Inter Press Service » Europe Turning the World Downside Up Sun, 19 Oct 2014 21:52:09 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Kyrgyzstan Looks to Alternative Fuels Ahead of Looming Winter Shortages Thu, 16 Oct 2014 12:36:10 +0000 Anna Lelik Young people heat themselves by the eternal flame at a WWII monument in Bishkek last February. Each winter in Kyrgyzstan the energy situation seems to worsen; blackouts last longer, and officials seem less able to do anything to improve conditions. This year is expected to be particularly difficult. Credit: David Trilling/EurasiaNet

Young people heat themselves by the eternal flame at a WWII monument in Bishkek last February. Each winter in Kyrgyzstan the energy situation seems to worsen; blackouts last longer, and officials seem less able to do anything to improve conditions. This year is expected to be particularly difficult. Credit: David Trilling/EurasiaNet

By Anna Lelik
BISHKEK, Oct 16 2014 (EurasiaNet)

Each winter in Kyrgyzstan the energy situation seems to worsen; blackouts last longer, and officials seem less able to do anything to improve conditions. This year is expected to be particularly difficult.

The winter heating season has not even begun and already lots of people are bracing for months of hardship. A video, posted Oct. 12 on YouTube, depicting Kyrgyz doctors having to perform open-heart surgery amid a sudden blackout, is helping to heighten anxiety about the coming winter.Last year, when temperatures dropped to -20C (-4F), the 89-year-old pensioner spent three months living in a vegetable storage shed with a small stove she kept going with a mix of coal dust and dung.

In another alarming signal, Bishkek’s local energy-distribution company, Severelectro, sent out advisories with recent utility bills, describing the situation as “critical” and begging customers to conserve electricity and use alternatives to heat their homes.

Southern Kyrgyzstan has been without gas since April, when Russia’s Gazprom took over the country’s gas network, and neighbouring Uzbekistan said it would not work with the Russians. That has forced residents in the south to use precious and expensive electricity to cook, or resort to burning dung and sometimes even furniture.

On top of that, a drought has hampered operations at Kyrgyzstan’s main hydroelectric plant at the aging Toktogul Dam.

After President Almazbek Atambayev criticised the energy minister on Oct. 9, the minister promptly quit. But a personnel reshuffle will not do much to reassure citizens, such as pensioner Valentina Chebotok, who lives in Maevka, a Bishkek suburb.

When she began to contemplate the hassles associated with winter, Chebotok started to cry. Last year, when temperatures dropped to -20C (-4F), the 89-year-old pensioner spent three months living in a vegetable storage shed with a small stove she kept going with a mix of coal dust and dung. This year, Chebotok managed to secure a gas heater, but on her pension of 87 dollars per month she will have to use it sparingly.

There has been some good news: Kazakhstan agreed on Oct. 14 to supply over a billion kWh of electricity this fall and winter. In September, the Russian energy giant Gazprom announced gas prices for exports to northern Kyrgyzstan – that is, the only areas connected to its network, since Uzbekistan refuses to supply its gas to the southern network – would fall 20 percent.

But in many parts of the country the electrical system is overloaded. Prior to the Gazprom deal, many consumers grew tired of constant gas shortages, and converted their heating systems to run on electricity. That is what Maksim Tsai, a mechanical engineer in Bishkek, did seven years ago.

“I was forced to switch to electric heating. And Kyrgyzstan was [at the time] considered a country with abundant electricity,” he told

Citing a need to conserve electricity, government officials have made often contradictory statements about the type of three-phase electrical adaptors that Tsai and many others now use. Some officials have said they want to ban three-phase adaptors, which can support higher electricity loads; others express an interest in increasing tariffs for three-phase households. Tsai said he now plans to switch back to gas.

“The government took the right decision to transfer Kyrgyzgaz to Gazprom. Now I have got assurance that we won’t have problems with gas, though it is still expensive,” he said.

The current confusion offers crooked officials an opportunity to line their pockets. A hotel owner in Bishkek complained in September that Severelectro officials came to his business and attempted to seize his three-phase adaptor.

“They came over and made us sign a document saying that we understood why the three-phase adaptor was being confiscated. We asked for a copy of the document, but they said we couldn’t get one because ‘we don’t want the press to get hold of this.’ We were allowed to keep our adaptor after we paid a bribe,” the hotel owner said.

The officials warned the hotel owner to expect blackouts this winter at his central Bishkek location, “‘Maybe five hours a day, maybe more, they said.’”

Another heating alternative is coal. In August, Prime Minister Djoomart Otorbaev called on Kyrgyzstanis to use coal this winter for heating, since it is “a relatively inexpensive fuel.”

Though Kyrgyzstan is endowed with plenty of coal, the industry is plagued by scandals and, reportedly, organised criminal activity – factors that drive up prices and force consumers, including government agencies, to buy imports.

Sultanbek Dzholdoshbaev, a wholesaler at the main coal market outside of Bishkek, said that supplies from the famed and fought-over Kara-Keche deposit have decreased in recent years, pushing up prices.

He explained that local gangs took control of Kara-Keche during the chaos following President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s 2010 overthrow. Moreover, the state-run company that manages Kara-Keche is unable to run such a large-scale operation efficiently, Dzholdoshbaev asserted.

Meanwhile, prices keep rising. According to sellers and buyers at the coal market, the price for a tonne of coal has increased 25 to 35 percent this season. That might be in part due to demand. Delivery-truck drivers say demand has been high since August, when the government started warning about the tough winter ahead.

If those living in freestanding homes have options, such as gas and coal, the tens of thousands of Bishkek residents living in multi-story buildings with central heating provided by Severelectro have only electricity as backup.

Larisa Musuralieva, who lives in an apartment block in a southern district of the capital, said that the old radiators in her flat do not provide sufficient warmth: “These radiators heat so badly […] so we use an electric heater. If blackouts happen this winter, it will be very cold at home.”

Editor’s note:  Anna Lelik is a Bishkek-based reporter. Chris Rickleton contributed reporting. This story originally appeared on

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Reducing Hunger: More Than Just Access to Food Mon, 13 Oct 2014 20:00:33 +0000 Emilio Godoy A dozen activists from the Stop Biocidio organisation disrupted Greenaccord’s 11th forum on Saturday Oct. 11 to demand that the Italian government clean up illegal toxic waste dumped on their lands and protect agricultural production around Naples. Credit: Emilio Godoy/IPS

A dozen activists from the Stop Biocidio organisation disrupted Greenaccord’s 11th forum on Saturday Oct. 11 to demand that the Italian government clean up illegal toxic waste dumped on their lands and protect agricultural production around Naples. Credit: Emilio Godoy/IPS

By Emilio Godoy
NAPLES, Italy, Oct 13 2014 (IPS)

“We want healthy food, we want to produce according to our traditions,” farmers and activists demanded during an international forum of experts on agriculture and the environment in this southern Italian city.

It is not necessary to go far to find an illustration of the difficulties facing farmers in achieving that goal, Dario Natale told IPS. He is a young man who lives in the area between the cities of Naples and Caserta known as “Terra dei fuochi” or land of fire, due to the chronic burning of waste, much of it toxic.

“The land is polluted, people get sick and our products are under suspicion. The government has done nothing,” complained the 24-year-old Natale, who belongs to Stop Biocidio, a group that is demanding an end to the illegal dumping or burying of waste in the area, and to the burning of garbage, which began in the 1990s.

That area in the southwest province of Campania is known for the production of vegetables, fruit and mozzarella cheese made from the milk of the domestic Italian water buffalo.

Since the 1990s, the Camorra, the Naples mafia, has taken over the handling and disposal of refuse and toxic waste hauled in from Italy’s industrialised north and dumped in the south, which has caused serious damage to the environment, health and the local economy.“Food insecurity is still a problem and it doesn't mean only access to food, but when, how and how much. There is a real security and a perceived one.” -- Marino Niola

This is one of the problems that will be discussed at the Expo Milan, to be held in May 2015 in that northern Italian city, under the theme Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life. In the expo, participating countries will present their situation regarding the production of food, the fight against hunger, and measures adopted to guarantee food security.

These are the same issues that were tackled at the 11th International Media Forum on the Protection of Nature, held Oct. 8-11 in Naples under the theme “People Building the Future; Feeding the World: Food, Agriculture and Environment”.

The Forum, organised by Greenaccord, an Italian network of experts dedicated to training in environmental questions, brought together some 200 reporters, academics, activists, students and representatives of governments and multilateral organisations from 47 countries.

During the four days of talks and debates they also discussed issues like the fight against hunger, the role of transnational corporations, and the adaptation of agriculture to climate change.

The nations of the developing South, different experts said, are in an ambiguous situation, because they fight hunger but are only partly successful when it comes to ensuring food security which also involves production and distribution of quality food.

“It’s not just about production of enough food for everyone; it means that every individual must have access to food,” Adriana Opromolla, Caritas International campaign manager, told IPS. “In Latin America, for example, compliance with that right varies. The fact that countries have laws on it does not mean they are necessarily complying.”

Caritas released a report on food security in Guatemala and Nicaragua on Monday during the annual forum of the International Food Security & Nutrition Civil Society Mechanism, held in the Rome headquarters of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Oct. 12-19 is the Food Week of Action.

By 2050, demand for food will expand 65 percent, while the world population will reach nine billion.

The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2014 report released Sept. 16 revealed that the proportion of undernourished people in Latin America went down from 15.3 percent in the 1990-1992 period to 6.1 percent in 2012-2014.

As a result, this region met the first of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) one year before the 2015 deadline. The MDGs were adopted by the international community in 2000, and the first is to cut the proportion of hungry people and people living in extreme poverty around the world by half, from 1990 levels.

Measures taken in the region have varied. For example, nations like Colombia and Mexico included the right to food in the constitution, while other countries, such as Argentina, the Dominican Republic and Ecuador adopted legislation on the matter.

“Food insecurity is still a problem and it doesn’t mean only access to food, but when, how and how much. There is a real security and a perceived one,” Marino Niola, director of the Centre for Social Research on the Mediterranean Diet, or MedEatResearch, at the private Suor Orsola Benincasa University of Naples, told IPS.

In 2004, FAO adopted the “Voluntary Guidelines to Support the Progressive Realisation of the Right to Adequate Food in the Context of National Food Security”, which are being reviewed this year.

The theme for World Food Day, Oct. 16, this year is Family Farming: “Feeding the world, caring for the earth”.

“The right to food is an ethical way to address food production and distribution. It has to be guaranteed for importing countries,” Gary Gardner, a researcher with the Worldwatch Institute, told IPS.

In his research, the U.S. expert has found that 13 counties were totally dependent on imported grains in 2013, 51 were dependent on imports for more than 50 percent, and 77 were dependent on imports for over 25 percent.

More than 90 million people in the world are totally dependent on imported grains, 376 million are dependent on imports for more than 50 percent and 882 million are dependent on imports for more than 25 percent.

Opromolla said more budgetary resources are needed, as well as greater transparency in decision-making and more participation by civil society.

“It’s a structural problem,” the Caritas expert said. “Multiple measures are needed, applied in a coherent manner. The commitment by the state is essential, because it must guarantee the right to food.”

Natale is clear on what he wants and does not want for situations like the current one in “Terra dei fuochi”: No more pollution of the soil and water, and government protection of agricultural production. “Our diet is healthy. It doesn’t depend only on pizza and pasta, as the government says. If we don’t produce, where does the food come from?”

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Karabakh Question Clouds Armenia’s Eurasian Union Accession Sat, 11 Oct 2014 10:55:18 +0000 Marianna Grigoryan By Marianna Grigoryan
YEREVAN, Oct 11 2014 (EurasiaNet)

Armenia has finalised its accession to the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union, an intended regional counterweight to the European Union. But while Armenian and Russian officials focus on future prosperity, some Armenian observers believe membership in the bloc could exacerbate Armenia’s security challenges.

During an Oct. 10 meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council, held in Minsk, Belarus, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan confirmed that Armenia would be formally admitted to the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) when it launches on Jan. 1, 2015.“Currently, we have no expectations with regard to security. We see only threats.” -- Aghasi Yenokian, director of a Yerevan-based think-tank

The Armenian government approved the draft text of the accession agreement in early October, Armenian media reported. The EEU will be an outgrowth of the existing customs union among Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Armenian political analysts greeted the accession announcement with mixed feelings, in part because the final text of the pact has not been subjected to public scrutiny. There is particular concern about the pact’s ramifications for Armenia’s relationship with the Nagorno Karabakh territory, an enclave inhabited by ethnic Armenians who aspire to gain international recognition of their de-facto independence from Azerbaijan.

A draft released earlier this year implied that a customs post would be established between Armenia and Karabakh. Local economists say that such an economic barrier would paralyse Karabakh’s economy since the territory depends on Armenia as its primary market for its limited selection of exports.

Beyond the potential economic ramifications, many Armenians would see the establishment of a customs regime as tantamount to the cutting of cultural ties with Karabakh, an act that could leave the territory – and, consequently, Armenia itself – vulnerable to possible Azerbaijani aggression.

“Currently, we have no expectations with regard to security. We see only threats,” commented Aghasi Yenokian, director of the Armenian Center for Political and International Studies, a Yerevan-based think-tank.

Over the past year, Armenian officials have said repeatedly that Armenia’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Union takes into account security guarantees for both Armenia and Karabakh, but no proof of this has been offered.

As a result, uncertainty continues to swirl around the future of the Armenia-Karabakh trade relationship. Two of the EEU’s three members, Belarus and Kazakhstan, are on record as categorically opposed to allowing Armenia to share the bloc’s trade advantages with Karabakh, which none of the members recognise as a country independent from Azerbaijan.

In Minsk, however, Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev stated that a “compromise” had been reached “on a delicate question within the borders by which Armenia will be joined to our union,” the ITAR-TASS news agency reported.

Details were not immediately available.

Members of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia contacted by declined to comment on the challenges that EEU membership could pose for Armenia’s ties with Karabakh.

“There is a very complicated period awaiting us, taking into account the somewhat unfriendly attitude of the EEU to Armenia, particularly on the part of Nazarbayev and [Belarusian President Alexander ] Lukashenko,” commented Styopa Safarian, director of the Armenian Institute of International and Security Affairs.

President Sargsyan, a native of Karabakh, does not, however, appear to share such worries. Congratulating Russian President Vladimir Putin on his Oct. 7 birthday, Sargsyan stated that Putin’s “consistent efforts” for a peaceful resolution of the 26-year Karabakh conflict with Azerbaijan, and his support for Armenia’s EEU membership “deserve the deepest appreciation.”

Opposition parties have also adopted conciliatory stances toward Russia, observers note. This fact leaves some analysts glum; to them, it means the political class is unlikely to push hard to promote Armenia’s interests within the EEU.

“The opposition and the authorities do their best not to make the Kremlin angry,” said Styopa Safarian, the analyst and former member of the opposition Heritage Party. “This situation is not encouraging at all.”

Editor’s note:  Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan and editor of This story originally appeared on

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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ANALYSIS: Europe’s Migrant Graveyard Fri, 10 Oct 2014 15:20:35 +0000 Matt Carr The Italian Navy rescued 1,004 refugees and migrants on 14 August 2014. Some arrived barefoot, some children were shaking with cold. Men, women and children from Syria, Somalia, Gambia, Bangladesh and other countries were rescued. Credit: Amnesty International

The Italian Navy rescued 1,004 refugees and migrants on 14 August 2014. Some arrived barefoot, some children were shaking with cold. Men, women and children from Syria, Somalia, Gambia, Bangladesh and other countries were rescued. Credit: Amnesty International

By Matt Carr
MATLOCK, United Kingdom, Oct 10 2014 (IPS)

Since the end of the Cold War, the Mediterranean has become the most lethal of Europe’s barriers against irregular migration, having claimed nearly 20,000 migrant lives in the last two decades.  

And the first nine months of 2014 indicate that the phenomenon is on the rise, with more migrant deaths than in any previous year.

Last month, a report from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported that 3,072 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean this year out of a worldwide total of 4,077 deaths worldwide.  These figures are almost certainly underestimates, because many migrant deaths in the Mediterranean are not reported.

In the same month, a report from Amnesty International on migrant deaths in the Mediterranean estimated that 2, 200 migrants died between the beginning of June and mid-September alone.“It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Mediterranean has become an instrument in a policy of deterrence, in which migrant deaths are tacitly accepted as a form of ‘collateral damage’ in a militarised response to 21st century migration whose overriding objective is to stop people coming”

The worst incident in this period took place on Sep 11. when 500 men, women and children, many of them refugees from Syria and Palestinians from the Gaza Strip, drowned after their boat was deliberately rammed by their traffickers in Maltese territorial waters.

This horrendous crime took place less than one year after the horrific events of Oct. 3 last year, when at least 360 migrants drowned when their boat sank near the Italian island of Lampedusa.

At the time, the drownings at Lampedusa prompted an unprecedented outpouring of international anger and sympathy.

Pope Francis, European politicians such as Cecilia Malmstrom (European Commissioner for Home Affairs) and Juan Manuel Barroso (President of the European Commission), and  U.N. Secretary-General  Ban Ki-Moon all joined in the chorus of condemnation and called on Europe and the international community to take action to prevent such tragedies in the future.

Twelve months later, these worthy declarations have yet to be realised.

Following the Lampedusa tragedy, Italy undertook the largest combined naval/coastguard search and rescue operation in its history – known as ‘Operation Mare Nostrum’ – to coincide with Italian occupancy of the Presidency of the Council of the European Union.    At a cost of nine million euros per month, the operation has rescued 100,000 people.

Yet despite these efforts, the death toll is already four times higher than it was in the whole of last year.  This increase is partly due to the rise in the numbers of people crossing, primarily as a result of the Syrian civil war and the collapse of the Libyan state. This year, more than 130,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean, compared with 60,000 the previous year.

A group of Somali women, among those rescued by the Italian Navy vessel Virginio Fasan, between 13 and 14 August 2014. Credit: Amnesty International

A group of Somali women, among those rescued by the Italian Navy vessel Virginio Fasan, between 13 and 14 August 2014. Credit: Amnesty International

These numbers have tested the resources of Malta and Italy.  Some drownings have occurred as a result of a lack of clarity and coordination between the two countries over their mutual search and rescue areas.  In addition, Malta has sometimes been reluctant to rescue migrant boats in distress – a reluctance that some observers attribute to an unwillingness on the part of the authorities to accept them as refugees.

But the European Union has also been conspicuously absent from the unfolding tragedy on its southern maritime borders.

Despite numerous calls from the Italian government for assistance, it was not until August this year that the European Union mandated ‘Frontex’ – the European border agency – to undertake ‘Operation Triton’ in the Mediterranean to complement Italy’s search and rescue operations.

But Frontex is primarily concerned with immigration enforcement rather than search and rescue, and the joint operations that it coordinates are entirely dependent on resources provided by E.U. member states.

Glaring lack of response

It is at this level that the lack of response is most glaring.  There are many things that European governments could do to implement to reduce migrant deaths.

They could use their navies to establish the ‘humanitarian corridors’ between North Africa and Europe, as the U.N. refugee agency UNCHR once suggested during the Libyan Civil War.  They could facilitate legal entry, so that men, women and children fleeing war and political oppression can reach Europe safely without having to place their lives in the hands of smugglers. 

The European Union could also abolish or reform the Dublin Regulation that obliges asylum seekers to make their applications in one country only.  This law has placed too much responsibility on European ‘border countries’ like Malta, Italy, Spain and Greece, all of which have experienced surges in irregular migration over the last twenty years.

More generally, Europe could establish an international dialogue with migrant-producing countries to make labour migration safe and mutually beneficial. However, many governments clearly regard ‘Mare Nostrum’ as an essential moat between ‘Fortress Europe’ and its unwanted migrants.

Most migrants who cross the Mediterranean are refugees from nationalities that UNHCR considers to be in need of some form of protection under the terms of the Geneva Convention.   But in order to obtain this, they have to reach Europe first and undergo all the risks that these journeys entail.

All this has transformed the Mediterranean into what Amnesty calls a “survival test” for refugees and migrants. Few politicians will openly admit this because such an admission would directly contradict the values that the European Union has set out to uphold since the European project first took shape after World War II.

Most governments prefer instead to condemn the smugglers and organised criminals who profit from such journeys, and wring their hands whenever a particularly terrible tragedy takes place. Men who sink migrant boats or send them to sea without lifebelts certainly deserve to be condemned.

But, as Amnesty International points out, Europe’s ”woeful response” has also contributed to the death toll.  And it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Mediterranean has become an instrument in a policy of deterrence, in which migrant deaths are tacitly accepted as a form of ‘collateral damage’ in a militarised response to 21st century migration whose overriding objective is to stop people coming.

Until these priorities change, migrants will continue to die, and 2014’s grim record may well be superseded.  Italy has already threatened to stop its search and rescue operations when its presidency of the European Union comes to an end later this year.

Amnesty International has urged European governments to fulfil their humanitarian obligations to save lives in the Mediterranean and warned that “the EU as a whole cannot be indifferent to this suffering.”

So far, there is little sign that anybody is listening.

(Edited by Phil Harris)

The author posts blogs on this and other issues at

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Marine Litter: Plunging Deep, Spreading Wide Fri, 10 Oct 2014 08:26:17 +0000 Manipadma Jena There are an estimated 13,000 pieces of plastic litter afloat every single square kilometer of ocean. Credit: Bo Eide Snemann/CC-BY-2.0

There are an estimated 13,000 pieces of plastic litter afloat every single square kilometer of ocean. Credit: Bo Eide Snemann/CC-BY-2.0

By Manipadma Jena
ATHENS, Oct 10 2014 (IPS)

Imagine a black-footed albatross feeding its chick plastic pellets, a baby seal in the North Pole helplessly struggling with an open-ended plastic bag wrapped tight around its neck, or a fishing vessel stranded mid-sea, a length of discarded nylon net entangled in its propeller. Multiply these scenarios a thousand-fold, and you get a glimpse of the state of the world’s oceans.

With an average of 13,000 pieces of plastic litter estimated to be afloat every single square kilometer of ocean globally, and 6.4 million tonnes of marine litter reaching the oceans every year according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), researchers and scientists predict a bleak future for the great bodies of water that are vital to our planet’s existence.

A conservative estimate of overall financial damage of plastic to marine ecosystems stands at 13 billion dollars each year, according to a press release from UNEP released on Oct. 1.

“To entirely rid the ocean of litter is an aspiration not expected to be achieved in a lifetime, even if we stop waste inputs into the sea, which we still have not. The cost is too much. Much of the waste has been broken down and is beyond our reach. To clean the sea surface of [floating] litter itself will take a long time." -- Vincent Sweeney, coordinator of the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities (GPA).
With the 12th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP12) currently underway in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the issue of marine health and ocean ecosystems is in the spotlight.

Of the 20 Aichi Bioiversity Targets agreed upon at a conference in Nagoya, Japan in 2010, the preservation of marine biodiversity emerged as a crucial goal, with Target 11 laying out the importance of designating ‘protected areas’ for the purpose of protecting marine ecosystems, particularly from the harmful effects of human activity.

Speaking to IPS on sidelines of the 16th Global Meeting of the Regional Seas Conventions and Actions Plans (RSCAP) held in Athens from Sep. 29-Oct. 1, Tatjana Hema, programme officer of the marine pollution assessment and control component of the Mediterranean Action Plan, told IPS that marine debris results from humane behaviour, particularly land-based activities.

The meeting drew scientists and policymakers from around the globe to chart a new roadmap to stop the rapid degradation of the world’s seas and oceans and set policies for their sustainable use and integration into the post‐2015 development agenda.

There was a near unanimous consensus that marine littler posed a “tremendous challenge” to sustainable development in every region of the world.

The issue has been given top priority since the Rio+20 Earth Summit in Brazil in 2012, and Goal 14 of the 17 proposed Sustainable Development Goals – which will replace the MDGs as the U.N.’s main blueprint for action at the end of this year – set the target of significantly reducing marine pollution by 2025.

“We did not have any difficulty pushing for the explicit inclusion of this goal in the proposed SDGs,” Jacqueline Alder, head of the freshwater and marine ecosystems branch at the Division of Environmental Policy Implementation for the UNEP told IPS. “After all, oceans are everyone’s problem, and we all generate waste.”

Wastes released from dump-sites near the coast or river banks, the littering of beaches, tourism and recreational use of the coasts, fishing industry activities, ship-breaking yards, legal and illegal dumping, and floods that flush waste into the sea all pose major challenges, experts say.

Similarly, plastics, microplastics, metals, glass, concrete and other construction materials, paper and cardboard, polystyrene, rubber, rope, fishing nets, traps, textiles, timber and hazardous materials such as munitions, asbestos and medical waste, as well as oil spills and shipwrecks are all defined as marine debris.

“Organic waste is the main component of marine litter, amounting to 40-80 percent of municipal waste in developing countries compared to 20-25 percent in developed countries,” Hema said.

Microplastics, however, emerged as one of the most damaging pollutants currently choking the seas. This killer substance is formed when plastics fragment and disintegrate into particles with an upper size limit of five millimeters in diameter (the size range most readily ingested by ocean-dwelling organisms), down to particles that measure just one mm in diameter.

“Micro- and nano-plastics have been found [to have been] transferred to the micro-wall of algae. How this will affect the food chain of sea creatures and how human health is going to be affected by ingesting these through fish, we still do not know,” UNEP’s Vincent Sweeney, who coordinates the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities (GPA), told IPS.

Fishermen haul in their catch on a beach in Sri Lanka’s eastern Trincomalee District. Experts say a large portion of marine litter is a by-product of the global fishing industry. Credit: Kanya D’Almeida/IPS

Fishermen haul in their catch on a beach in Sri Lanka’s eastern Trincomalee District. Experts say a large portion of marine litter is a by-product of the global fishing industry. Credit: Kanya D’Almeida/IPS

“The extent of the microplastic problem till now is somewhat speculative; we still do not have a sense of how much of the oceans are affected,” he added.

Ocean SDG targets have to stand up to four criteria: whether they are ‘actionable’, ‘feasible’, ‘measureable’ and ‘achievable’.

Unlike, for example, the target of reducing ocean acidification (whose only driver is carbon dioxide), which easily meets all four criteria, the issue of marine debris is not as simple, partly because “what shows up on the beach is not necessarily an [indication] of what is inside the ocean,” Sweeney asserted.

“Marine litter can move long distances, becoming international. Ownership is difficult to establish,” he added. Litter also accumulates in mid-ocean ‘gyres’, natural water-circulation phenomenon that tends to trap floating material.

“The risk in not knowing the exact magnitude of marine litter is that we may tend to think it is too big to handle,” Sweeney said, adding, however that “momentum is building up with awareness and it is now getting priority at different levels.”

“To entirely rid the ocean of litter is an aspiration not expected to be achieved in a lifetime, even if we stop waste inputs into the sea, which we still have not. The cost is too much. Much of the waste has been broken down and is beyond our reach. To clean the sea surface of [floating] litter itself will take a long time,” Sweeney asserted.

“Though there are different drivers for marine pollution in each country, the common factor is that we are consuming more and also generating more waste and much of this is plastic,” he concluded.

Aside from insufficient data and the high cost of cleaning up marine litter, the Means of Implementation (MoI) or funding of the SDG ocean targets is yet another challenge for most regions.

Northwest Pacific countries like China, Japan, Russia and Korea, however, have established replicable practices, according to Alexander Tkalin, coordinator of the UNEP Northwest Pacific Action Plan.

“Korea and Japan are major donors and both have introduced legislation specifically on marine litter,” Tkalin told IPS on the sidelines of the meeting.

“Japan has changed legislation to incentivise marine debris cleaning, tweaking its law under which, normally, one pays for littering, but the government now pays municipalities for beach-cleaning after typhoons, when roots and debris from the sea-floor are strewn on beaches,” Tkalin explained.

The Dutch and the U.S. also have strong on-going programmes on marine debris, as does Haiti, according to Sweeney.

The extent of the crisis was brought home when Evangelos Papathanassiou, research director at the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research in Attiki, 15 kilometres from Athens, told visiting regional journalists about his experience of finding a sewing machine at a depth of 4,000 feet in the Mediterranean Sea.

“Even though man-made marine pollution from aquaculture, tourism and transportation are most pressing in the Mediterranean and Black Sea, they are not getting the deserved attention,” he added.

If the new development era is to be a successful one, experts conclude, we terrestrial beings must urgently turn our attention to the seas, which are crying out for urgent assistance.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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U.S. Investigation into Illegal Timber Imports a “Sea Change” Tue, 07 Oct 2014 00:35:03 +0000 Carey L. Biron Illegally logged timber seized by the Ayun villagers in Pakistan's Chitral district. A ban on trade in illegally harvested timber, wildlife and fish is omitted from the current fast-track legislation in the U.S. Congress. Credit: Imran Schah/IPS

Illegally logged timber seized by the Ayun villagers in Pakistan's Chitral district. A ban on trade in illegally harvested timber, wildlife and fish is omitted from the current fast-track legislation in the U.S. Congress. Credit: Imran Schah/IPS

By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Oct 7 2014 (IPS)

A year after a U.S. company was accused of engaging in the systematic importing of flooring made from illegally harvested timber, pressure is mounting on federal agencies currently investigating the allegations.

In September 2013, federal authorities executed search warrants of two of the offices of Lumber Liquidators, the largest specialty flooring company in the United States. The company was suspected of importing illegally logged hardwood from far eastern Russia, in contravention of U.S. law.“Illegal wood can’t hide and these products can’t be laundered as easily as they have been in the past." -- Alexander von Bismarck

Around the same time, a civil society group, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), published a detailed report on the accusations, including extensive evidence suggesting that Lumber Liquidators was able to trade in this illicit hardwood through a Chinese supplier. In May, Greenpeace again questioned the company for doing business with suppliers reportedly linked to illegal logging in the Amazon.

Lumber Liquidators is currently being investigated by three U.S. agencies, and these probes are ongoing. While observers say that the complexities of such an international investigation would typically require timeframes of a year or more, in recent days green groups and others have stepped up pressure on the U.S. government to ensure accountability in the Lumber Liquidators case.

“There’s real reason to believe that Lumber Liquidators broke the law, and we’re particularly interested in this case being fully investigated and enforced,” Jesse Prentice-Dunn, with the trade programme at the Sierra Club, a conservation and advocacy group, told IPS.

“We’ve been educating our members about U.S. law on this issue, and they have been very enthusiastic. A huge number of our members are now asking President Obama to fully enforce these laws.”

On Friday, the Sierra Club announced that more than 100,000 of its members had submitted petitions warning that “many companies will not move to make their supply chain sustainable until they see strong enforcement of the law.” Similar concerns were voiced in a letter sent last week by environment and organised labour groups to the three U.S. officials in charge of the Lumber Liquidators probes.

Meanwhile, Lumber Liquidators also took fresh action last week, announcing a new sustainability policy and website. In a release, the company noted that the new policy includes DNA testing of harvested timber, internal and external lumber audits, as well as a move towards sourcing within North America and “away from regions considered to have lower oversight”.

Yet in making the announcement, the company, which has maintained its innocence throughout the past year, outraged watchdog groups by suggesting that its past missteps had been more about communications than systemic problems.

“Admittedly, we’ve been more focused on our sustainability efforts than communicating broadly about them,” Ray Cotton, a Lumber Liquidators vice president, said in a statement unveiling the new website.

Asked by Canadian reporters whether it had ever sold wood “sourced illegally in the Russian Far East”, the company says “No,” in an official statement provided by EIA. It also claims both that the EIA investigation “contained fundamental inaccuracies and unsubstantiated claims” and that the report never alleged that Lumber Liquidators had violated U.S. law.

“Lumber Liquidators’ statement is extremely disturbing,” Alexander von Bismarck, the executive director of EIA’s U.S. office, told IPS.

“Certainly that doesn’t give folks confidence in the company’s sustainability plan, if the overall focus is simply on improving communications. Rather, the first step towards substantive action would need to be taking a sober view on what has actually happened.”

In the balance

The U.S. law at the heart of the federal investigations is known as the Lacey Act, passed in 2008. It is widely seen as a pioneering piece of legislation, and one that some say is already having a global impact, including in China.

As in the allegations surrounding Lumber Liquidators, China has emerged in recent years as a major intermediary for the global wood industry, both licit and illicit. Over the past decade, Chinese exports of wood products have increased by upward of 30 percent per year.

Today, the country is the world’s largest exporter of wood products, with more than 12 percent of the global market, valued at almost 12 billion dollars in 2012. Yet that sector is also said to be one of the most opaque of any commercial market with which the United States trades.

Still, EIA’s von Bismarck says that some changes have started to take place in how the Chinese authorities are approaching the issue of illegal wood laundering. He also notes that this is what makes the Lumber Liquidators case – and the potential response by U.S. authorities, following the current investigations – so important.

While the Chinese authorities, for the first time, have started discussing illegal logging in international fora, the response has been incomplete, von Bismarck warns. This is largely because of the extent to which companies are still able to ignore laws like the Lacey Act.

“That allows Chinese industry to make the assessment that they don’t need to change their practices – because the wood is still getting in,” he says.

“So the whole situation is hanging in the balance, and the Lumber Liquidators case is a critical signal to the Chinese industry associations that are currently deciding which way they are going to go. That will decide whether, in a few years, we will have a new law of the land for the wood trade.”

While some environmentalists have started to criticise the Lacey Act, von Bismarck says the current investigation is proof that the legislation is working.

“The fact that the U.S. government is investigating a case that involves illegal logging in one country and manufacturing in another before it gets to the United States is a very positive sign for the overall efficacy of the law,” he says.

“Illegal wood can’t hide and these products can’t be laundered as easily as they have been in the past, and that could bring about a sea change in the industry. That probably hasn’t yet been digested by all corners of the global wood industry, but it will be.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be reached at

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Azerbaijan Pursues Drones, New Security Options Sat, 04 Oct 2014 06:03:20 +0000 Shahin Abbasov By Shahin Abbasov
BAKU, Oct 4 2014 (EurasiaNet)

Heightened tensions with longtime foe Armenia over breakaway Nagorno Karabakh and mediator Russia’s Ukrainian adventure appear to be pushing Caspian-Sea energy power Azerbaijan ever more strongly toward a military strategy of self-reliance.

The strategy comes via two approaches: first, a build-up in Azerbaijani-made military equipment, including drones co-produced with Israel; and, second, a new defense troika with longtime strategic partners Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, and neighbouring Georgia, a NATO-member-hopeful.

Nor is this a strategy just left to paper. On Sep. 11, Azerbaijani Defense Minister Yaver Jamalov announced to reporters that Azerbaijan plans to export 100 drones, co-produced at a local Azerbaijani-Israeli plant, to “one of the NATO countries.” The remarks headlined the country’s first international defense-industry show, ADEX-2014, held on Sep. 11-13 in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku.

Jamalov did not specify the country or the terms of the sale, but the prospect of the deal reinforces the fact, long clear in foreign policy, that Baku sees itself as a regional military force that need no longer pay heed to the likes or dislikes of Russia.

While Azerbaijan has spent “several billion dollars” over the last decade importing a range of Russian-made military equipment, politics now have become an issue, commented military expert Azad Isazade, a former Azerbaijani defense-ministry official.

As it looks on the plans for a trade union with Azerbaijani enemy Armenia, Baku increasingly feels that Moscow’s interests in resolving the 26-year-long Karabakh conflict are more closely aligned with those of Armenia, where Russia already has troops stationed.

By focusing its attention on its own military-production capabilities or on military partnerships with other countries, “the Azerbaijani government wanted to balance the pro-Armenian position of Moscow,” Isazade said.

Elhan Shahinoglu, head of the non-profit Atlas Research Center in Baku, agreed. “I think that after the last meeting of the Azerbaijani, Armenian and Russian presidents in Sochi [in August], [Azerbaijani President] Ilham Aliyev has lost any hope that Moscow is going to play a positive role in the Karabakh conflict’s resolution,” he commented.

The Kremlin’s support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine and intervention in the conflict there does little to reassure Baku on this point.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has not specifically addressed such misgivings, but, in his opening remarks at ADEX-2014, commented that “in the current world, countries have to keep facing new security challenges, which make cooperation and the exchange of modern military technologies more important.”

Azerbaijan is due to receive 100 Russian-made T-90C tanks in early 2015, but the shipment is based on a 2010 contract, Trend news agency reported, citing an adviser to Russia’s state-owned weapons-export company, Rosobornexport. Azerbaijan has not announced any more such contracts.

Defense Minister Jamalov claims that Azerbaijan expects by the end of 2015 to be able to meet almost all of its own needs for ammunition and tank and artillery shells, formerly mostly supplied by Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.

Israel, which imports most of its natural gas from Azerbaijan, appears to play a leading role in Azerbaijan’s makeover into a materiel-manufacturer. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon visited Azerbaijan for the first time this month to meet President Aliyev and attend ADEX-2014.

At the exhibition, Azerbaijan presented models of two drones produced in conjunction with an unnamed Israeli company – one for reconnaissance ( “Aerostar”) and one for combat-missions ( “Orbiter 2M”).

Overall, 200 companies from 34 countries, including the United States and Russia, took part in the event, which featured products ranging from armored troop carriers to sniper guns.

Only one contract with an Azerbaijani company was signed during the show, however, an Azerbaijani defense-industry representative commented to

South Africa’s Paramount Group, a privately owned defense company which claims to be the largest in Africa, plans to create a joint venture with Azerbaijan’s private AirTechService to work on upgrades to military helicopters and some jets.

The defense industry representative, who asked not to be named, noted, however, that other countries expected to take an interest in Azerbaijani materiel include Arab Persian-Gulf states, and, in Central Asia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

NATO member states Estonia, Bulgaria, Lativa, Lithuania, Poland and Romania, all of which have indicated they will increase defense spending in response to the Ukrainian-Russian conflict, also feature among the sales-targets, the representative said.

But weapons manufacturing alone does not provide Azerbaijan with a sense of security.

Like other former Soviet republics, Azerbaijan, with one eye on the Karabakh flare-up and another on the Ukrainian civil war, is trying to find new ways to protect itself from Russian pressure, noted Shahinoglu.

On Aug. 19, Defense Minister Hasanov met with Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania and Turkish Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz in the exclave of Nakhchivan, President Aliyev’s ancestral home, to address the “military-political situation in the region,” as the government-friendly AzerNews put it.

After the meeting, Georgian Defense Minister Alasania, the most publicly talkative of the three, said the trio plans to defend collectively regional pipelines and railroads – strategic projects in which all three already cooperate – in case of military aggression in any of the three countries.

Joint military exercises also will be held, although the 30,000-troop exercises currently underway in Azerbaijan only include Azerbaijani forces.

While one Russian security analyst has questioned the pact’s significance since Turkey and Azerbaijan already are military allies, defense expert Isazade countered that Turkey’s presence will constrain Moscow in its treatment of Georgia and Azerbaijan, and reassure the international community that energy resources will be protected.

“If there would be just an alliance of Baku and Tbilisi, Moscow would not care,” he elaborated. “But Turkey, which is a NATO member and also has wide links and cooperation with Russia, is an important factor of stability for the region.”

So far, no official response has come from Moscow.

Originally published by

Shahin Abbasov is a freelance correspondent based in Baku.    

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Zero Nuclear Weapons: A Never-Ending Journey Ahead Sat, 27 Sep 2014 07:48:22 +0000 Thalif Deen By Thalif Deen

When the United Nations commemorated its first ever “international day for the total elimination of nuclear weapons,” the lingering question in the minds of most anti-nuclear activists was: are we anywhere closer to abolishing the deadly weapons or are we moving further and further away from their complete destruction?

Jackie Cabasso, executive director of the Western States Legal Foundation, told IPS that with conflicts raging around the world, and the post World War II order crumbling, “We are now standing on the precipice of a new era of great power wars – the potential for wars among nations which cling to nuclear weapons as central to their national security is growing.”

She said the United States-NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) versus Russia conflict over the Ukraine and nuclear tensions in the Middle East, South East Asia, and on the Korean Peninsula “remind us that the potential for nuclear war is ever present.”

"Now disarmament has been turned on its head; by pruning away the grotesque Cold War excesses, nuclear disarmament has, for all practical purposes, come to mean "fewer but newer" weapons systems, with an emphasis on huge long-term investments in nuclear weapons infrastructures and qualitative improvements in the weapons projected for decades to come." -- Jackie Cabasso, executive director of the Western States Legal Foundation
Paradoxically, nuclear weapons modernisation is being driven by treaty negotiations understood by most of the world to be intended as disarmament measures.

She said the Cold War and post-Cold War approach to nuclear disarmament was quantitative, based mainly on bringing down the insanely huge cold war stockpile numbers – presumably en route to zero.

“Now disarmament has been turned on its head; by pruning away the grotesque Cold War excesses, nuclear disarmament has, for all practical purposes, come to mean “fewer but newer” weapons systems, with an emphasis on huge long-term investments in nuclear weapons infrastructures and qualitative improvements in the weapons projected for decades to come,” said Cabasso, who co-founded the Abolition 2000 Global Network to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons.

The international day for the total elimination of nuclear weapons, commemorated on Nov. 26, was established by the General Assembly in order to enhance public awareness about the threat posed to humanity by nuclear weapons.

There are over 16,000 nuclear weapons in the world, says Alyn Ware, co-founder of UNFOLD ZERO, which organised an event in Geneva in cooperation with the U.N. Office of Disarmament Affairs (UNODA).

“The use of any nuclear weapon by accident, miscalculation or intent would create catastrophic human, environmental and financial consequences. There should be zero nuclear weapons in the world,” he said.

Alice Slater, New York director of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, told IPS despite the welcome U.N. initiative establishing September 26 as the first international day for the elimination of all nuclear weapons, and the UNFOLD ZERO campaign by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to promote U.N. efforts for abolition, “it will take far more than a commemorative day to reach that goal.

Notwithstanding 1970 promises in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to eliminate nuclear weapons, reaffirmed at subsequent review conferences nearly 70 years after the first catastrophic nuclear bombings, 16,300 nuclear weapons remain, all but a thousand of them in the U.S. and Russia, said Slater, who also serves on the Coordinating Committee of Abolition 2000.

She said the New York Times last week finally revealed, on its front page the painful news that in the next ten years the U.S. will spend 355 billion dollars on new weapons, bomb factories and delivery systems, by air, sea, and land.

This would mean projecting costs of one trillion dollars over the next 30 years for these instruments of death and destruction to all planetary life, as reported in recent studies on the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear war.

She said disarmament progress is further impeded by the disturbing deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations.

The U.S. walked out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia, putting missiles in Poland, Romania and Turkey, with NATO performing military maneuvers in Ukraine and deciding to beef up its troop presence in eastern Europe, breaking U.S. promises to former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev when the Berlin wall fell that NATO would not be expanded beyond East Germany.

Shannon Kile, senior researcher for the Project on Nuclear Arms Control, Disarmament and Non-Proliferation at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) told IPS while the overall number of nuclear weapons in the world has decreased sharply from the Cold War peak, there is little to inspire hope the nuclear weapon-possessing states are genuinely willing to give up their nuclear arsenals.

“Most of these states have long-term nuclear modernisation programmes under way that include deploying new nuclear weapon delivery systems,” he said.

Perhaps the most dismaying development has been the slow disappearance of U.S. leadership that is essential for progress toward nuclear disarmament, Kile added.

Cabasso told IPS the political conditions attached to Senate ratification in the U.S., and mirrored by Russia, effectively turned START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) into an anti-disarmament measure.

She said this was stated in so many words by Senator Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, whose state is home to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, site of a proposed multi-billion dollar Uranium Processing Facility.

“[T]hanks in part to the contributions my staff and I have been able to make, the new START treaty could easily be called the “Nuclear Modernisation and Missile Defense Act of 2010,” Corker said.

Cabasso said the same dynamic occurred in connection with the administration of former U.S. President Bill Clinton who made efforts to obtain Senate consent to ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in the late 1990s.

The nuclear weapons complex and its Congressional allies extracted an administration commitment to add billions to future nuclear budgets.

The result was massive new nuclear weapons research programmes described in the New York Times article.

“We should have learned that these are illusory tradeoffs and we end up each time with bigger weapons budgets and no meaningful disarmament,” Cabasso said.

Despite the 45-year-old commitment enshrined in Article VI of the NPT, there are no disarmament negotiations on the horizon.

While over the past three years there has been a marked uptick in nuclear disarmament initiatives by governments not possessing nuclear weapons, both within and outside the United Nations, the U.S. has been notably missing in action at best, and dismissive or obstructive at worst.

Slater told IPS the most promising initiative to break the log-jam is the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) urging non-nuclear weapons states to begin work on a treaty to ban nuclear weapons just as chemical and biological weapons are banned.

A third conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons will meet in December in Vienna, following up meetings held in Norway and Mexico.

“Hopefully, despite the failure of the NPT’s five recognised nuclear weapons states, (U.S., Russia, UK, France, China) to attend, the ban initiative can start without them, creating an opening for more pressure to honor this new international day for nuclear abolition and finally negotiate a treaty for the total elimination of nuclear weapons,” Slater declared.

In his 2009 Prague speech, Kile told IPS, U.S. President Barack Obama had outlined an inspiring vision for a nuclear weapons-free world and pledged to pursue “concrete steps” to reduce the number and salience of nuclear weapons.

“It therefore comes as a particular disappointment for nuclear disarmament advocates to read recent reports that the U.S. Government has embarked on a major renewal of its nuclear weapon production complex.”

Among other objectives, this will enable the US to refurbish existing nuclear arms in order to ensure their long-term reliability and to develop a new generation of nuclear-armed missiles, bombers and submarines, he declared.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

The writer can be contacted at:

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Despite New Pledges, Aid to Fight Ebola Lagging Fri, 26 Sep 2014 05:11:33 +0000 Jim Lobe Sierra Leone and Liberia alone could have a total of more than 20,000 new cases of Ebola within six weeks and as many as 1.4 million by Jan. 20, 2015, if the virus continues spreading at its current rate. Credit: European Commission DG ECHO/CC-BY-ND-2.0

Sierra Leone and Liberia alone could have a total of more than 20,000 new cases of Ebola within six weeks and as many as 1.4 million by Jan. 20, 2015, if the virus continues spreading at its current rate. Credit: European Commission DG ECHO/CC-BY-ND-2.0

By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Sep 26 2014 (IPS)

Despite mounting pledges of assistance, the continuing spread of the deadly Ebola virus in West Africa is outpacing regional and international efforts to stop it, according to world leaders and global health experts.

“We are not moving fast enough. We are not doing enough,” declared U.S. President Barack Obama at a special meeting on the Ebola crisis at the United Nations in New York Thursday. He warned that “hundreds of thousands” of people could be killed by the epidemic in the coming months unless the international community provided the necessary resources.

He was joined by World Bank President Jim Yong Kim who announced his institution would nearly double its financing to 400 million dollars to help the worst-affected countries – Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone – cope with the crisis.

“We can – we must – all move more swiftly to contain the spread of Ebola and help these countries and their people,” according to Kim, much of whose professional career has been devoted to improving health services for people around the world.

“Generous pledges of aid and unprecedented U.N. resolutions are very welcome. But they will mean little, unless they are translated into immediate action. The reality on the ground today is this: the promised surge has not yet delivered." -- Joanne Liu, international president of Doctors Without Borders (MSF)
“Too many lives have been lost already, and the fate of thousands of others depends upon a response that can contain and then stop this epidemic,” he said.

Indeed, concern about the spread of the epidemic has increased sharply here in recent days, particularly in light of projections released earlier this week by the Atlanta-based U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which has sent scores of experts to the region. It found that Sierra Leone and Liberia alone could have a total of more than 20,000 new cases of Ebola within six weeks and as many as 1.4 million by Jan. 20, 2015, if the virus continues spreading at its current rate.

Moreover, global health officials have revised upwards – from 55 percent to 70 percent – the mortality rate of those infected with the virus whose latest outbreak appears to have begun in a remote village in Guinea before spreading southwards into two nations that have only relatively recently begun to recover from devastating civil wars.

Officially, almost 3,000 people have died from the latest outbreak, which began last spring. But most experts believe the official figures are far too conservative, because many cases have not been reported to the authorities, especially in remote regions of the three affected countries.

“Staff at the outbreak sites see evidence that the numbers of reported cases and deaths vastly underestimate the magnitude of the outbreak, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), which is overseeing the global effort to combat the virus’s spread.

In addition to the staggering human costs, the economic toll is also proving dire, if not catastrophic, as the fear of contagion and the resort by governments to a variety of quarantine measures have seriously disrupted normal transport, trade, and commerce.

In a study released last week, the World Bank found that inflation and prices of basic staples that had been contained during the last few months are now rising rapidly upwards in response to shortages, panic buying, and speculation.

The study, which did not factor in the latest CDC estimates, projected potential economic losses for all three countries in 2014 at 359 million dollars – or an average of about a three-percent decline in what their economic output would otherwise have been.

The impact for 2015 could reach more than 800 million dollars, with the Liberian economy likely to be hardest hit among the three, which were already among the world’s poorest nations.

“This is a humanitarian catastrophe, first and foremost,” Kim said Thursday. “But the economic ramifications are very broad and could be long lasting. Our assessment shows a much more severe economic impact on affected countries than was previously estimated.”

Moreover, security analysts have warned that the epidemic could also provoke political crises and upheaval in any or all of the affected countries, effectively unravelling years of efforts to stabilise the region.

In a statement released Tuesday, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) warned that the hardest hit countries already “face widespread chaos and, potentially, collapse,” in part due to the distrust between citizens and their governments, as shown by the sometimes violent resistance to often military-enforced quarantine and other official efforts to halt the virus’s spread. Food shortages could also provoke popular uprisings against local authorities.

“In all three countries, past civil conflicts fuelled by local and regional antagonisms could resurface,” according to the ICG statement which warned that the virus could also spread to Guinea-Bissau and Gambia, both of which, like the three core nations, lack health systems that can cope with the challenge.

Obama, who Friday will host 44 countries that have enlisted in his administration’s Global Health Security Agenda, himself echoed some of these concerns, stressing that containing Ebola “is as important a national security priority for my team as anything else that’s out there.”

Earlier this month, WHO estimated that it will cost a minimum of 600 million dollars – now generally considered too low a figure –to halt the disease’s spread of which somewhat more than 300 million dollars has materialised to date.

The U.S. has so far pledged more than 500 million dollars and 3,000 troops who are being deployed to the region, along with the CDC specialists. Even that contribution has been criticised as too little by some regional and health experts.

“…[T]he number of new Ebola cases each week far exceeds the number of hospital beds in Sierra Leone and Liberia,” according to John Campbell, a West Africa specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), who cited a recent article in the ‘New England Journal of Medicine’.

“It is hard to see how President Obama’s promise to send 3,000 military personnel to Liberia to build hospitals with a total of 1,700 beds can be transformative,” he wrote on the CFR website. “The assistance by the United Kingdom to Sierra Leone and France to Guinea is even smaller,” he noted.

A number of foundations have also pledged help. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has spent billions of dollars to improve health conditions in sub-Saharan Africa, has committed 50 million dollars, while Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s foundation has pledged 65 million dollars to the cause. The California-based William and Flora Hewlett Foundation announced Thursday it had committed five million dollars to be channelled through half a dozen non-governmental organisations.

But whether such contributions will be sufficient remains doubtful, particularly given the dearth of trained staff and adequate facilities in the most-affected countries and the speed at which the pledged support is being delivered – a message that was underlined here Thursday by Joanne Liu, international president of Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which has been deeply engaged in the battle against Ebola.

“Generous pledges of aid and unprecedented U.N. resolutions are very welcome,” she said. “But they will mean little, unless they are translated into immediate action. The reality on the ground today is this: the promised surge has not yet delivered,” she added.

“Our 150-bed facility in Monrovia opens for just thirty minutes each morning. Only a few people are admitted – to fill beds made empty by those who died overnight,” she said. “The sick continue to be turned away, only to return home and spread the virus among loved ones and neighbours.”

“Don’t cut corners. Massive, direct action is the only way,” she declared.

Obama himself repeatedly stressed the urgency, comparing the challenge to “a marathon, but you have to run it like a sprint.”

“And that’s only possible if everybody chips in, if every nation and every organisation takes this seriously. Everybody here has to do more,” he said.

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French Add Voice to Global Climate Action Sun, 21 Sep 2014 23:13:37 +0000 A. D. McKenzie Calling for climate action at the People’s Climate March in Paris, Sep. 21, 2014. Credit: A.D. McKenzie/IPS

Calling for climate action at the People’s Climate March in Paris, Sep. 21, 2014. Credit: A.D. McKenzie/IPS

By A. D. McKenzie
PARIS, Sep 21 2014 (IPS)

As if to highlight the reality of climate change, the rain came pouring down here as demonstrators prepared to rally for political action to combat global warming.

But as the march got under way from Paris’ historic Place de la Republique, bright sunshine broke from behind the ominous clouds, giving a boost to the several thousand people who had heeded the call to send a message to world leaders.

“I’m here because we need to make governments realise that a new economic model that respects nature must be possible,” street artist Rémi Gautier told IPS. “We need to work for the future.”“It’s the poor who feel the greatest impact of global warming. Laws on the environment must do more for more people. We can’t continue with the status quo” – Monique Morellec, Front de Gauche (Left Front) activist

The Paris march was one of 2,500 events that took place around the world Sunday, involving 158 countries, according to Avaaz, the international civic organisation that coordinated the “People’s Climate March” in Paris.  French cities Lyon, Marseille and Bordeaux also held marches.

The demonstrations came two days ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Summit scheduled for Tuesday, when world leaders will gather in New York to discuss the wide-ranging effects of global warming, including ocean acidification, extreme weather conditions and rising sea levels.

“The leaders can’t ignore this massive call for action,” said Marie Yared, an Avaaz global campaigner in Paris. “The message is much stronger now because we’re seeing people in all their diversity making their voices heard. It’s not just activists.

To reflect the global concern, the rallying cry at the march was: “To change everything, we need everyone (Pour tout changer, il faut tout le monde).” The diversity of those taking part was notable, with demonstrators including senior citizens, students, children, non-governmental organisations, union members and religious groups.

Citizen carrying a succinct CLIMATE IN DANGER warning at the People’s Climate March in Paris, Sep. 21, 2014. Credit: A.D. McKenzie/IPS

Citizen carrying a succinct CLIMATE IN DANGER warning at the People’s Climate March in Paris, Sep. 21, 2014. Credit: A.D. McKenzie/IPS

They chanted, beat drums, danced and carried large banners as well as self-made drawings and signs. Other demonstrators met the marchers as the rally moved to the square in front of the city’s town hall.

The largest French Protestant organization, the Fédération Protestante de France, had urged its members to participate in the movement, saying “it’s time to change the course of things”.

“From New York to Berlin, from Bogota to New Delhi, from Paris to Melbourne, thousands of people are marching together to make their voices heard and to remind heads of state that the climate issue is universal, urgent and affects ecosystems and the future of mankind,” the Federation stated.

Joining in were farmers organisations, Oxfam France, Action Contre la Faim (Action Against Hunger), Catholic groups and others who wanted to draw attention to the less obvious consequences of global warming, which also affects food security and has created “climate refugees”.

“It’s the poor who feel the greatest impact of global warming,” Monique Morellec, a Front de Gauche (Left Front) activist, told IPS. “Laws on the environment must do more for more people. We can’t continue with the status quo.”

The Left Front was one of the political parties, including Europe Ecologie Les Verts (Greens) and Jeunes Socialistes (Young Socialists), that was out in support as well, with members handing out leaflets bearing the slogan: “We must change the system, not the climate”.

Participating groups stressed that France has a crucial role to play because Paris will be the host city of the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference (COP 21) where binding agreements are expected to be made on reducing carbon emissions.

“People need to stay alert and to keep the politicians awake until we see what happens next year in Paris,” Yared of Avaaz told IPS.

Some rights organisations that did not take part in the march are planning their own events to put pressure on politicians to act. Amnesty International is launching a campaign on Sep. 23 titled “Faites Pas l’Autruche (Don’t be an ostrich, don’t ignore what’s going on) to highlight the lack of laws governing multinational companies whose local subsidiaries may cause human rights violations.

The group wants French lawmakers to enact a law that will hold companies to account, an Amnesty spokesperson told IPS, citing incidents such as oil pollution in Nigeria and the dumping of toxic waste in Cote d’Ivoire.

The group said that victims of corporate malfeasance should have recourse to French law and courts, wherever they happen to live.  To raise public awareness, Amnesty will hold demonstrations at political landmarks in Paris, such as at the Assemblée Nationale, the seat of parliament, on the day that leaders meet in New York.

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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Georgia’s Female Drug Addicts Face Double Struggle Sun, 21 Sep 2014 09:27:33 +0000 Pavol Stracansky By Pavol Stracansky
TBILISI, Sep 21 2014 (IPS)

Irina was 21 when she first started using drugs. More than 30 years later, having lost her husband, her home and her business to drugs, she is still battling her addiction.

But, like almost all female drug addicts in this former Soviet state, she has faced a desperate struggle not only with her drug problem, but with accessing help in the face of institutionalised and systematic discrimination because of her gender.

“Georgia’s society is very male-dominated,” she told IPS. “And this is reflected in the attitudes to drugs. It’s as if it’s OK for men to use drugs but not women. For women, the stigma of drug use is massive. There are many women who do not join programmes helping them as they would rather not be seen there.”

Women make up 10 per cent of the estimated 40,000 drug users in Georgia, according to research by local NGOs working with drug users.“Georgia’s society is very male-dominated and this is reflected in the attitudes to drugs. It’s as if it’s OK for men to use drugs but not women. For women, the stigma of drug use is massive. There are many women who do not join programmes helping them as they would rather not be seen there” – Irina, now in her 50s, who has been taking drugs for 30 years

However, because of very strong gender stereotyping, women users have very low access to harm reduction services – only 4 percent of needle exchange programme clients are women and the figure is even less for methadone treatment.

Local activists say this startling discrepancy is down to the massive social stigma faced by women drug users.

Dasha Ocheret, Deputy Director for Advocacy at the Eurasian Harm Reduction Network (EHRN) told IPS: “In traditional societies, like Georgia’s, there is a much stronger negative attitude to women who use drugs than to men who use drugs. Women are supposed to be wives and mothers, not drug users.”

Many female addicts are scared to access needle exchanges or other harm reduction services because they fear their addiction will become known to their families or the police. Many have found themselves the victims of violence as their own families try to exert control over them once their drug use has been revealed. Others fear their drug use will be reported to the authorities by health workers.

Registered women drug users can have their children taken away while they routinely face violence – over 80 percent of women who use drugs in Georgia experience violence, according to the Georgian Harm Reduction Network– and extortion at the hands of police helping to enforce some of the world’s harshest drug laws. Possession of cannabis, for example, can result in an 11-year jail sentence.

Irina, who admits that she arranges anonymous attendance at an opioid substitution therapy (OST) programme so that as few people as possible can see her there, told IPS that she had herself been assaulted by a police officer and that police automatically viewed all female drug users as “criminals”.

But those who do want to access such services face further barriers because of their gender.

Free methadone substitution programmes in the country are extremely limited and because levels of financial autonomy among women in Georgia are low, other similar programmes are too expensive for many female addicts.

Discrimination is not uncommon among health service workers. Although some say that they have been treated by very sympathetic doctors, other female drug users have complained of abuse and denigration by medical staff and in some cases being denied health care because of their drug use.

Pregnant women are discouraged from accessing OST, despite it being shown to be safe in pregnancy and resulting in better health outcomes for both mother and child.

Eka Iakobishvili, EHRN’s Human Rights Programme Manager, told IPS: “Pregnant women don’t have access to certain services – they are strongly advised by doctors and health care workers to abort a baby rather than get methadone substitution treatment because they are told the treatment will harm the baby.”

While some may then undergo abortions, others will not, instead continuing dangerous drug use and the potential risk of contracting HIV/AIDS which could then be passed on to their child.

Meanwhile, those harm reduction services accessible by women are not gender-sensitive, according to campaigners, who say that female drug users need access to centres and programmes run and attended only by women.

Irina told IPS: “On some [harm reduction] programmes, the male drug users there will abuse the women drug users for taking drugs. This puts a lot of women off attending these programmes.”

She said that she had asked for a women-only service to be set up at the OST centre she attends but that it had been rejected on the grounds that only a few women were enrolled in it.

Together, these factors mean that many women are unable to access health services and continue dangerous drug-taking behaviour, sharing needles and injecting home-made drug cocktails made up of anything, including disinfectants and petrol mixed with over the counter medicines.

But there is hope that the situation may be about to change, at least to some degree, as local and international groups press to have the problem addressed.

At the end of July, CEDAW (UN Commission on Elimination of Discrimination against Women) released a set of recommendations for the Georgian government to ensure that women obtain proper access to harm reduction services after local NGOs submitted reports on the levels of discrimination they face.

These include, among others, specific calls for the government to carry out nationwide studies to establish the exact number of women who use drugs, including while pregnant, to help draw up a strategic plan to tackle the problem, and to provide gender-sensitive and evidence-based harm reduction services for women who use drugs.

The government has yet to react publicly to the recommendations but local campaigners have said they are speaking to government departments about them and are preparing to follow up with them on the recommendations.

Tea Kordzadze, Project Manager at the Georgian Harm Reduction Network in Tibilisi, told IPS: “We are hoping that at least some of the recommendations will be implemented.”

The Georgian government has been keen to show the country is ready to embrace Western values and bring its legislation and standards into line with European nations in recent years as it looks to create closer ties to the European Union. Rights activists say that this could come into play when the government considers the recommendations.

Iakobishvili said: These are of course just recommendations and the government is not obliged at all to accept or implement any of them. But, having said that, Georgia does care what other countries and big international rights organisations like Amnesty International and so on say about the country.”

Irina told IPS that only outside pressure would bring any real change. “The European Union, the Council of Europe and other international bodies need to put pressure on the Georgian government to make sure that the recommendations don’t remain on paper only.”

But, she added, “in any case, the recommendations alone won’t be enough. The whole attitude in society to women drug users is very negative. It has to be changed.”

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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Surprisingly Equal, Surprisingly Unequal Sat, 20 Sep 2014 08:01:47 +0000 Judith Niehues

Judith Niehues is an economist at the Cologne Institute for Economic Research. She can be contacted at

By Judith Niehues
COLOGNE, Sep 20 2014 (IPS)

Thomas Piketty, a French economist who works on wealth and income inequality, has triggered a debate on the distribution of income and wealth in many countries. This is no small issue because views on income inequality and concomitant redistributive preferences are crucial to the design of tax and transfer systems.

Particularly in many European countries, society is concerned about distributional issues, reflected in recurring debates on redistributive policies. However, a study presenting international survey data on subjective perceptions of inequality and redistributive preferences reveals that perceived and actual inequality diverge quite substantially in many of these countries.

Dr Judith Niehues

Dr Judith Niehues

According to the 2009 Social Inequality Module of the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP), more than 50 percent of Germans strongly agree that differences in income are too large.

Correspondingly, a similar portion of Germans thinks that it is “the responsibility of the government to reduce the differences in income between people with high incomes and those with low incomes” – a questionnaire item which is commonly used to capture subjective preferences for redistribution.

Regarding this majority of critical views on inequality, social justice and redistribution are topics for debate that continually feature on the political agenda in Germany – reflected in the current introduction of redistributive policies, such as a minimum wage and additional pension benefits for mothers.

On the other hand, in the United States – which is characterised by a far higher degree of actual income inequality – people are less concerned about income differences, and they do not see any reason for redistributive state intervention. There is virtually no empirical relationship between the actual size of inequality within a country and how critical people view these income differences to be.

The missing link between inequality and its assessment is not specific to these two countries. In a sample of 23 European countries and the United States, there is virtually no empirical relationship between the actual size of inequality within a country and how critical people view these income differences to be.

Obviously, there might be a range of individual and national factors which may explain cross-country differences in critical views on income differences and related redistributive preferences.

For example, in line with the argument of the “American exceptionalism”, people in the United States might just accept certain inequalities as incentives because they believe in the chance of upward mobility.

On the other hand, Germans may be more convinced that income positions arise from luck or other exogenous circumstances, thus regarding inequality as more unfair, and therefore they might demand more state redistribution.

However, current research on mobility reveals that there is a tendency for countries with higher inequality to also be associated with less income mobility.

Looking instead at how types of societies are perceived – a questionnaire item also included by the ISSP – gives some clues: 54.2 percent of Germans believe that the bulk of the German population lives rather at the bottom of society.

To what extent does this perceived type of society match with actual income distribution in Germany? Although there are different ways of demarcating society into a “bottom”, a “middle” and a “top”, studies generally reveal that the middle class represents by far the largest group in German society.

In particular, independently from the chosen definition of income groups, people on middle incomes are far more numerous than those at the bottom of the income distribution scale. This rather pessimistic view on income equality is typical of the European countries studied.

In most countries, the population significantly overestimates the degree of inequality. This is particularly true for former socialist countries such as Hungary, Slovenia as well as the Czech and Slovak republics.

In Hungary, for example, 56.6 percent of the population views Hungarian society as “a small elite at the top, very few people in the middle and the great mass of people at the bottom”, although the country is characterised by one of the lowest income inequalities in the European Union.

Thus, it is not that former socialist countries view already small income differences as much more critical, but that the population is just not aware of the small level of income inequality.

The situation is different in the Scandinavian countries. Here the various populations are much more realistic about the low levels of inequality and truly identify their societies as “typical middle class models”.

In contrast to the European countries, the United States reveals a completely different picture: U.S. citizens substantially underestimate the extent of inequality in their country. The lower income group in the United States is considerably larger than Americans suppose

This varnished view on inequality in the United States is not new – but it is rather new that in European countries it tends to be the other way round.

These results provide an explanation of why redistributive policies find more support in some countries than in others.

Although results from previous ISSP surveys suggest that cross-country differences in views on inequalities and redistributive preferences tend to change slowly, it would nevertheless be interesting to see if critical views on income differences and redistributive preferences would change if citizens were aware of the actual degree of inequality in their countries.

Interestingly, the overestimation of inequality is adversely related to the absolute level of living standards in corresponding countries. Thus, it might also be the case that the perceived structuring of the society is more associated with absolute levels of living standards than commonly suggested.

(Edited by Phil Harris)


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OPINION: Free Scotland, Nuclear-Free Scotland Tue, 16 Sep 2014 18:26:21 +0000 Phil Harris The blue and white Saltire flag of Scotland flutters next to the Union Jack during the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Credit: Vicky Brock/cc by 2.0

The blue and white Saltire flag of Scotland flutters next to the Union Jack during the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Credit: Vicky Brock/cc by 2.0

By Phil Harris
ROME, Sep 16 2014 (IPS)

After a two-year referendum campaign, Scots are finally voting Thursday on whether their country will regain its independence after more than 300 years of “marriage” with England.

It is still uncertain whether those in favour will win the day, but whichever way the wind blows, things are unlikely to be the same – and not just in terms of political relations between London and Edinburgh.If an independent Scotland were actually to abolish nuclear weapons from its territory, the government of what remains of today’s United Kingdom would be forced to look elsewhere for places in which to host its sea-based nuclear warheads – and this will be no easy task.

One bone of contention between Scots and their “cousins” to the south of Hadrian’s Wall – built by the Romans to protect their conquests in what is now England and, according to Emperor Hadrian’s biographer, “to separate the Romans from the barbarians” to the north – is the presence on Scottish territory of part of the United Kingdom’s nuclear arsenal.

The Scottish National Party (SNP), which supports an independent and non-nuclear Scotland, wants Scotland to become a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the European Union, but rejects nuclear weapons.

The United Kingdom currently has four Vanguard class submarines armed with nuclear-tipped Trident missiles based at Gare Loch on the west coast of Scotland, ostensibly there for the purpose of deterrence – but that was back in the days of the Cold War.

If an independent Scotland were actually to abolish nuclear weapons from its territory, the government of what remains of today’s United Kingdom would be forced to look elsewhere for places in which to host its sea-based nuclear warheads – and this will be no easy task.

The search would be on for another deep-water port or ports, and the UK government has already said that other potential locations in England are unacceptable because they are too close to populated areas – although that has not stopped it from placing some of its nuclear submarines and their deadly cargo  not far from Glasgow since 1969.

In any case, if those in favour of Scottish independence win, just the possibility that Scotland might even begin to consider the abolition of nuclear arms would oblige the UK government to give the nature of its commitment to nuclear weapons a major rethink.

The same would be true even if those in favour of remaining part of the United Kingdom win because there would still be a not insignificant number of Scots against nuclear weapons.

Either scenario indicates that Scotland could come to play a significant role in discussions on nuclear disarmament although, clearly, this role would be all the more important as an independent nation participating in NATO, following in the footsteps of NATO member countries like Canada, Lithuania and Norway which do not allow nuclear weapons on their territory.

And what could come of NATO initiatives such as that taken at its summit in Wales earlier this month to create a new 4,000 strong rapid reaction force for initial deployment in the Baltics?

As Nobel Peace Laureate Maired Maguire has said, that “is a dangerous path for us all to be forced down, and could well lead to a third world war if not stopped. What is needed now are cool heads and people of wisdom and not more guns, more weapons, more war.”

An independent Scotland could raise its voice in favour of prohibiting nuclear weapons at the global level and add to the lobby against the threats posed by the irresponsible arms brandishing of NATO.

Representatives of the SNP have said that they are ready to take an active part in humanitarian initiatives on nuclear weapons and support negotiations on an international treaty to prohibit – and not just limit the proliferation of – nuclear weapons, even without the participation of states in possession of such weapons.

What justification would then remain for these states?

Meanwhile, as Scots go to vote in their independence referendum, there is another aspect of the nuclear issue that the UK government still has to come to terms with – nuclear energy.

Scotland used to be home to six nuclear power stations. Four were closed between 1990 and 2004, but two still remain – the Hunterston B power station in North Ayrshire and the Torness power station in East Lothian – both of which are run by EDF Energy, a company with its headquarters in London.

A YouGov public opinion poll in 2013 showed that Scots are twice as likely to favour wind power over nuclear or shale gas. Over six in 10 (62 percent) people in Scotland said they would support large-scale wind projects in their local area, well more than double the number who said they would be in favour of shale gas (24 percent) and almost twice as many as for nuclear facilities (32 percent).

Hydropower was the most popular energy source for large-scale projects in Scotland, with an overwhelming majority (80 percent) in favour.

So, with a strong current among Scots in favour of ‘non-nuclear’, whatever the outcome of Thursday’s referendum, London would be well-advised that the “barbarians” to its north could teach a lesson or two in a civilised approach to 21st century coexistence.

Phil Harris is Chief, IPS World Desk (English service). He can be contacted at

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Rattled by Russian Expansionism, Tashkent Looks East Sat, 13 Sep 2014 13:25:53 +0000 Joanna Lillis By Joanna Lillis
TASHKENT, Sep 13 2014 (EurasiaNet)

Russia’s aggressive actions toward Ukraine are vexing Central Asian states.

First, officials in Kazakhstan were chagrined to hear comments by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who, during a recent town-hall-style meeting with university students, appeared to denigrate Kazakhstani statehood. Now, Uzbek leaders are showing signs of displeasure with Moscow.“Tashkent is deeply concerned about the potency of Russian media and disinformation campaigns, as well as the potential political vulnerability of the status of millions of Uzbek [labor] migrants in Russia." -- Alexander Cooley

Insular Uzbekistan has long viewed Russia with a wary eye: it has kept its distance from Moscow-led regional bodies and has shown no interest in joining the Eurasian Economic Union, Putin’s pet project to reassert Kremlin influence across the former Soviet Union.

The rhetoric currently coming out of Tashkent suggests that the conflict playing out in Ukraine has unsettled President Islam Karimov’s administration, and is prompting Uzbek officials to consider new steps to distance themselves further from the Kremlin.

During Independence Day celebrations on Sep. 1, Karimov pointedly denounced the tyranny of the Soviet past – and effectively thumbed his nose at Moscow. The “totalitarian” Soviet period, Karimov said, was a time of “oppressive injustice” and “humiliation and affront, when our national values, traditions, and customs were trampled upon.”

Karimov was harking back to the past, but given the battles raging in southeastern Ukraine, and with Putin making no secret of his ambition to expand Russia’s sway over former Soviet territory, the remarks were a clear sally at the Kremlin.

Karimov did not name Ukraine, but spoke of the need to prevent the escalation of conflicts into full-blown warfare in the current “alarming situation.” In comments clearly aimed at Russia, he went on to call for sovereignty and borders to be respected, and the use of force rejected.

Like other post-Soviet states, Tashkent has struggled to formulate a response to the Ukraine conflict, in large part because the Karimov administration finds neither side appealing. On one hand, Tashkent is leery of Kremlin expansionism; on the other, the dictatorial Karimov is no fan of popular uprisings, such as that embodied in the Euromaidan movement.

Analysts say Uzbek President Islam Karimov is clearly apprehensive about the Kremlin’s capacity to use soft power to undermine his long rule if he fails to toe Russia’s line. Credit: Agência Brasil/cc by 3.0

Analysts say Uzbek President Islam Karimov is clearly apprehensive about the Kremlin’s capacity to use soft power to undermine his long rule if he fails to toe Russia’s line. Credit: Agência Brasil/cc by 3.0

Ukraine “has raised grave concerns [for Uzbekistan], precisely because each side has given the [Karimov] regime something to fear,” Alexander Cooley, a professor at New York’s Barnard College who specialises in Central Asian affairs, told

Until recently, Karimov’s government may have viewed Euromaidanist Ukraine as representing the larger threat to Uzbekistan’s status quo. But attitudes in Tashkent may be shifting.

“[The] revolutionary change of power seen in Ukraine is something that Uzbek authorities under President Karimov have been tirelessly working to prevent in their country by effectively rooting out any potential pockets of political dissent,” Lilit Gevorgyan, a regional analyst at IHS Global Insight, told

“It is hard to see Uzbekistan cheering for the popular uprising in Ukraine,” she added – but “they are still likely to be critical, albeit not openly, of Russia’s meddling in Ukraine.”

What Karimov is clearly apprehensive about is the Kremlin’s capacity to use soft power to undermine his long rule if he fails to toe Russia’s line, suggested Cooley.

“Tashkent is deeply concerned about the potency of Russian media and disinformation campaigns, as well as the potential political vulnerability of the status of millions of Uzbek [labour] migrants in Russia,” said Cooley. “They could be a lever for Moscow to bring Uzbekistan further in line with its position.”

Uzbekistan could face a destabilising social crisis if Russia opted to expel Uzbek guest workers. Uzbekistan’s economy would be ill-equipped to absorb such a vast number of returning workers.

Russia’s assertion of a right to defend Russian-speakers abroad is also viewed with trepidation in Tashkent, David Dalton, Uzbekistan analyst at the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit, told

“As with the other Central Asian countries that have a Russian minority, the Uzbek leadership, already wary of Russia’s ambitions in the area, will have viewed with great alarm Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine on the pretext of protecting Russian-speakers,” he said.

Uzbekistan does not share a border with Russia and has a relatively small ethnic Russian minority, comprising 5.5 percent of the country’s overall population of almost 29 million, but Kremlin policies still make Tashkent nervous.

The Kremlin’s muscle-flexing incentivizes Uzbekistan to boost other alliances, analysts believe. “It will emphasise Uzbekistan’s need to diversify security and economic partnerships to the greatest extent possible,” Cooley said, mainly “through growing partnership with China, as well as economic partnerships with emerging Asian powers such as South Korea, Japan and the Gulf States.”

Tilting east is more promising for Tashkent than attempting to turn westward: partly since Uzbekistan’s geopolitical importance to the West is waning as NATO withdraws from Afghanistan; and partly since many Western states consider doing business with Karimov toxic due to Uzbekistan’s poor human rights record.

Western states, especially the United States and United Kingdom, “remain constrained from increasing their engagement by political and human rights concerns, as well as the negative blowback they received from forging close security ties with Tashkent in the 2000s,” Cooley pointed out.

After 9/11, Washington wooed Uzbekistan (which sits on Afghanistan’s northern border) to open a military base – from which it was summarily ejected after criticising the killing of protesters by Uzbek security forces in Andijan in 2005.

“Uzbekistan has tended to ‘turn West’ when it finds that Russia is becoming too assertive, and then back again to Russia when pressed too strongly by the West on its poor human rights record,” said Dalton. “This could happen again this time – although with most of its gas pipelines connecting with China, and Western forces pulling out from Afghanistan this year, it is not clear what Uzbekistan could offer the West in return.”

Ultimately, China – now a major purchaser of Uzbek gas – stands to benefit from Uzbekistan’s present dilemma. Karimov’s visit to Beijing in August was “an important signal,” said Dalton, “that Uzbekistan wishes to maintain good ties with strong foreign partners, to counterbalance Russian influence.”

Editor’s note:  Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specialises in Central Asia. This story originally appeared on

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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OPINION: At Last, New Faces at the European Union Thu, 11 Sep 2014 15:47:34 +0000 Joaquin Roy

In this column Joaquín Roy, Joaquin Roy, Jean Monnet Professor of European Integration and Director of the European Union Centre at the University of Miami, analyses the new faces and the balance of power among the men and women who are leading Europe.

By Joaquín Roy
BARCELONA, Sep 11 2014 (IPS)

At last, after the obligatory summer break, the European Union (EU) has some new faces to fill the top vacancies on the team that began to emerge from the May 25 parliamentary elections.

Before the recess, conservative Luxembourger Jean-Claude Juncker had been appointed to the presidency of the European Commission, the executive body of the 28-nation bloc.

Joaquín Roy

Joaquín Roy

There was stiff opposition from some governments, particularly from British Prime Minister David Cameron, but in the spirit of the Treaty of Lisbon the post was offered to the candidate of the political group winning most seats in the new European Parliament, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP).

The second agreement was to leave German socialist Martin Schultz in his present post as president of the Parliament for another two and a half years. A balance was thereby struck between moderates of the right and of the left.

The thorniest issues remained to be faced. The traditional “Carolingian” (Franco-German) Europe was still in control of the bloc, and renewal was needed. Eastern Europe was demanding a larger role and there was a notable absence of women.

Juncker had already made it known that he would not accept a new Commission that did not have at least one-third women members. The established order, an unabashedly male-dominated club, gave no signs of correcting itself. The EU’s customary intricate balancing act was set in motion.“Renzi wanted to attack head-on Italy’s poor track record in European affairs in recent years, tarnished by the deplorable presence of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi in power and in opposition, a handicap that affected his predecessor Enrico Letta before him”

The jigsaw pieces began to fall into place. Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s candidacy fell out of favour. Then followed a dual move by the community. First, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, a conservative from the entourage of former president Lech Walesa, was appointed president of the EU Council, made up of its heads of state and government.

Secondly, Federica Mogherini, the Italian foreign minister, was catapulted to the position of High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (FASP).

Proposing her candidacy, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi doggedly fought resistance from representatives of the Baltic states who regarded her as too soft on Russia, citing the example of her invitation to President Vladimir Putin to a meeting in July.

The sweetener of Tusk’s designation mollified the resistance of Eastern European countries, but not the reluctance of other nations that regarded the inexperienced Mogherini, just 41 in June, as not strong enough to face external enemies in a convulsed world.

However, Renzi, himself only 39, was playing a risky juggling act with several balls in the air. Mogherini was his message to the power clique in Rome to try to end the illusion that political respect requires having reached an age of around 100.

Moreover, Renzi wanted to attack head-on Italy’s poor track record in European affairs in recent years, tarnished by the deplorable presence of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi in power and in opposition, a handicap that affected his predecessor Enrico Letta before him.

Furthermore, Renzi wanted to create an opportunity to influence European Union foreign policy through Mogherini’s cooperation.

Renzi’s bold proposal may backfire on him, precisely because of the weakness of the Italian system, which is tolerating leadership by a moderate Socialist so long as he does not shake its foundations.

Within the European community, Renzi will have to rely on the support of his Socialist counterparts, who have been going through a bad patch recently. They have suffered from the crisis, which has forced them to apply neoliberal austerity policies, causing heads to roll from Scandinavia to Portugal and Greece.

For her part, Mogherini will have to face traditional problems and new challenges. The establishment already mistrusts her because of her age. She will find little support from a group of people, most of whom could be her parents.

On the Commission, where she is vice president, she will hardly be comforted by the handful of women Juncker manages to recruit. On the Council she will have the support of only four ladies, led by Angela Merkel, in a boardroom full of boring men in dark suits and dreadful ties, each of them obsessed with managing foreign policy on their own terms and at their own risk.

The worst of the bad omens for the appointment is the suspicion that the EU’s hard core does not believe the position of High Representative to be important, given that the main security and defence competences remain in the national domains.

Mogherini’s second challenge, like that of her predecessor Catherine Ashton of the United Kingdom, is to cope with the enduring imprint of the founder of the position, Javier Solana of Spain.

However, her ambition and track record already surpass those of the eminently forgettable Ashton, a Brussels official who had already booked her ticket on the Eurostar train under the Channel back to London when she was unexpectedly appointed to FASP.

Mogherini can document her solid preparation for such a high-profile job over two decades, with her degree in Political Science, her exchange experience on an Erasmus scholarship in the French city of Aix-en-Provence, and her thesis on political Islam.

A mother of two with a gentle smile and light-coloured eyes, she gives the impression of an assistant professor working up the academic ladder towards a full professorship. But she could surprise some of the detractors who are already prophesying her failure.

She is a professional in a field that needs new vocations and fresh vision. She will lead the most impressive diplomatic team on the planet, made up of the ministries of 28 countries and the European External Action Service. She deserves good luck, not just for herself and Renzi, but for all Europeans and people beyond. (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)

(Edited by Phil Harris)


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Mideast Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone Remains in Limbo Thu, 11 Sep 2014 06:08:42 +0000 Thalif Deen A proposal for a nuclear weapons-free zone (NWFZ) in the strife-torn Middle East remains in limbo. Credit: Bomoon Lee/IPS

A proposal for a nuclear weapons-free zone (NWFZ) in the strife-torn Middle East remains in limbo. Credit: Bomoon Lee/IPS

By Thalif Deen

After four long years of protracted negotiations, a proposal for a nuclear weapons-free zone (NWFZ) in the strife-torn Middle East remains in limbo – and perhaps virtually dead.

But United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a relentless advocate of nuclear disarmament, is determined to resurrect the proposal.

“I remain fully committed to convening a conference on the establishment of a Middle East zone, free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction,” he said in his annual report to the upcoming 69th session of the General Assembly, which is scheduled to open Sep. 16.

Ban said such a zone is of “utmost importance” for the integrity of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT).

"Western governments which helped Israel to go nuclear compound the problem, participating in this conspiracy of silence by never mentioning Israel's nuclear weapons.” -- Bob Rigg, former chair of the New Zealand National Consultative Committee on Disarmament
“Nuclear weapons-free zones contribute greatly to strengthening nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regimes, and to enhancing regional and international security,” he noted.

The existing nuclear weapons-free zones include Central Asia, Africa, Mongolia, Southeast Asia, South Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, Antarctica and Outer Space – all governed by international treaties.

Still, the widespread political crises in the Middle East – destabilising Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Palestine – may threaten to further undermine the longstanding proposal for a nuclear weapons-free zone in the militarily-troubled region.

The proposal, which was mandated by the 2010 NPT Review Conference may not take off – if at all – before the 2015 Review Conference scheduled for early next year.

If it does not, it could jeopardize the review conference itself, according to anti-nuclear activists.

Finland, which has taken an active role in trying to host the conference, has been stymied by implicit opposition to the conference by the United States, which has expressed fears the entire focus of the meeting may shift towards the de-nuclearisation of one of its strongest Middle East allies: Israel.

Hillel Schenker, co-editor of the Jerusalem-based Palestine-Israel Journal, told IPS while it would appear that the recent Gaza-Israel war might have created additional problems for the convening of the conference, it actually opens new opportunities for progress.

Egypt played a key role as the host and major facilitator of the negotiations to arrive at a cease-fire, and Cairo remains the hub for the follow-up negotiations for dealing with the issues not dealt with in the initial cease-fire agreement, he said.

In the course of the current tragic round of mutual violence, he pointed out, there was a perception that a common strategic interest has evolved between Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and the Palestinian Authority led by President Abbas, against Hamas, which spills over to the threat from the Islamic fundamentalist forces that are active in Iraq and Syria.

“This unofficial alliance creates possibilities for the development of new regional security understandings,” Schenker added.

Such a development would require initiatives beyond a cease-fire, and the resumption of serious negotiations to resolve the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he added.

Bob Rigg, a former chair of the New Zealand National Consultative Committee on Disarmament, told IPS there have already been many attempts at a conference on the weapons-free zone.

“All have come to nothing, principally because a regional nuclear weapons-free zone would pre-suppose the destruction, under international control, of Israel’s nuclear arsenal.”

The acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability was a key priority of Ben Gurion, Israel’s first leader, and has continued to be at the heart of its security policies ever since, said Rigg, an anti-nuclear activist and a former senior editor at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

He said while the government of Israel continues to be unwilling, in any context, to formally admit to the possession of nuclear weapons, there is no basis for any meaningful discussion of the issue, even if a conference actually takes place.

“Western governments which helped Israel to go nuclear compound the problem, participating in this conspiracy of silence by never mentioning Israel’s nuclear weapons.”

For example, he said, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter was once ferociously attacked by U.S. politicians and the media for saying that Israel had nuclear weapons.

Alice Slater, New York Director of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation who also serves on the coordinating committee of Abolition 2000, told IPS that U.N. chief Ban quite correctly raised a serious warning last week about the future viability of the NPT in the absence of any commitment to make good on a pledge to hold a conference to address the formation of a Middle East Zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.

The NPT took effect in 1970 providing that each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control, she pointed out.

All but three nations in the world signed the treaty, including the five nuclear weapons states (UK, Russia, the United States, France, China).

Only India, Pakistan, and Israel refused to join the treaty and went on to acquire nuclear arsenals.

North Korea, taking advantage of the treaty’s unholy bargain for an inalienable right to so-called peaceful nuclear power, acquired the civilian technology that enabled it to produce a bomb, and then walked out of the treaty, said Slater.

The NPT was set to expire in 25 years unless the parties subsequently agreed to its renewal.

Schenker told IPS that without active American involvement, the conference will not be convened.

Whatever the outcome of the mid-term elections in November, President Barack Obama will then have two more years to establish his presidential legacy, to justify his Nobel Peace Prize and to advance the vision he declared in his 2009 Prague speech of “a world without nuclear weapons”.

He said the U.N. secretary-general issued a timely warning that a failure to convene the Mideast weapons-free-zone conference before the 2015 NPT review conference “may frustrate the ability of states to conduct a successful review of the operation of the (NPT) treaty and could undermine the treaty process and related non-proliferation and disarmament objectives.”

He said one of the primary tools that could be used to advance this process is the Arab Peace Initiative (API), launched at the Arab League Summit Conference in Beirut in 2002, which has been reaffirmed many times since.

The API offers Israel recognition and normal relations with the entire Arab world, dependent upon the end of the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, alongside the State of Israel.

He said the API could also be a basis for establishing a new regional regime of peace and security.

The convening of the international conference mandated by the 2010 NPT Review Conference, if approached with diplomatic wisdom on all sides, could become one of the components of progress towards this new regional regime of peace and security, he noted.

The new strategic “alliance” in the region could be used as a basis for the convening of the conference, said Schenker.

A successful outcome of the negotiations over the Iranian nuclear programme could be another constructive building block towards the convening of the conference.

Slater told IPS the prospects for any success at this upcoming 2015 NPT Review, are very dim indeed and it is unclear what will happen to the badly tattered and oft-dishonored treaty.

“It is difficult to calculate whether the recent catastrophic events in Gaza and Israel will affect any change in Israel’s unwillingness to participate in the promised Middle East conference.”

All the more reason to support the efforts of the promising new initiative to negotiate a legal ban on nuclear weapons, just as the world has banned chemical and biological weapons, she declared.


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OPINION: A New European Foreign Policy in an Age of Anxiety Wed, 10 Sep 2014 17:47:37 +0000 Shada Islam By Shada Islam
BRUSSELS, Sep 10 2014 (IPS)

The appointment of Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini as the new European Union foreign policy chief offers the opportunity for an overhaul of EU foreign and security policy.

With many EU leaders, ministers and senior officials slow to respond to world events given Europe’s traditionally long summer break, the 2014 summer of death and violence has left the reputation of ‘Global Europe’ in tatters, highlighting the EU’s apparent disconnect from the bleak reality surrounding it.

When she takes charge in November along with other members of the new European Commission, led by Jean-Claude Juncker, Mogherini’s first priority must be to restore Europe’s credibility in an increasingly volatile and chaotic global landscape.

Shada Islam. Courtesy of Twitter

Shada Islam. Courtesy of Twitter

It cannot be business as usual. A strategic rethink of Europe’s global outreach is urgent.

Europe can no longer pretend that it is not – or only mildly – shaken by events on its doorstep. In a world where many countries are wracked by war, terrorism and extremism, EU foreign policy cannot afford to be ad hoc, reactive and haphazard.

Given their different national interests and histories, European governments are unlikely to ever speak with “one voice” on foreign policy. But they can and should strive to share a coherent, common, strategic reflection and vision of Europe’s future in an uncertain and anxious world.

Changing gears is going to be tough. Many of Europe’s key beliefs in the use of soft power, a reliance on effective multilateralism, the rule of law and a liberal world order are being shredded by governments and non-state actors alike.

With China and other emerging nations, especially in Asia, gaining increased economic and political clout, Europe has been losing global power and influence for almost a decade.“Europe can no longer pretend that it is not – or only mildly – shaken by events on its doorstep. In a world where many countries are wracked by war, terrorism and extremism, EU foreign policy cannot afford to be ad hoc, reactive and haphazard”

Despite pleas by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the crisis in Ukraine, most European governments remain reluctant to increase military and defence spending. At the same time, the Eurozone crisis and Europe’s plodding economic recovery with unacceptably high unemployment continue to erode public support for the EU both at home and abroad.

Populist far-right and extreme-left groups in Europe – including in the European Parliament – preach a protectionist and inward-looking agenda. Most significantly, EU national governments are becoming ever greedier in seeking to renationalise important chunks of what is still called Europe’s “common foreign and security policy”.

To prove her critics wrong – and demonstrate foreign policy expertise and flair despite only a six-month stint as Italy’s foreign minister – Mogherini will have to hit the ground running.

Her performance at the European Parliament on September 2, including an adamant rejection of charges of being “pro-Russian”, appears to have been impressive. Admirers point out that she is a hard-working team player, who reads her briefs carefully and speaks fluent English and French in addition to her native Italian.

These qualities should stand her in good stead as she manages the unwieldy European External Action Service (EEAS), plays the role of vice president of the European Commission, chairs EU foreign ministerial meetings, chats up foreign counterparts and travels around the world while also – hopefully – spearheading a strategic review of Europe’s global interests and priorities.

Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

The tasks ahead are certainly daunting. There is need for reflection and action on several fronts – all at the same time. Eleven years after the then EU High Representative Javier Solana drew up the much-lauded European Security Strategy (partially revised in 2008), Europe needs to reassess the regional and global security environment, reset its aims and ambitions and define a new agenda for action.

But this much-needed policy overhaul to tackle new and evolving challenges must go hand-in-hand with quick fire-fighting measures to deal with immediate regional and global flashpoints.

The world in 2014 is complex and complicated, multi-polar, disorderly and unpredictable. Russia’s actions in Ukraine have up-ended the post-World War security order in Europe. The so-called “Islamic State” is spreading its hateful ideology through murder and assassination in Syria and Iraq, not too far from Europe’s borders. A fragile Middle East truce is no guarantee of real peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Relations with China have to be reinforced and consolidated. These and other complex problems require multi-faceted responses.

The days of ‘one-size-fits-all’ foreign policy are well and truly over. In an inter-connected and interdependent world, foreign policy means working with friends but also with enemies, with like-minded nations and those which are non-like-minded, with competitors and allies.

It is imperative to pay special attention to China, India and other headline-grabbing big countries, but it could be self-defeating to ignore the significance and clout of Indonesia, Mexico and other middle or even small powers. Upgrading ties with the United States remains crucial. While relations with states and governments are important they must go hand-in-hand with contacts with business leaders, civil society actors and young people.

Finally, Europe needs to acquire a less simplistic and more sophisticated understanding of Islam and its Muslim neighbours, including Turkey, which has been left in uncertainty about EU membership for more than fifty years.

Europe’s response to the new world must include a smart mix of brain and brawn, soft and hard power, carrots and sticks. Isolation and sanctions cannot work on their own but neither can a foreign policy based only on feel-good incentives. The EU’s existing foreign policy tools need to be sharpened but European policymakers also need to sharpen and update their view of the world.

Mogherini’s youth – and hopefully fresh stance on some of these issues – could be assets in this exercise. Importantly, Mogherini must work in close cooperation and consultation with other EU institutions, including the European Parliament and especially the European Commission whose many departments, including enlargement issues, trade, humanitarian affairs, environment, energy and development are crucial components of ‘Global Europe’.

The failure of synergies among Commission departments is believed to be at least partly responsible for the weaknesses of the EU’s “Neighbourhood Policy”.

Also, a coherent EU foreign policy demands close coordination with EU capitals. This is especially true in relations with China. Recent experience shows that, as in the case of negotiations with Iran, the EU is most effective when the foreign policy chief works in tandem with EU member states. Closer contacts with NATO will also be vital if Europe is to forge a credible strategy vis-à-vis Russia and Ukraine.

Such cooperation is especially important if – as I suggest – Mogherini embarks on a revamp of EU foreign and security policy.

Mogherini will not be able to do it on her own. Much will depend on the EEAS team she works with and the knowledge, expertise and passion her aides bring to their work. Team work and leadership, not micro-management, will be required.

Putting pressing global issues on the backburner is no longer an option. The change of guard in Brussels is the right moment to review and reconsider Europe’s role in the world. Global Europe’s disconnect needs to be tackled before it is too late.

(Edited by Phil Harris)

* Shada Islam, Head of the Asia Programme at Friends of Europe, a leading independent think tank in Brussels, is an experienced journalist, columnist, policy analyst and communication specialist with a strong background in geopolitical, foreign, economic and trade policy issues involving Europe, Asia, Middle East, Africa and the United States.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS – Inter Press Service. 

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NATO Poised to Escalate Tensions over Ukraine Mon, 08 Sep 2014 22:26:26 +0000 John Feffer Ukraine, US, NATO and Partnership for Peace member nations kick off Exercise Rapid Trident 2011. Credit: DVIDSHUB/cc by 2.0

Ukraine, US, NATO and Partnership for Peace member nations kick off Exercise Rapid Trident 2011. Credit: DVIDSHUB/cc by 2.0

By John Feffer
WASHINGTON, Sep 8 2014 (IPS)

The NATO summit that took place at the end of last week in Wales was supposed to celebrate the end of a long, draining war in Afghanistan. But with the presidential election still up in the air in Kabul, NATO couldn’t enjoy its “mission accomplished” moment.

Instead, the assembled ministers took steps to accelerate two new conflicts, one on its borders and the other in the distant Middle East."It seemed to me that the Summit offered an alternative vision of a period of intense geopolitical and arms rivalry that could soon prove as dangerous as the one that occupied our attention during the Cold War.” -- Ian Davis

NATO members have certainly not welcomed either the growing confrontation with Russia over Ukraine or with ISIS over the future of Iraq and Syria. But these developments have nevertheless provided the transatlantic alliance with greater purpose and cohesion than it has experienced in years.

The war in Afghanistan, after all, was not just costly in terms of money spent, lives lost, and objectives unmet. It also opened up various rifts in the alliance over strategy and resources.

Meanwhile, with European military spending on a downward trajectory over the last couple years, the vast majority of NATO members are not meeting their obligation of spending two percent of GDP on defence.

But the potential of the Ukraine conflict in particular to spill over into NATO territory has pumped new fire into the 65-year-old alliance’s veins.

In Wales, NATO agreed to a rapid reaction force – essentially a redesign of part of the already existing NATO Response Force — that would keep several thousand troops on standby to deploy in an emergency.

Designed to respond within 48 hours to a threat to the Baltic members, the force can be deployed anywhere in the world. The UK has already committed to providing a substantial contingent for this force.

NATO also upgraded Georgia to an “enhanced-opportunities partner,” which will involve the creation of a NATO training centre in the Caucasus country.

Despite these moves, NATO showed a measure of caution in not pushing too aggressively against Russia.

Although the Ukrainian government has also asked to join NATO, that option is currently not on the table. The alliance also decided not to send arms to the government in Kiev, though individual members can opt to do so.

Despite Ukraine’s announcement that several countries have decided to send lethal assistance, four of those countries, including the United States, immediately issued denials.

NATO didn’t agree to Poland’s request for a permanent force of 10,000 NATO troops stationed on its territory. Nor did it accede to a proposal from the Baltic nations to reorient missile defense against Russia.

“The NATO leaders clearly struggled over how strongly to push back against Russia,” observes Ian Davis, director of NATO Watch in the United Kingdom.

“While some no doubt argued against an overreaction that would risk military confrontation, it is clear that deterrence against Moscow is once again NATO’s top priority (despite the U.S. push for a coalition to combat ISIS). And the proposed limited buildup of forces along the latest East-West divide will take the ‘border’ hundreds of miles closer to Moscow than it was in the Cold War era.”

Joseph Gerson, who works with the American Friends Service Committee, agrees. “With the multiple military exercises across Eastern Europe and the Baltics, increased deployments in the region, and further military cooperation with Georgia and likely Ukraine, the United States has used the Ukraine crisis to more deeply integrate Eastern Europe into the U.S./NATO sphere.”

Gerson adds, “Also note Sweden and Finland are now to be NATO ‘host’ nations, though formally not yet full NATO members. The United States and NATO have been doing a host of military exercises in Sweden for some years, and there’s an electronic communications/intelligence base in Sweden’s north.”

The other major issue on NATO’s plate in Wales was addressing the challenge of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. The United States used the summit to pull together a “core coalition” of nine countries to coordinate a military response.

The strategy will be more of what the United States has already pursued, namely air strikes and support for forces already on the ground such as the Kurdish peshmerga and the Western-allied Syrian rebels.

The Barack Obama administration clearly stated that it would not send U.S. combat troops into the conflict.

Meanwhile, given Russia’s support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria and its opposition to radical Islam, the fight against ISIS offers the possibility of cooperation between Moscow and NATO.

But even with a fragile ceasefire in place between the Ukrainian government and the pro-Russian separatists, ties remain frayed between NATO and Russia. Most NATO members maintain sanctions against Russia, and the European Union is pushing through a new round to target additional Russian firms and officials.

Ian Davis is pessimistic on the prospects of exiting the spiral of conflict. “The decisions taken at the Summit raise the prospect of continual and possibly escalating NATO-European-Russian tensions,” he concluded.

“At some point, a ‘grand compromise’ between the United States, Europeans, and Russia will be required in which U.S., EU, and Ukrainian ‘vital’ interests and those of Moscow are eventually redefined and reconciled.

“But it seemed to me that the Summit offered an alternative vision of a period of intense geopolitical and arms rivalry that could soon prove as dangerous as the one that occupied our attention during the Cold War.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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New Anti-Discrimination Law Could Worsen Situation for Georgia’s LGBT Community Mon, 08 Sep 2014 08:15:37 +0000 Pavol Stracansky LGBT flag map of Georgia. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

LGBT flag map of Georgia. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

By Pavol Stracansky
TBILISI, Sep 8 2014 (IPS)

Georgia’s LGBT community is sceptical that recently-introduced anti-discrimination legislation hailed by some rights groups as a bold step forward for the former Soviet state will improve their lives any time soon.

The law, which came into effect in May this year, is ostensibly designed to provide protection for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in a country where homophobia is deep-rooted at all levels of society and LGBT groups face daily discrimination.

But activists in Georgia say that introduction of the legislation has actually hardened attitudes against the LGBT community and that there are serious concerns over how effectively it can be applied.“Since the law was passed, things are actually worse now for LGBT people. When they make a complaint about something, people just say, ‘what more do you want? You’ve got your rights now in law’. It’s really obnoxious” – Irakli Vacharadze, head of Identoba, the Tbilisi-based rights organisation

Irakli Vacharadze, head of Identoba, the Tbilisi-based rights organisation, told IPS: “Since the law was passed, things are actually worse now for LGBT people. When they make a complaint about something, people just say, ‘what more do you want? You’ve got your rights now in law’. It’s really obnoxious.

“There are also questions over how it is going to be applied and at the moment, at least, it is definitely not effective.”

With a deeply religious society – 84 percent of the population identifies itself as Orthodox Christian – attitudes in Georgia to anything other than traditional heterosexual relationships are deeply negative among much of the population.

LGBT people say that they are often refused service by businesses and hospitals, bullied in school, and harassed by the police. Meanwhile, the Orthodox Church, which has a hugely influential role in society, has denounced LGBT equality and described support for LGBT rights as the “propaganda of sin”.

A 2013 survey by Identoba revealed how entrenched anti-LGBT sentiment is in society – 88 percent of respondents said homosexuality could “never be justified”.

A peaceful gay rights march marking International Day Against Homophobia last year ended in violence as protestors from a rival church-led counter-demonstration attacked and beat LGBT demonstrators.

But the country’s pursuit of closer ties with the European Union forced political parties, which had previously been at best apathetic towards the LGBT community, to address the issue.

As a condition of being granted coveted visa-free travel to EU countries, the government was told it had to implement anti-discrimination laws, including legislation specifically on gender expression and sexual orientation.

And although fiercely opposed by the Church, they were passed with the general support of all political parties.

However, LGBT people in Georgia remain far from convinced that, in its present form, it will help them. Although welcomed as a step forward, rights groups have criticised the fact that a devoted enforcement body was not approved and instead cases will go to the Ombudsman for Human Rights.

They say that the Ombudsman’s office lacks capacity and that effectively dealing with complaints will be compromised. They have called for the passage of additional measures to ensure enforcement of the law.

The Ombudsman’s office has yet to set up a department to deal with anti-discrimination complaints brought under the new legislation and one will not be functional before January.

Meanwhile, faith, or rather lack of it, in the country’s justice system is also likely to limit its effectiveness.

Viorel Ursu, Regional Manager of the Eurasia Programme at the Open Society Foundation, told IPS: “People do not trust the judiciary in general in Georgia. They feel that even when they bring legal action, there is no guarantee that justice will be served. And although there are laws designed to protect against discrimination of LGBT people, they will still face discrimination anyway.”

Activists are under no illusions about what the laws will bring the LGBT community. When asked whether he expected things to get better for LGBT people in Georgia in the near future, Vacharadze said: “Definitely not. There’s no chance.”

But the introduction of the legislation has already had at least one potentially positive effect. LGBT people say a profound ignorance of their gender expression and sexual orientation and their lifestyles contributes to the widespread antipathy towards them in Georgian society, but passage of the laws has at least promoted vitally-needed public discussion of the LGBT community.

Vacharadze told IPS: “The law alone will not change society’s attitudes towards LGBT people, it won’t get rid of homophobia. It won’t do anything to deal with the ignorance about LGBT issues and the community.

“The way to deal with it is to get information about LGBT out to the public and get them informed. One thing about the passage of this legislation was that it did actually create a debate about LGBT people in Georgia and got information about them out into the public and got people discussing it.”

The laws also have a wider significance in that they stand in stark contrast to the repression of LGBT communities in other former Soviet states, most notably Russia which is increasing its persecution of homosexuals through repressive legislation.

Just this week, the senior political figure in recently-annexed Crimea typified the Russian political stance to non-heterosexuals when he attacked LGBT people at a government meeting.

Sergei Aksyonov, leader of the new Russian region, said that if LGBT people held any meetings “police and self-defence forces will react immediately and in three minutes will explain to them what kind of sexual orientation they should stick to.”

He also said that “Crimean children should be brought up with a ‘positive attitude to family and traditional values’,” and that Crimea had “no need” for gays and lesbians.

Some observers say that the passing of the laws in Georgia, at a time when neighbours and other former Soviet states are attacking LGBT people, is proof that the country is set on moving closer to Europe and putting as much political distance between it and Russia, which has annexed some of its territory in recent years.

Indeed, as political parties debated the anti-discrimination laws, Davit Usupashvili, the parliamentary speaker, described the bill as a choice between Russia and the European Union.

Campaigners say that the government’s desire to cultivate closer and closer ties to the EU means that the legislation will, in time, become effective.

Ursu told IPS: “In the next year or so, the Georgian government should look to strengthen the law and try to prove that it is functioning simply because it remains under the scrutiny of the EU.

“The law not only had to be adopted but it also needed to be shown to be working effectively. It is in the government’s interest to ensure that it can be applied effectively.”

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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New Operation Could Hide Major Shift in Europe’s Immigration Control Policy Sat, 06 Sep 2014 17:27:05 +0000 Apostolis Fotiadis By Apostolis Fotiadis
ATHENS, Sep 6 2014 (IPS)

‘Mare Nostrum’ – the largest search and rescue immigration operation ever carried out in the Mediterranean Sea – has become an issue of bitter brinkmanship between human rights groups and anti-immigrant lobbies.

At a higher political level, it has produced a tough negotiation between Italy and Europe, with the former asking for a European solution to immigration control in the Mediterranean.

Abandoned migrant boats lie lifeless opposite the port of Lampedusa, Italy, an island which experiences frequent migration from nearby North Africa. Credit: UN Photo/UNHCR/Phil Behan

Abandoned migrant boats lie lifeless opposite the port of Lampedusa, Italy, an island which experiences frequent migration from nearby North Africa. Credit: UN Photo/UNHCR/Phil Behan

‘Mare Nostrum’ was launched in October 2013 by Italy in the wake of a shipwreck south of the island of Lampedusa – the southernmost part of Italy lying 176 km off the coast of Sicily – that took the lives of 368 immigrants, mostly refugees from Syria and African countries.

The search and rescue operation is a military naval operation supported by the Italian Air Force and Coast Guard as well as civilian volunteers and medical personnel. It has operated in a vast area of the Central Mediterranean.

Between October 2013 and August 2014, ‘Mare Nostrum’ rescued over 115,000 people, mostly refugees, and transferred them to Italian territory. About 2,000 people are estimated to have lost their lives in the Mediterranean during the same period.

Human rights activists have praised the operation for rescuing refugees while its opponents have blamed it for producing a pull factor for immigrants and providing an illicit shuttle to Europe for them, making the job of traffickers easier.

The European Commission has now decided to flank the ‘Mare Nostrum’ initiative, although it has no intention of replacing it. After a meeting on August 27, European Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmstrom and Italian Minister of the Interior Angelino Alfano announced a new Frontex operation to stand by Italy’s ‘Mare Nostrum’ operation in the Mediterranean.

One of the main roles of Frontex – the European Union agency for external border security that started operations in May 2005 – is to protect Europe’s external borders from illegal immigration and people trafficking.

Announcing the new operation, which has temporarily been named ‘Frontex Plus’, Commissioner Malmstrom called on European member states to translate “oral solidarity into concrete action” by contributing resources and means.Humanitarian organisations in Italy have been quick to criticise ‘Frontex Plus’, saying that its description is still vague and that its primary aim is not the rescuing of immigrants and refugees but the upgrading of border surveillance and deterrence.

Ska Keller, Green Member of the European Parliament  told IPS that the new operation is “the result of pressure extorted by Italy on Brussels, but not what Italy has been asking for. It’s true Italy is rescuing a lot of people but this is not their main concern, they will not necessarily be happy to continue with Mare Nostrum.”

Humanitarian organisations in Italy have been quick to criticise ‘Frontex Plus’, saying that its description is still vague and that its primary aim is not the rescuing of immigrants and refugees but the upgrading of border surveillance and deterrence.

Silvia Canciani, press officer of the Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration (ASGI), told IPS that her association is “extremely concerned” because the only certainty about the new operation “is that ships will patrol only in European waters, 12 miles from the coast”, meaning they will no longer venture into international waters, like ‘Mare Nostrum’, which operated 170 miles from the Italian coast.

She added that it is still unknown whether Italian authorities plan to postpone, amend or carry on with ‘Mare Nostrum’ as it is, but a withdrawal from the operation might have a direct consequence on lives being lost in the Mediterranean.

Other critical voices stress how conservatives in the European Union see an opportunity in the negotiations that will follow on the new operation to capitalise on the issue of returning incoming migrants to safe third countries or to their countries of embarkation.

In a blog commenting on the announcement of ‘Frontex Plus’, Italian law professor Fulvio Vassalo Paleologo, a well-known commentator on immigration issues in the region, observed that in their joint announcement “the word ‘rescue’ has disappeared from Alfano’s and Malmstom’s vocabulary.” He also noted that neither of them had made a single remark about the conditions immigrants face in transit countries.

Both could be indications that the European Commission is seriously considering pushing for the control of population influxes outside European borders.

One day before the Malmstrom-Alfano announcement, the Italian edition of Huffington Post published an article citing an anonymous source in the Italian Ministry of the Interior, who was present at negotiations for the new operations in Brussels, as saying that “many people in Brussels see Mare Nostrum as an informal ferry for migrants.”

The unprecedented flows Europe is going to face given the geopolitical crisis in the Middle East will enforce a change of policy, which will translate into trying to “manage the flows of refugees and migrants in transit countries before they are on board for Italy,” the source said.

For this, he continued “we must work to re-negotiate readmission agreements with countries like Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco” and then stop incoming immigrants on board and not let them proceed to Italy “unless they have already started the procedures for refugee status and we have already made identifications before they are on board.”

The policy scenario in the Huffington Post article was vividly mirrored in an Italian Interior Ministry’s press release two days later, after a meeting between Minister Alfano and his French counterpart Bernard Cazeneuve to discuss “illegal immigration in the Central Mediterranean”.

Notably the meeting took place only one day after the announcement of ‘Frontex Plus’ in which France is expected to be one of the most active partners.

In the ministry’s press release, the term ‘rescue’ is again absent and the definition of the aim of ‘Frontex Plus’ is to “ensure control and surveillance of the external sea borders of the European Union … according to the rules of Frontex.”

From the press release, it also appears that both the Italian and French ministers believe that the issue of immigration should increasingly be dealt with “as a foreign policy issue” with “more emphasis to be given to the role of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy”, meaning the European External Action Service (EEAS) which implements the European Union’s Common Foreign and Security Policy.

The two ministers also identified two key policy objectives to push for within the European Union: “the commitment of all Member States of the European Union to a strict application of the rules for the identification of illegal migrants provided by European legislation and the strengthening of cooperation with countries of origin and transit in the field of border surveillance, police cooperation and development aid to these countries.”

Frontex’s key role in a new operation could facilitate these objectives given that the regulation “establishing rules for the surveillance of the external sea borders in the context of operational cooperation coordinated by the European Agency for the Management of Operation Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the EU (Frontex)” adopted on April 30, 2014, includes provisions for the interception of incoming vessels in international waters and their return to third countries.

Many pro-immigrant organisations such as Frontexit (a campaign led by associations, researchers and individuals from both North and South of the Mediterranean on the initiative of the Migreurop network), the Belgian Coordination Initiative for Refugees and Foreigners (CIRE), as well as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists, have indicated highly controversial legal gaps in the regulation that could compromise the rights of persons in need of international protection.

In a joint briefing, the latter said that despite some positive aspects, other aspects fail to meet the requirements of international law, including refugee law, human rights law, the law of the sea and E.U. law.

When asked to comment on the nature of the ‘Frontex Plus’ operation, Malmstroms’s office said: “At the moment we do not have anything to add in addition to the statement made by the Commissioner last week. The Commission is working on the definition of the adequate operational area and the components of a larger joint operation which can be a useful complement to the Italian efforts.”

It is thus clear that ‘Frontex Plus’ will eventually only play a merely auxiliary role alongside Italy’s ‘Mare Nostrum’ operation, particularly so when the costs of the operation are taken into account.

‘Mare Nostrum’ costs Italy over 9 million euro each month, while the current entire 2014 budget for Frontex is 89 million euro, with only 55 of them allocated for operational activities.

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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