff on Chinese rice?” asked Lee Byong-Gyu, who was leading the farmer group.

To open up its rice market or to stick to an import quota – the decision will not be easy for Seoul.

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Kyrgyzstan: Russian ’Information Wars’ Heating Up http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/kyrgyzstan-russian-information-wars-heating/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=kyrgyzstan-russian-information-wars-heating http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/kyrgyzstan-russian-information-wars-heating/#comments Thu, 24 Apr 2014 00:34:34 +0000 Chris Rickleton http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133862 Relative to other Central Asian states, Kyrgyzstan has a fairly free and perennially noisy domestic media scene. Even so, Kyrgyz outlets tend to be no match for Russian state-controlled media when it comes to establishing narratives for current events. A recently released and annually updated poll funded by USAID and carried out by the Gallup-endorsed […]

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Looking for balanced news in Kyrgyzstan. Credit: David Trilling/EurasiaNet

Looking for balanced news in Kyrgyzstan. Credit: David Trilling/EurasiaNet

By Chris Rickleton
BISHKEK, Apr 24 2014 (EurasiaNet)

Relative to other Central Asian states, Kyrgyzstan has a fairly free and perennially noisy domestic media scene. Even so, Kyrgyz outlets tend to be no match for Russian state-controlled media when it comes to establishing narratives for current events.

A recently released and annually updated poll funded by USAID and carried out by the Gallup-endorsed SIAR consulting company indicates that the Ukraine crisis is enabling Russian media outlets to expand their reach in Kyrgyzstan, a country where 94 percent of respondents claimed to obtain news about politics from television."We are located at the crossroads of a number of interests – internal and external. Political speculation is profitable and objectivity is expensive." -- Ilim Karypbekov

According to the latest poll, Kremlin-funded Russian Public Television (ORT) is the second most-watched channel in Kyrgyzstan.

It also shows that ORT’s popularity is on the rise, with 20 percent of respondents selecting it as their “most frequent” source of political information and 16 percent as the “most trusted” outlet. Those figures are up from 13 percent and 10 percent respectively in the previous year’s poll.

ORT’s rise is coming at the expense of Kyrgyzstan’s national broadcaster, OTRK, which saw its popularity percentage fall to 34 percent this year from 38 percent in 2013. Likewise, OTRK’s perceived reliability slipped to 29 percent from 32 percent.

The polling data has important implications for Kyrgyzstan’s political future, as Russian media now seems better positioned than ever to influence Kyrgyz public opinion. ORT and other Russian-controlled outlets have an established history of trying to shape its coverage to suit the Kremlin’s interests. Most notably, ORT led a media campaign against former Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev in the run-up to his violent ouster four years ago.

In the coming weeks and months, analysts of the local press believe that a Russian “information war” will intensify as Kyrgyz officials dither on the issue of joining what is Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s pet project — the Customs Union.

Beyond the government’s hesitation about joining a Kremlin-led economic group — which currently comprises Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia, and which is expected to metamorphose into a Eurasian Economic Union as early as May — public opinion in Kyrgyzstan about the country’s growing fealty to its northern neighbour is growing more skeptical.

Polling data from the latest SIAR survey showed that the number of Kyrgyzstanis “categorically against” Bishkek joining the union has risen from 10 percent in 2013 to 21 percent this year.

Speaking to local media on Apr. 11, Kyrgyz officials involved in accession negotiations said most of the Kyrgyz side’s key demands for concessions had not been met.

The Customs Union — along with the sale of the country’s gas network to Russian state energy giant Gazprom and the mooted sale of a majority stake in the country’s main airport to another Kremlin firm, Rosneft — were all sources of discontent expressed at a recent 1,000-strong protest on Apr. 10 in Bishkek, organized by the nominally anti-Russia National Opposition Movement.

Nargiza Ryskulova, a Bishkek-based journalist who writes for the BBC’s Kyrgyz service, suggests most Russian-speaking Kyrgyz tend to tune in to cash-strapped OTRK for national news and ORT for international news.

“Now people are interested in Ukraine since Russia is interested in Ukraine. But many people lack an alternative to Russian coverage of world events. Internet penetration is only about a fifth of the population,” Ryskulova said.

Other observers are more worried. In a fiery Apr. 8 op-ed for the Kyrgyz news outlet AkiPress, Edil Baisalov, who served as chief of staff to the former interim government, wrote: “I am willing to bet that the average Kyrgyzstani consumes more products of Russian propaganda annually than the average Tatar, Chechen or Yakut.”

The consequence of such viewing habits, he added, can be seen in the national parliament, where lawmakers are considering bills almost identical in substance to those discussed in the Russian state Duma, and among illiberal youth groups that parrot the Kremlin’s homophobic and anti-Western rhetoric at press conferences that receive disproportionate airtime. These trends showed some Kyrgyz have become “tired of independence,” Baisalov asserted.

In print media, traditionally pro-Russian publications have been mirroring ORT’s narrative concerning Ukrainian events (i.e. that Ukrainian fascists are trampling on the rights of Russian speakers) and other topics.

The introduction to an article titled Russophobic Hysteria in the Apr. 9 edition of the Russian language weekly Delo Nomer vented against Washington-funded Radio Free Europe, which earlier had alleged that the Kyrgyz periodical received funding from Moscow.

The remainder of the article featured an interview with “political scientist and ex-diplomat” Bakyt Baketaev, who opined: “let’s speak openly – if there was a referendum on Kyrgyzstan entering the Russian Federation, many Kyrgyz would vote [yes], first and foremost those who remember the Soviet Union.”

Pro-Russian periodicals in Kyrgyzstan offer a heavy dose of anti-Americanism. Another article in same edition of Delo Nomer, for example, raised alarm about the supposed danger posed by “The United States’ Kyrgyz Front.” It linked a recent visit to Bishkek by the U.S. State Department’s Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs, Nisha Biswal, to the April 10 National Opposition Movement protest.

U.S. officials have denied financing such activity. Meanwhile, Dengi i Vlast, another newspaper that leans pro-Russian ran a story in its Apr. 4 edition with a headline that read “Who is this bird Jomart Otorbayev?” The story featured a cartoon of Kyrgyzstan’s new prime minister on a tank with an American flag. Otorbayev’s “great mission” is “to block Kyrgyzstan’s entry into the Customs Union,” it alleged.

Funding sources for Kyrgyz media outlets are notoriously difficult to trace, prompting speculation that Russia is funneling money to local periodicals and broadcasters. It is “completely possible” that Kyrgyz media platforms receive money from Russian and other foreign sources, acknowledges Ilim Karypbekov, the chair of the public advisory board at the Kyrgyz broadcaster OTRK.

But, he adds, the republic’s media woes go deeper than that. Kyrgyz media is generally unprofitable, he says, meaning that “any sharp political confrontations” are “a means to earn money in exchange for coverage of a certain kind.”

What results is less an information war and more an “information vacuum” wherein outlets “attack politicians and each other, but don’t really highlight issues,” Karypbekov told Eurasianet.org.

Given its weak, fledgling democracy and strategic geopolitical location, Kyrgyzstan remains vulnerable to media manipulation, adds Karypbekov. “In our current situation we are located at the crossroads of a number of interests – internal and external — political speculation is profitable and objectivity is expensive,” he said.

Editor’s note: Chris Rickleton is a Bishkek-based journalist. This story originally appeared on EurasiaNet.org.

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U.S. Apache Delivery Highlights Mixed Messaging on Egypt http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/u-s-apache-delivery-highlights-mixed-messaging-egypt/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-apache-delivery-highlights-mixed-messaging-egypt http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/u-s-apache-delivery-highlights-mixed-messaging-egypt/#comments Thu, 24 Apr 2014 00:14:13 +0000 Jasmin Ramsey http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133859 Last October, the Barack Obama administration suspended the delivery of attack helicopters to Egypt’s interim government following the Jul. 2 military ouster of Egypt’s democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi. “Delivery of these systems could resume pending Egypt’s progress toward an inclusive democratically-elected civilian government,” said Derek Chollet, the assistant secretary of defence for international security […]

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Capt. Sean Spence, the commander of B Co. TF Eagle, rides shotgun on an AH-64 Apache during an Apache extraction exercise Aug. 25 at Camp Bondsteel, Kosovo. Credit: public domain

Capt. Sean Spence, the commander of B Co. TF Eagle, rides shotgun on an AH-64 Apache during an Apache extraction exercise Aug. 25 at Camp Bondsteel, Kosovo. Credit: public domain

By Jasmin Ramsey
WASHINGTON, Apr 24 2014 (IPS)

Last October, the Barack Obama administration suspended the delivery of attack helicopters to Egypt’s interim government following the Jul. 2 military ouster of Egypt’s democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi.

“Delivery of these systems could resume pending Egypt’s progress toward an inclusive democratically-elected civilian government,” said Derek Chollet, the assistant secretary of defence for international security affairs, during testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee Oct. 29."There is a strong risk that they will be used in carrying out serious human rights abuses - basically collective punishment of entire communities - in the Sinai." -- Michelle Dunne

So the announcement late Tuesday by the Pentagon that 10 apache helicopters will now be delivered despite agreement by major rights groups that the Egyptian government has, if anything, increased its repression in the intervening six months is being met with concern.

“It’s abundantly clear that Egypt is not taking steps toward a democratic transition,” said Sarah Margon, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch. “It’s a very confused statement.”

Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel told his Egyptian counterpart that “we are not yet able to certify that Egypt is taking steps to support a democratic transition.” At the same time he confirmed the delivery of the Apache helicopters in support of Egypt’s counterterrorism operations in the Sinai, according to a readout of their phone call Tuesday.

Secretary of State John Kerry will also be certifying to Congress that Egypt is “sustaining the strategic relationship with the United States – including by countering transnational threats such as terrorism and weapons proliferation – and that Egypt is upholding its obligations under the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty”, according to a separate statement released Tuesday.

“The U.S. administration keeps trying to split the difference, sending the message that they want to keep up security cooperation with the Egyptian government but at the same time that they don’t approve of the coup and the massive human rights abuses that have followed,” Michelle Dunne, a former State Department Middle East specialist, told IPS.

“I think these helicopters are intended to show support for the fight against terrorism in the Sinai and not for General [Abdel Fatah] al-Sisi’s presidential campaign, but that’s not an easy distinction to make,” said Dunne, now a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“The other problem with delivering the Apaches is that there is a strong risk that they will be used in carrying out serious human rights abuses — basically collective punishment of entire communities — in the Sinai,” she said.

“This would be a direct violation of President Obama’s January 2014 directive against providing conventional weapons in situations where they are likely to be used to commit human rights violations or to associate the United States with such violations,” added Dunne.

As noted by Dunne, rights groups worry that any distinctions the Obama administration may be trying to make between addressing legitimate Egyptian security concerns and disapproving of its human rights record will be lost as a result of the delivery of the Apache helicopters.

“Our concern is that these fine distinctions will be lost on most people in Egypt and will be distorted by the Egyptian government, that will claim that this indicates U.S. support,” Neil Hicks, the international policy advisor at Human Rights First, told IPS.

Almost one month ago, the Obama administration strongly denounced an Egyptian court’s decision to sentence 529 people to death for the killing of one police officer during protests of the coup against Morsi last July.

“The interim government must understand the negative message that this decision, if upheld, would send to the world about Egypt’s commitment to international law and inclusivity,” Kerry said on Mar. 26 in reaction to the mass death sentences.

The Obama administration has strongly condemned the violent crackdown by the Egyptian military against protesterrs following the ouster of Morsi, which many Egyptians supported at the time.

Citing statistics by Egyptian rights groups and other sources, a Carnegie report authored by Dunne and Scott Williamson in March found that the current level of repression in Egypt actually exceeds the scale reached under former President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who tried to crush the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and 1960s by rounding up hundreds of members and executing a dozen of their leaders, and in the aftermath of the assassination of former President Anwar Sadat in 1981.

A total of 3,143 people have been killed as a result of political violence between Jul. 3 last year and the end of January. Of the total, at least 2,528 civilians and 60 police were killed in political protests and clashes, and another 281 others are estimated to have been killed in terrorist attacks.

Some 16,400 people have also been arrested during political events, while another 2,590 political leaders — the vast majority associated with the Muslim Brotherhood — have been rounded up and remain in detention, the report said.

According to Stephen McInerney, the executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), the Obama administration’s decision to send the Apaches doesn’t contradict the law, “but sends the signal that concern for democratic progress is not an equal priority for this administration.

“Unfortunately, it’s not unexpected. It’s been clear that many in the administration have wanted to move forward with the resumption of military aid to Egypt,” McInerney told IPS.

Al-Sisi, who experts here say has exercised de facto power since the coup, is expected to be a shoo-in in Egypt’s presidential election late next month. He has returned many senior officials of the government of former President Hosni Mubarak, as well as many of his family’s business cronies, to positions they lost after Mubarak was forced to step down in the face of popular pressure and some urging by the U.S. and other Western governments in February 2011.

Citing increasing terrorist activity which has reportedly taken the lives of more than 430 police officers and soldiers since the coup, he urged the Obama administration Wednesday to re-instate all U.S. military and security all U.S. military assistance to Egypt. Washington has provided on average of about 1.3 billion dollars a year – almost all of it in military aid – in bilateral assistance to Cairo.

Next to Israel, Egypt has been the biggest beneficiary of U.S. bilateral assistance since the Camp David peace treaty was signed by the two nations in 1979. Besides helping to sustain the treaty, the aid has also ensured that U.S. warships are given priority access to the Suez Canal and U.S. warplanes can overfly Egyptian airspace.

The aid suspension last October infuriated the Egyptian military’s closest allies, notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Riyadh has promised to compensate for any shortfall in U.S. military aid by buying weapons systems other arms suppliers, including Russia, on Egypt’s behalf.

Saudi complaints that Washington has not provided sufficient support to Al-Sisi and the Egyptian military since the coup reportedly figured importantly in recent exchanges between Washington and Riyadh, including a visit by Obama himself with King Abdullah last month.

Jim Lobe contributed to this article.

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Argentina’s Informal Economy Shrinks, But Not Fast Enough http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/argentinas-informal-economy-shrinks-fast-enough/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=argentinas-informal-economy-shrinks-fast-enough http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/argentinas-informal-economy-shrinks-fast-enough/#comments Wed, 23 Apr 2014 21:29:15 +0000 Fabiana Frayssinet http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133857 At the age of 22, Franco finally landed his first job, although he is not on any payroll and receives no labour benefits. He is part of Argentina’s informal economy, where one out of three workers are employed – a proportion the government aims to reduce by means of a new law. Franco, who asked […]

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Daniel Reynoso with one of his three children at one of the spots in Buenos Aires where he sells the feather dusters that support his family. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet /IPS

Daniel Reynoso with one of his three children at one of the spots in Buenos Aires where he sells the feather dusters that support his family. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet /IPS

By Fabiana Frayssinet
BUENOS AIRES, Apr 23 2014 (IPS)

At the age of 22, Franco finally landed his first job, although he is not on any payroll and receives no labour benefits. He is part of Argentina’s informal economy, where one out of three workers are employed – a proportion the government aims to reduce by means of a new law.

Franco, who asked that his last name not be used, works in a company where 10 percent of the total 150 workers are not on the payroll – most of them young people.

“I don’t have any medical coverage, so if something happens to me in the street on the way to work, they won’t assume any responsibility,” Franco, who is also a student, told IPS. “And no contributions are made towards a pension, so this whole year I’ve been working won’t be counted towards my retirement.

“But I couldn’t afford to say no to the job because it’s off the books; I took it because I needed it.”

During the governments of the late Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007) and his successor, President Cristina Fernández, unemployment fell from 17.3 percent in 2003 to 6.4 percent in late 2013.

In addition, informal sector employment was reduced from 49.6 to 33.6 percent, according to official figures.

But unemployment and precarious employment are still a problem, especially for the young.

The Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security reports that young people under the age of 24 account for 58.7 percent of precarious employment.

“Since a large part of the population does not have access to posts with social protection, workers are forced to accept the labour conditions they are offered,” economist Juan Graña of the Centre of Studies on Population, Employment and Development (CEPED) and author of the book “Salario, calidad de empleo y distribución” (Salary, quality of employment and distribution), told IPS.

“Large companies directly put their workers in precarious conditions by means of legal mechanisms, thanks to the reforms of the 1990s, which expanded this kind of work through short-term contracts or trial periods, or by outsourcing part of their processes to small companies,” to cut costs, he added.

The manager of a company that sells school supplies told IPS that in small or medium companies like his, the costs of labour and social benefits represent an additional 50 percent on top of the wages paid.

“They are very high fixed costs that leave little profit margin, and if the company doesn’t manage to sell, it goes under,” said the executive, who asked to be identified only by his initials, D.G.

On Apr. 15, the centre-left government introduced a bill in Congress for the “promotion of registered labour and prevention of labour fraud”.

The bill is aimed at regularising the situation of 650,000 workers in the first two years, in order to lower the portion of the workforce active in the informal economy from 33.6 percent to 28 percent.

According to President Fernández, precarious and informal labour “is the second-most pressing problem” facing workers in Argentina, after unemployment.

The bill would cut employer contributions in half for companies with up to five workers, and would create incentives for putting employees on the payroll, based on the size of the company.

Companies with up to 15 workers would not make contributions for new employees in their first year of work, and would only pay 25 percent in the second. Businesses with between 16 and 80 employees would be given a 50 percent discount for 24 months, and those with more than 80 would have a discount of 25 percent for the same period of time.

Another central pillar of the reform is a public registry of companies that receive subsidies, credits and tax exemptions from the state. If they commit labour fraud, these benefits would be cancelled, and they would be subject to other penalties as well.

In addition, the number of labour inspectors would be increased.

The most likely to work in the informal economy are domestics, plumbers, electricians, cleaners, and textile workers, followed by agricultural labourers, construction workers, and hotel and restaurant workers. There are also many freelance professionals and self-employed workers, such as street vendors.

Daniel Reynoso, who has sold feather dusters in Buenos Aires since the age of 12, is one of them. With his work as a street vendor he supports his three children and managed to build a house in a poor suburb of the capital.

Although he likes a job where he feels “free,” such as selling feather dusters at a street stall, he laments that he has neither health coverage nor the right to a pension when he retires.

“I’m scared for my kids; when something happens to them I have to go to a clinic and pay up front, or to a public hospital,” said Reynoso, who has a feather duster workshop in his house.

Moreover, sales are not steady. “When it rains, I don’t go out, and I lose what I would have earned that day,” he told IPS.

In the past decade, some six million jobs were created in this country of 42 million.

But Fernández admits that precarious working conditions continue to undermine social equality.

Graña said, “Precarious workers, who have no institutional coverage, are in poor conditions to improve their working situation and defend their wages,” which are threatened by inflation.

Furthermore, these jobs “tend to have high turnover, which hurts people’s job prospects, since they don’t gain skills or knowledge in these jobs.”

And wages are 35 to 50 percent lower than those of employees in the formal sector of the economy.

“Precariousness is one of the main factors of income inequality in any economy,” Graña said. For that reason “any policy aimed at combating the phenomenon is welcome, because of the effect on the living standards of families and on the distribution of income.”

There are factors that influence the precariousness of labour, such as the difficulty to compete faced by companies, which cut labour costs in order to survive, the expert said. “The definitive solution for that is economic development,” he argued.

He said there is a need for measures such as the ones the bill would introduce, because the mentality is “I won’t register any of my workers until the process is subsidised.”

The economist stressed that since the late 2001 financial meltdown that plunged the economy into the most severe economic crisis in Argentine history, “the quality of the labour market has improved, and in many cases, labour flexibility measures of the 1990s have been revoked.”

But “in terms of both pay and quality, we are currently far from the levels that we once had in Argentina. The purchasing power of industrial workers is still 27 percent lower than it was in 1974,” Graña said.

Ernesto Mattos, an economist at the Centre for Research and Management of the Solidarity Economy (CIGES), underscored advances made in combating informal labour conditions for rural workers and domestics, for example, whose labour rights have been guaranteed by new legislation passed in 2011.

In his view, more credit should be made available to small businesses which, although they are low capital intensive, “hire more labour power for production.”

Growth of economic activity was the main factor in reducing the informal economy, said Mattos. But in order to continue making progress, labour training is essential “in this stage of capitalism in which technology is important,” he said.

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Persecution of Uganda’s Gays Intensifies as Rights Groups Go Underground http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/persecution-ugandas-gays-intensifies-rights-groups-go-underground/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=persecution-ugandas-gays-intensifies-rights-groups-go-underground http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/persecution-ugandas-gays-intensifies-rights-groups-go-underground/#comments Wed, 23 Apr 2014 16:23:20 +0000 Amy Fallon http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133840 As she sits in a Kampala hotel holding a mobile phone that rings frequently, Sandra Ntebi tells IPS: “I’m really exhausted. I don’t know where to start. We have many cases pending.” Ntebi manages a hotline and is helping Uganda’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community find alternative, safe accommodation after they have faced […]

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Sandra Ntebi, who runs a hotline and helps Uganda’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community find alternative, safe accommodation, pictured here at the 2013 Gay Pride parade. Credit: Amy Fallon/IPS

Sandra Ntebi, who runs a hotline and helps Uganda’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community find alternative, safe accommodation, pictured here at the 2013 Gay Pride parade. Credit: Amy Fallon/IPS

By Amy Fallon
KAMPALA, Apr 23 2014 (IPS)

As she sits in a Kampala hotel holding a mobile phone that rings frequently, Sandra Ntebi tells IPS: “I’m really exhausted. I don’t know where to start. We have many cases pending.” Ntebi manages a hotline and is helping Uganda’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community find alternative, safe accommodation after they have faced harassment.

“Right now, some people have been thrown out of their homes, some are in jail. Every day there are cases.”

It’s nearly 4.30pm on Tuesday, Apr. 22, just over two months since Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni signed a draconian anti-gay bill that further criminalises homosexuality in this East African nation.Many activists had fled Uganda to seek asylum in different countries, while most LGBTI organisations were closed “due to fear”.

So far today Ntebi has received calls relating to four new cases concerning LGBTI people or those perceived to be LGBTI that include incidents of evictions by landlords, police arrests and mob attacks.

In total she and a colleague have received reports of about 130 different cases across the country since Museveni inked his signature on the Anti-Homosexuality Act 2014 in late February.

The law prescribes life imprisonment for some homosexual acts and also criminalises the “promotion of homosexuality”, among other measures.

“The situation is tense. Right now this act is promoting violence,” says Ntebi.

“I get the reports since I have the hotline. We sit down later with the details then categorise them into evictions, arrests and assaults.”

Today her co-worker has received a call about a new incident in Hoima, western Uganda. Among the cases Ntebi is dealing with is a fresh attack on Brenda, an HIV positive, transgender sex worker in her late 30s who lives just outside the capital, Kampala.

In March Brenda was “paraded” before local media, outed as a transsexual, beaten, undressed and arrested.

“We bailed her out, she went back to her house in the village and she couldn’t even leave because people were out every day waiting for her,” says Ntebi. “They were throwing stones.”

Brenda went to stay with a friend based on advice from the LGBTI hotline. Then on Thursday, Apr. 17, she was beaten again, taken to hospital and is now holed up in a hotel.

“We’re trying to secure a house for her to rent,” says Ntebi, who on Wednesday went to help Brenda.

Around Mar. 19, the same time that Brenda was first attacked, three Ugandan men who were perceived to be gay were assaulted and admitted to the Mulago Hospital in Kampala. A few weeks later, Ntebi says, the team were alerted to a possible suicide of an LGBTI person by an embassy.

On Apr. 3 crime intelligence officers raided the Makerere University Walter Reed Project clinic, a non-profit collaboration between Makerere University in Kampala and the U.S. Military HIV Research Programme. Police claimed the project, one of the few in Kampala willing to offer services to LGBTI people with AIDS, was “carrying out recruitment and training of young males in unnatural sex acts.”

Many activists and other members of the gay community are now in hiding, says Ntebi, who is wearing a black vest from a 2006 campaign run by Sexual Minorities Uganda (SM-UG), an NGO and the umbrella for all homosexual organisations in Uganda. The words “Leave me in peace” are embroidered on the back.

Ntebi says many activists had fled Uganda to seek asylum in different countries, while most LGBTI organisations were closed “due to fear”.

Ntebi now only goes to work at her office when it’s absolutely essential.

Beyondy is the nickname for a 23-year-old fashion designer who is in hiding.

He used to spend his days sewing a dress for a client or mastering routines for upcoming events, like the second Gay Pride parade in 2013.

Since the bill was signed he has moved to a tiny one-bedroom shack, tucked away at the back of a slum in a lively Kampala suburb. Beyondy now spends his days mostly indoors watching music videos by Beyoncé, Pink and Rita Ora, only going outside when he has to.

“I like Rita’s style – the blonde hair, her red lipstick,” cooes Beyondy, wearing a T-shirt and board shorts showing off his muscular build, when IPS met him recently.

“I wanted to be a performer, for people to see my talent and discover me. But right now I think it’s impossible. Right now it’s all about survival, saving your life and being quiet, being underground all the time.”

In the past Beyondy was attacked “a lot”, and fears he’ll be targeted again now that the anti-gay act is in force.

“You know someone was saying recently, ‘if we had a choice between forgiving a rapist and a gay person, we’d rather choose a rapist,’” he says.

Activists are hoping a petition filed in March challenging the act will come up in the country’s constitutional court early next month.

According to the Ugandan newspaper The Observer, the government has filed a defence, claiming the act does not contravene the right to equality and freedom from cruel, inhumane and degrading punishment guaranteed under the country’s constitution. The government wants the petition dismissed.

But even if the law is overturned Beyondy says it will take much more than a court ruling to change social attitudes towards homosexuality in Uganda.

In the current climate of homophobia, which activists stress has been “imported” to Uganda via western evangelists, virtually everyone is aware they can use another person’s sexuality to exact revenge.

“It’s in people’s minds and even if it’s overturned they’ll still think about it.”

But he’s adamant he will remain in Uganda to “rebuild both personally and professionally”.

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Japan Seeks Foreign Workers, Uneasily http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/japan-seeks-foreign-workers-uneasily/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=japan-seeks-foreign-workers-uneasily http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/japan-seeks-foreign-workers-uneasily/#comments Wed, 23 Apr 2014 13:29:38 +0000 Suvendrini Kakuchi http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133846 Desperate for more workers to support a construction boom, Japan has proposed to expand its controversial foreign trainee programme to permit more unskilled labour from Asia to work in Japanese companies for five years from the current three years. The internship plan launched in 1993 invites foreign trainees to work in Japanese companies under the […]

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Foreign workers rallying in Tokyo against discrimination and denial of basic rights. Credit: Catherine Makino/IPS.

Foreign workers rallying in Tokyo against discrimination and denial of basic rights. Credit: Catherine Makino/IPS.

By Suvendrini Kakuchi
TOKYO, Apr 23 2014 (IPS)

Desperate for more workers to support a construction boom, Japan has proposed to expand its controversial foreign trainee programme to permit more unskilled labour from Asia to work in Japanese companies for five years from the current three years.
The internship plan launched in 1993 invites foreign trainees to work in Japanese companies under the slogan of learning new technologies before returning home.

But it is ridden with problems."The new move is a clear example of a ‘use and discard foreign labour’ goal."

More than 200 companies were reported in 2012 for abuses such as low pay and long working hours for foreign workers. Activists view the trainee system as a blatant stop-gap measure to counter Japan’s aging population – a quarter of its 130 million people are above 65. From a peak of 83 million workers in 1995, their number had fallen by almost five million in 2012.

The construction industry badly needs foreigners for jobs such as plasterers and mold makers.

The government has now proposed a plan for trainees to extend their visas by two years for “designated activities” to pave the way for employment for trainees.

Labour activists say the move is suspiciously timed for Japan to host Olympics 2020, and that it will do little for the stated policy of the trainee system to exchange technology with developing countries.

“Japan’s immigration policy refuses to treat migrant workers as people with rights that must be protected. The new move is a clear example of a ‘use and discard foreign labour’ goal,” Ippei Torii, head of the foreign workers branch at Zentotsu, a leading labour organisation, tells IPS.

Zentotsu has taken up negotiations on behalf of several foreign trainees who have been discriminated against by their employees. A typical example is the ongoing cases of six Chinese women who were paid four dollars an hour, half of the official minimum wage, for three years at a sewing factory in rural Japan.

“They could not escape because each was saddled with 8,000 dollars in debt they had incurred in their home towns in China to brokers,” says Ippei.

Currently 19 percent – or 136,603 – of all foreign workers in Japan are trainees. Nationals from China, Vietnam and the Philippines top the list. About 15,000 of the foreigners are employed in construction. Their average wage is around 1,200 dollars per month, plus payment for overtime work.

Jotaro Kato at the Asian People’s Friendship Society (APFS) tells IPS that the government must enact a working visa for unskilled workers. “The [proposed] increase in foreign trainees smacks of a typical bureaucratic approach and is not a sustainable solution to a crucial national issue.”

Following a clampdown, the number of foreigners overstaying has dropped to about 6,000, from a high of 250,000 recorded in the nineties. “Because of the crackdown, poor people from Asia are now entering Japan as trainees or extending their stay by applying for refugee status, or marrying local people in a desperate bid to live here,” Kato tells IPS.

The Construction Workers Union is opposed to the new trainee plan on the basis that it would increase the number of low-paid foreigners, posing a risk to the higher salaries of Japanese workers.

The Japan Federation of Construction issued a statement last week calling for doubling the number of female workers from the current 90,000 over the next five years to bridge the gap between supply and demand.

In a Yomuiri newspaper public opinion survey in March, only 10 percent of those polled were ready to accept unskilled migrant workers, because of concerns such as crime. An overwhelming 85 percent supported more women in the workforce as a solution.

Japan has an embarrassingly low acceptance of foreigners – less than two percent of the Japanese population. This includes almost 400,000 people under the Special Permanent Residents category reserved for people of Korean descent who were born in Japan but have not become citizens.

With only 1.1 percent of its workforce comprising foreigners, Japan is at the bottom of the list among industrialised countries. Germany comparatively has 9.4 percent and the United Kingdom 7.6 percent.

Even South Korea, facing a workers crunch, showed higher figures at 2.2 percent in 2011, the result of offers of a three-year working permit for foreign labour.

In the face of the looming demographic crisis, Japan too has had to make some changes in its immigration policies.

Two Economic Partnership Agreements were signed with Indonesia and the Philippines in 2008 that included a provision for nurses and caregivers from those countries to work in Japan. About 750 nurses have arrived in the past five years.

Japan’s nursing industry is grappling with a shortfall of 43,000 nurses, according to the Health and Welfare Ministry. Many Japanese nurses quit after starting a family because they are unable to cope with the long working hours in hospitals.

Japan introduced a policy in 1990 to permit Latin Americans of Japanese descent to work as temporary migrant labourers. More than 220,000 arrived, mostly from Brazil. These Nikkeijin as they are called are descendants of Japanese who had emigrated to Latin America in the 1920s.

The Nikkeijin policy changed soon after the 2008 global financial crisis, when the government took the unprecedented measure of offering free transport to Japanese Brazilians who opted to return to Brazil.

Indonesian and Filipino caregivers who study and work in Japan have struggled with passing tests to continue nursing in Japan. Of the first 104 Indonesians candidates, just 24 passed in 2011. Others are still studying.

“The bottom line must be a policy that accepts overseas unskilled workers as human beings who will enter Japan to work and start new lives,” says Jun Saito at the Japan Centre for Economic Research, a leading think-tank. “They are not robots to be returned after their visas end.”

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Culture Increasingly Unaffordable for Cubans http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/culture-increasingly-unaffordable-cubans/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=culture-increasingly-unaffordable-cubans http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/culture-increasingly-unaffordable-cubans/#comments Wed, 23 Apr 2014 09:20:18 +0000 Ivet Gonzalez http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133831 Standing in line for a concert at the Centro Cultural Fábrica de Arte, a cultural centre in the Cuban capital, Alexis Cruz anxiously checks his billfold, where he has the price of the ticket – 50 Cuban pesos (two dollars) – and three CUCs (equivalent to one dollar each) to buy something to drink. “I […]

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A crowd outside the Fábrica de Arte, a cultural centre that is managed by singer X-Alfonso and self-financed through its ticket sales, although a large part of the initial investment came from Cuba’s Ministry of Sports. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

A crowd outside the Fábrica de Arte, a cultural centre that is managed by singer X-Alfonso and self-financed through its ticket sales, although a large part of the initial investment came from Cuba’s Ministry of Sports. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Ivet González
HAVANA, Apr 23 2014 (IPS)

Standing in line for a concert at the Centro Cultural Fábrica de Arte, a cultural centre in the Cuban capital, Alexis Cruz anxiously checks his billfold, where he has the price of the ticket – 50 Cuban pesos (two dollars) – and three CUCs (equivalent to one dollar each) to buy something to drink.

“I can rarely attend these things, because they cost one-quarter of my monthly salary of 450 pesos [19 dollars],” the 26-year-old lawyer tells IPS. “But all prices are this high or higher, and at least here I can hear good music.”

The shortage of attractive, affordable entertainment and cultural events is becoming a problem in Cuba, where 20 dollars is the average monthly salary paid by the state – which still employs about 80 percent of the workforce, despite efforts to pare down the government payroll.

As family budgets have shrunk in a crisis that has dragged on for over two decades, it is nearly impossible for most to afford the steep entrance price at the new discotheques and clubs that have begun to liven up Cuba’s nightlife since economic reforms began to be introduced in 2008, opening up more space for private enterprise.

Since then, differences in socioeconomic levels have become more pronounced.

While Havana’s emerging elite are entertained in the glamorous private bars of upscale neighbourhoods like Vedado, Miramar and Playa, there are few options for the rest of society.

Although Cuba has nearly 300 cinemas, 361 theatres, 267 museums and 118 art galleries where programming is financed by the state and ticket prices are subsidised, the installations are increasingly run-down, the quality is irregular, the schedules are inflexible and the publicity is inadequate.

“If I want to go out and dance at a nice place, I save up for a month or two, which I am able to do thanks to my mom, who brings in almost all of the income in our household from cooking sweets for a private cafeteria,” says Jorge Mario Rodríguez, 24, who lives in the poor suburb of El Palmar.

Like other young people, Rodríguez, who works as a bill collector for the state-run Empresa Eléctrica power company, likes reggaeton, pop and salsa. But he does not frequently go to concerts, the theatre or the movies.

“Those places are downtown, and transportation is really bad,” he says. “When there isn’t a party at some friend’s house, I try to stay home watching series or movies on DVDs.”

Besides the programming of the five government TV channels, there is an informal alternative network that offers the latest international series and movies.

The network includes shops where people can rent and copy movies, TV series and music, and stalls that sell pirate copies of albums – businesses that have been legal since 2010, when the government expanded the number of areas where private enterprise is allowed.

Very popular is what is known as “the package of the week”, which weighs one terabyte and includes the latest series, soap operas, movies, documentaries, cartoons, videoclips, reality shows, music, software, antivirus updates, language courses, magazines and many other things – all for 50 pesos (two dollars).

Every Tuesday, Laudelina Rodríguez’s living room is packed with people copying portions of the “package” onto USB drives. Paying between five and 20 Cuban pesos, customers take home up to eight gigabytes of widely varying content.

Rodríguez, an officially registered “cuentapropista” or self-employed worker, distributes some 600 gigabytes and three or four complete “packages” a week to her roughly 300 clients in the Cerro neighbourhood. She says 65 percent of her customers are under 30 years of age.

“Most in demand are the ‘narconovelas’ [soap operas about the world of drug trafficking] and Mexican ‘telenovelas’ [soap operas], followed by series from the United States and reality talent shows like ‘La Voz Kids’ and ‘Nuestra Belleza Latina’,” Rodríguez tells IPS.

“They also like Cuban films and comedy shows. But national programming is almost never included, maybe because no one wants to have copyright problems,” she says.

Intellectuals are scandalised by this kind of cultural consumption in Cuba, whose socialist government has tried for 50 years to build “the new man”, guided by values that differ from those of Western capitalism.

The Apr. 11-12 congress of the National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC) called for efforts to combat the increasingly banal tastes of the population.

Havana’s International Book Fair is one of the most popular, and lucrative, cultural events in Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Havana’s International Book Fair is one of the most popular, and lucrative, cultural events in Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

“We have to analyse the ‘package’ so people will understand that they are being cheated,” writer Abel Prieto, a former culture minister, said at one of the televised sessions of the UNEAC congress.

In an interview in the online magazine OnCuba, Prieto, who is now a presidential adviser, acknowledged the state’s responsibility with respect to what he considered the deformation of popular tastes.

He added that the production of entertaining national cultural programming was urgently needed – content that could draw in young people but wasn’t “empty of meaning.”

Those meeting at the congress also called for an easing of longstanding tensions between art and the market, in this socialist country where mass access to culture has been subsidised for decades.

The economic reforms, which reached the world of culture in 2010, eliminated the subsidies, and now artists and institutions have to find ways to become self-financing.

In 2013, the budget for culture, art and sports was reduced by 172 million dollars with respect to the 2012 budget. And only one percent of public spending went to that sector, according to official statistics.

The UNEAC congress proposed evaluating non-state management of cultural projects, such as cooperatives.

But the government tends to react to independent initiatives by adopting restrictions, as illustrated by the closure of privately run film parlours on Nov. 2, on the argument that they had never been authorised.

Although they cost more than the state-run cinemas, in just over a year the film salons had become increasingly popular, offering a broader menu of options in suburban areas.

Ulises Aquino, director of the Ópera de la Calle, which brings together 120 artistes, tried to make the company self-financing with shows in his private restaurant El Cabildo. But the government closed down his restaurant in 2012 over alleged management irregularities.

“We covered our personal expenses and financed our artistic productions,” Aquino tells IPS. “But [the authorities] got scared when international media outlets said I had built an ‘empire’ by improving the living standards of our artistes.”

Without the restaurant, Ópera de la Calle now depends on the budget assigned by the National Council for Performing Arts, which does not cover reparations of equipment, or musical instruments or costumes, and does not cover the cost of lunches and community work.

“Subsidised creations and creators must continue to exist – not due to tradition or name, but because they truly contribute to the spiritual and cultural welfare of the nation,” wrote Elena Estévez in the interactive section of the IPS Cuba website.

Economist Tania García, an expert on culture, tells IPS that subsidising ticket prices to cultural events is an investment in human growth.

In the last five years, the arts accounted for between 4.3 and 4.7 percent of GDP. But to that must be added, according to García, the value of cultural exports as well as taxes on the personal incomes of artists.

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U.N. Makes Development Data Open & Interactive http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/u-n-makes-development-data-open-interactive/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-n-makes-development-data-open-interactive http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/u-n-makes-development-data-open-interactive/#comments Wed, 23 Apr 2014 06:21:57 +0000 Micah Luxen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133865 Every person in the world now has the opportunity to speak up at the United Nations, and already 1.8 million people have submitted their messages. In an attempt to engage with the world’s population, a team headed by the United Nations Millennium Campaign is polling individuals across the globe and making those results available to […]

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By Micah Luxen
UNITED NATIONS, Apr 23 2014 (IPS)

Every person in the world now has the opportunity to speak up at the United Nations, and already 1.8 million people have submitted their messages.

In an attempt to engage with the world’s population, a team headed by the United Nations Millennium Campaign is polling individuals across the globe and making those results available to everyone, including U.N. decision makers.

The initiative, called My World, asks global citizens to rank 16 priorities, ranging from freedom from discrimination to equality between men and women.

The results, a visual break down of priorities by demographics (for example, the priority of women over 61 in Brazil is healthcare), are also available by country via an interactive map.

“How do you make sure an indigenous woman is influencing decision making in New York?” asked World We Want Co-chair Ravi Karkara, an advisor for the U.N. Millennium Campaign on child and youth engagement. “One of the criticism of U.N. Millennium Development Goals,” which set out to end poverty by 2015, “is that they’re very top down.” This new initiative aims to be bottom up, surveying “the people who are not part of the traditional development conversation, including the poorest of the poor.”

Global Youth Advocates, such as Girl Guides and Oxfam, polls villagers, urban slum residents – the majority of which were not submitted electronically – on what matters to them.

On May 16, World We Want and U.N. Millennium Campaign will present the interactive database to the General Assembly. “When you’re sitting in the General Assembly, you don’t have time to read through thousands of pages,” said Karkara.

Instead, organizers argue decision makers can use the database to easily access the priorities of their own communities. And the data doesn’t stop there.

“This platform allows for open knowledge sharing across the world,” said Karkara. “We have no copyright. It’s data by people for people.”

The survey found that a good education is the number one priority of the global community; action taken on climate change was last on the list. As an interesting aside, Karkara’s team shared that of the respondents who cited “fast cars” as a priority, these were also more likely to prioritize protecting rivers, forests and oceans and taking action against climate change than the general public.

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Bringing the Bridges Home http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/bringing-bridges-home/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=bringing-bridges-home http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/bringing-bridges-home/#comments Wed, 23 Apr 2014 05:02:35 +0000 Francesca Dziadek http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133759 As foreign forces withdraw slowly from Afghanistan, they leave behind a vulnerable band of people who were their ears and guides on the ground. These people who served as interpreters, face a life of threats and uncertainties. Many have been killed. Increasingly, linguists, media professionals, NGOs and advocacy groups are stepping up demands for international […]

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A soldier and an Afghan interpreter in a scene from the German film Inbetween Worlds. Credit: Wolfgang Ennenbach/Majestic.

A soldier and an Afghan interpreter in a scene from the German film Inbetween Worlds. Credit: Wolfgang Ennenbach/Majestic.

By Francesca Dziadek
BERLIN, Apr 23 2014 (IPS)

As foreign forces withdraw slowly from Afghanistan, they leave behind a vulnerable band of people who were their ears and guides on the ground. These people who served as interpreters, face a life of threats and uncertainties. Many have been killed.

Increasingly, linguists, media professionals, NGOs and advocacy groups are stepping up demands for international recognition of interpreters’ human rights to safety and sanctuary.

“Leaving them behind is tantamount to a death sentence,” Maya Hess, forensic linguist and head of the advocacy group Red T supporting translators and interpreters tells IPS. They must be granted protective asylum by the countries employing them, she says."Leaving them behind is tantamount to a death sentence."

Red T in collaboration with the International Association of Conference Interpreters and the International Federation of Translators published the first multilingual international Conflict Zone Field Guide in 2012, with new translations being added continually. The document, a reference source in the UK’s Ministry of Defence publication ‘Linguistic Support to Operations’ spells out best practices between host nation linguists and users of their services.

Indeed, formalising the rights to safety and security provisions for civilian interpreters and translators in war zones is long overdue.

Between 2007 and 2009, says Hess, Military Essential Personnel, a U.S. defence contractor, confirmed a death toll of 30 interpreters in 30 months. In Iraq, British forces lost 21 interpreters over a 21-day period.

Many more have been injured and have suffered life threats and persecution. The Bundeswehr, the German military, has received more 700 such claims from local employees.

Noor Ahmad Noori (29), an Afghan interpreter who worked formerly for The New York Times in Afghanistan, is among the latest casualties in a long trail of bloodshed among interpreters.

He was abducted and later found beaten and stabbed to death near Lashkar Gah, a Taliban stronghold, in January.

Jawad Wafa (25) a Bundeswehr interpreter with the Kunduz Task Force within the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was found strangled in the boot of a parked vehicle on Nov. 24, 2013. His death came a month after the German armed forces’ withdrawal.

Despite repeated threats he faced, and an entitlement to protective asylum, his documents were not expedited in time.

“Red tapes costs lives,” Hess warns.

Wafa had been invited to the Bundeswehr headquarters in Mazar-e-Sharif, and his name was on the list of the 182 permits announced in October 2013 by the Federal Minister for the Interior, Hans Peter Friedrich.

A grinding maze involving a paper shuffle between the Foreign Office in Berlin, the Federal office for Migration and Refugees – which expedites eligibility permits – and the German embassy in Kabul, did not help Wafa.

In 2008, Matt Zeller, a U.S. army captain was saved “in extremis” by Janis Shinwari, his interpreter who shot down Taliban snipers just before they could pull the trigger on Zeller. When his name ended on a Taliban death list, he was swiftly given a U.S. visa thanks to Zeller’s efforts.

A year later the U.S. Congress passed the 2009 Afghan Allies Protection Act, which made 7,500 visas available to Afghan employees – mainly translators and interpreters.

In Germany, Red T, together with the International Association of Conference Interpreters, the International Federation of Translators, and the International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters, sent an open letter to Chancellor Angela Merkel in June 2013 citing Section 22 of the German Residence Act which provides residency visas for “urgent humanitarian reasons”.

The German government acknowledged in October 2013 that translators and interpreters are a “high-risk category” because of their particular “visibility” in their role as communication brokers for the military and police. This was an important, yet insufficient step forward.

“While the intention of the German authorities to change their visa policy and grant permits to Afghan interpreters and ancillary staff may be laudable, the fact that only a few interpreters have made it to Germany since the announcement is appalling,” says Hess.

In February this year Bundeswehr interpreters Aliullah Nazary (26) and Qyamuddin Shukury (25) landed relieved and elated in Hamburg after facing months of life threats. Chilling messages were dropped on their doorsteps. “You German spy, you wait for your death now”, one read.

Approximately 500 translators and interpreters are believed to have been employed by German forces and government bodies. The latest Foreign Office figures obtained by IPS confirm that 296 eligibility permits, or Aufnahmezusagen, and 131 immigration visas have been issued, and that 107 Afghan claimants have arrived in Germany.

The low number of arrivals may be due to the transition in Afghanistan. In some cases applicants receive financial compensation after their contracts expire. Bernd Mesovic, spokesperson for Pro Asyl, says many may be holding on to their German permits in the hope that the security situation will improve in Afghanistan and Taliban threats subside. “We recommend that the process be further expedited,” says Mesovic.

“We urgently need a paradigm shift in how translators and interpreters are treated and perceived,” says Hess. “I do hope that the powers that be increasingly wake up to how dangerous this profession is, and that safe houses and security will be provided for linguists until they are able to leave.”

A recent German war drama, titled ‘Inbetween Worlds’, which centres on the story of an 18-year-old Afghan interpreter for a German squad, has brought home the plight of interpreters in the war zone to many Germans.

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U.S.-Russia Sabre Rattling May Undermine Nuke Meeting http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/u-s-russia-sabre-rattling-may-undermine-nuke-meeting/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-russia-sabre-rattling-may-undermine-nuke-meeting http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/u-s-russia-sabre-rattling-may-undermine-nuke-meeting/#comments Tue, 22 Apr 2014 20:55:42 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133828 The growing tension between the United States and Russia over Ukraine has threatened to unravel one of the primary peace initiatives of the United Nations: nuclear disarmament. As they trade charges against each other, the world’s two major nuclear powers have intensified their bickering – specifically on the eve of a key Preparatory Committee (PrepCoM) […]

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U.S. Permanent Representative Samantha Power (left) speaks with Russia's Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov (right), and Vitaly Churkin (back to camera), Russia's Permanent Representative, in happier times, prior to a unanimous vote by the Security Council on Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles. Credit: UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

U.S. Permanent Representative Samantha Power (left) speaks with Russia's Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov (right), and Vitaly Churkin (back to camera), Russia's Permanent Representative, in happier times, prior to a unanimous vote by the Security Council on Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles. Credit: UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Apr 22 2014 (IPS)

The growing tension between the United States and Russia over Ukraine has threatened to unravel one of the primary peace initiatives of the United Nations: nuclear disarmament.

As they trade charges against each other, the world’s two major nuclear powers have intensified their bickering – specifically on the eve of a key Preparatory Committee (PrepCoM) meeting on a treaty to stop the proliferation of these weapons of mass destruction (WMD)."The spectre of war in Europe may give new impetus to efforts to ban the bomb." -- Alice Slater

The “Thirteen Steps” agreed upon at a review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2000 and the 64-point Action Programme, together with the agreement on the Middle East WMD Free Zone proposal at the 2010 Conference, had augured well for the strengthened review process, former U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs Jayantha Dhanapala told IPS.

But he warned that, “However the actual achievements, the return to Cold War mindsets by the U.S. and Russia and the negative record of all the nuclear weapon states have converted the goal of a nuclear weapon free world into a mirage.

“Unless the Third Prepcom reverses these ominous trends, the 2015 Conference is doomed to fail, imperiling the future of the NPT,” warned Dhanapala, who is also president of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.

The Third PrepCom for the upcoming 2015 Review Conference of the NPT is scheduled to take place at the United Nations Apr. 28 through May 9.

But a positive outcome will depend largely on the United States and Russia, along with the other declared nuclear powers, Britain, France and China, who are also the five permanent members (P5) of the Security Council.

Ray Acheson, director of Reaching Critical Will, a programme of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), told IPS next week’s PrepCom is being held at a time of high tensions between the two countries with the largest stockpiles of nuclear weapons.

The United Nations describes the 1970 NPT as "a landmark international treaty whose objective is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, to promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and to further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament and general and complete disarmament".

The treaty represents the only binding commitment in a multilateral treaty to the goal of disarmament by the nuclear-weapon states.

As of now, there are 190 parties to the treaty, including the five nuclear-weapon states, namely the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia.

But the other nuclear weapons states - India, Israel and Pakistan - have refused to join the NPT. North Korea joined and withdrew in 2003.

She said neither of these countries has fulfilled their obligation to negotiate the elimination of these weapons and in fact, both spend billions of dollars upgrading them and extending their lives into the indefinite future.

“Nuclear weapons are inherently dangerous and the risk of their use by accident or on purpose warrants urgent action on disarmament,” Acheson added.

During 2014, she pointed out, the NPT nuclear-armed states must report on their concrete activities to fulfill the disarmament-related actions of the 2010 NPT Action Plan.

The extent to which the nuclear-armed states can report the achievement of meaningful progress in implementing their commitments will be a strong indicator of their intention to serve as willing leaders and partners in this process, she noted.

But “none of the public releases issued thus far by the nuclear-armed states has given any reason to expect they have given serious consideration to the implementation of most of those commitments.”

Alice Slater, New York director of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, told IPS there is “alarming sabre rattling on the eve of the NPT PrepCom.”

She said the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) builds up its military forces to “protect” Eastern Europe. The media reports only part of the story, justifying NATO war games based on events in Ukraine; former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton compares Putin to Hitler; and the New York Times front page blares “Cold War Echo, Obama Strategy Writes Off Putin”.

“Yet there’s little reporting on Russia’s security fears as NATO expands up to its borders, inviting even Ukraine and Georgia to join,” said Slater, who also serves on the Coordinating Committee of Abolition 2000.

This, she said, despite President Ronald Reagan and President George Bush’s promises to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that NATO would not expand beyond East Germany.

Nor is it reported how the U.S., in 2001, quit the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Treaty, planting missiles in Poland, Romania and Turkey, she added.

In his closing statement as president of the historic 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, which extended the treaty for an indefinite duration, Dhanapala said, “The permanence of the Treaty does not represent a permanence of unbalanced obligations, nor does it represent the permanence of nuclear apartheid between nuclear haves and have-nots.

“What it does represent is our collective dedication to the permanence of an international legal barrier against nuclear proliferation so that we can forge ahead in our tasks towards a nuclear weapons-free world.”

Slater told IPS that deteriorating U.S.-Russian relations bodes poorly for progress at the paralysed NPT process, which even before this latest eruption of enmity failed to implement the many promises for nuclear disarmament since 1970.

But this new crisis may motivate nations to press more vigorously for the process that began in Oslo (at the 2013 conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons), addressing the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and urging their legal ban.

With 16,000 nuclear bombs in Russia and the U.S., non-nuclear weapons states must step up their efforts for a ban treaty, she added.

The P-5 nuclear powers boycotted these meetings in Oslo (in 2013) and Mexico (February 2014) while Indian and Pakistan joined 127 nations in Oslo and 144 in Mexico. This year, Austria will host a follow-up.

This new process raises a contradiction highlighting the growing reality gap in the “nuclear umbrella” states, Slater said.

They ostensibly support nuclear disarmament and deplore the catastrophic consequences of nuclear war in this burgeoning new global conversation about its humanitarian effects, while continuing to rely on lethal nuclear deterrence, she noted.

Article VI of the NPT requires all treaty parties to be responsible for its fulfillment.

“The spectre of war in Europe may give new impetus to efforts to ban the bomb,” warned Slater.

Acheson told IPS that unlike the other weapons of mass destruction – chemical and biological weapons – nuclear weapons are not yet subject to an explicit legal prohibition.

“Now is the time to address this anomaly, which has been allowed to persist for far too long. History shows that legal prohibitions of weapon systems, their possession as well as their use, facilitate their elimination.”

She said weapons that have been outlawed increasingly become seen as illegitimate.

They lose their political status and, along with it, the money and resources for their production, modernisation, proliferation, and perpetuation.

In the context of rising tensions between two countries with nuclear weapons it is more imperative than ever that non-nuclear weapon states take the lead to ban nuclear weapons, Acheson stressed.

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U.S. Urged to Tackle Lead in Aviation Gasoline http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/u-s-urged-tackle-lead-aviation-gasoline/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-urged-tackle-lead-aviation-gasoline http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/u-s-urged-tackle-lead-aviation-gasoline/#comments Tue, 22 Apr 2014 19:37:37 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133826 Consumer advocates, public health workers and environmental groups here are calling on the federal government to take a formal step towards regulating the use of lead in aviation gasoline, despite a failure to do so for nearly two decades. The United States is one of the few countries that continue to allow the use of […]

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The global drawdown in the use of leaded fuel has resulted in benefits of some 2.5 trillion dollars a year. Credit: Bigstock

The global drawdown in the use of leaded fuel has resulted in benefits of some 2.5 trillion dollars a year. Credit: Bigstock

By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Apr 22 2014 (IPS)

Consumer advocates, public health workers and environmental groups here are calling on the federal government to take a formal step towards regulating the use of lead in aviation gasoline, despite a failure to do so for nearly two decades.

The United States is one of the few countries that continue to allow the use of lead in aviation gasoline, known as “avgas” and used in more than 150,000 small planes and helicopters at around 20,000 U.S. airports. Avgas is now the country’s largest source of lead in air emissions, with significant, universally acknowledged ramifications for the natural environment and, particularly, for human health."The EPA has the evidence it needs, the science is clear, so we really feel that there’s no need to wait any longer.” -- Kathy Attar

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the lead regulator on such issues, ordered the removal of lead from the gasoline used in motor vehicles a decade and a half ago. Yet despite what proponents of new regulations say are clear scientific findings and a straightforward conversion process, the EPA has yet to weigh in on the matter.

“We already know there’s no safe threshold for lead exposure, and we also know that lead is toxic and a possible carcinogen even at low levels, leading to brain damage and learning disabilities,” Kathy Attar, toxics programme manager with Physicians for Social Responsibility, a consumer protection group, told IPS.

“These effects are particularly dangerous for children. The EPA has the evidence it needs, the science is clear, so we really feel that there’s no need to wait any longer.”

Few other countries continue to use leaded avgas, though Algeria, Iraq and Yemen did still do so as of late last year. The United States is not only the world’s most prominent laggard in this regard, but also by far avgas’s largest user.

Smaller aircraft tend to fly much lower to the ground than jet airliners, and hence their emissions can have a much more pronounced, immediate effect on human health (jet fuel is already lead-free). Further, lead stays in the environment for a long time, leading to a  “legacy lead” already left over from decades’ of use of leaded gasoline and paint.

Meanwhile, the global drawdown in the use of leaded fuel has resulted in benefits of some 2.5 trillion dollars a year, according to United Nations estimates from 2011. That study found that the economic benefits of this phase-out, primarily in terms of public health, outweighed the costs by 10 times.

New evidence

Physicians for Social Responsibility is one of three advocacy groups now calling on the EPA to make what is known as an endangerment finding over the lead in aviation gas. This initial step would recognise that avgas lead causes pollution and that this pollution poses a threat to human health.

Such a finding would constitute a necessary first step towards eventually creating a new regulation on the issue. Yet some say that past EPA determinations on these issues already satisfies the requirements for a formal endangerment determination.

“The only showing required for a finding of endangerment is that lead emissions from aircraft engines fuelled by leaded aviation gasoline cause, or contribute to, air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare,” the new petition, filed with the EPA on Monday, states.

“In this case, both prongs of that test have been met … There is no need for further study. EPA has all of the evidence it needs to make an endangerment finding.”

The EPA was unable to comment for this story by deadline.

Another green group, Friends of the Earth U.S., has pushed this line with the EPA in the past, and been turned down. Indeed, the current petition is actually a request for reconsideration of a similar petition filed with the regulator in 2006, while two years ago a court refused to force the agency to take further action.

In 2010, the EPA did take initial steps to start drafting a rule, but that didn’t include the endangerment finding and the agency has since stated that it needs to undertake more analysis. In mid-2012 it responded to the original Friends of the Earth petition, however, and has said it could decide on future action by the end of 2015.

It didn’t commit to that date, however. And advocates say new evidence has emerged that wasn’t taken into account during the legal proceedings and past agency decisions.

“We’ve seen the EPA issue the results of a lead-monitoring study at 17 airports, including findings of lead levels higher than federal standards,” Marcie Keever, legal director at Friends of the Earth, which took part in Monday’s petition, told IPS.

“In addition, in 2011 a study from Duke University reported on the severe negative impacts of lead from aircraft, finding elevated levels of lead in the blood of those living within 500 meters of airports.”

The EPA’s powers have become intensely politicised in recent years, due both to the agency’s positioning as the prime regulator on greenhouse gas emissions and the perception that its rules often increase companies’ operating costs.

Keever acknowledges that the agency needs to be careful about its rationale for action, but also suggests that the issues surrounding leaded avgas are relatively straightforward.

“Because of the pressures the EPA faces whenever it moves forward with regulation, they want to be very thorough,” she says. “But we think this issue is much easier than, for instance, greenhouse gases – the science is extremely clear.”

Alternatives available

In the past, members of Congress have pushed the EPA to go slow on the avgas issue. Particularly vocal have been lawmakers from the large northern state of Alaska, where small aircraft are especially important for reaching otherwise inaccessible communities.

“While we understand and share your desire to remove lead from avgas … we also need to ensure the EPA does not ban lead used in avgas until we have a safe, viable, readily available, and cost-efficient alternative,” 27 U.S. senators wrote to the EPA in 2011.

Now that situation could be changing. In December, Shell became the first major oil company to unveil a “lead-free alternative” avgas, and last year the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration formally noted that such alternatives exist.

Further, the economic burdens involved in such a transition could be relatively low. Currently, unleaded gasoline used in automobiles is actually cheaper than leaded avgas.

And while some new infrastructure would be required at airports, most aircraft would require no updating whatsoever. According to Friends of the Earth, some 75 percent of the current U.S. fleet could start using unleaded fuel with no retrofitting whatsoever.

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Charting a Course for Survival, or Oblivion? http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/charting-course-survival-oblivion/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=charting-course-survival-oblivion http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/charting-course-survival-oblivion/#comments Tue, 22 Apr 2014 19:08:59 +0000 Stephen Leahy http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133823 Hopefully, on Earth Day today, high-level ministers from all countries are thinking about what they can bring to the table at a key set of meetings on climate change in early May. This will be the first opportunity for governments to discuss their proposed climate action plans in light of the final Intergovernmental Panel on […]

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Flooding in Trinidad's capital of Port of Spain left residents little choice but to wade through the deluge. The Caribbean region is already seeing numerous impacts from climate change. Credit: Peter Richards/IPS

Flooding in Trinidad's capital of Port of Spain left residents little choice but to wade through the deluge. The Caribbean region is already seeing numerous impacts from climate change. Credit: Peter Richards/IPS

By Stephen Leahy
UXBRIDGE, Canada, Apr 22 2014 (IPS)

Hopefully, on Earth Day today, high-level ministers from all countries are thinking about what they can bring to the table at a key set of meetings on climate change in early May.

This will be the first opportunity for governments to discuss their proposed climate action plans in light of the final Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released last week.“There is a clear message from science: To avoid dangerous interference with the climate system, we need to move away from business as usual.” -- Professor Ottmar Edenhofer

That report warned that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from burning fossil fuels are still rising far too fast, even with more than 650 billion dollars invested in renewable energy in the last three years. However, over the same time period even more money was invested in getting more fossil fuels out of the ground.

The latter investment is keeping humanity and the planet locked onto a devastating path of a global temperature increase of four to five degrees C, the IPCC’s Working Group III report warned.

Scientists and economists say that unlocking ourselves from disaster will require a massive reduction in emissions – between 40 percent and 70 percent – by midcentury. This is can be readily accomplished without inventing any new technology and at a reasonably low cost, reducing global economic growth by a comparatively tiny 0.06 percent.

“It doesn’t cost the world to save the planet,” economist Professor Ottmar Edenhofer, who led the IPCC team, said at a press conference.

It does mean an end to investments in expanding fossil fuel infrastructure as the annual growth in CO2 emissions from burning oil, coal and gas must peak and decline in the next few years. The atmosphere already has 42 percent more CO2 than it did prior to 1800.

This extra CO2 is trapping more heat from the sun, which is heating up the oceans and land, creating the conditions that spawn super storms and extreme weather. And it will do so for the next 1,000 years since CO2 is a very durable molecule.

Current emissions are adding two percent more heat-trapping CO2 each year. That will push humanity’s ‘CO2 contribution’ to 50 percent four years from now.

“There is a clear message from science: To avoid dangerous interference with the climate system, we need to move away from business as usual,” Edenhofer said.

The IPCC’s first report released last September as part of its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) clearly stated once again that the climate is changing rapidly as a result of human activity and urgent action is needed.

This was followed last month with a strong confirmation that climate impacts are already occurring on every continent and throughout the world’s oceans. This second report warned that one of the major impacts will be declines in food production unless emissions begin to decline.

The fossil fuel sector, the richest in human history, appears to be ignoring the IPCC warnings.

Earlier this month, oil giant ExxonMobil issued a report to its shareholders saying it does not believe the world will curb CO2 emissions and plans to extract and sell all of its 25.2 billion barrels worth of oil and gas in its current reserves. And it will continue investments hunting down more barrels.

“All of ExxonMobil’s current hydrocarbon reserves will be needed, along with substantial future industry investments, to address global energy needs,” said William Colton, ExxonMobil’s vice president in a statement.

The IPCC agrees oil, gas and coal will still be used in future but there is a CO2 maximum to have a reasonable chance of staying below two degrees C. That fossil energy cap won’t be enough to meet global energy needs so Working Group III recommends shifting to large-scale bioenergy and biofuels, waste incineration, nuclear power and carbon capture and storage (CCS).

These energy sources are controversial and risky. Large-scale bioenergy and biofuels needs huge areas of land and vast quantities of water and will compete with food production.

Studies show ethanol results in more emissions than burning gasoline. Even making ethanol from the leftovers of harvested corn plants released seven percent more CO2 than gasoline while depleting the soil, a new study revealed in Nature Climate Change this week.

The IPCC acknowledges bioenergy and biofuels can increase emissions, destroy livelihoods and damage the environment, says Rachel Smolker of Biofuelwatch, an environmental NGO.

“It is a shame they put so much stock in something that would make things worse rather than better,” Smolker told IPS.

Given all this, what climate action plans are governments going to propose when they meet in Abu Dhabi on May 4 and 5th? This is an informal ‘put your cards on the table’ regarding a new set of commitments on emission reduction targets and action plans to be made public at the U.N. Climate Summit in September.

Current reduction targets will not avoid four degrees C, most experts agree.

In hopes of getting countries to increase their reduction targets, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asked governments to bring new proposals to New York City in September. With the current U.N. Climate Change Convention meetings deadlocked on key issues, the New York Summit is intended to kick-start political momentum for an ambitious, global, legal climate treaty in 2015.

The May get-together titled the “Abu Dhabi Ascent” is the only meeting before the Summit where governments, and invited members of the private sector and civil society will come together to explore how to get ambitious action to reduce emissions.

The Abu Dhabi meeting will be a window into the future of humanity: ascent or descent?

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Nigeria – From Sticks and Machetes to Rocket-propelled Grenades http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/nigeria-sticks-machetes-rocket-propelled-grenades/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=nigeria-sticks-machetes-rocket-propelled-grenades http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/nigeria-sticks-machetes-rocket-propelled-grenades/#comments Tue, 22 Apr 2014 14:04:38 +0000 Sam Olukoya http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133802 Nigerians are beginning to adjust to the sad reality that they live in a country where suicide bombers and terrorists could be lurking around the next corner thanks to a ready supply of advanced weapons smuggled through the country’s porous borders.  Last week, Ngupar Kemzy’s cousin, Andy Nepli, told him that he planned to spend […]

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Boko Haram's latest bomb attack in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, on Apr. 14, 2014, claimed 75 lives. Courtesy: Ayo Bello

Boko Haram's latest bomb attack in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, on Apr. 14, 2014, claimed 75 lives. Courtesy: Ayo Bello

By Sam Olukoya
LAGOS, Nigeria, Apr 22 2014 (IPS)

Nigerians are beginning to adjust to the sad reality that they live in a country where suicide bombers and terrorists could be lurking around the next corner thanks to a ready supply of advanced weapons smuggled through the country’s porous borders. 

Last week, Ngupar Kemzy’s cousin, Andy Nepli, told him that he planned to spend the Easter holidays with him.

But two days later, on Apr. 14, 32-year-old Nepli was one of the 75 people killed in two powerful explosions at a crowded bus station in Nyanya, a suburb in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja.“Those using these modern weapons have attained a boldness they never would have had if they were handling crude weapons.” -- Steve Obodokwe, of the Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development

Many of the victims were so badly wounded that it was difficult to identify them.

“We only knew it was him after checking his clothes and seeing his identity card,” Kemzy, who rushed to the scene, told IPS. “Human body parts were littered all over the place,” he said.

On the same night, Nigeria was forced to contend with yet another horror when 129 schoolgirls were abducted from their hostel in Chibok, Borno State in the country’s northeast.

Boko Haram, a group waging a violent campaign for the imposition of Islamic rule in this West African nation, claimed responsibility for the bombing. The group is suspected to also be responsible for the abduction of the schoolgirls in Chibok.

Bombings, abductions and a scorched earth policy of burning down entire villages and killing the inhabitants are some of the violent techniques used by the extremist group.

Boko Haram, which is believed to have links with Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, like Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Somali-based Al-Shabaab, is mainly active in northeastern Nigeria

Global human rights movement Amnesty International says 1,500 people were killed within the first three month of this year by Boko Haram and “uncontrolled reprisals by Nigeria’s security forces.”

A transformation to modern weaponry is said to have aided the escalation of the crisis in the country.

Besides Boko Haram, several other armed ethnic militia operate in Central Nigeria. And armed groups have moved from using crude weapons like sticks, machetes, cudgels, and dane guns to more lethal and advanced weapons like machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

“Those using these modern weapons have attained a boldness they never would have had if they were handling crude weapons,” Steve Obodokwe, of the Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development, told IPS.

“With their modern weapons, armed groups have been able to gather the courage to attack even military barracks,” said Obodokwe.

There is a ready supply of weapons smuggled into Nigeria through its porous borders. Some weapons are believed to have entered the country following armed conflicts in countries like Libya and Mali.

Former Nigerian defence minister Olusola Obada says some of the smuggled weapons were those looted from Libyan armouries during the 2011 crisis to oust the late Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi (1942 – 2011).

It is also believed that some of the weapons, especially those being used by Boko Haram, entered Nigeria through Al-Qaeda’s network.

“It is not out of place to suggest that some of the weapons in Nigeria were supplied by Islamist groups in Somalia and Mali,” says Obodokwe.

With its links to Al-Qaeda and a good supply of arms, Boko Haram has successfully carried out several high-profile terrorist attacks in Nigeria. These include attacks on military bases and the 2011 bombing of both the national police and United Nations headquarters in Abuja.

“The consequences of these successful attacks is that Boko Haram has demystified Nigeria’s security agencies,” Ifeanyi Okechukwu, national coordinator of the West Africa Network for Peace Building, which works with international organisations to prevent armed conflict, told IPS.

He says the success of Boko Haram has encouraged other groups here to pick up arms against their opponents, knowing that security agencies are incapable of stopping them.

The great cost to Nigeria

The conflicts in Nigeria have come at great cost. The International Crisis Group, an independent organisation working to prevent deadly conflicts, says the Boko Haram’s insurgency alone has “displaced close to half a million people, destroyed hundreds of schools and government buildings and devastated an already ravaged economy in the northeast, one of Nigeria’s poorest regions.”

The organisation fears that with no end in sight, the insurgency could spill over “to other parts of the north and risks reaching Niger and Cameroon, weak countries poorly equipped to combat a radical Islamist armed group.”

Some Nigerians are beginning to lose faith in the ability of security agents to stop Boko Haram and other militant groups in the country. But the government has continued to assure the populace that it will win the war against terror.

“Terror will not stop Nigeria from moving. The terrorists and those who are sponsoring them will never stop this country from moving, we will continue to move from strength to strength,” President Goodluck Jonathan said at a political rally a day after the Abuja bus station bombings.

Nigeria is scheduled to hold general elections next year.

Here, the buildup to elections is usually characterised by politicians arming their supporters in their quest for power. But with so many armed groups and with so many illegal firearms already in circulation, the build-up to next year’s elections might just stretch Nigeria beyond its limits.

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Weak Laws and Capitalist Economy Deplete Kenya’s Natural Wealth http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/weak-laws-capitalist-economy-deplete-kenyas-natural-wealth/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=weak-laws-capitalist-economy-deplete-kenyas-natural-wealth http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/weak-laws-capitalist-economy-deplete-kenyas-natural-wealth/#comments Tue, 22 Apr 2014 13:48:27 +0000 Miriam Gathigah http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133796 Each season Peter Gichangi, a vegetable and arrowroot commercial farmer who owns four hectares of land in Nyeri County, Kenya’s Central Province, cultivates his crops near the Nduyi River. “Although every now and then the Nduyi River bank bursts, flooding the farm, the loss is small compared to the good harvest and financial gains during […]

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Farmers trying to build a barrier to protect their crops from the Nduyi River in Nyeri County. The river usually bursts its banks after a heavy downpour. Credit: Miriam Gathigah/IPS

Farmers trying to build a barrier to protect their crops from the Nduyi River in Nyeri County. The river usually bursts its banks after a heavy downpour. Credit: Miriam Gathigah/IPS

By Miriam Gathigah
NAIROBI, Apr 22 2014 (IPS)

Each season Peter Gichangi, a vegetable and arrowroot commercial farmer who owns four hectares of land in Nyeri County, Kenya’s Central Province, cultivates his crops near the Nduyi River.

“Although every now and then the Nduyi River bank bursts, flooding the farm, the loss is small compared to the good harvest and financial gains during good weather patterns,” Gichangi tells IPS.

But he is just one of a significant number of small-scale farmers who have taken to commercial farming in water catchment areas, according to the Ministry of Environment, Water and Natural Resources.“The market forces and extreme hunger for a cash economy has been given dominance at the expense of our environmental and natural resource health.” -- Kevin Kinusu, Hivos

In this East African nation, smallholder farmers account for at least 75 percent of the total agricultural output, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries.

“Due to the scramble for scarce land and because agriculture here is rain-fed, we now have more and more farmers encroaching on water catchment areas,” Nancy Mumbi, a government agricultural researcher in Central Province, tells IPS.

She says this is especially prevalent in the Rift Valley, which is considered the country’s breadbasket, and Central Kenya.

Mumbi says the government is attempting to put a stop to the practice by imposing “fines of up to 600 dollars or imprisonment not exceeding six months or both.”

However, Ken Muchai from the Ministry of Environment, Water and Natural Resources warns “the lack of a national policy on natural resource management is leading to the depletion of our natural wealth.”

“We may not have any lions in the next 20 years, we are losing 100 lions per year to human-animal conflict,” he tells IPS.

He says that the draft Natural Resources Development and Management Policy 2012 will address these issues.

“And many other sectoral policies are already under review to facilitate conservation and management of natural resources.”

But while Kenya may have in place at least 90 pieces of legislation on how to manage its natural resources, experts say the country’s excess of legislation is weak and inadequate to meet the challenge of sustainably managing this.

Kevin Kinusu, the climate and energy advocacy officer at Hivos, the Dutch organisation for development, tells IPS that the weak laws have proved ineffective in the face of the country’s capitalist economy.

“Market forces have overlooked the importance of sustainable management of natural resources. Due to the current craze to develop real estate, wetlands in areas in Nairobi County, parts of Kiambu County and indeed in many other parts of the country have been converted into settlements.”

Kinusu explains that although there are policies like the Wetlands Atlas and the Master Plan for the Conservation and Management of Water Catchment Areas in place “we do not have a comprehensive policy on conservation of wetlands and there are [wetlands] facing severe pressure despite their importance as a water resource for agricultural productivity and in sustaining livelihoods.”

He says the real value of such protected areas has been ignored and “the market forces and extreme hunger for a cash economy has been given dominance at the expense of our environmental and natural resource health.”

Kinusu says that there have been a few success stories in management of natural wealth. This includes the rehabilitation of the Mau Forest ecosystem — the largest of the country’s five water towers. He points out that the country’s forest cover also increased “from a decline of about two percent to nearly six percent.”

Duncan Okowa, programme officer at local NGO Institute for Law and Environmental Governance (ILEG), tells IPS that the Environment Management and Coordination Act 1999 “should have served as the overarching policy.”

The act provides a framework for environmental legislation and for establishing appropriate legal and institutional mechanisms for the management of the environment.

However, he points out that the act itself has been overtaken by other legislation and is now outdated.

“For instance, there are demands in the 2010 Constitution that are not covered by the act. Also, most sectoral laws were enacted after the act had been developed, for instance we have the Water Act 2002, Forest Act 2005 and the Land Act 2012.”

For example, while the 2010 constitution demands that communities be at the heart of natural resource management, many are still left out of the country’s multi-billion dollar mining industry.

“The production-sharing contracts signed between the government and oil companies are often in favour of the companies since they are signed under the archaic Petroleum Act of 1986,” Samuel Kimeu, executive director of Transparency International Kenya, tells IPS.

“Unclear means of awarding mining licences have been used to fleece the public, compromising the terms of the licence against the public interest, thus swindling the public of possible revenue,” he says.

Okowa says that going forward laws must be reviewed to reflect new realities.

“An enabling environment for these laws to be effective must be created where implementing institutions are given both technical and financial support,” Okowa says.

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