Inter Press Service » North America http://www.ipsnews.net Turning the World Downside Up Thu, 21 Aug 2014 19:30:15 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.2 U.S., Brazil Nearing Approval of Genetically Engineered Treeshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/u-s-brazil-nearing-approval-of-genetically-engineered-trees/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-brazil-nearing-approval-of-genetically-engineered-trees http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/u-s-brazil-nearing-approval-of-genetically-engineered-trees/#comments Wed, 20 Aug 2014 23:35:52 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136255 By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Aug 20 2014 (IPS)

The U.S. and Brazilian governments are moving into the final stages of weighing approval for the commercialisation of genetically engineered eucalyptus trees, moves that would mark the first such permits anywhere in the world.

The Brazilian government is slated to start taking public comments on such a proposal during the first week of September. Similarly, U.S. regulators have been working on an environmental impact assessment since early last year, a highly anticipated draft of which is expected to be released any day.

Technician Christine Berry checks on futuristic peach and apple “orchards”. Each dish holds tiny experimental trees grown from lab-cultured cells to which researchers have given new genes. Credit: USDA Agricultural Research Service

Technician Christine Berry checks on futuristic peach and apple “orchards”. Each dish holds tiny experimental trees grown from lab-cultured cells to which researchers have given new genes. Credit: USDA Agricultural Research Service

Despite industry claims to the contrary, critics warn that the use of genetically engineered (GE) trees would increase deforestation. The approvals could also spark off a new era of such products, which wouldn’t be confined solely to these countries.

“If Brazil and the United States get permission to commercialise these trees, there is nothing to say that they wouldn’t just export these products to other countries to grow,” Anne Petermann, the executive director of the Global Justice Ecology Project (GJEP) and the coordinator of the Campaign to Stop GE Trees, a network that Wednesday announced a new global initiative, told IPS.

“These GE trees would grow faster and be more economically valuable, so it’s easy to see how current conventional plantations would be converted to GE plantations – in many parts of Africa, Latin America and Asia. Further, both Europe and the U.S. are currently looking at other genetically engineered trees that bring with them a whole additional range of potential impacts.”

While the United States has thus far approved the use of two genetically modified fruit trees, the eucalyptus is the first GE forest tree to near release. Similar policy discussions are currently taking place in the European Union, Australia and elsewhere, while China has already approved and is using multiple GE trees.

The plantation approach

The eucalyptus is a particularly lucrative tree, currently the most widely planted hardwood in the world and used especially to produce pulp for paper and paper products.

In the United States, the trees would also likely be used to feed growing global demand for biofuels, particularly in the form of wood pellets. In 2012 alone, U.S. exports of wood pellets increased by some 70 percent, and the United States is today the world’s largest such producer.

U.S. regulators are currently looking at two types of eucalyptus that have been genetically engineered to withstand frosts and certain antibiotics, thus allowing for plantations to be planted much farther north. The company requesting the approval, ArborGen, says the introduction of its GE seedlings would quadruple the eucalyptus’s range in the United States alone.

ArborGen has estimated that its sales could see 20-fold growth, to some 500 million dollars a year by 2017, if GE trees receive U.S. approval, according to a comprehensive report published last year by the Washington-based Center for Food Safety. Likewise, Brazilian analysts have suggested that the market for eucalyptus products could expand by some 500 percent over the coming two decades.

Yet the eucalyptus, which has been grown in conventional plantations for years, has been widely shown to be particularly problematic – even dangerous – in monoculture.

The eucalyptus takes unusually high levels of water to grow, for instance, and is notably invasive. The trees are also a notorious fire hazard; during a devastating fire in the U.S. state of California in the 1990s, nearly three-quarters of the blaze’s energy was estimated to come from highly combustible eucalyptus trees.

In addition, many are worried that approval of the GE proposals in the United States and Brazil would, inevitably, act as a significant boost to the monoculture plantation model of production.

“This model has been shown to be very negative for local communities and nature, expelling and restricting the access of people to their territories, depleting and contaminating water sources – especially in the Global South,” Winifridus Overbeek, coordinator of the World Rainforest Movement, a global pressure group, told IPS from Uruguay.

“Many of these plantations in Brazil have hindered much-needed agrarian land reform under which hungry people could finally produce food on their own lands. But under the plantation model, most of the wood produced is destined for export, to attend to the ever-increasing paper demand elsewhere.”

Overbeek says Brazilian peasants complain that “No one can eat eucalyptus.”

More wood, more land

Despite the rise of digital media over the past decade, the global paper industry remains a behemoth, responding to demand for a million tonnes of paper and related products every day. That amounted to some 400 million tonnes of paper used in 2010, according to the World Wildlife Fund, and could increase to 500 million tonnes per year by the end of the decade.

A key argument from ArborGen and others in favour of genetically engineered trees, and the plantation system more generally, is that increased use of “farmed” trees would reduce pressure on native forests. Indeed, ArborGen’s motto is “More Wood. Less Land”.

Yet as the world has increasingly adopted the plantation approach, the impact has been clear. Indonesia, for instance, has allowed for the clear-cutting of more than half of its forests over the past half-century, driven particularly by the growth of palm plantations.

According to U.N. data, plantations worldwide doubled their average wood production during the two decades leading up to 2010.  But the size of those plantations also increased by some 60 percent.

“While it sounds nice and helpful to create faster-growing trees, in reality the opposite is true. As you make these things more valuable, more land gets taken over for them,” GJEP’s Petermann says.

“Especially in Brazil, for instance, because we’ve seen an intensification of wood coming from each hectare of land, more and more land is being converted.”

In June, more than 120 environmental groups from across the globe offered a vision on comprehensive sustainability reforms across the paper sector, traditionally a key driver of deforestation. That document, the Global Paper Vision, encourages users and producers to “refuse fibre from genetically modified organisms”.

“Theoretically, arguments on the benefits of GE trees could be true, motivated by increasing competition for wood resources,” Joshua Martin, the director of the Environmental Paper Network (EPN), a U.S.-based umbrella group that spearheaded the vision document, told IPS.

“But ultimately this is an attempt to find a technological solution – and, we feel, a false solution given the dangers, both known and unknown, around this experimental use. Instead, we advocate for conservation and reducing consumption as logical first steps before manipulating nature and putting natural systems at risk of contamination.”

Edited by: Kitty Stapp

The writer can be reached at cbiron@ips.org

]]>
http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/u-s-brazil-nearing-approval-of-genetically-engineered-trees/feed/ 0
OPINION: Violations of International Law Denigrate U.N.http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/opinion-violations-of-international-law-degenerate-u-n/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-violations-of-international-law-degenerate-u-n http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/opinion-violations-of-international-law-degenerate-u-n/#comments Wed, 20 Aug 2014 14:54:49 +0000 Somar Wijayadasa http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136241 The U.N. flag flies at half-mast in memory of staff killed during the most recent Israeli air strikes in Gaza. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

The U.N. flag flies at half-mast in memory of staff killed during the most recent Israeli air strikes in Gaza. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

By Somar Wijayadasa
UNITED NATIONS, Aug 20 2014 (IPS)

The United Nations was founded “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights.

To meet that objective, the Preamble of the U.N. Charter provides “to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained”.Since the Second World War, these good and evil countries have waged hundreds of wars in which nearly 50 million people have been killed, tens of millions made homeless, and countless millions injured and bereaved.

The United Nations has played a major role in defining, codifying, and expanding the realm of international law – which defines the legal responsibilities of states in their conduct with each other, and their treatment of individuals within state boundaries.

Historically, violators of international law are not only the countries branded as evil and belligerent but also countries that preach democracy and human rights. That undermines the efforts of the United Nations to maintain law and order.

Since the Second World War, these good and evil countries have waged hundreds of wars in which nearly 50 million people have been killed, tens of millions made homeless, and countless millions injured and bereaved. No part of the world has escaped the scourge of war. The countless mechanisms enshrined in the U.N. Charter to resolve conflicts by peaceful means have been rendered useless.

Let’s forget Hiroshima, Vietnam, Korea and a few other major disasters. Let’s look at what happened after the Cold War ended in 1989, and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 – leaving the United States as the only superpower.

The mass murders in Rwanda and Sudan proved that neither the United Nations nor superpowers wished to intervene. Wars in the Balkans, and fragmentation of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia are now forgotten history.

The U.S. and NATO authorised bombings in Kosovo and Serbia in the 1990s. The Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen is over. International law was violated in all these instances, and these countries now are in disarray.

The United States has been criticised for turning away from internationalism by abandoning the Kyoto Protocol, ignoring the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, repudiating the Biological Weapons Convention, repealing the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, refusing to sign the Treaty establishing the International Criminal Court, and condoning the continued Israeli violence against Palestinians in occupied territories.

In 2011, following the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration embarked on a strategy of unilateralism, disregarding the U.N. and international law. Worst of all is its military strategy of “pre-emptive strikes” which defies the U.N. Charter by allowing the U.S. to use illegal force against other states.

Despite U.N. opposition, the Bush administration took a series of unilateral actions. The most damaging was the war in Iraq waged on bogus claims of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and the war in Afghanistan.

After a decade of devastation, the expectations of democracy, freedom and human rights have vanished – and there are no winners in these wars despite continuing mayhem and casualties.

U.S. President Barack Obama revealed that the two wars have cost U.S. taxpayers over one trillion dollars. A study by American researchers (including Noble Laureate Joseph Stieglitz and experts from Harvard and Brown), estimate that the costs could be in the range of three to four trillion.

A major challenge to international law today is the U.S. policy of using aerial drones to carry out targeted killings.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) estimates that as many as 4,000 people have been killed in U.S. drone strikes since 2002 in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Of those, a significant proportion were civilians.

UCLA believes that “The U.S. policy instigated in 2006 is violating universally recognized customary international law on numerous counts: failure to discriminate between military and civilian objects, indiscriminate attacks, extrajudicial executions, attacks against places of worship.

“Ironically, the drone strikes could actually be classified as ‘international terrorism’, since they appear to have been often intended to coerce the civilian population and to influence the Pakistani government.”

Another major obstacle to peace in the Middle East and world security is the Israeli Occupation and expansion of settlements in occupied territories – acts that undermine International Law.

According to Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention — to which both Israel and the United States are signatories — prohibits any occupying power from transferring “parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”

Also, a landmark 2004 decision by the International Court of Justice confirmed the illegality of the Israeli settlements.

Since 1948, the U.N. has passed scores of resolutions declaring that all Israeli settlements outside of Israel’s internationally recognised borders are illegal but they have been blatantly ignored by Israel.

Condemning the recent Israeli attacks on homes, schools, hospitals, and U.N. shelters in Gaza that killed thousands of innocent civilians – a gross violation of the Geneva Conventions – U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said that “Israel was deliberately defying international law in its military offensive in Gaza and that world powers should hold it accountable for possible war crimes.”

Pillay said she was appalled at Washington consistently voting against resolutions on Israel in the Human Rights Council, General Assembly and Security Council.

Another inconspicuous violation is the application of “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) approved by the U.N., in 2005, which is now subtly used for regime changes.

The U.S. and NATO invoked R2P for military intervention in Libya on the pretext of a “no-fly zone” but ended in regime change. Today Libya is fragmented and is in the hands of rebels, forcing United States to evacuate its embassy staff and other foreign personnel in Libya.

The U.S. attempted to invoke the R2P mechanism in Syria even though there was no proof that the Assad regime killed its own people with chemical weapons.

President Obama was about to wage a war against Syria when a last-minute solution was found by the Russians to avert the war by removing Assad’s chemical weapons.

But the U.S. and its allies showed no interest in invoking R2P in the case of Darfur or in Israeli aggression against Palestinians in Gaza, where over 2,000 civilians were killed.

And no one is screaming to invoke R2P in East Ukraine despite the fact that already over 2,000 Ukrainians have been killed by Ukrainian military forces.

The United Nations has not played a fair role when invoking the Responsibility to Protect.

In 2002, the International Criminal Court (ICC) was established with a mandate to consider genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of aggression. But it is unfortunate that ICC mainly focuses on criminal cases in Africa, without looking at so many breaches of the law elsewhere.

The United States is not a signatory to the ICC but it cannot escape from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) where cases can be initiated by one state against another.

Actions of many powerful countries prove that they are sticking to the Rule of Power instead of enhancing the Rule of Law.

For over 200 years, America has been a devout apostle of equality and freedom – defending peace, democracy, justice and human rights. It is in this sense that a few former U.S. presidents believed in peace and not war.

President Truman said, “The responsibility of the great states is to serve and not dominate the peoples of the world” and President Kennedy said, “Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind.”

It is inconceivable that America, today, with its democratic history and unrivaled power, constantly violates international law instead of morally guiding the world towards peace, justice and prosperity.

Such actions not only erode the prestige of the United States and violate the U.N. Charter, but also undermine the effectiveness of the United Nations.

Somar Wijayadasa is a former Representative of UNAIDS at the United Nations.

Edited by: Kitty Stapp

]]>
http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/opinion-violations-of-international-law-degenerate-u-n/feed/ 0
Public Offers Support for Obama’s Iraq Interventionhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/public-offers-support-for-obamas-iraq-intervention/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=public-offers-support-for-obamas-iraq-intervention http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/public-offers-support-for-obamas-iraq-intervention/#comments Mon, 18 Aug 2014 23:50:31 +0000 Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136199 By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Aug 18 2014 (IPS)

Despite rising criticism of his foreign policy– even from his former secretary of state – U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision last week to carry out airstrikes against Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS) militants in northern Iraq enjoys relatively strong public support, at least so far.

Over half (54 percent) of respondents in a poll released here Monday by the Pew Research Center and USA Today said they approved of the airstrikes, which appear to have helped reverse some of the gains made by ISIS fighters against Kurdistan’s pesh merga earlier this month.The survey comes as the administration broadened its air campaign against suspected ISIS targets in northern Iraq and rushed arms and other supplies to U.S.-trained Iraq special forces units and the pesh merga.

Thirty-one percent said they disapproved of the strikes, while 15 percent of the 1,000 randomly selected respondents who took part in the survey, which was carried out between Thursday and Sunday, declined to give an opinion.

The poll found major partisan differences, with self-described Republicans markedly more hawkish than Democrats or independents, although a majority of Democratic respondents said they also supported the airstrikes.

However, a majority (57 percent) of Republicans said they were concerned that Obama was not prepared to go “far enough to stop” ISIS, while a majorities of Democrats (62 percent) and independents (56 percent) said they worried that he may go too far in re-inserting the U.S. military into Iraq three years after the last U.S. combat troops were withdrawn. Overall, 51 percent of respondents expressed the latter fear.

That concern was felt particularly strongly by younger respondents, members of the so-called “millennial” generation, whose foreign-policy views have tended to be far more sceptical of the effectiveness of military force than those of other generational groups, according to a number of polls that have been released over the past two years.

Thus, while respondents over the age of 65 were roughly equally split between those who expressed concern about Obama doing too little or going too far, more than two-thirds of millennials said they were worried about the U.S. becoming too involved in Iraq, while only 21 percent voiced the opposing view.

The survey comes as the administration broadened its air campaign against suspected ISIS targets in northern Iraq and rushed arms and other supplies to U.S.-trained Iraq special forces units and the pesh merga, the Kurdish militia whose forces proved unable to defend against ISIS’s initial advances that took its forces to within 35 kms of Erbil, Kurdistan’s capital.

When Obama last week announced Washington’s renewed intervention in Iraq, he stressed its limited aims: to protect Iraqi minorities, notably thousands of Yazidis besieged by ISIS on the slopes of Sinjar, against “genocide”, and Erbil, where the U.S. has a consulate and hundreds of personnel, including dozens of U.S. military advisers, part of a much larger contingent dispatched to Iraq in June after ISIS conquered Mosul, the country’s second-largest city and routed several divisions of the Iraqi army.

Obama also said Washington intended to protect “critical infrastructure” in the region, which he did not define further at the time. In a letter to Congress released Sunday, however, he declared that ISIS’s control of the strategic Mosul dam, which is Iraq’s largest and supplies much of the country with water and electricity, constituted a threat to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

“The failure of the Mosul Dam could threaten the lives of large numbers of civilians, endanger U.S. personnel and facilities, including the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and prevent the Iraqi government from providing critical services to the Iraqi populace,” the letter asserted.

Indeed, U.S. warplanes and unmanned aircraft, operating in co-ordination with the pesh merga and Iraqi special forces, repeatedly struck ISIS positions there in the last few days. By Monday evening, the pesh merga and Iraqi government forces said they had successfully retaken the dam.

The initial success of the U.S. air campaign – 68 airstrikes have been carried out to date, according to Washington’s Central Command (CentCom) – follows Thursday’s resignation of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a critical step, in the administration’s view, toward establishing a less-sectarian government capable of reaching out to disaffected Sunnis who have joined or co-operated with ISIS without necessarily sharing the group’s extreme and violent ideology.

Obama has long insisted that U.S. military assistance to Baghdad would be calibrated according to the degree to which its Shia-led government was willing to compromise with the Sunni and Kurdish minorities.

U.S. pressure helped persuade Maliki to step down in favour of Haider al-Abadi, a fellow-Shiite and Dawa party leader who Washington hopes will be more willing to share power with both Sunnis and Kurds. But experts here give as much or more credit to Iran – the latest example – along with critical role played by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is considered by the U.S. to be a terrorist group, in rescuing the Yazidis and bolstering the pesh merga — of how the growing threat posed by ISIS to the region’s various regimes has upset its geo-political chessboard.

The initial success of both Obama’s military intervention and his role in removing Al-Maliki will likely help counter the steadily accumulating chorus of attacks – mostly by neo-conservatives and Republicans – on his foreign-policy prowess.

Even some in his own party, including, most recently, his former secretary of state and presumptive 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, have complained that he should have provided more support to “moderate” factions in Syria’s insurgency earlier in that country’s civil war and that he was too passive for too long in responding to ISIS’s advances in Al-Anbar province earlier this year.

But the latest survey, as most others released over the past year, suggest that Obama’s caution reflects the public mood, and especially the sentiments of younger voters, as well as the Democratic Party’s core constituencies.

In addition to asking whether they feared Obama would either do too much or too little in countering ISIS in Iraq, the pollsters asked respondents whether they thought the “U.S. has a responsibility to do something about the violence in Iraq.”

Overall, 44 percent answered affirmatively, while 41 percent said no, and 15 percent said they didn’t know.

Those results marked a major change from when the same question was posed in July. At that time 39 percent said yes, but a 55-percent majority answered in the negative, and six percent said they didn’t know.

While the change may be attributed to the sense of increased threat posed by ISIS to the U.S. itself, much of the news media coverage since the beginning of August focused on the plight of minority communities, especially Christians and Yazidis, threatened by ISIS’s latest campaign.

The percentage of respondants who believe the U.S. has a responsibility to take action in Iraq is significantly higher than the percentages that took the same position when the U.S. intervened in Libya and when Obama said he was prepared to conduct military action against Syria after the chemical attacks.

Detailed surveys about foreign-policy attitudes conducted over the past decade have suggested that U.S. respondents are most likely to favour unilateral military action in cases where it could prevent genocide or mass killings.

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.comHe can be contacted at ipsnoram@ips.org

Edited by: Kitty Stapp

]]>
http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/public-offers-support-for-obamas-iraq-intervention/feed/ 1
Despite Current Debate, Police Militarisation Goes Beyond U.S. Bordershttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/despite-current-debate-police-militarisation-goes-beyond-u-s-borders/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=despite-current-debate-police-militarisation-goes-beyond-u-s-borders http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/despite-current-debate-police-militarisation-goes-beyond-u-s-borders/#comments Mon, 18 Aug 2014 23:27:13 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136197 "Hands Up, Don't Shoot": A rally in support of Michael Brown. Credit: Shawn Semmler/cc by 2.0

"Hands Up, Don't Shoot": A rally in support of Michael Brown. Credit: Shawn Semmler/cc by 2.0

By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Aug 18 2014 (IPS)

The shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer in the southern United States earlier this month has led to widespread public outrage around issues of race, class and police brutality.

In particular, a flurry of policy discussions is focusing on the startling level of force and military-style weaponry used by local police in responding to public demonstrations following the death Aug. 9 of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.“We have a lot of military equipment and hardware looking for a place to end up, and that tends to be local law enforcement.” -- WOLA's Maureen Meyer

The situation has galvanised support from both liberal and conservative members of Congress for potential changes to a law that, since the 1990s, has provided local U.S. police forces with surplus military equipment. The initiative, overseen by the Department of Defence and known as the “1033 programme”, originally came about in order to support law-enforcement personnel in the fight against drug gangs.

“We need to de-militarise this situation,” Claire McCaskill, one of Missouri’s two senators, said last week. “[T]his kind of response by the police has become the problem instead of the solution.”

In a widely read article titled “We Must Demilitarize the Police”, conservative Senator Rand Paul likewise noted that “there should be a difference between a police response and a military response” in law enforcement.

During attempts to contain public protests in the aftermath of the shooting, police in Ferguson used high-powered weapons, teargas, body armour and even armoured vehicles of types commonly used by the U.S. military during wartime situations. Now, it appears the 1033 programme will likely come under heavy scrutiny in coming months.

“Congress established this programme out of real concern that local law enforcement agencies were literally outgunned by drug criminals. We intended this equipment to keep police officers and their communities safe from heavily armed drug gangs and terrorist incidents,” Carl Levin, chair of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, said Friday.

“[W]e will review this programme to determine if equipment provided by the Defense Department is being used as intended.”

Drugs and terrorism

Despite this unusual bipartisan agreement over the dangers of a militarised police force, there appears to be no extension of this concern to rising U.S. support for militarised law enforcement in other countries.

While a 2011 law requires annual reporting on U.S. assistance to foreign police, that data is not yet available. However, during 2009, the most recent data available, Washington provided more than 3.5 billion dollars in foreign assistance for police activities, particularly in Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Mexico, Pakistan and the Palestinian Territories.

According to an official report from 2011, “the United States has increased its emphasis on training and equipping foreign police as a means of supporting a wide range of U.S. foreign-policy goals,” particularly in the context of the wars on drugs and terrorism.

In the anti-terror fight, African countries are perhaps the most significant recipients of new U.S. security aid. Yet a new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) highlights the dangers of this approach, focusing on the U.S.-supported Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) in Kenya.

The report, released Monday, builds on previous allegations against the ATPU of arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. Yet neither the Kenyan authorities nor the ATPU’s main donors – the United States and United Kingdom – have seriously investigated these longstanding allegations, HRW says.

Washington’s support for the ATPU has been significant, amounting to 19 million dollars in 2012 alone. Yet while U.S. law mandates a halting of aid pending investigation of credible reports of rights abuse, HRW says Washington “has not scaled down its assistance to the unit”.

“The goals of supporting the police in general are laudable and in line with concerns over rule of law,” Jehanne Henry, a senior researcher with HRW’s Africa division, told IPS.

“The problem here is it’s clear that, notwithstanding the goals of the assistance, it’s serving to undermine rule of law because the ATPU is taking matters into its own hands. So, our call is for donors to be smarter about providing this kind of assistance.”

Unseen since the 1980s

Meanwhile, Mexico and Latin American countries have been seeing an uptick in U.S. assistance for security forces as part of efforts to crack down on the drug trade.

“Currently the Central American governments are relying more and on their militaries to address the recent surge in violence,” Adriana Beltran, a senior associate for citizen security at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a watchdog group here.

“While the U.S. is saying it’s not providing any assistance to these forces, there is significant assistance being provided through the Department of Defence for counter-narcotics, which is channelled through the militaries of these countries.”

According to a new paper from Alexander Main, a senior associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), a think tank here, U.S. security assistance to the region began strengthening again during the latter years of President George W. Bush’s time in office.

“Funding allocated to the region’s police and military forces climbed steadily upward to levels unseen since the U.S.-backed ‘dirty wars’ of the 1980s,” Main writes, noting that a “key model” for bilateral assistance has been Colombia. Since 1999, an eight-billion-dollar programme in that country has seen “the mass deployment of military troops and militarized police forces to both interdict illegal drugs and counter left-wing guerrilla groups”.

Yet last year, nearly 150 NGOs warned that U.S. policies of this type, which “promote militarization to address organized crime”, had been ineffective. Further, the groups said, such an approach had resulted in “a dramatic surge in violent crime, often reportedly perpetrated by security forces themselves.”

Mexico has been a particularly prominent recipient of U.S. security aid around the war on drugs.

“From the 1990s onward, the trend has been to encourage the Mexican government to involve the military in drug operations – and, over the past two years, also in public security,” Maureen Meyer, a senior associate on Mexico for WOLA, told IPS.

In the process, she says, civilian forces, too, have increasingly received military training, leading to concerns over human rights violations and excessive use of force, as well as a lack of knowledge over how to deal with local protests – concerns startlingly similar to those now coming out of Ferguson, Missouri.

“You can see how disturbing this trend is in the United States, and we are concerned about a similar trend towards militarised police forces in Latin American countries,” Meyer notes. “We have a lot of military equipment and hardware looking for a place to end up, and that tends to be local law enforcement.”

Edited by: Kitty Stapp

The writer can be reached at cbiron@ips.org

]]>
http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/despite-current-debate-police-militarisation-goes-beyond-u-s-borders/feed/ 1
Does Iceland Gain From Whaling?http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/does-iceland-gain-from-whaling/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=does-iceland-gain-from-whaling http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/does-iceland-gain-from-whaling/#comments Mon, 18 Aug 2014 07:39:28 +0000 Lowana Veal http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136177 Two fin whaling boats in Reykjavik harbour, shortly before heading out to sea. Credit: Lowana Veal/IPS

Two fin whaling boats in Reykjavik harbour, shortly before heading out to sea. Credit: Lowana Veal/IPS

By Lowana Veal
REYKJAVIK, Aug 18 2014 (IPS)

Although fin whaling by Icelanders has encountered increasing opposition over the last year, Icelandic whaling boats headed off to sea again in mid-June for the first hunt of the summer and by August 14 had killed 80 fin whales.

The story of what then happens to the whales once they have been taken back to Iceland is part mystery and part an economic balancing act between the country’s economic interests and its international image.

As soon as the whales are landed in Iceland, work begins on dismembering the whales. But does the meat get sold and where? How much money does it bring in for the Icelandic economy? And are the costs involved more than the revenue?

All of the whale meat is sent to Japan, but Hvalur hf, the only Icelandic company that hunts fin whales, has encountered a great deal of resistance in transporting it there and has had to resort to commissioning a ship to take the meat directly from Iceland to Japan, undoubtedly leading to extra costs.“The story of what happens to the whales once they have been taken back to Iceland is part mystery and part an economic balancing act between the country’s economic interests and its international image”

IPS was unable to find out the fate of the fin meat sent to Japan earlier this year. Two months after arriving at its final destination, a Japanese source, who did not want to be named, told IPS: “My colleague told me that the whale blubber is still in the cold storage of Osaka customs.” The Japanese embassy in Reykjavik acknowledges that there is at least some sale of fin whale meat, but actual figures do not seem to be available.

Earlier this year, a group of North American animal rights and environmental groups started to pressure North American companies to stop buying fish from Icelandic fishing company HB Grandi because of its links with Hvalur hf. Almost immediately, the Canadian/U.S. company High Liner Foods said it would no longer buy fish from HB Grandi and a number of other companies followed suit, including the U.S. health food chain Whole Foods.

The campaigners also called on U.S. President Barack Obama to invoke the Pelly Amendment, which allows the President to embargo any and all fisheries products from countries operating in a way that undermines a conservation treaty – in this case, the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling.

Obama decided to invoke the Amendment, and has already implemented one albeit diplomatic rather than economic action, which was not to invite Iceland to the large international “Our Ocean” conference hosted by the United States in June.

Besides the well-known Pelly Agreement, there is also the Packwood-Magnuson Amendment of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which allows the President to block foreign fleets from access to U.S. fisheries if their country is deemed to have diminished the effectiveness of an international conservation programme.

In 1984, Iceland and the United States signed an agreement whereby Iceland would obtain fishing permits in U.S. waters if it agreed to stop whaling. Due to various complications, although Iceland stopped whaling for 20 years in 1986, it did not start fishing in U.S. waters until December 1989 and then only caught a few tonnes of fish.

In spring this year, Social Democrat MP Sigridur Ingibjorg Ingadottir and seven other Icelandic opposition MPs tabled a parliamentary resolution calling for an investigation into the economic and trade repercussions for Iceland of whaling.

There was not enough time to discuss the matter in the last parliamentary session that ended mid-May, but Ingadottir is currently revising and updating the proposal with a view to submitting it early in the next parliamentary session, which starts in September.

“There are two main aspects to the proposal. One concerns the economic and trade interests of the country and the second Iceland’s image on an international scale,” she told IPS.

According to a report published in 2010, “In the years 1973-1985, when Hvalur hf pursued whaling of large cetaceans, whale processing usually stood for about 0.07 percent of GNP. The contribution of whaling itself to GNP is not known.” Minke whaling is not included in these figures.

Ingadottir, who trained as an economist, says that this figure is very low. “At that time, whaling was an industry and pursued systematically. Since then, a range of other large industries and commercial enterprises have sprung up, so the figure is likely to be lower,” she notes.

Gunnar Haraldsson, Director of the University of Iceland’s Institute of Economic Studies and one of the authors of the 2010 report, told IPS: “The problem is that no official figures exist on the returns of whale watching and various other parameters, thus there is a need to collect this sort of data specifically. It is therefore necessary to carry out a new study if we want to know what the national gains (and costs) actually are.”

Whale watching has blossomed over the last few years and at least 13 companies run whale-watching trips from various places around Iceland. Between 2012 and 2013, the number of whale watchers increased by 45,000, and the total number is now around 200,000 annually.

Three MPS had also called for an inquiry into whaling in the autumn of 2012. This was supposed to cover overall benefits to the economy, including economic interests, animal welfare issues and international obligations. A committee was set up to look into the organisation and grounds for whaling, but this petered out.

“The committee has not actually been dissolved, but it hasn’t met since the new government took over (in May 2013],” Asta Einarsdottir from the Ministry of Industries and Innovation told IPS. When asked why the committee had not met, Einarsdottir replied: “The Minister has not had a chance to meet with the Chair of the committee, despite repeated requests.”

Einarsdottir said that the committee was quite large and included representatives from the whale-watching and conservation sectors as well as from the whaling industry and various ministries.

Meanwhile, Icelandic lamb has also been affected by the whaling dispute. Over the last few years, Icelandic lamb has been exported to the United States and sold in the Whole Foods chain of shops under the banner of “Icelandic lamb”.

Last year, however, the chain decided not to brand the lamb as Icelandic because Iceland’s whaling activities had given Iceland a bad name. The expected increase in sales did not occur, and considerable pressure had to be applied to persuade them to keep selling the meat at all.

Ingadottir is forthright in her opinions. “Are they damaging our interests? Are they protecting a narrow group of interests rather than the national interest? What are we actually protecting with this whaling?” she asks, adding: “Iceland has to come up with very good reasons for pursuing whaling in order to continue doing it.”

(Edited by Phil Harris)

]]>
http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/does-iceland-gain-from-whaling/feed/ 0
Protecting America’s Underwater Serengetihttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/protecting-americas-underwater-serengeti/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=protecting-americas-underwater-serengeti http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/protecting-americas-underwater-serengeti/#comments Fri, 15 Aug 2014 16:09:49 +0000 Christopher Pala http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136151 The move would create giant havens where fish, turtles and birds could reproduce unhindered and edge back to their natural levels. Credit: ukanda/cc by 2.0

The move would create giant havens where fish, turtles and birds could reproduce unhindered and edge back to their natural levels. Credit: ukanda/cc by 2.0

By Christopher Pala
WASHINGTON, Aug 15 2014 (IPS)

U.S. President Barack Obama has proposed to more than double the world’s no-fishing areas to protect what some call America’s underwater Serengeti, a series of California-sized swaths of Pacific Ocean where 1,000-pound marlin cruise by 30-foot-wide manta rays around underwater mountains filled with rare or unique species.

Obama announced in June that he wants to follow in the steps of his predecessor George W. Bush, who in 2010 ended fishing within 50 nautical miles of five islands or groups of islands south and west of Hawaii. Bush fully protected about 11 percent of their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), a total of 216,000 km2, by declaring them marine national monuments under the Antiquities Act, which does not require the approval of Congress.“This would be by far single greatest act of marine conservation in history.” -- Fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly

Obama is expected to use the same tool to extend the ban to 200 nautical miles and protect the rest of the EEZs, or a whopping 1.8 million km2. Given that the only two other giant fully protected areas, the U.K.’s Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean and the U.S. Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, total about one million km2, Obama would more than double the no-take areas of the world’s oceans.

“This would be by far the single greatest act of marine conservation in history,” said Daniel Pauly, a prominent fisheries scientist at the University of British Columbia. “It’s particularly welcome because overfishing is shrinking the populations of fish almost everywhere.”

By increasing the number of fish, the closure would boost genetic diversity, which will be increasingly valuable as marine species adapt to an ocean that is becoming warmer and more acidic at unprecedented speeds, he explained. The area is rich in sea-mounts, underwater mountains where species often evolve independently.

The move would create giant havens where fish, turtles and birds could reproduce unhindered and edge back to their natural levels. The Pacific bigeye tuna population, the most prized by sushi lovers after the vanishing bluefin, is down to a quarter of its unfished size, according to official estimates, and calls for reducing their take have been ignored.

The five roundish EEZs are called PRIAs, for Pacific Remote Island Areas. They are: Wake Atoll, north of the Marshall Islands; Johnston Atoll, southwest of Hawaii; Palmyra and Kingman Reef, in the U.S. Line Islands south of the Kiribati Line Islands; Jarvis, just below, and Howland and Baker, which abut Kiribati’s 408,000 km2-Phoenix Islands Protected Area. President Anote Tong has pledged to end all commercial fishing in the Phoenix protected area by Jan 1, 2015. The two areas together would create a single no-take zone the size of Pakistan, by far the world’s biggest.

None of the islands have resident populations. Palmyra has a scientific station with transient staff and Wake and Johnson are military, with small staffs. The others are uninhabited.

“These islands are America’s Serengeti,” said Douglas McCauley, a marine ecologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara who once worked as an observer on a long-lining vessel based in Honolulu. “That’s where you can still find the grizzlies and the buffaloes of the sea.”

In Honolulu Monday, a public hearing recorded testimony from opponents and supporters. Though only four percent of the take of the Hawaii fleet in 2012 came from PRIAs, criticism from fishermen ran strong. A local television station headlined its story, “It’s designed to protect the environment, but could it put local fishermen out of business?”

Opposition was led by the Western Pacific Fisheries Advisory Council, known as Wespac and controlled by the local fishing industry. Wespac issued a report citing the “best available scientific information” that asserted the closure was unnecessary because, it claimed, the fisheries in the five areas, which are open only to U.S. vessels, were healthy and sustainable.

Like many academics, McCauley, the ecologist, disagreed. He pointed to official statistics that show the Pacific tuna, the world’s most valuable fishery, are becoming smaller and fewer, the result of the same kind of overfishing that pummeled populations in the other tropical oceans.

John Hampton, the Central and Western Pacific fishery’s chief scientist, analyses whole stocks – in this case Pacific populations of skipjack, bigeye, albacore and yellowfin, along with billfish like marlin and swordfish. He said closing even such large areas won’t help because the fish move around the entire ocean.

But studies have shown that varying percentages of tuna are actually quite sedentary and stay inside PRIA-sized areas; most Hawaii yellowfin, for instance, stay within a few hundred miles of the islands.

McCauley pointed to statistics collected by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service that show that the number of fish caught per 1,000 hooks by long-line vessels is higher in the PRIAs than in non-U.S. waters. For skipjack and albacore tuna, the ratio is two to one, and for yellowfin it’s six to one.

“This indicates that there’s already more fish inside the PRIAs, which illustrates that if you fish less, the population increases,” he said.

Alan Friedlander, a marine ecologist at the University of Hawaii, said even seabirds, the category of birds undergoing the steepest decline, would benefit from a ban on fishing.

Many species depend on tuna and other predators that feed on schools of small fish by driving them to the surface, where the birds can pick them off. “If you have more tuna, there’s going to be more prey fish driven to the surface and that will help the sea birds,” Friedlander said.

McCauley agreed and noted that historically, efforts to prevent the complete collapse of overfished species had focused on the species themselves.” “But by closing giant areas like these, you allow the ecosystem to become whole again,” he said.

Edited by: Kitty Stapp

]]>
http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/protecting-americas-underwater-serengeti/feed/ 0
U.S. Urged to Put Development Aid over Border Securityhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/u-s-urged-to-put-development-aid-over-border-security/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-urged-to-put-development-aid-over-border-security http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/u-s-urged-to-put-development-aid-over-border-security/#comments Fri, 15 Aug 2014 15:24:28 +0000 Julia Hotz http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136144 By Julia Hotz
WASHINGTON, Aug 15 2014 (IPS)

When U.S lawmakers departed Washington for a month-long recess, they left behind a simmering debate over what to do about the tens of thousands of Central American children and adults that continue to cross the U.S. southern border.

Many potential solutions have been tabled as to how the federal government should handle the unprecedented influx. Yet these strategies, which include two proposals pending in Congress, are built on starkly differing views over why these migrants are leaving their homes in the first place.

“The question is simple,” Manuel Orozco, a senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank here, told IPS. “Are people migrating because of security and opportunity, or are people migrating from danger and violence?”

Many in the Latino community are disappointed by U.S. President Barack Obama's failure to push through comprehensive immigration reform. Credit: Valeria Fernandez/IPS

Many in the Latino community are disappointed by U.S. President Barack Obama’s failure to push through comprehensive immigration reform. Credit: Valeria Fernandez/IPS

Orzoco’s field research, released this week, seems to point to the latter.

“[I]ntentional homicides emerge as a more powerful driver of international migration than human development,” his report notes, cautioning that “migrants are primarily coming from some of the most populous violent municipalities in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.”

“They’re actually, for the most part, escaping for fear for their life,” he says, clarifying that these threats apply to both minors and adults in Central America.

Yet despite the fact that Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras – collectively known as the Northern Triangle – produce higher homicide rates than war zones such as Afghanistan or Iraq, some U.S. lawmakers doubt that this phenomenon is responsible for recent months’ mass Central American migration.

Instead, sceptics attribute the inflow of tens of thousands of migrants to President Barack Obama’s immigration policies.

For these lawmakers, then, the answer is more security at the southern border.

Indeed, this is precisely what the Republican-led House of Representatives has prioritised in its current bill worth some 700 million dollars, more than half of which would be allocated to tighten security along the southern U.S. border. The remainder would be used to accelerate deportations.

President Obama has said he would veto the bill, calling it “extreme” and “unworkable”.

Orzoco, too, considers the security-focused approach to be “myopic”. Instead, he and others say that lawmakers must focus on increasing assistance to Central America – dealing directly with the poverty and violence that appear to be spurring much of the recent influx.

“It’s good not to look just under security lines, and that we invest in real economic development while also addressing the security situation,” Adriana Beltran, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a watchdog group here, told IPS.

1.3 percent

U.S. aid to Central America has historically been weak. In 2013, the region received just 1.3 percent of U.S. foreign assistance, according to a new fact sheet from the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition (USGLC), a Washington-based network of businesses and NGOs.

But the White House has put forward a proposal that would bolster Central American assistance by some 300 million dollars. Larry Knowles, a consultant with the USGLC, informed IPS of the bill’s relative breakdown.

While one third of this aid would go towards improving governance standards, including fiscal and judicial reform, another third would go towards economic development, and the remainder would be earmarked for crime-prevention efforts, youth-at-risk programmes and reintegration initiatives.

The fate of that bill remains unclear, however, as it is unlikely to pass the House of Representatives. Unlike the Senate, the House has not declared Central America’s internal strife worthy of “emergency aid appropriations”.

Still, the general thrust has received significant applause in certain quarters. The Inter-American Dialogue’s Orzoco is enthusiastic, suggesting the assistance could be used to improve Central America’s education, strengthen its labour force’s skills, and aid small businesses.

“There needs to be a much more inclusive strategy to address all of these problems,” Orzoco said.

Such analysis is also supported by Oscar Calvo-Gonzalez, chief economist for Central America at the World Bank, though he cautions that violence is “one of the many causes that drive people to move.”

Calvo-Gonzalez says that municipal-level programmes that can help the situation.

“Crime is a highly localised phenomenon, so you want to have highly localised intervention,” Calvo-Gonzales told IPS.

Economic growth in Central America must be shared, Calvo-Gonzalez emphasises, citing high inequality and “limited opportunities for advancement” as his primary concerns.

“Central America stands out as poverty has not declined consistently,” he says, “though [poverty in] the rest of Latin America has declined, Central America’s poverty is stagnant.”

He says the World Bank has been working in Central America to mobilise additional tax revenues and build the capacity of domestic governments in the region.

WOLA’s Beltran echoed the effectiveness of such a localised approach, calling in particular for greater investment in violence prevention.

“There is evidence of programmes working at the community level to address youth violence and security,” she says, citing a 40 percent  reduction in Honduras’ Santa Tecla as one such example. “Social services, the police, the church and other local bodies can come together to find a solution.”

Shared responsibility

For the Inter-American Dialogue’s Orzoco, fixing such problems is beyond the domain of the Northern Triangle and its governments. “These issues require responsibility of both Central American governments and the United States’ government,” he says.

Orzoco justifies strengthened U.S. development assistance for the region by first pointing to the shortcomings of Central American efforts, listing an ongoing lack of legislation and inadequate initiatives to “prevent the continuing outflow of kids” as examples.

“Central American governments, so far, have not been very accountable,” he says.

Orzoco also says the U.S. government has generally refused to share responsibility for Central America’s problems, despite Washington’s history of economic and political hegemony and interventions in the region. He points, for instance, to a “complete neglect” of organised crime.

“What organised crime has done is create an ecosystem of irregular economic activity that presents itself as a profitable one, given the context of property,” Orzoco says.

Other analysts have gone further, suggesting that the United States has contributed to the region’s growth in organised crime through its “war on drugs” and fostering of influential gangs in U.S. prisons.

But Orzoco cautions that despite the United States’ qualified intention to assist Central America, some lawmakers may be doing so for political purposes – a factor that will only continuing to strengthen as the November elections here draw closer.

Edited by: Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at hotzj@union.edu

]]>
http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/u-s-urged-to-put-development-aid-over-border-security/feed/ 0
U.S. Waives Sanctions on Myanmar Timberhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/u-s-waives-sanctions-on-myanmar-timber/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-waives-sanctions-on-myanmar-timber http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/u-s-waives-sanctions-on-myanmar-timber/#comments Thu, 14 Aug 2014 20:49:42 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136138 Commercial logging and firewood extraction for domestic use have accelerated Myanmar's deforestation rates in the last three decades. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Commercial logging and firewood extraction for domestic use have accelerated Myanmar's deforestation rates in the last three decades. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Aug 14 2014 (IPS)

Civil society groups are split over a decision by the U.S. government to waive sanctions on Myanmar’s timber sector for one year.

The decision, which went into effect late last month, is being hailed by some as an opportunity for community-led and sustainability initiatives to take root in Myanmar, where lucrative forestry revenues have long been firmly controlled by the military and national elites. The European Union, too, is currently working to normalise its relations with the Myanmarese timber sector.“The concern is that the system that is gaining traction with the international timber industry is to bypass any national systemic forestry reform process.” -- Kevin Woods of Forest Trends

Yet others are warning that Washington has taken the decision too soon, before domestic conditions in Myanmar are able to support such a change.

“Lifting sanctions on the timber industry now appears to be a premature move by the U.S., and risks lessening Burma’s impetus towards reform,” Ali Hines, a land campaigner with Global Witness, a watchdog group, told IPS.

“Burma is not yet in a position to state convincingly where and how timber is sourced, meaning that U.S. importers and traders have little way of knowing whether Burmese timber is illegal, or linked to social or environmental harm.”

In June, Washington granted a limited one-year license to the 200 members of the U.S.-based International Wood Products Association (IWPA) to engage in transactions with the Myanma Timber Enterprise, the state logging agency. U.S. officials say the aim of the decision is to allow U.S. companies and customers to help strengthen reforms in the Myanmarese timber trade, hopefully promoting transparency and building nascent sustainability practices.

“Interaction with responsible business can help build basic capacity so that Burma can begin to tackle the long-term systemic issues present in its extractive sectors,” Kerry S. Humphrey, a media advisor with the U.S. State Department, told IPS.

“The State Department has been in consultations with IWPA to ensure that any trade conducted under this license is in line with U.S. Government policies, including promoting sustainable forest management and legal supply chains.”

Humphrey notes that IWPA will now be required to file quarterly reports with the State Department on its “progress in helping to ensure legal timber supply chains”.

Yet critics worry this will simply create two parallel timber sectors, one licit and another that is little changed. The industry, as with Myanmar’s broader extractives sector, has long been notorious for deep corruption and human rights abuses.

“The concern is that the system that is gaining traction with the international timber industry is to bypass any national systemic forestry reform process,” Kevin Woods, a Myanmar researcher with Forest Trends, a watchdog group, told IPS.

Instead, Woods says, the end result could be to “create a wall around a few government-managed timber reserves to feed global tropical timber demand, leaving the rest of the country’s forests located in ethnic conflict zones to be continually pillaged and sold across its borders.”

Free-for-all?

Nearly a half-decade after Myanmar began a stuttering process of pro-democratic reform, many today are increasingly concerned that this process is slowing or even reversing course. Late last month, 72 members of the U.S. Congress warned U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that conditions in the country have “taken a sharp turn for the worse” over the past year and a half.

Kerry was in Myanmar over the past weekend, where he reportedly raised U.S. concerns over such regression with multiple top government officials.

Yet he also rejected concerns that Washington is “moving too quickly” in rolling back punitive bilateral sanctions on Myanmar. He had gone through “a long list of challenges” with Myanmarese officials, Kerry told journalists Sunday, “in a very, very direct way”.

With the removal of sanctions, however, many worry that Washington is losing important leverage. In the timber sector in particular, some question the extent to which U.S. and other foreign companies will have the wherewithal, or interest, to effect change on the ground in Myanmar – particularly given the tepid commitments made by the country’s government.

“This is not the time for U.S.-based timber importers to be investing in Burma,” Faith Doherty, a senior campaigner at the Environmental Investigation Agency, a watchdog group, told IPS.

“Secretary Kerry … raised serious questions as to the backsliding of reforms and continuing human rights abuses within the country – how do companies within the IWPA think they are able to avoid contributing to these issues that are prevalent throughout the timber sector?”

Indeed, some observers suggest that Myanmar’s opening-up has been accompanied by a sense of free-for-all.

“Illegal logging and natural resource grabbing, including land, in ethnic states and regions … have become worse since the reforms started and the influx of foreign investment into the country,” Paul Sein Twa, with the Burma Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organisation, told IPS.

“Remember, we are still in a fragile peace-building period and there is no rule of law in the conflict areas. So our recommendation is to go slowly on reforming law and policies – to open up more space, engage with civil society organisations and the ethnic armed groups.”

Certification momentum

Any ultimate success in reforming Myanmar’s forestry sector will depend on future actions by both the country’s government and the foreign companies that end up purchasing the country’s timber. Yet some are applauding the lifting of U.S. sanctions as an important opportunity to finally begin the work of reform.

“The problem with sanctions is that they restrict buyers in our country from engaging in the sector – the international marketplace, which today includes strong preferences for sustainable products, is inaccessible,” Josh Tosteson, a senior vice-president with the Rainforest Alliance, a group that engages in the certification of tropical forest products, told IPS.

“Particularly if the lifting of sanctions comes along with some commitments from significant buyers to work cooperatively to support and incentivise the march toward sustainability certification, that can inject some real energy to drive this process forward.”

This week, the Myanmar Forest Department accepted a proposal from the Rainforest Alliance for a pilot production community forest in the country’s south.

“Having market mechanisms there that provide a minimum preference and a new market norm that won’t allow anything other than responsible or sustainably produced products to enter the market – that will be the key element,” Tosteson says.

“Particularly in intra-Asian trade you’ll need to have buying companies get on board with these norms. That will be a significant challenge, but if they’re not stepping up to create these new market norms no other efforts will matter – illicit products will simply flow through the routes of least resistance.”

Edited by: Kitty Stapp

The writer can be reached at cbiron@ips.org

]]>
http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/u-s-waives-sanctions-on-myanmar-timber/feed/ 0
Cry for Argentina: Fiscal Mismanagement, Odious Debt or Pillage?http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/cry-for-argentina-fiscal-mismanagement-odious-debt-or-pillage/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=cry-for-argentina-fiscal-mismanagement-odious-debt-or-pillage http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/cry-for-argentina-fiscal-mismanagement-odious-debt-or-pillage/#comments Thu, 14 Aug 2014 20:01:34 +0000 Ellen Brown http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136137 By Ellen Brown
SONOMA, California, Aug 14 2014 (IPS)

Argentina has now taken the U.S. to The Hague for blocking the country’s 2005 settlement with the bulk of its creditors. The issue underscores the need for an international mechanism for nations to go bankrupt.

Better yet would be a sustainable global monetary scheme that avoids the need for sovereign bankruptcy.Better than redesigning the sovereign bankruptcy mechanism might be to redesign the global monetary scheme in a way that avoids the continual need for a bankruptcy mechanism.

Argentina was the richest country in Latin America before decades of neoliberal and IMF-imposed economic policies drowned it in debt. A severe crisis in 2001 plunged it into the largest sovereign debt default in history.

In 2005, it renegotiated its debt with most of its creditors at a 70 percent “haircut.” But the opportunist “vulture funds,” which had bought Argentine debt at distressed prices, held out for 100 cents on the dollar.

Paul Singer’s Elliott Management has spent over a decade aggressively trying to force Argentina to pay down nearly 1.3 billion dollars in sovereign debt. Elliott would get about 300 million dollars for bonds that Argentina claims it picked up for 48 million. Where most creditors have accepted payment at a 70 percent loss, Elliott Management would thus get a 600 percent return.

In June 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a New York court’s order blocking payment to the other creditors until the vulture funds had been paid. That action propelled Argentina into default for the second time in this century – and the eighth time since 1827.

On Aug. 7, Argentina asked the International Court of Justice in the Hague to take action against the United States over the dispute.

Who is at fault? The global financial press blames Argentina’s own fiscal mismanagement, but Argentina maintains that it is willing and able to pay its other creditors. The fault lies rather with the vulture funds and the U.S. court system, which insist on an extortionate payout even if it means jeopardising the international resolution mechanism for insolvent countries.

If creditors know that a few holdout vultures can trigger a default, they are unlikely to settle with other insolvent nations in the future.

Blame has also been laid at the feet of the IMF and the international banking system for failing to come up with a fair resolution mechanism for countries that go bankrupt. And at a more fundamental level, blame lies with a global debt-based monetary scheme that forces bankruptcy on some nations as a mathematical necessity. As in a game of musical chairs, some players must default.

Most money today comes into circulation in the form of bank credit or debt. Debt at interest always grows faster than the money supply, since more is always owed back than was created in the original loan. There is never enough money to go around without adding to the debt burden.

As economist Michael Hudson points out, the debt overhang grows exponentially until it becomes impossible to repay. The country is then forced to default.

Fiscal mismanagement or odious debt?

Besides impossibility of performance, there is another defense Argentina could raise in international court – that of “odious debt.” Also known as illegitimate debt, this legal theory holds that national debt incurred by a regime for purposes that do not serve the best interests of the nation should not be enforceable.

The defence has been used successfully by a number of countries, including Ecuador in December 2008, when President Rafael Correa declared that its debt had been contracted by corrupt and despotic prior regimes. The odious-debt defence allowed Ecuador to reduce the sum owed by 70 percent.

In a compelling article in Global Research in November 2006, Adrian Salbuchi made a similar case for Argentina. He traced the country’s problems back to 1976, when its foreign debt was just under six billion dollars and represented only a small portion of the country’s GDP. In that year:

An illegal and de facto military-civilian regime ousted the constitutionally elected government of president María Isabel Martínez de Perón [and] named as economy minister, José Martinez de Hoz, who had close ties with, and the respect of, powerful international private banking interests.

With the Junta’s full backing, he systematically implemented a series of highly destructive, speculative, illegitimate – even illegal – economic and financial policies and legislation, which increased Public Debt almost eightfold to 46 billion dollars in a few short years.

This intimately tied-in to the interests of major international banking and oil circles which, at that time, needed to urgently re-cycle huge volumes of “Petrodollars” generated by the 1973 and 1979 Oil Crises.

Those capital in-flows were not invested in industrial production or infrastructure, but rather were used to fuel speculation in local financial markets by local and international banks and traders who were able to take advantage of very high local interest rates in Argentine Pesos tied to stable and unrealistic medium-term U.S. dollar exchange rates.

Salbuchi detailed Argentina’s fall from there into what became a 200 billion dollars debt trap. Large tranches of this debt, he maintained, were “odious debt” and should not have to be paid:

“Making the Argentine State – i.e., the people of Argentina – weather the full brunt of this storm is tantamount to financial genocide and terrorism. . . . The people of Argentina are presently undergoing severe hardship with over 50% of the population submerged in poverty . . . . Basic universal law gives the Argentine people the right to legitimately defend their interests against the various multinational and supranational players which, abusing the huge power that they wield, directly and/or indirectly imposed complex actions and strategies leading to the Public Debt problem.”

Of President Nestor Kirchner’s surprise 2006 payment of the full 10 billion dollars owed to the IMF, Salbuchi wrote cynically:

“This key institution was instrumental in promoting and auditing the macroeconomic policies of the Argentine Government for decades. . . . Many analysts consider that . . . the IMF was to Argentina what Arthur Andersen was to Enron, the difference being that Andersen was dissolved and closed down, whilst the IMF continues preaching its misconceived doctrines and exerts leverage. . . . [T]he IMF’s primary purpose is to exert political pressure on indebted governments, acting as a veritable coercing agency on behalf of major international banks.”

Sovereign bankruptcy and the “Global Economic Reset”

Needless to say, the IMF was not closed down. Rather, it has gone on to become the international regulator of sovereign debt, which has reached crisis levels globally. Total debt, public and private, has grown by over 40 percent since 2007, to 100 trillion dollars. The U.S. national debt alone has grown from 10 trillion dollars in 2008 to over 17.6 trillion today.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2014, IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde spoke of the need for a global economic “reset.”

National debts have to be “reset” or “readjusted” periodically so that creditors can keep collecting on their exponentially growing interest claims, in a global financial scheme based on credit created privately by banks and lent at interest. More interest-bearing debt must continually be incurred, until debt overwhelms the system and it again needs to be reset to keep the usury game going.

Sovereign debt (or national) in particular needs periodic “resets,” because unlike for individuals and corporations, there is no legal mechanism for countries to go bankrupt. Individuals and corporations have assets that can be liquidated by a bankruptcy court and distributed equitably to creditors.

But countries cannot be liquidated and sold off – except by IMF-style “structural readjustment,” which can force the sale of national assets at fire sale prices.

A Sovereign Debt Restructuring Mechanism ( SDRM) was proposed by the IMF in the early 2000s, but it was quickly killed by Wall Street and the U.S. Treasury. The IMF is working on a new version of the SDRM, but critics say it could be more destabilising than the earlier version.

Meanwhile, the IMF has backed collective action clauses (CACs) designed to allow a country to negotiate with most of its creditors in a way that generally brings all of them into the net. But CACs can be challenged, and that is what happened in the case of the latest Argentine bankruptcy. According to Harvard Professor Jeffrey Frankel:

“[T]he U.S. court rulings’ indulgence of a parochial instinct to enforce written contracts will undermine the possibility of negotiated restructuring in future debt crises.”

We are back, he says, to square one.

Better than redesigning the sovereign bankruptcy mechanism might be to redesign the global monetary scheme in a way that avoids the continual need for a bankruptcy mechanism. A government does not need to borrow its money supply from private banks that create it as credit on their books.

A sovereign government can issue its own currency, debt-free. But that interesting topic must wait for a follow-up article. Stay tuned.

Ellen Brown can be found on her Web of Debt Blog.

Edited by: Kitty Stapp

]]>
http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/cry-for-argentina-fiscal-mismanagement-odious-debt-or-pillage/feed/ 0
OPINION: Islamic State in Iraq: Confronting the Threathttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/opinion-islamic-state-in-iraq-confronting-the-threat/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-islamic-state-in-iraq-confronting-the-threat http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/opinion-islamic-state-in-iraq-confronting-the-threat/#comments Tue, 12 Aug 2014 17:23:15 +0000 Emile Nakhleh http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136075 By Emile Nakhleh
WASHINGTON, Aug 12 2014 (IPS)

The Islamic State’s territorial expansion and barbaric executions in Iraq and Syria are a gathering threat and must be confronted. American air bombardment, however, is the wrong course of action, and will not necessarily weaken ISIS or DA’ISH, as it’s known in Arabic.

As a senator, President Barack Obama called George W. Bush’s intervention in Iraq a “dumb war” and promised to end it if he won the presidency. It would be tragic if Obama, in the name of fighting the Islamic State, waged a “dumber” war.In Iraq, the political vacuum, which Maliki inadvertently engineered, contributed to the recent rise and success of the Islamic State.

The Obama administration maintains that its humanitarian intervention and air campaign are aimed at protecting U.S. personnel and preventing human suffering and possible “genocide.” According to some media reports, the U.S. has ordered the evacuation of some of its personnel in Erbil. Yet the administration’s argument that the airstrikes against Islamic State positions near Irbil were requested by the Maliki government, and are hence justified, is unconvincing.

Much of the Islamic State’s anti-Shia and anti-Iran rhetoric may be traced to the conservative, intolerant Hanbali School of Jurisprudence, which underpins Salafi Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia. The Islamic State’s ideology justifies the use of violence in the fight against Shia Islam, Iran, the Shia-Maliki government in Iraq and the Alawite Assad regime in Syria.

While the al-Saud regime publicly loathes the Islamic State and correctly views it as a terrorist organisation, Saudi leaders do not necessarily abhor its message against Iran and the Shia. A similar situation prevails among the Sunni al-Khalifa regime in Bahrain.

In Iraq, the political vacuum, which Maliki inadvertently engineered, contributed to the recent rise and success of the Islamic State. Many Sunnis with a privileged past under Saddam Hussein support the group because of its opposition to Maliki’s Shia-centric authoritarian policy of refusing to form a more pluralistic and inclusive government.

Many Shia, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, have criticised Maliki’s clinging to power. Sistani has called on the Iraqi people to “choose wisely,” urged Maliki to leave office, and blamed the prime minister for the deteriorating conditions in the country and, by implication, the territorial successes of the Islamic State.

In Syria, the ongoing bloody civil war has given the Islamic State a golden opportunity to fight a non-Sunni regime, especially one that is closely aligned with “Safavi” Iran and its perceived surrogate, Hezbollah. A combination of financial and monetary war loot, contributions from other Sunnis (especially in the Gulf), and initial arming by certain Gulf states, has helped the Islamic State fight effectively against the Syrian regime, the Maliki government, and more recently against the Kurdish Peshmerga in northern Iraq.

Many of these Sunni Muslims view the call for a new caliphate as a return to the Middle Ages. It certainly does not address the endemic economic, social, and political deficits that threaten the future of the region. According to media reports, many Sunnis this past week refused to declare allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a mosque in Mosul despite his call for their loyalty.

Mainstream Sunnis also view the public executions of soldiers and other Islamic State opponents as barbaric and thus repulsive. The Islamic State’s harsh treatment of women and non-Muslim minorities is equally appalling. The application of harsh Sharia punishments or hudud in Syrian and Iraqi areas under Islamic State control has also been condemned by the international community.

The Islamic State and the West

Western countries view the Islamic State as posing three principal threats: a possible collapse of the Iraqi state; increasingly bloody sectarian violence across state boundaries; and continued recruitment and training of potential jihadists coming from the West.

Of the three threats, recruiting Western jihadists should be the key concern for Western security services. Once these young jihadists return to their countries of origin, they would bring with them battle-hardened experience and a radical ideology that rejects Western democratic pluralism.

Jihadist groups have exploited violent sectarianism to spread their message. Regimes in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere have also cynically promoted sectarianism in order to divide their peoples and stay in power.

The Islamic State’s rejection of existing boundaries between Iraq and Syria indicates that the artificial borders set up by the colonial powers under the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916 are no longer functional. Colonial demarcation of state borders in the Levant (especially Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine), North Africa, and the Persian Gulf was implemented without meaningful consultations with the populations of those territories.

After WWI, colonial powers either ruled some of these territories directly or by proxy through pliant autocrats and potentates. In an interview with the New York Times this past Saturday, Obama acknowledged this reality and added, “what we’re seeing in the Middle East and parts of North Africa is an order that dates back to World War I [which is] starting to crumble.”

The “crumbling” of state boundaries has started in Iraq and Syria under the Islamic State’s religious veneer of the caliphate, but it will not stop there.

Call for Action

Many Sunnis who support the Islamic State do not agree with its terrorist ideology, religious fervor, intolerant theology, or vision of a caliphate. Their opposition to specific regime policies in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere drives their support of the Islamic State. Combating this gathering threat, therefore, should come from within the region, not through airstrikes or drone targeting, which Obama also acknowledged in the NYT interview.

If the Islamic State’s threat is destined to damage Western interests and personnel in the region, Western countries should take several comprehensive steps to thwart the threat.

First, Western law enforcement agencies should pay closer attention to their own nationals who show interest in joining the jihadists in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere in the region. They should partner with their Muslim communities at home to address this phenomenon.

These agencies, however, should not target these communities surreptitiously or spy on them. Community leaders should take the lead in reaching out to their youth and dissuade them from volunteering to do jihad regardless of the cause.

Second, the United States and other Western countries should impress on Maliki the necessity of forming a more inclusive government, which would include Sunni Arabs, Kurds, and other minorities. Maliki should heed Sistani’s call and step aside.

Once the Sunni community is provided with a legitimate, honourable, and fair avenue to pursue their economic and political aspirations, they would abandon the Islamic State and similar jihadist groups.

Had Washington reacted more effectively to the recent successes of the Islamic State and urged Maliki to form an inclusive government, there would have been no need for the current air strikes.

Third, following Mailki’s departure, the West should provide sustained military training with commensurate appropriate weapons for units of the Iraqi military, Sunni tribes in al-Anbar Province, the Kurdish Peshmerga, and the Syrian opposition. A weakening of the Islamic State requires the end of Nouri al-Maliki’s rule and the demise of Bashar al-Assad.

Fourth, as radicalism and terrorism have also spread south toward Jordan, Palestine, and Gaza, it is imperative that the ceasefire between Israel and Gaza be extended and the Gaza blockade lifted.

The war in Gaza is not about Hamas, Israeli protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. Palestinians in Gaza cannot possibly live freely in dignity, peace, and economic prosperity while languishing in an open-air prison with no end in sight.

Fifth, it’s imperative for the Sisi regime in Egypt to halt the political arrests and summary trials and executions of Muslim Brotherhood leaders and supporters. It should provide the MB the necessary political space to participate in the country’s political life. The regime’s recent banning of the Islamist Freedom and Justice political party is a step in the wrong direction and should be reversed.

Emile Nakhleh 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.”

Editing by: Kitty Stapp

]]>
http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/opinion-islamic-state-in-iraq-confronting-the-threat/feed/ 0
U.S. Avoided Threat to Act on Israel’s Civilian Targetinghttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/u-s-avoided-threat-to-act-on-israels-civilian-targeting/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-avoided-threat-to-act-on-israels-civilian-targeting http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/u-s-avoided-threat-to-act-on-israels-civilian-targeting/#comments Tue, 12 Aug 2014 00:13:29 +0000 Gareth Porter http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136064 A Palestinian man salvages items from the rubble of his home destroyed by Israeli strikes on a building in northern Gaza Strip. Aug 7, 2014. Credit: UN Photo/Shareef Sarhan

A Palestinian man salvages items from the rubble of his home destroyed by Israeli strikes on a building in northern Gaza Strip. Aug 7, 2014. Credit: UN Photo/Shareef Sarhan

By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON, Aug 12 2014 (IPS)

United Nations officials and human rights organisations have characterised Israeli attacks on civilian targets during the IDF war on Gaza as violations of the laws of war.

During the war, Israeli bombardment leveled whole urban neighbourhoods, leaving more than 10,000 houses destroyed and 30,000 damaged and killing 1,300 civilians, according to U.N. data. Israeli forces also struck six schools providing shelter to refugees under U.N. protection, killing at least 47 refugees and wounding more than 340.The administration’s public stance in daily briefings in the early days of the war suggested little or no concern about Israeli violations of the laws of war.

But the Barack Obama administration’s public posture during the war signaled to Israel that it would not be held accountable for such violations.

A review of the transcripts of daily press briefings by the State Department during the Israeli attack shows that the Obama administration refused to condemn Israeli attacks on civilian targets in the first three weeks of the war.

U.S. officials were well aware of Israel’s history of rejecting any distinction between military and civilian targets in previous wars in Lebanon and Gaza.

During the 2006 Israeli War in Lebanon, IDF spokesman Jacob Dalal had told the Associated Press that eliminating Hezbollah as a terrorist institution required hitting all Hezbollah institutions, including “grassroots institutions that breed more followers”.

And during Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead” in December 2008 and January 2009, the IDF had shelled a school in the Jabaliya refugee camp, killing 42 civilians. The IDF’s justification had been that it was responding to mortar fire from the building, but officials of the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) who ran the school had denied that claim.

Given that history, Obama administration policy makers knew that Israel would certainly resort to similar targeting in its Gaza operation unless it believed it would suffer serious consequences for doing so. But the administration’s public stance in daily briefings in the early days of the war suggested little or no concern about Israeli violations of the laws of war.

On Jul. 10, two days after the operation began, State Department spokesperson Jan Psaki was asked in the daily briefing whether the administration was trying to stop the Israeli bombardment of Gaza, as well as the firing of rockets by Hamas.

Psaki’s answer was to recite an Israeli talking point. “There’s a difference,” she said, “between Hamas, a terrorist organisation that’s indiscriminately attacking innocent civilians…in Israel, and the right of Israel to respond and protect their own civilians.”

After four children playing on a beach were killed as journalists watched on Jul. 16, Psaki was asked whether the administration believed Israel was violating the international laws of war. She responded that she was unaware of any discussion of that question.

Psaki said that “tragic event makes clear that Israel must take every possible step to meet its standards for protecting civilians from being killed. We will continue to underscore that point to Israel; the Secretary [of State John Kerry] has made that point directly as well.”

The IDF shelled Al-Wafa Rehabilitation and Geriatric Hospital on Jul. 17, claiming it was a response to launches of rockets 100 metres from the hospital. Psaki was asked the next day whether her failure to warn the Israelis publicly against bombing the hospital had “made any difference”.

She said, “We’re urging all parties to respect the civilian nature of schools and medical facilities….” But she refused to speculate about “what would’ve happened or wouldn’t have happened” had she issued an explicit warning,

On Jun. 16, two days before the ground offensive began, the IDF began dropping leaflets warning the entire populations of the Zeitoun and Shujaiyyeh neighbourhoods to evacuate. It was a clear indication they were to be heavily bombed. IDF bombing and shelling leveled entire blocks of Shujaiyyeh Jul. 20 and 21, citing rockets fired from that neighbourhood.

Kerry was recorded commenting to an aide on an open microphone Jul. 20 that it was a “hell of a pinpoint operation”, revealing the administration’s private view. But instead of warning that the Israeli targeting policy was unacceptable, Kerry declared in a CNN interview that Israel was “under siege from a terrorist organisation”, implying the right to do whatever it believed necessary.

State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf said on Jul. 21 that Kerry had “encouraged” the Israelis to “take steps to prevent civilian casualties”, but she refused to be more specific.

On Jul. 23, Al Wafa hospital was hit by an Israeli airstrike, forcing the staff to evacuate it. The IDF now charged that it had been used as a “command centre and rocket launching site”.

Joe Catron, an American who had been staying at the hospital as part of an international “human shield” to prevent attacks on it, denied that claim, saying he would have heard any rocket launched close to the hospital.

On the same day, three missiles hit a park next to the Al Shifa hospital, killing 10 and wounding 46. The IDF blamed the explosions on Hamas rockets that had fallen short. The idea that three Hamas rockets had fallen short within such short distances from one another, however, was hardly a credible explanation.

The IDF also appeared to target facilities run by the UNRWA. On Jul. 23 and 24, Israeli tank shells hit Palestinian refugees at two different school compounds designated as U.N. shelters, despite intensive communications by U.N. officials to IDF asking to spare them.

An attack on a U.N. refugee shelter at Beit Hanoun elementary school Jul. 24 killed 15 civilians and wounded more than 200. The IDF again claimed a Hamas rocket had fallen short. But it also claimed Hamas fighters had fired on Israeli troops from the compound, then later retreated from the claim.

At the Jul. 24 briefing, Harf read a statement deploring the Beit Hanoun strike and the “rising death toll in Gaza” and said that a UNRWA facility “is not a legitimate target”.

Harf said Israel “could do a bit more” to show restraint. But when a reporter asked if the United States was “willing to take any kind of action” if Israel did not respond to U.S. advice, Harf said the U.S. focus was “getting a ceasefire”, implying that it was not prepared to impose any consequences on Israel for refusing to change its military tactics in Gaza.

On Jul. 25, a reporter at the daily briefing observed that the hospital and schools had been targeted despite reports confirming that there had been no militants or rockets in them.

But Harf refused to accept that characterisation of the situation and repeated the Israeli line that Hamas had used U.N. facilities to “hide rockets”. She said she could not confirm whether there were rockets in “the specific school that was hit”.

The IDF hit another UNRWA school sheltering refugees at Jabaliya refugee camp Jul. 30, killing 10 and wounding more than 100. The IDF acknowledged it had fired several tank shells at the school, claiming again that mortar shells had been fired from there.

That was too much for the Obama administration. White House spokesman Josh Earnest called the attack “totally unacceptable and totally indefensible” and even made it clear that there was little doubt that Israel was responsible.

Even then, however, the administration merely repeated its call for Israel to “do more to live up to the high standards that they have set for themselves”, as Earnest put it.

On Aug. 3, the IDF struck yet another refugee facility at the Rafah Boys Prep School A, killing 12 refugees and wounding 27. The IDF said it had been targeting three “terrorists” riding a motorcycle who had passed near the school.

“The suspicion that militants operated nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians,” said Psaki.

But that criticism of Israeli attacks was far too restrained and too late. The IDF had already carried out what appear to have been massive violations of the laws of war.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author of the newly published Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare. He can be contacted at porter.gareth50@gmail.com

Edited by: Kitty Stapp

 

]]>
http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/u-s-avoided-threat-to-act-on-israels-civilian-targeting/feed/ 0
Minimum Wage, Minimum Costhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/minimum-wage-minimum-cost/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=minimum-wage-minimum-cost http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/minimum-wage-minimum-cost/#comments Mon, 11 Aug 2014 00:44:36 +0000 Peter Costantini http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136038 A rally to raise the minimum wage in Herald Square, Manhattan, Oct. 24, 2013. Credit: The All-Nite Images/cc by 2.0

A rally to raise the minimum wage in Herald Square, Manhattan, Oct. 24, 2013. Credit: The All-Nite Images/cc by 2.0

By Peter Costantini
SEATTLE, Aug 11 2014 (IPS)

In 1958, when New York State was considering raising its minimum wage, merchants complained that their profit margins were so small that they would have to cut their work forces or go out of business.  In 2014 in Seattle at hearings on a proposed minimum wage increase, some businesses voiced the same fears.

A national minimum wage was established in the United States in 1938.  Since then, Congress has increased it every few years, although since 1968 it has fallen far behind inflation and productivity growth.  By 2015, over half of the states and many localities will have raised local minimum wages above the federal level.

Graphic: Peter Costantini

Graphic: Peter Costantini

Each time such raises are proposed, bitter debates break out over the potential effects.  Somehow, though, economic devastation has been repeatedly averted.

What actually happens when the minimum wage increases moderately is that total expenses across all industries go up a tiny amount, usually less than one percent.  So the wage hike has little or no effect on the great majority of businesses.  The higher costs are absorbed mainly through tiny price increases, reductions in turnover and increases in productivity.

Historically, the yearly average for recent local minimum wage increases has been 16.7 percent.  But some have been far higher.  For example, in 1950 the national minimum wage jumped 87.5 percent from 40 to 75 cents. And in 2004, the city of Santa Fe, New Mexico, raised its minimum from 5.15 to 8.50 dollars, a 65 percent increase.

Even after Santa Fe’s big raise, the average resulting cost increase for all businesses was around one percent.  For restaurants, it was a little above three percent. [More]

The small impact of raising the wage floor may be surprising to those unfamiliar with the historical record.  But the accounting is straightforward.  Nationally, only 4.3 percent of all workers earn the federal minimum wage or lower; perhaps two or three times that number would have their wages lifted by a moderate minimum wage hike.

The average raise will be somewhere around half of the difference between old and new minimums, because most affected wages will fall somewhere in between.  As a result, the total growth in payroll is small for most businesses.  And payroll, in turn, averages only about one-sixth of gross revenues for all industries nationally. [More]

Because total cost increases for most businesses are minimal and can be covered by other adjustments, moderate minimum wage raises’ effects on low-wage employment have been close to zero.  This is the broad consensus of two decades of rigorous empirical studies at national, state and local levels.

Crunching the numbers for a small business

To get a concrete sense of how raising the wage floor plays out, a little arithmetic goes a long way. Let’s take a hypothetical example of a big raise of 50 percent in one year, from 10 to 15 dollars.

We’ll zoom in from macro to micro and crunch some simplified numbers for a typical small business that employs 24 workers. Six of them make below or equal to the new minimum: one each makes 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, and 15 dollars. The other 18 employees make an average wage of 20 dollars, and all workers work 2,000 hours per year. The total payroll of this company is 20 percent of its gross revenues and its profits are 5 percent.

The average pre-increase wage of the five workers getting a raise is 12 dollars per hour, 10 dollars through 14 dollars divided by five, and their average raise is 3 dollars. This computes to a 25 percent - not 50 percent - average raise for the five covered workers. For the total payroll, this represents an increase of 3.45 percent.

The total impact of a minimum wage increase of 50 percent on this hypothetical business, then, is to raise its total expenses 0.69 percent of gross revenues, or less than one percent.

Nationally across all industries, the proportion of payroll to gross revenues is smaller, 16.8 percent rather than 20 percent. And most yearly minimum wage increases have been far less than 50 percent – an average of 16.7 percent yearly for local ordinances – probably putting the percentage of affected workers closer to 10 percent than 25 percent. Rounding up, for a 20.0 percent nominal minimum increase to 12 dollars for the same sample payroll, the average for the two workers receiving raises will be 14.3 percent, yielding a rise in total payroll of 0.69 percent and in total expenses of 0.14 percent of gross revenues.

If we factor a ripple effect into our 50 percent-raise example, spillover wages that keep at least a 0.25 dollar differential between the new levels - 15 dollars, 15.25, 15.50, etc. - would raise the total payroll increase from 3.23 percent to 4.43 percent, and the total increase in business expenses over revenues from 0.69 to 0.89 percent of gross revenues. Applying a 0.50 dollar ripple differential to a 20 percent minimum wage increase for the same data, the total payroll increase would be 1.15 percent and the total expenses increase would be 0.23 percent of revenues.

A comprehensive study of state minimum wage increases in the U.S. found “no detectable employment losses from the kind of minimum wage increases we have seen in the United States”, including for the accommodations and food services sector.  Two recent meta-studies of the past two decades of research, and examinations of increases in cities including Santa Fe, San Francisco and San Jose, also found no discernable negative effects on employment for low-wage workers.

As Harvard economist Richard Freeman put it, “The debate is over whether modest minimum wage increases have ‘no’ employment effect, modest positive effects, or small negative effects.  It is not about whether or not there are large negative effects.”

A letter to the President and Congress signed by 600 economists in support of raising the national minimum wage to 10.10 dollars cited “the weight of evidence now showing that increases in the minimum wage have had little or no negative effect on the employment of minimum-wage workers”.

Even The Economist, the influential British neoliberal magazine, recently observed: “No-one who has studied the effects of Britain’s minimum wage now thinks it has raised unemployment.” [More]

In worst cases where an employer cannot adjust to payroll increases with price increases or efficiencies, the response will more likely be to reduce hours slightly than to cut jobs, because of the costs and disruption of layoffs.  However, any increase in wages large enough to prompt a reduction in hours would likely be big enough that the paychecks of workers receiving it would still come out ahead.

In many low-wage jobs, hours already fluctuate from week to week, workers frequently change jobs voluntarily or involuntarily, jobs come and go, and businesses start up and fold.  For low-wage workers already facing this instability, higher total yearly pay nearly always trumps any loss of yearly hours.  In fact, working fewer hours leaves more time for family, training or other work.[More]

Minimum wage increases do tend to compress the lower part of the pay scale.  Those who were making around the old minimum will now be making nearly the same as those who were making near the new minimum.  The differences between the lower rungs of the wage ladder will be diminished, which may prompt changes in business processes and work relationships.

In this situation, most businesses maintain some hierarchy, with the new minimum pushing up the wage levels just above it by small amounts.  But this “ripple effect” adds only a little to total payroll costs.  One study found that a 2004 increase of 19.4 percent in the Florida state minimum caused an average cost increase for businesses, from both mandated raises and ripple effects, of less than one-half of 1 percent of sales revenues. [More]

Only one sector has significantly higher concentrations of low-wage workers and a larger proportion of payroll expenses: accommodations and food services.  It is not a major part of the economy in most places: nationally it accounts for 2.2 percent of sales and 3.6 percent of payroll.  In these industries, 29.4 percent of workers are paid within 10 percent of the minimum wage.  The rule of thumb for restaurant payroll is about one-third of total revenues, twice the overall proportion.

Even for hotels and restaurants, however, the rises in operating costs are still covered mainly by modest price increases and significant reductions in turnover.  Many businesses in this sector have enough flexibility to raise prices without reducing revenues, especially when competitors face the same wage increases. [More]

In all sectors, low-wage workers tend to have high turnover rates, sometimes more than 100 percent annually.  Minimum wage increases often help trim personnel expenses related to firing and hiring by reducing workforce turnover and absenteeism.  Businesses may also gain from better-paid and more secure workers becoming more productive.

Businesses can also compensate for payroll growth through reductions in benefits or training, and improvements in work processes or automation.  Some employers may also accept a small reduction in profits until the wage increases are absorbed.

Even given these multiple channels for adjustment, there are often small businesses who find it hard to cover a minimum wage increase.  In recognition of this, most local minimum wage laws either exempt smaller firms and non-profits or phase in increases more slowly for them. [More]

In the broader economy as well, raising the wage floor may have positive effects.  Increased spending prompted by higher wages can stimulate growth in low-wage workers’ neighbourhoods.

Rising minimum wages also often reduce government spending on poverty programmes. Contributions to unemployment insurance, Social Security and Medicare rise with higher incomes.  Any positive or negative effects, though, will tend to be small-scale relative to the overall economy. [More]

In an era of secular stagnation and political stalemate, minimum wage increases offer an effective, politically popular, and positively motivating way to reduce income inequality from the bottom up, without reducing low-wage employment.

An expanded version of this article with footnotes and references can be found here. Part one of the series can be found here

Download of zip file with example spreadsheets

Edited by: Kitty Stapp

 

]]>
http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/minimum-wage-minimum-cost/feed/ 0
Qualified Backing for Obama’s Iraq Interventionhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/qualified-backing-for-obamas-iraq-intervention/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=qualified-backing-for-obamas-iraq-intervention http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/qualified-backing-for-obamas-iraq-intervention/#comments Sat, 09 Aug 2014 00:37:12 +0000 Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136022 President Barack Obama meets with his national security advisors in the Situation Room of the White House, Aug. 7, 2014. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

President Barack Obama meets with his national security advisors in the Situation Room of the White House, Aug. 7, 2014. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Aug 9 2014 (IPS)

U.S. President Barack Obama’s authorisation of limited military action in northern Iraq, announced in a national television address late Thursday night, has so far received support – albeit highly qualified in some cases — from across the mainstream political spectrum.

While Republican hawks have welcomed the move in hopes it may presage a much broader regional intervention in Syria, as well as in Iraq, many Democrats expressed worries that the decision, unless strictly confined to its “humanitarian” objectives, could become a “slippery slope” into a new quagmire just three years after Obama extracted the last U.S. combat troops from Baghdad.“Airdrops of relief aid will save Yezedi lives, but airpower cannot determine Iraq's political future.” -- Harvard Prof. Stephen Walt

“We know that our military intervention will not alone solve the long sectarian and religious conflicts in Iraq,” said California Rep. Loretta Sanchez in reacting to the announcement. “It is essential we avoid mission creep because our men and women in uniform cannot endure another war in Iraq and nor can the American people.”

Obama’s announcement capped a week in which forces of the radical Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) made sweeping gains in northern Iraq, coming within as little as 45 kms of Kurdistan’s capital, Erbil, and triggering a new flood of refugees from predominantly Christian and other minority communities that had been protected by the Kurdish peshmerga militias which withdrew in the face of ISIL’s onslaught.

Particularly dramatic was the plight of tens of thousands of Yezidis, followers of an ancient religion tied to Zoroastrianism, who fled to Mt. Sinjar to escape ISIL’s forces and have been besieged there for days without adequate supplies of food and water.

In his remarks Thursday, Obama cited their plight as one of two main justifications – the other being the protection of the several hundred U.S. diplomatic and military personnel who are based in the Kurdish capital — for his decision to authorise the deployment of U.S. warplanes both to carry out “targeted strikes” against ISIL positions “should they move toward [Erbil],” provide relief to the besieged Yezidis “to prevent a potential act of genocide,” and increase military aid to both the peshmerga forces and Iraq’s army.

He announced that U.S. aircraft had already begun providing “humanitarian airdrops of food and water” on Mt. Sinjar and was consulting with other countries and the U.N. on how best to alleviate the situation, presumably by working with Turkey to open a land corridor for the Yazidis to reach a safe haven across the border.

The Pentagon subsequently announced that it carried out two rounds of air strikes against ISIL targets Friday.

Obama’s actions were offered qualified praise by Republican hawks who have harshly criticised the president for months for not doing more, including using air power, to bolster Iraqi government and Kurdish forces in the face of ISIL’s initial takeover of most of Anbar Province and its subsequent sweep into much of northern Iraq, including Mosul, the country’s second largest city.

“The President is right to provide humanitarian relief to the Iraqi civilians stranded on Mount Sinjar and to authorise military strikes against forces that are threatening them, our Kurdish allies, and our own personnel in northern Iraq,” said Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham in a joint statement. “However, these actions are far from sufficient to meet the growing threat that ISIS [another name for ISIL] poses.”

Calling for a “comprehensive strategy to degrade ISIS,” the Senate’s two leading hawks added that it “should include the provision of mitiary and other assistance to our Kurdish, Iraqi, and Syrian partners who are fighting ISIS, …U.S. air strikes against ISIS leaders, forces and positions both in Iraq and Syria; (and) support to Sunni Iraqis to resist ISIS.”

“And none of this should be contingent on the formation of a new government in Baghdad,” they added in a slap at the administration’s insistence that U.S. military aid to the Shi’a-dominated government currently headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki be calibrated according to the degree that any new government – whose composition is currently the subject of intense negotiations in Baghdad — demonstrates its commitment to sharing power with the Sunni minority from which ISIL derives its popular support, as well with the Kurds.

But in his remarks Thursday night, Obama insisted that he would stick to his conditions for providing more assistance to Baghdad.

“Iraqi leaders need to come together and forge a new government that represents the legitimate interests of all Iraqis, and that can fight back against the threats like ISIL,” he said. “Once Iraq has a new government,” he added, “the United States will work with it and other countries in the region to provide increased support to deal with this humanitarian crisis and counter-terrorism challenge.”

He also tried to reassure Democrats, as well as a war-weary public, that his latest decisions would not result in a major new military commitment. “As Commander-in-Chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq,” he stressed. “The only lasting solution is reconciliation among Iraqi communities and stronger Iraqi security forces.”

That declaration did not reassure some, however. While virtually no one criticised the mission to aid the besieged Yezidis, the decision to carry out air strikes was greeted with considerably less enthusiasm among many Democrats and critics of the 2003 Iraq war.

“When we bomb ISIS, which is a horrible group, we have to realise that we are heading down the path of choosing sides in an ancient religious and sectarian war inside Iraq,” warned Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern, key sponsor of a resolution that was approved last month by a 370-40 margin in the House of Representatives that requires Congress to authorise any sustained deployment of U.S. combat troops to Iraq.

“The impulse to aid the Yezidis is understandable, but the commitment to help them could easily become open-ended and drag the United States back into the Iraqi quagmire,” Harvard Prof. Stephen Walt, a leading foreign policy “realist”, told IPS. “Airdrops of relief aid will save Yezedi lives, but airpower cannot determine Iraq’s political future.”

While conceding that he, too, was “nervous about what could be the next step that could lead us to get more deeply involved,” another prominent realist and a former top Middle East analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency, Paul Pillar, the administration’s decision to use airpower against ISIL to defend the Kurds – even if it was billed as protecting U.S. personnel in Erbil – was sound.

“I think the administration is on defensible ground by using lethal force to prevent further inroads against the de facto Kurdish state …while not getting any more deeply immersed in the intra-Arab conflicts in the rest of Iraq that have sectarian dimensions and that can only be a lose-lose situation for the United States,” Pillar told IPS.

“There clearly is a slippery-slope hazard that we have to be mindful of, and all indications are that the administration is very mindful of it.”

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.comHe can be contacted at ipsnoram@ips.org

Edited by: Kitty Stapp

]]>
http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/qualified-backing-for-obamas-iraq-intervention/feed/ 0
Stigma Still a Major Roadblock for AIDS Fight in Africahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/stigma-still-a-major-roadblock-for-aids-fight-in-africa/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=stigma-still-a-major-roadblock-for-aids-fight-in-africa http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/stigma-still-a-major-roadblock-for-aids-fight-in-africa/#comments Sat, 09 Aug 2014 00:12:39 +0000 Julia Hotz http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136019 Rwandan children orphaned by AIDS in Muhanga village. Credit: Aimable Twahirwa/IPS

Rwandan children orphaned by AIDS in Muhanga village. Credit: Aimable Twahirwa/IPS

By Julia Hotz
WASHINGTON, Aug 9 2014 (IPS)

Though West Africa’s massive Ebola outbreak may be dominating the spotlight within the global health community, HIV/AIDS remains an enormous issue for Africa as a whole – a sentiment that Washington officials made clear this week in their discussions of legislative and technological setbacks plaguing progress in fighting the epidemic.

Despite the World Health Organisation’s announcement Friday that Ebola is now an “international public health emergency,” doctors, academics and policymakers met Thursday at the Washington office of Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), a health-policy non-profit, to discuss the similarly urgent threat posed by HIV/AIDS, the subject of last month’s 2014 International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia.Uganda’s anti-LGBT environment may explain the nation’s distinct increase in the number of new HIV infections, a trend that - with the exception of Angola - has been reversed in surrounding African nations.

Ambassador Deborah Birx, the global AIDS coordinator for the U.S President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), echoed the threat’s urgency, explaining that “the AIDS pandemic in southern Africa is the primary cause of death for adolescents, and the primary killer of young women.”

President Barack Obama announced Wednesday at the end of his three-day leaders’ summit with Africa that PEPFAR and the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF) will pledge 200 million dollars to work with 10 African countries to help them double the number of children on lifesaving anti-retroviral drugs.

But Ambassador Birx, along with other prominent HIV/AIDS activists in Washington, seemed to suggest that distributing anti-retroviral drugs to children would only address a fraction of the issue.

Fear of HIV/AIDS stigma

While making note of PEPFAR’s unprecedented  progress in moving towards an “AIDS-free generation,” a commitment that President Obama deemed possible in a 2013 national address, Birx suggested that countries with anti-LGBT laws may have disproportionately high rates of new HIV infections.

“People are afraid to be stigmatised,” Birx told IPS, explaining that gay people may refuse to seek diagnosis and treatment for HIV/AIDS if they are legally and culturally persecuted by their homeland.

Identifying nearly 80 countries with such discriminatory environments, Birx’s PEPFAR report highlights Uganda, where the recent passage of anti-LGBT legislation and discriminatory comments of Ugandan President Museveni has attracted substantial condemnation from the international community.

“This is a human rights question,” Birx told IPS, calling specifically on the community of faith- one she describes as “there to wrap its embracing arms in need”- to respond to such LGBT persecution.

Yet beyond humanitarian concerns, PEPFAR’s report notes how Uganda’s anti-LGBT environment may explain the nation’s distinct increase in the number of new HIV infections, a trend that – with the exception of Angola – has been reversed in surrounding African nations.

Birx stressed that the majority of HIV infections are transmitted through heterosexual sex, despite the common misperception that homosexual activity is the cause of HIV/AIDS.

It is perhaps this association, Birx reasoned, that incites fear of seeking diagnosis, and explains why approximately half of all people with HIV are still unaware that they are infected, despite the tremendous increase in HIV testing capacity.

“Incredibly powerful” potential of tech innovation

Panelists at Thursday’s conference spoke about the tremendous expansion of testing capacity, an noted how technological innovation is a leading force not only in HIV/AIDS diagnosis, but also in treatment, prevention and education.

“I think there’s actually a lot going on in innovations in technology,” Chris Beyrer, president of the International AIDS Society, told IPS. “And it’s not only internet technology and mobile technology, but it’s also in other domains, like self-testing and home-testing.”

Beyrer added how “getting testing out of the clinics and getting them directly to people” reduces the strain on medical personnel and funding, two areas in which panellists agree there are great shortages.

“Technology is moving to a place where there are much more local kinds of facilities that can actually do staging,” Beyrer explained to IPS.

“You don’t have these kinds of problems with people waiting forever to get a CD4, and then being told to go somewhere else with their CD4 result.”

“One size does not fit all”

Birx, who also participated in Thursday’s panel, added that technology can potentially be used to disseminate information about HIV/AIDS, and can potentially even correct some of the misconceptions about what causes HIV/AIDS.

She referenced the “incredible work” coming out of Cambodia, which utilises different internet strategies to cater not only to people of different ages, but also to people of different sexual practices, in an attempt to distribute key medical information.

The technique, she says, allows everybody to “click on the site and find the voice that resonates with them and gives them different knowledge [about HIV/AIDS] that they need.”

“I found that so incredibly powerful, and if we can figure out how to do that and get broadband throughout sub-Saharan Africa, it would be terrific.”

Beyrer reiterated the need for technology to offer individualised options for the transmission of knowledge about HIV/AIDS, telling IPS that “one size doesn’t fit all in these innovations.”

“It turns out, for example, from looking at interactive supports for treatment, there are very age-dependent differences even among population,” he said.

“Men under 25,” Beyrer explained, “really like SMS interactive messages, and want to be notified at all times, while older men [tend to say] no thank you, leave me alone…it’s very specific so we’re going to have to get that right.”

Yet despite Beyrer’s enthusiasm for more individually-tailored solutions to those seeking knowledge about HIV/AIDS, he also urges that there be more awareness-building for those not expressly seeking knowledge about HIV/AIDS.

“One sector that hasn’t engaged very much in HIV is social media,” he said, calling specifically on Facebook, Google, and others in Silicon Valley to engage more thoroughly.

“We need that, and we would love them to be way more engaged than they are.”

Edited by: Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at hotzj@union.edu

]]>
http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/stigma-still-a-major-roadblock-for-aids-fight-in-africa/feed/ 0
Israel Bites Hand that Feeds, U.S. Feeds Hand that Biteshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/israel-bites-hand-that-feeds-u-s-feeds-hand-that-bites/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=israel-bites-hand-that-feeds-u-s-feeds-hand-that-bites http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/israel-bites-hand-that-feeds-u-s-feeds-hand-that-bites/#comments Thu, 07 Aug 2014 15:50:55 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135987 Samantha Power (left), United States Permanent Representative to the U.N., speaks with Ron Prosor, Permanent Representative of Israel, in the Security Council Chamber after the Council held a midnight emergency session on the conflict in Gaza, Jul. 28. Credit: UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

Samantha Power (left), United States Permanent Representative to the U.N., speaks with Ron Prosor, Permanent Representative of Israel, in the Security Council Chamber after the Council held a midnight emergency session on the conflict in Gaza, Jul. 28. Credit: UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

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

There is an age-old axiom in politics, says a cynical Asian diplomat, that you don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

But that longstanding adage never applied to Israel, which although sustained militarily by the United States, has had no compunction at lashing out at Washington if the U.S. is ever critical of illegal settlements or human rights violations in the occupied territories."The U.S. government has continued to serve as an enabler for Israeli slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza." -- Norman Solomon

Although its military survival depends largely on all the U.S. weapon systems at its command, Israel lambasted the United States last week, unofficially describing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s support for a peace plan in Gaza as “a strategic terrorist attack.”

Angry at the remarks, State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki countered: “It’s simply not the way partners and allies treat each other.”

Still, the United States, per its usual norm, continued to absorb the punches thrown by Israel – right or wrong – in a veritable act of political masochism.

“If one is to parody a metaphor,” the Asian diplomat told IPS, “while Israel continues to bite the hand that feeds, the United States continues to feed the hand that bites.”

Despite the vitriol from Israel, the administration of President Barack Obama was quick to supply some 225 million dollars in ammunition and spares to Israel as emergency aid last week to bolster its defences in the month-long conflict with the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

The conflict is now under an extended 72-hour truce.

William D. Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, told IPS, “If the Obama administration had wanted to exert leverage during the recent Israeli attacks on Gaza, it could have threatened to cut off military aid until the Israeli government ceased disproportionate attacks that killed large numbers of civilians.”

Instead, he said, the U.S. administration re-supplied Israel with ammunition in the midst of the conflict.

Norman Solomon, executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, told IPS, “The U.S. government has continued to serve as an enabler for Israeli slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza.”

He said the humane rhetoric from the Obama administration functions in tandem with huge U.S. military and intelligence help from Washington.

Last month, as the latest Gaza crisis escalated, the White House flashed an unmistakable green light for Israel to massacre — and keep massacring, said Solomon, co-founder and coordinator of RootsAction.org, a 450,000-member online activist group based in the United States.

The bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Israel has combined tragedy and farce in gruesome ways, he noted.

Both governments have regularised the matter-of-fact killing of civilians in Gaza as though they were nothing more than incidental to the geopolitical agendas of those two dominant military powers, said Solomon, author of “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death”.

At last count, about 1,875 Palestinians, including 426 children, were killed in the conflict– virtually all of them with U.S supplied weapons.

In contrast, the Israeli death toll was 64 of its soldiers and three civilians.

A preliminary survey by international organisations says the Israeli bombings destroyed some 37 mosques, 167 schools, six universities and more than 10,000 homes in Gaza.

Addressing the General Assembly Wednesday, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said international humanitarian law clearly requires protection by all parties of civilians and civilian facilities, including U.N. staff and U.N. premises.

Ban said perhaps nothing symbolised more the horror that was unleashed on the people of Gaza than the repeated shelling of U.N. facilities harbouring civilians who had been explicitly told to seek a safe haven there.

“These attacks were outrageous, unacceptable and unjustifiable,” he added.

“Our U.N. flag must be respected and assure protection to those in need. U.N. shelters must be safe zones, not combat zones. Those who violate this sacred trust must be subject to accountability and justice,” he added.

Ban also pointed out that in the most recent case of shelling of a U.N. facility, the Israelis were informed of the coordinates 33 times.

On Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regretted the civilian casualties but blamed it all on Hamas.

“Every civilian casualty is a tragedy, a tragedy of Hamas’s own making, ” he added.

Hartung told IPS although Israel has its own production capacity – particularly in areas like drones – the military is heavily dependent on U.S. aid.

From F-16 fighter planes to bombs and ammunition, the Israeli attacks on Gaza prominently featured weapons made in the United States and paid for by U.S. taxpayers, he pointed out.

In all, he said, the United States has provided over 25 billion dollars in military assistance to Israel in the 2000s — all in the form of grants that do not need to be paid back.

And while countries like Canada, France, Italy and Germany have supplied some military equipment to Israel, their sales are dwarfed by the equipment provided by the United States, Hartung added.

Solomon told IPS, “From Obama, no amount of discreet handwringing or personal dislike of Netanyahu has made an appreciable difference to the Israeli government.”

He said it can count on Washington to supply a steady stream of platitudes about seeking a broad solution via a peace process.

Directly aided and abetted by the U.S. government, Israel has opted for an ongoing iron fist — truly terrifying for the civilian population of Gaza, said Solomon. This U.S.-Israeli mode of operation remains highly functional in terms of diplomatic cover, military help and intelligence aid. In human terms, for Palestinians, the results continue to be catastrophic, he declared.

Before 9/11, he said, the scholar Eqbal Ahmad voiced a truth that is more cogent and crucial than ever: A superpower cannot promote terror in one place and reasonably expect to discourage terrorism in another place. It won’t work in this shrunken world.

Ahmad has passed away, but those words from him remain very much alive. They are true, and they condemn the U.S. role as enabler of Israel’s mass killing, said Solomon.

More than a decade ago, as the war on terror was gaining momentum, Martin Luther King III spoke at a commemoration of his father’s birth and asked: “When will the war end?…We all have to be concerned about terrorism, but you will never end terrorism by terrorising others.”

Today, the wisdom of his statement serves as an indictment of what Israel does in Gaza — and what the United States does to help Israel do it, declared Solomon.

Edited by: Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

]]>
http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/israel-bites-hand-that-feeds-u-s-feeds-hand-that-bites/feed/ 5
Will Obama’s “New Africa” Deliver on Its Promises?http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/will-obamas-new-africa-deliver-on-its-promises/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=will-obamas-new-africa-deliver-on-its-promises http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/will-obamas-new-africa-deliver-on-its-promises/#comments Thu, 07 Aug 2014 15:08:08 +0000 Julia Hotz http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135984 President Barack Obama takes the stage to deliver remarks at the U.S.-Africa Business Forum held at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel during the U.S. Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C., Aug. 5, 2014. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

President Barack Obama takes the stage to deliver remarks at the U.S.-Africa Business Forum held at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel during the U.S. Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C., Aug. 5, 2014. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

By Julia Hotz
WASHINGTON, Aug 7 2014 (IPS)

As the three-day U.S- Africa Leaders Summit here drew to a close Wednesday, experts across the private, public and non-profit sectors continued to debate the opportunities and obstacles posed by the U.S’ expanding business partnership with Africa.

Speaking Tuesday regarding the 17 billion dollars pledged toward African business development, U.S President Obama declared his determination to be a “good,” “equal” and “long term” partner for Africa’s success.“African leaders are asking for US investment, while Africans are asking for jobs…this disconnect hasn’t completely been dealt with.” -- Gregory Adams

“We cannot lose sight of the new Africa that’s emerging,” Obama said Tuesday, announcing new private partnerships, as well as a reaffirmed commitment to improving infrastructure, expanding trade, and providing educational opportunities for young entrepreneurs.

While such business advances most directly benefit actors in the U.S. private sector, non-profits expressed similarly qualified enthusiasm about the summit’s promise of increased economic engagement with Africa.

“What the summit has offered is an opportunity for the United States is to see Africa as a land of opportunity,” Gregory Adams, director of aid effectiveness at Oxfam America, a development organisation here, told IPS.

Adams also said the proceedings have helped move U.S.-African relations more “from patronage to partnership,” and have facilitated “good” and “direct” exchanges between civil society actors and leaders from both the United States and Africa.

But he warned that not all African voices were heard during the three-day proceedings, and that an “important distinction” between the diverse economic interests of Africans has yet to be established.

“African leaders are asking for U.S. investment, while Africans are asking for jobs…this disconnect hasn’t completely been dealt with,” Adams told IPS, noting how “tremendous” economic growth does not necessarily translate to job creation.

More intensive effort to listen

Adding that representatives from Africa’s local and small business have historically been absent from large-scale conversations about U.S-African engagement, Adams explained that “if we’re truly moving from patronage to partnership,… we’re going to need a more intensive effort to listen to variety of African voices…and do more to engage with civil society and local African businesses.”

In a plea to examine just how “demand-driven” the announced investments to Africa are, Adams also called for there to be “follow-through” on such pledges, saying that “all of these commitments are coming fast and furious, so it’s hard to keep track of them and determine what’s real and what’s not.”

Such commitments were premiered within the three-day U.S-Africa Leaders Summit, in which delegations from more than 50 African countries – including more than 40 heads of state – came to Washington to discuss security, trade, infrastructure, and governance with U.S. President Obama and other top U.S. government officials.

Announced last year during U.S President Obama’s visit to Africa, the joint African leaders summit is the first in U.S. history, and has marked a major effort to play catch-up with the EU and China, where governments have previously used summits with Africa as a platform to expand economic partnerships and strengthen diplomatic ties.

While civil society groups participated in the proceedings, the summit’s centrepiece came Tuesday with the U.S-Africa Business Forum, which featured pledges by U.S. government officials, World Bank leaders and CEOs of major U.S. companies – including General Electric, Coca Cola, Walmart, Marriot, and  Mastercard – to provide aid to a variety of sectors in Africa

Special emphasis was given to Obama’s Power Africa programme, which has mobilised 12 billion dollars from both the public and private sector to an initiative that will provide 600 million Africans with a reliable electricity supply.

Ben Leo, director of Rethinking U.S. Development Policy at the Centre for Global Development (CGD), a think tank here, claimed that the Power Africa initiative is a key pre-cursor for business development in the region, explaining how the promise to provide electricity across Africa may even save the otherwise-neglected small businesses.

“If some of these commitments under the Power Africa initiative are effective in addressing both access to power and reliability to power, there will be significant benefits for [Africa’s] small and medium enterprises,” Leo told IPS.

Yet the Atlantic Council, a think tank here, believes that despite the promising nature of Power Africa, the region still lacks adequate infrastructure, and suffers from profound geographic disadvantages.

Most data-driven investors in the world”

In a report released Wednesday, the Atlantic Council cited these two factors, along with the need for more market data and stronger policy implementation, as obstacles plaguing business development in sub-Saharan Africa.

“Although these are obstacles that affect everyone, the U.S. is the most frustrated with the lack of data… [because] they are the most data-driven investors in the world,” Diana Layfield, CEO of Africa Operations at Standard Chartered Bank, said at the report’s premiere.

But through harnessing innovation, a virtue that CGD’s Leo dubs as one of “America’s core strengths,” the Atlantic Council is optimistic about the opportunity for increased investment in sub-Saharan Africa.

From using satellite imagery to identify local traffic patterns, to issuing SMS surveys to learn about consumer preferences, private companies have been using technology as means to obtain basic information about consumer behaviour, which, the report says, is otherwise unavailable from public sector sources.

Yet for Oxfam’s Adams, such tech innovations miss a crucial point.

“I think we’re really skipping a step as a country if we’re not looking ahead to 30 years from now and asking if all this investment is a flash in the pan, or if  it’s going to lead to the emergence of  local businesses that will lead to job creation,” Adams told IPS.

Stressing that the U.S. is “incredibly non-transparent” and rarely “tell[s] countries the details of their own aid,” Adams concluded that “there is a lot more that the U.S. government needs to do if it actually wants to support Africa.”

Edited by: Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at hotzj@union.edu

]]>
http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/will-obamas-new-africa-deliver-on-its-promises/feed/ 1
More U.S. Diplomas Come with Crushing Debtshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/more-u-s-diplomas-come-with-crushing-debts/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=more-u-s-diplomas-come-with-crushing-debts http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/more-u-s-diplomas-come-with-crushing-debts/#comments Tue, 05 Aug 2014 17:34:56 +0000 Julia Hotz http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135945 By Julia Hotz
WASHINGTON, Aug 5 2014 (IPS)

Leah Hughes has big dreams of becoming a community organiser in Appalachia. A rising senior at the California-based Scripps College, Hughes is pursuing a dual degree in International Relations and Studio Art, and is incredibly thankful for her higher education experience thus far.

“As a first generation college student, my experience at a private institution, which specialises in the fields of study that I am interested in, has been the single most transformative experience of my life,” Hughes told IPS.

Araba Hammond of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) says student debts are generally not an issue in Africa. Credit: Julia Hotz/IPS

Araba Hammond of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) says student debts are generally not an issue in Africa. Credit: Julia Hotz/IPS

“It has led me to dedicate my life to public service…and has provided an opportunity for me to help others with the knowledge I have gained.”

Yet before Leah can embark on her community service aspirations, she has one not-so-little thing to worry about.

So far, she has incurred more than 30,000 dollars worth of tuition debt, in addition to more than 15,000 dollars of loans with interest rates.

Though Hughes was offered Scripps’ only merit scholarship, the college’s award will cover only 14,000 dollars worth of her debt, which will continue to grow by accumulating interest for every year she cannot pay.

Leah is certainly not alone in this battle, as she one of more than 40 million Americans who currently holds student debt.  They are collectively responsible for 1.2 trillion dollars of outstanding student loans in the United States.

Overall, student loan debts have doubled since 2007.

“What’s going on is exploitative and wrong,” Hughes told IPS. “If we continue to sell the idea that education is the way students and people from low-and middle-income backgrounds-such as myself are to move up and become productive members of society and supporters of a healthy economy, we are obligated to provide a framework for students to pay off their debt, rather than be crippled by the weight of unpaid loans.”

According to an analysis of the 2011-12 school year conducted by the Centre for American Progress, a think tank here, higher education institutions collected 154 billion dollars in tuition and fees, while families and students financed such costs with 106 billion dollars in loans from federal student-aid programmes.

Regardless of these enormous figures, Olivia Murray, the analysis’ co-author, is enthusiastic about the return on investment that college offers.

“Despite rising college costs and potentially high student debt, college is still the most valuable investment a student can make in their future, and is becoming increasingly important in an ever more specialising economy,” Murray told IPS.

“Unfamiliar” model

This fervent belief in the value of higher education was echoed by fellows from the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), who discussed the topic at the Centre for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), a think tank here, last week.

Yet while Araba Hammond and Regina Agyare, two of the YALI fellows, were similarly enthusiastic about the benefits of college that Hughes and Murray outlined, they said they were “unfamiliar” with the payment model in the U.S.

“The cost of education isn’t something we’ve really had to worry about,” Hammond told IPS. “Even for Africa’s most expensive universities, they are affordable for almost all people, given the amount of scholarships available.”

Adding that she cannot recall any friends who have accumulated student debt, Hammond said that “students [in Africa] wouldn’t graduate with the debts that students here graduate with.”

Agyare seconded Hammond’s remarks, stating that “student loans here are very, very small,” and that workplace compensation is and has been reliable source of debt relief.

“Obscene” government profits

U.S. President Obama has recently recognised this potential, and has announced his plan to expand the Pay as You Earn (PAYE) plan, which would forgive student loans to borrowers who pay 10 percent of their incomes back after a 20-year period.

Yet for a more direct and immediate intervention, prominent U.S. lawmaker Elizabeth Warren has crafted the “Banks on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act,” which would let student loan borrowers refinance their debt at lower interest rates.

“This is obscene,” Warren said of the U.S.’s student loan model. “The government should not be making 66 billion in profits off of the backs of our students.

“It’s time to end the practice of profiting from young people who are trying to get an education and refinance existing loans.”

While partisan opposition has prevented the bill from being enacted, Warren, with an army of students and families from the middle class, are still fighting for its passage.

“Students and parents should be able to refinance their student debt, just like every other loan type in the U.S., especially as student debt becomes the largest form of debt carried by people in this country,” Hughes told IPS.

As the legislative battle for refinanced student loans rages on, students, families and non-profits are mobilising around the issue of student loan debt, calling their cause the “Higher Ed Not Debt” campaign.

The organisation bases its work on providing support to current borrowers, addressing the causes of declining affordability, educating the public about the financial sector’s role in creating student debt,  and engaging the masses through democratic action.

Edited by: Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at hotzj@union.edu

]]>
http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/more-u-s-diplomas-come-with-crushing-debts/feed/ 0
Africa Activists Urge Obama to Act on Extractive Industries Lawhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/africa-activists-urge-obama-to-act-on-extractive-industries-law/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=africa-activists-urge-obama-to-act-on-extractive-industries-law http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/africa-activists-urge-obama-to-act-on-extractive-industries-law/#comments Tue, 05 Aug 2014 00:50:47 +0000 Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135935 Artisanal diamond miners at work in the alluvial diamond mines around the eastern town of Koidu, Sierra Leone. Credit: Tommy Trenchard/IPS

Artisanal diamond miners at work in the alluvial diamond mines around the eastern town of Koidu, Sierra Leone. Credit: Tommy Trenchard/IPS

By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Aug 5 2014 (IPS)

As the three-day U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit got underway here Monday, anti-corruption activists urged President Barack Obama to prod a key U.S. agency to issue long-awaited regulations requiring oil, gas, and mining companies to publish all payments they make in countries where they operate.

“The companies need to be held accountable, and we would ask President Obama to also support us in this message,” said Ali Idrissa, the national co-ordinator of Publiez Ce Que Vous Payez (Publish What You Pay, or PWYP), in Niger, a country rich in uranium and iron deposits.Anti-corruption activists are losing patience with what they see as pressure by the extractive industries to prevent the emergence of tough new disclosure requirements.

“We need to look at the entire production chain of these extractive industries; we need to continue putting pressure on this industry …so we can fight poverty and corruption and ensure we have a better development,” he added.

Idrissa, one of scores of African activists who have descended on Washington for this week’s unprecedented gathering, was speaking at a forum sponsored by the Open Society Foundations (OSF), Global Witness, Human Rights Watch, and Oxfam America, among other groups, on civil society efforts to promote government and corporate transparency and accountability on the continent.

The activists, whose numbers are dwarfed by the size of official government delegations, most of which are led by heads of state, as well as U.S. and African corporate chiefs eager to explore business prospects, nonetheless claimed at least part of the spotlight Monday.

At what was billed as a “Civil Society Forum Global Town Hall” meeting at the National Academy of Sciences, both Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry echoed Idrissa’s concerns in general remarks.

“Widespread corruption is an affront to the dignity of your people and direct threat to each of your nations,” Biden declared. “It stifles economic growth and scares away investment and siphons off resources that should be used to lift people out of poverty.”

Kerry also stressed the importance of “transparency and accountability” not only in attracting more investment but also in “creat(ing) a more competitive marketplace, one where ideas and products are judged by the market and their merits, and not by a backroom deal or a bribe.”

While their words gained applause, it was clear from the OSF forum that anti-corruption activists are losing patience with what they see as pressure by the extractive industries to prevent the emergence of tough new disclosure requirements from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the federal agency that regulates U.S. stock and related markets.

At issue is section 1504 of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, an anti-corruption provision that requires all extractive companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges to publish each year all payments they make to the U.S. and foreign governments in the countries where they operate.

According to the legislation, which is designed to counter the so-called “resource curse” that afflict many developing countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, taxes, royalties, fees, production entitlements and bonuses should all be reported down to the project level.

Eight of the world’s 10 largest mining companies and 29 of the 32 largest active international oil companies would be covered by the Act, which requires the SEC to develop specific regulations to implement its intent.

After nearly two years of consultations with businesses, activists, and other interested parties, the SEC issued draft regulations, but they were immediately challenged in a lawsuit filed by the American Petroleum Institute (API), a lobby group that represents the powerful oil and gas industry here.

The SEC has since reported that it does not plan to resume the rule-making process until March, 2015, a source of considerable frustration for the anti-corruption activists.

In the meantime, the European Union (EU), whose member countries have historically shown much less willingness than Washington to enact legislation to deter bribery and corruption by its companies operating abroad, has adopted and begun to enforce its own tough disclosure measures that go beyond the energy and mining industries to include timber companies as well.

“Until 2000, corruption and bribery by European [companies] was not only legal; it was tax-deductible,” Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese-British telecommunications entrepreneur and prominent philanthropist for good governance in Africa, told the OSF Forum. “The United States, which has been a leading light on corruption, is now dragging its feet. Do you have a backbone, or what?”

He echoed the concerns of an open letter sent to Obama and signed by the heads of the national chapters of PWYP, an OSF-backed international anti-corruption group, in Guinea, Niger, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Chad, Ghana, and Nigeria, on the eve of this week’s Summit.

“It has been more than four years since you signed the Dodd-Frank Act, section 1504 of which obliges all U.S. listed extractive companies to publish the payments they make,” the letter, which was also signed by the African representatives on the PWYP global steering committee. “The law will yield crucial data that can help us hold our governments to account, but it has yet to come into effect.

“We ask you to urge the SEC for a swift publication of the rules governing section 1504 to ensure that they are in line with recent EU legislation and the emerging global standard for extractive transparency,” it said, adding that more also needs to be done to strengthen multilateral rules on taxation and creating a public registry of corporate beneficial ownership information as other critical parts of the anti-corruption struggle in Africa.

Harmonising the SEC regulations with those of the EU is particularly critical, according to Simon Taylor, co-founder and director of London-based Global Witness. “If the SEC gets it wrong, we will then have a double standard,” he noted, suggesting that some European companies could move to the U.S. if the latter’s requirements are less stringent.

API and other critics of the section 1504 have argued that strict rules will put U.S. companies at a disadvantage in bidding for mining or drilling rights, especially vis-à-vis China whose trade investment in Africa, particularly in the continent’s extractive resources, have exploded over the past decade and now far exceeds the U.S.

Beijing has failed so far to join the 12-year-old Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), an Oslo-based international organisation that promotes transparency and currently includes 44 governments, as well as extractive companies, civil-society groups, international development banks, and institutional investors.

But Ibrahim said it was “not acceptable for Europeans or Americans to say, ‘We want to be moral and ethical, but we can’t until this guy’” joins. “China is learning; it can understand and can change. They’re trying to find their feet [in Africa].”

George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist who created OSF, as well as a number of other foundations, said it was important to get China on board because “otherwise they are the spoilers. It is so important that I think we have to be willing to reconsider the whole structure of the [EITI which] they consider [to be] a post-colonial invention.

“They have to be involved in the creation of the system that they will abide by. That’s where civil society in Africa can be influential,” he added.

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.comHe can be contacted at ipsnoram@ips.org

Edited by: Kitty Stapp

 

]]>
http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/africa-activists-urge-obama-to-act-on-extractive-industries-law/feed/ 0
The ‘Global’ Land Rushhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/the-global-land-rush/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=the-global-land-rush http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/the-global-land-rush/#comments Mon, 04 Aug 2014 07:05:26 +0000 Anuradha Mittal http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135890

In this column, Anuradha Mittal, Executive Director of the Oakland Institute, an independent policy think tank on today’s most pressing social, economic, and environmental issues, argues that the time has come for a more holistic discussion of land deals that places transfer of land in both the developed and developing worlds along the same continuous spectrum.

By Anuradha Mittal
OAKLAND, United States, Aug 4 2014 (IPS)

The first years of the twenty-first century will be remembered for a global land rush of nearly unprecedented scale.

An estimated 500 million acres, an area eight times the size of Britain, was reported bought or leased across the developing world between 2000 and 2011, often at the expense of local food security and land rights.

When the price of food spiked in 2008, pushing the number of hungry people in the world to over one billion, it spiked the interest of investors as well, and within a year foreign land deals in the developing world rose by a staggering 200 percent.

Anuradha Mittal

Anuradha Mittal

Today, enthusiasm for agriculture borders on speculative mania. Driven by everything from rising food prices to growing demand for biofuel, the financial sector is taking an interest in farmland as never before.

The Oakland Institute has reported since 2011 how a new generation of institutional investors – including hedge funds, private equity, pension funds, and university endowments – is eager to capitalise on global farmland as a new and highly desirable asset class.

But the thing most consistently missed about this global land rush is that it is precisely that – global. Although media coverage tends to focus on land grabs in low-income countries, the opposite side of the same coin is a new rush for U.S. farmland, manifesting itself in rising interest from investors and surging land prices, as giants like the pension fund TIAA-CREF commit billions to buy agricultural land.

One industry leader estimates that 10 billion dollars in institutional capital is looking for access to U.S. farmland, but that figure could easily rise as investors seek to ride out uncertain financial times by placing their money in the perceived safety of agriculture.

In the next 20 years, as the U.S. experiences an unprecedented crisis of retiring farmers, there will be ample opportunity for these actors to expand their holdings as an estimated 400 million acres changes generational hands. And yet, the domestic face of this still unfolding land rush remains largely unseen.

For all their size and ambition, virtually nothing is known about these new investors and their business practices. Who do they buy land from? What do they grow? How do they manage their properties? In an industry not known for its transparency, none of these questions have a satisfactory answer.

For more than six years the Oakland Institute has been at the forefront of exposing the murky nature of land deals in the developing world. The challenge today is to begin a more holistic discussion that places transfer of land in both the developed and developing worlds along the same continuous spectrum.

Driven by the same structural factors and perpetrated by many of the same investors, the corporate consolidation of agriculture is being felt just as strongly in Iowa and California as it is in the Philippines and Mozambique.

Down on the Farm, a new report from the Oakland Institute, aims to increase awareness of the overlapping global and national factors enabling the new American land rush, while at the same time introduces the motives and practices of some of the most powerful players involved in it: UBS Agrivest, a subsidiary of the biggest bank in Switzerland; the Hancock Agricultural Investment Group (HAIG), a subsidiary of the biggest insurance company in Canada; and the Teacher Annuity Insurance Association College Retirement Equities Fund (TIAA-CREF), one of the largest pension funds in the world.

Only by studying the motives and practices of these actors today does it become possible to begin building policies and institutions that help ensure farmers, and not absentee investors, are the future of our food system.

Nothing is more crucial than beginning this discussion today. The issue may seem small for a variety of reasons – because institutional investors only own an apparently tiny one percent of all U.S. farmland, or because farmers are still the biggest buyers of farmland across the country.

But to take either of these views is to become dangerously blind to the long-term trends threatening our agricultural heritage.

Consider the fact that investors believe that there is roughly 1.8 trillion dollars’ worth of farmland across the United States. Of this, between 300 and 500 billion dollars is considered to be of “institutional quality,” a combination of factors relating to size, water access, soil quality, and location that determine the investment appeal of a property.

This makes domestic farmland a huge and largely untapped asset class. Some of the biggest actors in the financial sector have already sought to exploit this opportunity by making equity investments in farmland. Frequently, these buyers enter the market with so much capital that their funds are practically limitless compared with the resources of most farmers.

Although they have made an impressive foothold, this is the beginning, not the end, of a land rush that could literally change who owns the country and our food and agricultural systems. Not only is there space in the market for institutional investors to expand, but there are also major financial incentives for them to do so.

If action is not taken, then a perfect storm of global and national trends could converge to permanently shift farm ownership from family businesses to institutional investors and other consolidated corporate operations. (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)

]]>
http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/the-global-land-rush/feed/ 0
U.S. Summit Seeks to Play Catch-Up in Africahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/u-s-summit-seeks-to-play-catch-up-in-africa/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-summit-seeks-to-play-catch-up-in-africa http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/u-s-summit-seeks-to-play-catch-up-in-africa/#comments Sun, 03 Aug 2014 16:43:04 +0000 Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135893 The explosion in Chinese involvement with Africa is of particular concern to policy-makers here for strategic reasons. Credit: Kit Gillet/IPS

The explosion in Chinese involvement with Africa is of particular concern to policy-makers here for strategic reasons. Credit: Kit Gillet/IPS

By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Aug 3 2014 (IPS)

Despite worsening crises in Ukraine, Gaza, and elsewhere in the Middle East, the administration of President Barack Obama hopes next week to focus at least some more positive attention on Africa.

The U.S.-Africa Leadership Summit, which will bring presidents, prime ministers, and other top officials of some 50 African nations here, is designed to demonstrate Washington’s continued interest in the continent, particularly in matters affecting its pocketbook.“This is really a very high-profile photo-op to better position U.S. stakeholders to compete for the continent’s natural resources." -- Emira Woods

In speeches and briefings leading up to the three-day meeting, whose centrepiece will be Tuesday’s U.S.-Africa Business Forum, U.S. officials have highlighted the economic opportunities offered by increased trade and investment in Africa.

“(W)e hope to see increased U.S. investment as one of the Summit’s key outcomes,” said Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield at the Atlantic Council Thursday in previewing the Summit whose theme is “Investing in the Next Generation”.

“When we talk about the fact that most of the world’s fastest-growing economies are in sub-Saharan Africa, we’re also seeing a burgeoning middle class of African consumers and an expanding market for U.S. direct investment. This means enormous growth opportunities for American business and new jobs for Africans and Americans,” she told the group.

Washington is being playing economic catch-up in Africa, a region where its military engagement has grown far more quickly, largely due to its efforts to counter the proliferation of radical Islamist groups in North Africa, Somalia, and the Sahel.

As noted by the Council on Foreign Relations recently, the U.S. has gone from a leading trading partner with Africa “to being far surpassed by the European Union and China.”

The EU’s trade over the last decade has more than doubled to more than 200 billion dollars last year, while China’s trade with the continent has mushroomed from some 10 billion dollars in 2000 to more than 170 billion dollars in 2013.

By contrast, U.S.-African bilateral trade has actually declined – from about 100 billion dollars in 2011 to only 60 billion dollars last year.

Most of that trade consisted of imports from Africa – mainly oil and other natural resources — while exports to the continent have largely stagnated at around 20 billion dollars annually over the past five years, despite the rapid growth of the continent’s consumer market extolled by Thomas-Greenfield and featured in a front-page analysis in the New York Times earlier this month entitled “Africans Open Fuller Wallets to the Future.”

The explosion in Chinese involvement with Africa is of particular concern to policy-makers here for strategic reasons, although they routinely go to great lengths to insist that they welcome Beijing’s commitment to promoting development in the region.

“President Obama has made clear that we welcome other nations being invested in Africa infrastructure, and, frankly, China can play a constructive role in areas like developing African infrastructure,” Benjamin Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, told reporters earlier this week.

At the same time, Obama himself offered words of warning appeared designed to resonate in some African nations that have witnessed recent protests over Chinese labour practices.

“(M)y advice to African leaders is to make sure that if, in fact, China is putting in roads and bridges, number one, that they’re hiring African workers; number two, that the roads don’t just lead from the mine, to the port, to Shanghai,” he told The Economist magazine.

All but a handful of the region’s heads of state have been invited, and most, including the presidents of the region’s two economic powerhouses, South Africa and Nigeria, are expected to attend.

Omitted were Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, the subject of U.S. diplomatic sanctions, Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir, who has been indicted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC), as well as the leaders of the Central African Republic (CAR), Eritrea, and the Western Sahara, which, despite its membership in the African Union (AU) is occupied by Morocco, a close U.S. ally.

Despite his indictment by the ICC, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta was included, in part because Nairobi is seen as a “key regional partner” of Washington’s, according to Rhodes.

Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma and Liberian President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, the region’s only female head of state and a long-standing Washington favourite, will reportedly be staying home in order to deal with the Ebola outbreak which has killed more than 700 people in recent weeks and which U.S. officials hope will not overshadow the “good news” of African economic growth and opportunity that the Summit will spotlight.

Given his African roots, Obama’s 2008 election spurred hopes that he would give the region unprecedented attention.

During his first term, however, he spent less than one day there – in Ghana – and offered no major new initiatives, although he maintained multi-billion-dollar funding levels for – and eased restrictions on — George W. Bush’s highly popular President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). He also played a key role in securing independence for South Sudan and supporting UN and AU peacekeeping efforts across the region, especially in Somalia.

Last summer, he travelled to Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania where he unveiled his “Power Africa” programme – an initiative designed to increase access to electricity to some 20 million households and businesses in six countries by leveraging some 14 billion dollars in private investment from seven billion dollars in federal aid and guarantees.

Congress has yet to authorise the programme, and officials hope next week’s Summit will boost its prospects, as well as those for the renewal of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a trade initiative launched under Bill Clinton that provides duty-free access for some 6,000 products from sub-Saharan Africa. It is due to expire next year.

In addition to the Business Forum, Obama will participate with the other leaders on panels at the State Department Wednesday covering investment, “peace and regional stability” and “governing for the next generation.”

The Summit will also include an all-day conference at the National Academy of Science Monday for civil-society representatives, an event that was added to the agenda in response to criticism from human-rights, development, and anti-poverty activists here who complain that the Summit is too heavily weighted toward business interests.

“There’s no doubt that this is a continent that is rising in economic terms,” said Emira Woods, an Africa specialist at the Institute for Policy Studies here. “But it’s also rising in terms of inequality and environmental damage, and these aren’t on the main agenda.

“This is really a very high-profile photo-op to better position U.S. stakeholders to compete for the continent’s natural resources, particularly in oil, gas, mining, and biofuels, without regard to the basic human needs of its people at a moment when they lack even the basics of a health-care infrastructure that can effectively halt the spread of the Ebola virus,” she told IPS.

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

Edited by: Kitty Stapp

The writer can be reached at ipsnoram@ips.org

]]>
http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/u-s-summit-seeks-to-play-catch-up-in-africa/feed/ 0