Inter Press Service » North America http://www.ipsnews.net Journalism and Communication for Global Change Sun, 20 Apr 2014 13:44:30 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8.3 In U.S., Black Preschool Students “Punished More Severely” http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/u-s-black-preschool-students-punished-severely/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-black-preschool-students-punished-severely http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/u-s-black-preschool-students-punished-severely/#comments Sat, 19 Apr 2014 13:41:12 +0000 Michelle Tullo http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133777 In the United States, African American children continue to face more barriers to success than any other race, new research suggests. A new report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation lists 12 categories that can contribute to a child’s success, including enrolment in preschool, living with two parents and distance from the poverty line. Under these metrics, […]

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By Michelle Tullo
WASHINGTON, Apr 19 2014 (IPS)

In the United States, African American children continue to face more barriers to success than any other race, new research suggests.

A new report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation lists 12 categories that can contribute to a child’s success, including enrolment in preschool, living with two parents and distance from the poverty line. Under these metrics, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders scored highest (with a total score of 776 out of 1000), followed by whites (704).“It’s not just poverty, not just that black kids are worse behaved. It is important to see that there is something going on that is pervasive, chronic and systematic.” -- David Osher

African American children not only scored the lowest under this ranking, but with a score of just 345 they were found to have less than half of the indicators for potential success as other races in the United States.

“We know that the current status of poor kids is bad, the current status of black kids is bad, and the combination of poverty and racial discrimination is particularly toxic,” David Osher, vice-president of the American Institute for Research, told IPS. “But we also know enough to make a difference, like the emerging understanding that kicking kids out of schools is not a good solution.”

Osher refers to new civil rights-related data released by the U.S. Department of Education last month. These findings suggest that African American students are being suspended from school at inordinate levels, even at the very earliest grades.

While a fifth of public preschool students in the United States are African American, nearly half of all preschool students who received more than one out-of-school preschool suspension are African American. White students, on the other hand, represent 43 percent of public preschool enrolment but make up just 23 percent of preschoolers given out-of-school suspension.

“This data collection shines a clear, unbiased light on places that are delivering on the promise of an equal education for every child and places where the largest gaps remain,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said on releasing the new data. “In all, it is clear that the United States has a great distance to go to meet our goal of providing opportunities for every student to succeed.”

The study marked the first time that a federal initiative known as the Civil Rights Data Collection included preschool, but the numbers reflect similar trends at all levels of lower and secondary school.

“Black children are not behaving worse,” Jim Eichner, the managing director of programmes at the Advancement Project, an advocacy group, told IPS. “But they are being punished and punished more severely.”

Zero tolerance

While the reasons children are suspended in preschool are not reported, anecdotally such actions appear to be being taken for relatively minor infractions, such as like “not paying attention, being late or talking back,” Eichner says.

Out-of-school suspension has multiple and varied negative impacts on the student and school community. Not only do students miss class time, but they tend to receive the message they are not welcome in school.

Such actions also tend to create new mistrust between the student and teachers that can challenge future learning.

In addition, out-of-school suspension can jeopardise a family’s income if a parent needs to leave work. Or, if a parent cannot leave work, the child may not be sent to a well-supervised home.

Finally, some advocates worry that excluding a child fails to teach him or her how to manage the behaviour that originally caused the problem.

Suspending children at such a young age comes from a “zero tolerance” discipline policy. Such an approach stems from anti-drugs policy adopted by the U.S. criminal justice system during the 1980s, and brought into schools as an attempt to combat increased violence and school shootings.

Yet the broader approach has been seen as something of a failure by the U.S. criminal justice system, a view increasingly being adopted by those working in the school system, as well.

Both Osher and Eichner, for instance, are involved in studying and promoting alternatives to zero-tolerance policies. Eichner particularly points to restorative justice techniques that have students work together to mend any problems, adding that punitive atmospheres have been found to harm all students.

Implicit bias

Although the Civil Rights Data Collection does not investigate why these disparities occur, Osher and Eichner both explain that this is one effect of overarching social, economic and political structures.

“There are disparities in all aspects of youth life: education, juvenile justice and corrections, health. When you control for any of the explanations people come up with, they don’t work,” Osher says.

“It’s not just poverty, not just that black kids are worse behaved. It is important to see that there is something going on that is pervasive, chronic and systematic.”

He notes that here are several characteristics related to classrooms from which more kids are suspended. These include class size, the ratio between teachers and students, teacher stress levels, and the availability of mental health consultation.

Both Osher and Eichner also note the role of implicit bias in teachers.

“People can be very well-intended, but in moments of stress they can make a subtle set of calculations that are probably intuitive on whether to get more help or whether to tell the kid to get out,” said Osher.

This implicit bias appears to be particularly notable when dealing with young black preschool students. Researchers have found, for instance, that people tend to overestimate the age of black students, adding as much as three years, thus perceiving the student as less childlike and less innocent.

The first step in ending implicit bias is to name it and talk about it, scholars say.

Some are working on “peer coaching” models, for instance, in which teachers film themselves teaching. Peers can then point out ways a teacher might be acting with bias – and recommend ways to overcome it.

New approaches like this make Osher optimistic that ongoing today’s racial disparity can be decreased.

“These indicators don’t have to be predictors of the future,” he says. “Rather, they’re indicators for what public policy should do.”

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U.N. Denies Dragging Its Feet on U.S.-Iran Visa Dispute http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/u-n-denies-dragging-feet-u-s-iran-visa-dispute/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-n-denies-dragging-feet-u-s-iran-visa-dispute http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/u-n-denies-dragging-feet-u-s-iran-visa-dispute/#comments Fri, 18 Apr 2014 22:46:30 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133771 After two long weeks of raging controversy over Washington’s refusal to grant a U.S. visa to the Iranian envoy to the United Nations, the U.N.’s office of legal affairs is being accused of moving at the pace of a paralytic snail – only to seek more time while remaining non-committal on the dispute. But U.N. […]

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By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Apr 18 2014 (IPS)

After two long weeks of raging controversy over Washington’s refusal to grant a U.S. visa to the Iranian envoy to the United Nations, the U.N.’s office of legal affairs is being accused of moving at the pace of a paralytic snail – only to seek more time while remaining non-committal on the dispute.

But U.N. Spokesperson Stephane Dujarric challenged the timeline, pointing out that the United Nations would see events quite differently."The most basic logic of diplomacy is that it is not only your friends that you must talk with, you must also talk with those with whom you disagree." -- Dr. James E. Jennings

“The suggestion of allowing this matter to linger for two weeks is hardly accurate,” he told IPS Friday.

After a meeting Tuesday with Iran’s charge d’affaires Ambassador Gholamhossein Dehghani, U.N. Legal Counsel Miguel de Serpa Soares was holding back his ruling on the ground he was “still studying the issue and would very carefully consider precedents and past practice.”

“Still studying after two long weeks? That response was like a mountain labouring to produce a mouse,” said an Asian diplomat, conversant with the intricacies of U.N. politics and the nuances of English idiom and Aesop’s Fables.

Dr. James E. Jennings, president of Conscience International and executive director of U.S. Academics for Peace, told IPS, “Secretary General Ban Ki-moon now has the opportunity to stop dawdling and make a principled statement on the issue.”

But so far he has not.

Dujarric told IPS the U.N. legal counsel met with representatives of Iran on Tuesday immediately after they asked to see him.

He then followed up straightaway with a meeting with U.S. representatives on Wednesday.

As soon as the legal counsel was officially notified of developments, said Dujarric, he met with the representatives involved.

As events unfold, the United Nations stands accused of refusing to make a ruling – either supportive of the United States or Iran – by repeatedly dismissing the dispute as essentially a bilateral problem.

Dr. Jennings said it is a violation of the spirit of the U.N. Charter to use the pretense of national security or any other contrived smokescreen to prevent a country’s rightful representation in the world body.

As a sovereign nation, Iran has the right to name its own ambassadors, and does not need to ask permission of the U.S. or the U.N. to do so, said Dr. Jennings, who early this year, led a delegation of U.S. professors to Tehran for meetings with Iran’s foreign ministry and with the leader of Iran’s team of nuclear negotiators.

The U.S. decision last week to deny a visa to the Iranian envoy-in- waiting, Hamid Aboutalebi, has been challenged as a violation of the 1947 U.S.-U.N. Headquarters Agreement which was aimed at facilitating, not hindering, the work of the world body.

A former representative of a U.N.-based non-governmental organisation told IPS the United Nations in its dithering inaction is behaving like most governments behave when dealt a blow by the hegemon – “shut up and keep your head down”.

“We have to remember that when [former Secretary-General] Kofi Annan sent a private letter to former President George W Bush warning politely against a massive U.S. military attack on Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004, Washington countered with a fierce attack on Annan himself, forcing out most of his senior staff.

“Ban Ki-moon doubtless has this terrible precedent in mind as he reflects on his reaction to the latest U.S. breach of the Headquarters Agreement.”

Dujarric said a meeting of the U.N. Committee on Relations with the Host Country has also been quickly arranged and will take place next Tuesday.

Representatives of the Office of the Legal Counsel will be present as the issue is discussed. If the Committee requests a legal opinion, the Legal Counsel will prepare one.

“All this should convey that we take the Headquarters Agreement and its implementation very seriously,” Dujarric said.

“In the past days I have repeatedly said that this is a serious issue and that we hoped it would be settled bilaterally,” he added.

He also argued that comparisons to unrelated events in the past are neither helpful nor relevant.

Dr. Jennings told IPS the hubris of the U.S. Congress over approving a visa, combined with the timidity of President Barack Obama, has greatly escalated the danger of a flare-up over Iran’s nuclear programme.

“That short-sighted, knee-jerk posture has the potential to ignite a conflict that could dwarf the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he warned.

The U.N. is, diplomatically speaking, “a corpus separatum [with special legal and political status] designed to be independent of the United States,” noted Dr Jennings.

“Of course, the U.S. has the right to refuse visas to anyone deemed a security threat, but Ambassador Hamid Aboutalebi is not such a person. He has a sterling record and a long career as a diplomat.

“The most basic logic of diplomacy is that it is not only your friends that you must talk with, you must also talk with those with whom you disagree in order resolve problems,” he added.

“If there ever was a need for peace through far-sighted diplomacy, this is such a time,” Dr Jennings declared.

The U.S. has accused Aboutalebi of being involved in the 1979 forcible takeover of the U.S. embassy and its diplomatic personnel in Teheran.

But the Iranian says he was only a translator and negotiator between the hostages and the hostage takers – and that he was not even in Tehran when the embassy was physically taken over by a group called the Muslim Students.

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U.S. Foreign Aid Approach Is Outdated, Experts Say http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/u-s-foreign-aid-approach-outdated-experts-say/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-foreign-aid-approach-outdated-experts-say http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/u-s-foreign-aid-approach-outdated-experts-say/#comments Fri, 18 Apr 2014 18:29:28 +0000 Farangis Abdurazokzoda http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133766 U.S. foreign aid is becoming increasingly outdated, analysts here are suggesting. Rather, reforms to U.S. assistance need to focus on issues of accountability and country ownership, according to a policy paper released this week by Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN), a prominent coalition of international development advocates and foreign policy experts. “Aid is a strong expression of […]

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By Farangis Abdurazokzoda
WASHINGTON, Apr 18 2014 (IPS)

U.S. foreign aid is becoming increasingly outdated, analysts here are suggesting.

Rather, reforms to U.S. assistance need to focus on issues of accountability and country ownership, according to a policy paper released this week by Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN), a prominent coalition of international development advocates and foreign policy experts.“Aid should be structured in a way that citizens and NGOs can monitor how the government implements development projects." -- Casey Dunning

“Aid is a strong expression of U.S. moral, economic, and national security imperatives, and in many contexts the U.S. is still the most significant donor,” the paper states. But according to many metrics, U.S. aid is both non-transparent and inefficient.

“The United States needs to frame and deliver aid in a structured way that would support the effectiveness of aid in partnership countries and generate sustainable results,” Sylvain Browa, director of aid effectiveness at Save the Children, an independent charity, told IPS.

“In such dynamic environments, where all aid remains critical to savings lives, curing diseases and putting children in school, new players come to stage, and these include local leaders and citizens who know first-hand what their priorities are.”

In terms of aid quality, the United States ranked just 17th out of 22 major donors according to the Commitment to Development Index in 2013. Each year, the index ranks wealthy countries on how efficiently they help poor ones in areas of aid, trade, finance, migration, environment, security, and technology.

According to that ranking, just one U.S. agency was rated “very good” in terms of transparency. The agency responsible for the bulk of U.S. foreign assistance, USAID, was rated just “fair”, while the State Department and PEPFAR, the landmark anti-AIDS programme, were rated “poor” and “very poor” respectively.

MFAN suggests that a newly streamlined policy agenda, structured around two “mutually reinforcing pillars of reform” – accountability and country ownership – could significantly improve the effectiveness of U.S foreign aid.

“The donor-recipient paradigm of foreign aid is outdated,” the report states, and without priority on these two pillars, “we revert to old, tired, and stagnant paradigms of aid – paradigms that unnecessarily perpetuate aid dependency.”

The new program is designed to empower communities, which in turn should carry out country ownership, says George Ingram, MFAN’s co-chair and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, a think tank here.

“The two pillars are prerequisites to build the kind of capacity that will help enable leaders and citizens in the aid-recipient countries to take responsibility for their own development,” Ingram told IPS, “such as spending priorities, as well as making evidence-based conclusions about what works and what doesn’t.”

The report emphasises that such changes are also somewhat time-sensitive. Given looming domestic and international deadlines, MFAN’s analysts say the next two years constitute “an important window of opportunity for U.S. aid reform”.

“The midterm elections in 2014 are certain to shake up the membership of Congress,” they write. “In 2015, the Millennium Development Goals will expire and a new global development agenda will take its place. And 2016 will bring a new administration and further changes on Capitol Hill.”

Local destiny

The recommendations have received quick support from other development groups.

“The paper is of universal importance to all aid agencies, implementers and thinkers,” Casey Dunning, a senior policy analyst for the Centre for Global Development, a think tank here, told IPS.

But she warned that there were inherent difficulties in the recommendations, as well.

“There is a lot of rhetoric on what country ownership means or what accountability encompasses,” she says. “Ambiguities in definitions and measurements of accountability and country ownership make it difficult to make aid more effective. However, the MFAN report helps to find metrics for capacity-building and to see what it actually means.”

Save the Children’s Browa, too, notes that the concepts outlined in the report are not necessarily new.

“But when put together, these pillars are vital to building local capacity and creating local ownership of resources and tools for development,” he says, “so that country leaders and citizens can take leadership in their destiny.”

To achieve better transparency, the report’s authors are calling on the U.S. government to fully implement new global standards called the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) by the end of 2015. In addition, the ratings of the Aid Transparency Index should be extended to all U.S. government agencies, which currently doesn’t happen.

Further, all U.S. agencies should begin contributing comprehensive financial information to a landmark new online government information clearinghouse, known as the Foreign Assistance Dashboard.

Finally, aid and development decisions need to be guided by rigorous evaluation, MFAN says. Together, transparency and evaluation will help these agencies to achieve stronger results for both U.S. taxpayers and communities receiving U.S. assistance.

In all of this, Ingram notes, learning is one of the most important aspects in the policy proposal. “Data and evaluations are useless unless we learn from them and use them to make better decisions and achieve better results,” he says.

Defining partners

The aid paradigm has already shifted, MFAN’s report suggests. “Today, countries that give support through bilateral assistance and countries that receive such support are partners,” it states.

Yet how exactly to define those partnerships remains a work in progress.

“Aid should be structured in a way that citizens and NGOs can monitor how the government implements development projects,” CGD’s Dunning says, “and how the resources are utilised.”

Would such an approach run the risk of strengthening corruption at lower levels? Dunning says this isn’t necessarily the right question.

“We can’t shy away from the corruption issue, since it’s such an integral issue for debate,” she says. “And transparency is the key. It is vital to every programme, every sector. Together with other tools, such as evaluation and learning, transparency contributes to sustainable country ownership, which militates against corruption.”

MFAN’s Ingram, meanwhile, sees the empowerment of local communities as an anti-corruption tool in itself.

“Engaging smart and trusting people who know the culture and know how to manoeuvre through the dynamics of that country is very important,” he says.

“Informed and empowered citizens who demand good governance and sound priorities act as a check against corruption.”

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Ostracised and Isolated: Muslim Prisoners in the U.S. http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/ostracised-isolated-muslim-prisoners-u-s/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=ostracised-isolated-muslim-prisoners-u-s http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/ostracised-isolated-muslim-prisoners-u-s/#comments Fri, 18 Apr 2014 15:30:20 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133763 This is the second installment of a two-part series examining the use of ‘lawfare’ on Muslim citizens accused of terror-related activity.

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Tarek Mehanna (right) poses for a photograph with his mother and brother at his PhD ceremony. Photo courtesy the Mehanne family.

Tarek Mehanna (right) poses for a photograph with his mother and brother at his PhD ceremony. Photo courtesy the Mehanne family.

By Kanya D'Almeida
NEW YORK, Apr 18 2014 (IPS)

Such stigma now surrounds the word ‘terrorist’ that most recoil from it, or anyone associated with it, as though from a thing contagious; as though, by simple association, one could land in that black hole where civil liberties are suspended in the name of national security.

For many Muslim citizens of the United States, such ostracism has become a matter of routine, forcing family members of terror suspects to double up as legal advocates and political supporters for their brothers, husbands and sons.“We are a very tight-knit family, and this has been hell for us." -- Tamer Mehanna

A budding nationwide movement to shed light on rights abuses in domestic terror cases is straining to turn that tide. One of its primary sites of congregation is the patch of concrete outside the New York Metropolitan Correction Center (MCC), where suspects deemed violent are held incommunicado.

But the families that gather at the monthly vigils held there, sponsored by a growing coalition known as the No Separate Justice Campaign, speak of a different side to the story: one that involves the government abusing post-9/11 laws to round up non-violent, law-abiding Muslims for exercising their rights to free speech and religion.

At a Mar. 10 vigil outside the MCC, IPS spoke with Tamer Mehanna, brother of Tarek Mehanna, a Pittsburgh-born pharmacist who is serving out a 17-year sentence in Terra Haute, Indiana.

Prior to his conviction on several counts including material support for terrorism, Tarek spent two years in 23-hour isolation, the MCC in New York being just one of the locations where he was all but prevented from communicating with the outside world.

Advocates say Mehanna’s case represents the ‘separate justice system’ for Muslims, in microcosm.

Tamer recounted how, between 2004 and 2008, the FBI courted his brother, using everything from polite requests to psychological intimidation to convince him to become an informant. When all failed, Tarek was arrested at an airport in New York City on his way to Saudi Arabia.

"Thought Crimes": The Case of Tarek Mehanna

Experts say the case against Tarek Mehanna represents one of the most salient examples of prosecution for thought crimes in U.S. legal history.

Initially arrested for having allegedly given false testimony to an FBI official, Tarek was released on bail, then arrested a second time on charges of conspiring to shoot up a shopping mall, though no evidence for this allegation was ever offered in court.

Over the course of 35 days, the prosecution proceeded to build a case against Tarek based on records of online chats, his translation of an ancient Arabic text entitled ’39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad’ and his plans to take up a pharmaceutical position at a prestigious hospital in Saudi Arabia.

Tarek’s brother Tamer Mehnna told IPS that the prosecution never once referred to a specific action that could be construed as providing material support to terrorism. It appeared he was on the stand for nothing more than reading and knowledge sharing among the Muslim community of Worcester, Massachusetts.

Andrew March, a Yale professor who was summoned as an expert witness for the defense, summed up the trial succinctly when he said: “As a political scientist specializing in Islamic law and war, I frequently read, store, share and translate texts and videos by jihadi groups. As a political philosopher, I debate the ethics of killing. As a citizen, I express views, thoughts and emotions about killing to other citizens...At Mr. Mehanna’s trial, I saw how those same actions can constitute federal crimes.”

In addition to shelling out 1.3 million dollars in bail, Tarek’s family was shunned by their community in Massachusetts, spent endless hours in court and even gave up their jobs in order to advocate on his behalf.

“We are a very tight-knit family, and this has been hell for us,” Tamer told IPS. “When my brother was arrested, my mother had to watch her son, a respectable guy, being thrown on the ground and handcuffed like an animal in front of crowds of spectators – it was deeply traumatic.

“The second time he was arrested she was stronger, but it was my father’s turn to break down. Before this happened, I never even saw my father shed a tear,” he added. “But this just crushed him. He fell into a depression, into hopelessness, even lashed out at us for advocating on Tarek’s behalf.”

In their firm belief in Tarek’s innocence, the Mehanna family is not alone. An upcoming study co-authored by members of the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms (NCPCF) and Project SALAM (Support And Legal Advocacy for Muslims) documents hundreds of cases of Muslims imprisoned on terror-related charges despite a lack of evidence linking them with any tangible crime.

Former NCPCF Executive Director Stephen Downs told IPS that family members of what he calls ‘political prisoners’ – Muslim citizens tried and sentenced for nothing more than political views or religious beliefs – are deeply traumatised and often isolated.

“They share commonalities,” he said, “of being made to feel unwelcome at their mosques, losing their jobs, having people slip into depression. These outcomes are entirely predictable, but to have them deliberately inflicted on you by your own government is kind of shocking.”

Bi-annual conferences hosted by NCPCF attract 30 or 40 family members, who Downs says cherish the opportunity to come together and be heard, as respectable citizens with genuine grievances.

“They get to talk to the few people in the world who understand what they’re going through,” he said, “because if you haven’t experienced it, you just don’t get it.”

Extreme isolation

Family members speaking to IPS on condition of anonymity said their isolation from the community is nothing compared to the extreme forms of solitary confinement imposed on their loved ones, most of whom are housed in what the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BoP) calls Communication Management Units (CMUs).

According to Alexis Agathocleous, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), CMUs came quietly into existence during the George W. Bush administration, the first in Terre Haute, Indiana in 2006 and the second in Marion, Illinois in 2008.

“These units are quite unparalleled within the federal prison system,” Agathocleous told IPS. “They segregate prisoners from the rest of the population and impose very strict restrictions on prisoners’ ability to communicate with the outside world – this translates to drastically reduced access to social telephone calls and visits, and when visits do occur they are strictly non-contact.”

Of the roughly 80 prisoners held in CMUs, Agathocleous estimates that between 66 and 72 percent are Muslims, despite the fact that Muslims make up just six percent of the federal prison population.

He referred to this significant over-representation as “troubling”, adding, “There seems to be the use of religious profiling to select prisoners for CMU designation.”

Speaking at a rain-soaked vigil outside the MCC in early April, Andy Stepanian – an animal rights activist who spent six months in the CMU at Marion – said the Muslim men he met there were “exceptionally generous and caring.”

“There has not been a single night in the four and a half years since I’ve gotten out that I’ve not either had a nightmare or stayed up for hours wondering, ‘Why was I the lucky one who got out? Is it just because of the pigment of my skin?’” Stepanian said.

In 2010 CCR filed litigation representing several inmates housed in CMUs, challenging both the arbitrary and seemingly retaliatory nature of the designation, which is made worse by the fact that the BoP offers “no meaningful process through which [prisoners] can earn their way out – no hearing, no discernible limit on the amount of time someone can spend in a CMU and no meaningful criteria that a prisoner can work at in order to [gain] their release,” Agathocleous said.

Those fortunate enough to afford the monthly trips out to Indiana and Illinois have recorded their testimony of these tightly controlled visits, painful on both sides of the Plexiglas screens that separate loved ones.

At a recent NCPCF conference, Majida Salem, wife of Ghassan Elashi, recounted how her 12-year-old Down’s syndrome child refused to enter the visitation room at Marion.

“He cried and said, ‘It’s an ugly visit. Baba no touch… it’s bad,’” Salem said. “To me this is so merciless, keeping a man who did nothing but feed widows and orphans locked up in a CMU… for 65 years.”

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U.S. Terror Suspects Face “Terrifying” Justice System http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/u-s-terror-suspects-face-terrifying-justice-system/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-terror-suspects-face-terrifying-justice-system http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/u-s-terror-suspects-face-terrifying-justice-system/#comments Thu, 17 Apr 2014 18:39:40 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133750 This is the first of a two-part series examining the use of ‘lawfare’ on Muslim citizens in the United States accused of terror-related activity.

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Participants at an April 7 candlelight vigil for Shifa Sadequee, a Bangladeshi-American serving a 17-year sentence in Terra Haute, Indiana, stand in the rain outside the New York Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC).  Credit: Kanya D'Almeida/IPS

Participants at an April 7 candlelight vigil for Shifa Sadequee, a Bangladeshi-American serving a 17-year sentence in Terra Haute, Indiana, stand in the rain outside the New York Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC). Credit: Kanya D'Almeida/IPS

By Kanya D'Almeida
NEW YORK, Apr 17 2014 (IPS)

The sun is just setting as the group huddles closer together, their faces barely visible in the gathering dusk. Simple, hand-made signs read: ‘Stand for Justice’.

Above them, the fortified concrete tower of the Metropolitan Correctional Centre (MCC) of New York City rises into the darkening sky, fluorescent lights inside illuminating sturdy steel bars that cling to every window."There are things happening in their cases that are not happening in others, like the use of anonymous juries and secret evidence files." -- Sally Eberhardt

The vigil has drawn a mixed bag of supporters – some have their heads covered, a few are modestly concealed by hijabs, others are simply attired in jeans and T-shirts. Whatever their dress, they have gathered here for one reason – to protest the use of ‘lawfare’ on Muslim citizens accused of terror-related activity.

Sally Eberhardt, a researcher with Educators for Civil Liberties, tells IPS these monthly vigils began in 2009 to highlight legal irregularities in the case against Fahad Hashmi, a Pakistan-born U.S. citizen who was arrested at London’s Heathrow Airport in 2005 and became the first citizen to be extradited to the U.S. under new laws passed after 9/11.

Hashmi spent three years in solitary confinement at the MCC before ever being charged with a crime. He accepted a government plea bargain of one-count of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorist groups and, in 2010, began a 15-year sentence at the federal “supermax” prison in Florence, Colorado.

Weekly vigils held in the autumn of 2009 through Hashmi’s sentencing gradually attracted civil liberties groups, including Amnesty International, the Council on Arab-Islamic Relations and the Centre for Constitutional Rights (CCR), along with family members of other incarcerated Muslims, who have now coalesced into a movement known as the No Separate Justice (NSJ) campaign.

Preemptive Prosecution

Volunteers with independent advocacy organisations working on behalf of Muslim prisoners define preemptive prosecution – which is also known as preventive, predatory, pretextual or manufactured prosecution – as a post 9-11 strategy to target individuals or groups whose ideologies and religious practices raise ‘red flags’ for the government.

According to an upcoming study based on the Department of Justice’s 2008 list of domestic terrorists, the charges used to hound “suspects” are generally manufactured by the government, and can take many forms:

• Using material support for terrorism laws to criminalise activities that are not otherwise considered criminal, such as free speech, free association, charity, peace-making and social hospitality;

• Using conspiracy laws to treat friendships and organisations as criminal conspiracies, and their members as guilty by association, even when most members of the group have not been involved in criminal activity and may not even be aware of it.

• Using agents provocateurs to actively entrap targets in criminal plots manufactured and controlled by the government.

• Using minor “technical” crimes, which otherwise would not have been prosecuted or even discovered, in order to incarcerate individuals for their ideology (for example, making a minor error on an immigration form, which is technically a crime; lying to government officials about minor matters; gun possession based on a prior felony many years earlier; minor tax and business finance matters).”

“NSJ was an attempt to bring four key issues under one umbrella: surveillance and entrapment; conditions of confinement; fair trial and due process concerns; and free speech and material support charges,” Eberhardt told IPS.

“We feel that when it comes to Muslim terror suspects, the federal government applies a separate level of justice: there are things happening in their cases that are not happening in others, like the use of anonymous juries and secret evidence files that they have no access to.”

Muslim prisoners and pre-trial detainees are also subject to Special Administrative Measures (SAMs), a Bill Clinton-era process designed to isolate potentially violent persons by severely restricting their ability to communicate with the outside world.

In 1996 SAMs were applied for a maximum of four months. Now, they can be designated for up to a year, and extended indefinitely at the discretion of the attorney general, a provision families say violate international laws on solitary confinement.

“SAMs are some of the worst things a human could be forced to endure,” Eberhadt said. “In Hashmi’s case, for example, he was only allowed to write letters on three pieces of paper, he could only receive news 30 days after it was published and could barely communicate with his family or lawyers.”

NSJ has red-flagged close to 20 cases of Muslim terror suspects, whose arrests, trials, sentencing and detention are at odds with constitutionally-protected rights of free speech, freedom of assembly and religious freedom.

Among those spotlighted are Ghassan Elashi, a Palestinian activist whose brainchild, the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, earned him a 65-year sentence for material support charges in 2009; Houston-born Ahmed Abu Ali, who was tortured for years in a Saudi prison before being handed a life sentence on nine terrorism counts; and the Duka Brothers, three New Jersey men sentenced to life following a costly FBI entrapment operation that is better known as the case of the Fort Dix Five.

Lawfare’: Use and abuse of ‘War on Terror’ tactics

Legal experts say the handful of individuals who have received media attention are just the tip of the iceberg of a vast operation to round up Muslims on fabricated or flimsy ‘terrorism’ charges in the name of national security.

Kathleen Manley, legal director of the advocacy group that calls itself the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms (NCPCF), says the rise of ‘preemptive prosecutions’ as a weapon in the United States’ War on Terror arsenal is a dangerous development that enables law enforcers to hound anyone whose “beliefs, ideology, or religious affiliations raise security concerns for the government”, without any evidence of an actual crime.

In 2008 the Department of Justice (DOJ) made public a docket containing the names of nearly 400 ‘domestic terror suspects’ – most of them Muslims – compiled in the decade immediately following the bombing of the World Trade Center.

According to Manley, a good “72 or 73 percent of those cases were pure preemptive prosecution, where the defendants hadn’t done anything that could be considered a crime”, but had instead been targeted for their beliefs, religious practices or fears of what they “might” do.

“Another 20 percent of the cases,” she said, “had what we call elements of pre-emptive prosecution, with the accused committing a very minor crime, such as credit card fraud.”

The DOJ’s list is now the subject of a major study, the first of its kind, on domestic terror suspects and the use of laws implemented after Sep. 11, 2001 to prevent terrorist attacks.

Undertaken by volunteers from the NCPCF and Project SALAM (Support and Legal Advocacy for Muslims), the study, which will be published this summer, concludes that the “government has used preemptive prosecution to exaggerate the threat of Muslim extremism to the security of the country.”

As the sun finally slipped out of sight behind the wall of federal buildings, several people lit candles and held them up towards the windows of the MCC.

“We’ve come here to shine a light on injustice,” a family member speaking under condition of anonymity told IPS. “It’s only a flickering light now, but it will get stronger.”

Read Part Two here.

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U.S. Tribe Looks to International Court for Justice http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/u-s-tribe-looks-international-court-justice/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-tribe-looks-international-court-justice http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/u-s-tribe-looks-international-court-justice/#comments Wed, 16 Apr 2014 23:26:56 +0000 Michelle Tullo http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133733 An indigenous community in the United States has filed a petition against the federal government, alleging that officials have repeatedly broken treaties and that the court system has failed to offer remedy. The petition was filed by the Onondaga Nation, a Native American tribe and one of more than 650 sovereign peoples recognised by the […]

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By Michelle Tullo
WASHINGTON, Apr 16 2014 (IPS)

An indigenous community in the United States has filed a petition against the federal government, alleging that officials have repeatedly broken treaties and that the court system has failed to offer remedy.

The petition was filed by the Onondaga Nation, a Native American tribe and one of more than 650 sovereign peoples recognised by the U.S. government. Onondaga representatives are calling on the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR), the human rights arm of the pan-regional Organisation of American States (OAS), to intervene.“We understand that the U.S. does not adhere to the OAS, but I don’t know where we go. We’ve exhausted our avenues.” -- Onondaga leader Sid Hill

In 2005, the Onondaga Nation filed a case against New York State, stating the state government had repeatedly violated treaties signed with the Onondaga, resulting in lost land and severe environmental pollution. Yet advocates for the trips say antiquated legal precedents with racist roots have allowed the courts to consistently dismiss the Onondaga’s case.

They are now looking to the IACHR for justice.

“New York State broke the law and now the U.S. government has failed to protect our lands, which they promised to us in treaties,” Sid Hill, the Tadodaho, or spiritual leader, of the Onondaga people, told IPS.

Hill and others from the Onondaga Nation gathered outside the White House, located near the IACHR’s Washington headquarters, on Tuesday. Hill brought an heirloom belt commissioned for the Onondaga Nation by George Washington, the first U.S. president, to ratify the Treaty of Canandaigua, affirming land rights for the Onondaga and other tribes.

In their petition to the IACHR, the Onondaga quote sections from the Trade and Intercourse Act of 1790. Signed by George Washington, this law assured the Onondaga that their lands would be safe, and if threatened, that the federal courts would protect their rights.

Yet since then, tribal advocates say, their 2.5 million acres of land has shrunk to just 6,900 acres. And rather than helping the Onondaga, the courts have ignored their case.

“We filed the original case in 2005,” Joe Heath, the attorney for the Onondaga Nation, told IPS.

“We did not sue, did not demand any return for original land. It was more aimed at protecting sacred sites and environmental issues … Our case was dismissed in 2010, so we appealed to the Second Circuit.”

The Second Circuit, and finally the Supreme Court, dismissed the case.

Landmark law

Since 2005, the U.S. courts have designed a new set of rules, called “equitable defence”. This now arms New York with a two-part defence in the Onondaga case. First, officials are able to argue that too much time has passed since the 1794 treaty was signed to when the case was filed, in 2005.

Second, equitable defence also states that the court is able to determine on its own whether the Onondaga people have been disturbed on their land.

“The legal ground on which [the Onondaga] claims rest has undergone profound change since the Nation initiated its action,” the District Court concluded. “The law today forecloses this Court from permitting these claims to proceed.”

The Onondaga Nation and other Native American nations are now fighting to change Native American land laws.

Current legal precedents go back to the 1400s, when Pope Alexander VI issued a papal decree that gave European monarchs sovereignty over “lands occupied by non-Christian ‘barbarous nations’”. In a case in 1823, the U.S. Supreme Court applied this principle to uphold the possession of indigenous lands in favour of colonial or post-colonial governments.

The Supreme Court again revived this doctrine as recent as 2005, when another New York tribe, the Oneida Nation, refused to pay taxes to the United States, citing its status as a sovereign nation.

“Under the Doctrine of Discovery … fee title to the land occupied by Indians when the colonists arrived became vested in the sovereign – first the discovering European nation and later the original States and the United States,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in the 2005 decision.

This doctrine still underpins Indian land law and the dismissal of the Onondaga Nation’s case.

“This is the Plessy v. Ferguson of Indian law,” Heath told IPS, referring to a notorious landmark judicial decision that, for a time, upheld racial segregation in the United States.

Most polluted lake

Heath and others say the goal in “correcting” the U.S. legal system would be to provide the Onondaga Nation and other tribes more say in environmental decisions. Front and centre in this argument is the travesty they say has been visited on Onondaga Lake.

“Onondaga Lake, a sacred lake, has been turned into the most polluted lake in the country,” Heath says. “Allied Corp. dumped mercury in the lake every day from 1946 to 1970.”

In 1999, Allied Corp., a major chemicals company, purchased Honeywell, a company popularly associated with thermostats, and adopted its name, to try and shed its association with pollution. However, this merger has made it more difficult for the Onondaga Nation to get the company to clean up the lake.

“Before the Europeans got here, we had a very healthy lifestyle,” Heath said.

“All the water was clean and drinkable … With the loss of land, pollution of water, and loss of access to water, health has been impacted negatively.”

Another problem is salt mining.

“Only one body of water flows through the territory, Onondaga Creek, and this creek is now severely polluted as a result of salt mining upstream,” Heath says. “The salt mining was done over a century, and so recklessly that it severely damaged the hydrogeology in the valley.”

Heath says elder members of the Onondaga community can remember clear waters that supported trout fishing.

“Now you can’t see two inches into the water, it looks like yesterday’s coffee,” he says.

The Onondaga Nation is now waiting to see whether IACHR will hear the case.

This normally takes several years, however. And even if the court hears the case, it has no formal enforcement mechanisms, but can only make recommendations to the United States.

“We understand that the U.S. does not adhere to the OAS,” Onondaga leader Hill said. “But I don’t know where we go. We’ve exhausted our avenues.”

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CEOs at Big U.S. Companies Paid 331 Times Average Worker http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/ceos-big-u-s-companies-paid-331-times-average-worker/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=ceos-big-u-s-companies-paid-331-times-average-worker http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/ceos-big-u-s-companies-paid-331-times-average-worker/#comments Wed, 16 Apr 2014 00:03:37 +0000 Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133702 In new data certain to fuel the growing public debate over economic inequality, a survey released Tuesday by the biggest U.S. trade-union federation found that the CEOs of top U.S. corporations were paid 331 times more money than the average U.S. worker in 2013. According to the AFL-CIO’s 2014 Executive PayWatch database, U.S. CEOs of […]

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Fast food workers protest for higher wages in New York City, July 2013. Credit: Annette Bernhardt/cc by 2.0

Fast food workers protest for higher wages in New York City, July 2013. Credit: Annette Bernhardt/cc by 2.0

By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Apr 16 2014 (IPS)

In new data certain to fuel the growing public debate over economic inequality, a survey released Tuesday by the biggest U.S. trade-union federation found that the CEOs of top U.S. corporations were paid 331 times more money than the average U.S. worker in 2013.

According to the AFL-CIO’s 2014 Executive PayWatch database, U.S. CEOs of 350 companies made an average of 11.7 million dollars last year compared to the average worker who earned 35,293 dollars.Of all Western countries, income inequality is greatest in the United States, according to a variety of measures.

The same CEOs averaged an income 774 times greater than U.S. workers who earned the federal hourly minimum wage of 7.25 dollars in 2013, or just over 15,000 dollars a year, according to the database.

A separate survey of the top 100 U.S. corporations released by the New York Times Sunday found that the media compensation of CEOs of those companies last year was yet higher — 13.9 million dollars.

That survey, the Equilar 100 CEO Pay Study, found that those CEOs took home a combined 1.5 billion dollars in 2013, slightly higher than their haul the previous year. As in past years, the biggest earner was Lawrence Ellison, CEO of Oracle, who landed 78.4 million dollars in a combination of cash, stocks, and options.

The two surveys, both released as tens of millions of people filed their annual tax returns, are certain to add to the growing public debate about rising income and wealth inequality.

It is a theme that came to the fore during the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement and that President Barack Obama has described as the “defining challenge of our time” as the 2014 mid-term election campaign gets underway. He has sought to address it by, among other measures, seeking an increase the minimum wage, extending unemployment benefits, and expanding overtime pay for federal workers.

Obama’s focus on inequality — and the dangers it poses — has gained some important intellectual and even theological backing in recent months.

In a major revision of its traditional neo-liberal orthodoxy, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) last month released a study raising the alarm about the impact of negative impacts of inequality on both economic growth and political stability, with IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde warning that it created “an economy of exclusion, and a wasteland of discarded potential” and threatens “the precious fabric that holds our society together.”

Pope Francis has also spoken repeatedly – including in a private meeting with Obama at the Vatican last month – about the dangers posed by economic inequality, while the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report, published in January, identified severe income disparity as the biggest risk to global stability over the next decade.

Meanwhile, an epic new study by French economist Thomas Piketty, ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century,’ that compares today’s levels of inequality to those of the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, is gaining favourable reviews in virtually every mainstream publication.

Piketty, whose work is based on data from dozens of Western countries dating back two centuries and argues that radical redistribution measures, including a “global tax on capital,” are needed to reverse current trends toward greater inequality, is speaking to standing-room-only audiences in think tanks here this week.

In addition, the Supreme Court’s ruling earlier this month lifting the aggregate limits that wealthy individuals can contribute to political campaigns and parties has added to fears that, in the words of a number of civic organisations, the U.S. political system is moving increasingly towards a “plutocracy”.

Of all Western countries, income inequality is greatest in the United States, according to a variety of measures. In his book, Pikkety shows that inequality of both wealth and income in the U.S. exceeds that of Europe in 1900.

The 331:1 ratio between the income of the 350 corporate CEOs in the Pay Watch survey and average workers is generally consistent with the pay gap that has prevailed over the past decade.

That ratio contrasts dramatically with the average that prevailed after World War II. In 1950, for example, the differential between the top corporate earners and the average workers was only around 20:1. As recently as 1980 – just before the Reagan administration began implementing its “magic of the marketplace” economic policies – the ratio had climbed only to 42:1, according to Sarah Anderson, a veteran compensation watcher at the Institute for Policy Studies here.

“I don’t think that anyone, except maybe Larry Ellison, would claim that today’s managers are somehow an evolved form of homo sapiens compared to their predecessors 30 or 60 years ago,” said Bart Naylor, Financial Policy Advocate at Public Citizen, a civic accountability group.

“Those who built the pharmaceutical industry and the hi-tech industry …were fine senior executives, and they didn’t drain the economy the way today’s senior executives insist on doing,” he told IPS. “The machinery of awarding senior executive pay is clearly broken.”

What is particularly galling to unions and their allies is that many top companies argue that they can’t afford to raise wages at the same time that they are earning higher profits per employee than they did five years ago. While the average worker earned 35,293 dollars last year, the S&P’s 500 Index companies earned an average of 41,249 dollars in profits per employee – a 38 percent increase.

“Pay Watch calls attention to the insane level of compensation for CEOs, while the workers who create those corporate profits struggle for enough money to take care of the basics,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.

“Consider that the retirement benefits of the CEO of Yum Brands, which owns KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, has benefits of over 232 million dollars in his company retirement fund, all of which is tax deferred,” said Anderson. “It’s quite obscene when you know it’s a corporation that relies on very low-paid labour.”

Congress is currently considering several measures to address the issue, although most of them are opposed by Republicans who enjoy a majority in the House of Representatives.

Nonetheless, a tax package introduced by the Republican chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee would close one large loophole that permits CEOs to deduct so-called “performance pay” – what they earn when they achieve certain benchmarks set by their board of directors – from their taxes.

“It’s pretty outrageous when the CEOs of some of the biggest companies of the National Restaurant Association are essentially getting heavily subsidised when so many of their workers are relying on public assistance and fighting for an increase in the minimum wage,” Anderson told IPS.

In addition, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is expected to formally adopt a long-pending rule that would require publicly held corporations to disclose how the pay received by their CEO compares to that of their employees, including full-times, part-time, temporary, seasonal and non-U.S. staff.

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U.N. Visa Denials Appendage of U.S. Foreign Policy http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/u-n-visa-denials-appendage-u-s-foreign-policy/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-n-visa-denials-appendage-u-s-foreign-policy http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/u-n-visa-denials-appendage-u-s-foreign-policy/#comments Tue, 15 Apr 2014 23:27:13 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133695 The United States has rarely, if ever, denied a visa to a head of state seeking to visit the United Nations to address the 193-member General Assembly, the highest policy making body in the organisation. But it did so last November, prompting Sudan to register a strong protest before the U.N.’s legal committee: a protest […]

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By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Apr 15 2014 (IPS)

The United States has rarely, if ever, denied a visa to a head of state seeking to visit the United Nations to address the 193-member General Assembly, the highest policy making body in the organisation.

But it did so last November, prompting Sudan to register a strong protest before the U.N.’s legal committee: a protest that went unsung and unnoticed."Washington believes it can deny visas whenever it chooses to do so and most governments, fearful of negative consequences, remain silent and do not make a fuss." -- James A. Paul

Hassan Ali, a senior Sudanese diplomat, told delegates, “The democratically-elected president of Sudan, Omar Hassan Al-Bashir, had been deprived of the opportunity to participate in the General Assembly because the host country, the United States, had denied him a visa, in violation of the U.N.-U.S. Headquarters Agreement.”

Furthermore, he complained, the host country also applied arbitrary pressures on foreign missions, “depending on how close a country’s foreign policy is to that of the United States.”

“It was a great and deliberate violation of the Headquarters Agreement,” he said, also pointing to the closing of bank accounts of foreign missions and diplomats as another violation.

“Those missions have now been without bank accounts for some three years,” he added.

The refusal of a visa to the Sudanese president was also a political landmine because al-Bashir has been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

But does the United States have a right to implicitly act on an ICC ruling when Washington is not a party to the Rome Statute that created the ICC?

“Good question,” said John Quigley, professor emeritus of international law at Ohio State University.

“As you suggest, the U.S. had no obligations under the Rome Statute,” he told IPS.

So the question would not arise of Washington having an obligation that might conflict with the obligation to grant a visa to a representative of a U.N. member state, he added.

It would be harder if the United States were a party to the Rome Statute.

Sudanese President Omer Hassan Al Bashir addresses a ceremony marking the fourth anniversary of the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) on Jan. 9, 2009. The refusal of his visa was also a political landmine because al-Bashir has been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Credit: UN Photo/Tim McKulka

Sudanese President Omer Hassan Al Bashir addresses a ceremony marking the fourth anniversary of the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) on Jan. 9, 2009. The refusal of his visa was also a political landmine because al-Bashir has been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Credit: UN Photo/Tim McKulka

“Even then, the two obligations might not conflict. That is, the U.S. would have an obligation to let him in. Once he is in, the U.S. would have an obligation to turn him over to the ICC,” said Quigley, author of ‘The Ruses of War: American Interventionism Since World War II’.

The U.S. decision last week to deny a visa to the Iranian envoy-in-waiting, Hamid Aboutalebi, has been challenged as a violation of the Headquarters Agreement – even though Washington got away scot-free after barring the Sudanese president from the General Assembly last year.

James A. Paul, who served for over 19 years as executive director of the Global Policy Forum, told IPS the U.S. government was in clear violation of international law and practice.

This includes violations of specific international agreements such as the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961, and particularly the U.N. Headquarters Agreement, entered into by the U.S. and the U.N. in 1947 and unanimously ratified by Congress.

This particular violation of visa denial is one of many such violations, some of which get lots of attention and some of which don’t, he said.

“My guess is that there have been hundreds of cases in which the U.S. has refused entry visas for various reasons. There are also hundreds of other cases of violation of the agreement in other ways,” said Paul, who has kept close track of the politics of the United Nations for nearly two decades.

In response to the U.S. refusal to grant a visa to Palestine leader Yassir Arafat in 1988, he said, the General Assembly had to move its meeting to Geneva at huge expense and inconvenience.

“That case made headlines, but most do not,” said Paul.

Take, for example, the U.S. refusal to grant an entry visa to a senior Argentine diplomat who had been accredited to participate with the Brazilian team on the U.N. Security Council in 2010.

“Washington took this step presumably because it wanted to block regional coordination on the Council – a totally illegitimate reason,” Paul said, adding there was no argument the person involved represented a security threat.

“So I think we can say that Washington believes it can deny visas whenever it chooses to do so and most governments, fearful of negative consequences, remain silent and do not make a fuss,” he added.

Quigley told IPS he saw no exception for security, terrorism and foreign policy in the Headquarters Agreement.

The resolutions by the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives to bar the Iranian envoy, are irrelevant, he said.

“What matters is the text of the Headquarters Agreement. If domestic legislation was adopted that purported to reserve rights to the U.S. that are not expressed in the Headquarters Agreement, the domestic legislation does not allow the U.S. to evade its obligations,” said Quigley.

“As I read the legislation adopted by Congress, it gives grounds for denial of a visa, but it is still up to the president to decide the grounds exist, so it is not Congress that is denying a visa to a particular person.”

The president should properly regard the Headquarters Agreement as his guide, added Quigley.

The U.S. has accused Aboutalebi of being involved in the 1979 forcible takeover of the U.S. embassy and its diplomatic personnel in Tehran.

But the Iranian says he was only a translator and negotiator between the hostages and the hostage takers – and that he was not even in Tehran when the embassy was physically taken over by a group called the Muslim Students.

Quigley said, “I can see that there might be some validity to the view that the U.S. and Iran should work this out, but at this point the U.S. has denied and does not seem inclined to reconsider.”

That being the case, it is the U.N. that is the injured party under the Headquarters Agreement. It should not be up to Iran to take the initiative to take action on the matter, he argued.

Paul told IPS some diplomats face restrictions as to where they can live and where in the U.S. they can travel.

There have been many complaints about U.S. banking restrictions having serious negative consequences for delegations, who sometimes cannot pay their bills as a result.

Finally, of course, there is the scandal of spying on U.N. staff and on delegations.

“When you put all this together, you have a stark picture of disregard for the norms of diplomacy and the letter of international agreements. It is a sad story,” he added.

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Court Upholds Most of U.S. “Conflict Minerals” Law http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/court-upholds-u-s-conflict-minerals-law/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=court-upholds-u-s-conflict-minerals-law http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/court-upholds-u-s-conflict-minerals-law/#comments Tue, 15 Apr 2014 21:14:21 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133691 The United States’ second-highest court has upheld most of a landmark U.S. law requiring companies to ascertain and publicly disclose whether proceeds from minerals used to manufacture their products may be funding conflict in central Africa. The ruling, released Monday, means that U.S.-listed companies will need to file their first such reports with federal regulators by […]

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National police arrive on a boat at Goma's port in DRC as U.N. peacekeepers look on. Credit: William Lloyd-George/IPS

National police arrive on a boat at Goma's port in DRC as U.N. peacekeepers look on. Credit: William Lloyd-George/IPS

By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Apr 15 2014 (IPS)

The United States’ second-highest court has upheld most of a landmark U.S. law requiring companies to ascertain and publicly disclose whether proceeds from minerals used to manufacture their products may be funding conflict in central Africa.

The ruling, released Monday, means that U.S.-listed companies will need to file their first such reports with federal regulators by the end of May. The statute, known as Section 1502 and covering what are referred to as “conflict minerals”, became law in 2010, but the details of its actual implementation have remained up in the air ever since.The ruling is “a major step backward for atrocity prevention in the Great Lakes region of Africa and corporate accountability in the United States.” -- Holly Dranginis

“There are very encouraging aspects of this ruling, and the bottom line is that the rule hasn’t been overturned and now companies will need to move forward,” Corinna Gilfillan, head of the Washington office of Global Witness, a watchdog group that supports Section 1502, told IPS.

“The heart of this statute is companies carrying out due diligence on their supply chains so they can figure out whether their minerals are coming from conflict areas. Due diligence is a process – first knowing the supply chain and then taking action to address any problems. This ruling has upheld the due diligence and reporting aspects.”

The U.S. Congress hoped Section 1502 would help quell the violence that has wracked Africa’s Great Lakes region, particularly in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), for the past decade and a half. Findings by the United Nations, rights groups and others have warned that rebels in these areas have funded their operations in part by mining and selling any of five minerals that have become particularly sought after by the international electronics industry.

The rule has come under attack by U.S. business groups who say the requirements would be onerous and infringe on their constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech, by forcing them to label their products “conflict free”. But agreeing with previous rulings, a three-judge bench on Monday dismissed most of these concerns.

The dismissal included business concerns that the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) had not adequately analysed costs and benefits of the regulation.

“The rule’s benefits would occur half-a-world away in the midst of an opaque conflict about which little reliable information exists, and concern a subject about which the [SEC] has no particular expertise,” the court stated in its decision.

“Even if one could estimate how many lives are saved or rapes prevented as a direct result of the final rule, doing so would be pointless because the costs of the rule – measured in dollars – would create an apples-to-bricks comparison.”

Compelled speech

Yet the court also offered a split decision in favour of the manufacturers on the free speech concern, allowing both proponents and critics of Section 1502 to claim victory.

U.S. law allows for certain “compelled” public disclosures, but generally only if those are recitations of straight fact. However, the court found the issue of conflict minerals to be far more complex.

“[I]t is far from clear that the description at issue – whether a product is ‘conflict free’ – is factual and nonideological. Products and minerals do not fight conflicts,” the court stated.

“The label ‘conflict free’ is a metaphor that conveys moral responsibility for the Congo war. It requires an issuer to tell consumers that its products are ethically tainted, even if they only indirectly finance armed groups … By compelling an issuer to confess blood on its hands, the statute interferes with that exercise of the freedom of speech.”

It is unclear whether the SEC will appeal this part of the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court (the agency says it’s reviewing the ruling). For now, the decision undermines a key strategy for groups hoping to use a labelling requirement to shame companies into compliance, though related information will still be publicly available.

The ruling is “a major step backward for atrocity prevention in the Great Lakes region of Africa and corporate accountability in the United States,” Holly Dranginis, a policy associate with the Enough Project, an advocacy group here, said Monday.

“The court’s proposal that a conflict-free determination is ideological is unfounded and undercuts the power of society’s growing awareness that global markets and security in fragile states are in fact linked.”

Meanwhile, a separate case before the same court could soon undermine the free speech finding. A smaller bench has already ruled in favour of requiring meat producers to include “country of origin” information on their products, and the case is now slated to be heard by the full court in mid-May.

A dissenting opinion in the conflict minerals ruling noted that the meat-labelling decision could have a significant impact on Monday’s ruling.

6,000 reports

The complexities of implementing Section 1502 remain highly problematic in central Africa, and some are warning that the law could soon collapse under its own weight. Yet others say the regulation is already having a noticeable impact, with the Enough Project suggesting that “over two-thirds of tin, tantalum and tungsten mines [are] now free of armed groups.”

Monday’s ruling should now allow the U.S. side of the statute’s implementation to proceed. This means that around 6,000 U.S. companies will need to file reports with the SEC, and post them to company websites, by the end of May.

The lawsuit against Section 1502 was brought by three of the United States’ largest business lobbies, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable. In a joint statement sent to IPS, the three lauded the decision.

“[W]e are pleased with the D.C. Circuit’s decision … finding the statute and regulation are unconstitutional,” the groups stated. “We understand the seriousness of the humanitarian situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and abhor the violence in that country, but this rule was not the appropriate way to address this problem.”

Yet other businesses are already complying with the spirit of Section 1502. Perhaps the most significant of these companies, Intel, is actually a member of NAM.

In January, the company pledged to remove all conflict minerals from its microprocessors. It says it now has no plans to change course.

“Regardless of this decision, we will continue to do our part to achieve conflict-free supply chains and to report publicly on these efforts,” Lisa Malloy, an Intel spokesperson, told IPS.

“The challenge of responsible minerals sourcing requires a comprehensive solution that involves government agencies in the U.S. and internationally, non-profit groups and industry. We urge all partners to continue the momentum towards a solution.”

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OP-ED: Egyptian-Saudi Coalition in Defence of Autocracy http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/op-ed-egyptian-saudi-coalition-defence-autocracy/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=op-ed-egyptian-saudi-coalition-defence-autocracy http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/op-ed-egyptian-saudi-coalition-defence-autocracy/#comments Tue, 15 Apr 2014 15:28:37 +0000 Emile Nakhleh http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133684 The Bahraini Arabic language newspaper al-Wasat reported on Wednesday Apr. 9 that a Cairo court began to consider a case brought by an Egyptian lawyer against Qatar accusing it of being soft on terrorism. The “terrorism” charge is of course a euphemism for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab […]

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By Emile Nakhleh
WASHINGTON, Apr 15 2014 (IPS)

The Bahraini Arabic language newspaper al-Wasat reported on Wednesday Apr. 9 that a Cairo court began to consider a case brought by an Egyptian lawyer against Qatar accusing it of being soft on terrorism.

The “terrorism” charge is of course a euphemism for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have designated a “terrorist” organisation and are vowed to dismantle.It’s becoming very clear that dictatorial policies are producing more instability, less security, and greater appeal to terrorism.

The two new partners and the UAE also loathe Qatar for hosting and funding Al-Jazeera satellite TV. The continued incarceration of the Al-Jazeera journalists and dozens of other journalists on trumped up charges is no coincidence.

The court case is symptomatic of the current Saudi-Egyptian relationship in their counter-revolution against the 2011 pro-democracy upheavals that toppled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and his fellow autocrats in Tunisia, Yemen, and Libya.

The pro-autocracy partnership between the Egyptian military junta and the Saudi ruling family goes beyond their opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood and the perceived threat of terrorism. It emanates from the autocrats’ visceral opposition to democracy and human rights, including minority and women’s rights.

What should be most critical to them as they contemplate the future of their coalition of counter-revolutionaries, however, is the growing Western conviction that dictators can no longer provide stability.

The Egyptian Field Marshall and the Saudi potentate also abhor the key demands of the Arab uprisings and reject their peoples’ calls for freedom, dignity, justice, and genuine economic and political reform.

They are equally terrified of the coming end of the authoritarian paradigm, which could bring about their demise or at least force them to share power with their people. The Saudis and their Gulf Arab allies, especially Bahrain and the UAE, are willing to trample on their people’s rights in order to safeguard family tribal rule.

The Saudi-Egyptian partnership is also directed at the Obama administration primarily because of Washington’s diplomatic engagement with Iran.

According to media and Human Rights Watch reports, at least 15,000 secular and Islamist activists are currently being held in Egyptian prisons, without having been charged or convicted. This number includes hundreds of MB leaders and activists and thousands of its supporters.

Many of them, including teenagers, have also been tortured and abused physically and psychologically. These mass arrests and summary trials and convictions of Islamists and liberals alike belie the Saudi-Egyptian claim that theirs is a campaign against terrorism.

A brief history of Egyptian-Saudi relations

Egyptian-Saudi relations in the past 60 years have been erratic, depending on leadership, ideology, and regional and world events. During the Nasser era in the 1950s and ‘60s, relations were very tense because of Saudi fears of Nasser’s Arab nationalist ideology.

The Saudis saw Nasser a nationalist firebrand arousing Arab masses against colonialism and Arab monarchies. He supported national liberation movements and wars of independence against the French in North Africa and the British in the Arab littoral of the Persian Gulf.

The Saudi monarchy viewed Nasser’s call for Arab unity “from the roaring ocean to the rebellious Gulf” as a threat to their survival and declared a war on “secular” Arab nationalism and “atheist” Communism.

They perceived Nasser’s war in Yemen against the tribal monarchy as an existential threat at their door and began to fund and arm the royalists in Yemen against the Egyptian military campaign.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia were the two opposite poles of the “Arab cold war” during the 1950s and ‘60s. Nasser represented emerging Arab republicanism while Saudi Arabia epitomised traditional monarchies. Nasser turned to the Soviet Union; Saudi Arabia turned to the United States.

In the late 1960s, Saudi Arabia declared the proselytisation of its brand of Islam as a cardinal principle of its foreign policy for the purpose of fighting Arab nationalism and Communism.

It’s ironic that Saudi Arabia is currently supporting and funding the military junta in Egypt at a time when the military-turned-civilian presidential shoe-in Sisi is resurrecting the Nasserist brand of politics.

In the next three to five years, the most intriguing analytic question will be whether this partnership would endure and how long the post-2011 generation of Arabs would tolerate a coalition of secular autocracy and a religious theocracy.

Saudi Arabia supported Egyptian President Sadat’s war against Israel in 1973 but broke with him later in that decade after he visited Jerusalem and signed a peace treaty with Israel.

By the early 1980s, however, the two countries re-established close relations because of their common interest in supporting Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war and in pushing for the Saudi-articulated Arab Peace Initiative.

The Saudi King viewed President Hosni Mubarak warmly and was dismayed by his fall. He was particularly incensed by Washington’s seeming precipitous abandonment of Mubarak in January 2011.

The Saudi monarchy applauded General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s removal of President Muhammad Morsi and pumped billions of dollars into the Egyptian treasury. They also indicated they would make up any deficit in case U.S. aid to Egypt is halted.

The Saudis have endorsed Sisi’s decision to run for president of Egypt and adopted similar harsh policies against the Muslim Brotherhood and all political dissent. Several factors seem to push Saudi Arabia closer to Egypt.

The Saudis are concerned about their growing loss of influence and prestige in the region, especially their failure in thwarting the interim nuclear agreement between the P5+1 and Iran. Their policy in Syria is in shambles.

Initially, they encouraged jihadists to go to Syria to fight the Assad regime, but now they cannot control the pro-Al-Qaeda radical Salafi jihadists fighting the Damascus tyrant.

The Saudis also failed in transforming the Gulf Cooperation Council into a more unified structure. Other than Bahrain, almost every other state has balked at the Saudi suggestion, viewing it a power grab.

In an absurd form of retaliation against Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain recalled their ambassadors from that country. The Saudis are engaged in tribal vendettas against their fellow tribal ruling families, which is out of place in a 21st century globalised and well-connected world.

The oil wealth and the regime’s inspired religious fatwas by establishment clerics have a diminishing impact on the younger generation connected to the global new social media.

Despite the heavy-handed crackdown, protests, demonstrations, and confrontations with the security forces are a daily occurrence in Egypt. It’s becoming very clear that dictatorial policies are producing more instability, less security, and greater appeal to terrorism.

It won’t be long before Western governments conclude that autocracy is bad for their moral sensibilities, destructive for business, and threatening for their presence in the region. The Saudi-Egyptian coalition of autocrats will soon be in the crosshairs.

In order to endure, such a coalition must be based on respect for their peoples, a genuine commitment to human rights, and a serious effort to address the “deficits” of liberty, education, and women’s rights that have afflicted Arab society for decades.

Emile Nakhleh, a former Senior Intelligence Service Officer, is a Research Professor at the University of New Mexico, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of “A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World.”

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Yakama Nation Tells DOE to Clean Up Nuclear Waste http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/yakama-nation-tells-doe-clean-nuclear-waste/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=yakama-nation-tells-doe-clean-nuclear-waste http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/yakama-nation-tells-doe-clean-nuclear-waste/#comments Mon, 14 Apr 2014 18:21:39 +0000 Michelle Tolson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133655 The Department of Energy (DOE), politicians and CEOs were discussing how to warn generations 125,000 years in the future about the radioactive waste at Hanford Nuclear Reservation, considered the most polluted site in the U.S., when Native American anti-nuclear activist Russell Jim interrupted their musings: “We’ll tell them.” He tells IPS “they looked around and […]

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At the perimetre of Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State. Credit: Jason E. Kaplan/IPS

At the perimetre of Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State. Credit: Jason E. Kaplan/IPS

By Michelle Tolson
YAKAMA NATION, Washington State, U.S. , Apr 14 2014 (IPS)

The Department of Energy (DOE), politicians and CEOs were discussing how to warn generations 125,000 years in the future about the radioactive waste at Hanford Nuclear Reservation, considered the most polluted site in the U.S., when Native American anti-nuclear activist Russell Jim interrupted their musings: “We’ll tell them.”

He tells IPS “they looked around and saw me. I said, ‘We’ve been here since the beginning of time, so we will be here then.’ That was when they knew they’d have a fight on their hands.”“Helen Caldicott told us in 1997 that if we eat fish from the Columbia, we’ll die." -- Yakama Elder Russell Jim

With his long braids, the 78-year-old director of the Environmental Restoration & Waste Management Programme (ERWM) for the Yakama tribes cuts a striking figure, sitting calmly in his office located on the arid lands of his sovereign nation.

The Yakama Reservation in southeast Washington has 1.2 million acres with 10,000 federally recognised tribal members and an estimated 12,000 feral horses roaming the desert steppe. Down from the 12 million acres ceded by force to the U.S. government in 1855, it is just 20 miles west from the Hanford nuclear site.

Though the nuclear arms race ended in 1989, radioactive waste is the legacy of the various sites of the former Manhattan Project spread across the U.S.

While the Yakama have successfully protected their sacred fishing grounds from becoming a repository for nuclear waste from other project sites by invoking the treaty of 1855 which promises access to their “usual and accustomed places,” Hanford is far from clean, though the DOE promised to restore the land.

“The DOE is trying to reclassify the waste as ‘low activity.’ They are trying to leave it here and bury it in shallow pits. Scientists are saying that it needs to be buried deep under the ground,” Jim explains.

Tom Carpenter of Hanford Challenge watchdog group tells IPS “it is a battle for Washington State and the tribes to get the feds to keep their promise to remove the waste. There are 42 miles of trenches that are 15 feet wide and 20 feet deep full of boxes, crates and vials of waste in unlined trenches.”

There are a further 177 underground tanks of radioactive waste and six are leaking. Waste is supposed to be moved within 24 hours from leak detection or whenever is “practicable” but the contractors say there is not enough space.

Three whistleblowers working on the cleanup raised concerns and were fired. Closely followed by a local news station, it is an issue that is largely neglected by mainstream media and the Yakama’s fight seems all but ignored.

“We used to have a media person on staff but the DOE says there is no need as ‘everything is going fine,” says Russell Jim. His department lost 80 percent of its funding in 2012 after cutbacks. His tribe doesn’t fund ERWM, the DOE does. “The DOE crapped it up, so they should pay for it.”

Russell Jim, Yakama Elder and Director of Environmental Restoration & Waste Management Program (ERWM) for the Yakama Nation. Credit: Jason E. Kaplan/IPS

Russell Jim, Yakama Elder and Director of Environmental Restoration & Waste Management Program (ERWM) for the Yakama Nation. Credit: Jason E. Kaplan/IPS

But everything is not fine. With radioactive groundwater plumes making their way toward the river, the Yakama and watchdog groups says it is an emergency. Some plumes are just 400 yards from the river where the tribe accesses Hanford Reach monument, according to treaty rights.

Hanford Reach nature reserve, a buffer zone for the site, is the Columbia’s largest spawning grounds for wild fall Chinook salmon

Washington State reports highly toxic radioactive contamination from uranium, strontium 90 and chromium in the ground water has already entered the Columbia River.

“There are about 150 groundwater ‘upwellings’ in the gravel of the Columbia River coming from Hanford that young salmon swim around,” explains Russell Jim.

“Helen Caldicott [founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility] told us in 1997 that if we eat fish from the Columbia, we’ll die,” he adds.

Callie Ridolfi, environmental consultant to the Yakama, tells IPS their diet of 150 to 519 grammes of fish a day, nearly double regional tribal averages and far greater than the mainstream population, puts them at greater risk, with as much as a one in 50 chance of getting cancer from eating resident fish.

Migratory fish like salmon that live in the ocean most of their lives are less affected, unlike resident fish.

According to a 2002 EPA study on fish contaminants, resident sturgeon and white fish from Hanford Reach had some of the highest levels of PCBs.

Last year, Washington and Oregon states released an advisory for the 150-mile heavily dammed stretch of the Columbia from Bonneville to McNary Dam to limit eating resident fish to once a week due to PCB toxins.

Fisheries manager at Mike Matylewich at Columbia River Inter Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), says, “Lubricants containing PCBs were used for years, particularly in transformers, at hydroelectric dams because of the ability to withstand high temperatures.

“The ability to withstand high temperatures contributes to their persistence in the environment as a legacy contaminant,” he tells IPS.

While the advisory does not include the Hanford Reach, the longest undammed stretch of the Columbia, Russell Jim doubts it’s safe.

“The DOE tells congress the river corridor is clean. It’s not clean but they are afraid of damages being filed against them.” A cancer survivor, Jim’s tribe received no compensation for damages from radioactive releases from 1944 to 1971 into the Columbia as high as 6,300,000 curies of Neptunium-239.

Steven G. Gilbert, a toxicologist with Physicians for Social Responsbility, tells IPS there is a lack transparency and data on the Hanford cleanup. “It is a huge problem,” he says, adding that contaminated groundwater at Hanford still interacts with the Columbia River, based on water levels.

Though eight of the nine nuclear reactors next to the river were decommissioned, the 1,175-megawatt Energy Northwest Energy power plant is still functioning

“Many people don’t know there is a live nuclear reactor on the Columbia. It’s the same style as Fukushima,” Gilbert explains.

In the middle of the fight are the tribes, which are sovereign nations. Russell Jim says they are often erroneously described as “stakeholders” when they are separate governments.

“We were the only tribe to take on the nuclear issue and testify at the 1980 Senate subcommittee. In 1982 we immediately filed for affected tribe status. The Umatilla and the Nez Perce tribes later joined.”

Yucca Mountain was earmarked by congress as a nuclear storage repository for Hanford and other sites’ waste but the plan was struck down by the president. Southern Paiute and Western Shoshone in the region filed for affected status.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico was slated to take waste from Hanford but after a fire in February, the site is taking no more waste. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has expressed concern about the lack of storage options.

The U.S. has the largest stockpile of spent nuclear fuel globally – five times that of Russia.

“The best material to store waste in is granite and the northeast U.S. has a lot of granite. An ideal site was just 30 miles from the capital, but that is out,” says Russell Jim with a wry smile, considering its proximity to the White House.

He does not plan to give up. “We are the only people here who can’t pick up and move on.”

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World Cuts Back Military Spending, But Not Asia http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/world-cuts-back-military-spending-asia/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=world-cuts-back-military-spending-asia http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/world-cuts-back-military-spending-asia/#comments Mon, 14 Apr 2014 11:00:39 +0000 John Feffer http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133643 For the second year in a row, the world is spending a little less on the military. Asia, however, has failed to get the memo. The region is spending more at a time when many others are spending less. Last year, Asia saw a 3.6 percent increase in military spending, according to figures just released […]

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USS Ronald Reagan and other ships from RIMPAC 2010 transit the Pacific. The United States, a Pacific power whose military spending is not included in the Asia figures, has also played an important role in driving up the expenditures in the region. Credit: U.S. Navy photo

USS Ronald Reagan and other ships from RIMPAC 2010 transit the Pacific. The United States, a Pacific power whose military spending is not included in the Asia figures, has also played an important role in driving up the expenditures in the region. Credit: U.S. Navy photo

By John Feffer
WASHINGTON, Apr 14 2014 (IPS)

For the second year in a row, the world is spending a little less on the military. Asia, however, has failed to get the memo. The region is spending more at a time when many others are spending less.

Last year, Asia saw a 3.6 percent increase in military spending, according to figures just released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The region — which includes East Asia, South Asia, Central Asia and Oceania — posted topping off a 62 percent increase over the last decade.To a certain extent, the arms race in Asia is connected not to the vast expansion of the Pentagon since 2001 but rather to the relative decline of Asia in U.S. priorities over much of that period.

In 2012, for the first time Asia outpaced Europe in its military spending. That year, the world’s top five importers of armaments all came from Asia: India, China, Pakistan, South Korea, and (incredibly) the city-state of Singapore.

China is responsible for the lion’s share of the increases in East Asia, having increased its spending by 170 percent over the last decade. It has also announced a 12.2 percent increase for 2014.

But China is not the only driver of regional military spending. South Asia – specifically the confrontation between India and Pakistan – is responsible for a large chunk of the military spending in the region. Rival territorial claims over tiny islands  – and the vast resources that lie beneath and around them — in both Northeast and Southeast Asia are pushing the claimants to boost their maritime capabilities.

Even Japan, which has traditionally kept its military spending to under one percent of GDP, is getting into the act. Tokyo has promised of a 2.8 percent increase in 2014-15.

The United States, a Pacific power whose military spending is not included in the Asia figures, has also played an important role in driving up the expenditures in the region. The Barack Obama administration’s “Pacific pivot” is designed to reboot the U.S. security presence in this strategically critical part of the world.

To a certain extent, the arms race in Asia is connected not to the vast expansion of the Pentagon since 2001 but rather to the relative decline of Asia in U.S. priorities over much of that period.

As U.S. allies, South Korea and Japan were expected to shoulder more of the security burden in the region while the United States pursued national security objects in the Middle East and Central Asia.

China, meanwhile, pursued a “peaceful rise” that also involved an attempt to acquire a military strength comparable to its economic strength. At the same time, China more vigorously advanced its claims in the South China Sea even as other parties to the conflict put forward their counter claims.

The Pacific pivot has been billed as a way to halt the relative decline of U.S. influence in Asia. So far, however, this highly touted “rebalancing” has largely been a shifting around of U.S. forces in the region.

The fulcrum of the pivot is Okinawa, where the United States and Japan have been negotiating for nearly two decades to close an outdated Marine Air Force base in Okinawa and transfer those Marines to existing, expanding, and proposed facilities elsewhere.

Aside from this complex operation, a few Littoral Combat Ships have gone to Singapore. The Pentagon has proposed putting slightly more of its overall fleet in the Pacific (a 60-40 split compared to the current 50-50). And Washington has welcomed closer coordination with partners like the Philippines and Vietnam.

Instead of a significant upgrade to U.S. capabilities in the region, the pivot is largely a signal to Washington’s allies that the partnerships remain strong and a warning to Washington’s adversaries that, even if U.S. military spending is on a slight downward tilt, the Pentagon possesses more than enough firepower to deter their power projection.

This signaling function of the pivot dovetails with another facet of U.S. security policy: arms exports. The growth of the Pentagon over the last 10 years has been accompanied by a growth in U.S. military exports, which more than doubled during the period 2002 to 2012 from 8.3 to 18.8 billion dollars.

The modest reduction in Pentagon spending will not necessarily lead to a corresponding decline in exports. In fact, the opposite is likely to be true, as was the case during the last Pentagon slowdown in the 1990s. The Obama administration has pushed through a streamlining of the licensing process in order to facilitate an increase in military exports – in part to compensate U.S. arms manufacturers for a decline in orders from the Pentagon.

Asia and Oceania represent the primary target for U.S. military exports, absorbing nearly half of all shipments. Of that number, East Asia represents approximately one-quarter (South Asia accounts for nearly half).

The biggest-ticket item is the F-35 fighter jet, which Washington has already sold to Japan, South Korea, and Australia. Long-range missile defence systems have been sold to Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Overall between 2009 and 2013, Australia and South Korea have been the top U.S. clients. With its projected increase in military spending, Japan will also likely rise much higher on the list.

The more advanced weaponry U.S. allies purchase, the more they are locked into future acquisitions. The United States emphasises “interoperability” among its allies. Not only are purchasers dependent on the United States for spare parts and upgrades, but they must consider the overall system of command and control (which is now C5I — Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Combat systems and Intelligence).

Although a French fighter jet or a Russian naval vessel might be a cheaper option in a competitive bid, the purchasing country must also consider how the item integrates with the rest of its hardware and software.

The United States has argued that its overwhelming military presence in the region and lack of interest in territorial gain have dampened conflict in Asia. But the security environment has changed dramatically since the United States first presented itself as a guarantor of regional stability.

Japan no longer abides by a strict interpretation of its “peace constitution.” North Korea has developed nuclear weapons. China has dramatically increased its capabilities. South Korea has created its own indigenous military manufacturing sector and greatly expanded its exports. Territorial disputes in the South China, Yellow, and East China Seas have sharpened. The only flashpoint that has become more peaceful in the last few years has been the Taiwan Strait.

The continued increase in military spending by countries in East Asia and the massive influx of arms into the region are both symptoms and drivers of conflict. Until and unless the region restrains its appetite for military upgrades, the risk of clashes and even all-out war will remain high.

In such an increasingly volatile environment, regional security agreements – on North Korea’s nuclear programme, the several territorial disputes, or new technological threats like cyberwarfare – will be even more difficult to achieve.

Most importantly, because of these budget priorities, the region will have fewer resources and less political will to address other pressing threats, such as climate change, which cannot be defeated with fighter jets or the latest generation of battle ship.

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The Iranian Nuclear Weapons Programme That Wasn’t http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/iranian-nuclear-weapons-programme-wasnt/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=iranian-nuclear-weapons-programme-wasnt http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/iranian-nuclear-weapons-programme-wasnt/#comments Sat, 12 Apr 2014 01:07:26 +0000 Gareth Porter http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133622 When U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Carmen M. Ortiz unsealed the indictment of a Chinese citizen in the UK for violating the embargo against Iran, she made what appeared to be a new U.S. accusation of an Iran nuclear weapons programme. The press release on the indictment announced that between in November 2005 and 2012, Sihai […]

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By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON, Apr 12 2014 (IPS)

When U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Carmen M. Ortiz unsealed the indictment of a Chinese citizen in the UK for violating the embargo against Iran, she made what appeared to be a new U.S. accusation of an Iran nuclear weapons programme.

The press release on the indictment announced that between in November 2005 and 2012, Sihai Cheng had supplied parts that have nuclear applications, including U.S.-made goods, to an Iranian company, Eyvaz Technic Manufacturing, which it described as “involved in the development and procurement of parts for Iran’s nuclear weapons program.”The text of the indictment ...was yet another iteration of a rhetorical device used often in the past to portray Iran’s gas centrifuge enrichment programme as equivalent to the development of nuclear weapons.

Reuters, Bloomberg, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune and The Independent all reported that claim as fact. But the U.S. intelligence community, since its well-known November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, has continued to be very clear on the pubic record about its conclusion that Iran has not had a nuclear weapons programme since 2003.

Something was clearly amiss with the Justice Department’s claim.

The text of the indictment reveals that the reference to a “nuclear weapons program” was yet another iteration of a rhetorical device used often in the past to portray Iran’s gas centrifuge enrichment programme as equivalent to the development of nuclear weapons.

The indictment doesn’t actually refer to an Iranian nuclear weapons programme, as the Ortiz press release suggested. But it does say that the Iranian company in question, Eyvaz Tehnic Manufacturing, “has supplied parts for Iran’s development of nuclear weapons.”

The indictment claims that Eyvaz provided “vacuum equipment” to Iran’s two uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow and “pressure transducers” to Kalaye Electric Company, which has worked on centrifuge research and development.

But even those claims are not supported by anything except a reference to a Dec. 2, 2011 decision by the Council of the European Union that did not offer any information supporting that claim.

The credibility of the EU claim was weakened, moreover, by the fact that the document describes Eyvaz as a “producer of vacuum equipment.” The company’s website shows that it produces equipment for the oil, gas and petrochemical industries, including level controls and switches, control valves and steam traps.

Further revealing its political nature of indictment’s nuclear weapons claim, it cites two documents “designating” entities for their ties to the nuclear programme: the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1737 and a U.S. Treasury Department decision two months later.

Neither of those documents suggested any connection between Eyvaz and nuclear weapons. The UNSC Resolution, passed Dec. 23, 2006, referred to Iran’s enrichment as “proliferation sensitive nuclear activities” in 11 different places in the brief text and listed Eyvaz as one of the Iranian entities to be sanctioned for its involvement in those activities.

And in February 2007 the Treasury Department designated Kalaye Electric Company as a “proliferator of Weapons of Mass Destruction” merely because of its “research and development efforts in support of Iran’s nuclear centrifuge program.”

The designation by Treasury was carried out under an Executive Order 13382, issued by President George W. Bush, which is called “Blocking Property of Weapons of Mass destruction Proliferators and Their Supporters.” That title conveyed the impression to the casual observer that the people on the list had been caught in actual WMD proliferation activities.

But the order required allowed the U.S. government to sanction any foreign person merely because that person was determined to have engaged in activities that it argued “pose a risk of materially contributing” to “the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or their means of delivery”.

The Obama administration’s brazen suggestion that it was indicting an individual for exporting U.S. products to a company that has been involved in Iran’s “nuclear weapons program” is simply a new version of the same linguistic trick used by the Bush administration.

The linguistic acrobatics began with the political position that Iran’s centrifuge programme posed a “risk” of WMD proliferation; that “risk” of proliferation was then conflated with nuclear proliferation activities, when than was transmuted into “development of nuclear weapons”.

The final linguistic shift was to convert “development of nuclear weapons” into a “nuclear weapons program”.

That kind of the deceptive rhetoric about the Iranian nuclear programme began with the Bill Clinton administration, which argued, in effect, that nuclear weapons development could be inferred from Iran’s enrichment programme.

Although Cheng and Jamili clearly violated U.S. statutes in purchasing and importing the pressure transducers from the United States and sending them to Eyvaz in Iran, a close reading of the indictment indicates that the evidence that Eyvaz provided the transducers to the Iranian nuclear programme is weak at best.

The indictment says Cheng began doing business with Jamili and his company Nicaro in November 2005, and that he sold thousands of Chinese parts “with nuclear applications” which had been requested by Eyvaz. But all the parts listed in the indictment are dual use items that Eyvaz could have ordered for production equipment for oil and gas industry customers.

The indictment insinuates that Eyvaz was ordering the parts to pass them on to Iran’s enrichment facility at Natanz, but provides no real evidence of that intent. It quotes Jamili as informing Cheng in 2007 that his unnamed customer needed the parts for “a very big project and a secret one”. In 2008, he told Cheng that the customer was “making a very dangerous system and gas leakage acts as a bomb!”

The authors do not connect either of those statements to Eyvaz, but they suggest that it was a reference to gas centrifuges and thus imply that it must have been Eyvaz. “During the enrichment of uranium using gas centrifuges,” the indictment explains, “extremely corrosive chemicals are produced that could cause fire and explosions.”

That statement is highly misleading, however. There is no real risk of gas leaks from centrifuges causing fires or explosions, as MIT nuclear expert Scott R. Kemp told IPS in an interview. “The only risk of a gas leak [in centrifuge enrichment] is to the centrifuge itself,” said Kemp, “because the gas could leak into the centrifuge and cause it to crash.”

On the other hand, substantial risk of explosion and fire from gas leaks exists in the natural gas industry. So even if the customer referred to in the quotes had been Eyvaz, they would have been consistent with that company’s sales to gas industry customers.

Pressure transducers are used to control risk in that industry, as Todd McPadden of Ashcroft Instruments in Stratford, Connecticut told IPS. The pressure transducer measures the gas pressure and responds to any indication of either loss of pressure from leaks or build up of excessive pressure, McPadden explained.

The indictment shows in detail that in 2009 Eyvaz ordered hundreds of pressure transducers, which came from the U.S. company MKS. But again the indictment cites no real evidence that Eyvaz was ordering them to supply Iran’s enrichment facilities.

It refers only to photographs showing that MKS parts ended up in the centrifuge cascades at Natanz, which does constitute evidence that they came from Eyvaz.

Gareth Porter, an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy, received the UK-based Gellhorn Prize for journalism for 2011 for articles on the U.S. war in Afghanistan. His new book “Manufactured Crisis: the Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare”, was published Feb. 14.

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U.S. Blasted on Failure to Ratify IMF Reforms http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/u-s-blasted-failure-ratify-imf-reforms/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-blasted-failure-ratify-imf-reforms http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/u-s-blasted-failure-ratify-imf-reforms/#comments Sat, 12 Apr 2014 00:31:45 +0000 Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133620 While Republicans complain relentlessly about U.S. President Barack Obama’s alleged failure to exert global leadership on geo-political issues like Syria and Ukraine, they are clearly undermining Washington’s leadership of the world economy. That conclusion became inescapable here during this week’s in-gathering of the world’s finance ministers and central bankers at the annual spring meeting here […]

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By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Apr 12 2014 (IPS)

While Republicans complain relentlessly about U.S. President Barack Obama’s alleged failure to exert global leadership on geo-political issues like Syria and Ukraine, they are clearly undermining Washington’s leadership of the world economy.

That conclusion became inescapable here during this week’s in-gathering of the world’s finance ministers and central bankers at the annual spring meeting here of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.The delays are clearly damaging Washington’s global economic and geo-political agenda: persuading other G20 countries to adopt expansionary policies and punish Moscow for its moves against Ukraine.

In the various caucuses which they attended before the formal meeting began Friday, they made clear that they were quickly running out of patience with Congress’s – specifically, the Republican-led House of Representatives – refusal to ratify a 2010 agreement by the Group of 20 (G20) to modestly democratise the IMF and expand its lending resources.

“The implementation of the 2010 reforms remains our highest priority, and we urge the U.S. to ratify these reforms at the earliest opportunity,” exhorted the G20, which represent the world’s biggest economies, in an eight-point communiqué issued here Friday.

“If the 2010 reforms are not ratified by year-end, we will call on the IMF to build on its existing work and develop options for next steps…” the statement asserted in what observers here called an unprecedented warning against the Bretton Woods agencies’ most powerful shareholder.

The message was echoed by the Group of 24 (G24) caucus, which represents developing countries, although, unlike the G20, its communique didn’t mention the U.S. by name.

“We are deeply disappointed that the IMF quota and governance reforms agreed to in 2010 have not yet come into effect due to non-ratification by its major shareholder,” the G24 said.

“This represents a significant impediment to the credibility, legitimacy and effectiveness of the Fund and inhibits the ability to undertake further, necessary reforms and meet forward-looking commitments.”

The reform package, the culmination of a process that began under Obama’s notoriously unilateralist Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, would double contributions to the IMF’s general fund to 733 billion dollars and re-allocate quotas – which determine member-states’ voting power and how much they can borrow – in a way that better reflects the relative size of emerging markets in the global economy.

In addition to enhancing the IMF’s lending resources, the main result of the pending changes would increase the quotas of China, Brazil, Russia, India, and Turkey, for example, at the expense of European members whose collective representation on the Fund’s board is far greater than the relative size of their economies.

Spain, for instance, currently has voting shares similar in size to Brazil’s, despite the fact that the Spanish economy is less than two-thirds the size of Brazil’s. And of the 24 seats on the IMF’s executive board, eight to ten of them are occupied by European governments at any one time.

The reforms would only change the status quo only modestly. While the European Union (EU) members currently hold a 30.2 percent quota collectively, that would be reduced only to 28.5 percent. The biggest gains would be made by the so-called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) – from 11 percent to 14.1 percent — although almost all of the increase would go to Beijing.

Washington’s quota would be marginally reduced – from 16.7 percent to 16.5 percent, preserving its veto power over major institutional changes (which require 85 percent of all quotas). Low-income countries’ share would remain the same at a mere 7.5 percent collectively, although their hope – shared by civil-society groups, such as Jubilee USA and the New Rules for Global Finance Coalition — is that this reform will make future changes in their favour easier.

Thus far, 144 of the IMF’s 188 member-states, including Britain, France, and Germany and other European countries that stand to lose voting share, have ratified the package. But, without the 16.7 percent U.S. quota, the reforms can’t take effect.

The Obama administration has been criticised for not pressing Congress for ratification with sufficient urgency. But, realising that its allies’ patience was running thin, it pushed hard last month to attach the reform package to legislation providing a one-billion-dollar bilateral aid package for Ukraine during the crisis with Russia over Crimea.

While the Democratic-led Senate approved the attachment, the House Republican leadership rejected it, despite the fact that Kiev would have been able to increase its borrowing from the IMF by about 50 percent under the pending reforms.

House Republicans – who, under the Tea Party’s influence, have moved ever-rightwards and become more unilateralist on foreign policy since the Bush administration – have shown great distrust for multilateral institutions of any kind.

Both the far-right Heritage Foundation and the neo-conservative Wall Street Journal have railed against the reforms, arguing variously that they could cost the U.S. taxpayer anywhere from one billion dollars to far more if IMF clients default on loans, and that the changes would reduce Washington’s ability to veto specific loans.

They say the IMF’s standard advice to its borrowers to raise taxes and devalue their currency is counter-productive and could become worse given the Fund’s new emphasis on reducing income inequalities; and that, according to the Journal, the reforms “will increase the clout of countries with different economic and geo-political interests than America’s.”

Encouraged by, among others, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and their Wall Street contributors, some House Republicans have indicated they could support the reforms. But thus far they have insisted that they would only do so in exchange for Obama’s easing new regulations restricting political activities by tax-exempt right-wing groups.

Meanwhile, however, the delays are clearly damaging Washington’s global economic and geo-political agenda – persuading other G20 countries to adopt expansionary policies and punish Moscow for its moves against Ukraine – during the meetings here.

“The proposed IMF reforms are a no-brainer,” according to Molly Elgin-Cossart, a senior fellow for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress. “They modernise the IMF and restore American leadership on the global stage at a time when the world desperately needs it, without additional cost for American taxpayers.”

Further delay, especially now that the G20 appear to have set a deadline, could in fact reduce Washington’s influence.

While she stressed she was not prepared to give up on Congress, IMF managing director Christine Lagarde told reporters Thursday the Fund may soon have to resort to a “Plan B” to implement the reforms without Washington’s consent.

While she did not provide details of what are now backroom discussions, two highly respected former senior U.S. Treasury secretaries suggested in a letter published Thursday by the Financial Times that “the Fund should move ahead without the U.S. …by raising funds from others while depriving the U.S. of some or all of its longstanding power to block major Fund actions.”

C. Fred Bergsten and Edwin Truman, who served under Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, respectively, suggested that the IMF could make permanent an initiative to arrange temporary bilateral credit lines of nearly 500 billion dollars from 38 countries who could decide on their disposition without the U.S.

More radically, they wrote, the Fund could increase total country quota subscriptions that would remove Washington’s veto power over institutional changes.

“The U.S. deserves to lose influence if it continues to fail to lead,” the two former officials wrote.

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

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Developing Nations Seek U.N. Retaliation on Bank Cancellations http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/developing-nations-seek-u-n-retaliation-bank-cancellations/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=developing-nations-seek-u-n-retaliation-bank-cancellations http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/developing-nations-seek-u-n-retaliation-bank-cancellations/#comments Thu, 10 Apr 2014 23:07:29 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133573 The 132-member Group of 77, the largest single coalition of developing nations, has urged Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to provide, “as soon as possible…alternative options for banking services” in New York City following the mass cancellation of bank accounts of U.N. missions and foreign diplomats. The draft resolution, a copy of which was obtained by IPS, […]

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By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Apr 10 2014 (IPS)

The 132-member Group of 77, the largest single coalition of developing nations, has urged Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to provide, “as soon as possible…alternative options for banking services” in New York City following the mass cancellation of bank accounts of U.N. missions and foreign diplomats.

The draft resolution, a copy of which was obtained by IPS, is an “agreed text” which has the blessings of all 132 countries, plus China.

Responding to a demand by member states for reciprocal retaliation, the G77 requests the secretary-general to review the “U.N. Secretariat’s financial relations with the JP Morgan Chase Bank and consider alternatives to such financial institutions and to report thereon, along with the information requested.”

Chase bank handles billions of dollars in the accounts maintained by the United Nations and its agencies in New York city. Credit: UN Photo/Milton Grant

Chase bank handles billions of dollars in the accounts maintained by the United Nations and its agencies in New York City. Credit: UN Photo/Milton Grant

Currently, the bank handles billions of dollars in the accounts maintained by the United Nations and its agencies in New York City.

The Group expresses “deep concern” over the decisions made by several banking institutions, including JP Morgan Chase, in closing bank accounts of mostly developing countries, and diplomats accredited to the United Nations and their relatives.

The resolution, which is subject to amendments, cites the 1947 U.S.- U.N. headquarters agreement that “guarantees the rights, obligations and the fulfillment of responsibilities by member states towards the United Nations, under the United Nations Charter and international law.”

Additionally, it cites the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations as a regulatory framework for states and international organisations, in particular the working relationship between the United Nations and the City of New York.

Citing the two agreements, the G77 is calling for all “necessary measures to ensure permanent missions accredited to the United Nations and their staff are granted equal, fair and non-discriminatory treatment by the banking system.”

Asked for an official response, U.N. Spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told IPS: “We would not comment on a draft resolution.”

At a closed-door meeting of the G77 last month, speaker after speaker lambasted banks in the city for selectively cutting off the banking system from the diplomatic community, describing the action as “outrageous”.

Their anger was directed mostly at JP Morgan Chase (formerly Chemical bank) which was once considered part of the U.N. family – and a preferred bank by most diplomats – and at one time was housed in the secretariat building.

The G77 is expected to hold consultations with member states outside the Group, specifically Western nations, before tabling the resolution with the 193-member General Assembly later this month.

If any proposed amendments are aimed at weakening the resolution, the G77 will go for a vote in the Assembly with its agreed text, a G77 diplomat told IPS Thursday.

But with the Group having more than two-thirds majority in the Assembly, the resolution is expected to be adopted either with or without the support of Western nations.

If adopted by a majority vote, the secretary-general is expected to abide by the resolution and respond to its demands.

The draft resolution also requests the secretary-general to review and report to the General Assembly, within 120 days of its adoption, “of any obstacles or impediments observed in the accounts of permanent missions or their staff at the JP Morgan Chase Bank in the City of New York, and the impact these impediments have on the adequate functioning of their offices.”

And to this end, the G77 invites all members to provide the secretary-general with relevant information that will facilitate the elaboration of such report.

In an appeal to the United States, the G77 has also underscored the importance of the host country taking the necessary measures to ensure that personal data and information of persons affected by the closure of accounts is kept confidential by banking institutions, and requests the secretary-general to work with the host country in that regard and to report to the General Assembly within 90 days.

The closure of accounts was triggered by a request from the U.S. treasury, which wanted all banks to meticulously report every single transaction of some 70 “blacklisted” U.N. diplomatic missions, and individual diplomats – perhaps as part of a monitoring system to prevent money laundering and terrorism financing.

But the banks have said such an elaborate exercise is administratively expensive and cumbersome.

And as a convenient alternative, they have closed down, or are in the process of closing down, all accounts, shutting off banks from the diplomatic community in New York.

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Obama Says Gender Pay Gap Is No Myth, It’s Math http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/obama-says-gender-pay-gap-myth-math/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=obama-says-gender-pay-gap-myth-math http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/obama-says-gender-pay-gap-myth-math/#comments Wed, 09 Apr 2014 21:32:42 +0000 Farangis Abdurazokzoda http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133553 Since his re-election in 2012, President Barack Obama has stepped up his rhetoric around gender equality issues in the United States, but he has yet to get a partisan U.S. Congress to go along with a series of legislative proposals he put forward. On Tuesday, Obama bypassed Republican opposition by signing two executive orders aimed […]

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President Barack Obama signs executive actions to strengthen enforcement of equal pay laws for women, at an event marking Equal Pay Day, in the East Room of the White House, Apr. 8, 2014. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

President Barack Obama signs executive actions to strengthen enforcement of equal pay laws for women, at an event marking Equal Pay Day, in the East Room of the White House, Apr. 8, 2014. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

By Farangis Abdurazokzoda
WASHINGTON, Apr 9 2014 (IPS)

Since his re-election in 2012, President Barack Obama has stepped up his rhetoric around gender equality issues in the United States, but he has yet to get a partisan U.S. Congress to go along with a series of legislative proposals he put forward.

On Tuesday, Obama bypassed Republican opposition by signing two executive orders aimed at addressing wage disparities between men and women in the United States.

While the non-legislative executive orders he unveiled on Tuesday deal only with narrow issues, supporters say they offer an important initial attempt on Obama’s part to address stubborn disparities between how much money U.S. men versus women take home.

“Women make up nearly half of the nation’s workforce and are the primary breadwinners in 4 in 10 American households with children under age 18,” the president stated Tuesday in a speech at the White House. And yet “women still make only 77 cents to every man’s dollar. For African American women, Latinas, it’s even less.”

Obama said such statistics are an “embarrassment”. He is now calling on lawmakers and the public to recognise that it is the time for a valuation of individual’s contribution to the economy based solely on merit – and that this should not be constrained by gender.

Obama’s mandate will affect federal contractors, requiring that they publish wage data by both gender and race in order to ensure they’re complying with laws on wage equality that are already on the books. A second order prohibits those contractors from taking actions against employees who compare their salaries.

Tuesday is marked in the United States as Equal Pay Day.

“These orders … will help erase Equal Pay Day from the calendar,” the National Organisation for Women (NOW), and advocacy group, said Tuesday. “NOW applauds the executive orders President Obama is signing today, and what it represents — a step towards equality for women. It’s about recognising women’s work as equal to their male peers – and above all else, fairness.”

Some researchers suggest the wage-gap problem in the United States could be even greater than Obama indicates.

“Most studies I have seen that include many other characteristics of workers and the jobs using the same data tend to leave about 30 percent of the gender gap unexplained,” Jeffrey Hayes, study director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), a think tank, told IPS.

Hayes warns that it is possible to “overcontrol” such models.

“For example, you can statistically control for the occupations and industries in which women and men work and this would explain some of the gap,” he says. “But if access to the good-paying jobs is one of the mechanisms that could be discriminatory, the researcher could be underestimating discrimination if only the unexplained part is considered as potential discrimination.”

Despite long understanding of the issue of gender-based wage gap in the United States, the situation appears to have stayed roughly the same for at least the past decade.

According to a comprehensive 2013 IWPR study, the earnings gap – measured as the ratio of women’s median annual earnings for full-time year-round workers – was 76.5 in 2012, thus corroborating Obama’s figure. Further, that study indicates this number remained unchained since 2004.

The gender wage gap is “not a myth”, Obama said Tuesday. The IWPR study concurs, stating this disparity is “a reality for women across racial and ethnic groups”.

Political tactic?

President Obama has previously signed a bill that should help bridge the wage disparity between male and female. In fact, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act of 2009, named after a retired tire plant supervisor who discovered she was paid far less than her male counterparts, was the first bill signed by the president upon taking the office.

“From signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to establishing the Equal Pay Task Force, I have strengthened pay discrimination protections and cracked down on violations of equal pay laws,” Obama said Tuesday.

“And I will continue to push the Congress to step up and pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, because this fight will not be over until our sisters, our mothers, and our daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.”

Yet according to some estimates, the gender wage gap continues to extend right into the White House. A recent analysis by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a neoconservative think tank, found that female White House staff members on average earn 88 cents for every dollar that male staffers make.

Yet the National Organisation for Women is urging quick passage of the PFA.

“The Paycheck Fairness Act helps women fight the wage gap by requiring greater transparency from employers – who would have to show that wage differences are job-related and not gender-based – and protects employees from retaliation when they share information about compensation,” the group said Tuesday.

“NOW urges the Senate to pass this bill immediately. If equal pay for women were instituted immediately, across the board, it would result in an annual $447.6 billion gain nationally for women and their families. Over fifteen years, a typical woman loses $499,101 because she is paid less than a man. It’s unacceptable.”

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U.S.-Colombia Labour Rights Plan Falls Short http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/u-s-colombia-labour-rights-plan-falls-short/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-colombia-labour-rights-plan-falls-short http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/u-s-colombia-labour-rights-plan-falls-short/#comments Wed, 09 Apr 2014 00:18:23 +0000 Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133528 Three years after Colombia agreed to U.S. demands to better protect labour rights and activists, a “Labour Plan of Action” (LPA) drawn up by the two nations is showing mixed results at best, according to U.S. officials and union and rights activists from both countries. Pointing to continuing assassinations of union organisers, among other abuses, […]

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Military checkpoint on the Atrato River. Credit: Jesús Abad Colorado/IPS

Military checkpoint on the Atrato River. Credit: Jesús Abad Colorado/IPS

By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Apr 9 2014 (IPS)

Three years after Colombia agreed to U.S. demands to better protect labour rights and activists, a “Labour Plan of Action” (LPA) drawn up by the two nations is showing mixed results at best, according to U.S. officials and union and rights activists from both countries.

Pointing to continuing assassinations of union organisers, among other abuses, U.S. lawmakers and union leaders here are calling on President Barack Obama and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to do much more to ensure that the LPA achieves its aims.“In spite of numerous new labour laws and decrees... companies still are violating worker rights in Colombia with impunity." -- Richard Trumka

“(V)iolence against trade unionists continues; in the three years since the Labour Action Plan was signed, 73 more trade unionists were murdered in Colombia. That alone is reason enough to say the Labour Action Plan has failed,” said Richard Trumka, the president of the biggest U.S. union confederation, the AFL-CIO, Monday in response to a new report by the Colombia’s National Labour School (ENS).

“In spite of numerous new labour laws and decrees, and hundreds of new labour inspectors not a single company fined by the Ministry of Labour for violating the law and workers’ rights has paid up, and companies still are violating worker rights in Colombia with impunity,” he added.

For years Colombia has been considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world for trade unionists, more than 3,000 of whom have been killed since the mid-1980s.

While Colombia has long been given preferential trade treatment by Washington as part of its broader “war against drugs” in the Andean region, the administration of President George W. Bush negotiated a free-trade agreement (FTA) with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe in 2006.

But the deal was strongly opposed by the AFL-CIO, labour and human rights-groups, and their allies in Congress who refused to ratify the FTA without provisions designed to substantially improve the country’s labour rights performance.

The pact was essentially put on ice until Obama and Santos signed what is formally known as the United States–Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement in April 2011 to which the Labor Action Plan (LAP) was attached.

The LAP — which, among other provisions, required the Colombian government to protect union leaders; enact legislation to ensure that workers could become direct employees instead of subcontractors; establish a new ministry of labour; and prosecute companies that prevent workers from organising — aimed to bring Colombia’s labour practices up to international standards.

While the original intention was to delay the FTA’s implementation until after the LAP’s conditions had been met, Congress approved the FTA in October 2011.

The activists insisted this week that the approval was premature in that it relieved the pressure on the Santos government to fully carry out the LAP.

“The approval of the FTA by the United States Congress, without verifying full compliance with the LAP, significantly reduced the political will behind the plan and contributed to decisively in turning the LAP into a new frustration for Colombian workers,” according to a joint statement issued Monday by Trumka and the leaders of two of Colombia’s trade union movements, the Confederation of Workers of Colombia (CTC) and the Union of Colombian Workers (CUT).

The statement, which also called for a “serious review” of the FTA’s impact on Colombia’s agricultural and industrial sectors and on its exports to the U.S., was also signed by more than a dozen other trade-union and human rights groups in the U.S. and Colombia.

For its part, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), which oversees the implementation of both the LAP and the FTA, gave the record of the past three years a more positive spin in its own report released Monday.

“Three years ago, the Colombian Labor Action Plan gave the United States and Colombia an important new framework, tools and processes to improve safety for union members and protections for labor rights. We have made meaningful progress to date, but this is a long-term effort and there is still work to be done,” USTR Michael Froman said.

The department’s report noted that 671 union members have been placed in a protection programme, which in 2013 had a nearly 200 million dollar budget; that more than 250 vehicles had been assigned assigned to union leaders and labour activists for full-time protection; and that the prosecutor general has assigned over 20 prosecutors to devote full-time to crimes against union members and activists, among other achievements.

It also noted that the number of union members who have been murdered for their organising activities has been reduced to an average of 26 per year since the LAP took effect from an annual average of nearly 100 in the decade before it.

“The action plan has been a good effort, and I know the government [in Bogota] has been taking it seriously,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue (IAD), a hemispheric think tank.

“Of course, the activist groups are right to press harder for compliance and to hold both the U.S. and the Colombian governments to account on this, but the fact is that there has been progress and there should be more,” Shifter, a specialist on the Andean countries, told IPS.

In its report, the ENS concluded that the LAP had overall failed to produce meaningful results in protecting worker rights, including the right to be free from threats and violence or in prosecuting recent and past murders of trade union leaders.

“We would like to emphasize that thousands of workers and their trade union organizations have tried to make use of the new legal provisions that protect them against labor abuses, but mmost have found themselves more vulnerable since judges, prosecutors, and labor inspectors almost always refuse to provide the protection available under the new legal framework,” the ENS report concluded.

In many cases, it said, efforts to gain protection had “only backfired on workers,” particularly those working in ports and palm plantations.

ENS’s conclusions echoed those of a report released last October by U.S. Reps. George Miller and James McGovern, both of whom serve on the Congressional Monitoring Group on Labor Rights in Colombia.

“The ENS report reminds us that we have a very long way to go in successfully implementing the LAP and ensuring that workers can safely and freely exercise their fundamental rights,” the Group said, adding that the new U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Kevin Whitaker, make LAP’s implementation a priority and highlight illegal forms of hiring, the use of collective pacts by companies to thwart union organising, and the problem of impunity for anti-union activity.

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

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U.N. Non-Committal over U.S. Visa Refusal to Iranian Envoy http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/u-n-non-committal-u-s-visa-refusal-iranian-envoy/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-n-non-committal-u-s-visa-refusal-iranian-envoy http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/u-n-non-committal-u-s-visa-refusal-iranian-envoy/#comments Tue, 08 Apr 2014 21:44:30 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133526 When New York City was picked as the location for the United Nations many moons ago, the politically-important decision was followed by the 1947 U.S.-U.N. Headquarters Agreement which obligated Washington to facilitate – not hinder – the smooth functioning of the world body. But over the years, there have been clear violations of this agreement, […]

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Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (right) greets Hassan Rouhani, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, prior to a ministerial-level meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement on Sep. 27, 2013. Beside Mr. Rouhani is Javad Zarif, Iran’s Minister for Foreign Affairs. Credit: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (right) greets Hassan Rouhani, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, prior to a ministerial-level meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement on Sep. 27, 2013. Beside Mr. Rouhani is Javad Zarif, Iran’s Minister for Foreign Affairs. Credit: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Apr 8 2014 (IPS)

When New York City was picked as the location for the United Nations many moons ago, the politically-important decision was followed by the 1947 U.S.-U.N. Headquarters Agreement which obligated Washington to facilitate – not hinder – the smooth functioning of the world body.

But over the years, there have been clear violations of this agreement, as evidenced in the refusal of a visa to Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat to address the U.N. General Assembly back in 1988, and the current mass cancellations of bank accounts of over 70 U.N. missions and their diplomatic staff in New York."Iran is a founding member of the U.N. - regardless of political inclination." -- former ASG Samir Sanbar

And on Monday the U.S. Senate voted unanimously to urge the administration of President Barack Obama to refuse a visa to Iran’s newly appointed U.N. ambassador, Hamid Aboutalebi, on the grounds he was involved in the 1979 forcible takeover of the U.S. embassy and its diplomatic personnel in Tehran.

The ambassador-in-waiting says he was only a translator and negotiator between the hostages and the hostage takers – and that he was not even in Tehran when the embassy was physically taken over by a group called the Muslim Students.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who is currently visiting Africa, has implicitly refused to weigh in on the dispute, judging by the sentiments expressed by his deputy spokesperson.

Asked for a response, U.N. Deputy Spokesperson Farhan Haq told IPS it is essentially a bilateral dispute between the United States and Iran.

“Let’s see what develops and if we need to pronounce ourselves on that somewhere down the line, we’d look at what we need to say,” he said last week.

“I don’t think we are going to get ahead of the game and try to speculate what might happen based on current circumstances,” Haq added.

Asked whether the United States, as host country, can block any U.N. envoys taking office, he told reporters Tuesday he has no comments since it is being handled bilaterally.

Samir Sanbar, a former U.N. assistant secretary-general (ASG) who served in various capacities under five different secretaries-general, told IPS the Iranian case reflects confusion between bilateral politics and international diplomacy.

“While relations between two member states are subject mainly to dual reciprocal relations, membership of the international community would have wider inclusive guidelines including, for example, the 1947 U.N. Headquarters Agreement with the host country,” he added.

“With all due support for the Palestinian cause, a basic difference between Chairman Arafat’s visa-refusal is that while the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) had the status of an Observer, Iran is a founding member of the U.N. – regardless of political inclination,” said Sanbar, a former head of the U.N.’s Department of Public Information.

Just after the Senate vote, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf was quoted as saying that Washington had raised “serious concerns” with Iran about the envoy’s appointment.

She added, “But we do take our obligations as host nation for the United Nations very seriously.”

Asked if any ambassadors accredited to the United Nations had been refused visas, Haq told reporters that was a fairly long historical question.

“I think the U.N. Library has a lot of the resources that you need in terms of something that goes back through the entire history of the United Nations,” he said.

It would be difficult to find at this stage, he said, adding, “What I can tell you is there have been times when there have been differing problems about credentials, which have been resolved in different ways, but each case is basically unique.”

In his address to the 1988 General Assembly session in Geneva, perhaps the only one of its kind, Arafat took a swipe at Washington when he prefaced his statement by saying “it never occurred to me that my second meeting with this honourable Assembly, since 1974, would take place in the hospitable city of Geneva”.

That visa refusal took place under the administration of then U.S. President Ronald Reagan, a Republican.

Last month, an African ambassador who had his bank accounts arbitrarily cancelled told delegates it is time to seriously consider relocating the U.N. headquarters away from the United States because of the increasingly unfriendly environment to U.N. diplomats in New York City.

Sanbar told IPS when the General Assembly temporarily moved to Geneva to hear Arafat, the most senior U.S./U.N.Secretariat official at the time, Under-Secretary-General for General Assembly Affairs Ambassador Joseph Vernon Reed, who was politically a Republican like President Reagan, took a position of principled courage by going to oversee the politically-charged meeting.

He also said it will be interesting to note the stand taken by the current Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, a former U.S. ambassador in Lebanon and assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs who, as a U.N. official had already visited Tehran twice.

“By nature of its work, the U.N. is an Organisation of Peace. Any step towards reconciliation will be better than attempts at confrontation,” he said.

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Criminal Court a U.S.-Israeli “Red Line” for Palestinians http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/criminal-court-u-s-israeli-red-line-palestinians/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=criminal-court-u-s-israeli-red-line-palestinians http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/criminal-court-u-s-israeli-red-line-palestinians/#comments Mon, 07 Apr 2014 22:52:32 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133495 When Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas decided to defy the United States and Israel over stalled peace negotiations, he formally indicated to the United Nations last week that Palestine will join 15 international conventions relating mostly to the protection of human rights and treaties governing conflicts and prisoners of war. But he held back one of […]

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Riyad H. Mansour, Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine to the U.N., briefs journalists Apr. 2 on the signing of international treaties and conventions by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

Riyad H. Mansour, Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine to the U.N., briefs journalists Apr. 2 on the signing of international treaties and conventions by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Apr 7 2014 (IPS)

When Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas decided to defy the United States and Israel over stalled peace negotiations, he formally indicated to the United Nations last week that Palestine will join 15 international conventions relating mostly to the protection of human rights and treaties governing conflicts and prisoners of war.

But he held back one of his key bargaining chips that Israel and the United States fear most: becoming a party to the Rome Statute that created the International Criminal Court (ICC) to punish war crimes and genocide – and where Israelis could be docked.

Asked whether it was a wise move, Darryl Li, a post-doctoral research scholar at Columbia University, told IPS, “I would call it a clever move, not necessarily a wise one.”

There’s no question avoidance of ICC was deliberate, that’s clearly a U.S.-Israeli “red line,” he said. So it makes sense as a way to prolong negotiations.

A Flurry of Treaty Signing by Abbas

The United Nations said last week it had received 13 of the 15 letters for accession to international conventions and treaties deposited with the world body.

They include: the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations; Vienna Convention on Consular Relations; Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in armed conflict; Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Also included were the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties; International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; United Nations Convention against Corruption; Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide; International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid; International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Meanwhile, accession letters for the following two conventions were submitted respectively to the Swiss and Dutch representatives respectively: the Four Geneva Conventions of Aug. 12, 1949 and the First Additional Protocol, for the Swiss; and the Hague Convention (IV) respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its annex: Regulations Concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land, for the Dutch.

“But since the current framework for negotiations won’t yield just outcomes due to the Palestinians’ lack of leverage, I wouldn’t call it ‘wise’,” he declared.

And in a blog post for the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP) last week, Li underlined the political double standards: “Israel demands that Washington release the convicted spy Jonathan Pollard while the Palestinians are blamed for voluntarily shouldering obligations to respect human rights and the laws of war.”

Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said, “It is disturbing that the Obama administration, which already has a record of resisting international accountability for Israeli rights abuses, would also oppose steps to adopt treaties requiring Palestinian authorities to uphold human rights.”

He said the U.S. administration should press both the Palestinians and the Israelis to better abide by international human rights standards.

In a statement released Monday, HRW said Palestine’s adoption of human rights and laws-of-war treaties would not cause any change in Israel’s international legal obligations.

The U.S. government should support rather than oppose Palestinian actions to join international treaties that promote respect for human rights.

HRW also said that U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power last week testified before Congress that in response to the new Palestinian actions, the solemn commitment by the U.S. to stand with Israel “extends to our firm opposition to any and all unilateral [Palestinian] actions in the international arena.”

She said Washington is absolutely adamant that Palestine should not join the ICC because it poses a profound threat to Israel and would be devastating to the peace process.

The rights group pointed out the ratification of The Hague Regulations and Geneva Conventions would strengthen the obligations of Palestinian forces to abide by international rules on armed conflict.

Armed groups in Gaza, which operate outside the authority or effective control of the Palestinian leadership that signed the treaties, have committed war crimes by launching indiscriminate rocket attacks against Israeli population centres, HRW said.

HRW also said Washington appears to oppose Palestine joining human rights treaties in part because it is afraid they will gain greater support for Palestinian statehood outside the framework of negotiations with Israel.

Li said the choice of agreements signed indicated a desire to ruffle feathers but go no further.

Notably, Abbas did not sign the Rome Convention of the ICC, which would have exposed Israeli officials to the possibility, however remote, of prosecution for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Moreover, Abbas also declined to set into motion membership applications to any of the U.N.’s various specialised agencies, such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) or Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Such a move would have triggered provisions under U.S. law that automatically cut U.S. funding to those bodies, as occurred when Palestine joined the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 2011, Li wrote in his blog post.

Meanwhile, the group known as The Elders, which include former world political leaders, said in a statement Monday that the Palestinian move is consistent with the U.N. non-member observer state status obtained by Palestine in November 2012.

Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Norwegian prime minister and deputy chair of The Elders, said, “As a U.N. non-member observer state, Palestine is entitled to join international bodies. We welcome President Abbas’ decision to sign the Geneva Conventions and other important international human rights treaties.”

This move opens the way to more inclusive and accountable government in the West Bank and Gaza, she added.

It has the potential to strengthen respect for human rights and provide ordinary Palestinians with essential legal protections against discrimination or abuses by their own government, Brundtland noted.

“In global terms, it will also increase their ability to enjoy, in practice, the protection of their basic rights granted to them by international law,” she said.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, also a member of The Elders, said the decision by the Palestinians to exercise their right to join international organisations should not be seen as a blow to peace talks.

“I hope that, on the contrary, it will help to redress the power imbalance between Israelis and Palestinians, as we approach the 29 April deadline set by [U.S. Secretary of State John] Kerry.”

More than ever, he said, both parties urgently need to make the necessary compromises to reach a lasting peace with two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.

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Cuba’s Youth Were the Target of USAID’s ZunZuneo http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/cubas-youth-target-usaids-zunzuneo/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=cubas-youth-target-usaids-zunzuneo http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/cubas-youth-target-usaids-zunzuneo/#comments Sun, 06 Apr 2014 02:59:04 +0000 Patricia Grogg http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133449 The generations born in Cuba in the last two or three decades, permeated by the influences of societies that differ radically from the one their government is trying to build, are in the eye of the ideological storm that feeds the conflict between Havana and Washington. On Thursday Apr. 3 the White House acknowledged that […]

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A young Cuban man wearing a New York cap and an Adidas T-shirt using a cell-phone in Havana. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

A young Cuban man wearing a New York cap and an Adidas T-shirt using a cell-phone in Havana. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Patricia Grogg
HAVANA, Apr 6 2014 (IPS)

The generations born in Cuba in the last two or three decades, permeated by the influences of societies that differ radically from the one their government is trying to build, are in the eye of the ideological storm that feeds the conflict between Havana and Washington.

On Thursday Apr. 3 the White House acknowledged that from 2009 to 2012, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) was behind the ZunZuneo social network – the “Cuban Twitter” that targeted young people and reached a peak of 40,000 subscribers.

Its apparent aim was to destabilise and topple the government of Raúl Castro. But the programme came to an end when it ran out of funds.“For the White House spokesman to say that it’s not a covert operation is simply a bald lie.” – Peter Kornbluh

“Young people today dislike equally pressure [from the Cuban government] to go to the May 1 march and calls, through text messages, to hold protests,” 29-year-old journalist Antonio Rodríguez, who decided to immigrate to the Unites States for economic reasons and to join his father, told IPS. “It’s the same idea: telling them to do what others want them to do.”

However, “young people are the main target [for this kind of activity] because they are always the ones who push forward social changes. Older people have preconceived notions, while young people are rebellious by nature and try to change things.

“But we are very busy dealing with economic difficulties, caught up in the day to day. The spirit of protest, of holding strikes, has been lost,” he added.

Miguel Castro, a 32-year-old self-employed worker, said that people who are today 25 years old are the children of the crisis that broke out in Cuba in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which the Cuban economy depended on.

“Their political commitment to the historic generation [that experienced the 1959 revolution] has been injured; they haven’t seen the government update its discourse and adapt it to the reality and needs of the young,” he argued.

A study by the Centre for Psychological and Sociological Research found that “socio-political aspirations” continue to be important among university students, unlike among segments with lower levels of education or less skilled jobs, where political participation dropped to the bottom of their list of concerns.

Young people “are the perfect target group for this project which also benefited from the fact that it could be done remotely,” Latin America researcher Peter Kornbluh, of the Washington-based National Security Archive, which requests and publishes declassified U.S. government documents, told IPS.

“All of the good research on Cuban society points out that the younger generation is completely detached from the revolution. They’ve grown up almost entirely in this period – from the collapse of the Soviet Union onwards – they’ve never really seen the benefits of the Cuban revolution. They have an interest in communications and the modern world,” he added.

ZunZuneo – the term in Cuba for the noise made by “zunzunes” or hummingbirds – was based on text messages and took advantage of a Cuban problem: the restricted access to telecommunications and the Internet for the average Cuban, which the government blames on economic problems.

In May 2012, the authorities in Venezuela announced that the underwater fibre optic cable to Cuba was operational. But the Cuban government kept mum about it until January 2013, and an overall improvement in connectivity has not been noted.

The use of social networks has grown in Cuba since the government opened 145 Internet cafes, which offer connection to the worldwide web, international email service or the national web, depending on what the client pays for. And since March, cell-phone users can check their email using the domain @nauta.cu.

In this Caribbean island nation of 11.2 million people, as of mid-March there were two million people with cell-phones – more than the 1.27 million fixed lines, a density of just 28.9 per 100 inhabitants.

ZunZuneo was financed with 1.6 million dollars in funds that were publicly allocated to an unspecified USAID project in Pakistan.

The users never knew that a U.S. agency linked to the State Department was behind the network, or that the programme was gathering information to be used for political purposes in the future.

“This is a modern version of a CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] covert propaganda operation. In many ways, this is a classic covert operation with shell companies, cut-outs, multinational actors with companies in London and Spain and Managua, and hidden bank accounts,” said Kornbluh.

“For the White House spokesman [Jay Carney] to say that it’s not a covert operation is simply a bald lie. It looks like AID is the new CIA, particularly AID’s Office of Transitional Initiatives, which is a murky, mysterious entity clearly working covertly on regime change projects targeting Cuba,” he added.

The revelations about ZunZuneo were the result of an investigation published Thursday by the AP news agency, which created a considerable stir in the Cuban government and state-controlled media.

According to the AP report, the programme’s aim was to reach a critical mass of perhaps 200,000 subscribers, at which point political content would be introduced in the messages sent by ZunZuneo, in order to prompt Cubans to organise “smart mobs” – mass protests arranged via text message that could trigger a “Cuban spring”, a reference to the revolutions that broke out in 2011 in the Middle East.

In a statement to foreign correspondents to Cuba Thursday, Josefina Vidal, the head of the Foreign Ministry’s North American affairs division, said the ZunZuneo programme “shows once again that the United States government has not renounced its plans of subversion against Cuba.”

According to Kornbluh, USAID “gets 20 million dollars dumped into its coffers for its Cuba Democracy project every year, and it has to figure out creative ways to spend it.

“This was creative, but, in the end, it completely and utterly failed, just like the Alan Gross project failed,” he said, referring to the USAID contractor serving a 15-year sentence in Cuba for plotting against the state.

“This operation in hindsight looks silly except that its revelation right now threatens to undercut any momentum in Washington and Havana coming to a meeting of minds on better relations in the future,” Kornbluh stated.

With reporting by Ivet González in Havana and Jim Lobe in Washington.

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